This review covers the above cruise and Princess Land Tour 19N that we took following disembarkation in Whittier. The trip began on May 23 and ended June 6, 2004.
Sunday May 23
We arrived in Vancouver after 11pm. First hitch of the trip.Northwest lost our luggage. The desk agent in South Bend put another person's tag on one of our three bags and we did not catch it. This lead to 24 hours of stress, but Northwest personnel were professional, tracked down the bag and let us know it was in Vancouver by noon on Monday. However it did not arrive in our room until after we sailed.
We booked our own airfare from South Bend to Vancouver at substantial savings from Princess Air.
We also booked our own Hotel. Princess wanted $220 for Sutton Place. We were able to book the Crown Plaza Hotel for $61 (77.95 with taxes and fees) on Hotwire. Like Priceline, you do not know which hotel you are reserving until you commit and pay, but the star rating of the hotel was accurate. The Crowne Plaza was a five-minute walk from the pier.
Monday May 24
A bright sunny day with temperatures in the high 60's greets us. We spend some time walking around downtown Vancouver and had a wonderful (if somewhat expensive) late breakfast at the Wedgewood Hotel. Also did some Shopping at the Hudson Bay Company (Established in the 1600's!) and then headed to the ship. We found Vancouver to be a pretty and clean city, and hope to return for a real visit some day. However, we found little entertaining about Gastown, just a bunch of old building to us.
Embarkation was average, but not terribly organized. There were two lines, one for express check-in and one for regular check-in for each deck. I assume express check-in was for folks who had already registered on the Internet, but there was no one explaining who should get in which line. I asked one Princess representative and she replied, "just get in the shortest line." So as polite passengers we just made one line for each deck. The wait was about 45 minutes at 1pm. After the check-in desk, we had to go through customs.
Tuesday May 25 at Sea on Dawn Princess
A very pleasant day. Having sailed on the Sun Princess in 1998, we received no surprises from her sister Dawn. I will review the ship and crew here. The ship is in good shape. However, for the first time in seven cruises, we felt crowded on ship all week. I think part of the reason for this is these ships were designed for Caribbean cruising and the assumption 500 or more folks will always be on deck during the day. Even though we had remarkable good weather for the cruise, most folks spent most of their time indoors except for glacier cruising. This was also the oldest cruise in terms of passenger age we have ever been on, definitely not an outdoorsy bunch. And the shop was completely sold out.
After being on mega ships, the Dawn seems small. The main theatre is poorly designed with only two aisles, and undersized.you had to show up at the popular shows early or you might not get as seat. I also found the ship to be very warm, as did other members of my party. As far as clothing, we had great weather on the whole trip. Glacier Bay was overcast and the temperatures dipped to the 40's, but we never needed a heavy coat. Layers are the key, as are a hat and gloves or mittens. Since we had a balcony cabin, we had the luxury of returning to the room, which was nice, but not necessary. Princess ran a $499 a week special for the inside cabins, which to me would be a better value for the money we spent on the balcony. Also a nice warm-up suit can be worn almost daily on this cruise and fit in nicely while cutting down the number of clothes you need to wear.
The entertainment was solid. The production values were not flashy.stage and props looked like community theatre. But the ship singers were very good. A highlight of the cruise was comedian Jack Wilks who was hilarious. Ventriloquist Willie Tyler and Lester (The Jeffersons) also appeared on Day Six of the cruise and were entertaining.
I thought the Cruise Staff, (Director, Asst Dirs, etc) was the weakest of all the cruises we have been on. However the pursers' desk staff, wait staff, bar staff and stewards were, for the most part outstanding, very friendly and efficient without being pushy.
We selected personal choice dining for the first time. I was a bit concerned that without the week-long relationship with the waiter and assistant waiter, the service would not be as good since they probably would not see us again. But accept for one night when the waiter was downright rude, the service was exceptional. We were traveling with my parents for the first time, and we live hundreds of miles apart. So we enjoyed the quality time we spent together at a four-person table each night without having to put in the effort of meeting new people for the week. Also this was the least dressy cruise we have ever been on. Only two formal nights, with a third to a half of the men wearing tuxes, including my Dad and me. The other days and nights were very casual, with most men not even wearing sport coats to dinner.
Wednesday May 26-Ketchikan, Alaska
We were only in port until just after 2pm, which did not leave a lot of time for activities. Skies were partly cloudy with an occasional shower and a high temperature of 52 degrees.
We had originally reserved the First City Deluxe Tour at $75 per person. However upon reading my Frommers guide book, it became clear we could walk to all of the places on the Tour which were with-in a mile of the ship. We did this for total entrance fees of less than one tour price for the four of us. However, for the first time on any of our cruises, we found the ship tours did get access we did not at the Deer Mountain Tribal Hatchery and Eagle Center. We did get a tour of the salmon hatchery and got to see the two bonded eagles up close, but we did not get to attend the 15-minute raptor lecture with a live hawk and owl. Also at the Totem Heritage Center, guides were available to answer our questions, but only gave narrated tours to ship tour groups. You could, of course, join one of these groups if one was taking place when you were on site.
Also, while on maps it looks like the Westmark Cape Fox Lodge Funicular helps you get to the hatchery it does not. Unless you want to get to the lodge for lunch or get an elevated view of Ketchikan, don't take it. We paid the modest $2 fee to go up, just to have to walk down a steep staircase to walk back up a hill to get to the hatchery. This did however provide my traveling party with good material about the usefulness of all my pre-cruise research!
By mid morning, vendors were offering one-hour town tours for $15 at the dock. This is also a good port for fishing tours, but my group was not interested.
Thursday May 27-Juneau
A beautiful day. Partly Cloudy with temperatures in the mid-50's at noon. After much debate, we decided to book the four-hour Glacier Trek Helicopter Tour with NorthStar Trekking. The debate was over the cost. $329 per person. (We saved $26 per person by booking direct with NorthStar) Folks, this tour was worth every penny! What a thrill. The pilots were very good; the helicopters in good shape and three bladed which makes for a smoother flight, and the glacier guides were outstanding. The flight to the Mendenhall Glacier over the Juneau Icefield was awesome, and walking on the glacier was a thrill. They teach you how to walk up steep ice hills and then you are off for a two-hour hike over the glacier, up to ice walls and along crevasses and glacial rivers. At the end they hook your harness to a rope, and lower you into an ice cave. Everything inside was blue, just like the ice cave in one of the Superman movies. The cave was only about nine-feet deep, so it is not a death defying experience, just really fun. Northstar also offers a four-hour trek that on our day was climbing an 80-foot ice wall, among other things. Our group was content to watch. I highly recommend NorthStar Trekking (907) 790-4419.
We also enjoyed Juneau. Then Ben Franklin Store is a great place for reasonably priced souvenirs. There is also a unique (tiny) Russian Orthodox Church on the Hill above the city that is worth the walk. The priest will give you a complete tour and lecture in return for small donations. The icons in the church were made in Russia and are more than 100 years old. Since we have gone on many whale watches and seen many whales over the years, we did not go in Juneau. But all the companies guarantee you will see a whale, and everyone we talked with who went on a whale watch enjoyed it.
On the cruise out of Juneau Thursday night, our balcony cabin paid dividends. I spotted the distinctive spray of a whale spouting in the distance. Moments later, the whale did a complete breach and flip 90 degrees off our cabin.and continued this show for a good 10 minutes. We had never before seen a whale completely breach. We would be rewarded with this sight again while cruising out of Glacier Bay later in the cruise.
Friday May 28-Skagway
A magnificent sunny day with temperatures in the high 50's. We took the White Pass Scenic Railway trip in the morning and can only describe the trip as awesome. Quite honestly, the views on this trip were more impressive than any we saw on the Princess Midnight Sun Express Train, which we rode twice during the land tour. We highly recommend this trip and booking through the cruise line. The cruise line trains pull right up to the ship. For the direct book trains you have to walk downtown. The cruise line train only costs a few dollars more.
We were the only ship in port this day, so traffic was very light in the city. We took the city tour offered by the National Park Service in the afternoon and found it to be very interesting and informative. Plus, it's free! Also had a beer at the interesting Red Onion Saloon.
Saturday May 29-Glacier Bay
This day was mostly Cloudy to start but cleared by the end of the day. Temperature at noon was 52 degrees, with temperatures dropping to the low 40's near the glaciers.
Two Park Service Rangers and a state guide boarded the ship as we headed up Glacier Bay. One of the young ladies provided the commentary. Quite honestly she was not very good, but it was only her second ship lecture and she was sincere.
The glaciers were spectacular and quite blue under the cloudy skies. We spent a lot of time at Margerie Glacier at the end of the bay and saw some minor calving, more accurately described as ice falls. There was a huge piece ready to go, but it never fell. All in all a very enjoyable day.
Sunday May 30-College Fjord
Another brilliant sunny day. Temperature at noon: 52 degrees.
Here was the surprise. College Fjord is much more impressive than Glacier Bay. On the way in orca's could be seen through binoculars on the shoreline. (Oh yes.do not forget to bring binoculars on this trip.most of the best wildlife sightings on ship and land require binoculars.) We cruised through hundreds of otters on the way up the fjord. At one point a bald eagle flew majestically over the bow of the ship to the cheers of some passengers. College Fjord has seven glaciers along the arm the ship cruises, and they were much more active than the glaciers in Glacier Bay. On the cruise out we saw another breaching whale right off the bow. The fjord is awesome and was one of the highlights of the trip. Ecologist Dr. Bruce Bauerle gave the narration on this day. He also presented three lectures during the cruise. While he is now off the ship after a four-week stint, if you ever have a chance to hear him do not pass it up. His lectures were a highlight of the cruise. Informative and entertaining. Princess should bring him back every year.
Monday May 31-Whittier
Whittier is just past the mouth of Glacier Bay. We docked before 1am. Disembarkation was organized and quick, possibly the best we ever experienced. We boarded the Klondike Express for a two-hour high-speed ride across Prince William Sound in the rain. The trip was narrated by the captain and we did see, dolphins, otters, whales and many different fishing boats.
We then boarded a bus for a two-hour ride to the Copper River Princess Lodge. On the way we stopped in Valdez for lunch, at two waterfalls and a glacier. When you arrive at the lodge, the staff lines up and applauds your arrival.
The lodge is gorgeous and peaceful. It overlooks the Wrangle-St. Elias national park and some spectacular mountains. The service was outstanding as was the food in the restaurant, your only eating option at the lodge.
There is a free shuttle that takes you to "Downtown Copper Center", a few buildings including a restaurant that other tour members said sold great pie and chocolate chip cookies. The shuttle also takes you to the National Parks Service Visitor Center where there are some friendly and informative guides and a well done free move about the park and Alaska.
Tuesday June 1-Copper River
A day of leisure. We went to the Visitor Center and in the afternoon took the white-water rafting Trip with the River Wrangellers on the Lutina River. 16 miles of great, safe fun that included bald eagle and moose sightings. My wife enjoyed it so much we took another trip at Denali.
Wednesday June 2-Fairbanks
We headed to Fairbanks by motorcoach Wednesday morning. It rained most of the day. The road parallels the Alaska Pipeline and at one point we stopped at the pipeline to get a closer look. We also stopped at two roadhouses along the way for snacks and lunch. The trip takes about eight hours and we arrived at the Princess Fairbanks Lodge a little after 4 pm. We were quite honestly not impressed with Fairbanks. We ended up walking to the Fred Meyer supermarket nearby and bought salads, French bread and beer for an in-room dinner that turned out to be delightful.
We found the Fairbanks Lodge staff to be indifferent. They lost our luggage for five hours IN THE HOTEL, before finally finding it in the basement after 9pm.
Thursday June 3-Train to Denali/Denali National Park
We took the bus to the train depot early Thursday morning. We boarded what turned out to be Holland America train cars at 8:15 am for the 4 1/2 hour ride to Denali. The Holland America cars have seats in the upper deck that all face in one direction and no tables. We had breakfast downstairs in the restaurant portion that was decent. The ride is interesting with mountains coming into view in the last hour.
After checking into the Denali Princess Lodge we hopped on the bus for our upgraded Tundra Wilderness Tour. YOU MUST UPGRADE FROM THE NATURAL HISTORY TOUR TO THE TUNDRA WILDERNESS TOUR. You should do this with your travel agent before you leave. The history tour turns around after an hour and a half. The tundra tour heads four hours into the park. On our tour, we saw, Dall sheep, grizzly bears, caribou, fox, porcupine, eagles and moose.all but the sheep after the history tour turnaround. The upgrade only costs $39 per person and is more than worth it.
Friday June 3-Denali-Trip to Mount McKinley
In the morning on Friday, we took the Nenana Gorge Whitewater rafting trip and again had a great time. The water temperature was 39 degrees but they put you in dry suits so you never feel it. We they took a pleasant bus ride to the Mt. McKinley Lodge. Did I mention that since the trip to Fairbanks, it had been sunny and pleasant every day? We began seeing both of McKinley's peaks in Denali on Thursday. Today when we arrived at the lodge the view was spectacular. Not a cloud in the sky. Even though we were 43 miles from the mountain, the tallest peak in North America dominated the horizon. What a thrill. Other than taking the free nature walk on one of the trails around the lodge with a state naturalist guide (free) we just relaxed, since there was no need to take a flight seeing trip to see peaks we could see with the naked eye. We ate all our meals in the bar in the lodge and all were very good. We recommend the fried halibut! By the way, one of the nature trails was closed because a very protective moose cow had just given birth to twin calves.
Saturday June 5-Mt. McKinley-Anchorage
After a pleasant morning and afternoon of leisure, we took the one-hour ride to Talkeetna to board the train for the ride to Anchorage. The train was more than an hour late, so Princess provided us with a ride to walk around the small town the show "Northern Exposure" was based on. This time we boarded Princess train cars with seats around tables on the top viewing deck. The ride was uneventful (we did see one moose). After all the mountains we had seen during the previous two weeks, nothing stood out on this trip. We did enjoy having dinner in the restaurant car, musing on how much less pressured travel must have been during the hey day of the train. The food was decent but nothing special, the most mundane meal we had eaten on the trip to this point.
We arrived at the Cook Hotel in anchorage after 9pm only to discover the staff at the Mt. McKinley Princess had lost one of our large bags. The outfitters desk staff at the Cook Hotel was terrific, the staff at Mt. McKinley less so. They kept telling us we checked in with three bags so they loaded three bags belonging to us on the truck for Anchorage. This is correct. We were not allowed our baggage on our trip to Denali, only a carry-on. Our bags were shipped ahead to Mt. McKinley. I asked for any extra bag tag at Mt. McKinley for an additional bag, and they said no problem. So we tagged and left the carry-on outside our room as instructed. The carry-on made it to anchorage. One large bag did not. Mt. McKinley told us they had no idea where the additional bag was and to file a report.
Constant calls to Mt. McKinley continued to elicit the response, we checked in three bags and they checked out three bags, not much encouragement for a couple out about $2000 in clothing. We called each day the week back from the trip, no news and no idea where the bag could be. Finally on Thursday June 10, we got a call the bag had been located in Ketchikan and turned over to Federal Express. We finally received the bag here in South Bend today June 14. We have yet to receive any kind of formal apology from Princess.
Word of advice. Take a marker and write in large letters your last name on the outside of all your bags. My parents have done this, and while our bags were lost three times on this trip despite each having three ID tags, our parents bags showed up every time, sometimes in our room!
The Captain Cook is a very nice hotel. All we did was sleep there and head to the airport at 6:30 am Sunday morning for a very uneventful trip home.
We had a wonderful time on this trip and recommend Alaska to everyone. Feel free to e-mail me with any questions at email@example.com. I hope this review provides some helpful advice to future Alaska cruisers.
Jack in South Bend