I remember my first trip to Alaska. It was in August 2011. Fortunately, it was not to be my last. I did the sailing again 5 more times – three with Disney, once with Royal Caribbean and once with Norwegian. I’ll discuss the differences between them a bit later, but this article is about my most recent trip in August of 2019.
I want to state up-front that I was able to secure a last-minute travel-agent rate on this sailing (I’m co-owner of Dreams Unlimited Travel). Normally, I don’t write up or review anything that we don’t pay the full price for. However, given that I’ve done the Alaska sailing three other times with Disney (paying full price each time), and since all four experiences were virtually identical, I feel that I’m on ethically solid ground in sharing my thoughts.
The Disney Wonder sails out of the Port of Vancouver and that’s a good thing. I’m not a big fan out of sailing to Alaska from Seattle. Nothing against Seattle, but Vancouver is, in my opinion, a better city to sail from. I’ve sailed from Vancouver on three different occasions and have spent at least one pre- or post-night each time at three different hotels.
Pan Pacific – the Pan Pacific hotel is located at the Port of Vancouver. Or, more accurately, it is PART of the Port of Vancouver. Embarkation to the ship takes place on the hotel’s ground floor. Our trip this past August was my first time staying at the Pan Pacific, and it will be my go-to on all future Alaska cruises. The hotel is beautiful but it can be a bit expensive. However, the convenience of having bell services check your bags directly onto the cruise was worth it by itself.
Fairmont Pacific Rim – the Fairmont is located directly across the street from the Pan Pacific. I spent two nights there back in 2013 after an Alaska cruise and have vowed never to step foot in the hotel again. The service was beyond atrocious and the rooms were run-down and overpriced. I realize that many others have had excellent experiences at the Fairmont, and it is certainly possible that my experience was a one-off, but it was bad enough that I’ll never stay there again.
Wedgewood Hotel – Here is the hidden gem in Vancouver you’re looking for. It’s not near the port, but the price difference between the Pan Pacific/Fairmont and the Wedgewood makes it worth the inconvenience. The Wedgewood is a boutique hotel that is part of the Relais and Chateau collection. The service is beyond superb, the rooms are spacious, comfortable and reasonably priced. A room at the Wedgewood will run you about half what the Pan Pacific and Fairmont would charge on the same nights. Oh, and the hotel restaurant served a Coco Vin that absolutely changed my life – so, there’s that.
Vancouver is also home to the shooting location of one of my all-time favorite TV shows – Once Upon a Time. We rented a car and took the 35-minute drive to the town of Steveston. Even though the show is off the air, it was still really cool to walk around and see the storefronts featured in the show. I was very happy that Granny’s Cafe was an actual thing and we had breakfast there (no dwarfs though!). Oh, and one note – there is no clock tower. That was added in via CGI for the show. 🙁
It is ABSOLUTELY worth taking a few days either before or after your cruise to spend in Vancouver. There are some fantastic restaurants and gorgeous scenery to explore.
Embarkation from the Pan Pacific was about as painless a process as I could have asked for. We called bell services from our room and told them we were getting on the Wonder. They came with extra luggage tags for us, took our bags and that was that. The next time we saw them was on the ship. I decided I wanted to try and get an upgrade to our cabin. I knew there was still availability in concierge on this sailing, but to get that kind of upgrade you really need to be the first person to check-in at the port. Now, let me give you some context about my traveling companion, Sean. Sean has never been on time for anything ever in his life. The concept of “early” for Sean is usually 30-minutes late. So, convincing him that we needed to be at the port to check in two hours early (and 4 hours before we could get on the ship) was not the easiest task in the world. Check-in began at 10 am, so Sean and I were there (I kid you not) at 8 am. We were the first to check-in, and lo and behold – there was one Category V concierge stateroom available. The upgrade charge was about $2,200. Worth. Every. Penny. If you want to try for an upgrade, you need to be at the port VERY early to check-in. Those upgrades are done on a first-come, first-served basis.
The itinerary for this cruise was Dawes Glacier, Skagway, Juneau, and Ketchikan. Depending on the sailing (and the cruise line), the itineraries on an Alaska cruise can change. Most, if not all, will do the ‘glacier stop’ – Dawes Glacier and Tracy Arm Fjord are two of the more popular ones. The difference in itineraries is generally dictated by where the cruise departs from. Cruises leaving from a US port MUST stop in at least one foreign port unless they are flagged as a US ship (and the vast majority are not). Since Alaska is part of the United States, you’ll usually see a stop in Victoria, BC to satisfy the requirement. Since Disney departs from Vancouver, it does not need to do this.
The Inside Passage
The inside passage is hard to describe, but mention that phrase to anyone who has done an Alaska cruise and just watch their reaction. You’ll see a pattern if you ask enough people – they struggle to find words. It’s stunning. As you sail this natural wonder, you begin to notice that your passing miles and miles of the most pristine, untouched land you’ve ever seen. It’s almost other-worldly. This is when I grab a hot chocolate (or a hot cup of coffee), bundle up and just spend hours sitting on my verandah watching this amazing scenery unfold – almost like a movie, but so much better.
The first “stop” on our sailing was Dawes Glacier. I put that in quotes because you don’t actually get off the ship (well, a select few were able to, more about that below), but you do get an amazing view of a 10,000 year old, 15-mile long glacier. There is one excursion where you can actually board a catamaran and get within a quarter-mile of the glacier. We were fortunate enough to be able to do it, and I can’t recommend this highly enough. All the beautiful sights as you sail up the inside passage come seemingly within arms reach on this excursion.
Skagway is an interesting port to say the least. The town basically exists solely to support cruises during the season. In its heyday, Skagway was the entry point to the Yukon during the gold rush. Much of that history is on display, and more than a few shore excursions will take you through White Pass into the Yukon. On paper, this town should be nothing more than kitschy tourist fodder, but in reality, it’s much more. I find a charm in Skagway that is lacking in any of the other ports I’ve visited. That’s not to say that the other stops on this cruise are bad – far from it. It’s just that Skagway has this ‘X-factor’ for me that hards to describe. It’s small, unassuming, with a small main drag where you’ll find lots of interesting shops and dining options (aside from the usual Diamonds International).
A favorite excursion of mine here is Jewel Gardens. Jewel Gardens, as the name implies, is a garden, but its also home to an amazing glass-blowing business. The excursion we took was the Glassblowing Experience at Jewel Gardens ($239 p/adult, $134 p/child aged 3-9). On the excursion, you get to create your own glass ornament (with the help of one of their experts, of course). Following that, you have some time to walk around the gardens before having lunch at the Jewel Gardens restaurant. The lunch was simple but very good. There’s also plenty of time to spend in the store (and trust me, you’ll want to – there are some really amazing pieces available for sale. I’ve done this tour twice, and both times I’ve placed orders from the store and had them delivered. Delivery was quick, reasonably priced and all the items arrived intact.
In part 2, I’ll talk about Juneau and Ketchikan.