This was my sixth cruise, the second on Royal Caribbean. (The other four cruises were all on Carnival.) We chose the Alaska itinerary because I've always wanted to cruise to Alaska, and RCL was our pick because we had enjoyed our 1993 honeymoon cruise to the Bahamas on Majesty of the Seas and probably more importantly, because that particular cruise fit into the 2-week period that we had without our kids!
My husband Greg and I are both 48 years old. I'm an attorney and he's a private investigator.
We booked the air-sea package and also a Cruise Tour that included two days on land, Alyeska and Anchorage, for a total of nine days.
DAY 1, FRIDAY JULY 9, 2004 - Arrival and sailing
Awakening at 5:45 a.m., we were on the road by 6:15 a.m. We drove to my parents' house and my dad gave us a ride to Los Angeles International Airport to catch our 10:20 a.m. flight to Vancouver.
We had more than two hours to wait before the flight. Alaska Airlines has a do-it-yourself boarding pass system that's a bit daunting if you've not done it before. I discovered that my bag was 3 pounds overweight so I shifted some of the weight to my garment bag. Alaska Airlines is STRICT on the weight thing. You're allowed only 50 pounds per bag.
(They were also BRUTAL on baggage handling. My brand-new duffel bag was trashed by the end of the trip, requiring duct tape to repair both ends.)
The flight left on time. It was a tight squeeze with sardine-like seating. Some lucky folks in the back of the plane had empty seats around them due to a connecting flight not making it in time, but not us.
We arrived in Vancouver a bit early. We got off the plane and were met by a RCL representative. We had been instructed NOT to pick up our luggage; it would be tagged through to the ship and handled by RCL's porters. That made me nervous, not being sure that my luggage made it. (Ours did, but some other folks' did not..more about that later.)
We stood in line for a short time and were then herded onto buses for the trip from the airport to the cruise ship terminal. The trip took 45 minutes and I tried to see as much of Vancouver as I could. This was strictly transportation, not a city tour; I found myself wishing for a tour guide! We weren't exactly taken through the nicest parts of town. We did get a look at the famous Vancouver skyline at one point.
We arrived at the cruise terminal and went through check-in and Immigration. It went smoothly and quickly. We had to go through both Canadian and U.S. immigration because we were leaving Canada to go back to the U.S. (Alaska). Finally we headed to the ship and after the obligatory security photo and the first of many cruise ship photos, we arrived at our cabin for the week.
We were on Deck 7, Cabin 7106, a category D-1 balcony stateroom. It was beautiful. To us it was huge, the biggest cabin we've ever had. The balcony was terrific. We spent a lot of time during the cruise on that balcony, gazing at scenery and looking at the whales through binoculars. (Now that we've experienced the joys of a balcony, we can never go back to "just" a normal room!)
In my opinion, a balcony room is the ONLY way to go on an Alaskan cruise. Sure, you can go to the public decks and look out, but there's nothing like having your own personal balcony without crowds to fight. Plus you can stand out there in your jammies.
The bathroom was small. Carnival does have bigger bathrooms. However, it was adequate, and I'd rather have more square footage in the actual ROOM than a bigger bathroom. One tip that I'd read on a cruise review was to bring clothes pins to weigh down the shower curtain. I used half a dozen wooden ones. It really did help to keep the water contained to the shower rather than flooding the whole bathroom (which happened on our previous RCL cruise, Majesty of the Seas).
Clothes pins are also handy for drip-drying clothes. I used the clothes line that was in the shower to dry my exercise gear, PJs and swimsuit. A drawback of this ship (and maybe all of RCL) is NO self-service laundry room, unlike Carnival that had a laundry room for passengers' use on every other deck. If you want something laundered, you must send it out for a rather steep fee. My husband sent his jeans out to be washed for a cost of $4.00. Carnival also provides ironing boards and irons in those self-service laundries. I don't know if RCL loans these out. Fortunately we brought things that didn't need pressing.
We had some time before the ship was to leave, so we went to the Windjammer restaurant and chowed down. The fare at the Windjammer is good. Not great, but good, and plentiful.
As with all cruises, we had to endure the icky Muster Drill as we left Vancouver. We were mashed together on the deck, clad in those uncomfortable sticky orange life vests. Then it was over and the fun began. We stood on our balcony and watched Vancouver go by. I had purchased a map and it was fun to hold it up and compare it to the passing scenery such as Stanley Park and Lions' Gate Bridge. We sailed an hour late, at 6 p.m. rather than 5, due to late- arriving passengers.
The entire lobby area next to the stairs was full of luggage as the stewards desperately tried to unite passengers with their bags. We received three of our four bags by 5 p.m. and got the last one shortly thereafter. I was very relieved to see the bags! (Others were not so lucky. We met one fellow, Jim, whose baggage did not arrive. Jim was given $200 in ship credit to buy T-shirts and a hat and was given a free tux rental for the formal night, which was the second night. The ship laundered his one set of clothes each night. He received his bags two days later in Ketchikan. We also met a woman who NEVER received her bags. They were left behind in Seattle. She said that she asked the purser's office every single day about her bags, but never got them. She received a small allowance for ship apparel and bought some underwear in Ketchikan. The ship gave her a gown to wear for formal night and some shoes, which were too big for her. She gave the gown and shoes back after using them. She had a good attitude, saying 'At least laundry won't be difficult when I get home'! I can't imagine not having my bags. That would be awful. Both these people had the foresight to bring carry-ons with some clothing and their medications, etc., or they really would have been in trouble.)
Exhausted from starting off so early that morning, we napped until it was time to get ready for the 7 p.m. show for 2nd seating dinner guests. RCL differed from Carnival in that our show was usually at 7 p.m., BEFORE dinner, rather than after dinner at 10:30-10:45 p.m. This proved to be both good and bad. The good part was I didn't usually sleep through the show. What was also good was that the show was never crowded, because lots of people failed to show up! One time I walked by the 1st seating show (which occurred during our dinner time) and saw that the place was PACKED.
The bad part was that it was often hard to get to a 7 p.m. show, particularly during port days. One night we missed the show because our tour didn't get back until after 8 p.m.
The show was in the Masquerade Theater, which gets an A+ from us. It features comfortable individual seats with built-in cup holders in the armrests, not benches like on Carnival with annoying little tables that impede traffic and bump your shins as you move around. Even better, there were no pillars to block sight lines. Both the Carnival Elation and Ecstasy had huge pillars that blocked sight lines of half the theater, it seemed!
My husband pointed out that the individual seats eliminated the constant problem we encountered on Carnival: people hogging the benches, taking up more than one place per person, and "saving" large areas for family or friends (despite a stated 'no saving seats' policy).
We were always able to get seats right up close, probably due to the 7 p.m. seating. Another good thing is the Vision does not hold 'Bingo' in the theater just before shows, like Carnival did. On Carnival, if you don't attend Bingo, you don't get a good seat for the shows. It was almost like they forced you to do Bingo if you wanted a decent seat. (Bingo on the Vision was done in One Enchanted Evening, a nightclub.)
The show: The cruise director, Parker opened it. He was nice enough but really didn't exude much charisma. Other cruise directors had a lot more showmanship-charisma. First there was a preview of shows to come. The main event was a couple called 'Los Diablos Gauchos' who did bolero tricks and used a passenger as a dupe. It was entertaining and quite amusing.
After the show: Dinner at 8:30. We had been assigned to Table 97. When we arrived, we found the table full except for one seat! Obviously there was a mistake someplace. We reported the problem to a waiter, who found the Matire d' who took Greg's SeaPass card and disappeared. We waited a bit anxiously until he returned and escorted us to a larger table, Table 102, right next to the window (Yay! The old table was not next to a window.) We were very pleased to find our tablemates quite likeable. There were three other couples: Linda and Caroline from Georgia, Walter and Daphne from Maine, and Kim and Humberto, "youngsters" from Miami relocating to Chicago. We became fast friends with them all immediately and each night, the eight of us were just about the last to leave the dining room. We didn't want to part! Toward the end of the cruise, we'd meet up with our tablemates in either the casino or the bars and hang out all night together.
Our table was very fair about who got to sit in the best seats, facing the window. We rotated each night!
We met our waiter and assistant waiter. Our waiter, Sheryl Sanchez Medianesta from the Philippines, announced that it was her first day on this cruise line. But she did a stellar job throughout the cruise, always "right on" with her recommendations, and learned our first names by the second night. She also did something I'd never seen on a cruise: for dessert, she brought one of each dessert to the table for us to sample. (Fortunately no one was squicked at eating off the same plate!) I loved that idea. It's better to see and taste the dish rather than guessing at what it is from a menu.
Richard Philip from Trinidad-Tobago was our assistant waiter. He had a jovial, engaging personality, always smiling and laughing at our usually AWFUL jokes. He learned quickly what drinks everyone liked. Somehow he managed to get us diet cokes every night without our having to pay extra (although they were watered down terribly) and remembered that we like chocolate milk.
Even the headwaiter was nice. On other cruises, the headwaiter has been scarce or non-existent. This one came around to make sure everything was all right and learned our names as well. One morning as I walked bleary-eyed through the Windjammer, he greeted me with a happy "Hello Karen"!
On Carnival, we were in the habit of ordering Cappuccinos every night after dinner. They were provided without charge. We got a nasty surprise that on the Vision; they carried a $3.50 bar price tag! I read that the cruise lines are getting chintzy about such drinks, so maybe Carnival now charges as well for Cappuccinos. We stopped drinking so many. The same was true with Cokes. On Carnival, they were gratis at dinner; not so on RCL. Where Richard got his watered-down stash, we didn't know, and we didn't ask.
Another thing to know is the "bar" in the room is a total rip off. Soft drink cans cost an outrageous $3.50 apiece and the water is $4, I think. The "bar" took up prime real estate on a shelf that I wanted for my books, so I moved the tray of drink cans and bottles to the closet and asked the steward to take it away. We later found it under the bed.
On this first night, Greg and I both had Alaskan baked cod. The Béarnaise sauce that came with it was delicious. The tomato bisque soup was very good, as was the spinach salad.
The food on the cruise was mostly quite good, with a few misses; I did not find the beef all that good. The fish was tasty, however.
After dinner, to the casino. Greg lost $20 in three minutes. I didn't play the first night and wished that I had foregone the experience entirely, as I lost far too much in that casino over the course of the cruise. Those slots are TIGHT. Greg did better, mostly at blackjack, until the end of the cruise when it all disappeared. Think of cruise casinos as entertainment, not an opportunity to win, because you probably won't!
Then to bed! We were beat! (Our bed was nicely turned out, but that first night there was no replacement washcloth, no towel animal, and no mint! The rest of the trip was better. Towels were replaced, and we always got animals and mints.)
DAY 2, SATURDAY JULY 10, 2004 - At Sea
We woke up at nearly 10 a.m. and thus missed breakfast in the dining room, a shame because we love sit-down breakfast. We went to the alternative dining in the Windjammer. I gave it a lukewarm rating: Bacon - too crumbly. Omelet - So-so. Mushrooms were raw, not sautéed. The coffee was just so-so. There was no real cream in the Windjammer; you can only get real half-and-half in the dining room.
After breakfast, we spent time hanging out in the room. It was nice to kick back with no excursions on the first day. The whole day was nice like that, just relax and do whatever the spirit moves you to do. On other cruises, it's been 'go-go-go' from the first minute, and I've been exhausted. I happen to LOVE "sea days". Breakfast had filled us up, so we skipped lunch. I wandered over to the Photo area and found our embarkation photo. I was pleased to see that the Photo shop was quite roomy and not mobbed (at least at this early stage in the cruise) like Carnival's always was. Then I explored the shops. I like RCL's price guarantee policy, although I imagine that getting written proof of price from the competing store is too much of a hassle for most people.
About the Photo studio: They did a nice job. The formal pictures were, on the main, quite good. My only criticism is about our group table photo taken on the second to last night. Only two copies were made for the 8 of us, and I wasted a hour in the Photo shop hunting for that photo, not knowing that two tablemates had beaten me to it and already bought the group photo. Once I found out, I had to borrow a photo from one of them and have the shop make me a copy. Once that was handled, I was happy with the finished product. (Kudos to Ankur Vinay in the Photo shop for assisting me with this, even though the place was MOBBED.)
The shops were pretty good on the Vision. You could find most popular souvenirs like little plastic key chain animals that 'pooped' when you squeezed them (although by the end of the cruise, every one of them was squeezed out!), calendars, cups, T-shirts and the like. We bought a lovely Russian Faberge egg necklace at the ship's shop.
I worked out in the gym. You cannot earn "Ship Shape Bucks" by working out, but I did snag one for doing the Mile Walk around the ship. Four laps equals one mile. (I was hell-bent to accumulate enough bucks for a T-shirt. As it turned out, with the Spinning classes that I took and Greg giving me his Mile Walk bucks, I managed to score a plastic RCL backpack, glory be.)
That first day was the only day it was really cold. I foolishly did the walk in only a jog bra and bike shorts while Greg wisely wore a parka. I ended up wearing two towels as a poncho. (RCL has stacks of beach towels for the taking, unlike Carnival, which makes passengers sign for each and every towel.) The weather throughout the trip was warmish, in the 60's and 70's. Even the day at Hubbard Glacier was pleasant. I rarely needed more than my windbreaker and fleece vest.
After the Mile Walk, we went to the indoor Jacuzzi, but only briefly because we were sailing the Grenville Channel and we wanted to watch it as it narrowed. It was very neat to see land so close to both sides of the ship. It was so close it looked like you could just about touch it.
On the top deck, people were excitedly scanning for bald eagles with binoculars. "Look at that white dot up there; it's a bald eagle" ! but we had no binoculars with us. We rushed to our cabin, but alas saw no bald eagles.
Having skipped lunch, we were starving. One unfortunate thing about the Vision is both the dining room and the Windjammer are closed between the hours of 4 pm and dinner. Other than waiting around for room service, the one and only choice is the Solarium where the fare is very limited: hamburgers, hot dogs and personal pizzas. My choice is the latter. The pizzas are hot and tasty, although one has to wait a while to have them heated up.
I would have loved a place to get fresh fruit and things like cottage cheese or pudding between meals, but it was not available. Not even ice cream was available.
This was the first formal night. Greg wore his tux and I wore a long black skirt and camisole with a matching black and white jacket. I also wore my new Faberge egg purchased from the ship's shop, an early anniversary gift. We had our formal photograph taken at all four stations, as it increases the odds of getting a good photo! We also took a couple of amateur shots outside on the deck after drafting fellow passengers as photographers.
We went o the Captain's cocktail party for about ten seconds, just to grab a glass of champagne. It was so crowded it was ridiculous, plus the timing conflicted with the time to take formal photos. The place was so mobbed that we couldn't even see the stage where the ship officials were speaking.
Dinner time. The lobster bisque was not good, nor was the oxtail soup (Walter at our table pronounced it "a decent beef broth".) Greg had escargot and despite his needling, I refused to touch that! The beef tenderloin was very moist (one of the few good beef dishes on this cruise). The asparagus was mushy, not crisp as I like it. Dessert was soufflé. I had to ask to have it warmed up. I also tried the cherry cheesecake, which was excellent, although Greg scoffed at it as not 'real' cheesecake.
Showtime, "Broadway Rhythm and Rhyme" performed by the Royal Caribbean Singers and Dancers, was at 10:45 p.m., the only time the show was after dinner. I fell asleep! It was a very average, ordinary show featuring various famous show tunes. The best was "All That Jazz" from "Chicago", which was well done with the singers behind barred grates simulating jail cells. The "West Side Story" rendition was so-so. The rest of the show was forgettable.
I found the ship's dancers and singers to be quite mediocre, which is surprising since RCL is reputed to have excellent entertainment. I found the OUTSIDE entertainers to be much better.
After the show ended, we high-tailed it to our cabin. We had to get up at 6 a.m. for our 7:30 a.m. Ketchikan excursion the next morning, the Misty Fjords Seaplane Adventure. Thank God that Alaska time is one hour earlier than Pacific Standard Time.
DAY 3, SUNDAY JULY 11, 2004 - Ketchikan
We overslept half an hour, waking at 6:30 a.m. The alarm went off at 6 but we just couldn't get up. We dressed and hurried to the Windjammer for breakfast. There was an INSANELY long line there, so we figured that the dining room would be quicker. Er, not exactly. I ordered oatmeal and eggs over easy; Greg ordered eggs benedict. I got the oatmeal promptly and polished it off. The eggs over easy and Greg's order never came. By 7:15 a.m. we had to leave because we needed to be on the pier by 7:20 for our 7:30 a.m. excursion.
The maitre-d' later told us that had we told him that we were in a hurry, he would have given us a two-person table with our own waiter. Oh well, live and learn.
We were the last to get on the bus for the Misty Fjords Seaplane trip. (Cost: $217 each, two hours.) The short bus ride through the damp town was narrated by the driver, a pleasant young woman named "Misty" (really) from Tacoma, WA. She said the town hires slews of workers for the summer and even houses them. She told us that the 14,000 permanent residents of Ketchikan work the tourist season of May-October and live off their earnings the rest of the year.
We arrived at Protech Aircraft and were split into groups. A young woman named Tanya from India joined us for a 4-person helicopter. (Tanya ended up with us on the Glacier Dogsled helicopter trip in Juneau as well.) Our pilot was a crusty fellow named "Steve" who gave me the impression that he wasn't really thrilled with his job - carting tourists about. Tanya's repeated requests for him to take photos of her didn't help things. We went up in the air after a short safety briefing. Unfortunately (and typically, I've learned) the weather was cloudy and it was hard to see things, but Steve gamely tried to give us a good view. The high point of the trip was landing on a lake and actually getting out! I gingerly crawled out of my rear seat and balanced on the runner of the plane. Wow, I was standing in the middle of a lake!
Tanya managed to mince her way to the back and let Greg sit in front for the return trip. We tipped Steve $5.
We were bused back to the dock, a very short ride. Then we had plenty of time to bum around the town. There were GOBS of souvenir/T-shirt shops; in every port we visited there were many shops selling the same stuff. I bought a pajama top-pant set for our 14-year-old daughter embellished with a glow-in-the-dark wolf, and a T-shirt for our 10-year-old son with the same wolf.
We went to the "red light district", Creek Street and visited "Dolly's House", a famous house of ill repute. The house thrived from 1919 until prostitution was made illegal in the late 1950's, and Dolly worked as a madam into her 70's. For $5 we received a self-guided tour through the carefully preserved rooms. It was fairly interesting, although in retrospect I think I would have liked a guided tour better (it wasn't available to us; I think those may have to be booked ahead of time and the ship didn't offer it). Then we took an elevator ride ($2) to the top of a mountain where there was a hotel complex and some totem poles.
It was now 12:30 p.m. so we headed back to the ship for lunch. We were starving since I had little breakfast and Greg had none! We ate in the Aquarius dining room, open seating. My hamburger was just so-so.
The ship was scheduled to sail at 2 p.m., so I perched on our balcony and watched the town fade away. Meanwhile, Greg took a nap, sleeping for three solid hours. At 3 p.m. I went to Some Enchanted Evening lounge to hear the on-board historian's lecture about Alaska statehood. Perhaps it was the dimmed lights, the historian's droning voice, the fact that I was tired, or all of the above, because I dozed through some of the lecture! The parts that I did hear were interesting, accompanied by a slide show. It was about the founding of Alaska, William Seward, the Stampeder Gold Rush in the 1890's, etc.
At 4 p.m. I had signed up for Spinning class at Vision Day Spa. Using the gym is free, but classes cost $10 each. (You must sign up ahead of time because there were only nine bikes. If you fail to show or cancel within a set time, you're charged anyway.) That class kicked my behind! The teacher, a petite, energetic woman named "Miwra" (phonetic spelling) kept exhorting us "You can do better than that"! I thought I was going to DIE when I gave it my 'all' when it was our side's turn to ride as fast as we could. At least the class was worth TWO ship shape dollars.
After class I managed to walk the mile and collect another ship shape dollar. Gotta earn that T-shirt. Dollar total to date: 5. (T-shirts cost 8.)
Back at the cabin, I woke up Greg and we went out to the balcony where the sun had at last managed to break out of the clouds. There we saw our first whale! We were so excited and he took photos with his telephoto lens.
The day's Cruise Compass announced that dress for the evening was "Casual/Country Western". Time for a gripe. There were two "themed" nights of which we were given absolutely no advance notice, County Western and 50's. We scrounged in our wardrobes for appropriate clothing, mainly coming up with jeans, denim shirts, and for C.W. night I copied the Purser's staff by tying my workout bandana around my neck bandito-style. If we had been notified in advance (before we left!) we could have packed things like saddle shoes (which I happen to own) or cowboy boots (ditto). The ship advises passengers of the number of formal nights; why not let us know about the themed nights?
Our show at the Masquerade Theater was at 7 p.m. We found abundant empty seats despite arriving 15 minutes late (we had our portrait taken again). (This was not true for the 9 p.m. show. When I took a peek, every seat appeared to be taken. There must have been many no-shows for the 7 p.m.) We regretted turning up late, because the singer was EXCELLENT. Her name was Michelle Murlin, and her rendition of "Midnight" from Cats was one of the most haunting renditions I've ever heard. We purchased her CD after the show.
Following Michelle was a comedy ventriloquist named Brad Cummings. He was absolutely hilarious. Since we were sitting up front dead center, he used both Greg and me in his show, but the main audience contributor was a hapless fellow sitting to our left named "Nick". He put on a stellar performance as the ventriloquist's dummy.
Then it was off to dinner. We ALWAYS had dinner at the Aquarius dining room. I don't understand why anyone would trade a 5-star dining experience where they wait on you hand and foot for the mundane self-service buffet in the Windjammer. Dinner is a highlight of the cruise, in my opinion. Plus we looked forward to spending time with our tablemates at Table 102. They were all so very entertaining! (By Day 3 *no* subject was taboo for our table!)
Tonight's dinner was Italian themed, punctuated by whale sightings out the window. In summer in Alaska, it stays light until 11:30 p.m., so we had plenty of daylight even during 2nd seating dinner. When someone saw a whale, the entire dining room would abandon their tables and rush to the windows. I felt bad for the wait staff that worked hard to get hot food to their guests, only to have the table emptied in favor of the whales.
We hit the casino after dinner. Greg won $137 at the slots and $35 at blackjack. I lost $30, adding to my previous losses.
DAY 4, MONDAY JULY 12, 2004 - Skagway
We arose at 8:10 a.m. and headed to breakfast at the Aquarius. Service was excruciatingly slow, but at least this time we didn't have to be on the pier until 10:15 a.m.
The Port of Skagway is currently the number three cruise port in the State of Alaska by number of cruise ship passengers, behind Juneau and Ketchikan. There were several other ships at the dock by the time we arrived, including the mammoth Celebrity ship Summit. (We were jealous: they had hot chocolate and orange juice for their passengers at their gangway!)
When you arrive at the port, you see on the cliff face adjacent to the pier many painted rocks with the 'graffiti' of various ships' names and logos complete with dates. In essence, it's a painted rock "guestbook". RCL's logo was predominately displayed along with Celebrity's, Commodore's, Carnival's, etc.
We had signed up for two tours at this port. A note about the tours: we were given the opportunity to sign up ahead of time on the Internet. It was a daunting task because there were so MANY choices in the four ports. But I urge you to do so. Those who waited to sign up on the ship were met with two things: (1) ENORMOUS long lines at the Shore Excursions desk, and (2) sold-out popular tours. Regarding the sold-out part, the operators seemed to be able to add tours to accommodate people, but there were still long lines to contend with at the Shore Excursions desk.
I did my homework about the tours via the Internet and guidebooks, plus asked some friends who had taken Alaskan cruises. All in all, we were happy with our choices. Yes, you can probably get the same or similar tours cheaper at the Ports, but it's a hassle to coordinate timing and you don't get the guarantee from the ship that they won't leave without you. Usually it's not an issue but there was one tour that did not get back until shortly before the ship sailed; I would hate to have to worry about being left behind!
Our first tour in Skagway was "Ghosts & Goodtime Girls: Historical Walking Tour" ($39 for two hours). The gimmick of this tour is the tour guide: a young woman decked out in black and red Victorian-era "hooker" garb. Her purse was in the form of a black leather corset. Our guide was very entertaining and engaging, teaching us on the brief bus ride to town how hookers and pimps arrive at their stage names: combine the name of your childhood pet and the street you grew up on. Mine was Aristotle Stoakes. Good name for a pimp! A couple other names were Fluffy Harrison and Snowball Thunderbird.
Our guide took us on a walking trip throughout town, explaining it from the point of view of a young woman who made her living "entertaining" men in this tough-scrabble town. We learned about the origin of the words "hooker" and "red light district". The tour ended at the Red Onion Hotel, the site of the town's brothel, which is preserved upstairs as a museum. We were served a drink (we had diet coke) and given a short guided tour of the brothel.
Was the cost worth it? Yes and no. We learned that the U.S. Park Service gives a historical walking tour for free, and that the U.S. Park Service trained our guide! However, the Goodtime Girls give a fun twist to the talk, and our guide was very pretty and my husband enjoyed flirting with her. The "Ghost" part was a bit lacking; all we heard about ghosts was that a small cabin on the tour route was supposedly haunted.
A word of advice for Skagway: bring (and wear!) insect repellant. We foolishly left ours behind in the cabin, and those critters buzzed around us as the weather warmed up. I didn't get bitten, but I slapped at many of them landing on my skin.
The tour ended at 11:30 a.m. We walked through the tiny town (just a couple of blocks) and stopped at the Alaska T-shirt Company, which was really crowded and featured the surliest salespeople in Alaska. (The young male clerk grabbed my money and tossed my bag at me with nary a word.) We had about an hour and half before our second tour, "White Pass Scenic Railway", so we hiked back to the ship for a quick bite to eat in the Windjammer and to dump our jackets and excess baggage.
Then it was time for the railroad trip ($98 for 3 ½ hours). This was TERRIFIC and I cannot recommend it highly enough. Known as the "scenic railway of the world", the railroad was built in 1898 during the Klondike Gold Rush. The narrow gauge railroad follows a 20-mile path that the stampeders took on foot and mule in order to hunt for gold. Instead of sitting in comfortable plush vintage railroad cars like us, they had to lug 1,000 pounds of supplies, making many trips which took many weeks. (At 40 pounds per trip, that meant SIXTY round trips back and forth over the rugged, uneven, mountainous terrain in arctic conditions, not the balmy summer weather we enjoyed.) How they did this is beyond me. We saw the remains of White Pass Trail. Dead Horse Gulch is aptly named - that's where the unfortunate pack animals, exhausted, overworked and overloaded, collapsed and tumbled to their deaths down the steep mountain.
The scenery was breathtaking, despite somewhat cloudy conditions. I stood on the platform quite a bit to take photographs. The trip was somewhat marred by a noisy, boisterous trio of "20-something" males in our car and a crying baby at the end, but even with those irritants it remains a highlight of our trip.
After returning to the ship, we had to hurriedly shower and dress for dinner. Alas, we missed the 7 p.m. show for Second Seating passengers, a comedian-magician. (We heard mixed reviews from passengers who attended.)
Dinner was fun as always with our wonderful tablemates. Afterwards we went to the casino, although by then I could barely keep my eyes open. After losing $20 at blackjack and $15 at video poker, I called it a night. Greg managed to win $100 at blackjack.
DAY 5, TUESDAY JULY 13, 2004 - Juneau
Awoke at 8 a.m. Hurried to the Aquarius for breakfast where again, service was slow, but this time we were actually fed in time.
Met our bus on the pier at 9:50 a.m for our excursion: "Glacier Dogsled Adventure via Helicopter" ($419 each, 3 hours, 15 minutes.) The bus took us to Temsco Helicopters Inc., the tour provider. This package was very pricey and I balked at first, but Greg talked me into it, arguing that it was the opportunity of a lifetime. It turned out to be well worth it. Our weights were noted to ensure balance in the helicopters. The disclaimer that Temsco makes participants sign on the bus ride over is ridiculous - it's full of things like signing away any right to litigate anything, including their negligence or even willful actions! I took Torts in law school 23 years ago, but I know that it's not worth the paper it's written on. One of the guides said it was from their parent company, an oil company. Obviously an overzealous legal department wrote it.
But of course we signed it. At the Temsco site, we were issued booties that fit over our shoes and herded outside to the helicopters. We were put into a group that included our next-door neighbors on the ship, a grandma and her two grandkids, and Tanya from India. Then we were introduced to our pilot, a pleasant man named Steve (I think that ALL pilots in Alaska must be named Steve; at least this one wasn't surly like the other Steve). We climbed aboard, put on headsets, and set off to the glaciers.
Steve narrated as we gaped at the unworldly beauty of the glaciers. I had no idea they looked like this, with deep ridges called "crevasses". We saw blue ice, a natural phenomenon. The view was breathtaking despite cloudy conditions and smoke from a wild fire in Canada. Steve kept saying, 'Here's another Kodak moment!"
Eventually we landed on top of Norris Glacier where the Dog Camp was set up. Dozens of dog houses ("Dogloos") dotted the mountaintop. Beyond them were white canvas tents where the crew lived. Our guide was Greta Smith, a very nice 23-year-old Alaska native who obviously loves her job. We received a safety briefing about the sleds, a photo op (Greta gladly took photos for the three of us, Greg, Tanya and me) and then we set off on the sleds. Greg and I were on one sled and Greta and Tanya had the other.
Greg and I took turns sitting and guiding. I liked sitting in the sled a lot more than guiding it. While guiding, I managed to lose both my map and water bottle as we sped along. Tip: don't carry anything loose in your pockets!
After about half an hour of sledding, we stopped and were allowed to meet and pet the sweaty dogs. Some were Iditarod champs and quite a few were older dogs. One was 11 years old. Greta is training for the 2005 Iditarod, a grueling 1,112-mile marathon race from Anchorage to Nome. She gave us a slip with her website addie on it. (http://www.greta-smith.com/) She told us that the crew stays 10 days on the mountain and then gets two days off in Juneau, where they shower and mostly drink at the pubs. She said that they could shower on the mountain as she did that morning, using heated snow, but most don't bother, as it's a hassle. She can't stand going that long without a shower.
Steve returned with the next helicopter full of tourists and took us away. The return flight was much briefer, a pity since I finally got a front seat! The best "Kodak Moment" was a black bear on the mountain, a tiny black dot that Greg saw but I managed to miss.
Back at Temsco's building we returned our overshoes, claimed our luggage (no room for backpacks and such on the copters, plus they weigh too much) and decided to give a miss to the $14 snapshot that the crew took of us. (It was just a 3 x 5 face shot squinting into the sun against a stock backdrop of glacier and dogs). We were bused back to town where we wandered for a couple of hours in the shops. At the Red Dog Saloon we saw Wyatt Earp's pistol on the wall, but cleared out of there quickly as the place was packed and noisy.
Sights on the walk back to the dock included the USS Juneau Memorial, Coal Miners Memorial and a statue of Patsy Ann, the bull terrier who greeted ships in the 30's and 40's.
Back on the ship, we showered and went to the evening show. We were late, but we didn't seem to have missed much - it was the ship's dancers and singers again, doing 70's revue, "Boogie Wonderland". It was purely so-so with lots of loud music, psychedelic colors and BAD wigs. The theme for the evening was "Smart Casual/50's-60's". Basically I wore the same thing that I did on Country Western Night, blue jeans and denim shirt.
Dinner was just so-so. I didn't like the choices given, so I had Pasta Primavera. The dessert was baked Alaska which was very good although it was served without fanfare, i.e. no flaming.
To the casino after dinner where I lost $50 in a few minutes on slots and video poker and Greg lost his $100 winnings from the night before on blackjack. I left the casino and spent a pleasant 45 minutes in the Schooner Bar with our tablemates Daphne and Walter and Linda and Caroline and Kim. (Kim's husband, Humberto, was sitting at the blackjack table with Greg in the casino.) Then we went to the 8th deck where I finally saw our "wealthy" tablemates' higher-class Junior Suite cabins. They were slightly bigger than ours on the 7th deck with bathtubs, but that's about it; it's not worth the extra $500 per person to me!
I also hit the ship's stores. Obviously the ship went shopping in Juneau. There were tons of nesting dolls for sale, and on the '50 percent off' table was a pile of soldier caps studded with Russian patches and pins. They were only $10 with the half-price offer, so I grabbed one for Greg. He loved it.
DAY 6, WEDNESDAY JULY 14, 2004 - Icy Strait
Today we slept in until 10:30 a.m. Unfortunately, I woke up with a runny nose and itchy throat. I had managed to catch a cold, which would plague me the rest of the trip. We breakfasted at the Windjammer, catching the tail end of "Late Riser Breakfast" which ended at 11:15 a.m. Luckily Greg snagged me the last omelet available. I had lagged behind due to a clogged stateroom toilet. (It turned out that the entire floor had trouble; someone put something into the toilet that should not have been placed there.)
I did not have the foresight to bring cold medication along, only Excedrin and sinus tablets. Although the shops were closed (we were at sea), the medical clinic was open and I high-tailed it there to buy cold meds ($9.00). Unfortunately it was not the non-drowsy type and I felt a little woozy after taking it, but it helped. (Note to self: NEXT cruise bring non-drowsy cold meds with us.)
We did not sign up ahead of time for excursions in Icy Strait as none seemed appealing. We had planned to take the tender into town, but I felt so lousy that we decided to skip it. By 3 p.m. I was still in my jammie pants. Actually, it felt nice to "veg" after all the frenetic non-stop activity of the past three days. (I end up wishing for "sea days" in-between port days because you finally get to relax.)
We went to the Internet Café because we each had ten free minutes with our Crown & Anchor coupon book for repeat cruisers. The Internet connection was VERY slow. I managed to write a short letter to my family, running overtime by nine minutes due to the sluggish connection. We went to the Purser to turn in our coupons as required, and the clerk was very kind and gave us full credit after we mentioned how slow the connection was. She even let us keep our coupons, although we never did use them again. One thing about the Pursers -- they were much nicer and friendlier than Carnival's had been on the Elation last year. I found those pursers positively surly. RCL's are terrific.
At 4 p.m. we went to the Windjammer for some sandwiches and dessert (weight gain, here I come) and then did the 1-mile walk. With Greg's ship shape buck, I was up to seven, one shy of the T-shirt. At the tail end of our walk, Captain George's voice came on the Intercom: whales had been spotted and he planned to stop the ship at about 6:30 p.m. for us to observe them. True to his word, the whales were there, just about 6:30! (How did he know?) I was just getting out of the shower, in preparation for the second formal night. I hurriedly dressed and joined Greg on the balcony where he was scanning with binoculars. We saw a pod of whales very close to the ship. Once I actually saw a whale's face. Generally they showed backs and dorsal fins. The whale show was so good that several people later commented that they wished they hadn't paid for whale-watching excursions: this was better, and free!
Whale watching made us late for the show: Hal Frazier, a singer. He delivered some funny jokes about eating: "You're here to eat.eat and get fat.you paid for it..don't leave anything on the ship.don't leave anything for the next passengers..let them get their own!" (Okay, maybe you had to be there!)
Final formal dinner. Afterwards some LOSING gambling in the casino, and then I pushed and shoved my way into the Midnight Buffet to photograph it. There were spectacular sculptures of ice, butter, cheese, chocolate, etc. I had no interest in actually EATING at the buffet because I was STUFFED from dinner, but I was glad that I got to see it. Finally, to the Schooner Bar to meet up with our tablemates - at the end, all 8 of us were there - and then to bed.
Tomorrow, the much awaited and anticipated Hubbard Glacier!
DAY 7, THURSDAY JULY 15, 2004 - Hubbard Glacier
The cruise itinerary advertised "Hubbard Glacier, 7-11 a.m." Accordingly, we rose at 7 a.m. and rushed to our balcony, where we realized we were on the wrong side of the ship. So we got dressed and went on deck to join scores of other passengers gazing at the beautiful sight of the craggy, famous glacier. It was shorter and much wider than I expected.
We were not very close up, so binoculars were helpful. We were able to faintly hear in the distance the sound of ice breaking off and crashing into the sea (not enormous chunks as we would later see on the IMAX film 'The Alaska Experience' in Anchorage, but smallish chunks).
A Holland-American ship, the Ryndam, was also at the glacier, much closer than we were. We hovered for a short while, circling the area. Around 8:15 a.m. I suggested that we get some breakfast. So we proceeded to the Aquarius dining room. The side that they were seating was away from the glacier, but that changed midway through breakfast when the ship turned.
We left the dining room an hour later, and were dismayed to see that the ship was rapidly LEAVING the Hubbard Glacier behind. Meanwhile, the Ryndam was right UP to it. We went to our cabin, where I called the Purser's desk to inquire why we were leaving so soon when the itinerary stated that we would be there until 11 a.m.
"Oh, the Captain is just re-positioning the ship - we're not leaving yet," I was told.
NOT TRUE! We were indeed leaving. I watched from our balcony as the Glacier disappeared from view. How I envied the Ryndam's passengers who got to stay. We regretted having gone to breakfast, because we lost out on seeing much of the Glacier.
The extremely brief viewing of the Glacier was a letdown, as the sight was the most breathtaking of the entire cruise. We wrote about this concern on our guest comment card at the end of the cruise.
The rest of the day was laid back. We both did the Mile Walk, me once again pocketing Greg's ship shape dollar, and again did the Spinning class.
The show that evening was Ralph Achilles, a comedian. I remember that he was funny, but not having taken notes at the time, I can't remember anything about it a month and half later as I write this!
Our last dinnertime came. I was sad, knowing that I would probably never again see the tablemates whom we so enjoyed. We celebrated Kim and Humberto's 4th anniversary. Linda and Caroline had managed to buy a card somewhere in port and even had a gift-wrapped gift - the wrapping was either napkins or toilet paper, and duct tape (Linda told us that she always travels with "flat pack" duct tape). Inside was one of those really cool Alaska photo albums with the tooled map on the cover. (I later bought an identical one in Seward.)
For our part, we teamed up with Daphne and Walter and bought a bottle of champagne for the table in honor of the anniversary couple. It was pricey ($28) but very good. I had beef tenderloin, which was pretty good, not exceptional. Then came the passing out of tip envelopes. Sheryl and Richard had really earned theirs and I felt good about giving it to them.
After dinner, the UN-fun task of PACKING. We had been granted a reprieve time-wise; it turned out that the ship had bent a propeller blade that day and according to Captain George's announcement, we were proceeding on one propeller only, slowing us down. (The blade may have bent at the Hubbard Glacier.) Thus we would arrive in Seward the next day at around 10 a.m. rather than 5 a.m. The reprieve came in two forms: a longer time to put out our luggage (midnight rather than 10:45 p.m.) and the ability to sleep in later (breakfast was extended to 9 a.m. in the dining room).
The downside was missed flights for those who had 3 p.m. or earlier flights from the Anchorage Airport. They were to be re-booked and possibly put up at Anchorage hotels for the night.
DAY 8, FRIDAY JULY 16, 2004 - Disembarkment and Cruise Tour to Alyeska
Awoke at 8 a.m. Went to breakfast, our last meal aboard the Vision of the Seas. Then we cleared out of our cabin by the 9 a.m. requested deadline. Then we began a long, boring waiting game that dragged on to 1 p.m.
On Thursday, the ship's TV channel broadcast locations for various color tags to wait for their turn at disembarkment. Nobody paid the slightest attention to those assignments. Our location was to be the Some Enchanted Evening lounge on Deck 6. When we arrived, there was no one there. We hung around in the adjacent Schooner Bar until the smoke got to me and then left, looking for a place to perch.
I had noticed one other "Yellow 8" couple at the sofa area near the Purser on Deck 5, but there was nowhere to sit. So we sat a bit further back on Deck 5, and then wandered to the Masquerade Theater where the PA system was urging people to go. "Family Films" was listed in the Cruise Compass, which turned out to be a continuous loop of old "Mayberry RFD" and "Lucy Show" episodes. By the third loop, we couldn't stand the repetition and got up and left.
To while away the ENDLESS time, we played Scrabble on our portable game and called our son in Illinois. (Far from being homesick, he seemed irritated to be bothered by us!) FINALLY, after an eternity, our color was called. We had waited four hours. (There was no place to get anything to eat or drink, other than water. How cruel to do to passengers used to eating non-stop, ha.)
Once off the ship, we found our Cruise Tour bus and began Day 1 of the 2-day Cruise Tour provided by "Royal Celebrity Tours" (the tour serves passengers of both Celebrity and RCL lines, which are owned by the same company; ergo the name). Our guide was a bubbly young lady named Casey who confessed that we were her very first group on this tour, although she had led tours at Denali and Glacier Park. What she lacked in experience, she made up in enthusiasm. Wade, our driver, had done this tour several times. His serene, self-assured manner was quite reassuring.
First stop: Alaska Sea Life Center in Seward. It was interesting, albeit small. It doesn't hold a candle to the Long Beach (Ca.) Aquarium, but then again it's not supposed to; it's a rescue organization for injured and/or orphaned sea critters.
After touring the museum, we had free time in Seward to shop and get some lunch. Seward has ONE shopping street, full off gift shops with the usual fare that we'd seen at Ketchikan, Juneau and Skagway: pooping moose/eagles/bears, T-shirts, fleece vests, etc. When we asked one shopkeeper for cold medicine, he motioned to an aisle containing one-dose packets of Day Quil. He told us to go across the street for a bigger box. When I mentioned this to the clerk at the competing store, she said, "We all cooperate with each other." I guess they have to, in such a small town.
Lunch was a hurried affair because we had little time left. I had a BLT and Greg had halibut to go at a little restaurant, rather pricey at $17. We ate on the bus.
We headed to Alyeska. The scenery was gorgeous and Casey narrated. We made a "bonus" stop (not on the itinerary handed out) at a wildlife refuge center (lots of refuge centers in Alaska!). I got to pet a moose. Our final destination was the Alyeska Prince Hotel in Girdwood, which was just "all right" - there was no air conditioning, so we sweltered, and a huge wall covering half the window blocked our view.
We spent the late afternoon hiking Mount Alyeska and ate at the Seven Glaciers restaurant, something Greg had wanted to do. It was a miracle that we got in - someone had canceled a reservation. It was expensive but worth it.
DAY 9, SATURDAY JULY 17, 2004 - Anchorage
We departed the Alyeska Prince at 10 a.m., bound for Anchorage. It's really true that this route has the most beautiful scenery in the world. I envy commuters on the route from Girdwood to Anchorage - what breathtaking beauty they get to see every single day!
The Anchorage Marriott was our accommodation in Anchorage, and it beat the Alyeska Prince by a country mile. For one thing, we got a 12th story room with a gorgeous view of the water and Mt McKinley in the distance (which we couldn't see due to cloud cover, but we could see other mountains). Plus we got an upgraded room with a super comfy fluffy mattress. When I mentioned all this to the desk clerk, she told me, "Celebrity [meaning Royal Celebrity Tours] pays more for their passengers so they get the nice views and premium rooms. Holland-American pays less, so they get the lower floors."
Ha! That ALMOST compensated for Holland-American getting so close to the Hubbard when we were far away and left so blankety-blank early.
The only drawback was receiving two full-size beds rather than a King, but we weren't about to complain and get sent to a lower floor with a non-premium room. So we had to sleep separately for one night.
We had two activities in Anchorage: the Saturday market and the Alaska Heritage Center. The Saturday Market is a huge flea market, selling the usual swap meet fare along with unique things such as antler carvings (we bought a horny toad-bearded dragon set for our son). We also bought some excellent hand-tooled leather belts. A very funny sight at the Market was a longhaired dachshund hooked up to a 'dog sled' carrying a cage full of ferrets.
The Alaska Heritage Center was very interesting. First we watched a native dance where a 2-year-old boy stole the show. Then our native guide, a very self-assured young woman of 19, took us from station to station and explained the lifestyles of the various native groups in Alaska. We learned that 'Eskimo' was an insult (it means meat-eater) and nobody identified himself or herself as such. Unfortunately the time allotted to the Heritage Center, an hour and 45 minutes, was inadequate for us to see all the stations and listen to all the oral history.
We had free time in the afternoon and evening. I had Alaskan salmon for the first time (it was superb) and saw an IMAX film on Alaska and the earthquake that devastated the area in the 1960's. Then we returned to our premium room for our final night in Alaska. The next day Royal Celebrity shuttled us to the airport (they are on time and very efficient at handling luggage) and we flew home.
OVERALL IMPRESSIONS OF THIS CRUISE AND CRUISE TOUR:
THE SHIP: It was smallish compared to the Carnival ships and even the Majesty of the Seas (which had a full-size movie theater). However, this was a distinct advantage: it was easier to navigate one's way around. I often got lost on those Carnival behemoths. The Vision thoughtfully has a model of the ship in the center of each floor showing where everything is located; I used that map often. The ship rarely felt crowded. Traffic is kept flowing very well. On Carnival, we often found ourselves in big crowds (for the dining room, to disembark.. there were always horrid lines on the stairwells leading to the gangway). I think this may be due to the cabin sizes: Carnival makes much of their bigger cabins, BUT they make up for it by downsizing the public areas. Thus one is squashed in the public areas which one spends much more time in, than one's cabin.
The Vision has a rock-climbing wall. I passed it many times while doing the Mile Walk and it seemed well attended mostly by young people. I never partook of it.
As for young people, there weren't that many, and the ones who were behaved themselves. RCL seems to cater more to older folks (I guess we're in that category, pushing 50, LOL) and the Alaska itinerary may be less enticing for kids. On Carnival, particularly to the Mexican Riviera, we were constantly tripping over kids. Some bored pre-teens amused themselves by pushing all the buttons of the elevators and going up and down, up and down. That didn't happen on the Vision.
Since we did not bring our kids on this cruise, we sure didn't want to be annoyed by other people's kids. And we weren't.
THE FOOD: Overall it was good. Some dishes were excellent and others were just so-so. RCL most DEFINITELY needs a wider selection of snacks between meals, not just pizza-hot dogs-hamburgers. Fresh fruit, yogurt, and ice cream would be marvelous. Several passengers complained about the lack of ice cream (the soft serve stuff) except at very limited times. Also, I wasn't able to get hot chocolate at the Windjammer in the afternoon except one time, because a worker sneaked it to me. Some people don't like coffee or tea all the time.
SERVICE: Our wait staff at dinner was top notch. I have no complaints at all. They knew our names after the first night. They were efficient and pleasant. Sheryl was SO much better than the cranky waiter we had on our last cruise (Carnival Elation), who acted like it was an imposition to be asked for anything. Richard, our assistant waiter, was ALWAYS in a good mood. RCL gives their waiters fewer tables to work than Carnival, which definitely makes a difference in the quality of service one receives. The staff at other meals, particularly breakfast, wasn't as good - perhaps because they're not working for big tips at the end of the cruise like the dinner staff.
Our cabin was kept very clean and serviced, and our pair of stewards was creative in piling pillows in geometric shapes on the bed. We left our ceiling towel monkey up for two nights (although it did rather resemble a plucked chicken!)
OTHER: I enjoyed this cruise immensely. I would definitely cruise with RCL again, although I would go with Carnival again as well. Carnival had better entertainment. The food was equally good on both ships. The ambience is better at RCL, with fewer kids and easier moving around the ship. For kids, Carnival is probably the better choice due to more variety of entertainment and the teen lounges. For kid less adults, I'd recommend RCL.
WHAT TO BRING: Clothes pins to hold down the shower curtain and hang up your drip-drys. An alarm clock is a MUST. There is no clock in the cabin. There's a wake-up call system but we didn't bother with it since we had clocks. A hair dryer was provided so we didn't have to bring one (not even nailed down, believe it or not; I wonder if they have trouble with theft). A safe is provided which is also nice. Bring cash for tips; we opted-out of the automatic tipping. Bring stamps for your postcards. Be sure to bring binoculars.
My email for questions or comments: firstname.lastname@example.org