Thursday, August 07, 2008
Cruising in Alaska
I have always wanted to go to Alaska. I have also always known how I wanted to do it: Go for at least 2 weeks, cruise for 1 week, and travel around some interesting places the other. (And thanks to my Alaskan friend Don Kiely, I have a pretty good list of great stuff to do as well!). I have always wanted to go in late June, since the spring equinox is on June 21st, which makes for the longest day in the year. The problem has always been that I am usually extremely busy in the spring, with all the conferences and trade shows we go to, and even if the conferences are over by late June, we are so busy catching up with everything, we just don't have time to go.
The same thing happened again this year. However, we decided we didn't care. We have been talking about going to Alaska for 9 years now, and it never worked out, because we were just too busy that year. But you know what? That will probably be true for every year to come in the near future, so we decided we would see if we could make it work this year. And besides, we already hat to visit with Microsoft in June this year anyway, so we were already in Seattle. How much more convenient could it possibly get? Maybe, we reasoned, we could even find a cruise that left and arrived in Seattle.
We did however decided that we could only get away for a week. After all, we have also just been to Costa Rica. So the plan was to do the cruise this year, and then at some point in the (hopefully near) future, we would go back to Alaska and do some hiking and other adventures. Maybe the cruise would give us a way to see what kinds of things we liked the most, which would give us an extra chance to plan the second trip better anyway.
So it all became about finding the best possible cruise. I had a few things on my list that I really wanted to do. After all (as you know if you read some of my previous posts), I am not really a cruise fan. However, in Alaska, there are some things you can do on a cruise ship that would be very very difficult otherwise. For one, I wanted to see the glaciers "calve" (that is when pieces break off and fall into the ocean). That was probably the biggest selling point for me. After all, how much longer will we be able to see tide-water glaciers from ships the way things are going now? We soon realized that cruises that leave from Seattle or Vancouver spend a lot of time sailing up (and later down) the Canadian coast, but they barely reach the southernmost tip of Alaska. And they don't really go anywhere near the massive glaciers. No, that wasn't going to do it! I wanted a cruise that went to a major glacier, preferably Glacier Bay. With that in mind, we realized we had to either start or end the cruise at one of the ports near Anchorage, which left the ports of Whittier and Seaward as the obvious choices.
We finally settled on a cruise from Whittier with Princess Cruises. We booked it about 10 days before the cruise actually started, which is kinda crazy in a way. However, it worked out really well for us! We got an inside state room (no windows) for $589 per person! We considered getting a room with a balcony. This really appealed to me, because there is a ton of stuff to see on an Alaskan cruise, and I didn't want to spend all the time standing up on deck. However, a balcony cabin would have been close to $2,000 a person, and that just wasn't worth it to us. In hindsight, that was a good decision. While a balcony certainly would have been nice (our ship - the Diamond Princess - had very nice setups for balcony cabins), in the end, I really didn't see myself spending all that much time in the room anyway. If I did the same cruise again, I might be spend an extra $400-500 for a cabin with a balcony, at most. But I wouldn't have wanted to spend 3 times the regular price.
Of course, going out of Whittier also meant that we had to fly to Anchorage. An extra expense, you might think, but this wasn't really true in our case. We already had to fly from Houston to Eugene to Seattle and back (for business), which (as most 3-legged trips are) was a relatively pricey ticket already. Adding a 4th leg to Anchorage really didn't make any difference price-wise. So the core cruise cost us less than $600, for a 7-day cruise with all meals included. Drinks are extra, but I purchased a $29 all-you-can-drink soft drink promotion, which also was good for all the sit-down restaurants. (Sometimes, when you buy these promotions at cruises, they are good for bars and the swimming pool area and such, but not for the real meals, which is a rip-off!). So that all worked out very well. Of course, you will end up spending more for tours you take from the ship (I will blog separately about those), and you just gotta take those! What is the point of an Alaskan cruise, if you do not go to the glaciers, whales, or other wildlife? Still, all in all, the cruise wasn't very expensive for us. We met some other people on board that spend as much as $4,000 a person (not counting tours). I don't think I would have been very happy paying that. But for what we paid, this was an absolute bargain!
I was also very happy with the cruise we ended up picking. The Diamond Princess is an absolutely marvelous ship! Much more impressive and modern than the cruise to Mexico we did earlier this year. The ship holds over 2,600 guests and it was completely full, but to my surprise, most of the time, it felt like the ship was half empty. No lines for food or restaurants. Getting on and off the ship was as easy as walking in and out of a building with no wait whatsoever. Most of the time, we had one of the many hot-tubs to ourselves. When there were things to see outside, there was always enough room at the railings. The ship was just so darn big that you couldn't tell how many people were on board.
Of course, you have to be aware that if you do this type of cruise, you will be cruising with Johnny Geezer here. Not that there is anything wrong with it (and I apologize to all the old geezers reading this... but if you read my blog, you are, by definition, not an old geezer anyway), but it means that the nightclub (which would have otherwise been awesome) is going to be empty and deserted at 10pm (more than an hour before the sun goes down, mind you!) and the casino isn't faring much better. Johnny Geezer just doesn't like to party. Johnny also likes to eat early, which you can use to your advantage if you just eat a little later and you will get the bet tables right by the windows. It also means that most of the more adventurous tours will be available even if you book a bit later. So there are pros and cons to this. It's just something to be aware of.
And it's a bummer too, that young people do not go on these cruises more. After all, they are not all that expensive, comparatively speaking. And there is tons of stuff to do for young people. Probably more than for our friend Johnny. In fact, most of the tours are operated by college kids, because they are the ones that are into the more adventurous stuff. Plus, the ship would be great to party the (5-hour) night away! But nope. You will be playing bingo and watch song & dance shows, because that is what Johnny Geezer likes to do. Unless you bring your own friends and your own fun, that is.
So with all that in mind, we flew up to Anchorage, which was an experience in itself. We left Seattle Friday night at 9pm. Maybe even a bit later, because it was already completely dark when we left. As we flew north however, it got lighter and lighter, and as we arrived in Anchorage around midnight (1 hour time difference), it was light enough to read a book without a light. We spent that night in Anchorage. I was not very impressed by Anchorage overall. I have to admit that I didn't spend nearly enough time there to make a real statement, but everything I saw was run down and dirty. That includes the hotel we stayed in, which was pretty expensive at the same time (Best Western, I believe).
The next day, we traveled on a train down to Whittier. This was a somewhat scenic ride and we saw Eagles and other wildlife. Some people say they saw moose, but I missed that. Overall, the train ride was interesting and entertaining, and even though I normally hate trains, I would do this again and I would recommend it. After about 2 hours, we arrived in Whittier. We had originally looked for flights to Whittier but couldn't find an airport. As we arrived, it became pretty obvious why that was the case. Whittier is a small town. Very small. In fact, all the people in Whittier live in a single (!!) building! Think about this one for a moment. I mean, how would anyone meet anyone new? "I met someone really interesting on the 5th floor today..." just doesn't seem right.
The "town" of Whittier, as seen from the ship.
Anyway: We got off the train in Whittier and just walked across the street and straight onto the ship. We were among the first people on board. The boarding process was extremely straightforward. There was no line at all, so getting to our cabin was about as simple as checking into a hotel. We were off to the buffet and had gained 2 pounds before most of the people even arrived.
Our first glimpse of the "Diamond Princess" as we arrived with the train.
Talking about the buffet: The food on the ship was reasonably good, but it wasn't anywhere near as good as it was on the Carnival cruise. Buffet selection was limited (I thought), and also the sit-down meals were just OK. We had opted for the "any time dining" rather than the set times, which I really liked. However, the food quality was not what I had expected. Also, food-related service was not all that great. Waiters were reasonably nice, but not really outgoing. You always had to ask for a refill, and it always seemed to take forever for them to come around. I finished many a meal before I got my drink.
However, that is the only bad thing I have to say about the whole cruise. We left from Whittier and went straight into College Fjord. We then went on to Glacier Bay where we saw what we had to see: Glaciers calving. We also stopped in Skagway where we flew to a dog musher's camp in a helicopter. We went whale watching in Juneau, and we went kayaking in Ketchikan. Each and every one of those things would have made the trip worthwhile, and I would be hard pressed to tell you what my favorite thing was.
But all that, I will leave for other blog posts :-).
For now, let me just say, this this was an incredible trip. Definitely one of those "I want to do this once before I die" type of trips (and - as one of the comedians on board remarked - a lot of people on this trip barely made it in time, by the looks of it). I came away hugely impressed. I managed to check off several items from my bucket list, but I also added several new ones (resulting in a net-loss, some would argue, but that's OK). I am definitely planning to return to Alaska in the future, and I am now much more prepared to plan those trips. So in that regard, the trip has worked out exactly how I expected. In a lot of other ways, it way succeeded expectations...
This post belongs to a series of posts describing our cruise in Alaska (June 2008). The following is a list of all 6 posts in this series:
Posted @ 11:29 AM by Egger, Markus (email@example.com)