While we have sailed many times, this was our first sailing on the Sapphire Princess and sailing out of Whittier. May we suggest that if you are sailing our of Whittier you fly to Anchorage a few days earlier and enjoy some of Alaska. In the past we have flown into Anchorage and taken a cruise ship out of Seward. Traveling from Anchorage to Whittier will be a great experience. You have several choices on how to get from point A to point B. You can prepay the cruise line for ground transportation and that is not bad as your luggage will be taken care of. There is a train that can be used to get to Whittier or you can pay for taxi, bus or limousine service. Instead of all of these we opted for a rental car. A word of caution -- plan way ahead as there is only one rental car company at this time (Avis) that permits a one way drop from Anchorage to Whittier.
The cost of bus or limousine service is approximately $50 per person. For approximately $250 (plus gas) you can rent a van in Anchorage and drop it off in Whittier. The drive from Anchorage to Whittier is one of the most scenic and most interesting you will find in Alaska. You travel along the coast right next to the ocean. Along the way stop occasionally to see fish being caught by dozens of fishermen and observe the eagles flying in and out of their nest. Don't forget to leave the camera out of your travel bag.
A few miles south of Anchorage there is a roadside park. Take a break and take a look at the old snow blower engine sitting in the park. It's difficult to find one of these in operation in Florida or California!!!
The trip is approximately 60 miles and you will turn off the main highway after about 50 miles and head toward Whittier. Just before the tunnel there is a National Park and information building. It is very nice so take about an hour for a rest break and take in all the info center has to offer. There will be glacier bits floating in the water behind the information center.
Back into your rented vehicle (can't do all this if you are on the bus) and head for Whittier. This was be one of the most interesting few miles you have ever taken. We have traveled extensively throughout Switzerland by car and this segment tops even those road trips.
You will be stopped at the entrance of the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel, a 2-1/2 mile long tunnel that will exit at Whittier. There was a $12 toll fee. Turn your lights on and maintain the required distance between you and the vehicle in front of you. You will literally ride the railroad tracks for 2-1/2 miles. The flow of traffic is reversed every thirty minutes and occasionally car traffic stopped so that a train can travel on the tracks. Don't worry all this is carefully controlled so you don't meet a train in the middle of the tunnel.
When traveling through the tunnel forget using your cell phone and if you are the driver just concentrate on staying on the tracks. The speed of our "caravan" was quite brisk. We exited on the Whittier side and presto there was Whittier. Our first business was to turn our rental car in. The cruise line had a tent set up close to the ship where you could drop your baggage. (TIP: have all your baggage tags completed and drop your baggage and go as there are others waiting).
After dropping the baggage off we headed for the Avis drop off, a small hardware store. All the person wants is your keys, the level of the gas and your contract. They will complete the information and mail you a receipt in about two weeks. This is a no nonsense drop off so don't plan on staying around and talking the morning away.
The town is only 60 miles from Anchorage and you will immediately notice the beauty of Prince William Sound. The Sound is made up of numerous deep fjords with tidewater glaciers that calve right before your eyes. Whittier is also surrounded by the Chugach National Forest. In Whittier there is day cruising, fishing charters, kayak tours and in the winter time many winter activities including cross country skiing and snowmobiling. Thus if you have an early arrival for a late sailing ship you have plenty of time to engage in one of the above activities. You will immediately notice two very large buildings in Whittier. One is now vacant. This area was a secret military base during World War II. One of the buildings is now occupied by local residents and reportedly almost all the town's population now lives in that one building. The port remained an active military installation until 1960. At that time the town had just over 1000 residents. The town was eventually incorporated in 1969.
The brochures tell about a lot of good dining in Whittier. It was time for lunch when it started pouring rain so we decided to head for the ship instead of lunch. Below is a picture of one of the restaurants that was closed when we were there. Looks like a great business venture if you want to relocate to Whittier.
The Sapphire Princess is one of the mega ships in the Princess fleet. Put in service in May 2004, it is capable of carrying 3100 passengers. Our cruise was not totally full however the number onboard was plenty by any standards. A ship 14 years old just has to show some wear and tear, however the crew continues to do a very good job and the public areas as well as the cabins were in good shape and clean.
We have sailed on the Diamond and Grand which are almost identical to the Sapphire. There is also the Golden and the Star which are comparable. This is a large ship that takes a little time to get used to. Public areas are too small for the number of passengers. For example there is a theater that seats less than a thousand yet there could be as many as 3300 on board. Seating for two shows is always a problem. It is not possible to have a single Captain's Reception thus there will be more than one. The common space just isn't there. The ship's designers have foregone the high ceiling two story spiral stair type dining rooms for a more traditional on shore type look for the International Dining seating. Even the other restaurants where you have anytime dining look more like a nice on shore restaurant. Having said this let's look at the rest of the ship.
Dining Got to get this one first since this seems to be the main topic of discussion about one's cruises. We opted for the traditional second seating dining and that was a mistake. We were seated at a table for 6 in a dark corner. Service was poor and we were close to everything you did not want to be close to. Serving stand, dirty dishes, waiters walking back and forth with other table's meals, etc. Dining with the traditional dining service just wasn't what we had in the past.
We tried to get Anytime Dining and found out that the staff does not like to see changes made after you are onboard. However we used Anytime Dining the second night. By getting there early the next four nights we had Anytime Dining in the Santa Fe. It was nice and we all enjoyed some very good dinners.
Breakfast was always in the Horizon Court on the Lido Deck, which leads us to that dining area. There are 11 serving areas in the Horizon Court on the Port side and 11 serving areas on the Starboard Side. This no doubt presents a real problem for many passengers as they just stand and stare at the food. I don't know how many times we witnessed a passenger using the tongs to pick at a particular strawberry only to lay that one down and pick up another. With so many choices it appears some of them just can't make a decision.
The dining in the Horizon Court, which we usually ate breakfast and lunch at, was actually very good. Nothing much has been changed from previous cruises. This is not 5 star restaurant food, however it is good food. You can usually get your food very quickly however finding a place to sit may be difficult. Seems like some passengers tend to hibernate at a table from morning to dark. Some were talking while others were playing cards. Did not matter, as there were many other places on the ship where this could have taken place. You can take your food out to the aft deck, however in Alaska this is sometimes a little cold and windy. There is also the swimming pool areas on the same deck and there were usually several tables available.
Ice Cream There is an ice cream bar on the ship where you can purchase -- yes I said purchase -- sundaes and cones. The prices are in line with those you will pay back home at a similar ice cream store. TIP: There is free ice cream between 3 and 4PM on the Lido Deck and you can add toppings for a sundae. We found a lot of people apparently did not know about this, thus we never found any real long lines. The time period also had a lot to do with this, as days we were at a port a lot of the passengers were still on tours.
Movies There is no dedicated theater on this ship however you can still watch movies. The listing will be in your daily guide. Movies are shown in the large entertainment theater, in the Explorer's Lounge and on your cabin TV. Some showings included current films. We missed the outdoor movies under the stars and the popcorn we have had on other Princess mega ships.
Atrium The ship has a beautiful atrium in the center of the ship that extends up through several of the decks. Surrounding the open center are shops, with perfume, clothes items, etc., souvenir store, purser's desk, tour desk, a store with small drug and candy items. Usually the staff sets up tables on the perimeter where they sell items usually related to the port that is next or the port the ship has just left.
Photos The area around the photo sales area was always crowded. The staff will literally make thousands of photos as they seem to be everywhere. Formal night is especially a challenge as the photo crews will actually block several passage areas to set up their cameras. The candid photos are made using a digital camera from which they print a mass production snapshot. They sell these from formal night shootings as "portraits." Trust me, these are far from being professional portraits. If you must have a snapshot, then spend the $25, however a better option is to have your own digital camera, make several photos and print them on your computer when you return home.
Drink Cards The first day aboard you will be asked (sometimes many times) to purchase an all you can drink soft drink card. They are about $60. If you drink several cokes each day this is a real deal. That's about $9 worth of cokes each day, however at bar prices that may not be all that many. They also sell a coffee card for gourmet coffee such as cappuccinos. I purchased one for $30 and only used it eight times thus my coffee was rather expensive. On a longer than seven day cruise I would have easily used the entire card. I did get a souvenir cup out of the deal though.
Specialty Dining There are a couple of restaurants where you can get specialty dining with special entrees. They are the Sterling Steakhouse and the Sabatini's Trattoria dining room. On this trip we did not eat at either. We really don't like to pay the extra charge associated with this type dining although we must admit we have done it in the past. The restaurants were never full on any evening.
Hot Dogs and Hamburgers Oh yes, there is a place on the ship where you can dine on hamburgers and hot dogs, plus there is pizza available. This is at the end of the pool area. They cook your burger to order while you wait.
Internet One of the nicest internet rooms of any ship we have sailed. There is also a coffee bar in the room. Space was always available on this cruise and the internet connections were excellent. Probably because we were always close to land, either Canada or the United Sates. The staff was very pleasant and helpful. Cost is about the same as on other ships. In our case $100 for 250 minutes. TIP: Sign up the first day aboard and they may give you some additional free minutes. TIP: If you encounter problems with the internet, such as getting several disconnects, etc., ask the attendant to make an adjustment or add the lost minutes. We found them to be accommodating.
Computer at Sea School Don't know how to work with Adobe Photoshop? Then take a couple of classes aboard ship. The classes were almost like having your own personal instructor. Even though I know some about Photoshop and my granddaughter knows a lot, we still took the classes and found them to be well worth the $25 per class. Take three classes and the fourth is free. They give you easy to read handouts and you can also download them from the Princess site when you return home.
Casino This ship is reported to have one of the largest casinos on the seas. There are more than 250 slot machines, including penny machines, two roulette tables, craps tables and blackjack. We found the casino being very well used throughout the cruise.
Art Auction I am still amazed that people go on cruises to attend art auctions and unless I am being conned, there are people actually buying some of the "art." After attending for three days I found the same people attending day after day. If this is your thing go for it, I would not know what I was buying or what it was worth. The auction is held in the Explorer's Lounge.
Golf There is a neat golf putting area on the top deck. The wind and cold will just add to the challenge. We never found more than two or three people on the course partly because it was difficult to find. Take a break from the auctions and bars and go outdoors to the putting area.
Wedding Chapel There is a very nice small wedding chapel on this ship. The door remained locked every time we were in that area however I would imagine it may be used on longer cruises.
Hospital/Sick Bay As is on many new ships, there is a nice looking medical facility. Since we did not have to use the facility (we have on other sister ships) we really can't review the service. On other Princess ships where we have used the service we found professional, courteous personnel and very clean facilities. Expect to pay in full before you leave as they don't accept insurance. You can file a claim against your health care provider when you return home, so be sure and get a detailed receipt of the procedure you used.
Hair Salon My spouse is always a customer whether the cruise is 30 day or 7 days and this cruise was no exception. The service is always good and the prices are always high. Also expect to provide the person with a hefty tip as tips are not added to the bill.
Fitness Center The fitness center is really excellent with lots of the very latest equipment which was in very good condition. We have been on ships where the equipment has been neglected. At times the area was crowded and you have to put your name on a time schedule.
Library There is a very nice library on the ship and it also contains several internet stations. In the same area there is a writing room which is equally nice. Both places are good areas to read a book and just take life easy.
Swimming Pools and Spas They are all over the ship. Some are crowded while others remain mostly empty. Look for the ones where kids are not allowed, otherwise some of the younger kids will run wild around the area with parents nowhere to be found. On this cruise there were plenty of lounge chairs around all the pools.
Children's Area There is a special part of the ship set aside for children of all ages. We had a teenager that went a few times but for the most part opted to stay with the adults. There are games including high tech games in the children's area. When we passed by we always saw the area being adequately supervised by ship's staff.
Outside Basketball & Tennis Court A very nice area that we saw being used quite often. Located on the front of the ship on a top deck.
Shore Tours In the past we booked some of our shore tours on the internet before the cruise. On this trip we did not book one tour until we arrived on board. The tours were plentiful. We had also traveled to Alaska many times thus many sights we had seen on our own. In every port there were several large ships and the crowds on the streets were just more than we cared to handle. We will probably take earlier or later cruises to Alaska in the future in order to avoid the really large crowds on shore. This time though we did take a train out of Skagway. It was very good though a little expensive. In previous shore trips we try to go on our own. Usually we rent a car along with another couple and head for non-tourist sites. We find the cost to be much lower, the freedom to do what you want and seeing sights where tourists don't generally go.
Theater & Entertainment The theater does not adequately seat the number of passengers that want to attend each show. Thus you must arrive very early to get a seat. We found that 45 minutes before the show the theater started filling so we usually arrived about 45 minutes before the show. The shows presented by the entertainers on board were rather good IF you overlook all the errors and mistakes. Just take those with a "grain of salt" and look at the lighting, special effects and costumes. They are really very good -- not Broadway -- but think about it, you are not paying an extra dime for the entertainment. Individual performers in the theater were on a scale of excellent to extremely poor. On the one night where the entertainer was very poor the theater was no more that 60% full. A lot of folks knew something that we did not know.
Arcade Really nice electronic arcade located close to the casino. Lots of nice new machines in the room however we never found anyone using them. If this keeps up that room will someday disappear.
Cabins Our cabin was an outside room on the Emerald Deck. Clean and the cabin steward maintained it that way throughout the cruise. The bed was excellent, bathroom always stocked with supplies and in general we were well pleased with the room. We did not have room service during this short cruise -- we were just too busy. Fresh fruit was brought to our room each day we requested. Just leave the request on the door the evening before. We did not use the laundry service on this cruise however we did use the washer and dryer on our deck. The place was clean and all machines worked. Even the coin machines were in working order. Each evening the ship's paper was delivered to our room and a mint placed on each pillow. We were able to control our temperature in the room exactly as we desired. The TV set was in first class working order. Ice was left in our refrigerator each day and we got clean towels each day.
Dress We normally would not list this as a review section on a cruise however we feel this is becoming a major issue. We are savvy enough to realize that people are going to dress as they please. There were two formal nights on this seven day cruise, however I would challenge anyone to show me which of the nights were those formal nights. At dinner there were many people that came with t-shirts, sport shirts and a form of shorts. Some people appeared to be wearing what they had worn on shore tour rafting. Tennis shoes were all over the place. A very small percentage of passengers were actually in formal clothes. We went to the last entertainment and noticed even some of those returned to their cabin after dinner and changed into sport clothes. Formal night dress meant very little for a great percentage of the travelers on this cruise.
Embarkation We boarded at Whittier and the embarkation was easy, efficient and fast. We arrived at a time when few passengers were arriving (1:00PM). The ship had a departure time of 9:00PM. The staff was most helpful and friendly. We could not have asked for a better experience.
Disembarkation We purchased bus tickets from the ship to Vancouver Airport and that was a great move. We left our luggage outside the door the evening before, and saw it next at the baggage area at the airport. We were among the first to leave the ship and among the first to arrive at the airport. The cost was only $25 per person. We highly recommend this.
We have traveled enough on cruise ships to know that a lot of factors will influence one's perception of the cruise. The observations we post are those of our own and we respect the differences others may have experienced aboard the same cruise. We had a great time and will cruise with Princess again. We trust this review will provide a little insight, especially for those who had not cruised on the Sapphire. Have a great trip.