by Don Jones
September 9, 2008
Background: I decided to take my wife on a cruise to Alaska to celebrate our 10th anniversary. We had always discussed cruising before, and always decided against it. We just never thought it was our type of vacation. We like to be very active, outdoors, and go at our own schedule. We have about ˝ a day maximum of sitting on a beach. We want to DO, that is how we relax. However, with kids and jobs straining the amount of time we can get away, and with a strong desire to see Alaska, I decided to take the plunge and try out a cruise. We elected for the 7 day Seattle-Alaska-Seattle cruise on the Golden Princess.
Overall Thoughts on Princess and the Golden: Dealing with Princess was easy. I booked directly with them, and they were good about sending documents, updates, etc. I booked my flights separately, which caused no problems. The website for Princess was easy to use, and allowed me to complete all of the required information online. I also pre-reserved two tours (Skagway and Ketchikan) online prior to our cruise, which worked out nicely. On board, the staff was very responsive to our needs. A couple of examples: We need to change our Skagway tour from the AM to the PM. This took about 30 seconds; was really easy. One morning I went to the buffet and tried to get a pot of coffee to bring back to my wife in our room. When the person suggested I contact Room Service, I indicated I wasn't willing to wait the 30-45 minutes. She thought out of the box, and got me 2 large "to go" coffee cups that I could take back to my room. Was it the pot I asked for? No, but it solved my problem 100%. One afternoon while leaving my room, I noticed that the door was not locking correctly. Within 30 minutes, a crew of guys had taken the entire locking mechanism off the door, disassembled it, fixed it, put it back on the door and had me test it with my key to ensure it worked. The most impressive thing was that 5 minutes later the supervisor knocked on the door, checking in to make sure we were satisfied. The staff on board the Golden really do want to make sure everything is perfect for you. On the down side, there was a lot of trying to sell us stuff. Not so much the soda package (a few people asked us the first day, but after that nobody tried to get us to buy it), but everything. For example, many of the "activities" were actually trying to sell us stuff. The art "auctions?" Sales event. The "trunk shows?" Sales event. The port shopping lectures? Sales event. It got old after awhile. Is that just Princess, or the industry overall? My guess is that it is the industry overall (and based on other reviews I have seen, I think it is an industry thing, not a Princess thing).
Weather: The weather in Seattle was great; a bit foggy in the AM, but sunny and mid-60s the rest of the time. Really nice. The weather in Alaska was bad. 50's the whole time, and raining all the time (or cloudy and about to rain). However, the mist and clouds added an element of drama to the scenery, and rain doesn't make me melt; so I was happy! It is the second to last cruise of the season; I didn't expect perfect weather. In Victoria we had a beautiful evening; 60's to high 50's, and sunny.
Embarkation: All of the Princess materials say to arrive after 1 PM for faster boarding. We took Princess at their word, and have to say it was true. We got to the terminal at 1:45, and were on the ship 20 minutes later. I have waited in check in lines at airports for much longer. It was EASY to embark, we couldn't have been more pleased. We found our cabin, and set out to explore. Our bags arrived about 2 hours after we did, which was fine.
Cabin: We booked a mini-suite on the Dolphin Deck, starboard side. The room was fine, exactly as expected. The balcony was nice, with plenty of room for 4 chairs and a table. The carpet, curtains, bedding, décor, etc. were all fine. Not worn out and old, but not sparkling new either. There were no obvious signs of wear and tear, but it wasn't brand new either. There was plenty of space for all of our things. Three things to note: First, there is no iron in the room. We had some wrinkly clothes that we sent out to be pressed (about the same as we would pay in Chicago). Second, there are very few outlets in the room (total of 4, three in the room one in the bathroom). With two laptops, two cell phones, two ipods, a camera and other electronics; .keeping everything charged was a juggling act. Our cabin steward, Antonio Pereira, was good. Always there with a smile and energy, happy to do everything he could to make our cruise the best possible.
Public areas: The public areas are designed in the same fashion as the cabins. The look was fine. Not to my taste, and maybe a bit dated (it is 8 years old or so), but fine. No paint peeling, nothing hanging by a thread; .in general it was in good shape.
Dining/Food: We elected for anytime dining, and were happy we did. The food in the dining rooms was good, not great. The service in the dining rooms was good, not great (to be great, I would have expected napkins that match my pants so visible lint didn't get on them, crumbs swept off of the table between courses, a charger plate at my place setting when I arrived at the table, consistent clearing from the left, a never empty glass, etc. I have high standards for "great" service at a restaurant). I would equate it roughly with the quality of food and service level to be found at the hotel restaurants of the flagship hotels of the various national chains (Hilton, Sheraton, Marriott, etc.). Better than an Applebees or Friday's or those types of places, not as good as a fine dining restaurant of acclaim in any large city. The buffet was a buffet. Buffets are never that good, and this one is no exception. There is a lot of food, and a lot of people trying to eat it, and it was OK for a buffet. We have friends who have cruised on other lines and raved about the buffet, about fruit carvings, people taking pictures of the buffet before people started to eat from it, etc.. The Golden Princess had none of that; it was just a buffet. When we did eat in the buffet, finding a place to sit was not really tough at all (and our cruise was sold out, 2,800 passengers). We ate almost all of our meals in the dining rooms. Formal night wasn't very formal. Only 2 tuxedos in the restaurant we were in, which made me glad I had not brought mine. Lobster night was the 2nd Formal night, and was a disappointment. The lobster tail was small, probably 4-5 ounces. It was drowned in butter. The two king prawns served with it were so drowned in butter that you couldn't taste the prawn. Like I say; .disappointing. Overall, the service was good and the food was good in the dining rooms, and the buffet was a buffet.
Casino: The casino was surprisingly not crowded. They offered all of the standard table games, and lots of slots. We are not slot players, but they appeared to have most of the slots I remember seeing in land based casinos. It was always easy to get a seat at the table games, which was nice. We won a bit (mainly my wife) and lost a bit (mainly me) and enjoyed the entire time. The staff was great, made you feel at home either way.
Internet: The internet café is well stocked with computers, each with a port for all types of digital media (so you can upload your photos to a web service if you wish). Internet packages were a touch expensive compared to buying time on land, but hey; it's a ship based satellite connection. Between $.40 and $.75 per minute depending on how much you want to spend. Wifi was available in some of the public areas, not in the cabins. I had some work I needed to do, and was disappointed when the link was down for a large portion of Sunday, but hey; it's a satellite link. They go down. On the last day of the cruise, lots of people were in the café trying to print boarding passes, etc. The connection was slow, and some people were upset that they were getting charged by the minute for a slow connection. I say tough for them; .it's clear that the charge is by the minute, and there were big signs everywhere saying the connection was slow.
Naturalist: Michael Medz-Whateverhisnamewas is entirely miss-able. We attended his first lecture on our first sea day, and we excited to learn about Alaska, the culture, etc. Three major criticisms of Mikey: 1. His delivery was so pretentious, so arrogant, that I had to resist the urge to get up and leave. Not everyone in the audience did resist though; as several people got up and left mid-presentation. 2. His content was aimless. He had no theme for his talk, and basically told a bunch of random, unconnected stories. In searching for a theme, the only thing that we could come up with is that he did something (lived alone for 2 years) that he believes nobody else he has ever met could possibly do, and therefore he is far superior to everyone. 3. His delivery was awful. I know I already mentioned it, but I have to say it again. The man is hard to listen to. It's like he took speaking lessons from Shatner, and decided that Shatner's style needed to be emphasized and elongated. Painful to listen to. This guy should be fired. Keep in mind when you listen to him talk about how we should get away from material things, how we should live like the indigenous peoples; .that he's getting paid to tell you that, and that he has 3 homes (Alaska, Florida, and Tanzania). We make a lot of money, and don't have 3 homes. How far, exactly, did he get away from the material aspect of life? He speaks like he is arrogant and pompous, and his talks were self-serving. Which is all a shame, as the content could have been really good. During the tour of Tracy Arm Fjord, he was on the PA system with tidbits about the fjord and what we were seeing. He was slightly easier to listen to, as he was discussing something everyone was seeing rather than his own experiences. Except, of course, when he apparently felt that the grandeur of Alaska needed to be made more grand with his commentary, and launched into his "speakers" voice. Alaska is grand enough; Mikey only distracted from the reason we were there. The disappointing part was that the PA system could be heard on all balconies; you couldn't get away from the pompous jerk. I really didn't like him.
Juneau: Juneau was a cool little town. We got to port around midday, and walked around downtown Juneau for an hour and a half or so. Walked into most of the shops; found very little that we wanted to purchase. Most everything was tourist junk. We then went whale watching with Harv and Marv (not through Princess). This was outstanding. Thank you to this board for recommendations on Harv and Marv. We were picked up and driven for about 20 minutes out to Auke Bay, where the boats are docked. Along the way, Ted (Jay's Brother) gave us a running history lesson on Juneau. He was great. Jay Beedle was our captain (Harv that day), and he took the two of us and 4 others out on a 3 hour tour. The fog was thick, and we spent around an hour or so watching humpbacks in an area that the bigger boats were as well. Closest we got was about 400 yards or so. They we went to a place close to Shelter Island (where Jay lives) and got within 50-100 yards of a mother, a calf, and another adult. It was awesome. Then we went and checked out some sea lions, got some great scenery pics, and cruised back to Auke Bay. On the trip back to Juneau, Ted asked if we wanted to stop at the Mendenhall Glacier. Of course we said yes, so we took the short detour and had about 45 minutes at the glacier. The glacier is awesome, I am so pleased we were able to get there. Don't miss it. While there, we also saw a small black bear (Ted said it was probably 2-3 years old, on it's own but not full grown yet). Everything about our experience with Harv and Marv was top notch. Book a tour with them, it is so totally worth it you just can't believe. After the tour, we went to the Red Dog Saloon and had dinner (Reindeer sausage, yummy!) and listened to a singer, and drank some beer. It was actually a fun place, don't miss it.
Skagway: We got to Skagway bright and early. Permit me to set the scene: Skagway is a town of roughly 900 permanent residents. 4 "mega" cruise ships docked in Skagway at about the same time (including ours). That is somewhere around 10,500 tourists invading a town of about 900 people. And that happens a couple of times a week all season. You know exactly what to expect in Skagway, and the town doesn't disappoint. There are 30 jewelry stores in a town of 900 people. Before the cruise ships started coming, there was 1. It is ALL about separating you from your money. Having said that, it is also a cute little place and the shopping is MUCH better than in Juneau. We took a rainforest bike tour booked through Princess, and enjoyed ourselves. The guides were local (owned the local bike shop) and did a nice job of putting history and scenery together. The bike ride was really easy, not what I would consider exercise, and overall it was a fun time. Tons of people did the White Pass and Yukon Railroad, but sitting on a train for 7 hours wasn't what I was looking for.
Tracey Arm Fjord: We were so looking forward to the scenic cruising. We ordered room service, got our blankets and rain coats, and camped out on our balcony. We were psyched. Only problem was the fog. It was foggy. Foggy like you wouldn't believe. Fog combined with icebergs is a bad deal for ships. We cruised about a third of the way down the fjord (which was really cool), and then they decided to turn around and head out. While this was disappointing, I understand; .and frankly that is the chance you take when you take the second to last cruise of the season. I can't blame Princess for the weather, or deciding to turn around when faced with fog and ice. However, our itinerary stated that we would do the scenic cruise from 7:30 to 12:30. We turned around at 9:30. I thought that they should have waited another hour or so to see if the weather lifted.
Ketchikan: We liked Ketchikan. It was a nice place, seemed like an actual Alaska town like Juneau (unlike Skagway). We did not have much time in Ketchikan. We got up early, grabbed some food from the buffet, and got off the shp by about 7:25. We did a crash-shopping stop (we needed to buy some gifts, and this was going to be our last chance!) and then met our tour for the day at 7:50. We decided on the Eagle Island Kayak trip, booked through Princess but operated by locals.. We boarded a bus and took the roughly 30 minute drive up to the outfitters. Also on the bus were a bunch of people going on a zip line and ropes course at the same place we were kayaking from. There were only 2 other people that had signed up for kayaking that day, and we had one guide with us (really cool guy, turns out he was originally from Chicago). The tour said double kayaks, but we all got our own, which was nice. The tour also said a weight limit of 250 lbs, which I am close to (but under!), but nobody even thought twice about it. The kayak tour was great, the water was so flat and clear you could easily see 30-40 feet down, star fish, sea urchins, salmon, eagles, and seals were all spotted on the trip; .it was a great time. Then back on the bus and to the ship; no time to do anything but get back aboard the ship.
Victoria: Surprisingly, there was no queue to get off the ship in Victoria. Could be that everyone wanted to eat dinner on board before exploring the city, or that people were just going to stay onboard the whole time? Not us. We made bee-line for the gangway, and set off to explore Victoria. Now, the Gardens are the big attraction in Victoria, but we were there at night, and they stop lighting the gardens on September 15th, so seeing dark gardens wasn't on our hit list. Instead, we just walked to the downtown (about 20 minutes, very pleasant), saw the parliament building (very pretty), and then wandered over to the Empress Hotel. We had been told that the Bengal Room at the Empress was not only a really cool place, but also had a killer curry dinner. We were told correctly. The best meal of the cruise was found at the Bengal Room, the curry was great. The room itself is old world luxury, with the seating being in leather high-back club chairs and on sofas. It is a must do for a drink or dinner. Full of delicious curry, we walked back to the ship (about 30 minutes, we were walking slower!) and got back on board. There was no customs to speak of at all on this boarder crossing. Never saw a Canadian official or border person.
Disembarkation: The process was very easy. We elected to carry our own luggage off the ship, and were asked to meet others of the same persuasion in the Vista Lounge at 7:45 AM. The others who had elected to carry their own luggage off ran the gamut of ages and were both men and women. Good for all the older folks who still carry their own things. The ship was allowed to begin disembarking people at about 8 AM (this is controlled by customs, not by Princess) and the process was orderly. We were off of the ship and clear of customs (a Princess worker took our customs declaration, I literally never laid eyes on a US Government employee) by 8:25. Easy as easy could be!