The thing I love most about Alaska is that the last great frontier can tempt even the most stalwart travel snob into shedding his preconceived notions about cruising. I've managed to convince many an otherwise intrepid, independent, cruise-averse person into making the journey through the Inside Passage on a cruise ship. In the end, in spite of expectations to the contrary, all have loved the journey with only a few caveats noted in their post-holiday reviews.
I've take their feedback to heart after making ten journeys into the land of the midnight sun with my grown sons, my sisters, an ex, stepkids, sister-in-law, girlfriends and partners, and would like to share our culmulative experience.
First off, we all agree that an Alaska cruise makes a fabulous reunion site for cross-generational travelers. It's at once relaxing and adventuresome, offering brilliant and ever-changing scenery to delight anyone who bothers to gaze into the distance regardless of age or experience.
Grandma loves the wonder of nature, the ease of travel, and cuddling under woolie blankets with the grandkids out on the deck while spending the day drifting slowly past majestic glaciers that occasionally "calf" and send shots of white thunder echoing through the canyons.She also likes the "walk on water" programs, relaxing spa and stimulating onboard classes, from pilates to Photoshop.
Kids seems to adore everything about the cruise - from the wave pools to oh-so-entertaining kids clubs where kids are invited to share their talents, live it up at a pajama party, and even learn a thing or two from the local National Park Rangers. Once ashore they participate in excursions such as dogsled camps, panning for gold, and floatplane trips. It's truly a natural born Disneyland for kids of all ages.
Young, active adults (under 35) might get their kicks from rugged shoreside adventures like hiking the Chilkoot Trail in Skagway or muscling their way down an inlet watching whales from a kayak. (There's also lots of drinking, dancing and hottubbing onboard for those interested in the occasional lusty adventure.)
So now that you're sold on the fact there is something for everyone both onboard and ashore, how do you narrow down the many choices offered for such an excursion?
At first glance all Alaska cruises might look the same but don't be fooled. I've sailed on a number of different cruiselines with a variety of itinerary variations. Some are definitely better than others, depending on the taste of the passenger. Here are some of the most importnat things to keep in mind when booking your cruise.
1) Just do it. Life is short. Strike while the iron is hot. If you have agreeable family members of any age, and/or espcially if you have youngsters or grankids between the ages of 7-15, do this before you lose the opportunity.
2) Do it right. Book the most luxurious cabin you can afford. Give up cable next year in exchange if necessary.
Regardless of the rationalization I'm heard time and again, that one is only in one's cabin to sleep and get dressed, I contend that sleeping and dressing are very important things! How well you sleep, the size of your bed, the space for your stuff, the room for your elbows in the shower, are directly proportional to the size of your cabin. Therefore, the size of your cabin is equal to your overall comfort for the week. Some people love small spaces; if you're one of them, forget what I said.
For everyone else, if all you can scrape together is $500 for an inside cabin, that's cool, too. You'll still be happy snoozing away while the boat sails to the next port through calm waters.
3) Watch out for onboard expenses! Cruise lines have lowered their prices for cabins but subsequently seems to have initiated many more options for spending money onboard which, if not checked, can easily double or triple the amount you spend for the cruise.
While some onboard perks are worth it (we enjoyed a sea day wine tasting that included fabulous wines for only $20/pp) some are not, like the $70/pp upcharge for the Santuary Viewing area during glacier day on the Island Princess.
4) Don't be afraid of the front row! Evening entertainment onboard the ship is very popular so theaters fill up fast. Our group always seemed to arrive just in time for the show to begin but fortunately discovered the front rows were always available for late-comers. Better view, too!
5) Read the fine print before booking shore excursions. Also consider booking your shore excursions online or independently as many operators are willing to make a deal in this economy. My son and his girlfriend booked a float plane trip for $100/pp less than the cruise line offered by dealing with an operator who had last-minute availability on an afternoon trip. Just be sure you're back onboard before the ship sails!
6) There are three primary ports on inside passage cruises: Skagway, Juneau, and Ketchikan.
In Skagway you can hike to the Chilkoot trailhead or many other trails just outside town. The White Pass Railroad is an interesting and worthwhile excursion but be aware the National Park Service offers FREE guided historical tours of the city through the Gold Rush National Park center.
If you're longing to fly to a glacier dog sled camp, this is the place to splurge. For about $450/pp the helicopter whisks you to the icefields where you tramp around, ride on the back of a musher's sled and feel for about 90 minutes as if you were a daring adventurer.
Juneau, the capital of Alaska, boasts the Mendenhall Glacier, just outside of town. City busses will deliver you to the park for about $5 rt. Along the way you'll see eagles and and once at the park you can hike around the lake, spot wildlife (I once saw a porcupine in a tree!), arctic terns, even bears, so be aware! For most cruisers this excursion and checking out the town is enough for a satisfying day.
Ketchikan has many nearby attractions that will satisfy frugal travelers. Creek Street (the old red light district), the Great Lumberjack Show (about $35/pp), the Southeast Alaska Cultural Center ($5 pp), and the Totem pole museum, a short walk from the pier, all offer ample oppportunity to explore Ketchikan.
To visit Totem Bight Park, take the city bus which leaves every 30 minutes from City Hall. If you want more adventure rent a kayak or book a fishing trip with one of the boat owners along the pier. We happened upon locals who were fishing off the Creek Street Pier, snagging king salmon right before our eyes before offering to let us have a go at it which was even more exciting than a shore excursion catch and release tour!
6) Eat all the Salmon, Crab, and Halibut you can. I live in Hawaii and appreciate good fish - especially different fish than we get in Hawaii. You've seen "The Most Dangerous Catch," right? Take advantage of their hard work - eat the fish! It’s awesome.
7) Avoid the buffet - eat in the dining room instead. Breakfast is typically served from 7-9 a.m. or lunch 12-2 p.m. (varies by ship and itinerary) but it’s so much better being waited on rather than fighting the crowds at the buffet, where the food is never as good or as hot and your plate ends up looking like mixed up glop from the school cafeteria.
If you need something between dining hours, call room service or visit the snack/pizza/grills onboard every ship, usually near the pools. Much better food options at those venues, in general.
8) Which ship? I formerly preferred Princess for Alaska but I've switched allegiance lately to NCL. Seems cruise lines in general have dispensed with the terrific food they were known for. No more elaborate dinners comparable to the finest restaurants in town. Unless it’s a 6-star ship, food onboard seems just okay, but NCL continues to offer so many civilized alternative dining options, making the small $10-$20/pp upcharge worth it.
Additionally, on my last three NCL cruises the staff was ultra-attentive and made us feel like special guests, another thing that seemed a little lacking on Princess lately.
9) Which itinerary? I've sailed on tours that included trips to the interior (Fairbanks, Denali), the round trip out of both Seattle and Vancouver, the one-way from Vancouver to Anchorage, and reverse.
The easist if the round trip from either Seattle or Vancouver (whichever offers better access and airfare) on whatever ship includes a day in College Fjord or Hubbard Glacier, which are magnificent. If you decide to book a cruisetour (very highly recommended) I'd suggest doing that prior to the cruise rather than after.
Or, if all that is too much, drive to Whistler for a few days, as we did recently, to stretch your sealegs and enjoy the wilderness for a few days longer. It's awesome and inexpensive.