My wife and I have a number of friends or acquaintances we have met over the years in awe regarding the Alaskan cruise they took. This is a "big" destination for us, as we live in Atlanta and it is a long trip and major "investment" to take a trip like this. After reading the reviews from other cruisers and critics, we decided on a few "major" criteria items: 1) A balcony is a must, because of the spectacular views it was well worth the money to get the balcony for Glacier Bay National Park as well as each of the ports and while cruising at sea. It is far better than viewing through a window; 2) Start north, and cruise south - a read a critic review that the beauty is so incredible that if you start south and cruise north you end up having a let down as the beauty of the mountain / glacier landscapes is stunning and you have to "stop" and get off the ship. Cruising north to south (starting in Whittier, AK and cruising south to Vancouver (with a cruise day in Glacier Bay National Park) starts you off with spectacular views and then as you near civilization e.g. Vancouver, you are able to transition more easily; 3) select a cruise window of mid-July to mid-August since the cost of this trip was going to be high, we wanted to minimize the risk of "colder" weather as well as biting insects.
Our itinerary was fly into Anchorage and do a 3 day land package first. We stayed at the Captain Cook hotel for one night, we continued our land tour to overnight at the Mt. McKinley Princess Lodge and one night at Denali Princess Lodge in Denali via motor coach "bus". We then boarded a train from Denali National Park to Whittier, AK where our ship was a short walk away. The land tour went very smoothly and I would encourage anyone that has the time to take advantage of it. We did not take the extra day or two to go further to Fairbanks, and I'm glad we did not. We met several people on the cruise and I asked them the tell all question, "would you return to Fairbanks if given the opportunity?" Everyone we met that went to Fairbanks said "no", not worth the trip. Very small, not much going on, VERY rustic (more than Mt. McKinley Princess Lodge and Denali Princess Lodge. I would spend the time to go deep into Denali National Park on tours to see the wildlife vs. traveling to Fairbanks.
The train from Denali to Whittier was about 8.5 hours, yep - 8.5 hours! From Fairbanks, I believe someone stated it was closer to 12 hours. The train is very comfortable, you are assigned a train car and a table so no need to rush to get a seat as one will be assigned to you/your party and you are seated at table that has a bench seat on each side to accommodate 2 people each. The one thing I would suggest to you is to be sure you are seated in the direction the train is moving vs. watching the landscape pass you facing the back of the train. This is ESPECIALLY critical for anyone who suffers from motion sickness who must face forward when they travel. Thus, if this is important you'll want to board the train as soon as possible and claim your seat at the assigned table first. Keep your eyes open for moose, we say about 6 of them and you are more likely to see them within the first 2 hours of the train ride.
The train has a dining car and the food was very good, it was not "fast food" quality at all. You are able to freely move from car to car on the train if you would like. With a train ride that long, you'll want to stretch your legs for sure and want to be sure you bring a camera, reading material, cards, or other games especially if you have children. The storage you have on the train for carry-on's is one small bag that you can store under each of your bench seats.
One of the benefits of booking the tour with the land package through Princess was that they actually check you in for the ship on the train. In Wasilla (en route to Whittier), the train boards several Princess cruise line staff who will spend the next hour or so checking in each passenger for the ship. You'll want to have your passports and cruise itinerary with the booking code available for them to reference. Once they are done your cruise "credit card" for each passenger, cruise packet will be waiting for you the minute you arrive in Whittier. When the train stops in Whittier, another Princess Cruise Line employee will board each train car and begin handing each person their cruise credit card and packet. Once you receive that you can immediately leave the train while others are receiving theirs --- so you walk steps away to the canopy and follow the directional signs onto the ship. You'll pass through 2 security checkpoints, two before you are physically on the ship which includes a cruise credit card check, security scan of bags / metal objects, and then once you are on the ship you'll show your cruise credit card again where the security officer will then take a photo of you to associate with your personalized cruise card. All of this happened in less than 3 minutes, as there was NO line for my wife and I since we were the first ones off the train (luckily we were assigned to sit at the first table so were given our packets first).
When planning our trip, my wife and I could not decide on Anytime Dining or Traditional Dining. Originally we booked Traditional, 2nd seating but then decided to do Anytime Dining since we were on vacation and did not want to have a rigid time for dinner every night. Additionally, we enjoy meeting people and wanted to mix it up so we could meet new couples, etc. This worked out well, we met so many couples and made numerous new friends throughout the trip. Each evening, we would see what the ship's itinerary was for the next day and then pick a time to have dinner and made a reservation via the cabin phone. We never had a problem and ate dinner at a different restaurant every night, including The Pacific Moon, The Santa Fe, The Savoy, The Vivaldi, Sterling Steakhouse and Sabatini's. The Sterling Steakhouse and Sabatini's was FANTASTIC (both require a $20 per person cover charge). The other 4 restaurants had terrific service (no issues at all), the food in those restaurants on a scale of 1 to 10 has about an 7/8 which works for us. Sabatini's and the Sterling Steakhouse was a 9/10. We also had lunch at Alfredo's Pizzeria --- it was fabulous, do not miss out on that!
For breakfast, we ordered room service a few times where you can order cereal, pastries, coffee, juice, fruit, yogurt, and an egg/bacon breakfast sandwich. This worked out well when we had early starts for shore tours, the rest of the time we ate breakfast in the Horizon Court buffet where you could custom order your own omelet if desired.
**Navigating on the ship** One tip I would have is to figure out how far down the hallway from your cabin you need to walk until you can go directly up to the restaurants, clubs, etc. It took a few days to learn this, but the ship has areas where you can not just walk end-to-end on each deck. Some decks require you to go up one deck, down, then back up again to get to your destination depending on what you are looking for if you try to go end to end. Thus, my wife and i learned it was best for us to always walk to the start of the last third of the ship and then take the stairs (assuming the venue we were seeking was toward the back of the ship which most are). We almost always landed exactly where we wanted to. We also ALWAYS took the stairs, there are plenty of calorie opportunities on the ship so the last thing we needed to use was an elevator. That was part of our daily exercise regiment if you are well enough to do so you might wish to do the same.
**Exercise on the ship** I learned this on the next to last day, so here is a heads up for you joggers / walkers that like to start you day with exercise. The ship has an exercise facility in the front of the ship near Lotus Spa with a wide assortment of weight machines, treadmills, etc. However, if you are a power walker or jogger the place you want to go to is Deck 7 and Deck 8. Deck 7 allows you to powerwalk around 3/4's of the ship and from Deck 7 as you near the front of the ship has steps to allow you to go up and walk the front 1/4 of the ship then back down the steps again to Deck 7. It is posted if walk around decks 7/8 3 times this = 1 mile. My wife and I LOVED this track, we both wore sweatshirts and my wife wore sweatpants, hat and gloves whereas I wore shorts and the nippy air doesn't bother me as much. We found this to be much more enjoyable and we had the best view in the world as it was covered and we could enjoy sights, see an occasional whale, sea lions, etc. as we were walking. I ended up power walking 5 miles, and could have gone 10 more since you enjoy the sights so much and the cool air keeps you from overheating while power walking. I used the exercise equipment also, but would take the Deck 7/8 power walking route exclusively next time.
We did the White Pass rail trip which was very nice in Skagway, we did the Whale Watching and Salmon Bake in Juneau which was excellent - the whale watching is a must! We also did the float plane mountain tour and crabfeast which was very enjoyable in Ketchikan. On this, I wish we did the float plane bear tour vs. the floatplane mountain tour as you really don't get to see anything much different from what you have already seen when touring the mountains except you are in a small plane. Go for the bears! Also, while in Ketchikan walk down to the city centre where the water ladder is and the salmon swim upstream, it is fantastic and free. Ask a local, it is about 2 blocks from where the ship docks. Look up at the top of the trees above the waterfall and you will likely see bald eagles ready to fly down and scoop up one of the salmon.
Ports I would go back and visit if I had the opportunity were Juneau and Ketchikan. We felt both of these ports had much more going on, more to do and atmosphere. Did I mention Jewelry stores? Get ready, there are a TON OF THEM! We understood that the jewelers are predominately from the Caribbean and come up during the hurricane season to operate these satellite stores. They are EVERYWHERE!
We attend several of the shows and enjoyed each of them. There were just right, long enough but not too long where you start to wondering when the show will end so you can do other things that evening.
*** High Tea *** We became fast fans of high tea as we met a number of very interesting people and enjoyed fantastic small pastries, cookies, and club sandwiches . Try this at least one afternoon, don't get off the cruise until you give this one a try. It is very UNDER-RATED and easily missed.
That was our experience, I hope you enjoy yours as much as we did ours!