Princess Sun Princess ReviewAlaskaJosh Jones
Number of Cruises: 1
Cruise Line: Princess
Ship: Sun Princess
Sailing Date: June 4th, 2006
Itinerary: NOT FOUND
Sun Princess Cruise Review
My wife and I just came back from an
Alaskan Inside Passage trip on the Sun Princess out of Seattle, June 4th through
June 11th, 2006. For the short, short version for those deciding whether or not
this would be a good cruise: Take this cruise!. Book it now! The Sun Princess is
great, but more importantly, you need to get yourself to Alaska. It's beautiful.
For a more specific, rather lengthy, rundown on the Sun Princess experience, plus insight into excellent yet rarely-taken shore excursions, read on. I intend to focus my review on a lot of things that I never found properly described in previous reviews of this cruise.
Some background: I've never cruised before, my wife has cruised three times exclusively with Royal Caribbean (Alaska, Western & Eastern Caribbean cruises). So everything I know about cruise ships is from her stories, and she's never been on a Princess ship before. We have, however, been to an all-inclusive resort (Sandals) before so some of the cruising concepts that normally blow first-timers away were not entirely foreign to me.
To start off, I'll explain the weather... we were ridiculously lucky. We were geared up to expect it to be 55 and rainy every day. Nope. It was in the upper 60s and sunny every day, and it was 70 in Skagway. I even got a sunburn. For the first week of June, it was amazing, and for it not to rain in Ketchikan, well that's just plain weird. At every stop we made, even in Victoria, all the locals told us it rained all day the day prior to our arrival. Admittedly, it was overcast for the first hour of our time in Ketchikan and overcast during the first two hours of Tracy Arm, but honestly it really added to the mystique of the beautiful scenery. With a day of low clouds, you'd really miss some of the fine details such as all the snow-capped mountains, but I don't think it would detract from your trip. It was rather cold on Tracy Arm morning, as the entry started at 6am, so I would recommend you pack a winter coat for at least that day, and a light jacket for the remaining trip. And I like it chilly, for me 65 is ideal, so if I had unnaturally nice weather and say to pack a winter coat, then seriously, no kidding, pack a winter coat. Bring ponchos and umbrellas too. We had a bunch of disposable ponchos on hand, but never used them.
Before I get deeper into the ship, the ports, the excursions, I must address what most people come to expect from a cruise ship and is my most dire warning about Princess. That would be food. It's really not all that good. To be more fair, it's more hit and miss, with more misses than hits. For an example, you can pretty much write off all the hot food at the Horizon Court Buffet as being awful. Some breakfast foods, like sausage, bacon, and pancakes (note I did not say eggs) defy this, as they were tasty, but all other hot food was just plain bad. And I am not anti-buffet either, I like buffets sometimes, but clearly Princess isn't going to give a Vegas buffet a run for its money.
But what about the dinner? Well, like I said, hit and miss, but you have more luck there. I should note that we chose the fixed seating, and were lucky enough to get a 2-person table. I am told that Princess is rather unique in that you can get anytime dining (but that absolutely, unquestionably requires a reservation, I learned from other passengers) or you can get fixed seating at varying sizes of tables. They had 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, and 12. I didn't see more than two 2-person tables in the entire room (there may have been more, but they are extremely infrequent and we just got super lucky), but there are definitely a reasonable amount of 4-person tables. But back to food quality - it was mostly good but you have an issue with selection. My wife doesn't care for seafood, and noted that the menu was seafood-heavy on most nights. The beef there wasn't good at all. I'm not going to say horrible, just that it wasn't good. The beef tenderloin and strip steaks were both bland, with the former tasting like roast beef and the latter desperately screaming for steak sauce. The seafood, I must admit, was quite pleasant. The salmon was very good, for example. What is key here is that the menu seemed to improve throughout the cruise. On the 5th night they had Alaskan King Crab legs. I asked for seconds, and got it! They were amazing. Quite possibly on par with the best crab I've ever had, and far superior to the Dungeness crab I had at an upscale restaurant in Seattle before departure. The following night they had twin lobster tails, absolutely delicious. The waiter watched me finish the two, and without asking me, brought me two more! Still delicious. Desserts were good all throughout the cruise, definitely excellent all around, even their ice cream is great. But the definitive best night was Day 6, same day as the lobster, they had baked Alaska. I always thought it sounded boring, and my wife said the baked Alaska on Royal Caribbean amounted to little more than Neapolitan ice cream, but oh man, it was mind blowing-ly delicious, and a huge portion. Yet I still finished it, and without asking the waiter brought me another. What a great guy! What I wouldn't do for more of that baked Alaska right now...
So as you can read, our impression of the food started out negative, and ended up positive. That's because we knew to avoid the hot buffet food, and avoid the beef at dinner. My wife later got pesto linguine at dinner, and it was great. (It's hard to screw up pesto.) But what I must bring to attention is the alternative food besides buffets and the fixed dinner. They had a fish BBQ on Ketchikan day, which included grilled shrimp, BBQ fish (I thought salmon but my wife thought it wasn't), and crab cakes. You can have as much as you want and it was phenomenal, surprising since it was served poolside and you would expect less. On another day they served reindeer chili, which was decent. Also, one day the Horizon Court had an Asian themed buffet, again bad hot food, but they had a whole sushi buffet which probably won't please sushi fanatics as it is on par with most grocery store sushi, but it was fine for me. Poolside burgers, fries, hotdogs are all passable - better than I expected at least. We did not try the $15-per-person Sterling Steakhouse (which is simply a roped off section of the buffet). We spoke to somebody at AAA who told us the meat there was the same as the main dining room, but he said that implying the main dining room served good beef. I refuse to believe that the filet mignon is as bad as the beef in the dining room, so perhaps the steakhouse may have been good, but I wasn't about to pay money for it.
Food-wise, this leaves one last thing. Verdi's pizza. Somewhere I read bad reviews of this, and I have no idea what those people were thinking. The pizza was good. The service is terrible, you'll wait anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour for your food, but the pizza and calzones are all great. I've had better, of course, but I admit that if Verdi's were a pizza place in my town, I would probably go there from time to time. Since the ship is docked in Juneau and Victoria during dinnertime, you're likely to miss the sit-down dinner at least twice. I heartily recommend Verdi's as an alternative. We ate there 4 times, and it was routinely the most reliably good food on the ship.
Note I didn't mention a midnight buffet. Princess doesn't have one. They have a buffet 24 hours, but no special extravaganza. But they do have an abundance of desserts available at the Horizon Court late at night, every night, and on the last day of the trip they have a massive dessert feast there during lunch hours. Also on the second to last night, they have a champagne waterfall in the atrium, with free champagne for all. I would say that more than makes up for a high-class midnight buffet.
Okay, everyone's favorite cruise obsession behind, how was the ship? I enjoyed it. My wife, being on 3 Royal Caribbean boats before, said that everything blurred together and is convinced that unless you are on the newer, giant ships with climbing walls and such, they all look the same. Personally I thought the Vista Lounge was the ideal place to spend an evening. The layout is just really nice, a great show lounge. The bars are all really cool, and the Shooting Stars disco is stylish. The dining room is nice, as one would expect. The Horizon Court Buffet, though lacking in food quality, is a really nice place to eat - visually - as it is on the top deck surrounded by glass, giving excellent views of the landscape you came to see. There are two small pools, a third circular pool by the spa that's really only good for soaking in, and five hot tubs. Approximately zero of these are covered. I will repeat: no. indoor. pool. That may upset some people. Like I mentioned earlier, we had great weather, so we did go to the pool twice. They are heated, they claim its 70 degrees but I am pretty sure it was warmer than that because 70 is pretty cold for a pool. So swimming is not out of the question, just be forewarned that it is not enclosed.
For entertainment... well... it's a cruise ship. They had a great comic one night, a guy who really deserves his own Comedy Central special. Another night, a surprisingly funny juggler. Then a rather unexciting guitarist, and a cheesy but still amusing magician. All of these were in the Vista Lounge, which as I mentioned is a really cool venue. You'll want to avoid the Princess Theater like the plague. We stopped going after the first production show. Perhaps somebody actually likes this sort of thing, but we thought it was just plain awful.
And finally, what the vacation should be all about, Alaska. It's beautiful. Not just in the ports, or on excursions, but just when the boat is sailing through all the islands, it's really a sight to behold. Whatever you do, pick excursions that actually get you out of town. The port towns are tiny and of no value, with the exception of walking down Creek Street in Ketchikan, which is fairly neat, you're not going to see very much if you just stay in these small towns other than crappy jewelry stores and junky gift shops. If that's what you want to go on vacation for, save the money and go to a local mall. If you really want to see Alaska, take an excursion. We took some atypical ones, and one very, very prominent excursion that everyone should (and usually does) do.
Ketchikan - Rainforest Ropes and Zip Line Challenge: Not to be confused with the similar Rainforest Canopy and Zip Line tour. That one is a series of zip lines that takes you through the trees and over a 400 foot drop. Though it sounds like fun, we did the ropes course. It included various forms of rope bridges, swinging logs, and tightrope walks both with and without a second rope above you. Plus three zip line runs. I believe you hit a max height of 170 feet on those zip lines and the tightropes, whereas the rope bridges don't go much higher than 20-30 feet. Still, it was really fun. You got to enjoy an old growth forest, with 500 year old redwood trees, and yet have a blast on amazingly fun zip lines and admittedly freaky tightrope walks. We finished our tour on a climbing wall, that included a rather unique "giant's ladder". You'd have to see it to understand, and I defy anybody to try it.
Juneau - Glacier View Sea Kayaking: this was hands-down the best part of our whole vacation. You take 2-person kayaks into Auke Bay, facing the Mendenhall Glacier. They say on a foggy day you can't see the glacier, but we had pure sun and had an amazing view. But that's not all, we also passed by several flocks of Bald Eagles (yes, they don't group together normally, but here they did) and were actually followed and approached by several harbor seals. Going eye to eye with a harbor seal within 15 feet of me is nothing like going to an aquarium. It was truly incredible, and a lot of fun.
Skagway - White Pass Yukon Route Scenic Railroad: This is the biggie. Everyone should do this, and they usually go, because what else are you going to do in Skagway? If you have researched an Alaskan cruise at all, then you probably already know about this. A train along the Klondike trail with stunning views and a trip into the mountains. This is your northernmost stop on the trip, you owe it to yourself to go 30 miles into the interior to see what Southeast Alaska is really like.
Skagway - Klondike Rock Climbing and Rappelling: Yes, we took two excursions in Skagway. We just had to go rock climbing on real rock (we're used to the indoor gyms) and where else to do it but on a glacier-carved granite cliff overlooking the Klondike trail? It overlooks the valley the train goes through, but for those views you're better off on the train. This is all about rock climbing, though to be fair each person only got to climb twice and rappel once. A die-hard rock climber who has actually climbed real rock elsewhere in life probably wouldn't be too impressed, though they do have routes for all difficulty levels. But for me, I loved it, and now I can say I've rock climbed the Klondike trail.
Victoria - Enchanting Butchart Gardens - a big "duh" here, unless you do whale watching or nothing at all, this is the prime spot at this port. Butchart Gardens is on the Travel Channel's list of top 10 gardens in the world (1 of 3 in North America, the other two being the superior Longwood Gardens in PA and the lesser Dumbarton Oaks in DC) and it deserves the recognition for the Sunken Garden and Rose Garden alone. Totally worth the trip. Be sure to stay in Victoria at nightfall to see the parliament building lit up at night, it's really cool.
In the midst of all the ports, there is the trip through Tracy Arm Fjord. Yes, get up at 6am to watch it. Yes, bring binoculars (read the a few paragraphs down for the reason why). Yes, most definitely bring a winter coat. And NO, Tracy Arm is NOT Glacier Bay, it is NOT a fjord through pure ice. It's a fjord through glacier carved rock that has progressively younger and younger vegetation until none at all, and you get to see the Sawyer Glaciers at the end. Trust me, it's really incredible. A place like Tracy Arm is precisely why you go to Alaska.
Unfortunately, it is also precisely why people errantly think they need to get a balcony on Alaskan cruises. Everyone always says "splurge on a balcony, if you're going to do it anywhere, do it on an Alaskan cruise!" "You need a balcony to see everything in private!" Baloney. You don't need it. If a balcony was the same price as an interior room, sure I would have booked one and I would have stood on it on occasion - the views are great all the time - but I can guarantee you I wouldn't stand there for very long. The last thing I would have wanted on this cruise was a tiny square of space with limited visibility on one side of the boat. You are only hurting yourself by spending your cruise there. You truly need to go up on the deck, frequently, during Tracy Arm, whale watching, or any other time where you have a free moment. It is simply not the same without the near 360 degree views available on the deck. With how much more a balcony costs, you can save that money and go on some of the many fantastic excursions instead. Also know that the sun rises early and sets late. Curtains or not, I don't want light in my room at 3:45am. Having a pitch black interior room was great for sleeping. If you need a window, try channel 35, it's the best channel on TV - the front of the boat channel!
And now to save the best for last - the wildlife. I had no expectations for that. We saw one to two humpback whales per day. At Skagway, one was feeding right in front of the ship. We saw harbor seals while kayaking, on the icebergs in Tracy Arm, on buoys in the water, etc. We saw sea lions playing. We saw dolphins pass our boat closely. We saw porpoises jumping in and out of our wake. And we saw more bald eagles daily than we see regular birds at home daily. The wildlife is abundant, and incredible. It's all the better that they have an ship's naturalist who announces when whales are passing by, and gives a lot of great information on them as you watch them. Make a point and take in his talks in the Princess Theater, he gives 4 talks and they are all great.
With the end of the review, I should mention the end of the cruise. They allow express disembarkation for those willing to carry their own luggage. You disembark at 7:30, which is fine because everybody has to be out of their rooms by then and is off the boat within the next 2 hours anyways. We did this, and it would have been excellent except for two things; Number one, fools kept taking the elevator because they were too lazy to take stairs, even if people with 6 bags were waiting forever. We had to take our heavy bags down 4 flights of stairs. Okay, fine, deal with it. Get in line to disembark. Wait. Wait. "Why are we not moving?" Finally someone says "is this the line for express disembarkation?" and a bunch of confused people turn around all confused and say "no, we're waiting to be called. The express people already left." So, please, for all that is good and holy, if you aren't in the process of walking off the ship, don't stand in the vicinity of the exits and block the people who are trying to leave. Don't cause somebody else's cruise to end in frustration and anger at you because you can't handle sitting down in another area of the ship. Thank you. One should not be walking off from a fantastic cruise, cursing angrily with major irritation at the process of getting off the boat.
And that's it. Granted, it may seem like I had a lot of complaints here, but that's because it's easier for anybody to post nitpicky complaints about minor things and it's a lot more vague to write a novel about how wonderful it was. Trust me, this ship is great, I would do the same vacation again in a minute, no changes. Avoid the hot food at the buffet, eat Verdi's pizza, get out of the ports, watch the wildlife, and carry a baseball bat during disembarkation. You will love the Sun Princess.