This was an epic 18 day adventure. Here is a link to the same review on the NCL forum that includes pics:
DW have sailed 20 some times on I believe all mainstream lines. This is I believe our 5th NCL, including Sky, Pearl, Dawn and an inaugural cruise to nowhere on the Breakaway last year.
July 22) – We got up at 3am EDT and flew American Airlines to Seattle and then Alaska Airlines to Anchorage. The Alaska Airlines plane was a new 737 with very nice seats that are different from anything I’ve previously experienced. I actually had sufficient legroom, which is something that has gone the way of the dinosaur over the last decade. Enjoyed a very scenic flight north with decent views of Mt. Fairweather and Yakutat Bay.
Upon arrival in Anchorage, DW’s bag was destroyed… I went to the baggage counter to take care of the paperwork and was shocked when the attendant took me back to a storage area, pulled out a box and presented a brand new bag. Got to love Alaska Airlines!
We transferred to the Millennium Hotel, on the shores of Lake Hood. We arrived about 9pm (1am body-clock time), it was well past dinner time so we got to our room and went down to check on dining options. We opted for the outdoor venue and had seafood (black cod/sablefish) tacos and crab cakes while sampling local beer and listening to the balladeer play mostly classic rock songs! It was a relaxing end to a travel day that spanned 24 hours and a great welcome to Alaska!
July 23) – Up and out by 7:00 (but 11am body-clock time!). I’m excited to be taking the 12 hour trip on the Alaska Railroad to Fairbanks (DW, not so much, but being a pretty good sport). We enjoyed the Alaska Railroad’s Goldstar service to Talkeetna then changed to one of the two Wilderness Express private cars for the balance of the trip. Both Goldstar and Wilderness Express cars feature upper level seating with glass top, panorama viewing with a bartender/barista, depending on your poison. Dining was on the lower level with wide tall windows. My breakfast in the Alaska Railroad diner was a scrambled egg skillet w/ reindeer sausage, it was excellent. On the Wilderness Express, I had a sesame seafood salad for lunch and prime rib for dinner, I consider both to be excellent, and wonder how such fine quality can come from a moving train car! Dinner was served as we were rolling through Denali National Park. Fine food combined with unmatched scenery, what an experience!
Finally our scenic day comes to a close as we roll into the Fairbanks Station. We transfer to the Rivers Edge Resort to begin NCL’s Authentic Alaska land tour. Sleep comes fast in our comfy little riverside cabin.
July 24) – We were greeted by temps in the low 40s and drizzle this morning. Bags out at 7 with 2 tagged with a “meet me at the ship” tag that will catch up with us at the ship. We head to the dining hall in the main building. Two options, continental buffet or full/hot buffet, I believe it was $12.99 and $16.99. We opted for hot and it was more than adequate.
There are two groups (40 each) doing this itinerary, we are assigned to “group A” and meet our delightful tour director, Annette and our driver, Jim. We would be traveling in sort of a loose tandem with the other group throughout the land portion.
We board the motorcoach and head to the Riverboat Discovery, I was not sure what to expect. The narrator reminded me of Marlin Perkins, if you’re old enough to remember Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom… he just had this very personal, engaging vocal style. First was a bush plane demonstration, a float plane takes off and lands next to the sternwheeler. A bit corny, but so what.
Next we stop at the late Susan Butcher’s Kennel. Susan was a 4 time winner of the Iditarod and succumbed to leukemia in her early 50s. The vessel pulls up to shore at the kennel, her husband, David Monson, comes out and provides some stories and commentary before his crew rounds up some very excited dogs, hitching them up to a quad with no engine and they tear off! Later he is onboard to answer questions and sign books.
Further up the river we visit an Athabasca Indian village. We get off and walk to various demonstrations of how these natives dealt with the harsh conditions and have thrived in this region for 10,000 years. This was very informative and extremely well done.
So back on the boat, then back on the dock, board the bus and after a quick drive-thru downtown Fairbanks, we get dropped off for lunch. DW and I found a little hole in the wall Mexican place. I don’t recall what we ordered, but if it would have been bad I would have remembered.
Upon reboarding the motorcoach we get more narration from Annette and then stop at the Alaskan Pipeline. Everyone jumps out and snaps a few pics. Once reboarded, we head south for Denali. After a couple hours we arrive at the Grand Denali Lodge, high on the side of a mountain, over-looking the village and the Princess compound across the street. This will be our home for the next two nights. The views from the Alpenglow Restaurant at the lodge were spectacular and the food was fighting for equal billing.
July 25) – We took the shuttle down to the village and after wandering between the shops, eventually had a great breakfast at Prospectors Pizzeria & Alehouse, highly recommended! We take the shuttle back to the Grande Denali Lodge and head off on the Denali Tundra Wilderness tour in one of the comparatively spartan, but adequate Aramark busses. This tour takes you approx. 65 miles into the park. The weather was at times sunny, at times overcast, at times foggy and included several rainbows. We saw a nice variety of critters including a mamma grizzly w/ two cubs, numerous caribou and dall sheep, a moose and a red fox that came trotting through a parking lot just after we reboarded our bus. This was about a seven hour tour, so it was pretty late when we got back to the lodge. We grabbed a quick bite at the Alpenglow Restaurant and called it a night.
July 26) – This morning we had our bags out at 7:00 and are greeted with sunshine. We have another excellent meal at the Alpenglow Restaurant. We then boarded our motorcoach and headed to Jeff King’s Husky Homestead for a very entertaining morning. Jeff has won the Iditarod 4 times and is an energetic entertainer. First you have photo ops with the puppies and learn about how the dogs are selected for the various individual roles they must perform on the sled dog team. As at Susan Butcher’s Kennel a couple days ago, they hooked up some very excited dogs to a quad (this one had an engine that was running???) and sped off…. Returning a short time later as the crowd cheered! After that you go inside and Jeff entertains with stories of mushing, survival and the challenge of raising girls in a house that has no running water.
Following our time at the Husky Homestead we head to Denali National Park (saw a moose on the way) for a bit of free time before boarding the Alaska Railroad for the ride south to Talkeetna. We met a man from NY State and his two 20 something sons who were getting back to their car after hiking the rugged interior for 7 days. They said they had lots of rain and several nights that were in the 30s. They were either very excited about all they had seen and done, or were excited about finally taking a shower…
We board the now familiar private Wilderness Express car on the Alaska Railroad and once again the beauty of this great state scrolls by.
We arrive in Talkeetna and have very little time, about enough to cover the town, walk to the river and return to the motorcoach. Cute, bustling little town with a heavy dash of hippy-dippy thrown in.
We reboard the motorcoach and head south to Anchorage as Annette narrates our way through the Matsu Valley. We arrive at the Anchorage Hilton about 8:00 and grab our room keys as quickly as we can. We have an 8:30 reservation at the Glacier Brew House, a place that came highly recommended. It did not disappoint, I had the rockfish, which has been a favorite of mine since we had our catch of rockfish, halibut and cod shipped home from Ketchikan 4 years ago.
July 27) – I wake up and figure I’ll take a walk around Anchorage and pick up something to eat. DW opts to lounge around the hotel and take her time getting ready. I walk and walk and walk, it is Sunday morning and nothing is open… nada. I made it out to the airport and not so much as an Egg McMuffin available??? I probably walked 4-5 miles round trip… back at the hotel I grab a bagel and coffee at the Starbucks inside. We board the bus and head out of town, as we hit the road our Tour Director, Annette says do you see that, Denali!…. Everyone is scrambling for cameras and gawking, but they just keep on driving. Annette is back in guide mode and pointing out the sites, including the largest FedEx facility I’ve ever seen. Apparently every package from SE Asia passes through here. As we are heading out of town to begin our drive south down the Turnagain Arm, Jim pulls the motorcoach into a parking lot by a lake, and there, across the lake it is, the site that eludes 65% of travelers to Alaska, Mt. McKinley/Denali, the tallest point in North America. We had much closer vantage points prior, but as is typical, it was not visible due to cloud cover and this was our last chance to see it before we head south across the Kenai Peninsula. Everyone jumps out of the coach for photos and to enjoy the view. I feel quite fortunate to have a second siting in as many years.
The scenery driving down the Seward Highway, is amazing, Turnagain Arm / Cook Inlet on the right with mountains behind it and more mountains on the left, in many places the road is actually cut into it. We made several stops for photos/restrooms and stopped for lunch in Soldotna, Annette’s hometown.
We eventually arrive in Homer, our home for the night and check in to the Ocean Shores Motel. Rather non-descript and quaint, it is just down the bank to the shore and every room has an amazing view! We had about an hour to freshen up before going to the Homer Spit. The “Spit” is a narrow band of land, maybe a couple hundred yards wide that juts out 5 miles. It is home to a harbor with hundreds of boats as Homer claims to be the halibut capital of the world (we saw one hanging that weighed 230lbs). It is also lined with shops and restaurants. Finn’s Pizza ended up with our dinner order tonight. Order downstairs and enjoy organic, wood-fired pizza and local brews upstairs while overlooking the western shore of the “Spit”. We enjoyed the food and the hippy-dippy, psychedelia atmosphere.
As we were enjoying the view, we watched the shore get larger and larger as the tide went out. We were told the tide can fluctuate 24ft in one direction and 14ft in the other… a 38ft swing! I then looked at the boat docks, they were all on “collars” attached to long poles so they would float up and down as required.
When we got back to the hotel (motel?) the tide was still going out, there were now 6ft high boulders on the beach that were completely submerged when we were there a few hours earlier. DW went to bed, I went walking on the new beach that now stretched probably a half mile from where it had been when we arrived. I joined a few others that were drawn to this phenomenon. There were lots of colorful jellyfish and I was completely in awe! It was tough to head back to the room, but eventually I did.
July 28) – Today was much like yesterday, but in reverse. We boarded the motorcoach, drove a few miles, piled out and had a nice breakfast at family run restaurant, the Fresh Sour Dough Express Bakery / Café.
We then took the scenic drive with a lookout over the “Spit” before heading north. We stopped in Kenai to visit a tiny Russian Orthodox Church. The pastor/minster/padre/father was a native Alaskan and told of the core beliefs and made comparisons to western Christianity. He injected a great sense of humor into his answers as he fielded questions from our doubled up group of 80.
Following a late afternoon visit to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center and a stop for group pictures we were in line outside the tunnel to Whittier. For once, I was not rushing to get on the ship, the land portion was simply spectacular and I was not in a hurry to end it. We eventually got in line and boarded. We dropped off the bags at the room and admired the view from the aft balcony. Following the muster drill we made a trip to the buffet and headed back to our room to enjoy a beautiful sail away with a view of the wake!
July 29) – Sort of nice to not be on a schedule today, by early afternoon Hubbard Glacier is in view and we spend a couple hours approaching it, spinning around and heading out. We saw a few seals congregated on ice bergs.
Later we won at trivia as we teamed up with some of those “group b” people. Actually, when we first arrived at Fairbanks, a week ago, while checking into the hotel the person behind the front desk said, “That is your tour director over there sitting on the couch.” We went over and introduced ourselves and the woman gave us instructions on where to meet tomorrow. It was the next day when I discovered that this was not our tour director, but a couple from Atlanta, a couple of those “group b” people. Anyway, we hit it off with this couple and participated in several activities with them during the cruise.
July 30) – Icy Strait Point / Hoonah - A long day here so we were not in a big hurry to get off. Eventually we tender in and head for Hoonah (about a mile walk along the water), we wandered around a bit and decide to get lunch at Chipper Fish… Very glad we did as the silver salmon tacos were one of the best thing I shoved in my face all week! We eventually wandered back to the reconstructed cannery museum where the tender boats come in. We were going take the trails down to the shore area we saw from the ship, but the weather began to look threatening. DW heads back to the ship. I hang out hoping the weather will clear, but it turns for the worse and is soon pouring. I make it to a tender fending off most of the water and am soon back on the ship.
We had heard that tonight is lobster night, something DW will not want to miss. I will generally have one for the novelty, and they are typically tough, stringy and tasteless, but these were succulent, tender and flavorful; I ended up having two!
July 31) – Juneau / Tracy Arm – Twin Sawyer Glaciers – This morning was a bit rushed as we needed be back on the ship by noon. We take the shuttle to Mendenhall Glacier and walk to Nugget Falls. We were here in 2010 and it was socked in and drizzling; today was blue skies and bright sun. Quite a contrast.
We head back to the ship and join our 2000 new friends in a line that stretches a couple blocks. Eventually we are on board and steaming south. We make the turn into Tracy Arm about 4:00 and soon pass the Carnival Miracle as it exits the fjord. As at Mendenhall Glacier, there could not be more contrasting conditions from when we were here in 2010.
Tonight we met some of our friends at the Jeopardy game show, and yours truly was picked to be one of the three contestants. I was able to deliver many correct answers, however, putting them in the form of a question seemed to be the bigger challenge for me. Eventually DW would yell, “What is?” whenever I’d buzz in which helped, but alas, it was too little too late. Oh well, better to have played and looked like a fool than to never have played at all....right? right?
Aug. 1) – Skagway - In my prior visits here I’ve struck out on the numerous hiking trails, this morning is no different, and I’m up early and off to Smuggler’s Cove and Yakutania Point. This is the first time we’ve docked at the downtown (Broadway St.) pier, so this is easy. Coming off the pier go left, take the walking bridge across the river next to the airport and follow the trail markers. It was a gorgeous morning!
I was back on the ship at 9:30 to roust DW, she was already gone. I join her at breakfast and then we head off the ship. Someone yells, “What is!”
We wander around town and head back to the ship to meet our driver. We have a 1:00 reservation on the White Pass & Yukon Railroad. We meet our driver/guide from Chilkoot Tours next to our ship, board the shuttle van and head over to the main dock to pick up passengers from the Star Princess and Carnival Miracle. We get a tour of the Skagway and then head to the train station. Upon boarding our train car we set off. Our group of a dozen or so had a car all to ourselves. These cars are beautifully maintained.
We continue our scenic climb out of Skagway winding along water, crossing bridges and tunnels, eventually ending up at the Fraser, BC station. It was a beautiful trip. They allow you to stand between the cars to take photos, which is where I remained for the duration, however, the downfall is that you can only hear the narration if you are inside the car.
We disembark and our Chilkoot driver (whose name escapes me) is there to pick us up. He provided excellent narration and several photo stops on the way back and once back in town, dropped individuals off where ever they wanted.
We got dropped off a ways up Broadway St. and made our way back to the ship at about 4:15, just ahead the 4:30 all aboard.
Aug. 2) – Today we are scheduled for a 1:00 arrival into Ketchikan. I’m up early and while having some breakfast spot what I believe is a dolphin. I then headed to the front, outside on deck 13, I had the entire area to myself. It is a stunningly beautiful morning as we sail the inside passage along Prince of Wales Island. It’s not too long before I spot some whale spouts. Then one blows right next to the front of the ship, and it shows the entire tail before diving. I feverishly shoot pics, but it could not have been in a worse spot, directly in the glare of the sun. I then move down to the viewing deck in front of the Observation Lounge. A few other were whale watching here. Over the next couple hours we spot numerous whales and dolphins, but nothing as dramatic as the one alongside the ship.
I head back to the room to check in with DW, she is getting ready for our big day in Ketchikan, so I go out on the balcony. A short while later I spotted several orcas/killer whales in the wake. They remain near the surface and are visible for about 20min.
We are meeting friends in Ketchikan, and we lucked out because he is a commercial fisherman and we had about a 20% chance of him not being out fishing. Turns out the Alaska Govt. gave the fleet the day off as they planned the next stage of the salmon harvest.
Upon getting off the ship we run into Ken of Northern Lights Charters, he was looking for his clients. We booked Ken in 2010 and he showed our family an incredible time.
Our friends arrive and we go to one of the local restaurants for lunch. We hung around the Fish Creek area for a while and watched seals chasing fish. We then headed for their beautiful water-front home, we dropped off the women and we headed out to Totem Bight State Park. The tourists were gone, so he showed me around, he told me that when he was in high school and this was not yet a state park the lodge was a popular drinking spot. We then continued north until the road ended at Settlers Cove State Park. We went in and I was astounded at the size of the trees and the density of the foliage. This is a rain forest, and this place really shows the results. There is a beautiful waterfall and there were some pink salmon, err… humpies in the river/creek.
Back to their house and I take note of the maple tree in his front yard. There is moss growing all over the tree, and then ferns growing out of the moss! The climate here is actually more temperate than ours in the upper Midwest. It seldom gets below freezing and seldom snows. They did, however, get over 160 inches of rain last year, which is about average. There are also very few wells, they have a 3500 gallon cistern in their basement that collects rainwater, which is how almost everyone does it here.
So after a great day with friends, we get back to the ship. We have a reservation at La Cucina and enjoyed the Italian fare along with great views as we made our way south through a very narrow channel.
DW decides slumber is in her best interest, I enjoy the balance of the evening on the balcony.
Aug. 3) – Sea Day, mostly unremarkable ocean scenery so we get packed early. We went to the crew show and met our friends for another losing effort at trivia. Late in the day I see the Disney Wonder, the only other ship in Ketchikan, appear behind us. Late at night it was alongside and apparently beat us to the checkered flag in Vancouver.
Aug. 4) – Vancouver – No reason to hurry, we vacate our room by 8:00, and head up for some breakfast. We were joined by some of our “group b” trivia friends. They were taking the train from Vancouver to Toronto. We did this following our 2010 cruise, and we were able to provide some info. Today we were taking the 5:45 train to Seattle.
We take a cab to the Via Rail Pacific Station, check our bags and then run into our “group b” Atlanta friends. We thought we’d seen the last of them! They are taking a bus to Seattle and spending another few weeks wandering around the northwest.
We decide to head to Granville Market where we meet up with some our “group A” friends for lunch. It was about a mile and a half walk along False Creek, a very scenic waterfront sort of boardwalk.
We eventually make it back to the station, and board the train for the scenic ride south.
Once in Seattle we gathered our bags and transferred to the Roosevelt Hotel for a fast sleep.
Aug. 5) - DW flys home and I board Amtrak’s Coast Starlight for Sacramento.
I enjoyed beautiful scenery along Puget Sound. Mount Hood came into view early in the afternoon. By evening we were in the Cascade Mountains.
Aug. 6) – Arrive Sacramento – I walked down to Old Sacramento and enjoy the old timey atmosphere. Around 11am I boarded the California Zephyr and begin the ascent into the Sierra Nevadas and eventually cross Donner Pass.
Aug. 7) – I awake to the beautiful, sculpted scenery of eastern Utah. The backdrop gets increasingly dramatic as we get closer to the Colorado Rockies. By the time we arrive in Glenwood Springs, the peaks on either side of the train are stretching thousands of feet over us. The panorama continues throughout the day. We reach Denver by nightfall. I get off the train and snap some pics of the snazzy new station with a very retro, sort of metro / deco vibe.
Aug. 8) – According to my GPS, I am somewhere in the middle of a cornfield in eastern Nebraska when I awaken. The rolling hills turn into flatlands shortly after we cross the Mississippi River between Iowa and Illinois. The corn and soybean fields stretch as far as you can see! Eventually the Zephyr rolls into Chicago’s Union Station and my epic journey draws to a close.
So, in conclusion, I could envision living on the Kenai Peninsula. Winters there sound tolerable and it does not stay dark all day.
The Alaska folks are a unique breed, this is the last frontier and they are a proud bunch. They are fiercely independent, yet there is a strong element of team spirit. Most seem to not only tolerate us "lower 48ers", but to genuinely welcome us to their home (after all, come September, we are gone til May).
One funny line we heard a couple times regarding the 5 to 1 men to women ration... for the women: "The odds are good, but the goods are odd!"
Oh yeah, this is supposed to be a ship review. I'd say the Sun is the perfect size for a mainstream cruise to Alaska. The crew was consistently warm and friendly throughout the ranks! I'd sail the Sun again in a heartbeat!