EMBARKATION & DAY AT SEA
My husband and I were excited to go on the Island Princess to Alaska after having gone on the Star Princess a year and a half ago to the Mexican Riviera. This was our second trip to Alaska, having gone with Holland America the first time in 2001.
Our trip from Salt Lake to Seattle was pleasant, on a Boeing 767, the largest plane I had ever been on. The Princess personnel in Seattle were friendly and helpful, and the transfer to the bus and on to Vancouver was smooth and without complication.
We had filled out the questionnaires and immigration paperwork on Princess website, so were able to do the easy Express Check-in at the cruise terminal. We were escorted to our room, #B311, where we received our luggage, one piece at a time, in just about the right timing to get it unpacked and settled with out being overwhelmed by the task.
Vancouver was as beautiful and the harbor as picturesque as we remembered it, and it was a gorgeous day. I took a whole roll of pictures there and during the time we were leaving the harbor.
After having a balcony, at which I typed most of this review, I have no idea how I survived on the trips before. To have the fresh air and the sea sounds right there in the room all the time is amazingly calming and restful. As a result, we spent more time at our room and less out on the decks and going to activities. This may also have been because we like to watch the scenery in Alaska, and our balcony was a perfect place for that.
One complaint about the balcony was that the surface of the floor hurt my feet when I went out barefoot, so I would advise flip-flops or slippers for relaxing on the balcony. The balconies below us were terraced--not as much as on the Grand Class ships. It didn't cause us any trouble because ours and the deck above us were flush with each other, with the Lido deck over-hanging.
We found the international personnel on board ship to be friendlier than we'd encountered before. We had requested a table for two in the later seating traditional dining and were delighted with our assigned table for two in the Provence Dining room and the wait staff that came with it.
The food was excellent and the service friendly and efficient. The ambience was just right--not too starchy or formal, but not so casual as to be less than we would expect. Our waiter and jr. waiter were both from Roumania, very pleasant and efficient young men.
At both the dining room and buffet, a touchless dispenser of waterless antiseptic hand wash was provided, which I noticed most people were using without complaint. This helped alleviate my fear of Norwalk virus and other cleanliness-related hazards.
We wanted to just chill out and relax that first day, which we were able to do. We went on a ship tour in the morning, and a little later a talk by the Naturalist on Alaska in general. We also enjoyed the miniature golf up top.
We walked around the wraparound promenade deck and familiarized with the ship. I missed having a promenade that takes you to the forward-most point of the bow with total view around you, as on the Grand Class. We did enjoy the real wood decking that was wide enough for traditional deck chairs with plenty of space for walking.
The other disappointment I encountered was the high blue plexi-glass surrounding the forward part of the ship up top. This caused havoc with picture taking, but on the other hand, also shielded from the wind.
Otherwise the ship met and exceeded my expectations. I had a little bit of disorientation because the ship is so like the Star in most features, the design, the decor, and even some of the layout of the ship. There were differences here and there, mainly in the layout of the ship, but if I didn't concentrate on it, it was easy to think I was back on the Star.
The temperature was around 60 degrees, rain or shine, during most of the time at sea. We encountered some stiff breezes at times when walking on the promenade. We didn't have any breeze problems on our balcony, which is the first room after the side of the ship jogs in. The forward view is limited, but we also were protected from the breeze.
Our first port day was in Ketchikan. The disembarkation worked smoothly and surprisingly quickly. Our shore trip was the Guard Island Lighthouse and Eagles cruise, which we enjoyed. We were in a small group, so there was plenty of room on the small excursion boat that took us out. It was fun to view Totem Bight State Park from the ocean side, we took our shore excursion there last time we came. I remembered and photographed a totem pole that I'd said I'd only be able to photograph from the sea.
We had plenty of time to walk around, see the sights of the town, and go shopping. We found Ketchikan to be as interesting to us as we had before. We found the prices high for the two places we were interested in seeing, the Totem Park and the Fish Hatchery, but had a nice walk around the town and plenty of picture-taking opportunities.
After re-embarkation, I lost my ID card at the security point, which was recovered and at the pursers desk when I went to inquire about it. They had de-activated the card for security purposes and quickly coded me a new card.
An improvement we have seen over the Grand Class ships is that inside on the promenade deck, the lounges and other rooms are all to the port side of the ship, with the corridor for walking on the starboard. Thus, you don't end up wandering into one of the restaurants from the back side.
JUNEAU, SKAGWAY & GLACIER BAY
Our days at Juneau, Skagway and Glacier bay were each very good. All three days were overcast most of the time, but warm and pleasant.
We got to Juneau quite early, but our shore excursion, the Wildlife Quest with Allen Marine tours, was not until noon, so we went on a self-designed walking tour and shopping. We looked at the unremarkable Capitol building, the Governor's Mansion, an old Russian Orthodox Church, and other sites in the area. Then we shopped in the tourist district near the piers.
On our Wildlife Quest we were able to enjoy ten humpback whales bubble-net feeding--a magnificent sight. Later we viewed a mother and baby humpback playing--rolling and spiraling in the water, beginning with four breaches in a row. It began raining in earnest while we were on our way back in to the docks from the Wildlife Quest, so we just returned to the pier on the bus and returned to the ship. We were surprised to learn that our Sprint cell phones found regular Sprint service in Juneau, so made a couple calls each.
Italian night at dinner presented more choices than we knew what to do with. We chose yummy food with a pasta specialty made by our headwaiter.
We arrived at Skagway fairly early in the day, and like the day before, our shore trip was not till noon. We went out and did our own walking tour of the town, not hard to accomplish in Skagway. Then we did the rest of our anticipated shopping.
We returned to the ship, where we ate sandwiches and got ready for our trip on the narrow gauge White Pass & Yukon Railroad. We chose the option to go up on the train, make a loop and come back down without stopping. The train picked us up and dropped us off on the Railway Dock adjacent to the ship. The narration was interesting and informative. We were able to see mountain goats high on the rock face of a mountain near the top of the pass.
We found the Princess people in all three ports very organized, friendly and efficient. I thought the security check in and check out in the disembarkation and re-embarkation was done well, and we didn't experience any further problem.
I had two rolls of film processed on the ship. I was surprised to find that the prices were the same as I pay at a camera shop at home, and the quality was just as good. Later I decided the 18 rolls of film I'd brought with me was not enough, and was able to get a package of four rolls for $10.95 at the photo shop on the ship, not much more than at home. This was quite a pleasant surprise when compared to the high prices of the portraits and pictures that they take of you all over the ship.
Glacier Bay was very pretty, but I was disappointed because the captain did not pull around to the nicer blue face of the Margerie Glacier where we had gotten all our really nice pictures last time we came. In fact, he hardly kept the ship still for any length of time. I don't know if this was a Princess thing, or the choice of the Captain.
One thing we noticed on the whole trip was that we did not hear any public announcements in our room or balcony. This was good and bad. We were not disturbed during naps or anything, but we didn't hear informational things either. Out on the balcony, I felt in a world apart. That's good, because that's what I went on vacation for, but sometimes we missed info we'd like to have heard. Later on we found out that the naturalist narrations were on the bridge-cam channel on the TV.
Late on the Glacier Bay day, we found a cute little deck space at the back end of the ship on our deck. This would have been enjoyable to have gone to during some of our slack times, and we will remember for future reference.
I did not enjoy some of the younger teenaged kids on this trip--the small children seemed better behaved. They did not seem to appreciate the things they were seeing, especially in Glacier Bay, instead being loud and obnoxious, teasing each other, some bad language, and a LOT of running around. We were near two sisters on two of our shore excursions that couldn't seem to sit still or be quiet for more than about 35 seconds.
When we passed Cape Spencer to head north, I would have liked to have been closer to the land. We enjoy the coastline, the coves and islands and inlets, and at times, we were so far away that it was hard to tell there even was any land over there.
Dinner on the Glacier Bay day was formal night, with excellent seafood choices in the dining room. We skipped the Captain's Circle get-together.
DAY AT SEA AND DISEMBARKATION
We then had a day at sea, arriving at Prince William Sound in the afternoon and proceeding to College Fjord late in the afternoon.
Before arriving there, we enjoyed a matinee performance of a show featuring Broadway music. We didn't go to any other shows or entertainments on the cruise, where going to Mexico, we had gone to several. This is for two reasons: first, we enjoy viewing the seemingly endless flow of islands the ship passes in Alaska, and secondly because we had late seating at dinner and didn't want to be up any later in the evening.
I had thought of College Fjord as a kind of a little side-trip, but little did I know that it would turn out to be a highlight experience of the whole cruise. The naturalist talked to us about the various glaciers, giving facts about each as we came to them. The rows of tidewater and hanging glaciers were amazing and beautiful. We spent a good long time at Harvard Glacier, watching it calve repeatedly while the captain rotated the ship, moved it closer and rotated it some more. We spent more time there than the disappointing time at the Margerie Glacier. On the way out of College Fjord, we sat on our balcony and enjoyed a reverse showing of the procession of glaciers.
The way Princess numbers their days seems kind of odd to me, numbering the disembarkation day as 7. When leaving College Fjord, we were only a short distance from Whittier, arriving there in the middle of the night. Our disembarkation time was 6:15 a.m.--this hardly sounds like a day worth numbering.
I was amazed by the organized chaos of disembarkation! It was done on a color-coded system, based on where you were going after the cruise. We were in one of the first groups to get out of the ship, meeting a bus to go north for the land part of the trip. This was done in an incredibly efficient way, given the number of people and destinations involved.
I was sad to leave the ship, I had very much enjoyed my time on board. I was consoled mainly by the thought of going on the land portion of our cruise-tour that was still ahead.
LAND TOUR TO DENALI NATIONAL PARK
Princess coordinated everything on the land part of our trip. They took the seemingly impossible task of sorting out people and their various packages and options, and getting them to the right places at the right times.
We stayed one night at the McKinley Princess near Talkeetna, and two nights at the Denali Princess, right outside the park boundary. We found both lodges to be very nice, comfortable and beautiful, in the most beautiful settings I could imagine. The only thing that I thought needed any improvement at all was that our luggage took all day to catch up when we went to the lodges. This inconvenienced some of the people we talked to, but we had planned ahead with normal travel sense, taking carry-on bags with the things we would need for the rest of the day.
The meals were expensive at both lodges, as could be expected, but the portions were huge and the food was of excellent quality. For example, we observed people at the next table in the pizza restaurant at McKinley Princess, order a 1/2 order of nachos, which seemed really overpriced. When it arrived, it filled a pan as large as a pizza, and piled high with all the traditional nacho trimmings.
While at the McKinley Princess Lodge we went on a raft trip on the Chulitna river, which we very much enjoyed. Our operator/guide was skilled with the raft, knowledgeable about our surroundings, and very personable to talk with. We went through some beautiful scenery far from any roads or trails. We saw eagles and black bears along the way. Our only regret at the McKinley Princess is that we were only there one night. There were hot tubs, laundry, gift shop, and all other regular hotel features, several restaurants to choose from, all in a beautiful landscape, with a breathtaking view of "The Mountain"--Mt. McKinley, or Denali, as I prefer to call it (assuming that the clouds went away so you could see it, which it did--briefly--while we were there).
We arrived at the Denali Princess Lodge to find another scene of semi-organized chaos, with people waiting to leave for various destinations and tours, while other people were arriving from a number of places. This quickly sorted itself out as buses left for trains and tours and transfers, rooms became available, and lunches were eaten. Our room was in a building that was new just this year.
We had time there for relaxing, as well as going on the 8 hour Tundra Wildlife Tour. We saw all the animals we hoped to see, but clouds covered Denali all through our tour. We relaxed in one of the comfortable hot tubs one of the evenings, overlooking the Nenana River and the beautiful forested mountains. We went to a dinner theater called "Music of Denali", which was a lot of fun, with a farmhouse style dinner, piano music, and a play about the history of the area.
As a little side-trip of our own, we caught the shuttle bus into the park and walked back to the park entrance sign for a traditional "we were there" picture, then walked back to the lodge (about a mile). On our walk, we saw two moose munching on leaves right across the road.
The same amenities were found at the Denali Princess Lodge as at the McKinley lodge, plus a few specialty shops that we weren't interested in.
I woke up that last day thinking of the trip as being over, but was pleasantly surprised to find that another adventure was still to be had. We had a leisurely breakfast at the main restaurant with an overlook on the Nenana River, then checked out from our room.
As we became the waiting crowd in the chaotic scene we'd arrived into two days before, everything continued to be well-choreographed and orchestrated. We rode a bus over to the train depot (within the national park) and boarded the Alaska Railroad in Princess' nice dome observation cars. I had not been in a regular train since a field trip in about fourth grade, so the train was a fun and different experience.
The train passes through some incredible scenery--mountains, meadows, beaver ponds, rivers and some breathtaking views of Denali, which was totally clear all day. There was a narration (history, heritage & humor) about the surroundings we were going through, and interesting facts about the train. There was one stop in Talkeetna, and arrival in Anchorage in the evening. The transfer from the train to the airport went smoothly, and our luggage had been taken directly from the lodge to the airport, where it was waiting for us.
Our flight was during the night, and I was able to sleep some on the plane. We arrived at home early in the morning, where we deemed the whole trip to have been an awesome vacation.