jd10367 Posted September 20, 2006 #1 Share Posted September 20, 2006 My wife and I just took our second cruise: the Island Princess’s final Alaska Southbound of the season before she heads for Hawaii. We did a four-day land tour in Fairbanks and Denali before the cruise, which left Whitier on 9/11/06 and went to College Fjord, Glacier Bay, Skagway, Juneau, and Ketchikan before docking at Vancouver on 9/18/06. (Our first cruise was in December 2005 on the newly refurbished Enchantment of the Seas to Key West, Cozumel, and Belize.) Our trip started out grand, with a 2-½ hour delay on the runway while they checked on an engine light. We finally took off and spent another 5 hours in the air. When we landed in Seattle, our original 2-hour layover had turned into 7 minutes, and we had to run across the airport to make our connection to Fairbanks. (Our luggage didn’t run as quickly, and didn’t show up at our hotel room door until 10:00pm that evening.) MEET AND GREET AT THE AIRPORT: This was very simple. The Princess workers were easy to see, and led everyone from step to step (gathering, marking their luggage, getting on the buses). They also helped us with our missing bag problem (and five other people who also had run for the plane). PRINCESS FAIRBANKS LODGE: At first we thought it was a plain-looking hotel, but we grew to like it better as we stayed there. For Fairbanks, I guess it’s a pretty nice hotel. They have two restaurants: a bar where you can get simple stuff (fish and chips, sandwiches) and a very expensive restaurant that looked like it was barely used while we were there (dinner plates were in the $20+ range). The lobby had a nice gift shop which also sold coffee and pastry. They had a nice workout room, a river running behind the hotel (which our room had a view of), and the problems with the room were minor (e.g., the shower’s water pressure was low, the TV set’s volume wouldn’t go below a setting of 8 and was thus too loud to listen to at night). The staff continued to do a good job with paperwork, timing, and making sure everyone knew what they were doing at what times. RIVERBOAT TOUR: The bus picked us up promptly in the morning, and our bus driver Paul was one of the highlights of the trip. He was informative, funny, and genuinely seemed to enjoy his job. The lodge is very close to the airport, and the riverboat tour isn’t much farther, so it was a short bus ride. The family that owns the riverboat company has a nice gift shop building at the dock. We were on the Discovery III, their big boat, which was pretty full. There was complimentary coffee and donuts. The scenery was nice but not anything earth-shaking, although you pass some interesting houses (both good and bad, LOL). We were a little disappointed to find out that you don’t actually get off the riverboat to see the sled dogs; they simply pull up to the riverbank and the guy on shore talks over a microphone while they demonstrate how sled dogs get hitched up and run off with the sled. However, in thinking about it, I guess there’s no practical way to get 500 people (most of them seniors) off a riverboat to see a short demonstration with sled dogs. We did get off the boat at the Athabascan Village, and they did a good job of splitting us up into manageable groups and bringing us to the various presentations (housing, clothing, more sled dogs, caribou). It was all nicely done. GOLD MINE TOUR: After the riverboat tour we went back to the hotel and had a short space to grab lunch on our own, then the bus took us to the goldmine tour. First, however, the bus stopped at the Alaska Pipeline, where we all got out and took pictures of and with the pipeline while the bus driver talked about it. It was an interesting side trip (which I don’t remember reading about, but was greatly appreciated). At the gold mine, we rode a small-gauge train to the gold mine, first stopping underground to have someone show us how the miners identified veins in the rock, and then back outside they demonstrated some old mining methods. Then we disembarked and were introduced to the husband and wife team that operates the site (a very colorful pair). They demonstrated a panning method involving sending water and dirt down a sluice, and then we all moved to an area where we were handed a bag of dirt and got to sift it with water to get to the gold. It was fun, and we got about $19 worth of gold out of our bag (which, of course, they then offer to encase in a nice expensive locket, LOL… we declined, and took the gold home in a black 35-mm. film can they provided). On the way to and from the mine on the train (and the way back took about 30 seconds, more for atmosphere than anything since you could easily have walked it if they had a path), we were entertained by a fiddle- and guitar-playing musician who did some old numbers and some country songs. All in all, the gold mine tour was interesting and fun. What wasn’t fun--on either the riverboat or the goldmine--were the incessant yellow jackets who kept hovering around us (I guess they were a problem this summer). However, they seemed slow-moving and were only a nuisance (and I am absolutely PETRIFIED of stinging insects, LOL, so if I didn’t mind them that much then I doubt anyone will). A NOTE ON THE WEATHER: We decided on September because we were willing to trade the cooler temperatures for the thinner crowds in port (and it was a tad cheaper). The two weeks before our cruise it didn’t stop raining the whole time, but as it turned out we had near-perfect weather for our whole trip: mostly blue skies, with only sparse clouds. The daytime temps ranged from 50 to 65, and at night it went down to about 40. On land it was pretty nice, but on the boat was a different story; more on that later. (We only had one bad-weather day: our last day "at sea", where the water in the pools had whitecaps and was sloshing out of the pool, LOL.) One nice aspect that we didn’t plan on was that we were in the foliage season; the trees up there all turn yellow (aside from the black spruce, which don’t change). They don’t have the reds and oranges because they don’t have the maples and oaks and those kind of trees. However, the yellow was quite pretty, especially with the blue waters and skies, green of the spruce and other evergreens, and snowcaps on the mountains. And there aren't as many mosquitoes in September. BUS RIDE TO DENALI: The bus ride was good. The buses were comfortable. The scenery was a little diverse (some valleys and mountains), and we did stop at one point when someone spotted our first wildlife (some Dall sheep on a mountainside). It took 2-3 hours to get to Denali. DENALI PRINCESS LODGE: We really liked this lodge. Like Fairbanks, they had a river behind the lodge, but the Denali lodge’s river was much prettier than the one in Fairbanks. There are mountain peaks all around the lodge, and the lodge is broken up into small buildings housing the various rooms, some gift shops, restaurants, and main lobbies. The main lobby was especially nice, a two-level affair with comfy couches to watch tv, a nice gift shop (the gift shops are ubiquitous in Alaska), and a coffee/pastry/snack restaurant. The room was similar to the Fairbanks room (double beds, tv, desk, decent bathroom). The lodge had a bar-restaurant and an expensive restaurant, just like Fairbanks, but they were much more nicely done at Denali and the food was better. We stayed in the satellite building at the top of the hill, which also had a small food area (they sold decent egg-croissant sandwiches in the morning). Across the street from the lodge is a row of shops housing (yes, of course) more independent gift shops, as well as a Subway, another privately-owned (and ridiculously overpriced) sub shop, an ice-cream shop, a convenience store, and some restaurants. (NOTE: we were in Denali on 9/9 and 9/10. The ice-cream shop closed on the 10th, as did a couple of the restaurants; part of the hazard of going late-season.) The Subway came in handy (I ate there twice) as did the convenience store (where we loaded up on supplies for Denali National Park--but beware the overpriced chips and Doritos!). One of the nights at Denali Lodge we did see some Northern Lights, although it was brief, didn’t move much, and was hard to see due to the lights from the lodge and surrounding businesses. It appeared more like a bright line of cloud, which broke apart and moved a little and changed in intensity. Not exactly the overwhelming display you see on tv, but at least we can say we saw them. :o) That afternoon, we took the complimentary Princess shuttle to Denali National Park. (The shuttle makes an hourly loop except for at 12pm and 4pm.) It’s important to note that, if you have the Tundra Wilderness Tour or Natural History Tour, those do NOT take you to the Visitor Center, so we took the shuttle in and went for a 1.5-mile walk on the Horseshoe Lake Trail and then walked to the Visitor Center. The Horseshoe Lake trail was nice enough but it’s very steep and tiring and, truth be told, halfway down the trail you get the best view of Horseshoe Lake so we probably could’ve stopped there. Down at the lake, we did get to see a beaver dam, but the only wildlife we saw was a squirrel (although someone else said they saw a gray fox). However, when we walked back to the road, we did run into a juvenile male moose who was munching on the side of the road, and got some good close pictures (closer than we were supposed to get, in fact). This was good, because as it turned out it was as close to a moose as we got while in Alaska. The Visitor’s Center is a new complex, with some nice exhibits, a film we didn’t see, a nice gift shop where I bought a shirt, and a food outlet where we got a tasty Snickers Cheesecake. :o) TUNDRA WILDERNESS TOUR: We were on tour #11, which started at 7:20am. They had tours starting as early as 5:30am, I think! The bus wasn’t nearly as bad as I expected: it is NOT a "glorified school bus" as the park buses are, but had decent padded individual seats. It was very cold in the morning, though, and the windows did fog up for the first half-hour to hour (they give you paper towels to wipe your windows off). We dressed in layers as people suggested and brought a backpack to carry food, cameras, and said layers in when it warmed up later. The scenery in Denali was much sparser than I expected, although part of that was due to the time of year I’m sure (and it was still pretty thanks to the clear weather, foliage, and snowcaps). It was very desert-like in parts, with a lot of brown rock, bare ground, and dry riverbeds. The bus takes a fairly scary road which often left us looking out the window down a deep drop in fear, LOL. We did see the "Big Five" (moose, bear, wolf, caribou, Dall sheep), although I called them the "Little Five" because they were all very far from the bus, LOL. Luck of the draw. However, at the end of our road trip into the park, we did get out of the bus in an area where there was a grizzly down the hill, so that was sort of interesting; I think half of us were hoping the grizzly stayed put, and the other half were hoping he came up to visit us. :o) If the weather’s bad and Denali (a/k/a Mount McKinley) isn’t visible, they usually only go as far as Polychrome Pass or the river which follows (around 53 miles into the park). However, if Denali is visible, they go another 10 miles or so to a point where you can get out and take pictures of the mountain (where the aforementioned grizzly was hanging around). Since it was a clear sunny day, we could see Denali when we hit Mile 9 (which is the first point it becomes visible, if it’s visible) so we knew it would be a good mountain-viewing day. Truth be told, this made the whole trip, because if the weather was gloomy and Denali not visible it would’ve been a pretty disappointing day. Only 10-20% of the park’s visitors get to see the mountain, so we all felt very lucky. If you take the park’s own shuttle buses, which are cheaper than the Tundra Tour, you CAN go farther into the park: all the way to the end of the road (90-something miles, I think) to the scenic Wonder Lake. However, this takes 7-½ hours just to GET to Wonder Lake, and since it’s only worth it if you know the mountain is "out" (a/k/a visible) it’s kind of hard to plan for this unless you’re taking your own trip into Alaska and have the flexibility to do so. They give you a box lunch consisting of four cracker-sized rounds of reindeer sausage, a tiny piece of cheese, a croissant which tasted better than I expected, a granola bar, a small bag of pretzels, and a tiny bottle of water. It was okay, but I was glad we’d bought candy bars and snacks at the convenience store. (You can also get breakfast early at the lodge, and at Subway. At Subway they’ll also make your lunch sub to go, so you can do a 2-for-1 there and get both breakfast now and lunch for later.) Now that I know how it's done, I can see why the Natural History Tour is considered a big waste of time. It barely goes into the park. You'd be better off just taking the park's shuttle buses over that, in my opinion. TRAIN TO WHITTIER: The buses shuttled us to the train station, which is in Denali Park. The train was prompt, and short: five Princess cars, and no other cruise line cars. You sit at an assigned table topside in the viewing cars, and they serve breakfast and lunch downstairs in each car for additional money. (Where you sit at your table is up to you, so either get there first or you ride backwards unless your tablemates are nice enough to switch off.) There are observation platforms on the cars where it got pretty chilly but gave me a good spot to take pictures and video. (You can't really take them from the observation car due to reflection, the polarization of the top glass, and the bar between the panels.) The train ride is fairly scenic; it’s not overwhelming from Denali to Anchorage, but the scenery from Anchorage to Whittier is great because the train rides right along the edge of the water. We got to see some Beluga whales at that point. There was a short stop at the tunnel where we waited for traffic to clear, and when you come out of the tunnel into Whittier (which is a flyspeck) you immediately see the cruise ship and the excitement ratchets up a notch. ISLAND PRINCESS REVIEW AND COMPARISON TO RCCL’S ENCHANTMENT: I can only compare the Island to the Enchantment since they’re the only two ships I’ve been on. While the EOS is older it seemed newer due to it’s retrofit; the Island, in comparison, seemed more subdued and muted. However, the Island is a very pretty ship and is set up almost the same (dining rooms down low in front, theater low in front, other theater and bars low in back, pool topside center, buffet at the bow in front of the pool, enclosed pool just astern of the open pool). The Island did benefit by having an extra set of elevators dead-center, which the EOS did not. And, in fairness, the EOS was decorated for Christmas when we were on her. In specific, here’s how I thought they compared and who was better. - Room Size: equal - Room Décor: RCCL - Room Amenities: Princess by a longshot (bigger tv, hotter and stronger water in the shower, nicer safe which opened with a new four-digit code every time and not a card swipe, bigger fridge which was there automatically and didn’t need to be asked for, softer beds with more comfortable bedding). The only thing RCCL had going for it was an alarm clock. - Water Quality: Princess’s water tasted better. We didn’t bother with bottled water, and just drank Princess’s right from the tap. (The water at the Fairbanks and Denali Lodges was also excellent, probably the best tap water I’ve ever had.) - Viewing: RCCL. The back half of the Island had waist-high glass, but the front half had glass taller than me (and I’m 6’2") which fairly ruined both viewing and picture-taking. - Food: Princess had better food at the buffet (and it was open 24 hours, unlike EOS), but RCCL had better food at the dining room. We had personal choice dining on the Island, and the dinner menu was so underwhelming that we only at there twice and had the buffet the rest of the time. - Casino: Princess (bigger, with more denominations of slots, including nickel, two-cent, and even penny). - Shops: RCCL (Island only had two in their Centrum area, RCCL seemed to have better stuff). - Bars: RCCL was better (EOS had the bar in the smokestack as well as Bolero’s; Island didn’t have much aside from the stuffy-looking Wheelhouse Bar). - Theaters: RCCL (EOS had a balcony, Princess’s was one level). - Entertainment: about equal. on RCCL we saw a dance show, a juggling comic act, and a magician; on Princess we saw a juggling comic act and a magician but didn't get to the dance shows. The juggling comic on Princess was good but the guys on EOS were better. The magician on Island was much better than the one on RCCL. - Cleanliness: both were pretty good, but Princess had gel disinfectant pumps everywhere. I don’t know if everyone’s doing that now, but Princess was certainly thorough about it. - Service: RCCL. They had drink waiters in the buffet, and the front desk staff seemed nicer (although it’s possible that the Princess staff simply didn’t understand us; it seemed like a lot of them weren’t good with English). The room steward was great, though, as was the one we'd had on the EOS. - Pools: RCCL, but this is only because the EOS was stretched. I’m sure the Island’s pools compare nicely to other ships. - Coffee: equal (although Princess’s may have been slightly better). - Pizza: Princess by a long shot! The pizza was good enough that I’d eat it off the ship. I had pizza almost every day. On the EOS, the pizza was God-awfully bad, worse than frozen pizza from the supermarket. COLLEGE FJORD: This area was nice, probably even more impressing than Glacier Bay the following day because it’s a narrower area. Again, the weather made the trip because it was blue skies and sunny. As they enter the Fjord, the best viewing spot is the Secret Spot at the front of decks 9 and 10; once they're in, you're better off up top or in your balcony. GLACIER BAY: Also pretty, but not as impressive as I expected. The glaciers crackled a lot but barely calved. However, the weather was great again (we could see from the tops of the mountains right down to the water, which the park rangers said is rare) and we got to go up the inlet towards the John Hopkins Glacier, which is something ships don’t do often. You can forego the Secret Spot for Glacier Bay and stick to your balcony, since they turn the ship so both sides have a chance to see calving (although neither side did, and if you're worrywarts like us then you'll either run up to the deck above the Pool Deck or down to the Promenade Deck where you can run from one side of the ship to the other in a half-second when they turn the ship around, LOL). For both College Fjord and Glacier Bay I could've used gloves and earmuffs. I had neither, and froze. Bring 'em if you got 'em, at least in September. SKAGWAY is a tiny town. We decided to rent a car instead of taking the White Pass Railway. Since you dock early, we had some time to kill before picking up our Avis car; this was good, since we had to hunt for the Avis "office" (a/k/a a tiny sign hanging off a dilapidated motel, LOL). Again, be careful when you go, because we were there on 9/14 and it was one of their last days open. When you start driving towards the Yukon, you can skip taking pictures of the White Pass because the sun’s not up enough yet and the train track is in darkness; make mental note of where the car turnouts (pull-over spots) are, and stop there on your way back when the sun is higher. The scenery into the Yukon is rugged and fairly pretty, especially Bove Lake and the approach to Carcross. Passing through customs was fairly painless. We got to Caribou Crossing before the buses, which gave us a chance to poke around the dog yard and pat the sled dog puppies before the crowds descended. Caribou Crossing is a bit cheesy, but the sled dog puppies made the day for us. They were adorable! :o) The benefit of the rental car (in addition to getting us to Caribou Crossing before the buses) was that it allowed us to drive a few miles past Caribou Crossing to Emerald Lake, which was very pretty. We then drove a few miles farther because another driver at Emerald Lake told us he almost hit a moose, and while we didn’t see the moose we DID almost hit a black bear which scared the crap out of us (and I got my camera out just in time to catch him as he ran into the woods). So, for the bear, Emerald Lake, and getting to the sled dog puppies first, the car was worth it. On the way back I stopped at the Gold Rush Cemetary and took pictures of Frank Reid’s grave, and then walked up to the small waterfall behind the cemetery; this is also something you can’t easily do without a car or some sort of town tour. On our road trip, we stopped at the Suspension Bridge, but it seemed like an overpriced waste of time ($18.50 just to walk out on a small suspension bridge like the kind Indiana Jones would cross) so we didn’t go onto the bridge. JUNEAU is a funky capital city, squashed between the water and the mountains. From the ship we had a nice view of Juneau which in my opinion compared favorably to that of the Mount Roberts Tram right next to the ship (which is $20 and doesn’t seem worth it). We took the "Whales and Rainforest Trails" tour, which was expensive but we thought the smaller boat would afford us a better experience than the larger Allen Marine boats that are used for the "Mendenhall Glacier and Whale Watch" tour. As it turned out, it was almost an identical tour, since the "rainforest trail" portion consisted of dropping us off about 100 yards up the road FROM the Mendenhall Glacier, where we walked a path to the glacier as the guide told us about the rainforest. It was interesting, but not quite what I expected. However, I was pleased to see the Mendenhall Glacier since I didn’t know it was part of our tour (and had been considering trying to squeeze it in). The "whale" part of the tour goes to the same exact spots in the inlet where the other boats go, so it’s pretty much a luck of the draw as to which whales you see and how many. There were humpbacks galore but no other whales. We did see some bald eagles flying, some sea lions basking, and our boat was lucky enough to come across a mother and calf where the mom displayed some flipper-slapping on the water and the baby breached twice (which was something only our boat got to see, so that was very cool). KETCHIKAN was bigger than I thought it would be. It had the usual assortment of tourist-trap shops right near the pier. We took two tours in Ketchikan. The first was the "Wildlife Refuge" (not to be confused with the one where you see the eagles). The "refuge" turned out to be just a big piece of land that used to be a sawmill owner’s property. However, the guide was very good and informative (although it covered a lot of stuff we heard on the tour in Juneau) and we did get to see some bear signs (scratched trees, scat) as well as tons of salmon spawning and being mercilessly munched on by about 2000 seagulls. The group right behind us did see a black bear, so I think we scared the scat out of it and it ran towards them, LOL. It had (of course) a nice gift shop and we got free coffee and cookies. Not a highlight of our trip, but not horrible. In the afternoon we took the "Totem and Town Tour", which was pretty bad. The ‘town tour’ aspect pretty much amounted to the ride from the pier to the Totem Pole park, and I don’t consider riding through Ketchikan’s un-scenic streets to be a ‘town tour’. About the only notable thing on the bus ride was when the driver pointed out some of the weird ‘streets’ in town (long staircases that went up the hills). The Totem Pole park was a huge disappointment. The poles are all fairly modern, and I got a case of hives from brushing up against some flora. In hindsight, I wish we’d done the Saxman Village, where I hear they have older totem poles as well as a bigger Native building. About the only good thing was the gift shop, where we found The Mountain tie-died shirts on sale for $10 (unheard-of in the states, where they go for $20). "SEA" DAY: The weather was fairly rough. I have great video of the pools emptying themselves, LOL. The seas were 7-12 feet, I think. However, the boat wasn’t rocking so bad that you couldn’t walk around (although it was making scary creaking noises) and the buffet was fairly packed so either it wasn’t that bad or we had a lot of seasoned cruisers on board. We passed through an area which supposedly had a resident orca pod but saw none, which was the only disappointing thing on the whole trip as my wife loves orcas and we really wanted to see some wild ones. Oh, well, something for the next trip. DISEMBARKATION went pretty smooth, which is good since we had an 11:00am flight. The ship docked at 7:30am, and we were on our bus by 8:00am despite a gaffe with the gangplank (they inadvertently put it in the wrong place and we all had to slowly shuffle from the middle of the ship to the end of the ship to get out). The bus had us to the airport by 8:45am (a slow painful ride through Vancouver, which apparently has no direct highway access from port to airport; we got to see more of the city than we wanted to, as we were anxiously eyeing our watches). By 9:30am we’d cleared customs and were in our terminal. A word on customs: it looks like a confusing mess but in retrospect it isn’t. First you fill out a Canadian Declaration Card. Then you get off the ship sans luggage and go to your bus. The bus drops you at the airport where you hand your Canadian customs card to someone and then get a U.S. customs card and get into a giant line and await the baggage’s arrival. Then you shuffle in and find your luggage. We had Red 1 (first group) and luckily got pulled out of the giant line by a worker who probably saved us a half-hour. We got our luggage (my brand-new American Tourister with one wheel already ripped off by the Princess truck-loaders on it’s brief trip from port to airport) and went to the airline check-in area. We checked in at the automatic kiosk and entered our info (including passport numbers an expiration dates) and got our boarding passes. Then we had to line up at the airline desk anyway, so a worker could check our passports and boarding passes and count our luggage pieces. Then we went behind that area and walked down to another guy who checked said papers. Then we walked through a duty-free shop and to the U.S. Customs area where a guy at a booth checked our papers again, took our U.S. Customs card, and passed us off into another area where we put our luggage on a conveyor belt and waved buh-bye to it and went through the metal detectors where we were FINALLY then in the airport and in the clear. (I may have messed some of this up because it’s confusing even in hindsight, LOL, but you get the idea.) TRIP SUMMARY: The weather made the whole trip for us. If the weather had sucked, we probably would’ve been disappointed only because the scenery, while nice, wasn’t that much different than some of the stuff we can find here in New England where we live (without the glaciers, of course). Thanks to the weather gods we got to see Denali (the mountain), we got to see the glaciers in both College Fjord and Glacier Bay, we got sunshine in Juneau (which, according to our whale watch guide, had seven days of sun all year until then) and in Ketchikan (where it rains over 200 days a year, and the sun is as rare as a blue moon). We did get to see almost all the major animals (aside from orca), some of them from a distance and some (the moose on the road, the bear who we almost ran over, the sled dog puppies) close up. As for the ship, it was easy to see why RCCL and Princess are two of the top lines. I’d sail either again, but if both had the same itinerary and same price I’d probably choose Princess for some of the aforementioned points (24-hour buffet with better food, better pizza, better bedding, bigger tv in the room, better casino). I forgot to mention that Princess’s Internet is also cheaper (35 cents a minute vs. RCCL’s 50 cents, plus Princess gives you the first minute free, plus Princess’s access speed seemed quicker). I’m sure I left some stuff out, so if anyone has questions, feel free to ask me before I forget everything! Link to comment Share on other sites More sharing options...
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