This trip was a 10-day Alaska cruise round-trip out of San Francisco. This was our 5th Princess cruise, and 2nd time on the Grand Princess. Our most recent cruise was aboard the Carnival Splendor five months ago (a 7-day trip to Mexico out of Long Beach), and I’ll reference some comparisons later.
Our travel agent provided bus transportation from Sacramento to San Francisco; we left Sacramento at 10am and arrived at the pier at 12:10. Traffic on the Embarcadero is often heavy, and more so on a cruise departure day, so we were thankful not to be driving (or having to deal with parking). Within 8 minutes of our bus pulling up at Pier 27, we were in the security line (our luggage is automatically transferred from the bus to the ship). Four minutes later we were in the check-in line, and five minutes from that we were walking aboard the ship. It was a pretty impressive process; only 20 minutes between when our bus pulled up to when we were on the ship.
Since we made it on board before 1pm, we decided to hit the Da Vinci dining room for lunch. We don’t usually make it early enough for this. I was surprised at how empty it was in there, only a small scattering of people here and there. The staff had been directing people to the buffet immediately after boarding, and later in the cruise the Cruise Director mentioned that there were some 1700 first time cruisers on board (yikes!), so maybe not many people knew about the dining room option. One thing that surprised me in the dining room – there were a couple of little bugs (gnats maybe?) flying around the table. I can’t recall ever seeing bugs in a ship’s dining room before.
At dinner the first night I had vegetable spring rolls and a chicken dish. While the chicken was a little dry, the meal was otherwise pretty good. I’ve noted on other reviews that the Carnival food options seemed to be better not only in variety but also in presentation and flavor, but the food on the Grand didn’t disappoint. The buffet had good selections, if not somewhat predictable and not terribly varied due to the comparably smaller size of the facility. The Carnival Splendor had the advantage of having different sections within the buffet, such as the Wok and Burrito Bar and BBQ, which made for a much more exciting dining experience. I noted though that at least on this trip, I rarely found lines at the buffet, whereas I most often found them on the Splendor. Part of that may be the opening times – for example breakfast started at 6am on the Grand, but 7:30am on the Carnival Splendor. Things were just open longer on Princess, which helps spread out the herd. One thing I’ve found true on both lines – anytime you order a steak in the MDR, you need to order it one level rarer than you want. I’ve consistently found that to be the case. Side note – our young child loves his apple juice, and while this was available at breakfast and in the dining room, he won’t touch the Princess apple juice. Admittedly it tasted a little weird to me…hard to describe, just off and with an unnatural sweetness to it.
Anyways. On our first sea day we had a scheduled Cruise Critic meet and mingle in the One-Five lounge. Unfortunately when we got there, there was competition with a group of several dozen Chinese passengers having some sort of class. I heard from some other seasoned CC members that this sort of thing happens often on Princess. After trying for 10 minutes to have our own conversations, between the dozen of us in attendance, my wife finally went and spoke with someone at guest services, who told us our meeting had been changed to the Wheelhouse Bar. Too bad no one told any of us about the change. So we moved our group and ultimately had a nice time. The customer service manager later sent all of us apology notes to our staterooms along with a plate of desserts, either chocolate covered strawberries or crème puffs.
The shows on the Grand were the same ones I had seen previously over a year ago, but they were still entertaining. Motor City, British Invasion, Stardust, and Born to Dance (we saw this last one when it debuted on the Grand, and it is quite excellent! No wonder they saved it for the last night on board). The big advantage Princess has over Carnival is that they use live musicians for their stage shows. There’s also a lot more live entertainment throughout the ship, though again I hear from more-seasoned Princess cruisers that they’ve cut back on the amount of this. One area Carnival truly excels in is their comedy offerings. We saw three different comedians doing multiple shows both family friendly and R-rated. On Princess, one comedian doing shows on two different nights. And honestly it was the same comedian I saw before and a lot of the exact same routines I’ve seen before. Not that they weren’t entertaining per se, but you’d like to hear some fresh material.
On the 2nd night and next morning the seas were quite choppy, with 8-foot swells. Most of trip actually had calm seas (and sunny, cloudless skies). But trying to swim in the Calypso (indoor) pool at 6:30am was quite interesting. I was glad they had towels available. My last time on the Grand, there were no clean towels at the pool deck before 7am, so I had to get one the night before. You can’t really go swimming much before 6:30am, as they’re usually cleaning the pools at that time. And the spas don’t tend to get uncovered till 7am.
On our 3rd night we had our first of two formal nights. Our early traditional dining time, which before the cruise was “confirmed” for 6pm, was actually at 5pm (on our last Princess cruise it was 5:30pm). With our young child (now 4.5 years old), we like to get formal photos done (at one of the stations they set up around the ship) before dinner, for obvious reasons. Unfortunately there was no one ready to take photos prior to the first dining seating, so we didn’t end up getting formal shots done. Too bad.
On our second sea day we decided to try Alfredo’s for lunch. I understand on larger ships, Alfredo’s also offers salads and pasta, but this one just does pizza. It was fairly crowded, and after waiting about 25 minutes we were seated and had drinks ordered. Apparently one of their ovens had broken down, causing a slow-down of service. Five minutes later we got notified that the other one broke down…so no pizza this day. Actually we went up poolside and got some pizza up there. The pizza on Princess, incidentally, is one thing that is vastly superior to Carnival’s.
Before we make it to port I should mention the Princess at Sea site. Their web-based page runs off the ship’s wifi, is free to use, and provides instant updates on onboard purchases, allows you to view the schedule and setup your own list of events you want to attend, and more. It also has a messenger service, which was pretty useful to get messages to my wife or my parents who were also on this trip. Unfortunately being web-based, it doesn’t allow push notifications, and the only way you know if you have a new message is to open it up and refresh it. They offer internet packages in which you can use social media sites on your phone for $14.99 a day. We actually used a similar service on our last Carnival cruise (but it was only $5 a day…).
Our first port was Ketchikan. We did our own walking around here, as it’s an easy one to do, going to Creek Street and exploring on our own, before having drinks and light food at Dwyer’s Crab & Fish Company. Ketchikan is a short day, 7am-2pm (1:30 all aboard time), but we were surprised to find about 300 people in line waiting to get back onboard at 12:50. Fortunately it went fairly quickly at about 15 minutes. Our next port was worse…
In Juneau we were scheduled to tender (I’ve never had to tender here before). In the morning it seemed pretty promising, as we arrived in the scheduled dining room early to get tender tickets. By the time the first tender began boarding (right on time at 8am), there wasn’t enough people yet to fill it all the way, so it was a pretty easy process. We were underway at 8:05. While in Juneau we rented a car. I booked late, only a couple of weeks before our trip (booking in advance is a necessity as they sell out), but still got a full size sedan at Avis for $134 including the kid’s booster seat. The shuttles to Mendenhall Glacier have gone up – way up – now running $45 per person round trip (it was $20 last time we were here in 2016). So for five of us, it would have cost $225. So we had a nice day on our own schedule, and also visited Auk Bay and the Wickersham House in town, along with the Hanger By The Wharf for drinks and a late lunch. Then things got interesting with the tenders.
We were scheduled in Juneau until 9pm, but got in line for the tenders at 5pm. I guess everyone wanted to get back to the ship for dinner as there were over two hundred waiting in the sun. (I should note though that on this day, there were no set dinner seatings in the MDR. They basically ran every dining room as anytime dining. We had been notified of this by our waiter the night before). But back to the tender line. Turns out, there were only two tenders running (there were at least four running that morning), so only one was loading at the pier at a time. And then we all had to wait for the next to arrive. It was nearly a half-hour wait before we finally boarded a tender (I actually got a little sunburned waiting). Part of our group had actually gone back a half hour earlier, and they actually sat waiting on a tender for a half hour before it would depart the pier, as all service was halted whenever another cruise ship came in our out of port (there were 5 there that day). I’ve certainly heard worse tendering stories, but this was for us the most inefficient tender experience we’ve had.
Our next port was Skagway, in which we booked an excursion on board to do the Chilkoot Trail hike and river float. This was just for the two of us; our child stayed behind with his grandparents (minimum age on this trip was 7). Although it was a bit pricey at $169 a person, it was a fun trip. We had a small group of only 7, and took a van ride up to Dyea to start on the 2-mile hike. The first half was fairly hilly and strenuous, while the second half was pretty flat. It was beautiful scenery all around, though we saw little wildlife. Our guide Sarah pointed out local edible plants which we all tried. After the hiking part we donned water boots and life jackets for the 30-minute raft float back to our van’s staging area. With all the warm weather melting the glaciers up there, the river was riding quite high and much faster than normal. But it was still a calm yet exciting trip on the water, as we saw glacier capped peaks and bald eagle nests. Back in town we enjoyed a leisurely walk through the main street and capped the day off with drinks at the Red Onion.
Our 3rd sea day, and it was our first sign of cloudy weather as up till now it was all sun and mid to upper 70s. This is also when we spotted our first breaching whales. Keep your eyes open especially in the relatively narrow stretches. We saw a school of dolphins, and whole lot of jellyfish streaming by the boat, and even caught some bubble net feeding. I only knew what this was as we had attended the naturalist talks on board from Tess Julianna. It’s good to learn a little something…
This trip visited Tracy Arm, which we had not been to in quite some time. We were suddenly awakened at 5:30am by our TV, which was on the bridge cam channel and suddenly came to life with the naturalist speaking. They used to have music on that channel, so you would naturally turn it down before going to bed. But now it’s a quiet channel. Until the crack of dawn on scenic cruising day, apparently. It was nice seeing all of the immaculate scenery, with a lot of huge chunks of floating ice, geological treasures such as circle-shaped valleys showing evidence of past glacial presence. And as it was sunny and clear, and recent warm temperatures had helped to break up larger ice chunks, the Grand was able to get pretty close to Sawyer Glacier. Far closer than we had ever been, really. They couldn’t quite turn around all the way, so the viewing was in its prime on the port side, and aft as the ship turned around. There was actually too much sun, as it was directly over the glacier and made picture taking tricky due to the glare. But it was beautiful.
I should point out some of the kids club info, as we used it periodically on this trip. Obviously the kids club provides time for mom and dad to do events both on the ship and ashore that wouldn’t really work with a small child. With that in mind we were fairly disappointed on the schedule they offered. They were open from 8am-5pm in Juneau and Skagway (we were in both those ports till 9pm however), but every other day the schedule was 8am-Noon, 2pm-5pm, and 7pm-10pm. This proved to be problematic in Victoria for example, which is a great town to just walk around but a bit far for a little kid to walk. We were in port from 7am-2pm, but couldn’t drop the kid off till 8am, and then one of us at least had to be aboard before noon to get him. So our port time was drastically reduced. On Carnival it was a normal thing to keep kids through lunch, and take them all to the buffet where they had a secluded spot setup with food for them. That was a nice option to have, giving parents a lot more flexibility with their schedules. Hopefully Princess will step up their game here.
Anyways, in Victoria we took a nice walk from the cruise ship terminal past the fisherman’s wharf and floating houses, into downtown. We booked a horse drawn carriage ride right across from the Legislative Buildings, which is really easy to do. They have rides in increments of 15 minutes; we took the 30-minute Heritage ride, which cost $125 Canadian (but if you don’t have Canadian dollars you can use a credit card) for the carriage which nicely held the four of us (the kid was back in the kids club on the ship). It went up to Beacon Park and cut across to and travelled down Government Street, and our guide pointed out some of the historic homes and talked about the history of Victoria. Our horse, Sarge, was slow and opinionated on where he wanted to go, but it was a fun and relaxing ride. One of the downsides of the ship arriving so early in Victoria (7am) is that a lot of things were not open yet, and even at 10am there were still street vendors just starting to setup their wares. All in all I wish we had much more time to spend there, as it seems there’s so much to see and do.
On our last sea day I tried hitting the indoor pool in the morning, but unfortunately it was netted and drained and remained so all day. I hadn’t seen that before for a full sea day. Maybe some kid pooped in it. I don’t know. The outdoor main pool was being cleaned, so I ultimately skipped the swimming idea. The indoor pool was back open on disembarkation morning. Go figure. We did get to go to Alfredo’s for lunch this day, as their ovens were back working. It was good, though the menu could use more variety.
This disembarkation process was quite smooth. As we were with my parents who are Elite, we waited in the Wheelhouse right near the exit. It took awhile for them to start calling groups, and our group was near the end and scheduled to be called at 10am. We actually got to start heading off at 9:30. There was a long line but it went fast; we hit the security line at 9:37 and were through at 9:40. It’s nice not having to have customs forms filled out and turned in (though curiously we had to fill out forms for Canada – before we arrived there. Hard to declare anything when you haven’t stepped foot there yet).
All in all it was a great trip. The crew we encountered were friendly and helpful, especially our dining room waiter Kadek, the bar server Rea in Crooners, and the dancer Lindsey (who also helped with the art auctions), and customer relations manager Paolo (who helped with our Cruise Critic meeting snafu). 90% of random crew members we passed in the halls would say hello. Our service in the MDR was quick (our last time on the Grand it was painfully slow). We were in and out of dinner in well under an hour and a half.
The ship is in pretty good shape considering how long it’s been running. Though on deck 8 there were crew members systematically replacing the ceiling insulation throughout the whole trip, and on the last sea day there appeared to be some flooding on deck 14 near the buffet entrance, coming through the ceiling. And of course you will see things like stained grout tile, scratches and nicks, and so on, throughout the ship. If you look for those things. But there was nothing that dissuaded us from having a wonderful time. And unlike our last cruise on the Carnival Splendor, the drain in our stateroom shower and the refrigerator both worked. So that was a bonus! Now we’re back at home trying to figure out where and when our next cruise will be…we’ll be Platinum on our next Princess cruise, so looking forward to the added little perks! Read Less