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William G. Schwartz

Age: 41 to 50

Occupation:Judge

Number of Cruises: 3 to 5

Cruise Line: Princess

Ship: Sea Princess

Sailing Date: September 1999

Itinerary: Alaska

ALASKA - North to South

Introduction

My wife and I are 50 years old. This was my fourth cruise. It was my wife’s second cruise. All of our prior cruises have been on Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines (see our review of the Monarch from 1997). It is difficult to compare one ship to another ship because of personnel (which always change) and itinerary. It is even more difficult to compare one cruise line to another cruise line because of the myriad number of differences involved in such a comparison. Nevertheless, it is our experience that Princess is far superior to Royal Caribbean when general comparisons are made concerning friendliness of staff, quality of food, scheduling of excursions and satisfaction from the experience. We were pleasantly surprised at how courteous, polite, pleasant and helpful all of the Princess employees were especially at the end of a long season. I doubt that we encountered even a half dozen grumps employed by Princess during the whole trip.

This review concerns Princess CruiseTour 13 with the added excursion to Kotzebue and Nome. The CruiseTour began on September 3, 1999, and ended on September 18, 1999. The land portion was taken at the beginning and the cruise at the end. I wouldn’t do it any other way since it involved 1 ship, 2 other boats, 3 trains, 11 airplanes and 27 motor coaches! During the first three days we were on 5 airplanes and 6 motor coaches. During the first 8 nights we only slept in the same bed 2 nights in a row. It was definitely not relaxing, however, it was throughly enjoyable. I would certainly advise taking the land portion before the cruise.

Fall Travel - We had initially planned to take this trip in July but for a variety of reasons we put it back to September.  We were very happy to have delayed the trip.  Ours was the next to last cruise.  The families on vacation were minimal which translate into smaller crowds and fewer children.  The weather was fine.  No rain and very little cloud cover during the land portion.  Rain and overcast during the cruise portion.  Generally speaking, 50's during the day and lower 40's at night.  No mosquitoes.  The colors were changing at the higher elevations and the animals were moving getting ready for winter.  Finally, there is a better price for the package.

Luggage - I think this is the appropriate time to mention luggage handling.  Princess was absolutely fantastic handling our luggage!  All of our luggage initially arrived at the Anchorage Hilton.  Princess does not do a very good job of describing in advance how your luggage is handled for the pre-cruise portion of the trip.  As you move from place to place they do a very good job of describing your options with respect to luggage handling.  We returned to the Anchorage Hilton after each segment of our touring except the final leg.  I suspect the same is true for those staying in other hotels (Captain Cook and the Anchorage Sheraton).  This allows you to store the luggage you do not need for that leg of the tour at the hotel.  You designate what luggage you want to be transported on each leg of the tour and Princess will take it from your hotel room to that location.  You can designate the luggage you do not want to take on that leg for storage and it will return to your hotel room when you return.  You can also designate the luggage you want to be taken directly to the ship and Princess will take care of that.  Consequently, we had luggage going directly to the ship; we had luggage stored at the hotel; we had luggage moving with us; and, we had luggage hopscotching to the next destination.  Believe it or not it all arrived at the correct place on time.  It was amazing!  The only word of caution is that luggage handling in Seattle is notably bad according to the luggage handlers with whom I spoke.  This statement was verified when on the trip home TWA misplaced a piece of luggage on the non-stop flight from Seattle to St. Louis.  It arrived four days later

Excursions - This year Princess changed the process for booking excursions.  Ignore all of the complaining you read about booking excursions on prior Alaska Princess cruise reviews.  About four weeks before the cruise, Princess sends an excursion list for booking excursions.  You can book your excursions at that time and the tickets will be waiting in your ship cabin room when you embark.  Many cruisers talk about booking excursions independently.  At every stop there are tour operators available to book excursions right on the pier or immediately off the pier.  We decided to go with the Princess excursions for two reasons:  they have lined up the most popular excursions and, if something goes wrong, Princess will work it out.  A glacier helicopter excursion in Juneau off the Crown Princess immediate prior to our arrival developed problems and everyone had to spend the night on the glacier with a survival team brought in to take care of them.  If you had booked that excursion independently getting back on the ship would have been your responsibility and Princess would not have had any responsibility for assisting.  We felt the added cost was worth it for the more adventurous excursions.

Food - Food is not included in the land portion of the package even when staying in the Princess facilities.  Dinner meals run about $25.00 per person for the entree.  At each Princess facility you can sign up to have a credit card cover your expenses, just like on the ship, but it has to be done at each separate Princess location.

Kotzebue and Nome

The added excursion to Kotzebue and Nome is actually provided by Alaska Airlines and is their Arctic Adventure.  The transition at Anchorage airport from Princess to Alaska Airlines could have been smoother.  We had no idea that we were going to be turned over from Princess to Alaska Airlines.  There was a bit of uncertainty at the Alaska Airlines counter and no Princess person was present to smooth the way.  After we became knowledgeable about what was transpiring everything went fine until we returned to Anchorage and there was no one from Princess to meet us.  We were directed onto a Princess motor coach that took us to our hotel.  Since we were hand carrying our luggage and kept our itinerary handy there was not a problem but it was disconcerting.

Kotzebue is an Eskimo community of about 3500 located north of the Arctic Circle.  For the most part the community practices a modified subsistence life style.  It is not a pretty place.  It is a good place to learn about the life style of Native Alaskans first hand.  The presentations by the children at the Living Museum of the Arctic were very good.  My wife thought Kotzebue was depressing because of the subsistence nature of living.  I do not disagree with her but I was glad we visited and experienced the Native Alaskan style of life.

Late in the afternoon we flew from Kotzebue to Nome and had a quick tour of the city before being checked into the Nome Nugget Inn.  One family runs the show for the Nome excursion.  They own the tour company, the Nome Nugget Inn and the Little Creek Station which is a tourist stop where we panned for gold.  Nome was a gold rush town and the history of the gold rush still permeates the town.  It still looks and feels like a frontier town.

The Nome Nugget Inn is a cute little place with an eclectic assortment of memorabilia decorating the premises.  The rooms are small and clean with twin beds.  The restaurants in Nome leave a lot to be desired both in quality and in service.  The next day we witnessed a sled dog demonstration and visited with the driver.  He explained sled dog racing, the Iditarod, and his kennel.  We then toured the town and the area before winding up at the Little Creek Station for a video presentation and gold panning.  We then flew back to Anchorage.

Anchorage

Anchorage has some fine restaurants.  Two that we particularly enjoyed were the Marx Brothers Café and Simon & Seafords.  I would rank these restaurants with the better restaurants in Chicago or St. Louis.  If you eat before 7:00 p.m. getting a table didn’t seem to be a problem.  Anytime after 7:00 and you definitely need a reservation.  If you like Caesar’s salad, don’t miss it at Marx Brothers Café!

On the way to the Kenai Princess Lodge, the motor coach conducted a city tour of Anchorage .  The tour included the new Alaska Native Heritage Center, Earthquake Park, Lake Hood seaplane base and sights in the city.  We stopped at Portage Glacier for lunch and sightseeing.  Unfortunately, we arrived at the Kenai Princess Lodge so late that tours available that evening had been sold out and the tours for the following day were somewhat limited.

Kenai Princess Lodge

The lodge sits in a remote setting up above the Kenai River.  It is a relaxing, pleasant setting.  There is a main lodge building, the mandatory souvenir shop and long buildings containing four to six cabins in each building.  The cabins are comfortable and attractive.  They have a bedroom area, bath and living room area with a porch.  Each cabin has a wood burning stove.  The restaurant is rustic with good views and a very good menu selection.  The meals were very good.

I went fishing on the Kenai River while my wife relaxed.  If you are expecting a secluded fishing trip in the wilderness, the Kenai River is not the place to find it.  This is not a river to attempt to fish without a guide.  It is fast and it is deep enough to get a wader into serious trouble.  The manner of fly fishing was different due to the swift current of the river.  Kip Pfortmiller of Alaska Troutfitters was excellent in providing me with a superb day of fishing with the high point being a trophy class Dolly Varden in the 8 to 10 lb. range.

On the trip back to Anchorage the bus stopped at the Big Game Park for an up close experience with Alaskan big game being rehabilitated or transitioned back to the wild.  We stopped at the Alyeska Resort for a tram ride and lunch at the top of the mountain.  There were awesome views on the bright, clear day when we visited.

Denali Princess Lodge

The next day we boarded the Midnight Sun Express, the rail cars which are owned by Princess, for the trip to Denali National Park.  The upper level of the cars is divided into booths.  Four people are assigned to each booth.  The only storage is under the seat.  You are told to take a carry-on bag for your stay at the Denali Princess Lodge (I am not sure about the luggage arrangements with respect to the Mt. McKinley Princess Lodge).  My wife and I each took a small carry-on bag and they both fit under the seat.  However, any of the larger carry-on bags you normally see on airplanes probably would not fit if you tried to put more than the single bag under the seat.

There is a bar on the upper level of each car.  Princess has a bartender and a host or hostess on the upper level of each car.  They both work the tables and provide information on points of interest during the trip.  The lower level contains restrooms, an observation deck, the mandatory souvenir shop (one per four cars), and the dining area.  It was reported to us that breakfast was very good.  Our lunch was very good.  The dinners ranged from good to terrible.  The quality of the dinner on the train was definitely below the quality we experienced at all of the other Princess facilities.  The dining area is nicely appointed with china and linen.  You are assigned the shift during which you will be called to eat.  If you receive the last call, you might be quite rushed as the dining room attendants want to have their work done before they arrive at the next station.

The main seating area of the train has windows that curve up and over the top of the train.  This makes photography relatively easy.  A bright, sunny day can also cause the brightness to be uncomfortable.  The regulation of temperature did not seem to be a problem but I wonder if air conditioning might be a problem on very warm days with all of the glass up above.

The train moves very slowly.  The scenery varied from boring to spectacular.  We had hoped to see some wildlife but we did not see any wildlife during the train ride.  The train stopped at Talkeetna just long enough to exchange passengers.  Those passengers staying at the Mt. McKinley Princess Lodge get off at Talkeetna.  The Mt. McKinley Princess Lodge is suppose to have a spectacular view of Mt. McKinley.  In fact, the main lodge was designed so that its massive windows frame Mt. McKinley.  There is a list of excursions available at the Mt. McKinley Princess Lodge, however, the lodge is over 100 miles from the entrance to Denali National Park.  We wanted to tour Denali National Park so we stayed at the Denali Princess Lodge.  The railroad stop after Talkeetna is Denali.

Denali Princess Lodge is a rustic facility built of logs with several buildings.  There is a dinner theater type of building, the main lodge, several restaurants, and many buildings containing the rooms.  The rooms are standard motel fare.  The draw to the area is not the lodge but rather Denali National Park.

Denali National Park has a single road that runs into the park.  Generally speaking, private vehicles are not allowed on the road.  Only buses are allowed on the road.  Princess offered an excursion into the park which was 8 hours in length.  At the time it was listed as Tour “J”.  However, getting Tour “J” was a problem.  The excursions from both Mt. McKinley and Denali Princess Lodges are handled on the train.  Tour “J” was not listed and the train tour director was of no help.  After we arrived at the Denali Princess Lodge, the tour office said there was no problem in arranging the tour through them and they booked us for the tour the next morning.

It was clear and beautiful when we arrived at the lodge so we decided to take a flight seeing tour of Mt. McKinley after we arrived.  We arranged this through the Princess tour desk.  Denali Air provided the tour and it was the most outstanding excursion we took on the entire trip!  You cannot see Mt. McKinley from the Denali Princess Lodge or from anywhere at the entrance to Denali National Park.  The only way to see the mountain is to take a bus trip back into the park or take a flight seeing excursion.  Phil from Denali Air was fantastic.  He positioned the plane for maximum photographic advantage.  He narrated the trip in an excellent manner.  And he took us to within 150 feet of Denali!  It was awesome!

The next day we took the 8 hour excursion into Denali National Park.  On the way to pick up the tour, the van almost hit a young moose crossing the road.  The buses used in the park are school buses with seats that have been made slightly more comfortable.  The trip was fantastic.  The scenery was spectacular and we saw all of the large animals: brown bear at a great distance, lots of Dall sheep, caribou, moose both bull and cow, fox and even a couple of wolves!  The bus makes several rest stops with facilities available.  A box lunch was included.

After the excursion we boarded the train for the trip to Fairbanks.

Fairbanks  We arrived late in Fairbanks but took the hotel shuttle to see the town.  Fairbanks is a boom or bust town.  From my observation the main town is currently in a downward cycle.  The next morning we took the “Discovery” riverboat trip.  A sternwheel paddle boat cruises down the Chena and Tanana Rivers.  A professional narrator makes the trip very enjoyable.  A representative rural Alaskan village has been recreated on the shore of the Chena river.  The riverboat stops at the village for about an hour during which time interpretive tours are given in the village.  We enjoyed the riverboat and the tour of Chena Village.

Upon completing the riverboat tour, we boarded a motorcoach for the trip to the airport and the flight to Anchorage.  We had a chartered flight on Reid Aleutian Airlines.  The pilot received clearance to fly us around Mt. McKinley which was a pleasant little extra on the flight.  In Anchorage you board another motorcoach for the trip to Seward.  Unfortunately, our motorcoach driver was so slow that we had no time to explore Seward upon our arrival.

Sea Princess

Embarkation was smooth in Seward.  The personnel were friendly and efficient.  However, the port facility was much more primitive than any port facility we have previously encountered.

The Sea Princess is a wonderful ship!  It was practically new having only been in operation for 10 months.  The staff was friendly, efficient, and first class.  The passenger load is 2270 with 800 crew.  If the ship was full it certainly did not seem like it.  This is as about as big a ship as we care to cruise on because it is our experience that when you get much bigger you lose virtually all personal service.  The ship has been tastefully appointed with an understated elegance.  Generally speaking the ship is well designed.  My only reservation is that it is somewhat difficult to get to the Horizon Court without going outside.  The Horizon Court is the alternative dining room which has 24 hour service.  It is located on the top at the front of the ship and it seemed that we almost always wound up outside when trying to get to it.

I found the Sea Princess to be amazingly stable.  The Gulf of Alaska was extremely rough.  It was so rough that the shows were canceled one evening because they did not want the entertainers to get hurt.  During that night the winds reached 84 knots which border on hurricane force and the sea had 20 to 30 foot waves!  You would think that it would be almost impossible to walk with sea conditions that rough but it was not.  You certainly reached for a stable object on occasion and moved in directions that you did not plan at times but you were able to do just about anything you wanted which I found to be amazing.

Room - We opted to pay the additional amount for a balcony.  Unfortunately, the weather was too bad to fully enjoy the balcony.  Likewise, I demanded the port side on the southbound cruise and refused an upgrade to stay on the port side.  I do not believe the port side was as important as I had thought it would be.  It appeared as if the scenery was similar on both sides of the ship.  The balcony would have been very nice for viewing purposes had the weather been better.  Considering the cost of a balcony room, if I booked this trip again I might book an upper outside room and hope for an upgrade rather than pay extra for a balcony.

The room was very nice.  Plenty of room under the bed for 4 very large suitcases.  A full length closet, two half length closets, a swing-out shelving unit, plus shelves and a safe provide more than adequate storage.  The bathroom was adequate with a shower that was larger than I had expected.  The placement of the commode was a bit uncomfortable.

Dining Room - There are 2 dining rooms that are nicely designed with a mix of 4, 6 & 8 person tables.  Each waiter and assistant waiter have responsible for 18 persons.  Unlike Royal Caribbean, the head waiter is actively involved in the dinner.  He made dessert for his tables on two evenings and prepared a pasta dish on another evening.  The food was far superior to the food served on our last Royal Caribbean cruise.  I would describe the food as ranging from very good to excellent.  I do not believe we had any dinner serving that I would describe as average.

Princess has done away with the midnight buffet.  The alternative is the 24 hour restaurant.  In addition to the dining rooms and the Horizon Court, the ship has a pizzeria, a grill, an ice cream sundae bar and room service.  The rich heritage of eating while cruising has not been diminished by the loss of the midnight buffet.

Entertainment - The evening shows was pretty good.  We did not get to all of the shows because of the cancellations one night with schedule rearranging the following nights, second seating and an affinity for the casino.  What we did see was certainly entertaining.

The cruise director was constantly on the go.  He always seemed to be moving from one activity to another.  His manner of calling the horse races was hilarious and almost made you believe you were at a live race!

I found the art auction and selling to be pushy.  The Park West art folks on the Royal Caribbean line were so much better than what is presented by Princess.  As Royal Caribbean was subtle, informational and low key, Princess was pushy, hawkish and in-your-face.  Park West seemed to have a much better handle on the audience in terms of their interests, taste, price and the manner of selling to them.  The Princess people seemed much more interested in making a score than in addressing the interests of their audience.

A naturalist came on board for the trip through College Fjord and Park Rangers come on board for the trip through Glacier Bay.  I found the naturalist to be nauseating.  She was more interested in expounding spirituality of the event than in describing what we were observing.  The Park Rangers were not a whole lot better.  Their problem was that they were flat.  It takes a certain mix of personality, showmanship and unique knowledge to be a good narrator.

The casino was never really crowded.  Perhaps it was the age of the passengers or there were fewer than normal passengers gambling.  Whatever the reason, it made for a more enjoyable trip for those of us who frequented the casino.  The casino was comfortable with good personnel working the tables.  Typical of cruise ships, the slots were very tight.

Skagway  Skagway is a really small town.  There are only 700 year round residents.  The town has one main street that is about 5 blocks in length.  It is a cute little place but I can’t begin to imagine what it must be like if there are more than 2 cruise ships in port!

We took the Yukon Expedition & White Pass Scenic Railway excursion.  It was too long by at least 1 hour!  You start with a motor coach tour that takes you into Yukon Territory, Canada.  The tour goes through Carcross and stops outside of town for lunch at Frontierland which is a neat little place with a museum of taxidermy representing the local large animals.  The scenery is interesting.  You then travel back to Fraser, Canada and get on the White Pass railroad for the ride back to Skagway.  The problem is that the motorcoach stops way too many times for photo opportunities allowing everyone to get off the bus.  Getting the people back on the bus gets to be aggravating.  I am a train junkie so I enjoyed the train ride.  There was rain and fog ruining the sightseeing during the train ride.  Even at that I enjoyed the ride.  If you are not a train junkie or a history buff, I would suggest avoiding this excursion.

Juneau  Juneau is a real city with a real downtown.  It was rainy and foggy while we were in Juneau so we did not go on the Mt. Roberts Tram.  The main downtown area is easily done on foot.  There is a wide variety of activities available in Juneau.  We booked the Wildlife Sightseeing Tour and we were not disappointed.  The tour is aboard a medium sized sightseeing vessel.  The crew was excellent in describing the sights, locating the wildlife, and trying to make sure everyone has an opportunity to observe.  We were able to observe Bald Eagles, Stellar Sea lions, Harbor Seals, and lots of breeching humpback whales.  My wife and I thought this excursions was really worth the price.

Ketchikan  Ketchikan is really a neat tourist city.  Unfortunately we did not have enough time to really explore it as we took 2 tours at this port of call.  Ketchikan is the one of the wettest places on the North American continent.  They get something like 170 inches of rain a year.  We had really nice weather while visiting.  No fog and no rain.

The first excursion we took was Alaska Bear Watching.  It was really great!  The bear watching takes place at a salmon hatchery.  The bear work the stream next to the hatchery.  There were about 9 bear moving in and out of the forest while we were there.  The people running the hatchery and conducting the tours say they have never had a problem with the bears and the tourists.  This is pretty amazing as the bear and the tourists can be virtually next to one another!  In fact, there was a bear not much more than 30 feet away from us.  At no time did we feel as if we were in danger.  It was really exciting to watch the bear fish in their natural environment.

The second excursion we took was Misty Fjords Wilderness & Flight.  What a disappointment.  The scenery was very pretty but we had a heck of a time seeing it because of the incompetence of the pilot.  We could have been on a commercial flight for all of the consideration the pilot gave to his passengers: no narration, no positioning of the plane for photographs, no turning of the plane for both sides to see the sights.  I am sure the excursion would be much more enjoyable if you had a pilot such as Phil from Denali Air.  Without consideration from the pilot, you are paying a lot of money for very little enjoyment.  I would avoid this excursion.

We disembarked in Vancouver.  Debarkation went very smoothly.  We were booked on Air Canada to Seattle.  Air Canada had only 2 counter attendants on duty for all of the buses that were bringing passengers to the Air Canada counter.  The backup was horrendous.  If you have not been through Vancouver get a cart even if you have wheeled luggage.  You have to move your luggage from the bus to the counter; from the counter to the Customs post; and, from the Customs post to the luggage center.  You will receive no assistance.  Trying to manage 4 wheeled pieces of luggage is really more difficult than you imagine.  The carts are free and they eliminate a major hassle.

Alaska is big, beautiful and rugged.  For touring, Princess is definitely the company to use.  This was our first trip to Alaska and our first cruise on Princess.  It will not be our last visit to Alaska and our next cruise will definitely be on Princess.  We would be happy to answer any questions.  Just drop us an E-mail.

Bill & Lu Schwartz

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