Background: My husband and I (very active 50s) took his parents (not very active 80s) on the cruise and land tour, their "dream vacation." I used our regular travel agent for the cruise and booked all other arrangements independently. We've cruised Princess 7 times previously, Caribbean and Panama Canal, on Island/Coral, Ruby and Emerald. My in-laws have done the PanCanal on Coral twice. We decided on this cruise based on itinerary, and the fact that my in-laws were already familiar and comfortable with the ship.
Big Picture - we LOVED this cruise. This review covers all aspects of the cruise and in some respects, we were disappointed in Princess based on expectations set by past experience. But in other respects we were blown away, and the net result was a great experience.
Pre-cruise - flew into Vancouver 2 days prior to embarkation. Stayed at the Blue Horizon Hotel and were very happy with it. Spacious, comfortable and spotlessly clean rooms, 2 blocks from waterfront (Coal Harbour) with many restaurants, shops, banks within a block or two. Vancouver Trolley and free shuttles to Grouse Mountain and Capilano Suspension Bridge stop outside the lobby. Vancouver is a lovely, friendly, interesting city and I'd love to go back for a week or more. We had nice meals at Moxie's, Earl's and Milestones, chosen because my MIL is as picky as a toddler about food and their menus seemed to work. All 3 restaurants were busy and "high energy" (aka loud) with pop music which my classical musician husband and 80s in-laws found annoying, but the food was very good considering they're chain places, and the service was excellent. We had excellent plank-grilled salmon at Earl’s, good steaks at Milestones, great fish and chips and salads at Moxies.
Embarkation - arrived at Canada Place around 11:30AM. Very well organized check-in even though they were processing people from 3 ships. We breezed through and by 11:45 were sitting in the “platinum/elite lounge,” which was really just a group of chairs separated from the main area by office partitions. Water and juice were available to all waiting passengers. We waited only about 20 minutes and were on the ship very quickly, with cabins being available immediately.
Cabins – we had E705, a cat BE veranda at the starboard aft end of Emerald deck. In-laws had D721, a mini-suite at the starboard aft end of Dolphin. Both were chosen specifically for the fully covered verandas and we were happy to have them on rainy days. Cabin attendants were both excellent, keeping the cabins very clean and delivering anything we asked for promptly. We asked for an egg crate mattress pad on boarding and had it prior to the ship leaving Vancouver.
Food – this was one area where we were disappointed in Princess. The presentation, selection and taste of both the buffet and main dining room food were all noticeably less appealing than we’ve been accustomed to on Princess. We’ve never been enthusiastic about the food at Horizon Court (buffet) but on this cruise it was worse than ever; areas had a lot of empty space whereas they’ve been full before, and the overall quality was more like hospital cafeteria than cruise ship. There was still certainly enough choice to enjoy a decent lunch, but after our March cruise on Celebrity Eclipse with its knock-out buffet, Horizon Court was a cruel joke. We did not eat there for dinner, but at night they dressed up the tables and several times offered theme dinners. If I could have talked my husband into a buffet dinner (not gonna happen) I would have tried the Octoberfest buffet… ah well. Maybe my next husband will go with me. I heard people say they enjoyed that particular theme buffet.
Food in the main dining room was also a step below what we’ve experienced; our primary concern was the way all meat arrived overdone by a good bit (things ordered rare came out medium consistently.) And if you’ve cruise on Princess in the last 5 years, you’ll probably know the menus by heart – we really wish they’d offer new menus at least every couple of years. Presentation was okay, again not up to Celebrity standard but attractive. Pastas were always well prepared (al dente) and served with a decent amount of sauce (not drowned) and can be ordered as an entrée or side; we usually split an order as a side because they’re really good, especially the veal ravioli. We did not eat breakfast or lunch in the MDR, nor did we try the afternoon tea. The itinerary was too intense – too much to see and do off the ship.
Pizza is available by the Lido pool and was usually pretty good; they always offer both cheese and pepperoni, with one “pizza du jour.” The pizza was better if it had just come out of the oven; sitting under a heat lamp for a while doesn’t do it justice. The lido grill offered hamburgers, chicken sandwiches, bratwurst, hot dogs, fries and on Glacier Bay day, chili. Hamburgers and chicken were pre-cooked and flashed on the grill when ordered, which I’m sure is much safer and faster, but… yuck. Bratwurst were juicy and the buns were a bit better than expected, less like typical American air buns and more like a real roll. The old Haagen-Daz fee-based ice cream counter by the Lotus pool has been replaced by the same soft-serve ice cream available on the Crown class; vanilla, chocolate or swirl is available free in a cone or cup, with malted milk shakes available in various flavors for 1.99. As it’s hard to screw up soft-serve ice cream, we enjoyed a small cone pretty often – especially when the 4 or 5 options in Horizon didn’t appeal to us. Princess also serves warm cookies and milk on carts by the Lido and Lotus pools mid-afternoon, which is a nice touch and the cookies are soft, gooey and good. DH wished they’d had them at Horizon at lunch, but they appeared only once.
We skipped Sabatinis as we’ve dined there before, but went to Bayou the first night to avoid the usual first night Anytime Dining free-for-all. Both specialty restaurants were seriously under-utilized and getting a table as a walk-in was no problem. In another change from previous cruises, steaks can now be ordered at Bayou several ways – plain grilled or with various sauces or rubs. That’s a good change, as we’ve always enjoyed the baseball-sized filet of beef but felt it was pretty salty. Beef quality was excellent (the filet – I’ve had mixed luck with the Porterhouse.) None of the “Cajun” selections are spicy with the exception of the sausage grillade & grits starter; all sides and some of the mains can also be served as side dishes so you can try a number of things. Bourbon bread pudding is more of a custard than typical home-style bread pudding but was creamy and delicious; likewise the peach pie is more of a peach turnover but again, was delicious. The size and quality of the filet far exceeds that found in the main dining room and to us was worth the $20 surcharge.
Service – cabin staff were efficient, rapidly cleaning the cabins while we were eating breakfast and dinner, kept everything spotless and were friendly and unfailingly polite. Our cabin attendant must have vacuumed 5 times a day with the amount of hiking-related sand and dirt we kept tracking in. Service in the Bordeaux (Anytime) MDR was perhaps a little less efficient and friendly than usual; again, this could be due to the port-intensive itinerary, with many people often eating on land. Or maybe the crew is just tired. Most servers, as well as the hostesses and assistant maitre d’s, appeared to be going through the motions. Polite, but with no spark. Bar servers were largely the same. At Horizon Court the service ranged from attentive to indifferent. It was a very different experience – nobody was outright rude and in most cases service was good, but we’re used to great, not good. The whole crew was lacking the usual warmth and it was surprising.
Itinerary – Northbound inside route is sea day, Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway, Glacier Bay, College Fjord. Sea day was very rough; this is the largest expanse of open water on the route. Plenty of activities were offered, but a pretty large percentage of people were feeling green and the ship was very quiet. Seasick bags appeared throughout the ship, tucked into railings in every stairway and discreetly stacked on counters. I’ve never seen that before, but I applaud the concept. Seas during the rest of the cruise were minimal to smooth as glass.
Ketchikan - was an interesting town; lots of typical tourist shops along the cruise ship docks but Creek Street was quirky and fun. We walked Creek Street to Married Man’s Trail, then up the road to the Totem Heritage Center and Salmon Hatchery (about a ten minute walk from Creek Street.) Each can be seen separately or in a combination ticket. We paid $12 pp to see just the small hatchery, which also has 2 resident bald eagles and an owl, all injured birds brought in and restored to health but not fit for release. The salmon had not yet started running July 1st but the 15 minute tour was interesting, and proceeds go into the hatchery’s conservation efforts so the admission didn’t seem unreasonable. We walked back downtown, then continued past the docks to the “eagle viewing area” marked on the downtown walking map ( from experienceketchikan.com.) This is a very steep walk via Water St, or 100+ stairs via Tongass Ave. We did see eagles in the trees; they fish just offshore in this area and then fly to the trees with their catch. It poured most of the day but I was happy in several layers of clothes with a waterproof raincoat and rain pants. A number of people from Norwegian Pearl wearing shorts and trash bags with head and arm holes did not look so happy.
Juneau – showers on and off most of the day, 55-60 degrees. Tried the Mt Roberts trail from 6th ave as described on the Alaska board, but the trail itself was impossible to follow. After trying a number of different routes that went nowhere, we decided to backtrack and walked to the main trailhead, where we saw that the trail was under reconstruction. To be safe, we crossed the road and hiked the Flume Trail instead, which is boardwalk most of the way and a better choice for casual hikers (Mt Roberts Trail is somewhat technical and very steep – don’t try it if you’re not experienced.) Lots of beautiful waterfalls along the Flume Trail. Walked back into town and saw the State Capitol and State Office Building. There were a number of very “colorful,” very inebriated street people on Front Street at 9AM– we didn’t feel unsafe, but one of them kept shouting “WELCOME TO JUNEAU!” at people which clearly unnerved some folks. We took a shuttle bus to Mendenhall Glacier after lunch; by then, the cruise ship dock area was pretty quiet and some of the shuttle bus company kiosks had closed, but there were still 4 or 5 selling tickets. It’s $8 pp each way no matter where you buy your ticket. The weather had started to clear by 1pm and the glacier was just spectacular. From the parking lot where the shuttle drops you, take the walking trail to the left (facing the glacier) and take photos of it looking across the lake – just beautiful. The visitors center is small but interesting and has great views, clean restrooms, small gift shop and helpful staff - $2 pp. The walk from the visitors center to the waterfall is 1.5 miles each way; we didn’t have time as the last shuttle left at 4pm but it’s a flat walk and the enormous waterfall would have been worth a close-up. Quick stop at the Alaska Brewery store to buy stuff – they give a free tour/tasting every hour starting at 10:40 through 4:40. No time for that, either -sigh.
Skagway – overcast, drizzly, foggy morning. Did the 3.5 hour bus/train excursion with Chilkoot Charters and I have 3 words for it – best excursion ever. DH, in-laws and I were the only passengers on the bus portion so we had a personal tour with a knowledgeable, friendly guide who stopped anywhere we wanted to. He took great care with my elderly in-laws, making sure they were safe and comfortable on and off the bus. At the train depot in Fraser he found out what train car we were assigned to and handled the tickets; all we had to do was hop onboard. Chilkoot had its own car and we had a total of 8 people on a car seating 40+. The sun broke through and the train ride down to Skagway was unbelievable. The trip is narrated by enthusiastic young people; my in-laws complained that both girls talked too fast to be understood, and yeah, that’s pretty accurate. But even without the narration, it’s just amazing. Each car has a restroom, stove (it was pretty chilly at the beginning), bench seating and a water cooler with cups. You must stay in your assigned car, but you can stand outside for an unfettered view and some fresh air. The train stops at the depot “downtown”, not at the docks, so there’s a fairly substantial (half mile?) walk back to the ship. An all day shuttle is available for I think $2. Worth it if you’re not used to a lot of walking, or already tired from the previous 2 ports. After lunch we decided to walk to the Gold Rush cemetery and Reid Falls. This walk is published at lengths ranging from 1.5 to 2 miles one way, and I’d say it’s 2+ when you factor in the walk from the ship to downtown. It’s a long and not very interesting walk, and the cemetery has a lot of clearly modern “headstones” made of wood scattered around a wooded area. But Reid falls is lovely and was the main reason we walked there. There’s an outhouse-style restroom (chemical toilets) at the cemetery, and benches for resting. A large modern sign describes the inhabitants of the cemetery and how they came to end up there. Downtown Skagway is more Diamonds International than Gold Rush, but some of the buildings are interesting. Check out the rotary snow plow in front of the train depot; they used it last May to clear the tracks, and great video is available on You Tube. Every guy on the ship gathered around it, wishing they had one. I wish we had one, too.
Glacier Bay – from the quiet approach early morning, in mist and fog, to watching a dozen whales feed in Icy Straight on our way back out, this was a totally amazing day. The mountains, bays and glaciers are just indescribably beautiful. Park Rangers boarded early and provided narration from time to time, but did not talk constantly. After arriving in front of the Grand Pacific and Margerie Glaciers, the Captain very slowly rotated the ship around over about an hour so no matter where you were, you’d see everything. Margerie Glacier slides toward the bay feet a day and so provides a good show; it creaks, groans, snaps and at least half a dozen times cracked chunks of ice into the bay. After that, we slowly made our way up another arm of the bay for a glimpse at the John Hopkins Glacier – the area was closed as sea lions use it as a nursery – and we spent time close to the Lamplugh Glacier. A special buffet lunch was set up by the Lido pool so people could maximize their time outside (it happened to by July 4th, so it was burgers, dogs, ribs, reindeer chili etc.) and regardless of the 40 degree temps, we definitely wanted to be outside. They sold a special Glacier Bay day pass for the Sanctuary but it didn’t seem popular. Everywhere on the ship had a great view. On the way out of the bay the shipboard naturalist took over, spotting humpback whales, otters and seals. We enjoyed every minute of it.
College Fjord – we were surprised by how much we enjoyed this; thought it would be a letdown after Glacier Bay but in fact, seeing so many glaciers so close together, and at close range, was equally amazing. We also saw dozens of sea otters lounging on ice in the sunshine, which the naturalist said was rare and special. This day was largely a “sea” day, with glacier viewing 5:30-8:30, but aside from having to delay dinner a bit, was really enjoyable. (It did make for a chaotic atmosphere in the Bordeaux between 8:30 and 9.)
Disembarkation – we were surprised to not see an option for express disembarkation, but this is because there are few, if any, people staying in Whittier – everyone has to have made plans to go somewhere else, and you tell Princess via form early in the cruise what you’re doing. They also have no trouble offloading baggage because the ship actually arrived in Whittier just after midnight. We made independent plans to overnight in Anchorage before taking the train to Denali, and received a 7:15AM meeting time to disembark. People with Princess land tours disembarked before 7, so leaving the ship for the rest of us was orderly, relaxed and wait-free. We met our shuttle, Alaska Tours and Travel, inside the small terminal and had no trouble finding our bags, as most peoples’ luggage had long since been transferred to trucks for transport to the Princess Denali hotels.
Captains Club – one note about Captains Club events: for the first time ever, we didn’t attend any of them. We’re Platinum members and usually use the evening lounge at least a few times and attend all the parties. Because the port days are so long, however, events were scheduled at odd times and with Anytime Dining and traveling companions, it simply didn’t work. We did go to the Platinum/Elite lounge on the first sea day evening; it was held in Explorers near the windows and the guacamole and margaritas were great, but aside from us there were only 4 other people there. I suspect other CC members faced the same dilemma.
Medical Center – for the first time ever, we needed to use the med center when my mother-in-law became ill on Glacier Bay day and wasn’t bouncing back. The staff was very professional and caring, and the facilities equal to any shore-based clinic or small hospital.
Gym - unlike Caribbean trips, did not use it much due to all the hiking off ship. It always seemed busy. Fairly modern equipment but not much open space for mat work. Never once saw the two fitness instructors.
Miscellaneous - Photographers were the most obnoxious people ever. It took repeated firm NOs to dissuade them, which was most annoying on Glacier Bay day. We were accosted numerous times on deck. Public areas seemed to be in good shape and were kept very clean. Only saw one show, a comedian who was very funny and G-rated/family safe. No really excellent musicians onboard but with a port-intensive cruise, we just didn't need a lot of ship-board activity. We were too tired to do much after dinner. Never saw the cruise director, and didn't attend any workshops or other activities. This cruise was all about Alaska, not the ship. Just sitting on the veranda watching the mountains was our preferred pastime. The onboard naturalist was not a dynamic speaker, but she did point out a lot of wildlife. We attended her first talk which was more of a plug for the guidebook sold onboard than anything else, but it was mildly interesting.