Dreaming of an Alaskan cruise may be blissful, but experiencing the reality of one left me in awe. Watching the mountain scenery glide by as The Voyage of the Glaciers cruise sailed merrily from Vancouver to Whittier exceeded all my expectations. Cruising the inside passage with stops at the charming Alaskan ports of Ketchikan, Juneau and Skagway was sublime. The high point being scenic cruising through the ice laden waters of stunning Glacier Bay for a day.
For seven heavenly days in late May, I watched otters, whales, icebergs, saw bears on the mountains and scenery that took my breath away as I cruised the Inside Passage.
Day 1 – Set sail for Alaska from Vancouver
Boarding was scheduled for 12.30pm. On the day of departure, I got herded into a long queue to wait to literally ‘check in’ and receive my cruise card. Fortunately the staff were fast. The Sapphire Princess looked amazing -such a big ship. The thought of getting on board made me giddy with excitement. I’d watched other people boarding giant ships about to sail off to somewhere fabulous, and now it was finally my turn.
Cruise card around my neck, excitement barely bottled, I raced to my balcony stateroom. It was even nicer than I’d expected. The balcony was small but certainly sufficient and fully covered, ideal for Alaska. I don’t know what everyone else does when they first board a ship, but after a quick look around, I quickly changed into my swimwear, went onto the huge deck outside and jumped in the spa overlooking the beautiful city of Vancouver. My dream cruise was about to begin and I wanted to start in style.
The ship set sail late that afternoon. Early evening I went into the main dining room for dinner and was seated by the window with another two couples which was great – had some excellent company throughout the entire cruise actually.
It was impossible not to be captivated by the scenery from the dining room window. We were passing Vancouver Island and were gliding so close, the scenery was quite breathtaking. I practically gasped in awe and pointed stupidly like a complete idiot lost for words. The other seasoned Alaskan cruisers (some of them having been on twenty Alaska cruises) just smiled knowingly, as if to say ‘yes, we know, it’s amazing’. I desperately wanted to leave the dining room mid-meal and race outside onto the deck, but it would have been a little rude I guess. Next time, I’ll skip dinner that first evening and go outside to watch Vancouver Island slide by like a dreamy oasis. Day one wasn’t even over yet and it was already fantastic.
Day 2 – At sea
I bounded out of bed at 5am and was up on deck complete with a hot chocolate at 5.30 am (thanks to the 24 hour cafe), watching the scenery go by. The top public decks of the ship were practically empty. There were maybe 3 other people at that time. It was like I had the entire ship to myself surrounded by snow capped mountains, truly a great and surreal feeling. The snow capped mountains looked so close, I mean super close, as though I could dive off, swim a few meters and touch them. The views were right, left, back, front, just incredible – a blissful time to be up top. I just stayed there for hours, gawking like a virgin tourist. It really was so beautiful.
Once more people started coming on board late morning, I moved onto my balcony for a while – bliss.
Today would be the only full day ‘at sea’ day, so I took that perfect opportunity to explore the ship part of the day and indulge in morning tea in the dining room, afternoon cocktails and pre-dinner drinks. So decadent and so much fun! I so feel like I am on a holiday magnified by 1000.
I could ramble on forever about the pleasure of three gorgeous meals a day in the dining room with lots of other passionate travelers and superb service, but it all pales into the distant background compared to the stunning scenery and wildlife we glide by. I love how close it all is.
Formal night on Princess – here’s why I ditched it!
Personally, I thought formal night would be fun. Formal nights are held in the main dining rooms (twice on this 7 day one way cruise) and if you don’t dress the part, you cannot attend (this was with Princess at this time anyway). Because I was doing a road trip around Alaska after this cruise, I didn’t have space or inclination to bring formal wear/shoes etc. I was already packed to the brim with warm fleeces and the like. So yes, for that reason, I skipped formal night and went to the buffet (you can be in casual dress around the buffet).
I’m not buffet fan at the best of times, so that certainly wasn’t my preferred choice, and I did miss the much nicer 3 course sit down dinner in the dining room. But hey, I picked the cream of the crop from the buffet and had a good quiet night with zero pressure, watching everyone swan around in fitted formal wear and heels while I was nice and comfy in sneakers and jeans. Formal night would have been nice, but I wasn’t about to sacrifice my warm fleeces for formal dresses and stilettos in Alaska! Especially when I was doing an Alaskan road trip after the cruise. Warmth and practicality took priority. Case space is so limited. Maybe next time…
Day 3 – Ketchikan arrive 6.30am- depart 2pm
As the ship pulled closer to Ketchikan, I observed the Alaskan style houses along the water and looked straight into their back yards and lounge rooms. Sure I felt a bit voyeuristic, but it was interesting. The Alaskan style of house is so different to any other place I’ve seen.
Docking at Ketchikan was a breeze, and pretty exciting being the first Alaskan town stop. Ketchikan means ‘eagle with spread out wings’. The place was an absolute delight for one day. In fact, I would have liked a few days in this gorgeous interesting town. The little cute shops were enjoyable and the setting of the quaint town with the gushing creek running through it was magic. Note: If you’ve never been there, no need to book a day trip for your first time, just wander the town, there’s quite a bit to see.
Quirky attractive Creek Street may be a boardwalk filled with shops and museums, but it is just so unlike any other town, so cute, quaint, and interesting. It was originally a Red Light District back in the Gold Rush days. It is an absolute ‘must-do’ to get a feel for this little town.
After wandering Creek Street, I got a bus to Totem Bight State Park which cost pocket change. Located in a pleasant forest is a 19th century clan house (replica) which was worth a look. All around this area there are many totem poles, each visually telling their own story.
Ketchikan was a treat. After all the main tourist areas, I wandered around town and talked to some locals about the salmon run. Unfortunately there’s no salmon run at this time of the year, they are a couple of months later, but it sure was interesting to hear how they fill the creek and fight their way uphill against the current. Ketchikan regards itself as the salmon capital of the world, and I would love to go back there one day in salmon season. But cruising late May was certainly significantly cheaper, so no complaints here.
Departing Ketchikan early afternoon simply meant more outstanding scenery from the privacy of my balcony. Dressed to brave the outdoors and armed with binoculars to spot whales and bears, I spend every possible minute on the balcony and the deck excited by the wildlife and mesmerised by the snow capped mountains, gushing waterfalls, and icy green waters.
For more information and photos, check out my blog post on One Day in Ketchikan.
Day 4 – Juneau 8am – 9pm
I love that the town of Juneau is nestled right at the base of towering mountains, a very attractive area. The approach to Juneau is quite spectacular because of those towering mountains sitting practically right in town. As usual, I was hanging off my balcony observing the scene as we pulled in to dock , always a pleasure.
There was so much to do in Juneau and so many fantastic options to choose from, some of them free and some that required a very healthy bank balance. As a first timer to Juneau though, I thought I would like to see the town and immediate surrounds rather than racing off on a plane for some fancy excursion (saving that for next time). It turned out to be a very low budget day (just the cost of a local bus and lunch really, oh, whoops, then later in the afternoon I randomly added the Mt Roberts Tramway – then suddenly not so cheap, but still way cheaper than many other options).
The day was filled to the brim with wonderful sights, and I highly recommend this one day Juneau itinerary, particularly if you don’t want to spend loads of cash on day flights over glaciers or if you can’t for whatever reason.
In one perfectly packed one day in Juneau, I:
- Rode the local bus to Mendenhall Glacier (yes, do it yourself, there is absolutely no need for an organised tour at all)
- Walked the Nugget Falls track, viewed the spectacular falls and glacier very close up and enjoyed leisurely wandering along the lake filled with icebergs
- After the glacier, I headed back into town to the famous Red Dog Saloon for lunch
- Had a look around town and the shops
- Caught the Mt Roberts Tramway for breaktaking views of Juneau, too in a short cultural film, coffee, and visit with an eagle in the wildlife refuge on top of the mountain
Very happy with my day, thanks very much. However, I did have to go into a few shops to ask about exactly where to catch the bus to Mendenhall Glacier. It ended up being from the main car park. But once I found the bus stop, it was all very cheap (a few dollars), easy and smooth sailing from there.
See my One Day in Juneau blog post for more photos and details about this day and to do in Juneau.
Day 5 – Skagway 7am – 8.30pm
Ah, Skagway was very different to Juneau or Ketchikan. In hindsight, it was the only place I wish I had done one of the more expensive excursions. I walked the shopping area and had lunch at the Red Onion Saloon which was an interesting and enjoyable experience. It is set up a bit like a whorehouse with the waitresses dressed as working girls. Yes, the place used to be a brothel. It is certainly worth stopping in for a coffee, snack or lunch. The restaurant is decorated with naked paintings of buxom cheeky working girls and many other little interesting bits and pieces. It is not a ‘must-do’, but at the same time I can say I’m really glad I went (and would go again).
Afterwards, I walked around the back streets past all the houses until there was no more. It was interesting to see how these Alaskan’s lived, but after a while I realised I should have done the White Pass and Yukon Rail. I usually plan my trips to perfection, but choosing to just wander the town the whole day was the one error I made. The town itself is worth a wander for sure, but not for a whole day.
A few hours was spent taking the Lower Dewey Creek hiking trail, which lead to a beautiful lake with the trees perfectly reflected in it. Around every corner the threat of bears loomed. I love bears, but at quite a few points I was walking along around blind corners in heavily forested areas completely alone, and I just felt uncomfortable. We were informed there were bears in the area at that time, I just didn’t know where they might pop up. The trail was very nice though, with the highlight being the lake.
That night, back on the ship, I indulged in a few cocktails, comedy, a stage show and later on watched a band and danced. Ah, life on a great ship!
Oh, I should mention that I had a misunderstanding with the waiter at dinner and accidentally ordered two main courses. Worse still, after rolling my eyes in horror and disgust at the two plates set down in front of me, I ate both plates. When I say I ate them, I mean I polished off everything. I barely stopped short of licking the plates clean they were so delicious. Thank goodness there are no scales in my stateroom!
It was still relatively light at 9pm, so I hung over my balcony just staring in wonder at the beautiful rocky mountains laden with greenery and frozen waterfalls – living the dream!
Day 6 – Glacier Bay Scenic Cruising 6am – 3pm
As we began to head toward Glacier Bay it was all cloudy and overcast, not ideal. Of course I was up before the birds, and there were otters swimming alongside the ship – so cute. This is where binoculars came in very handy. Fortunately, the closer the ship got to the bay, the more the clouds cleared and cleared, and by the time we cruised right into the bay, the entire sky was bright blue with the sun shining and barely a cloud in sight.
‘Wow’, is one word that describes what I was thinking. But no words cannot truly describe the thrill of cruising Glacier Bay hanging off one’s private balcony on my own listening to the glacier carve into a sea of ice, and watching an eagle land on a massive floating iceberg – magnificent. It was one of the most surreal and memorable moments I’ve ever had, and I’ll remember it forever. We were fortunate to have amazing weather in late May.
The dreamy emerald waters are so smooth and clear, they mirror the endless parade of spectacular snow capped mountains. I couldn’t bear to leave the balcony for breakfast, for fear of missing even a minute – so I had to order room service (thankfully this was free). This way, I didn’t miss a second of scenery.
Twice I go up to the main deck to view the scenery in its entirety, but there is something almost spiritual about Glacier Bay that sends me scurrying back to my private balcony to stare at this beautiful part of the world in peaceful silence. No talking, no conversation, no one else, just me, alone, leaning on the balcony rails, drinking in the views and being transported to another world.
The glacier roars as huge chunks of ice break off and crash into the sea. Glacier Bay glitters under the smiling sun, icebergs strewn across its deep glass like waters. The mountains and glacier are perfectly reflected in the waters as if nature is proving beyond any doubt that its design skills are second to none.
As I stand alone on my balcony gazing out onto the floating ice, I realize that I am truly blessed to be here. No brochure can do this place justice. This is the area where you need 50,000 memory cards (okay, slight exaggeration), but you get my point.
I went up to the public decks for a wander a couple of times for a different viewpoint, and to get hot chocolates of course. It was crowded, but you could always find a spot to get in on the railing and have a decent view. However, if you prefer your personal space, like your own company and loads of serenity, being on one’s own balcony is practically a meditative experience – I loved it and kept heading back down to it.
On the other hand, my partner preferred to stay on deck where he met a fellow photographer and exchanged camera and image notes. I think it comes down to individual personality types and how you feel on the day. But I would never give up my personal balcony unless it was a ‘cruise Alaska without one, or don’t cruise it at all’ scenario.
The ship turned right around, so even on the balcony I got to see every side of Glacier Bay. The scenery was so spectacular I didn’t even consider having lunch. Trading this scenery to sit down and eat without all the views was just not an option on a day like this. Of course if you are seated by the window in the dining room you would have a view, but looking through glass is not the same as being outside in the fresh air and breathing it all in. Of course you can always order room service if you don’t want to leave your balcony, so, no need to starve.
For me personally, cruising Glacier Bay has been an absolute highlight. This is the Alaska cruise scenery that you see in all the brochures, the type of scenery that made me book the cruise in the first place. Did it live up to all expectations? A bay full of ice and calving glaciers…. yes, yes, yes!
Day 7 – College Fjord Scenic Cruising 5.30pm- 8.30pm
Today was sultry and overcast, a vast difference from yesterday’s brilliant blue skies. More ice in the water, glaciers and loads of frozen waterfalls. I never get tired of this scenery. At this point, I am wishing I had booked another 7 day return cruise back to Vancouver so I can do it all again. The water was like green-gray glass in parts (later on it looked really blue though) and fog covered the top of the mountains, many of which were covered in snow.
There was time today to enjoy more of the ship and enjoy some specialty coffees and activities, but hanging off the rail observing the landscape was still the priority. I did manage a sit down 3 course lunch in the dining room. Being seated with others was great. Although most of the crowd were significantly older, I loved their company. I’ve never seen so many people in their sixties and seventies, and there were hardly any kids at all. It was peaceful and relaxing. It was interesting talking to those who spend their lives cruising, nice life if you can afford it. Instead of having a home, they just cruise, going from ship to ship, country to country, just living on cruise ships. Many others took a few cruises a year. But all the hard core cruisers agreed that Alaska and the inside passage was the best cruise of all – that’s why they keep coming back. The older travelers had so many great travel stories, and I never tire of conversation about travel.
The weather turned very overcast with a bit of rain. So it wasn’t the best view of College Fjord, but it was still beautiful, and again, I wouldn’t leave the views, so couldn’t go to the dining room. Instead I ordered a room service dinner and ate on the balcony watching the dark blue waters and landscape in awe (can’t get enough of those snow capped mountains which look so close). A few eagles flew close which was a real treat. Actually, I was on the balcony for many hours, well into the night. The sun didn’t even set until about 10pm, so it was a wonderful way to spend an evening.
I kept the curtains to the balcony open all the time. It was surreal to be getting changed or lying on bed watching the still waters and snowy mountains pass by. I had to just remind myself that it was indeed real and yes, I really was on an Alaskan cruise and yes, I really was living the dream.
Day 8 – Arrival at Whittier in the early hours of the morning – depart ship at 8am
Time was limited, so I skipped the dining room (which has been great- much better than the buffet), and had an early breakfast in the buffet this morning. It was difficult to get off the ship. I really did not want to leave at all, and was just wishing I’d booked a return cruise. The cruise had been everything I’d dreamed about and so much more. But now I wanted more. I wanted to do it all over again right away. The ship was one reason, but the biggest reason was the incredible constant scenery from the ship – unforgettable.
I was assigned an 8am departure time by the cruise line. I had booked a cruise transfer from Whittier to Anchorage downtown, as it is a quick, easy cheap way to get there. But if you think I was going to fly back home just yet, you have lost your mind. I’m in Alaska for goodness sake. I wasn’t about to leave without having a good go at it.
So in downtown Anchorage, we picked up a hire car for embarking on an Alaskan road trip. And so another phase of the journey began.
Was cruising Alaska worth it?
This is really a silly question. Cruising Alaska has been one of the most memorable experiences of my life. I cannot recommend it enough, loved it, loved it, loved it. It is one of those trips where you feel like you are in a wonderful dream and never want to wake up! Yes, I’ve used the word surreal a few times, but every day I stood on my balcony or the main deck, had to pinch myself to believe this was all real. The scenery that is gliding past day in, day out, is just so dramatic and beautiful. The stops have so many options for sightseeing, you will need to do Alaska more than once. I felt it was worth double what I paid, at least! In fact, I still can’t even believe how reasonably priced an Alaskan cruise is, especially compared to so many other cruises which depart from Australia (where I live).
The Voyage of the Glaciers seven day cruise may be my first Alaskan cruise, but it will certainly not be my last. Traveling around mid May meant shoulder season rates which made having a balcony cabin on the lovely Sapphire Princess very affordable. Although there were a few very overcast days, there were also a couple of idyllic sunny days with blue skies. Doing an Alaskan cruise mid to late May provided decent weather, scenery, and great value.
The Sapphire Princess was a particularly enjoyable ship with impeccable service and nice Staterooms. While the entire cruise was breathtaking all the way, the day in Glacier Bay provided one of the most unforgettable days I’ve ever had. The proof of this trip’s power is in the number of guests who keep cruising the Inside Passage multiple times – and I intend to be one of them.
Inside Vs Balcony cruise cabin
Before I started my Alaskan cruise trip diary, there is one important dilemma I had before booking. The inside cabin versus balcony cruise cabin is the toughest decision, aside from having to select a specific cabin.
Of course the inside cabins are way cheaper, but how much would I be missing by being inside? What if it’s raining heavily and I can’t go outside or get a window seat in the dining room? What if I am too short to see the scenery above the crowds? What if I just want to admire the views without jostling for a space? These are just some the questions that played on my mind when deciding which cruise cabin to book… inside or balcony cruise cabin?
I did the research and now I’ve experienced the cruise for myself. If you like your own company, like your privacy, like peace and quiet, and don’t ever want to miss a view because someone is standing in front of you, or because you are inside getting changed or resting when amazing scenery passes you by, then book a balcony cabin. Or if you like getting up early morning or during the night to peer at the scenery, or want a private snack or breakfast while watching the scenery slide by in your PJ’s, then get a balcony cabin.
A balcony cabin is worth it for Alaska. This is because the beautiful scenery is almost constant, which is a unique feature of the inside passage, unlike most other cruises which have way more sea days.
Picture waking up in the morning and as soon as you open your eyes (without even moving) you are staring at snow capped mountains gliding by. You bounce out of bed and in two seconds you are on your private balcony watching an otter in the water or an eagle or just more stunning scenery. If you are in an inside cabin, you will need to shower, get dressed, get lifts/stairs and lots of walking and eventually be on deck, but it could be pouring and you wouldn’t know until you got up there unless you had at least a porthole. In the meantime that spectacular glacier could have passed you by.
However, if you really just cannot find that extra cash, and even if you saved a bit longer, you still won’t have the money, then don’t wait! Just get whatever cabin you can, forget privacy, be prepared to be super social – pack a raincoat with a hat and lots of very warm clothes to spend lots of time on deck – and go for it.
Even though the crowds on deck were sometimes pretty hectic, they were no-where near as bad as I’d expected. You could always find a spot somewhere with a view. I sometimes got up on the public decks at around 5.30am and it was completely empty at that time which was amazing – like having the ship to yourself. But as soon as breakfast was over, it started filling up. So if you forgo the balcony, make the effort to get up super early and be rewarded. Actually, make the effort regardless.
HOT TIPS FOR CRUISING ALASKA
- If you do 100 cruises and only get a balcony on one of them, this is the trip to get the balcony on – worth every cent if you can.
- Choose a Stateroom that has a covered balcony. The lowest low ones may not with Princess Cruises. It does rain a bit in Alaska
- Bring your camera and binoculars. I used the binoculars daily to find whales/sealife and bears on the mountains passing by
- Go up on deck super early in the morning, like 5.30am when you may be the only person up there to witness views from every angle for hours – awesome
- Take warm suitable clothing and footwear, including waterproof jacket and hat, and layer like crazy
What to pack and wear for an Alaskan cruise
The ship itself is never cold inside, but outside on deck is a different story. One day I would be on my balcony with just jeans and a long sleeved top, and the next I would need that top, a thick fleece, raincoat, beanie and mittens. Taking suitable clothing means lots of layers and waterproof coat and hat. Many people did not dress appropriately for being outdoors in the cold and were therefore unable to stay out on deck.
I found that warm socks, goretex hiking shoes, jeans, long sleeved warm top, zip up thick quality fleece plus a North Face zip up waterproof rain coat and a warm beanie was just right. On two occasions I had to add a jumper under my fleece and top, and wear gloves and a scarf. Other times, a thin long sleeved top and thin zip up jacket were perfectly fine. But layering is crucial, because the second you walk back inside the ship, it goes from cold to warm, and a thin long sleeved top is all you need on. A long sleeved (medium warmth) top with jeans and goretex runners was what I wore most of the time inside. Sure, you could wear sandals or whatever, but if you want to keep going from inside to outside, then have waterproof or at least water resistant shoes on – gives you freedom to do what you want without thinking twice.
Essential items of clothing for an Alaska cruise:
- a few somewhat warm long sleeved tops as you will wear these day and night
- your favourite zip up cotton/rayon jacket
- a thick very warm good quality zip up fleece jacket
- a quality waterproof raincoat with a hood
- warm jumper to put under your fleece for those extra cold times (there were only a couple, but you never know)
- warm beanie (you can buy lovely ones in Alaska)
- jeans or other long quick drying pants ( I know people say don’t wear jeans in Alaska, but I wouldn’t wear anything else – mine are very quick drying, so I found them perfect)
- T-shirts for the occasional warm day and inside the ship
- a few nice casual tops or shirts for dining inside in the evenings (I wore runners so I could go from inside to outside without a thought)
- goretex or other waterproof shoes (these were particularly important for any type of walking/hiking/day trips), warm socks
- nice comfortable light indoor runners/sneakers (sometimes your feet just want a break from heavier waterproof shoes)
- dressy suit or dress and nice shoes if you intend to go to formal nights
- quick drying underpants (like rayon/nylon)
- warm socks
- girls, don’t forget your bras if needed
When I think clothing for Alaska, I think super warm quality fleece, goretex runners and waterproof rain coat with hood. These are the first items that come to mind.
Note: I took an emergency thermal top and wore it on small boat day trip excursions along with all my other warm clothes. It was the only time I needed to wear it, but it was worth it as it meant that I was one of the few who was able to brave the cold on deck comfortably, so often had the deck to myself -especially in Kenai Fjords trip out of Whittier where it did get bitterly cold.
Alaska Road Trip
If you want to make the most of being in Alaska after your cruise, before flying home, I suggest doing a land tour or hiring a car and doing an Alaska road trip to explore the region including driving the Seward Highway which is one of the world’s most scenic routes, exploring Seward with its amazing marine wildlife and observing the big 5 at Denali National Park.
Travel Bucket List
Is cruising Alaska on your bucket list or have you already ticked it off and are now planning another one (like me)?