Someone once said that once you experience a great thing, you expect that level of greatness from everyone, each time. I will be the first to say that I am the Type A-ist of the dreaded Type A personality, just this side of "Big Bang Theory's" Sheldon Cooper and when it comes to my vacation tours, I want organization, fun, and that all-pervasive sense of greatness when it comes to an end something I can rave about for years to come. Back in 2009, I experienced that on the 13-day Celebrity cruise tour in Alaska. For the past 4 years, I have praised this tour to the skies. This time, the stratospheric heights of the land tour took a walloping in the guise of our land tour guide and bus driver. Overall, the entire trip was utterly fantastic, but Celebrity has got to do something about those land tour guides. Our story begins as follows:
THE LAND PART - Wow.
Day 1 Pike's Landing, Fairbanks
What a beautiful little hotel. There was lots of fun dÃ©cor, and my picture-taking started very early. I didn't care for the mattresses in the room they were a little too soft but kudos for the terrific water pressure in shower. My backache cheered up immediately. There was great coffee available in the lobby. The breakfast buffet looked wonderful but we didn't eat breakfast there because we planned to eat on the Wilderness Express train.
This was the day I got my first impression of our land tour guide, DJ, and our bus driver, Jon. You know what they say about first impressions they're usually correct, and lasting. My first impressions were of a pretty frat boy and a sullen, middle-aged man with a "Why are you bothering me?" air, both with a serious case of scatterbrain syndrome. DJ spent more time conversing in French with a group of people from Toronto than passing information on to the rest of our group, which consisted of a lot of elderly people or people escorting elderly people who were trying to figure out what was going on. On our first day alone, this lack of communication resulted in two embarrassing moments on the bus in which I was left standing in the aisle without a seat and holding a good deal of carry-on medical equipment that was supposed to be stored in the under-bus holding area. Contradictory directions and public humiliation do not sit well with me, so strike 1 for the pretty boy and the annoyed bus driver.
We also wanted to upgrade to the Tundra Wilderness Tour in Denali National Park and DJ told us to meet him in the lobby to purchase the upgrade. The meeting in the lobby went sour when he was talking to other people (the French) and told us over his shoulder to meet up with him the next morning. We ended up running after him as we were boarding the bus for the train station, got sidetracked with the second of the above-mentioned carry-on debacle, and by the time we got to the train, we still hadn't purchased the upgrade. Strike 2, DJ.
Day 2 Train to Denali and Tundra Wilderness Tour
DJ redeemed himself a bit by getting my family group all in one area near the front of the train. The weather was glorious; we got the best views of Mt. McKinley that I have ever seen. Breakfast was outstanding. The coffee was outstanding. Our seats were outstanding. Just overall awesomeness on the entire train ride. I would take the land tour over again just for the train; it's that good.
DJ lost whatever momentum he had going by walking off with the French group again while we were trying to figure out where to meet our group for the Tundra Wilderness Tour. By this time we still hadn't purchased our upgrade meet me on the bus turned into meet me on the train, which turned into meet me at the bus loading area for the tour. We began to worry we wouldn't be able to purchase the upgrade. Finally we found him chatting with the French tour leader and managed to pull him away long enough to demand some answers to our own questions. We were finally told we were approved for the upgrade, and where to meet for the tour.
The Tundra Wilderness Tour
People, this is SO worth the money to upgrade. We had an absolutely wonderful tour guide, David Langdon. We saw lots of caribou, a couple of very large cow moose with sweet little long-legged calves, a whole herd of Dall sheep as they crossed the road in front of our bus, and a big fat grizzly bear romping in the distance. The breathtaking Polychrome Pass has to be seen to be believed; no pictures do it justice. Mt. McKinley obligingly stayed out of the clouds, setting the mood for some beautiful photos. Overall, a simply glorious tour. Only two very, very minute issues, and not anyone's fault: the a/c on the bus didn't work, so we had to open the windows. We were consequently driven crazy by the hordes of mosquitoes, and the grit and dust from the road was all over all of our camera equipment, up our noses, in our hair, etc. Bring bug repellent and cleaning wipes to clean your equipment, just in case!
We overnighted at the Grande Denali Lodge beautiful landscaping, lovely rooms, and hey, air conditioning! Pull the curtains back to find it, though; several of our party kept the curtains closed to keep out the late summer sunlight and never found the a/c. On the downside, food service has slipped a little bit. In 2009, we came back from the TWT tired, hot, and hungry. The restaurant was still open for business, as was the coffee stand. This time, the coffee stand was closed, the grab and go food section was practically empty, and the restaurant was closing in 30 minutes. People on our tour were annoyed with that. However, the mouthwatering buffet breakfast they offered the next morning was so worth the wait that all was forgiven.
Day 3 Train to Talkeetna
Again, no issues with the train ride. In fact, the tour guide was even better than the first one. The Fruits of the Forest pie on the menu was just as delicious as I remembered I recommended it to everyone, and I heartily recommend it to you if you take this tour.
We stayed at the Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge, another beautiful place with a stupendous view of the mountain range. Weather was simply perfect, and once again, Mt. McKinley was in full view the entire time. What a rare treat! We were up at 3:30 in the morning for some of the best photos on the trip. (One wee little gripe really, no a/c in the rooms? At least they provided fans, but c'mon, some people are hot no matter how cold it is outside.)
The Bistro was excellent. I recommend the steak for dinner. For breakfast, the Joe's Special dish, with scrambled eggs, spinach, mushrooms, onions, and Parmesan cheese, was mouth-watering. I'm very picky with how my eggs are cooked and they did them just the way I asked for them. Delicious hot coffee and thick slabs of sourdough toast topped it off. I'm hungry just thinking about it.
Internet service and phone service is an improvement over 2009 at least I didn't have to go to the lobby to get a signal this time. Great shopping in the gift shop, and wow, incredibly fast luggage service. In fact, I was handing my luggage to the hardworking man who stopped to pick it up. These guys deserve a lot of tip money.
As an aside, I did manage to corner snarky driver Jon and asked him just exactly how he wanted me to deal with my carryon equipment was I to leave it with him or was I to take it on the bus? He sighed and explained how he knew what it was, and there was just no room underneath, and I could take it on the bus if I wanted to, or he could try to squeeze it in, yadda yadda. As he walked away, I wondered aloud to the couple behind me if I was being a pest, but they assured me the problem definitely was not mine; he was being very rude. I felt better after that; at least it wasn't me.
Day 4 Train to Anchorage
Once again, the train was wonderful. I just don't have enough good words for the train or its crew. This time we had dinner on board, and the halibut with lemon cream was to die for. And I got more of the terrific Fruits of the Forest pie!
We were taken by bus to the Anchorage Marriott for the night. Nice, comfortable rooms with a/c. Very friendly staff. We met in the lobby to catch the bus to Girdwood, our next stop. The tour director for the other Celebrity group, Leah, was gathering her group and was available for any questions about the day's activity. Naturally, DJ was missing. When Leah's group left the lobby at the allotted time, she made a clear announcement for her group, and our group was left milling around wondering where DJ was and if we should go out to find our bus. We scattered out the door in twos and threes, only to find that DJ was already outside with the French tour group, who were already on the bus. Thanks for the heads up, DJ! I had all my carry-on bags in tow again, since Driver Jon didn't give me a clear answer the night before; I glanced at him as I boarded, but he didn't even look my way. I managed to get a seat this time and safely stowed my equipment overhead.
While on the bus, I remember from my 2009 trip that our guide talked through most of the trip. She told stories, gave us great information about the countryside, pointed out wildlife, etc. DJ talked too, but for only about 10 minutes at a time; the rest of the time he sat in his seat, checked his iPhone, or allowed the tour leader of the French group to take the mic and talk to her group in French, of course, so no one else could understand what was going on. It was apparently a good talk because they laughed a lot. Did I mention that DJ actually spoke French, so HE could converse with them and understand? Meanwhile, everyone else sat there feeling like red-headed stepchildren, wondering exactly what we were looking at or what was being said as we rode along. Good job, DJ.
We stopped at the Wildlife Conservation Center. The weather turned on us for the first time at the WCC a small cloud of vicious rain poured down as we entered the grounds. Those who wanted to venture out in the downpour were allowed out; the rest of us stayed on the bus until the cloud passed. The animals were just as I remembered very used to people, and just hung out, relaxed, while people snapped their pictures. There is a very nice gift shop. I think everyone on the bus bought something here, either food or souvenirs, or both.
We stopped for the night in Girdwood at the Alyeska Resort. Definitely the best hotel on the trip. It's absolutely gorgeous with beautiful dÃ©cor, luxurious rooms, and delicious, albeit pricey food. We also got to experience a 4.4 magnitude earthquake that shook us awake the next morning, how exciting! And we had the same problem with bus loading in the morning that we had in Anchorage Leah and her group got directions and paperwork and left the lobby; we wondered if we should leave as well, and found DJ and the French group already outside, getting on the bus. We all finally learned to ignore the directions and not meet in the lobby, just go directly to the bus instead.
Drive to Seward and Kenai Fjords Cruise on Resurrection Bay
DJ roused himself a bit and talked about some good history during the drive to Seward. He also showed some of his own Alaskan pictures and provided some books for us to peruse. The weather stayed perfect, the drive was gorgeous, and lots of pictures were taken through the windows. We enjoyed how much Seward has grown up as we drove into the center of town. We were given an hour to look around and have a quick bite before meeting back at the center of town for our whale-watching Resurrection Bay cruise. Leah was already there, handing out boarding passes to her group and telling them where to go and which boat to get on; as usual, our group was wondering where DJ was. He showed up about 10 minutes later with tickets in hand, absentmindedly passed them out, and ended up in the middle of the French group again, speaking in French so we couldn't understand what he was saying. Which boat was ours? Where were we supposed to meet? I finally hunted down Leah and asked her if we were on the same boat (she said yes), asked her what time we were supposed to go (she said now). I grabbed my family and the surrounding people and we headed down the plank to the dock. DJ moseyed behind us with the French group. Our group was muttering mutinously; we were really getting tired of Pretty Boy by this point.
The tour itself was extremely well done. The crew was friendly and knowledgeable, the surroundings were breathtaking, and the animals were abundant. We were treated to a mother humpback whale and her calf, a pod of playful dolphins, a pair of adorable cavorting otters, lots of fat puffins, hoards of sea lions, and several eagles and seagulls. There was a definite chill in the air, but some inexpensive, tasty coffee and tea helped to keep us warm. The three hours passed quickly. I highly recommend Kenai Fjords Cruise Tours.
We stayed for the night at the Seward Windsong Lodge. How neat this place was! It consisted of little birchwood log cabins in the woods, each named after an herb or flower (we were in Rosemary) with about 10 rooms apiece, each smelling of freshly-planed wood. It was obviously newly renovated. Sliding doors in the back provided a small patio overlooking the woods (which we didn't bother to try out because of the mosquito population). The restaurant on property is very expensive, but the food was worth the cost. You could also take a shuttle into town on the hour. The lobby building boasted a beautiful stone fireplace that practically begged for you to pull up a squashy armchair and read a good book. We slept like the dead and woke up refreshed and ready for our cruise.
Overall Impressions of the Land Tour
Positive: I still think this is the biggest bang for your buck the 6 days of the land tour really give you the big picture of what The Last Frontier is all about. The train rides are absolutely magnificent, the hotels get more beautiful as you go south, Denali National Park, Mount McKinley, abundant wildlife...spectactular. Spend the extra money and take the land tour. You won't regret it.
Negative: As you've already figured out, my biggest complaint was our tour guide and bus driver. Where on earth did Celebrity (or whoever manages Celebrity's land tours) find these guys? I found out later that the land tour part of this cruise tour vacation is actually not handled by Celebrity, but by a company called Premier Alaska, who are subcontracted to Celebrity and Royal Caribbean. I think Celebrity ought to seriously reconsider these particular guys are giving them a very, very bad name. Outside of the French-speaking tourists and their own tour guide, no one in our group was impressed with them. I seriously considered not tipping them at all, but my conscience wouldn't allow it - however, they only got a portion of what Celebrity suggested.
As I read back over this, I realize that it sounds like we were annoyed with the French group. Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. Their leader, Louise, and the rest of the group were so fun personable, and all were willing to teach simple French to the rest of us who hadn't a clue it made for very memorable moments on the land tour. Louise, if you just happen to read this, I want you to know that you are an ideal tour guide, and our group should have given YOU the tips. DJ and Jon, if you read this, well you need some work, guys. DJ, get a bullhorn, speak English at least as much as you speak French, and show up with information when you're needed. Jon, just smile, will ya? You're very unapproachable. If you really dislike this line of work as much as you appeared to, maybe you should go elsewhere.
THE CRUISE PART
I love Celebrity cruises. I couldn't wait. And I wasn't disappointed.
Embarkation: So fast and easy; we were on the ship before we knew what was happening. Celebrity shines here. You're given a mimosa with a warm Welcome aboard and a smile. By 1:30, your room is ready, and your bags are delivered quickly. These guys work hard, and it shows and is always appreciated.
Day 1: Hubbard Glacier Cruising
Oh, just beautiful weather. We couldn't get close to the glacier because of heavy ice in the water, but that just made it even more picturesque. We give high fives to the Captain and his crew for getting us as close as he did...we were still seven miles from the glacier, but it still was beautiful. If we were still using film today, I think my husband and I would have filled up 30 rolls just on this day.
Day 2: Juneau
We took a tour to Mendenhall Glacier, on another beautiful day. You shouldn't miss this gorgeous place. Great shopping, too! Take advantage of the on-board Cruise Shopping Talk the guide can be kind of hokey, but you get some terrific pointers on where to shop and who to talk to. And don't miss the Red Dog Saloon - there's fun to be had "behind those swingin' doors."
Day 3: Skagway
Five words: Yukon and White Pass Railroad. I've heard people say they wouldn't do this because they couldn't afford it. My advice: Save some money. The views are just amazing. This was our only day with rain, but for some reason it made the scenery even more striking. We opted for the longer tour, which consisted of a 3-hour bus ride up to the Yukon border, and we took the Y&WP train back to Skagway from Fraser. I enjoyed stopping at the Inuksuk Overlook in Tormented Valley, where you could get out and build your own little stone monument from the glacial rocks. I hope my little guy stands guard by the creek for many years.
Day 4: Icy Strait Point
Wellll I think Celebrity could drop this port from the itinerary. Aside from the World's Longest Zip Line and some pretty shops and a cannery, there's really nothing to do here. It was an improvement over 2009 (when we didn't even get off the ship), but I think time could be spent at somewhere better. Celebrity, maybe you could consider putting College Fjord on your itinerary. This was Princess Cruise's strong point -College Fjord is even better than Hubbard Glacier, in my opinion. Think about it!
Day 5: Ketchikan
If you want to shop, this is the place to go. The typical cruise stores Diamonds International, Milano's, etc. beckon right from the pier. And if you get on board without getting a picture of the Ketchikan Salmon Capital of the World sign, then you didn't get the full Monty.
We took a quick tour of the city by means of an old-fashioned trolley with open sections in the front and the back. I thought I'd be intelligent and sit in one of the open sections so I could take some pictures without having to focus through windows. If you're going to do that, please wear a coat. Not a sweatshirt, a coat. Brr! After a quick stop at the Totem Pole Park (very neat!), we were dropped off at the Alaskan Lumberjack Show. That was fun, pure and simple: Canada vs. the USA in chopping, climbing, and general lumberjack jokes. Canada won by a splinter. We ended the day with a great deal of shopping along the pier. Some really nice stores include Caribou Crossing and the Rain Barrel. If you're looking for authentic Alaskan works (carved and/or handmade pieces, totem poles, Alaskan jade, etc.), these stores won't let you down. The quality is incredible, and they ship to your home!
Day 6: Inside Passage Cruising
This is a much-needed day of relaxation and beautiful scenery. We were hoping for some whales, but sadly they stayed hidden. I still enjoyed numerous cups of hot tea while snuggling in my green plaid blanket and reading.
The Ship: Well, I just love Celebrity for its service and its cleanliness, and they didn't disappoint. Everywhere you looked, someone was cleaning, painting, or scrubbing. Our bathroom was clean enough to eat off the floor. Within minutes of getting into our room (after the customary mimosa upon embarking), we were greeted by our friendly steward, Nonet, and his assistant, Clive, who were just simply out of this world. Our every wish and whim was granted in minutes. I didn't have enough good things to say about them; if I could have graded them above excellent, I would have.
The Metropolitan Restaurant: No complaints here. Our waiter, Putu, and assistant waiter, Vlada, were the epitome of Celebrity's spectacular service. I know I've gained about 10 pounds from the excellent food. We were celebrating two 50th anniversaries in our party, and the wait staff and the wonderful maitre d', Ajay, helped us celebrate with individual chocolate cakes and singing. If you have something to celebrate, don't forget to tell the server. Those cakes are amazing.
The Olympic Restaurant: Three words - Oh. My. God. It was worth being on the ship just to experience this wonderful place. We weren't sure at first, because, being country folk, we were a little intimidated by the French menu and the overall elegance it was just the kind of place where I'd drop gravy on my dress with the first bite. But thanks to the impeccable service of the waiters, we experienced what was probably the best food on the ship, if not the best food we've ever eaten. I highly recommend the lobster and the Crepes Ballon Rouge. Strawberries with balsamic vinegar and brandy taste incredible. Definitely worth making a reservation and spending the extra money; don't miss it.
Disembarkation: Ah, Celebrity, you lose a star here. Please take a page from the Disney Cruise Line and allow people to leave the ship after eating breakfast, like we were just in port, instead of herding them into locations to wait for hours and a number to be called. Really, this just does not work. While calling groups of people at a time to leave seems to be the way to make people leave a little at a time, the end result is actually a stampede, resulting in clogged elevators, clogged hallways, clogged waiting venues, no seats, elderly people accidentally running over your toes with wheelchairs just a mess. No one wants to leave their luggage unattended, so you're constantly climbing over other people's bags. I shudder to think what would happen if there was an actual emergency in which we had to evacuate the ship. (Insert Titanic soundtrack music here.) Disney knows how to move the masses. Please check with them on how things are done. And while having a TV to watch in the theater is great while you wait, the volume should be turned off when announcements are made so we can actually hear that the gangway has been moved to another deck.
Overall Impression of the Cruise: Despite my gripes, if I was offered a chance to take this tour again, I'd do it without question. In a second. Alaska is so utterly gorgeous, and it's so worth the time and effort for a land tour and a cruise. By plane, by train, and by ship, while you sit back with a delicious hot drink and a warm blanket, pampered every step of the way no one does a cruise tour like Celebrity, even with a few dings and dents. No trip is 100 percent perfect, but Celebrity sure comes close. Thanks again, guys.