Alaska, where the Odds are good, but the Goods are odd.
Based on a Princess Cruise Line Alaska Land Tour to Mt. McKinley and on the Ocean Princess. This was our first cruise and real vacation/honeymoon/20th wedding anniversary June 7-18, 2001
Top 10 "What We Liked the Best" Trip List
1 - Glacier Trekking - Mendenhall Glacier. Very expensive, strenuous, exhilarating, but worth every penny.
2 - Ocean Princess - Good grief, this ship is huge, beautiful, fascinating, big, roomy, spacious - did I say big? Having your hotel room follow you from interesting place to interesting place without having to pack, drive, fly or be hassled in any way is terrific. The first vacation we could totally relax on.
3 - Anchorage bicycling - A great inexpensive excursion.
4 - Cruise Dining - An experience not to be missed. With the wait staff, the formal nights and theme nights, especially Italian night, it was just an all round treat.
5 - Princess Personnel - Everywhere we went, from the day we arrived till the day we checked in on the plane, you could not walk 20 feet without tripping over a Princess representative that could answer your question. Is this the right way to the bus? Where does our excursion leave from? Where is the bathroom? How long till we leave? What should I pack? I don't know how they pay all of these people, but if they don't know the answer, they will go find it right away for you. All around great people who really seem to enjoy their jobs and have fun at it.
6 - Glacier Bay - An incredible experience that should not be missed.
7 - Cruise Activities - From line dancing (we won a contest) to exercise, to shows, to movies, to comics. You just can't do it all. We were never bored.
8 - Cabin Attendant - Getting pampered with a clean room twice a day, always around to take a picture, chocolates on the pillows at night.
9 - The balcony. For first timers to Alaska, worth it. For repeats on a budget??? We probably won't.
10 - Size of the stateroom - Plenty of room for us for all seven days. Everything fit in closets and under the bed.
Top 10 "What We Liked the Least" Trip List
1 - Coffee - No coffee to be found in the lodge or the hotel before 0600.
2 - Smoking Policy - If it does not say non-smoking, you can smoke. This kept us out of the clubs at night and away from the casino and parts of the decks.
3 - Soft Drinks - Very expensive, not included with meals.
4 - Ship Buffet - The buffet breakfast and lunch at the Horizon Court was very disappointing.
5 - Hamburgers - Don't even try one. They are steamed then reheated on a grill to ensure that no bacteria could survive along with any flavor.
6 - Ice Cream - Costs extra (outside of dinner). No soft serve at the buffet.
7 - Talkeetna Fishing Excursion - Definitely overpriced for 4 hours of fishing. Hike around the lodge instead.
8 - Jetboat Safari Excursion - After a long train ride of lots of trees, jetboating to see more trees was kind of overkill. We wanted to get to our rooms, shower and do some hiking or other fun stuff. The jetboat wouldn't have been too bad except we had to wait 3 hours in Talkeetna to do it. Not much to do in Talkeetna - a three block town.
9 - Horseback Riding Excursion - Boring and painful, especially for experienced riders. Hike or bike instead.
10 - Flight Arrangements Home - Princess sent us up on Delta, but back on America Worst...West. Late flight, but at least they did not lose our luggage.
A great trip, but hopefully not the trip of a lifetime. Like a new movie, the buildup from everyone far exceeded the reality. Hopefully with the experience from the first trip, our second, third, fourth, etc., will get better and better and better.
General Tips For Cruise/Land Tour
Extension cord with at least three outlets. Ship cabin only has a single-single outlet.
Cabin away from deck noise. People running overhead interferes with naptime. We were on Aloha deck, just below the main pool deck, so afternoons were relatively noisy.
Safari vests. You can never have enough pockets.
Hats and Sunglasses. Sun protection for head and eyes. Sunglasses are essential if you glacier tour at all.
Layered clothing. Everyone talks about it, but its essential. We had t-shirts, fleece jackets and rain/wind jacket shells. At times we needed every one of them and at times we had to strip down to t-shirts.
Double amount of film and tape for cameras. You may still end up buying more.
Take disposable cameras for kids.
Take waterproof cameras for water excursions.
First aid kit with extra bandaids for foot problems. Moleskin is handy.
Sunscreen for obvious reasons and sunburn cooler for when you forget to use sunscreen.
Sea Bands and or Dramamine to prevent motion sickness.
Portable computer to load your digital images onto. The ship has services to load photos onto CD, but not on land tours.
Spend at least two nights in one place. You will want a full day to explore each place.
Tripod for camcorder. Even the steadiest hands are not good enough.
Make sure you scheduled your excursions so that you get back in time for dinner.
Get plenty of Formal and Simi-formal photos taken. You'll probably want at least one from each night. But it takes many to get that one.
Still camera with large telephoto. Ship wildlife shots will be very far away. 6x is not even enough. My 250X video camera was about right.
The land tour is cash or credit card for food and shopping while the ship uses the cruise card. Make sure you have plenty of cash since ATMs are few and far between outside Anchorage.
The Ocean Princess does have self serve laundry facilities, but these are pretty packed after day one. Their on board service is very reasonably priced - similar to a budget hotel in a medium sized city.
A journal to write in. If you want to remember names, places, times of day (since the sun shines most of the time) it is essential that you write it down. The weakest ink is better than the strongest memory. This will also help with your photos (Memory Book) later.
June 07,2001 - Trip Up
Delta connection through Salt Lake City to Anchorage. No problems, connections were fine. We carried on 2 pieces of luggage, one with a change of clothes in case another got lost. One had Judy's computer and all of our paperwork and tickets. I had the REI backpack - carry on (with detachable day pack) with all of our camera gear and a change of clothes.
Checked 3 pieces of luggage. Garment bag with formal wear and two large suitcases with clothing for 11 days and all kinds of stuff, including a duffel bag to ship back shopping loot.
PROCESS NOTES - Princess meets you at gate in Anchorage. Goes with you to collect luggage in baggage claim. Takes luggage to Coach (bus). Bus driver drives you around anchorage, very nice guy and gives you a little mini-tour. Princess meets you outside the Capt. Cook hotel and gives you room key. Hotel personal take luggage to room. No need to check in at hotel unless you want to charge stuff to room.
June 07, 2001 - First Night - Exploring Anchorage
Captain Cook hotel is nice, quiet, but NO COFFEE. (Coffee availability will be our main gripe for the whole land tour.)
An afternoon of shopping in Anchorage was great. Lots of bargains. The Polar Bear Store was our favorite. (10 postcards for $0.88.) Clothes, hats, moose droppings, spoons, cards, you name it. Guess what everyone is getting for Christmas. Everyone was going to get a postcard on this trip.
TIP - Bring your own stamps and address labels to whom you are sending the cards to. Makes mailing a breeze.
TIP - Pack an empty bag, like a duffel for shipping home shopping stuff.
All Christmas shopping done in one fell swoop. (So he thought).
Dinner at Simons and Seafort. Very expensive. >$80 for two (plus tip of course), but the best King Crab legs we have every eaten. Great view of Cook Inlet. Good service. Restaurant food in Alaska is very expensive and portions are not large.
June 08, 2001 - First Day in Anchorage
No coffee in room, what a bummer. Headed for Country Kitchen, which is 5-6 blocks away. A nice little Diner open 24 hours. Great coffee, very good service. The best pancakes in Alaska. We tried Reindeer sausage. It was very good, but we still don't know what Reindeer tastes like (it was cut with a lot of pork). Blue Bird Sky Day!
Stopped by Grizzly Bear Gifts on way back from breakfast. Started Christmas list. Still had a lot of shopping to do.
Tony Knowles Coastal Trail.
Rented bikes next to Blondie's. Only $15 each for 3 hours. Best $30 we ever spent. Had the bikes for four hours and was not charged any more. We rode the trail from second street to the end. Blue Sky Day! Perfect weather. Trail around airport was gorgeous. Planes landing and talking off right over trail and one moose near the end. A 23-26 mile round trip (not sure exactly), but it was great! The distance depended on who you asked. We got two definite answers, 23 and 26 miles. I think it depended on where you started.
The I-MAX Theatre
Alaska - Spirit of the Wild. Good show.
TIP - There is a separate ticket office in back of the performing arts center next to the I-MAX, not the performing arts ticket office where the movie is advertised.
Lots of coins for Christmas presents including a Cruise 2001 coin for us.
Fantastic Food, Great Prices (for Alaska). Good service. A nice break from all that shopping and biking. The Alaskan Amber beer is great.
Moose Ala Mode
Small ice cream bar next to Captain Cook Hotel. With all the daylight available, an ice cream late at night is a special treat.
June 09, 2001 - Train Trip to Mt. McKinley
PROCESS NOTE - Separate your luggage into three piles at the hotel - carry-with, direct to ship, to McKinley. We carried on Judy's briefcase and my REI backpack with cameras and another change of clothes and water. Sent one bag to Mt. McKinley and 3 bags to the ship (garment bag, suitcase and souvenir bag). Left the four bags in the hotel room and went down to catch the bus. You are assigned seats in the train, so no need to hurry. There is plenty of room under the train seat for moderate carry-on. If you are going on to Denali the next day, then you need to pack a change of clothes in your carryon since your luggage will only catch up to you at Denali.
The train trip was OK. The breakfast was very good. Has some more Reindeer sausage (none of which belonged to Santa - Santa really uses Moose). Trees were everywhere. After a while it was same old thing, trees, trees, trees. Booked Mt. McKinley excursions on train. Our Hiking and Kayaking excursions were canceled so we had to choose another.
PROCESS NOTE - You can book your Mt. McKinley excursions, if you are staying for a full day, on the train. The helicopter tours to the Mtn fill rapidly.
The Jet Boat trip was ho-hum, but part of our tour package. After a long train ride, the jet boat was really unwelcome. At a later time or day it might have been fun, but not between trips. We were ready for a nice nap. Boated on three rivers, then walked a short stroll to a trappers cache and cabin. Had life in the back country explained. Talkeetna is an interesting town to walk around in. No fast food restaurants, just diners and sandwich shops, but the town thrives on tourism and the people are very friendly.
PROCESS NOTE - Your luggage should be waiting in your room at the lodge if you are staying two nights. If you are leaving for Denali, then only your carry-on will be with you.
June 09, 2001 - Mt. McKinley
PROCESS NOTE - If you charge anything to your room, you will have to check out the morning you leave.
The lodge is very nice and well laid out, neat and clean rooms. The room was larger than our cabin on the ship, more than adequate with a sofa and king size bed. The trails around the lodge are short and easy but with great views. Coming from Colorado, it was OK. People from the city would probably appreciate it much more.
An inexpensive alternative to the dining room. Small buffet breakfast, limited dinner menu, but reasonable food with a salad bar.
Reasonable prices compared to Anchorage. (no gouging). Good service and great view. Atmosphere is semi-formal. Have to try it at least one night.
June 10, 2001 Ð Talkeetna
PROCESS NOTE - Bussed (coach) from lodge to Talkeetna for excursions - about an hour. There is an airport there and all fishing or rafting excursions take off from there.
Interesting place. Talkeetna is said to be basis of 'Northern Exposure'. We didn't see anything that weird.
Disappointing to say the least. A quick jet boat trip to a small creek is where we did some trout fishing and Sockeye Salmon snagging. Judy and I caught one salmon each. Judy caught the first Salmon (Silver), I caught the largest (Sockeye). With only four hours of fishing, it's not really worth it. Waders and rain gear are provided. The float trip back in a rubber raft was the best part of this excursion, although our guide was a very nice guy. Tipped him $20 for helping Charlie bring in the BIG ONE!
June 11, 2001 - Bus Trip From Mt. McKinley To Seward
Dreaded the bus trip, but it was very nice. Scenery to Anchorage was the same as the train trip, trees, trees and more trees. Used this trip to sleep.
The Native Heritage Center outside anchorage is a great stop. Not long enough though. The next time we go to Anchorage, we're spending at least half a day there. It takes more than two hours to go through the five villages. We had a special treat when a tribe elder showed up to help explain some of the more complicated rituals. Could have listened to his stories for hours.
Scenery is much better on bus trip to Seward. We saw tall peaks, Moose, Eagles and Mountain Sheep. Our bus driver also got special permission to stop at a wild life preserve where we saw some of the native wild life and bought a snack.
GOOD GRIEF THIS SHIP IS HUGE. My videotape recorded me saying this at least a dozen times as we explored the ship. We could have got off the ship and explored Seward, but we wanted to see the ship first since this was our first cruise.
PROCESS NOTE -In processing was a breeze. Walked off the bus, got cruise card, went through security, had boarding picture taken and on to the ship. You do need picture ID. We carried and used our passports, but a driver's license would have sufficed.
My rented Tuxedo was waiting and fit just fine. Our direct to ship luggage was waiting and our Mt. McKinley bag showed up about an hour later.
TIP - Try on rented clothes ASAP in case an exchange needs to be made.
Storage space was surprisingly large. It took us about an hour, but everything fit in the closets and drawers and all the empty bags fit under the bed.
The balcony was very nice. Large enough for a table and two chairs. Worth it for our first trip, but we may forgo it on later trips to save a little money.
We chose conventional dining and late seating based on our TA's recommendation. We are very glad we did. Having never been in this kind of a dining situation, we were sort of taken aback by the wait staff. Our waiter, Francesco, assistant waiter, Antonio and our head waiter, Gino, were all Italian and very up front. Almost "pushy" to us who are used to waiters simply taking your order, delivering your food and taking your money. These guys wanted you to have a good time, wanted to ensure you enjoyed all of your food and wanted to get you into the cruise dining experience. They were not there to simply feed you, they were artists and took great pride in their work. By the end of the cruise, we had thoroughly enjoyed ourselves and were hooked on this new level of service and dining experience.
Late seating was a great call by our TA. It allowed us time to get back after excursions, clean up, get ready for formal night, take pictures, take a nap, take a shower and work up a good appetite for dinner.
We ate in the Sardinian dining room. The Tuscan was for alternative dining. Same menu, but no set seating. You showed up at any time and made your request to the head waiter. You could wait for a window seat, a table for two a certain wait staff position or you could be immediately seated in first available. Very very flexible, but I noticed a line to get in almost all the time.
You could also eat at the buffet in the horizon court, but we only made it there for breakfast and lunch.
Dinner portions are small, but this was a good thing. When we normally eat out and the portions are typical American, we can't even think about desert. On the ship, the portions are small, but you can order as many as you like and the great thing is that you can enjoy all the courses including desert. We were never hungry enough for seconds, but we always enjoyed deserts.
June 12, 2001 College Fjord
Raining, misty and cold. Here's where the layers of clothing pay off. You can watch from your balcony or from the deck. A naturalist, Michael Modzelewski, provided PA system commentary as we entered. We arrived about 0600 and departed around 0900 so to see everything you must get up early. The glaciers are majestic and we saw otters and eagles.
I actually used the gym on the first morning. Drug Judy up to join me. Not many people were there early in the morning. All of the machines are the state of the art, but they do need a roman chair or two.
Buffet breakfast in the Horizon Court was pretty disappointing. The food is adequate, but the service is down right lousy. You have to ask for refills or water or juice, or go get it yourself as you walk by 2 or 3 servers on the way. We only had the buffet twice, and spent the rest of the time in the formal dining room for breakfast. Much better food and service.
First Formal Night
Both of us were apprehensive about our first formal night. That's why I rented a tux. Actually two, one white, one black. Judy wore a long blue formal and I wore the white. We were neither overdressed or underdressed. Most men were wearing tuxes in the traditional dining. (We actually saw one guy in shorts and t-shirts in the alternative dining room.) The wait staff is in tuxes also and the atmosphere is one of elegance. It's an experience everyone should go through. We thoroughly enjoyed it.
TIP - Photographers are waiting in 3-4 different locations and backdrops. There is no charge for you to sit, but the 8x10's will be around $20 if you want one. They do a good job, but remember to smile. Its hard after the 10th picture to force another smile, but try.
June 13, 2001 - Glacier Bay
Park rangers gave us a running commentary all the way in. It was overcast, old and misty, so we spent the trip in on our balcony. Went all the way in to the Marjorie and Grand Pacific Glaciers and parked with our balcony pointed to the glacier to watch for calving. After about 20 minutes the captain spun the ship around for the other side the see. We went up on deck for the trip to the Russel Glacier and out of Glacier Bay. We got several good calvings on video.
Seals were pupping up further on one arm of Glacier Bay, but several had drifted down with their mothers on bergy bits. We got many good pictures of seal pups and their mothers.
The most impressive time is at the Marjorie. The engines stop and everything gets real quiet. Then you hear the white thunder of the glacier as it expands and moves. When a calving occurs, you hear the AAHHH of the crowd.
BTW - there were supposedly 2000+ people on this ship, but we never were crowded until disembarkation day. I don't know where they all went.
June 14, 2001 Ð Skagway
Skagway dawned clear and sunny. Sunshine washing down on snow capped peaks. The view from the balcony was breathtaking. Fresh air and sunshine first thing in the morning. Can't get any better than that.
The pierside rocks at Skagway are painted with the flags and names of ships and captains. The story is that the tradition started back in the goldrush days when ships would get their orders from containers at the base of the rock painted with their name. No one could tell us, but apparently ships and captains would have their names and flags painted for each season they docked, but the Ocean Princess wasn't on the rocks at all.
Skagway was our first shore excursion port. We had bicycling and horseback riding lined up. The Dyea bicycle adventure was an easy, short 2 hour tour of the old town site of Dyea, now just a field of trees. The town was the start of the Chilkoot trail - the golden staircase, but was abandoned after the railway was completed. Dyea is also interesting because the valley floor, a glacial valley, is rebounding from the weight of glacier being removed. It has risen 75" since 1900.
The most interesting part of the trip was driving back to Skagway. We saw about 8 eagles combat fishing in a tidal pool. They were lined up, shoulder to shoulder, on the edge of the creek channel apparently waiting for a fish to swim by. Very cool site.
TIP - The bicycle shop, Sockeye Cycle Co, in downtown Skagway, rents bikes by the hour. Next trip, we will simply walk downtown, rent bikes and do our own trip out to Dyea.
The coupon book we got when we boarded the ship had several Skagway shop coupons for free or reduced price items. We went and got them all between excursions.
The afternoon excursions was the horseback ride. It was a mistake. First of all it covered the same ground as the Dyea bike excursion, so nothing new there. Secondly, the horse I rode was about 4 feet wide and I was in pain for most of the ride. The horse was stiff legged and the saddle did not fit properly. I have ridden horses before, most notably my dad's horses in Oregon, for 8-10 hours over mountain trails with minor stiffness, but this was very painful. We could have skipped this one and biked.
Italian Night At Dinner
This was the best meal and evening on the whole cruise. It was a casual night, but Francesco, Gino and Antonio were in fine spirits. Gino was cooking pasta for us. By this time I simply turned to Francesco and told him to bring what he recommended, along with a recommended bottle of wine. I guess we had our first "wine experience". (We are not wine drinkers at home.) The wine and the food complemented and enhanced each other in a way that is hard to describe. Each bite of food, followed by a sip of wine was a taste treat delight. And Gino's pasta...AHHHH...that was fantastico.
June 15, 2001 Ð Juneau
The day dawned rainy, cloudy, stormy. This was to be the site of our big heli-hiking adventure, but the rain made it seem like it would not happen. But it did. After a short bus ride to the airport north of the dock , the rain slacked to a drizzle. By the time we took off, it was down to a fine mist.
They outfitted us with boots, pants, gators and a pull over outer wear. Strip to a t-shirt. Don't wear a fleece jacket or vest under the outer wear. I almost did and would have sweated to death. They also give you a belly bag with water and a Luna bar.
The flight in is a tour of the Mendenhall glacier. A helicopter tour is incredible, but if you get motion sick, you will on this one. Judy did. She was in the front seat with the video camera and made the mistake of trying to look through the camera.
This is a true glacier hike. Expensive, dangerous, strenuous, exciting and beautiful. This is not a woosy walk, 15 minutes walking around on the flats. This is a strap on the crampons, grab the ice axe and belay your way to the top of a tall serac to see a crystal blue pond of glacier water or a house sized boulder perched on a ridge of blue striated glacier ice.
We stomped, climbed, belayed, slipped, fell, jumped, leaped and waded up, around, back and forth, over and under the mid-moraine of Mendenhall glacier for four hours. During that time, the clouds parted and the sun came out, it was hot. Judy and I were the only ones on the extended tour. Christa, our guide, took very good care of Judy, who is essentially afraid of falling off a curb, much less a 50 foot serac (ice ridge). We were having so much fun we lost track of time and had to leap a crevasse to get to a decent, not very flat, helicopter landing place. It took him 3-4 tries to set it down just right so it wouldn't slide off or tilt too much.
The trip out was in blue sky and you could see the Ocean Princess in the distance. We got back to the ship around 3pm, an hour before she sailed.
Semi-Formal Night: French Night
This night was our only real disappointing dinner. Partly because Judy was totally exhausted, partly because the French food was so-so. We had to have the escargot, just to try it. Tastes like the garlic butter sauce it is cooked in. The sauce is great to dip your bread in.
The highlight was the Cherries Jubilee, which Gino was cooking. Actually, we wanted to see if there was any left over pasta.
There were photographers available on the semi-formal nights. We had black and white photos taken which turned out to be very good.
June 16, 2001 Ð Ketchikan
Ketchikan was our Tatoosh island kayaking adventure. They provide a splash suit, life jackets and the kayaks. A bus ride to the docks north of town, then a high speed zodiak ride to a little island. A couple of minutes of instruction and your off paddling around. We might just get us some of these kayaks. It was fun. Saw a bear, sea lions and harbor seals. The weather was misty and wet, but not bad. You get about 2 hours of paddling around the islands. There is no set agenda. The water was about 50F, so it wasn't too cold.
TIP - Do not take expensive camera gear. It will get salt water on it even if you don't drop it in the water. Take water proof disposables.
Second Formal Night
Our second formal night was a lot of fun. We were really getting into this cruising thing, the whole dining experience and were thoroughly relaxed and at ease. It was like eating with old friends.
June 17, 2001 - At Sea
The inside passage was incredibly beautiful. Blue sky, clear water, snow capped peaks. It even got warm enough on deck for an ice sculpture demo and even a few bikinis. A thoroughly relaxing and enjoyable day. Porpoises played in our wake and Michael Modzelewski narrated the passage. We spent a large portion of the day up on deck in the warm sunshine.
We got a tour of the Tuscan kitchen area with our waiter and assistant waiter. A lot of stainless steel. Spotless and very impressively organized.
That afternoon we spent packing. All bags would be picked up by 900PM so we had to sort out all of our stuff and leave enough for changing that night. We would be carrying on two bags and checking four bags. The four bags were left in the passageway on our way to dinner and after dinner they were gone.
Even though we had the automatic tip added to our bill, we tipped the wait staff with cash in addition. We had a lot of fun at dinner.
June 18, 2001 Ð Vancouver
Debarkation was straightforward and direct. First of all, you were assigned a color code and number based on your plane schedule or Vancouver departure schedule. We had plenty of time to have breakfast, wander the deck, take final photos and say goodbye to people we'd met on the trip. Our color and number was called and we tromped through customs to a waiting bus ride to the airport. At the airport we claimed our luggage and trucked it to the airline counter. After checking in, and finding out our America West flight was delayed, we proceeded to pay our airport fee and have lunch in the concourse.
The plan delay put us in later than normal, but we arrived home safely with all of our luggage.