Ship: Dawn Princess Destination: Alaska Cruisetour: 16-S (13 days, Fairbanks, Denali, McKinley, and Kenai Lodges) Departure Date: May 11, 2004 Ages: 24 Occupations: Telecommunications Engineer and Software Engineer # of Cruises: 2
Background: This cruisetour was our honeymoon. We'd spent about eighteen months researching and planning this trip. We used numerous internet resources including cruisecritic.com to learn about the different cruise lines and tour options in Alaska. We booked the cruisetour through a local travel agent after checking prices with numerous local and online agencies. We selected our agent based on the service we received. Since this was an important trip for us, we were willing to pay a little bit more for the service. Our cruisetour was booked in August 2003. We left on our honeymoon nine days after the wedding. This gave us plenty of time to unwind after the wedding and concentrate on packing.
Why a Cruisetour: We chose to book a cruisetour based on the value for the dollar. From our past experiences, we knew that if one person is driving, they are not as able to enjoy the views. Since we were going to Alaska for the views, this was important for us. Additionally, I spend 3-4 hours a day commuting to and from work. The last thing I wanted to do on my vacation was drive. Plus, attempting to rent a car when under the age of 25 is a difficult and expensive experience. Finally, booking a cruisetour eliminated a large amount of the planning that needed to be done. In between planning a wedding, purchasing a house, and working, we didn't have a lot of extra time to do the additional planning.
Why May: In addition to being near our wedding date, our research showed that May is one of the driest months in Alaska. Since both of us are happier being dry, this was a positive. Our priority was seeing scenery, not wildlife. Therefore we were not concerned when told that we would be severely limiting our wildlife viewing opportunities. As it turns out, what we had been told was completely incorrect. Finally, we live near a large city and deal with large crowds on a daily basis. We knew that there would be fewer people traveling in May, reducing the size of the crowds in port. While the crowds were expected to be older, we prefer more mature traveling companions to children.
Why Princess: Through our research, we learned that two cruise lines had been operating in Alaska the longest, Princess and Holland America. Additionally, these were the only two cruise lines with Glacier Bay on every itinerary. This was an important factor in limiting our candidates. Princess's lodges and tour itineraries were several points in its favor. Additionally, we selected Princess based on its reputation for having younger passengers. While we knew most of our traveling companions would be more mature, we wanted to increase the probability of people close to our age.
Pre-cruise Travel: We used frequent flier miles to book our travel on United. Although we booked our travel in September, first class seats were already full. We left on Monday, a day before we were to join our cruisetour in Fairbanks. Originally, we had booked Supershuttle to pick us up and drop us off at Dulles. However, the van never showed up. After calling Supershuttle, we were told that the driver could not find our house (although directions had been provided) and that they would be sending a cab. Our initial flight was from Dulles to Denver, leaving just before noon. The flight was uneventful, but full. After a four-hour layover in Denver, our next flight was from Denver to Anchorage. Once again, the flight was uneventful, but full. For both flights, we were seated over the wings of the plane, so there wasn't much to see. We arrived in Anchorage around 8:30 pm local time and took a cab to the Westmark Anchorage. Cab fare was around $15.
The Westmark is a beautiful hotel located in downtown Anchorage. Staff at the front desk was always friendly and helpful. Despite being an older hotel, the rooms are in excellent condition. One whole wall was windows with sheers and velvet drapes that led out onto a small balcony. Our room was on the forth floor, so we had a view of the buildings downtown. However, higher rooms should have an excellent view. We would recommend the Westmark to anyone looking for a hotel in Anchorage. We had booked the room online in November and got a great discount rate. Although we had requested a king room, we received two doubles. We were tired enough that we just didn't care. After forcing ourselves to stay awake until 10pm ADT (2am back home), we crashed. We did both wake up around 4am, but managed to sleep until 6am.
That morning, we decided to take a walk along the Coastal Trail. The entrance to the trail was only a few blocks from the Westmark. Since it was early on a Tuesday morning, there were only a few locals out walking their dogs or jogging. We were struck by how friendly everyone we passed was. It was a grey, foggy, and drizzly morning. However, this would be the last of the bad weather we would see for almost a week. We ended up walking down to Earthquake Park before turning around. Our quest for the morning was to find a USB cable so that we would be able to download our digital photos onto my laptop. We found a camera store in the phone book and were able to acquire a card reader. This turned out to be a lifesaver as we took over 2500 pictures.
Since we had skipped breakfast, we had a large, early lunch at the Glacier Brewhouse. It was located directly across the street from our hotel and the front desk had recommended it. The food was reasonably priced by Alaska standards and had a wonderful atmosphere. I loved the moose antler log holder in the massive fireplace. Although I am not a huge beer drinker, their amber was outstanding. I had a fennel sausage and portabella pizza with alfredo sauce while my husband had their seafood chowder. Both meals were outstanding.
After lunch, we headed back to the Anchorage airport to fly to Fairbanks. We had booked this segment of our trip independently with Alaska Air. The plane's arrival was delayed by a few minutes. In the meantime, the fire alarm went off in the airport and we were eventually evacuated to the tarmac. After about five minutes, we were all brought back in and began boarding. In the end, we arrived in Fairbanks about an hour late. Since it was cloudy out, there were no views of the mountains. Our plane was about half full, most of which were going on a Princess cruisetour.
Immediately off of the plane, we were greeted by a Princess representative and directed to the Princess Tour Desk by a series of representatives. Here people checked in, gathered their information packets and awaited further instruction. After everyone had arrived, we proceeded to the baggage claim area to ensure that all of our bags had arrived. Princess had collected all of the luggage and it was arranged in neat rows. We simply placed a dot on the luggage tag of each bag. We were then ushered to the motorcoaches and driven to the Princess Fairbanks Lodge. Our whole time in the airport was around 30 minutes.
The Princess Fairbanks Lodge is located about a 5-minute drive away from the airport. It is not in downtown Fairbanks. Originally, we had planned to go to the University of Alaska museum. However, the museum closed early since it had not begun its summer hours yet and with our late arrival, we would have only had an hour. Instead, we decided to relax at the lodge for the evening. Our luggage arrived in our room within an hour of arrival. The time change was catching up with us again and we fell asleep early. One amusement was that we were once again placed in a room with two double beds.
The next day we were scheduled for two included tours. We woke up to some light clouds that quickly burned off. Our morning tour was the "City of Gold". We began at the El Dorado Gold Mine for a tour of the old mining camps and then panning for gold. Instead of icy cold streams, we took our staked bags and panned in nice warm water. Between the two of us, we had just over $20 worth of gold. However, we resisted the urge to buy the $20 locket to put the gold in. After panning, we had some time in the gift shop to have our gold weighed and enjoy coffee, hot chocolate and cookies. From there, we headed over to the pipeline for a short visit. Our driver-guide provided a great deal of information about the pipeline and how it was designed to withstand the Alaskan environment (permafrost, earthquakes, and the weather.) We concluded our morning tour with a driving tour of downtown Fairbanks. Our guide's wife was originally from Fairbanks and he had a number of anecdotes to pass along.
We returned to the lodge for lunch and then headed off for our afternoon tour, the Riverboat Discovery. We retained the same driver-guide, who had worked for Riverboat Discovery before working for Princess. Having been on several riverboat tours in the Midwest, I was expecting to sit and watch the scenery go by. However, the Riverboat Discovery made several "stops" along the way to point out the history of Alaska or how people lived. These included a bush plane airport with a plane taking off and landing on a tiny runway, Susan Butcher's kennel where we were greeted by her husband, a small reindeer farm, a fish camp, and finally a native village where we all disembarked the boat for an hour. What could have been a cheesy tourist trap was quite well presented and we walked away very happy with our experience.
That evening we took the Princess shuttle into downtown Fairbanks ($5 per person roundtrip.) We went to Gambardella's for dinner. A few locals and our driver-guide had recommended this restaurant. The food was outstanding and the tiramisu was to die for.
That night we put out our luggage. We had packed four bags, two for the land trip and two for the cruise. We had two bags sent directly to the ship while sending the other two onto the Mt. McKinley Princess Lodge. We also packed an overnight bag since we would be spending that night at the Denali Lodge. Our guides reminded us to pack the overnight bag and it was highlighted on the envelope of our information packet. However, one person managed to miss these directions.
The next morning we were up early to take the train to Denali National Park. Princess's organization showed through. We loaded the buses based on our table assignments. The buses pulled up next to the train cars and we unloaded directly onto the train cars. Princess's rail cars are two-story with tables upstairs. The domes extend fully across the top of the car, so the views are outstanding. The only room for luggage is under your seat, so packing light is a necessity. We had packed a backpack and it fit well. Our tablemates were a lovely retired couple from Australia. Drink service is available upstairs. Water, hot tea, and coffee are free. Otherwise, drinks are available for purchase. The bloody mary's were very popular on our car. Meals are served downstairs. They can only fit a portion of the passengers in the dining section, so we were called down in groups for breakfast. We chose to split a large muffin at the Fairbanks lodge instead.
We had beautiful weather once again, so the views out of the cars were spectacular. The trip starts off with black spruce and birch dominating the skyline. As we traveled further south, the foliage began to grow denser as we rode out of the permafrost. As the brush increased, we began to see more wildlife. On our trip, we saw a moose, several caribou, Dall sheep, and several trumpeter swans. We had a guide on-board each car that gave a running commentary of the flora, fauna, wildlife, and history of the area. We arrived in at Denali National Park just after noon. The weather was sunny and in the mid-sixties.
Once we de-boarded the train, our motorcoaches were waiting. We loaded onto the coached based on our table numbers. The driver had our welcome packets for the lodge. While we were on the train, we had the opportunity to book any optional excursions for the Denali Lodge. Based on advice we had received, we attempted to upgrade from the Natural History tour to the Tundra Tour. I had called Princess several weeks before our trip and had been told that the excursion was sold out. When on the train, we were informed that the Tundra tour was not running yet. So we were scheduled for the 2:40 pm Natural History tour. (All of the literature we had received prior to the trip indicated that the tour would leave at 4:30pm. However, departures are staggered across the afternoon.)
Since we had a small breakfast, one of our first priorities was lunch. We decided to try Lynx Creek Pizza. Initially, we had intended to try Bub's Subs, but they had not opened for the season yet. Since we arrived on the third day of the season at the Princess Lodge, not all of the supplies had arrived yet. So our pizza options were somewhat limited. The pizza arrived hot, but the sauce was lacking in spices. We would not recommend Lynx Creek Pizza.
Construction was still occurring at the lodge. This Princess lodge has one main lodge building and numerous outbuildings housing rooms, restaurants, and an Internet cafe. The construction on the main lodge was complete, but they were still doing landscaping and paving work. By the time we left the next morning, the front drive had been paved. However, construction occurred during normal waking hours and they tried to make it as unobtrusive as possible on the guests.
We had read that the Natural History tour was far inferior to the Tundra tour and not to expect to see any wildlife. However, if you travel during May, this isn't the case. Since the Alaskan spring is just ending, the wildlife is still down in the valleys. As summer progresses, the wildlife moves further into the mountains. Our tour ran just over four hours. We saw several caribou, a couple of moose, Dall sheep, and three ptarmigans. Several of the animals were only a few feet off of the highway. Our guide, who had been giving the tours for twenty years, noted that May tended to have the highest number of wildlife sightings in the park. At this time of year, he commented that we probably wouldn't have seen any additional wildlife. (As a side note, the reason the Tundra tour was not running was because they were still training the drivers. The road was clear of snow.) We were very happy with the Natural History tour and would not have attempted to upgrade if we would have known what we would see.
That evening we chose to have dinner in the Bistro. It was at the Denali lodge that we found any downfalls of service. Our waitress that evening was very new and having difficulties managing her tables. Her manager addressed the situation quickly and the situation was efficiently resolved. This just appeared to be opening jitters. We ended the evening in the hot tub overlooking the Nenana River. A king-size bed actually awaited us that evening.
The next morning we had chosen to take an optional excursion, white water rafting on the Nenana River. As it turns out, we were the only two people to sign up for this excursion. We drove about a half-mile down the road to the rafting headquarters and were outfitted in dry suits. The outfitters recommended that we leave our fleeces behind since it was going to warm up as the sun crested the mountains. After we were all suited up, we drove down to our put-in point and were given a safety briefing. Our tour consisted of four guides and us. We had one guide in our raft, a raft in front of us, a raft behind us, and a kayaker. Although both of us are strong swimmers, this was very reassuring.
We had brought along a disposable waterproof camera and were glad to have it on this trip. As the sun crested the mountains, a beautiful day dawned. There was not a cloud in the sky and we were very glad to have left our fleeces with our shoes. Our guide let us determine the level of conversation on the trip, pointing out interesting sites and tidbits along the way. We ended up shooting off our entire role of film during the two-hour trip. We saw a few Dall sheep up on the high edges of the gorge. Near the end of our trip, there was a moose carcass sitting on the riverbank. The guide was hoping that the bears would have discovered it. Instead, a bald eagle flew over our raft and landed in a tree next to its mate. We arrived at the take-out point thankfully dry and actually fairly warm. On the drive back to the lodge, we had a moose walk directly in front of our van.
The Denali Lodge is in a commercial area with other lodges, shops, tour operators, and restaurants around it. Directly across the street are a number of row houses containing a variety of stores (some of which were still closed for the winter). We wandered through a few tourist traps, but found one unique store. The Three Bears Gallery sells the work of local Alaskan artists. Their selection was limited while we were there, but there were a number of amazing pieces at reasonable prices. We ended up purchasing a photograph to hang in our living room. The photographer was actually the storeowner's son.
We left for the train to Talkeetna shortly after noon. We had the same table on this portion of the trip. The weather was still cloudless as we traveled south. Mt. McKinley was in view for almost our entire trip. The train stopped at a couple of points to allow people to take pictures. There was a viewing platform on the lower level of each car. However, we found that the height difference provided better pictures from inside the upper level. Just make sure to turn the flash on your camera off. Once again, we saw a large amount of wildlife, including a moose and her calf wading in a river. We did have lunch on the train. Since we were located in the middle of the car, lunch was slightly later than we had planned. The reindeer chili in the bread-bowl was quite good.
Our train arrived in Talkeetna around 5pm. We had the option of staying in town and catching a shuttle back to the lodge later or heading directly for the lodge. Since we had eaten a couple of hours earlier, we decided to head directly to the lodge. The bus ride was about 45 minutes long and our driver-guide gave us a great commentary of the area and history of Talkeetna. Since Mt. McKinley was still in full view, we took a few pictures from the lodge's deck and then took a short hike on one of the trails. This trail led to three viewing spots that had absolutely breathtaking views of Mt. McKinley. We spent a bit of time watching the light play on the mountains before deciding that we were hungry and hiked back down for dinner. The trail was somewhat steep, but well worth the effort.
That evening we chose to try out the new restaurant at the McKinley Lodge, Excursion Pizza. This restaurant was everything that Lynx Creek Pizza was not. The pizza was huge, hot, and excellent. The restaurant also had a view of the mountains and very friendly staff. We ended up taking home part of our pizza and having it for breakfast the next morning.
This lodge had a similar set-up to the Denali Lodge with a central lodge and numerous outbuildings containing the rooms. Once again, we were given a room with two full beds. These rooms were very cozy feeling with wildlife shapes scattered throughout. The main building housed all of the restaurants though. While we were there on the third day of operation, we did not run into any lapses of services. For those heading directly to the ship from the Mt. McKinley Lodge, advanced check-in is available to expedite the process. Also, shuttles were available to Talkeetna for $15 round trip.
The next morning we awoke to clear skies and took a few more pictures of Mt. McKinley before getting on our motorcoach to head to the Kenai Lodge. We left shortly after 8am and made our "bathroom break" about an hour before we arrived in Anchorage. The selected "bathroom break" was actually the Iditarod Headquarters and we had an opportunity to briefly explore their grounds. We had actually been on the Iditarod Web site and were quite happy to get a chance to purchase some of the items we had been looking at in their gift shop. This was quite a popular shopping stop as they had a good selection of quality merchandise at reasonable prices.
We arrived in Anchorage shortly after 11 and had until 1 for lunch on our own. This time we chose to take the recommendation of a few of our traveling companions and try Humpy's. We were told that it had a lot of local flavor. The food was decent, but if given a choice, we would probably return to the Glacier Brewhouse in the future. Since we had a lot of time, we then strolled down to the Saturday Market. The booths had a large variety of different items, ranging from souvenirs to plants and food items. There were a number of stands selling salmon or reindeer sausages at reasonable prices.
Our trip then continued on along the Cook Inlet towards the Kenai Lodge. The skies began to cloud up and we had a few passing light showers. However, this did not lessen the views from the coach. Our driver-guide had spent many years in the Anchorage area and was very knowledgeable about the areas we were traveling through. Additionally, he was very accommodating about pulling the bus over into scenic overlooks to allow people to take pictures. On this part of the trip, we had a beautiful photo opportunity of two immature male moose grazing on the side of the road. Our driver happily pulled over to let everyone take all of the pictures that they wanted.
We arrived at the Kenai Princess Lodge as the sun finally broke through the clouds. Several of the staff members had commented that the Kenai Lodge was their favorite and we soon discovered why. The lodge is set on a ridge above the Kenai River. There is a short, but steep path down to the river where they have three small docks built over the river. The water was just amazing shades of blue and green. If you had difficulties navigating the trail, the lodge was more than willing to drive you down to the first dock. There was also a phone located at the bottom of the bluff to call for a ride back up. Several of our fellow travelers took advantage of this.
Once again, the lodge consisted of a main lodge building and several outbuildings containing guest rooms. However, the rooms at this lodge were unlike any other. Each building consisted of several row cabins. Upon entering your cabin, you were in a bedroom similar to that of the other lodges. Beyond the bedroom was a cozy living room with a table, an oversized easy chair, a love seat, and a fireplace. On the back wall of each cabin were windows leading out onto a deck. Privacy walls had been placed between the decks to enhance the solitude. Since we were in the "cheap seats" our deck "only" had a view of the forest and surrounding mountains. The cabins were large enough that a loft area could have been added. Instead, the roof was at different levels with rows of windows letting in more natural light. Our king bed was directly underneath a huge bay window. This was our favorite lodge by far. If a small kitchen was added, we could have easily lived there.
That evening we chose to just walk around the property and relax. The lodge is fairly isolated, so there are no shuttles. We had dinner at the Rafters Bar. Their burgers were quite tasty. Since it was a little cool (low 50s), they were not serving dinner on the deck. However, if the weather were a little better, this would be a beautiful place to have a meal. We were the first cruise passengers to arrive at this lodge, but it had been open to the public since May 1st. There were a few locals having dinner or enjoying a drink at the bar. Our tour (Dawn 16 S) had only 38 people on it. We were sharing the lodge with those on the Coral 16 N tour. We hardly saw people unless it was at the main lodge.
The first night, only one of our two checked bags arrived in our cabin. We notified the front desk when we went down for dinner. The supervisor kept in contact with us and our wayward bag was located and delivered in less than 15 minutes. It had been delivered to the cabin next door.
The next morning we awoke to slightly overcast skies. We had chosen to go on the Kenai Fjords Cruise as an optional excursion. As we met up in the lobby, we were greeted by one of Princess's outfitters with a map. She explained that there was currently a marine advisory that could redirect our cruise. If this happened, we would go on a Resurrection Bay cruise and be given a partial refund. Normally, she stated, she would not recommend that we take the risk. However, she had been in contact with the tour operator and most of the wildlife had been spotted in Resurrection Bay. She thought that it would be worth the risk under these circumstances. All 26 people signed up for the tour got on the bus.
We had about a 90-minute ride to Seward to board the cruise. Both driver-guides came along on our tour and we had a running commentary for most of the trip. Each had spent a time in the area and had different versions of local legends. We also spotted another moose on our trip, grazing just feet off of the road. Our driver turned around in a scenic overlook and allowed people off of the bus, but a safe distance away from the moose, to take pictures.
Once we arrived in Seward, the tour operator greeted us. She once again explained the situation and how it would be handled. From there, we boarded our boat and relaxed until it was time to leave. The boat had two decks, both with an outside viewing area and inside seating. The inside seating was done "booth style" with sets of six chairs surrounding a table. Since it was cool (mid-50s), most people chose to stay inside. Within 10 minutes of leaving the dock, we slowed to view our first wildlife, a pod of Orcas. We watched one part of the pod on one side of the boat. Then, on the other side, a large bull and two smaller calves appeared. We sat watching the whales for 10-15 minutes before moving on. As we cruised along the bay, we then spotted a mountain goat with a kid. The captain speculated that the kid was less than a day old since they had seen the same goat the day before, but without a kid. Lunch was served as we continued on our cruise. Choices were cod filets or chicken strips. We then encountered a group of three humpback whales, a female, a calf, and an escort. We watched several blows and fluke dives. Onboard, they had a researcher studying the humpbacks that gave a very interesting commentary.
After leaving the humpbacks, we then began our cruise towards the Holgate Glacier. This was the area that the marine advisory had been given about. However, the weather cooperated and we were able to round the point and enter the inlet. As we cruised towards the glacier, we passed a rock covered in Stellar sea lions. The next turn brought us to a bald eagle's nest. The eagle was perched a few branches away, posing for pictures. Each time that wildlife was spotted, the boat would slow and maneuver into position for better views. We'd bundle up into the raincoats we'd brought and head out to the front of the ship. A pair of oystercatchers were nesting on a nearby outcropping and we got a very up-close view of them. From there, we then cruised on to the Holgate Glacier. The weather had clouded up and we got a few sprinkles, but the cloudiness helped the glacier reflect a bright blue. While we where there, people hoped to see the glacier calve, but that wasn't to be. After leaving the glacier, we then headed to a group of small islands known for their birds. We saw tons of kittiwakes (they look like sea gulls with black wing tips) trying to chase an eagle away from the cliff that they were nesting on. We also saw mirrs (they look like penguins) that paddled along the surface of the water like a surfer before diving into the waves. Also, there were a large number of tufted puffins. One of the couples we had met on our tour was on their second Alaskan cruise. On the first one, they hadn't seen puffins and this was a major goal for them. They were not disappointed. Cormorants rounded out the majority of the birds in the area. We passed another sea lion covered rock and began to head back for the dock.
Our captain stated that we wouldn't be stopping for anything we'd seen before. We didn't get far before we encountered another pod of Orcas. This pod contained about a dozen individuals and Orca sightings were occurring all around the boat. Needless to say, we stopped. The crew then passed out fresh out of the oven chocolate chip cookies. Paired with a cup of hot tea or coffee, it was a perfect way to warm up from standing out on deck. A school of dall porpoise then decided to play with our bow wake, diving back and forth under the bow of the boat. When we arrived back at the dock, a light rain had enveloped the area, so we waited inside the gift shop while our driver-guides got the bus. Our ride back was the only trip where we did not see a moose. Aiding in this fact was the number of people dozing.
At the beginning of the cruise, the captain recommended that anyone prone to seasickness take precautions and that bonine was available in the galley. We did not see anyone who was sick, but someone on our bus saw someone making a mad dash to the head. We took a light fleece and a raincoat in addition to gloves and an ear covering. We found that this was sufficient to keep warm, even though we were sometimes out on deck as the boat was cruising. One lesson learned was not to look through your binoculars while the boat was moving at speed. This could lead to a few queasy moments. We also took a plastic baggie with a hole cut out of it to help keep our camera dry.
The weather cleared as we neared the lodge and we settled in for another relaxing evening in front of our fireplace. We used this opportunity to go through some of the photos we had taken so far. Both of us ended up dozing off on the loveseat in front of the fireplace.
The next morning we put our luggage out and then went for a stroll around the property before catching the motorcoach to Whittier. The weather in Kenai was warming up (low 60s) with partly cloudy skies. Our last trip began around 11am. As we got closer to Whittier, the skies clouded up further and a light rain began. This was to be the last rain we would see on our trip. Our driver-guide passed around a book on the history of Whittier and shared a few humorous stories and facts about the town. We arrived at the tunnel slightly ahead of schedule, but only had to wait about 5 minutes before proceeding. The tunnel is only one-way, so traffic has appointments to go through. Once we were through the tunnel, we could see the ship. We did also see our required moose on this bus trip.
After arriving at the ship, an outfitter came onboard and explained the whole check-in process to us. Check-in started at noon and we arrived slightly before one. Since a number of buses had arrived at once, we were held on the bus for about five minutes so that we would not have to stand in line inside. Once we entered the terminal, we were ushered into a short line. The whole check-in process from entering the door to receiving our keys took less than five minutes. The longest line was for security. We were on the ship within fifteen minutes of unloading the bus. We also understood why they held us on the coach. The Whittier cruise terminal, while new, is currently a large warehouse with check-in desks set up in it. It was much more comfortable to stay on the coach than wait in the building. Although we were only the second departure from Whittier, the check-in process ran very smoothly. The last things to be done are making the terminal more welcoming.
The day at Whittier was the only day that we had bad weather. It was cool (mid 50s) and rained on and off all day. According to several of the personnel at the terminal, it always rains in Whittier. Since the weather was not looking pleasant and we'd skipped breakfast, we headed for the buffet. The lines were short and it was easy to find a table since we were there so early. Only the buffet was open for lunch according to the Patter. As we left, we noticed that it was becoming much more difficult to find a place to sit. We did purchase one soda sticker for my husband during lunch. There were several servers selling the stickers in the Horizon Court.
Our first set of luggage arrived around 3pm. This was the luggage that had been with us on the tour portion of the trip. We unpacked the necessities, left the dirty clothes, and pushed the first two suitcases under the bed. We then took our own tour around the ship, followed by the guided tour given by the cruise staff. Upon returning back to our stateroom, we found our direct-to-ship bags waiting. Princess did place the luggage inside of the room instead of leaving it sitting out in the hallway.
I had ordered the honeymoon package and the champagne, flutes, chocolate covered strawberries, and coupons were waiting in our stateroom. Also, our travel agent had sent us two gifts and the coupons for those were sitting on our bed. We finished unpacking and changed for dinner.
Our stateroom was E346, an inside cabin on the Emerald Deck. We were the first stateroom past the fore stairs and elevator bank. The location was very convenient since we always found ourselves going up and down the stairs. We did not receive a lot of hall noises. However, we could hear the binging of the elevators. Additionally, there was a crew hallway and door next to our cabin. We could hear them as they pushed carts through the swinging door, mainly in the afternoon. However, the noises were not distracting.
The stateroom was well laid out with plenty of storage space. We only used half of the space provided. While the bathroom was small, it was very functional and the shelving next to the mirror provided plenty of storage space. The shower was shaped such that it curved, providing a space to shower without standing next to the curtain. We never had a problem being attacked by the shower curtain. Both of us are tall and appreciated the height of the showerhead.
We did pack a power strip to recharge the batteries for the cameras and laptop. This was quite handy. Other useful things we packed were a small, battery operated alarm clock (to check the time), a bottle stopper (for the wine), and numerous large Ziploc bags (for transporting toiletries.) We had packed a small nightlight, but quit using it after the first night. It reflected off of the mirrors, causing a lot more light than we needed. We found that the glow-in-the dark life-jacket label on the closet actually provided enough light to find the bathroom.
The muster drill occurred at 8pm. To avoid the mass of people in the hallways, we arrived about 5 minutes early. Our muster station was the Wheelhouse Bar and we found some of the last seats available. Since it was cold and raining, everyone was very appreciative to have the drill inside. It also made it a lot easier to pay attention because you weren't wet and cold. The drill took about 15 minutes and provided a lot more information than the muster drill we'd done previously.
After the drill, we headed for dinner. We requested and received late seating at a table for six. Dinner was scheduled to start at 8:30. However, because of the drill, our orders were taken around 9. Our tablemates the first night were a couple from Mexico in their early thirties and a middle-aged couple from Nebraska. The older couple informed us as soon as they sat down that there had been a mistake and they were switching to early seating. Conversation was very stilted that evening and we also considered changing tables. However, we decided to try it out one more night to see who would actually be there. Our wait team was from Poland. Willie was our waiter and I'm not even going to try to spell our assistant waiter's name. The meal was very good, better than wedding food. (Having just been at two weddings, we were accustomed to wedding food.) We were seated in the middle of the dining room and it was about 2/3rds full.
We had originally planned to go to the Welcome Aboard Show. However, it was scheduled to start at 10 and we did not get out of dinner until 10:30. (The start time for dinner had been adjusted for the muster drill, but not the start time of the show, so almost everyone with late seating missed it.) Instead we took a brief stroll around the promenade and headed to bed since we were getting up early the next morning. The ship had set sail during dinner and there were no planned sail-away activities.
The next morning we were scheduled to arrive in College Fjord at 6:30am. We scurried upstairs to grab a quick bite in the Horizon Court before we arrived. We arrived in College Fjord at 6:30am. The on-board naturalist was on the PA system describing the history of the fjord and wildlife that we might see. It was warm but overcast as we slid into the fjord. Standing out on the front deck, we had beautiful views as we approached the glaciers. The ship did a 360 in front of the Harvard glacier before leaving the fjord around 9am. We tried to go get a bite in the Horizon Court since we'd had a small, hurried breakfast, but the tables were full. Many people chose to sit and watch the scenery at the tables, ignoring the masses of people looking for a place to sit and eat. We ended up eating outside next to the grill.
The on-board naturalist gave a talk that morning about the sea otters in the area. We arrived about 5 minutes early, only to discover that he was part way through his lecture. He had decided to start early. We decided to have lunch in the dining room and enjoyed being served. After lunch we split time between the card room and the promenade deck. We found that the chairs on the promenade were a perfect spot to sit and read a book. The card room also had beautiful views and was regularly used. I chose to attend the port lectures on Ketchikan, Juneau, and Skagway. These were not a push for the Princess shore excursions. Instead, they were a brief overview of the history of each of the ports. My husband went to play bridge and we then met up for tea.
At first, my husband wasn't thrilled with the idea of tea, but he agreed to accompany me anyway. We both had a lovely time. We were seated with a couple of women from the Vancouver area who had some very interesting stories. We had planned to return to tea throughout the rest of the trip, but always had a conflict.
After tea, we walked around the promenade deck. As we moved further into the Gulf of Alaska, the ship was enveloped in fog. It was strangely relaxing to watch the ship glide through the fog. The foghorn was sounding, but not audible inside of the ship. Since it was the first formal night, we headed inside to change.
We arrived in the atrium about 30 minutes before the Captain's Cocktail Party was to begin for pictures. This worked out well since there were very few people in line. The cocktail party was quite enjoyable with several types of cocktails being served. We met up with one of the other couples from the tour to enjoy the festivities. Captain Ravera was quite well spoken and enjoyable to listen to. Afterwards, we headed to dinner.
We were the first to arrive at our table shortly after 8 and our waiter suggested waiting to see if anyone else would attend. At 8:30, he finally took our order. The younger couple arrived shortly before 9, just as we were about to receive our entrees. This was going to prove to be a trend for them. Apparently the older couple had received the change they requested because we never saw them again. Conversation around the table was much better this evening, so we decided not to attempt to switch tables. The beef entrEe was quite excellent this evening.
After dinner, we headed for the first show "Words and Music." Having grown up listening to Broadway show tunes, I recognized a large number of them and greatly enjoyed the show. My husband is less familiar with them and enjoyed it, but not as much as myself. The show took place in the Princess Theater and it was packed. After the show, we headed to bed.
The next day was Glacier Bay and an opportunity to sleep in, which we did. We headed up to the Horizon Court to grab something to eat before heading out on deck. The park rangers embarked and opened an information table in the Horizon Court. Additionally, park maps were placed in each stateroom the night before. One of the rangers gave a narration over the PA system while we were inside the park. As we entered into Glacier Bay, there was wildlife to be spotted. We saw a few bear dots (bears on the shore that appeared to be dots or blobs through binoculars), a few humpback whales, sea otters, and a seal. The morning began a little overcast, but soon the sun burned off the clouds and it was a beautiful day. Standing on the front of the ship, a windbreaker, hat and gloves helped to cut the wind. We were to arrive at the Grand Pacific Glacier around 2pm, so we took a short break to try to grab a quick lunch in the Horizon Court. The lines were not bad, however it was impossible to find a place to sit. Once again, people had staked out tables to watch the scenery from inside. We ended up finding a table just as someone left.
We returned to the front of the ship and watched our approach to the Grand Pacific Glacier. This is the glacier that was mainly responsible for creating Glacier Bay. Looking at it, you would not realize that it was a glacier. The terminal moraine protects it from the salt water, allowing it to advance, but also helps to hide it. However, as we approached, behind a rocky outcropping on the left was the Marjorie Glacier, a bright blue glacier. As we approached, one of the park rangers noticed a bald eagle sitting on one of the pinnacles. It would choose to sit and watch us the entire time we were there. Numerous other sea birds were near the face of the glacier feeding.
The ship spent 2.5-3 hours at the glacier, making two revolutions. As the ship began to turn, we headed aftward to continue to view the glacier. As we moved further aft, we began to get strange looks. Those who had been in the front of the ship were all bundled up to protect us from the wind. People on the sides and aft of the ship were all wearing t-shirts. A few people were even catching a few rays in their bathing suits. The temperature was in the low 70s that afternoon. While we were watching, the glacier had several small calvings and two larger ones. The glacier would rumble and then a few seconds later a piece would fall off. We eventually learned to watch the sea birds. They were feeding on the seafood stunned by the sudden influx of fresh water. However, just before the glacier would calve, all of the birds in that area would fly off. By watching the birds you could guess where the calving would occur.
Growing quite warm, we headed back to our cabin briefly to change. We ended up watching the Grand Pacific Glacier fade into the distance while sitting in the aft hot tub. Many people were in the hot tubs and some were even enjoying the heated pools. We went back to our cabin, showered, and got ready for dinner. Since it was still early, we went for a stroll on the promenade, played a few hands of cards in the card room, and then checked out our pictures from formal night. This night was Continental Night, formally known as French Night. Once again, our tablemates were over a half an hour late. However, this time we only waited 10 minutes before ordering. Our assistant waiter was one of the highlights of the staff. He kept everyone in stitches, telling us about his family back home. This was his last cruise before returning home, but his service was always impeccable. One menu highlight was the escargot.
After dinner we attended C'est Magnifique, a production show in the Vista Lounge. Since the show had a French cabaret flair, the lounge seating only enhanced the atmosphere. We met up with two of the couples from the tour and enjoyed the show. The land tour gave us a great opportunity to meet people and we kept in contact with them while on the ship. After the show, we all parted ways and headed to bed.
Skagway was our first port and we were ready to see land again. We had booked the White Pass Railroad through Princess. The price difference between Princess and booking directly was $6 per person. Since we were on the last train of the evening, which was due to return at all aboard, we didn't take the chance and booked directly through Princess. The tickets were waiting in our room when we first arrived on ship and the charges were added to our shipboard accounts, even though we had booked them earlier.
Once again, we began our morning with breakfast in the Horizon Court. The lines were short and it was easy to find a table. Since we had all day in port, we started out walking around town. A quick stop by the National Park headquarters provided a number of opportunities while in town. They had two different films being shown on the history of Skagway, interpretative presentations, and a guided walking tour. We chose to take the next guided walking tour. Since we still had 30 minutes before our tour, we strolled around Skagway and stopped by the Skagway Visitors Center. While there, we picked up a hiking trail guide. The National Park guided walking tour took about 45 minutes and covered around eight blocks. Since we went on the 10am tour, there were not a lot of people on it (also, they attempt to limit the tour to a 30 person group per guide). Afterwards, we visited three of the four park museums in town and did a little bit of shopping. As we headed back to the ship for lunch, the third cruise ship, Norwegian Sun, docked. We were also in port with the Veendam.
For lunch, we decided to try La Scala, the pizzeria. We were the only ones eating lunch there, so the food was hot and fast. The calzone received high ratings while the sauce on the Hawaiian pizza just didn't fit. During lunch, we looked through the hiking trails guide and chose a shorter hike to Lower Dewey Lake. According to the guide, the trail consisted of a .7-mile climb of 500 feet followed by a 2-mile loop around the lake. It estimated the required time to be 2-3 hours and rated it as moderate. Since both of us hike and have done similar trails at home, we headed out with plenty of time to spare. The trailhead is along the railroad tracks next to the main street into town. The trail was not as easy as advertised. The .7-mile climb consisted of a series of steep switchbacks and took us around an hour, far longer than we had anticipated. Instead of continuing on the loop trail, we found a quiet spot and just watched the lake. We encountered several cruise ship passengers on the trail as we hiked back down to meet up with our tour. We were glad that we had not chosen to go back into town since it was full of people. Skagway only has around 500 residents in the winter and seemed busy with only two cruise ships in port. We didn't want to imagine what it would be like with five or more cruise ships in port.
Our tour left from the cruise ship dock. The train had separate cars designated for each of the ships and independent travelers. We chose to sit on the left, but it really didn't matter since our train car was less than a third full. On way down, you could choose to switch seats or stay where you were. For the climb, we chose to stay in the car since the viewing platforms were fairly crowded. However, on the return trip, I was usually the only person on the platform. Bottled water was provided and they had a small selection of souvenirs available only on board. The view was amazing and we felt that the tour was very worthwhile. The weather that day was beautiful in the mid-70s and sunny. Another suggestion for great views given to us from those getting off of the train was to sit in the last car. The rear platform provided outstanding, complete views.
We returned to the ship at 7:30 and quickly changed for dinner. The theme was Italian Night and it was our favorite menu on the whole. The eggplant parmesan appetizer was outstanding. It didn't taste at all like eggplant. My husband also decided that he was a huge fan of the soufflEs for dessert. Once again, our tablemates were about 30 minutes late for dinner. The entertainment choices that evening were a comedian or the not-so-newlywed game show. We chose to attend the not-so-newlywed game show, probably the wrong decision. The show is only as good as the contestants and one of the wives didn't seem to want to have participated. The comedy show got rave reviews. After the show, we took a brief stroll around the deck and headed to bed.
The next morning found us in Juneau. We were the first ship in port and were scheduled to go glacier trekking with Northstar Trekking. We had booked independently with Northstar several months prior and were scheduled to meet them at the Red Dog Saloon at 9am. Since breakfast at the Horizon Court took less time than expected, we were off the ship shortly after 8. We called Northstar to confirm our pick-up and then wandered around downtown Juneau. Unfortunately, we discovered that most stores opened at 9am. Our driver arrived around 8:45 and we headed for the airport. Two other couples joined us from the cruise ship. We were outfitted with a jacket, pants, boots, gloves, and a hip pack. The guides recommended leaving our fleeces and we were glad that we did. The weather in Juneau that day was upper-60s and sunny.
The helicopter ride up to the glacier was stunning. Our pilot commented that he normally couldn't take this route due to the weather. However, it was a perfect day. We met our two guides on the glacier and were joined by a photographer. Since the weather was so perfect, they were taking photos for next year's promotional literature. We were given our crampons, ice axes, and a brief lesson on how to walk in crampons. From there, we were off to explore. One of our guides had recently taken a class on glaciers and geology and pointed out lots of interesting features along the way. We climbed up a few hills, forged a few streams and discovered a place where two streams came together. Since one of them had been underground, it had carved a small cavern. We each ventured into it. As people worked their way in, you would hear the exclamation as they discovered the deep and varying shades of blue. After about two hours, we located our helicopter and hiked back. Since there was not a large afternoon tour scheduled, we had the opportunity to be a little more adventurous without having to worry about leaving wet gear for the next group. The entire tour took a little over four hours.
Our driver was willing to drop us off anywhere downtown, but we just headed back to the Red Dog Saloon. After a little bit of shopping, we returned to the ship to grab a quick bite to eat. Three ships were due in port that day. We were the first ship to arrive. The Volendam arrived while we were on our tour and the Mercury was just finishing docking as we returned to the ship. Unlike Skagway, Juneau seemed large enough to be able to handle the influx of people. However, we didn't want to test this theory. We snagged bratwurst at the grill and headed to the Vista Lounge to hear the presentation by Libby Riddles. Having grown up eating bratwurst, these were passable for a quick snack. The presentation was quite interesting and Libby stayed around afterwards to answer questions and sign copies of her children's book.
Since the ship was due to leave in less than an hour, we then chose to relax by the pool. I chose to go swimming, since the weather was just that beautiful. Several other people were in the pool and the hot tubs were always full. We grabbed a small snack from the Horizon Court and watched people golf horribly in the chipping contest. Instead of trying to hit the rings in the pool, some people seemed to be targeting everything else, including the cruise staff member's head. We enjoyed relaxing beside the pool reading and chatting with our neighbors until it was time to dress for dinner. That evening there was an early comedy/magic show, which we chose to attend before dinner. The comedy was great and we looked forward to seeing the comedian again during the farewell show.
We headed to dinner, which was featuring the Alaskan Night. During this meal we found the only item we truly didn't like, the wild game tureen appetizer. It resembled a combination of salami and bologna and tasted a lot like liverwurst. Alaskan king crab legs were available on the menu. After dinner, we were debating if any of the entertainment appealed to us. Instead, tiredness caught up with us and it was off to bed.
The next morning we arrived in Skagway just as we were finishing breakfast in the Horizon Court. We headed off the ship as soon as we could because we had a 9am Orca's Cove tour with Southeast Sea Kayaks. We had booked this tour in November. When we had called to book the tour, it was suggested that we take the earliest tour available since it was migratory bird season. The earlier hours would offer the best chance to see wildlife. We met up with a guide right outside of the ship and had a short walk to their office.
We were given a life vest and a dry bag to keep all of our things in. We then headed out to a motorboat to head to our kayaks. The driver gave us a short commentary on the area as we headed for the cove. We were the only paying guests on the trip. However, two additional guides and their husbands joined us. The weather was so beautiful that everyone wanted to be on the water that day. Once we arrived at another boat with the kayaks, we received brief instructions on how to kayak and loaded into the boats. As we arrived at the boat, we could hear a humpback surfacing in the area. After being loaded into the kayaks, we were able to locate it and watch it dive. It stayed with us for about half of our tour, surfacing as close as 100 yards.
We kayaked around the island, stopping in several small coves to discover what was there. Our official guide, Galen, had just graduated from high school the day before. She was a tremendous young woman, with a lot of local knowledge since she had grown up in Ketchikan. She will be spending her first year in college traveling around the world as part of a school at sea program. If you're lucky enough to have Galen as your guide, you're in for a real treat. The weather was perfect for kayaking, warm enough that it was comfortable to be on the water and sunny. We saw around a dozen bald eagles, a dall porpoise, numerous sea birds and got up close and personal with a sleeping sea lion. Originally, we had seen a strange shape floating in the water. Galen didn't know what it was, but decided to go investigate. As we drew closer, it looked somewhat like wing or flipper sticking straight out of the water. It was accompanied by a strange gurgling noise. It was a sea lion holding its flipper straight out of the water. At first, we were unsure if it was injured. However, after a few minutes, the sea lion suddenly dove under the water and disappeared. Upon returning to the boat, we learned that it had been trying to cool itself by holding its fin out of the water and was probably snoring.
We were able to set the pace of our trip and after about 2.5 hours, we headed back to the boat. Onboard, a smoked salmon snack and cold drinks awaited us. We then boarded the other boat and headed back to the office. This is a trip we would consider doing again if we returned to Ketchikan. The peace and solitude on the water was simply amazing. You were able to encounter wildlife without it feeling like an artificial scene.
We were the only ship in port that day, so the streets were not crowded. We headed back to the ship for lunch at the pizzeria. Their special of the day was quite good. We then decided to walk around town, taking a stroll down Creek Street and doing a little bit of shopping. We kept seeing signs that were part of a walking tour, but could never find the starting point or a map. After finishing our shopping, we returned to the ship and once again sat by the pool to watch us pull away.
The second formal night was that evening. Since it was lobster night, the dining room was full. Service was a little slower than normal since all of the tables in our waiter's section were actually full. Additionally, our tablemates were on time. Apparently our waiter had mentioned that the dining room would be full and it would be a good idea to be on time. Additional tails were available for anyone who wanted them. It was amusing watching Willy trying to wrestle a few of the tails out of their shells.
We headed to "Rhythms of the City" after dinner. We were a couple of minutes late since dinner took a little longer than usual. A number of people came in late since dinner was running long. This show was the best of the three we saw. It spanned many decades of music and had something for everyone. After the show we met up with one of the couples from the land tour and watched the preparation for the champagne waterfall. The wait staff was having fun with the preparation and it led to a very festive atmosphere. At midnight, the champagne was poured and streamers were tossed. People had the opportunity to have their pictures taken pouring the champagne and there was dancing. After a few dances, we decided to call it a night.
Our final full day onboard was a day at sea. After sleeping in, we grabbed a quick breakfast in the Horizon Court and headed to the culinary demonstration. It would more appropriately be called a comedy show. We attended the final lecture by the onboard naturalist and then headed to lunch in the dining room. The rest of the afternoon was a combination of packing and reading out on the promenade deck. We put out three of our suitcases before heading off to the farewell show. The show, before dinner, was the comedian/magician we had seen earlier and a singer we had missed. We enjoyed the comedian and the singer was very good. However, his repertoire was geared for a slightly older generation. We found the performance to be good, but were not upset that we had missed his original show.
The final menu was American Night. Our tablemates were on time once again. Conversation that evening reflected on the cruise as a whole and all of us had really enjoyed it. The baked Alaskan parade was that evening. The Loveboat Dream was only on the menu on the last night. However, after serving the baked Alaskan, our waiter never returned to see if we wanted to see the dessert menu. It was ok though since we were stuffed. We returned to our cabin, finished packing, put out the last suitcase and went to bed.
The morning found us docking in Vancouver. We watched us pull into the dock as we had breakfast in the Horizon Court. It was actually very easy to find a table this morning. The ship cleared customs and began disembarkation, about 30 minutes late.
Our flight was out of Seattle and we had purchased transfers to the airport. We were in the first quarter of the groups called. People were respecting the announcements and not crowding the gangplank. We breezed off the ship, handed in our Canadian customs form, and were escorted directly to our motorcoaches. The disembarkation number corresponded to the coach you were to board. Once on the coach, a quick roll call was taken and we were off. We were very glad that we had put out all of our luggage the night before. It was stowed under the coaches without us ever having to touch it.
Our driver gave us a running commentary as we headed towards the border. At the US border, we did have to clear American customs. Since our luggage and we had gone directly from the ship to the coach, this was a very easy process. We were back on the highway in about 20 minutes. We made a brief stop at a rest station because we were ahead of schedule. We arrived at Sea-Tac just before 1pm.
Fortunately, a nice lady at the United counter took pity on us and let us check in our luggage early. We had made arrangements to go out to dinner with one of my husband's co-workers, so we were able to escape the airport for a while. We had dinner at a local Italian restaurant overlooking a local lake. The weather was once again in the mid-70s and sunny. On our return trip to the airport, Mt. Rainer was visible.
Our flight was a red-eye from Seattle to Dulles, arriving shortly after 6am. After the problems we had with Supershuttle, we chose to just take a cab home. All of our luggage had been inspected by TSA. We had originally closed them with cable ties, but none were replaced. Fortunately, everything was there and in the same places we had packed it. It looked like TSA had simply cut the ties off of them and placed notices in two of them.
Would we do a cruisetour again?: The answer is a resounding yes. Princess did an excellent job handling all of the arrangements. It removed a lot of stress from the whole planning and traveling process. The accommodations were all top quality and the necessary services were nearby. We found the food in the lodges to be well prepared and equivalent in price to many nearby restaurants.
Additionally, we felt that we gained a lot by taking a tour. Had we chose to rent a car and drive to all of the locations, we would have missed the commentary from our guides. This greatly enhanced our trip. Instead of looking at a random mountain and not knowing what we were seeing, the guides were able to point out what we were seeing and the history behind it. We only had to sit back and enjoy. We never felt that we were rushed or didn't get to see something that we wanted to because we were on a tour. Having the structure helped ensure that we could see as much of Alaska as we wanted. Our guides were more than willing to pull over to let us take pictures, and if it was safe, get off of the coach to take pictures.
We also developed several friendships while on the tour. Even though we were much younger than most of our traveling companions, we were welcomed with open arms. We spent a lot of time with three different couples that we plan to keep in contact with. For some, we were the age of their children and they enjoyed having that sense of youth on the trip. Since this was our honeymoon, we were able to balance our own personal time and being with others. If we had chosen to travel independently, we probably never would have met these people. It was refreshing to always see people you knew onboard the ship.
Would we recommend traveling to Alaska in May? Again, the answer is yes. Almost all of the locals commented that if they were to visit, they would go in May. Read Less