My husband and I traveled with 10 other family members to Alaska. While this was our third cruise, it was the first cruise adventure for almost all the others. Our ages ranged from 6 years old to 87 years old. It was the first time we had all vacationed together and cruising was the perfect choice. Each person found plenty to interest them in and out of port and we didnt all have to be together every minute of every day. We enjoyed meeting up at meals to share experiences and visit. It was a great family vacation!
Embarkation was a zoo. Some family members checked in early (11:30) and breezed right in. It took us at least an hour of standing in line before we got on board. But once aboard our rooms were ready and we were able to go straight to them. Then lunch was waiting for us in the Lido buffet and the food overdose officially began!
Alaska is truly magnificent and beautiful and several of us vowed to go back again and explore it on our own someday. The cruise ship is lovely but the Alaskan wilderness is the real star of the show. I urge anyone going to Alaska on a cruise to get out and do as many shore excursions as possible. Its well worth the money and you will not be disappointed (if you choose wisely). I booked 2 excursions directly with the vendors (via the internet) versus booking them through the ship. We saved a ton of money this way.
Juneau -- Our first port was Juneau and we went on a whale watching excursion which we booked through the ship. Whale watching can be somewhat boringyou search for hours only to see distant shapes in the water. Not this one. We saw 13 humpbacks bubble feeding. Twelve whales got in a giant circle while the thirteenth dove down deep and blew bubbles to drive fish to the surface. Then all the whales, all at once, burst to the surface with their mouths open to catch the fish. It was just amazing. We saw them do this 5 or 6 times before we had to head back in. The naturalist on board said that this behavior is not seen often but that it had been witnessed numerous times over the last few weeks. We felt very very lucky. For some of us it was the highlight of the entire trip and I was glad that my 87 year old mother was able to experience it. She couldnt believe what she was seeing.
In conjunction with the whale watching we had also booked a trip to the Mendenhall Glacier. Our bus was waiting for us once we got off the catamaran and we drove immediately to the glacier. This is not to be missed. You can only get to within a mile of the glacier but it is so huge that it looks like its only a block away. You can easily go into town and get a bus to the glacier on your own. I dont know what those are like, but we had a bus driver that was really informative and told us all kinds of things about the town, the glacier, wildlife and the local culture. I believe it was a Greyline bus tour.
Even after all that we still had time to shop around in town before the ship left. The shopping was good.
TIP: If you do a long excursion bring food from the ship. We were starving near the end of the whale watching trip and all they had on board the catamaran was microwaveable type food.
Hubbard Glacier -- Awesome, awesome, awesome! We saw huge chunks of ice calving off the glacier. We were there for several hours and we didn't miss a minute of it. Sadly many people came out to look, stayed a few minutes and then went back inside! It was rainy but the ship offers plenty of places to get under cover for glacier viewing. You can see it from inside but you can't hear it. The sound the ice makes as it breaks off is like thunder...it gave me chills.
Sitka -- Our second port was the little town of Sitka. Some of us went on a kayak trip in the morning. It was overcast and rainy but we still did it. I had booked this from home directly with Sitka Sound Ocean Adventures. They only required a $25 deposit for all 6 of us so we felt we could back out if the weather was really bad. I had heard good things about these guys but they weren't that great. They do not provide rain gear and we were soaked to the bone by the end. The guide was nice but rarely offered information. The safety instructions were minimal which concerned us because we had a teenager and an inexperienced person with us. The good part was that we were all alone on our little paddle. Not with tons of other folks from the cruise ships. We saw a few sea lions and bald eagles and the shore line was interesting. We did a 2 hour trip which was fine for our group. Experienced kayakers would want to take a 4 hour paddle where you would see much much more. If the weather was good it would be fantastic. As it was, the best thing was the hot shower back on the ship!
After a shower and lunch on the ship we went back into town to look around and shop. Shopping was not very good and the town is really small. The ship was in port all day long.......too long in our opinion. We would have preferred more time in Ketchikan and less time in Sitka.
Ketchikan -- I had booked a float plane trip to the Misty Fjords with SeaWind Aviation from home. We saved about $50 per person doing it this way versus booking through the ship. These guys were GREAT. Professional, informative, safe and interesting. If you can afford it, definitely take this trip. It was amazingly beautiful.....glacier carved landscape, waterfalls galore, alpine lakes, wildlife and forest that goes on forever. We even landed on one of the little lakes and got to walk around on shore. It was so beautiful and so quiet. My husband and I have been on helicopter excursions and another sea plane trip. This was the best. You just gotta do it! SeaWind said that they would not take you out if the weather was bad and would not charge you. I believe them. They were good folks and very trustworthy. My purse got to take a second trip to the Misty Fjords because I left it on the plane. I called them and they returned it to me (intact) as soon as the plane got back.
Afterward we shopped around town until the ship left. This was the best shopping of the trip. We wished that we had more time in this port as there were other shore excursions that we wanted to take but didn't have time.
Victoria -- The final port was Victoria. It was disappointing that we had to dock so far from the inner harbor. But a few of us walked the mile and a half into town while the others rode the bus. It's a nice walk through a neighborhood. This was the one port where we had not booked any excursions. Several of us had already been to Buchart Gardens and didn't want to go again. So we all just decided to walk around town and see the sights. The ship didn't dock until about 6:00 pm but all the shops were still open and there were lots of people in town. It was nice as we left the ship but got cold really fast. We walked around for a few hours and then headed back to the ship. We wished we would have gone to the gardens and seen it all lit up at night. If you have never been and you like gardens, it is a must-see.
The Ship -- Overall the ship was wonderful. The service was outstanding in every aspect. Much better than the Carnival and Princess cruises we had taken in the past. It is a well appointed ship and everything feels luxurious. However, there is no real central atrium so it's hard to get oriented. By the time we had it all figured out, it was time to go home! Someone from our group was always lost. If going with a big group with kids, I would recommend walkie talkies. We spent too much time searching and waiting for family members.
The cabins were very nice. Two of us had luxury suites next to each other. The balconies were huge and we spent lots of time out there watching the glacier and all the beautiful scenery drift by. This was our first suite and we will never again stay in a cabin without a balcony. It made the trip so great because it was a gathering spot for the whole family. It had a huge comfy king bed, large leather couch, side chairs, coffee table, desk/entertainment area and tons of closet space and hangers. Very posh and tastefully decorated. We LOVED it.
The food was very good. We liked the alternative dining and the fact that we didn't have to eat in the dining room if we didn't want to. The food at the Pinnacle Grill was outstanding. I had the best ribeye of my life and my brother felt the same about his porterhouse. For only $20 extra per person it was well worth it. The Lido (buffet) had good food and lots of variety every day. Lots of people didn't want to dress up for formal nights so just went here instead. Even the room service food was good
Entertainment -- This is the only thing we found disappointing on the ship. For the main show there were some good comedians but otherwise it was mediocre at best. There was always music playing in the various lounges and they always sounded very good. The disco was pretty small and not many people were there but there weren't many young adults on the ship. It was mostly families and middle aged couples or groups.
The 6 year old loved Club Hal and wanted to go there every day. She made lots of friends and told us all that this was just her "first" cruise. Guess she's planning on many more! I think she had more fun than the rest of us. It was like one giant week-long sleep over. When you're 6 it doesn't get much better than that.
Getting off the ship went very smoothly and fast. They let you wait in your room until your number is called and then you simply walk ashore. This is very different then it was in the old days where you waited in a crowded lounge for hours until it was your turn to leave. Our bags were waiting for us on the dock and we quickly got them and headed to our car. Very efficient process.
Overall it was an excellent cruise and I would highly recommend it. It is a wonderful way for a family to travel. Whether you're 6 or 87.......it will be a truly memorable vacation.