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Princess Cruises

Sun Princess
Princess Cruises - Sun Princess
By Josh Jones
Alaska - June 4, 2005

My wife and I just came back from an Alaska Inside Passage trip on the Sun Princess out of Seattle, June 4-11, 2006. Here's the short version for those trying to decide whether this would be a good vacation: TAKE THIS CRUISE. BOOK IT NOW. The Sun Princess is great, but more importantly, you need to see Alaska. It's beautiful.

For a more specific rundown on the Sun Princess experience, plus insight into some excellent yet rarely-taken shore excursions, read on.

Background
I've never cruised before; my wife has cruised three times exclusively with Royal Caribbean (Alaska, Western & Eastern Caribbean). So everything I know about cruise ships is from her stories, and she's never been on a Princess ship before. We have, however, been to an all-inclusive resort (Sandals) before, so some of the cruising concepts that normally blow first-timers away were not entirely foreign to me.

To start off, I must mention the weather: We were ridiculously lucky. We expected it to be 55 and rainy every day. But it was in the upper 60s and sunny every day, and it was 70 in Skagway. I even got a sunburn. For the first week of June, it was amazing, and to see no rain in Ketchikan, that's just weird. At every stop, even in Victoria, the locals told us it rained all day the day prior to our arrival. Admittedly, it was overcast for our first hour in Ketchikan and the first two hours of Tracy Arm, but that just added to the mystique of the beautiful scenery.

With a day of low clouds, you'd really miss some fine details such as the snow-capped mountains, but I don't think it would detract from your trip. It was rather cold on Tracy Arm morning, as the entry started at 6 a.m., so I would recommend packing a winter coat for at least that day, and a light jacket for the remaining trip. Bring ponchos and umbrellas too. We had a bunch of disposable ponchos on hand, but never used them.

The Food
As for the ship, my most dire warning about Princess would be food. It's really not all that good. It's more hit-and-miss -- with more misses than hits. For example, you can write off most of the hot food at the Horizon Court Buffet as being awful. Some breakfast foods, like sausage, bacon, and pancakes (note I did not say eggs) were tasty, but all other hot food was just plain bad.

Dinner was hit-and-miss, but we had more luck there. We chose the fixed seating, and were lucky enough to get a table for two. On Princess you can get any-time dining (but that absolutely requires a reservation, I learned from other passengers) or you can get fixed seating at varying sizes of tables. They had tables for two, four, six, eight, 10 and 12. I didn't see more than two two-person tables in the entire room (there may have been more, but they are extremely infrequent and we just got super lucky), but there is definitely a reasonable number of four-person tables.

Food quality at dinner was mostly good, but there were issues with selection. My wife doesn't care for seafood, and the menu was seafood-heavy most nights. The beef wasn't good at all. The beef tenderloin and strip steaks were both bland, with the former tasting like roast beef and the latter screaming for steak sauce. The seafood, I must admit, was quite pleasant. The salmon was very good, for example.

The menu seemed to improve throughout the cruise. On the fifth night they offered Alaskan King Crab legs. I asked for seconds, and got it! They were on par with the best crab I've ever had, and far superior to the dungeness crab I had at an upscale restaurant in Seattle before departure. The following night, the twin lobster tails were absolutely delicious. The waiter watched me finish two, and without asking, brought me two more!

Desserts were good throughout the cruise; even their ice cream is great. But the best was Day 6 (same day as the lobster), when they served baked Alaska. My wife said the baked Alaska on Royal Caribbean was little more than Neapolitan ice cream, but this was mind-blowingly delicious -- and a huge portion. I still finished it, and without asking the waiter brought me another. What a great guy!

I must mention the alternative food besides buffets and the fixed-seating dinner. They had a fish barbecue on Ketchikan day, with grilled shrimp, barbecued fish and crab cakes. You can have as much as you want and it was phenomenal -- surprising, since it was served poolside and you would expect less. On another day they served reindeer chili, which was decent. And one day the Horizon Court had an Asian theme buffet -- again bad hot food, and a sushi buffet on par with most grocery store sushi, but it was fine for me. Poolside burgers, fries and hot dogs were all passable - better than I expected. We did not try the $15-per-person Sterling Steakhouse (a roped-off section of the buffet).

This leaves one thing: Verdi's Pizza. I read bad reviews of this, but I found the pizza to be quite good. The service is terrible -- you'll wait 20 minutes to an hour for your food -- but the pizza and calzones are great. Since the ship is docked in Juneau and Victoria during dinnertime, you're likely to miss the sit-down dinner at least twice. I heartily recommend Verdi's as an alternative.

The Ship
I enjoyed the Sun Princess. I thought the Vista Lounge was the ideal place to spend an evening. The layout is really nice, a great show lounge. The bars are all really cool, and the Shooting Stars disco is stylish. The dining room is nice, as one would expect. The Horizon Court Buffet, though lacking in food quality, is a really nice place to eat - visually - as it is on the top deck surrounded by glass, giving excellent views.

There are two small pools, plus a circular pool by the spa that's only good for soaking, and five hot tubs. None of these are covered. I will repeat: no indoor pool. That may upset some people. Since we had great weather, we did go to the pool twice. The pools are heated; they claim it's 70 degrees, but I am pretty sure it was warmer than that. So swimming is not out of the question, just be forewarned that it is not enclosed.

For entertainment... well... it's a cruise ship. They had a great comic one night, a guy who really deserves his own Comedy Central special. Another night, we saw a surprisingly funny juggler, then a rather unexciting guitarist, and a cheesy but still amusing magician. All of these were in the Vista Lounge, a really cool venue. You'll want to avoid the Princess Theater like the plague. We stopped going after the first production show. Perhaps somebody actually likes this sort of thing, but we thought it was just plain awful.

Alaska
And finally, Alaska: It's beautiful. Not just in the ports, or on excursions, but just when the ship is sailing through all the islands -- it's a sight to behold. Be sure to pick excursions that get you out of town. The port towns are tiny and of little value, except for walking down Creek Street in Ketchikan. In general, these small towns just have crappy jewelry stores and junky gift shops. If you really want to see Alaska, take an excursion. We took some atypical ones, and one very prominent excursion that everyone should (and usually does) do.

Ketchikan - Rainforest Ropes and Zip Line Challenge: Not to be confused with the similar Rainforest Canopy and Zip Line tour. That one is a series of zip lines that takes you through the trees and over a 400-foot drop. Though it sounds like fun, we did the ropes course. It included various forms of rope bridges, swinging logs, and tightrope walks both with and without a second rope above you, plus three zip line runs. I believe you hit a maximum height of 170 feet on those zip lines and the tightropes, whereas the rope bridges don't go much higher than 20-30 feet. Still, it was really fun. You get to enjoy an old growth forest, with 500-year-old redwood trees, and have a blast on amazingly fun zip lines and admittedly freaky tightrope walks. We finished our tour on a climbing wall.

Juneau - Glacier View Sea Kayaking: This was hands-down the best part of our vacation. You take two-person kayaks into Auke Bay, facing the Mendenhall Glacier. They say on a foggy day you can't see the glacier, but we had pure sun and had an amazing view. We also passed by several flocks of bald eagles (they don't group together normally, but here they did) and were followed and approached by several harbor seals. Going eye to eye with a harbor seal 15 feet away is nothing like going to an aquarium. It was incredible, and a lot of fun.

Skagway - White Pass Yukon Route Scenic Railroad: This is the biggie. Everyone should do this, and they usually go, because what else are you going to do in Skagway? If you have researched an Alaska cruise, you probably already know about this. The train runs along the Klondike trail, with stunning views and a trip into the mountains. This is your northernmost stop on the trip; you owe it to yourself to go 30 miles into the interior to see what Southeast Alaska is really like.

Skagway - Klondike Rock Climbing and Rappelling: Yes, we took two excursions in Skagway. We just had to go rock climbing on real rock (we're used to the indoor gyms) and where else to do it but on a glacier-carved granite cliff overlooking the Klondike trail? It overlooks the valley the train goes through, but for those views you're better off on the train. This is all about rock climbing, though to be fair, each person only got to climb twice and rappel once. A die-hard rock climber probably wouldn't be too impressed, though they do have routes for all difficulty levels. But for me, I loved it, and now I can say I've rock climbed the Klondike trail.

Victoria - Enchanting Butchart Gardens. Unless you do whale watching or nothing at all, this is the prime spot at this port. Butchart Gardens is on the Travel Channel's list of top 10 gardens in the world and it deserves the recognition for the Sunken Garden and Rose Garden alone. Be sure to stay in Victoria at nightfall to see the Parliament building lit up at night.

Besides all the ports, there is the trip through Tracy Arm Fjord. Yes, get up at 6 a.m. to watch it. Yes, bring binoculars. Yes, bring a winter coat. And no, Tracy Arm is not Glacier Bay -- it is not a fjord through pure ice. It's a fjord through glacier-carved rock that has progressively younger and younger vegetation until there is none at all, and you get to see the Sawyer Glaciers at the end. A place like Tracy Arm is precisely why you go to Alaska.

Balcony or Not?
Unfortunately, it is also why people mistakenly think they need a balcony cabin on Alaska cruises. Everyone always says, "splurge on a balcony; if you're going to do it anywhere, do it on an Alaska cruise!" Baloney. You don't need it. The last thing I would have wanted on this cruise was a tiny square of space with limited visibility on one side of the boat. You are only hurting yourself by spending your cruise there. You need to go up on deck, frequently, during Tracy Arm, whale watching, or any other time when you have a free moment. It is simply not the same without the near-360 degree view available on the deck. Instead of booking a balcony cabin, spend that money on some fantastic excursions instead. Also know that the sun rises early and sets late. Curtains or not, I don't want light in my room at 3:45 a.m. Having a pitch-black interior room was great for sleeping. If you need a window, try channel 35, it's the best channel on TV - the view-from-the-bow channel!

Wildlife
I had no expectations of great wildlife viewing, but we saw one to two humpback whales PER DAY. At Skagway, one was feeding right in front of the ship. We saw harbor seals while kayaking, on the icebergs in Tracy Arm, on buoys in the water, etc. We saw sea lions playing. We saw dolphins pass our ship close by. We saw porpoises jumping in and out of our wake. And we saw more bald eagles daily than we see regular birds at home. The wildlife is abundant, and incredible. It's all the better because a ship's naturalist announces when whales are passing by, and gives a lot of great information on them as you watch. Take in his talks in the Princess Theater.

Disembarking
I should mention the end of the cruise. They allow express disembarkation for those willing to carry their own luggage. You disembark at 7:30, which is fine because everybody has to be out of their rooms by then anyway. We did this, and it would have been excellent except for two things. Number one, people with no bags kept the elevators tied up because they were too lazy to take the stairs, even if people with six bags were waiting forever. We had to take our heavy bags down four flights of stairs.

Number two, we had to get in line to disembark, then wait and wait. Finally someone says, "is this the line for express disembarkation?" and a bunch of confused people turned around and said, "no, we're waiting to be called. The express people already left." So please, if you aren't in the process of walking off the ship, don't stand in the vicinity of the exits and block the people who are trying to leave.

It may seem like I had a lot of complaints here, but that's because it's easier to post nitpicking complaints about minor things than to write about how wonderful it was. Trust me, this ship is great. I would do the same vacation again in a minute, no changes. Avoid the hot food at the buffet, eat Verdi's pizza, get out of the ports, watch the wildlife, and carry a baseball bat during disembarkation. You will love the Sun Princess.