Diamond Princess Cruise Review by danaruns: Diamond Princess, Alaska Inside Passage, May 19-26, 2012
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Diamond Princess, Alaska Inside Passage, May 19-26, 2012
This cruise was out of Vancouver, which is a great city with a beautiful port. Canada Place is wonderful, modern and scenic. There were three cruise ships in port the day our cruise began, and embarkation was a mess. Princess provided transfers from the airport by bus. But the terminal was so crowded with passengers, the buses could not approach. Instead, they stopped the buses in a "holding area" about 1/2 mile from the ship. Our bus was packed full, and on a warm day it had no air conditioning. So the bus was hot sitting there, as we waited permission to approach the terminal. People were overheated and complaining. My partner and I got out of the bus (against the advice of the driver) and walked to the ship. Despite the distance and getting lost on the way, we beat our bus to the terminal.
After getting to the terminal, embarkation was smooth and efficient. The lines were long but moved quickly. Everyone was friendly and doing their best to deal More with 10,000 passengers arriving nearly at once.
Getting on the ship was a breeze, and we were warmly welcomed. Our suite (aft, Caribe 757) was clean and spacious. However, it looked lived-in. Colors were kind of dingy, fabrics a little bit frayed, and the carpet lumpy, but otherwise very nicely appointed and quite clean.
For an Alaska trip, I recommend an aft cabin with balcony (or a suite like ours). It was the perfect location. More on that later.
We left about two hours late because the terminal was so crowded.
This is a big ship that holds 3,000 passengers, but the only time it feels crowded is when you want to get food. The lines at the Horizon Court buffet were always long, and there were rarely any tables available. The anytime dining was crowded with long lines, as well, but we always got a table. The wait for food in the dining rooms was sometimes very long. Otherwise, the public spaces never seemed crowded.
We loved Movies Under the Stars (MUTS), though we read a lot of complaints about it. We only saw one movie in MUTS, but the experience was a blast, despite it being really cold outside. We just bundled up, and they brought us popcorn, food, snacks and drinks. It was a lot of fun. :)
The spa is nice, but the technicians are young and inexperienced.
If there is a jewel on the Diamond, it is the crew. They were almost universally fantastic. Incredible, even. Friendly, enthusiastic, and they work very, very hard. We saw a lot of self-entitled passengers being rude or abusive to the crew, and where I would have killed such a passenger where they stood, the crew was amazingly patient, tolerant and helpful, to even the rudest of passengers. They do, however, have a term they like to use for rude passengers. The term is "FOCUS," and they will say it like, "Sir, you need to FOCUS." FOCUS, it turns out, stands for "F*** Off, Cuz U're Sh**." I heard them joke about it, but never heard them actually say it, even to a really rude passenger.
I have to give a shout-out to Peter John, the Captain's Circle Host. First, he's gorgeous. That must be said up front. :) And when you get past his good looks, he's terminally friendly, with boundless energy and enthusiasm. What a great man, and he goes out of his way for absolutely everyone, and does it with wit, charm and grace. He's the best thing on the Diamond (though I hear his current contract will expire soon).
There is a waiter in the lobby bar named Edwin. He is incredibly friendly, always wears a smile, and will go above and beyond the call of duty to make passengers happy. Fantastic man.
There is also a waiter in Sabatini's named Christian. As suite passengers, we were allowed to have breakfast in Sabatini's. One day, the main dining rooms were serving blueberry pancakes and my partner wanted some. She asked for them in Sabatini's and was told they were not offered there and she could not have them. But Christian actually went to the main dining room and got her some blueberry pancakes and brought them back to Sabatini's for her, even after she accepted that they weren't served there. It was a great surprise, unexpected, and a real treat. I've heard that they will often do this for passengers, which is a testament to the crew's dedication to their jobs. They do things when they don't have to, and they do it with grace, style and flare.
The food sucks. There's no other way to say it. We ate in every venue, and universally it was terrible. Oh, there was a nice dish here and there, but overall the food was cafeteria quality. I understand that they have to cut expenses somewhere to keep fares low, but the food has really gone down the tubes. It's really bad. Sometimes they make a nice presentation, but it's still terrible food. We couldn't wait to get off the ship because of that. At the last performance of the cruise, the cruise director joked, "You're going to have to start cooking your own meals now," and the crowd actually cheered this. That's how bad the food was.
The Sterling Steak House was okay, but iffy. A filet was good, but a porterhouse was tough. A potato was good, but a vegetable bad. It was very hit and miss.
Sabatini's was the best food. We especially liked having breakfast there just for the fresh squeezed orange juice. Elsewhere on the ship, the orange juice was from concentrate, with about three times too much water added. It was so weak, it was little more than orange colored water. And that's kind of how the whole food experience was. Like they were trying to feed 3,000 people with 1,000 people's worth of food, and cutting corners everywhere.
When we got off the ship at the end of the cruise, we ate at the hotel at Canada Place (the Pan Pacific) and the food there was AMAZING compared to the Diamond's food. We swooned over simple scrambled eggs, when comparing the same basic dish to the Diamond's version. We marveled at how hard the Diamond must work to make the food as bad as it is, because no one can do that badly without some effort.
So, am I getting my feelings across about the food? ;-)
PORTS OF CALL
We took no excursions, but instead went out on our own. Now, a caveat about my comments here. There are people who love the cruise experience of being on the boat and then getting off to shop in stores (which we found out are mostly owned or controlled by the cruise ship companies themselves) or to take some bus excursion to a glacier and salmon bake or some such thing. We are not among those folks. We are less "tourists" than "travelers." We like to immerse ourselves in a destination, not merely hit a few stores for some mass produced trinkets and then grab a drink in a tourist bar. So, if you are one of those people, then ignore these comments.
SKAGWAY. What we found was that most of the ports were little more than excuses to get passengers to spend more money with the cruise line. For instance, Skagway is a fake town. It no longer exists except for cruise ship season. Skagway has had three "booms." The first was the gold rush. The second was World War II, when it was a military priority. And currently it is in the midst of a cruise ship boom. When cruise ships come into port, the "town" comes alive, and when they leave, it folds up shop. When the last cruise ships leave in September, so do almost all the town's "residents," many of whom spend the season living in temporary quarters like RVs and little shacks, only to return to their real homes when the ships leave.
The excursions are almost all run for the profit of the cruise ship companies, and they are largely fake excursions. What I mean by that is that they run people by train and bus to other places that exist only for the cruise ships.
Specifically, the White Pass and Yukon Railway to carcross, and then the passengers get on a bus that takes them to exciting places like Caribou Crossing, where they get a "famous" BBQ chicken meal and a chance to see a wildlife exhibit. We rented a Jeep and went to those places. Carcross has not a single person about or a single door unlocked when there are no trains full of cruise ship tourists about. But when the train comes in, it's as if the actors don their costumes and put on a show, collecting as much money from the tourists as possible, and then the town closes up when the tourists leave. At Caribou Crossing, there are no caribou and there is no crossing. The "wildlife" exhibit is a goat and a burro. The "famous" BBQ chicken is frozen chicken parts that are microwaved, then tossed on a grill with some canned BBQ sauce, and served to the tourists with 1/2 a plain baked potato. There's nothing "famous" about it. It's terrible and cheap, and in fact we watched them preparing it for the tourists that arrived by the busload. For this excursion, the tourists paid >$200 apiece.
We, on the other hand, rented a Jeep from Green Jeeps for $180 for the day, which came with a cooler full of snacks and drinks. Expensive, but a far better expense than the terrible phony $200/pp excursion that we got to see the "behind the scenes" of. With that jeep we followed the same path that the railroad took and got to see all the same things, and we were able to go lots of places that the tourists could not. One thing we did was to drive to the historic Chilkoot Trail and hike the same trail that the gold rushers did. That was cool. And free. And real. We also met and talked with many of the "locals," who all confessed to us that most everyone lived somewhere else when cruise ships were not in, and that Skagway had really only one reason for existing: to sell trinkets to cruise ship passengers. That's why I call Skagway a "fake" town. If a town exists only to sell trinkets to cruise ship passengers, and would not exist if the ships didn't stop there, then it's a fake town. Skagway is a fake town.
Now, some excursions are worth the money. If, for instance, you took the excursion to Haines (a real town) to visit the bald eagle preserve, that would be worth the money imho, because you get to see something real and interesting. But most passengers do not do that. They ride the railroad or shop for trinkets, and give even more of their money to the cruise ship company.
JUNEAU is a real town, but you have to get away from the harbor to find it. The cruise lines have bought up most of the property near the harbor, and when passengers think they are buying souvenirs from local businesses, they are really buying more junk from a store owned by the cruise lines. To find a locally owned store, you have to really look for them. Almost invariably, they will post a sign in the window or indicate in some other way that they are locally owned. No sign = owned by the cruise lines in most cases. Juneau is very touristy these days. I spent a lot of time there 30 years ago, and it was a different town then. Amazingly, lots of tourists thought that Sarah Palin still lives there, and they all wanted to know where she lives. Goodness...
There are some good whale watching excursions out of Juneau, but are pretty expensive, as the companies have to pay a percentage to the cruise lines (if they are not owned by the cruise lines, themselves). But rather than take an excursion to Mendenhal Glacier, you can catch a city bus for $1.50 each way. Or if you want to be taken directly to the visitors center, you can pay $16 round trip for buses that come and go ever 30 minutes. Much better than $200 for a bus trip excursion that then tacks on a (really awful) salmon bake (again owned by the cruise lines and not authentic Alaskan), imho.
KETCHIKAN is a real town. It has the mandatory cruise line owned stores near the harbor, but there is a real town there to enjoy behind them. We blew off the excursions again, and opted to rent a car and explore on our own. We ended up hiking in the mountains, taking a 6.5 mile round trip hike to Lake Perseverance. We were all alone. With 10,000 cruise ship passengers in port, we saw only one local couple the whole time we were out there, and not another soul. And we saw the "real" Alaska of Ketchikan. And it was absolutely stunningly beautiful and unspoiled. Then we went back to town and did some touristy things on our own, like visit the totem pole village and do some shopping. It was hard, but we managed to find some true one-of-a-kind Haida and Tlinkit jewelry, but to do it we had to wade through a lot of pricey mass produced junk marketed to the cruise passengers as authentic.
So, if like us you want to see the real ports and not just the facade that the cruise ships use to separate you from your money, you can do it, but it takes some effort. The effort is well worth it, though. We saw some truly stunning scenery and wildlife that the vast majority of cruisers missed out on. What surprised us was that most cruisers weren't interested in finding that. They were happy to be aboard the ship, and then to get off for a couple hours to sit in the Red Dog Saloon or buy a trinket or two before returning to eat at the Horizon Court buffet. That's not what we were after. Most were into the cruise ship experience. We were definitely destination travelers, and being one of those on a massive cruise ship takes a little effort and dedication, but it can be done. And cheaper than doing the typical cruise stuff.
We thought the entertainment was universally terrible. Bad comedian. Bad magician. Bad dancing and singing shows (though the performers were giving it their all for tepid crowds). Bad string trio. Bad pianist. We didn't find one good performer. I am comparing it to Sitmar cruises to Alaska of 30 years ago, which provided top, if aging, entertainers. I recall cruising and mingling with Mel Torme, Harry James, Buddy Rich, Marilyn McCoo and others who had real star power in their day, and who brought their own professional back-up bands and singers. No headline acts these days. They market these shows as "Vegas style," but the design, choreography and execution are not very professional, and they have young but eager "talent" doing their best to make a show of it, and not succeeding very well.
I did not like the entertainment.
Some things were GREAT! The crew topped that list. The ship itself running just behind. And the destinations were amazing if you took the trouble to find them under the commercial cruise company veneer. We liked MUTS, too.
Other things were truly awful. They were the food, the entertainment, and the aforementioned commercial veneer. Less
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