This is a mom's perspective of the July 7, 2012 Alaskan cruise. I have three kids ages 14, 12, and 8. This was their first cruise and my husband's as well. I chose Princess because I went on cruises with my family as a kid and I still to this day remember the traditional dining and afternoon tea and baked Alaska parade. It was a great choice for us.
We flew to Seattle a day early. Originally I was going to fly in the day of the cruise, but after reading these boards and talking to friends I decided to spare any possible stress and changed our flight to the day before. So we arrived Friday afternoon and stayed at the Doubletree Hotel right by the airport, all booked by Princess. This is their hotel transfer option and it was well worth it. A nice gentleman met us at the airport in the baggage claim area and loaded our luggage onto a cart and took us to the Doubletree shuttle. It was a five minute ride to the hotel. The hotel was very nice, and my kids loved the chocolate chip cookies at checkin (although they only have ones with nuts, which my youngest wouldn't eat). Since we are a family of five and the limit is four to a room we had two rooms and they were right next to each other and even had balconies. It was fun to watch the airplanes and you could barely hear them (so no trouble sleeping). We had the concierge get us a car service to take us to the Space Needle, which was a fun way to spend the afternoon. Then we ate dinner at the hotel restaurant (good) and got a good night's sleep before the cruise.
SATURDAY - We ate breakfast at the hotel coffee shop (they had good pancakes, which is all my kids care about) and the Princess bus picked us up at the back of the hotel at 11am. Now here is where the Princess hotel package is really great - you can check in for the cruise with the Princess rep in the hotel lobby and skip doing it at the pier. This saved a lot of time. You do have to fill out a health questionnaire, which was new to me. It asks if anyone in your family has a cough or fever or stomach trouble. I was actually glad to see that they were making an effort to keep passengers from picking up germs. There were a lot of other passengers with us, at least two bus loads. We arrived at the pier at 11:30 and joined a huge line of people waiting the board the ship. But because we had already done cruise check-in at the hotel we got to go in a much shorter line. They gave us our cruise cards (they are like credit cards and are your cabin key and ID card and charge card all in one). The ship didn't open until noon but by the time we got through the line it was open. All of the cabins were ready and waiting. They said that if you had checked your luggage to allow until at least 6pm to get it delivered to your cabin. This is why my family brought only carryon luggage, one carryon suitcase (22 inch) with wheels and one carryon bag (duffle bag) apiece. We didn't check them at the airport or at the ship. We like to keep our stuff with us and they are easy to handle. I realize older people would have a harder time handling their luggage and would check them but we are young and it was good exercise. Plus as soon as we got to our cabin we unpacked and were all set up before lunch.
Our cabins were absolutely beautiful because they were two suites up on the Sun deck, S706 and S708. Again, with five of us and a limit of three in a cabin we had to get two. Originally I had booked two mini-suites on the Dolphin deck, but after seeing in videos how their decks are completely uncovered and exposed to everyone above them I changed my mind and used our tax refund to upgrade. This was a wise choice. We could use our balconies in any weather (and we had everything from sun to rain to wind to thunder and lightning on this cruise) and it was completely private. We had our steward unlock the connecting balcony door so we could walk back and forth between the suites. Our steward was named Marvin and he was wonderful.
The suite had a marble bathroom with separate shower and whirlpool tub and separate vanity. As a mom I appreciated that, not to mention two bathrooms so my teenager and I weren't fighting over the shower each morning. Family friendly perks included a DVD player and you could borrow DVD's, strawberries and grapes delivered each day (a special request for my kids, since the buffet didn't have them), a chocolate chip cookie delivered each night for my 8 year-old, chocolates on the pillows at night, and free Wifi and internet service. I was able to check my emails every day (from our cat sitter) and my husband could surf the internet while waiting for us girls to get ready. There are tons of other perks but with kids we appreciated the little things like black wallets (to carry our cruise cards in and the kids didn't lose them), tote bags for souvenirs, and slippers to walk across the balconies in. Since we don't drink I had room service switch out the beer and alcohol setup with more bottled waters. We skipped the Sabatini's breakfasts because they had pretty fancy food that my kids wouldn't eat. More on that later.
Back to embarkation, the Muster Drill was after lunch and it was no big deal. You just carry your lifejacket to the right place, they show you how to put it on, and that's it. It's like wearing a seatbelt in a car, you have to do it and it's for your own safety, so stop complaining about it. Then it was Sailaway time, and it's true that there is no music out on the deck but it was still fun to watch the ship sail away.
Another suite perk that we used that first night was the new free specialty restaurant dinner. You have to use it that first night. Between Sabatini's and Crown Grill we figured Italian food would have more kid-friendly food. It was really good, with handmade pasta for the kids and seafood for my husband. The chef also sends out a pasta dish of the night, which was a short rib tomato wine sauce on penne and it was the best thing I ate on the entire cruise.
For families with kids, you will probably find yourselves in the Horizon Buffet a lot. We would check the dining room menus (which are posted outside)and if it was too fancy we would just do the buffet. My husband and I are not adventurous eaters ourselves so we were happy with the buffet twice a day. That buffet is incredible. The food was really great and a huge selection. The entrees and sides rotated every day so we were never bored. And as a mom I appreciated the Purell station when you entered - yes please sanitize your hands before eating and before touching the serving utensils that everyone else is touching! That is a smart idea. Some people seemed annoyed by it so if anyone got sick on this cruise I hope it was them. And there were plenty of passengers coughing and hacking.
Two interesting notes before I go on to the ports - one is that there are indeed no clocks in the cabins. And you have an hour time change on this cruise, gaining an hour in Juneau and losing it back in Seattle. We didn't bother resetting our watches and just used our Iphones, which automatically adjusted themselves to the new time zones. If you don't have one then you will need to reset your watch twice or else bring a travel clock. They have a wake up call service that worked great, you just call it in the night before (it's all automated) and the phone rings in the morning to wake you up. I set the phone the farthest away from my bed so I had to jump up and run over to get it. But really, I was usually up at 4:30 am anyway because that's when the sun rises in Alaska. There is full sun just after 4am and the sun didn't set until around 11pm. It was weird to go to bed and wake up without seeing darkness at all. Pretty neat though.
The other note is on the elevators on this ship. They are just strange. To get to the Sun deck, you have to take only the outside elevators. The middle two do not go to the Sun deck at all. We got lost more than once this way. And on all of the elevators you have to check the deck numbers when you get on because they don't all go to the same decks. And to go to the Canaletto dining room (if you have traditional dining for dinner, which we did) you go to deck 6 and it is the only thing there. The stairs going down on that deck go into a wall. The Golden keeps you on your toes, that's for sure. By the third day we felt like we knew our way around.
SUNDAY- Unfortunately this day did not start out well for us. Let me remind you that none of my kids or husband have ever been on a cruise ship before. Being a mom, I packed Dramamine pills and Seabands (homeopathic pressure wristbands) just in case. That was another very wise choice. Saturday night was a rocky night on the sea, sailing from Seattle up to the Alaska inside passage. Sunday morning came and my poor son (age 12) was throwing up and my husband was nauseous and had a terrible headache. The girls and I were fine. I could say something mean about how girls are tougher than boys, but I won't, although I just did. I went down to the buffet (these suites are also great because the buffet is just one deck down right below us) and got them crackers, rolls, and green apples. The apples were our sweet steward Marvin's suggestion. Since my son was already throwing up he didn't want to eat anything but I didn't want him taking the Dramamine on an empty stomach. Quick note on the Dramamine - get the less drowsy kind, or get Bonine, which is the same medication dose with a raspberry flavor. Don't get the regular Dramamine because it could make you drowsy the whole time. The less drowsy one that I had brought worked perfectly. Within an hour both of the boys were back to normal. They kept taking a pill every day (my son took one every morning and every bedtime, since he had it the worst. We ran out of pills so I bought two more packs of Bonine in the ship gift shop. They don't carry the less drowsy Dramamine, only regular. Bonine was $9 a pack there (for 8 pills) so if you even think you might get seasick, or have new cruisers with you, buy at least two packs of Bonine or less drowsy Dramamine at Target or Walmart for much cheaper and bring it. Trust me.
Okay, on to happier things now. The ports:
MONDAY (JUNEAU) - Rainy but not too cold (about 52 degrees)
Juneau was rainy, and I mean rain that soaks through your clothes. After coming from 100 degree heat in California this was quite a change. We bundled up and headed off the ship for our Whale Watch and Mendenhall Glacier trail excursion. I booked all of our excursions with Princess because it's easy and if there are any delays the ship will wait for you. It may have cost a bit more than independent excursions but it was worth the piece of mind. Plus you just get on the pier and look at all of the blue Princess signs for your tour number. This excursion was with Gastineau Guiding Company and it was great, despite the rain. Our tour guide was a cute young guy named Grayson. My 14 year-old daughter was bashful around him and so was I for that matter. We went on the whale watch cruise first, on a small catamaran that only held 22 people. It was covered so we were all dry and happy and everyone had a full view of the water. We saw sea lions and eagles and then the stars of the show, a bunch of humpback whales. It was breathtaking to see them so close to us. You mostly see their blowholes, then backs, then tails. The sound they make as they hit the water is amazing. This was my favorite thing we did.
Then it was off to Mendenhall Glacier. We walked an easy trail to the glacier. The trail is a bit muddy but easy enough for my 8 year-old daughter to manage. They gave us rain ponchos and optional walking sticks, which my son loved and used to whack the chunks of ice at the glacier. The glacier was gorgeous and I think more so because it was raining. The ice looked really blue in the wet mist. Grayson told us all about the plants on the trail and he knows a lot. He also engaged my kids with talk about science and how rainforests work, how bears hunt, the different types of moss, etc. I would highly recommend this excursion and this tour company for families with children (the minimum age is 5 years old and I totally agree with that).
TUESDAY (SKAGWAY) - no rain but windy, especially at the pier
Skagway was not too cold either and thankfully not raining. We had packed extra socks and they came in handy after Juneau. I booked two excursions for today because I couldn't pick between them. The first was the White Pass Railroad, which is the old-fashioned Gold Rush era train that is right at the dock. I kept seeing that it was the number one attraction in Skagway. Well, it was a neat train (I felt like Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman riding on it, complete with the costumed train conductor coming through to collect our tickets) but in reality it was fun for only the first half. It is three hours roundtrip, and you see the same scenery going up the pass and then again coming back down. My kids were bored by the time we got to the top. It was fun to see the Canadian flags at the summit (you don't get off the train so you don't need passports) but the trip down was long and kind of boring seeing the same scenery. My son and I both fell asleep. So did about a third of the people in our car. So in retrospect, I wouldn't do the train if you have kids or if you aren't a train buff or something.
Our other excursion (after lunch on the ship) was the exact opposite - so fun! How could it not be, since it was the Sled Dog Musher's Camp. This is the summer training camp for Iditarod sled dogs. The camp is about a half- hour bus ride from the dock and some of it is on dirt road up the mountain. That was nothing compared to when we got there and were loaded onto a military vehicle (called a unimog) to drive straight up the mountain to the dogsleds. We were going straight up, no kidding. Kind of freaky if you sit on the outside, and it is like a jeep so you are exposed. We never got scared though, not even my youngest. She just kept asking when we were going to see the dogs. At the top they loaded us onto actual dogsleds. The dogs were all barking excitedly and wagging their tails at us. The musher asked us not to pet them until we were down the trail because they were ready to run. So we got onboard, seatbelted in, and were off on an incredible ride. It was just like being in the Iditarod (just not on snow). It was surreal listening to the musher's commands to the dogs, the barking, and the trees swishing as we sailed by. This was my kids' favorite thing that we did. Then, back at the camp, we watched a presentation by a musher about the Iditarod and he showed us all of the dogs. They had puppies that you could hold - this is where my oldest (dog-crazy) daughter stayed until it was time to leave. She had the biggest smile on her face holding those puppies. There was free coffee and hot chocolate to warm up, and a little gift shop where we bought sled dog stuffed animals and musher's camp shirts. I would highly recommend this excursion to anyone! Young kids might be concerned with the unimog ride and the actual sled ride, so use your mommy discretion.
WEDNESDAY (GLACIER BAY) -
This is a sea day with gorgeous views of Glacier Bay National Park. It was clear and even a bit of sun appeared. They had park rangers on the ship narrating what you see. We sat on our balconies with blankets and hats and gloves (yes, bring those hats and gloves!) and watched the glaciers and tons of seagulls. They warn you not to feed the seagulls as they land on the balconies looking for food. My kids had fun watching them. Two actually landed on our balcony. On the same note, when I got my mocha down in the International Cafe that morning they had no paper cups, lids, or straws because they aren't allowed there (in case they blow off into the water). So I had a mocha in a water glass. Oh well, same caffeine. Their mochas are really good, and cheaper than Starbucks. And speaking of the cafe, they are the only place to get donuts in the morning (so I would get them there with my mocha and bring them up to the kids). Later in the day they had great desserts (we would get some after dinner and eat them up on our balcony). They also had lunch food, with great panini's that you could only get there. I think my oldest ate about six of their proscuitto mozzarella panini's. I really liked the cafe as a food option. We also loaded up on chocolate chip cookies there because the buffet was always out of them. I'm surprised my youngest didn't turn into a chocolate chip cookie, she ate so many. Several times we had people asking us in the elevators where we got them. And in the mornings at the breakfast buffet the other kids would ask where the donuts were. So be sure to check out all of the food options and find what you like best, and where to get it. With kids this is priceless.
Since this was a sea day, we played Bingo, which was expensive but fun. Of course we didn't win anything but the kids enjoyed it. Plus it kept them busy for an hour. They especially liked the colored stamper things (I have no idea what they are called). We had to buy them so we saved them for the other time we played. My oldest daughter and my husband went to MUTS (Movies Under The Stars) and watched "Hunger Games". Obviously my younger two couldn't watch that, and the only other kid movie was "The Lorax" which didn't interest us. They had fun at Muts, bundled under blankets on lounge chairs by the pool and eating popcorn. They charged $2 for candy though, which was dumb.
That night the kids stayed in the suite and watched a DVD movie (and scarfed down chocolate chip cookies) while my husband and I went to the comedian. This was the only show we went to. The comic was Rollin Jay Moore and he was hilarious. We laughed until our sides hurt. He did a second (different) show the next night and we went back for more. I highly recommend him!
THURSDAY (KETCHIKAN) - Sunny day!
Our only sunny day was in Ketchikan and it was beautiful. This is a short stop, from 7am to noon only. That was a bummer. Since we had an excursion we had very limited time to go to the gift shops on the pier, and they had the best souvenirs by far. Our excursion was the Lighthouses, Eagles, and Totems catamaran tour. It was on a double decker boat with a covered part below (where they had tables and served snacks and drinks) and an open deck up top to look at everything. They even provided binoculars. We had fun looking at eagles in their nests and perched on boats, and even saw more sea lions and some black-tailed Sitka deer. And there were even jellyfish in the water - that was unexpected. My youngest had fun watching all of them and searching for the orange stinging ones. The captain and his crew were very nice and happy to answer questions. They had delicious hot chocolate, which was great to sip up top because it was chilly when the boat was moving. We were so happy to see the sun that we didn't mind. This was a fun morning and I would highly recommend it.
The only downside was returning the the ship and only having fifteen minutes to hit the gift shops before the ship sailed. We had gotten off the ship early and had time to look at everything before our excursion, so we were able to divide and conquer and buy the souvenirs we wanted in that short time. The ship sailed promptly at 12:30 and as we ate our lunch in the buffet we watched several passengers running to catch the ship. One lady was so late that they had already pulled up both passenger gangways and she had to get onboard on the crew deck. We all watched her racing down the dock and just making it, and wondered why anyone would cut it so close like that. I would have had a heart attack. So note to Princess, you really should give people an extra hour in Ketchikan!
The fun note tonight - Baked Alaska parade at dinner! This was really fun! They don't use real flames anymore like when I was a kid just battery-powered ones. But the waiters dance through the dining room with trays of them and you get to spin your napkins in the air to the music. I think my son had the most fun of the whole cruise spinning his napkin around his head and "tapping" waiters with it. Then the head guy "tapped" him on the head right back, which cracked him up. Of course we forgot our cameras but it was unforgettable.
FRIDAY (VICTORIA B.C.) - Freak thunder and lightning storm (really)
We didn't get into Victoria until 7pm. So you are on the ship all day and then after dinner you get off the ship. I had originally booked the Butchart Gardens (my husband and I had been there as kids and wanted to see them again, plus they light them up at night) but since it didn't get back to the ship until almost 11pm I knew my youngest would never make it. And it was the last night of the cruise and we were all worn out. So I had changed it two days earlier (the deadline - make sure you check the deadline for cancelling or changing excursions, which are listed in the Patter newsletters) to a one-hour horse carriage ride. This was yet another wise choice, because when we docked in Victoria it was cloudy and by the time we got off it was raining, then when we were on the carriage there was thunder and lighting. The driver said it was a freak thing, not typical at all for the area. The carriage was covered and the ride was just right for us. We saw the Empress Hotel and the gorgeous Parliament building and Beacon Hill Park, and giggled watching people ducking for cover in the rain. When we got back there was a small gift shop at the pier (nothing else - you have to take a shuttle or walk to downtown to find more stores). The ship didn't sail until midnight but we were all sound asleep by then.
SATURDAY (back in Seattle)-
It was foggy in Seattle so you could barely see anything in the morning. We were assigned a color group and a time of 9am to get off the ship. We had the Princess transfer back to the airport. Our flight wasn't until 2:50pm because I didn't want to be rushed. They tell you that you have to be out of your cabins at 8am and go wait in your assigned color group's area. We stayed in our suites until 8:30 and watched the hustle and bustle on the dock. It was fun to watch them unloading all of the luggage and loading food for the next cruise. We didn't use the suite perk of waiting in the "Elite" disembarkation lounge since we stayed in our rooms. Then we went down to our waiting area (one of the dining rooms) and the groups were all delayed anyway, probably because of the fog. We had gotten up early and eaten breakfast in the buffet at 6:30, but I still got my youngest her favorite chocolate donut in the cafe one last time while we waited. Then they called our group, we walked off the ship and admired it one last time, and breezed through the lines since we had all of our luggage with us and didn't have to dig through the piles of suitcases. We showed our birth certificates (since we flew in and out of Seattle we didn't need passports, which saved us $700), my husband and I showed our drivers' licenses, and we turned in our US Customs form. That just asks for your address and how much you spent in Canada (which for us was only $56 in that small gift shop at the pier), and if you have any fruit or food with you. Don't mess around with that - they warn you on the ship not to bring any food off the ship with you from the buffet or cafe. Similarly, you can't bring any food or drink off the ship in any of the ports either. So finish your coffee and donuts before you get off.
The Princess bus transfer was great, quick lines and a short ride to the airport. They took us right to the departures terminal and we had no problem finding our airline (Alaska). We had a few hours to wait but there is plenty to keep you busy.
Overall, this was a great first family cruise for us. I still think Princess does Alaska best. I definitely recommend it! We have been home for two days now and we miss the Golden, and the food and the housekeeping and the top-notch service. And now that we are back in the summer heat we do miss the cold weather up in Alaska. It is a beautiful place to visit and I would do this cruise again in a heartbeat. I hope this review has helped future cruisers.