Wednesday, June 11, 2014

NCL Cruise to Alaska: The Last Frontier

Seattle from the Ferris Wheel
 Earlier this year, a few of my family members decided we all wanted to go to Alaska.  Along the way, more people joined and we ended up with a nice little group onboard the Norwegian Pearl out of Seattle during Memorial Day week.  I researched several different cruise lines and itineraries for this trip and concluded that I wanted to leave out of the US and include a day cruising Glacier Bay.  The prices were right (and actually dropped closer to the day so I was refunded some money as well), so we signed ourselves up for a 7 day excursion docking in Juneau, Skagway, Ketchikan, and Victoria, BC.  The hardest part about this trip was deciding on what to pack.  On principal alone, I refused to pack a winter coat and piled on layers of long sleeve t-shirts, sweaters, and jackets instead.  It worked out for the best since we had sunny 60 degree weather for the majority of the trip.  I did need my hat and gloves in Juneau because it was windy.
I have taken several cruises in the past, but none with NCL.  There was a minor booking fiasco with my room, but in the end I ended up with an obstructed ocean view cabin on the 8th floor.  Since that is exactly what I was expecting when I made my reservation, I was fine with it.  I had a lovely view of a lifeboat, but I still had plenty of light and could see the ocean peaking around the sides/bottom.  In comparison to Carnival, the cabin size was about the same though I liked the bathroom a lot better.  The toilet and shower were separated by additional sliding doors, so you could squeeze two people in there if there was an emergency. 
View of Seattle from the Ferry to Bainbridge Island
On the whole, the ship was decorated a LOT classier than Carnival’s ships.  There were no neon colors to be found in the main atrium and I did not feel like I was in a techno club when relaxing in the main Spinnaker lounge.  The only bizarre part of the interior design was the bordello style “Bliss” lounge where there was an abundance of red velvet and bed-style seating.  The entertainment was alright, but geared toward an older crowd as one would expect for an Alaskan cruise. The main show was at 7pm and again at 9pm.  One night we had Charles Peachock, from America’s Got Talent, perform an awesome glow in the dark juggling routine.
After a day at sea, our first stop was in Juneau.  We arrived at port a little later than expected due to a medical emergency onboard.  A passenger actually had to get air lifted to a hospital nearby!  I originally had an excursion booked through NCL to Mendenhall Glacier and the Salmon Hatchery, but after additional research, I decided to cancel it and do it on my own.  Because we were there in May, the hatchery wouldn't have much activity at all.  Instead, we jumped about a glacier express bus right at the pier and went straight to the glacier park area.  After a little negotiation, the $15 round trip ride was a good deal. 
Mendenhall Glacier
The 20 minute ride included a narrated "tour" of the area by a very funny bus driver with not so funny jokes.  The bus stops running at 7pm, so that left us with about an hour at the glacier.  The view from the bus stop is beautiful and you can clearly see the glacier from afar.  There is also a short walk to the waterfall through the woods.  A sign posted by the entrance said the walk takes approximately 45 minutes... that did not leave us much time for pictures, so we decided to very briskly walk (aka jog) there and made it there and back in about 30 minutes.  The walk is definitely worth it since you get a lot closer to the glacier and can get some great pictures.  On the bus ride back, we saw a really big bald eagle sitting on a traffic light. 
We had a few hours to kill before all aboard, so we did some shopping in the small downtown area.  I was bummed the Christmas store was closed, but there were Christmas shops in every other port - so I made up for it!  One of the must-see places in Juneau is the Red Dog Saloon.  It did seem pretty busy, and there was live country music, but the dinner menu was lacking.  We ended up drinking some local beer (which was also served on the ship the entire time) and heading elsewhere for food.  Being in Alaska, we wanted some fresh crab legs. 
Beautiful Alaska Scenery
After asking around a bit, everyone kept directing us to Tracy's Crab Shack.  I ordered the combo platter consisting of a leg of king crab, four award-winning crab cakes, and some crab bisque.  Overall, the singular crab leg was big, but not big enough for the price.  The crab cakes were tiny, and had a lot of filler; however, the crab bisque was delicious.  I hate to make the comparison I'm about to make, but you can find better at Legal Seafoods here in Boston.
One of my favorite things about cruising is getting to see multiple places without having to lug your luggage around behind you the whole time.  You unpack once and actually live out of drawers and a closet for a week, just like home.  Early the next morning, we docked in Skagway and the early morning excursions started by 7 am.  On prior cruises, I have booked morning excursions and found myself rushing to try and eat breakfast before running off the book.  That makes for a very long day.  This time around, I got smarter and booked our train ride for lunch time.  Because we would be out for several hours that day, I did want to get off a little earlier and check out the town first.  As it turned out, Skagway was an incredibly tiny town with only 1 small strip of shops.  I was able to explore each shop and still make it back to the ship within 1.5 hours.  I am very glad I booked an excursion in this town or else I would have nothing to do all day.  We ended up going back aboard for a quick lunch before meeting at the pier to be transported to the train depot in town. 
Train ride through the Yukon Territory
There are multiple train tours in Skagway.  The one I decided to do included a train tour to Frasier and a bus tour back with a stop at a suspension bridge in the Yukon.  Because the train goes into Canada, we did need to have our passports with us on this trip.  We could have easily walked to the train depot as it was only a short walk away.  Once we all boarded the quaint old styled steam train, we were all into the woods.  The narration was a wonderful accompaniment and there was a small platform you could go out onto to take pictures.   I can't even begin to image how horrible the conditions were for the people building the railroad tracks.   It got pretty chilly as we continued to ascend. I have read a lot of reviews about how people couldn't get good pictures because certain passengers were hogging the platform the whole time.  This was not a problem for us, barely anyone was outside and we were able to get some great photos.   The ride lasted about an hour and was a great way to see some Alaskan landscapes.  I highly recommend doing this trip.  
Me on the suspension bridge
The bus driver picked us up from the train station and we took a short 15 minute driver over to the suspension bridge.  I'm not entirely sure that you have to pay to visit this bridge if you come on your own.  I didn't see anyone collecting money.  Our guide told us that the bridge has absolutely no historical significance and was just a nice way to take in the view.  It's a nice little stop, but I wouldn't go out of your way to come here.  On the bus ride back from the suspension bridge, we got really lucky and saw a big black bear on the side of the road!  According to our guy, he was scavenging for food after coming out of hibernation.  I was very glad we were inside the bus and not walking nearby - he was large and grumpy looking.
Before our last two stops in Victoria and Ketchikan, we had a day at sea sailing Glacier Bay National Park.  Along the way, several park rangers boarded the ship and setup a small booth in the Spinnacker lounge to give information and sell a small number of trinkets.  We officially entered the bay around 8 am, but didn't see much until closer to noon.  The captain made an announcement that morning before the park rangers would be narrating as we moved through the passage.  To be honest,
Black bear!
I didn't pay much attention to what they were saying until we were passing by a glacier or they announced an upcoming photo op.  I think Iceland ruined me a bit because I wasn't all that impressed by the glaciers.   I was able to walk on the glacier in Iceland and I think you just don't get the same experience as when you see it from afar on a ship.  I am willing to test this theory in Antarctica though, and I hope I am proved wrong.  The nicest part of this day was the beautiful sunny weather we had.  We were able to be outside the whole time and the crew opened the viewing deck at the front of the ship for an unobstructed view.  To keep with the theme of the day, NCL offers some specialty coffee drinks onboard while cruising along the glaciers.  I ordered a $10 Godiva liquor and  crème de menthe concoction.  It was very good, but I'm 99% sure the price comes from having it in a souvenir glass that I will never use again.  Next time, I would definitely order the drink since it was yummy, but see if I can get it without the mug. 
Glacier Bay
Speaking of drinks, I want to take a minute to talk about the food and beverage options on board.  On average, the alcoholic drinks were priced similarly to other cruise lines.  In comparison to Boston prices, this is on par if not cheaper.  My favorite part of the day were the morning specialty drinks (mimosa, bloody mary, screwdrivers, etc) for $4.25.  We ended up bringing a few bottles of wine on board with us because buying the bottle in Seattle and paying the corkage fee ($15 a bottle) was still cheaper than most of their cheap wine onboard.  I like that Carnival lets you bring on a certain number of bottles for free; with NCL you pay no matter how many bottles you bring.  As far as food goes, we spent most of our lunches at the buffet.  It was hit or miss, but I am a picky eater and mostly ate salad and burgers.  One day they had a Bavarian themed meal, which had yummy salads.  The majority of our dinners were in the free dining rooms.  The salmon meals were delicious, but my chicken had a weird texture.  The appetizers were all very good and I'd say overall the quality is comparable to Carnival.  One evening we decided to try the hibachi grill on board.  The one thing that really struck me as interesting with the specialty restaurants is how small they were.  Most could hold 50 people at max.  Our meal was yummy and exactly what I was hoping to get when I ordered the filet and lobster tail combo.  I don't know how I feel about paying the $25 surcharge, but given the size of the restaurants, I do understand.  Breakfast was probably the best quality when it came to buffet food, but it's hard to mess that up. 
Some cruise ship irony
Our last stop in Alaska was in Ketchikan.  I wish I would have read up more on this town because there are so many more shops here than in the other ports, and everything is cheaper! If you skip through this whole post and only read this part:  save all of your souvenir shopping for Ketchikan!  It is worth the wait.  If there are specific things you want to buy, pick up one of the local shopping pamphlets and skim through for coupons.  I found some items that were priced as high as $9.99 elsewhere for $1.99 with a coupon.  The light jackets everyone bought back in Juneau for $45-$50 were $19.99.  There were some great steals.  We grabbed a coffee in a quaint little coffee shop/popcorn store and spent all morning searching through all of the shops while eating the sea salt caramel corn.  It was delicious! 
At 11 AM, we went to see The Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show.  I did some research beforehand and the prices for this show were the same both through NCL and independently.  I ended up booking through NCL because I got a better time.  The show was really good for all ages. 
A glacier calving
Two teams of two lumberjacks competed against each other in various chopping, climbing, and log rolling competitions.  It was a high energy event that held my attention the entire time.  After the show, the lumberjacks posed for photos with the guests.  That is one of my best souvenirs.  We considered going for some food, but were pressed for time since we wanted to do a little more shopping.  Some of my travel companions did make it to Annabel's for lunch and said the crab was way better than last time.  Annabel's was also highly recommended by the hostess at the lumberjack show. 
Our last port was at Victoria, BC.  We did not arrive until around 6pm and only had a few minutes until all aboard at 11 that evening.  We ate an early dinner at the buffet and made our way off shortly after the masses.  The dock is a 40 minute walk from the downtown area.  Because of some health issues in our group, that was not an option.  After considering the others (bus, horse drawn trolley, bikes, cab), we decided to pay the $11 for a round trip ticket on the bus.  As we drove downtown, we passed some really pretty gardens and architecture.  Too bad we only had a few ours and the majority of the sights were far away. 
A moment from the Lumberjack show
We were eventually dropped off in town and spent a few hours finding shops that were open since most closed before we got there.  I did manage to pickup some of the maple whiskey I discovered back in Quebec City.  After more walking, we stopped by a bar and had a drink before heading back.  We weren't there nearly long enough, nor early enough, to enjoy the city.
All in all, I had a great time.  I'm glad I took this trip with the people I came with because I think your travel companions can really make or break your vacation.  I'm not sure that I will take another cruise to Alaska, or really actively seek out returning there in the near future, but I can definitely see the appeal to outdoorsy folks who want to see some beautiful landscapes.