Tuesday, September 1, 2009

2009 Alaska Cruise --- 7 nt. NCL Pearl; Juneau, Skagway, Ketchikan, Glacier Bay, Victoria B.C.,

August 16-23, 2009----to Alaska on board NCL's Pearl.

I chose this cruise as Ken's first cruise (my 7th)to try and impress him enough that he would want to go on more cruises. With the beauty of Alaska and the ports being mostly American towns (he has an aversion to leaving the states), I figured this might do the trick. It started out as a cruise for just him and myself. As the months went by, my brother and sister-in-law, Aunt and Uncle, and at the last minute my sister also joined us. Although I was looking forward to all my family joining us, I had never cruised with more then 1 other person in my party and was a little apprehensive about how it would all turn out. In the end, I think it went well, although we all did spend lots of time hunting each other out. It also meant wait times at the restaurants and a little more work finding tables for all of us at the buffet restaurant, but it all worked out. It was also nice knowing that we didn't have to do everything together, but that we could probably find someone to do "whatever" with (NCL's motto---You're free to do whatever.) Ken and I usually found Uncle Joe and Aunt Carol in the buffet for breakfast about 8ish. The inside cruisers would usually make their appearance around 10 or later. I even had to call and wake them one day after noon to see if they were joining us in Ketchikan. Ken and I also joined the spa which in hindesite was a waste of money. The spa was nice (love the therapy pool and heated loungers), but we were in port so much and had high waves that caused them to drain the pools the last couple days so we hardly had time to use it. Plus I really enjoyed the outdoor pool and jacuzzis with the gals.

I had read poor reviews of NCL from different travel agencies, but they had the itinerary I was looking for. The poor reviews were for naught, we had no problems with NCL. The Pearl was a beautiful ship. Not any more beautiful then the others I've been on, but just as nice. It's a rather large ship at 93,500 tons and 2,394 passengers, 15 decks, and was only 2 years old.

In the months before the cruise, I participated in CruiseCritic.com and even made it to roll call. Noone had set up a meet & greet for this cruise, so at the last minute (within a week of our trip), I emailed the group administrator and she got us a spot in the Indigo restaurant for Mon. morning at 11. It was a nice meeting with refreshments provided by the ship and the hotel manager even came and spoke to us. I requested a tour of the villa suites which we got at the end of the cruise---for $30,000 a cabin they are quite impressive. The meet & greet did have about 12 of us there. I got a kick out of the location we were put in. I don't know if they purposely put us in the corner by this artwork or if it was coincidence, but it made me feel right at home (St. Louis).

Most of our meals were eatten here in the buffet restaurant. I don't think any of us had any complaints about the food. There were plenty of choices and most of it was quite tasty---some of the best I've had in my 7 cruises. I did find the set up of the buffet a little harder to get around then some of the other ships I've been on. At the time this picture was taken, it wasn't busy, but during peak times, it was hard moving around. Instead of individual stations, they were all run together. If you didn't want something 15 feet back, you had to cut in front of people or wait in a slow line. The choices were pretty much the same each day, but that was fine by me since they always had what I wanted (like cream of wheat every morning).

The Pearl has 12 places to dine, with 5 being free. We didn't try any of the specialty restaurants with the extra fee since we were quite happy with the ones included in the cruise price. The main restaurant (Summer Palace) is one of the free ones. Indigo was another free one, but was considerably smaller so harder to get into. We did eat in each a couple of times, plus at the outside grill one night, and the buffet (Garden Cafe) most of the time. Here is Summer Palace getting ready for lunch. We even celebrated Uncle Joe's birthday here on Sat. night. NCL even made him a birthday cake.

Here is the Blue Lagoon free cafe which is open 24 hours a day. It features comfort food: hot wings, fish and chips, spinach dip and chips, cheesecake, ..., as well as cooked breakfast before the Garden Cafe opens. We had a couple late night snacks here.  I wish more ships had a restaurant like this one!

Instead of a main huge multi-story high atrium when you board the ship like I've seen on many of the other ships I've been on, the Pearl has this rather large room near the entrance. They call it the Crystal Atrium and have a lot of activities here: jewelry tables; bar; huge Wii game screen some of the time; musicians on stage there some of the time; movies shown there some of the time. The stairs to the left lead up to the Blue Lagoon restaurant. Up and to the right is the pay restaurant Mambo's. The restuarant reservations desk and main customer service desks are also in this room.

Speaking of food, this is one of the meals I had in the Summer Palace. It was very good---as was the mahi mahi, lobster, and other stuff we had there.

The cabins aren't as big as most of the cruises I've been on, but it was big enough for Ken and me. I would have loved to have a balcony, but couldn't convince myself to pay the extra $600 for one. But I did pay the extra $400 not to have an inside cabin. I really like getting daylight inside the room and it was larger then the inside cabins.

One of the activities on board this ship and no other ship is the bowling alley. I would have liked to bowl more then the one game. It was definately interesting. There was even a bowling tournament (1 game, 5 different days). Most of the time they bowled at 10:15pm and it was part of our entertainment going and watching the 200+ average bowlers throw gutter balls. Those lanes don't take well to big curve balls! David bowled in the tournie and probably would have taken 3rd of the 16 if he hadn't overslept the last day (a 10am game).

This is a view of Mambo's restaurant as we were leaving Blue Lagoon one night.

In the front of the ship on the 13th floor is Spinnaker Lounge. This turned out to be a place we hung out a lot. The views were great, the seating was varied and comfortable, the activities in there were sometimes interesting (bingo, Salsa dancing lessons, talks about glaciers and such, late night comedy shows, afternoon q & a with Shark Bait, ... ).

One of my favorite places was here---the heated pool. Not many people braved it, but I found it to be as warm as Hawaii water in the winter and spent more time here then in the spa area we paid for! There were 2 jacuzzis here, too, where Jane, Carolyn, Carol and I would sometimes soak away our aches and pains. This was the adult pool area, which didn't seemed to be patrolled the first day. The family pool area was just to the right of this and had 2 jacuzzis, too. Don't know if someone finally got around to kicking kids out, but after the first day we didn't see many kids at the adult side. This was a huge improvement over the RCI Alaska cruise I took with my dad 2 years ago---there the adult pool area was indoors and even though they heated the family pool, they allowed screaming, splashing, rambuncious kids in the adult area. That turned out to be a huge disappointment to me with RCI(as well as their food choices).

On the 7th floor, a few floors below the Spinnaker Lounge was the Stardust Theatre where the nightly shows and different slide shows and Ranger talks were given. It was a great space for the talks and slide shows, but the nightly review shows got extremely crowded. A couple of nights we left because we couldn't find places to sit. They didn't have a full balcony like most of the other ships we were on and many of the shows were only shown 1 time per night instead of 2 x like on ships with assigned dinner times. That was somewhat disappointing, but we just got used to not going to the shows after the first couple of nights. We did see the Welcome Aboard show which was pretty good. Also made a point of going really early to get seats for the Shark Bait show which I'd heard rave reviews about. My sister and sister-in-law went to the Geisha Girls show and said it was very good. The comedian seemed like he would be good, but it conflicted with our dinner since we had to wait for dinner that night. We also missed the NCL dancers show because of dinner but they sounded really good at the Welcome Aboard show.

This was one of the acts Shark Bait did. They were a comedy juggling act. Their interaction with the audience made them hilarious.

Although we didn't try any of the specialty restaurants, we heard Cagney's Steakhouse was really good. I did look in and took this picture one afternoon.

Why did I pick this cruise? There were a few reasons. First we wanted to round trip out of Seattle. Then I wanted a cruise that went to Skagway so we could do the ride into the Yukon like I did with Dad. I thought that was a really beautiful excursion and thought Ken would enjoy seeing the Yukon. Also I didn't want the Canadian port to be Prince Rupert and this ship went to Victoria, which I love. Lastly, I had already cruised through Tracy Arm Fjord on the last cruise and although I liked it, I'd heard Glacier Bay was a lot better. With all those criteria, this was the only cruise left. In addition to all that, we also got ports in Juneau and Ketchikan. I was not disappointed!
After a night and full day at sea, we arrived in Juneau bright and early on Tuesday. 
Having been here before, I knew we could fairly inexpensively get to Mendenhall Glacier. With everyone in our group being on somewhat of a budget, I was trying to come up with cheap excursions to do on our own. There were crowds of people waiting for their busses and tours. We caught the shuttle to the downtown area where we bought tickets for the Glacier Express Shuttle for $6/person/each way and were on our way to Mendenhall Glacier.

I knew this was where we would be able to get pretty close to a glacier by land. Even though the day was overcast and dreary, the glacier was still impressive. David made the comment that he now knows were Tidy Bowl comes from!

A fellow cruise critic meet and greeter was here, too, and offered to take a group picture of us. This was after Ken tried to disappear into the bushes behind us. He had stepped back off of the trail and ended up hip deep in bushes. Bruised (physically and mentally), he made it back up ok and was even able to smile for the picture!  Carolyn elected to stay on board the ship---as did Uncle Joe. 

Again, I didn't make it to the visitor's center here at the park, but we did manage to spend a couple hours wandering around outside.

The sign here shows the different hikes and such that can be taken around the area. When Dad and I went here with our excursion, we were taken on an environmental hike into the woodlands.

Just another look back at the glacier.
Another area we spent awhile at was the boardwalk near where the shuttle from Mendenhall picked us up. There are resident bears here that sometime make their appearance. This little guy walked right up to David and stuck it's nose through the 3 foot high (or so) link fence that was along side the walkway. David thought about petting it, then regained his senses.
The salmon were running this time of year. Not sure what kind these guys are, but there were lots of them.

Our ride back on the shuttle was extremely entertaining although I'm not sure the driver meant to be. His stories had poor Carol doubled over in stitches half the time.

Back downtown, David wanted to go up the Mt. Robert's Tramway. He had been told that it was not to be missed. I had done this with Dad, too, but on a much sunnier and warmer day. I knew there was a restaurant up there and hiking trails. We forked out the $28/person and rode the tram. At the top, we did have a snack of nachos and some sodas in the little restaurant. Then came right back down. It wasn't the best of weather to be hiking the trails. The views aren't as impressive as they are on clearer days.

David and ken did make friends with a tree while up there.

Our cruise ship is the one all the way to the left in this picture. Gives a little perspective to the height of this mountain. This picture was taken at the platform where the tram lets you off.

Here's a view of the shopping district near the docks.

A bear even got in a picture I was taking of Ken in Juno.

After some shopping, the 5 of us headed back to the ship. It was a fun day in Juneau. Cold and overcast, but interesting non the less. Soon we would be heading out of the bay like this ship before us.

Wednesday morning we awoke to another overcast, cool day, but now we were docked in Skagway. After a leisurely breakfast in the buffet area, we gathered our coats, passports, and ship cards and were on our way. The walk into town was very short.

I had anxiously anticipated this day for quite awhile. I made reservations for an Avis car way back in January. There is another local car rental place here, but I understand they rent older vehicles (but for a lot less money) so I thought I'd stick to a national chain. That was almost a huge mistake. We did have 2 full size cars reserved, but I had read that they had larger vehicles if you call the Skagway office directly. So I called about a week before the cruise and they assured me that 7 people would comfortably fit in the Highlander. So they changed the reservation for me. We arrived at the rental office before 9 am. There were people in front of us having problems with their reservations so we were there quite awhile. The manager was on the phone constantly yelling at people that they were past their 1 hour reservation pick up time and their car was given away. But I had made the pick up time for 8:30, so thought we would be fine. When our turn finally came, we were told they didn't have a car for us. What!? But you have a valid reservation for us! I think they wanted to use the time thing on us, but when she looked at the clock, she could see we were within the 1 hour pick up time. Then we were told the previous renters haven't returned "our" vehicle. So I asked for any car, not just a Hylander. Still they said no. I asked them to call the other car rental place, but they only had pick ups. At a loss of what to do, we finally left the office. But then we saw 3 or 4 Hylander type vehicles in their parking lot, so back into the office we went. We were told they all had maintenance problems. Ken took over from there and asked about the maintenance issues. He managed to keep a cool head and persuaded them to rent one of them to us. The one we got had a faulty tire warning light illuminated, but he figured if there was a spare we should be ok. So for our $194 daily rate, we were off in our mechanically faulty rental vehicle. Note for future rentals---7 adults don't fit in a Hylander comfortably! We only had 6 in our party since Uncle Joe again stayed behind, but it was still crowded. The 3rd seat (jump seat in the far back) was comfortable enough for 1, but you needed to be a bit of a contortionist to get in and out of it. Being the youngest senior, I volunteered to sit in the back. Not quite the way I had envisioned this trip going, but hopefully someone other than me enjoyed it. I did finally work out a system for getting in and out of the back by the time we were ready to turn in the car. I did really well with that until we were back in Skagway where I managed to whack my shin quite hard. The lump and bruise lasted quite a long time.

After a stop at the grocery store for some L-lysine (should have seen the x-ray technician checking those out upon our return!), bandaids and some sodas, we were on our way----to locate some public restrooms. It was probably closer to 11 by the time we finally left Skagway and headed toward the Yukon.
Here was one of the many waterfalls we saw along the way.

Here is some of the colorful folliage along the way.

At Fraser, we stopped to take a few pictures and use the restrooms again. The Canadian officials chased us down when we turned into the train station area without going through customs first. After being directed through the check point, we did a U-turn and went back to the train station. Heading into Canada was the reason we needed to bring our passports.
This is a picture of the lake near the White Pass Railroad station at Frasier. I had taken the train ride on the excursion into the Yukon with my Dad 2 years ago and highly recommend it, too---at least on a sunny day.

Another picture of the lake at Fraser and the trees that look like they're growing upside down.

As we drove farther into Canada, the skies started to lighten up. I understand that's common. It turned out to be a beautiful day in the Yukon even though it was cool and rainy in Skagway.

Here's the obligatory stop by the Yukon sign.

Lots more wildflowers growing along the pull-offs.

We followed this lake in the Yukon for about 10 miles.

We stopped at the little town of Carcross and got our passports stamped and hit the restrooms again (seems to be a pattern here). This building is the train station for the White Pass railroad at Carcross and a visitors' center. Other then this building, there's a little ice cream/snack shop across the street, a lake behind the building, a church not to far away, and a post office down the block. Not much else there.

Our turn around point for this trip was Emerald Lake. We took pictures, then jumped back in the car and headed back towards Skagway. I had gotten "Murray's Guide to the South Klondike Highway" off the internet and acted as tour guide to anyone who cared to listen.

Along the way back we stopped at a few more places.

Even found a beach---rocky, but interesting. Looked like a great place to try fishing.

Before heading back into Alaska, we stopped for pictures by that sign, too. Not sure what Ken is doing to Carol here!?

The Murray's guide pointed out an overlook of the city so we went to check it out. With it's booming population of about 860, it's not much of a town. But the cruise tourist business does increase the number of people to about 900,000 during the summer months.

Back in town we did more shopping. Then we dropped Carolyn and Jane off near the docks so they could make it to their Murder Mystery dinner on the Pearl. (They seemed to have mixed emotions about that dinner. They said by the time everyone figured out what they were doing it was over.) After dropping them off, the 4 of us left decided to try out a pizza/greek place there in town (Northern Lights Pizza on 3rd street). Their pizza was very good!

Then we returned the car---still with the warning light on, but no flat tires, and walked back to the ship.

Thursday was another much anticipated day for me---Glacier Bay day! Glacier Bay is America's largest water area park. It is also part of a 24 million acre World Heritage Site, the largest internationally protected area in the world.
We even slept with the curtains open so we wouldn't miss any of the daylight hours. We were in the Summer Cafe by 7 am eating breakfast and looking out at the scenery as we cruised through the bay. This was just one of the many glaciers we saw as we were cruising on our way to Marjerie Glacier.

A zoom close up of glaciers on the mountains tops.

More glaciers along the way.

When we finally got to Marjerie Glacier, I was in awe! Marjorie is an Ice Age giant 21 miles long, a mile wide, and stands 250 feet above water and another 100 feet below water. Since it reaches into the water, it's called a tide-water glacier. This little excursion ship gives some perspective to the size of this glacier! The glacier towered over our 14 story ship.

Layers of rocky debris create interesting patterns in the ice. The glaciers appear blue because the ice in the glacier absorbs shorter red and green light waves. Again we had an overcast day, with lots of wind, off and on rain, and some very cold temperatures. I was afraid the ice wouldn't show the brilliant blue with the harsh weather, but it was still pretty impressive.

We were even lucky enough to witness lots of calving. The sound of the ice breaking sounded like an explosive charge going off. Once we heard it, we would quickly scan the glacier and then see chunks of ice falling into the water.

The waves made by some of the chunks of ice were large enough to rock our boat a bit.

Just another picture showing off the blue of the glacier.

I managed to have company on the 13th outside level for part of the time. Most of them ended up going back into the warmth of Spinnaker lounge. My camera and I stayed outside until we left the glacier.

This calving was an extremely huge chunk of ice. We thought the we had already seen a large calving, but this one was gigantic---probably the size of that excursion cruise ship or even larger.

These were just 2 of the many calvings we saw here at Margerie.

Our time at Marjerie was extended quite a bit, too, due to a medivac taking place here. It was rather interesting to watch the procedure. It did take quite awhile, but that meant more time to enjoy the glacier. Never heard what happened to the passenger who was medivaced. Hope he/she is ok.

Once the medivac was completed, we took off to another glacier. Again we had lots of views of distant glaciers along our way.

In the early afternoon, we reached Lamplugh glacier. It is 8 miles long, 150-160 feet above water, and 10-40 feet below water. Note the kayakers in the left foreground of this picture.

An interesting feature about this glacier is that it has a waterfall coming out of it, much like at Mendenhall Glacier.

The waterfall water was a murky color while the glacier melt water was a deep milky turquise. The distinct line between the 2 waters was rather interesting.

Compared to my previous cruise through Misty Fjord, Glacier Bay was quite a bit more spectacular! Even though the weather on that previous trip was fabulous, we didn't get close enough in Misty Fjord to see much of any glaciers. Here in Glacier Bay we saw several glaciers.
After leaving Glacier Bay, the ship was booking it to make up time. Later that night, we made it to the Sharkbait show and thoroughly enjoyed it.
Friday was Ketchikan day. Ketchikan is the southeasternmost sizable city in Alaska. It's population is only about 7,500 and it's only about 4 sq miles, but it is the fifth most populated city in the state.
It was a rather short stop, but worth seeing. Even Uncle Joe got off the ship for a change!

Carol had been here before and took over our excursion here. She got the info about taking the public bus to Totem Bight State Historical Park, and we were on our way for $1 each way.
In 1938 the U.S. Forest Services began a program to salvage and reconstruct totem poles. Civilian Conservation Corps funds were used to hire skilled carvers from among the older Natives and totems which had been left to rot in the woods were either repaired or duplicated. A model of a Native village was erected on this site, then called Mud Bight. In 1970 it was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
Pictured here is a clan house similar to what many Indian villages built in the early 19th century. It was a dwelling that served as living quarters for several families of the same lineage. Each family got its own space but shared a common fire. A clanhouse of this size could have housed 30 to 50 people. Each house had a chief.
Although we did run into more rain here, it was an interesting and worthwhile trip.

Back in Ketchikan, we decided to walk around town a bit and do a little shopping. Joe was on the hunt for pretzels, the rest of us on the hunt for souvenirs and the freebie charms given away in the jewelry stores. Our leisurely walk ended up leading us straight to Creek Street, a wooden board walk in the old "red light district" on which Ketchikan's famous Dolly's House is located. Creek Street today is a collection of museums, historic homes, and shops built on pilings above Ketchikan Creek.

Ketchikan creek was full of salmon. I can see where Ketchikan got the nic name of "the Salmon Capital of the World".

Another view of Creek Street from the other end of the boardwalk.

Back at the docks I enjoyed the puzzle perfect views of the boats in the harbor and the houses on the hillside.

Friday night was the night of the Chocoholic Buffet on board the Pearl. Unfortunately Ken and I ended up at the Liar's club and the Quest Game show instead---neither of which we were particularly impressed with.
Saturday morning we woke up early to the ship really rocking and rolling. It was rather interesting watching the crew and passengers trying to move about the boat. Apparently higher then expected surf came our way and things were thrown around the ship. The stores were closed for most of the day while they cleaned up the mess. Dishes in the buffet restaurant were thrown onto the floor, so when we got there they were handing them out of big tubs. Potted plants were toppled and rolling around. Even the pool areas (outside and in the spa) were emptied due to the water in them being sloshed out. The pools remained closed the rest of the trip. But by afternoon the surf subsided and the ship was back to being calm.
Saturday was also Victoria, B.C day. Greater Victoria is the 15th largest metropolitan in Canada with a population of over 330,000. It reminds me of a little english town. We were only here from 6pm-11:30pm. Ken took off on the shuttle and walked around the downtown area by himself. David and Jane walked around the area from the ship. Carolyn and Joe hung out at the ship, again. Carol and I did the ship excursion to Butchard's Gardens.
Butchard's Gardens is a National Historic Site of Canada, but still privately owned by family descendants. It has 55 acres of beautifully landscaped gardens. We didn't have much daylight hours there, but it is also lit up at night. We did race around the whole park quickly trying to see as much as we could before dark. It's as beautiful as I remembered. I have been there before, but am a sucker for gardens. Here is the famous sunken garden.

It was even beautiful at night. Here is the entrance to the Japanese Gardens.

Included in this tour was also a fireworks show at the gardens. It was a little odd compared to our US fireworks shows, but still interesting. Considering how large the crowd was at the gardens, it cleared out pretty quickly after the fireworks.
Here we were greeted by this statue as we got back to our ship.

The next morning was debarkation day and the end to another wonderful cruise.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, Thank you, Thank you for the fantastic trip review paired with photos! I will be a first time cruiser on The NCL Pearl in May and can't wait after reading your review and seeing the photos. WOW!