Anchorage: In Anchorage we stayed in a quaint bed and breakfast, Big Bear B&B, with rooms all named for bears. The Big Bear B&B is full of Alaskan art, masks, dolls everywhere, and surprisingly not dusty at all. The highlight of Big Bear, is its gracious host Carol Ross, who cooks a separate breakfast for each set of guests corresponding with the number of days you have stayed- sourdough waffles the first day, salmon quiche on day two. She is very helpful and can give you directions everywhere. Carol is extremely knowledgeable about Alaska, the B+B is her family's homestead and she hunts when the tourist season is over. The inn is special and she is very accommodating, despite that there is little in the neighborhood to walk to, and it does not look like the type of neighborhood that would even house a B+B. The area even appeared a little sketchy at night, but it was fine.
Anchorage as a city was modern with lots of strip malls, and was overall aesthetically not that appealing to us. We rented a car for this part of the trip and visited the Alaskan Heritage Center, educational with live performers and films, but did not live up to our expectations for the $21 admission fee.
A drive on the Seward Highway, just a few miles outside Anchorage provides wonderful mountain views. We pulled off the road at some of the areas designated for viewing sites, and picture taking, and began our continuing awe of Alaska's beauty and vastness.
We pulled off and visited Girdwood, a small ski resort town, and took the Talkeenta tram where we enjoyed the views, though it was a bit overcast and chilly, the coldest of the trip. We enjoyed wondering around the town of Girdwood, looking at the flowers at the Bake Shop, and the art it the store next to it. We ate dinner at Jack Sprat- fat and lean world cuisine- here we enjoyed wine, and a halibut burrito. My mom met a nice family that let her sample their dishes and she really enjoyed the sweet potato fries.
On the way back to Big Bear we saw people on the side of the road looking up, and had read and been told that this is a sign of Dahl Sheep above, and all signs were true. The next day after checking out of the Big Bear, went downtown to drop off luggage, register for the ship, and get our transfer info for the Alaskan Rail Road. The staff was nice and informed us that the train was leaving from the airport, and we could meet them there, saving me an extra trip since I had to return the rental car at the airport anyway.
We had some time to play so we went to Anchorage's Saturday market, part flea market and farmer's market. The prices at the market were pretty good and my mom picked up an Artisan Ulu Knife for a better price, than seen elsewhere, and I got some fragrant homemade soap. We walked to the Ulu factory store where we purchased cheaper bowls, to use with the knifes.
The ride on the Alaskan RR was highlighted with breathtaking views and educational narrative; we sat in the dining car the majority time, bigger windows, a booth facing each other, and close to food and drink too.
Embarkation: We went through security, got our key cards and were greeted with Mimosas in no time, and even better our luggage was waiting outside the room. We stayed in an internal room which was cozy but surprisingly not cramped, even with 3 women.
We ate in the formal dinning room which was unassigned seating the first night, and met a nice family that we ran into throughout the cruise. Dinner was good, and gave us a taste of how the dining room works, five courses, and you can order two desserts, a habit I continued throughout the cruise.
Day 2 We started day 2 at the Aqua Spa cafe for a light and lovely breakfast. We ate lunch there also. The heated pool area of the Aqua Spa quickly became my favorite spot on ship to hang out and relax in the pool and enjoy the sauna with the large window; the decor is soothing and fresh.
We attended the Celebrity Connections Cruise Critic party where I was treated like a star for starting the Roll Call for our sailing on Cruise Critic. We met very nice people who we would continue to see and talk to throughout the cruise. That day we cruised Hubbard Glacier which was grew remarkably large and blue as we got closer, my mom was a real soldier and camped out on top deck for hours taking in the sights.
At our first formal dinner we met our assigned tablemates and dining staff. Our tablemates were a husband, wife ,and daughter (early 20s) from Jersey. We all got along quickly and looked forward to sharing the days activities over our leisurely dinner. We found the formal night attire to represent a wide range of clothing types and felt comfortable in our dressy attire, but by no means ball wear.
Day 3 We started with breakfast at the buffet, which we continued to do for the remainder of the cruise, because we enjoyed the amount of options including an omelet and waffle station.
Skagway was our first port, and we quickly tired of the jewelry and souvenir stores. Found a few cute offbeat shops, they even have a Starbucks. We did the Whitepass Railway and again were treated to majestic views of mountains, waterfalls, and an interesting narration chronicling Alaska's Gold Rush.
My mom once again was so taken with the views, she out on the back of the train most of the time. Once the train ride was completed, we scoured Skagway for snack and late lunch options, and quickly discovered Skagway closes down early, except for the bars that were crowded including the Red Onion, which our tablemates gave a good review.
We headed back early to the ship and enjoyed, for the first of many days, casual tea and sushi before dinner.
Day 4 Juneau was our only rainy day, despite the weather forecast for all rainy days, we were blessed with mostly sunny Alaskan days. In Juneau, my mom and I did a float trip at Medenhall Glacier, this was very scenic and relaxing (the guide did all the work), the rain fit nicely with the scenery. My mom purchased the picture taken of us floating the course. Following the float trip, we walked around in search of the off the beaten bath Juneau , to escape the aforementioned jewelry and souvenir stores. We found an old one room Russian Orthodox Church and some neat homes and gardens perched on cliffs. We ate at the Twisted Fish, after receiving multiple recommendations, and were disappointed with the expensive fish taco and salad we purchased. We did however, find a great bakery, Paradise Bakery.
Day 5 Icy Straits/ Hoonah was our favorite port because it had a cozy very small town feel, and we had an opportunity to really experience it. We went whale watching with the F.I.S.H.E.S charter out of Hoonah (can be found on the web). The charter is small and fits only 6 people. Floyd makes sure guests see whales, plenty of them and even uses an instrument so you can hear Whales communicating with one another. We saw pods of whales, sea lions, deer, and truly enjoyed our great host. Floyd sent us to the Office, a local dive with oldies playing on the jukebox, for a tasty lunch of grilled Dungeness Crab and cold brews. We walked through town which was very local and not at all touristy and went to the local buy and pack to purchase fresh smoke salmon. We walked the 1.5 miles back the dock and the Cannery Museum and gift shops. One shop, the Arctic Spirit, carried beautiful art products of local artists and works by Alaskan Natives.
Day 6 In Ketchikan our time to explore the city and seek out the hidden treasures was limited, due to our scheduled 4 hour kayak adventure with South East Sea Kayaking. I was impressed with the quality of shops and prices, of the few stores that I managed to browse. Kayaking was an adventure different than any other, we were taken miles out in a speed boat with kayaking gear, given a quick lesson and were out on the water with the others and a guide. The scenery again, was wonderful, and we were fortunate to have experience one of Ketchikan's non raining days. As virgin kayaker, I found the excursion challenging, but rewarding as we got the swing of it. This was a guided tour that included nature lessons, unfortunately we missed the lectures just trying to keep up with the others.
Day 7 Our last day at sea, with the boat cruised the Inner Passage, allowed for some needed rest and relaxation, including my only day working out in the gym, my last day hanging out in the Thalassotherapy Pool at the Aqua Spa, partaking of formal tea, and just relishing the last day on deck with a sunny day and great views once again and commiserating going back to life as usual (work, cooking, routine)
Food: Overall, the quality of the food was very good. There are options for everyone, from mom and I who wanted to peruse all the choice in multiple venues, to Fay who stopped with her tried and true pasta and pizza. We at breakfast and lunch mostly at the buffet or Aqua Spa Cafe, and ate dinner in the main dinning room every night except for one night, which we ate at the Normandie, an alternative restaurant which you pay extra. The Normandie had great service, cute staff, and the food was great, this not a must do but was very enjoyable. I overall wanted a little more spice and flavor from the food, and the waiters were more than happy to bring out the hot sauce.
Entertainment: The performance I saw, a musical review, at the Celebrity Theater, was average at best I found the play to be corny, with mostly average performers, but I am not a huge musical fan. My mom and Fay found it at the least entertaining.
The taste of the Cirque Du Soleil was very well done and enjoyable. The lounge singers were fine, a bit cliche, and sang the same song nightly, it was fun to watch the other guests partner dancing. The Masquerade Ball was decorated nicely and many came out and shaked a tail feather. My mom also dragged me to the Sock Hop, which was also fun.
Debarkation: We opted for the express debarkation, which I would recommend, if you don't have too many bags and don't mind carry out your own bags. This allowed us to get off the boat quickly and get on with our day exploring Vancouver.
Post Cruise on our own Vancouver: We enjoyed Vancouver's beauty, beach and mountains, and gardens. We started with a water taxi to the Granville Market, a huge public market with beautiful produce, hot foods, and baked goods, and people watching. We walked the rest of Vancouver including some of Stanley Park, where we witnessed a few weddings, Robson shopping district, downtown, the West End Neighborhood, and the beach.
Seattle: We walked to the Fremont neighborhood and went to a Sunday market, a nice mix of fresh produce, antiques, food vendors, and funky artsy goods. Fremont is a cool artsy, hip neighborhood with a huge Stalin statue. We also hung out at Pike's Market where we saw the obligatory fish throwing and enjoyed the huge market and scene.