We almost cancelled this cruise because of all the negative reviews and the recent Noro virus outbreaks, but I am so glad we didn't! My husband I and both really enjoyed this cruise! This was his 5th cruise and my 4th (all on Princess ships).
Embarking out of Pier 35 in San Francisco's main tourist area was nothing less than a complete zoo! We had driven up the morning of from LA and expected the more organized embarkation experience we have had out of Long Beach, but this was the complete opposite. Cars line up for miles trying to drop off people at the incredibly small Pier 35 front building. When you finally reach the point where you can pull in and drop off your luggage, there are only 3 or so cars that can fit at a time (hence the miles of backed up traffic). My husband left me with all the luggage and went to park the car (at ACE Parking $12/day, $132 for the 10 day cruise). From here, the embarkation went very smooth, they took our luggage from us, and we got in line to embark, We were on the ship 20 minutes later. Very fast and organized once you got inside Pier 35, outside was a different matter. Some other reviewers had mentioned that the luggage guys were asking for tips, though you aren't supposed to tip them, but we didn't have that problem. When we got back into port on 7/19, we had signed up for the walk off list (if you can carry your own luggage and want off the ship first). We had received a note in our stateroom that we were assigned to the 8:50am group of walk offs. We got to the meeting area at 8:30am and they told us they were ahead of schedule and that we could go ahead and walk off right then. We were at the parking garage by 8:45am, so were very happy with the quick disembarkation so that we could get on the road for the 6 hr drive back down to LA.
No incidence of Noro on our cruise (7/10-7/19), but I would still recommend bringing antibacterial wipes and wiping down your state room when you get onboard. Also, washing your hands when you come back to your room before touching everything is a good idea too. We did both (and ALOT of hand washing!) and neither of us got sick on this cruise. Though Princess was making a tremendous effort as far as forcing the hand sanitizer at the buffet and before entering the dining room, we found it really bizarre that the staff manning the exits as people were getting on and off the ship in ports, were taking each persons cruise card from them and inserting it into the reader for them, rather than allowing each person to insert their own card. I found this extremely unsanitary as that one employee is touching every single cruise card and possibly transferring germs across the board. I tried in every port to forcibly try and insert my own card and each time the employee manning the exit would grab it from me before I was able to insert it. This seems like a MAJOR oversight for Princess as far as sanitation goes, especially with the Noro virus begin present on the ship to some degree for the last 5 cruises in a row. I realize they are trying to speed up the lines, but I do think we are more than capable of simply inserting our own cards, rather then them treating us like children and doing it for us. This practice is just not worth the risk they are taking in possibly spreading viruses from one passenger to hundreds of their passengers. I for one would rather keep my cruise card germ free and wait an extra few minutes to get on or off the ship!
Many reviewers mentioned that the Sea Princess is very old and worn looking. To be honest, had I not read all those reviews before our cruise, I don't know that I would have even noticed that the ship is aging (and I tend to be very detail oriented). But, since we had prepared ourselves for a very old and tired ship, we were actually pleasantly surprised that it was in as good of condition as it is. It is very much in line with the other Princess ships we have sailed on as far as feeling, decor, etc. So, we really didn't see that much of a difference between the Sea Princess and the other newer Princess ships. Plus, we had paid a lot of money and were really in need of a good vacation, so we would certainly not let something as trivial as railings needing a fresh coat of varnish, etc. ruin our onboard experience. I'm not saying that the Sea Princess looks brand new. It is an older ship, and some areas could stand to be freshened up, but overall I thought she looked good for her age :) Though the ship is the smallest we have sailed on to date, it didn't feel small. We weren't bothered by the smaller size at all, and actually enjoyed that you could get to places on the ship much faster than on the larger ships. The only negative with the size of the ship and this particular cruise was that because it was too cold outside to enjoy time on the main deck (there were maybe 15-20 people total on the main pool deck at any one time, including the 5 or so kids in the pool). My husband remarked that the main deck area is like a ghost town on this cruise as everyone is inside. This fact made it seem overly crowded at times in the main public areas inside the ship.
Our cruise was pretty varied as far as the average age. We had read many reviews that suggested it would be a bunch of 80 year olds (not that there is anything wrong with that). I'm 32 and my husband is 30, so we weren't sure what age group to expect. On our past Princess cruises the average passenger age was probably 50-60, and I think that seemed true on this cruise as well. Though there were older people and younger people as well. We had over 200 kids on board, which to be honest wasn't thrilling for us. We tend to like cruising with the older folks as it tends to be quieter. The kids were running a bit rampant, but that's ok, they were having fun, which is what it's all about. So, not that it really matters, but we had a pretty diverse group of passengers as far as age goes. We met many nice people from all over and all age groups!
We had an interior room (C711) and though the room was small, it was very adequate. It had a nice flat screen tv with HDMI hookup available, so we were able to hook up our laptop and watch movies which was nice (we brought our own cables to hookup). The bathroom was the same size as all the other princess ships we have been on (small!), though the room was definitely smaller. On other Princess ships we had a king bed with a bedside table on either side, but on the Sea Princess there isn't enough room for that setup. So instead they have a king bed pushed up against the wall and one bedside table on the other side of the bed. It was slightly annoying having to crawl onto my side of the bed (against the wall) from the end of the bed, especially in the night to go to the bathroom. Even on the other side with the end table, my husband had to scoot around the fridge/tv stand sideways to get to his side of the bed. While this wasn't quite as spacious as the other ships we have sailed on, it was workable for the 10 days. The room had a lot of closet and drawer space as well as plenty of room under the beds for our luggage which was nice! My main complaint about the room was that it was located directly across from 2 service doors that had Princess staff going in and out of all hours of the day and night. Each night every 20 minutes or so, loud staff (chatting loudly to each other) would push the carts full of rattling room service trays and dishes through these doors. I slept with ear plugs each night and even through the ear plugs I could hear all the racket in the hallway outside our room. I don't think Princess should allow staff to use these doors at least between the hours of midnight - 6am out of common courtesy to their guests in rooms C709, C711 & C713. You also can't tell when picking these rooms that they are located across from the service doors, which I think is deceitful of Princess, as had we known, we certainly would have chosen a different room location. If you do happen to get stuck in one of these rooms, you can go to the pursers desk and request that the doors be closed for certain hours. I didn't learn this until the last day of the cruise when I complained about it, so it didn't help me any. But, I also don't think it should be up to the passenger to have to go and make a special request for something the Princess should be proactive enough to have done already (I know that I can't be the first passenger to have complained about this). If Princess would put the customer satisfaction first, then those doors would always be closed overnight to ensure that the people in those rooms can actually sleep and have the best onboard experience. Creating a situation each cruise that requires a passenger to complain before anything is done about it seems lazy on the part of Princess.
The food on the ship was a mix. The main dining room food was good, to very good and their were many unique, tasty and creative vegetarian options. In the past we have been very disappointed with the vegetarian food in the dining rooms (in fact on our last cruise in Sept 2008, we swore we wouldn't cruise Princess any more because of the lack of choices for vegetarians). We were incredibly happy with the changes Princess has made in the main dining rooms in regards to this. With the exception of the "Chef's Dinner" which completely lacked a vegetarian entree option (a HUGE oversight on behalf of Princess), all the other menus had many varied vegetarian options each night in almost all categories. And instead of what they used to do which was provide a spaghetti marinara dish each night (that gets old on a 15 day cruise very quickly!) there are now usually a pasta and main entree option. The main entrees were well thought out and felt "special" instead of feeling like everyone else is having a gourmet food experience, and your just supposed to shut up and eat your spaghetti marinara…for the 15th night in a row….So kudos to Princess for so vastly improving the main dining experience for their vegetarian passengers. Also, each item on the menu was clearly marked with at (v) so you knew exactly what your choices were. Great job on these improvements Princess! We didn't have a bad meal for lunch or dinner in the dining room and alway left feeling like we had had a very gourmet experience! One final note, dining room service for lunch was INCREDIBLY slow….so leave at least 1 1/2 hrs if you plan on eating there for lunch. Had the buffet had anything edible, that would have been a much faster option if you had things on the ship that you wanted to do that conflicted with an 1 1/2 hr lunch (which we did on several days).
The buffet was a completely different story. AWFUL, HORRIBLE, INEDIBLE, OVERCOOKED, UNDERCOOK, MUSHY PRISON FOOD are all words that come to mind. For all the strides Princess has made with the main dining rooms, the buffet has taken gigantic steps backwards. Breakfast at the buffet was almost completely inedible. Very very very (did I mention VERY) runny, undercooked scrambled eggs, overcooked mushy oatmeal, burnt dried out toast, etc. Not only did they have the exact same choices each day for breakfast, but the fact that they had either overcooked or undercooked all the items made it so that we had very little for breakfast each day. I found the hash browns edible (though they are clearly of the frozen variety, not fresh) and my husband liked the grits, so at least we didn't starve each day for breakfast. Lunch at the buffet was even worse, with very little variety (especially for vegetarians) and again all the items were under or over cooked and inedible. The desert quality at the buffet was an embaressment, most items looked as if they have been cut from a big frozen cake, rather than freshly made (and tasted that way as well). I had read one of the previous reviews that said that the buffet was like high school cafeteria food, and I think that was being kind. My high school cafeteria had MUCH better food that the nasty Princess buffet! The only thing the buffet had that was actually good was the scones for afternoon tea, which were delicious! One other issue we had with the buffet was that they didn't mark any of the items that were vegetarian with the (v). This seemed like a pretty big oversight and strange as they have made a big effort in the main dining rooms to put the (v), so why not make the effort in the buffet as well? For example, they had egg rolls one day, that were just marked "egg rolls". Since sometimes egg rolls are vegetarian, and sometimes they are not, we tried to ask an employee, who didn't really seem to know. That's a lot of effort to have to find an employee and hope that they know whether items are vegetarian or not. All that could be avoided by Princess simply making the small effort to label the vegetarian friendly items. For having so few option in the buffet for vegetarians (one day all there was was steamed veggies and salad), not knowing whether an item was vegetarian or not limited our options even more. Princess used to have buffet stewards walking around asking what you wanted to drink (coffee, ice tea, or something from the bar, etc.). We didn't have this happen once on the entire 10 day cruise, so I am not sure if Princess has gotten cheaper still and done away with this? Or if there are so few stewards that they never made it to our table? It created a bit of a problem, as you would go through the buffet and get your hot plate of food, then try and find a table (a challenge on this ship) then go wait in line behind all the other people getting drinks, that by the time you got back to your food, it was cold. It's a small thing, but does make a difference in the overall dining experience.
We did eat at Cafe Corniche one night for dinner and the pizza was very good, however the menu is very small (one antipasti, one soup choice, choice of pizza, two desserts) so we found it a little limiting as far as vegetarian options. The night we went, the antipasti and soup were non-vegetarian so we just got the pizza. The pizza itself was very good, the best we've had on Princess to date, and we both enjoyed that you could choose your own combination of toppings. The pizza served at the buffet for afternoon snack time is gross and definitely not coming from the Cafe Corniche. Because Cafe Corniche has long waits to get in and is only open certain hours for lunch and dinner, my husband and I preferred the pizza by the slice on the other ships for it's convenience, even though this pizza was better.
We tried the grill one day for the lunch and the veggie burger was gross (though I had it in the main dining room for lunch one day and it was very good, same burger, but different quality of cooking, etc.).
We tried the soft serve ice cream from Sundaes one day and it was just ok, more like frozen yogurt than the creamy soft serve you get at Dairy Queen, McDonalds etc. After having it once, we didn't feel the need to go back for more.
Room service was ok, breakfast choices were very limited and portion sizes were tiny (tea sandwich size, rather than an actual normal sandwich). For breakfast, they always came early, so if you choose the 9-9:30am window, they would show up at 8:45am. Several days they woke us up as they came so early. One afternoon after receiving our lunch sandwiches, my husband took a bite and bit into a staple. Yes, a half open staple in his sandwich. This could have been extremely dangerous if he had taken a bigger bite and swelled that open staple. I called room service to let them know what had happened and the head manager showed up to our room 20 minutes later with a apology note from Princess and a plate of chocolate covered strawberries. He stated that he had no idea how a staple had gotten into our sandwich. We definitely appreciated that they did something for us, and do realize these things happen, though are just very thankful, we hadn't ended up with a medical emergency rather than a plate of strawberries.
We found the staff on this ship to be very nice and friendly and didn't experience any issues with rude, surly or unaccomodating employees. Our waiters in the main dining room, Felix & Carlos (late seating), were very good, and really made our dining experience a pleasure each night. Our room steward James also did a great job, and was the best we have experienced on Princess to date. The first day we requested the egg crate mattress pad and extra pillows and he was very quick to accommodate. Each day our room was cleaned very well and he always left extra towels, etc.
The entertainment was good, though not great. We enjoyed the comedy magician as well as the hypnotist, and the comedian was good as well. Where there wasn't a ton to do on the patter each day that was of our preference, we still found plenty to do and really enjoyed ourselves. The Movies Under The Stars screen was ok, but clearly an older version as the screen was very pixelated and had terrible picture quality. This wasn't a big deal to us as it was too cold to watch anything outside anyways :) We had brought several board games and decks of cards, and if there was nothing of interest on the patter we would bring those to one of the public areas, get a drink from the bar and relax away a couple of hours playing games or reading, which suited us perfectly!
PORTS OF CALL:
The towns themselves were all just ok, lots of shopping if that's your thing. Though we did learn from some of the locals that all most of the jewelry and souvenir shops that Princess recommends and gives coupons for are actually all owned by the cruise ships. Another way for them to make money off you! Since I'm not a big shopper this didn't bother me, but it's something to note if you do like to shop.
We did the Princess Misty Fjords boat tour in Ketchican, and really enjoyed it. What a beautiful place! We saw lots of bald eagles and also a mother grizzly bear and her two cubs which was really neat. The boat was large and comfortable with free hot drinks and snacks. There were bathrooms as well which was nice. On the boat ride back they brought around soup for everyone (vegetarian chili or clam chowder) which I thought was a nice touch as well. The scenery was really incredible and we lucked out with a very clear and sunny day (I guess it rains all the time in Ketchican and sunny clear days are rare). Oh, one other thing I thought was neat was that when you get off the ship in Ketchican, if you look into the water at the pier, you can see tons of jelly fish. Colored and white ones, big and small. I've never seen them outside of an aquarium so found it really neat. It must be a breeding ground of some kind because if you look really close you can see thousands of very small while jelly fish. I don't know how many passengers noticed them, but I was waiting for my husband to finish a call and was glancing around and happened to notice them in the water (again I'm detail oriented), but take a look while your there, it's pretty neat!
In Juneau, we bought bus tickets ($16 Roundtrip a person) to Mendenhall Glacier. This was definitely worth the bus ticket $. When we got off the bus there was a spot you could watch salmon swimming upstream which was neat! Then we walked over to the visitor center. We didn't purchase the ticket to enter the visitors center (I think it was $3/per person) as it didn't appeal to us. Instead we hiked out to the picture spot, then did the 1 1/2 mile roundtrip hike closer to the glacier and waterfall. This was a pretty easy hike (I am not in great shape and thought it was very easy) so it's doable for most people. Up close the waterfall and glacier were even more impressive! And the big chunks of ice floating in the lake were really neat to see as well! We got a ton of great photos, and I would really recommend this when you are in Juneau. Once back on the bus, on the way out we saw a baby black bear up in a tree right on the side of the road. Even though we were seeing it from the bus windows, it was still pretty neat to be that close to a black bear! Since we had time to kill in Juneau after going out to Mendenhall glacier and aren't into the shopping we decided to see how much the whale watching tours were. The first guy told us $120 a person, but would give it to us for $110 a person. We said no, as it was more than we wanted to spend and started walking away. Another guy yelled for me to come over and offered us a $189 tour for only $60 each. He said he could offer it for that as he had a tour leaving right then that only had 3 people and he would rather fill the two spots for $60 than have them go empty. We hadn't realized that all these prices are negotiable (rare for the US). But, if you are interested in the whale watching and you go close to the hour mark (we were there at 2:50pm, and he was trying to sell out the 3pm tour) you should try to talk them down in price. One other passenger we were chatting with on board had taken his son whale watching in the morning (the 9am), then had gone out to the glacier and decided they wanted to go again in the afternoon. He paid $140 a person in the morning, then went back to the same company and told them he was interested in going again, but was only willing to pay $75 a person, after going back and forth for a couple of minutes they gave him the tickets for the $75 per person. Definitely worth trying to haggle to save some $! For the $60/person we decided to do it. It was a small boat with only 5 people (including us) on board and we ended up getting to see a pod of 14 humpbacks 10 feet from our boat. This was made even more special because it was a small boat and we were at water level, versus some of the whale watching tours that are bigger boats higher up. This was truly a once in a lifetime, amazing experience that I would highly recommend!
In Skagway, we did the kayaking wilderness tour and really enjoyed it. It's on a beautiful lake with waterfalls running into it. Breathtakingly beautiful! Our guide Ellie (very good guide!) mentioned that all surrounding the lake was very active bear area, though unfortunately we didn't see any. She took us to a stream that runs into the lake and we could see salmon jumping and running, very neat! She took the time to take photos for us of us in the kayak with the waterfalls behind us which was really nice! After kayaking they had sandwiches, chips and cookies and had gone the extra mile in providing vegetarian sandwiches for my husband and I which we really appreciated (we were hungry after 2 hrs of kayaking!)
We also really enjoyed the scenic cruising day in Tracy Arm. There are many beautiful waterfalls running into the fjord and we saw lots of seals and otters swimming in the water. We got the closest to the actual glacier that they have gotten this season, and it was really neat to see up close! Definitely bring warm clothes if you are planning on being outside on this day, we had brought lots of warm clothes and were still frozen through by the time we had finished the scenic cruising. This was by far the coldest day of the cruise. I had read many other reviews that had suggested bringing binoculars, so we bought some to bring with us. We definitely enjoyed having them during the scenic cruising as it allowed us to see everything so much better and closer! Sometimes they see mountain goats, bears, whales, etc. on the scenic cruising day, though we only saw the seals and otters, oh and some birds.
Victoria was ok, nice to get off the ship, though certainly wasn't the highlight by any means. Walking around the water area we saw lots of crabs in the water which I thought was neat, having never seen them in their natural habitat (only in grocery stores etc.). We had wanted to do tea at the Empress, though it was way too pricey, so instead we were hoping to come across some sort of tea/scones walking around Victoria. We did end up finding a cute little place "Murchies" on the main Government Street that had everything ala carte and for $10 we got 2 fresh currant scones with cream and homemade currant jam, a warm cheese scone and a pot of strawberry tea. They also had tons of wonderful looking deserts and sandwiches all very reasonably priced. We quite enjoyed it and it was very reasonably priced. Would definitely recommend it for a quick snack or light lunch while walking around Victoria.
We had a wonderful time and feel lucky to have seen the beautiful landscapes of Alaska as well as getting to see so many animals in their natural habitat! From the ship itself, we did see some humpback whales, as well as a few pods of orca (killer whales) throughout the trip, which was awesome, though farther away then I would have liked :) We found the ship to be just fine and enjoyed our days at sea as well. While it was a little cold (high 50's to low 60's) and therefore was too cold on any day to use the pools (only kids used them on our cruise), MUTS, or sanctuary area, we still found enough to do inside to keep us busy. I would definitely do this cruise again, and would recommend it to others as well. Don't let such small things as a slightly aging ship, or quality of the buffet food, take away from what should be an amazing, once in a lifetime trip!