I saw a nifty review set up like this and thought I would try it here for my blog and also for my review on Cruise Critic. I loved her format so here is mine for the Island Princess.
Overall: Our trip aboard the Island Princess and our self planned pre cruise tour was everything we ever dreamed it would be. Princess exceeded all of our expectations, in food, service and shipboard amenities. This was our second cruise without our children, the first being just a 2 day travel agent escape on a new ship and Pete and I had a fabulous time. There were a few things I would do differently, a few mistakes along the way, but all in all we had an amazing trip. I have never seen Pete smile so much, we relaxed and regrouped from our stressful jobs, treasured these experiences we were sharing with just each other and made some nice friends along the way.
I spent a significant amount of time planning and researching this trip on Cruise Critic and across the web and thoroughly loved the experience, though I would have preferred to have more time to do it. I booked this trip on Apr 5 and left for Alaska on May 21. I will say, however it is possible to plan a last minute vacation fairly easily thanks to places like Cruise Critic!
About Us: We are a couple in our mid to late 50's, first timers to Princess and Alaska! I am a Princess Commodore/Elite member, and had just gotten my Alaskan Specialist certification for Princess. We set sail on the Island Princess out of Whittier on May 24th, 2010, after a 3 day pre-cruise trip to Denali National Park. Ports of Call were Juneau, Skagway, Ketchikan, with one day each of scenic cruising at Hubbard Glacier and in Glacier Bay National Park. We have cruised many times previously on Carnival, and once each on NCL, and Royal Caribbean. We are from San Diego, CA.
Comparisons of Princess with CCL & RCI: You may be wondering why I did not include NCL here. Our experience with them was poor overall, it being a Pride of America cruise during the times when the ship was having major issues with staffing. I know that NCL is probably a great cruise line outside of Hawaii and has probably improved quite a bit in Hawaii since we went, but I have not been willing to retry that line after our experience.
Food a. MDR: Princess was hands down the best in the main dining room. This was Alaska and we went expecting seafood and got it. There was barramundi, sea bass, king crab, shrimp lobster and salmon served. Salmon was an everyday choice on the menu! All were done extremely well with generous portions. Beef was a close second, with huge portions, and both the New York and Filets in the dining room were melt in your mouth tender and delicious. It was the best compared to all other lines for seafood and slightly better than Carnivals main dining room. Carnivals Supper clubs are better but not markedly so, and the portions are too large. Even the New York steak I had in the MDR on Island Princess was too large for me to eat. It looked to be between 8-10 oz.
Wait staff in the MDR was excellent, with none of the silly, campy wait staff entertainment as on Carnival. Head waiters, and the Maitre'D were impeccable and attentive. The head waiter prepare tableside salads or pastas and they are fabulous to both watch and taste. We had initially opted for late dining which we changed to early to be with friends. I will not do that again, since it made us feel rushed to get back to the ship each port day, and did not provide any real benefit to after dinner entertainment.
b. Buffet: The buffet on Princess was smaller than the Carnival and RCI ships and offered less choices, but the things it did offer were better, on most days we tried it. This may not be true on the larger ships. There were not the specialty stations that are available in Carnival and we missed that slightly at lunch. Breakfast's were good, the eggs tasted delicious and the coffee was drinkable. There was always fresh fruit salad which was great and the fresh fruit did not vanish mid week like on Carnival or RC ships which I found astounding since we were nowhere near anywhere that could have provided new rations! Lox and other smoked fish was available every morning which I took full advantage of. Grill items were good and I was told by friends the pizza was wonderful. Staff was excellent and there was always someone to ask if you wanted more coffee or juice. How the buffet handled crowds was better than any other ship we had been on.
Of the three specialty buffets on Island Princess we only sampled one, the Taste of Alaska which was amazing. Delicious choices and variety, although I was slightly disappointed not to get any crab, we had it later in the week at dinner.
We did not try a specialty restaurant and I am sorry we did not. I would have liked to have tried Sabatini's as we both love Italian food. We skipped this because we were initially set up to do Chef's Table, which was cancelled due to some illnesses aboard ship.
Winner in food and wait staff in for the MDR- Princess Winner variety in selections and choices at buffet- Carnival Winner in food at buffet- tie RCI and Princess Lesson: Eat Seafood, you are in ALASKA! If it is not your thing, try the beef or lamb. Go with the best dining plan for you. You can always meet up with friends after dinner. Or choose anytime dining if planning to dine with a group. Try the specialty restaurants if within your budget.
Drinks Neither Pete or I are big mixed drink fans. We had one each served in the Universe Lounge and it was strong and good. Bar staff were nice and not too pushy, which I liked. We did drink wine with dinner and never had an issue or problem with the waiters keeping our wine for the next night, it was magically there waiting for us.
Service I have never been on a ship where everyone is so happy. Maybe it's in the water!? All of the staff from pursers, to waiters to stewards wer wonderful. They are hands down the best as a whole and individually we have experienced so far. We have had some marvelous stewards on other lines but Wendy put them to shame. She was always so helpful, efficient and pleasant.
Entertainment I am sure there was good entertainment on board, I just did not find much of it. The production shows I felt were really bad, the singers failed to impress and the dancers were, well they were awful. Maybe American Idol , So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing with the Stars has jaded me, since I found myself as grumpy as Simon Cowell lambasting a bad performance. Giving the entertainment staff the benefit of the doubt, it being a new season and all, I still went away disappointed.
I did get the sense, there is not much in the way of late night nightlife, although I cannot say this for sure, since I was in bed before midnight every night. I am not sure if it was the fresh cold air, or the busy schedule for ports, but I was more tired than I usually am on a cruise. I took advantage of it and slept more, and read, which is my favorite cruise pass time, so I did miss some night life.
Specialty acts were a bit better and I enjoyed the comedians and magicians. The Cruise director Frank Castilgone was top notch, however, and I really loved his energy and personality. We had a nice chat about our hometowns one afternoon, since he grew up quite close to where we live. His assistant CD's were all personable and fun loving. He was the best shipboard cruise director, besides John Held of course, we have ever had. I do regret not going to hear the onboard naturalists and really only heard the one in Glacier bay. She seemed to be very good and gave us rich detail about the wildlife and natural history of the glaciers. Lesson: See the dining comments above... late dinner works better for us, stick to it. Go and listen to onboard entertainment in the nice clubs and go to lectures.
Pre-Cruise: 1. Denali National Park: We rented a car and drove to Denali, from Anchorage. Our original plan was to stay 3 nights and drive back to Anchorage on Monday to catch the ship. What I failed to realize when planning this was just how long this drive is. Sure it is only 5-6 hours but doing that on the morning of departure would have been a mistake. We changed our plans at the last minute and drove back on Sunday, losing a day in Denali.
We stayed at Denali Lakeview Inn, which was a wonderful bed and breakfast about 15 minutes from the Wilderness Access Center in Denali. It was spotless, the rooms were lovely and had nice continental breakfasts in room. The owners were very nice and had no problem with us leaving early with notice. It was important I think to note that the Princess Lodge was right on the highway, I was shocked about this. All the pictures you see are shot of the lodge seeming more remote than it is. That being said it is also in a great spot on the Nenana river and the access it has to Denali National park is nice, especially if you do not wish to drive yourself. it is a short walk or easy shuttle ride to the Wilderness Access Center in the park.
Denali was everything and more that you ever imagine and the drive up and back was fun and filled with beautiful sights. I loved everything about our Tundra Wilderness Tour and was very happy we picked it instead of the shorter Natural History Tour. We had an amazing tour guide Tom Richards and he made everything about Denali come to life with his vast knowledge of wildlife, and everything else Denali. Mt McKinley or Denali is it is properly called was out all three days were up there and we felt truly blessed to see it. Because we went early in the season, there was not as much grass or flowers as I would have liked, but I did know the tundra was likely to still be rather dead and wintery looking. Lesson: Spend at least 2 full days in Denali. Even more if you love nature, hiking or wild spaces. Take the Tundra Wilderness Tour, it is worth the time and money! If you have extra time take a shuttle to Eiselon or visit the Murie Science Center. Stay in a B& B if you want simpler Alaska style visit or one of the Lodges if not driving yourself. If you expect green everywhere and flowers, go in midsummer. Do not plan on driving back to Anchorage the day of your cruise! It is a LONG 5-6 hour drive on a 2 lane road.
2. Anchorage: Because we changed plans at the last minute we arrived back in Anchorage the night before our cruise. We had to scramble to find a hotel room, and they tend to be pricey in Anchorage. We "settled" for a room at the Puffin Inn, which looks ok, but really is not that OK. We had an awful room for what our gorgeous B&B cost, in downtown Anchorage. We kept telling ourselves just a few more hours and we will have our mini suite. BIG Lesson: Plan ahead and do not change your reservations. Had I known this now I would have gone a day early to Denali and found a reservation in a Cruise Critic recommended hotel. Puffin Inn is not really a very good choice in rooms even for just one night. Ports of Call/Excursions: 1. Cruising Hubbard Glacier: Hubbard is a very impressive glacier and is completely eye popping in size and scope. Our view was made even more impressive because a HAL ship was there in front of it when we sailed toward it. We did not get quite as close to the glacier as the HAL ship, probably because the Island's draft is a bit larger and deeper than the smaller HAL ship, but it was still impressive and very cold!
2. Cruising Glacier Bay: Everything anyone ever tells you about Glacier Bay is true. There really are not words to describe it adequately. Pristine, cold, shocking, gorgeous, really do not do it justice. We saw numerous small calvings. Many of the ship saw tons of wildlife, which we somehow missed. The naturalists were great at spotting and describing what we saw. Lesson : If for no other reason to spend the money on a balcony, spend it for these two places alone. It was so nice to watch from our balcony and listen on the TV channel as the naturalist described things. If you can pick a cabin where you can get to an outside deck, either Lido or the forward or aft decks, if possible. If you imagine Alaska for its glaciers and snow and pristine waters. Make sure Glacier Bay is on your itinerary.
3. Skagway: This was hands down our favorite shore day. The first of our tours researched on Cruise Critic. We took the White Pass and Yukon Railroad tour through Chilkoot Charters. It was hands down the best tour we have ever taken and though a long day, it was full of firsts. Lots of bear sightings, an incredible train ride through pristine wilderness, a truly Alaska experience at Caribou Crossing, reliving the paths and stories of the Klondikers, and picture taking opportunities galore. Had we been at late seating we would have gotten to see more of the town, but that is a small thing really. Lesson: Take this tour, at least once in your lifetime. It is worth every penny and by booking privately at least with some savings and a huge plus in the "personal attention" of the guide and quality of the experience. These are the pictures my friends here at home marvel at the most and I have only a simple point and shoot camera!
4. Juneau: Another fantastic shore day, this time Whale watching with Harv and Marv. This tour was chosen solely based on information from Cruise Critics and was worth every penny. We saw many whales and got so close you can hear them breath. Also tons or bald eagles and seals. Captain Steve made the experience fun and each of us returned with that classic photo of a whale tail. While we did not see Orcas, we were thrilled to have such an up close experience with Humpback whales. We stopped off at Mendenhall Glacier and would have liked to have hiked out to the closer viewpoint, had we the time. We did shop a bit here and would have liked to have shopped more....only we ran out of time...yet again. Lesson: Somewhere in your cruise itinerary, do a whale/wildlife watch. This is especially important if you do not see Denali National Park or other wilderness areas. Find a great company with good reviews and go. Make sure it is a small boat so you can have an up close and personal view of these magnificent creatures.
5. Ketchikan: We shopped in town in the morning, hiking up to see Creek Street and bought souvenirs. We loved Creek Street and could easily have spent hours here alone. We saw very little else in this charming town. In the afternoon we had a salmon fishing excursion with Ken and Northern Lights Charters. This excursion was our only mistake I think. First it was cold, drizzly and the water was choppy. In late May it was still very early in the salmon season. Plus there was a fishing derby going on during the day we were there, which meant there was more than the usual number of boats out. The tour itself we split with another couple who we really liked and were happy to meet. We did manage to catch 2 undersized Kings but that was it. Needless to say we were all very disappointed.
I was a bit upset that Ken failed to mention how poorly the biting was when we talked, in fact he said they were catching fish, nor did he mention that there would be extra competition for the fish. We could have gone for halibut too and he never switched out the gear to try them. Also it is not smart to go in May since the limits for salmon are one each, in June they are two each. Still we went realizing it could happen.
I initially wanted to do the Bering Sea Crab Fishing boat and shop in this port. Next time I will. If Pete wants to go fishing again, we will split up. Lesson: CAREFULLY outweigh something like whale watching or wildlife viewing or FISHING, to the cost of these excursions. These are NOT sure things! Ask yourself would you go if you knew you would see nothing? In hindsight it will be the last fishing trip like this I do. Strangely enough though, Pete says he will try again, next time, only we will head to Alaska during the height of the season rather than the start. Go do what you want to do, not something on a whim.
The Island Princess: She is a beautiful, understated and lovely ship who is well kept and has handled her age gracefully. I never saw a dirty place on the entire ship. We prefer mid size ships to the super large and loved her layout and common areas, lounges and design. The only problem we found was navigating from our far forward room to the mid ship dining room, but it was a minor inconvenience, due to the fact we had upgraded rooms. We loved the forward "hidden" deck for Glacier Bay and had a blast running back and forth on those glacier days, comparing forward views to our balcony. We loved our room (C227), bed, bedding, double TV's and the great big (hehe) bathtub.
Tools of the Tourist: We bought a good set of binoculars for this trip and felt they were totally worth the price. The Nikon Action Ex Extreme 8x40 binoculars were a bit heavy, but well worth the price we paid at Amazon.com. Makes sure you buy ones with a diopter setting and eye strain relief cups if you wear glasses, they make a HUGE difference. If in your budget I would take two pair as I had a hard time wrestling the binocs from my DH, he absolutely loved them. Perhaps a second set of lighter ones for our next trip.
My battered, little Canon Power Shot A540 with 4X optical zoom, held up well and took some amazing pictures during our trip. That being said, from day one I longed for a DSLR camera and desperately wanted one many times on the following days. I opted at the last minute not to take my lap top and did not need to as I had plenty of cards and batteries. It also would have been nice to have a camera that does shoot video as well, so I will definitely be upgrading my camera before I go again. Lesson: If you want close wildlife shots and do not have a camera with a good zoom, UPGRADE YOUR CAMERA BEFORE you go. Carry it and your binoculars everywhere. Have at least one really good set of binoculars and more if you do not like sharing.
Packing and Cold Weather Clothes: Worried that we were heading to Alaska and we would not have enough cold weather clothes, I bought fleece shirts, a jacket, rain coat/parka and a fleece vest all at great summer sale prices. We were blessed to have some very warm and mild weather for much of the trip. I did not need so many warm clothes. On the coldest day in Glacier Bay I wore a long sleeve T shirt, the polar fleece and rain/wind coat and was fine. Head covering and the hoods helped as well as fleece gloves and a muffler. I never wore 2 of the fleece shirts, or the vest! Otherwise I wish I had packed more jeans, and less dressy clothes for the dining room which is decidedly understated, even on non formal nights for Alaska. I also wish I had had one more comfortable pair of shoes and one less pair of dressy flats. I did buy a great backpack before this trip which we really used and loved. It is a Rick Steves, Veloce Travel Pack and it stored a ton of stuff! Well worth the price and it become our daypack and my purse on excursions. Lesson: Layer layer, layer! You do not need too many fleeces! Either wash a load of clothes on ship, take advantage of the ships cheap laundry bag day or advantage of Elite laundry benefits, and pack LESS. Buy a good pack to tote discarded layers, lunches, snacks, ID, binoculars, cameras, batteries, cards, maps etc in for excursions!
Final Comments: This was the best vacation we have ever taken. It is not just a once in a lifetime experience as you may go thinking the first time you travel there. You will find yourself wanting to go back. As my DH says...It is beyond what you dream it will be. It is everything and more. A feast for the eyes and soul, and a reaffirmation that there are pristine wilderness areas left on earth, one of the loveliest truly is Alaska. Read Less