This was a large family getaway to Alaska - me and the wife, my parents, my brother, and my sister and her husband and son. We'd all been wanting to go to Alaska for awhile, and picked this cruise specifically because it started in Seattle (one family member needs medical supplies shipped to the departure port, which can only be shipped to a U.S. port). All members of our party have cruised before, and everyone except my wife have cruised on Princess, so we had a pretty good idea of what to expect. After our last poor experience on Celebrity, though, we were hoping for a better experience this time, and Princess didn't disappoint. Setting foot in Alaska would also mark a major milestone for me - I would have visited all 50 states - so this trip was extra special for me.
We arrived in Seattle on Friday. I've been to the Northwest a couple of times, and wanted to show my wife and parents Mt. St. Helens on Saturday. A stunningly beautiful day, however, dictated that we head for Mt. Rainier instead, and we got some fantastic views of the mountain with its top fully showing. We stayed at the Homewood Suites in Tukwila near the airport; it's what you expect of Homewood Suites, which is to say, good service and plenty of room to stretch out. It is also conveniently located near the Tukwila International light rail station, and they will let you ride the airport shuttle over there free of charge. Beware, however, that a pick-up from the station can be hit or miss after 10 P.M. It took nearly an hour and 3 phone calls for the shuttle to pick us up (the driver who dropped us off actually warned us that this would happen due to a shift change between 10 and 11).
We thought the suggested 11 A.M. check-in for our cabin category seemed too early, so we had a shuttle pick us up from the hotel at 11:30 instead for a noon arrival at the pier. We used "Capital Aeroporter"; I highly recommend them if you need a shuttle service to the pier and/or back to the airport. Reasonable prices ($20 pp to the pier, $16 pp from pier to airport), friendly service, and they show up on time. Showing up at noon turned out to be a good call, as they just started boarding the ship about 5 minutes later. Yes, there were lines, and it took about an hour and 10 minutes to get from the starting point to our cabin, but the lines were well organized and consistently moved. We were pleasantly surprised to find our cabin ready upon boarding, so we left our bags behind and headed to the buffet. I had read the stories about the long lines and was afraid of what we'd find. The line did indeed look bad, but it only took 10-15 minutes to get through and get our food, and we had no trouble finding two tables next to each other for our party of 8. Our luggage was delivered after the muster drill, and our cabin steward even put our bags in our room for us, instead of just leaving them out in the hallway, which was appreciated. On another note, I appreciated that Princess logged attendance at the muster drill, and required anyone who didn't show up to go through a separate drill later. We pushed off the dock right just a few minutes after 4, and headed our way north.
We all had mini-suites on the port side of the Dolphin deck. The room seemed much larger than the Cocierge Class balcony room we had on Celebrity back in December. I had read comments about poor cleanliness on the Golden, but I didn't notice any issues in any of our rooms, aside from a couple of dead bugs on my balcony. We spent some time relaxing on our balcony, but needless to say, Alaska is a bit on the cool side for spending a bunch of time outside. The balcony did prove to be worth the money on our cruise through Tracy Arm Fjord, discussed later in this review. Our cabin steward was good and took care of all of our requests promptly.
SHIP IN GENERAL
Having read previous reviews noting the aged, often dirty appearance of the ship, I was pleasantly surprised to find everything looking pretty good. The piazza area is outstanding, though we didn't spend a whole lot of time there as we preferred to sit on our balcony, despite the cold. The "Princess Links" mini-golf is a joke; it's nothing more than a small putting green with a few holes. Certainly not the putt-putt course I was expecting! If you like to walk in the fresh air, there is an open-air walking track all the way around Deck 7 (it briefly heads up to Deck 8 on the forward end of the ship). This was a particularly good place to be during our scenic cruising through the Lynn Canal on the way back from Skagway, as you could move from one side to the other, or from front to back, to get great views of the glaciers on both sides. The observation lounge at the forward end of Deck 17 looked like a great place to sightsee and people watch, and supposedly at night, the moving walkway lights up for an incredible experience (I always meant to go check it out, but never got around to it).
My one complaint, and it is a major one, is the CONSTANT hard sell going on with everything - wine tastings, port shopping, art auctions, onboard boutique sales, you name it, someone on board is selling it. I was especially bothered the evening before our arrival in Skagway. An important looking "SKAGWAY UPDATE!!" flier was placed in the box outside my cabin, making me think there must be some kind of delay in arriving or something. Turns out, it was just an admonition from the onboard "shopping director" that it was "imperative" for everyone to allow at least 2 hours for shopping in Skagway, at Princess-suggested establishments, of course. Classy, NOT! You are also tempted to attend a shopping preview on the first at-sea day with the promise of vouchers for free gifts and "VIP" cards to use at pre-selected establishments. What they don't tell you is that to claim the gifts, you have to go through a hard-sell at a jewelry store in port, and the "VIP" cards are in fact worth nothing; the shop I took it to said they're just a way of tracking how many customers Princess sends them from the ships!
Granted, I'm not exactly high maintenance when it comes to food, but I was very satisfied by the quality and variety of food on board Golden Princess. Except for lunch on the first day and breakfast, we ate all of our meals in the main dining rooms (Donatello for lunch, fixed second seating in Canaletto for dinner), unless we were in port of course. We were lucky and got a window table. Most of my dishes were very good - and unlike the debacle we experienced with Celebrity, my parents only had to ask the head waiter one time to arrange a special vegetarian meal, and it was taken care of for the rest of the cruise. Lines of 10-15 minutes were common on the first two days at Horizon Court, but starting on the 3rd, they opened up a second serving line, and we were able to just walk right in after that. I'm not much of a breakfast eater, so can't really comment on the food, though my wife mentioned on a couple of occasions that the buffet food wasn't great. Greasy, undercooked bacon and poorly done biscuits and gravy were the main offenders. My mom tried the pizza at the pool a couple of times, and said it was good. Our waiters at Canaletto were outstanding, and went the extra mile to keep my little nephew entertained. I only used room service once - for breakfast when we were going through the Tracy Arm so I wouldn't have to leave the balcony - and it was delivered promptly at the time I asked.
One thing to note - as previous commenters have noted, Princess' regular coffee is AWFUL! The "specialty" coffees at the International Cafe are OK, though quite frankly, not at the prices charged. If you are a coffee-holic, you're better off buying a coffee card, which gives you 15 coffees for $29 (any specialty coffee or hot chocolate, not just cappuccino).
Nobody in our family particularly cares for shows, so except for the naturalist presentations, we didn't attend any. The naturalist Kathy was knowledgeable, and I enjoyed her lectures, especially the one where she narrated her family's story of moving to Alaska when she was a child. My complaint here is that her lecture about the glaciers - which you would think would be the one that most people would want to attend - was scheduled at 7 P.M. on the first night, making it nearly impossible to attend if you wanted to attend a show or eat dinner in the main dining room.
My brother and I did do the two wine tastings. The first one, for $25 per person, was pretty good, with a good selection of wines and high-quality hors d'oeuvres. The second one, while cheaper at $9.50, was pretty lame. You were given the same information as the first tasting, except the wines and food were inferior.
Alaska lived up to the hype; it is a truly beautiful and incredible place that you need to see at least once in your life. Just keep in mind that it IS Alaska, so if you're cruising for good beach weather, you're coming to the wrong place. The area had just endured nearly 2 weeks of record heat and dry weather, but during our week in Alaska, the weather was more normal with temperatures in the 50s-60s and occasional rain.
Ketchikan - a typical southeastern Alaskan day, with some light rain and temperatures in the low 60s. My brother and I took a rainforest hike with "Best of Alaska", organized through PortCompass. I really do recommend PortCompass if you're looking to do a private tour; I've used them twice now, and both tours have been great. Our tour consisted of two guides and just 5 guests in total, so we had a good, personalized experience from our knowledgeable guides through the Tongass National Forest. After a 3 hour tour, we returned to the ship, and my wife and I walked around downtown for a while. There is a decent fish and chips shack in front of Pier 1, where we grabbed a quick lunch.
Beware of one thing, though - there are TWO "Ketchikan Visitor Bureaus", one in front of Pier 2, the other in front of Pier 3. If your tour tells you to meet at the "Ketchikan Visitor Bureau", make sure you know which one. We went to the wrong one, and nearly missed our tour.
Tracy Arm Fjord - absolutely incredible. It was overcast but not raining, letting the blue of the glaciers really come through. Due to the warm weather over the previous couple of weeks, the naturalist Kathy said we were able to get closer to Sawyer Glacier than they had all season, providing breathtaking views of the icefield. A couple of people reported seeing some calving of the glacier, and some seals along the rocks, but I didn't see anything.
Juneau - the rain literally arrived the minute we docked in port, before stopping - you guessed it - 5 minutes after we left port! Luckily, it wasn't really heavy enough to affect things too much. We did the Mendenhall Glacier, salmon hatchery, and salmon bake tour through Princess. The glacier was great, despite the rain picking up. You have about an hour at the glacier, which gives you just enough time to hike down to Nugget Falls. This is a must-visit, as you get a fine view of the rushing falls next to the glacier. Admission to the visitor center is included with the tour (usually $3 per person). The salmon hatchery was OK. Being out of salmon season, there wasn't much to see, though there is a small aquarium inside. The salmon bake was very good - excellent food, and the free coffee and hot chocolate felt really good on a cold, rainy day.
One downside was that we were docked at the remote AJ Dock, a good mile away from downtown. It was about a 20 minute walk. Also, downtown was mostly littered with jewelry and high-end shops looking to take large sums of your money. There are relatively few places to go if you just want some cheap junk.
Skagway - the Charlie Brown cloud that settled over Juneau followed us up to Skagway. The rain once again started the minute we docked, and ended right as we were departing, but today, the rain was heavier and it really was quite a nasty day. Luckily for us, though, we booked the combination Yukon & White Pass Railway/bus tour to Caribou Crossing in the Yukon (through Princess), and it was a beautiful, sunny day in the 70s on the Canadian side of the mountains. The train ride was fine, though if you've been on a narrow gauge railroad before, like the one between Durango and Silverton in Colorado, it'll feel pretty familiar. Still worth going to, though. The fog at pass level made for some interesting scenery. Switching to bus at Fraser, BC, the clouds quickly cleared as we headed towards the Yukon, and we made a couple of stops for photos on the way to "Caribou Crossing". The place itself is pretty cheesy. It's a typical tourist trap, replete with petting zoo and a couple of fake sheep on the hill behind the property, but the barbeque chicken lunch was very good, and dogsled rides and helicopter tours are available for a fee. After going a few miles further to Emerald Lake - a beautiful, aquamarine-colored glacial lake - we turned around and headed back. The rain started picking up again as we approached the BC border, and unfortunately, we weren't able to stop at the welcome to Alaska sign because of the dense fog. The driver made a stop in downtown Skagway, but we went straight back to the ship since the weather was bad. Downtown didn't look all that special anyway; like Juneau before it, it was full mostly of jewelry shops that we weren't interested in visiting.
Following our departure from Skagway, we enjoyed about 4 hours of scenic cruising through the Lynn Canal and other inlets as we retraced our steps towards Juneau and the south. We were truly blessed that the fog parted just long enough for us to get a terrific view of the Davidson Glacier off the starboard side as we passed Haines. Several other glaciers and icefields were visible on the port side until about 8:00, including a great view of Herbert Glacier and its large moraine as we passed by Juneau.
Victoria - nice town, just wish we could have spent more time here. Unfortunately, it is what it is, unless Princess can add an extra day to the cruise. We did the obligatory tour to Butchart Gardens, again organized through Princess. It was a beautiful evening with temperatures in the 70s, even at 8 P.M., which made the visit to the gardens all the more enjoyable. As an added bonus, the roses were in full bloom, the "Sunken Gardens" are especially photogenic around sunset, and the night we were there was the first night they did the fireworks display for the summer. The fireworks show is unique - the pyrotechnic displays are in the shape of flowers - but unfortunately, we couldn't stay for the whole thing because we had to return to the ship.
Overall, while the Princess shore excursions were fine, I would suggest booking through a private company, either in advance or at the pier. Even if the prices aren't better, the smaller groups you get with private tours are better for Alaska.
One of the most easy and painless processes I've ever encountered. Our meeting time for our group was at 8:25, and we were promptly called to de-board. We had our bags and were through customs by 9:00, and on our way to the airport via Capital Aeroporter again by 9:15.
Our cruise met your expectations, and we had a wonderful time. I can't quite give Princess 5 stars because of the obnoxious hard sell that's constantly going on, but we were satisfied with every other aspect of our vacation. Princess isn't quite as good as Royal Caribbean, but miles better than Celebrity. I would recommend them for a cruise to Alaska.