Princess delivered a great cruise/tour to Denali and the inside passage. We had never taken an organized tour or a cruise; our first experience met every expectation. As we researched the places and activities in Alaska, we determined that we wanted to see the Kenai Peninsula, Denali, and the inside passage. We wanted the freedom of independent travel to see the Kenai Peninsula, but we decided that we would enjoy the convenience of an organized tour to Denali, and we wanted to ride the domed railcar from Denali to the cruise ship. After selecting the HB5 land tour, we selected the dates/ship for the Princess portion of our Alaskan adventure; then, we booked air tickets that took us to Anchorage a few days before the Princess tour. For the next few months I researched activities.
Prior to travel, we completed the requested information on the Princess website and read the instructions for our tour. Princess has excellent organization and processes. Upon arrival at Hotel Captain Cook, we checked in at the Princess desk (not the hotel front desk) where we were given an envelope with our room keys, instructions for departing to the next location the following morning, and luggage tags for the next stop. Princess is expert at transporting people and luggage to each place, and a successful trip is obtained just by following their instructions. The motor coaches are comfortable and accommodating, driven by capable drivers who also provide information and stories along the way. Once we began the Princess land and cruise tour, we did not have to worry about our luggage until we departed the cruise ship in Vancouver.
Tour HB5 was the perfect land tour for us. It provided one night at Hotel Captain Cook in Anchorage, two nights at McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge, and two nights at Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge. After reading that Denali is only visible an average of one out of three days, we hoped that we would get to see it at least once - we were very lucky that the mountain was visible 4 out of 5 days! It is an amazing sight! Spending two nights at McKinley Princess was better than one night for us because the location is in an area that provides great views of the mountain when it is not enshrouded in clouds. It also gave us a full day to enjoy the town of Talkeetna. More than two nights at Denali would have been better, but we were happy to enjoy 1 days in the park. The only significant comment I'll make here about Denali NP is to note that, prior to travel, we cancelled the Natural History Tour that was part of the Princess package. They kindly gave us a refund for the tour. Prior to travel I booked the national park shuttle to Eielson Visitor Center at mile 66 in the park. This gave us a much better opportunity to see the park. The train ride in the domed railcar from Denali to Whittier was a highlight; we were assigned to a car and table that happened to be among a great group of people - we talked and laughed all day as we marveled at the beautiful views and photographed the scenery.
I've reviewed the lodges on TripAdvisor, so all I'll comment here is that a variety of room types exist at both lodges. I don't know if there's a way to get the better rooms, but we were satisfied with our accommodations. At McKinley, our room was neat and clean - nothing special except for the fact that the window provided a great view of Denali. Our room at Denali Princess was much nicer but with no special view. Some travelers who were a little disappointed in their room at Denali had had a much nicer room at McKinley
As we traveled by rail from Denali to Whittier, Princess once again impressed us with their organization. At a brief stop in Anchorage, staff boarded the train and checked everyone in for the cruise. Our boarding pass was collected, and passports were scanned. Before leaving the train, we were given our cards which were used for identification and cabin entry on the ship. Leaving the ship, we only had to wait in two lines - one for security and one for an electronic identification photo which was later used when leaving and re-boarding the ship at each port of call. We were amazed with how easy it is to travel with Princess.
Coral Princess is a great ship! Our Baja-level cabin and balcony was comfortable, and we were well cared for by our cabin steward. In fact, all of the stewards were friendly and helpful during our week on the ship. The atrium, theaters, dining rooms, buffet, and public areas were all attractive and well maintained. Since our cabin was aft and dining was forward, we had quite a walk to the dining rooms and some shows, but we enjoyed the back deck and were glad to be close to the laundry. Sailing was smooth, and we had no issues with sleeping.
We ate breakfast and lunch in the Horizon Court buffet each day; the options were many, and the food was very good. Buffet wait staff was professional and friendly, and except for very busy times, service was perfect. Dining in Horizon Court can be a little hectic during the busy times, and we often ended up sharing a table with others - not a problem since it gives an opportunity to share travel experiences. Pizza was easy to pickup for a late snack after busy days in port. Dinner in the dining room was a treat - tablecloths, special menus, excellent service. We ate some meals with other diners at large tables; other dinners were at a table for two. We preferred the private table, but note that another table for two will be so close that you will find yourself talking with the other couple. When I celebrated my birthday one evening, the waiters delivered a special dessert and sang. My favorite dinner was the orange roughy one evening - cooked to perfection!
Entertainment on the ship was enjoyable. The variety of shows provides something for everyone. We enjoyed the musical presentations and the magic shows of Garry Carson. Our days were very busy, so it was good that the shows were an average of 35 minutes. It was fun to see two different shows on the same evening without worrying about falling asleep after the busy day!
Princess provides access to tours at the ports of call. They can be booked before or during travel. We did not book any tours with Princess. After spending many dollars for the cruise tour, we looked for less expensive ways to tour Skagway, Juneau, and Ketchikan. The day at Glacier Bay National Park was amazing - great information was provided by the park rangers that boarded the ship. One reason that we booked the southbound cruise was for the opportunity to see Hubbard Glacier; however, ice and fog prevented the ship from making the trip all the way into Yakutat Bay to see the largest glacier. Lesson for touring Alaska - stay flexible, and realize that you can have a great day even when weather conditions prevent you from your planned activities.
I had read here about the forward viewing deck on the Baja and Caribe levels. When I first looked for it, I was put off by the sign on the door that indicated crew only, but later, I pushed on through and found a great place for viewing Glacier Bay National Park - others did too. The only negative to the forward decks is that it's cold when the ship is moving, but then so is your balcony - bundle up! The back decks on the same levels were great for watching the sunset during the later part of our cruise when we were further east and the sun was setting in late evening.
The only alarming moments on the ship were early on our first morning at sea - 4:30 to be exact. A passenger became ill during the night and needed to be transported to a medical facility. It was a strange way to wake hearing the captain's voice through the speaker just above our heads informing us what was happening, but we were comforted to know the professional and caring way that the ship's captain and crew handled an emergency situation. Decks were cleared, and a few top-level cabins were evacuated for two hours. A helicopter arrived and hovered using a basket to pick up the ill passenger. We later heard that the passenger would be o.k., and we were very happy to see that all the necessary precautions were a taken to handle the situation.
Since the trip overall was very pricey, we looked for ways to save dollars. Instead of booking the Princess transfer from the ship to the Vancouver airport, we used a shuttle service at the airport -- $15 each instead of $29. We used public transportation in Ketchikan, and we rode a bus from the kiosk tour area of the dock in Juneau out to Mendenhall Glacier. In Skagway, we saved $80 by booking the Whitepass and Yukon Railway tour that we wanted with a reputable tour operator. While planning, it is important to learn what places and activities are available in each locale, decide what is most important to you, and learn what options are available for seeing/doing what you want.
Things we wish we'd known before travel:
- the ship PA system dialogue for stops in Hubbard Glacier and Glacier Bay National Park is provided on a ship TV channel that you can listen to from your cabin or balcony
- breakfast and lunch are served in the formal dining room as well as the Horizon Court
- if doing anytime dining, call each morning for a dinner reservation time
- order afternoon fruit delivered to the cabin for snacking without walking to the dining area
Tips I found here on CruiseCritic that were helpful:
- take a nightlight for the bathroom
- spacious storage for luggage available under the bed
Other things to know:
- if doing a land tour before cruising, be sure to pack a suitcase that can just meet you at the ship - very convenient to keep from lugging all of your luggage all over Alaska even when luggage handling is provided
- when packing at home, pack a small backpack that will take minimal space in your luggage; then, use the backpack as your personal carry bag during the land tour when you must keep valuables, medication, etc. with you separate from the suitcase that Princess transports
- the cabin safe is convenient for small items like passports, wallets, watches, etc., but it is too small for a laptop
- the shower in our Coral Princess bathroom had a clothes line
- we were glad that we packed some plastic tube hangers for doing laundry onboard ship
- pack a sweatsuit or something warm for sitting on your balcony - it's quite chilly when the ship is moving
- wearing sea bands all week and taking motion sickness pills at bedtime prevented sea sickness
Prior to this trip, we thought that cruising Alaska's inside passage would be our only cruise; however, we enjoyed our experience so much that we have decided to look for other cruise opportunities that meet our travel desires. We would definitely travel with Princess again.
A more-detailed report of our trip activities is on TripAdvisor.