This is our report on our May 30, 1998 cruise to Alaska aboard Sun Princess. This was a one way cruise northbound from Vancouver to Seward. Please note that this report focuses for the most part on Alaska as a destination, as opposed to the Sun Princess, in particular. This was our second cruise on Sun Princess. For our review which focuses mostly on Sun Princess itself, see our home page, at http://www.jnpcs.com/ehill and go to the Cruise Reviews page (quick link: Sun Princess Inaugural) , and Sun Princess inaugural. This was our 20 somethingth cruise overall and 4th cruise on Princess, but first cruise to Alaska. We have previously sailed on such diverse cruise lines as Royal Caribbean, Carnival, NCL, Star Clipper, Dolphin, Regency, Costa, Cunard, Cunard Crown, and Celebrity. This cruise also served as somewhat of a family reunion, as Eric's mom and dad, his dad's sister and husband and his dad's brother and wife were also onboard for the cruise.
As with most all our cruises these days, we booked our air separately from the cruise line and opted to fly into Vancouver the day before the cruise and spend the night in Vancouver. We flew American DCA to ORD with a 3 hour layover in Chicago. We knew prior to leaving home that our Canadian Air flight from Chicago to Vancouver was over booked, so we made sure that we checked in with Canadian Air immediately once we reached Chicago and changed our seats so that we were sitting together. We searched in vain for lockers to stow our carry-ons. There are a few lockers located at L-1, but they were all full. We walked across the street to the Hilton and spent a couple of hours enjoying some lunch and a couple of drinks and watching a baseball game. Our Canadian Air flight was in fact over booked and they did not offer us nearly enough to take a bump, so we stayed onboard and the flight left late. We arrived at our hotel (finally) at about 1 A.M. (Eastern time) and were happy to turn in.
We had booked at the Best Western Chateau Granville. Price for a suite was about $137 a night (US) (plus all their miscellaneous taxes). The suite was fairly large, with a couch and couple of chairs, TV, table with 4 chairs, queen sized bed, coffee maker and mini-bar, and balcony. The Chateau Granville is downtown, somewhat in the red-light district, but we thought it was fairly nice, for the price paid. The cab ride to the hotel was about 20 minutes and cost $20 US, including tips and bags. Later, the cab ride to the ship was about 10 minutes and we paid $18 US, although we felt we got overcharged for that. After having flown all day, it was nice to step outside on the balcony and take in some fresh air prior to turning in, although we weren't able to get quite as much benefit from the suite as we might have wished, since we got there so late.
After breakfast at the hotel, we walked around the immediate area of the hotel to check out the area, went ahead and checked out of the hotel but left our bags there for them to hold and headed out for a tour aboard one of the double-decker busses. The hotel provided $2 (Canadian) off the regular price for this tour, which we took advantage of. The double-decker bus tour is great because you can get off and on as many times as you want, and there is no additional fee. We gave them $40 US for the two of us for the tour and were given back $10 Canadian in change. Therefore the price was about $16 US per person for the tour and well worth it. The entire tour takes 2 hours even if one never gets off the bus. Stops included the downtown shopping area, several hotels, including the Westin Bayshore, with connections to Grouse Mountain, Suspension Bridge, and the Harbor cruise, Vancouver Aquarium, Stanley Park, beaches, Vancouver Museum, Granville Island, Science World, Chinatown, Gastown (great shopping here!), and Canada Place. Busses ran every half hour and pickup for the tour was only about a block away from our hotel, at the Holiday Inn. Although we didn't have time to get there, the tour price included complementary transfers to Capilano Suspension Bridge and Grouse Mountain. Entrance fees to Grouse Mountain and The Suspension Bridge were extra. Weather in Vancouver was beautiful, 70 degrees and sunny all day. We thoroughly enjoyed our tour of this beautiful city and enjoyed the freedom to get on and off the bus as we wanted.
As usual when we have a balcony cabin with a refrigerator, we needed to pick up some liquid "supplies" for the trip, so we had asked at the hotel where we could purchase some beer and wine. We never did find out where one could purchase hard liquor, but thankfully we knew we could purchase that onboard the ship. Anyway, we found the state sponsored beer and wine store and purchased some (VERY expensive!!!) beer and wine to take onboard ship. Coors Light was $10.15 + $.10 per can deposit (CANADIAN) for a six pack and a bottle of Fetzer Blanc was $16.70 (CANADIAN), so we certainly found no bargains there. We tried to find a store to purchase a 6 pack of Cokes and, finding none, had to purchase Cokes individually, along with a can of whipped cream. (MORE on that subject later!!)
By the way, if you are spending any time in Vancouver, it is probably a good idea to change and get some Canadian money. We had thought about changing some money at home and were concerned that we would get bumped from our flight in Chicago and might not be in Canada at all, so we didn't. Shopkeepers and cab drivers, etc., seemed not at all happy to get U.S. money and exchange rates varied widely.
We arrived at Sun Princess around 2:25 P.M. and were surprised (although not displeased) that our pictures were not taken prior to embarking the vessel. They had been taking pictures earlier, however. We didn't need it, but no one showed us to our cabin. ALL cabins on Sun Princess have refrigerators, fruit bowls, combination safes and bathrobes. As with all Princess ships these days, there are no pool towels up on deck. They're in the cabin and you have to get replacements from your cabin steward. We were onboard, dropped our carry-on luggage and were up partaking of the welcome aboard buffet at 3:00. According to Eric's mom and dad, they had begun taking passengers onboard only a little after 12:00 noon. Sun Princess docks at Ballantine Pier, which is down the pier from the "main pier", which is Canada Place, where the Rhapsody of the Seas and the Westerdam were docked.
Lifeboat drill was conducted about 4:30, just prior to sailing. We sailed past Canada Place and attempted to take some decent pictures of the Vancouver skyline, with somewhat mixed success. We checked out the information left in our cabin regarding shore excursions with some trepidation, as we noted that the dog sled trip which I had been salivating over for months was not listed on the shore excursion info. We headed down to the Shore Ex desk to inquire about it, and were told that it was not clear yet whether the excursion would be offered this week, but we put our names on a wait list and hoped.
It was then time to head to dinner, to meet our waiter and busboy for the week. Our waiter was Luigi, busboy Carlos. We had second seating dinner at a table for six, along with Eric's parents and his one aunt and uncle. (His other aunt and uncle opted for first seating dinner.) Dinner this night started off laughing a lot and we warned Luigi as we left, that this was just the first night!! Our section maitre d, as well as the head maitre d, came by this night to say hello. Although nothing could compare to the Mercury Madness highjinks experienced last trip, we did have a lovely time at our table, laughing a lot and cutting up with Luigi and Carlos. The people at the table for 10 next to us kept looking over at us and telling us we were having too much fun! Of course, it looked like to me that they did quite a bit of laughing also, so they looked like they also were having a good time.
Over the course of the week we had a lot of fun with Luigi and Carlos. I'm not entirely sure about Carlos, but Luigi only had our table for 6, a table for 10 and one table for 4 to wait on this week. We were at table 193, which was all the way aft of the dining room, right up against the galley. As a result, food was always HOT. We had a nice view out the windows over top of the table for four, which was by the window. The table for four was empty most nights and when there was somebody there, the inhabitants were Princess company people. What was most strange to us was eating on second seating and still being able to see out the window and have it be daylight, even at 10 PM. Toward the end of the week, someone shouted "Whale", just as dinner was letting out. I thought it was the standard cruise line joke, but Eric's uncle said he in fact did see a whale.
We kind of wondered early in the week whether Luigi had gotten in trouble with somebody, as it seemed that he had much less than the standard number of passengers to serve. He seemed to be an excellent waiter and had an excellent rapport with the passengers, so we surmised it might have been some type of discipline thing. We found out on close to the last night, however, that it was probably much the opposite, as he told us he had been promoted to Buffet Manager, starting the next week! As we were waiting in the Horizon Court the last morning, we saw the former Buffet Manager leading Luigi around and showing him the ropes. Luigi said he had been on ships for 15 years, so it seemed time for a promotion, and we were happy for him. I suspect that the next time we see Luigi he will be a head waiter on some ship. Luigi always brought us extra crab legs or lobster or extra tiramisu or creme brulee, and we tried not to disappoint him, by eating it all. Carlos was a joy of a fellow, cute as a button and happy and helpful. There were three coffee drinkers and three non-coffee drinkers at the table and he always knew which one was which. He always kidded Eric's aunt and tried to serve her coffee, since she expressed her distaste for it so forcefully. We found out with surprise that Carlos was on his very first contract on a ship. If the loneliness of the life doesn't get to him, I would expect to see him do very well on ships, as his personality was just right. As we disembarked the ship, he walked off right after us and told us he was following after us to keep us in line. By the way, on Sun Princess at least--don't know about the other ships--they have done away with wine stewards, so your waiter or busboy get it for you. Not a good system, I don't think, but they didn't ask me.
A few words here regarding dining facilities on Sun Princess are in order here, I suppose. The dining room is open for breakfast 7 to 9 AM (open sitting); 12 to 2 PM (open sitting) for lunch; and 6 and 8:15 PM for dinner (except for the first night, when each sitting was 15 minutes later). Because it was Alaska, the dining room was busier than normal. We tired to go to the dining room for lunch one day and were told it was full and we would need to return in a hour. We decided to do the buffet instead. As usual, Princess food and service was fairly predictable--food at dinner was good, not great, service was good. Pastas are a specialty each night and are generally pretty good. Desserts fixed in the dining room--cherries jubilee and bananas flambe--along with the regular desserts, are a fixture. Buffets are the weak suit on Princess. The Horizon Court (the 24 hour alternative restaurant), was open 4 AM to 6 AM for hot breakfast pastries; 6 AM to 11:30 AM for buffet breakfast; 11:30 AM to 4:30 PM for luncheon buffet; 4:30 PM to 7:00 PM for a light snack buffet and 7 PM to 4 AM for the Bistro, which basically is a full-service order off the menu proposition. As usual, Princess buffets were merely passable, with breakfast buffets being particularly weak. While you can get eggs cooked to order, there are no omelettes cooked to order, and there were no pancakes, waffles, or French toast ever. Ham was only available a couple of mornings. The menu in the Bistro was much changed from when we were on Sun Princess the first time. It seemed to be much more geared toward full meals now, and they have discontinued the potato skins which we enjoyed before there.
Other dining options included the pizzeria, which was open 11 AM to 5 PM and 8 PM to 12:30 AM and the Terrace Grill (burger and fries) which was open 11 AM to 5 PM, Sundaes Ice Cream Bar (for a fee!!!!!) 11 AM to 5 PM and afternoon tea in the Regency Dining Room 3:30 to 4:30. Plus there's always 24 hour room service, which appeared to be exactly the same menu as for the Caribbean--several sandwiches, including hamburgers and hotdogs, fries, a caesar salad with chicken strips and a couple of different desserts. Anyone who goes hungry on this ship has to be TRULY hard to please.
Sunday was a day at sea in the Inside Passage. Partly in consideration of the fact that our bodies were still somewhat on Eastern time, Eric got up at 6:15 to go stand in line to sign up for shore excursions. He arrived there at 6:20 and was #36 in line when the shore excursion desk opened at 6:30. We signed up for the 7:45 Pilot's Choice helicopter excursion in Juneau, in case the dog sled excursion (which was also supposed to be in Juneau) did not go.
On his way back from the shore excursion sign-up, Eric brought us cups of coffee and we waited for room service breakfast, which we had ordered for 7:30. It arrived promptly on time, with the order being what we had requested, which was just croissant and coffee, in addition to fruit from our fruit basket. Of course, delivered with our room service breakfast was one of the essentials for the week--our COFFEE POT!! I said near the beginning of this epistle that we had purchased whipped cream in Vancouver. What for, you say?? For Jamaican coffee, of course!! We are big coffee drinkers and since this was Alaska and promised to be cold, we thought that we would enjoy some coffee on our balcony, complete with some extra PUNCH, topped off with whipped cream, of course! There was Kahlua available in the ship's store, but we figured we wouldn't drink a whole bottle of that, so we decided that my Bacardi rum would just have to do for the extra punch. Then, of course, we had to obtain the coffee, which of course is easy, with the Horizon Court serving coffee 24 hours, plus there is a 24 hour coffee pot outside midship on deck 14, right next to the grill above the pool deck. And of course, one wouldn't want to have to traipse all the way to 14 to get each single cup of coffee, so it was necessary to order room service the first day and just NEGLECT to put the thermos pot back with the rest of the dirty dishes. This last idea was of course, Eric's, as I had been contemplating bringing a thermos pot from home. We just needed to make sure that whenever we weren't in the room, that we put our pot away on a shelf!!
We got dressed for the day and headed out to check out the ship and met up with Eric's mom and dad in the Horizon Court. We had a drink at 10:15 in the morning (we're still on East Coast time, ya know!!) and grabbed pizzas for lunch, then headed to the hot tub for a soak. After checking out the various hot tubs, we determined that the one all the way aft on Deck 14 was the best--subject to less wind and therefore warmer than the ones around the pool and having a much better view than the ones below surrounding the Riviera Spa. After obtaining a drink from a very COLD bartender, we proceeded to take "the perfect Alaska cruise picture"------Eric in the hot tub with a drink in hand, with a fellow in a yellow rain slicker in the background!! Priceless.............
After returning to the cabin for a short nap, we watched the passing saga of the Inside Passage, with a few pods of dolphins and far-away Bald Eagles. We watched the Bulls game on TV, and observed the passage of an "Indian Village" complete with condos and satellite dishes, but no teepees in sight.
We had failed to notice one small paragraph in the daily cruise news the first day, which an Alaska veteran would always take advantage of--deck blankets. On Sun Princess, deck blankets were available to be checked out from about 7 AM to 7 PM on sea days (only) and you were supposed to bring them back the same day. That part was not enforced, however. These were nice wool blankets and they did in fact keep track of them. They required cabin names and numbers and when you turned the blankets back in, you had to sign by your name where you had checked out the blanket. The blankets were very useful, especially on your balcony. I'm not at all sure that I would have bothered to haul one up on deck though.
This evening was the first formal evening, with the captain's cocktail party, held in the Atrium. There was no receiving line and no canapes, which are normal for this party. Dinner this evening for me was beef tournados, crab quiche and lobster bisque. Eric had caviar and salmon. Dessert was cherries jubilee and creme brulee. This meal was easily one of the better ones of the week. Off to the casino to lose a little money, then off to bed.
By the way, regarding the casino, a few years ago, when we first started reading about Alaska cruises, casinos on ships were required to be closed for the great majority of the time on the cruise. This is no longer the case. Basically, the only time that the casino was closed on our trip was while the ship was actually in port. Otherwise, it operated basically the same as in the Caribbean. The standard games were available, including craps, Caribbean stud, blackjack, roulette and slots.
Monday was Ketchican--6:30 AM to 2 PM. For this trip, Sun Princess had a security system which had not been available on our trip on the ship before, nor on our last trip on Princess on the Crown in November 96. Your plastic ID card, which was also your room charge and door key, was placed into an electronic scanner as you got on and off the ship. I presume that if you tried to use a card from last week, or whatever, it wouldn't work. I assume that it also gave them an idea how many people were getting on and off the ship, etc. It didn't make the lines on and off the ship any slower--or at least, only negligibly--and I suspect if it works fine that it will be instituted onboard all the ships soon.
The weather in Ketchican was about 55 degrees and sunny, with a VERY stiff breeze. We noted with amazement a local fellow who was wearing shorts, walking his dog, and proclaiming what a lovely weather day it was. Apparently it rains like 300 days out of 365 days of the year in Ketchican. Lovely. On the pier right by the ship in Ketchican there is a building which is called something like Visitor Information. Inside there are at least a half dozen tour operators, offering everything from town and totem tours to flights to Misty Fjords. Tours in Ketchican, as well as in Juneau, were amazingly simple to book on your own. Skagway was a little harder, but still no problem.
Right on the pier in Ketchican we booked a 2 hour tour, which took us to the Saxman Village and a tour of the town, on a double decker bus. Saxman Village is basically a totem pole park and viewing opportunity to watch native carvers carve totem poles. The cost was $15 per person. It was a thoroughly enjoyable time, with a very knowledgeable tour guide. The price for a similar tour from the ship--which also included a native dance performance which we did not see--was $43 a person. The other ship sponsored totem tour was $29.50 per person.
We decided, basically as we were coming back to the pier about 11:30 that we wanted to try to take a float plane to Misty Fjords. We knew that we were going to be doing one of the expensive helicopter tours in Juneau, so we had not thought that much onboard about doing Misty Fjords. We left it too late to do, though, since the trip to Misty Fjords lasted 1 hours and "all aboard" was at 1:30, so we had to have a tour that was leaving almost immediately. If we had booked that first thing, we would have had no problem fitting it in. The price on the dock for Misty Fjords was $129 to $139 (per person) versus $168 per person on the ship. The other advantage (other than price) to doing it on the dock would be that one would know what the weather was before one booked the trip. Not making that Misty Fjords trip was one of only a couple regrets that we have regarding the trip. There was also another short flight-seeing expedition there in Ketchican that was $89 a person, but it did not go to Misty Fjords but was a flight-seeing tour of the Ketchican area.
A note here regarding shore excursions and the cost thereof--the flight-seeing expeditions in Alaska are expensive. For the most part, much more expensive than most anything that is offered in the Caribbean, with the notable exception of the 2 man submarine tours offered in the Caymans and elsewhere. However, if you are going to spend the money to go to Alaska and possibly only go once in your lifetime, not to spend the extra $200 per person for a flight-seeing expedition seems a foolish economy.
Slightly disappointed that we didn't get to Misty, we headed off to do some shopping, to cheer myself up! G!! There is lots of nice shopping in Ketchican, right by the dock. We thought the shopping there nicer than even Juneau. We checked out the store right by the dock and of course, had our picture taken with the stuffed polar bear. Inside the store, we saw a fabulous picture of an eagle which we wish (even now) that we had spent the $450 (UNFRAMED!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) to buy.
As we came out of the store, we saw a fellow who was allowing you to take pictures with his two beautiful husky dogs. I got my picture taken, of course. In the process, we met a husband and wife from Bowie, Maryland, which is about 45 miles from home. Small world.
We left port at 2 PM and spent some time and money in the casino in the afternoon. We called the shore ex office for info about the dog sled excursion, to discover that, despite their assurances of Sunday that the excursion was going to go, that it was now officially canceled. We did not give our names at the time that we called. I was kind of miffed that they never did advise us officially that the excursion was not going to go. Greatly disappointed, we headed down for Italian dinner. Eric had the pot roast and I had the NY strip, with tiramisu for dessert. After dinner, we headed to our only production show that we saw of the week, which is the new show this year--"Pirates". We are not big fans of ship production shows. This one was OK, as such things go, but we noted the vast difference between the talents of the female lead (pretty good) and the male lead (merely adequate).
Entertainment on this trip was standard Princess stuff, with emphasis on production shows. The two "big" shows are "Pirates" and "Odyssea". We had seen Odyssea when we were on Sun Princess the first time, and Eric's parents confirmed our impressions from that trip--lots of good acrobatics, but otherwise, somewhat strange. Entertainment otherwise was fairly standard, as in the Caribbean, with some fairly first run movies in the cabin (plus some shown in the main show lounge--there's no movie theatre on this ship), plus bingo, etc. The naturalist onboard gave a couple of talks, which was a nice addition, especially since they were repeated a couple of times on the TV. The exception to the "normal" routine probably was the passenger talent show (or, as we call it "the stupid people tricks"). For some reason, it was scheduled just as we were supposed to enter College Fjord. The last we heard, only one person was signed up, so we kind of assumed they canceled it.
Tuesday was Juneau--6:30 AM to 11:15 PM. WHEW!!!! Take a tip and DON'T try to do what we did in Juneau, which was EVERYTHING. The Sun Princess was the first ship in port, with the HAL Westerdam following us right into port. The Galaxy came a while later and ended up having to tender. The Galaxy left that evening at 5 PM. Regal Princess came in and docked around noon and left at the same time we did. Here is as good a place as any to reiterate the following--I PERSONALLY would never take any cruise line OTHER than Princess or Holland America in Alaska. WHY? Those two have been doing Alaska longer and with more ships than anybody. Here in Juneau, the Princess and Holland America ships were docked and the Celebrity ship had to tender. It appears then that Princess and HAL have priority docking privileges. Docking vs. tendering is a huge difference to me. Also, Princess has more Glacier Bay permits than anyone else, a place that anyone who goes to Alaska really SHOULD see. Glacier Bay limits cruise ships to TWO per day. In our case, the Sun Princess and the Regal Princess were there, which meant that no other cruise ships could travel in Glacier Bay that day. Further, some cruise lines like Royal Caribbean don't even offer a one way cruise, only round-trips from Vancouver, which we considered to be an inferior itinerary. Also, if one is planning on staying after a cruise and going to Denali or other places and you don't want to have to make all the arrangements yourself, Princess and Holland America have everything all in place already.
OK, so let's start the wonderful ordeal that was Juneau!! First excursion--Pilot's Choice Helicopter Tour, our own only tour booked through the ship at $243 per person and worth every penny. We took the first slot available for the day, knowing that we were going to be doing lots of stuff in Juneau and wanting to leave as much time as possible. We were on the pier about 7:20 to meet our bus and the bus headed out about 7:45 to meet our helicopter, at TEMSCO, one of the couple of main helicopter tour operators in Alaska.
The Pilot's Choice helicopter tour was just that--the pilot decided where we were to go that day. There were two helicopters which traveled together for this trip. Each helicopter technically could hold 6 people in addition to the pilot, but this would have been TIGHT. Our helicopter, plus the other one, (plus the groups of people who were waiting to embark when we got off our flight) only contained four people, so I suspect that for this pretty pricy trip, that they only put four people in each copter. There were individual headphones for each person to be able to hear the pilot and the pre-recorded music which played. We traveled to and landed on two different glaciers--one of which was Taku and the other I cannot remember the name of. The two glaciers were totally different from each other and both were an amazing experience, first flying over, then landing, looking down into a huge crevasse, and hearing running water there, and making the first footprints (at least since the last time it snowed up there!! G!!) in a huge expanse of snow. And the utter stillness of it all. Particularly on the second landing, even though we were provided with glacier boots for walking and we had dressed pretty warmly, there was no wind whatsoever and the temperature seemed almost balmy. With the clear blue sky as a backdrop, it was a spectacular scene. The second glacier we landed at was apparently a fairly rare treat, even for the pilots, as the weather does not often allow them to travel to that spot. It was approximately 20-25 miles inland and the pilot pointed out a mountain that he said was eight miles away which marked the Canadian border. Overall, we had about 50 minutes total flying time and about 15 minutes time actually standing and walking around on each glacier. The experience was one we will not soon forget.
There were a couple of other helicopter trips in Juneau, the major one being the Mendenhall Glacier trip. We got the impression from what the people on the ground said, that on the Mendenhall trip (which was quite a bit cheaper at $167 per person), they were kind of using helicopters as busses. What I mean by that is that one copter would take you to the glacier and drop you off and you would stay around for a few minutes, then you would hop onto another copter for the trip back to the terminal. Based on the size of the groups we saw waiting in the terminal to go on the Mendenhall trip, I would bet they jammed six people in the copter for that trip. There was another helicopter tour available, which either went to Norris or Taku Glacier, for $179, which involved a little longer time on the glacier and a longer flight.
By the way, with regard to the question of doing those helicopter or the floatplane trips on your own, I'm sure that they could be done on your own, not through the ship, but we are not sure of the pricing on those. At each of the tour operator booths we saw them advertising both helicopter and floatplane trips but did not check out the prices since we had just returned from our helicopter trip. (Sorry, we kind of fell down on the research end of the trip there.) There were about 5 or 6 tour operators with booths right in front of the Mount Roberts Tramway, which were selling helicopter tours, in addition to all the other tours available there in Juneau. I know that both TEMSCO and ERA have internet sites, so you should be able to check out the prices there. Particularly for the Mendenhall Glacier trip, based on our experience, it seems to be me that there is almost no reason to book through the ship, outside of the possible convenience factor. The Pilot's Choice trip, you might want to book through the ship, if you really wanted that trip, instead of the Mendenhall trip. Please know also, that if you wait till you arrive on site, if the weather is really horrible, you may not want to spend the money for any of the helicopter trips.
We had not planned on doing the Pilot's Choice trip at all before we left home. We had planned to take the dog sled trip which is (usually) offered by Princess. This trip was very pricy (at $299) but consisted of a helicopter ride to the top of a glacier, then a dog sled ride once there. However, on our trip, apparently the one and only provider of the trip was not yet running for the season, so we were unable to take that trip. I was very disappointed and this was the major disappointment of the trip for me. If this is a trip that you are interested in taking, I think that your only shot to do this is through the cruise line.
OK, so the feet are back on the ground from a fabulous helicopter trip, so it's time to book the next excursion. We had seen a wildlife cruise in the ship shore excursion book which looked interesting, but seemed pricy at $99 a person, in addition to our helicopter trip. Once on the pier from our helicopter trip, we decided to check out doing this trip on our own. We checked out a couple of different operators and decided to go with one which was $85 a person, which took place on a boat holding a maximum of six persons (as opposed to the ship excursion boat, which held maybe 10 times that many).
The wildlife tour took place on Auk Bay and we were actually on the water for 2 hours. The different wildlife tour operators--of which there were probably 5 or 6--cooperated by talking over cell phones and radios to report wildlife sightings, particularly whales. We were happy to see bald eagles up close (approximately 7 to 12 eagles from about 15 feet away), along with harbor seals, a sea lion who practically tried to climb onboard our boat and three different (somewhat shy) whales. We felt this trip was absolutely well worth the money also.
OK, second excursion for the day is done, and we still haven't seen Mendenhall Glacier! It was about 3:30 by this time, and we caught about the last town tour of the day. We paid $15 a person for the town and Mendenhall Glacier tour. Our tour hit all the highlights, with downtown drive-bys of the Capitol and Governor's Mansion, stop at the old church, stop at Mendenhall, stop at the Church by the Lake, and the stop at the park across from the ships to take pictures. The tour hit all the highlights but the tour driver was terrible. Eric's mom and dad, (MUCH earlier in the day) got a much better tour than we did for $12.50 per person, primarily because of their good tour driver. Mendenhall, in and of itself, was very much worth the price of the trip and more, as it was one of the more spectacular sights of the trip.
OK, third excursion of the day is done, and we still haven't been up the Mt. Roberts Tramway!! We went back to the ship and caught a bite to eat at the buffet at the Horizon Court, drop off the used film, start recharging the video camera batteries and then headed back out to the Tramway. There is a shuttle bus which goes from the ship to the Tramway area, which is only about .2 mile. An all day ticket cost $1. If you were going to use it several times, it was worth the money. We paid for the ticket, but ended up actually riding the bus only once. We hadn't anticipated that the tour operators would deliver us back to the ship, as opposed to downtown, which they generally did. The Tramway costs $17.75 per person for an all day ticket. The price was EXACTLY the same on the ship (and right on the pier by the ship, where you could also buy tickets) as at the Tramway itself. On the ship, one could have the convenience of charging the ticket to the ship charge. If you buy the ticket onboard the ship, you did still have to stand in line at the Tramway to exchange that ticket for the official Tramway ticket.
The tram ride takes about 2 to 3 minutes and travels up about 2000 feet, to a height which gives one a great view of the ships in port, as well as the channel. There is a nice movie up there, plus a restaurant, a gift shop and some nice hiking trails. We didn't really spend enough time up there to fully enjoy it, but were glad that we went nonetheless. The last tramway down from the top was at 9:30 and of course, it was still light at that time. The shops downtown were open, for the most part, till 10 PM, so shopping could wait till late if your ship is in port late. We did a dab of shopping and then headed to the Red Dog Saloon.
The Red Dog Saloon is a pretty famous place and we could kind of understand why, as we thought it was pretty cool. They have lots of various dead animals hanging up on the walls, but better, there were probably over a hundred life rings from various ships from over the years, many of which are no longer sailing, or at least, not sailing under the name on the life ring. The Red Dog appeared not to take credit cards and drinks were somewhat pricy at $9 for two mixed drinks. There was a wonderful singer there who sang a somewhat eerie version of "The Wreck of the Edmond Fitzgerald", surrounded by that huge number of life rings from ships past and present. We headed back to the ship and took a couple pictures of Sun Princess in this fabulous port, before climbing back onboard just before all aboard at 10:45. We really felt sorry for those people on board Galaxy who had arrived after we did, had to tender in and left at 5 PM.
Since we had quite obviously missed dinner, (and unfortunately, our favorite dessert, bananas flambe') we headed up to the Horizon Court for a meal. The menu for the evening Bistro is now geared much more toward full meals. I had a steak sandwich (which, surprisingly, was a PIECE of steak on a roll, with a SLICE of onion, not exactly what I expected), Eric had a salmon dinner. There was a caesar salad available, as well as a small salad bar and an antipasto, and a cheesecake with strawberry sauce. The chicken wings, potato skins and fried chicken that we had enjoyed there before we gone. They kind of do expect you to tip there. Like most people, we don't normally carry cash on the ship, but since we had just returned from shore, Eric still had cash in his pocket. (Must not have done enough shopping after all--too many excursions for the day!!).
As a side note -- I read somewhere recently--I think on the Prodigy BB--that Princess is instituting a $3.50 per person cover charge for the Bistro and assume that is to cover the tips for the workers. This is starting next year in the Caribbean if I remember correctly.
After our late dinner, we sat in the hot tub for a while and watched Juneau disappear. We didn't see any time when we tried to use them that the hot tubs were closed--except for some cleaning cycles--so they appeared to be pretty much open 24 hours. Good job there, Princess.
Quick film check through Tuesday night, we had taken 13 rolls of regular film, 2 rolls of panoramic film and 2 rolls of 30 minute video, through Tuesday night. Still left to see are Skagway, Glacier Bay and College Fjord!!
Wednesday was Skagway--7 AM to 7:30 PM. Based on reports from Prodigy and the Internet, we changed our original plans for Skagway, which were that we had intended to take the White Pass and Yukon Railway trip. This is a narrow gauge railway which takes one past some spectacular scenery. The problem people reported with the trip is that the train never stopped except at the end to turn around. It was therefore difficult to take many good pictures, and you could not get off the train. We decided then to get our own van tour together. Since there were 8 of us altogether in the family, we got together and approached the tour people on the pier and said we had 8 people, were ready to go now, provided they took just us in the van. We ended up with a van which could have held 9, and a very nice driver, for a 2 hour tour for $30 per person. For most of the trip, we were in sight of the railroad, across the other side of the gorge. We had 10 photo stops, including the overlook over the cruise ships and at the Cemetery, which the train trip people did not get with their tour. Overall, I felt we got a much better bargain than just the train trip, which was $68 a person.
Our tour guide left us off in town and delivered the rest of the group back to the ship. Skagway is by far the smallest of the towns we visited. We were still beat from the day before, so we did some light shopping and sightseeing, and headed back to the ship and some lunch. We had intended to get back off and possibly try to do another flight-seeing expedition--of which there were numerous available on the pier and downtown--but instead we went up on deck and crashed. The temperature was actually warm enough that we put shorts on and were quite comfortable.
Wednesday night was French dinner, with a wonderful onion soup, a so-so pumpkin soup, Eric had scallops, I had the pork and we shared cherries jubilee and creme brulee. Overall, a nice meal. By the way, one night at dinner, the Maitre D came by and asked us if we wanted a package of menus to take home, to which we replied "of course!". They were delivered to our cabin toward the end of the week and were a nice touch.
Thursday was Glacier Bay--what a day!! We were scheduled to be in Glacier Bay from 6 AM to 3 PM, so we got up early, of course. Ok, so how was Glacier Bay? Amazing! We had a beautiful sunny day, although the wind was pretty cold all the way forward, which is where many of the folks congregated. We stood along the sides of the ship on deck 14, which proved to be warmer, as there was much less wind there. While the ship is in Glacier Bay there is a park ranger who pointed out things of interest and gave great info over the loudspeaker. This was piped over the open decks and was available in the cabins on the same channel which normally showed the view out the front of the ship.
The sheer size of the glaciers is hard to imagine even when you are right next to them as we were. The Sun Princess is not a small ship, but it is dwarfed by the size of the glaciers in both Glacier Bay and College Fjord. The "calving" along Marjorie Glacier (where pieces break off and fall into the water) is an amazing sight to see and hear. The amount of noise that comes from the glaciers is unbelievable. They have a term called "white thunder" which is the noise that the ice makes as it is breaking, and it literally sounds like thunder. And thankfully this happens just before some of the pieces fall into the water, so you have a clue where to look for the ice falling into the water along this one mile plus long glacier that the ship is basically parked in front of for about 30-45 minutes.
They were selling hot chocolate on the open decks which had some type of liquor in it. We didn't get any since we had our own private stash, but noticed several people taking advantage of that. By the way, we have never looked for it before, but we were somewhat surprised to see that they had no hot chocolate available at the Horizon Court, only in the main dining room. It seems to me that it would not be a very big deal to have packages of hot chocolate in the Horizon Court, since there was hot water there and several different varieties of tea bags. Although it was available free in the Horizon Court, I was somewhat surprised that there were not crew members coming around with regular coffee while on deck. Overall, our day in Glacier Bay was busy and exciting, with wonderful views of the glaciers, interesting commentary, and lots of pictures to be taken, and whales in the distance . Overall, a very successful day.
We were somewhat shocked at how much time we spent on our balcony, in general, and more specifically, in Glacier Bay and College Fjord. I have no idea if other captains do likewise (although it makes sense) and our particular captain was leaving the ship in one more week, going to the Sea Princess, I believe. However, both in Glacier Bay and in College Fjord, the captain basically placed the ship virtually broadside to the great sights, then he turned the ship all the way round so that the other side had a view of the same thing. Therefore, when the ship was facing the "wrong" direction, we were up on deck and when it was facing the "right" direction, we were in our cabin on our balcony. We just turned up the volume on our TV and listened to the park ranger, the same as we would have on deck, and enjoyed the sights, complete with our own warm liquid libation. We spent MUCH more time on our balcony on this trip than we ever have done in the Caribbean. Particularly with a ship like Sun Princess, which has so many balconies, there really is not a good reason not to take a balcony. By the time you spend all the money and time and aggravation to get to Alaska (particularly from the East Coast) and especially for people like us, who never intend to return, not to spend the extra couple of hundred bucks and do it right doesn't make sense. While in Glacier Bay, we took a picture of "the perfectly equipped Alaska cruise balcony"--two chairs with blankets, binoculars, a video camera, coffee pot and two Jamaican coffees! Perfect!!
A couple of words here regarding itineraries. We did one way northbound from Vancouver to Seward and that seems the only way to go to us. Many of the itineraries in Alaska are round-trip from Vancouver. Those have the advantage that the airfare should be a little cheaper, as one could just go in and out of Seattle and bus to Vancouver. The major disadvantage is that many of those trips do NOT go to Glacier Bay, which was a major highlight for us. Also, if one is going to stay in Alaska for any time either before or after the cruise, it is much better to end up in Seward vs. Vancouver. If your ship ends up in Vancouver, one would still have to take a flight somewhere to see any of the rest of Alaska.
OK, so what about one way northbound vs. one way southbound?? What is the highlight of a Voyage of the Glaciers cruise? Answer-the GLACIERS, of course!! If you take a one-way southbound, the highlight of the cruise is at the beginning. If you take a northbound, the highlight is at the end, where it should be. Also, looking at Sun/Dawn Princess, in particular, for some reason the time in port is longer on the Northbound cruise in Ketchican and Juneau on the northbound cruise vs. the southbound cruise. In Ketchican, northbound time in port is 6:30 AM to 2 PM, southbound, Noon to Six; Juneau Northbound is 6:30 AM to 11:00 PM, Southbound is 6:30 AM to 6:00 PM. The time difference in Juneau is really significant and for us, would have meant that there would have been at least one or two things that we could not have done there. Skagway is 7 AM to 7:30 PM (both ways). Glacier Bay Northbound is 6 AM to 3 PM, Southbound is 10:30 AM to 8:30 PM. College Fjord Northbound is 3 PM to 6 PM, Southbound is 6:30 AM to 9:30 AM. The formal nights northbound are the day of the Inside Passage, and Glacier Bay, where we left at 3 PM. On the southbound trip, one of the formal nights would have to be either Juneau or Ketchican, both of which the ship did not leave till 6 PM. Overall, we think the northbound itinerary was much better.
Also, what about the different sides of the ship? As I said, in Glacier Bay and College Fjord, the captain turned the ship round so both sides could see. However, in the inside passage, basically the right side of the ship was the place to be, as the left side had less of a view during that part of the trip. Therefore, on a one way northbound, take the starboard side, one way southbound, port. On a round-trip Vancouver, basically it appears to make no difference.
Thursday evening was the second formal night and the night of the Captain's Circle party. Even though neither Eric's mom or dad or aunt and uncle had been on Princess before, since they tagged along on our booking, they had gotten a Princess past passenger price, and they also received an invitation to the Captain's Circle party. This party offered some canapes and a somewhat decent selection of drinks. Overall, Carnival still knows how to give a much better party, with free hot hors douvres.
Thursday evening dinner was jumbo shrimp cocktail (I ORDERED two, Luigi brought me three!) lobster (extra portions all around, and chocolate souffle for dessert. After the show was the traditional Champagne Waterfall. The only problem with the Champagne Waterfall was that it fell over!! Unfortunately, we were in the casino and didn't see it go, but it must have been something! Allegedly, this was the first time in seven years that our maitre d' had had the waterfall come down on him and the first time on the Sun Princess. He rebuilt it swiftly, although slightly shorter, and all was right with the world. Strangely, the ship was not rocking at all, so we don't know why it fell.
Friday's weather was pretty overcast and kind of drippy, so it ended up being a kind of laid back day. We did the horrible packing deed, listened to the disembarkation talk on the TV (no customs here, since we were coming into Seward). All the shore excursion talks and disembarkation talk, etc, were all played on the stateroom TV, so there was no reason to attend any of those in person. While watching the disembarkation talk, we kept checking out the balcony and were rewarded with views of (mostly far away) seals, sea lions, several groups of sea otters and whales. Since the weather was kind of nasty, we grabbed a couple of burgers outside, and took them inside to eat in the Horizon Court and met up Eric's parents, who were in the process of staking out seats in the Horizon Court for the transit into College Fjord.
As we got closer to College Fjord, the weather improved slightly, but it was still cold and damp, so we spent most of the time there trucking back and forth in and out of the Horizon Court to keep warm. As with Glacier Bay, the captain again swung the ship all the way around, so we went down to our cabin and had a wonderful view of Harvard Glacier from our balcony. It is here in College Fjord where we saw a vast number of seals, as they were having their pups at this time. So we were able to see many of the seals and their pups laying out on the floating icebergs as the ship was coming in and out of College Fjord. The Horizon Court was jammed with people during both Glacier Bay and College Fjord because it is inside out of the weather and has full glass windows. But even if you spend much of the time in the Horizon Court, do get up and go outside to see the glaciers. The windows in the Horizon Court are tinted and the glaciers look much different in natural light. The visual experience without the ship in the way is also much better, and you get the chance to experience the sounds made by the glaciers only from the outside.
I think about these things these days, as my dad is getting fairly immobile, but I was amazed on this trip of the extent to which a person could actually stay in their cabin on their own balcony and see most of the great sights which could be seen from the ship. Especially for a person lacking in mobility but who would still like to see the wonders of Alaska, a balcony cabin fits the bill. Based on our experiences anyway, the only real way to see the glaciers is from a ship. And frankly, the only real way to see much wildlife is to get OFF the ship. Although you will see plenty of sea wildlife and many Bald Eagles from the ship, it is still better to get off the ship to see the sea wildlife from a smaller wildlife tour and your chances of seeing much land based wildlife from the ship revolve around pure luck.
Dinner this evening was to be wonderful huge crab legs, with Luigi serving us all extra portions. Eric had prime rib and the crab legs. We were somewhat ashamed to look at the huge pile of carcasses of crab legs assembled beside our plates! I had a wonderful pepperpot soup. We all ended the meal and a week of gluttonous eating in fine fashion with helpings of baked alaska and cheesecake.
Suitcases this evening were supposed to be put out very early, as far as we were concerned--between 7:30 and 10:00 PM, especially since we didn't finish with dinner till after 10. We did put ours out, though, before we went to dinner and when we came back, they had been collected already. Prior to heading out to dinner, we saw our cabin steward and asked him for more pool towels so that we could take a late night soak in the hot tub after dinner. (Not that he was likely to deny us anything on the night he was supposed to get tipped!! G!!)
After dinner, it was to the casino for a little while, then one final soak in the hot tub all the way aft on 14, as we saw the lights of Seward come into view in the distance. A perfect end to the week. (For Eric, at least! I was to be off to Denali for four days, but that's another story!!)
Conclusion--Alaska is a beautiful, stunning, marvelous land. To see the wildlife
of Alaska, you really have to get off the ship and if at all possible, take the extra time to
go to Denali. From the East Coast, you can expect to spend probably twice as much
for an Alaska cruise as a cruise to the Caribbean, when you include air fare. It is a trip
that everyone should do at least once and we would encourage anybody to take. For
us, we probably won't go again, at least not soon. Even though the weather was
fabulous for our trip (for ALASKA, anyway) it was still cool and we are very much warm
weather people. We are very happy we went and the memories will last forever, but in
future, since we have done this trip once, we would much rather take those two
Caribbean cruises (to the same ports we've been to 20 times) than that one cruise to
Carol & Eric
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