This was my first experience with Princess, as my other two cruises were both with Holland America (on Vista-class ships), so I'll preface this review with those HAL experiences as my benchmark. I did tons of reading about Princess before we left, and that helped raise my expectations before we even left.
My wife and I, along with our pre-teen daughter, cruised on the Coral out of Vancouver on 24 August 2009. We were on a Princess CruiseTour which actually started in Seattle I'll post comments on our land portion separately, on the Boards.
Following our bus shuttle from SeaTac, embarkation went very smoothly. The pier facility is beautiful, and check-in was fast and very efficient. Signs at check-in, as well as at the ship's front desk, clearly announced that our sailing was completely sold out, yet things moved well.
Our cabin a BA-category balcony on the Caribe deck was nice and efficient. Our daughter's bed folded down from the ceiling and actually worked out quite well. The bathroom is tiny (no surprise) with no bath. They do, however, make very good use of the space. It worked for us. We had expected a small seating or couch area, as on HAL, but the large balcony compensated. Our cabin had the extra-large, partially covered balcony recommended by our travel agent and on this site. We had a table, two chairs, and two chaise chairs, and it was twice the size of the balconies on the other decks. The weather kept us from making full use of the outdoor space, but it was nice to have during Glacier Bay and College Fjord. I have to agree, however, that the tiered balcony layout on Coral is disconcerting. There is no privacy and there is very much a ball-game feel to it. I also recommend people to avoid balconies on level 8, as they are fully exposed. In addition, LARGE drops of rain and/or condensation fall down into the middle of those balconies from the ship's superstructure, so even if it's only foggy, people on those balconies get wet. I rarely say anyone using them. If you're in a dry climate and want full sun, then go for them otherwise, stay clear.
The ship is nice and was consistenly clean. The staff does a great job of keeping public areas clean and tidy. That said, there was also a "blandness" to the ship. Artwork is cheap and generic (nod to HAL's outstanding art collections) and cheap plastic flowers abound. We also consistently found ourselves going the wrong way on the ship. We spoke with many people who shared our confusion. The large elevator banks are not color-coded or named, so it is easy to get turned around and/or walk the wrong way. After a while, we realized this never happened on HAL, as the Vista ships have glass, outside elevators, so at any elevator bank, you can look outside and get oriented to which way the ship is headed. In addition, Coral is a large ship, so walking the full length from helm to stern takes a long time.
There are a couple ship layout aspects which we found particularly annoying, You cannot reach the main dining rooms Provence and Bourdeaux from any of the primary elevator banks. You must go down, and then walk forward or aft to either a lone "short" bank or walk down the staircases in the main lobby area. If you choose to walk, then you are "naturally" funneled past the boutiques, or you wait in large crowds for the elevators. Secondly, the Churchill smoking lounge is located in the main atrium area, and it is hard to avoid. Having to consistenly walk past the lounge, which understandably stinks of cigarettes and cigars, represents poor planning.
We opted for set seating, during the early 5:30pm session. Our table was wonderful, and the service was consistent. Set seating is reserved for the Provence room, while the mirror room below Bourdeaux is for anytime seating. I routinely saw very long lines of people waiting for anytime seats.
Food in the main dining room was good, but not great. HAL's run circles around Princess in the food arena. Many dishes sounded great on the menu, but often disappointed me. In fairness, many of our table mates truly enjoyed the food and saw it as a high point, but for me, I was consistently let down. We did every dinner save one in the main dining room, one speciality restaurant (Sabatini's), two breakfasts in the Provence, one room service breakfast, and all others in the Horizon Buffet on Lido Deck. Our Provence breakfasts were okay. On the first morning of the cruise, we opted for sit down, and the service was simply awful. I had to ask for coffee four times, and waited more than 15 minutes before someone finally brought over a refill. During that same breakfast, I watched two of the servers loudly argue with each other, right in front of several tables. Can you tell it's the end of a long season for them? ;-) Our room service breakfast was okay. Unlike HAL, only continental breakfasts are available for non-suite guest or premium guests. This was a big disappointment.
Okay the Horizon Buffet...my biggest pet peeve. The upstairs buffet was a HUGE disappoint for me. The area is laid out VERY, VERY poorly, and seating is a real problem. The buffet lines on both sides are hemmed in, in that there are food area on two sides, with salad "islands" in the middle. With people coming in from both the front and back (you are funneled that way), the area was always packed and had a horrible cattle-car feel to it. The food, also, was low quality and often didn't look appetizing. Harping back to HAL, the layout of their Lido buffet is far superior, much more open and easy to navigate. We found ourselves looking for ways to avoid Horizons, as it was simply unpleasant. Nothing I had for lunch there was even really enjoyable. Finding a seat was also difficult at times. I had their pizza a couple times served poolside, which allowed me to avoid Horizons. I give Princess a big thumbs up on their fresh pizza. Also, thumbs up on their rolls the Horizon always had fresh-baked rolls, which stood out often, they're all I ate. The Grill, however, was quite poor. Tried a hamburger and Bratwurst, both of which I could not each. The Brat was not fully cooked, and the hamburger was rubbery and cold in the center. I did not venture a second try at the Grill.
As noted, we did try Sabatini's. Service was excellent but the food was simply okay. As their premium sit-down place, I'm surprised they chose Italian. My main dish Chilean Sea Bass was not fully cooked, but I was so full from umpteen previous courses, that I simply passed. We did not try the other specialty place Bayou Cafe', which costs $15 pp, as opposed to Sabatini's $20 cover charge. I understand that the Coral is heading into dry dock following a couple Panama Canal crossings in the early fall, and that the Bayou is being replaced by an English Pub. This seems like a good move, as we rarely saw more than one table with people eating at the Bayou.
Entertainment was good. The two productions put on by the "Coral Dancers" were both excellent, and I give them huge props for being able to dance during very rough seas one night. A comedian was excellent, while the ventriloquist was sophmoric. We missed Adrian Zmed. All that said, I was disappointed by the scheduling of events. Several shows often conflicted, while others were repeated on later nights, but with no alternative shows, meaning that some nights were too busy while others were left empty. With no advance schedule, there was no way to know if a show scheduled for that night might be repeated later in the week. There was also a entertainer from Skagway who played music and spoke in the Wheelhouse Lounge, but it was scheduled during the early seating, so we were only able to hear the last 10 minutes or so of his very entertaining set.
We attended on talk by the accompanying naturalist, on "Alaska A-Z." About 20 minutes was lost because no one could figure out how to project from a laptop in the Princess Lounge, but it was good. Many had to leave early (around "p" for us) as it was formal night, and we had to be read for 5:30 seating. Also attended the "Shopping and Port" lecture, which was a huge waste of time. We went looking for the port info, but instead found ourselves at what amounted to a taping of QVC. I know many people go cruising to shop, but this was a too over the top. I suggest they remove the "port info" from the lecture description.
On the service front one word: inconsistent. Some folks really stood out, while others were inefficient and even rude. Here, too, HAL is far, FAR superior. Little touches were missing, too. Some of these are very nit-picky, but they're noticed. No towel animals at night. No real flowers anywhere on the ship. No regular announcements from the captain or cruise director. No daily news summary delivered with the daily "Princess Patter." On that note, the Patter was not very well laid out, and devoted WAY too much space to sales advertisements. Other things were missed, too. The enclosed pool the Lotus was drained one day (with no notice as to when and if it would reopen), and the following day it was filled but it and the two adjacent hot tubs were covered by safety net. We asked at the Front Desk when and if it would open. The clerk seemed annoyed I asked, but did call someone to ask they didn't know either. The clerk told us he'd call and let us know he never called. On a bigger scale, the thermostat in our cabin did not work. By the third night, as we went north, it was down to 65 degrees in the cabin (according to a travel clock). As we left the ship in the morning around 0700, I called the Front Desk and asked that it be checked out. We returned at noon and nothing had been done, so I called again. By supper time, nothing had been done, so we stopped by the Front Desk on the way to dinner. They said it would be done immediately. We returned to our cabin around 0900pm and still no heat, and the temp was down to 62. I returned to the Front Desk and spoke with the same lady. This time, someone from Maintenance did arrive and was able to repair the HVAC in about 10 minutes, and for the first time during the cruise, we did not sleep in sweatshirts and socks.
I give Princess credit for the high number of public laundries they have on the Coral. This was very helpful, especially given that most cruise guests were continuing on land portions, and needed to do some laundry. Detergent and each load were only $1.00 the only bargain on board, and I applaud Princess for not charging more.
While the tenor of this review may seem on the negative side, I have to call out two things which made this cruise stand out for us on the positive side. 1) The children's program, and 2) ALASKA! We could not have been happier with the kid's program; our daughter was in Shockwaves. We were told there were a total of 60 kids on this sailing, with 12 in our daughter's age group. That said, seeing children was a rarity and Shockwaves usually had 5-8 kids there at any time. Cion and Ana were fantastic, and the activities were well scheduled and executed. The kids area is very large and I cannot say enough nice things about the program.
Alaska! If we had gone on Princess for the cruise experience alone, then I would have been disappointed, but the beauty of Alaska more than compensated. I'll write more on the Boards, but summaries appear below.
Glacier Bay very poor weather, but spectacular. The ranger narrative was excellent, if not hard to hear at times. Our "Patter" said we'd be entering the Park around 0600am, so ourselves and many others we met got up early to watch. That said, we didn't arrive at a glacier until several hours later.
College Fjord a big highlight for us. Admittedly the weather was great, but I think we would still rate this higher than Glacier. The captain got us very close to two glaciers, and to watch the icebergs calve was spectacular. Just to HEAR the roar of the cracking is something I will not forget. The problem with College, however, is that during a northbound cruise, you don't arrive at the first glacier until around 5:30, right when many are sitting down for supper. This meant the dining room was pretty empty (and it's the last night), and those of us who chose to attend supper, missed a lot of viewing time. In addition, this is the night of the "Baked Alaska Parade," which was missed by many, and those of us who waited (a long time) for the parade to come upstairs from the Bourdeaux and enter the Provence, lost another half hour of viewing time.
Disembarkation at Whittier KUDOS to Princess. With people heading to all kinds of places, and departing by train, boat, and bus, they were remarkably efficient. Nothing but good things to report on this. Read Less