This was our second cruise to Alaska, and the state is wonderful. All in all, a delightful trip.
TO & IN VANCOUVER. We splurged on First-Class fare, but all it got us was a larger seat. When you get up at 4AM to catch a 7:20AM plane, you don't drink much. Air Alaska, our airline out, didn't have a lounge available for us. Their hot meal was tasty, if mundane. Service tended to be sporadic, due to turbulence. The flight and connecting "puddle-jumper" were crammed full.
We arrived in Vancouver, took a taxi to the Hyatt Regency, and found we were booked onto the Concierge Lounge floor. The Concierge ladies can book you into the most expensive restaurants, or recommend a more modest one. Their charm took the edge off our jet lag. Our room was spacious, lovely, and had a wonderful view. We were so jet-lagged, we made a meal out of the complimentary cold appetizers. Joan poured herself a glass of wine from the honor bar, and found she was the only person to fill out a chit, although everyone was drinking. Their internet connections were free, but down that evening. Next morning, we made a meal out of the complimentary cold breakfast, and walked through Gastown and Chinatown. We used public transit, although we ran into some snags regarding the timing of our tickets. A snack from the T&T Supermarket in Chinatown held us until we boarded the Mariner.
ON BOARD the Mariner, we joined our friends from Cruise Critic for dinner at Signatures, the Mariner's Cordon Bleu French restaurant. It was superb, from salad to dessert. We drank the wine of the day recommended by the waiter and never felt a need for any premium wine. By the end of the meal, we felt we had known Tripandtravel, Bill and Susan Cantley, forever. They proved excellent company, entertaining and knowledgeable
VICTORIA: Off the ship early to explore the Empress Hotel, then to the Inner Harbour, then to Thunderbird Park, a beautiful park with many totem poles. We then went into the Royal Museum. We could have spent the entire day at the Museum, especially their Native Peoples exhibit. Joan found a large sterling pendant replica from their Egyptian exhibit, and hats which said "S.S. Titanic". The hats caused quite a stir at lifeboat drill, but spooked the crew so much we put them away. Hunger drove us back to the ship at 2PM. We found we never wanted to risk paying for a meal of inferior quality when a paid, tasty meal waited for us on board. You could explore Victoria for several hours and not leave the few blocks of downtown, it is so compact. We didn't return to Victoria after lunch, although two hours remained before sailing time. We didn't want to risk getting to the shuttle buses too late to catch the ship. Dinner was at the Alaskan Grill, held in the La Veranda buffet area. A terrific fish meal.
INNER PASSAGE: A day at sea is delightful, and Regent does it beautifully. Meals were superb, snacks were better. We used the free machines to do a load or three of wash. The Inside Passage was especially lovely. Sherry and a scone at 4PM, a trivia game, then a 40th Anniversary celebration at Latitudes. Their carrot cake was amazing - lovely and rich, with a marzipan card which read "Happy 40th Anniversary".
KETCHIKAN: Okay, the Lumberjack show is touristy, hokey, funny and fun. The visitor Information Center offers FREE, accurate information. Joe's Golden Passport gained us free admission to the Southeast Alaska Discovery Center next to the show. The Discovery Center is well worth the modest admission fee, and their gift shop features a fine selection of full-price books about Alaska. Here again, the town seems concentrated into a few blocks, as you would expect from a town which shrinks to 8,000 people in the winter. After lunch I took a nap and Joe walked back into town. He explored Creek Street, which was interesting, and had much better shops than the souvenir shops and jewelry stores nears the pier.
TRACEY ARM CRUISING: Worth every penny! The glaciers are even more awe-inspiring from a few hundred feet. Our best memories and pictures came out of this excursion. I feared the small boats and getting "up close" to the glaciers. In spite of my fears, this turned into a high point of the cruise. My ski pants, wool socks and sweater, waterproof mittens and low winter boots kept me comfortable. A waterproof parka would have helped, too. The boats offer free hot beverages, working toilets, and a glassed-in area. The guides were energetic, well-trained and knowledgeable. The weather was perfect, and the whales came out to play on our way to Juneau.
JUNEAU: We didn't get in until 1:30 PM. The Mt. Roberts Tramway was closed due to fog 10 years ago, on our first trip to Juneau. That was the first item on our "wish" list, and I wish we'd skipped it. The tram cost $25.00 per person, the trails were closed due to snow, there was a price tag on everything you saw, and I was disappointed. Yes, they showed an interesting free movie made by and for the native peoples. Yes, we saw an eagle rescued from the wild. The museums closed as we got down from the tram. The rows of T-shirt shops were jammed with the 5,000+ tourists and crew. We simply returned to the ship for an early day.
SKAGWAY: We paid out top dollar for the Scenic Rail and Klondike Gold Dredge tour, which had an energetic, costumed guide in the other car. Joe was enthusiastic about the scenery, but a guide in our railway card would have been helpful. Later, at the very touristy (and not worth the trip) gold dredge, I panned for gold, got my regulation six flakes, and declined to have it made into a necklace. The real gold came after the panning, when you could pay top dollar to have your flakes made into a necklace. The gold panning people put on a bit of a show for us, with free cookies and costumes, but everyone got just six flakes per pan….
By now, the rows of t-shirt shops selling $2- t-shirts for $10- were starting to irritate me. The NATIONAL PARK SERVICE offers FREE tours, and a movie, maintains a restored historic house, and is the best value for your dollar here. Sign up early for the free tours, limited in size, see their museum and movie, and take the free shuttle to the local Historic Museum. The film superbly demonstrated the rigors faced by the "Gold Rush" miners. The Moore House was lovingly restored, the small museum showed you more of the Gold Rush challenge, and it was FREE.
SITKA: Not enough time here. We opted for a private tour. Our guide, Eric was a summer worker who wanted to show us everything we wanted to see. We saw the Indians perform 10 years ago, so we took a tour which included the Archangel Dancers, an all female group, performing traditional Russian dances. Some of my best pictures came from this show. Not enough time to see the Church and learn more about Alaska's Russian roots. Too little time spent at the National Historic Park, with its Totem Poles and Native Peoples movie. The Raptor Center fascinated us, and Eric seemed to know some of the staff. We were the only people on our tour, which is the only way we managed to see as much as we did. We skipped the Sheldon Jackson Museum this time due to lack of time, but Sitka offers more than many ports with longer stays. I want to add that the trivia game at 4PM could be a true stumper, and the best people on the cruise formed teams.
HUBBARD GLACIER CRUISING: Another at sea day, done in the best Regent style. The day was overcast, and the blue tint of the glaciers showed clearly. To enhance our experience, two First Nations representatives dressed in their native garb and posed for pictures. Sigh! I wish I were back there …We turned our trivia winnings for a Regent photo album.
SEWARD: Yes, we arrived safely. Our luggage seemed to expand along with our waistlines, but we were happy. Dropped off for the bus, we made our connections relatively smoothly. The bus stopped in Anchorage in front of the Anchorage Museum. They gave you a free admission pass into the museum, a $7.00 value. We could, of course, have gone in search of a good, reasonably-priced lunch. Not the museum-collecting Machs….soup and a sandwich set one back $10.00, but the Museum gave us new insights into the Iditarod, and the natives weaving grass mats were fascinating. I even stimulated the local economy at the "SALE" corner of the gift shop. After the museum visit, we continued on the bus toward Talkeetna. Following a break for ice cream and rest rooms, the bus driver drove us directly to our hotel.
TALKEETNA: Sticker shock. Our first room faced the parking lot…for $50.00 they upgraded you to a room with a breathtaking view, refrigerator, and more. We were carrying our complimentary room liquor from the Regent, so we grabbed burgers and fish Quesadillas (surprisingly good) at the bar (mobbed with cruise tourists), returned to the room, and sipped our complimentary champagne while watching the sun set on Mt. McKinley. We had an early excursion the next day, so the bus into Talkeetna proper seemed more trouble than it was worth. Food prices reflected the tourist nature of the area. The luggage handling was superb - swift, easy and informative. Mahay"s Boat Tour started a few minutes late, but our guide promised to stand between us and the charging bears with her gun, so nobody complained. The ladies outhouse featured a porcupine, disoriented by the constant sunlight and determined to find a shady nap. I was delighted to make our dome train with just a few minutes to spare, and to find myself alone in their clean Ladies' Room. The train ride featured views, energetic guides, and fair food at the prices you'd expect. I don't think you can have a meal on a train for less than $10.00. We bought UNLIMITED Drink cups, which turned into bargains when we realized we could get unlimited drinks on both train trips.
MCKINLEY CHALET LODGE: No vans were available for the independent travelers. We called, but nobody gave us information "It should be there. Look for it." By this point in the trip, we were carrying around 150 lbs. of luggage. We hauled that back and forth along the train platform, past tour busses for Holland America and other cruise lines, until a kind HAL guide gave us a ride. They graciously left us off at the main building, but we still hefted our luggage into the lounge. Check-in completed, we had a small, clean room close to the lobby. I understand the HAL people were unhappy with their cabins, which required the shuttle busses and were even smaller than ours. The Aramark people know they have the locations, and that's what you pay for. We had a discount coupon for Cabin Night (a hoot, touristy, and fun) and Fannie's Flapjacks from the Northern Lights discount book, which more than covered the cost of the book
The fabulous Kantishna Roadhouse 13-hour tour run by the Doyon tribe took us deep into the heart of Denali, and let us try panning for gold or seeing a demonstration of husky dog sledding (on wheels). It was a wonderful experience, and I won't forget Denali soon. BUT we tried the buffet at the hotel that night and the service was putrid to non-existent. I had to ask the hostess to get my water glass filled, and the plates piled up while we ate. By contrast, we encountered a hotel van driver who drove us to the local post office, and then to the Subway across the street, so we could buy sandwiches for the train trip to Anchorage. His superb service was one bright light in a poor staff.
Train Ride: Yes, they refilled our cups for free. The sandwiches let us lunch in our seats and be taken first on line for dinner on the train. The train ride featured lovely scenery, views of Denali, explanations of life in Alaska, and enthusiastic guides. Our Canadian dinner companions chatted amiably. We arrived in Anchorage on time. Our bus featured HAL tourists, so our train car stopped half-a-mile before the scheduled stop. The HAL people boarded their own busses, and we walked the half-a-mile to our luggage. We found our own luggage (relief!), and the man from the Comfort Inn hauled it onto their van.
ANCHORAGE: Our room at the Comfort Inn featured a Jacuzzi, and the hotel's recent renovation made it a winner. We were far happier with our hotel than the HAL people, who had been put up at the Hilton. The Comfort Inn's famous free breakfast contrasted poorly with the Hilton's, although the Hilton offered a superb location. We slept late and had only a few minutes' wait for the ULU Factory's free shuttle into Anchorage our day in Anchorage . The free shuttle only starts at 10AM….but by then the Street Fair, Flea Market, whatever, was in full swing. We did see the Aurora Borealis show with a coupon, but happily ate lunch at the flea market while chatting with locals. The market offered free local entertainment, of varying quality. I broke a long-standing rule and ordered salmon to be sent to our home. Oscar came through for us beautifully, and the cold salmon makes a fine meal on a hot summer night.
CONTINENTAL FIRST CLASS: Yes, a larger seat. Once again, no access to the airport lounges, even for first class PAX. Food definitely mediocre at best - we were offered the same dismal entrée both legs of the trip. We were delayed getting off the plane in Seattle due to a delay in replacing that flight crew with another one. Drink service inattentive, at best. If I hadn't seen how bad coach was, I'd think we didn't get our money's worth…
SUMMARY: A dream fulfilled. We saw things which were unique, experienced a part of this country we'd never seen before, and had a wonderful time. I think out next trip should be a modest car vacation….