Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Alaska by Sea

Although our Alaska vacation was at the beginning of the summer we have had several requests to highlight the cruise portion of the trip for people prepping for next year's vacation.

Jeff and I love the freedom that renting a car and setting our own agenda provides, but parts of Alaska are best seen by cruise.

We completed the land portion of our trip first - allowing us to make the cruise part of our transportation home. We returned our rental car at the Anchorage Airport and took the Whittier Shuttle to the cruise terminal. You can book your transportation directly through the cruise line or save yourself some money and book through a separate company. The Whittier Shuttle offers a narrated trip from the airport to the cruise terminal. We were originally booked on the “Narrated 3-Hour Tour” trip but discovered that we had made all the tour stops during our drive to Seward. (If you have not stopped at Portage Glacier, the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center and Turnagain Arm the tour is a good way to see these spots) Instead we transferred to the narrated shuttle and were treated to a recording of interesting information on our drive to Whittier.

The best part of the drive comes when you drive through the 2.5 mile-long, Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel. The tunnel is only one lane and has to be shared by both cars and the train. As a result the tunnel is only open for 15min in each direction. A huge advantage of taking a shuttle or train to the Whittier port is that they time the tunnel crossing so you don’t have to wait 45 min to get through the mountain.

We booked with Princess Cruises based on reviews and our previous experience with Princess in Mexico. We had one small hiccup, in an otherwise fantastic experience. Princess e-mailed us during the land portion of the trip to say we had been “upgraded.” We were instructed to print new boarding passes and luggage tags – so we found a computer and printer to do just that. When we checked in for the cruise we were informed we had not been “upgraded” or even moved at all – which was fine. The problem came when our bags did not show up at our room since they had been delivered to the “upgraded” room. Haha. A very nice woman at the Pursers desk was able to sort everything out and our luggage was delivered while we were at dinner. Our regular room, down low in the center of the ship, turned out to be perfect.

We sailed on the Coral Princess on the Voyage of the Glaciers Cruise. Our itinerary was 7 days long including two glacier-viewing experiences at Hubbard Glacier and Glacier Bay. What sets the Alaska cruises apart from other cruises is the naturalist on board.

Our first two days of scenic cruising were amazing. We hit Hubbard Glacier in the early afternoon on our first day of sailing. We saw bald eagles, bears and the glacier calving. The captain turns the ship so that everyone has a chance to see the glacier – although the best views are from the open decks.

Day two was spent in Glacier Bay. Park rangers board the ship early in the morning and are on board all day as you sail through Glacier Bay. All other ship activities are suspended while you are in the National Park. We got deck blankets and watched the scenery go by from the open decks. (The Rangers also bring a National Parks Passport Stamp aboard!)

Day three we awoke to find the ship pulling into port in Skagway. Skagway is known as the “Gateway to the Klondike” for its role as the gateway for the gold rush. We grabbed some breakfast on board and then made our way to the National Parks Office. The parks service offers tours of the town. The tours are free but you need a ticket so head straight to the parks office to get a ticket for a tour. Jeff had read amazing reviews about the White Pass Railway and bike tour through Sockeye Cycle. Our ship did not offer that particular tour so we booked on our own. Its the best mix of the full train ride and then the adventure of a completely down hill ride back into Skagway. I was sceptically because i don't like to ride, but i loved it! I even made it back to the boat in time to enjoy the spa at its "in port" prices.

Day four we found ourselves in Juneau, Alaska. In Juneau we went all out and booked a helicopter glacier hike. It was well worth the cost. The tour included a helicopter ride up to the Mendenhall Glacier and then a two hour hike on the glacier. If you are going to spend the money to take a helicopter ride, make sure you include the hike on the glacier. It was by far the most amazing thing you will ever do. After two hours of climbing up the glaciers ripples and peering into its center we were whisked back down to Jeaneau by helicopter. The town itself is really touristy so we hopped on the public bus and took it out to the Alaska Brewing company store and tasting room. The tasting room is out toward the glacier but was a great afternoon diversion. The bus system was easy to navigate and much cheaper then taking a taxi.

Day five we were in Ketchikan, Alaska. We weren't sure what we wanted to do in Ketchikan so we went with our adventurous side and booked a kayaking trip. This was the best way to see wild Alaska. The trip didn't leave till the afternoon so we headed over to the lumberjack show, which was pricey, but so worth it - hang around after the show for pictures with the lumberjacks. The Kayaking trip included a zodiac ride out to the islands. The porpoise's could not get enough of our wake and followed us all the way to the islands. On the Kayak trip we had a chance to see water wildlife - and Jeff got to see his favorite sea stars. We actually wish we had more time to walk around Ketchikan - while touristy, it has a charm that the other stops lacked (but that's just my opinion).

Day six of the cruise was a "day at sea" and we took full advantage of it by participating in some of the on board activities and lectures. The galley tour and pub lunch are two of my favorite events typically offered on sea days.

Day seven found us pulling into port in Vancouver in the mist - the first bad weather day on our trip. Whatever cruise line you take investigate the activities available at your ports of call and don't be afraid to book directly with the vendor. You have so much time in each port in Alaska make sure you take advantage of it.

Alaska is an amazing trip - one I think everyone should take.

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