This was my 2nd time on the beautiful Sun Princess and my 5th time to Alaska in as many years. I have now done just about every type of Inside Passage cruise available: Northbound and Southbound Gulf of Alaska, Roundtrips, Pacific Coastal, Intra-coastal, big liners, and small craft. I still prefer Northbound, so that you build up in the "wow" factor instead of hitting the "wow" factor first, then everything kind of builds down on the excitement level. The air schedules are going to be bad anyway you look at it. Plus, for a Northbound cruise, you can fly into Vancouver a few days ahead of time and see the sights, day-trip over to Butchart Gardens in Victoria before getting on the ship.
I arranged my own air transportation from Charlotte, NC to Anchorage on United Airlines, and back from Vancouver. Since Princess Cruises allows you to pre-book your Shore Excursions on-line (it also tells you how many spaces are available and if it is already SOLD OUT or not), this was done before leaving home...very convenient! I did the White Pass train in Skagway (do the afternoon tour to let the clouds burn off a bit); Wildlife Sightseeing in (we saw tons of Humpbacks, orcas, bald eagles, etc) and a wonderful Salmon Bake (all you can eat, home-spun music, and a beautiful waterfall) in Juneau; Kayaking in Ketchikan (was a blast); and 1/2 day city tour in Vancouver (before flying out). The Liarsville Salmon Bake in Skagway is better, but was sold out. Do a helo tour in Juneau...incredible sights to see.
Transfers from Anchorage airport down to the port of Seward take 3 hours along the scenic Turnagain Arm waterway. Even here wildlife can be seen on the craggy cliffs and in the sea. Best bet is to sit on the right side of the bus for good views.
We checked-in around 6pm and the ship left at 10pm...I was asleep by then after a long day. The next morning we were in College Fjord well before sunrise...and left the fjord before 7:30am. If you want to see this get up early! The cruise across the Gulf of Alaska was smooth and we arrived at Icy Strait and Glacier Bay with low hanging cloud cover, streaming mist, and rain....that's Alaska for ya! Most passengers sought protection from the weather on the Promenade Deck beneath the lifeboats while the ship hovered off of Marjorie Glacier for an hour. The ship cruises past the same glaciers coming in and going out, so it truly does not matter what side of the ship your balcony is on.
Skagway, Juneau, Ketchikan, our last day at sea, and Vancouver also had rain and overcast in varying degrees. In the last 5 years I have been to Alaska it has rained almost all week on three of these years. Alaska doesn't always look like the brochures, trust me, but the weather adds a softness and temporal mood to your pictures. Smile, do the excursions, and get the most of your experiences. Dress in layers, take a rain parka, and wather-proof your shoes. Wool hat, gloves, and scarf will also come in handy. Average temperature was 52 degrees, but the rain and wind made it feel colder at times.
I was assigned 2nd dinner seating, but did eat in the Personal Choice dining room once without making reservations ahead of time. Seating was on a first-come, first-served basis and the food service was quite rushed and very intrusive. Verdi's for lunch was fantastic, for dinner even more amazing. No reservations required. And as for the Sterling Steak House, it was 10X worth the 8$ cover charge per person. Order wine and get a free side-dish surprise. Make reservations early!
After dinner we adjourned to the Wheelhouse Bar for drinks, music, and card playing. Entertainment was reportedly good-excellent, altohugh I never saw the shows myself. First-run movies are shown on TV and in the Main Lounge during the day. Trivia contests, Galley Tours, and art auctions (hate them) fill the reast of your days. There is little to keep you occupied while the ship is docked in port, so get off the ship and see things. Take a book to read in case you get bored.
Disembarkation was smooth. We were alongside Canada Place before 7am...the first group started off the ship by 8am. Everyone is off the ship by 10am. Allow 2 hours at Vancouver airport due to multiple lines that you must proceed through before getting to your gate.
Princess does an excellent job in Alaska. Highly recommended!