Carnival Spirit: Alaska
About the Virtual Cruise
The Alaska/British Columbia cruise season has begun! In our Alaska virtual cruise, regular Cruise Critic contributor Fran Golden (who's a veteran visitor to our 49th state as co-author of Frommer's "Alaska Cruises & Ports of Call") travels with Erin Golden, her 21-year-old daughter and a total newbie to this region.
The pair, who are sailing on Carnival Cruise Lines' Carnival Spirit, will embark at Whittier (pretty much a new cruise port for everybody) and then sail to Sitka, Juneau, Skagway and Ketchikan -- with a couple of "at sea" days thrown in to investigate various fjords.
The free-spirited "Golden girls" plan to investigate all the active fare this cruise has to offer. Stay tuned -- beginning Tuesday, May 31 and running daily (save for weekends and holidays) through Thursday, June 9, for daily reports on everything from glacier sightings and wildlife to spa treatments and discos.
Day 1: Tuesday, Embarkation: Whittier/Anchorage
Every time I fly to Alaska I am reminded there are few places prettier than the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport. It was great to see the sunshine glistening off the snow-capped mountains -- Alaska at its finest or, as one fellow passenger put it, "like a postcard." And outside the temperature was a near-balmy 60 degress, which was warmer than Boston when we left.
On this spring trip, sailing on Carnival Spirit from Whittier to Vancouver, I am bringing along my daugher Erin. It's her first Alaska cruise (she just turned 21 so this mother/daughter adventure has special meaning) and my ... well, suffice to say I lost count after 10 Alaska/British Columbia cruises!
And, though as a mother-daughter team we've cruised together in other parts of the world, from the Greek Isles to the Caribbean, this region holds special appeal for Erin, a soft-adventure eco traveler, while Alaska's majestic beauty, not to mention Carnival Spirit itself, with its spa and entertainment and nightlife, is attractive to me.
But first we have to get there.
Having made our arrangements through Carnival's air-sea program, we left home in Boston before 7 a.m., and flew to Seattle before connecting to Anchorage. Both flights were on Alaska Air and in both cases we caught delays (weather in Boston and mechanical in Seattle), so it took us some 13 hours to get here (normally the flight time is about eight hours). Our glee at finally landing in Anchorage -- and the highlight of the gorgeous view -- was, alas, short-lived as we had to transfer to Whittier, a burgeoning new port of embarkation.
Anchorage has always been a challenging place to start a cruise because it is located some distance from the sea. Until recently, Seward, at least a two-hour drive away, has served as the ultimate port for Anchorage. This year, though, Carnival switched to Whittier, which has a brand-new facility and is slightly more convenient, though it still requires a lengthy (1 1/2-hour) drive. Actually, the drive itself is interesting ... you pass scenic Cook Inlet, a waterway which forms tidal pools at low tide, and Portage Lake, where you can get your first glimpse of glacial ice courtesy of the Portage Glacier. You then go through a creepy, rock-walled, 2 1/2-mile tunnel like no other -- its entrance looks like a Swiss chalet and the driver manuevers the bus on one-lane railroad tracks (until 2000 the tunnel was open for rail traffic only, but now it switches every half hour between rail and car/bus traffic). Whittier was not convenient for cruise traffic
before this change was made, as buses and cars had to be put on rail cars for transit through the tunnel.
Out of the tunnel we caught our first glimpse of Carnival Spirit,
framed by the mountains lining Prince William Sound. A big ship --
carrying 2,100-plus passengers -- it looked, strangely enough, quite
small from our distance.
There was little time to visit Whittier itself, but from our drive
through town there didn't seem much to see anyway. Whittier is not
meant to serve as a scenic port of call to rival Skagway or
Ketchikan, but is more important for ship turn-arounds. The weirdest
thing about Whittier is that just about every one of the town's 300
residents lives in one 14-story apartment house. The nicest thing
about Whittier has to be the new cruise terminal. Buses can pull
right up, and while there are no shops or cafes, the passenger traffic flow is
well concieved. And finally, something went right today: Check-in took
only 25 minutes, including passing through security, and was as friendly as it was
Since we didn't arrive onboard until 8:30 p.m., we followed other
passengers in heading straight to the dining room, open seating for
the first night; there were plenty of empty tables. First, rather
blurred-from-exhaustion impressions: Carnival Spirit is, as you'd
expect from a "Fun Ship", a bit glitzy and somewhat stylistically
frenetic -- a little Art Deco here, a little Egyptian there. Erin oohed
at the mummies decorating the halls of the Pharaoh's Palace theatre, and near the atrium, the stuffed Art Deco chairs with a hint of
metallic in the fabric looked appealing, as did the nearby cigar
bar, which we immediately tagged as a comfortable drinking spot (remember, Erin
just turned 21).
We checked out the low-carb and vegetarian menus -- both offered adequate
variety -- and our accompanying wine knocked us out after a long day
of traveling. Apparently this was also an issue for other passengers, as the disco
We headed to our balcony cabin, not loving the orange decor but
finding the king-size bed with nice duvet (no more scratchy wool
blankets for the upgraded Carnival) extremely welcoming.