Cruising Alaska’s Inside Passage During COVID

Fine Dining, Dog-Sledding, and a Grizzly Named Kitty in America’s Last Frontier

Direct Route: Alaskan cruising is made easy to with daily flights from Santa Barbara to Seattle. | Credit: Courtesy

Would you go on a cruise right now? 

That’s the question my wife and I were confronted with recently as we were invited aboard the inaugural post-pandemic Celebrity cruise to Alaska in late July.

All crew aboard would be vaccinated, extensive cleaning and safety protocols were in place, guest capacity would be limited to 60 percent, and masks onboard would be optional, except for all staff required to wear masks at all times. All guests must also be vaccinated and show proof (as of August 2021, all U.S. guests ages 12 and older must be fully vaccinated). 

As Alaska’s inside passage is considered a bucket list trip for many, we decided to go for it. Dropping our cat with my in-laws in San Luis Obispo, we hopped on an Alaska Airlines flight (fully masked), jumped in a rideshare from Seattle airport to Pier 66, and made it on board with just nine minutes to spare!

Credit: Gareth Kelly

Our home for the next seven days would be the Celebrity Millennium — completely renovated from top to bottom in 2019. This was her first sailing with paying guests since the pandemic ground the cruising industry to a halt.

We quickly found our Veranda stateroom complete with Celebrity’s new eXhale cashmere bedding, a bottle of red wine, and a balcony overlooking the Seattle skyline.

Having only been on one previous two-night “booze cruise” to Ensenada, it was apparent these next seven days would be a markedly different affair. 

The ample closet and drawer space of the brand-new cabinetry made unpacking our belongings a breeze as we admired the well-appointed furnishings, which even included a lit vanity and glass shower door. 

That evening, we popped by a cocktail party on the ship’s rooftop terrace and enjoyed views of Seattle gently disappearing in our wake as the boat slipped its dock lines and sailed toward the setting sun.

We dined in the ship’s elegant Metropolitan restaurant — one of nine dining options aboard and the one formal dining option included in every guest’s package. As a bonus, our dinner menu came from Luminae — the ship’s modern and eclectic cuisine restaurant exclusively for guests of The Retreat (more on that later) featuring signature dishes by Michelin-starred chef Daniel Boulud, such as chilled carrot and ginger velouté, Moroccan chicken Tagine, and raspberry pistachio vacherin.

Wined and dined, we retired to our stateroom, finding delicious chocolate truffles and a welcome note from the Governor of Alaska, Mike Dunleavy, on our freshly turned down queen bed, along with the schedule for our first full day at sea. (Celebrity also utilizes an app for daily activity offerings, other ship and account info, and complimentary Wi-Fi for all guests.)

Credit: Gareth Kelly

We awoke the next morning to the knock of room service delivering our hot breakfast — eggs, bacon, hash browns, OJ, toast, and coffee. Stepping out onto our sunlit balcony wrapped in our complimentary robes, we were greeted by dramatic snow-topped mountains and lush green forests split with waterfalls flowing into a turquoise ocean as an assortment of oddly shaped icebergs — yes, icebergs — drifted by.

With a full day at sea before arriving in our first port of call, we had a chance to better explore Millennium. At 964 feet long, 106 feet wide, weighing over 90,000 tons, and with a cruising speed of 24 knots, this is one impressive ship. Millennium has 1,109 staterooms and 56 suites, 58 percent of which are Veranda rooms (with a balcony like ours), and a further 22 percent have ocean views, making it the perfect vessel on which to cruise Alaska’s scenic inside passage. 

An abundance of windows filled the walkways and corridors with light, allowing guests to view mountains, icebergs, whales, and even leaping salmon all from the safety and comfort of one’s stateroom or a poolside chaise lounge. 

Onboard, everything was immaculate with brand-new fixtures and fittings. Glass elevators whisked guests between all 11 floors, and a wide-open pool deck offered fresh air for those wanting to brave the Alaskan elements while sipping a cocktail in one of the many hot tubs.

A feature of Celebrity Cruise’s $500M fleet-wide renovation is the opening of The Retreat. For suite passengers only, The Retreat consists of three exclusive experiences: the aforementioned Luminae restaurant; the Retreat Lounge, a private lounge with complimentary bites and dedicated concierge service; and the Retreat Sundeck, a chic open-air hideaway at the front of the ship with an exclusive hot tub, day beds, and private butler! 

For those not in suites, the Oceanview Café buffet served cuisine from all over the world for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and late-night pizza (one no longer serves oneself at the buffet but rather has a plate made up by staff behind glass screens). Café al Bacio & Gelateria featured an espresso coffee bar stocked with delectable baked goods. The Spa Café served lighter, healthier dishes like smoothies, salads, protein bites, etc. There were also four specialty dining restaurants: Blu, clean cuisine designed exclusively for AquaClass guests; Tuscan Grille, an Italian-inspired steakhouse, homemade pastas, regional wine menu, and craft cocktails; Sushi on Five, fresh hand-rolled sushi, specialty sake, and authentic wasabi prepared tableside; and finally, Le Petit Chef at Qsine, a unique dining experience like no other. Using 3D mapping technology, a collection of projected animated miniature chefs from around the world dance atop your table, preparing their signature dishes in a mix of show, art, and culinary extravaganza that will blow your mind. Truly incredible and hard to put into words, it’s an experience exclusive to Celebrity Cruises. 

Everything we ate and drank on board was exceptional. The quality, freshness, and availability of every meal rivaled anything one finds on land and heaven for those of us foodie folks. 

Credit: Gareth Kelly

After a hard day cruising at sea, fine dining, and libations, we made it to the ship’s theater to enjoy Boogie Wonderland — one of the nightly Broadway-style shows — before retiring to discover more pillow treats and a fresh turndown in our stateroom. 

Our second morning broke arriving at our first port of call, Ketchikan, considered the entry point to Alaska’s famous inside passage. With little time to linger, we mustered ourselves below and prepared for our first shore excursion — a backcountry Jeep Wrangler and canoe safari! 

With a Jeep Wrangler all to ourselves, we drove follow-the-leader style through the lush Tongass National Forest along rugged off-road trails before arriving at a giant Tlingit-warrior-inspired canoe. Embarking on a gentle paddle across serene Lake Harriet Hunt, we arrived at an outpost where we paused to enjoy Alaskan mochas and a light snack of salmon and chowder. Our guide then led us on a brief woodland nature walk before we returned the way we came. 

Back in downtown Ketchikan and with a few hours to spare before reboarding Millennium, we grabbed lunch at Ketchikan Alaska Fish House, trying their salmon, cod, and halibut sampler washed down with Alaska Agave Gold and Single Engine Red beers from Denali Brewing. 

Walking off our lunch, we explored “Dolly’s House — Where both men and salmon came upstream to spawn” in the old red-light district, now a cornucopia of quaint boutiques, art galleries, and tourist traps all built on stilts above one of the many salmon-filled rivers. A quick stroll along “Married Man’s Trail” and we were back to the ship. 

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Still full of energy, fueled by the endless sun that never seems to set, we headed to the Solarium, an adults-only pool and hot tub area nestled under a giant greenhouse protected from the cool air of the outside, to relax after our day of adventure.

After another fantastic dinner, we checked out the Sky Lounge — the onboard nightclub for those willing to keep the party going, complete with DJ, dancing, and games such as musical chairs for those brave enough. 

Arriving in Alaska’s capital city the next morning, we were invited up onto Millennium’s helipad to gaze at Juneau’s picturesque beauty. This former Gold Rush city founded in 1880 spills across the Gastineau Channel, and while small in population, it is the second-largest city in the United States by area and only accessible by sea or plane. 

With our shore excursion not departing until 4:30 p.m., we had a few hours to explore the city. Adjacent to the cruise ship docks, we happened upon the Mount Roberts Tramway, a six-minute gondola ride whisking visitors to a height of approximately 1800 feet, about half the total height of Mount Roberts. From the top, we ambled along a two-mile nature trail and were rewarded with breathtaking views of the Gastineau Channel, Juneau itself, and majestic snow-topped mountains in the distance. 

Credit: Gareth Kelly

Back at sea level, we were ready for our main event, our shore excursion to a husky Sled Dog Summer Camp! Another short bus ride with another friendly driver landed us in the bottom of a steep valley, where we were surrounded by a stunning Alaskan landscape of high snowy peaks and, to our amazement, more than 100 individually kenneled husky dogs.

After we climbed aboard our custom dogsled, our musher, Elke, gathered her dogs, attaching them one at a time to their harnesses. All the other dogs in the valley excitedly barked, yipped, and howled in the hopes that they too would get to go for a run. 

As we sped off down a dirt track into the forest, our musher calmly shouted commands at her pack of huskies all while telling us about her and the individual dogs’ stories. Elke explained how some huskies emerge as better leaders and go at the front and how some veteran huskies are perfect to pair alongside the younger dogs, and she even shared with us how huskies go potty while racing — they don’t stop! 

Back at the summer camp, Elke gave us a brief history of dogsledding and dogsled racing before the much-anticipated visit to the puppy kennel.

Puppy time was a treat for all ages on the tour as everyone got the chance to hold and cuddle eight-week-old huskies who seemed just as excited for the extra attention. 

Back onboard, we celebrated the day with a trip to the Martini Bar & Crush, where a wide variety of martinis are served atop a frozen bar with bartenders performing a daily show, making and pouring more than 15 martinis all at the same time! One martini quickly turned into three before we realized it was 10 p.m. as Millennium slipped out of Juneau and headed to our final port of call the following day. 

Credit: Gareth Kelly

Entering the tiny port of Skagway — the most northern point of our trip — another shore excursion beckoned. A half-hour ferry ride to Haines and a 45-minute bus ride delivered us to Kroschel Wildlife Refuge. 

At the refuge, we were enthralled by its owner, Steve Kroschel — himself quite the character — as he introduced to us his family of animals. Luna the wolf, Aquilla the porcupine — whom we got to pet and feed — Lennox the lynx, a reindeer, and Banff the Wolverine, among others. But the climax of the visit was undoubtedly Kroschel’s giant grizzly bear, Kitty. Kroschel coaxed Kitty to run out into her enclosure to devour a tasty fruit pie before being summoned back into her cage by the sound of Kroschel banging on an empty metal porridge bowl! 

Arriving back at Millennium tired and weary but with giant smiles on our faces, we looked forward to the next two days cruising at sea, including a visit to the ship’s spa and Persian Garden for some well-earned massages and relaxing as we returned to Seattle.

As we reminisced on our past week’s adventures, we thought about all the things we didn’t do. Boat tours through the misty Alaskan fjords, whale watching, helicopter rides to glaciers, train rides to old Gold Rush towns, lumberjack shows, and salmon bakes, to name but a few — all shore excursions we simply didn’t have the time to check out. Not to forget the many onboard activities: Broadway-style shows, jewelry, and other specialty stores, restaurants, art galleries, casino, photo stations, and destination talks available to all guests. 

Credit: Gareth Kelly

Throughout the entire trip, we had felt safe and secure. We were impressed by the constant cleaning by staff, their genuine and friendly demeanor, and the distinct lack of what might be considered any crowded areas. Signs throughout the ship reminded us to socially distance and to even take the stairs rather than the elevator. 

On our seven-day cruise, there were three positive COVID cases. In each instance, the captain made an announcement to the entire ship, assuring us of the patient’s care and that everyone who had come into contact with the person was identified by the network of onboard cameras, was tested, and placed in isolation as a precaution. Celebrity took all COVID protocols seriously, and in one positive case early on in the cruise, the passenger was flown home on private transportation. We agreed that the vaccine requirements for all guests, numerous checks of proof upon boarding, the masks worn by all staff, and the impressive level of cleanliness throughout the ship all contributed to our overall sense of safety.

So would you go on a cruise right now? We did, and we loved every single minute of it. We didn’t consider ourselves ‘cruisers’ before, but after this amazing experience and thanks to all the efforts by Celebrity and their staff, we can’t wait to cruise again!  

The Alaskan cruise season just closed for this year but to book for next year or to view any of Celebrity’s other destination cruises visit

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