September 3 - 17, 2009 - Pacific Princess 14 night to Alaska
This was our 24th cruise, 11th on Princess, 2nd to Alaska and our first "Small Ship Experience". We arrived in Seattle on Thursday, September 3, 2009 after an uneventful trip from Grand Rapids, Michigan via Cleveland, Ohio.
We chose the Princess transfer and upon picking up luggage we were met by a man who said he had our luggage. The suitcase we had looked like ours, same manufacturer, same tacky neon yellow tags we put on years ago, but...different names on the tag! Thank goodness he checked before leaving the airport! We were directed past the luggage carousels to the Princess luggage drop off. Next saw our luggage outside our cabin. Very easy and pleasant check-in. After a hasty lifeboat drill the ship actually left the port 15 minutes early!
Our cabin was upgraded from 4th deck inside mid ship to 6th deck inside forward. At first it seemed that this was a nice perk but as the cruise went on we wondered more and more if we might go down and crash with the people who had our original mid ship cabin. Cabin 6011 was quite active with noise early and late from rehearsals and shows in the Casino Lounge below us and with motion during the rough weather.
We were the recipients of a wonderful gift from Princess. For this cruise we were upgraded to Elite status. I am not sure I can ever go back again to just "plain old Platinum" status. We relished having our refrigerator set up with 20 cans of soda. I LOVED the free laundry service. It was great to go home with a full suitcase of clean clothing. My husband enjoyed the complimentary canapEs on formal nights. We used our Internet service most days to send home reports to the kids and ourselves about what was happening each day. In the future I will try to always send a copy of my e-mails to myself. It helped me remember when I was putting together this review what was going on each day.
The small ship life was wonderful. I liked it a lot. It was a slower, easier cruise life than one on a mega ship. You don't have to hurry. The lines are short. You don't get lost walking to where you are going and can see both ends of the ship at the same time. You really do get to know people if not by name, by face and cabin location. Indeed since the cruise was longer there was a seasoned group of people traveling. I enjoyed the richness and color they brought to our experience.
If you are looking for intimacy of both passengers and crew you will feel right at home. Pacific Princess is very Titanic like in appearance. Everything is very tiny. The stairwells are narrow. The decoration of the ship is a mixture of semi-modern furniture with splashes of floral old world fabrics. There were times especially on formal nights when I felt as though I was on a ship at the turn of the century. The decoration of the shared areas of the ship is most romantic. To add to the charm in rough weather the ship does rock and roll quite a lot but the older men with Navy experiences seemed to feel right at home. Unlike a mega ship where planned activities are one on top of the other a small ship has a few things here and there but you are mostly left to your own devices.
We were assigned a table for 6 during early seating and were treated royally by our waiter Lucio and his assistant Edrick. Although we were served professionally I did not feel that "warm, fuzzy" feeling toward our servers as in the past. They were very busy working and serving but not particularly personally interested in us. Maybe we were just having too much fun at our table and they did not feel the need to entertain us. Lee, Carol, David and Colleen our interesting and equally charming tablemates for the cruise kept us entertained and laughing each evening and our table usually was one of the last ones vacated. The food was tasty, the presentation eye pleasing. The menu included interesting choices of buffalo, venison, fish of every ocean, lobster, crab legs, frog legs and more. We enjoyed the buffet several mornings for breakfast and lunch but generally made the dining room our eating destination. The broth and hot chocolate near the grill was a treat mid morning. We also enjoyed the seafood buffet and reindeer chili/rockfish chowder bar. We did not use room service with the exception of the lovely canapEs that were sent to our cabin each formal night. I did not appreciate being harangued in the dining room by the crew to buy their drinks and their cookbooks etc. It just left a nasty taste in my mouth every time they put the pinch on us.
Friday, Sept, 4 was a day at sea. The night before was a rough night with moderate waves and the continual bobbing of the ship had my motion sickness patches working overtime. We picked up our deck blankets early in the day on the pool deck and were able to keep these for the duration of the cruise. They came in handy not only on the breezy deck but in our cabin while napping. After attending our Cruise Critic get together organized by fellow cruisers Doris and Jim we attempted the ballroom dance class only to be brought down by the high seas. By late morning things began to settle down and it was a most pleasant formal night and Captain's Cocktail Party.
By 6:30 am on Saturday, September 5 we were moored at the pier in Ketchikan. As the sun rose the soft mist started burning off. It was truly beautiful. We chose a walking tour that we had downloaded from the Internet. (You could also pick up a walking tour right on the dock at the visitors information center.) We had a nice couple of hours watching thousands of salmon fighting up stream and spent a nice part of the morning walking on Married Man's Trail and taking in the sites. Although we are not shoppers we picked up the Alaska coupon booklet from the pier in Seattle and found a few end of season gifts to take home. The weather was in the upper 50's and most comfortable. By afternoon the clouds moved back. Shopping was really pushed on board by the shopping director "Evan from Heaven".
Our day in Glacier Bay on Sunday, September 6th was nothing less than spectacular. The weather was perfect and the sun shining by the time we got to the first glacier. We became cruising buddies with new pals Jerry and Deloras and spent many awe inspired hours with them sitting in our deck chairs on the promenade watching for whales and wildlife and generally just yakking and gossiping. Usually there were fewer than a dozen others sitting on this deck. Mostly the deck was used as a pass-through or as we fondly called it the "expressway" from ship end to ship end. We found that there was an area where warm air came from the upper deck and we moved our 4 chairs there for the duration of the cruise and this became our regular hang out each day.
There were many glacier calvings. The sound of the cracking in the near silent bay was astounding. The many colors of the ice were only intensified by the sun. We saw whale going into and coming out of the mouth of the bay. Monday, September 7th found us in Skagway. We had previously arranged a 6 hour tour with Dyea Dave. He picked up 6 of us at the pier and dropped us off at the ranger post in town where we watched a 20 minute informational video about Skagway. By the time the video was complete Dave was back with 2 other passengers from a HAL ship that had just gotten into port.
Dave is a crusty character. I liked him right from the start. It only took a few minutes into our trip to fall into his spell and we enjoyed not a 6, but a 9 hour tour into British Columbia up through Carcross into the Yukon and to Emerald Lake. We stopped at a roadside diner for lunch and hit all the major spots for pictures along the way. Dave got us to all the hot spots just at the right time to avoid the crowds. He regaled us with stories and tales all day and the time just flew! We saw lots of wildlife. I had a tad of sadness leaving the tour that evening as we had such a great time with Dave. The September weather was again just perfect and sunny. In town the salmon were still running as many just stood and watched the show. As we walked to the ship we were entertained by numerous seals along side the walkway to the ship. It was a great topper to just a perfect day.
The captain came on the overhead and said we were in for some rough seas and that if we were going to move around the ship that we had to hold tightly to the handrails. The thing is that with the exception of the stairwells and the hallways near the cabins there are no handrails and you are on your own to bob back and forth across open areas—fun and entertaining. There were bags spread around near the elevators and on tables for those with motion sickness mishaps. The next morning the crew was busy with the carpet cleaners.
Tuesday, September 8th was a day at sea. We spent a lot of it in our chairs watching the scenery go by. 13 times around the walking deck is a mile and there were people walking all the time. It is constant traffic going round and round.
The ship was late coming into Valdez as the captain came on and said that he had to slow the ship because of icebergs. Most people laughed it off but as we were departing later in the afternoon the beautiful blue colored icebergs became more and more apparent. They were very large and came close to the ship. Our waiter told us that each passage into and out of Valdez the crew could hear the icebergs skimming alongside the ship.
We chose to go whitewater rafting in Valdez. It again was a sunny morning and our guides from the Keystone Canyon Rafting Company picked us up right at the dock. This is what they promised we would do..."Experience the thrill of one of the most spectacular whitewater raft trips in Alaska. Your adventure begins with a scenic drive through Keystone Canyon with spectacular waterfalls, intriguing geology and fascinating history. At Lowe River, gear up, board your raft and let your experienced guide steer you through 900-foot rock cliffs and scenic views. Lowe River is Class III water with moderate rapids and irregular waves, so be prepared to get splashed. Magnificent waterfalls cascade to the river's edge, making the view from the water something you will never forget. Everything you need for your whitewater adventure is provided on this four-and-a-half mile river adventure." They gave us everything they promised and more. What an adventure. At the conclusion of our fun we were offered a CD with pictures of our trip for $20.00. It arrived home before we did and contained 91 pictures of our trip. By far the best picture value of the entire cruise! I highly recommend this company. We were pretty beat by the time we got back to the ship. Can't say we did much else that day except watch icebergs.
Thursday, September 10 turned out to be the first of 2 days we would be spending in Seward. Although we pre- purchased the shuttle to town through Princess there really was no need. The walk was quite easy for those who are able footed. We found our way to the "Train Wreck" to purchase $10.00 round trip tickets to Exit Glacier. The shuttle leaves on the half hour. The trip to the glacier takes 15-20 minutes and the driver acted as our tour guide. You can choose how long you are going to stay at the glacier. We and our shipmates Doris and Jim decided on a 2 hour trip and that was just about the right amount of time for us and our 80 year old cruise-mates to make the 1.8 mile trip up to the glacier, take loads of pictures, enjoy the scenery and back to the ranger station with about 10 minutes to spare for a trip to the facilities. Fellow cruisers Deb and Marcia decided to only stay for an hour and made the trek up and back in their allotted time. During summer months the rangers give free tours of the area. By our arrival in September the rangers were done for the season. The walk to the glacier is pretty safe and even walking. There are a few tricky places to maneuver through and a few rain slick areas but all in all it was a fantastic walk. There also were bugs that we did not notice until we got back to the ship and found out that my hair was full of them and that my husband had bites on his face. Not sure how we missed seeing them while we were hiking.
Once back on board the ship we found out that we would be staying in Seward one more day as a storm had made crossing the Gulf of Alaska to Kodiak impossible due to 30 foot swells. The next day the shuttles were free to Princess Passengers and we took it down to the Sea Life Center. We decided to walk the town including mile marker 0 of the Iditarod Race. It is a pleasant walk around town with lots of little shops to poke around in and interesting things to see. We spent a good morning walking until the weather broke and we along with many high-tailed it back to the ship. We especially enjoyed the orange and yellow jelly fish bobbing around the ship and the comic antics of the sea otters.
Saturday September 12th was a challenging day at sea and the second of three formal nights including the past passenger cocktail party. As we crossed the Gulf of Alaska bound for Icy Straight Point we hit the second of three storms that rocked the ship. The weather became so intense that the captain came on and told passengers that if they were going to move about the ship to take extra precautions and if it got too rough to move to the lower decks and use the lounges. Birds were taking shelter on the ship. You could not move on the open decks without jumping over one. We made our home on the promenade in our chairs and the fresh air helped with the motion sickness.
I made it through dinner and into our cabin but by 1 am my patch was no longer working. The motion was so strong that I was catapulted out of my bed onto the floor. In our forward cabin #6011 it was so intense that I had to literally hobble and pull myself down 2 flights of stairs to the lobby where I spent the night with other passengers on the couch. My handy dandy deck blanket came into use once again! My husband slept through the whole storm.
Sunday, September 13th we arrived to tender at Icy Strait Point where we attended the Wild Alaska Culinary Extravaganza. We pre-booked this 11:00 am Princess Tour on line. It was described as "Join a culinary host for a demonstration and hands-on cooking course. Specializing in local seafood, learn how to make delicious salmon, halibut and crab dishes. This complete course takes you through the entire cooking process. Watch as salmon and halibut are filleted, then you prepare and cook the fish with the guidance of your culinary host. Learn how to cook, crack, clean and eat a crab with style. Yes, we provide the bibs! This culinary experience also features tips on smoking meats and using a custom alder wood smoker. Your course concludes with a family-style feast consisting of salmon, halibut, turkey, ham, brisket and more."
When we arrived in the cooking area there were ingredients for making salmon spread and crackers to spread it on as well as our choice of drink. We did learn all about filleting and cooking salmon and halibut, we were served salmon fried rice and Cole slaw with our crab legs. No one taught us how to cook, crack or clean our crab legs. To my best knowledge I did not see any turkey, ham or brisket. Although the ladies in charge were knowledgeable about their craft and we did enjoy watching the fish being prepared I am not sure if this tour was really worth the price we paid.
We did enjoy the beach and nature walk that you can take on your own. The walk took about 30-40 minutes at a leisurely pace and along the way there was a nice fire pit with benches and a fire to warm yourself. By far the real charm of this port is the beautiful scenery on the hike. There are a dozen or so shops open in the cannery.
Monday, September 14 was a tender day to Juneau. We downloaded a walking tour around town and arrived at the Capital Building only to find out that inside you could take a self guided walking tour of the actual building. We took ourselves on the tour of the capital and found ourselves walking right into the office of the Governor of Alaska. The governor's receptionist, like us, was from Michigan and she graciously gave us some of her time and a gift for one of our tablemates who was celebrating his birthday that day with wishes from the governor. We continued on the walking tour to the home of the governor and around the town. Shopping was frantic as three more ships arrived just as we were making our way back to the tender. It was a nice little town just to walk around and enjoy. It seemed that shopping was really pushed in this port and that the port was talked up a lot like St. Thomas is in the Caribbean.
We got back on the ship in time to meet and speak with Libby Riddles. Being fans of the Iditarod Race for many years it was just thrilling to meet Libby, an actual race winner. We enjoyed her presentation tremendously. She is a wonderful speaker and a kind and gracious lady.
That night we hit the third of round of storms.
On Tuesday, September 15th I spent most of the day back on the couch in the 4th deck lobby. The doors to the decks were tied shut with strong rope and the captain told us that due to 50+mile an hour winds and 15+ foot swells that we were not allowed on open decks. As the day continued even the pool area was closed for fresh air. I tried to go to lunch with my husband and made it almost to the first course before making a quick retreat back to my couch. I tried to get to the formal night dinner but even making it back to our cabin was an Olympic challenge. Got to the cabin, slapped on my dress and tried a few minutes in the dining room. My husband looked dapper in his tux, and I made it until a big wave jolted the whole dining room causing glasses and tableware to fly everywhere....and I was back to my couch for the rest of the night. The captain slowed the ship down to 10 knots to get safely through the storm. The main stage show of the dancers and singers was cancelled. Strangely, at 11 pm the champagne waterfall took place. I was so surprised to see the staff setting up the glasses. Although a grand attempt was made to pull off the event it was attended mostly by crew members. The crew kept tabs on those of us in the lobby and checked on us often to make sure we were ok and did not need anything.
By the next morning the ship was still rocking and the captain told us that we were 13 hours behind schedule and that we would not be stopping in Victoria with the exception of dropping off and picking up crew and passengers. We did not arrive until 2 am the next morning for a short grace stop. The decks were opened again late morning and I spent the day back in my chair in the fresh air. Did not make breakfast or lunch but I did get a great 4 hour nap on the deck!! By dinner things calmed down a bit and we got to enjoy one last night with our wonderful tablemates. We left packing for the very last minute hoping that we would be able to stand in our cabin. By that point we did not even care what or how we packed, just that things were in the suitcases and outside the door.
We arrived late into Seattle. As we were disembarking the ship the crew was disembarking and going through immigration and they were still unloading luggage. Things were gliding at a snails pace and the on shore crew were unconcerned about the many people who were telling them that they needed to make flights. We stood in unending lines. This was the only time where the age of the passengers came into play. It took a long time to load amigos, walkers and wheelchairs as well as get the passengers up the stairs and onto the busses. It took a total of 5 hours to get from the lounge waiting area to our airline gate. We made it with 4 nerve wracking minutes to spare. I have to admit that the disembarkation process was the longest and most nerve wracking one we have ever gone through.
I can not really comment about life in the casino with the exception of saying that it always looked a little deserted to me. We did not attend the art auctions or the port and shopping talks. We did enjoy the cooking demonstration preceding the galley tour. By that point the ship was rocking so hard it was all we could do to stand upright let alone look from side to side and see what we were there to see.
The entertainment left something to be desired. The ship dancers and singers were akin to a mediocre high school production group. They were much better dancers than singers. The showroom itself was not really conducive to a stage presentation as it was very hard to see what was going on sitting anywhere beyond the first few rows as the room was flat. The professional entertainers who came on the ship did a much better job and seemed much more comfortable in their skins on stage. The too did their own "self advertising" of their CD's etc. I just don't find that appropriate.
The naturalist on the ship was a little over confident, cocky and elaborate for my tastes and although he talked about his great experiences in Alaska with gusto there were times when he over-did. Just not my cup of tea.
For better or worse we loved our trip on the "little ship". Although the stormy weather was something that could not be planned for or enjoyed it added to the adventure and I would not have missed meeting any of my other sea sick passengers with their abundance of stories. When people speak of the wonder and majesty of Alaska I can smile and remember everything we had the opportunity to experience on our journey. Most of all, the one thing that made our trip so rich was sharing the adventure with our fellow passengers who gave so much warmth and enjoyment to our exciting traverse into "ALASKA!"
Sign me up for another adventure!