I have always had a sense of wanderlust; the lure of travel to exotic places, an unending yearning to explore, experience, and photograph the natural beauty that exists throughout the world. As a photojournalist, my life journey has included documenting the Galapagos, a safari in Kenya, various destinations in Europe, and even one month on a ranch in Wyoming, complete with herding cattle.
Alaska has always been on my bucket list, but living in Florida I’ve become a weather wimp. Anything below 70 degrees, and I turn on the heat. However, Alaska was calling to me, and my friend Doreen and I decided that summertime would be a great time for us to live out our dream. The best way to see Alaska, we discovered after much research, was to book a cruise that included the inside passage followed by a land portion. Celebrity Cruises (www.celebritycruises.com) offered wonderful options for us, and we booked a seven-night Northern Glacier Cruise aboard the Millennium, followed by a four-day land tour. Booking through Galaxy Travel & Cruises (www.galatrav.com) was the way to go as they are very familiar with the ships, amenities, and excursions.
We set off on our Alaska adventure on a flight from Fort Lauderdale to Vancouver, arriving mid-afternoon and spending the night at the Burrard (www.theburrard.com), a reasonably priced hotel just a short walk from Davie Street, reminiscent of the East Village in New York. If we were planning this trip with 20/20 hindsight, we would have given ourselves a few extra days to explore Vancouver, and maybe even take a day trip to Victoria. In the short time we were there, we found Vancouver to be wonderfully vibrant, cosmopolitan and very LGBT- friendly. As we were there just days before Pride, there were rainbow flags adorning all the shop windows (even at Denny’s) and a crosswalk painted in rainbow colors. We spent hours walking around the city, exploring the cafés, and shopping for last-minute cruise items.
Since neither one of us had ever taken a cruise longer than a few days, we didn’t know what to expect, but from the moment we arrived at the pier, it was unbelievably smooth, and the boarding process was surprisingly quick and easy. The Millennium is one of the older cruise ships in Celebrity’s fleet, but had recently been overhauled and refurbished. The ship has occupancy of 2,138, and we discovered that, yes, size does matter. It was large enough to offer a plethora of amenities to explore and enjoy, but not so large as to be overwhelming.
We had decided the best way to ward off potential claustrophobia was to book an Aqua Class stateroom, and it turned out to be one of our wisest decisions. The 195-square-foot stateroom was a perfect fit for us, and the 54-foot balcony was an ideal place to view the Inside Passage and Hubbard Glacier. The guest-to-staff ratio in Aqua Class is nearly 2:1, and Lydia, our attendant, was always available to respond to our every need. Each day we returned to find fresh snacks and bottled water, and the room was serviced twice per day.
Our Aqua status came with two wonderful benefits: priority seating in Blu, the chic Aqua Class restaurant, and unlimited access to the AquaSpa Persian Garden within Canyon Ranch Spa.
Although the Millennium has several dining options, including the expansive Metropolitan, Qsine, and Tuscan Grille, we found that Blu had an elegant, welcoming ambiance, and the food and service were superb. Each night we were greeted by Xiarong, who knew everyone’s name, and Randy, our server, had gluten-free breads and desserts on the table for us each night. Blu was so wonderful, with different menu choices each night, that we didn’t explore the other restaurants for dinner. Why mess with perfection?
For breakfast we either went to Blu or to the Spa Café, which offered healthy fare, prepared to order. Although the main dining area had a large assortment from which to choose, neither one of us likes buffets, so most days for lunch we enjoyed the Spa Café, which had the most divine poached salmon.
The Canyon Ranch Spa was smaller than we expected, but it had a full menu of services, including facials, acupuncture, massages, and wellness consultations. We booked massages almost immediately upon arrival, and they did not disappoint. Aqua Class members have free access to the Persian Gardens, a suite of Turkish steam, sauna, hot/cold shower rooms, and a hot-tile lumbar bench, which we enjoyed nearly every day. It was especially comforting when the weather was a bit chilly.
Some of the days were shrouded in clouds, and unfortunately that necessitated the cancellation of some excursions, including the highly anticipated helicopter flight to land on a glacier. As a photographer, I had hoped for sunshine, regardless of the temperature, but I discovered that overcast days and fog inspired a whole new way of looking at the landscapes and lent an ethereal cast to our experience, and to our photos.
The first night, the ship began the journey to the Inside Passage, and we spent our time exploring the Millennium. Cocktails were first on the agenda, and the ice-topped Martini Bar quickly became our favorite, with entertaining bartenders and a younger, very sociable crowd. The Café al Bacio & Gelateria served up delicious late-night fare to satisfy our sweet tooths, and the Cellar Masters Wine Bar offered nightly wine tastings.
Although Wi-Fi was spotty throughout the cruise, it was refreshing to disconnect from the outside world for a while. The Celebrity iLounge, an innovative, hip Internet lounge, is the first Authorized Apple Reseller at Sea, and the Innovations Store is an Apple lovers’ dream, featuring all the latest tech products, duty-free.
Sailing through the Inside Passage was relaxing and peaceful. Having accepted that we may be engulfed in fog for a while, we came to love the other worldly backdrop where land, sea, and sky melded into one panorama in shades of grey.
Our Alaska adventure truly began when we arrived in Ketchikan the next day. We took a floatplane tour of the Misty Fjords National Monument through the inside passage of southeastern Alaska. It was so stunningly beautiful and aweinspiring that two of the five people on our flight were brought to tears by the wonders of nature. The Fjords are million-year-old granite canyons and troughs that have been carved by glaciers and form strange silhouettes against the lakes and sky. Some of the granite walls are almost vertical and rise thousands of feet. What appeared to be canals, were seawater-filled glacier-made valleys.
On our flight we encountered what the Alaskans refer to as “weather,” a veil of clouds forming a mist over all we saw; we felt like we were in heaven. What touched us all in this little plane was the reverence of our pilot. He so loved the dynamic and magnificent land he was sharing, and hoped it would still be here for his children to enjoy.
Following the flight, we spent a few hours in Ketchikan. Aside from the souvenir shops catering to cruise passengers, Ketchikan has interesting galleries and jewelry shops, mostly owned by Russians who spend the cruise season in Alaska. The highlight of Ketchikan is Creek Street, a historic area and former Red Light District perched on pilings along the banks of Ketchikan Creek. We were thrilled to see the salmon gather by the thousands to spawn upstream, with cute little seals wading in the water, and eagles perched in the trees above.
We arrived the next day in Icy Strait Point, a (very) small village with docks built to accommodate visiting cruise ships. Had it not been raining, we would have tried the state’s largest zip line, but we opted for a short walk and then a relaxing day aboard the ship. One of the highlights of our trip was meeting two men, Lyn and Jeff from Mobile, Alabama, who were celebrating 24 years together. They ventured out into Icy Strait, enjoying the nature trail leading into the woods.