Sapphire Princess Cruise Critic Review
Voyage of the Glaciers, Southbound (Whittier to Vancouver BC).
Our group of 13 people took the Sapphire Princess from Whittier to Vancouver BC, starting on Labor Day weekend, 2012. Age range from 40s to early 60s.
Our journey started in Anchorage, with a group dinner at Glacier Brewhouse on the night before our cruise. This was excellent, but reservations are an absolute must. Thanks to suggestions on CruiseCritic, we knew to visit the liquor store just up the street to stock up on wine (Downtown Wind and Spirits 930 W. 5TH AVE -- 907-258-0930). Important note... Everyone in your group who enters the store must have ID, or they cannot sell to anyone in your group. We had heard this on CC, and confirmed it with the sales person. Princess allowed us to bring a couple of bottles of wine on board, with no fuss, which was much appreciated.
We stayed at the Comfort Inn Ship Creek. Some reviews had made it sound like it is right across the street from the train station, but actually it took about 10 minutes to walk there, with rolling baggage. The staff was very pleasant, and the motel is OK, except for the train noise. Not only do the nearby tracks serve the Alaska passenger railroad, but also the freight services as well. We heard a lot of train noise, and it made sleep difficult. I would suggest a different hotel, and pay for a taxi in the morning.
We checked in for the Anchorage to Whittier train approximately an hour before departure, and were able to drop off our bags and have them delivered directly to the cabin. The seats on board almost all face the direction of travel, and are pre-assigned, so if you want to travel with friends, then have someone in your group make one reservation. Even though we were in different carriages, there is no difficulty walking between carriages, and visiting with people. People moved about quite a bit, to use the cafeteria, etc. They also have open platforms on the train where you can take pictures.
By the way, you can make reservations directly with Alaska Rail Some in our group were under the impression that they had to book through Princess in order to have luggage accepted for direct delivery to the cabin. This was not the case.
The train journey was very pleasant, and I highly recommend it. Upon arrival at Whittier, you disembark from the train and walk about 800 feet under a covered walkway to the check in area. We were some of the first to arrive, and the lines were very short. Including filling out the health questionnaire, the embarkation process took us about 15 minutes.
Our group contained some experienced cruisers, and we knew what we wanted to do when we first went aboard. We quickly walked to the Purser/Passenger Services Desk to make reservations for the Ultimate Ship's Tour. Unfortunately, they were only offering this on the day when we would be in Skagway, and we already had reservations for a shore excursion that day. We were very disappointed, since we had heard good reviews about this activity.
We also took the tour of the Lotus Spa, and the Serenity area. Some of our group later signed up for individual treatments, but none of us signed up for the Spa area pass. The "public" area of the spa does not have any outside windows, which is a shame because it would have been great to be sitting on a heated stone lounger watching the glaciers. Note that you can use the Lotus pool, hot tubs, steam room and sauna without needing to buy a pass. The changing rooms are also available if you want to change before using the gym.
Serenity is the adults-only area. Since poor weather was forecast for the first few days of our trip, we knew that the area would likely be closed. Also, we had chosen this trip because there likely would be fewer kids on board, so it did not seem to be worth purchasing a pass. For glacier days (Hubbard & Glacier Bay) only full day passes were available. Other days you could purchase morning and/or afternoon passes. Because of the foggy/cool/wet weather on our trip, the Serenity area was never open that I saw.
Upon boarding we were also told that our cabins were available for immediate occupancy. This was a very nice touch, and we stopped by our cabin to drop off our carry-on items.
We wanted to have a "served" lunch as opposed to the buffet, and so (after asking a couple of staff members) found that the International Dining Room was doing served lunch. Note that this is different from the deli-style International Cafe in the Atrium. Lunch was lovely, including a souffle! They do however, stop serving promptly at 1:30 PM, so make getting there a priority if this is important to you.
In January, 2012 the Sapphire Princess went through a refit, and we found her to be very clean and well maintained. The addition of the International Cafe was very nice, but the addition of the MUTS (Movies Under the Stars) screen and sound system was not so welcome; more about that later in this review.
Our journey had a bit of an older crowd, with hardly any children at all. We had wanted a relatively "kid free" experience, so this was welcome. Our group ranged from 40s through early 60s, and we thought we were perhaps on the younger range. The impact of this was later shows, and the nightclubs, tended to be quite quiet, but we still had a good time.
One thing which we particularly liked was that there were very few announcements (bingo, art auctions, etc.). One thing which we wished they would have announced was the sail away at each port, including the embarkation port. We quietly slipped out of port and so missed that special moment when you first get underway.
Activities on Board:
There were a wide variety of activities on board, and it was nice to see that Princess stays away from the hairy chest contest and similar events which some other lines can go in for.
The on board Naturalist was OK, but not great. We felt sorry for the people who had interior or ocean view cabins, and so who needed to be on deck to enjoy the view, since the Princess Naturalist was broadcasting to the public spaces and her voice became annoying after awhile. The National Park Service Rangers were much better, and we appreciated their presence on the day when we were in Glacier Bay National Park.
The magician, Landon Swank was very good. In addition to the formal show in the Princess Theatre, he also participated in a magic lesson in the Explorer's Lounge. This was mostly presented by Princess staff, but Landon did demonstrate a couple of tricks (without giving away his secrets!).
There are now three 1/2 --hour showings of the production shows in the Princess Theatre. This is in comparison to the old system of having two 45-minute shows. This seems to work out quite well, as it gives more flexibility during your evening.
A very enjoyable activity was the behind-the-scenes tour of the theatre. We got to talk to some of the cast members, and to see how the lifts and changing areas are laid out. It is impressive what they are able to do.
We enjoyed the music on board, ranging from the string quartet in the Atrium to the disco at Skywalkers. The production show that we saw was fun and energetic.
I also went to the Future Cruise Consultants presentation and was impressed that she was knowledgeable, and provided good information, without the "hard sell" atmosphere I have experienced on other lines. I had some questions for her afterwards about the Amazon, and was glad to hear that she had actually been there, and had first-hand knowledge.
Food & Dining:
We very much enjoyed the food on board. We had anytime dining, and our group tried a variety of the four available dining rooms. Pizza at the pizza restaurant in the Atrium was excellent, and since the International Cafe is on the same deck it is easy to walk over, pick up a dessert, and bring it back to the pizza restaurant to finish up your meal!
Even with Anytime dining, we got to know some of the waiters, and they fun and gave great service. Servers in the bars were also great, remembering us and being friendly and attentive.
Sterling Steakhouse had very good food, and was worth the additional $20 each in our opinion. The "restaurant" is actually just an area of the Horizon Court Buffet which has been blocked off, and table clothes added, but it was still nice, and our table by the window allowed us to watch the ocean as we enjoyed our delicious steaks.
We had the champagne breakfast (delivered to our cabin) one morning, and enjoyed that.
We had a BA -- Balcony cabin on the Caribe deck. This is the top of the range of balconies. The advantage of this is a cabin which has a balcony which is larger and is half covered and half uncovered. We found this very helpful when it was raining in Glacier Bay. The location of the cabin midships, which means less motion is felt. This can be significant, if you have someone in your group who is prone to motion sickness. Our cruise did experience some motion both during our first sea days after leaving Whittier, and also in the passage between Ketchikan and the entrance to the strait east of Vancouver Island.
I would definitely recommend a balcony cabin for Alaska. On our Glacier Bay day it was raining and passengers with ocean view or insides were either braving the elements on the upper decks, trying to find space on the promenade deck, or packed into public spaces with windows.
The cabin was a bit tight for two of us. More storage space, in the form of shelves in the cabin itself, would have been welcome. There was plenty of space to hang clothes, and a shelf running above the space for hanging clothes. There was also shelving inside a separate closet.
The bathroom is small, but adequate for two people for a week. The shower is quite small, and women in our group said that it was difficult to shave their legs.
Our cabin steward (Chris) was very good. He provided good service, without being intrusive.
Other Aspects of the Trip:
I mentioned MUTS (Movies Under the Stars) above. This is a very large movie screen, with equally large speakers, mounted outdoors in the center of the ship. We could hear some noise from this when we were on our deck (Caribe), which was not welcome when trying to just enjoy the view of the ocean, but the really annoying thing about this system was when we were in the passage just north of Vancouver Island.
We saw pack of Orcas and other wildlife, and the Captain was giving updates from the bridge. We were having a final-evening party at a bar in the midships area, and could not hear the Captain's announcements due to the noise from MUTS. We asked several crew members if the volume could be turned down, but were told that only the Cruise Director could do this. I checked both decks where MUTS could be viewed, and no one was watching it! All eyes were turned outwards, watching the wildlife. This was very disappointing.
Our ship left Whittier on Saturday evening, and arrived at Hubbard Bay on Sunday afternoon. In Hubbard the presence of some fairly fast moving ice kept us from getting too close to the glacier, but we still had good views.
We left at Hubbard on Sunday evening, and arrived at Glacier Bay entrance at approximately 9:30 AM on Monday, where we took three National Park Service Rangers on board. We spent the day cruising up to Margerie Glacier, arriving at approximately 1:30 PM. Due to thick fog during the time in Glacier Bay, we did not get to see the spectacular scenery. We also did not stop at the second glacier on the way out, due to visibility. This is a risk you take if you decide to go later in the season. The people on board the week before us had spectacular weather, so you just can't tell.
Our trip had three port stops: Skagway, Juneau, and Ketchikan. We had privately organized group activities in Skagway and Juneau. In Ketchikan we each did our own thing.
In Skagway, we went with Chilkoot Charters Van and Train excursion to the Yukon. Our small van was much more nimble than the larger buses which people who were on Princess excursions were on. We got to make more stops, and the itinerary was more flexible. The cost was also less. The driver (Mike) was excellent, with lots of local knowledge. We had been told that the road up to the Yukon was a winding pass, but we did not think it was bad. One of our group had chosen not to do the excursion for that reason, but we felt that it probably would have been OK for her. It was foggy and damp in Skagway, but cleared out to be a beautiful day once we got to the higher elevations. We had lunch at the Carcross dog sled attraction, which is clearly set up for tourists, but it was fun never the less.
In Juneau we went whale watching with Harv and Marvs. Our group had its own boat, which was wonderful. Again, a smaller group experience than was had by those on the ship's excursions. Our skipper and the on board naturalist were both excellent. Again, cold and foggy weather with a choppy sea. Definitely bring layers of warm clothing.
This was an excellent trip. All of us in our group were impressed with Princess, and with the service we had received on board. If I was to do the trip again, I would probably book for July or August since the weather is the thing which disappointed us most. The scenery in Alaska is spectacular, but is best experienced in the sun!