Hi there – I have finally found the time to sit down and write a review of my awesome trip to Alaska with my husband in August 2009. We left Vancouver on 31st July 2009 and spent 7 days on board Radiance of the Seas – Northbound and then 10 days driving in Alaska. Sorry if this review is a bit long winded but with such an amazing trip it is difficult to trim it down!! Just a little about us – Me 48, Hubby 54, neither terribly active although will give most things a go – I am a little more adventurous than my hubby. Although he would say that he knows his limitations better than I!! Here goes.
We arrived in Vancouver two days prior to our departure. We live in New Zealand and have a daughter who lives in Vancouver so we stayed with her for those two nights. The temp on arrival was 34.4 degrees Celsius – gorgeous after leaving winter!!! The night we arrived they had a fireworks display down at the Bay and it was fun with loads of people milling around. Had dinner down at the bay and “people watched” until the fireworks.
The day of departure we got a taxi to the pier and embarkation went without a glitch – very impressive!! We would have been half an hour from arrival at the pier to being onboard the ship. This being our first cruise, we have nothing to compare it with but I have to say Radiance of the Seas was AMAZING – she lived up to all our expectations and we had to keep reminding ourselves that we were on a boat!!
We were onboard by 12.30pm and after taking photos around the ship and getting our bearings we headed to the Windjammer Café for lunch. We were very impressed by the variety and quality of the food on offer. I had read varying reports on this forum but felt that there was something for everyone and was a little puzzled as to how people could think this was below standard.
Next, after consuming way more than we should have – a sign of things to come!!! –we headed for our cabin. (Just a wee note here – don’t pack any clothes that “just fit” ‘cause they definitely WON’T fit by the end of the cruise!!! We were very happy with our cabin – a balcony cabin which I felt was a reasonable size and very clean and tidy. Our bags had not yet arrived so we dumped our carry ons on headed out for more exploring. It was sooo exciting – checking out all the activity areas – the mini golf, the climbing wall, the night club, the pools, the spas – I was like a kid at Xmas!! I had put so much time and effort into planning this trip and it was just so cool to finally be there and setting off.
Just before 5pm we headed up to the top deck in preparation for Sail Away. They had a band playing and were serving delicious Cocktails. After several of these the ship seemed even more amazing!!! The weather was hot and sunny and the Sail Away party was a lot of fun. Sailing under the Lions Gate Bridge was awesome as there is not a lot of clearance and a few young kids were on their bikes on the bridge waving goodbye. The sunset that night was fantastic and produced a brilliant orange sky. By this time we were down in the MDR having our dinner.
Our table in the MDR seated 12 people and we were at the late seating. I had originally booked the earlier seating but changed it after reading various comments on this forum. I am soo pleased that I did as we were soo busy in Ports all days that we would never have been ready to eat at 6.30pm. We had fabulous dining mates that we looked forward to catching up with each evening – actually we usually went “Clubbing” with them afterwards. I had initially been a little anxious as to how this would work – eating with strangers every night but it was great.
The first day we spent at sea and spent most of this day just wondering around the ship. My husband loves Vanilla Latte and as this was not included in the price, he very quickly found the coffee shop where he could buy this – great deal – for $2.25 you got a coffee and the choice of a cake from a delicious array. We took a dip in the pool and had a soak in the spa. That night was the first formal night and this was lovely – to see everyone dressed up and making an effort was great. Couldn’t be bothered joining the super long line for a photo though!! Had our own camera and a lovely “passerby” took a great photo of us – for free!! After dinner headed to the Nightclub for a bit of Boogie then headed to bed about 1am. Slept soundly.
Awake early at 6am – have no idea why – I NEVER wake this early at home – watched our ship dock in Ketchikan then headed to the Windjammer for a delicious breakfast. We had booked a Bear Watching trip with Island Wings so headed for our collection point after breakfast. Terry arrived in the van and took us to the dock where there seems to be float planes for Africa!! Obviously people get around in Alaska very differently to how they do in New Zealand!! Michelle (our pilot) arrived in her plane (much to my husband’s shock – he thought I was kidding when I said we had a woman pilot!!). My hubby is not a good flier but he sat up there in the front next to Michelle and had a blast!! The flight was wonderful – very scenic and very smooth.
Before we knew it we had arrived at Traitors Cove and were off the plane and headed for the platform that overlooks the waterfall where the bears feed. On arrival there was one bear there catching salmon. Shortly after this bear left and two more arrived – they were fishing for salmon and it was just amazing!! The stream was writhing was salmon – it was easy pickings. They were jumping into the water and jumping all over catching salmon – it was everything I had imagined it would be. One of the bears even came up towards the platform and started to walk up the stairs – he got to within three metres of my husband then veered off into the woods. Awesome photos and video!!
We then left the platform and headed to a bridge that spanned a river and we watched three more bears wander down into the water to fish for salmon. Whilst the bears were taking most of our attention – the Bald Eagles were everywhere – I lost count of how many we saw. We even saw one dive down and grab a salmon with its talons and fly off!!
We spent about 2-3 hours watching the bears then returned to the pier to be picked up by Michelle who then gave us a Scenic Flight back to our ship. We flew over the Fiords and saw some amazing scenery – hidden lakes, huge waterfalls and beautiful snow capped mountains. Truly breathtaking!!
Returned to Ketchikan and wandered around the shops for a while – these were a bit crammed with tourists and I did not really enjoy this (although I was one of them). Ketchikan is a lovely little town but was difficult to explore in the little time that we were there. Finally, feeling exhausted, we returned to the ship about 3pm and headed to the Windjammer for lunch – very yummy. Then headed to our cabin for a “Nanny Nap” before it was time to eat again!! Headed to the MDR for another lovely evening of catching up with our new found friends and finding out what everyone else had done that day. Once again finally hit bed about 1am.
The next morning again up at 6am and arrived in Juneau. Three cruise ships in dock so lots of people milling around. After breakfast in Windjammer we headed to shore and across the road to Orca Enterprises where we had booked a Whale Watching excursion. After a short wait we were boarded onto a bus which took was to the boat. Captain Larry was friendly but his buddy was the one who did all the talking – can’t remember his name – but he was great. He was very knowledgeable and obviously loved his job. This trip was amazing – we saw big pods of Humpback Whales, breaching and Bubble Net Feeding. These are truly awesome creatures and quite took my breath away. I could have stayed out there watching these whales for hours – I can’t describe the privilege it was watching these creatures.
On the way back we were dropped off at the Mendelhall Glacier and spent an hour there. We walked over to the waterfall which was a lovely walk but did not have time to visit the Visitors Centre there as we had to get back to the Ship – would like to have had more time there.
Once back on the ship – had a snack at Windjammer then headed back to cabin for another Nap. Awoken by phone call at 5pm to remind me of my booking for my massage at the Spa – shot out the door and enjoyed a fantastic and relaxing massage in the Spa following by a lovely soak in the spa pool.
Headed back to the MDR for dinner – once again a yummy dinner with a great selection. The night before one of our table had asked if we would be having shrimp cocktail at all – our waiter explained that this was not on the menu but he would see what he could do. Tonight the Chef had made everyone at our table a Shrimp Cocktail – how’s that for service. This also happened later in the cruise with Baked Alaska – this wasn’t on the menu but was made especially for our table!! Very impressed. Again hit bed about 1am. Slept like a log!!
Next day we arrived in Skagway and we went on the White Pass Railway trip. The scenery was beautiful. We boarded the last carriage so we could stand out the back and take photos – great choice as the photos ops were endless. The weather was gorgeous – in fact it was wonderful for the whole trip – no rain at all. After the train trip we headed into town and wandered around Skagway which is a quaint little town with cute little boutique shops. Had a lovely ice cream and did some shopping then headed back to the ship. Grabbed a bite to eat from Windjammer then headed out to the pool, had a swim then lay in the deckchairs and watched a whale in the bay – truly amazing to see this great creature so close to shore. Another yummy meal in MDR and catch up with everyone – we then all headed to the Nightclub but the music was terrible and the Club was empty – not really surprising with the crappy music!! In bed by midnight after heading out to the front of the ship to get our “Titanic” photo!! Word of warning – it is unbelievably FREEZING up there – make sure to dress warmly.
In the morning we arrived at Icy Strait Point and we were tended to shore. The weather was again fine but the air was very smoky due to the forest fires over by Fairbanks. Headed in to book the Zip Line and have a quick look around. Then it was onto the bus for the ride up the hill. The Zipline was AWESOME – managed to video the whole ride down and loved it. Great views of the bay on the way down and just soo much fun but over way too soon!!
After this we had lunch at the restaurant on the pier then headed to the car park to be picked up by Marjorie from F.I.S.H.E.S. to do another Whale Watching trip. I had loved the last Whale Watching trip but this one just blew my mind – words can not describe how awesome this trip was. It felt so surreal – to be sitting in a boat in absolutely flat calm waters and the only sound is that of the whales’ blow holes as they surface around you is something that is not easily described. I would return to Alaska in a heartbeat just to do this again!!! I have a very stressful career and am on-call 24/7 and often ask myself, as I am hauling myself out of bed at 3 o’clock in the morning, why I do this. Well as I was sitting there watching those whales, I had my answer – this is why I do it – so I can be here and experience this!!! There were so many whales I just didn’t know where to point my camera!! I was very sad to leave these creatures but will return again one day to experience this again – the funny thing is that it was the Bears that I was most looking forward to but it was the Whales that stole my heart!!! You just gotta be there!!
Returned to ship for quick nap before dinner. More yummy food and our second formal night – again a fantastic evening with a lot of fun had by all. Great 70’s party in the Atrium – a little cramped so we partied in the glass elevator – soo much fun – but be aware of the Indian from the Village People!!!
Sadly the next day was our last. Up early – 5am!!! (Don’t quite know what hubby was thinking!!) Arrived at Hubbard Glacier today and it was amazing. The Glacier is huge and constantly calving. The sound that the calving makes is like thunder and echoes right around the glacier. Once again got some amazing video footage and photos. Very cold but wrapped up warmly and had a great morning. Spent the day eating and relaxing – went for a swim and a soak in the hot tub. Drank some more cocktails and caught up with a number of various people that we had met over the week. Went and played Bingo – lost!! Then went to see a movie. Ate more food. Had our last dinner in the MDR and said our goodbyes to our new cruise buddies after exchanging email addresses. Returned to our cabin aware that we had an early start in the morning - packed our bags and put them out. Once again slept like a log!!
Up early to be down in the Schooner Bar to await the announcement to disembark. This, of course, was after eating more food!! Disembarkation went smoothly but very sadly!! Well that’s the end of the cruise section – hope you are all still hanging in there!!! Will continue with the land portion shortly.
Just a note here – after booking our cruise and flights etc I read on C.C. that it is probably best to do the land portion first then the relaxing cruise following. Well of course I had already booked this in the opposite order. I felt a bit gutted and hoped that it would work out okay. Well in hindsight, I absolutely had – we were exhausted after the cruise – certainly not what I would call a “nice relaxing cruise”. Alaska is about the scenery and wild life not about relaxing on the boat. So with that in mind we got to the end of our cruise and were feeling exhilarated but somewhat shattered!!! Definitely pleased we did this the way we did with the cruise section first followed by the land portion.
Anyway on with the story!!
We went from the ship to the Rental Car place in a shuttle and picked up our rental. We then drove to the Whistle Stop where we had booked for the night. As we were early our place was not ready so we headed off to explore Seward. First we went to the SeaLife Centre which was okay but no different from any other Sea life place. After this we wander around Seward and went to the local supermarket and picked up some food. Returned to our accommodation after our Check In time and it still was not ready. Wandered down the wharf for a bit – lots of activity here with boats coming and going. Finally checked into our unit to find that the door did not lock so went in search of the owner. We found that she was not very helpful and didn’t really seem concerned – would not stay there again.
Next we headed out to Exit Glacier which is beautiful and would recommend the drive out here. We walked right up to the Glacier where it was very windy and really cold. After this we drove back to Seward and again wandered down to the wharf where the boats were coming in with their catches for the day – lots and lots of fish being weighed in. Grabbed a burger for a quick dinner and headed back to our room. Sadly, watched our ship sail away without us then settled into bed at 11pm and it was still daylight outside – slept with our eye masks from the plane on!!
Next morning we arose and started our drive to Anchorage. Lovely scenery along the way but no wildlife. Stopped in at the Alaska Wild Life Conservation Centre which was worth the stop. Lots of animals here and we were thinking that maybe this was the “wildest life” we would see. Much to our disappointment we did not see any Beluga Whales either.
We had thought that it would be relatively easy to find our way around Anchorage being that the streets are 1st Street, 2nd Street etc – but how wrong we were!! The streets go 1st Street, 3rd Street, 5th Street and then there is East and West to contend with – not easy at all. So after several hours of driving mindlessly around Anchorage – I kept telling my husband that we were just sightseeing – we finally found our accommodation which was a Backpackers. Not wonderful but it was a bed for the night. Once checked in we headed down town for a bite to eat then home to bed.
Next morning we headed to the Anchorage Market which was not what we had expected from the internet and advertising. It was just a market and nothing special. Bought a couple of biscuits and were on our way to Denali. Stopped along the way at Wasilla to buy food at a supermarket and continued on.
The drive was nice but became quite repetitive after a while. Very easy driving with not a lot of traffic. Arrived at our accommodation – The Denali Morning Hostel – mid afternoon and checked in. We were staying in the Octagon Room which was a lovely little room upstairs in a log building. Toilet and shower were just across the hall and it was lovely and warm – for the first time in our trip the air had a chill to it. Once settled in we headed into the shopping area down the road. Wandered around the shops and checked out the place where we were going White Water Rafting the next day. Lots of tour buses around and some big Hotels in this area. Once we had looked around we headed back to our place and went across the road to a restaurant called “The Perch” and had a lovely dinner with great service. Finally settled snuggly into bed – in flannelette PJ’s – about 10pm – still daylight outside.
Up early the next morning and sat down by the stream next to our cabin and drank hot coffee from across the road and Danishes that we had bought with us. The area was very beautiful and reminded me a lot of New Zealand. More photos!! We then headed to Denali National Park and visited the Visitors’ Centre which was a nice wander. Some very interesting facts and figures on the walls and some cool displays. After this we headed into the park. As my husband gets badly car sick we had decided just to go in as far as we could in a private vehicle. Mount McKinley was “kinda” out – we saw a few peeks of it but not really a good view. When we reached the carpark we climbed to the top of the hill and the view was amazing. We did not see any wild life which was not surprising as we only just entered the park – I would recommend if possible go well into the park and see the wild life!!!!
Next we headed to the Denali Outdoor Centre where we had booked a White Water Rafting trip in the afternoon. We had originally booked the later 6pm trip but changed it to earlier when we realized how chilly it was. Once we were all dressed up in our drysuits we headed for the river. This was a great trip although one of the boats popped really early in the trip so we had to pull out and await a new boat. Once this arrived we were on our way again. Lots of splash and fun and much laughter. Due to the fact that we were constantly moving we never really had the chance to get cold but the people who had combined both the float and the rafting found that they were quite chilled by the end.
We followed this by a meal at one of the local pubs then headed back to bed. Slept well that night for sure!!
Next day we headed to Fairbanks. Now this was the only place that I had not booked our accommodation – a word of warning – if you are there on a Tuesday – make sure that you book before you arrive as this is the day that the Cruise/Land Tours are in town and there is NO available accommodation!!! Fortunately we had planned on going out to visit Chena Hot Springs anyway which was lucky cause this was the only place that had accommodation for the night. It was quite a long drive out there, further complicated by lots of road works but we were in no hurry so it did not matter. AND we saw two moose along the way – very exciting. They were both grazing in marshy streams and were soo cool. Yet another photo op!! Did I mention that I took 4000 photos???
Once we arrived at Chena Springs we booked into our room which was lovely and headed out to explore. We wandered around their lovely gardens – complete with herb and vegetables gardens then wandered over to have a look at the pool. It is an awesome pool surrounded by rocks and with warm water bubbling up through the sandy bottom. A real treat. And even more amazing – Moose come out of the trees and graze on the nearby grass whilst you are soaking!!!
We then headed over to the Ice Museum to await the guided tour. We were all given jackets to put over the jackets and warm clothes that we were already wearing and we headed inside. It was amazing. Everything inside is made of ice including the beds, the bar, the sculptures and there is even an ice toilet. If you want you can fork out $600 and sleep the night although just why you would want to do this is beyond my comprehension!! Those who had paid the extra $15 enjoyed an Apple Martini in an ice glass following the tour.
After this we headed to the pool for a soak which was soo relaxing and warming. Would have liked to stay here for longer but – Places to be Things to see!!! That night we went to the Chena Springs Restaurant and had a lovely meal with excellent service which was again repeated the next morning for breakfast. Once packed up we headed back into Fairbanks were we had the night booked at The Riverside Cottages and Hotel. Once checked in we headed off to do the Riverboat Cruise which was lots of fun – got to wander around an Athabascan Indian Village and get a feel of how hard life must have been for these people. Very informative and lots of fun.
That night we ate in the hotel restaurant out on the balcony overlooking the river. This was lovely and the meal was nice. Once again we had great service.
Next morning we left Fairbanks and headed for The North Pole as dearly wanted to send our grandkids postcards from here. Found Santa’s House which is much more appropriate for adults than kids and was ever so pleased that we had no kids with us. Everything that moves, sparkles and shines and that is Xmas is here – not toys or kids stuff but BIG KIDS stuff. They have the most amazing Xmas Trees, Huge Santas, Sleighs, and decorations that you can imagine. Would love to have brought way more than I did up alas the bags were already pretty bulging by this stage!!
From here we started our long drive for this holiday which was to take us all the way to Valdez. This part of Alaska took my breath away. It was everything that I had always imagined Alaska to be. Around every other corner was a Glacier and the scenery was to die for. WOW!!! The pipe line followed alongside this highway most of the way, sometimes above land and other times below. Normally I would have found this to be an ugly intrusion into the landscape but the magnificence of this engineering wonder kind of detracted from that and it was amazing in its own right. (And I’m a girl!!)
There were loads of waterfalls also and the snow capped mountains were just awesome and so beautiful. Whilst the drive from Anchorage to Fairbanks had been kind of repetitive this was the landscape and scenery that I had seen in the travel books. Around every corner was something even more magnificent!! We stopped along the way and took loads of photos (of course!!).
We finally arrived in Valdez in the late afternoon and checked into our B&B – Wild Roses By The Sea. Rose was there to welcome us and was a fabulous host. Once we had settled in we went for a drive into town and had a bite to eat at Subway before heading back for the evening.
Next morning, after having a most delicious breakfast provided by Rose, we went on the Columbia Glacier Cruise with Stan Stephens. There was a very thick fog that engulfed everything. It gave quite a surreal feel to the day. We came upon one whale on our way to the Glacier and he obliged by breaching right out of the water right next to the boat – it was amazing!!! So unexpected though that I missed it with my camera – so unlike me!!!
The fog stuck with us most of the trip and when we finally arrived at the Glacier we could not really see it due to the fog. Having said this, we certainly got very close as the icebergs were banging up against the boat – my husband kept asking “Do you think it is double hulled?”. It was bitterly cold out on the deck and certainly gave me a tiny insight into what it must have been like for the people on the Titanic and the frigid cold that they faced!!! A miracle that anybody survived!!
On our return to Valdez we saw lots of Bald Eagles, Puffins and Seals but no more Whales.
Once again we stayed at Wild Roses and once again had a delicious breakfast but this one was packed for us as we had to be at the Ferry Terminal early in the morning to catch the Ferry to Whittier. This trip was uneventful but quite scenic and calm. On arrival in Whittier we managed to get to the tunnel in time to go through without much of a wait.
Our last night in Alaska was spent in Anchorage at a B&B called the Alaskan Leopard. The accommodation was nice but in the morning at breakfast (which, I have to say, was fabulous) the owner spent quite some time “knocking” the Cruise Lines and the negative effect that they are having on Alaska. Although I could see what he was saying I felt that it was probably not the best way of approaching things considering the six people that were his guests at that table were only there because of the Cruise Lines!!!! I probably would not choose to stay there again.
Sadly we then boarded the plane and headed out to Vancouver.
In summary, if anyone is thinking of going to Alaska – GO!!! You will not be disappointed. I would go back in a heartbeat – if my Credit Card would allow it!!!!
Before you travel – RESEARCH, RESEARCH, RESEARCH – it will be time well spent. I can not count how many hours I spent on Cruise Critic and Trip Advisor and all the tips and information proved invaluable. I do not know how our holiday would have come together without them. Thanks to everyone who contributed or answered my many questions.