Number of Cruises: Seasoned cruisers
Cruise Line: Glacier Bay
Ship: Wilderness Discoverer
Sailing Date: September 3rd, 2001
Itinerary: Juneau to Sitka, Alaska
About This Review
We were a small group of 7 travel professionals on the Glacier Bay Cruises Wilderness Discoverer near the tail end of the Alaska season. All of us were seasoned cruisers, and most had limited small ship cruising experience. Right off, I will tell you that everyone loved this cruise experience and would look forward to going back again. This, in spite of horrible weather, itinerary change after itinerary change only to be capped off by the events of September 11th, 2001 and the insurmountable task of trying to get home (I left on the 10th to get home, but everyone else stayed over until the 11th.)
This review is broken into 3 distinct areas; The Ship , a look at the Wilderness Discoverer, The Cruise , a day by day look at the ports, activities, shore excursions and cruise, and finally, FAQ about the Wilderness Discoverer . Note that all of the shore excursions were included in the price of the cruise so there is not a discussion of the optional shore excursions in this review.
Getting to the Ship: I left San Diego on Alaska Airlines connecting through Seattle and arrived in Juneau, Alaska right on time to be met by a wonderful young woman from Glacier Bay Cruises in the terminal. After gathering up our luggage we boarded a passenger van and made our way to the hotel Glacier Bay Cruises uses to house its passengers prior to departure on the cruise, the Goldbelt Hotel in Juneau. The hotel is located right across from the ferry terminal and is also the dock that the ship uses to board and disembark passengers. Right off, you get a feel that you are somehow a “local” rather than just another passenger from one of the cruise ships in port that day
The Goldbelt Hotel
The Goldbelt is just steps from Juneau’s Old Town shopping center and great shopping is just a three minute walk from the hotel’s entrance. It amazes me how the Caribbean shopping giants have migrated to Alaska. Juneau’s main shopping street (Franklin Street) is lined with shops like Little Switzerland, Diamonds International and a wealth of quality stores selling jewelry, furs, Russian collectibles, books, clothes and just about every other conceivable trinket, collectable and souvenir one can imagine. Juneau’s growth since the first time I visited the then quaint city, is phenomenal.
Throughout the summer there are at least three ships docked right downtown so that their passengers may get off the ship and be buying within 30 seconds. Mendenhall glacier is one of Juneau’s main attractions and I would suggest that folks on this itinerary come into Juneau a day early to enjoy Juneau shopping, Mendenhall Glacier, take a city tour and basically enjoy Juneau’s uniqueness.Day One, Juneau, Alaska
After arriving at the hotel I changed my clothes into something a little more “Alaskan”. It was raining with a moderate south wind and I could easily tell that it was going to be raining for a while. I wanted to get a shot of the hotel for this review so I went across the street and got a good shot with the Juneau’s spectacular mountains behind it. I walked along the wharf in front of Juneau’s waterfront “mall” and heard someone pounding on the window. It was a couple that I knew was going to be with our group and so I joined them for a late lunch. They had been in Juneau for a day and had found this restaurant and liked it quite a bit.
The Hanger Restaurant in the mall across the street from the hotel is excellent! I had eaten there a couple of years ago and received so-so food and service. Apparently new owners had taken the restaurant over and drastically improved the quality of food and service and lowered prices at the same time. We came to find out that this was the favorite restaurant with the Juneau residents because of this fact. After a wonderful lunch of fish and some Alaskan Amber, we agreed to meet again for dinner at the restaurant. I left to make my way into town just as the rain turned into a downpour. I scurried from storefront to storefront trying to stay dry but did not succeed.
HINT: Juneau is located in a rain forest as is much o South East Alaska. Bring hooded rain gear because you will pay a premium for it in Alaska.
I decided to head back to the hotel and wait out the rain and ended up taking a two-hour nap. When I awoke the rain had subsided and I once again made my way into town. By now the town had emptied out and virtually everyone was back on their respective ships (Holland America, Celebrity and Princess were all in port) leaving the streets and shops of Juneau vacant. I made my way south towards the other end of town when the rain started pouring with a vengeance. Since I am from San Diego where it rarely rains (we tease that when it does rain they close the government buildings and the schools) I just didn’t have the right clothes for the trip. I finally found a store that offered rain gear and outfitted myself with a bright yellow hooded raincoat…. OK, bring it on!
We met for dinner at the Hanger at 8pm and enjoyed another great meal of fish and wine. The restaurant was loaded with locals and we mingled with some finding out their perspective on Juneau and Alaska in general. It was a fun evening. I was bushed so I made my way back to my room and went to sleep.Day Two, Juneau, Alaska
I awoke early and decided to take a long walk into town and look for some coffee. I walked and walked (in my new rain coat) and thoroughly enjoyed the beauty and peacefulness of early morning in Juneau’s great surroundings. The mountains behind Juneau sport many waterfalls and breathtaking vistas from every angle. While I had visited Juneau a number of times on ships, I had never had a personal experience with Juneau without several thousand other passengers going this way and that. I had discovered why people like Alaska so much. After a satisfying breakfast at my hotel I went to my room to start repacking to have my bags ready for Glacier Bay Tours and Cruises at 10 am. Our group was to meet in the lobby of the hotel for our first excursion of the trip….a rafting trip down the river spawned by Mendenhall glacier.
Ready to Raft the Mendenhall River
We left via motor coach and made our way up to the rafting staging station where the entire group downed rubber “farmer Johns”, a long rubber raincoat and rubber shoe covers that went over your entire shoe to protect all parts of your body from the freezing cold glacial runoff. We then went another 5 miles or so to the lake at the foot of Mendenhall Glacier where we boarded rafts and paddled our way across the lake to the very start of the river on the lake’s downhill side. The beauty of the glacier, the mountains surrounding the glacier and the peaceful waters on the lake were very comforting and soothing.
The Mendenhall Glacier and River
Once at the entrance to the river’s beginnings one could hear the roar of the coming rapids and promise of adventure. We were not disappointed. The river runs some 7 miles from this point to the ocean and we enjoyed several miles of it and got to run through some exciting level 2 rapids. About ¾ of the way down the river we stopped on a small island where the guides prepared snacks of salmon spread on crackers, dried fruits and cut up vegetables and some drinks (hot chocolate, water and fruit punch.) After our short stop we continued down the river to the haul out point and also the place where we had dawned our rain gear. It was a fun way to start the trip and certainly a nice introduction to what was coming. NOTE: It is important to note that the hotel stay, river rafting excursion and tram ride all are included in the price of the cruise as is all shore excursions and activities.
Rafting the Medenhall River
From the river rafting staging area we went by motor coach to the Mt. Roberts tramway where we rode the tram to the very top of the mountain overlooking Juneau. Three of us decided to enjoy the “Mountain House” by simply enjoying a glass of chardonnay and the very pleasant surroundings. The tram ride is pleasant albeit extremely crowded and the top of Mt. Roberts promises miles of trails and many things to see. Of course, there is a large shop full of souvenirs and collectables. Our ship was to begin boarding at 4:30 sharp and since it was 4:40 when we looked at our watches we decided to make a b-line to the ship. We quickly walked the length of Juneau in about 15 minutes and found our way to the Glacier Bay Tours and Cruises check in area and quickly boarded our ship.
The City of Juneau fromt he Mt. Roberts Tramway
The Wilderness Explorer at Dock
We got to the M/V Wilderness Discoverer and boarded her immediately At 169 feet in length with a beam of 38 feet she is dwarfed by the large ships at anchor in the Juneau basin and her three decks seem quite small in comparison.
My Cabin (#303)
The cabin: I went directly to my cabin (#303), which was small and compact. It featured a queen-sized bed with a small space for storage at the foot of the bed, a wash basin with a mirrored, 3-shelf medicine cabinet, a small closet with two storage bins and one shelf as well as, a hanging bar about 2 feet long. The cabin also featured a small chair and round table next to a window that I could open at will. The door does not have locks and I gained entrance from the outside of deck 3.
The View From my Cabin
The view I enjoyed while in my cabin working was world-class and I would certainly recommend these cabins because of the views. The shower is very much like those on a long-range fishing boat. The bathroom is a shower/toilet combination so that every square inch is maximized…as one of our group members explained “you can use the restroom and shower at the very same time.” There is a curtain that can be pulled to protect the toilet and towel storage area when you are showering and it works quite effectively. Actually, the shower is much larger than a typical cruise line shower when the curtain is pulled and the bathroom is actually quite large when it is stowed. There are two 110-volt outlets and the cabin is well lighted. One of the best things about the cabin is that each has its own heat and air conditioning unit that works quite well. Alaska in September can get somewhat cool and having the ability to control one’s environment is a welcomed feature. All in all, the cabin was adequate for me but would have been crowded if two were traveling in it. However, no passengers that I talked with found the cabins to be a deterrent to the cruise once they were settled..
The ship also has 4 “suites” that were made available for those that wanted to upgrade their cabins upon check-in and they were snatched up immediately. The suites were generous in size and would have been quite comfortable. The two forward suites had picture windows facing forward that would have allowed their guests to relax in their cabin while taking in the breathtaking sites that the ship was enjoying. I would suggest one consider one of these two suites at the time of booking as they would have been more than comfortable and worth the extra money they would have cost.
The Main Dining Area
The Dining Area: The Wilderness Discoverer offers three meals a day at scheduled times in a family-dining environment. There are no seat assignments and one is free to sit wherever they like. It is a very friendly environment with lots of discussions going on throughout the meals. There are several booths with seating for 6 and also several round tables with seating for 6 or 8. As a single on this cruise I had no problem gaining an extra seat at any table I wanted, as the crew was very accommodating.
The Lounge and Bar Area
The Lounge and Bar Area: Adjoining and forward of the dining area is a lounge area and small bar. The bar is open from 11am in the morning until 11pm in the evening. Drinks are reasonably priced and served in ample portions. Wine is available by the bottle or by the glass and a reasonable variety is offered. While the ship does not allow you to bring liquor on board they will stock your favorite beverage if you give them enough notice. The lounge area also makes up the main sightseeing venue during cold and inclement weather. There are field glasses by every window for general use and many folks prefer the warmth and camaraderie of the lounge area to the Discoverer’s outside viewing areas.
The area is also home to each day’s “happy hour” where appetizers are served before dinner. The first evening shrimp cocktail and Cajon shrimp were offered followed a different choice every night. There is a coffee/tea station open during all waking hours so that one can grab a warm drink to sooth their chills from prolonged exposure to the outside temperatures. The ship’s announcements and meetings are usually done in this area as well.
Deck 4 Viewing Area
Deck Three and Four Forward: These are the main viewing areas on the ship and are very popular during glacier viewing and when animals are being spotted. My cabin (303) was adjacent to the viewing area on deck three and I was able to get some good shots that I would have been unable to get had I not been able to jump out of my cabin in a hurry.
Deck 4 Sundeck
Deck Four, Aft: This is a large deck space that serves two purposes. First it is a sun deck where folks can enjoy being outside is somewhat protected area. There are tables and chairs and this is a great place to watch the Alaskan terrain go by while enjoying a cup of tea. Secondly, it is the storage area for the ship’s kayaks and zodiac.