My theory as a repeat Alaska visitor is that you could cruise the 49th state on a tugboat and still find your visit awe-inspiring -- the scenery is that beautiful, the experience of the Last Frontier that enlightening. And nothing I have seen on earth is as thunderously impressive as a glacier calving.
Carnival Spirit, the ship I sailed on in early June, is by no means a tugboat. Far from it, in fact -- it comes with all the contemporary features and amenities that you'd expect from Carnival Cruise, the company that calls its vessels "Fun Ships." The 88,000-ton, 2,124-passenger Carnival Spirit looks just like what you'd expect from Carnival -- a mishmash decor featuring styles that range from Egyptian to Louis XIV to Art Nouveau -- whose ultimate effect is over-the-top glitzy (some would say gaudy).
Perhaps in deference to the majestic wilderness outside, this was a different kind of Carnival experience. On our seven-night Inside Passage cruise, which began in Whittier and sailed south to Sitka, Juneau, Skagway and Ketchikan before finishing up in Vancouver, the crowd was older than usual (I was one of the younger ones in my 40's; most were middle-aged and beyond). In Carnival Capers, the ship's daily program, it was surprising to see that Carnival's usually hyper agenda of activities was quite low-key; on sea days, passengers tended to be more interested in listening to the onboard naturalist point out wildlife spottings.
Ultimately, Carnival Spirit offered a pleasing blend of experiences. If you booked excursions that took you beyond the touristy port cities, you got a contrast of rugged and wild while in port. While onboard, Spirit was a most comfortable place to call home -- where the fresh Alaskan salmon in the dining room was superb, the jazz at the lovely Deco Bar was quite entertaining and the spa offered all the pampering you could ask for. Most important, on our cruise on Carnival Spirit we saw what we'd come all this way to see -- and that was Alaska.
The first lesson to learn: In Alaska, a private balcony is worth the splurge. As the ship glided in the early morning through College Fjord and right up to Harvard Glacier at the fjord's foot, we threw coats on top of our bathrobes, put on gloves, took seats on our balcony and watched nature's show, as the glacier calved every few minutes (more active than usual, lucky for us). The sound of the ice falling into the ocean was like minor explosions. As the ship moved back through the fjord, the onboard naturalist pointed out additional glaciers as well as a bald eagle, sea otters and harbor seals.
It was a perfect way to start the trip -- particularly since "getting there" (which in our case required a flight from Boston to Anchorage and then a 90-minute bus ride to Whittier, the ship's embarkation port) meant that yesterday was a long and exhausting travel day. After the morning's natural highlights, we took it easy, wandering through Spirit's packed casino and shops, lingering over lattes in the comfy seating near the coffee shop, and enjoying a leisurely lunch from the Taste of the Nation section of the Lido buffet (the featured cuisine of the day was Japanese, complete with sushi). Just feeling the beginning effects of jet lag -- and noting a bit of motion on the ship's part -- we bypassed the cruise's first formal night and the Captain's free cocktail reception and foraged for our own supper: delicious bowls of pasta puttanesca from the Seaview Bistro, the ship's lido buffet.
A helpful hint: While traveling to Sitka -- the only time you sail on the open Pacific on Inside Passage itineraries -- the ocean very often can be rough. Make sure to pack (and then take) your seasickness remedy of choice.
First Call: Sitka
The highlight of the small city of Sitka is its distinctive Russian and Native American (Tlingit) history. Russian trader Alexander Baranoff landed here in 1799 and established a fort in what became known as New Archangel. Other influences are still very prevalent, too, most notably at St. Michael's Russian Orthodox Church and via the totem poles displayed in several places, including the Sitka National Historical Park.
Sitka was actually Alaska's capital until 1900, when it was moved to Juneau. On this visit, we decided to combine a walk with some shopping. First stop: Sitka Rose Gallery, my favorite local arts and crafts shop in Alaska (who can pass up antique walrus tusk earrings for $29?). Another highlight was a visit to the Sheldon Jackson Aquarium to pick up and examine local anemones and giant colored starfish.
Back onboard, dinner in the two-story Empire Dining Room (a curious interpretation of early-19th-century French style) was a letdown as the two of us were seated at an otherwise empty table for eight (where was the maitre d'?). Afterward, though, the Deco Cigar bar beckoned, and here we found a trio of jazz musicians joined by some of the ship's orchestra members playing their hearts out to a (for this cruise) youngish crowd.
Next ... Juneau
Juneau, fronted by the Gastineau Channel and backed by Mount Juneau and Mount Roberts, is the only state capital not accessible by car. It's also blessed with a big attraction, Mendenhall Glacier, located just a dozen miles from town. Every ship offers shore excursions here (the fancier ones combining the visit with a helicopter trip, salmon bake or floatplane ride). Instead, we boarded the "Mendenhall Glacier Express," a blue school bus that picks up folks right near our pier. The fare was $5 each way for the half-hour ride. On our driver's advice we hiked the glacier's sometimes strenuous 3 1/2-mile East Glacier Loop (there are several trails to choose from), which took about two hours and meandered through forests and past waterfalls. The route provided some clear views of the glacier from various angles.
Tonight, we treated ourselves to a three-hour dinner in the ship's reservations-only Nouveau Supper Club. For $30 per person (well worth it), we sampled lamb chops and filet mignon, and even splurged on the extra $29 required to order caviar.
We Got Gold-Rush Fever
The ironic appeal of Skagway is that its town is lined with historic 19th-century buildings built during the Gold Rush, which are very atmospheric -- but are filled with touristy shops like Diamonds International and even Starbucks. My advice: Get the shopping out of your system if you must, but then get out of town! We opted for the White Pass Rail & Bike Adventure tour. It starts with a ride on the 1900 narrow-gauge White Pass railroad, with scenery that includes steep cliffs and rugged surroundings. It's hard to imagine that the very same landscape was crossed by foot, horse and mule by stampeders in the 1898 Gold Rush. We got off the train at Fraser, in Canada's British Columbia, about 27 miles from Skagway, and then hopped on mountain bikes. The ride, mostly downhill, was exhilarating.
I used to think Ketchikan was quaint. But now it's home to 50 jewelry stores and dozens of what the locals call "trinket shops" catering to cruise ship passengers. Most of the stores aren't even owned by locals anymore. So we took the Tatoosh Island Sea Kayaking shore excursion, which thankfully led us to a small island chain, part of the Tongass National Forest, inhabited not by people but by wildlife (we spotted more than a dozen bald eagles).
Before dinner we joined a big crowd for a 7:30 p.m. show by comedian Tom McGillan, who we thought was more cheesy and offensive than funny (he does a lot of midget jokes like "Wouldn't you hate to be a midget in Ireland with everyone looking to you for a pot of gold?"). More entertaining was the guest talent show, in the theater at 10:30 p.m. A little old lady with her shaky voice but twinkle-in-her-eye confidence stole our hearts singing "Second Hand Rose."
Fresh king salmon, steamed in pouches, was the featured dish in the dining room -- a nice way to bring a bit of our Alaska experience onboard.
Last Day, at Sea
After four port days in a row it was nice to have a break. But an Inside Passage "sea day" is hardly the same as one on an ocean -- there's too much yet to see! We passed glorious British Columbia scenery -- snow-capped mountains, forests, beaches, small isolated towns -- with commentary by the mellow-voiced naturalist. A few people (but not us) claimed they spotted killer whales.
We did make time for a side-by-side couples' massage, delivered in the Grecian-inspired Nautica Spa by two therapists. It was a lovely way to relax, and surprisingly there was no product pitch. Funny, but we haven't spent much time in either the spa or pool areas, both of which were generally crowd-free throughout the week, save for the covered pool (outdoor temperatures ranged from the high 40's to near 70). Onboard passengers really seemed more interested in being where the action was -- places like the casino, art auctions and bingo games.
At dinner we said goodbye to our tablemates, who, believe it or not, had already booked this very cruise next year! We joked that we'd see them again ... same time next year.
--by Fran Golden. Boston-based Golden, whose contributions to Cruise Critic include features, ship reviews and port profiles, is also co-author of Frommer's Alaska Cruises & Ports of Call.
Photos appear courtesy of Frank Flavin/ATIA.