I posted this message on 7/29/01 but posted it on the chat board which is the wrong board to be of help to anyone traveling to Alaska, so I'm reposting it on this board. This website and board was a lot of help when I was planning our trip so I wanted to return the favor.
We took the July 14th, 2001 Holland America Zaandam Alaska cruise on the Inside Passage, Vancouver to Vancouver. Did this cruise as it's cheaper to fly into and out of the same airport. Went into and out of the Seattle airport which was less expensive than going into and out of the Vancouver airport. From there you can take a bus to Vancouver. We, however, extended our trip in the beginning by taking a catamaran from Seattle to Victoria and then a ferry from Victoria to Vancouver (Pacific Coach Lines 1-800-661-1725). The ferry ride was nice as it was a big enough vessel to not feel movement and we went in the evening and saw beautiful sunsets. Just stayed one night in Victoria and one night in Vancouver. Victoria is a quaint town full of flowers. Did the Butchart Gardens tour and a good whale watch from here and saw orca whales. This would be a nice town to stay in a couple of days sometime. The hotel we stayed in was inexpensive but nice (Chateau Victoria 1-800-663-5891). Our room was a corner suite with a bedroom, living room, kitchen, and balcony with good view of the harbor.
Booked our cruise in November through Annie Scrinavich with Cruise Advisors (1-800-544-9361). Found her on the Internet. Her offer was one set price for any cruise line, any time of the year, with Inside and Outside categories available up to Category C. An inside cabin with port taxes was $900. An outside cabin with port taxes was $1100. I've seen better prices but I liked the flexibility of the offer and being able to book exactly what I wanted so far in advance. We booked Category D outside which was good--nice sunny unobstructed view where you didn't feel you were in a fishbowl if you left your curtains open. Category C is considered a more expensive room but it has the promenade deck around it which would have made the view out your window that of a porched deck with people walking past.
This was our first cruise and first time to Alaska. Great trip!! Had sunshine and warm weather every day (although some towns said it had rained for 11 days straight prior to this). Weather was in the 60's, actually 70 in Ketchikan. Don't need heavy clothing, except maybe early morning in Glacier Bay, but layers definently best. We took and wore hiking boots, but I think my tennis shoes would have sufficed (maybe because it didn't rain on us). Little trouble with motion on the boat but I took Dramamine every day just to be on the safe side as I am prone to motion sickness.
My husband did a flyout fly fishing trip out of Juneau with Bear Creek Outfitters (1-907-789-3914) to a remote stream in the Tongass National Forest. He is not a fisherman but he caught 12 pink salmon. He said the floatplane flight was great with scenery out and once there, he could see a glacier and turn in any direction and see pictures worthy of a postcard. This trip is expensive ($325), but it was a highlight for him. We booked this through the cruiseline but probably could have also booked it direct.
In Juneau, I took a helicopter flight which I booked myself (Coastal Helicopters 1-907-789-5600 for $160) over the Mendenhall Glacier to Herbert Glacier. The pilot talked to us, didn't rush us on the glacier, and we were the only helicopter on that glacier. Lots of cruise ship helicopters land on the Mendenhall Glacier, so its crowded with helicopters. You can see the Mendenhall Glacier from a car. I think it's best to fly to another glacier (probably any of them would be good), so you fly over more of the Juneau Icefield and your aren't sharing your glacier with other helicopters. This way you appreciate the vastness of the icefields and the feeling of isolation you get on the glacier.
I then rented a car in Juneau and drove out to the Mendenhall Glacier and past Auke Bay to St. Therese Chapel (very pretty and peaceful). I rented the car from "Rent-A-Wreck" (1-907-789-4111). Old car but good price ($35) and they let me keep the car as long as I wanted for an extra $10 and just leave it in a garage next to the pier. (Be sure to leave it with a full tank of gas or you'll get charged $5/gallon to fill it up). This flexibility was nice since our ship was in Juneau from 2 pm to 11pm and most car rentals wanted their cars back by 6pm. There are a lot of good shore excursions available around the Juneau area. This would be a good place to fly into some time and stay a while. Some of the people on our cruise took the "Wildlife Excursion" on a catamaran on Auke Bay. They enjoyed it and said they saw seals and orca whales.
I booked a few of our shore excursions through the cruise line, but most of the shore excursions I booked on my own. HAL allowed prebooking requests but it is not a guarantee that you are going to get it. They don't tell you the times of the trip and whether or not you got the one(s) thay you wanted until you are on board the ship. Booking on my own allowed me to know for sure that I got it and I could make sure that the times would work with everything else we wanted to do in that port. Best book I found for this was "Adventure Guide to the Inside Passage & Coastal Alaska", 3rd edition, by Lynn & Ed Readicker-Henderson.
In Skagway, we took the White Pass Summit Train to Frasier, B. C. (be sure to sit on the left side of the train going up the mountain). We took a bus back and stopped by Liarsville to pan for gold. Taking the bus back allowed us to see some different scenery and Liarsville was entertaining. I booked this through the cruise line ($134 per person) because when I called the train station, they told me the only time open on cruise ship days was the 4pm time because the cruise ships have the other times booked. They also did not offer a bus ride back and we would have had to ride the train both ways, without the stop in Liarsville. This was a good excursion and worth doing at least once. Skagway is a quaint picturesque town with lots of stores. It was our favorite shopping town.
Our favorite shore excursion of all was bear watching at the Anan Creek Bear Observatory. We booked this ourselves out of Ketchikan with Island Wings Air Service (1-888-854-2444). Michelle, the pilot, gives you a personal narrated air tour over some pretty country and her plane is in good shape. This was expensive ($275 per person) but to us it was worth it. A GREAT wildlife experience in a BEAUTIFUL environment. You walk back about a half mile through a rainforest on an easy planked path past a beautiful bay to the deck-like observatory platform on the creek. A forest ranger is there with a gun so you watch the bears safely. They say these are third generation bears who are used to people, so they ignore you and just go after the fish. There are so many salmon here, that the Indians used to declare a truce so that all tribes had access to fish here. It is also one of the only places in Alaska where you can see both black and brown bears in the same place. In the hour plus time we had at the deck, we saw about a dozen black bear and one grizzly cub. They come right up to where you are to fish and eat salmon out of the stream. The salmon are trying to leap up a small waterfall. Bald eagles and ravens are right there too waiting for leftovers. We saw at least six bald eagles, two at very close range. The # of people allowed in here is limited, so make your reservations early. Got great pictures. This is a "DO NOT MISS"!!. Much better than going to what is probably a smelly fish hatchery booked through the cruise line with a lot of other people to see bears. This is in their natural habitat.
In Ketchikan, we also took a taxi ($20 roundtrip) to Saxman Village in Ketchikan and saw many a totem pole as well as watched a master carver carving large totem poles. Being from Indiana, it was interesting when he told us that he had carved the large totem pole inside of our Indianapolis Eiteljorg Museum. Large totem poles, such as the one he was carving, sell for one to three thousand dollars a foot. We bought a small totem pole for $100. They had a good selection in this giftshop and totem poles were $15 cheaper here than the same ones we had seen in Skagway.
Glacier Bay also very nice and something you would not want to miss. Since the number of cruiseships that can go into Glacier Bay are now being limited, this would be a major deciding factor for me on what ship and what cruiseline I wanted to go on. The cruise ship stops at the end of Glacier Bay in front of Marjorie Glacier. We found the best place to view this, is from the bow of the ship, middle to left side of the bow. Keep camera posed as you only have time to click when pieces of the glacier break off (calving). We were lucky and saw two big calvings during our time in Glacier Bay.
Be sure to be watching for whales when going through the "Icy Straits" going into and out of Glacier Bay. Going out of Glacier Bay around 5:30-6:00pm from the bow of the ship, we saw at close view a school of Humpback Whales which appeared to be playing. This was better than any of the two whale watching trips we paid $ for in Hawaii and Victoria, BC. Only about 6 passengers and a few crew members got to witness this though, as most people had gone in for the evening. Don't give up--hang out on the deck. Another good reason for late seat dining.
The Zaandam was also a very nice ship with plenty of room, closet, and public space. We never felt crowded. It had an air of elegance, good food, and good service from a staff anxious to please. We found that the late dinner worked best for us so we could maximize our shore excursion time. Annie, our cruise agent, booked us a table on the 2nd floor of the restaurant next to the window and the sunsets which was a definite plus. Loved the String Quartet in the Explorer Lounge. Also liked the wine navigator package ($69 for 4 bottles or $99 for 6 bottles of wine). Order the wine package on the first day so you can start using it right away. There will be a wine tasting later in the cruise so you can try out all these wines. Out on the deck, HAL served the best hot chocolate we have ever tasted. Best food on the ship was in the Marco Polo Restaurant which requires reservations--make these on the first day of the cruise as it fills up fast.
Overall a GREAT trip!! I'm already planning a return trip to Alaska as there is so much left to see. It is truly the last American frontier. Next time I want to do a land trip on our own so we can see Denali and anything else worthwhile, with return trip on a southbound cruise ship. If anyone sees any good deals or has any advice, please pass it my way. Sorry for the length of this e-mail, but I hope the detail will help you. These are answers to many of the questions I had when planning our trip.
Enjoy Alaska! Thanks to Cruisemates for this message board which was a big help to me in planning our trip.--Bonnie