A few summers ago, with 3 friends, I flew out to Seattle to join the Alaska Tracy Arm Fjord Cruise with Celebrity Cruises. The cruise experience is as much about enjoying life on board a luxury ship, as it is about the magnificent mountainous and glacial scenery and wildlife you’ll see along the way.
Combining a city break in Seattle or Vancouver with an Alaska cruise makes a fantastic twin-centre trip as cruises depart from both ports regularly. You could also consider combining the cruise with Canada’s Rocky Mountaineer train – a trip I made previously.
Seattle is a lovely city with plenty going on and as one of the USA’s more walkable cities so it’s easy to explore on foot. That said, we opted to cover a few more miles by joining a Segway tour! Our guide was fascinating with lots of knowledge of the city, pointing out some views from the movie “Sleepless in Seattle” (and thankfully carried spare batteries since my Segway ran out of power halfway through!).
If you’re visiting Seattle over a weekend I’d also highly recommend a visit to Pike Place Market. Go with an empty stomach so you can try all the delicious food and craft ales available – you can also do an excellent food and drink tour here if you have the time. I would also recommend a visit to the nearby Museum of Popular Culture, where you can listen to some of the best music and even have a go at making your own noise!
Thankfully I was in the company of a seasoned cruise expert who could show me the ropes, because initially, cruises can seem somewhat complicated!
If you’ve never cruised before, your embarkation time is around 12pm. You do need to be there around this time as the embarkation process can take up to 2 hours. When you consider that the ship carries more than 2,800 passengers who all need checking in, you’ll understand why.
At Embarkation you’ll be asked for all travel documents and all visa checks will be completed at this stage. You’ll then be asked for a credit card which will be used for billing for any ship expenses. At this point you check in your luggage which you won’t see again until early evening, so do keep important items with you. You’ll receive your room keys and some more details before the long journey through security and then onto the ship. Be assured – the time spent at this stage is all worth it; once you set foot on the ship, you’ll be served a welcome drink and the cruise begins!
We sailed on the Celebrity Solstice, one of the newest ships of the fleet. It was truly incredible with 19 decks and super-sized at over 1000 feet long. Don’t worry if you’re a little disorientated at first as there are plenty of maps and friendly staff are there to help.
Thanks to our cruise expert, we were really pleased with our cabins (2 balcony cabins), which turned out to be a godsend. The amount of natural light from the double doors really helped open the cabin up as they can feel quite compact. That said, the cabin layout is excellent with plenty of space for two people and their belongings. The bathrooms were much larger than I’d imagined with a good sized shower and vanity unit. As we had adjacent cabins, we were able to remove the partition between the two to create a double length balcony, which is great if you’re a family or group - we regularly had pre-dinner drinks on our balcony!
There are cheaper cabin alternatives if you’re on a tighter budget, including inside cabins (no windows) and outside cabins (with portholes). But if you want to treat yourselves, opt for Concierge Class cabins and suites which include a host of extras like priority embarkation and disembarkation, access to exclusive club lounges and upgraded room features.
You soon learn to get used to “ship-life” and that your day essentially revolves around meals. Alaska cruise packages include full board as standard which means you can eat as much as you please throughout the trip (and there’s always an eatery open somewhere day and night!).
Breakfast and lunch are a relaxed affair with buffet options for all palates and you can generally dine wherever and whenever you like. Dinner is more organised, but also much more of an event too.
For dinner you have the option of an early (6pm) or late (8pm) sitting, or the flexi-dining option if you prefer. You may need to wait a few minutes for a table, but we never waited longer than 10 minutes. Most nights have a smart casual attire but we also had two formal nights, where suits and dresses were the minimum required, so don’t forget to pack these.
Evenings can be a lot of fun too. On the second evening, we pre-booked a specialist restaurant with a full wine-paired 10 course meal, for only $40USD each on top of our full board! In the evenings, we’d either see a stage show or hit the casino or a bar. There is always things going on, but by the same token, we often had early nights as in Alaska you are generally up quite early to see the sights.
Our cruise took us from Seattle to Ketchikan in Alaska, before scenic cruising through the Tracy Arm Fjord and Sawyer Glacier. We then headed to Juneau and Skagway (Gold Rush country), before returning through the Inside Passage and stopping in Victoria and returning to Seattle.
Ketchikan is a fascinating town on the southern border with Canada; a former rest stop for gold diggers heading up/down the country. Its port would often be filled with drunken sailors and consequently the town became known for its debauchery. Any visit here must include a trip to the “House of Ill Repute” where sailors and gold rushers would go and visit women for the evening and lose a lot of money in the process. The museum is interesting and the guides are superb; I particularly liked how the exit to the museum is through a back door on to “Married Men’s Lane”.
Whilst here, we also saw the salmon spawning phenomenon where thousands of salmon desperately fling themselves up a freshwater stream in front of you. We were told to keep our eyes out for bears that are quite happy to join in and snag themselves a spot of lunch!
Our next morning was an early start so we could take our spots on deck for a morning of scenic cruising through the Tracy Arm Fjord and up-close views of the extraordinary glaciers. Although it is cold, the excitement of seeing these incredible ice sculptures is well worth it. The interesting commentary from the onboard naturalist is also invaluable in understanding what you’re seeing.
Arriving in Juneau the next day, we had pre-booked an excursion – an incredible helicopter ride to the top of a nearby glacier. A helicopter ride is an exciting experience in itself, but at the top we landed at a husky farm and joined an exhilarating Husky sledding experience, with views over the glacier from the back of the sled – another amazing experience I’ll never forget.
You could tell the dogs love nothing more than dashing through the snow because they were always keen to get going again. The dogs were very tame and didn’t mind being petted – and thankfully for us, neither did the puppies we got to meet afterwards - they were too cute for words!
The northernmost point of the cruise is Skagway - a historical town in the heart of Gold Rush country.
Here you can visit the local shops and you can choose to ride on the historical White Pass and Yukon Route train that takes you high up into the hills outside the town. It gives you a sense of what the Gold Rush days were really like and the hardships people endured up here to go and dig for gold. The views from the train are incredible and certainly rival any other scenic train journey anywhere in the world. The journey is made extra special as you’ll be on a steam train dating back to the 19th Century.
On the return journey south, you spend a day at sea passing through the Inside Passage where you can expect more scenic cruising. We opted to enjoy the views from the comfort of the hot tubs on deck, meaning we enjoy everything we were seeing whilst feeling nice and warm at the same time – bliss! The Inside Passage itself is stunning; beautiful blue and white glaciers all around and even the odd whale sighting at the back of our ship as we cruised along!
Our final stop was in Victoria, a well-kept city, with beautiful gardens throughout the city centre and lovely historical buildings including the Fairmont Empress Hotel and the Parliament Buildings. If you’re interested in flowers, I definitely recommend you head to the Butchart Gardens. We celebrated the end of the trip by frequenting a few bars to sample the Canadian craft beers and we weren’t disappointed. There was also time to try the Canadian fast food delicacy “Poutine” (which actual hails from Quebec). It’s basically French fries covered in gravy and cheese curds – heaven! In fact, we enjoyed ourselves so much here that we only just made it back to the ship in time for her departure.
After returning to Seattle, the disembarkation process is much easier. I recommend you stay for another night or two as we did, before our flight home. We spent the whole journey talking about what a fantastic trip we’d had!
If you like the sound of an Alaska cruise from Seattle or Vancouver, I can recommend an itinerary to suit you, and help you book the right cabin for you style and budget. If you’d like to incorporate this cruise into a wider itinerary, perhaps exploring more of Canada or the northern western USA, I can tailor-make a trip to suit you. Have a look at our Canada trip ideas for a little more inspiration and then contact Graham directly to start the planning.