The Ship: The Pearl is a beautiful ship, although I'm not sure why decorating in hotels and such is always bright oranges and busy patterns. We had an interior room that was much bigger than I'd imagined. The little time we spent in our room, we enjoyed the movie channels and the blackout. If you like to know what time it is, pack a travel clock - we didn't, but slept little because each day we were so excited to see where we were and didn't want to miss a moment.
The first day was spent at sea. The Pearl has so much to do onboard: golfing cages, putt-putt tournaments (we won!), rock climbing, soccer games, quiz shows, dancing, etc. We got a kick out of the bingo excitement. People bought tickets like crazy! Paul Scally and the rest of the cruise director staff were great. They provided endless energy and included everyone in the fun. On our sail, there was a comedian, a juggling team two theatrical shows, the Four Tops Review and a crew talent show. My favorite onboard activity was dancing to Kenosis - the crew band. They were fabulous! I don't think they played the same song twice the whole week.
We did not eat in any specialty restaurants and loved the food. Indigo was much more intimate than the Summer Palace, but nothing could beat the grandeur of Palace. The buffet was perfect for breakfast as you could sit with your coffee as the mountains drifted by. Mambos was always booked solid when we tried to go, so book early. Blue Lagoon would be perfect for late-night snacking, if you can ever get hungry enough to need a late-night snack. We had lunch there a few times. We never felt deprived or that we were missing out by not eating at the specialty restaurants. My parents, who have been on many cruises, said it was the best food overall that they've ever had on a cruise.
I tried the one-day spa pass that is so highly recommended on the boards and was a bit disappointed. For this cruise, all you want to do is be on deck with your binoculars (or dancing). Every time I tried to relax, I kept thinking I saw whales out the window and ran over to check...
A few of the tips from Cruise Critic helped out a lot. The cappuccino machines at the back of the buffet were a huge hit with us throughout the day. My husband and I brought our own insulated coffee mugs to keep our coffee hot as we lounged around the ship - a good Alaska suggestion. Storage space was plentiful in our cabin, so we didn't need any hanging shelves or over-the-door organizers. The guest laundry was a popular spot for the last day of the cruise. What a treat to come home with clean clothes!
What to Pack for Alaska:
What to pack was always a tough one for this destination. We were told we had the best weather of all spring/summer. It rained one day and the rest of the time was t-shirt or long-sleeve top weather in the ports. Pack a windbreaker! I didn't feel the need for a heavier coat, but something to shut out the wind would have been nice while on board. I recommend packing lighter layer clothes rather than heavy stuff. One good heavy sweater and a windbreaker should do it. Jeans are a must - perfect for the excursions.Ports of Call: Juneau We bought shuttle tickets at the pier to go to Mendenhall Glacier, $14 roundtrip/per person. We rode a bus to the glacier (had to stand on the way there), and they had returning busses every half-hour until 6:30pm. We could not get as close to the glacier as I thought we'd be able to from pictures on the net. It is beautiful, but shrinking fast, so see it while you can! We followed a trail to a waterfall on the right of the glacier. We spent about 3 hours at the glacier and didn't go to the visitor's center. After that, we walked around the port shops and stopped in the Red Dog Saloon for beer and coffee. Yes, this is a touristy spot, but as it turns out - all the ports on the itinerary thrive on cruise ships so they are all tourist traps. It's how they survive. We did not take the gondola up to the lookout. Like my mom said, "The one in Gatlinburg is higher than that and only costs $6," compared to the $25 they were charging.
Skagway We took the evening train ride excursion through NCL. You sit on one side of the train on the way up and switch sides on the way down; so every gets a turn on the ravine side. The trip down is much quicker, so sit on the left-hand side (with your back to the cruise ships) on the way up so you get the longest view of the ravine. The train was neat - rickety tracks, wildlife (we saw a bear), tunnels, the border, etc. You can even see the original Yukon foot trail that was used by the gold diggers! Post-cruise, I recommend one of the combos of riding the train up and a bus/van on the way down. The train is moving the whole time; so you don't get to stop and take it all in or really search the surroundings for wildlife. It'd also make for some better pictures. We also learned that people still hike the original Yukon trail, which I would have loved to do! We took one the free ranger-lead tours in town also and that was really interesting.
Glacier Bay We did not get to see the John Hopkins glacier as planned as there was too much ice in the way. We did see the Marjorie glacier. They are amazing. I had no idea what to expect and kept picturing they'd look like icebergs, but they're more like ice mountains (sloped). NCL had a professor give talks throughout the week about glaciers that my husband and dad always attended. I think it really enhanced their experience. This was where we saw the most wildlife.
Ketchikan All we did at this port was walk down Creek Street, which was cute, but really just a bunch of t-shirt and jewelry shops. (As the our comedian said, "I got on board and realized I'd forgotten to pack my t-shirts and diamonds!") Many people didn't even get off the ship in this port, but I did hear someone speak highly of a kayak trip.
Victoria We did the Castle and City Highlights tour through NCL. The castle is really amazing. It's a great place to explore if you appreciate woodwork. The owner spent a fortune building it and died before it was finished. All his grandchildren when bankrupt, despite the fortune he left. It was a tour of man's futility. Our guide was great and it was really neat to see the architecture of the city - not only the government buildings, but also the architecture of the neighborhoods.
Wildlife: I did not see as much wildlife as I expected and would recommend taking at least one excursion that gets you off the ship and out of the t-shirt towns. We did see a lot of whales while sailing out of Glacier Bay and a few on another day. We saw a sea lion and some seals on the Glacier Bay day, but it wasn't abundant wildlife. It was seeing a speck in your binoculars and slowing realizing it was a tree or ice. Some of the whales came pretty close to the ship. We saw two bears and my dad saw a few eagles. I wish we'd done a hike, kayaking, or something that got us a bit closer to the wildlife. The fauna of Alaska is beautiful, and it would have been neat to be more eye-to-eye with it.Travel Manners: It wasn't until the end of the cruise that a waiter told us their turn-around aim at the Summer Palace was 1.5 hours. So, what we thought was a lot of waiting was really their way of giving us a leisurely dinner. Hope that saves you some grumbling and prevents planning a too-tight schedule. If you're traveling with kids, please be mindful of what's appropriate. We were horrified to watch parents get trashed in front of their kids or bring them to "adult" events. There are plenty of fun things for kids to do safely onboard if you want to have an adult evening. Our week, it looked like every teenager was hooked on the teen program. We always saw a huge group of teenagers at karaoke, parties and staying up late in the café with the teen staff. They had a great time. I don't know if many foreign travelers reference this website, but it is not an American custom to push and shove. I know that in some Asian countries it is typical to have to shove your way to the front of the line in order to have a chance at getting on a subway, etc. However, if you're on an American cruise, relax - it's the American way! It's our custom to form lines by getting in line where you are standing rather than rushing for the front, letting others in front of you as a courtesy and taking turns. We do this for busses, trains and buffet lines. (Americans - lead by example!)
All in all, I loved this cruise and recommended the ship and the destination. I was on Cruise Critic every day leading up to the cruise and wondered if it could possibly live up to my expectations. Despite finding online menus, dailies and reading tons of reviews, I was constantly surprised. We're researching for our next cruise already!