Background We are a couple in our early 50's, traveling with our teen daughters, 17 and 15. This was our first cruise. We were celebrating our 25th wedding anniversary. We chose this Princess cruise, because we did not want to fly anywhere, and the port of San Francisco was closest to home.
Travel to Port The embarkation port was San Francisco, California. The traffic along the Embarcadero took almost an hour to travel the 2 miles from the Bay Bridge to the drop off point curbside in front of Pier 35. If you embark from San Francisco in the future, Leave lots of travel time. The Embarcadero is a traffic nightmare.
At curbside, two uniformed traffic officers directed traffic and allowed double parking in front of Pier 35 to unload. The sidewalk was amassed with people: tourists headed towards Pier 39 and passengers who had disembarked from the last cruise and where waiting for rides home. Princess personnel in their blue suit jackets and straw hats were present to help us. They called over the porters dressed in yellow vests who took our baggage from the car and loaded them to carts and brought them to the ship via a separate entrance way. A tip of $2 per bag was definitely in order and well worth it.
Check in and health issues We started to follow our bags, but Princess personnel directed us to the passenger entrance and then to a table to fill out health forms that asked "Are you currently suffering from diarrhea? Or have a fever?" Not a great way to start our relationship with Princess, but understandable amid fears of the Noro-virus. There were no health issues on this trip. Purell was available from hand dispensers outside the dining rooms and stewards dropped dollops of sanitizer into our hands like candy.
The check-in line was long, but the wait to get to the check-in person was quick. We got a map of the ship and our personalized cruise card, which was also the cabin door key, the credit card and identity card. It had our dining time, and table number printed on it. We went through the metal detectors and then had pictures of our faces taken which were linked to our cruise cards. When leaving and returning to the ship, the scanned cards brought up our pictures confirming our identity. The entire process took 45 minutes from curbside to stepping on the ship, where the first of many group photos were taken in front of fake scenic Alaska backdrops or with funny dressed characters at every port disembarkation and formal events.
There was no hard sell to buy any pictures, but they had the photos on display in a well-travelled corridor on board. We later decided we wanted a family portrait of us in our formal dinner wear and paid $25 for an 8x10.
Upon boarding, we were told our cabins were ready for us, but our luggage would be delivered later. We found our cabins and were greeted by our steward, George, who learned our names and always had a pleasant smile and greeting. He always knew when we went to meals and that is when he cleaned our room, made the bed and changed the towels. His service was exemplary.
Ship Info The Sea Princess is a mid-size ship with just over 1900 passengers and it was a sold out cruise. Other than at mealtime in the Horizon buffet, it never felt crowded. I found the ship to be in excellent shape, the decor in many of the lounges and MDR were done in wood veneers, brass fixtures and tastefully decorated. The seats and sofas were clean and comfortable. The ship decor was NOT outdated. So ignore those negative reviews. The elevators were painfully slow and we took the stairs to the MDR and the activities on Deck 7. After all the eating we did, we needed the exercise and you will too. The dance floor in the Vista Lounge wasn't big enough for everyone in the line dancing classes.
My only complaint was the Razzmatazz lounge smelled of heavy smoke and my wife refused to go into it. Smoking was allowed outside on Deck 7, but despite the strong ocean winds, the smoke was still noticeable as we took our daily stroll around the ship. (3 times around is 1 mile) There was no smoking in the casino and that seemed to upset some die-hard gamblers who needed to light up but didn't want to leave the gaming tables.
Stateroom We booked our cruise in early January, so we had a good selection of rooms to choose from. We booked a balcony on the starboard side in the middle of the ship because we feared we would have motion sickness issues. The middle of the ship is more stable and rocks less than the front or rear of the ship. We did feel some motion in the middle, but it was negligible compared to the bow or aft. We also chose B deck, with state rooms above us and below us to avoid noise issues from people walking on deck above or music coming from the lounges below. In all, it was a perfect room. Our daughters had an inside cabin across the hall. I felt that there wasn't enough overhead light in their inside cabin, but the girls had no problems.
The balcony room had a flat screen TV, which had an HDMI and VGA port, so I was able to plug in my iPad and display cable to play a pre-loaded movie, but we were so busy with the ship activities that we never got around to watching it.
After unpacking, the empty suitcases easily fit under the bed and out of the way. George brought us robes to use and 2 large pool towels were also in the room and were changed daily when we used them at the spa.
Dining room and meals We were hungry after boarding. George directed us to eat at the Horizon Buffet on Deck 14. The buffet was open seating, so after waiting in line and getting our plateful of food, we had to wander around to find a table for four or a large table to share. The waiters then asked for our drink orders and the soft-sell began. We declined to purchase the commemorative drink glass and the unlimited soda sticker for $39 and we stuck to the free lemonade, ice tea, water and coffee. We did buy the $29 coffee card (for 15 drinks) for the specialty coffee drinks like mocha, espresso and lattes. But they weren't as good as Peet's or Starbucks. The regular coffee at breakfast seemed fine to us. The food in the buffet was plentiful but not very good. We did not like the rushed atmosphere or the scramble to find an empty table. We never ate there again.
We ate the majority of our meals in the Main Dining Room and we loved the atmosphere, the service, the ambience and the food. We had traditional dining time of 5:15 pm. We thought this was early, but in retrospect, by the time the main entree was served, it was 6 pm, our normal eating time, and we were finished with dessert by 6:45 pm. We had ample time to go to the 8 pm shows, which meant getting a seat by 7:30 as the Princess Theatre filled up quickly. The later 7:15 pm dining time meant we would have to go to the 10 pm second shows and we were not night owls.
Roberto was our waiter for the entire trip, and he quickly learned our names and our dining preferences and drinks. When lemonade was not available in the MDR the first night and we made it clear that we would not buy the soda card for health reasons, he had a pitcher of lemonade and ice tea waiting for us at every meal thereafter. Dinner fare included appetizer, soup and salad, and main dishes such as lobster, steak, filet mignon and seafood, and dessert, all presented in the nouvelle cuisine style. The menu varied each night and meals in the MDR were one of the highlights of the trip.
Breakfast in the MDR was open seating, and we always asked and got a table for four by the window. The food was freshly made. I had papaya every morning and highlights were the Eggs Florentine and the Eggs Benedict.
We decided that for breakfast and dinner, we wanted a table just for the family as we were not awake enough in the AM to be sociable with others, and dinner was the time for the family to meet and talk about our day. But at lunch, when our daughters were not with us, we asked to share a table of 10 and met other couples and had pleasant conversations. (Politics was never discussed, thank goodness.)
We also ate at the outside Riverview Grill when the weather was nice and had freshly made hamburgers and fries, and ice cream cones at the sundae bar, and at the Cafe Cornishe there was freshly made thin pizza.
My wife discovered tea time at 3:00 pm and we did that several times for the tea, scones, clotted cream and jam. We ate 4 times a day and needed exercise.
Exercise The fitness gym is in the rear of the ship on Deck 12 and consisted of treadmills, a couple of stationary bicycles and some weight machines. There was rarely a wait to use them. I paid extra ($40 for 4 sessions during sea days only) for the spinning (cycling class). The 10 spinning cycles in the aerobics room were for the class use only and I exercised with same 5 other passengers the entire trip. Yoga was offered but sparsely attended. The beginning Zumba classes were jam-packed and held in the Vista Lounge with participants in the aisles and dance floor.
My wife and I soaked in the adults only spa, but there always seemed to be kids there. The staff never kicked them out.
Teen Club I worried that my teenage children, 17 and 15, wouldn't be happy. (at this age, they never are.) But I convinced them to go to REMIX, the teen program, on the first day and try it once. There were 79 other teens on this cruise and they met about 50 of them the first night. They formed their core friendships of 8, and hung around with about 20 others. They did most of the organized activities in the teen center with their newly made friends and by the end of the cruise were trading Facebook addresses. My teens report that there were some teens who played video games all day long, and some who found everything to be "lame", but my teens had positive attitudes. If they didn't like what was being offered in the teen center, they grabbed their new friends and did the line dancing classes or other activities offered to the rest of us.
On sea days, after breakfast, we never saw them until dinnertime as they were doing all the activities with their new friends.
Entertainment The family-oriented (PG-13 rated) entertainment in the Princess theatre was varied and of Las Vegas showroom quality. We enjoyed the comedy magic of Garry Carson, and comedian Scott Wyler's ship jokes, but his attempt at political jokes fell flat. The International crew talent show was inspiring, as was the cruise staff's sketch/song. (Don't want to reveal any spoilers here). I liked comedian Billy Vader, but could see how others would not. His shtick was sophomoric, some jokes were old and bawdy. We had mixed feelings about the show "British Invasion" as we could tell some of the singers were lip-syncing and we did not like the choice of songs in what was supposed to be a retrospective of British rock music. The dancing and choreography was so-so and the dancers reminded us of where dance show rejects end up when they don't get enough TV votes to become famous. The musical bands in the smaller lounges were good and the piano music of Larry Dunsmore in the Crooners lounge and his banter was your stereotypical lounge lizard act.
Activities On Sea days, my wife and I did a fitness hour on the treadmill or spin class after breakfast. No crowds at all. Then headed to Naturalist Doug Capra lectures on Glaciers, Marine Mammals, Alaska Nellie and Alaska history. These four lectures were a highlight of our cruise. Doug was an excellent speaker, had good Keynote slides and good material to present. Doug also narrated on deck at Tracy Arms Ford and during the whale watching in the Tongass Narrows.
We did the line dancing classes, the afternoon tea, and the afternoon trivia contests. (won twice)
On the complaint side, the advertised Bridge classes were not for beginners. The instructor made it clear that his tips were for advanced players. I wish there would have been a class to teach beginners how to play Bridge.
Also, I sat in on a health seminar that turned out to be an infomercial and a come-on to pay $50 for a private consultation to find out how to detox for weight loss. What a waste of time that was.
Nothing on the ship was ever a hard-sell, but you couldn't escape the tables of discount jewelry for sale, the over-priced Alaska souvenirs (but 20% off today ONLY), the art auction, and the ever present waiters willing to serve you a pricey alcoholic drink with a swipe of your cruise card. We asked for the free lemonade or ice tea, and they acted like they would have to swim to Seattle to get it. We also wanted to use our coffee card to get lattes in the Vista Lounge. The waiters complained that it would take a while because they had to go to some unknown place to get it and would do it when they weren't busy. But the coffee eventually showed up in a plastic cup with a lid- lukewarm.
There was also Bingo at $30 for 6 cards. We did not participate in this, but the activity was well attended.
Movies Under the Stars (MUTS) One night, we tried to watch "Hunger Games" outside on the big screen, but it was too cold, so we tried to watch it in our cabin, but there were satellite reception issues and we missed a chunk of the movie until service was restored.
There were theme dancing parties in the evenings. One night, we danced 50's music at the sock hop, (with a hilarious hula hoop contest) but passed on the Disco and the country-western nights.
TV The TV service did not get the regular network channels. For news, there was BBC, Fox and MSNBC. Wish they got comedy central. They had a romance movie channel, a channel that showed the view from the bridge, the Princess channel with their infomercial. We enjoyed the Wake Show each morning, where the cruise director, Neil and his deputy cruise director, John, would do a short live show on board that featured the day's events and notes and shout-outs from the passengers.
In summary, there was so much to do on sea days and nights that we barely cracked open the novels we brought. We had the mistaken impression that we would be sitting on wooden lounge chairs on the open deck, wrapped in wool blankets, reading our novels, but that never happened for us.
Excursions- Ports of Call Ketchikan: You can see everything in this town in two hours by walking, which left lots of time for souvenir shopping and visiting the overabundance of jewelry stores. The highlights for us were the Ketchikan Welcome arch, historic Creek Street and the totem poles around town. We took the free bus from Creek Street to and from the Totem heritage museum and the Salmon Hatchery ($15 for both). Another passenger paid for the motorized tour of the town and said it was a waste of money. The visitor information center at the cruise dock was just a counter full of tour operators peddling their expensive tours. We just grabbed a free walking tour map and ignored the sideshow barkers beckoning us to buy their tour. We liked Ketchikan as a port of call.
Juneau: Our ship dropped anchor in the middle of the inlet and we tendered to the Juneau docks. We rented a car from National, who picked us up in front of the Red Dog saloon (across the street from the tender drop off) and drove us to the AJ dock to get our car. We drove out to the Mendenhall glaciers and spent 2-3 hours there on a hike to Nugget Falls. If you take an organized tour that only spends an hour here, you won't have enough time to do the hike. You cannot bring food or eat food outside at Mendenhall because of Bear activity. So we drove into the suburbs of Juneau to get lunch. We found out Juneau has a Safeway, a Starbucks AND a Costco! We drove out to the shrine of St Therese. It was idyllic and scenic, and free, so it is not worth paying a tour company to take you there. Other passengers liked the whale watching tours at Juneau, which got closer to the whales than the cruise ship could ever get, but we did see whales from the cruise ship in the Tongass Narrows outside Ketchikan. The naturalist got on the ship's speaker to guide us where to look and what to see.
Haines: this port of call is your quaint Alaska town by the water with majestic snow covered mountains as a backdrop. So after ten minutes it was boring. You can walk the entire town and hit all the souvenir shops in an hour and a half. It's a 0.5-mile walk from the cruise dock to the main street. I would have rather docked in Skagway. A lot of passengers paid to go on the ship excursions to the Bald Eagle Preserve and to Skagway.
Tracy Arms: this is worth getting up for and being on deck at 6:00 am to see. Dress warmly as it was cold in the early morning. The cruise ship goes into the ford, and the scenery on either side of the ship is awe-inspiring. But the ship cannot get close to the South Sawyer glacier due to the ice and narrow channel. The show is over by 8:30 am, when the ship turns around and heads out to sea. Next time, I'd book a ship that went to Glacier Bay instead of Tracy Arms.
Victoria, B.C.: Beautiful, and worth seeing, but there was not enough time in port. We rented a car and went out to the Buchart Gardens on our own to save money, ($150 for a family of four vs. $300 if we had done the ship excursion tour to the same place. One hassle we had, doing the excursion on our own, was that our cellphone reception at the dock kept switching from Bell (US) to Rogers (Canada) and we couldn't call Budget Victoria to send a shuttle to pick us up. The clerk in the gift shop was kind enough to let us use her land line to call for a pick-up from the Ogden Cruise dock and time was wasted when we didn't know where the Budget van would be. The Budget driver walked around looking for us and we walked around looking for him and his van, but it all worked out in the end.
The drive out the gardens took a half hour and was easy to get too. With our portable car GPS, we had no problems finding the gardens or getting back in time for the 1:30 pm on-board deadline. The garden can be walked through in 2 hours. We rated the gardens as a highlight of our vacation.
Disembarkation We chose a late disembarkation time of 10:00 am, so although we had to vacate our rooms by 8:30 am, we had a leisurely breakfast in the MDR and then a short wait in any seat we could find in the lounges. They called our group to disembark early at 9:45 am and it was an easy walk-off to the specific luggage area where our bags were and we wheeled them out to the sidewalk and waited for our friends to pick us up. But the sidewalk outside the Cruise terminal was jammed pack with people trying to leave, people arriving early to board the ship for the next cruise, and hundreds of tourists walking the streets to Pier 39. Just like when we started our vacation. Back to reality.
Summary We loved the cruise and look forward to another one with Princess in a couple years. Princess seemed to be the perfect fit for us and a good value for the price.