Will include stuff we would do differently and anything else that would improve our experience (and maybe yours too).
Embarkation in Vancouver
Check-in is 11am-3pm. Don’t check in at noon. You will have 2,000 people in front of you. Next time, I would get to Canada Place at 10:30am or after 1:30pm.
Once on board and preparing for the rest of the week (Day 1)
Buffet (Lunch): The Windjammer buffet should be open when you board. The food is pretty good for a buffet. Once you learn where the different stations are (main course, drinks, desserts), you should be able to stuff your face multiple times in less than an hour. If you don’t find seating, they will open Rita’s (near the desserts) which is covered and outdoor. It’s nice if it’s warm outside.
Use the time between lunch and dinner to explore the ship.
Outdoor pool: If you want to take a dip into the outdoor pool, this is the day to do it. Vancouver will be the warmest day of the cruise. Alaska is cool; average high is 60F for July. We didn’t see anyone in the pool during the last half of the cruise. Most everyone migrated to the Solarium and there was a smell of raw turkey and cornbread. There were people using the outdoor hot tubs on each day of the cruise.
Main show: There will likely be a featured show in the Aurora Theater every evening. There will be either one show for all guests at 7:15 or two shows (6:30 and 8:30 to accommodate the two dinner seatings). Go to these shows!
Dinner: We had dinner in the Main Dining Room (Cascades) every night. You order off a menu; part of the menu changes every day and a part remains the same for the entire cruise. The portion sides are small, which was nice after overeating at the buffet for breakfast and lunch. You can order as many entrees as you want. You will also get to know your fellow diners (since everyone is seated at the same table every night) and your server. When you purchase the cruise, let RCI know about any special occasions (birthdays, anniversaries, etc). That information will get to the server and they will get together and sing after dessert. It’s a nice touch to your special day. The dress code changes from casual (days 1, 3, 4, 7) to smart casual (day 5) to formal (days 2, 6). As we were preparing for the cruise, we were trying to decide if we wanted to pack formal attire or forego formal nights and eat at Windjammer. We bit the bullet and packed the extra clothes. We enjoyed dressing up since we don’t do it very often at home. If you’re worried about enforcement, there is very little. For the guys, if you don’t want to bring a suit, a pair of slacks and a dress shirt, with or without a tie, are good enough. Then wear the same thing without the tie for smart casual night. If it’s any incentive, they did serve lobster during one of the formal nights.
On-board Credits: Before you spend your OBCs, you might want to understand them first. We learned later in the week that there are two types: refundable and non-refundable. You can check your account through your in-room TV. When you purchased the cruise, you were probably told it included on-board (or shipboard) credits. Ours amounted to $150/person. What we weren’t told was you paid that $150. That’s why you can use it for gratuities or whatever because it’s your money. If you don’t use it, you get it back. It’s a ploy to make it look like the cruise line is giving you free money so you spend it. There may be instances where you receive bonus credits. In our case, we received $100/person for booking early, so we had $250/person total. The $100 is non-refundable and probably comes with more restrictions. It appeared like the non-refundable portion is spent down first. Go to Guest Services if you have any questions.
Shore Excursions: There is no single way to handle the excursions. Some excursions can be reserved directly with the tour company or through RCI. You might be able to save some money doing it directly. Some companies will accept reservations through RCI only; while some must be reserved directly. We checked the RCI website and Trip Advisor months before the cruise to get a comprehensive list of what is available. We recommend reserving your excursion as early as possible because some will sell out. If you want to use your OBC, you must do it after boarding, so do it on boarding day.
On-ship Activities: Your room attendant will leave a Cruise Compass publication each day at around 6pm for the following day’s activities.
Casino: There is a casino on-board with slots, the coin-pusher game, blackjack, roulette, and craps. The casino hours are posted in the Compass. It opens early on sea days and the evenings on port days. The craps table opened at 7pm on all days. They seemed to put inexperienced craps dealers in during the slow periods, but most of the dealers were competent. $5.00 min with single odds.
Day 2 (sea day)
Rough day! It must have been heavy winds or something, but the ship was rockin-n-rollin all day. All passengers were walking around “drunk.” I didn't notice anyone getting sick. Day 6 (also a sea day) was much calmer, although there was some movement. The rest of the days were so smooth you didn't know you were moving (having land on both sides of the ship helped a lot).
With this being a sea day, we read the Compass to find stuff to do. Since this was our first trip to Alaska, we elected to attend the Alaska Enrichment Talk by James Clement. It was a poor presentation with no flow to it. He jumped from one thought to another without any transition. He was generally a poor speaker with poor organization and not much content.
Then we went to the Alaska Port Shopping Show with Kimberly (my mom wanted to go), and this was WORSE! OMG!! Everything out of Kimberly’s mouth was “exquisite,” “one of a kind,” “a must have,” “rare,” “cannot find anywhere else.” We were given a store list and she wanted us to mark certain stores that we had to visit. Yeah sure, Kimberly, I’ll be there! She seems to favor Diamonds International (maybe she’s their sales rep) but it just felt like a scam. AVOID!
The Casino Seminar and Quiz was another waste of time. We were advised to pour A LOT of money into the slot machines to build our points and be eligible to win a gazillion dollars at the end of the cruise. Yeah, ok.
We got thirsty so we went to the Art Auction for the free champagne.
We attended the Captain’s Welcome Aboard Gala Reception in the Centrum.
You will set your clocks back one hour.
Day 3 (Ketchikan)
We had the 8:00am reservation on the Bering Sea Crab Fishermen’s Tour that we booked directly so we were up early. Windjammer knew of the early start times of the excursions, so they opened the buffet at 5:30am, which was great!
When we got off the ship, the tour rep was at the gangway and directed us to their boat. The Trip Advisor reviews sold me on this excursion. The highlight was indeed the eagles. After throwing some fish into the water, there were about 10 bald eagles flying around. That was really cool and worth 5 stars. Truly amazing!
The boat made several stops. One was where they had a line with a bunch of hooks. They pulled the line in to see what they caught. That was ok too. There were several varieties of fish, including a shark. It was hard to see the fish, especially for those sitting in the back.
And that brings me to the main complaint about this excursion -- it was way too crowded. The stage wasn't that big, but they managed to seat about 150 people with viewing on only one side of the boat, so people were climbing on top of each other to see the eagles. When they brought up the crabs, everyone rushed to the stage and, again, there was little room to maneuver.
The website makes it sound like they are actually fishing for crabs, but that is false. There are crabs in the pot. Once everyone is done holding and taking pictures of them, the crabs go back into the pot, and the pot gets dropped into the ocean, only to be repeated for the next tour. Then they bring up another pot with plastic king crabs (apparently king crabs are really hard to catch so they use fake ones for the demonstration and store live king crabs in the live tank on the boat). Then they go to another location and bring up a large live octopus that is stored in the plastic barrel. The octopus slimes around with the crew, goes back into the barrel and into the ocean, only to be brought back up for the next tour. The tour felt like a glorified aquarium. Why are we on this boat?
And the kicker was the Deadliest Catch. It's on the website, there's a video in the gift shop, and the crew talks about it ad nauseum. Enough already! They are lucky to have it on video, otherwise there would be nothing to talk about. If it weren't for the eagles, this tour gets one star.
After the tour, the kids were hungry for food and wifi, so we walked around Ketchikan and found both at Annabelle’s. The food was ok. My daughter said the Chicken Tenders were "weird." She prefers fast-food chicken fingers and McNuggets. I had the Jack Daniel's Burger and had to run to the bathroom a short time later.
The wifi was good for her, but bad for me. Their router had limited logins and I guess she took the last one because I was getting the "maximum logins exceeded" message. In fact, my repeated attempts made things worse because I eventually got locked out for "one hour." Ugh! So, if you are one of the lucky ones to login, you have one hour of access. If you are unlucky, you are allowed about 3 attempts per hour.
After returning to the ship, we all took a nap and got up in time for the Ronn Lucas Ventriloquist Show, which was outstanding! Great show – don’t miss it.
Day 4 (Icy Strait Point)
We had the 9:30am reservation for the ZipRider, so we got to sleep in a little later than yesterday.
Booking this was unclear. If you go through icystraitpoint.com, you can buy one ride ($139) or combine the ZipRider with the ATV ($259) or whale watch ($269). We booked the ZipRider package through Royal Caribbean ($179) and was able to schedule two rides instead of doing the ATV/WW. The second ride was a lot less scary and allowed me to focus on steering the harness.
A little bonus is the bus driver who takes you up to the top gives you a tour of Hoonah, talks about the history, points out some key buildings, an eagle's nest, and the airport, while getting some fantastic scenery.
The ZipRider accommodates six people at a time. When you get to the top, there are six guys (maybe seven) setting everyone up. When you are the next group, they will talk you through the ride and let you know what to do, how to steer, and how the braking system works. There’s nothing to it, really. I almost soiled my pants at the start, but after the first 5 seconds, it's like flying and it doesn't feel like you're going 60mph, probably because there's a huge cliff below you!
Take a light jacket. It's about 10 degrees cooler at the top, plus you might feel some wind on the way down. Also, if you want to take a second ride, be sure to reserve a time ASAP. We weren’t sure how things worked with the excursions, so we waited too long and found ourselves waiting 3 hours for the second ride. With that much time, we went back to the ship and had lunch.
Icy Strait Point is the least touristy port. There are only a few buildings (one of which has a view of the ZipRiders) and you can walk along the shore. Hoonah is a short walk away where you are not inundated with diamond and souvenir shops.
Once back on board, we went to see Piano Man starring the Royal Caribbean Singers and Dancers with musical accompaniment from the Radiance of the Seas Orchestra. Then dinner, then a dance party in the Centrum.
Day 5 (Juneau)
We reserved the City & Glacier & Whale Watch through Juneau Tours. When we got off the ship, the van was waiting to take us to Mendenhall Glacier. I think they split the group into two: one goes to Mendenhall, the other goes whale watching, then they swap. Once you arrive at Mendenhall, you have 60-90 minutes until they pick you up. That’s enough time to hike the one mile to Nugget Falls Trail (that we recommend) or you can walk to the Photo Point which is 1/3 mile round trip. It’s a big waterfall to the right of the glacier. There was also time to watch a 15-minute movie about glaciers at the Visitor’s Center. Mendenhall is the main attraction so expect a crowd on the ground and helicopter traffic above you. Then the van took us to Auke Bay Harbor to board the whale watching boat. It was about a 20-30 minute boat ride to the west side of Admiralty Island where six other whale watching boats were hovering. It took a few minutes to understand what we were looking for, but apparently there was a group (or pod) of humpback whales feeding on herring. They work in groups, building a bubble net to trap the fish, then they come up together with mouths open and blowholes exhaling. Basically, there is dead calm, then a flurry of activity. The pod moves around so you never know where they will be coming up. During the tour, we were lucky enough to see three breaches (where the whale launches itself into the air). That was cool!
When the whale watch was concluded, we boarded the bus and they took us back to the cruise dock. We had about 90 minutes before the start of the city tour, and 15 minutes before the buffet closed, so we RAN back onto the ship and went straight for the food because we were starving.
The city tour was nice. We saw the dome-less capital building and other notable buildings, went across the channel to the east side of Douglas Island and looked back towards Juneau, returned to Juneau and had the opportunity to visit the Macaulay Salmon Hatchery. My teens wanted to do something much more enjoyable and that was to go to the library and spend an hour on the free wifi.
Once back on board the ship, we had dinner, then went to the Love and Marriage Game Show. It was similar to the Newlywed Game, but they selected one couple who had been married the shortest time (12 days), the longest time (50 years), and somewhere in the middle. They didn’t really keep score; all couples received the same prize for providing the evening’s entertainment.
Day 6 (Skagway)
We had no scheduled excursions, but we did get off the ship to visit this town. After a week of overeating, we decided to walk to the Gold Rush Cemetery. It's about 2.5 miles from the docks and you have to walk through town to get there.
The two notables at the cemetery are con artist Jefferson "Soapy" Smith and good guy Frank Reid. The theory is that both shot each other simultaneously in a gun fight. You get a sense of poor vs wealthy: the poor had a single wooden headstone, the wealthy had a granite headstone and/or a fenced-in grave. Many buried were "Unknown" or very young children who apparently died of meningitis. Most died between 1898 and 1910, the end of the Klondike Gold Rush.
The Frank Reid waterfall is about 10 minutes further up from the cemetery. Very nice.
If you can sift through the usual diamond and souvenir shops, you will find the stores, saloons, gambling houses, and dance halls to accommodate the 20,000 people who stampeded into Skagway in 1897 in search for gold. You can ride on the White Pass & Yukon Route railway, the same route the miners took to the goldfields.
Back on the ship, the headliner show was musician David Meyer playing the xylosynth and lasersynth. It was remarkable! Excellent show.
Day 7 (sea day, Hubbard Glacier)
Ship arrived at the Hubbard Glacier at around 8am and spun around a half a dozen times, giving everyone on all sides of the ship a great view. The captain put James Clement on the PA system to talk about the glacier. If it weren’t for his incoherent ramblings (see Day 2), the morning would have been fantastic.
After breakfast, we went to the Towel Folding Demonstration in the Centrum. The room attendants used towels to make various animals and left them in the rooms. It was cute, so we were curious to see how they were made.
On this last full day, we attended the Captain’s Spotlight with Captain Goran, “A Celebration of Live Music” with the Radiance of the Seas Orchestra, and the Farewell Showtime starring Comedian Kellen Erksine.
You will also pack up to leave the ship the next morning. If you have made your own arrangements after disembarking, it’s not necessary to leave your luggage outside your stateroom by 11pm. It’s only going to save you a few steps to the baggage claim area. Remember, RCI needs to sort through thousands of bags and the last thing you want is for them to lose yours.
Debarkation Day (Seward)
Since we were not on any RCI-sponsored excursion, we were one of the last groups to disembark. We walked off the ship, picked up our luggage, and had planned on walking to the train depot, but we saw Seavey’s van and asked if we can hitch a ride since we were on that excursion. Sure, no problem. We got our train tickets and checked in our luggage at the depot. Since we were a little early for Seavey’s, we walked along the water to the SeaLife Center, then back to the depot, where Seavey’s picked us up.
The first stop was the kennel where we sat through an oral presentation of Seavey’s involvement with the Iditarod, then we went to see the dogs. These dogs are athletes. Skinny and all muscle (or our house pets are just fat). When the trainers started hooking up the dogs for the sled, ALL of the dogs went crazy because they wanted to run run run! The dogs train year-around for the Iditarod, so Seavey's uses these summer tours as part of that. Instead of sleds, they use golf carts and have the dogs pull 8 humans along a dirt path. The more experienced dogs are at the front because they know what to do and follow commands better. The beginners are at the back, and you can see the difference. The second part of the tour are the adorable puppies! You get to hold the 12-day-olds and the 7-week-olds. They are so cute and will eventually be trained for racing. The great part of this tour is you see the progression of newborns becoming top-notch racers.
Lunch was a part of the tour. They will take your order at the beginning of the tour and drive you to the restaurant.
Exit glacier: After lunch, you will stop at Exit Glacier. Kenai Fjords National Park has placed signs as to where the glacier was since the late 1800s and there has been a dramatic recession. You get a feel for the effects of climate change. From my estimation, poor Exit Glacier will be gone in about 10 years.
Salmon run: You will also be driven to Bear Creek. If the salmon are running, you will see it. There was evidence (poop) of bear(s) in the area and there was a bald eagle flying overhead.
At the end of the tour, they will take you wherever you need to go. For us, we were on the 6pm train to Anchorage, so no problems.
Alaska Railroad: We took the train from Seward to Anchorage and it was nice. A live person narrates many of the features along the route, and tells us to keep an eye out for wildlife. We didn’t see any. But the train slows down so you can see and take pictures of the glaciers and waterfalls. As you ride along Turnagain Arm, they pointed out a bore tide. A bore tide is seawater refilling an inlet; it looks like a continuous wave, unlike the ebb and flow of waves on a beach. We saw surfers riding the bore tide. I would have missed it if someone didn’t point it out to me. Harbor seals and beluga whales follow the tide in too, although we didn’t see any of those either.
We arrived in Anchorage late Friday. Since our flight was late Saturday, we took the bus to downtown Anchorage in the morning. The teenagers wanted to go shopping so they spent some time (and money) at the 5th Avenue Mall. We also walked to the Anchorage Market and Festival on 3rd & E Street. It is a free, outdoor, weekend venue with hundreds of vendors under tents. There’s everything Alaska: food, arts and crafts, clothing, jewelry, wood carvings, paintings, and entertainment.
It’s a good place to stop by if you are in the downtown area for other reasons and have an hour to kill. I would consider most of the products as dust-collectors and just another thing to carry on the plane. The pictures of the Aurora Borealis do make me want to return to Alaska. Read Less