This review will cover last summer's northbound Alaska cruise of the Sea Princess, cruising from Vancouver through the Inside Passage to Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway, Glacier Bay, College Fjord, and Seward (with return flight from Anchorage).
To give you an idea of my perspective, this is my fourth cruise, and my second Princess cruise to Alaska. My first cruise was on the Regal Princess to Alaska in June 1994, following the identical itinerary. I opted to travel during the same time of the year, as the weather I encountered in 1994 was spectacular. My interests are nature, animals, scenery, animals, photography and . . . animals. You get the point.
Where appropriate I'll make comparisons to my first Alaska cruise as well as to the other cruise lines I've traveled on, which include Royal Caribbean (Nordic Empress, 1997) and Celebrity (Mercury, 1998). I won't spend much time describing the ship itself; I think you can get most of that from the brochure. The shore excursions I took in 1994 are still largely available, so I will describe them in addition to the ones I took this year. There are numerous options available to you, and you have some difficult choices to make.
I embarked at Ballantyne Pier, the older of the two piers in Vancouver. It is far less attractive than the famed Canada Place, but it should make little difference to you. Our bus was late arriving, so I managed to miss the lifeboat drill. The captain announced that there were frogmen in the water, working on the stern thrusters. Apparently they hadn't been working for the last few cruises and weren't going to be working for us, either; this meant that tugs would be used to dock in each port. Had the captain not mentioned the problem, I probably never would have noticed.
My cabin was in category I on the Aloha deck. The cabin was fairly well laid out, decorated in shades of coral, green and beige. The angled doorway leads past an armoire closet, creating a tight squeeze in the entranceway when walking by loaded down with a coat, camera and binoculars. My camera invariably clunked against the armoire. The cabin had twelve drawers and the armoire had wire storage bins inside. Overall, the cabin was somewhat smaller than the Category 11 cabin I had on the Mercury. There was a TV, safe, refrigerator and large mirrors. The bathroom was quite adequate, although I found more vanity space on the Mercury. The shower was larger than most on ships; the cabin should have been soundproofed better. My steward, Vic, was extremely friendly and a pleasure to talk to. He never seemed to stop working all week.
When it comes to dining, I prefer the late seating, particularly on a cruise that is "port-intensive." I prefer to spend every moment possible on land enjoying my shore excursions and do not want to rush back to the ship simply to catch the early dinner sitting. Trying to fit as many shore excursions as possible into each stop, I certainly appreciated the pizzeria on the Regal Princess in 1994. I could zip back onto the ship, grab a quick bite for lunch, change clothes if necessary and be back on the dock for the second shore excursion of the day. Such tight scheduling certainly didn't allow for a sit-down lunch in the main dining room in 1994. This time, I had all those lunches in the Horizon Court dining area; I never made it into the pizzeria. There were numerous choices each day. Sushi was prepared fresh and was served on two days, for those who might wish to try it. (Not me, thanks!) The other choices included cold cuts, sandwiches made to order, hot entrées, fresh fruit, carving stations, salads and pastries. I do have a couple of minor criticisms of the Horizon Court:
I was assigned to the Neapolitan dining room, at a table for eight. This was a lovely room. The tables are split up into sections on various levels -- as a result, I almost felt like we had our own private dining room. The room was much quieter than the dining rooms on the Mercury and Nordic Empress. The food was quite good; I tried entrées including prime rib, Chicken Kiev, a shrimp dish that was a little too spicy, and fabulous king crab legs on the last evening. The lobster tail also looked delicious, but I was a bit under the weather that night and had to pass on dinner. The soups were good, including an excellent won ton. (Note to Princess: Please steal Celebrity's recipe for chilled black cherry soup!) Several items are available all week, including a nice Caesar salad. Our waiter Noel, did a fine job all week.
Princess has made one very noticeable improvement in the manner in which you purchase your shore excursions. In 1994, I was sent a booklet describing the excursions in advance; however, the excursions could not be purchased before sailing. Additionally, no schedule was provided until you were onboard, making for some hasty choices. Then, I had to line up early on our first morning out, to purchase shore excursions in one of the lounges. The process took me about an hour, while others had to wait longer. I would have preferred to be on deck for that hour, watching the beautiful scenery go by. This year the shore excursion brochure was mailed to me in advance, along with a schedule and order form. I was able to study the schedule and the brochure carefully, mark my selections, charge them to my shipboard account and mail or fax them to Princess. This is a vastly improved system.
Unfortunately, I did lose out on two of my original selections when my cruise was moved back two weeks; however, I was able to pick suitable alternatives. Celebrity also used a very simple system on the Mercury in 1998, allowing you to mark your selections on a form and drop the form in a box located at the shore excursion desk.
For the entire first day out, a northbound ship cruises through the Inside Passage. This is very relaxing. The scenery is beautiful but somewhat repetitive, so you can spend some of your time exploring the ship and not feel that you missed something by leaving the deck for awhile. If your trip involved a flight from the East Coast, you will appreciate the chance to relax for a day before jumping into shore excursions.
I opted for the "Misty Fjords Cruise and Flight." Since I had seen Misty Fjords by air last time, I really wanted to just cruise it this time, to get a closer look. However, this was not a Princess option, so I picked the combo. But this year Ketchikan lived up to its reputation of rain 230 days per year and Misty Fjords lived up to its name as well. The weather got better the further we traveled. On the way into Misty Fjords we saw eagles, harbor seals and a black bear feasting on the remains of a beached humpback whale that had been there for a few weeks. While the weather improved somewhat as the morning progressed, the floatplane pilots decided not to fly, turning the trip into a round-trip cruise. (I was given a credit of $70 because of the cancellation of the flight.) In 1994, the flightseeing trip took place in a small floatplane; I highly recommend it.
On the way back we saw more eagles and a grizzly bear. The views were beautiful with lush forest and numerous waterfalls. The sightseeing boat was very comfortable, and snacks were served throughout the trip. The roundtrip cruise left very little time in Ketchikan. Back on the Sea Princess in the evening, we saw breaching humpback whales in Snow Pass. An announcement had been made earlier in the day that we would likely see whales in this area; we were also told what time we should be on the lookout. Due to time constraints, I was only able to schedule one excursion in Ketchikan, both in 1994 and this year.
This year I opted for the "Wildlife Sightseeing Cruise" in the morning, and the "Glacier Expedition Via Helicopter" in the afternoon. I also purchased a ticket for the Mount Roberts Tramway, which is valid all day, planning to squeeze it in sometime during the day. The Wildlife Sightseeing lived up to its name: the scenery was beautiful, particularly the view of Herbert Glacier. I saw three humpbacks, including a mother and calf, a Sitka black-tailed deer, Dall's porpoises, numerous eagles, seals and sea lions. The catamaran was quite comfortable, with both indoor and outdoor viewing areas.
Princess offers several different "helicopter-onto-the-glacier" excursions, and I recommend that you do try one of them. They vary a bit in length, cost and landing location. The helicopter I selected took us out to Norris Glacier. The passengers were given ice booties to put on over our regular shoes, and life preservers because the flight goes out over the Gastineau Channel. We flew over snow-covered peaks, saw Juneau and the Sea Princess from the air, and landed on Norris Glacier for a guided walk on the ice. We also flew over Taku Glacier and Hole-In-The-Wall Glacier. The flight was extremely smooth. We flew in formation out to the glacier with several other helicopters, an incredible sight. Watching the others fly over the ice, land and take off was beautiful. We flew over crevasses, saw the terminus of Norris Glacier, and a moulin (tubular chute). I loved it.
In 1994, I took the Mendenhall Glacier Float Trip in the morning and the Mendenhall Glacier Helicopter Tour in the afternoon. Both were magnificent. The float trip included a bit of whitewater, with level two and level three rapids. Most of the trip was a calm float past the face of the glacier and beautiful scenery along the river. A photographer on shore snapped our pictures just as we went through the rapids, and the pictures were ready for purchase by the end of the float trip. We were provided with lifejackets and boots. That's glacial runoff you're floating on, and the cold comes up through the rubber bottom of the raft, to your feet. Prepare to get wet on that trip! However, if you just happen to sit in the middle of the raft like I did, you might escape a drenching. The afternoon flightseeing and landing on Mendenhall Glacier was even more exciting. It was particularly fascinating to fly right over the area where I'd just rafted a few hours earlier. The scenery was incredible.
Back in Juneau, eagles could be spotted all over town, something I don't recall from '94. As you ride the Mount Roberts Tramway for an aerial view of the city and a walk in the woods, eagles can be spotted easily in the trees. The Tramway is right next to the dock and is a new feature since my '94 trip. At the top there is a theater showing a short movie about the Tlingit culture.
This year I opted for the Bald Eagle Jetboat Excursion. The weather was beautiful, with temperatures in the low 60's, and no rain. Since the tour didn't start until 11:30 a.m., I had some time to spend in Skagway. The Arctic Brotherhood Hall contains a fascinating display of photos and artifacts from the Klondike Gold Rush, and should not be missed. The Jetboat Excursion involved a catamaran ride along the Lynn Canal to Haines, followed by lunch and a short bus ride to the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve. The cruise along Lynn Canal was very scenic, with numerous waterfalls and a few eagles along the way. We were provided with slickers and hats, if needed, and life vests. This was some of the most beautiful scenery I've seen in Alaska.
We boated through approximately twenty miles of the Chilkat River in the preserve, observing eagles, a female moose and a porcupine. Several hundred eagles live in the preserve during the summer, while thousands congregate here in the Fall to feast on the salmon that die after spawning. A few small fish were thrown into the water for the eagles, causing them to swoop in quite close to the boat for photos. The cruise back along the Lynn Canal provided more views of eagles when a pair soared gracefully above the catamaran. This was a beautiful, scenic trip. I was only sorry that this was my last port and last shore excursion. In 1994 I took a flightseeing excursion to Haines, which included wildlife and eagle viewing. The flight took us over Rainbow and Davidson Glaciers, for more incredible views. On land we saw approximately thirty eagles, including a group of twenty that were on the ground feeding at the edge of the water. Just as we were getting back on the bus I watched one adult circling right overhead, gracefully riding the air currents. I spoke to some people who took the same excursion this year, and they loved it.
In the afternoon I rode the famed White Pass and Yukon Railway, which retraces the "Trail of '98." This is a very scenic ride, going over bridges, through mountain tunnels and past waterfalls. History buffs, in particular, will enjoy this ride.
After these ports we spent two days glacier cruising, first through Glacier Bay and then through College Fjord. We entered Glacier Bay at about 6:00 a.m. and spent the morning cruising among the glaciers. The National Parks Rangers boarded the ship by boat from their station located in Bartlett cove. They provided commentary and answered questions all morning.
The Regal Princess was ahead of us. While it was in front of Margerie Glacier, it was pointed out to us that the ship stands fourteen stories high, while Margerie Glacier stands twenty stories high. This provided some beautiful photo opportunities. In the morning we cruised past Lamplugh Glacier first, then headed past Johns Hopkins to the Margerie and Grand Pacific Glaciers. At that point, the ship was located right at the U.S.- Canada border. Margerie Glacier lived up to its reputation and calved several times, although not quite as many times as I remember from '94. The cracking of the ice was quite audible, then the ice crashed into the water, followed by the loud thunderclap.
A few whales spouted in the area but didn't surface, and a black bear appeared along the shore. The weather was spectacular, with the sun shining brightly most of the day. The water was like glass until about 3:00 p.m. when the wind whipped up and any unoccupied deck chairs went flying, until secured by the crew. I spent almost the entire day on deck.
The following day we cruised into College Fjord, passing Bryn Mawr, Vassar, Smith and Yale Glaciers, before stopping at the face of Harvard Glacier for a long look that included calving; it was quite active. A sightseeing plane made repeated passes over the face of Harvard Glacier, providing us with an incredible sight. Sea otters were spotted on the way in and out of College Fjord, although I thought they were much more numerous in '94. Another glorious day of glacier-watching in the sunshine. In '94 I had to leave the deck a few times to get some hot chocolate from the Patisserie; this year, the crew came around frequently and took orders. In the evening, luggage had to be placed out in the passageway for disembarkation. The end was near, and it was coming much too soon.
I can only comment on some of the shows, as I skipped a few. I was somewhat disappointed that Princess did not show the much-hyped Cirque du Soleil take-off, Odyssea, on this cruise. I did see a very talented violinist, Dominique, although I didn't really care for her choice of music. The magician/illusionist Gaetano put on quite a show. There was a fun, if somewhat disorganized, murder mystery the last night out, in the Wheelhouse Lounge.
After disembarking in Seward, those who are not continuing on a land excursion are taken by bus to Anchorage for their flights home. This involves a long scenic bus ride, along Turnagain Arm. Wildlife, including mountain goats, can frequently be seen along this route, although I didn't see much in 1994, and saw none this year. Apparently the bus driver has some discretion in deciding where to stop the bus to give passengers a break to stretch. The choice will depend on what time the passengers need to arrive at the Anchorage airport. Since no one on my bus had to hurry to the airport, the driver opted to take us to the Begich, Boggs Visitor Center at the Portage Glacier Recreation Area. The view was beautiful.
I truly think Princess misses a golden opportunity in both Seward and Anchorage, when they don't do much to promote shore excursions to those with a late flight out of Anchorage. In '94 I don't remember any shore excursions at all being offered in Anchorage. This year, there was a short list. The one I was interested in had already departed and there was only the one departure for the day. I had late flights out of Anchorage in both '94 and this year. While I enjoyed walking around Anchorage on my own both times, I certainly would have been interested in a shore excursion, either from Seward prior to the bus ride to Anchorage, or in Anchorage itself. Perhaps the new Alaska Sealife Center in Seward, or a tour on the Kenai Peninsula. I walked to the Anchorage Museum of History and Art, spending my time in the Alaska Gallery on the second floor. The Anchorage Hilton also is supposed to have a good view of Mt. McKinley from the upper floor restaurant; unfortunately, the mountain didn't appear this time.
Upon arrival in Anchorage, those with late flights are taken to the Convention Center where they can deposit their hand luggage, while touring Anchorage for the day. You must return to the Convention Center by a pre-scheduled time to pick up the hand luggage and catch your Princess bus to the airport. For me, the flight to Fort Lauderdale is an overnighter with a plane change along the way. It's an exhausting trip back to the heat and humidity of South Florida.
Recommendations and Comments
This is a trip not to be missed, whichever ship you select. There are two primary itineraries, including the one-way (north or south) Gulf of Alaska route, or the traditional Inside Passage route, which goes roundtrip to and from Vancouver. I think you get more for your money on the Gulf of Alaska route. Instead of doubling back to cover the Inside Passage a second time, those on the Gulf of Alaska route will get a second day of glacier cruising . . . and isn't this why you came to Alaska? For those of you traveling from the East Coast, I have already mentioned that this is a long and tiring trip. To get the most out of your cruise, get to Vancouver a day or two early to both rest and enjoy the sights of this beautiful city. I think Princess did a much better job this time pointing out things of interest to the passengers. The captain gave detailed announcements about what we might see in various locations. The onboard naturalist, Terry Breen, did an excellent job of spotting wildlife, and describing the flora and fauna from the bridge. She also gave some lectures about Alaska history that could be watched live or on the cabin television. I highly recommend a cruise in the Inside Passage, and you will enjoy the Sea Princess.
Ilene Swickle is an attorney employed by the State of Florida, in Fort Lauderdale. She is also an independent contractor for The Cruise People, Inc., a South Florida CLIA cruise/tour agency. She can be reached at: Smoothsea@aol.com.
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