My husband and I just returned from our first Alaska cruise! For anyone unsure about visiting Alaska via a cruise ship-I high recommend it as this is a good way to see the area and you may get to see sights you wouldn't get to see easily by any other travel method.
We left from Vancouver, and embarkation was handled very efficiently. The ship did not leave until 5 p.m. but we had to check out of our hotel by 12 noon so we headed down to the port. We dropped off our luggage and wandered around the port area in Vancouver for a couple of hours before actually getting on the ship. A lunch buffet was served for those that got on the ship early. Our luggage was delivered to our stateroom by about 4:00.
You will have a safety drill as the boat is leaving. This safety drill was a little different than on previous cruises, as our muster station was actually a lounge and not outside. It was handled very well but I heard some later complaints that it took place during sail away, and no announcement that we actually WERE sailing away was made.
We chose the Any Time dining option. If you do chose this option, you will have a separate dining room (Bordeaux) from those that chose Traditional dining(Provence). The menus are identical so you are not missing out on anything. Since we were a party of two, we often were asked if we minded sharing a table with others. We didn't mind this, as we met lots of people that way. If there is a wait, which there will be if you choose to eat from about 6:15-8:00, it is usually no more than 30 minutes and you are given a beeper which works anywhere in the atrium area. Your wait is usually less if you choose to share a table. You can also make a reservation for a specific time if you call them before 5:00. The dining room is open from 5:30-10:30. Note that the dining room is only open for dinner. You will eat breakfast and lunch either in the Horizon Court or one of the other eating options.
I would rate the food as good, but not spectacular or as elegantly presented as I have had on other cruise lines. You have to remember--they are cooking for 3000. Think high end banquet food. I need to compliment the dining room staff, as they were always very welcoming and willing to go above and beyond to serve every one's needs. One night we ate with a woman who had numerous food allergies. The wait staff would let her order her meals a day ahead and even went so far as to make her special mayonnaise and salad dressings.
Princess states that "smart casual" is the attire for non- formal nights, but I saw plenty of jeans and shorts. I think that Alaskan cruising is very casual in relation to other parts of the world. On formal nights (you will have two on a 7 day cruise) we saw everything from long dresses and tuxedos to what I would consider church attire. My husband wore a sports coat and tie and fit right in.
The Horizon Court is open 24 hours and has a buffet of hot entrees, salads, desserts, and depending on the time of day, a custom omelet and pasta station. This is the only place to eat breakfast so it gets very crowded during peak times. They also had two specialty buffets on days we were at sea--an Alaskan seafood buffet and a dessert buffet. We also sampled the Outdoor Grill area which serves burgers and hot dogs, and the pizza kitchen; both were good. There is also free soft serve ice cream.
There are two specialty restaurants on board--Sabatini's and Bayou Cafe. You must pay a charge of $20 per person and make a reservation. We did not go to either but heard good comments from those that did. They did not seem to ever be crowded.
We chose a balcony stateroom on the Emerald Deck. It was small but functional and we really did not spend much time there. I would definitely spring for a balcony on an Alaskan cruise because if you are going to see the glaciers, this is positively the best place to see them and get good pictures without 2000 other people jostling you to get pictures also. If you have never cruised before, you will be surprised at how small the showers are--be prepared if you are a large person. Your bathroom if about the size of
an airplane bathroom. Our cabin was cleaned twice a day by a polite but not overly talkative cabin steward. No towel animals, although one of the staff told us that some of the cabin stewards do make them. My only complaints about the stateroom were the lack of electrical outlets (one in the bathroom and a double one near the desk, but configured where you could only plug in one item at a time)and the built in hair dryer, which sparked like it was going to catch on fire at any moment. Ladies--bring your own hair dryer from home!
Internet/Cell Phone Service:
If you want Wifi while on board, you need to purchase a package. There is an internet cafe and also wifi in your stateroom if you purchase it. I have T-Mobile and had service while in every port, but not while we were at sea.
The only beverages you can get free of extra charge are coffee, tea, iced tea, water, and lemonade. You have to ask a waiter for the lemonade, but everything else is at the buffet or bars. You can buy a soda stamp for $7 a day. If you think you will drink a lot of soda, this is probably the way to go, but if you purchase a can of soda it is $2.25, so only worth it if you are going to drink 3 sodas a day. No matter where on the ship you sit you will find a bartender and wait staff happy to provide you a cocktail! Drinks were on average about $7 a piece. You can purchase a bottle of wine and if you just like to have a glass or two at dinner, they will keep the bottle for you and retrieve it when you order another glass. For the cheap-look for activities where you get a free cocktail (we went to a couple of art auctions that included free champagne). Your bar tab can really add up quick, since you use your stateroom card for all onboard purchase, you might be surprised by a hefty bill at the end if you are not careful.
We saw all but one of the onboard shows, which included an illusionist, a dance review, and a very funny comedian named Sarge. All were okay, but don't expect Broadway. There are usually two shows a night. If you didn't want to go to the live shows in the evening there was always a movie option. The Coral Princess has movies under the stars outside by the pool--but a bit cold for that in Alaska! There was usually an indoor option as well.
The "entertainment" that should NOT be missed are the presentations by the naturalist, Kathy Stamp. Kathy is a 70 something retired school teacher who lived in Alaska most of her life. Beside being a great speaker she knows EVERTHING you might ever want to know about Alaska. Her presentations are invaluable if you have gone on this cruise for your first time in Alaska.
There was an indoor pool and an outdoor pool. Not too many swimmers except for kids; this is Alaska after all. The hot tubs got a lot of use. I heard there was a golf simulator on the top deck but never actually saw it. Not much else in the way of sports activities, except for shuffleboard.
We also enjoyed the cooking demonstration and a tour of the galley. There was bingo and art auctions every day and also a Casino, which is only open when you are sailing. Not as much shopping as I have seen on other ships, two small stores and a fine jewelery store. However, be prepared that many programs are an opportunity to SELL you something. The first day at sea EVERYTHING was a sales pitch--and much worse than I have experienced on other cruise lines. If you don't want a sales pitch--don't go. There is also a nice exercise facility with a good number of machines--it did not seem overly crowded--and exercise classes were offered for an additional fee. I also took advantage of the spa--HINT--go the last day when they have a "sale" and some treatments are up to half price. There are children's programs and teen programs, but can't speak to them since we travelled without children. We were celebrating our 25th wedding anniversary and had a sign and balloons on our stateroom door, and the waiters also sang to us. You could get married our renew your vows on board if you wanted to.
A shameless plug for one prgram in particular--the Princess Pop Choir. I participated in this--we had several hours of rehearsals and then sang in the atrium on the last night. Just so much fun! Remember the age of the cruisers. Pop music was Tom Jones/Neal Diamond variety.
Age Range: I had to include this because you need to know that the average age on this cruise is going to be older than most Caribbean cruises. We are in our late 40's early 50's but felt very young! There were a handful of families with young children on board, and a small group of teens, but it appeared that most of those were there as part of large family groups celebrating, say grandma or grandpas birthday or 50th wedding anniversary. Be prepared to hear about every one's grandchildren and health problems. That being said, the cruise ship staff seemed VERY patient about dealing with some of the older folks and was very accommodating to those who had a hard time getting around. Because of the older demographics, this was a QUIET ship. Not a lot of late night action or crowded cocktail lounges. That was fine by us but I wouldn't advise it for the 20 something crowd. The point of this cruise is to experience ALASKA, after all, the ship just happens to be the vehicle to get there.
Ports: Our cruise was the Inside Passage Northbound--we made stops at Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway, and ended at Whittier(Anchorage). We did not do the interior trip to Denali. Between Skagway and Whittier you will have two days at sea--the first day you will cruise Glacier Bay and the second afternoon you will cruise College Fjord. We took a shore excursion at each port.
Ketchikan: We opted to take a nature walk excursion to a wildlife refuge. Many people also went to this preserve to do zip lining. We were extremely fortunate to have BRIGHT SUNSHINE which everyone kept explaining was rare--Ketchikan receives 300 days of rain a year so be prepared. The ship docks right downtown so it is a very walkable cute town. We saw lots of bald eagles here. You are only in Ketchikan half a day, so back on the ship by lunch.
Juneau: The thing to do in Juneau is to go whale watching. We took a whale watching, glacier visiting trip from 8-5 that included lunch out on a little island. We saw LOTS of whales, and if you really want to see whales, this is the port to do it. You will probably also go to mendenhall glacier--but be forewarned that you will see TONS of glaciers on day 5 and 6, so if you have to miss this one it is OKAY. Also visit the Red Dog Saloon in town--even if there is a line! This was probably my favorite port. You don't have to be back on the ship until 8:00 p.m. so plenty of time to shop in town and you can walk from the dock.
Skagway: This was the only port day it rained (again--unusual and the ship's crew said it had been raining for three solid weeks prior to our trip). We took a bus up to the Yukon (you need your passport--this is in Canada) and then rode the narrow gage railroad back. Unfortunately, we couldn't see much of anything due to heavy fog. We did get to see some bears by the side of the road. We visited a tourist center in Carcross--if you want to see some sled dogs in summer training this is a good place for it. Skagway is TINY. There are only 800 permanent residents. One grocery store, one post office, one school--and 17 jewelery stores for the cruise ships.
Glacier Bay: Be prepared to be outside today and dressed warmly--and I do mean hats, gloves, and winter coats. You see two very large glaciers up close and personal and lots more from a distance. Again-blessed by sunshine--and I got a very nasty sunburn, so don't forget sunscreen either.
College Fjord: So named since all the glaciers here are named after Ivy League schools. You don't get her until about 5:30, and stay about 2 hours. At one point, you can see 8 different glaciers at once. You will leave here either in love with glaciers or never wanting to see another one. I was pretty much glaciered out at this point, plus this is when you have to get packed.
Whittier: Whittier is where you disembark. You will either take a bus ride of about 1 1/2 hours to Anchorage or a train or bus if you are going on to Denali and Fairbanks. Don't expect to do anything in Whittier--it is a town of 160 people with NOTHING there except boats.
Disembarkation: Disembarkation was handled very smoothly-we were separated in to groups depending on whether you were going to Denali/Fairbanks or to Anchorage and assigned a specific lounge to wait in and a time to disembark. Everything went right on schedule. You do not have to worrry about claiming your luggage as it is transferred to the airport or your destination for you. Be prepared that you have to have your luggage out by dinner the prior night, and not midnight as on other cruises. We were a little worried about the luggage as our flight back to Houston did not leave until after 8 p.m. that night, but the airport holds them in a special room for the cruises and it was very quick to claim them before we checked in to our flight. We were dropped off by the bus at a downtown visitors center in Anchorage about 12:00 noon. there are free shuttles to the airport every hour, but you have to claim your luggage before the room closes at 7 p.m., so 6:00 p.m. shuttle at the latest. the visitors center will also store your carry on luggage for you so you do not have to haul it around all day in Anchorage.
I would categorize this as a mid-range cruise aimed at an older clientele. The ship serves as the vehicle to get you to your destination and your real source of entertainment, which is Alaska in all its glory. This is not for the luxury cruisers. The food is adequate, plentiful, and fairly typical, but not elegant. The entertainment is about what we expected. The naturalist was a great asset, and if you missed her programs you really missed what was going on each day. GO TO HER PROGRAMS. Would I do it again? Absolutely. In fact, we plan on going again and taking our sons with us at some point.