Friday, August 15, 2008

Collin's northbound Alaska cruise guide
... through the inside passage on Celebrity's GTS Millennium

(And if you believed that title, I've got a bridge to sell you.)

Here are a few things I'm happy we did, and a few things I wished I'd known before. To be specific, we took the Millennium departing from Ballantyne Pier in Vancouver (BC) 2008-08-08 and arriving, umm, somewhere near Seward 2008-08-15.

Selecting your stateroom

If you can afford it, get a room with a balcony on the starboard side. We were on deck 6, the lowest such level. If you can get a stateroom near the middle of the ship, you'll experience less pitching and so forth in case of rough seas.


They tell you to bring a ton of outfits, which is really unnecessary. The dining room supposedly has a "no jeans" policy, but they don't get 100% compliance and the policy isn't enforced. Gentlemen, one suit will be sufficient. As far as comfortable (or grubby) outfits are concerned, you'll want a spare one or two if you take a hiking excursion or visit the dog musher's camp out of Skagway. (There is mud in the summer.) It is sometimes cold on deck, but in Juneau it was maybe 55°F. So far a sweatshirt and a waterproof windbreaker are all we've needed ashore.


If you're driving to Vancouver, then I guess you'll need to park your car. There are two logical places -- at the pier or at the airport. If you park "at the pier," well, you don't. You park near the pier and they provide a shuttle to get you to your ship.

But if you fly back to Vancouver at the end of your cruise, you'll need to get from the airport to your car! If you're like me, once off the plane you'll want to get to your car right away. So my suggestion is to park at the airport. Go to the YVR website and find the discount parking coupon.


You can board starting at about noon. Jenny and I flew into YVR (which has free wi-fi!), arriving about 8:30am. We flew through Canadian customs (nobody else is arriving around 9am), picked up our bags, and hung around. The lovely Carol parked her car in the airport's long-term parking, then endured some abuse from the shuttle driver for the volume of luggage. So be prepared.

From YVR we took a cab -- a minivan actually -- to the Ballantyne Pier. This cost us about $50; the driver took US dollars. Next time we might take a limo.

Another option, if everybody is flying in from the US, is to use the US-Direct service, booked through the cruise operator. You get off the airplane and do not "enter Canada" -- instead you follow the signs to US-Direct and they take you and your bags directly to the pier. You bypass customs entirely (I guess the ship is considered US territory?) and it's a smoother deal. Don't do it if your flight arrives at 8:30am though -- US Direct wasn't open then.


The food in the buffet isn't bad, but the Metropolitan Restaurant is better. We were put into the "late seating" which means 8;30pm. You don't start eating 'til about nine. The "main seating" is at six, but if you can't get into the main seating, there's a fair chance that there will be enough empty seats (or empty tables)... arrive in the Metropolitan Restaurant 6:35-6:45pm and look around. Probably you'll get a seat but nothing is guaranteed.

Day 2 -- cruising up the Canadian coast

Check out the films and lectures described in your daily schedule/bulletin.

Day 3 -- Ketchikan

I recommend the walking tour (free maps at the pier). We bought a case of salmon at 322 Main St., on someone's recommendation; they're shipping it to our home, timed to arrive a couple days after we do.

Also on the walking tour, the guided tour of the hatchery and eagle habitat is well worth the $12/person. Near the entrance, you may see some thimbleberry bushes. (Some call these salmon-berries??) If you're lucky, there will be some bright red ones -- very sweet. Back at the pier, the halibut and chips we got from a street vendor were fresh, hot and delicious.

Day 4 -- Juneau

Capt. Chris and his "Rum Runner Charters" get a "thumbs up" from me. Be the first off your ship so that he can get you out on the water early and avoid the "cattle-maran"s. The shuttle driver that takes you out to the Rum Runner may not be the driver that takes you back -- so if you plan to tip him, do it when you get off! Capt. Chris has binoculars so you don't need to bring yours. He also has an AED on board in case you get way too excited about the wildlife. We took the 2–2½-hour tour, which was sufficient for me. We saw seals, whales, eagles. Educational, interesting, memorable.

You may have one or two other ships in port when yours is there -- this means some 6,000 passengers coming ashore and some of the crew also!

There is high-speed internet access in Juneau, but don't even think about the free wifi in the library. It feels like the old 110-baud modems of the 1980s, only slower—whenever a cruise ship is in port, that is. Instead, visit Seaport at 175 South Franklin #211, which has a lot of bandwidth. Wifi is $6/hour or two hours for $11. If you don't have a computer and just want to use his to check your Yahoo! or gmail account, you can use his computers (I didn't ask his rates for that).

There are glaciers -- the rest of my family went on an excursion to the Mendenhall Glacier, which they recommend.

Day 5 -- Skagway

Take the White Pass Summit & Historical City Tour from Skaguay Tour Co, not the White Pass railway tour. It's a 2½-hour deal. Aha, I have their sheet: "" or 866-983-2168. Their bus tour is $45/head, vs $112 for the rail tour if booked on board (maybe $90 if booked on shore). Our bus guide, Matt, was very entertaining. Bring your photo ID on shore; since this tour goes into Canada, you might be stopped by US Customs and Border Protection services on the way back. "The alpine tundra changes color every day, and sometimes it looks like a giant Persian carpet rising into the clouds." You'll want to step out of the bus to see this and walk around some.

We took the musher's camp excursion too -- for this you want a grubby outfit (it'll get muddy). You might see a bear, so keep your camera handy -- and be ready to board the bus immediately at your driver's direction.

The lovely Carol took a nature-walk excursion and got thoroughly soaked. So it sounds like Sno-Seal on the boots is recommended, as is a waterproof poncho. This amount of rain is reportedly unusual, but it was very very wet.

Skagway gets about 10,000 tourists a day, four days a week. It looks like it, too.

Day 6 -- Icy Strait Point

This is basically a visit to the village of Hoonah. I recommend getting off the boat and looking at the weather before booking any excursions. There were bikers but they looked quite wet.

The premier attraction at ISP is the zip line, $92 a pop. Take your camera up there but make sure you've got your wrist-strap secured! If I do this again I'll take a video camera for sure (I was spooked this time and kept my camera in my pocket). I found myself turning sideways a lot -- to steer I used one hand or the other. It is definitely a kick in the pants!

There is an ATM in Hoonah, about a half-hour's walk in from the pier. The shuttle into town is $5.00 round-trip (or $5.00 one-way; this is not a typo). To find the ATM, walk into town on the road, past the old cemetery, and up to a red barn-like structure. A side-street branches off to your left, and on its right-hand side is a bank. An ATM lies within. Transaction fee is $2.00. It took a few minutes and I wasn't sure if it was going to work, but I entered my PIN and the amount I wanted, and waited... then I okayed the transaction fee and waited... then the screen said to take my cash and I waited. The cash eventually came out.

Day 7 -- Hubbard Glacier

The schedule says arrive 7am depart 11am, but this is wrong; they only hang around there for an hour or two. Don't laze around in bed past 9am like we did and miss seeing it!


If you can manage to get to the seating of your choice and actually eat there most nights, you might just go with their credit-card gratuity system. This works out to $73.50/person for the 7-night cruise. There is a small annoyance if you want to have more say in how your tips are allocated (I like tipping the waiter and housekeeper, but sending a tip to the assistant chief housekeeper? I'm not crazy about that.)

If you want to leave tips in cash for your various servers, bring plenty on board. You can break your $20s &c at the cashier inside the "Fortunes" casino. (They can also give you quarters, should you desire to donate at the various machines.))

Geek section

The Millennium displaces about 91,000 tons (I don't know or care whether these are metric tons). Passenger capacity is about 2000 and crew is another 1000 or so -- about two passengers per crew membrer. No wonder we feel so pampered!

Internet access costs over a penny a second on board (in bulk, as little as about $23/hour) -- which is why I investigated other options in Juneau. Cell phones worked "most" of the time, but walkie-talkies are definitely an asset.


Well, that's a valid question. About $5000 for a couple, for about a week -- that's not cheap. It's definitely not something I'd want to do every year, but maybe in a few more years -- for our 25th anniversary -- maybe! Is it immoral? I'll say that compared to other things we could spend money on, no. But it does feel strange.

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