We are a couple in our 60’s who decided to try our first cruisetour because we found a good deal. It was Princess’ “On Your Own CBX Tour” southbound (Fairbanks 2 nights and Denali 1 night). After our land tour, the tour group boarded the Golden Princess for a Whittier to Vancouver cruise. We’ve been on Alaska cruises before, so we decided not to sign up for shore excursions for this cruise.
We arrived in Fairbanks two days before the June 5th Princess cruisetour to relax and explore the town independently using a rental car. My dear Capt. Casual booked us at the Best Western Plus Pioneer Park Inn, a good choice for its quiet location and the typical Best Western breakfast buffet that’s included in the room rate. This hotel’s check-in time is 3:00pm, which is an hour earlier than some other hotels.
Ice Museum in downtown Fairbanks: This starts at the top of the hour - we watched a film, then donned warm jackets that were provided and went into the ice sculpture area and looked around and took selfies (you get 20 minutes in this area). The man (Andy) took some photos for us, too. There is even a sculpted ice slide you can ride. Afterwards, Andy did an ice sculpting demonstration.
University of Alaska’s Museum of the North: This was OK. Since we arrived late in the afternoon, we missed the films; but at least parking was free by that time.
We drove out to see the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline. There is a viewpoint not too far from Fairbanks. Afterwards we drove to the town of North Pole (about 13 miles from Fairbanks). Cards and letters mailed from there get the famous “North Pole” postmark. While we were in North Pole, we found the Antler Academy of Flying & Reindeer Games. We learned about the reindeer and fed them — they’re not shy about coming up to you when you have food!
Riverboat Discovery sternwheeler: Their brochure says “Voted the Best Boat Tour in North America.” I was skeptical at first, but now they can count on my vote, too. This is an interesting, informative and professionally run excursion. Capt. Casual would want me to also mention the free coffee and donuts aboard the boat, and later, salmon spread on crackers. Tip: try to sit on the left side of the boat.
Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center: It’s well set up, and is supposed to be your first stop in Fairbanks - exhibits, lots of tourist information, gift shop, cultural gift shop featuring handmade items, cultural show, etc. We attended the Cultural Connections Show ($10) featuring Native teens who perform cultural dances they’ve learned from their elders, and who talk about their traditional foods and culture. The young people do a Q&A session at the end of the show. It was nice to see/hear how much of their culture the elders are imparting to the next generation.
On the day our Princess arrangements were to begin, we returned the rental car to the airport and headed to baggage claim to find the Princess representative. Their airport shuttle toted us and our luggage to our assigned hotel, Bear Lodge. FYI, the hotel was not assigned until about a month before the trip. Our room was not ready yet (it was only 1:45pm and check-in time is not until 4:00pm), so we waited in the lobby. Some others were able to get their rooms earlier. It would’ve been useful to receive Bear Lodge’s information about the shuttle, property and map during check-in, or even better, during the hours we were waiting for a room. It was hard to appreciate finding it slipped under our door later that evening! By then, it was pouring rain....
Sunrise/sunset/weather: In early June, sunset in Fairbanks isn’t until after midnight. Sunrise was at about 3:30am. Thank goodness for good blackout curtains! Fairbanks temperatures went up to about 76F. Air conditioning at Bear Lodge was rather noisy. Best to pack for dressing in layers.
Luggage handling: I have to commend Princess on their luggage handling. They seem to have it down to a science. We were given bright green “join me tonight” tags for bags to be sent ahead to our hotel in Denali, and bright pink “join me onboard” tags for luggage we could send ahead to join us on the ship.
Onward to Denali: A shuttle bus took us to the station for our train trip to Denali National Park. We boarded a dome-windowed train car. It was GoldStar Service class, which included lunch. Nice scenery along the way.
Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge: Shortly before we exited the highway to go to the hotel, there was a moose in the lake. You might want to keep an eye out for this lake on the left side, in case he hangs out there often.
Tundra Wilderness Tour: Tip - Do what you can to avoid the infamous fold-your-legs-into-your-lap wheelwell seats! Not sure what happened, but even though I knew to avoid that row.... oh, nevermind, let’s not talk about it..... The bus does not have a restroom, so they take rest breaks about every 90 minutes. We saw caribou, a grizzly sow and its cub. Our driver Bruce pointed out a moose in the distance. It was hard for me to tell, though— but Bruce looked pretty honest, so I took his word for it. He also said it was rare for Denali that we saw a jaeger bird. Unfortunately, Mt. McKinley was hidden. The tour lasted from 2:00 to about 9:00pm.
Saturday, June 8 - motorcoach drive to Whittier: We saw some wildlife (even a recognizable moose!) along the way. The itinerary had stated the lunch stop would be in Anchorage, but our bus and several others stopped in the little town of Talkeetna. We opted for a quick cheeseburger from Shirley’s Burger Barn, then a little shopping. Note: a shop two doors down from the Princess office had a sign in the window advertising a clean restroom. They do take optional donations towards maintaining restroom supplies. It’s worth it. Capt. Casual did not recommend the restroom on our bus.
There is a narrow tunnel through the mountain on the road leading to the Whittier pier. They alternate letting traffic through the tunnel in one direction, and then the other. At about 6:00pm, we arrived at the ship.
Embarkation: Check-in was the fastest and smoothest ever! I think we had a short line because we’d come from the landtour bus. They scanned our passports and handed us our keycards. The security line was long, but painless. Our ID photos were taken by the security officer who scanned our keycards as we boarded.
Cabin location: We’d somewhat reluctantly booked a Balcony cabin next to the Aft elevators. (Remember, we got a good price.) We were pleasantly surprised and relieved that we did not have noise problems due to the elevators. We would consider booking this type of location again. I knew ahead of time from CruiseCritic that our balcony on Dolphin deck 9 was not covered. It is visible to balconies above.
Horizon Court (buffet) seating tip: Sometimes food service is only open on one side of the ship. If you’re having trouble finding a table, you can still sit on the opposite (closed) side.
The waiters were very helpful.
International Court - open 24/7: Simple (free) food like sandwiches, pastries, desserts. I enjoyed the BBQ sandwich - they will warm it in a press, if you’d like. There is a charge for coffee drinks at Int’l Cafe.
Gold Latitudes meeting: No refreshments, but the ship’s singers performed a couple of songs, sounded great. At the end of the program, we were given a voucher for a complimentary beverage (up to $12 USD).
Maintenance: Much attention was given to explaining the toilet system and how your toilet affects a WHOLE ZONE. “Only paper, poop, and pee.” Thankfully, we didn’t see the water leakage problems noted in reviews earlier this year - except a fan in the hallway where we embarked.
Comedian Carl Banks had everyone laughing all throughout his show.
Ventriloquist Dan Horn was entertaining.
Movies on TV: I wish they would show a few additional movies, not just repeating the same ones.
Disembarkation: We used the ship’s Direct-to-Bus transfer to Vancouver airport. It was our first time using this service. It worked out well, and our luggage was waiting for us at the airport, to be checked in. I would consider using this disembarkation again.
IMHO, it’s better to do the land tour BEFORE the cruise rather than afterwards. I’m so glad we did, as I got sick at the end of the cruise.
This cabin is just off the Aft elevators. We were afraid there might be noise problems due to people coming and going, but it was fine. And very convenient! The bathtub had a stain in the corner. The comforter had small bloodstains (under the sheet). The balcony is not covered, so it is visible to decks above and gets wet when it rains.