by Ron Varley
Sun Princess Alaska Glacier Route Cruise
This was our first cruise, and my wife's first visit to Alaska. We spent three nights in Vancouver prior to weighing anchor from Ballantyne Pier on May 24, 1997 for our seven-day northbound cruise on the Sun Princess. We followed our cruise with a five-day land tour which started with a flight to Fairbanks and ended with a rail trip back to Anchorage. The format for this review will be chronological, followed by overall impressions of the trip.
We made reservations at the Wedgewood Hotel, 845 Hornby St. (604) 689-7777, following recommendations made in the CompuServe Cruise Forum. We were picked up at the airport by a limousine and had a nice comfortable ride into town, with a narration on the way by the driver. I had requested transportation from the hotel and was very happy with it. The cost was a little higher than a cab ($45 US), but well worth the service after a long flight from Honolulu via San Francisco. The airport had been renovated since our last flight into Vancouver. It is beautiful, with a large indoor waterfall. Immigration and Customs was very quick and smooth; our driver was waiting for us just as we came through Customs.
The Wedgewood is a small hotel with a class of service that reminded us of small European hotels. Their restaurant was being renovated, so they had a complimentary breakfast buffet in their lounge, a typical European fare of meats, cheese, juice, cereal, rolls, etc. The Wedgewood's central location made it easy to walk everywhere in the downtown area, as well as to Stanley Park, Granville Island, Gas Town, and Canada Place.
Day 1 - Vancouver
We walked to Stanley Park, where we visited the Aquarium, an absolute must. The Beluga whale display was great. After leaving the Aquarium, we walked around the entire park, enjoying the great views, trees and wonderful trails in and around the park. There are several totem poles in the park, and a very good restaurant. We had a late lunch on the patio of The Tea House Restaurant. The weather was great. On our walk back to the hotel up Robson Street, we stopped for a coffee at one of about ten Starbucks on this street, and watched the people. We also visited a government liquor store for a couple bottles of wine for the cruise. We had supper at an Indian restaurant on Robson Street.
Day 2 - Vancouver
We walked down to False Creek and took a water taxi over to Granville Island. This area used to be an old industrial area, and is now a collection of shops, art studios, restaurants and a huge market with fresh vegetables, fish, coffee, wine, etc. We had to have some coffee and a pastry at a small pastry shop after smelling all the baked goods; we bought some dried berries, homemade fudge and checked out some wonderful smoked salmon. We're wishing now we had bought some salmon and mailed it home. We had lunch at one of the larger restaurants, which also had it's own micro brewery, and didn't get back to the hotel until about 3:00 PM. After resting and catching up on the news, we walked down to Gas Town. This area was a slum area and is being renovated with shops and (what else?) places to eat. Figuring we were in training for the cruise, we stopped at a place with Mexican food and it's own micro brewery. There is a neat clock in the area that runs on steam. The clock blows like a steam whistle on the hour to the tune of Westminster Chimes with the appropriate number of short whistles for the hour. There are still quite a few seedy streets in this area but we felt safe staying in the renovated areas. Also walked over to Canada Place before heading back to the hotel, where we saw two different TV shows or movies being filmed. One was being filmed in front of the Hotel Vancouver, and one in the Yaletown area. There is a strong movie business connection here.
Day 3 - Vancouver and aboard ship
Slept in and had a late breakfast. After storing our suitcases at the hotel, we walked around Robson Square, right across the street from the hotel. It was another beautiful day; I had picked the end of May or first part of June for the cruise based on the weather for that time of year. It seemed that many in the forum had said the weather was good that time of year, and after reviewing climatological data, I was convinced this was the best time, along with September. As it turned out, we had GREAT weather the entire trip.
We called a cab and left the hotel about 1:30 PM and reached Ballantyne Pier $10 Canadian later, including tip. The boarding process was a piece of cake. A longshoreman took our bags, no tip necessary according to the signs, but the guy was so nice and friendly we gave him one anyway. We walked inside through the security, just like at an airport. Princess had lines according to your deck and cabin number, and we were on board within 20 minutes. Upon boarding, someone showed us where our cabin was and the steward showed up immediately, introduced himself, explained all the features of the cabin and how to contact him if we needed anything. Our cabin was A-531 on deck 11, the Aloha Deck (appropriate for us), and had a balcony. I am so glad we had a room with a balcony, and anytime we cruise for scenery we will have it again.
While waiting for luggage, we started exploring the ship. We had studied the ship's diagram in the catalog and thought we knew how to get everywhere. I couldn't tell you how many times I turned the wrong way all week getting back to our cabin. We were out of the cabin for about an hour and when we went back, our luggage was already there. Maybe the tip to the longshoreman helped. We unpacked and found space for everything. The closet had plenty of room and is well designed with real hangers and hanger bars on one side for long items, and the other side with a double bar for shirts and pants. Also plenty of shelf and drawer space for everything. The bathroom is a little tight, especially the shower, but we didn't plan on spending that much time in there anyway. The bed was made up into a queen and there was plenty of room at the end to walk around; maybe I am used to small hotel rooms in Japan.
As far as room amenities go, the robes were great; fresh fruit was provided and replenished as used; the safe in closet was very useful; the mirror on the inside of the closet door was useless (we used the mirror on the wall at the head of the bed); the hair dryer was marginal (glad we brought our own); the small refrigerator with ice in a small ice bucket was kept full by the steward. The room also had a small stool in front of the desk, a chair, and a television. On the balcony, we had a small table and two chairs. The suitcases fit under the bed. We had a couple of large, hard-sided Samsonites and one soft-side, and there was even room for the life jackets after the muster drill at 5:00 PM. We stayed out on the promenade deck as the ship pulled out and waited until we passed under Capilano Suspension Bridge. We had first seating for dinner in the Regency Dining Room, and arrived about 15-20 minutes late. The waiter and his assistant were great, no language problems at all; both were from the Philippines. Great tablemates.
The first night was casual and can't remember what was on the menu, but it had two parts. The left side had a "healthy heart" low calorie suggestion, which was different each night, then listed three entrees that were available every night. The three entrees were Grilled Silver Salmon; Sirloin Steak and I think some type of chicken. The right side changed each day, but always had some type of pasta, fish, beef, or chicken. We didn't keep the menu from each day, however, on several days the menu represented a different country such as Italy, France, and the USA. I had a whole lobster one night, and it was not Maine Lobster: not very good. I had King Salmon one night, and Beef Wellington another. The last night was Alaskan King Crab and Baked Alaska dessert; it was great. The desserts were always great, and we had a great time sharing them. Our waiters quickly learned who liked wine with dinner and who the dessert-eaters were. The food was excellent overall, but it was not gourmet cooking to order as in your better restaurants. However, it was way better than buffet food or what you normally get at large banquets. In our opinion it was excellent.
After dinner the first night, we headed to the Vista Lounge on the Promenade Deck 7 aft, for the Welcome Aboard Showtime show. It was basically an introduction of the cruise staff by the Cruise Director, Paul O'Loughlin, followed by comedian Dick Gold. It was worthwhile. Following this we went to the Wheelhouse Bar for some dancing, then turned in.
Day 4 - Cruising
After departure from Vancouver, the Sun Princess passed through the Strait of Georgia towards Discovery Passage, passing Seymour Narrows during the night, and then up Johnston Strait and Queen Charlotte Strait. In the early morning, we passed Pine Island and then headed towards Laredo and Principe Channels on the way to Triple Island Pilot Station where the Canadian Pilots disembarked in the early evening. Then we headed toward the Dixon Entrance and Ketchikan. I liked knowing where we were and where we were going, and used the information in the Princess Patter as well as the information on the TV that gave our position about every hour.
We had breakfast in the Horizon Court and enjoyed the views, then took a walk around the promenade deck. Walked about three miles (nine times around) -- needed to keep up the exercise or the "sea swell" would get us and we wouldn't be able to get into our clothes. We just relaxed and explored the ship most of the day and attended the Alaska Port presentation by Paul, and the Whales and Dolphins talk by the ship's Naturalist, Julie Andelman. I highly recommend attending both of these, as well as the other presentations by Julie and the National Park Rangers that joined the ship before entering Glacier Bay. These presentations as well as others are shown live over the ship's television and played from tape at various times in case you have a conflict and cannot make the live talk. For lunch, we ate at Verdi's on the Dolphin Deck 8 amidships. The pizza was great, they have about six different choices on the menu, and you can make substitutions. Over the week we ate here three times and tried all of the pizzas; California, Mediterranean, Margharita, Pepperoni, Calzone and Vegetarian. After lunch we walked some more, explored, and enjoyed the scenery. When we returned to our cabin to get ready for our first formal night, our steward had decorated our doorway with balloons and a happy anniversary sign. We had set it up with our travel agent to celebrate our second night out.
After getting ready for dinner, we attended the Captain's Welcome Aboard cocktail party. It was held in the atrium on all four decks. We went to one of the cocktail lounges outside the Regency Dining Room. You could have anything you wanted to drink. We had another great dinner, and our waiter had a special cake for our anniversary. I don't remember what we had to eat. After dinner we went to the Vista Lounge for a production called "Ports of Call," then to the Wheelhouse Bar and danced for awhile. Some of our tablemates went to the Atrium lounge to listen to Barrington 'Barty' Brown at the piano; we heard him later in the week and enjoyed his music and interaction with the audience. The "Ports of Call" show was a musical and dance show, and was appropriate for a formal evening.
Day Five - Ketchikan
In the early hours of this morning, the Southeastern Alaskan Pilot boarded the ship at Twin Island Pilot Station. The ship then proceeded towards Ketchikan, passing through Revillagigedo Channel and Tongass Narrows. We docked at about 7:00 AM with a planned departure of 2:00 PM. Ketchikan has a rich Indian heritage. The Haidas, Tlingits, and Tsimshians are all part of the colorful history of this town. The world's largest collection of Totem Poles is at Saxman Village. Totem poles were not carved as monuments to deities and were never worshipped. They bore the likeness of ancestral symbols like the Eagle, Raven, Bear, Whale and Wolf and told the tale of heroic deeds, making them family trees. The huge red cedar poles are largely a 19th century phenomenon, dependant on the chisels, steel axes, curved knives and other metal tools introduced by European settlers. This is also known as the Salmon Capital of the World.
We had breakfast in the Horizon Court and watched as we came into Ketchikan. I went fishing for King Salmon, but it was about two weeks too early. Our boat of four anglers only caught one and it was only 22 inches long (they have to be a minimum of 28 inches to keep). Well, that is why they call it fishing, and not catching. Later in the summer the fishing is great, but mostly for Pink Salmon. While they are not the best tasting, the fishing is very good, according to our skipper who caught 91 fish in one day last summer. My wife did the "Totem & Town Tour," and thought is was very good. The tour guide was a riot, and they saw several eagles. Our tablemates did the "Misty Fjords Seaplane Flight ,"and raved about it. Several others said it was the highlight of their trip.
Other tours we heard comments on were as follows: "Saxman Village" - very good; "Orca Beach Nature Hike" - good, but did not see anything but eagles; kayaking in the boat harbor - good, but a little expensive for what you get. I only had about 45 minutes to see the town after fishing, so I took a quick walk down Creek Street. It is a very picturesque town.
The ship pulled out about 2:00 PM and we grabbed a quick lunch at Verdi's; love that pizza, and the cold Alaskan Beer was great after fishing. After lunch, we went to a presentation in the Vista Lounge by Julie called "Glaciers: The Ever-Changing Rivers of Ice," and "The Birth of The Temperate Forest." Her presentation was very informative, and she had some beautiful pictures. After this, we went back to our cabin and sat on the balcony and just watched the scenery until it was time to get ready for dinner. It was a semi-formal night. After dinner we went to the show called "Gala Showtime," starring the comedy team Shenanigans. I thought it was a hoot, and my wife laughed all the way through the show. However, there were several senior citizens that did not appreciate some of the humor or skits that tended to poke fun at the elderly. After the show, several of us went to listen to The Rockwood Duo, who were performing in the Wheelhouse Bar. This came to be our favorite place. However, we usually sat outside the bar so we could talk easily. The ship set course for Juneau, navigating Clarence Strait. During the night, we passed through Snow Pass, Summer Strait, then Cape Decision.
Day Six - Juneau
Early in the morning we sailed through Chatham Strait, Frederick Sound and Stephens Passage. We woke up early, ordered coffee, and sat on the balcony and watched the views as we came up Gastineau Channel. The ship docked about 7:00 AM. We met friends who live there and had breakfast together, then took them to work and used their car to see the sights. Drove out to Mendenhall Glacier and spent about three hours there. We were scheduled to take the Taku Lodge floatplane at noon, so headed back into town and walked around for awhile. Was hoping to fly up to the lodge with our friend, who is a pilot with Wings of Alaska, but he was assigned to scheduled passenger service for most of the day. The flight up to the lodge was outstanding, and I would highly recommend it. There was beautiful scenery all the way up, and landing on the river by the lodge was neat. The view from the lodge was great and the grilled salmon was tasty. While we were eating, the owner of the lodge came out and gave us the history of the lodge and made suggestions on walking around the area.
Dr. Harry DeVighne, a Juneau doctor, built Taku Lodge in 1923. It was used as a hunting and fishing camp, and was called Twin Glacier Camp after the two glaciers upriver from the lodge. In the fall of 1930, Mrs. Erie Smith visited the lodge while touring southeast Alaska. She ended up buying the lodge as a second home for both summer and winter use. Her son stayed at the lodge year-round along with Mrs. Smith's housekeeper and nurse, Mary Joyce. In 1934 the son died of a heart attack while hunting, and Mrs. Smith gave the lodge to Mary Joyce. Mary was an adventurous girl and when she received an invitation to participate in the 1936 Fairbanks Ice Carnival, she decided to make the trip overland by dog sled. She set out from the lodge in December of 1935 with five dogs and a loaded sled to travel over 1,000 miles. Mary spent three months on the trail, traveling only 52 days and averaging 20 miles each day with temperatures as low as 50 degrees below zero. Mary operated the lodge as a tourist resort until 1942, when she sold it. Mary opened two bars in Juneau on South Franklin Street and lived above the 'Lucky Lady' until her death in 1976. The lodge became Taku Glacier Lodge in 1949. From 1942 until 1971 there were many different owners. Ron Maas, of Juneau, bought the lodge in 1971. After his marriage in 1972, he and his wife used the lodge as their home and retreat. In 1979 they began offering a scenic flight to the lodge followed by a grilled salmon dinner. The lodge was sold again in 1993 when the Maas' family retired. The new and current owners have kept the flight tour and salmon dinner.
We returned to Juneau about 3:00 PM from Taku Lodge. The rest of our day was spent with our friends. We did stop for a drink at the Red Dog Saloon on our way back to the ship. In fact we also stopped at another bar I think was called Flyers. It is right on the dock by the Wings of Alaska downtown tour office and had the best selection of micro brews I have seen since Belgium. After talking to others and taking our own experiences into consideration, I would recommend the following tours: Mendenhall Glacier, Gastineau Hatchery, Mount Roberts Tramway, Wildlife Sightseeing Cruise, Auke Bay Kayaking, Mendenhall Glacier Float Trip, Flight to Taku Lodge, Pilots Choice Glacier Explorer Helicopter Tour or Glacier Expedition Via Helicopter. It is possible to do Mendenhall Glacier, Gastineau Hatchery and Mount Roberts on your own. If you have a car available, it allows you to determine how much time you want to spend at various spots. Additionally, with a car you can drive across the Gastineau Channel to West Juneau and up into a new housing area and get a great view of the ship and Juneau. We re-boarded about 10:45 PM, about 15 minutes before the ship prepared to sail. No dinner, show or dancing tonight -- we were beat.
Day Seven - Skagway
After leaving Juneau, we proceeded southbound through the Gastineau Channel, then west through Stephens Passage and then north up the Lynn Canal. Passed east of Eldred Rock Lighthouse, then entered Chilkoot Inlet and passed Battery Point and the city of Haines on the port side. Proceeding through Taya Inlet, we approached Skagway and tied up next to the new railroad pier at 7:00 AM. There were good waterfalls on the starboard side just a few miles out of Skagway. We had until 8:00 PM to see Skagway and take the White Pass Railway Trip. We ate breakfast in the dining room this morning: a pretty good selection on the menu and service was good. It is open seating during breakfast and lunch, so you do not necessarily have the same table and waiters as in the evening. We heard several people complain about this, as they wanted their regular table and waiter. We ate breakfast once and lunch twice in the dining room, and only had one bad experience. Anyway, after breakfast, we grabbed our cameras and walked into Skagway -- a fairly long walk, but we figured we needed the exercise. There was bus transportation available for a dollar, as well as horse carriages and taxis.
The downtown area has many neat buildings, but overhead wires don't do much for picture taking. We hit the shops here looking for unique Alaskan things and ended up getting two new Lladro pieces, one was a piece with three polar bears and the other was an Eskimo Boy. Better prices by a few dollars than those on the ship. There were two other ships in port, so the streets and shops were very crowded. Our train trip was for around 1:00 PM, so we had a quick pizza lunch at Verdi's again. The White Pass Rail trip was outstanding, and I recommend it highly. There is an option to take the train one way and return by bus. This would probably be better, as the bus stops for pictures on the way back and you get a different perspective. At the time the price did not seem justified, but in retrospect it probably was. By the time we got back from the train trip, we didn't feel like going back into town so we took some pictures of the many ships' signs painted on the rocks by the dock; these are signs usually with the captain's name, ship's name and dates of command. There are many different styles and many go back quite a few years. After boarding we just relaxed in our cabin and caught up on some postcards. We should have gone to the Horizon Court and listened to a one-man show of Alaskan Songs, Ballads and Stories; we heard it was pretty good. Also, the bridge was open for tours from 3:00 to 5:00.
Dress for dinner was casual, which was the norm for days with a port visit. After talking to people about their day, it sounded like many of the other tours were pretty good. "Yukon Territory Adventure" was good but long, "Klondike Summit Tour" by van was good, and several good words for the "Skagway by Streetcar Tour" that is actually done in vintage motorcars. One couple at our table did the "Klondike Bicycle Tour" and said it was great: 15 miles, but all downhill with many stops for pictures. Both of the flight tours received good comments: "Aerial Exploration of Glacier Bay" and the "Chilkoot Trail & Glacier Helicopter Tour." We didn't hear any comments about the "Eagle Preserve Float & Glacier Flight" or "Valley of the Eagles Wildlife Tour & Glacier Flightseeing," but suspect they would both be good.
After dinner we went to the Princess Theater for a production show called "Odyssea." It was very good, especially the Cang Zhou Circus Acrobats from China and a hand-balancing couple called Duo Macaggi. After the show, we checked out a few of the lounges we had not been to yet. The Shooting Stars Nightclub was fairly dead; The Atrium Lounge had a good crowd listening and singing with 'Barty,' and there was a good crowd in the Horizon Court dancing. We ended up at our favorite spot just outside the Wheelhouse Bar. We realized that we missed last night's show and could have gone and seen it after "Odyssea." It was a production called "Variety Showtime" with comedian Dick Gold and ventriloquist Jim Teter. Our tablemates said the show was funny. The next day was Glacier Bay and we planned on getting up early, so we needed to get to bed.
Day Eight - Glacier Bay
We reversed course through Taya and Chilkoot Inlets and proceeded down Lynn Canal to Glacier Bay. We picked up the Park Rangers at Bartlett Cove, and then sailed through the bay towards the glaciers. We pre-ordered breakfast before going to bed and ate on the balcony while watching the sights on the way into the bay. Sure glad we had a balcony cabin again! The weather was cloudy, misty and foggy at first, but started breaking up about 11:00 AM. The ship moved slowly up the bay to Marjorie and Grand Pacific Glaciers. We stayed in the cabin until the ship was turned port side to the glaciers, then we went up on deck. The park rangers were narrating over the TV and ship's sound system much of the time. They also had a slide presentation in the Princess Theater that was shown live on TV and recorded for later broadcast. The color contrasts of the water, glaciers, mountain slopes and sky were absolutely beautiful. As the ship cruised back down the bay to get to Lamplough and Johns Hopkins Glaciers, we ate lunch in the dining room. Our headwaiter was in charge of seating and got us a table with a great view.
We went back up on deck after lunch. There was some calving, and you would see the ice falling into the water, then hear a noise like a rifle shot. The really odd thing was as the ice in the water was melting, it was releasing air that had been compressed into the ice and you could hear this constant popping sound. The rangers had pamphlets available for free and were also selling books in the Horizon Court. We did not get there in time to get what we wanted, and never saw the book again anywhere on the rest of the trip. Julie gave a presentation, "The Whales of Alaska," shortly after we left Glacier Bay that was very good. Had a couple of good handouts also.
This evening was our second formal night, with Lobster and Beef Wellington the main fare on the menu. After dinner, we saw both shows because we figured we would be busy packing the next night. The Vista Lounge show was "Cabaret Showtime" and in The Princess Theater, the production was "Let's Go To The Movies." Both were good, but would have been more fitting for a casual or semi-formal night. The previous night's production of 'Odyssea' was more fitting for a formal night. After seeing both shows, we stopped by the 'Champagne Waterfall' on deck 5 of the atrium. It looked pretty messy to us, but had a glass of the bubbly and some crepes suzettes: a nice way to end an evening. We cruised in fairly open waters throughout the evening and you could feel the difference, as the ship was rolling a bit. We sailed via the North Inian Pass and Cape Spencer, then proceeded northwesterly across the Gulf of Alaska to College Fjord.
Day Nine - College Fjord
In the morning, we passed Cape Hincinbrook on the starboard side, then entered Prince William Sound. Picked up the Northeastern Alaska Pilots from Blight Reef Pilot Station, then headed for College Fjord. Reached 61 degrees north latitude, which was the most northerly point of the cruise. Ate a late breakfast in the Horizon Court and then attended a presentation by Julie titled "Sea Otters to Bears and Beyond." After this, we went to the bridge at the invitation of Captain Romano. My wife ran into him about three times throughout the trip. The second time she talked to him, she told him I was a captain also, but of airplanes instead of ships and told him I was interested in seeing the navigation and controls of the ship. He said to take my business card to the purser's desk with our cabin number and he would see what he could do. The third time she ran into him he said he had received my card, and his secretary would be calling to set a time for a visit. As it turned out, we were on the bridge with a retired New York & New Jersey Harbor Pilot. It was a very interesting hour and a half visit and we were there when the Alaskan Pilots boarded.
After leaving the bridge we headed to our dining room to meet our tablemates for lunch. We all planned to eat lunch at our waiter's table. When we entered the dining room I could see one of the couples already there and the rest of the table was empty. When we started walking to the table one of the Headwaiters, who were doing the seating, said we would have to wait, as all tables were full. I tried to explain that we had coordinated with our waiter in advance. The Headwaiter got a little surly and rather than make a scene we just left and went and ate pizza. At dinner that night, the other two couples that came in after us had about the same story. One of them told the Headwaiter off and went and sat down, the other couple was seated at another table on the other side of the dining room. I could then understand some of the complaints I had heard earlier in the week about seating for breakfast and lunch in the dining rooms. After lunch, we started packing and had almost everything ready to go by the time we entered College Fjord.
This was our bad weather day. It was rainy, cold and windy. But it was the only bad day we had on the whole trip. We used the room balcony again, and were again glad we had booked a cabin with this amenity. Even ordered coffee and cookies to help stay warm. Again we stayed on our balcony until the ship was turned port side to the glaciers, then we went up on deck. We ended up finding a sheltered area on Deck 12 by the aft stairway. The ship went up the fjord past Holyoke, Barnard, Wellesley, Vassar, Bryn Mawr, and Smith Glaciers to Harvard Glacier. It was a very impressive sight, seeing one glacier after another. Not all of them flow into the fjord, as some are receding. It was time for dinner and the "Last Supper" of the cruise as we departed College Fjord. It was a casual night and we had Alaskan King Crab with Baked Alaska for dessert. It was the best meal of the whole cruise, and the presentation of the Baked Alaska was impressive. After dinner we went back to the room and finished our packing and set our suitcases outside our cabins then, headed for the Wheelhouse Bar and Atrium Lounge to listen to "'Barty." We were glad we had started packing earlier and that we had attended both shows the night before. Many people were doing laundry and packing instead of enjoying themselves. The laundry really got a workout the last day of the cruise, and many people were waiting in line. We even had to wait some the day before, and would recommend that if you are doing a land tour after the cruise to get your laundry done two days before the end of the cruise or send it out and pay for it. It just did not seem to be worth the hassle the last couple of days. Throughout the night the ship traveled through the Perry Passage, Knight Island Passage, Montegue Strait and a short time in the Gulf of Alaska, and on to Resurrection Bay and the final approach to Seward. The ship docked at 02:15 in the morning.
Day 10 - Disembarkation
We received instructions the day before with the Princess Patter, and everything went like clockwork. I woke up about 05:00 and watched things being unloaded. There were busses lined up on the dock, and everyone's luggage was being loaded. It was quite a sight and everything seemed to be going well. We were scheduled to get off between 06:30 and 08:00 and were called at 07:00 and on the bus and off for Anchorage by 07:15. Everyone was given colored tags to put on their luggage according to what they were doing after the cruise. The disembarkation was scheduled from 06:30 AM to 1:30 PM. For those getting off later most of the ships facilities were available for use but everyone had to vacate their cabins by 09:00. Princess even had a free shuttle from the dock to downtown Seward for those getting off after lunch. The dining rooms were open for breakfast until 08:00 and the Horizon Court breakfast buffet ran until 09:00. We had our last breakfast in the Horizon Court, then waited to disembark. The bars in the Horizon Court and La Patisserie were also open, and the Princess Theater ran a movie starting at 09:15.
Besides the activities and things mentioned that we did, there were also the usual cruise things such as bingo, casino, card games, trivia games, Ping Pong, shuffle board, basketball, horse races, golf putting, workouts in the gym with a great view, spa treatments and massages. There was a movie in the Princess Theater everyday, and they were fairly new movies such as "My Fellow Americans," "Shine," and "Jerry Maguire." (No drinks or popcorn allowed.) There was something for everyone, or if you just wanted to curl up with a good book you could get one at the library.
I did not mention the breakfast or lunch menus previously. The Horizon Court breakfast buffet had everything from fruit, scrambled eggs, pancakes, hash browns, sausage, ham, rolls, cheese, yogurt, etc. The bacon they serve at breakfast is outstanding. There was also a made-to-order dish everyday we were there, such as omelets, fresh eggs, and french toast. For lunch the menu consisted of sandwiches and hot dishes, including pasta and various meat dishes. You did see the leftover baked potatoes cut into home fries as well as some meats and vegetables from dinner used for lunch in the buffet. The lunch desserts were similar to those offered at dinner. Everything we had was good, and there were plenty of choices, as well as plenty in terms of quantity. The ship was very clean and well maintained. I had originally thought about going on the Crown due to the size of the Sun, for fear of having to stand in lines due to the number of passengers. Well, we never stood in any lines; the organization and layout of the ship, as well as the schedule of activities worked well. We did see some people over and over, but some characters you never saw again. There were about 48 people doing the same land tour as we, and I only remember seeing about four or five on the ship. As I said earlier, this was our first cruise and it will definitely not be our last.
Day 10 - Anchorage to Fairbanks
The bus ride to Anchorage went very well. Our driver had been with Princess three seasons and really took care of us. We did not need to be at the airport for our charter flight until 11:15, and the trip normally takes about two and one half hours, so our driver had some stops planned for us. Our first stop was at Portage Valley to view Explorer Glacier across a small lake: great pictures with a reflection of the glacier on the water. We stopped a couple of other times to see wildlife. We saw Dall Sheep, eagles, and a couple of Trumpeter Swans. I was impressed with the way Princess works the transportation and expects the drivers to keep us interested and busy until the aircraft was ready for us, no sitting around waiting. We even drove around some Anchorage neighborhoods to kill time. We were called on the radio when it was time to board, and the bus pulled right up to the aircraft. We flew on a Convair 580, a large twin engine turbo prop aircraft flown by ERA. Some people were surprised it was not a jet but everyone enjoyed the flight.
As we flew by Mt. McKinley, the pilot did a turn so people on each side of the plane could see the mountain. It was clear enough to see the top two thirds. After landing, we were met by a Princess representative, and after identifying our luggage, we were taken to the Discovery, a stern wheeler boat, for a narrated cruise on the Chena and Tanana rivers. The boat was docked at an alternate landing sight due to low water conditions in the river. When we arrived, they were not ready for anyone yet, and we had to stand around for about 20 minutes. Had the river been up and the boat docked at the normal place, there would have been some shops to visit while waiting. The tour was very interesting, particularly the stop at a replicated Athabascan Indian Village. Also of interest was the point where the two rivers come together with one very silted from glacier melt and the other fairly clear; you could see a definite line in the water where they came together. I'm not sure if we would have done this tour if it had not been a part of the land tour, but we recommend it.
We did not get to our hotel, The Sophie Station, until 7:00 PM. By this time, we were beat so we ate in the hotel restaurant, which had a good selection and was very good. After eating, we dropped by the lounge for a drink and ran into a couple who had just completed the same land tour we were doing, but in reverse; we picked up some good info from them concerning tours. There was a shuttle bus to downtown, which was about three miles away, but we were too tired. The room was a suite, but a little noisy due to the fact we had to have the window open to get it cool. Seems they were setting records for high temperature, and this was the beginning of the summer. If you stay here later in the season it could be real warm in your room, as there is no air conditioning.
Day 11 - Fairbanks to Mt McKinley Lodge
We got up just in time to board a bus to the train station and planned to eat breakfast on the train. The train was comfortable, with four people sharing a table in the upper observation area, but there was a problem with the heater or air conditioner -- it was very hot in the car until we reached Denali. There was drink service in the observation level as well as complimentary coffee and tea. Meals were served in the dining area below the observation deck. At the end of each car on the dining level, there is an outside platform where you can take pictures without shooting through windows. The cars are 85 feet long, 10 feet wide, and more than 17 feet high. They will not fit on many rail routes in the lower forty-eight. The cars are pulled by Alaska Railroad engines along with Alaska's own cars as well as special cars belonging to Westours, part of Holland America. The Alaska Railroad is the only state-owned and operated railway in the US. The views were a little boring at first but it was a good time to get to know each other and eat breakfast. They served the same bacon as on the ship. Food was good and not overly expensive.
As we neared Denali Park, the scenery got prettier. We were scheduled to get off at Denali and take a coach bus to the National Park, then a three-hour school bus through the park. However, it was snowing and the roads in the park were closed. Princess decided that it would be best if we stayed on the train to Talkeetna, then take a 50-minute coach bus to Mt. McKinley Lodge. Those passengers who were staying at the Denali Princess Lodge got off, so those of us left on the train were able to spread out. It was a very pretty ride through the mountains, especially with the snow. We did lose out on the tour of the park, and figure we will have to come back. We did get a $40 refund each due to the cancellation of the park tour. Pulled into Talkeetna about 4:45 PM and boarded a coach to the lodge.
Remainder of Day 11, Day 12 and part of Day 13
The Mt. McKinley Lodge is somewhat out in the middle of nowhere, but the setting is wonderful. Since it was built, the state bought up several thousand acres to expand Denali State Park, and the Lodge now sits within the park boundaries. We checked in at the front desk and went to our room to freshen up; our luggage was there already. Rooms are typical motel style inside, but the buildings are both long and narrow like motels or large square style with two hallways. One item that seems to cheapen the rooms is the plastic disposable cups they furnish rather than real glass. Also, it seemed like they could have positioned the buildings to provide better views, but figure they want you to come to the lodge where there is a Million Dollar view of Mt. McKinley off the back deck. The main lodge building has the front desk, tour desk, Grizzly's Bar, Mountain View Restaurant, Cub Cafe, gift shop, conference room, and Great Room with huge fireplace and wonderful view of the mountain. Drinks are about 50 cents more expensive than on the ship or train and prices in the cafe and restaurant were high, with quality not up to ship standards. The bacon they use is even different.
You are a captive audience here, and it is a long way to anywhere and will cost you to get somewhere else. It costs $15 to take the bus back to Talkeetna, a 50-minute trip, or you can go by jet boat for $60 which takes 30 minutes there and 45 minutes back; both fares are for round trip. However, this place is great just to relax and do nothing, but there are several tours available. I did the helicopter tour and it was OUTSTANDING. We both did the Byers Lake Nature Hike; it was interesting but a little disappointing. We thought we were going to walk all the way around the lake where you go over a suspension bridge and see a waterfall, as well as get a good view of Denali. It is possible to get to the lake and do it on your own if you coordinate directly with the guide that does the nature hike; they charge a small fee for the ride. The lake is 15 miles from the lodge. The same folks run the concession for the "Byers Lake Kayaking," and that looked like it would be fun. The only other tour activity close to the lodge was horse and mule rides, and they received good comments. All other tours went out of Talkeetna. We heard good comments on the "Mt. McKinley Flightseeing Adventure," but not everyone was able to land on the glacier: be sure and check this before you go. Several said the "Talkeetna River Float Trip" was good but the "Chulitna River Rafting Adventure" comments said it took too long, and the gold panning was not worth the stop.
One thing to keep in mind is that the day you leave you can take an earlier bus and spend time on your own walking around Talkeetna. We had to have our luggage outside our room by 10:00 AM and be checked out by noon, even though train did not leave Talkeetna until about 5:00 PM. We took an early bus into Talkeetna and ate lunch, did some shopping and just watched the locals. According to a sign we saw, Talkeetna has a population of 286 people and 187 dogs. The ratio of men to women is definitely in favor of the women, but a local saying says "The odds are good in Talkeetna for the single lady, but the goods are odd." I found a good price on a piece of Whale Bone Scrimshaw that had been used as a sled runner although I did not realize it was a good price until seeing several pieces in Anchorage. I ended up calling the gift shop from Anchorage and having it mailed. There were several gift shops with local crafts and arts. During our two nights at the lodge, we stayed up late watching the sun set over the mountains. It was truly a glorious sight as well as very late by the time the sun went down. Overall a very nice facility, but they need more activities closer to the lodge. Bicycles would be great, as well as hiking maps. There are several trails in the area such as Byers Lake Loop Trail - 4.8 miles and rated easy, Chulitna Confluence Trail - 1.2 miles and also rated easy. Both of these trails are by the lake. Troublesome Creek Trail is 15.2 miles long and moderate in difficulty. The trailhead for this is about 3 miles from the lodge.
Remainder of Day 13 - Talkeetna to Anchorage
This part of the train ride has some great views, but it is hard to get pictures because the trees are tall and get in the way, except when you come to clearings. You see quite a few beaver dams along the way. Also much more human habitation. The car was hot again, and with clear sunny skies, it stayed hot, but we were glad for the weather. Our overall impression of the train trip was positive, but we would not do it again; next time we will drive and do the interior of Alaska on our own. One hiccup occurred today, and it was the first logistics mistake I had seen this whole trip. It seems that even though we, and others in the same building, had set our luggage out on time, it never got picked up. The luggage normally is transferred by truck between hotels, as there is limited space on the train. As we were waiting to board the train in Talkeetna there was a pile of suitcases, including ours. They had to put them on the outside platform that took up our standing space. At least we had them.
Arrival in Anchorage was smooth and we were bussed to the Sheraton Hotel. Our room had a great view of Turnagain Arm and we could see Mt. McKinley. It was a clear bright day, and a record high temperature was set, so we found the room fairly warm, and there was no air conditioning. We opened the window and left for awhile, hoping it would cool off. There was a fan in the room and that did help. The Sheraton is about eight blocks from central downtown, but we needed some exercise so we walked down for a pizza and beer at a local place. It did not get dark until after midnight and we found ourselves mesmerized by the view from our room and stayed up late again. I will say we have some great sunset pictures with Mt. McKinley in the background.
Day 14 - Anchorage
We had an Anchorage City Tour in the morning and since we went to bed late, we just grabbed a coffee and roll before the tour. The tour was informative and our tour guide/bus driver was great. First stop was the Anchorage Museum of History and Art. We had an hour there, and need four or five. We came back on our own in the afternoon. The gift shop there is excellent and we made a couple of purchases. Of all the things we saw to buy on this trip, we think if you really want something Alaskan, get some kind of native art or jewelry. We saw many carved and or scrimshawed items made from whalebone, walrus ivory or mammoth fossil as well as handcrafted silver and gold jewelry, and beaded items. Forget the Ulu knives. There are also beautiful pictures and paintings as well. After the city tour we walked around downtown and went back to the museum. During the train trip, we talked about our plans for our last evening of this vacation. We had made reservations at Mr. Whitekeys Fly By Night Club at 3300 Spenard to see the Whale Fat Follies. Well, by the time we got to Anchorage, over eighteen of us made plans to go. The show was all it was cracked up to be, and more; it was a real hoot and a fitting end to our Alaskan trip. I had learned about the club from recommendations made on the Cruise Forum.
Day 15 - Fly home, The End!
As a retired military officer keenly aware of the need for good logistics, I am truly impressed with Princess's logistics and organization. The quality of service throughout this trip was excellent and we received good value for our money. If you ever take a cruise that is scenic in nature, we highly recommend a balcony. I would like to thank all who have previously written reviews: they were a big help to us as we planned this trip. In hindsight, a few things we would have done differently are: taken the Misty Fjords flight in Ketchikan; Glacier Bay flight in Skagway; and the bus back instead of the Whitepass Train both ways; stayed at Denali Princess Lodge and Mt. McKinley Lodge; and stayed in Anchorage an extra day. We are definitely going back to Alaska and next time plan to spend time in the Kenai area.
Ron Varley is retired from the Air Force and currently flies for Japan Airlines out of Honolulu, Hawaii. He can be reached at: email@example.com.
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