We took the 7 night Alaska “Sawyer Glacier” cruise on Rhapsody of the Seas out of Seattle on August 19. This was our third cruise with RCCL, but first time to Alaska, our previous two being in the Caribbean.
The one thing many people recommended to us was to go on the Inside Passage, aka “northbound” or “southbound” cruise instead, however we weren’t able to make flight arrangements due to some restrictions we had. The reason this cruise is preferred over ours is because it is one-way. So there are more ports and less time cruising. It also stays to the less rough waters. Having said that, there is always a lot to do on the ship and the Royal Carribbean Cruise Director’s staff is always great and provides lots of things to do.
There are two distinct components to a cruise review, the ship and the destinations. So I’ll try and cover both here. First of all, the destinations:
Day 1, Seattle, WA
What we saw of Seattle was wonderful. However, we just wanted to get our vacation started! So we enjoyed our breakfast at the hotel and booked a ride to the cruise port. On the way out, we had a great view of the harbor with Mt. Rainer in the background.
Day 2, cruising:
Cruising in 3-4m (12-15 ft) swells, that is. The crew seemed prepared and seasick bags were placed in useful locations through the cabin areas. Lack of participation in the formal night was understandable.
Day 3, Juneau, AK:
Tourism and government seem to be the primary sources of employment in Juneau. At least if you forget something, they do have a Walmart. We went on the whale watching and Mendenhall Glacier combination excursion. Again, always raining, but the whale watching boat has lots of enclosed space and an open upper deck for taking pictures. The crew was excellent and very informative. We did see humpback whales (which amounts to a fin in the water and a spout), but were also very lucky to see a young humpback leaing out of the water and breaching. This was because there were also killer whales in the area. We saw them a few times as well. Also broke away from the whale to look at the scenery and other wildlife including bald eagles and sea lions. Hot drinks were available free and other snacks for purchase, although the “light snack” mentioned in the excursion information on the RCCL was actually some smoked salmon on a cracker.
After leaving the whale boat, we boarded a bus up to the Mendenhall Glacier Park. This was some absolutely amazing scenery. For those wanting to take a walk, there were trails available. Or you go to the nearby lookout points for a better view of the glacier and there were also places where you could watch the salmon. Parts of the trail were closed due to increased bear activity. Although we didn’t see any bears ourselves, others did. Those who want to escape the rain can also go into the station and find out more about the history of the glacier, watch a short movie and pick up some souvenirs. Kudos to the bus driver for providing umbrellas, although bringing your own when cruising this time of year is recommended.
The bus then dropped us off in the tourist district of Juneau. From here we looked through some of the shops and picked up some goodies for our nieces and nephews. We weren’t interested, but our bus driver said that there are some great chances here to try fresh crab as well as salmon. One store claims they will ship fresh caught fish anywhere in the world for you.
Day 4, Skagway, AK
Skagway definitely has the feeling of being a “tourist trap”. Having said that, looking past the umpteen jewelry stores, there is more to find. The town has a definite history stemming from the Klondike days and there is more history to be found for those looking for it.
For our excursion, we chose the bus ride to the summit instead of the train. Speaking with people who went on the train, the bus has the advantage of making several stops along the way to take pictures and appreciate the incredible scenery in this area. It was a small van-based bus, so we were able to stop in some of the roadside areas that would not be accessible to a motor coach. The trip itself started out by pointing out some of the interesting areas of town, including the school and the library, which has free wi-fi for those feeling out of touch. Our trip up the highway was marred by fog for some time, plus the ever present rain. However it did not distract from the beauty of the landscape. As mentioned in the brochure, we did cross the border into Canada (BC), but don’t expect anything of distinction. There was simply a small sign that said “US-Canada border”. There was a nicer “Welcome to Alaska” sign on the way back where we stopped to take pictures.
Incidentally, about the whole border thing, we did pass the US border service office on the way. However we stopped and turned around before we ever got to the Canadian Customs office. They are several miles apart and there are no connecting roads, so nobody seems too concerned.
I should explain further about the excursion choice. We booked the bus trip on its own, but there are also trips combined with a visit to the suspension bridge and either a salmon bake or gold panning. I did some research as well as asking around here at Cruise Critic and found the whole bridge experience was rather negative. Nobody said they had liked it. We didn’t have any interest in standing in the water looking for a piece of gold someone had planted so they could then try and sell us more services to get it turned into a souvenir. As for the salmon bake, we couldn’t justify paying for dinner when ours was already included. Plus if we changed our mind, it can be purchased separately at any time.
Upon return to Skagway, we chose to get off the bus in town. (There are shuttles that run back to the cruise port on a regular basis, or the walk is less than a mile.) We grabbed some fresh made candied nuts and set to wandering around the town. There are some interesting stores to explore, and I was surprised to find an Indian restaurant. The store staff were all very friendly and I wasn’t surprised to find most of them call either Vancouver or Seattle home, since the town’s population drops to 300 once cruise season ends.
Day 5, Tracy Arm Fjord
Despite being listed as a port of call on the RCCL itinerary, this is just a piece of scenery, albeit a very majestic one. We and many other passengers got up around 5:30 as Rhapsody entered the fjord. As the water turned green, chunks of blue ice started to appear. We took our tea/coffee outside from the Windjammer to the pool deck to watch the scenery go by as the passage started getting narrower and the mountains got higher (the captain had assured us the channel is as deep as the mountains are high). After more than an hour of cruising through the fjord, we found ourselves stopped at Sawyer Glacier. Despite the rain, we were able to get lots of pictures from various angles. At this point, the cruise director broadcast through the entire inside of the ship (including the staterooms) that people should come and have a look. They later explained they don’t normally broadcast into people’s rooms, but the whole point of this day was to see the glacier.
The most interesting part of the journey was turning around. Here we were, probably less than a few hundred yards from a glacier and turning a 78,000 ton, quarter-mile long boat around in its own length! This is why in the era of these “super ships” there is a place for more moderate size. You simply can’t get near the scenery otherwise.
At one of the head waiter’s prompting, we stuck around the windows and watched while heading out back into the open water. We were lucky enough to see some whales. Again, just fins and spouts, but it’s exciting to know they are there.
Day 6, Cruising
Finally the weather cleared up. It was warm enough to go outside without a jacket and many of our fellow passengers took to the pool deck to catch up on the sun we had been deprived of for the previous 5 days.
Day 7, Victoria, BC
Victoria is a beautiful city with a lot of history as well. We chose to take the walking tour. Our guide took us around the older part of town, pointing out some interesting example of architecture, as well as going past the birthplace of artist Emily Carr. He also included lots of interesting history of the area. We then moved a few blocks over and went through Beacon Hill Park. If you don’t have the time to visit Butchart Gardens, at least try to see Beacon Hill Park. It is walkable from the cruise port, and contains some remarkable flowers and trees as well as ponds, wildlife and a putting green.
Our tour also took us past a display of totem poles and ended up at Victoria Harbour, across from the BC Parliament. From here our guide pointed out several choices for venturing on our own, including China Town, the Empress Hotel and the local market.
We walked back to the ship on our own after looking through the area of native crafts for sale at the harbor. One thing I noticed is unlike many cruise ports, particularly in the Caribbean, you are not descended upon by vendors as soon as you leave the dock. This was true of the Alaska ports as well, but Victoria had a less touristy feel to it, which we enjoyed very much.
Day 8, Seattle, WA
Back where we started. Again, we just wanted to get to the airport and had a quick and easy departure. Probably because we were last off at 9:30, since our flight wasn’t until 2:00.
Rhapsody of the Seas
There is always lots of fun, usually being led by Cruise Director Casey (from Canada), or his staff which include Mimi (Japan), Desmond (Trinidad), Tiaggo (Brazil), or Char (South Africa). I mention where these people were from because one thing I noticed and it also came up in discussion with other passengers was that the crew has less of an international feel than other cruises. Again, perhaps the ship crews differently for the Alaska trip than Caribbean, or the fact they were heading to Hawaii/Australia. In any case, most of the kitchen, dining room, and housekeeping staff seemed to be either from the Philippines or India. No matter what, everyone delivered the famous Royal Caribbean hospitality, but as a whole, they just seemed to have less experience than other cruises we have been on.
This time around we had decided to try an interior stateroom. Being as we had booked a little late, we got a large room, but it was near the front on deck 2. My advice is on this particular cruise is do your best to get an upper level room with a window. Otherwise make sure you have the seasick patches handy. The room itself was functional and comfortable, but didn’t offer much beyond the basics. We always figure you aren’t on a cruise for your room, so it wasn’t a problem.
Our dining staff was excellent. We ate dinner in the dining room every night and lunch there about half the time (the dining room being open for lunch is new to me). There were three dinner theme nights, as well as two formal and one semi-formal night. Our servers proved that they can go above and beyond when they actually we able to put in a special order to get some ice cream that wasn’t on the menu one night as well! The food was always nicely presented and delicious. The only thing that seemed to challenge our dining staff was getting a decent cup of tea. It took two days for them to get us milk instead of cream. Also when we asked for tea, they would bring us a box of herbal teas. Which was nice, but there was no “regular” tea (orange pekoe, for those in the know). Finally one day at the Windjammer buffet, I notice besides the herbal teas, over with the sugars and stir sticks were tea bags labeled “black tea”. Once I knew what to ask for we got the right thing. In fact, the dining staff remembers what you ordered, so every night after dinner, they brought us tea.
Speaking of the Windjammer, it was pretty much the same as in the past. Lots of choices, including freshly made eggs/sandwiches/carving roast beef, depending on which meal you are having. Again, new to me was having a selection of Indian food on the buffet at every meal.
As always, with the Windjammer is the challenge of getting a seat. We never had a problem finding one eventually, but you never seem to get any time to socialize as someone always has to hold the table while the other person goes up. Kudos to the staff for helping people find tables, and also enforcing the “no holding spots” rule to keep things moving.
As for life aboard, there is always lots to do, including horse racing, karaoke, trivia challenges, scavenger hunts, and lots of other contests. Plus broadway style shows and guests performers. If nothing else, one thing I would recommend is Adult Daycare at Night with Derek Lewis. This version of “Kamikaze Karaoke” (karaoke, but he picks the song) is a lot of fun. Derek also plays guitar along with the songs and adds the odd sound effect as well. To liven things up he will also lead the crowd through various versions of his own adult-themed popular and original songs. The only downside to this setup is the Schooner Bar where this all takes place is also what seems like the main thoroughfare from the Centrum to the Shall we Dance Lounge.
Of course, there is always “the quest” if you are looking for something to do on the last night, but I’l leave out the description as this must be experienced in person.
If there were a downside to this particular cruise, it was that it seemed there were a large number of unsupervised children roaming around the ship. Now perhaps I should quantify that and say these groups were usually in the 9-14 year category. I did see security stop some groups from time to time and for the most part they didn’t seem to be misbehaving. The only time I had an issue with this myself was in the indoor pool area after dinner. We were relaxing and enjoying the warmth while it was still cold and rainy outside and a fairly large group of these kids descended on the pool. Now, it is my understanding that this particular pool is adults-only. Having said that, it was the only time I didn’t see any crew members around to correct any individuals who weren’t following the rules.
Cruising Alaska is different than a Caribbean cruise. The goal when cruising warmer climates is usually relaxation and hanging out on the beach. Alaska is different. The goal tends to be to “Get out there” and see the scenery. Pictures can’t impart how amazing the scenery is. Seeing it with the benefits of a cruise ship? Well, that’s even better.