Since our trip to Alaska many years ago we have considered seeing the Inside Passage by taking the Alaskan state ferry that travels from Bellingham to Skagway. On further investigation we found the costs to be high and more importantly that there were no cabins left for the 2014 season. The options left were to pitch a tent on deck or to get to the ferry early enough to find spaces on the seats or floor to sleep on. As both of us independently have experience of traveling and sleeping on Greek ferries we were rather dismayed by traveling this way in a colder climate with many more people. Certainly in my early 20s before the connectivity revolution expedited our lives the casual air of Greek ferries was a source of delight and the uncertainty of arrival time was almost welcome (e.g. who would forget the one hour “Greek” drama of the crew working out how to load a lorry full of bricks so that the boat did not overturn or the steering of donkeys aboard). Alas, after reading experiences on the Alaskan ferry without a cabin the same appeal was not obvious.
We found a link to last minute cruises and on further investigation we found that we could actually depart from Seattle on Norwegian Cruise Lines within 7 days with transportation, good accommodation, entertainment and all our food provided. To meet my needs we could even get a stateroom with a balcony at a reasonable rate – cheaper than the ferry, As an aside – it is interesting that the term “state room” is used on cruise ships. Quite effective marketing as “state room” conjures up so much more elegance than “cabin”. As we had no prior interest in going on a cruise we debated about booking for 24 hours before finally at 1am on Sunday morning (the cruise started the next Saturday) we decided to book only to find the website was not in agreement with us (Prices change Sunday morning!!). However, on the 3rd attempt we booked through Costco which was even cheaper and even gave us an on board credit. With a round-trip flight from SFO to Seattle booked as well we only had a short wait.
The following Saturday we boarded the ship and were impressed by the speed with which the staff had turned around the ship from the last cruise and at the efficiency in which the boarding was handled – could the airlines learn from this process! We went on board with all the razzmatazz we expected carefully side-stepping any of the photo opportunities. Steve was happy to find that it was equipped to handle showing the World Cup. Indeed, having watched the first half of the Round-of-16 match between Brazil and Chile in our hotel room near Sea-Tac airport, we were on board in time to watch the end of the penalty shoot-out in the ‘Crystal Atrium’. We dumped our hand luggage in our state room admiring as we did how Norwegian had so smartly used the small space (did they subcontract to IKEA?). and glad about our balcony. We walked the decks and checked that there were enough lifeboats and were happy to find that there were. We were curious about the many rows of Sunbeds, the huge outside play shower and very tropical decorations. Did the crew really know that is was an Alaskan cruise and not the Bahamas or had we boarded the wrong ship.
We finally found our way to the back of the ship with an outside restaurant and stayed there a large proportion of the time when we were at sea.
We watched the hawsers being released and finally 4 1/2 hours after we had come aboard and exactly at 4pm we set off from Seattle. Mimicking a game of “Follow the Leader” the Holland America and Princess ships followed. About 30 minutes into this game the Holland America ship stopped and was overtaken. We found out a few days later that a fire had broken out and it returned to port not leaving again till Sunday. This resulted in a port being removed from the itinerary and only $250 on board credit – not a good deal for the passengers who also probably boarded a second time far more apprehensive.
Once out of the sight of land the party was in full swing at the pool so we took our drinks and watched the sunset from our balcony.
Day -2 : At Sea
A rough night and half a rough day at sea and we both took sea sickness tablets. The pool was closed so nearly everyone was inside. However, even with all the people around it was easy to find a quiet corner. We passed the day with Steve watching 2 World Cup games, a trivia contest, watching “Saving Mr. Banks” (which had the ratio set wrong), reading, and several laps around the promenade deck which few other passengers seemed to have discovered! Looking out at sea we saw cruise ships, container ships and sea life.
Day -3 : Ketchikan
We were on deck at 5:30 am to watch a the sun rise over Tongass Narrows as we headed for Ketchikan. We were joined for breakfast at the back of the ship by only a few other people. The staff were busy putting out the rows of sun beds across the empty decks. As much as I hate getting up early the view was well worth it but it was cold and I was very glad for the hat and scarf (the former provided by Joanna).
At 7am we docked and we were one of the first to leave the boat. It was, as expected, raining but my bright yellow raincoat helped me stay dry and ensured Steve would not be able to lose me. Ketchikan claims to be the wettest town in America getting 150 inches annually. This supersedes Hilo in Hawaii which also makes the same claim, based on 140 inches annually.
Ketchikan is a very picturesque town in a beautiful location. To greet the cruise ships everywhere was open early including the “Disney like” jewelery, novelty, and clothes stores. There are more than 50 jewelry shops most of them selling “authentic Alaskan” gems that are not local (e.g. Tanzanite). Hearsay is that most are actually owned by the cruise companies and in winter they pack up shop and move to a warmer cruise port where the gems become authentic for that port. The clothes shops did seem to fulfill a need as later in the day we noticed that the $19.99 warm Alaskan jackets were selling quickly and from then onwards noticed a significant proportion of the passengers wearing them. Perhaps the consignment store was full of shorts that were given away to make room in cases – I forgot to check this!
We walked a block and found the interesting parts of the town. The down town attractions are in an easy walking loop and being early we saw the sights with only a few other people. Our first totem pole sighting was a whale park alongside flower gardens and an interesting bench with a back in the shape of 2 fish. The town’s former red light district is at Creek Street which is an attractive area with a boardwalk along the river and now houses a museum and some quaint shops. We ignored the cable car and walked along the Married Man’s trail It got its name because it was formally a hidden back-door to the bordellos. The fish hatcheries and fish ladder at the end still had the feeling of days past. On the way there we passed a rather unexpected huge plastic salmon suspended in mid air waiting to be photographed. We found a fairly robust and impressive empty skateboard park – not in our guidebook. Probably occupied once the cruise ships leave and the shops slow down. The town has a large collection of impressive Totem poles found at various places and in the Heritage Center. The Heritage Center is very compact, has some interesting totem poles and very knowledgeable and helpful staff. If you are in town check it out. We continued our walk to the Discovery Center which is again small but worth a quick visit. The Lumberjack show is very near the docks but although we recognize this is a skill the idea of a show seemed too gimmicky We had seen it on the “Amazing Race” and although this does not quite qualify for “been there done that” we decided to count that as done and walked on.
Only having the capacity for so many totem poles in a day we decided not to walk to Saxman Village but instead to hike the Rainbird trail which is just above the town in Deer Mountain. On the walk along front street to the trail head we noticed a sign to a bald eagle observation point and at that instance we noticed several bald eagles above us. Obviously a common sight to locals but very interesting to us. I was reminded of a Japanese business partner once that got very excited over seeing a humming bird while all I could say was that we had several in the back yard. I suspect the residents of Alaska have a similar attitude to bald eagles.
We met a couple from Oregon on our way up to the trail head and we did the hike with them. The hike is about 3 miles and has impressive views at one end. We started at the point furthest from the dock with the goal of finishing above the dock point, The trail is through some very spectacular forest and was well maintained. However it rains nearly every day and for portions of the trail we were climbing over rocks or through water. We all ended up very muddy. Although the trail was easily manageable and well worth taking we realized that Alaskans are out doors so often that you need to add one grade to their definitions e.g an easy trail should be treated as medium etc…
As the ship left Ketchikan promptly we had a cup of tea in our favorite spot and were escorted by a pod of dolphins. We watched Alaska go by as we headed for a spectacular sunset.
Day 4: Juneau
By 7:30 we were in town and had the first ticket for an 8am “big blue” bus to Mendenhall glacier. We took a casual walk around the deserted town noting that unlike Ketchikan the shops did not open early.
We had a great driver on the way to the glacier who told us about the town and recommended that everyone should tale the 2 mile round trip to Nugget falls which is next to the glacier. This worked fantastically to our favor as the few people on the bus immediately set out on the hike and as the photos show we had the glacier to ourselves for 20 minutes before the next bus arrived. Mendenhall glacier is spectacular and it was well worth the short trip. It was a wonderful experience just standing there in the quiet admiring the beauty of the surroundings. When the area finally got overrun we took the trail to the waterfall. The waterfall is worth the trip but by 9am was fairly crowded. The hike back was quick but the trail was packed.
On our return to town the number of people had increased significantly. We debated what to do and ended up doing the town walk around the state buildings, St. Nicholas Orthodox church and the Governor’s Mansion – the “Palin House”. I had been looking forward to seeing Juneau for many years and I was disappointed – we did not find Juneau as interesting as Ketchikan. As a government center it suffers from too much 1960s concrete and Brutalist architecture. We left port at 1pm without being tempted by any of the “cruise memorabilia” in town.
Tracy Arm and Sawyer Glacier
In the afternoon we cruised down Tracy arm to Sawyer Glacier. We were lucky not to get rain but the weather was cold and crisp and I was appropriately able to model the hat Joanna had given me. The processes on the ship around making money from drinks seemed to be well worked out and instead of serving plenty of ice with cocktails they had adjusted to liquor coffees! It was the one time on deck that I saw an adjustment to our surroundings (money drives change). The sunbeds remained despite the cold and were collected up at the normal hour. Many people wrapped in coats perched on them at various points to see the beautiful scenery around us.
Tracey arm is extremely scenic with steep cliff walls, waterfalls, and gracefully floating icebergs. We were asked to keep quiet for the wildlife and we saw several seals and goats on the hillside but no whales. As expected the icebergs became more numerous and larger as we approached the glacier. The glacier is very spectacular. Near the glacier we rendezvoused with one of the off shore excursion that had taken a smaller boat to nearer the glacier.
People take cruises for many reasons and often not driven by location and this was very apparent as we floated by the larger, scarier icebergs with the Calypso music still playing around the pool and the chatter of people in the hot tub who seemed oblivious to location.
The ship turned around just before the glacier and people seemed divided between those that wanted to the captain to go further and those that were anxious about the space available. Being in the latter group we watched both ends closely as the turn took place ! As we left the glacier we finally returned to our cabin only to find we had a great view of the glacier from our balcony.
We ended the day on our balcony looking over the inside passage as we again floated into the sunset.
Day 5: Skagway – The Gateway to Klondike
It was another early day as we approached Skagway and again the light over the mountains and sea was stunning.
We left the ship as soon as departure was allowed and walked to the town. We had thought about taking a ride on a vintage train along the ‘Trail of ’98’. In the end we had decided against this because we did not want to move from the confinement of a ship to the tighter confinement of a train for another 3+ hours. Unfortunately, we had not thought about renting a car till the previous day and was disappointed to find none available. We tried the car rental anyway only to be told they were already overbooked. If you go to Skagway book a car well ahead. Putting this behind us we had several hours to tour the town and take some hikes. We took a town tour with the National Park service and our guide turned out to be very interesting and informative. Skagway has a very interesting history based around the gold rush. The museum was full of stories of how both men and women abandoning or halting their current lives to follow the gold trail and many finding conditions they had no experience to handle. Others found their niche supplying needed services or supplies. Not being part of that era we can not fully appreciate the circumstances that drove people to Klondike and it took me effort not to apply current day judgement to what seems today like foolhardy decisions. Many did make money but many others lost. But I digress…
In the afternoon we took a hike to Yakutania Point and Smugglers Cove which had good views of the Lynn Canal, interrupted every 20 minutes by the roar of departing and arriving helicopters. We watched the Alaskan ferry arrive and then quickly depart.
We reboarded about 4 p.m. and was escorted on its way along the Lynn Canal by dolphins and a whale
As we watched Skagway retreat we toasted another sunset.
After three long days we looked forward to a rest as the ship would be at sea the next day and not dock in Victoria till the afternoon following (Friday)
Day 6: At sea
A good day to relax. We read, took part in a quiz competition, played shuffle board. After a thrilling game you can see the score – Steve’s score was the yellow marker. Although it is 500 years old and played by Henry VIII this is what Wikipedia has to say about the game – “Today, due to its popularity on cruise ships and in retirement homes because of its low physical fitness requirements, the deck game is often associated with the elderly.” Wow, now I feel old – next time it’s the gym for me. Wait – we did hike as well!!
In the evening we even found a moment when the hot tub was open to take a dip. Unfortunately the pool was too small for lap swimming and of course empty when while we were at sea. We paid the extra and had a very enjoyable meal in the French restaurant.
Day 7: Victoria
We arrived in Victoria in early afternoon.
Due to the limited time and the rain we decided not to go to Butchart Gardens but to walk and stay in town. It is an interesting 20-30 min walk from the dock to the town but very few people seemed to walk. On the way we spent time at the delightful Fisherman’s Wharf with it’s colorful restaurants and boat houses. It is possible to get a water ferry from here to downtown which we did on our way back. A seal delighted audiences at the wharf and for a small piece of fish it took turns disappearing and reappearing at well-timed intervals. At the wharf there were many types of sea food to buy including mussels. However there were no cockles so I guess that part of British tradition never reached Victoria or never stayed !!
The Empress Hotel is well known from photographs and is very obvious as you walk to town. Like a large portion of Victoria it has beautiful gardens with a large portion forming a rose garden. The smell and sight of all the roses was very “delightful” and without the rain would be a good place to sit and relax. Also within the grounds is a striking arbutus tree easily identified by it’s red trunk. Curiously it had a “starring role” in the opening leg of Season 2 of “The Amazing Race Canada” which was broadcast less than a week after we were there. There is a less obvious part of the hotel devoted to bees and information about them. This was the first of several places in Canada where we saw well thought out education and encouragement of bee keeping – a good thing! Inside the very stuffy “imperial-like” British dining rooms served what is probably at $60 one of the most expensive tea and cakes in the world. You can also buy from a large range of tea pots, tea services, or tea strainers (many in the shape of animals) should you wish to. Alternatively you can go to a local store or Cost Plus when you get home!
Victoria is full of gardens and Totem Poles and you can see several in just a short walk. Thunderbird park and Helmcken house are just across the road from the Empress Hotel. Helmcken house is Victoria’s oldest house built in the 1840s. A walking tour map is available at the tour office who also directed us up to a street fair which was closing as we approached, We did find and purchase from an artist an interesting picture made of seaweed – our only unique souvenir of Victoria to go with the Costa Rica feather pictures and the Indian leaf pictures that we already have on our walls.
Beacon Hill Park is nearby and is a mixture of structured garden and rugged shoreline. It is 200 acres and we realized that a map and more time would have been helpful. We only touched the start of the park but it would have been a place to spend longer at.
We made our way back to the ship by taking a water ferry to Fisherman’s wharf. We met some delightful ladies from Amsterdam that had been making their way around Canada and were absolutely surprised to find themselves staying at the Empress as it was so different and grand from the previous hotels/B&Bs they had been booked it. They seemed to think that there travel agent had somehow made a mistake but where making the most of it!
We arrived at the ship before sailing and had dinner along with the rest of the passengers. It seemed that rain and the closing of attractions had forced people back earlier. However, we did better than the Princess ship that had experienced engine trouble and got to Victoria at 9pm – past the time allowed for debarkation. Of the three cruise ships which left Seattle on the previous Saturday, ours was the only one which was able to complete its itinerary. I wonder if a 33% success rate is par for the course?
We left Victoria for Seattle and watched Canada disappear behind us
We had left our packed suitcases outside our room the night before and by early morning we were in Seattle. We had a final breakfast before we left. Our room had already been cleaned and made up as two beds awaiting the new occupants in only a short time. We saw the next set of food and other provisions being loaded although this had probably been happening since early morning. As the world cup match between Belgium and Argentina was on in the lounge we were one of the last to leave and people were starting to line up for the next cruise as we left.
We picked up our bags and headed for the car rental. Bellingham and Vancouver here we come!!
- The cruise actually turned out a good way to see the places we wanted to see and was overall a good experience
- If we went to Alaska again we would start from Victoria and try to get to Sitka and Glacier Bay. The disadvantage of the cruise out of Seattle is that it travels west (ocean-side) of Vancouver Island and you miss the Canadian Inside Passage.
- We would only take a cruise where a car journey was not possible (e.g Baltic, Norway) and only go with a balcony room
- We respected whatever project manager/team handled the turnaround of the ships but they needed to adapt process depending on Alaska or the tropics
- Customer service was always good and people tried to help even if they were not sure of an answer. If I had to sleep below the sea line with 4 other people I am not sure I could wait on people with a smile every day. The waiter we spoke to seemed to be having fun even at 12 hour days, 7 days a week for 8 months
- Our major hate was the constant music – especially in areas of natural beauty
And finally the flowers seen on our trip