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Mike Bolner

Age: n/a

Occupation:n/a

Number of Cruises: n/a

Cruise Line: Princess

Ship: Sun Princess

Sailing Date: July 2000

Itinerary: Alaska

Sun Princess 2000 vs. RCL Rhapsody of the Seas 1999  

July 2000

I continue to be thankful for the rec.travel.cruises newsgroup. Even though we took an Alaska trip last year, there were still a lot of questions I had for this one. Got lots of great advice which added to the trip.

As we departed for this trip I had no plan to write this type of review, but as the week went along, we were able to discuss among ourselves the differences between two cruise lines. Taking a similar itinerary one year apart on two different lines proved interesting and enjoyable.  A lot of these observation are just that - observations. They are neither good nor bad. Sometimes I was able to understand the reasons for some of the things we noticed. Other times we could find no explanations. I’m sure others on this newsgroup know why some of these things are the way they are and I’m sure the questions will be answered. 

I will post this to help others who may be looking for help. This is a lot of observations and some opinions.

We booked the Sun Princess leaving Vancouver July 24th on a Voyage of the Glaciers. Quad cabin E323 starboard side, toward the bow of the ship, window,  no balcony. On the northbound trip - you get to see more land and glaciers as you exit the inside passage for the trip to Glacier Bay and College Fjord. The views are spectacular out the window.

We were on the Rhapsody last year doing Hubbard Glacier and the inside passage leaving Vancouver June 12, 1999. Our travel plans this year were based on the fact that the salmon were running and last time they had not arrive yet. We felt the whole food chain would be more abundant. That was true and we saw a lot more wildlife than last year. We also wanted to go to Glacier Bay and Anchorage. 

Because there are a lot of reviews of tours and cities along this route, I thought it would be more helpful to others to frame this review with the specifics of the shipboard experience and how we viewed the differences in the two companies.

Pre cruise:

Used frequent flyer miles for air tickets. Can’t comment on Princess air arrangements. Some other passengers has good flight times, some terrible. Luck of the draw I guess. I know RCL buses some from Seattle. Didn’t talk to anyone who did that on the Sun.

Our plans to stay two nights in Vancouver with a Princess pre cruise package took a hit immediately. Looking at the Princess program, they wanted $699 per person to stay in Vancouver, take a day trip to Victoria and a city tour of Vancouver including airport transfer. Seemed pretty reasonable until they would not add our two kids in the same room. They simply would not waive the maximum of two per room. I would have had to pay $2500(US) for four for this package. Instead we used Gray Line of Vancouver. The exact same package except with two kids added, was half price. At first I thought it was about 20% less until I realized it was quoted in Canadian dollars  - a huge savings.  Additionally, Gray Line gave us a voucher for a private limo ride from the airport instead of a bus full of fellow passengers. This was a terrific package.

We stayed at the Waterfront Center which made it easy to watch the ships arrive Saturday, Sunday and Monday mornings.

The day trip to Victoria included the Butchard Gardens and a lot of time in downtown Victoria. This was a long day, but we shortened it by taking the Helijet add-on back to Vancouver. I don't think Princess offered this option. It was a spectacular 30 minute flight. Cut about 2.5 hours off the day. 

Embarkation:

The Rhapsody embarkation last year took almost 60 minutes total including the time spent on the ship in line to activate the ship credit card. We stood in line for almost 35 minutes. The agent then had to find the cards on a large table behind them. Then the minor children’s cards had to be punched so they could not use them at a bar. Then we sat in a large holding room until our number was called. Once on board, we had to stand in line to tie our credit card to the ship charge card. I remember commenting that this could have been done earlier or automatically.

Sun took 5 minutes total. Princess had stations for various last name letters, and all the pre cruise info we had sent them in a lap to right there. They asked of there were any changes and handed you the combination ship charge, room key/ boarding card. Each person who was eligible to sign did so and were on the way to the ship. Princess had all the info in one place and we dealt with only one person before boarding. Rhapsody made us wait three times to get all the same things done. Princess definitely had a better a way to handle embarkation.

Both lines escorted us to our rooms quickly.

Luggage:

Rhapsody got ours there 10:30 at night. Princess had our luggage in the room by 4:00. This probably has something to do with how the tags are coded. When we received our Princess cruise documents, the tags had a loading door listed on them. Princess apparently loads from both ends of the ship. Seemed more efficient than last year. Reading all the various other reviews there is not a lot of comment about late arriving luggage, so maybe our experience was unusual. 

Life boat drill:

Rhapsody asked all passengers to muster at their stations at 5:00. Each of station was near a lifeboat and handled about 100 people. Took about 15 minutes. Rosters checked off, demonstration how to put the life vest on properly and were were dismissed. Very efficient. Late comers had to have a drill a day later.

On the Sun there were three muster stations for the entire ship. We met in the Wheelhouse Bar. (Somehow it seemed very British to meet in the bar should the ship get into trouble.) Others met in the theater and Vista Lounge. They stated they had developed a plan to be sure all people were out of the cabins if there were trouble, and they also felt the passengers, should there be a problem,  would prefer to not have to wait outside in bad weather. They had the lifejacket drill. They emphasized the brightly colored hats the crew would have on if there were a problem. Took about 15 minutes. Started at 4:45.  Interesting philosophy.

Embarkation day food service:

Rhapsody had buffet set up with limited food. Princess had same, but much more selection. Rhapsody did close their buffet at 4:00. I remember barely getting there last year. The Sun’s stayed open until 7:00.

Sports/Swimming pools:

No covered indoor pool on the Sun. The rear pool was shielded from the sun and rain, but was still outdoors. There is a large covered pool on the Rhapsody. I  did not see a basketball court on the Rhapsody. The Sun had one hidden directly under the smokestacks. Things the Sun did not have the Rhapsody did: Miniature golf and pool table. Sun had four ping pong tables, the Rhapsody, two. Interesting that we say a full size air hockey table being loaded on the ship in Vancouver, but never saw it again - maybe for the crew.  

Children's program:

Both ships had programs for three age groups - 2-8 years, 8-12 years, and 13-17 years. The Rhapsody program was located in the front of the ship near the front, top deck. The Sun rooms were in the back deck 12 near the spa. Each ship had two rooms - one for the teens and the other for the younger kids. The Sun has four computers loaded with kids games. The Rhapsody had no computers in the kids room last year.    

We were involved with the 2-8 year old group and the teen group. The teen group programs were similar enough. That age group always seems to have a good time.  Their room wad large screen TV’s and video games. Cards, board games, many planned activities.

The 8-12 year old group was hardly ever there. They kept meeting at different places and had lots of things planned.

It is the younger group that was so different. The 2-8 year olds never left their room. They did bring in ice cream, cookies and pizza,  but it was always in the room. Last year they moved those kids all around the ship. The were in the pool area sailing homemade boats, making ice-cream sundaes, playing hopscotch on the shuffleboards, all sorts of things. Perhaps many other passengers may object to having kids around, but during the days at sea, if they are well supervised, I’m sure the kids would enjoy getting out as a group.  

The comment cards on the Sun had no questions about the program, but the Rhapsody's did. We did write in our comments.

Ship layout:

The Rhapsody had a promenade deck that did not wrap around. The Sun’s did. On the Sun, as you walk around the front of the ship you can view the machinery that works the tie-up ropes. It is interesting how they handle all that equipment.

The Rhapsody had the top deck open to the sky and it did go all the way around. The Sun went all the way around but you had to negotiate four sets of wind doors (offset partitions) and two flights of stairs to do it.  I liked being able to see the length of the ship on the Rhapsody. When the ship turned you could watch the back end swing around. In and around the glaciers this was fun to watch and made some dramatic video. Couldn’t do it on the Sun.

One of the advantages to the pool deck layout of the Sun was that there were several private areas to swim and lay in the sun. I saw several advantages to each ship’s pool deck layout but we preferred the Rhapsody's.

The Sun Princess dining rooms were each self contained with their own kitchens, one each on deck four and five. The were named the Marquis and the Regency. Not quite the seeping view the Rhapsody’s two floor atrium design has, but nothing wrong with that. The noise level was lower on the Sun.

The buffet restaurant on both ships were forward on the top deck. Great view out the 270 degree windows. The Rhapsody's was hanging directly over the sea and the Sun’s had a viewing deck between the windows and the view.  The view was better from the Rhapsody than the Sun because of this. Of course we were out on the deck to watch all the glaciers, but when they Sun converts this room into a seated restaurant in the evening, the view would have been better with out the deck in the way.

“Private decks”:

Don't tell anyone, but forward on deck 10 and 11 through the doors, there are smallish viewing decks. They have no glass or wind breaks so they are very cold while the ship is moving, but to cruise Glacier Bay or College Fjord they are the best views on the ship. The biggest advantage besides not being crowded, is that you hear none of the ship noises: engines, blowers, fans, etc. during the time you are there. (You do hear the horn very well if you happen to be there then.) As the week went along more people found out about them, but we were never more than one person deep.  Bundle up when there during the bay and fjord visits. In the mornings, find a steward and get a towel to wipe the rails. This keeps your elbows dry.

Rooms:

I thought the rooms were very comparable between the two ships. The storage space while not huge was very manageable for our family. More closet space on the Sun. The shower seemed a bit larger and laid out better on the Sun.  We had a family suite on the Rhapsody which gave us more floor space, and couch and chair. The room on the Sun was fine. The beds dropped out of the ceiling and was controlled by a key to turn on the motor. We left one up and one down each day. This really was not a problem and allowed a place to dump things each time we entered the room.

Service:

We had excellent service on both ships. We never had any problems that were not immediately solved on either ship. Both cabin stewards were superb. Our steward, Fredrico on the Sun had 17 cabins to clean. Duncan on the Rhapsody had 13.

Condition of the ship:

Both ships were immaculate to my eye. Had to look very hard to find a rough spot or rust stain on either ship. Maintainance was never intrusive on eaither ship. You would see the crew working but never were they in the way.

Library/Card Room:

Excellent selection of books, games. However, the Sun had audio books to choose from and players to listen to them. The reading room on the Rhapsody had a better view. It was on the outside of the Centrum area and included a balcony to visit. The Sun’s faced onto the Promenade deck. Commotion outside the window.  Harder to enjoy the view.  Princess had a game each day with questions to challenge you and the answers posted the next day. We had fun with that. The Rhapsody had a weather room with charts of the trip and gauges to view the weather. Couldn’t find that on the Sun. The TV had the information, but you had to wait around for it to cycle through.

General Announcements:

These were easy to avoid on both ships. The Rhapsody had a button to shut off the intercom speaker in the room. The Sun’s were on channel 22 if you wanted to hear them. The bridge cam on the sun was broadcast on channel 35. This is the same view they use on the web. Because it is part of the TV system, I guess that is why TNT shows up on their web site occasionally. Nice background music accompanied the view. 

Activities:

Comparable on both ships. Anything and everything you could want to do. We took a galley tour on the Sun. It was not offered on the Rhapsody. Sun offered a bridge tour - Rhapsody did not.

All the rest of the activities - bingo, art auctions, napkin folding were all comparable.

Shows/Entertainment/TV:

Theaters on both ships are great - good site lines. The crew shows, professional shows,. passenger talent shows etc., were comparable on both ships. Most were very good. - some, not so hot. On the Sun you had to plan ahead because of conflicts with dinner seating.  They do tell you if a certain show will be repeated. This years Sun line up included two great comedians and one horrible one.  Three variety type shows were very will done.

The TV on the Rhapsody replayed many of the afternoon passenger game shows several times. The Sun had excursion videos showing most of the time. The Sun had a movie on continuously on one of the stations.

Dining Options.

Buffet - The Sun buffet was open 6:00 AM until 7:00 PM daily. They kept it open later when we left port late. The Rhapsody’s opened at 6:30 and stayed open until 4:00 daily, then reopened about 5:30 or so for dinner. The type of the offerings seemed about equal. The variety was greater on the Sun by far. They had hamburgers and hot dogs here daily. The Rhapsody buffet was spotty - many times the entrees looked bad - they were not hot. I know of many cafeterias that do a fine job keeping everything hot and nice. The Sun buffet was much better and more consistent.

The forward part of the Sun buffet became the Bistro, a sit down restaurant at 7:00 PM each evening. It was open until 4:00 AM. (There was no buffet at night. The rest of that room becomes a dance hall). The menu was pretty good and there were three specials daily. We ate there once and found one of the daily special an exact copy of one served the night before in the main dining room. The Manager told us they paid no attention to the main dining rooms. Their menu was set by him and was totally separate from the main rooms. All entrees were cooked to order. The meals were very good - service great. We never saw this room crowded, but the food were very good and quite enjoyable. Tipping was at our discretion The manger told me he divided any and all tips among his staff. I had no problem with this. I know some do.

Pizza - On the Sun, Verde's pizza was excellent. It is located up on deck 8 around the atrium. They offered several kinds including Cheese, vegetarian, pepperoni, and Hawaiian. Also the Calzone was great. They did not offer Tea - only water and sodas which cost extra. (Sodas cost extra in the main dining room on Princess. They were included on Rhapsody.)  The Pizza/Hamburger stand on the Rhapsody was by the indoor pool. It was mediocre last year. They also had no tea available. You had to walk the length of the ship to get some near the forward buffet. You could buy soft drinks nearby. 

Dining rooms: Both ships had excellent service. Partial bottles of wine could be kept night to night. Corkage fees were spelled out on the wine list. Servers were efficient and very eager to please. The variety and selection were comparable. I know we could ask for a steak nightly on the Rhapsody if we wanted one. However, the Sun menu had it listed as “always available”.

Food Quality in Dining Rooms:

This was not even close - the quality of the presented food was way above Rhapsody. Not that the Rhapsody was inadequate. It was very good. However, the little things on the Sun were amazing: The spring rolls were hot and crispy. They were as crispy as any I ever had anywhere. The Steak was cooked exactly as ordered three times. (Actually the night we had steak in the alternative Bistro restaurant, I sent it back. It came out perfect the second time.) The puff pastry was always flaky and hot. The salads had absolutely no off color lettuce at any time. Avocados were properly ripened. Each table had a pepper mill - we use a lot of pepper - and it was right there. On the Rhapsody there was only one mill for the area so we could not keep it on the table. They always got it but it was not as convenient. The lobster was perfect. It was overcooked on the Rhapsody. The replacement was also. The Sun’s crab legs were perfectly cooked and served very hot. (That one is a lot of trouble at many restaurants).

On the Sun there were at least 10 desert selections available each night including several that were “always available”.  The Rhapsody had fewer selections and they were not as well presented.

Bread and butter are two on my favorites. The breads on the Rhapsody were to die for. The Sun merely to hike the desert for.

These are all a lot of little things that add up over the week. The dining room experience was noticeably a cut above on the Sun. However, we did dress up twice instead of once for Formal nights on the Sun.

I think this confirms the opinion found on the newsgroups. Again, the food on the Rhapsody was fine and I had few complaints. However, the Sun’s advantage here was noticeable.

During our galley tour they had the scores of the various waiters and bus boys posted on the wall. As I quickly perused them most were given excellent (5) ratings, but there were a lot of fours and threes. Each table was averaged, each section and each dining room captain were all listed and averaged. In talking to our head waiter, there appeared to be a lot of competition to bring these scores up. Hopefully the company rewards the most successful over time.

We were asked by our Sun head waiter to be sure to fill in the cards, that blank cards do not help them. That was all he said.  I remember that on the Rhapsody our individual waiter was talking about them and how important an excellent rating was to him. I usually let this go in one ear and out the other and grade as I see it. Some are offended by the emphasis on it.  Doesn’t matter to me.  Princess lets you charge the tips to your account eliminating the need for cash. I did confirm with the head waiter that this was OK and they got all that you gave them. The ship doesn’t keep any. They disperse funds to the crew after the first night of the next sailing. I paid in cash on the Rhapsody. I wasn’t aware of this convenient service on that ship. 

Disembarkation: Both trips went very smoothly. We were off by 7:30 both times.  In Seward we has wanted to take the train up to Anchorage, but the schedule didn’t allow it. I understand that soon the disembarking Seward passengers will be give the option of taking the train. This would have been a great thing to do.

Last year we left immediately for the Vancouver airport. Our luggage was waiting there on the curb. We claimed it, proceeded to the America West ticket booth, checked in, went through the duty free shop to reach customs, and paid the departure fee of $7.50 (10 Canadian) to finance the airport construction. Then the luggage disappeared until we got home. Free carts are provided by the Vancouver airport, both coming and going.

Other observations:

Our cabin was under the promenade deck and they had to vacuum the water off the drain trays around the deck. They were over our room each morning at  5:30. I heard it because I get up early. No one else in the family heard it. We never heard joggers or anything like that.

One fellow had a cabin on deck 11 inside just below the Horizon court restarunt and he had to move because at night the band there was directly over his bed.

The appointments such as teak wood were very apparent on the Sun. Each morning these were a lot of signs stating “wet teak oil”. There was not as much of that on the Rhapsody.

We liked the Centrum layout on the Rhapsody a lot better - it was prettier and more elegant looking. The public rooms around it were laid out very nicely.

We tried out the Sun’s Internet connections located on the business center, deck 12, aft. It took three tries - the server in Los Angeles was down we were told. The gentleman didn’t know if it was the same server that runs the web cams on the Princess site, but it could be. The connection speed seemed to be comparable to a 14,000 baud modem. I could not log onto my own secure site. The cost was $7.50 for 15 minutes. Last year this was not available on the Rhapsody. I understand it is now.

The shops on board both ships could have been on any ship anywhere. On the Sun the “Gold Chain by the Inch” vendor was extremely popular all day long. Kept the area crowded. The racks of sale clothes also cluttered up the area on both ships.

We did not book any tours through the ship like we did last year. When folks say book your own, do it. They are the same tours, probably with fewer people, a lot cheaper, and more personal guides.  When you get off the ship there are all kinds of local vendor to offer the tours an sighseeing trips. You can bargain with them, particularly after the first wave goes out - they want to fill up their vans in the afternoon. We were lucky in Skagway at being the only ship in port. In Juneau we were one of four. In Ketchican we were one of three. We like to shop early when he town are not too crowded. Then we tour in the afternoon when the towns are crowded.  Makes sense. However the first year we went we booked a few of our must do tours on the ship. Rhapsody has a box they put out for you to out your choices in. We went there immediately and got just what we wanted. Princess lets you do that early, even before you get your cruise document they send a form to preselect shore excursions.  Seemed more civilized and less stressful to do them that way. You could cancel or change when you go to the ship. Watch for the cut off times for changes to avoid fees. 

There is a certain comfort level in letting the ships do all the work for you.

My daughter caught two salmon in Ketchican and presented them to room service upon arrival back at the ship. The next night they were perfectly cooked and delivered to our table on a huge tray complete with trimmings. We shared with all the other tables in the area. Great fun and very well done.

I took along my GPS (Garmin 12 Map) and it was fun to see the names of the island and communities as we went by. The ship’s cruising speed varied from about 18 knots to 21 knots. Standing on the promenade deck it showed I was 49 feet above sea level!

The Love Boat chocolate mousse is to die for and is on the “always available” desert menu.  

For those interested: The bedtime chocolates were always dark. Mostly without mint. They keep bottled water in the room and will replace as needed if you tell them to - there is a charge for it.

They will keep fresh fruit in the room upon request - no additional charge.

We went whale watching with Captain Larry and his helper Jeff of the Awesome Orca. The office is right across from the tram. Watched a group of five humpbacks feed eleven times, one about 100 feet from the boat. Fabulous.

Ketchican found me walking to the Totem heritage center and adjacent hatchery and eagle hospital. Go to the hatchery first for a cheaper combination ticket. It is an easy walk. Goes right by the IGA grocery store for supplies if needed.

Also in Ketchican, one could fish off the Creek street bridge over the canal. Salmon were happy to jump on your hook. A guy sits right there to sell a license and rent poles. Watch for the ever changing Alaska game and wildlife laws. They were pulling them out as we watched. My daughter went deep sea for her two fish. Next time we will fish from the bridge.

Also in Ketchican we watched the Mercury and Galaxy tie up. The town got real busy then. Shop early and find the Ketchicandy store. Great almond bark.

We had rain each day until we reached Glacier Bay. Then the sun came out and it was beautiful the rest of the week.

We passed the Ocean Princess in Prince William Sound no more than 150 yards apart. The Captains had a field day with the horns.

The Glaciers were particularly active in both Glacier Bay and College Fjord. Last year the Hubbard was very active. These are truly spectacular scenes that remain with us daily. We stayed on the deck the whole time we were in Glacier Bay and College Fjord this year. Bundle up and stay out there. Try to get away from the ship’s noises.

At Glacier Bay, we took the time to watch the rangers board the ship - the Sun slows to about 5 knots and the little park ranger boats matched the speed. The ranger scrambles aboard and the ships separate. Must be a thrill to do that each day.  I know the various pilots do this, but I had not seen it before.

In Anchorage we went to the History museum . We found this to be one of the finest exhibitions we had ever seen. It is all about Alaska from way back to the present. I guess with all the oil money it is easy to have a quality museum, but this one is just terrific. Don't miss it if you have time. Even if you have only a few hours, go there.

In closing we would do either ship again especially considering the recent price drops. There were people on this boat that had paid $499.00 for the Internet special. We want to go back for the beauty - not the ships. If we had to choose, we would take the Sun over the Rhapsody, but it would only be for the food. Maybe we will take another line next time so we don't have to decide. Or a small ship cruise. Fun to think about it.

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