Port and Shore Excursions
We arrived at Anchorage from Vancouver on August 6 and started our 1-day pre-cruisetour sightseeing before flying to Fairbanks the next day. National Car Rental said we did not use our free rental day since 1998, so, in order not to disappoint them again, we claimed our full size car for the day. We got upgraded to a Toyota Rav4 SUV that could fit all 4 people's luggage (4 big suitcases, 4 carry-on suitcases, 4 backpacks) closely and neatly. We had to take pictures so we could remember how to pack the car the same way back to the airport for Fairbanks the next day. I deliberately write about this point as I was always wondering if the rental cars could 'accommodate' all our bags, and of course, plus 4 adults (my daughters are 22 & 18).
We took the 11 a.m. Air Canada direct flight from Vancouver to Anchorage and we were in the Sheraton by 2:30 p.m. As an SPG Gold member, I used my points to get a free room on the Club Floor with full access to the Club Lounge. Free fruit, juice, soda, water, hot beverage, candy (like gummy worms & bears) and munchies were available 24 hours. Continental breakfast had only a few choices. Sheraton's lobby was very nice with 4 free computers for guests to use. Each log-on would allow you 45 minutes, and you could extend the time. We printed out lots of info regarding our drive around Fairbanks the following day. Self-parking was directly across the street in a big parking lot for $10 per night.
Although Anchorage is the biggest city and most populated in Alaska, the downtown area near Sheraton did not really have a lot of life. If you want more convenient locations, Hilton would be a much better choice with lots more shops and restaurants around. We wanted to visit Portage Glacier and it's about an hour's drive (55 miles) from the hotel, so we had to rush to get a drive-through lunch and hit the highway so we would be in time for the last cruise to Portage Glacier at 4:30 p.m.
As soon as we were on the scenic Seward Highway, it started to rain...typical Alaskan rainy weather in August. We made it to the Portage Glacier dock at 4:15 p.m. and boarded the last cruise of the day to view our first glacier. There were only about 20 passengers on board the mv Ptarmigan. It was $29 per adult, with a 10% discount if you are AAA/CAA members for the 1-hour cruise.
As it was raining, we couldn't sit on the top deck. We had no choice but to take the audio "class/lesson" on the lower deck and listened to all the narration, which was actually quite informative and interesting. After about 20 minutes across Portage Lake, we could see the stunningly blue and white living Portage Glacier. The boat was so close to the glacier that we took lots of great pictures in the rain. The glacier was from a relic of the Ice Age, with occasional calving (fractures of ice breaking off the glacier and crashing into the water below) that we did not see. We had lots of stunning close-up views of the blue and white glacier with black moraine.
Our next stop was to visit the nearby Begich-Boggs Visitor Centre to see the glaciology exhibits. The centre closed at 6 p.m. so we only had 20 minutes to see everything. It was still rainy and dull outside. Then we went to eat at a local restaurant called Spenard Roadhouse on W. Northern Lights Blvd. The salmon and the seafood jambalaya were both delicious.
After a week's Alaska cruisetour with Royal Caribbean, we were back to Anchorage on August 12, with a visit to the Alaska Native Heritage Centre that was included in our cruisetour.
This excursion happened to be the one that I liked the least, probably because we had visited many of the similar villages, and we had learned a lot from our professional guides in the past few days. Our tour guides were definitely very knowledgeable. They even inspired my younger daughter so much that she wanted to be one of them as her summer job! Nevertheless, we did learn about the 11 different cultural groups in Alaska, enjoyed their performances using traditional authentic musical instruments and props, and their everyday life now.
We spent over 2 hours there. After less than an hour, we finished walking the lake and visited all villages. We then spent the rest of the time looking at exhibits and watching performances. Merchandise in their gift shop was the most expensive compared to all the Alaskan places of interest we visited in the last few days.
At 4 p.m., we were driven to Marriott Downtown, met up with my parents who arrived at the hotel a couple of hours earlier, felt relieved when I found out that both their luggage and themselves were able to arrive safely, especially after a 1 hour delay in Toronto! There was only 1 direct flight from Vancouver to Anchorage, if they missed that connecting flight they would have to fly down to Seattle and then to Anchorage, it would take another 6-12 hour...how I hate connecting flights!
Marriott was a much more luxurious hotel compared to the accommodations of the last few nights. However, there were basically no shops or restaurants close to it, and it's very expensive to eat in the restaurant, which provided average food but extremely slow service. We didn't have dinner there but our breakfast experience there was not pleasant at all! Locationwise, Hilton on 3rd Ave would be more desirable with lots of shops and restaurants nearby.
After saying goodbye to our wonderful tour director, Leah, and received from her our upgraded train transfer vouchers to the Seward Port plus our room keys at Marriott, we started to walk to our dining venue. I made dinner reservation for the 6 of us at Simon and Seafort's on L Street at 5 p.m. It took us just 10 minutes to walk there from the hotel. The restaurant was in an office building with a very small sign outside so it was quite hard to find. Luckily I printed out directions beforehand. On their website it stated that they offered panoramic views of Mt. Susitna and the Alaska range, and was famous for their Alaskan seafood. The best part was that they had a $25 three-course meal if ordered between 4:30 and 5:30 p.m. daily. Since it was a beautiful day, my parents did enjoy the great views (way better than the views we saw a week ago when it was rainy and gloomy!) but the food was not even up to par. My soup was not hot enough and it was so salty that I had to ask the waiter to take it back, telling them that the chef might have put double salt in it! Alaskan food in general was oily and salty, probably because it's so cold there they need more oil and salt to keep them warm!!
We originally wanted a private excursion but all private vendors were fully booked, so we booked the August 16th 7am excursion with RCI and later switched to the 11 am one. It turned out to be wonderful as we had a boat for 150+ passengers but now there were about 50 passengers. Binoculars were placed on the seats and the marine guide provided us with lots of info regarding marine life. Thanks to the Diamond Concierge, Chris, for switching us to the 11 a.m. tour! Many passengers came back from the 7 a.m. tour and said they didn't see much but we were sooooooo lucky as we saw whale breaching many times. Their tails were beautiful too! Even the marine guide on board said that was one of his most rewarding trips in 3 months! It was unfortunate that we could only take pictures from inside the boat as it was raining very hard...non-stop rain for the whole day! Sorry for the black & white pictures!
We arrived at Juneau on August 14, 2011. It was so dumb of me for not checking out the location of Alamo's car rental office CAREFULLY before reserving it!!! All I knew was it was right at the dock where RCI docked, but I DIDN'T know that it's the Rhapsody that docked there and NOT the Radiance. So, if you're on the Radiance & you want to rent a car, get it from some other car company's downtown locations where Radiance docked or call Alamo (at AJ Dock -- 20 minutes walk from the Radiance dock) so they can send you a shuttle to pick you up. There was only one person working at the Alamo rental office, so if he/she was out doing shuttle rounds, you'll have to wait for his/her return. Alamo gave us a map of Juneau and recommended some points of interest for us to go and visit. Another point for those car renters: DON'T COMPLETELY RELY ON YOUR GPS AS IT DIDN'T WORK FOR HALF THE TIME -- USE A MAP. There is only one main road along the coast of Juneau that you would use so it's hard to get lost!
First we drove for about 15 minutes to Mendenhall Glacier (#1 must-see in Juneau). There was a big parking lot just before the bus stops and a small one very close to the visitor centre ($3 admission) with only about 20+ parking spaces. From the big parking lot there was a trail to the visitor centre but my parents did not like climbing the stairs up so we only used it when we came back from the visitor centre. Though the glacier was receding at a fast rate - 580 m (1900 ft) since 1948, it was still magnificent! We used the trail to walk back to the parking lot and saw lots of dead salmons that were eaten by the bears. Many of their pink eggs were visible in the creeks. Other visitors saw little bears but we didn't. However, we saw a bald eagle standing on the top of a branch very close to us. We could see it very clearly without using binoculars.
Our next stop was Macaulay Salmon Hatchery, situated only 2.5 miles from Downtown Juneau. We had to say bye to Mr. Sunshine here as we experienced the normal rainy August weather of Alaska, though it didn't rain for the whole time we were there. It's wise to get a buy-1-get-1-free coupon from the Tourist Info booth located directly in front of the Radiance after you get off the ship. Admission was $3.25 per adult or $15 for a group of 5 adults.
After lunch, we drove to the Alaskan Brewery which was very close to the Salmon Hatchery and easily accessible by car. If you don't have a car, the company had a free shuttle that picked up customers from some downtown locations. In the brewery, you're allowed to sample 6 different types of beer. The sampling glass was very small and cute! There was no tour allowed inside the actual work areas. However, guests could see the machines from a viewing area.
Then we drove around the downtown area. There were many one way streets and they're very narrow. Although it was cloudy with no sunshine, the Radiance still looked awesome compared to the Silversea's Silver Shadow that also docked there. We drove around downtown Juneau for a bit and saw a house roof filled with seagulls. We also drove to the State Capitol and saw a Liberty Bell outside. Next to the State Capitol there was the Juneau Douglas City Museum.
After we returned the car, we used Alamo's Shuttle service (cost $5 per vehicle) to return to the Radiance. We didn't see lots of people going on Mt. Roberts Tramway that was right beside the Radiance as it was very cloudy and I guessed there would not be much to see from the top. We were going to have a walk around and probably bought some Alaskan souvenirs but it started to rain very hard so we had to take shelter under the RCI tent. This marked the beginning of the next few rainy days. Having waited for about 10 minutes in the tent, we finally got back on the ship and went to Chops for a delicious dinner. It was one of the best Chops on the RCI fleet, both the service and the food was much better than the one on Freedom!
On August 17, We got beautiful weather again! After an early lunch on our balcony, we got off the boat and waited for our private floatplane tour with Seawind Aviation. As there were 6 of us on the 6-seater floatplane, we got $10 family discount per person, over $100 cheaper than booking through RCI. The Kamm family (owner of Seawind Aviation) was very friendly. Steve was a great pilot with the smoothest landing on water. Lesley picked us up from the Visitor Centre right beside the ship and recommended many great places of interest for our walk-around after the flightseeing, including the famous Creek Street, where lots of brothels were situated during the Gold Rush. Steve said the clouds were so low and the wind was so strong on the previous day that they had to cancel all flying trips...lucky us!
We could finally go shopping in the last Alaskan port, Ketchikan, where there were lots of totem poles in town and many little gift shops on Creek Street.
We left Anchorage for Seward on August 12, 2011. The scenery of the train ride from Anchorage to Seward, IMO, was the best out of all the train rides (Fairbanks to Denali, Denali to Talkeetna & Talkeetna to Anchorage) we were on. The beauty of the glaciers and canyons was unbelievable. Most of the beautiful scenery happened to be on the left side of the train where the even number seats were.
After a 4 hours' journey (1:00 -- 5:00 p.m.), we finally arrived at Seward's cruise terminal. The train stationed right next to the terminal building and we were lucky to be the second car that got called off the train for check-in. Yes, we had to check-in again, this time they still needed to check all documents and issued us our SeaPass cards. The line was very long but it moved quite quickly. As Diamond members we did not have to wait in line and were instructed to proceed to a check-in counter right away using the Priority Check-in line for Platinum, Emerald, Diamond, Diamond Plus & Pinnacle members. We stepped on the Radiance at around 5:30 p.m., went straight to our staterooms, making sure that all our bags were delivered, then grabbed the Cruise Compass and Crown & Anchor's coupon books and made our way to Cascades Dining Room on Deck 4 to enjoy our 1st dinner on board, right at 6 p.m.(main seating).
August 15, 2011 (Day 18) -- White Pass Summit and Yukon Rail, Skagway (Excursion 8 -- Day 4 of the cruise)
We woke up to a dull and gloomy day. The excursion lasted for over 8 hours. We were to take the coach on Klondike Highway to White Pass Summit, had lunch at Caribou Crossing Trading Post, then took the train from Fraser, B.C., Canada, back to Skagway. The train went all the way to the dock to pick up passengers who went on a return trip, and our coach was also waiting there to pick us up. What a scene with cruiseships, train and coaches together!
The Klondike Highway was very scenic, though we could only see everything in basically 3 colours: gray, brown and white! The bus stopped at the big Yukon sign for us to take pictures. However, the sign was messed up, with the 'K' missing and the 'Y' turned upside down and placed in the spot where the missing 'K' was. It really spoiled our pictures!
Lunch at Caribou Crossing was chicken leg and potato with dessert and coffee. We just walked around the trading post, took some pictures with the training dogs, but didn't fancy going on a dog sled. There was a very big indoor museum with great displays of lots of Arctic animals. After lunch, we went to the town of Carcross, visited the General Store and bought some souvenirs before boarding the train at Fraser, B.C.
The railway was a masterpiece in civil engineering. In 1994, the American and Canadian society of Engineers jointly declared the White Pass and Yukon Route an International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark -- one of only 34 worldwide. Other such landmarks include the Eiffel Tower, Statue of Liberty and the Panama Canal (quoted from pg. 14 of White Pass & Yukon Route Guide Book).
It started to rain when we were boarding, making most of the pictures blurry and dull. So we bought a DVD and a White Pass & Yukon Route Guide Book for $20 and got a White Pass and Yukon Route cap as a free gift. The scenery was still amazingly beautiful in the heavy rain.
July 29 -- Aug 6, 2011-- Toronto to Vancouver (Pre-cruisetour part 1)
The long-awaited trip to Alaska had finally started! We rented a car before flying to Fairbanks (our cruisetour starting point) and spent 8 days in Vancouver. Since we have been to Vancouver many times, we skipped all the must-do's and went on many day trips in nearby towns like Squamish, White Rock and Whistler, before flying to Alaska. I bought a Vancouver Entertainment Book for $10 a few weeks before our trip and we started using the buy-1-get-1-free coupon for our first dinner at Tropika Malaysian Cuisine in Aberdeen Centre in Richmond...yummy food, especially the satays!
We rented a Nissan Versa hatchback for $183 (8 days) from Hertz at the airport. Surprisingly, that little baby could fit all our luggage (3 big suitcases, 3 small suitcases & 3 backpacks) and it could still accommodate 4 adults. Good job, Nissan!
On July 30, We decided to explore downtown using the new Canada Line of the Skytrain that connects downtown Vancouver and the airport/Richmond. Instead of paying for 2 zones, we only needed to pay for 1 zone on weekends. It's important that you have exact fare in coins as sometimes the machines could not give you change or take any bills. It took less than 25 minutes to go from Aberdeen (in Richmond) to Waterfront where the cruise terminal (Canada Place) is.
As it was bright and sunny on July 31, we decided to drive downtown for lunch, forgetting that it was Gay Parade that day and there was nowhere that we could park our car. So, off we went further north, past Stanley Park, crossed Lion's Gate Bridge, to North Vancouver's tourist destination, Lonsdale Quay.
We had lunch at Burgoo where they had the yummiest Mac & Cheese, yes, so different than the packaged one! Then we had a nice walk along the quay just outside Lonsdale Quay Public Market and had a spectacular view of the Vancouver harbour.
August 1 was a beautiful sunny day which was perfect for hiking, so, off we hopped on our rental car and drove for over an hour to Alice Lake Provincial Park near Squamish. The drive was very scenic and we hiked the 4 Lakes Trail (Alice Lake, Edith Lake, Fawn Lake and Stump Lake) which was a nice and easy 3-hour stroll.
Many people mentioned White Rock as a must-see in B.C., off we went and...wow...it was truly phenomenal! The "White Rock" -- actually a glacial deposit - was PAINTED white to match the name! LOL! However, its long and old pier, the little stores along Marine Drive, the delicious fish & chips and ice cream -- even better with the 50% off using the Vancouver Entertainment Book, all added to make that little town unique and authentic!
Who goes to Vancouver without visiting Whistler?! Our family of 6 joined a local tour that took us to Whistler by coach for $50 per person, then coming back to N. Vancouver by train for an additional $145. It would be so much cheaper to just go by car, but the car could not jut sit there & wait for us to pick it up after our train ride, so we had no choice but to pay more for the convenience. That was a really pricey excursion: $50 (tour) + $145 (train) + $50 (Peak 2 Peak Gondola) + $7.5 (tip for tour guide) = $252.5 per person plus a taxi ride to the meeting place at 6:45 am outside the Yaohan Centre in Richmond. However, the experience was wonderful and the views were spectacular!
If you'd like more details regarding our Whistler trip, read on...
We waited in line for over 15 minutes to buy the Peak2Peak gondola tickets that could take us up the Whislter Mountain, then crossed over to the Blackcomb Mountain, and down the Blackcomb using open chairlifts. We could have asked the tour guide to get us the Peak2Peak tickets to skip the wait, but again we were using the Entertainment coupons for 50% off a 2nd ticket, 3 coupons used for the 6 of us and we saved $75 instead of $30 through the guide, so we chose to line up and get our own.
The red gondolas were just regular ones and the silver ones were those that had a glass bottom. We waited an extra 10 minutes for the glass bottom one, it`s not really that special. However, we saw a black bear on the slope when we were on the chairlift. We didn`t have our tele and so it was just a black spec on our shots. The guide said there were about 70 bears in the Whistler area as they were looking for food.
we did not have time to go all the way to both Whistler and Blackcomb`s highest points as we had to take different chairlifts to go up, then back down and we (basically it's just me but not my family members!!) were afraid that we would miss the train in the afternoon, so I kept saying "no, no, no!" We just barely had time to get a take-out lunch to eat on our way to wait for the shuttle to take us to the train station. The shuttle came on time and there were a lot of other customers who rode the train to Whistler that morning. If we had done a return journey on the train, we wouldn't have enough time to ride the Peak2Peak gondola. Good job we opted for the local tour!
Our train was scheduled to leave at 3:30 from Whistler and we were on the very comfortable and beautiful train just around 3 pm. It was only a 10-minute shuttle ride from the shuttle stop at Whistler to the beautiful Rocky Mountaineer train station. The rail follows the mountain with bridges and tunnels and offers great canyon views. We arrived at N. Vancouver at around 7 p.m. and there was a free shuttle waiting for us to take us across the Lions Gate Bridge back to the Fairmont in Downtown Vancouver.