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

Island Princess
by Sea Dawg
Alaska
June 1, 2011

ISLAND PRINCESS ~ 10 Voyage to the Glaciers ~ June 1-11, 2011

Itinerary:
Vancouver-Ketchikan-Juneau-Skagway-Glacier Bay-College Fjord-Whittier-Denali-Talkeetna-Anchorage

If you're reading this then you may be debating whether or not to take this cruise. Sea Dawg says you should because it promises to be among the most scenic of cruises available. Compare to discover how this is not the same as an inside passage cruise. Or you may have already booked and now you might be wondering whether or not you messed up. Sea Dawg predicts this is the cruise you'll want to take again. Princess is the cruise industry leader in Alaska.

Or you might be hoping to learn a few things from a salty dawg. Sea Dawg will try to do just that. Is Sea Dawg critical? You betcha. I call it like I see it. Criticism, if any, should not be equated with dislike of cruises. You should know ahead that I am an ex-Loyal Royal Caribbean diamond member.

ARRIVAL:
Since we had a long flight to Vancouver we decided to arrive a day early and rode the free shuttle to our hotel. We toured this beautiful city via the subway interestingly named Sky Train. A main hub is Waterpark - very near the cruise ship port. We took the hop on/hop off trolley tour of Vancouver and especially recommend at least a drive through Stanley Park. We caught our hotel shuttle back to the airport to connect with the Princess shuttle to the port terminal.

EMBARKATION:
We arrived at the terminal after 1pm and following the initial noon check-in crush. Prior online check-in expedited our process. Most dawgs knew to have their passports, travel documents, completed forms and credit card in hand as we were herded through security screenings then customs then Princess check-in. What threatened to be a hour long test of patience took less than 15 minutes we had our Cruise Card and packets and we were aboard. We have never experienced a more organized and efficient boarding process.

PHOTOGRAPHS:
Photographers will greet you throughout the cruise. You should know in advance that these photographs are not complimentary or cheap. But you are not obligated to buy. If interested, stop and pose. If not, say, "no thanks" and be on your way. Sea Dawg has experienced a few times when photos go on sale or can be bargained down in price near the end of the cruise.

WELCOME ABOARD:
Island Princess, (2003), mid-size class (92,000 tons - 964 ft. length) shows few signs of anticipated wear and tear. The interior is sleek and sophisticated. The ship has a welcomed intimacy without the overcrowded feeling. Sea Dawg's megaship experiences have been bigger is not always better. Most appealing to me was the quality of life aboard the Island Princess. Gone were the incessant "Bingo Time" and swimming pool water temperature announcements. I was aboard to experience Alaska, and Princess offered cruise dawgs a series of outstanding programs from naturalists, park rangers and an Iditarod race winner. In place of barmaids constantly hustling drinks by the pool, we had a crew lady politely offering warm cookies. Rather than a long hike aft, fresh pizza and hot sandwich venues were convenient to the pools and lounge areas.

You may have learned that sodas and alcoholic drinks are available for a price. But on Princess you are allowed to bring your own sodas aboard, but not alcohol. And on Princess you don't need an overpriced beverage card to receive fruit or vegetable juices! Thank you Princess! RCCL will nickel & dime dawgs at every turn and the cruise ends up more expensive than Princess.

CABIN:
This is one cruise dawgs WILL want a balcony. Most cruises offer horizons of ocean for views at sea, but this cruise offers mountain and wildlife scenary almost everyday so bring good binoculars. Sea Dawg recommends selecting starboard (right) odd numbered cabins for northbound and port (left) even numbered cabins southbound. Order room service and brunch on your private balcony. We are not ones to spend much time in the stateroom. Our stateroom was small but efficient. Two people had to choreograph moves to navigate the tiny floor space. One person standing in front of the closet could be caged in if another opened the bathroom door. The bathroom was something like an airplane restroom with a tight don't-drop-the-soap shower. Sorry, no bathtub except in suites. Sea Dawg says it is a good idea to pack your own soap and specialty shampoo. Be forewarned - hot water might be in short supply during peak shower usage times. We find that we keep a small stateroom neater than a larger one - have to or else the accumulated clutter immobilizes us.

A Day 1 Princess Patter listed all the ongoing activities, information and suggestions. The lifeboat muster station location is posted. Take but do not wear life jackets to the mandatory muster drill. Muts need to be warned not to skip drill because staff is checking your name on their roll.

AROUND THE SHIP:
Take time to explore the ship. If you have time, try to locate places where events happen. My advice is start at the top Sports Deck 15 and work down using the stairs. You should at least know where the medical facility is (Deck 4). You might want to inquire if your medical insurance covers you - in most cases it won't.

Sun Deck 15 is open to the sky, makes a good observation deck, and is surrounded by blue tinted glass wind screens. But camera hounds needing clear vistas were challenged here. You'll find the Cyber-Golf simulator midship.

Lido Deck 14 is home to Horizon Court and the pools. Horizon Court is the Deck 14 buffet restaurant offering panoramic views forward. You can also spot chow hounds loading plates like they're about to be stranded on Mt. McKinley for a month - only to eat half of it. And few appreciate line crashing hyenas who snatch away all the remaining servings forcing those whose mothers taught them better to wait until another tray arrives from the kitchen. Incredibly, I witnessed one Saint Bernard actually pick up the entire serving tray of pastries and arrogantly haul it to his table! Deck 14 is home to the open Lido Pool and enclosed Lotus Pool. Locate the ice cream bar. Chow hounds know to get cones and milkshakes here! The Lotus spa and gym is here. Astern is the Sanctuary, a retreat for adults that is a perk for pedigrees, available for a fee to hounds.

Aloha Deck 12 (there is no Deck identified 13) is primarily a cabin deck, but the Sanctuary and Youth Centers are astern.

Baja Deck 11, Caribe Deck 10, Dolphin Deck 9 and Emerald Deck 8 are cabin decks. Outside cabins mid-deck 8 have obstructed (by lifeboats) views though fortunate dawgs taking shoulder season cruises may get upgraded if space is available. The Library, Card Room and internet cafe is on Deck 8 at the top of the atrium.

Promenade Deck 7 is the main activity deck. As the name implies, this is the strolling deck. It's poor design is quite apparant as you stroll through a narrow hallway forward. Dawgs debating selecting a deck 8 cabin should anticipate noise coming from below. The Wheelhouse Bar and Crooner's Bar are here. There are two theaters that make for packed audiences: the upper levels of the Princess Theater forward and Universe Lounge stage aft. Two premium restaurants, Sabatini's and the Bayou Cafe are well worth your consideration. The art gallery is worth a look but sharp dawgs know to compare print prices online before purchasing.

Fiesta Deck 6 features Provence (traditional) Main Dining, the Casino, Explorer's Lounge, specialty shops, photo shop, and lower levels of the theaters.

The main dining room, has two levels: Bordeaux (anytime) Deck 5 and Provence Deck 6. Sea Dawg prefers traditional because the wait staff learns your preferences and can better prepare for your pleasant dining experience. At this time of year, the sun goes down late so there's not much advantage to early or late seating.

As for shopping aboard, think of pricey little shops at upscale hotels and you'll have the right idea. Resist the temptation and don't pay "retail" early in the cruise. There are usually "sales" throughout the cruise and a few good values might be found.

Thoughtful design permits dawgs to traverse Deck 6 fore to aft without obligatory navigation through the Casino. By far the largest cash intake comes from the gaming. House odds are higher aboard than at Las Vegas. In other words, there are greater odds you will lose. So consider money lost gambling the cost of entertainment. To that end there are free gaming lessons offered. Be careful, the ATM machine is here, too.

Plaza Deck 5 is where Passenger Services, Tour Desk and Future Cruise Sales are located. Some cabins are located aft. Curiously and inconveniently, the Atrium elevators do not left all the way to the top decks. Our cruise was not fully booked, so we were pleased few experienced long waits for an elevator. Even so, we found the stairs quicker at peak times. The majority of passengers were mature dawgs 50 years up. School was still in session and there weren't many pups or frisky college canines. Not to worry, we had our share of incredibly rude, line crashing, seat saving Japanese Shiba Inus aboard.

DINNER:
I've read some Cruise Critics comments from Pedigrees about dinners and I have to reply that it is completely unrealistic to expect 5-star dinners at Princess' moderate prices. Sea Dawg found the quality and quantity of the prepared food consistently very good. No, it's not the best culinary offerings the cruise industry has to offer. - and while some other cruise lines lower qulity to drive patrons into premium restuarants, Princess still serves lobster. Pedigrees who want 5-star cuisine should book luxury cruise lines and pay their premium prices. For the rest of us, this is a chance to sample cuisine we don't often enjoy. If it's not to your liking, your waiter will bring you something else. Chow hounds can order a second entrée if they like. I feasted on duck, lamb, veal, salmon and prime rib. And, yes, you could order steak or shrimp cocktail every night. Vegetarian, "lite" and Asian offerings were usually available.

Dinners are an event that Sea Dawg doesn't like to rush. If you are in a hurry, do your tablemates and waiters a favor and eat at Horizon Court. If you want to know the chef's secrets, you can purchase the recipes. Waiters come from all over the world. Their English proficiency varies but is generally merely functional. Most try very hard to please you and really do earn their tips. Wit and humor were in ample supply at our table and any pretense of formality fortunately disappeared the first night. Dinnertime became an enjoyable highlight of this cruise.

Dancing Under the Stars:
Romantic sounding isn't it? Weather dictates outside activities aboard. Unfortunately, on this cruise there were only limited opportunities in the clubs for romantic dancing and dance floors are small. Dances advertised as "ball room" were mostly loud rock or jazz. Never learned how to dance? There are free ballroom dance classes available. Our instructors were excellent and attentive.

Weather:
Fortunately our cruise experienced mostly fair weather. This is Alaska and cloudy, rainy days are normal. Mornings are chilly and afternoons can get almost hot. Dressing in layers is necessary. Dawgs, especially shoulder season cruisers, are wise to pack hooded water-proof jackets. But also pack swim suits (for hot tubs) and sunglasses (for snow glare).

Day 1 - Vancouver
If you've never seen Vancouver don't miss this opportunity. We arrived a day early to tour this beautiful city. See Cruise Critic port reviews. Once aboard, plan to take part in the sailaway party. If you pre-reserved shore excursions online, your tickets should be in or shortly delivered to your stateroom.

Day 2 - At Sea
This usually means out in the open water with nothing but waves and ocean horizon in view. Island Princess transits the Straight of Georgia along the scenic coast of Vancouver Island then heads across Queen Charlotte Sound.

The Shows
Current and classic movies are shown on the outdoor big screen overlooking the Lido Pool. There are two venues for stage shows, but limited seating. The Princess productions proved to be better than theme park shows. To their credit, the shows were performed live to music provided by a live band. However the sound tech preferred the volume loud and distorted. Headliner guests were hit and miss. Your cruise will probably feature different entertainers. Few presentations had show dawgs streaming out the exits mid performance.

Tonight was the first of two formal nights in main dining. Some pedigrees were dressed to the nines, but most wore their "Sunday best". A word about expensive jewelry and valuables. Leave them at home! There are personal safes in the cabin, but a master code to open them is known to more than a few. Sharp dawgs use the ship safe available through Passenger Relations to store truly valuable items. New U.S. federal law mandates the FBI be promptly contacted to investigate serious shipboard crimes for all ships that enter/depart any U.S. port.

Day 3 - Ketchikan
I was up early and watched the ship navigate the Tongass Narrows toward Ketchikan. At first I thought I was in the Caribbean! Salty Dawgs promptly growled at the immediate presence of Carnival's and Royal Caribbean's Diamonds International, Tanzanite International and other cruiseline venues. But this is America and local retailers exercised their right to advertise they are independent of the cruise lines!

The Misty Fjords & Wildlife Explorer excursion is deservedly popular. Independent dawgs should stop by the Ketchikan Visitor's Bureau near the ship and pick up a free walking tour map. Hop a ride on their free shuttle and ride up the hillside to the Totem Heritage Center and walk downhill on Creek Street or on Married Man's Trail along Ketchikan Creek on down to Dolly's.

A word about shopping: make your shopping list before you leave home. Too often dawgs purchase items on a cruise destined for a yard sale. Record the local or internet price so you'll know whether you are getting a bargain. U.S. citizens who booked flights on a Canadian airline should bone up on custom limitations before you leave or you might find yourself in the dawghouse.

All dawgs had to be onboard by 1:30pm for an early afternoon departure. Unless you are on a Princess Shore Excursion the ship will not wait for stray dawgs! The ship sailed north through scenic Clarence Straight.

Day 4 - Juneau
Juneau is reached by sailing up and down the Gastineau Channel. The ship arrives at 8am and departs at 8:30pm and the sun is up longer as we reach higher latitudes. So plan a full day ashore. The Whale Watching and Wildlife Quest (guaranteed sightings) is highly recommended and fills quickly. Independent dawgs will be rewarded to take the "blue" Glacier Express bus from the Visitor Center parking lot to enjoy at their own pace Mendenhall Glacier, the lake and huge waterfall! It was only $16 (sixteen) round trip and rates as one of the great values of the entire cruise. The bus driver can tell you about some other value excursions their independent company offers. And what dawg would miss the infamous Red Dog Saloon? Yes it's a tourist trap but a howling good time!

Day 5 - Skagway
Skayway is reached by sailing up and down scenic Taiya Inlet and Lynn Canal. Snow-capped peaks and numerous cascading waterfalls reward watchful dawgs on a fair weather day. Our ship arrived at the railroad dock near 7am and departed near 8pm on this last port of call before reaching Whittier. The little town of Skagway exists because of the railroad and any of the White Pass & Yukon Route narrow guage train ride tours takes you to heaven and is highly recommended. Another way to be taken to heaven is to stop by the Red Onion Saloon.

Day 6 - At Sea
"At Sea" would technically be correct. But this is Alaska and Princess arranges to be one of only two cruise ships allowed to enter Glacier Bay National Park a day. "Scenic day Cruising Glacier Bay" is an understatement. Remember to charge up (or put in fresh) camera batteries! Several NP Rangers provide commentary as the ship slowly sails past towering snow covered mountains and through ice strewn Tarr Inlet to the foot of Grand Pacific and Margerie Glaciers. About every twenty minutes there is the sharp crack and thunder heralding another calving. Then the ship sailed up John Hopkins Inlet and rounded Jaw (as in jaw dropping) Point to view John Hopkins Glacier. We were truly blessed to have incredibly clear and sunny weather! Every photo we took could be a post card.

Tonight was the second of two formal nights in main dining. It was also lobster with giant prawns night. For Sea Dawg is was a perfect ending to a perfect day!

Day 7 - At Sea
Today we sailed across the Gulf of Alaska toward College Fjord, and salty dawgs know to anticipate a sea day. The weather turned cold, windy and rainy. Long but narrow beamed Island Princess (designed to cross the Panama Canal) gently rolled through moderate seas. It wasn't so rough that seasick bags for green dawgs appeared, but dawgs sensitive to motion sickness should be prepared to medicate before crossing this open expanse of water.

College Fjord was socked in with cloudy weather and some showers. We could not see the mountaintops but could discern the beautiful glaciers through the mists.

CHECK OUT:
You'll receive a bill for $11.50 ($12.00 if in a suite) per person/per day gratuity, any shore excursions and any other expenses you put on your Cruise Card. That's when many discover their bar tab, purchases, casino gaming and excursions cost more than the stateroom! Even though we had Express Departure, we checked our account for charges and accuracy at Passenger Relations before the crowd formed a long line.

You'll receive a comment card. My thinking is that if you mark everything "excellent" then Princess will have no incentive to improve anything. But what most cruise dawgs want to improve is not even on the comment card. You'll have to write in comments like "enforce the rules", "need more crew checking Cruise Cards and attending the Passenger Relations Desk", etc. yourself.

We packed our suitcases and affixed the proper "Meet Us Tonight in Denali" tags.

Day 8 - DISEMBARKATION and Bus to DENALI
We ate a final breakfast then got to our assigned departure meeting place.

Departure went well. Princess has this well-organized so there were few rude line-breakers trying to beat the system. I can't figure out why line-breakers think they're the only ones in a hurry or why they are more important than anyone else in the scheme of things.

Post-cruise plans vary. Some catch a flight home from Anchorage. But most continue north either by train or by bus. We were placed on a bus and spent the day going up Alaska 3 to Denali. We had high hopes of seeing some wildlife and maybe a glimpse of the elusive, cloud shrouded Mt. McKinley along the way. We saw neither. The harsh reality of the end of the cruise stared back at us as we looked at the menu prices at the Denali Princess Lodge. The Denali Princess Lodge is fairly rustic and informed dawgs were glad they heeded the advice to pack powerful bug repellent. Sunset at midnight. Sunrise at 3am. No night - just twilight.

Day 9 - Talkeetna
The next day we rode the free shuttle to Denali National and took their free park tour. We saw some wildlife in the distance but no Mt. McKinley. Here Sea Dawg made a quick change in plans. Princess had us scheduled to ride the bus from Denali to Talkeetna, but I decided to buy the inexpensive Alaska Railroad ticket to ride the Denali Star to Talkeetna instead. I called Princess from the Denali rail station (right by the Denali NP Visitor Center) and made arrangements. Princess agreed with absolutely no hassles to shuttle us to McKinley Wilderness Lodge along with other Princess passengers on their private cars on the train. Our luggage would be waiting for us in our room. It was among the best decisions of the vacation. Though we were "Adventure" class and not "Gold", Alaska Railroad has several cars for passengers to use including a dining car and, on our train, a domed car! Though the rail trip followed the same highway we traversed the day before it was far superior in scenery and comfort to the bus trip. We saw a lot of wildlife, some close to the tracks, but still no Mt. McKinley.

Arrival at Talkeetna Depot happened much too soon. Princess put us aboard their shuttle to McKinley Wilderness Lodge. We checked into our room and our luggage was awaiting us inside the door. How's that for great service? Princess has Alaska cruising and vacationing buttoned down!

McKinley Wilderness Lodge is so remote it generates its own electricity. Even so, there are hot tubs with a view here! We found the 20320 (twenty-three-twenty - named for the height of Mt. McKinley) Restaurant to be fairly reasonably priced and serving Alaska sized meals. But be prepared to wait for a table. We made arrangements for a "Mountain Out" call before we collapsed into bed.

Day 10 - Anchorage
We were sound asleep when the almost midnight "Mountain is out" call came. We scurried out with bug repellent and camera in hand to join the sleepy-eyed "30% Club" of tourists who actually get to see the cloud-free and beautiful Mt. McKinley as the sun slowly set behind it. We gawked at the mountain in the comfy chairs of the main lodge until we both were nodding off to sleep. We retired to bed a second time - another perfect end to another perfect day.

The sun was high in the sky when we woke up - at 8am. Princess had us scheduled for a train trip from Talkeetna to Anchorage that afternoon. After breakfast we affixed "Meet Us in Anchorage" tags to our luggage and caught the free shuttle to spend the day in tiny Talkeetna. This is a town that exists on the tourist trade. Locals know the McKinley Wilderness Lodge prices and charge accordingly. We found the best priced food in town to be at the Roadhouse that has catered to mountain climbers for decades.

Soon we were aboard the train in the Princess private domed car taking a scenic rail to Anchorage. The bottom level of the car is where the kitchen and dining are located. We spotted numerous moose in the afternoon, especially as we neared Anchorage. I have to admit that I preferred Alaska Railroad's Adventure class.

We arrived at the Anchorage Depot and had a 5 minute shuttle to the Captain Cook Hotel. We opened the door and our luggage was already there. Our room was an absolutely luxurious suite! Thank you, Princess! We had an early flight from Anchorage to home. Princess was there again for us to the very end as a Princess representative greeted us to bid us farewell as we caught a very early shuttle to the airport.

Should You Take This Cruise? My recommendation is an unqualified yes.