ABOUT ME In my 20s and traveled with my mother. This was my third cruise.
Flew to Vancouver a day before. Took Alaska Airlines from east coast and was surprised and disappointed that such a long flight doesn't have TVs for in-flight entertainment. Then from Seattle to Vancouver it was only 20 minutes, don't know why you would want to drive this portion? The Vancouver airport had a ridiculously long immigration line, literally 100s of people. We found that taxis and tourists spots in Vancouver accept American dollars. I met a woman who arrived the day of the cruise and her luggage went directly to the ship from the airplane, but she didn't know that and was waiting by the conveyer belt for quite some time. Her roommate, who traveled separately, her luggage arrived long before she did for the same reason and made her believe her roommate was roaming around the ship, yet hadn't arrived.
HOTEL We stayed at the Days Inn Downtown which advertised as being across the street from the cruise dock, but was more like 3 blocks. I called them directly and got a better rate. The hotel is small but we were lucky to get one of the few rooms that faced the loud street, which was a fair size.
The hotel had a free shuttle to their sister property and to Stanley Park nearby. We were dropped off at the pedestrian entrance to the park which made for a 15minute walk to the information booth. The rose garden there was disappointing. The Aquarium was fantastic! Every half hour was a great show with the trainers. There is a shuttle in Stanley Park, but the wait seemed long, and we found if you actually know where you're going you can walk to a lot of the attractions. Unfortunately there are no direction signs or maps in the park as you're walking around. There were gorgeous huge blue hydrangea bushes throughout the park!
The day of our cruise we booked a morning sightseeing tour that drops you off at the cruise ship terminal with your luggage, how convenient! The town was beautiful, it should be called the garden city as every street had flowers on it! I definitely want to go back there. The first stop on the tour was Stanley Park to see the Totem Poles. Totem Poles are not meant to be maintained or kept up, yet these were the most beautiful poles we saw on our entire trip as they are still brightly painted. Go in the afternoon for the best sun.
BOARDING Checking in went pretty swiftly. After going through security, you walk into a small room, given a number and sit down with about 30 people. Then an agent comes around to see if you have all the necessary documents before she gives you permission to get on the very short line to check in. While in the big picture this may be helpful, but as I was fully ready with all documents in hand, I was annoyed that I had to wait for all the people seated before me to search through their bags as the agent told them they were missing something. After you check in, you move to the other side of the room where beverages are served and about 50 people were waiting. People were called to board the ship only by their number. The whole idea behind this system is that you're never standing in a long line. You can not register your credit card when you check in, instead you have to get in a long line with everyone else at the Front Office on the ship.
The ship left port late because there was a security breach at the Seattle airport and a number of passengers connecting from there to Vancouver were delayed. Personally I think if you're flying a long distance to catch a cruise, it's a good idea to consider arriving a day early for insurance. I met a couple who ended up arriving the 3rd day of the cruise (the 2nd day is at sea) and they had to take a water taxi from the airport to the ship and didn't look too happy.
CABIN We had inside cabin 606 on the Main Deck. There was a high step up into the bathroom which was easy to forget coming out. I noticed that the rooms across from us with an Oceanview had bathtubs and the room stewards really scrubbed them clean. Our room had curtains covering the wall which I felt only brought attention to the fact that we didn't have a window. Then there were curtains next to the foot of the bed that were only ornamental, meaning they can not be pulled to separate the beds from the sitting area. I've heard a lot of people say Alaska is the one place where they would pay extra for a balcony. Honestly the only day that matters is the days at sea and I didn't mind going to the outside decks. The sheets on the bed were incredibly hard. I'm not fussy about stuff like that, but I really felt you could use your pillow case as an exfoliation cloth for your face.
ENTERTAINMENT The welcome show had dancers who sang Motown songs and a banjo player. Later on they had a Moulin Rouge and Broadway shows which were good. The magician was amazing, unfortunately he started with a poor quality video of one of his acts and we were all wondering if there was actually going to be a live performer. The seats in the performance lounge look like couches but are actually quite hard.
ACTIVITIES I was excited about the movie theater that showed recent movies such as Chicago and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days. Obviously this is where all the teens were. They served great complimentary buttery popcorn! The spa offered lots of free fitness classes including one with a resistance band. The fee ones were pilates on a stability ball, kickbocking, and yoga. There had a good amount of fitness machines. On the days at sea they had lots of seminars on beauty and weight loss focused solely on promoting their products and services. Don't get sucked into the weight loss miracle where they wrap your body, which is somewhat painful, and claim you'll lose up to 8 inches for $300. Manicure $25, pedicure $40/40 minutes, tons of different types of massages and facials. Book as soon as you get on board as the first day at sea was sold out. I really enjoyed the onboard Naturalist slide show presentations about the wildlife. Bingo was big as the jackpot was $3000. Complimentary champagne is served at the art auctions.
FOOD I was disappointed at the small breakfast & lunch buffets in the Lido, which had very little for vegetarians. Plus it was incredibly slow as it's only 50% self-serve. Lunch in the dining room wasn't any better. But at dinner the waiter gave me a special Vegetarian menu and allowed me to choice my meals for the week ahead of time! Additionally, there was always a vegetarian option on the main menu, so occasionally I shamelessly had 2 entrees. I really appreciated this since RCL forces vegetarians to have the one dish assigned to them on the menu each day, if meat eaters get a choice of what they want to eat every day, so should I. Additionally I was really excited that they had tofu!
Lunch ends at 2pm, after that the only thing available is tacos, burgers, & salad. The desserts were not that great. There was a huge assortment of tasteless sugarfree desserts and sugarfree vanilla ice cream. If they told me something was tiramisu or cheesecake, it took a lot of imagination to believe them. The chewy cookies in the ice cream parlor were always good!
Our waiter had 4 tables, which was too many. Even though my table was always on time and ready to order, our meals were slowed down by the other tables. We had a 15 minutes wait between courses. If you skip the salad and soup courses, just show up an hour late literally because you can not get your entrée any earlier, apparently the kitchen is not ready yet. If you have late seating and want to eat early, go to the dining room anyway as there is a will call window for tables that remain empty. But the Lido has the same exact entrees served nicely to you. I believe salmon was always on the menu, along with halibut, herring, duck, veal, steak & chicken. The ship had their own salmon bake by the pool, but some people complained it was all bones. (I can't personally comment on this since as a vegetarian I obviously don't eat fish)
DRINKS I was disappointed that the only free beverage was ice tea, not lemonade. But at breakfast they made fantastic freshly squeezed orange juice. If only people would stop bringing their used empty glass and place them back on the tray with filled juice cups. The complimentary Java café had all kinds of coffee available, including unsweetened hot chocolate and chewy cookies. Every day there was high tea in a lounge for half an hour. Waiters come around with trays of appetizers and sweets to eat with your choice of tea. Once during the cruise was Dutch High Tea in the dining room where there was only one choice of tea and a full buffet of appetizers, sweets and my favorite chocolate covered strawberries. On the last day at sea, hot chocolate with your choice of liquor was served on the outside decks for a fee.
PEOPLE There were a few kids aged about 8-12 who could always be found in the pool. The majority of the passengers (maybe 75%) were seniors. My mother said this trip made her feel young as she saw how no one let their age or health stop them from traveling. The atmosphere was different on this ship as everyone said hi to one another as they walked down the hallway. There were a fair number of people who were doing this trip back to back in both directions. A large number of people were including Denali after the cruise.
STAFF The all male service crew was from Indonesia and the Philippines while the officers were from Holland, Canada, Australia, and Britain. They work on 1-year contracts. I was surprised that our cabin attendant had quickly memorized our names, as I know I couldn't memorize 20 Philippino names after one day. When you boarded there was someone there to personally take you to your room. In the Lido someone also carried your filled tray to your table. On formal night the tables had elegant white tablecloths and the chairs were covered too. I found everyone, except the front desk, to be extremely friendly.
SHIP My last cruise was on RCL AOS so this ship felt so much smaller. There are 2 small pools, 2 jacuzzis, and 2 tennis/volleyball/basketball courts covered in a net. The decks were always wet, even if hadn't rained, since they constantly wash the decks. I feel that all the puddles and staircases should have been dried daily. The library was in good shape and had a whole shelf of travel books on Alaska that you could check out and many recent magazines. Free postcards of the ship and stationary were also available there. Getting around the ship wasn't easy since the floors are referred to by name and NOT number, who thought of this? There was lots of outside deck viewing space on several levels. Besides the top deck, finding the outside decks was also tricky because the staircases are hidden and doors will be closed, but not locked. The wind outside was terrible! You really need a hooded jacket and gloves. The onboard shop had Alaskan Christmas ornaments, sweatshirts, salmon, and beautiful amber jewelry from the Baltic. Onshore I bought a red cotton jacket that had native white paintings on it that I guess it resembles a totem pole.
They constantly changed which level we got off the ship, even during the same day. One day the ramp was so steep even I had difficulty! Another day the entrance was on my floor but they blocked my hallway for security so I had to make a long detour to get to my room. We tendered twice and that was a fairly easy procedure as I had shore excursion tickets and the boats went back and forth regularly, even with only 2 passengers. Just before we left port, every day there were at least 2 names the loud speakers would call looking for, as I guess they didn't come back?
PRACTICAL ADVICE One photograph from the ship's photographers of yourself cost $22 because you're forced to buy the "free" leather frame with each picture. Since I put my pictures in an album, I didn't like this. On the formal night the captain took pictures with every single person! They sell 2 cruise videos. One produced onboard for $34 with no commentary but footage of people on board, available at the photo gallery. It highlights a few shore excursions, showed all the kids, and people taking formal pictures with the captain. The other video was made professionally of all the ports with commentary, available at the Shore Excursions desk. I had already bought the 2 Alaska videos available from HAL's website before I left, so I didn't get the latter one.
I was shocked that I was still able to purchase dog sledding in Juneau 2 weeks before the cruise on HAL's website! Once on board I saw that most of the adventure type activities were sold out. For Seward, you could ask to be waitlisted for the dog sled as all they have to do is request another helicopter if they have enough people. Although it is cheaper to book directly with the helicopter company ahead of time. The only parts of whales I saw on this trip were their fins and tales from a distance during early breakfast and early dinner, so I recommend booking a whale excursion.
Unlike RCL which takes your picture when you board, HAL requires you to show your ID when you re-board the ship each day. The safe in your room will only close with your credit card, not the magnetic strip on the back of your HAL card. These are they type of things that I would prefer to leave in my safe. The self-serve laundry room was in frequent use, apparently soap is already in the machine.
The weather was in the 60s with occasional rain, but when it rains it doesn't stop. I wore turtlenecks, jeans, and rain jackets everyday. Most tours had umbrellas on the bus seats. I brought 100 film for the glaciers. I also got great sunset pictures!
Just about every town had a shop with a large stuffed animal in front of it like a bear or moose that everyone took pictures with so keep your eyes peeled (especially in Ketchikan). Throughout Alaska the public trash cans are designed a certain way to keep bears out. Many of the cities we visited said they only got their first traffic light a few years ago.
Before I went I thought Alaska would be one of those destinations I would only do once. But since I missed so much (due to weather and itinerary), I will definitely come back in June, go to Denali, do an itinerary that includes Skagway and College Fjords and more wildlife excursions. I think I'll try Princess for that cruise.
Saturday - At Sea cruising Inside Passage All we saw was the Canadian green mountains on both sides of the ship. The spa/gym was packed. Didn't see any whales.
Sunday - Ketchikan Excursion - Saxman Native Village. You drive through town to Saxman, that's your city tour. It seemed like the whole ship came here. There you watch a movie about the natives, a live performance in the Clan House, and a talk by a carver (who weren't there). The poles are quite old so the paint is disappearing. Saxman is no more than a tiny park with totems going around it. I regret not choosing Totem Bight Park, but was I was afraid that if it rained it would be slippery. From the dock you can walk a few blocks to Creek Street, not to be missed. [The ship docks downtown and there were independent tour operators right there]
Monday - Sitka Excursion - Sitka Highlights & Russian Dancers. We saw the Russian church in town which had an impressive collection of Russian art inside, but no photos were allowed. We were told that there are actually very few descendents of Russians in Sitka, and none of the dancers were Russian. I enjoyed the performance. There were a couple Russian souvenir stores with nesting dolls and Christmas ornaments. Afterwards we went to the Sitka National Forest and saw lots of salmon in extremely shallow water. The visitor center had an interesting movie about the natives and exhibits on totem poles. There was a great view of our ship from there. I would recommend booking 2 excursions here, specifically the Sea Otter & Wildlife Quest. [The ship tenders a few blocks from downtown]
Tuesday - Juneau Excursions - Juneau City Tour & Mendenhall Glacier and Glacier Landing & Dog Sled. We drove through town and the capital building was just a plain brown office building. We went to a Salmon Hatchery which was very interesting. Their only function is to increase the amount of salmon in the water. They do this buy creating a salmon ladder, take the eggs out of the salmon and let them hatch there. When they hatch they release them back into the rivers. Their survival rate I believe will be 80% instead of 5% in the river. Did you know there are 5 kinds of salmon? Next stop was the Mendenhall Glacier. It was so cold there everyone wished they had earmuffs. This day was very crowded as there were 4 ships in port. You can take the public bus to Mendenhall, although it will be a long ride. There was a $10 roundtrip shuttle from the dock.
For the afternoon we booked dog sledding. We were taken to the helicopter dock, given plastic boots to cover our shoes, and were told to leave our camera bags or backpacks under a chair in the waiting room/trailer, a bit unsettling. We were allowed to keep fanny packs. When the helicopters landed, the pilots walked by us and told the staff to tell us that they didn't want to take us up as the clouds were getting lower and it ended up pouring. You can imagine how disappointed we were as we were so close. [The ship tendered to downtown and there were independent tour operators right there]
Wednesday - Haines On my own. I'm disappointed our ship didn't dock in Skagway, as I didn't see much in Haines. The brochure said excursions to Skagway, but the only excursion was the train trip. My mother got up early and took the ferry to Skagway. It's 45minutes each way, $40 and there's a naturalist on-board pointing out the whales and other sea mammals she saw. Skagway is quite a walk from the ferry. And you have to return by 12noon, because all the afternoon ferries are reserved for the people that booked the train excursion.
In Haines you can see the "fort" from the ship as it's only a block or two away. But it only consists of a row of big white house around a grassy square. There were 3 independent operators offering wildlife/photo tours of the Chilkoot Lake. For about 2 hours each was $10, $25, & $40. The $25 was Yeshua Tours which was a smooth talker. He promised 99% chance of bears and that the $10 tour guy wasn't from Alaska. He also promised a comfortable 5 person car, but we had to wait until it got back from driving a blind woman somewhere, but that car never showed and his group left on a school bus. The $10 Eco Orca Tour Company had a more comfortable bus and said there was no chance of bears and don't believe anyone who promised it. I'm not going to tell you who I picked, but I'll tell you what the tour consists of as I'm sure they're all the same as Haines is so small. The bus drives you to the Chilkoot Lake which is picturesque and I saw a couple bald eagles. There were so many people fishing, it would scare any bear away. You spent about 15minutes there then come back to "downtown" where there's basically nothing. Then a drive around the fort and back to the ship. Since then, I've been told that there is a lot of small town politics going on against independent tour operators, which is why they couldn't solicit us, just stood a distance away with a big sign. [The ship docks near the fort and ferry to Skagway]
Thursday - At Sea cruising Hubbard Glacier This was the first day that it rained. Up to this point the ship was extremely stabilized, but once we hit the Pacific Ocean boy what a difference. Everyone was walking from side to side, chairs would move, it was definitely a rough day! They even put out sea sickness bags by the elevators. I took a bonine and had my motion sickness sticker behind my ear. I felt better when I was outside in the fresh air. Viewing time of the glacier was from 7:30am-8:30am. With the rain everyone was on the outside deck that was under the tender boats, but it wasn't hard to find a spot on the railing. Make sure you have your hat and gloves. Dutch Pea soup is later served outside. I took pictures with 2 cameras and neither one came out since the rain made it so dark and foggy. The entire time the naturalist talked about glaciers over the loud speakers. Finding a seat outside was never a problem, since it was so cold and windy.
We received our bill today yet were told that we could not settle it until tomorrow. I couldn't believe they wanted everyone to settle their bill on the day we disembark! There was one disembarkation meeting for everyone in the performance lounge, so there wasn't enough space. Can't they just write it down for us? The tour director made it a funny meeting and encouraged us to fill out our comment forms as that's what gives people promotions.
Friday - Seward Cruise train to Anchorage At 5:30am I receive a phone call from the Front Desk asking me to come settle my bill. I was puzzled by this since I knew I had a large credit from 2 sets of cancelled dog sledding. HAL refuses to credit any credit cards! I had to accept a large check to carry with us for the rest of the trip.
At 7am we board the Alaskan Railroad (RCL took a train earlier than us). You get your seat assignment when you check in, so I requested a seat facing forward. There are 2 seats facing 2 seats sharing a table. But your leg space is limited so PLEASE do not bring those large rolling carry-on bags! There is especially no space for a couple to bring 2 such bags. Remember you're facing another couple so everyone's feet space will be constricted. There's very little space under your seat and obviously nothing above.
Check out the last wagon, since we boarded front to back, the whole last wagon with the bar was empty. Both sides of the train are scenic at different times, but I still stood between the cars for better pictures. But I don't recommend it for everyone since it was crowded, and it was very wobbly and there's nothing to hold on to. The train stops occasionally for photos and you're always warned ahead of time to prepare your camera. We had nice views of glaciers. There was a large bathroom onboard. Water and coffee were $2 and lunch was $12. HAL trains only go straight to the airport. Upon arrival, there are 3 HAL buses waiting to take us downtown where our luggage is waiting for us at the convention center. Alaska Air & American Air passenger luggage is sent straight to the plane from the ship. All other airlines, you still have to go to the convention center to pick it up, then go back to the airport. So again if you're not flying home today on Alaska Air & American Air, you don't need that large rolling carry-on bag for the train.
Downtown Anchorage is filled with souvenirs shops after souvenir shops. The visitor center is this cute log cabin with grass growing on its' roof. On the next block are 2 trolley companies next to each other that give $10 tours of the city. Anchorage has lots of great museums like the not to be missed Alaska Native Heritage Center, the Alaska Museum of History & Art, the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts which had movies about bears & the aurora borealis, and the Alaska Experience which is an IMAX theater that stimulates an earthquake. From all the street posts hung baskets of Forget-Me-Not, the Alaska national flower. There are gardens everywhere, including gorgeous large dahlias which I didn't think could grow up there.
We stayed at the Caribou Inn, which was a Bed & Breakfast right in downtown with affordable prices. Our room was huge with a full kitchen, private bathroom & cable TV. (Cheaper rooms don't have a bathroom). Breakfast was made to order: eggs, bacon, cereal & toast. They offered a free airport and train shuttle. There's no elevator so be prepared to walk a couple flights of stairs.
Saturday - Kotzebue Booked with Alaskan Airlines a one day trip to Kotzebue, a city above the Arctic Circle. We met people on the plane who did the HAL cruisetour that included Nome & Kotzebue, as this portion was run by Alaskan Airlines. They said they were so exhausted with having to fly to 2 cities in one day, that they don't even remember what they saw.
It was about 50F in Kotzebue which is a small town where the residents are 70% Eskimos (yes that is what they call themselves). In case you're wondering, they only live in Igloos when they go on hunting trips that last several months. They are allowed to hunt seals & other sea mammals since it's for subsistence. They showed us how they use every single part of an animal they catch. In school they learn traditional sewing and their language.
Most people live in small 1 story homes. But they're building huge multi-level homes to attract doctors and nurses. There was only one tree in town. During the summer 9 barges bring all the supplies they need for the rest of the year, such as gas. Gas up there costs $3.99 and a gallon of milk costs $4.09. Planes bring perishable food in the rest of the year but there's a transport cost for that. The majority of the residents work in a mine but they have to commute by plane. So they work 2 weeks then come home for 1 week. Apparently they make a lot of money doing this. There was one school, one hotel, three stores, and 11 churches.
There's not much to see there but I guess I experienced what it's like to live in the Arctic. I saw a performance by some middle school kids of their native dances and an indoor blanket toss. Then there was the tundra walk where we picked wild blueberries & salmonberries. Our guide explained what winter was like when you can't even expose any skin and if you poured a glass of water outside it would freeze immediately. Our guide was very sweet and she told us that she went to Chicago once for a wedding and was terrified of crossing the street and couldn't understand how we could live in such a busy place.
Sunday - Fly Home Checking in at Anchorage airport was so painless. There are these touch screen computers in the terminal which are so easy to use, I promise. You just type in your ticket number (no credit card required), you're asked how many bags you're checking, you okay your seat number, check your miles, and voila your ticket is printed! Then you get in the long & slow baggage check line. The only window with an actual person is the customer service counter. But there are agents standing around to assist you with the computer check-in.
My pictures are posted here: