We have always wanted to take an Alaskan cruise and upon finding a good deal online, our group of six (ages 24-67) booked our three inside cabins less than three weeks before embarkation through Costco. We were assigned three rooms that happened to be handicapped rooms. Two of the rooms (E717 and E714) were very spacious with sitting areas complete of a second TV, minibar, and a sofa. I read somewhere that people have described this layout as an "inside mini suite". The third room (E706) was smaller, without the sitting area, but still bigger than other inside cabins. All three rooms were very close to the elevators and the dining rooms. It was easy getting to all areas of the ship since the Emerald deck (deck #8) goes the entire length of the ship so we could easily walk to the very front or the very aft of the ship then take the elevators or stairs up to wherever we want to go. Overall very comparable to Carnival -- except the towel animals were missing :D.
FOOD: It seems that on port days the offerings for sit-down dinners were better than other days. We had surf & turf one day with king crab legs as appetizers, and lobsters and escargot on another day. For breakfast, the buffet usually has all the selections offered by the sit-down breakfast. But for dinner, the dining rooms had better offerings than the buffet. We especially liked the shrimps, very good quality every time. We also visited Alfredo's Pizzeria -- very good thin-crust pizzas indeed. At the pool area in the afternoons, we'd happened upon reindeer chili (so-so), fish & shrimp kebab (loved it!), sandwiches, etc. The bratwurst station near the pool was pretty good too, but I don't think I enjoyed any of their chowders offered anywhere, in the dining room, at the buffet or at the afternoon stations. We brought six bottles of wines with us but we ended up only drinking three. After eating so much alcohol seemed like extra calories we didn't need to consume. We did order occasional beers with our pizzas though :).
ENTERTAINMENT: Dance & song shows were very mediocre. We are from NYC so we have high standards. The stand-up comedian (Duncan?) was the highlight; his ADHD persona was very funny indeed. Some people liked the international crew show but we also thought it was just so-so. The crew director's fiddler on the roof segment was quite good though. Our family friend enjoyed the karaoke hours and oldies in Club Fusion. We got into the hot tub and watched Oz at Movies Under the Stars. It was very enjoyable and kind of funny since everyone else on the lounge chairs was hiding under winter jackets and blankets while we were in our swimsuits. They had relatively new movies rotating on TV so sometimes we actually stayed in our rooms and watched Iron Man 3, Skyfall, Wreck It Ralph, and Quartet.
ANCHORAGE/WHITTIER: We flew into Anchorage and stayed the night at Springhill Suites University Lake which had an airport shuttle that could also take you anywhere into downtown area. It was a nice rest and breakfast was plentiful, and we took a walk around the lake after breakfast before we took their shuttle to the other Springhill Suites downtown to be picked up by Alaska Cruise Transportation shuttle to Whittier. The University Lake location seemed much nicer and newer than the Downtown one. The bus ride was pretty smooth, and it stopped at a scenic spot and again at a wildlife reserve so we were able to have lunch and see some caribou and moose before the cruise even began. It was an economical and painless way to connect to the cruise.
EMBARKATION: Embarkation was quite efficient and smooth. We had to unload the luggage from the shuttle bus onto the receiving area. It was a rainy day so it would've been nice if the staff could get the luggage directly from the bus since the bus parked right in front of the receiving station and the staff had raincoats on and we didn't. No big deals though, it was just a matter of taking the luggage from the left of us and passing it to the right. Just the rain made it kind of annoying. The line wasn't long at 2:45pm, and after filling out a quick info sheet we were onboard in 15min. Luggage was delivered after dinner.
HUBBARD GLACIER: It was a cold day when we got to Hubbard Glacier. Our cabins had no windows, so we went up to the Horizon Buffet area on deck 14 early and sat down at a table for six which allowed us to drink tea and eat all day while enjoying the scenery indoors. Later on two of us ventured outside to take pictures, and decided to follow the two brave souls in the hot tub to enjoy the view from the back of the ship. It was a very good decision and we got great views of the enormous glacier and calving while relaxing in hot water. The cold and windy day meant we had the hot tub to ourselves (there were two hot tubs at the AFT, deck 16, so the other couple had a hot tub to themselves, and we had the other).
GLACIER BAY NATIONAL PARK: The park ranger talk was so well attended we had to sit on the steps and some of us decided to skip it. But it was the best ranger talk we'd heard, and everyone had the same sentiment. We again got a table near the buffet. It was a sunny day so unfortunately we could not get the hot tub to ourselves so we just stayed around the table and walked around the ship some times to get better shots.
SKAGWAY: We booked the Emerald Lake tour with Dyea Dave and opted to take the scenic train back from Fraser. Debbie drove our 21-passenger shuttle and was very friendly and knowledgeable. She made frequent stops for us to take photos, and the Emerald Lake was indeed very special, well worth the long ride. We were very happy to have taken the train back even though the price of the train ride was more than the tour. As amazing as the scenic spots were during the tour, the scenery for the train portion was even better! We stayed between the cars and leaned out to take tons of photos. I'd say sit on the right side going back to Skagway -- most of the scenery is on the right side.
JUNEAU: our parents went whale watching with Harv & Marv. They didn't seem very enthusiastic about their experience although we read good reviews. Their friend, afraid of being sea sick, opted to stay on the ship and enjoyed a leisurely day. Three of us children went on a glacier trek with Above and Beyond Alaska tours with Chelsea. There were two other people in our group so it was a very intimate hike with just six people overall. We loved this excursion! It was physical but not too strenuous, and where else do we get a chance to walk on a glacier??? We started the hike at 8:30am and got to Mendenhall glacier around 10:30am. After snacking and putting on our crampons we were on the ice by 11am. We walked all around and visited an ice cave (so cool!), filled up our water bottles with glacier water, then got off the glacier at 1pm. We made our way back just before the ship took off at 3:20pm. We are not very experienced hikers (we had to buy hiking boots just for this excursion -- our KEEN boots worked very well), but Chealsea is very experienced so we felt safe the entire way.
KETCHIKAN: It was a drizzling day and we were glad that we booked with Ketchikan Taxi Cab Tours who picked us up at the Discovery Center 5 min away from where our ship docked. We got the town map from visitor info center as we got off the ship. David took us to spots where we could see eagles perching on trees near the hatchery, salmon jumping out of the water, Totem Bight Park, took us berry picking and tasting, and answered tons of questions we had about the area and his former life as a commercial fisherman. We also caught a glimpse of the arrival of Native Americans who paddled all the way from Vancouver (the last of such event was 15 years ago). We all enjoyed the tour tremendously and would highly recommend booking with Ketchikan Taxi Cab Tours. The van was very nimble and we were able to stop wherever we pleased. David dropped us off at Creek Street at the end and we got some souvenir shopping done.
DISEMBARKATION & CUSTOMS: We missed the chance to do self help check out for 7:30am disembarkation because we didn't read the disembarkation request form until after it had to be turned in. It's ok because we didn't want to carry our own luggage around that morning anyways and we wanted to eat breakfast before we left the ship. So we were assigned to leave at 9:55am. We had to clear our rooms by 8am, so we headed up to the buffet and hung out until 9:40am. We were able to leave the ship soon after we got to our designated waiting/meeting spot, picked up our luggage at the designated area where they had carts available, and got on a cab to go out our hotel near the airport at Richmond (cab fare $40). Very smooth I'd say.
Very relaxing vacation, overate as predicted, but finally could cross off "Alaskan Cruise" off our bucket list! :)