NORWEGIAN JEWEL ALASKA CRUISE July 20-27, 2013
Just returned from a 7 day Sawyer Glacier cruise to Alaska on the Norwegian Jewel. I was traveling with 2 friends. This was one of the best cruises I have taken, and I am so glad we did an Alaska cruise. We originally booked an interior stateroom, which did raise some concerns about being cramped. Two days before the cruise, NCL called to offer an upgrade to a balcony cabin for a very reasonable price. We were extremely glad we took advantage of the upgrade. We made extensive use of the balcony. I would now say having a balcony on an Alaska cruise really makes a major difference in your experience. We were still a little crowded in the 205 sq ft balcony stateroom, so I can just imagine how cramped the original 143 sq ft interior stateroom would have been.
PRE & POST-CRUISE HOTELS & TRANSFERS
We purchased one night pre and post-cruise hotel packages from NCL in Seattle. We arrived rather late (from three different cities) the night before the cruise, so we did not really get to enjoy the Renaissance Hotel in Seattle. It was a very nice hotel, but I actually liked the Crowne Plaza where we stayed the night after the cruise better. The room at the Crowne Plaza was much more spacious. Both hotels are conveniently located in downtown Seattle with easy access to all attractions.
Transfer to and from the ship and hotels was included in the hotel packages. They transfer you on a large coach. I am not sure this was really a convenience, however. Our transfer from the Renaissance Hotel to the ship went pretty smoothly, but the transfer from the ship to the Crowne Plaza took a long time because they had problems opening and closing a door on the bus to load a passenger in a wheelchair. I would think these things would be regularly inspected to comply with safety regulations, but it seemed this door had not been used or tested in a very long time. All in all, I think we would have had a quicker and smoother transfer from hotel to ship and vice versa if we had taken a taxi on our own.
Embarkation went fairly smoothly. The Seattle cruise terminal used by NCL is a bit cramped. There is only one security screening area, and the line was long and winding, but it moved fast. Once we got through security, the check-in desk was very cramped with makeshift stations set up on tables to add additional check-in stations. You were shoulder-to-shoulder with the people checking in at the stations next to you. Check-in went pretty quickly and we walked right on the ship. They announced staterooms were ready while we were having lunch right after boarding. We left Seattle right on time at 4 pm.
GENERAL IMPRESSIONS OF THE JEWEL
I have sailed on the Norwegian Star and Dawn, so the layout of the Norwegian Jewel was very familiar. Although its a newer ship than the Star, Dawn or Sun, which I have also sailed on, I found the Jewel to be more worn than any of these other ships. There were no serious issues, but the furniture was more worn than I have seen on other NCL ships. This was especially true of the chairs in the Tsars Palace dining room. They were nicked, scraped and chipped. Perhaps the Jewel has not yet gone into dry dock for refurbishment. I dont want to make too much of these relatively minor issues, as they really did not impact our enjoyment of the cruise at all. One of the things that really makes me cringe when reading reviews on Cruise Critic is the phrase: Its showing its age. Usually people who say this are the ones inspecting every inch of the ship with a microscope.
As previously mentioned, we were upgraded to a balcony. I cant imagine having done this cruise now without the balcony. I like the general decor of NCL cabins. I like the wood (laminate?) walls and the colorful but tasteful design. I also like NCL showers such as they have on the Jewel, Star and Dawn the best of all cruise lines I have been on, The rectangular showers are quite roomy, and I like the glass doors instead of a shower curtain. Id prefer they did not have the wall separating the sink area and toilet. I think that makes the bathroom a little cramped, but its not a big deal. Because there were 3 of us in the cabin, the sofa turned into a 3rd bed. I find the beds on NCL ships to be very comfortable. I've read complaints about the beds being hard, but I prefer a firm bed. I slept on the sofa sleeper bed. It did not feel like a sofa sleeper at all. It felt like a regular bed. I would have liked a thicker pillow though. When the stateroom attendant opened the sofa sleeper in the evening, it did block easy access to the balcony, but we were able to squeeze through to the balcony without much difficulty. Storage space in the stateroom was very good. Some of the furniture in the cabin looks like it had been a while since it was dusted.
We ate in both main dining rooms, at the buffet, the poolside BBQ, Cagneys, La Cucina and Moderno. I thought the food was good at all locations. Selection was good. We ordered the delivery pizza ($5 charge for a large pizza) to eat on our balcony while we were sailing through the Tracy Arm. The pizza was hot, fresh and very tasty. It was much better than the free pizza at the buffet.
Seating at the buffet was often a challenge, more so than I experienced on the 3 other NCL ships on which I have sailed. The Jewel has a Great Outdoors seating area as an extension of the buffet at the back of the ship. Im not sure this is very practical for an Alaska cruise, however, since it was often too cold to sit out there to eat while at sea or at night. Food got cold pretty quickly when seated in the Great Outdoors area. They seemed to be pumping heat into the area from somewhere, but it was not adequate in countering the cold winds. During lunch and breakfast, they do open La Cucina for overflow seating for the buffet. It was easier to get a table there on most days. My biggest complaint with the buffet was the lack of utensils. Most tables in the Great Outdoors area lacked baskets with the pre-wrapped utensils, salt and pepper shakers and condiments. Tables that had the baskets often were empty or only had one or two set in the basket. On previous NCL cruises these baskets were always filled with sets of utensils and staff were always walking around with trays to refill the baskets with new sets. I never once saw staff carrying trays to refill the utensil sets in the baskets. By the time you found a table and then searched for a set of utensils, your food would often be cold. I liked that the buffet had several islands rather than a cafeteria line setup, but all the food islands were all at one end of the buffet. If you were seated in the Great Outdoors it was a long walk back to the food stations to get dessert or seconds. It would have been better to position the food stations in the center. The layout and management of the buffet on the Jewel were definitely inferior to the buffets on the 3 other NCL ships I have sailed on. I ate in the buffet on the Jewel less frequently than on other NCL ships due to these problems.
Entertainment on the Jewel was fantastic. We really enjoyed the shows in the Stardust Theatre. Band on the Run was on the second night, and the acrobat couple from Ukraine called Soul Duo who performed on night 4 were incredible. Their show is not to be missed. The Soul Duo team also performed in the Le Cirque Bijou show on night 6. This is another must see show.
Ketchikan is more of a working fishing port than a tourist destination. I think Ketchikan works best as a starting point for excursions in the area. The ship docks right in the center of town, so everything in town is an easy walk. The Creek St area was cute, and the waterfront area in town was nice. They have a visitor center with clean restrooms right on the waterfront. We visited the Totem Heritage Center, which was interesting. It costs $5 to enter. It was fun watching the floatplanes take off and land right alongside the ship. They sure have a lot of floatplanes in Ketchikan. Theres the Lumberjack show right in town, which I wish we had done instead of the Duck tour. The Duck tour was very disappointing, and it cost $42 a person. I have done the Duck tour in Boston and thought it was fantastic. Of course, Boston is a large city with countless cultural and historic attractions. The Ketchikan Duck tour included a short drive through the center of town, followed by a short sail in the harbor. You can see everything in town much better on foot. The highlight of the water portion of the Duck tour was the closed Burger King and the story of why it failed in Ketchikan. The failure of the Burger King had to do with the position of the drive-up window and fierce winds in winter. Fascinating! ? Also, the Duck tour vehicle was enclosed in plexiglass with only small portholes for ventilation. The roof was clear plexiglass, which allowed the sun to beat down on the passengers. This created a greenhouse-type environment that was stifling I wanted to do the catamaran cruise to the Misty Fjords, but it was very pricey. Another alternative I liked was the canoe and rainforest hike excursion. My friends and I dithered about what to do in Ketchikan, and we opted for the Duck tour only upon arrival in Ketchikan.
Juneau is a nice, clean town. We did the rafting trip on the river at the Mendenhall Glacier booked through Viator ($135/per person). Views of the glacier and mountains were beautiful on this trip. The rapids were fun but not too rough, making the excursion appropriate for all ages. I was surprised a bit that the river passed through a suburban area towards the end of the trip. We looked at more backyards than wilderness during this portion of the trip. The provided snacks of salmon spread, crackers, reindeer sausage and veggies at the end of the rafting trip. We saw a couple of bald eagles, but no other wildlife on the river. The free shuttle takes you from the ship to the visitor center at the base of the Mt Roberts Tramway. Here all the tour companies have booths where you can easily arrange any type of excursion in the Juneau area. The price for the shuttle to the Mendenhall Glacier was $8. Im not sure if that was roundtrip or not, as we had transportation included in our excursion to the river rafting at Mendenhall Lake.
Tracy Arm/Sawyer Glacier
We departed Juneau at 1:30 pm and arrived at the entrance to the Tracy Arm around 4:00 pm. The weather was beautiful when we left Juneau, but it got misty and overcast when we reached the Tracy Arm. This did not really impact our enjoyment of the Tracy Arm, however, as we could still see everything pretty well. The ice flow increased the deeper we got into the fjord. We had a good view of the Sawyer Glacier, but we could not close enough to see it calfing due to the heavy ice flow. Seeing the Tracy Arm and Sawyer Glacier was quite an experience.
Skagway is a real frontier, Gold Rush town. It is very clean and well-preserved. We booked an excursion to British Columbia and Yukon, which lasted 6 hours, so we didnt have much time to explore Skagway. Its a small town which consists of one street in its commercial district, so we did manage a quick tour of the town when we got back from our excursion. Its a short walk to the ship from town, but it started raining pretty hard while we were walking back so we were pretty wet and cold when we boarded the ship.
British Columbia & Yukon Excursion
We booked this excursion through Viator. The tour was run by Frontier Excursions & Adventures. Our guide Ian was excellent. They picked us up at the dock and we drove up the Klondike Highway into British Columbia and then up to Carcross, Yukon. The snow-capped mountains and glacial lakes were spectacular. Lunch was provided at the Caribou Crossing stop in Yukon. It consisted of tasty BBQ chicken, half a baked potato, coleslaw and donuts for dessert. Drinks are available for purchase. They have a small museum and gift shop as well as a petting zoo for children. They also have sled dogs there that you can play with and take pictures with for free. You can also travel up to Carcross, Yukon on the White Pass Railroad from Skagway. I believe the rail excursion costs quite a bit more (approx $170/per person) than we paid ($103/per person) for the van tour. Going by van we saw the same scenery as the rail trip and had more flexibility to make stops at scenic spots. Also, I dont know if they transport the rail passengers to the Caribou Crossing stop outside Carcross.
Sailing the Inside Passage
One of my friends said the scenery sailing the Inside Passage made him feel like he was in the Lord of the Rings movies. Sailing the Inside Passage is a stunning voyage that everyone should have a chance to experience. Snow-capped mountains, glaciers, deep green forests, the sea, the sky all contributed to an amazing experience. Sunsets (around 10 pm) were a blaze of color. We didnt see as much wildlife as we hoped, but the animals are not adhering to a schedule for our benefit. We saw some dolphins, a brief glimpse of an orca, a couple of bald eagles. We did not see any bears or moose.
We arrived in Victoria at 2:30 pm on our last day. We opted to sightsee independently. We walked around town and took a short harbor cruise. Victoria is clean and cute. I liked it more than I expected.
The demographics of our cruise were very diverse. There were young, old, middle aged, all races, multi-generations families, singles, couples, groups of friends, all types of relationships represented. There were a lot of children on the cruise, and they were all very well behaved. The group on this cruise was a fun group, which was evident from day one by the number of people participating in the sailaway dance party. The Spinnaker Lounge was always crowded at night, and the vibe during all activities was upbeat and fun.
Weather was variable throughout the cruise. I personally did not mind times when it was cold or rainy. It seemed appropriate for the Alaska experience. We had nice weather in Ketchikan and Juneau during our port calls. As mentioned, it started to rain hard at the end of our stay in Skagway, but it was clear and sunny for our excursion up the Klondike Highway to Yukon. It is important to be prepared for any and all types of weather though n an Alaska cruise. Sweatshirts or hoodies, a light raincoat, a warm jacket and gloves and definitely welcome, especially when it gets cold . When it was sunny, temps were spring-like, but it could be very cold and windy at night on deck or sitting on the balcony of our stateroom.
We were among the last to disembark (at 9:30 am) since we had a pre-arranged transfer from the ship to the post-cruise hotel booked through NCL. The disembarkation process went very smoothly. Luggage was easy to find when we got off the ship. As previously mentioned, the transfer to the hotel was delayed due to problems getting the door to load a wheelchair passenger onto the bus opened and then closed again. Thankfully our trip on this bus was a short one. Not sure what this says about the overall maintenance of the bus.