We decided to take this particular cruise in the spring because it left out of San Francisco and we hadn't been to the City by the Bay in almost 30 years and wanted to see it again. Our friends, Denny & Karen had never been to San Francisco and also wanted to see it. We left Chicago-O'Hare on 5/2/03 with a plan to spend 1-½ days sightseeing before boarding the Mercury for our cruise to Alaska. This would be the 5th Celebrity cruise for Karl and I.
Our United flight was uneventful and on time. The weather in San Francisco was cool and rainy. Everyone kept telling us that it was too late in the year for rain!
We checked in at the Sir Francis Drake hotel right by Union Square where we had stayed 30 years ago. They still have the Beefeater doorman and he was agreeable for photos. The lobby is very impressive and check in was quick. The rooms however clean are rather vintage. We were on the 4th floor and didn't have a view of anything other than a roof. Karl called the decorating "early carnival". It did not blend with the posh lobby at all. The bathroom was very small with the original fixtures from the 20's. I think the bathroom on the ship was larger. But, it was a place to crash and we wanted to get out and sight see.
The concierge arranged for a bus to pick us up @ 1:30 for a 4-hr tour of the city. Since it was still pretty early, we hopped aboard a cable car and went to the Cable Car Museum. It was mildly interesting and Denny was looking for a cable car for his train set. It was not to be found. We took the same route back in variable showers and went looking for a place to grab a quick bite. Lori's diner, which is kitty-corner from the hotel, was our choice. Good hamburgers and soup with a 50's ambiance.
Back to the hotel and while waiting for the bus tour to begin it started to pour and pour. The bus took us to Fisherman's Wharf where we boarded the tour bus for our 4 hr sightseeing trip in the rain. Needless to say, we did not get off to visit Golden Gate Park, which I'm sure is quite beautiful and we did not walk across the Golden Gate Bridge. The fog was rolling in and visibility was quite limited. The bus driver was quite considerate in dropping people off at their hotels. Since we had reservations at the Club Fugazi to see "Beach Blanket Babylon" he dropped us off at the corner by the theater.
This is a great musical review to see if you are in San Francisco. The premise, if it needed one, is Snow White looking for True Love around the world. The cast are all first rate singers and there is a lot of topical humor. We enjoyed it immensely! After it was over, since it had finally stopped raining, we walked up to Columbus Street and grabbed a cab back to the hotel. The Sir Francis Drake is known for its' elegant rooftop lounge and we wanted to have a drink before bed but we were so grubby from traveling and everyone in there was dressed up so we skipped it.
The next day dawned partly sunny and we took this as a good omen. After breakfast @ the hotel, we took 2 cabs to Pier 39 and dropped our luggage with the porter. Passengers were already lined up to board at 10 AM. We took off for a walking tour of Fisherman's Wharf and covered it pretty well until about 2 PM when we worked our way back to the ship. The Mercury looked so good tied up there and we were excited about finally boarding.
Herein is the only complaint I had about the process. We were quite surprised with having to fill out the SARS questionnaire, but that went pretty well with tables handy and plenty of pens to write with. It was when we were in the Captain's Club line that everything came to a screeching halt. They had one woman there passing out the disembarkation forms and insisting that everyone fill them out immediately instead of at your leisure sometime during the cruise. People who were not Captain's Club were just walking in and getting their cruise documents and boarding. This was a far cry from our previous year's experience in Hawaii where we just walked on.
Once we were over this hurdle the rest went smoothly. There was the requisite stop for boarding photos and then onto the ship for a complimentary glass of champagne or orange juice. I was surprised by this as I thought it was going to be for Captain's Club members only. A nice welcome, but this has to cost them some bucks.
It was at this point that I commented to my husband that the passenger mix was definitely tilted toward the older crowd. Now we are all in our 50's so it's not like we are so young ourselves but it was quite apparent there were no youngsters on this cruise. I did not see any children on this cruise but did not expect to since it was so close to the end of the school year. When we were at dinner there were more people our age so I dialed down the average passenger age about ten years to 70.
Our cabin was 8127 Vista Deck mid-ship, a standard outside cabin with picture window. It was our experience with Celebrity that all our cabins have almost always been identical no matter which deck we were on. We elected not to have a balcony this time due to the early season. This was a wise choice as it was too chilly when the ship was moving to even think about sitting outside. The cabin came equipped with a smallish hair dryer that became too hot to hold even with my short hair. The new hair dryers on the Summit were much more powerful. I liked the desk with outlets for my curling iron and makeup lights. Plenty of storage space and we were able to store our boxy suitcases under the bed and out of the way.
Our cabin steward introduced himself as soon as we boarded and was efficiency personified. We hardly saw him at all. He quickly learned our schedule and the room was made up while we were at breakfast and turned down while we were at dinner.
As we moved away from the dock, we experienced the most unbelievable vibrations at the rear of the ship. We were sitting in the Solarium pool area and everything rattled and banged so loudly that we wondered if the doors were going to come out of the frame. I had read about these in other reviews and never quite believed they could be that bad. But that was the only time we felt this. I can't speak for anyone who had an aft cabin.
The sail-away party was held on deck and everyone watched as we sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge and out of San Francisco Bay. We passed by Alcatraz and got quite a good look at it. It was sunny but quite windy and no one stayed outside too long.
We had elected for late seating because we always enjoy the time between the shore excursions ending and having some time to relax before dinner and the late show. In this instance we were surprised as most of the shows for the late seating were before dinner and were poorly attended.
Frankly, I was disappointed in the quality of the performers this time. We had been on the Hawaii cruise the year before and had really enjoyed the entertainment so we were looking forward to it this time. The production shows were always enjoyable with a lot of enthusiasm on the part of the performers and musicians. But the featured acts were somewhat lacking in star power. The singer Peggy Herman had a great voice but her material was from the 20's and 30's and was more suited to the generation before us. There was a gentleman from China who played the dulcimer and he was quite talented but again, lacking in excitement. Noodles Levenstein was aboard and most of his material was the same from the year before. But, he is definitly PG-rated and amusing.
There were two formal nights on the two sea days and we dressed up as usual. Just once I'd like to see my husband rent a tux for a cruise instead of his suit. We didn't see too many tuxes this time out. There were quite a few when we took the Hawaii cruise. There were 3 informal nights and 3 casual nights. This was different from what was in the brochure. But as usual, I had over-packed and had an extra dress shirt for my husband and another outfit for myself so this was not a crisis.
We started every evening in the Rendezvous lounge with a drink before dinner and listening to the music. There were quite a few dancers among the passengers and they provided the floor show. We had one bar server, Marie from the Czech Republic, who was so sweet and always knew what we wanted and called us by name. On our last formal night, Karl decided to have Irish Coffee after dinner. We had seen another couple who sat next to us have it every night and he was intrigued with the whole process. Marie was called upon for this special service which she proceeded to do in a most excellent manner. Karl made sure that he tipped her extra on our last night.
The food was exceptional which is what we have come to expect. Karen did get a tough lobster on the last formal night and it was exchanged without a hassle. I did notice that the choices had changed somewhat. It used to be chicken, beef, fish, pasta, pork or lamb every night. Now it's beef, 2 fish, one w/pasta and one without, and a few other assorted things. Our waiter, Wilson from India, was very professional and started to kid around with us after a few days. I'm very particular when it comes to fish since we live in the Midwest and it is very difficult to get really fresh fish. But the 2 times I tried it, it was very fresh tasting and not fishy smelling at all.
This was a port intensive cruise. Our first day at sea coming from San Francisco was a little bouncy and we heard of several people who were under the weather. Karen had her patch on and was sure that was why she was fine. The rest of us used nothing and we felt no ill effects, whatsoever, but Karl & I have always been good travelers without motion sickness problems.
First stop was Victoria, B.C. to sunny skies and 50 degrees temperature. We docked about a half-mile from the center of town and it was an easy walk there. Several people took the shore excursion to Buchtardt Gardens and said it was beautiful but didn't have enough time to really enjoy it. Since Karl would rather have his teeth drilled without Novocaine than go shopping, we pretty much walked around the town and came back to the ship in less than 2 hrs. The hot tea offered in the lobby after we boarded was very welcome. I had to rest my legs briefly after our forced march through the town. Victoria was very clean with lots of flowers and nicely kept public areas. We didn't go into the Victoria Hotel although we did take a picture of it.
Our next stop was Ketchikan and again we docked at the pier and walked off into town. This is a very cute town and has preserved a lot of its history. We wandered around and visited Dolly's, the former town bordello, which has been quite restored. Again we did not take any shore excursions but elected to explore on our own. There is a vertical railway you can take for $2 to the top where there is a hotel with a nice view of the port and ship. There is also a path running parallel to the railway for the adventurous. The view out the back of the hotel was spectacular with lots of snowy mountains. One thing we did do was to purchase 10# of fresh frozen king salmon to send to our daughter in Chicago. You can also purchase crab legs and other delicacies to ship back home. Ketchikan is only accessible by sea or air. There is a huge ice field on the other side of the mountains and no roads running through it. Everything has to be brought in by ship. They had a small airfield and we did see Air Alaska flights taking off and landing. The weather is quite mild with a lot of rain, as they are part of the Inside Passage. Our weather was sunny in the 50's. It was unusual enough that every merchant we talked to comment on what nice weather we had for our visit.
You can believe that the tourist is king for these people as there is no business from Oct-April. Most of the people we talked to, from clerks to bus drivers said that they were on welfare or left the state for other work in the off-season. A salesclerk in Ketchikan showed us the calendar that the city issued to all the merchants listing the ships in port for each day. Some days in the summer had 5 ships in at the same time! At every port we were the first or only cruise ship in port. We couldn't imagine that many people descending on these small towns. She said that the police had to stand at the pier and hold people back so that traffic could pass! Even so, at least one person gets hit by a car every season. For that reason, we were quite self congratulatory on choosing this time of the year to visit.
Our next stop was Juneau, the capital of Alaska and the largest (in square miles) capital city in the U.S.A. Here was the only place we took a shore excursion from the ship. Karen & I had originally purchased 4 tickets for the whale-watching excursion, but the guys decided they would rather walk around than bounce around in a small boat. The ship refunded the price without a hassle and the two girls went whale watching on our own. We dressed for warmth by layering t-shirts, sweatshirts and jackets. I even brought my gloves and earmuffs just in case. Well we never needed those. Again, the weather was sunny and about 55 degrees. We traveled by bus to the boat, which was enclosed and set out looking for whales. They guarantee you will see a whale or they refund $100 of your $109 fee. Bald Eagles abound up there. They are like sparrows at home. They were easy to spot as their white heads stood out in the tall evergreens. Of course the scenery was spectacular and we saw sea lions and Dall's porpoises which look just like miniature killer whales. And we did see A whale. But it was very agreeable and kept circling the boat, breaching and showing it's tail for some great photos. When we boarded the bus back to the Mercury, all the ladies were given a long stem red rose for being the first customers of the season! It was at this time we noticed the children of one of the ladies in the office who were dressed in summer dresses without any coats, slips or socks! I guess if you live in Alaska, 50 degrees feels like the summer. Since we left for this trip about 10 AM we were back on the ship in time a lunch of pasta and pizza.
The guys had done some exploring while we were gone and found a kiosk on the dock where we could get a bus to Mendelhall glacier for $10/person which left every hour on the hour. Since the ship was in Juneau until 10 PM, there was plenty of time to see and do things. We went inside the Red Dog Saloon to see it and kick around some sawdust on the floor. There was a guy singing & playing the guitar and he was quite good, but we didn't hang around very long.
Mendenhall Glacier is about 13 miles outside Juneau and is part of a national park. As we commented about the snow-covered mountains (again) the park ranger informed us that the snowfall was very minimal the past winter and there not only wasn't much snow on the mountains but that the glacier had receded quite a bit from previous years. Since it was dry we were able to walk on sandy land that normally was under water. You could really cover a lot of territory and get quite close to a beautiful waterfall, which wouldn't have normally been possible. We didn't see any calving of icebergs, which would have been anticlimactic anyway, since the water there was so shallow.
This was the one gripe Karl had with the itinerary. We did not go to Glacier Bay. When we had originally booked the cruise it was supposed to be 9 days starting in San Diego and stopping for a day in San Francisco. Sometime in January Celebrity informed our TA of the change to 8 days with the addition of the stop in Victoria. He felt we could have skipped Victoria and gone to Glacier Bay instead. Well we decided we will just have to do this cruise again someday and include the interior trip also.
Our last stop for our itinerary was Sitka. This is the only port we had to use the tenders. Since Sitka sits inside a protected bay, it was a smooth transition. Actually once we got to Victoria the sailing was very smooth for the rest of the trip. Sitka is a little jewel of a town without any traffic lights that is easy to walk around and see the sights. Again we did not take any shore excursions but just checked things out on our own. The principal feature is St. Paul's Cathedral, which was reconstructed after a fire destroyed most of the town in 1968. There is a $4 fee to enter and view the icons from Russia, which are museum quality and quite old. Only some of the icons are on display and they rotate them on a regular basis. The docent told me that they are already a National Landmark but are trying to qualify for museum status to be eligible for more federal funds.
There is shopping of course and we did notice that the prices were the cheapest in Ketchikan for the few items we had already purchased. I bought 2 great picture albums with a map of Alaska on the front. Believe it or not, there was a Chinese restaurant in each town! In fact we saw 2 in Sitka. This despite the fact that Juneau only got a McDonald's about 6 years ago! They were bemoaning the closure of K-Mart in Juneau and said they could only hope that Wal-Mart would open there. Since it's difficult to bring in merchandise, things for everyday life are very expensive. Milk was $4 a gallon.
As we left Sitka we left blue skies behind us and sailed into a fog bank for the rest of the day. The foghorn on the ship was blowing and it was quite the evening atmosphere. Our last day was a sea day that we used to enjoy the ship and relax before having to leave the next day. We had long given up on the casino and I have to admit it was the emptiest I had ever seen on a cruise. I don't know if it was because the passenger age was older or the fact that the slots were so tight. I managed to break even playing blackjack, but that was because I would quit when I had doubled my money or had lost what I started with. I did enter a slots tournament and didn't win, but somebody did and they were happy.
We saw lots of whales going north while we were going south and dolphins swimming along the ship. Karl saw a humpback being chased by 3 killer whales. Later in the afternoon, we came out of the fog and now saw land on both sides. It was staying light out until about 9:30 and we did get some great sunset shots.
Alas, we woke up the next morning at dock in Vancouver. We didn't take the Vancouver city tour as we had done that the previous year coming home from Hawaii. If you have a later flight, it is quite worthwhile and sure beats sitting in the airport. Our flight home to Chicago was delayed about 2 hours and we were quite anxious to get home by that point. Vancouver's airport is very clean and has the usual amenities but it's still just a place to wait. We arrived home to rainy, cool weather and were told how it had rained the whole time we were gone. We took the limo to our friends' house where we had picked it up and jumped in our car for the short ride home.
Overall, we thought this was a great cruise and were lucky with the weather while we were there. Alaska is beautiful and everyone we encountered was gracious and very thankful for our business. It sure made you glad to be spending your money in the good old USA. Like I said earlier, we felt we had only barely touched on what there is to see in Alaska and would really like to go back again for a longer trip. Would we do Celebrity again? Of course we would.