This is our 2nd cruise with Princess and 6th cruise overall. My wife and I traveled with our two older (20 and 22) children. This was our first cruise to Alaska. All of our other cruises have been in the Caribbean. We booked the 14 day Off the Beaten Path cruisetour, of which the 7 day Voyage of the Glaciers cruise was the first week.
Getting there. We flew into Vancouver the day before the cruise to avoid any potential conflicts on cruise day. Vancouver was very nice and we wished that we had come a day earlier to spend some quality time there. As it was, we had an enjoyable short visit. We stayed at the Century Plaza Hotel and Spa. The hotel was nice enough and in a good location. Since we got there early, they were nice enough to hold our luggage for us until the rooms were ready. We were within easy walking distance of downtown. Definitely could've spent more time there as the limited time held us back from doing anything time consuming.
Embarkation: This was very easy as time from getting out of the taxi to in the room was 30 minutes or so. I have to give it to Princess; they have people moving down to a science. They keep everyone moving to the point where we were only waiting about 5 or 10 minutes. The rest of the time we were moving, going through customs, getting our cruise cards, etc.
The ship: Sapphire Princess is a beautiful ship. Even though there were thousands on board, the ship seemed small and I never got the feeling that it was crowded. The only time we waited in line was the first day at the Horizon Court for lunch. Other than that, we pretty much went in to each place without much wait. There are lots of pools and hot tubs on the ship in various locations. The weather was never very good so we only used the outdoor hot tubs a couple times. We didn't use the spa. I did go to the gym once and it was very crowded early in the morning. Overall, there are only a few places where the ship is showing some age. Even in the lousy weather, the crew was constantly cleaning the outside areas. My only complaint is that smoking is allowed in the casino which means that even on "no smoking days" the casino smells of cigarettes.
Service: The service on the ship was exemplary. From Joel our room steward to the many waiters we encountered, everyone went above and beyond to make our trip enjoyable. The service on the land tour was equally outstanding, and all tried to make the various trips and excursions interesting and enjoyable, despite the weather.
Food: I have to break this down into ship and land. On the ship, I thought the food was outstanding. I had read many reviews that indicated the buffet food was so-so, but I found it to be better than I expected. There was a lot of variety. In the main dining areas, we had chosen anytime dining, which worked out pretty well. The first night we had to wait 15 minutes for a table, but other than that we were able to walk in to any of the 3 dining rooms that had anytime dining and get a table right away. We used the main dining rooms for breakfast and lunch several times. I will say that the food from the MDR is better than the buffet, but not because the buffet food is bad. We didn't try Sterling steakhouse or Sabatini's as there were just oo many other choices that did't require an upcharge. On the land side, the food was good but very expensive. We did some exploration of non-Princess eating places, but in some areas there were none.
Weather: Alaska should come with a warning: Be prepared for foul weather. Between fog socking us in completely on the sea day, to constant rain throughout the land tour, there were few sunny days during which we could really enjoy the wondrous outdoors and nature. It made the bus trips and train trip very tedious when we couldn't see much. On the other hand, when the sun was out in Glacier Bay and on Mendenhall Glacier, it was stunning.
Logistics and port excursions: As I said above, Princess does an outstanding job of moving people. Only once were we almost late back to the ship from an excursion, and that was more the driver's fault for not knowing the ship's all aboard time. We booked a lot of excursions on this trip, all from Princess. I know the general consensus is to book from port locals, but we didn't spend a lot of time in any of the ports and didn't feel the cost savings justified the time risk. For other's benefit, there are booths in all of the ports with local excursions. You can probably save a lot of money by utilizing them, but keep in mind that you're not in some of the ports for very long.
On board activities: Since the weather prevented many outside activities, we did partake of many of the various activities inside. We enjoyed the various trivia games and contests. We didn't do any of the bingo or other upcharge activities. There was usually no shortage of things to do and we usually had to plan our day around what each of us wanted to do.
Stateroom: We had upgraded to a mini-suite when a large price drop occurred a couple months before the cruise. This turned out to be a good decision since the mini-suites have full tub/showers in them. One thing is if you are 6'3" or taller, you cannot stand up fully in the tub/shower. It was a small inconvenience, though, given that this was immensely better than the body hugging showers we would've had. The bed was very comfortable and the balcony spacious. We were able to get a small door opened between our balcony and our kids adjoining balcony. I would've liked to have the whole partition removed and just make one big balcony, but that wasn't an option on Dolphin deck. It looked like it was an option on the Emerald deck above us.
Guides and excursion operators. I haven't seen commentary on this in other reviews, so I thought I would add it. One thing that was very different about many of the trips was just the passion of some of the people that work on these excursions. For the most part they are younger folks working in the summer in Alaska. Their stories are very interesting and you can see how the land has changed them. You know some of them do the same excursion 4 or 5 times a week and to see them get excited over something makes you realize that you have seen something special. I really enjoyed interacting with many of the drivers, guides, etc. There were some real characters.
Entertainment: I had read that the entertainment was so-so and that proved to be true. It's definitely an older audience on the ship, but the entertainment was for an older generation than my 55 years. Billy the cruise director was funny and for the most part enjoyable, but when he went into his Tom Jones impersonation, it was a bit much.
Ports: Ketchikan was nice and actually one of the few sunny days we had. We did the Eagle Island kayaking, which allowed us to see eagles in the wild for the first time. We also saw an eaglet. This was all we had time to do, however, because we were in port for such a short amount of time. In Juneau we took the helicopter excursion to Mendenhall Glacier. This was also one of the clear days and probably the best excursion we took. Flying over one ridge and coming out with that view of the glacier and surrounding snow-capped mountains was just stunning. One warning- no matter how warm it is in Juneau, dress for a windchill below freezing when you're on the glacier. We also went on a whale watching excursion in the evening where we saw a complete breech of a humpback whale. In Skagway we took the Yukon expedition followed by the White Pass train back. We enjoyed the bus ride, but we didn't really stop long enough anywhere to enjoy the area. I will mention that the place we stopped for lunch was very good- Caribou Crossing. The ability to interact with the dogs and puppies was very cool. The train ride was great if you can get on early enough to get on the right side of the train. Otherwise, you are stuck trying to get to the open air platform to take pictures. All in all, though, it was a great excursion. In both Juneau and Skagway, we were in port long enough for both a long excursion and time on the town. We pretty much avoided the Princess sponsored shops as all ports have Alaskan owned shops. They made a point of putting "Alaskan Owned" signs in the shop windows.
Land tour: Too much time on motor coaches. I think the idea is that you're not supposed to notice how much time you spend on motor coaches because the scenery is so beautiful. However, if it is foggy and rainy, you can't see anything so the time on the motor coaches is very boring even with the drivers trying to make it interesting. After 3 or 4 trips, hearing again the fireweed story gets very old. Even though you leave early from some areas, they purposefully delay you getting to your next destination hotel in order to give the hotel time to get rooms ready. We basically spent 3 days on motor coaches of the 7 day land tour. Although Princess advertises rail travel as part of the adventure, we only road the train once between Mt McKinley and Denali.
Disembarkation: As with everything else involving mass movement of people, Princess was outstanding in this area as well. We gathered in one place and left the ship and got on to our bus to Kenai. We had time for a leisurely breakfast and were not rushed at all. I did note that disembarkation began at 6 AM for some, so not everyone had as leisurely time as we did.
Summary: I would give the cruise a 4.5 out of 5 with the only negative being the short time in Ketchikan and the so-so entertainment. I would give the land portion a 3 out of 5 with points off for too much bus travel and too limited/expensive food.. Had the weather cooperated, I might have been more generous on the land tour. I think the bad weather had an immense impact on the land portion as we missed out on seeing so much of Alaska due to rain. When we did see it, the vistas and views were stunning. Everyone we encountered were extremely friendly and helpful. All in all, it was a great trip. I would do the cruise again in a heartbeat. I wouldn't do the land tour again, though. There are too many other places I want to see.