Alaska Connoisseur voyage was a treat!: Ocean Princess Cruise Review by QuilterGirl

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Alaska Connoisseur voyage was a treat!

Sail Date: July 2008
Destination: Alaska
Embarkation: Vancouver
This was the third cruise to Alaska, and our seventh cruise overall, for my husband and myself, both in our mid-50s. The itinerary - including the smaller- and less-visited ports of Valdez, Seward, Kodiak, and Sitka - was a major selling point in our selecting this particular cruise.

TRAVEL FROM SEATTLE TO VANCOUVER BC: We live in Seattle, but the cruise started and ended in Vancouver BC, which is about a two-hour drive from our house. There were a number of ways we could chose to get to Vancouver - via air, train, scheduled bus, drive up and park for two weeks, etc. We signed up in advance for the Princess bus service which begins at Sea-Tac Airport and ends right at the cruise ship terminal in Vancouver. This for us is a good combination of price, ease, and guarantee that the ship won't leave without us! Since the Princess bus is taking all its passengers from a U.S. airport directly to a ship whose first stop is a U.S. city, it is considered "sealed" and the fact that the More bus is entering Canada is a mere formality (USUALLY!). We stopped at Immigration/Customs for about 5 minutes total, only showing our passports as the agent did a quick walk down the bus aisle. We have previously taken the QuickShuttle (scheduled) bus in a similar situation, and because the passengers on that bus come from a variety of backgrounds and origins, the border crossing is much more tedious and time-consuming.

Our bus had only 14 passengers, and stopped at a rest area just outside the border to allow for time to fill out Immigration/Customs card information. It is good to bring along some snacks or a light lunch to eat on this bus service. Our luggage was taken from us at Sea-Tac, and we next saw it in our cabin on board.

EMBARKATION: Our bus arrived at the cruise ship terminal around 2:30 PM, and there were absolutely no lines for check-in and boarding by then. We waltzed through the formalities, were on the ship in record time, and found our cabin (mini-suite 8025) quickly. If we had needed assistance, there were helpful personnel available onboard to direct us. The ship left right at the scheduled departure time of 4 PM, and our luggage was delivered just before the first dinner seating of 5:45.

SHIP INFO: The Tahitian Princess is a beautiful ship, and was in excellent repair. It looks more like a stretch version of an English country home, than the typical pastel/nautical design usually seen on cruise ships. Furnishings and many walls are dark wood, as are the numerous "china cabinets" found in lounges, the Library, etc. Artwork tends to botanical watercolors, landscapes, and sketches of architectural plans. Draperies are mostly a cheery yellow, with deep pleats and ornate tiebacks. Carpets all coordinate and provide a unified classic look. The main show theater, the Cabaret Lounge, has club chairs where in most ships you would find individual theater seats or benches. Being such a small ship, it is easy to memorize the layout and to find what you need.

We always used the stairs, but elevator users could also use this tip to help remember which way to turn to get to your room: there are two stairways, near the front and near the back of the ship. The fRont set has Red carpet. The Back stairs have Blue carpet.

STATEROOM: Our mini-suite was very roomy and we loved the full-width, floor-to-ceiling windows/door to the balcony (which had two plastic chairs, two reclining plastic lounger chairs, and a metal table). The room had plenty of storage: The first closet has 4 feet of rod which came with about 30 wooden hangers in a good assortment of types. The second closet, 2 feet wide, has four drawers and the safe and another closet rod (can't hang long things here - we hung our laundry bag). Then there is the desk, which has one cupboard with four drawers, one cupboard with shelves, and a center "desk drawer." There were two polarized-plug outlets at the desk. (Our room steward would not allow us to leave a plug-in room freshener plugged in when we were not in the room - said it presented a fire hazard?? We've never encountered that before.) The two nightstands each had a cupboard with two shelves. A couch with throw pillows, two chairs, and a table completed the main area. There is one TV, a refrigerator, and a cupboard under the fridge with two shelves. There are three good-sized hooks, perfect for coats and hats or backpacks. One of our huge suitcases was able to fit under the bed; the other was too thick and had to live in the closet.

The bathroom has four small hooks on the back of the door (good for robes, and where we hung our hand towel, since there was no rod for it). The bathtub has - oh joy of joys! - a shower head which can be adjusted for height, and can be hand-held for shampooing etc. The water pressure was not great. The shower curtain dragged in the tub, but wasn't long enough to stretch the length of the tub - very odd. Storage in the bathroom was the best I've seen - three cupboards under the sink/counter, and two small ones flanking the mirror (with three shelves each). The hair dryer worked very well, and has a non-polarized outlet for shavers or non-polarized nightlights.

Unfortunately, we were able to smell our neighbors' cigarette smoke through the room walls and ventilation system, and were really sorry to also smell another guest's cigar smoke while on the balcony. That, and the very dusty couch and throw cushions, are about the only complaints I have about the ship.

DINING: We're not picky eaters. We loved it all. Breakfast in the buffet was typical(ly wonderful) - tons of choices - and a fine opportunity to grab a roll and some cheese (or a box of dry cereal, or a piece of fruit) for a snack to eat while on an excursion later that day. Juice choices of apple and orange were available for free only at breakfast. Cleverly, there is a bar inside the buffet area, so it is easy to get a special coffee or a soda to have with your meal. (Other ships I've been on, you had to go outside, away from the seating area) to find a bar.) We often took our meals outside - just out back of the buffet are covered and uncovered areas (and a beverage station), and there is the covered area near the "BBQ" (hamburger grill) as well.

Lunches on sea days often featured a special cuisine and had blowout desserts as well. Each day there seemed to be one East Indian dish - nummy! There was thin-crust pizza available in several varieties each day. If your excursion gets you back to the ship in late afternoon, there is a "panini-to-order" station and green salad available. Of course, (free) ice cream, in at least four flavors, was served each day from 3:30-4:30 (the same time as Afternoon Tea), with six or so toppings available to use as desired. This ice cream was to be found at the carving-station area in the buffet line, and was never mentioned in the Patter.

As the Tahitian Princess has no "Anytime Dining" situation (all passengers select first or second seating in the main dining room), I have no review of the buffet for dinner except that the buffet dining tables are set with cloth placemats and silverware. We had first seating (5:45) and a group of amiable passengers at our table for eight in the Club dining room. Lobster was available two nights. It seemed that most diners at our table found something to suit their tastes each night. There was the traditional flaming Baked Alaska parade near the end of the cruise, too! We did go to Sabatini's one night and it was delicious and extremely filling; reports are that it was quite empty for the duration of the cruise. (On this small ship, the steakhouse is open for two nights, then Sabatini's is open for two nights, etc.) BTW, there were three formal nights; there were not all that many tuxes or glam outfits.

One thing to not miss is the Balcony Breakfast on the Scenic Glacier Cruising day. Ours was $28 (for two persons), delivered to our room, beautifully presented, and way more than we could eat. True, we didn't arrive at the glacier area until lunch time or so, and it was too cold out to eat it on the balcony anyway, but it was a treat that we thought was a much better deal than dinner in the specialty restaurants.

ACTIVITIES/ENTERTAINMENT: There seemed to be more games on this ship than any I'd been on before. Numerous trivia games each day, contemporary games such as Pictionary and Scattergories, bridge, board games, ping-pong, shuffleboard....even on port days. There were Jazz and Tap lessons from the production dance cast as well as the more typical ballroom dancing lessons. Craft classes. Service club attendance opportunities. Port lectures. Naturalist presentations. Shopping talks. Karaoke and evening sock hops and hoedowns. For such a small ship, there were lots of ways to meet and mingle.

There is a small casino, with maybe 25 slot machines (three penny ones, four nickel ones) and several gaming tables. The Casino was smoke-free only on formal nights. There is a wonderful Library, larger and better-appointed than most. There are computer classes (a few were free, but mostly not), and a couple chances to decorate a ceramic piece (fee). There is a gym with a small amount of adequate equipment, and a floor ex. area, open until 10 each night. They also held classes. There is a spa but I have no report on it, as I didn't use it. There is a swimming pool which I saw used by only one child, only one time, in 14 days. The hot tubs also did not receive much use. Probably the weather, as well as the older crowd, had something to do with this. There were few children/teens on this cruise.

We very much enjoyed the four musical productions. On this cruise, each is presented only one night. There is one female and one male vocalist, and fewer dancers than is usually seen, too. Other nights had a magician/comedian, a vocalist, a juggler, a musician/comedian, and combinations of the above. Most were very enjoyable. The performance area in the Cabaret Lounge allows the cast to come right up to the guests, making for a very intimate performance.

We always look forward to the behind-the-scenes tours, and we were not disappointed on this trip. The Backstage Tour was the best we'd seen; every vocalist and dancer was present and happy to answer questions. Some of the costumes were brought out so we could see for ourselves how heavy the Swarovski crystals made them (for instance). And of course we toured backstage after the Q & A session. As for the Cooking/Kitchen Tour - it was great! Never before have we seen audience involvement like was done on this tour. Two couples were selected from the audience, and the husbands cooked a dish for the wives (with help, of course!). Best of all: being that the cooking demonstration was held in the Cabaret Lounge right at the same level as the passengers (not on a stage), it was easy for samples to be passed out to the guests in the front several rows . . . a word to the wise!! Then we toured the main kitchen, which includes an escalator as well as a huge dumbwaiter.

If onboard shopping is seen as an activity or entertainment . . . well, there is not all that much of it on this ship. Myself, I mourn the low-cost glitzy things that no longer seem to have a place in the Princess ships' stores - beaded evening bags and 'Pashmina' scarves for $10, for instance. They were a great way for "Jill Average" to join the ranks of the well-dressed for just a small fee. There was a sale of some leftover stuff in the dining room, but the merchandise was very picked-over. And who on this cruise would buy a T-shirt from the TP's days of cruising in the South Seas? (And while we're on the subject of souvenir T-shirts . . . Princess doesn't seem to get it.)

SERVICES: • Laundry: Laundry service is available. On two of the sea days, a laundry special was available...for $20, they would wash all you could stuff in a bag. The bag is the usual paper laundry bag, 20" tall, about 16" wide, and 1.75" deep at the top (a very flat bag). We instead used the self-service laundry room, of which there is only one on this small ship. It's on the seventh floor on the port side towards the back, and has four washers and four dryers. Each costs $1 in quarters. There is no change machine in the laundry room. There is free liquid laundry soap, a low-foaming variety, in a dispenser mounted above each washer - just push the button to dispense. Washers take a little under 30 minutes to run. Dryers have several setting choices, and run about 45 minutes per cycle. One cycle was enough for even jeans to dry, if you used the hottest setting. BYO fabric softener sheets from home! There are two ironing boards and irons, both in good condition. There are no chairs, however (and no room for them)....I ended up sitting on the floor under an ironing board; others stood or went back to their room. The guests in the laundry room were easy-going and helpful in keeping straight whose turn was next, and whose wash went where.

• Internet: There is an internet cafe with eight computers, open 24/7 but staffed just a few hours each day. You can download memory cards (containing photos), but not USB flash drives, on these. You can also use your own laptop wirelessly in this room. (The Library also has wireless access.) There are several internet packages available, and towards the end of the cruise you could purchase smaller increments of minutes for less. Passengers with Platinum or above status (6+ cruises on Princess) are given 100 minutes of free internet use on this trip. Previously, these minutes could not be used wirelessly, but just several weeks ago this changed (at least on the Tahitian Princess). We have a Verizon cellular modem for our laptop which we used in our cabin when in port in Alaska, and it was always able to find a cell tower and worked flawlessly. (BTW, cell phones work very well on this cruise when you are near a port, but forget it the rest of the time!) Note that in Victoria, for whatever reason, the ship's internet does not work - so don't save up your internet-package minutes until the last night!

• Purser's Office: The personnel at the Purser's Desk were extraordinarily helpful whenever we had occasion to visit....they were the best I've ever encountered. Also, there was rarely a line for their services. Perhaps this is a hallmark of a well-run ship?

SHORE EXCURSIONS: We booked Princess excursions, in advance through their website, in all ports but Skagway. Folks had some complaints about the Tahitian Princess' Shore Excursions office. Some scenic flight trips were cancelled, but folks often weren't told in advance that this had happened. They weren't offered the opportunity to sign up for something else....very frustrating for those whose "big excursion" evaporated before their eyes, leaving them to scurry among the operators on shore to patch something together.

• Ketchikan: We had booked a snorkeling trip, but were called the day before and told it was cancelled (no reason given) so we instead went on the Lighthouse, Totems, and Eagles boat trip. Numerous eagles and their nests were seen; a pleasant trip with an interesting and informative narration. Plus, they have a cracker spread which won rave reviews!

• Glacier Bay: Not a port city, but a wonderful series of views. The ship turns around 1.5 times in front of several glacial areas so all can get a great view. Naturalist-rangers give talks and narrate what you see. The overcast skies made for better blues in the glaciers!

• Skagway: As a train buff, my husband wanted to ride the White Pass & Yukon train all the way to the end, from Skagway to Carcross. This excursion is available to guests on other Princess ships, but not to those on the Tahitian Princess. So we booked it ourselves, as did another family on our cruise. The meal at Lake Bennett was fine, and strolling on the Chilkoot Trail, which a relative had trod during the Gold Rush, was memorable. A minibus from Chilkoot Charters picked us up in Carcross and took us back to Skagway. Larry, the driver, had great stories to tell, and didn't hesitate to stop whenever a scenic attraction appeared - including making a quick U-turn when he spotted a bear feeding at the side of the road!

• Valdez: We took the Worthington Glacier Hike. You are first taken to the nearby Pangaea Adventures shop and fitted with crampons, then taken by van to the glacier, about a 40-minute drive. There, you were given a lesson on how to use your cramponed feet to climb the glacier, and everyone set off at their own pace, with four guides for our group of 22. I had never used crampons before, and found them easy to get the hang of. The blue of the crevasses was gorgeous! Unfortunately, one woman in our party slipped on her way back down and fell head-first into a crevasse. A nearby guide who was very quick to react threw himself in her path and slowed her fall, causing the toes of her crampons to catch the ice right at the edge of the crevasse and thereby preventing her from falling entirely into the crevasse. Because she hit her head in the crevasse, it was decided to call for medics from Valdez. So the rest of us entertained ourselves for about 45 minutes while the guides scrambled up and down the glacier, running to a place with phone service so they could call for help, and tending to the victim. (Eventually the woman had to be air-lifted from Valdez to Anchorage, and was unable to continue her cruise.) So although we got more drama than than we bargained for, we were very impressed by the knowledge and professionalism exhibited by the guides. After getting back to Valdez (which was unfortunately clouded over, so we never did see its Swiss-Alps-like views), we walked to the grocery store - a local version of Safeway named Eagle - and back to the ship.

• Seward: Oddly, this port has a TSA-like screening to get back onto the ship, so be sure to bring government-issued photo ID if going ashore (your cruise card is not enough). We went on the Best of Seward tour, which included a narrated bus ride around town, then a trail hike to view Exit Glacier. (The hike was too much for some folks.) There was also time to visit the ranger station/gift shop in Kenai Fjords National Park. The bus drivers were full of historical and other information. Downtown Seward is a good walk from the ship. It is a unique town; after our tour, we walked downtown and back for exercise and to get a feel for the place. Most people who wanted to go downtown took the $6 shuttle offered by Princess. The cruise ship parked next to a coal belt; this loaded coal from a depot across the street to a waiting ship. The cruise ship is also near a terminus of the Alaska Railroad, so we "did" that photo op.

• Kodiak: It was a sunny day - the first in some time - when we were in Kodiak, and the natives were effervescent in their enthusiasm for it and for us. We took the Best of Kodiak tour, and had a great time seeing the sites (via school bus) as narrated by a knowledgeable local. The tour included stops at a park with a military history (Fort Abercrombie), a museum featuring Russian heritage items, another museum focusing on native Alaskan history, the Alaska Fisheries Resource Center, and finally a performance by the students and staff of St. Innocent's Academy. (This latter was way more interesting than one might imagine!)

• Juneau: It was a rainy day in Juneau, but once we saw whales leaping into the air just feet away from our Whale Watching and Wildlife Quest boat, we didn't care! Our tour included a bus ride to the far edge of town, where we boarded a boat that was purpose-built for this outing. There is a guarantee that you will see whales or (most of) your money back - and they haven't had to give a refund in at least 12 years. It was the best show you could imagine, narrated by a naturalist who was happy to answer questions. We saw nearly every whale behavior, including "bubble net feeding." Very worthwhile, and the highlight of our trip.

• Sitka: This was a tender port with two docking areas. Our Sitka Culture and Russian Heritage tour bus met us and drove us barely any distance to the Russian Orthodox cathedral in the center of town, where we had a short tour. Then we reboarded and toured around the town, the driver/guide obligingly stopping so folks could take a photo of an eagle that was nearby and easy to see (often they are too far away for those with fading eyesight to view clearly.) This tour also included a show with a dancing troupe, the New Archangel dancers, who demonstrated some traditional Russian dances. A final stop was a natural history museum, created from a private collector's pieces. Having been given a map of the town, we walked some distance to a McDonald's with the most picturesque view you could hope to see from a Mickey D's.

• Victoria: We arrived in Victoria on the afternoon of a gloriously sunny day. An interesting finding is that while the ship is tied up in Victoria for about nine hours, it takes on many of the provisions it will need for its next Alaska cruise (which begins the afternoon of the next day from Vancouver). We took the Victoria Highlights/Mt. Tolmie tour. Craigdarroch Castle is mostly self-guided, and very interesting and had nice views of the town. We were able to wander around, or sit and enjoy the view, at Mt. Tolmie. There was narration as we drove around town, and air conditioning! For those who didn't take a tour but wanted to go to "downtown Victoria," there are shuttles at $6 per person available at the dock.

CHILDREN'S CLUBS: There were very few children on this cruise, but we noticed a clutch of pre-teens who were tended by a crewmember.

DISEMBARKATION: Very well done from our point of view. It was the first time ever that we received the correct luggage tags on the first try. When the time associated with our tag color came around, we went to the Cabaret Lounge to wait a short time for our color to be called. (No all-ship PA announcements! No snaking lines in overcrowded hallways!!) Since we were booked on a Princess-run bus back over the border, our color was an early one. There was a minimum of pushing and shoving while exiting, a very nice change from usual. The bus was right at the base of the exit from Customs and Immigration (a walk-though procedure) and our luggage was taken directly from the ship to the bus without our having to intervene. Again the bus was 'sealed' and we sailed through the border in record time on our way back to Sea-Tac Airport in Seattle.

SUMMARY: We greatly enjoyed this cruise, including the captain's extensive presence among the passengers. He often referred to the ship as "this beautiful white lady" and you knew he meant it from his heart. We felt that the Shore Excursions office could have done a more timely and/or informative job. One thing we like about Princess is that the tips are included in your tab automatically. This time, we found that those in mini-suites and above were automatically charged more for tips than those who had lesser rooms. (Also, we never saw any notice in the daily Princess Patter suggesting that the tip amount could be adjusted at the Purser's Office.) But these are tiny complaints in a vast field of satisfactory memories of this two-week cruise! Less

Published 08/26/08
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