Your Camera Isn't Good Enough
First, an introduction, this was my wife, Joni and my sixth cruise and our fifth with Royal Caribbean. Our very first cruise was on the Radiance, so we were looking forward to returning to her, as we have been on her sister ships, The Serenade and The Jewel. We are in our 50's and reasonably active. I am all about fishing and food; I have wanted to go to Alaska salmon fishing for much longer than I have been cruising and have done much research on such a trip over the years. Fortunately, my lovely bride of 15 years shared my interest. We met our friends, Allie and Kim on a Hawaiian cruise a couple of years ago, and told them that were thinking about an Alaskan trip, and they told us about how much they loved the cruise-tour they had done previously with Royal Caribbean, and that they would love to go back. The seed was planted. After much continued planning and re-planning, our group grew to 14, including our neighbors, Jim and Shelly, and numerous friends of Allie and Kim. We booked the first day the cruise was available to book. In all my previous research on fishing, I decided that Silver Salmon was the species that I wanted to target, and they were best in August. I also had decided that I wanted to spend time in Alaska before the cruise then do the southbound cruise, which all that led us to the August 21 sailing date. Booking the first day allowed us to get 4 cabins across the center aft of deck 9 and 3 more cabins were booked later on the hump. I warn you now, as you can tell by the length of my introduction, this will be a very long review. I will divide it into the week before the cruise and the cruise itself.
Pre-cruise in Alaska: We are lucky living in the Dallas area to have a direct flight from DFW to Anchorage, while it is direct; it is a long one at 7 hours. Joni and I did try to use mileage to upgrade to first class, the flight was sold out, almost (this is important). We did however; try to beat the system, by booking the window seat for me and the aisle seat for Joni, hoping the middle seat would remain empty. Much to my dismay, when I printed out the boarding passes the morning of our trip of a lifetime, they had bumped me to the middle seat. Fortunately, my lovely bride, seeing my distress, told me she would switch and sit in the middle. Well it wasn't the window, but ok. So we get on the plane, and the horrid perpetrator who had so blatantly stolen my precious window seat was unwilling to switch to the aisle, being the magnanimous and benevolent person I am, I shrugged it off and took my aisle seat. OH NO! Things just got real ugly! My seat cushion, and I use the term very loosely, had long previously given up its life and any remnants of padding to some mammoth of a person who had sat there sometime in the past. I felt as if I was sitting on two steel bars in the most uncomfortable of places. I knew my back and other assets would be in agony after a 7 hour flight of this torture device. Once again, my lovely bride came to my rescue and talked to my new best friend the flight attendant shortly after take off. There was 1 empty seat on the plane a couple of rows back, and the saintly flight attendant switched my assault weapon of a seat "cushion" for the real cushion, all was right with the world and we were going to Alaska. Two movies later, time had passed and we landed without further incident in Anchorage. I could not resist paying Allie and Kim back for similar infractions that they had done to me, by pulling out my cell phone and calling them back in Chicago and simply saying, "I'm in Alaska, and you're not", feeling contented as they still had a few days of real world drudgery ahead before joining us. We booked our hotel that night and the following Wednesday night (when we returned from fishing) at the Captain Cook Hotel in downtown Anchorage. The hotel was very nice and comfortable. We had our first Alaskan fare at dinner in one of the hotel's restaurants, I had halibut and Joni had salmon, both good, and then went to bed to start getting use to the 3 hour time change. The next morning we saw it was still overcast as we looked out our window overlooking Cook Inlet. We had breakfast in the concierge lounge and went out to explore as our shuttle to the fishing lodge wasn't picking us up until 2:30. Downtown Anchorage is a very pedestrian friendly and attractive city. We went to an open air market that the bell captain recommended, many shops, the visitor's information center and finally Phyllis's Cafe for lunch. We both had the halibut fish and chips and the seafood chowder. I couldn't help eyeballing the bucket of huge king crab legs at the table next to us, knowing that was in my future...mmmmmmmm. We then headed back to our hotel to await our shuttle to the fishing lodge. In all the fishing research I had done, I narrowed it down to 4 possibilities, and then time and money help me to finally pick what I did. We were heading to the Kenai River Sportsfishing Lodge which was headquarters and one of four lodges owned by Alaska Wildland Adventures. We would be enjoying 3 nights there with 2 full days of fishing. Our shuttle arrives, which turns out to be a small, very new and comfortable bus, reminiscent of the nicer ones at ski resorts. We hop on and settle back for the 2 hour ride to Cooper Landing. The ride is very scenic, and the driver, who is very fun, pointed out the sights and, bless her, made a courtesy stop for beer, wine and a restroom break where we spotted our first bald eagle. A little later while later, the drive ventured further into the forest, someone behind me yelled "moose!" I turned quickly only to see a blur of brown not to be distinguished. We arrived at the lodge and were met by some of the staff. As our luggage was being delivered to our cabin, we were given a tour around the property. The property was beautiful and consisted of the main lodge building and several cabins right on the upper Kenai. We were given all the usual information, you know, like what to do if you go out on your porch and there is a bear there, do not try to pet the moose, the usual stuff. Afterwards Joni and I go to our cabin, open a bottle of wine and enjoy the sun that had just come out on our porch. Our cabin was a small, very attractive, log cabin with a queen and a single bed, a nice bathroom and our porch overlooked a small foot bridge to the nature trail. Oh, we were told to sing or make noise on the nature trail to let the bear and moose know you are coming. After our happy hour, we wandered over to the main lodge for dinner. At this point we began meeting some of the other guests, some who had rode in on the bus with us and others who had been there a while and were more than willing to share their adventures. Dinner was served family style at large tables, very conducive to chatting with new friends. The food? Oh my gosh, was it good, we had a crab appetizer and a duck entrEe that night, as well as wonderful sides and dessert. They had breakfast at 3 seating times and dinner at 2 seating times depending on your activity. We were booked for drift fishing for Rainbow Trout and Dolly Varden on the Upper Kenai the next morning. The staff found us and informed us that our guide would be Brian and we could sleep in as we were at the second seating of breakfast...at 5:30am, don't be late. The next morning, we got up bright eyed and bushy tailed and walked over to the lodge (keeping an eye out for bear) for breakfast. We met Brian, who was great, very knowledgeable, patient and generally an interesting person, and prepared for our first day of fishing on the Upper Kenai. It was a beautiful wilderness experience in a drift boat. It felt like we had the river to ourselves. We saw 2 bears on the shore in the first 10 minutes. We got to experience some moderate white water. We were fly-fishing which I had never done. I caught a nice rainbow trout within the first 5 minutes of fishing. I have no idea how many Rainbow Trout and Dolly Varden we caught but we rarely went more than a few minutes before catching the next, most were over 20 inches. Towards the end of the river portion Joni hooked a HUGE Rainbow that took out all her fly-line well into her backing and as I was trying to bring my line in I got a huge Dolly Varden, also taking the line into the backing and running all around the boat. Joni got hers pretty close to the boat and it jumped a couple of times completely out of the water, so we got a good look at it, the guide thought it was pushing 28-30 inches, but then it got off, I did get the Dolly in, it was in the 23-24 inch range. Shortly after that, Joni hooked another one that after a long fight, she landed a beautiful 24 inch Rainbow. It was starting to slow down a little for me and Joni was on a roll and we were just about to the lake. Then I hook a monster, the last fish of the day. After a long fight, I land a 26 1/2 inch 10 pound Rainbow as the sun comes out. After pictures we let it go and Brian the guide puts the little outboard down and we do about an hour long trip across a beautiful mountain lake in the sunshine to take the boat out. This trip turns out to be one of the top three highlights of the vacation. We headed back to the lodge for happy hour on the deck overlooking the Kenai, followed by some ping-pong on the same deck. At our beef tenderloin dinner, we were told that our guide the next day would be George for our Resurrection Bay Silver Salmon trip, and breakfast would be first seating at 4:30am...don't be late. We finished off the evening in the lodge's riverside wood burning sauna before heading to bed. The next morning was a little drearier and we were decked out in full cold weather rain gear. We met George and Howard, who would be joining us for the days fishing. After a quick breakfast, we hopped in the truck for the hour long drive to Seward and the weather was not promising. We got to Seward and made use of the facilities as George launched the boat. The boat was a 22 foot open boat with no cabin, cover or head. The weather was drizzly and Joni was concerned. George did say there was one beach we could get to and go into the woods if need be. It was needed later on. The rain stopped for some time, fortunately, and on the ride out to the first fishing spot, we saw sea lions and eagles. Fishing was slow, we moved to another spot where we saw mountain goats on the cliffs above us, fishing was slow. We moved to another spot, the one with the beach, which Joni and I made use of, I think to George's chagrin. Feeling relieved we began fishing again, and what's this, a bite, yes, I had a fish! It was a small rock fish, but a fish, things were looking up...but fishing was slow. So we returned to our first stop, and so did the rain. At this point, it would be a good time to sing the praises of the L.L. Bean 3 in 1 Weather Channel coat, Joni and I stay dry and reasonably warm. But fish start biting, I get another rock fish, and another, and then Joni gets a real bite! After dancing around the boat, and lets just say, not the best communication between Joni and George creating some "unique" angling skills, Joni lands a beautiful 11 pound Silver Salmon. Not too much later, I too hook one, not to be outdone, and using more "traditional" angling skills, I land an equally beautiful 12 pound Silver. Whew, we now will have some fillets to send home. Alas those were the last fish of the day and we make the cold wet ride back to the harbor in Seward. Although we did have one last highlight of the trip as we encountered one of the resident sea otters just outside the harbor, lounging on his back as otters do. Back at the lodge, it is pouring rain; George hangs our fish for a couple of photos, which we scramble in the rain to take, before George artfully fillets them for a tasty treat after we get home. We hurry back to our cabin to change, and by the time we have done so, the rain has quit and there are signs of sunshine. We walk the nature trail for the second time; I stay quiet in hopes of seeing a bear or a moose this time, but no luck. We did see an eagle, but that was getting fairly common by now. Then we headed to the lodge for happy hour and chatting with folks we met before and some of the newcomers of the day. Dinner that night was potato crusted halibut; did I mention how good the food was? The next morning breakfast wasn't till 8:30...oh the luxury! We walked around the property some more taking pictures and glad we still had lots of vacation to go, or it would be hard to leave this place. The next morning, it was a nice sunny day, one of a few to come, and after a leisurely breakfast, we were picked up by our van to take us back to Anchorage. Since Joni and I were the only ones going back that day, we were able to have a nice conversation with the driver on the very scenic drive.
Anchorage, part II: We arrived back, at about noon, at the Captain Cook Hotel and dropped off our luggage. At this point, all 14 of our party were somewhere in Alaska, all merging on Anchorage for dinner that night. We caught up with Allie and Kim, along with a couple of their friends at the Ulu Knife factory. After doing a little shopping, we wandered down to Ship Creek to watch the salmon run and folks fishing, it is amazing how many fish there were in the creek. The group hops on a trolley and we make it back to Phyllis's Cafe for lunch. We had the king crab legs like the ones I saw on our previous visit and they lived up to the expectation. After lunch, we go back to the hotel and get our room, finding our luggage already there. Then we get out for a little more walking around town, a beer at Humpy's, finally to meet up with almost all of the rest of the gang at the Crow's Nest on top of Captain Cook's for a pre-dinner drink. For dinner, the whole gang of 14 plus a couple of Jim and Shelly's friends that live in Anchorage all converge on the Glacier Brewhouse for dinner. Fortunately, I had reserved the conference room and we were all able to squeeze in. I finally had some salmon that was very good. As we had to get up early to catch the train the next morning, we called it a night and headed back to the hotel.
On to Seward: We had booked Goldstar Service on the Alaskan Railroad from Anchorage to Seward. The train departed at 6:45am, requiring us to be there at 5:45. After checking in and arranging for our luggage to go to the Holiday Inn Express in Seward, we waited in the station to board the train. While waiting, we were found (thanks to my most colorful hat) by some of our fellow Cruise Critic passengers. After a short wait, we boarded the double-decker Goldstar dome car. All I can say, if you can spare the extra price of the ticket, do so, it is beautiful. We had a fun server in our car that brought us coffee and drinks. As we were going to be doing the Kenai Fiords tour as soon as we got off the train, I passed on the Bloody Mary. For some reason, something I had been really looking forward to on this trip was having breakfast in the dining car. The experience was all that I hoped for. The eggs and reindeer sausage were very good and the scenery was fabulous! In fact, the scenery for the entire trip was spectacular and we did see 3 moose running in a field next to the train. Also what was great, in the back of the car on the top deck was a covered out side platform that was great for taking pictures. All in all, the train ride was a great experience. We arrived in Seward at about 11:00am, just in time to jump on the shuttle to Renown Kenai Fiords National Park Tour. We quickly check in at the office get our tickets, hop on the large catamaran and we are off. They serve a snack of smoked salmon, cheese, a bagel, a cookie and an apple on our way out Resurrection Bay. While making our way to the glacier, we had a Park Ranger narrate, pointing out the wildlife. We had the good luck of seeing seal, sea lions, porpoise, eagles, puffins and then we stopped when we came upon a humpback whale. We didn't get real close, but close enough for some good tail shots. But then he surprised us and came up on the other side and breached twice! It was a beautiful sunny day and it kept getting better. After riding a little while longer we got up close and personal with a glacier, probably as close as a hundred yards. While we weren't lucky enough to see any real big pieces falling off, the small bits of calving that we did see were impressive by the sound they made. They sounded like gunshots. It was getting pretty chilly by the glacier and we had a long ride back, so we headed inside the comfortable cabins and started back to Seward. Everyone was relaxing, some were napping and we had made the turn back into Resurrection Bay when the Ranger came on the speaker saying it was our lucky day as a pod of Orcas had been spotted just up ahead. They stopped the boat as the pod approached us and we were able to see 3 to 5 of them slowly swimming right by us, incredible. It was a great way to end the tour. Upon returning to the docks in Seward, it was a very short walk from the docks to the Holiday Inn Express that overlooked the Harbor, only a couple of buildings in between. One of those buildings turned out to be JDock Fishing Charters, where one of the boats had just unloaded their catch of numerous Silver Salmon and Halibut. I had to walk over and look, saying out loud, "I wouldn't mind going fishing again". One of Allie's friends heard me and said she was interested. I decided to see if it was even a possibility after we got checked into the hotel. We checked into the Holiday Inn Express, which was nice. Our room had a nice view of the harbor; we got settled, shed a couple of layers of clothes and still had a little time before dinner. So we wandered back to the office at JDock and inquired about the charter, and sure enough they had a half day available in the morning that 4 of our group decided to do. We were informed that there would be another couple with us on the charter making it 6. The day was supposed to be sunny, the boat was about a 38 footer with a heated cabin and head (bathroom) things were looking good. We had reservations for 10 of us at Ray's Waterfront, which was a couple of doors down. At Ray's, we did have to wait for a little but we ended up with a table right by the window overlooking the harbor. The food was very good; I had the platter with halibut, shrimp and scallops...mmmmmmmm
Cruise Day 1, Seward: Our original plans was to get up when we woke up, have breakfast, and drop off our luggage at the ship then go to the Sea Life Center. That plan was thrown out the window when we booked the half day fishing trip the previous night. So, again we were waking to an alarm and rushing to get checked out and our luggage into storage, gulp down some breakfast and go fishing. We did take time to look out our window to see the Radiance was there looking fantastic. On our first trip down the elevator, we met a couple who I noticed the Goldstar Train luggage tags on their luggage and asked how they enjoyed the train. They said they loved it and today they were going fishing, I said so are we, and maybe we are going together. The door opened and we went our separate ways. Shortly after, our group went next door to the docks, and sure enough, there was that couple and indeed they were the other couple fishing with us. As we headed out, we established that they also would be on the cruise with us, small world. So we are heading out on The Rogue with Captain Randy, who tells us that fishing in the bay hasn't been that good lately and he knew some good spots outside the bay; a point we had proven earlier in the week. On the way out we see lots of seals, and it is a great ride compared to our previous experience in the bay. So we get to the first spot and my line is barely down when I get a bite, it's a rock fish, but hey it's a fish. By the time I get mine up everyone has one on. Randy doesn't want to catch rock fish so he moves us a little. I drop my line and get a much bigger bite, again a rock fish, but a much larger one, one worth keeping. We move to a couple more spots, including one where we see a whole bunch of baby seals on the beach and finally get to a spot where we begin catching Silver. We got 5, including a 10.5 pounder caught by Joni, unfortunately, none for me. At the very end, I did get one on that took out quite a bit of line which we hadn't seen any of the previous ones do, but alas it got off and it was time to head back. Once we got in, they filleted Joni's fish and weighed the fillets to ship back home. The fillets weighed 8 pounds leaving room for a couple more pounds of goodies. Joni asked if we could add some king crab legs, and with a positive reply that is what we opted to do. We went next door to Chinooks for lunch, which also was very good (I think I did like Ray's better) picked up our luggage and a taxi at the Holiday Inn and headed for The Radiance. It was probably 3:00pm when we boarded and there was no line at all. We checked in and walked right on board. We went straight to our rooms and dropped off our carry-ons, shedding some layers of clothes and then went out on the balcony to enjoy the sunshine, the view of Resurrection Bay and Seward. We had a little time to show Jim and Shelly around the ship before meeting up with our new friends from Cruise Critic in the Schooner Bar. A fun time was had by all!
At this point, I am going to change up the format a little so folks can find what they are interested in, and skip over my blabberings that they don't find entertaining and/or informative.
Radiance of the Seas, Overview: As I said in the introduction, our first cruise was on the Radiance 6 years ago. My general observation is that she has improved with age. Everything looked great. We did know what to expect this time, but she looked just as grand as the first time we sailed. A question that I asked and now can answer, we did NOT have to wear or even bring life jackets to the Muster Drill. The drill lasted about 20 minutes at the most. Stateroom: We were in 9260, a D-1 category on the aft. The cabin had an oversized, very deep balcony that could easily accommodate 2 lounge chairs as well as the 2 regular balcony chairs and table. We had a sail away party from Icy Strait Point later in the week where we had 8 of the regular chairs out there and it wasn't crowded at all. We were able to have 18 of us at the party and the room was manageable. Marcia was our stateroom attendant, and she was great! She went above and beyond in helping us with the party. We also were able to visit one of the Grand Suites on deck 10 just in front of the hump, needless to say, it was wonderful. Service: All who we dealt with were wonderful. I have already mentioned Marcia, our stateroom attendant; I also would like to acknowledge Eduardo, our waiter who also was excellent, making sure I had escargot on nights it wasn't on the menu and that extra lobster tail, which we will get into later. Food: Food was perhaps our biggest surprise. We have all read in the boards about the decline in food quality in the dining room. Joni and I have experienced this decline on the Serenade and the Jewel. But I have to say the quality of the food was the best that we have had since our first cruise. Not only was the quality very good, but there was no problem ordering a soup and an appetizer, or on lobster night, having the prime rib and lobster. Then there was the Big Lobster Smack Down! Kim and I were talking about who could eat the most lobster, Eduardo also got into the spirit of it and made sure our plates did not go empty. I will not get into details, but I will say we had more than 2 each. Entertainment: Joni and I normally go to most of the shows, so many of the shows we have seen before. This cruise we only saw a couple, one was the production show, Piano Man, which we have seen before and the other was the Farewell Show, which they had a really funny comedian. I thought the talent level was better than what we had seen; Joni didn't think it was as strong. Dan the Party Man was filling in as Cruise Director for a few weeks due to an illness or injury of the regular cruise director. He did a good job, and I liked him more as the week progressed. I was lucky enough to rake in the loot as I won a RCCL memory stick at the Meet & Mingle, a RCCL hat and valued key chain at music trivia and our team won RCCL travel cups as we won out of 26 teams at Quest. The ship bands were good as was the pianist in the Schooner Bar. The Starquest Disco on deck 13 was pretty slow most nights with a couple of exceptions. Ports, Cruising and Weather: The weather was a major character in this extravaganza, often times seeing a wide variety in the same day. Many of our planned activities were very much threatened by the weather only to have it change at the last minute to be fine. Sailing overall was very smooth with one notable exception; our last sea day for the first half of the day, we had 15-20 foot "rollers" from a storm out at sea that definitely got the boat rocking. The ports were all wonderful, and now more details, yay: Hubbard Glacier: Our first full day on the ship, and it was a sea day! After all the early mornings, it was nice to be able to sleep in. I walked out on the balcony before breakfast to enjoy a beautiful day, smooth seas and the promise of a great week to come! I noticed that one of our new Cruise Critic friends, who had the balcony diagonally above me, was also out enjoying the view. He mentioned he had just seen quite a bit of activity of birds diving and salmon jumping. I started watching closely and before too long saw a fin. I looked through the binoculars and established that it was a shark. After seeing a video in Seward the day before on Salmon Sharks, I deducted that is what it must have been. I saw it a few more times before heading with my lovely wife to our first breakfast at the Windjammer. The Salmon Shark was an unexpected treat that was not on my "hope to see wildlife list". At noon was the Meet and Mingle in the Hollywood Odyssey. We had maybe 25 or so there with some nice canapEs to munch on. This also was our first opportunity to talk with Dan, the Cruise Director. After attending Meet & Mingles on four previous sailings and never winning anything, I was thrilled when my name was called, winning a RCI Memory Stick ...oooooooo. By the time the Meet and Mingle was over, the weather had turned cooler, it was overcast and there was a heavy fog bank off to the port side. We were picking up our pilot to aid in navigation through the bay to Hubbard Glacier; at this point we were ahead of schedule. As we entered the bay towards the glacier, we also entered the fog bank and our progress was slowed down to a crawl. Even though we had a nice balcony, I opted to stake out a place on the rail on the helipad for the ride in, this proved to be a chilly decision. So we were creeping along through the fog wondering if we would even be able to see the glacier. The Captain would give up progress reports between the deafening blasts of the foghorn. Then all of a sudden we were through the fog bank and there was Hubbard Glacier about a mile in front of us! We picked up a little speed, as now we could see, still not too fast so we could avoid the many icebergs. The increased speed did create enough of a breeze to send Joni back to our cabin to get our winter hats and gloves. The Captain slowly guided The Radiance closer and closer until we got within 200 yards of Hubbard Glacier! We sat there for quite some time seeing the occasional small bits of calving, then all of a sudden people started yelling and I turned just in time to see this huge ice pinnacle that stood probably 70 to 80 feet high fall over! I held up my camera blindly over my head to try to get a shot, but just got the ocean in front of it. After we watched the action a little while longer, the Captain rotated the ship 180 degrees for the other side to get their view. At this point we returned to our balcony in the aft which being out of the wind proved to be a warmer viewing platform. We were fortunate enough to see another large ice slide before finally departing. On the way out we spotted numerous seals on the even more numerous icebergs giving us a pleasant farewell. That night was our first formal night and the Captain's reception. When we met the Captain, I commented on how kind the weather had been to us. He replied that he could have done without the fog, and I said that it added to the experience, that it was like the grand curtain being raised to reveal the spectacle of the glacier. I was flattered that he used that analogy when he talked to the passengers at the reception. Juneau: The main thing I like about having a balcony cabin is, well, the balcony. I pretty much make it a point to go out on the balcony anytime I go to the cabin, it's the first thing I do when I get up in the morning and the last thing I do before going to bed at night. So after our wonderful day at Hubbard Glacier, our night of dressing up, chatting with the Captain and dancing with my lovely bride, I wander out to the balcony railing to stare out into the black abyss only to quickly discover its raining. The next morning we are scheduled for one of the two excursions that we booked through Royal Caribbean, kayaking within sight of the Mendenhall Glacier. Of all our planned excursions, I felt as if this was my boldest choice. Lets just say I don't bend the way I did when I was younger, I anticipated getting in the kayak would be challenging, and getting out even far more so. I also anticipated it being chilly even in good conditions so with the threat of rain, I was a little concerned. To add to my anxiety, since the cruise was the second week of our adventure, we had boarded with laundry in hand, and my winter underwear had not returned with the clean laundry. As it was about midnight, there was nothing to be done and the voice on the other end of the phone assured me that they would be able to find it first thing in the morning. I did go to sleep that night a little less easy with visions of my frozen assets the next day. The next morning I woke and, as always, went out on the balcony, it was cold, windy and rainy. Another phone call or two prompted a return call, "What does it look like?", "Well, it's long and its underwear", "We will call you back". Since our cold weather rain gear had served us well the previous week, I wasn't as worried and I figured out a "plan B" ensemble. Just as I got all the layers on, there was a knock on the door. Joni answered to find Allie from next door holding up several coat hangers of clothes, "This was in our closet, I think they delivered it to our room by mistake, is it yours?" A good laugh was had by all. I quickly shed my many layers replacing them with the "plan A" layers. We meet up with Jim and Shelly and head out to catch the bus. Our bus is an old style white school bus with one of the native locals as our driver. He was quite entertaining and set a tone that we later discovered to be a prerequisite of all tour guides in Alaska; you have to have a limitless arsenal of really, really bad jokes to bombard your captive audience. After about a 20 minute drive we arrive at the cove where we will be kayaking. We all huddle off the bus to discover it isn't raining here, and the wind isn't blowing and it seems at least 5 degrees warmer. Now don't get me wrong, it's still grey and overcast, and there is a fogbank out in the bay, but overall, much more pleasant than in Juneau. I begin to wonder if I may have too many layers. We are led to the back of a truck to get our briefing and equipment. The equipment consists of colorful rain suits, life jackets, paddles and skirts, yes, skirts. One of the guides looked over Joni's and my rain gear and decided that it was sufficient to deprive us of the extra layer of their lovely yellow rain suits. After adding the life jacket and the skirt to my layers and parading down the beach to the kayaks, I was confident I had too many layers. The kayaks were two person models with two small holes that theoretically Joni and I were both suppose to slip right inside; after all, the guide had just demonstrated how easy it was. Joni was in the front and without too much difficulty slides into her seat, securing her skirt. Now it was my turn, and somehow with some needed help from the guide, I manage to wiggle in and get my skirt secured. They adjust the foot pedals for the rudder and push us out into the wild waters of Alaska. Now the person in back was responsible for steering, the person in front was responsible for propulsion, at least which is what I attempted to convince Joni. Steering the craft was mentally challenging, to turn left, you matched your partner's paddling on the right while pushing the left peddle, the chewing gum and walking at the same time syndrome. Actually, Joni and I did pretty well, and our group of five kayaks and our guide were off, paddling towards a beach across the cove. What really struck me was how quiet it all was, with the exception of the occasional float plane passing overhead, you couldn't help but to get lost in the tranquility of nature. A short paddle later we were over at the beach and began to notice the eagles there. Since we were in kayaks, we could very close in just inches of water. Then one of the eagles took off and flew off just a few feet in front of us, providing a spectacular display. At that point we started paddling towards the fog bank out in the bay. We soon noticed the head of a harbor seal popping up out of the water silhouetted by the fog bank. We paddled a little closer and he disappeared only to appear again a little closer to one of the other kayaks. Our guide told us that they were curious and if you talked to them, they would sometimes stay up longer. Well this seal was wanting a long term friendship, as we sat in somewhat of a circle, he would take turns visiting with each kayak, coming as close as 10 - 15 feet. But then he saw Shelly in the next kayak over and fell in love, sticking his head and neck completely out of the water and coming within 2 to 3 feet of her. As my life jacket did not have a pocket for my camera, I was unable to get pictures; fortunately Jim was able to bring his camera and got some nice ones. We hung out with our new friend for maybe 45 minutes before heading back in, gliding over the glass like water. At first the seal started to come with us but then turned back. We didn't see Mendenhall Glacier due to the fog, but Mr. Seal more than made up for it. It was only on the paddle back that I realized how far we had come, that beach seemed a long way a ways. We did finally make it back, and with the help of a few hands and a lot of wiggling, I was able to extract myself from the snug fitting vessel. We enjoyed a snack of cheese, salmon pate, reindeer sausage and crackers before loading back onto the school bus where our driver had replenished his stockpile of bad jokes. When we returned to Juneau, the weather had not changed since our earlier departure; it was still cold, rainy and windy. We later discovered that the helicopter tours had been cancelled that day. I had two more things on my agenda for Juneau; eat lunch at Tracy's Crab Shack and ride the Mt. Roberts Tramway, the weather was not cooperating. We returned to the ship to shed a layer or two of clothing before striking out again. Both the tramway and Tracy's were in easy walking distance of the ship, as we walked I watched the tramway cars disappear into the low clouds. We got to Tracy's and the outside seating, while covered, didn't look like a sufficient escape from the weather. We noticed The Hanger Restaurant on the drive back, so we opted to walk down to it. I was glad that we did, we got a nice table right by the window overlooking the harbor and they had something on the menu that I had given up on finding in Alaska, razor clams. Being the appreciator of food (pig) that I am, I got the razor clam basket and Joni and I split a bucket of king crab legs. The basket had two fried razor clam "steaks", each were about the size of a small fried egg. Now I love my seafood, especially shellfish, so I was very excited to get to try the clams. I would say, unless you are a hard core shellfish lover like me, don't get the razor clams. The flavor is very strong, which I liked, and the clams were extremely tough and chewy, even by my standards. The king crab was wonderful. After lunch, we walked around town and shopped our way back to the ship. I kept a hopeful eye on the Roberts Tramway and the weather, and while the low clouds did break enough to see up to the top, the rain kept up, so we called it a day and went back to enjoy the ship. Tomorrow was hopefully a helicopter to dogsleds in Skagway. Skagway: We found out about the Juneau helicopter tours being cancelled after returning to the ship in Juneau. So we had a back up plan, that if the tour cancelled we would do spa treatments. Well, we pull into port and as our tour isn't till noon, we are slow to get out of bed. Then I hear the thump, thump, thump of helicopter blades. I go out on our balcony, and there is Temsco Helicopters right across a small parking lot from us with helicopters taking off and landing every few minutes. We do have patches of drizzle followed by breaking clouds. After a leisurely breakfast in the Windjammer where we continue to watch the helicopters come and go, we take the short walk across the parking lot to Temsco. The organization is amazing, they had 6 helicopters running to cover their various tours, they would land, unload their passengers, refuel, load their new passengers and take off all in less than 5 minutes. So we check in and are directed to a waiting area. When our group is all there, we watch a safety/information video on the helicopter and are fitted with inflatable life-vest and snow boots that go over our shoes. Then we are broken into 2 groups of 5 for the 2 helicopters that are flying to the dog-sled camp. We are given numbers for our loading order that determines where we sit. We then file out to the landing area and watch the copters fly in, almost in formation, towards us, up the fiord. We are instructed as to how to approach and get on when the signal us. I lead the line to the helicopter and with helping hands from both sides, the crew gets us loaded, buckled in, our headsets on and we take off. Neither Joni nor I have ever been in a helicopter before, and we were amazed at how smooth and comfortable the ride was. I was right behind the pilot and had a great view. The pilot gave narration through the headset as he flew us up valleys, over waterfalls, by cliffs and glacier faces before arriving at the dog camp on a glacier maybe 30 minutes later. Unloading at the dog camp was as efficient as at the base, even though walking in the snow was a little more challenging. Our 5 passengers from our helicopter were then divided into Joni and I, and the mother and 2 children that rode with us. Joni and I were then introduced to our musher, Kim, who was very friendly and you could tell she loved the dogs. She talked to us about the dogs in general and the camp of 249 dogs and far less number of staff that lived up there for the 4 month season. Then she asked if we wanted to meet our team, which of course we did. We spent time petting each dog as she introduced us and told us about their history and personality. It was team of 8 dogs towing a sled which had a second matching sled towed maybe 10 feet behind the first. Kim, then showed us how to drive/ride on the sleds, both sleds could have 1 driver and one rider. We started out with Kim driving the first sled with Joni riding and me driving the second. The dogs were more than anxious to get going, you can tell how much they love running, and with a word from Kim we were off with quite a jerk onto what I would say was a 2 mile trail. We stopped a few times to take pictures and change positions. It was unbelievably gorgeous up there and really not that cold. When we got back to camp, Kim took us over to meet and play with some of the, not so little, puppies. Of course they were still cute and lovable. Then we heard the sound of the 2 choppers bringing the next group up the valley and it was time for our flight back. While the flight back was equally spectacular, it was a more direct route lasting maybe 20 minutes. I didn't think we would be able to top that. This excursion was the next to go in our top 3 of the vacation, but there would be one more to come later in the week to top even this one. Our second excursion that was booked through Royal Caribbean was the 4:15pm White Pass Railroad "Summit Club". Again we returned to the ship after trekking through the snow to shed a few layers and grab a late lunch at the Windjammer. Almost our entire group had booked this excursion, so it was bound to be a party. By the time we were to meet in the parking lot for the excursion, the rains had come yet again. This wasn't a problem as we would be inside the railroad cars and there would be champagne. Even though it was raining, the scenery was spectacular, and we had an onboard guide doing the narration with her mandatory supply of really, really bad jokes. What was particularly surprising was even in the smallest creek running next to the tracks just outside of town, you could see the multitudes of Pink Salmon (Humpys) making their migration upstream. I found that I spent a significant portion of the ride outside on the platform taking pictures. The views were breathtaking. When we reached the summit, we stopped next to a picturesque lake while the engines disconnected and moved to the back of the train making it the front. We did a nifty flipping of the seats then our car attendant popped the champagne and did a toast before heading back down to Skagway. She kept the champagne flowing almost the entire trip back, so a fun time was had by all. That night, we had reservations in Chops with Allie and Kim. Shortly after being seated, a table by the window opened up and the waiter moved us to that one. Breaking tradition of previous visits to Chops, I had the rack of lamb instead of the large fillet, Joni did have the fillet, and both were excellent. Again the wine flowed, the company was excellent and a fun time was had by all. Icy Strait Point: The very first excursion I booked for this trip, more than a year in advance, was whale watching with Captain Floyd of F.I.S.H.E.S. out of Icy Strait Point. This was also the earliest excursion we had during the course of the week, requiring us to catch the first available tender after the ship anchored at 7:00am. It was another grey day of overcast and drizzle. Our group of six met in the Centrum at 7:00 and surprisingly, there was no line for the tenders, so we climbed aboard the first one. We got to the meeting place on shore at 7:20; Captain Floyd was supposed to pick us up at 8:00. One of the other guides in the parking lot asked who we were looking for, and as we told her, she said, "Oh here he comes now". He was glad to be getting an early start and the next thing we knew we were on his nice clean boat heading out of the harbor and seeing a whale on our way out. We rode for close to an hour to get to Floyd's chosen location, stopping a couple of times to watch a couple of groups of sea lions. When we got to the destination, it didn't take long to spot some tell tale spouts in the distance. While the whales were all around us, they were shy about getting very close; occasionally giving us a tail shot a hundred yards away or so. All of a sudden one came up right next to us, and activity started to pick up. Before we were done, we saw a couple of different whales breaching, one of which breached 3 times fairly close to the boat, providing one of my best pictures of the trip. Then the two that had been breaching wave goodbye with their fins, indicating it was time to head back. The other priority in Icy Strait Point was to have some Dungeness crab at the legendary Office Bar in Hoonah. Captain Floyd was good enough to drop us off right on the dock behind the restaurant. We went in finding that we were the only customers. We sat at a table right next to the window, ordered our seafood chowder, crab and cold draught beer before realizing it was only 10:30am, mmmmmmmm breakfast of champions. Our crab came, and we all enjoyed wrestling with the shell to get to the tasty treat inside. The waitress offered to hose me down as I was finishing. By that time, the place was packed, good thing we got there early. After lunch we opted to walk back to the port along the scenic shoreline road. While watching one of the kayak tours, we were surprised to see a whale surfacing right out there by them. I am certain they were even more surprised and thrilled. By the time we got back to Icy Strait Point, it began raining fairly heavily. We spent a little time shopping in the large facility that was right there at the tender dock, and then jumped on a tender back to the ship. As we had a 4:00pm departure, and we would be cruising the inside passage, I had thought this would be a good day for a sail away party with our group. With the help of our steward, Marcia, and the folks in room service, as well as contributions by some of the others in our group, we had a huge spread of goodies and several bottles of champagne. Since we had four cabins in a row across the aft, Marcia pilfered all the balcony chairs giving us 8 chairs on our balcony that were still under the overhang and protected from the rain. As it turned out, I think we had a total of 18 in our cab and on the balcony, and it never felt excessively crowded. As the party progressed, the rain stopped, the sun came out producing a sensational rainbow off the port side. It was a great way to finish the day and get ready for the second formal night. Ketchikan: Many had told me, you just have to do the floatplane trip with Michelle at Island Wings, so we booked it probably a year in advanced. Again, the trip was not till 11:00, so we were being leisurely about getting up, until I heard a plane right outside the ship. I go out on our balcony to a beautiful sunny day and floatplanes taking off right next to the ship. The 6 of us from our group, taking this trip, met in the dining room for breakfast then headed out to explore a little before the trip. We met our van that took us to the office/dock of Island Wings. After settling up, we watched as Michelle brought her plane in with the previous tour. She then introduced herself, then asked who wanted the best seat for pictures, and we all agreed on Allie, who got the back seat. Then Michelle asked who wanted to be co-pilot and I was lucky enough to get that seat. Then the other 4 ladies could sit in the other 4 seats. While she ran in and did paperwork, Our shuttle driver poked his head in the plane and went over seatbelt, headsets, etc with us. Then, he and Michelle pushed the plane out and we were off. Michelle explained that right there in port was controlled airspace, and that she would turn our mics on after we cleared it. We were able to listen to all the communications for take off etc. as we taxied out into the harbor then took off. I have since been informed that I was the only one hearing the take-off instructions, probably because I was in the co-pilot's seat After we were in the air for a bit, Michelle put on some nice background music in the headsets and started chatting with us. She was very friendly and knowledgeable, even giving helpful info on camera settings and offering to do the setting if we didn't know how. She gave ongoing narration and encouraged questions and comments. The scenery on this clear sunny day was unbelievable, the cliffs, the glaciers, the waterfalls, the mountain goats, everything. Words can't do it justice. After maybe 45 minutes of this beauty, Michelle flew us into this canyon over a gorgeous lake, banked sharply at the end of the canyon then landed on the lake, taking us to a tiny island in the middle. We all got out and were just in awe, every direction you looked was a spectacular picture! We spent 20-30 minutes there stretching our legs and taking pictures. Joni described it as a religious experience. Then we were all back in the plane for the flight back which was equaling amazing. By that time we were all more comfortable with Michelle and the plane, so there was more conversation. I can't say enough about Michelle, we learned that she pretty much personalizes every tour so she doesn't get in a rut and she is the only one that lands during the tour as it cost a fee to land, and another fee for the passengers to get off the plane, but it more than worth it! We landed right by the ship, then we tried to convince the next group that the tour was really lousy, but so it wouldn't go to waste, we would "suffer" through it again. The helicopter and Island Wings were both spectacular, it would be hard to choose one over the other. If I absolutely had to, it would be Michelle and Island Wings. The fishing trip on the upper Kenai River was in a different class, but these three excursions were our top three of the vacation. Once we were back in town, we took the short walk to the recommended Annabelle's Restaurant for lunch. I thoroughly enjoyed the steamed clams and the beer battered Halibut fish and chips. We then walked around town doing some shopping and walking the boardwalk along Fish Creek. It was amazing to see all the Pink Salmon fresh from the ocean, many being acrobatic with all of their jumping. Ketchikan was probably our favorite town of the ports. After hitting a few more shops we boarded, sadly knowing it was our last stop in Alaska. Inside Passage Cruising: Due to the time change, we set our clocks forward an hour the previous night, losing an hour. I was awoken that morning at 6:30am (new time, 5:30am old time) by some serious rocking of the ship. I recalled the Captain saying something the night before about a storm out at sea that we would be feeling the effects. I get up and go out on the balcony and see while it isn't raining, it is overcast and there are some significant "rollers" moving from the starboard bow to the port stern. Needing to get some clarification on disembarkation, I head down to guest relations on deck 4. Looking out the large windows behind guest relations, I get a better perspective on the waves and estimate them to be in the 15-20 foot range. The Captain comes on and assures us that conditions and the weather would be improving shortly after noon. Joni and I take advantage of onboard activities with a leisurely breakfast in the Windjammer, some shopping followed by a couple of trivia games in the Schooner Bar. True to the Captain's word, the seas did calm down by 2:00 and the sun came out. After trivia, we headed back to the cabin for the dreaded packing routine, but this vacation held one last surprise for us. As is my habit, I go out on the balcony to enjoy the sunshine and the scenery on both sides of the ship when I spot a fin, then another and another. I yelled, "Joni, there are whales out here." I think all the balcony doors were opened as all the balconies around me were occupied in seconds of all our friends enjoying the large pod of Orcas that we had come across. We were able to watch them for 20 minutes or so before they faded into the distance. That and the beautiful sunset we had that night were a fine way to wrap up our fabulous vacation.
Disembarkation: We had hoped that this cruise offered the luggage valet service which they handle your luggage being checked in at the airport, so once you leave it out the last night, the next time you see it is at your home destination. At $20 a person, we thought it was well worth it. It was indeed offered and we took advantage. The night before we received new luggage tags and our boarding passes for our flight. Since we had just turned Platinum on our last cruise, we were also able to take advantage of the priority disembarkation, which was on the second level of the Cascade Dinning Room. We arrived at the dinning room at 7:30am and were munching on some pastries when our color was called at about 7:40am. While there were lines forming to pick up luggage etc., we were able to bypass those. We quickly pass through customs, and proceeded directly to the taxi stand. We were able to share a taxi with another couple who did the same thing. We arrived at the airport by 8:30am for our 2:00pm flight, and the taxi ride cost each couple $20 after tip. The process at the airport went equally smoothly as did our flight home.
Final Thoughts: I have been dreaming of Alaska for as long as I could remember, it indeed was a dream vacation. With that sort of anticipation, it would have been easy for the expectation to exceed the reality, it did not. Alaska's natural beauty and magnitude is overwhelming not paralleled in any of my experiences. In the 2 weeks that we were there, to say we just scratched the surface would be an overstatement. You probably could spend 2 weeks at the fishing lodge alone and do different activities every day. As far as the cruise portion of the vacation, you got even more of a sense that it was just a petite sampler of the unbelievable buffet of Alaskan wonder. The weather could have been kinder to us, but it certainly could have been much, much worse. You could say that it even enhanced the experience with its threats of forcing cancellations only to clear up as needed. When we stood on that tiny island in the middle of some obscure mountain lake in the middle of mountain wilderness and every possible direction you looked was the most scenic picture you could imagine, you realized your camera just isn't good enough. Read Less