Cruise Reviews, Ship Reviews by The Avid Cruiser http://www.avidcruiser.com helping you make informed vacation decisions through cruise reviews, ship reviews and destination reviews Tue, 30 Jun 2015 14:03:45 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.2.2 A Memorable Barge Experience, Plus Reports From Our Voyages, Past, Present & Future http://www.avidcruiser.com/2015/06/28/a-memorable-barge-experience-plus-reports-from-our-voyages-past-present-future/ http://www.avidcruiser.com/2015/06/28/a-memorable-barge-experience-plus-reports-from-our-voyages-past-present-future/#respond Sun, 28 Jun 2015 20:12:54 +0000 http://www.avidcruiser.com/?p=44955 I’ve had a great start to my summer, and I hope you have too. This past Thursday, I stepped off CroisiEurope’s hotel barge Anne-Marie after a memorable ten days of exploring Provence and the Languedoc-Roussillon region. The barge experience exceeded my expectations — and so did this beautiful region in the south of France. On Sunday, July 5, I’ll begin a... [Read More]

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Last week, we explored the Languedoc-Roussillon region on CroisiEurope's Anne-Marie.

Last week, we explored the Languedoc-Roussillon region on CroisiEurope’s Anne-Marie.

I’ve had a great start to my summer, and I hope you have too. This past Thursday, I stepped off CroisiEurope’s hotel barge Anne-Marie after a memorable ten days of exploring Provence and the Languedoc-Roussillon region. The barge experience exceeded my expectations — and so did this beautiful region in the south of France. On Sunday, July 5, I’ll begin a (delayed) Live Voyage Report detailing each day of our trip from Arles to Sete.

Aaron Saunders has just returned from Alaska, where he cruised from Anchorage to Vancouver on Star Princess. He’s already filed North to Alaska! Postcards from Star Princess and will begin his Live Voyage Report this week.

Have you heard about our new venture? European River Currents is a subscription-only trade newsletter for cruise sellers, or for anyone with an obsession with river cruises. We’ve been testing it for about a year, and the feedback has been exceptionally positive. To learn more, visit europeanrivercurrents.com.

I’ve just arrived in Bonn, Germany, where I will attend the 39th session of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee. I’m here to learn more about Seabourn’s partnership with this important world heritage organization. I’m looking forward to sitting down for a chat with Irina Bokova, UNESCO’s Director-General, about initiatives that are important to UNESCO and the world of travel. In the coming weeks, I’ll be reporting more about how the Seabourn/UNESCO partnership can enhance your travel experiences.

Following the UNESCO events, I head over to Rotterdam, where the eponymous vessel, ms Rotterdam, makes her 100th port call to the city where Holland America Line began operations more than a century ago. Netherlands Princess Margriet, who serves as the godmother of ms Rotterdam, will be in attendance.

While I am in Rotterdam, Aaron Saunders heads to the Arctic on Silver Explorer. From July 2 through July 12, Aaron will be on an “Expedition Svalbard: Tromso to Longyearbyen” on Silver Explorer. Beginning August 27, I report from Greenland as Silver Explorer sails on a seven-day voyage roundtrip from Kangerlussuaq.

We also have several more river cruises ahead. For an overview of those, see our Live Voyage Reports calendar on River Cruise Advisor.

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North to Alaska! Postcards from Star Princess http://www.avidcruiser.com/2015/06/25/north-to-alaska-postcards-from-star-princess/ http://www.avidcruiser.com/2015/06/25/north-to-alaska-postcards-from-star-princess/#respond Fri, 26 Jun 2015 01:27:04 +0000 http://www.avidcruiser.com/?p=44913 Our Journey With Princess Cruises Is One For the Books Aaron Saunders, Live Voyage Reports Today, Princess Cruises’ Star Princess is docked in Ketchikan, Alaska. As you might expect, the city’s famous “liquid sunshine” is living up to its name. But almost incredibly, today is the first day of rain we’ve had here after nine... [Read More]

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Our Journey With Princess Cruises Is One For the Books
Welcome to Alaska! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Welcome to Alaska! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Aaron Saunders, Live Voyage Reports

Today, Princess Cruises’ Star Princess is docked in Ketchikan, Alaska. As you might expect, the city’s famous “liquid sunshine” is living up to its name. But almost incredibly, today is the first day of rain we’ve had here after nine stunning days in Alaska on our Princess Denali Explorer cruisetour that began last Tuesday in Anchorage.

There's nothing quite like enjoying Princess' Ultimate Balcony Breakfast in Glacier Bay! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

There’s nothing quite like enjoying Princess’ Ultimate Balcony Breakfast in Glacier Bay! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Princess offers 18 different land-and-crise tour options in Alaska, with another multitude of possible combinations, including having the land-tour portion happen before or after your cruise. You can also choose your level of guiding, from fully-escorted “Connoisseur” cruisetours to more self-guided options that merely include transportation and accommodations, but leave it up to guests as to what – and how much – they’d like to do.

Our journey began with an overland tour of Alaska, starting in Anchorage and continuing on to Mt. McKinley and Denali National Park. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Our journey began with an overland tour of Alaska, starting in Anchorage and continuing on to Mt. McKinley and Denali National Park. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Our itinerary has taken us from Anchorage to the Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge and then on to the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge located in the UNESCO World Heritage Site that is Denali National Park for a two-night stay. Following that, we rode the rails aboard Princess Cruises’ exclusive domed rail cars south to Whittier, where the 2002-built, 2600-guest Star Princess was waiting for us.

Say hello to the Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Say hello to the Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

We didn't need the fire pits at the Mt. McKinley lodge - temperatures pushed 90 F. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

We didn’t need the fire pits at the Mt. McKinley lodge – temperatures pushed 90 F. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

At the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge, we indulged in the beauty of Denali National Park...Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

At the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge, we indulged in the beauty of Denali National Park…Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

...and even took a fixed-wing airplane excursion to land on a glacier near Mt. McKinley! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

…and even took a fixed-wing airplane excursion to land on a glacier near Mt. McKinley! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Glacial Landing. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Glacial Landing. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Once onboard Star Princess, we set sail for College Fjord, Hubbard Glacier, Glacier Bay National Park, Skagway, Juneau, and now Ketchikan. In two days’ time, we’ll dock in Vancouver, and our Voyage of the Glaciers will come to a close.

To reach the Star Princess in Whittier, we took one of Princess's exclusive rail cars on a fabulous nine-hour train trip straight to the ship. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

To reach the Star Princess in Whittier, we took one of Princess’s exclusive rail cars on a fabulous nine-hour train trip straight to the ship. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Surrounded by comfort and scenery on the Alaskan Railroad. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Surrounded by comfort and scenery on the Alaskan Railroad. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

It’s been a heck of a journey. The continuity between ship and shore has been better than I expected. If you’ve sailed with Princess in the past to Alaska – as I have – you’ll no doubt be interested in the line’s new North to Alaska partnerships. There’s a renewed focus on locally-sourced food onboard, and locally-inspired spirits, cocktails and beers. There are Klondike Festivals and Midnight Sun parties out on deck. Real Alaskans – from Iditarod Musher Libby Riddles to storyteller Steve Hites – come onboard to entertain and enrich guests. You can even participate in a Deadliest Catch-style crab sorting tournament in the atrium!

Onboard Star Princess. The 2,600-guest ship launched in 2003 looks spectacular. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Onboard Star Princess. The 2,600-guest ship launched in 2003 looks spectacular. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Speaking of the famous reality TV show, Princess’s new Discovery at Sea partnership plays a huge part in the new Princess experience in Alaska. There’s Discovery Channel-themed shore excursions, recommended for their historical or local interest potential.

But Princess is also pulling out all the stops for another reason: they’re celebrating their 50th Anniversary this year. Fifty years is a long time in the cruise industry, and Princess has been sailing to Alaska right from the start.

New carpeting and colour schemes in the forward stairwell and elevator lobby. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

New carpeting and colour schemes in the forward stairwell and elevator lobby. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Even the Star Princess is in tip-top shape. There are a lot of things onboard that impress me, from the newly-laid carpeting in the stairwells and atrium that sports a brand-new colour scheme that gives the ship a younger and more modern appearance; to the redesigned Princess Patter daily programs; the installation of do-it-yourself onboard account kiosks; and the gorgeous refit work conducted a few years ago that saw the addition of Vines Wine Bar, the International Café, and the reconfigured Piazza Atrium.

A Princess Favorite: the Champagne Waterfall is held in the Piazza Atrium on the first formal night. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

A Princess Favorite: the Champagne Waterfall is held in the Piazza Atrium on the first formal night. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

There’s been a lot to see and do over the course of the last week and a half- and the honest truth is we just can’t seem to find the time to sit down and post it all! But our regular day-by-day posts will begin this coming Monday, June 29, where they will run continuously for 12 days. And there’s a world of adventure out there to share with you.

It’s my ninth voyage to Alaska – and I’m continually finding new places and experiences that move me in this great state. If you’ve never been to Alaska before, stay tuned. If you have – well, chances are good that I’ll be preaching to the choir.

Crooners, located on Deck 7, is one of my favorite watering holes. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Crooners, located on Deck 7, is one of my favorite watering holes. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

I know Princess doesn’t use the old “Escape Completely” tag line anymore, but that is exactly what these past few days have been: a complete departure from anything even remotely normal.

Because there’s nothing quite like a cruise to Alaska:

Star Princess at her berth at Skagway's Ore Dock on June 23, 2015. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Star Princess at her berth at Skagway’s Ore Dock on June 23, 2015. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

In Skagway, I set out on a five-mile cycling excursion...Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

In Skagway, I set out on a five-mile cycling excursion…Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

...to the abandoned Gold Rush town of Dyea. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

…to the abandoned Gold Rush town of Dyea. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

In Juneau, I tried the mother of all excursions: dog sledding on Taku Glacier. One of the best experiences I have ever had in my life. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

In Juneau, I tried the mother of all excursions: dog sledding on Taku Glacier. One of the best experiences I have ever had in my life. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

The dog camp on Taku Glacier. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

The dog camp on Taku Glacier. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

These fantastic creatures love to run, run...Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

These fantastic creatures love to run, run…Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

...and run! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

…and run! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

The view from my balcony as we enter...Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

The view from my balcony as we enter…Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

...picturesque Glacier Bay National Park. Margerie Glacier is shown here. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

…picturesque Glacier Bay National Park. Margerie Glacier is shown here. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Margerie Glacier - up-close and personal. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Margerie Glacier – up-close and personal. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Of course, you can also view Glacier Bay from the intimate and soothing enclosure that is The Sanctuary. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Of course, you can also view Glacier Bay from the intimate and soothing enclosure that is The Sanctuary. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Why not enjoy a cold pint of Princess' own SeaWitch IPA? Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Why not enjoy a cold pint of Princess’ own SeaWitch IPA? Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Star Princess underway in College Fjord. Skywalker's Nightclub - one of the ship's most distinctive features and a staple of the early Grand Class ships - towers 18 decks above the sea. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Star Princess underway in College Fjord. Skywalker’s Nightclub – one of the ship’s most distinctive features and a staple of the early Grand Class ships – towers 18 decks above the sea. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

The futuristic entrance to Skywalker's. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

The futuristic entrance to Skywalker’s. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Martini tasting in Crooners on Deck 7. Who's thirsty?! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Martini tasting in Crooners on Deck 7. Who’s thirsty?! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

My favorite enclave: The Wheelhouse Bar. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

My favorite enclave: The Wheelhouse Bar. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Another Beautiful Princess: Crown Princess (2006) departs Ketchikan on June 25, 2015. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Another Beautiful Princess: Crown Princess (2006) departs Ketchikan on June 25, 2015. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Today, I took in a classic excursion in Ketchikan: the Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show! Always fun! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Today, I took in a classic excursion in Ketchikan: the Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show! Always fun! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

To be continued! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

To be continued! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Our Live Voyage Report from Princess Cruises Denali Explorer CruiseTour will kick off in earnest on Monday, June 29, 2015! Read along by following @deckchairblog or the hashtag #LiveVoyageReport.

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Star Princess Denali Explorer, Day 3: Denali National Park http://www.avidcruiser.com/2015/06/18/star-princess-denali-explorer-day-3-denali-national-park/ http://www.avidcruiser.com/2015/06/18/star-princess-denali-explorer-day-3-denali-national-park/#respond Thu, 18 Jun 2015 22:50:26 +0000 http://www.avidcruiser.com/?p=44117 From McKinley to Denali Aaron Saunders, Live Voyage Reports Thursday, June 18, 2015 This morning, we entered our second full day on Princess Cruises’ 11-night Denali Explorer Tour as we awoke in our remote surroundings at the Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge, situated just north of Talkeetna, within the borders of Denali State Park. For... [Read More]

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From McKinley to Denali
The Road to Denali is paved by Princess! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

The Road to Denali is paved by Princess! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Aaron Saunders, Live Voyage Reports

Thursday, June 18, 2015

This morning, we entered our second full day on Princess Cruises’ 11-night Denali Explorer Tour as we awoke in our remote surroundings at the Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge, situated just north of Talkeetna, within the borders of Denali State Park.

Where to? The Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge has plenty of trails to explore on-site. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Where to? The Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge has plenty of trails to explore on-site. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

For me it was a morning to catch up on some sleep, relax and explore the trails surrounding the Lodge. With Mt. McKinley still in full sun-splashed view, that’s not a bad way to spend the day. It was relaxing, enjoyable, and everything I thought it could be. Sometimes, simply sitting back and indulging in the surroundings of the place you’re currently in can be a reward in its own right. Plus, you don’t want to burn out. Personally, I’m quite adept at burning the candle at both ends…and the chance to take it easy and enjoy the lodge couldn’t be passed up.

Exploring the grounds near the Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge; a great way to start the day! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Exploring the grounds near the Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge; a great way to start the day! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Others set off bright and early this morning to participate in some of the many optional land excursions that Princess offers here at the Mt. McKinley Wilderness Lodge. A total of 22 optional excursions are offered here, and they range in price, duration, interest and activity level. It’s a perfect combination, particularly for families travelling together.

Here’s what Princess is offering this year to make the most out of your Mt. McKinley wilderness experience:

  • Tour A: Trapper Creek Homestead Tour. 3 hrs, $79.99 per person.
  • Tour B: Alaska Sportsfishing. 5 hours, $239.95 per person.
  • Tour C: South Denali Experience. 2.5 hours, $69.95 per person.
  • Tour D: Sun Dog Kennels 1.5 hours, $115.95 per person.
  • Tour E: Wilderness Gold Panning Adventure. 4 hours, $165.92 per person.
  • Tour F: Backcountry Wilderness Adventure. 8.5 hours; $99.95 per person.
  • Tour G: Denali Wilderness Hike. 6 hours, $99.95 per person.
  • Tour H: Byers Lake Nature Walk. 3 hours. $67.95 per person.
  • Tour I: McKinley Wilderness Trail Ride. 2 hours, $119.95 per person.
  • Tour J: McKinley Discovery Tour. 1.4 hours, $299.95 per person.
  • Tour K: Glacier Landing Explorer. 1.75 hours, $389.95 per person
  • Tour L: Summit McKinley Flight. 5 hours, $364.95 per person.
  • Tour M: Three Rivers Tour. 3 hours, $145.95 per person.
  • Tour N: Devil’s Canyon Adventure. 5 hours, $179.95 per person.
  • Tour O: Chultina River Rafting. 4 hours, $139.95 per person.
  • Tour P: Byers Lake Paddle Trip. 3 hours, $95.95 per person.
  • Tour Q: Wilderness Jet Boat Adventure. 2 hours, $89.95 per person.
  • Tour R: Talkeetna River Float. 2 hours, $85.95 per person.
  • Tour S: Black Bear ATV Adventure. 3 hours, $189.95 per person.
  • Tour T: Talkeetna Zip Line Adventure. 3 hours, $159.95 per person.
  • Tour U: Ultimate Denali Hike & Flight. 4 hours, $525.95 per person.
  • Tour V: Horse-drawn Wagon Ride. 2 hours, $79.95 per person.

Should you do a tour during your time here? It’s up to you. Personally, I had a wonderful time wandering around and enjoying the trails that surround the property. But to truly make the most of your adventure, I’d recommend doing at least one. The tours are expensive, but that’s more of a byproduct of the remoteness of Alaska than anything else. Plus – how often do you get to land on a glacier or zip line across the Talkeetna wilderness? These are very much ‘bucket list’ experiences. You know. The kind you do to propose to someone you love, celebrate an anniversary, or tick-off some other major life event.

Of course, you won’t be disappointed if you choose to hang around your wilderness digs, either.

In the afternoon, we reboarded our Princess coach for the drive to Denali. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

In the afternoon, we reboarded our Princess coach for the drive to Denali. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Service at the Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge is friendly and exacting. Although the vast majority of the on-site staff are seasonal, that doesn’t mean they’re not professional or totally committed to the job. Many of the staff here came up to Alaska just once. One contract, they’d tell themselves, and then I’ll do something else.

“One contract” has a funny way of becoming 15 seasons or more for many of the on-site staff. More than not have even relocated to Alaska permanently, having fallen in love with the people and the place.

Welcome to Denali! Our home for the next two nights: the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Welcome to Denali! Our home for the next two nights: the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

One thing especially worth noting for those with early tours: with over 400 rooms and nearly 1,000 guests, breakfast can get competitive. While there was no time pressure today like there was yesterday, breakfast at the Lodge is a strictly menu-based affair. There’s no buffet, so the “quick breakfast for the busy Type-A on the go” is completely out of the question.

Breakfast this morning took approximately 90 minutes from start to finish. Plan on at least that if you’re heading out on a tour, and work your way backwards from there to determine what time you should be eating. On the bright side, my stack (and I do mean ‘stack’!) of Blueberry pancakes was sumptuous.

The views from the hotel are magnificent, looking out over Denali National Park. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

The views from the hotel are magnificent, looking out over Denali National Park. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

After a morning of exploration and some time spent outside on the patio admiring the views of Mt. McKinley, we hopped onboard our bright-blue Princess Cruises motorcoach. It’s newer and sexier than you might expect from a North American-based coach, having been built by European manufacturer VanHool. It’s also comfortable: an important point given that we traveled four hours by coach yesterday, and this afternoon spent another two hours in the coach en-route to Denali National Park and the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge.

The Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge is comprised of two main lodges and several outbuildings, and has 656 rooms on the property. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

The Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge is comprised of two main lodges and several outbuildings, and has 656 rooms on the property. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

It's also directly across the street from the small Denali village. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

It’s also directly across the street from the small Denali village. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Unlike the secluded Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge, the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge is nestled right in the heart of the small village that is Denali. It’s not actually within the National Park itself, but rather located just outside of it – as all properties in Denali are. But the Denali Princess arguably has the best views of the entire area – even though it may not look like it on the outside.

From the street, the Lodge borders the highway and the small village itself. It’s not big, but it is crowded. However, once you step into the lodge, your own private oasis awaits. The Denali Princess, you see, directly borders the river – and the wilderness that awaits tantalizingly beyond it.

Some photos of the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge:

Reception area in the main lodge at the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Reception area in the main lodge at the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

The lodge has plenty of Alaskan charm...Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

The lodge has plenty of Alaskan charm…Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

...and stunning viewpoints. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

…and stunning viewpoints. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Rooms are functional, if not particularly inspiring. I'd love to see the bedspreads go by the wayside; they're one of the few things that unnecessarily date the room. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Rooms are functional, if not particularly inspiring. I’d love to see the bedspreads go by the wayside; they’re one of the few things that unnecessarily date the room. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

My room's bathroom: pretty much what you'd expect. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

My room’s bathroom: pretty much what you’d expect. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Cruise ship-style pump soap dispensers in the shower. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Cruise ship-style pump soap dispensers in the shower. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

My home for two nights: the combined Lodges A & B. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

My home for two nights: the combined Lodges A & B. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Divided into a number of outbuildings clustered around two central main lobbies and a collection of shopping and dining experiences known as Princess Village, the Denali Princess has over 600 rooms on-site, making it the largest accommodation provider in the area. Princess has worked hard to ensure that the same level of commitment and quality that is found aboard their cruise ships has translated to their land product, and they’ve done that – quite successfully – for several decades by operating their own hotel and motorcoach product.

Arriving in the late afternoon, we had a few hours to explore the property before enjoying cocktails in the lobby of Lodge A and B, where we’ll be staying for the next two nights. Then, it was off to an on-site attraction for an entertaining dinner experience.

Located on-site, Princess Village features shopping, gifts and dining venues all in one convenient location. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Located on-site, Princess Village features shopping, gifts and dining venues all in one convenient location. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

The Music of Denali is a family-style dinner-theatre experience that tells the story of Denali and Mt. McKinley (or Mt. Denali, if you prefer) by using both modern and historic characters. It’s not supposed to be haute cuisine or take on Broadway, but it’s just good, clean, campy fun for the whole family.

There’s also audience participation. I never know how this happens, but I seem to be selected to be the slightly-unwilling participant on a lot of these things. So, sure enough, halfway into the meal the spotlight shines on me as I’m chosen to be…I don’t know what. Some sort of Amish-looking prospector surrounded by women. I tried to play along and do some funny gestures and motions, but really I was just praying to the Mt. Denali gods that I could disappear back into my seat and finish my beer in relative anonymity. I won’t quit my day-job!

Getting ready for dinner at the Music of Denali. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Getting ready for dinner at the Music of Denali. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

As I hang up my acting hat, I’m excited for the full day of adventure that awaits tomorrow. We’re off at 7:00 in the morning on a 6-hour tour of Denali National Park, which is included on all Princess Connoisseur Alaska cruisetours. This journey is an absolute must-see for anyone coming here; after all, Denali National Park is arguably Alaska’s crown jewel.

Then – we’re going flightseeing and landing on a glacier!

It’s a full day of adventure as our Princess Connoisseur Alaska Cruisetour continues tomorrow!

Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Our Live Voyage Report from Princess Cruises Denali Explorer CruiseTour continues tomorrow as we explore Denali National Park by land – and air! Be sure to follow along on twitter by following @deckchairblog or the hashtag #LiveVoyageReport.

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Star Princess Denali Explorer, Day 1-2: Anchorage & Mt. McKinley http://www.avidcruiser.com/2015/06/17/star-princess-denali-explorer-day-1-2-anchorage-mt-mckinley/ http://www.avidcruiser.com/2015/06/17/star-princess-denali-explorer-day-1-2-anchorage-mt-mckinley/#respond Wed, 17 Jun 2015 22:48:22 +0000 http://www.avidcruiser.com/?p=44115 Exploring the Majesty of Alaska with Princess Cruises Aaron Saunders, Live Voyage Reports Wednesday, June 17, 2015 Yesterday, my Air Canada Rouge flight from Vancouver touched down at Anchorage Ted Stevens International Airport, the largest airport in Alaska’s largest city. It’s the starting point for my ninth journey to Alaska, and second outing with Princess... [Read More]

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Exploring the Majesty of Alaska with Princess Cruises
On our way to adventure in Alaska with Princess Cruises! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

On our way to adventure in Alaska with Princess Cruises! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Aaron Saunders, Live Voyage Reports

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Yesterday, my Air Canada Rouge flight from Vancouver touched down at Anchorage Ted Stevens International Airport, the largest airport in Alaska’s largest city. It’s the starting point for my ninth journey to Alaska, and second outing with Princess following a cruise tour I escorted two years ago aboard Coral Princess for Vancouver-based Cruise Experts Travel.

The interior of the Hotel Captain Cook Anchorage is classy and tastefully decorated. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

The interior of the Hotel Captain Cook Anchorage is classy and tastefully decorated. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Over the next 12 days, we’ll have the chance to showcase Princess Cruises’ 11-night Denali Explorer Tour. The line actually offers 18 different land tour options in Alaska, with another multitude of possible combinations, including having the land-tour portion happen before or after your cruise. You can also choose your level of guiding, from fully-escorted “Connoisseur” cruisetours to more self-guided options that merely include transportation and accommodations, but leave it up to guests as to what – and how much – they’d like to do.

Our itinerary will take us from Anchorage to Mt. McKinley and then on to Denali National Park for a two-night stay. Following that, we’ll travel by Princess Cruises’ exclusive domed rail cars south to Whittier, where the 2002-built, 2600-guest Star Princess will be waiting for us.

The sun sets over Anchorage, Alaska...sort of. Even at 11:30p.m, daylight bleeds through the atmosphere. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

The sun sets over Anchorage, Alaska…sort of. Even at 11:30p.m, daylight bleeds through the atmosphere. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Once onboard Star Princess, we’ll chart a course for College Fjord, Hubbard Glacier, Glacier Bay National Park, Skagway, Juneau, Ketchikan, and the Inside Passage before our final arrival in Vancouver, British Columbia. It’s a comprehensive voyage that showcases plenty of Alaska’s natural beauty without burning through all your vacation time – or your money.

Once my baggage had lethargically spun its way to the finish line on the luggage carousel, I made my way to the waiting coach, and was ushered to the Hotel Captain Cook for my overnight stay. Getting in late, I didn’t do much other than enjoy a fantastic dinner at the South Side Bistro. Princess has partnered with this fabulous local establishment run by Chef de Cusine Travis Haugen to provide some of their culinary excellence onboard the Princess fleet in Alaska, and I look forward to seeing how that translates onboard.

Captain Cook himself, in statue form, in Anchorage's Resolution Park. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Captain Cook himself, in statue form, in Anchorage’s Resolution Park. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Of course, there was also time to sample some local beers (an absolute-must in Alaska) and go for a nice post-dinner stroll along the Anchorage waterfront.

Despite having been this far north in Alaska before, I’m still shocked by the famous Midnight Sun. During the walk, I was shocked – shocked!- to learn that it was quarter past eleven…at night. The sun was, to me, barely in the position you might expect of seven or seven-thirty in the evening.

That sunlight persisted right through the night. The sun itself disappeared behind the silhouette of Mt. Torbert, but the light it emitted never fully went away.

A deserted Anchorage, not far from the Hotel Captain Cook, at midnight. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

A deserted Anchorage, not far from the Hotel Captain Cook, near midnight. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Anchorage, Alaska...at 1:30 a.m.! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Anchorage, Alaska…at 1:30 a.m.! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

On these CruiseTours, Princess helpfully allows you to send any unwanted luggage intended for the voyage straight to the ship – thereby eliminating the need for you to schlep it around yourself. After a good suggestion, I ended up cramming my backpack with enough clothes and toiletries for the next three days and ditching my (heavy) Heys spinner altogether. It took a while to repack, though – particularly when you can’t stop staring at the incessant-yet-beautiful hybrid sunset/sunrise that exists just out the windows.

Princess uses the Hotel Captain Cook in Anchorage, and it’s far better than your average Alaskan hotel. The beds there are, up until this point, the best I’ve slept on in this state: soft and yielding. Rooms have built-in climate control. Amenities are new and well-thought out.

Meals can be enjoyed at the on-site restaurant, which is sadly too small to accommodate all guests. Give yourself lots of time at breakfast! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Meals can be enjoyed at the on-site restaurant, which is sadly too small to accommodate all guests. Give yourself lots of time at breakfast! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

One thing that proved to be problematic, however, was breakfast. After getting up early, showering and placing luggage out by 7:00 a.m., it seems that everyone else had the same idea: the lobby restaurant serving breakfast was mobbed. Food, we were told, would take at least 25 minutes – and just getting to the podium to learn this took us 15 minutes.

A few of us ended up running across the street to a small bistro that serves breakfast, receiving it 15 minutes before the appointed time to be on the coach, and woofing it down and making it to the bus with five minutes to spare. How do you eat pancakes and hashbrowns really fast? Wash them down with liberal amounts of coffee and hope for the best!

En-route to the Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge on the first full day of our Denali Explorer cruisetour with Princess Cruises. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

En-route to the Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge on the first full day of our Denali Explorer cruisetour with Princess Cruises. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

In the future, I’ll plan to be down having breakfast two hours before the coach transfer. Getting breakfast with so many people all wanting it at the same time just doesn’t work in these big hotels with unfortunately-small, fixed-menu dining venues that just can’t accommodate the guest load they see in a week.

With breakfast a narrow-but-total success, we set out for our next destination: the Princess Mt. McKinley Wilderness Lodge located in Denali State Park, just north of Talkeetna.

Recent forest fire activity near the town of Willow, Alaska, has left trees blackened on both sides of the highway. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Recent forest fire activity near the town of Willow, Alaska, has left trees blackened on both sides of the highway. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Of course, you may have heard about the massive forest fire that is burning out of control near Willow, Alaska. It started as a small brushfire on Sunday afternoon. By dinner, it was officially out of control and had already managed to jump the highway. The highway that is, of course, the only direct connection with Talkeetna, Denali and Fairbanks further to the north.

The fire is still making the local news...though the headline strikes me as more interesting. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

The fire is still making the local news…though the headline strikes me as more interesting. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

But, our local guide assured us that motorcoach traffic was getting through. Delayed, yes, but getting through. And just after we’d driven through Wasilla – home of Sarah “I-can-see-Russia-from-my-backyard” Palin – we ran into the thick of it.

Stopping to admire the view...and the people training with cross-country skis on wheels! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Stopping to admire the view…and the people training with cross-country skis on wheels! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

The fire had scorched trees and earth on both sides of the George Parks Highway. You could see where it had jumped the highway, scorching everything from trees to power poles and leaving nothing more than scorched earth in its path.

At one point, we drove past a curious sight: a collection of a dozen or so bright-green metal triangles lying on the ground, just beyond some trees that were still standing. It’s only after a moment’s comprehension that you realize those are the roofs of houses or buildings that fell to the earth as their wooden walls burned around them.

Fair warning, or tongue-in-cheek geography lesson? Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Fair warning, or tongue-in-cheek geography lesson? Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

As we waited for another traffic jam, Alaska’s penchant for the unique and quirky revealed itself. A woman – clad in runners, pink-and-black pyjama bottoms and a black hoodie covered in earth – emerged from seemingly out of nowhere on the other side of the embankment. She looked a bit like the Alaskan version of Lisbeth Salander – if the famous Girl With the Dragon Tattoo had been armed with a rock in her right hand and an iPhone in her left.

She teetered uneasily on her feet, unsure of where to go. Those of us on the coach watched the rock in her hand: was she going to throw it at the coach? Would she fling it at a car? No one really seemed sure.

After a few more moments of indecision, The Girl With The Rock and the Phone darted out in front of our coach and disappeared from view. Like any good urban legend, some say she vanished into the woods. Others swear she was headed for the back of the bus. Personally, I kind of hoped she’d take a page from the Cape Fear playbook and cling to the undercarriage of the coach for the next two hours, but no such luck.

Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

If you're in Talkeetna, walk to the end of the street to admire the banks of the Sustina River. Talkeetna is actually located at the confluence of three rivers. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

If you’re in Talkeetna, walk to the end of the street to admire the banks of the Sustina River. Talkeetna is actually located at the confluence of three rivers. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Freed of traffic and our rock-armed friend, we arrived for lunch in the small town of Talkeetna. How small is Talkeetna, you ask? Here’s a clue: the town council elected a cat named Stubbs as the honourary Mayor of Talkeetna. Yep, the local feline resident of the Nagley’s General Store (Since 1921) has proudly served since 1997.

It’s all done in good fun. The people who call this small hamlet home on a year-round basis are a hearty, friendly bunch. As they should be: they can lay claim to having the second-largest brewing company in Alaska after the Alaska Brewing Co.

The small, picturesque town of Talkeetna offers plenty of quaint charms...Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

The small town of Talkeetna offers plenty of quaint charms…Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Including the honorary Mayor Stubbs - who is, as you might have guessed, feline. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Including the honorary Mayor Stubbs – who is, as you might have guessed, feline. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

If you're in Denali, you've got to stop in at the Denali Brew Pub. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

If you’re in Talkeetna, you’ve got to stop in at the Denali Brew Pub. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Denali Brewing has been around now for just a few years, but in that time they’ve managed to carve out a name for themselves as a purveyor of fine craft beers. We were invited to dine at the restaurant for lunch and sample their full lineup of beers. Naturally, I had the “I Can See Russia” burger and paired it with a variety of beer samples, from their two surprisingly bold and sharp stouts to their delicious ambers and fascinating Belgian-style beer infused with local Alaskan blackberries.

Sampling the tasty beers of the Denali Brewing Company in Talkeetna!  My favorite: the Hibernale. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Sampling the tasty beers of the Denali Brewing Company in Talkeetna! My favorite: the Hibernale. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Of course, no beer is complete without good food. Here, we have the "I Can See Russia" burger, a nod to Sarah Palin's famous gaffe about being able to view Russia from her home in Wasilla. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Of course, no beer is complete without good food. Here, we have the “I Can See Russia” burger, a nod to Sarah Palin’s famous gaffe about being able to view Russia from her home in Wasilla. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

After a delicious lunch and plenty of malty libations, it was time to head off to our overnight digs: the Princess Mt. McKinley Wilderness Lodge, which is nestled just inside the boundaries of Denali State Park fifty minutes north of Talkeetna.

Not to be confused with Denali National Park, Denali State Park is its own separate – but connected – entity. The two literally border each other, but Denali National Park – the more famous Denali – is further north.

Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

The reason Princess built a lodge here back in 1995? The views, of course! And on a day like today, Mt. McKinley is in all its glory. Frequently obscured by cloud cover, the fact that we got to see the peak of McKinley for the entire day is something of a beautiful accident. It’s estimated that 30 percent of the visitors that come here will never actually see the mountain. Indeed, on my last trip here, I was one of those: Mt. McKinley hid in a veil of fog and rain the entire time.

The Princess Mt. McKinley Wilderness Lodge is bigger than you might expect: there are over 400 rooms on-site, intimately grouped in just over twenty small outbuildings that are anchored by the main Lodge.

The lobby of the Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge. Accommodations are actually housed in several outbuildings. You'd never know the property has 460 rooms at first glance! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

The lobby of the Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge. Accommodations are actually housed in several outbuildings. You’d never know the property has 460 rooms at first glance! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

My accommodations were in the first building directly opposite the lodge. Convenient! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

My accommodations were in the first building directly opposite the lodge. Convenient! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

The Lodge itself features a restaurant, a cozy Lounge with a fireplace, both wi-fi internet access and sit-down computer terminals, a magnificent outdoor terrace, and a surprisingly well-stocked gift shop. Hot tubs are featured on the property, as are numerous walking trails designed for those who want to take all that Mother Nature has to offer here.

You can also partake in some spectacular extra-cost tours here, though I opted to take it easy this afternoon – and I’m glad I did. Simply exploring the property and relaxing in the room sounded like a wonderful plan to me! Tomorrow, of course, may hold other adventures.

The Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge may be in the middle of nowhere, but that doesn't mean you have to be, too. The lodge is equipped with Wi-Fi and internet work stations. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

The Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge may be in the middle of nowhere, but that doesn’t mean you have to be, too. The lodge is equipped with Wi-Fi and internet work stations. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Tonight, our little group had drinks around the fire pits before retreating to the Lodge for a sumptuous dinner. The fire pits weren’t really needed today: with daylight running well past midnight and temperatures in the high-80’s (high 20’s Celsius), the Princess Mt. McKinley Wilderness Lodge feels more like Honolulu today.

There are clever details, like these faux-antler door handles, scattered throughout the Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

There are clever details, like these faux-antler door handles, scattered throughout the Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

The interior of the lodge: cozy in all weather conditions. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

The interior of the lodge: cozy in all weather conditions. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Inside, interior spaces are warm and inviting. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Inside, interior spaces are warm and inviting. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Plenty of nooks and crannies are available, and the lodge never once felt crowded during my stay. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Plenty of nooks and crannies are available, and the lodge never once felt crowded during my stay. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

My room at the Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge: far better than I had expected, with comfortable beds and nice amenities. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

My room at the Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge: far better than I had expected, with comfortable beds and nice amenities. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Princess has been sailing to Alaska since 1969. They know a thing or two about the region. But what surprised me is how mature and polished their land product is. This is a product that luxury lines could offer to their guests and they’d be quite pleased. That a big-ship mainstream cruise line can deliver this kind of consistent experience on-land is really quite an achievement.

Is doing a land-and-cruise tour worth the extra money? I’ll let you be the judge. As much as I love the ocean, you just don’t get vistas like this at sea.

Of course, the real reason you come here is for the spectacular views..Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Of course, the real reason you come here is for the spectacular views..Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

...of Mt. McKinley! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

…of Mt. McKinley! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Our Live Voyage Report from Princess Cruises Denali Explorer CruiseTour continues tomorrow with our arrival in majestic Denali National Park! Be sure to follow along on twitter by following @deckchairblog or the hashtag #LiveVoyageReport.

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Barging In The South Of France: CroisiEurope’s Anne-Marie, Day 1, Arriving In Arles, Almost http://www.avidcruiser.com/2015/06/16/barging-in-the-south-of-france-croisieuropes-anne-marie-day-1-arriving-in-arles/ http://www.avidcruiser.com/2015/06/16/barging-in-the-south-of-france-croisieuropes-anne-marie-day-1-arriving-in-arles/#respond Tue, 16 Jun 2015 18:42:32 +0000 http://www.avidcruiser.com/?p=44880 See the beautiful photograph above? That is where I would be about right now, on a Tuesday evening, taking a walk along the river after having washed down a bowl of moules-frites with a glass of rosé from Provence.  Instead, I am Washington, D.C. sipping on a Starbucks Cafe Latte and preparing for a flight... [Read More]

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Arles at sunset. © 2013 Ralph Grizzle

Arles in the early evening sun. © 2013 Ralph Grizzle

See the beautiful photograph above? That is where I would be about right now, on a Tuesday evening, taking a walk along the river after having washed down a bowl of moules-frites with a glass of rosé from Provence. 

Instead, I am Washington, D.C. sipping on a Starbucks Cafe Latte and preparing for a flight to Brussels that will connect me with Marseille. Once in Marseille, I’ll pick up a rental car and drive to Arles, arriving (hopefully) around mid-afternoon on Wednesday.

I wasn’t alone in travel disruptions this week. A series of storms along the East Coast of the United States made travel a tempest. The storms are still brewing. Already, I can see that my Washington to Brussels flight is delayed, but only by 15 minutes at this point.

I made a few mistakes yesterday. Here’s what I would do differently next time.

  1. During the summer if you are traveling from airports that are not major hubs, book flights that depart before noon. Why? Afternoon thunderstorms. It has been hot and sticky in the South. Yesterday, the mercury was pulsing to more than 100°F  — the perfect conditions for afternoon thunderstorms, according to theweatherprediction.com. As I drove from Asheville, North Carolina to Greenville, South Carolina for a 19:53 flight to Washington, there were no storms at all, but there were plenty up and down the East Coast, delaying our incoming aircraft. The lesson: I should have flown earlier in the day.
  2. Argue with United’s ticket agent. Though polite and professional, United’s ticket agent told me that my flight was delayed and that I would not make the connection in Washington to Europe. In that chaotic moment at the airport, I believed her, and when she said my only option was for her to reticket me for the next morning, I let her work her magic. Turns out she was wrong. Though my flight was scheduled to arrive more than 30 minutes late into Washington, it was actually only 12 minutes late. The outgoing flight from Washington was 35 minutes late. I would have had plenty of time to connect. The lesson: I should have stood firm and demanded that I stay on the flights I had ticketed on the off chance (or in this case, the on chance) that I would beat the odds and make the connection.
  3. Prepare for further disappointment Oh, United’s ticket agent failed to mention that I’d be overnighting in Greenville at my expense — along with hundreds of others who were vying for rooms because of cancelled flights. Rental cars were sold out (I would have driven back to Asheville), hotels were full. I managed to find a room at a Hilton for $299 a night. Fortunately, there was a shuttle to offset the $29 taxi fare each way. With taxes and dinner, however, I was out nearly $400. But wait, I had travel delay insurance … 
  4. Read the fine print, and then question it. If your common carrier travel is delayed more than 12 hours or requires an overnight stay, you and your family are covered for unreimbursed expenses, such as meals and lodging, up to $500 per ticket. That’s how Chase touts its Sapphire Preferred travel delay benefit on its website. Great, I thought. No worries about the expensive Hilton stay. Wrong. I had booked with points and even though travel using points is covered, expenses are reimbursed only to the amount charged on the Chase-branded card. For me, that was fees and taxes of $69. The amount of paperwork required to recoup $69 simply was not worth it. The lesson: I should have had better insurance.
  5. Go with the flow. “There’s a reason for it. Acceptance.” These were the wise words from a good friend upon hearing of my delay. The lesson: Relax. I’m lucky to be traveling and to be alive.

Arles, see you tomorrow. I hope. 

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S.S. Legacy Day 1: Embarkation in Portland, Oregon http://www.avidcruiser.com/2015/06/16/s-s-legacy-day-1-embarkation-in-portland-oregon/ http://www.avidcruiser.com/2015/06/16/s-s-legacy-day-1-embarkation-in-portland-oregon/#respond Tue, 16 Jun 2015 18:01:20 +0000 http://www.avidcruiser.com/?p=44884 A Historic Adventure aboard Un-Cruise Adventures’ S.S. Legacy Begins Because of lack of internet access, Aaron Saunders’ Live Voyage Report from the Columbia and Snake rivers is running this week. Aaron cruised on Un-Cruise’s S.S. Legacy on a 7-night voyage that operates roundtrip from Portland. S.S. Legacy offers a different spin on the traditional Un-Cruise product. Instead of... [Read More]

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A Historic Adventure aboard Un-Cruise Adventures’ S.S. Legacy Begins
Embarking the classy S.S. Legacy! Photo ©  2015 Aaron Saunders

Embarking the classy S.S. Legacy. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Because of lack of internet access, Aaron Saunders’ Live Voyage Report from the Columbia and Snake rivers is running this week. Aaron cruised on Un-Cruise’s S.S. Legacy on a 7-night voyage that operates roundtrip from Portland.

S.S. Legacy offers a different spin on the traditional Un-Cruise product. Instead of offering highly-active excursions like kayaking and paddle-boarding, S.S. Legacy represents Un-Cruise’s History product. That means that instead of zodiac raft rides ashore and bushwhacks that will have you up to your elbows in earth and mud, guests are treated to things like wine tastings. Museum visits. Overland tours to sites of historical importance.

Follow Aaron’s Live Voyage Report here.

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Off To Barge In The South Of France, Mon’Ami Lou & Alex, The Graduate http://www.avidcruiser.com/2015/06/14/off-to-barge-in-the-south-of-france-monami-lou-alex-the-graduate/ http://www.avidcruiser.com/2015/06/14/off-to-barge-in-the-south-of-france-monami-lou-alex-the-graduate/#respond Mon, 15 Jun 2015 03:16:25 +0000 http://www.avidcruiser.com/?p=44872 On Monday, I’ll begin a journey from Asheville to Arles, where I’ll play host to a small group as we explore the beautiful Languedoc-Roussillon region in the south of France — on a luxury barge. Wish you where there? Well, you had your chance didn’t you? Our trip begins in Arles, where we’ll spend two nights in a luxury... [Read More]

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Sunset On Chateauneuf du Pape. © 2014 Avid Travel Media

Sunset On Chateauneuf du Pape. © 2014 Avid Travel Media

On Monday, I’ll begin a journey from Asheville to Arles, where I’ll play host to a small group as we explore the beautiful Languedoc-Roussillon region in the south of France — on a luxury barge. Wish you where there? Well, you had your chance didn’t you?

Our trip begins in Arles, where we’ll spend two nights in a luxury hotel in the village where Vincent Van Gogh lived during 1888 and 1889. The ill-fated artist was seeking refuge at a time when he was ill from drink and suffering from smoker’s cough.

Of more interest to me is Jeanne Calment. She passed away in 1997 after living her entire life in Arles. Get this: Calment met Van Gogh when she was 13 years old.

[Moment allowed for the preceding sentence to sink in.]

For those of you who are astute at doing the numbers, you would have correctly deduced that Calment lived to be more than 100 years old. In fact, she lived much longer than that.

Born in 1875, Calment lived to be 122, the longest confirmed human lifespan on this planet.

Her life is testament that there is hope for all of us — at any age. Calment took up fencing at the age of 85 and continued to ride her bicycle up to age 100. She consumed port wine, moderately, and less moderately, one kilogram of chocolate every week. She smoked, but only a few cigarettes a day, for 96 years of her life.

My favorite story about Calment, however, is when she signed a deal to sell her apartment to a lawyer on a contingency contract. In return for obtaining her apartment upon her death, the 47-year-old lawyer agreed to pay the 90-year-old Calment 2,500 francs each month until she died. As you might guess, she outlived the lawyer.

You can read more about Arles and our barge trip at this link. I’m planning on hosting at least two more luxury barge trips in 2016, so if you are curious at all as to what these trips are all about, check rivercruiseadvisor.com each day between now and June 26 for updates of how we are spending our days.

Mon’Ami

Lou

At New York’s Le Rivage, Louis Le Jacq (left) and Marcel Denamiel, owner of Le Rivage.

He’s not 122 years old, but I’m beginning to think he may get there. His name is Lou Le Jacq, a youthful 85-year-old who I met on a cruise up the Loire river back in April. A former publisher and a writer himself, Lou has kept in touch with me since our time in the Loire Valley. When I mentioned I’d be in New York for a Seabourn announcement last week, Lou insisted on taking me to lunch at his “favorite restaurant,” Le Rivage, on New York’s Restaurant Row. I enjoy the company of this witty and kind man. “Heaven is going to be a let-down for you Ralph,” he tells me when I recite my past travel experiences and future trips. Lou is proof that you can keep lasting friendships from your cruises — if you’ll only make the effort to do so.

The Graduate

 

Alex

Off and running: My son Alex graduated from high school and is ready for real life. My advice: Eat chocolate – and lots of it. It worked for Jeanne Calment.

A special congratulations to my son, Alex, 6’7″ and a recent graduate of Asheville High School. At the tender age of 18, he is now ready to tackle life head on. His graduation tethered on a shoestring, however. A brilliant kid, Alex’s learning style, and the demand that he get his big body out of bed each morning for 8:30 a.m. classes, didn’t mesh well with today’s modern education system. It wasn’t until the day before graduation, this past Friday, that his mother and I learned for sure that he would walk across the stage with a diploma tucked under his arm. Look for Alex to do great things in life. My advice to him: Enjoy a little port wine and eat plenty of chocolate. Living in Arles is optional.

Give Alex a “like” on my Facebook page.

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From Central Park, Seabourn Announces That It Will Bring Three Michelin Stars To Sea http://www.avidcruiser.com/2015/06/11/seabourn-thomas-keller/ http://www.avidcruiser.com/2015/06/11/seabourn-thomas-keller/#respond Thu, 11 Jun 2015 12:04:45 +0000 http://www.avidcruiser.com/?p=44859 From its perch on Columbus Circle, Thomas Keller’s famed restaurant Per Se offers an outstanding view of New York’s Central Park. I was admiring that view last night along with the big brass from Carnival Corporation, parent company of luxury line Seabourn. There with the likes of Micky Arison, Arnold Donald, Stein Kruse and Rick... [Read More]

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© 2015 Ralph Grizzle

Six Seabourn team members left their ships in Europe to serve champagne in New York. © 2015 Ralph Grizzle

From its perch on Columbus Circle, Thomas Keller’s famed restaurant Per Se offers an outstanding view of New York’s Central Park. I was admiring that view last night along with the big brass from Carnival Corporation, parent company of luxury line Seabourn. There with the likes of Micky Arison, Arnold Donald, Stein Kruse and Rick Meadows, was star chef Thomas Keller, the only American-born chef to hold multiple three-star ratings in the prestigious Michelin Guide. Also in the celebrity spotlight, Adam D. Tihany, designer of the new Seabourn Encore as well as the restaurant in which we stood.

We were all there to hear details of a big announcement. Seabourn is bringing Keller’s creativity to its fleet, beginning this fall with selections of Keller-inspired appetizers, entrees and desserts to be served in various venues on Seabourn Quest. By mid-November, all three ships will feature a number of menus by chef Keller.

The bigger news, however, was that Keller will have his own signature restaurant on all Seabourn ships, beginning with Quest next spring. With the name yet to be made public, the new restaurants will reside in the space now occupied by Restaurant 2 on Seabourn Quest, Odyssey and Sojourn — and in new dedicated spaces, designed by Adam Tihany, on the new Seabourn Encore and Ovation. Effectively, Seabourn is bringing three Michelin stars to sea.

As impressed as I was by the canapés served to us by Keller’s white-gloved waiters, I was equally impressed by the fact that Seabourn had flown in six of its waiters and waitresses from all three of its ships, now operating in Europe. I spoke to one young man as he presented me with a glass of champagne. He’d never been to New York, so it was a real treat for him to have left Seabourn Odyssey in Athens, Greece, to serve bubbly in Manhattan. That Seabourn had thought to bring six of its team members to New York is in essence what defines The Seabourn Difference.

While avid cruisers are aware that Seabourn excels in service and other aspects of the luxury lifestyle at sea, “nothing is as eagerly anticipated [on Seabourn ships] as the quality of our cuisine,” Rick Meadows, president of Seabourn, told us last night. “As we prepare to go into our future, where we’ll be expanding our fleet with two beautiful new vessels in the next three years, we’re going to be taking Seabourn’s cuisine to an entirely new level, and we’re going to be doing that with the culinary genius behind Per Se, The French Laundry and Bouchon, chef Thomas Keller.”

After experiencing Keller’s creativity and hearing of his commitment to his trade at last night’s event, I would add that it is not only Seabourn’s cuisine that will be taken to an entirely new level but also the small touches that continue to refine and exemplify The Seabourn Difference.

© 2015 Ralph Grizzle

Seabourn’s smiling staff. © 2015 Ralph Grizzle

© 2015 Ralph Grizzle

We enjoyed a sampling of Keller’s canapés last night at Per Se in New York. © 2015 Ralph Grizzle

© 2015 Ralph Grizzle

From left, Marnie Tihany, Thomas Keller, Adam D. Tihany and Rick Meadows, president of Seabourn. © 2015 Ralph Grizzle

© 2015 Ralph Grizzle

Thomas Keller took us behind the scenes for a tour of the Per Se kitchen. © 2015 Ralph Grizzle

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Sitka – Alaska’s Gem http://www.avidcruiser.com/2015/06/09/sitka-alaskas-gem/ http://www.avidcruiser.com/2015/06/09/sitka-alaskas-gem/#respond Wed, 10 Jun 2015 02:06:04 +0000 http://www.avidcruiser.com/?p=44695 When cruising the Alaska Panhandle, you will find that the major ports of call are becoming quite commercial with a plethora of gift shops and jewelry stores. The main streets of Ketchikan, Juneau and Skagway are starting to resemble St. Martin or Barbados with the same familiar retail establishments selling diamonds, gemstones and gold watches... [Read More]

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Cruising Alaska available at Amazon Kindle

Cruising Alaska available at Amazon Kindle

When cruising the Alaska Panhandle, you will find that the major ports of call are becoming quite commercial with a plethora of gift shops and jewelry stores. The main streets of Ketchikan, Juneau and Skagway are starting to resemble St. Martin or Barbados with the same familiar retail establishments selling diamonds, gemstones and gold watches at so called “bargain” prices.

Of course all this commercialism does not detract from the breathtaking scenery, but it is altering the original Alaskan frontier flavor that once existed. But the one Panhandle port that has not seen this development is Sitka.

Why you might ask. The reason is clear, fewer ships call in at Sitka because because of its location. It is on the west coast of Baranof Island, one of the largest islands of the Panhandle, but a visit requires a detour out into the open Pacific waters, leaving the calm of the Inside Passage.

The city and borough of Sitka includes the entire island with 2,870 square miles of land, making it the largest city in the United States in land area. Yet the population stands at just under 9,000. There is a peaceful charm to Sitka because it is not on the main tour route for cruise ships. This is the one port in which the large jewelry chain stores found in the other major ports are absent. Numerous excellent galleries that feature both Russian and native art, with many of the artists having their studios right in town. They replace the chain stores found in Ketchikan, Juneau and Skagway. In Sitka there is a definite emphasis upon local quality and not mass production.

Baranof Island is home to Sitka

Baranof Island is home to Sitka

The Sitka Rose Gallery The site of Sitka is that of a beautiful bay on the west coast of Baranof Island, and the bay is dotted with small, thickly forested islands. The mountains rising up behind Sitka are snow capped much of the year and rich evergreen forests totally engulf the city. Across the bay is the 3,200-foot volcanic cone called Mount Edgecumbe. This beautiful snow-capped volcanic cone dominates the harbor, but its last known eruption was around 4,200 years ago. However, geologists said it was dormant and not extinct. On the morning of April 1, 1974, an ominous plume of black smoke was seen billowing out of the crater, and this caused near panic in Sitka. The Coast Guard sent up a helicopter to assess whether the city should be evacuated. But to their surprise they found a mound of burning rubber tires. This was the April Fools Day prank of a local resident known as Oliver “Porky” Bickar. He had been planning this for quite some time and a friend of his who had a helicopter helped him place the tires atop the mountain and set them alight just before dawn. His prank garnered worldwide attention for its uniqueness and thus local law enforcement decided not to charge him with mischief.

Sitka has a marine west coast climate, but its rainfall total is higher than either Juneau or Ketchikan because of its direct exposure to the Gulf of Alaska where the warm North Pacific Drift first strikes the coast. Temperatures are cool year around and during winter it is often cold enough right at sea level for snow to accumulate.

The history of Sitka dates back to the early Russian attempt to establish a fort in 1799. This was to become the home base for the Governor of Alaska appointed by the Russian Tsar. He also commissioned the Russian America Company to establish trade with the native Tlingit as well as to trap for furs. The Tlingit, however, were not enamored with these newcomers, and in 1802 they attacked the fort, overwhelming its defenses. They killed many of the Russians and 200 of the Aleuts who the Russians had brought from the Aleutian Islands to help with the work of running the fort and trading outpost. The governor then had to ransom the remaining survivors. Back in Saint Petersburg the authorities were outraged at such an incident. Thus Governor Baranov was returned to Sitka in 1804 with a Russian naval vessel, which bombarded the fort that the Tlingit now occupied. The bombardments did little to damage the stockade, so the Russians launched a full-scale attack that also proved unsuccessful. Fortunately the Tlingit ran out of gunpowder from the reserves within the fort and then abandoned their position, enabling the Russians to claim victory. It was only after this “so called” victory that the Russians actually established the settlement of Sitka, originally calling it New Archangel. The Tlingit built their own fort across the Chatham Strait and kept the Russians from trading or trapping in their territory for years to come. The remains of the old Russian Fort

In 1808, Sitka became the capital of Russian America and remained so until the Americans moved the territorial capital to Juneau in 1906. During the Russian period, several important structures were built such as the bishop’s palace and the Cathedral of Saint Michael, both of which still stand today. By 1840, the Russian Orthodox Bishop for Alaska and the Kamchatka Peninsula (Russia) was based in Sitka. The town became the most important trade center for the entire Russian colony and it did offer many of the comforts to be found in Saint Petersburg so many thousands of miles away. There were many workers in Sitka from the Baltic Sea region, and being protestant they were allowed to build the Sitka Lutheran Church, and after the American purchase in 1867, other denominations came. But Saint Michael’s still dominates the town center and gives Sitka that special Russian historical flavor.

Once the Americans purchased Alaska, attention was turned toward the Inside Passage, and with gold discovered in Juneau and then later the Klondike Gold Rush occurring, Sitka became almost forgotten, especially once the capital was moved to Juneau. Sitka continued to serve as a fishing port for the salmon and crab fleets, and some fish canning was done. And on Baranof Island there was some gold mined. But what brought Sitka back to life was World War II. During the war, the U. S. Navy developed an air station on Japonski Island adjacent to Sitka, and this helped swell the population for the duration of the war. Today the island is home to the U. S. Coast Guard Air Station and port facility, and it, along with the base at Kodiak, serve to protect the entire Alaska coast. If you have watched the TV program “Coast Guard Alaska,” you will recall that many episodes are partly filmed in and around Sitka.

Today, salmon and crab fishing are still the major employers for the city, although governmental and health services combined provide more jobs. Tourism is still not as major as in Ketchikan, Juneau or Skagway because of the more isolated location of Sitka. A portion of the Sitka fishing fleet Once off the ship, you will only have a day in Sitka if your cruise itinerary includes this port. I highly recommend one of the many tours out into the wilds of Baranof Island or its offshore waters so that you can enjoy the beauty of raw nature and still have some time to walk around the small town center. Here are some of the possibilities, but of course tours will be created by your cruise line based upon what it feels best matches the clientele:

  • The Sitka National Historic Park/Totem Park – Located a short distance south of the city center, this federally operated national park combines a series of nature trails through the beautiful maritime rainforest with a collection of traditional totem poles. The park offers both the natural and the historic aspects of Baranof Island and it is a beautiful experience. If you are not visiting the park as part of a tour, you can take one of the limited local taxis to the park visitor’s center
  • Fortress of the Bear – Located a few miles out of the city on Sawmill Creek, this sanctuary raises young grizzly bears and offers a chance to see these still wild animals, especially at feeding time. This sanctuary rescues young wayward bears and keeps them from being culled or shot often out of necessity
  • Alaska Raptor Center – This is a sanctuary that cares for birds of prey, especially bald eagles. At the center you can see many of Alaska’s great hunting and fishing birds up close. The sanctuary is located just east of the town center, but it is a bit of a walk unless you are visiting on a tour
  • Sheldon Jackson Museum – This small museum features excellent arts and crafts representing native tribes for all parts of Alaska
  • Saint Michael’s Cathedral – Right in the heart of Sitka, this small Russian Orthodox Cathedral once served as the home for the Bishop of all Alaska and Kamchatka. It offers a look at the Russian Orthodox faith, as practiced on the remote frontier
  • Russian Bishop’s House – Located right on the main street, this old building dating to Tsarist Russia is now a museum of Russian culture. It once was the home to the bishop who ministered to all of Alaska and Kamchatka on the far eastern coast of Russia
  • Baranof Castle Hill State Historic Site – This hilltop viewpoint is the spot where the Russian government handed over control of Alaska to the United States. There is little here except a good view of the Sitka region

Sitka's Russian Orthodox Church There are a great variety of options that include kayaking, river rafting, nature hiking, whale watching or fishing. Your cruise line will offer many package tours that you would be hard pressed to try and arrange on your own after arrival. If you are seeking some adventure and a chance to savor more of the wild side of Sitka, there are plenty of opportunities too numerous to mention, as each cruise line will have its own special packages.

Submitted by, Dr. Lew Deitch www.doctorlew.com

 

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‘Gearing’ Up: Off To See What Seabourn Has ‘Cooking’ In New York, Biking With Friends & My Return To Europe http://www.avidcruiser.com/2015/06/07/gearing-up-seabourn-has-something-cooking-in-new-york-biking-with-friends-my-return-to-europe/ http://www.avidcruiser.com/2015/06/07/gearing-up-seabourn-has-something-cooking-in-new-york-biking-with-friends-my-return-to-europe/#respond Mon, 08 Jun 2015 01:13:07 +0000 http://www.avidcruiser.com/?p=44842 Thank you for all of the nice emails commenting on last week’s story about Asheville, North Carolina, and my kids. Your remarks reminded me of all of the friends I have made during years of travel and reporting. I’m grateful that I have met many of you personally – on ships, at conventions and in ports of... [Read More]

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Thank you for all of the nice emails commenting on last week’s story about Asheville, North Carolina, and my kids. Your remarks reminded me of all of the friends I have made during years of travel and reporting. I’m grateful that I have met many of you personally – on ships, at conventions and in ports of call. If you missed that story, you can find it here: You Can’t Go Home Again? I Did. Next Adventures? Barging In France & Off To NYC For A Big Seabourn Announcement.

I’m still in Asheville, preparing to leave this week for New York, where Seabourn has a big unveiling. I’m told that “something’s cooking” for the luxury line’s newest ship. That stands to reason. The company recently announced a partnership with world-renowned American chef and restaurateur Thomas Keller, the culinary genius behind a trio of Michelin-starred restaurants – The French Laundry, Per Se and Bouchon.

Coincidentally, a couple of those restaurants bear the imprint of Seabourn Encore’s designer, Adam D. Tihany. Earlier this year, I traveled to New York’s design district to interview Adam. You can find that story and video at Meet Seabourn Encore’s Designer: Adam D. Tihany.

Back to New York. © 2015 Ralph Grizzle

Back to New York, where I’m sure to see Seabourn Encore’s designer, Adam D. Tihany and his ever-gracious wife and business companion, Marnie Tihany. © 2015 Ralph Grizzle

I’m extremely grateful to have such a wide circle of friends, colleagues and acquaintances. And while most of my time with them is spent in professional settings (yes, even the cruises are professional settings), for the past two weeks I’ve been spending time with my biking buddies and others. I write so much about bikes on my blog that some people have commented that it should be named “The Avid Cyclist” instead of the “The Avid Cruiser.” Well, the two go hand-in-hand in my opinion. Bikes and boats, particularly river boats, marry two of my favorite forms of travel.

My biking buddies. © 2015 Ralph Grizzle

In Asheville, a selfie with my biking buddies. © 2015 Ralph Grizzle

Today, I reconnected on the bike with a high school classmate from 1976. Coincidentally that was the same year that ABBA performed “Dancing Queen” for the first time on Swedish television in Stockholm on the eve of the wedding of King Carl XVI Gustaf to Silvia Sommerlath. We were not at the latter event by the way but then you probably weren’t either.

David & me. © 2015 Ralph Grizzle

Class of 1976: David & me. © 2015 Ralph Grizzle

I’ll be leaving these beautiful mountains and my friends soon to return to Europe and my first-ever hosted barge cruise. I fly next Sunday, and I’ll be flying in a business class seat that cost me about the same as an economy class seat. How so? See my post about Flying First & Business Class For Cheap. And if you have questions, please don’t hesitate to leave them in the comments box so that all can benefit from the engagement.

Happy (biking) trails, Ralph

Close call. © 2015 Ralph Grizzle

See my post about Flying First & Business Class For Cheap. © 2015 Ralph Grizzle

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