When you plan a trip for longer than a weekend, think Alaska. Now is the perfect time to cruise the Inside Passage. Experience the dramatic landscapes of the last frontier — snow-capped mountains, majestic glaciers and glistening seas. And photograph the whales, seals, bears, bald eagles, and other creatures large and small that make Alaska their home.
Alaska is steeped in history. If the Gold Rush excites you, then southeast Alaska is the place. We recently sailed on Royal Caribbean’s Rhapsody of the Seas for a seven-night, eight-day cruise with stops in Juneau and Skagway in addition to Victoria, B.C. and Seattle, where we boarded and disembarked. The ship just emerged from an infusion of $54 million to upgrade the experience. 866-562-7625, www.royalcaribbean.com
The ship has about 1,000 staterooms — choose from interior or exterior views, smaller inside cabins or spacious suites. We opted for the outside stateroom with balcony — all the better to whale watch, see the glaciers and gorgeous scenery and be up-close when the ship docked or departed from port. Spruced up with flat-screen TVs, wireless Internet access (when mountains don’t interfere) and modern furnishings, the cabin was spacious with ample room to store our belongings. The high-tech digital signage throughout the main hallways guarantees you’ll find your way around (as well as find restaurant menus and activities).
On a cruise, there are two options for play — onboard and shore excursions — with much to choose from.
Onboard during days at sea, we were fixtures in the fitness center with its big windows, knockout views, full complement of machines, and group classes. And right outside is the rock climbing wall, where at the top, we rang the bell to signal our success.
The outdoor walking track (3/4 mile per lap) around deck ten can be windy as the ship glides along, but some of the best views are here. Early one morning, everyone was on deck as we sailed up narrow Endicott Arm Fjord to Dawes Glacier. The massive glacier is magical with its deep blue crevasses.
There are both outdoor and indoor pools. The one outside has a large poolside movie screen, and the one in the column-adorned solarium is warm and soothing with Jacuzzis and churning water pools. When all of this becomes too vigorous, head to the day spa for a relaxing treatment. Or sink into one of the ubiquitous lounge chairs to read, take in the views (and the people) or fall asleep.
Traveling with children? Royal Caribbean has you covered with programs especially designed for 6-month-olds up to a teen center for the “older” set.
Entertainment abounds onboard. The Broadway Melodies Theater boasts two shows daily including original productions and live comedy performances. Learn new dance steps from ballroom to disco. And on deck four in the lobby of the Centrum (the towering atrium), enjoy live music. At various times, artists soar through the Centrum’s five stories. If that’s not enough excitement, try your skill at karaoke or your luck in Casino Royale.
There are excursions in every port for all kinds of adventures at different price points. Our first stop was Juneau, Alaska’s capital. Born during the Gold Rush, it maintains its old-town feel.
Only minutes from the ship, we boarded a seaplane to Taku Glacier Lodge. The 30-minute flight took us inland over five vast glaciers, snowy mountains and spectacular wilderness until we landed on the Taku River. At the lodge, we feasted on just-caught and grilled wild Alaskan king salmon with delicious house-made sides. With a colorful history, the lodge strives to maintain the spirit of its adventurous owners. 907-586-8258, www.takuglacierlodge.com.
Once gold was discovered in the Klondike region, Skagway (our second port of call) became home to thousands of prospectors before their 500-mile trek to find treasure. From here, we rode in the vintage parlor cars of the famous White Pass and Yukon Railway. Constructed in 1898, this narrow gauge railroad traverses almost 3,000 feet of elevation change through tunnels and by magnificent valleys and waterfalls. 800-343-7373, www.wpyr.com
Victoria, B.C., our third port of call, is a cosmopolitan city with a small-town feel. We visited the gorgeous Butchart Gardens (866-652-4422, www.butchartgardens.com), internationally recognized and dating from 1904. Then we chose the plush surroundings of the Empress Tea Lobby at the Fairmont Empress Hotel (866-540-4429, www.fairmont.com) to celebrate Victoria’s afternoon tradition.
Onboard shopping is easy, from a poolside “sidewalk” sale or via strolling the shops on deck six for clothing, jewelry, art, and more. The Alaskan ports of call depend upon much of their income from cruise ship passengers, and there are many available shopping options.
It’s true what they say about food — there’s plenty onboard. If we wanted a large assortment served buffet style, we chose the Windjammer Café. Situated at the front of the ship, it was a spacious area to enjoy the scenery. The Park Café, located in the solarium, serves lighter food — fruit, salads and sandwiches — along with the views.
For dinner, there’s the Edelweiss Restaurant in the main dining room for more traditional fare with healthful options or several specialty restaurants, each with distinctive cuisine. Giovanni’s Table serves classic Italian family-style. Japanese food, including hot rock cooking, is available at Izumi’s. And for a juicy steak and luscious fish on a cedar plank, try Chop’s Grille. All offer a good selection of international wines.
Our favorite spot for a drink before dinner was the R Bar, steps away from the live music in the Centrum. Here we had handcrafted cocktails like the Cucumber Fizz (gin, St.-Germain liqueur, fresh lime juice, and cucumber topped with soda). During the day, the Schooner Bar has a good selection and views. The Viking Crown Lounge turns into a club after dinner but also is the best spot at sunset when the ship is just leaving port.
Alaska vacation and travel: www.travelalaska.com