Arrival and touring Seattle. Since this was a Seattle to Seattle itinerary and we had not been in Seattle for many years, we arrived a day early and took some time to wander around Seattle. the highlight was the Chihuly glass Museum. The man does magic with glass. The Space Needle remained un-visited since it was hazy and there wasn't much to see even from that height. We took the monorail from Space Needle to downtown and it seemed familiar enough that we were surprised when Tomorrowland wasn't at the other end. Very Disneyesque. The Pike's Market area was crowded but very interesting with many unique shops and vendors. Pike's Brewery and Pub was another highlight. A very scenic day that was worthy of many pictures.
The Holiday Inn had a $7 per person flat rate shuttle that departed to pier 91 every half hour. Embarkation was quick and uneventful, getting us aboard at around 11:45am. I have to say that stepping onto the ship and being handed a glass of champagne never gets old.The ship was much as we remembered her with the last five years having little effect on her beauty. The wear and tear we did notice consisted of small things like worn edges on wooden chairs and weathering of the exterior teak furniture, which in my view simply added character. Moving into our stateroom offered no surprises. It was clean and comfortable just as expected. We welcomed ourselves aboard by eating dinner at the Tuscan Grille. Absolutely worth the price of admission! The first day was a sea day and my early morning photo walkabout confirmed the condition of the ship... still pretty after all these years. We had sailed on the Reflection in April of this year and though the ship are sisters and share many of the same features, there were some noticeable differences. The most disturbing difference was the fact that Michael's club had not yet been converted to a craft brew bar as it had on the Reflection. (*sigh*) I had not remembered that the tail end of the Oceanview Cafe and the Sunset Bar were constructed very differently on the two ships. The Sky Lounge on deck 14 forward has not yet had its port half cannibalized for a super-suite. A Molecular Bar has been added but Qsine was missing. One of my favorite features of the ship is still there. The Golden Ant room has not changed and is as intriguing as ever.
Food & Drink
As mentioned before, our first night's dinner was in the Tuscan Grille and was spectacular. Possibly the single best steak I've ever had. Very flavorful and you could cut it with a dirty look. The food in the main dining room paled by comparison but was still very good with decent variety. Our waiter wasn't bad but spent an awful lot of time reminding us of how important good marks on the comment card were to him. We realize how important those marks are and if he spent half that time and effort remembering our names or drink preferences we would give them to him without prompting. We have had a long string of excellent waiters and maybe our expectations were too high. The Oceanview Cafe gets a lot of bad press for serving the same food every day. While this is mostly true, one has to consider that the number of dishes and variety is very large and one could go many days without repeating a meal. The food itself is tasty and well presented so, it gets a thumbs up from us. Since most of our alcohol is served courtesy of the Captain's Club, we only visited a couple of the bars. If you haven't tried the Molecular Bar, do so. Truly unique flavors and very interesting to watch them being made. The Martini Bar makes some of the best martinis available on any ship we've been on and most shore-side bars as well. On the second sea day a brunch was presented in the main dining room. This highly visual event has replaced the mostly ignored midnight buffet and judging by the lines at the omelet and waffle stations, wastes a lot less fancy food. we tried the burgers and hotdogs at the Mast Grille one day and found them to be made with quality ingredients and well prepared. The condiment selection was pretty lean but I guess one could go back into the Oceanview Cafe and raid the salad bar.
Ports & Excursions
Ketchikan was our first stop and I have to say that the little town hasn't changed much in 15 years. it was a little touristy back then and it's a little touristy now. Still quaint and a lot of fun. We did our shopping early then departed on our shore excursion to visit Alaska's black bears. On our fifth trip to Alaska, we finally saw bears thanks to the Alaska Rainforest Sanctuary. The tour had great guides and very effective viewing platforms. The first part was a little unnerving...walking down the path to the platforms, stepping over bear poop and listening to every tiny sound on either side of the trail. All in all it was a wonderful tour and we would do it again in a heartbeat.
The day in Juneau started late due to glacier viewing in Tracy Arm being on the schedule for that morning. Our excursion started by leaving the ship and boarding a tour boat right in the middle of the fjord. The smaller boat was able to approach within a quarter mile of the face of two different glaciers and gave us the most spectacular glacier day we have ever experienced. We visited several inlets too small for the big ship and were close enough to the ice floes to see the seals basking. Several times we were almost close enough to touch the face of the five thousand foot cliffs towering over the fjord. They even backed the ship up so close to a small glacial waterfall that one of the crew actually stuck his head in the icy cascade, much to the delight of all onboard. During the long trip back to meet the ship in Juneau, we enjoyed an unscheduled but spectacular encounter with a pod of humpback whales resulting in my best fluke photo to date. We re-boarded the ship on one side and immediately boarded a tender on the other to head to the town for our whale watching tour later in the day. We had a few hours to kill so we wandered around the shopping district with our friends for an hour or so then split up and headed over to Sandy’s Crab Shack for a quick lunch. If you haven’t had the pleasure, Sandy’s is located in an alley behind a parking structure. It reminded us of one of the nicer food booths at a state fair. Simple, clean and really, really good food. The crab bisque and crab cakes were as advertised...excellent. After lunch we went the rally point for the afternoon tour and soon boarded the bus to the boat. It was a Celebrity arranged tour run by the same company as the Tracy Arm tour and we didn’t regret choosing a ship-sponsored tour over finding one on our own. Our driver gave a lively running commentary on the way and before we knew it we were on our way back out to sea in search of whales. It would have been one of our best whale watching trips to date if we hadn’t had that moment of incredible good fortune on the return from tracy Arm. Still, it was a good show and we were treated to a great sunset on the way back in. The bus ride back to the dock was as entertaining as the trip out and we ended the day with a quiet but heartfelt woo-hoo.
What can you say about Skagway? Historic? Yes. Successful. Quite. A hundred “Isn’t Texas cute?” t-shirts for each resident? Probably. We didn’t have a tour scheduled so we did the Broadway shopping walk and stopped for lunch at the Skagway Brewing Company pub at the end of the retail strip. After a long, meandering walk back through the crowds, we were ready for a nap and the Captain’s Club cocktail hour.
Sea Day and Victoria
Thursday was a quiet day cruising the inside passage. It started out as a foggy mystery and suddenly, there was sun. When I say suddenly, I mean suddenly! One minute we couldn’t see 50 yards on any direction and then, boom! We sailed out a wall of fog into a beautiful sunny day that lasted all the way to Victoria. We were scheduled to be in Victoria for only a few hours to satisfy the Jones Act so we chose to just hang out on the ship. A relaxing evening ended with bidding our suitcases adieu courtesy of the Luggage Valet program. Twenty bucks per person and your luggage is delivered to the airport, checked in for you and you get to walk off the ship as soon as it is cleared the next morning. You don’t see it again until you get to your final destination. It isn’t offered in every port but when it is, we jump on the chance to use it.
Disembarkation and Home
The ship cleared on time and we were off and on our way to the airport by 9:00 AM. We bought transfers the day we boarded since the $27/pp was about the same as a taxi and about as reliable as you can get. A four hour wait in the terminal and we were on our way. No muss, no fuss.
This was our fifth trip to Alaska and we feel that it was the best so far. The weather was incredible compared to the past trips and the Solstice was a wonderful venue unto itself. Our mediocre waiters (a first for us on Celebrity) were offset by the Captain’s Club loyalty ambassador, Tenushka (sp?) who was engaging and a perfect hostess for our entire trip. Celebrity’s unusual policy regarding Captain’s club events was the only smudge on a shiny experience. Why they will hand out thousands of dollars worth of booze at a gathering to anyone who holds out their hand but insist that you pay for sparkling water if a member doesn’t want to drink alcohol is confusing to say the least. The $2.88 for a San Peligrino (including mandatory tip) wasn’t more than a blip on the cost of our cruise but it certainly highlights what happens when a policy is made based on some bottom line calculation without taking a moment to look at the downstream results in any detail. Our tours were Alaska-expensive but worth every penny. The ports haven’t changed much over the years and that’s fine with us. The bottom line: We had a great time on a great ship that took us to a great place.
Photos can be seen at my share site: http://galleries.pptphoto.com/alaska2013