Alaska Cruise Tour Package No.11
August 1, 2010
Pre Trip July 31, 2010
Flew from Wilmington, NC to Seattle, WA arriving at SeaTac airport on US Air. Upon arrival at the airport we proceeded to the baggage claim area. Sky caps were nowhere to be found. Grab a luggage cart. Packing for a two week trip we had 4 large bags and a couple of carry ons. Distance from baggage claim to the hotel shuttle pick up is considerable. Take an elevator up to the first level, cross over a skyway and take an elevator down to service island number 1. Called the Hampton Inn to arrange for transport to the hotel. Service island number 1 is about 100 yards long. Stand at the front end of the service island and hail the shuttle van. Standing at the back end of the island can result in the van filling up with passengers prior to getting to your position. This happened to a woman and her family who had been waiting for the shuttle and were told they would have to wait until the shuttle to return. Our stay at the Hampton was good. Hotel was very clean. Three hour time differential and seven hours of travel made it a long day.
Day 1 Fairbanks, AK
Flew from Seattle, WA to Fairbanks, AK on Air Alaska. We had first class tickets and found Air Alaska to be one of the best airlines I have ever flown with. Prior to our flight we were given access to their Board Room. Very comfortable seating areas, excellent service and decent light fare. During our flight the crew was very accommodating, the meal excellent, wine glasses were real glass. No comparison between USAir and Air Alaska experience. Air Alaska 10 ..... USAir 4.
Upon arrival at Fairbanks airport we were immediately greeted by a RCC representative near baggage claim and were directed to another representative located in a kiosk. He checked our name off a list and directed us to a group of luggage attendants who grabbed our luggage. Very organized and painless arrival to Fairbanks .... props to RCC.
We met our tour guide, boarded a motor coach and were transported to the Wedgewood resort. Upon arrival at the resort, we were given keys to rooms and luggage was delivered. The Wedgewood resort is a complex of different buildings. Apartment style suites, hotel style accommodations, restaurant and lounge. The accommodations that RCC have contracted at the resort are the older apartment style suites. Although the entire resort is reported to be smoke free, our suite in the "Laurel" building had been smoked in. The apartments are carpeted and the flooring appears to be original. We informed our tour guide that the room was unacceptable. We were shown another room in another building and it also smelled like an ashtray. After discussions between RCC's tour guide and a resort representative we were given a hotel style room in the "Bear Lodge" building. The room was excellent. The Bear Lodge building also houses the restaurant and lounge ..... great place to stay. It appears that several other tour groups have their customers booked in the Bear Lodge. RCC would do well to offer these accommodations as standard for their customers.
If you've never visited Fairbanks, several wild fires were burning on the outskirt of town and large volumes of smoke can negatively impact air quality. I was told that this is a common occurrence during the summer months. We were fortunate that the wind direction kept most of the smoke away from the Wedgewood resort. The second day we were at the resort we could smell smoke.
Day 2 Fairbanks, AK
Two land tours were scheduled for the day. The morning tour was a paddle wheel boat trip up the Chena river. This trip was excellent. The paddle wheel boat, it's mooring and choreographed cruise were developed by a local family over several generations.
After a lunch stop in downtown Fairbanks we motor coached to the Discovery Gold mine located just outside of town. This trip was interactive and informative. After viewing a sluicing operation each person is given a sack of dirt and pans for gold. Most folks discovered small quantities of gold flakes and were given small black plastic canisters to put the flakes into. We then were directed into the obligatory gift shop where people were encouraged to have their gold weighed and purchase a small locket to put the flakes into. The entire trip was a little hokey but worth the time.
Day 3 Denali Park, AK
At 9:00am we boarded a RCC railcar in Fairbanks and took a 4 ½ hour train ride to Denali National Park ..... very comfortable ride. Large leather seats are located on the top level of the car and a dining room is located below. The cruise lines and tour companies supply their own rail cars that are connected to a train operated by Alaska Railroad.
A note about dining. There are 80 seats located in the passenger section of the railcar. The dining section can accommodate 38 people at a time. You do the math. We ended up doing 2 ½ seatings for breakfast. By the time the last few folks got to eat "brunch", the kitchen had run out of some food items ...... eggs, pancakes and potatoes. Be advised that the normal seating for meals is from the back of the railcar to the front. Avoid sitting in the first few rows of a railcar if you want to eat a meal at a normal time.
Scenery during the trip to Denali was good. Our weather was clear and warm. We saw Mt. McKinley very clearly in the distance. We arrived at Denali and were scheduled to travel on the Wilderness Tour into the National Park. The Wilderness tour is an 8 to 9 hour bus ride into the park ...... 120 miles round trip. We saw all kinds of wildlife during our trip ...... caribou, Dahl sheep, grizzly bears, moose and a wolf. We also had a great view of Mt. McKinley up close. To be honest, after a 4 ½ hour train ride and a 9 hour ride on a school bus, it made for a long day. At 9:30pm we checked into the Grand Denali Lodge. The dining room was still serving .... the food was OK.
Day 4 Talkeetna, AK
At 10:30am we boarded a RCC railcar in Denali and took a 4 hour train ride to Talkeetna. Scenery during the trip to Talkeetna was very good. Our travel weather was partly cloudy and cooler. Our group was seated at the back of the train and we were seated first for lunch. Food and service in the dining car was excellent. We arrived in Talkeetna and were met by our motor coach. We checked into the Talkeetna Lodge. The main lodge had a restaurant and bar. The lobby area was very beautiful with a large fireplace, comfortable leather chairs and weather permitting a great view of the mountains. As with the Wedgewood Resort, our RCC tour accommodations were not located in the main lodge. We received rooms in satellite buildings. The rooms were small and very clean. I checked on retail rates the at the main lodge and was told that there are three room categories in descending order, main lodge with mountain views, main lodge no views and satellite buildings.
Day 5 Anchorage, AK
At 9:30am we boarded the motor coach and took a 3 hour ride to Anchorage. We stopped at the Native American Heritage Center and spent a couple hours touring the facility. There were several lecture and dance presentations as well as a walking tour of Indian homes, ect. Lunch was served outdoors with several folks manning gas grills. Food included grilled chicken sandwiches, hamburgers and the soon to be famous reindeer hot dogs. After the tour we boarded our motor coach and headed to down town Anchorage where we checked into the Marriott hotel. Excellent accommodations ...... 17th floor corner room overlooking the harbor and city.
We had made reservations at Simon and Seafort which was within walking distance from the hotel. Had an excellent seafood meal at a window table overlooking the harbor.
Let me make a comment about the way RCC handled our rooms and luggage during the land portion of our tour. We never once had to handle our luggage .... it was always delivered to our rooms before we arrived. Room keys were always handed to us upon arrival at each resort or hotel by our tour director and we never had to check out. Excellent, hassle free way to travel.
Day 6 Seward, AK
We were given an option to take our motor coach or a train car operated by the Alaska Railroad from Anchorage to Seward. The train trip took a couple hours longer then the coach. We opted to take the train. We were shuttled from the hotel to the train station located at Anchorage's airport. It was a beautiful trip. The Alaska Railroad cars were not as comfortable as RCC's but the train does drop you off right on the dock were your ship is waiting. We arrived at 4:30pm proceeded through check in where we received our Sail Passes and boarded the Radiance of the Seas. Our stateroom was number 1604 located on deck 10. The room is one of six located at the aft section of the ship. It had a balcony and turned out to be a great room for the cruise portion of our trip. We set sail at 9:00pm .... still very light outside to enjoy the spectacular scenery. Our dining time was 8:30pm. We had a window table on the starboard side of the ship and were able to enjoy our trip out of Seward while we were dining.
Day 7 Cruising at Sea
Our first day aboard ship was spent cruising to Hubbard Glacier. Being at sea gave us a lot of time to explore the ship. We got in a work out at the ship's fitness center, dined at Portofino's Grill and saw a show headlined by the original Drifters. The ship's fitness center along with its spa facility was awesome ...... very clean and accommodating. Portofino's restaurant is one of two specialty restaurants located on the Radiance. The atmosphere was great and the food was OK. We took in the first of two show times located in the ship's Aurora theater. Show time was 9:00pm. We arrived at the theater at 8:30 and the place was packed. There were no seats available. We found a standing spot located near the bar and saw the show. The Drifters put on a good show albeit a couple of the original guys had been doing this a long ... long time.
Day 8 Hubbard Glacier
Highlight of the cruise portion of our trip. Hubbard Glacier is the largest tidal glacier in Alaska. This thing is huge. After a slow cruise into Yakutat Bay accompanied by Celine Dion's theme song to the Titanic movie playing over the ship's intercom system, we spent several hours at the front of the glacier. The sounds of "white thunder" and the sight of large chunks of ice falling into the ocean were awesome. The ship turned a 360 in front of the glacier before departing ....... unbelievable.
Day 9 Juneau, AK
We awoke in the morning already docked in Juneau. We had pre booked a shore excursion and departed the ship at 9:00am. Our excursion was called the "Bike and Brew Tour". We were driven by van to the University of Alaska Juneau campus where we were given a hybrid bike and departed to the Menenhall Glacier. There were 23 hardy souls and three guides that made the trip in the rain. The total bike trip was 9.3 miles in length with a stop at a half way point along the lake below the glacier. Once at the glacier we were given 30 minutes to walk to the visitor's center and a salmon/bear observation deck. There were salmon in the stream and a mother bear and her cub having lunch ...... not something you see every day. We were transported by van back to Juneau to a unique bar near the ship where we sampled 5 or 6 beers that were brewed in Alaska. Most of the beer was brewed in Juneau by the Alaska Brewing Company. They're Amber Ale is an exceptional beer. You will find it served during your whole Alaska adventure. Too bad we can't get on the east coast. We highly recommend this excursion. The bike ride was easy to moderate, making for a great way to get off the ship and get some exercise. It did help to burn off the 1,000 calories we drank after the bike ride.
Day 10 Skagway, AK
We awoke in the morning docked in Skagway. We chose to not book any shore excursions and just relaxed for the day. Breakfast was delivered to our stateroom and we ate on our balcony. Room service was always prompt and consistent. The sun was shining .... it was a beautiful morning and a great way to start the day. During breakfast we noticed a sea lion swimming right off the back of the ship. He was munching on a 10-15 pound salmon! Now that's something you don't see every day in North Carolina. (I found myself saying that a lot during our trip)
Skagway was one of our favorite ports. The city has focused on maintaining the historic flavor of their downtown buildings. We did a little shopping and had lunch at a local watering hole.
Day 11 Icy Point Straight (Hoonah), AK
We awoke in the morning already on anchor. I stepped out on our balcony to check the weather and to my surprise there were two humpback whales feeding right off the back of the ship. The sound and sight of them blowing air and water at the surface was quite an experience. We had pre booked a shore excursion and were tendered off the ship at 9:00am. The landing area at Icy Point Straight is a refurbished salmon cannery. Some of the canning machinery has been preserved making for an interesting short tour. We also had time to walk along an improved path that rounds a point close to the landing area. Our excursion was a whale watching trip on a tour boat. We headed toward Glacier Bay and saw many Humpback whales that appeared to be feeding on large schools of herring. The total trip lasted 3 hours. Before returning to the ship we chose to eat lunch on the dock at The Crab Shack. You can't beat Dungeness crab pulled from the water, cleaned and steamed. It doesn't get any fresher than that. It was very expensive ... but worth the money.
Day 12 Ketchikan, AK
Awoke docked in Ketchikan. We chose not to book any shore excursions and see the town for ourselves. We disembarked the ship started out on foot to Creek Street ..... Ketchikan's historic red light district. Area was crowded with tourist and shops were very typical. The big attraction during our visit to Ketchikan Creek were thousands of salmon stacked up in the creek trying to make their way upstream to spawn. We made our way down to the harbor area where the creek empties into the salt water. Thousands of salmon where in the harbor. It was a spectacular sight. We decided to follow the creek upstream to the Native American salmon hatchery. The walk was an uphill moderate hike along streets that followed the creek. All along way were thousands of salmon swimming upstream. Total distance to the hatchery was perhaps 1.5 to 2 miles ..... uphill. We toured the hatchery. At the hatchery salmon arrive up a series of ladders from the creek where they are collected, eggs extracted, and small fry are raised to be released back into the creek. A salmon fact ... once the salmon spawn they die. We were told that after two to three years at sea, a salmon will return to within 50 feet of where it was born, spawn and die. Its body then feeds mammals and birds. Nutrients from its decomposing body feed baby salmon born from the spawn. A remarkable circle of life.
Day 13 Cruising at Sea
Day 13 was spent making our way through the inland passage south to Vancouver, Canada. Spectacular scenery with some narrow passages. The Captain pointed out interesting sights and history along the trip ..... even stopping to do a 360 degree turn allowing everyone on board ship to share an equal view. We got in another workout at the fitness center. I can't say enough good things about the fitness center and spa. During the evening we dined at Chop House restaurant. This was our best meal aboard ship. We were given instructions to set our luggage outside our cabin door prior to 10:00 pm our last evening of the cruise. The luggage was to be transferred to an area just outside of customs at the Canada Place Pier during the morning of our disembarkation.
Day 14 Arrival at Vancouver
Depending on where you were going upon disembarking the ship we were assigned a group and time to muster at the Schooner Bar. The whole disembarking thing appeared somewhat disorganized. Our time to leave the ship came and went while we sat and watched streams of people leaving the ship. Finally a RCC representative shouted out our group number and we were led off the ship. We followed a line of passengers into a large open area at the dock where our luggage was sitting ...... along with the luggage of 2,100 other passengers. This is where I think RCC dropped the ball. After being right on with regard to the logistics of moving people and their luggage on and off motor coaches, hotel rooms and aboard ship, now we appeared to be in free for all to find our luggage, find a luggage cart and figure out how to get through customs. We had pre booked motor coach transportation with Quick Coach Lines from the dock in Vancouver to Seattle's SeaTac airport. This turned out to be a great decision. We planned to overnight at the SeaTac Hampton Inn and catch our flight back to the east coast the next day. Several groups had booked 2:00 pm flights out of Seattle and spent 4-5 hours on the motor coach stressed out whether they would make their flight. The Quick Coach driver was excellent getting us through US customs at the border and dropping passengers off in Seattle at the airport and various hotels. He dropped us off right in front of the Hampton Inn and unloaded our luggage. I don't know if this is a standard practice but he earned a nice tip from us.
This Alaskan trip was the trip of a life time ...... if it's not on your bucket list please put it there. Speaking with other folks who have done different itineraries to the State, I believe starting in Fairbanks, working your way south by train and coach and boarding a ship for a seven day south bound inland passage cruise was a great way to see the sights. Alaska is a huge State. Royal Caribbean did a terrific job with both the land tour and ocean cruise. Hopefully this blog will lend some insight to first time cruisers and stir memories of those who have made the trip. This was our first cruise ....... we didn't think we were "cruise" people. Will we do another cruise with Royal Caribbean? Maybe we'll see you on the October 3rd 2011 Mediterranean / Egyptian trip out of Civitavecchia, Italy. Ciao.