Princess Cruises - Cruisemates Reader's Cruise Reviews
CruiseMates' Readers Cruise Reviews
Princess Cruises

Diamond Princess
by Bud Lockwood
Alaska
May 13, 2006

SUMMARY:
My wife, Ginny, and I, along with our neighbors, took the first of the 2006 season northward bound Princess CruiseTours to Alaska aboard the Diamond Princess. We recognized that the first trip of the Alaska season was a gamble because of the weather, the "new" route, and the experience/training of the tour staff in Alaska, most of whom are seasonal with many new in their jobs.

The trip did include glitches but they were far outweighed by the enthusiasm of the Princess staff and the incredible displays of nature including scenery and animals. We saw whales, dall sheep, bears, caribou, bald eagles, swans, beavers, porcupine, snowshoe rabbits, sea lions, otters, and numerous smaller animals and birds, all in a setting of mountains, rivers, bays and fjords covered with snow and ice. We went whale watching, sled dog mushing and ATVing. Our comfortable bases for the trip were the large, modern Diamond Princess cruise ship and the Princess lodges at Copper River and Denali, Alaska. Transportation, in Alaska, included Princess buses and Princess observation railroad cars.

EMBARKATION: The biggest glitch of the trip was embarkation. The ship arrived in Vancouver several hours late from San Francisco. Instead of boarding around noon we boarded around 7:00 pm. We did go to Vancouver a day early and stayed at the very nice Pan Pacific Hotel, located right at the Canada Center, the cruise ship terminal in Vancouver. The huge advantages were that we were under the care of Princess for the wait. They provided a hospitality room in the hotel with a clear view of the ship, expedited boarding once we were clear and we could walk to the gaslight district of Vancouver ,adjacent to the hotel, while we waited to board the ship.

HINT:
Booking a pre-night hotel with the cruise line is a sort of insurance policy that you will be specially treated for embarkation. We always do that and it pays dividends nearly every time.

DISEMBARKATION:
We were off the ship in Whittier and ready for our land tour early at about 7:45 a.m. for our catamaran ride from the Whittier port to Valdez. The catamaran was only a short walk from the ship and our bags were delivered for us. The total time was ten minutes.

WEATHER:
The temperatures ranged from the 40s to the high 70s. We did experience light rain at a couple of stops but much, much less than we had anticipated. The skies were clear enough to see Mt. McKinley from Denali National Park and Mt. Drum from Copper River plus enjoy our bus and train rides under sunny skies the entire way. The cruise line counsel to dress in layers was excellent. It did get quite cold, especially in the morning and especially on the decks of fast moving boats. HINT: Don't forget gloves and a warm hat.

THE SHIP:
The Diamond Princess is relatively new and has most of the amenities of large, modern cruise ships. The staff were excellent for the most part. Our cabin steward was new to his job and struggled for a few days but learned the ropes quickly. The dining rooms for personal choice dining were worth special mention. There were four of them: The Pacific Moon, Santa Fe, Sterling and Vivaldi. All featured the same menu each evening but complemented it with specials unique to their themes like Oriental or Southwestern. These restaurants were excellent and we never made it to the specialty restaurants.

HINT:
Dine early and you never need reservations in any of the personal choice restaurants. Early is before 6:30 p.m.

There was plenty of entertainment in the lounges and showroom. The casino was relatively large. The buffet was well organized and the food was very good. The ship featured Alaskan beers and drinks in the bars and lounges.

HINT:
Try an O'Reilly made with hot chocolate and Bailey's Irish Crème. Its perfect for glacier viewing.

PORTS AND SHORE EXCURSIONS:
The itinerary included the Alaska ports of Ketchikan, Juneau and Skagway along with sailing in Glacier Bay and College Fjord. The shore excursions are unique to Alaska and most involve special adventures. Helicopter and float plane rides into the wilderness are at the top of the price list and provide unique experiences. The calm and silent beauty experienced on a remote Alaskan lake is a benefit of one of the aircraft rides. ( We did this on our first cruise to Alaska). The train ride from Skagway to the Klondike is a must for anyone going for the first time. Whale watching is fun! The boat is enclosed so you have protection from the weather but you have the option to be outside. There is a money back guarantee for seeing whales. We saw several , along with eagles, sea lions and bears. Sled dog mushing is a great Alaskan experience. We went by bus to a mushers camp near Skagway and were treated to not only a sled ride but also the experience of seeing hundreds of Alaskan Huskies, listening to an Iditerod race participant, and seeing the magnificient scenery along the way.

Shopping is excellent in the Alaskan ports, especially in Juneau. Many of the same jewelry stores seen in the Caribbean ports are in Alaska but are complemented by stores featuring Alaskan unique art objects, clothing and souvenirs.

HINT:
Book "can't miss" shore excursions on line as soon as they are available so you won't be left out. Some do fill completely up.

Although Glacier Bay and College Fjord are not ports they are centerpieces of the Alaskan cruise itinerary. Both offer unique opportunities to see some of the most rugged parts of Alaska from the comfort of the cruise ship. The huge glaciers, some calving ice into the water, are awesome sights and sounds. Glacier Bay takes a large part of the day and the ship spends a long time in front of the biggest glacier, a good opportunity to see mammals on the icebergs and in the ice flows. College Fjord comes at either the end or beginning of the day depending on the ships itinerary. We arrived around dinner time. (nice argument for personal choice dining) HINT: If the ship's College Fjord arrival comes during either breakfast or dinner, which is likely, choose the sightseeing as apriority because the views are spectacular. Food is always available

TRANSPORTATION IN ALASKA:
Princess has a big bus fleet in Alaska, well maintained and driven by enthusiastic and competent drivers. We rode a bus from Valdez to Copper River, then from Copper River to Denali. The drives are slow, especially on the Denali Highway, much of which is not paved and is very rough. The drives do allow for animal sightings and scenery watching. There were plenty of each. At the call of "moose" or "caribou" the driver stops for pictures and watching. We also stopped for photos alongside the eight foot snow bank and picturesque waterfalls. The buses are modern and clean. The area is remote. Our bus had a flat tire on the dirt Denali Highway that took an hour and a half to repair. One vehicle came by during the hour and a half. The Princess train cars on the Alaskan Railroad are also very nice. Each car has a domed observation deck that accommodates all the passengers as well as a dining area on the lower deck. Meals are prepared in the car. Each car has several Princess employees to guide and serve the passengers.

We also had a catamaran ride from Whittier, the cruise disembarkation port, to Valdez, the start of the land tour. The ride took us across Prince William Sound, the site of the Exxon Valdez oil tanker grounding and oil spill.

HINT:
Booking transportation with the cruise lines is insurance for safe and reliable transportation.

THE LODGES: Princess lodges in Copper River and Denali were very nice and very different from each other. The Princess Copper River Wilderness Lodge sat alone in a beautiful setting above the river and had tremendous views of the mountains and the Wrangell-St.Elias National Park ( The largest park in the U.S. system). The lodge is relatively small with an enthusiastic staff. They welcome the bus and bid goodbye by standing and waving outside the entrance. The restaurants serve good food at decent prices. The Denali lodge is a large complex of log cabin architecture buildings that house restaurants, a theater, shops, crew quarters and guest rooms. It, too, has a beautiful setting and bustles with tourist activities. A bus tour from the lodge to the Denali National Park is included in the tour. Both lodges offer several optional tours, most involving nature. We went ATVing at the Copper River, a trip that took us along the river and to the Aleyska pipeline across some pretty rugged terrain.

HINT:
Take mosquito repellant and use it before going into wooded areas with water. The mosquito legends are true in some places. There are a lot of them and they are big.

The Princess lodges feature free internet, a very nice perk from the remote areas. The availability of the computers, two in each lodge, was surprisingly good.

Princess uses the Captain Cook Hotel in Anchorage. This is a large, modern and well equipped hotel with very good restaurants. It is just a few minutes from the airport. HINT: The lodges and hotel are all available for viewing on line.

CONCLUSION:
The first of the year Princess CruiseTour was not a big gamble. The payoff was snow capped scenery and very enthusiastic Princess staff. We were their first visitors of the season, the first bus riders, the first catamaran riders, the first ATV riders, the first sled dog mushers and the enthusiasm of the staff was contagious. The ship's new route for the season resulted in small delays but none that affected the overall quality of our Alaskan CruiseTour adventure.