- Anchorage, Denali National Park, and Talkeetna
- Seward and Whittier
- Kenai Fjords National Park
- Hubbard Glacier
- Glacier Bay National Park
- Skagway and the Yukon
- Juneau and Ketchikan
- Sapphire Princess and the sea
- Vancouver, BC, Canada
An Alaska cruise was something we had thought about doing for a long time. We had even talked about doing one for our 20th anniversary back in 2019 but decided the expedition-type cruise through National Geographic we wanted to do was a bit too expensive. (It was something like $8000/person.) We also hadn’t done any cruise so weren’t sure if it we be our thing. Fast forward a bit and we ended up booking our Christmas 2021 cruise to Caribbean. Before this, we decided that if it was okay, we’d go ahead and book for Alaska. Well, that cruise was quite enjoyable so upon our return so we decided it was a go. Suzanne’s dad, Jack, had talked about going to Alaska since she was young so we also asked her parents if they’d like to come along. They immediately said yes.
We started doing some research on our own and hit up our great travel agent, Nish Verma at Let’s Globetrot/CruisePlanners.com, for some ideas. An absolute requirement was to be have Glacier Bay National Park on our itinerary. As only two ships per day can enter the park, this narrowed down our choices. (Royal Caribbean, who we had used for our other two cruises doesn’t go there at all.) A lot of research pointed to Princess and Holland America as the go to lines for Alaska. (Princess was the first major line to cruise in Alaska, starting in 1969, with HAL not far behind. HAL is actually part of the Princess group now so they operate a lot of things together.) Princess caters a bit more to multi-generation groups and families (at least in AK) while HAL caters a bit more to the older crowd so we were leaning more toward Princess. Looking at itineraries and ships, we ended up booking the Southbound Voyage of the Glaciers on the Sapphire Princess. This cruise started in Whittier (a very small town that acts as a cruise port a couple of hours south of Anchorage) and ended up in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada a week later. Sapphire is an older ship (built in 2004 but underwent refurbishment in 2018). We actually chose an older ship explicitly as this class of ships has a great, fully walkaround open promenade deck, and is a bit smaller and more intimate than the larger, newer ships. Also, because it is smaller, it can travel the Canadian portion of the Inner Passage between Vancouver Island and the mainland while the larger, newer ships have to travel west of Vancouver Island out at sea. This means we got a smooth ride and better scenery than we would have on a larger ship. In Alaska, a balcony is nearly a must, so we booked a mini-suite for us, has a pull out sofa instead of a pull down Pullman bed and just more space overall, and Jack and Mary Lou booked a standard balcony, both on the port side. (Port is better for the southbound cruise.) Sapphire ended up being a great ship for this itinerary.
While a cruise is probably the best way to see southeast Alaska (due to limited highways, etc.), it does go to only southeast AK. There are a lot of comments about seeing the interior as well which made sense to us. Several lines, including Princess, offer cruise-tours which are land tours combined with a cruise. We looked into these but decided we would rather have the the flexibility of doing this on our own. (It was also cheaper.) That said, planning the land portion of the trip was a fair amount of extra work, mostly on my part. As we wanted to see a lot, we ended up in a total of four hotels/apartments over the course of a week and did a lot of driving (again mostly me). In the end, we planned for a week on land, then the week-long cruise and then a few days in Vancouver. We elected to do the land portion first following the advice of many experienced AK cruisers. This worked well as the land portion was a lot more active so we could relax a bit on the cruise.
For planning both parts of the trip, we spent a lot of time on the Cruise Critic Princess and Alaska boards. We also used a few travel books including Alaska by Cruise Ship (so-so), Frommers and Fodors. We bought the massive Milepost which is a mile-by-mile guide to Alaska’s highways. This came in handy for pointing out key viewpoints and spots along a couple of our drives. (Buying the paperback edition gives you access to the electronic edition and PDFs which is great as this book really is massive. I didn’t want to have to take the whole thing and always hate to cut books apart. I just printed the sections we were driving over.) We also watched a fair amount of YouTube from various sources about Alaska and Alaska cruises including Tips for Travelers (lots of good cruise info in general), Life Well Cruised, Through My Lens’s Alaska trip and Legg Life‘s (AK residents) AK cruise videos. The Alaskan Cruises on Princess Facebook group (private) was also a great resource, especially when the season started and people posted about their experiences this year.
Aside from guidebooks, both Suzanne and I really enjoyed the extensive history of AK in Alaska: Saga of a Bold Land. This really helped us to get a lot more out of the trip as it goes all the way back to Alaska Natives, the Western “discovery” and the Russian occupation of AK. I also read Jack London’s classic Call of the Wild, the great Coming into the Country by John McPhee and John Krakauer’s account of the life of Chris McCandless in Into the Wild. (I just finished Jennifer Raff’s Origin: A Genetic History of the Americas which is also good and touches a lot on Alaska.)
- Day 1 – Wed 12-Jul – Fly to Anchroage
- Day 2 – Thu 13-Jul – Visit Anchorage
- Day 3 – Fri 14-Jul – Drive to and visit Denali National Park, drive back to Talkeetna
- Day 5 – Sat 15-Jul – Visit Talkeetna
- Day 6 – Sun 16-Jul – Drive to Seward
- Day 7 – Mon 17-Jul – Visit Kenai Fjords National Park (from Seward)
- Day 8 – Tues 18-Jul – Drive to Whittier
- Day 9 – Wed 19-Jul – Cruise embarkation day in Whittier
- Day 10 – Thu 20-Jul – Cruise – Scenic cruising at Hubbard Glacier
- Day 11 – Fri 21-Jul – Cruise – Scenic cruising in Glacier Bay National Park
- Day 12 – Sat 22-Jul – Cruise – Skagway
- Day 13 – Sun 23-Jul – Cruise – Juneau
- Day 14 – Mon 24-Jul – Cruise – Ketchikan
- Day 15 – Tue 25-Jul – Cruise – Sea Day
- Day 16 – Wed 26-Jul – Disembarkation day in Vancouver, BC, Canada
- Day 16 – Thu 27-Jul – Visit Vancouver
- Day 17 – Fri 28-Jul – Visit Vancouver
- Day 18 – Sat 29-Jul – Fly home
Wed 12-Jul – Fly to Anchorage
We had a 3pm flight direct from Newark to Anchorage. (It’s a real benefit living in the NYC area as we can fly a ton of places non-stop.) We had a Lyft pick us up at 12:00 as sometimes they can be a bit late. Getting to the airport and through the security was quick and smooth. (It’s great to have TSA PreCheck.) We boarded on time but did have to wait a bit for catering to come so ended up leaving the gate about 30 minutes late. The flight itself was quite bumpy for the first couple of hours but did eventually smooth out. It was disappointing to not be fed. While it is a domestic flight, it was still almost 8 hours (longer than it would be to fly to London). It was cool to get a glimpse of Hudson Bay on the way.
We ended up arriving in Anchorage about 45 minutes late. Jack and Mary Lou’s flight (from SC via Atlanta) arrived on time, about 30 minutes before we did so they just waited at the airport. We stayed right by the airport at the very mediocre Holiday Inn Express. It was nice that it was close and they had a shuttle. It wasn’t like we were going to do a lot that night in any case as it was around 1am Eastern time when we got to the hotel. (Alaska is four hours behind Easter time.) We grabbed a quick dinner of better than expected take-out pizza at Capri Pizza, basically across the parking lot, and then hit the bed.
Thur 13-Jul – Anchorage
Still being on Eastern time, I was up early (around 4:30am) and went for a run. It was great to be able to run around somewhere new. We had breakfast at the hotel before hopping the bus (right by the hotel) to downtown Anchorage. The city reminds me of a very average, mid-western city. Not bad but nothing too special. We walked around a bit, hitting the very large Polar Bear Gifts before having some great donuts and buying some great tea at The Kobuk. After some more walking, we picked up our rental car around 11:30am. (The price for a week was still exorbitant but measurably less so picking up in the city vs the airport the day we arrived.) Next up was the short drive to the Ulu knife factory. These are really cool, Alaska Native knives very unlike traditional knives. We even bought one but haven’t used it a ton yet to comment on how well it works.
We next headed back downtown to have reindeer hot dogs at International House of Hotdogs. I really liked my Alaskan dog (reindeer with onions and chipotle sauce) but they were a bit spicy. (I joked they should have a “Rudolph” – a sausage with just a dollop of ketchup on one end.) After a short drive along the water (Knik Arm), we did a quick visit to Earthquake Park to see some of the effects of the massive 1964 Alaska Earthquake (at a magnitude of 9.2, the most powerful ever recorded in North America and second most powerful every recorded anywhere in the world). This was a cool little spot. I did a very short extra hike while everyone else headed back to the car and even saw a cow and calf moose. (Suzanne was very disappointed to have not joined me.)
Next we made a quick stop at Target before heading back to the hotel. Dinner was excellent pizza at Moose’s Tooth Pizza. I had a half mac-n-cheese (included reindeer sausage) and half Amazing Apricot (chicken, cream cheese, apricot sauce, carrot threads). I never would have ordered the apricot but it was recommended by several people online and it was superb. This is also a “taproom” for Broken Tooth Brewing which was also excellent. Post dinner was visit to Point Woronzof Beach for nice views and planes landing (as the beach is at the end of the Anchorage Airport runway) before heading back to the hotel for our early morning, long drive in the morning.
Fri 14-Jul – Denali National Park
I had booked the Denali Tundra Wilderness Tour for 1:30pm. It’s a four hour drive and we needed to be there an hour or so before. Well … it turns out, the booking was only for the “afternoon”. Our actual tour time ended up being 4:30pm. This worked out better on the front end but worse on the back end (more on that below). We ended up still leaving the hotel around 7:45am. The first part of the drive was typical suburban highway but soon turned more rural. (We even drove through Wasilla .. yippy /s) We made a quick stop at the Denali Viewpoint and saw most of the mountain. (Only about 30% of visitors to Alaska actually see it.) We arrived at Denali National Park around 12:15pm and grabbed a quick-ish, poorly organized lunch from very limited choices at the park cafe. Jack, Mary Lou and Suzanne hopped the shuttle to visit the sled dogs while Kyle and I did the roughly three mile hike around Horseshoe Lake. We then headed back out of the park (only about 10 mins) for some sandwiches from Subway (the only option) for our evening bus tour. There were no “$5 footlongs” here as a 6-inch turkey sub was $13 or so.
It was now time for our tour. You can only drive 15 miles into Denali on the road. To go further, you need to do a tour (or use the hiker’s bus). We did the longer, Tundra Wilderness Tour which goes 43 miles in. (It used to go in 63 miles but the road washed out last year around mile 54 and it’s still going to be at least two years before it can be repaired.) This tour takes around 5 1/2 hours. It was incredible to get into the park. The scenery is amazing. We also saw some wildlife including a caribou (right near the road), several moose (far off), and too many Dall Sheep to count. The weather was overcast but not raining. While it was great to have the late tour as we had more time to see more of the park than we expected and it’s likely animals were more active, it did mean we didn’t finish until almost 10pm. That would not have been a huge deal except we still had a 2 1/2 hour drive down to Talkeetna. As sunset is so late, it was at least pretty light for most of the drive. Unfortunately, the rain started during the drive, eventually getting pretty heavy for the last hour in the dark. The moose on the shoulder that flashed by didn’t make me feel any more comfortable. Our 2 1/2 drive ended up taking more like three, getting us to our hotel around 1am. It was a very long, but excellent day (aside from the end of the drive which was rough due to the weather).
Sat 15-Jul – Talkeetna
We stayed at the quaint Talkeetna Villas and Tours. These were a few small cabins which was very nice and about a 10 minute walk from downtown. Jack, Kyle and I were supposed to do a flightseeing tour around Denali and glacier landing this morning. Unfortunately, the weather was uncooperative as it was raining steadily so it was canceled. Instead, Suzanne, Kyle and I started the morning with some good breakfast sandwiches and coffee (Suzanne and me) / a crepe and hot chocolate (Kyle) at Conscious Coffee.
Talkeetna is a really cute little town with small shops and restaurants. However, it’s mostly outside (most of the restaurants are more like food trucks with a limited bit of covered seating) which isn’t great in the rain. Suzanne, Jack, Mary Lou and I got some great burgers at Shirley’s Burger Barn (I had a yummy bison burger) before doing just a bit of shopping. After lunch (and making Kyle some pasta), we headed down the road to Alaska Wild Harvest, mostly to try some birch syrup. This is the same thing as maple syrup but made from birch trees instead of maple trees. It was quite good but did taste different from maple syrup. We even got some birch syrup ice cream. One the way back, we made a stop at Denali Brewing.
While others hung out at the hotel (it had been a long day before), I headed out for a wander around town. It was raining but not super heavy. I had a pint and enjoyed some music at Mountain High Pizza Pie before meeting others for dinner at the Denali Brewpub (good fish and chips and a real building). After dinner, I headed back to town for more walking, including along the Susitna River and across the railroad bridge (there’s a pedestrian path) over the Talkeetna River, before a pint at the kind of divey Fairview Inn.
Sun 16-Jul – Drive to Seward
Breakfast was some absolutely delicious cinnamon buns from the Talkeetna Roadhouse before packing up and heading out for the 4 1/2 hour drive down to Seward on Prince William Sound. We were really looking forward to the views along Turnagain Arm, however the weather didn’t cooperate very well. It was cloudy and rainy the whole way along the Arm. We had planned to stop at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center but as that’s mostly outside, we gave it a miss. The rain did let up a bit once we hit the Kenai Peninsula at least. We ended up arriving in Seward around 4:45pm. We stayed at the great Dritfwood Suites – TidePool (#3) VRBO. This was in a perfect location (roughly equidistant from both parts of town, walkable to each) and a nice place. We even had a good view of the water and mountains. Dinner was pretty good (though kind of pricey) at The Highliner. (I had halibut fish tacos while Suzanne had halibut fish & chips – Seward is known as the halibut capital of the world.)
Mon 17-Jul – Kenai Fjords National Park
I was up early so headed out for a bit of a wander with the camera as the rain had stopped. Breakfast was some good cinnamon buns and raspberry scores from Resurrect Art cafe. We next hopped in the car for the short drive down to the harbor for our 7.5 hour boar tour of Kenai Fjords National Park through Major Marine (we got a really good deal on Black Friday). We were really looking forward to this. The weather was still okay (cloudy but dry) so I spent the first bit outside on the top deck. However, it did turn very rainy and windy during the trip. (I even broke out my “camera poncho”, i.e., OP/TECH Rainsleeve, which seemed like a goofy idea but actually worked well.) The park itself was really cool, though I would have loved to see it in good weather. I did get a ton of photos and we saw a ton of animals including a couple of bald eagles, a few puffins, a bunch of harbor seals and Steller sea lions, several sea otters, and humpback whales bubble feeding. This is pretty unique behavior so it was great to see. It was also our first view of tidewater glaciers (that is glaciers which reach down to the ocean). Both Holgate and Aialik Glaciers were astounding. They even grabbed a floating iceberg (from glacial ice) where you could touch it and hold it. They then used it to make margaritas which, of course, we had to have one. The trip was definitely worth it, even with the poor weather.
Back at the pier (around 5:15pm), we wandered the area just a bit. Suzanne got her National Park stamp while I watched them clean a bunch of fish including a massive halibut. Dinner was at Chattermark (which I would not recommend – the mac and cheese and Jack’s fish and chips were very good but the reindeer meatloaf was cold and my salmon burger was so-so). After dinner, I popped over to Seward Brewing for a quick flight before heading back to pack up once again for our drive to Whittier.
Tue 18-Jul – Drive to Whittier
One thing Jack really wanted to do was to walk on a glacier. Unfortunately, our plan in Talkeetna on Saturday was rained out. I poked around a bit and found that we could do a helicopter landing from Seward quite reasonably. I had gone ahead and booked this Monday evening. As the weather this morning was nice, after my morning run along the coast and final packing up, we drove down to the airport where Jack, Kyle and I had a great trip (on a small helicopter) through Marathon Helicopters. This was absolutely phenomenal. We flew over the mountains (saw a bull moose) and glaciers near Seward for about 15 minutes before landing at the toe of Hawk Glacier. We spent 15 minutes there, got to stand on a glacier and took in the scenery. It was really cool as it was just us in the mountains at the foot of a massive river of ice. Kyle even agreed to sit in front on the return from the glacier. (I had sat up front on the way in.) I can’t recommend doing this (or something similar) enough.
We then made the short drive up to Exit Glacier, the only spot on the park where you can access by road. Jack and I did the 2ish mile hike (some climbing but not too rough) to the Exit Glacier Overlook while Suzanne and Mary Lou did the shorter, flatter hike to Glacier View. (Kyle stayed in the car.) Some day I’d love to do the 8 mile round trip to hike to Harding Ice Field but who knows when that might be. After our hike, we headed over to Whittier (our cruise embarkation port). This is about a two hour drive but there’s the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel on the way. This tunnel is one lane and shared between cars and the train so it’s open only a limited times. (It’s also the longest highway tunnel in North America at 2.5 miles.) Of course, we hit it just past the southbound slot so had to wait 40 extra minutes to make it through. It was cool to drive through though. We also saw a cow moose up close, though not too close, on the drive.
We made it to our hotel right around 4pm. We got a bit lucky as the hotel we booked at, The Inn at Whittier, had a flood and was closed for repairs but we had booked the separate (in a different building) Fisherman’s Berth apartment. This was still available so we didn’t have to change plans. We were thrilled as it meant a two minute drive (literally) instead of the two hour plus drive to the ship Wednesday morning. The place itself was okay. It worked for the night. Whittier is tiny. We walked from one end to the other in 15 minutes or so. Dinner was at the Swiftwater Cafe. I had heard really good things about here and it was pretty good (we all had halibut and chips) but not spectacular. After a bit more wandering, we headed back to the room to pack for embarkation.
Wed 19-Jul – Embarkation Day
Weather was not so great in the morning as it was cool and raining. It was great to see our ship as it had arrived overnight. We could even see it from our bedroom window. I wandered a bit, getting coffee and pastries from three separate spots. (Pastries were best at Wild Catch Cafe, right across the street from our apartment.) We weren’t sure when we could start boarding but we had to be out of the apartment at 11am, so we went for leaving at 10:45am. We drove to the port (again, two minutes if that). Unfortunately, they weren’t ready to check in yet. We were able to unload and everyone else could wait in the terminal with the luggage while I dropped the car off. This was easy and it worked out great to do the one way rental, even though it did cost an extra $150 (a ton less than the bus or train fare from Anchorage would have cost us). Even grabbing a coffee on the way, the walk back to the terminal was only 10 minutes.
Finally at 11:30am, they opened bag check and check in. Kyle and I ran the bags out and then we all headed to the check in desk as the only ones in line. The process was super quick, even with picking up our medallions. We were on board the Sapphire Princess (after a short walk) by 11:44am – yes in less then 15 minutes. We had good pizza for lunch at Alfredo’s (seafood pizza aside from Kyle) before trying to check in at our muster station (no one was there). We wandered just a bit before heading to our rooms as they opened at 1pm. We had a mini-suite which had plenty of room for us, especially as we had a pullout sofa for Kyle instead of a drop down Pullman bed as the three person balcony cabins do. Overall our room was great with plenty of storage and a bathtub instead of a shower. Our room did have a disadvantage though. While the balcony was nicely sized, it was completely uncovered. This limited our use on several rainy days and also meant it (including the chairs) were generally wet. Jack and Mary Lou had a standard balcony room (two decks directly above ours) which worked well for them.
The rest of the afternoon was more wandering, some drinks in the Explorer’s Lounge, unpacking in the room, and finally doing our muster check in. (On our previous two cruises, it worked well to do this first off but the crew was there starting only at 5pm. They also didn’t tell us this so we kept checking back.) We ended up doing the “Welcome to Princess” presentation as we were having drinks in the EL again (this would become our go-to place) when it started. It was kind of interesting and useful. Dinner was in the Savoy dining room (Sapphire Princess has five main dining rooms. They all have the same menu but different decor.) Our first meal was good. Several of us had a short rib while I had the seafood stew. After dinner, we did a quick walk along the wrap around Promenade deck for sail away but the weather was still pretty dreary. After a couple more drinks during a game show in the EL, it was off to bed.
Thu 20-Jul – Hubbard Glacier
The weather had actually improved overnight and it was sunny (though still cool). I was up early and grabbed the camera for some outside shots as who knew if the weather would hold. I grabbed a coffee (included with our Plus fare) and a delicious almond croissant from the International Cafe before Suzanne and I grabbed a sit down breakfast in the International dining room (a full English minus the mushrooms for me and an omelet for Suzanne – both good). We wandered a bit more outside before attending the ship’s naturalist’s talk on the animals of Alaska. This was pretty good. (I actually saw the naturalist a lot as I spent a lot of time outside where she was.)
After lunch in the buffet, I headed out to the front of the ship on the Promenade (deck 8 at the front) for our trip to Hubbard Glacier. This was incredible. The glacier is another tidewater glacier but is something like six miles wide. We ended up getting to within 1/2 mile which was super unusual according to the captain. (Typically ships can only get 2.5-4 miles from it.) This made it all the more special. We could even see into Russel Fjord which isn’t typical and saw some calving. During the day we saw a few whales (including a breach but it was pretty far off), some sea otters, a harbor seal, and some Stellar sea lions. I ended up spending about four hours on deck and then a bit more time on our balcony. Dinner was in the Santa Fe dining room (duck breast, halibut, crab cakes, and beef tenderloin among us). After some drinks at the Wheelhouse (another common spot as it was just down the stairs from our room) and some more photos (gorgeous sunset from our balcony), it was off to bed.
Fri 21-Jul – Glacier Bay National Park
Glacier Bay NP was a big reason we chose to go with Princess for the cruise (only two ships are allowed into the park each day and Princess has the most slots) so we were really looking forward to it. I was up early and grabbed a quick breakfast (muesli, almost croissant, breakfast burrito, tea) at the International Cafe before heading back out to the Promenade deck and the bow around 7:15am. The weather was decent enough, some clouds but no rain. The weather fluctuated throughout the day but it worked okay. We saw a bunch of whales (mostly just spouts in the distance) and sea otters as we came into Glacier Bay itself. I was outside until 10am when I attended the ranger talk. (Princess brings on National Park rangers for the day, doing a ranger talk in the morning (ranger Han), providing narration throughout the day (ranger Mike), and staffing a NP table, where you can get a NP passport stamp and do the Junior Ranger program, in a lounge.) The talk was on the geology of Glacier Bay and it was okay. I then headed back out to the bow around 10:20am. I ended up spending a total of 8-9 hours out there. I did take some breaks (in Club Fusion for a bit in the morning and the Wheelhouse in the afternoon) and broke for a quick-ish lunch in the buffet. I came in for good around 5:45pm when as we sailed out of the park. I do have to say that Sapphire Princess was the perfect ship for the day. Having the “open to elements” promenade around the bow down on deck 8 made for a great spot to get photos and chat with the naturalist and other photographers who also hung out there most of the day. The fact that it was covered also came in real handy for the stints of rain as you could move back from the edge to avoid the rain while still getting good photos. (I was dressed for the rain but still wanted to avoid the cameras getting soaked.)
After doing a bit of photo work in the cabin, we headed to dinner in the International dining room. It was a mix tonight as I had Choucroute (not what I expected but really good) and others had cod and clams & shrimp. I do have to say that I tried the carrot cake for dessert and it wasn’t good at all, to the point where I didn’t even eat it. It was probably the worst thing we had on the cruise. Suzanne’s blueberry cobbler was excellent though.
Sat 22-Jul – Skagway
This was our first port of the trip. We had a long excursion booked, meeting at 7:30am so had an early morning. After a quick breakfast in the buffet, we met our guide for the day, Morgan, just off the ship. We booked the Yukon Rail & Bus Excursion through Chilkoot Charters. This came highly recommended by a bunch of people and I have to say I agree. It was a great trip. Princess offers a similar excursion but we were a group of only 15 or so in a minibus instead of 40-50 in a full size tour bus. Being in a small group made it so nice. We started by riding to the White Pass & Yukon Route station where we got the rear car for just our small group. (The car could have held probably 40 or so people.) This was wonderful as we could move around easily and had access to the rear platform for great photos. This historic train (built just at the end of the Klondike Gold Rush, being completed in 1900) took about 90 minutes to Fraser, British Columbia, Canada. It was a cool ride with great scenery. In Fraser, we met our guide once again and hopped the bus for the drive to Carcross, Yukon, making several stops along the way for great views and a great photo at the Welcome to the Yukon sign. We had a good lunch of BBQ chicken and fresh donuts (and a Yukon beer in the Yukon) at what used to be Caribou Crossing Trading Post (now Wild Adventure Yukon). After lunch, it was a quick stop at Emerald Lake before spending 30 minutes or so in Carcross itself (good coffee and ice cream). We drove all the way back to Skagway (about two hours with stops at the Welcome to Alaska sign and Bridal Veil Falls). I cannot say enough good things about this tour. It was a wonderful experience and the company and guide were great.
Back in Skagway, we walked around town a bit before having a couple of flights at Skagway Brewing. Others went back to the ship while I did some more wandering. However, it had started to rain. I was hoping to hit Klondike Brewing but it was closed. I wandered back to the ship, reboarding just before 6pm. Dinner was in the Pacific Moon dining room tonight. I had the strip loin steak which was good. Suzanne had Peach Bellini soup which was different but good. I had a couple of drinks in the Wheelhouse before hanging out on the balcony for a while and hitting bed.
Sun 23-Jul – Juneau
I was up early once again and grabbed breakfast at the International Cafe before getting off the ship around 7am. I wandered around town a bit but most things were still closed. I ended up walking all the way up to the Takhu whale sculpture. It had started to rain at this point though. I walked back to town, meeting Suzanne for coffee at Heritage Coffee. We did a little shopping before I headed back to the ship around 9:45 (Suzanne followed shortly after) to dry off a bit. We all got off the ship around 10:40 to meet our excursion at 10:45. I wasn’t too optimistic as the weather was foul at this point. In any case, we met our driver on time and hopped the mini-bus for the 30 min or so drive up to Auke Bay. We booked a private Outback Whale Watching trip with Harv and Marv. This was a small boat (6 people) trip and having the private one, hardly any more expensive than a public one, was amazing. As I said, I wasn’t optimistic given the weather but our great captain Preston (had spent time in SC), was incredible. He got us right to the whales. We saw a ton including a bunch of bubble feeding sessions up pretty close. The weather had lightened up a bit where it wasn’t actively raining so I got some amazing photos from the open back deck. If you’re ever in Juneau, I can’t recommend this trip enough.
The trip was about 3 hours on the water with 2 hours “on the whales”. We made it back to the ship just past 3pm for our 3:30pm all aboard time. The weather was a bit better now but we didn’t have any more time to spend in town. It was cool to see Ovation of the Seas in port as it is a sister ship to Anthem of the Seas which was our first cruise, Christmas 2021. It’s amazing how much bigger this ship is than ours (and ours is not tiny, holding about 2600 passengers but Ovation/Anthem holds 4900).
Back on the ship, Suzanne tossed in a quick load of laundry. (Princess has self-serve laundromats on each floor. Ours was just a couple of doors down from our room.) We also grabbed a quick nap before dinner in the Vivaldi dining room. We all had steak and lobster tail but some added seared tuna as well. Both were good. In the evening we went to the Bravo production show. It was okay and while the performers were very talented, the show didn’t really have any kind of continuous thread to it.
Mon 24-Jul – Ketchikan
I was up at a reasonable time and grabbed some photos around the ship before getting breakfast in the buffet. I then headed outside (back to the bow) to get photos of our arrival into Ketchikan. The weather had changed completely from Juneau as it was very warm and sunny. We ended up off the ship around 9:45am. We didn’t have an excursion for the day as Ketchikan is a great spot to just walk around and explore. We first wandered through the famous Creek Street. I got some Salmon jerky (not bad) and we got to see a bald eagle and a few salmon in the creek itself. (The main run started a couple of weeks later.) We then did a long walk through town, including up through the tunnel. Along the way we hit the wonderful (all local stuff) Woodlands Clothing store and I grabbed a salmon donut from Jellyfish donuts. (I expected it to be either horrendous or absolutely delicious but was really meh.)
Next we hopped the free shuttle bus down to the Totem Heritage Center. This was a cool little museum where they have a number of preserved totem poles and exhibits on their history and the local Alaska Native heritage. We had kind of been thinking we were going to Saxman Totem Park but were wrong. We didn’t make it there but the heritage center was cool in its own right. Suzanne, Jack and Mary Lou headed back to town and the ship on the bus while I walked back down to the fish ladder (a few more salmon). I next had a couple of flights at Bawden Street Brewing. (The beer was okay but the owner/brewer was great to talk to.) I then headed back into town, grabbed a quick Nutella crepe (let’s call it “lunch”) and met the others for our 3:15pm showing of the Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show. This ended up being very entertaining and worth the money and time.
We had a 5pm reservation at Sabatini’s (one of the extra-pay specialty restaurants) so we headed back to the ship (just a couple of minutes away) after the show, reboarding around 4:20.pm Dinner was excellent and included some charcuterie, calamari & shrimp, burrata, lobster ravioli, and lasagna among other things. The desserts (tiramisu and a Rocher chocolate dish) were also very good. After dinner, I went back to the Explorers Lounge for a couple of drinks (including a duck fart) where Jack and Mary Lou joined me later for an okay comedian show.
Tue 25-Jul – Day at Sea
This was our first, and only, official “Sea Day” as the others were “Scenic Cruising”. It was a day when not much was going on and we could relax a bit. This was nice after a pretty busy week and a half. I was up early for some photos around the ship (with fewer people) before Suzanne, Kyle and I had a sit-down breakfast in the International dining room. After a short stop at the International Cafe for coffee, we attended the very entertaining culinary talk which included a walk through one of the galleys. We then hung out on the balcony, weather was still nice, for a while where I worked on some photo stuff. I wanted to try the Trident Grill on the pool deck so I grabbed a couple of okay tacos (really more like quesadillas) for lunch from there.
After lunch, we attended the naturalist’s talk about glaciers (pretty good) followed directly after by a talk by an officer about ship navigate (really interesting). We then headed down to the Pacific Moon dining room for afternoon tea, a specialty of Princess. It was good and a nice way to relax a bit. We got lucky and got a window table which enabled us to see the Canadian pilots board. Following tea, I grabbed some more photos from the promenade (along the side on deck 7, not at the bow this time) and our balcony (where I captured Pine Island Lighthouse). We then did most of our packing as our bags had to be out by 9pm so before our 7:20pm dinner reservation. Before dinner, we did stop back at the Explorers Lounge for a couple of drinks where Kyle tried a virgin Mudslide (wasn’t a fan but it had bananas in it) and I got something resembling a Lava Flow (a favorite from our Royal Caribbean Christmas cruise). Our final dinner was in the Savoy dining room again (as we had done all the others) where the waiter even remembered from the first night that Kyle only wanted pasta. We had prime rib, pork belly and lamb shank among us, all of which were good. Of course, we had to have the baked Alaska as our final night dessert. After dinner, we attended an okay audience participation game show before doing one more round of packing before bed.
Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
Wed 26-Jul – Disembarkation in Vancouver
Disembarkation day is always a little sad as it means our wonderful cruise is now over. I ended up getting up early once again to get some photos (from the top deck this time) of us going under the Lionsgate bridge. I even got to say hello to a dad and his daughter on the bridge as we sailed under it which was cool. I grabbed breakfast in the buffet before heading back to the room. After our real final packing, Suzanne and I headed back to the buffet so she could have breakfast. We left the room around 8:35am to the theater, our meeting point. I want to say it was incredibly chaotic with no one knowing where we supposed to be and what was happening. (On Royal Caribbean, we either stayed in our room until they called our group to disembark (2021) or we hung in a lounge before our shuttle (2022). It seemed much more organized.) Eventually, they declared it was our turn to leave and we ended up disembarking around 9:15am. Finding bags was tricky as they didn’t seem to be where we expected. Eventually we got them all and dropped them at the luggage storage right at the port. (We couldn’t check into our AirBnB until 3pm.)
After getting the bags situated, we headed out of Canada Place (where the ships dock), walked a bit and hopped a bus to Granville Island. This is a really cool spot that has a nice market and many small shops and restaurants. We wandered through the market for a while, getting some fresh pasta for Kyle and donuts for us from Lee’s Donuts. We had planned to pop by Granville Brewing but their workers were on strike so they were closed. We ended up just hanging out for a while and grabbed lunch at the market. (I had some pretty good Pad Thai.) After a while, we hopped the Aquabus down to David Lam Park where we hung out for a good hour or so, just relaxing and taking in the nice weather.
Finally it was almost time to check in so we hopped a bus and headed to our AirBnB (Lovely 2.5 Bdrm Condo w/ Free Parking, Pool, Sauna). This was a nice place, right by the Chinatown SkyTrain stop. It was especially nice as we had three bedrooms (one was very small but perfect for Kyle) and two bathrooms. We also had a great view over the city. Suzanne, Kyle and I then hopped the SkyTrain back to Canada Place, grabbed our bags, and grabbed a taxi back to the apartment. (Our driver amazingly got all our bags in the back of a Prius.) After making some noodles for Kyle and a quick run around the T&T Asian Supermarket across the street, we hopped the SkyTrain back to Canada Place to grab dinner at Steamworks Brewing (mussels, burger and fish and chips). Food and beer were both good. It was then back to the apartment to hang out a bit before bed. While Suzanne and I visited Vancouver in 1999, I didn’t remember a ton. It was cool to be back in such a great city.
Thu 27-Jul – Richmond/Steveston
After a late breakfast at the apartment, Suzanne, Jack, Mary Lou and I grabbed a Lyft down to the far side of Richmond to visit the historic Steveston village. This area was the site of many fish canneries and processing plants in times past. Our first stop was for fish and chips at Pajo’s. I think this is the place Suzanne and I ate some delicious salmon fish and chips at back in 1999. In any case, it was excellent. We then visited the historic Gulf of Georgia Cannery National Historic Site. This was a real highlight from our earlier trip and was still very interesting. When we were there last time, we got to see the herring processing line with little to no conservation (it was basically as it had been left) on a special tour while they have made it a real part of the museum now.
After our visit, we wandered down the river shore, stopping for a flight at Britannia Brewing, to the Britannia Shipyards National Historic Site. This was yet another cool spot to see and included the ship building structure as well as several bunkhouses and other buildings. We then grabbed an Uber back to the apartment. After relaxing a bit, we headed into Chinatown to Jade Dynasty for dinner. This was very much an old school, Chinatown restaurant. The food was excellent but the service was so-so. I was a bit worried about heading into Chinatown as reports said it had gotten quite rough. It wasn’t spectacular but I never felt super worried or anything. (I have heard it gets much worse if you go further east than we did and it’s worse at night. I’m also used to NYC.)
Fri 28-Jul – Last Day – Stanley Park & Gastown
This was the last day of our great, but long vacation. I grabbed the classic Canadian breakfast of donuts and coffee from Tim Hortons. After spending a chunk of the morning at the apartment, we grabbed an Uber and headed out to Stanley Park. I do remember enjoying this from our first visit and we did so again. We started near the Lumberman’s Arch and got a nice view of the Lionsgate Bridge. We walked along the sea wall, passed the Girl in the Wetsuit statue (Vancouver’s “Little Mermaid”). I walked all the way to the Brockton Point Lighthouse and then met the others back at the Totem Poles. These were cool to see but we had seen a bunch in Alaska. We then hopped an Uber for some great sandwiches at Meat & Bread in Gastown. After a brief wander, including seeing the famous steam clock mark the hour, and some shopping, we headed back to the apartment, a roughly 10 minute walk. Dinner was at the so-so Taishoken Ramen shop just down the street. After dinner was packing for real to fly home the next day.
Sat 29-Jul – Flying Home
Jack and Mary Lou’s flight was at 10am so I had prebooked a car for them the night before for 6:25am. The driver actually showed up a bit early and they made it to the airport and through security and immigration (Vancouver is one of the very few, three I think, places where you go through US immigration at your origin airport before flying back to the US) with no issues and with plenty of time. As our flight wasn’t until 2:20pm, we had a more relaxing morning. Breakfast was some excellent pastries from PappaRoti (not an Indian restaurant like I would expect) just next door. After our final packing and cleaning, we hopped in our own Uber at right at 10pm. (We had thought about the train but I decided we had too much luggage to try it.) The trip was smooth and we were through security and immigration and at the gate right around 11am. We were surprised at the limited food options in our part of the terminal. I had an okay Bahn Mi sandwich and cabbage salad and Suzanne got something from Tim Hortons for her and Kyle. Our flight left on time and was pretty smooth on the way back. We did get to arrive at the brand new Terminal A in Newark. (I had arrived there a couple of times before but it was Suzanne and Kyle’s first time.) Once we got our Lyft (had to wait a bit), we were back home just before midnight.
Alaska is an incredible place and I can now say I am fortunate to have been able to visit. I can’t recommend enough going should you ever get the chance. Our combination of land and cruise worked out well. For us, doing the land on our own was a much better decision as it gave us a lot more flexibility and cost significantly less than a cruise-tour. There were times when it would have been nice not to have to drive, especially the trip from Denali back to Talkeetna at night in the pouring rain, but that definitely didn’t offset the plusses. I do want to emphasize that it was a lot of planning and work on my part but I enjoy that kind of thing. If you don’t enjoy planning or driving (we drove a total of 880 miles), a cruise-tour is likely to be a much better fit.
Our itinerary worked out pretty well. In the end, our late tour in Denali worked out even with the stressful drive that night. I was disappointed it was so late but it gave us more time to visit Denali without having to drive back there the next day. We liked the spots we visited. I would have loved to pop up to Fairbanks but it just wouldn’t fit in our time. There’s always next trip.
We really liked being on Princess for this trip. Glacier Bay National Park was a must so Princess gave us more options than most other lines. Princess also has their “North to Alaska” program where they really do make Alaska a key part of the cruise. This included often having local seafood in the dining room, having the naturalist on board, bringing on Iditarod winner Libby Riddles for a talk (we missed this though), and even bringing on sled dog puppies one day. Doing the one way cruise was great as it gave us more time in each port and meant we got to spend all our time seeing something new. It also is basically a necessity if you want to spend time on land. It does make logistics a bit more complicated but booking open jaw tickets isn’t that much harder than round-trip. That said, it is a long flight to Anchorage from the east coast.
Excursions are a key part of an Alaska cruise. It’s critical to remember to budget for them as they can be expensive, especially on top of an already expensive cruise. We had looked at booking through Princess but more research led us to booking independently. Of course, this was necessary for the non-cruise part of the trip. (The cruise-tours do have excursions you book on land just like when you’re on the cruise.) Booking independently led to a much better experience but we did our research. Our excursion in Skagway through Chilkoot Charters was recommended time and time again on the Alaskan Cruises on Princess Facebook group. Harv & Marv for whale watching our of Juneau was also recommended as one of the go-to companies (the other being Jayleen’s) and being able to book the private trip was amazing.
I was disappointed our flight and glacier landing at Denali was canceled but what can you do? Luckily we ended with the replacement helicopter tour in Seward which was amazing. Anything weather dependent in Alaska is always going to be subject to change so do keep this in mind. For instance, if we had only planned to do a trip to a glacier in Juneau, it would have been canceled as the weather there was very poor.
Weather, clothing, packing
People say that in Alaska, if you don’t like the weather, wait a minute. (I’ve also heard this about New England though.) The weather can be quite changeable. It’s also important to remember that southeast Alaska, that is where the cruises go, is actually largely a temperate rain forest so you need to be prepared. (They also say there is no bad weather in Alaska, just bad clothing.) Overall, the weather had a moderate impact on our trip. Talkeetna was kind of a bust as it rained all day (and our Denali flight was canceled). Kenai Fjords was also tough as it rained nearly the whole trip. The worst was the heavy rain at night on the way from Denali to Talkeetna. On the other days, it worked out okay. Even if part of the day rained we got lucky that it was mostly when it didn’t matter so much (e.g., at the end of our time in Skagway or in the morning in Juneau). Funnily enough, our best port day was Ketchikan where it was sunny and warm in the place where it rains/snows something like 300 days a year.
A waterproof jacket was invaluable several times. Most of us also had waterproof shoes which was really great. It’s also key to pack for layers. In Glacier Bay NP, I was wearing a hat, gloves, fleece, rain jacket, and my winter running tights. Three days later in Ketchikan, Suzanne was wearing shorts. We were lucky to have a washer and dryer in Seward and Vancouver we made use of. The ship also has laundry rooms and Suzanne did a small load one morning. (This is a benefit of Princess as RC has no such facilities.) We did end up packing a ton for this trip, even more than last year in the Baltic. However, I ended up using almost everything. (I’ll talk about photo gear below.)
As I said in the intro, Sapphire Princess is an older ship. (However, it’s newer than Voyager of the Seas which we were on last summer.) That said, we barely noticed any signs of age. (The cabin bathroom looked just a bit worn but that was really the only spot I noticed its age.) The ship was in great shape and very well kept. The absolute highlight of this ship on this trip was the wraparound, covered promenade. I know I have mentioned this several times above but it really was awesome to have this. To be able to be so much closer (compared to deck 15) to the water and to have it covered when it was raining in Glacier Bay was perfect. I also loved hanging out with the other photographers and the naturalist on the bow for Glacier Bay among other times. While we didn’t use it, there was also an indoor pool which would be nice on the cooler, rainier days. If we were to go to AK again, I would do what I could to be on Sapphire or one of its sister Gem-class ships. Now, if we were doing a more traditional Caribbean cruise, I might opt for a newer ship.
Food & Drink
Overall, we found the food and drink to be pretty good. I won’t say it was a huge step up from Royal Caribbean, despite Princess being the next class of line. We ate nearly every night in one of the Main Dining Rooms. Sapphire has five MDRs, all offering the same menu but different decor. We ended up rotating through them which was okay. We did kind of miss having the same table and waiter as we have done before. Several people report that you can make this happen by booking the same dining room at the same time every night tough. We did make reservations for every night beforehand. I didn’t get a good sense of how necessary this was but I didn’t ever see a long line of people waiting. The service was excellent. Our meals generally took 60-90 minutes so not the super extended time people talk about. This was about perfect for us. We also had a couple of breakfasts in the International dining room. One was quite good and one was so-so. In terms of other food, pizza at Alfredo’s (our first lunch) was really good but it would be nice if they had something other than pizza there like a starter salad or something. The buffet was so-so, probably not as good as either RC ship and certainly a lot smaller than either (though Sapphire is a smaller ship). I also had “tacos” (really quesadillas) at the grill restaurant on the pool deck which were okay. The last food spot to mention is the International Cafe (different from the International dining room). The food we had here, pastries and a few breakfast items, was really good. On a longer cruise, I would have likely eaten breakfast here most mornings. This is also where you can get real coffee drinks. We also had dinner one night at the extra-pay, specialty restaurant, Sabatinis. This was very good but I’m not sure I’d do it if we didn’t get it free through our travel agent.
As part of our fare (“Princess Plus”), we had drinks included. This worked out well as it was nice not to have to worry about it. We actually got this free as part of a promotion so it was a no-brainer. However, even if it hadn’t been free, by the time you pay for internet/wi-fi and gratuities, the extra cost is pretty small, taking only a couple of drinks per day to cover it. I actually kept track of our alcoholic drinks and we (especially me) covered the cost even before adding in soda and real coffee. The Plus fare has gone up recently but added some inclusions so I can’t really speak to the current value directly, but from what I have seen, it still makes sense unless you really don’t drink alcohol.
Our cabin was fine. We were glad to have the mini-suite as the standard balcony may have been a bit tight for all three of us. Looking at videos beforehand, we were concerned about storage as there didn’t seem to be nearly as much as RC. It turns out this was a non-issue. There was plenty. We didn’t even use half the closet or a couple of the shelves and that was without really worrying about organization. Of course, we loved having our magnets to hang coats as we had quite a few for this trip. Having an uncovered balcony was okay but it did limit it’s use a few times. Jack and Mary Lou had a standard balcony (two decks literally right above our cabin) which worked well for the two of them.
Some comments on photography during the trip. As everyone here knows, it’s something I really enjoy so it was a true highlight of the trip. Part of my like for Sapphire was the open bow without glass to be able to get great photos from the ship, especially at Hubbard Glacier and in Glacier Bay. I often see people ask if they should bring their “good” camera. I kind of feel that if you have to ask, the answer is likely no. Modern camera phones are pretty good and even with a standard lens on an SLR, you’re not going to be getting wildlife closeups.
My equipment list included the following
- Canon 70D – my standard dSLR body
- I have this on an BlackRapid breathe strap which I absolutely love. I hesitated buying this but ended up doing so before my 2017 trip to Japan (where I had planned to do a lot of shooting). This takes weight off my neck and lets the camera hang in a much more comfortable position on my hip. It was invaluable when using the heavy 100-400.
- Canon 500D – Kyle’s dSLR body that I used. I brought this to be able to have both a standard zoom and a telephoto zoom available without have to constantly switch lenses. This worked amazing well, especially on scenic cruising days. This was on the standard Canon next strap.
- Canon 15-85mm lens – my standard lens
- Sigma 8-16mm lens – wide angle zoom inherited from Allan. I used this a few times so it was nice to have but wasn’t a go to lens for the trip
- Canon 100-400mm IS II – Rented from Lensrentals. This is an amazing lens. (I rented one a few years back for our Yellowstone trip.) Used on my crop sensor body, it’s 160-640 35mm equivalent. This let me get some great wildlife shots that I would not have gotten with my standard lens. It also let me get some great scenic details. However, it does extend to 7.6″ (plus the almost 5″ hood) and weighs 3.5 lbs so it isn’t the smallest or lightest lens.
- Nikon Coolpix P950 “Bridge” camera – Rented from Lensrentals as well. Kyle announced he wanted to take his camera well after I had asked him as I was going to take it for myself. We ended up renting this as it’s a single lens, “bridge” camera with an amazing zoom range (24-2000mm 35mm equivalent – yes 2000mm) and gets decent reviews. He used it a fair amount at the beginning of the trip but not so much by the end. It was good for him to use have it though. It would have been good to spend more time getting to know it before the trip. (I did download the user guide.)
- Canon Powershot S110 – my point-and-shoot. I didn’t use this at all and instead used my phone as a point-and-shoot.
- Phones – Google Pixel 6 and Samsung S22 – Both of these have good cameras and basically have supplanted my point-and-shoot. I’m especially impressed with the Pixel 6 (my phone) and love using the wide-angle setting.
- Nikon L320 – Jack’s camera
- Memory cards – I bought two 128GB SD cards for this trip (one for my camera and one for Kyle’s rental) as I was concerned about burning through my 6 16GB ones. This worked well and, in fact, I never needed to change cards. I did offload pretty much nightly as I’d always be worried about losing all of my photos should the card go bad. (It’s actually amazing that I was able to buy a card 8,000 times bigger than my first one back in 2003 for the same price.)
- Camera “ponchos” – As I was worried about taking photos in the rain, on a recommendation, I tried using an Op/Tech Rainsleeve. I thought it seemed a bit goofy, but it worked really well, especially on our Kenai Fjords trip and at the beginning of our whale watch before the rain stopped. The “flash” size was probably too large but it it worked well when I had the 100-400 mounted. I also purchased the small size but forgot them at home so couldn’t try them out. There is a medium size but I couldn’t find that available when I ordered shortly before our trip. I did get two sets of two for each size. I wasn’t sure how reusable they would be but ended up using only the single sleeve several times (and still have it in my gear box for the future).
- Monopod – Didn’t take but wish I did. While I don’t normally have an issue, the 100-400 lens plus my 70D weighed 5.3 pounds. It wasn’t an issue all the time but my arms did get sore on my long days of shooting, especially at Glacier Bay. (My normal lens weighs in at only 600g/21 oz so it’s much less of an issue compared to the 1640g/3.6 lb 100-400.)
Overall, I ended up with 6400 photos across all cameras.
Quick note on Lensrentals.com. I cannot say enough good about them. I have used them in the past and they are super responsive. I actually got my order a couple of days early, giving some extra time to get used to the rental camera. They even combined my two orders into a single one and applied a discount code saving me $100, all without my asking!
We were fortunate enough to see quite a bit of wildlife. However, we saw hardly any land wildlife while on the cruise so if that is important to you, I’d suggest having some time on land. (I’d suggest that any way though.) An absolute key to seeing wildlife is to actually be looking for it. This means spending time outside and looking at the landscape. In summary, we saw:
- 8 Moose (a few just by me, a few in the distance, one on our helicopter flight and one flashed by on the shoulder while driving at night in the rain)
- 8-10 Bald Eagles (some while on our Kenai Fjords trip, others from the cruise ship, another in Ketchikan). We actually felt we didn’t see nearly as many eagles as we expected.
- Around 20 Dall Sheep – in Denali NP
- 1 Caribou – in Denali NP (quite close to the road)
- Some Puffins
- 2 Mountain Goats – on our helicopter flight
- Tons of Sea Otters – in Kenai Fjords and from the cruise ship
- A large number of Harbor Seals – a bunch in front of Holgate Glacier in Kenai Fjords and a few from the cruise ship
- A large number of Steller Sea Lions – a bunch in Kenai Fjords and a few from the cruise ship
- A large number of Humpback Whales – bubble feeding in both Kenai Fjords and on our whale watch out of Juneau/Auke Bay. We also saw 10-15 whales from the cruise ship but all were pretty far off and some of those were just spouts.