Contributor: Stephanie Bonilla

pic001Florida is a clever little sucker. Let me tell you why. As a self-proclaimed “weekender,” I regularly study maps of Florida in search of my next mini getaway. My eyes tend to gravitate towards the peninsula’s coasts, hoping to lay themselves on our next beach-town adventure. I have never seen Anna Maria Island (AMI) marked on any of the maps I’ve carefully analyzed, which is why I was caught off guard when my boyfriend gifted me with a weekend stay on the island for my birthday. Had my eyes failed me? Was this a premature sign of ageing hitting me in the wake of my 28th birthday? I quickly grabbed my laptop for validation. Although AMI was not listed on any map, I soon learned a lot about this hidden paradise and the state it resides in: they are both really good at keeping secrets.

Another Day In Paradise

Approximately 40 miles south of Tampa, tucked along the Gulf of Mexico, sits this subtropical nirvana. The teeny island houses less than 15,000 residents and 3 tiny communities: Anna Maria (north), Holmes Beach (middle) and Bradenton Beach (south). With only one main road running north to south of this 7-by-2 mile island, AMI is the epitome of a small town. It proves, however, that big things really do come in small packages.

Our journey to paradise began very early. I got out of bed as soon as the alarm went off at 4 a.m. Before allowing my mind to go to a really dark place, I quickly reminded it that in just a few hours, we (my mind and I) would be laid back on a beach adding color to that wonderful tan we work 104 days a year for.

Since we were extremely excited about exploring the island, it wasn’t long before we arrived. We didn’t even stop for coffee, a common occurrence in all of our road trips. Catching sight of the Cortez Bridge, we knew we had arrived. The bridge is the only thing that connects the real world to this magical oasis. An old, historical fishing village is sprinkled just outside the bridge’s entrance, as if it was left there to remind incoming visitors that remnants of old Florida still remain. We drove directly to our hotel as soon as we crossed the bridge, our eyes slowly adjusting to the colorful beach cottages that served as a backdrop.

Our place wasn’t ready when we arrived– apparently even housekeeping live on island time. It didn’t faze us. We were in no rush to take refuge in our hotel room anyway. The property manager and his buddy were taking a break from the island’s heat in the inn’s office. After finding out it was our first time visiting AMI, they excitedly advised us of local eateries, bars and shops to check out. For the remainder of our stay, we used their informal itinerary as a guide for our exploration of the island. I’ll be forever indebted to them for leading us to some of the most perfect places I’ve ever visited. I hope this article does the same for you. Here’s what you should do:

Ditch Your Cottage, Explore The Landscape

A mix of colorful cottages and shady palm trees dominate the island’s landscape. The most challenging part of your day will be deciding on your transportation. You can hop on the island’s FREE trolley, rent a bike or scooter from one of the local rental shops, or use your very own two feet. Whatever your choice is, you will find plenty to look at.  One thing you won’t see on the island is high-rises. This modest beach community has been successful at maintaining its true old Florida beach feel by keeping developers and chainy hotels OFF of the island. It’s as if time was paused here 30 years ago and never started up again.

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But don’t let my description confuse you. Not everything on the island is kitschy and old. Although they are no higher than 3 stories tall, jaw dropping cottages have been built around the island, serving as both residences and lodging for visitors. Though beautiful, these new and improved bungalows still fit the “quiet money” mold exhibited throughout the island. AMI got the memo. Upscale just doesn’t jibe with beachy.

Overload On Island Grub

Like most islands, seafood is the prominent food of choice on AMI. You will not find any golden arches here. Local eateries take pride in serving domestic meals to seafood lovers, delivering shrimp, fish and oysters fished directly out of Florida’s waters.

But AMI doesn’t only do seafood right. A popular gem known by every local can be found just off the main road on the north end of the island. The Donut Experiment, a tiny boutique donut shop, allows mad scientists of all ages to create their own cake-based dunker. From key lime glazes to maple bacon or Sriracha toppings to choose from, the world really is your oyster at this island shop.

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Favorite Breakfast Spot: The Donut Experiment

Favorite Breakfast Spot: The Donut Experiment

Best Oysters: Anna Maria Oyster Bar

Best Oysters: Anna Maria Oyster Bar

Favorite Lunch Spot: The Waterfront Restaurant

Favorite Lunch Spot: The Waterfront Restaurant

Drink Like A Local

Bars can be found all over the island, ranging from rustic beachside tiki bars, to laid back establishments nestled in-between eclectic art shops displaying tropical motifs. Best way to describe AMI’s nightlife:  A Key West feel sans the rowdy crowds. When deciding what to wear, think: “What Would Jack Johnson Do.” In a land where flip-flops and shorts are standard and overloading on piña coladas is expected, packing should never be a cause of panic. Always choose comfort.   

The main thing to look for when bar hopping is live music. Be prepared to nurse your beer as you sway to a live rendition of Brown-Eyed Girl or a funky version of Rapper’s Delight. Unlike Key West, the local musicians don’t just croon Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville for a buck–they truly get to know their audience. We went from nervously calling out requests, to taking shot after shot with our entertainers and fellow escapees. Definitely check out AMI’s popular Bridgewalk area. Some of our favorite bars were located there:  Bridge Tender Inn and Waterfront Bar.

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Experience A Golden Hour – West Coast-Style

Florida’s west coast is infamous for its spectacular sunsets. As long as you’re on the west side of the island, you can pretty much catch nature painting the sky “magic” from anywhere on the island. Establishments like Sandbar crowd up just as the sun is about to set, prizing lucky guessers with a complimentary drink should they predict the correct sunset time. If there were ever a photo opp on the island, it would be during sunset. After all, sunset lighting is the best lighting, right? I’ll let the pictures work their magic.

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Soak Up The Rays

The “wake up slow” mentality is alive and well on Anna Maria. You won’t find many beach goers catching rays earlier than 10 a.m. There is plenty of space on the sugary white sand, so don’t worry too much about reserving a spot. The translucent turquoise water is just the right temperature to refresh those in need of a cool down. Swooping pelicans plunge into the pristine water in hopes of catching their next meal, while bottlenose dolphins grace observant beach bums with impromptu cameos. Make sure to pack lots of sunscreen and yummy drinks to get you by, but be sure you leave all alcohol behind in your cottage. Alcoholic beverages are not permitted on AMI’s beaches, unless you’re sipping it while sitting at one of those cute oceanfront tiki bars.

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Anna Maria Island turned out to be a very special place. If you’re looking for a slower, simpler Key West, this is the place for you. Something else I learned from this vacation: I apparently can’t keep a secret.

Today, we are excited to present the first story from our new contributor, Stephanie Bonilla! Her enthusiasm and passions for travel are apparent in her writing and now our fellow cruisers and travelers will benefit, while getting to know her. You can also learn a bit more about Stephanie via our Contributors page!


 

Stephanie Bonilla

Contributor: Stephanie Bonilla

How many times do cruise takers hop on an aircraft, take a taxi (or Uber), making it just in time to board their ocean greyhound and embark on their next adventure? Countless. How many of those passengers consider exploring the backyard of the ports they originally depart from? Not many.

Port Canaveral, also known as the “turnaround” port, is home to Florida’s second busiest cruise port. With popular cruise lines such as Carnival, Disney, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian using it to dock their vessels, thousands of passengers pour over gangplanks daily. Although the port’s locality doesn’t have much to offer, there are plenty of hidden gems waiting to be explored near-by. Take heed of the following piece of travel wisdom: Disney World will be the top contender when asking the Internet for advice– but there is much more to see in Central Florida than the mouse! Rather than fall victim to the common tourist traps, I challenge you to overcome your Disney itch and travel a little farther north to a place many locals have labeled as Mother Nature’s playground.

Blue Spring State Park

Just under an hour and a half drive from the port and only thirty minutes farther than the greater Orlando-area, wedged between your typical Central Florida neighborhood and more live oak trees than you can count, lies a hidden oasis. Since you can easily obtain all the park’s facts from a simple Internet search, I will refrain from spewing them out at you. All you really need to know is Blue Spring State Park covers over 2,600 acres and serves as a Manatee Refuge to a growing population of buoyant sea cows. The park’s biggest attraction, respectively called Blue Springs, is one of Central Florida’s hidden treasures. For the low fare of $6 per vehicle, visitors can cannon ball into one of nature’s swimming pools, hike miles of unspoiled wilderness, enjoy a barbeque in one of the park’s numerous pavilions, or bait up and cast their fishing line near the river’s shore. No matter what you’re into, this park’s got you covered. Now more on my adventure…

Stephanie Bonilla at Blue Spring State Park

Stephanie Bonilla at Blue Spring State Park

Blue Spring State Park entrance

Blue Spring State Park entrance

 

 

 

 

 

 

Springin’ It
3-4 hours

After being greeted by friendly park staff, we quickly stumbled upon a tunnel of trees that lead us to the parking lot. Excited families with multicolored floats in arm caught my eyes as they disappeared behind oak trees, eagerly making their way towards the spring. I quickly got in my two-piece, kicked off my flip-flops and happily lugged my 4-foot hot pink donut float down a windy boardwalk. Arriving at the shore of the awe-inspiring turquoise waters, I could feel the explorer vibes flowing through my body. They were quickly stunned as my skin touched the 73-degree crystalline water. Man, was it cold! It took my body a couple of minutes to adjust to the chilly temperature. Although I’m a Miamian who prefers its lukewarm oceans, the excitement of exploring this swimming hole for the adventurous numbed any feeling of discomfort. You have the option of swimming, tubing, snorkeling or scuba diving down the spring. For those feeling a little more energetic, a thin rope serves as a divider for visitors who prefer to kayak or canoe. Forgot your raft? Equipment rentals for almost all of the water activities mentioned can be rented at the ground’s concession for a small fee—minus the scuba gear. We opted to bring our own floats and goggles in an effort to save a couple of bucks.

As we made our way down the spring, bathers congregated around the spring’s boil, watching jumpers leap off of trees and sandy banks into the clear blue water. This particular area is a magnet for scuba divers, housing an underwater cave and an abundance of marine life. Divers and snorkelers alike delve into the depth of this blue hole, attempting to unlock the cave’s mysteries. After spending a couple of hours soaking up the sun and investigating the spring, we decided to tap out and grab a quick snack.

The springs at Blue Spring Park

The springs at Blue Spring Park

Tubers and rafters at Blue Spring Park

Tubers and rafters at Blue Spring Park

 

 

 

 

 

Picnicking
1 hour

The park’s grounds have a variety of places visitors can use to kick back and dry off. Pavilions, BBQ pits, and grassy areas can be found just outside the spring’s boardwalk, with families migrating here to get their grub on. For the most part, these areas are available on a first-come, first-serve basis, so keep that in mind when making lunch plans. Though the park offers both food and drinks for purchase, we opted to bring our own ham and cheese sandwiches and hung out on the grass. Beer drinkers beware: alcoholic beverages are not allowed on park grounds. As the first one to crave a refreshing IPA to quench my thirst, I must admit I was a little bummed.

The Boardwalk at Blue Spring Park

The Boardwalk at Blue Spring Park

The Picnic area at Blue Spring Park

The Picnic area at Blue Spring Park

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Hiking

2-3 hours

As soon as lunch was over, we decided to walk some calories off on one of the park’s nature trails. We began our voyage at Pine Island Trail, a lesser-known, less-used terrain. Immediately upon entering the trailhead, hikers are welcomed by a sign warning them that this is a one-way path. 4.5 miles each way, the trail offers dense forests, shady resting areas, casual scrub-jay sightings, and plenty of photo opps. Nature’s magic is truly felt as you make your way through massive live oaks, leaving the sounds of humans behind. During our hike, we were lucky enough to spot scrub-jays, cardinals, deer, turtles, and a variety of insects. Love bugs are prevalent in this area, so don’t be surprised if a couple of intertwined honeymoon flies land on you. Overall, the long walk was well worth it. Since nearly a mile of the trail is fully exposed to the sun in each direction, I highly recommend that anyone taking this journey apply lots of sunscreen. Also, make sure to bring some H2O with you as well a bug spray. You’ll thank me later.

Entering the Pine Island Hiking Trail

Entering the Pine Island Hiking Trail

Hiking Pine Island at Blue Spring State Park

Hiking Pine Island at Blue Spring State Park

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Little Lagniappe
1-2 hours

If you’re all park’d out and still have time to spare, I highly suggest taking a drive 7 miles west to the near-by city, Deland. Located smack in the middle of Deland’s downtown strip is Santorini Greek Cuisine, a yelper’s dream come true. This little hole-in-the-wall offers great service, an array of Greek food options, and a relaxing vibe. For some of the best Greek food that will ever grace your palette, order the restaurant’s Athenian Chicken with a side of their lemon roasted potatoes. It’s enough for two and probably the best $13 you’ll ever spend.

Sweet tooth nudging you? Walk on over to Pat & Toni’s Chocolate and Sweet Things for your choice of creamy ice cream and chocolate-covered-anything. If chocolate covered bacon doesn’t entice you, try one of their dark mint truffles or imported licorice. It won’t disappoint.

Santorini Greek Cuisine, in Deland, Florida!

Santorini Greek Cuisine, in Deland, Florida!

Santorini Greek Cuisine's Athenian Chicken

The Athenian Chicken!

Pat & Toni's Chocolate and Sweet Things in Deland!

Pat & Toni’s Chocolate and Sweet Things in Deland!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Those with time to kill after getting off a ship at Port Canaveral should not think twice about making it out to this magnificent, pristine land. In less than 10 hours, visitors can enjoy a day full of activities, unforgettable adventures, and great food. Although at first glance this area doesn’t seem like it has much to offer, it proves that venturing away from your typical tourist stomping grounds can pay off. Remember, true adventure seekers don’t have to stand in 3-hour lines wearing Mickey ears!

Shops of St. Thomas, USVI.

Shops of St. Thomas, USVI.

The debate goes on with regards to cruise passengers’ feelings about the ever-increasing amounts of “specialty charges” on board most major cruise ships.  One thing is for sure…numbers don’t lie!  A recent study (conducted by the Business Research & Economic Advisors (B.R.E.A.) for the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association) shows decreases in Average Percentage of Passengers Making Purchases at 21 (survey) participating ports of call in the Caribbean.  In my opinion, it is pretty clear that as passengers partake of an increased number of on-board activities (costing money), it is less likely that they will spend more on land.  Here are the stats as compiled by the B.R.E.A. (2008/09 Cruise Year, 2011/12 Cruise Year):

  • Watches & Jewelry: 18.1%, 17.0%
  • Taxis/Ground Transportation: 23.3%, 18.5%
  • Clothing: 40.0%, 40.1%
  • Local Crafts & Souvenirs: 48.5%, 46.7%
  • F&B at Restaurants & Bars: 41.5%, 45.8%
  • Shore Excursions: 56.6%, 56.1%
  • Other Purchases: 22.2%, 20.0%

The net result was a slight decline of 0.8 percent in the average weighted expenditure of cruise passengers during the 2011/2012 year to $97.12 per passenger visit, from $97.93 per passenger visit in the 2008/2009 cruise year.  Interesting of note is that while the average amount of passengers who made purchases decreased, the dollar amount per purchase, per passenger, increased!  Seems those who are shopping are spending greater amounts while in port!

Happy Cruising and Happy Fathers Day everybody!

The beautiful weather continued, and the wind died down, so it seemed a bit warmer although it was only about 75 degrees. But, it was a welcomed change for someone who currently calls South Florida his home.

We decided to be served breakfast today, so it was off to O’Sheehan’s…and yes, they DO serve breakfast…and we were glad! It seemed to be one of the best kept secrets on the ship. All of the servers were smiling, friendly and attentive, and it was a nice experience to start the day.

Today we rode the ferry, also just steps from the ship, into Hamilton. The cost was the same as a round trip bus ride, but takes a fraction of the time; about 25 minutes compared to a 50-60 minute bus ride. NOTE: Ask the dockside workers about the ferry schedule! The printed schedules that were handed to us only noted one-hour intervals. It turned out that there were ferries every half-hour, and the schedule only showed that for weekends.

Hamilton was very beautiful, but typical of most of the cruise ship island destinations in the Caribbean. Typical meaning the same types of shops, pubs and restaurants that cater to the mainstream masses. Venture down some of the side streets and then you will find where the locals go. And THIS IS WHERE YOU WILL NOTICE THE DIFFERENCES!! In Hamilton, you will feel much safer; it just seems this way. You also do not have several people coming up to you asking for money, or if you want your hair braided! The city is well maintained, and we joked that it should be called “The Island of Boca Raton (Florida).” Definitely more upscale in appearance, offerings, and yes, in price!

We had lunch at a local restaurant called “The Lobster Pot.” Everyone in our party enjoyed the atmosphere and the food. We each had an alcoholic beverage with our lunches and the bill was a reasonable $101, and it included the gratuity. The lobster bisque was excellent, though none of us had lobster for lunch.

From there, after a little shopping, we caught a cab ($22 divided by 4 people) to the Crystal Caves. Entrance into the caves cost us $22 per person, and included a guided tour. The caves were beautiful and the stories behind how they were discovered are very interesting. The tour was brief, maybe 30 minutes, and there is a lot of climbing involved. It is about 87 steps back up, and then a subsantial incline to reach the exit (also the starting point). Don’t drop your cameras or iPhones into the waters, because that is where they will stay. The guide called it “the other gift shop!”

We returned to the ship, but not before stopping at the Rum Cake and Glass Factories at the dockyard shops. You can sample the rum cakes and watch the artists create glass art!

We had dinner at the Noodle Bar, on board, and it was very reasonably priced. I had the fried rice with beef and pork, and a vegetable spring roll. My wife had the Peking noodles, and she enjoyed it enough to order another!

Later in the evening we enjoyed the GLOW PARTY, formerly known as THE WHITE HOT PARTY. I don’t think we were the only passengers that did not know about the change, because three-fourths of all in attendance were in their white-hot get-ups! If it is on NCL’s website, either we missed it, or it needs to be more obvious. Regardless, it was fun, and is the reason why Day 5’s blog update is coming to you this morning!!

Time fell short on us yesterday, so today we are going to, hopefully, get onto the rope course, and walk the plank. Make it a great day everybody!

shp_br_lov-state_sch_379You can enhance your Cruise Experience and save money by choosing your stateroom wisely.  Here are some things to consider:

  1. Do you truly need a larger stateroom, spending the extra bucks for a mini-suite or larger?  Think about how often you spend time in your stateroom, and how you spend that time?
  2. Along the same lines, how often do you use the balcony? Is it necessary to spend the extra money on the balcony when considering the amount of time you spend out there?
  3. If size is important, a travel agent can help.  He/she should know the average stateroom sizes for each cruise line, and ship.
  4. If Hurricane Season doesn’t faze you much, you can find better deals on Caribbean Cruises in late August to mid-October, which is the peak of the Caribbean Hurricane Season.  This might be your opportunity to get that mini-suite at balcony stateroom prices.
  5. Booking a Guarantee (a category level without knowing your stateroom number until the cruise gets closer) will save you money.  It is also quite possible that you get bumped up to a higher category level.
  6. If you are a frequent cruiser on a particular line (and sister lines of a parent company), perks tend to include upgrades to higher stateroom categories.  Be sure to look into this!

Don’t get me wrong…a suite is sweet!  However, I certainly do not cruise to spend much time in my stateroom.  And, when I am in the stateroom, its size isn’t an issue, since I’m either on the bed, in the lav and/or paying attention to my beautiful wife!  The money saved on the proper stateroom can be used for other amenities on board, as well as for shore excursions and shopping.  And, maybe…just maybe…a drink or two (or three)!!

IMG_1392No official word on NCL’s website, but after my iPhone 5’s last update, instructions on using the app onboard Breakaway appeared at the bottom of the “My Cruises” screen.  See the Screen Shot to the left, towards the bottom!

The iConcierge app, now on Epic, allows cruisers to see their folios, make reservations, communicate with others on board who have the app, check schedules of events and activities and more!  It will work for FREE using the ship’s wifi.  Since I use an iPhone, I canot confirm the same for Android based smartphones.

  • IMG_4719None of us will ever be around long enough to find out if the archival DVDs really last 100 years.  So, back up movies in multiple places, and in multiple formats!
  • Get a waterproof/water resistant/anti-shake camera (like a Hero).
  • Print your photographs that mean something to you.  Yes, I said print!!  A paper photo won’t “digitally disappear” due to a hard drive crash or network infiltration!  I’ve heard it too many times…people losing their collections of photos because of a hard drive failure, or even accidental deleting.
  • Bring extra media (SD cards) and batteries on your trip.
  • A device that works well in low-light situations (especially for capturing effective, in-ship video/photos)
  • A good time to get shots of the interior of the ship is before the masses have returned from a day ashore.
  • Remember your smartphones!  You can disable cell service and still use it as a still or video camera.
  • If you plan to purchase photos from the ship, find out ahead of time if there are special packages.  If you wait until check out, you may be unpleasantly surprised, causing a negative memory of your trip.
  • Research the ship and the destinations ahead of time; plan for your shots so you don’t miss anything!
  • Find out about policies in ships’ venues when an event is taking place.  If they say “no flash photography”, it doesn’t always mean that you cannot take a photo.  They may just not want the flash to be a distraction, especially with regards to safety of the performer(s).
Contributor, Tore Berger

Contributor, Tore Berger

I am often asked about what goes into the menu choices for a cruise, and what are some of the factors for a ship (or company) in deciding the ship’s menus. The answer is of course divided, but here are some experiences from a hospitality management side:

  • Season on the sites
  • Season of year
  • Logistical challenges on the sites
  • Storage challenges on board
  • Prices
  • And of course the most important factor, Guests’ demands and requests, based on historical data.

While these are some of the factors, the companies (cruise lines) also have their own reasons and systems on the menu making.

Food cost on a cruise ship is essential for the business itself. Big buffets, for instance, may very well support the fine dining (or Gourmet) when it comes to cost. Then these can upgrade their menus, use more expensive basics, and take a cover charge (like the specialty restaurants on ships) for balancing it all.

A la carte, where you choose from a set menu, is always the tricky one. Concept, seasons, prices of season, and guest segment is then the set factor. The buffet can have everything, and it will often use all the kitchen and store room “left-overs.”  The buffets will often vary from day to day.

The menu in the a la carte is essential. Having something for everybody is impossible! And, having something for most of us is difficult, so the menu must be taken seriously. Some of the cruise companies today make new menus everyday. That gives a surprise factor, it reaches more guests, and it is something the guests talk about. Most cruise companies also have a season-based menu, to be changed four times a year, and with ingredients to mirror the season itself. Meat lovers, fish eaters, chicken fans, religions, allergies, vegetarians, vegans, children, nation segments… all of these and more are to be considered. Then it’s the job of the Chef, the suppliers, the restaurant manager, and the logistic manager on board to set it.

Going on a cruise? Not happy with the menu on Your last cruise? Special needs? Special demands? Contact Your cruise company. Also remember to fill in Your wishes and menu tips on Your final evaluation cards on Your next cruise. It is the guests who are the strongest and best consultant!

“A good waiter can save a bad meal, but a good meal can’t save a bad waiter…”

Ship greetings from: Tore Berger. Maitre`d.

alaska04You’ve heard the suggestions for cruising Alaska before; dress in layers, mosquito repellant, rain gear, smaller crowds in May and September…all of those and others you’ve read about are great suggestions. But there is one suggestion that is almost never mentioned….at least I’ve never seen it…

GO WHILE YOU STILL CAN, BEFORE IT’S DIFFICULT FOR YOU TO MOVE AROUND!

Snow hiking, walking on ice and glaciers, helicopter rides, standing in between train cars (outside!) while it’s climbing snow-filled mountains, dog sledding and much more.

DO NOT WAIT UNTIL YOUR GOLDEN YEARS to experience Alaska.  To maximize your Alaskan Cruise Experience it is best to do it now if you can.  I have a multitude of experience with the senior citizen demographic, and I hear it all the time from Alaskan Cruise first-timers…”We should have done it when we were younger.”

We did and are glad we did.  It’s hard enough to maintain your energy levels at any age, especially after traveling to get to the ship in the first place!  In addition, weather such as what is in the Pacific Northwest (U.S.) and Alaska can make you feel tired too, especially if you reside in a warm weather climate year-round.

Oh, and one other suggestion…check out this link.  We did, and these are not available on ships, nor are they advertised there.  If you take a tour in each Alaskan port city during a seven-day trip, and you travel as a couple, you can save boatloads of money.  We saved a shade over $600 versus doing the advertised excursions!

Happy Cruising!