Our First Cruise: Alaska Inside Passage

A 7-day cruise departing and returning from Vancouver, BC.

Booking our first cruise in 2014 proved to be more than a little intimidating. Alaska was about the only simple decision in the whole process! From there it became a swirl of choices and options– large or small ship, ports of call, cruise/tour… the list goes on. We decided on a round-trip Princess cruise from Vancouver, BC since we had wanted to visit the city anyway. It also made air travel easier than arriving in one city, and returning home from another.

Cruise 2014
Click to view our vacation slideshow. Yippee!

Once we took the plunge another round of choices presented themselves. Booking excursions, choosing a dinner time, the type of stateroom, what part of the ship, etc. As newbies it was more than a little daunting.

What follow are my notes from our adventure.

Day 1

Arrived via DFW on AA. Flight from Tulsa was delayed for a navigation malfunction. It turned out a 3-hour window between airport arrival and cruise departure was not enough time. We were delayed at Customs. They asked me about aliases, thought I was from Maine and made us very nervous.

I had planned for us to ride the train, but took a cab instead. Vancouver doesn’t really have American-style freeways. Cabbie made good time and we arrived at Canada Place about 1:50. Cab cost $35C, paid him $45US.

Made it on board just in time for our life vest lesson. Boat departed before 3:00! Had a beer on the lido and wandered the boat. Weather was perfect as Vancouver disappeared behind us.

Crew is very international. Boat is registered in the Bahamas and there are lots of accents. Spoke with the maitre do about dinner assignment- we were worried about earring at 8:00 so we asked to be moved to 6:00. Attended a raffle at the spa and heard an alternate pronunciation of massage.

Had a late lunch at buffet. Lots of great veggie stuff for Jackie. Had a great nap then went to dinner! Sat with a couple from Quebec and newlyweds from Toronto. Weren’t hungry but enjoyed a light meal… and excellent dessert.

Day 2

Woke up to an overcast sky and the open sea. Oh yeah… we’re on a ship! The Princess was just, passing the end of Vancouver Island. Up to this point it had been hard to tell we were on a boat. Had breakfast including mushroom congee which Jackie explained was a staple Chinese breakfast mush. I locked our passports in the room’s safe… and couldn’t open it.

Pool was closed, laminated sign stated vomit was in the pool. Unlimited alcohol is available for $49 a day. We strolled the deck 9 and watched the waves. I suck at ping pong.

Got the safe opened. Found a new dinner assignment card had been slipped under our door… but didn’t want to change now!

After watching a movie we grabbed a quick bite and saw whale-sign off the port side. They seemed to be traveling in a train headed south. We went up to deck 10 and relaxed, I watched for whales while Jackie read.

Dinner was very nice-the buffet was serving from a menu since it was a formal night.

Day 3

Started our day in the hot tub! After eating breakfast we tried out the hot tub and steamroom.

Arrived Juneau about 2:00 and shot video of the forklift maneuvering the gangplank into place. It seemed frightfully amateurish but they accomplished the task. Our first excursion was a Whale Watching Photo Safari at 3:30. We had very little time to explore the town before our tour so we only saw a couple of tourist shops. We gathered for the bus with only two other couples.

We drove a short distance to the Mendenhall Glacier National Park in the Tongass National Forest. Turned out I was the most serious photographer in the group. Most people had chosen the excursion for the smaller group size or hoping for a more intimate view of the whales. The guide offered advice on adjusting depth of field and shutter speed- the crowd answered with blank stares. His background on the area was more interesting to the non-photographers. For example, we learned there is only one highway in Juneau. Stolen cars are a rarity since there is only 65 miles of roads where you can hide.

The first half of the tour started with a hike near the Mendenhall Glacier. Our guide was very knowledgeable about the local plants and geography. The visitor center was designed by FLW in 1960, making it one of his last projects. Saw our first salmon in the stream. Boat ride was next, photo safari began. Saw a number of whales and was able to shoot several nice photos. Finally caught one on video as the tour was wrapping up! Another unique item was the stellar sea lion rookery- quite a sensory overload. Pew.

Day 4

Arrived in Skagway early. Discovered a tiny town yet a wide range of international cuisine. Very strange driftwood building. Bought some wine and bubbly then returned to the ship to prepare for a ride on the White Pass railroad.

The line operates a couple of steam engines, though our excursion was diesel-powered. We followed the Skagway River along a trail the 49ers hiked to the Yukon. It was truly breathtaking scenery. We are allowed to stand outside on the car’s platforms during most of the ride. That was especially exciting when we passed through the tunnels or over a trestle.

A little past the halfway point a lady cried Bear! Jackie turned in time to see a bear higher up the mountain as it scurried under a bush. At about mile marker 21 we crossed the US/Canada border, then paused at the summit. The “lake” at the top looks like puddle, but it’s several miles long! On the ride back down Jackie and I rode outside and enjoyed the beautiful day.

Afterwards we wandered around the town. The population of Skagway is a few hundred most of the year. In Summer it swells to 2000 to service the cruise ships that arrive almost daily. Unlike Juneau there is a road passing through this town, so transient motorists are seen. There’s even an Avis outlet. We also spotted a few motorcycles and spoke with a couple who had rented a KLR650 from a local shop.

Eventually we made our way back to the pier. Watched a sea lion playing with a dead fish. We ended the evening sipping champagne on our balcony as the ship eased away from the Skagway pier.

Day 5

Awoke to the sound of a launch pulling alongside the ship. It was delivering rangers from Glacier Bay National Park. Today would be “scenic sailing” among giant ice floes. This was the first morning we had requested room service. It was a great way to have that first cup of coffee- sitting on the balcony watching the mountains pass by.

After our initial coffee we headed upstairs for breakfast. The air was brisk and the sky overcast so we opted for a table inside. The rangers had a show-and-tell set up in the forward panoramic bar so we visited them after breakfast. This bar was a great place to watch the approaching scenery.

The glaciers did not disappoint. Though I overheard one unimpressed passenger comment on their dirty appearance. Obviously they had missed the lecture. Glacier Bay is home to the fastest retreating ice field of the modern era. Unfortunately its accelerating. The last stop was the most theatrical as we witnessed a chunk the size of a Wal Mart drop into the water. Once again, the sounds were the most surprising part of the experience.

We steamed out of the bay and rendezvoused with the ranger’s boat again. This time they had a more difficult time docking- but eventually everyone was aboard and on their way home.

That evening we lounged on the sunny side of Deck 5. We had discovered the lovely wooden deck chairs that were exclusive to this level on our first day at sea. As Jackie read I jotted down notes about our trip and shoot video. A fellow passenger jumped up to the railing with his binoculars. I peered into the low sun and saw what appeared to be smoke near the shore. It was mist from a passing whale!

We watched but only saw two more spouts from their exhales. There was no elusive breach this day. Our observant neighbors were a couple on their fourth cruise. They confirmed our suspicion that the Pacific Princess was a  good choice for an Alaskan cruise. They were also impressed with our packing skills when we mentioned our luggage was only carry-on.

That evening we enjoyed a second round of a “game show” in the forward lounge. The object was to guess how the majority of fellow passengers might answer a question. Sort of an impromptu Family Feud. We lost.

Day 6

The morning was overcast, which was typical for our destination. Ketchikan, on the southern tip of Alaska, is a very rainy place. The fact it was just overcast was pretty amazing. But that describes the weather throughout the whole trip.

As we maneuvered through the channel toward the docks Jackie and I enjoyed a hearty breakfast on the deck and watched the scenery. Signs of civilization began appearing, then houses and neighborhoods. With a population of 13,000 this was by far the largest city we had seen since leaving Vancouver.

Behind us I spotted a floatplane approaching. Then another… then another! Soon there was a constant flow of De Havilland Beavers flying back and forth, taking off and landing. As they buzzed our ship I reveled in the wonderful sight- and sound! I wondered if they had considered naming this planes the Alaskan state bird?

We had not booked an excursion for this third and final stop. Instead we decided to play it by ear and investigate our options. Our stay was only a few hours and there appeared to be plenty to see and do right next to the cruise ship berths. It turned out to a good decision.

Just off the gangplank was the Ketchikan Visitor Center. Inside was a gauntlet of tourist attractions, each vying for our attention like barkers at a midway. We continued to the local volunteer who offered a wonderful map marked with a number of walking tours. With map in hand we strode past the diamond “outlets” and art galleries to explore.

It was late August and the salmon were thick in the local creek. Thick may not adequately describe it- the rushing water was alive. What appeared to be the creek bottom at first glance was actually fish! The water was literally churning with salmon making their final journey back home.

We wandered up the hill and discovered a wonderful retreat served by a funicular rail tram- as seen in Grand Budapest Hotel. It was operated like an elevator with buttons and it swiftly carried us through the misty air.

From there we visited a wonderful museum of native totems and art. After watching bald eagles in a tree we wandered through some local shops. Jackie bought a jar of devil’s claw salve- one of our only souvenirs!

Day 7

Awoke to fog. Today was a transit leg of our journey where the ship would sail south toward Canada, and the port of Vancouver. A daily newsletter is delivered to each cabin every evening. Today’s edition said we would be passing through an area famous for sighting killer whales! I checked my camera’s battery.

Much of the day was spent on the upper deck and staring at the sea. A small flock of seagulls flew alongside the ship for quite some time. They would manage a sloppy formation for a few minutes, then scatter a bit, then regroup. It was odd watching them pace us. Unfortunately the orcas eluded us, but we did see a porpoise and a very excited salmon that jumped out of the water a number of times.

Another high point of the day was meeting a couple who were on their 31st Princess cruise. Jackie recognized them from the photo in the ship’s newsletter. We asked- but they declined to autograph it.

Day 8

Early morning today as the ship would be docking at 7:30 am. Passengers are asked to be out of their staterooms by 8:00. The reason is passengers for the next cruise start boarding at 11:00!

We had already packed most of our belongings the night before so we wandered up to the buffet about 6:30 am. We enjoyed our final maritime meal on the deck watching the scenery of Vancouver glide past. A bold seagull joined us on the railing, obviously a regular. A waiter said he has become accustomed to the ships and has discovered the bounty offered by the passengers.

The Princess docked and all the necessary things were plugged, lynched, connected and tied.

Since we had no checked baggage we decided to disembark as soon as the gangplank was opened. The arrival at Canada Place was a leisurely stroll— much more mellow than our hurried departure had been a week before!

 

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