This was our third cruise experience, and our first with Princess. It proved to be our best cruise yet.
Embarkation at Vancouver needs improvement. The terminal has very poor signage and no obvious assistance available to guide arriving passengers. The trick is to know that the first step is to turn your luggage over to the blue-coveralled attendants who meet you when you pull up. These guys do not have any visible ID and I assumed were just there for hire if you desire. Turns out they are the mandatory official luggage transfer process.
With this done, things improved. Customs was very quick and efficient. Leaving Customs there was a good large sign pointing to the Princess reception area.
We had arrived early (about 10:30). There was no lineup at Princess. We collected our room key cards (which double as the charge card for on-board charges) quickly and were directed to seats in a waiting area. The ship was opened for boarding by 11:30. There is no PA system…as the crowd grew, several Princess staff shouted directions at the top of their lungs. Not very effective, but when the queue began to move it was pretty obvious where to go.
The ship was spotless. The décor - carpets, décor, etc was fresh and up to date. The ship was quiet while underway and rode well.
We had booked a veranda cabin on the Baja deck, but Princess upgraded us to the Caribe deck- one floor lower, same-sized interior cabin and a slightly larger verandah. The added verandah space was nice but the smaller (and cheaper) verandas on A and B decks would have done fine.
Our cabin was spotless and bright. There is a large alcove for luggage and hangars - this was a great layout, giving lots of room for dressing and hanging up away from the sitting area. The bed was very comfortable. Sitting was limited - one comfy armchair and a desk chair - but adequate. There is a desk area, and a minibar with a counter top. Not great for room service dining - but otherwise comfortable. There was a neat little inset for the drapes which let you pull them completely out of the way to enjoy the view. Only two small issues with the room - first, there was only one electrical outlet, with two plug receptacles mounted too close together - so only one plug fit at a time; second, the wall-mounted hair dryer was in an impractical location at the far end of the cabin from the bathroom.
The bathroom was spotless and in good working order. There is a shower but no tub. The two shower controls took some time to figure out. Bathroom had plenty of counter space and tiered brackets for your things.
We found the staff consistently friendly and responsive. Our cabin steward, Surchai, was polite, cheerful, and efficient. The crew was diverse, with many more women than we’d seen elsewhere and a variety of nationalities. All staff - without exception - greeted customers as they passed in halls or stairways. We did not have a single bad or even mediocre experience with a crew member - they were great!
We never left the table hungry, and gained weight over the cruise, so the food must have been OK….however I would not rate Princess highly in this area. The Dining Room food has some nice touches but is otherwise ordinary.
While the ship has four dining rooms, each supposedly with its own theme, much of the menu is common to all four. The dining room layout does not inspire. The servers’ stations are placed in the middle of each section, meaning that all the food and dirty dish handling is observed close up. Food arrives from the kitchen in ugly plastic trays - the kind they use in hospitals - making it obvious that the food is being mass prepared. The food is not handled with much pride.
Our dining room servers varied from bland to great. All showed good attention in detail, but focused more on handing out and collecting plates than creating a dining experience. We liked the Savoy the best - our waiter there was clearly trying to excel. In contrast, the Santa Fe room was a cafeteria experience.
What we did love was the Horizon Buffet on the Lido deck. It presented the best variety of food, consistently well prepared. The dishes were more creative than the Dining Room menus. There were always some spicy options, and lots of vegetarian dishes too. And you could sample a bit of everything. The servers, who brought drinks and coffee, were quite attentive and prompt.
The Horizon’s dining area is spacious with great big windows The buffet area is well organized - the ship has a system to split the service between two serving areas, which prevents lineups and crowding. We were happy to trade the self-service regimen for a better window side view, better food, and a more relaxed dining environment. Only once, on a day when the Dining Rooms were not open for lunch and the glacier drive-by ended exactly at 12;30, did the area feel congested.
In spite of having a computerized ID card for on board purchases, the payment system for drinks is bureaucratic. Often drink chits were filled out by hand. Princess demands that passengers sign each and every drink chit - I don’t recall Holland America doing that! One just handed over one’s card and the electronic swipe was the proof of the transaction. The signature thing seems to be designed to solicit a gratuity, a bit much considering there is a daily gratuity charge and considering that an automatic gratuity is added to all beverage charges. I never added a tip over what was already on the bill.
We chose the northbound cruise with a four-day land cruise tour added at the end. The three stops along the route - Ketchican, Juneau, and Skagway, were all nice little towns fun to walk around in. There are many excursion options at each stop, as well as plenty of shopping and opportunity to just walk around. We chose the latter and had a great time in all three stops.
Juneau has a couple of decent museums/galleries and the nicest pubs with local ales. Most memorable excursion for us was the White Pass and Yukon Railway out of Skagway. We regretted not booking a whale watching tour - we saw plenty of whales from the ship, but at a distance. Those who took the excursions reported thrilling up-close whale encounters. The flying tours to the glaciers, while pricey, were praised by those who took them - if you have a limited amount to spend on shore tours, make this the priority.
Only bad experience was the shuttle bus to the glacier in Juneau. There are multiple bus companies, all using a common ticket form, but only honoring tickets sold by themselves. There was no signage or person to explain this. All the bus lines run from the same depot and people queue up in the same line - much confusion upon boarding as the driver checked each ticket, letting some board, and sending others back to line up for the next bus company’s vehicle. If you enjoy old busses, you will enjoy the variety of clapped-out vehicles on this service, but personally I wasn’t impressed.
We were on board mostly to relax and watch the scenery, so I can’t comment on nightlife or activities. The clientele were predominantly retirement-aged folks, few truly elderly and many bringing grandchildren or younger families along. It was not a party crowd and I’m guessing things are pretty dead late at night. Activities for children and teens were ample and well arranged. We loved the peaceful nature oriented atmosphere - not at all like a Caribbean cruise with its pounding music and heavy drinking/dancing on deck. The “Movies under the Stars” space is wonderful - you lie under a blanket on deck watching a big screen TV - relaxing and casual.
The scenery is stunning and the run through the fjords past the glaciers, with lots of whales and sea otters visible, is truly memorable. The service on deck is relaxed and geared to just chilling out. We loved it.
The land cruise tour portion was extremely well organized. The Princess hotels are not quite as posh as the ship, but clean, well maintained, and comfortable. We had fantastic weather, which helped…..I imagine that many of the negative reviewer comments come from people who endured bad weather.
At Denali Park Lodge, I would recommend upgrading from the Heritage bus tour to the Tundra Wilderness Tour....it goes much farther into the park and you see much more scenery and wildlife. It was a stunningly beautiful place. The buses are a bit cramped but OK. It was hard to take good photos while the bus was moving - unless you just shot through the (dirty) windows you had to take off a seat belt and stand up each time. Bus driver stopped anywhere on request but that gets annoying to others.
In summary -
We found the Diamond Princess a truly enjoyable experience with no glitches or problems. The dining room food is quite acceptable so long as one doesn’t approach the cruise with high-end expectations. The Horizon Deck buffet dining is excellent. The crew was great. We would recommend this cruise without reservation.