Philip M. Haggerty
Number of Cruises: 5
Cruise Line: Princess
Ship: Sun Princess
Sailing Date: May 13th, 2002
Another disadvantage lay in the difficulty in getting to the open forward decks for photographs. As I mentioned, the Horizon Court Buffet is on Deck 14 forward. There is an open deck in front of the buffet, but the doors leading directly out to the deck were locked. You had to proceed back through the buffet, out to the pool area, up outside stairs and forward outside past a closed mechanical area to the forward part of the Sun Deck which had two viewing areas and another outside set of stairs back down to Deck 14. On the Celebrity vessels there is a public lounge area forward on Deck 14 and direct access from both this lounge and the Gym area on the deck below to forward outside viewing areas. When one is traveling through very cold waters, with winds whipping off the glaciers, the ability to get in and out quickly is most desirable.
There are a number of public rooms, and like Mercury (and its sister ship, Galaxy), one does not get a crowded feeling even though we learned that there were more than 2000 passengers on board, with several cabins having three and even four persons.
All four cruise lines we have traveled have shown us the meaning of “ship-shape” insofar as the appearance of the public areas was concerned. Even on the old Enchanted Isle, built in 1958, every effort was made to keep things clean and well maintained, and Princess is certainly no exception.
This cruise has a naturalist on board to provide lectures on the expected flora and fauna, and we went to the first of these on humpbacked whales. It was quite informative as this man obviously knows whereof he speaks.
I used the exercise room and hot tub, and we ate lunch in the dining room, with very good mussels, snapper and an excellent berry tart. We returned to our cabin where, much to Edith’s delight, we found that we had been reassigned to first seating for dinner. We went to the art auction where we found out that unlike the other cruise lines, in which a land based art gallery conducts the auction as a concession; Princess owns the art and runs the auction process. Edith paid attention to it while I dozed off in a very comfortable chair. She said that the works did not seem up to what we had seen before, but we were told that at some later auctions there were hefty prices paid.
This was the first formal night and we met our dinner companions, Jim and Irene from Surrey, B.C. just south of Vancouver, Lynn from California and her cousin Phyllis from Ohio, and Ken and Lorna from Tustin. All were very pleasant throughout the trip. Our waiter Josef and his assistant, Veronika are both from Hungary. I had crab quiche which was good, a very good lobster bisque and salmon entree, and a chocolate soufflé which was pretty good. We went to the show in the main theatre, and it was standing room only. This room is a pure theatre with regular theater seating, no tables and no drinks being served. It holds 500. The show was called “Words and Music” and consisted of excerpts of show tunes written by Richard Rogers, Cole Porter, Jules Styne, Frank Loesser, and Leonard Bernstein. I loved it. Afterwards we sat in the atrium lounge where a pianist also played old show tunes to my delight. We went to bed at 10:00 and found that the fruit had been delivered to our cabin as promised.
3rd Day - Wednesday - Ketchikan
We arrived at 6:30 and it was raining lightly. We had the breakfast buffet, which did not provide very good hot entrees, but did have fruit. We disembarked at 9:30 and walked around town, to a couple of galleries on Creek street, skipping the Dolly’s House bordello museum. We did go to the South East Alaska Discovery Museum where my Golden Passport got us in for half price. It is a very attractive, nicely arranged and informative place, covering native history and artifacts, as well as the natural rain forest and post 1867 history. We had lunch at the Heen Kahidi Restaurant located in the West Coast Cape Fox Lodge, a hotel on a hill directly above town. This has been recommended in the Alaska-Yukon Moon Handbook, and the author was correct. I had delicious fresh clams and Edith had a halibut enchilada, which she much enjoyed. The hotel lobby was very attractive, with well thought out display cases and wall hangings. We had reached the hotel by going up a small tramway, but were able to walk down and go back on board for a 3:00 P.M. departure. Altogether a relaxing and pleasant day. Dinner was “French Night” - Princess likes themes; and I had pate‘, onion soup, duck a’ la orange and an interesting brulee. This was the best meal so far. Princess repeats some of its shows, and we had liked “Words and Music” so much we went again. We looked at the formal dinner snapshots taken by the ship’s photographer on Tuesday night. Ouch! To bed by 10:00 with the ship really moving along to get to Juneau by the A.M.
4th Day - Thursday - Juneau
The weather was overcast but not raining on arrival. Since our excursion was not until 10:00 we had a leisurely breakfast in the dining room. We sat with a couple who had been on board a Princess ship in Istanbul harbor on September 11. They had to remain there five days and were unable to complete their cruise, going directly back to the US after this enforced stay. Princess made up for this by providing the Alaska cruise. On disembarking we joined 20 other passengers for a sea kayak trip. We were bussed through Juneau, a crowded town, across the Gastineau Channel to Douglas Island and then about 10 miles to the kayak launching site. I wore my Aran Island wool sweater, and they provided rubber boots, a waterproof parka, life jackets and a kayak “skirt” which was chest high and attached around a rim in the kayak to deter water. We went out on a wide bay across from the Mendenhall Glacier. It was cool and clear with perfect visibility. I actually got pretty warm paddling, especially on the return trip when the wind was against us. We saw some sea birds, mostly ducks and terns, but did not get very close to the glacier, although it is quite impressive. The whole water portion lasted about two hours, including instructions. On the way back we had a close encounter with a golden eagle, which had been eating something at the side of the road and took off directly at us, just missing the front windshield. Since we were in the front seat we had a clear view and could truly appreciate how big these birds are. After returning we walked around town for a while, looking at local homes and the plethora of government offices, as well as an old Russian Orthodox church. We had a quick snack at the Silverbow Bakery; a strictly local place recommended, again with good reason, in the Moon Guide. Juneau is very hilly and the mountains go straight up almost from the center of town it seems. We saw a spring thaw mudslide coming down one hill. A Cruise West small (120 passenger) adventure cruise ship “Spirit of Endeavour” was in the harbor also. It was fun watching a tug assist our pulling away. Tonight’s theme was Italian, with prosciutto e melone, red bean soup, swordfish and tiramisu. The last was too dry for my taste, but the rest was fine. The show was “C’est Magnifique” - a French theme obviously. I did not enjoy the music as much as the prior shows, but the dancing was good and the costumes spectacular. Listened to the lounge music again and to bed at 10:30.
5th Day - Friday - Skagway
Had a quick breakfast and got off the ship to get on the train at dockside at 8:10. The weather was a harbinger of the rest of the trip - clear and sunny. We saw a river otter by the side of the train. The trip itself starts the truly spectacular Alaska Mountain scenery, and one simply runs out of adjectives to describe the beauty of this land. The train does not run on the infamous Chilkoot Trail where miners in 1898 had to carry 2000 pounds of supplies up the hills into Canada to be allowed to proceed to the Yukon goldfields at Dawson; but is parallel to it, and was itself built in 1898. It is a narrow gauge railway, but still amazing in its construction. I took many photos and enjoyed it immensely. Everyone recommends this trip and I concur. We returned to lunch on board and walked through the very small town for a couple of hours. Went to tea where we talked to a honeymoon couple who had taken the helicopter/dog sled excursion to a glacier. They loved it, but considering the cost, $369.00 per person, they should have. Relaxed until dinner where I had crab cakes, and agreed with Lynn that there was too much cake and not enough crab. The cold apple/berry soup was excellent, and the crab legs a little dry. Edith went to the C’est Magnifique show again and I went up on deck as we went south in Lynn Sound. The captain evidently saw Spirit of Endeavor near the south coast (port side) and headed in that direction to see what it was exploring. These smaller ships can get quite close to shore. We got within 300 yards or so as we passed it and could see two pods of seal lions sunning themselves in the twilight on the shore. It was a beautiful sight as was the magnificent sunset on the starboard side later.
6th Day - Saturday - Glacier Bay
Another glorious weather day. We stopped to let several Park Rangers on board to act as tour guides and set up an information table since the whole bay is a National Park. It was as spectacular as promised. We stopped for at least half an hour near one glacier to watch ice breaking off in a “calving” process several times. I took a lot of photos, some of which caught the calving in mid-fall. This was the last formal night with the usual overdone Baked Alaska parade. Prior to that the cold soup selection was again excellent, but the main fish course a tad dry again. We took photographs all around and the shots taken of Edith and myself on our camera turned out a lot better than the ship’s photographer pictures. The picture I took of Jim and Irene was really good and we will send it to them. The show was called “Rhythms of the City” and had really excellent dancing and good music.; although someone said one dancer accidentally “dropped” another. We did not see this, however.
7th Day - Sunday - College Fjord
Since this was the final day there was the usual disembarkation lecture, which could be watched on television; a very good alternative to being crammed in the theater. Princess wants the shipped luggage outside your cabin door by 8:00 P.M.; but this did not prove too difficult when we packed one suitcase each before dinner and the second after dinner. We spent most of the day in Prince William Sound, a huge body of water. We visited College Fjord in the north central portion; so denominated because the glaciers are named after various colleges. They are more varied than in Glacier Bay, but we did not get as close. The town of Valdez, which is the southern terminus of the oil pipeline is in the northeast portion of the Sound, which also was the site of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. The spill dumped 11 million gallons of oil into the Sound from a point south of College Ford, so this portion of the Sound was not affected. Thirteen years later it is not of course possible for an observer to note any affect from the spill. We did get a fairly close view of sea otters happily swimming on their backs as we sailed away from this truly beautiful body of water.
Dinner included roast beef, and I requested and received a nice end cut. The dessert was zabaglione, which was the best of the trip. We had our bags out in plenty of time, but chose not to attend the passenger talent (?) show, the comic or the movie. Unfortunately we did not sleep well this last night, in contrast to all other nights.
8th Day - Monday - Seward - Anchorage - Fairbanks
This was not a fun day. We arrived in Seward early, and had time for a decent breakfast, which was served starting at 5:30. Our baggage color code was scheduled for 7:15 departure, and we were called to disembark at 7:30. We were directed to a large room with our luggage, which we were asked to identify and put to one side. We then had to get in a very long line, which led to a ticket counter, manned by Alaska Airlines agents. Since we knew we were going by bus from Seward to Anchorage to fly to Fairbanks for our land tour, this seemed okay. It took almost an hour to get up to an agent however, and we were handed airline tickets, which noted a 10:52 A.M. boarding time for an 11:22 A.M. departure. Since it was now about 8:15 and Anchorage was 125 miles away, I said to the agent “We will never make this flight”. She tried to reassure me and we went out and got on a bus. It did not fill for over twenty minutes. It now seemed pretty clear we would not arrive in time unless they held up the plane. The drive to Anchorage from Seward across the Kenai Peninsula would ordinarily be an attractive trip, but was marred by the expectation that we would not get there in time for the plane. Sure enough, as we drove up to the Anchorage Airport at 11:30 there was an Alaska Airlines flight going down the runway. The Princess agent waiting for us told us there would be a later flight at 3:50, and they would try to get us on that flight, although there were right now more of us than vacant seats on that flight. There were about 16 of us in this situation. We later found out that there were about the same number of people on the same tour who had been given a different color code with an earlier disembarkation time who made the flight connection properly. We were told we could stay in the airport or go to a “Hospitality Center” in Anchorage and spend some time in town. We opted for that, which was a mistake since we had to wait another half hour for the bus and did not get downtown until almost 1:00 P.M., which left us little time. The Hospitality Center did not have much to offer. It is basically a bus terminal with a very large waiting room and only a limited lunch counter offering a choice between two dry sandwiches. We chatted with another couple who had purchased a train ride from Seward to Anchorage in order to make their air connection back to the States, and who could not get on the train because it was sold out. They came to Anchorage by bus, but had to wait at the Center until 6:00 when it closed before returning to the airport to wait there until midnight for the next available flight to San Francisco. Princess simply messed up. We went back to the airport about 2:00 and were able to get on the 3:50 flight to Fairbanks, although I am not sure if all our group made it and Edith and I were not seated together. It was a small plane, and one of the flight attendants was a lady with a delightful Irish accent. I chatted with her briefly, and then opened the Alaska Airline monthly magazine to see her picture as one of their “Employees of the Month”! The plane actually was en route to Barrow on the Arctic Sea as its final destination. Alaska really has very few miles of road, even unpaved road, and most of it can be reached by air, sea and dogsled only. It probably indicated something when I read in a local paper, I think it was Juneau, in the classified section that there were offered for sale one automobile, three planes and nine boats.
When we arrived in Fairbanks we were again put on a bus. There were about 20 of us, almost all bound for The Princess Riverside Lodge. About four people were headed for another hotel on the other side of town, and we proceeded to go to that hotel first, a thirty to forty minute drive through Fairbanks, which is a spread out city, instead of first bringing most of the passengers to the Riverside Lodge which is within sight of the airport. After the way our flight connections to Fairbanks were originally mishandled, this idiocy seemed to take the cake.
The hotel is very nice. It is not a luxury or resort hotel by stateside standards, but our room overlooked the Chena River, had plenty of room and was clean and comfortable. We actually were in our room by about 6:00 and were pleased that our luggage was waiting for us. I should note that the baggage transfers were handled without the slightest glitch throughout the entire trip. The hotel has a full size restaurant , a bar and grill and a gift shop, which sells coffee and buns, but no true breakfast service outside the main dining room. We opted for the buffet dinner, which was fairly limited in its choices, and hardly gourmet compared to the ship; but adequate. There is not much to do at the Lodge, and it is not near anything in Fairbanks, so we walked along the riverbank for awhile and then went back to our room to watch television before retiring.
9th Day - Tuesday - Fairbanks
Our cruise/tour provided two separate tours in Fairbanks as part of the package price. The weather was clear and warm, in fact it was almost hot, even for these Arizona citizens, approaching the mid 80s in the afternoon. Our itinerary called for the “City of Gold” tour in the morning. The hotel was crowded with Princess passengers participating in various phases of their cruise or tours, so there were a lot of buses carrying people to different places. The “City of Gold” group filled about four buses and the trip took about twenty minutes out of town to what is a small, old, but actually operating gold mine. The managers, an enthusiastic husband and wife team who have spent many years in Alaska explained the theory of using water to pan for gold. Then the husband explained and demonstrated the basic panning technique. We all then walked through a short mine shaft to see what they were like, and were handed a bag of dirt which we took to large troughs filled with water, and were handed pans to work on our bags. Fortunately we were allowed to sit while doing this and there were a number of college age people helping out. The bags are clearly “salted” since, with some effort, we all were able to come up with a few gold flakes at the bottom of our pans. This seems kind of hokey, but was actually a lot of fun. We put our flakes in small containers and took them in to the store on site to have them weighed and valued. Edith and I were told our gold was worth about $9.00 and $10.00 each. We decided to put the combined take into a necklace with a little glass locket so you can see the gold. The “street” price of the tour is $40.00, so they can afford $9.00 or $10.00 worth of gold and build that into the price. All in all it was enjoyable.
Lunch was on our own as are all meals on the land portion of cruise tours. We went to the buffet again, and it was okay. The prices were reasonable. The afternoon event is a trip on the Riverboat Discovery, a paddle wheeler built specifically for this purpose. Actually it is Discovery III, and Discovery II is still usable. The family, which owns and operates it also owns the gold mine tour we went to in the morning. The river trip started with watching a bush pilot take off and land using about 200 feet of runway. We then stopped by the bank side to listen to a talk by Susan Butcher, who won the Iditarod dogsled race in 1986, 87, 88 and 90. She seemed most proud of the elder of her two daughters, a seven year old who has her own sled and dog team. She had a number of dogs with her since she runs a breeding kennel. Most people, myself included, expected the dogs to be larger, but they only run about 50 pounds. Like most dogs in groups, they seem to simply enjoy running and playing with each other. She noted that they actually lead a pretty healthy life and are long lived. Her lead dog for three of her victories, Granite, lived to be 17 years old. We then went further downstream to see a salmon filleting exhibit by an Athabascan Indian woman who then rode her outboard skiff down to a “village” where we disembarked. Here we were shown her beadwork and several parkas made of leather and trimmed in fur. The most spectacular had the “fur sunburst” hood and sells for about $20,000. We also visited another dogsled team owned by a young lady who was rookie of the year in this year’s Iditarod. The dogs are extremely friendly, letting anyone pet them. The landing site also had some domestic caribou, and we were able to touch their antlers which at this time of year are covered in “velvet”. Everyone agreed that this was a very good excursion, well worth the time. We decided to go to The Great Alaska Salmon Bake - that’s the name of a restaurant chain - for dinner. A fellow passenger on the plane who was stationed in Fairbanks recommended it and said that there was a “special” on this week. He was correct. The normal fixed price is $23.95 for grilled salmon and/or halibut and/or steak, with salad, dessert and coffee or soft drink. The special was $11.95 for salmon only. You eat at informal tables, usually sharing with someone, either inside or outside under trees. We chose the latter, and it was a good meal for the price, and the restaurant supplied the transportation to and from the hotel. Retired early again in preparation for an early departure the next day.
10th Day - Wednesday - Denali Park
We had another beautifully clear day, and left the hotel about 7:30 by bus to board the train in Fairbanks. We had three cars, all owned by Princess. They are arranged in two levels. The upper level consists of tables, each seating four people, with large observation windows, and a cocktail service bar. The lower level is ½ a dining car and about ¼ gift shop, with the remaining space taken up with an outdoor observation deck. In addition to the people serving drinks, there was a lady guide who had lived in Alaska for 37 years and was most informative. At one point we did get a glimpse of Mount McKinley. The name itself is somewhat controversial, since there is a lot of pressure from the Native Alaskan community and others to restore its Athabascan name “Denali”; but the legal compromise was to name the Park “Denali” and keep Mt. McKinley as the official name for the peak. In any event, it is the highest peak in the North American Hemisphere, and even more impressive than some since its base is about 2500 feet above sea level so it rises almost a full 18,000 feet.
Our destination was the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge, one of two hotels owned by Princess in the Denali Park area, near the small town of McKinley Park at the northeast edge of the Park near the Visitor’s Center. Denali Park is 6,000,000 acres in size, that’s 9375 square miles, or about Massachusetts and Rhode Island combined. We arrived about 12:30 and our scheduled “Nature Tour” was at 4:40. I wanted to see if I could participate in an additional or substituted tour run by the Park service, so we caught a shuttle provided by Princess to the Visitors Center. There we found out that the tours did not start until May 25, still three days away, and that the only trip provided was a short hop at 8:00 the next morning. We returned to have a very decent lunch at the Lodge restaurant and to wait. Our room was smaller and without a view, but otherwise fine. The Nature Tour turned out quite well, primarily due to the expertise of our guide, who really had an excellent scientific background on the animals of the area. We went several miles into the park, saw Dall sheep at a distance, and later, caribou and moose. No one saw a bear or wolf, although our guide said he had seen wolves the prior week. We should note that “break-up”, the event which marks the melting of the river ice and some lake ice, had only occurred a week or two prior to our arrival. We did see Mt. McKinley from one or two points on the trip, but the top had considerable cloud cover. The Mountain creates its own weather system, which results in cloud cover more than 2/3 of the time, we were told. There were other views of the Park however, which are impossible to describe in their beauty and depth. I have been to our Grand Canyon several times, and while these are very different places, each is beyond description in their own way. We got back to the Lodge after 8:00, but since the sun never sets (or so it seemed) we checked out alternatives for dinner. Neither the pizza parlor or the sandwich shop appealed to us so we returned to the restaurant for another good meal. The Denali Lodge, like the Fairbanks Princess, is on a river bank and quite scenic so we enjoyed a nice stroll after dinner.
11th Day - Thursday - Train to Anchorage past Denali
The next morning we went by van to the Visitor Center at the Park. The Lodge people had arranged that transportation for us without charge. We caught the bus which, like all the park busses, was a “retired” school bus. We paid $2.00 each for a two hour trip with an informal but pleasant commentary by the driver. There were a few other passengers going to the Post Office and the railroad station, which is in the Park proper, and two young ladies with full back packs, permit tags attached, prepared to spend a week camping in the Park. We were able to get some better shots of the Dall sheep, and several good photographs of a male ptarmigan, Alaska’s state bird, posing nicely on a bridge rail. We were back to pick up the shuttle return to the Lodge in plenty of time to make the bus to the train.
The train left the Park at about 12:30 and arrived in Anchorage at 10:30 P.M. Fortunately we were able to get the forward facing seats at our table since riding backwards the previous day had made Edith a bit queasy. A lot of our time was taken up in the unsuccessful search for wildlife; although Edith did spot a moose in the outskirts of Anchorage. What we did get was several great views of McKinley, especially from a town called Talkeetna southeast of the peak. From this angle you can see it, on a clear day, from base to top; and we were fortunate enough to have this view. I got some good photos of the full mountain. It was a long day, but gave us a good idea of the depth and scope of Denali Park even though the railroad ran along its outer edge only. Traveling on the Alaska Railroad is slow, and we had to pull over for a lengthy freight car at one point which cost us a half hour delay. On arrival we were bussed to the hotel as usual. I should note that what Princess does is have someone at the bus, as you embark, hand you an envelope with your name on it which contains the hotel key to your room and information as to your next departure. It saves going through the check-in process, a welcome relief when you are somewhat beat by the long day you have had. Our hotel in Anchorage was the Captain Cook, built by Walter Hinkel, former Governor and Secretary of the Interior under Ronald Reagan, and still operated by him. It is a true five star hotel, with beautiful dark wood and glass, an elegant lobby; a number of first class shops; good rooms and a restaurant on the 20th floor with prices to match. We had packed our large bags for shipment from Fairbanks, and only carried back packs on the train to Denali and for our overnight stay. We were happy to be reunited with our luggage waiting for us in our room at the Captain Cook.
We had eaten both lunch and dinner on the train, actually splitting the lunch portion between us, and were glad that we did so. I had thought it would have been nice to eat at one of a decent selection of restaurants in Anchorage, but the delay in travel would have meant that we would have been starving and looking for an open restaurant at 11:00 at night. We were more than happy to go to bed after a short walk around town to find the cafe recommended for breakfast. We would have liked more time to get to see Anchorage.
12th Day - Friday - Anchorage to Phoenix
Our plane did not leave until 12:30 so we had time to go to the Snow City Cafe around the corner from the hotel for breakfast. This once again is a purely local establishment, recommended in several guide books, which once more lived up to expectations as being pleasant, with great pancakes, friendly local help and a generally nice atmosphere. Our impression of Alaskans is very favorable. We realize that most of the people we saw were in the tourist business, which is a very important factor in the economy, but some of the people we ran into were not part of the tourist industry and all were outgoing and pleasant. Maybe one reason is that almost everyone here is here because they chose to come to Alaska, and they are living where they want to live by their own choice.
One more bus to the airport, and on the way - which is a short distance through town, we saw another moose happily chomping grass by the side of the road. A sad note is that our train guide told us that about 250 moose are killed each year on the road between Anchorage and Palmer, a farming community about 50 miles north. It is a 3½ flight to Seattle where we had a 1½ hour wait before taking off for Phoenix. We left at about 7:30 Seattle time (Alaska’s time zone is one hour later than the west coast and Arizona in the summer - we don’t have daylight savings time). We had a spectacular view of Mount Rainier as were gained altitude. Home at 10:30 and to bed.
Overall Impression - Would We Recommend This Cruise/Tour?
Our answer is a strong “yes.” It may seem in reading this review that we have pointed out a number of items which we have criticized. I think this is necessary for the sake of objectivity, and to avoid appearing as though we are unobservant. Nothing in life is perfect, and you often have to take some bad with the good. The test is; if we had known everything about the trip prior to taking it, would we still have taken it; and the answer has to be - we certainly would.
There is always a question of whether the evaluation is based on where you went and what you did, rather than on who took you and how did they treat you. There is no doubt that the star of the show was Alaska - not Princess. But that would be true no matter what cruise line you are on, or how well they treated you. This is simply nature’s trip; but then again, so was the Cape Horn trip. This was somewhat in contrast with the Mexican Riviera and the two Caribbean cruises. On these, the memorable part was the cruise experience, relaxing while floating from port to port. It is true that we enjoyed several port experiences, and I love snorkeling in Caribbean waters, but the emphasis was on the ship itself in these cases.
Having said that, there may be some differences between cruise lines and the opportunities they afford to let Alaska shine. I have read that Princess and Holland-America are the most experienced and offer the most in the way of on-shore activities; but all the onshore activities you buy from them can be purchased on your own anyway. Remember, Alaska is just another state and can be reached by phone; area code 907; and e-mail with ease. The trips included as part on the on-shore excursion price may vary from line to line however, and some lines price the on-shore excursions before or after the cruise separately from the cruise, while Princess and Celebrity at least, wrap them into “packages”. To some extent the excursions are limited by what vendors have available, but I was disappointed that the Denali Nature Tour was as short as it was, and that we were not afforded the chance to go deeper into the park. I am sure that Princess can persuade vendors to offer more and that enough cruise passengers exist to pay for extended tours. That being noted, let me offer some specific evaluations of the cruise portion and the land portion separately since they are so distinct, and some readers may opt for the cruise portion only.
The Princess Cruise Portion
Overall Ratings (On a 1-100 scale) Compared with Elation and Galaxy/Mercury
Main Dining Room:
I found that I have boxed myself in with my prior ratings, all of which are on this site and cannot be changed. If truth be told, since dining on the two Celebrity ships I would not rate either Elation or Sun Princess at 91 for comparison purposes. The food on all Celebrity ships is fresh, and tastes that way throughout all parts of each meal. The sauces on Celebrity are true additions, highlighting the main course. It is not that the food on either Elation or Sun Princess is bad. They serve good food and prepare it well. It just does not have the style and verve of most Celebrity offerings. No ship serving 2000 people can present true gourmet experiences, although I understand that Celebrity comes close on its new ships with their special, extra cost dining rooms, so I continue to rate Celebrity’s main dining rooms at 94. But on that scale I should rate Elation at 86 and Sun Princess at 87.
Mercury Sun Princess
Land tours - Cruise Portion
Port Shopping. We loved the couple at breakfast who said they were going shopping, and, “As usual we’ll be buying one of everything whether we need it or not”. If one is into native artifacts there is a lot of really nice stuff available at almost every stop. Much of the native work is very beautiful. While there are some of the same stores you see in the Caribbean, and the usual run of junky “mementos”, you do have good options. They are not cheap, but with a little looking, and asking questions, which will be answered in English, you can get some very worthwhile things.
Casino. As noted it is out of the way and the designer of Sun Princess gets my applause for that. But if you want to gamble, you can certainly find it.
On Board Activities. These seemed pretty much as usual. We always feel there should be more organized exercise classes. The lectures on the environment and by the National Parks folk were a distinct plus. There seemed to be a lot of first run movies which we didn’t attend. Who wants to sit in a dark theater when Glacier Bay is outside?
Shipboard Information. The daily newssheet is much like those supplied by all cruise lines, and is delivered at about 9:30 as are the others. I has four pages and the layout is not bad once you get used to it. What we really missed was the outside world news which Celebrity supplies very well. I do not recall any outside news sheet on Elation. In addition to the newssheet, Sun Princess supplied a handout on each of the first three ports visited, which was handy. They also provide a “Ship’s Log” at the end with a lot of technical detail on the trip and about the ship, and a handout on the food service division. I had heard that Princess used its PA system a lot, but while it was a little more intrusive than the virtually silent Galaxy and Mercury, I did not find it annoying; certainly not like Elation. The cabin TV system was quite extensive, especially with the channel showing the ship’s location, direction, speed, temperature etc. The CNN was no doubt better than Galaxy and Mercury because we were inside the United States (or Canada) the entire trip.
Security. We had the usual check-out check-in system with our cards at the gangway, which went smoothly, and of course there were no customs or immigration hassles. On board security was not evident, as on the Celebrity ships, and in contrast to the highly visible security on Elation.
Photo Service. In keeping with the grand tradition, in an unbroken line from Elation on, it was terrible. The only good shot was the gangway picture as we boarded. As I recommended before, bring you own camera and have your table companions take your picture. The one we did that way turned out pretty well.
Service. Princess is an experienced and very professional cruise line. Its personnel all seem well trained and personable, and we know of no one who had a bad or even mildly unpleasant experience. Josef always had a recommendation about the items offered, and I believe he was sincere. Veronika was extremely pleasant and cheerful. Our cabin attendant Elizabeth was also cheerful and prompt in making up our room. She was the first room steward who asked us to use the door hanger to tell her when we were leaving for long enough to make up the room, but this was not problem.
One special note on tipping. Princess has joined those lines which automatically add a set tip to your on board account, at the rate of $10.00 per person per day, divided into $6.50 for food service and $3.50 for cabin service. It is slightly more than Celebrity’s “suggested” $3.50 for waiter, $2.00 for assistant waiter and $3.50 for cabin steward; but then Princess does not “suggest” tips for the maitre’ d, headwaiters or housekeepers, with envelopes, as does Celebrity. You can reduce or add to the Princess amount, but I suspect that most people do neither, just like us.
Land Tours. Princess offered a huge number of options, but that is no doubt due to the fact that Alaska offers a huge number of options. They were extremely efficient in getting people to and from their tour connections. The system they have for pre-ordering off ship tours online is simple and works perfectly as far as we were concerned. It might be possible to equal the availability and range of on shore activities, but I don’t see how you could surpass Princess in this area. The tours are not cheap, but the people running them have to make a year’s worth of living in four months, and no cruise line can control this pricing pressure.
Overall Impression. Sun Princess is a fine ship. The company knows how to make the most of Alaska, and how to show it to its passengers. Its operations have enough flexibility to allow people to choose what they wish. For example, at some cost to our diets, we found the daily tea offered in the main dining room to be very pleasant. The entertainment was not bad and we appreciated the theater seating with no one hustling drinks as we waited for the show. While the food was not as fine as Celebrity’s, it was very good “hotel quality” food, and the personalized efforts of our wait staff were appreciated. The land tour portion, despite the glitches commented upon, was by and large well done. We wanted to see what the country was like, and we were afforded an excellent opportunity to do so. It is a huge area and consequently it is impossible to cover more than a small portion of it in four days, but the tour was designed to give us a reasonable glimpse of this most beautiful state.
Does and Don’ts. Do emphasize casual clothing and good walking shoes. You will never have to dress for dinner on land in Alaska. Men - don’t bring an extra jacket other than what you will wear for formal nights. I carried my favorite wool/cashmere blazer (in addition to my tux) the entire trip and never wore it. Do bring lots, and I mean lots of film if you are in to photography. I shot 16 rolls. Use ASA 400 or 800 and a polaroid filter for your outdoor shots on sunny days. Do bring long sleeve knit type shirts as they are great for layering under your waterproof windproof outer jacket which is an absolute must. Make sure you have good head covering and gloves. I found a great pair of mittens at REI which have finger holes so you can operate a camera with them still on your hand. We brought umbrellas, but only used them once in Ketchikan and I would not bother again.
Final Comment. Our fellow passengers were a delightful group of people. They all were friendly and outgoing, and easy to engage in conversation. An overwhelming percentage were American or Canadian, with a few Brits and Aussies thrown in. The number of children was small, but Princess seemed to provide sufficient entertainment and they were in no way annoying. This was a cruise, which I could see repeating in a few years after we have accomplished some of the trips to some parts of the world we have not yet seen.