Celebrity Millennium Alaska Cruise Part Three: Ports GaloreSeptember 27, 2010 1 Comment
The first full day of our Vancouver to Seward Alaska cruise was everything we could have hoped for: relaxing, entertaining and filled with activities. Read about part one of our Alaskan adventure in Traveling 5,000 Miles on Two Weeks’ Notice, and part two where we are introduced to, and are discovering the Celebrity Millennium Cruise.
We both absolutely love sea days, and this was no exception. We explored the ship more thoroughly and in the process discovered my favorite quiet corner — the Conservatory. I’m not sure if other cruisers didn’t realize it existed, tucked away in a nook near Cosmos disco, but we had the place to ourselves every time we stopped by. Very peaceful to sit and watch the ocean surrounded by plants and trees. We also loved the glass elevators that look out onto the ocean.
Day Two: Sea Day
On a typical Caribbean cruise, the outdoor pool is packed with swimmers on every sea day. On an Alaska cruise, with temperatures barely breaking 60 degrees F, the outdoor pool was deserted. An indoor pool got a bit more traffic, but hot tubs were definitely preferred. We’re not big swimmers or hot tubbers, so we didn’t even bring swimsuits. Instead, we spent the day at silly group activities such as Name That Tune and Win, Lose or Draw. We also attended the port talk for Ketchikan, our first stop, even though we had already booked an independent tour. Hey, they give away free swag at those talks — sit in the first three rows, since they sometimes throw small gift items into the crowd.
This was the first of two formal nights on the cruise, and included the Captain’s Cocktail Party before dinner. Since this was a day at sea, everyone had plenty of time to dress to impress. If you want to wear a tuxedo or long gown, many Celebrity Cruise passengers do, and formal wear is available for rent on board. However, many male passengers opt for a suit or coat and tie, with ladies choosing cocktail dresses or pantsuits. Having done formal nights many times, and having packed a month’s worth of clothing into two carryon bags, we opted for less formal attire. Dad has a snazzy black velvet coat, which he paired with dark dress pants, while I wore black dress pants and an elegant top.
Every night after dinner we caught the main show in the Celebrity Theater. Acts ranged from Broadway-style production shows to comedians and magicians. If your kids are young, you may want to choose early dinner seating, which allows you to attend dinner and the show and still get the kids to bed by 10 p.m.
Day Three: Ketchikan
Both Dad and I are in love with The Deadliest Catch, a Discovery Channel show that follows crab fishing boats on the Bering Sea. So imagine our delight when we discovered a tour named The Bering Sea Crab Fishermen’s Tour! Fans of the show might recognize the Aleutian Ballad, featured on Season 2 and most noted for taking a rogue wave that nearly destroyed the boat. Today the Aleutian Ballad is used for tours in Ketchikan that are guided by men and women who have actually fished on the Bering Sea. Fans will recognize most of the crew including Derrick Ray, who took over as relief skipper on the Cornelia Marie in 2010 after Captain Phil Harris passed away.
Although the tour is offered through most cruise lines, you can also book on your own. We booked directly through the company, 56 Degrees North, using a coupon from the Great Alaskan TourSaver. A brand-new $100 coupon book is released each year, offering two-for-one savings on attractions, rental cars and lodging throughout Alaska. The tour price was $168.54 with tax, and the coupon gave us the second ticket free. So we more than made our money back just on that tour alone.
The Aleutian Ballad has been completely retrofitted for tourism, offering comfortable stadium-style seating. The seating is partially covered and heat lamps provide some respite from the chilly Alaska weather. We traveled in completely calm waters as the crew shared stories from their lives on the Bering Sea.
We watched them set crab pots and pull in pots that had been soaking, as well as demonstrate other types of Alaska fishing. We were allowed to handle some of the sea life. If you are interested in Alaska fishing, it really doesn’t get any more up-close and personal than this tour! Of course, at the end of the tour we couldn’t resist the gift shop. We picked up a DVD of the tour, a long-sleeve T-shirt for Dad and an Aleutian Ballad crew jacket for me.
Ketchikan was a relatively short port visit, and the tour took up the bulk of our time. We did a little shopping near the pier and returned to the Millennium. As was becoming our routine, we did dinner and the show, followed by late-night fun at Cosmos.
Day Four: Juneau
Juneau is the only state capital not accessible by road or rail, and we were excited to see it. We decided not to book a tour in advance, but see what we wanted to do when we got off the ship. We slept in a little, since the ship would be in Juneau for most of the day.
We stepped off the ship into a crowded downtown. It seemed like every ship in Alaska must have been in Juneau that day! Just off the dock was a large park ringed by vendors offering tours of every description. We read some signs and asked some prices, but decided to wait till afternoon for a tour. The Mt. Roberts Tramway is located directly across from the dock, and we wanted to make sure we had plenty of time. With our coupon from the Great Alaskan TourSaver, we paid just $27 for the two of us including unlimited tram rides and all-day admission to the attractions at the top of the mountain.
The Tramway offers six-minute rides 1,800 feet up the side of Mt. Roberts, and is one of the most vertical trams in the world. We were in Juneau on a foggy, drizzly day, and it was quite an experience breaking through the clouds on the Tramway!
At the top we found a large visitor center and gift shop, a nature center and several hiking trails. Local musicians sometimes perform in the visitor center theater, and a film depicts the life of the native Tlingit people.
Juneau by Bus
Although we could easily have spent the day at the top of Mt. Roberts, we wanted to see as much as possible. Back on the ground, we signed up for a city tour with a stop at the Mendenhall Glacier. We negotiated hard and, while I don’t remember our exact price, it was quite reasonable.
Juneau is just a cool city. Despite being a government town and major tourist destination, Juneau retains a small-town flavor. We drove all around the city, visiting the Government District and several residential neighborhoods before stopping at the Chapel by the Lake. This little log cabin church dates to 1950, when Alaska was still a US territory (it gained statehood in 1959).
Although Juneau was the second-largest Alaska city, the Auk Lake area where the chapel is located did not have paved roads or telephone service. A single city bus served the area, and also delivered the newspaper. An itinerant preacher named Reverend McCluggage landed in Haines, Alaska in 1950. He heard that a small chapel was operating out of a tiny building in Juneau and needed a minister. Reverend McCluggage took the job. A few years later he built the log cabin on the shores of Auk Lake. Although the church now has a large new sanctuary, the little log cabin remains.
Back on the bus, we traveled a short distance to Mendenhall Glacier. Glacier viewing had been at the top of my must-do list, and I was breathless as we drove up to the parking area. They say the glacier has been retreating since the mid-1700s, but it remains a massive and imposing piece of ice. We had about an hour at the glacier, so we made a quick stop in the visitor center. A small museum inside is operated by the US Forest Service, but we didn’t have time to look around in great detail.
Mendenhall Glacier offers numerous hiking trails, including the strenuous West Glacier Trail. We heard that the views of the glacier’s west face are spectacular, but the five-hour hike was out of our reach. Instead, we opted for the flat, paved walk to Photo Point. The trail is accessible for wheelchairs, scooters and strollers, and ends at a spectacular overview just a quarter mile from the glacier. My jaw dropped in amazement as we heard the glacier heave and chunks dropped from it, a process known as calving. You generally think of glaciers as solid and immovable, but it actually seemed almost alive.
Downtown Juneau and Government Row
After the tour, we headed out on our own to take some photos. Government Row is located on high ground, so be ready to climb some major hills. One of the most surprising things to me, being from the consistently flat southern United States, was the steepness of some people’s staircases. I can’t fathom carrying groceries up those stairs in snow and ice!
Incidentally, we stopped by the Governor’s Mansion. Remember when Sarah Palin supposedly said she could see Russia from her house? Well, it was actually Tina Fey from Saturday night live that said it during an Emmy award winning impression of her, but try as we might, we couldn’t see any farther than downtown Juneau.
Back in downtown, located in the valley along the waterfront, we must have stopped in dozens of little shops and cafes. Our favorite was the Red Dog Saloon, which dates to the Gold Rush era. Among other artifacts is a gun that belonged to Wyatt Earp. He checked it at the US Marshall’s office on June 27, 1900, but left for Nome, Alaska on June 29 without reclaiming it.
After a long day in Juneau, we headed back to the ship. Tired from our day, we decided to skip the main dining room. At night, a section of the buffet restaurant seating is transformed into a casual table-service bistro, at an upcharge of $2 per person. The food and service was fantastic, and we ended up becoming friends with our Ukranian waiter. Dinner revived us, and we closed out the evening with the main show followed by meeting friends for drinks at Cosmos.
What We Learned and Tips for Parents
Having cruised several times before, we have learned that booking tours through the ship is almost always a waste of money. Cruise ships contract with outside vendors to provide tour services, and the ships charge a high markup for the convenience. On both the Bering Sea Crab Fishermen’s Tour in Ketchikan and the bus tour in Juneau, most of the group consisted of people who had booked through the ship–either the Millennium or another ship that was docked in town. They paid more than double what we paid, and were sitting right next to us.
The ships promote safety and convenience as reasons to book their official tours. If you’re a savvy traveler, you can check out tour providers online, read reviews from other travelers, and even find out who the “official” tour providers are for the cruise lines. If you go out on your own, make sure your watch is set to ship’s time. The ship will wait for delayed passengers on an official shore excursion, but will not wait for late passengers who are on their own. Try to be back on board 30 minutes prior to the announced All Aboard time.
Alaska is an excellent destination for adventurous kids. It’s exotic enough that you could almost believe that you were in a foreign country, yet you have the security of knowing that you are still in the United States. The crime rate is stunningly low even in the bigger cities, and locals are almost uniformly friendly, helpful and welcoming. Everyone has a story to tell, and the state operates on “Alaska time.” No rushes, no worries, just a fascinating blend of history and culture, wildlife and rugged terrain.
Next stop: Skagway Gold Rush and Alaskan Glaciers.