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Carnival Spirit: Alaska
Day 1: Embarkation: Whittier/Anchorage
Day 2: Cruising the Fjords
Day 3: Sitka
Day 4: Juneau
Day 5: Skagway
Day 6: Ketchikan
Day 7: Cruising the Inside Passage
Day 8: Debarkation: Vancouver
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Day 8: Thursday, Debarkation: Vancouver
Debarkation: VancouverIt was slightly overcast when we arrived in Vancouver, our departure port. The very modern terminal here greeted us with its canvas sail-shaped roof and Canadian flags flying. And those sitting portside at breakfast got a nice view of the city.

Since Erin and I had an early (11:30 a.m.) flight we were among the first off the ship (as is standard you disembark based on the color of the luggage tags you are given the night before) and passing through Canadian customs and immigration was a breeze. Disembarkation was pretty much on time starting at 8:15 a.m. Two gangplanks were used to disperse the crowds and it worked. It took us about 10 minutes to get off the ship and through the terminal guided by red-coated guides. I'm sure the typical pileups started later but the system seemed a lot more efficient than I've seen on other ships including those in the Carnival fleet.

Personally, I like an early flight because you not only get off the ship first but get home earlier. But on this itinerary I wouldn't take a flight before 11:30 a.m. because it does take time to get to the airport and you don't want to arrive at your plane sweating. After we got off the ship and through customs we waited about a half hour for our bus to get filled enough to head to the airport for our Air Canada flight (the ride to the airport was about 45 minutes). Our driver pointed out a few sites -- like the new high-rise condos on Granville Island -- on our way to the airport. Of course while we were checking in for the flight, Erin met a hot guy who it turns out had been on our ship the whole time with his mother and had just finished college in Pennsylvania ... where Erin goes to school. Talk about bad timing!

We had enough time to buy gum, magazines and coffee before getting on the plane. However, once onboard, our flight out of Vancouver was delayed due to a mechanical problem with a luggage truck. Arriving in Toronto, we ran to clear U.S. customs before catching our flight to Boston (the system is really quite efficient and even though we had less than an hour to get to our flight, we needn't have panicked). Erin and I were impressed with Air Canada's service which included a decent hot meal and free movie on the flight from Vancouver to Toronto, and snacks for sale on the Toronto to Boston leg. We landed in Boston a few minutes before 10 p.m. And the great thing was because we were still on Vancouver time (three hours earlier than East Coast time) we weren't all that exhausted.

Back in Beantown, Erin and I agreed we'd had a great trip, highlighted by nature and a chance to experience Alaska's great outdoors -- with some mother/daughter bonding for good measure.

Here are a few things we think you should know about cruising in Alaska:

Ooh, ahh! The actual scenery -- from coastline wilderness to snow-capped peaks -- beats anything you've seen in pictures or on the Discovery Channel. It's truly breathtaking. And the mighty power of glaciers calving is something you just have to behold in person.

What to pack. The weather is unpredictable, so pack layers. We hardly used our overcoats except when we did our bike trip down from White Pass (starting high up in the mountains), but we were glad we had them. And we used our gloves when the ship got within 1,000 feet of Harvard Glacier. But on our sunny day kayaking in Ketchikan, shorts were more appropriate. And you'll want a swimsuit for the indoor pool and whirlpools.

A cabin with a view. If you can afford it, by all means book a cabin with a verandah. You don't come all the way to Alaska to party hearty (the Caribbean and Mexican Riviera are fine for that). You come to see the views. And a verandah cabin allows you to do that without even getting out of your bathrobe.

A few surprises. Two things did surprise us on Carnival Spirit. First, the crowd was mellower than on Carnival ships we've been on in the Caribbean. And secondly, the food for the most part was really, really good (divine in the reservations-only Nouveau Supper Club; $30 per person extra charge).

And finally ... getting out there. Shore excursions are an area where Alaska (and Carnival, with the help of sister line Holland America) truly shines. It's a sin not to see beyond the ship and touristy ports! Get out, get active, hike, bike and kayak, go horseback riding, book a Jeep tour. Or, for something less rigorous, splurge on a helicopter or flightseeing trip over the glaciers, take a train ride on the narrow gauge rail up White Pass, or get on a small boat to watch the whales. These treks are what memories are made of.
Day 7: Cruising the Inside Passage red arrow  

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