A little about us: We were first-time cruisers, have never been to Alaska, don't have kids, and love to travel. We are not sit-on-the-beach types, which is why we thought the adventures of Alaska would suit us. Below is a review of all parts of our NCL Pearl Alaska Inside Passage round-trip cruise from Seattle, with some tips for first-time cruisers like us.
Day 1: Embarkation in Seattle: The embarkation process was pretty easy, but if you bring wine along with you, either keep it in your carry-on bag, or bring a separate bag for it. We ended up carrying it the whole time, and we didn't realize we could carry on one of our suitcases if we wanted to. Registration and security took about an hour from start to finish. When we got on board, we thought our room wouldn't be ready until 2:00PM, but it was ready for us right away (we boarded around 1:00PM). As first time cruisers, we didn't know what to expect, but found that the ship was a lot like a miniature floating version of Las Vegas. Once we got used to that aspect of it, we loved it!
Day 2: Sea Day and random observations: We explore places really fast. We were done exploring every aspect of the ship within a few hours the first day. Highlights: The bridge-viewing room on deck 11 forward is really cool. You can see what the crew is doing to steer the ship. We went to the performance in the Stardust Theater for "Oh What a Night!" They were fantastic! If you know even a little of Frankie Valley and the Four Seasons' music, go to this--it's really fun. They engage the crowd and play all the hits, with comedy thrown in, too. The shows are all about an hour long in the Stardust Theater, and they usually have about 3 per night. There are 2 main shows, and a different one in the middle. They are all around 7:00PM, 8:15PM, and 9:15PM. They will be listed in the Freestyle Daily (NCL's newspaper) that's delivered to your room each night so you can plan the following day's activities. The promenade on deck 7 was very nice, and you can walk all the way around the ship for nice views of everything (except the forward part of the ship for a head-on view). The promenade was not very crowded, except on Glacier Bay day, during which it was a great place to view the glacier. The advantage of the promenade is that you can quickly go to either side of the ship. There are a few lounge chairs on the promenade, but they were usually taken.
Clubs/Lounges: We like to go out occasionally and dance, and I thought that the club on board, the Bliss Ultra Lounge, looked like a fun place to go "clubbing". However, they usually had parties (Norwegian's Night Out and the White Hot Party) in the Spinnaker Lounge, starting at 10:15. They then moved the "after party" to the Bliss Lounge, which started around midnight. Unless you're a late person (we are not), you will not go dancing in the Bliss Lounge. However, on day 2, our sea day, they turned Spinnaker into a clubby atmosphere with special drinks, lights, and club music. It was fun. They put out a red carpet like you're a celebrity entering a club and take photos of guests coming in. The music was club-style, and lots of people from different age groups were dancing. Kids aren't allowed after a certain time. Spinnaker spans the entire forward end of the ship, on deck 13, and it's one of the best places to view wildlife and watch where the ship is going. They have really comfortable seating in there, too. However, lots of events take place there throughout the day (bingo, game shows, parties), so it's not always a quiet place to go and read or just enjoy the scenery. It was one of my favorite places on the ship, but my husband preferred the mid-ship Star Bar, as it was calmer. Star Bar does not have the panoramic view that Spinnaker does, however.
Dining: On sea day, we also found that Indigo was our favorite restaurant on board. It's the casual, mid-ship complimentary dining room on deck 6. We tried Summer Palace, twice--once for lunch and once for dinner. Though Indigo and Summer Palace have the same menu, and the food is prepared in the same galley, the food and service in Indigo seemed by far superior to that of Summer Palace. Plus, Indigo does not have a dress code, and you can sit alone if you want. As it was just the two of us, we preferred to sit alone, instead of with others in Summer Palace. We're social people, but we found the small talk we were making strange. The staff in Indigo was great. Our favorite appetizer was the smoked salmon tartare, which we ordered every night, and I even ordered for desert once! First-time cruiser tip: You can order as many appetizers, entrees, and deserts as you want, and you can order off either menu. The menu on the right side is always available, and the menu on the left changes daily. You can mix and match parts of your meal from either side. If they give you a pager when you get there because they're full, you'll only have to wait about 10-15 minutes. We took this time to go back to our room for something we forgot, or have a drink at a bar on the same deck in Bar City.
Dining, part 2: Garden Cafe and Great Outdoors are the two buffets. Our cruise had over 2900 passengers, and the average for the Pearl is around 2300. So, the buffets were always crowded. However, we ate only breakfast and lunch here, and it was sufficient for us. We tried to eat outside at the covered Great Outdoors buffet when we could, because we got better views, and there were more tables available. There are some different offerings at the Great Outdoors as well. Advice for the buffet: Be patient and go slow, because there is no order and you will inevitably bump into people.
Casino: Another thing we did on sea day was use the promotional gaming chips I ordered before we embarked. You get $15 worth of chips for $10. I ordered some for both of us, so I had $30 to gamble at the blackjack table. You can't cash in the chips, but you can use them to gamble, and if you win, you get to keep the chips you won, and you can cash those in. It was worth it, and I ended up only losing $20.
Drinks: We're from a large city, and beers normally cost $5, and a glass of wine $7-9. This is how much it cost on the ship, which we were pleasantly surprised about. So, we ended up ordering more drinks than we expected. To be honest, by the time you're done with your cruise, you will probably develop less anxiety about letting them swipe your room key to charge things to your credit card on file. By the end, we were not at all troubled by ordering $7.50 pina coladas for desert (they make really tasty ones, too). We also brought on two bottles of wine, and the $15 corkage fee plus what we paid for our choice of wine cost less than buying a bottle on board.
Clothing: When they say to pack in order to wear layers on an Alaskan cruise, they are not kidding. I brought my cardigan everywhere, as well as a wind-proof light jacket. They were life-savers. The Pearl's heat is pretty regulated, and it's comfortable almost everywhere on the ship. However, you will want to go outside to watch what's passing by on shore, especially to see all of the mountains and such, and the temperature can fluctuate 30 degrees day to day. I would also make sure to bring rain gear (we waterproofed our jackets and were fine) because it can rain and be super-sunny on the same day. Glacier Bay is a time you will want to be outside the whole time, so you will want a fleece, wind-proof jacket, hat, and gloves. I also brought 2 dresses, but wore only one for the Norwegian Night Out party. I never wore fancy clothes in port because there was too much walking and such. Bring comfortable shoes and flip flops for the pool deck. There was one day that the pool was crowded because it was sunny and around 75 degrees. The 4 jacuzzis by the pool are also popular, and are not super hot, but are nice after a day of walking around in port, so bring a bathing suit. If you work out, bring work-out clothes, too.
Working out: I am a runner, and initially thought I'd run a few miles on the running track on the Pearl. The running track is not very nice. It's VERY narrow, and goes around only half of the ship. A mile is more than 5 times around the track. I ran on the treadmills in the gym. I had to wait a few minutes once, but it was fine.
Bug spray: Bring it. The mosquitoes in Alaska are really, really big. We have a lot of mosquitoes in my city, but these are very aggressive and extremely large. We went hiking in the rain forest in Ketchikan, and they stayed away due to our bug spray. However, at Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau, they literally chased us inside the visitor's center before we were ready to go.
Binoculars: This is a needed investment for an Alaskan cruise. This cruise is mostly about what you will see from the ship and on shore, and many things are not viewable unless you have binoculars. Examples: brown bears on shore, sea otters, whales in the distance, seals, glaciers, other ships (yes, we spied on other ships a bit). If we didn't have binoculars, we would have missed a LOT.
Day 3: Juneau: In Juneau, we booked a whale-watching and Mendenhall Glacier tour ourselves through Orca Enterprises. They were great. Captain Larry took us to a place in Auke Bay where we say humpbacks bubble-net feeding, which only 162 humpbacks in the world have learned to do. It was breathtaking. Having a camera that records video will help here, as it's sometimes hard to snap a quick picture when the whales surface. Also, binoculars are a must. The whale-watching was about 2 hours, plus travel time from Juneau and back. The shuttle you out to the boat. They also took us to Mendenhall Glacier, for a nominal extra fee, and that was worth the trip. You can hike pretty close to the glacier, but it's a 45 minute hike, and we only had 45 minutes. We opted to take photos from the photo area, and then head to the visitor center. Luckily, they have some 200-year-old glacier ice on display, so it is really worth it to go in the visitor's center.
Juneau itself is really a strip of shops near the port (the same shops you'll find at ALL of the ports), and it was so crowded when we were there that we thought people might fall off the sidewalk and get run over by a car. Once a couple of ships left, it was better, and we stopped in the Red Dog Saloon for a drink. It's a very interesting place, and they even have a gun from Wyatt Earp on display.
Day 4: Skagway: We have a lot of time in Skagway (7:00AM-7:45PM), so we did a lot here. We booked the White Pass/Yukon Route train trip for 12:45 through NCL, and the rest of the time, hiked on our own. The National Park Service website, and other hiking websites offer great advice about hiking in some of the ports. You can also pick up trail maps at the Trail Center on Broadway (Skagway's main street). The two hikes and train ride we chose are highlighted below.
Lower Reid Falls/Gold Rush Cemetery "hike": This is really more of a two-mile walk from the ship dock to the cemetery and falls. You can also take a trolley or tour over here, but it's not strenuous at all. The cemetery is interesting, and has the right amount of eeriness. The falls is spectacular! You can walk right up to it, and it's so powerful and gorgeous. We stayed and admired the falls for quite some time. We left for the walk early, so we were there alone, but by 10:00AM, there were a lot of other people there, and the area by the falls is not that large, so it got crowded and we left.
White Pass/Yukon Route train trip: This train ride was amazing! It goes up to the US/Canada border, and it crosses high bridges and goes through tunnels. Anyone we likes trains and great views will love this. If we did it again, I would have done the trip in which you ride the train up, and take the bus on the Klondike Highway back down for a different perspective, but the ride up and down were both spectacular. Our tour guide was great, and explained all parts of the tour. We didn't see any wildlife, but we were a little early for bears during our whole cruise.
Lower Dewey Lake Trail Loop: The descriptions online of the Lower Dewey Lake Loop are correct. The trail rises significantly from town, you get a great view of the ships only partway in to the hike, and it's mostly flat after the initial ascent. The lake itself is very quiet, and is OK. But, it's not the most picturesque lake I've seen. We did the the whole loop around the lake, which took about 2 hours. We are pretty good hikers, and pretty fast. The first part is flat and nice, but on the opposite side of the lake (the latter part of the hike), there are many rocks and roots that you have to climb over. If you're not steady on your feet, hike the first part and turn around once you reach the uneven party because the views from there are not very good.
After we hiked, we stopped at Skagway Brewing Company for a beer. The Spruce Tip is amazing (as all the reviews on Trip Advisor state). It was worth the walk down to the end of the town for a sample. You cannot get this beer anywhere else in Alaska, except by bottle in a store, when they have it in stock. So, try it here.
White Hot Party: After Skagway, we were really tired, so we only went to the White Hot Party for a while. It was OK, but not as well-attended as the Norwegian's Night Out. This probably because Skagway was a long port day and people were tired. However, it was interesting to go to Spinnaker and see everyone in white. They played the same dance music as before, which we grew a bit tired of, but it was fun to sit and watch people dance. You can go without white clothes, by the way.
Day 4: Glacier Bay: This was the highlight of our trip. Marjorie Glacier is by far one of the most beautiful things we've ever seen. The calving is amazing, and just listening and watching were fantastic. Bundle up, get your binoculars and cameras ready, and head out on the promenade for this. The Pearl got to the more scenic part of Glacier Bay around 8:00, and we were out on deck right away. The upper decks get crowded, so head down to deck 7 and stand on the promenade. Get up early and don't miss this! The ship stays at the glacier for about 1 hour. As we headed out of Glacier Bay, we saw brown bears (could only be seen with binoculars), sea otters, lots of humpback whales--some right by the ship--and seals. It was really fun to sit and watch the wildlife. We also did the wine tasting musical ($20 each), which was OK. You get six 2-ounce pours of red and white wine, and you drink them while watching a musical. Apparently, it's a shortened version (40 minutes) of a longer musical. I would have rather had a wine tasting with straight commentary by a sommelier, but this was entertaining. However, I did miss seeing some whales because we were in Spinnaker with the shades pulled for the show.
Day 5: Ketchikan: This is a cute town. We didn't book any excursions, and chose to hike the Rainbird Trail through the rain forest. It's a great hike. After you find it (look up directions on how to get there online before you get on the ship), it's about an hour hike through dense rain forest. It was really great, and it's such a different environment than in any other port. If you like nature, do this hike! You get great views of the narrows, the ships, and the town. It's smells and feels like a rain forest. Don't forget your bug spray! After we hiked, we walked around Ketchikan. We saw Creek Street, toured Dolly's House (the former prostitute) the salmon ladder (though didn't see salmon), rode the funicular for $2 to Cape Fox Lodge (it was OK up there--they have totems), and walked around. Luckily, down on Spruce Mill Way (by the lumberjack show), we found a couple restaurants that served crab. It was good, but took a while for them to get it out to us. In Ketchikan, the highlight was hiking. We saw some bald eagles sitting on a cell tower, and some salmon in the harbor. We also saw crabs in the harbor. We would have liked to go to Misty Fjords, but found the flight prices too much for our budget.
Day 6: Sea and Victoria: We docked in Victoria at 6:00PM, which seemed to be standard from what we heard from passengers on other ships (we were docked with a Celebrity and Princess ship most of the time, which we also saw while cruising on the water). The town is really pretty, and if you just do the walking tour, which I found online before we went, it would be nice. However, we chose to do the "Enchanting Butchart Gardens" tour through NCL, and it was well worth it. They drive you up there (it's really far, so taking a taxi would be really expensive) and let you walk around on your own for 2 hours. We are fast explorers, but we found that 2 hours was more than enough time. The gardens are spectacular, and are larger than you would imagine. The sunken garden is amazing, and there is a dancing fountain in the back, which is like a small version of the Bellagio fountain in Las Vegas. After the gardens, the bus drive takes you back through Victoria's old section, past the Empress Hotel, China Town, and the capital building. It was nice that we also got to see some Victoria highlights "for free". We ate a late snack in the buffet when we returned.
Day 7: Back in Seattle: We chose to walk our own luggage off the ship, which was really easy, and allowed us to keep all of our belongings, and not pack that extra overnight bag. You can chose to have NCL take your bags off the ship for you, but we didn't find that necessary, and we had a large suitcase, and two smaller, carry-on sized suitcases. We ate a leisurely breakfast at the Garden Cafe, and then went to get our bags, and walked off the ship. You have to be out of your stateroom by 9:00AM, but we left around 8:00AM because we were all ready to go. We spent another day in Seattle, and went to Kerry Park, which has great views, and is about a 45-minute walk from the NCL dock at pier 66.
Enjoy your cruise!!