by Charles Crain
May 15, 2006
7 Day Northbound Voyage of the Glaciers
7 Day Southbound Voyage of the Glaciers
B503- Bump Out Mini-Suite
Personal Choice Dining
We also got to meet another great couple on their first ever cruise. She was literally pinging off of the walls and having the time of her life and loving every minute of it. Judy spotted her across the theatre, easily, since she was the only one bouncing off the ceiling. It is so refreshing to see someone enjoying every single minute of a cruise with no complaints, only awe and wonder. Makes us appreciate our cruise even more.
This was the also first time we had been completely smoozed and catered to by Princess. Rich, the cruise director, sponsored a CC party for all of us CC people. Champagne, mimosas and canapés. We got to chat with Rich and most of his staff, one on one, for about an hour. They are an energetic and nutty bunch for sure. (Rich also sent Judy and I flowers for our anniversary and wanted to send some crab legs to our room for dinner since we were going to miss dining on crab night.) Nice guy! See, it pays to be a cruise critic! We even got invited to the most traveled party and rubbed elbows with the Captain, the Staff Captain and senior staff. We heard all the juicy rumors about the Star, future ships, how the various ship's work. It was far too short a time to dig for lots of details, but really interesting and provided some more insights into Princess, the company, and how they operate behind the scenes.
As a side note - the ship literally will not wait for anyone. It turns out a member of the crew missed the ship in Juneau. We knew him and provided a little rubbing salt over the incident, along with his fellow shipmates, for the next few days. I did mention to the security guy at the gangplank in Ketchikan that a cavity search may be in order. Interestingly enough on some lines missing a ship is cause for immediate dismissal. Not Princess, and the comments I heard from various members of the crew indicate that they appreciate the policy and that Princess takes very good care of them.
So when they say they won't wait, they won't wait!The Lows:
We were a bit disappointed in the on-board notifications of sea life near the ship and of the nature presentations. The commentary on the Ocean Princess in 2001 was continuous and informative. However, I did find out later that the naturalist on board was on his first cruise. He did improve as the cruise went on and did related some pretty interesting stories on the way back to Vancouver through the Inland Passage. I'm hoping he gets the hang of it since some of his stories are pretty good.
Turnaround day in Whittier was a big joke. We didn't get off, but had to deal with the "turnaround story of the hour". We got five different versions of what we were supposed to do from five different people at the purser's desk, including a "manager". We would have to get off, go through the line, get back on, do this, do that, etc., etc. The fifth person, a "lowly", but very knowledgeable security guy finally said, oh yeah, put the card here, you're done! It took all of 30 seconds. I guess if you want to know how to do things, go the people who do them all the time.
The new mattresses in the mini-suites are a bummer. They are the most comfortable I've ever had on a ship - for one person. They are the pillow top European style with stiff sides. The stiff sides create a "hump" in the middle, which makes it near impossible to cuddle with your mate. I didn't even think about asking them to change it out, but probably should have and I'm sure they would have.
Internet access was an issue. Upon embarkation, some switch was not set right until the next day. It only took the IT guy 2 minutes to fix it, but it didn't get fixed until a bunch of us got a little irate with the Purser's desk. At Skagway you lose LOS to the satellite until you leave, but we were off line for almost 18 hours after leaving, both north and southbound. (The IT person locks out the workstations.) That should not happen, especially when free internet service is one of the few perks I really like AND I'm writing "Live From" posts praising everything else about the cruise.Notes For the Budget Conscious:
Water is $3 per liter on board and canned soft drinks are $1.50 each. But, there is water and soda at every stop. We picked up a 12 pack of soda in Vancouver and restocked in Skagway along with a couple of 6 packs of water bottles. In Ketchikan a 6-pack of soda or water was $2.99 right next to the ship - so not too far to lug it.
The coke sticker is up to $31.80 (w/tip) for 7 days. That's getting pretty high for fountain drinks that cost $0.06 per glass!
There is free ice cream in the HC from 330 to 430 daily (chocolate and vanilla) and they have two ice creams available during dinner. Last night was melon yogurt and coffee. We think the coffee ice cream was made from their coffee syrup.
The Island Princess now charges for all brewed coffee - $1 per 12oz cup in the HC and in the Patisserie. They charge for caps, lattes and mochas as well.THE ITINERARY:
The Island, along with the Coral, Diamond and Sapphire, was doing the Voyage of the Glaciers 7 day route from Vancouver to Whittier and back. The itinerary for Northbound is, and it is reversed for the southbound:
The Sea Day:
The captain did a good job of turning the ship around in front of the Marjorie glacier. We did two full 360's so that everyone could see from their balconies or run from one side to the other. We saw two big glacier calves on the northbound leg and one on the southbound leg. We were up on deck for the northbound leg and used our balcony on the southbound leg.
I have to say the ranger presentation since we were there in 2001 has really gone downhill. In 2001 as we entered the bay we were treated to a trip through time as the ranger explained the retreat of the glaciers, the various landforms they left behind, the flora and fauna differences as you follow the retreat and what the various avalanche zones and rock formations mean.
Now we were treated to a long description of a "snowflake and its friends". The best line was something like - under pressure the snowflake turned into ice - huh? Come on folks, we're a pretty intelligent bunch and should not be treated like a bunch of 12 year olds. The commentary was intermittent and spotty. When there was commentary, it revolved around that most important snowflake. None of the wildlife we saw was pointed out by the ranger on the mike. There were goats, seals, whales and birds. Either they weren't looking or they weren't talking.
The Island Princess is not, despite the Princess website, a Sun Class (Sea, Sun, Ocean, Dawn) ship. She is more of an upgraded Sun. She is smaller than a Grand (Star, Grand, Golden, Diamond, Sapphire), larger than a Sun, but only carries 1950 passengers and 900 crew. She and the Coral are the longest ships in the Princess fleet, even longer than the Grands. She is a Panamax, meaning she can still fit in the Panama Canal locks, but barely. She was built in 2003 in France and is very modern.
In our opinion, this is the best ship class in the Princess fleet. Our favorite. She has all the amenities of a Grand (Sabbatinis, Bayou Café, Explorers Lounge) without the extra people. The lure of the Sun class (small nooks and crannies), but with a few extras. The internet café is on deck 8 at the top of the atrium near the library. The library and card rooms are comfortable places to hide from the weather, yet still see the sights.
Those "hidden" decks off baja, caribe and dolphin at the rear of the ship are a real find for experienced cruisers. Most newcomer's don't know about them and they are great for a wind free view off the rear of the ship.
We did nose around and look at cabins during turnaround day. The handicapped balcony cabin is huge. The two room suite is pretty cushy and the tub is a Jacuzzi tub. There is a DVD player as well. I guess we can only dream.
The gym equipment is modern and plentiful. Have yet to find it too crowded. I couldn't get the Lotus pool current machine to work for the first week, but it finally got fixed and served as a good workout. Its not adjustable like the Star's, but it's not bad. Unlike other ships, the gym is open 24 hours. The treadmills and ellipticals are Precor - top of the line. They do offer classes (Pilates, Spinning, Yoga), but with the port and sight seeing itinerary, I doubt many people make them.
A important navigation tip. On the Island, the even sided cabins (Port) have an Orange color outline in the hallway carpet. The odd sided cabins (Starboard) have a Blue color outline in the hallway carpet.THE CABIN:
B503 - A bumpout mini-suite. After two cruises in a Sun Class balcony cabin, we'd forgotten how nice a mini was. The aft facing balcony bumpout was a shrewd move on my part. It was perfect. Sheltered by the wind when the ship was moving, yet you could still look around the divider forward. The balcony above on the Aloha deck provided some shade and a little bit of protection from rain.
The balcony had a round resin table and two resin chairs. You do lose a little balcony space due to the curvature, but the view you get more than makes up for it.
The new mini-suite mattresses are the most comfortable yet - for one person. The ravine in the middle that brought you closer to your significant other is now a hump about the size of a speed bump. Unless both people can fit on the one twin, which we can't comfortably, you are all alone on your side of the hump. Might as well have a wall there - and as Judy says, we ain't that old or that tired of each other yet!
The sofa is a nice addition as is the wall space across from the sofa. That's where all the shoes can line up out of the way. The fridge is larger than those on the sun and so is the closet and hang-up space. We had no problem fitting 9 days worth of clothes (washing and drying is $1 per load) in all the little nooks. It would have been more crowded in a normal balcony, but we probably would have managed. Judy's comment was that we could both get dressed in the cabin at the same time.
The bath is a tub/shower combo and much larger than a balcony bath. Its one of the better features of a mini, but I wish someone would figure out a way to keep the shower curtain from wrapping around you while you are showering.EXCURSIONS:
We only did one real excursion, the rock climbing and rappelling in Skagway. Incredible challenge, exhausting and fulfilling to reach the top. The rest of the time we hiked and traveled on our own.
In Ketchikan we walked up to the fish hatchery, around Married Man's Trail and went to the Lumberjack show - highly recommended. The lumberjack show was a real kick. We missed it in 2001 because we, by that time, were just too tired. Lots of shopping in Ketchikan using those coupons you get in Vancouver or Whittier. When the salmon start running, the walk around the fish hatchery and the fish ladder at Married Man's Trail will be a great show.
In Juneau we rode up on the Tram (also highly recommended) saw the movie and plodded around in the snow banks. Later in the year when the snow melts, this would be a great place to hike. We then bussed out to Mendenhall ($6pp one way) where we hiked out to Nugget falls and took some great video and pictures of the glacier, the lake and the falls. You can walk all the way to the falls. Great views of the blue on blue ice at the base of the glacier. The arctic terns were nesting as well. There are tons of quartz laden rock if you want to look for gold as well. Different areas around the base of the glacier have an abundance of habitat to look at and in a few weeks the salmon get here to see as well. A very cheap, but great excursion. For those of you planning, I would plan on spending at least 2-3 hours on Mt Roberts and 2-3 hours at Mendenhall. We came back to town and went shopping with all the special coupons in the book. Tasted Taku wild smoked salmon - incredible but whoa is it expensive. So we went into the Twisted Fish next door and had Alaskan Amber Ale (MMMMMMMM) and the smoked salmon appetizer (Taku of course) - a nice fulfilling day.
In Skagway we rock climbed on the northbound leg and hiked out to smuggler's cove on the southbound leg. Its real rock climbing. They have several different paths up the cliffs from easy to impossible. You have a climbing harness on and are belayed via anchors in the top of the cliff so its perfectly safe, but they don't help you get up the rock. You have to cling and grab and strain. I fell once, but got right back at it. Judy is afraid of heights, yet did a 30' easy climb and a 70' crack/flake climb before rappelling down a 100' section of cliff. There were only 4 of us on the trip with one guide (Kyle). They try and keep a 4:1 ratio. Really recommended for all you adventurous types.
In Whittier, we watched everyone get off, waved bye and went hot tubbing and swimming. There were only about 20 of us B2B persons (called Transit Passengers) on the ship. It was GREAT!ENTERTAINMENT:
Kevin Hughes was on vacation. Hal Spear was on the first night, but he's shifted to another ship. Cary Long was on the ship, but he's switching back and forth on various Princess ships in Alaska now. He's a must see if he's aboard.
The illusionist, Alexander, is pretty amazing - that's another must see. We saw three of his, and Pamela's (his assistant), shows. By sitting up front, close, we could see some of how the illusions are done, but by the 6-8th row back, its really hard. It's a great show and they are a great couple if you get to meet them in the HC.
The juggler/comedian is Mike Price. This is the young kid, not the older mathematician juggler/comedian that's been on Princess before. His juggling is amazing, his comedy is ok, but his energy level is off the scale. If you like juggling you'll like his show. His comedy was getting better as we got off the ship. When he tries stand alone jokes they kind of fall flat, but when he interacts with the audience it gets much better.
We saw the production shows as well, but we've seen all of them over the years and since I'm not a huge fan, I can't tell you anything more than there's a bunch of really cute young girls in tight/skimpy outfits with gorgeous legs. (I think they sing too.) But Judy says they're pretty good dancers and who am I to argue with her.
Jere Ring (Crooner's Bar Resident Piano Entertainer - Much, Much More than a Pianist) was going to get off the ship, but if he's still there you MUST see him early in the cruise. After the 4th night its SRO at Crooner's as people find out about him or listen to him as they walk by.
Fun things to do: Line dance with Veronica, Country and Western Night with the cruise staff, Passenger Feud with Francious, The Newly Wed and not so Newly Wed with Francious, Dancing with Devonish, Dancing through the Ages.
We did see Greg Bonham's show. It was highly recommended by Rich and was great. He got two standing O's for his performance, but according to Rich he doesn't do this on a regular basis, but I suspect Rich has other great entertainment lined up for other cruises. It appears that the CDs use a lot of personal influence and have a lot of flexibility to book talent from a variety of locations.
One special note - the lighting of Greg's show was incredible. The guys and gals in charge of lighting control and choreography are extremely talented. As Greg did five different songs to honor five different artists, the lighting changed moods (colors) to match the songs/artists and for the culminating solo's, multiple spots (5 at a time) would rotate in and highlight Greg in a brilliant white aura.DINING:
Now for the most controversial part of a review - we liked the food. But I have noticed the WOW factor is missing and I finally figured out why - WE'VE BEEN CRUISING TOO MUCH! Princess does not change their menus too often and we've now cruised 4 cruises in the past 14 months. While the food does vary from ship to ship AND from cruise to cruise, it is basically the same and I've tried everything on the menus now. Don't get me wrong, we really enjoy the food and we've learned to take a bite, and if we don't like it, send it back and get something else. They don't mind at all!
Service was first rate at dinner. For the first time we tried PC dining instead of late seating traditional. AND WE LOVED IT. Why? - LESS NOISE! In traditional everyone, the room is typically packed, is eating soup, salad and such at the same time. The din rises and rises and rises. In PC we ate at 530 and it was hardly crowded at all, but everyone was eating at a different pace and schedule and the overall clanking and conversation level was noticeably less. I'm sure it gets more hectic at 700 but at 530 it was perfect. So much so we ended up making a reservation every morning at 0800 for 530 at Table 94, by the window with Claudia and Michael. (She and he will have moved by now. They rotate waiters among tables and PC/Traditional and a weekly or monthly basis.) The window table, our first that you could actually see something out of because of the late sunset, was pretty incredible. By eating early we could see all the shows, get into all the events and go to bed not stuffed, unless we hit the HC late at night.
BTW, the Beef Tournedos are headlined on one menu and featured on the always available on the others. The cut of meat they use is Filet Mignon. Why they don't call it that, I don't know, but I never had a bad steak the whole trip - except the night I got the one with the liver sauce on it. I sent it back and got a sauce free version that was scrumptous. I could cut them with the butter knife, they were always perfectly cooked (medium rare) and seasoned well. Most of the sauces I did like.
I especially enjoyed the Pizza and burgers for lunch. HC lunch food was just too buffet for me. The dining room was great for lunch as well, this is where we had all the CC lunches, AND you can get ice cream there for free!
The HC breakfast buffet was ok. It had its moments. The French toast was awful! A few times the eggs were over cooked and the bacon was crispy salad toppings instead of strips, but the made to order omelets, the luncheon meats and cheeses, the fruit, breads and various potatoes were very good. The coffee is ok with me. Judy can't stand it and we brought Folger's tea bag coffee for her.Dinner Schedule (Northbound AND Southbound - And What We Liked Best)
Monday - Sailaway Dinner Menu -
Tuesday - Captain's Welcome Menu- Formal
Wednesday - Italian Night Menu
Thursday - Continental Night Menu
Friday - Chef's Alaskan Menu
Saturday - Captain's Gala Menu - Formal
Sunday - Landfall Menu
Very smooth and well done. We stayed at the Hilton Airport on our own. We had Princess transfers. We shuttled back to the airport around 1130 and dropped our luggage off at the Princess desk and awaited the bus. It arrived at about 1230 and we were bussed to the cruise terminal. Immigrations was the longest and most frustrating line - it usually is, but by 200 we were in our rooms and headed for lunch. The actual Princess check in line for Platinum was unmanned so we used the Baja desk and was checked in in about 15 minutes. The HC was open, the pizza and grill were as well.
Note - If you fly in the same day, use the cruise direct line. It avoids customs processing delays. We heard it was pretty good unless the bus driver screws up and opens the door, breaking the seal, before its time.DISEMBARKATION:
We used the $15 dollar per person option to use the cruise direct program in Vancouver. It worked great. (Note - we had our own air arrangements, not Princess air.)
We registered two checked bags each, received 4 bar coded tags, 2 per person, 2-3 days before disembarkation. We received pre-printed luggage forms the morning before disembarkation. We placed the luggage tags on the bags and placed the bags outside the door at 8pm on sunday night - that's the last we saw of them until we got off the plane in Colorado Springs Monday night.
On Monday morning (0845) we went to the Universe Lounge as instructed and within 10 minutes had received our boarding passes and luggage tags for the four bags. (We had purchased Princess bus transfers.) We were then sent out through a special line through Canadian Customs and onto a bus which took us to the airport. We were screened prior to entering the airport and then were taken to a special area for security checks. We went through US Customs there. Once we were screened we entered the terminal in the gate area.
We were at our gate at 1045.
Considering the alternative of waiting for a bus or taxi, standing in an airport check in line, then standing in the main security screening line, it was a bargain.