Alaska: Radiance of the Seas 2011

Radiance of the Seas Alaska SB Cruisetour #11 (Aug 7-19, 2011) – An Introduction

This is a VERY old trip review but some of my friends and relatives will be going on an Alaska cruise this year, so I just set up this blog to help them.

First of all, I’d like to thank Cindy D. (Crown and Anchor Loyal Ambassador on board the Oasis of the Seas in August 2010) who recommended the following to us:

1) Alaska one-way cruise (round-trip cruises do not go to Hubbard Glacier – the highlight of an Alaskan cruise with ice calving);

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2) South bound (to avoid docking at the ports with more than 2 other ships);

3) Cruisetour #11 that has the BEST itinerary with 2 times on the glass-domed train (Fairbanks to Denali AND Denali to Talkeetna);  &

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4) balcony cabin on Starboard (right) side (cruising Southbound) to have the best view of Hubbard Glacier, though the captain did turn the boat 360 degrees to ensure everyone got to see the amazing sight.

Let me start with an Alaskan Cruise A-Z to express my feelings towards this amazing, brilliant, cool, divine, enjoyable, fabulous, gorgeous, hilarious, incredible, joyful, knowledgeable, luxurious, magnificent, notable, outstanding, phenomenal, quaint, remarkable, superb, terrific, unique, venturous, wonderful, x-traordinary, yummy and zealous cruise.  This was truly a trip of a lifetime!

August 6, 2011 – Vancouver, B.C. to Anchorage, Alaska (Pre-cruisetour)

We got a Club Room at Sheraton Anchorage using SPG points.  Although there was free WIFI in the lobby and parking was only $10, Hilton would be a much better choice with many more shops and restaurants around. We visited Portage Glacier and it’s about an hour’s drive (55 miles) from the hotel. We were just in time for the last 1-hour cruise to Portage Glacier at 4:30 p.m.  The glacier was beautiful but it was raining, so there were only about 20 passengers on board the MV Ptarmigan.

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August 7, 2011 – Anchorage to Fairbanks (Pre-cruisetour)

After a 1-hour flight, we picked up our 3rd rental car of the trip and went to Gold Dredge No.8 on the Old Steese Highway near Fox (about 20 minutes drive from Fairbanks).  A guided tour and lunch were included in the $14.95 admission fee.  Gold Dredge No. 8 is a ladder dredge operated by the Fairbanks Exploration Co. from 1928 to 1959.  Starting in the 1920s, water was brought to the area through the 90 miles (145 km) Davidson Ditch for gold mining. The Gold Dredge No. 8 cut a 4.5 miles (7.2 km) track and produced 7.5 million ounces of gold. (Do you know what I’m talking about?)

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After the Gold Dredge, my daughters wanted to go to North Pole to visit Santa Claus, but we unintentionally drove past the Alyeska pipeline.  Having a husband who is a civil and structural engineer, and a daughter who is inquisitive about everything, we had to stop there and investigate.

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After half an hour on the Old Steese Highway & the Richardson Highway, we reached North Pole, Alaska.  Despite the name, the city is about 1,700 miles south of Earth’s geographic North Pole (yes, we were still VERY far from the real North Pole!!)

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Nonetheless, we got very excited to see a big gift shop called Santa Claus House, and the world’s largest fibreglass statue of Santa Claus outside.

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After North Pole, we drove back to Fairbanks downtown and had a nice walk along Chena River.

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August 8, 2011 – Riverboat Discovery Cruise, Fairbanks, Alaska (Excursion 1)

I hereby announced the official start of our 12-night Alaska Cruisetour #11 starting from Fairbanks, Anchorage.  We had a short drive to board Riverboat Discovery, a 3-hour cruise on a paddlewheeler that took us into the heart of Alaska.

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You had to sit on the left side of the boat to see a floatplane take off and land on water. Then we visited the kennels of the late four-time Iditarod winner Susan Butcher and saw how the great dogs pulling the sled and ran around the complex 2 times. Next we passed by a fish camp to learn about the ancient Athabascan Indian culture and how they caught and preserved their fish. 

August 8, 2011 – El Dorado Gold Mine, Fairbanks, Alaska (Excursion 2)

This was the second excursion that was included in the cruise tour. Our last gold panning experience was back in 1988 in Australia so we were very excited to do this again. We were very happy to be on this 2-hour tour and ride the Tanana Valley Railroad for an adventure into the gold fields through the permafrost tunnel.

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After the Gold Mine tour, we were transported back to Bear Lodge.  Then we took the 6 pm shuttle to visit the Museum of the North at the University of Alaska to watch a movie about Northern Lights…too bad we could not see it in the summer.  Hopefully we can come here again one winter and stay at the Chena Hot Springs Resort where they would wake you up after midnight if Northern Lights were visible.  Locals told us that we should be able to see the Northern Light 2 or 3 times a week.

We did not spend a lot of time there as we had to wait for the free shuttle at 7:10 pm to take us to the Pioneer Park for a delicious Salmon Bake. After we had a yummy and filling buffet with all-you-can-eat salad, grilled salmon and prime ribs with unlimited drinks, we skipped dessert and boarded the free shuttle at 8:40 pm to go back to Bear Lodge.

August 8, 2011 – Auto Museum, Bear Lodge, Fairbanks, Alaska

We were back at the Bear Lodge at 9 pm.  Since it was still bright and beautiful outside, my elder daughter and my husband went to the Auto Museum on site and they said it’s amazing to see so many antique cars that were still functioning.  Too bad he couldn’t test drive them all!  Usually the admission fee was $4 but we got free passes in our check-in package.  They went on the Taiga Trail and took beautiful sunset pictures at Wander Lake.

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Bear Lodge was surely an awesome place to stay. I was glad we stayed there for 2 nights. While the 2 of them were enjoying the beauty of nature…and wrestling with over-friendly mosquitoes, my younger daughter and myself were making full use of the complimentary internet service.  For those who want to know about free WI-FI during the cruisetour, here you are:  Bear Lodge at Fairbanks – yes; Grande Denali Lodge – yes, only at the lobby, but it was not working!! 😦 use the computers in the lobby instead!); Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge – yes; Marriott Anchorage – No, $9.99 for 12 hours, $12.99 for 24 hours.

August 9, 2011 – Fairbanks to Denali on board the Wilderness Express (glass-domed train)

The train rides had been a major component that made us choose this cruisetour.  We were so excited to board the luxury glass-domed railcar of the Wilderness Express to travel from Fairbanks to Denali.

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We had to meet at 7:30 am to catch the 8:30 train.  Regarding luggage, all we had to do was to put it outside our room by 7:10.  Then the driver would go back to Bear Lodge and pick it up after dropping us off at the train station.  The coach will be driven by Michael to Denali.  They would unload our bags at the Grande Denali Lodge and deliver them to our rooms.  The way RCI handled our bags was just incredible.  They gave us 2 coloured labels, one was for our carry-on and the other one was for storage.  While at Bear Lodge we had to pack a carry-on with everything we would need for the next few days.  All items that we didn’t need would be stored and locked in the luggage compartment of the coach.  We would be given all our bags in Anchorage at the Marriott.  On the day of embarkation, we did the same and left our bags outside our room.  Our luggage would be picked up at the Marriott and delivered to our stateroom on the Radiance.  It was super convenient for us!

Since my family was the “youngest” on the tour (average age for the 4 of us only 35, 30+ years younger than the rest), we always boarded the coach, train and bus last, so all the elders could take the front seats.  It proved to be a great advantage as they would call people for meals from the back of the railcar.  I actually knew about this by reading others’ review…a bit of cheating here!  Though being the first group called, it was close to 9 am by the time we could sit down in the dining car downstairs.  After the first 20 passengers were called down, others would have to wait till we finished before they were escorted down to eat their breakfast…or should I say brunch!  The breakfast was at a very reasonable price and the food was delicious too.  Specialty coffee was only around $4 each, tasted great!

Which side should you sit on the train?  Look at these pictures…

Everyone was so excited about the beautiful scenery outside that they did not want to miss any photo opportunity, and started taking pictures when they saw anything different than what they could normally see, like a snowy mountain or a creek.  Sit on the left if you want the beautiful canyon views, the view of the whole train, the view of Goldstream Creek, the coal seams, the view of the Nenana River near Denali with people doing white-water rafting (couldn’t wait to go rafting the next day!!)…actually most of the Nenana River was on the right but it’s not visible from the train, and the view of the town of Denali with the beautiful Grande Denali Lodge on mid-level of the mountain. On the right, you can see the Alaskan mountain range.

The coal seams…can you see the black lines?

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The train along Nenana River with many rafts

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Grande Denali Lodge up on the hill

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At 12:40 pm, we arrived at Denali National Park, and our 8-hour Tundra Wilderness Tour on board a park vehicle (which looked like a school bus with coach seats) was scheduled to depart at 1:35 pm.

August 9, 2011 – Tundra Wildness Tour, Denali National Park – 1:35 – 9:40 pm (Excursion 3)

Yay!  We hit a grand slam for the day, seeing all “BIG 5” of Denali National Park: 1 caribou, 2 moose, 3 wolves (5 times), 3 bears & 12+ dall sheep, plus other little ones that were not part of the “BIG 5” group.  Even the bus driver was very excited as he said he didn’t hit the Grand Slam for quite a while.  Seeing all the above wildlife make this LOOOOOOOOOONG tour very memorable, unforgettable, and totally worthwhile.  We were SOOOOOOOO lucky!  Some cruise tours were only here for 4 ½ hours, and they said their tours were boring and unrewarding, just riding on the bumpy dirt road for the entire time!

Here are the pictures:

First that’s the moose, seen quite far away as I could barely see it using my binoculars! Thanks to my DH’s zoom lens (Canon EF 75-300mm) for getting such a wonderful picture.

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Next was the bear…with the antler of a dead caribou which was eaten by a fox/wolf/bear just a few days ago (according to the driver).

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We did see a caribou during the day:

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Then we saw many wolves a few times, as 2 of them (too bad they were not lovers and did not walk together) were actually walking on the road just in front of the bus at different times and locations.  Have you ever seen wolf poop?  See the ‘before’ and ‘after’ pics…track the greyish-purple lumps that appeared like stones in the “After” picture:

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After

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We saw 4 of the big 5’s and were very satisfied, so we told the bus driver that even if we saw more, we didn’t have to stop as it’s getting quite late (past 8:30 p.m.) and we still had an hour’s journey to go.  On the way back, we did see more, and it completed the sighting of the BIG 5.  We saw dall sheep more than once, high up on the snowy mountains, even the powerful zoom lens could not make them appear bigger:

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And we saw the wolf 2 more times.  Our driver believed it was the same one that we saw earlier on, just going on and off the road.

We were given a lunch box with a sub, an orange and a bag of chips on the bus.  Since we had a big hot lunch at the National Park, we decided to skip dinner and just finished off the lunch box instead. Rooms at the Grande Denali Lodge were not as good as the ones at Bear Lodge, and they were like 3-star motel rooms with all basic amenities.  We were very frustrated as we spent lots of time trying to use the WIFI at the lobby…without any success with connection.  Front desk staff could not help so we ended up using the hotel computers at the lobby.

August 10, 2011 – White-water rafting in Denali (Excursion 4), train from Denali to Talkeetna

This was our first optional excursion in Alaska booked through RCI.  After some wonderful experience on white-water rafting near Golden, BC, this rafting trip on the Nenana River in Denali became one of the highlights of our tours.

Again, we had to wake up before 7 am to get ready for the rafting trip (you should see how grumpy my younger daughter was…she’s a #1 night owl!!).  The trip was about 3 hours long and we had to get back to the coach by 11:30 a.m. to take the Wilderness Express to Talkeetna.  The rafting company sent us a green bus to take all customers (not just RCI’s) to their office in the downtown area.  There were about 20 people on the bus.

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After a brief visit to the Porta toilets (how I hated those!!), each of us was given a whole set of waterproof  gear (dry suit) to put on.  If someone had told me about this earlier, I would have left our aqua shoes at home (3 lbs. of our luggage weight!!). In my backpack I also packed all scarves, hats, mitts, extra sweaters, etc., and I found myself totally ignorant for doing so. We had to leave everything in the lobby (without lockers), so we had to carry all valuables on ourselves. Luckily our jackets had big pockets (yes, we could wear our jackets underneath the dry suit) so it was not a problem for us. It’s important that you do not wear turtle-necks or have bulky clothing round your neck area, as the dry suit had an expandable rubber-tube-like neck covering which was very air-tight and it stayed close to your skin. We were only allowed to bring disposable water cameras, but the company took a great picture for us for $20.

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It was very fun as we did not need to paddle ourselves, basically the guide did it all.  My daughters were not happy about it but I was more than OK with it.  Nevertheless, our guide let my daughters paddle for a little bit on the calm waters and they did struggle for quite a bit – lack of coordination!  We went through many Class II and a few Class III rapids, it was a lot of fun, though a bit rainy at times.  Amazingly, we were all wet on the outside but it was all dry on the inside…great dry suits!  It was cold but we were not even shivering.

The guide dropped us off at a different location on the river and we were all transported back to the company’s office by bus.

By noon we were on the Wilderness Express again.  The elders didn’t learn from their last train experience and continued to get on board first.  As a result, we, being the last ones on board, were the first table to be seated in the dining car for lunch, Boy, we were really hungry and luckily my younger daughter got a free dessert (2 scoops of ice cream with yummy brownie) as the guide was introducing the lunch menu.  How spoiled she was! Dessert before entrée!

This time we were sitting on the right side of the train as my DH wanted to capture the breathtaking views of Mt. McKinley.  We were really lucky to be one of the 30% who were able to see the peak of N. America’s highest mountain.  You think we were psychic to know which side to sit?  Not really! I read past cruisers’ reviews and we bought Alaska Railroad’s Ride Guide for $5 to confirm what we read.  The Ride Guide was on sale on the train from Fairbanks to Denali and it was a great book with clear maps and points of interest.

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After several rainy and dull days, we could finally enjoy Talkeetna with bright and beautiful sunshine!

August 10, 2011 – Flightseeing with Glacial Landing (Excursion 5), Talkeetna

This happened to be the BEST day of our entire 12-night cruise tour.  After whitewater rafting in Denali, we said Good Bye to the wet and dull Alaskan summer days and stepped into the Sunshine World.  This optional flying tour was AWESOME, STUNNING and SPECTACULAR, as only 30% of all visitors to Alaska could see the peak of Mt. McKinley, and we were some of them.  If I knew K2Aviation was the contractor of this excursion, I would have booked the tour online by myself, as K2offered very good summer specials that could save us $50 per person.  Besides, K2 was very flexible with timing, they would just put you on a plane when you’re there, regardless of what the actual booking time was.  We got free pick-up from the Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge, with quite a long wait. So it would not be a good idea to do this excursion in the morning of the day that the coach departed for Anchorage.  Due to the very compact schedule of our cruise tour, I highly recommend booking all excursions through RCI, except for this evening that we were so free and relaxed that we could totally do our own planning.  IMG_3266

The planes were so tiny from high up, we’re landing there?!

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Finally we’re landed…YES, on the glacier!

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We had no problem walking on the glacier as K2Aviation provided overshoes for us.  We thoroughly enjoyed this amazing tour!  It was 9 p.m. by the time we got back to the Talkeetna Lodge and had dinner there, overlooking the terrace with an incredible view of Mt. McKinley at sunset.

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August 11, 2011 – Wildlife Jetboat Tour (Excursion 6), Talkeetna

This was another optional tour that we picked.  At the first part of the tour I found it quite boring…anti-climax to Denali NP, whitewater rafting & flightseeing!  However, the beautiful sunny weather with the sight of the whole Alaska Mountain Range, plus the spotting of different wildlife made the tour more interesting.  The view of Alaska Range, this time on water, was gorgeous!

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There was a very big bald eagle nest on the right side of the boat with at least 2 birds in the nest.

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Just couldn’t believe that was what we saw…a plane flying over the peak of Mt. McKinley…though many pictures taken already, we had to take more to glorify this magnificent sight.  Praise the Lord for His wonderful creation.  These songs kept coming to me, “For the Beauty of the Earth” & “All Things Bright and Beautiful”(both by John Rutter).

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When we got back to town of Talkeetna, we went to Roadhouse to grab a breakfast take-out.  That place was packed with people and it took us 30 minutes from ordering to actually getting the food.  The food was very oily and salty, very typical for a lot of Alaskan dishes, and that was our brunch to eat on the coach from Talkeetna to Anchorage.  One more excursion at the Alaska Native Heritage Centre in Anchorage, then we’d be done our wonderful 5-night cruise tour.  I couldn’t wait to go on the Radiance!

August 11, 2011 – Alaska Native Heritage Centre (Excursion 7), Anchorage

This excursion happened to be the one that I liked the least, probably because we had visited many of the similar villages, and we had learned a lot from our professional guides.  Our tour guides were definitely very knowledgeable.  They even inspired my younger daughter so much that she wanted to be one of them as her summer job!  Nevertheless, we did learn about the 11 different cultural groups in Alaska, enjoyed their performances using traditional authentic musical instruments and props, and their everyday life now.

This is the building and the lake, with different villages set up around it.

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We spent over 2 hours there.  After less than an hour, we finished walking the lake and visited all villages.  We then spent the rest of the time looking at exhibits and watching performances.  Merchandise in their gift shop was the most expensive compared to all the Alaskan places of interest we visited in the last few days.

At 4 p.m., we were driven to Marriott Anchorage, met up with my parents who arrived at the hotel a couple of hours earlier, felt relieved when I found out that both their luggage and themselves were able to arrive safely, especially after a 1 hour delay in Toronto!  There was only 1 direct flight from Vancouver to Anchorage, if they miss that connecting flight they would have to fly down to Seattle and then to Anchorage, it would take another 6-12 hours…how I hate connecting flights! Marriott was a much more luxurious hotel compared to the accommodations of the last few nights.  However, there were basically no shops or restaurants close to it, and it’s very expensive to eat in the restaurant, which provided average food but extremely slow service.  We didn’t have dinner there but our breakfast experience there was not pleasant at all!  Locationwise, Hilton on 3rd Ave would be more desirable with lots of shops and restaurants nearby.

After saying goodbye to our wonderful tour director, Leah, and received from her our upgraded train transfer vouchers to the Seward Port plus our room keys at Marriott, we started to walk to our dining venue.  I made dinner reservation for the 6 of us at Simon and Seafort’s on L Street at 5 p.m.  It took us just 10 minutes to walk there from the hotel.  The restaurant was in an office building with a very small sign outside so it was quite hard to find.  Luckily I printed out directions beforehand.  On their website it stated that they offered panoramic views of Mt. Susitna and the Alaska range, and was famous for their Alaskan seafood.  The best part was that they had a $25 three-course meal if ordered between 4:30 and 5:30 p.m. daily.  Since it was a beautiful day, my parents did enjoy the great views (way better than the views we saw a week ago when it was rainy and gloomy in Anchorage!) but the food was not even up to par.  My soup was not hot enough and it was so salty that I had to ask the waiter to take it back, telling them that the chef might have put double salt in it!  Alaskan food in general was oily and salty, probably because it’s so cold there they need more oil and salt to keep them warm!!

August 12, 2011 – Day of Embarkation, Anchorage to Seward (Train)

Hooray!  Finally this day had arrived!  We’re boarding the Radiance today!  We put all our luggage outside our room at the Marriott and only carried with us our camera bags, a backpack containing a bag of food for lunch, our toiletries bags, our pyjamas and our cruise documents to board the train.  It had never been so easy before!  Kudos to RCI for providing such smooth seamless luggage arrangements!  I’ll really consider joining pre-cruise cruisetours just for the sake of the easy handling of luggage, especially in Europe and Asia!

THE PART BELOW WAS ONE THAT MANY CRUISERS WERE MOST CONCERNED ABOUT REGARDING CHECK-IN (I’ll try to be as detailed and specific as possible):

At 8 a.m. we went to the 2nd floor of Marriott where RCI had a big conference room set up for check-in.  The main purpose was to give everyone their train tickets and assign them a bus # with departure time from hotel to the train station, or transfer vouchers for those that use the bus instead of the train.  Since there were 6 of us, we had priority and special service.  At the reception desk outside the conference room, we were given a number and each of us was given a health form to fill out.  We then went in the conference room, sat at a table and DID NOT NEED TO STAND IN LINE where other passengers were lining up.  An RCI rep came to our table, sat with us and checked everyone’s passport and health form, then took our train vouchers that our cruise director gave us the previous day, and gave us coloured train vouchers with train car # and seat #.  The bus that we would go on departs at 11:50.

After check-in we still had 3 hours to spend before boarding the bus.  My daughters went back to their room to sleep and I had breakfast with my parents & DH at the Marriott Restaurant.  We had to wait for a table for 20 minutes (not that they did not have empty tables but there was no one available to clean them up), then 15 minutes for a menu, then another 15 minutes for a pot of coffee, before we could actually place the order.  Since the service was so slow, we decided to have buffet breakfast instead. When we finished, it was almost 10:30 a.m…a 2-hour buffet breakfast, my goodness!!

Since we still had an hour before our departure time, DH and I went for a walk to enjoy the unusually beautiful sunny day.  We ended up at a supermarket called New Sagaya’s City Market (900 West 13th Ave) which was only 10 minutes away from Marriott.  We bought some food and drinks for lunch on the train.  On our way we went past a beautiful park and saw a reindeer in a fenced area of a house.

Back to the Marriott we woke our daughters up (first time for us to be in connecting rooms in 5 days, they were usually in the rooms next to ours), got all our belongings and went back to the big conference room where they called each bus by colour and time.  An RCI rep would escort the whole busload of passengers downstairs to board the bus, very efficient and well-organized.

At the train station which was adjacent to the airport, we waited in a spacious lounge where lots of tables and chairs were set up.

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At around 12:30 p.m. they called us by car # and we were on the train.  If your seats were C & D you would be facing the front, A & B sat directly opposite to C &D, and ABCD shared one pretty big table.  My family sat together and my parents sat next to us with another couple.  RCI had all our seats pre-arranged so we could be together and got the tickets with printed seats when we did the check-in at 8 a.m.  I couldn’t be more thankful to our tour director as she did communicate with RCI continuously to allow such perfect arrangements so we could travel with my parents who were not on a cruisetour. Lots of passengers who had booked the bus from Anchorage to Seward were asking for upgrades at the Marriott and were not successful in securing any train seats.  They should have asked their travel agents to book their pre-cruise stay and specify “Hotel with Train” instead of “hotel with bus”.  Calling the regular RCI booking line would not be helpful when it’s about Alaska sailings, ask for transfer to Alaska Cruisetour Help Desk.

The scenery of this train ride from Anchorage to Seward, IMO, was the best out of all the train rides we were on.  The beauty of the glaciers and canyons was unbelievable. Most of the beautiful scenery happened to be on the left side of the train where the even number seats were.

This is not a postcard!

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One of the many waterfalls pictures

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After a 4 hours’ journey (1:00 – 5:00 p.m.), we finally arrived at Seward’s cruise terminal.  The train stationed right next to the terminal building and we were lucky to be the second car that got called off the train for check-in. Yes, we had to check-in again, this time they still needed to check all documents and issued us our SeaPass cards.  The line was very long but it moved quite quickly.  As Diamond members we did not have to wait in line and were instructed to proceed to a check-in counter right away using the Priority Check-in line for Platinum, Emerald, Diamond, Diamond Plus & Pinnacle members.  We stepped on the Radiance at around 5:30 p.m., went straight to our staterooms one after another, making sure that all our bags were delivered, then grabbed the Cruise Compass and Crown & Anchor’s coupon books and made our way to Cascades Dining Room on Deck 4 to enjoy our 1st dinner on board, right at 6 p.m. (main seating).

August 12, 2011 – on board the Radiance (Day 1 of the cruise portion)

Let’s have some fun now to look at 2 types of staterooms that are quite hard to book for most sailings.  Either you don’t have at least 5 people to stay in the Family Oceanview; or someone grabbed the D2 Oceanview stateroom with a huge balcony (3 times the size of a regular one) faster than you.

First, let’s look at the Family Oceanview #8002 (390 sq.ft) with a sitting area (double sofabed), a bedroom area that had 2 twin beds (convert to a Queen), and a tiny separate bedroom for a twin bed and a pull-down bunk bed.  My parents switched to this room from an E2 midship balcony room for just the 2 of them one month before sail date. Saved them over $200.

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main bedroom with a glimpse of the tiny separate bedroom with one twin and 1 pull-down twin.

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Next there were my room and my daughters’ D2 Oceanview rooms with balconythat were side by side (with no connecting doors), Room #1104 & 1604.  Those rooms were regular D2 rooms with just around 200 sq. ft.  However, our balcony measured to over 100 sq.ft. (more than double of a regular one), it was wonderful for watching Hubbard Glacier with our camera on tripod all set up.  These balcony rooms were located at the aft of the ship…a long walk but they were very quiet as no one walked past them.  We had very good sleeps as no one talked outside our room while walking by, excellent for light sleepers!

This was a picture of my daughters’ balcony that I took from my own balcony.  We stayed there to watch Hubbard Glacier together while maintaining our own little privacy…reading, writing trip journals, balcony dining, etc.!

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After dining, there was a Muster Drill at 8:15 p.m.  My parents Muster station was inside the Aurora Theatre and my family was on Deck 5 Aft.  Then we used some of our 20% discount coupons to book our spa services, and attended the Welcome Aboard which was late at 10:45 p.m., with some pretty entertaining juggling tricks.  Looking forward to Hubbard Glacier on Day 2!

August 13, 2011 – Hubbard Glacier (Day 2 of the cruise)

I went scrapbooking with my daughter at 9 a.m. after a quick breakfast at the Diamond Lounge.  The specialty coffee machine there made very good coffee all day long, even when the lounge was close.  We could just use our SeaPass cards to get in the lounge.  The Concierge, Chris Whiting was very helpful, especially for changing the Whale Watching Cruise from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m.  It happened to have the best views of the whale breaching and their tails.  I’ll show you the pictures later.

Day 2 of the cruise was one of the highlights as we saw Hubbard Glacier.  IT’S VERY IMPORTANT TO BOOK A BALCONY ROOM ON THE STARBOARD (RIGHT) SIDE OF THE SHIP.  Unfortunately we gave up our 3 Starboard side balcony rooms for bigger room size and bigger balconies.  We were really lucky that lots of calvings happened when the glacier was facing us while the ship made its 360 degrees turn.  The sound and the sight were both incredible!

I happened to be at the Spa for my manicure and hair when we were passing the glacier.  The Spa had the best location watching glacier, the seals and the calving! I’ll post the calving pictures in the next posts.

Lovely seals on the ice

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Picture taken from our balcony…the glacier was so close to us!

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Watch the shadowy upside down “V” on the middle left of the picture and see how big chunks of glacier were falling down to the sea – ice calving.

 

Another loud, huge and spectacular calving was coming!

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This was definitely the best “WOW” day that RCI offered to us!

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Here is the view of the whole Hubbard Glacier which is the longest tidewater glacier (76 miles) in Alaska with an open calving face of over 6.2 miles wide.

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I took the above picture from our aft balcony which was totally worth the extra bucks. What an incredible view!

After the 1st formal dinner, we went back to our balcony to enjoy the beautiful sunset, not guaranteed for all sailings due to the highly unpredictable Alaskan weather.

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August 14, 2011 – Mendenhall Glacier, Juneau, Alaska (Day 3 of the cruise)

It was so dumb of me for not checking out the location of Alamo’s car rental office CAREFULLY before reserving it!!! All I knew was it was right at the dock where RCI docked, but I DIDN’T know that it’s the Rhapsody that docked there and NOT the Radiance.  So, if you’re on the Radiance & you want to rent a car, get it from some other car company’s downtown locations where Radiance docked or call Alamo (at AJ Dock – 20 minutes walk from the Radiance dock) so they can send you a shuttle to pick you up.  There was only one person working at the Alamo rental office, so if he/she was out doing shuttle rounds, you’ll have to wait for his/her return.  Alamo gave us a map of Juneau and recommended some points of interest for us to go and visit.  Another point for those car renters: DON’T COMPLETELY RELY ON YOUR GPS AS IT DIDN’T WORK FOR HALF THE TIME – USE A MAP.  There is only one main road along the coast of Juneau that you would use so it’s hard to get lost!

First we drove for about 15 minutes to Mendenhall Glacier (#1 must-see in Juneau).  There was a big parking lot just before the bus stops and a small one very close to the visitor centre ($3 admission) with only about 20+ parking spaces.  From the big parking lot there was a trail to the visitor centre but my parents did not like climbing the stairs up so we only used it when we came back from the visitor centre.

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Though the glacier was receding at a fast rate – 580 m (1900 ft) since 1948, it was still magnificent!

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We used the trail to walk back to the parking lot and saw lots of dead salmons that were eaten by the bears.  Many of their pink eggs were visible in the creeks.  Other visitors saw little bears but we didn’t.  However, we saw a bald eagle standing on the top of a branch very close to us.  We could see it very clearly without using binoculars.

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August 14, 2011 – Macaulay Salmon Hatchery, Juneau, Alaska (Day 3 of the cruise)

Our next stop was Macaulay Salmon Hatchery, situated only 2.5 miles from Downtown Juneau. Bye to Mr. Sunshine here as we experienced the normal rainy August weather of Alaska, though it didn’t rain for the whole time we were there. Get a buy-1-get-1-free coupon from the Tourist Info booth located directly in front of the Radiance after you get off the ship.  Admission was $3.25 per adult or $15 for a group of 5 adults.

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The fish ladder

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Salmons had to jump really high to get upstream.

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Relax, fishies!  You’re there, just stay calm so you can be sorted and placed in the holding tanks, where you lay eggs, then RIP!

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It’s lunch time so we drove our parents and DD’s back to the ship for lunch. DH & I continued to explore Juneau.  Next stop would be The Alaskan Brewery.

August 14, 2011 – Alaskan Brewery, Juneau, Alaska (Day 3 of the cruise)

The Alaskan Brewery was very close to the Salmon Hatchery and easily accessible by car.  If you don’t have a car, the company had a free shuttle that picked up customers from some downtown locations.

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In the brewery, you’re allowed to sample 6 different types of beer.  The sampling glass was very small and cute!

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There was no tour allowed inside the actual work areas.  However, guests could see the machines from a viewing area.

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Then we drove around the downtown area.  There were many one way streets and they’re very narrow.  Although it was cloudy with no sunshine, the Radiance still looked awesome compared to the Silversea’s Silver Shadow (left) that also docked there.

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August 14, 2011 – Downtown Juneau, Alaska (Day 3 of the cruise)

We drove around downtown Juneau for a bit and saw a house roof filled with seagulls.

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We drove to the State  Capitol and saw a Liberty Bell outside.

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Next to the State Capitol was the Juneau Douglas City Museum.

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The round-about in front of Juneau Public Library where Silversea’s Silver Shadow docked was the place we drove past many times during the day.

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After we returned the car, we used Alamo’s Shuttle service (cost $5 per vehicle) to return to the Radiance.  We didn’t see lots of people going on Mt. Roberts Tramway that was right beside the Radiance as it was very cloudy and I guessed there would not be much to see from the top.

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We were going to have a walk around to buy some Alaskan souvenirs but it started to rain very hard so we had to take shelter under the RCI tent.  This marked the beginning of the next few rainy days.

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After waiting for about 10 minutes, we finally got back on the ship and went to Chops for a delicious dinner.  It was one of the best Chops on the RCI fleet, both the service and the food was much better than the one on FreedomOTS!

August 15, 2011 – White Pass Summit and Yukon Rail, Skagway (Excursion 8 – Day 4 of the cruise)

We woke up to a dull and gloomy day. The excursion lasted for over 8 hours. We were to take the coach on Klondike Highway to White Pass Summit, had lunch at Caribou Crossing Trading Post, then took the train from Fraser, B.C., Canada, back to Skagway. The train went all the way to the dock to pick up passengers who went on a return trip, and our coach was also waiting there to pick us up. What a scene with cruiseships, train and coaches together!

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The Klondike Highway was very scenic, though we could only see everything in basically 3 colours: gray, brown and white!

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The bus stopped at the big Yukon sign for us to take pictures. However, the sign was messed up, with the ‘K’ missing and the ‘Y’ turned upside down and placed in the spot where the missing ‘K’ was. What a picture!!!

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This was another beautiful spot on the way to Caribou Crossing or Carcross.

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Lunch at Caribou Crossing was chicken leg and potato with dessert and coffee.  We just walked around the trading post, took some pictures with the training dogs, but didn’t fancy going on a dog sled.  After lunch, we went to the town of Carcross, visited the General Store and bought some souvenirs before boarding the train at Fraser, B.C.

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It started to rain when we were boarding, making most of the pictures blurry and dull.  So we bought a DVD and a White Pass & Yukon Route Guide Book for $20 and got a White Pass and Yukon Route cap as a free gift.  The picture below was taken at Denver where hikers were picked up after a day’s outing to Denver Glacier along the Skagway River.

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The railway was a masterpiece in civil engineering.  In 1994, the American and Canadian society of Engineers jointly declared the White Pass and Yukon Route an International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark – one of only 34 worldwide.  Other such landmarks include the Eiffel Tower, Statue of Liberty and the Panama Canal (quoted from pg. 14 of White Pass & Yukon Route Guide Book).

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It was still raining when we got back to town, so we didn’t have a chance to walk around Skagway. However, we drove by a lot of areas in the morning and learned some history from our coach driver/guide. Her narration was clear and entertaining!

Whale watching at Icy Strait Point on the following day…accompanied by more and more rain!!

August 16, 2011 – Whale watching, Icy Strait Point (Excursion 9 – Day 5 of the cruise)

We originally booked the 7 am whale watching tour through RCI, but got switched to the 11 am tour as the Diamond Concierge, Chris, said the 11 am tour had only 50 passengers (100 less than the 7 am one).

Binoculars were placed on the seats and the marine guide provided us with lots of info regarding marine life.  Many passengers came back from the 7 am tour and said they didn’t see much but we were sooooooo lucky as we saw whale breaching many times.  Their tails were so beautiful!  Even the marine guide on board said that was one of his most rewarding trips in 3 months!  It was unfortunate that we could only take pictures from inside the boat as it was raining very hard…non-stop rain for the whole day!  Sorry for the black & white pictures!

First we’d start with some seals, enjoying the rain on a lighthouse.

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Here comes the whales!

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Don’t miss the tail – a beautiful episode!

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Since it was still raining hard when we got back to Icy Strait Point, we just walked around the Cannery but did not go to the town of Hoonah.  It was the 2nd formal night so I went for some more spa services (still had to use the rest of my discount coupons as I had 6 from my family members).  We ate at Samba Grill that night, delicious! While having dinner, the sun shyly came out for a little bit, accompanied by a half rainbow!  Finally, no more rain…just realized we had only one more port left, Ketchikan, before Vancouver!  Time flies!

August 17, 2011 – Misty Fjords Flightseeing Floatplane Tour, Ketchikan (Excursion 10 – Day 6 of the cruise)

We got beautiful weather again!  After an early lunch on our balcony, we got off the boat and waited for our private floatplane tour with Seawind Aviation. As there were 6 of us on the 6-seater floatplane, we got $10 family discount per person, over $100 cheaper than booking through RCI.  The Kamm family (owner of Seawind Aviation) was very friendly.  Steve was a great pilot with the smoothest landing on water.  Lesley picked us up from the Visitor Centre right beside the ship and recommended many great places of interest for our walk-around after the flightseeing, including the famous Creek Street, where lots of brothels were situated during the Gold Rush.  Steve said the clouds were so low and the wind was so strong on the previous day that they had to cancel all flying trips…lucky us!

This was where we boarded the floatplane.

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Beautiful scenery

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Misty Fjords

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Water landing

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Aerial view of the Radiance in Ketchikan

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August 17, 2011 – Creek Street, Ketchikan (Day 6 of the cruise)

We could finally go shopping in the last Alaskan port, Ketchikan.

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There were lots of totem poles in town.

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Creek Street with many gift shops.

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Those who don’t want to walk can rent this cute little thing to explore the town.

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Bye! Beautiful Alaska! Thank you for an amazing trip!

August 18, 2011 – Inside Passage (Day 7 of the cruise)

Last day at sea! Last day to enjoy this beautiful newly renovated ship!

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Last day to awe at the spectacular scenery of the Inside Passage!

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August 19, 2011 – Debarkation (Day 8 of the cruise)

We woke up to find ourselves in Vancouver again.  What a lovely port!

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After we had breakfast, we lined up to leave the ship at 9 a.m., and we got to the airport before 10 a.m.  Getting a minivan at the Vancouver cruise port was really easy.  Although the van could only seat 4 people the most, it could accommodate 6 people’s luggage.  Our daughters took the Skytrain to Richmond,  DH and I took my parents to the airport.  The taxi cost less than $25 but we gave the driver a big tip as we had so much luggage.

At the airport there were 2 counters especially for cruise passengers between the Domestic and USA check-in areas.  We had to wait for about 30 minutes in line before saying goodbye to my parents.  There was still a wait time of 1 ½ hour before their 12:30 flight.

We went to Enterprise to pick up our last rental car (it’s the 5th one) of the trip as we were going to spend 3 more days in Vancouver.   Silly me again!  I didn’t know that Enterprise’s office was actually off the airport.  We had to go past the airport parking lot where ALL other car rental companies were and called for the Enterprise shuttle.  No wonder Enterprise’s rate was so much cheaper than the other car rental companies ($13.50 per day for a standard size).  Make sure you allow extra time for pick-up and return if you rent from Enterprise.  The office was about 10 minutes from the airport, close to the casino and Costco.

August 21, 2011 – Vancouver to Toronto

Last shot of this trip…stunning aerial view of Toronto at sunset…never knew Toronto is so beautiful!  We could finally sing, “Home, Sweet Home!”

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