A family vote put us on course for our first cruise. The destination: Alaska.
We enlisted Custom Cruises & Travel to book our party of nine on Celebrity's Infinity for an eight-day voyage along the Alaska Inside Passage with three ports of call. Our itinerary included three adventuresome shore excursions, researched and arranged on our own.
We embarked in early July from Vancouver, Canada (passports required). Over the next seven days, we marveled at the beauty and immensity of Alaska.
We will long remember the golden sunrises and sunsets at sea, the emerald mountains and fjords, the playful dolphins at ship's edge. And the mesmerizing rhythm of the waves.
Here’s our highlights reel of water, land and sky.
DAY 1 – Vancouver, British Columbia
At 11 a.m. we’re headed on foot with luggage from our downtown hotel to Canada Place. The terminal is busy with two massive cruise ships at the docks, but the boarding process is efficient and swift. A few of us do a little jig going up the gangway. Our celebration continues as crew members welcome us with mimosas. We explore the ship and watch the activity in the harbor until our late-afternoon sail. The top deck is the place to be as the ship slips away from the pier and the gleaming Vancouver skyline comes into full view, then soon is far behind us. The highlight of the evening is our first supper for nine at Table 224. Our Peruvian head waiter and assistant waiter, and Indonesian sommelier are so attentive and accommodating, we request to have them serve us every night. The hostess makes it happen. By the end of the cruise, we will have broadened our palates and our horizons. We begin to have conversations without the distraction of cell phones or social media.
DAY 2 – At Sea
Our first day of cruising is stunning and invigorating. This night owl is up with the sun at 5:30 a.m. and can’t believe the rewarding view from our stateroom balcony. The sky is awash in purples and pinks, and the water is smooth as glass. I’m nervous about dropping my photo gear seven stories into the deep blue sea. Do I have my sea legs? Yes! It’s enough to make me a morning person for the duration of the trip. The ship newsletter cues us for things to do, and there is a lot. Four of our millennials try — and enjoy — a ballroom dance class tutored by the ship’s theater troupe; another hits the busy fitness center. A tour of the Infinity’s galley entices many of us, as does a trivia contest. The top draw, though, is California-based naturalist Milos Radakovich, a native of Serbia who makes science fun. In his daily talks, he uses props, graphics, impersonations and puns to enlighten us on Alaska wildlife and ecology, volcanism and glaciation, energy, the solar system and more. That evening after dinner, a silent disco party (where everyone on the dance floor wears neon-lighted headphones) is a riot for millennials and boomers alike.
DAY 3 – Sitka
Today we're in a new time zone, and sunrise is at 4:22 a.m. It’s rainy, but that comes with the territory. Alaska gets 100 inches of rain a year. Sunny days? An average of just 85. As we leave the ship, umbrellas are offered; we help ourselves and transfer to the tiny town center via motor coach. Our party of nine splits in two, with six heading for the marina to hook up with Paul Davis and his Gallant Adventures for a marine wildlife tour. The remaining three explore the town and Totem Bright State Historical Park. The rain is a soaker, and that prompts a text (cell and Wi-Fi services are available in ports) to my brother, who is out in the cabin of the 20-foot aluminum boat. He reports, “We saw a whale. The tour is great.” When it’s our turn, Davis doesn’t sugar-coat the choppy seas. “It’s the roughest day I’ve seen all season.” He offers to refund our money if we elect to pass. “We might get skunked on whales.” We take a chance. Searching for whales in 6- to 8-foot swells proves futile so Davis heads for an emerald green cove where soon-to-spawn salmon are jumping and bald eagles – too many to count – are eyeing their next meal from treetops along the shore. No whales. We watch sea lions and sea otters floating on their backs with babies riding on their bellies. This is the Alaska we came to see.
We’re sailing in a fjord for a view of Hubbard Glacier. It’s cold, rainy and windy. Hubbard Glacier, we learn, is nine times larger than what's visible above water's surface. The ice varies in color from white to blue, swayed by age and nutrients. The ultimate viewing party happens on an enclosed, temperature-controlled excursion boat (lowered from the side of the ship) that takes you front-and-center of the glacier. None of us are on it. The three-hour tour costs $285 per person – a bargain for that "money shot" you’re likely to nab. Had we known more, one of us with a good camera would have been put on board. By early afternoon we are back at sea for the overnight sail to Alaska's capital, where eagles outnumber people.
DAY 5 – Juneau
Alaska’s capital is a shopping mecca for fine jewelry, hand-carved tribal totems and etchings with tribal symbols. We’re here for some whale watching and a look at Mendenhall Glacier through Juneau Tours. We head out on a 40-passenger craft with an upper deck and lower enclosed cabin deck. The bantering Juneau Whale Watch crew includes Captain Jason, “Bachelor” John and “Brawny” Brian, and they found whales for us, most at great distance from the boat but thrilling nonetheless. Mendenhall Glacier Park is immense. Its visitor center is filled with informative ranger presentations and interactive displays and has a spectacular view of the mountain valley and the glacier. Walking trails make for comfortable hikes to a splendid waterfall and a look at the face of the glacier. When you get to the park, head for the salmon stream and the elevated boardwalk. You might spy bear. Alas, we did not. Back in Juneau, the Red Dog Saloon with its dirty-old-man pianist banging out tunes and making salty comments, is famous and fun. Eagles seem to be everywhere in town sitting on piers, light posts, often drying their wings after pursuing fish.
DAY 6 – Ketchikan
Sitka and Juneau have charm as historic and remote villages, each with great adventures. But Ketchikan is our favorite for local flavor, authentic souvenirs and friendly shopkeepers. The cruise from Juneau to Ketchikan is stunning with inlets and densely forested islands with waterfront villages and compounds visible from time to time. We hire Island Wings Air Service for a two-hour air tour of Misty Fjords, the crown jewel of southeast Alaska. Completely roadless, the 2.3 million-acre national monument is larger than Yellowstone National Park. Deep, narrow fjords are walled inlets of the sea created by glacial gouging long ago. The rainforest is fed by more than 150 inches of misty precipitation annually. But not for our visit. Our group flies in two DeHavilland Beaver floatplanes. Michelle Masden, owner and lead pilot of Island Wings, is a Nebraska native who earned her wings and license at the Millard Airport in the late 1970s. With her, we fly deep into the national park and land on a pristine high mountain lake for pictures on a rocky shore before flying back to Ketchikan’s harbor.
DAY 7 – At sea
We're sailing the Canadian Inside Passage where the waters narrow. Late morning, fog settles in for a couple of hours before the sun burns it off to reveal a bright blue, cloudless sky for our final day at sea. The upper deck is the perfect place for drinking in the sunshine and watching for porpoises and dolphins (score!). Omahan Billy McGuigan and his Rock Revue headlined two shows. How does he like the cruise ship gig? “We absolutely love it. It’s a vacation where we get to work for 45 minutes two times," he tells his audience. A mention of his hometown draws a loud cheer. He asks, “Are you folks from Omaha?” Again we cheer. “Well”, he pans, “the town must be empty.” His musical review rocks the boat!
DAY 8 – Headed Home
The ship pulls into port in Vancouver around 7 a.m. Assigned departure times keep the process orderly. Our disembarkation begins at 7:45 a.m.; we’re on shore with our luggage by 8:30. The Vancouver skyline glistens in the sun — all of that glass, reflecting in the water. We find our way to the nearby SkyTrain light rail station and are soon on our way to the airport and home.
The author' husband, Kurt A. Keeler, contributed to this travelogue.