Alaskan Trip Report June 1-15th, 2013 This trip was a celebration of our 34th Anniversary and for the friends that traveled with us, it was their 30th Anniversary and a 60th birthday as well. We are all retired school teachers from Colorado so this was a chance to compare mountains. WOW. Alaskan mountains are so different, more rugged, more contrasting, and more abrupt. And of course being right next to the water was so different.
We flew Frontier Airlines to Bellingham, WA 4 days ahead of the start of our cruise and had a friend meet us there and drive us across the border. That was so easy. They showed us around Surrey, BC where they live and we had lunch on their beach. They also introduced us to Nanaimo Bars, they are rich with the flavors of vanilla, custard, chocolate and coconut. And to die for! Next we went into downtown Vancouver to our hotel, The Sutton House Place at 845 Burrard St. We had a mini suite with 2 bedrooms, 2 baths, a living room, table and mini kitchen. It was very convenient to everything we did in Vancouver.
We rode the Vancouver Hop on and off Trolley Tour on our first full day in Vancouver. We bought tickets online and got 2 days for the price of one. The first day we rode it out to Granville Island. That is a fun place to visit and walk through the Market. The next day we rode the trolley to the Aquarium in Stanley Park. It is a nice Aquarium with lots to see and do, unfortunately we were there was several bus loads of elementary children. Yikes! We still had a good time. That evening we ate at the restaurant at the Top of Vancouver, that rotates around while you are eating. What fabulous views. We were so lucky to have clear weather on our trip every day but one in Juneau. For our last day in Vancouver, we rode the free bus out to the Capilano Suspension Bridge. It is a beautiful rainforest area with one of the worlds longest (140m) and highest (70m) suspension bridges. The grounds also had totem poles and a network of smaller bridges strung between the trees, that was not as crowded and you could enjoy the peace and quiet. That evening we had tickets to the Craft Beer dinner at Incendio Restaurant. It was part of the Vancouver Craft Beer Festival that was happening the first week of June. They served 5 courses with 5 different craft beers and everything was delicious. Who knew mac and cheese go so well with a Spruce Ale.
Finally, we got to board the Coral Princess for our cruise north to Alaska. We did the Northbound 10 Nights Denali Explorer Tour.
The embarkation went flawlessly. Princess was very efficient. We were at Canada Place port at 11:30 am and in our room at 12:15 pm. We had lunch at the Horizon Buffet and it was not too crowded yet. We took our two bottles of wine on board plus several water bottles filled with coconut rum, thanks to a tip from the Cruise Critic Forums. Also, my husband had a boxed wine in his checked bag and it made it through okay. In fact he bought on several small boxes of wine in Juneau and Skagway and was not stopped or caught. He had them in a fanny pack. Our cabin was C535 with a balcony, on the right side. And I agree with others from the forums, that it was the best side to be on. We enjoyed our balcony and ate several meals there. Our room steward was friendly and efficient, although his cart was stationed right outside our door so that was a bit noisy. The beds were comfortable and the bathroom was small, but we expected that. I had taken some hanging air fresheners, a forum tip, and they helped. There were lots of hangers for our clothes and a small closet with selves that was adequate. The room had a small refrigerator that we had our room steward remove the costly items from and we used to keep bottled water cold. Service on board was always friendly and prompt. My husband spent time in the casino and enjoyed that. I saw 2 Production shows, On the Bayou and Motor City. Both of them are very well done by professional singers and dancers. I did not see any of the other shows, it just seemed like after the daily excursions, I was ready to relax in our room or on the balcony. I usually got up early enough to see the ship come into dock and I watched from the secret deck on the front of the Caribe floor on Deck 10. There were 8 to 10 people on that deck when we were in Glacier Bay and College Fjord but usually it was empty. It provided great viewing and picture taking opportunities. We found the food to be quite good. We ate in the Horizon Buffet and had the 5:30 pm Dining time in the Provence Dining Room. Our waiters were attentive. Our table mates were our friends plus another family from Colorado. They were outgoing and easy to visit with. In fact we are planning to get together and share pictures later this summer. I did laundry on board and found the washer and dryer easy to use. The machines take quarters and it was $2 per load to wash and $2 per load to dry. I went to the Afternoon Tea a couple times and it was very good. We did the $10 per person wine tasting and it was informative, the problem was it was during a prime whale watching afternoon, so I would not do it again.
Shore Excursions: We took a Carlin Air Float Plane trip in Ketchikan to view the Misty Fjords. Pilot Jeff was informative and friendly and I got to ride in the co-pilots seat and that was incredible. We tipped our pilot $10 per person. I searched Cruise Critic for info on tipping and decided that it was appropriate. We also bought lots of items in the Tongass Trading Post and had them ship it all home for $20. That way I did not have to carry them around. Great idea! Princess handed out Alaska coupon books during the Embarkation process that we used in all 3 ports. In Juneau we went on a whale watching boat with Harv and Marvs. Only 6 people on the boat and we saw several humpback whales, sea lions, and eagles. Our caption was Jayleen, one of the owners daughter and she was great. We tipped our captain $10 per person. On the way back into town our driver stopped for 15 min at the Mendenhall Glacier, so we could take pictures. We ate lunch at Tracys Crab shack and had Alaskan KingCrab, very tasty. We also stopped and had a beer in the Red Dog Saloon. Fun place to see. In Skagway we walked into town in the morning and saw a fun play called Days of 98. And in the afternoon, we rode the White Pass and Yukon Route narrow gauge railroad. It was the only excursion we did with Princess, the others we booked on our own (with tips from the Forums). It was interesting to see the scenery change as we went higher in the mountains. Lots of snow still at the border area where we turned around. We sat in the last car and got great photos of the train turning on the tracks aheadâ(EURO)¦ the only problem was on the way back, we were the first car and the diesel fumes were strong. Tip: Consider riding in the 2nd or 3rd car from the end of the train since you cannot change cars on the trip. We were able to go into town, get back on board for lunch and disembark again for the train trip, since it leaves from right beside the ship.
Glacier Bay & College Fjord: This is an incredible part of the cruise. A couple of National Park rangers get on board the ship to narrate and answer questions in Glacier Bay. We watched the glaciers from the secret deck, from the rear of the ship, from our cabin deck and tried to take lots of pictures. We ordered room service so we did not have to leave our viewing on the day we sailed into College Fjord. I should have done that both days.
Land Portion: We arrived in Whittier and took the Princess train to Talkeetna.
Disembarkation was very well organized. We waited 15 min in the Explorers Lounge before walking off the ship and onto the train, which is right next to the ship. Each rail car has a guide that talks about what we were seeing and answers questions. You can move car to car on this train and I did get up and go back to the club car for a latte coffee. Once we arrived in the Talkeetna area, we were taken by bus for a 10 min ride into Talkeetna. The highlight of our trip was the small plane ride from Talkeetna to land on the Ruth Glacier on Mt McKinley. We used the Talkeekna Air Taxi company. Our pilot Richard pointed out the sights and landed safely on the glacier. We spent about 20 minutes walking on the snow, taking pictures and making snow angels. (We tipped our pilot $10 per person) They picked us up from where the Princess buses stopped in Talkeetna and then took us back to the downtown area after our flight. The TV show Northern Exposure is based on this community. Princess has buses that run hourly from Talkeekna to the Mt. McKinley Princess Lodge so you have plenty of time to see the town. The lodge is 50 min away and does not have anything around it but beautiful scenery. We needed mosquito repentant for all our land stops. And sun screen. We were very lucky and got to see views of Mt. McKinley all 4 days that we were in the area, all the way from Anchorage to Fairbanks. The Mt McKinley Princess Lodge has big rooms, especially since we just were in our tiny cruise cabin. It has great views of the mountain. We ate supper in the 20,320 Restaurant and enjoyed the view. The next day we boarded a bus to the Denali Princess Lodge at the main entrance to Denali National Park. The bus was comfortable and our driver Don stopped a couple times for pictures and to stretch our legs. There was only a short time (20 min) at the Denali Lodge before we got on the tan school bus for the Natural History Tour into Denali National Park. We thought Princess could have done a better job in scheduling this. The Natural History Tour was good, we saw a short film, stopped to see a Ranger cabin and hear a native Athabascan speak about her culture. We saw moose next to the road and dall sheep up on a far ridge. The reviews stated we would not see much wildlife on this tour and they were correct. It is mid day when the animals are not very active and we only went 17 miles into the park. We ate supper at the Base Camp restaurant, sitting along the rail next to the river to enjoy the view. The next day we got on the bus with our driver Mike for the final journey into Fairbanks. We arrived and had 40 min before we got on the Riverboat Discovery. Even though there were probably 500 people on board, it did not seem crowded and they did a great job with sharing information. We saw a float plane take off and land beside us, a sled dog operation, and a native village. We stayed at the Fairbanks Princess Riverside Lodge and it was the smallest of the rooms, but still comfortable. All the lodges have noise issues with banging doors and clomping feet. Ask to be on the top floors, although rooms are pre assigned and I do not think you can get them changed. Since our flight was not until 10 pm the next day and check out is 11 am, I reserved our room for an extra night. We did not sleep there again, but had a place to relax and shower after exploring Fairbanks on our own. We rented a car at the airport from Avis. The hotel has a free shuttle to the airport that you ask for at the desk. This is different than the Princess shuttle that takes people to the airport. The airport is 8 minutes from the hotel. We drove to the University of Alaska Museum of the North and toured it. They had very informative displays and a new exhibit on 100 years of climbing Mt McKinley. Next we stopped at a Farmers market on our way out to see the pipeline. It is only 5 miles or so outside of town. We ate supper at the Pump House and returned to the hotel for a quick shower. Finally we returned our rental car and boarded our 10 pm Frontier airlines direct flight back to Denver, Colorado. All in all an incredible, once in a lifetime trip to see the wonders of Alaska.
Additional tips& thoughts: 1. Take clothes pins to keep the curtains closed at night. It is not dark for very long. 2. Take an eye mask. 3. Take a highlighter for maps and flyers. 4. Take a bunch of one dollar bills for tips. 5. Take a big old coffee mug with a lid and throw it away at the end of the trip if you drink a lot of coffee. Or buy a new one at the start of your trip to use every day. 6. Take old t-shirts to wear and throw out at the end of your trip. Then you have room in your suitcase for your purchases. Our friends took an extra empty bag. 7. Remember to schedule down time, you cannot do everything so just enjoy. 8. We have AT&T cell phone service and it was great all through Alaska. 9. We used a Capital One card in Vancouver, Canada. It does not charge International exchange rate fees. 10. Take binoculars. 11. I took over 2000 pictures. 12. I took long underwear and did not need it. 13. I took rain pants and did not need them. 14. I bought and took The Alaska Cruise Handbook by Joe Upton. It has a big pull out map that I hung in our room with magnets. Then I used a highlighter to follow our path as we traveled. Princess sells a similar book with a map on board for a similar price. $20. 15. I wore Sea Bands for motion sickness on the ship. I bought them at Walgreens.