Background: We planned this trip for a year in advance. 10 signed up and 2 dropped out due to a medical situation. Our initial contact was with Vacations To Go but we were disappointed in call-back responses so we dealt directly with Princess and were glad we did so, traveling from the East Coast left too much room for problems and we wanted the Princess "assurances", even though another, earlier, booking experience with VTG was fine. The Princess booking people were a pleasure to deal with. We used Princess Air and all of us got on the same planes. Our only hitch was that we found on our own, without any notice from Princess, that our return flight was booked into Dulles, not BWI as we had signed up for (lesson: keep checking your itinerary). One key element in this cruise was the desire to be able to have adjoining cabins with interconnecting balconies, which was a big selling point for our group and we were able to do that on Coral Princess, so everyone was pleased with that. More on the cabin arrangements later, but a balcony cabin is almost a must for this cruise.
Arrival in Anchorage: We flew into Ted Stevens Intl. Airport. We were greeted warmly by Princess reps. Our bus was waiting for transfer to Cpt. Cook Hotel. Baggage was handled efficiently and ALL of it went to the hotel. We boarded and were off for about a 45 min. ride into Anchorage with some good commentary along the way.
Capt. Cook Hotel: One of several in downtown Anchorage, which is more cosmopolitan than we imagined. Arriving around 9 p.m. (still daylight) we were tired from a long trip and hungry. We went to the rooftop "Crow's Nest" restaurant with a great view. However, that restaurant does not allow shorts, flip flops, or hats. We found the staff in it somewhat condescending. We had a drink in the "Nest" and went to Fletcher's on the ground floor where the food selection was much better and the staff eager and accommodating. The room in the hotel was very nice, not extravagant. The one issue with this leg of the trip was that our bags were to be tagged with "Meet Me Onboard" or "Keep With Me" luggage tags and NOT placed in the hall the night before, but left in the vestibule to the room which the porter would enter around 7 am the next morning to retrieve. We got up early to make sure all was in order and not be surprised by his arrival. Leave plenty of time for breakfast as the hotel lobby restaurant was mobbed and the service was slow. We walked around Anchorage the morning of our departure. Mosquitoes (it was very mild) were an issue down near the waterfront, but the downtown area is nice. We saw our luggage loaded on to trucks for transport to McKinley lodge (not on the bus) and to Whittier, for the ship, then ate our breakfast and boarded our motor coach for McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge in Talkeetna.
Arrival at McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge and Talkeetna: The bus trip of about 2.5 hours from Anchorage to Talkeetna went quickly. Nadine. our driver, provided great commentary. Views of the countryside were excellent. On arrival at the Lodge, our luggage had not yet been delivered, but it was promised soon. Again, a lot of mosquitoes (some said it was the worst in the last 40 years due to the mild weather with temps in the 70s and 80s F). A fabulous view of Mt. McKinley greets you at the lodge. New arrivals crowd the deck in the back for views of the mountain. Our room was spartan, but neat, with a tv, desk and a fan since there is no air conditioning in the rooms. We could have used the a/c but the fan proved enough. The staff at the Lodge was pleasant and answered questions. The Lodge operates a shuttle into Talkeetna, since the Lodge is about 45 mins. outside of town. The shuttles run throughout the day and into the early evening and are free, except for gratuities. Our first experience with "Roy" was not too pleasant as the a/c on the bus went out and it became very warm inside. After arrival at the bus "turnaround", we walked through the town. The women did some shopping and the men went to Denali Brewing Company where the food was good and the beer excellent and cold and we were subsequently joined by the women.
Talkeetna Air Taxi Excursion to Ruth Glacier at Mt. McKinley. This was not booked through Princess. The air trip and the glacier landing was a FABULOUS experience. The staff was warm, welcoming, and competent. It takes a bit of an easy walk from the town center to the airpark. Once at TAT, you are weighed and given boots to protect your feet from the slushy snow on the glacier. Sunglasses are a must and TAT will provide them if you don't have them. Trent was our pilot and he advised he had a lot of hours on multiple aircraft and was fully certified. To say this was a breathtaking excursion would be putting it mildly. The weather was perfect - clear skies and great visibility. Trent remarked that the weather is not often like it was that day since the Mountain generates its own weather. Anyway, we landed smoothly on Ruth Glacier. No one needed a jacket even though we had them with us. Long sleeve wicking material and a tee shirt over it (we were our Ravens' shirts) was sufficient with a pair of jeans. We stayed on the glacier for about 20 to 30 minutes and then smoothly took off. Trent took us over "Moose Meadow" where we spotted some of them grazing. Our flight back to Talkeetna and landing were smooth and uneventful. Do not miss this type of excursion if you can help it. (Note: We learned after our return that another TAT pilot's plane and passengers suddenly got "fogged in" while on the Glacier. News accounts stated that the passengers spent about 2 days on the plane, which carries emergency supplies and sleeping bags, on the glacier with additional emergency supplies delivered by rangers who hiked in. The lesson is not to take this excursion for granted.)
Dining in Talkeetna. There are not a lot of restaurants in Talkeetna, as you might expect, but what's there is very good. In addition to our lunch at Denali Brewing Company, we ate at West Rib (site of the tv show episode of Man vs. Food for its giant burger) for dinner after our TAT flight and were served by Trent's girlfriend and a charming and pretty young woman. The next morning we had a great breakfast at Roadhouse, which truly is a Roadhouse, with accommodations for day hikers, etc.
Alaska Railroad's Denali Express: Our "Keep With Me" luggage was placed outside our door in the a.m. and picked up for transport to the railroad. The rail trip was a great experience. Different cruise lines have different cars. We were in the last car. They are double deck with the dining area below and seating on top. The panorama is great. You sit at a table on the top level and have plenty of room to spread out at your table which fits 4 comfortably. The trip takes about 4.5 hours after about a half hour ride to the train depot. Our coach supervisor, "Zach", kept the trip interesting. The service was great. You are assigned a time to eat lunch but you can "defer" your time until a later point if you are not yet hungry, but at some point dining service stops. The food served is soup and sandwiches, but it was very good. Upstairs and down in the rail car you can have beer, soft drinks or mixed drinks. The bartender has "specialty" cocktails available. All of this is paid for at the end of the trip by credit card. We had no issues with the rail car travel at all - it was a pleasant experience.
Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge: Again, this Lodge is Spartan but nice. The dining here is limited. The area across the street is rather "honky tonk" but a number of people were seen going over there for liquor or food at Subway and another restaurant. The bar at the Lodge serves food which is fairly reasonably price and seats a large number of people both outside and in. There is a pizza parlor on the site which we did not use. The view from the bar's dining area is fabulous. Again, mosquitoes were an issue outside. The King Salmon dining was "overpriced" in our opinion. The main lodge area has a snack bar and the ever present gift shop. Get to the snack bar early on the morning of any excursion as it becomes "mobbed" and you might miss departure. Be warned that the Visitors Center at the Park and the Wilderness Center are not easy walks from the Lodge as we were led to believe. It's about 3 miles to the Visitor Center on foot.
Kantishna Experience: We were up early to take this excursion, grabbed a bite at the snack bar and boarded a bus to the Denali National Park Wilderness Center. Tours of Denali depart from there. Watch the excursion you book as this one goes all the way into Denali and turns around to head back out. It is a long day but a great trip. We heard that the partial trip into the Park was not as enjoyable. Our driver, Don, spoke the entire length of the trip, save for brief times when he had to negotiate traffic on switchbacks. The buses are not air conditioned and do not have bathrooms on them but there are frequent rest stops. We saw the "Big Five" game in the Park and additional wildlife. Photographers were living a dream. The bus provides a "bag" lunch of snacks and drinks with plenty to keep hunger at bay. At the end of the trip, a Park Ranger boards the bus for the final leg into Mirror Lake and to tell the fascinating tale of Fannie Quiqley. Again, this is a long day but highly recommended if you wish to see all Denali has to offer. Don said that only about 10% of all the visitors to Denali see what we saw on that day. It was great.
Denali to Whittier: Our final day of the Cruise Tour was marked by a 8 hour or so bus trip from Denali to Whittier. Our driver, Bob, provided great commentary. Frankly, the time passes quickly. We were so tired from our land adventures we slept most of the way. But if you don't think you'll sleep, bring lots to do. To get to the port at Whittier you will pass through the Anton Anderson Tunnel, only one way each hour and your coach's arrival is scheduled so it has to be on time or else you might miss the ship's departure. There is a brief stopover in Anchorage on the way to Whittier where you can buy some liquor in accordance with Princess rules to bring onboard.
The Coral Princess: We were one of the first buses to arrive. Embarkation went smoothly and continued for others throughout the afternoon. The ship looked to be in fine shape with no showing of excessive wear and tear. As promised, our travel companions and we had adjacent cabins. Also, as promised, doors on the balcony opened to allow all the balconies to flow as one and we could move freely between our cabins. We were on the Emerald deck on the starboard side, which I would recommend to anyone going Southbound because on our trip the prevailing winds coming over the port side made for colder and windier conditions than the starboard. We found our cabin steward to be pleasant and provided good service. We only attended one show which was comedy and pretty good but very short (an hour at most). We enjoyed a movie on deck on several nights. We would not recommend the dining room for breakfast, we found the buffet had a greater selection and the service in the dining room for breakfast did not merit using it. Plus, the view was better. When we arrived on board we cancelled a helicopter glacier landing since we had already done that and thought our prior experience with Talkeetna Air Taxi could not be topped. Our dining experiences in the Bordeaux Dining Room were just superb. The food was good and our server was excellent. A nice feature from Princess is a kiosk near the service desk on the main deck that allows you to check your bill each day. We had no children with us but I do not think this is child's type of trip. We did not see many children on board.
Hubbard Glacier: We could not see this stop on the trip as we were fogged out of Yakutat Bay with much ice floating in the water. The Captain apologize for this but felt it just unwise to proceed for safety reasons. It was creepy moving through the waters in the fog with ice floating by and the fog horn sounding. Shades of "Titanic".
Glacier Bay: Here we had a great visit and the Captain spent much time in the Bay and he maneuvered the ship marvelously to allow those on both sides of the ship a view of the Marjerie and Grand Pacific Glaciers, as well as some "lesser known" such as Johns Hopkins (which we did not maneuver around but passed going and coming). The weather was perfect.
Skagway: Having cancelled our helicopter trip over the Chillkoot Mountains we opted for a walking trip to White Pass Gardens, which was beautiful, then walked back into town to eat at Skagway Brewing Company, doing some shopping, and hitting The Red Onion for a drink before returning to the ship. Skagway can become very crowded on certain days of the week with multiple ships in port. Watch out, we were told, for long lines on those days which I believe were M-W.
Juneau: Here we got a close up shot of an eagle AND a close up view of whales with a calf on the Whale Watching and Wildlife Quest run by Allen Marine Tours (Princess Excursion). Our boat for the Quest was big, very comfortable seating (airplane like) with lots of viewing area and with a bar with snacks. Be prepared for the wind up top if you go and dress warmly even if the day is warm. The commentary on the trip was superb. We walked the town, went to the Heritage Center (but did not go in due to limited time) and passed on the Roberts tram which is very expensive to ride.
Ketichikan: We ended our trip with a great excursion with Backcountry Zodiac Expedition. Jeff, our guide was wonderful and it is an experience that can be shared with young and old alike. All gear is provided for the trip. The Zodiacs are fun to drive and easy to do so. A more comprehensive review of this great excursion (also through Princess) is posted on Tripadvisor as the vendor requested.
Disembarkation: This went smoothly. We boarded buses for Vancouver Intl. Airport at the dock and waited for several hours until our plane was ready to go. The plane ride was pleasant and uneventful.
In summary, this is a very active Cruise Tour but a great experience. If you have good weather, as we did, and you allow Princess to give you some peace of mind as to your travels, it is a wonderful experience. All of group shed tears remembering it. A true "bucket list" voyage. Bon Voyage!