Arrival in Vancouver

June 3, 2016

Unfortunately all good things must come to an end and today was the end of our second Alaska cruise. Since this was a one way cruise, we ended our trip in Vancouver, Canada. The first time we took this cruise, we opted to take the Amtrak to Seattle for cheaper flight options. This year, however, we were able to get a better deal out of Vancouver.

The turnaround time for a cruise ship is fairly quick; new passengers can embark as early as 11AM. Because of this, we had to be out of our room by 8AM and we were off the ship fairly soon after. Our flight wasn’t until 4PM, so we decided to visit the Vancouver Lookout for some cityscape views and then to take our brothers out for some yakiniku at one of our favorite restaurants.

From the Canada Place cruise ship dock the Vancouver Lookout is only 5 blocks away so it was a very short walk. Considering we had all our luggage with us this was definitely appreciated. As always, the views from the Lookout where amazing and it was a very enjoyable start to the day.

Once we had finished at the Lookout we grabbed a cab and went to Gyu Kaku. This is a chain yakiniku restaurant (Japanese style Korean BBQ) where you order various cuts of raw meat and grill them yourself. Each table has a gas grill in the middle and it’s a really fun experience to do in a group. Gyu Kaku is a major chain in Japan that has started to spread internationally, and we tend to visit whenever we are in a city that has one.

After enjoying our last lunch together this trip, it was time to catch a cab to the airport. Our second Alaska cruise was just as amazing as the first, and I’m certain it won’t be our last.

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Selected Excursions in Vancouver from our partners

Ketchikan – Snorkeling… in Alaska?!?

June 1, 2016

Today was the first day of summer! (Well, meteorological summer at least). What better way to celebrate than by going for a swim? Yes, even though we’re on an Alaska cruise. Not only did we decide to go swimming (and not in one of the ship’s heated pools), we went snorkeling. You heard that right, you can snorkel in Alaska. How’s that for a bucket list item?

The water is cold, but this excursion is HOT! Brag to all your friends you got to snorkel in Alaska.

Snorkel Alaska, as the name implies, is a company that specializes in snorkeling in Alaska. I have to say, it’s a whole different experience compared to snorkeling in Hawaii, the Caribbean, Florida, or anywhere else warm and tropical. The average water surface temperature fluctuates from 45-65 degrees from spring to summer. On the day that we went snorkeling in Alaska, the water was a brisk 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

The first thing we needed to do when we arrived was to get suited up. Snorkel Alaska provides 7mm neoprene wet suits which serve to keep you fairly warm while in the water. After getting our wet suits on we took a bus to the snorkeling area and hopped right in the water.

Just your friendly neighborhood sea urchin.

The tour itself was a guided, hour long tour. The guide would occasionally free dive and bring up starfish and other animals for the rest of the group to get a good look at. We wound up seeing a large number of different starfish, crustaceans, shellfish, and jellyfish. We also had a number of bald eagles perch overhead and were even able to watch a few swoop to the water for a meal. 

After we finished the snorkeling portion of the tour, we were given hot drinks and access to hot showers which made getting out of the wet suits much easier. Before we knew it, it was time to head back to Ketchikan proper and do a bit of exploring before heading back to the ship.

There is so much to see in Ketchikan, but we always enjoy walking along Creek Street, the historic red light district. There are also a large number of fisheries and salmon ladders that can make for some really good photo opportunities. 

Tomorrow, the ship will be sailing through the inside passage. I don’t have much to add to what I talked about the last time, so I’ll just let you read about it there.

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suggested Excursions in Ketchikan from our partners

Icy Strait Point – Hoonah Whale Watching

May 31, 2016

The cruise lines call this port Icy Strait Point, but as soon as you leave the port you are technically in the native village called Hoonah. This is one of our favorite stops on an Alaska cruise and offers arguably the best whale watching opportunity of any Alaskan cruise port.

Icy Strait Point is the only privately owned cruise destination in Alaska, but unlike the “private islands” in the Bahamas which are owned by the cruise lines, Icy Strait Point is owned by the Huna Totem Corporation. This company is owned by a group of 1,350 Alaskan natives and Tlingit people. The intent of the privately owned port was to preserve the native character and culture of the village, while still allowing the economic growth that would accompany cruise ships.

Rather than booking an excursion through the cruise company, we opted to directly support a local business. As an added bonus, we were able to save a good bit of money by booking direct. On our first Alaskan cruise we booked with Misty Bay Lodge, and on this visit we opted for Icy Strait Whale Adventures.

We opted for a three hour morning tour with Captain Duane, a lifelong Hoonah resident and member of the Tlingit people. The sight seeing tour guarantees that you will see humpback whales, and we were definitely not disappointed. Aside from a wide number of whales, we were also able to see a couple otters, seals, sea lions, and even a brown bear. 

Really, I don’t think you can go wrong with any of the local tour companies. The local people know their waters and they know where the whales come to feed and how to make sure you have the best experience possible.

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Selection of excursions in Icy Strait Point from our partners

Skagway – Alaskan Hikes

May 30, 2016

Today was our second port day in Alaska as we docked in Skagway. Skagway is famous for the role that the port city played in the Alaska gold rush. The city is filled with free museums and old shops and it really is like taking a step back in time. Probably the most famous activity in Skagway is the White Pass railway, although it is rather pricey.

We were traveling on a bit of a budget, and Skagway also has a lot of great activities that are completely free. One of our favorite things to do here is to hike along any number of the great nature trails. On our first Alaskan cruise we did the Lower Dewey Lake trail, so this time we wanted to do something different. First, we did the hike to Yakutania Point with a slight detour to Smuggler’s Cove. Once we finished that hike we had plenty of time left in port so we decided to do the Lower Reid Falls and Gold Rush Cemetery as well.

Yakutania Point and Smuggler’s Cove

Rock Outcroppings at Yakutania Point

Our first hike was to Yakutania Point which offers some excellent views of the water and the docked cruise ships. The hike itself was relatively easy, although it did have some narrow paths and uneven rock steps. The trail head starts just behind the Skagway airport with a footbridge across the Skagway River. We were feeling a little adventurous, so we also climbed on the rock outcroppings at the end of the trail. These gave us an excellent vantage point to see the Lynn Canal and the Chilkat Mountains.

Just past the halfway mark for the Yakutania Point trail is the turnoff for the Smugglers Cove trail. While we were on our way back we decided to take the turn off and hike out to Smugglers Cove. This added an additional 2-3 miles round trip, but the trail itself was easy with almost no elevation gain. The Smuggler’s Cove trail winds through mixed coastal forests before opening up to a sheltered tidal inlet. This appeared to be a bit less well known than Yakutania point, but the views were absolutely breathtaking.

Gold Rush Cemetery and Lower Reid Falls

At the base of Lower Reid Falls

After we hiked back to the airport we walked through the city to see some of the shops and then continued along the main road until we reached the railroad tracks. Here was the start of the trail to Lower Reid Falls which also goes through the Gold Rush Cemetery. The cemetery itself is just past the parking lot, so much of the walking to reach it is paved and smooth. This is the oldest cemetery in Skagway and is the final resting place for a number of the most famous gold prospectors to come to Skagway in search of their fortune.

From the cemetery it’s just a short forest hike to Reid Falls. The falls are about 300 feet in total and cascade down the mountain in an absolutely picturesque scene. These hikes are amazing because they provide a great contrast to each other. You can see the ocean and the forests, waterfalls and gravestones, history and nature. And best of all? We did it all for free.

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selected excursions in skagway from our partners

Juneau – Mendenhall Glacier and Nugget Falls

May 29, 2016

Our first actual port stop on this cruise was the capital of Alaska, Juneau. Visitors can only reach Juneau by plane or ship, even though it is a capital city. There are no roads connecting Juneau with the rest of the state. For many people, ourselves included, the only way to visit Juneau is on an Alaska cruise. There are a number of popular excursions in Juneau, but we decided to visit Mendenhall Glacier.

Mendenhall Glacier is about a 20 minute drive outside the city and as soon as we got off the ship there were dozens of buses and taxis ready and waiting. The buses are the cheapest option, and we bought four tickets on the Big Blue Bus. We paid about $25 per person for a round trip ticket, so $100 for the four of us. Taxis were quoting $40-$50 each way. It is also worth noting that there is a $5 per person charge to enter the area; this is included with the bus fare but is an additional cost when taking a taxi.

From the Mendenhall Glacier visitor center there are 5 trails ranging from a quarter mile to three and a half miles. We opted to do all five hikes and spent a total of about 6 hours around the glacier. Our ship spent a total of 12 hours in the city, so there was plenty of additional time to explore the city itself. 

Pamphlet showing the trails available at Mendenhall Glacier
The Trails at Mendenhall Glacier

The first trails we took were the Photo Point and Nugget Falls trails. These offer the best viewing and photo opportunities of any of the trails and are both pretty relaxed and easy hikes. Photo Point gets you front and center to the glacier, while Nugget Falls goes right up to a waterfall that is another very popular photo opportunity.

The next trail we took was the Trail of Time, which has some excellent placards showing the regression of the glacier over the centuries. You can view photos showing what the area looked like in various years of the past. The Trail of Time also leads directly to the trail head for the East Glacier Trail which is the longest and most arduous trail as it goes up a bit in elevation.

After we had finished all the hikes we took the bus back to the city and decided to find a place to eat before heading back to the ship. We stopped by the Red Dog Saloon which holds the distinction as the oldest man-made tourist attraction in Juneau. The Red Dog Saloon has a number of really interesting items all around the restaurant, and it’s well worth a visit just to see their collection.

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selected excursions in juneau from our partners

Hubbard Glacier

May 28, 2016

Depending on the kind of traveler you are, sea days on a cruise can be very hit or miss. Generally speaking, we prefer port days, but there is so much to do on modern cruise ships that a few sea days are great. Even better, we were on an Alaska cruise where even the sea days have a destination.

Even though the ship never docked anywhere, today was a scheduled visit to Hubbard Glacier. Hubbard Glacier currently holds the record for the largest tidewater glacier in North America and is a very impressive sight. The night before we were told the time that the captain expected to arrive in Disenchantment Bay, and he also provided insight into the current ice conditions. Overall it was an excellent day to see the glacier and the captain expected to be able to get quite close.

While in the Bay the captain brought the ship as close as safely possible to the glacier to give everybody on board a great viewing opportunity. The ship did a small loop in front of the glacier to give passengers on both the port and starboard sides plenty of time to see the glacier.

Most impressive to me was the fact that Hubbard Glacier is nearly always calving, or breaking off chunks of ice into the bay. Sometimes it was just small pieces, but we also had a few times when there was a sound like the crack of thunder and a very impressive piece of the glacier broke off from the edge and fell into the water. 

Video showing some impressive calving at Hubbard Glacier

We opted to stand on the helicopter pad at the front of the ship while we were in the bay. This is another reason why I love doing Alaska cruises on the Radiance; on the bigger ships the helipad is closed to guests. It was fairly crowded, but not overly so and we were able to get several good photos and videos to really capture the experience. Royal Caribbean also had members of their photo staff stationed at the helipad to take pictures of us and other guests. These photos were then added to our portfolio and were available for purchase at the end of the cruise.

Royal Caribbean also stationed a mobile “bar” at the entrance to the helipad where you could buy cups of hot cocoa. The wind off the glacier was definitely cold (dress in layers!) and a steaming cup of hot chocolate was definitely welcome. They offered both alcoholic and regular versions of the hot chocolate, so we got one cup of each to enjoy.

There is quite a bit of debate between the cruising glacier options; Hubbard, Sawyer, and Glacier Bay, but I really enjoyed the experience we had at Hubbard Glacier. The size and calving are both extremely impressive and not something that you will reliably see from any other glaciers available on an Alaska cruise.

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Sea Life Center and Boarding the Radiance of the Seas

May 27, 2016

No trip to Seward is complete without a visit to the Alaska Sea Life Center. Much like the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, the Alaska Sea Life Center focuses on rehabilitation and release of local wildlife. There are a wide variety of seabirds, sea mammals, and fish housed here and it’s a great place to spend a few hours. It’s a popular place, especially on cruise days, but it was well worth the visit.

As locals we had visited the Alaska Sea Life Center a few times before, but it’s still always worth another visit. By their nature, the animals are often changing as some are released and some more are rescued. Aside from the self-guided tour, there are also options for a number of experiences and animal encounters. These experiences are very limited and often sell out well in advance, so if it’s something you are interested in I recommend booking early, or on a non-cruise day if you are spending extra time in Seward.

I suggest giving yourself at least a couple hours to explore the Sea Life Center, and when it is time to leave there is a free city shuttle that runs directly to the cruise port. We took this shuttle as soon as it was time to start boarding and arrived at the port right around 11AM. Even though the ship wasn’t scheduled to depart until 8PM, I love boarding as soon as possible.

Once on board it was time for lunch, and this is one of my main secrets about cruising. The buffet is by far the most popular place for lunch on embarkation day, and it can be chaotic. We instead opted to eat lunch at Park Cafe which is much less well known. Even better, Royal Caribbean lists Park Cafe as a “Snack” eatery, rather than an actual lunch place. This makes it a perfect place to avoid the crowds on embarkation day, and you have 6 more days to enjoy the buffet. Chops Grille is also open for embarkation day lunch, but it does cost extra. 

Once we were fed there was still plenty of time to explore the ship before we needed to report for the muster drill. Radiance is a smaller ship, well designed for the Alaska market. She has more glass windows than any other ship class in Royal’s fleet, so you can get a great view from just about anywhere. 

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Train to Seward and Exit Glacier

May 26, 2016

Our original plan was to take the train to Seward the day of the cruise. There is a free shuttle that runs to the cruise port and the train arrives with plenty of time to spare. Unfortunately, when we booked the train tickets the day of the cruise had already sold out. The train is an extremely popular way to get to Seward (and my personal favorite!) so that was not too surprising. We still wanted to take the train, so we booked tickets for the day before the cruise as well as a night at a hotel in Seward.

This was our second train ride to Seward, but there was still so much to see. We had some amazing views of the glaciers and even spotted a few moose and bears. We opted for the standard seats, although I do highly recommend the Goldstar Dome if you are able to book it. The train ride itself lasted around 4 hours and we were able to purchase a meal in the dining car which was a great way to start off the day.

Once we arrived in Seward and dropped our bags off at the hotel, we met our shuttle to Exit Glacier. Exit Glacier is only a 15 minute drive outside of Seward, but if you don’t have a car handy there are a number of shuttle services you can pre-book for the round trip drive. The “Edge of the Glacier Trail”, also known as the Lower Trail, is just a 20 minute walk from the parking area. This trail is accessible to people of all fitness levels and is even handicap accessible. The trail leads right up to the glacier through a forest and along a river.

There is a second trail available for more adventurous hikers called the Harding Icefield Trail. We opted not to take this trail as it climbs 3,500 feet over four and a half miles one way, but it is an option for those in good shape. 

After we finished our hike of Exit Glacier, we returned to Seward and went to Seward Park, the location of the Iditarod Mile 0 mile marker. This marked the location where the famed 1925 serum run started. If you are familiar with the story of Balto, this is the real life starting point of that epic tale. In 1925 the medicine needed to treat diphtheria was delivered to the port of Seward, and then taken by 20 dog sled teams 674 miles to Nome. 

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Selected Excursions in seward from our partners

Alaska Cruise Take Two


An adventure lasting 12 days from May 22nd, 2016 to June 3rd, 2016.
Total Cost: $6211.17

Typically we try to spread around our vacations a bit and go somewhere new before repeating a vacation, but Alaska is a notable exception. First and foremost, Alaska cruises are absolutely stunning. Secondly, as we were living in Alaska at this time it was a very budget friendly option. Finally, for this trip we had some family members visiting us in Alaska, and we wanted to show them some more of the state.

Alaska is a very remote state, and there aren’t roads between many of the cities. In order to traverse most of Alaska, you are limited to dog sled, bush plane, or cruise ship. When my two brother-in-laws came up to visit us in Anchorage, we knew we wanted to show them around via cruise. Primarily because we love cruises so much, but also because it is much more economical. One way cruises between Canada and Alaska tend to be much cheaper than their round-trip Seattle counterparts. 

In order to keep the price down even more, we opted to do a single cabin for all four of us. All four of us were fully grown adults; ages 27, 27, 21, and 19. If you have ever taken a cruise before, you likely know that the cabins are not super spacious. It can occasionally feel cramped with just two adults, let alone four, but we wanted to see if we could make it work. Ultimately it did work out just fine, but we are also a very close family, and three of the four of us are on the smaller side.

When booking a cruise cabin for more than two people, there are generally two options. The first is to have a room with a pullout sofa bed. If the room is designed to sleep three, the sofa bed will pull out to a twin mattress. If the room sleeps four, the mattress will be a slightly larger double. The other option, and what we went with on this trip, is a pullman bed. These beds are sort of like bunk beds in appearance and pull out from the wall. During the day the room steward folded the bed back into the wall, and remade it while we were at dinner each night.

Example of a Pullman Bed – Courtesy of CruiseCritic user ChristienJ

Pullman beds do have a weight limit and generally are better suited for younger or smaller passengers. We did not have any complaints or issues, but it is definitely not something that every family would handle well. Whether it is better to get two cabins or share one is a decision unique to every family and every trip, and we’d be happy to help you make the best decision when planning your own adventure.

Below you can see our full itinerary along with links to more detailed reviews and pictures of each day. If you are ready to book your own Alaska cruise, contact us today.

DateItinerary
May 25th, 2016Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center and Whittier
May 26th, 2016Train to Seward and Exit Glacier
May 27th, 2016Sea Life Center and Boarding the Radiance of the Seas
May 28th, 2016Hubbard Glacier
May 29th, 2016Juneau - Mendenhall Glacier and Nugget Falls
May 30th, 2016Skagway - Alaskan Hikes
May 31st, 2016Icy Strait Point - Hoonah Whale Watching
June 1st, 2016Ketchikan - Snorkeling... in Alaska?!?
June 2nd, 2016Cruising the Inside Passage
June 3rd, 2016Arrival in Vancouver

Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center and Whittier

May 25, 2016

Alaska wildlife Conservation Center

Aside from the lower price, another reason we love the one way Alaska cruises is to add on a land tour. Cruise lines offer a number of guided tours, but even if you just have a couple days there’s a lot you can do. For the first day of our vacation we opted to visit the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center in Portage. The AWCC lies just off the Seward Highway about an hour’s drive south of Anchorage. 

The Seward Highway itself is a great and beautiful drive. It meanders along the Chugach mountains and Turnagain Arm, giving excellent nature views. As residents we had our own car, but if visiting it would be best to have a rental car. There is very limited public transit in Alaska and the cost for a taxi would likely be higher than just renting a car. There are a number of pullouts and vistas that make for excellent stops along the way as well.

As the name implies, the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center is home to a wide variety of native Alaskan wildlife. The intent of the center is primarily on rehabilitation and release, and they have been very successful. A year before this visit the center was able to release a herd of Wood Bison into the wilds of the Alaska interior. The Wood Bison is critically endangered, and the work of the AWCC was crucial in their recovery efforts.

Aside from the Wood Bison, the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center also had caribou, moose, bears, musk ox, and a wide variety of other animals. The center is much smaller and simpler than a typical zoo, but it’s still a great place to visit for any animal lovers. 

whittier

After we finished at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, we decided to go a little further down the road to Whittier. Whittier is a small town with a permanent population of only 200 people and the town was a crucial port during World War 2. Even more interesting is the fact that nearly everybody in the town lives in a single building. Begich Towers was a Cold War Army barracks built in 1971 and also houses the town’s police station, grocery store, clinic, church, and school.

As a port city, Whittier offers a number of excellent day cruises and sightseeing trips, but we just came down to see the town itself. The only road in and out of Whittier is a single lane, multi-purpose tunnel called the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel. This tunnel serves car as well as train traffic in both directions. The tunnel only opens up for 15 minutes at a time and alternates between traffic in either direction and the trains when they are scheduled. Because traffic can be backed up, it’s generally recommended that you arrive at least 10 minutes prior to the scheduled opening time to make sure you can get through.

For those interested in roads and maps, the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel is the longest combined rail and highway tunnel in North America, as well as the second longest highway tunnel. It’s definitely a unique experience to transit the tunnel and visit the town that lives under a single roof.

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Selected Excursions in Whittier from our Partners