We just got off a fabulous southbound cruise in Alaska -- but there were a few changes to the ship that I would have like to have known in advance...especially since I spent hundreds of hours researching the details beforehand only to find out they were wrong. Read on for full review of the ship experience and excursions as well.
#1. Rita's Cantina is not available on the Alaskan cruises of Radiance of the Seas. They have changed it to Rita's Crabshack! While the offerings were similar to Tracy's Crabshack in Juneau, Rita's prices are lower, probably because legs are considerably smaller at Rita's. Example: one leg at Tracy's is $36. At Rita's it is $13.50. Tracy's offers a 3-4 leg bucket (3 lbs.) for $110. Rita offers a 3 leg bucket (1.5 lbs) for $33. Rita's is still a better deal if you are considering price alone. Also, we went to Tracy's in mid-afternoon and they were sold out of all sandwiches (e.g. crab roll) and crab claws. That left few options for us. (Tracy's bisque was tasty, but not OMG tasty. I wouldn't go back for it. I've had better for less expensive elsewhere--including at Whole Foods' seafood soup bar.) At Rita's I got the bisque/crab cake/crab leg combo for $19. It was just ok. The bisque was enjoyable, the cake was unmemorable, and crab wasn't especially sweet. The best thing about it was that it was cheaper than Tracy's. Neither bisque was better tasting than the other.
#2. Adventure Dining for kids was available EVERY night of the cruise--not just on formal nights as I was led to believe. Dinner choices were severely limited to chicken fingers, hot dogs, and hamburger. I would have liked them to have more fresh options. Still, it was nice to have this option every night--but you MUST sign up in Adventure Ocean by noon on the day you want it. Counselors let me sign up late one afternoon as an accommodation, but were clear that it wouldn't be excused again.
#3. Chops Grill does not allow you to have unlimited entrees. You can have unlimited appetizers and unlimited desserts, but only one entree unless you want to pay an extra $10/additional entree.
#4. Kids 5 and under eat free at Chops Grill. They charged only $8 for each child 6 years and older even though a RCCL rep told me on the phone there were no discounts for children--even after she checked with her supervisor!
#5 Birthday specials. They give you five free minutes of phone calls from Guest Services for your birthday. I found the card with the offer on the door to my room at the end of the day of my birthday. Since my birthday was at the end of the trip, it would have been nice to get this card from the beginning when I could more readily use it. Still, this was a nice unexpected surprise. Our room steward also made a towel "cake" on the bed. It was cute and appreciated. They also served me chocolate cake on my birthday (the same as regularly listed on the dessert menu) but it included a lit candle and a personal round of "Happy Birthday" sung by wait staff and the dining room manager.
#6 The room mini-fridge isn't a fridge, but rather a drink cooler, unsuitable for keeping milk or meat. I wish I had know this in advance. We made several roast beef sandwiches the night before to take with us on an early-morning excursion the next day, only to find out they were inedible because the cooler wasn't cold enough to keep them food-safe.
#7. You get served juice at every meal. I was under the impression our only choices were water, coffee, tea, and iced tea. The Windjammers offers lemonade for every meal. The Park Cafe in the Solarium also offers hot cocoa and a few juice options when open. Windjammer breakfast included oj, apple juice and milk. It was nice to have extra options.
I would recommend Chops Grill restaurant for a special occasion for the fine atmosphere and superb service. It's food was excellent, but only one or two levels above what was served in the main dining room Cascades (which was also wonderful in choices and quality) and not worth spending an extra $30/pp if for food alone.
At Chops Grill, shrimp cocktail had 3 enormous shrimp (4-6/lb size) that were a little too firm for my preference, but served with a delicious vinegary cucumber and wakame salad. The scallop app was served with a bacon aioli that made you want to lick the plate. Mushroom soup in a mini tureen was savory, creamy, full of umami, and deserving of being emptied but I was saving room for the entree. 6 oz Petit filet was tender, tasty, cooked perfectly medium rare and definitely filling after the appetizers. A larger 9 oz was available for the lumberjack appetites in the room. Sides were a la carte and served family style. Cream of spinach was ordinary, as was the under-seasoned boiled asparagus--roasted or broiled would have been better there. Tater tots were more like delicious munchkin-sized potato croquettes, filled with mashed potato and gruyere, then covered with fine breadcrumbs and deep fried.They also offered to deliver the uneaten entrees and dessert to our room via room service (our kids were full after the appetizers and left dinner early to go to Adventure Ocean) .
We ate at Cascades dining room most nights. I would have preferred a private table but instead we were permanently seated at a table with another lovely family and enjoyed sharing stories about our excursions each day. Our servers Alfonso (from Philippines) and Russell (from India) were charming, attentive, and informative. They took the time to learn our names and our preferences. Russell served me my preferred drink every night without me asking after I ordered it the first night. He also brought refills without me having to ask. I also liked that they cleaned the crumbs from the table before dessert--I hate sitting at a messy table. Great service!
The Cascades dinner menu featured a different ingredient each night (saffron, pomodoro, pimiento, seafood, etc). Caesar salad and shrimp cocktail appetizers were offered every night, along with about 7 other choices. Alaskan ling cod (which was flaky, firm, light, moist and delicious--I wish I didn't wait until the last night to order it!), sliders, sirloin, and linguini in tomato sauce were offered as entrees every night, along with about 7 other entrees. There were more entrees for an additional up-charge, like lobster and filet mignon. Overall, entrees were varied and creative, served elegantly arranged. We enjoyed venison, leg of lamb, tandoori chicken, petit filet, salmon, crag legs, eggplant parm, french onion soup, chilled fruit soups, seafood bisque, roast chicken, and more. Desserts were creative, including some low sugar and low fat options, but nothing that had me grasping for more. The creme brulee that was a staple on the dessert menu had too thick a layer of sugar on top--it was a like a thick sheet of candy instead of a delightful thin crackle, and the creme underneath was a bit watery. I couldn't taste the "Bailey's" that was in its name either. The chocolate mousse cake on the menu is the one they serve you for special occasions like birthdays or anniversaries. It too looked beautiful but tasted ordinary. We were often too full for dessert anyway, and the kids sometimes preferred to get soft serve from Windjammers instead.
At Windjammers, food was grouped by type, not by dish, so if you wanted bagels and lox, you had to go to the bread station to get a bagel, then go to the "bagel fixings" station to get lox, onions, capers, and cream cheese. If you wanted egg benedict, you had to pick up the english muffin from the bread station, get a poached egg from elsewhere, pour on the hollandaise sauce separately, and find the canadian bacon elsewhere (I never found it but you could put ham on from the carving station). This made for a very chaotic buffet.
The Windjammer overall had a mix of expected staples (breads, whole and cut fruit, cheeses, pasta, cold salad bar), but several upscale unexpected selections (like the venison from the main dining room). Since we were out most days for lunch, and ate most dinners in the Cascades dining room, it's hard to recall what they had for lunch and dinner. A carving station served smoked ham or roast beef daily, there was a burger bar, and a mayo/deli salad bar. I don't remember there being mac and cheese or swedish meatballs--a mundane staple on other cruise ships--but then again, I wasn't looking too hard. There was a great cheese section for those who like cheese for dessert: manchego, blue, brie, baby swiss, meunster, and cheddar.
There was an Indian section that served Indian favorites like Chicken Tikka, Masoor Dal, Saag Paneer and Veg Biryani (but lacked the curry leaf and chiles for authentic curry flavor and heat--perhaps the aromas would have been overpowering for the venue). They served plain or cumin papads (pappadoms), along with yogurt raita and tomato cucumber salad as sides. But no tamarind or coriander chutney. :'-(
We ate breakfast via room service or Windjammers. Room service breakfast options were very basic: juice, coffee, milk, assorted pastry, cut fruit, scrambled eggs, bacon, hash brown and tomato, plain yogurt, fruit yogurt (their choice), granola, and oatmeal. Cocoa and toast were options only via tv-based room service, not on the card you hang on the door. Windjammers offered Indian Upma for breakfast, a farina-based dish, but as mentioned above, it lacked the essential herbs that make it so enjoyable. Other Windjammer breakfast options included two kinds of sausage (traditional formed breakfast links and "bangers" in sausage casing). They offered grits and congee, but no cream of wheat. A meusli bar with several selections of dried fruits was a unique touch. There were lots of other breakfast options that are standard fare, I just listed the unique ones above.
TIP: eat breakfast on Windjammer's aft outside deck by going through Izumi's or Rita's. There is nobody out there, so it is great for quiet contemplation or privacy--and seeing wildlife.
We didn't eat at Izumi. Izumi had a bad stale smell in it like they need to change the carpets. We get great sushi where we live anyway so didn't want to pay for it onboard. For free sushi on board, wait until the Chocolate Buffet on night 6.
The Chocolate Buffet included colored light displays beneath glacier ice sculptures. There were a few chocolate cake options and profiteroles, several fruity cake options, a few petit fours, but no chocolate fountain, no chocolate sculptures, and no chocolate truffles (unless they disappeared by the time we got there). Don't ask me why they included sushi on the Chocolate Buffet, but it was one of the best things there that night--but they ran out of the pickled ginger early on.
VERY easy to get around, with the elevators on the port side, both fore and aft, which made orientation extremely easy. As a mid-size ship, I found it easy to get around as most frequently visited decks were deck 4 (Guest services; disembarkation, Cascades dining room), deck 11 (Windjammers, outdoor pool, poolside screen, and Solarium), and deck 12.Windjammers was on the same level as the on deck 11. One level up was the Kids Club (Adventure Ocean), outdoor basketball and slide pool. One level up again are the climbing wall and mini golf.
Nice and classy. Although gold chain vendors were near the elevators several days, that was one of the few times I felt the upsell sales pressure. I like that we didn't have to pass through shops or photo galleries every day to get to the dining room or show theater like we did on Disney Wonder. On the contrary, I didn't even know where the shop or photo gallery were until the last night of the cruise--they were not "in your face" like on Disney or NCL.
Not much fun there, but the room is decor was gorgeous, including the inlaid floors.The smoke-free section was relatively smoke-free. I caught a smoker in there and politely directed her to the smoking section. There is no divider between the two, so smoke will waft around, but it was definitely less smoky in the non-smoking section. As for payouts, most of the machines were older games and payout tables for video poker were some of the worst I've seen. Penny slots were also tight.
The indoor pool in the Solarium was open to kids from 10-noon and 2-4, which meant we couldn't use it on most days because we were on excursions. On the last day at sea, lots of older folks were napping on the loungers in here. The water there was VERY cold. The water was warmer ironically at the outdoor pool even though the outdoor air temp was 60-65. I didn't go in but my kids loved it.
Only open during certain hours--mostly when we were on excursions. Didn't use it until last hour of last day at sea when lots of other people gave it a go. A variety of difficulties to try, and helpful motivating staff.
9 rounds with basic holes and few surprises. Nicely landscaped, but pretty low-key and tame. Mostly Par 2 holes. Enjoyable for one or two rounds, but not more.
Adventure Ocean Kids Club:
Very well run, enthusiastic staff, attractive facilities, a variety of fun activities, and exterior windows allow parents to gawk embarrassingly at the kids. They combined the different age groups a few times due to low attendance, but separated at other times.
Staff were very accommodating and kind when 5 year old son had an accident getting to the potty on time. They changed his clothes (bagging up the soiled clothes), had him wash himself, and gave him a free pair of Adventure Ocean logo shorts to wear.
Late night, you pay $7/hour/child from 10 pm - 2 am, (unlike Disney which includes all kids club activities until midnight for free). Late night activities are themed and posted ahead of time so you can schedule for the week. We only did this on the night before our day at sea (because we didn't have to get up early next morn for an excursion), and on the last night so we could pack up and get our luggage placed outside the door by 11.
Overall, very enjoyable. We only went to one production show because we were exhausted from the excursions and had to get up early for the next day. The show was a debut production with moving sets, lots of costume changes, a variety of dance styles including an excellent pas de deux en pointe, and very talented singers. Sound production needed improvement on one singer--her mike kept cutting out--but since it was a first showing I'm sure they'll work out the bugs within the month. Production quality was about 1/3 as good as the Disney Wonder's productions (which were multimillion $$ over-the-top), but 5x better than Norwegian Sky.
The theme was lovers in Atlantis (and around the world), but it was very short on story line. There was no dialogue--the story line was implied by a brief introduction at the beginning, and then carried through by the lyrical selections (love song hits from the 60s,70s, 80s, and 90s).
Wildlife and Excursions (not noted in the separate Excursion section:
On Day 2, sailing, we saw orcas in the morning as we sailed from Seward to Yakutat Bay (Hubbard Glacier). There were at least ten pairs of orcas going in the opposite direction of the ship, repeatedly rising to breathe and blow water, then descending again. We saw this behavior repeatedly. Closest pair was about 50 yards from ship.
On Day 2 At Hubbard Glacier, we saw a triplet of sea lions resting on an ice floe. Then a tenderboat approached to gather glacier ice for the Chocolate Buffet later in the week, and scared them off.
On Day 7, Inside Passage, we saw some fish break the water's surface, and lots of small seabirds. Humpback whales were reported by the Captain around the evening. We didn't see any at that time as we were headed to dinner.
Land Tour Tips:
Overall, we spent 12 days in Alaska/Canada (not including flight times to get there and back). We did a five-day pre-cruise land tour that we arranged ourselves using only public planes, trains, and buses, and it was well worth it. We saw lots of land-based animals, and scenic beauty beyond compare from Fairbanks down to Seward. We spent a few nights inside Denali Park in the Kantishna region and had some of our best experiences there. Spend the extra money on the Gold Star service if you take the Coastal Classic train between Anchorage and Seward--HOLY COW was it worth it for the spectacular views!! Adventure Class service between Denali and Fairbanks is sufficient--and a deal if you use a 2-for-1 coupon from the TourSaver books.
Doing a land tour yourself is more physically demanding than a commercially-arranged tour with a group as we had to pack, haul, check, and retrieve our own luggage every one or two days when we moved from town to town. If you do a land tour on your own, do it before a southbound cruise so that the latter half of your trip, your body and mind can relax and recuperate with the luxurious service of the ship. Land touring on your own requires daily focus and concentration to make sure you coordinate everything just right to make the proper connections between destinations.
This was a trip of a lifetime. I would definitely want to go back to Alaska and explore the towns of the SE islands more in depth--especially Hoonah and Ketchikan. Cruising just gives you little sample of the towns and not enough time to deeply explore the area--and Alaska is ALL about the excursions. RCCL was classy all the way, and gave us a truly luxurious experience. Staff were wonderful, food was excellent, and we will DEFINITELY sail with them again.
On Day 5, in Icy Straight Point (Hoonah), we saw a humpback whale bubble feeding just off the dock. It came up twice before disappearing. We saw others in the far distance, blowing water from blowholes. The water was so clear you could see sea stars and sunstars through the water from the pier. There were also a variety of sea jellies and bull kelp floating on the surface. Thimbleberries grew wild everywhere and were fun to scavenge.
The town history tour was somewhat superficial and lacked depth in the current lifestyle. We visited the school but couldn't go inside.
Visit the main gift shop when you get off the pier. It has an excellent museum of the historic salmon cannery using original equipment and historic film footage, plus the exhibits do an excellent job of explaining the life cycles of salmon. Overall, it would have been nicer to spend more time in Icy Straight Point but the last tender to the ship was at 3:30 pm.
The Tlingit (pronounced KLING GIT) reenactment theater and dance was enjoyable, and allowed visitors to participate on stage. The kids liked this performance. I left wanting to know more about the Tlingit people.
On Day 3, Juneau, we took the Whale and Wildlife Quest and Mendenhall Glacier combo. This is the same tour offered by Allen Tours, but if you book it through the cruise, you know you'll get back on time. We (literally and figuratively) saw TONS of humpbacks on this tour, and one blowing water just next to our boat! None breached the water or did bubble feeding, but we saw them all dive with the tail fluke in the air. We also saw sea lions, seals, and an otter swimming together. We also saw a bald eagle nearby. Lots of sea jellies. Donut munchkins and hot drinks are served free on board, as well as binoculars and route map.
This tour would have gotten 5+ stars if it weren't for the Mendenhall portion. I've read and heard reports of bear sightings along the viewing areas at Mendenhall Glacier but our tour was way too short to handle this. The Mendenhall Glacier portion was 45 minutes and not enough time to explore the glacier or even get to Nugget Falls (1 mile away) and back. Our tour bus and another left people behind because they didn't make it back to the bus in time. To see the Glacier properly, I advise taking a shuttle from the pier for $10/pp/way, so you can go on a longer glacier excursion by yourself. Another option is to book the above combo tour, but purchase the extra return shuttle ticket from the dock before you get on the first departure tour bus, allowing you the option to return from the Glacier at your leisure. The cruise ship doesn't depart until 8:30 pm, so there really is so much time to explore Juneau and the Glacier that there is no reason the excursion had to rush us back before 3. At the Glacier Visitor Center, there were some excellent interpretive exhibits and the chance to become a Junior Ranger.
We went on the Bering Sea Crab Fishermen's tour and saw bald eagles, box crabs, Dungeness crabs, king crabs, a sea cucumber, several giant sunstars, a giant octopus, and several fish (including a salmon caught on a long line--the first time the tour'd seen this happen).
This tour was entertaining, informative, and allowed a close-up experience with sealife.
You can only touch the box crabs because the other types have caused too many injuries on previous tours. We saw how aggressively devouring the Dungeness crabs were: when their pot (cage) was pulled onto the boat, half of a king crab was found inside, already eaten by the Dungeness crabs in the pot. At a known eagle perch and nesting location, the tour guides tossed frozen herring into the water one by one, allowing nearby eagles to swoop in to take the fish. Nice close-up experience with an eagle. This was my favorite part of the excursion.
In Ketchikan, we continuously saw salmon leaping from the water. An ex-commercial fisherman told us that it was female salmon, breaking up her egg skeins in preparation for spawning.
We took a very affordable private tour with Sourdough Tours (aka Ketchikan Taxi Cab Tours), and saw some bald eagles and ravens. We also explored the shore and found moon jellies, and thousands of crabs along the shore. Just lift a rock and you'd find baby Dungeness crabs and other mini crabs scamper about.
We also trekked through the woods and picked wild huckleberries (like tart red blueberries), thimbleberries, and salmon berries (like blackberries, but past season so a little bitter).
We visited the foamy rushing waterfalls on Creek Street and saw salmon try to climb up the waterfalls. They were hard to see but caught a few leaping with my Nikon (1/2500 shutter speed). We headed a few blocks away to Salmon Row and Herring Way (great street names!), where from the bridge we saw hundreds and hundreds of salmon resting in the river after they had made it up the waterfall at Creek Street. The calmer waters here allowed us to see the full shape of the fish.
If we had more time, we would have gone to see the native culture like Saxman Village or Potlatch Park, but we had to catch our next tour.
Our parents went on the Neets Bay Bear Cruise (http://www.snowscove.com) in the afternoon and saw lots and lots of black bears, one after the other coming out of the woods to feed on the salmon in the river.
Our first sighting was within two minutes of leaving the pier on Day 1 in Seward: a sea otter. As we left Kenai Fjords, we could see puffins and other sea birds in the rocks and water. Use good binoculars or a 300mm+ lens. Lots of sea jellies too.
(On a separate pre-cruise 5-hour excursion of the same Kenai Fjords with Major Marine Tours, we saw sea lions and plenty of seabirds including puffins. We saw a few Humpback Whales but not many, and it was towards the end of the excursion so we had to leave and head back to shore after just a few sightings. Their salmon and prime rib buffet got mixed reviews with our group--kids dismissed it, adults enjoyed it--but well worth the $19 since dining in Alaska is so expensive! If you have kids, the Junior Ranger program on-board is excellent and the highlight for our son; you get a badge and certificate upon completion.)
We stayed at Sourdough Lodging before the cruise, and enjoyed the mix of historic and modern chic decor. You get a full apartment with full kitchen. Breakfast at the Sea Bean internet cafe downstairs was tasty. There is no elevator but the lodging and cafe owner helped bring our bags upstairs. We lugged them down ourselves. The owner also let us use the private laundry facility for free. He also stored our luggage for us after we checked out so we wouldn't have to drag it through the SeaLife Center, which is two blocks away. The kids loved the public playground behind the cafe and found other visitor kids to play with them.
The SeaLife Center is well-designed and can be explored in an hour or three, depending on how in-depth you want to go and how long you like to linger and watch sea life. Don't forget your 2-for-1 coupon in the TourSaver book. Also don't miss the touch tank exhibits and the giant floor-to-ceiling windows to see the rehabilitated sea mammals playing in their enclosures.
A free city shuttle comes every 30 minutes and will take you to all the major stops in town, including the train station and ports, and they'll even help you with your luggage. Get a schedule here:
On Day 4, Skagway, we booked a private tour with Beyond Skagway Tours. If you have a larger group, this can be well worth the price since you pay by the hour and not the person. The tour was originally booked for 7 hours, but in the end we added an extra hour and 45 minutes. We really did need that much time to explore and enjoy ourselves at each stop.
Stopping to build an Inukshuk near Summit Creek was a highlight for the kids. I think I saw a badger along the way, but only caught the hind end as it went over the edge into the ravine.
We drove into Canada, reaching as far as Carcross. Be sure to get your passport stamped at the Post Office there since they don't stamp it at the USA/Canada border. Eat lunch at Carcross Bistro, a new place whose menu includes buffalo burgers, caribou sausage, salmon salads, and poutine, plus other natural, sustainable, or organic fare.
At Caribou Crossing, a cute little tourist and photo stop, we saw an excellent taxidermy museum of arctic animals including a woolly mammoth. The museum showed a wide variety of animals--including a few oddly included tropical species. The quality of lifelike posing made it easy to imagine them alive. The descriptive plaques were helpful and informative, but too brief for my preference. The halls depicting Yukon gold mining history were excellent in helping to visualize what these explorers experienced. Great historic photos plus reenactment exhibits helped.
Caribou Crossing gave us the only bona fide experience of live animals on our Skagway day: the dogsled kennel. It was a working kennel owned by a currently active Yukon Dogsled and Iditarod Dogsled musher. You can feed the dogs, hold the puppies, and for an extra fee of $36, ride for 1 mile on a summer sled pulled by the dogs. This was a highlight of the tour for our kids.
Beyond Skagway Tours also took us to Carcross Desert which is technically not a meteorological desert because it receives too much rainfall. The sand dunes were created by mica and soil blowing into the area, and it looks like a real desert. The kids enjoyed climbing the monstrous dunes and looking for treasure that Beyond Skagway had hidden there as part of its 100-mile scavenger hunt.
We panned for gold at Tagish Lake and found gold dust. We also picked thimbleberries (giant raspberries) there.