First off, I've only cruised once before on Disney 7 years ago (4 day cruise). We left from Boston to Seattle ona Friday one day before we departed. We booked the flight ourselves thinking we could get a better deal on air fair, but not sure if this is true or not. We did decide to buy the 1 night hotel and transfers from Princess and couldn't beat the prices for the same hotel (Westin Seattle). Although the buses were backed up a lot at the airport via Gray Line, there just weren't enough buses to get all the people at the airport out. Not sure what happened here, but we waited outside in a line for 45 minutes. The Westin hotel is very nice and comfortable. We arrived early enough to walk around a little, hit the market place by the water and ate at a great little Italian place named: La Fontana Ristorante it's tucked away behind iron gates off the street, you can sit outside in a private courtyard with fountains. Quite, romantic, very good food and not too expensive.
Departure day... No issues really, and it went much smoother than I would have thought. With our transfer deal, we met Princess employees in the hotel lobby at 7:30am Saturday morning (another 20 minute line). Our luggage was picked up from our room and taken to the ship for us. We were on the ship and in our cabin within a couple of hours of arriving at the dock. Plenty of people to help and it was very organized.
The ship is beautiful, rather than describe it I will provide a link to my photos. Our room was nice, it seemed bigger than I would have thought based on the square footage. Plenty of storage for our clothes, my camera gear etc... The balcony was plain but nice, I have no complaints about the mattress or bedding. We are both middle aged 45 - 50 and had no issues at all with the room. Our room steward? was fantastic!
Food: we selected anytime dining and ate at the two offered dining areas during formal nights. The first night we were not impressed. The second time we ate my salmon was superb but my girlfriends beef wellington was not. We spent much of our time at the buffets and I thought they were pretty darn good. I was more than happy with the food here. Was it the food of dreams you always here about on cruises? No, but it was pretty darn good and I always found plenty that I liked. There are two "pay extra" restaurants on the ship. The crown something or other "a steak house" and an Italian Restaurant. Service in both was excellent. The steak house food was unimpressive to be honest. The steak was no better than a T'Bone at the Longhorn, living in RI, the lobster tail was like rubber (I learned later that the tails arrives frozen) the entire lobster would have been fresh but for an extra charge. The steak house was an extra $25.00. Not sure if this was worth it. But, Sabatini's was fantastic!!!! The food was delicious, service was great. They gave you samples of every appetizer and you picked your entree. Well worth the $20.00 extra. I would have eaten here every night if possible. Oh.. the pizza is excellent!!!!
The shows: We thought they were pretty good. Not as good as a Vegas show but good. Something to do on the ship anyway. There's no rock climbing, wave pools etc... on this ship. The comedian and magician were average, the same folks that did the singing and dancing on the ship did a few shows, and all were worth seeing but not to die for. The bars and coffee shops were nice and quaint. Most had entertainment, music of different sorts, some with dancing. I wasn't crazy about the "artist" things they did to fill time on the ship. They had 4 or 5 "renowned" artist doing live paintings on the ship and also had art auctions. Not sure if there were any bargains to be had, but I didn't go on an Alaskan Cruise to buy paintings. There was also a naturalist on board Michael Modzelewski - He did 4 talks on the ship, chatted as we went through Tracy Arm. He was the best "show" I felt on the ship. After his talks he sold signed copies of his books. He wasn't pushing them at all, it was kind of nice to have a signed copy if you wanted to buy one.
The Casino: I only play craps and donated some money to the ship. They don't play the same odds like at a real casino. Sure it was fun, but not the same excitement level that you get at a bigger casino.
We looked at the gym but never used it ;-) But it seemed to have just about everything you might have wanted or needed. We also never used the Santuary or the SPA. The prices on ships for SPA treatments are 2 or 3 times what they are back home, but about the same at any major hotel or resort like Foxwoods. The mini golf area seemed lame too.
Movies: We saw Slumdog Millionaire and Grand Turino on the ship. It was nice to have a quite relaxing thing to do from time to time.
Speaking of bars and coffee shops. There was some confusion about when you paid for a soda or not... (I don't drink my girl does). I purchased a soda card or cup (you are not required to carry the cup they put a sticker on your card). It seems that some times at meals the wait staff had to see the sticker, and we were also told that soda was free at meals? Not sure, but the soda sticker was a bargain to me for around $30. At $2 a soda it was worth it. I think beer was around 6.00 with 20% gratuity built in. You could buy a bucket of 5 for the price of 4. Mixed drinks were more along the lines of 8 or 9 dollars. Really not much more than at any nice club or restaurant back home. The night club at the very top of the ship, we checked out twice and didn't stay long. Not many people up there dancing, the music was 60's and 70's the times we went. I would have preferred 80's. You could really feel the ship moving up there.
Weather: Was unreal!!!! I know that the inside passage is a tepid rain forest. It was supposed to be 60 degrees and raining most of the time. It wasn't, in fact they are almost in a heat wave up there. Juneau was 78 degrees, hot and sunny. Most of the trip was sunny or cloudy and very warm, almost hot. Just in Ketchikan did we see a little real Alaskan weather where it was 60ish and drizzly. The seas were calm and the ship just sort of rocked you to sleep at night. We heard that two weeks before our trip they encountered 20 foot waves and even 200+ crew couldn't report to duty.
Finally ports and excursions: I had one problem... I pre-booked all the excursions on princesses website and they wouldn't let you book two excursions that overlapped. But they did let me book two that ended and left at the same time and I had to do some juggling on the ship to fix this. Let me say that I'm a photographer and I went to Alaska to do the excursions. First, I wouldn't suggest going to Alaska and not doing any excursions since there is nothing to do in most ports (Juneau, Skagway, Ketchikan) other than hit a pub, buy trinkets like T'Shirts or shop for jewelry. In fact, I was almost upset at the "PUSH" made by princess on Jewelry. They even had a 2 hour shopping show that was such a hard sell, you just had to go to it. I didn't realize that most people go to Alaska just to buy expensive jewelry? In one of the towns there were 38 jewelry stores. I also heard from a local tour guide in Skagway or Ketchikan that the shipping companies own most of the shops in these towns. Not sure if this is true or not but let me tell you, there wasn't much to do if you weren't doing site seeing like a glacier, tram ride or other excursion beside shop for T's and jewelry or eat.
Tracy Arm: Wow! Stunning images. I got up at 5:30am and was on the observation deck (deck 8) front of the ship alone by 6:00am. I didn't move until 12:30pm. If you want a chance to catch photos of wildlife be on the front of the ship, as the ship scares them off... so if you are on the balcony in your cabin most wildlife will have been scared off by the time your cabin gets to it. Plus at the front of the ship you have a wider field of view.
Finally: A note to photographers both pros and hobbyist: You can't take a pack on the helicopter or seaplane just what you can carry around your neck. I wanted to take my 400mm f2/8 with me but knew that I wouldn't be able to take it with me on the flights. So I went with: 100-400 L f/4.5-5.6 (a little slow for Alaska especially with a 1.4x on it). 24-70 L f/2.8 These were kept on my pro-body with a 1.3 crop factor. My 10-22 was on a 20D. Once in a while I put the 100-400 with the 1.4 on the 20D giving me an effective 896mm. I din't use flash on the ship and relied on ambient light with higher ISO with my Mark III.
The lens I used most out side was the 100-400 and the 24-70. If you've got a lens in the 200mm range it won't be long enough for Alaska. You want ultra long and wide. Not much use for the 70 - 300 range.
Finally, here's a link to some of my shots: