We love nature and history, which Alaska has so much to offer. This has always inspired us to travel there. So when a friend invited us to join an Alaskan cruise, we thought it was time to see it for ourselves. We did a lot of research to prepare us for the trip, and we would like to share our experience on what to expect in a cruise to Alaska, focusing on the following:
- The Cruise Ship
- The Weather and Sea Conditions
- The Cruise Itinerary & Excursions
- Pre/Post Cruise
The Cruise Ship
People taking the cruise spend more than 60% of the whole trip on-board. As such, it is crucial that the ship is to your liking and has most, if not all, of the amenities that you expect.
Our ship (Celebrity Eclipse) was excellent. The 2,852-passenger Eclipse is one of Celebrity’s largest ships. Bigger vessels are plying the route, but we prefer a smaller crowd, especially having experienced the more intimate ambience of a river cruise. About 85% of the accommodations include verandas, and all cabins offer interactive flat-screen TVs and 24-hour room service.
The ships’ facilities for passengers include a gym, spa, pools, casino, lawn club, and upscale boutiques. It even has cooking classes or glass blowing classes. Meanwhile, kids’ programming includes karaoke, Xbox consoles and organized games.
During sailing days, the ship’s resident naturalist talks on a myriad of topics about nature in the theatre. They were informative and entertaining. In the evenings, we went for silent discos, an excellent way to burn the calories from the never-ending buffet and dining choices. On days that we were mostly on our feet exploring, we unwind watching comedy acts and Broadway-style shows.
The ship offers a variety of casual and formal dining choices, eleven in total, including five specialty venues where reservations are required. In our case, Ocean Café and Moonlight Sonata more than satisfied our food cravings.
The Weather and Sailing Conditions
We went on a shoulder season, mid-May, in particular. During this time of the year, the points of interest are less crowded, and cruise fares are relatively lower.
We prepared for rainy weather. Luckily, we only got showers when we were at Juneau and Ketchikan. While maintaining the ability to pack light, we made sure that we brought the right gear, one of them being high-quality rain jackets and hiking boots we bought earlier in the year when they were on sale.
Throughout the journey, waters were generally calm. There were a few times when we felt the seas were slightly rough in the evenings. It just made us sleep more soundly, like being gently swayed in a hammock. It probably helped that our room was at one of the lower decks and towards the middle portion of the ship, where ship swings were hardly noticeable.
The Cruise Itinerary & Excursions
Starting in Vancouver, our cruise ship sailed through the Inside Passage. It is the coastal network of passages between the various islands on the Pacific coast of North America, which generally offers calm waters and impressive scenery along the way.
The journey between our embarkation port (Vancouver) and our first Alaskan port of call took us almost a day, giving us a lot of time enjoying and appreciating the vast landmass of North America and its west coast sceneries.
Icy Strait Point
This port is on Chichagof Island and a privately owned tourist destination just outside the small village of Hoonah, Alaska, named after the nearby Icy Strait.
We first explored the cannery museum and some local restaurants around the terminal. We also had our first sighting of a bald eagle perched on a tree as soon as we stepped out of our ship!
There were several on-shore excursions available, but we opted for a wildlife search since Chichagof Island is renowned for having the highest concentration of brown bears in the world.
A busload of us headed to an area along the Spasski river (passing through the town of Hoonah). We were welcomed by two Tlingit guides, who shared with us some information about the area and their people.
We cautiously passed through muskegs, making sure we don’t go off the wooden pathway, lest the soft soil swallows us. We saw several varieties of edible berries that we haven’t seen before along the way. When we finally reached the viewing platform, we eagerly waited for the brown bears.
We were about to give up and prepared to head back to the bus. Then a mother bear and her cub appeared from a distance. It was rather far, but luckily we had a pair of binoculars with us, and it allowed us a closer view of the bear and her cub.
This point was how far the cruise ship went up north and to us, one of the main highlights of the cruise and certainly provided memorable moments.
The Hubbard Glacier, named after the man who founded or co-founded the National Geographic Society (Gardiner Hubbard), is a gigantic tidewater glacier off the coast of Yakutat, around 200 miles northwest of Juneau. At the point where this “river of ice” meets the Pacific Ocean, it is more than six miles wide.
When the ship was carefully navigating the water towards the glacier, the resident naturalist on board the vessel was talking on the public address system explaining the natural phenomenon and outlining what to expect.
The expectation of a magnificent scene was mounting. But the sky was overcast, and the view ahead was very foggy; we couldn’t see anything. We reckoned it might be a downer until the fog cleared, and the dark sky cleared. It was as if the curtain opened, and in front of us, the glacier suddenly appeared.
What a phenomenal sight of miles and miles of bluish-white ice, with a face of up to 400 feet tall. While the view was breathtaking, we were mesmerized by the booming sound that the icebergs calving off regularly generate.
We were initially busy taking pictures (and we captured quite a bit). But the ship’s naturalist reminded everyone to take a moment off the cameras and see the beauty and experience what is at the glacier with our own eyes and ears. The experience was once in a lifetime and forever etched in our memory.
Juneau is the capital city of Alaska since 1906. Located on the Gastineau Channel and the Alaskan panhandle, it is a unified municipality and the second-largest city in the United States by area.
Being the biggest city we visited, it offered a more diverse selection of eateries and shops, particularly jewelry stores. However, we had limited time to explore these. As we only had around 8 hours available for us on-shore, we preferred to optimize the outdoor excursions.
Our tour bus headed a few minutes out of the city to a port where we boarded a catamaran for our whale-watching stop. We did not wait for too long before the first whale appeared.
The catamaran tour hosts explained the whales’ surfacing and diving routines. This insight gave us a good idea of how to make the most of the short time they are on the surface and take the most beautiful shots. We also had the opportunity to get close to some sea lions frolicking on a buoy.
We then headed to Orca Point, where we were treated to a sumptuous meal, featuring freshly-grilled Coho salmon, among others. It was the most delightful meal we had in all our on-shore excursions.
Last stop in Juneau was the Mendenhall Glacier, around 13.6 miles long located in the Mendenhall Valley, about 12 miles from downtown. The views of the glacier were also impressive, although much smaller in scale than the Hubbard Glacier.
What resonated most to us here was how far back the mass of ice has moved from where it was in the past. A lake has now formed at the foot of glacier – another ravaging sign of climate change.
Ketchikan was our last port in Alaska, the salmon capital of the world. It is also known for its beautifully carved Native American totem poles found throughout the city.
Our on-shore excursion at Ketchikan first took us to the Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show, very close to the ship terminal. A mini-competition where the “Canadian” Team beat their “US” counterpart was very entertaining and engaging. If you only have a few hours in Ketchikan, this is a must-see.
Our next stop was Potlatch Park, where we saw more incredible totem poles, a clan house with native art and a collection of antique cars of the park’s owner.
When we were heading back to the ship, we passed by Creek Street. The driver-guide mentioned that it used to be the city’s red-light district but has now been transformed into a picturesque sight of wooden buildings from the last century. It would have been nice to stroll along the street, but we did not have the time.
Vancouver is Canada’s third-largest city and has a ton to offer visitors. You may want to refer to our earlier post in this regard on how to make the most of a pre/post-cruise day in Vancouver.
Alaskan Cruise – Something Different
Alaska has been captivating travellers for centuries, and now we understand why – most particularly if you are somebody who loves nature. The cruise to Alaska offers a unique experience, quite different from the more common ocean cruises, like to the Caribbean destinations. It’s both a relaxing and a learning experience.
The dilemma is that you only have so much time on-shore. As such, the right choice and planning of your excursions will be invaluable in helping you optimize your limited time.
We hope that we have provided you with a good insight into what to expect in an Alaskan cruise that will help you when you do decide to take the plunge.
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