Incredible Alaskan Adventure with an Island Princess "letdown"
My wife and I just returned from our 19 day "bucket list" trip to Alaska that was more than 18 months in the planning. We traveled with two other couples and truly had a great adventure despite our disappointment in the Island Princess. Our vacation was a combined "on our own" for 3 days in Fairbanks, the Princess Landcruise Experience for 6 days and a cruise from Whittier on Island Princess for 7 days.
To say that Alaska is "INCREDIBLE" is the epitome of an understatement. My wife describes Alaska as "Colorado on steroids" and that is truly an appropriate description.
While in Fairbanks, we traveled to Coldfoot, AK and Dalton Highway (Ice Road Truckers) with the great folks who run Northern Alaska Tour Company (they earn 5+ stars). Our trip was 12 hours long and included a 1 hour plane ride to the dirt landing strip (think Flying Wild Alaska) in Coldfoot and nearly 9 hour return trip on the Dalton Highway. We also visited 4 of the 6 restaurants featured on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives (highly recommend the Cookie Jar and Silver Gulch Brewing Company-again both earn 5+ stars for superb service and superb food.) By the way, kudos to the staff of the Alpine Inn located in Fairbanks near the airport—those folks could not have been friendlier and genuinely happy to see us.
Joining the Landcruise portion of the trip included visits to the Riverboat Discovery and Gold Mine Dredge #8 (another great set of tours and more 5+ stars awarded). The accommodations (Bear Lodge) provided by the landtour in Fairbanks was clean, comfortable and again staffed with friendly folks.
Our next stop was by bus to Denali and the Princess Lodge. Please plan on the Tundra Wilderness Tour instead of the shorter 3 hour trip into Denali—worth the time and extra money. Did manage to see the Park's notable three-legged bear-"Tripod"—he is known throughout Alaska. The dinner theater production was loads of fun and really great food. Accommodations were again clean and comfortable and my wife and I truly enjoyed walking around the hotel grounds. We did manage to eat at a couple of local places just across the highway from the Lodge-nice people and great service.
Then, it was on to Talkeetna on the Princess private railcars. Again, I have nothing but accolades for the Alaska Railroad and the folks who staff the Princess cars-great ride and spectacular scenery. To describe Talkeetna as quirky is again an understatement but loads of fun—great people, great drink and food (make sure you visit the West Rib Pub and Talkeetna Roadhouse). Next up was a jet boat ride up the Talkeetna River into Class 6 rapids at Devil's Canyon—the folks at Mahay Tours (Capt Izzy) really know how to give you a great show in a truly amazing boat.
After nearly 12 days on land it was time to get back on the train to Whittier and head for our cruise portion with Island Princess. But, first, I must again offer kudos and a 5+ star rating to the folks on the McKinley Express. It is one of America's great train rides particularly as it hugs the coast on the run from Anchorage to Whittier. Coming out of the tunnel into Whittier seeing the Island Princess was indeed impressive.
As we were the last train into Whittier, our embarkation went very smooth. In fact, I was the very last guest to board Princess. We barely had time to drop stuff off to the stateroom and head out to the muster drill. I was surprised to find that Princess keeps track of folks at the muster drill using your boarding card—not something I have experience in three previous cruises. Is this post-Costa Concordia reaction? I am not sure but I liked it.
Our stops in Skagway, Juneau and Ketchikan were every thing we had hoped for and we booked each shore excursion independent of Princess—high praise goes to the folks at Chilkoot Tours (White Pass train ride to Carcross and our tour guide Lorie), Harv and Marv's Whaling Watching in Juneau (thank Capt. Jayleen—you were just plan super-hope you reach your goal to serve in the US Coast Guard) and the Island Wings (Ketchikan). Michelle-your excursion in a float plane to Misty Fjords will serve as the true highlight on our bucket list.
I am a firm believe that if you have the time to research and study the shore excursions that you can save a huge amount of money by booking the excursions on your own.
I will also add that the bus drivers, tour guides and staff members that we encountered at nearly every stop were truly superb—we met a great bunch of young American kids who are working their tails off to make sure that the Alaska Experience is everything we expected and more. They work long hours, are always smiling and were exceedingly grateful for the gratuities given for their efforts.
If you are still with me, please understand that my wife and I truly enjoyed nearly every phase of our Alaska Adventure and that we are not overly critical folks—we have been on 3 other cruises that exceeded our expectations and we had very high expectations from our friends who had sailed with the folks at Princess (we have traveled on NCL and Carnival).
But, I must regrettably report that the hotel and dining room staffs on the Island Princess were a disappointment. I must single out the head waiter in the Anytime Dining venue as being surly, rude, condescending and sarcastic towards his staff and guests. I personally witnessed him yelling at an older gentleman whose pager was flashing that the table was ready. The head waiter just yelled at him and told him that the pager must stop flashing before he could approach the dining room. My group was so upset we walked out of the venue and headed for the Horizon Court buffet rather than sit in his dining room.
Speaking of Anytime Dining, the reservation system in place on Island Princess is not my idea of Anytime Dining—guess that I just missed that part of previous reviews. The head waiter was also uncompromising in trying to seat our party of 6—what part of the Princess Service Points about 'not saying no to a guest" did he not read. When I managed to get a reservation at table with our preferred waiter (Jason—BTW, thank you Jason for truly caring and attentive service), the head waiter turned to me and sarcastically comment that "you managed to beat me and get your table with Jason. (We had to agree to a table of 10 that others might join us.)
The Horizon Court food was average but what really surprised my traveling companions and me was the lack of attentive service (plates were removed from table before we finished, no offers for water, ice tea or coffee refills), bickering among the staff and lack of staff monitoring use of the hand sanitizer by guests serving themselves in the food court.. In fact, except for the Horizon Court, we never saw one hand sanitizer anywhere on the entire Island Princess. (I watched from the dock in Ketchikan as the NCL staff sprayed hand sanitizer on every passenger who reboarded their ship.)
Our stateroom steward was punctual and kept our stateroom clean and comfortable but no towel animal each night was a let down. Our stateroom was what we have come to expect and our steward did open up the balcony partitions so that we could visit with our traveling companions in the adjoining staterooms. A balcony cabin in Alaska is a must!!
Disembarkation in Vancouver was a piece of cake—best disembarkation I have experienced.
So in closing, Alaska is truly stunning and needs to be on every "bucket list". Princess Landcruise exceeded our expectations in every way but the Island Princess was "underwhelming" and I am not really sure that Princess will get a chance to earn my cruise dollars in the future.