Alaska Cruise is perfect mix of exploration and luxuriating

by Karen Rubin and David Leiberman

There is no escaping the thrill you feel as the cruise ship, Royal Caribbean’s Radiance of the Seas, eases away from the pier at Vancouver, B.C., and slides under the Lions Gate bridge, on its way to Alaska.

Alaska is one of the most popular places for cruising, and for excellent reason: there is just the right balance between the opportunity to visit genuinely interesting destinations with appeal to all ages, seeing magnificent scenery that is reachable only by water, and still have all the pure enjoyment of cruising – a literal floating luxury resort with such onboard amenities as spas, climbing wall, fitness center and pools, fine dining, outstanding entertainment, and on and on.

Yes, the balcony is worth it on an Alaska cruise atrium © 2010 Karen Rubin/

The Alaska itinerary is also one of the prettiest. With much of it spent going through the Alaska Inland Passage, there is a constant flow of wonderful scenes from both sides of the ship (a balcony is really welcome here), and you never know when a whale or a porpoise will pop up.

The Alaska cruises tend to attract more active people who seek to be engaged, and the shore excursions that are offered fit the bill – flight-seeing, whale watching, hiking, biking, zip-lining, fishing, kayaking are just part of the exhilarating options available.

What is more, Alaska is also relatively easy to reach; the itineraries are just the right length to accommodate most travelers; and cruising generally, and Alaska in particular, offers excellent value for money.

So, within minutes of embarking Radiance at the port in Vancouver, B.C. (remember to bring your passport), we were exploring the ship.

Launched in 2001, Radiance of the Seas is 90,000 tons with a capacity to carry 2,500 passengers and is actually considered “intimate” in comparison to Royal Caribbean’s Liberty and Freedom class, each the largest ships afloat when they were launched, and the new largest ship afloat, the 5,400-passenger Oasis of the Seas).

It seems that no matter how large the ship, it feels intimate and personal – a trick that is accomplished in the way Royal Caribbean designs its ships and offers its programs. Royal Caribbean also delivers a high level of quality – in dining, in entertainment, in on-board amenities – that you feel you really are getting value for money.

Royal Caribbean's Radiance of the Seas' gives dramatic views down the center atrium © 2010 Karen Rubin/

Our sailing has 2,173 guests – and you really wouldn’t know there are that many people -getting on and off the ship is so efficient, there are plenty of lounge chairs (though this is Alaska, not the Caribbean, after all – not exactly sun-tanning weather) and places to go so you never feel overwhelmed or crowded out.

Radiance of the Seas sails with 854 crew, who hail from 61 nations, including 140 cooks, an Environmental Officer, and an International Ambassador who speaks 7 languages. One of the hallmarks we have found on Royal Caribbean sailings is how genuinely friendly the staff are.

Our cabin, 8146, is utterly gorgeous certainly spacious enough; even the bathroom is attractive. Our stateroom has a balcony – which we enjoy thoroughly because on this itinerary, there is always something to see and you never know when there will be a whale or porpoise streaming by. Part of the time there are the glorious views of open sea, but most of the time you see land on both sides of the ship. the lights, the colors, the possibility of seeing whales and porpoises right outside your stateroom (as we did).

Of Radiance’s 1,050 cabins, 813 are outside and more than 70 percent of those have balconies. I would categorize our cabin as a “value” priced section, to be found in Categories E1, E2 and E3 on Decks 7, 8, 9 and 10. (Our cabin is on Deck 8, in E class.)

The Solarium, a true retreat onboard Radiance of the Seas © 2010 Karen Rubin/

As we explore the ship, I am also struck by the sheer beauty of the features – the veneer of the paneling (which I am told only looks like fine wood, but to be more fire-retardant is really a composite of some sort), the fine art work that is not only stunning but also helps passengers orient themselves on the ship, and extremely pleasing interior decoration. There is even a self-balancing billiard table.

The Radiance of the Seas (the first of four Radiance-class ships) is full of wide-open spaces, and acres and acres of glass, giving glorious views of the ocean, the Inland Passage, boats and villages, and any whales that might pop up. Just about anywhere you stand, you can see something marvelous.

There’s no shortage of things to do and see onboard these cruise ships – you can play a round of golf at the indoor/outdoor golf “country club” with golf simulator; relax in the day spa or work out in the fitness center while gazing out at the water, try the 150-foot high rock wall, join in a basketball game.

There are many wonderful spaces throughout the ship, all visually pleasing, like The Colony Club, a British colonial-style lounge with self-leveling pool tables, the specialty restaurants Portofino and Chops Grille, among the finest in the world, and, adding to the atmosphere, the Casino Royale.

Royal Caribbean's Radiance of the Seas' dramatic atrium is one of the nightly music venues © 2010 Karen Rubin/

The Cascades dining room is two-stories – awesome and not overwhelming, with many cozy spaces and a separate dining room to accommodate groups.

And what dining! There are various dining options ranging from the casual, virtually on-demand Windjammer Cafe (the most flexible to accommodate schedules and whims), to the dining room seatings where the menu is full of intriguing options, the preparations fresh and flavorful, to the specialty restaurants which are beyond compare.

Royal Caribbean has introduced “vitality” offerings on all its menus – healthier alternatives, which are nonetheless as tasteful and interesting as the rest of the menu, so you don’t feel you are sacrificing for resisting richer selections. Just about every preference is accommodated in the 10 entrees (the 11th entree, filet mignon, has a small add-on charge), including vegetarians. Every night, a different bread is featured. Our first night’s dinner features escargot.

After dinner, we take advantage of the entertainment options – the “show” on the first night is an entertaining orientation to the ship; various venues for music of all different types; the casino.

Our balcony comes in handy on our first morning, when I go outside to look at the view, and spot whales just off the ship. They arch, blow water and roll with the waves.

One of the several charming lounges onboard Radiance, with its hallmark: full-view windows © 2010 Karen Rubin/

Our first day, Saturday, is spent at sea, and it is just delightful to rest and enjoy cruising.

One of my favorite places on the ship is The Solarium – another Royal Caribbean feature. This is an enclosed adults-only pool and lounge area that is so restful. It has a fun African motif – massive elephants and jungle imagery – and all you hear is a waterfall of cascading water. The pool is really a giant fountain, yet big enough to swim. It is heated to 80 degrees and wonderful for swimming even when the Alaska weather would not seem conducive (this is Alaska, not the Caribbean, after all). It’s our favorite place to just sit and read.

We also spend time in the fitness center and at the jogging track. Radiance also has that marvelous 150-foot high Rock Climbing Wall, a signature element for Royal Caribbean’s “get out there” active-cruiser philosophy.

Teens also have their own space. “Optics” by day, is where teens can hang out; by night, a teen-only club.

Radiance of the Seas' Portofino Restaurant provides a superb dining experience © 2010 Karen Rubin/

Younger guests will be entertained and enlightened in the cruise line’s award-winning Adventure Ocean and teen programming, with scheduled activities led by a college-graduate counselor beginning as early as 9 a.m. and concluding at 2 a.m.

There is certainly enough to do on the ship – it is fun to stop in at the different music and entertainment venues, and I am a huge fan of the elaborate Broadway-style musical reviews that Royal Caribbean produces.

Colorful Ports of Call

Sunday, we dock at 7 a.m. at Ketchikan, which turns out to be an island, most of which is a rainforest. In fact, the Tongass Rainforest is as big as the state of Rhode Island. We grab breakfast at the Windjammer Cafe so we can be more flexible in our time, and take our plates to outside tables to watch the docking.

One of the many splendors of cruising on Royal Caribbean: big-production shows © 2010 Karen Rubin/

Ketchikan, still picturesquely rustic, originated as an Indian fish saltery, but the town’s major growth began when it became a supply base and entry port for miners during the 1898 Gold Rush to the Klondike. Much of the town’s colorful past is still in evidence, especially in nearby Indian villages, where you’ll see colorfully carved totem poles and hear the fascinating legends that surround them. A short walk through town takes you to the Totem Heritage Center, where you learn the history of totem poles and see some terrific examples.

Our group takes the “Duck Tour” – which is a pleasant sightseeing tour by an amphibious “bus” that goes from land right into the water to get a water view (and spot some owls), with witty and interesting narration from the guides. It offers a good orientation to the town and is recommended for people who prefer a sedentary experience. I would have preferred more time to explore on my own, but I may not have known as well where to go or have appreciated the “back-story”.

So after the tour, we still have a few hours to explore Ketchikan, and find our way to a hiking trail into the rainforest. (Tip: once on land at Ketchikan, you can use your cell phones without the phenomenal satellite charges.)

Portofino is one of the most magnificent restaurants anywhere © 2010 Karen Rubin/

Our route takes us past most of the interesting places we had seen on the “Duck Tour” but seeing it first-hand is completely different.

And so we stop in our tracks at our first view of the salmon ladder – basically the river that flows down the mountain into the sea. Only now, during spawning season, thousands of mature salmon are literally fighting to the death to make it up the ladder to the place they were spawned, to spawn their own eggs.

How they know how to find their way back? Apparently, it is the smell of the water. It is utterly amazing to watch. We find a couple of bridges over the river that gives us the most incredible view.

The salmon are so profuse, a boy beside the river reaches over and grabs one after another with his hands (and yet a newspaper article in Vancouver bemoaned the fact that only one million, instead of the nine million salmon expected, had returned to spawn this year).

Gracious service, stunning presentations, and superb cuisine are main ingredients of the Portofino dining experience © 2010 Karen Rubin/

During the 35 days it takes to get from the sea to the river, the salmon will have nothing to eat, its body starts consuming itself. Then, after laying its eggs, the fish dies. The salmon literally kill themselves to reproduce.

We see hundreds and hundreds of the carcasses of the salmon. Why don’t they harvest the salmon for the bones and oil? Because that would completely up-end the ecology – bear eat the fish; the decomposing bodies provide food for the plankton, which becomes food for the baby salmon, which will spend a year or two in the river before making their own journey to the sea. Then, after a few years in the ocean, they make the harrowing journey back to where they were spawned, to lay their eggs.

This is all a circle of life that takes 5-7 years. Out of thousands of eggs that the female lays, only one to three salmon make it back to original spawning to continue the life cycle.

Salmon, we discover, have been an integral part of Alaska’s culture and economy for thousands of years. Canning salmon is a big, big industry here, and there are several shops in Ketchikan where you can sample some and purchase cans.

We watch transfixed for a long while before continuing on our way to the Deer Mountain Trail, a hiking trail into the rainforest. We walk through a canopy of Sitka spruce and red cedar, blueberries, mosses, lichens. It’s a fairly vigorous climb – the trail rises 1500 feet in the first mile, where there is an overlook (we turn around at what we guess is the three-quarter mile, mindful that we have to get back to the ship at 2:30 p.m.).

Celebrity Infinity docked at Ketchikan, as seen from the amphibious "bus" on the Duck Tour © 2010 Karen Rubin/

It is a fantastic hike that lets me feel as if I have really touched the “real Alaska” and gives us occasional views back down to the water and our ship. On our way, we meet a pair of deer hunters with their rifles.

On our way back, we still have time to stop briefly at the Tribal Heritage Center where there is an injured eagle center and fish hatchery, and walk on the intriguingly named Married Man’s Trail, a legacy of Alaska’s 40 years of legal prostitution, when men cut a trail to sneak in the back door of bordellos, replaced today by some of Ketchikan’s quaintest shops.

We have only a few minutes to dash into a few of the shops before getting back on board the ship, which departs at 3 p.m.

That evening, we get to experience the ship’s specialty Italian restaurant, Portofino. This well worth the $20 extra charge (which includes gratuities) for one of the most spectacular meals, graciously served with the most stunning presentation you will ever have in one of the most beautiful restaurants you will ever see. It is the kind of meal where they serve palette-cleansing sorbet between courses, the skewered seafood is served with panache, and the server asks, “Pepper, my lady?” All the selections are prepared to order.

After dinner, we go to enjoy the show – the popular comedian Durham – stop in at the various music places, and check out the casino.

Easy pickin's: a man reaches in to catch salmon bare-handed, as they frantically try to swim upstream against the rocks and rapids in Ketchikan © 2010 Karen Rubin/

The northbound cruise next goes to Icy Strait Point, Alaska, near the city of Hoonah, the largest native Tlingit Indian settlement in Alaska, and very near Glacier Bay National Park, so you might even spot a humpback or an orca from the shore. A main attraction here is the historic cannery, dating back to 1930, which has been restored; also, the Native Tlingit historical park, and the Alaskan Botanical Garden.

You can also opt for a flightseeing tour of Glacier Bay, or sail aboard a commercial crabbing vessel in the Bering Sea. Another option is to experience what is claimed to be the world’s longest ZipRider zip line – 5,300 feet long with a 1,300-foot vertical drop – that accelerates up to 60 miles an hour to the beach below.

The cruise continues on to Juneau, Alaska; Skagway, Alaska; Hubbard Glacier (Cruising); Seward, Alaska.

Juneau, the capital of Alaska, was founded in 1880 during a gold rush. Today, the former gold-mining town counts among its riches some of Alaska’s most spectacular scenery. Nestled at the foot of Mt. Juneau in the Alaska Panhandle, it faces the water from the mainland side of Gastineau Channel. Several magnificent fjords are located along the channel coast, and the majestic Mendenhall Glacier, a favorite of visitors, is nearby (you can hop a public bus to get there). Popular activities here include panning for gold in the authentic setting of Gold Creek, tracing the route taken by Joe Juneau and Richard Harris in their search for gold over 100 years ago, and looking at the remnants of a century-old mine.

You can also take a floatplane trip that takes you over five glaciers to the Taku Glacier Lodge for a king salmon feast; take a narrated helicopter flight over four glaciers within the Juneau Ice Field; or explore Juneau on foot, following its hiking trails through glacial waterfalls and the largest temperate rain forest in the state.

Next, Skagway, another city which got its start in the Gold Rush of 1898, where you can ride the famous White Pass & Yukon Railroad and visit a gold-rush camp or take a helicopter ride to the Chilkat glacier system. Interesting places to visit include the Skagway Museum & Archives, Gold Rush Cemetery, Lower Reid Falls behind the Cemetery, Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park.

A boy waits beside the salmon run in Ketchikan to grab salmon, exhausted from their ordeal © 2010 Karen Rubin/

The highlight of any cruise through the Inside Passage is when the ship sails to Hubbard Glacier. Six miles wide and 300 feet high, Hubbard is the world’s largest advancing calving glacier. It is also one of the most active glaciers in the area. Sheets of ice separate themselves from the ice field in a process known as “galloping.” When the ice finally crashes into the sea (“calving”), the loud cracking sound, similar to a starter pistol can be heard for miles.

You can see the glacier from 20 miles away. The ship, enters the Bay at about 6 a.m., and comes as close as within a few hundred yards or as far as eight miles, depending upon the condition of the ice. The glacier moves about 450-500 feet a day. The ship spends about 2-3 hours there, and you can see seals by the hundreds.

The northbound cruise ends in Seward, where, if you are taking the cruisetour, the land-portion begins.

Seward is not only one of Alaska’s oldest communities, it is also one of its most scenic, with a historic downtown district filled with quaint shops and art galleries. Seward is also the gateway to Kenai Fjords National Park, and you can take small-boat cruises that bring you very close to glaciers (

One of the interesting attractions in Seward is the Alaska Sealife Center, which showcases local marine life in a natural habitat. Visitors can learn about the complex Alaskan ecosystem while enjoying the antics of sea lions, otters and porpoises. 37 Sailings, 2 Ships

David hikes the Deer Mountain Trail amid towering Sitka spruce in Ketchikan © 2010 Karen Rubin/

Royal Caribbean is operating 37 sailings for the season, its 21st operating in “The Great Land” on two ships.

Beginning in mid-May through mid-September, Royal Caribbean will offer seven- to 14-night itineraries aboard Radiance of the Seas and Rhapsody of the Seas, originating from San Diego; Seattle; Seward, Alaska; or Vancouver, British Columbia, calling at total of 13 ports, eight of which are Alaskan.

Alternating north- and southbound seven-night itineraries between Seward and Vancouver every Friday, Radiance of the Seas will call at four Alaskan ports – more than any other cruise line offering non-roundtrip Alaska itineraries. Ports of call will include Ketchikan; Juneau; Skagway; and Icy Strait Point, the only wilderness port in Alaska, plus the visit to Hubbard Glacier.

Radiance of the Seas also will offer two special �Ultimate Alaska� itineraries, a 13-night San Diego to Vancouver cruise on May 8, featuring a call at Nanaimo, British Columbia – last visited by a Royal Caribbean ship in May 2007 – and a 14-night voyage sailing in the reverse direction on September 10.

Rhapsody of the Seas will offer a seven-night roundtrip itinerary, sailing from Seattle and plying the Inside Passage with calls at Alaska’s Juneau and Skagway, and Victoria, British Columbia. Highlights will include a cruise through the 32-mile Tracy Arm Fjord, with its narrow walls rising more than 8,000 feet high and visits to Sawyer Glacier, whose glacier face rise approximately 200 feet high.

Aside from cruise-only itineraries, those who want a more extensive trip, immersing themselves in Alaska’s culture and wildlife in the interior, should opt for a cruisetour which incorporates both cruise and escorted tour (see story).

Apart from the shore-excursion options available at each port of call, guests sailing on Radiance of the Seas’ itineraries have a choice of 21 cruisetour options – 19 of which feature journeys aboard the Wilderness Express, Royal Caribbean’s exclusive and luxurious glass-domed railcars that offer panoramic views of the magnificent scenery. Cruisetour highlights include stays in Denali with a tour into the National Park; tram rides from the ski slopes of Alyeska, soaring 2,300 feet up to the apex of Mount Alyeska, for breathtaking views of mountain ranges and hanging glaciers; and stays in the historic village of Talkeetna, nestled at the base of Mount McKinley, North America’s tallest peak, where guests can participate in such optional activities as jet boating and flight-seeing. Throughout, guests on a Royal Caribbean cruisetour will be escorted by a tour director (see our related stories on the four-night cruisetour)

The Married Man's Trail, once the hidden path to bordellos, now the entrance to Ketchikan's most charming shop © 2010 Karen Rubin/

Royal Caribbean International is a global cruise brand with 20 ships currently in service and two under construction. The line also offers unique cruisetour vacations in Alaska, Asia, Australia, Canada, Europe, South America and New Zealand. For additional information or to make reservations, call your travel agent, visit or call (800) ROYAL-CARIBBEAN.

Tips for Cruising Alaska

You need a passport if your itinerary goes through Vancouver, BC.

Yes, the balcony is worth it (and in some aggregator’s deals, like, and, could be included as a free upgrade).

RCL has a new service for booking the air arrangements, Choice Air. It used to be that if the cruiseline booked the air, they would basically assign you a flight. Now with Choice Air (which works like Travelocity), you can compare prices, choose air itinerary, buy it – take deposit; then get air.

You still get the benefit of bulk air but, importantly, by booking the air through RCL, you also get protection, so that if for some reason your flight is delayed and you miss the ship’s departure, RCL will make arrangements to meet the ship at next port at no expense to you.

Charming Ketchikan © 2010 Karen Rubin/

If you take the cruisetour – the escorted land tour that takes you into Alaska’s interior – we recommend trying to do the land portion before the cruise – the land portion has a more vigorous pace and is more strenuous, so having the cruise after gives you time to really relax and vacation.

Best bet: the 11-night cruisetour aboard Radiance Of The Seas starts in Anchorage, Alaska with the four-night land portion of the cruisetour to Talkeetna, Alaska; Anchorage, Alaska; Alyeska, Alaska, and then Seward, Alaska, where you embark the ship for the seven-night cruise to Hubbard Glacier (Cruising); Juneau, Alaska; Skagway, Alaska; Icy Strait Point, Alaska; Ketchikan, Alaska; Inside Passage (Cruising); Vancouver, British Columbia.

Another tip: arrive in Anchorage two days ahead and take the Kenai Fjords National Park Tour with Kenai Fjords Tours (, and if possible plan an extra overnight in Vancouver, B.C. so you can have a day to enjoy that marvelous city and have an international experience.

See also:
Royal Caribbean’s Alaska ‘Cruisetour’ Showcases Fairbanks, Last Stop Before Arctic Wilderness Royal Caribbean’s ‘Cruisetour’ Brings Passengers into Heart of Alaska – Denali

Friday, 5 March, 2010

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About Travel Features Syndicate

Karen Rubin is an eclectic travel writer who has been spanning the globe for more than 30 years reporting on interesting, intriguing people and places to explore for magazines, newspapers and online. She publishes Travel Features Syndicate in newspapers and online including, Huffington Post and and blogs at "Travel is a life-changing and an interactive experience that mutually benefits travelers and community." Contact Karen at 'Like' us at

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