With the exception of a few staff members who did not smile, say hello, or excuse themselves prior to cutting in front of us on Deck 14, our cruise was fabulous. The cabins are comfortable, especially if you take one of the balcony cabins. I'd highly recommend it because of the sheer scale of the landscape. We had a little bit of rain and drizzle (which didn't matter, except to obscure the windows). It was nice to stand on our covered balcony and have a perfectly clear view. You can run back and forth across the ship to see what's surfaced on either side, but when you're in Glacier Bay they'll stop the ship and then turn it around so everyone has a chance to see whatever there is to see. It was spectacular.
The highlight of our cruise was meeting Tom Strand of TNTours. The cruise lines are not yet aware of him which is why you'll need to contact him directly at tntours98 at msn.com.
Seeing Skagway with Tom Strand of TNTours was much more than an excursion. It was a More
Tom of TNTours was recommended to us by Dyea Dave's outfit when Dave's tours were too full to accommodate our party of 7. We had intended to take a tour from one of our Princess Cruise tours but the cruise ship's endorsed guide's recommendation seemed like it could be a great idea.
I explained to Tom that we were interested in a more intimate group tour, as opposed to taking one of the large busses. He suggested that if we were willing to pay for a total of 8 fares he'd be able to give us the whole van as our private coach. We were to find that very convenient and comfortable as we were able to leave our personal items on the bus at each stop without worry. We booked our Skagway excursion with TNTours and were told the cancellation policy was 24 hours advance notice which we thought was more than generous.
Tom continued to be very flexible with our group. He was waiting for us at the dock with his "TNTours" sign picking us up in a very clean, comfortable van. We headed straight up through the center of Skagway all the way up to Emerald Lake. Our path allowed us to watch the train excursion, too. It was charming to watch it parallel our trip. Our anticipated 6.5 hour tour turned into over 8 hours because Tom let us take our time for all the photo opportunities and wild life and scenery viewing we'd needed. We were able to watch four bears having their meal of dandelions and spring grasses. One of them got spooked at the sound of the van. It made me wonder if the folks who spent $100-140 on their train tickets were able to see any bears close up. The bears we saw were not more than 20 feet from our van.
Tom used a small microphone system which enabled all of us to comfortably hear his commentary as we drove along. Additionally, he carried several books by local authors which he shared with us throughout the drive. He told us stories about the area's historical movers and shakers and pointed out their photos from his small but useful on-board reference library.
We had binoculars and cameras, but we were very impressed (and grateful) that Tom also brought binoculars and a tripod. You'll be looking at wildlife that, in some cases, may be a little dot way up a nearly vertical rock sheer. Tom would set it up the tripod at each stop giving us plenty of time to get a good, close look at the wildlife.
At one stop, we ran across a competitor's bus tour which lacked the binoculars on the tripod. Tom very generously offered to let their customers take a peek as well. The competitor's bus driver seemed very impressed saying "We don't have one of these". Tom responded that they should get one because they're great to have. We agreed—being so lucky as to see such wild life was too good not to share.
It was great to see Tom's dynamic with the other tour operator. He explained that in that remote area all of the tour operators try to help each other out because you never know when you might need help yourself. It was a glimpse into a lifestyle where business could be done on a handshake and goodwill is worth more than a dollar. For me, that was as much a part of the tour as the tour itself.
Seeing the wild beauty of Alaska was a once in a lifetime experience. Seeing it with Tom made it truly special because he thoughtfully planned our activities not to coincide with droves of other tourists on the large busses. It gave us a lot more time to spend looking around instead of standing in lines. Additionally, he had a great sense of humor and wasn't shy about getting a little silly with us. He even posed in front of one of two stuffed battling grizzlies, so as to appear to be battling a grizzly himself.
If you're looking for an incredibly interesting, personalized, relaxed tour out of Skagway, AK without the customary 30% broker's fees, I would highly recommend going direct to TNTours owned by Tom and Michele Strand in Skagway. Tom and Michele are the "little guys" you always hear about who go above and beyond and whom you really should meet if you're ever in Skagway and looking for someone to both inform and entertain you.
Thanks to Dyea Dave, too, for the friendly recommendation. It says a lot about Dyea Dave that he'd recommend us to such a fine competitor! Less