By Sondra L. Shapiro
We put our honeymoon on hold 20 years ago so that my husband, David, and his brother could take their father to Alaska for a two-week fishing and sightseeing trip in honor of his retirement.
I was so enthralled with the video chronicle David brought home, that I wanted to book Alaska right away.
We waited 20 years to make the trip for our anniversary.
Because David had done an extensive land tour in a rented RV, we opted to cruise to areas not easily accessible by land.
Though we aren’t normally fans of large ship excursions, we decided that the accommodations offered would enhance our Alaska experience. And it did.
We chose a seven-night Alaska Glacier Cruise on Royal Caribbean Cruise Line’s Rhapsody of the Seas. The itinerary departed from Seattle, then cruised through the Inside Passage, with stops in Juneau and Skagway, the Tracy Arm Fjord and Victoria, British Columbia before returning to Seattle.
David and I arrived in Seattle the day before departure to ex-plore the city. We stayed at the Seattle Westin, which works with the cruise line by offering a shuttle to the ship the morning of departure.
The next morning, we left our luggage outside the door to be delivered to the ship, then hopped the shuttle to the dock: Easy and stress-free.
The 2,000-passenger Rhapsody of the Seas is considered small by comparison to the cruise line’s newer mammoths, which can host 6,000. For an Alaska itinerary, the Rhapsody has a critical advantage since it can maneuver through tighter areas for the best viewing of scenery and wildlife.
The coastal route we took meant that the waters were relatively calm, and we enjoyed some incredible scenery along the shore on days when the ship didn’t dock.
We arrived in Juneau on the second day of the cruise. Standing on deck as we pulled into port, we spotted a large American eagle perched on the ship’s gangplank. We weren’t in the “lower 48” anymore. We had arrived in a part of the country where even the best superlatives are inadequate.
Juneau is the only capital in the country inaccessible by road. The town was literally put on the map during the 1890s Alaska gold rush, which brought thousands of miners and settlers to the area. Downtown Juneau still maintains the feel of a gold rush town, replete with a saloon that once also served as a brothel.
We headed for the Mendenhall Glacier for my first in-person experience with these icy wonders. Nestled between two large stone croppings and enhanced by a five-story waterfall near its face, the glacier was a sight to behold.
Visitors with ample time can hike a trail that leads right up to the glacier. Our pre-booked tour hit a snag, which shortened our time at the site. We learned later that a $14 bus ticket, that can be purchased in town, would have allowed for unlimited exploration.
Nonetheless, the day worked out well since we got to spend more time atop of Mount Robert, which we accessed by a tramway operated by the Tlingit Indians. From the visitor’s center, we climbed a bit higher up the mountain and were rewarded with the most breathtaking views of the harbor, ocean and mountains. To continue the Alaskan experience, we opted to hike the two-and-a-half miles down the mountain. The weather was perfect, about 75 degrees, and the landscape was well-worth the wear and tear on my brand-new sneakers.
When we got back from our day of sightseeing and hiking, we were very grateful for the luxurious accommodations of our stateroom, where nice hot showers washed away the grime of the day and the very attentive cabin staff had iced our bottle of bubbly.
From the cabin attendants to the waiters, we were made to feel special, our every whim attended to. We couldn’t have expected more if we had dined in a five star restaurant or stayed in a luxury hotel.
Our next port was Skagway, where we had arranged for a private tour through Dyea Dave Custom Tours. Though Skagway is a charming gold rush town, it doesn’t take long to explore. Once again, we longed for the rugged landscape that inspired our trip to this part of the world. We had the experience of a lifetime thanks to Dave McClelland. As his website aptly reads: “We offer many entertainments along the way that are unavailable to the ‘boxed’ tours.”
Though many tourists opt for a ride in the 1890s style train that retraces the original route up to the Yukon White Pass Summit, we opted to spend the entire day with Dave. His tours are flexible and our’s was reasonably priced at $69 per person. He will even set a pickup time for visitors who want to ride the train then continue touring with him.
McClelland, a 20-year resident of Skag-way combines a background in commercial archaeology and knowledge of local gold rush history with very entertaining narration. From the moment he met our group of 12 at the port — sporting a top hat at 8 a.m. — until he dropped us off in town at 4:30 p.m., our day was filled with jaw-dropping scenery and local lore along the Klondike Highway. There were numerous stops at places that seemed not of this world. The sounds of rushing rapids with miles of alpine trees and ice-covered mountains, cascading water falls, glacier-formed pristine lakes, even an emerald-colored body of water. We rode across a single anchor cantilevered suspension bridge, and stopped at the mile-long Carcross dessert. There were mountain goat and bear sightings (at a short, but safe distance) and a nature-carved formation of the face of an Indian at the side of a mountain.
There were numerous stops for photos, or to dip our water bottles into ice-cold, pure glacier water, or to partake in a snowball fight on the Canadian/United States border.
There was a quick lunch in the village of Carcross, a ramshackle town in the Yukon. At day’s end, we felt we had spent time with knowledgeable friend.
Back onboard, we were again grateful for our decision to visit Alaska aboard the Rhapsody. From the comfort of our large balcony we were awarded the benefit of unobstructed views of ice-capped mountains, icebergs, majestic waterfalls, lush forests and glimpses of wildlife, not to mention some of the most breathtaking sunsets we’ve ever seen.
Then there’s the morning we arrived at Tracy Arm Fjord. We awoke to the creaking sounds caused by glacial calving — the process of ice breaking off a glacier. About 45 miles from Juneau, this 30-mile natural wonder wends through a narrow throughway of steep, 3,000-foot high granite mountains. Gliding through the ethereal landscape, we stood in silence on our balcony as we passed hundreds of waterfalls and a smattering of strangely-formed trees sprouting out of the rocky shoreline.
At fjord’s tip, we grabbed our cameras and literally ran to the deck for a panoramic and up close view of the glacier that rested at the very tip of the fjord. Our ship had come face to face with what can only be described as awe-inspiring majesty. So close was the ship to the shimmering edifice, that we could feel the cold mist emanating from its surface. We heard a passenger say they had just witnessed a baby sea lion being born on one of the surrounding icebergs.
An hour later we grudgingly left our spot among those mesmerized and headed for breakfast. Luckily, the wall to wall glass windows surrounding the dining-room allowed us to sip coffee while gazing at the extraordinary scene outside.
Meals on the Rhapsody were innovative and expertly prepared. In fact, the lingcod we had for dinner one night was superior to the version we ordered in Seattle at a restaurant owned by a James Beard winner. I would highly recommend signing up for My Time Dining, which allows passengers to choose different times to dine each evening and offers the ability to reserve a table for two — especially attractive to us since we were celebrating our 20th anniversary. We also purchased a reasonably-priced wine plan, which included a bottle a day to take from our cabin to dinner.
The ship offered an attractive array of entertainment options. We especially enjoyed the destination lectures given by historian Arnold Karamanski, who instilled in us enough background history to better enjoy Juneau, Skagway and Victoria.
On the couple of days we were at sea, we attended a lecture on the health benefits of chocolate, given by Julie Pech, author of The Chocolate Therapist, participated in a trivia contest and spent hours working out in the well-appointed gym. There’s nothing like pumping away on the treadmill while gazing out at floating icebergs.
We generally began the day by attending a stretch class in the gym. One afternoon at sea, while I enjoyed a pedicure in the ship’s very elegant spa, David searched the daily bargains at the onboard mall. After lunch, we took in a fairly current movie in the ship’s spacious theater.
Our last port was Victoria, British Columbia, where we spent the day exploring the quaint, clean city. We stopped by the visitor’s center and picked up some walking-tour maps that allowed us to thoroughly experience Victoria’s striking architecture, picturesque gardens and colorful history. We stopped for lunch at a little hole-in-the-wall spot in China Town’s Fan Tan Alley; visited the elegant Empress Hotel; and ended the day with a stroll through Beacon Hill Park, which reminded us of a cross between England’s Kew Gardens and our own Boston Common.
The city was a perfect way to wind down from a trip that I had dreamed of taking for 20 years.
The next morning we disembarked with ease, thanks to the shuttle buses lined up at the wharf to take us to the airport. As we rode through the rain-drenched streets of Seattle, I sat back, closed my eyes and imagined myself standing at the helm of the Rhapsody of the Seas, mist spraying my face and with images of natural wonders that will stay with me for a lifetime.
If you go …
Royal Caribbean Inter-national: online at www.royalcaribbean.com or call 866-562-7625.
The Westin Seattle: online at www.westin.com/seattle or call 206-728-1000.