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Trip Report Trip Report: Alaska Cruise on a Budget, Local Eating / Shopping in Port

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We got back recently from our first cruise and our first time visiting Alaska! Thanks to all of the wonderful advice we received from Fodorites, we felt like experienced cruisers! (For anyone else planning an Alaska trip, I highly recommend Eschew's thread on Alaska Shore Excursions!). I've decided to share a "Trip Report" with the hopes that it can help others plan their Alaska cruises!

About us: We are a young couple from NYC. We both recently completed grad school and had a few weeks off before starting our jobs. We wanted to take a vacation together and needed something that would fit our timing and budget, so we booked relatively last minute (6 weeks ahead of the trip) cruise on Holland America from Seward to Vancouver. We initially booked an inside guarantee room due to our budget. A few days before the cruise, we got an email offering upgrades and we decided to stretch our budget slightly and pay $99 / person for an upgrade to a full ocean view room, mid-ship on the main deck. Another goal of our trip was to try to visit local restaurants and shops while in port, rather than sticking only to the "touristy" places (but we did want to see some of the touristy stuff too!).

Day "0" - After reading advice from others, we decided to get to Alaska the day before our cruise rather than day-of. Unfortunately, the airline delayed our first flight because of "weather" and we missed our connection and the next flight from our connecting city to Anchorage was not until the next morning. Luckily, we were stuck in a city where we were able to stay with relatives and our cruise didn't depart until 8 PM the next day, but we were bummed about not getting to spend any time in Anchorage and having to cancel our Bed and Breakfast reservation. After this experience, I might suggest flying into Anchorage more than a day before the cruise or booking a direct flight if available.

Day 1 - Anchorage / Seward - We landed in Anchorage around 1 PM. When booking the cruise, we booked a transfer from the airport to the cruise terminal in Seward. While we understand that there may have been some cheaper options for getting between the airport and the cruise terminal, after all of our air travel issues, we were so excited to hand our luggage to the HAL representative and take our passes for the 2 PM shuttle. The ride to Seward is very scenic and our driver answered a lot of questions about Alaska - I would definitely recommend having your camera out during the ride. Boarding the ship at Seward was a relatively quick process and before we knew it, we were on the ship, in our room and reunited with our luggage. We grabbed a quick dinner at the Lido Buffet before the emergency drill and then stayed on the deck after the drill to watch as we sailed away from Seward!

Day 2 - At Sea - For our first full day at sea, we decided to take advantage of the activities the ship was offering. After breakfast, we attended a kitchen tour, where we got to meet the Executive Chef and learn about the logistics of feeding so many passengers! We then played trivia in one of the bars and we were pleasantly surprised to learn that drinks on the ship were not ridiculously overpriced by NYC standards. (It was about $5-6 for a beer and $7-8 for a mixed drink, if i remember correctly. We also took advantage of a few martini happy hours - $4 for the daily special martini during certain times. On the other hand, cans of soda were $2.25 each. Lemonade, juice, iced tea, hot tea, and coffee were free in the dining areas.) Then we had our first "Gala Night". We had signed up for As You Wish Dining, but we knew that we wanted to eat in the main dining room for Gala Night. Following some of the great advice we received on the forums, we called dining services that morning to make a reservation for the main dining room, which allowed us to walk up to the dining room at 7 and skip the long line of people without reservations! After a long four-course dinner, we watched a dance show in the main lounge and then headed up to the bar to watch the house band, the HALcats, perform.

Day 3 - Glacier Bay - In the morning, the ship picked up National Park Service Rangers from a pilot boat. The rangers gave a short presentation on Glacier Bay in the main lounge and then people began to head to the outside decks where the crew was serving hot soup. We came back inside for a presentation on Native Voices of Glacier Bay and we would highly recommend this program to anyone who has the opportunity to attend! After a quick lunch break (we grabbed a table near a window so we could still watch the glaciers while we ate), we went outside to listen to the rangers' narration. Our captain was able to turn the boat around a few times so that everyone could have a view of the glaciers and take pictures. I would recommend bringing a warm jacket for Glacier Bay or layering a fleece and a windbreaker. Before the park rangers disembarked, we passed South Marble Island, where we had a nice view of some sea lions! After dinner in the Lido buffet, we spent some time in the piano bar before returning to the Lido for some late night desserts.

Day 4 - Haines / Skagway - Our ship arrived in Haines around 6:30 AM. Since we didn't have an excursion until 11:15, we slept in a little bit and then spent some time exploring Haines. We walked to Mountain Market, a local coffee shop and food store in Haines with excellent breakfast wraps, before going back to the dock for the ferry to Skagway. We booked the White Pass Railway excursion with free time in Skagway through HAL for $249 each before the cruise -- this was slightly stretching our budget but it was something we really wanted to do and we decided to book through the cruise line because we wanted to make sure that everything was taken care of regarding travel between Haines and Skagway. The ferry ride between Haines and Skagway was great - we sat on the upper level and got some great pictures of the scenery. When we arrived in Skagway, representatives from the railway helped us find the train cars that were reserved people who booked through HAL. We were also provided with a bagged lunch. (Note that if you have dietary restrictions, you need to tell the excursions desk on your ship a few days prior to the excursion and a special lunch can be arranged.) The train ride was neat and everyone switches seats at the summit so everyone has a turn to see the more scenic view. After the train ride, we had a few hours of free time in Skagway, so we bought some souvenirs (our favorite shop was probably Alaskan Fudge Company, which has locations in Skagway and Juneau). We found Skagway to be pretty touristy so we were happy to take the ferry back to Haines and eat dinner at a local restaurant, Bamboo Room, in Haines, which has sort of a "dive bar" vibe but serves the most delicious fish and chips (made with fresh halibut)! Since we had a long day and an early excursion the next morning, we decided to skip the night entertainment and have a low key evening playing board games in the cafe on the ship.

Day 5 - Juneau - We had an early excursion booked for Juneau, so we put in an order for room service breakfast the night before. Once we arrived in Juneau, we got off the boat to meet our excursion guide. We chose to do an excursion called Whale Watching & Mendenhall Glacier Photo Safari, which we booked through the cruise line for $209 per person. Again, this was more than I initially wanted to spend on excursions, but we liked the fact that we would get to see both whales and Mendenhall Glacier and that our whale watching boat would be very small (maximum of 14 participants). We picked the earlier time (8:20 AM) so that we could have some free time in Juneau after the excursion. Our tour only had 9 participants plus the guide, which made for a great experience. We saw tons of whales as well as some sea lions and bald eagles, and our guide gave great advice on taking photos. We took a short walk through the rainforest near the glacier and stopped at a scenic overlook where we could take photos of Mendenhall Glacier and Nugget Falls. We then took a coach bus back to the port, arriving around 1:30 PM (giving us 4 hours until our all-aboard time). I picked up some smoked fish at Taku (located near one of the cruise ship berths). We then headed to Tracy's King Crab Shack. Lunch at Tracy's was fairly pricey but my SO decided that it was worth it to try a crab leg in Alaska (I don't eat shellfish and I think everything there had shellfish in it). We picked up a little more fudge and then walked up Franklin Street where we found a cute local grocery store, Rainbow Foods, where I was able to pick up some lunch. The state capitol is nearby but it was under construction and is closed to visitors. We then visited the Juneau-Douglas City Museum ($6 admission fee), Governor's Mansion (outside only, I don't believe they give tours to the general public), and St. Nicholas Orthodox Church (admission free, donations accepted). Back on the ship, we got ready for our second gala night. Once again, we called ahead for a reservation for the main dining room and got our own table at a good time. After dinner, some of the Indonesian crew members did a show in the main lounge featuring traditional songs and dances from Indonesia. We also tried a $4 Indonesian frozen cocktail, which was delicious!

Day 6 - Ketchikan - The ship was not scheduled to arrive in Ketchikan until 11 AM, which gave us some time to catch up on sleep and eat a leisurely breakfast. We did not book a shore excursion for Ketchikan and we found the city very accessible to explore on our own. We walked to the Salmon Ladder, which is a fun place to watch salmon swimming upstream (bring binoculars to get the best view of the salmon). We then walked around Creek Street and checked out a few art galleries. We ate lunch at a relatively new place called "Up Creek Salmon", located near the trolley stop at the base of Creek Street - $14 for a plate of delicious grilled fresh king salmon, corn, and coleslaw (advertises itself as the "Best Dam Salmon You Ever Ate" and it certainly lives up to that promise). We then took the Silver Line North public bus ($1 per person each way) to Totem Bight State Park. We would highly recommend visiting Totem Bight (free admission) - it was interesting to see the totems and learn about new generations of carvers. The only downside of doing Totem Bight on your own is that the buses only come once per hour and make multiple stops, so for a short port stop, an organized tour might be a more effective use of time. We had a little over an hour at Totem Bight and found it to be a good amount of time there. We had a some time to buy souvenirs in Ketchikan - we enjoyed shopping at Parnassus Books, Salmon Etc., and Tom's Treasures, since these shops appeared to be locally owned and we had nice conversations with the locals working there. After a busy day, we relaxed with dinner in the main dining room, a "British Invasion" themed show, and drinks at the piano bar.

Day 7 - At Sea - For our final day of the cruise, we decided to sleep late and skip breakfast, especially since we "lost" an hour of sleep when we crossed the Canadian border overnight. Since Ketchikan is the self-proclaimed "Salmon Capital of the World", the ship purchased a lot of salmon there. We attended a cooking class in the Culinary Arts Center where we learned how to make two salmon dishes. For lunch, there was a "Salmon Bake" in the Lido pool area -- all the grilled salmon you could eat plus side dishes, (in addition to the regular lunch buffet menu in the Lido buffet area). I was glad that we didn't end up paying $40-50 for a salmon bake in one of the ports since we essentially had the same thing for free on board the ship. After lunch, we attended a towel folding class with the stateroom attendants, since one of my favorite parts of the cruise was finding a towel animal in the room each night. We then attended an "Indonesian Tea Ceremony" in the main dining room, which included various teas, Indonesian pastries, and tea sandwiches. We spent some time enjoying the scenery of the Canadian Inside Passage and then ate dinner in the Pinnacle Grill. We had decided before the cruise that our budget wouldn't include dinner at a specialty restaurant, but during the kitchen tour on Day 2, my SO saw the steaks that the Pinnacle Grill was serving and decided we had to try it. We had an excellent meal there, including a Cherry Garcia Baked Alaska for dessert. After dinner, we watched the main show (a different piano entertainer than the one in the piano bar) and stretched our budget one final time to buy a photo package. We stopped by the piano bar for a drink one last time, got our luggage outside our room just minutes before the midnight deadline, and prepared to disembark early the next morning!

Overall, we had a fantastic time on the cruise. After the cruise, we spent a few days in Vancouver, where we especially enjoyed Granville Island (food market, renting kayaks), Capilano Suspension Bridge, Bill Reid Gallery, and the Museum of Anthropology. We were mostly able to stick to our budget on the cruise, but we did decide to "splurge" on the room upgrade, a few shore excursions, Pinnacle Grill dinner, and the occasional cocktail. We definitely would love to go back to Alaska after we've been working for a few years and maybe visit Denali and try a floatplane or helicopter excursion that was out of our budget for this trip. We also really liked Holland America and our fellow cruisers, and found the size of our ship to be just right! Thanks again to all the Fodorites who helped us plan our trip, and hopefully this is useful to future cruisers!

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