Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Cruising to Alaska - Inner Passage

So. I'm back. Kinda. I really let this blog thing fall to the wayside. I know. I KNOW. Ok. Stop. I feel bad. I wanted to put up a quick post about our cruise to Alaska, which we took in July, and I dunno, give ya'll some tips or something about cruising. Not that I'm some cruise expert now...Or...am I? Ok, I'll stop being obnoxious. Give me some time to get used to this blogging thing again ok?

Anyhoot. We cruised 7/9/16-7/16/16 with Holland America, which is one of the 4 main cruise lines which go to Alaska, the others being Norwegian, Princess, and Celebrity. Disney also sails to Alaska, but I don't believe they sail as often. When I say "main cruise lines" I mean your average run of the mill, "mainstream" cruise line. There are several high end or "luxury" lines as well that sail to Alaska, which cost more, and tend to sail for longer periods of time. This was my first cruise, and I have to say I was pleasantly surprised and we had a wonderful time. The weather was pretty nice, though we did not have super sunny days at sea. We did have really nice weather at each port, so I think July - October would make for a perfect time to visit. We departed and returned from Vancouver, British Columbia, a beautiful and awesome city. Most cruises depart around 4-5pm, so make sure when booking travel to arrive the night before because you have to show up to the cruise terminal 3-4 hours prior to departure time to get checked in and onto the boat. Our check-in process was smooth, and the terminal at Vancouver ran like a well-oiled machine. It was seamless and painless.

We did a 7 day cruise with ports at Juneau, Skagway, and Ketchikan, and a day sailing in Glacier Bay.    Whichever cruise line you go with, make sure you log in, and check out the excursions offered as many of these fill up well in advance of the cruise. Specifically, we had an excursion to Tracy Arm offered, but this filled up early, and we were not able to go - a smaller boat comes to pick passengers up for this excursion while the boat is in open water, so there is no option to try to get an excursion there later as there is no "port". However, at each of the ports there certainly are an abundance of excursion options once you dock. We ended up booking all our excursions through  Holland America (HAL), though excursions booked at port were probably cheaper, but more unpredictable with regards to timing. There are a wide variety of excursions offered, from super active hikes, to more sedate, easy excursions, so there is something for everyone.

Cloudy, but still gorgeous

In Juneau, we booked a helicopter ride with a Glacier trek on Mendenhall Glacier that was absolutely phenomenal. I highly, HIGHLY recommend doing this excursion. The tour company outfits you with waterproof pants, coat, boots, and a fanny pack replete with water and snacks. You really don't need to bring anything special, but being relatively fit would be beneficial as you do hike around on the glacier in heavy duty ice boots. My boyfriend and I are quite well-traveled, but this excursion was definitely one of the most unique and memorable. Following this, we had the most divine meal of fresh King Crab at Tracy's King Crab Shack in downtown Juneau. The lines are long, and they're long for a reason. If you have a few hours before your boat departs, I would highly recommend skipping the buffet on the boat and stopping there for dinner.

Glacier Hike.

How deep does this hole go...nobody knows...

I wasn't sure what to make of the days at sea, or late night to be honest, but there are activities onboard throughout the day, and we always were able to find things to do. In addition to gym and spa facilities, our boat had one indoor pool, two hot tubs, a ping pong table, and a bevy of board games, cards, books, and puzzles available in the upper deck cafe. There are shops to feed your retail desires, a casino, and of course plenty of seats and windows and rail space to just watch the breath-taking scenery float by. Having a nice set of binoculars are handy for catching wildlife like whales, dolphins, and bald eagles. There were shows offered at night, as well as live music, and a "night club". Food is never in short supply as one can imagine. I was nervous after reading many negative reviews on a popular cruising website (cruisecritic.com) but thought the food in the buffet was tasty and abundant. Sometimes finding a seat during rush times was difficult, but if you're willing to share a table, then you can easily meet new people from all over the world and have an interesting chat while you enjoy lunch. We elected for open seating in the a la carte restaurants rather than a standing dinner  reservation, which worked out fine given the varying times at which our boat departed from ports, but we probably would have had better service if we had had the same servers each time (more face time, better rapport, and better service?). Surprisingly I thought the service in the buffet was excellent, and overall, thought we had really great service throughout our cruise.

Of the three ports, Ketchikan was my least favorite. We did a floatplane ride over the Misty Fjords, which...was kind of lame. I'm not trying to be mean...but this was our most disappointing excursion. It was basically an airplane ride...They had us listen to this recording with strange easy listening 80's music and some guy narrating about some of the scenery. It was disappointing, because the Misty Fjords was beautiful, but the excursion wasn't personalized or unique in any way. The pilot basically hardly said a thing, which was totally contrary to our helicopter pilot who made a lot of funny remarks and commentary during our flight. In Skagway, we did the train ride, and the chilkoot hike/float both of which were really nice.

Skagway, AK

Chilkoot Float

White Pass and Yukon Route Train

Ketchikan harbor - so pretty!

Depending on the time of year in which you sail, packing in layers is always a good idea when visiting Alaska. The only time it was really chilly was when we were in Glacier Bay, and obviously when we were hiking on Mendenhall Glacier. Unless you sign up for a vigorous hike though, some sturdy sneakers were more than enough in terms of footwear. Other things I would recommend packing include a bathing suit, sunglasses, bug spray (depending on time of year and whether you'll be hiking in wooded areas), and some formal wear for the two formal nights of the cruise. You can also bring a bottle of wine (per person) that you're supposed to declare prior to boarding but no hard liquor or beer is allowed.

In terms of buying a beverage card - most cruises off a 'beverage package', which is a set price for "unlimited drinks" during the cruise. This usually means up to 8 alcoholic bevvies a day, and unlimited soda/juice etc. They did offer free coffee, iced tea, hot tea, and some juices in the main buffet that were unlimited to everyone. On our cruise, the beverage package was approximately $45 per person per day. We did not purchase the beverage package as we are not huge imbibers - but thought the beverages were reasonably priced a la carte. Also, the cafe offered happy hour everyday, and you could definitely score cheaper drinks drinking then.

If any of you have questions, or if I missed anything, please leave me a comment. Alaska is an incredible place to visit, and if you get the chance, I would definitely go!