Let me start saying Alaska is a wonderful place, truly a must-see for anyone. The scenery is unparalleled, and the entire experience not to be missed in a lifetime. This is also a combo-review. I am reviewing the land tour as well as it was integral to our overall experience.
DW and I are seasoned travelers, both in our late-50s. Little bumps in the road are generally part of the fun. We were traveling with a group of nine, who were all family members ranging from mid-twenties to eighty. All have been around, and have cruised happily before. In full disclosure, for most, including myself, this was our first with Princess, and first booked through a major cruise agency.
We arranged our travel to Alaska through Princess, staying one night in Seattle prior to flying into Anchorage. We arrived there at 9:30 a.m. Princess agents at the airport check-in desk told us we’d be leaving on our bus soon, and to be back by 11:30. They distributed our boarding passes and then we sat until 2:30. Why? Turns out waiting for more passengers to arrive on later flights. Okay…here’s how it works…I’m the customer on a time-limited visit with unlimited curiosity and anticipation. Princess, you’re hired to help me use my time efficiently for the purposes of vacationing and sightseeing. Instead of having customers waiting hours (for more passengers), with Princess certainly knowing exactly the passenger transfer demand…ADJUST! A smaller “turtle bus” would have been welcome…or some straight-up information on a departure time so we might grab a cab and see the town a bit instead of cooling heels in the luggage pick-up hall.
And, while I’m at it, I'll toss in how someone between our major cruise agent and Princess failed to book certain of our party on any flight…and took days to fix the faux pas once we untangled the documentation sent us between the line and agent. It also helps with security to get the names right. I don’t care who shot John. They both do this for a living…I don’t...and blaming the other guy doesn’t fix this significant problem.
After a comfortable coach ride up to the McKinley Princess Lodge, we were treated to a rare, beautiful and ever-changing view of “The Mountain.” It is indeed the “Land of the Midnight Sun,” and I have pictures to prove it. For those who have never experienced it before, it can play heck with your biological clock, especially after traveling across four time zones. Beware the time!
The next day we were bussed early to Talkeetna and boarded the train there to Denali National Park and the Princess Denali Lodge. The train was a fine scenic ride in the dome. Service on board was great, and the running commentary welcome and witty. There are open platforms on each car for window-free photography.
At Denali we took the Tundra Wilderness Tour through ARAMark, the National Park concessionaire. First bus out at 0500. Typical overcast day. We were treated to many roadside wildlife viewings, including moose, caribou and Dall’s sheep, stopping for close-up pictures through open windows, and to drink in the stunning views…except for the two most came to see – The Mountain, and a grizzly bear. Clouds obscured The Mountain, and the bear eluded our driver despite several reports passed from other buses. Nonetheless, if going to Denali, take this tour. Beware: The roads are sometimes very narrow on high, rail-less cliffsides.
Another Denali gem is to meet Alaskan sled dogs…your choice…visit the kennels of a six-time Iditerod champion, or those of the National Park Service. Our party split. The real dog fanciers went to the commercial offering, the others to the free Park show. Both were very happy with their choices. Book the commercial show at their office across from the Denali Lodge and save significant money.
The Princess Lodges both were fine facilities that had just opened for the season. Some of the help was new and unseasoned, but all tried hard to make things work. At McKinley you’re locked into the lodge restaurants. “Club 20320” offered several excellent and reasonably priced meals in a casual surrounding. OTOH, Denali offers several food alternatives across the road, from roach coach Thai-Chinese to the large “Salmon Bake”establishment. BTW: The Chinese-Thai was excellent!
And here was also the first “iceberg.” One of our party is gluten-allergic. This isn’t skinny Brittany going with the next fad diet, but an adult who reacts to any ingested gluten with severe gastric distress. Princess advertises gluten-free dining. The telephone agents pitch that they take special care of those with dietary allergies. At McKinley Lodge our fellow traveler enjoyed a wonderful meal. At Denali Lodge there must be different standards, or a misunderstanding of gluten free. Despite ordering off the “gluten-free” menu, she suffered an attack…and later was told by kitchen staff that their gluten-free menu really wasn’t TOTALLY gluten free. It was also clear the staff had no understanding of the meaning – some confusing it with lactose intolerance. That’s bad enough, but when she told them it induced…you know what, the Princess rep told her that symptom may keep her off the ship – and that the agent was obligated report it! That nonsense was fixed by the intervention of a restaurant staff manger, who phoned someone to explain that his food was the cause of her distress, not some contagious virus. However, the induced distress needlessly stole a day from her trip, as one cannot enjoy an excursion with a rumbling stomach and an eye necessarily scanning for a nearby rest room. It also induced great mistrust of Princess’ claims for any gluten-free food items.
The coach ride down to Whittier to meet the Sapphire was picturesque and we arrived there earlier than scheduled. Boarding was the easiest I’ve ever experienced. The port staff, especially the security folks, were all on their game, processed us quickly with a smile, and had us standing on-board within minutes. Luggage came to our cabin almost immediately, and our room steward, Mary, introduced herself with a smile that never left her the entire week. She was certainly among our best stewards ever, if not #1. Rooms were nicely designed, the bed easy to navigate around with a good foot-wide margin at its edge. OTOH, the mattresses were described by one as something from a pop-up camper. This was a common comment offered by other passengers. Each of our party suffered various cricks and aches in the mornings. Yes, of course, there are egg crates…but really, everyone? Better to correct the underlying problem. One svelte suite passenger with whom we shared breakfast complained her rump was red in the morning from the lack of padding.
Princess provided a “nice cruise.”
The food was good. The entertainment was good. The staff was unfailingly nice, sometimes the life of the party…especially when people flocked to windows when anyone “spotted” a whale! At each of the fjord cruises up to the Hubbard or Glacier Bay, we witnessed wondrous things, watching glaciers calve, eagles soar, otters swim, seals clown, and the occasional whale blow. The shipboard naturalist was very good, and the National Park Service Rangers were excellent explaining what we saw. The Sapphire offers some excellent viewing spots, both indoors and on deck. A great platform for this adventure. Organized ship activities were afterthoughts (at best) in all the excitement of visiting these sights.
The ports were what they were. Skagway is a National Park amid commercial development mining the tourists the way merchants mined sourdoughs 125 years ago. The town is two blocks by seven blocks of the usual jewelry, diamonds and duty-free vendors, as well as local merchants pushing knives, fudge and Russian kitsch. Take the NPS walking tour…take pictures…buy your stuff…you’ve done it all. Excursions are available. (I did not hear a single rave from anyone about any of them at any port – whether arranged by the excursion desk or privately. They were invariably “okay.”)
Juneau and Ketchikan were more of the same, without the Klondike gold rush angle. Bigger towns, they offered more eating and drinking establishments…both also offer worthwhile self-guided walking tours. And these places are pretty gritty beyond the tourist streets, as are the year ‘round inhabitants. BTW: Most of the folks in the stores are not locals, and leave well before the winter comes as the tourist season ends.
Back to the ship… our Southbound cruise was a jumble. Please, someone take a good look at the cruise schedule and adjust things accordingly. Let’s start with traditional dinner at 5:30. Let’s perhaps delay that, or open all venues as “any time.” At least consider not holding formal night the day one is face to face with the intriguing Hubbard Glacier, a trip highlight. Really, the cruise is programmed to showcase the Alaskan natural beauty that is all-enveloping. Okay, my mistake…here’s my tip: Go with non-traditional dining on this cruise, period. And this cruise would do well to scrap the formal nights altogether. Few tuxes, mainly coat and tie, and poorly attended overall in the main dining room. Half the tables were empty at the early seating both nights.
The food was okay, best described as bland. Nothing stood out particularly for anyone. It was nice. The service was good. I felt rushed nightly…one cup of coffee and the wait staff disappeared to prepare for the next seating. By 7:00 the room was nearly empty, except for the scurrying staff preparing for the 7:30 crowd. Here’s your food, here’s your hat…
After two nights struggling with “gluten free,” our dining room headwaiter finally figured out that it was best to simply allow our fellow cruiser to pick and choose items from the menu – served with no additional sauces, seasonings or embellishments. Once that practice was established, it worked perfectly. Before then, food was ordered and returned to the kitchen as the staff there apparently could not allow a dish to go out without a slathering of whatever that invariably contained gluten as a thickener. If you are gluten intolerant or suffer Celiac disease, be on your guard and get the headwaiter squared away from the first day.
Other meals were taken in the Lido buffet. The food was good. The service was good. I really liked the meal experience there. Fresh Belgian waffles were available…a plus! One downer, the plates of rubbery fried eggs under heat lamps at breakfast. Big shout out to the pizza and grille for their great fast food. The ice cream corner was another big hit…but let’s forget the “cone only” serving rule when someone tells you they are allergic. Must one really beg a plastic tumbler from elsewhere to dump the contents?
The nightly entertainment…the hired performers were all good acts. From a comic ventriloquist, an illusionist, to stand-up comic, they were all very amusing. The singers and dancers…they were okay. Their shows were fine. Movies under the stars, despite the “evening” cold and damp, were well-attended. The screen was sharp, even during the odd bright sun moments.
Arriving in Vancouver the disorganized bus drill started up again. It took two hours, once we were called to disembark, to actually board a bus and turn a wheel. We cleared customs in minutes before we waited on our feet, getting lame explanations from time to time from the cute, perky young lady (apparently port staff, not Princess) who had no real explanation for the hold-up except “safety.” (Princess staff appeared briefly once the bus was boarded.) The eventual result was people stressed and pressed to arrive in time for their flights at SeaTac airport. Another tip: Book a late flight! Nonetheless, the suspense was needless. And note, you will be deposited in a charter parking lot likely a long way from your airline check-in. The good news is you will be on your way quickly.
If going again, I would book a Northbound cruise, with the land portion following. Honestly, for us, after Denali it was anti-climatic. Eventually it devolved into just lots of unnamed mountains with snow on them. It was also difficult to reset one’s biological clock with the jumbled schedule and long daylight hours. Some found the endless gray days a drag, too. That’s the way it is. Everything is a 50/50 chance…to see Mt. McKinley, to see significant wildlife, to see the sun, to avoid the rain and damp, and so on. Temps ranged from near freezing to around 70 degrees. Most of the days were “sweatshirt weather.”
In conclusion, as the cruise relates to the ship, it was “nice,” everything about it was “nice.” It was so “nice” it was boringly nice…there just was no WOW to it…shipwise! Perhaps I’m jaded…that can happen to us inside cabin snobs…but I heard the same from so many others, many new to Princess. It was…”nice.” Go for the scenery, enjoy the port days for what they are, and treat the ship as your platform…you’ll be overwhelmed by the beauty, thrilled by nature, and probably pay little attention to the ship in the overall scheme of things.
Writing this review of the Sapphire Princess is a bit like ending a date that just didn’t click fully. Princess, dear, I’ll call you soon, promise…
It was “nice.”