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Thursday, June 23, 2011

Carnival Spirit -- 7-night Alaska cruise, May 2011


glacier at the end of Tracy Arm Fjord

I have shared a few photos in this blog post, and there are many more in the Alaska Facebook album.

Check-in

We experienced a couple of "firsts" this cruise. This was our first cruise as VIPs, and this was our first cruise out of Seattle.

We arrived by taxi around noon. On all of our previous cruises, there have always been porters to take our bags right at the curb when we arrive. This was not the case this time. We were slightly confused as we headed toward the building with our bags in tow because we did not see any luggage ahead either. After entering the building and finding a Carnival representative (who was wearing a cruise line competitor jacket!), we learned we needed to wait in a baggage drop line to leave our bags before going to check-in. I do not know if this is the way luggage is always handled in Seattle, or if this is something new Carnival is trying. We have another cruise planned this winter, so we shall see what happens when we arrive at Port Everglades. Even though there was not a VIP line to drop bags, this did not take long. 

After dropping our bags, we headed to the security check point, where again there was no VIP line. After we went through security, we found the VIP check-in line, and the check-in process went quickly. We were given a Zone 1 card and proceeded to the waiting area. I observed guests boarding, so I asked a Carnival representative if Zone 1 had been called yet. It had, so we boarded immediately.

Overall, the check-in process was very confusing. Usually, when we arrive at a port, a Carnival representative greets us (after dropping our bags at the curb), and directs us to the appropriate area. This time, we had to find a representative to ask about where to drop our luggage, and we had to find someone to ask about boarding. We would not have known what to look and listen for if this had been our first cruise. Since there was no VIP line until after security, I think it would have taken much longer to get on board, if we had arrived after noon. We were on board just under an hour after we had arrived.

Carnival Spirit premium balcony cabin 8237, category 9B

We had originally booked cabin 5243, which is the same room type we ended up with except it has an obstructed view. The lifeboats are at floor level in cabin 5243, which also makes the balcony not quite as deep. We upgraded our room type and also ended up with an on board credit because we had booked the Early Saver (ES) rate. I will talk more about booking the ES rate at the end of this review. For this heading, I am concentrating on the cabin.


looking toward entrance
This was the largest cruise ship room we have ever had, and we loved it! It is a 9B category room, which was a step up from an extended balcony and not quite a suite. There was a vanity and mini-bar at the entrance with wood flooring. The bathroom was the same size as a standard room bathroom; however, the room and balcony were much larger. There was a long closet with shelves and hangers next to the vanity area, and a smaller closet across from the vanity. There was a couch, chair, and table at the foot of the bed, as well as another dresser and cabinet under the TV.

standing in entrance; bathroom behind door
Champagne glasses were included with the standard wine and beverage glasses that are usually in the staterooms. This was a plus for us, since I am a champagne drinker, and we had brought two bottles on board. We also found the mini bar was stocked with mini Korbel bottles--another plus! A glass of Korbel from the bar was $7.76 with tip. We tried to find out the cost of the bottles in the mini bar, and no one knew. The pricing was not on the list, guest services did not know, and neither did room service. I decided to have one anyway, and someone did figure out the cost after this. It was less than $7 with tip, and one of the mini champagne bottles equals about 1½ glasses of champagne--a much better value than purchasing a glass at the bar.

The balcony in this cabin has a large roof overhang, so if you want direct sunlight, this cabin is not a good choice. We would have preferred a room on deck seven; however, this cabin was the only one available in this category when we decided to upgrade. Although the cabin size was similar to the obstructed view cabin we had originally booked, the balcony was deeper.

I had read comments about the noise above this cabin, and yes, we did hear some noise overhead in the early morning. This cabin is located below the 24-hour pizzeria. My husband awoke every morning around 3:00 or 4:00 a.m. from the activity overhead. If you are not a light sleeper, I do not think the noise would be a problem. He is not a light sleeper; however, because of the time difference for us, we would have already been up for over 3 hours when we were awakened by the noise overhead. I'm sure that had more to do with us waking up than the noise did.

Food & Beverage

We thought the dining room service and food was great as usual. The food was similar to previous experiences on Carnival with one exception. Crab legs were offered as an appetizer one evening. I hope this is an addition to all Carnival cruises, and that this is not just available on the Alaska cruises. The dining room was open for breakfast every morning, and for lunch on sea days. There was a steakhouse on board, which had an additional charge, although we did not try it. The Sushi Bar on deck two was open every evening, and it was very good. In addition to the buffets, there was a Deli Bar, 24-hour Pizza, and the Fountain Cafe, which serves deluxe coffees and sweets for a charge. I have never tried anything at the Fountain Cafe, because I have always been happy with the coffee and desserts served in the restaurant. There was no Fish 'n Chips on this ship.

Pool & outside areas

Master Mixologist
We were happy that the overhead domes were closed over most of the pool areas when the weather was cool. We were on this same ship to Hawaii when it was cool out, and they were always open on that cruise. We used the whirlpool tub in the adult pool area one evening, and the water temperature was fairly warm, although it was not hot. We would have preferred it warmer since the air temperature was cool. There were a few activities during the day at the main pool, and I got talked into participating in the Master Mixologist game! My beverage tied for 2nd place.

We never had any trouble finding a place to sit on any of the outside decks--on a lounger or at a table. There was also plenty of room on the top decks the day that we cruised through Tracy Arm Fjord near the glacier. We enjoyed most of this day on our balcony, and then walked to the top decks at the end.

Entertainment

Since we had been on this ship less than two years earlier, the Carnival dance shows were the same we had seen on our Spirit cruise to Hawaii. We still thought the shows were great, and did spend some time in the showroom; just not as much time as we usually do. The Big Easy and the Rock and Roll shows are always great. In addition to the Carnival dancers, there were three or four different comedians and a hypnotist. The comedians performed in Versailles Lounge--family shows and adult shows, and the hypnotist performed on stage in Pharaoh's Lounge. The hypnotist was fabulous! Some people were skeptical, although I think it would be difficult to find so many guests that were such great actors of all ages. I was amazed that so many people wanted to be hypnotized. Some guests did not want to leave the stage when too many volunteers ran up. It was an incredibly funny and entertaining show.

It seemed like more of the lounges were non-smoking on this cruise, which we liked; however, we thought the furniture needed to be deep cleaned to remove the stale smoke odor.


Ports of Call and Shore Excursions

I thought the cruise through Tracy Arm Fjord was the best part of this cruise. This was the most expensive cruise we have been on (and, it was our 11th), so I looked at this day as an included shore excursion, which made the cost more worthwhile.

There was an additional shore excursion that many guests booked to board a smaller boat, which took them very close to the glacier at the end. We spent most of this day on our balcony enjoying the view.






Our first port stop was in Skagway, where we rented a car. We drove into the Yukon as far as Whitehorse and back. We saw several bears and some beautiful scenery. The cost for a rental car was about $100 from Avis, which was withing walking distance of the cruise port. I have read online that non-US citizens can not rent a car in Skagway and drive it into Canada and back, so if you are not a US citizen, I suggest you check into the border crossing regulations before planning a trip like this.





We arrived in Juneau at 7:00 a.m. We observed many bald eagles as we pulled into port. There were so many flying outside our cabin window that at first glance I did not realize they were bald eagles. Thank goodness my husband was paying attention when he glanced out the window!



Mendenhall Glacier
We had read that the MGT bus, which provides roundtrip transportation to the Mendenhall Glacier, did not start running until 9:00 a.m. We were glad we did not wait until then to disembark, because there was a bus filling up to head out there when we went ashore around 8:00 a.m.

notice the kayak
to appreciate the glacier size
We preferred the early morning trip because there were less guests. The park was becoming quite full by the time we left. We had read that the round trip fare was $28 for two, and the actual cost was $32. We thought it was worth the money. We had a great driver, who provided entertaining and informative narration on the trip out. There was no cost to enter the park and walk to the glacier; the Visitor's Center had a $3 entrance fee.

In Ketchikan, we walked to Saxman Village Totem Park, Creek Street, and a few shops around town. It's a little over 2.5 miles to the totem park, and I think most people thought we were nuts to walk there. The temperature was in the mid 60's, it was not raining, and we like to walk. There is a sidewalk along the water most of the way, and the small portion that did not have a sidewalk, had a large tar shoulder. We passed four people who looked like tourists/visitors on our way back. We did not stop to talk with them, so I don't know if they were also walking to the park.
Saxman Totem Village

There was a city bus available between the two cities, which we had thought we might take back; however, it was not running yet when we were ready to return, so we walked back as well. We were in Ketchikan on a Sunday, and the bus did not start running until 10:00 a.m. Since we live on east coast time, we always found ourselves having an early start this cruise. We were the first visitors to Saxman Village the day we visited. The posted rate online was $3 per person for an unguided visit to enter the park. The cost was actually $5 per person. I guess everyone raised their rates before our trip.

I wanted to buy a small totem souvenir that had been made locally. I expected to pay more for this than an imported one; however, I was shocked by the price difference. I opted not to purchase the small totem at Saxman Village for $28, and when we shopped in town later, I was  glad I had waited. Julie's Fine Jewelry offered many local items for great prices. I purchased the same totem at Julie's--which had been crafted and signed by a carver from Saxman Village--for only $19.99!

Overall and Early Saver info

Overall, we were happy with this cruise price and the itinerary. Again, I especially liked the cruise day through Tracy Arm Fjord. We saw whales, dolphins, a shark, and some beautiful scenery. We had read great reviews about the naturalist Michelle on board, which was a great enhancement to the cruise; however, we saw much better viewing on our own. Since we spent much of the cruise days on our balcony, we observed a lot of marine life before Michelle made an announcement about what was swimming beside the ship. Sometimes, we watched whales for over 1/2 hour before an announcement was made. This happened when we observed the bald eagles and other marine life as well. I was amazed that so many guests would pay for a balcony room and then not use the balcony. We did not observe hardly any guests using the balcony like we did.

As Platinum guests we each received a small logo pen and notepad, personalized stationary, and petit fours and canapes (both delicious!) delivered to the room.

Carnival offers an Early Saver rate guarantee, which is the rate we usually book. I don't know exactly what the time frame is for booking the Early Saver rate, although we only booked this cruise about six months in advance. With the Early Saver rate, you get a refund (or on board credit, if the cruise is already paid in full), anytime the rate drops. You can receive a refund or credit as many times as the rates drops; however, it is up to the guest to watch for rate drops and submit a form to Carnival for the credit. In our situation, we had booked a premium balcony room with an obstructed view. Shortly before we sailed, this room type was sold out, which means we could not search for any price drops because there was no availability to compare. There were a few premium balcony rooms without an obstructed view available for $200 more. My husband decided he wanted to upgrade, so we did. Just a few days after we did this, and after we had paid for the cruise in full, the room type we upgraded to had a price drop of $200. We saw the price drop, had our travel agent submit a price protection form for us, and received a $200 on board credit!