This was my first cruise on Princess and first to Alaska. I have sailed twice previously on Royal Caribbean, most recently on the massive Voyager of the Seas. I sailed along with my wife and 2 kids.
I didn't take the Princess transfers from the airport to the sea port as they seemed overpriced to me. Turns out I was right. From the airport I spent $22 plus tip for the four of us to take a Shuttle Express van (no reservations necessary). We did have to haul our bags to an elevator to go up and over the street but it was worth it. The shuttle was quick as we didn't have to wait around for a bus to fill up. By the way, after the cruise we took a cab back to the airport for $23 plus tip which was even faster and more convenient. The cabs are lined up and we just hopped in. Sunday morning traffic is light so don't worry that it might end up costing more. The guy at the pier told us it would be $23 and it was.
As we pulled up I thought the ship was beautiful. All the balconies have nice wooden rails and "sapphire" tinted glass which contrasts nicely with the generally white ship. We had booked both a balcony stateroom (for me and my wife) and an inside stateroom across the hall (for the kids), and I looked forward to enjoying the scenery from my very own balcony (a first for me).
Checking in required about 45 minutes of weaving back and forth in the queue, but once we reached counter it was quick and the attendant was friendly and helpful (more helpful than I would have been dealing with that massive crowd!) After that it took another 20 minutes of stop-and-go traffic on the gangway before we were finally on board.
We skipped the usual getting-on-board photograph, as they were doing it in the terminal building in front of a couple of cheesy fake palm trees (on an Alaskan cruise??) with people walking by in the background. Seems like they could have chosen a spot with the ship in the background (the weather was perfect).
Our stateroom was about as expected, perhaps a little smaller than our room on the Explorer (without balcony). We chose a room on the Baja deck because I heard that the lower balconies are open to view from above. As a trade-off, the lower decks have balconies that are about twice the size. Our balcony was only comfortable for 2 people, but the lower balconies could easier accommodate 4.
I was satisfied with the room. Others have commented that they should have doors on the closet, but I don't agree. The closet is very wide and I don't know where the doors would go. Without the doors you have easy access to the wide closet floor (to store my wife's 8 pairs of shoes) as well as the upper shelf. Lots of nice wooden hangers were provided. I liked the additional closet with safe and storage shelves. The bathroom was small but usable. I much prefer the sliding curved shower doors on the Explorer versus the shower curtain on the Sapphire, but it wasn't a big deal. Hot water came quickly and the controls made it easy not to scorch your privates off (one knob controls the temperature only, so you can just leave that alone all week).
I agree that this ship doesn't have the Shock and Awe of some other new ships. It doesn't have the amazing atrium or large number of shops that the Explorer had. However, it is elegant and beautiful and in some ways cozy, and to me that is more important. My daughter doesn't agree with this point, as she very much enjoyed riding the glass elevators in the atrium of the Explorer.
We liked the indoor pool with the glass ceiling. This room was nicely appointed with neat tile work on the walls and supports. Most importantly, the water was warm enough to get right in (no small feature in Alaska).
Interestingly, to get those heavy deck blankets you have to go to the upper level of the indoor pool area (the "Conservatory"). Strangely, you have to check them out and return them the next day. I'm not sure what they would do if you didn't return them until the end of the trip, but I didn't find out. It would seem logical to keep the blankets for the whole week. Make sure to get some blankets on Tuesday so you will have them for the cruise through Tracy Arm Wednesday morning.
The outdoor pool was also nice and again the water was warm enough to get right in. Neither pool was ever very crowded, although we only had 2 days that the weather was conducive to outdoor swimming (though some other people apparently have a different definition of swimming weather).
Throughout the ship the crew was friendly and helpful. They seemed to be everywhere, picking up dirty dishes, cleaning windows, etc, and they all stopped to say hello, smile at the kids or whatever. Sometimes I felt like I was one of the first class passengers on the Titanic, with people waiting on me and calling me "sir", while musicians played in the background. The dealers in the casino were even nice, and that was a big surprise. I always figured casino personnel were required to be surly. To top it off, we actually won a little money at the blackjack tables.
I few things weren't finished yet. The video arcade is currently a large storage room, so it looks to be a while before that is ready. The mini-golf, which my son loved on the Explorer, was pitiful on the Sapphire. All the holes were near each other with nothing between them except for a few fake plants so you could easily end up on the wrong hole, or even off the course entirely. Hopefully they intend to add rocks, windmills or whatnot to make it at least playable. We tried out the mini tennis court, which was kind of fun, but unfortunately the wooden rackets were already badly damaged, which is surprising and disappointing given that we were only the 4th cruise on this new ship. There was some painting and varnishing going on throughout the ship during the week, but it wasn't a problem.
Make sure to check out the aft end of the ship above the promenade (deck 7) and below the Horizon Court (deck 14), which we didn't really even see until mid-week. There you will find a pool with a couple of hot tubs, plus shuffleboard and a giant chess board. It tends to be less crowded back there and can be a wonderful spot to sit and watch the ocean (not that the rest of the ship was crowded).
The entertainment was very good, including the singers/dancers, comedians, and the ventriloquist. The main theater was perhaps a bit small (compared to the Explorer), and they often put the comedians in smaller lounges which were entirely too small for the crowds that wanted to attend. I'm not sure what they were thinking. Usually when there is one main act going on in the evening, whether it is a comedian or a dance troupe, there will be a lot of people that want to see it. On other ships they always used the main theater. Hopefully they re-think this, but if not, I recommend you go early to get a seat. Of course, people sometimes send one person to save a large number of seats which I think is unfair. I didn't play bingo but there were people saving seats TWO HOURS before bingo was to start (in one of the lounges, of course).
An earlier review said "don't miss the morning show with Hollywood and Alistair." While the two guys are nice, their banter gets annoying very quickly and I personally couldn't stand it for the 30 minutes required to find out all the activities planned for the day. Besides, you get all the same info in the Princess Patter delivered to your room each night. You can submit messages to be read during the show, and my kids did that one day (which is why I had to suffer through the whole show).
My kids really enjoyed the Kid Zone and spent much of their days playing with new friends there. They hated the kid's center on the Explorer, so we were pleasantly surprised by this. They worked on many projects and won lots of prizes (Princess tote bags, stuffed animals, toy boats, etc). As a family we also won stuff by participating in the various games (Taboo, Pictionary, Trivia, Weakest Link, etc). So there were lots of little things to do, although attendance was generally small at these "events".
For some reason, my daughter (age 10) really enjoyed going to afternoon tea and talking with the old ladies. To each her own, I guess.
There were a lot older people on this boat. In fact, I chose not to run on the "track" because it was narrow, had sharp turns and you never know when you might come around the corner and run into an old guy with a walker. That was disappointing to me, since I could stand to burn some of the calories I was shoveling in.
Ketchikan was okay. We did some shopping, but you quickly learn that port towns in Alaska are just like port towns elsewhere. The shops all have the same stuff and it gets pretty monotonous. I did go for a "run" in Ketchikan, although it was more of a shuffle up the steep grades for 15 minutes and then 2 minutes of terror back down the wet streets. The locals looked at me like I was nuts, and they were probably right. I had hoped to find a good spot to take some pictures up in the hills but didn't have much luck. I probably would have enjoyed Ketchikan more if I had signed up for a tour, but those tours are expensive and I'm not made of money (contrary to what my kids think).
Tracy Arm was the highlight of the cruise, so get your butt topside early Wednesday so you don't miss it (don't forget your blanket and camera). This is the only time you sail through narrow a narrow fjord and get to see floating ice chunks with (if you're lucky) some seals on them. There are also waterfalls and sheer cliffs that are just beautiful. I wish we could have left Ketchikan earlier and spent more time here. We never got very close to the actual glacier, so that was a little disappointing but the scenery was great nonetheless. Add a deck blanket and a hot chocolate with Bailey's in it, and it was a memory I won't soon forget (there wasn't THAT much Bailey's in the hot chocolate). The naturalist added some interesting commentary, although she could use some caffeine (or something stronger) to liven up her presentation. It was pretty monotone.
If you got up early for Tracy Arm, take a nap when you get to Juneau if (like us) you have to tender ashore. They haven't worked out the kinks yet, so you are best off waiting a couple of hours, or signing up for an afternoon tour which might (I repeat, might) get you off the boat quicker. It is too bad because we could have used more time exploring Juneau. It seemed to have more than just the same old trinkets in every store.
We signed up for the Mendenhall glacier helicopter tour. This was expensive ($200 per person) but you don't want to miss it. Soaring up, up, up over the crest of the mountain and then seeing the ground drop off thousands of feet to the valley below was very cool. You don't get much time on the ice, and if you have kids stay with them. There are some cracks and holes that could be dangerous for small kids (one of the guides immediately began shadowing my son, who is a toothpick). Although it was overcast most of the week, we did get sunshine during this tour and the early evening lighting made this an incredible experience. FYI, we heard the first two flights of the day were cancelled because of "ice fog" or something like that. Apparently, that is not uncommon early in the morning (even in July) so beware of early flights as the weather may ground the helicopters.
Skagway was similar to Ketchikan. We didn't have a tour scheduled so we just wandered around town. Make sure you get back to the boat on time. We left a passenger in Skagway and we heard he had a heck of time catching up with the boat. One of the crew told me they leave someone behind in almost every port. They do normally wait a little while, but not long.
The Food? Well I'm not the kind of person that goes on a cruise just to eat. I cruise because it is a lazy man's way of seeing lots of stuff with little effort and for a reasonable cost. The fact that they serve you food whenever you want just adds to my enjoyment.
In general the food was fair to good. The Horizon Court buffet was decent but not extraordinary, and it can be a zoo. A couple of times there wasn't a single table available in the entire café and we had to go quite a ways forward in the ship to find a place to eat. We ate lunch in the regular dining room twice. The second time the service was very slow, so we never did that again (I don't like wasting my precious vacation sitting at a table waiting for food). I'm guessing other people had the same experience, thus the crowd in the Horizon Café.
I really enjoyed breakfast at the horizon café. The bacon was always crisp and delicious, the French toast was good and they had a good selection of other stuff. Except no 2% milk, just skim milk (blah!) or whole milk (yikes!). If you get hungry after dinner, the café has pretty much all the entrees available in the dining room and I enjoyed tasting ALL of them.
The hand sanitizers by the café were a great idea and most people used them.
We did personal choice dining, and it is true you are better off making reservations. But even if you don't you can usually get in with a little wait (lots of people make reservations for the whole week but don't always show up.)
By the outdoor pool you could get pizza which we enjoyed quite a bit. It was thin crust and a little floppy, but at the same time crunchy. There is also a grill serving hamburgers and hotdogs and those were pretty good too. And if you want a double cheeseburger they serve it up with a smile.
The dining room service was excellent and the food was good.
Generally speaking, there were fewer pushy people trying to sell you drinks than we experienced on the Explorer which was greatly appreciated. They did try to sell us cookbooks and wine tastings, but they were not pushy about it, and it was always with a smile.
Overall, it was an enjoyable cruise for all of us. The service and food was good, the ship was nice, there were enough activities to keep us busy, and the price was reasonable. I was a little disappointed that spotting wildlife from the ship was rare. I guess you have to go on tours if you want to see much wildlife. I was also disappointed that we never got anywhere close to a glacier to watch chunks "calving" off, which to me is one of the main reasons for going to Alaska. I know others have seen calving glaciers from their ships, so maybe this ship was just too big to get close? I suppose there was probably a tour that went up close to a glacier (but again, those cost a fortune for a family of 4).