Alaska: Cruising the Inside Passage to Hubbard Glacier
A cruise? I’ve never been on a cruise and I have to say it is not a top priority for me, although I have always been curious about the experience. We had been saving money for my son’s wedding this summer but when it was called off, well….we couldn’t do something sensible with the money. We booked a 7 day Alaska cruise. We flew to Vancouver, BC where we met my twin sons. Alex flew in from Dayton OH and Dan flew in from Beijing.
Booking was easy through our on line travel agent .We opted for the dining plan that allows seating anywhere and anytime in the dining room. We booked three shore excursions online. At the advice of our travel agent and friends we booked excursions offered by the Cruise line, to eliminate the fear of being left behind at one of the ports. The selection and price range was extensive. We selected excursions that were low cost, fit our mutual interests, and provided a little higher activity level.
After a night in an inexpensive hotel, the four of us were aboard a shuttle bus ($10/ea) headed for the cruise ship docks. The ship set sail at 4:30 but we were allowed to board at 2:00. The boarding process was easy and well organized but I did feel sort of like a sheep as we were herded through customs and the checkin.
The Cruise Line
We chose Celebrity Cruises on their ship named the Century. Our travel agent suggested that Celebrity was a top rated line and were known for their service. The Century was a smaller ship in comparison to the typical Caribbean cruise ship, having a capacity of about 1800 passengers. We opted to upgrade from a state room with just a windowed port hole to a family state room with a balcony. Ours was on the 8th deck at the back of the ship. I think the side would have been preferable. The trip took us from Vancouver through the inside passage to Hubbard Glacier and back, with stops at Icy Strait (Hoonah), Juneau and Ketchikan.
The stateroom was comfortable. It had full size bed, a pull out couch and a bunk. We had four, it could sleep five. Plenty of closet space, a good sized shower and a cabin attendant that was “johnny on the spot” cleaning an asking if we were comfortable. He as actually a little too attentive, even to the point of irritation for my boys.
The food in the main dining room was good, although meals took a while to be served. We had mostly dinners in the dining room. A few dinners were formal, but the dress code was not too rigidly enforced. We missed the night that lobster was served and we also missed a good portion of the only breakfast/brunch extravaganza. A cafeteria style buffet provided our breakfast, lunch and occasional dinner. The food was acceptable, some things were quite good but others not so much.
The entertainment was ok. We listened to a big band performance, saw a magic show, a movie, a lecture. They offered a variety of classes like dance, wine tasting, etc. My boys used the gym to work out every day, but most of our time on the ship was spent eating, lounging or napping.
The scenery was beautiful. Snow capped mountain landscapes and shoreline was the view when sailing the inside passage. There were a few days in open water when all you could see was open water. Frequent cloud cover prevented the spectacular sunsets but low hanging clouds in the mountains were and eye pleasing replacement. We did see a few whales and dolphins but usually it was just a spray from a spout then a fin or tail. The Hubbard Glacier was a disappointment. When we arrived the bay was heavily fogged and iced. Apparently navigation close to the glacier is difficult so, the captain spun the ship in circles at the entry to the bay. We watched fog and ice chunks drift past for about an hour before we departed.
The Ports of Call
At the port of Icy Strait (actually the town named Hoonah) the ship was tendered (anchored). Not much in that tiny town, it was kind of nice. We had about 4 hours for our first excursion, Stream Fishing. We used every minute of the 4 hours and were among the last to board the ship.
The port of Juneau can only be accessed by air and sea, there are no roads or rails. We arrived early in the morning and as I stood on the deck watching the float planes arrive, a bald eagle swooped to snatch a fish from the water next to the ship. The schedule called for 12 hours of free time in Juneau, to shop for diamonds and jewelry or other pricey souvenirs. I didn’t like tourist shop atmosphere with blocks and blocks of souvenir shops near the docks. Fortunately our excursion that day took us a distance away from there to the Sled Dog Mushers Camp. We spent the late afternoon milling through the tourist area with crowds a cruisers. We left the diamonds an jewelry for the next group of tourists.
The port of Ketchikan was like similar to Juneau with respect to boat and plane traffic but the area near the docks was a little more industrial. The tourist shops were a few blocks to walk away from the docks and happily opposite to the direction we were heading. Our excursion that day was a sea kayaking day trip. On the dock there was a line of busses and a crowd of people with tour guides holding signs for their excursion milling about. It was a little hectic and unorganized but after a few failed attempts we found the right bus to board for the 20 minute ride the kayak camp.
The excursions were the best part of the cruise, I would have been disappointed in most of the cruising experience had I not booked them. I would like to skip the big boat ride and just do the excursion trips all week.
We met our guide in a small building where we purchased fishing licenses and put on our waders. Our group was, to my delight, small, just our family of four and one other. Our guide was a lifelong resident and very friendly and helpful. He drove us in a van to a logging trail where selected our fishing rods for the back of the van and walked about one quarter mile to a stream. He was packing a large caliber handgun just in case. He told us that occasionally a grizzly will wander into the stream while they are fishing. I expected the fishing trip to be more of a demonstration, along with a few token attempts to catch fish. It was not that at all. We actually caught fish, about 50 Dolly Varden along with a few nice Cutthroat Trout. Our guide offered instruction if we needed it but little was need since we are all pretty experienced fishermen. On the drive out to the stream we experienced our closest encounter with a whale that surfaced just off the shoreline not far from the road edge and immediately in front of a large group of kayakers. The trip back included a grizzly bear strolling across the road in front of the van, almost on queue.
Sled Dog Mushers Camp.
A short bus ride and we were away from the town and in the sled dog camp surrounded by temperate rain forest. We were greeted with a lecture and a demonstration of the gear that mushers use. The speaker and his dog were actual racers. The dog had run the Iditarod, but our speaker had not yet, however planned to in about 2 years. He made clear to us the commitment and investment it actually takes to run this race. The time to train the dogs, lots of dogs, the food to purchase, lots of food, the racing, conditioning and qualifying. Much more expense than prize money which is aroung $50,000 and a new truck.
We then boarded a 4 wheeled cart similar to a large golf cart to which was attached a team of 16 dogs. The dogs I might add were not necessarily all Huskies or Malamutes, they were in fact mostly mixed breed, including German Shepard, Pointer and others. The dogs howled with excitement as we boarded the cart, then raced through the course pulling the cart with 6 passengers and a driver along behind. Thes dogs totally enjoy this, it is what they live to do, literally. I was a little surprised at how friendly the dog seemed, many wanted the human contact. The tour was finished with some hot chocolate and an opportunity to hold some soft furry puppies, who can resist that? And then another lecture on the history of sled dog racing.
By the way, they took a careful count of the puppies before we left.
Another short bus ride and we were at the kayak camp. The guides were introduced and the tour was explained. It was a family business, owned by lifelong Ketchikan residents. They were friendly people, and even though they made a living guiding tourists, they made us feel invited and kept a positive attitude of excitement.
Donning life jackets, we boarded a hard bottomed rubber raft type of boat with an outboard motor and headed across the water to the Tatoosh Islands. Another guide was waiting and several tandem kayaks were lined up along the shoreline. We followed the guide around an island paddling in some waves and some protected water. Never worry about capsizing and coming eyeball to eyeball with a shark, there were plenty of jelly fish in the water to deal with. Small translucent ones and larger red colored ones. Some caught a few glimpses of sea lions. We came across a solo expedition kayaker who was header from Ketchikan to Skagway. Made me wish for that kind of an adventure.
Someone said that taking an Alaska cruise will make you feel young….cause everyone on the ship is over 100. The passengers were definitely on the older side and the entertainment was naturally biased to their preferences. The passengers were also quite ethnically diverse with mostly Asian and Indian passengers. To me the excursions and the scenery were the best parts. I don’t really care for the constant “personal service” and attention. It makes me uncomfortable. I would love to visit Alaska again, but not by Cruise ship.