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The Great Cruise Comeback: Alaska 2021

Updated: Apr 4, 2022

Experiencing a glacier was at the top of the bucket list for Rosebrock Roams! The first sailing of the Norwegian Encore after a 15 month hiatus due to a world-wide pandemic presented the PERFECT opportunity. The cruise included three sea days (one bonus day, discussed more below) and three ports: visiting Hoonah by way of Icy Strait Point, Juneau, Endicott Arm/Dawes Glacier, and Ketchikan before returning to Seattle.

"Iceberglettes," coined by Deveny, are the remnants of glacier calving, drifting like translucent blue popsicles through the calm teal-green sea seemingly untouched by waves. Our Norwegian mega ship glided through a 3-hour tour of Endicott Arm and Dawes Glacier. Tree-covered mountains rose from both banks featuring waterfalls from glacial run-off and misting rain caused by the low-hanging fog. Standing at the bow, drawing in a long deep breath of cool, fresh air, I was in awe of the seclusion and silence around me; a welcome change from the hustle and bustle of the NCL Encore's interior. This was truly an Alaskan Experience!

“The Great Cruise Comeback!” was jubilantly yelled by a man who stood on the dock, hugging his family, on the pier as NCL Encore docked at the port of Ketchikan. Hundreds of passengers standing on balconies cheered our first sunny day in Alaska.

Cruising the Inside Passage, we sailed for 7 days roundtrip from Seattle from August 7 - 14, 2021. Temperatures ranged from low 50s with overcast skies and rain to high 70s with full sunlight; we even experienced a snowy, wintery mix while Whale Watching at Point Adolphus in the Icy Straits - I guess it lives up to it's name. I've hit the highlights of our vacation, presented some of our personal pictures and videos in this blog post. Please also tune in to other sections of the blog for travel advice/experiences/insight.

Day 1: Embarkation

Being the first cruisers to set sail in almost 15 months after a world-wide pandemic, there were a few hurdles to clear. Let me be clear, we intentionally chose NCL due to their promise of safe cruising with no masks, knowing that it required an antigen test prior to boarding. We had to register with Eurofins, a third party provider who would share our test results with the cruise line. NCL promised that this process would take 15-20 minutes... it took 3 hours! Waiting in a line that stretched three city blocks, excitement quickly turned into frustration. No accessible bathrooms, no snack options, nor water stations - just one long line of travelers. Click this link to learn more about the improvements made by NCL to ensure safe cruising:

Pictured left to right: Front facing followed by the single file line rear-facing.

After about 2 full hours, the line curved into the Marriot hotel, disappearing down a flight of stairs... we were hopeful. "About another hour from this point," one of the crew told me. Once inside, we waited in a shorter line and spotted a bathroom. After another 20 minutes we had been tested (by swabbing both nostrils five times each) and were released into the Holding Room.

We joined the Holding Room (pictured above) filled with passengers anxiously awaiting their test results to board the ship. While crowded, many people seemed surprisingly upbeat and excited to board the ship, despite having waiting in the lengthy line. The NCL crew and Eurofins staff were courteous and friendly. We spent another 30 minutes in the room before we were approved to start the embarkation process inside the terminal. Not a great start to our bucket list vacation - we hope that NCL learned from our experience, as to not inconvenience future travelers.

#RoamLikeAPro: Listen to your body. Lack of sleep coupled with mild dehydration from our long travel day and the three-hour time change had my mind spinning. We had reservations at Cagney's Steakhouse for our first dinner aboard the ship, based on the recommendation of seasoned travelers to book specialty dining for early in our trip. Unfortunately, I didn't yet have my sea legs and found myself in bed at 8:00 pm (or 11:00 pm EST). After speaking with the manager of Cagney's, he graciously let us rebook our reservation for later in the trip.

Day 2: At Sea - The Rescue

We awoke, fully rested, at 4:30 am (which actually turned out to be 3:30 am, because we had lost an hour after leaving Seattle). We waited for the sun to come up and then toured the ship - it was quiet! Starting our day with Savor, one of the complimentary meal options aboard, I started with a lite breakfast since I still didn't have my sea legs.

A strawberry yogurt parfait, cinnamon roll, mediocre coffee, and fresh squeezed orange juice, followed by toast and eggs - not pictured.

After breakfast, we decided to indulge in full relaxation and hit the top deck's hot tubs before checking out the Thermal Spa. At 7:30 am, somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, the Lido Deck, home to the outdoor swimming pool and water slides, was vacant (as pictured below) . While in full sun, the weather was in the low 50s with a constant cool, brisk wind. Throughout the cruise we rarely found cruisers sunbathing or swimming in the pool. It should be known that all cruise passengers had to prove record of being fully vaccinated before boarding the ship, which limited the amount of children on board. Note: As of the date of sailing, the Pfizer vaccine was the only vaccine with emergency use authorization for children aged 12 - 17. While there were some children on the boat, none where younger than 12 years old.

Deck 16, the level above the Lido Deck, was adorned with two hot tubs on both the port and starboard sides of the ship as well as a walking/running track. It was a brisk walk from the pool chairs into the hot tub. The hot tubs were comfortable for two people, but anymore than that would feel too intimate for me. After about 20 minutes, we retired to the Thermal Suite.

Located in the aft, the Thermal Suite offers unique rooms that offer benefits for ultimate relaxation and rejuvenation; a hot tub, warm therapy pool, sauna, sanarium, aromatic steam room, Himalayan sea salt room, snow room, and heated stone loungers along with cushioned loungers in a quiet space. We splurged! Spending time everyday, but one, was one of our favorite pastimes on the NCL Encore. We met several nice people, and this experience made a mega ship seem more like a small community.

Being our first trip to the Thermal Suite, we spent most of our day trying each room and sharing experiences with other travelers. Deveny and I had nestled into two heated stone loungers, when I noticed islands on the right side of the ship. Puzzled... (this was our sea day, sailing the Pacific Ocean until Hoohah, AK) any land should have been located on our left. Nonetheless, there was a large landmass on our right. Something seemed amiss. Then, the ship's wake (clearly visible from the suite's 180 degree windows) became less pronounced - we were stopping! I watched as the wake disappeared entirely, then the ship seamed to oscillate back and forth. Just as I stood to get a better look from my vantage point, I watched a Canadian medi-vac helicopter circle the ship three times. We left the Thermal Suite to learn more.

We later learned that the captain had to reroute the ship due to a medical emergency. After about an hour and some thrifty navigating between the captain and the helicopter pilot - the passenger was rushed to Canada. We never learned the outcome of the passenger, but we've been on vacation when emergencies strike and am thankful that the crew plans for these situations. Unfortunately, this episode set us back a full day. We had to cancel one of our ports but got to spend another day at sea to enjoy the ship's amenities.

Day 3: BONUS DAY At Sea

Another sea day on the NCL Encore allowed us to explore an Art Auction, the casino, our personal balcony; we put our drink package to use by bar hopping around the ship and, of course, more time in the Thermal Suite.

I preferred Maltings Whiskey Bar and Sugarcane Mojito Bar to most others on the ship. Their ambiance was beautiful and the bar tenders were attentive. #daydrinking #vacation

Day 4: Hoonah - Icy Strait Point

It's 7:30 am, the ship has started to dock in Icy Strait Point. Cool. Calm. Serene, sitting on our balcony, I wrote: "The landscape of towering hills reaching above the mist hugging the strait, such a welcome and beautiful sight after two days at sea." After breakfast, we donned our rain gear and headed off the ship. Among the first passengers to enter the port, we were met with short lines and walked a short distance before boarding our sky gondola into Icy Strait - we had a couple hours before our whale watching excursion. This quaint port is known for zip lining and jeep trails, we chose to walk through town. Instead, we roamed around at low tide, capturing beautiful algae covered rocks and multi-colored starfish. We didn't realize how lucky we were to traverse at low tide, until the water raised over 10 feet that afternoon drowning everything that we uncovered.

I watched a rainbow grow out of a prism, arch across the islands, and dissipate just across the bay. This spectacular phenomenon marked an exciting beginning to our Alaskan vacation. I later learned that Frank Del Rio, the CEO of NCL, was aboard our ship to participate in a ribbon-cutting ceremony at Icy Strait Point. Norwegian Cruise Line has invested resources to make Icy Strait Point more of a cruise destination - perhaps this rainbow was commemorating the union between the tribal ancestors and NCL executives - or maybe just the magic of Alaska. Either way, I was a lucky spectator.

At 11:00 am, we headed out to Point Adolphus for some whale watching on a two-level expedition vessel with a large aft balcony and an open-air third-level balcony. After spending time on the NCL mega ship, this vessel seemed like a small personal watercraft. It reached high speeds, navigating the same waters as the cruise ship. We spotted a pair of orca whales by their tall black fin protruding from the water as they swam, a few lazy sea lions perched atop a buoy, a number of birds, and several jumping salmon. (Note: I captured this image while on the whale watching vessel, the small white ship in the middle left side in the NCL Encore in port).

As we approached Point Adolphus, the captain slowed to a troll, he announced the sighting of a sleeping whale just off the stern. Then another spray about 300 yards away. Beyond that, one humpback raised it's massive tail and slammed it against the water. It did this almost nine times, once the momentum flipped the whale sideways. The guide said that whales will do this for one of two reasons: 1) stun their prey in the water for ease of feeding; 2) a method of communicating to other nearby whales. The noise generated by the slapping carries through the water and can be heard for miles. Whatever the reason, it generated a lot of whale activity. Over the course of 20 minutes, we watched 7-8 whales surface and swim within 100 yards of the ship. Below, the video captures one of the whales from that day. Most of the whale activity occurred during a moment of wintery mix (aforementioned in my weather statement, above), many of the other travelers left the open air third deck in search of shelter, but Deveny and I remained, capturing this video.

Day 5: Juneau

It was an early morning arrival in Juneau - 6:15 AM! We'd been working so hard to readjust our internal clocks to make it beyond 9 pm, but nonetheless, it was only a half day in port and we wanted to make the most of it. Another rainy day, but so much splendor - we were about to witness two awe-inspiring glaciers in the same day!

Our trip to Mendenhall Glacier was at our own pace, we trekked two trails, visited the observation/welcome center and still had some spare time. We hoped to catch a bear but instead spotted a bald eagle, perched about 100 yards from the trail. Mendenhall was a spectacular sight. The brilliant blue ice only occurs from time and pressure and is something like I've never seen. We trekked to a waterfall of glacial run off, it was breathtaking. The cool mist pouring down from the mountains into the glacial lake, surrounded by mountains covered in evergreen trees. A time lapse video in the museum showed images of the glacier (one every year) since 2007 - just 14 years ago - the glacier was double in size and expanded across the lake in the photo behind us. In 1967, when researchers began studying the glacier, it covered the entire expanse of the park. When visiting Juneau, please add a visit to Mendenhall Glacier Park.

Returning to the ship for our afternoon/evening sail through Endicott Arm and Dawes Glacier, we put our beverage package to good use as we continued our bar hopping experience. We stopped into The District Brew House, coined "A Beer Lover's Guide to Craft Beers" by NCL's official travel blog. For us Michiganders, where one can find great craft beer around nearly every corner, we were underwhelmed. Fellow travelers noted their IPAs to be stellar, but neither of us are fans of IPAs. Deveny ended up finishing my lager, so that I could enjoy an Old Fashioned (not pictured), which turned out to be one of my favorites of the entire trip. Another favorite bar experience was Sugarcane Mojito Bar. This lounge was perfectly situated and centrally located on deck 8 (one deck from our stateroom), the bartenders were attentive and prompt. This came in particularly handy when Deveny got food poisoning later in the trip and I had to make trips to the bar to get her ginger ale (and another cocktail for myself - I mean... I had already made the trip!)

Silas, our cruise director, "We will begin our three-hour journey through Endicott Arm before arriving at Dawes Glacier. The crew has opened a shortcut on deck 8 to reach the bow for this journey." The ship entered a fjord during the announcement, the color of the water turned rapidly from dark blue to a minty green. The temperatures grew colder with each passing minute and we began to see "iceberglettes" floating in the water. It started with one or two and turned into hundreds of small chunks of ice, all of varying sizes, shapes, and colors. In some cases, we'd hear a thud and find much smaller ice chunks in our wake.

As the temperature grew colder, Deveny and I retreated into Food Republic for a window seat and some fresh sushi rolls. Delicious! It was the perfect snack as we anxiously awaited our second glacier of the day.

Food Republic is a quaint specialty dining restaurant on NCL Encore. You may use the dining package, but we opted for the ala carte menu. Selecting menu items via the tablet is easy, as full-color images of each item promote salivation when considering your selections. We tried two rolls, which came with wasabi and pickled ginger as well as soy sauce.

We proceeded to the bow, following the shortcut Silas recommended, and found the helpful crew to guide the way. Upon approaching the bow (as well as several other doors to the outside decks) we were greeted with a hot toddy station; a swipe of the room key and we enjoyed a shot of our choice of liquor in hot coffee topped with whipped cream. #cruiselife

The bow offered sprawling 180 degree views. The low-hanging clouds, referred to by local guides as "the ceiling," created a mystical presence that added to the splendor. A cold, consistent wind hit us head on as the ship glided through the green water, the only ripples caused by the ship's wake. Everyone patiently awaiting to catch a glimpse of the mighty glacier around the bend.

Note: It is difficult to create suspense in this blog post, the reader views one image immediately followed by the next image, but the excitement on the bow of the ship was palpable. NCL film crews were positioned and ready to get the first shot of Dawes Glacier.

Then it happened! The first glimpse of the unmistakable glacial ice peaking just beyond the bend.

We had arrived! #DawesGlacier (Check out that eye catching ice berg pictured above - this will be hanging on someone's wall, as it was one of THE stars of this trip.)

Pause. You have my permission to stop and image yourself here. It was awe inspiring, breathtaking, and strikingly beautiful. To be so close to geological history. This was one of the reasons that we came to Alaska and one of the reasons that we will return! Take it in.

When only viewing this scene unfold through our pictures (photo credit for each picture in this post goes to either Deveny or myself), one might forget that we are riding on the NCL Encore - one of five mega ships in the Norwegian fleet. The Encore is rumored to be 1,094 feet long and weigh up to 169,116 tons. One can see from the picture above, that this arm ends with the Glacier. There's no way to go forward, the only way to continue our cruise is to turn around 180 degrees and head back to the Pacific Ocean. Endicott Arm had narrowed, the mountainous peaks growing closer together as we reached Dawes Glacier. The width of the arm appeared (from my location near the aft) to be about 100 yards from one cliff face and maybe 200 yards from the other bank.

The ship came to a complete stop. I was mesmerized by the intense activity on the bridge (which has 360 degree views as sections of the bridge jut out of either side of the ship), crew members were closely eyeing and pointing at the cliff bank. There was a deep rumble from the aft of the ship and the entire vessel began to pivot in place. Most of the passengers had gone inside to get warm, but I stood on deck 8 watching what seemed to be a miraculous event, but was rather a highly skilled maneuver by the captain and his crew. I captured this short video during the experience - it does little to capture the magnitude of this achievement as it is difficult to comprehend exactly how close the ship was to both sides of the bank.

We capped off this entire day with a brilliant meal at Onda by Scarpetta. My appetizer was the braised octopus while Deveny started with the braised short ribs. For our main course, I had the Tagliatelle - lobster, tomato, spring onion, spicy bread crumbs with a side of the Mushroom Trifolati and Deveny went with the Mezzelune - ricotta, spinach, preserved truffle, butter, sage. I finished with the classic Tiramisu and Deveny had the Butterscotch Budino. From appetizer to dessert, Onda was my favorite and most delicious meal of our entire vacation.

Breathtaking scenery, bucket list destinations, #daydrinking, a relaxing journey through Endicott Arm, finished with the best meal of the vacation. Life couldn't get much better...

Day 6: Ketchikan

Standing on balcony 9734, letting the sun warm my face as we docked at the port of Ketchikan. A man standing on the pier jubilantly yelled “The Great Cruise Comeback!” As I opened my mouth to yell back, thunderous applause and cheering erupted by hundreds of people, who also happened to be standing on their starboard balconies. I was proud to be standing on the first cruise ship to visit this port in almost 15 months.

Ketchikan receives more than 200 inches of rain each year, but today it was difficult to find a cloud in the bright blue sky. This was a welcomed sight, as we had battled rain, mist, and low-hanging clouds for much of our trip. Given the size of our cruise ship, we were unable to dock in Ketchikan proper, instead we found ourselves in the middle of a stone quarry which had been transformed into a make-shift greeting place. The transit building, a large open space with a concrete floor, had been transformed by local vendors, a coffee shop, and the excursion check points, along with some tribal dancers in traditional clothing. Our excursion took us to a remote resort, only accessible by boat, for a sea feast followed by aqua sight seeing and a trek to see one of the older redwood trees. Due to a delay in arrival time to our port, we were unable to make it into town (over 20 minutes away) to explore and shop for souvenirs.

Our sea feast, also know as sea food boil, was filled with sweet corn, Yukon gold potatoes, roasted garlic, as well as Dungeness crab legs and claws (my personal favorite), mussels, clams, and prawn - all cooked in a special seasoning and dumped out of the pot onto newspapers in the middle of the table. Eight of us were positioned around a picnic table and used tongs to grab our next vittles from the center mound. Sitting outside on an open-air patio and taking in 180 degree views of pure Alaska, made this experience one of the better meals on the trip. We also had good conversation with our dinner partners. We washed everything down with some pink lemonade and a homemade chocolate chip cookie for dessert.

While known to cruise ships for their sea feast, the Silver King Resort is better known for its week-long fishing excursions, an all-inclusive resort provides their guests with a boat, fishing gear, staff to clean, package, and freeze your catch and will even ship your catch back home for you at the end of the week. Situated behind the resort was the Memorial Trail; made of wooden platforms that cut a path through the rainforest, this trail allowed guests to view the fallen redwoods, undergrowth, and living redwood trees.

After being surrounded by the Pacific Ocean for most of our trip, it was refreshing to see such lush green trees. It reminded me of our trip to Muir Woods, north of San Francisco, a few years back.

Before heading back to the ship, we boarded our little teal boat from the dock at The Silver King Resort (video above) and traversed the waterways connecting the resort and Clover Pass. While fairly narrow, this body of water is deep. According to our guide, a pod of about 20 humpback whales visits the resort on occasion. One day in July, before the cruise season picked up, our guide informed us that she was witness to that pod bubble feeding about 20 yards from the end of the dock. Unfortunately, no whales were seen on this trip, but check out this million dollar view!

Despite seeing no whales on this cruise, we did find some playful black porpoises and I caught a couple on video. They resemble Orca whales without the long top fin. We also caught glimpse of a couple bald eagles and some sea lions. We also saw a National Geographic research ship glide past on our way back.

Just for the halibut, I've added a few more pictures from our excursion.

Back on the ship, I enjoyed the #cruisebalconylife as we sailed away from Ketchikan.

Day 7: At Sea

Our last full day on the ship and we took full advantage. We slept in (for the first time in almost a year) and packed up the room before venturing out for our last tour of the ship. Breakfast at the Garden Cafe, as we missed the seating times for Savor & Taste. We spent our final afternoon in the Thermal Spa, using the sauna, steam room, and snow room. We came out of the steam room to find about 10 people huddled around the windows - this meant that someone has spotted wildlife outside. We approached and witnessed the largest pod of humpback whales yet. There must have been 100 humpbacks! We watched for several minutes as the ship floated by, plumes of water shooting into the air followed by some fins and tales - as if to bid farewell to the first Norwegian ship and its passengers. This was a fitting ending to an amazing vacation. After changing for dinner, we headed to the casino... where I promptly lost the rest of my cash. :( Dinner at the Manhattan Club was delicious and picture-perfect as the sun set on the horizon.

We arrived early to get third-row seats for Choir of Man! I enjoyed my last free Old Fashioned and the incredible cast of Choir Man. With their permission, you can enjoy their encore.

Well done, Norwegian! You kept us safe, as promised, while delivering one spectacular bucket list destination. We've already begun to plan our next NCL vacation in June of 2023, sailing to the Baltic Sea!

Day 8: Return to Seattle

A trip to Seattle would not be complete without a pass through Pike Place Market for souvenirs, fresh flower bouquets, great food, and lavender before heading back to Michigan.

Travel Date: August 2021

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