Okay, I am finally back to the real world, and we were cruising Sept. 7 - 14 on the Pearl. I HAD to go to Alaska because I just quit teaching and I did not want to be around when school was starting. What an opportunity! We booked my dream cruise on short notice and I began researching. I had lots of questions, and many were answered here on this site, and also through travel destination guides books. I found all of the travel info I needed to know where I wanted to go, and what I wanted to do. I am a planner, so I needed to know how it was going to all work out and I would be happy, happy, happy....
I WAS happy! We booked a frugal hotel room at SeaTac for the Sat. before we began our cruise, which was a great idea. Coming to Seattle the day before is a bonus! Flights and all make being there such an advantage. We reserved the hotel through AAA and had a car Sat. with unlimited mileage. We are native Washingtonians living in CA, so we decided to go to Mt. Rainier. It was sunny, beautiful and peaceful. The perfect way to begin a cruise. We drove up, soaked in all of the beauty, and made plans to camp there next summer. I also have a National Parks Passbook, so we bought a National Parks Annual Pass...it is now $80, but worth it as that day was paid for, and some places in Alaska as well...bonus. (Plus we go to Yosemite and plan to use it around and about this year as well. John Muir's home is in Martinez, and we plan on connecting with that....) So, I got the Mt. Rainier stamps and had a lovely day. The car rental was easy and gas was okay. We filled up, spent the night at a clean, older motel, and saved money. Returning the car the next day was easy and we made our way to the public bus outside the airport. Catching the bus cost us $1.50, and we were off to downtown Seattle. Another free bus connection and we were right down on the docks, walking into the NCL Pearl boarding lines.
Getting bags checked in was no big deal or time consumer. We had the tags made out and the papers necessary from the on-line registration handy. We also had our passports ready, as these are a must. (Okay, some people used their birth certificates, but we had passports.) We were served yummy cookies and coffee, chairs to sit in and a little time to mingle and get comfy. It wasn't long until they were calling numbers to get on board, and it is important to keep the little square that has your boarding number handy. We were quickly on the ramp boarding, and before we knew it champagne was in hand and we were on the ship. We enjoyed looking around and seeing all of the accommodations. The buffet was nice, and the offerings were huge. Lots of different things to eat and places to get it from. Seating was a bit hard to get to, but we found a really nice spot where we were watching the harbor and the Space Needle. Pictures, eating a relaxed lunch, and taking in Seattle. It was a beautiful Sept. day in Seattle, and the beginning of a great cruise!
The food...you imagine cooking for 2000 people. It is a little reminiscent of the dining halls in college, but with a more distinct clientele. We felt it was great food, prepared well, and served with artistry and skill. It is a little mild on the flavor standard, but considering the wide-range clientele.... There are opportunities to adjust what you want and how you want it, but we pretty much ate in the Summer Palace...I like to eat less, and the buffet just makes too much too available. I could order all that I wanted at the Palace, but I really liked their portions. Not too big, and again, all that you wanted. You could order everything on the menu, but I didn't. :) We did try the Indigo and it was fine. A little darker and different atmosphere. Pleasant, and more cozy. We ate a snack at the Blue Lagoon and breakfast a few times at the buffet...quick and easy. We did sit in the Italian restaurant for breakfast, as the seating is convenient. We enjoyed the food on the ship, and also enjoyed a couple meals at ports.
It didn't take us long to acclimate to the ship. Deck 7 is the walking lane, but you share it with smokers. (They have to have someplace to light up.) Deck 12 has the pools and hot tubs, along with the buffet meals. The lounges and theaters are forward and the dining areas are aft. I made a list of where everything was pre-cruise, but I am a planner and I like to know where things are and how things are organized. They give you a little pocket-sized diagram with everything on it, plus in the elevator and outside are lists of what is where. If you just remember your deck number and cabin number, which you get on your little credit-card room key, you are all set. That magic card charges your account for anything and everything you could want, besides getting you in your room. They really do want this to be enjoyable and easy...they want you to come back, and I am certain we will!
A note about the hand sanitizers. They are EVERYWHERE! USE THEM! It is not that the ship is unsanitary, it is the people's personal habits that make living with 2000 people plus such a new and exciting environment for germs! I do NOT use hand sanitizers at home....but I wash my hands and keep things clean. To control the cruising environment, they put these pumps everywhere. I used them and also ducked into the restrooms (located all over the ship, obviously by every elevator, but also tucked in little places as well.) and washed my hands often. They have hand cream to make sure this is a viable option for cleanliness....the hand sanitizers really dry your hands out. BUT, the alternative. I am sure it would be easier to have everyone use the sanitizers than to have people change their habits. If you watch what some people do, especially around the buffets, you will see why this problem is more with the people. That and smaller portions is why we often ate in the Summer Palace. I am NOT a germphobic, but I wanted to stay healthy and happy, happy, happy!
I was practicing frugality on this cruise as we had just spent 3 weeks in Europe and my husband balked at my idea of an Alaskan cruise. Just to let you know...my engineer husband said he was not ready for this cruise to be over when Sept. 14 came. He had cruised to Alaska before, so this was a VERY good thing! I have tons of frugal things we did on this cruise, hey, we just finished sending our two kids through Cal with NO student loans and no re-financing of our home. No added debt...frugality is my nature, but not cheapness.... So, we ate in no specialty restaurants, did not bowl, and drank no sodas or alcohol. We do not normally drink much, and I drink water, milk or tea with meals. This was not a big deal, but a conscious effort to watch the bill. Because we cruised the second to last cruise of the season a lot of the Alaska stuff was 50% off. We had not planned on buying much, but we love the smoked salmon and found some at 50% off. My favorite things to do when traveling are visiting the grocery stores. You can find foods that are indigenous to that area and not available at home. We found some awesome salmon and fish spice combinations and some smoked salmon that is drier (and like the "usual" type you can buy on the Columbia Gorge at Cascade Locks.) I spoke to the meat manager at the store in Ketchikan and he told me about what sells at the store and what he likes and why. I opted not to buy the elk or moose seasoning, as we do not hunt. :) With the refrigerator in the room, it was a perfect opportunity to get some things for home and gifts. I also like to see how the locals live and the setting, and when I see that they have corn at $1.39 per ear! and pay over $9 for a bag of oranges, I don't feel so bad buying things to up their tourism industry. I am not a jewelry shopper, but we found lots of postcards at 10@$1.00 and nice t-shirt for 50% off. I had to have a ulu, so I found one on sale, and did not buy the touristy one. I have used it, and it is fine without the bowl. I have wooden bowls that would work just fine, but I cut up my pineapple the other day and I like it. I picked up an Alaskan sourdough cookbook as my daughter is into sourdough now, and I found an inexpensive ulu knife cookbook that actually has recipes I would use with or without the ulu. Some seasoning packets were bought and my husband found some specialty syrups that he bought as gifts. The ship has sales all the time, and we did find a nice leather wallet on special and bought a bottle of alcohol from Ireland as a gift. Our time was not spent shopping, but we had excellent sight-seeing opportunities and did not have a big bill as we finished our cruise. I feel we did fine, and the VISA bill will remind me in a few days. :)
On to the cruise...
Our first port was Juneau. We caught the local bus at $1.50 to the Mendenhall Glacier. It takes about 45 minutes, and is round about...you can see some good parts of the city and get a feel of the place. Unfortunately our bus stopped around a school and we were in the middle of teenagers discussing life in a way I am so glad my own kids did not enjoy! That was the very worst part of my cruise, and admittedly it was just chance. We were let off a little over a mile from the glacier, and it was an easy walk. It is a paved sidewalk that is wide and level. Plus the bonus (besides saving the $7 shuttle fee) is you get a view coming up to the glacier. It was so pretty. Not many were walking on the day we arrived, but locals passed and were friendly. It did not take us long, and before we knew it we were at the bear-viewing area. No bears, but we did see the salmon. They were beautiful to watch. The glacier is gorgeous and the visitor center is informative and friendly. It costs $3 per person to go in, but surprise, the Parks Pass got us in for free! They are a part of the National Forest Service, and have a gorgeous stamp for the passbook! We took the short hike to as close as you could get, and looked at the beauty of nature. Unless you fly in, you cannot get on it and hike around. There were lots of little icebergs and the scenery was gorgeous. We chose to ride the shuttle back to town, and the driver regaled us with bear stories. It cost the two of us $14 and it did take a while to get back. The weather was overcast, and I would say a typical gray Northwest day. I loved it! The shuttles end at 6:00, so we were back in Juneau and the city seemed a little shut down. I felt that you choose the glacier or the city because of the shuttle ending time. It was okay because we headed back to the ship and had a nice dinner. We figured another time to check the city out.
The next day was actually what I figured would be the most exciting - Skagway! This was my husband's first time in Skagway, and I had to get the passport stamp from the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park! I had been to the "sister" one in Seattle in April, and here I was in Alaska for the "end" of the prospector's trip. We were in at 7 am, and walked around an empty town. We snapped a lot of pictures and checked out the grocery store...closed. As we made our way back to the Visitor's Center we passed a cajun restaurant my husband wanted to come back to. We also found a shop open and there is where we bought most of our 50% off things - Richter's. It was not crowded and the perfect time to shop. Finally it was 8:00 (really a bit after), but the Park was open. We got my stamp!, checked out the great bookstore and gift shop, and of course had to buy a few postcards and a booklet to support the park system. They have some really nice displays and the best bathroom! (that is important info to remember!) They offered a free movie about the gold rush, and it is excellent. Informative and fun. They also offer free hourly tours, but you need to sign up. Of course we did, and we were not disappointed! The ranger from Maryland was awesome! He regaled us with even more exciting, fun and informative stories and information, as we travelled to sites along the city tour. He opened up historical sites and explained their significance. He pointed out landsites of importance and interest. It drizzled only a bit, yet he made sure we were safe and happy. We have been to many ranger talks, but I believe this one was the best. You cannot miss this opportunity. We ended up at the cabin of the guy who started Skagway, and from there I went to mail postcards. I caught up with my husband and we returned to the Cajun Crab Shack. WOW! Crabs were out of season, and we did not know what we wanted. He gave us a sample of everything and was so funny. He shared great stories and the best cajun food. His etouffe is creamy and stuffed with prawns-so delicious. The gumbo is perfect, and served with rice. The dirty rice is perfectly seasoned and studded with meat. I had the blackened halibut and that thing was a good 2 1/2 inches thick! It was NOT burned, but seasoned so well and cooked exactly the way fish begs to be done. The sweet tea is the real deal, and just what you need to quench a thirst and cool your palate...it is not overseasoned or overly hot! He also had an awesome chowder....Biguns Cajun Crab Shack, and he will be back for the 2009 season. After a great lunch, we took the White Pass and Yukon Railroad. Okay, this was my splurge and it was worth every penny! We sat on the left hand side going up and saw everything in the pleasant weather. It was a bit overcast, but not bad. We saw the most gorgeous scenery and train movements. I took lots of pictures and sitting on the left IS best. There is space at the end to take outdoor pictures and it is shared pretty equitably. Then at the summit we do the shuffle and the other folks get to sit on the left. We had chosen the 1:45 trip instead of the morning ride to see if the weather was better...on the trip down the fog settled in a bit at the top part of the ride, so we had the best view going up. It was foggy at the summit, and our friends have told us to go back. That is a scene you have to see on a clear day. Maybe next cruise! The 50% off sale was good on the train too, as they have a DVD, booklet and hat on sale ONLY on the train. I bought the DVD and booklet, and can see what I missed on those. The train trip is 3 hours, has a restroom in each car and supplies you with bottled water. We were so busy watching the environment that it was over before we knew it. This really is a train ride you do not want to miss.
After the train ride we wanted to do a little salmon shopping, but had signed up for the murder mystery onboard. We hustled back to the ship and got dressed up a bit. We met the other passengers in the theater and watched the intro video. It was fun and looked to make a nice evening. 48 people signed up and only 8 people showed up. This is only offered at Skagway (I figure it is because Skagway is so small, and if you don't plan a lot it may be a port not many want to go to....wrong in my opinion, as there are things to do if you look!) I believe it was underadvertised, no follow-up and not enthusiastically produced. The ladies waited for more to show up and no one did. We all commented about how we almost forgot, hadn't heard a lot about it, and yet they were just standing there with no enthusiasm or explanation. When we offered to get more involved they told us no announcements could be made. Then we went to the Summer Palace, were given the packets and they essentially left. They did come back a couple of times to quickly check in on us, but when my booklet was out of order we had to ask the other table if we could borrow theirs. One of the clue pages was empty, and again had to borrow the other table's papers. Two people from each of our groups had to play two characters, and that was their solution to not enough people involved. The other group actually recruited two more passengers to join them and they said it was much better. We DID have a fun time and it was worth the effort and leaving Skagway a bit early. However, it was our effort and not the ladies involved. I was really surprised by this, as it is given more than just a mention. The success should not be up to us, but the people assigned to the activity. I was genuinely disappointed in those ladies, and throughout the whole cruise, those are the only ones who were less than diligent and enthusiastic. We DID have a fun time, and met two really nice people who are great cruisers. I would try it again, and make adjustments where necessary. Perhaps Skagway does need some added entertainment, but I found lots of things to see and do there.
Our next adventure was Glacier Bay. Again a Passport stamp! Rangers board the ship and they bring the stamp and lots of really good books and all to sell and support the parks system. We sat in the Spinnaker Lounge on one of the wave loungers. I would go up on the above deck and snap photos, and then my husband would. I also got some nice shots through the window. The ranger goes over the audio system and guides you through the bay. Only two ships are allowed in each day, and it is not to be missed. A gorgeous day at sea, only in the bay. The weather was again a little overcast, with the sun coming out now and again. Beautiful!
Our last stop was Ketchikan. There is just so much to do and see here! We decided to take the free walking tour, and it was awesome! We are native Washingtonians, and so we were actually taught about totems and the Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest. (This was before teachers teach how to take a test instead of how to think!) With that in mind, we opted to take our own walk. There is a free walking tour guide at the information center, and we picked one up. We followed it and saw great examples of totems that were explained with plaques. Creek Street and Stedman Streets were visited, but the best was the salmon in Ketchikan Creek. Oh, it is actually what we had learned about, but here it was happening in real life...we watched, and watched, and there are so many opportunities to see this phenomenon along the walk. There is also a city park that is just the most enchanting and peaceful. Ketchikan is not only the salmon capital of the world, but the rain capital as well...our day it was sunny and bright the whole day....perfect! There is a fountain in the park, and I actually took a picture of a rainbow in the water. It was just a very special place....the walk was not strenuous, but did take us up and around Ketchikan with so much to see. There were signs and the brochure together told us so much. The ethnic history is very interesting,and makes Stedman Street worth the read. We ended up close to the downtown (shopping) area, so we stopped in the Southeast Alaska Discovery Center, and with the pass it was free. They have three stamps, but since I did not go to Misty Fijords (next trip) I only stamped in two. This place has great exhibits and a telescope for eagle viewing. There are excellent opportunities for gathering information about all over the Inside Passage, and people to help you out. The bookstore is a great place to get resource materials, and again it supports the Tongass National Forest. After our stop here, which did take a bit of time because there is a lot to see, and my husband reads everything, we opted to have lunch at the Alaskan Fish House. OMG! This is THE BEST PLACE TO EAT! I had fish and chips that were perfectly cooked and flavored...panko breading that was crispy and fish that was clean and fresh tasting. The tartar sauce was a new creation and absolutely delicious. I do NOT like coleslaw, but this was so good I ate every bite. The dressing was not that mayonnaise based stuff, but kept the cabbage and veggies crisp and tasting delightful. The meal was perfect. My husband had salmon chowder with huge and plentiful chunks of salmon and potatoes. He was served salmon cornbread with it, and it was as beautiful as it was tasty. We ate in a little side room with a view of the harbor....perfect sunny day with the most perfect food! Another place you HAVE to try! We stopped at the grocery store (I told you I find out lots of things there....) and we bought the salmon, seasonings, talked to the guy, and picked up some soda too. I also collect state quarters, and while in Alaska they were just out. We went to Wells Fargo and I bought a roll of the real thing. I know, but I took a picture and am documenting where all of them go to. It is more for our own enjoyment and a fun souvenir. Ketchikan has so much to see and do, but we had to get back to the ship or be left behind. I wasn't thinking that would be so bad....but we did go back to the ship with not much time to spare. I want to go to the Saxman Totems and Misty Fijords....another cruise.
Since there was something wrong with the mechanisms of the ship - not to worry, it was going to be fixed in dry dock after the relocation cruise, and only affected how fast we could sail from Ketchikan to Seattle. Because we couldn't maintain the usual/required speed it would take more time and we had to miss Victoria. The timing for Victoria was late anyway, and staying on the ship is actually fine. We had a really nice day, and the weather was great. No rain, and sporadic bursts of sun. There is always something going on with programs, eating, walking, or looking at scenery. In the evenings the hot tubs are usually empty or few people in, and the pools were not busy at all. We did venture in both, and the pool is heated and very relaxing. You can also catch a quick snack/meal at the Blue Lagoon, as it is 24/7. This last day was really nice...relaxing day and making our way back to "the real world."
When we got back to Seattle, my husband decided to splurge and take a Seattle City Tour. He booked it over the phone before we began the cruise, and he just called them when we got in. We did find a place where we could have checked in our bags to be held for the day while we did our own touring, and this was only $3. That's what we will use next cruise. Instead this tour took us and our bags to SeaTac. The cruise doesn't take bags on their program to Southwest, which is what we flew. The tour was a good one, even for the guy who grew up in Tacoma. He said he saw different things than he had experienced, and it was a sunny, gorgeous Seattle day and we kept following Mt. Rainier, or it followed us. We saw the locks, quite a few areas of Seattle, stopped a few times to take pix, (and pay for the tour) and had great commentary about Seattle. The tour was nice, but we were not handled well when we were to be taken back to SeaTac. We did make it, and then there is TSA. I really believe we need to get a handle on them...I believe in safety, but feeling you are in prison with no communication allowed is not for me. I was really thinking of contacting the ACLU, and I cold just see my dad rolling in his grave over that move. Oh, we ate lunch at the airport at Ivars...good food! Can you tell I love seafood, and did eat it at every opportunity? The Northwest DOES have the best! And, I brought some home to share... It took a lot to get back to life in the Bay Area....my heart is in the Pacific Northwest....