Ted K. Wade
Number of Cruises: 3
Cruise Line: Princess
Ship: Ocean Princess
Sailing Date: July 6th, 2002
After 2 pleasant Alaskan sailings on Holland America (see my Ryndam and Statendam reviews), we looked at what HAL had to offer this year, especially the New England to Canada cruise. I thought it was overpriced, and I looked for some other destinations. The problem is, Alaska is just too hard to beat, but we didn't really want to take the same cruise for the third time.
I ran across a Princess sailing from Seward to Vancouver, that stopped at Skagway instead of Sitka. I had heard good things about Skagway, and decided to book an inside cabin for the first time. We went aboard the Ocean Princess in Seward, a two year old ship that was much larger than the Statendam class vessels we have been on before. It is a very pretty ship, and our cabin was handsomely decorated, but SMALL! I believe it is approximately 50 square feet smaller than the HAL cabins we were used to. I think if we had had 2 more people standing in the cabin, it would have filled it up completely. Nevertheless, it was comfortable enough, except when we were getting dressed - it was like dressing in a phone booth. The air conditioner was weak, and worked well only when all the lights were out. I must admit I missed the window, but the price difference was just too much.
One of the nice things about our HAL cruises was the friendliness of the predominantly Indonesian/Filipino crew, especially on the Ryndam. Unfortunately, we did not have a pleasant experience with most of the crew of the Ocean Princess. Most of the OP crew was from Britain, Romania, and South Africa. Most were standoffish at best, many simply rude. When we boarded the ship a British lady asked if we knew our way to the cabin. We responded that we thought so, and she responded with "Then you probably don't". More to come on this topic, unfortunately.
On the first evening at 8pm we were asked to attend the usual lifeboat drill. HAL had made us don our vests, then assemble at the appropriate lifeboat (shown on our ID card). On the OP, we assembled in a bar, and sat through a seemingly endless audio presentation about security (which I had already watched on the cabin television). At the end of it, they showed us how to put on our vests (for those that couldn't or wouldn't read), then we were dismissed after being told to assemble in that room in case of emergency. We never found out which was our lifeboat. This is a more comfortable way of doing a lifeboat drill, but whether or not it is as effective is questionable.
After the drill, we attended dinner at our usual table for 8. It was a nice enough table, and we liked the other 3 couples we were with. However, it was a LONG way from the small windows in the dining room. On HAL, the windows run most of the length of the dining room, and we always had a wonderful view. These windows were small and it was tough the see the beautiful scenery, which is why I go to Alaska!
We met our waiter, Florian, and assistant waiter, Marian, and we were very pleased with both. The dining room supervisor also stopped by from time to time and he was very pleasant. I thought the food was good to very good. Salads and especially soups were better than HAL's. The soups on the OP were quite imaginative; many were cold dairy-based with fruit. They could have been served for dessert, or poured in a glass. One in particular tasted like a fruity milkshake.
The entrees were a notch below HAL's, though the Beef Wellington was better. The "Ketchikan Salmon" was a disappointment, it seemed stale and overcooked. I expect better salmon in Alaska! The rest of the entrees were good, but couldn't compare to some of the better ones on HAL like potato-crusted salmon and filet of sole. Desserts were very good, and Florian usually left some gourmet cookies "that grandma baked" for us at the end of the meal.
Breakfast was another matter. On HAL, we really liked the Lido dining room. On the OP, the equivalent was the Horizons dining room (located on the Lido deck). The first morning we went up we expected a similar experience to HAL, a well-organized line similar to what you would find in a quality cafeteria. Instead, we found chaos.
The Horizon's dining room is divided into many kiosks that people go to in no particular order. Not since participating in the Amarillo city easter egg hunt as a child have I ever been involved in such a competitive outing. Hundreds of people bumping each other, reaching over each other, hitting each other with backpacks, just madness. We finally got our food, but couldn't find a table - so we sat at the bar. The bar tender made it clear he did not refill beverages, but he would sell us all the liquor we wanted. We passed on the booze. There were many waiters in the area, but they were not interested in working, only visiting with each other. On subsequent visits, we adopted a divide and conquer approach, then we split up the loot at the table.
I mentioned the problems in the Lido to one of the pursers, and told him to reduce the tips, charged daily "for our convenience". He rudely responded that "we are aware of the problems in the Lido". I gave the money to Florian and Marian.
We liked our cabin steward, Romeo. He was very pleasant and did nice work. However, we did hear him in the hall every morning filling up people's ice buckets. He used a cart, similar to those used in hotels. On the HAL ships, the cabin stewards are like phantoms. They know when you leave, sneak in, clean the room, then vanish, silently. Princess should learn this technique!
The ship was very pretty, with dazzling atriums, nice public rooms, etc. However, for some reason, there was a lot of tinted plastic above the handrails on the top of the ship, which served only to restrict the view. This was especially annoying in Glacier Bay, which was a beautiful day. The theaters were nice, and I thought the entertainment was a notch above HAL's. I particularly liked Dan Bennett, juggler and comedian. The OP seemed much more crowded than the HAL ships; it carried about 75% more passengers than the HAL Statendam class ships, but was only about 40% larger (in terms of tonnage).
There seemed to be a lot fewer activities aboard the OP than the HAL ships. I did enter a putting contest, where I waited for about 20 minutes to hit a ball once. There was also a good cooking demo, but we sat so far back, it was difficult to see much. They did have a virtual golf game, but it was $20 for half an hour, so I did not sign up. Most of the decks were made of some composite material, and some of it was covered with Astroturf. I preferred the decks on the HAL ships, which are entirely wood.
Skagway was a good port. The weather forecast was for a sunny warm day, but it was windy, cloudy and cool. We took a shuttle for $1 each into town, because Princess docks their ships at the farthest dock. The nice side of that is that we were next to the wall with the names and insignias of all ships that have docked at Skagway. I noticed many that had not been to Alaska for a very long time, including those that are no longer sailing. Pacific Princess, Prinsendam, and Westerdam caught my eye.
There were plenty of good shops in Skagway, and we spent most of the morning in them until returning to the ship for lunch. We then took the Whitepass railway, a narrow gauge train, up to the US/Canadian border. The scenery was very nice, and I enjoyed standing outside on the car's platform. On the way back, everyone changed sides and flipped the seats over so that everyone had the same view for the round-trip.
We returned to the shops before sailing at 8pm. I wished that we had finished dinner sooner that night, because the scenery out of Skagway was beautiful. The Zaandam trailed us in front of the sunset, and the mountains were spectacular.
In Juneau, we decided to do some gold panning. Though it was raining at the dock, it let up during out panning, which was conducted just outside of town in a local river. The tour seeded our pans with some dirt containing a little gold, so all we had to do was shake the pan in the proper way to find it. We decided to also pan some of the local dirt, and also found some gold, but much less than in the seeded pan. Since the water temperature was 36 degrees, we gave it up and returned to the dock area, where our old ship, Statendam was parked. It was good to see her, and I have been sorry to hear the troubles she has had recently. We had a great lunch at an outdoor grill with one table - a large portion of Salmon Teriyaki was only $4, and was delicious. I don't remember the name of the grill, but it is within 50 yards of the Red Dog Saloon.
The rain was getting heavy, so we headed back to the ship, a long walk from the center of town. We sailed at an unusually early 4:30 for Ketchikan. As we were leaving the sun came out, and it was a pretty day.
I had booked the Misty Fjords cruise/flight for Ketchikan, but the weather forecast, called in faithfully by my friend Dexter daily, didn't sound good so I canceled it. Naturally the weather in Ketchikan the next day was beautiful. We rented a car and went to a couple of beautiful parks in the Ketchikan area, and also visited the lake that we canoed in 2000. If the weather weren't so rainy there, I think I might consider living in Ketchikan, though the winters are probably pretty gloomy, and I doubt that the job market (outside of fishing) is very strong.
The last day was at sea heading to Vancouver, and it was sunny but hazy. We decided to try the "alternative dining" steak house for $8 each, and it was very good. They advertised it as an outdoor steakhouse, but on this cruise, they carved up part of Horizons, and everyone had nice window seats on the port side of the ship. The quality was high and so was the service.
Debarkation went very well. We were off the ship by 9 am and we were in the 10th out of 13 groups. I was badgered by a Canadian customs officer this year for a few minutes; in the past no one asked us anything. I had noticed increased security at the Seward cruise terminal as well. I have no problem with the increased security, but to ask me several times if I have any alcohol or tobacco is overkill.
The Ocean Princess was in general a good experience. The crew should be friendlier, the Horizons restaurant should be remodeled, etc. However, the ship is to be transferred to Princess's sister line P&O and will be renamed later this year. I would consider sailing with Princess again, but really prefer Holland America.