Since I have never experienced a repositioning cruise before, nor ever cruised with Royal Caribbean, I hope I am not unduly unfair to Royal Caribbean in the following comments, as I am not sure if this is the result of it being a repositioning cruise or just normal operating procedure for RC. Repositioning cruises are the best deal - and if you are budget conscious or just like to get the best deal for your money, this is the way to go! Serenade of the Seas was a great ship for Alaska - with so many places to sit and watch the scenery without freezing or being outside.
Mother nature was the real hero on this cruise - once we departed Seattle, we had sunshine EVERY day - a more beautiful experience could not be had. Even the captain had to comment on the amazing weather.
Overall my husband and I found the food wait service & food quality of both the main dining restaurant, Reflections, and the self-service restaurant, Windjammer, up to our discriminating standards and what we would expect of a decent cruise line. We were disappointed with the wine selection, however and five days into the cruise, there was yet to be an offering of an identifiable chocolate dessert at dinner! I made this complaint to our waiter and he personally took it as his mission to bring me a chocolate dessert each evening from that point on (and from where it came I have no idea - don't ask don't tell) - no matter if I ordered a different selection - my table mates were jealous!
We were on Deck 4 - Forward - it was quiet, but small, not enough drawer space for a 14 day cruise.
07-May-2009 This was actually the first Alaska port we sailed into on this repositioning cruise. We docked by 7 AM and departed Ketchikan by 3 PM - enough time if you decide on a self-tour option. Waking up to the picturesque town right there in front of us was pretty neat. The RC staff really pushed buying your excursion before you left the ship, but honestly, the prices were much cheaper by 25 - 50% if you bought your tour off the ship in the visitor's bureau. As soon as you reached port there were plenty of tour companies right in the bureau, including many options to get to Misty Fjords - the must do tour from the accounts of people we spoke to who paid up to $300 per person fee for the float plane experience. We chose to be economical on this Alaska trip - so we took advantage of local transport and our own two feet to tour Ketchikan.
Saxman village - the place where all the historical totem's are and which still houses local native artisans that carve totems - is an easy 2.5 mile walk on a paved walking path along the water. On the way, we discovered a drive-thru espresso convenience store, which was perfect since we were craving a good cup of coffee - we walked up to it and the folks there made a great latte. When we got to Saxman Village, there was a $3 charge each for access to the grounds, contrary to info we read about in the 2009 Fodor's Alaska Ports of Call book. We went into the gift shop and the gentleman behind the counter was kind enough to lend us a handout about the historical purpose and meaning for each of the totems. We took the city bus back into town, leaves every 30 minutes- for a nominal charge and then walked around Creek Street and took the Funicular up to the Cape Fox lodge for some beautiful views of the snowy mountains. We then trekked down to the town following some of the paved paths, including the married man's path along the creek. Since we were there in early May, no salmon were running - but I can imagine how cool it will be in the summer to see the place brimming with the fish. We sampled some amazing jam in one of the stores - a fruit I never heard of - Salmon Berry - looks like a yellow-orange raspberry. We bought the jam - and an Ulu knife - best prices for the Ulu knives were found in Ketchikan - with quite a variety of wood handles to choose from.
For the photography enthusiast - the town was a delight to photograph and the walk to Saxman Village also offered some beautiful sites.
08-May-2009 Our key interest in Juneau was to hike the trails near Mendenhall Glacier and catch the sites in that area, and we did! WOW! We took advantage again of the local shuttle bus service for $7 per person one way - so it gave us the time to do what we wanted for as long as we wanted. Where the bus drops you off is a set of trails, a Creek trail and the Moraine Ecology Trail. We were the only two people to get off the bus and take the trail right there and to our amazing luck, we encountered a young black bear within 40 feet of the trail head! It was really exciting and we took a ton of pictures until he moseyed away following the creek under the trail ramp. The ecology trail is a very easy hike - but since we were early in the season, there was a lot of snow on parts of the trail, luckily our hiking boots are water proof. The cool part was seeing the animal tracks and skat evidence that was so visible in the snow and sound of silence, that is until we encountered a robin attacking a Bluejay. We came upon the front of glacier from the lakeside then walked the lake bed to the visitor center and the falls, and we also followed a piece of the East Glacier loop that was not closed. We took advantage of the visitor center to watch the films and exhibits, speak with the rangers, use the restroom facilities, and see a family of mountain goats through their telescopes. There was a charge to the center - $4 per person. We were going to take the Mt. Robert's tramway to get a better sense of the scenery from the mountain top - at a cost of $27 each - but decided not to - as it just seemed to be a very high cost. Instead we went and had a beer at the Red Dog saloon, a well deserved rest for our weary feet from all the hiking and walking in the town that day.
09-May-2009 - This was one of two ports where we selected an excursion in advance through the ship. Since we like to be active when we vacation, there was a hike that let us experience the White Pass & Yukon Railroad for a 20 minute train ride to the Denver trailhead. The hike was supposed to be about 3.5 miles round trip, but given it was a tour off the ship, there were persons unable to trek the terrain very swiftly, rated as moderate, since we had to be back at the trailhead within three hours to catch the train back. In fact, two people wore sneakers which were pretty slippery given the terrain and misty conditions. The trail was interesting and well groomed - the guide knew his flora and fauna and told some fun stories on the way. The trail took us through the temperate rain forest with some old growth forest. We ended up hiking about 2 miles round trip - a little disappointing to my husband and me. The tour operator, Packer Expeditions associated with a retail store in town - The Mountain Shop, was great and split us in two groups after a while so we could move at a faster pace. Even so, we did not hike as much as we would have liked, since we have to get back down the mountain to meet the train. I would definitely try this again, perhaps organizing a private hike with others I know that would "keep up".
When we returned to Skagway, we learned of some other hikes in town, so we had a quick snack in town and went on the trails that started off second street by the train tracks. The visitor center in town had trail maps and the staff were very helpful. We ran into a lot of employees from the ship on the lower lake trail. It was a beautiful day, the sun was full out and the long range pictures of the snow-covered mountains were just spectacular. The lake was crusted over with an ice layer that was melting with the intense sunlight. As the wind blew, and broke up the ice layer, it sounded like glass chimes tinkling in the wind. Very peaceful!
10-May-2009 The real name of this town is Hoonah - In reality - this is a created "port" for cruise lines to make money by selling Zip lining tours - while zip lining is fun - on this cruise so early in the season, they really were not ready for us - the cruise lines overbooked the time slots - the retrieval system for the lines was not operating. People got really annoyed waiting - we did not book this tour but wanted to try it - and we did watch people come down the lines screaming... it was hilarious to watch. Hoonah is a mile, easy walk from the port - not much to the town BUT we encountered bald eagles en mass near the little Lutheran church on the harbor side of the main street. The eagles were feeding and hanging out in the trees - some spectacular photo opportunities. One of our table mates that evening told us they chartered a float plane ride from one of the few shops in Hoonah that had tours advertised on their storefront window and that it was an incredible experience. We were jealous!
At this port you must tender in, and again - the excursions are limited, the only tour worth taking is the ZipLine (unless you can make your own arrangements in advance) - the other tours offered at the cruise facility generally got a thumbs down from the people we spoke with that went thru the cruise line. There are some lovely walks along the nature trails and the beach trail at the facility. All are paved trails, except if you go to the rocky beach area, with plenty of benches to sit and rest or contemplate the views. Some people did see sea otters off a drainage ditch on the walkway to Hoonah (we did not) but we did see plenty of interesting sea birds and sea lions in the water.
12-May-2009 We tendered into Sitka without any particular plans for the day. As we arrived at the pier, another ship, the Carnival Spirit was visible, and many tour operators were meeting passengers as we disembarked the tenders. Unfortunately, Sitka was a short day - we had to be back at the tenders by 3 PM, so that limited what you could do as far as tours if you scheduled them yourself.
We ended up having quite the full day. It started when we decided to join a party of 4 to charter our own private whale watch tour. Captain Rich and his dog Eva were great. We were lucky to see gray whales in the waters off Sitka and lots of cormorants, sea lions, sea otters and a small rock outcropping filled with at least 50 Bald eagles nesting... that was incredible. The captain poked around the waters to get us the best vantage point possible for the wildlife. It was a three hour tour, cost us $120 per person and it was well worth it as there were only 6 of us on the boat.
After returning to the marina, Captain Rich recommended some places to walk to, the fish hatchery, and the Sitka National historic park. This park is the site of a memorial to the Russians who died fighting during the Tlingit-Russian confiict. The park was filled with birds singing and was really peaceful. The paths were easy to follow and offered many options to enjoy the park. There was a visitor center there, and we took advantage of the restroom facilities, but did not enter the center.
My only regret is that we did not have more time there, once we got back to the tender port at about 2:30 PM we had to stand and wait in line a long time to leave. We were finally on the tender at 3PM.
15-May-2009 - SAVE all your whale watching excursion $$ for Victoria - AMAZING! There are resident pods of Orca's (Killer Whales) there and plenty of opportunity to take all kinds of excursions. While I made our excursion plans from the ship's excursion desk, in town there were tens of whale watching companies that were much cheaper (plus you can pay in Canadian $$ and get the advantage right now of the positive exchange rate). Royal Caribbean charged $118 US per person with the Whale Watch operator picking us up in their busses at the pier - but we found plenty of 3 hour tours with the local operators off the main marina & pier in town for $90 Canadian. That was a short 15-20 minute walk from where we were docked.
The operator we used had two naturalists on board, students completing their degrees or recently completed. They pointed out a lot of the sites, wildlife, etc and were very knowledgeable about Orca's. We encountered Orca's almost immediately once out in the open water and we actually exhibited some tail slap behavior and some breaching. Unfortunately, we were a bit too far for any interesting photographs, however the captain did well by us by inching closer and anticipating where the whales would go.
The most spectacular moment was when we encountered the clustering of the entire whale pod, about 25 or so whales in the J-pod, as they began entering their resting state. The naturalist told us that Orca's rest about 10% f the time, and cluster together to protect each other. As they are resting they rise above and fall below the surface of the water together. It was amazing to see and it also happened that the captain guessed right on where to move the boat, allowing the whales came within 20 feet of our boat as they passed down the channel in behind us. This action resulted in some great photos of the whales.