Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Into the Wild, Volume One

When I first became a travel agent (way back in 2004) and immersed myself in learning about new places, one of the first things I did was watch the DVDs for the Princess Cruiseline Alaska Cruisetours. This was both a good idea and a bad one, as it gave me a very strong desire to visit a place I had never been (Alaska)...but also instilled in me that there really was no way to do it other than a Princess Cruisetour. And of course a balcony stateroom on the cruise portion was a must.

Fast forward nearly four years and after talking about Alaska for nearly three years, then saving for, booking, and planning a trip for a year, I boarded the Sapphire Princess in May 2008. Balcony stateroom and all.

We had chosen the Voyage of the Glaciers cruise that left from Vancouver and ended in Whittier, followed by a three-night land tour that visited Mt. McKinley (sort of), Denali, and Fairbanks. We really went all out for this trip, and for the most part I don't regret that. If I never get back to Alaska, I can say that I've seen plenty of it...but mind you, in the end this 13-night vacation cost us close to $10,000 and put off any future major trips for a couple of years.

Steam clock in the Gaslight district of Vancouver
If your mind isn't churning about how a 7-night cruise and a 3-night land tour adds up to 13 nights, I'll start at the beginning; that being that we flew to Vancouver the day before our cruise left. If you're coming from the east coast, I highly suggest this option. Not only did we get to explore some of Vancouver, but flying in a day early left us far more rested for the cruise. We stayed at the Four Seasons Vancouver, which was a beautiful hotel. Very expensive and not in the most amazing location (I did not care for the mall next door, and other than walking 20 minutes to the Gaslight District there weren't many options of things to do right near/around the hotel), but we booked it through the cruise line and you take what you can get.

While in Vancouver, we visited the Gaslight District and ate at the Water St. Cafe. Food and service were exemplary at the time, but reading more recent reviews has led me to believe that things may have gone downhill since.

Gotta love the Mounties!
The next day, we took a Princess shuttle to the ship and were boarded very quickly (it helped that we had a gentleman in a wheelchair with us). After a quick bite to eat at the buffet, our rooms were ready and we settled in to watch the ship leave Vancouver by sailing under the bridge. This is something I hadn't experienced before and it was really neat to see such a huge ship fit under the suspension bridge!

As for our stateroom, the room itself was fairly small--actually smaller than the oceanview room we'd had on the Valor a few years prior--but we had chosen a room with an extra-large balcony, and that ended up being the best choice for us. We spend a lot of time on the balcony, and with all the scenic cruising that most Alaskan cruises involve, I do not regret one bit that we invested the extra money in this room category.

Enjoying our extended balcony!
Our cruise began with a day at sea. The weather was a bit gray and chilly (which was to be expected) and I spent most of the day at the spa and playing bingo. The next day, we were more than ready for our first port of call--Ketchikan, where we had booked a ziplining excursion!

My dad and I being "Double Dessert Daredevils"!
Ziplining was actually amazing. The platforms, which were anywhere from 90 to 130 feet in the air and didn't have railings, were a bit nerve-wracking at times--but I never felt unsafe and it was truly a great experience. It probably helped things that our guides were, um, gorgeous.

Our guides. Umm yeah the tall one was gorgeous.
Unfortunately, once our excursion was over it began raining and we rushed back onto the ship for some shelter. We had walked around a couple blocks of Ketchikan before meeting up for ziplining, and there really wasn't much to see in the little town anyway.

Our second port was Juneau, and we had a pretty long day here, which was nice. We began the morning with some shopping (okay, a lot of shopping, there are some amazing local stores in Juneau!) and followed that with a Princess-specific tour that took us on a tour of the Alaska Brewing Co., to Mendenhall Glacier, and to a cooking class where we got to watch a chef prepare a special dish and, of course, taste said dish--along with some wine! After all the beer and wine we ingested, we were happy to have a couple hours left to hang out at the Red Dog Saloon. Although quite touristy, this bar is an absolute blast and I call it a must for anyone who visits Juneau!

Porcupine in a tree at Mendenhall Glacier

"Dowtown" Juneau
Sailing away from Juneau
The third and final port of call for our cruise was Skagway. As this was another long day in port, we had booked two excursions through Princess. The first was a streetcar tour, which was more fun than we expected! The tour is run by local men and women, who dress up in period costume (from around the time of Skagway's founding) and played their part quite well, as we rode around in the streetcars and heard about Skagway's past and present. Yes, it was a bit cheesy, but it was probably one of the best history/sightseeing tours I've ever been on!

Arctic Brotherhood building in Skagway

We followed the streetcar tour with a couple hours of shopping, then boarded a coach to drive into Canada's Yukon territory! Personally, I could have taken or left this excursion. Although it was a beautiful drive and I love being able to say that I've actually "been to the Yukon", there wasn't much of note for that part of the tour. We did see some black bears, but the coach driver refused to stop so that we could take pictures...therefore I have no proof of what was probably our most exciting wildlife siting of the entire trip. However, we ended this excursion with dinner at the Liarsville Salmon Bake, and that is not to be missed! Although Liarsville is a sort of "mock" town, the food was absolutely amazing. So amazing, in fact, that we weren't even too upset that we missed the crab leg dinner on the ship.

The fault where the Pacific and Tectonic plates meet
Me on the Yukon Suspension Bridge! :D
We were left with two more days on the cruise, both of which were "at sea" days--although the first day did consist of some amazing sightseeing in Glacier Bay. The weather that day was cool but not cold, very sunny and very clear, which made for some great scenic cruising. To top it all off, we did our scenic cruising right on our private balcony with a champagne brunch to boot! It was a perfect morning.

Cruising beautiful Glacier Bay
Awesome wine tasting
My mom and I at the last formal dinner

Champagne Fountain
The last day that we spent on the ship consisted of getting a couples' massage (and yes, getting that maddening push to buy products from our masseuses) and eating at Vivaldi, the Italian restaurant that has a slight upcharge. The food here was very good, and there was a lot of it--but to be completely honest, I'm not sure it was so much better than the food in the main dining room, and it's not something I would say is a "must" if you cruise on the Sapphire Princess.

More scenic cruising
As a whole, I was pleased with our cabin, the ship, and the itinerary. As Alaska itineraries go, I feel like this one afforded the best combination of time in ports and best scenic cruising. The food, however, was disappointing--nowhere near as good as that on my cruise on Royal Caribbean. It was on par with the food on my 2005 Carnival cruise, but the vast difference in price just didn't make this cruise seem like too much of a "bargain".

Coming up, I'll discuss the land portion of our cruisetour, as well as a planned but also surprising stop in Seattle on the way home, and give you my conclusion on whether or not a Princess Cruisetour is the only way to go!

1 comment:

  1. I'm exactly the same! I read a brochure on it and I am dying to go too now! Gotta love being a travel agent, you fin d so many places you want to go!