Our cruise was a round-trip 7-day cruise from Seattle aboard the Star Princess, from June 3-June 10, 2012. It was a great trip despite the weather being cloudy throughout most of it, winds being high on deck while sailing, and with light rain the morning of Ketchikan and during the day in Skagway. Seas were often fairly calm, and although we felt some good movement once in awhile in our Deck 11 forward cabin (B-211), most of the time it was smooth sailing.
Out trip began in Sacramento several days prior, as we had elected to take Amtrak from central California to Seattle to enjoy the scenery ($205 per person round trip). Unfortunately the train was an hour and a half late, but by arriving in Seattle we had made up pretty much all of that time. We stayed two nights in the historic Moore Hotel on 2nd Ave. ($92 per night, cab ride there from Amtrak $8). It was a clean and neat old place to stay (I can't remember the last time I stayed in a hotel that actually had a hard key to unlock the deadbolt to your room). There was no bedside clock in the room, and the bathroom was quite small (not much larger than a cruise ship bathroom...) and only had a shower, no bath. There was surprisingly a towel animal in the bathroom, which would prove to be our only one, as we did not get one in our cabin on the Star. Unfortunately the bathroom lacked in water pressure and hot water was hit or miss. But, we enjoyed the stay and the convenience of being only a couple of blocks to Pike's Market. It's also only a 15-minute walk to Pier 66, though we sailed out of Pier 91.
Cruise check-in -- Take 1: We left via cab from the hotel at 10:45 on Sunday, and arrived at the pier at 10:55 ($11 fare). As there were no porters readily available in the lot, we walked into the main building to find there was a line to drop off luggage right at the scanners. It was not possible given the setup and activity here to stop and tip any one porter, so we gave our luggage over and proceeded upstairs to security. It was at this moment that I realized I had left my jacket in the closet of the hotel...so we turned around and took a round-trip taxi to go back and get it.
Cruise check-in -- Take 2: We arrived back at the pier at 11:35 and joined the security line. It took only 10 minutes, which led us then to the check-in line. This line took 20 minutes, and brought us to a new line at 12:05pm, which was the line to board. There was no "staggered" boarding to speak of -- which has been a hot topic on Cruise Critic lately - you simply got in line with everyone else and waited. They did not start allowing people to board until about 12:15, and we were through the line and on board at 12:45.
As usual we checked out our cabin first. Our cabin was quite spacious for an inside, and had a walk-in closet design. More closet and storage space then we could use. The room has a nice sized flat screen HD TV, though this is worthless if you don't have HD programming. Channel selection was weak, and several channels were usually out due to satellite reception issues. Our cabin steward was friendly, and did a good job of keeping up our room, keeping it stocked with ice and fresh pool towels.
After meeting our steward and seeing our room, we proceeded to tour the ship a little and get the feel for her layout. As we had late traditional dining and were assigned the Amalfi dining room, we headed there to check out our table location around 1:45pm. As the Amafi is on Deck 6 aft, and the other main dining rooms on Decks 5 and 6 block access to it, to get to Amalfi you had to take Deck 7 aft to the Vista lounge and then down a flight of stairs. As it turns out, this dining room was serving lunch on embarkation day, but only till 1:30pm, so we missed it (lunch was served in Portofino the rest of the trip, though only from 12-1:30pm). We hopped up to the Horizon buffet, which at 2pm was quite busy and had long lines (as we always have noticed, lunch in the buffet on the first day is always by far the worst, traffic wise).
The Trident Grill outside serves burgers and hot dogs and fries, and is next to the Prego Pizzeria (reminded me a little of Sbarro), and just a short walk from Sundaes (note: they also have hard packed strawberry ice cream, just ask. And the shakes, although costing $2.50, were yummy). This area is separated from the Horizon by the Conservatory and Calypso Reef, a nice, two-story covered indoor pool/spa/bar area. Self-serve drinks at the Horizon consisted of coffee, water, and hot and cold tea. All other drinks had to be brought to you by the wait staff roaming around. The were usually pretty proficient in getting to you quickly once you sat down -- except when the Horizon was busy at a peak time. Then, you could be halfway through your meal before having a drink.
Incidentally, the buffet does not have a separate omelet station at breakfast. Instead, you placed an order with one of the staff behind the buffet counter (when you could catch them, as they were often quite busy maintaining the primary buffet line). Omelets are then made in the back, and you had to wait around the buffet area till they called your order as ready. As this was not particularly efficient, I did it only once.
Interesting side note -- this was the first cruise we've been on where they had no hand sanitizer at the dining room entrances. The buffet area was sufficiently covered though, as was the Trident Grill/Prego/Sundaes area.
The production shows in the Princess Theatre were quite good; the singers and especially the dancers all seemed top notch and delivered with a lot of energy. Certainly among the best we've seen on a cruise. The shows for late seating were before dinner on the first and fifth nights, after dinner on the other nights. The theatre never really filled up, so finding a decent seat was not a problem. There was no farewell show, which was a surprise to us. The comedian, George Casey, was an Irishman who delivered a good, clean show. The comedy-magician Timm Metivier was frankly a little subpar. His magic was gimmicky and his comedy rather disjunct, lacking flow. We didn't see his second show, so perhaps it improved. He also did an impromptu adult comedy show when we missed our port in Victoria on the last night, due to high winds. Props to him for stepping in when the ship misses a port, but his jokes were mostly routine ones that you see passed around the interent, and again the show lacked flow. If it wasn't for missing a port, there would have been no late night adult comedy show this trip. The performers playing in the public lounges and the Piazza seemed to be quite on par with what we had seen previously. It was nice having a string quartet perform frequently in the Piazza.
For those drinkers out there -- there's no more Power Hour (happy hour). Instead, they have a raffle card that you get points punched out when you order drinks (1 point for a beer, 2 for a cocktail, 6 for a bottle of wine, etc.) When you got 30 punches, you turned in the raffle card and they drew one on the last day. The winner got their bar bill wiped clean. This didn't seem to be well advertised; we only found out when we asked a bartender offhand if they still had Power Hour. Drink menus could be found in the inside bars and lounges (we didn't see them at any of the outside bars, though we didn't ask). One thing I like about their drink menus is they separate them by liquor type -- there was a page for drinks with tequila, another page for drinks with rum, and so forth. Each one listed prices and had a list at the bottom showing the most common drinks for that category.
For those who like to keep in touch while on cruises -- we found cell reception (AT&T) to be good in the port towns. We still had reception 5 hours after departing Seattle, but only about one hour after leaving other ports.
Here's a brief port report on what we did (your results may vary). In Ketchikan we did the self guided walking tour. Maps are available at the Tourist Info booths. It takes a few hours if you hit every stop and read every blurb and take lots of pictures. We found the Downtown Side (37 stops including the infamous Creek Street) far more interesting than the West End side (27 stops, but more with impressive views of your ship). We also did the Rainbird Trail into the rainforest. We could not find the trailhead from the West End side, so instead started in the middle and went back towards the Downtown side. It took less than an hour and had very rewarding views and scenery up there.
We sailed next into the Tracy Arm fjord, towards Sawyer Glacier. Although it was pretty cold on deck and it was cloudy out, we fortunately saw no rain here and the winds in the fjord were light. Lots of ice in the water prevented us from getting very close to Sawyer, but we could still se it and the views were altogether phenomenal. Very little in the way of wildlife was spotted up here this time.
In Juneau, we docked at AJ dock, the furthest from downtown. Although they offer free shuttles, we elected to walk it. It took just over 20 minutes for us, and we walk pretty quickly. We took the Mt. Roberts Tram up the mountain ($39 per person for unlimited use till closing at 9pm). There was really not much line at all, and the views up top were incredible. Unfortunately as they had a high amount of snow this year, most of the trails at the top were snowed in. We could only hike a little bit, but it was still well worth it.
In Skagway, we had pre-reserved a car with Avis ($121 for the day, gas extra) to take a drive into the Yukon up to Emerald Lake (bring your passports, you need to show them both ways!). Note that Avis lists their location on their website as 2nd and Spring Streets, but there's nothing at this intersection. They are actually located on 3rd, in part of a little building that looks like a Motel. Despite the weather being cloudy, slightly foggy, and raining a bit up the pass, and drive afforded amazing scenery. We even saw three black bears along the road and took pictures (from our car of course!). We used Murray's Guide to help us find sites along the way (you can google this online, it's a $5 downloadable pdf). We stopped briefly in the little town of Carcross before heading to the Caribou Crossing dogsled camp. We did ride the wheeled cart pulled by he dogs, which at $30 per person for 15 minutes was a bit pricey, but it was a neat experience all the same. As it was pretty wet out you didn't want to snuggle with the dogs so much, but there were puppies you could hold and get pictures with and so forth. There's also a cafe and gift shop. After driving back to Skagway we also took the side road to Dyea and visited the cemetery there. The entire trip was about 7 hours, with frequent photo stops.
Victoria, as I mentioned, was skipped due to safety with high winds, which as I felt them on Deck 8 forward while we were sailing in, were indeed pretty strong. Smaller ships than ours had docked already, but a ship of our size was risky. So we anchored in the bay all night.
much open area you can get to, to be at the front of the ship and watch it sail into anywhere. Deck 8 forward is the only spot, and it is a covered area. It was also closed for half of the trip, presumably due to wind, though it was closed sometimes when sailing into ports where there was no wind. The posted sign said it was closed due to it not having lighting, which makes no sense during the day. There is a really nice open spot on Deck 15 forward, which in essence has you standing on the roof of the bridge, but this was only open for the three hours that we were in Tracy Arm. Otherwise it was locked and you could only stand on the deck behind this area. This did not make for good pictures coming into port, as you always got the railings in the shots. By way of contrast, the aft section of the ship is quite nice. You can view it from Deck 7, but also on Decks 12, 14, and 15, starting with the outside Horizon seating, and all of it looking over a large section open to the sea beyond.
Deck 7 has the exterior deck wrapping around the ship, however once you get forward you had to go upstairs to Deck 8 (if it was open) or turn around and go back the way you came. The Deck 8 section has you walking right past people's balconies, which has to be odd for those in those rooms (outside cabins from E101-120). Skywalker's is of course a good enclosed aft viewing spot as well, with windows providing views towards the front and sides as well.
We found it interesting that there was a separate room on Deck 7 near the Crown Grill with a desk just for Excursions; we've normally seen just a counter space near Passenger Services. I imagine this was nicer for folks booking trips after boarding. This space was also used for people to fix problems with their assigned disembarkation group, and to get more luggage tags if needed, which was nice to not have this gumming up the main area of the Piazza as well.
The food was great throughout the trip. I didn't find one thing disappointing, except for the Clam Chowder in the buffet during lunch, which was quite watery and fishy. The buffet selections were not as varied as we've found on RCI ships, but the food was good. There's two separate sides of the buffet, but they are both the same. The bread and dessert items were on the outside isle, which was separated from the 'main' buffet aisle by stanchons with velvet ropes.
We were seated at a table for two in the MDR near a window, and next to a table of 10. Incidentally, late seating was changed from what we had originally booked; it was 8:15pm when booking but set at 7:45pm on the ship. Service was always friendly, and generally attentive, but there were often long gaps of time between courses. This seemed to be due to the time it took to serve the table of 10 and also it seemed to take a lot of time for the waiters to go and get the food from wherever they pick it up from. There was no singing or dancing of the waiters, just the Baked Alaska parade by the assistant waiters and parade of the chefs on the second formal night.
Any swimmers out there? While there is a nice pool aft on Deck 12 with great views, we saw no one use this. Likely because of the cold and wind, though the water itself was heated somewhat. We used two pool/spa areas -- the Conservatory since it was enclosed in glass and thus offered natural light and views without the cold air and wind, and the pool on Deck 15 by the Lotus Spa. Although this one was smaller and only slightly protected from the wind, it is an adult-only pool and has one of those continuous lap machines. The spas in both areas were not very hot at all, but were pleasant. The conservatory would often fill up with kids; early morning was the best time here. There weren't many kids on this voyage; the cruise director had mentioned at one of the shows that there was only about 250.
Speaking of demographics -- the Captain's Circle host announced at the Captains Cocktail Party that there were 420 Gold members aboard, 151 Platinum, and 69 Elite. The most travelled passengers had sailed 528 days with Princess.
Disembarkation was unusual for us. We normally walk off with our own luggage, and on previous cruises (not Princess), there was a set block of time for this. So, we would just wait until a general announcement was made that the ship was clear to let off passengers, and we'd just go down to the gangway and walk-off. Not the case here. Everyone on board has an assigned meeting time and place, and no one could get off before groups started being called. There were a total of 49 groups, including 8 for walk offs, in three locations on the Promenade Deck. As the times for each location were in 10-minute increments, people arriving early gummed up the works a bit. As we were assigned the Vista Lounge, and there's not much room for you to walk in the seating aisles much less carry your luggage through it, most people hovered around the back of the theatre. Traffic jams were to be expected. Still, it was a fairly efficient system. Although we had a card designating our group, these cards were not checked at all. So as they called various groups to disembark, really you could have just joined in with any of them. We did feel a bit like cattle being driving out on deck to exit. But, we had arrived in the Vista at 7:32, our group was called at 7:45, and we got through the departing cattle line and scanned off the ship at 7:53. It was a little ways to walk down to security, but there was no line at all, and we breezed through and were in a taxi by 8:01. There was no shortage of taxis; lines and lines of them waiting, and you simply caught one towards the front and the next one would pull up and take that spot. We arrived back at the Amtrak station at 8:14, and the fare was $16.50.
All in all, it was a great trip to Alaska, and the Star and her crew were great as well. It was our first time out of Seattle, and it did not disappoint. It was a bit of a disappointment to miss Victoria, but we do understand the captain's reasoning. And of course all excursions are refunded and everyone gets their port fees ($10.21) refunded. It would have been nice to have slightly warmer and clearer weather, but with Alaska it's always a crapshoot. We will certainly be back again...