Alaska was a cruise destination long on our bucket list. My husband David and I traveled with my brother and his wife. It was our seventh cruise and the second for them. It was the very first time to Alaska for all of us.
We chose this cruise due to fond memories of our very first cruise on the Grand Princess 11 years ago and also because it's port city, San Francisco, was a new one for us. The desire to experience San Francisco as well as the allure of four days at sea made this cruise an easy choice.
We chose the Tuscan Inn and Fisherman's Wharf area of San Francisco for a 3-night pre-cruise stay. Upon arrival, the friendly desk staff warmly welcomed us. The lobby is nicely decorated, and the complimentary wine reception held at 5:00 p.m. for all guests was a nice touch. The room was a bit smaller than what I expected, but it was clean and cozy, with a very comfy queen bed. I liked the fact that the windows were dressed in white shutters rather than drapes, which added a feeling of space. The room was located inside, facing a quiet courtyard of plants and greenery, something to consider if you don't like street noise. Complimentary coffee was available every morning in the lobby. We had drinks and appetizers in the adjacent restaurant, which were very good, but can't say the same for breakfast there the next morning. In one case the eggs were runny, in another they were overcooked, and although we tried twice to get fresh cream for coffee, each time it curdled in the cup.
San Francisco was cold, misty and foggy, but we still loved this city, amazed by the diversity, architecture and flavor. We toured both with a tour company and on our own. We explored China Town, Little Italy, Alcatraz, Golden Gate Park and rode through just about every neighborhood, the Golden Gate Bridge being the featured player, of course.
Our Ship Comes In:
Only one event will have me jumping out of bed before the sun and outside at 5:30 a.m. - the arrival of a cruise ship into port. The sight of the Grand Princess creeping silently through San Francisco harbor all aglow in the darkness of the wee hours sent my heart all a-flutter. While I felt badly for the folks aboard whose journey was over, I was happy that it would soon be our turn to cruise to Alaska.
Embarkation: Whatever horror stories you've read about the boarding process in San Francisco, don't believe any of it. When we arrived at the port by noon, every single worker we met was courteous, waiting lines were non-existent, and we were on the ship and in our cabin by 12:30. Of course, I can only speak for myself. My Elite status got my husband, two traveling companions and me completely through the fast track in just minutes, but from what I could tell, there were no lines anywhere in or outside the terminal, no matter the Circle status.
Princess now has a designated table set up at embarkation where you register any wine brought on board. Please note: If you intend to consume the wine in your stateroom, don't forget a corkscrew, as they are very hard to come by. Room service won't send you a corkscrew, either. Instead, they will send you somebody to open the bottle. Silly, really.
Sail-away: Passing under the Golden Gate Bridge was not only exciting for us, but also for everyone up on Lido deck for the sail-away party. You could feel the electricity in the air when the crowd of people on deck applauded as the ship glided gently under the bridge. Very spectacular, indeed!
The Ship: The Grand Princess is still as beautiful and grand as she was when we last boarded her 11 years ago. However, as others have noted, she is showing some age, and the cabin balconies, especially, need some serious cosmetic work. Rust and stains are apparent, and a carpet or other floor covering over the ugly painted metal surface would greatly add a lot to the aesthetics. Some wear and tear was also spotted around the pool area, as well. To their credit, crew members were spotted every day working around the ship - painting, varnishing or cleaning, and if you are an early riser, as my husband is, you will see much maintenance work being done at 6:00 a.m.
The Piazza is a great addition to this ship, and International Cafe is one of my favorite places for a quick bite. We often chose to grab a bite here rather than upstairs in the Horizon court. The specialty coffees at the adjacent coffee bar compliment the delicious pastries, sandwiches and salads the Cafe offers, and a bit of jazz or classical music could often be counted on for accompaniment.
The Cabin: We booked balcony cabin B705, directly off the aft elevators, and we experienced very little noise from hallway traffic. Our steward, Reynaldo, was personable, friendly and eager to please. He was very attentive to our needs and on most occasions brought us anything we requested, though occasionally forget to fill the ice bucket. Although we never asked for one, an "egg crate" foam mattress cover provided some extra comfort, and the additional pillows I requested in advance of the cruise were in place. At first glance, I thought 8 pillows would be overkill, but they quickly deflated in size once they were used.
Food: The light-battered fish & chips at the Pub Lunch were some of the best I've tasted. The pastry, sandwiches, salads and desserts at the International Cafe are the best food on the entire ship. I purchased a coffee card, as the flavored coffees are delicious. The new pizzeria, Alfredo's, was outstanding, with a variety of pizzas made fresh to order. The steaks and lobster tails at the Crown Grill were delicious and done to perfection; however, the service was noticeably lacking. It took a long time to get seated, even though there were many empty tables at 8:00 p.m., and took an even longer amount of time to get a menu. Lastly, Horizon Court was what it was - a place to grab a quick meal, some good items and some not so much.
Dining: We chose anytime dining and made a reservation each evening for the DaVinci room at 7:45 pm. This dining time worked well for us, as it gave us time to rest up after the day's activities, with dinner finishing up in time for the later shows. There was never a wait for a table, service was fantastic and most entrees were good to excellent. French onion soup, my husband's personal favorite, was only available one evening. A few nights into the trip, we met one of the servers - Meow - from Thailand. No, it's not her real name, but she's a really sweet, funny girl, and we asked for her for the rest of the cruise. She took good care of us, told us about her homeland, always remembered us when we saw her around the ship, and even tried her best to get hubby his special order of French onion soup later in the cruise.
Entertainment: Let's start with the cruise director, Martin. Not only did he do a good job managing the goings-on aboard the ship, but he was also very funny, and could hold his own as a stand-up comic. The funniest and most entertaining act on board was comic, Kevin Hughes. His manic pacing back and forth across the stage as well as his ADHD persona all added to the experience, and he was absolutely hysterical. Equally funny, without the ADHD, was comedian Phil Tag. The Princess Singers and Dancers did a great job with their production shows (don't miss their British Invasion) and the onboard musicians were all very enjoyable, most notably The Rhapsody Trio, Lovena Fox and dance band Opus.
Fitness Center: I did not use it at all during this cruise, choosing instead to make use of the Promenade Deck - a true wooden deck which encircles the entire ship, a feature becoming more rare with each new build. However, my husband did go to the fitness center daily first thing in the morning, where he sometimes encountered a lengthy wait and a couple of broken machines.
Activities: Most activities were held inside as opposed to out on deck for this cruise, and the Piazza was a popular place for games and hanging out. Princess brought back an old favorite - horse racing. Guests bet on large wooden, painted horses, which are advanced along the floor by a roll of the dice. Our horse came in first - not once, but twice!
The casino was a loser or I should say that they were the winner, and we were the loser. Of course, if my husband would stop passing through there to get to and from the theatre it would minimize our losses.
The art auction, too, always attracts my husband. For me, it's interesting for the first few minutes, then I get bored. The free champagne's not even that good.
Roll Call Meet & Greet: On our first sea day, I had thrown together a last-minute M&G for our roll call. Since it had been a small roll call with very little activity over the months, I didn't know what to expect in the way of turnout. In addition, as is typically done, I had invited the Captain, Hotel Manager, Cruise Director and other notable officers to the gathering, thinking how awful and embarrassing it would be if all these invited guests came for just the four of us. As it happened, the Captain graciously appeared, as well as the Hotel Manager, the Cruise Director, the Customer Services Director and the Food & Beverage Manager all came, and we had a decent turnout of 15 cruisers out of 40 not bad for an inactive roll call. We took photos with the officers and were extremely grateful they took time out of their busy day to spend a few moments with us. Thank you to all the roll call members who came - it was great to meet you. For the rest who couldn't make
Pool: We made use of the covered pool and one of the hot tubs at least once. Both were very relaxing after a long day in port.
Internet: Slow and spotty, as expected, but we each had plenty of free minutes due to our Circle status. I was able to keep in touch with my kids back home, check email, social network and send out a few photos. When I ran out of minutes, I used up my husband's!
Juneau: We went with the 5-Hour Whale Watch & Mendenhall Glacier Photo Safari, a Princess excursion. If you are a shutterbug or just want to pick up some tips on how to photograph Alaskan wildlife and nature, I highly recommend this Princess excursion.
A small group of just 12, we were met by our guide at the pier. We were lead to a small minibus, where we were given a bottle of water and driven to a nature trail. After a talk on how to avoid a bear confrontation, we were led on a half-mile hike through the forest and given pointers on how to shoot plants, flowers, waterfalls and other forms of nature that came in our path. The trail led to a viewing site for Mendenhall Glacier, where we were given some tips on photographing this majestic mass of ice. Around the corner came the best surprise of the day. A nearby ranger was telling everyone to remain quiet and proceed slowly. Just a few feet away in a grove of trees was a black bear feasting on a salmon he just caught in the stream below us. It must have known we were there, but probably just too hungry and intent on devouring his catch to care. We then boarded our bus, but not before viewing a porcupine holding court high above us in a tree.
After more water and snacks, our next stop was the dock, where we boarded a small boat where we began our search for whales. Observing whales is not new for us, as we live in New England and have seen them several times off Cape Cod, Mass. However, what's missing in New England are the amazing snow-capped mountains and glacier backdrop. We saw whales breach high out of the water and then display their magnificent tails as they dove - all this with incredible scenery to back them up. Now there's a sight we don't see in New England.
Skagway: We started out by taking the short shuttle down the pier and walking to town. It's not a big place, but you'll pass the Yukon railroad and a salmon-filled stream along the way, and there are some interesting shops. Stay away from the cruise-ship recommended stores and buy from the locals. They depend on cruisers like us for their livelihood.
In the afternoon, we did the 3 1/2 hour Yukon Tour with Frontier Excursions. We were picked up promptly as planned, and the driver (Tyler) was enthusiastic, knowledgeable and friendly. After waiting 15 minutes for a family whose matriarch apparently became preoccupied with shopping and lost track of time, we were finally on our way. The tour took us up the Klondike Highway, parallel for a time with the White Pass railroad, the White Pass summit, through the "Tormented" Valley to beautiful Summit Lake. The route also continued on through more wilderness and lakes with gorgeous mountain backdrops, finishing at the famous "Welcome to Yukon" sign. It was a nice tour, though I found the seats of this minibus of 15 people to be small and narrow with very little legroom - not the most comfortable ride.
Glacier Bay: This was it ... the reason for our cruise to Alaska - and we were not disappointed. We reached Glacier Bay about 6:00 a.m., and as the morning wore on, the skies became sunnier and the water bluer than we could have imagined, setting up what would become one of the most breathtaking visual displays of nature that we've ever seen.
My new high-powered binoculars did not fail me as I scoped the waters for wildlife and calving glaciers. I spotted a few sea lions swimming by and a few whale spouts in the distance, and I heard from others that a moose was seen swimming from one shore to another. As beautiful as the hills of Ireland and Scotland were on our cruise last summer, they were no match for the beauty of these snow-covered rugged peaks, mountains, inlets, majestic glaciers and crystal-clear waters. The mix of clouds, sun, shadows and mist lay over the glaciers and mountains in such a way that they sometimes appeared to be magnificent works of art. As the ship made its way through the bay, we marveled at the splendor of it all, including two glaciers - Margerie Glacier and then John Hopkins Glacier - and were lucky enough to witness calving at Marjerie. One especially large chunk of ice starting from the top of the glacier and crashing into the sea below was captured on video by my husband. I, of course, had stepped away and missed it, but we are so fortunate to have it on record!
Ketchikan: As luck would have it, we were blessed with another warm, sunny day for our flightseeing trip with Seawind Aviation to observe bears at Traitor's Cove. We were picked up as scheduled on the dock, driven to the DeHavilland Beaver 6-passenger floatplane, shown a brief safety video while we all settled our accounts, and led to the plane. I have to say that I had been nervously anticipating this small-plane ride since the day we booked months ago, but the ease of getting my arthritic legs up and into the aircraft and the silky smooth takeoff melted away all my fears.
After about 20 minutes of beautiful scenery, with pilot Steve narrating into our headsets as we flew, we landed effortlessly at the dock. A guide met us at the dock and brought us for a short walk to the van that would drive us into the rainforest to a trail. With some preliminary instruction in the event of an encounter with a bear, we walked along the half-mile trail, marveling at the quiet solitude of this place, with our guide pointing out some exquisite plant life. While we did not run into any bears, we did find fresh bear poop (yes, you could even see the red berries he had recently eaten!) telling us that one may have been nearby. We finally reached an observation deck overlooking a creek, where we all had our eyes peeled for bears coming to feast on spawning salmon.
Unfortunately, the unseasonably warm, dry, sunny weather - while great for the tourists - has not been good for bear sightings. The water levels in the streams have been low, with fewer salmon, resulting in fewer bears. Sadly, no bears were seen on this trip. On the upside, we did see and photograph a bald eagle or two in the area, which kept us occupied for a time at the creek.
Although we were disappointed that the bears did not come out to play, we still enjoyed the ride immensely and marveled at both the experience and the beautiful views it provided. Owners Steve and Leslie run a nice business. Leslie welcomed us warmly on arrival, and Steve provided a smooth, safe ride.
We still had several hours remaining in town before sail away, so hubby relaxed on the ship while I went out to explore. I had seen pictures of the famous Creek Street, and could not leave Ketchikan without a look. I took some photos, purchased a few trinkets and returned to the ship for a rest.
Victoria: With only a few hours in Victoria, we had no plans and were not even sure we would make the effort to get up and out early for a visit, but I am glad we did. The weather was perfect, and we had a nice walk into town. It's an easy 35-40 minute walk along the waterfront with beautiful views of the ocean and marina, as well as stately buildings including Parliament and The Empress Hotel. If you don't want to make the trip to the popular Butchart Gardens, don't feel sad. There are beautiful flowers and gardens all along the way, especially at the Empress Hotel. For a change of pace, a different route back to the ship through residential neighborhoods will take you by quaint homes with lovely flower gardens. Victoria is a beautiful city, worthy of a repeat visit.
Weather: We were either lucky or extremely blessed. While our first three days in San Francisco were brisk, cold and foggy, Alaska presented us with fabulous sunny, warm weather in every port. Even Glacier Bay, though cold of course, surrounded by all that ice, gave us the bluest skies. I still wore layers, but only 1 or 2, instead of 5 or 6 - except for Glacier Bay, where we were very thankful for the hats, gloves, scarves and all those layers. Most of the time we were touring through ports in tank tops and short sleeves - shorts, too!
Disembarkation: This went off nearly without a hitch. We waited at our appointed venue for our group to be called and exited the ship right on time. There was just one brief moment when my brother could not locate his piece of luggage. With assistance from an agent, it was found in an unmarked area of luggage without the appropriate tag, which had apparently fallen off somewhere in the process. Note to Princess: An area marked "untagged luggage" would be very helpful in locating missing luggage.
Post-Cruise: We booked a hotel in San Bruno close to the Airport for a one-night stay after the cruise in order to get a good night's sleep and wake refreshed for the flight home the next morning. Since there is not much to see in the airport zone, we decided to take a tour of areas around the City we hadn't seen in our three days before the cruise, which turned out to be a great idea.
I reserved a private tour with Silver Lion Tours for the four of us, with a goal of riding over the Golden Gate Bridge and seeing Muir Woods, Sausalito and other scenic spots throughout the area. Although our guide made suggestions and let us call the shots, we let him choose several scenic locations for some fabulous views of San Francisco, the Bay and the ocean - including some quiet locations not well known to tourists. The weather turned out postcard perfect, and we could not have had a better day. Warm, sunny and nearly cloudless skies allowed for some stunning views.
Muir Woods was mesmerizing. Groves of majestic towering trees with gigantic trunks rising as far as the eye can see proved to be the highlight of this tour. The woods were busy with many tourists, but on those rare moments of quiet, you could just close your eyes and enjoy the peace and tranquility.
Post-Cruise Hotel: Staybridge Suites. For an extra fee, Silver Lion Tours provided a transfer to the Staybridge Suites in San Bruno close to the airport. Far from the City, it's not a good location for city sightseeing, but for us, it was the perfect choice for an early morning flight out the next day. We booked a two bed-two bath suite for the four of us. We had plenty of room to spread out, and the suite was clean and modern. Although we chose to eat out, free soup and salad was provided on the evening we stayed, as well as breakfast in the morning. The bed was not nearly as firm as we liked, but for one night it was fine. The staff was great and provided a free shuttle to a nearby restaurant, Jack's (which was great, by the way), and then to the airport in the morning.
This was a fantastic two-week vacation, and Princess once again came through with a great cruise and itinerary. We scratched another destination off our bucket list, put down a deposit on a future cruise, which we look forward to planning for 2015!