I wasn't even sure I wanted to take a cruise. I'm an introvert who needs a lot of "alone time" to recharge my batteries, so the thought of being on a big ship with 3,000 other people didn't sound very appealing. Plus, I'm single and would be traveling alone. I figured that I'd feel odd being a solo traveler on a cruise. But when I got an e-mail from a software company that publishes genealogy software that I have used, describing their annual genealogy conference on board the Star Princess' last cruise to Alaska for the 2012 season, I had to sign up. Given the opportunity to see Alaska, try out cruising, and learn some valuable tips to help my genealogy research, I couldn't say no.
I flew from Houston to Seattle the day before the cruise embarked, and arrived to glorious blue skies and mid-70s temperature. I had booked a night at the Hilton Doubletree as part of the cruise package, so I hopped on the complimentary shuttle and was at the hotel by mid-afternoon. The genealogy group had a registration table and Q&A session planned for early evening so, unfortunately, I didn't have time to go into Seattle to see the sights.
The hotel was very attractive and the room was spacious and comfortable. I ate an early dinner at the bar and had a great conversation with the bartender and a Southwest Airlines flight attendant who sat down next to me. It was a fun way to spend the hour or so I had to kill before the Q&A session started.
The next morning our group's travel agent had arranged for coach transportation to the dock, so we all assembled and chatted and started to get to know each other. I could tell it was going to be a very congenial group. We had a relatively quick trip to the dock, and we were all oohing and aaahing about the continued gorgeous weather.
After arriving at the Seattle Cruise Terminal we were met by innumerable smiling Princess employees. I was so impressed by the genuine happiness, smiles and friendliness of the blue-shirted employees around every corner. They had everything well organized and got us processed and onto the ship in under an hour. I think it was about 1:00 p.m. when I opened the door of my stateroom.
I was very pleasantly surprised by my stateroom. I was in what my travel summary said was a "Totally Obstructed Oceanview." I don't know about you, but does having two small cables and two narrow posts in front of the window sound "totally obstructed to you"? I was thrilled to see that I actually had an almost totally unobstructed ocean view! I then met my cabin steward, Conrado, who kept everything so tidy and clean all week. I didn't ask a lot from him but the two requests I made were very quickly provided.
The ship itself is attractively decorated with lots of wood and stone and metal accents. The Piazza, a 3-story midship atrium, is the center of most of the activity. On the lowest level, Deck 5, there was almost always some sort of live music being played - a talented string quartet and a jazz pianist were two I really enjoyed. There are bars and shops and the Passenger Services office on the three levels, all overlooking the central area. There are two glass elevators that overlook the same area. By the end of the cruise, I had gotten into the habit of visiting the Lobby Bar on Deck 5, overlooking the Piazza, to enjoy a martini before dinner in the Capri Dining Room.
I never did make it up to the top deck to see the Lotus Spa, fitness center, and the Sanctuary. But I did venture up to see Skywalker's Nightclub which occupies the entire aft end of the very top of the ship. There were some extraordinary views from up there!
As to dining, I ate virtually all of my meals in either the Capri or Portofino Dining rooms. I ate one breakfast in the Horizon Court buffet on the Lido deck but that was enough. The food tasted just fine, but the hassle of fighting the crowds and standing around holding my plate of food trying to find a place to sit was just not worth the convenience. I was more than pleased with the meals I ate in the dining rooms. I figure if I'm spending this much on a vacation, I want to be waited on! And the maitre d' and waiters did a fine job of getting me seated and fed. There was good variety in the menus in my opinion. There were a few items that appeared every day (like that to-die-for Fettucini Alfredo), but I tended to try something different each day.
The best meal I had ... by far ... was the Chef's Table. I had heard about the Chef's Table through the Cruise Critic forums and knew that I needed to get my name on the list as soon as possible after boarding the ship. So I did just that. I was one of the lucky few who got invited to spend $95 for an amazing dining experience. We met Jacques, the Maitre d', got dressed in a chef's coat and marched through the Capri Dining Room at 7:00 p.m. and into the Galley. We met the Executive Chef who visited with us briefly and then led us through a portion of the kitchen. He had created four appetizers for us, which he served along with seemingly-bottomless glasses of French champagne. We also got to see examples of the beautiful carved vegetable "floral" arrangements and ice sculpture. After the appetizers and champagne in the Galley, we were led back to the dining room where a table had been set for us. It had candles and a beautiful floral arrangement in the center.
The Executive Chef, Sous Chef, Head Pastry Chef, and Maitre d' then proceded to serve us course after course of incredible food created just for us. And each course was accompanied by more seemingly-bottomless glasses of wines that had been matched to each course. We had a Barolo risotto with langoustines, a lemon sorbet with mango "slaw", rack of veal and beef tenderloin flambeed tableside, etc. etc. etc. The finale was a gorgeous Belgian chocolate dome filled with mascarpone and topped with amazing spun sugar decorations. After that we had coffee and petit fours. In addition to the fantastic food and wine, we were each given a copy of the menu, a copy of the Princess Cookbook and a copy of a group photo that was taken early in the dinner. It really was a highlight of the trip for me.
Since I was on the cruise for a genealogy conference, I didn't have time to participate in many of the other on-board activities. I did attend one show in the Princess Theater -- "British Invasion". It was very entertaining, featuring many of my favorite British songs from the 60s up through more recent years. The costumes and choreography were great, as were the vocal performances of the featured singers.
On the three port days, I did Princess excursions. We were extremely fortunate on this cruise because we didn't have a single drop of rain the entire trip. According to the Captain, this cruise was the best one weather-wise for at least 6-8 weeks! In Ketchikan, I opted for the Misty Fjord cruise/flight package. We were the only cruise ship in port that day, so there were only 7 people on our trip! That meant we got very personal attention from the boat crew and had lots of space to move around and take pictures. The flight back to Ketchikan was spectacular. Even the pilot was positively giddy at getting to fly in such perfect weather.
In Juneau I went on a 14-person photography-centered whale-watching/Mendenhall glacier excursion. The weather was overcast for most of the day, but still there was no rain. Our guide was a former whale researcher and photographer who was extraordinarily knowledgeable and helpful. She individually assisted each of us to set our cameras up so we would have the best chance of getting good shots. We saw humpbacks and killer whales, as well as sea lions, bald eagles, and cormorants. Our guide was astounded when we came across two male orcas "romancing" a female. She said she'd never seen that behavior on an excursion before. Then, while visiting Mendenhall Glacier, we got to see a black bear sow with two cubs. Oh, and a porcupine lunching on leaves up in a tree. It was just an extraordinary day.
In Skagway, I was disappointed in the excursion I chose. It started with a chance to try gold panning. The place we went to was VERY touristy and hokey. I got the feeling that they really just wanted to funnel us into the gift shop to buy gold jewelry. Oh well. Then, our bus traveled up the White Pass to Fraser, B.C. The scenery was very pretty on the way up. At the top, we got on the White Pass & Yukon Railroad for the trip back down to Skagway. Just after we had come down below the summit, the fog started settling in. So, we didn't get to see all of the spectacular vistas that people who took the train in the afternoon got to see. Our final stop was lunch at the historic Skagway Inn, built in about 1898. It's now a Bed & Breakfast and the chef/owner uses vegetables and flowers from his adjacent garden in all of the dishes. My meal of halibut chowder, smoked salmon farfalle, and apple crisp (made with apples picked from his own trees) was delicious.
I didn't even get off the ship when we got to Victoria, B.C. It didn't seem as though it was worth the effort since we were only going to be there for a few hours at night.
Finally on Sunday morning, it was time to disembark. Princess had provided lots of information on how the process would work earlier, so I was prepared to wait a lot longer than I actually had to. I had chosen to try the EZ Check process which would take my suitcase straight from the ship and check it onto the plane at the airport. All I had to do was fill out some paperwork and turn it in at the Passenger Services desk a couple of days ahead of time. Then they provided me with special luggage tags and that was that. I picked up my suitcase back in Houston with no problem.
On Sunday morning, I got up early so I could eat breakfast in the Amalfi Dining Room. That was the only dining room open besides the buffet on the Lido deck. It was nice to have a civilized meal before starting a long day of travel. Then, we had to vacate our cabins by 8:00 a.m. My assigned meeting point was at 7:55 in the Vista Lounge. I arrived about 15 minutes early and only had to wait about 5 minutes before they announced that my disembarkation group was free to leave. About 10 minutes of walking down the gangplank, through the cruise terminal and out the front door, I was seated on the bus for my transfer back to the airport.
As I mentioned earlier, I really appreciated the smiling and friendly service I got from every Princess employee I dealt with. I work in Human Resources so I can spot a disgruntled employee a mile away. No one can fake that kind of smile or kindness if they really hate their job. Princess must treat its employees well because they seemed truly happy to be doing what they were doing.
So, in summary, one cruise on the Star Princess has converted this introvert into a new cruiser. I will definitely take another cruise and it will very, very likely be on a Princess ship.