ABOARD STAR PRINCESS, SOMEWHERE OFF THE COAST OF ALASKA -- Even after booking a cruise, there are still more decisions to be made. How will you spend your time at each port the ship visits?
Cruise lines offer myriad excursion options; on our Inside Passage cruise, Princess provided a 99-page booklet of options.
These excursions tend to be expensive add-ons (many are $100 and up), especially flightseeing tours that take visitors by helicopter or seaplane over (sometimes onto) glaciers at a cost that can run $230-$550 per person. Still, some veteran cruise passengers say the opportunity to see a glacier from above is the most memorable part of their trip.
Here's how we spent time at destinations on our Inside Passage Alaska cruise.
Our first stop was the only foul weather day of the trip with light rain most of the morning before it became just damp and overcast.
Ketchikan is a small town that's fun and easy to amble through, especially after you escape the kitschy tourist shops and get to the more historic buildings farther from the waterfront. We enjoyed a stop at St. John's Episcopal Church, a visit to former prostitutes' ghetto Creek Street (1903-53), which is now home to shops and seals in the creek; and we took a city bus to Saxman Totem Park to see totem poles.
The best fish 'n' chips I've ever had were served at The Alaska Fish House, and upon sailing away from Ketchikan, which can only be accessed by boat or airplane, we saw the island that was the intended destination of the controversial Bridge to Nowhere.
Star Princess began the trip into Tracy Arm Fjord around 6 a.m. when it was still dark and was exiting by 10 a.m. to make a 2 p.m. scheduled arrival in Juneau. In that four-hour window the sun rose, clouds parted and a spectacular grandeur emerged from the darkness as the ship followed the turns of the fjord.
Stony mountains shot out of the sea, rising thousands of feet with waterfalls trickling over their rocky surfaces. The ship dodged tiny icebergs -- more than one person was heard to shout the "Titanic" line, "Iceberg, right ahead!" -- and plowed on deeper, finally stopping a fair distance from South Sawyer Glacier. It wasn't close enough to see chunks of ice break off and fall into the water (Princess does offer a glacier explorer excursion aboard a smaller boat for $199 per person) but it was close enough for some terrific photo-taking opportunities of the glacier, blue-hued icebergs and seals sunning themselves on floating ice chunks.
Our smartest dumb luck decision of the trip was to rent a car for a day in Juneau. We paid about $53 and had the freedom to travel wherever we wanted. Juneau Car Rentals (www.juneaucarrentals.com) offered the most competitive rate and we could walk to their office from where our ship docked. (Note: They were formerly Rent-A-Wreck, so the car you get won't be fancy; we had a 2003 Dodge Neon with a tape deck but no spare tire.)
Having a car allowed us to see Juneau on our own, including tourist traps such as Mendenhall Glacier and also off-the-beaten path sites. We headed to the far side of Mendenhall Lake, where we found pieces of the glacier that had broken off, bobbed across the water and washed up on a shady beach accessed from Skaters Cabin Road. Among other places, we visited the Shrine of St. Therese, reportedly a good place for whale watching, although we saw none; and Eagle Beach State Recreational Area, where we watched salmon spawning.
Probably my favorite port experience, this was the one time we splurged for an expensive excursion ($176 per person) we booked through a local Skagway company, Chilkoot Tours (www.chilkootcharters.com). Admittedly, it seemed a little sketchy making a reservation by e-mail to a Hotmail address but it turned out fine.
The price of our excursion included one-way travel from Skagway to Fraser, British Columbia, on the White Pass & Yukon railroad (passports required) and then a van ride into the Yukon and back to Skagway on the Klondike Highway.
The train was fun but windows in our passenger car fogged up, requiring photographers to congregate on balconies at each end of each passenger car to get pictures (take warm clothes, a hat and gloves), but there are no speakers on these platforms, so I missed much of the narration. The 27-mile trip to Fraser took about 90 minutes as the diesel engine pulled about a dozen passenger cars up winding mountain cliffs from sea level to a 2,800-foot elevation at the White Pass. It's a beautiful trip as you slowly climb up above the tree line to a rocky tundra field.
After the train ride we jumped into a Chilkoot Charters van driven by our guide, James, an Irishman by way of Tucson, Ariz. He told stories of amazing sights he's seen in this part of the world -- a salmon drowning a bald eagle, for instance -- and filled additional travel time with other tales from his life.
Always quick to spot wildlife -- or hit the brakes when one of the 30 people on our tour spotted a bear alongside the road, which happened twice -- James pointed out bald eagles and dispensed facts about the Yukon and First Nations people (Canada's Native Americans) on our trip to Caribou Crossing, a lunchtime tourist trap that includes a visit with Iditarod huskies, and Carcross, a small Yukon town.
The only drawback: We had just 45 minutes after the tour to see the town of Skagway. It was the only stop on our itinerary where I wish we'd had an extra couple of hours, something the one-way and round-trip Princess cruises from Vancouver offer. (Beware: Signage directing travelers back to the proper pier is easy to miss in Skagway; two docks you'd expect to connect do not allow passage from one to the other.)
This evening stop was only for four hours but that doesn't deter the cruise lines from offering tours to the renowned Butchart Gardens (www.butchartgardens.com), a lush 55-acre garden built in a former limestone quarry that's located a 30-minute drive from the cruise terminal.
Feeling as if we wouldn't have enough time -- and some ambivalence about seeing gardens at night -- we skipped that and caught a cab into central Victoria to see the parliament building and the Empress Hotel. (A fellow cruise passenger who did make the Butchart trek and had been there previously in daylight hours later told me we made the right call; she said the garden was more impressive during the day.)
Wandering through Victoria, and later walking back to the cruise terminal through pleasant neighborhoods, afforded us an opportunity to stop at 7-Eleven to snag some last-minute souvenirs (Canadian candy!) along with my favorite Canadian treat: Rolo Milk, chocolate-caramel flavored milk that uses the Rolo candy branding.