We started out by touring the Alaska main land arriving in Anchorage on Monday, the 21st. I will start by saying that we met a lot of people once we got on the ship that did the land and sea package through RC where you pay extra (I think its $750/person or more, but don't quote me) to show up early in the week like we did, but RC takes care of everything from hotels, transportation, excursions, etc., and everyone said they loved it. We preferred to save the money and rent a car in Anchorage and do our own mainland tour (plus we wanted to sleep in and eat when we felt like it...some on the RC tour said that was the biggest inconvenience is the lack of ability to do whatever they wanted to do when they wanted to do it). We spent several days in Anchorage and one day in Denali/Talkeetna. Both my wife and I loved Anchorage. We stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn near the airport since we had a car and could get around easily. The hotel was very nice for a HGI. We stayed on my Hilton points so I can't talk to value for the price paid and since I am at Diamond level with Hilton we also got free breakfast. The location was very convenient as we could get downtown in ten minutes and some of the outskirts of the city that had activities (zoo, hiking trails, etc) in about the same time. Some of the activities we enjoyed were biking the 11.5 mile trail around the city (great bike rental place on 4th ave.), Anchorage Zoo, and hiking some of the trails on the surrounding mountains. Plenty to eat in Anchorage, never remember having a bad meal. One of our best meals was at the Glacier Brewhouse...excellent food for a brewhouse and not to mention great beer. We then spent a day traveling and seeing Denali and Talkeetna. So that we did not have to check out and check back in we made this trip in one day...If I could do it over again we would have stayed the night instead of leaving at 7:00am sharp and returning at 1:30am. Denali was good and we saw a lot of wildlife...we are not big campers or serious hikers so one day was enough at Denali. On the way to Denali we stopped at Talkeetna. It is a charming little town but there is very little open before 11:00am and little to do regardless unless you want to spend big $$ flight seeing. We did have a wonderful breakfast at a little restaurant/boarding house on the main street.
Ok, day of the cruise...we chose to take the Alaska Railroad from Anchorage to Seward. This was a fantastic decision (even if it did cause us to be at the depot at 5:45am). First of all, since we had RC luggage tags with our stateroom number on them already they took them at the depot and transferred to the ship when we got to Seward so we did not have to worry about them. The trip was great and we saw a lot of beautiful sites along the way. It is partially narrated by an Alaska Railroad employee who will point out wildlife if noticed. When we got to Seward at 11:00am (roughly) we then had all day to sightsee (which you won't need). We chose to spend most of the day at the Alaska Sea Life Center at the other end of town. You can walk the main street to the other end of town, but it is a hike (I think about a mile one way). After the Sea Life Center we walked back towards the pier at the end of town that we arrived at in the morning on the train. We stopped for a late lunch at Terry's Fish & Chips and Chowder House. Personally, they need to remove the "chowder house" from the name because it was one of the worst chowders I have ever had.
Embarkation: After our less than spectacular lunch we headed for the ship (about 4:00). I will say, of the three cruises we have taken this was by far the easiest embarkation (probably because the window is so big to get on the ship - 2:00 - 8:30). From arrival at the pier to getting on the ship it took all of 5 minutes. It then only took another 5 minutes to find our room, which had our bags already out in front of. Such a nice experience after two previous cruises waiting in 2 - 3 hour long lines at the pier in Miami to embark.
Stateroom: We sprang for a balcony since this was an Alaskan cruise and everyone seemed to suggest this was the time to spring for one. If I had to do it over again, I probably would not. Now, I will say that everyone we talked to said that we experienced some abnormal weather this time of year. Most of the time it has warmed up and very little rain by the end of May...but with our luck the weather was in the low 40's and it rained on and off the whole time making the balcony somewhat useless. That said, it was still a great room. We were on the ninth deck near the front of the ship and right outside of the elevators (which actually was not an issue at all even though I feared it would be noisy). We only saw our stateroom attendant (Alliston, I believe) once the whole trip, but he kept everything in smooth order. We had a very leaky shower and routinely had to use a towel on the floor to keep the bathroom from flooding...he noticed this and left extra towels after the second day.
Common areas: All of the common areas were very nice. We especially liked the Colony Club as it was very comfortable and had many couches and overstuffed chairs. They also had a game area that had playing cards and other board games. My wife enjoyed the Solarium, which she thought was very relaxing with the running water and warm temperatures (and no kids were allowed in that pool). I won't go into detail about all of the other common areas except to say that they seemed well taken care of. As far as crowds, it never seemed too crowded except for around the shops area. At times the shops and picture areas were maddening to navigate through with so many people just milling around and not paying attention to what they were doing.Activities: Plenty of activities on board. Bingo seemed to always be going on, comedy shows at night were good, the big production shows were hit or miss, the movie theatre on board was nice and showed some decent movies, art auctions, cooking demonstration, wine tasting, the casino was fun and actually not too overcrowded. Several educational talks like natives of the Klingit tribe, Royal Canadian Mounted Police, etc. The cruise director and his staff were good. Not a ton of outdoor activities due to the crummy weather (raining and mid-40's). The hot tubs were open at the outside pool, the solarium was always open, put-put golf seemed to be open at times, but the rock climbing wall never seemed to be open. Overall, plenty to do on the ship.
Dining: I will start by saying that we were very pleased overall with the food onboard. Our most recent cruise was with Carnival (2005) and their food was very lacking compared to our first cruise with RC the year before (2004). We had a late dinner seating (8:30) on the 4th deck dining room. One nice thing is that it was great to leave the dining room at 10:00 or 10:15 and it still be light outside. Our waiter, Marko, was probably the best waiter we've had in three cruises. The food each night at dinner was very good. Several nights we had a hard time choosing which app & entree to get. The one disappointment I had was in the desert selections. I never had a desert that wow-ed me. In fact, none of them made me really happy. Don't get me wrong, they were ok, just not as great as I'd hoped (and was used to from our first RC cruise). The other dining areas on the ship were also very good. The Windjammer was good and probably better this time than the last time we cruised. A lot of variety and they changed the lunch menu each day, including a new ethnic selection each day - Indian, Jamaican, etc. The breakfasts can get a little monotonous as there is very little change in what they serve each morning, so you'll have to be a little creative unless you like eating the same thing each morning. Sadly, we never ate at the cafe up on deck 12 (I forget the name) and we never ordered room service. Some of our tablemates at dinner did both and recommended them (especially several recommendations for the international cheese plate ordered from room service). Now, for the specialty restaurants on board; Chops and Portofino - definitely worth the $20 cover charge. We did not eat at Portofino this time, but did on our other cruise and it was fantastic (if you like tiramisu it is the best I have ever had). This time we did eat at Chops and it was fabulous. It is well worth the $20 per person you will pay. The filet we both had was excellent and well prepared, the three sides we had were great, and the deserts were excellent. Overall, a great way to celebrate something or just a chance to avoid the dining room or Windjammer for an evening.
Ports of call: Juneau - Lovely little town. We spent most of our time doing an excursion called the bike and brew. It was a 9 mile bike ride to Mendenhall Glacier and then a trip to the Alaskan Brewery. What a great way to see Juneau and the glacier…I really liked it. And the brewery…really interesting people working there. All of them very nice. The beer was very good, and you got plenty of it. Most breweries I have been to are very stingy in their samples…these people were trying to get you drunk (I guess they knew we had a ride back to the pier)! It was rainy and cloud cover was real low most of the time we were there so the other big attraction, Mt. Roberts Tramway, did not seem like a good idea so we just walked around town when we finished biking and brewing. Skagway - Another really interesting town. Probably one of our favorites. We did the White Pass and Yukon Railroad tour into the Yukon Territory of Canada. This was my wife's favorite activity of the cruise. It was very relaxing, great scenery, and it was partially guided. My tip here is to book this excursion separately from the cruiseline. It was over $18 per person cheaper to book it online than through the cruiseline. And the only difference is a 5 minute walk into town to catch the train instead of having it pick you up at the pier. After the train ride (I think it was 4 hours long?) we walked around town and spent a couple of hours sightseeing and grabbing a bite to eat. Before returning to the ship we sought out a hiking trail which is on the way back to the ship. The hiking trail was excellent, but not for beginners. It took 1 ½ hours to hike about two miles roundtrip, but was well worth it to see some of the wildlife and the views of the city below. Icy Straight Point - Not much to say here…except that this place was built specifically for the cruiselines. The town of Hoonah was a couple of miles away and a historic cannery was located in Icy Straight. They also boast the longest zip line in North America. Unless you are interested in Hoonah's history or doing the zip line (I think at $90 per person), this is a great place to not get off the boat. We did out of curiosity and spent a little time watching the zipliners and reading about the cannery. This is one stop I would rather substitute a different city for. Ketchikan - This port was the most modern feeling with tons of stores and restaurants. It was also the most crowded as I think there were five ships in port that day (most other stops we were the only ship or maybe had one other in port at most). We did a walking tour which cost us nothing and had a good time seeing and reading about the town. We then spent a good bit of time doing our souvenir shopping as this was the last chance to get Alaskan stuff. There seemed to be a lot of excursions offered here, but they were all related to totem pole history (which we could care less about), $250 salmon fishing trips, or $200 whale watching trips. We felt like we got a nice relaxing day seeing the town without having to bankrupt ourselves…but many others did the excursions and loved them so its totally a preference. Inside Passage - We then cruised the inside passage on the final day and it was excellent. Numerous whale sightings, schools of dolphins swimming next to the ship, and beautiful scenery.Vancouver – We opted to spend two days in Vancouver at the end of the cruise instead of heading back home immediately. This was very nice. The city of Vancouver is very nice and seems to have a lot going on. The downtown area is pretty busy however, and very noisy due to all of the construction going on which I would presume is due to their efforts in getting the city ready for the Winter Olympics in 2010. The Gastown area was quaint and appeared to have all of the tourist shops and restaurants you could want. I would also recommend going to Stanley Park which is a couple miles walk from the downtown area. The Vancouver Aquarium is located here also. We walked to the park and it was an effort in the heat (temps in the 80’s that day I believe…which was a shock from a week spent in the 40’s). The walking trail is built for bikes so I would recommend a bike ride if you can find a rental place. We also took in an IMAX at Canada Place one night which was cool. If you have a car, I would recommend driving outside the city to see some of the surrounding areas which are very picturesque. Lots of places to eat downtown, too many to name. I would recommend the Brewery downtown which is right around the corner from the last train stop and right before you enter the Gastown area. Also, if you don’t want to pay the prices to stay downtown, we stayed in Burnaby which is just outside the city in an area called Metrotown. There was a train station five minutes walk from our Hilton and the train took 20 minutes to get downtown. Train was very safe feeling with tons of younger kids riding. We never felt threatened.
Debarkation – This is the one part of the trip I wish never happened and I don’t know if I should blame RC or the city of Vancouver. Getting off the ship was a breeze. We had purple tags and knew they’d be towards the end of the process since we indicated we did not have flights to catch. So we had breakfast in the Windjammer at 8:15 and then hung out in an area outside of the dining room and read our books until we were called at about 9:00. We then made our way off the ship, though customs, and retrieved our luggage by 9:15…VERY SMOOTH. Now the nightmare began, it was a mess!!! We did not leave the ship terminal until 11:30. We cued up in a taxi line that was five miles long and moved at the speed of 90 year-olds having sex. We were constantly being told that there were no other options…no shuttles to the city, no shuttles to the airport, no hotel shuttles….we just had to wait for a taxi. There were shuttles outside of one door, but those were apparently for people that reserved an excursion in Vancouver. When we finally did get to where we could see out, it appeared that taxis were showing up about once every five minutes…unlike when you are at an airport or the Miami cruise terminal were there are banks of taxis just waiting to pick up people. When we finally got into a taxi, we asked the driver what the deal was. He told us that this particular cruise terminal was the shipping terminal several miles outside of downtown (not the downtown terminal where most ships dock at) and there were restrictions on cabs, buses, and shuttles getting into the terminal. All of which made it very hard for taxis to get here to pick people up. As I said, not sure if I blame the City of Vancouver or RC, but they probably are both to blame and should work very hard to fix this problem.
All in all, a wonderful and unique cruise which was well worth our time and money. We have already talked about coming back at some point in the future.