BACKGROUND: DH and I thought the best way to celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary was to invite our two children (and their spouses and children) to join us on a cruise to Alaska. We were thrilled that all were able to come along! This was our sixth Alaska cruise; we have sailed on Princess nine times. For two of our group, this was their first cruise; the others were relative newbies. It was our first time sailing with a child.
TRAVEL & BOARDING: We live in Seattle, so it was an easy trip from our house to Pier 91 via Shuttle Express. (It was about $100 each way for the shuttle; we could have parked a car at the lot adjacent to the pier for $175, but would have needed two cars to hold the luggage AND the seven passengers in our group.) The Shuttle Express driver was courteous and on time. Our grandson ("GS") is 15 months old, so we had reserved a carseat for him, and Shuttle Express had one ready both to and from the pier. We arrived at the pier at about 10:45 AM and dropped off our large pieces of luggage, then were quickly checked in without difficulty. (BTW, we brought along an umbrella stroller and a backpack, and used them both.) Boarding was absolutely not to begin until noon, so we were directed to the waiting area, where all the chairs were already taken. (Note: there was no mention of staggered boarding times; it was first come, first served.) At about 11:30, we were asked to form our line outside to make room for more people to queue up inside the terminal. So although it was a bit nippy, we all stood outside for a half-hour in a winding queue. It was just a smidge after 12:00 when boarding began. Princess is now using hand-held scanners to take your photo and "ding" you on and off the ship; four of these were in use at boarding, so the process went quickly. We immediately made our way to the purser's desk, to make reservations for the Ultimate Ship's Tour and to get additional key cards made so we could have a "key" to GS's room, and his parents could have a "key" to ours. These proved very helpful during the cruise, and I was glad to have found out about this possibility on the Cruise Critic Family board.
STATEROOMS: DH and I had a mini-suite with a balcony (on Dolphin), with the intent that it become the headquarters for family gatherings. It served this purpose well. We don't mind the lack of privacy of Dolphin's exposed balconies. Once on board, we asked our steward for a crib, and he came up with a foldable Graco Pack 'n Play in excellent condition (plus a twin bed sheet). As needed, we put this in the closet at GS's nap- or bed-time (dark, quiet, away from people), and at other times there was plenty of room for it in the "living room" portion of our mini-suite. Our bathtub was used to bathe GS. The balcony made a perfect "playpen" for GS; it had a great view of the water or port, was contained, and there was no way he could lose toys on it.
DD and SIL had a balcony (on Emerald) and found it quite adequate except for the small shower with clingy curtain.
DS, DIL, and GS had an obstructed-view room (on Caribe). They had originally requested a queen bed arrangement in Cruise Personalizer, but when a crib was added to their requests, the bed situation automatically changed to two twins, and could not be changed back to a queen. The steward overrode this "request," and had made up the bed as a queen, thinking they might want to have the baby in bed with them and not use a crib (to save on space). Their queen bed was under the window; once the requested crib was brought in, they asked to have the bed turned, and this gave them more room. The crib was a bit smaller than a typical crib. It was problematic when GS needed to take a nap or go to bed - his parents had to hide in the closet, or the bathroom, so he would not see them.
All the staterooms were in fine shape, in soothing colors - let the relaxation begin! We were able to get into them as soon as we boarded.
SAILAWAY: "The Drill" was held before departure; lifejackets are brought - but are not worn - to the drill; attendance was taken via scanned cruisecards; lifejackets were put on at the very end of the drill. Then we were dismissed and the sailaway festivities began. We departed Seattle on time.
DINING: Between us, we ate at the Horizon Court buffet (often eating next to the covered pool), the pizzeria, the poolside grill, the ice cream bar, the main dining room (we had Anytime Dining, ate early, and never had to wait to get in), afternoon tea, room service (including the Balcony Breakfast - $32 for two), Sabatini's ($20 per person), the International Cafe, and the British Pub Lunch (offered one day only - Friday). All get rave reviews from us. Several of our group are full- or near-vegetarians, and there was always a variety of options for them. Wait staffers were always quick to get a high chair, or a bowl of fresh fruit to keep GS happy. High chairs were always pristine, and had trays all but one time. We brought plastic sippy cups and disposable bibs and placemats to most meals with GS. The wait staffers appeared to enjoy GS and never made a fuss about dropped food. Several commented that they had children at home, and some whipped out photos to share with us.
We bought Unlimited Soda cards ($36.23 per person) and Coffee Punch Cards (15 punches - about $30).
Changes we noticed in the buffet (compared to previous cruises on Princess) were the addition of a serving station (across the aisle from the main serving stations) for breakfast pastries and Belgian waffles at breakfast and for desserts during lunch and dinner; now the (cloth) napkins and silverware are already at your place (instead of being handed to you when you picked up your plate at the entrance); and there were usually some pre-made, wrapped sandwiches available at breakfast (presumably so you could take them along on excursions).
A thing we might have changed would be to add hand-sanitizer dispensers outside the main dining rooms - just because there's a restroom outside the dining room doesn't mean folks are washing up before eating.
ACTIVITIES & ENTERTAINMENT: Martyn Moss was the CD, and he did a fine job. A good mix of humor and seriousness. Captain Edward Perrin kept us informed about what was going on when we had "diversion" to the daily plan.
DS and DIL signed up for Spinning and Yoga classes. Each was a three-session package. Spinning was a new activity for DS, but he got into it as the classes progressed. The yoga classes started out at a fairly low level but allowed for more advanced moves especially at the later sessions. Several of our party used the gym, and found it had high-quality equipment with enough of it that there was always something available.
We played trivia a couple times, doing well but just short of the "winner" level.
DS and DIL wished to dance, but found that some sessions had been taken over by a group of over 100 folks from a dance convention. Later, they enjoyed an evening at Skywalkers Nightclub.
Most of our group watched "The Hunger Games," either via Movies Under the Stars, and/or in the Princess Theater. The popcorn was excellent!
Some of us went to the Crew Talent Show, which was a 50-50 mix of talented crewmembers (piano, ukulele, singing, dancing) and the cruise director's staff doing elaborate camp skits. Beforehand, each audience member was given a balloon to blow up, and then we were to bat these around the Princess Theater - self-amusement? Got us in a Happy Place, I guess.
We watched two of the three production shows - "Destination Anywhere" and "British Invasion" - and enjoyed them, especially the latter. The lifting stage (brings up a floor from below) had broken before the British show was to be run, so that show was cancelled for its second-to-last-night (only) showings. Shows featuring jugglers and a comedian were hastily arranged to replace the production show that night. With much effort, the stage lift was repaired the next day, and two performances of the British show were done mid-day, before arriving at Victoria. Passengers were grateful for the effort involved to make this happen.
We also watched the Cooking Demo (where the lifting stage also was not functioning, meaning numerous parts had to be brought up by hand). It was riotously funny, as usual. Then we went on the Kitchen Tour, which had a huge line traversing the 5th floor and ending in a dining room at the "Onboard Outlet" sale (selling off - for instance - Princess T-shirts from faraway ports not visited on this cruise).
Several of us watched the Fruit and Veggie Carving demo, and the following Martini demo. Always amusing, but we wished the fruits/veggie creations had been left out longer for more photo-op time. The ice-carving demo was on Glacier Day and was enjoyed by members of our group.
Two of us participated in the Princess Pop Choir (basically group karaoke). This activity was lead by one of the Cruise Director's staff (Chris) and he did a wonderful job of helping 30 or so folks of varying ages and degrees of singing ability to have a great time. There were four one-hour rehearsals; we were given lyrics but no music - this was fine because most everyone knew the melodies for all the songs. Sadly, we had few men turn out, but even without them, we did harmony and sometimes descants. We also did some movements (stepping, swaying, etc.). One song had speaking parts, allowing for solos or duets. On the last day, we did a performance in the Piazza, wearing black and white (or as close as we could come to those).
The seven of us participated in other activities as well - there are so many things happening on this ship, they are Too Numerous To Mention!
LAUNDRY: The self-service laundries are closed when the ship is in Alaskan waters, meaning mid-cruise. "Make a note of it" and plan ahead. On this trip, which departed Seattle on Sunday at 4 PM, the laundry rooms were closed from 10 PM on Monday through 8 AM on Friday.
CHILDREN'S CLUB: GS, at 15 months, was too young to attend these on his own, but children under the age of three may use the rooms when accompanied by a parent. We used the facility twice, just to give GS some place to run around and try something new. Most activities there were too advanced for him, but he enjoyed playing with Duplos. There is a covered Big Wheels area which he also liked.
SHORE EXCURSIONS NOT MENTIONED ELSEWHERE HERE: Four of our party went on the Ultimate Ship's Tour ($150 per person). This was lead by an assistant cruise director. The person in charge of each space explained what happens in that space. There were snacks in the galley, and with the captain on the bridge. The group was unable to go into the Medical Center, as there was a patient needing attention. Photos were taken and sent to our rooms later that day, along with a Princess terry robe and chef's jacket and personalized stationery.
AND NOW, FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT: On Monday evening, an announcement was made that Star Princess had received a distress call, and we would be re-tracing our path to attempt (or assist in) a rescue. It seems a double-masted sailboat had lost its rudder, had no power, its rigging was torn, and one of the two men aboard was diabetic and in need of medical attention. The sailboat was being tossed about in high (for a sailboat) seas and wind and had been adrift for over 24 hours. When Star Princess arrived on the scene around 11:15 PM, an airplane had already located the sailboat and had marked its position with light buoys. A military helicopter approached and hovered over the sailboat and shone a powerful spotlight on it. As the sailboat bobbed violently from side to side, it seemed its mast was repeatedly in danger of hitting the helicopter. Passengers on the Star Princess were instructed to turn off their balcony lights, and to refrain from taking flash photography. A tender was prepared, with rescue personnel garbed up and ready for action. The medical department was prepped to receive the hapless sailors, and crew closed off the upper decks of Star Princess and prepared for possible interfacing with the helicopter. After some time, Star Princess was asked to form a windbreak, so the diver from the military helicopter could have some chance of being lowered onto the sailboat's deck. Eventually the diver was twice lowered into the sea, swam to the sailboat, climbed aboard, and used a sling to transport the men one-at-a-time up into the helicopter. (The helicopter transported the sailors to a nearby hospital, from which they were shortly released. A dog on the sailboat was rescued when the sailboat was towed to port the next day.)
Star Princess was excused from this rescue scene at around 1:30 AM, and resumed her path north. The rescue operation caused us to arrive in Ketchikan about six hours late, and some shore excursions there were cancelled as a result. Staff did a great job of quickly coming up with a revised schedule of morning shipboard activities, and also did their utmost to re-arrange tours and keep us informed about the changes. We did not hear even one passenger complain about the disrupted evening, or having to miss a shore excursion in Ketchikan.
DISEMBARKATION: We did self-help (walk-off with our luggage), and were in the second group, allowed to leave at 7:45 AM. DH and I had been sent a bouquet by our children (in honor of our anniversary) and there was a tense moment as to whether Customs would allow it into the U.S. - but once they determined it had been purchased onboard, it was allowed through. We contacted Shuttle Express after exiting Customs, to activate our previously-made reservation, and within about 20 minutes, a van arrived to take us home. We were enjoying a cup of tea in our own living room by 9:30 AM!
SUMMARY: We greatly enjoyed our family vacation on Star Princess; there were more activities than we could participate in, the staff was friendly and accommodating, the food was great and plentiful. It was wonderful how accepting the crew was of the 15-month old -- his parents especially were very favorably impressed. Hope to be able to do it again!