Excursion Focus: Alaska Sled Dogs & Musher's Camp in Juneau, Alaska

In:
17Jul2018
By: Matt Hochberg

Do you like cute puppies? Do you like playing with cute puppies.  You have satisfied the prerequisites for the Alaska Sled Dogs & Musher's Camp shore excursion.

That is essentially what we thought when we booked the Alaska Sled Dogs & Musher's Camp excursion on a recent Explorer of the Seas cruise to Alaska.  While browsing the Juneau shore excursions, we decided to conduct some serious scientific research and spend a couple of hours playing with puppies...and maybe learning something or two about the Iditarod race.

Description

There are many different shore excursions in Alaska that incorporate dog sledding into them, but if all you want to do is focus just on the dog sled aspect and play with puppies, this is the excursion for you.

The Alaska Sled Dogs & Musher's Camp tour is offered directly by Royal Caribbean, and can be booked prior to the cruise or once onboard.

After disembarking the ship in Juneau, we found our group meeting location in the parking lot adjacent to the pier area.  Once everyone arrived, we boarded a small bus that would take us on the roughly 10-15 minute ride to the dog sledding camp.

The camp is located on the outskirts of Juneau, Alaska.  We visited a real dog sledding camp, where when the operators are not offering tours to cruise passengers, they are training for dog sled races that will take place in the winter.

Upon arrival, our group was split up to maximize our time and minimize standing around and waiting.  There are three basic components to the Alaska Sled Dogs & Musher's Camp excursion:

  1. Riding the dog sled
  2. Learning about dog sled races
  3. Playing with puppies

In our case, we started off with the dog sled experience while the other people in our group met the puppies.  Later on, we would switch.

Contrary to popular belief, there is no snow in the ground in the summer in Alaska, so the dogs practice pulling a cart that is meant to evoke the same experience as a dog sled.  A group of dogs pull the cart around a track that goes through a large portion of the forest.  

You are seated in the cart, get buckled in, and are lead by a dog sled musher.  The musher explains how the races work, describes the nuances of dog sledding and how the dogs train for the race, and takes you and the dogs out on the track.

The entire race portion takes you around the track, with a break along the way for the dogs.  The track area goes through a heavily wooded part of the camp and it is quite lovely and beautiful to be in there.  Meanwhile, the dogs seem to relish the thrill of the race.

Along the way, the musher will take photos of you in the cart while you remain seated. 

After the race concludes, you get a chance to meet and pet the dogs that pulled you.  The make up of the dog team will vary from experienced dogs who tend to lead the pack, to the inexperienced and brand new dogs that pull up the rear of the team.  

After the dog sled portion, there is an opportunity to learn more about dog sled racing. 

You learn about the history of the Iditarod race, and how dog sledding has evolved to where it is today.  On our visit, we also had an opportunity to meet a retired dog sled racer, who is now quite content laying around and being petted by strangers.

The camp also features a suspension bridge for taking photos.

Following the lesson in dog sledding, it was time for the pièce de résistance, the puppies!

On our visit there were three sets of puppies of different ages: very young puppies, young puppies, and adolescent puppies.

A member of the camp team will distribute puppies to people in the group. Ultimately, it is up to your fellow excursioneers to share time with the puppies and pass them around.

You can pet them, hold them, take selfies with them, hug them and likely try to convince your significant other/parent/cousin/uncle to adopt a puppy as soon as you get home.

During the puppy petting time, there is also complimentary hot chocolate you may enjoy.

Comments

Just as the excursion promises, this is an opportunity to see, play and pet puppies.  I was a bit skeptical about how many puppies there would be (as opposed to older dogs), but they had quite a few and it lived up to the expectations.

The race part of the tour was better than I thought it would be, with a sense of exhilaration as we raced around the track.  These dogs are the real deal and at the very hint of going on a race, they would all start howling and barking in euphoric anticipation of what they knew what was coming next.  

Of course, meeting the puppies is what everyone is really there to see, and it is quite the experience.

The only real issue with meeting the puppies is it is wholeheartedly dependent on your fellow guests to share and be gracious with time.  There is a limited amount of time with each group of puppies, and in our experience, there were definitely some people who tended to hold onto the puppies longer than others. There is no guidance given on time, nor is there any kind of rule.  Just keep in mind that there are not enough puppies for everyone to have one at the same time, and so, whoever does not have a puppy is likely looking longingly at the people with the puppies for a turn.  Be kind and rewind, err, share the puppies.

I liked how they split up the group at the start of the excursion to minimize the time we spent waiting.  It helped keep everything moving, and when it came time to meet the puppies, having less people to compete with meant more quality time with the dogs.

Our tour clocked in at two hours, which was just the perfect amount of time, in my opinion.  We had enough time to do everything without having that feeling of, "when are we going to start the next part already?".

As mentioned earlier, there are a few different excursions offered that incorporate this experience into the total tour.  If you are looking to just meet the puppies, this is the tour for you.  If you want to meet puppies and do some other touring, consider one of the other tours.  We ended up touring on our own after this excursion, but it is important to know there are other excursions in Juneau and Skagway that offer very similar experiences.

Cost: $127 per adult and $127 per child (our three year old daughter was free).

Spotted: Interactive luggage departure form on Symphony of the Seas

In:
17Jul2018
By: Matt Hochberg

Guests sailing on Royal Caribbean's Symphony of the Seas now have a new option for letting the cruise line know their luggage prefernces upon departure.

Royal Caribbean Blog reader Rich Freudenberg noticed this new interactive luggage departure form on his stateroom television.

Rich noted that when you turn it on, it instantly asks you about your luggage preferences upon departure.  

By taking advantage of this interactive option, it forgoes the need to fill out any forms.

Video: 8 Things Royal Caribbean Pros Do, and You Should Too!

In:
16Jul2018
By: Matt Hochberg

Hello, friends! We are back with another Royal Caribbean Blog video today, and we are sharing 8 things that Royal Caribbean pros do, and you should too!

The famous saying, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do" is a great approach to cruising, because there are a lot of great tips and advice new cruisers can pick up from veteran Royal Caribbean cruisers.  This will will share how cruise pros book their cruises, strategies for saving money, how they learn everything about Royal Caribbean, and a whole lot more!

And if you love this video, there’s plenty more for you to enjoy over on our Royal Caribbean Blog YouTube Channel!

By the way, have you subscribed yet? Be sure to subscribe to our channel and never miss a single episode!

10 things you never thought to bring on a cruise, but you totally should

In:
16Jul2018
By: Matt Hochberg

Even if you have never taken a Royal Caribbean cruise before, you probably can figure out some basic things to bring on a cruise vacation: sunglasses, swim suits, shorts and flip flops are fairly self explanatory.  Beyond the obvious things to pack, there are some other things you really ought to bring along on your cruise that are not things you may think of initially.

After taking quite a few Royal Caribbean cruises, we collected 10 things that inspired at one point or another we thought, "I wish I'd packed that!" when on a Royal Caribbean cruise.

Note: There are affiliate links in this post that kick back a few bucks to me if you happen to click on them and order something.  It will cost you absolutely nothing extra, I just get a "finders fee" from Amazon for my trouble, and it helps "keep the lights on" with this blog.

Ways to ID your suitcase

When your cruise is over and you are headed to the cruise terminal to collect your belongings and get on your way home, the last thing you want to do is play the "where is my luggage" game.  Your luggage will be waiting for you in groups that are separated by numbers, but there still can be a lot of luggage to comb over.

In order to simplify finding your own luggage and alert others that the generic black suitcase you own is not theirs is to invest in some way of identifying your luggage.  You can use bandanas, string, luggage tags, stickers or whatever else will stay affixed to your luggage.  You do not have to be very creative, just come up with a decoration scheme that works for your family.

Changes of clothes for hot days

When packing for that shore excursion adventure in a port that will take you to some historic site or incredible area, you ought to throw in an extra outfit just for your time on shore.

When walking, running, swimming, kayaking, skipping, or power walking through any port you will visit, odds are that all the energy you will expend during the day may lead to some serious sweating.  This is especially true when you go on a cruise during the summer months when just walking off your ship and down the pier can lead to epic schvitzing.

Having an extra outfit to change into after you get back to the ship is a really nice cruise hack.  After all, once you take that post-shore excursion shower, do you really want to put back on those soiled clothes that you wore around Havana all day?

Snacks for the room

When I first heard about the idea of packing snacks from home to keep in your room, I thought it was the looniest idea ever. I mean, why pack food when Royal Caribbean offers so much food during your cruise?

The reality is kids always want a snack in that time between when they get picked up from Adventure Ocean but before they go to sleep.  In fact, the first words out of my kids' mouths when I pick them up is "Daddy, can we get something to eat?".  Having a bag of Goldfish, fruit snacks or whatever else your little kiddies enjoy in the room means they can have a quick bite without having to order room service or walk around the ship in search of food.  Plus, it allows the kids to nosh on something while getting changed.  These snacks are also great for lazy mornings where everyone sleeps in. 

Speaking of snacks, be sure to grab a few extra boxes of your kids' favorite cereal from the Windjammer to keep in your room as a snack.  Just like snacks from home, they are very helpful and you can only get the cereal boxes in the morning when breakfast is served.

Magnetic hooks

Something you may not realize about your cabin is how little opportunity there is to hang stuff.  More often, people end up draping their clothes, swimsuits, jackets and everything else over the back of a chair, couch or balcony.  Instead, you ought to invest in a pack of strong magnetic hooks

Your stateroom walls are made out of metal, which means you can simply stick a magnet onto a wall or ceiling and start hanging your hats, swimsuits or whatever else needs to be hung.

Ziploc bags

As you head out of your house on your way to the cruise, grab a dozen or so Ziploc bags, because they are really useful for so many reasons.

Ziploc bags are great at keeping what is inside apart from what is outside.  This means it can keep wet clothing from your dry clothing, or keep dry clothing from getting wet or sandy. On beach days, these bags are invaluable.

Likewise, Ziploc bags can be useful for things other than just clothes.  You can actually stick your smart phone, tablet and any other electronic device in these.  I have even seen some people use their phones while in the bag as a "poor man's phone protector". 

Portable phone charger

With the proliferation of Royal Caribbean's high speed internet across its fleet and the constant drive to share how much fun you are having with friends and family at home, a portable phone charger can make a lot of sense to have with you on a cruise.

Portable phone chargers are cheap, with basic ones costing less than $20 and heftier packs that can power multiple devices not that much more money.  This means you never have to curtail sharing your vacation on social media, streaming videos, or keeping the kids entertained on a bus ride.

I always bring a portable charger with me when I go on shore excursions these days.  I love not having to worry about finding a power outlet.

Aloe vera

I never bothered to include aloe vera in my cruise luggage until the one time I needed it and then it became the thing I always pack on a cruise.

No one wants to think about getting sun burned, and it is really easy to tell yourself that you will apply plenty of sunscreen and sun burns are something that happens to other people. The reality is sunburn can happen to anyone and never fun when it does.  

Your cruise ship may sell aloe vera onboard, but it will not be as cheap as when you buy it at home.  Moreover, you want to have access to it the moment you realize you need it.  The sooner it gets applied, the sooner it helps soothe away the pain.

Tip: stick it in the mini-fridge in your room on embarkation day so it's cooled down for application later.

Wrinkle release spray

Did you know that there are no self-serve laundry options nor any clothing irons on Royal Caribbean cruise ships?  The only option if you want your clothes pressed or cleaned is to send them out for dry cleaning.

If you are concerned about your clothes being wrinkle-free after you unpack onboard, invest in a good wrinkle release spray. You simply spray any clothing to remove any unwanted creases or wrinkles.  Plus, it has the added bonus of making your clothing smell good again, which can be an issue if your luggage that you store in your basement/attic has an odd odor to it.

Sticky notes

If you want an easy low-tech option for letting your friends and family know where you are on a cruise ship, sticky notes are the way to go for staying in touch.

Put a pad in each stateroom, and you can quickly jot down a note of where you will be and place it pretty much anywhere you think that person will read it.  

Metal straw

Did you hear the news that Royal Caribbean will eliminate plastic straws on its cruise ships by the end of 2018? Saving the environment is really important, but enjoying your favorite frozen drink should not be neglected either.

If you prefer a straw in your drink, and do not care for a paper straw, investing in a metal straw may be just the right solution for you. They are rather inexpensive, reusable and easy to clean.  Plus, metal straws have the structural integrity paper straws cannot match and can stay in your drink for hours and never break apart.

Did we miss something?

Is there something you always bring on a Royal Caribbean cruise that may not be that obvious to bring along? Did you find out list particularly helpful? Share what you think in the comments of this blog post!

Friday Photos

In:
13Jul2018
By: Matt Hochberg

It has been a few weeks since our last Friday Photos, but we are back after a few weeks of taking Royal Caribbean cruises (it is really the only plausible excuse, right?), and ready to share some wonderful photos sent in by our readers.

We begin with a photo by Twangster of Radiance of the Seas sailing away from Juneau, Alaska.  I particularly like this shot because I was in the same zip code when it was taken.

Speaking of photos I approve of, here is one by Tyler Diedrich and his family decked out in the very best Royal Caribbean Blog paraphernalia!

Marc vanNiekerk sent in this photo of the lighthouse in Nassau, Bahamas.

Bob Rodrigue shared this creative shot of New York City, as seen from North Star on Anthem of the Seas.

Speaking of Anthem of the Seas, here is a photo by Jorge Toache of the pool deck on a cold night.

Danny Paquot decorated his stateroom door for Christmas on one of his cruises.

Ariella took this photo of Navigator of the Seas docked in Curaçao at night.

That's it for this week's edition of Friday Photos. You can always share your favorite cruise photos with us by sending them in via this form.

Have a great weekend!

Royal Caribbean offering up to 30% off Cruise Planner purchases with Cruise Planner sale

In:
13Jul2018
By: Matt Hochberg

Royal Caribbean's Primed for Savings sale is offering up to 30% off pre-cruise purchases made this weekend.

The current sale runs through the end of Monday, and applies to select sailings departing July 23, 2018 - January 15, 2019.

The weekend Cruise Planner sale promises savings on certain shore excursions and drink package purchases.  Guests can check which discounts, if any, are available for their upcoming sailing by visiting the Cruise Planner site. Keep in mind that not all sailings may see the sale applicable, nor are all offers significantly cheaper than previously posted.

If you spot a better discount on something you already pre-purchased, you should be able to cancel the purchase and then re-purchase the same item under this promotion.

Royal Caribbean cancels some stops at CocoCay due to minor construction delay

In:
12Jul2018
By: Matt Hochberg

A number of cruisers received emails this week informing them that their upcoming Royal Caribbean cruise stop at Perfect Day at CocoCay has been cancelled due to a "minor delay".

Over the past two days, we have received reports from Royal Caribbean guests that certain upcoming sailings towards the very end of 2018 or beginning of 2019 have had their port call in CocoCay cancelled and replaced with a stop in Miami, Florida.

December 29, 2018 Vision of the Seas email

Vision of the Seas January 5, 2019 email

Vision of the Seas January 12, 2019 email

The email explains that work to convert CocoCay to Perfect Day at CocoCay is the reason, "While we are transforming our private destination, CocoCay, into Perfect Day at CocoCay, we have experienced a minor delay. As a result, we've had to replace your visit to CocoCay with the beautiful Miami, Florida."

Thus far, we have received reports just of sailings going to CocoCay in late December 2018 and early January 2019 and all on Vision of the Seas.

Any pre-paid shore excursions scheduled for CocoCay will be refunded to the original form of payment.

Perfect Day at CocoCay is a $200 million upgrade to Royal Caribbean's private island in the Bahamas and is scheduled to open in phases that will last into the end of 2019.

Excursion Focus: Old Havana City Sightseeing

In:
12Jul2018
By: Matt Hochberg

Many people visiting Cuba on a Royal Caribbean cruise are very likely visiting Havana for the first time, and for those that want to see the highlights of the Old City of Cuba's capital, Royal Caribbean's Old Havana City Sightseeing tour offers just that.

We were also one of those first timers in Cuba on a recent Majesty of the Seas cruise, and picked this tour as a way to cross off some of the most famous landmarks in Havana.  It is impossible to see all of Havana in just one day, but this tour aimed to take us to the more popular spots.

Description

The Old Havana City Sightseeing tour is listed as a 4 hour bus tour that drives through much of Havana and offers stops at four places along the way.

This tour is offered directly by Royal Caribbean, and we booked the tour prior to the cruise.  The list price for this excursion is $99 per adult and $79 per child.

In the case of this tour, guests are instructed to meet onboard the cruise ship in the ship's theater. 

Royal Caribbean splits up guests among different buses, with each bus on its own schedule and with its own tour guide.  When it is time for your tour group to depart, Royal Caribbean escorts guests off the ship, through Cuban Customs and onto a waiting bus.   

This may sound simple, but it does take quite a while.  Going through Cuban Customs, security and money exchange goes at a snails pace in a very un-air conditioned building.  I estimate it took us 90 minutes to go from when we arrived at the theater to actually boarding a bus.

Once on the bus, your tour leader will introduce themselves and welcome you aboard.  By far the best part of the tour is the fact you will go all around Havana in an air conditioned coach bus.  I cannot understate the value of having an air conditioned base of operations to fall back on.  Havana is quite a hot and humid place to visit, and unlike so many other spots in the Caribbean, air conditioning is quite rare in Cuba.

While on our tour, we had the same bus, bus driver and tour leader for the entire duration of the excursion. This meant we could leave anything we wanted onboard the bus and it would be waiting for us when we got back.

The Old Havana City Sightseeing tour makes four stops as it navigates the streets of Havana.  These stops include:

  • Morro Castle
  • Plaza de Revolucion
  • Cristo de la Habana statue
  • Colon Cemetery

The exact order you visit may vary, as our tour guide optimized the tour to visit spots with little to no shade earlier in the day and save the spots with shade for later in the day.

A great deal of other sights will be visible from the bus as you drive through Havana and your tour guide will narrate the entire trip. Many blog readers asked us after the tour if there were any restrictions on what we could see or photograph and there really were none.  Our tour guide was more than happy to answer any and all questions we had and helped shed some light onto the Cuban way of life.

Our first stop was the Colon Cemetery, which is where a great deal of Cuba's most famous filmmakers, politicians and baseball players are buried. The bus dropped us off towards the entrance, and then a special guide escorted us through the cemetery and pointed out some of the more famous mausoleums.

The cemetery is massive, and there is not enough time to even see half of it, but it was incredible to see the detail in some of the burial spots.  

Our next stop was Revolutionary Square, where some of Cuba's most famous speeches were given.  Odds are if you watch an old news reel of some of Cuba's early days following the Communist Revolution, you will see someone speaking from this area.  It is basically a very large parking lot, with some government buildings surrounding it. 

There is also a fleet of classic American cars (or at least the exterior of classic American cars) that double as taxi drivers show off in the area. 

After a quick introduction to the history of this area, we were given some time to walk around on our own and check it out.  Most people tended to flock towards the classic cars to see them up close and take photos with them. There is no cost to any of this (unless you opt for a ride), although if you get into the car, a tip is customary.

Our next stop goes to check out Cuban sculptor Jilma Madera’s Cristo de la Habana statue, which keeps watch over the bay from a hilltop. 

The Christ of Havana statue is a large sculpture representing Jesus of Nazareth that was commissioned in 1953. The statue was carved out of white Carrara marble, the same material used for many of the monuments of the Colon Cemetery.  The statue is about 20 metres (66 ft) high including a 3-metre (10 ft) base.

The park where the statue is located provides a great view of Havana, your cruise ship and the harbor.

The final stop took us to Morro Castle, a stately fortress at the mouth of Havana harbor.  

Not only is the castle a fine example of Spanish colonial defenses, but there is also a bit of shopping you can do inside and outside the fort.  

The tour does not actually include admission to the fort, but you do get to go inside a small part of it that leads up to the entrance.  You are free to walk the grounds of Morro outside and explore without any cost.

When you get off the bus, there are a number of shops set up outside the fort you can browse.  In addition, you will be taken into a rum and cigar shop inside the fort that is optional to visit.

Most of the stops are 15-30 minutes in length.  The stop at Morro took about one hour and the Colon Cemetery was closer to 30 minutes.

At the conclusion of the tour, the bus returns to the port area, although you are free to tour on your own after that.

Comments

Going to any port of call for the first time means you likely have your own list of landmarks you would like to see, and Havana certainly has plenty of good candidates.  The Old Havana City Sightseeing does a good job at providing an introduction to Havana and overview of some of the more notable spots.

Of course, this is a group bus tour, which means the pace of the tour is largely dictated by the tour leader (and whomever shows up last to board the bus) and it does not leave a lot of room for personal exploration.  That is not necessarily a bad thing either, but do not expect a hands-on walking tour of the city.

The best part of this excursion is the air conditioned bus.  Having a bus to go back to between stops and relax, recuperate from the heat and humidity, and rest makes for tackling a city as large as Havana much easier.  Everyone's patience is higher when air conditioning is involved and after taking this tour in July, I do believe it helped make the overall experience better.

Our tour guide was also very knowledgeable about Cuba's history and current role today.  He encouraged us to ask questions and always took the time to explain concepts and programs that are not something you may find elsewhere in North America.  

Between the places we stopped to see and the many other places we saw from the bus, I felt the Old Havana City Sightseeing excursion provided a great starting point for my first visit to Cuba.  I may have preferred slightly more time on my own to explore, but the tour was perfect for anyone who has never been to Havana previously. 

Cost: $99 per adult, $72 per child.

CocoCay pier construction progress photo report

In:
11Jul2018
By: Matt Hochberg

We have a quick look at the progress Royal Caribbean is making in adding a pier to its private destination of CocoCay.

Royal Caribbean Blog reader Paul Crow took these photos on July 11, while on a Mariner of the Seas cruise to the island.

The new pier will open in November 2018.

Majesty of the Seas cruise to Cuba review on Royal Caribbean Blog Podcast

In:
11Jul2018
By: Matt Hochberg

Our newest podcast episode is out to help give you a quick "audio escape" to a Royal Caribbean cruise!

Episode 258 is available for downloading, where Matt shares his cruise review of Majesty of the Seas.

Matt is back from his first time sailing on Majesty of the Seas and his first time visiting Cuba.  In this episode, Matt shares his thoughts on Majesty of the Seas as well as his experience going to Cuba.

Here’s the podcast page for Episode 258. And don’t forget to subscribe to the podcast via RSSStitcher or on iTunes!

Take a listen and as always, let us know what you think! Please rate and review the podcast on iTunes and leave your comments below!

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