My wife and I sailed on the Golden Princess beginning May 26 on the inside passage to Alaska and Glacier Bay. This was our second cruise with the first being South Caribbean on the Crown Princess in 2007. Alaska is perhaps a somewhat unique cruise destination with an emphasis on nature and scenery -- the exact reasons we took this voyage!
Getting on and Off the Ship
Embarkation was painless. We arrived at the pier about 12:30pm regardless of the staggered boarding recommendations and we found ourselves on the boat, checked into our room, and up on the Lido deck enjoying some pizza by 1:30pm. There was plenty of staff to ensure embarkation went smoothly. Disembarkation was great too, although they couldn't make general announcements so I never heard what was going on. They need staff around keeping passengers in the loop if they cannot make shipwide announcements.
Can't complain here. It was exactly as advertised. It takes some getting used to -- the walkways are tight, the step up to the bathroom, etc... Hard to not get in my wife's way. But it is exactly as advertised. I felt like my room was very clean and the room steward was nice enough. However, from my room I couldn't hear any of the ship's announcements unless I was tuned to a specific TV channel in the cabin. If there was some wildlife or interesting scenery around I wanted to know.
The food was ok overall. I do totally understand why food gets bad reviews because it's not always piping hot and the variety lacks greatly across the ship (same food every day except the dining room). If I expected 4 star food at every kiosk and every night in the dining room I would be horribly disappointed. Throughout the ship, I encourage those in charge (as well as the food directors) to taste each dish on a regular basis. Some things were just off... For example, no one in Horizon Court seems to know how to make scrambled eggs. The dining room was the best choice for dining - anytime. I never went for breakfast, but the lunch I ate in there was a cut above any of the other food options. The dinners were good too, but not great as I remembered from the last cruise. It almost seemed like they tried too hard rather than sticking to what works. The food got better throughout the week -- I really enjoyed the Chef's choice dinner. The beef filet's I had a couple nights were disappointing - they were not as tender as I would expect, were typically cooked one level above ordered (not worth sending back), plus not seasoned well. I also would have expected more local flare in the options -- for example featuring local fish or shellfish. The dining room also offered entrees available any day, but they were far inferior and not given the same attention as the featured choices.
Horizon Court needs more seating -- it was often a battle finding a table. The pastries were always a good and the fresh fruit was typically good. One day I found a pineapple had not been properly cored. In general, some level of personalization and rotating featured foods in Horizon court is a huge missed opportunity. There were themed buffets served, but they weren't advertised and I missed most of them. The pastry buffet (many varieties of cakes) showed the staff on board was about as skilled as the average bake shop -- it was good, but didn't knock my socks off.
The other dining choices were fine. The pizza was good and the burgers were good too. On par with what you'd get at a local chain. The ice cream shop serves decent soft serve... Would be nice to have a real ice cream scoop shop. The milkshakes weren't worth the calories. The international cafe was always good, but lacked variety. The desserts there were always worth the calories, though. Every day the same sandwich varieties and largely the same desserts came out.
We did the "Ultimate Soda Card" which included the mocktails, juices, hot chocolate, and milkshakes as well as sodas. The mocktails and Hot Cocoa were generally great. The bartenders never gave me a hard time or a sigh (I know those mocktails are a pain in the neck). However, the quality of the drinks did vary -- so find a bar that makes it the way you like and stick with it.
Also on the food side I found it a bit tacky to have to show my soda sticker when I am eating a formal dinner. IMO, a soft drink with your dinner should not cost extra. At least there was still free coffee in the dining room after dinner.
No shortage of food and always available. I think I ate every 2 hours while on board unless I was sleeping. And like I said -- it's generally pretty good. Some more consistency and diversity would be nice.
In Juneau we went on a whale watch with Harv and Marv -- a smallish tour operator. 12 folks on the boat versus about 100+ on the ships Princess books. Much easier to get a good view, snap photos, etc. We had an amazing trip too -- we were very lucky to see a playful calf with its mom. After the whales we went to Mendenhall Glacier -- a must-see for the first time Juneau.
Skagway is a nice little port. We again found our own tour company, "Chilkoot Tours" who put us on a bus seating 12 -- not the full size buses which Princess charters. Our tour guide was very knowledgeable and had a deep respect for the wilderness. We saw 4 bears and amazing scenery. The White Pass Rail on the ride back to port was relatively ho-hum and overpriced but provided good views not available from the road. This was a full day tour with amazing scenery just about every minute.
Glacier Bay our luck ran out. It was cold and rainy and the bay was still iced over in spots. We only got to see 2 glaciers relatively close, including Margerie which did calf a couple times during the hour we were visiting. Nothing spectacular, but seeing any glacier that close is breathtaking. I do not know what Tracy's Arm is like, but going to Glacier Bay should be a priority when choosing a cruise.
By Ketchikan we were getting tired :) We found the local shops to buy some souvenirs. Did you know you can buy Walrus Oosik? It was a pleasant enough time, although a short visit.
Victoria was possibly our favorite stop. The lush gardens and great architecture made this a unique stop. It's a place you could actually imagine living, I guess! After the cold and remoteness of most of Alaska this was a nice contrast. But also an indicator we only had one night left on the ship. I recommend what we ended up doing -- taking a leisurely stroll into town and then the double decker bus back to the ship.
At each port you need to get away from the generic cruise ship shops. We had a bad experience with Milano jewelers last time so we seek out the independent retailers.
Generally, I found the ship in good condition. Overall pretty clean and always saw folks wiping down the railings and glass. She just came out of drydock a week before our cruise, so I was surprised to see a few of the things I did. The elevators were constantly out of order (getting an elevator was frustrating to say the least). Plan on taking stairs and you'll enjoy your vacation plus burn off a few of those calories. The hot tubs weren't all functioning fully. The pool heaters weren't all working and one pool had tiles missing. And not all the exterior glass appeared clean obstructing views. I was also surprised to feel the boat rocking back and forth a bit -- even on relatively calm seas, but that didn't bother me.
Having a naturalist on board was pretty useless. He made 3 announcements about Washington St. Ferries and barely a mention of anything else useful. Maybe I missed some of his more interesting things, but I never got the feeling he was an expert on anything except reading a script.
Each evening we partook in the entertainment on board. We found the lounge acts ho-hum. The pianist was fun, but had such a limited song selection he played the same stuff every night. He got folks going singing songs, especially after the early show let out. The Princess Pop Star was fun, but other than that there was no karaoke. More karaoke -- and perhaps some more modernization would be good -- much better than the lounge acts! The production shows were great. They singers were good, the dancers great, and the band, often left thankless, were so good you almost didn't notice them. The DJ in Skywalkers either needs to be replaced or have a member of the cruise director staff helping to throw the party. The DJ never pumped the crowd up and as soon as he played one good song he played some awful latin music no one knew and everyone left the dance floor. Skywalkers should be where the party is after 10pm -- it never turned out that way.
I hardly saw Sammi the cruise director, but her staff were just as good if not better. I didn't care for her sense of humor.
Never a shortage of loungers :)! It was too cold to do much any evening. Personally, I enjoyed the hot tubs -- the ones that worked. The attendants were told multiple times about one spa being too cold and it was never fixed. Center-ship there were two main pools -- one inside a glass enclosure, the other fully outside. The outdoor pool wasn't heated until the 2nd to last day of the cruise and it didn't make much sense that MUTS (movies under the stars) was in the uncovered pool because it was too cold to sit out there. Whoever designed the ship wasn't thinking of Alaska. The movie selections were pretty poor anyway. I felt bad for the girl with milk and cookies girl, freezing, to pass out cookies to the few who were around.
Princess Cruises needs to take a look at the diversity on their ships. Of 1100 staff members nearly 500 were from the Philippines. Most were good, some great, but does not give the image of luxury that cruises strive for. Only 3 American's on board. And at times there clearly needed to be closer management. And not just managing the people, but comparing service levels throughout the ship comparing services from different outlets across the ship.
I also found it beyond annoying all the "photo opportunities". I understand its part of cruising, but they slowed down disembarkation for photos. They annoyed my wife and I during our meals for photos. They interrupted my enjoyment at the Glaciers to try and take my picture. Plus all the standard things -- embarkation, first formal, casual night, second formal, etc... Then, for EVERY picture they print them out for the small percentage purchased. What a waste from a company claiming to be environmentally friendly. Get some technology going here -- perhaps some kiosks with face recognition software?
Plus, I applaud the smoking policy on board. In general, smoking was kept to designated areas. I just think those areas should not be center ship. You couldn't get to the bathrooms on lido deck without passing through all the smoke. You couldn't get to the Princess Theater via deck 6 without passing Players lounge which made me gag. And you had to visit the port side of deck 7 or get overwhelmed by smoky smells. Let's stick the smokers in the aft portion of the ship where no one is subjected to their chemicals.
While it easy to complain about some things, I had a great cruise. While I plan to try other lines, Princess has delivered what I expect on both cruises. I left the ship each time feeling like I had a great vacation - and saw Alaska for the first time. What a beautiful part of the country.