Alex and I took one of the most naturally beautiful and stunning vacations I have ever experienced this July. Along with my parents, we went on a seven day Alaskan cruise on Royal Caribbean’s Radiance of the Seas (a HUGE thank you to my parents for taking us on this amazing trip – we had the best time!). Our itinerary began in Vancouver and ended in Seward, Alaska. With four ports where we were actually able to get off of the ship, we had plenty of time to complete some Alaskan activities and explore several of the coastal towns. Although I enjoy cruises, they are not typically my top way to vacation, but an Alaskan cruise cannot be beat. From the never-ending views of mountains and glaciers to the unbelievably colorful sunsets to sightings of whales spouting outside of our cabin windows, this isn’t your typical party cruise. Sure you can still devour the buffet or order room service 24 hours a day, but the vibe of this cruise was quite a bit more active than I have experienced on other ships.
The ship in general was wonderful. I used the track several times and enjoyed working out on my own at the gym, where I was able to enjoy panoramic views through floor-to-ceiling windows while exercising. Alex and I also enjoyed trying out the rock climbing wall. My family attended shows together every night at the theater. Some of our favorites were a comedy show with Steve Smith, a ventriloquist performance, and a “Piano Man” production of classic rock songs that highlighted the piano. The entertainment overall was fantastic and we particularly enjoyed listening to live music throughout the day and night around the ship. Other activities that enjoyed watching or participating in were Harry Potter trivia, Family Feud, and karaoke. We attended a few of the educational lectures, but were not impressed with the speaker, who seemed to be regurgitating a google search to us. We also spent a lot of time on the deck watching for wildlife and enjoying the sunshine. The best part of a cruise vacation is that there is something for everyone!
The staff on Radiance of the Seas was fantastic- both our cabin attendants and the dining room staff. We enjoyed all of the food we ate in the dining room, although had some dishes that were less than stellar at the buffet. Some of my favorites were the lobster tail, lobster chowder, and filet mignon. I also got a nice massage one day – a perk of spending your birthday on a cruise is getting a large discount at the spa!
I only had two complaints about the cruise. The first complaint is that the 4th of July celebration was strange. I’ve never been on a cruise for the 4th of July so maybe our experience was not unusual, but it did not feel particularly patriotic. In fact, the prime-time event was a British Invasion performance that made no sense for the holiday. I would urge Royal Caribbean to revisit their 4th of July social activities and make them more American. The second was regarding a miscommunication about Day 7 at the Hubbard Glacier. I’ll explain more later, but in short, the ship itinerary and captain were misleading about the time we would actually be at the glacier.
Our itinerary for the week was as follows:
Day 1 – Friday – Vancouver, British Columbia – Depart 4:30pm
Day 2 – Saturday – Inside Passage – Cruising
Day 3 – Sunday – Ketchikan, Alaska – 6:00am – 4:00pm
Day 4 – Monday – Icy Strait Point, Alaska – 9:00am – 6:00pm
Day 5 – Tuesday – Juneau, Alaska – 7:00am – 8:30pm
Day 6 – Wednesday – Skagway, Alaska – 7:00am – 4:30pm
Day 7 – Thursday – Hubbard Glacier – Cruising – 7:00am – 11:00am
Day 8 – Friday – Seward, Alaska – Arrive 5:00am
Day 1 – Vancouver, British Columbia
See my last post about our 24 hours in Vancouver to see how we spent the day before setting sail on the Radiance of the Seas!
Day 2 – Saturday – Inside Passage
We were at sea all day on our first full day on the ship. This was the only day of the week that our weather was less than perfect. Most of the day was misty, gray, and cold. Although we were passing by the largest and northernmost rainforest in the world and were beginning to witness the rugged beauty of this incredible region, we were unable to see many of the glaciers and fjords through the mist. Also, many people on the ship (including myself) were still getting our sea legs and were feeling a bit sick from the very choppy waters. I never was physically ill, but I felt lightheaded all day and ended up taking a long nap. We spent the day exploring the ship and resting up for a busy week.
Day 3 – Sunday – Ketchikan, Alaska
Upon arriving in Ketchikan, Alaska, it was still misty and drizzling. The floatplane adventure we had booked for first thing in the morning called me to reschedule us for later in the day because of weather, so my family hopped into a taxi and drove to Saxman Village Totem Park. For an entry fee of $5, we were able to view the most standing totem poles in one location (25 to be exact). We arrived at 7 am, but if you arrive later in the morning, you can watch a native carving a totem, take a guided tour, or visit the clan house. For an extra $1, ask the gentleman at the entrance for “storys.”
After taking the silver line northbound bus back to downtown Ketchikan (fares are $1 each way or $2 for the day), we walked around the historic area of the Creek Street boardwalk which was formerly home to the red light district of brothels and speakeasies and is currently home to many shops. Check out Salmon Etc for freshly canned smoked salmon and trout that you can sample there and ship back home. There are a few hikes off of the boardwalk that lead to views of Ketchikan and are great wildlife watching spots. We also visited the fish ladder where you can watch salmon struggling to swim back to their native streambeds to spawn. We were just a week or two early for the spawning season, but spotted a few of the large fish.
After a lunch of bagels, cream cheese, and smoked salmon, I received a call from Laura with Carlin Air Tours to let me know that it was finally time to take our floatplane adventure. Since it had been raining most of the morning, she had called a few times to push back the trip. We SO appreciated that because we saw many other planes flying despite the bad weather. I would not have wanted to fly if the conditions were dangerous or so bad that we couldn’t see anything. Laura picked up our group in town and brought us to the Carlin Air Center where we boarded the plane with our pilot, Luke, along with two other women.
The experience was incredible and easily one of our favorites in Alaska. From the air, we saw waterfalls, lakes, eagles, and even a grizzly bear! There is nothing like seeing the stark wilderness of Alaska and the fjords from a birds’ eye view. We flew over the oft-photographed New Eddystone Rock, which is a volcanic spire of granite that thrusts from the sea and marks the entrance into the 2.3 million acre Misty Fjords National Monument, which is only reachable by plane or boat. Halfway through the experience, we were able to stop in a fjord and walk around to get some fresh air and take photos. I wish I could bottle up the scent of the fresh air. There is absolutely nothing like it!
Luke gave some narration during the flight. We all felt it was the perfect amount- not so much that it distracted from the view, but enough that we had an idea of where we were and what we were looking at. The trip was unforgettable and the service by Laura and Luke was fantastic. A two-hour tour runs $195 per person, but is definitely worth the cost!
On a return trip, I would go to Totem Bight State Park or boat into Misty Fjords National Monument to view the scenery from a different perspective.
Day 4 – Monday – Icy Strait Point, Alaska
Upon arriving in Icy Strait Point, we were greeted by the Huna Tlingit people. If you are booking this cruise and looking for activities, know that the local area is actually called Hoonah and is a part of Chichagof Island. Icy Strait Point is the name of the cruise ship destination that is owned by about 1,350 Alaska Natives. ProTip: Guidebooks will tell you that there is nothing to do in Icy Strait Point. And while that may be technically true, there is plenty more to do in Hoonah!
My family agreed that we wanted to do a wildlife search at one of the ports so we booked two wildlife tours through Hoonah Travel Adventures. In the morning (from 10 am to 1 pm), we took the Wilderness Tour & Brown Bear Search with Stuart, who is the cultural leader of the local tribe. In the afternoon (from 2 pm to 5pm), we did the Whale Watch with Captain Paul. Both were excellent experiences and I would recommend both.
One of the best parts of the Wilderness Tour & Brown Bear Search was getting a history of Hoonah from a local perspective and learning about the native people. Stuart explained that the Huna Tlingit children are now learning the Tlingit language in schools and the people are making an effort to share their traditions, stories, songs, and treasures. Stuart also provided a lot of information about animal and plant life in the area. We saw several brown and bald eagles. We only had one bear sighting, but it was a winner – a mother coastal brown bear with three cubs! We also saw a few black-tail deer. I didn’t love that the whole tour was on a bus (other than a short break to stretch our legs and take pictures), but it was probably necessary for safety reasons. If we had not seen the bears, I would probably have skipped the Wilderness Tour and instead opted to walk the beautiful 1.5 miles from the ship to downtown Hoonah, but it was definitely worth sitting on the bus to see the mama bear and her cubs!
During our hour break for lunch, we ate at the Office Bar, where we had fresh caught Dungeness crab legs, crab sandwiches, and crab cakes washed down with local beer. We met the owner, Mary, who you can read about in this article. Another local recommendation is Chipper Fish, where you can get fresh fish items like salmon tacos and salmon bites.
The whale watch with Captain Paul was excellent and the captain was an entertaining and knowledgeable guide. We saw countless sea otters and sea lions as well as several feeding humpback whales. Although locals say that the sea otters are a nuisance, you can’t help but find them cute when you see them floating around and watch their heads popping in and out of the water. We even got to see a sea lion diving and playing in the wake of one of the whales. It was a truly incredible natural event to witness. Besides Captain Paul’s wealth of knowledge, I recommend doing the whale watch with Hoonah Travel Adventures because Paul’s boat is smaller than those owned by many other companies, which I think is definitely worth it for better wildlife viewing and photo-taking. After we returned to Icy Strait Point, we took a short nature trail through the woods back to the dock where we boarded the ship.
On a return trip, I would zipline on the World’s Largest ZipRider which is taller than the Empire State Building and runs for over a mile, walk along the nature trail to town for some fresh seafood, and take another whale watch tour. While in town, I would stock up on some traditional herbal remedies made from ingredients found in Southeastern Alaska at Tlingit Rx or buy a book at the Hoonah Schools Bookstore which sends all proceeds to local school programs.
Day 5 – Tuesday – Juneau, Alaska
Our third port was the capital of Alaska, Juneau, and also happened to be my 31st birthday! We planned a fun day of hiking, eating, and drinking in the picturesque capital city that is surrounded by fjords, forests, and mountains. Juneau was easily the most metropolitan of the cities we had visited thus far, but still felt small (it has a population of only 32,000) with a “main street” filled with shops and pubs. We tried to see the Alaska State Capitol Building as it is something of a tradition for Alex and I to visit state capitals, but unfortunately, the building was closed as it is undergoing restoration and a seismic retrofit through the end of 2016.
Upon exiting the ship, we walked to the parking lot where we found our bus with Alaska Coach Tours for our Mendenhall Glacier and Salmon Bake excursion. Our driver, Brett, dropped us off at the Mendenhall Glacier after telling us that the glacier is 1.5 miles wild, hundreds of feet thick, and fed by the Juneau Icefield. We had just enough time to hike to the glacier, walk around and take pictures, and hike back (this took about an hour). The glacier was beautiful and the falls next to the glacier were incredibly loud and strong. Alex even climbed up to the top of the waterfall to take a photo, but I wouldn’t recommend doing that because the rocks were quite slippery when wet!
Because we loved our time at the Mendenhall Glacier, I would recommend to Alaska Coach Tours that they allow more time at the glacier. The tour gives unlimited time at the salmon bake (you hop on any bus to return), but your time is limited to one hour at the glacier. I don’t understand why the company does not provide regularly scheduled buses at both locations so people can choose to stay at Mendenhall Glacier longer to visit the visitor center or take a longer hike.
After our hour was up, our driver transported us to the Gold Creek Salmon Bake, where we devoured all-you-can-eat salmon and sides like salad, Chilkoot baked beans, and blueberry cake while enjoying live music and fresh air. To work off the multiple servings of delicious wild salmon, we took a short walk along Gold Creek to a small waterfall to pan for gold and watched Michael Chilton, a native artist, creating his beautiful sculptures and jewelry. The Salmon Bake also offered beer and s’mores, but we were too full from all of the salmon to have any!
After taking a bus back to the ship, we decided to hike the Mt. Roberts Alpine Loop trail, a challenging trail with large elevation changes. Hiking is one of my favorite birthday activities, so we took the trail for a few hours through the mountain pass and finally turned around at a small waterfall because it was time to make our way back to the ship. We stopped at a few shops along the way for souvenirs. My favorite was the Glacier Silt Soap from Glacier Smoothie which leaves your skin soft and moisturized.
We ended our time in port at the Red Dog Saloon for some beers and salmon dip. The Red Dog Saloon is a famous bar/restaurant that has been around since the mining era and has live piano music and servers in can-can outfits. A pistol that Wyatt Earp allegedly checked on the way to Nome and never returned for is prominently displayed on the wall. Although the restaurant is a tad touristy and a bit expensive, it is worth it for the fun atmosphere!
On a return trip, I would definitely take a helicopter ride to the Juneau Icefield to go dogsledding. I would kayak or canoe to Mendenhall Glacier and spend time hiking in the area. I might take the Mount Roberts Tramway to the top of Mount Roberts and would hike all day on the many trails around Juneau. I would also make time to see some of the unique churches in the area: The Russian Orthodox Church downtown, the Chapel by the Lake on Auke Lake, or the Shrine of St. Therese. Clearly, I need to make a return trip to Juneau!
Day 6 – Wednesday – Skagway, Alaska
Our last day in port was in Skagway, Alaska, the center of the 1898 Gold Rush. The town looks like a typical Western 19th century gold rush town, complete with a historic railway and graveyard. It is worth stating that this port felt the most touristy, probably because there are only 900 full-time residents in the town. My parents decided to take the White Pass and Yukon Railroad on the two hour White Pass Summit Excursion, which they said had stunning scenery and compelling narration. Alex and I decided to do save some dollars and get some exercise by walking around town and hiking.
Our first hike was to Smugglers Cove, which featured gorgeous views of the uniquely colored glacial silt water and the massive mountains that arise from sea level to tower in the sky. There were only a few other people on the trail so we took our time and enjoyed the crisp air and beautiful surroundings.
Our second hike was to the Gold Rush Cemetery and Lower Reid Falls. The falls are beautiful and I love a good historic graveyard, but most of the “hike” was through the city and wasn’t particularly pretty. You can take the local SMART shuttle from the cruise ship docks to downtown Skagway’s historic Broadway Street for only $5 for an all-day pass or $2 for one way. I definitely recommend doing this to save yourself a few miles.
Day 7 – Thursday – Hubbard Glacier
Our final day at sea was spent on the ship. The ship was stationed at the Hubbard Glacier for the first few hours of the morning. The captain continuously spun the ship so all passengers could view the 75 mile long and 7 mile wide glacier that towers 350 feet above the water line. We were able to witness several massive chunks of ice calf, or crash, into the bay, which the native Tlingit people call “White Thunder” for the loud sound that can be heard. We felt so fortunate to be able to see the glacier calf so many times and to have such a beautiful, sunny day. The ship staff said it had been years since they had seen such a perfect day!
If you take this cruise, I urge you to get up early to see the glacier. Although our original itinerary said we would be at Hubbard Glacier from 7am to 11am, the daily ship compass and the captain stated that we would not be arriving until 9am. By 9:15am, we were sailing away from the glacier when many passengers were just reaching the deck and were disappointed to find we were leaving already. I’m not sure exactly what time we arrived, but it was before 7. I would urge Royal Caribbean to be more clear in their scheduling and itinerary so guests who have paid thousands of dollars do not miss such an incredible experience.
Day 8 – Friday – Seward, Alaska
On our last day, we arrived very early to Seward, Alaska to debark from the cruise ship. My brother met us at the terminal to pick us up for our weekend in Denali (which I’ll blog about next week!). After we departed the ship, we drove to Exit Glacier and Resurrection Bay, where we hiked to the edge of the glacier. My favorite thing about the Exit Glacier is that there are signs depicting the size of the glacier at different times since the 1800s. You can see how much the glacier has retreated, even in the last few years! It’s incredibly eye-opening to see the reality of climate change.
Overall, my experience on the Royal Caribbean Radiance of the Seas was fantastic. Personally, I hope to return to Alaska and explore more on my own at my preferred pace and on my own schedule, but I don’t think a cruise can be beat in terms of being able to see so many distinct coastal Alaskan towns with limited time.
Thanks for reading! I am looking forward to sharing our time in the unique Denali National Park next week!