Princess Alaska Inside Passage with Tracy Arm Fjord July 28-Aug 4, 2012
Let me start this review with some background on our cruising history, etc. We were a group of 7 traveling on this trip -- my parents (50s), brother and his wife (20s), myself (31), DH (38) and our 2 Â½ year old DD. My DH and I are Diamond members with Royal Caribbean. No one in my group had sailed with Princess and none of us had been to Alaska before. So lots of new experiences for us and a good comparison to follow between RCCL and Princess cruise lines! We always book our cruises thru Cruises Only -- our TA there is magnificent and highly recommended!
I will attempt to go in order of our itinerary here, but may bounce around a little as I think of things.
Pre Cruise/Embarkation Day 1
We flew into Seattle the day before the cruise. Did not arrive until 10pm so just wanted something cheap and by the airport for convenience purposes with the toddler! I chose the SleepInn based on TripAdvisor recommendations. We waited 40 minutes for the complimentary hotel shuttle to arrive and pick us up and that was after 3 phone calls to the hotel. We had reserved 2 nonsmoking rooms. One room was a smoking room and the hotel was sold out so no hope of moving to a new room. We were too tired to argue at that point in the evening. The young man at the front desk was nice enough to go into the breakfast stash and get our little girl some milk for bedtime, so that was a great blessing at 11pm with a tired cranky kiddo. The morning breakfast was quite good, waffles, sausage and the standard continental fare, but VERY busy. We had to get our food and take it back to our room. Temps in Seattle around 70 degrees, a gorgeous day.
We arranged our trip to the pier through Already There transportation company. For a group of 7 people and all of our luggage, cost was $120 each way including gratuity. The lady that handles all the reservations was very on top of things. The driver was a bit late picking us up, but we had been called and notified of his delay. Very nice driver, professional service. We used them again on our return to the airport. No issues with them, would not hesitate to reserve with them again.
The driver picked us up at 11:45 am. We arrived at the pier at 12:05. Princess did not follow the staggered boarding recommendations. We were Aloha deck 12 and were onboard by 12:40pm. Check in was easy and organized. No problems whatsoever. Our cabin was ready when we boarded, which is never the case with RCCL. So we immediately went to check out our cabin and drop off our carry on bag. We had a balcony cabin BB midship deck 12 (A341). Originally we had booked an interior cabin on deck 12 near the rest of my family but the "Upgrade Fairy" at Princess contacted me approximately 5 weeks before departure and informed me of this complimentary upgrade. Way to go Princess! We have never, in 10 cruises, been upgraded with RCCL, even on cruises that were not completely sold out with RCCL. So this was a great first impression! Standard balcony cabin -- had a bed that unlocked and pulled down from the ceiling for the little one (even though we left it up in the ceiling all week and she just slept in the middle of our large-enough bed). The bed was very, very firm, my entire group had stiff backs the entire week. No couch, but there was a chair and small table and mirror with a desk/vanity in the main living area to get ready. Kept things moving smoothly while one was showering! Bathroom was small as usual, but not a problem. Large closet space and plenty of cubbies for unpacking 3 of us in our room, no problem. We just slid our suitcases under the bed and put the car seat and stroller at bottom of closet. No lack of space for us and we pack HEAVY. There is a mini-fridge that was unlocked and refilled with ice daily and soda if requested. This was nice for us as our DD likes milk at night and first thing in the morning -- we could keep a stash in there so we were prepared! The main complaint in our cabin was the nightstands on either side of the bed -- for whatever reason, not sure if it was the height of them or how far out they stuck beside the bed, but both my DH and I had bruises on our arms (or head, poor DH) from repeatedly whacking the corner in the night. A minor issue, but wanted to note it.
Our room steward was Roger -- he was very friendly and attentive. Only had to ask him once for extra towels, otherwise he kept our room clean morning and night. No cute little towel animals on Princess like on RCCL, but that was replaced with chocolates on our pillows instead. Nice touch!
Embarkation day was spent exploring the ship -- definitely a smaller ship compared to the massive RCCL ships we are used to (Allure of the Seas was our last trip!). We missed having the large promenade area, but the Piazza was nice to spend time in as well. The Golden Princess is well kept, clean and beautiful. Lots of public areas, places to tuck away and have a glass of wine or read a book. I personally liked the Vines wine bar -- had sushi one afternoon as a little snack while I enjoyed my Sauvignon Blanc and chatted with a friendly passenger from Texas.
The Pizza on the Golden Princess is pure heaven -- and we are a family crazy for pizza!!!!!! Their pizza was a NY style, thin crispy crust pizza. They had pepperoni and cheese every day -- along with a specialty pizza. The first day was a margherita pizza and was our favorite specialty of the week. We ate here for either lunch or some sort of snack EVERY day. Loved it.
Muster drill was at 3:30pm. No big deal, 20 minutes tops. Our muster station was in the casino, which was fun with a curious toddler and all the flashing machines.
We had chosen the early dining (5:45pm) because of having a little one with us. Trying to keep schedules similar to home! It worked out quite well for us actually -- the only day we missed dinner due to port excursions was Juneau. More to follow on that. We were assigned the Canaletto dining room on deck 6. We were tucked back in a far corner, which was quiet and nice for our chatty group! Our servers were Jade and Dominidor both from the Philippines. I cannot tell you enough how much we enjoyed these two men. They were top notch for service and personality. They took exceptional care of our little girl and the adults as well. Best service I have EVER had in a dining room on any cruise ship I have been on hands down. We did see our head waiter a few times at the beginning of the cruise but not again thereafter. There were mints available as you exit the dining room, which is a little amenity no longer on RCCL.
Some people have been complaining about the language barrier on this ship since there are many staff members from Philippines -- we never ever had an issue understanding any of the crew members.
Our first full day was spent at sea. Temps around 60 degrees. There were plenty of activities listed in the Princess Patter for us to enjoy -- We did notice that Princess very very rarely blasts announcements over the intercoms regarding ship activities like RCCL or Carnival do. This was a relaxing and quiet blessing that we all appreciated!!! Princess is definitely a more mellow, calm and relaxed environment than RCCL or Carnival. Art auctions, wine tastings, dance classes, art classes, etc. were still available. But it wasn't broadcasted in an obnoxious way. My only noted exception to this was the for-fee class offerings -- ie. Wine tastings. There were a few different wine tastings offered that cost approx $25 to attend. These were pushed heavily by the staff -- I was approached 8x by staff members to book the first wine class alone. This was probably my main complaint of the entire vacation. So in my opinion, if that's the worst thing Princess did... it was a fantastic week! ?
We did spend some time daily in the Kid Zone with our toddler. She is not yet 3 years old, so we could not enroll her in the kid program. We could bring her to the Penguin room (ages 3-8) however, as long as 1 adult was with her at all times. And may I note, they were strict on the 1 adult thing (both Mommy and Daddy could not go) as to not overcrowd the room. She loved it in the Kid Zone. Coloring, music, games, puzzles, etc. She begged to go back everyday. The staff said on our cruise, which was sold out, there were 65 children in the Penguin age group onboard.
We also spent time daily in the Calypso pool area on deck 14 -- This area is covered and the pool is very warm, like bath water. Felt fantastic, we loved it in there. With the exception of the last day onboard, it was never crowded in the Calypso pool or the hot tubs. We did see a few people braving the outdoor pools on more than one occasion -- but it was too cool for us to attempt this!
Several of us tried our luck in the casino -- overall as a group we ended up ahead thanks to one big slot machine win for my SIL. The casino is quite small, but was not ever crowded and had plenty of fun slots for us to play. My DH had some fun at the Blackjack table one day as well. Drink servers were abundant but not annoying and the dealers were friendly.
This was the first formal night -- most people were dressed up in dark suits and cocktail dresses. Passengers seemed to choose one extreme or the other -- either very dressy, or very casual. We all dressed up, men in tuxes and women in gowns. We were not out of place or over dressed. There are many photo opportunities available from ship photographers, however, none of ours turned out very well so we did not purchase any.
Day 3 -- Juneau
Woke to very low clouds and light constant rain in Juneau. Temps in 50s. We had booked the Bears, Glacier and Whales tour thru Princess ($495pp). When we got off the ship, our tour operator informed us that no planes would be flying all day due to the low clouds and fog. We could still do the whale portion of our trip for $199 if we wanted or could have a full refund. The operator told us that the plane and helicopter tours had been cancelled A LOT this season due to fog and clouds -- said a nearby town had not received its mail via air in over a week for the same reason. We were very disappointed as were looking forward to the plane and bear portion of this tour. However, we chose the refund and booked a different excursion through a local vendor -- Dolphin Tours. We did a Glacier tour and whale watch tour cost was $160pp and they picked us up right at the pier. Great company with wonderful drivers and guides. The glacier area is gorgeous, saw a few bald eagles, only had an hour there but that was plenty unless you are a real nature buff and want to check out every exhibit in the museum. We had 2 full hours on the water for the whale watch in a covered/heated boat. This was wonderful -- we saw LOTS of whales, including 1 that breached right next to our boat. It was fantastic and our naturalist/guide was very informative and fun. Hot chocolate, soda, water and a smoked salmon taste were included in this tour.
Since we did not get back from our tour until after our early seating dinner time, we were told we could just drop in the Bernini dining room (assigned as an Anytime Dining room) and have dinner there. So we did. Service was great, food came out fast, slight lull in bar service, but that was not bad either.
Day 4 -- Skagway
Another drizzly wet day in Skagway with temps again in 50s. We certainly made use of our rain jackets on this trip -- If you do not pack one, no fear! The ship sells some nice ones for under $30. That is one of the few good things to say about the Princess gift shop however. I was really hoping for a cool Princess tshirt since we were first time Princess cruisers and wanted to add to my RCCL stash. But, there were only a few Princess tees, mostly polos. Not much Princess "stuff" at all actually, quite surprising.
We had booked the White Pass Train ride roundtrip tour thru Princess. Cost was $129pp, Child $99. Please note that people line up for this excursion on the pier - if you are a group that all wants to sit together in the same rail car, I recommend you get there about 30 minutes before your excursion time. This ride is gorgeous scenery with limited narration from a guide. It is a 3 hour round trip ride. It does not matter what side of the train you sit on because you will be asked to switch sides and flip the seats around on the way back so you can see views on both sides of the train. We really enjoyed the trip up the Pass, most of us napped on the return as it was a recap. One of those excursions that is super interesting to do once, but we probably wouldn't do again.
Day 5 -- Tracy Arm Fjord
We were set to start our fjord journey around 8am, we did get there early and started making our way in around 7am. Clear skies, crisp and cool though in the 40s as we started the day. We ordered in room service for breakfast so we could enjoy the scenery from our balcony. Room service is fast on Princess, no issues at all. They make you sign for the delivery, big or small, and on the signature ticket there is a space listed for gratuity, which we added a small amount occasionally.
As mentioned, it was a chilly day, the coldest of our trip. We did have gloves and scarves on while sitting on the balcony. Winter coats definitely NOT necessary if you pack and dress in layers as everyone recommends. My typical attire each and every day was a tshirt, zip front hoodie and a light jacket over the top, or my rain jacket. Princess does have some plaid throw blankets out by the Movies under the Stars screen. We picked up one of those as well.
Scenery in Tracy's Arm is breathtaking, the most beautiful of our trip in my opinion. It takes about 3 hours to get all the way in to Sawyers Glacier. Our princess got the closest to Sawyers Glacier as they have in more than 6 years. It was stunning. Lots of little seals laying out in front of the glacier as well. If you want a picture at the bow or stern of the ship in front of the glacier (the ship does spin around once so everyone gets a good view of the glacier) you will be among friends -- everyone had this idea. We were able to get a great group shot at the bow, but did wait a bit so we did not have 10 other random people in the pix with us. Our ship did sell a DVD at the end of the trip with video from our trip thru the fjord. It was narrated by the naturalist onboard our trip and was the REAL video from our actual day. My parents bought this as a souvenir, cost was $40. All in all, everyone really enjoyed this day.
Day 6 -- Ketchikan
We were already docked in Ketchikan when we woke up that morning, before 6am arrival. Mostly dry morning, upper 50s for temp. We got off the ship around 8:30am and just walked around the town, shopping and breakfast. There are many places for good fresh seafood if you wait until 10:30 or so for them to open. Some of us went to the Lumberjack show, others went to the Deadliest Catch tour, both booked thru Princess as prices were nearly the exact same as if booking independently, and the ending time on both was very close to sail away time so we just went with ship sponsored tours! The Lumberjack show was sold out, very full outdoor (but covered) stadium. A cute and cheesy one hour show, with a lot of hooting and hollering and 4 lumberjacks "competing" against each other. It was a laid back, goofy show in my opinion. We enjoyed it, but I would not want to see it again. The Deadliest Catch tour was thoroughly enjoyed by those in my group that went. The ship, the Alleutian Ballad was on season 2 of the Deadliest Catch TV show as were a few of the crew on this tour. The crew was very hands on, showing how the fishing pots operate and caught some crab and other sea creatures for the audience. Also saw a very large population of bald eagles on this tour -- they went to a private water reserve area where it was legal to feed the eagles so there were MANY feeding. Thumbs up for the Deadliest Catch tour.
Sailed away from Ketchikan around 12:30pm, so a rather short stay here. This was another formal night in the dining room and also LOBSTER night. The lobster and prawns for dinner were delicious -- even better than that on RCCL. Our waiter brought out extra lobster tails and prawns for anyone that wanted them and several did.
Day 7 -- Victoria, BC
This was basically a sea day since we did not port in Victoria until around 6pm. Clouds and sun and 50+ degrees. Day was spent by many packing and checking out the 70% off shopping sale they had set up in one of the dining rooms. Some of us went to the spa this sea day. They ran a special in the Princess Patter for a 50 minute massage and a 25 minute petite facial for $139. We had called on Tuesday to schedule for Friday at the spa and had no problem getting 3 people in at the same time, so it must not have been very booked up. All of us loved our treatment and our therapists. We all bought some of the seaweed oils and gels (rather spendy, $110 for both) but they are wonderful products. Having only been in the spa once on an RCCL ship and having a horrible experience, I was reluctant to try again. But this was a much different experience. Lovely, yet very simple spa. Great service and attitude by all the staff. Would most definitely go again.
We did the Pub Lunch in the Crown Grill today. It is offered a few different times throughout the week. It is no additional charge, just something different to try. There is a limited menu of 3 or 4 items to choose from, including fish and chips or prawns. It was quite good, a nice change of venue for us! The desert was delicious as well, a cherry jubilee type of dessert.
Since our stay in Victoria was only from 6pm to midnight, the dining room only served the first seating that night, which worked out perfectly for us. Let all those super eager to get off the ship get off, we had a lovely yet sad-to-go last meal with our dining room crew, and headed into Victoria.
Victoria is absolutely gorgeous. It was 65 degrees and sunny outside. There are flowers everywhere. Easy to walk around and explore. We got the $9 bus transfers from Princess before getting off the ship for a bus ride downtown, which went back and forth every 30 minutes. We had thought about walking as we had read online previously that it was a walk-able trip, however, with our limited time in Victoria, we thought we'd just hop the bus and get to where we were going quickly. It was a good idea, as the walk would have been longer than I'd expected. Some of our favorite chocolate bars (Coffee Crisp) are a Canadian only product so we hit up a store and stocked up! The downtown area is busy and beautiful. Victoria is a friendly city, we just walked around and explored. We all had wished there was more time here, would have loved to see Butchart Gardens. Once it gets dark, lots of buildings light up and the views are magical. We got the 10:30pm bus back to the ship and had no problem getting seats. I'm guessing the next few busses would have been quite packed back to the ships.
We stayed the night in Seattle after debarkation so did not rush off the ship. When filling out the debarkation survey, we chose a late time so we could have breakfast and not have to hurry. We were assigned a 9:40am departure from the Explorer Lounge for our debarkation. We were off at 9:45am and VERY quickly through customs, porter grabbed our luggage, and on the curb waiting for our ride by 10:00am. Easy and painless!
We rented a car for our day in Seattle - a shuttle with Enterprise will pick you up right at the ship when you debark and take you to your rental car. We toured the Chateau Ste Michelle winery and my DH did the Boeing tour (both about 20 miles outside of Seattle). Thumbs way up on both of these options. It was an unusually hot day in Seattle, 90+ degrees. We attempted to wander the Pike's Market for a bit but it was a Saturday and crazy busy and we were just too hot. Would love to spend more time there again!
Entertainment -- Only a few of my co-travelers attended one of the major production shows (not myself). They said it was not good at all, most of the music and singing was pre-recorded, and the live talent was very sub-par. After hearing that, we never planned to attend any others.
Music -- We sat in the Piazza several evenings or before dinner listening to music. The musicians were good, soothing and mellow music. We really enjoyed having our cocktails and chillin out there.
Soda and Coffee Cards -- Princess offers 2 different soda card options. Option #1 is soda only. Cannot quote price, we did not do this one. Option #2 is soda, juice, mocktails and ice cream shakes. Believe cost was $49. The ice cream shakes at the Ice Cream bar were delicious -- DH and my Dad definitely got their monies worth on this! And DH was nice enough to bring our toddler a Shirley Temple from time to time as well. If you buy your soda card on embarkation day, you will get a nice little tumbler to use. You get a sticker on your room card that you show the staff to use your "soda card". They don't swipe it or anything to check your validity, just flash the sticker. The coffee card cost $28 and was a punch card worth 15 specialty coffees at the International Cafe on Deck 5. The card does not specify your name on it, and my whole group shared it back and forth as we wanted a latte. The regular coffee onboard was very good, especially the decaf in the evenings. But I like more of a foo-foo type morning coffee, so stuck with a caramel latte or my favorite, triple shot (it is not Starbucks strength!) vanilla bean latte. We never had to wait more than 5 minutes to get coffee here. The International Cafe, where you get the specialty coffees, also has an awesome assortment of pastries and a hot breakfast sandwich (cooked on the Panini press fresh each time). The donuts and croissants are delicious and we grabbed something form here every morning.
Ship Temps -- Many previous cruisers had mentioned that the Golden Princess was drafty and cold in the public spaces. Our group actually felt the exact opposite -- we were quite warm in the dining room, our cabins and even in the Piazza area. I had packed several wraps or cardigans to wear at dinner and never once wore them. My family does tend to be on the warm-side, so perhaps it is just us but thought I'd make mention of this.
Wine package -- A 7 or 10 bottle wine package is NOT offered on cruises shorter than ten days on Princess. This was definitely a shocker from RCCL as we are used to getting at least the 7 bottle package and having wine at dinner every night (at a discount with the package price). Princess does offer a pre-chosen 3-bottle package of "premium" wines, cost was like $129. We did not like any of them and did not do this. We are white wine drinkers and our average cost for a Riesling or Pinot Grigio ranged from $26 to $34. They did run out of our favorite Pinot Grigio the last evening so we got a nicer bottle for $44 and of course it was delicious.
Prepaid Gratuities -- On RCCL, when you do prepaid gratuities for your stateroom attendant and dining room staff, you get little vouchers and envelopes delivered to your cabin so that you have something to hand each person on your last day. Princess does not do anything like this. We felt inclined to give some of our staff additional gratuity on top of the standard prepaid amounts. Did not really know how to do this? Awkwardly hand our waiter a $20? The Pursers desk did have some plain envelopes they gave us so we just wrote each one a note and put the additional gratuity in there for them.
Luggage Tags -- On RCCL, you are sent nice colorful luggage tags in the mail before your cruise to affix on your luggage. With Princess, you print them off online, fold them up and staple them to your bags. This did not work well at all, and most of ours had been yanked off by the airlines and we had to redo them once in Seattle.
Dining -- There was one night the Maitre d' brought out some of the kitchen management and presented tables with Baked Alaska for dessert. It was delicious and the most rowdy our dining room ever got -- not like on RCCL where there are 2 or 3 nights where the staff all sings to you and people clap and wave napkins in the air (don't get me wrong, it was fun the first few cruises, we are not stuffy or not about having fun, but after 10 cruises, that hokey stuff gets to be a little MUCH).
We all loved our waiters in the Dining room and the food was fantastic, so we never opted to pay the upcharge for one of the 2 specialty dining options. We do not feel that we missed out on anything by not going. And let me just say, several in my group are what I like to call "foodies" and none of us had anything bad to say about the food. We were all extremely impressed and a 100% consensus that it was better than RCCL or Carnival as we have all traveled with those lines previously.
I would give this trip a 4.5 out of 5.0. Scenery, cruise staff, overall dining experience and of course my traveling company made this a fantastic trip. Having never sailed to Alaska, it was a totally different experience and a trip that is hard to compare to any other. Many have people have asked me if I prefer the Caribbean/Mexico or doing Alaska. My response is that there really is no comparison -- yes both were seen via cruise ship travel, but the experience is 100% different.
The only thing that Princess cannot offer that RCCL does is the GINORMOUS ship experience: ie: Oasis and Allure. These two mammoth ships on RCCL are the destination without even needing to port to find fun things to do. There is a new ship set to sail in 2013 for Princess that is a big larger with more amenities and we are super excited to try it!
Lastly, in my opinion, Princess won us over in service and food, which are 2 of the top things on my vacation happiness scale. I will be trying a Princess cruise in the Caribbean, sooner rather than later I hope!