Charlie & Robin's Alaskan Adventure
Royal-Celebrity Cruisetour #13
6 night land tour and 7 night southbound cruise on Mercury
7/7/01 - 7/20/01
The summary in 25 words or less - This cruisetour was just great!!! Celebrity food did not live up to its hype. Dining room service (for our table) was extremely slow.
Now for the details.
We started out with a very long travel day from Staten Island, NY to Fairbanks, AK. We booked our air through Celebrity and the flight arrangements were actually pretty good - Depart Newark airport at 6:20 AM to Minneapolis, approximately a 1 hour layover, then Minneapolis to Anchorage, about a 50 minute layover, then Anchorage to Fairbanks. We arrived in Fairbanks at about 2:00 PM (Fairbanks time) and were met at the gate by a Celebrity representative. We had put the ship tags on our luggage, so it was all claimed by the Celebrity personnel. After we verified that it had all arrived, it was loaded on our tour bus and we didn't have to handle it ourselves for the next two weeks. It was delivered to and from our hotel rooms on the land tour, and then to the ship. We were taken to our hotel, Pike's Waterfront Lodge on the banks of the Chena River, got our room keys, had lunch/dinner, took a short nap, and we were ready to go off exploring. We made some phone calls to book an Arctic Circle flight but there were no openings available. However, we were surprised to discover that the prices to book direct were the exact same prices as the optional excursions offered by Celebrity. So instead, we decided to take a ride to see Alaskaland and spend some time there, and hopefully get to see the show in the Palace Theater (we called and were put on the wait list). We were able to take the free shuttle from the hotel to the salmon bake at Alaskaland even though we weren't going to the salmon bake. Alaskaland was interesting, but the weather was cool and raining so we did a quick tour in about an hour, and when we couldn't get in to see the show, just went back to the hotel. We met our tour guide, Nancy, when we got back and discussed the upcoming trip. After having an Alaskan brewed beer at the hotel bar, we decided it was time for some much need sleep.
The day started with a morning trip to see the Trans-Alaska pipeline up close and personal, and then on to the El Dorado Gold Mine for a little history lesson about the gold rush, a demonstration of some gold mining equipment, a gold panning lesson, and then some panning for gold. Everyone is guaranteed to find some gold in their pan, but I would have been a lousy gold miner. I had no patience and finally just dumped my poke into the water and gave up. Robin kept at it and came up with about $10 worth of gold dust which she had put into a necklace. Maybe if I had stayed with it she could have put it into some earrings also.
After stopping for lunch, it was on to the Riverboat Discovery for a 3-1/2 hour ride along the Chena and Tanana rivers. The trip included watching a bush pilot do a shortfield takeoff and landing, seeing the home and kennels of Susan Butcher, the Iditarod champion and having her speak to us, viewing an Athabascan fish camp and a demonstration of how fish are cut and prepared, and about an hour tour of the Chena Indian Village.
After some shopping, it was back to the hotel - but not for long. We had booked an optional excursion with Northern Alaska Tour Co. for a 5-1/2 hour tour to the Brooks Range. We were picked up at the hotel and taken to the airport where we boarded a 7 passenger Piper. The clouds had broken up and the visibility was excellent so the pilot was able to fly by VFR and stay low. We took a long scenic route over some breathtaking landscapes, sighted a number of moose (I lost count but I think it was 8), and eventually landed in Coldfoot, which is about 60 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Since we hadn't had time for dinner, we had ordered a "box dinner" which was waiting for us when we landed. We ate it as we rode further north in a minivan along the Dalton Highway (a gravel road) for about 14 miles (and a close encounter with a moose and her calf) to the town of Wiseman (year round population of 27). After a quick visit to the museum (a one room cabin) we were invited into a house for coffee, tea, hot chocolate, and cookies while meeting and chatting with some of the local residents. They were just as anxious to hear about our lifestyles as we were to hear about theirs. Then it was back to Coldfoot for our return flight to Fairbanks. They gave us an Arctic Circle certificate to remember our journey. We arrived back at the hotel a little after 1:00 AM, and the amazing thing was it wasn't really dark - just twilight.
We boarded the Alaska Railroad at around 8:00 AM for a trip to Denali. Royal-Celebrity has 2 brand new railroad cars (one going northbound and the other southbound) which are absolutely marvelous. The car is two levels, with a sightseeing dome on the top level and dining on the bottom. There are big windows on the bottom level so you can see some of the sights while you are eating. Our tour bus met us at the Denali station and took us to our hotel, the Grande Denali Lodge. This hotel, which just opened a few months ago, is on top of a mountain and the view is wonderful. Just driving up the mountain is exciting. After about an hour to freshen up, we boarded the school busses for our 8 hour tour into Denali National Park. The scenery was spectacular and we were fortunate enough to actually see the peaks of Mt. McKinley. Our bus driver told us that most people don't get to see the peaks because they are usually covered by clouds. The wildlife we saw were primarily caribou, Dall sheep and some ground squirrels. The big treat was on the way back out when we spotted a blond grizzly. I wish we could have spent more time and gone further into the park, but on the other hand 8 hours on a school bus was pretty uncomfortable after a while.
We had the morning free so we decided to go rafting. I wanted whitewater and Robin wanted a float trip, so we compromised and took a trip with Nenana River Rafting which included some scenic floating and also some class II and III rapids. The guides outfitted us with dry suits and then drove us about 12 miles to our starting point on the Nenana River. After the standard safety talk, we set out for the trip downstream. Again the scenery was just beautiful and the rapids were fun. I asked our guide how cold the water was, and he replied, "Let's put it this way. Yesterday it was a glacier." The water temperature was actually about 36 degrees. We used a disposable camera on this trip and got some good pictures with it. We were able to toss it to passengers in another raft who took some shots of us and then tossed it back.
In the afternoon, we boarded the Alaska Railroad again for a trip to Talkeetna. The scenery along the way did not disappoint, but we were not able to see Mt. McKinley as it was covered in clouds. We stayed at the Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge, and after dinner we just relaxed and took in the scenery and went to bed early.
Woke up at 3:30 AM and were picked up at 4:30 AM for a salmon fishing trip. I had never gone fishing before so this was a real experience for me. We bought our fishing licenses for $10 plus an extra $10 for the king salmon stamp. We were outfitted with hip boots and rain gear (yes, it was raining), and got into a jet boat for a trip up the Talkeetna River where we were dropped off at a fishing spot. Our guide demonstrated how to cast and let the line drift and we started fishing. One of our companions (an 82 year old gentleman) hooked a king salmon with his first cast and the guide had to help him reel it in. At that point, I thought we were going to catch a lot of fish that day. Unfortunately, that was it for our group for the day. However, both Robin and I can truthfully tell the story about the big one that got away. I got the casting part down pretty quickly, but I had no idea what it would feel like if I actually got a fish on the hook. Several times the line got snagged on a rock, so when I felt a little tug I assumed it was snagged again. I gave a slight pull to free it and when it tugged again, I gave another slight pull and started reeling it in. That's when this very large red fish jumped out of the water a few times and I realized I had it on the hook. However I wasn't quick enough or experienced enough to set the hook and he got away. A few minutes later, the exact same thing happened to Robin. After about 2-1/2 hours at this spot with no luck, we got in the raft and moved to a different spot for another hour and a half, but our luck was no better. As I came out of the water to get back in the raft, I realized that my hip boots had fallen down (one size does not fit all leg shapes) and my jeans and socks were soaked. We rafted back a few miles to our starting point for the return trip to the hotel.
We changed out of our wet clothing and took the hotel shuttle in town. The first stop we made was at the Talkeetna laundromat where we washed and dried the clothing we had worn that morning. After walking the entire area of beautiful downtown Talkeetna we did some obligatory shopping and then took the shuttle back to the hotel.
It was back on the tour bus today for a drive down to Anchorage. Along the way we stopped at the Iditarod headquarters for a quick visit. The real highlight of this stop was holding 5 week old Husky pups. We were only given two hours on our own in Anchorage, which I felt was not enough time. We went to the museum and spent about an hour going through the Alaskan history exhibit which was really rushing it. We stopped for a quick lunch and then walked back to the meeting point for our bus. From Anchorage we drove south to Girdwood where we stayed at the Westin Prince Alyeska Resort. This was a first class hotel. Our package included a trip on the tram up to the top of the mountain, so we took it that evening and went to the lounge up there for a few drinks and dessert. The views from the top are spectacular, but the clouds kept moving in and out so we eventually decided to go down and check out the hiking trails. We started out on the Winner Creek trail which is part of the Chugach National Forest, but after about a mile it became very muddy so we turned around and went back. We tried another trail, but I quickly discovered that it went uphill (actually up the mountain) and I decided that I didn't feel like walking uphill. It started raining again, so we went back to the hotel and spent some time by the fireplace.
Still raining and cold this morning so we just relaxed at the hotel instead of going kayaking as we had originally planned. We were able to check in for the cruise and got our boarding passes right in the hotel lobby. Early afternoon, we got back on the tour bus for the trip to Seward and the start of our cruise. As we rode along Turnagain Arm, the scenery was wonderful. We arrived in Seward and boarded Mercury around 4:00 PM. Our luggage was delivered to our cabin within an hour. We had an ocean view room with a balcony on deck 9 (Vista Deck). The cabin was a decent size, but the storage space seemed a little tight. We explored the ship, had dinner (open seating), and set sail. Unlike other cruises we've taken where we considered the ship our destination, and the ports just places to stop; this time we considered the ports our destination and the ship was just a fun, convenient way of getting there.
Day 8 - Hubbard Glacier
We were tired from the land tour so I was glad this first day of the cruise was a day at sea. The weather was sunny, but on deck it was windy and cold. It was pretty funny seeing blankets on the pool deck instead of towels. We bundled up and stood out there to take in this magnificent glacier. We saw it calve several times and the sight is almost beyond description. (Binoculars are a must!) As we left the bay, we went back to our cabin and sat on the balcony where it wasn't quite as windy. We were on the port side so we always had land within view from our balcony.
Day 9 - Juneau
The morning started out somewhat cloudy and the helicopter trip to Mendenhall Glacier (with TEMSCO which we had booked through the ship) was cancelled due to cloud cover and poor visibility at Mendenhall Glacier. They offered to reschedule for later in the day, but we already had other plans. We went over to the tour booth by the dock and fortunately ERA Helicopters had an immediate opening on their 4 glacier flightseeing tour. They picked us up at the dock and we were on our way. We flew over the Taku, Hole in the Wall, Lemon, and Norris glaciers, and landed on the Norris Glacier. It was an incredible trip - I can't think of any words to describe it. (And I got to sit up front with the pilot.) When we got back to the base, they drove us back to town and we asked to be dropped off at the Red Dog Saloon where we had lunch. The Red Dog Saloon is quite a place. I would recommend stopping by, even if just for a drink. After some obligatory shopping, we returned to the ship and sat on our balcony watching a few eagles flying over Mt. Roberts. At around 4:30 PM, we went whale watching with Dolphin Tours (booked through the ship). They use an 18 passenger jet boat so it wasn't crowded and everyone could see pretty well. We traveled around Auke Bay and it didn't take long to spot several Humpback whales. The real big treat was when one of the whales breached 6 times within about a 10-15 minute span. Seeing that alone would have made the excursion worthwhile. (a few of my pictures even came out ok) Then the radio crackled with word of a pod of Orcas a few miles away, so we took off for the site. We weren't disappointed as we got to see 4 Orcas and another Humpback. Eventually we had to turn around and head back in, and we returned to the ship around 8 PM (just in time to get ready for our late seating dinner).
Day 10 - Skagway
We did the morning excursion on the White Pass and Yukon Railroad. Since we had booked it through the ship we boarded the train right at the dock. The scenery was wonderful, and I have a new found respect for the gold stampeders who followed the Trail of 98. Upon the return to Skagway, we had lunch at the Red Onion Saloon where we were served by one of the "working girls" while listening to the piano player, and took a few pictures with the "proprietor" of the establishment. The upstairs brothel was "closed for renovations." We also stopped by the livepostcard.com booth to have our picture taken next to the train and emailed back home. It's free. We explored the town, did some more shopping, and eventually made our way back to the ship. We opted for the alternative dining this night because we were growing very impatient with our dining room service which averaged 2-1/2 hours for dinner every night. After a relatively quick, early dinner shortly after leaving Skagway, we stayed out on deck with our binoculars for a while and were treated to 3 sightings of Humpback whales.
Day 11 - Sitka
We had to tender ashore here. At the dock we bought a full day pass ($7 pp) for one of the companies (Tribal Tours?) which runs mini busses around town with stops at the most popular destinations. Sitka is a beautiful city, although we did feel it was a little more "touristy" than the other places we had been. We spent a bit of time at the Raptor Rehabilitation Center and wound up becoming members and adopting an eagle.
Day 12 - Ketchikan
We slept a little late this morning, as all the running around for almost 2 weeks was starting to catch up with us. After a leisurely buffet breakfast on board the ship we went strolling around town and did some shopping. I wound up buying a mask carved from whale bone and decorated with baleen and ivory. It had the silver hand symbol attached which is supposed to mean that it was made by a Native Alaskan. We also got a brief biography of the artist and a description of the materials used. We had a 1:00 PM excursion planned for Saxman Native Village so we headed back to the ship for lunch. On the way back, we stopped at a tour booth near the ship and inquired about a trip to Misty Fjords. We were fortunate enough that Taquan Air had room for us on the 4:00 PM flight so we booked it right there.
After lunch we visited Saxman Village with the excursion from the ship. It was interesting, gave some insight into Tlingit history and the Totem Poles were very nice, but I was a little disappointed. However, after performing some tribal dances for us, when the Natives asked for volunteers to come dance with them, Robin was right up there. They dressed her in traditional robes and headwear, and she danced!
From Saxman we were dropped off back at the pier and we walked a few blocks to Taquan Air for the Misty Fjords flightseeing. We boarded a 5 passenger DeHavilland Beaver float plane and we were off. I got to sit up front again with the pilot. Misty Fjords is just incredible. If anyone has an opportunity to do this trip, I highly recommend it. Our pilot landed on a lake and up on the shore, no more than 50 yards away, we saw a fairly large brown bear eating a salmon. We assumed he caught it at the nearby creek where we saw other salmon swimming/jumping upstream. We stayed and watched for a while, and just took in the serenity of the area. It was a shame we had to go back. Our pilot took a somewhat longer route back to show us a few areas he especially liked and we wound up getting an additional 15 minutes in the air. We arrived back at the ship around 6:00 PM.
Day 13 - at sea
Today was another day at sea, cruising the inside passage. We spent part of the day out on deck and part on our balcony. As we sailed along, we were joined by several porpoises and a few eagles. We were hoping for Orcas, but didn't see any. It was a nice relaxing day, but a little sad as we realized our vacation was coming to an end.
Day 14 - debarkation
Debarkation was the best of all the cruises we've been on. When our number was called, we got off the ship and boarded a bus where our luggage had already been loaded. The bus took us to the Vancouver airport where the luggage was unloaded at curbside. It took all of 30 seconds to gather our 4 pieces, get a porter and enter the terminal. We checked in with the airline, went through U.S. customs, and dropped our bags on the conveyor to be placed on the plane. We were lucky and had a nonstop flight from Vancouver to Newark.
We had a wonderful time and thought that Celebrity did a great job overall. I think that everyone, at least once in their life, should see Alaska - the last frontier.