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On May 17, 2010 we took the Alaska cruise/tour aboard the Island Princess. It was superior. Because this is a long review and has a number of excursion suggestions, here's a brief review. The ship was clean with an efficient crew. Food was excellent, with more sweetness in the desserts than non-American chefs usually provide (which pleased us). Schedule was awkward in Ketchikan, because we departed in early afternoon. Princess lodges at Denali and McKinley were good, with large rooms. If you take the Denali land excursion, try to schedule extra days in the north and at Anchorage. Don't scrimp on excursions after spending so much on airfare and cabin to see this beautiful wilderness. You can save on the cost of excursions by buying the Great Alaska TourSaver coupon book for $100 via website. Into Vancouver We flew in from San Francisco on departure day, arriving in Vancouver at 1:30 p.m., where getting through customs at the airport was fast and easy. Princess representatives were right there to assist with tagging our luggage and transferring it to the ship. After a short wait in line for our bus we were given a narrated tour of Vancouver on the way to the port. At 2:30 p.m. when we arrived at the ship, the line to board was not that long and soon we were in our spacious mini-suite. Our luggage arrived at our cabin before 6:00 p.m. One thing we have strong opinions on is the use of the hand sanitizers. While they are provided on the ship, I don't believe Princess places enough emphasis on preventing the spread of the dreaded norovirus. Sanitizing should be required when boarding and upon entering dining rooms. Other cruise lines have crew members handing wipes and distributing the lotion. I have never heard anyone complain or refuse. Noro and other communicable diseases can ruin a cruise for hundreds, as happened only days later on another Princess in Alaskan waters. Perhaps sanitary activism will have been felt by the time you board. Regardless, pack a few Clorox Wipes in a Baggie and polish the hardware in your cabin when you arrive. Although the staff is careful, slipups happen. Pick up a couple of pocket-size Purell or other hand sanitizers, too. The only other area for pre-departure improvement would be crowd control. It could also be better in ports of call. Once, for example, lines snaked more than 1 ½ shiplengths along the docks waiting to board. In another port, we asked crewmen on which deck to debark, and were misdirected. In another, passengers departed hundreds of feet farther down the dock than crewmembers, and we had to cross the brow to a mobile two-deck-high stairway while the crew strolled ashore from a lower deck and nearer town. Boarding in Alaska is complicated by enormous tides, rising and dropping 17 feet in 6 hours in Ketchikan and elsewhere. They know how to properly moor the ship; they should know how to treat the passengers. Cabin I am glad we elected to upgrade to the mini-suite, which was about the size of a standard Disney cabin with veranda. The dEcor is generic but easy on the eyes. Not much color and no real artwork or decorations/style. (I won't count the faded French poster for the Cote d'Or, on which d'Or had faded away, leaving just pink and blue.) The cabin had plenty of room for our belongings and us. There was a substantial shelved cabinet beside the doorless, bed-length closet. Suitcases stored easily under the bed. A sofa bed, small chair, and desk chair provided plenty of seating, with a rigid glass-topped coffee table and desk with drawers providing work/eat space. The desk, on one wall, was opposite a cabinet with two TVs (one facing the bed, the other towards the sofa), shelf space and a shorty fridge. The bathroom, separated from the bed area by the closet, included a tub/shower combination. The temperature and water pressure were the best we have ever experienced on a cruise. Shampoo, conditioner, soap, bath gel and lotion where provided. Bring anything else you need, including shower caps. A small built-in hair dryer was on the wall between the suite's sofa and desk. Our veranda had four comfortable chairs and a table. While not as large as some it was plenty big. The verandas on the 10th and 11th decks above us were stepped back (were those passengers in smaller cabins?). If you are uncomfortable with people looking down at you, you might want to get a cabin on deck 10 or 11. On the other hand, Island Princess has no inside cabins on Deck 9, so passageways are half as crowded. There are few issues that could be improved. However, if you are looking for areas, one would be the bathrobes provided in the mini-suites. They did not provide one until the third day and then it would be better to not provide them than to deliver the rags they have become. Our room steward told us he chose the best he could find: humiliatingly short on the legs and a good six inches longer on one side then the other, thin enough to be obscene, and with sleeves as tight as Schwarzenegger's T-shirt. When we mentioned it to the front desk they were replaced with ones with fuller sleeves but no better in the other areas. Robes take up a lot of room in suitcases so when told they would be provided, we didn't bring one from home - mistake. As on any cruise, the steward works hard to meet your requests and routine needs. Let them know what they are when you board. Be sure to tip him or her, because base pay is minimal. Cruise Critic Meet & Greet Stacy Anderson in Princess Corporate arranged a meet and greet for the Eagles. The meeting was set for after the lifeboat drill and before the first dinner seating. The officers on the Island Princess were wonderful, and many of them came to the get-together. However, very few of the Cruise Critic members made it. I think they were so busy with all the other activities offered on the ship. I would like to thank Paolo Rellini, First Purser-Administration BoukjeMarijke Bijlsma, Staff 1st Purser-Food & Beverages Ana Simoes, Captain Circle Hostess Emilio Mazzi, Hotel General Manager Frank Castiglione, Cruise Director Kez, Assistant Cruise Director. They were wonderfully welcoming and spent a lot of time with us answering questions and offering their assistance should we need anything while on the cruise. Cellular phone aboard ship Princess' web site mentions in some obscure place, and the promotional video on cabin TVs skips, that although cell phones work at sea, they are run off Princess' antennas and at Princess' fees, which are in addition to your contracted roaming per-minute rate. They're sky-high, and added to your cabin charges. If you don't absolutely have to make a lengthy call immediately, wait until the ship docks and you get a local signal. To avoid being pounded by these rates, you can shut off your phone at sea to avoid incoming calls. Muster Exercise The Bob half of Valbob takes this seriously - not surprising, since he'd twice loaded drowning victims into Stokes litters and carried them ashore while in the Coast Guard. (He also reads the airplane emergency guide while waiting for the flight attendant to start her spiel.) Bob even admonishes members of the crew who are not on top of their game. So pay attention, read the card on the back of the cabin door, and carry your orange vest to the boat station thinking about where you'd turn if this stairway or that door were blocked. Why don't we put on the vests first? Imagine how difficult moving through the companionways and stairwells would be if all the chubby hubbies were suddenly twice as thick. Oh, stop snickering. Happily, we Island Princess cruisers muster for boat stations inside, instead of on the weather decks. Food We elected the anytime dining. This allowed us to eat when we wanted with no stress to meet a schedule. We could also choose to eat with a group of other cruisers or just with each other. We never had more than a 10-minute wait for a table. This worked for us. At last, American pastry chefs! Well, not exactly; we like our sweets to taste sweet, and it seems the European dessert style uses less sugar and maybe less salt. Salt emphasizes many flavors, sugar included - it even help chocolate and fruit fillings. We found the desserts more flavorful than on many other ships. There are two specialty restaurants on board but unlike other cruise lines you never feel pressured to go. In some ways that is too bad because the Bayou Cafe should not be missed. Bayou Cafe This premium dinner option serves surf and turf, or get turfed on one of four or five cuts of steak alone. They are large, marbled and aged. The New Orleans theme doesn't mean you'll be seared by pepper, but it's an option. Delicious choices and, of course, lots of food. When we dined a jazz band and vocalist where a pleasant addition to the experience. At Sea Days Only two nights are in the seaway, with most cruising taking us through the channels of the inland waterways east of Canada's Vancouver Island and the Alaskan islands named for queens and princes. Serious motion is rare. Days at sea are days for glacier viewing and extra activities. Entertainment/On-board Activities Shows, except for the first evening, play for two nights, allowing you to watch a main show one night and a "cabaret" offering at the same hour the next - and not miss any. Although entertaining, none were "can't be missed" events. Motor City Production Show We enjoyed "Motor City," a Motown revue that the Cruise Director's staff announced was brand new. Our friends - who have cruised more often on Princess than we - said it was suspiciously familiar. You know the music, you sang along in your daddy's Caprice. All that's missing is the Fifth Dimension. Sorry, they recorded on Arista. Lots of costume and set changes, lots of applause for the performers. Shopping class - If you haven't seen the CNBC special on cruise-ship vacations, look for it; the news channel schedules it several times a year in the evenings or on weekends. You'll learn that your 1,800-passenger ship cannot pay its way on fares alone. Cruise lines depend on earning a percentage of every drink or excursion they sell you, and every wristwatch or tanzanite ring you bring aboard from the recommended jewelers ashore. Be cynical if you wish, or accept that much of the fun of cruising is choosing a bauble to wear the next time you're out with friends - or a beverage by the pool or at the show. And, if you don't take an excursion in each port, you just won't find the wonder of Alaska and the warmth of Alaskans. That doesn't mean you have to endure the brazen sales pitches of the shopping show. They'll entice you with promises of free jewelry, but you'll find you'll have to get some card stamped in a dozen shops to earn one. (Our friend was mad at herself for sitting through the talk when her promised reward turned out to be a dime-store reject.) Order a room-service champagne brunch served on your balcony instead of attending. Sooo much more enjoyable watching the forests and fjords sail past. Floral Demonstration with Neil-Too bad Neil didn't do much talking on his own - Cruise-director assistant Kez had to fill the quiet times. We wanted to know more about designing an arrangement, and less about the symbolism of flower colors. Besides, the arrangement had every color but brown. Port Enhancement Presentation- Whales - with naturalist Alan Cortach-Having a naturalist onboard increased the wonder of the sites we sailed. On the main deck and on the in cabin television his broadcast describing the areas we sailed past and wildlife we encountered. Photoshop Class with Joshua Paul-Bob learned more about using masks and layers in one hour than he had discovered with his copy of Photoshop Elements in six years. If you own a digital camera and a computer, you just have to try one or more of these $25 courses. Problem: The promised web site has been "down for maintenance" since the day we got home. Was there ever anything there? Comedy Club with Scott Wyler-Funny guy who tells jokes and humorous stories instead of gesturing wildly and making faces. He deserves his one-man show. Cooking Show-Be sure to catch "The Hilarious Cooking Show with Executive Chef Marco Goetz and Maitre 'D Hotel Jose Florencio," and not just because it is followed by a tour of the galley. Hilarious overstates the performance, but it was silly and fun. At the end an assistant maitre 'd sang for us and outshined all the stage singers and cabaret groups. He is jaw-droppingly good. Sadly, his foreign pronunciation is just enough that American record companies probably wouldn't give him a chance - but look for him on "Mexico Has Talent" if there is one. Glacier Bay & College Fjord Margerie Glacier, Grand Pacific Glacier and John Hopkins Inlet were all breathtaking. Unlike the Celebrity cruise we took a couple years ago, the Captain spent plenty of time cruising through the Bay and Fjord. Once in the Fjord he moved the ship 360 degrees, circling to allow passengers on both sides of the ship to view the glaciers. Excursion: Reviewing the Princess land excursions is a great way to find out what is available in each port and the approximate cost to do the excursions. You've spent the cost of air fare, the cruise costs and maybe most importantly a week or more of your life to get to Alaska. You can't see America's Last Frontier from the decks or appreciate the state's people in a T-shirt shop: You have to board the boats, buses, floatplanes and vans that take you away from the docks. We have taken cruise line excursions and booked our own. While it is true that the ship promises to wait for you if you book your excursions through them and are delayed, we have never had a problem with booking our own. Just use common sense, check out the provider, read reviews, give yourself plenty of time to get back to the ship, and always have a plan B and a plan C. To plan for our Alaska trip, we talked with Scott McMurran, an Alaska resident and radio-based travel adviser, out of Anchorage Alaska. After asking what we were interested in, he gave us a number of ideas. He also suggested we look into the Great Alaska TourSaver coupon book, which he organizes. The book offers 2-for-1 deals at many of the ports the cruise ships stop at and in the Denali Parks areas. The book is $100. While the cost is more then other coupon books available, many of the deals offered are the higher cost excursions. I reviewed the TourSaver website, www.toursaver.com to determine what excursions I would want to use from the book. I then called the excursion providers to find out if a spot was available and if I could use the coupon on the day we would be in port. Only then did I actually purchase the book and it was well worth it. Ketchikan Justin Carro owns and operates the Ketchikan Independent Tours, and offers a City and Nature Tour. Walk 10-15 minutes from the ship to his wife's store, which sells only products and crafts made in Alaska, to where the tours begin. Justin gave us a 2-hour tour of Ketchikan and its nearby out-of-town in his 12-seat van. (He has other, larger and smaller, transports to accommodate various groups and circuits, and his summer staff of locals hadn't all arrived from college and winter work, so he got the job.) As a nearly non-stop narration kept us enthralled, we were taken to the edge of town were we walked a short distance to a stream with eagles in trees and in the water. Then it was on to a lovely waterfall where he offered to take our pictures with our own cameras. Finally a tour of the town hatchery, in a city park, gave insight to another aspect of life in Alaska. While driving, Justin answered questions regarding current life in Alaska, the economy, political environment, and information concerning the local flora and fauna. Because the ship would depart in early afternoon, this quick, low-impact tour was perfect. With the TourSaver 2-1 Coupon, the cost was only $50 for the both of us. Juneau In the morning we took the Mount Roberts Tramway, which is located a short walk from the pier. The short tram ride up the mountain offers a panoramic view of the Juneau waterfront and the cruise ship. Once on the mountain there are easy walking trails through the trees, as well as more challenging hikes. The visitor center offers a gift shop, coffee shop and a few local natives selling handmade items. Also in the visitors center is a fine movie describing the life of the local Tlingit culture. The nature center is actually another gift ship, but with lots of educational exhibits. In May there they were constructing an outbuilding that they said would be housing an eagle. While we are glad we took the Mount Roberts Tramway, we most likely would not have done so without the TourSaver Coupon 2-1 for $27. We returned to the ship for lunch and afterwards we were met at the gangway by the Alaska Galore Tours' Whale-Watching Adventure (Gray Line) bus. We had arranged this tour by calling the tour company and reserving a spot. This 3.5-hour trip included half an hour on the bus, receiving a narrated description of the Juneau area and a brief passenger-pickup stop at Mendenhall Glacier on the way, allowing a minute or three to see and photograph the valley. The boat was purpose-built in 2010 for whale watching and for beach landings. Some excursions offer both, but ours was just for finding and tailing wildlife. Once, a whale spouted less than 100 feet ahead of us as we cruised the channel; most sightings are not so close because sea-mammal protection laws say boats can't get closer than 100 yards. Whales are permitted to break the laws to your glee. TourSaver Coupon 2-1 $156.45 Skagway In Skagway, rather than schedule an excursion, we chose to walk the main street and look into the many shops. The Skagway Outlet near the end of the main street is a great place to pick-up souvenirs at the best price. There's an official city shuttle company that has regular routes and schedules; the price is $5 per person all day. You can catch one near the ship and hit a number of sights, getting off and on at whim. We had boarded at the foot of the pier and stepped off "downtown." Later, we rode to the mining museum and gold panning, and later getting off the bus near the road which leads to the town cemetery. It's a bit of a walk from there, but without the shuttle, walking to the cemetery would take forever. The route passes the railroad yard where relics from early last century rust and disintegrate. Good photo opportunity, as is the cemetery and a wonderful series of small waterfalls. Land Tour If you are going to Alaska to see wildlife I would strongly suggest you take a land tour, either included with your cruise or on your own. If you allow Princess to organize your land tour you will be directed and escorted. They arrange your luggage pickup and delivery and make sure your train and coach transportation is taken care of. However, if I do it again, I would plan it on my own, using the good-quality Princess facilities. Another strong suggestion is to spend more then one night at the Princess Denali Lodge. The ride from Whittier to Denali is long, about 10 hours. Should you pass wildlife you will be moving so fast that you won't have much time to take pictures or really see them. Also, by the time you reach the Lodge it will be late in the day. The bus tours into Denali are 4-6 hours or more. If you only have one night you will have no down time and little time to enjoy the lodge. Spend at least 2 nights at one lodge, 3 if you can. Train If any mode of travel militates against standard-size carryon luggage, this is it. Whatever you carry goes under your bench or on your lap, and there's less room for your bag than in a plane as there is no overhead storage. Either buy smaller bags or only take one upstairs for the two of you. Besides, dragging a heavy bag up the railcar's tiny spiral staircase is how you strain a shoulder or worse. What do you need to carry aboard? Here are some unexpected items: Hat, because the sun can shine through the glass-domed observation cars all day; sunglasses, too. Book and deck of cards or pocket electronic game. Bottle of water, snacks (although each car has a well-stocked dining room below and beverage service topside, more free food and drink ended at the gangway). Travel pillow and blanket. Cozy shoes, because you won't be walking much. Add in whatever you usually need handy when on a long flight, such as medication. Your luggage is very likely to be waiting for you at the hotel, so just leave everything not valuable in the big bag. Trust us. Another consideration is the seating arrangement. Do not expect typical train seating. Four people are assigned to a two-bench seat and table. The benches are roughly 4 feet long. With heavy coats, purses, camera equipment, etc., this is a very crowded arrangement for a 10 hour ride. Going to Denali the train car was 100% full so we were unable to spread out. We found a car whose downstairs was not being used and moved to that area. Although we didn't have the same views the glass dome car provided we could see out the large windows and an open air platform was close by. In this unused car there was no food and drink service but having room to breathe was worth the tradeoff and a few other passengers soon found this haven too. Lodges The reviews on the Princess Lodges were not all that favorable but we were pleasantly surprised to find them more then comfortable. The only issue is the lack of air conditioning, although the rooms did have portable fans. The thermostat is for heat only. A number of people around us mistakenly thought it was both heat and air when trying to cool their room that historically warm week. Bring bug spray; the mosquitoes were large and hungry. We brought the Off Wipes, spray and a belt-clip fan that wafts repellent. Princess Denali Lodge The Princess Denali Lodge, overlooking a river, was a short 30 minute coach ride from the train station. The rooms are divided into one- and two-story buildings throughout the property. In addition to the large main building there are a number of small cabin-like structures housing interesting shops. The main building has a coffee shop and gift shop in addition to the front desk and lounge area. There are a few free internet access computers provided. Also on site are two restaurants. We ate both nights at the less formal restaurant and enjoyed their food and the service. Lots of stores, restaurants and bars beckon from across the (not too busy) highway. Adjacent is a popular pizza shack and an emergency clinic (I don't mean anything by it, that's just where it is). Denali Bus Tour & Sled Dog Demonstration Ask for a refund from Princess for the 4.5 hour, $93 Denali Natural History Tour. Instead, take the National Park Service's $24 Park Lake Toklat tour. 6.5 hours, round-trip, same school-type bus, but without a toilet. You'll be allowed to debark anywhere, and another Park bus will pick you up in half an hour. Park Rangers maintain dozens of sled dogs for winter forays, and provide free demonstrations (and lots of petting!) daily. Check the park website for info on both the buses and the dogs. Our bus driver was back for his umpteenth year, and had tales, jokes and facts galore, all just waiting for us to ask questions. He told us he wouldn't talk much unless we had questions or he saw something of particular interest (and many things are). But a question could bring out several minutes of narration and explanation. He also told us to shout out "stop" if we saw animals, then to use the clock system to direct attention to the right place and range. Some riders, so excited by the many bear and caribou, forgot. We'd skid to a stop, folks would drop the windows, and out stuck dozens of camera lenses. We saw mama bears with cubs, lone brown bears, moose, clusters of caribou, a red fox right next to our bus, a porcupine, multiple herds of Dall's sheep, and maybe some other things I've forgotten. At the rest stops, we had a chance to get macro shots of several wildflowers and colorful lichens. When we reached the turnaround at Lake Toklat, a large brown bear was ripping clumps of grass from the ground for a meal. Because they're so acclimated to the buses, we were able to take dozens of photos as he sidled, pigeon-toed, between patches of green. The shutters would fire in synchrony each time he looked up towards us. Our visit at the rest stop was cut short when Mr. Bear decided to do a little tourism of his own. Princess McKinley Lodge The McKinley Lodge main building faces Mt. Denali/McKinley, with large outside deck and telescopes to view the distant crags. We were told we were extremely lucky to have 4 days of clear weather and the ability to see the mountain. Apparently only 30% of the people who visit the area actually get to see North America's tallest mountain. The rooms at the lodge are similar to those at the Denali lodge, fairly large and adequate. The restaurant is OK, but the food is nothing special and service, while pleasant, was very slow this first week of business. We hope they got organized. The lodge is a 30 minute coach ride from the town of Talkeetna. On departure day, board an early Princess bus into Talkeetna instead of hanging around the lodge - you'll get a chance to rest on the train. Our motor coach had folks who'd scheduled speed-boat river tours, fishing, rafting and flights. The village is charming, with many interesting shops and sightlines. Log homes share frontage with broad-porched stores offering genuine made-in-Alaska arts and crafts (many are large, gorgeous and expensive), and locals in overalls grumbling up the gravel main street aboard all-terrain vehicles. Grab a lunch, a beer, or a cup of coffee on the deck of a local brewery and watch a forgotten time. We had reserved a flight with glacier landing on Talkeetna Air Taxi. Flightseeing Tour of Denali w/Glacier Landing - TourSaver Coupon 2or 1 - final cost $310 for both of us. After spending half a year's savings on this vacation, don't cheap-out when it comes to flightseeing. Grab a light coat, a good camera and some Chap Stick, and find a flight that lands on Mountain Home Glacier. Our carrier, Talkeetna Air Taxi, provided snow boots that fit over street shoes, so you can show up in tennies. To determine the plane's loading, passengers are weighed with whatever they'll carry aboard. The scales groaned under me, but this outfit is one that doesn't charge a hefty fee for folks over 250 lb. Anchorage Captain Cook Hotel is centrally located in the downtown Anchorage area. There are many restaurants and shops nearby. City buses and shuttles eliminate the need to use taxis unless you're in a hurry. The hotel has a large lobby with upscale shops and dining. When the Princess bus comes in, getting a seat at a restaurant can be problematic. Our room was large but showing signs of wear and tear, with a strange little bathroom with a tiny counter crowded by a one-cup coffee maker. We elected to add a night to our tour in Anchorage and I am glad we did - and wish we had added two. By the time the train and coach got us to our hotel it was early evening. Although it stays light until late, it was too late to visit any of the sights. The next morning we grabbed the free shuttle from downtown, a few blocks from the Captain Cook Hotel, to the Alaska Native Heritage Center. The Center is something like Hawaii's Polynesian Culture Center, but much smaller with dirt paths and less colorful costumes. Circling a small lake are examples of dwellings of native people from the different areas of Alaska. When we were there we saw few other visitors, and had most exhibits to ourselves. Representatives, mostly college age, work each site and give an explanation of the life and culture of the tribe. What made the visit the most rewarding was talking with the few older docents about their lives growing up in their tribes. One gentleman, when encouraged, deviated from his normal script and reminisced about a whale hunting trip he took at the age of 4 or 5. The Center is listed in the TourSaver book with a Coupon 2 for 1, making the admission price for the both of us $24.95. I wished we had spent another day in Anchorage to allow for visits to other sites and casual strolling through the city. However, now we have another reason to return to this beautiful area of our country.

Island Princess - Alaska

Island Princess Cruise Review by valbob89

Trip Details
  • Sail Date: May 2010
  • Destination: Alaska
On May 17, 2010 we took the Alaska cruise/tour aboard the Island Princess. It was superior. Because this is a long review and has a number of excursion suggestions, here's a brief review. The ship was clean with an efficient crew. Food was excellent, with more sweetness in the desserts than non-American chefs usually provide (which pleased us). Schedule was awkward in Ketchikan, because we departed in early afternoon. Princess lodges at Denali and McKinley were good, with large rooms. If you take the Denali land excursion, try to schedule extra days in the north and at Anchorage. Don't scrimp on excursions after spending so much on airfare and cabin to see this beautiful wilderness. You can save on the cost of excursions by buying the Great Alaska TourSaver coupon book for $100 via website.
Into Vancouver We flew in from San Francisco on departure day, arriving in Vancouver at 1:30 p.m., where getting through customs at the airport was fast and easy. Princess representatives were right there to assist with tagging our luggage and transferring it to the ship. After a short wait in line for our bus we were given a narrated tour of Vancouver on the way to the port. At 2:30 p.m. when we arrived at the ship, the line to board was not that long and soon we were in our spacious mini-suite. Our luggage arrived at our cabin before 6:00 p.m. One thing we have strong opinions on is the use of the hand sanitizers. While they are provided on the ship, I don't believe Princess places enough emphasis on preventing the spread of the dreaded norovirus. Sanitizing should be required when boarding and upon entering dining rooms. Other cruise lines have crew members handing wipes and distributing the lotion. I have never heard anyone complain or refuse. Noro and other communicable diseases can ruin a cruise for hundreds, as happened only days later on another Princess in Alaskan waters. Perhaps sanitary activism will have been felt by the time you board. Regardless, pack a few Clorox Wipes in a Baggie and polish the hardware in your cabin when you arrive. Although the staff is careful, slipups happen. Pick up a couple of pocket-size Purell or other hand sanitizers, too. The only other area for pre-departure improvement would be crowd control. It could also be better in ports of call. Once, for example, lines snaked more than 1 ½ shiplengths along the docks waiting to board. In another port, we asked crewmen on which deck to debark, and were misdirected. In another, passengers departed hundreds of feet farther down the dock than crewmembers, and we had to cross the brow to a mobile two-deck-high stairway while the crew strolled ashore from a lower deck and nearer town. Boarding in Alaska is complicated by enormous tides, rising and dropping 17 feet in 6 hours in Ketchikan and elsewhere. They know how to properly moor the ship; they should know how to treat the passengers.
Cabin I am glad we elected to upgrade to the mini-suite, which was about the size of a standard Disney cabin with veranda. The dEcor is generic but easy on the eyes. Not much color and no real artwork or decorations/style. (I won't count the faded French poster for the Cote d'Or, on which d'Or had faded away, leaving just pink and blue.) The cabin had plenty of room for our belongings and us. There was a substantial shelved cabinet beside the doorless, bed-length closet. Suitcases stored easily under the bed. A sofa bed, small chair, and desk chair provided plenty of seating, with a rigid glass-topped coffee table and desk with drawers providing work/eat space. The desk, on one wall, was opposite a cabinet with two TVs (one facing the bed, the other towards the sofa), shelf space and a shorty fridge. The bathroom, separated from the bed area by the closet, included a tub/shower combination. The temperature and water pressure were the best we have ever experienced on a cruise. Shampoo, conditioner, soap, bath gel and lotion where provided. Bring anything else you need, including shower caps. A small built-in hair dryer was on the wall between the suite's sofa and desk. Our veranda had four comfortable chairs and a table. While not as large as some it was plenty big. The verandas on the 10th and 11th decks above us were stepped back (were those passengers in smaller cabins?). If you are uncomfortable with people looking down at you, you might want to get a cabin on deck 10 or 11. On the other hand, Island Princess has no inside cabins on Deck 9, so passageways are half as crowded. There are few issues that could be improved. However, if you are looking for areas, one would be the bathrobes provided in the mini-suites. They did not provide one until the third day and then it would be better to not provide them than to deliver the rags they have become. Our room steward told us he chose the best he could find: humiliatingly short on the legs and a good six inches longer on one side then the other, thin enough to be obscene, and with sleeves as tight as Schwarzenegger's T-shirt. When we mentioned it to the front desk they were replaced with ones with fuller sleeves but no better in the other areas. Robes take up a lot of room in suitcases so when told they would be provided, we didn't bring one from home - mistake. As on any cruise, the steward works hard to meet your requests and routine needs. Let them know what they are when you board. Be sure to tip him or her, because base pay is minimal.
Cruise Critic Meet & Greet Stacy Anderson in Princess Corporate arranged a meet and greet for the Eagles. The meeting was set for after the lifeboat drill and before the first dinner seating. The officers on the Island Princess were wonderful, and many of them came to the get-together. However, very few of the Cruise Critic members made it. I think they were so busy with all the other activities offered on the ship. I would like to thank Paolo Rellini, First Purser-Administration BoukjeMarijke Bijlsma, Staff 1st Purser-Food & Beverages Ana Simoes, Captain Circle Hostess Emilio Mazzi, Hotel General Manager Frank Castiglione, Cruise Director Kez, Assistant Cruise Director. They were wonderfully welcoming and spent a lot of time with us answering questions and offering their assistance should we need anything while on the cruise.
Cellular phone aboard ship Princess' web site mentions in some obscure place, and the promotional video on cabin TVs skips, that although cell phones work at sea, they are run off Princess' antennas and at Princess' fees, which are in addition to your contracted roaming per-minute rate. They're sky-high, and added to your cabin charges. If you don't absolutely have to make a lengthy call immediately, wait until the ship docks and you get a local signal. To avoid being pounded by these rates, you can shut off your phone at sea to avoid incoming calls.
Muster Exercise The Bob half of Valbob takes this seriously - not surprising, since he'd twice loaded drowning victims into Stokes litters and carried them ashore while in the Coast Guard. (He also reads the airplane emergency guide while waiting for the flight attendant to start her spiel.) Bob even admonishes members of the crew who are not on top of their game. So pay attention, read the card on the back of the cabin door, and carry your orange vest to the boat station thinking about where you'd turn if this stairway or that door were blocked. Why don't we put on the vests first? Imagine how difficult moving through the companionways and stairwells would be if all the chubby hubbies were suddenly twice as thick. Oh, stop snickering. Happily, we Island Princess cruisers muster for boat stations inside, instead of on the weather decks.
Food We elected the anytime dining. This allowed us to eat when we wanted with no stress to meet a schedule. We could also choose to eat with a group of other cruisers or just with each other. We never had more than a 10-minute wait for a table. This worked for us. At last, American pastry chefs! Well, not exactly; we like our sweets to taste sweet, and it seems the European dessert style uses less sugar and maybe less salt. Salt emphasizes many flavors, sugar included - it even help chocolate and fruit fillings. We found the desserts more flavorful than on many other ships. There are two specialty restaurants on board but unlike other cruise lines you never feel pressured to go. In some ways that is too bad because the Bayou Cafe should not be missed.
Bayou Cafe This premium dinner option serves surf and turf, or get turfed on one of four or five cuts of steak alone. They are large, marbled and aged. The New Orleans theme doesn't mean you'll be seared by pepper, but it's an option. Delicious choices and, of course, lots of food. When we dined a jazz band and vocalist where a pleasant addition to the experience.
At Sea Days Only two nights are in the seaway, with most cruising taking us through the channels of the inland waterways east of Canada's Vancouver Island and the Alaskan islands named for queens and princes. Serious motion is rare. Days at sea are days for glacier viewing and extra activities.
Entertainment/On-board Activities Shows, except for the first evening, play for two nights, allowing you to watch a main show one night and a "cabaret" offering at the same hour the next - and not miss any. Although entertaining, none were "can't be missed" events. Motor City Production Show We enjoyed "Motor City," a Motown revue that the Cruise Director's staff announced was brand new. Our friends - who have cruised more often on Princess than we - said it was suspiciously familiar. You know the music, you sang along in your daddy's Caprice. All that's missing is the Fifth Dimension. Sorry, they recorded on Arista. Lots of costume and set changes, lots of applause for the performers. Shopping class - If you haven't seen the CNBC special on cruise-ship vacations, look for it; the news channel schedules it several times a year in the evenings or on weekends. You'll learn that your 1,800-passenger ship cannot pay its way on fares alone. Cruise lines depend on earning a percentage of every drink or excursion they sell you, and every wristwatch or tanzanite ring you bring aboard from the recommended jewelers ashore. Be cynical if you wish, or accept that much of the fun of cruising is choosing a bauble to wear the next time you're out with friends - or a beverage by the pool or at the show. And, if you don't take an excursion in each port, you just won't find the wonder of Alaska and the warmth of Alaskans. That doesn't mean you have to endure the brazen sales pitches of the shopping show. They'll entice you with promises of free jewelry, but you'll find you'll have to get some card stamped in a dozen shops to earn one. (Our friend was mad at herself for sitting through the talk when her promised reward turned out to be a dime-store reject.) Order a room-service champagne brunch served on your balcony instead of attending. Sooo much more enjoyable watching the forests and fjords sail past. Floral Demonstration with Neil-Too bad Neil didn't do much talking on his own - Cruise-director assistant Kez had to fill the quiet times. We wanted to know more about designing an arrangement, and less about the symbolism of flower colors. Besides, the arrangement had every color but brown. Port Enhancement Presentation- Whales - with naturalist Alan Cortach-Having a naturalist onboard increased the wonder of the sites we sailed. On the main deck and on the in cabin television his broadcast describing the areas we sailed past and wildlife we encountered. Photoshop Class with Joshua Paul-Bob learned more about using masks and layers in one hour than he had discovered with his copy of Photoshop Elements in six years. If you own a digital camera and a computer, you just have to try one or more of these $25 courses. Problem: The promised web site has been "down for maintenance" since the day we got home. Was there ever anything there? Comedy Club with Scott Wyler-Funny guy who tells jokes and humorous stories instead of gesturing wildly and making faces. He deserves his one-man show. Cooking Show-Be sure to catch "The Hilarious Cooking Show with Executive Chef Marco Goetz and Maitre 'D Hotel Jose Florencio," and not just because it is followed by a tour of the galley. Hilarious overstates the performance, but it was silly and fun. At the end an assistant maitre 'd sang for us and outshined all the stage singers and cabaret groups. He is jaw-droppingly good. Sadly, his foreign pronunciation is just enough that American record companies probably wouldn't give him a chance - but look for him on "Mexico Has Talent" if there is one.
Glacier Bay & College Fjord Margerie Glacier, Grand Pacific Glacier and John Hopkins Inlet were all breathtaking. Unlike the Celebrity cruise we took a couple years ago, the Captain spent plenty of time cruising through the Bay and Fjord. Once in the Fjord he moved the ship 360 degrees, circling to allow passengers on both sides of the ship to view the glaciers.
Excursion: Reviewing the Princess land excursions is a great way to find out what is available in each port and the approximate cost to do the excursions. You've spent the cost of air fare, the cruise costs and maybe most importantly a week or more of your life to get to Alaska. You can't see America's Last Frontier from the decks or appreciate the state's people in a T-shirt shop: You have to board the boats, buses, floatplanes and vans that take you away from the docks. We have taken cruise line excursions and booked our own. While it is true that the ship promises to wait for you if you book your excursions through them and are delayed, we have never had a problem with booking our own. Just use common sense, check out the provider, read reviews, give yourself plenty of time to get back to the ship, and always have a plan B and a plan C. To plan for our Alaska trip, we talked with Scott McMurran, an Alaska resident and radio-based travel adviser, out of Anchorage Alaska. After asking what we were interested in, he gave us a number of ideas. He also suggested we look into the Great Alaska TourSaver coupon book, which he organizes. The book offers 2-for-1 deals at many of the ports the cruise ships stop at and in the Denali Parks areas. The book is $100. While the cost is more then other coupon books available, many of the deals offered are the higher cost excursions. I reviewed the TourSaver website, www.toursaver.com to determine what excursions I would want to use from the book. I then called the excursion providers to find out if a spot was available and if I could use the coupon on the day we would be in port. Only then did I actually purchase the book and it was well worth it. Ketchikan Justin Carro owns and operates the Ketchikan Independent Tours, and offers a City and Nature Tour. Walk 10-15 minutes from the ship to his wife's store, which sells only products and crafts made in Alaska, to where the tours begin. Justin gave us a 2-hour tour of Ketchikan and its nearby out-of-town in his 12-seat van. (He has other, larger and smaller, transports to accommodate various groups and circuits, and his summer staff of locals hadn't all arrived from college and winter work, so he got the job.) As a nearly non-stop narration kept us enthralled, we were taken to the edge of town were we walked a short distance to a stream with eagles in trees and in the water. Then it was on to a lovely waterfall where he offered to take our pictures with our own cameras. Finally a tour of the town hatchery, in a city park, gave insight to another aspect of life in Alaska. While driving, Justin answered questions regarding current life in Alaska, the economy, political environment, and information concerning the local flora and fauna. Because the ship would depart in early afternoon, this quick, low-impact tour was perfect. With the TourSaver 2-1 Coupon, the cost was only $50 for the both of us. Juneau In the morning we took the Mount Roberts Tramway, which is located a short walk from the pier. The short tram ride up the mountain offers a panoramic view of the Juneau waterfront and the cruise ship. Once on the mountain there are easy walking trails through the trees, as well as more challenging hikes. The visitor center offers a gift shop, coffee shop and a few local natives selling handmade items. Also in the visitors center is a fine movie describing the life of the local Tlingit culture. The nature center is actually another gift ship, but with lots of educational exhibits. In May there they were constructing an outbuilding that they said would be housing an eagle. While we are glad we took the Mount Roberts Tramway, we most likely would not have done so without the TourSaver Coupon 2-1 for $27. We returned to the ship for lunch and afterwards we were met at the gangway by the Alaska Galore Tours' Whale-Watching Adventure (Gray Line) bus. We had arranged this tour by calling the tour company and reserving a spot. This 3.5-hour trip included half an hour on the bus, receiving a narrated description of the Juneau area and a brief passenger-pickup stop at Mendenhall Glacier on the way, allowing a minute or three to see and photograph the valley. The boat was purpose-built in 2010 for whale watching and for beach landings. Some excursions offer both, but ours was just for finding and tailing wildlife. Once, a whale spouted less than 100 feet ahead of us as we cruised the channel; most sightings are not so close because sea-mammal protection laws say boats can't get closer than 100 yards. Whales are permitted to break the laws to your glee. TourSaver Coupon 2-1 $156.45 Skagway In Skagway, rather than schedule an excursion, we chose to walk the main street and look into the many shops. The Skagway Outlet near the end of the main street is a great place to pick-up souvenirs at the best price. There's an official city shuttle company that has regular routes and schedules; the price is $5 per person all day. You can catch one near the ship and hit a number of sights, getting off and on at whim. We had boarded at the foot of the pier and stepped off "downtown." Later, we rode to the mining museum and gold panning, and later getting off the bus near the road which leads to the town cemetery. It's a bit of a walk from there, but without the shuttle, walking to the cemetery would take forever. The route passes the railroad yard where relics from early last century rust and disintegrate. Good photo opportunity, as is the cemetery and a wonderful series of small waterfalls. Land Tour If you are going to Alaska to see wildlife I would strongly suggest you take a land tour, either included with your cruise or on your own. If you allow Princess to organize your land tour you will be directed and escorted. They arrange your luggage pickup and delivery and make sure your train and coach transportation is taken care of. However, if I do it again, I would plan it on my own, using the good-quality Princess facilities. Another strong suggestion is to spend more then one night at the Princess Denali Lodge. The ride from Whittier to Denali is long, about 10 hours. Should you pass wildlife you will be moving so fast that you won't have much time to take pictures or really see them. Also, by the time you reach the Lodge it will be late in the day. The bus tours into Denali are 4-6 hours or more. If you only have one night you will have no down time and little time to enjoy the lodge. Spend at least 2 nights at one lodge, 3 if you can. Train If any mode of travel militates against standard-size carryon luggage, this is it. Whatever you carry goes under your bench or on your lap, and there's less room for your bag than in a plane as there is no overhead storage. Either buy smaller bags or only take one upstairs for the two of you. Besides, dragging a heavy bag up the railcar's tiny spiral staircase is how you strain a shoulder or worse. What do you need to carry aboard? Here are some unexpected items: Hat, because the sun can shine through the glass-domed observation cars all day; sunglasses, too. Book and deck of cards or pocket electronic game. Bottle of water, snacks (although each car has a well-stocked dining room below and beverage service topside, more free food and drink ended at the gangway). Travel pillow and blanket. Cozy shoes, because you won't be walking much. Add in whatever you usually need handy when on a long flight, such as medication. Your luggage is very likely to be waiting for you at the hotel, so just leave everything not valuable in the big bag. Trust us. Another consideration is the seating arrangement. Do not expect typical train seating. Four people are assigned to a two-bench seat and table. The benches are roughly 4 feet long. With heavy coats, purses, camera equipment, etc., this is a very crowded arrangement for a 10 hour ride. Going to Denali the train car was 100% full so we were unable to spread out. We found a car whose downstairs was not being used and moved to that area. Although we didn't have the same views the glass dome car provided we could see out the large windows and an open air platform was close by. In this unused car there was no food and drink service but having room to breathe was worth the tradeoff and a few other passengers soon found this haven too. Lodges The reviews on the Princess Lodges were not all that favorable but we were pleasantly surprised to find them more then comfortable. The only issue is the lack of air conditioning, although the rooms did have portable fans. The thermostat is for heat only. A number of people around us mistakenly thought it was both heat and air when trying to cool their room that historically warm week. Bring bug spray; the mosquitoes were large and hungry. We brought the Off Wipes, spray and a belt-clip fan that wafts repellent. Princess Denali Lodge The Princess Denali Lodge, overlooking a river, was a short 30 minute coach ride from the train station. The rooms are divided into one- and two-story buildings throughout the property. In addition to the large main building there are a number of small cabin-like structures housing interesting shops. The main building has a coffee shop and gift shop in addition to the front desk and lounge area. There are a few free internet access computers provided. Also on site are two restaurants. We ate both nights at the less formal restaurant and enjoyed their food and the service. Lots of stores, restaurants and bars beckon from across the (not too busy) highway. Adjacent is a popular pizza shack and an emergency clinic (I don't mean anything by it, that's just where it is). Denali Bus Tour & Sled Dog Demonstration Ask for a refund from Princess for the 4.5 hour, $93 Denali Natural History Tour. Instead, take the National Park Service's $24 Park Lake Toklat tour. 6.5 hours, round-trip, same school-type bus, but without a toilet. You'll be allowed to debark anywhere, and another Park bus will pick you up in half an hour. Park Rangers maintain dozens of sled dogs for winter forays, and provide free demonstrations (and lots of petting!) daily. Check the park website for info on both the buses and the dogs. Our bus driver was back for his umpteenth year, and had tales, jokes and facts galore, all just waiting for us to ask questions. He told us he wouldn't talk much unless we had questions or he saw something of particular interest (and many things are). But a question could bring out several minutes of narration and explanation. He also told us to shout out "stop" if we saw animals, then to use the clock system to direct attention to the right place and range. Some riders, so excited by the many bear and caribou, forgot. We'd skid to a stop, folks would drop the windows, and out stuck dozens of camera lenses. We saw mama bears with cubs, lone brown bears, moose, clusters of caribou, a red fox right next to our bus, a porcupine, multiple herds of Dall's sheep, and maybe some other things I've forgotten. At the rest stops, we had a chance to get macro shots of several wildflowers and colorful lichens. When we reached the turnaround at Lake Toklat, a large brown bear was ripping clumps of grass from the ground for a meal. Because they're so acclimated to the buses, we were able to take dozens of photos as he sidled, pigeon-toed, between patches of green. The shutters would fire in synchrony each time he looked up towards us. Our visit at the rest stop was cut short when Mr. Bear decided to do a little tourism of his own. Princess McKinley Lodge The McKinley Lodge main building faces Mt. Denali/McKinley, with large outside deck and telescopes to view the distant crags. We were told we were extremely lucky to have 4 days of clear weather and the ability to see the mountain. Apparently only 30% of the people who visit the area actually get to see North America's tallest mountain. The rooms at the lodge are similar to those at the Denali lodge, fairly large and adequate. The restaurant is OK, but the food is nothing special and service, while pleasant, was very slow this first week of business. We hope they got organized. The lodge is a 30 minute coach ride from the town of Talkeetna. On departure day, board an early Princess bus into Talkeetna instead of hanging around the lodge - you'll get a chance to rest on the train. Our motor coach had folks who'd scheduled speed-boat river tours, fishing, rafting and flights. The village is charming, with many interesting shops and sightlines. Log homes share frontage with broad-porched stores offering genuine made-in-Alaska arts and crafts (many are large, gorgeous and expensive), and locals in overalls grumbling up the gravel main street aboard all-terrain vehicles. Grab a lunch, a beer, or a cup of coffee on the deck of a local brewery and watch a forgotten time. We had reserved a flight with glacier landing on Talkeetna Air Taxi. Flightseeing Tour of Denali w/Glacier Landing - TourSaver Coupon 2or 1 - final cost $310 for both of us. After spending half a year's savings on this vacation, don't cheap-out when it comes to flightseeing. Grab a light coat, a good camera and some Chap Stick, and find a flight that lands on Mountain Home Glacier. Our carrier, Talkeetna Air Taxi, provided snow boots that fit over street shoes, so you can show up in tennies. To determine the plane's loading, passengers are weighed with whatever they'll carry aboard. The scales groaned under me, but this outfit is one that doesn't charge a hefty fee for folks over 250 lb. Anchorage Captain Cook Hotel is centrally located in the downtown Anchorage area. There are many restaurants and shops nearby. City buses and shuttles eliminate the need to use taxis unless you're in a hurry. The hotel has a large lobby with upscale shops and dining. When the Princess bus comes in, getting a seat at a restaurant can be problematic. Our room was large but showing signs of wear and tear, with a strange little bathroom with a tiny counter crowded by a one-cup coffee maker. We elected to add a night to our tour in Anchorage and I am glad we did - and wish we had added two. By the time the train and coach got us to our hotel it was early evening. Although it stays light until late, it was too late to visit any of the sights. The next morning we grabbed the free shuttle from downtown, a few blocks from the Captain Cook Hotel, to the Alaska Native Heritage Center. The Center is something like Hawaii's Polynesian Culture Center, but much smaller with dirt paths and less colorful costumes. Circling a small lake are examples of dwellings of native people from the different areas of Alaska. When we were there we saw few other visitors, and had most exhibits to ourselves. Representatives, mostly college age, work each site and give an explanation of the life and culture of the tribe. What made the visit the most rewarding was talking with the few older docents about their lives growing up in their tribes. One gentleman, when encouraged, deviated from his normal script and reminisced about a whale hunting trip he took at the age of 4 or 5. The Center is listed in the TourSaver book with a Coupon 2 for 1, making the admission price for the both of us $24.95. I wished we had spent another day in Anchorage to allow for visits to other sites and casual strolling through the city. However, now we have another reason to return to this beautiful area of our country.
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Cabin Review

Cabin D512
I am glad we elected to upgrade to the mini-suite, which was about the size of a standard Disney cabin with veranda. The decor is generic but easy on the eyes. Not much color and no real artwork or decorations/style. (I won't count the faded French poster for the Cote d'Or, on which d'Or had faded away, leaving just pink and blue.) The cabin had plenty of room for our belongings and us. There was a substantial shelved cabinet beside the doorless, bed-length closet. Suitcases stored easily under the bed.
A sofa bed, small chair, and desk chair provided plenty of seating, with a rigid glass-topped coffee table and desk with drawers providing work/eat space. The desk, on one wall, was opposite a cabinet with two TVs (one facing the bed, the other towards the sofa), shelf space and a shorty fridge. The bathroom, separated from the bed area by the closet, included a tub/shower combination. The temperature and water pressure were the best we have ever experienced on a cruise. Shampoo, conditioner, soap, bath gel and lotion where provided. Bring anything else you need, including shower caps. A small built-in hair dryer was on the wall between the suite's sofa and desk. Our veranda had four comfortable chairs and a table. While not as large as some it was plenty big. The verandas on the 10th and 11th decks above us were stepped back (were those passengers in smaller cabins?). If you are uncomfortable with people looking down at you, you might want to get a cabin on deck 10 or 11. On the other hand, Island Princess has no inside cabins on Deck 9, so passageways are half as crowded.
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