Why would you go to Alaska? There was a series on TV “Northern Exposure” (1990) in 90’s. That was the only TV series I ever watched every episode of. Since then I wanted to go there. My late husband also spoke about it so sweetly about Juneau. He lived there. I grew quite an interest to see Aurora Borealis too. If I visit Alaska, perhaps I could see it. But I knew I did not have time, nor a budget for it. Then last year when my doctor told me I had cancer, I remember telling myself “it is not the time to die yet, there are a lot of places to visit in the world”. I promised that if I win the battle, I should go and see Juneau and Glacier Bay. That was the hook for me about 6 months. I won the battle, now it was time to travel. However, I had a lot of doubts in my mind. Was I ready for a big trip? My body was tired, I was not fully recovered, I was not able to walk for a long time as I used to do. Then I realized that I had to stop all my excuses and focus on finding solutions. Alaska was way too big to travel by car. For the last 15 years, I made a lot of road trips by car or fly far destinations. To do that in Alaska was going to consume too much time, money and planning. Between the cities there are not many roads. You have to take either ferry/boat, or fly there. I could not do it that way. But I could go to a cruise. I am not a tour person, I was not sure about that idea, so I started to search “what my best option was”.
Cruise Line and Ship
I bought some cruise books, read them very carefully. Looked at the maps, where I want to go, which cities I like to see most etc. I learned that there are more than 15 Alaska cruise line. There is two main route for cruises. Either you go to inside passage ‘Glacier Bay National Park” to see beautiful glaciers or outside passage northbound or southbound Gulf of Alaska sailing routes. Beside the route differences, there are cruise line & boat differences too. Some cruises emphasize on entertainments, casinos, shows. Some on food, they offer quality wines, gourmet food for their passengers. Some family oriented tours have a lot of activities for kids and families. There are also educational National geographic tours which provides lectures in the boat. A few photographer boats, takes their passengers the best photo locations. However, those are quite pricey. I did not hae enough budget to take one of those, even though I wanted to take good photos. So I choose Norwegian Line’s Pearl. Her route was Seattle, Juneau, Skegway, Glacier Bay, Ketchikan, Victoria BC and brings you back to Seattle. It was perfect for me. We could drive to Seattle 3.5 hours from Portland. Also NCL offers free style cruising. Which means you do not have to eat certain times and obey dress codes. Many other cruises have strict dress code rules. I like freedom!
Before you choose your boat, you should decide when do you want to travel. Cruise ships often sail between May and September. Beginning of the season and end of the season you can get cheaper tickets. You should pay attention weather reports as well. Tempature and rain can effect your trip choice. cities by the pacific ocean often rain a lot such as Portland, Seattle, Juneau, Ketchikan.
We left from Seattle by Pearl on June 1st for 7 days cruise. She carries 2394 passengers and has 1099 crew. To me it is big and crowded. But in reality Pearl is mid size ship. I was so concern that I might get sick at the boat. So I put a lot of hand sanitizer on my luggage as well as vitamins just in case. It turned out I did not need to worry about getting a virus in the boat. The Pearl cares about passengers’ health, and cleanness. They clean up the rooms twice a day and a crew girl comes to room to decorate your towel! You enter the room, you have a Penguen towel or frog on top of your bed. It was sweet. Beginning of June, you will not see too many kids around because of their schools, so mostly adults in the boat. Every floor had three roomy elevators beside the large staircase. You can choose to eat and drink at 20 restaurants and 13 bars. Every floor, has hand sanitizer machines as well as in front of restaurants one or two crew put hand sanitizer in your hand. They are singing in a rhythm “washi washi, smiley smiley, happy happy”. At first I thought they were in drugs, why would they sing silly words with a big smile on their face. However, at the end of the week, I realized, they looked genuine in their happiness. Do not forget to check out Spinnaker lounge, which is deck 13, forward. It has a 180º view and seating all along the windows. Velvet, colorful furnitures are very unique.
The cruise ticket covers food and soft drinks, coffee, tea, ice tea, fruit juices. Some restaurants and cafes are not free to eat though. You can eat free at Garden Buffet, Blue Lagoon, Great Outdoors Bar, Indigo Dining Room, Sky High Bar & Grill ve Summer Palace Main Dining Room. There are plenty food options and delicious. Italian, American, Asian, and Indian foods will add a few extra pounds in a short time if you do not watch how much you eat. You may say like me, “who cares, I am in a cruise, I am allowed to eat as much as I want” then go for it! At the restaurant, you do not have to share your tables with others. Garden Buffet is open between 6am till 10:30pm. Blue Lagoon is open 24 hours.
I choose a balcony room to stay. During this trip I learned that, it was not necessary to have a balcony. When boat moves, it is quite windy and cold to sit on the balcony to watch whales in the ocean. Let me remind you there are Asians, Indians, Mexicans and other nationality people on the boat. They speak different languages, however when someone sees a whale, the body language is pretty much same, they shout and point their fingers to that direction. So look at to see a whale on the ocean. Do not worry, even from behind the window, indoor, you can see it, there are 80.000 whales around includes Orca, gray whales, humpback whales and other sea animals, like dolphins, sea otters, sea lions. If you are planning on staying on the decks, then you should bring warm clothes as well as hats. To take best photos, go to deck 14, or sun deck. You can see 360 degree unobstructed view there. Especially when the boat parked by the Glacier Bay, everyone comes outside to take photos. When the deck gets crowded, you can move to the sides or aft to get a better angle on your photos.
The price of the rooms changes depending on where it is and the size. Window room prices a bit more economical than balcony rooms.
What to pack for your cruise?
You can bring 2 suitcases on board. Each piece weighing a maximum of 50 pounds. Put a bathing suit in your carry on and if you have any medicine that you use. Delivering you luggage to your room takes time. I saw many people were swimming in the pool, and some people were already in hot tubs, while we were in Seattle dock, waiting to everyone get on the ship. Having layers is important. If you get too warm, you can always take off your jacket. Pack a light, foldable backpack if you are planning hiking or walking around. Definitely bring a raincoat and windbreaker. A warm hat that covers your ears and a cap for sunny days. Down vest is ideal when you are sitting outside cafes. You will appreciate warm scarves and gloves too. Waterproof shoes, and a clog slipper when you go to the hot tub is very useful. Thick socks. If you wear a bright color vest or jacket, your partner can spot you in a crowded deck easily. Bring a Walkie talkie. Cell phones do not work as soon as you leave shores. You can connect NCL wifi, but it is not cheap. Bring a binocular if you like to see whales and birds more closely.
For taking good photos, carry a clear plastic bag to protect your camera from rain or splashes. Monopod is also useful!
If you are into the sport, no worry, there is gym, running track, swimming pool, climbing wall, as well as after you made effort pamper yourself at the spa. There is also a library, internet station, an art gallery, theater/movie saloon. I have seen a few people sleeping in the library, I still could not figure out why they choose to sleep there? Quite perhaps, who knows. They leave you a flyer every morning to the room, to inform you what activities on that day. You can listen live music at some restaurants as well as bars. You can play at casinos, or fond of playing chess? There is a game room for you too. If you what to know what Shore Excursions exist, then stop by 7th floor information desk. You can pick up a brochures, as well as ask questions to tour consultant. You can book your tour right there.
Do they have tremendous price difference between NCL organized shore excursions and outside? Not too much. The biggest difference is if you go to any NCL tour if something happens and you are late to return to the boat, the Pearl waits for you. There is no such guarantee for others.
I can categorize under three section all tours:
Nature tours; Trekking, hiking, walking, canoeing, kayaking, zipline. As well as fishing, whale watching, crab catching, ice walking.
Shopping tours; Walking around downtown to shop at gift stores, jewelry stores or fur stores. You can buy very impressive woodwork of totems at Ketchikan.
Food tours; Often combine with outdoor show events, such as salmon bake tour by the river.
When we arrived, it rained all day. Juneau is the capital city of Alaska has 32,556 people by 2012. That did not stop me going seaplane tour. That was awesome, seeing glaciers above, you do appreciate ice blue color water and white beauty more. Beside helicopter and seaplane tours, you may try whale watching tours. Mendenhall Glacier is only 30 minutes ride away. You can take a bus to see the glacier as well. Care to see the city above, then ride Mount Roberts Tramway. The tramway gondola takes you from the cruise ship dock in downtown Juneau through the rain forest to the 1,800-foot level of Mount Roberts in six minutes. We watched at Chilkat Theater a free documentary about Tlingit culture . It was very impressive.
If you plan to do 3 activities in a day, you should pay attention to ships leaving time. We could not do tram, seaplane tour and visiting Mendenhall Glacier . The visitor center close at 6pm. I would love to see Juneau again, in a clear sky day, it is worth to try another tip here.
Thing to do, activities, tours:
Juneau Icefield Flightseeing
Kayaking the Mendenhall Lake
Salmon or Halibut Sportfishing
Mount Roberts Tramway
Seaplane tour / helicopter tour
Streetcar tour / hop on-hop off
We arrived there in a sunny day. We went to White Pass train tour. It is quite fun to take photos from a train, while standing on an old platform. It is very scenic route, you will see great mountains, waterfalls, as well as US-Canada border station. Skagway is a small town, (population 920 – year 2010) in downtown there only 24 street. I walked all of them and take many photos. I was amazed how clean the city was. Spotless clean, yet every day about 5000 – 9000 people visit the city in summer days. It was quite an interesting for me to see a historic mining town in Alaska.
Thing to do, activities, tours:
White Pass Scenic Railway
Klondike Bicycle tour
Historical City, Gold Camp & Salmon Bake
Red Onion Saloon
It is a totem making and fishing town. It carries more a fisherman town qualities than touristic city. You will see old wooden houses and apartments, not so well taking care of other buildings. If you walk around the downtown, stop by Dolly house, can entertain you a while for a 10$. Totem Bight State Park is worth to visit as well as Totem Heritage Center. However, if you nose is sensitive, you may not enjoy smelling rotten / old woods inside the building. If you walk by the old fisherman boat harbor, you can see bald Eagles soaring on the sky.
Thing to do, activities, tours:
Saxman Native Village
Totem Heritage Center
Misty Fjords Flightseeing
Bering Sea Crab Fisherman’s Tour
Kayaking, canoeing, fishing tours
The Capital City of British Columbia, Victoria’s population 80,032, in 2011. What a beautiful green city with a lovely harbor! They do care about tourism, and plan their activities according to cruises. If your boat arrived 6pm, like us, no worry, stores by the harbor will be still open as well as their famous museum!
If you do not carry Canadian dollar with you, they accept US dollar pretty much everywhere. We went to hippo tour, what a splendid fun it was! Tour guide girl in the hippo ( they are old school buses converted the vehicle ride on the land and sea) loved puns, she cracked all passengers up. I highly recommend this tour.
Fairmont Empress hotel (have a good cup of tea there!)
Fishing tours; whale watching and/or sea lions
The Royal Carriage Tour
Electric Bicycle tour
Royal BC Museum
The best part of the cruise. There is not enough word the describe the beauty and magnificent of snow cap mountains. Crystal clear blue water, icebergs. You just have to see it with your own eyes. If you look at closely, you may see a big chunk of ice, falls into the sea. Kind of exciting and sad event. Who knows when you next time visit there, how much iceberg will be there! In order to protect the glaciers, only a 2 ship can sail a day in there. If you like to learn more about glacier, I highly recommend listening rangers at the boat. The ship will spend one or two hours there. Therefore, you have enough time to take photos, do videos, and see the rangers presentations. You can ask questions to them as well. They also sell books and DVD’s on the boat. I bought some, do not miss that.
I have never expected 7 days cruising could be this much fun and relaxing. I enjoyed the most you sleep and the next day you are in a different city! What a luxury without carrying your luggage, no hassle with passport control, no screening. Comparing to flying, it is much more pleasant experience, and a stress free travel! Flying is much faster but also no fun anymore. Especially when TSA treats everyone as a potential terrorist. The whole experience is like going Vegas and have fun. Everyone on the boat in a good mood, people actually are smiling, and kind each other, including crew. Even at the harbor, people smiling and say ‘welcome, thank you’ each other. If you like to pamper your hedonistic side, take a cruise, it is worth every dime!
Meanwhile at the boat I learned that, it is much harder to see Aurora Borealis in Juneau or Ketchikan, Skagway. Because they are in south, you need to go further north like Fairbanks, Anchorage. It seems like I got to do another trip.