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Alaska on Norwegian Jewel, August 11-18, 2012 from Seattle
I will start by saying that this could probably be classified as somewhat of a "budget" cruise attempt in as much as we booked an inside cabin for my wife and I and did not participate in the more exotic excursions offered, e.g. those involving float planes and helicopter travel. There were two main reasons for this, primarily I am not into travel in small planes and helicopters,and secondly, the cost; excursions that ranged in price from $500 - $1000 per couple were simply not in our budget for this trip. We also used mileage to book our trip, and horror of horrors, we travelled to Seattle on the day of the cruise. I know it is risky, but there was a big difference in the mileage/cost for travelling on Saturday rather than a weekday and we also had the "advantage" of gaining 3 hours in travelling from the east coast. Admittedly, we left early and ended up arriving on time in Seattle at 10 am, so all was well. We took the Norwegian shuttle from the airport to the ship which was a plus More
in one way and a negative in another. The positive aspect was that we no longer had to haul our luggage around and it was delivered to our cabin, but it cost us time since we had to wait for our shuttle bus, and as a result didn't arrive at the dock until about 11:30 - 12:00 which turned out to be a very busy embarkation time. The cost of $25 per person was probably equal to what a taxi would have cost for the two of us. Embarkation in that time frame was pretty bad and resembled the winding lines of sheep for prime rides at Disneyland on a busy day. When we got through, our cabin was ready and it was no more or less than we expected. The room steward was pleasant and attentive and our luggage arrived shortly afterwards. We proceeded to the Garden Cafe for the lunch buffet which was crowded even at that early stage of boarding - shades of things to come! "Washee, washee, happy, happy!!!" Norwegian's devotion of an employee's full time to spraying hands all day on entering this particular restaurant was impressive, and there was also an ample supply of hand washing dispensers throughout the ship, I would rate the food in the Garden Cafe as very good all week, although we only used it for breakfasts and lunches. But how could you not find something that you like in that display. One thing I found a little questionable, was the manner in which the fresh fruit, e.g. water melon, cantaloupe, honeydew and pineapple was provided. What concerned me was the likelihood that these fruits were not washed beforehand and were set out in slices with the skins still on, and these were touching the inside of the fruit pieces displayed. It just didn't seem very sanitary and not in keeping with washee washee! On the other hand I could be wrong, and perhaps these fruits were all washed beforehand.After our first lunch we went to explore the ship and get our bearings. We were surprised to find that on a ship of that size there is no indoor pool. They say there is one in the spa, but of course you have to have spa access to use it and it is not really a swimming pool, more of a therapy pool and about the size of a hot tub. We visited the spa and inquired about the weekly passes which we had read about. We found that these are now $149 per person. I was interested in this primarily for my wife who is literally allergic to the cold, and if she is exposed to it for any length of time, everything starts running, eyes, nose etc. I had just thought that it would be a smart investment for her to be able to sit in the warmth and comfort and view the scenery. However, in keeping with our budget theme, she would not spring for the cost, and as it turned out with our warm weather, it was a wise decision. We were surprised to find the outdoor pools were open throughout the cruise and kept at very comfortable temperatures of 84-86 degrees. The hot tubs were also in operation, but that was expected. We used Tsar's Place excusively for dinners and were very happy with the food quality and selection, and we found a waitress there from India whom we particularly liked, and who we sought out at every opportunity as she was simply excellent. However at this stage I can’t even attempt to spell her name. Now I'm being cut off for space!!! Less
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Port and Shore Excursions
We had intended taking the MGT bus to the Mendenhall Glacier $16 each roundtrip and doing the Mt. Robert's Tram ourselves. We stopped at one of the tour vendors just off the ship and she convinced us to take a full city tour which would include the glacier for $25 each. That seemed like a better idea so we did that. Our driver was a long time city resident and ex-coast guard member, so he was very well versed in the city and provided good commentary. He took us out to Douglas Island which is really just across a channel from the mainland and you can look back at the harbor. Then we went all around the main city and he gave us some of its history, but when all is said and done there is very little of real interest to see in places like Juneau
This was not a separate excursion but rather part of our cruise. We only had half a day in Juneau and this took up the second half. It was a very enjoyable part as the scenery was spectacular. The surrounding mountains are huge and you are so close to them. The gouges in the surfaces from prior passages of glaciers were amazing. We couldn't get as close to the Sawyer glacier as the captain wanted because of ice in the water just ahead of the ship, but we still got a good view. I wanted to mention here an interesting incident that happened on the way as it also makes a point. On the way we came across an excursion boat which had broken down. As it turned out, it was actually an excursion of about 100 passengers from the Jewel, and the arrangement had been that they would tour the glacier separately ahead of us and we would pick them up when we got there. Well they all transferred back safely as their boat, although largely out of action, was at least able to make its way over to the Jewel. However, this definitely gave me pause regarding booking excursions from private vendors, of which I have always been a strong proponent. What would have happened if these had been passengers from another vessel? Or if they had broken down in an area where we weren't going! Hmmm!
The city tour included the trip to Mendenhall where our guide dropped us at the visitor's center parking lot which is as close as traffic can get to the glacier. On the way he also stopped for us to take photos at an area where the glacier was in the background and the area in front was full of wild flowers, which was nice of him. He gave us the option of returning to town with him in about 45 minutes or taking any MGT bus back into town either before or after his return (the tour operator had told us that our tour ticket gave us the option of using the MGT bus for travel back from the glacier if we preferred). We were able to walk forward to view the glacier which was quite impressive even from a distance. We then began to walk one of the trails that would bring us even closer to Mendenhall and got some good views. We didn't go quite as close as we could as we figured that we needed to return with our Regrettably when we got back to town we only had about 45 minutes left before we had to be back on board the ship and that seemed a little too short in which to attempt the tram ride, so we had to pass which was a pity since it was such a beautiful day.driver if we were to have any chance of going up on the Mt. Robert's Tramway. In retrospect I think I should have chosen an excursion which accessed the glacier by canoe.
This port should be dropped from cruise itineraries. We are not shoppers and essentially there is nothing else here to do. The excursiions offerred were very limited and did not appeal to us, I am amused at travel books I read which referred to the fact that the salmon would be running since it was mid-summer. Maybe my expectations were too high but all we saw was a few sitting very still on a river bottom. I've seen many more salmon with just about as much life in the grocery store - frozen section. The infamous salmon ladder and the rapids/falls which some writers say they love to stand and watch the salmon trying to leap over, were completely vacant. It didn't start raining until we got off the ship but then it rained almost until we left - not unexpected. I would try and avoid any cruise that offers this as a stop.
White Pass Scenic Railway
Our driver, Bruce, picked us up in his van at the dock and took us to the train station where he got us our tickets and our train left at 8:15 for Fraser. He said he would meet us up there for the continuation of our trip and return by van. As advised by everyone we chose our seats on the left side of the train to take advantage of the scenery which was spectacular. One thing that struck me in Alaska is that nature is supersized, the mountains are huge and even the trees can be enormous. As with yesterday's boat breakdown, wouldn't you know it, our train broke down!! However we were lucky too in that there was another train right behind us and amazingly that train had the power to pull its own load as well as push us up the slope ahead of it! Fortunately we did not have far to go to get to a double track section where they were able to bring in new engines to complete our trip. I was amazed at the speed with which they were able to get us going again, considering we were miles up the side of a huge mountain. The tour was very scenic and Bruce met us as planned and we continued on to the Yukon, Caribou Crossing and Emerald Lake which was lovely. On the way we stopped for an included lunch which gets just an OK. That stop also included a dog sled ride which was optional for either 15 or 30 minutes. We hadn't bought it and watching them hitch the dogs and take off, we didn't want to add it either. They say the dogs love to run and pull and indeed some seemed to be that way inclined, but others were much less enthusiastic and we really did not like the way they were handled or the conditions in which they were kept. I think a visit from the Canadian equivalent of the ASPCA was long overdue. On the way down Bruce made as many stops as were warranted for photo ops. Unfortunately we never did see any wild life that wanted to be photographed although he did tell us they were out there. It was 4 pm when we returned to the ship so we really didn't have time to make a stop in town which was now up and running (unlike the way it was at 8 am), which was unfortunate as, on our drive through town it looked cute and interesting. Regarding this excursion I had read in a couple of places, that it is best to take the train up and the can down as quite often the trains tend to run late. That could well have been our situation of course, though it turned out that we weren't delayed that much, but on the way back through Fraser, Bruce noted that the train which should have been in the station at that time had not yet arrived! A word to the wise.
The rating says it all. 5+! These gardens are absolutely fabulous and should not be missed. Whatever else you do in Victoria which is a lovely city, you have to get to these gardens.
High Tea at the Empress Hotel
We didn't have High Tea, but we had Afternoon Tea at the Empress. Before we went, I asked on the Boards for some advice as to whether we should do this or the Butchart Gardens since we could not get an excursion to do both. The votes were probably pretty evenly split. However, those who favored the afternoon tea were pretty adamant about it. Now having done both, and I can explain how we eventually managed to do it, I would vote for the gardens. People advised that afternoon tea at the Empress was a once in a lifetime experience and in that regard they were correct -- I will never again in my lifetime pay $160 (tip incl.) for two people for afternoon tea anywhere.But was it worth it -- hell no! Yes it is one of the grand old hotels from the days when the gentry did this sort of thing and there is a degree of ambience there. But no way can this possibly carry a value of $160. The sandwiches, scones, pastries etc. were all typical of what I have had at teas elsewhere for significantly less money. There are many places in Victoria that do this just as well for a lot less, including Butchart Gardens. While we could not get an excursion to do both the gardens and the tea while we were there with the ship, we had planned to rent a car and drive to Vancouver for a few days. We decided to take one of those days and go back to Victoria to see the gardens and we were so happy that we did.