My 9 year old daughter lists cruising as her favorite vacation, even over Disney World. She's been on a half dozen cruises already and before she came along my wife and I had done about a half dozen ourselves. Most of our cruises had been to the Caribbean and Mexico. This was our first time in Alaska.
Most of our recent cruises have been on Royal Caribbean. We cruised Princess years ago before they were owned by Carnival Cruises. We went on this cruise with two other couples, one of whom had a 15 year old. I am definitely glad we saw Alaska and we all had a very good time. However, cruising Alaska is a very different experience than cruising in the Caribbean and I wish I had understood a little more what we were getting into. That is why I want to do this review in two parts -- first points about Alaska cruises in general and second about this particular ship.
Things you should know about Alaska Cruises.
- This cruise only stops at three ports. That leaves three days at sea. Even though two of them claim to be scenic cruising, only a small part of those days are spent in scenic areas. Therefore you will find yourself with lots of time on the ship. Normally on sea days in the Caribbean, everyone sits by the pool and soaks in the sun. You can't do this when it is 50 degrees outside. Yet, because they don't have a pool for activities, the ship had even fewer and less interesting scheduled activities than most. Hence we found that we were bored for probably the first time ever while on a cruise ship.
- Make sure you schedule tours ahead of time and don't assume you can spend all day in any of the ports. All three ports consist of about 4 blocks of jewelry shops and souvenir stores that can easily be seen in an hour or two. I'm not saying they are not scenic or interesting, which they certainly are. But I am saying you will want to see more. We had scheduled tours in each port way before the cruise started and were definitely glad we had. People trying to book tours on the ship were often disappointed and unable to get their first choice.
- It is cold. I know it is Alaska and that should not be a surprise. But even in the first week of August it is really cold. You will not go outside without a jacket. Think about all the time you spend on deck and in the pool on a Caribbean cruise and realize that you will need to find something different to do on this one. Also, make sure that you pack for the cold.
- Take at least four additional nights before or after the cruise to tour inland. This is the true scenic part of the cruise. Realize though that you will be spending a lot of time on a bus or train and plan accordingly. Basically plan like you would for a long airplane ride. While some of that ride is scenic, much of it is just looking at trees. Personally, if I ever did Alaska again, instead of taking the prepackaged tour from the cruise line, I would rent a car and do it all at my own pace. However, there is comfort in knowing that everything it taken care of and you just have to sit and enjoy.
- I've seen debates on which side of the ship you should get your cabin. If you are going to College Fjord (and if you are not, you booked the wrong ship) then definitely get the port side. This is the single most interesting three hours you will spend in Alaska and 90% of the scenery is on the port side. In fact, I would say the three hours in College Fjord is worth the price of the entire cruise.
- If you are leaving from Vancouver and are not a Canadian Citizen, do yourself a favor and get there the day before you embark. First off, Vancouver is a cool city that you will want to have time to explore. Secondly, arriving in Vancouver the day of the cruise like we did means you must first go through a huge customs line to get into Canada (keep in mind there were 4 ships full of passengers arriving that morning). Then you will take a 45 minute bus ride to the port where you immediately get into another long customs line to leave Canada and go back into the USA. We spent four hours getting onto the ship while our friends who had arrived the day before were on in about 15 minutes.
- Here's something they don't tell you until they get there, when you will be warned by every tour guide you have. Don't expect to see a lot of wild life. I'll admit we went into this thinking there would be bears and moose all over the place. We saw mostly trees and mountains. Denali National Park is the size of Maine and we were told there were less than 2,000 bears and 900 moose in the entire park. We did see some bald eagles and a whale and had an encounter with a rather mean squirrel at our hotel, and there were lots of salmon swimming upstream. However, I've seen more wild life in my back yard than I saw in our entire trip to Alaska. The scenery is fabulous, but unless you take the 15 hour complete tour of Denali you will probably see very little wild life.
The Coral Princess
I'll be right up front and say that I doubt I will ever cruise on Princess again. This is not to say that it was a bad experience. We had a very good time. However, going from Royal Caribbean to Princess was like going from the Ritz Carlton to a Holiday Inn. My impression was of a business that was run by an accountant who had figured out every small corner to cut to add to the profits and not take too much away from the experience. This had the effect of taking this cruise from luxury to simply efficient.
Let's start with the crew. We're used to the service on a cruise being overwhelmingly friendly and efficient. The crew on this ship seemed tired. While they tried to be friendly, they simply did not have the energy to do it properly. One person told me he hadn't had a break in three months. Perhaps it is because there is no tipping. Perhaps it is because Princess works them to the bone. Whatever it is, the level of service on this ship is just not up to the standards we are used to when we cruise.
Entertainment. The shows were very well done and up to the level of other cruises. The lounge acts were also good. The cruise director and staff however left much to be desired. On most ships, the cruise director is the life of the party. This guy tended to kill the party. We went to a trivia contest that was so dull and serious that my wife remarked that she had been to college exams that were more exciting. Considering that you are on the ship for all but 30 hours of this cruise, there were very few interesting things scheduled by the staff to keep you entertained. If anything, this ship seemed to have fewer daily activities than most.
Casino. I love to gamble. I've been to casinos all over the country. This was by far the worst casino I have ever been in. It was so bad I stopped going there. Cruise ship dealers are usually friendly, professional and experienced. These dealers seemed surly and afraid to make a mistake. It simply made for an uncomfortable atmosphere. I must not have been alone in that thought since by the end of the cruise the casino was mostly empty.
Food. The pastry chef on this ship is one of the best I have ever had. The breads were always tasty and varied every day. Other meals were hit or miss, with one item being good and others being just blah. The soups were so horrible and salty we stopped ordering soup. Nevertheless, while I don't feel it was as good as our previous cruises, it was certainly not bad. We did each of the alternative restaurants and I don't really feel they added enough to justify the extra price. Again, perhaps it was because they were not working for tips, or perhaps it was because they were worked to the bone, but the level of service is best described as adequate. It was certainly not the over the top efficient and friendly service we normally associate with a cruise ship.
Kids Club. This is the one aspect of this ship that gets rave reviews from me. My 9 year old daughter loved every minute she was here. She could not wait to go back each day. They did not just stick the kids in a corner and have them watch a movie or play video games. They actually interacted with the kids and played games. If you are travelling with small children, you can rest assured that they will have a wonderful time. However, I should mention that my friend's 15 year old did not like the teen club and rarely went there.
We stayed one night at the McKinley Princess, two an the Denali Princess and one at the Fairbanks Princess. Here's my impressions of each.
The McKinley Princess. If you are taking the train here, do not get directly on the bus when you arrive at Talkeetna. They have a bus going to the lodge every hour that you can take and you will definitely want to poke around Talkeetna, which is a really cool town. The hotel is situated by itself an hour outside of town, so once you get there you are stuck there. The hotel is beautiful and scenic and the rooms are nicely done. There are some nice walking trails that get you a little into the countryside without going too far away. The layout is pretty impractical for a state where is it cold and rains a lot. You will have to either walk outdoors a long ways to get to the main lodge or take a 15 minute trolley ride. This is a nice place for a single night, but I would not recommend staying here multiple nights without your own car.
The Denali Princess. This is a large hotel with quite a bit of things to do within easy walking distance. Across the street are numerous shops to keep you entertained, and they have a regular bus to Denali. The hotel itself is a little run down and the rooms could use some updating, but that's being picky. The dinner show they put on is surprisingly good and well worth the time and money. The main restaurant here was probably the single best meal we had on our entire trip for both food and service. I would definitely stay here again. We took a 4 hour tour into Denali, which was plenty of bus time with a 9 year old. Our friends however took the 15 hour full tour of Denali and raved about how great it was. If you can, I recommend the long tour.
The Fairbanks Princess. Do not stay here more than one night. If you are starting off with the tour portion, I would try to go from your plane to Denali that first day rather than stay in Fairbanks. The hotel is the worst of the three by far and Fairbanks is pretty much the least interesting place we were at for our entire vacation. This is a working town and not a vacation town.
In conclusion, Alaska is a unique place that is well worth visiting. While we really enjoyed our cruise, I simply cannot recommend Princess over any other options. If I did this again, I would try a different cruise line.