ABOUT US John and I (Carolyn) are retired Mississippi State University professors in our early sixties, who currently reside in central North Carolina. Both of us are natives of New Orleans and, as such, are interested in good food (and wine!) and good times. Our preferred souvenir is a small regional or national flag. On this itinerary, I would not need to acquire any flags.
We enjoy both cruises and land tours; often our trips combine the two. Many of our cruises have been in the Caribbean but we have also cruised to Alaska, Australia/New Zealand, the Panama Canal, the Mediterranean/Greek Isles, Scandinavia/Russia, Hawaiian Islands, French Polynesia, South America/Antarctic Peninsula, the Far East, the North Atlantic (Greenland/Iceland), parts of the British Isles, the Norwegian Fjords, the Galapagos Islands and the Holy Land/Egypt. We have taken land tours to the Netherlands, Canadian Rockies, Mexico (Cozumel), London, France (several wine regions and Paris), China, Argentina (Buenos Aires, Iguazu Falls, Mendoza wine region), Chile (Santiago, several wine regions), Hawaiian Islands (Kauai, Maui, Hawaii) and to many parts of the continental USA.
On our trips, we prefer nature and wildlife tours that involve snorkeling, SCUBA diving or hiking. In particular, we will hike for miles to see waterfalls, volcanoes, caves or other interesting geologic features. We also enjoy lighthouses, forts, castles and anything else we can legally climb up on for a good view.
We are Elite members of Princess' Captain's Circle loyalty program, but have also sailed with Royal Caribbean, Holland America, Costa, Celebrity and Commodore.
This would be John's and my fourth cruise to Alaska and we would be celebrating our 40th wedding anniversary while onboard.
ABOUT OUR CRUISE COMPANIONS
We were joined on this cruise by our DS, DDIL, DGDs (ages 3 and 1-1/2), our DS's college friend and the friend's wife. Our DS has previously cruised many times on Princess as well as other lines; this was his first cruise as an Elite member of the Captain's Circle. This was DS's second cruise to Alaska but the first time for the others. DDIL has cruised several times on Princess and other lines and was a Medallion member of the Captain's Circle. DS's college friend had cruised twice on other lines but not Princess and this was his wife's first cruise.
ABOUT THE GRANDPARENT CRUISE EXPERIENCE
Cruising with toddlers requires flexibility and a sense of humor. It also presents special challenges, including deciding how many childcare duties the grandparents will assume. While not anxious to take full responsibility for the DGDs, we wanted to allow our DS and DDIL some time to spend together as a couple and socializing with their friends. On the other hand, John and I also wanted to be able to enjoy the cruise and ports.
Our compromise approach started with the choice of a round-trip cruise from San Francisco, because our DS's family lives in the Bay Area and we could all drive to the port. The Inside Passage is a good itinerary for young children because so much scenery can be enjoyed from the ship and the piers are convenient to attractions in the ports (no tendering).
Next, we chose cabins directly across the hall from each other: a mini-suite for John and me and an inside quad for DS's family. With its balcony and extra seating space, the mini-suite served as the living room for our group and had a tub for bathing the DGDs. We asked our TA to mark the cabins no upgrade so that we could guarantee this arrangement. She also linked the three families' reservations and specified our requests for a table for eight in Early Traditional Dining, two high chairs and a Pack 'n Play.
A typical sea day started with John and me getting ready while DDIL ordered Room Service and fed the girls breakfast in their cabin. Then John and I would entertain and sometimes dress the girls while their parents were getting ready for the day. Once everyone was ready, we went our separate ways until after lunch. DGD#1 usually attended the Princess Pelicans program in the morning and some afternoons; DGD#2 occasionally attended (accompanied by DDIL) in the morning. After lunch, John and I usually relaxed in our cabin or on the balcony; thus, it was no trouble for us to supervise (via baby monitor, see Information for Parents of Toddlers below) either of the girls who wanted a nap or to let them play in our larger cabin if they were not sleepy. A favorite game for DGD#2 was hiding behind the window sheers or my evening gown (hanging in the closet) or under the deck blankets.
In the evenings, we could easily trade the girls back and forth between cabins so everyone could get ready for dinner. At dinner, our waiter and headwaiter made sure the girls had favorite items (e. g., milk, slices of cheese, fruit) quickly so that they were happy and generally well-behaved from the time we arrived at the table. The DGDs love music and dancing but were too tired after dinner to enjoy the evening shows (they managed 1-1/4). However, they loved after-dinner dancing in The Piazza. After about 15 minutes of dancing, it was bedtime for the girls. This was John's and my major sacrifice on this cruise: we passed on many of the evening shows (most of which we had seen several times before) in order to read in the cabin and listen to the baby monitor while DS and DDIL caroused until the wee hours of 10 or 11 p.m.
On port days, it was every man for himself from docking until we returned to the ship.
Although some people have commented that we spent a lot of money to take our granddaughters on a trip that they will probably not remember later, John and I will always cherish the time we spent with them and remember the fun of watching them enjoy new experiences. Before the cruise, I gave each of the girls a book (Peter the Cruise Ship: To Alaska! for DGD#1 and Alaska's ABC Bears for DGD#2) to remind them later of the cruise; they will also receive a Snapfish photo book of cruise highlights from me.
INFORMATION FOR PARENTS OF TODDLERS
For information on Princess' Youth and Teen Programs, see www.princess.com/learn/faq_answer/onboard/youth.jsp.
A schedule for Princess Youth and Teen Program should be in your cabin when you board. Children must be 3 or older and potty-trained; counselors are not allowed to assist children with using the toilet. Our DDIL was concerned that the Princess Pelicans (ages 3-7) activities might be too advanced for DGD#1 (who had just turned 3) but was reassured after talking to the counselors that activities are geared to each child. Note that if your child is under 3, he/she can play in the Fun Zone when accompanied by an adult.
Parents receive pagers when they check in their child so that they can be contacted in case of an emergency or if the child wants to leave the program early. Parents can also provide a list of persons who are authorized to remove a child from the program. Those persons must provide photo ID (which is photocopied and kept on file) before the child is released to him/her.
Be sure to save room in your luggage for all the items your child will make and receive in the program! DGD#1 received a stuffed turtle, an eagle and a whale. Thankfully, the counselors understand the problems that young children have with sharing and provided DGD#2 with the same stuffed animals as her sister.
Request high chairs and Pack 'n Play(s) when you book your cruise. Note that even one Pack 'n Play makes an inside cabin very crowded. Maybe some furniture (e. g., desk chair, small table) can be moved to the grandparents' cabin to give you more room.
In addition to necessary supplies, a few favorite lovies and willing grandparents, you might consider bringing along the following:
--- Night light. Our DGDs' night light has a Sunny and Luna display, which can be set for different wake/sleep times and lets the girls know whether they can get up or have to go back to sleep (www.goodnitelite.com/index.php?page=product).
--- White noise machine. This helps our DGDs go to sleep and remain asleep.
--- Baby monitor. This worked much better than anticipated; it was sensitive enough to let us hear a key card inserted in the cabin door even with the white noise machine on. However, our two cabins were directly across the hall from each other; the monitor may not work as well if the cabins are much further apart.
--- Swim noodle. Wrapped under the blanket, this helps keep a child from falling out of bed.
--- Arts & crafts smock (to use as a bib). Our DGDs' are plastic and have long, cuffed sleeves and a pocket along the bottom (www.ikea.com/us/en/catalog/products/70179754/). The smock protects a child's clothes and keeps most dropped food from reaching the floor.
--- Stroller. Although our DGDs have two double strollers at home, those are too large to use on a cruise ship. Our DDIL brought a single stroller that was not only useful in port for DGD#2 but also for transporting other items while embarking/disembarking the ship. She did not use the stroller onboard the ship.
--- Backpack-style child carriers. Our DDIL borrowed two of these. One held DGD#1 while embarking/disembarking the ship and both carriers were used in Skagway. However, DS and DDIL were not a big fans of the backpack carriers and would recommend a lot of prior experience with them if you intend to use them.
TOUR GUIDE CONTACT INFORMATION
In general, we prefer DIY port tours, private tours with other Cruise Critic roll call members, or shared public tours. However, we will take Princess tours when the logistics or cost make that a better option. We took one Princess tour on this cruise because the excursion was not available for independent bookings. We also took one independently-booked tour (see Frontier Excursions in the Skagway section below) and toured the other ports on our own.
ABOUT THE REVIEW
Other reviews give extensive information on the ship, cabins, food etc. Our reviews are not like that; they are primarily a journal of what we did in the various ports, including links to tourist sites and maps. Because this was our fourth cruise to Alaska but our first review, I have also briefly mentioned what we did in the ports on previous cruises.
REVIEW OF THE CRUISE
MAY 15 (WED) , MAY 19 (SUN) PRECRUISE IN THE SF BAY AREA
We flew United nonstop from RDU to SFO a few days ahead of the cruise to enjoy extra time with our family and get over jet lag. Our DS's college friend and his wife drove in from Arizona, then spent the night before the cruise at our DS's house.
MAY 20 (MON) EMBARKATION: ALL ABOARD 3:30 PM
After getting everyone fed and dressed, we managed to cram all eight people and their belongings into two cars and headed off to Pier 35. There was heavy traffic on the Embarcadero and the unloading zone at the pier was very congested when we arrived shortly before noon. Six of us and the luggage were dropped off at the pier while John and DS's college friend went to park the cars. Fortunately, John had reserved two spaces at Ace Parking (www.aceparking.com/san-francisco-cruise-parking/) because they were full and turning away cars without reservations.
Together again, we entered the terminal building, completed the health survey, checked in and went through the security screening. Right after security, there was a table to declare any wine we were carrying onboard. As we had 6 adults and 5 bottles, there were no issues about the wine; our cabin numbers were recorded and after the obligatory Welcome Aboard and security photos we could finally board the ship.
We all headed to our cabins to drop off our carry on baggage. While we waited for everyone to gather at our cabin before heading to lunch, John stuck some of the sparkling wine in the refrigerator to start cooling down before sail away. I called Room Service to change out some of the items in our minibar and requested a large bucket of ice and six champagne flutes.
In the Horizon Court buffet, we commandeered a table big enough for all eight of us while the wait staff rushed to bring high chairs and help get everyone settled. It set the tone for the entire cruise when one of the waiters asked our DDIL, Madame, what can I do to make YOUR vacation relaxing?
Later we all met back at our cabin before the lifeboat drill and returned there afterward for flutes of sparkling wine as we sailed out of San Francisco Bay, enjoying the wonderful views of Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge. As we sailed under the bridge, the wind and waves increased; little did we know that the sea conditions were going to get much worse over the next two days.
Because we had received our requested Early (5:30 p.m.) Traditional Seating, it was soon time for everyone to get freshened up and meet again for dinner. Our table in the Da Vinci dining room was served by Waiter Antonio, Assistant Waiter Ariel, Headwaiter David and Sommelier Mihai; all of them were excellent and made every effort to ensure that we had the best possible dining experience. This voyage offered the Princess wine packages, so we bought a 10-bottle Silver (wines up to $29) and a 10-bottle Gold (wines up to $45) package to share with our DS and DDIL; this was a very cost-effective choice for us.
After dinner, John and I skipped the Welcome Aboard Showtime so that DS and DDIL could put the girls to bed and then bar hop a bit with their friends. We read for awhile, listening over the baby monitor while the girls drifted off to sleep, until DS and DDIL returned and turned off the monitor. Our duty done for the day, we looked forward to a restful night of gentle rocking as the Grand Princess headed north to Juneau.
MAY 21 (TUE) AT SEA
Unfortunately, the rocking during the night was not so gentle. At about 7 a.m., the Captain made an announcement throughout the ship (including the staterooms, which is unusual): due to the heavy seas he would have to reduce speed and that might adversely impact our arrival time in Juneau. Although John and I have thus far been impervious to seasickness, our DDIL, GDG#2 and DS's college friend were not so lucky. While DGD#2 felt better after a dose of Benadryl, DDIL cannot take Benadryl and was generally miserable most of the day. Experienced cruiser DS's college friend was ill today through the next day and even had to miss tonight's dinner; his newbie cruiser wife had no problems.
Feeling that our higher duty was to take care of the girls while their mom was incapacitated, John and I missed the Cruise Critic roll call Meet & Greet and the Naturalist's talk. Throughout the day, the ship made violent lurches accompanied by shuddering and loud grinding noises; we turned this into a game, with the girls yelling Kaboom!' each time. When we did venture out, we found ship rather deserted, with the Promenade and other outside decks closed and barf bags available at each trash receptacle.
By dinner time, 7/8ths of our group was feeling fine or at least well enough to face dinner. After dinner, we took the girls to the show performed by Bobby Brooks Wilson in tribute to his father. We were able to find seats behind a railing, which allowed the girls to stand up and dance without disturbing the rest of the audience. They both loved this show (we also thought it was very good) and had no trouble falling asleep afterward.
MAY 22 (WED) AT SEA
Today the seas were still rough but gradually improving. The Captain finally announced that tomorrow's scheduled port stop in Juneau was canceled and scenic cruising in Endicott Arm Fjord would be substituted.
This morning John and I attended a lecture on whales. The Naturalist presented a lot of information but it could have been organized better and delivered in a more engaging manner.
Tonight was the first formal night and the Captain's Welcome Champagne Waterfall; the girls wore the formal wrap dresses I had made for them. We snacked on chocolate-covered strawberries and sparking wine before dinner. On the way to dinner, we attempted to sit for some formal portraits. However, two wiggly girls equaled out of focus photographs, even with the professional photographer. At dessert time, DGD#1 was surprised with a birthday cake and a serenade from the wait staff. By the time we left the dining room, the Champagne Waterfall was pretty well finished. The girls still had time for some dancing in The Piazza before we headed back to the cabin to listen to white noise over the baby monitor.
MAY 23 (THURS) ENDICOTT ARM FJORD, ALASKA: 5:30 PM to 10 PM (SCENIC CRUISING)
Today we were supposed to be in Juneau (www.traveljuneau.com) from 1-9 p.m., which was less time than on our other three visits. This time, we had planned to accompany our DS's family on the Mt. Robert's Tramway (www.goldbelttours.com/mount-roberts-tramway/) and take some of the trails at the top to the observation platforms; John and I also considered hiking further to Gastineau Peak. On our first visit to Juneau, we took a Princess excursion rafting on the Mendenhall River. On the second visit, we first did the self-guided walking tour of Juneau (www.traveljuneau.com/images/map_downtown_big.jpg). Then we took MGT's Blue Glacier Express bus (mightygreattrips.com/products-page/juneau/mgts-blue-glacier-express-2/) to the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center, where we hiked several short trails and the East Glacier Loop Trail (www.fs.usda.gov/detail/tongass/about-forest/offices/?cid=stelprdb5401520). On our third visit, we took a whale watching tour (booked independently after arrival in port) in the morning and hiked part of the Perseverance Trail (www.americantrails.org/nationalrecreationtrails/trailNRT/perseverance-AK.html) in the afternoon. For others who are interested in hiking at this port, local trail maps are available at the tourist information centers.
Although we had been looking forward to being on solid (non-lurching) ground today, we were happy to be treated to scenic cruising in Endicott Arm Fjord (nordicquest.com/wordpress/?p=1162). This fjord is visited much less frequently by cruise ships than nearby Tracy Arm Fjord, which we had cruised previously. In the morning, we attended the Naturalist's lecture on glaciers and were reminded that ice in the water can be classified as icebergs (rising more than 13 feet above the water), bergy bits (3-13 feet) and growlers (under 3 feet).
As we approached the fjord, we finally saw a whale back and spout. As we continued into the fjord, we began to see floating ice of various sizes and shapes. Throughout dinner, we had good views of the fjord walls, featuring waterfalls and snow-capped peaks. After dinner, we could enjoy the gorgeous scenery better from the open decks. The ship was not able to approach the end of the fjord very closely, but we could see the Dawes Glacier in the distance. After awhile, we decided to experience the remainder of the return journey from our balcony. Much later in the evening, we passed the Sumdum Glacier, a hanging glacier. Finally, as we reached the entrance to the fjord, it was getting late and John decided to head to bed. Stubbornly still hoping to see more whales, I persevered a bit longer and was reward with a glimpse (through binoculars) of two whale backs followed by two whale tails.
MAY 24 (FRI) SKAGWAY, ALASKA 7 AM to 7:30 PM
Finally, landfall in Skagway (skagway.com)! John and I headed out early to see a waterfall. As we walked along the pier, we saw the coaches of the White Horse & Yukon Route (www.wpyr.com) narrow-gauge railroad waiting to take passengers from our ship up to the White Pass summit. We had taken this excursion on a previous visit to Skagway and enjoyed the views and the historical narration. On that trip, we also took a helicopter tour to the Juneau Icefield that included a walk on a glacier (www.temscoair.com/glacier_discovery.php).
Passing through the town, we got some nice photos of the nearly-empty streets. Our goal this morning was the Gold Rush Cemetery and Lower Reid Falls (www.nps.gov/klgo/planyourvisit/shorterdayhikes.htm). The route to the cemetery detours around the yards of the WP&YR; here we could see more of the rail coaches and locomotives, including a steam locomotive that was being stoked for its weekly excursion to Fraser Meadow, Canada. We finally reached the small, historic cemetery; Lower Reid Falls is accessed from a short trail at the rear of the cemetery. This is a nice waterfall and had a good flow when we were there. The last time we visited Skagway, we had taken the Icy Lake and Upper Reid Falls trail. Although that was a good hike, it is very difficult and dangerous to view the upper falls; it is overgrown and there is no established overlook.
We finished the hike to the lower falls much faster than expected. As we were walking back past the rail yards, we could see the bridge over the Skagway River; we crossed that for some good views. Back on the Skagway side of the river, we walked along the river, around the Ore Terminal and dock, past the Airport Terminal and over the footbridge to the start of the trails to Yakutania Point and Smuggler's Cove. We had also hiked these trails on our last visit, so today we only hiked to Yakutania Point for some photos of the Grand Princess on the other side of the inlet. Now it was time to return downtown for our tour into the Yukon Territory. By now the streets were packed with passengers from the Grand Princess and the other three cruise ships in port.
We booked the 6-hour Yukon Discovery Tour (www.frontierexcursions.com/yukon-discovery.html) independently with Frontier Excursions & Adventures; you can be picked up on the dock or meet the tour in town (as we did). It was lucky that we arrived a bit early because the minibus was fully-booked and we could still get a good seat (on the right side for the outward journey). This tour follows the South Klondike Highway (www.milepost.com/highway_info/so_klondike_highway) into Canada as far as Emerald and Spirit Lakes.
Our driver/guide was Sherri, an actual native Alaskan. She was simply outstanding and succeeded in finding a willow ptarmigan (state bird of Alaska), a hoary marmot, mountain goats and Dall sheep for us as well as a very shy bear and a porcupine. Sherri gave us a map showing the tour route with 13 scenic stops. The stops vary by the guide's choice and the weather; we only had to pass one by without stopping and Sherri substituted a short tour of Carcross. She also postponed several stops until the return trip so that we could avoid the large tour buses. If you have a choice, choose Sherri!
The scenery along this 75-mile (each way) route is spectacular: snow-covered mountains, gushing waterfalls, gorgeous lakes. We stopped for lunch at Caribou Crossing (cariboucrossing.ca). Lunch is included in the tour price and consists of BBQ chicken (leg quarter), coleslaw, roasted potatoes, rolls and their celebrated donuts. I had heard the praises of these donuts sung on Cruise Critic and the batch that was sitting under the warming lights when we arrived certainly disappeared quickly. John managed to snag a couple of those for us but the ones in the fresh, hot batch that came out later were much better (although still nothing to rave about, IMHO). There is also a wildlife museum (many mounted specimens) and a petting zoo included with the tour. The especially interesting part of this attraction is the sled dogs. These are not your typical Husky-looking animals but are athletes who crave running. You can watch the dogs pull a wheeled sled (rides cost extra) and you can play with the puppies. At the end of the tour we had the option of being dropped off at several points in town or back at the dock. In all, this tour was a highlight of our cruise.
Our DS and his family had planned to take the short hike to Lower Dewey Lake. This did not turn out to be feasible with the girls and they spent their shore time exploring the town. DS's college friend's wife was keen to try zip lining, so they took a ship's excursion and enjoyed it very much.
MAY 25 (SAT) GLACIER BAY NATIONAL PARK: 6 AM to 3 PM (SCENIC CRUISING)
One reason we choose this itinerary was because it visits Glacier Bay. This was our DDIL's first cruise to Alaska and we wanted her (and our DGDs) to experience this spectacular national treasure. John and I were up early to see the boat bringing the National Park Rangers aboard at Bartlett Cove. We also saw a good number of sea otters in the water.
Park maps had been distributed to all of the staterooms last night. As the day progressed, the ship followed the usual route through the bay (www.nps.gov/glba/planyourvisit/cruise.htm) and the Rangers provided a running commentary. The Rangers also set up an information desk and displays in The Conservatory. I had printed out the Pee Wee Ranger Activity Book (www.nps.gov/glba/forkids/beajuniorranger.htm) for DGD#1 and helped her complete it earlier in the cruise. We took the book to the Ranger in the Conservatory, who reviewed it and gave her a Junior Ranger Badge; she also got to touch samples of the fur of many of the animals found in the park. Later, the Rangers held a special event at the Fun Zone where they administered the Pee Wee Ranger oath and gave each child a Glacier Bay patch.
On a previous visit to Glacier Bay at this same time of year, we had seen many icebergs, harbor seals with pups that had recently been born on the icebergs and bald eagles scavenging the seal placentas. This time there was not a lot of ice and we didn't see any seals or eagles. However, we did see a good bit of calving at the Margerie Glacier and were able to progress further up the Johns Hopkins Inlet than on previous visits. Although the ship spends about an hour at the Margerie and Grand Pacific Glaciers and the Captain rotates the ship so that both sides get good views, we alternated our viewing among our balcony, the Promenade deck and the upper decks.
The production show tonight was Motor City, which John and I had seen and enjoyed before. We thought our GDGs would enjoy the music and dancers, but they were just too tired and their parents took them out after a few numbers. By the time the show was over and we returned to our cabin, the girls were in bed and it was baby monitor / white noise machine time.
MAY 26 (SUN) KETCHIKAN, ALASKA: 8AM to 4:30 PM
This was our third cruise visit to Ketchikan (www.visit-ketchikan.com). On our first visit, we took the ship's boat / floatplane excursion to Misty Fjords National Monument and also had time to walk around town and to hike part of the Deer Mountain Trail (alaskatrekker.com/deermtn.htm). On our second visit, we bought a combo ticket to the Deer Mountain Tribal Hatchery and Eagle Center (now closed) and the Totem Heritage Center (www.city.ketchikan.ak.us/departments/museums/totem.html) and also took the self-guided walking tour (www.experienceketchikan.com/ketchikan-walking-tour.html) around town.
Although we felt that we had already explored Ketchikan pretty thoroughly, we decided to walk along the waterfront to the Liquid Sunshine Gauge, head up Mission St. to Whale Park (gorgeous rhododendron!) and take the Creek St. boardwalk to the Salmon Ladder. We did not see any salmon in the creek, but John spotted a steelhead trout braving the falls at the Salmon Ladder. As we started walking back to the ship, John checked with our DS and learned that his group of six had made it off the ship and were nearby at the Creek St. footbridge. Of course, we could not resist the opportunity to take more photos of our DGDs and the rest of the group, so we met up with them briefly before returning to the ship for our afternoon excursion.
We took only one ship's excursion on this cruise, the Mountain Point Snorkeling Adventure with Snorkel Alaska (www.snorkelalaska.com). Our driver, Kevin, whisked 14 of us from the dock to their headquarters, where we were outfitted head-to-toe in 7 mm neoprene: wetsuit, boots, gloves and hood. All of this gear fit me VERY snugly (despite my being totally honest about my height and weight) and I welcomed the help provided by the staff to get it all on. They also provided fins, masks and snorkels. They even had prescription masks that were able to accommodate both me (+1.5) and my extremely-nearsighted (+5) husband.
Next it was back to the bus for the short drive to the snorkeling site at Mountain Point. Those who wanted to free dive were given weights and we took the short, rocky trail down to the shore. As we were heading down to the water, a bald eagle flew by and perched on a light tower right next to us.
John and I usually snorkel and SCUBA dive wearing 3 mm shortie wetsuits. I now learned the disadvantage of wearing all that extra neoprene: in the salt water, even with the weight belt, I was as buoyant as a toy balloon. In fact, I had difficulty remaining seated on a rock in shallow water to don my fins without floating away. Once we started snorkeling, I felt like I was floating on top of the water! Whenever we stopped to view sea life that the snorkel masters brought up for our inspection, I was wafted around by the small waves and light breeze. Oh, for a pair of ankle weights!
Except for being super-buoyant, I did not have any real problems and did not feel particularly cold except on the small area of exposed skin around the mask. The visibility was surprisingly good and would have been outstanding if the sun were shining (which it apparently does once or twice a year in Ketchikan). Our three snorkel masters (Tad, Dylan, and Cassie) were very good and Dylan was particularly adept at free diving to retrieve sea stars, urchins, sea cucumbers, etc. to share with us.
After the snorkeling, Cassie pulled off my fins while I held onto a rock to keep from floating off. Back at the bus, we could remove the hoods, douse our heads with warm water and exchange the weight belts for dry towels. Then it was back to the shop to strip off the rest of the gear and warm up with a hot shower and lots of hot chocolate. This was an excellent opportunity to sample cold water snorkeling with a very professional operation. It was not a strenuous excursion and we would recommend it to water types.
Back at the dock we had time to do a little shopping for Alaska-themed hooded sweatshirts for our DGDs. Today was our 40th wedding anniversary, so at dinner we were serenaded and given a small anniversary cake. John hates being the focus of this kind of attention but I knew our DGDs would love being part of the celebration; he stoically endured it for their sake.
MAY 27 (MON) AT SEA
The Princess Grapevine wine tasting was held this afternoon in the Botticelli dining room. As Elite Captain's Circle members, John, I and our DS received complimentary invitations; DS's college friend and his wife also joined us. At one time the wines were the same at every Grapevine but in recent years there has been more variety. We were happy that all of the wines today were new to the Grapevine (except for the ever-present Errazuriz Late Harvest dessert wine). I hope that the rumored elimination of the sommelier position does not mean that Princess will return to a standard set of wines for every Grapevine.
Tonight was the second formal night and the Captain's Circle party for repeat passengers. The Most Traveled passenger had sailed 1,228 days with Princess.
MAY 28 (TUES) VICTORIA, BRITISH COLUMBIA: 7 AM to 1:30 PM
With so much to see and do in Victoria (www.tourismvictoria.com), it was disappointing that Princess only allowed 6-1/2 hours of port time. On a previous visit here, we had walked to the Inner Harbour and booked a whale watching tour there (www.princeofwhales.com). Today, we planned to take the public bus to Butchart Gardens.
We were ready to go when passengers were finally allowed to disembark at about 7:30 a.m. The terminal building did not appear open yet but a person was outside distributing maps with several routes to the city center. We took off at top speed up Montreal St., stopping at the Little Gem Grocery (148 Superior) to buy an all-day bus pass (CA$5 pp). From there, we walked to the stop for bus #75 northbound towards Saanichton / Royal Oak (www.bctransit.com/regions/vic/schedules/map.cfm?p=side.txt&line=75&); the bus stop is across the street from rear of the Empress Hotel. If you want to take the public bus, pay close attention to the routes and schedules. Depending on the time of year, the northbound #75 bus may not stop right at the Butchart Gardens and the southbound bus may require a transfer to another line at the Royal Oak interchange. The trip from downtown to Butchart Gardens takes about 50 minutes without a transfer or about 65-75 minutes if you have to transfer.
We arrived at the bus stop with plenty of time to catch the 8 a.m. bus. When we told the driver that we were going to the gardens, he said he would make sure we got off at the correct stop. Our bus stopped just past the entrance drive to the gardens. The bus driver pointed out the direction to go; the entrance kiosk is only about a Â¼ mile walk downhill from the bus stop. Note that this is along a narrow street with no sidewalks.
We arrived at the Butchart Gardens (www.butchartgardens.com) entrance kiosk just before the official opening time of 9 a.m., paid the admission fee (which varies by season) and headed off to explore the gardens. Unfortunately, it had started to rain lightly. Although we had come prepared for rain, we were pleased to see that the gardens provide transparent umbrellas for guests to use during their visit.
The map and guide given out at the entrance kiosk shows a suggested path through the gardens. Because we arrived earlier than most of the bus tour groups, the gardens were not crowded and we could enjoy and photograph the colorful plantings without feeling like we were being herded along. There are several themed gardens, fountains and ponds. It's hard to believe that this is a reclaimed quarry! At this time of year, the roses were not yet blooming but the rhododendrons were spectacular. Butchart Gardens is a must-see for anyone who enjoys beautiful flowers.
We completed a leisurely circuit of the gardens in about an hour. The crowds were starting to build up, but we decided to walk the circuit again to take some of the side paths. Our original plan had been to spend about 2-1/2 hours (a minimum of 1-1/2 hours is recommended) in the gardens and return to the ship via bus #75 bus with a transfer to bus #31 (which stops right at the entrance to the port). However, after 2 hours we felt that we had seen enough of the gardens and leaving earlier would give us some time to visit the Inner Harbour area. Once we were back downtown, we took a few photos before heading back to the ship along the waterfront, where we saw a sea lion swimming in the harbor. Back at the port, we walked out on the Ogden Point Breakwater for a good view of the Grand Princess and spotted another sea lion swimming near the rocks.
Our DS's friend and his wife enjoyed walking around downtown Victoria, but our DS and his family never made it off the ship. We had suggested that they go to Beacon Hill Park (www.victoria.ca/EN/main/departments/parks-rec-culture/parks/beacon-hill.html), which has play areas and a petting zoo. However, the short time in port made it too hard to get everyone organized.
We spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying the scenery from our balcony. I saw a whale spout but it was gone before John had a chance to see it.
MAY 29 (WED) AT SEA
This morning we attended the Culinary Show, which is always fun, but skipped the Galley Tour. A bit later we attended the Most Traveled Passenger luncheon in the Botticelli dining room. We were at table #3 with the Chief Engineer, so we ranked somewhere in the middle of the top 40. The food was excellent, as usual. The rest of the day, we packed and enjoyed our last day aboard. I saw some dolphins but they were gone before I could call John to see them.
MAY 30 (THURS) , JUN 9 (SUN) POST-CRUISE IN THE SF BAY AREA
This morning we got everyone together in the Explorers Lounge to await our disembarkation time. Disembarkation went smoothly and we had no problems finding our luggage in the terminal. Once we were outside, it seemed smarter to walk the 2 blocks to the parking garage instead of trying to load the cars at the dock. This proved to be a wise decision because it took a half-hour to get everything and everybody packed back into the cars.
Eventually we were on our way. After enjoying a few more days with our DS and his family (plus some short side trips to Yosemite and Sonoma County), we were ready to head back to RDU on United's nonstop flight and get back to work on the plans for our next Princess cruise.