travel

alaskan adventure

In May, my mom, grandparents, and I set off for an adventure unlike any we’d taken before: a cruise to Alaska!  None of us had ever been to Alaska or on a big cruise ship, so it was a new experience for all of us—and we absolutely loved every minute of it!  Today I’m sharing with you our cruising adventure: where we went and what we saw, and I’ll share some tips for anyone looking to take a cruise in the future!

We took the seven-day “Voyage of the Glaciers” cruise with Princess Cruises on the Island Princess ship, starting in Vancouver, BC and ending in Whittier/Anchorage, AK.  Of all the hundreds of ships, routes, ports, and companies to choose from, how on earth did we decide on this one?
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Timing.
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That was literally the only decision factor that went into it!  When we first started to explore the idea of taking an Alaskan cruise last August, we were quite simply overwhelmed with the number of choices.  Princess!  Celebrity!  Holland America!  Norwegian!  Within each company there are easily over a dozen Alaska itineraries or routes to choose from, so it can definitely be overwhelming to try to figure out which would be the best for you and your family.  We weren’t sure how to decide but then realized that our time window between when I came back from school and when my mom and I had to go back to work was so narrow—and, unfortunately, not flexible—that this was the only itinerary that worked, which made our decision process a breeze!
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Our cruise included a day at sea, two “scenic cruising” days, and three land ports.  At sea days are so relaxing—I used them to catch up on blog posts, do some reading, take part in some of the classes offered on board, and simply relax and look at the water all around the ship!
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“Scenic cruising” means that the ship slows waaay down and you go into the narrow channels and fjords that the Inside Passage of Alaska is known for.  For us, National Park rangers came aboard and engaged in a variety of programs, which were fascinating!  We did a full day of scenic cruising in Glacier Bay National Park, and got to see the famous Margerie and Grand Pacific Glaciers, among so many others!  When we were near Margerie Glacier, the captain was able to maneuver the ship in a way that every side of the ship was able to see the glacier.  The Grand Pacific Glacier is actually the glacier that carved the entire park—it’s amazing to think how much it’s changed since John Muir famously took a trip to the area, and how much it will continue to change in the future!  When you watch the glacier calve and hear the powerful “boom” echo through the park, you can’t help but marvel at the power of nature and the unreal beauty of the place.  Alaska is truly like nothing else.  We also had an evening of scenic cruising in College Fjord, where the ship is surrounded by glaciers on both sides and you quite honestly don’t know where to look, because each view is better than the last!
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Finally, we docked in three ports: Ketchikan, Juneau, and Skagway.  We chose to book excursions through Princess—for us, it was easier and created more peace of mind, something we value pretty highly since traveling, while fun, can be stress-inducing as well!  Below, I’ve listed the excursions we went on (with the specific Princess booking codes) and what we thought of them…
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Ketchikan:

KTN 110 | Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show & Totem Bight State Park | Rate: 7/10

Anything that bills itself as “The Great ____ ______ Show” is bound to be just a little bit touristy.  Was it?  Oh yeah.  Did we enjoy it?  Yes.  The lumberjacks in the show are actual lumberjacks by trade, so they’re really good at what they do, and it’s a fun show for the whole family.  As long as you go in with the expectation that it will be touristy and the jokes will be corny, you’ll have a good time.  From there, we went to Totem Bight State Park, which is known for its totem poles.  One of the totem poles at the park is located on one of the pages of the US Passport, so that’s a nice little fun fact that I now have stored away!  The only reason I gave this excursion a 7/10 was that our tour guide for the park just wasn’t very good.  To her credit, though, it was the first tour of the season!
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Juneau:

JNU 440 | Dog Sled Summer Camp | Rate: 1200/10

This day was one of those days where I couldn’t stop repeating “this is the best day of my life, this is the best day of my life, this is the best day of my life.”  We took a (bumpy, mildly hair-raising) bus ride up to a summer sled dog camp operated by Gold Rush Dog Tours.  We got the opportunity to pet SO MANY DOGS (this was maybe the part where I started crying) and participate in a summer training run where a team of 12 dogs pulled a mechanical cart.  We then got the opportunity to learn more about dog-sledding, racing, and the history of the Iditarod since many of the dogs at the camp (and many of the mushers who are there) run in the Iditarod. Hands down, one of the coolest experiences of my life.
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JNU 100 | Mendenhall Glacier Explorer | Rate: 10/10

Mendenhall Glacier is definitely a hallmark attraction of Juneau, and for that reason we knew we didn’t want to miss out on seeing it.  This excursion took us from the port where the ship was docked to the Visitor’s Center at the glacier and then back a few hours later, giving us ample time to explore the area around Mendenhall Glacier.  Along with the glacier, we saw Nugget Falls (which you can get right up next to—if you don’t mind getting a little soaked!) and meander along the beach.  Although it wasn’t sunny when we visited, apparently glaciers look even more blue than usual when it’s not sunny, so we were definitely in for a treat with the bright, deep blues of the glacier.
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JNU 620 | Evening Whale Quest | Rate: 10/10

Every single whale watching excursion we saw gave a guarantee of seeing whales, which made me more than a little bit skeptical.  The company we went with promised that we’d see whales and, if we didn’t, would refund us $100.  So we went into the evening knowing we were either going to see whales or get $100—not bad!  Our hopes and dreams of getting $100 were unfortunately dashed not fifteen minutes into our boat cruise when we came upon a pod of orcas, and continued to see whales for the rest of the night!  One even breached and came almost completely out of the water very near our boat, which was incredible!!  There was also delicious food on board (always a plus) and naturalist guides explaining our surroundings.  All in all we had a great experience—even if we didn’t get $100.
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Skagway:

SGY 200 | White Pass Scenic Railway | Rate: 10/10

The downtown of Skagway, while charming, is only about five blocks in total, so I’d recommend selecting an excursion for this day rather than just rely on walking around the town to find something to do.  We took the White Pass Scenic Railway, which was about four hours in total and came absolutely stunning views of the mountains.  We also crossed the border into Canada, so it was kind of fun to say that “we went to Canada for 15 minutes”.  I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves here…
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tips & tricks:

Alaska is so large that it has its own time zone, and since we started in Vancouver that means that we moved timezones on one of the first days of our cruise.  However, this takes place in the middle of the night and in the middle of the sea, meaning that your phone won’t recognize the switch since it won’t have service.  Because of this, I’d recommend bringing a cheap travel alarm clock (we bought these from Amazon) for you to use to make sure you’re waking up at the right time—you wouldn’t want to miss an excursion because you thought it was an hour later than it actually was!
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There are lots of different rooms to choose from on cruise ships: interior, outdoor view, balcony, mini-suite, suite…the list goes on.  While more expensive, we opted for rooms with balconies because we wanted the option of being able to sit in our rooms and see the scenery (and take lots of pictures) on scenic cruising days.  For example, in Glacier Bay, we spent the morning on the upper deck of the ship with many other people, taking in the sights (and sounds!) and moving easily from one side of the ship to the other.  We then decided to spend the afternoon looking outside from the comfort of our own balcony (and took advantage of room service for lunch as well), and really liked having that option.  For cruises that don’t have scenic cruising days you could definitely opt for an interior or outdoor view (window) room, but for scenic cruising it can be nice to splurge a little bit on the room and be able to not have to crane your neck around 8 other people, all eager to see the same otter as you!
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We learned the hard way that cute little artisanal shops to buy locally crafted goods don’t really exist, at least along the main walkways by the ports we were in.  Diamond shops, however, abound…we learned from one of our tour guides that these diamond shops are the same ones that line the main streets in the Caribbean islands, and shop owners spend the winter peddling to cruise patrons in the Caribbean and the summer up in Alaska, all following the cruise ship patterns.
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Many of the cruises we were looking at were combined “Land & Sea” voyages that combined a cruise with a land tour to places like Denali.  We unfortunately didn’t have the time to do this, but if time isn’t an issue I would highly recommend thinking about it—it looks simply fabulous!
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I did a lot of reading on blogs about Alaska cruises before going and based on that advice we decided to fly in the day before our cruise left just in case we ran into any flight delays.  While this peace of mind was nice to have (see my earlier note about how much we appreciate that!) it also left us with an awkward half-day in Vancouver without enough time to really see anything in the city.  If we cruised again (and we want to!) we would probably either fly in two days early to give us a full day of sightseeing, or risk it and fly in the morning of departure day.
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Like I said earlier, we booked all our excursions through the ship.  When we arrived in our room, all our excursion tickets were in an envelope on our desk, which made it super simple.  These excursions are run through tour companies located in Alaska who are used to working with cruise ship passengers, since those account for the majority of tourists in Alaska.  I have two tips/tricks/notes for excursions:
1) Especially if you go early in the season like we did, know ahead of time that it’s very possible that your excursions might be cancelled due to weather.  Thankfully this didn’t happen to us, but we did hear some people talking about their helicopter tour being cancelled because of the low fog and decreased visibility in the mountains.  The tour guides are extremely accommodating, however, and offered those whose tours were cancelled alternate tours or excursions that weren’t canceled.
2) There are so. many. options. for excursions—the sheer number alone is overwhelming!  Some are full day, some are half-day, and some are just a few hours.  In Juneau, for example, we decided to do more than one excursion because there were just so many things we wanted to do.  We were a little bit worried about being tight on time, but the tour guides are really, really good at what they do—if your excursion ticket says you’ll be back at the pier at a certain time, you will be back at that certain time. The other benefit to booking excursions directly through your cruise ship is that if you are delayed, for whatever reason, the ship will wait for you!  We were never delayed and were able to do all three of our excursions in Juneau with time to spare in between.
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Pack.  Layers.  !!!  I can’t stress this enough.  We were there at the beginning of the cruise season (early May) but even in the heart of the summer there’s still snow in some of these places.  On our scenic cruising days, I didn’t want to go inside for even a second to grab another layer for fear of missing out on seeing an otter or part of a glacier calving.  I packed a variety of sweatshirts, fleeces (like this one–an absolute classic and must-have in my wardrobe!), and outer layers (this coat and this raincoat are my go-to’s) and was really happy with what I had.  Layers are key–I would recommend two or three thinner fleeces or coats rather than one large jacket!
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In conclusion…best trip ever?  It’s definitely up there for me.  Alaska is a magical place full of beauty and wonder and such restorative energy.  I absolutely fell in love with the state and know it’s only a matter of time before I go back.
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Have you been on an Alaska cruise?  I’d love to hear about it!  Let me know in the comments below, and as always, if you have any questions, let me know!  I’d love to be a resource for you—don’t be a stranger!
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Happy travels!
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