OK, cross Alaska off our "bucket list". For this adventure we decided to sail aboard Carnival Spirit which sails r/t from Seattle and makes 5 ports of call in Alaska's "Inside Passage". The "Inside Passage" is located in Alaska's pan handle and, much to our surprise, is considered a rain forest. The operative word here is "rain" as in wet, damp weather which causes everything to be lush and green. We were told to expect rain and cool temperatures so we packed accordingly. Every day, but one, had rain with max temperatures around 50 degrees but we were ready and made the best of it.
Many who cruise to Alaska do what is referred to as a "Sea & Land" cruise which tacks 4-5 days of land touring onto the end of a one week cruise. In the interest of economy, we decided to do only the "Sea" portion and simply cruise the "Inside Passage".
Tracy Arm Fjord was to be our first stop on the cruise. Basically the ship wanders it's way thru the fjord which has a glacier inside of it. As often happens this time of year, Tracy Arm Fjord was clogged with ice so the captain decided to cruise an alternate nearby more open fjord. We ended up cruising the Endicott Arm Fjord and taking a peek at the Dawes Glacier. We had pre-arranged an excursion for this stop which involved having a small boat pick us up at the ship and take us closer to the glacier. We were surprised how far the ship went into the fjord but it still wasn't far enough to see the glacier. The small boat was the way to go for that up close peek at Dawes Glacier. I should mention that this was the one and only sunny day we had on the cruise which made for some spectacular images of the snow capped mountains that surrounded us.
Skagway was our second stop on the cruise and was as far north as we would travel. The ship arrived in port at 7am and didn't leave until 9pm, a rather long day. Skagway, we were told, has about 300 year round residents and takes on another 300 for the cruise ship season. In other words, it's survival depends on the cruise ships coming to town. Skagway has one grocery store, one gas station ($5/gallon) and 33 jewelry stores!! I was surprised to see THREE Diamonds International jewelry stores. Several people we met rented jeeps for the day and went off on their own but we signed up for the Dog Sled Discovery & Musher's Camp excursion. Getting to the camp involved riding in a van to the base of a mountain and then boarding a refurbished German military truck (UNIMOG). Once at the camp we boarded carts for a short ride followed by some time with the dogs and later visiting the puppies and hearing about the Iditarod. We found the dogs to be friendlier than expected and their smell was with us for the rest of the cruise. Of course there was plenty of time remaining to grab some lunch and check out the sights in Skagway. A hi-light for me was purchasing TWO ceramic coasters with Sarah Palin's picture on it for $1, wooohooo...
Juneau is Alaska's capital and, interesting enough, cannot be accessed directly by car. For this port, the ship arrived at 7am and departed by 3pm, a somewhat short day. We booked a Land & Sea Photo Safari excursion. Most of the time was spent on the sea portion of the safari where we boarded small boats and went out looking for whales. The boats were set up for photography in that they were low to the water and had windows that opened wide. We did get to see and photograph some humpback whales but it was pouring the entire time. Using a long lens thru a downpour made for some low contrast and less than sharp images but we did the best we could. Our guide had towels on hand for us to use to protect our cameras. I should mention that Kathy and I were comfortable because we came prepared with water repellant hiking shoes, rain pants, and rain jackets. The land portion of the safari was at the Mendenhall Glacier where we hiked a short trail then went out near the lake to check out the glacier. The rain continued but we got our pictures. We easily could have spent the entire time at the glacier taking pictures along the trails.
Ketchikan was a VERY short stop for us with the ship arriving at 7am and departing at 1pm. We decided to spend the time on one of the self guided walking tours. The downtown tour took us thru Creek Street but also went by The Deer Mountain Tribal Hatchery & Eagle Center as well as the nearby Totem Heritage Center. We bought a combination ticket and toured both. We never did find the totem pole park we had heard about.
Victoria BC turned out to be kind of a surprise stop for us. The ship made a short stop in Victoria to comply with some legal requirement to make at least one foreign port before returning to the USA. We arrived in Victoria at 7:30pm and were on our way at midnight. Our original intention was to simply walk around on the pier and capture some images of the ship. What we found were a bunch of CVS Cruise Victoria buses at $8/pp for the round trip to downtown Victoria. While we didn't have a lot of time, it was still worth the trip.
Carnival Spirit was our ship of choice for a couple reasons. 1) The lack of specialty restaurants means there is more interior space with comfortable seating to kick back and relax and 2) there is a lot more unobstructed railing along the upper decks for the photographers among us. We sailed previously on Carnival Miracle and Carnival Pride and found the major difference to be decor. Structurally all three ships were laid out the same. We originally booked an inside cabin because of the reduced cost but the afternoon before heading to Seattle we received a call from the "upgrade fairy" and accepted the reasonable cost for the move to a balcony. We just happened to be on our balcony when a school of dolphins swam by but the view from the upper decks couldn't be beat. We even saw whales while having lunch on the Lido deck but unfortunately they went by so fast we couldn't get a picture.
Summary: People have asked if we would do it again and the answer is simply YES. There is something else to see and do at every port we visited so going back again wouldn't be a problem. If we were to offer one negative it would be the lack of time in port especially Juneau, Ketchikan and Victoria. We're even wondering if next time for us might be a "land only" visit to Alaska. Basically fly between locations or possibly utilize the ferry boat system. Not sure it would be cheaper.
In hindsight, we are pleased with the decision to only do a "Sea" cruise instead of the highly touted "Sea & Land" because the money saved has allowed us to cruise often. Some have suggested that they would not cruise in May and would only consider late June or July. Admittedly, the weather could be better but prices are also higher. We felt the snow covered mountains were a sight to behold and suspect they wouldn't be as nice later in the summer.
Click here for the images... http://pasqualehome.com/Alaska_May2012/Alaska_May2012.htm