We're sailing on a 10-night voyage from Vancouver, Canada, to San Francisco, California, aboard Oceania's 694-passenger Regatta. Along the way, we're calling on Ketchikan, Juneau and Sitka, in Alaska, as well as Victoria, Canada, and Astoria, Oregon. Here are some of our first impressions, both about the itinerary and ship itself.
Don't Hoover Vancouver
You could easily spend three days in Vancouver prior to boarding a cruise ship. So don't make the mistake we did, rushing around trying to "suck up" all the sights in just a few hours. There's great food (from Japadog's creative hotdog carts to new gourmet offerings, like Botanist), a revitalized Chinatown, museums, strolling the seawall around Stanley Park, nearby attractions including the Capilano Suspension Bridge…and the list goes on. We should have stayed longer.
Our ship spent a day cruising to and around Hubbard Glacier. Wow. If at all possible, choose an Alaska itinerary that includes this spectacular seven-mile wide stretch of blue ice. You'll hear cracks like thunder as chunks of the glacier calve and fall into the water. Only one cruise ship at a time can view the glacier, which makes it even more special.
Don't Trust the Weatherman
Southeast Alaska is a wet, wet place. Ketchikan, for example, averages nearly 300 rainy days a year. So we were resigned (and, OK, a bit depressed) a few days before sailing, when the weather forecast predicted rain for every port call. But, glory be, we made it through all three Alaska ports with nary a drop. Of course, the opposite can happen, so always be prepared.
Oh, Say Can You Sea
It's especially nice to have plentiful sea days on an Alaska cruise. Why? Because with cool, damp temperatures (and, quite often, rain if you're not lucky as we've been), it feels good to hibernate in between wilderness forays -- just like an Alaskan bear fattened-up on delicious cruise ship food. Oceania tends to specialize in longer cruises, which allows for a more leisurely itinerary.
Should we call it a "Goldilocks" ship? Regatta is not too small, and not too large -- rather, it seems just right. The public areas are spacious, there are two specialty restaurants, and enough lectures, demonstrations, games and shows to keep you busy on a sea day. But there never seems to be a mob scene to embark at ports or to get a seat in the main dining room. The only downside? Regatta can roll a bit more in rough seas than a bigger ship.
The Angel Is in the Details
We and our spouse have different last names. Invariably, on other ships, we've both been called by the other's name. Not a huge deal, but here on Regatta, the crew have gotten it right every time -- from the cabin steward to the restaurant staff. It's those little things that define a luxury experience. Like the replacement robe that appeared today after we dropped a strawberry on our robe during room-service breakfast. Our sharp-eyed steward must have spotted it and made the swap.
On a different level, the captain demonstrated this attitude, too. When Regatta visited Hubbard Glacier, he first positioned the ship with the port side turned directly toward the view, then turned it so starboard side got the view, giving folks who were mobility-challenged a full experience, even if they were watching from their cabins.
Do We Have to Get Out of Bed?
Oceania has the cushiest beds we've ever encountered at sea. Or on land, for that matter. Like a good mate, the plush pillow-top mattress is giving but supportive. The 1,000-thread count sheets feel like a million, and the down pillows are like fluffy clouds. The beds are an invitation to nap -- or to hit the snooze button so many times that you might miss your shore excursion.
Wildlife Viewing and Chewing
We've watched spawning salmon fighting their way upstream, and we've also noshed on fresh Alaskan salmon -- a real treat, considering cruise-ship fish is usually frozen. Fresh halibut and rockfish have also been on the menu, in a variety of presentations, from fish-and-chips to an elegant preparation with fennel-scented beurre blanc sauce.
Did We Mention the Food?
Oceania lives up to its reputation for serving some of the best food at sea. Every cabin class gets at least one guaranteed reservation at each of the no-fee specialty restaurants, Toscana (Italian cuisine) and Polo (steak and seafood). At the beginning of the cruise, everyone jockeys for spots at those two venues -- until they discover that the food in the main dining room is equally excellent and inventive. In fact, we've found as the cruise goes on, that additional specialty restaurant spots are easier and easier to score, especially if you're willing to dine later. Terrace Cafe, the ship's buffet restaurant, got a sleek new look during Regatta's last refurb, making it the hippest venue among the ship's more conservative-looking public spaces. The evening sushi spread alone makes us swoon.
You'll Pay to Play
Oceania's shore excursions tend to be priced at a premium. For example, when we compared a packaged Ketchikan tour offered by both Oceania and Princess, it was priced at $169.95 by Princess and $229 by Oceania. Alaska shore excursions tend to be expensive in general, no matter who you cruise with, but prepare for some serious sticker shock if you want the bucket-list Alaska shore excursions that include flightseeing, fishing or walking on a glacier.
Upgrading Is Soooo Worth It
If you can afford it, upgrade to a 322-square foot Penthouse-level stateroom, which is more than double the size of the most basic 143-square foot ocean-view cabins. The living area configuration in these staterooms is nearly square, which makes them feel particularly spacious. They're also equipped with an entire wall of windows facing onto their full-length balcony, making for lots of light and great sightseeing. What's more, these cabins come with butler service, including room-service meals delivered course-by-course, plus the option of ordering from the specialty restaurants, as well as from the main dining room. The suave butlers work hard to please, pouncing on any whim we mention or sometimes practically reading our minds -- offering up suggestions for dining, menu choices and services like shoe shines.
--By Gayle Keck, Cruise Critic contributor