Journey to Whittier and Embarking the Coral Princess

Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Breathtaking Whittier, Alaska on July 10, 2013. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Before I can even begin to describe this day on our Cruise Experts Travel’s Ultimate Alaska CruiseTour , I have to say this: I have never, ever, experienced scenic cruising this spectacular.

As I write this, it is 11pm and the sun is shining brightly. Since leaving Whittier aboard Princess Cruises’ Coral Princess, we’ve sailed past one magnificent snow-capped mountain range after another.

The Coral Princess at her Whittier, Alaska, berth. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

The Coral Princess at her Whittier, Alaska, berth. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

We’ve passed islands so small you could barely fit two people on them, and some that are large enough to build a small village.

The sky is an ever-changing array of colours, shapes and textures as clouds weave in and out, and the sunshine that has graced us all day burns brightly beyond the horizon. It’s no wonder that the native Indians that call this region home felt the Northern Lights had magical powers; even in summer, the sky is a changeable canvas of beauty.

For those who think Alaska is cold and rainy year-round. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

For those who think Alaska is cold and rainy year-round. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

But perhaps I should back up.

We had time to explore Anchorage, Alaska on our own this morning during our stay at the Quality Suites Anchorage. At the leisurely hour of 10:45am, we set out for our first stop of the day: a wildlife conservation society conveniently located along the route to our eventual destination: Whittier and the Coral Princess.

At the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

At the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Where the wildlife at Denali was miles away, the animals were just feet away at the conservation center. One of the animal handlers was showing a Reindeer to visitors, while bears, moose, elk and other animals were on display.

These are animals that could not be successfully re-introduced into the wild, so they are sheltered and taken care of here.

One of the conservation officers shows a Reindeer to guest. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

One of the conservation officers shows a Reindeer to visitors. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Howdy! Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Howdy! Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Our time here was brief, but for good reason: we had to clear the tunnel that separates Whittier from the rest of the world.

At the top of the hour, traffic is allowed through a 2.5 mile, incredibly narrow tunnel channeled through the base of a mountain from Whittier to the other side. At the bottom of the hour, traffic is allowed to proceed to Whittier.

See that building in the distance? That's actually the 2.5 mile tunnel to Whittier. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

See that building in the distance? That’s actually the 2.5 mile tunnel to Whittier. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Our cheerful Tour Director, Cam, said to us, “Oh, I hate this tunnel. Me and this tunnel do not get along.” Which, to me, sounded odd – until I realized what the tunnel was.

It’s barely wide enough or tall enough to fit a motorcoach through. It runs in  a straight line, with hypnotic pot-lights that whoosh past every few seconds.

And, of course, an entire mountain rests above you.

Inside the tunnel - strangely frightening. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Inside the tunnel – strangely frightening. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Halfway though, the “pucker factor” kicked into high gear: I wanted out, badly. I saw exactly what Cam meant when he said he hated that tunnel – it’s a nerve-jangling triumph of the will.

Or, as our driver Lindy said, “Oh good – I can open my eyes now.”

Lindy (left) and Cam (right). Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Lindy (left) and Cam (right). Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Bidding farewell to these two talented individuals was hard on the guests I have been hosting for the past four days, and which I continued to help along on our journey to Vancouver. As each guest stepped off the coach and shook hands with Cam and Lindy – or embraced them – I was struck by how quick and powerful the bond among travellers can be. They have both shown us a side of Alaska – and indeed the United States – that many of us never knew existed.

Once again, Lindy’s words were wise.

Whittier, Alaska. Note the Bruckner Building in the background, abandoned since the 1964 earthquake. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Whittier, Alaska. Note the Bruckner Building in the background, abandoned since the 1964 earthquake. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

“You save enough money and maybe four, five years later you come back here. Come see me. I’ll take you up north to see my brother. He’s an even better storyteller than I am. And we’ll fish and go to the villages. When you travel, bring something from your home town, ladies and gentlemen, that represents your family. Leave it behind. Our time here is short, but our loved ones are still there, in spirit. We believe that. We know that.”

Onboard the magnificent Coral Princess, surrounded by Alaska's majesty. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Onboard the magnificent Coral Princess, surrounded by Alaska’s majesty. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Once I was sure all the guests had successfully gone into the terminal, I said my goodbyes to these two fantastic people. I hope to see them both again – I’d like Cam to show me the Anchorage that has become his home, and I’d like to go fishing with Lindy. I’m not a fisherman – I never have been – but I think I’d like to learn.

My Obstructed Oceanview Stateroom on Emerald Deck is surprisingly spacious. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

My Obstructed Oceanview Stateroom on Emerald Deck is surprisingly spacious. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

I’d like to visit a Native village. I’d like to learn their customs, if they’d let me. I’d like to learn their way of life, if they’d have me. In this world where we’re so connected to so many things of such little significance, I want to learn – now, more than ever – the way things used to be.

After I said goodbye, I turned my gaze to the gorgeous, 965-foot long Coral Princess.

There's even a full-sized desk for me to work from! Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

There’s even a full-sized desk for me to work from! Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

I can remember standing at Canada Place the first time Coral Princess came in to Vancouver in 2003. I was just completing Film School then, and I said to myself, “someday, I’m going to sail on that ship.” I thought it was the most stunning ship I’d ever seen: sleek, modern, yet still retaining plenty of nautical touches like a gently rounded stern, tapered forward and aft decks, and plenty of floor-to-ceiling glass.

And here we are.

Crooner's Bar, Deck 7 Amidships. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Crooner’s Bar, Deck 7 Amidships. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

My opinion that Coral Princess is one of the line’s most beautiful vessels was only reinforced when I stepped aboard and into the striking, four-story tall atrium. My past favorite Princess ship was the lovely, 2006-built Crown Princess, but I think Coral Princess might take the cake. She’s also fresh out of an extensive drydock that added the super-cheery International Café to Deck 6 and gave her a top-to-bottom makeover that revitalised her Horizon Court Café located on Deck 14 forward.

The brand-new International Cafe on Deck 6, added during a recent drydock. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

The brand-new International Cafe on Deck 6, added during a recent drydock. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Because I like to experience every kind of stateroom possible, I have a cozy Obstructed Oceanview stateroom on Emerald Deck. This is exactly like it sounds: a regular Oceanview stateroom, but with a window blocked by a lifeboat.

Is that a downside? That’s for you to decide. For me, I am actually enjoying it immensely and I was pleasantly surprised at how large the overall room was. I also forgot how much I like the “open-closet” design on Princess; it’s similar to what ultra-luxury line Silversea has done with their suites. Plus, it’s a heck of a good value.

Like every Princess ship, Coral Princess boasts an Explorer's Lounge. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Like every Princess ship, Coral Princess boasts an Explorer’s Lounge. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

On the downside: the beds are still as rock-hard as I remember them. Come on, Princess – “pillow top”!

Having said that, though, I realized I’ve missed Princess – from the sweet smell of their Princess Patter daily programs to the friendliness of their crew.

The Horizon Court Buffet, though, was given an "extreme makeover." Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

The Horizon Court Buffet, though, was given an “extreme makeover.” Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Tonight, sail-away at 8:30pm from Whittier was remarkable, and drew a healthy crowd to the ship’s upper decks. But my favorite viewpoints are the “hidden decks” – those located all the way aft, and the lone forward viewpoint on Caribe Deck. In an age where cruise lines are restricting access to these wonderful vantage points, Princess deserves credit for the striking amount of intimate open spaces they’ve put aboard Coral Princess.

Departing Whittier at 8:30 pm on-the-dot. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Departing Whittier at 8:30 pm on-the-dot. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Here in Crooners Bar on Deck 7, I am almost moved to tears by the scenery outside. We’re making an easy 16 knots, and Coral Princess is cutting through the ocean like a knife.

For those who haven’t sailed to Alaska before, all I can say is this: you’re missing out. And I can say that because, for six consecutive Alaskan cruises, I’ve missed out on some of the most spectacular scenery and culture this fine state has to offer.

Sailing from Whittier, bound for Hubbard Glacier! Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Sailing from Whittier, bound for Hubbard Glacier! Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

My View from Crooner's, at 11:00pm. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

My View from Crooner’s, at 11:00pm. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Our Live Voyage Report from Cruise Experts Travel’s Ultimate Alaska CruiseTour continues tomorrow as we sail to Hubbard Glacier aboard Princess Cruises’ Coral Princess! Be sure to follow along on Twitter by following @deckchairblog or using the hashtag #LiveVoyageReport.

 

3 Responses to Ultimate Alaska Live Voyage Report – Day 5

  1. Kim says:

    Looks like your having a great time! That tunnel though is way to tiny for my liking

  2. Barry says:

    Hi Aaron – my family and I are sailing north to Whittier on the sister ship to the Coral Princess, the Island Princess.

    Like you, we are in an obstructed Ocean View room on the Emerald Deck. We actually have a fairly decent view and can see what the weather is like, if the ship is moving and what is passing by. I agree that the room is sufficiently spacious and is well laid-out, but the shower is probably the smallest I’ve encountered on any cruise ship – and the curtain doesn’t prevent the bathroom floor from getting wet.

    It rained most of the time yesterday in Ketchikan, but we still got off the ship and wandered around. Then it cleared up and the sun came out. I took our 28 month-old daughter swimming in the main pool, and then we tried every hot tub (her idea). Some were hotter than others, but it was a spectacular way to see the scenery passing by.

    Today we are in Juneau. Looks cloudy, but hopefully things will brighten up as the day progresses.

    Our ships will pass on this journey – but when and where?

    Barry

    PS. There are tremendous discounts available right now on Alaska sailings of the Island and Coral Princess over the next few weeks. Some people have been able to book 14 day back-to-back voyages for as little as $450 U.S. per person (plus taxes & tips) for an inside cabin.

    • Aaron Saunders says:

      I agree with you about the shower – it IS small, and a major departure from the last two Norwegian cruises I took, where bathrooms were spacious to a fault.

      Very sunny here in Ketchikan today, but I hope your voyage with your family is going well!

      -Aaron

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