We are experienced cruisers (17 cruises total; 10 with Princess) who had done the Alaska coastal cruise once previously, about 14 years ago. This was our first opportunity to add on the inland cruisetour portion of the trip. I would HIGHLY recommend the cruisetour to anyone considering an Alaskan trip. Inland Alaska is very different from the coastal ports...each unique in their own way and all worth seeing!
While this review is going to be 90% positive, I will go ahead and get the negative out of the way now. Princess' "EZ Air" program seems to be anything but easy. This is the second time we have booked air through Princess and we have had dismal experiences both times. In each instance we had delayed and/or canceled flights on our first outbound leg from our home city, causing the airline to reroute us with other carriers so that we wouldn't miss the ship. We finally made it to Vancouver, but it was a real nail biter as to whether we were going to make it in time. And this was only a three-hour flight from L.A.! We had a similar experience on our last cruise from Rome to Venice. Once again we had a delayed flight that would have caused us to miss our connection, which resulted in us being rerouted to a different airline. We definitely would have missed that cruise except that a group of 160 passengers on a Princess flight from England was even later than we were, therefore they held the ship for them. If it had just been the two of us, we would have been left watching the ship sail away! By booking air with Princess you are guaranteed that they will get you to the next port at their expense, but it would not be an ideal way to begin a journey. The Princess Air flight times also seem to be less than desirable and often laden with multiple connections. In the future we are going to 1) book our own air arrangements and 2) book a hotel in the departure city for one or two days prior to avoid these hair-raising experiences. Actually, we are going to wipe out the need for airlines altogether on our next cruise. We're sailing from LA to Hawaii round trip!
Once we finally made it to Vancouver, we had a great bus driver who pretty much gave us a city tour as we travelled from the airport to the port. He was informative and witty. Boarding the ship was a snap. Princess seems to have embarkation process down to a well-oiled machine. We had beautiful, sunny weather for our sail away party from a truly beautiful city.
We travelled with our adult son and his girlfriend. We each booked balcony cabins and opted to get them on the same deck, but opposite sides of the ship (one port, one starboard). Our thinking was that this arrangement would give us all privacy, but since we are all avid photographers, it also allowed us to have balconies on BOTH sides of the ship. So whenever whales were spotted or the scenery was better on one side than the other we would call the others over to share the view and they did likewise. It was a really great arrangement that I would highly recommend whenever traveling with multiple parties. Our balcony cabins were just fine. Carbon copies of every other Princess balcony cabin we've ever had, with a minor exception that the Emerald deck had larger balconies than others we've had in the past. Our balcony accommodated four chairs and a small table; we were used to two chairs and a mini table on balconies we'd had in the past (generally on Aloha or Baja decks). The queen size bed was comfortable and there is plenty of storage for both hanging and folded clothes. The in-room safe is great. While not large, we find that it holds what we need it to.
Our cabin steward, Jeffrey, was fantastic. I like an extra towel for my hair after showering. I only had to ask once and then every day thereafter received at least 3 (sometimes 4) towels. Our cabin was always cleaned quickly and efficiently.
We found the service in most of the dining venues to be excellent. We had somewhat slow service the first evening in the Bordeaux Dining Room but after that it was fine. We had Anytime Dining and never had to wait for a table the entire cruise. We had dinner one night in Sabatini's and once in the Bayou Cafe (specialty restaurants). We had great service in both venues and found the food to be excellent in both. In general, I am in agreement with those who feel that the quality of the food in the main dining rooms on all cruise lines has deteriorated in the past ten years. You now have to pay extra at a specialty dining room to get the quality you once received in the main dining rooms for the price of the cruise. That said, we feel that the food in the specialty restaurants is excellent. The steaks in the Bayou Cafe (or Sterling Steakhouse/Crown Grill on some other Princess ships) are of the same quality you'd find at Ruth's Chris or Morton's. The Bayou Cafe also had live jazz, which added a nice touch.
THE HORIZON COURT BUFFET
This is one of the areas that Princess seriously needs to work on. Because all the food is in one concentrated (small) area, it seems to always be chaotic on both the starboard and port sides of the buffet. They attempt (with signs) to get passengers to go in from one side and come out the other, but people seem to ignore this and so you have diners moving in both directions in what should be a one-way cafeteria style situation. It is also very difficult to find seating during prime meal hours. We recently took a brief three-day specialty (baseball) cruise with Carnival (the parent company of Princess) and while I prefer Princess in most other regards, Carnival does seem to have improved greatly on the buffet experience by spreading the various food options around into smaller "serving stations." For example, soups & salads are in one area. Main courses are in a different location. Desserts are in still another location. All of these stations are in the same general area, so it isn't difficult to move from one to another, but it definitely seems to spread out the number of passengers in any given place. It cuts down on the chaos considerably. We also never had a problem finding a table. Princess: PLEASE consider this when designing new ships and/or redesigning your existing ones!
We had an amazing vacation and I think a big contributor to that was the excursions. On our first trip to Alaska, we mostly went into the towns on our own and just walked around. This time we did many more excursions and it was worth the cost. Among our favorites:
--Whale watching - got to see many Orcas and humpbacks. Even got to see a group of humpbacks "bubble feed". It was amazing.
--Dog sledding - we flew by helicopter up to the nearby glacier and were then able to take turns driving a dog sled, with the help of an experienced musher. We had off an on rain that day and most of the groups earlier in the day got rained out and couldn't go. Somehow, our 2 p.m. tour was one of only a handful that made it out that day. We felt very privileged to have experienced this great adventure with amazing animals.
--White Pass Yukon Railroad - great scenery! It's also amazing to watch the views change as you ascend/descend through about three different micro-climates.
Princess definitely has its act together when coordinating moving large numbers of passengers from the cruise ship to their waiting train cars for the inland portion of the cruisetour. Despite arriving in Whittier during a howling rain storm (we're told that the town motto is "Welcome to Whittier, where the weather couldn't be ****ier!") we found that Princess has almost the entire route between the ship and train connected with a covered walkway. It helped immensely. They have assigned seating on the train and each group of four gets a table and four seats in the upper level dome car. On the lower level is an open area where you can experience the brisk temperatures and get some terrific photos. There is also an enclosed dining area on the lower level of the cars where you can have a sit-down meal if you wish. The whole process went very smoothly and the scenery was stunning. Each train car has a Princess guide, who gives you some occasional commentary about the areas you're viewing. There is also a dedicated wait staff in each car, with full meal and bar service available at an extra cost. (Once you leave the ship and are on the land portion of your tour, it's just like being on any other land based vacation. You pay for your meals/drinks, etc. No more cruise card!)
We spent two nights at the Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge, two nights at the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge and two nights at the Fairbanks Princess Riverside Lodge. I would highly recommend spending two nights at whichever lodges you choose. Spending only one night at each hardly gives you time to get the flavor of the place. Of the three lodges we visited, Mt. McKinley Lodge was my favorite. It's definitely off the beaten path (about an hour outside Talkeetna), but that's part of the beauty. It's just a gorgeous place with a huge deck for enjoying wine or cocktails with your travel companions. The lodge itself is beautiful as well, with very nicely appointed rooms and good restaurants. We were able to attend a "slide symphony" of Northern Lights photography set to music and then enjoy a talk by the photographer. Highly recommended. While at this lodge we enjoyed a horseback riding trip and an ATV adventure...both were lots of fun.
The Denali Princess Lodge is just outside the gates of Denali National Park, but is in a much more commercialized area. Lots of touristy t-shirt shops, etc. across the street so you don't really feel like you're in the wilderness. The rooms here were also older. If we visited here again, we'd ask to be placed in one of the newer buildings closer to the river. We took a Park Service Natural History Tour bus trip into the national park with a highly experience guide as our driver. We saw two sets of mother/baby moose and caribou. Off in the (very far) distance we saw some Dall sheep grazing on a mountainside. Also while at this lodge we took in "The Music of Denali" dinner/theater show. It's family style dinner served on long rows of picnic tables. The waiters later turn out to be the singers/actors. It's a kitschy show, but still fun.
At the Fairbanks Princess Riverside Lodge we took a float trip down the river. This was okay, but we had a half-insane guide in whom we didn't have much confidence. Princess includes a trip on a paddle-wheel riverboat as part of the cruise tour. We thought this would be boring, but it turned out to be extremely well produced. The family that runs the operation has set up presentations by a float-plane pilot (who lands and takes off on the river next to the boat), a dogsledding kennel, and native Americans who demonstrate how they filet a salmon. The presenters use microphone headsets so you can hear them on shore (or in the cockpit of their plane) without having to get off the riverboat. At the conclusion of the tour you have lunch (family style) in a dining room on the pier. The Fairbanks Princess Lodge also has a nice deck looking out over the river...very pleasant place to have a cocktail while watching people canoe or kayak by.
The cruisetour portion of the trip adds quite a bit to the cost of the overall cruise, but it is well worth it. Inland Alaska is very different from coastal Alaska. This gave us an opportunity to view both and I would absolutely do it again.