Number of Cruises: 4
Cruise Line: Princess
Ship: Sun Princess
Sailing Date: August 4th, 2003
We're a 40-something couple with three previous cruises under our belts, all on different lines. Our trip consisted of a one-week cruise from Vancouver to Seward, followed by a five-day trip to Anchorage and Denali National Park (which we booked on our own, not through the cruise line). If you don’t have much time to read all the details, here’s the quick summary: We had a great time and found the Sun Princess to be an excellent, very well-run ship.
Boarding: This was done in Vancouver and went pretty smoothly. We arrived around 30 minutes prior to the noon boarding time and waited in line until the U.S. immigration desks opened. Once the line started moving, it went quickly and we were onboard by 12:30. (My wife spotted an interesting looking booklet about Alaska on a rack in the terminal that we passed just before getting into the hallway leading to the ship. More about this later, but try to grab a copy of that booklet if you see it, since it has many good coupons you’ll want to take advantage of at various ports.)
We entered the ship to the strains of a very good string quartet, who stayed with us for the remainder of the trip. This was a very nice touch!
Food: After quickly visiting our room to drop off our carry-ons, we went up to the Regency dining room for lunch. Here, we had our first of many salmon entrees and some very good ravioli. If you want to do this when you board, you have to move fast, since lunch was only being served at the Regency until 1:30. After that, you’ll have to go to the buffet.
Speaking of the buffet, we ate there every morning and had most of our lunches there too. We found the food to be good, with a nice choice at all times of day. While meat, fish, and pasta were OK to good, the real star on this ship is the pastry chef. Danish, cakes, and pastries of all types were always fresh and of the highest quality. Bread products were also very good and always fresh. There was lots of fruit available, but most of it was of the canned variety, which we liked just fine. Salads were a little inconsistent, and it was hard to predict just what vegetables and dressings would be available on any given day. The tomatoes were passable, but not the best.
We had most of our dinners in the Regency dining room, where we chose the late seating. We were seated at a table for eight, with our traveling companions and two very interesting couples who had emigrated to the US from Vietnam. Service there was very good and we never got the sense that our meals were waiting around getting cold. On occasion we ordered two entrees or appetizers and were never discouraged from doing so. Regarding the food there, we got the impression the chefs were trying very hard, but not always succeeding. Nothing was bad, mind you, but not everything was delicious, as it is on some cruises. The weirdest thing was that we could never get a good salad there. They seemed to use some sort of bland creamy base for the dressings, which would be tinged with various flavorings, but the dressings never really tasted very different from one another and we never felt like we had a really good salad in the dining room (the salad dressings at the buffet were more normal, but still not great).
The beef dishes were somewhat disappointing (except the goulash at the buffet) and the steaks, prime rib, etc. were good, but not great. Fish was something else, though, being plentiful, fresh and generally well-prepared. We especially liked the Alaska King Crab and lobster tail, and you could get salmon at just about every meal (including breakfast). Pasta dishes varied from good to excellent. Cold soups were great (especially the strawberry) and the desserts were outstanding, allowing the pastry chef to really strut his stuff (the Baked Alaska, a cruising tradition, was the best we’ve ever had). I also enjoyed all the crazy flavors of sorbet. My suggestion: get your cake and some sorbet too!
We never ate at the specialty steak house ($8 extra, reservations suggested), so maybe that’s where all the good beef goes, but we did eat at the pizzeria, which had excellent, freshly made individual pies. They had thin crust and were a little on the small side, so you may want to order an extra one if you’re going there for a meal rather than a snack.
If you’re an ice cream lover, you won’t be happy. While ice cream was pretty much always on the menu in the dining room, it was rarely served at the buffet. There’s a for-pay ice cream shop, if you’re really desperate, but this was the first cruise we’d been on where ice cream wasn’t plentiful and free.
Overall, we’d rate the food on the Sun Princess a notch below the HAL Rotterdam (2001 Mediterranean) and the NCL Norwegian Crown (1996 Caribbean). It was a notch above the Carnival Ecstasy (2002 Baja Mexico).
Accommodations & Ship Design: We were in an inside cabin, just front of the center of the boat, on the Main deck (5). The room was the smallest we’ve had, but was big enough to suit our needs. There was just about enough storage space for our stuff, but not as much as we’ve had in the past. All the furnishings and fixtures were in excellent condition and the bathroom was sufficiently large and well designed. If you want to plug something into the bathroom outlet, note that it’s a two-prong, non-polarized type, so you’ll need an adaptor if your plug has one prong wider than the other. The room had a built-in hair dryer. Our travel companions selected an outside cabin, which was a little bigger and had a full-sized window. They really enjoyed the view and felt their outside cabin was well worth the extra cost.
We asked for a couple of bathrobes, an extra towel, and a mattress pad (the bed was very firm) and had no problems getting any of them. There were cards in the room asking if we wanted flowers or fruit delivered, but we didn’t take them up on either of these offers. The cabin steward was excellent and the room was always clean and tidy. We felt virtually no vibrations and heard no engine noise in the room. The ride also seemed remarkably smooth and we had no trouble sleeping.
The ship was beautifully designed and maintained. It has a very smooth ride and is almost entirely free of annoying vibrations and rocking. The weather was good the whole week, so we spent a lot of time on the promenade deck 7 (good for whale watching) and found the central atrium stairs and elevators to be a convenient way to get from floor to floor. Note, if you want to spend a lot of time outside taking in the views and spotting wildlife, make sure you bring a coat and gloves (the ship’s store is well-stocked in these types of items, so you can pick them up on board if you have to).
Entertainment: The Sun Prinecess’s staff does a very good job keeping you busy at all times. We went to several trivia contests, art auctions (didn’t buy anything, though), wildlife talks, etc. and we never felt like we had too much time on our hands. We also went to the “port and shopping” talk, which is really geared up to selling you a coupon book we didn’t buy. Some of those who did were disappointed with the discounts -- and we were really happy with the freebie we picked up at the terminal in Vancouver, which had a lot of good discount offers and coupons for free items at almost all the ports we docked at. Anyway, if you arrive early to the port talk and sit up close to the stage, you will almost surely go home with a bunch of goodies. Shirts, hats, jewelry, and who knows what else are tossed from the stage at a dizzying clip!
We were pretty pooped in the evenings and only made it to one stage show -- Rhythms of the City -- which was awful. (I think the cruise lines have to rethink the pea-brain knockoff Vegas shows they like to depend on. They mostly seem to vary from blah to bad, no matter what ship you’re on.) If you’re planning to see the stage shows, note that, while the main ones are repeated for the first seating diners, if you’re at the late seating, you will have only one shot at seeing the main stage shows.
We didn’t catch any movies in the theater, but were impressed with the ones that popped up on our TV.
Shore Excursions: Much has been written on the Vancouver-Seward itinerary, so I won’t go into detail here, except to mention a few highlights. First off, the glaciers were spectacular, not just in Glacier Bay, buy also College Fjord. We also highly recommend a helicopter tour of the glaciers. Landing and walking around on one was an experience we’ll never forget. And, if you find yourself with some time in Seward either before or after your cruise, try to get out to Exit Glacier. You can practically walk right up to it and touch it (which some people did, danger signs notwithstanding). It’s just a short drive and well worth your time. We were lucky to be able to get a Hertz daytime rental in Seward without a reservation, but there was a lot of competition for available vehicles, so it would be better to reserve a car in advance if you can. Besides glaciers (and whales), we really enjoyed the White Pass and Yukon Railway trip in Skagway and the AJ Gold Mine/Gastineau Mill tour in Juneau.
Post Cruise Land Tour: We didn’t book our trip to Denali through the cruise line. Instead, we saved some money and booked a package tour with the Alaska Railroad. It worked out very well and we feel we got a little closer to the Alaskan way of life that way. The trips were surprisingly comfortable and you really get the run of the train when you take the Alaska Railroad (rather than being trapped in a single cruise line car). As an extra bonus, high school student tour guides pointed out the sites and passed around scrap books of their lives in Alaska. Now that’s entertainment! In Denali, we stayed at the precariously perched Grande Denali lodge, which suited our needs very well. You may want to consider staying in Denali for at least two nights (that’s what we did). Otherwise, you’ll find you spent most of your time on the train instead of in the wild.
Be advised that the cruise and land portions of this trip are jarringly different. You go from pampered luxury to rustic roughness in one fell swoop. If your schedule permits, you may want to consider doing the rugged Denali parts first -- then relax with a cruise afterwards.
Summary: We really enjoyed our trip and hope to get back to Alaska some day to see many spots we didn’t have time to get to. Besides all the sites and natural beauty of the land, we met many interesting fellow travelers (hi Russ and Wei -- hope your bus trip through Denali was a good one!) and would highly recommend this itinerary to anyone interested in seeing the spectacular sites of Alaska.