My wife and I (early 30s), her parents, and their friends cruised northbound from Vancouver to Anchorage on July 20th, 2012. Overall we had a fabulous time and there were only a couple of minor issues. It was my 17th cruise, my wife's 6th, and the first for everyone else.
We snagged a great deal on Priceline for the 4 star Westin Bayshore Hotel in Vancouver. We took the Skytrain from Vancouver airport, made one quick transfer, and we were at the hotel in about 25 minutes. A tip if you have a large party is to purchase Skytrain tickets at the 7-11 in the airport. A block of ten "two zone" tickets run about $3.25 each as opposed to the $8.75 they charge on the platform. The only negative is that you have to buy ten tickets, so either have a big group or plan to sell them to some other tourists on the platform. The hotel was in a great location steps from Stanley Park. There were also various shops, restaurants, and grocery stores within walking distance. The hotel was quiet and comfortable.
On the day of embarkation, we were all planning to walk to the ship, but there was a bit of rain. My wife and I walked (the rain stopped right when we started) while our bags traveled with everyone else in a taxi. It was only about a ten minute walk, and we had a nice surprise as we went right past the Olympic cauldron. We arrived early (around 11am), and we were on the ship in less than 30 minutes.
The ship is in fantastic shape - you'd never know it was over a decade old. Having sailed mostly larger ships (3,000 passengers plus), this was an equally enjoyable experience. What you lack in some missing/smaller facilities you make up for with less crowds. It is also easier to make friends since you run into the same people a little more often.
Our inside mid-ship room on the third deck was more than adequate for us. We don't spend much time in the room besides sleeping, so it was perfect for us. Everything was in great shape and we had all that we needed. We ordered room service most mornings just to have some drinks/snacks, and it was perfect. They called the room before delivering, which was nice.
We all thought the food was fantastic! I enjoyed both the main dining room and the Windjammer buffet. I also had a couple of dogs at the Boardwalk Dog House, which were good, and had many snacks at the Park Cafe. All were great. My father-in-law and his friend really enjoyed the dogs as well as the soft serve ice cream in the buffet! There were a few items in the dining room that weren't particularly hot, but most were perfect. For example, cherries jubilee was room temperature with melting ice cream. I can forgive a few occurrences like this since I realize they are serving several thousand meals a day.
Since we only had one full sea day, we spent a lot of time off the ship. Nonetheless, when we were on board there were plenty of activities to keep us entertained. I will say there were a couple sports court activities that I attended only to find out that no staff members were there to run the events. The kid in me tries to get in on any games available, so this was a minor disappointment, but not a huge deal. We did at least one trivia each day, and it was a blast (although we never won). "Cash King" Kinsey is the best trivia host ever!
We really enjoyed the evening entertainment as well. The singer and dancer shows were as expected - good, but not our favorite shows. They had a piano player one night who was remarkably talented and entertaining. They also had a magician who was excellent and very funny. The comedian did 15 minutes the first night and was good. He also did a late night show the last night that we didn't see. One hour of work in a week? Sign me up! The Beatles tribute show was great as well.
Service was outstanding and the best I remember in both the dining room and stateroom. Our dining staff was excellent, lead by Diogo. He not only did his job professionally and with great care, but he was also very friendly and entertaining. He presented us with a brain teaser each night to work on before dessert. He was a lot of fun and even though we've been off the ship for over a week, we still reminisce about wanting to be at his table. Rendy, our cabin steward, was equally magnificent. He greeted us by name every time we saw him and was a blast to talk to. The first day he told us the hours he'd be working, but also said we could page him any time of day if we needed anything. Now that is dedication!
Since this was a fairly expensive venture, we wanted to do as much as we could in each of the ports. We planned for months and came up with the following activities:
Ketchikan - We walked around on our own and then attended the Lumberjack Show. We did this last year as well when we were in town, and it didn't disappoint. It is a very entertaining show with a reasonable price tag ($35 pp).
Icy Straight Point - We did the combination zip line and bike tour through the ship. The bike tour guide was truly awful. He was barely audible, seemed to have no concern for those lagging behind, didn't know much of anything, and was clearly just collecting a pay check. He was the exact opposite of our waiter and steward in terms of service. Still, it was a cheap add on to the zip line, so it was worth it to get a little exercise and see Hoonah. The highlight was the bald eagle's nest was saw. The zip line was a truly exhilarating experience. It is the world's longest zip line at over a mile long and you get up to 60 mph! If you go, ask at the top if there is a trick to not going sideways. Most of our group traveled down in that fashion, but we heard later you could do something with your legs to straighten out. After the excursion, we saw killer whales in port.
Juneau - We rented a car through the Juneau Car Rental Co, which is about a 15 min walk from the pier. We drove to the West Glacier Trail at Mendenhall Glacier, and then to the Visitor's Center on the east side. Four of our original group and two Aussies we met on the ship made this trip. The cost for the car with gas was under $80, which was a great deal since it is $16 pp round trip just to get to the Visitor's Center, and you'd need a taxi to get to the west side. The West Glacier Trail is an awesome hike - the only way to get right up to Mendenhall Glacier and actually touch/walk on it. The views from both sides are great - you can walk right up to the waterfall on the east side. Mendenhall is a must do in Juneau. On the way back we stopped at the salmon hatchery, which was really cool. The fish are literally on top of each other and it was neat to see them jumping. They also have an underwater glass viewing window, so you could check them out there as well. Well worth the free stop.
Skagway - The favorite town of most of us, Skagway is a really cool place to just walk through. We started our day by doing the White Pass Railroad trip. Although we did barely enter Canada, you do not need a passport since you do not get out. The four hour trip offered some magnificent views and was quite an experience. The train is guided, so you will learn some cool facts.
Hubbard Glacier - Hubbard was probably the highlight of the trip. Do yourself a favor and get up early and onto one of the forward outside decks. We got within 1/8th of a mile of the glacier, which was impressive. The calving was unbelievable, and the captain said he saw the biggest calving of the season when we were there. It was like watching a tennis match as you'd look back and forth as ice fell from everywhere. Make sure your camera is charged with lots of memory, as a couple folks there ran out of room/juice.
Disembarkation was easy as could be. We had an 8:30 shuttle bus to Anchorage, and we were able to walk right off the ship around 8:00 and be on dry land in just a few minutes. No customs to go through in Seward. We continued our trip a couple days by renting a car in Anchorage and seeing Denali for a day. We saw three out of the five "Big Five" (dall sheep, grizzly bear, caribou... but not moose or the rare gray wolf... although we did see moose on the road the day before). I'd highly recommend adding a trip to Denali if you are in Anchorage and haven't been there before. Views are great and it was one of those once in a lifetime experiences. We had a clear view of Mt. McKinley for two days, which was remarkable. They say only about 30% of visitors get to see it, so we were very lucky. The weather was magnificent all week in fact, as we only had a bit of rain in Vancouver. Overall a wonderful trip that we will always remember!