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Old August 13th, 2005, 05:27 AM
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Default Alaska cruise on the Star

The round-trip, seven-day cruise on NCL's Star the last week of July took us from Seattle's Pier 66 to the Inside Passage, Juneau, Skagway, Glacier Bay, Ketchikan, all in Alaska, and Victoria, B.C., Canada.

If you are completely dependent upon a wheelchair, as is my elderly mother, there's not much for you to do in these ports of call, which is extremely disappointing. This is my long-running complaint about cruise lines that I would like to see corrected for all disabled passengers. Employees on NCL's excursion desk alerted us on the first full day into the cruise that several of selected tours are inaccessible to the wheelchair-bound. Finding alternative tours were disappointing, as some were sold out.

In Juneau (Tuesday), we were told that we could not do any of the excursions, although I wrongly insisted upon the Mendenhall Glacier & Gardens tour at a cost of $56 per adult. We left the pier on a charter-type bus with a wheelchair lift, and our driver was friendly and helpful. Literally, we had about an hour at Mendenhall Glacier before we had to reboard the bus to tour the Glacier Gardens Rainforest, a for-profit venture of hanging gardens/flowered pathways near the temperate rainforest nestled alongside Thunder Mountain. The gardens are NOT accessible, but two employees maneuvered Mother's wheelchair through the gravel pathway to the main building, where we were greeted by the driver of an over-sized golf cart. Mother overreacted to the transportation since it was raining that day, so she stayed in the flowered atrium while my sister and I took the guided tour. The tour was great, but clearly, not one that a wheelchair-dependent person should take. In retrospect, I should have had the concierge arrange for a cab to/from Mendenhall Glacier, where our time would have been better spent. The glacier is fantastic, and there is so much to do and see that I regret not going it alone at this port. Two other excursions, both involving panning for gold at a cost of $50 and $82, were not available, but a fellow disabled cruiser did the shorter, less costly excursion and seemed to be pleased with the venture.

In Skagway (Wednesday), we took the 8:15 a.m. White Pass Scenic Railway at a cost of $99 per adult. Had we booked independently by catching the train at the main depot, the cost would have been $89 per adult -- not much of a savings. The narrow-gauge railroad was built in 1898 during the Klondike Gold Rush, and it is a must-see, four-hour panoramic adventure of mountains, glaciers, gorges, waterfalls, tunnels and trestles. One of the vintage railcars has a lift for the disabled, so access was not a problem. The views are fantastic, and at times, the sheer drop wears on the nerves. After the tour, we returned to the ship to retrieve our rain gear, then took a shuttle bus (one-way cost of $1.50) into town, where we spent lots of money at the Skagway Outlet Store. Forget the Alaska T-shirt Co., found in Juneau and Skagway. Some of the great buys at SOS: T-shirts, three for $10; sweatshirts, $7; porcelain Eskimo dolls, $7 (on the ship, $25); 2006 Alaska calendars, $1; stuffed toys like Huskies, $2 (elsewhere more than double); and an expandable suitcase to hold everything, $17.

Glacier Bay (Thursday), established as a national park and preserve in 1980, offered wonderful views all from the luxury of our balcony. [Definitely spring for the balcony room when cruising Alaska. However, the first day on board you should request that NCL build a ramp to access the balcony. The sliding glass door has a lip that prevents one from wheeling directly out onto the balcony. The staff will build a wooden ramp to allow access, provided someone is there to help you onto the balcony in your wheelchair.] The U.S. Forest Service provided a guide who provided details via the PA system of the park's perks for most of the morning. There are 26 glaciers in this park, but you won't see them all. On this day, we saw five whales, tons of salmon and gulls, some interglacial forest stumps, Reid Glacier, the calving of Lamplugh Glacier, Johns Hopkins Glacier and the Continental Divide. Again, all of this was at the luxury of our balcony; however, there were forest rangers and a display set up in a public viewing area on the ship.

Ketchikan (Friday) requires tendering in, so Mother did not go ashore that day. The Saxman Native Village & Lumberjack Show, at a cost of $79 per adult, is OK, but I could have done without this port in favor of more time in Victoria. Several excursions, including this one, pushed returning to the pier, which meant that the ship was two hours late leaving port. The last tender was set for 1 p.m., but it was almost 3 p.m. before everybody was back on board.

In Victoria (Saturday), we took an ADA van to/from the world famous Butchart Gardens. Our extremely friendly driver was fantastic, as he provided a more detailed view of the city and stopped at places the bigger tour buses don't go. The city tour and gardens/fireworks display cost $75 per adult, and the tickets are good through September, so hang on to that ticket. Booking independently would have cost $22 per adult for the Gardens, plus about $30 one way for a cab. Butchart Gardens, a former rock quarry spanning 55 acres, puts on a fantastic fireworks display every Saturday in July, so this is not to be missed. Hundreds of townsfolk flock to see this display every Saturday. The ship pulls into port at about 6 p.m., leaving almost no daylight to view the many themed gardens, which are stunning even at night. The Gardens are about a two-hour drive from Seattle. If you can arrange it, plan to spend at least an extra day in Seattle, so you can rent a car in order to return to the Gardens in the daytime. We toured the Gardens at our leisure -- and without the wall-to-wall people -- on Monday.

In Seattle (Sunday), the ship offers three excursions, leaving between 8:30 a.m. and 9 a.m.: a three-hour Seattle city tour, $39; a five-hour Seattle city tour and Experience Music Project, $69; and a two-hour Space Needle visit, $40. We didn't do these tours, but opted instead to dine at Spin City, the restaurant atop the Space Needle. Soon after checking into a hotel in the downtown area, we made a reservation at the restaurant, which the receptionist said is a must on weekends. We walked to the Space Needle, then stood in line (with everybody else who made a reservation) for about 45 minutes. The glass elevator to the top offers great views, and the dining experience -- as well as the bill of about $100 per person -- is phenomenal. The Space Needle revolves once every 47 minutes, so the experience is not unpleasant. After dinner, we did the basic tour (at no extra charge), then stopped off in the first-floor gift shop for the requisite souvenirs. On Monday, we toured the Seattle Aquarium, Experience Music Project and Pike Place Market, all of which were great experiences and accessible.

Alaska's scenery is absolutely fantastic, but the excursions are overpriced and, sometimes, disappointing when your options in a wheelchair are so limited. Despite what others tell you or what your own impression may be, Alaska is NOT that cold in summer. Anyone who tells you otherwise should be given a boot to the head for being such a wuss. [Then again, I spent four years in Adak.] The daytime temperatures for late July were in the 50s, and the only time I felt compelled to put on a sweater was when cruising Glacier Bay and the Johns Hopkins Inlet. On the down side, Mother picked up a virus the last day on the ship, but that didn't affect us until after we flew out of Seattle, so our vacation wasn't ruined.

All in all, this trip was money well-spent, and it is one I'll take again in the next five years.
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