It started as a dream. A little one that seemed to grow as time passed. We’re not hugely adventurous vacationers…though we want to be. Our travels haven’t taken us much further south than Gulf Coast Florida beaches (there was the Cancun honeymoon though). Williamsburg was our great “let’s head east” trip. Heading west means we’re going to Texas to visit family. And does North Carolina count as “north”? So when I started dreaming about possibly taking a cruise one day, it felt like just that. A dream.
I had all sorts of reasons why the likelihood of this cruise ever blasting out of dreamland would come to be. I have claustrophobia and I’ve never seen cruise ship cabins bigger than a thumbnail! And don’t get me started on motion sickness. I wore those lovely motion sickness bracelets the entire time we were at Disney World because those Teacups spin mighty fast!! The thought of being cooped up in a cracker box while barfing up my breakfast for 3 days wasn’t terribly appealing. Then there was the cost of taking our family on such a trip and well…..
Nonetheless, as more and more friends talked about their love for cruising and how fabulous it all was, my desire to try sailing the big blue-green pond never really left me. And as I learned more about Alaskan cruises and saw all the magical photos my friends had taken on their Alaskan adventures, I knew that if one day I actually lived the fulfilled dream of cruising, it would be to Alaska.
I knew God would have to step in to make this dream happen simply because there were way too many preconceived obstacles floating around in my head. I’d likely be sea sick the whole time. We’d be stumbling all over each other in our way too tiny room. Blah blah blah!
As our 25th anniversary year approached, though, for some reason I forgot all about the lame barriers I had put before myself and declared out loud to my family, “No need for any fancy party or extravagant gift for our anniversary. We’re going on a cruise to Alaska.” From my lips to God’s ears, I guess, because He made it happen.
As I was busily planning our next summer beach trip earlier this year, my husband declared that he was taking me on that dream cruise to Alaska for our anniversary. He was in contact with a travel agent and the wheels on this trip were already spinning. We’d take Holland America’s Oosterdam from Seattle for a 7 day Inside Passage cruise up to Juneau and Hubbard Glacier and back.
I almost couldn’t believe this was happening. It would be a trip so full of firsts, it was doubtful I could keep up with them all! We’d be further from home than we’d ever been together and we would have long stretches of time where we couldn’t even contact our family.
So with no other cruise to compare it to or any other trip to the Pacific Northwest/Alaska in our back pockets, here are a few of my impressions. Was it as dreamy as I’d hope??
In one word… Y E S !!!!!
Now because I have a difficult time keeping any sort of response to just one word, here are the rest of the words…and a few photos of our adventure! (I apologize in advance if this becomes a Word Press Long read and you’re not in the mood for a long read!) I’ll label each section with what it’s about so if you don’t what to know about Seattle, you can move on to the next section and so on.
Our cruise started here. So fun because this was another first for us with this vacation. We spent two extra days in Seattle , trying to do all the “iconic” Seattle things. I expected to be reminded of Grey’s Anatomy the whole time I was there . But there was only one moment where I even vaguely thought of my favorite hospital drama….and it was on the other side of Pike Place Market while we were sitting on the deck overlooking the pier. Remember the episode where Meredith “drowned” and almost died? How many times has she “almost died” anyway? Anyway, I didn’t actually take a picture of the pier because big old majestic Mount Ranier became the boss of where my eyes would land every time it was in view. Definitely one of my favorite Seattle things! How is it that I only have two photos with my new favorite mountain in them? I guess I”ll need to go back!
Besides staring in awe at this unreal looking snow covered beauty , we did a few other great things in The Emerald City that I can recommend to future travelers. These were our “go to’s”.
- Pike Place Market! But be prepared for the smell of fish everywhere….catch one if it flies by you! Also be prepared to face the desperation of the homeless in the city and the strip club across the street. These things threw me , to be honest. Regardless, just experiencing the atmosphere , the FLOWERS, the fish market, the produce and the water views was not something I’d want to miss. Oh, and buy your bottle of wine for your cruise while you’re at the market! Amazing locally made wine ! If you wait and buy your wine on the ship, expect to double your price per bottle!
- The Space Needle ! We took the monorail from near our hotel to get there. Sadly (or embarrassingly!), I really had no clue what the Space Needle was all about before we got there. I didn’t know it was built for a Worlds Fair. Or that it was built so quickly by men who really had no protection from falling off…yet didn’t! The views from the top, of course, were spectacular. The revolving glass floor moves ever so slowly and was a fun and different view from underneath your feet. You can get a snack at the top and a cup of Starbucks coffee…of course! There’s a virtual reality experience available for no extra cost if you’re dying to know what it would be like to bungee jump off the Needle…I wasn’t. But I appreciated the fact they didn’t charge you more to do this. The gift shop is great and full of every imaginable Space Needle souvenir you can imagine. I got a shirt. Because, you know, why not?
- Chihuly Garden and Glass! We almost skipped this because we’ve seen a Chihuly collection at the Atlanta Botanical Garden. But we were both so glad we did this. So much beautiful artwork in there. And it was all sitting out, unprotected from being bumped off its pedestals or shelves by curious little(or big) hands! There was a sign telling people not to touch and that was all. But since I wasn’t stepping over any shards of broken glass, I guess the visitors that day were careful and obedient! This is a definite must see if your eyes delight in beautiful, colorful, imaginative glass work! It was all just stunning. And conveniently located right next to the Space Needle, it was easy to get to.
- The Museum of Pop Culture (or MOPOP) was the last thing we saw in Seattle. This was on my husband’s “must do” list and I’m glad it was. The building itself is so fun and unique that you just know it will be filled with great things. And if you’re a fan of the music of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Jimi Hendrix and Prince you will super love spending time there! We explored all the musical highlights of the museum but found ourselves too exhausted to see the other areas, which included Fantasy, Horror, Sci Fi, Movies. I probably would’ve enjoyed this more than the music exhibits but the old dogs were barking!
The Ship..MS Oosterdam
Next, the ship!! As I said before , this was our very first cruise so we have nothing to compare it to. But I have a strong feeling that we spoiled ourselves to any other cruise line or ship in one fail swoop here. As “older adults” traveling without children, this ship was perfect! While there were things for kids to do on the ship, the entertainment was certainly geared more towards adults. There were no water parks or go karts or zip lining or anything like that. Just a couple of swimming pools…which were always full of kids. And by “full”, I mean a couple dozen. I know there was a Kids Club on board but since we took zero children with us, I have the same amount of knowledge of what exactly happens in said Kids Club.
So some highlights of the beautiful, magnificent MS Oosterdam from the eyes of this first time cruiser.
- Its size was perfect. According to good old Google, the ship holds 1964 guests, is 936 ft. long and 105.8 ft wide. In other words, it was big enough to get a good workout in every day with all the walking we did while on board (three times around the Promenade deck was 1 mile!) but small enough to get pretty darn close to Hubbard Glacier on glacier day! Was it so small, though, that we stayed sea sick the whole week? In my research, I found that you are less likely to feel the motion of the ocean in larger ships. When you compare the size of the Oosterdam to , say, a Royal Caribbean ship that holds twice as many people , it’s on the smaller side. So yes, we could feel the movement of the sea but it was only bad on our one sea day. On that day, we couldn’t walk in a straight line if our lives depended on it. The ocean was rough and it showed on board. I never got sea sick or even felt a twinge of discomfort but from the low attendance at dinner that night, I’d say I was one of the lucky ones. Can I just say that taking one doTerra DigestZen capsule a day may have been my lifesaver! After that one tricky day, it was smooth sailing the rest of the week!
- We were offered a cabin upgrade a couple weeks before the cruise and we took it. Remember the claustrophobia issue I mentioned earlier and my certainty that all cruise ship cabins were cracker boxes? Well, our room for the week was just evidence to me of how God sees me and cares for what concerns me. The Signature Suites on the Oosterdam are H U G E!! Yes, our room was very large. It had a King size bed, a sitting area with a sofa and coffee table, a desk with shelves, an additional desk area that made a perfect “vanity”, two bedside tables, three closets, plenty of drawer space , a large bathroom with a separate shower and a jetted tub plus double sinks. AND we had a large balcony with plenty of room. The bed was super comfy and in all honesty, the cabin itself was as big and cleaner than the Westin hotel room we stayed in while in Seattle. It was cleaned no less than twice a day by our amazing room stewards. Who cleans their room twice a day? I miss that!
- Speaking of our room stewards….oh man! So kind! So gracious! Always smiling! They’d see us from the other end of the mile long hallway and they’d wave and call out our names. Actually, all the crew members and staff were great people. We didn’t pass a single person with a Holland America name tag on who didn’t greet us . And can I just say that the vast array of accents we were greeted with was amazing. The Oosterdam is staffed from 38 unique nationalities. We loved that! We were personally served by precious souls from Bali, France, Jamaica, India, Indonesia, England, Norway, France … just to name a few!
- I had heard that the walls of cruise ship cabins were super thin. Hmmm….we barely knew we had neighbors. Not once did we hear noise from the cabins on either side of us. The only time we ever over heard conversations was while we were all sitting outside on our balconies at the same time. Our cabin was so quiet!
- The ship was decorated in a very classic, beautiful, ornate way. I loved that it so often felt like a throw back to a different era. It was also exceptionally clean. Maybe that’s because there was ALWAYS someone cleaning something. Every time we left our room, we’d find people cleaning the banisters or the windows or vacuuming the hallways. Almost motivates me to keep my house cleaner when I think about it…almost!
- The entertainment was delightful to our music loving souls. From string groups playing movie tunes at Lincoln Center Stage to dueling piano playing singers sharing songs from many decades in Billboard Onboard to the more upbeat music at BB King’s Blue Club, we enjoyed it all. We danced. We sang along. We drank adult beverages. But it wasn’t all about the musical entertainment. There was Justin Rupple, who is a comedian and voice actor; Jessica Jane, who is a “Magical Entertainer”; and in America’s Test Kitchen, which rivaled any cooking show on TV, we learned to cook many delectable treats. All good stuff!
- A couple of little extras we had on the ship were 7 day laundry service. We’d gather up our dirty clothes , make a call and our room steward would pick it up. By the next morning, our clean clothes would be returned neatly hung up or folded. Sigh….I miss that! We also had 7 day access to the spa, which included a hydrotherapy pool and heated ceramic loungers with an ocean view. After a day of exploring the ship or one of our ports of call, it was soooo nice to be able to relax in the spa. The only disappointing “extra” we had was the internet service. We got our money back for that one.
- Lastly, the food. One of the things I so commonly hear from cruisers is how incredible the food is…how they want to eat all the time…how it’s so readily available. It’s almost as if the food itself becomes a planned activity to look forward to. Don’t get me wrong. Our food was good. There was only one meal we had that turned my stomach a bit….but I don’t do food with eyes! Or mushrooms that literally taste like dirt! But everything else was tasty…just not “slap yo momma” good . So we were able to eat reasonably without feeling like we were missing out if we weren’t constantly eating. Neither of us gained any weight on this cruise. I hear that’s pretty uncommon! Big thanks to the No Sugar Added Desserts every night!
Juneau, Hubbard Glacier, Sitka, Ketchikan, and Victoria
So how do you choose a cruise with a fabulous Alaska itinerary? If you’re planning your very first cruise to The Last Frontier , just pick one. It’ll be amazing no matter where you stop to stretch your sea legs! Seriously, it didn’t take me long to decide God must somehow favor Alaska . Because He gave this state an abundance of breath taking , amazing, glorious, awe inspiring scenery. The phrase “pictures don’t really do it justice” must’ve originated with the first person who shared pictures of a snow topped Alaskan mountain or icy glacier. Oh blessed Alaska Dwellers, please never take for granted the beauty you live within!
Now , somehow, I’ll try to put into words some of our favorite times in our five ports of call. After that one rough day of sailing through choppy water, our first stop was Juneau. We opened our black-out curtains that morning to our first view of Alaska land and even though it was cloudy, the beauty before us was stunning. We didn’t arrive in Juneau until after lunch time, so I spent that morning getting a pedicure in the spa. Yes, I’ve had a million pedicures in my life so why pay more to do something I can so easily do at home ? Because I can safely say I’ve never had a pedicure with such a view! And honestly, here I sit two weeks later and my feet are still baby soft! So y’all, pay the extra bucks for a luxurious foot treatment with a view!
Our only disappointment of this trip happened in Juneau. I had spent a good bit of time polling friends and researching the best excursions. The one excursion that 90% of my friends loved the most or regretted not doing was a helicopter ride to the top of Mendenhall Glacier with a guided walk along the top. This particular excursion was highly rated and had even been featured on Good Morning America. We went back and forth over this one because it was so pricey! We decided it would be the most “Alaska-y” thing we could do so we bit the budget bullet and decided we wouldn’t regret it. However, as we pulled into the Port of Juneau, I had a feeling our dream excursion wouldn’t happen. It was drizzly and overcast with thick clouds. Here is where I have a BIG TIP to share...plan ahead and book the excursions you really don’t want to miss . They do fill up. However, have a Plan B in mind in case something happens. Like thick cloud cover that helicopters can’t see through. Yes, we were super bummed that our first excursion was canceled. That one disruption in our plans for our Juneau day changed the whole course of my carefully planned day. Being flexible while traveling is super important as well. There’s just no room for grumpiness over things you have no control over! Determined to not let this ruin our day, I pouted about this for as long as it took us to walk to the booth selling whale watching excursions…which was about 60 seconds! We booked our Evening Whale Watching Excursion as our Helicopter trip was being refunded. Yes, the refund was nearly instant so we were grateful for that! Booking all our excursions through Holland America came with a big safety net…we’d not be left behind in a port and refunds for canceled excursions would be quick!
Because our whale trip would be in the evening, we had time to get a $90 round trip bus ride to Mendenhall Glacier, which was 20 miles away. Seemed like a lot to spend but it was worth it. The glacier and the waterfall were truly a sight to behold. And making the 2 mile round trip hike to these beauties in boots not my own showed me that perseverance in spite of blisters pays off ! We spent some time ooing and aahing over the glacier before we hiked back up to the visitors center where there was a small exhibit on all things glacier . We were a bit rushed, though, because we had to be back on that bus in time to get us back to the port where our whale watching excursion would begin.
As much as we had been looking forward to that helicopter ride to the top of this big old glacier, our “Plan B” whale watching excursion ended up being my favorite thing we did on this trip. After we boarded another bus to take us to a different pier and I was assured there would be warmth, food, drinks and bathrooms on our little boat, I was ready for this experience. Our “little boat” had two levels of heated cabins where they had a really nice spread of food , including some Alaskan delicacies. We took our seats but as soon as the captain spotted the first whale, we braved the elements and headed to the outdoor decks to get a better view. This was our only super “Alaska cold” cold time. I never took myself to be someone who would be mesmerized by the site of any sort of creature in the wild…until that first mighty whale poked his humpy back out of the water for us to see. Whale after whale showed their tails and with each one we were more awed. But it wasn’t just the whales that thrilled us. The mountains surrounding us, the clouds, the mist, the rainbows…all just visually stunning. So much of God’s glory wrapping us up in a big old hug to our senses. Then just for fun, this buoy filled with seals taking a free ride across the waters delighted us with their cuteness! Such a great time!! So whale watching somewhere on your Alaskan adventure is a must!
Our next day was Hubbard Glacier, which was basically a sea day with the most spectacular views ever! This was a day we were prepared for more “Alaska cold” , but as the sweet waiter roamed the deck of the ship with his “free hot chocolate when you buy the $5 souvenir mug” , not many people were buying because they were too busy taking off all the coats and hats they were wearing. It was a strangely warm day. High 60’s and sunny! Not exactly hot chocolate craving weather. I guess it wasn’t a good day for pea soup either. I heard Holland America cruises also offers free pea soup on the deck on Glacier Day but I never saw this happening. Because God blessed us with such spectacular weather that day, the captain was able to steer this big old ship closer to the glacier than he’d been able to get in a while. Of course, he may tell all his glacier loving passengers this to make them feel like they’re getting the best up close views. But seriously, we were able to get much closer than I anticipated. We spent some time out on the main decks of the ship but we were basically having to compete with others for the best views. So we ordered a pot of coffee, grabbed some snacks and headed back to our suite where the views from our own private balcony were ours and ours alone. No competing for that primo rail spot! From our balcony we could hear the thundering sound of the glacier preparing to calve. Then it was like a a game of “Where’s Waldo” as we scanned the surface of the glacier to find the spot where the ice would break away and fall into the ocean. This is yet another Alaska thing I had no idea would grab me so sweetly and entertain me for hours. As our ship finally pulled away from Hubbard Glacier that day, I was already longing to go back.
Our next stop was Sitka. My only knowledge of Sitka came from the movie “The Proposal”, which took place in Sitka but wasn’t actually filmed there. I never saw any Ryan Reynolds or Betty White wannabes. Most of what we saw really didn’t look much like scenes from the movie. Except perhaps the water and forest scenes. And the Native American regalia Betty White wore in the dance scene. Remember that? Our one excursion in this cute fishing town was a tour called “Historic Sitka”. We were lead by a wise native Sitkan of Tlingit Indian descent. He took us to the Sitka National Historic Park where we saw and learned alot about totem poles and Tlingit history from a native woman who shared much of her hand made regalia. Cue the Betty White reference here. We learned from our tour guide that the low man on the totem pole was actually the most important person because the story the pole told was about that “low man”. We also learned a lot about salmon and how they fill the river that runs through the park during their season. We saw bald eagles flying around like they owned the sky. We walked through a refreshingly cool rain forest and saw trees and flowers unlike most we’ve ever seen in Georgia. Our tour guide also took us to the earliest Orthodox cathedral in the New World, which was full of historic artifacts. We went to the Sheldon Jackson Museum and ended with an entertaining Russian folk dance show. Sitka was our only stop with enough time to explore a bit after our excursion ended. So we walked through the two block downtown area and enjoyed a little bit of shopping while being awed by the snow capped mountains, the 60 degree June temperatures and the all out beauty around every corner. We even stopped for a bowl of stew at the Sitka Hotel…a bowl of reindeer stew. I’ll admit I had a hard time thinking about eating reindeer but after the first bite, it became easier! So delicious!
Our Friday stop was Ketchikan. This was adventure day!! Now I’m not much of an adventure type girl but this trip sparked a big old dose of adventure seeking in me that I didn’t even know I had. Our excursion for this day even had this thrill-seeking word in its title…Adventure Karts! Now this go cart riding adventure through the Tongass Rain Forest would take up most of our time in Ketchikan. So we decided to get up super early and explore this adorable town in the hour we had before our excursion began. And it was early. 7am is just early on vacation and by this point in the week, our bodies had acclimated to the four hour time difference between Alaska and home. So we scarfed down a quick omelet (we ate SO MANY eggs on this trip!) and headed to Creek Street, one of the most popular, historic sites in Ketchikan. It was a short walk from the pier to the creek where this stilted boardwalk street nestled itself on a slope. Creek Street is now lined with shops , restaurants and museums but it was once home of a brothel or two. One of the first buildings you walk by is Dolly’s, which is a brothel turned museum. And before 8am, it was one of the few things open for business. As a woman ,authentically dressed for the part, encouraged us to come in for the 15 minute tour, I almost felt like I had been transported back in time and my husband was being “propositioned” by one of Dolly’s house “employees”! We just walked on by, telling her we where short on time! I barely made it past her!
After a quick photo-taking jaunt down Creek Street, we made our way back to the pier where we caught our bus to the Adventure Karts location. Now we were excited for this trip because we really had never done anything like this before. It was a beautiful, sunny day and the temperature was a perfect 65 or so. It would truly be a great adventure…I mean the only restroom available once we got out there was a port-a-potty and some tall trees!! We got to the site where we were suited up with helmets and rain coats. Not a drop of rain in sight or a cloud in the sky but we were told we might want to use the rain gear to cover up our bags and keep our back sides dry on the seats. These locals let us know that the seats of the carts held on to water and in spite of the fact that their town was actually in a drought (in rainy Alaska??), we may appreciate the booty protection. After learning all the safety guidelines and rules of the “road”, our little group set off in our carts built for two, following Duncan, our young guide. As a “gift” to my husband, I let him drive the whole 14 mile path. He’s a little more risk-taking in his driving than I am and I knew full well he’d not have as much fun with my more cautious driving style! Honestly, though, I really just loved being his passenger as we whipped safely through the cool canopy of the forest. The views were obviously breathtaking because we were still in Alaska and all things in Alaska are amazing to look at! We made two stops with our group and had a snack together…a granola bar and water. The water was especially appreciated because the snack we had previous to the granola bar was d i r t !! Because it hadn’t significantly rained prior to our trip, the road we traveled was dry and dusty. And when you combine that with an open cart and fast speeds, well…the term “eat my dust” took on a whole new meaning! By the time we were finished with this seriously fun adventure ride, we were filthy and I was wearing a nice layer of dirt lipstick! Still, I’d do it all over again. Maybe after it has rained, though!
Our last stop before making the final journey back to Seattle was Victoria, British Columbia. Now I made zero plans for Victoria for a few reasons. I was not 100% sure we could get into Canada without a passport. The consensus was split amongst my friends on this issue. All we had were our birth certificates and drivers licenses. Also our time in Victoria was late…6pm to 11pm on a night when we’d be expected to have our bags packed to be ready to disembark the fabulous Oosterdam bright and early the next morning. So we were iffy about doing anything beyond dinner near the port. Yet, when we got up and moving the morning of Victoria day, we decided all would be well and we booked a tour called “Highlights of Victoria.” For the record, you CAN get into Canada without a passport. All we needed was our room key (which was loaded with all the info pertaining to our place of birth) and our drivers license to get off the boat and step onto Canadian soil. Easy peasy! So the good and bad of our tour of choice…it was a total bus tour of the city. Two hours long! The bus was nice, comfy and warm and outside the bus was very chilly and blustery. Even though the bus stopped once to let everyone out to stretch their legs and ooh and aah at some gorgeousness, it was soooo cold the leg stretching was quick! The good part of this tour is we saw a good portion of Victoria, which would’ve been difficult on foot, while learning about the city from our great tour guide. We drove through Beacon Hill Park, full of peacocks! We drove through town and saw The Empress Hotel and flowers hanging from all the street lights. We saw Chinatown…which I didn’t know Victoria had. We drove through gardens and neighborhoods and parks. Victoria has got to be the most beautiful city we’ve ever seen. So clean. Flowers everywhere. It was just spectacular. Definitely a place we want to return to and spend more time. 90% of our Canadian photos were taken from the inside of our moving bus. Not too bad for an iphone camera! While this was a good and informative tour for first time visitors of Victoria, I’m looking forward to seeing Butchart Gardens and maybe a castle or two next time.
Well if you made it this far into this little old blog post, congratulations. You’ve finally made it the end. Thanks for coming along on my walk down memory lane. This was easily the best trip we’ve taken as empty nesters! Over the past two weeks, a lot of people have asked me what the best part of this trip was. And while I want to say all of the above things you just read, my true favorite part was simply spending an entire week with my husband, no distractions. No pulls from the Internet or social media. No messages from work to contend with. Just the two of us having fun together, doing new things together. Remembering why we’ve spent the last 25 years together!
When can we do this again?
Until next time,