I never thought I would find myself on an Alaska cruise. Something about being stuck on a gigantic ship with thousands of other people never appealed to me. Who wants to travel like that? Well, after starting my job as a travel agent with AAA I quickly learned the cruise industry is a big deal. Apparently, 20+ million people a year go on cruises and it’s growing, fast. When I was presented a great opportunity to go on one myself, I couldn’t pass up the chance. I had to see what this was all about.
Voyage of the Glaciers
I chose a May 10 sailing from Vancouver, Canada to Whittier, Alaska (Anchorage) called Voyage of the Glaciers.
The sailing was on the Island Princess, part of the Princess Cruise Line. I chose Princess simply because they offered a “Graduation” cruise to travel agents who had completed their training program.
I booked myself and Glenna in an interior room, while my parents accompanied us in a balcony room of their own. This gave me a great opportunity to experience both options. The daily activities on the ship and in the ports kept us very busy so I felt like the room choice was not all that important. With that said, however, relaxing on the balcony with some drinks and watching the mountains and glaciers sail by was a wonderful experience.
A Day at Sea
We flew into Vancouver a day early to experience the city and make sure we wouldn’t miss the ship. Around noon the next day, we headed over to the marina at Canada Place to board. As expected, quite a crowd had formed. However, outside of playing the hurry-up-and-wait game, the embarkation process was very smooth. Herded like cattle, we went through a series of rooms as officials tagged and removed our luggage, verified our identification, issued us cruise cards, and ushered us onto the ship. Around 7PM that night, we set sail and had the remainder of the night and the entire next day at sea. This was ideal as it gave us time to explore the ship and get our bearings. We visited the different lounge and bar areas, listened to a couple talks in the theater, played some casino game, and of course ate a lot of food.
Our first port of call was Ketchikan, the self-proclaimed Salmon Capital of the World. While it was settled because of its abundant fish and lumber, the city’s primary source of revenue nowadays is tourism. We jumped right in and followed the fellow camera toters to the Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show.
Corny lines and all, the show featured the historical rival lumber camps of Spruce Mill (Ketchikan, USA) and Dawson Creek (BC, Canada), as their lumberjacks competed for top place in all sorts of chopping, sawing, climbing, axe throwing, and log rolling events. It was very entertaining and also quite impressive. After the show, we walked Creek Street; famous in the 20th century for its line of brothels.
Still standing today is Dolly’s House. Outside, a sign announces it as the place “Where both men and salmon came upstream to spawn.” Ketchikan also boasts the largest collection of standing totem poles in the world, carved by the native Tlingit. Both Totem Heritage Center and Saxman Totem Park would be worth a visit.
Dominated by jewelry stores and gift shops, the state capital of Juneau is a good place to go on an excursion or get out on a hike. We chose the latter and took a city bus west of town to the Mendenhall Valley. From there, we walked The Trail of Time through a temperate rainforest to the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center. The trail had markers designating where the glacier edge was years ago. Remarkably, the glacier has retreated some 2+ miles and the large lake that now sits below it only started forming in 1930.
A short hike further led to Nugget Falls, where we spotted a mountain goat high above on the cliffside. The clouds parted just enough to get a decent view of the mass of blue ice.
Icebergs lazily drifted out on the lake. Back in town, we had a couple Duck Farts at the Red Dog Saloon. A mixture of Kahlua, Bailey’s Irish Cream, and Crown Royal, the duck fart is as Alaskan as the Mai Tai is Hawaiian.
We also ordered some Alaskan White, which is brewed just down the street by the Alaskan Brewing Company. On a sunny day, I think the Mt. Roberts Tramway would make for a great trip, but it wasn’t in the cards for us.
The history of the Klondike Gold Rush lives on in Skagway. Appearing almost overnight, Skagway and the neighboring town of Dyea formed the main gateway into the Klondike. For three years from 1897-1900, hopeful miners came by the thousands. Arriving by steamship, their trip had only just began. They then must haul 1 ton of supplies up either the 33-mile Chilkoot Trail, or the 43-mile White Pass Trail to Bennett Lake. From there, it was a measly 550 miles by boat on the wild Yukon River to reach Dawson City and the gold fields. By the time most arrived, the claims had been made and the gold was gone.
We retraced the route of the White Pass Trail by motor coach, stopping at the Yukon Suspension Bridge, and feasting at a salmon bake for lunch. Back in Skagway, we explored the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park Museum and browsed a few shops. We also had a beer at the Skagway Brewery and took a brothel tour in the Red Onion Saloon.
Retaining some of its 1890’s atmosphere, Skagway was my favorite port town.
Glacier Bay National Park
Glacier Bay National Park is iconic Alaska. Carved by advancing glaciers over 300 years ago, they have since retreated, leaving behind a breathtaking, remote landscape. For over 65 miles, pristine blue water runs up numerous inlets and smaller bays, all surrounded by jagged, snow-covered mountains and huge swaths of ice. Enormous tidewater glaciers flow from mountain tops miles away, inching their way to the bay where they calve off in thunderous roars. Joined by some National Park Service Rangers who gave a wonderful commentary, our boat sailed the duration of the bay. At the terminus were the main architects, Grand Pacific and Margerie Glaciers. While Grand Pacific is full of dirt and glacial debris, Margerie is picture perfect.
We floated here for almost an hour, listening to the cracks and groans of the moving slab of ice. Eventually, we had to leave and make the return trip back down the picturesque bay.
We had truly been spoiled. College Fjord was the most stunning landscape we had come across… other than Glacier Bay. From where our boat sat, we could see all 5 tidewater glaciers spilling into the bay, as well as numerous others high in the mountain tops. There was so much ice it was almost blinding.
The boat lingered here before making a short journey across the Prince William Sound. We docked that night in Whittier and disembarked in the morning in a freezing rain. A coach bus took us from Whittier to Anchorage and dropped us off at our hotel. Our first cruise had come to an end.
Food & Service
I can not overstate how incredible the food was on this ship. Sitting down for a meal in the main dining area was like being treated to a 5 star restaurant… every night! Seriously, we were treated to salmon, halibut, crab legs, lobster, steak, perfectly cooked every time. Top that off with fabulous appetizers and incredible desserts, it was truly a highlight of the trip. The food in the buffet areas and grills were just as good. Heck, even the room service food was ridiculously delicious.
Tips & Tricks
Princess@Sea. As do probably all the cruise lines, Princess has its own Intranet on board their ships. You can use this to message other passengers and look at the schedule of events for the day.
Hit the Happy Hours. Drinks on board the ship are pretty pricey, and you have to be a fairly heavy drinker to make the $55/day Beverage Package worth it. Instead, hit the twice daily happy hours and get 2-for-1 prices.
Don’t bring a book. A, you probably won’t read it and B, every ship has a whole library full of them, including a take a book/leave a book section.
Bring Binoculars. This is especially necessary in Alaska, where whales and wildlife are all around.
Manage Your Excursions. I definitely recommend going on at least one excursion, but don’t go overboard with them. Some of the ports have a lot to offer and it’s fun to just walk around on your own.
Island Princess Specs
Registered in Hamilton, Bermuda
Built by Chantiers De L’Atlantique- Shipyard of St. Naizare, France
Built in 2002
Max Passenger 1,970
Max Crew 900