I travelled with a good friend, and did a 6 day independent land tour travelling before boarding the Island Princess on Wednesday, September 14 in Whittier. This entire trip was based on much input from reviews and individual CC members - and I thank you for all the good info and tips! We flew to Anchorage from NYC on the 8th:
Anchorage: We stayed 3 nights at the Historic Anchorage Hotel (great hotel, but ask NOT to be on the street side), visiting the Ulu Factory (a little disappointing since I thought there would be some sort of tour), Anchorage Native Heritage Museum (wonderful experience and knowledge received), the 4th Avenue Open Market (also a disappointment), Anchorage Museum (great experience) and rode the trolley ( a lot of fun). Restaurants: we ate at Orso, Glacier Brewhouse, Sacks (recommended by the hotel receptionist, and our favorite) and Muse at the Anchorage Museum. We enjoyed all of these restaurants, and recommend them all. Be prepared for noise and large crowds at the first two. Sacks was the calmest, and an intriguing mean. If you are into wine, try Crush Wine Bar a store front in the mall - great wine and cheese selection, with a wine shop above where we bought 3 bottles to bring on the rest of the trip.
Denali: on Sunday, we rented a car and drove the 225 miles to Denali National Park with a stopover at Talkeetna, where I just had to eat lunch at The Roadhouse since it was shown on The Food Network. Definitely a worthwhile - the lunch was amazing, and met some great soon-to-be-Princess cruisers there as well. It is a very cute town - check out the local cemetery which is dedicated to those who trekked the mountains, including Mt. McKinley. We were also graced with a view of Mt. McKinley for a few minutes during our drive to the park - we thought the mountains were pretty huge, with the layer of clouds above, and then POW - there was McKinley - made the rest of the mountain range look like pimples!! I will never forget that sight! We stayed at the McKinley Creekside Cabins - our arrival date was the last day of the cafe which was closing for the winter (this had not been mentioned when we booked). Our bagged breakfast was stale and without any butter/jam for the croissants. We had dinner at the McKinley Chalet which was very nice, decent pizza. We took the 8am shuttle into Denali the next morning . We did not have a very talkative driver, but the 8 hour trip was well worth it - we saw grizzly bears, bull moose, a lynx, a wolf (trotting right down the road at us without even glancing our way!), dall sheep, and bald eagles. We decided to roam around the Princess Denali Lodge and had dinner at the King Salmon Restaurant - white tablecloths, great service, but very casual, and good food. The next day we went to the Jeff King sled dog tour where we fell in love with the 6 week and 3 month old puppies. My friend (not a dog person) was very glad I insisted on doing this tour - the dogs were amazing. We then headed back to ANC to the Historic Anchorage Hotel again for 1 night before embarkation.
Embarkation Day: we took the Alaska Railroad to Whittier - a beautiful trip once we got out of downtown Anchorage - saw Dall sheep, beluga whales and a bald eagle, arriving in Whittier at approximately 12:30. To our surprise, there was no line at Princess and we were immediately allowed on the ship - a very easy and friendly embarkation. We also had no problem bringing on board our 3 bottles of wine - in an obvious wine carton. We went to our cabin, dropped off our carry-on items, called the DINE line to register for the Chef's Table and then headed to the 14th deck for the Horizon Court where we were asked to use the hand sanitizers upon entering, and had a wonderful lunch overlooking the harbor. The only unpleasantness was about 18 different crew approached us about taking the soda and coffee cards. We then went back to the cabin, and to our joy, our luggage was there. Since we were on board so early, and had tons of laundry after our land tour, we grabbed the pre-packed designated rolling bag of luggage and headed to the empty laundry room. We brought the Purex sheets and a roll of quarters with us (thanks to CC) and immediately started 3 loads of laundry. During the various cycles, we explored each deck of the ship to get the lay of the land with the handy map given to us at embarkation. We were done with laundry before most of the other passengers were on board - absolutely the right thing for us to do!
In general: we had an absolutely marvelous time on this cruise and I will definitely go with Princess to my next cruise destination. The officers, staff and crew could not have been friendlier and made the cruise an incredible experience for us. As for Alaska - it is the true meaning of the word Awesome!
Cabin: we had an unobstructed balcony room on Emerald Deck (E628). Good sized room for 2. But I did feel claustrophobic in the shower. Next cruise, - a mini-suite! Good CC tips I received: clothes pins for shower curtain to prevent clinging, the shower caddy from Serendipity for soap and travel size shampoos etc, magnets for walls to hold itineraries and Patters, highlighter for Patter, disinfecting wipes for cabin, requesting foam top for mattress, top sheet and wine glasses. Items we brought but didn't use: extension cord (just took turns with cameras and cell phone charges), night light (there was enough ambient light).
Meals: we chose AnyTime dining, and only on the last night did we have to wait to be seated. I am a very picky eater and don't eat seafood and I was thrilled by the varied selection on the MDR menu that we wound up not even trying the specialty restaurants. We had pizza on the Lido Deck - and the CC rave reviews are accurate. We had room service for breakfast on Glacier Bay day, and it was a good selection with excellent service. We enjoyed Afternoon Tea in the MDR just about every day - we obviously loved it, especially the little pastries - of which there were an amazing variety and continuously offered. Room service for dinner is not the same as the MDR, but the selection was good.
Chef's Table - absolutely worth the additional $95! The experience alone was worth it. Executive Chef Remo Bolis and Maitre d'Hotel Jacques Ghennai were amazing, and a great comedy team ?. There were 8 of us for this very special night. We met at La Patisserie where we were escorted by Jacques through the Bordeaux dining room to the kitchen where we donned chef's jackets and met with Chef Remo. They both spoke about food service on the ship and answered lots of questions. We had four amuse bouche - delicious! And then were escorted to our specially decorated table in the middle of the room, with all eyes on us. We then had 5 courses with 5 wines (with liberal pours), presented by Chef Remo and served by the amazing staff (headed by Head Waiter, Michael from South Africa and Anna Marie - I did not get her country of origin!) We had our group picture taken, and received this great coffee-table sized book of Princess recipes signed by Chef Remo. The book alone is worth $40-$50. This was an elegant and very special three-hour experience that I will always remember.
Shows: we are spoiled being from NY, and I was not overwhelmed with the production shows. I did love Scott Wyler and Dan Horn - they are both a must see. I haven't laughed so hard in a long time!
Activities: plenty for whatever your tastes are. Cruise Director Brett Siborne and the Asst. CD, Kerri were a terrific high energy pair - seemingly everywhere at once!
Medical Center: I had developed an upper respiratory infection and went to the Med Ctr on Saturday upon re-boarding after our Skagway lunch. I was told that the flu was brought on board by passengers that were on the Denali land tour and who had caught it at the Denali Princess. Fortunately for me, we had not stayed there. Unfortunately for me, I had a slight fever, and they quarantined me that night, telling me to return the next morning for a temperature check - if I was back to normal (after Tylenol ) I would be "released." I was given an antibiotic as well. I felt awful, so I didn't mind the early-to-bed scenario. (No temp the next day, so on to Juneau!) I believe the staff did a fine job controlling the flu outbreak, although many pax were quarantined and I heard their unhappiness while in the Med Center. Very professional and caring doctor (Dr. Nicholas Hoffman) and nurses there.
Ports: I was a bit disappointed in the 3 towns of Skagway, Juneau and Ketchikan which seemed to be all about shops - souvenirs and jewelry, not my thing. We did find a few "real" stores and bought some good quality and authentic items. I will add that my view could be attributed to the afore-mentioned sickness . What is most important about the ports, however, is the natural beauty, and I was very glad that with CC help, I had chosen some exceptional tours to take on our own (not through Princess):
Skagway - Chilkoot Tours for the WP&YR 4 hour tour. I am very interested in history - and actually seeing the 1898 Gold Rush trail and learning about it was very worth while. And of course, the scenery was amazing. We ate lunch at the Red Onion Saloon - touristy, but decent food and interesting dEcor.
Juneau - Harv & Marv's whale watching tour. The best! We were 6 people on the 12 person boat with Captain Shawn and Hunter, the college aged local who both told us great stories and had great eyes for spotting the "blow." As they explained, September wasn't the best time to whale watch, and we must have patience, and we were rewarded. And they wouldn't take us back until we saw some "tail"! So we had more than the booked time on water - and I truly thank them for that. We had a very nice lunch at a place that Captain Shawn recommended that most locals go to, Hangers, on the water and we were able to watch all the float planes come and go. During the rest of the week we spoke with some who had taken the Princess whale tour - and did not see anything. They were envious of our small boat.
Ketchikan - Island Wings over Misty Fjords National Monument. Michelle is great - she tracked us down on the ship through a fellow pax and moved our scheduled 12:00 tour up to 11 due to an incoming storm. I highly recommend seeing the monument - and with Michelle! Truly amazing sights, and we landed on a tiny island in the middle of this cavernous area for pictures, and what a take-off! Good thing she moved the tour up; as we approached the harbor, clouds and rain were setting in. And she told us that a huge storm was heading for the Gulf of Alaska with 70 mph winds. And she was right - we rocked and rolled all night and the next day through lunch - many seasick pax, luckily we were both OK and it was riotous looking at all of us very "drunk" weavers and bobbers!
Weather - could not have been much better after 3 weeks of weather.com reports of rain in Anchorage, Denali, and all of our ports. 60 + degrees in ANC, cold and crisp in Denali, rain in Whittier and Ketchikan (to be expected). Glad I had brought the rain pants and jacket - kept me dry in the last two mentioned. And my lined rain jacket was wind proof - so kept me comfortable on sea days as well as Denali's elevations.
Disembarkation: it was a snap. Bags outside the door before dinner the last night, but no later than 10pm. We signed up for the last disembarkation time, met in the Explorer's Lounge and within ½ hour our group was called to disembark. Luggage was waiting and off we went.
Post cruise: we stayed for 3 nights at the St. Regis Hotel in Vancouver. Highly recommend this great boutique hotel, central to everything. Excellent room, very attentive staff, good amenities. They allowed us to check in early at 10:30am. During our stay, we took the hop on-hop off trolley - stopping at Stanley Park (lunch at the Teahouse - excellent food, beautiful ambience, friendly service), Granville Island and numerous other places. We took the SeaBus and bus to Grouse Mountain. I enjoyed all of these immensely. We had dinner at Jules French Bistro in Gastown - loved it, food was excellent and decent wine list and CinCin, an amazing Northern Italian- you have to try this place!
Saturday, the 24th we headed home to NY after 16 days of the most pleasurable adventure. If you want more info, I'm happy to share! email@example.com.