When your big ship ports in a small town

Each night when we get the next day’s Cruise Compass, I start by reading the description of our next port of call. When I saw the description of Astoria, I was a little taken aback. In fact, I had to read it aloud to my husband to make sure I wasn’t overthinking (as an academic, I’m prone to doing that).

“Tell me if this doesn’t sound like the most depressing thing you’ve heard,” I said, before reading the description of Astoria:

“Astoria has served as a port of entry for over a century and remains the trading center for the lower Columbia basin, although it has long since been eclipsed by Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington as an economic hub of the Pacific Northwest. Astoria’s economy centered on fishing, fish processing, and lumber. IN 1945, about 30 canneries could be found along the Columbia; however, in 1974 Bumblebee Seafood moved its headquarters out of Astoria, and gradually reduced its presence until 1980 when the company closed its last Astoria cannery. The timber industry likewise declined; Astoria Plywood Mill, the city’s largest employer, closed in 1989, and the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway discontinued service in 1996.”

Perhaps I’m a bit sensitive, but I thought this description of Astoria as a has-been canning and lumber town was a little too bleak. It’s not inaccurate by any means, and the city has had a hard way to go for many years. In fact, the introduction of cruise ship tourism, along with the push to get land-based visitors, has played a major role in Astoria’s economy in the last few years. (Maybe that’s part of the reason why we found everyone to be so friendly and helpful! Although from my years of living in Oregon, I think the people there are just generally nice.)

One thing I did notice, however, was that the small town of Astoria (pop. 9800) did have a bit of a logistics problem with the arrival of a fairly large cruise ship like Explorer of the Seas (3100 passengers). The port is off-set slightly from the downtown, necessitating that passengers either walk a mile along a waterfront pathway or take a shuttle bus ($6 roundtrip). Since the hubby’s bad back limits us from walking long distances, the shuttle bus it was.

However, there were over 3000 of us – and not nearly enough shuttle buses; though I give the town props for trying earnestly, the system in place just couldn’t accommodate the demand. (In fact, Astoria has set up an extensive “cruise host” program to assist passengers in touring the city, and we found these folks to be wonderfully helpful.) But when we disembarked the ship first thing in the morning, we found long lines for the shuttle buses and decided to re-board the ship and try again later (we eventually wound up taking the bus around noon with very little wait).

As cruise lines expand their itineraries and port in more towns like Astoria, it’s increasingly likely that this situation – big ship in a little town – will be a part of your cruise experience. My advice is to plan your day accordingly to avoid the logjam of passengers at the beginning of the day: Have a late, leisurely breakfast; use the opportunity to sleep in; maybe even hit the fitness center in the morning. If you shift your shore time to the second half of the day, you’ll have far less competition for the resources like shuttle buses that can be a bit pinched in these kind of ports.

Brewery hopping in Astoria, OR

You may have noticed by now that the Nerdy Traveler has a fondness for beer. I was excited to visit Astoria as the first port on our Pacific Coastal cruise because a simple Yelp search had revealed so many breweries in the downtown area of Astoria, near to where the cruise ship docked.

I noticed that Royal Caribbean offered a brewery-focused shore excursion, but the price (almost $80 per person) convinced me that I could easily create a DIY version for much less. I was right! (I love it when that happens.)

We started our day at Reach Break Brewing, which was close to where our shuttle bus had dropped us off in downtown Astoria. They didn’t do flights at Reach Break, but did offer half-pours, so we were able to try a few delicious brews before walking up to our next stop, the Fort George Brewery. We weren’t hungry, so we opted to bypass the crowded restaurant and stop in the taproom, where we had a delicious flight of IPAs. (The abundance of IPAs offered at breweries in the Pacific Northwest will always be one of my favorite things about that part of the country!)

Our next stop was the Astoria Brewing Company, a few blocks away and in the direction of our shuttle bus stop where we’d be picked up to go back to the ship. I saw only one beer style I really wanted to try (the IPA, natch), so I decided not to go the flight route. But I made the rookie mistake of blindly ordering a full pint without asking whether half-pours were available. (As a result, my memories of the rest of the day are a little, um, hazy!)

We did make it to one more brewery, the bustling Buoy Beer Company on the waterfront, to sample their IPA before we had to catch the shuttle and make sure we didn’t miss our ship! (We had started our day a bit late and so were a little rushed at the end). We didn’t have time to eat at Buoy, but I wish we had – the food looked and smelled delicious, and plus, we’d had a lot of beer! As you can imagine, once we got back to the ship, we had to take a bit of a nap before sailaway.

Overview: Our 7-night Pacific Coast Cruise from Seattle

As a cruise nerd who likes to try new things, I’ve been wanting to try a Pacific Coastal cruise for years. It doesn’t hurt that I lived for four years in Eugene, OR attending grad school at the University of Oregon for my Ph.D. I love the Pacific Northwest, and these cruises primarily run during the month of September – after the Alaska cruise season ends and one of the most beautiful times of year in the PNW.

There was only one problem: In my (actual nerd) day job as a college professor, I was always teaching during the times that these cruises were offered. So when I decided to take a year off teaching to start this blog, the Pacific Coast cruise was on the top of my list.

For some reason, these cruises are often not quite as popular as those in areas such as Alaska and the Caribbean. As a result, you can often find fairly cheap cruise fares on these itineraries. If you’re living near to Seattle or can fly there relatively cheaply, this one might be a good cruise to book last-minute and get a deal. (If you’re doing this, I recommend that you keep an eye on the second week of these itineraries. In the week before our cruise, the ship had done its last Alaska route, and many of the people I had talked to did a back-to-back in order to get both itineraries. On another note, the next time I’m not teaching in September, I’m totally planning to do this back-to-back!)

Overall, I can’t recommend the Pacific Coastal cruise we took highly enough. Our itinerary featured 2 sea days, on days 3 and 6, which were perfectly spaced out. We had an overnight in San Francisco that was just fantastic, including one of the more memorable sail aways where we sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge. There were a couple of downsides to our itinerary – our ship seemed way too large for the small port of Astoria, and we hit some rough seas due to weather on our way back up the coast – but they were vastly overwhelmed by the advantages of this unusual itinerary.