We planned this trip of a lifetime for over a year, and it worked out better than anyone could imagine. There were two adults and two children in our cabin, and we travelled with another couple. The itinerary is a great one, with the only drawback being a Monday to Monday trip.
We got to Vancouver Friday night and had some of the best weather of the summer to tour the city. I love Vancouver, and can't wait to go back there for a week! The only drawback is that we couldn't seem to get on Cruise Critic boards from local hotel wi-fi. Oh well!
Embarkation was a breeze (it didn't hurt that we were in a suite, but it really did not change the time we spent going through security or checking in). We boarded around noon and went straight to lunch. Departure was delayed slightly by several groups who had NCL transfers from the airport who had not arrived on board by 4:00 PM. Again, not a problem, we were on vacation!
It's a shame that most of the Inside Passage portion of the trip takes place at night. I did go out on the balcony from time to time during the night, but could not see too much. Tuesday dawned bright and early as we were cruising through some narrow channels. Watching this from the balcony was definitely the way to go. For those who worry about port side vs. starboard side, I don't think it mattered much. On our trip, there were a couple more whales on the port side, but the scenery was incredible wherever you looked.
Wednesday was our first port day in Ketchikan. We docked at berth #4, which is a ways north of most of the town. We had privately booked expeditions (ziplining and zodiacs) through Southeast Exposure. Everything went off without a hitch, and we were back on board for lunch before heading out again to enjoy more beautiful weather. Made it to Creek Street with too little time to spend any money (a good thing?) I might suggest to NCL that they extend the stay in Ketchikan by an hour or two, as I could have spent more time in the town. But I suppose if it had been chilly or raining, I might feel differently.
Thursday found us in Juneau, still without a cloud in the sky. I brought only 3 pairs of shorts, and at this point, had worn them all twice! It is in Juneau that I first realized I had a sun burn under the relentless Alaskan sun! We had been out on the balcony most of the morning prior to arrival due to all of the whale sightings. Our group of 6 rented a car and managed to spend a couple of hours at Mendenhall Glacier, then the Macauley Salmon Hatchery, Alaskan Brewery, Red Dog Saloon, and Mount Roberts Tram and hiking. I think this might be the way to go with a group, as we covered much more ground than many of the ship's tours. The Sun docks at the AJ Dock, which is about a mile south of town. Could have been more convenient, but it really didn't come into play for our group.
Another fabulous sail away and evening, and we woke up in Skagway on Friday. Still, not a clound in the sky. In the morning, our group took a flightseeing flight with Mountain Flying Service that was so awesome that the pilot asked if everyone was OK because we were all so quiet. I could not come up with words to describe the vistas. When we landed on mud flats across the inlet from Haines and the engine was turned off, you got the full feeling of the grandness of Alaska, with wildflowers, glacier rivers flowing over gravel bars, deep fjords, and soaring mountains. I am not gifted enough with words to describe how it felt to be there at that moment.
Friday afternoon, we took our only ship based excursion - to the Klondike Gold Fields / Dog Sled / 40 Below. The tour provider was at best disorganized and at worst uncaring and inept. Buses were late picking us up, and then delayed further while we went to another dock to pick up additional guests. We were further delayed by train crossings. The driver chose to skip the city tour portion of the trip as he was so far behind. All in all, we arrived at the attraction site about a mile outside of town almost an hour into our three hour tour. We then were packed like sardines into a small room for a ten minute video presentation about the Iditarod. There had to be about 100 people in a space meant for no more than 75. Afterwords, I did enjoy the Q&A with the man who had actually competed in the Iditarod 8 times, and the girls liked seeing the puppies. The '40 Below' room had been toured by so many people that warm summer day that the water freezing instantly demonstration didn't work at all. We estimated the temps might have been 20 above in the equivalent of a walk in freezer. One young boy was in there with just shorts and a t-shirt. The gold panning portion was better, but of course there was little gold found. This excursion was highly overpriced. After the wonderful experiences with private bookings the rest of the way, we should have done something different.
Saturday was Glacier Bay, and our first clouds of the trip. Still, it cleared as we cruised north in the morning, and we had sunshine as we took in first Johns Hopkins Glacier and then Marjorie and the Grand Pacific Glaciers. Magnificent! We were fortunate again to have our own balcony to watch the glaciers from. The front observation deck and the sun deck were examples of all the things that can be wrong with people - crowding, pushing, being rude. Definitely a 'me first' attitude displayed by my cruising companions - I was a bit ashamed. We retreated to our cabin after just about 10 minutes on deck because of it. We couldn't hear the National Park Service ranger on our balcony, but at least we could hear the glaciers snapping and crashing. By about 1:00, we were leaving the glacier portion of the bay. If you slept late, you missed it! As we left the bay, there were a number of whale sightings again, and I spent quite a bit of time trying to get a camera shot of spouting or breaching. No luck. Almost all of the whales were quite a long ways off from the ship, so you needed good eyes and a better zoom lens to really be able to see them.
On Sunday morning, we woke at 8:00 to find we were already at Hubbard Glacier. It was foggy and dim, with our first rain of the trip. My wife and I dashed off to grab a specialty coffee and some breakfast and woke the kids to see the views. The 13 year old wrapped herself in blankets and sat inside the cabin by the door. The rest of us went out on the balcony to experience the Alaska weather we thought we would be getting all along. Another beautiful place with a scale and size that is hard to capture. We saw some large pieces calve off as the captain spun us around twice, and then we were off again to Whittier. I think many people may have missed Hubbard Glacier due to the early hour and lack of information about when we would be there. NCL could do better with their schedule there as well.
The rest of the trip was spent packing and eating, and we arrived in Whittier earlier than we thought (being docked by 6:15 or so).
This review has almost exclusively talked about Alaska, and little has been said about the Sun. Alaska is the star attraction, and the wonderful weather we had made it all that much more visible. So, how was the ship itself you say?
We had an aft facing suite (#9076) that was still small by any comparison, yet was about twice the size of an inside cabin. It did give us two separate areas so the girls could sleep on the couch and my wife and I were in the bedroom. The balcony was huge and wonderful. All of us took baths in the tub with jacuzzi jets at one time or the other. Still, the suite was by no means luxurious. Cushions were worn, and several lights were not working. The one night we had dinner served by the butler on the balcony, he struggled to bring the table into the room and we ended up with the girls at the coffee table and my wife and I at the room service table. Still, we had fun and were comfortable in the room. If it were available, and I had kids with me, I would stay in the same cabin again.
The girls (11 and 13) both spent quite a bit of time in the kids club and teen club, making friends that we saw again later in Alaska after our cruise. Both programs were great for our girls. I even ordered pizza for the counselors one night to show my appreciation (as well as tipping generously).
My wife and I and the other couple took in two shows and parts of others. We did not see anything impressive. There was a comedian who really turned us off, and acrobat/Cirque du Soleil pair that was more than halfway good, and the illusionist, who did a lot of things with magic boxes and people appearing and disappearing. I should have been 'ooh'ing and 'ahh'ing at that, but was really not inspired or impressed. The other shows with the Sun production crew were just loud noise to me, and we found entertainment elsewhere.
As for food. Well, I've said this before about NCL's food. What it lacks in quality, it more than makes up for in quantity and availability. I never went more than 3 hours without eating something. Breakfast in Il Adagio was possibly the best meal of the day and the only place I got a decent steak. Dinner in Il Adagio (chicken parm) was close to awful. The Moderno restaurant was so-so, with everything a little too salty. Again, I have seldom had the opportunity to eat two pounds of meat in one sitting, even if it was just lower than top notch tasting stuff, so in that sense, it was fun. Service in the Seven Seas main dining room was painfully slow, even on the night where we dined with officers. Don't plan on going to a show within the next two hours if you eat in the main dining room! The Garden Cafe and the Great Outdoors and BBQ were the best places to get food. Expectations were lower there, and the food just a bit tastier. It was just really hard to find a place to sit, so we often brought our food back to the cabin. Bar service was generally good to excellent, and we found snacks in the sports bar that were delivered hot and fast. We did order pizza a couple of times and found it to be pretty good. The pizza bar available at lunch was not as good, though.
Pretty much everywhere we went, our attention returned to the passing scenery, and did not dwell on the ship much at all. If we had looked more carefully, I think we would have seen a lot of areas with rust on the exterior and tears and stains on the seats and cushions. I know we often exited the aft elevators on deck 6 and wondered what the awful stench was (hopefully not from the Seven Seas dining room.) But Alaska was the star, and the Sun was a suitable supporting character.