Four years ago I took my very first cruise which happened to be to one of the best destinations a person could ever dream to visit, Alaska. Since then it has been my dream to visit again. This past May my dream became a reality as my parents and I spent another wonderful week exploring The Last Frontier. Our adventure began in Vancouver where we boarded Princess Cruise Lines Crown Princess. Although I hadn’t been on Crown Princess before, the ships layout and the great accessibility features were already familiar to me as I had previously cruised on her sister ships including the Ruby Princess when I did the Western Caribbean Cruise. Our week-long journey in Alaska’s Inside Passage would include a sailing day in Glacier Bay National Park, port stops in Alaska’s Capital City of Juneau, Skagway and Ketchikan.
The Ship and Our Stateroom
Crown Princess like her sister ships the Emerald and Ruby is a very beautiful ship and fully accessible. Some of the ships accessible features include automatic doors to the outside decks, several public accessible restrooms, numerous elevators and ample wheelchair seating at every lounge, theater and dining venue. As I’ve mentioned in previous Princess Cruise reviews, the best thing about cruising Princess is how helpful the Staff is, especially the Security Team when it comes to embarkation/disembarkation at each port. Their willingness to provide assistance without hesitation comes in very handy while cruising Alaska since the gangway at each port generally has a severe incline which is hard enough for an able-bodied person but would be completely unnavigable by anyone in a wheelchair who did not have assistance.
Our stateroom, an Accessible Penthouse Suite with balcony, was located mid-ship on Deck 14 and as is the case with most all Accessible Staterooms on Princess ships, right next to the elevators. The room and balcony provided ample room for my and parents and I move around without feeling like we had to “step on each other’s toes”. At night when the sofa converted to my bed, there was still ample space for me to get around the stateroom and out onto the balcony. The bath offered a standard roll-in shower with several grab bars for support, shower seat and emergency pull string. The commode was also surrounded by grab bars and an emergency push button which I inadvertently and unknowingly tested one afternoon as I ventured back for a quick break between activities. My parents were the ones who were greeted by the Security Team checking on the “emergency” as they were just coming back from their morning activities. I don’t think the Security Team was impressed but at least we know they really do respond.
Glacier Bay National Park
Glacier Bay isn’t an actual port stop but it is a day of slow sailing amongst some of the most beautiful scenery you could ever hope to see. It’s a day you’ll want to spend out on your balcony or on the top outside decks of the ship gazing at the snow-capped mountains, waterfalls, watching and listening for the powerful tidal glaciers to calve chunks of ice and keeping an eye on the water and any shoreline for any wildlife from Humpback Whales, Orcas and otters to bears, moose and eagles. Each visit to Glacier Bay National includes Park Rangers who are with you throughout the day giving historical lectures, answering questions about the park and providing live updates from the bridge as wildlife is spotted. One thing I recommend doing while in Glacier Bay, find a quiet spot outside on the ship (I promise you can find at least one), close your eyes, slowly breathe in the air as it is the cleanest air you could possibly put into your lungs and then just listen to your surroundings. You’ll hear things like the waterfalls on the sides of mountains that are a mile or more away from the ship and ice cracking from deep within the tidal glaciers.
Alaska is home to the largest population of Bald Eagles anywhere on Earth and a large percentage of them reside in/around the Capital City of Juneau. Juneau is located on the Gastineau Channel and is the second largest city in the United States based upon area , Sitka, AK is the largest and the Top 4 are all Alaskan cities. Even with that distinction Juneau’s population stands at a little over 32,000 making it the second most populous city in Alaska after Anchorage (pop. 396,000+).
Juneau offers a wide variety of things to do and many of them are accessible. During my first visit in 2012, we took a powered catamaran out into one of the nearby bays for 3 hours of wildlife and whale watching. We saw several humpback whales, sea otters, sea lions and many bald eagles. Glacier Gardens is also one of the more popular tourist spots in Juneau and offers fully accessible paths and restrooms. Capital Transit, the public transportation option in Juneau offers wheelchair accessibility on all its buses.
On our trip to Juneau we chose a cruise line tour to Mendenhall Glacier and Visitor Center. I had seen Mendenhall from a distance on our last cruise and wanted to visit should I have the opportunity. A couple days prior to arriving in Juneau I checked with the onboard Excursion Staff to ensure accessible transportation would be available for me and they assured me everything would be taken care of. So it came no surprise to me that shortly before our scheduled meeting time I was guided over to an accessible tour bus and strapped in before setting off to Mendenhall Glacier and Visitor Center. Once we arrived we grabbed a map to be sure we could find the accessible trails I had read about before leaving home. The Visitor Center offers two fully paved trails for wheelchair guests, the first is Photo Point that stretches 1/3 mile round trip and offers spectacular views of Mendenhall Glacier and nearby Nugget Falls. The second trail, Steep Creek, is a quarter mile paved and raised boardwalk trail that when in season offers views of salmon running and some resident black bears. Getting into the Visitor Center itself offers two ways, first and probably the most difficult a long paved path up a hill, while the second and the way we took is an elevator located just before Photo Point trail starts. Inside the Visitor Center you can learn more about how glaciers are formed, why they are dying, why they look blue and other interesting tidbits of information. The Center also offers several telescopes for getting closer looks at the glacier and the Rangers will also set them on any mountain goats that might be up in the nearby mountains.
After departing the Visitor Center the bus driver was kind enough to drop several of us off in Downtown Juneau as it is on the way back to the cruise ship piers. From there we walked around some of the shops, most of which are accessible, before making our way to our favorite place to eat, Tracy’s King Crab Shack. Tracy’s King Crab Shack has been a Juneau staple and favorite of cruisers since its opening way back in 2006, Tracy’s offers fresh seafood all of which is caught in the waters in/around Juneau. If you happen to visit Tracy’s one day and look at the menu, don’t be put off by the high prices, it is after all FRESH seafood and if you like crab, well worth the cost.
The walk back to the ship is about a one-third of a mile but very accessible along a brand new boardwalk.
Skagway is a small community along the Inside Passage and is home to the start of the White Pass and Yukon Railroad Route. A narrow gauge train transports you back in time as you ride the 107 mile stretch that prospectors walked during the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897. Although I have not personally taken this tour, it is fully-accessible but space is limited in lift-equipped railroad cars.
For our day in Skagway we rented a car for the day and spent the morning driving around town and off the beaten path for a couple hours prior to making our way to Jewell Gardens where we would learn the art of glass blowing. Upon our arrival we had about an hour to stroll around the gardens area which is almost fully paved or on a raise boardwalk with the exception of a few areas that are packed gravel. Shortly after making our way to the meeting location our glass blowing instructor for the day, Travis met up with us and took to the glass blowing workshop. Once there we were given a brief history on the art of glass blowing, safety instructions and finally providing us with our choices for color and style to use when it came time for each of us to create our own individual glass blown ornament. When it was my turn Travis made sure I had enough room to stay safe but also fully participate in the making of my ornament. Once completed we put our ornaments in a special cool-down oven that would slowly bring the temperature of the glass down and allow them to ship it to us. Mine arrived about two days after I returned home and I was excited to see the final product.
After our glass blowing lesson we had a nice late lunch in the gardens restaurant, which features several fresh items from the gardens itself, and returned to the ship to clean up before going down to the main atrium and visit, hold and have our picture taken with sled dog puppies from a local Musher whose grandfather is the Founder of the Annual Iditarod Sled Dog Race.
Ketchikan, AK is the Southernmost City in Alaska and home to the largest collection of standing totem poles in the World. During my first visit to Ketchikan in 2012, I had an opportunity to visit Totem Bight State Park. The park which sits on 33 acres just a few miles north of Ketchikan is home to several of the Totem Poles found in Ketchikan and a replica of a traditional chieftain’s house. Although fully paved is located along a hill so it is strongly recommended that if you visit in a wheelchair have someone with who can assist you.
Ketchikan is a major commercial fishing village in Southern Alaska and therefore provides many streams and rivers where you can watch the salmon run when in season and if you are lucky catch a glimpse of bears and bald eagles coming to the stream to feed on the salmon.
One of the more popular tourist attractions is the Bering Sea Crab Fisherman’s Tour on the famous Aleutian Ballad which was featured on Season 2 of Discovery Channel’s Deadliest Catch. This fully accessible tour takes you to some of the best fishing waters near Ketchikan. Onboard Captain David Lethin and his Crew including former Deadliest Catch Season 6 & 7 Cornelia Marie Captain Derrick Ray, who was also onboard our ship for a couple days giving lectures on his adventures, will show you how to haul crab pots and with any luck bring up squid, giant octopus and shrimp. Of course as is the case with any Alaska adventure there is always the possibility to see whales, orcas, bald eagles and other wildlife. The crew will also share their stories of commercial fishing in the Bering Sea and the many waters along the Coastline of Alaska.
We had planned to watch a Lumberjack Show but since it was raining on/off and the stadium was entirely outdoors we decided to forgo the excursion and just walk around downtown Ketchikan. Eventually I managed to make my way over to Creek Street, a raised boardwalk a short distance from the cruise pier and was known as Ketchikan’s Red Light District in the early and mid 1900’s. Although the boardwalk itself is fully accessible many of the former brothels turned museums and stores are not fully accessible due to being two-story buildings with narrow entryways. A few of the buildings have made some accessible modifications allowing for disabled visitors.
After leaving Creek Street I went over to Southeast Alaska Discovery Center with the intention of finding a place to warm up and dry-off for a few minutes. What I ended up finding was a place that told the history and cultural significance of the Tongass National Forest and Southeast Alaska. The Discovery Center is fully accessible including a small movie theater with accessible seating and accessible restrooms.
Once I left the Discovery Center I headed back to the ship and said my final goodbyes to Alaska as Ketchikan was our last port before heading back to Vancouver and finally Seattle where my parents and I would board our flights back home.
Of all my travels throughout my life, Alaska has been by far my favorite. There aren’t many places in the World that provide you with breathtaking scenery in the form of calving tidal glaciers, snow-covered mountains that look to belong in the Alps more than they do in the United States, endless forests and countless opportunities to see wildlife, combined with the opportunity to learn about an entirely different culture & heritage all the while being almost 100% accessible. The sights, smells and sounds you will experience in Alaska are ones you will never forget.