Occupation:Software Development Manager
Number of Cruises: 4
Cruise Line: Carnival
Ship: Carnival Spirit
Sailing Date: August 18th, 2004
This was our fourth cruise,
all of which were on Carnival. Our previous cruises were all in the
Caribbean on Carnival's Paradise, Destiny, and Sensation. We're a family
of four with two older sons, ages 16 and 18. Carnival attracts more
younger passengers than other cruise lines, yet there were noticeably
fewer adult singles, young couples, and families with children on this
Alaskan cruise, although the cruise director said there were about 100
children participating in the Camp Carnival activities. I’m not sure
whether this is due to the higher cost of flying to Alaska, lack of
beaches, or some other reason. However, don’t let this keep you away from
I've tried to include information which is helpful to first-time cruisers as well as returning cruisers who are heading for Alaska. We extended our trip by visiting Denali National Park and Seward before our southbound cruise and staying an extra day in Vancouver afterwards, with these arrangements made by our travel agent and ourselves rather than by Carnival. Since these are popular destinations for those going on Alaska cruises, I've included information on those as well. If your time is limited, I strongly recommend arranging your vacation to have at least one full day in Seward so you can take a boat tour of the Kenai Fjords and drive to Exit Glacier; these are outstanding and might allow you to skip some side tours on the cruise.
We were very lucky on the weather. The only rain we had on the cruise was during the two "at sea" days, which were cold, wet, and windy - definitely a good day to stay inside. The temperatures were also abnormally warm, with highs in the 70s and Anchorage breaking its August monthly record while we were there by hitting the mid-80s. We ended up in shorts and T-shirts on some days. However, for normal daytime weather and the cooler evenings you should take mostly long pants, a mix of short and long-sleeved shirts, and a jacket or sweatshirt. Remember that you're bound to buy a couple T-shirts along the way. Pack an umbrella or raincoat since rain is very common, particularly in Ketchikan. Keep the potential for rain in mind when booking side tours that are out in the open, too. Be sure to pack binoculars to get a better view of the more distant glaciers and wildlife.
Our basic itinerary:
- Fly to Anchorage, pick up a rental SUV (lots of luggage!) for 5 days.
- Drive north to Denali National Park (4-1/2 hours), stay 2 nights, taking the 8-hour shuttle bus trip during the full day.
- Drive south thorough Anchorage to Seward (additional 3 hours), stopping in Anchorage for dinner.
- Stay in Seward 3 nights. Drive to Exit Glacier on the first day and take the 6-hour boat trip to Kenai Fjords National Park on the second day. (Both can be done in one day.)
- Return car at Anchorage airport, get Carnival shuttle bus to Whittier.
- Cruise south with stops in Sitka, Juneau, Skagway, and Ketchikan, ending in Vancouver.
- Ship arrives in the morning. Rent an SUV, sightsee, and stay over 1 night. Fly out the next day.
This is a long cruise review, so here's a table of contents if you want to jump to an area of interest:
- The - Embarkation
- Activities and Everything Else
- Tipping and Debarkation
- Denali National Park
- College Fjord
The Ship - Embarkation:
We returned our rental car at Anchorage airport and walked to the baggage claim area for arriving flights, which is where the Carnival people greet you. We took the bus shuttle from to Whittier around 4 PM. If you arrive in Anchorage in the morning, Carnival takes you to a location downtown to check in and then buses you to Whittier in the early afternoon. Getting on and off the ship often takes time, so be patient and expect delays. Whittier was opened as a cruise ship port only this year. There’s really not much to see there. Access is limited to a single-lane tunnel that is shared by cars and the railroad.
Suitcases are taken by truck from the airport to the ship. You might have to put larger carry-ons under the bus. If you do, keep your camera with you. As we were riding down the Seward Highway, our bus driver, Kevin, said we wouldn’t make the 5:30 tunnel opening, so to pass the time he took us to Big Game Alaska, a drive-and-walk animal park. You’ll want your camera for this. He was able to get us in for free although naturally our busload left more than a few dollars at the ubiquitous gift shop. I’m not a fan of captive animal parks like this, but the animals did have very large areas to roam around and it was the best opportunity we had to get within inches of several moose. It really was better than sitting on the bus outside the tunnel for a half-hour!
Check-in at Whittier went very quickly and the Carnival staff is, as always, friendly and helpful. To save time, be sure to register on-line from home as instructed in the ticket booklet and fill out the Sail-and-Sign credit card form and debarkation form in advance. After going through the paperwork, we went to another table to pick up our Sail-and-Sign cards, then get the usual embarkation photo taken on the way to the gangway. You’ll be handed a pocket-sized Deck Plan as you board, but it’s not as detailed as the deck plans in Carnival’s annual cruise booklet (or on-line) which show the location of all the cabins. I’ve learned to bring along a copy of the latter.
First-time cruisers: Be sure to put the color-coded luggage tags on your baggage in advance, even as early as when you check your bags for the flight to Anchorage. It saves time if you use return address labels; bring extra since you’ll get other tags for debarkation. Carnival will take your bags from the airport to the hallway outside your cabin. You might not get the bags until a few hours after you’re on the ship, so put anything you’ll need for the first few hours in a carry-on before leaving the suitcases at the airport. Our bags showed up within minutes of our arrival on this trip, but on one previous cruise they weren’t delivered until the ship was underway!
The Ship - Cabin:
Rule one: don’t drink the bottled water. You’ll find a big bottle of water in your cabin with a bucket of ice, but you’ll probably miss the little sign that the bottled water costs several dollars. Unfortunately Carnival has a way of nickel-and-diming you and this is one of the best examples. Put ice in the glass and get water from the sink.
We always get a separate cabin for the boys since the additional cost isn’t much. Officially, one adult has to be in each cabin, but the cabin stewards don’t mind when we switch. The only drawback is that the Sail-and-Sign card is an ID card, charge card, and room key, so you’ll have to switch cards while on the ship (and not charge anything) or else make sure that the other person is at the cabin to let you in.
Our cabins were on the Upper Deck with balconies. Usually we stay on the Main Deck with a window, but since this cruise had lots of scenery along the way we went for the balconies to get a better view. Our cabins are listed as a partially (not fully) obstructed view due to the lifeboats. We were in the middle section with the three shorter lifeboats and could see over them just fine. It looked like the cabins in the sections with the taller lifeboats also wouldn’t miss much, so don’t hesitate to get a partially obstructed view cabin on the Upper Deck. The Main Deck obstructed view cabins are definitely obstructed. Each balcony is about 10 by 4 feet with a plastic chair, small table, and reclining chair. The balcony railing is about 30 inches high with clear plexiglas under it. Opaque plastic panels separate adjoining balconies. There’s an outside fluorescent light controlled by a switch in the cabin.
We booked a cabin on the port (left) side since this was a southbound cruise and I thought most scenery would be on that side. However, you’ll be fine with a cabin on either side. The one time the captain took the ship close to a glacier, he turned the ship completely around so it would be visible from both sides. During the “at sea” days, we were usually in a channel with islands on both sides.
The cabins have lots of storage space: three vertical cabinets with adjustable shelves and rods, four dresser drawers (one of which has a hairdryer), an eye-level cabinet (which includes the safe), and two small night tables. There are two beds that can be pushed together by the cabin steward, a sofa (which might be a sleeper sofa, I didn’t check), small table, chair, and a large countertop/desk with a lighted mirror and stool. Lighting is great. The lifejackets, which were in a corner storage bin on our other cruises, were in the top shelf of one of the cabinets, freeing up floor space.
Heating and air conditioning are controlled by a wall thermostat that seemed better than the simple fan control on our other ships. Carnival ships tend to be on the cool side, even in the Caribbean, so I had to turn up the temperature as soon as we walked into the cabin.
The bathroom layout on the Spirit is the best I’ve seen. In addition to the usual vacuum toilet and curtain-enclosed stall shower, it has a large countertop around the sink and several glass shelves on both sides of a full mirror to hold items. Other ships have a small sink and standard medicine cabinet. There’s a small adjustable make-up mirror on the side wall. The shower, although enclosed only by a curtain, has great water pressure, lots of hot water with a thermostatic control, and an adjustable and removable shower head... just be careful to point it in the right direction! The shower has liquid soap and shampoo dispensers. Each bathroom is stocked with an array of free samples that includes toothpaste and bar soap.
There’s a television in the cabin that carries an eclectic mix of stations. We were glad that NBC was available so we could catch at least some of the Olympics. The TV has two channels with live views from the bow and stern of the ship (handy for early morning glacier viewing on the first day), and a third channel with maps showing the ship’s location and speed.
About the only items missing are an alarm clock and an iron and ironing board. However, you can easily program a wake-up call on the telephone (I pack a travel alarm anyway) and there are a few laundry rooms on the ship with irons, and laundry service is available for a fee.
Our cabin steward, Gati, introduced himself as soon as we found our cabins. He was usually somewhere in the hallway during the morning and evening. I still don’t know how the cabin stewards do it, but they have a knack for knowing when you're out so they can duck in to make up the room in the morning and turn down the beds at night.
Probably due to the late departure time, the mandatory lifeboat drill takes place at 9:30 AM the next morning instead of the first evening. You can always go back to bed afterward!
The Ship - Food:
Carnival says they designed this line of ships to combine the best features of their previous lines, and I could see the improvements. For example, the number of passengers was similar to the Paradise, but the number of food stations on the Lido deck was more like the larger Destiny, so lines were shorter. We particularly like the Deli counter for lunch, which serves up excellent sandwiches made to order. The boys always like the 24-hour pizza counter, although the salmon pizza was never readily available and we never stayed around for the 8 minutes it would take to prepare.
The food in Carnival’s dining rooms is always better than the buffet lines on the Lido deck, and the Spirit is no exception. The menu appears to be the same on all Carnival cruises, with some items replaced each year. One nice addition on the Alaska route is an additional local seafood entrée, such as salmon or halibut; although not on the menu, each is listed in the daily Carnival Capers newsletter and mentioned by the waiter. Due to the ship’s schedule, there were only a few days when we ate breakfast or lunch in the dining room. The Spirit dining room was designed with more 2- and 4-person tables than previous ships.
As on our other cruises, there are two dinner seatings. We had the early (or main) seating on our other cruises, but the late seating on this cruise. If you don’t mind eating dinner at 8:15 PM, the late seating is actually better on the southbound Alaska cruise than the 5:45 main seating because of the departure times from the ports. There’s no need to rush back for dinner and miss part of the town, or stay in the town and have to eat from the buffet. If the gap from lunch to dinner is too long, hit the deli or pizza stands for a mid-afternoon light snack.
There are two formal nights on this cruise. Most men were in suits, with only a few in tuxes. Even a sport jacket and tie would be fine. For the other dinners, I wore a polo shirt and slacks. Shorts are prohibited in the dining room, and you’d feel out of place in jeans and a T-shirt. If you really don’t want to get changed for dinner, there are always the buffets on the Lido deck, but I really recommend the dining room.
If you eat breakfast on the Lido deck, be aware that one or two of the four buffet lines have a roped-off section for "omelets only." This is a change from previous cruises where those waiting for the cooked-to-order omelets at the ends of the lines held up those who only wanted other breakfast items. The confusing part is that the other lines still have a sign at the end that says "omelets only" but aren't roped off. Hopefully Carnival will correct this since it's a great idea.
Believe it or not, I don’t gain any weight on cruises. I’m slim to start with, and between a higher activity level on a cruise and not going overboard (pun!) when eating, I don’t put on extra pounds even though I do eat a little more than usual. There are plenty of menu options for dieters, and the dining room menu highlights selections for those counting calories or carbs (I do neither). While munching an evening slice of cake with a hot chocolate, I’ve noticed a definite correlation between weight and plate size among those at the midnight buffet, and that’s all I’ll say on that topic!
First-time cruisers: The first dinner in the dining room as well as the breakfasts and lunches are “open seating,” where you’ll be seated at any table. For the other dinners you’re assigned to a table where the same team of waiters will take excellent care of you; you’ll be sad to leave them by the end of the cruise. Our team of Remberto and Darwin was as delightful as those we’ve had before. If you want to change your assigned table or dinner seating time, ask the maitre’d as soon as possible. Feel free to order more than one of anything from the menu. If you order a bottle of wine, your waiters can keep it from day to day so you don’t have to finish it all at one meal; there’s an extensive wine list with selections starting around $20, as well as wine by the glass. Water, iced tea, coffee, tea, hot chocolate, lemonade, and fruit punch are free, but soda is considered a bar drink and costs extra. If you or your children are major soda drinkers, buy a “soda card” for each early in the cruise from any bar; for one fee, you can get unlimited sodas from the bars and in the dining room.
The Ship - Activities and Everything Else:
Don’t miss the evening shows! The only one we didn’t see was the talent show on the last evening. However, the Las Vegas-style shows, comedians, and jugglers were all excellent, and the Jim Hanson 10-piece live band was the best cruise ship band I’ve heard (and they’ve all been great). Some seats have partially-obstructed views, so you should try to arrive a few minutes early although none of the shows (at least the late ones) were SRO. Note that these shows start exactly on time, and it’s hard to find a seat when the house lights are down. I finally was able to go to one of the “R-rated” midnight comedy shows, which wasn’t really that racy and was very funny. I thought I’d only stay for the first half-hour and ended up staying for the full hour.
Shore excursion descriptions were in a booklet that was sent with the cruise tickets and a similar booklet available on the ship. Be sure to read the descriptions carefully to know what you're going to see and do. When in doubt, ask the Carnival folks at the shore excursion counter in the atrium lobby. A single price list for all the ports is delivered to each cabin at the beginning of the cruise. Tours can be booked using the TV remote or at the shore excursion desk. (On previous cruises, there was a separate price list for each port and most booking was done by checking off items on the price list and handing it in.) Tour prices are generally higher than in the Caribbean. When I could compare Carnival's price with the price I could get on my own, I found that they were adding close to zero (Mt. Roberts Tramway in Juneau) up to about 8% (White Pass railroad in Skagway). The "flightseeing" trips are very expensive, from about $175 to over $400 per person. Be sure to keep in mind that it rains frequently, most of the shore excursions are held rain or shine, there's a 25% cancellation fee, and "tours cancelled within 24 hours of port arrival are non-refundable." While some of the trips with limited space might sell out, we were able to book an afternoon boat trip in Ketchikan that same morning when we knew the weather would be sunny.
Yes, there is swimming in Alaska, although I only saw a few children in the semi-covered pool during the cruise. The water felt like it was heated, but it can still be on the chilly side when you get out.
The ship has a multi-level gym in the bow with a great view, fancier than the other ships we've been on. As on the other Carnival ships, the weight machines use pressurized air cylinders rather than weight plates, so the resistance is different than what I'm used to. A couple of the machines were missing instruction cards but I was able to figure out how to use them anyway. Look for the treadmills on one of the upper levels. As on Carnival's other ships, there's a small jogging and walking track on one of the upper outside decks.
Since I had taken the galley tour on two other cruises, I skipped it this time but would recommend it for first-time cruisers. I did attend two new “behind-the-scenes” events on this cruise which were great. One was a half-hour “Backstage Tour” in the theater. Walking through the backstage only took a couple minutes since it’s not very large, but the Q&A session led by one of the dancers with several stage crew was very informative. I was able to ask how automated the light and sound are and whether the dancers have any problems performing while the ship is moving. (She said it’s actually harder when they have to stand still.)
The other Q&A was called “Up Close & Personal,” led by Todd Wittmer, the cruise director. With Todd were the stage manager and Calvin, one of the assistant cruise directors. Their answers were interesting and entertaining at the same time. For example, Calvin with a perfectly straight face said that the crew doesn’t really have cabins but cabinets, which cracked up Todd. There was also some good-natured teasing of Todd because he has a cabin “with a balcony and fruit basket” near the bridge instead of in the lower decks where most of the staff lives. (Calvin, who comes from Vancouver, was scheduled for a vacation after we arrived, so he left the ship when we did.)
Carnival has introduced a “color war” competition on their cruises this year. Everyone is assigned to the red, white, or blue teams based on their dining room table number, and teams get points by participating in various designated activities during the cruise. Standings were announced every evening by the maitre’d, Joseph. Even though we were on the winning red team, I don’t think it really added much to the cruise since the “teams” are so large and several competitions are random, like the time 50 points were awarded to the team (ours) of the cruise bingo winner.
There are plenty of activities on board. Our sons participated in the “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” contest, with both ending up as semi-finalists and my older son winning it, along with 10 of the first points for the red team. The question that really separated the players was which metal makes up most of an Olympic gold medal. (Silver!) My wife and I found some time to dance in one of the clubs during a dance class, on the theater stage during one of the open parties, and in the atrium lobby late one evening.
There's a fair-sized casino that's impossible to miss because, unlike other ships, the pathway through the Promenade deck goes right through the middle of it. The minimum gambling age on the ship is 18, and 21 to drink. The ship's design has a similar have-to-walk-by-them approach to the several shops on board. If you're interested in buying Carnival apparel, try to wait until the last full day of the cruise when much of it goes on sale, with T-shirts marked down to $10.
I didn’t see as much activity on the outside decks as on the Caribbean cruises, probably because of the rainy weather during our two sailing days but also possibly because of the average age of the passengers.
One complaint I have about the outside decks is the condition of the shuffle board poles and the lack of soccer balls or other equipment for the enclosed sports field. Our boys were able to play their usual games of shuffleboard but the equipment was really banged up. They would also have liked to use the sports surface but had nothing to play with. My younger son liked playing chess with other teens on the oversized set on the Sensation which was near the ping-pong tables, but the separate location on the Spirit meant that it was usually used by adults and he didn't want to hang around there. The Spirit also has only one ping-pong table, while other ships have two.
One of my favorite spots on a cruise ship is the outside of the bow, where you can feel the wind in your face when the ship is moving. The Spirit, like the Paradise, has a deck over the bridge that extends out over the side, allowing you to look back at the entire side of the ship. Keep in mind that this is Alaska and it can get very chilly standing on the bow or other parts of the outside decks. The ship does have areas that are shielded with large plexiglas to cut the wind. The Spirit also has a few wooden benches outside which I didn't see on other ships.
Carnival’s ships are always... well... highly decorated, bordering on garish. Maybe I’m getting used to it, but I didn’t think the Spirit was that bad, although my wife really didn’t care for the hallways. The Spirit lobby is narrow but goes up higher than other ships, including a skylight that’s built into part of this ship’s funnel.
Our first cruise was on the smoke-free Paradise. I was sorry to hear that Carnival discontinued the smoke-free policy on the Paradise, and hope that they eventually reconsider. However, many of the public areas on all their ships are still smoke-free. The only time I’ve noticed cigarette smoke is in a couple lounges on a previous cruise and a few times out on our balcony on this cruise.
The Ship - Tipping and Debarkation:
As you’ve probably heard by now, Carnival automatically adds $10 per person per day to your Sail & Sign account for tips. This covers your cabin steward and the waiters in the dining room and on the Lido deck. You can adjust the amount lower or higher at the Purser’s Desk in the atrium lobby; do this before the last day when people who used cash for their Sail & Sign are lined up there to settle their bill. If you want to tip extra, you can always simply give them cash directly. A service charge is automatically added to bar items, which includes wine at dinner. You’ll get an envelope before the last dinner to tip the maitre’d. The tips might seem high, but remember that the waiters and cabin stewards are paid extremely low wages (I've heard estimates of $30 to $50 per month) and depend on tips for most of their income.
I have no idea what most people do, but here’s what we usually tip: $20 to the maitre’d, $5 for the bar server who brings the boys sodas in the dining room (their soda cards include that 15% bar service charge), an extra $20 each to our cabin steward and head waiter, and an extra $10 to any assistant (team) waiters. Also remember to tip any shuttle bus drivers and side tour guides; with a family of four, I usually tip $3 to $5 depending on the trip length and how much they do.
This was the fastest debarkation I’ve seen, maybe because non-U.S. citizen immigration is handled in the terminal rather than on the ship and we were among the first ones off the ship. Carnival is trying something called express debarkation for those who have independent travel plans after the cruise and can carry their own luggage off. Normally, luggage is collected from outside the cabins between 6 PM and midnight (ideally 10 PM) and then taken off and placed in the terminal the next morning. The advantage of using express debarkation is that we were able to keep our suitcases and get our Vancouver sightseeing started earlier. The disadvantage is that we had to lug everything off the ship to the terminal. Catching an elevator with enough space for bags could be a problem in the future if this really catches on.
Everyone gets new color- and number-coded luggage tags for debarkation, depending on whether you’re taking a flight from Vancouver, a shuttle to Seattle, a side tour in Vancouver, or your own arrangements. Debarkation was slated to start at 7:30 AM, actually started around 7:45, and we were off by 8:15. They said that everyone is usually off by 10 AM regardless of which group you’re in. Breakfast is available in the dining room and Lido deck starting early, so we were able to get in one last dining room experience before dashing back to the cabin, grabbing our bags, and heading off.
Okay, enough about the Spirit. Time to talk about what we did off the ship. Remember that we saw Denali, Anchorage, Seward, and Vancouver on our own.
Denali National Park:
We drove right from the Anchorage airport to Denali, which is a 4-1/2 hour trip on a mostly 2-lane road. Fortunately, I felt fine after over 8 hours of flying from the East Coast, and the northern location in late August means more daylight. An alternative to driving is to take the train from Anchorage to Denali, but for a family of four it was less costly to drive.
We stopped for a quick Burger King dinner in Anchorage and headed north. Wasilla, about 40 miles (1 hour) north of Anchorage, is the last real town and traffic lights we saw. There are a few gas stations along the way. The road is in very good condition. Because most of it is two lanes, there is a lot of passing. Make sure your lights are on, even during the daytime, since this makes it easier for on-coming cars to see you at a distance. Alaska is very optimistic when it comes to marking passing zones on this road, so make sure that you can see clearly far down the road before passing someone.
The first time we spotted Denali/Mt. Whitney, we stopped on the shoulder and took some photos. Around 10 PM, we reached Denali State Park which has two viewing areas, at mileposts 134.7 and 163.9. We stopped at the first, Denali View South, on the way up. The view of the Alaska Range and Denali was great at 10 PM, without any clouds. We learned that this is a rare treat! The retired couple who volunteer their time at the viewing area told us that this facility had opened only a couple weeks before we were there, and also told us to be careful about moose in the roadway as we drove further north and it got darker.
By 11 PM it was getting quite dark and I was getting more worried about encountering a moose the wrong way. Fortunately, we were frequently in a mini-convoy behind another car or truck. I got the impression that everyone was more than happy to let the truck take the lead, since nobody passed it when the driver had to slow down for a couple hills.
We stayed at the McKinley Village Lodge, a few miles south of the national park entrance. They run a shuttle bus to the park although we chose to drive. There are very few other facilities south of the park entrance except for a small grocery store just inside the park, on the left side before the turn to the visitor center. We found later that there are plenty of stores and places to eat just a couple miles north of the park entrance. In addition to its restaurant, the hotel has a coffee bar that also sells muffins, bottled juices, and boxed breakfasts, although they were out of the latter when I asked.
McKinley Village Lodge has rooms in several two-story buildings on a short loop road. The rooms are fine although limited in storage space, and do not come with an iron and ironing board. The buildings are right next to the Nenana River. There's a very scenic trail that runs along the bank. The hotel also provides whitewater rafting trips in the river and a small "pan for gold" site which we didn't do.
We headed for Denali National Park in the morning. I purchased tickets on-line several weeks earlier for the 10:30 AM shuttle bus to the Eielson visitor center. It’s longer than the trip to Toklat River, but the view of Denali, visitor center, and short trails made it worthwhile. There’s a fancier “tour bus” trip through the park that was sold out; I suspect that the travel agencies and cruise lines snatch these tickets up quickly, but we found the old green shuttle bus to be just fine, if a bit dusty. Our bus driver, Linda Paganelli, narrated the trip. It’s possible to switch buses on a “space available” basis, but we stayed with bus 532 since she gave us enough time at each of the rest stops. Everyone watched for wildlife and yelled “Stop!” when something was spotted. We saw Dall sheep, caribou, moose, and grizzly bears. The only one which was really close was one grizzly. Don’t expect to see a lot of animals, just a few. Bring binoculars since many of the animals are far away. If you really don’t like heights, sit on the right side of the bus going out, although the better views are from the left (driver’s) side. Remember there’s no water or food, although there is water at Eielson. We planned for this by bringing peanut butter & jelly and bottled water from home for lunch.
We returned to the main Visitor Center in time to catch the 6:30 PM ranger talk about moose. I highly recommend ranger talks at any national park. The Denali Visitor Center has 45-minute talks scheduled at 6:30 PM daily.
We ate dinner that evening at the hotel restaurant. The food is on the fancier side and, after our minimal breakfast and PB&J lunch, was a welcome treat.
The next morning, we checked out and drove back to the Visitor Center by 9:30 AM. There are sled dog demonstrations daily at 10 AM, 2 PM, and 4 PM, with free shuttle buses (no reservations needed) from the Visitor Center about 20-30 minutes before. Try to get there early to get one of the first buses, since you’ll have more time with the dogs before the demonstration. This was definitely a highlight of the trip. Most of the dogs are very happy to see the visitors, with some simply tethered outside their houses where you can walk up and pet them. For the demonstration, we headed to a long raised platform that provided a good view. The ranger told us the history of sled dogs in the park, why they’re used even today, how they’re trained, and what life in the park is like in the winter. (He used to work in the Everglades, so Denali was a major climate change for him!) We learned what the lead, swing, team, and wheel positions are. Then he and the staff went to get the dogs and hooked them up to a wheeled sled. The dogs were incredibly excited about pulling the sled, some jumping up in the air several feet! After a fast run around a short track, the dogs were calmer as they chewed on rawhide snacks and the ranger answered questions from the audience. We had a few more minutes with the dogs before we had to leave.
We drove north toward Healy and discovered all the shops we had missed before, as well as the first two traffic lights north of Wasilla, about 200 miles away. We ate lunch at the Subway, shopped a little, and headed south for Anchorage and Seward by 2 PM.
Along the way, we stopped at the Denali State Park’s View North and View South. Due to smoke from forest fires up near Fairbanks drifting south, along with a few clouds, we could barely see the mountains that were so clear only the day before. According to a display at Denali’s Eielson Visitor Center, the mountains can be seen only about 25% of the time in August, so we were very fortunate. We also stopped at the Alaska Veterans Memorial, on the left side at milepost 147.2, and for gas, which was almost 40 cents per gallon more than in Anchorage at $2.45.
Anchorage is Alaska’s largest city, but it’s still smaller than most and easy to drive in. East-west avenues are numbered. North-south streets are lettered on the west side of the city and appear to be place names in alphabetical order on the east side. This is a good place to buy anything you forgot; I found a Best Buys to pick up more film, for instance.
We didn’t plan much time in Anchorage, although there are a couple good museums according to the AAA TourBook. Hotel rooms are more numerous and at better rates than other towns, too.
I had read an on-line cruise comment by a Dawn Princess passenger in May that said the Glacier Brewhouse had great food. It does! It appears to be a very popular place, so if you go I suggest calling ahead for reservations. (Check their web site for a menu and other details - www.glacierbrewhouse.com.) We ended up waiting for close to an hour for a Sunday evening dinner without reservations. There are several nearby art and gift shops, so my wife and I went exploring while the boys played cards at the restaurant’s large lobby area that’s shared with several stores and restrooms. There’s a $2 public parking lot just past the restaurant on the NW corner of G and 5th if you have trouble finding a spot.
Since we enjoyed it so much, we decided to eat lunch at the Brewhouse on Wednesday afternoon when returning from Seward before returning the car. It’s only a little out of the way when coming up from Seward to the airport. Even at 2 PM, the place was very busy although we didn’t have to wait for a table this time. I think the parking lot is reserved for businesses during weekdays, but we lucked out and pulled into a metered spot right in front of the restaurant.
On this second trip to Anchorage, we drove to Earthquake Park which is a slightly past the airport on Northern Lights Boulevard on the right side. There’s a short trail and descriptive plaques at the edge of a neighborhood that dropped about 30 feet toward Cook Inlet during the 1964 magnitude 9.2 earthquake. The park was fine, but not worth driving out of your way. I saw more photos of the earthquake damage in books at the souvenir shops, and there’s not much evidence at the park itself other than the steeply sloped terrain.
Gas prices were at their best in and around Anchorage, cheaper than in Seward and much cheaper than the Denali area.
The Seward Highway between Anchorage and Seward is very scenic. The Turnagain Arm has a significant tidal change, so we saw areas covered with water on our way to Seward which were wide mudflats on our return trip. We also noticed several areas with dead trees. During the 1964 earthquake and resulting tsunamis, salt water flooded the land, killing trees along the coastline which still stand. Further south into the Kenai Peninsula, we drove through the Chugach Mountains, many of which have glaciers on top.
It was dark by the time we arrived in Seward, noticeably earlier than in Denali since we were over 350 miles further south. We checked into the Edgewater Hotel on the far side of the town. Our room had a small balcony and a view of Mount Alice across Resurrection Bay. As in Denali, the room had limited storage space and no iron/ironing board, although one could be requested. Our room did have a microwave and small refrigerator; I'm not sure whether all the rooms have these. The surrounding neighborhood doesn’t show up in the photos on their web site, but it’s not too bad.
Parking in front of the hotel is limited to 2 hours during the day, so they have a gravel lot about a block and a half up 5th Avenue. There are several shops and restaurants on 4th Avenue. We ate dinner twice at Christo’s Palace, near 4th and Railway Avenue, which was quite good. The hotel includes a very extensive breakfast buffet.
We took a few walks up the bike path that runs around the bay, which seemed to have a couple miles RVs and tents along the water. Seward was the first spot where we saw salmon swimming upstream, at a small stream near the northern end of the bike path.
For our first full day in Seward, we drove out to Exit Glacier. This is a short driving distance from town in Kenai Fjords National Park. It’s a short hike to the glacier of less than a mile, which is flat at the beginning but gets steeper near the glacier. Expect cold, gusty winds when you get there! Take a jacket but leave any hats behind. There are signs on the way in with years on them that mark where the front of the glacier was in different years. It’s amazing how far back the Alaskan glaciers have retreated in only the last few decades. The trail gets very close to the front of the glacier, much closer than any other glacier we visited on our vacation. On the way back from the glacier, take the side nature trail. There was one spot that was marked as flooded out, but we were able to pick up the trail further on. The trail takes you right down to the water flowing from the glacier. Our older son was able to fish out a small 3-inch piece of glacier ice that was flowing by. The trail also has signs explaining the succession of plants that appear as a glacier retreats. It probably took about 2-3 hours to drive out of town, see the glacier and trail, and drive back. If you have more time and are up to a more challenging trail, there’s a side trail up to the Harding Icefield from which the glacier flows.
On our second day, we took the 11:30 AM six-hour Kenai Fjords National Park boat tour offered by Kenai Fjords Tours. I had booked this a few weeks in advance. They didn’t send tickets as the Denali shuttle bus did, but they did have my name on their list. Parking in front of their office at the small boat harbor is limited to only a few hours, so they have a parking lot a few blocks away (at the corner of Seward Highway and Phoenix, just past the Benny Benson Memorial heading out of town) with frequent shuttle buses.
It’s always difficult for a tour to plan wildlife sightings and the captain said that this was one of the better ones she’s led, but even if we had seen fewer animals this would have been an outstanding boat trip. We saw puffins, seals, two pods of orcas, two different types of porpoises, including one group of about 40-50 that swam alongside and under our boat, a fin whale, and a humpback whale that was so close to the boat that we could see it underwater. The destination of the boat trip was a large glacier that was calving while we floated quietly for about 20 minutes a short distance away. With the engine off, we could hear the thunder-like cracking of the glacier as it slowly moved, with pieces falling into the water every few minutes. The crew fished out several large pieces of ice that they put in a big plastic bowl near the galley for us to look at and touch on the return trip.
The boat itself was large with lots of places to watch from inside and outside, a galley with water and lemonade and reasonably priced snacks, and several clean heads (restrooms). The lunch that was included in our trip was several fish sticks or chicken fingers with potato chips. The crew also served warm chocolate chip cookies on the return trip.
I highly recommend both of these trips in Seward. We spread them out over a three-night stay, but it might be possible to do both in one day if you’re in Seward for only two nights. You could also see Exit Glacier while leaving town for Anchorage after the second night if you get an early start. The boat tour asks people to check in an hour before the trip. I don’t know what the park’s hours are but you should be able to contact them in advance for details.
This was the first day we had miserable weather. Fortunately, it was an at-sea day. I didn’t realize that College Fjord was a handful of glaciers that were mostly visible in the early morning. When you hear that the ship will get there around 6:30 or 7 AM, plan on getting up that early to see the largest glacier. This is where the captain gets very close (although not as close as the two glaciers were saw in Seward) and turns the ship around. I almost missed this since we had planned on sleeping a little later. Fortunately, I woke up just as the ship was turning around and we were able to watch from our balcony without getting completely dressed. The lifeboat drill is at 9:30 AM, and you can always nap afterwards.
Surprisingly, Sitka wasn’t as Russian as I expected. As with many of the early Alaskan towns that were mostly built from wood, Sitka has had it share of fires and reconstruction. For example, the landmark St. Michael’s Cathedral with its Russian-style architecture was rebuilt in 1966.
Sitka was, fortunately, the only tender port. The Spirit actually uses a few of its lifeboats as tenders to take passengers ashore. It was exciting to watch the crew drop and launch the lifeboat just next to our cabins. The drawback, however, is that the lifeboats are smaller than other tender boats I’ve been on, and it took a few hours to get everyone off the ship. If you’re not on a Carnival side tour, and we weren’t, you get numbered tender tickets on the Lido deck. I made the mistake of getting them after we ate breakfast, and it took another hour until they called for Tender 21. At least we were able to wait on our balcony and enjoy the sunny weather and view while waiting for the announcement.
Sitka is not very large. There’s a staffed information booth near the dock with maps. You can easily walk to most of the main attractions and shops. There’s also a transit bus that runs in a half-hour loop, which costs $7 for an all-day pass. We just missed the bus and decided to walk to the Alaska Raptor Center, about a mile away. It’s a nice hike on walkways past the waterfront and shops, the Russian Bishop’s House, a few homes, and Sheldon Jackson College, and along the edge of the Sitka National Historical Park and over the small Indian River with spawning salmon.
The Alaska Raptor Center was another AAA recommendation. It’s not large, but includes about two dozen rescued bald eagles, falcons, and owls. After paying admission and viewing a short film, one of the staff members took us on a tour of the facility. Most of the birds we saw are there permanently, and he explained why. Surprisingly, several of the eagles had collided with power lines. They’re not sure why, but maybe while focusing on prey a couple miles away the eagles miss the smaller power lines right in front of them. After the tour we were able to go back to see all the birds, which are kept outside. There’s also a short loop trail through the temperate rainforest that we hiked before heading back to town.
Despite the tender delay and the walk to and from the Raptor Center, we still had time to see the main attractions in town before heading to the docks for the next-to-last tender back. I had originally hoped to see the Sitka National Historical Park before or after the Raptor Center, but I scrapped that plan since my wife wanted to do some shopping and I decided the buildings in town might be more interesting than the park if our time was limited.
While not as large as Anchorage, Juneau is one of the larger cities in Alaska. Actually, I’d describe it more as a large town. The cruise ships dock about a 10-minute walk from the edge of town. There’s a staffed information booth with downtown maps at the Marine Park Kiosk along Marine Way on your left as you head into town. Juneau still has its share of older wooden buildings, and unfortunately a major part of one downtown block suffered a major fire just a few days before our cruise started.
We decided that I would have some time on my own in the morning to see the city. I wanted to tour the state capitol building, but found after I walked there (about 20 minutes) that it wasn’t open on weekends! The city museum is across the street, but since I wanted to be back by lunchtime I decided to walk a few more blocks to the Alaska State Museum. I went through in about an hour since I had to get back, although I’d recommend 1-1/2 to 2 hours at a more leisurely pace. The two-floor museum’s galleries focus on Alaska Natives, Natural History, and Alaska History. Note the Abraham Lincoln-like totem carving, since you might see the copy (and hear a different story) in Ketchikan. Bring a camera since photography is allowed.
We bought the 2 PM Juneau City & Mendenhall Glacier tour from Carnival. I thought it was worthwhile since Mendenhall Glacier is about 15 miles away. Our Gray Line bus driver, Julia, and her bus, Big Mama (she advised us not to confuse the two!), took “The Road” north to a salmon hatchery and then to the Mendenhall Glacier visitor center. On the way back, she drove through the incredibly scenic campus of the University of Alaska Southeast.
We bought tickets on our own at the Mount Roberts Tramway, which is only a few minutes walk from the ship. The tram goes 1,800 feet up the steep mountain that’s next to the cruise ship dock. At the top, after taking in the outstanding views, we watched a movie about Alaska’s native Tlingit. While my wife went through the gift shop, the boys and I went for a hike on the loop trail. Be sure to stop in at the smaller gift shop near the trail since it also has information on the plants and animals in the area. The trail itself has several scenic overlooks, including one that looked down on our ship. There is a small restaurant at the top if you want to eat away from the ship. The tram ticket allows unlimited trips during the day, but once was fine for us. It would have been interesting to go back up to see the sunset, but that was too close to our late dinner seating.
This was my favorite town as far as unique atmosphere goes, although my wife didn’t like it as much as I did. Skagway hasn’t had any major fires, so many of its original wooden buildings remain, as well as its wooden sidewalk. It doesn’t take much imagination to see the similarity between this gold rush town which grew up almost overnight to the frontier towns that are seen in westerns.
We booked the 8 AM trip on the White Pass & Yukon Route railroad. You can board the train right at the cruise ship dock and save yourself a half-mile walk to the train depot if you buy your tickets from Carnival instead of on-line in advance from the railroad. The price difference was $7. If you like old trains and mountain scenery, this is a great trip. I know many people have recommended it. However, we didn’t think it was that outstanding. Maybe it was the early hour; it’s easy to doze off. Maybe it was because it was hard to find room on a platform to stand outside; some people share space better than others. Maybe it was because the engines are switched at the midway point and we were breathing diesel fumes for the return trip. Or maybe we had just seen enough scenery by that point. I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether to take this one.
Important note: Sit in one of the middle cars! Several on-line reviewers have suggested sitting in the last car if possible because of the views from the back platform. However, when we tried that, we were told that the last (and presumably the first) car weren’t open due to the diesel fumes. We ended up in the next-to-last-car on the way up. This became the second car on the way down after the engines were switched, and the fumes really were significant.
After we returned and ate lunch on the ship, we walked into town. There are trams from the ship to the dock end and then small buses from the end of the dock into town if you have trouble walking. While my wife was shopping (notice the pattern), I spotted one of the 45-minute ranger-led walking tours of the historic district and listened in to part of it. Since it sounded interesting, the boys and I decided to go on the next one and arrange to meet my wife later. The free tours are hourly at 9, 10, 11, 2, and 3 o’clock and limited to about 30 people, but only about 12-18 people were going out on most of them so we were able to join the next one out from the Visitor Center at 2nd Avenue and Broadway.
The park ranger was as entertaining and informative as all the others I’ve encountered. He did a great job helping us realize why people would willingly leave a relatively comfortable city life for the challenge of hunting for gold in Alaska, not unlike the dreams that fueled the “dotcom” boom in the late 1990s. He humorously noted that the town today really isn’t much different from the way it was 100 years ago, since its goal is still to separate the visitors from their cash. He also talked about the key role of whiskey in the town’s early economy, and of the “Skagway Shuffle” of moving buildings around which continues today. My wife joined us near the end and she agreed that it was a great tour.
We saw the famous, or infamous, Red Onion Saloon briefly, but the tours of the second floor had ended for the day by the time we got there.
This is a good port for a shore excursion, since there isn't much to see right in the town except the shops on Creek Street, which is only a block long. We were considering either the "Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show" and the "Saxman Native Village Tour," and ended up doing neither although both were probably good choices. The lumberjack show is right at the cruise ship dock; it's an open arena but the audience seats are under a roof. I saw lumberjack shows many years ago in Idaho and Wisconsin and thought our boys in particular might enjoy it. The Saxman tour includes a chance to watch and even participate in native dancing in a tribal house. We saw highlights later on the cruise television and it looked reasonably good. This would also be a good choice on one of the rainy days that are frequent in Ketchikan.
Since the weather was nice, my wife thought that it would be fun to go on another boat trip to look at wildlife, so we ended up on the "Ketchikan Explorer by Land & Sea." We were able to book this afternoon tour that morning at the shore excursion desk. The first part was a boat ride. The boat was smaller than the one we took in Seward, with indoor and outdoor viewing areas. The crew handed out juice and small snacks while we were on the water. We didn't see as much wildlife as on our Seward trip, but did see some seals, a couple adult bald eagles, and an eagle nest with a juvenile bald eagle. "Captain Mark" was able to take his boat into some very tight areas along the shore where we were able to see starfish under the water along with some jellyfish. The tour guide on this part of the trip kept pointing out interesting sights along the way. I enjoyed the scenery and the boat trip itself, just don't expect to see a lot of wildlife.
The boat docked at a salmon cannery that was abandoned suddenly in 1959, where we met our tour guide and bus driver for the second part of the trip. After viewing a film about the salmon canning industry and how it changed drastically due to legislation in 1959, we toured the old plant. We then boarded a bus and drove to the Saxman village, where we had a chance to look at several totem poles there and the outside of the tribal house. (This is the same one where the dancing is held on the other tour, although we didn't go inside.) There's a totem carving shed on the site that is not part of this tour. One of the tourists from another ship in port who was on this tour with us was upset that it wasn't, since he was a long-time woodcarver and had thought that it was included. Although none of the carvers was around, our guide was able to sneak us into the shed and, while we stood on the other side of a barrier from the carving area, gave an overview of the tools the carvers use. Someone asked about the totem colors. He explained how the red, black, and blue paints were traditionally mixed from local materials, but now the carvers simply get pick them up at the Ace Hardware store in town! Just as he finished, the master woodcarver, Mr. Jackson, returned. Hopefully our guide won't get in too much trouble over taking us into the shed while he was out. On the bus trip back to town, we heard a shortened version of the 5-hour-long tale behind one of the totem poles we had seen. All in all, this was a great way to spend the afternoon.
We extended our trip by one day to see Vancouver. After all the small Alaskan towns, it was odd to be back in a large, busy city with more than one main road. Vancouver also seems to have as many Starbucks per block as New York City, which must have something to do with its proximity to Seattle.
The cruise ship terminal was one of the nicer ones we've seen with many employees around to direct us and answer questions. Getting through immigration and customs was very quick. The cab line was handled very efficiently and we took a minivan cab (remember - lots of luggage) to the Renaissance Hotel, where our travel agent had arranged a one-day rental from Hertz. (We weren't staying at this hotel and there are other locations to pick up cars in town, but this was a very short distance from the terminal.) Realizing that we wouldn't be able to check in at the Delta Suites Hotel until later, we headed to the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre in Stanley Park.
Stanley Park has a long, one-way loop road with a few side roads, so it's hard to get lost. We found our way to the aquarium a few minutes before it's 9:30 AM opening. Parking in Stanley Park costs only $5 for the full day. We found a parking spot and looked for a blue-and-white ticket machine. After selecting from 1 hour, 2 hour, or all day parking and inserting our credit card, the machine printed a receipt that we left on the car dashboard. (I wasn't sure if the machines would take U.S. currency, and since we were only in Canada for one day we charged everything.)
The aquarium was outstanding. It's not as large as the Baltimore Aquarium, but the outdoor animal demonstrations were great. These seemed to be intentionally scheduled for half-hours without overlapping, so we were able to go right from the otter feeding to the sea lion feeding to the dolphin show to the beluga whale show. The indoor exhibits were interesting and educational. There's a large frog exhibit that proved to be an eye test when trying to find some of the smaller, well-camouflaged frogs. The only aspect of the aquarium that was disappointing was the food area. It's located outside and there are only a few tables with umbrellas. Our lunch itself was tasty, but a light rain was starting to fall and it took a few minutes to get an open table that was partially covered. The nearby beluga whale area is partially covered, too, but since another show was about to start there wasn't much room there. There is a small coffee bar with some sandwiches downstairs inside the building, but it has almost no seating. Other than this one glitch, the aquarium was a fantastic way to spend about 4 hours.
We finished driving around Stanley Park, stopping at one of the scenic overlooks on the way, and headed back into downtown Vancouver to our hotel. Traffic in the center was surprisingly heavy, more like rush hour even though it was about 3 PM. There are a lot of one-way streets, so watch for the white-on-black arrow signs which do not say "One Way;" twice