Galaxy Alaska Inside Passage Cruise June 1998
Alaska on Galaxy was a wonderful experience: the ports that we visited in southeast Alaska as part of our circle cruise out of Vancouver, being Juneau, Skagway, Haines and Ketchikan, were all interesting, friendly, safe and clean. Hubbard Glacier was awesome. A great cruise.
I reviewed Celebrity's Galaxy - Caribbean in the March 1998 edition of SeaLetter, and to some extent this review is an update of my earlier review. There is no doubt a "comfort factor" when you've been on a ship for a second or subsequent time - the familiarity puts you at ease right away, and things that bugged you before become less important.
EmbarkationBoth Galaxy and her sister ship, Mercury, were docked at the Canada Place Cruise Terminal, which is a much more attractive embarkation point than the overflow cruise terminal at Ballantyne Pier. Starting in the late morning, you can drive underneath Canada Place to the cruise terminal, and drop off your bags - making sure that you leave them at the proper point for your ship, as Canada Place can berth up to three ships at one time. We (another couple and ourselves) dropped off our bags but then instead of joining the line-up to get on the ship, we went upstairs to the Pan Pacific Hotel. At the bar on the main floor of the Pan Pacific, you can look down on Galaxy on one side, and if you step out on the balcony, you could see Mercury on the other side. By the time we had finished our leisurely drink and enjoyed the great views of Vancouver harbour, the line-ups for embarkation were short, and we had hardly any wait. The computers were "down" at the embarkation desks, which meant that we had to go the Guest Relations Desk once we got on board, to register our credit card.
The SailawayMercury pulled away on time at 5:30 PM, but Galaxy was 2-1/2 hours late in leaving. The cause of the delay was late arriving flights from the U.S., which reminds me to emphasize the advantage of booking the air portion of your flight through the cruise line. Although a lot of people say that you can book your own air fares cheaper than through the cruise line, booking through the cruise line does have the advantage that the ship will wait, in most cases, for late arriving passengers on flights organized by the cruise line. This will NOT happen if you book your own flight, and it is delayed. As fellow columnist Doug Terhune recommended in his article in the June 1998 SeaLetter, consider arriving in your embarkation port a day early, to avoid the problem of a delayed flight, and so that you can relax and really enjoy your first day on board. We didn't really mind the delay at all: it was a glorious sunny afternoon, and we sat on our balcony with our friends, sipping wine and enjoying the view. The only disadvantage of the late sailing for us was that we were dining by the time the ship left the harbour, whereas if it had left on time, it would have been the first seating people that would have missed the sailaway. Incidentally, if you want to know what you are looking at as you sail out of Vancouver's harbour, you might want to read my SeaLetter article Cruising From Vancouver, which also contains some tips on dealing with Canadian currency during a stay in Vancouver.
CabinsWe had a similar cabin to the one we had on our previous Caribbean cruise on Galaxy, and my review of that cruise described that cabin in detail. Because we had dropped our bags earlier, I was not surprised, but I was still nevertheless relieved, to see that all our bags were outside our cabin door when we arrived. When we first booked our cruise, we arranged to have cabins side by side with our friends from Texas. Then we realized that if we booked cabins on either side of the ship, we could then move from cabin to cabin and choose the side of the ship which had the best view. It certainly worked out well doing that. If you have a choice of booking a port or starboard cabin going to Alaska, I would recommend that you pick the starboard side. Although you will obviously have the opposite view when you return from Alaska as you did on the outbound portion, the difference is that the cruising past Vancouver Island (which is very interesting) occurs during daylight on your return, but it's mostly nighttime when you are going north.
Shore Excursion BookingI was peeved by Celebrity before I even got on board because they failed to send me a shore excursion brochure. Our travel agent told me that the booklets were "out of print", which seemed somewhat of a pathetic excuse by Celebrity with the Alaska season just starting. I would have thought that in the month between when I got the tickets and the start of the cruise, Celebrity could have at least mailed the shore excursion book to me. When I got on board, I could not even get a shore excursion brochure from the Shore Excursion Desk on board. (I did have a one line summary of each of the shore excursions, which I obtained myself from the Celebrity website.)
Once on board, I immediately read the daily announcements to find out the scoop on booking shore excursions. The Galaxy News announced that all shore excursions must be booked through the interactive TV on the first day, and that the Shore Excursion Desk would not be open. I thought to myself "well, at least this time Galaxy is well organized, unlike the shore excursion fiasco on my Caribbean cruise". Wrong! First of all, when I tried the interactive screen, it still had details of the previous cruise excursions, not the current ones. Why the audio-visual person couldn't have managed to get the new excursions loaded during the previous day when the ship was at sea returning from Alaska, or why they couldn't have got the excursions loaded on embarkation day by 5:00 PM, was beyond me. So, after trying the TV every half an hour, we finally found that the new excursions were loaded, but guess what, you could never access them! I found out later that only 30 people can access the interactive TV at one time, and you can imagine how unsuccessful that is with 900 or so passenger cabins. It was not until 11:30 at night that we could finally access the shore excursion detail, and make our bookings. Because the interactive TV was jammed up, you also couldn't watch any pay-per-view movies, or order wine for dinner. It strikes me that the old-fashioned system of simply filling in a form and dropping it off at the Shore Excursion Desk was much more efficient, and certainly less frustrating. I have to rate Celebrity as zero out of 10 in this respect. But, having had my big whine, I can say that all of the shore excursions appeared to be well organized, on time, and a reasonable value for the money. The particular shore excursions that we took included the White Pass and Yukon Route Railway in Skagway, the Mendenhall Glacier Raft Trip in Juneau, and the Misty Fjords Flight in Ketchikan, and all were great. I will give some detail when I get around to writing my port reviews.
Dining RoomI'm sorry, but I have to start whining again. Because we really enjoyed the location of our dining room table on our previous cruise on Galaxy, we tried to see if we could book that specific table (something that we had never tried to do before, despite the large number of cruises that we have taken). We were surprised and delighted to get the booking for our specific table at second sitting when we received our cruise tickets, and especially when we received a "reservation number" like you do for a hotel. When I got to my cabin I found out that not only didn't I get the table that I requested, our friends were not even sitting at the same table as us. So, off for the 45 minute line up to see the maitre d'. In the past when I have gone through the line-up for the maitre d' routine, I've always found that the maitre d' blames the travel agent for any screw up in dining arrangements. I thought I had the maitre d' this time, when I flapped my reservation number at him. As he couldn't blame the travel agent, he blamed the head office of the cruise line, and flapped his great computer printout back at me, showing that no specific table had been reserved. I finally got a table for four with our friends, but not quite as good as the one that we had booked. I have to rate Celebrity zero out of 10 for that one also. There were certainly passengers more unhappy than I was, because they could not even get into second sitting at all. It used to be said that first sitting was the most popular on an Alaska cruise, because older people preferred that sitting. Perhaps that has now changed because the average age of passengers going to Alaska is a lot younger, but also perhaps because many people realize that with the busy shore excursions and late twilight in Alaska, second sitting makes more sense. Even at second sitting with our inside table near the edge of the balcony, we could still see passing scenery while we ate, because it got dark so late. On the positive side, I can also report that the food was excellent (but not head and shoulders above other cruise lines like a number of other people tend to say). Our service was excellent, better than the last time.
On Board FunCruise Director Don Fluke did a great job of organizing on board activities for our couple of sea days. We never ran out of things to do. I didn't even get too fussed about the art auction taking up the main drinking lounge part of the time. Unlike my Caribbean cruise, there seemed to be few Europeans on board, and we weren't subject to announcements in multi-languages. Even the art on board, which I previously described as "goofy", became familiar, and not too annoying. Although my wife and I are not fans of the evening shows on cruises, I can say that the comedian, Carey Long, was excellent, as was the magician, Murray Hatfield.
Many people will already know that Glacier Bay is the main area for cruise ships to visit glaciers in Alaska. Glacier Bay is, however, protected by U.S. Park Regulations which restrict the number of ships which may visit at any one time. This is not usually a problem for the major cruise lines, such as Princess and Holland America, who have been visiting Alaska for a long time. Their rights appear to be "grandfathered", and the newer cruise lines are the ones that have problems getting access to Glacier Bay. Celebrity appears to be one of those cruise lines. While Galaxy did visit Glacier Bay on the cruise prior to ours, and perhaps will also be able to get back into Glacier Bay near the end of the season, on our cruise, and most of Celebrity's cruises during the season, Galaxy isn't allowed into Glacier Bay, and instead visits the substitute, Hubbard Glacier in Yakutat Bay. Having seen both the Hubbard and Turner Glaciers in Yakutat Bay, as well as having been several times in Glacier Bay, I can't say the Yakutat Bay experience is any less dramatic or interesting. The disadvantage of the Hubbard Glacier itinerary is, in my view, the fact that it is significantly further north than Glacier Bay, and the time to get there and back appears to be the reason that our Ketchikan visit was fouled up (see my later comments). To get to Hubbard Glacier, you also need to go through some open water, and if you are likely to have any rough sailing on your round-trip cruise from Vancouver, this is where you will likely get it.
To enjoy the glaciers to the fullest, you need to have a good pair of binoculars with you. You also need to exercise a lot of patience to see the "calving" of the glaciers, as it does not happen that often, and you really need to look quickly to find where the ice is falling into the bay. The captain obligingly turns the ship around when you are in front of the glacier, so you can get good views from either a port or starboard balcony.
WeatherWe were extremely lucky in not having a drop of rain during the whole cruise, even in Ketchikan which is famous for its 164 inches of rain per year. There were certainly times that you needed to wear a jacket, even on your balcony if there was any kind of wind. It was never really cold, however, and long johns would certainly have been overkill.
Ketchikan ProblemOn our first two ports, Juneau and Skagway, Galaxy's sister ship Mercury was in port ahead of us, and always got the best berth. This only meant that we had to walk a couple of hundred extra yards to get to our ship at the end of the dock. Ketchikan was, however, another matter. The Ketchikan cruise dock only has capacity for three cruise ships, and Mercury, Crown Princess and Crystal Harmony were already there before us. Even though as we arrived in Ketchikan, Crown Princess was leaving, Galaxy still had to anchor and use the ship's tenders to get passengers ashore. Although we had anchored by 2:00 PM, passengers were still trying to get ashore as late as 4:15 PM. The bottom line of all of that was that if you were on an organized tour, you simply had no time to see Ketchikan itself (which was a shame - it's a fun little town). You could hear complaints all over the ship about this delay in getting ashore, I'm sure it was the most common complaint put on the evaluation forms at the end of the cruise.
To make matters worse, although the scheduled departure time from Ketchikan was published as being 8:00 PM in the original itinerary, the reality was that the last tender from the shore to the ship left at 7:00 PM, and the ship itself sailed at 7:30 PM. Why couldn't we have docked where the Crown Princess had been? Why don't they consider having the earlier ship, Mercury, anchor instead and leave the dock space for the later-arriving Galaxy? I hope my readers will bear with me in making these complaints - I'm hoping that somebody from Celebrity will read this. I'm also hoping that those of you who are cruising on Galaxy to Alaska this year will be aware of the problem - perhaps there won't be any answer to the problem, but any problem that you are aware of ahead of time seems easier to deal with than an unexpected one. I should add that the problem won't always be at Ketchikan. According to an assistant cruise director that I spoke to, the next few itineraries to Alaska will see Galaxy not having to anchor at all (presumably because there are fewer cruise ships in the particular ports). However, about the end of June, Galaxy is scheduled to anchor in Juneau, once again because there are too many ships in port, and not enough docking space. Hopefully for those passengers, the amount of time in Juneau is such that the delay of a couple of hours in getting all passengers ashore won't inhibit being able to visit both the town, and do a shore excursion.
Bits and PiecesWe took lots of our own wine on board, and stored it in our cabin fridge after emptying it of all of the stuff put there by the cruise line. We weren't so much trying to save money as making sure that we could get a drink when we wanted to, without having to order from room service. It was very convenient for the many hours when we sat on our balcony and watched the passing scenery. Note, however, that if you take your own bottle of wine to dinner, you're charged a $6 "corkage" fee.
There is a VCR in cabin categories down through Category 5, and you could always bring your own favourite tapes with you to watch. There apparently are tapes on board you could borrow from the Guest Relations Desk, but we never saw a list of what was available.
Due to Alaska laws, the casino cannot open when it is within three miles of the Alaska coast. This caused the casino to close a number of times, and certainly made many people cranky with the Governor of Alaska for imposing this restriction (so far as I know, the three mile rule is not a problem cruising off the coast of any other American state or Canadian province).
Despite being in Alaska, it was warm enough for
some to swim in the pools and to sunbathe.
If you are interested in booking an appointment with the beauty salon, do it quickly. My wife booked as soon as she got on board, and found that she could only get a pedicure/manicure the following morning, and not at any other time on the cruise.
The room service food was unappetizing, except for the pizza, which once again was really good. The "Oriental" midnight buffet, was excellent.
There is a time change when you sail into Alaskan waters, being one hour behind Pacific time. The change went into effect on the second night, and the time changed back on the second-last night. You may need to keep that in mind if you are phoning home.
The "Destinations" magazine of Celebrity, which you will find in your cabin, had some useful comments on the various Alaska ports of call, but the magazine is mostly full of advertising. Keep in mind that if you wish to keep the magazine, you should put it away in your case before the second last night, when the cabin steward takes away the folder from your cabin (presumably to "refresh it" getting ready for the next cruise).
On an Alaska cruise, the captain always has to share authority, as there is always either a Canadian or American pilot on board.
Although there were excellent commentaries given of passing scenery by special commentators on board, you could not hear this commentator if you were standing on your balcony. Although the commentary was also carried on channel 69 of the TV, even with the TV turned up to its maximum, you still couldn't hear it out on the balcony.
The last afternoon on the ship was delightful, sitting on our balcony in the warm, but not too hot, sun, and watching the mountains, forests and small towns of Vancouver Island pass by.
If you are interested in seeing Vancouver's harbour as you end your cruise, you will need to get up pretty early, as the harbour comes into view by 5:00 AM.
If you are looking for a place to sit in comfort while waiting for the disembarkation routine, the Stratosphere Lounge is mostly empty. It's a bit of a walk from there to the disembarkation point, but you do have a great view of Vancouver, and it certainly beats sitting in an inside lounge, in my view.
There are dozens of good books on cruising in southeast Alaska, but my favorite is "Inside Passage Walking Tours" by Julianne Chase (1998 Sasquatch Books, Seattle - about $14.95). The book's unusual size, 4" x 8", makes it possible to carry it in your back pocket or in a lady's purse. The color photos are great, and the detail for the walking tours is comprehensive.
The Last WordI thoroughly enjoyed my Alaska cruise on Galaxy, despite the complaints I made above. I've been on a large number of cruises, and this one was certainly one of the best I've ever taken. I hope Celebrity will solve some of the irritating points I mentioned above, and I hope that all our SeaLetter readers who go on an Alaska cruise have the same great weather as we did.
Alan Walker is quite an experienced cruiser and is a regular columnist and reviewer for The SeaLetter.
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