We are both 1st time cruisers in our mid 40's. We decided to take a Princess Cruise to Alaska based on our friends' recommendations who did a similar cruise last year. Theirs also included a land tour but ours did not. We did a two-week cruise instead. We were told that Princess was the 1st to do Alaska cruises so we thought they would also be the best.
After we boarded the boat and walked around for a little while, we instantly realized that the majority of other passengers were much older than us. I would say at least 70 years old and over! (Some folks had mobility problems, a couple were using oxygen, and many were overweight - I can't imagine how they could have comfortably fit in the showers or sat on the toilets in their cabins... very tight even for us average weight folks.) Later in the cruise we found out that Princess small ships cater mostly to an older crowd. Not that we mind being with an older crowd, but we would have preferred a ship with more nightlife and activities. The majority of the nightlife stopped around 10pm and the boat became a ghost town. We're not party animals, but we would have liked to listen to a little jazz or live music into the evening. We went to the lounge a couple nights, but even that stopped by 11pm and there were only a couple people up there at time. The entertainment was lacking, the food was fair and the cruise itself was just fair. Where to start...
On the negative side, the buffet food was about the same as Hometown Buffet... adequate, but not fantastic. The presentation was very nice, the amount of food and variety was good, but the quality just wasn't consistent. Some food had either been sitting out too long or just didn't have enough flavor. (I suppose the cooks can't put too many spices in the food since a lot of people probably don't like highly seasoned foods.) The meats at the carving station were usually overcooked and dry. On the positive side... the breakfast buffet was probably the best of the buffets. Good variety and quantity. Sometimes the bacon was undercooked, other times, overcooked. There was usually plenty of fresh fruit, cereals and pastries. Muffins and pastries lacked flavor however (I doubt anything was made with butter or even margarine.)
The dinners in the restaurant were a bit better and we actually had several good meals there. The menu was very good each evening, offering a fish, meat, chicken, vegetarian or pasta option. There were several times we couldn't decide which to have, and the wait staff suggested that we order both main courses we were contemplating (which we did on several occasions.) The amount of food, presentation and quality were pretty good. The desserts had mixed results... all looked good, but again, some lacked flavor. Many of the dessert fillings had gelatin added so that the consistency was a bit rubbery... not a very good mouth feel... and again, I doubt they used butter in their desserts. I'm guessing they used shortening in most of their pastries and cookies. The ice cream had an odd texture... not quite creamy as you would expect from a full fat ice cream. Rather, a little grainy and probably made from some type of mix rather than fresh ingredients.
Again, I have to admit that I'm a first time cruiser, so I was a bit surprised when we were solicited to buy soda and "premium" coffee cards. Apparently, soda is not available at any meal unless you pay for it separately. They charged $60 per person for the 14 day card for unlimited sodas (Otherwise, individual soda cans were $2 plus gratuity). I passed. Ice tea and water would be fine. The coffee was $30 per person for 15 coffees (cappuccino, espresso, latte, Revolution teas, etc. and included a travel mug. I paid for that. Regular coffee was available all the time for everyone... and I have to say, I liked the regular and decaf coffee pretty much. (However, there were times it seemed either burnt or a bit too strong... a little hot water usually did the trick.) One of the regular coffee stations inside the button was broken for the majority of the cruise, so we had to go outside on the deck to get some.
I have to say, that the majority of staff were very friendly and accommodating. Our cabin steward was a very nice woman from Mexico and our waiters, both from the Philippines, were very attentive to our needs. We received smiles often from most staff and felt very welcomed. On the down side, we heard that base salary for staff from non-English speaking countries were paid lower than their English counterparts. We found that a bit disconcerting, but assumed that salary was based on cost of living in different countries.
Speaking of our cabin... it was a bit small, and in need of updating. The couch was worn and could have been replace or reupholstered. The bedspread was stained on the underside from (my guess a prior male's bodily fluids). The pillows were a bit flat. I appreciated that they were feather pillows but my companion would have preferred foam. I guess there is no choice offered. The bathrooms were very tight, but manageable. Considering, I thought there was adequate storage (and we brought a lot!) The room was made up twice per day and always looked attended to. We're guessing there was a sewer problem on our floor as there was a strong smell a couple of days. Our shower drain backed up into another floor drain in the bathroom one day, flooding the floor. It appeared to be fixed later that day after we informed our steward. Our dining companions said their toilet flush one morning and needed repair as well.
We sat in the whirlpool one day and enjoyed that. The water jets could have been a bit stronger.
The majority of ports that we stopped at were nice. We didn't stay very long at most ports... that felt like one of the major disadvantages to cruising. Some of the towns (like Valdez) were a waste of time, while others, Victoria BC, we could have stayed longer. We couldn't figure out how they decided how long to stay in each port. (FYI - we heard that most of the souvenir and jewelry stores were owned by the cruise lines...) One major complaint was that all the tours were very expensive (and I must say, not worth the price.) In Skagway, the White Pass Railway 4-hour excursion cost $125 per person. That seemed way over priced and I was curious to see what the commission was for Princess. So, we went to the railway kiosk and found out that they were charging $108 per person. I guess it wasn't that bad of an increase, but still feel like a train ride like the one we took, should only cost a fraction of that. We also did the bear watch in Hoonah/Icy Strait Point for $115 per person. Luckily, we saw three bears and a couple eagles that day... had we not, I would have felt extremely ripped off. (There's no guarantee you'll see anything but water, sky and trees.) We were interested in taking the tour of the ship, but when we learned it cost $150 per person, we were astonished and opted out. However, we got a free walk-thru of the kitchen after a short cooking demonstration. And yes, I fell-for buying the Princess cookbook for $28 and had it signed by the chef and maitre'd hotel at the end of tour. (You can bet I'll be looking to see if they use butter in their recipes.) :-)
I guess, overall, I'm glad I went on this vacation, but I believe that if there is a next time, I'll do more of a land/sea tour. I'll be prepared for the cost of the many excursions and plan accordingly. One fellow passenger said that he budgets approximately 50% of the cruise cost for excursions. I think, had we taken a larger ship and possibly a shorter cruise, there might have been more younger people, more activities on board and more nightlife.