by Denise LePage
June 26, 2002
The Cruisers: Myself, my neighbor Anita, neighbors Amy and Owen, their children Rachael (13) and Carrie (11), all of us from California, and Amy and Owen's friend Paul from Arizona.
AND WE'RE OFF!
Amy's family went up five days early to do some fishing, and then met Paul at the Seward airport. He had arranged a $35 20-minute flight from Anchorage, which is being discontinued due to lack of passengers. What a shame! Icruise.com arranged Anita and me with the Fly Aweigh program. We flew into Anchorage at 12:30 and took the bus to Seward. Carnival took our luggage directly from the plane, and we boarded the bus after an hour in line. The line behind us was huge, so I felt lucky it was just an hour. We stopped along the way at a wildlife rescue center, where we saw three baby moose, a baby black bear, two owls, a large brown bear and other assorted wildlife. Most of the people on the bus were anxious to get to the ship, including us after waking up at 3am, but looking back, it was the most wildlife we saw, so we shouldn't have all rushed the bus driver. He gave a running commentary the whole way, which was very nice. He drives a school bus during the school season and told us there are no 'snow days' in Anchorage! Embarkation was painless and quick.
Due to a few mix-ups, icruise.com upgraded us to a Category 12, Penthouse Suite (room 6215). Thanks icruise! I booked champagne and a canapé tray and we were all set for the bon voyage party on the doublewide balcony! Everyone came to our suite and we drank and ate and planned our shore excursions. It was a wonderful beginning. The stateroom has an L-shaped leather sofa bed, with a coffee table and two chairs, a desk/bar, three closets and more drawer space than a family of ten could ever use. The bathroom has two sinks, with another in the vanity area, a bidet, and a large shower with a whirlpool tub. The balcony had room for two full recliners, two reclining chairs, two regular chairs, two tables and we could have squeezed in more. It was a wonderful meeting place for our group, and we spent a lot of time on the balcony. There is no Skipper's Club in Alaska, so we did not get priority boarding, although we did get priority debarking. Carnival does not have butlers for their suites, but we certainly didn't mind. The stateroom itself was impressive enough. The automatic lights in two of the closets wouldn't turn off with the doors closed, and the third closet kept opening by itself, but a note for our room steward Patrick and they were all fixed the next night.
Paul booked last-minute and had an obstructed view stateroom (4194). He had a door that opened to a railing right in front of it, but being able to open the door was nice. Obstructed was an understatement. He had a crack between lifeboats with a small view. Amy and Owen had a balcony stateroom (4161) with bunk beds for the girls and had no complaints. The doors and walls seemed very thick, with very little noise from neighbors or the hall. We heard our neighbors only once during the cruise, but I'm not sure they could say the same!
Our luggage caught up to us fairly quickly. The first thing we did after that was book our shore excursions. They used the Pharaoh's Palace for shore excursions for the first night and obviously needed it: Stacks and stacks of reservation forms. Book early! We missed the Welcome Aboard Show, but saw it later on our T.V. They tape most events and you're able to watch them later in your stateroom. Dana Hodson, our radio DJ turned cruise director from Delaware, was amazing! He has a wonderful voice, wonderful sense of humor, and I'm sad we missed it. We did catch him at the Newly and Not So Newlywed game, and laughed non-stop through the whole show. He's your extra comedian, so don't miss him!
Exhausted and a little overwhelmed, we hit the sack at around 10:30.
The next day, bright and early (6:30am), was Stephanie, our naturalist, on the PA system pointing out glaciers in College Fjord. We were already awake, with our 3-minute Room Service coffee, and on the balcony. This area is not to be missed! We spent the morning taking pictures and being awed by the view. Her commentary was appreciated. She had a soft voice and seemed thrilled with her job. Overall, besides the first day's fifteen-minute sales pitch like a commercial you can't turn off, there were hardly any announcements, and never any at port. Everything was in our Carnival Capers daily newsletter. I was quite pleased with the PA system, considering others' reviews of non-stop advertising.
We spent the rest of the time before Valdez exploring the ship, and what an incredible ship she is. We never had any problem finding quiet or not-so-quiet tables near huge windows spread out over the public decks. It is definitely set up for soaking in the view. They guys explored the spa area and ended up going back every single day-they loved it. There is something to see everywhere: glass art on display in the stairwells, murals and paintings and sculptures and columns. People have already commented about how the different areas have different styles. Anita said it was like being in all of Las Vegas at the same time. It's multi-themed! The Spirit is the length of two football fields, but didn't seem at all difficult to explore. The elevators are amazingly fast, and we only had to wait once-the last day, and not for too long. We took the stairs a lot the first two days, then ran out of steam and let the elevators whisk us around! With the help of our pocket ship guide (provided), we had no trouble finding our way around, except accidentally going to A deck. Oops. Pop down there and take a look, the crew didn't seem to mind. My only complaint was that smoking areas are set up in inconvenient places to non-smokers. There is a smoking lounge outside each entrance to the dining room and you have to pass the casino to get to the first floor of the Pharaoh's Palace. The lobby area is a smoking area, which was strange. And I'm a smoker, by the way.
I'll bet my friends are wondering why this is so far down in the review. I certainly spent a lot of time there! And from the treatment I received, it should have been first on the list. We had late-seating dinner, then would sit and chat for a while, then, since Anita is a very early riser, she went back to the stateroom and I went to the casino. Owen came a few times, and Paul and Amy sat and chatted and watched one night. It was a blast! I have been to Las Vegas quite a bit, but I think I'll just stick to the Carnival Spirit from now on. The dealers are so personable and friendly, as were the Casino Supervisors, especially Andrew. What a great smile and evil sense of humor. I only play blackjack, and happened upon a lucky streak my second night on the ship (first casino night) so I was back every night afterwards closing them down. Up at 6, to bed between 2-3, and I'm sure glad I have four days off now that I'm back. Ouch.
I learned so much from the dealers about life on the ship and what it's like to work there. Fascinating people. Even if you don't know how to play, I'd highly recommend sitting on a few hands just to talk to them. They'll advise you how to play, too. The other passengers were so much fun! Everyone is on vacation and happy and we had some incredible nights laughing and cheering, with the occasional light-hearted groaning. It's quite a difference from the stone-faced dealers and players in Las Vegas, that's for sure! I never wanted to leave. The fact that my luck continued until the last night might have something to do with it too. I paid off most of my excursions and drink-and-sink card with my winnings. Fantastic experience.
I booked quite a few of them with various other people from the group. That's the wonderful thing about groups-you can usually find someone who wants to do what you do. I'm going to start out of order, since one of them is not to be missed. The weather was gorgeous while we were there, but some family friends went the week before and were freezing cold and wet their whole cruise. We lucked out!
Amy, Anita, Paul and I booked the Mendenhall Lake Canoe trip in Juneau on Amy's request. She wanted to get out and be physical. At first we were all thinking of canceling, since it was early in the morning and we were all feeling lazy. I'm so glad we didn't! It's a 12-man canoe, but only us four were booked for it. Those people don't know what they were missing. It was THE most incredible experience of our trip.
We bussed out, got our gear (big suspender water-proof pants, overboots, rain coat and life jacket, but we never got wet), and then hit the lake. Our guides, Keith and Wade, were sincere, nice, very real, incredible people. Wade sat in front on the way out, narrating as we paddled and answering questions. He does water tours (canoe, kayak, rafting) in the summer and teaches snowboarding in the winter. We could see a waterfall and the top of the glacier in the distance, but as we paddled closer and rounded the small corner, we were right there. We paddled as close as we safely could to the Mendenhall Glacier. What an incredible sight. We had the lake all to ourselves, the waterfall to the front, the glacier to the side… words can't describe it. I spotted a chunk of glacier ice in the water and Wade picked it up, and we posed for pictures with our mini-iceberg. We then paddled to the shore right next to the waterfall, where Wade and Keith set up a snack table and we snapped pictures, relaxed, put our hands in the waterfall and waved to the people at the Mendenhall Visitor's Center WAY far away. I could have stayed there forever. It was too beautiful for words. Can you imagine that as your job? Incredible. But we had to go back eventually.
On the way back, we paddled near some large icebergs, but also couldn't get too close. Icebergs get top-heavy and roll over, and you don't want to be near them when they do. There was a tunnel in one, and water dripping underneath another. We stopped and just listened to the 'rain' in dead silence. Incredible. Also on the way back, Keith was in front and we talked in length with him. He's ¼ Tlingit (pronounced sort of like Klinket) and grew up in Yakutat Village. He's one of the highlights of the trip, so drill him for info if you go! One word of advice-bring gloves. I have the blister to prove we were rowing! They do let you stop and rest, but not everyone at once or the canoe stops and is like molasses getting started again.
This event filled up quickly, as we found out when Anita didn't get her ticket. They were sold out, but we convinced them to squeeze her in. We had a hilarious bus driver who had us laughing all the way to the speedy catamaran. The catamaran was enclosed with an open area on top that we didn't see, since people came down drenched. They had an appetizer buffet spread that was incredible, with a no-host bar.
The first things we spotted were Orcas, frolicking, breaching, and just being playful. The on-board marine biologist said this was very unusual and she didn't quite know what was going on, until one timely breach by a male in full arousal. "I think they're mating!" I missed seeing it, but the word 'huge' used the rest of the cruise when talking about Orcas did not mean their dorsal fins, that's for sure!
We left them and continued on to the Humpbacks that had been spotted farther out. There was a group of ten or more doing cooperative feeding. We snapped pictures, but since I didn't have a telephoto lens, they came out mostly like specks in the distance. They were diving and spouting, nothing too unusual, until suddenly all of them crashed out of the water at the same time with their mouths opened! This is called bubble-net feeding. The cooperative group is led by a female, who goes down and blows a circle of bubbles, driving the herring or other fish up to the top, and the rest of the group all pushes up at the same time, filling their mouths. The captain turned off the motor, they put down a microphone into the water, and we listened. It was eerie, almost human-sounding. It was the lead female, apparently giving orders. It's not whale song like in Hawaii, much more plain, but very strange. Ooooooeeeeeeeie…four times… then silence… then up they all came again! Two bubble-net feedings. Then a third. Incredible. The marine biologist was almost in tears at the end, hugging the other crew and even the passengers! All I can say is, bring a telephoto lens and SIT DOWN so other people can see.
Paul and I took a helicopter from Valdez, over the Columbia Glacier, and onto the Shoup Glacier. I was scared at first, and let Paul sit in front with the pilot, but as soon as we took off, I was in heaven. Flying over the Columbia Glacier feels like being on a different planet. It is spiked and craggy with blue, blue pools and rivers. It's too unstable and fissured to land on. After some more flying and great narration by the pilot, we landed on the Shoup Glacier, walked and took pictures for a few minutes, then back up in the air and to the landing pad. I'd highly recommend it, and so would everyone who went. The bus ride back was filled with wows. It was worth every penny. The landing wasn't even as spectacular as flying over the gigantic Columbia with its otherworldly look.
Skagway-The White Pass Rail to the Summit
I'm glad we took the short and not the long rail ride, since I really needed to sleep in that day! It was a wonderful ride through the mountains, fully narrated along the way with the history of the area and the early settlers. The narration was a bit dry and some older folks fell asleep, but the views were priceless. There were steep cliff sides, mountains, wildlife, gorgeous waterfalls, bridges, tunnels, and the river below. Actually arriving at the summit was a bit of a letdown, but then we got to see it all over again on the way down!
Ketchikan-Just walking around
This was the only port where I just walked around with everyone and had nothing planned. It's a cute, touristy town, and we did our last-minute shopping there. Shop in the trading post near the docks. They have almost everything the other stores do at much cheaper prices.
Sea days, as well as port days, are filled with activities to please everyone. The first sea day (of two) we spent almost solely on the balcony taking in the views and relaxing. It was heaven. We did, of course, pop out to eat. At one point we passed the Seabourn Spirit, another cruise boat, that has no balconies! I couldn't imagine Alaska with no balcony. We felt so bad for them.
The second sea day was spent wandering and seeing a few of the activities. The ice carving was amazing, and the New and Not So Newlywed Game was hilarious. Don't miss it! We left the staff Q&A after a few minutes, because I had already grilled the lovely Casino staff about life on the ship. Other than that, though, we were pretty happy to just walk around or lounge on the balcony. The last sea day we did our going-away cocktail party on the balcony, and invited two other people we'd met at our first dinner, Ken and Jan, both great company. After dinner, more cocktail party on the balcony, then Owen and I were off to the casino to say goodbye (and goodbye to a bit of our winnings).
The Room Service menu is very small, but they're very fast. We used them for coffee every morning after they beat Anita the first morning. She ran up to the Lido deck for coffee and I called Room Service. They got to the room before she got back! They were always there in less than five minutes unless we needed wine from the cellar.
The La Playa Grille on the Lido Deck has everything you could want, and quite tasty for cafeteria-style food. There were stations set up and we liked it that way, since it cut down on the lines. I never had to wait in line for Lido Deck food. There were hamburgers and hot dogs out by the pool, a Taste of the Nations station that featured different ethnic food every day (my favorite was Indian), the Orient station with different Chinese and Japanese every day including sushi daily, the Rotisserie, featuring different meats and sides daily, a salad bar and side dish bar, dessert station which wasn't great, the deli, which stayed open later than the others, and of course the pizza and caesar salad station. We didn't know it until the last day, but you can request chicken on the caesar for a better light snack than pizza. We pretty much stuck with deli when the other stations were closed and International otherwise, with lots of caesar salads, which were fantastic. We rarely had trouble finding a gorgeous window seat for the five of us.
The Empire Dining Room
We requested early seating, but since I had forgotten to get Amy and Owen's booking number, they weren't seated with us. We saw the Maitre D' the first night, but since we went down late to see him, he assumed we were late seating. We received a card the next day for our late seating and Anita was not happy. We went to see him again the next night, but there was nothing he could do. He did let us sit that night at an unoccupied table for early seating, where we were placed with many other late seaters looking for early, since late seating that night was a very late 8:45. After that, we decided 8:15 wasn't too bad and took our late seating, with a couple we had met at the early. I'm very glad we did, since we never would have been ready in time for the early seating.
The food was fantastic. None of us had any complaints at all. The appetizers were very small, but with that much food being served, it was perfect. You can order multiple appetizers, salads, entrees and desserts, so never fear! The only time I ordered two was lobster night. I couldn't resist. Owen and Paul did their version of Surf and Turf every evening, ordering two main dishes: one fish and one meat. The desserts were great, and their Grand Marnier Soufflé is not to be missed! We ordered quite a few of those for the table. The only complaint was that the Maitre D' just could not be heard upstairs. We strained, we leaned, but we just couldn't make out a word he was saying. If you want to hear him, request downstairs seating. When we sat downstairs that one early night, we were entertained by his recounting of his sleepless night trying to reconfigure the whole dining room for the 1,000 requests he had for table changes! Try to get your travel agent to fix it all in advance.
We did sit-down breakfast three times and lunch only once. We preferred not being scheduled. We missed dinner the first night and twice after, but the rest were fantastic.
The wait staff seemed a bit rushed, but if you talk to them or to other staff, you'd know why and be very generous and forgiving. Those people work three meals a day: two in the Empire and one bussing dishes on the Lido deck. They do this for 8-10 months straight with no break. We all left Jiri, our waiter, one night when we did Nouveau and Amy and Owen did the Lido Deck. It happened to be staff party night (which I found out from the dealers), and although he said he missed us, he got to go a half hour early! They are very, very hard-working people, and if they don't get everything perfect, give them a big hug afterwards anyways. Jiri did happen to get everything perfect. He was great, as was Rus at our early dinner.
The Nouveau Supper Club
We almost didn't go, but we decided to see everything. Paul and Anita and I went. Make reservations early there, too. There was one table left for Sunday night when we got there the first night (Wednesday). It was worth it! I have been in five star restaurants before, but this was one of the best. Once again, we wandered away just saying, "Wow." We all had different things except for the salad, and we all loved it.
We hardly ever saw the girls. Camp Carnival had them thrilled to be away from us as much as possible, to the point that we really missed them! Carrie came with us to walk around Ketchikan while Rachel went kayaking with friends, but other than that, they were so scarce that Amy bought two-way radios. A must if you have children, but bring extra batteries. They're horribly expensive on the ship and they don't last long at all.
Anita lost her wallet one day on the ship, and after a few minutes of frantically retracing our steps that seemed like hours and canceling our drink-and-sink cards at the purser's desk, the OTHER purser pulled it out of a drawer, complete with all the cash. Wonderful! I don't suggest you lose your wallet to test out the friendliness of people on board, just trust us. They're wonderful!
Speaking of which, say hello in the elevators, sit with someone new at meals, and smile a lot. It's contagious. Everyone was so incredible, and you do end up running into people over and over on the ship. There's a small-town feel that's just incredible.
Take a day or two afterwards to recover. I still haven't gotten my land legs back and, with my burning the candle at both ends, I'm exhausted, but thrilled. And remember: You take away from most things what you bring into them. If you're looking for a great time and bring that attitude, you'll find it. If you're looking to criticize, I'm sure you'll have ample opportunity. For me it was the trip of a lifetime and I doubt I'll ever be able to top it. The word of the day every single day was WOW.