We Floridians like to escape the summer heat, so when Vincent saw a July Alaskan Sea/Land Cruise advertised, "North to Alaska" sounded great ---- we just returned from this trip, and it was great. The Sea cruise included the following ports: Vancouver, Canada; then in Alaska: Ketchihan, Juneau, Skagway, Glacier Bay, College Fjord and Whittier. The Land tour included Anchorage, Fairbanks and the Midnight Sun rail tour through Denali National Park (Healy and Talkeetna). We now realize that the expectations that we had for the land tour were unrealistic in terms of wild life. However, the interior of this largest state in the union is a fascinating geological lesson unfolding, due to the Pacific Plate's movement against the N. American Plate: the vista of the effects of subduction and mountain building is awesome. Geology Professors speak of fault lines and their consequences, but, sailing or railroading past rows on rows of mountains formed by tectonic plate movement is an incredible trip.
We flew from Ft. Lauderdale, had a change over in Los Angeles and arrived in Vancouver on July 9th and embarked on the 10th. Having sailed on the Island Princess' sister ship, the Coral Princess, we will refer you to our review of the Coral Princess (Oct. 2003) for the description of shared characteristics. Suffice it to say that the Island Princess is also Panamax, 964 ft. long, 105 ft. in the beam, a gross tonnage of 91,627 and with a passenger capacity of 2,368 (on this cruise 2,100 passengers, 400 of which were repeaters). The most distinguishing feature of the sister ships is their polished steel gas turbine/diesel enviro engines perched high above decks, adjacent to the stack.
This review will concentrate on the excellent service provided by Captain Andrea Poggi, always punctual in every port and cognizant of the passengers' curiosity regarding the glaciers, and the flora and fauna of the wonderful wilderness of Alaska. Passenger Service Director (PSD) Adam Gorst was very helpful and informative; and the Dining Room staff, under the direction of Maitre D' Giuseppe Gelmini, was just superb. Overall, Princess service was as usual tip top.
EMBARKATION Boarding began punctually at 12 noon. Those passengers who had filed their data sheets on line received "priority boarding" status. Passengers in wheelchairs were assisted in boarding first and were accompanied to their cabins. PSD Gorst has a finely tuned crew; we were on board in less than twenty minutes, dropped off our carry on baggage, and were off to the Buffet. On Lido Deck 14, Vincent's old acquaintance from the Golden Princess, Pizzaiolo Carmelo Maesano, greeted us so warmly, that within five minutes of boarding, we felt personally welcomed and at home!
THE SHIP The Island Princess was built at Chantiers De L'Atlantique, St. Nazaire, France, 2003. Princess provides a handy trifold pocket guide of the 15 decks (there is no Deck 13). Five decks are allotted to passenger staterooms and suites, and six decks are allotted to public venues (See the Coral Princess review for a deck by deck description, which is replicated on the Island Princess). Many of the public areas are thoughtfully arranged with passengers needs foremost. For example, in the Princess Theater, all seats have an excellent view of the stage, free from obstructions by columns or poles. The decor is simple but elegant in red and gold. In the beautifully decorated Universe Lounge, the seats on Deck 6 have an unobstructed view of the stage, while on Deck 7, there are seats with obstructed views from decorative railings and inadequate deck slopes, thus passengers continually play "Musical Chairs" seeking a better view.
The Wheelhouse Bar is a huge room with nautical memorabilia (many ship portraits in oil, wonderful dark wooden tables with brass accents, etc.) This was the setting of terrific on board Lecture series like "World of Whales" and "History in the Making" (Iditarod dog sledding). Very appropriate for this cruise.
Stairwells on the Island Princess are full of interesting, large art work, too numerous to describe here, but well worth checking out. Unlike most ships the Bordeaux and the Provence Dining Rooms are located forward. The center of activities is the four deck high atrium (Decks 5 to 8), where are located the Passenger Service Desks (Purser and Tour offices), in addition to the dining room entrances, and the Wheelhouse bar, the Internet Cafe`, the Library, the Card room, shopping boutiques and various bars and sitting areas. All of them interconnected by four Panoramic elevators. Overall this ship is elegant and beautiful.
Decks 14, 15 and 16, are also devoted to public areas such as the Gym, Lotus Spa, and the Lotus pool (a domed heated lap pool and two hot tubs) immersed in a South Sea Island atmosphere. Here is also located the Oxford Dipper to aid handicapped passengers in and out of the pool. Midship on 14 is the open area Lido Pool, and forward is the Horizon Court devoted to casual buffet dining.
This ship with her traditional nautical motif and tasteful decorations has struck a perfect balance of style and comfort.
FOOD & SERVICE Director Gorst has a staff with a "can do" policy. If you have a special need, just voice it and you shall be accommodated. When dining, we need a table near the entrance, so we won't disturb too many diners with the wheelchair. We spoke with Maitre D' Giuseppe Gelmini, the first afternoon on board, and he chose for us Table #20 near a window, where service was excellent and our waiter Vlad and his assistant took great care of us.
First Purser Melania Parnisari, Food & Beverage Director, is the first woman on the Princess Cruise Line to hold this position. She told us that as a child she watched "Love Boat" on TV and dreamt of sailing on board, and now she is living a dream come true. She took us on a private tour of Executive Chef Gunter Deseske's galley. Here we saw the incredibly neat and organized food preparation areas (all stainless steel) and met Gunter's Sous Chef Saverio Brattoli and the Pastry Chef (Artist!) Vincenzo Frigulti who did all the classics: N.Y. Cheesecake, Swan puffs and pies which he augmented with sugar or fat free tasty alternatives. Over 9,000 meals are served daily, very delicious and beautifully plated.
Across the Princess Lines the menus are standardized and thematic; the following are the highlights of the week:
* The Sail Away Dinner with shrimp cocktail and Prime rib; * The Captain's Dinner offering Crab Quiche, Lobster and Pheasant; * The Princess Dinner featuring Endive salad and Roast Buffalo; * The French Dinner with Pate` de fois gras, escargot and Duck a l'Orange; * The Italian Dinner featuring Prosciutto and Pappardelle (pasta) with Rabbit; * The International Dinner had WonTon Soup, and Surf and Turf; and finally, * The Chef's Dinner with Asparagus, Lobster Bisque, King Crab Legs or Rack of lamb.
These were all delicious dinners with many more choices, too many to list them here.
If passengers want to snack, go to see Pizzaiolo Carmelo who makes crispy, gourmet pizzas at Princess Pizza on the Lido Deck during the day and at Sabatini's at night. He specially made one for us with porcini mushrooms: Semplicemente deliziosa (simply delicious). Thank you, Carmelo! There is 24 hour room service, which we used mostly for breakfast, and it was always punctual and excellent. The two alternative restaurants are well worth the nominal additional fees: At Sabatini's feast on eight appetizers, four specialty pizzas, two soups, mesclun salad, three pastas (spaghetti, gnocchi and cannelloni) and finally choose from several entrees (Shrimp, Lobster, Chicken, Scallops, Prawns and Veal). The final touch is Tiramisu, of course. All this under the watchful eyes of Manager Michele De Mario. We also ate at The Bayou; cajun cuisine was an experience for us: Mary loved the corn bread and the sampler plate of appetizers, but it was Vincent who ate all of his Alligator ribs. If you dine at these alternative venues, skip lunch or you may rue the fact that you can't taste it all!
One afternoon there was a delicious Fish Barbecue served up on the open deck featuring crab cakes, fish filets, sea food kabobs and a tasty reindeer chili (all references to Rudolph aside) many passengers enjoyed the fare.
Service on board is excellent and the dining room staff includes Head Waiters Ciro and Ennio who ensured that all staff were alert and on the job. The "Personal Choice Dining" offers both the traditional fixed seating and the Anytime Dining which gives passengers flexibility in dining hours and venues: many cruisers availed themselves of this new system.
CABIN Stateroom #B620 on Baja Deck 11 with ocean view and balcony, is a spacious cabin and the exact replica of the one we had on the Coral Princess. It has a double wide door, triple armoire, personal safe, refrigerator, huge bath with shower and appropriately placed safety rails, king size bed, night stands, and end tables. Best of all was our wonderful steward Cristina, who anticipated our needs. There were sheer curtains and heavy drapes to block out the white nights. As previously noticed on the Coral, the shelves in the bathroom are much too small to hold the necessary toiletries.
ENTERTAINMENT Cruise Director Richard Joseph was literally born to his job. Princess includes serious lectures on Alaska, a friendly staff, some of whom imparted interesting information we are seeking. For example, Tim Spicer knew specific details for planning a dream Tahiti cruise. He confirmed what others suggested: Air Tahiti Nui direct from L.A. is the best, and try the local bread fruit, mangos and other delicacies.
Several shows were memorable, among which Greg Bonham, the trumpeter who could hit the high notes, and who could also sing in a voice with a huge range. Excellent in cabin TV (CNN, ESPN, BBC) and the movies both in cabin and on the big screen at the Princess Theater ("Calendar Girls," "Plot With a View," and "Mona Lisa Smile," plus many more). For sports enthusiasts, there are three decks 14, 15 and 16 with aerobics, gym, Center Court, Princess Links golf, Lido and Lotus pools, hot tubs and spas. Princess has it all covered.
PORTS OF CALL This was our second Alaskan Cruise with the same itinerary doing the Inside Passage out of Vancouver.
July 10th, Saturday: Vancouver Embark. 12:00pm Depart 5:30pm
July 11th, Sunday: At Sea July 12th, Monday: Ketchikan Arrive 6:30am Depart 2:30pm Its name means Eagle River in the Tlingit native language, and this is the best place to see Bald Eagles. There are the following tours: 42A - Totem Pole and Town tour 2.5 hrs, $36. 48I - Great Alaska Lumberjack Show 1.5 hrs, $29.
July 13th, Tuesday: Juneau Arrive 6:00am Depart 7:40pm Alaska's capital is named after the co-finder of three of the largest gold mines in the world. Among the available tours are these: 18A - Mendenhall Glacier and the Salmon Hatchery, 3 hrs, $39; 28P - Whale Watching, 4 hrs, $109. July 14th, Wednesday: Skagway Arrive 7:00am Depart 8:42pm The tour of choice for us: 67H - White Pass Scenic Railway, 3.5 hrs, $95. There are great number of tours for hiking, fishing, boating and flying.
July 15th, Thursday: Glacier Bay Cruising through the bay from 6:00am to 3:00pm. If there is any one left who doesn't believe there is global warming occurring, well, from the ship's Bridge, Park Ranger Adam Gomez narrated this interesting fact about the bay: 200 years ago Glacier Bay was covered by 400 feet of ice. Captain Poggi, with immense respect for the area, slowly and reverently navigated this bay of still water with floating icebergs and views of magnificent glaciers. Some of the icebergs (growlers) make noises like bubbling seltzer water. There were Orca whales in the lower part of the bay, where they feed in shallow waters near the shores.
July 16th, Friday: College Fjord Cruising in the fjord from 3:00pm to 6:00pm. Cruising by the famous glaciers named after some of the United States oldest and most famous Ivy League Colleges and Universities (Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, Holyoke etc.). Enchanting sights! That evening we cruised across Prince William Sound on the way to Whittier.
July 17th, Saturday: Whittier Arrive 1:00am Debarkation began as early as 7:00am for those passengers with early flights.
DEBARKATION Exiting the ship was orderly and color coded. When our color was called, crew assisted us with the wheelchair off the ship and we collect our luggage. For those continuing on the Land Tour, there was the Alaskan Airlines check in desk located at the end of the baggage claim area. Be careful of heavy luggage. There is a charge for extra weight over the allotted amount (44 lbs per passenger? Check it with the airline!): The lady in front of us had to pay $50 additional for the extra weight. We were off the ship by 9:00am and on a bus to begin our Alaskan land tour.
ALASKAN LAND TOUR This five day tour, starting in Whittier and ending in Anchorage, Alaska's largest city, includes an air transfer and three long train rides.
July 17th, Saturday: Passengers were transferred by coach from Whittier to Anchorage (2 hrs.), then took an Alaska Airlines flight to Fairbanks (1 hr). From the air we saw some of the wild fires that have been plaguing Fairbanks this summer. The air on the ground had a distinct smoky scent. Many locals told us we were lucky to have missed the really bad days two weeks before, when everyone was wearing surgical masks. The temperature was 88 degrees (F) when we landed, so much for the cool northwest.
We transferred from the airport to the Fairbanks Princess Lodge for a two night stay. We were given an envelope on the bus with our schedule and room key. This was neat, no lines to wait on, and our luggage was already in our rooms when we arrived. This was to be repeated at each city on the tour. Nice preparation on the part of Princess Tours.
July 18th, Sunday: At 8:30am the "City of Gold" tour took us through an old gold mine, where panning is still done by tourists. This is a good place for souvenirs and the tour included complementary hot chocolate, coffee and freshly baked cookies for the weary gold miners. At 1:30pm we boarded a three deck paddlewheel for the "Riverboat Discovery Tour." There were several stops where natives shared and demonstrated their culture; we saw Iditarod Champions with their dog training farms, and samples of local huts and homes. This was a wilderness ride that Disney would have appreciated because of its authenticity. We even watched a native Eskimo (Inupiat) filet a salmon for preserving.
July 19th, Monday: We placed our luggage outside by 5:30am, transferred to the railway depot at 7:15am and boarded the Midnight Sun Ultra Dome at 8:15am. If this sounds early, just remember most of us were easterners used to DST, so this was like 12:15pm to us. Up to this point Fairbanks had been flat land, now we started a 4.5 hrs train ride through miles and miles of tundra with scrub like trees (low willows, birch and alder, plus the miniature scrub black spruce). Then the train went into a river bed and through canyons, tunnels and over trestles and into the mountains. Always with delightful changing vistas.
We arrived in Healy and were transferred by bus to the Denali Princess Lodge, with its Old Hickory Furniture (Shelby, Indiana) This lodge and its surroundings are extraordinarily beautiful: many gigantic begonias, dahlias and marigold grown so lushly by the long, long summer days. Look out for the giant cabbages.
Monday afternoon we took a three hour "Natural History Tour" with guide Josh Becker through the taiga (forest) and the tundra and up into the mountains to Inspiration Point (also called Primrose Ridge). From this site one can see 360 degrees panorama of mountain peaks. Fantastic! This is where the very spiritual natives sit to communicate with their spirit friends. An Athabaskan native woman spoke of their matriarchal society and subsistence hunting. The roads are lined with fire weed a beautiful lavender spiked wild flower.
Wild life is scarce here, but we did see the Alaskan State bird the ptarmigan, to be exact we saw the whole family: a hen, a rooster and several chicks. They look like bantam chickens small and brown with a more colorful rooster, who fiercely defends the family. We saw white Dall sheep with their curled horns and a caribou that walked across the scrub straight toward the bus. Josh stopped and warned the passengers to be quiet. This beautiful animal walked along side the bus and strode to the front of it and then turned and slowly walked back. All the while cameras were clicking. We were all amazed by the huge rack of antlers.
Denali National Park, we were told is the size of Massachusetts, with more then 160 species of birds, 37 species of mammals and hundreds of species of plants. We found that looking for wildlife there is like looking for a needle in a haystack. Imagine seeking less than 350 grizzly bears or 100 wolves in six million acres. Both moose and caribou number less than 1,900 each. This harsh climate is not conducive to either flora or fauna. If you yearn for wildlife, then you should book special tours which bring the visitors to specific areas like Brooks River Lodge in Kanai National Park, where bears congregate to catch the salmon swimming upstream, as shown in National Geographic films. We never even saw the official Alaskan pollinator the mosquito (Skeeter), since this year there has been very little rain.
July 20th, Tuesday: We transferred at noon to the Ultra Dome train again to ride from Denali to Talkeetna 4.5 hrs. The dining car had all glass sides. It was lined with booths and tables covered with cloths and decorated with blue iris in silver bud vases. The wall sconces added an elegant touch. Up the spiral steps is the glassed topped dome of the railroad car complete with bar.
After winding through beautiful taiga forest, we arrived at Talkeetna, which is the starting point for all Mt. McKinley climbs (the local indigenous tribes call it Denali, the big one). This is a town that is little more than a widening in the road. If seeing wildlife in Denali Park was difficult, we were now about to learn just how difficult it is to see Mt. McKinley. We transferred by coach to Mt. McKinley Lodge and our bus driver, Joy Raby, answered our question about which direction to look by saying, "If it's out . . .". We now decided to rename Mt. McKinley "Peek-a-boo Mountain." Joy's mother Wilma told us about the rarity of photo opportunities, not only of the mountain, but also of wildlife (her collection of photographs are stunning, but the result of over thirteen years work!). It seems that the mountain is usually shrouded in clouds and many times it is difficult to discern what are snow covered mountain peaks from what are white clouds. We were told that during this period of the year the "Big Mountain" is only visible 30% of the time.
July 21st, Wednesday: This morning we all gathered on the deck of the Mt. McKinley Princess Lodge and stayed until we had to board our coach at 3:15pm. We saw one or two minor peaks, but never the majestic range depicted on our post cards. Dejected, we boarded the Midnight Sun Ultra Dome for the last time and a 3.5 hour trip to Anchorage. We saw truly beautiful mountain ranges and rainbows. We arrived at the Hilton Hotel at 8:30pm and once again check in was simple; room keys, luggage transfers and tags were provided.
July 22, Thursday: We shopped and walked near the visitors center in Anchorage. The main streets were lined with huge hanging baskets of midnight blue lobelia and golden giant marigolds. At noon we transferred to the airport. We were eager to go home but truly disappointed that Mt. Mckinley had eluded us. Then on our way to the boarding gate, we looked out the panoramic windows and low and behold there was a clear view of Mt. Mckinley and its range. We asked a local and the response we got was "Didn't anyone tell you that Anchorage usually has the best view of the mountain?"
We feel that we had some unrealistic expectations regarding wildlife etc., but we had a terrific trip through the interior of Alaska and enjoyed it immensely.
SUGGESTIONS 1. Many of the public areas on the ship are carpeted making it difficult for wheelchairs; Costa and Carnival lines have used marble and tile extensively and thus are more user friendly.
2. We suggest to passengers with limited mobility to view the deck plans when booking their cruise. In this ship, for example, the cabins closer to the midship elevators are the best to minimize the distance to places most frequently visited, such as the dining rooms, the theater, the various lounges and passenger service desks. Unfortunately for us there are no wheelchair accessible cabins in this area midship.
3. We had a beautiful and comfortable stateroom; however, there is a minor deficiency in the bathroom where the shelves for toiletries were too small to hold a few necessary items.
4. A young cruiser told us to be sure to remind cruisers to bring their bathing suits. Alaska does have a summer!
CONCLUSIONS Overall this was another great cruise. A bit too much traveling for Vincent with his mobility problem, but it was worth the effort. This was our sixth cruise on Princess and it will not be our last, as matter of fact, we have booked two future cruises with destinations to be decided. Our next cruise, however, will be on the new RCI Jewel of the Seas, on her maiden transatlantic crossing in September. Until then, Happy Cruising!