Alaska July 23 to 30, 2006 Sun Princess
Following is a review of our cruise on the Sun Princess. I am going to start with a quick overview I will call good, bad and ugly, and then I will go into more detail on the ship, the cruise, and the various ports of call. Hopefully someone will find this review helpful. Please keep in mind this was our first cruise, as well as our first trip to Alaska. So, when I say the food was good or the coffee OK, thats in comparison to my normal, everyday experience, not in comparison to any other cruise line. So, here we go&..
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
Good: There were a lot of very good things about this trip. First, the ship was quite nice and the crew and staff were for the most part very good. Alaska is absolutely the most beautiful place I have ever been. I have lived in Oregon and Idaho almost all my life, and I am used to nice scenery, but Alaskas forests are greener and denser than any I have ever seen. And there are waterfalls everywhere you look. Pretty much everyone I ran into on the trip, from the other passengers to the crew to the tour guides and the townspeople and storekeepers, was very pleasant and courteous.
Bad: The most disappointing part of this trip was that our plans for viewing glaciers got pretty much ruined. On Wednesday morning, we were supposed to cruise Tracy Arm fjord from 6:00 to 10:00 AM, then we were supposed to be in Juneau from 1:30 to 9:30 PM. I was up at 5:00 AM to get dressed warmly and ready to take lots of pictures in Tracy Arm, when the Captain announced that we would not be able to enter the fjord because of low visibility. Now, having been around the ocean quite a bit, I know morning fog is a very common thing, and I had been concerned about this for a long time before the cruise. Unfortunately, due to the time constraints we had, we did not have a lot of choices for this trip as far as itineraries. Now, I realize that Princess cannot control the weather, but I do think that, given that this is a very important part of the itinerary for this cruise, that Princess should look very hard at rescheduling Tracy Arm so they are not trying to sail into a fjord at 6:00 AM, when its quite likely to be foggy. To me, thats just common sense, and thats why I am putting this under BAD. As it turns out, missing Tracy Arm was not the only disappointment for the day. A bit before we arrived in Juneau, the Captain announced that all flightseeing trips for the day had been cancelled due to poor visibility. This was a real kick in the teeth following the cancellation of Tracy Arm. Now, I am not suicidal, and I have no desire whatsoever to experience a floatplane crash into the side of an Alaskan mountain. The reason I take issue with this cancellation is that our flight was SIX HOURS away. Visibility could certainly have improved in that time, and in fact planes and helos did operate out of Juneau later in the day. It seems to me very premature that they cancelled all flights for the entire day, and I dont know if this has something to do with Princesss arrangement with the tour operators or what. Again, very disappointing, and I am not sure that it was totally necessary. I would think that the flights would be evaluated and cancelled, if necessary, on a flight by flight basis. Oh, they did open up the Shore Excursions office in case you wanted to try to schedule something else&.good luck, the line was a mile long and not moving at all. Imagine each person affected standing at the counter one at a time and trying to figure out how to reschedule their shore excursions at the last minute&.not a pretty picture.
One other thing bothered me about this cruise, and that was the number of photographs that went to waste. Most of the photos taken by the on-board photographers were pretty cheesy -- pictures with someone in a moose suit at the bottom of the gangway as you were disembarking at a port of call, for instance. These are printed up nicely on 8x10 paper, and put up in the photo shop, where you can hunt for your pics and buy them if you want. They are $19.95. I saw very few actually purchased, and huge stacks of them that were ultimately thrown away. This is quite wasteful, and expensive. I am sure the cost for the people who actually buy them could be quite a bit less if it werent for the waste. There has got to be a better, more cost effective, less wasteful way to do this. And it would help with sales if the pictures were less cheesy. If I want my picture taken with some guy in an animal suit, Ill go to Disneyland, thanks.
Please dont get the impression we hated the cruise from this section of the review. Although this was the most disappointing day, we did enjoy the time we did spend in Juneau, and I will cover that more in a bit.
Ugly: The only thing I think was really ugly about this cruise was the high-pressure sales pitch you were subjected to. As this was my first cruise, I have nothing to compare it to, but a number of other people I talked with who had been on other cruises said this was the worst cruise for having them trying to sell you stuff every time you turned around. On the first day, they introduced the cruise staff, and one of the individuals was the Discover Shopping Guide. Lets call him Mr. DGS for short, although I do have another name in mind for him. But since I want to keep this family friendly, Ill refrain from using that one! Now, its kind of hard to describe Mr. DGS, but he kind of reminds me of a cross between a Donald Trump wannabe and a snake oil salesman. Mr. DGS has one purpose in life, and thats to get you to shop rather than sightsee, and not only to shop, but to shop where Princess wants you to, at the stores that Princess must certainly either own or get a kickback from. (In fact, there are some shops that have signs stating they are not on your ships shopping map because they refuse to pay a kickback to the cruise lines!) Mr. DGS did a little spiel about shopping and about a seminar he would be doing. He showed the audience a diamond bracelet and promised everyone who attended his seminar they would get one. At the end of the presentation, when they dismissed the cruise staff from the stage, Mr. DGS pulled the case containing the diamond bracelet from his jacket pocket, looked knowingly at the audience, and tapped the case a couple of times. Dont forget, a free diamond bracelet!! Very theatrical, and I almost barfed. Of course, after his seminar, everyone on the ship got a coupon for a free diamond charm bracelet, redeemable at Diamonds International. I am reasonably sure this was the same bracelet, and the poor people who sat through Mr. DGSs shopping seminar just to get a free bracelet could have saved some time. Now, I am extremely fortunate in that my wife does not get weak-kneed every time someone mentions jewelry or diamonds, so Mr. DGS didnt have a huge effect on our cruise. Although we did some shopping, we did it where and when we wanted, when it didnt interfere with what we had gone to Alaska to actually do, which was not simply to shop. But Princess is SURE you went to Alaska to shop!
On day two of the cruise, we went to a presentation by the ship's naturalist, Alan, who I will say was very good. However, when we arrived at the Princess Theater for the naturalist presentation, Mr. DGS was up on stage, in a fever pitch, telling people where to shop and who to ask for. Oh, this place is so great; circle it on your map TWICE!!! Etc. etc. All the people who were there for the naturalist presentation are standing outside waiting to get in, while Mr. DGS drones on and on, going well past his allotted time and into the naturalists time, and creating a huge traffic jam when all the shopping seminar people are trying to get out of the theater and the people there for the naturalist presentation are trying to get in. Nice work, Mr. DGS. Every time you turn around, you were being given shopping guides showing where Princess wants you to shop. They were stuck inside your Princess Patters, shoved in your hands as you went down the gangway, etc. And it didnt stop there, it went on a lot of other places. One night at dinner our waiter was trying to sell a cookbook!! In his defense, I am sure he had no choice in the matter and had other things he would rather have been doing. We had other things we would rather have been doing, too.
Later in the cruise, on one of the shore excursions, an older gentleman asked the tour guide/bus driver (more on that later) where Diamonds International was located. Now, I am sure the poor old guy was under pressure from his wife to retrieve the free diamond bracelet they were promised, and while I did feel sorry for him, at the same time I wanted to grab him by the neck and shout MY GOD, MAN!!! They are on every street corner, and they have given you 700 maps showing how to get there!!!
Now, thats all ugly enough, but here is the REALLY UGLY part. These beautiful little Alaskan towns are losing their local flavor to chain merchants. I am sure many of these chain stores are actually owned by the cruise companies. They are buying up the property, and driving out the local shops. And everyplace the cruise ships stop, the same stores are there. Skagway, permanent population 800, has a Diamonds International. Where in the real world would a town of 800 have a diamond store?? I think there is a real danger here, and I think the danger is not only to those of us who think Alaska is a beautiful place. There is a danger to the cruise industry too, if they dont behave responsibly and continue to commercialize these small towns to the point they lose their appeal. There is a modern version of the gold rush going on, with the cruise industry catching the Alaska gold fever. There is a great deal of money to be made here, by the cruise industry and by the people of Alaska, as tourism is big business. But Alaskas appeal is directly related to its wilderness, ruggedness and old fashioned charm. If thats lost, all you have is a cold, wet, rainy place that no one will want to go to. I really hope thats not where its headed, but people dont tend to use good judgment when a lot of money is involved.
Now, lets move on and talk about some good stuff. First Ill cover the ship, Sun Princess, and cruise experience in general, then well move on to talk a bit about each port of call.
The Sun Princess, and the cruising experience.
We flew into Seattle the morning of the cruise on Alaska Airlines. The flight was fine, although one of the flight attendants was cranky. I dont really like to fly all that much, and am always happiest at landing. Apparently the pilot missed mother earth too, because he smacked the plane into the runway pretty good. In his defense, there was some rough air on the approach, so I will forgive him this time. Our flight arrived around 9:30 AM, and we held Princess transfers. We met the Princess transfer representative at the baggage carousel, and were directed to a luggage holding area at the far end of the terminal. We had to haul our own luggage there, but we managed fine. Once we dropped our luggage off at their holding area, we did not see it again until it was delivered to our room, and it was delivered well before dinner. I had read about how smooth Princesss embarkation procedure is, and I would probably agree. The only bad thing for us was that our flight arrived a bit earlier in the day, so we had some waiting before we could board.
After we checked in at the terminal, we had a little wait until they opened the doors that said to ship. Hooray, we can get on board!! Well, no, we just get to wait in a big warehouse for an hour and a half or so. Even that would not be so bad, but it was HOT and there was no air moving in there. Heat is not usually a problem in Seattle, but it was this day. Some of the more elderly people were having trouble with the heat during this long wait. I have two words for Princess&..fans and water. We had our first encounter with Princesss on-board photographers (even though we werent on board yet), as the line entered the warehouse they took a picture in front of a cheesy-looking studio backdrop of a mountain. Finally, after sweltering in the warehouse for a while, we got started through security and out the gangway to the ship. Security involves walking through a metal detector and putting your carry-ons through an x-ray machine, just like at the airport. You will do this every time you get back on the ship at each port of call too. They dont seem overzealous though, I took on an Ulu knife with no problem, and my wife bought a metal letter opener that got through with no problem. I do have one pet peeve, and it applies at airports too&.having to put expensive cameras on a conveyor belt. Anyway, we finally got on the gangway. Yes, there are people set up in the covered gangway selling stuff. Get used to it. As we proceeded up the gangway, I watched them loading luggage, food and fuel into the ship.
We finally got on board, checked out or cabin, grabbed a bite at the Horizon buffet, and started to explore the ship a bit.
Our cabin was B217, an oceanview deluxe near the front of the ship on the starboard side. It was nice, good lighting, and clean. Our cabin was nice and quiet. Much quieter than many hotel rooms we have stayed in. I dont know if we just got lucky and got quiet neighbors, or the cabins were really well soundproofed, but noise was never a problem. Not much room in the bathroom, think of an RV bathroom for a good comparison. We really didnt spend much time in the cabin, and it was more than adequate for our needs. One thing I really enjoyed was that there is a big porch on the front of the ship just forward of our cabin we could go out on for air or sightseeing. This was the next best thing to a private balcony and it was very convenient and enjoyable.
A little more about the ship. Sun Princess was launched in 1994, so its about 12 years old. I understand that at the time, it was the biggest cruise ship afloat, but is considered a smaller ship by todays standards. I really liked it. It was easy to find your way around. By the end of the first day, I had the layout of the ship pretty well down. There is also a Sun Princess Pocket Guide provided in your stateroom if you need a bit of help. I dont think many people had much trouble getting around, although on the sixth day of the cruise I did see two ladies, pocket guide in hand, who were lost. Maybe an even smaller ship would be better for them.
For a bit older ship, the Sun Princess is in excellent condition. Think of someone with an older car who has taken meticulous care of it, and this is what you have with the Sun. Yes, if you looked hard you could see signs of age every once in a while, but it was very well maintained and spotlessly clean. The crew obviously took a lot of pride in the ship. There was constant maintenance work going on, every time we were in port there was painting going on on the outside. The crew was sanding and refinishing a lot of the teak wood on the ship, and doing other maintenance. Now, dont worry that you will be inconvenienced by all this, they do it in ways that are of very minimal inconvenience to the passengers, and I never felt it was a problem at all. On one occasion I heard a staff member in the dining room talking to a passenger about how clean they keep the kitchen. He was telling the passenger that they scored a 99 on their inspection, and that 100 was impossible to achieve. He told the passenger that many brand new ships do not score that high. This type of pride was normal among the crew that I encountered.
Im not going to go into detail on all the shops, lounges, etc., as you can find that kind of info on Princesss website. Service in all of them was good. We did not go into the casino after checking it out on the first day, but from what I heard there were few winners in there. In fact, the cruise staff on several occasions referred to this, saying if passengers liked they could go to the casino and make a donation!! Overall, I would have to say the crew and staff were excellent. Our room steward was a young lady named Michelle, and she did a very good job. As soon as my wife sat on the bed the first time, she decided it was too hard. I asked Michelle to put an egg-crate foam thingie on if they had one available. She said they did, but seemed a little put out by the request. I think she must have just been overwhelmed on that first day, as the rest of the time she was friendly and did an excellent job. I did come to appreciate the very hard work the crew on the Sun does to keep the ship in perfect condition and everyone fed, etc.
You may already know that Inside Passage cruises leaving Seattle actually sail on the seaward side of Vancouver Island. Because of this, you do get some rocking on the ship, mostly on the two sea days. This never became pronounced and I did not hear anyone complain of seasickness. I also did not hear a peep about Norovirus. We used the hand sanitizers to be safe, but I dont think it surfaced on this trip.
The one bad thing is the elevators, they are slow. This is made worse by the fact that people get in the habit of pushing the call buttons for all the elevators, then taking the first one that gets there. There were many, many times the elevator would stop on a given deck and no one would be there, having taken another elevator. This just made them even slower. I am thinking there has to be a way to better program these elevators to speed them up a bit. There are banks of elevators forward and aft that cover all the decks accessible to passengers (5 to 14) and a pair of glass elevators in the Atrium that service only decks 5 through 8.
Entertainment on the ship consisted mostly of various production shows and several comedians. On the last day, a couple of the comedians did an adults only show at midnight that was very good. The other comedy shows were not great, but not bad either. I think you have to keep in mind the venue for the entertainment. Sun Princess is in actuality a small town, not the strip in Vegas. Given the venue and size of the audience, it wasnt bad. The same holds true of the production shows. The singers and dancers in these are younger people, probably students hoping to get a start in the entertainment business, and keeping that in mind I thought they did an excellent job. Again, this is a small town, not Broadway. Since my wife and I dont drink or gamble much, the shows were a nice alternative to spend the evenings and I appreciate the effort the performers put into them. On the last evening, there was a talent show for the passengers that was fun and entertaining. There were lots of various other activities for those interested, such as bingo, trivia, and art auctions. We didnt go to the art auctions, but did admire some of the art. There was one artist we thought was very good, but we heard the pieces were going for outrageous prices. I dont know how much was actually sold. Again, we didnt go to Alaska to buy art, unless it was native art, and this wasnt.
Now, the important stuff..FOOD!!! On the advice of our TA, and this being our first cruise, we had selected the anytime dining rather than traditional. We are thinking on our next cruise we will try traditional dining. The thing we didnt like about anytime was having to get to know different people every night, but never getting a chance to know them well. We were always seated at a table for 8, and this is how it worked. You would go to the dining room, and they would seat you. We were often the first or second couple seated at the table. You would introduce yourself around, and about the time you started to settle in and look over the menu, they would seat another couple at the table. So, you start all over, and then pretty soon another couple would be seated, and you would start all over again. I think you get the idea. With traditional dining, you dont have to go through three rounds of introductions every night, and you get a chance to know your table mates better, as well as your waiters. With anytime dining, you have different waiters every night, and while they were very efficient and professional, they are somewhat aloof, as you never get to know them very well. On one evening they served king crab legs, which I love. We were fortunate to have an excellent waiter that evening who ordered several extra plates to make sure everyone had all the king crab they could eat. We will talk more about tipping in a bit, but this is the one time I was in a quandary. I would have loved to tip our waiter a bit extra, but as I had not seen anyone else in anytime dining do so, I wasnt sure how it would look. And of course, I never had the same waiter again. So we are thinking we will try traditional dining next time.
I have seen a tremendous amount of discussion on the boards about the dress code, formal nights etc. I did not personally see anyone on any night that was not dressed appropriately in the dining rooms, whether it was a smart casual or a formal night. I dont know whether the dress code was strictly enforced or everyone just abided voluntarily, but I never saw a problem. Now, lunch and breakfast saw jeans and shorts, but never dinner. Not a problem here at all, as far as I was concerned.
As far as the food, I found the food in the dining rooms very good. We ate breakfast in the dining room only one time, as we found the buffet faster and more convenient for that meal. And scrambled eggs are pretty much scrambled eggs, whether in the dining room or the buffet. We did eat lunch in the dining room several times, and in the buffet the rest. Dinner is where the dining room really stands out, and unless we were too late getting back from a shore excursion, we ate in the dining room and really enjoyed the food at dinner. It was always delicious, and there were plenty of options. The deserts were terrific, and varied. I loved the hazelnut ice cream, and I need to find out who makes it for them. My wife absolutely loved going to afternoon tea. I went only once, but she enjoyed it greatly and went every time she got a chance.
We did eat quite a bit also in Horizon court, especially on days we had port calls. Its a buffet, and the food was standard buffet type food. Not nearly as fancy as the dining room, but quick, convenient, and not too bad. I did hear from other passengers that it wasnt as good as they had experienced on other cruises, but I am not sure if they were referring to quality or variety. Anyway, I thought the buffet was quite adequate. We did not try any of the other dining venues. I would have liked to try the pizza, as I had heard it was quite good, but we just did not get around to it. Likewise, we wanted to try Sterling Steakhouse just to see how it was, but never got it done.
Overall, I would rate the Regency and Marquis dining rooms as excellent and the Horizon Court as very good, keeping in mind it IS a buffet.
Coffee is a subject I had heard quite a bit of discussion about prior to going on this cruise. We both require a caffeine jumpstart in the AM, and enjoy coffee with desert at dinner. So, here is my impression as a coffee drinker. The dining room coffee was excellent; the coffee in Horizon Court was palatable, but fairly strong and somewhat bitter. I did see them refilling the syrup machine one day and it is made of syrup. Maybe it was a good combo, the buffet coffee was strong enough to wake you up and the dining room coffee was perfect with desert. Along the same lines, there has been a lot of discussion about the soda stickers. We did not buy one, as we are perfectly happy drinking iced tea. We did run into several people during the cruise who were upset about them, saying that the other cruise lines they have been on do not charge for soda. I have no experience with other cruise lines to either confirm or refute this, so all I can do is tell you there were a few people who were unhappy about it.
As far as tipping is concerned, we had the automatic tipping in place. I did tip our room steward extra several times during the cruise, as well as most of the tour guides. If we had been in regular dining, I am sure I would have tipped extra to our waiters also, but it didnt seem to be done in the anytime dining room. The crew does work very hard and they do certainly deserve their tips.
One thing that I had expected, based on what I had read, was that the average age of the passengers would be just a bit older. I had read that Alaska cruises tend to attract an older crowd. My wife and I are 47, and I think we very much the average age on this trip. Yes, there were some older people, but many younger ones also. There were some kids, but they were never really a problem. A few doors down from us was a room with three boys about 12 to 14 years old. We never saw their parents, and we think they may have been on a different ship. They did get a bit rowdy in the hall a few times, but overall were pretty well behaved and did not make nuisances out of themselves, except perhaps to the room stewards.
Ports of Call
Seattle -- Our sail away from Seattle on Sunday was beautiful. It was a bright, warm, sunny day and the view of Seattle from the ship was just wonderful. There were sailboats out, and people para-sailing and kayaking. To me, kayaking in the same waters that 80000 ton ships are transiting doesnt seem too appealing, but at least some people apparently think its a good idea. The weather was so sunny and warm, it gave us hope for the same weather for the rest of the trip, but that would not last long.
The weather on day two, a sea day, gave us a pretty good preview of what we would have every day until we got back to Victoria on the return trip. Cloudy, overcast, and intermittent rain showers. Not a lot of sunbathing went on except for the first and last days of the cruise. The good thing is, it was never hard to find a deck chair!!
The rest of the cruise, we experienced what our naturalist called typical Alaskan weather. And he had some very good advice: Dont worry about it, and dont let it stop you from doing what you came to do. While my wife and I carried lightweight rain gear, we never used it, as we never had any really serious rain. Drizzle and overcast, yes. I did buy a nice rain jacket on board that folds up into its own little pack, to give to my son that lives in Portland OR. Most of the time we wore lightweight jackets over shirts and were plenty warm and dry. The day we went did the Whitepass RR in Skagway, I wore the jacket with a t-shirt under it, and wished I had worn a heavier shirt, but that was the only day I was at all uncomfortable. And I spent most of the train ride riding out on the back platform in a damp drizzle. You do need a light, water-resistant jacket and a layer or two underneath it. You dont need a parka and snow boots.
Day 3, Ketchikan -- I woke up early as I wanted to be on deck when we arrived at Ketchikan, but when I peeked out the window, we were already there. We arrived a bit early, and the first thing I saw out our window was the Welcome to Ketchikan, Alaskas First City sign I had seen so many pictures of. I went up on deck 14 to take some pictures. I even got dressed first, much to the relief of the other passengers, and I am sure, the Captain. We had a tour scheduled in Ketchikan, called Best of Ketchikan by Land and Sea, a bit later in the day. We got a quick bite in the Horizon Court, and then went ashore to look around and shop.
Getting downtown in Ketchikan was pretty easy. You just step off the ship!! We ended up spending most of our time a block or two over on Creek Street, though, rather than in the dockside shops. Creek Street is beautiful and unique, and its one of the places that makes Alaska worth visiting. I hope it stays at it is, and does not lose its beauty and local flavor. We wandered around a bit more, and then headed back to the dock to meet up for the shore excursion we had scheduled. It was easy enough to find locate the person in charge of our shore excursion, who then directed us to go down this street to that street, take a right, go a couple blocks, and then look for a girl named Tia. Well, OK. We can do that, but if we had a member of our group who was handicapped it might have been a problem. Or if someone got lost it might have been a problem. We did find Tia with no problems, and after a short wait, we boarded a boat for the sea part of the tour. This was done by Allen Marine, and consisted of a group of about 12 or 14 of us on a boat with a tour guide, a driver, and an assistant. It was a very nice little tour, we saw our first of many bald eagles and a lot of really nice scenery. This was our first glimpse of how overwhelmingly beautiful Alaska was going to be. The crew on the boat were all Ketchikan natives, and of course very knowledgeable about the area. We pulled into little inlets to see purple and orange starfish on the rocks, viewed breathtaking waterfalls, and pulled right up next to the faces of granite cliffs to see how precariously the trees clung to the rocks. This, the marine portion of the tour, was excellent!! The boat then deposited us at the old Libby cannery, where a bald eagle was sitting on the roof as if on cue. Now, this is an old, defunct cannery where they used to can salmon. They have a short video that explains about the process of catching (in those days, by nets) the salmon and processing them. Its a little bit interesting, but does not really deserve the time it takes. In my opinion, the time spent inside the cannery should be shortened, and visitors given more time to explore the outside. There is some really nice scenery in the area, and some great photo opportunities with the old, rustic buildings on the ground. Finally, you hike over a short trail to where the bus is parked. The trail passes through the rain forest, and its really beautiful along the trail. Unfortunately, once we boarded the bus, things went a little downhill. Whenever you read a description of a Princess shore excursion and it says tour by motor coach, you need to mentally substitute the words bus ride. This was to be a bit of a pet peeve of mine several more times during the cruise, but especially here and in Victoria BC. We were bused to Saxman village to see the totem poles. Now, if you are going to Ketchikan, you WILL see the totem poles. Not that I have anything against totem poles, but you need to realize they are a very big thing in Ketchikan. In fact, so much was made of the totem poles that I guess I was a little let down by Saxman village. Not much there, but some totem poles. There is a shop where they are carving new totem poles, and you can watch if you are interested. There is nothing wrong with this stop, but I guess I just expected a bit more to be there. The good thing is, no one is trying to sell you anything, they just want to make sure you dont get out of Ketchikan without seeing the totem poles. We reboarded the bus, and this is where things got a bit annoying. The bus driver/tour guide decided he just had to sing a birthday beat to whoever had a birthday close to that date. The selected victim was an elderly gentleman, who did not seem real thrilled about having happy birthday rapped to him. But the driver insisted, and during the song managed to insert the word tip into the song several times. I guess this was his way of subconsciously planting the idea we should tip the tour guide, but I am afraid it didnt work. This was the only time I didnt tip the tour guide, in fact.
On arriving back at the ship, we took a few more pictures. I had missed the famous Ketchikan rain gauge on arrival, so grabbed some quick pics with that, then boarded the ship. I stayed up on the top deck for sail away. The naturalist did a very nice narration as we sailed out of Ketchikan. Literally dozens of float planes were taking off and landing from Ketchikan harbor at this time also, one right after another.
Day 4, Tracy Arm and Juneau -- If you read the bad section at the beginning of the review, you already know our day didnt start out well. This was to be our big day for viewing glaciers, and with Tracy Arm and our glacier flightseeing both cancelled, we had a bitterly disappointing start to the day. I wont go into that further here as its already been covered.
The location of the dock we were at in Juneau was not as convenient as it was in Ketchikan. Although it doesnt appear to be that far from downtown, its really a pretty long walk, as you cant walk straight there but have to skirt around some other properties. Fortunately, there are convenient and free shuttles that take you the mile or so to where the Mt. Roberts tram is, which is pretty much downtown. We had a shore excursion, A Taste of Juneau, scheduled right after arrival, so we took off on that first. This consisted of a trip to the Taku salmon smokery, where they talked about the fishing industry as well as their business of processing salmon and halibut. I was surprised to find that the halibut are more valuable than the salmon. Another interesting thing came up here. It was first touched on at the Libby cannery in Ketchikan the day before, but reiterated here. Alaskans are snobs about salmon. As I mentioned earlier, I have lived in Oregon and Idaho most of my life. We have salmon in our rivers, at least a few. Much publicity has been given to the fact these salmon are endangered, and there has been a lot of talk about breaching some dams to improve the salmon runs. Our endangered salmon are Coho and Sockeye, and these are hardly considered worth eating by the Alaskans. It was made clear to us in both Ketchikan and Juneau that only Silver and King salmon are worth eating!! It was also pointed out that there are far more bald eagles than people in Alaska, and that those were never endangered there, either. From the smokery, we proceeded to the Alaskan Brewing company. There we got to sample all the beer we wanted, and a very entertaining man named Tony gave the rundown on how they make their beer and the history of their company. This was a very popular stop, and we had trouble getting everyone back on the bus. When we did, we headed out to Mendenhall glacier. This would be the only glacier we would see on the cruise, so it was an important stop for some of us. Our tour guide/bus driver was on his last trip of the day, and very graciously offered to let us spend more time than scheduled at the glacier. However, one or two people piped up that they wanted to stick to the schedule. I am pretty sure these were the same people we had to just about drag out of the brewery. My wife and I would have loved to have more time at Mendenhall Glacier. It was beautiful, and there were trails in the area we would have liked to have taken. One of the rangers told us there were bears in the area feeding on the spawning salmon, so with a bit of time, we might have gotten to see a bear. Instead we were rushed to see the glacier and immediate area; I didnt even have time to get to the visitor center itself.
From there, it was back to the ship. On the way back, the driver took us by some of the Juneau sights and government buildings, and provided some interesting info. He was one of our better tour guides, although they are in a way limited to being more bus drivers. I did appreciate him trying to give us more time at Mendenhall, and tipped him accordingly. After returning to the ship, we dropped off some of the cameras and stuff in our cabin, then left it again, catching a shuttle down to the tram. We then wandered about downtown, and made a very brief but important stop at the Red Dog Saloon. My wife, you see, is related to Wyatt Earp. One of his pistols, which he left with the Marshall in Juneau, is on display there, so we got some pictures of it for my wifes family photo album. Unfortunately, people were elbow to elbow in the Red Dog, so we didnt stay. We then did some shopping before returning to the ship.
Day 5, Skagway -- We arrived in Skagway and docked right behind the Coral Princess. The Coral is a pretty ship, with its dark blue glass exposed balconies and windows. The hillside next to the dock we were at (there is another dock a little ways away) was covered with the names and dates of cruise ships, painted on the rocks. It is a tradition that the first time a ship goes to Skagway, the crew paints the name and insignia on the rocks. This has been done since the gold rush days apparently. Anyway, after getting off the ship, we boarded a bus to set off on our shore excursion, called Best of Skagway. This started out with a trip on the White Pass railway. This was absolutely one of the high points of the trip, and I am so glad we did it. Our group was assigned to the last two cars on the train, so I headed for the very last one. This allowed me to stand on the platform at the very back of the train and get some really nice pictures. It was chilly and drizzly, but the scenery was so fantastic I did not mind a bit. The trip can be just a bit scary at times, as the train tracks run right along the edge of very high cliffs, but you are past those areas before you really notice where you are. The train took us to Fraser, BC. We could not get off the train until Canadian customs walked through and glanced at everyones ID. And a glance was about it. However, one member of our tour was detained by Canadian Customs, although he did join back up with us later. I am not sure what the issue was. Then, we got on a bus for the trip back down the mountain. Again, this was pretty much just a narrated bus ride, although the driver was knowledgeable and did a good job.
The bus took us to Liarsville, a delightful little fake gold rush camp. Did I mention it had been chilly and drizzly? Well, at Liarsville we were greeted with a very much appreciated hot meal. (Note: not all tours of Liarsville include a meal; it depends on the tour you are on.) We had some excellent fresh grilled salmon, chicken, pasta, baked beans, rice etc., and some nice hot coffee!! Because I was chilly and hungry, I will remember this as one of the best meals of the cruise!! They then give you a little time to wander around the camp, take pictures, visit the gift shop (I think even the rest areas in Alaska must have gift shops&at least in tourist country!), take some pictures, and visit with the characters before the show. The show is just kind of a skit, but fun and entertaining. You then pan for gold. They tell you bluntly that no gold was ever found in Skagway, so they got theirs from Canada, just like everyone else did. Liarsville, while of course completely fake, was a very fun stop and we enjoyed it immensely. There is a beautiful waterfall by the gold panning troughs, make sure to get some pictures there. Back on the bus, we headed down to town and a visit to the famous Red Onion Saloon. And brothel. We had an interesting and informative tour there, starting in the upstairs where the, uh, whorehouse, was located. The saloon itself was quite crowded, so we didnt hang out there long. My wife and I then proceeded to explore Skagway on our own. It is a neat little town, with some interesting old buildings. But, there were four ships in port, so there were about 10000 people in this little town of 800 residents. It was pretty crowded. When we finally got tired, we caught a shuttle back to the ship.
Sailing out of Skagway was kind of sad, as we really enjoyed Alaska and would have loved to have more time to explore it. We had two little U.S. Coast Guard boats escort us for quite a ways out of Skagway, and the naturalist again talked about the area, sights, and wildlife on the way out. He did a great job again, and again was very knowledgeable about the area and its history. The Coast Guard looked like they meant business, there were FN MAG 7.62mm machine guns mounted on the boats, and they zipped all around the ship, visually checking it with binoculars as well as maintaining a secure zone around the ship. One of the other passengers had served in the Coast Guard, and commented that Skagway is great duty in the summer, but pure hell in the winter. Whatever they were looking for, they were deadly serious about it, and not just out for a pleasure boat ride.
Day 6, at sea. A sea day, and the second night of Formal dining. We took it easy this day, catching some of the shows etc. By later in the day, we were starting to hit clearer skies and people were starting to spend more time out on deck, enjoying the deck chairs, pools and hot tubs. Quite a few people were in the steamer chairs on the Promenade deck, many of the snoozing. We did quite a bit of walking on the prom deck, enjoying the weather, watching for whales, and trying to walk off some of the calories we had been packing away all week. We went to the last of the production shows, and to the champagne waterfall that evening.
Day 7, Victoria BC -- We spent most of the day just like the day before. Several times during the cruise there had been pilots on board, and this day we picked up the pilot for Victoria. We happened to be walking on the prom deck as the pilot boat approached, and watched the transfer. This happens, by the way, without the ship stopping. The pilot boat simply pulled up next to the Sun, and the pilot stepped off and through a door in the side of the ship. Very quick and easy on a calm day like we had that day. Very different and tricky on a stormy day with heavy seas, I am sure. The Captain came over the loudspeaker and advised that due to favorable currents, we would arrive in Victoria about an hour early. This we did, and we had a shore excursion scheduled there, called Victoria Highlights and Mt. Tolmie. Getting off the ship and through Canadian Customs was again quick and easy, just a matter of waving ID at them. I thought at the time this was too easy, but then I remembered that the ship provides them with all the passenger info well before it docks. They have already pre-screened it and determined if there is anyone they are interested in before they ever allow passengers and crew off the ship. Our tour guide was a Victoria native, very properly British in manner and voice, and boringly monotone during his narration. He was extremely knowledgeable about the buildings and architecture in Victoria. However, this was another case of a Princess tour being mostly a narrated bus ride. We saw the Empress Hotel, and the Parliament building, as we drove by. There was no stopping for even a few minutes to look or take pictures. We proceeded to Craigdarroch castle, where we took a self-guided tour. It is a very beautiful and interesting place. I would note this, the Princess info said you are not allowed to use flash photography in the castle, and that is not the case. They welcome you taking all the flash pictures you want. Now, for some strange reason, the bus does not drop you at the castle, but parks several blocks away. You then walk up a hill to the castle. I am not sure why this is. There is parking at the castle, and I do understand they may not want it taken up by buses. But it would be simpler to drop the tour group off at the castle, go park the bus, and then reverse the process at the end of the tour. The reason for this is, several people apparently took a wrong turn and had trouble getting back to the bus. I thought we were going to have to call out the Mounties to go find them. After the castle, we drove through more of Victoria and up to the top of a mountain. We were supposed to stop at the top of the mountain, as it has I guess a terrific view of the city. From my side of the bus, I had a terrific view of the parking lot, and we did not stop as the bus driver could not find room to park the bus. Apparently driving around the block and waiting for a parking place has not occurred to the Canadians yet. We then proceeded to drive through some various neighborhoods and through the University of Victoria. The UV has a rabbit problem. Apparently, some pet rabbits have been released and allowed to do what rabbits do best unabated. They were everywhere, and I guess its a health problem due to the rabbit poop, but no in has the wherewithal to deal with the problem as the rabbits are cute.
My wife and I had discussed taking a shuttle or something after the tour, to go back and see the Empress and Parliament building etc., but by the time we got back to the ship, it was getting dark and we were tired, so we did not go back. I do think Princess needs to improve their tours, and add some stops at points of interest, even if they are just a few minutes. They need to remember the people on the other side of the bus dont get to see much during a drive by tour.
The Final Day, and Disembarkation -- Princess had provided a disembarkation packet, with colored/numbered luggage tags, the day prior. We were in group White 4, and had put our luggage out the evening before to be picked up. According to their disembarkation schedule, we were supposed to leave the boat at around 9:25 AM. Our flight did not leave Seattle until nearly 3:00, so we werent in any hurry. Princess was, though!! It quickly became apparent they were calling disembarkation groups much quicker than the schedule called for. We were called an hour ahead of schedule, and proceeded down the gangway to the same warehouse type building where our cruise started a week before. Guess what? Its still hot in there!! Our luggage was not off the ship yet, so we repeated the waiting part again. After a while, the big luggage containers started arriving, and Princess staff started laying the luggage out in rows. The passengers were kept behind barricades until all the luggage was laid out. I asked one of the Princess reps if the luggage was being laid out in any particular order, and they did not know. It turns out it was not in any kind of order, nor were you bags kept together. The end result, when they finally lifted the barricades, was very much like a giant Easter egg hunt. Pure mayhem. And then, as people started digging through the stacks and trying to drag their luggage out, they would knock over other luggage, blocking the aisles and adding to the confusion. Not a fun time. I had my wife stay in a relatively safe corner with the carry-on bags, and I dove into the fray four times to find and retrieve our four bags. Remember that we had Princess transfers? On disembarkation, that means you participate in the Wild Easter Egg/Luggage Melee, drag your luggage to the bus (there are not nearly enough porters, if you want one, grab him early), and once at the airport, you are dropped off at a big canopy type thing set up in the parking lot. Of course, the other 7000 people who just got off cruise ships are there too, so the line is long and slow. A very important lesson was learned here: For less than the price of the Princess transfer (aka bus ride), we could have carried our own luggage off the ship at 7:00 AM using express disembarkation, skipped the whole Easter egg hunt thing, and gotten a taxi to the airport, where we could have gone through the normal check in lines instead of the special cruise ship passenger lines. SeaTac was a madhouse, and I am betting it had a lot to do with a lot of arriving/departing cruise ship passengers. Next time we will know better.
The flight out was uneventful, but the TSA people at SeaTac were really pissy. One lady guard pretty much threatened me with a cavity search because I didnt hear her tell me to take my shoes off. This was kind of annoying, because you put your stuff on the conveyor belt to the x-ray machine, then stepped over to the metal detector, where they told you take your shoes off and take them back over to the conveyor belt. Then, while everyone was trying to get their shoes back on, the stuff on the conveyor belt was falling all over the floor because the belt was full, but they did not stop it. Not their problem if your stuff gets lost or broken, I guess.
Overall, we really enjoyed Alaska and we hope to return soon. We also really enjoyed the cruise, and we plan to take more. But, we have not decided for sure that our next Alaska trip will be by cruise ship. We have also not decided that we will necessarily cruise Princess next time either. While we enjoyed the trip, there were some things that could have been a bit better. This being our first cruise, we have no standard to compare it to. So, while we would certainly consider Princess again based on price and itinerary, we would also consider alternatives. We had actually planned to purchase future cruise credits during this cruise, but after the Tracy Arm/Flightseeing day we were so disappointed we decided to wait, and investigate some other cruise lines and other itineraries. In other words, the cruise was good, but not so great we have become Princess Cheerleaders. I will NEVER book another cruise where I have misgivings about the itinerary, as I did with Tracy Arm. Next time we will plan further ahead so we have more options.
I hope this review was helpful. Writing it, I felt as if I were emphasizing the negative too much, and I dont intend to do that. It was a terrific trip, and I would go again in a heartbeat. I again would make the following suggestions to Princess: Try to rearrange the itinerary to not hit Tracy Arm in the early morning. Fog is less of a problem later in the day, and you would greatly increase the chance of getting into the fjord if it were after 10:00 AM, or better yet, in the early afternoon. Dont cancel flightseeing trips prematurely. If there is some kind of arrangement with the tour operators that specifies that you have to cancel the whole day by a certain time, change it. And get your tour guides/bus drivers to STOP the bus once in a while! Seeing something from a moving bus past someone elses head from the wrong side of the bus is just not cutting it. And tone down the sales pitch! There was a lot of discussion about this among the passengers at dinner; I know I was not the only one who felt it was way overdone.
Finally, if you are thinking of going to Alaska, GO. Do it before more of the glaciers melt and before more of the small towns are turned into even worse tourist traps. Even if you get rained on, you will enjoy the trip! Read Less