I’ve never done a cruise before. I’ve always hesitated when considering one because every other member of my family suffers from motion sickness. I couldn’t think of anything worse that having to deal with that for the whole time. It would not be fun for them, and it would not be fun for me. I have always wanted to do an Alaskan cruise though, so when we decided to go to Vancouver, I was going to take my chance. I only have Simon with me, and I figured that since we would be mostly in the Inside Passage it wouldn’t be too rough.
Day One – Vancouver
We met our ship, Holland America Line’s Volendam, in Vancouver. We were leaving port at 4:30pm, but could board the ship from about 10am. We arrived around 12pm and got onboard by about 1pm after long border control lines caused a bit of a wait. There were two ships boarding at the same time though, so not surprising that it was busy.
We left the dock exactly on time, and spent the evening exploring the ship and settling in. We had booked the cheapest cabin on the cruise which was an inside cabin, so no window or balcony for us. We thought we would likely not spend a whole lot of time in our room anyway.
Our room was on deck two, the main dining room that we would use for dinner was on deck five with many other public areas, and the casual dining room, outdoors area and pool were on deck eight. We spent a lot of time running up and down the stairs between the decks every time we tried to find something – we figured that would ay least help with the excessive food intake to come.
Day Two – Sea Day
We had a whole day at sea to familiarise ourselves with the ship and the routine a bit more. We spent some of the time attending events, such as talks on the wildlife to expect and where to see it, the towns we were visiting and some of the highlights on board the cruise. Simon did an Alaskan beer tasting session, and while he was doing it I spent a little bit of time in a comfy chair with stunning views doing some work – I couldn’t think of a better place to be doing it. The rest of the time I’m fairly sure we were eating! I had been warned in advance that there would be no shortage of food on the ship, and that is even an understatement!
We had a full cooked breakfast and lunch, then there was afternoon tea just like in an English tea house, with little sandwiches, scones and cakes. To top the day off it was formal night with a full four course dinner. In the evening we attended a comedy show followed by a music quiz before falling exhausted into bed. This was to occur almost every day ahead.
Day Three – Juneau
By 7am we were out on deck. The Naturalist on board had declared this to be the best place throughout the cruise to see whales. We were in Stephens Passage on the lookout for Humpback Whales or Orcas. We didn’t see any Orcas, but oh boy, we saw dozens, probably hundreds, of humpback whales. The key to spotting them is to look for the spouts of water spraying up into the air. At first we only saw a few scattered sprays of water, then a tail or two as the whales dived down deep to feed. But we eventually came to an area where the water spouts were so numerous we were in awe. The Naturalist claimed he had never seen anything like it! The only down side was that the whales were quite a distance from the ship, but it was still a sight to behold.
The ship made it’s first stop for our Alaskan Cruise in Juneau, the capital, about lunchtime. We were only here for a few hours in the afternoon and early evening. The number one thing I wanted to do was to visit the Mendenhall Glacier. The most common ways to visit the glacier were as part of expensive tours. I had to make a decision – did I want to spend hundreds of dollars (each) to helicopter up onto the glacier? I once booked a tour to do this at the Franz Josef Glacier in New Zealand, and the tour was cancelled at the last minute because the weather was bad. Since then I have always had it in my mind that I would go back there and try again.
Our other option was to catch the local bus to the glacier, but it stopped about 2.5km from the Visitor Information Centre. Normally this would not be an issue, but with the limited time frame, I was a little worried about the extra walking. So we took the middle ground. There are buses that specifically go from the cruise ship area straight to Mendenhall Glacier. It’s about a twenty minutes drive, and there is commentary (which was actually quite interesting!) from the driver along the way. But still, at $45USD per person for what is essentially a return bus trip, it was quite expensive. We bought our tickets at the booths on the dock and saw three companies offering it, all for the same price, but there may have been more. Buses run in each direction every half an hour.
Just as we arrived at the Mendenhall Glacier we saw a group of people huddled together by the side of the road. Our driver said that normally means a bear! Sure enough, it was a mumma black bear with her two cubs. They were in the nearby creek fishing for salmon. She did not seem all concerned about the people nearby and went about her business. She continued down stream a little, to a location that was great for us because it had a viewing platform elevated slightly above the creek. The babies climbed straight up a tree next to us, and mum fished right below us. We had hoped to see a bear catching salmon, but I didn’t expect it to be this soon!
The Mendenhall Glacier itself is just beautiful. Back when the visitor centre was built, the glacier was right next to in. It has now retreated quite a way and it’s no longer possible to actually get to the glacier from here because a big lake has formed in between them. There are a couple of nice walks though that take visitors firstly to a viewpoint, and secondly to Nugget Falls, a thundering waterfall that flows into the lake. It was a sunny day, and once we arrived at the waterfall, the spray from it was lovely!
We went back into Juneau and walked around the streets. I was amazed to see that every second store sold jewellery. There were two cruise ships docked in Juneau, but it didn’t seem too crowded on the streets. We went into the famous Red Dog Saloon for a drink – and found all the other tourists there too! It looked like a great place to settle in, enjoy the music and relax for a couple of hours, but since it was packed to the rafters, we stayed for a few minutes and then moved on.
Late in the evening we put on all our layers and went out on to deck. It was nearly midnight, but we had heard that the Northern Lights were expected to be really strong the following night. I thought they could also be good a night earlier, and it would give me a chance to play around with my camera. Once thing I hadn’t considered was that we were on a moving ship – there was no way I was going to get a great northern lights photo because they need a long exposure and therefore no movement!
The Northern Lights did put on a show for us, and we were really looking forward to the following night.
Day Four – Skagway
Early the next morning we docked in Skagway. The most popular thing to do here for cruise ship visitors is to take the historic train up through the White Pass. Therefore that was not what we were going to do! And all the reviews I had read were only so-so about the trip. So instead, we booked a full day bus trip into the Yukon, Canada’s frontier. Yes, it was back over the border to Canada for the day!
We spent the day mostly admiring the dramatic scenery while learning about the area and it’s history from our fantastic bus driver and guide. We stopped multiple times, including at the usual “Welcome to the Yukon” and “Welcome to Alaska” signs. We also stopped at lakes, waterfalls, and amazing vistas. The most unexpected stop was at a desert. Yes, you read that right – a desert. The Carcross Desert is only one square mile and possibly the world’s smallest desert.
Lunch was at Caribou Crossing. This is kind of a touristy stop, with lunch, museums, and slightly tacky displays, but best of all, huskys! This is a summer training camp for some of the dogs that train for things like the Iditarod in winter or work pulling sleds for other purposes. Pulling tourists around in silly carts are training runs for these dogs, and I have to say I have never seen dogs show such joy as when the cart pulls up next to their team and they realise it’s their turn to run. They love it! They don’t do this every day as the teams are rotated with those resting.
Then we saw the puppies! Husky puppies are the cutest things ever, but even cuter were two pups that was husky/pomeranian cross! I have no idea how this combination came about, but these cuties looked a lot like huskies, but would not get much bigger than what they were.
There was also a petting zoo with other animals and an area set up to try panning for gold, but we spent too much time with the huskys to look at these properly.
As we were making our way to our last stop before turning back, Emerald Lake, we came across another bear! This one was muching away on grass right on the side of the highway. We stopped and were able to get a few photos before a car coming the other way got a little too close and scared him/her away. This was another black bear, but this was one that is commonly called a “cinnamon bear” due to the brown colour on the back.
Once back in Skagway, we spent an hour or two wandering up and down the main street. There were three cruise ships in town and by now a lot of people had returned from their tours and were doing the same as us before reboarding.
Skagway is a pretty little town with some lovely buildings. We stopped into the Skagway Brewery so that Simon could try the Spruce Tip Blonde beer. Spruce tip beer is a specialty of the region, originally devised to help fix scurvy during the long winters. We also stopped at a little place called Klondike Doughboy, because I just had to find out what Alaskan Fried Bread is. Turns out it’s fried dough covered in cinnamon and sugar. It tastes a bit like a cinnamon doughnut, just not so fluffy inside.
Back on the ship it was dinner and bed for me! I was still suffering from being up half of the night before, and I knew I was getting up again in just a couple of hours. Tonight was the night that the aurora authorities were saying was going to be one of the best in weeks. It was cloudy when I went to bed, so I wasn’t sure whether we would see anything, but when I went out on deck a bit after midnight the skies were clear.
We spent more than two hours out on deck and the Northern Lights came and went. Again it was impossible to get a great photo due to the movement of the ship, so you will have to make do with this one!
This was the best display I had seen of the Northern Lights. Photos always show the colours much brighter than they are seen by the naked eye, but we could distinguish the greens and pinks in the sky. What photos don’t show is the way the lights “dance”. It’s just magical, and I will never get sick of watching them.
Day Five – Glacier Bay Sea Day
Whoever thinks cruises are relaxing clearly haven’t been on an Alaskan cruise when the lights and wildlife and weather are all doing everything in their power to be amazing. After just a few more hours sleep I was back in the Crows Nest before 7am. The local park rangers had boarded the ship and were telling us about Glacier Bay National Park, the history, local people and the glaciers and wildlife we were likely to see. We also learned exactly how quickly some of these glaciers are retreating back up the mountains from the sea.
The morning was spent on deck, trying not the freeze, but not being able to pull ourselves away from the scenery. I took hundred of photos, but I won’t bore you with them all, here are just a few.
One of the benefits of being on a smaller ship is that we were able to get right up close to some of the glaciers. We were also lucky to be in Glacier Bay on September 1st, because that is the first day that cruise ships are allowed to venture close to the John Hopkins Glacier due to the preceding breeding season. As we were approaching, we saw harbour seals sunning themselves on some of the small icebergs, and due to the number of them, our captain decided not to proceed as close as he was allowed. We were about a mile from the glacier when we turned around, but distance is deceiving here and it looked so much closer.
The whole day was spent cruising through ice and glaciers and pristine nature. All in all, the area is stunning and just this alone was worth doing this cruise.
I had this whole idea I was going to bed early, but Simon wanted to go and watch one of the entertainment acts he had discovered while I was sleeping the night before. I decided to join him for a little while. That ended up being longer than I anticipated, and bedtime was again after midnight.
Like I said, who decided cruises were relaxing?
Day Six – Ketchikan
Our last shore stop for this cruise was in the town of Ketchikan. This town seemed to be the biggest of all of the ones we visited, and it was the first time we saw fast food outlets and other well known international chains (like Starbucks). There were five cruise ships in town, and this was the first time we had seen a some of the bigger ships. I think Volendam feels huge with way too many people on it, but it has a capacity of less than 1400 passengers. We were parked next to Norwegian Joy which carries almost 3900 passengers. There was another similar ship too – kind of put it into perspective. (Then I googled – the biggest cruise ship, Symphony of the Seas can carry 6680 passengers! That is way too many people in a small space for me!)
In Ketchikan we first decided to go for a short hike. I was considering the more challenging Deer Mountain hike, but the weather was looking a little dodgy and the top of the hill was totally enshrouded in fog as we disembarked. So we instead made out way to the Rainbird Trailhead.
We made it there, but not without yet another bear encounter! We were happily strolling along the side of a road when a black bear suddenly emerged from the bushes on the opposite side of the road about twenty five metres in front of us. It crossed the road and turned directly for us. I tell you, we nearly died! Luckily it only took a few lumbering steps before heading up a tree. Phew! But we didn’t want to get that close, so we crossed to the other side of the road – and then the bear’s mate also darted out of the bushes. Luckily bear #2 also made directly for the other side of the road and up into the trees! A little too close for comfort really since we were about to head into the same section of forest to do some hiking!
As an aside, we’ve been lucky enough to see bears three times. Others on the ship haven’t seen them at all, including some people who paid hundreds of dollars for a wildlife tour to see them – and only saw one in the distance about a kilometre away.
The Rainbird Trail is listed as an easy hike taking about 45 minutes. I’m not sure I would rate it as easy though. I expect a fairly nice, flat path when I read a hike is easy, but instead this was an undulating path stepping over rocks and tree roots. It was fine for us, but others may struggle if less fit or with mobility issues.
Instead of returning along the same path, we made our way down to the waterfront and walked back into the centre of town that way.
The rest of the afternoon was all about salmon. At this time of year (September) the salmon are returning back up stream to spawn. Once they spawn they all die. Ketchikan is a prime location for this, and the little river flowing through town is just carpeted with salmon. The sheer numbers were unbelievable. Around the banks of the river, in the rocks and almost any other obstacle were dead salmon, adding a distinctive smell of rotting fish to the air. We first had a look at the salmon ladder, a device made to help the salmon get up the creek. They jump up out of the water to get up the steps. Unfortunately we didn’t see any jumping while we were there.
We continued slowly up the creek, just too busy being mesmerised by the number of salmon to walk fast. We were heading to the salmon hatchery, but when we eventually arrived we found it closed. This was not the first thing in town to be closed since it was the Labour Day holiday. It did seem a bit crazy though with so many cruise ships in town that one of the well known attractions was not open.
Instead of the hatchery, we found a craft brewery to spend some time in. Simon tried a Creamy Ale from Bawden Street Brewing Company, which he declared well worth drinking again.
We started back towards the ship, but this time detoured through the historical Creek Street area. Here are some restored houses linked by a boardwalk over the creek. Many of them are now stores and restaurants catering to the tourists visiting the town. Probably the most well known is Dolly’s House, a former “house of disrepute” now turned into a museum.
We left the port, waving goodbye to Alaska and slipping back over the Canadian border, next stop, Vancouver!
Day Seven – Sea Day
But first we have another whole day at sea. I had planned to have a cross between a rest day and a work day today, with just a few small events thrown in.
The main thing I did throughout the day was to participate in the “On Deck for a Cure” event. Every Holland America Line cruise includes the opportunity to participate in a 5km walk around the deck to raise money for cancer. In the last six months more than $6million has been raised from similar walks on every ship. Apart from the fundraising aspect, it’s a good social event and of course it helps to wear off some of those extra cruise calories.
Other than that there was lots of food involved, some whale watching and great views!
All too soon it was time to get organised and pack our bags. We disembark early in the morning and our luggage needs to be out tonight. I didn’t anticipate that, so there was some reorganising to do.
Day Eight – Vancouver
We were already berthed when we woke up and everyone was a little manic as they got ready to leave to ship. Disembarkation started at 8am and we were scheduled to leave with the 8:45am group. We were fairly well organised so went to get breakfast at around 7am and it was just chaos. Too many people were all trying to eat at once and it was survival of the fittest! Oh, there was plenty of food, but tables, cultery, even coffee cups, were hard to come by. We eventually were able to find some of each, ate as quickly as we could and escaped back to the solitude of our room until we were called.
The process of disembarking went really smoothly. I expected to go through customs and passport control, but we just handed our form to an officer and walked right on through. It was just a matter of collecting our luggage and following the crowd and in no time we were back out on the streets on Vancouver.
My First Cruise – the Verdict
I just loved Alaska, and I think an Alaskan cruise is a great way to see at least a part of it because so many of the towns are only accessible by air or sea. Glacier Bay was something special too. The wildlife was just amazing, and the opportunity to see the Northern Lights again was priceless
As for the cruise itself, I feel a bit ambivalent about it. There was nothing bad about it as such, but I didn’t love it. I think I’m just not meant to spend so much time in close quarters with so many other people. Always looking for a table/seat was tiresome, as was standing in lines. The food was mostly lovely, but who really needs to eat like that for such an extended time? Yes, I know these were my choices and I could have ordered room service or gone to a more formal restaurant, but those have their downsides too.
I’ve heard that I need to go on cruises with more sea days because there is more time to relax, but I’m not sure. It’s the nature and getting off the ship I liked the best. I also struggle a bit with the over-tourism aspect of cruising, and I don’t enjoy knowing I am contributing to that.
Will I go on a cruise again? Probably, but it’s not going to be my most common means of travel.
Want to read more about my time in North America? Try these posts
Travel Diaries – Vancouver (Part one)
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Josie is a forty-something budget traveller. She only discovered travel in her late thirties, but since then has travelled extensively including taking an adult gap year. She is now based in Australia and loves sharing all she has learned about travelling on a budget but with the comforts a Gen Xer requires.