This is a long review. If you want, you can just skip to the end and read the summary.
We took our first cruise and first trip to Alaska on Celebrity. Since we were new to cruising and had heard about M-class ships engine problems, we booked air and pretour #1 through the cruise line. Pluses: We got transfers to and from airports, all transportation and hotels were arranged, and X had to get us home if the ship didn't turn up or had engine problems. Since the Summit missed the entire 5/20 voyage and was in drydock, that was a bigger worry than you might think. On the minus side, we had terrible flight schedules, spent too much time just waiting around, and missed things we would have enjoyed seeing.
Had to be to the airport by 5:45 AM, then sat in Seattle for 6 1/2 hours. The flight to Anchorage was behind schedule, so they let all the Fairbanks people off first. We rushed to the gate with 5 minutes to go, and found the plane sitting on the runaway empty with the seats on the tarmac. It was actually pretty funny. We watched the seats being installed and left about 40 minutes late. The air was perfectly clear and the view spectacular.
When we got to Fairbanks, the X team was there, herded us to a waiting area, and asked one person from each group to go tag their luggage. Unfortunately, most of the luggage had been lost. We all sat for an hour hoping it would be on the next flight in (it wasn't), and at last the bus took us to Pike's Landing. At this point it was 11 PM Alaska time, we had been up 19 hours and were exhausted.
We had to sit through a welcome talk, got our room key, and found the room occupied. Back to the desk, new room, to bed after midnight, and called at 4 AM to be told our luggage was on the way up. The sun was out when we went to bed and at 4.
Up early to rearrange luggage (one bag each checked for ship and 2 small bags each for land tour) and get to 7:45 meeting in lounge. The tour went on the riverboat Discovery. It was a nice trip, interesting but touristy. OK, but wouldn't do it twice. Lunch in Fairbanks, expensive restaurants, blah food. A quick trip to see the Alaska pipeline, then the bus headed to Denali. The roads were bumpy and there was lots of roadside trash, no views. A good time for a nap.
We got to the hotel (McKinley Village Lodge) about 6 PM. Wonderful view, but lousy place to stay. We were the first customers of the season, but the room had dust in the corners and even old wrappers. The sheets wouldn't stay on the bed, and the restaurant was truly awful. High prices, and people were waiting a hour and a half for cold food and wrong orders. The place had all new staff and was in chaos. The hotel is miles from Glitter Gluch and the park. There is a shuttle that runs once an hour, but no signs at Glitter Gulch showing a pick up point. If you walk toward the road you'll find another inn with little cabins and a restaurant. Food is both cheaper and better.
River was high and fast with ice on sides, rafting trips canceled. Our tour left on the Tundra Wilderness tour at 7:25. The day was warm and sunny, with Denali in full view. The trip was about 7 hours long, but seemed like 1. Since the plants were just starting to grow, animals were down near the road. We saw a moose, lots of caribou, ptarmigan, snowshoe hares, Dall sheep, and 7 bears. Lots of wonderful scenery, truly a great day.
Sat around waiting all morning; bags had to be out by 7:30 and the bus didn't leave until 12. Shuttle not reliable enough to chance shopping at Glitter Gulch, so everyone just stood around. Record high temps yesterday and today. Arrived in Anchorage at 6 PM just as everything we wanted to see closed. We did walk around, but it was a wasted day. The itinerary says afternoon in Anchorage, don't believe it. The Alaska Experience was still open, enjoyed that. Good prices in their gift shop.
The train to Seward left at 6 AM. Beautiful cars, good breakfast on train. Enjoyed the trip a lot! If you want good photos, try the outside platform. It's cold, but you won't have window reflections. Sit on the right if you can. Great scenery, some animals, and the train was mooned by campers. We visited the Alaska Sealife Center in Seward. The 1 1/2 hours there is just about right, no need to rush. We boarded the Summit about 1:30, had lunch and a nap. BTW, yes, you need a passport. Glad we had ours and that we got on early. According to the papers X sent, you couldn't board until 6 PM. There was a big crush from 6-8, and when 9 PM sailing time came, there were still 3 truckloads of luggage on the dock. We headed for the Persian Gardens (extra charge sauna area - $35. a day or $99. for the week.)
Hubbard Glacier day - We booked a low inside midship room because I was worried about seasickness. I never had a bit of problem, and we ended up loving the room. We were hardly in it except to sleep, and it was just a left turn and down the hall when we got back on board after shore stops. Don't believe that "you have to have a balcony". There was adequate storage and the room was larger than I expected. Although the bathroom looked clean, it had a very strong musty smell. Even a fully opened air freshener couldn't hide it. Cruise Critic party at 10:30, enjoying meeting people in the flesh.
Hubbard Glacier: Most people headed for upper decks or their balconies. We sat on deck 4. There were very few people, and we could sit in a lounge chair and enjoy the view. Members of the crew would step out, get a quick picture of themselves in front of the glacier and head back in. Glad to see they got to enjoy it too! Take a heavy jacket. It was cold and very windy. We had to stay well away from the glacier, but still got a good look.
Skagway - Ship arrived at 10. We went into town and looked around. Most of what we saw was tourists, t-shirt shops, and jewelry stores. The streets were very crowded. After lunch we took the Whitepass and Yukon train. That was well worth doing. Lots of beautiful scenery and an interesting narration. We missed a lot of it because we were out on the platform taking pictures. Probably would not do it again, though. First dinner in assigned seating - food was so-so. The Cirque de Soliel show that night was excellent.
Juneau - We arrived early. At 8:30 we took the Orca Enterprises whale watching tour with Captain Scotty. After all the rave reviews, I was a bit disappointed. We did see distant tails and blows, but that was it. A young man talked, but after the Capt. Larry build up I was expecting a naturalist or an expert. Later we stopped by an island with harbor seals and an area with eagles. The best part of the trip was seeing the eagles dive for food and seeing one sitting on a post back at the pier. After lunch we took 40 lbs. of dirty laundry, souvenirs, coats, etc. to the post office and mailed them home. Cost $40.00 for delivery in 2-3 weeks, but lovely having less to haul through the airports. We took the Mt. Roberts tram ($24), watched the film and walked the nature trail. Very enjoyable, good views, good film, and we saw a hoary marmot and a porcupine. A whole group of people were quietly watching the marmot when some idiot walked by yelling into his cell phone and scared it off.
Icy Strait Point - Easily my favorite port. They only allow one ship at a time, and shopping is limited, so it's not crowded. Great relief to find someplace that wasn't endless jewelry stores. I did buy a pair of mammoth ivory and jade earrings. You can shop, it's just not the main focus of the place. We took a bear watching excursion. The island has been heavily logged and replanted, so the forest is pretty sad; lots of big stumps and smallish trees. The bus goes through Hoonah, the main village, and over bumpy roads to a muskeg (peat bog). There's a boardwalk over the muskeg, which is a pretty interesting place in itself. We saw a couple deer, but that was it. The bear hunting season had just ended, and they were pretty wary. On the way back a sow and yearling walked in front of the bus and stopped just off the road. She stared at us a while, then calmly laid down and nursed the cub. It was an amazing sight. Afterwards we walked the nature trails and the beach. While we were bear watching, a humpback whale had been playing near the dock, but he didn't come back.
Ketchican - It was a long trip from ISP, so the ship didn't arrive until 1:00. We used some of the free time to download photos at the computer center on deck 4. You can download and burn a CD for $15.00. We had plenty of room on the memory cards, but considered it cheap insurance. When we got to Ketchican, it was drizzling, normal for the port. A rep from Southeast Kayaks met us on the dock and led us to the main office. It's about mile, but interesting. The sidewalk and part of the road is built over the sea, and our guide had lots of stories. They only take 6 people at a time. On arrival, we were outfitted with rain gear and life jackets, given dry bags for our possessions, and lead to a small covered boat. That took us to a larger boat where we got a Kayaking 101 lesson, fitted with skirts, and put in two man kayaks. While we were doing that, a whale was playing nearby, and we tried to follow it. Of course, none of us knew what we were doing and it gradually disappeared. By the end of our time, we got better and completely enjoyed the trip. Had to be my favorite excursion. Most things were closed when we got back to town, so we just walked to Creek St. and enjoyed the sights. We stayed up for the Grand Buffet at midnight, one of those things worth doing once. Beautifully presented food, mobs of people.
Inside Passage - Cruising all day, rainy. Good time to pack and finish getting photos burned to CDs.
Vancouver - had to be up early, so we took a few last pictures and reported to the assigned spot on time, 7:45. Take a book, you'll be sitting an hour or two before you get off the ship. We used the Express system. It's $20. a person, but the ship sends your luggage to the airline and you get a fast trip through customs. You do have to take the ship's bus to the airport, and can't visit Vancouver.
The ship was lovely, a bit worn in spots, but not shabby. We spent a fair amount of time in the Bar at the Edge of the Earth just watching the world go by on cruising days. It seemed to be pretty quiet most of the day. The food was OK, but the presentation was better than the food itself. I preferred the casual buffet to the main dining room. I tended to eat less and got more things I wanted, like extra veggies.
The land tour was less than I expected. Parts were great, parts were dismal. The worst was the morning sitting at McKinley Village (horrible in itself) just so X could flog one more set of excursions. We could have easily left early and had some time to tour Anchorage. Now that I've done it once and am more confident, I'd plan my own tour. The cruise was great, would recommend it. We used it more like a hotel than a cruise ship, skipped most of the activities and entertainment. Two of our excursions were independent, two through the ship, all worth taking.
Pictures at http://community.webshots.com/album/551225706QmcEZD