Cruising the Alaskan Coast: Skagway, Juneau and Ketchikan

Although the definite highlight of our Princess Voyage of the Glaciers cruise was the glacier viewing at Hubbard Glacier and Glacier Bay National Park, that was just the first two days of the cruise and we had stops in three more Alaskan cities and a day at sea before reaching our final destination of Vancouver.

Skagway is a pretty harbor town surrounded by mountains, but the main drag, with its Gold Rush-themed saloons and cruise ship crowds, was a little too touristy for my liking.  We booked a bus trip (not through the cruise line) through British Columbia to the Yukon Territory, but between bad luck with weather and a less-than-great (understatement) guide, the trip was unfortunately somewhat underwhelming.  The highlight of the day was the cinnamon black bear some sharp-eyed fellow passengers spotted on the side of the road.

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The clouds and rain might have contributed to a lackluster day of sightseeing, but they sure made for a beautiful sailaway from Skagway.

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Fortunately, things improved considerably in Juneau.  Our ship docked before 7 am and, rather than waiting around for the 9 am “blue bus” to Mendenhall Glacier, we caught a cab.  The main reason we wanted to go so early was because our ship’s naturalist had mentioned that this would give us the best chance of seeing bears. Mendenhall may be best known for its famous glacier, but in recent years the nearby Steep Creek boardwalk area has become a great black bear-spotting location.  It’s billed by the state government as a “fish viewing” area, but, in Alaska, where there are fish there are also bears.  We had no bear sightings when we arrived (unless you count a sign on one of the Mendenhall trails that said “trail closed due to aggressive bear behavior”…I’m really curious what the bear did!), but we did enjoy a blissfully uncrowded visit to the glacier.  Mendenhall is an attraction worth seeing even if you have to fight the crowds, but it had a special majesty when it was completely deserted and the early morning fog was still resting on the glacial lake.

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We did a short hike on the East Glacier Trail. It was a good way to get some exercise, but I didn’t think the views were appreciably better than from the visitor center. After our hike, we went back to the Steep Creek viewing platforms. This time, we spotted a black bear. At first he was in the bushes and hard to see, but he made his way over to the platform we were standing on and eventually walked right underneath it.

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On the southbound Voyage of the Glaciers cruise, a few hours after you sail away from Juneau there will be a great whale watching opportunity (on our trip, it was approximately between 7 and 8 pm).  I assume there is a similar opportunity before arriving in Juneau on the northbound cruise.  I saw tons of humpback whales, probably at least 20-25, including a mother and calf very close to the ship.

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Whales aside, the scenery was really nice too.

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In Ketchikan, we didn’t do any excursions, which was a nice break after a hectic almost two weeks of travel.  We enjoyed walking around the town, which was by far the most picturesque of the three ports of call.  Although Ketchikan is famously rainy, we were blessed with bright blue skies and temperatures topping 70 degrees, so after a quick visit to the Totem Heritage Center and a bit of shopping at the Creek Street stores (where we watched a harbor seal enjoy his lunch), we got back on the ship and went swimming for the first time all cruise.

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Our final day before docking in Vancouver was our only true “at sea” day (on the ship without any scenic cruising).  I always love when the sea days come at the end of the itinerary: you’ve seen what you need to see and can rest and relax before heading home and re-entering the stress of daily life.  We took advantage of the free day by exploring the ship, having a lovely afternoon tea in the dining room and going out on deck to look for orcas when we cruised through Johnstone Strait (no orca sightings, but we did see more humpbacks).

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I’ve cruised on Royal Caribbean, NCL, Holland America, and the late American Hawaii.  I thought Princess fit in with that group, but was perhaps slightly better than average, particularly with respect to food and cabin size.  Although cruise ship food always tends to be a bit bland, Princess’ food was pretty decent, and there were a few standouts including a pasta of the day that can be ordered as an appetizer or entree, and an excellent, always available “Love Boat” (you knew they had to capitalize on that somehow, right?) flourless chocolate cake dessert.  I’ve posted the complete set of menus from our cruise (and lots more food photos) here.

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If you want to dine in the dining room at a table for two or four, I highly recommend making a reservation, which can only be done the same day.  One day we didn’t make a reservation and were forced to dine at a table for eight.  Our companions were entertaining, but the dinner took more than three hours, which is way more time than we wanted to spend eating.  After that we made a reservation every morning and never had any issues getting a table for two.

I did think the service was a bit more upsell-y than I remember previous cruises being (though it was undeniably friendly) and I also thought the entertainment could have been better.  The comedians were very good but production shows were of lesser quality and (perhaps because of all the great scenery during the day) traditional daytime activities like the Newlywed Game were scheduled at night, conflicting with dinner and the evening shows.  This didn’t really negatively affect my cruise experience, because onboard entertainment is not hugely important to me, but it’s worth noting for those who may care.  As I said in my previous post, we had a really nice cruise overall and I would certainly not hesitate to cruise on Princess again if the price and itinerary were right.

2 thoughts on “Cruising the Alaskan Coast: Skagway, Juneau and Ketchikan

    • Thanks Susan! Now I have to go read all about your cruise…Alaska is definitely a special place. We spent two weeks there and I felt like we barely scratched the surface. I would go back in a heartbeat.

      Like

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