Number of Cruises: 1st
Cruise Line: Princess
Ship: Regal Princess
Sailing Date: July 1st, 2001
Itinerary: Alaska - Inside Passage
Alaska - Inside Passage
REGAL PRINCESS – ALASKA INSIDE PASSAGE CRUISE – 1 JULY 2001
My wife and I just turned 50 this year, and somehow we have managed to stay married for 25 years. We have two daughters, ages 16 and 19. I am an architect with a small practice in Washington, DC, and my wife teaches first grade in a public school near our home in Northern Virginia. We have never taken a cruise before this one; we decided to try something new to celebrate my wife’s putting up with me for 25 long years.
Our previous vacations have been family affairs: yearly trips to the North Carolina beaches for a week of relaxing at the ocean, plus yearly trips for sightseeing in Northern California, Oregon, and Washington with my sister and her husband. The last time my wife and I traveled alone was on our honeymoon in Bermuda in 1976. Needless to say, we were way overdue for some time together. At home, my wife and I frequently go to the theater and dine out. We enjoy visiting the many museums in Washington, and hiking in the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains. Relaxation for us means reading or gardening. We tend to prefer small dinner parties to large gatherings. Not the most dynamic couple, but a couple that enjoys new places to visit and new people to meet.
We chose Princess Lines on the advice of our travel agent at the local American Express office. The Love Boat connection also added an interesting, and somewhat corny, allusion for the second honeymoon theme for the trip. The 7-day Inside Passage itinerary on the Regal Princess suited our idea of a cruise perfectly: plenty of sights to see, 3 relaxing days at sea, and 3 days of shore excursions to a part of the world we had never seen. Since we were not entirely sure that we would thoroughly enjoy a cruise, limiting the trip to a week seemed like a good idea. The cruise turned out to be the most enjoyable and memorable vacation since our honeymoon.
PLANNING THE TRIP. To simplify the arrangements, we booked everything, including air travel, luggage transfers, airport to hotel to ship transfers, and pre-cruise stay in Vancouver with Princess through our travel agent. I understand that some money can be saved by shopping around for airfares and pre-cruise accommodations, but my wife and I were looking for the total cruise experience, where we would be pampered throughout the trip. In addition to the information provided by our travel agent, and by a telephone interview with a Princess sales agent, we found that Princess has a well-designed web site, www.princess.com . We were able to register all of our pre-cruise information with Princess, and were able to reserve our shore excursions on line, eliminating waiting in any queues for embarkation or during the cruise.
PRE-CRUISE STAY. Since the Regal Princess conveniently sails from Sunday to Sunday, we decided to add a weekend in Vancouver before the cruise to help adjust to the time change and to have a chance to see another port of call. Princess lodged us in the Four Seasons Hotel in downtown Vancouver, about five blocks from the ship embarkation dock at Canada Place. The Four Seasons is a 4 to 5 star hotel, with an extremely helpful concierge desk, great food in the dining room, and an ideal location near Robson Square. Transfers to and from the hotel were flawless. Our pre-cruise package included a tour of Victoria and Butchart Gardens, both a must for a weekend visit. Two days in advance, I separately made reservations for tea at the Empress Hotel in Victoria - expensive, but a great experience. Unfortunately, the bus-ferry-bus travel to and from Victoria resulted in a two-hour trip each way, which made for a long, 12-hour day of touring. The best way to travel from Vancouver to Victoria is by sea plane, but Princess didn’t offer that option. Since we had free time the day we landed in Vancouver and the day of sailing, we were able to see Stanley Park, a long walk from the Four Seasons, and were able to visit the Museum of Anthropology at the University of BC, $7US admission plus a $15 US cab ride – each way. Stanley Park has a lot to offer, including a small aquarium with exhibits on marine life of the Northwest. The Anthropology Museum, with a free tour by a museum curator, gave us an excellent background for understanding the native cultures of the Northwest as well explanations for all those totem poles that kept popping up throughout the rest of the trip. Actually three days would probably be best in Vancouver, but two days kept us busy and wanting more.
THE SHIP. As an architect, I was intrigued by the idea of a cruise ship designed by Renzo Piano. The profile of the ship is very distinctive, and, I believe, quite striking. The interior of the ship is very subdued: pastel shades of mauve and teal with plenty of light-colored wood, no Las Vegas flash and excess. Combined with liberal use of stainless steel trim, the overall impression of the interior is an updated version of the classic Art Deco ocean liners. The ship had plenty of lounge areas, including comfortable seating in oversized galleries. With the exception of a few ship-wide parties, the Regal Princess never felt crowded. Several passengers on the ship complained about the lack of a wrap-around exterior deck. We never missed it. The Regal Princess has exterior port and starboard promenade decks, plus a top level central deck, several open decks aft, and two forward viewing deck areas. I took plenty of photographs from the ship and never found that views were obstructed. The Regal Princess is very well laid out with a three-story atrium in the center as a focal area for orientation. As advertised, the ship is full with first-rate, museum-quality contemporary art. We found the Regal Princess to be a delight.
OUR CABIN. Since we expected dramatic scenery along the Inside Passage, we reserved an outside room with a balcony, Baja Deck – starboard side, fore. We were not disappointed. The balcony, although small, was perfect for two people. The view provided by the large glass window and door to the balcony was worth twice the price we paid. The décor of the cabin was a little overly neutral, beige-on-beige, but the room did feature three well-executed and signed lithographs. The cabin had plenty of storage space in built-in drawers and a closet with 30 hangars. My wife appreciated the safe in the room, since she brought all the jewelry that she owns; I found the refrigerator to be very handy. Our steward kept the room and bathroom spotless with visits several times each day – we never found a wet towel in the bath when returning to the room. We also enjoyed the fresh fruit in the room, replenished daily. All of the service was performed without a single intrusion; it seemed as though the steward knew when we would be out and finished everything without being seen.
DINING. The Palm Court Dining Room was wonderful; the Café del Sol was disappointing. Princess Lines has seemingly invested a lot in Personal Choice Dining. Our choice is the traditional, formal cruise line dining room, and the Palm Court seemed to fit the model to a tee. We selected the second seating, a wise choice since I have no idea how we could have managed to make it to the dining room by 6:00 PM. We were rewarded with a table for six next to a window with two outstanding couples; our dining companions couldn’t have been better if we had selected them ourselves. The waiter and assistant waiter were professionals, but also very friendly and helpful. Dinner each evening was an exciting event. Actually, we found all of the food in the Palm Court to be very good, sometimes outstanding – the dessert soufflés were the best we have ever had, sometimes unusual – zucchini and pear soup is not a taste for the timid, but the food was always served with style at dinner. Breakfast and lunch offered excellent choices, but the service seemed rushed and impersonal. The food, décor, and service in the other dining areas were pretty basic by comparison.
ACTIVITIES. The cruise director did a great job of providing something for every taste; unfortunately, we are pretty picky about the things that we like. So here are some of the activities that we did not even try: bingo, trivia quizzes, bingo, bridge, bingo, wood horse races, bingo, needlepoint, bingo, putting contests, and, did I mention, bingo. We did enjoy all of the lectures and sighting commentaries given by a naturalist on board for the entire cruise. I think that it would have been a great addition to the cruise to have a representative from one of the first nations talk about native culture and history, but that may have interrupted one of the bingo games. We would have also liked to have more information about the history of the area: explorers, traders, gold-rush prospectors. We did enjoy the special activities, like wine tasting, culinary demonstrations, and a tour of the galley. We would have liked to see the bridge, but those tours were offered only when in port, and we were on shore. I also wanted to see the engine room and other operational parts of the ship, but the crew didn’t appear to be very forthcoming with an invitation.
ENTERTAINMENT. Again, variety seemed to win the day. In this case, our tastes are less restricted; we avoided only the country-western review and anything that promised karaoke. The production shows were spectacular: singing, dancing, and costumes were first-rate and thoroughly entertaining. The comedian, magician, and acrobats were fairly mainstream and could be missed if the views from our balcony were more compelling. The several bars around the ship offered a variety of live and recorded entertainment. Our two favorites were the Stage Door disco – popular tunes at high decibel delivery, and the Dome Room – a light jazz duo singing above the background of the casino – very sophisticated in a Harry Connick kind of way. Needless to say, there were plenty of places to dance, whatever the mood – black tie or casual. Since we enjoyed getting dressed up, we tended toward the Dome Room.
PORTS OF CALL. We were not expecting much from the towns that we visited in Alaska: Juneau, Skagway, and Sitka, yet we probably overestimated their charm. None of the three have any charm. All three are located in arrestingly beautiful natural settings, but the towns are composed of cheaply constructed wood framed buildings without any visual appeal. The town of Juneau did have a small town square right at the cruise ship dock, which featured live music during the entire day of the ship’s stay. The Mendenhall Glacier is also right outside of Juneau, so there is plenty to see in the area. Skagway does have a fairly good National Park Service Visitor Center with a couple of buildings restored to Gold-Rush era condition. The Park Service displays gave us a pretty good idea of the Yukon Gold Rush history. Sitka is the most visually appealing of the three towns. We visited the Raptor Center on our own; the center is small, but very interesting. It was a good half-hour walk outside of town, but we didn’t mind since we don’t go on trips to shop. I think that I would have preferred to go to Ketchikan instead of Skagway, but most of the Princess cruises seem to include Skagway and Juneau, and offer a choice of Sitka or Ketchikan. The Princess Inside Passage Cruise visits the Hubbard Glacier in the summer instead of Glacier Bay. Although I was disappointed initially about the choice, I must admit that the Hubbard Glacier and surrounding Yukatat Bay were the most impressive sights that we saw in Alaska. The Hubbard Glacier is quite active, so there was plenty of calving to keep everyone excited.
SHORE EXCURSIONS. Our primary interests in selecting tours were seeing wildlife and viewing magnificent scenery. We registered for 4 tours: two wildlife expeditions, a bus tour of the Yukon, and a helicopter ride to one of the glaciers. The Wildlife Sightseeing Quest in Juneau was perfect: views of eagles, black bears, seals, and two large pods of orcas. The other wildlife was exciting to see, but we went to Alaska to see orcas. The Sea Otter Quest in Sitka was not quite as exciting – no orcas – but did deliver as promised with a huge raft of sea otters, along with black-tailed deer, brown bears, seals, and plenty of bald eagles. Although we did see whales and Dalls porpoises from the Regal Princess, in fact from our balcony, we were really glad that we took both of the wildlife tours. In both cases, the tours were well-run, on schedule, and accompanied with excellent commentary from on-board naturalists. The Yukon Territory Adventure in Skagway was not definitely not of the same caliber. The scenery was quite spectacular and the onboard driver / guide was excellent, but the trip was a long bus ride with a stop for lunch at an embarrassingly trite tourist-trap called Frontier Land. We were looking forward to the helicopter ride in Skagway, but bad weather grounded the flights. If we return to Alaska, we shall be sure to book as many wildlife excursions as we can; we’ll also try again for the glacier landing.
READING. Princess offers a daily newsletter listing all of the events and activities offered each day; the newsletter is well-organized and a great help in planning each day. In addition, Princess offers brochures for each port of call, with some basic background information and highlights of each town. However, the brochures seem to focus on places to shop. I found that Fodor’s Alaska (published by Fodor’s Travel Publications) is a pretty good basic guide for the Inside Passage area and for the ports of call, but I think that the Insight Pocket Guide to Vancouver, British Columbia (published by APA Publications) is the perfect tool for touring Vancouver and Victoria. Throughout the trip I enjoyed the travel journal “Passage to Juneau” by Jonathan Raban (published by the Vintage Books Division of Random House). Mr. Raban kept me company during the flights to and from Vancouver and each morning until my wife woke up.
All in all, we couldn’t have been happier with our trip. As an added bonus, many of the passengers on board were from the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia. My assumption is that the Princess Alaska cruises are marketed through the parent company, Peninsular and Oriental Lines, in those countries. Without exception, we found all of the passengers from other countries to be wonderful companions on shore trips and as breakfast and lunch table mates. It was a bit like visiting those countries to talk with them. Our experiences with passengers from the US was more uneven; I thought that some of them should have spend more time playing bingo. We also experienced about every kind of weather imaginable: sunny and 75F in Vancouver, sunny and 65F in Juneau, cloudy and 60F in Skagway, drizzle and 35F at the Hubbard Glacier, and overcast and 65F in Sitka. For the most part, the cruise was perfectly smooth and seemingly motionless; however, 2 days proved that even the largest cruise ships feel a 10-foot sea. One night was rough enough to empty all of the water out of the pools on the top deck. Luckily, neither of us were seasick, so for us, the rough seas just added excitement to the total cruise experience. We are looking forward to our next cruise, and will definitely check with the Regal Princess, or the other Princess ships, first.