Since many of the cruisers aboard this cruise are from the Bay Area, it's relevant to note that there are many ways to get to the Cruise Terminal (which is Pier 35 at the time of this writing, subject to change because a new terminal is being built and will soon come online.) If you're not from the Bay Area and are staying in a San Francisco hotel, you'll probably just get there by either taxi or hotel shuttle. But if you're coming from somewhere across the bay or down the peninsula (or perhaps even farther away), you have other options to consider.
First, you can drive your own car and park at the Princess-suggested parking lot. I don't know too much about this option, because we didn't do it, but I do know that it costs $17 for "regular" vehicles and $20 for "oversized" vehicles. The list of oversized vehicles is long and distinguished and includes pretty much anything larger than a Honda Accord. So for an 10 day cruise, you'll pay for 11 days, and unless you drive a postage stamp, and that will be $220, plus tolls, gas, and whatever. Ouch. Oh - and the parking garage is a few blocks away from the Cruise Terminal, so you get to carry your bags all that way, or find a cab willing to take you that short distance.
Another option is to take BART. The closest BART station to the Cruise Terminal is Embarcadero, about (I'm guessing) a mile away. So unless you relish carrying your bags all that way, you'll have to flag down a cab to take you from Embarcadero Station to the Cruise Terminal.
Here's the option we chose. We hired a business limo, otherwise known as a Town Car. It picked us up at our door step (we live in Orinda, in Contra Costa County, about 20 miles away from Cruise Terminal, 20 minutes away if there's no traffic - as if that ever happens.) We paid our driver $95 one way (plus a nice tip). We'll pay the same amount for the return trip. We got dropped off at the door of the Cruise Terminal, and the driver helped us put the luggage into the trunk and take it out! Best of all there was absolutely no stress about finding a parking space, getting lost, worrying about traffic. And it ended up being the same amount of money as paying for parking in San Francisco.
The strange thing about embarkation is that the majority of people say that it was great, but a vocal minority say it was a nightmare. From what I've been able to piece together from reading these stories is that the vast majority of the time, embarkation truly is a model of efficiency. If, however, it happens to be Coast Guard Inspection Day, all bets are off. Every ship must maintain its Coast Guard Certificate of Inspection in order to keep carrying passengers. The USCG will show up on a surprise basis to inspect the ship to make sure everything is up to standards. If that inspection happens to coincide with embarkation day ... well, you can imagine, it's not particularly pretty. The process slows to a crawl. A bad COI inspection could mean that the ship is placed out of service and that is not good for anyone. This is the one and only time passenger concerns come second.
August 28, 2013 was just an ordinary day, thank goodness. When we arrived at the terminal at 1:05 p.m., there was a long line of passengers in front of the building with various suitcases and carry ons. There was a bit of confusion about what line to get in, do we give our luggage to somebody, etc., but a Princess rep was on hand to straighten that out in no time. Soon we gave our luggage to a porter, tipped him, and returned to the line. We were amazed how quickly the line moved. Within a couple of minutes, a line a city block long had moved inside the building, and then into the large processing area. We had to stop to fill out a simple health questionnaire ("Are you now feverish? Have you vomited in the past 24 hours?") and then proceeded into the main line. This too moved very quickly. We were standing in front of a Princess Customer Service Rep within 10 to 15 minutes, got our cards and were on our way. The next step was security screening, which was pretty painless. It was a much less rigorous version of airport screening, and then we walked onto the ship. From curbside drop off to boarding was approximately 35 minutes.
Upon boarding, we camped out at Al Fresco's Bar, which as the name suggests is an open-air bar on one of the ship's top decks aft. We were hoping to meet up with lots of folks from the Cruise Critic Roll Call group but that was kind of a bust. Only a few group members showed up. Fortunately Cindy, our group leader did bring our very cute nametags but the group never really gelled.
Nevertheless, it was very fun for everyone that was there, group or not, as we left the pier and sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge. The ship's photographer was there to capture the happy smiles with the famous bridge in the background, and I think those might be some of the $20 photos that actually get purchased.
Side note: the bartender at the Al Fresco was awful. Worst bartender we encountered on the ship. He really had no idea what he was doing. All the other bartenders, and in fact all the staff in general, were very good to excellent. This fellow stood out in his lack of professionalism.
The Grand Princess is 11 years old and is beginning to show her age. The carpeting, in particular, shows many stains, many of which were in my cabin. :)
The floor plan of this ship is confusing! My husband, who never needs a map to go anywhere, constantly had to carry the deck plan with him. I found myself just following him around (because he was the one with the deck plan). We found ourselves walking down corridors, going up a flight of stairs, down another corridor, and then down a flight of stairs to get to the place we wanted. It was maddening. After several days on board someone told us that the carpeting on the port, or left, side of the ship has a red stripe (red is the customary nautical color for port) in the design but starboard does not. That would have been helpful to know right away!
There were often workmen working in the halls at odd hours with access panels open, working on what could have been emergency repairs. Our ventilation system quit for several hours, and then mysteriously returned.
We booked balcony cabin A619, not far from the aft elevators, and we experienced very little noise from hallway traffic. Our steward, Jose, was personable, friendly and eager to please. He was very attentive to our needs and on most occasions brought us anything we requested. The bed was very comfortable.
The "head" (bathroom) actually had more room than I was expecting. There were 3 decent-sized shelves above the sink area to store toiletries and a big shelf below the sink. As noted elsewhere, the shower is pretty tiny and there isn't much shelf space, so you'd be smart to go to www.favorsbyserendipity.com and buy their cruise accessories to help with this problem.
I do recommend upgrading to a balcony cabin if it's at all possible in your budget. Our balcony was surprisingly spacious, and included two nice deck chairs and a small table. It was very nice to be able to step outside whenever we wanted, or to sit outside and enjoy the scenery, especially on glacier day. The balconies on A ("Aloha") are great because they are completely covered. while the ones on lower decks are stepped out and aren't covered (we could look right down on them). I would definitely ask for A deck again.
The room itself included a queen-sized bed (which we specified in advance, but it could be converted into two twins). The linens were of a very high thread count and were very comfortable. The duvet was fairly thin, which didn't bother me as I'm a warm sleeper, but you may wish to ask for more blankets. There were 2 night stands with lamps, a good-sized desk with chair, an occasional chair, and "entertainment area" including a small built-in refrigerator and small flat-screen TV. The dressing area includes a 4' wide closet with plenty of hangers, and an 18" wide by 7' tall shelf unit that includes the small
The light-battered fish & chips at the Pub Lunch were some of the best I've ever tasted. My husband had the bangers & mash at the Pub Lunch and raved about that as well. The "pub lunch" doesn't happen every day, though, so you have to watch the Patter closely.
If you're a fan of Starbuck's or other specialty coffee, you're probably going to be disappointed at the stuff they pour in the dining room and at the buffet. If that's the case, I recommend that you purchase the Coffee Card. You'll find that it's good for 15 "specialty coffee beverages" (lattes, espressos and such) but it also gives you unlimited brewed coffees at the International Cafe on Deck 5. Even there, the coffee probably isn't as good as you're used to if you're picky about your coffee. But it's a darn sight better than the swill in the dining rooms.
We chose traditional dining at 5:30. Pretty early, but we felt that it was the best way to get dinner done and then go have the rest of the evening to ourselves. The best thing about traditional dining is that you know that you'll always have a table, no reservations or waiting needed. The bad thing is that you have to be ready to go at a set time.
The food in the main dining room is okay but not great. One thing that I think is interesting to note is that the portions are not large. Don't hesitate to ask your server for more of anything at any time. Our server, Maria, was excellent. I ordered steak "medium rare" one night. She stood and very discreetly watched as I cut the meat, which turned out to be overcooked. She offered to take it to the kitchen for a properly cooked steak - and I hadn't even had a chance to speak up. Shortly she returned with a better steak - but it still wasn't great.
If you want a truly great meal you're going to have to pony up $25 per person to go to the "specialty" restaurants on board. They're worth the money, trust me. The Grill, in particular was my favorite.
For a cover charge of $25 per person, you can dine (with reservations) at The Crown Grill, which specializes in steaks, or at Sabatini's, which specializes in fine Italian fare. This is what I remember cruise ship dining to be back in the olden days when I traveled with my parents (back in the 1960's and 70's). The food in the specialty restaurants is absolutely amazing. The service is so attentive that it borders on embarrassing. It is truly a far cry from the airplane-type food they are serving in the main dining room these days.
The cruise director, Martin, did a good job managing the goings-on aboard the ship, but he was also very funny. However, we got pretty bored with the entertainment pretty early in the cruise and stopped going to the shows. We were pretty strange in this regard, though, because when the shows let out, I saw tons of people streaming out of the venues. Your mileage may vary.
One act I personally attended and did not enjoy was singer Brandi Carlson. Although she has a very good voice, I found her Branson, Missouri style of stage show to be dated and dull.
Shopping, shopping, shopping! All they want you to do on this ship is spend money! It seems like every piece of paper you get in your stateroom, and a large
part of the Princess Patter, is about shopping on board an in port.
In addition to the jewelry boutique(s) aboard the ship, I understand that many of the jewelry stores in port are temporary for cruise season and owned by the cruise line. It seems likes every other store in the port towns is a jewelry store. Maybe that's the reason those jewelry stores all look the same and seem to be selling the same junk, er, stuff.
There is a cosmetics/perfume boutique on board that does seem to have reasonable prices. They sell all the latest perfumes and also Clinique and Estee Lauder cosmetics. The shop is small, though, so they won't have the same selection you're used to seeing at your local department store.
The art auction on board ship also seems to be crassly commercial. We sat in on it one day and were just blown away by the prices. Some pieces that I thought were purely hideous were selling for thousands of dollars!
Fortunately, there were several non-cash related activities on the ship.
Trivia and other "brain games" was held at least twice a day. I never actually managed to win, always placing two or three questions out of the "money." This is okay because there were never any prizes beyond a pen or other nominal gift. These were fun gatherings and a good excuse to form teams and get to know other travelers.
Educational seminars. I attended the ones on digital photography, which were excellent. I believe there were also ones on bridge and crafting.
Movies. There were movies on deck, in the theater, and on the room TVs, several times a day. They had both recent movies and old-time movies.
Special interest get-togethers. I noticed get-togethers listed in the Patter for single travelers, Alcoholics Anonymous, LGBT, and so on.
Naturalist Talks. There was an excellent series of naturalist talks that was very well attended. The naturalist covered a whole series of Alaska-related subjects such as bears, birds, glaciers, etc. I attended most of the talks and found them very interesting.
Demonstrations of cruise-related things like towel-folding, food garnishing, ice carving and the like. These were kind of interesting. I found them a little weird, though, because Princess doesn't put towel animals on your bed the way Carnival does. And I never saw a single ice sculpture anywhere on the ship except for the ice carving demonstration. Still, these demonstrations were fun to watch.
Silly Cruise Activities. I suppose these activities involve money and don't belong in my "non cash" list, but the amount of cash is pretty small. They had the classic horse racing, Bingo, and the like.
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 fifty-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.
Well, it seemed like a 50-mile hike. The guide asked if it was ok if he took us on a longer hike than the ".75 mile" described in the program. I was too chicken to be the only party pooper to say no. It turned out to be almost 4 miles altogether (round trip). I was literally crying by the end because my poor arthritic knees hurt so bad. I felt like I was going to die. Oh, and did I mention that it was pouring rain the entire time?
Well, we finally got to the place we were hiking to and you could barely see Mendenhall Glacier because of the rain and fog. AWESOME. The good news was that there was a beautiful waterfall there and we were able to take some wonderful pictures of the waterfall and some icebergs that were floating near Mendenhall Glacier. The guide was super nice and took some great photos of us in front of the waterfall with my camera. I don't even think you could see I'd been crying.
After we walked (or in my case, limped) back to the bus, we went to the Juneau Harbor for the second part of our tour. A beautiful 40 foot aluminum boat was waiting there for us. The boat is completely covered, has 3 - 250 hp outboards and all the modern electronics and safety equipment. Most important for whale watching, the windows are closed when the boat is going fast, but completely lift up when the boat is stopped for wildlife viewing.
Our tour guide and boat captain knew all the spots where Humpbacks were likely to be. We zipped out of the harbor at the mandated maximum speed of 30 mph and in no time were at a humpback feeding ground. Within minutes we had our first humpback sighting, We went to several different locations to view several different whales. I used my new photographic knowledge to get some great shots of the whales.
We also went to view a large gathering of Stellar Sea Lions. It was great to see and photograph these large creatures basking in the sun.
We went on the morning excursion with the White Pass and Yukon Territory Railroad. The train literally pulled right up to the pier to pick up the hundreds of cruise passengers. This was quite a feat because there were two Princess cruise ships there!
The train pulled out of the station on time at 8:30 and headed out of town. The locomotives are vintage, green-and-yellow diesel electrics. All the cars are fully restored 1910-era wooden passenger cars, complete with woodstove and large picture windows.
The trip was fully narrated and passed by such landmarks as the miners' cemetery and original, miner-built tunnels. Because of customs regulations, we weren't allowed to disembark the train at the summit, which was actually located in Canada. The trip downhill was uneventful, if a lot noisier because of increased braking activity. The entire trip was beautiful, and I'd highly recommend this excursion.
At the end of the train ride, we were given the option of disembarking either in town or at the pier. We hopped off in town and meandered around for a short while. We found ourselves at the famous Red Onion Saloon. Back in gold rush days, the place was a brothel, and in modern times, it is fully capitalizing on that reputation. The hostess and servers all dress in turn of the century prostitute getups. One young woman is dressed up as Madam Ophelia, and the upstairs is the Brothel Museum with a sign reading "Tours, $10 for 20 minutes." We had lunch there, and the food there was actually quite good and reasonably priced.
This was it ... the reason for our cruise to Alaska - and we were not disappointed. We reached Tracy Arm about 8:00 a.m. We decided to spend the morning on our balcony, because we knew that the ship was going to turn around at the end of the fjord, eventually giving us a view of the whole thing.
Tracy Arm facts:
Located on Stephen's Passage, Tracy arm Fjord is an "arm" of Holkam Bay
A "fjord" is a U-shaped valley, characterized by steep, vertical walls, carved by glaciers that advanced to the sea and then retreated, leaving a deep valley to be filled with water.
Tracy Arm is 32 miles long, 1/2 mile wide in most places, with walls rising to 2,000 feet.
It was discovered by John Muir in 1879
Both the North and South Sawyer glaciers are rapidly retreating. They are fed by the Taku Icefield.
The entire trip up Tracy Arm was breathtaking. There were dozens of waterfalls, small and large, cascading down the incredibly steep walls. There were countless ice floes in the water. One thing to note, although it should be obvious: it's COLD. You'll need to dress the warmest here on the entire trip. Multiple warm layers are in order.
Ketchikan had two major advantages over all the other ports thus far in the trip: 1) Everything was really close to the pier, and best of all 2) IT WAS SUNNY. Everybody's mood was instantly elevated.
We attended the Lumberjack Show, which was incredibly corny. On the other hand, the lumberjacks in the show, while hamming it up to a ridiculous degree, actually DO the stunts. Things like climbing straight up a 30-foot pole, racing to see who can cut fastest, etc.
After the show, we walked around the small town of Ketchikan. We noted that there were lots of jewelry stores, but there were also lots of fur stores. We even found one that sold genuine full-length minks (for well into 5 figures!). My purchase was much more modest: fur slippers.
Unfortunately, it was raining when we visited Victoria, leaving our record at 3 out of 4 ports with bad weather. :(
Since we were going to be there for such a short time, we decided to book only a short shore excursion, the Horse Drawn Carriage Tour. The carriages are actually large carts that seat up to 20 people, with rubber tires and full covers. The tour operators even provide blankets, which was a godsend on an inclement day like the day of our visit. Amazingly, we didn't get wet at all while in the carriage.
The carriage was pulled by two very large Clydesdale mares named Moon and Molly. We were told that each horse is capable of pulling 6 times her own weight, so these big horses weren't working too hard on this mostly flat course. The tour guide and horse driver was a lovely young woman named Jen. She narrated the entire trip through Victoria. It was great, because we were going at a horse's pace so we got to see the details. We saw residential neighborhoods, the beautiful parks, Parliament, the Empress Hotel, all the major sights.
We were given shuttle tickets so that we could get from downtown back to the pier. We took this opportunity to explore the downtown area. Naturally, it was pouring down rain at this time, so I bought myself the cheapest umbrella I could find and I was much happier.
We found the coolest place for lunch: Banks and something (must look that up). It was a converted bank building, with absolutely beautiful molding and brass lighting fixtures. It didn't hurt that the waitresses were beautiful young women, and the DH couldn't stop staring. The place was right across the street from the downtown mall.
Victoria is a beautiful city, worthy of a repeat visit.
As I mentioned, we had a lot of rain. I think our cruise dates of Aug 28 - Sept 7 were just a bit too late in the season to expect good weather. We were told that just one cruise before us had great weather. If I were to take this cruise again, I think I'd select an earlier cruise.
Unless you're in a Suite or are an Elite Captain's Circle passenger, you have to pay for Internet. It's pretty expensive, so I decided to go cold turkey.
I rationalized this to myself thusly: do I really need to check Facebook and email? No, not really. I did practically cry with joy when we got to Juneau and there was a cellular signal, though. Be careful: depending on your provider, it's probably an extended network, and may cost extra. Check before you leave home. If your phone displays "roaming," you'd be smart to not use it at all. Unless you like really large bills, anyway!
There are laundry and dry cleaning services on board, but they are very expensive. As an alternative, there are self-service laundromats scattered throughout the ship. For example the closest one to my cabin is just a few doors and one flight down. That one has 2 washers and 2 dryers. There's another laundromat on my same floor, quite a ways down the hall, that has 4 washers and 4 dryers.
You'll need LOTS of quarters for the laundry process. There is a change machine in each laundry room. If the changer doesn't work, you can get quarters from customer service on Deck 6. Each laundromat has a machine that dispenses soap, fabric softener, powdered bleach for $1.25 each. Each is enough for ONE LOAD. Many people bring their own soap, but if you're only going to be doing a load or two, I don't think it's worth it. It's up to you.
One laundry accessory that's totally worth it is a mesh laundry bag to hold your dirty clothes.
The washer takes $2.00 of quarters per 25 minute load, and you get your choice of White, permanent press, or delicate. The dryer costs $2.00 per 30 minute load, and you get your choice of White, Permanent Press, or Delicate. I couldn't tell any real difference between the cycles, by the way.
The machines vary, BTW. The dryer I used put out "nuclear" heat and dried my jeans and underwear load to a level of "so dry it's almost crispy," while the dryer next to it required another set of quarters to make any real progress. Basically, you pays yo' money and you takes yo' chances.
Princess has this embarkation / disembarkation thing down pat. A couple of days before the end of the cruise, we received disembarkation instructions and color-coded luggage tags. We reported to the movie theater as instructed at 8:00 a.m., along with several other color-coded groups. It was an entire hour before our disembarkation time of 9:00 a.m., but I'm sure they do that to make sure that everybody gets there. (I call this the "herding cats" principle, and sure enough, lots of people kept straggling in late.)
A passenger services rep would announce that a certain group had been cleared to go, they'd leave, and we'd wait a few more minutes. This continued until a couple of minutes before our scheduled time. She announced our color, we picked up the bags we were carrying off the ship, and headed for the stairs. (Highly recommended, the elevators are a nightmare at this time.) We showed our cruise card one last time and headed for the pier. NO CUSTOMS! We were pre-cleared because we had already filled out the declaration. Yippee! Our luggage was right there waiting for us. We grabbed a porter, zipped to the curb, found our pre-arranged limo and we were on our way home. Easy peasy!
Ladies, it's very difficult to shave your legs in the teeny tiny shower. I have no sage advice here. Just be warned.
It's amazing how long your smartphone battery lasts when you can't use your phone. Apparently whipping our your phone every five minutes to Google something really does have an effect on your battery. Who knew.
If you like chocolate AT ALL, try a "Milky Way Martini" at Crooners Bar. If you're lucky, Vyron will be there to decorate your glass. He's an artist! (You can thank me later.)
While ashore, please shop at stores that display an "Alaska Owned" sign to support the local economy.
The walls and door of your cabin are magnetic, so bring some magnets. It's fun to put up notes, the Patter, whatever. Please don't make the mistake that I did and going to the Dollar Store and buying 6 magnets for $1, though. Those things can't hold themselves to the wall, much less a map.
If anyone in your party is going to have a birthday or anniversary during or shortly before or after the cruise, let Princess know. The best way to do that is in the Cruise Personalizer online. They will decorate your door and also give you a dessert on your specified date. The dessert they give (yes, GIVE) you is delicious.
I highly recommend checking your bill on a frequent basis. You can go up to passenger services and they will print it for you. There are even kiosks near customer service that will print out your bill. Do this every couple of days and it will be a lot easier to remember if you had those drinks than if you try to remember 6 days later. If you go to customer service to question something, do it during the cruise rather than on the last day, when it's a zoo.
Here's another bill-related idea: if you don't want your entire bill charged to your designated credit card, you can go to passenger services and pay all or part of your bill any way you want, as long as you do it before the end of the cruise. Cash, traveler's checks, a different credit card, etc. The lines will be long on the last day, so do this in advance.
**Things you must take with you on an Alaska cruise**
Warm clothing. It's COLD out on deck on glacier day, even if you're lucky and it's warm in port.
A raincoat with a hood. Do not fail to bring this. It will rain on at least one of your port days.
Nice clothing. Princess ships are dressy. There are two formal nights, and people tend to wear fairly nice clothing even on the non-formal nights.
Binoculars. A must!
Either plenty of money (i.e. spending limit on your credit card that's attached to your ship account) or iron will power, because spending opportunities onboard are almost limitless. For example, at $20 (or more) a pop, those ship pictures really add up. Who am I kidding, I bought a bunch of them. Just be warned.
A nightlight for the bathroom. The staterooms are pitch dark at night. The outlet says "shavers only" but a nightlight works fine, as long as both prongs are the same size.
A wristwatch. If you plan on going to any shipboard activities, I highly recommend that you get to them a little early to get a good seat (or any seat for the more popular activities).
A highlighter so you can highlight the things you want to do in the Princess Patter. A pen to fill out the various forms you will be required to fill out.
We had a great time on this "bucket list" cruise. We would do it again!