Cruising Alaska

So we’ve finished the Alaska cruise portion of our trip onboard the Star Princess. Since we had no internet for the 7 days (I think that’s the longest I’ve ever been without internet), I wrote down the days happenings to post when we finally hit Anchorage. Post is in chronological order from embarkation day.

Day 1, Embarkation Day
So I’d read on the internet to ignore the staggered boarding times and turn up early to Canada Place. Knowing there were going to be 3 cruise ships boarding on this day we left our hotel at 10:15AM. The internet was right, there as no enforcement of the boarding times so we dropped our bags off and went of inside to join queue after queue. Since we turned up early the queues weren’t actually bad. They didn’t start letting people board the actual ship until noon and we got on around 12:30PM. An observation whilst waiting in the immigration queue (you clear U.S. customs in Vancouver) was that there were many Australians. I think that whole retirement cruising holidays thing that my parents have started doing is a thing.

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Canada Place

After getting on and dumping our bags in our room it was off to find some food. I’d heard that the main dining room is usually open on boarding day as well, but this proved false so we were off to the Horizon buffet for lunch – if we could find it. I’d been on a P&O cruise before, but I think the ship we’re on the Star Princess is bigger. Back to lunch though, the plates we were given were huge! And then there was dessert as well. As I’d bee on a cruise before I was kind of prepared about the non stop abundance of food, but I don’t recall ever having plates that big. The only annoying thing is being Day 1, all the crew were trying to sell the beverage packages all afternoon/evening. We didn’t think they were worthwhile. E.g. $49USD per day for unlimited cocktails, beer, juice, soft drink etc. You’d have to drink at least 5 drinks a day to break even! Declining the alcoholic package then meant they’d try to sell you the non alcoholic package, which whilst cheaper still meant you had to drink a lot of sugary beverages. Lucky for us when we’re in the U.S. our  drinks of choice are lemonade (in the U.S. lemonade is basically lemon cordial) and ice tea and these were included, so no extra $ spent for us. We did buy the coffee card though, as we had to feed our coffee habit and the brewed stuff from a pot doesn’t cut it. Plus the card gives you unlimited looseleaf tea as well and can be shared so we only need 1 card between us.

After lunch it was time for a wander around the ship to see what was around. Also to gauge what decks/areas would be good to be on when we’re in Glacier Bay National Park. As we’d booked an internal room as it was the cheapest we’d knew we have to find a good spot for glacier day. We did get a cabin upgrade to an obstructed window room, but it’s more or less obstructed by the lifeboats so we’ll still need to be up outside to view the park. The room is better than no windows though as now we do get some natural light inside.

Since we’re on a cruise, we had to go up on top for our sail off from Vancouver. We stayed up on top till we went under the Lions Gate bridge.

Lions Gate Bridge
Lions Gate Bridge

For dinner we’d picked Anytime Dining over Traditional. Traditional means you dine at the same time every evening with the same table mates, whereas with Anytime you turn up whenever and can share or have your own table if you want. The only crappy thing is they let you make reservations for Anytime, so since we didn’t make any we still had to wait. But it wasn’t that bad, as we’d decided we’re up for sharing tables. The good thing about Anytime and sharing is you’ll have different table mates each day, so there’s always at least something to talk about. For this first evening we dined with another younger couple who were on their honeymoon. I didn’t get any pictures of the food, but I’ll just say yum and way too much food.

It was about 9PM when we finished dinner so we headed up outside as the Captain had told us at around 9:15PM it’d be ‘scenic cruising’. The sun was setting in the horizon behind some island things and it was quite nice. Then we headed off to the theatre to see the night show. The show was okay, the main act was a comedian. We’ll try to catch one other show during our time on board but I think we’ll be okay if we miss them. Seeing as from tomorrow our days are going to be busy with port activities planned.

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Day 2, At Sea
Woke up at 6:45AM today so we could have breakfast at 7AM and be up on deck by 8AM as there was scenic cruising again. We tried the main dining room and were on a table of 6 this time. I think from now on we’ll do the buffet breakfast. It wasn’t bad, but with the dining room meals you have to wait around a bit for the waiters to serve and everyone to finish, so if you’ve got things planned it’s probably not the best idea. We made it to the deck though and had to make a detour back to our room to get more clothes. It was cold. Like pants under my pants, beanies, neck thing, fleece jacket and gloves.

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It’s cold
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Some town we cruised by the morning of Day 2

As it was a sea day we basically spent the day walking round the ship inside and out, watched an Alaska documentary and played trivia. We did see some animals but we don’t actually know what they were. Some people reckoned whales, but they kinda moved like dolphins to me. I’ll have to Google if dolphins exist this far North. In the evening it was the first formal night so we had to get all dressed up. I’ve had a cold of sorts since we’ve boarded the cruise so we were debating asking for a table for 2 as my nose decided to go wild yesterday. But after waiting in the queue we opted for shared as the wait seemed quicker. I just had to pre-empt my nose deciding to run. Don’t know where I picked up the cold, probably on the way over as the person seated next to me sniffled and coughed the 14 hours to LAX.

Day 3, Ketchikan
Overnight we sailed into Alaskan waters and went back an hour in time. We set our alarm for 6AM as we wanted to grab breakfast and food before our kayaking trip. Funnily enough, standing at the breakfast buffet we decided we weren’t really that hungry. I managed a mouthful of mushrooms and a pikelet. Probably also partly due to being a bit under the weather due to the cold I have. After breakfast we walked around the deck to get a look of the town. Look’s pretty, wooden buildings along the cliffside. Soon after we disembarked the boat and waited around for our trip pickup.

Ketchikan
Ketchikan

With cruises you can book your port activities through the cruise line but you can save a bit of money if you book them yourself, which is what we did. So today we went out kayaking with Ketchikan Kayak Co. There was 8 of us in total and we went about 15 miles out of town to a bay on the ocean. There we hopped into waterproof pants and into the sea kayaks. And off we went paddling, dripping water all over ourselves. In Australia you don’t think of it much as you’re usually kayaking in summer in swimmers/boardies, whereas here we were fully clothed so our jackets were getting soaked. In was nice and serene out on the water. It was actually the ocean, but was sheltered by a number of islands so it wasn’t too choppy. We kayaked around this cliff and since it wasn’t high tide yet we were able to see starfishes around the waterline. The guide guy who’s name I can’t remember pulled some off so we could hold them.

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Kayaking in the ocean, it’s sheltered by a few islands so not to choppy.
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Following the shoreline, checking out starfishes
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Starfish
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Underside of the starfish

Then we paddled across to one of the islands where there was a massive eagles nest. Apparently these pair of eagles have been there for years but are nearing the end of their lifespan, so the nest will one be around for another 5 years or so. We actually saw quite a few eagles on the paddle.

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Eagles nest
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Eagle

Circling around the island the guide picked up some seaweed – I don’t remember it’s name but it was a type of seaweed that has it’s stem thing filled with gas so a bulb forms at the end. Anyway the reason he grabbed the seaweed was so we could give it a taste. Yep, ate seaweed fresh from the water. Tasted salty like crunchy lettuce. On the paddle back we saw a few seals. I did’t manage to get a photo of them though as by the time I got the camera out the seal went on a dive. It was pretty cool tough that one of the seals even made the noise that seals make.

After finishing kayaking we got dropped off back at the ship and had about 1.5 hours to spare before we had to be on board. I managed to walk to the start of town then was going to turn round ‘cos I was feeling really light headed and wheezy, but after turning back and seeing how close everything was I decided to push on (and hopefully not regret it later). We wandered up to Creek Street which was kind of cute, then did a loop and headed back to the ship. On board it was dump our bags and go for lunch. After eating I felt slightly better, so I think it was a combo of lack of food and the cold/asthma that was making me feel unwell. Hopefully I’ve recovered from the cold by the end of the cruise. It’s not too bad as I can still do things, but it makes me tired and my asthma kicks in when I’m unwell. So it’s been Ventolin every 4 hours for the last few days.

Town sign
Town sign
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Creek St

Whilst on the deck waiting to sail off we got to watch lots of sea planes landing and taking off. In the evening whilst having a drink before dinner we managed to see some whales and seals. The binoculars we bought got a use this evening so that was good as we wouldn’t have spotted the seals on the buoy otherwise. Tomorrow we’ll be in Juneau (pronounced Juno), the capital of Alaska.

Ketchikan Port
Ketchikan Port
Lots of sea planes
Lots of sea planes

Day 4, Juneau
Today we were in Alaska’s capital city, Juneau. A capital city that has no roads into the city so the only way to get here is via plane, cruise ship or the Alaska Marine Highway. There were 4 cruise ships in Juneau today, but at any given time there were only 3 in port. I managed to get a shot of one of the Norwegian Star boats waiting for another of their boats to leave to it could dock. Because the distance between Juneau and Skagway is not that far we had lots of time to stay in town if we wanted to – 7:30AM to 8:30PM. I hadn’t organised any activities for today as originally I had wanted to do a hike out onto the Mendenhall Glacier from the westside but it was a little pricey – 250+ USD per person. So we deferred our glacier hike to when we’re in Anchorage. Instead we caught the bus out to the glacier visitor centre area and did the Nugget Falls trail. The bus ride out was a bit dramatic. First we missed the 8:00AM bus by about 1 minute, then the 8:30AM bus we got on broke down and we had to wait for the 9:00AM bus. That and it was a bit unorganised – at least when the replacement bus came they made sure us broken down bus people got on first. It’s a bit unorganised because there’s about a dozen stand selling various glacier buses, whale watching tours, helicopter rides etc but they’re all the same price and all. It’s because at the end of the day there’s only a handful of companies that actually provide the service. So imagine like 12 stands selling tickets for the same bus then all those people trying to catch the bus. For any future visitors, buy a ticket for the white bus if you can. Or if there’s 4 of you split a cab. In the end though it all worked out and it was better than doing an organised excursion as we had as long as we liked at the glacier.

The glacier itself was quite pretty. Quite different to the glaciers I saw when we visited Glacier National Park a few years ago. This one was by far larger, but unfortunately it too is receding. We also spotted the canoe trip in front of the glacier. I’d considered this activity as well, but thought we’d save some money and give in a miss. Most glacier based activities cost a bit of $ here, I’m assuming because the summer season is short, and also because it’s maybe more an ‘adventure’ activity.

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Mendenhall Glacier
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Mendenhall Glacier close up
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Mendenhall Glacier sea canoe trip

Getting back to town we first stopped of at Tracy’s King Crab Shack. It does get lots of tourists but I’d heard this was the place to try king crab, so we ordered a combo to share. I don’t usually eat crab at home because I don’t think it’s worth the effort, but a king crab leg is slightly different. You actually get decent size chunks of meat when you peel/crack off the shell. The crab meat was very sweet tasting.

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After eating we headed off to find the post office. The Juneau Post Office is this cute little arty store that also serves as the USPS front. The most un-post office I’ve ever seen. The ‘mailbox’ to post your letters was this:

Coolest post office ever
Coolest post office ever

Then it was time to catch the Mount Roberts Tramway up the mountain to have a walk around. We walked one of the loop trails and took a side track up to the cross on the hill to get a look back down over the city on one side and the channel on the other. Perfect weather and view.

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Mount Roberts Tramway
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Walking up the trail
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View back out the channel

After that we strolled around town for a bit then headed back to the ship. We spotted for bit to check out some eagles then re-boarded around 4PM as we didn’t have anything else we wanted to do in town. A thing about the towns cruise ships stop in is that there are lots of gift stores and jewellery stores. Most of these towns have most of their income coming from cruise ship passengers which is only between May – September. Oh but we did buy some salmon jerky to try.

Day 5, Skagway
The ship docked in Skagway sometime around 5am, but we woke up at 6am as we have been doing so for since Ketchikan. We’re on holidays but with the exception of our second day in Vancouver we’ve woken up at our usual time or even earlier. It’s not because we’re jet lagged, but more because adventure is out there. A lot of our activities had early pickup times which meant we’ve had to be dressed, packed, fed and outside by about 7:30AM. We pretty much pack for a whole day out – you can come back onto the ship to have lunch if you want but we don’t bother doing that.

Skagway is a town of about 900 people. In the cruise ship season there can be about 15,000 visitors a day (passengers and crew). The day we visited there were 4 cruise ships in town, but it still didn’t seem that crowded/busy. Skagway exists from the Klondike Gold Rush when many people came to try there luck. The early men had to to hike in on trails but eventually a railroad was built – the White Pass & Yukon Route railroad. It was this railroad that we were going to spend part of the day riding as we caught the train up into the Yukon. The train company is still the same company from back in the gold rush – WP&YR. They even still use the oldest car, built in 1883 on the line each day.

WP&YR train
WP&YR train

The summer weather of the last few days had been replaced with rain and clouds, so the first part of the journey was shrouded in clouds. It still was very scenic as we drifted in an out of the bad weather. On the train ride, we crossed back into Canada at Fraser. We had to stop briefly so the Canadian immigration agents could hop on the train and check our passports. Then it was onwards to Bennett Lake where we stopped for a meal. We had about 1.5 hours here including eating time, so after chowing down our food it was time for a quick walk around. Since the gold rush came and went, Bennett Lake doesn’t really exist as a town anymore. There’s one person who has a property their but she doesn’t even live there full time. The church though which has been preserved still exists and there is remnants of the gold rush era around the place – old cans, metal scraps where buildings use to stand. A quick short hike up the Chilkoot Trail took us out to a nice overlook.

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Back in BC
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Chilkoot Trail
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Old church at Bennett Lake
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View from the Chilkoot Trail, Bennett Lake, BC

Getting back on the train we made our way towards Carcross. Carcross is a really tiny town with a dozen or so shops set up for the train passengers. They’re mainly run by first nations (Canadian natives). A lot of these towns make their income in the very short cruising season. I’m not sure what happens in winter. It was then time to hop into the mini-bus for the ride back to Skagway. We stopped of at a few spots along the way. Surprisingly at the US checkpoint they trusted our drivers story and didn’t bother checking our passports. I guess their probably use to the cruise ship passengers crossing into Canada then coming back.

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Had to grab a picture of the Yukon sign
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Emerald Lake

With the on-board time not till 8:00PM we had heaps of time to checkout the town but we ended up hopping back onboard around 4:30PM. Skagway is like one of those ye-olde towns, but as it exists/lives for the cruise season, most of the shops are the typical tourist/jewelry stores that exist in every port. We did check out a National Historic site related to the Klondike Gold Rush though.

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Downtown Skagway
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Klondike Gold Rush National Historial Park

 

Day 6, Glacier Bay National Park
Today was the reason we were on a cruise ship. Glacier Bay National Park can only really be experienced by boat. For many visitors the way to get there is on an Alaskan cruise. You technically can visit it yourself but it isn’t easy/cost effective. The nearest town is Gustavas and since there’s no roads in you have to fly in, some how make it down to Bartlett Cove and get on a boat. So a fleeting visit on a cruise ship was going to have to suffice. As it’s a National Park and cruise ships aren’t exactly small things, the parks service has a limit of 2 ships per day. Additionally only 2 cruise lines can offer Glacier Bay visits – a company has a permit of a few years and then it goes to another company. I was also excited to visit the bay as I’d studied earth sciences as an elective in Years 11 & 12 and part of the course was dedicated to glaciers and geology related things. It was pretty cool to get to see glaciers up close in this remote area and see how they have shaped and are still shaping the landscape.

A cool thing about visiting on a cruise is that the National Parks service send out some rangers who board the ship for the duration of the Glacier Bay cruising. Our ship was going to be in Glacier Bay from around 6:00AM to 3:00PM so we got up early at 5:30AM to make sure we were up and about for the duration of visit. Whilst drinking our morning tea we got to see the National Parks boat come up alongside the ship and rangers leave their boat. I heard later that they have to climb a rope ladder to make it up! As well as the parks desk, there was also the Alaska Geographic stand selling stuff. All profits from the store go back to the parks, so I don’t mind spending money at them. I’d already picked up my Glacier Bay patch at the Alaska Geographic store in Skagway as I didn’t want to find out on the ship they didn’t have any (I’ve made that mistake before). The Skagway store didn’t have magnets so we bought one on-board today. There’s a few standard things we pick up on every National Parks trip – I collect a patch from each park, and we also grab a magnet and one of the retro postcard prints. Something else we did buy today, that I have somewhat regret not doing many years ago (great regret even maybe?) is the National Parks Passport book. It’s basically a book that you can stamp in the cancellation stamps from each park when you visit them. The stamps have the date you visited and usually have a picture that depicts the park. I think every time we’ve been out, we’ve been like nah we don’t need that we’re already going to be missing stamps. But we broke that today and got it. No regrets, if we visit again we’ll have it and can go stamp happy. Whilst we’ll get 8 stamps in this trip, we’re unfortunately going to be missing 11 stamps from the other parks we’ve visited. Apparently if we mail it to each park they’ll stamp it for us. I don’t think we’ll be doing that though. I guess I’ll have to visit them again!

Back to the day… The weather was rainy and cold, but we were all set. I wasn’t going to let the rain stop me from getting out on the deck. We’d already known it was going to be cold, so were dressed for the occasion. I was wearing: thermal pants and shirt, long pants, shirt, fleece jacket, rain pants and jacket, neck buff, beanie, hiking socks. I will say my torso was reasonably warm but my face and fingers kind of froze. My gloves aren’t water resistant and you can’t easily operate a camera with gloves anyway. Being dressed properly was an advantage though as it meant we could be outside for a lot of the time. The majority of people had to stay inside behind windows, or wait till we were up in front of the glaciers before running out. Keeping the camera dry though was next to impossible.

We saw quite a few glaciers on the scenic cruise with the highlight being the Lamplugh and Margerie tidewater glaciers. It got quite a lot colder when we were up near these as the coolness of the ice lowered the temps further. These glaciers are huge, the Margerie glacier is over 25 stories above the water alone. We even got to see the glaciers calve multiple times! Calving is when chunks of ice break off the end of the glacier fall down. The sound of it happening can be likened to thunder and it was awesome! Next to the Margerie glacier is the Grand Pacific glacier. It’s not photographed as much as it’s often described as the ‘dirty’ glacier. It’s not really dirty, it’s just that this glacier has picked up lots of silt/dirt etc as it’s been moving towards the sea.

We spent maybe about 45 min as the Lamplugh glacier and 1 hour at the Margerie then it was time for the ship to make it’s reverse trip back out of the bay. In the bay we also saw an otter, seal and whale. No pics though, by the time you can get your camera out the animal is gone. We’ve actually seen quite a few animals on the cruise, mainly whales. It’s not quite like those impressive pics you see off whales flipping their tails though. You do have to spend your time outside actively scanning. But if you do so, you’re pretty much guaranteed to see something. Oh and binoculars help.

Verdict: Well worth the cruise to get to visit this remote National Park.

Sorry about the not so great pics – the weather was really wet and cold, and keeping cameras dry was hard. It looked way more awesome with the human eye.

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Approaching the Lamplugh
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Close to the front of the Lamplugh
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Approaching the Margerie glacier. Grand Pacific glacier is the black glacier from the middle to the right hand side.
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It’s cold.
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Margerie glacier
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Margerie glacier calving

Day 7, At Sea with a visit to College Fjord
I’ll have to start Day 7 at the evening of Day 6… So as this cruise was a 7 day cruise there was 2 formal nights, with the evening of Glacier Bay day being the final formal night. I’d checked out the menu in the afternoon and knew what I was going to get – they had lobster tail as a main. Except I never made it to dinner. After leaving the bay, we were out in open ocean as the ship was making it’s way towards College Fjord. Mid evening the captain made an announcement that we we’re going to hit some bad weather, and it was with it that the rolling and swaying started happening. I downed some Kwells but they didn’t make a difference. I made two attempts at getting to the room door before deciding I’d probably end up taking a yak at the table if I even made it. So it was the bed I spent the evening lying in as I at least could handle the swaying lying down. Turns out lots of people must have felt the same. M said the dining room was very empty and at the table he was seated at quite a number of people had come by themselves as their partner/travelling buddy decided to stay in the room as they weren’t feeling well. One couple even left midway. I ordered some room service. Not quite lobster tail but I managed to eat about half of it at least.

The morning was better though. According to the weather report, the swell was actually double the night before but it didn’t feel like it. Turns out we had left the bad weather around 3:00AM this morning, so it was business as usual. Just the usual swaying that I can handle. As we weren’t going to be in the fjord till the evening, it meant there was a day to fill. How do you fill a day on a cruise ship? Well there is a lot off food and meals so you can plan your day around that. So the day kind of went like – breakfast, coffee, cooking show, video presentation, lunch, packing, snack…

In the early evening we cruised into College Fjord. As we had to have our bags packed and outside our room before dinner, we weren’t wearing any thermals. College Fjord has 5 tidewater glaciers alone, not to mention many other glaciers so it was very cold. Had to go inside occasionally as we weren’t wearing gloves so our hands would get cold very quickly.

I’ll have to edit this post though and add in the photos later as I haven’t copied them to my laptop yet…

And so at about midnight we sailed into Whittier where we disembarked in the morning.

Next stop glacier hiking tomorrow on the Matanuska Glacier.