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Radiance of the SeasRadiance of the Seas
North- and South-to Alaska
July 2012

by E. Schlenk
I took back to back Alaska cruises on the Radiance of the Seas (northbound and southbound) in late June and early July, 2012, hoping that at least one of the cruises would have good weather in one of the rainiest parts of America. More about that later....
These were my second and third cruises with Royal Caribbean International, and I was very pleased with RCI and the Radiance in every respect: ship, crew, activities, shore excursions, dining, price, and ports of call. I shall describe each of them in that order and add suggestions on what to pack for Alaska's weather.
SHIP: The Radiance is not a new ship (it is about 10 years old), but it is ideal for Alaska cruising because almost every lounge and dining venue has floor to ceiling windows, which afford great views of the Inside Passage. Even the elevators have glass walls, some toward the atrium and some toward the outdoors.
Much has been said about the recent makeover of the ship. To me it seems that most of the investment was devoted to new revenue-producing alternative dining venues -- there were half a dozen, putting the dining options on par with much larger ships. Photos of most of these new venues are included in my photo link, which follows later. I worried that the new Jumbotron over the pool would just add more noise to an area that I prefer quiet, but on the one day that it was warm enough for an outdoor movie, it was actually fun to watch.
Less appears to have been invested in the cabins, which are still pleasant even though the carpeting, upholstery, and cabinetry do not appear to be new. There are new flat screen TVs, but I never could find the interactive capability that is advertised. At best the interactive menu offered canned info about various ship venues and services that one could read in any brochure. Some day I hope their interactive TV system allows one to review one's shipboard account, order room service, review menus and wine lists of the day, reserve tables and tours, select background music of various genres, log on to the internet, etc. None of this was available when I tried the interactive menu multiple times over two weeks.
On the northbound cruise I was given an accessible inside cabin since no other inside was left. This is well-designed for wheelchair users, and I have included photos of it in my link. Basically it is two standard cabins joined together to allow adequate space for a wheel-in shower and for electric carts to turn full circle between bed, couch, and closet.
On the southbound cruise I was upgraded to a standard outside, which seemed snug in comparison but was functional and comfortable. Both of my cabins were near the forward elevators. Be aware that cabins near the central atrium may get noise from the many activities that occur there, and that top deck balcony cabins midship and aft are shaded by the large pool and buffet overhangs.
One minor annoyance is that each cabin has a mini-bar which cannot be locked, sealed, or even emptied (I requested this multiple times to multiple people, but it never happened). This means that one may find an erroneous mini-bar charge on one's account on the last day when one hoped to disembark early rather than wait at guest services (as happened to me). Hopefully RCI will give guests, especially those traveling with young children, the option to have the mini-bar locked or emptied. There are parental controls on the TV, why not on the mini-bars?
There are new interactive touch screen TVs near the elevators to check activity schedules and find venues. These worked well. The public areas are quite pleasant, and except for the central shopping area they never seemed crowded. The Radiance is smaller than the newer RCI ships, which have expanded the central atrium into a wide shopping mall (some are even open air in the largest ships). I was quite pleased with the size of the Radiance, and found it ideal for the Alaskan itinerary.
My favorite semi-public area is the Diamond Lounge located in the (iconic for RCI) glass-walled and circular deck 13, above and aft of the outdoor pool. A portion of the adjacent Starquest lounge has been partitioned off for the use of frequent cruisers who have RCI diamond status or higher (I qualified due to reciprocity with my status on Celebrity, RCI's sister cruise line).
The Diamond Lounge was my daily refuge at sea for several reasons: there is no Muzak (I consider other peoples' lounge and dining music as annoying as secondhand smoke); there is a nice continental breakfast each morning; there are free house brand drinks with elegant hors d'oeuvres each evening; the views are spectacular; and the concierge Andrew does a fine job making everyone feel welcome. Be aware that RCI is explicit in limiting use to diamond members and not their friends and relatives, which seems appropriate since the lounge is relatively small and is inappropriate for children. A similar but larger lounge is aft on the same deck for passengers in Concierge Club cabins.
Although most of the itinerary is in protected waters, crossing the Gulf of Alaska occasionally can be a little rough. At the most we had mild 4-5 ft (1.5m) swells and the Radiance made it feel as smooth as glass.
CREW: The crew is a good mix of nationalities, with many from India (especially Goa), the Philippines, and Indonesia. They all do a wonderful job, from cabin stewards to dining and bar servers to the many workers behind the scenes who keep the Radiance shipshape. This was the first time on any cruise where I saw a cadre of crew members with shoulder bags throughout the ship. They continually check that everything is spotless, and they carry cleaning supplies in their bags in case it is not.
I was amazed that the crew addressed me by name frequently, even more often than I have experienced on luxury cruise ships. I do not know how they do it, but it certainly makes one feel a welcome member of the RCI family. I heard the crew addressing other guests by name similarly. Because I opted for My Time dining, my crew gratuities were pre-paid. This is problematic if one wants to add additional amounts to the gratuities of the dining staff, which rotates daily as one changes tables.
On this cruise I learned from the captain's Q&A session on the last day (which I highly recommend) that there is a general crew welfare fund, which is funded by recycling profits and other revenues. I was able to add extra gratuities to that fund for the benefit of all the crew members who are not otherwise recognized by the passengers.
The current Radiance captain (Sindre) is Norwegian and shows more empathy for the crew (and passengers) than most captains. He is at least tri-lingual (since he now lives in Spain), and he has a pleasant sense of humor and a genial personality. He is relatively young, and I hope his physical health does not prevent many more years of sailing. I enjoyed his noon announcements and always chuckled when he greeted us as "Ladies and gentlemen, guests and crew". I also chuckled when he reminded us on each rainy day that there is no bad weather, just inadequate clothing (true, but he himself moved from frigid Norway to sunny Spain).
The cruise director northbound was Paul and southbound was Dennis. Both did a fine job at what must be a most difficult task -- remaining upbeat and engaged almost non-stop around the clock, even though they have seen all the shows and activities and ports dozens of times before. My hat is off to both of them.
I was also impressed by the photo staff, who are low key and skillful. As part of my diamond package I received a free 8x10 photo on each cruise, and both were top notch. It must not be easy to dress up as animals for dockside photos with families, but they took it all in stride.
ACTIVITIES: The daily Compass lists numerous activities, but in Alaska I spent so much time and energy on land that I did not participate frequently onboard. The Radiance is large enough for a climbing wall, mini-golf, a ball court, an indoor (adult) and well-heated outdoor (family) pool, and many other venues. There were quite a few children onboard, but their own activities and programs kept them busy so that the ship never seemed over-run with kids. Their parents probably appreciated this even more than I did. The only negative I heard from parents is that the curfew for unaccompanied children of all ages is 1:00 am. Some felt that this should be earlier and age dependent.
I especially enjoyed the gym because the equipment was arrayed along floor to ceiling windows, which afforded beautiful views while one exercised. James, the trainer, did a nice job providing (free) stretch and abs classes early each morning, in addition to the usual fee activities of the gym and spa. Keep in mind that the spa's saunas, steam rooms, and showers are free to all guests, and are a great way to warm up after a cold and wet day ashore or on deck.
EXCURSIONS: Shore excursions are a major factor (and can be a major cost) on any Alaska cruise. I was surprised how much these have increased in price since my previous Alaska cruises. Most excursions now range from $100-$300 per person, and some are even more expensive. Flight-seeing, whale and bear watching, and sport fishing are so attractive in Alaska that one can easily spend more on excursions than on the cruise itself. For an entire family this can add up quickly, and travelers should factor this cost into their vacation planning in advance. The RCI website should help with this.
Fellow passengers seemed pleased with their excursions, but I did not purchase any excursions on either cruise. I did my own research and enjoyed my own port visits without the help of any local guides or tour companies. One benefit was that I was not locked into an excursion during bad weather. I shall give my suggestions for low cost and no cost excursions in my port options section at the end of this review.
DINING: In spite of the numerous new alternative (surcharged) dining venues, I did not try any because I was very happy with the buffet at breakfast, the Bistro30 salad bar (in the main dining room) at lunch on sea days, and the regular menu in the main dining room each evening.
Shipboard buffets are always good at breakfast (especially the fresh fruit and crispy bacon), but at lunch buffets I tend to avoid the steam table options (which are necessarily over-cooked) and enjoy the cold items instead. When eating in the Windjammer buffet, seating can be at a premium because much of the former space has been taken up by the new alternative Mexican and Asian restaurants. The good news is that both of these venues are unused and available for buffet seating during breakfast and lunch. Izumi, the beautiful new Asian restaurant, is especially quiet and pleasant at those times, with huge windows and outdoor access.
On sea days (two in each direction) the main dining room is converted into a bistro which promises lunch in 30 minutes or less. On RCI this features the best salad bar on land or sea. The salad choices are extensive and are prepared individually, just make certain that your salad is not over-dressed or chopped up by the eager chefs.
The main dining room is quite attractive and the service is excellent. The menu is nearly identical to that which I experienced on my first RCI (transatlantic) cruise two months earlier. Appetizers, soups, and salads are all clustered in one section of the menu rather than being presented as separate courses. The main courses vary each night, with the same four off-menu alternatives and three surcharged alternatives each night.
Although the off-menu sirloin steak is flavorful but a bit tough, the other beef dishes are tender and appropriately rare on request. The fish and shellfish were always cooked to perfection, although salmon was not a nightly alternative choice as it had been on my previous RCI cruise. There is no rack of lamb (no surprise considering the cost), but the lamb shank and venison are slow-cooked to tenderness. I did not sample the pork or poultry since I have those so often at home. I usually asked for extra vegetables instead of potatoes or rice, which the waiters did without hesitation. After all my hiking and occasional skipped desserts, I did not gain any weight on these two cruises. Yes, it can be done!
I found that with My Time dining it was easy to get a table early (6pm) or late (8pm), but more crowded between those times. I enjoy sharing tables and meeting new friends, but the maitre d' also gave me a table for two when I requested it. I am surprised that some passengers try to turn My Time into My Table dining and expect to have the same table, time slot, and waiter every night. This seems to defeat the purpose of open dining and seems unfair to other passengers who may also want scarce tables for two.
My recommendation is to avoid the few tables for ten (unless you are traveling with a group that size). These are too large for quiet conversation and are too slow to fill and serve (guests may arrive after others have started, and one in ten guests always seems to want double courses).
PRICE: I am a solo traveler, and this year I have found that RCI usually offers me the best combination of high quality and good value for the itineraries I want. My previously favored cruise lines start their seasons with high prices and may drop them to RCI levels a few weeks before departure if they have excess inventory, but by then it is too late for decent airfares.
In addition, RCI is one of the few mainstream cruise lines which offers a break (less than 200% cost) to solo cruisers. My previously favored cruise lines usually offer special rates only to double occupancy cruisers, making the solo rate as much as 300-400% of the double occupancy rate.
Each of my RCI Alaska cruises cost me less than $1,000 USD including all taxes, fees, and pre-paid gratuities, for a large accessible inside double cabin northbound and a standard outside double cabin southbound. These prices were far enough in advance that I was able to use my frequent flier miles for one of those elusive "free" airfares. For Alaska in peak season, I think that solo cruise fare is a deal.
WHAT TO PACK FOR ALASKA: As I hinted at the beginning, the weather on both cruises was wet and cold, with only one sunny day (the last) on each cruise. Daytime temperatures were often in the 50's F (low teens C) and nighttime in the 40's (high single digits C). This was the coldest and wettest Alaskan cruise I have experienced, even though it was high summer and the lower 48 states were experiencing heat waves and droughts.
I always travel (even on cruises) with just an airline carry-on. However, for Alaska I needed a small piggyback bag for my hiking gear. In addition to the usual dark suit (which doubles as a sport jacket), light wool sweater (smart casual), one pair of wash slacks (smart casual), one pair of nylon gym slacks, three shirts, two T-shirts, three sets of underwear, black shoes and sport sandals, for this trip I recommend a good quality gore-tex rain suit (which doubles as a windbreaker and hiking pants), a fleece jacket, a fleece or wool cap, an optional dacron or down-filled vest, and lightweight hiking boots with vibram soles (wet rocks are slippery). Dress in layers and take a day pack to carry water, snacks, and extra clothes in case the weather changes. A small folding umbrella can be useful in port for light drizzle.
When we married, I promised my wife I would take her anywhere in the world she wanted to go as long as we each traveled with a carry-on only. We did it for many years (including many cruises) and never regretted our lightweight travel style. Although I cannot tell ladies exactly what to take, I know it can be done with just a carry-on and occasionally a small piggyback bag. Remember, people are more interested in how they themselves look than in what you are wearing.
PORTS OF CALL: I recommend using the Lonely Planet Alaska guide (available at your library) for sightseeing and hiking tips, and for town maps. All of the ports of call on this itinerary are picturesque small towns with beautiful hikes nearby. (Icy Strait is an exception, since the prevalence of coastal brown bears means there is no hiking away from the sidewalk which connects the port and the town.) Some ports have excellent public buses which can take you on cheap excursions. I shall tell you about those also.
In addition to the excursions offered onboard, every port has a dockside visitor center with maps and local tourist information, and independent tour operators await you at most ports. Most are on the internet and can be reserved in advance. I have no experience with them, but this website has reviews of many of them.
If the price of onboard internet service gets you down (fortunately, diamond cruisers get 30 minutes of free internet), the libraries in some ports offer free internet access. Juneau is especially convenient in this regard, since the library is on the top of a parking structure next to the dock, and it has a dozen free terminals.
VANCOUVER: Vancouver is a beautiful city, well worth an extra day or two before or after your cruise. The Skytrain (Canada line) links the airport with the downtown in only 30 minutes. A transport day pass ($9 adult, $7 senior) includes the Skytrain, all city buses, and the harbor ferry. The always friendly bus drivers usually have a schedule booklet, which includes a route map. The Skytrain operates from about 5am to midnight. If you arrive outside these times, a taxi from the airport to downtown costs about $35 plus tip.
The best budget hotel in central Vancouver is the Kingston Hotel, a euro-style inn with a sink in each room and showers and toilets down the hall. Terry bathrobes and disposable slippers are included with each room. The Kingston is only two blocks from the Vancouver Central Skytrain station, and is in a very safe central business neighborhood.
From the Kingston Hotel it is a 10 minute walk (or short taxi ride) to Canada Place, the cruise terminal. Enter the terminal by the sidewalk next to the underground parking entry, then follow the signs. Be aware, however, that construction is going on adjacent to the hotel, with work lasting from about 8am to 5pm. Those are the times I was away sightseeing, and the nights were quiet. My small but convenient single cost $65 plus tax per night, a bargain for central Vancouver.
From the Kingston Hotel the new Vancouver Public Library, which looks like a modern take on the Roman coliseum, is only two blocks east. It offers free internet (ask for a temporary library card) and a variety of lectures and programs. From downtown I recommend taking bus #19 west on Pender St. to Stanley Park. The views back to the city are beautiful, and the forest walks and rose garden are pleasant. Buses #19 or #22 eastbound on Pender St. will take you the short distance to Chinatown, for cheap dim sum and fun shopping. Between Chinatown and downtown is Gastown, the renovated historic district.
Across the bay from downtown on bus #50 southbound via Granville St. is Granville Island, an artsy area with a nice farmers market. Go there in the morning, because the afternoons tend to get crowded. Near the island you can transfer to bus #44 or #84 westbound on 4th Ave. to the U of BC campus, where you will find the wonderful Museum of Anthropology, which has a beautiful collection of NW native art. Ask the bus driver to drop you nearest the museum and walk the several extra blocks. From the museum, the Nitobe Japanese Garden is a short walk and a pleasant zen-like interlude. The ticket office at either can tell you where and when to catch the shuttle back to the campus bus terminus.
Your transport pass includes the Seabus ferry north across the Burrard Inlet, but it is enclosed and not good for photos of the city. You get better skyline views from the cruise ship.
KETCHIKAN: Ketchikan is the southernmost and rainiest of Alaska's cruise ports. It receives about 13 ft (4m) of rain each year. If it is sunny, you are lucky.
Avid hikers will enjoy the 3,000 ft (1,000m) high, 3 mile long climb up Deer Mountain, with nice viewpoints over the Inside Passage near the one and two mile markers. The trailhead is at the southeast edge of town -- any local can direct you. On the way there you can walk along Creek Street, the old brothel district which is now a tourist shopping area.
Alternately, buy a bus day pass for only $2 for unlimited rides on any or all of the town's three bus lines. One heads north to Totem Bight State Park (highly recommended and free), one covers the downtown, and the third heads south to Saxman Village (closer but not as nice as the Bight).
Each bus runs once an hour, and they depart at 20 minute intervals for maximal overlap. All stop at the Wal-Mart north of town. The northbound bus gives you an hour at the park until the next bus arrives. You can leave the southbound bus on the highway at Saxman Village, walk up the hill past the totem poles, and catch it 10 minutes later in front of the clan house as the bus returns to town. A bus map and schedule is available on the internet and at the dockside tourist info center. The info center also loans free GPS rescue alarms to carry if you are doing serious hiking.
ICY STRAIT (Hoonah): This is a made-for-cruisers tender port which offers an old cannery skillfully converted into a museum and tour hub. The small native village is a 20 minute walk away on the newly completed cement sidewalk (wheelchair friendly, or take the inexpensive shuttle bus). There is not much to do at either the cannery or in town, although it is nice to get a feeling for life in an Alaskan fishing village. Near the school is a windowless storage building that houses the local tribe's new totem poles and clan house facade. The carvers will be happy to give you a brief talk about the meaning of the carved symbols and the tribe's history in the area.
Farther across town is the small boat harbor, which was ringed by bald eagles (more than a dozen) when I was there. Unfortunately there is no hiking into the interior of the island because of the many coastal brown bears.
Most cruisers use this port for tours and excursions, both from RCI and from independent operators (reviewed on the internet). Whale and bear watchers had a good time here, and zip-liners were awed by the mile-long, 300 ft (100m) above-the-forest-canopy descent on cables. On the northbound cruise the top of the zip-line was in the clouds. There is a nice restaurant patio at the base station for friends and family to watch and photograph the descent, and nearby is a short but pleasant nature walk.
This is the only tender port, but the crew is very good with mobility-impaired passengers.
JUNEAU: Juneau is the state capital and the largest port on the itinerary. As I mentioned before, the public library is near the cruise dock and offers free internet access.
From Juneau one can take the public bus for $1.50 northbound toward the Mendenhall Lake and Glacier, but it is an extra 30 minute walk from the public bus stop to the eastside visitor center or westside trailhead, and public buses leave only hourly. An $8 shuttle bus is available from the cruise dock directly to the glacier visitor center, where there are several short hikes and nice views.
An easy trail which leaves from the north end of town (follow dockside Franklin St. up hill to its end and then dogleg east and north) is the Perseverance Trail. This is a well-maintained dirt road then trail which follows Gold Creek past a mining museum up into the valley. There is minimal altitude gain over the three miles, with nice mountain views and waterfalls along the way. The locals use this as a jogging path on week-ends. A more challenging trail leaves town and traverses up Mt. Roberts. I have not taken this trail in many years and do not know its current condition. A tramway ($30 round trip) goes part way up Mt. Roberts directly from the dockside, and offers back country trails (and shopping) at the upper station.
Also in Juneau are several small museums that one can read about in guidebooks or on the internet. As usual, private tour operators meet the ships at the dock, and the visitor centers are very helpful.
SKAGWAY: Skagway was the start of the old Yukon Trail in 1898 gold rush days, and it is now the most picturesque port because it is preserved by the National Park Service as a historic district.
Most cruisers opt for a ride on the old Yukon railway (now mostly pulled by diesel engines, with a few steam engines by request). Tours go to the top of the pass (take your passport for all train rides an most bus tours, since the Yukon Territory is in Canada). Alternately, one can purchase individual train tickets for the 8am departure for the Denver Glacier trailhead (at the 5 mile marker, $32) or the Laughton Glacier trailhead (at the 12 mile marker, $67). On this cruise I opted for the latter since it is a well-maintained trail through the forest and then an easy scramble up the riverbed for awesome views of the hanging glacier. One can walk on the lower glacier, but I chose not to since I was hiking without ice gear or guide.
Both Denver and Laughton are also available as guided hikes from the cruise ship. Make certain that you are back to the trailhead in time for the return train, usually at 315pm. In high season this independent hikers shuttle is not available on the northbound cruise (Wednesday is considered too busy with tour groups), but is available on the southbound cruise (Monday).
For short and easy hikes with nice views I recommend the Lower Dewey Lake trail which leaves town across the tracks from east 2nd Street, or the Yakutania Point and Smugglers Cove trail which leaves town from west 1st Street past the small airport and over the bridge. In town the building covered with driftwood is the local hiking center. They have free maps and good trail information.
HUBBARD GLACIER: Viewing the glacier and all of Yakutat Bay from the ship is the high point of the cruise. One can watch from inside, but this is an experience of a lifetime best appreciated from the open decks. The forward and port side decks offer the best views, and the heliport (climb the stairs from deck 5 under the lifeboats to deck 6 forward) is open for all who want to watch from the bow. Dress warmly and take your rain gear because you will be there for several hours, surrounded by small icebergs and chilling winds.
SEWARD: Seward is worth a day-long visit in good weather for either of two reasons: Exit Glacier National Park or Kenai Fjords National Park.
The former is accessible by $10 RT shuttle bus through Exit Glacier Guides downtown (about 20 minutes walk from the cruise ship, check their web site for schedules and details). From the park one can easily walk to the toe of the glacier and/or hike up the Harding Icefield trail for beautiful views looking down on the glacier and across the huge icefields above the glacier. The upper portion of this trail still had snow in early July, so hiking poles or an ice axe to arrest a slide are recommended. Rangers also give several free guided walks during the day.
The Kenai Fjords National Park is accessible only by boat, and tour operators downtown offer several options. In good weather these boat tours give incredible wildlife and glacier views. I have not been on one in several years, but I highly recommend this option if one has the time and money and good weather. Check the internet for schedules and prices.
PHOTOS: The following link will give you an idea what the renovated Radiance looks like and what the ports of call offer:

Click on the link (or copy and paste it in your browser window) and then thumbnail photos will appear. If you get a "stack overload" message (there are lots of photos), just keeping closing it until it goes away. Then click on the "slideshow" option in the upper left. Wiggle your mouse to access the control panel (pause, set speed, etc.). The photos are degraded to save internet file space, but they are still enjoyable.

Photo © Linda Coffman

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