Since in the weeks and months leading up to our July 1, 2009 cruise on the Carnival Spirit I was constantly searching for new reviews, I was determined to post mine in a timely fashion. Overall, our vacation was fabulous - and this was our 10th cruise. The most amazing thing was the weather! In the 10 days we were in Alaska - we had rain on 2 days - the days we were "at sea" - so it really didn't matter. The only down side of the beautiful weather was that we didn't see as much wildlife as we would have if it had been cold and rainy.
We opted for the "pre cruise tour", which is operated by Holland America - a sister company to Carnival. The land tour was interesting and they did a great job of getting us to everything and delivering our luggage quickly. We flew in to Fairbanks and spent the first night there - we were given the "Governor's Suite" at the Westmark Fairbanks Hotel for some reason. It was not as grand as it sounds, since the entire tour group was housed in the older section of the hotel, but still it was nice to have a suite rather than just a room. We were impressed with how efficient things were. We went to a Carnival Cruise line desk at the Fairbanks airport and were given an envelope that contained luggage tags to attach to all our bags, and our room keys. Then we were transported by bus to the hotel, while our bags were trucked to the hotel and waiting at our door when we arrived.
For dinner that night (Sunday, June 28) we walked to a restaurant (Pasta Bella) recommended by a lady we talked to on the plane. Food was good - but expensive as all food is in Alaska. Fairbanks isn't much of a city, though it is the 4th biggest in Alaska.
Monday morning, we were to have our large bags ready to be picked up - they were transferred directly to the Hilton in Anchorage, where we found them right in our room when checking in there on Tuesday night - and everyone had only small bags for the trip to Denali. We had the breakfast buffet at the hotel and then were given a brief tour of Fairbanks - again, not much to see - and then taken to the railroad station. We had a 4 hour train trip to Denali National Park and we had a great "car manager". He was a young guy who loved being in Alaska, camping and mountain climbing and gave us a running commentary on the history of the area and had personal pictures of scenery and wildlife that he shared. There was also a bartender in each car and you could go downstairs if you wanted to have breakfast in the dining car. Before arriving there we were given another envelope that contained our room keys and there was a bus that took us to our resort. We had about an hour to visit our rooms and grab some lunch and then departed on a 5 hour bus tour of the park. It was very interesting and such a beautiful and enormous place! We saw a group of Caribou and spotted Dall Sheep as well.
As I mentioned, food was very pricey in Alaska and the lodge we stayed at (McKinley Chalets) had very expensive meals. I had seen some negative comments about the hotel rooms, but though the rooms were sort of rustic, we found them kind of charming. They had a small sitting room with sofa, desk and chair and coffee maker, and a separate bedroom with one double and one twin bed
We had gone to Subway - which was across the highway from the resort to get lunch before our tour of the park and the same foot long sandwiches we get in the rest of the US for $5 are $9 there. We brought them back and were eating them in the lobby and we got to talking to a group of people who had been there a couple days and were getting ready to leave. One couple told us about a place across the highway they had discovered called the Salmon Bake that had good food and wasn't too expensive. So - we ended up eating both dinner Monday night and Breakfast Tuesday morning there. It is a popular place, so at dinner time - be prepared to wait for a table - but good food and the prices were better than at the resort.
Tuesday we had free time in the morning and we went to the Visitor's Center in Denali Park, which is right next to the train station - there was a free shuttle from the resort. They have a room where for $1 per hour, you can check your suitcase and not have to haul it around with you. We visited the sled dog kennels and saw a demonstration. Denali is the only National Park that has and uses sled dogs to patrol in the winter. Our bus guide had told us they have volunteers come and walk the dogs in the summer, but they are real "working dogs" all winter and get plenty of exercise then. All are lavished with love and attention and when the ranger that told us about the program got to the part where he was going to do a demo - all the dogs got excited, howling and jumping around and hoped to be the "chosen ones". They only harnessed up six of them - boy they love to pull a sled! The Visitor Center has a lot of interesting displays and you could spend considerable time there, if you had it.
Though the train cars are special ones, built by the cruise lines and have comfortable seats and large glass domes with tinted glass to keep it from being too sunny, and each car has a bartender and a guide doing running commentary about the sights and history - our second train ride was for 8 hours - a long time to be on a train!! At least you could get up and they had dining facilities downstairs in each car and restrooms and you could walk from car to car and spend time on the platforms so that you could get some fresh air. But, we were glad to finally get to Anchorage.
In Anchorage we stayed at the Hilton and it was really nice - nice for anywhere, not just nice for Alaska! The next morning - Wednesday - we first went to breakfast at a restaurant we found around the block that advertised "2 eggs, 2 strips of bacon, 2 pancakes for $5.99". Then we got on a bus and had a city tour of Anchorage and then went to the Native Heritage Center - which was really interesting - we saw a moose on our approach to the Welcome Center. In talking to others that have been on this same land tour, it is fairly common to see moose around there. We had a bit more than 2 hours there - but could have spent the whole day. This is a wonderful place where the young people are encouraged to learn about and enjoy their own heritage. They have a stage where they do native dances, there are many people doing native crafts and they welcome questions and comments and are delighted to talk with visitors. They have many artifacts on display in the large modern building, and outside, built around a lake, they have traditional dwellings and ceremonial buildings done in the building style of the various kinds of natives that occupied Alaska. Inside each building were people familiar with the history and customs of that particular group. They had examples of the types of tools, furs, implements and eating utensils used and some gave presentations of what life was like and how it was lived. A wealth of information and just an uplifting experience!
Following that, we drove to the ship - and that was an interesting ride - we drove along the water and past the snow covered mountains and glaciers - just gorgeous. Then in order to get to Whittier - this is really weird - there is a long, one lane tunnel through the mountain that you drive through. On the hour they let the south bound traffic go and on the half hour the north bound traffic - first the train and then the cars, trucks and busses, - which drive right on the train tracks. In several locations in the tunnel they have dug out "safe houses" and each supposedly has cots, blankets and food for 60 people.
The town of Whittier was built and used as a top secret Naval base during World War II, when they were afraid of attacks and invasions by the Russians and it is a really weird place - and I guess that is what the "safe houses" in the tunnel were about - they planned to bring the top government officials there and protect them in the mountain! There are people there that work on the docks and for the railroad - and probably some that take care of the tunnel and then there are some little stores and cafes - most in sort of crummy little buildings. But - the whole town, everyone 270 people (maybe more in the summer) - all live in a building that is probably 12 stories. Their school and town hall are also in the building. There are a couple of other buildings that look like old barracks buildings, but they have asbestos and can't be occupied. It is just the strangest place you can imagine but has a perfect harbor for a cruise ship!
Embarkation was the fastest and most efficient we have ever experienced. We were on the ship by 2:00. Our room was ready and we went and dropped some stuff off and went up to the Lido deck for lunch. After roaming around the ship for a bit, we returned to our room and our bags were outside our door. We could unpack and by 5:00 we were ready to cruise!
This was our 3rd Carnival cruise and so we were prepared for the gaudy dEcor and we really liked this ship! Though I believe that the Freedom, which was home during our Mediterranean cruise in the summer of 2007, was bigger, the Spirit seemed to have more public areas, or maybe they just are better placed. There are lots of places that people can sit and read a book or simply relax. There are numerous bars and lounges, a library with computers, a chapel, the large show room (Pharaohs Palace), and a really nice showroom, the Versailles Lounge on deck 1 - right beneath Pharaohs Palace (one night we discovered a great group playing live music there and we were the whole audience). The last night of our cruise we went back there and there were maybe 15-20 people dancing and enjoying the music. Honestly, the public areas are so vast and varied that it is hard to believe that there were over 2,300 passengers on board, it never seemed crowded anywhere - except for the last morning, when everyone was trying to eat at the buffet at the same time!
Our Cruise Critic roll call group met in the Shanghai Lounge and they actually had various people there to meet us, including the Cruise Director, Hotel Manager, Drink Manager and a few others. So - if anyone is planning a Cruise Critic "meet and greet", contact Carnival and you will probably get the same treatment.
We were in room 8191 - and the review on that is mixed. The bad first:
There was a very strong urine smell in front of the vanity. I wondered if maybe someone with little kids had been in there the cruise before us. I asked one of the stewards and he said that the carpet had been shampooed before we got on and asked if we wanted it shampooed again. I said that obviously shampooing had not done the trick and asked if they had something they could spray it with to make it less stinky. Shortly after that, the other room steward (obviously the lead one as he was the person that introduced himself) came to see us. He said that the people before were elderly and he had been aware of an odor, but didn't think it was urine. Guess what - there is nothing else that smells that way! In the comments I left I suggested that Carnival invest in large containers of enzyme cleaner and if they couldn't find it elsewhere they could go to any pet store and buy Nature's Miracle which would eliminate those kinds of smells.
The good things about the room were, though we rarely saw the room stewards, the room was always tidy, with fresh ice in the ice bucket and fresh towels in the bathroom. It was the most conveniently located room we have ever had on a ship! Very near both the mid ship elevators and the atrium elevators, and right near the mid ship staircase and just one floor below the Lido Deck and breakfast, pizza, ice cream, hot chocolate, cookies, etc!!!
We loved the balcony and made very good use of that, as the weather was so nice and warm that several evenings we were able to sit out there in shorts and t-shirts, and I didn't wear either of the sweatshirts I brought. We emptied all of the sodas, and beer from the mini fridge and put them along with the large bottle of water in the bottom of one of the closets, and kept the box of wine we brought along in the fridge. Also, when we first got to Whittier, we went and found some Diet Coke and Diet Dr Pepper and put them in the fridge. It was nice to have wine and soft drinks to take out on the balcony and to the nighttime shows!
One thing I'd like to mention is food. I had read many remarks about the food on the trip, many people remarked that the food in the dining room was good and the food on the Lido deck was awful and tasteless. Our reaction was that the food was pretty good on the Lido deck - understanding that it is a buffet and buffets have their limitations. We ate breakfast there all but one morning when we had time for the dining room and were pleased. I enjoyed the made to order omelets and fried eggs. My only issue with breakfast on the Lido deck was that fresh cut up fruit was rare. The lunches we ate on deck 9 were fine. Once we had pizza and other times, just picked and choose what appealed and my husband always enjoyed the deli sandwiches. Often on cruises, cookies are hard to come by but we almost always could find cookies after noon. One of our favorite snacks on cruises is hot chocolate (available 24 hours) and cookies.
We had heard about "Any time Dining" on our Roll call board and because of the times the ship was in port, decided to go with it. We have cruised on Norwegian and enjoyed their system that works like that. I must say that for the most part we have always enjoyed having an assigned table and usually have been matched with suitable table mates, and visiting with them every night was part of the fun of cruising. But, we then had a bad experience with assigned dining and another experience that was "luke warm", so we were looking forward to the idea of eating when we wanted and not being forced to report to the same table each night. Just so you know, if you choose this option - you need to go to the upper (deck 3) dining room and stand on the left side going in (I think that maybe our room stewards "goofed" as we received a flyer explaining where to go for anytime dining the last day of our cruise - we probably were supposed to have that in our room when we first arrived). The hostesses always asked "would you be willing to share with others?" and we were happy to do that, I think that only once we were there when they had lots of tables for 2 and so we ate alone that night. We ate there every night and as long as we were willing to share, never had to wait to be seated. We enjoyed visiting with other couples and thought the food was pretty good, although the quality was somewhat off the mark as compared to even other Carnival cruises, but that could be the economy, or the setting. One of the head waiters that we had the first couple nights was not great - he forgot to bring courses, silverware, beverages, etc. On maybe the third night we were seated at one of Zoltan's tables and he is great - personable and the epitome of what a great waiter should be - after that we asked to be seated at one of his tables and enjoyed every dining experience! The chocolate melting cake (Zolten referred to it as the 5 lb cake) is still fantastic and available every night! We even spotted it up on the Lido deck.
The only days it rained were the two while we were on the boat sailing and not in port, so they didn't bother us at all. On our first day at sea - of course everyone is up early because this is when you are sailing past all the glaciers, we ate on the Lido deck and then went and explored the parts of the ship we hadn't checked out the night before. We just sort of stumbled on a trivia game and we won! We were awarded a "ship on a stick" the first of four trivia game wins! Now my husband enjoys trivia, but I never dreamed that between the two of us we knew so much about various assorted meaningless things! We had entered the "trivia challenge", which is a four day series of trivia contest with a different topic each day. We were in 2nd place coming into the final day - the day we were in Ketchikan, but returned from our kayak trip too late to participate. Actually we had no chance at winning anyway. There was a couple that were both teachers, she a history teacher and he a geometry teacher and they way outscored us on the first two days. We beat them modestly on the third day, but they had an unbeatable lead. We ended up giving our "ships" to little kids on the ship and a couple that had little boys at home who would find them a great souvenir!
As far as entertainment went, we did go to a couple of the shows and they were good, although I wasn't as impressed on this cruise with the entertainment as I have been on others. I think that part of the problem with that was that the cruise director, who does the Blues Brothers show himself, was not that in to making announcements so that unless you either memorized your Capers for the day, or carried it with you, you had no idea what was happening where. After cruising with John Heald on the Freedom, where you always know exactly what is happening and where, I'd have to say that more announcements should be made. I had read in other reviews that the people aboard this ship just don't seem to be in to night life. I'd have to say - they probably weren't aware of exactly where to find it. Carnival could do a lot better in this area.
Now for the ports - and I must say we had beautiful weather in all four ports! We made all of our reservations for excursions on line through Shoretrips.com. We have used them before and they do a good job and you can be assured of quality vendors when going to areas you don't know. But, with this trip, we were so pleased with all the vendors we dealt with that I'm going to give the names of the companies and contact numbers. You can save money by booking directly. Though you can probably book all these excursions through Carnival as well - that not only costs more, but I personally don't like the mob scene where everyone has to meet at a certain place on the ship at a certain time and then you sit around there for 30 minutes and then go somewhere else in a group to wait.
We first visited Sitka - where we walked around on our own - found the Raptor Center, we had read about from Cruise Critic members and had to agree that it was really interesting. They have a beautiful location and are very friendly and know their raptors! They have assorted eagles, hawks, owls, etc. They attempt to rehab the birds and return them to nature and those that cannot safely be released have a home for life and you can visit with them and learn about them and others of their species. They also have a walking path that takes you through the woods; where there are signs warning that it is excellent habitat for bears. The employees are delighted to share what they know and the entry fee is well worth it. We gave an additional donation as I'm sure most people do. We didn't see any bears there but, as we walked through the park on the way to the center, we were crossing over a walking bridge when we saw a number of people taking pictures from the bridge. When we checked it out, we found three bald eagles, a baby and two mature birds, bathing in the river - cool!
As we were walking back to the ship, we met some other Carnival passengers going the other way. They asked about directions to the Raptor Center and we told them about it. They told us about the aquarium across the street and encouraged us to go to it. It was housed in a fairly old, non descript building but the aquarium that contained unusual things like red and purple starfish, multi colored anemones and huge sea cucumbers, which are actually critters that look like overgrown cucumbers with spiky protrusions, and other starfish that have like, 15 arms and suction cups. All these are things that occupy the ocean around there. They were in shallow glass tanks on table tops and if you wanted, you could pick them up - I was happy to just look at them! This place was free and really interesting! Out in the back of the building, by the water, they had big tanks with all the different kinds of salmon - tiny, but thousands in every tank. It was really a beautiful day, warm and sunny. We stopped and bought some fudge on the way back to the ship - YUM!
Our second port was Juneau on the 4th of July. The ship was there from 7 a.m. until 11 p.m. and I think under other circumstances, people could do various things all day and evening. As it turned out - there was a big parade with Sarah Palin on the main street - but we had reservations to go zip lining. The young guy that picked us up - there were 10 of us in all, said we were lucky to be going when we were as with Sarah there, security would be tight and they would be closing down the road. The zip lining was great and by the time we were going back to the ship the traffic had cleared. It turned out that two of the other couples on the tour were folks from the Cruise Critic Roll Call board that we had been communicating with before getting on the ship. If you have any desire to go zip lining, you can book directly with Alaska Zipline Adventure, either do it online or their phone number is 907-321-0947. They are tuned in to safety and make sure everyone is comfortable and having fun. If you have tried other zip lines, you have probably experienced being concerned about either braking too soon and getting stuck in the middle of the cable, or waiting too long and smacking into the trees. These folks have designed their own braking system and the guide that "catches" you, also does the braking - you just zip and have fun! They even brought hot tea and metal cups in a back pack and served us tea on one of the last platforms! We didn't bring a camera that day, but some of our Cruise Critic pals have sent us pictures of the day.
It was our plan to have lunch and then get back off the ship and take the bus over to Mendenhall Glacier and spend the afternoon there as so many others advised doing. Turned out though, that because of it being the 4th, they stopped that service at 1:00 and so - we just shopped and found stuff to do on the ship.
Next day we were in Skagway and we went on a jeep stampede. We had our own jeep and there were maybe 5 other jeeps and the leader, so we were in a caravan. We drove about 100 miles round trip into the Yukon and back. The scenery was fantastic and it was a really nice day! The town of Skagway - is not much so you might as well get out into the Yukon! This was really the best way to see the gorgeous terrain around there. Our guide was Dave and he was very helpful and laid back. He had cold water and sodas, and various snacks for us. We all stopped any time there was anything of interest and he was willing to cater to individual requests. We had a family group that had three jeeps and some of them wanted to "play in the snow" and so, Dave found them a place to play in the snow. If you want to book the green jeep tour you can find them on line - google Yukon Jeep Stampede and their phone number is 888-321-3624.
Next day we were in Ketchikan. That was an interesting town - supposedly it gets more rain fall than any other city in the US and there is a rain gauge on the dock, showing how much rain they got the year before. We were told that it usually rains some every day, but for us it was sunny and nice. We went sea kayaking and I must say that was interesting! There is a whole series of islands there and Ketchikan itself is on an island. Because there are no bridges - the way people get around is by boat and float plane - the islands are not big enough for regular airports. So - it was an adventure paddling across this large bay. First we had to wait for a Princess cruise ship to leave port, and then we had to dodge planes taking off and landing and boats zooming around. It was fun - but very different! They are very professional and the equipment is first rate. The vendor was Southeast Sea Kayaks and their website is kayakketchikan.com and the phone number is (800) 287-1607.
The only other thing I need to tell you about will only matter if you are taking the cruise from Whittier to Vancouver and plan to fly out of Seattle this year. It seems that beginning in 2010 Carnival will be selling transfers from the docks in Vancouver directly to SeaTac International airport. Our problem was that they sold us that transfer and it didn't exist. We found this out the hard way! Though that is what we booked, and a couple of weeks before we left a woman from Carnival called and confirmed the airport, airline, flight number and time, when I printed out our documents the day before we were leaving - on a Saturday I saw that we were booked to Vancouver Airport! My husband tried calling our Carnival vacation planner, who was off for the weekend, and ended up telling the problem to a gentleman named Roger, who checked their list of shuttles and said that the trip we needed was on the list - but in bold print it stated that it wasn't available until 2010!
My husband sent our Carnival person an e-mail and left a voice mail message about this, and actually he did call us on Saturday and apologized for the problem. He said he would be in the office on Monday and would "get everything taken care of". He agreed to let us know how he had "taken care of it" either while we were on the "pre trip" that he had reserved for us, or on the ship. Well, that made me a little nervous and so I checked on line and found a shuttle service that picked up at the docks, then went to the Vancouver Airport, made several other stops, but eventually ended up at SeaTac. I was all for just reserving that but my husband convinced me that since transportation existed that went from the dock to the Seattle airport, that must be how everything was going to be taken care of. Well, when we still hadn't heard anything after a couple days on the ship, we took the issue to Guest Services. They seemed interested and competent and asked for copies of our documents that showed that Carnival knew the airport from which we were departing and they said they would take care of it. Later in the day we received a phone call from Guest Services stating that "everything has been taken care of and you will get the details the day before you leave".
WELL - NOTHING WAS TAKEN CARE OF AND OUR TRANSFER WAS TO THE VANCOUVER AIRPORT!! My husband, who is very kind, trusting and patient, was certain that they would have something set up where we would at least be directed to the place where we could catch another bus to Seattle. They didn't have a clue that anyone was on that transfer except people flying out of Seattle. When I informed a Carnival person at the Vancouver airport that we were flying out of Seattle, he seemed confused about why we would not have taken the transportation from the port directly to SeaTac -that made 3 of us!! He found a woman to escort us to get our luggage and figure out what to do. She was a bit confused too, and then realized that though Holland America passengers can take the shuttle directly from the pier, Carnival does not have that set up yet. So - she took us to a counter where we could buy tickets to SeaTac. We paid the same amount for them that we would have paid to travel all the way from the cruise ship terminal, on top of what we had paid Carnival to get to the wrong airport. Later we found, had we booked on line we would actually have gotten direct transportation from the pier to SeaTac and received a 5% discount as well! We were actually lucky though we had just missed a shuttle and had to wait for nearly 2 hours - we got the last two seats on a little, cramped 17 person van that met up with a nice coach right before the US border. The coach was half filled with - you guessed it - Holland American cruise passengers that had boarded at the pier! So - if you are flying out of Seattle, which is much cheaper for most US destinations, make your own arrangements to get there. The web site is Quickcoach.com and their phone number is 800-665-2122.