Cruising Alaska (Alaskan Brews Cruise)

I lived in the Seattle area for nearly 12 years, and one of my regrets is that I never took advantage of any of the Alaskan cruises that conveniently leave from Pier 91 a few miles out of downtown. Getting to Alaska from Austin is more of a hassle, but I figured I’d pair it with a visit to work and friends, so I booked Royal Caribbean’s “Endicott Arm & Dawes Glacier Cruise”, departing Seattle on September 16th. While there were a lot of moving parts (two rental cars, two hotel stays, a workday, friend visits, mandatory COVID testing, Canadian entry paperwork), nearly everything went according to plan… and yet almost nothing was as I’d expected. My expedition mate for this voyage was Clint, one of my two oldest friends– we’ve been going on adventures together since high school.

We started with the flight to Seattle, an early morning departure on Alaska Airlines, paid for entirely with points I’ve accumulated over twenty years (thank goodness their mileage plan’s points never expire– I accumulated almost all of these points over a decade ago). I drove to the office and visited with folks on my new team and we headed out to lunch at Matador, an old favorite in downtown Redmond. After work, Clint and I met up with Chris, one of my good friends from way back in Office days (circa 2002-2004)– we sampled some of the beers at Black Raven in Redmond. The following morning, I walked over to the Peet’s Coffee in Redmond, another old favorite where I had started writing the Fiddler book.

After coffee and free breakfast at the hotel, and a mandatory COVID test supervised online, we headed over to Seattle, dropped off our rental car at the Space Needle, and took a quick Lyft out to Pier 91 and our boat, the Ovation of the Seas. It was big. Too big, arguably– it doesn’t look like a boat so much as an apartment building afloat. (I really liked the Adventure of the Seas, my vessel for my first two Royal cruises) I was excited to see the ship, but first we had to get through an annoyingly long queue. I’d read some posts about the boarding process in Seattle, so I thought I was prepared, but what I wasn’t prepared for was the paper handed out at the front of the line… it turned out that our glacier cruise wasn’t going to be a glacier cruise after all. Boo!

Since I didn’t have any particular expectations for the glacier viewing, I was mostly just annoyed– the daylight hours of any spot on earth have been calculable for hundreds of years, so none of this should have been surprising to the planners. (A few days later, the Captain did a little presentation and mentioned that on the prior cruise, fog meant that their approach to the glacier was aborted three miles out, so no one really got to see much. Fog, at least, seems a less predictable phenomenon than daylight.)

No matter, we were here, COVID free, and going to board the boat. We’d packed wisely and headed to the Windjammer buffet dining room for lunch and snacks while our luggage was loaded onto the ship. At 2PM, we got access to our room. It was nice, although they hadn’t yet split the twin beds and it was tight compared to the junior suite I’d shared with the kids on the Adventure of the Seas in March.

The balcony was a good size, although given the weather forecast (rainy and low 50s) I wasn’t sure how much I’d be using it, even with the cozy blanket I’d packed, and apple cider and hot chocolate packets I’d brought to use in the room’s kettle.

Ultimately, our balcony was mostly home to my sweaty workout clothes after my one run in the ship’s gym. Unlike on the Caribbean cruise, they didn’t dry out. :)

As we waited for our 4PM departure, we were treated to some beautiful views of Seattle and Puget Sound:

The ship was in great shape and nicely decorated, although we were quickly reminded about how inadequate the elevators are (slow, crowded) and this was even more of an issue on the enormous Ovation. We ended up climbing a lot of stairs over the week between our home (cabin 8690) on Deck 8, the shows and main dining room on 3, and topside at 14. Fortunately, the stairwells were decorated with some fun art to break up the monotony:

One of the most visible features on the Ovation of the Seas is its “North Star” observation pod which extends on an arm up to 300 feet above sea level.

I didn’t want to miss it, so we ended up booking one of the first slots, going up before we’d even undocked.

Ultimately, it mostly ended up being a good way to see the whole ship– 300 feet sounds like a lot, but when you’re miles away from any points of interest, it doesn’t make much of a difference. (It probably would’ve been great late in the trip if I’d been excited about whale watching)

After unpacking, dinner, and the “Welcome aboard” Comedy show, we watched a movie (The 335) in the open air on the top deck (chilly!) and went to bed.

Our first full day was a Day at Sea, where I explored the ship, read a book, enjoyed the food, and generally relaxed. The ship was well-designed for this itinerary– while the kids water features were limited (the kids would’ve been very disappointed in the tiny water slides), there was an arena where you could ride bumper cars, roller skate, or play dodge ball, a small climbing wall, a small iFly indoor skydiving tube, and a ping-pong and an XBOX gaming lounge (although more than half of the consoles were broken. Sad).

For the grownups, there was an amazing solarium with hot tubs, lounge chairs, and little snuggle pod couches:

Two of my favorite spots were the two “bridge extension rooftops” that extended across the bow:

These allowed a look back at the rest of the ship; our cabin was somewhere around the orange arrow:

Throughout the cruise, I spent quite a bit of time walking laps on the top deck, passing by some really impressive decorations:

Dinner in the dining room was “Formal Night” so we dressed up in our best. Unlike the dining room in the Adventure of the Seas (a wide-open three-story beauty), our main dining room on the Ovation felt dark and claustrophobic, despite (or perhaps partly because of) mirrors mounted in the ceiling. (The Ovation splits its “main dining room” into four single-story areas). Our waiter seemed extremely stressed for the entire cruise, and all of our interactions felt extremely awkward.

After dinner, we saw the first big song-and-dance show, the Vegas-style “Live, Love, Legs.” The ability to see a great live show is one of my favorite things in the world and I ended up watching it twice, first from the balcony at 8pm and then from the front row at 10pm. The performers were super-talented, and it was awesome to get to see the show from good seats.

When I woke up early the next morning, I was excited to grab breakfast and get my first-ever glimpse of Alaska. I grabbed breakfast at the buffet and walked out the doors to the patio bracing for the cold… but it was only chilly at worst. While undeniably beautiful, everything looked a bit like, well, everywhere else in the Pacific Northwest.

Ah well. After breakfast, I was excited to get out and explore Ketchikan, Alaska’s “First City”:

Now, it’s worth explaining here that I didn’t really have a plan, per-se, for any port on this cruise. While the idea of buying the ship’s expensive “unlimited drinks” package (making this a “booze cruise”) sounded depressing and risky, the notion of doing a “brews cruise”, hitting the breweries in each port-of-call, sounded like a lot more fun.

Besides, by the time I had started looking into booking excursions for this trip, most were sold out, all were obscenely expensive (hundreds of dollars per person for most of them) and the weather was supposed to be awful anyway. So, I was excited to get out to discover whatever there was to see.

As we got off the ship, we were handed the little “Here are some shops you should check out” brochure that had a tiny map. On the map was a mention of hiking trails, so we set out in that direction. We walked a few miles on the road along the water until we reached the Ferry Terminal (oops, too far) and turned around to head back to the trailhead at the University of Alaska Southeast.

After a pretty but short hike, with some lovely overlooks:

….we were unceremoniously dumped back out on a (admittedly beautiful) back road and we walked back to the city, past the beautiful Ketchikan Public library and the less-beautiful Ketchikan jail.

Back in town, we grabbed coffees and pondered our next move. Lunch? We headed to a local fisherman’s bar, where we didn’t find anything interesting to eat or on tap, but I got to enjoy an old favorite in its home port:

Nothing in town seemed like a “Can’t miss” for lunch, so we decided to pop back onto the boat to try the Halibut and Chips at the “Fish and Ships” restaurant atop the boat. Frustratingly, they didn’t have the Halibut (and wouldn’t for the entire trip, despite remaining on their digital menu screen, grrr) so we settled for plain cod.

“50s and raining? Naw 70s and sunny!”

We then got back off the boat to find more beer. We ended up at a fantastic bar (Asylum) which had a huge selection on tap, including “Island Ale“, an instant favorite that I subsequently failed to find again for the rest of the trip :( .

We enjoyed our drinks with some pickle popcorn on nice sunny patio with a view out over the water. Alas, our ship’s 4pm departure drew near and we stumbled happily back to the boat. I chilled with my book on the top deck and didn’t even notice as we started pulling away.

After dinner, I spent some time reading alone on deck.

The next morning, I woke up early and headed down to breakfast. The fog over the water gave everything an otherworldly quality and I enjoyed a second cup of coffee walking the deck as we pulled into Juneau.

After disembarking, we immediately booked sets on a bus out to the Mendenhall Glacier, a short trip away. We spotted a half-dozen bald eagles (“Golf ball heads”) along the road, mostly watching us from the top of lampposts. The tour guide pointed out the local McDonald’s, noting that it was the only one that some local rural folks would see on rare trips to “the big city”.

Now, I’ll confess here that I had made it 43 years on this rock called Earth under the misimpression that a glacier is just an especially big iceberg, which turns out not to be the case at all. So, I was a bit surprised and disappointed, but nevertheless agreed that it was a beautiful sight. We hiked out to the base of the 377-foot Nugget Waterfalls at the right of this picture:

…and posed along the way with some ice that had taken hundreds of years to reach this shore:

I even carefully selected an icecube to bring home to the kids as a souvenir:

After a few hours, we’d walked all of the shorter trails and rain threatened, so we boarded the bus back to town.

In the city, we took our bus driver’s advice for a good spot for Halibut and Chips (crazy expensive at 30$ a plate: not bad, but not worth it either), bought some postcards to send home, and went in search of a brewery. We started at Devil’s Club Brewing, a nice-looking spot with some interesting (somewhat exotic) beers.

After a flight and another pint of our favorites, we mailed my postcards and found a more traditional bar where I had a hazy IPA and Clint paired a Guinness with an Alaskan Duck Fart.

We then headed back to the ship for dinner, deciding at the last minute to walk a half mile up the coastline to where a famous whale fountain had been installed in a park a few years ago. It was worth the walk, although it looked considerably less lifelike in person. :)

The Fountain
View from the park

After dinner and with hours to kill before Ovation’s 10PM departure, the neon “Alaskan Brewing” sign at the taproom next to the boat beckoned and we decided to head off for another drink.

View from the taproom

After sitting for almost ten minutes without a waitress in sight, we left to find a more fruitful taproom. (As we walked out to the street, we realized that we’d entered the back of the place and that’s probably why there was no service). We ended up at the cozy taproom (they had a cat!) for Barnaby Brewing, one of my favorites of the entire trip, and I enjoyed several delicious selections.

We closed the place down (admittedly, at 8pm) and headed back to the ship.

We had an early 7am arrival at our final Alaskan destination, Skagway, but because of some damage to the dock we had to use tenders (small boats) to reach the shore. On past cruises, this has been very cumbersome, but given the short distance, enormous tenders, and lack of competition for slots, it turned out to be trivial.

Again, I had no plan for what we might do in Skagway. It seemed like the most popular excursions involved getting on a train and riding it around, a prospect I found less than exciting. Fortunately, Google Maps reconnaissance indicated not one but two breweries in this tiny town.

We started by walking from one end of the city to the other, and grabbing a “Honey Bear Latte” at a cute little coffee shop (which was, unsurprisingly, flooded with tourists).

We bought a few souvenirs (shirts and a hat) then found our way to the Skagway Brewing Company, where we had a pint before heading upstairs for another lunch of Halibut and Chips (again, crazy expensive, and again, not really worth the price).

We then headed over to Klondike Brewing Company for a few tasty drinks:

… and then shuttled back to the boat before Ovation’s 6pm departure. The rain held off, and I ended up lounging on deck as we shoved off.

That night, the show was “Pixels”, a singing/dancing/multimedia spectacle in the “270 Lounge” at the back of the ship. It was a short show, and while entertaining, I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as the other shows.

The next day was the second “Sea Day” with no ports-of-call, so I headed to the gym in the morning to run up an appetite– we were slated to have lunch at the steakhouse. Running was hard– I ended up splitting my 10K into two 5Ks with a few laps on the deck in the middle. My knees have been threatening me for the last few weeks, and the treadmills in the gym weren’t in great shape. I’ve also grown accustomed to running with multiple big fans pointed directly at me, and the ship felt hot and claustrophobic by comparison.

Lunch was, alas, a miss. Through some sort of scheduling mixup, our lunch was actually a “Taste of Royal” tasting tour, where we sat in the fancy “Wonderland” restaurant and had one plate from each of the “premium” eateries on ship. So, rather than a giant steak, we had a fancy spritzer drink, a tiny fish course, a tiny risotto dish, a tiny steak, and a small piece of fried cheesecake. It was tasty, but not what I’d run six miles for.

We putzed around all afternoon, had dinner, and watched a talented singer (Ana Alvaredo) covering popular songs at the onboard pub, Amber and Oak. But the big event of the day was the night’s show in the main theater, The Beautiful Dream. It was, in a word, spectacular. The costumes were amazing. The song choices (a mix of 80s/90s) were perfect. The singing and dancing were powerful. The plot (A father of two loses his wife and must find a way to carry on, was perhaps a bit too on the nose).

I was blown away and resolved that I must make more of an effort to see live theater. After seeing it close up at the 8pm showing, I went back to sit in the balcony at the 10pm showing to take it all in.

I went to bed glowing… this show alone was worth the trip.

Our final full day featured Victoria, but with a slated arrival time of 5pm, we had a day to fill on the boat first. I spent a few hours in hot tubs while most of the passengers were below decks.

Given our evening arrival (and sundown a scant 135 minutes later) I worried that it might not be worth even getting off the boat. In particular, I assumed that getting cleared off the ship and out of the port would be a hassle based on a blog from June, but it was the opposite– nobody checked our passports, vaccination status, arrival forms, or anything else. We all just walked off the boat and through the “Welcome to Victoria” building.

After a short walk along the coastline, we found ourselves in the middle of plenty to do. We quickly found the amazing Refuge Tap Room, where I got two beers and a flight, including a delicious apricot wheat. After drinks, we stopped for a quick, tasty, and calorie-laden poutine and then headed back to the ship.

I had a lot more fun in Victoria than I expected.

We arrived and disembarked in Seattle the following morning. We grabbed fancy Eggnog Lattes at Victor’s Coffee Company, took a long walk in one of my favorite parks (Marymoor), before lunch at one of my favorite spots (Ooba Tooba) and then went out for drinks at Black Raven with Nick. We finished the day with Thai Ginger for dinner.

On Saturday, we went to visit our friends Anson and Rachel in Bothell, then checked out the taproom for Mac & Jacks (my favorite beer). After a few drinks there, Zouhir introduced us to Chicago Pastrami in Issaquah, where I had an amazing Reuben and delicious pistachio ice cream.

After I posted the M&J pictures online, everyone said we had to try out Postdoc Brewing just down the street. So, we did the following day before we headed to the airport.

Our trip back was uneventful; we got to the airport super-early after reading horror stories of three-hour security lines at SeaTac, but I breezed through the TSA Pre line in less than fifteen minutes. We had plenty of time to get one last Mac & Jacks at the Africa Lounge, my favorite way to depart Seattle.

Our flight landed around midnight Austin time, and I eagerly tumbled into bed around 1:30 on Monday morning.

All in all, it was an amazing trip that I largely did not appreciate fully. I’ve got a lot on my mind.

Miscellaneous notes:

  • Seven days is too long for me to cruise without kids or a significant other to get me out of my head.
  • Having cell service on the trip made cruising feel very different. While it was convenient to post photos and hunt breweries ahead of time, it really changed the vibe for the worse.
  • Ships can be too big.
  • Cruise-ship comedians aren’t very funny unless you’re drinking.
  • Back home, I miss the fancy desserts.

-Eric

Published by ericlaw

Impatient optimist. Dad. Author/speaker. Created Fiddler & SlickRun. PM @ MSFT '01-'12, and '18-, working on Office, IE, Edge, and Web Protection. My words are my own, I do not speak for any other entity.

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