May 2012 Alaska Cruise on Golden Princess
This was our fourth cruise, the first on Princess. After doing our research on cruising to Alaska we chose Princess and were very pleased with the choice. Things we liked about the ship:
1. No smoking policy aboard ship (only a very few designated areas were available for smoking).
2. Fellow cruisers tended to be more senior, less party-oriented, and were interested in learning about Alaska.
3. Tips for all service staff was automatically added to the bill. This removed from us having to quickly analyze and decide how much to tip staff right before the end of the cruise. Also, it seemed to us to be more fair. On previous cruises we learned that some passengers did not tip the staff at all, which to us was unethical after all their hard work. The staff on Princess did their jobs very well, and seemed relaxed in a positive way in their work. We had no complaints at all about our staff who were assigned to us.
4. The ship always left and arrived on time More
at every port. Our bus driver in Victoria said that Holland America was usually late (up to an hour) which cheated them out of their port time in Butchart Gardens.
5. We were on Baja deck, and the balconies were covered, which helps since it WILL rain on your cruise at some point! Some of the balconies on other decks are not covered.
6. We are not haute cuisine types, so your mileage may vary on our comments. We felt the food was just fine -- sometimes great, sometimes just okay. Our waiters -- Marlo and Janssen, were super.
7. We travelled with elderly parents, one requiring a wheelchair. We reserved the wheelchair through Special Needs on the website, and everything flawlessly. They delivered the chair to the cabin, and picked it up in the cabin after the cruise. In Seattle, boarding and disembarking, the Princess staff wheeled our mother on and off the ship. At every port, they wheeled her on and off the ship. They couldn't have been more helpful.
8. If you can afford a balcony, do it. Bring binoculars so you can scan the ocean for whales, seals, bald eagles, etc. It was so nice just to sit outside our cabin and view the wildlife, shoreline, glaciers, etc. Bring one pair of binoculars for each person. We did. Sharing would have been a problem. Less
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Port and Shore Excursions
We opted to hop a local bus and go only to Mendenhall Glacier. It is $16 round trip per person. Go as early as possible. We beat the crowds and it was nice to have some serenity as we viewed the glacier, and hiked its environs. Definitely walk both trails at the glacier! The longer trail (right off the parking lot) has short side trails that split off of it. Definitely take those! They lead to meadows that go right up to the lake and provide alternate views of the glacier. Less people take those side trails and they are beautiful. This was one of, if not, our favorite places. If you like hiking (walking) and solitude in nature, this is fantastic -- but get there early, first thing, and beat the crowds that come in the late morning and afternoon.
Our parents and siblings opted to go on a whale watching excursion. It cost them $199 per person. They saw whales -- but be warned that with humpback whales you only see their small portion of their backs above the water and their tail when they submerge. They stay submerged for a long time. They felt the excursion was not worth the price as we saw whales from the cruise ship. They did say that the people running the excursion were super nice, friendly, and helpful.
If you like anthropology and culture, this is a great excursion. The Tlingit guides were very gracious, highly informative, comfortable with their culture and traditions, and eager to share them with us and answer any questions. The tour guide that drove the bus, Alex, a college student who works there in the summer was very entertaining, but also had spent a lot of time learning about the Tlingits and you could tell he was self-motivated to share their culture with us. Ketchikan itself is a pleasant town to meander around, with a lot of history.
White Pass Scenic Railway
The boarding process seemed unorganized but don't worry, everyone gets on in the end and finds a seat. We rode the train up and back, but if we were to do it again we would ride the train up, and then take the bus back. It will allow you to get back to Skagway quicker. If you decide to take the bus back make sure you get a seat on the left side of the train going up. That side is where all the spectacular views are. If you take the train up and back, it doesn't matter what side you sit on because you switch seats and the other side gets the great views on the way back. We REALLY enjoyed the train! Even if it is cold spend some time on the outside platform on the train to see the views unblocked by windows.
In Skagway, go to the information center, and go on the free, short ranger-directed walking tour. It lasts about 45 minutes and our ranger was a hoot. She was really historically astute and funny. Also, there is a FABULOUS quilt store in Skagway. If you are a quilter, you won't want to miss it. The Christmas store was great as well. The whole ambiance of Skagway exudes the 1890s. We thought it was a fun place and interesting historically. We wished we had more time to spend there.
You arrive in Victoria at 6:30 pm or so and have to be at the bus at 7:20 pm. We booked an excursion just to Butchart Gardens (not the combo with the Butterfly House). This allowed us to spend more time in the gardens. We had good weather (no rain) so we were lucky. It takes 45 minutes to get to the gardens so you depending on time, you have 2 hours in the gardens. You could easily spend an entire day in the gardens. They are exquisite. The rose garden was not in bloom in May, but many other flowers were in bloom that would not be in bloom later in the summer. Many things will always be in bloom at the gardens whenever you visit. In May, it is light when you arrive and then gets dark later in your visit. So move at balanced pace, but don't rush. If you like gift shops, it is a beautiful gift shop -- so leave yourself time as the lines can get long to pay for your purchases. Our guide on the bus was very informative all along the ride about Victoria, its history, its culture and lifestyle, etc. He answered any and all questions that were asked of him on the bus. This stop is a short one on the cruise -- it would have been nice to spend all day there.