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Lifestyle Editor Shayne Benowitz recently embarked on a seven-night Alaska cruise with her family. Here, she details 12 unexpected things she learned while aboard the ship. Come back tomorrow for Part 2 where she’ll explore shore excursions.
For my parents’ 41st wedding anniversary, they invited their three grown children on an Alaska cruise. After a little hemming and hawing and schedule arranging, we agreed we were all in. After all, it was family vacations growing up that initially fostered my love of travel, and it’s a beautiful thing to still be able to carve time out of our busy calendars to go on an adventure together.
My dad had his eye on an Alaska cruise for years, which was magnified all the more so after reading Jack London’s “The Call of the Wild.” (Buck is our family dog’s namesake.) My mother took to vacation planning and booked us on Celebrity Cruises’ Millennium ship at the end of their Alaska season, which runs from May to September. The seven-night, one-way cruise explores Alaska’s Inside Passage, departing from Vancouver and making ports of call in Ketchikan, Icy Strait Point, Juneau and Skaguay, and disembarks in Seward, just south of Anchorage.
It had been over a decade since I’d stepped aboard a cruise ship, and that was in the Caribbean. Here are 12 unexpected things I learned on our Alaska cruise.
1. Hospitality is stellar
Everyone from our dedicated concierge to the waiters and waitresses at the ship’s many restaurants to the cruise and activity directors to those simply serving bread behind the buffet at the Oceanview Café were warm, accommodating and patient.
Stellar hospitality came in small and large gestures, from hot chocolate and chicken consommé served with a smile upon return to the ship after a chilly day on shore to our waiter running to a lower deck to fetch martinis to accompany dinner at a restaurant that only served wine and beer, to a bottle of Champagne and rose petals on the bed for my parent’s anniversary. We always felt like we were being cared for and the service felt truly genuine.
2. Suites come with butler service
We stayed in two Sky Suites next door to one another—my parents in one and my sister, brother and I in the other—each with private balconies, and best of all, a butler. Our butler, Sue, was from Thailand, and by the end of the cruise, she truly felt like part of the family. She booked dinner reservations for us, escorted us to our seats at the Millennium Theater and stopped by in the afternoon for tea service, snacks and sweets. Most of all, though, she was cheerful, kind, and so helpful without being obtrusive. We loved Sue.
3. Concierge Class has its perks
Upon check-in, we learned that we were entitled to Concierge Class perks, which included a private lounge, a dedicated concierge, priority disembarkations and special invites, like a Champagne toast on the forward helipad upon departure and a seat at the captain’s table for dinner.
4. Upgraded restaurant options are heads and tails above the rest of the ship’s food
So cruise ship food. Look, it’s not bad, it’s not great, and there’s lots of it. The Oceanview Café (which I dubbed “the dining hall”) is the main buffet serving food around the clock. It’s your go-to for breakfast or lunch and the midnight pizza and pasta bar. The Metropolitan restaurant is your main sit down, “fancy” restaurant for lavish four-course dinners. All of this (and a few other restaurants) is included in the price of your cruise, excluding alcohol.
The food is edible, and the formal setting at Metropolitan, while a little tired, feels indulgent. There were a few standouts, like a scallop appetizer, beef Wellington and chocolate covered cheesecake, but the Caesar salad was wilted, escargot under seasoned and chewy, lamb chops undercooked, steak overcooked and the pastas far from fresh.
There are two upgraded dining options, Qsine and The Olympic, for $45 a head. On the last night, we dined at Qsine, which has a South Beach Delano vibe—just, on a cruise ship. The décor has a touch of Philippe Starck’s avant-garde whimsy with oversized, mismatched chairs and an orange, black and white color palette. The world cuisine and its presentation is creative and meant to be shared—and it’s significantly tastier than anything else we’d eaten onboard the entire week. We especially liked the lobster escargot, the beef tenderloin and the Mediterranean sampler.
It was seriously hard to believe that we were on the same boat, the contrast was so stark. To me, it’s a shame the entire ship’s fare isn’t up to this standard, but I suppose it’s nice that the option is there.
5. Cruise Ships have Loyalty programs too
If you’re a frequent Celebrity cruiser, you can take advantage of their Captain’s Club loyalty program, which we’ve outlined here. During our cruise, at the Captain’s Welcome Party, they honored one of these frequent cruisers who’d been on something like 90 Celebrity cruises in only a few short years. That’s a lot of cruising!
6. The Hubbard Glacier is worth waking up for at 6:30 a.m.
On the final day of the cruise, we entered Glacier Bay National Park at the crack of dawn for up close viewing of the Hubbard Glacier. It was absolutely majestic. Rising from the water at 350’, I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves…
7. I wasn’t impressed with Canyon Ranch Spa
A massage at sea with the gentle rocking of the ocean lulling you into deep relaxation, sounds heavenly. And with a venerable partner like Canyon Ranch, I had high, yet reasonable, expectations for their shipboard counterpart. So the Benowitzes hit the spa. My mom had a lovely manicure while gazing out to sea, and my brother and sister both indulged in deep tissue massages that they raved about.
I booked a massage and body scrub and explicitly asked if there were other spa amenities aside from the dry sauna in the women’s locker room. I was told there was not. Instead of a relaxation room or a robe and slippers, I waited in the spa’s lobby adjacent to the gym for my treatment (it felt more like waiting at the doctor’s office than at a luxurious spa), and then had to awkwardly change inside my treatment room before and after the massage—not my idea of getting into the mood.
As it turns out though, there is a relaxation room with a co-ed sauna and steam room for an extra charge–and robes! My brother took advantage of it when he had his massage. I’m not sure why I wasn’t even given the option. The treatment itself was far from masterful, and I just couldn’t get into it.
8. WiFi is expensive and slooooooow
Before you set sail on your Alaskan cruise, ask yourself, “How connected do I really need to be?” Yes, there’s a computer lab with shiny new iMacs and the ship is wired with WiFi, but that connection was often down and incredibly slow when it was working. It’s also rather expensive. You purchase the WiFi in increments, 90-minutes will cost you $59, 240-minutes $109, and so on. I was barely able to get anything done the couple of times I tried to connect. You’re better off connecting to WiFi on shore. Or just, ya know, unplugging.
9. The ship has a doctor
I mean, of course the ship has a doctor. Right? There’s over 2,000 people on the boat. I just never expected to visit him—and I didn’t. However, three out of five of my family members did, as one by one they were diagnosed with the flu. Fortunately, it was at the tale end of our trip and didn’t keep anyone from enjoying activities, but it does make you wonder about the spread of infectious diseases on these vessels.
10. The art collection & décor is sophisticated
Cruise ships are known for their over the top grandeur, which can sometimes feel gaudy and dated. Celebrity’s Millennium hits the mark for understated luxury at sea with sophisticated décor and furniture and an impressive art collection. Original contemporary works are found throughout the ship, from Robert Indiana’s iconic “LOVE” sculpture to black and white portrait photography of famous authors in the library—yes, there’s a library!
11. The crowd is largely retirees
If you’re looking for a rowdy after hours party or a singles scene on this ship, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Save for the casino and a nearby martini bar, the ship quiets down shortly after the late show (9 p.m.) in the Millennium Theater. Most of the passengers were retirees with a few multi-generation families, honeymooners and young couples with babies on board.
12. Cruising is an interesting subculture
By the end of the week, you’ll feel intimately acquainted with the ship’s cruise director, the activity directory, the jewelry consultant and every other character that spends days on end at sea. From the singers and dancers in the musical revues to the comedians, I couldn’t help but wonder what life was like for them day in and day out on the Celebrity Millennium. Is it lonely? Is it glamorous? Maybe it’s a little like summer camp, which I never attended.
How We Booked
My mom gets the credit for vacation planning here. My parents live in the Atlanta area and are loyal Delta frequent flyers. When it came to booking the cruise and all of our shore excursions, my mom went through Delta.com Vacations where cruise consultants are also on call 24/7. Branded as SkyMiles Cruises, we earned 3,000 SkyMiles per suite, as well as a $200 onboard credit per suite. According to the site, they’re currently offering double the miles on cruises booked by the end of October.
All of our flights were also booked on Delta and we used the Gold Delta SkyMiles Credit Card from American Express to maximize our points earnings.
Come back tomorrow when I explore the unexpected things I learned on shore in Alaska. I’ll also answer the question, “Would we cruise again?”
Have you been on an Alaska cruise? How was your experience?