Chillin’ (not) in Alaska
Let me start by saying that all experiences, good and bad, bring dynamics to our lives. It would be boring otherwise. I wouldn’t change a thing. We decided to go on an Alaska cruise aboard the Norwegian Cruise Line’s (NCL) Bliss, which is a fairly new ship. Robert, my husband, was reluctant. He wasn’t really interested and was curious why I wanted to go. I explained that everyone I know that’s gone has had an extraordinary experience and often go back again. We invited my mother and cousin to come along and booked the trip 18 months before travelling – the industry had just started to open again after the COVID lockdown.
There were two excursions that I wanted to do. The first was a Dogsledding coupled with a Glacier Flightseeing Helicopter excursion. What I learned: the excursion isn’t available late in the season. We went in October and therefore couldn’t do the thing I wanted to do most. The second excursion was a tour of the Yukon via bus. I booked this one and for some reason, they later cancelled it. So, I booked a Yukon tour on the White Pass Scenic Railway. Just before we sailed, that one was cancelled too. Seems Skagway, where the excursion begins, had major rockslides in the port and we were forced to stop at Icy Point Straight instead. There were plenty of other excursions, but nothing else seemed interesting to us. We’ve experienced ziplining, whale watching, canoeing all before. We were looking for something unique.
We insisted on having balcony cabins, next door to each other. Robert and I in one and my mother and cousin in the other. I will say that the extra expense for balconies is totally worth it. The best part of our trip was being able to enjoy the beautiful Alaskan scenery from our cabin’s balcony. The downside of having your cabins next to each other is that as the sail date draws nearer, if the ship isn’t full, they will offer upgrades for significantly lower prices. However, they will not place you next to cabins of the people you’re travelling with. I found this to be unnecessarily obstinate. They know full well if there are two upgraded cabins next to each other.
I was very impressed at how masterfully they managed passengers getting on and off the ship. When you check in online in advance, you’re given options as to what time you want to board. By stacking the boarding times, there was hardly any wait time. When we arrived at ports, they used photo recognition to let you off or on the ship. Therefore, you only had to slow down enough to let the reader scan your face and you were done.
The ship was just over half full. It felt somewhat crowded, so I’m glad it wasn’t at capacity. Our package included all you can eat, all you can drink, two dinner upgrades and excursion credits. Regarding the meals, there are several restaurants on the ship. There are the ones that are included in your package and then upgraded restaurants that you pay extra for. For our two free ‘upgraded’ restaurants we chose Ocean Blue and Teppanyaki. I would say that neither exceeded the quality of food in the regular restaurants. However, the Teppanyaki’s chefs were highly entertaining, using their utensils to create fun music.
We stopped at three ports, Juneau, Icy Strait Point and Ketchikan. All three ports had different scenery, however the primary focus was shopping with most of the trinkets similar at each port. Because we were at the end of the season, we were told that the prices were slashed to reduce inventory. I have no way of knowing if that is true or not, but many shoppers seem to respond to the spiel. It’s interesting to note that most of the merchants were from the ‘Lower 48’ as they call it. They go home at the end of the season and come back at the beginning of the next.
The star of the cruise is Glacier Bay. Only two ships are allowed to enter the bay each day. Because of the limited access, it increases the cost of your cruise when it’s included. We had heard a lot of hype and were excited to see this natural phenomenon, especially sitting from our balconies. And it was cool (pun intended) to watch large chunks of ice fall from them. Was it worth the extra cost of the cruise? Kind of. My mother was on a previous cruise that included the Mendenhall, Tracy Arm and South Sawyer Glaciers. She thought they were more spectacular.
The staff were nearly all from different countries. I don’t remember interacting with any that were American, which is interesting. There was about one staff person for every two people on the ship. I was entirely impressed with how attentive and downright joyful every single one of them was. To have that many crew members all spot-on with their customer service abilities is remarkable. We were required to tip the staff weeks prior to our embarkment. I didn’t particularly like paying gratuity for services not yet rendered, however, they earned the tips that were prepaid. A bonus was that I then didn’t feel guilty not giving them anymore at the end of the cruise.
The days at sea were probably the most fun. We spent hours on our balcony watching pods of whales go by. There is so much to do on the ship, it’s unlikely that you would be able to experience everything. While on vacation, my husband and I tend to stay out at night until everything’s closed. This included music, comedy, performances, games, dance classes and a sing-along piano bar. Our favorite performance was by a band called The Beatles Experience. They were on stage four nights, each session taking songs from a specific Beatles era. They did a really good job and surprised everyone when they stopped singing and explained they were from Argentina in their thick Argentinian accents. While at sea, we had intended on getting massages. We were disappointed to learn that a simple Swedish Massage started at $299 for 50 minutes. The prices were too outlandish for any of us, we can get them back home for 1/3 of the cost.
We flew in from Fresno to Seattle the night before. When we did online check-in days earlier, we had to pick the time we wanted to embark. We chose 9 am, the first group, so that we would have more time on the ship. What we didn’t know is by embarking that early, we wouldn’t be able to take the NCL shuttle from the hotel to the ship because it didn’t pick up the hotel guests until 10 am. We had to find our own way there.
When we got to the Seattle hotel, our driver dropped us off at the wrong hotel. Because NCL had booked the hotel, I didn’t have a confirmation number or anything. It took a few minutes to figure out the mistake. We walked, with all of our luggage, the six blocks to the correct hotel. Make sure you check the address the cruise line gave you matches the hotel that you’re being dropped off at.
My mother fell on the fourth day. She hurt her knee, hip, and shoulder. It was interesting to watch the staff go into anti-lawsuit mode, and I don’t blame them of course. We found that there is a floor dedicated to medical needs. She was able to get x-rays and see a doctor. Fortunately, she didn’t break anything, but she was very sore and had difficulty walking. They do not bill insurance. You must pay for use of the medical facility before disembarking. For her, it was $616.
A 7-day cruise is really only 6 days. The first day you don’t leave port until late afternoon. The final day, you arrive at port very early in the morning. The stop at Victoria was from 8 pm to 11 pm the night before the cruise ended, making your excursion choices minimal. We ended up staying in Sequim after the cruise and taking a ferry from Port Angels to Victoria to tour the town, Victoria Butterfly Gardens and Butchart Gardens, which is absolutely beautiful, but was problematic for my mother because it’s not ADA friendly in most areas. We enjoyed High Tea at the Butchart’s family home, then got her a wheelchair and parked her in a nice shady area. Sorry, Mom!
We had great weather. The cruise the week before ours had terrible weather and didn’t get to port at Juneau as a result. We were in t-shirts, shorts and bare feet which was unexpected. The weather is unpredictable in Alaska. We brought layers and it sure helped. I didn’t wear many of my warmer clothes.
While the Bliss is family friendly, I didn’t see many children. There are plenty of activities for the kids and they tend to keep the kid activities positioned away from the adult activities.
So yes, it was a mixed bag. Super happy I went and fascinating seeing glaciers. Would I go again? No, I don’t think I would. The one potential tip of the scale would be for the dog sled experience. A friend mentioned staying at a hotel instead of on a cruise. I think that would be the way I would go back, if ever.
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