This is VERY LONG. I apologize if your eyes explode.
Embarkation: We had arrived in Anchorage very late the night before, so no worries about making it to the ship on time for a 9 pm departure. We left our bags at the hotel (Ramada on 3rd - very nice and affordable, GREAT breakfast buffet) after checking out, and wandered around downtown for a while seeing the sights, including the Saturday market and statues of Balto and Cook. If you go to the statue of Balto, don't do anything embarrassing - there's a 24 hour web cam trained on the statue. We called our family back home and they could see us "live"!
We noticed a Princess bus in front of the Captain Cook Hotel, so we asked about times for our own bus transfer from the Egan Center, as we'd been told by Princess 800 number reps that the buses would start at 1 pm and run until 5:30 p.m. Turns out the Egan had been switched to the Marriott, and the Princess representatives said that we had to check in by noon. It was already past 11, so we hightailed it to the Marriott and spoke to another rep outside who said the first bus left at 1:30, but that we should have our luggage there by noon. A rep inside gave us conflicting information - as long as the bus wasn't full, we could check in up until the time it left without having to rush to get our luggage, however, if there weren't enough people for another bus, then that would be it for the day. (By the way, the reason we left our luggage at the hotel in the first place was because a customer service person at the Princess 800 number told us we WOULD NOT be able to check it in and had to accompany our luggage to the pier. So that wasn't true.) We decided not to take any chances, and made our way back to the hotel, stopping at the Oomingmak Qiviut (musk ox hair) shop, near the bus station. The Ramada graciously gave us a lift to the Marriott, and after handing over our bags and checking in, we were given a pass for the second and last bus of the day from downtown, the 2 p.m. bus. We went to a nearby restaurant for lunch, The Teriyaki Box (I have a feeling that the food from this place is what made both of us sick later that night). After lunch, we waited inside the Marriott. The bus was ¾ full and left promptly at 2 in order to make the 3:30 opening of the Whittier tunnel. Hint: Sit on the right-hand side of the bus in order to see the best scenery and possibly belugas along Turnagain Arm.
When my parents took the Sun Princess northbound last year, their bus stopped along the way at a zoo of sorts. Ours stopped at a pulloff past the Portage Glacier Visitors Center area, where we could see a hanging glacier and stretch our legs a little. We found out later that other buses did stop at that zoo, so we felt a little disappointed that we'd missed out, and wondered why only some buses made the stop. However, our driver did time our ride perfectly so that we hardly waited at the entrance to the tunnel. Driving through the Whittier tunnel is a surreal experience - the walls are nerve-wrackingly close on each side, and no natural light is visible - just the taillights of the vehicle in front of you and the orange glow of widely spaced lights along the walls. The driver told us that back when the buses had to be loaded onto trains to make it through the then-skinnier tunnel, there weren't even the orange lights, and you'd be plunged into total darkness for the whole ride. Luckily, the ride through the tunnel is over in less than 10 minutes, and you emerge safe and sound on the other side in the tiny town of Whittier. The pier is before the town, so we didn't even walk around, just hopped off the bus and into the building.
Before we got in line, though, I looked for the coupon books my mother had told me about. We spotted a girl standing near the bathroom entrance with a display of books and asked her if they were the coupon books. Yes, they were, and she was happy to be getting rid of two of them. Few people had stopped to grab any, as the kiosk was out of the way of the line, and the girl wasn't allowed to just hand them out. (By the way, on the way out of Canada Place in Vancouver we saw at least 3 of these displays so they're a little harder to miss coming northbound.) Checking in process was PERFECT, best yet - just in the time it took for us to grab our books and use the restroom, the line was gone and we walked right up to the counter. When my husband was issued a blue card, though, while I got a gold cruise card, I was told that this was because Princess apparently didn't know he'd cruised before. "Just go to the Purser's desk inside to get it changed," the man told us helpfully, and we were on our way. After the obligatory photo (by the way, Princess, how about a better backdrop than the next people in line??) we were onboard and finding our way to our room.
Four of our five bags were at our doorway when we arrived at our cabin, and we shoved them all inside and took stock of our digs for the week. Usually when we first get onboard, we make it a point to explore the ship. We were hungry, though, and still not adjusted to the time change, so exhausted this time, too. We also scrapped our original plan to hike the Portage Pass Trail (the trailhead is near the Whittier-side tunnel entrance) and instead just headed to the buffet for a snack (even though we had personal choice dining, for the first night we were assigned the 5:45 pm dinner seating, so we didn't want to have a full meal).
We first went to fix hubby's blue card, but the passenger services desk person told us to come back the next day and see Bernadette, the Captain's Circle rep, at her desk around the corner. After a quick bite at the Horizon Court, we made our way aft, where we ended up in the spa, so we took the tour they were offering. Afterward we went back down to our cabin, where we met our steward, Florencio. This initial introduction was the longest conversation we would have with him, and if he used our names at that time, it was the last time we'd be addressed by name. We rested a bit, and made an inquiry as to the whereabouts of our fifth bag. Still sorting, they said. So we went on to dinner in the Provence dining room, since the rest of our personal choice meals would be in Bordeaux (the dining rooms are pretty much identical, we discovered). Service and food at dinner was good enough - quite honestly I don't remember what I ate, so not memorable. We met a single older gentleman who'd already gone northbound and was starting the leg back, a couple of ladies traveling together, and a friendly couple who we ran into many more times over the course of the cruise.
Soon after dinner was the muster drill, at 8 p.m. Our muster station was the Bayou restaurant - we'd decided not to pay extra for the specialty restaurants, so this was our only time inside the Bayou, nice enough, but not as New Orleansy as I'd expected. After muster, we called again about our lost bag. Still sorting, they said, so we fell into bed and slept through the sailaway.
Sea Day #1/College Fjord This day was honestly a bit of a blur, as I spent most of the night up sick and was just exhausted. Not sure if it was the aforementioned Teriyaki Box in Anchorage or something I ate from the buffet (although I ate there again many times and was fine) but first time in my four months of pregnancy and in five cruises that I ever had to worship the porcelain (well, probably fiberglass) god. Hubby was also not feeling up to snuff, just not as bad. We were a little afraid we might have picked up a Norovirus - but we were also afraid of being quarantined in our cabin, so we went crazy using the Purell (our own and the ship's, both before and after going through the buffet line) and figured if we still didn't feel well by later in the day, we'd go to the ship's doctor. As it turned out, we both felt much better by lunch and all through the rest of the cruise we were absolutely fine.
Still not adjusted to Alaska time, so we were both awake early enough to enjoy College Fjord. It was a very overcast day, and colder than we'd thought - good thing I had my gloves and hubby had his earmuffs. We breakfasted in the Horizon Court buffet, which due to its far forward location has great wraparound, protected views of the scenery. We could hear the naturalist talking about the glaciers - quite honestly, we'd expected them to be a little more spectacular. We couldn't get as close as everyone would have liked due to ice, so we snapped a few pictures and left a little early. The naturalist noted that overcast days are best for seeing the blue in glaciers - still, we hoped it would clear off later on. We left College Fjord at around 9 am, normally on vacation we'd be getting up at that time!
We had left a note for Florencio about our missing bag, as well as getting an eggcrate mattress pad and feather pillows to counteract the rock-hard beds. The eggcrate was on the bed, but no bag or pillows (and our little plate of cookies that we hadn't eaten the night before was gone too). We decided to see what passengers services knew about the missing luggage situation, so we headed to the Atrium. After getting one of the staff members' attention (they seem to be more interested in talking to each other than the guests), she pointed to the opposite wall. "Is it one of those three over there?" Why, yes, it was. "Well, we have a lot of guests with your last name," she explained. "Are they all in our stateroom?" I asked, showing her the Princess-issued tag with our stateroom clearly marked on it, as it had been on the tags for our other bags. She apologized (somewhat insincerely, I felt). We headed to our room with the missing bag. Upon inspection, we found that my makeup cover had been cracked and broken, and all the powder spilled out. Hubby took the broken item back to the passenger services desk while I unpacked the rest of the bag and checked for more breakage.
Soon hubby returned, noting that the girl could only promise to speak to her supervisor about the inconvenience and damage we'd experienced. She'd kept the makeup case. So, we'd wait and see what they might do. At 11 am we went to Crooner's for our pre-arranged Cruise Critic meeting. We met up with John and Suzanne and all the rest of the CCers and spent a good hour chatting and enjoying each others' company. When they started the martini demonstration, hubby and I slipped out, but not before we'd all arranged to meet again on Friday to compare notes on our cruise. We headed to lunch in the dining room, where, when we're not pressed for time, we really prefer to eat if possible. Again, good, but not memorable. Then, really exhausted, we went back to the room and slept most of the afternoon. Not the usual way we spend a cruise, but this was our first in a different time zone. We slept right through bingo! After our long nap, we decided to check on the broken makeup/missing bag situation, since no one had gotten back to us on it. The assistant purser thought that the situation had been taken care of, but upon investigation, he discovered that the note and "fixed" (ie scotch-taped) case was still in the back. He apologized (sort of getting sick of apologies, just make it right!) and gave us onboard credit, as well as allowing me to purchase a replacement from the onboard boutique. I chose the least expensive one (actually contained the most product) and they credited our account back for the cost. So, at least that was taken care of. Next, to Bernadette at the Captain's Circle desk. An assistant of sorts was handing out forms, as B. was busy talking to other guests. Apparently being issued the wrong color card was a common problem. "Just fill in your name, address, and telephone and we'll take care of it," she promised.
We had no problems getting a seat for the first formal night dinner, since we were happy to share a table. We were seated across from the same couple as the night before! Our server was a bit strange - polite enough, yet somehow arrogant, I guess I'd say. One of our new friends had mentioned she'd wanted to tour the galley - when I asked if she knew when it was, he jumped right in to say that HE knew because HE was the one who did scheduling. Then, he went on to tell us how much food is wasted - even before it hits the table. For example, almost double the number of desserts ordered are made up and then have to be dumped into the sea, according to him. Now, everyone on board is aware that cruises are known for being gastronomical adventures, and waste is a given, but I didn't feel it was necessary to make us feel guilty about our vacation choice.
After dinner, we headed to the Princess Theater for the first production show, Curtain Up, basically a collection of Broadway hits. I was impressed by the fact that they had printed programs for each show. However, unfortunately, I was very unimpressed by the actual shows. Quite honestly, I've seen better high school and college performances. The set design was uninspired (basic risers, not even set with rope lights), costume changes were performed onstage (with no dressers to help, one girl was still getting into costume halfway through each song), and the choreographer didn't take advantage of the fact that these people are professional DANCERS. Most of the time, they just stood or sat on the risers. Understandable, maybe, in rough seas, but we barely felt that we were moving. We'd really expected better, as on our last Princess cruise, we thought the dancers were first-class, and even made a go of a show one night when we were rocking pretty good (they decided to stop the show when it was really TOO rocky). The Princess Theater itself doesn't inspire much of a Broadway-show atmosphere - very nondescript, more like a movie theater, plain walls, only one level (ie no balconies) of seating.
After the show, which lasted less than an hour, we went back to the room and tried to stay awake as long as possible to get adjusted. It was still light out when we went to bed, though. At least we had some time to sleep in before Glacier Bay tomorrow.
Sea Day #2/Glacier Bay National Park We just missed the whales when we came up to the Horizon Court for breakfast. Too bad Princess doesn't make any hallway announcements about this kind of thing - we would have skipped the toothbrushing if we'd known. Afterward, the naturalist aboard said that the area was well-known for whale watching, and mentioned it several times later. Should have been printed in the Patter, since I'd say that wildlife and whale-watching are pretty much why people come to Alaska. This would be more useful, than, say, an essay on sextants, which took up a good part of the right hand column on the front of the Patter for that day.
We were on deck, however, to watch the Park Rangers board, hear their Glacier Bay Talk in the Princess Theatre, and then to listen to their commentary throughout the day. Far superior to the naturalist's. We enjoyed the scenery from the Promenade deck, staying on the port side and bundling up in deck blankets (had to be signed out on the Lido Deck) on the deck lounges (which were quite dirty - I flipped my chair pad over to lay on). Bar staff came by selling hot drinks - $1.50 for cocoa. We asked if there was anywhere we could go to get free cocoa ourselves, but they said, No. This was the first of feeling a bit "taken" by Princess - cocoa had always been free at the buffets on our other cruises. (We did find, however, that hot chocolate is complimentary if ordered at breakfast in the full-service dining room. Comes in a metal pot - don't know if you could take it with you. Wasn't available at other meals.)
The scenery in Glacier Bay is truly breathtaking - the mountains on each side were still snow-covered (don't know if they are later in the summer). We worked our way up to Margerie Glacier, where we spent considerable time just doing 360s in the water so everyone could have a nice view. No calving that we witnessed, but there were some harbor seals lying on ice floes closer to the Grand Pacific Glacier who seemed to be used to seeing large cruise ships already. They only were scared off when the captain started the engines to leave. On the way out, as we were having an afternoon snack at the buffet, the captain spotted a bear and her two cubs along the rocky beach, so he turned the ship around (!) and we went for a closer look. Even with binoculars she was pretty tiny, but still, our first bear! How the captain saw it I don't know. By the way, we were going to go for the afternoon tea, but they were seating on the starboard side, and we'd already seen that scenery. If we had gone, we wouldn't have known about the bear, as the announcement was only made to the buffet and outside decks.
We eventually settled in to a couple of lounges inside at the Lotus Pool area - still bundled up, as this "inside" area didn't seem to be heated. As we left Glacier Bay, we saw quite a few humpback whales headed the other direction - pretty far from the ship, but you could still see their spouts and dorsal fins. We opted for dinner at the buffet, as we were starving and had been eating at off-hours all day. Not much appealed, unfortunately - it would be nice if the pizzeria stayed open later than 6 pm as another dining alternative to the buffet and the formal dining room.
Port Day: Skagway We faced the morning crowds at the breakfast buffet, then made our way off the ship and into Skagway. The first thing we noticed was the graffiti on the rocks alongside the pier. So much for pristine Alaska. Apparently ship captains have been "signing" their names at Skagway for decades, so the tradition continues.
Transportation was available into town but we opted to walk as it wasn't very far - we could see the main street from the ship. As we wandered into town, I was struck by how many Caribbean-type shops there were - the same jewelry stores and souvenir shops we'd seen before. I had a bit of an idea of this after getting a Del Sol shirt from my mother as a souvenir from their Alaska cruise last year, but it still seemed out of place. We wandered up the main drag, looking for Avis, and finally I asked at a shop. The nice woman inside directed me around the corner, where the Avis was situated actually in a hotel room adjacent to the side street. We had no problems picking up our car (although for some reason they had two reservations for us - for two cars - which was odd). Lori, the manager there, had all our information and we were in and out in just a few minutes, and on our way up the Klondike Highway to the Yukon, with Yukon Murray's guide in hand (see explorenorth.com). We stopped first at the Gold Rush cemetery - we parked at the turnaround area, where you see the first sign for the cemetery, but if you go a little further along the road to the left, you'll be closer to the main cemetery, as it's right along the road. We hiked in and found Reid Falls first, which were beautiful, then wandered back along the trail and to the cemetery, where we easily found Frank Reid's gravestone (the biggest in the cemetery) as well as the infamous Soapy Smith's (off to the right as you come in from the road). Back in the car, we headed up the one road out of town and into Canada. I highly recommend printing out Murray's mile-by-mile guide before you go, but if you don't, we also were given a guide at Avis, contained within the Skagway tourist newspaper. One person in the car should be the designated "sightseer" - keeping up with what's coming up next, as pulloffs appear without a lot of warning sometimes. We could see the train line off to the right along the next ridge, as we made our way up to the White Pass (not as steep/scary a road as it sounds). You pass U.S. customs on the other side of the road BEFORE you reach the border (and will hit Canadian customs long after you pass the border). After crossing the William Moore Bridge (you can stop at a pulloff and take pictures of it after you go over) we hit the summit, at 3292 feet, and the US/Canada border. On the way back downhill, we were surprised to happen on a busload of Asian tourists, dressed in red, who were all standing in the road - we had to honk and signal to get them to clear out of the way so we could get through!
At Fraser we hit Canadian customs, which we quickly cleared, and were "officially" in British Columbia. I was under the impression that we were in the Yukon until we hit Fraser - so there's a little bit of B.C. to drive through until you hit the BIG "Welcome to the Yukon" sign. There was still a considerable amount of snow on the mountains as we'd been driving, and we saw snow even on the ground once we hit Canada. Before you hit the Yukon is "Log Cabin" - where the Chilkoot Trail "ends" - I expected a town of sorts, but there isn't much there. Once into the Yukon Territory, some interesting sights included the Venus silver mine ruins and Bove Island. Right before we got to Bove Island, I spotted a bald eagle perched in a tree, so we took some pictures of it before moving on. After Bove Island, it's a short drive to Carcross, the biggest "town" between Skagway and Whitehorse. We stopped in the visitors center (public restrooms) and browsed at the Matthew Watson General Store. The little town felt very overrun by cruise tour buses (I didn't realize that they came up this far) so we didn't linger long. After passing the "world's smallest desert," we came to Caribou Crossing. We opted not to pay for the museum/zoo tour, but instead just browsed a little in the gift shop and went on up the road to the Cinnamon Cache for its famed cinnamon buns and lunch. Gail and BoBo seemed surprised at the volume of business they'd already done that day - they were out of soup and all but two flavors of buns. So we settled for sandwiches (HUGE! Made on homemade bread, with sliced real meat, not lunchmeat) and we split a MONSTROUS cherry-cinnamon bun, which Gail heated up when we were ready. We sat out on the enclosed patio area and enjoyed the view and our food, and talked a bit with a couple sitting nearby who were traveling on the Diamond. We lingered a while, enjoying the friendly atmosphere, but knew that our turnaround point - Emerald Lake - was just a few miles up the road. After more than four hours on the road (and eating lunch), Emerald Lake was almost anti-climactic. Very beautiful, but not much to stay long for, so we snapped pictures and were soon on our way back to Skagway, seeing it all in reverse.
On the way up and back, we kept a sharp eye out for wildlife, and were finally rewarded. A couple cars were pulled off the road, and as we passed, I yelled "Bears!". Sure enough, a couple of black bears were at the pull-off, too, as were our Cruise Critic friends John and Suzanne, who had driven to Whitehorse. We all snapped pictures as the bears took no notice of us (John even got out of his car!) and eventually made their way across the road and up the hill. We continued on, and again, "Bear!". This one was larger, and stood down a slope a little off the road, but again didn't seem at all fazed by our presence. Later, John said that these were the closest bears he'd seen in 10 Alaska cruises, so we were very lucky! We wanted to drive a bit down the road to Dyea as we got close to Skagway (Lori at Avis said there was a good place to watch wildlife) but the road was under construction, so we turned around and made our way back to Skagway, filling up the gas tank at the only station in town, and then to drop off the car. We did some quick on-foot shopping, stopping especially at the Rushin' Tailor to pick up pins for my mother (she'd seen them but hadn't bought them for herself last year) and at the Skagway Outlet Store (S.O.S.) for bargain souvenirs. We also made a detour to the local grocery store to buy a box of cocoa packets. :)
One unique souvenir to look for in Alaska is rainbow-colored ammolite jewelry - made from fossilized shells. Expensive to buy, but beautiful to look at. Back onboard the Island Princess, we rested in the cabin a bit, and found a message waiting for us on our phone from the Captain's Circle representative. She hadn't found any record of hubby's first cruise, after we'd given her all his information on the form. So we left her another note in her box with his CC number, and went on to dinner and the show. The show, called "Tribute," started with a Beatles medley, and that was about all we could take (see Sea Day #1), so we snuck out and watched the sunset over the Alaskan mountain ranges instead. Tomorrow would be an early day, so we retired early.
Port Day: Juneau Another quick breakfast at the Horizon Court and we were off the ship for our whale-watching tour. We bought our $2 tickets for the all-day Princess bus to take us from the pier (we were docked at the AJ dock, which is the furthest from town) to the Mt. Roberts Tramway area (whatever happened to free shuttle service, as we'd gotten with Celebrity?). Right across from the tramway was the office for Orca Enterprises, with whom we'd booked our excursion (independently from the cruise line). We checked in and waited for the rest of the group to arrive, most of whom we'd met at the CC get-together our first day at sea. Once everyone was assembled, we all boarded a purple bus and were on our way. We passed Mendenhall Glacier along the way to the marina - visible, but we were glad we'd opted to take a closer look later in the afternoon. From the purple bus we followed the purple-shirted guy to the purple boat - the Awesome Orca - and met Captain Larry, a character in his own right. We headed out into Auke Bay, and soon Capt. Larry spotted two bald eagles resting on a small island, so we sauntered up and took the obligatory pictures. From there, it was all eyes on the water as we searched for whale spray. It wasn't long before Capt. Larry found some humpbacks, and our whale-watching had begun! We encountered several humpbacks, which would surface a few times, then dive down, tail flukes the last to go. Since they could stay down for 10 or 15 minutes, we'd wait patiently for them to re-appear - one came up quite close to the boat! We continued into the channel, and the humpbacks gave way to orca, traveling in separate groups of males and females. The orca were a real treat, as they don't appear every day, and they came up very close to the boat also. Our naturalist onboard, unfortunately I've forgotten his name, was a font of information. We could see other whale-watching boats around us, many of which seemed to be following us, but after nearly 3 hours, we were one of the last to leave the area. A few orca followed us back toward the marina, but finally faded from sight. We were very happy that we'd decided to book this tour, as we'd debated about being able to just see whales from the cruise ship. This was a completely different experience! The rest of the group headed back downtown, but we'd arranged with Orca Enterprises to be dropped off at Mendenhall, since it was on the way back. The rep gave us vouchers to use for the white or blue shuttle buses back. We started toward the visitors center and noticed people staring at the closest mountain with binoculars. Apparently there were mountain goats up there, but we couldn't see them. We walked along the Photo Point trail first, to get the best photo-ops of the glacier, then walked along the beach out to Nugget Falls for an even closer view. Out on the water while whale-watching, I'd been wearing gloves and a zipped-up jacket, but here near the glacier it had gotten quite warm, and we were both down to t-shirts as we hiked back up to the Visitors Center. We paid $3 admission each, and skimmed through the exhibits. Telescopes are set up inside the center for looking at the glacier, or for searching for mountain goats, but again, no luck. We caught the shuttle bus back to Juneau, and got off near the Red Dog Saloon so that we could take in some shopping (me) and check email at the Juneau Library (hubby, although the wait was too long).
We were back onboard at about 3 p.m. - just in time to have missed Libby Riddles. I'd wanted to hear this Iditarod winner's talk, but Mendenhall took precedence, as the talk was scheduled while the ship was in port. We went out on deck for the sailaway, then to afternoon tea, where we ran into some of our whale-watching friends again. Afternoon tea was wonderful - you can special-request herbal or decaf tea, although only regular tea is initially offered. The scones were small but tasty, and the mini-sandwiches and pastries were also very good. We stopped again the Captain's Circle desk after tea, and finally got to speak with Bernadette, who insisted she was "caught up" on getting back to people. She seemed surprised to find our note in her box from the day before. Anyway, long story short (how unlike me!) she issued a new number to hubby and promised he'd have his gold card the next day (like it would matter at this point). She also noted that he'd have to show the card in order to get into the Captain's Circle party, but I reminded her that I had my invitation and gold card already. We went out on deck - the weather was unseasonably warm, and people were lying out on the deck chairs in bathing suits and jumping into the pool. It was nice to enjoy the warm weather, but I think almost everyone was surprised and maybe concerned at temperatures so warm in May. Even though we'd had tea at 3:30, we ate an early dinner and were back in the room around 7:30 or so. Hubby wanted to go to the "big screen" movie in the Universe Lounge, but I was tired so we decided to relax in the room and again went to bed at a "decent hour".
Port Day: Ketchikan Our ship was scheduled to tender in Ketchikan rather than pulling up to the pier. We weren't set to arrive until 8:30 am, so slept in and headed to a late breakfast at the buffet, after watching the cruise director and his assistant's very corny and collegiate-level-looking (ie not very professional) morning show. Lot of fluff, little information, and if it was someone's sense of humor, it certainly wasn't mine. After eating, we made our way to Explorer's Lounge, where we were given numbered tickets and waited to be called for our tender. Of all things we'd experienced on this cruise, this was superior to anything we'd run into as far as tendering before - it was nice to be able to relax in a comfy chair in the lounge, and then, when the boats were available, to follow a member of the cruise staff to the waiting tender. We seemed "parked" far from the pier (and actually, another ship that came in after ours even got to be closer - I don't know how they determine this) but before long we were stepping off the tender and onshore at Ketchikan. Of course, gift shops abound at the pier, but we walked past and toward Creek Street. The sun was shining brightly, although it looked like it had just rained, so we took pictures of the dock area while the weather held. Our rudimentary map from the coupon book served its purpose, and we found ourselves at the infamous brothel-turned-giftshop-lined Creek Street. We wandered through a few shops, walking from one end to the other along the boardwalk over the water. At the far end of the "street" was Dolly's house, home to one of Creek Street's proprietors back in the brothel days. So we paid our $5 each (many of the city tours seemed to include Dolly's) and took the mostly-self-guided tour. It was interesting, but not quite $5 interesting. Each room had an audio clip to go along with it, triggered by a light/heat sensor over which you'd place your palm. We soon exited Dolly's and decided to head to the Totem Heritage Center. Again pulling out our map, we made our way uphill past Creek Street, then turned left up a steeper hill, then saw the entrance finally on our left. (On the way back, we asked about a short-cut - there is a much more direct pedestrian route down, I believe it was Park Street, which came out right downtown.) The Totem Heritage Center had the actual, unrestored totem poles that had been found in the area, inside a small museum and interpretive center. A few college-aged guides were standing around to answer questions, but mostly we were on our own to read placards and look at the totems. In a room to the right were more totems - hard to see in their glass cases due to inadequate lighting. But around the room were signs with folk stories and information about the totems. Some of the totems were so far gone it was hard to imagine an orca, or an eagle, or a bear in the wooden facades, but at least we were seeing the real thing. This WAS worth the $5. We opted not to check out the salmon hatchery next door - you could do both as a combination ticket. By the time we started back toward the ship and lunch, it had begun to drizzle, and we made our way through the streets of Ketchikan in its natural, wet state. We stopped at a couple souvenir shops and finally bought what we'd been looking for - a t-shirt for our baby, due in November. We figured she should have some souvenir of her trip to Alaska, even if she didn't see anything!
We stood in line to get back on the tender, then made our way back onto the ship for lunch in the dining room. Our waiter wanted to see if anyone else appeared to sit at our table (the two of us were seated at a table for 8) but finally took our orders, just as another couple came in. So we talked with them as we enjoyed the rainy but scenic view of Ketchikan outside the nearby window. They, too, had had more than their share of service problems with Princess (they actually broached the subject) so we compared notes as to which lines we'd been on and how we liked them. At least, we were happy to find, we weren't the only ones feeling a bit dissatisfied. After lunch we'd originally planned to go back into Ketchikan, but it was still raining and we were tired, so we decided to just stay onboard and relax. We popped in to afternoon tea again and had more scones (mmm), and rested in our room, where hubby's gold card had finally appeared.
The Patter noted that the Libby Riddles talk from the day before would be replayed on the Princess TV station - we waited for it to appear, but nothing ever came on. Eventually we went up on deck for the 5:45 sailaway, listening for the naturalist's commentary, which was all of three minutes. We got dressed for the second formal dinner (in the Patter, they'd mistakenly printed that dress for the evening was "smart casual" - someone actually knocked on our door and made us get up from a nap to give us a little reminder card that it was actually formal night - don't know why they stuff everything else in the little mailbox outside the door but had to hand us that!). This was also Captain's Circle party night, and since this was the first time we'd ever cruised on a line for the second time, we wanted to see what it was all about. Basically, drinks, a short speech from the Captain, and awards for most days cruised/most cruises taken/etc. Pretty dull, so we went on to our lobster dinner. One thing to note about PC dining - at least, if you choose anytime dining, is the lack of waiter entertainment. Not that we were ever big fans, but it is sort of sad to see things like the parade of Baked Alaska go by the wayside (but maybe that's a fire code change?). I thought that on our Carnival cruise they went overboard with the singing and dancing waiters, but on our last Princess cruise, one of our favorite waiters wasn't even our own, but a man who would bellow "To You!" for every happy birthday/anniversary/bar mitzvah/new house/new pet celebration.
After dinner we steeled ourselves for the last production show, "Piano Man." This time we just went for the laughs. The worst were the pink, piano-key, sky-high costumes that the girls had to wear about halfway through the show - hubby took a no-flash picture just so we could always remember how bad they were. The folks around us, though, really seemed to enjoy it, for some reason we couldn't fathom. Even if you've never seen a Broadway show, you'd know the show was bad.
Afterward we waited in the atrium as the maitre d' set up the champagne waterfall. Since I'd done the champagne pour before, we just took pictures and watched other people get it flowing this time. Having it in the atrium was a good idea, since it gave multiple levels of vantage points (including a group that just kept going up and down in the elevator - one of the waiters even went in to the elevator to offer them the complimentary glasses of champagne that were being served) - but giving people streamers to throw before the pouring started sort of killed the idea, as the streamers covered the netting over the waterfall and blocked the view of anyone who was above the bottom floor. At least we saw it before the streamers were thrown.
Sea Day #3 Before breakfast, we went up to the hot tubs – I only put my legs in (doctor’s orders) but hubby had been in and out of the hot tubs all week. We talked a little with a woman we’d met before, and relaxed, setting the pace for the day.
Down at the dining room for the first time for breakfast, we enjoyed the much more relaxed atmosphere and better, fresher food, including a pot of cocoa. (And again got a taste of the “no-can do” Princess attitude, as people at a neighboring table requested fruit muffins repeatedly and were told that the muffins had to be brought down from the Horizon Court, which they never were!) Just a note – we never did use room service for breakfast, which we usually do at least once per cruise. After breakfast in the dining room, we went out on deck for a while to watch the scenery.
At 11 a.m. we headed inside for the naturalist’s “Whale Tales” talk. It was, at least, more interesting and informative than what she’d been saying over the PA system all week. She made a special note that later in the afternoon, around 4 pm, would be prime orca-watching time as we passed through Johnstone Strait along Vancouver Island. We had lunch, again in the dining room, and lazed away the afternoon.
Usually when we’re cruising and at sea, our day is packed with activities – but on this trip, the scenery and wildlife were the main attractions, so we skipped bingo, the newlywed game, the galley tour, passenger talent show, etc. It seemed that every activity we wanted to do coincided with some prime time for looking for whales, seeing scenery, etc. It had started to rain, dampening our hopes of seeing much, though. The trip along Vancouver Island is supposed to be a highlight of a southbound cruise, but the weather just didn’t cooperate for us. We stayed near the windows in the Lotus Pool area and kept our eyes peeled at 4 pm for the promised resident pod of orca, but didn’t see a one. I did sample the “mocktail of the day” while we watched and waited – a huge virgin strawberry daiquiri – which helped to make up for the lack of alcohol I’d had all week. I also had another slice of Princess pizza – which is pretty good, and again, I wish it was open later for those late-night munchies. At some point we relocated to the Horizon Court for more watching, but still didn’t see anything. It was starting to get pretty rainy and dark when we decided to give up and go to dinner in the dining room (we hadn’t eaten anything substantial at the Horizon Court – and since it was pretty empty we felt comfortable just hanging out there). We were seated at one of the tables for two – which actually are tables for four, since the space between the two tables are all of a couple inches. It’s very hard to ignore the people at the next table – almost rude, since they’re right at your elbows. So we chatted with the older woman who was seated next to us – her husband wasn’t feeling well, so he’d gone back to the room. After I’d had my appetizer (avocado boat with seafood – something wasn’t quite right), I wasn’t feeling too well, either, so we cut dinner short. Well, we stayed to have a bite of the Love Boat Dream – as it only seemed to be offered that one night, and it was worth staying for. Just FYI, here’s a great site for looking at the dinner menus; they’ve been helpful in refreshing my memory: http://www.imagestation.com/album/?id=4287137705&mode=invite. Although, the "Alaska night" menu is not there. So we went back to the room to start the grim task of packing.
Even though I will say that, overall, this cruise had not lived up to my expectations due to the overall lackluster service, the ship itself was very nice and well laid out, the food was good in most cases, and, of course, the itinerary was once-in-a-lifetime. And as a day cruising is ALWAYS better than a day at work or at home, it was disappointing to have to end our vacation. Also disappointing was the fact that no one had left us our colored luggage tags (the job of the room steward), so I called the passenger services desk one final time at around 10 pm. Rather than having them delivered to our room by our steward, they told us we should come down and get them. A final black mark on the Princess service slate. And after our missing bag incident, we decided to carry all our bags off ourselves, anyway. We didn’t have enough time in Vancouver to lose another bag.
Disembarkation: Overall a very smooth process for us. We were staying overnight in Vancouver, so no plane to catch and no rush in the morning. We were almost in the last group to leave the ship – 9:15 am, so we decided to have breakfast again in the dining room and avoid the crowds in the buffet and around the ship. We brought our bags with us and left the room open so the steward could get it ready for the next guests. Outside the window we watched the loading process beginning – huge crates of food and supplies that had to be loaded onto the ship for the next two weeks of cruising (since Whittier is such a tiny, relatively inaccessible port, they don’t load supplies there).
Just a suggestion to Princess: only get enough bananas for the first, northbound week. They offered bananas as part of the “fruit bowl” menu for the stateroom – but the bananas were already pretty brown when they were delivered to us the second day of our cruise, and they were garbage on day three. Some other CCers commented on this, and someone figured out the Whittier problem and how the bananas were already over a week old when we got them. Best to just keep them off the menu. After breakfast, we cleared out of the dining room. The Horizon Court was still open, until 9:30, so we killed the rest of our time there while waiting for our color and number to be called. Once off the ship, we passed through passport control with no problems, bypassed luggage pickup, and stood in line for customs. We weren’t sure at the customs line exactly what we were standing in line for, so I flagged down an official-looking person, who let us know we should dig our paperwork back out. As we were doing this, a very rude, older woman behind us pushed past. Apparently we weren’t closing the 5-foot gap up to the next people standing in line in front of us fast enough. Her husband said, “What are you doing? Get back here!” and she grumblingly returned to him. I mention this as it was the third time an elderly woman had pushed past (and in one case pushed) me, the visibly pregnant lady, in order to jump ahead in a line that wasn’t moving. The other two instances were while waiting to board the tender – in both cases we hung back as two different disabled gentlemen were being helped onboard the tender by the Princess crew, and two different impatient women thought that they’d have something to gain by nipping at the poor man’s heels. So, even though we’d definitely experienced some problems with the Princess people, some of the passengers weren’t too well-mannered either! After the cursory customs wave, we headed to our hotel, which was within walking distance of the pier. Unfortunately, the Canada Place pier is LONG. VERY LONG! We walked and walked and walked, passing a LONG line for taxis as well as people waiting to board our ship.
Eventually we got to a point where we were no longer inside, and we were faced with the choice of either going left and up a driveway ramp, or going through some doors to an elevator. We chose the elevator, went up one floor to the lobby of the Pan Pacific and came out onto Burrard Place. After we got our bearings, we headed to our hotel, the Ramada on West Pender. My parents had stayed here last fall before their Alaska cruise, and recommended it to us as being close and inexpensive. Of course, they went from hotel to pier downhill with their bags, and we were going uphill, so it felt like a much longer walk than we’d expected. But, finally, we saw the Ramada sign and checked in. It was still early, so our room wasn’t ready, but we were able to leave our bags and start our sightseeing.
Vancouver seems to get rave reviews from many visitors, including my parents, who’ve been there twice, but we found it didn’t quite live up to the hype. We wanted first to head to Stanley Park, but we couldn’t decipher the bus routes (no information at the bus stops we found). We’d walked to another hotel by this time, and the concierge there recommended the trolley – but then we discovered that it cost about CA$30 per person for hop-on, hop-off, which would have been fine if that was our plan, but we just wanted to go to the park and back. So eventually we gave up and just caught a taxi, about CA$10. The taxi dropped us at the visitors information kiosk, rather than the totem poles, as the streets inside the park are one-way and he would have had to go around a big loop to get back out. So we bought some ice cream from the snack stand there and started walking around. We first stopped at Painters’ Circle, where local artists work and display their paintings, then we wandered back along Brockton Point Trail toward the totem poles. We walked a little bit of the way along the famed seawall, where we got a faroff view of the Island Princess and Canada Place. The totem poles were interesting enough, but after what we’d heard, we’d expected there to be more of them, and that they’d be older, rather than newly-created for the park. We followed the seawall along the northern edge of the park, passing the Girl in a Wetsuit statue and turning back south at a playground. We passed the entrance to the Aquarium but opted not to go in, and made our way back to the information stand, where we were able to quickly catch a cab back downtown. We’d checked out the Harbour Centre tower on our quest for a bus, so we’d decided to have lunch there. If you just go up the tower, it costs CA$10 for an all-day pass, but if you go up to the revolving restaurant, the view is included with your meal. So we took the restaurant option and were soon seated, with Vancouver spread out beneath us. This time we were above the Island Princess, so we took a few pictures and enjoyed our meal. The food was pretty good, the service was excellent (we both agreed afterward, that after being on the ship for a week, THAT was the kind of attentive service we should have had!). After an hour, our table had returned to its original starting point and we’d finished our meal, so we returned to ground level and headed to Gastown. Gastown is a small, easily walkable area, mostly populated by gift shops. The main attraction is the steam-powered clock on Cambie Street, so we waited until it “chimed” and then continued on our way. We made our way back to the hotel, where we could now get into our room. The Ramada itself isn’t in the best part of town – on one side, if you walk toward Gastown, you’re fine, but on the other, east side, the locals get a little dicey-looking (one guy looked like he was snorting something off the sidewalk). I don’t know that I’d recommend it overall – our room was nice, spacious enough considering the size of the hotel and what we’d read on Tripadvisor, with a coffeepot and comfy bed and all, but there were many hotels that were closer to the pier and much more upscale. And, since our trip, I’ve read that many of those can be had on Priceline for less than what we paid. We rested awhile in the room, then decided to head back to Gastown to see the Storyeum show/museum that we’d passed earlier. However, contrary to what was printed on the sign in our hotel lobby, they were already closed. So we hiked toward Chinatown instead, in search of dinner. I definitely would have felt more comfortable if we’d taken another cab at this point – this was actually when I saw sidewalk-snorting guy. We hit Chinatown and it, too, was apparently closed for the evening. No tourists, no non-scary locals, no lights in the shops. We skirted the edge of the area and walked along Keefer Street, next to a park, until we got to the Tinseltown movie theater building. If nothing else, we figured we could see the new Star Wars movie (something we’d thought about doing in Ketchikan, actually, since the movie had opened that day, but the Ketchikan movie theater wasn’t playing it until 7 p.m., after the cruise ships had left). But Star Wars wasn’t playing at that theater.
At this point, we were tired and getting pretty hungry, so we decided to eat at the Asian restaurant inside Tinseltown. We lucked out – the restaurant, Wild Ginger - an Asian fusion/Korean BBQ kind of place – was great! I like to drink tea, so I ordered the white tea. The owner or manager of the place suggested the “flower tea.” It was so good I took some home! I won’t spoil the surprise if you ever get the flower tea, but it’s entertaining AND tasty! The food was wonderful, as well, and again we had excellent service. After dinner, we didn’t linger in the streets, as it was still not the greatest-looking area, and quickly made our way back to the hotel to prepare for our early flight the next day. Overall, would we do this trip again? Not on Princess, at least not in the near to mid future, so the whole problem with the gold card and Captain’s Circle membership was really a moot point. This was only the first time we’d returned to a cruise line – our first Princess cruise was on the old Pacific, which made for some interesting stories to bring home, but the only service problems we’d had then were with our room stewardess' stinginess with our beach towels. Before this trip, I would have rated our Pacific cruise about even (in third place) with our Carnival cruise, but at this point I’d say Carnival was much better than our Island cruise.
We chose Princess because it seemed like THE cruise line for Alaska, but all the beautiful scenery and experiences onshore didn’t erase the problems on board. Would we ever cruise Alaska again? Perhaps – I would have liked to have visited Sitka, there were many other options in Juneau that we would have enjoyed, and had we hit Ketchikan first (and therefore with a little more energy) we might have gotten more out of it. Victoria also sounds like a nice port for a return trip. Things we’d do differently? Spend a few more days in Anchorage pre-cruise, whether taking a trip to Denali or not, to get adjusted to Alaska time. Plan Ketchikan better, perhaps even take a ship’s excursion – we’d expected independent taxis at the pier (read on CC), to be able to just go to Totem Bight but we didn’t see any. Use Priceline to snag a good deal at a hotel closer to the Vancouver pier, if possible. One other thing I would suggest to all the cruise lines. People come to Alaska for the scenery and the wildlife. At least on our cruise, much of the wildlife came and went without so much as an announcement to the public decks, and definitely not into the rooms. At the very least, when there’s a bear, or a pod of dolphins or whales, or something of interest coming up, make a hallway announcement so people know what’s going on. We were so disappointed to have “just missed” whales on more than one occasion because we were either in our room or in transit to the public decks, and had we gone to that afternoon tea, we would have missed that bear and her cubs entirely! We only knew to look for the orca at Johnstone Strait because we'd gone to the naturalist's talk that day - that kind of information should have been in the Patter. It would also be helpful if the TV station that broadcasts the weather and nautical info would also indicate which milemarker we were on at that point in the Cruise Companion book. Some information is given in the Patter, but we had no idea when we were passing some of the points of interest in the book. Read Less