What to expect on an Alaskan cruise
My friend, Amanda, took a land-and-sea cruise of Alaska in mid-summer 2013. During her Alaskan vacation, she sent me several postcards documenting her trip. She later shared her full cruise experience and advice for future visitors of Alaska with me in this very informative and humorous post. Enjoy!
Where Erin Goes: When planning your vacation to Alaska, why did you opt for a two-week land-and-sea tour?
Amanda: While seeing the inner passage and port towns was beautiful, the interior of Alaska is way prettier. We were paying so much to get there, we wanted to see as much as we could. I really wanted to see Mount McKinley, and you have to do a land tour to see it.
WEG: Overall, how was cruising with Holland America?
A: We were impressed with Holland America. It is a lot of seniors, but they have something for every age. For example, there is a club open every night with a really good DJ. Holland America’s level of service is extremely high. The ship is super clean. The food was absolutely delicious. And, they don’t nickel-and-dime you as much as some other cruise lines do. For example, a Coke was $1.95. If you wanted an alcoholic drink, it was between $6 and $10.
Each room has a steward and an assistant. They clean your room, provide you fresh fruit, bring your room service, deliver your invitations, bring you treats, fold your towels into animals, turn down your bed, and have your picture and name memorized before you meet. They never come into your room while you are in it, but you could leave for 10 minutes and come back to find your room is clean.
Holland America has a ton of activities. You get a list every night for the next day’s activities, like wine and beer tastings, cooking lessons, towel folding lessons, auctions and art sales, movie screenings with free popcorn (some are new releases, some were Alaska-themed like “White Fang”).
There is entertainment every night. There were some excellent singers and dancers on our ship. There was a hysterical game show one night. The crew did an Indonesian cultural show. There was a comedian, ventriloquist and a dance competition among cruise passengers. There were a lot of nature talks with an on-board naturalist. You could be as busy or as lazy as you wanted. The ship also served tea every day. It was kind of nice. Basically, they want you fat and happy. I would totally cruise with Holland America again.
WEG: How was the weather in Alaska?
A: It was the best summer that Alaska has had in 33 years. Almost every day was in the high 60s to mid-70s (Fahrenheit). And, the sun feels hotter there, so it was pretty warm most days. We experienced minimal rainfall — except where it rains every day, like Ketchikan. The day we were in Ketchikan, it was 61 degrees Fahrenheit with rain showers and overcast. It was misty all day, but it wasn’t really rainy.
WEG: What would you suggest travelers pack for an Alaskan cruise?
A: You do have to layer. We had such little rain, I was OK with just an umbrella. But, normally, I think you would want a rain jacket with a hood so your hands are free to take pictures. I wore my fleece (jacket) only three times. Otherwise, I was in shorts, T-shirts and sometimes a lightweight sweatshirt. Overall, things are pretty casual in Alaska, but I did wear a dress to Seven Glaciers. It’s a AAA four-diamond restaurant, and there were people dining there in shorts! So, if you aren’t doing formal nights on the cruise ship, you can get by in Alaska with casual clothing.
For more information about packing for an Alaskan cruise, check out this post about how Amanda packed for the cruise.
WEG: Let’s talk about some of your excursions. What did you do in Ketchikan?
A: We went to the Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show, which I would recommend. It is cheesy, good fun, but they do a really great job. And honestly, the lumberjacks are hot. They get the crowds involved, and they give you some history about why lumbering was so vital to Alaska — and still is. The guys putting on the show are REAL lumberjacks.
We also went to Totem Bight State Historical Park. It’s a tiny park in the woods on a shoreline. It has original totem poles. To carve a totem pole, you have to be approved by your clan and the state. It is cool. We were there probably two hours. It is worth visiting to get that history.
WEG: Next on your trip itinerary was Juneau. What did you think of it, and what did you do there?
A: The capital has no roads into it nor a hospital that can do major surgeries. There are three ways to get there: by boat, by plane or by birth.
We went to two excursions in Juneau. That’s where we did whale watching, which you absolutely have to do. Our boat didn’t do this, but another in the afternoon had microphones that went down into the water so you could hear the whales. They guarantee you a whale sighting — or your money back! The whale-watching company also gives out free hot chocolate and coffee. There were concessions you could buy too, but it’s FREE hot chocolate. All you want. I had four cups. There was a naturalist on the boat, and she gave a really good speech. There is both indoor and outdoor seating. It was raining the whole time we were on the boat, but I refused to go inside and miss a whale. I was soaked. So was my camera.
We also went to Mendenhall Glacier. It is beautiful. There is a pretty park, a nice visitor’s center, a waterfall, bears and some hiking trails. You go, you look at the glacier, you take some pictures, you listen to the park ranger, you go to the visitor’s center. It’s really not a long excursion. I got to touch a piece of a glacier. The ranger said, “You are touching ice that is 200 years old, and just to put that into perspective, the snow that formed that ice fell during the War of 1812.” So, I touched really old ice.
Afterwards, we were on our own. The weather cleared up, so we took a tram up to the top of Mt. Roberts. It has wonderful views of the fjords. There are hiking trails. Some are harder than others, but some are flat and you just walk around the circumference of the mountain. There are views of downtown Juneau. There is a restaurant up there, and we ended up having coffee up there. It was like eating in a treehouse. There was a movie about the Tlingit (pronounced Klingket) people and their stories that revolve around the raven. We didn’t plan to be up there very long, but we were there for four hours. You just get sucked in, but I don’t know what it would be like if it wasn’t a clear day.
Juneau has a lot of touristy-type stores and some cute, independent shops, so it’s worth walking around. You can see the governor’s mansion, where Sarah (Palin) lived.
We had king crab at Tracy’s King Crab Shack. I was told the crab leg was longer than a foot and full of meat. I had a crab leg, two crab cakes and crab bisque — it was a crab shack. They also had cod and halibut. My mom had a seafood salad on a roll, and she said it was really good. It is literally a shack. You order and then sit at picnic tables. There is no bathroom, but there is a public restroom across the street, under the library. The shack is located near the cruise ship dock.
WEG: What did you do in Skagway?
A: We went to a musher’s camp and did dog sledding. You get on a bus, and it takes you through the valley — which is very pretty — halfway up a mountain. The dogs are higher up because they need to be cool. It was 76 (degrees F) on this day, so it was pretty hot. Then you get into a unimog — like an open air tank — and it takes you the rest of the way up. Then you meet the dogs. These dogs run the Iditarod. Six people and a real musher get into these aluminum vehicles without doors, and that’s what the dogs pull. The musher said a 16-dog team pulls 2,500 pounds. These dogs can move. There was one curve where I thought we were going to flip. It was so cool — better than a Disney ride. The dogs do smell though because they are working. Then the unimog took us down to a gift shop. We got to hold puppies. The puppy I held was nine days old. They are super friendly dogs, and you are encouraged to hold them to acclimate them to people.
We ate lunch at Sweet Tooth Cafe. It’s like a typical greasy spoon, but it’s one of the few restaurants open year-round. Good food.
WEG: How was cruising Glacier Bay?
A: We didn’t get off the ship, but I spent 98 percent of the day outside. It was cold when the ship was moving, so I wore my fleece. When the ship wasn’t moving, I could take it off, and I was fine in a three-quarter length T-shirt. The ice moves 12 to 18 inches a day, so it makes these loud, roaring noises. We didn’t see any major carving, but we did see some small ones. We didn’t see every glacier, but the cruise ship brought food out to us so we didn’t have to miss anything.
WEG: On to the land tour. How was Alyeska?
A: Alyeska is the only four-star resort in Alaska, and it is totally gorgeous. It’s also home to the longest double black diamond ski slope in North America, and they get over 100 feet of snow every winter! Tall, tall trees are buried by snow and you ski over them. The resort has a beautiful salt water pool, hot tub, spa, gym and several restaurants on its premises — it’s where Seven Glaciers is located. The hotel has an excursion concierge. We were there for two nights. They put some sort of scent in the room that is intoxicating. I want to go back just to smell the room.
WEG: What did you do while staying at Alyeska?
A: The town of Girdwood has all of three stores, but really good restaurants.
On the second day, we went to breakfast. You HAVE TO go to The Bake Shop for breakfast. It is cash only. The sourdough pancakes are super good, but the sweet roll is oh-my-God good. My mom had an omelet, and she said it was good, too.
For dinner that night we went to a bar called Chair 5. Everything there looked good, but we had deep dish pizza that was so good. They’ll split toppings, so we had half Hawaiian and half Margherita. It takes 30 minutes to bake, but it’s totally worth it. It’s also great for people watching.
WEG: What did you think of Portage Glacier?
A: Portage Glacier was better than Glacier Bay. It’s just one and it’s smaller, but you are in a smaller ship so you can get closer and it carved a bit more. Don’t miss Glacier Bay, but Portage Glacier is beautiful.
WEG: What did you do in Anchorage?
A: I didn’t really like Anchorage, but we did go to dinner and had really good food at Glacier Brewhouse. I had Thai chicken pizza. It was so good. My mom loved it, too, and she doesn’t even like Thai food. The yummy crust was made with their beer and it caramelized. It had a peanut sauce instead of pizza sauce, and it was topped with shredded chicken, sprouts, bamboo and basically like Pad Thai on a pizza. What really was wonderful and what they are known for was peanut butter pie.
WEG: From Anchorage, you took an eight-hour train ride to Denali. How was that?
A: The train ride included breakfast and lunch in the domed-roof train. The food was excellent with sit-down service and linen table cloths. We had perfect blue sky, and the view around each corner was so, so pretty — mountains, lakes, rivers and canyons. You can even see Sarah Palin’s current house. You can’t see Russia though.
WEG: How was flying over Mount McKinley?
A: If you can afford to do it, it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But, it costs about $400 per person for a 1.5-hour flight. We were in an eight-seater plane. The pilot circled the summit and several levels of the mountain and between the two peaks. You also fly over the Alaskan range – what they call the Grand Canyon of Alaska. There are a ton of glaciers in them. They are all snow capped. It’s really cool. We wore headsets with a microphone. Once you get to a certain altitude you had to wear an oxygen mask because it’s not fully pressurized.
WEG: How was the tundra tour?
A: It was eight hours but probably could have been six. You see a lot of wildlife. If it’s clear, you have a great view of Denali aka Mt. McKinley. Only about 30 percent of visitors see Denali in full view. But a guide said it was more like 10 percent, and they refer to the mountain as “her.” We saw moose, bears, arctic squirrels, caribou, Dall sheep and a Willow Ptarmigan, the state bird of Alaska.
Wish you were here,