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We went on a twelve-day cruise-tour to Alaska on the Island Princess. This is the fourth cruise that my wife Cindy and I have gone on since 1999, and by far, the best. This is our first Princess cruise after cruising once with Royal Caribbean and twice with Carnival. We both felt that Princess was the best of all of them. Here is my review:
Travel: Princess booked all of our flights, and I?m not sure that I will do that again. We left from Philadelphia with no problems. We flew to Toronto and had an hour to get to our connecting flight. This was not enough time. We had to get our luggage and go through Canadian Customs. Then we had to recheck our luggage again and catch a bus to another terminal. Then we had to find the gate for our next flight. As we were walking (more like running) to the gate, our names were announced over the public address saying we should report to the gate. We got there in time to get on the plane, but it wasn?t easy. Air Canada was great, and I would fly with them again, but when we landed in Vancouver, our luggage wasn?t on our plane. The hour between flights wasn?t enough time to get our bags on-board our plane. The airline told us that the luggage would be on the next flight out (1hour later) and since we had to get on the Princess bus, our luggage would be delivered to the ship before it sailed. Needless to say, we were somewhat worried, but as it turned out, our luggage was in our cabin before many other people on the ship. Going home, we had the exact same problem. We flew from Fairbanks to Seattle and had only one hour to get to our connecting flight. Since we didn?t have to go thru customs, our luggage had to be delivered right to our connecting flight by the airlines (Alaska Air). Our bags never made it, and when we got to Philadelphia, they were not there. USAir delivered them that night so that was only a minor hassle.
Embarkation & Debarkation: We filled out all of the paperwork on-line before the cruise, but due to poor staffing at the docks, still had to do some more. Even with this, the embarkation process was the best that we have encountered. We had to go thru US customs after the Princess part was completed, and that was a pain but it could have been worse. Debarkation went very smoothly. It wasn?t very different from all of our other cruises, except that we still had our land tour of Alaska to do.
Room: We had a balcony cabin on the Baja deck (cat BC). The room was slightly smaller than other rooms we previously had, but still didn?t seem cramped. There was enough closet and shelf space for both of us. Plenty of hangers. A small refridge was able to handle a bottle of Champagne and a bottle of water with no problem. The steward was very helpful and attentive. The only problem was that the shower was tiny. This is a common complaint on the Island Princess.
Food: The food in the main dining room was good, but I can?t say it was great. There were lots of exotic dishes that I could have done without. I do like to experiment with different foods, but many of these went overboard (pardon the pun). There is always something on the menu that I could find. The buffet was good. The breakfasts became a little monotonous, but it was tasty. The lunches were very good. We never ate dinner up there. The pizza was excellent, but was not available after 6PM. No midnight buffets on the Island Princess. We didn?t try room service. The wait staff was one of the best that we have had as yet. The Maitre?D was very accommodating when we requested a table change because friends who booked late were not at our table. Everyone was very friendly.
Itinerary: In Ketchikan, we decided not to take an excursion. Instead, we took a walking tour of the town. It is filled with Totem Poles and stores. We walked up to the Deer Mountain Fish Hatchery and the Totem Heritage Center. Both tours were only fair. The town is built on a hill (like all of the towns along the Inner Passage) and you have to take your time. There are lots of photo ops along the way. We got down to Creek Street that is actually a boardwalk. The street was originally a red light district, and one of the tours goes into one of the former brothels. We didn?t take this tour, so I can?t tell you what it is like. The rest of the street was just shopping. One couple we were with took a floatplane tour over a glacier, and they loved it. Another couple took a tour of the rain forest. They loved it also. We all saw lots of bald eagles. Ketchikan can be very rainy, but all we had was a short drizzle. Most of the day was overcast and in the 60?s
Next was Juneau. We went up the cable car to the top of Mt. Robert?s. Great view, but lots of mosquitoes. Later, we went on a combination tour that included a whale watch cruise, and a trip to Mendenhall Glacier. The whale watch was one of the highlights of the cruise. We saw lots of whales (both Orcas and Humpbacks). The humpbacks performed a maneuver that people rarely witness. They did a bubble net feeding twice. The naturalist on the boat we were on was very excited. All together, we saw about 15 whales on the tour. Mendenhall was the first glacier that we saw on the trip. It is quite impressive when it first comes into view. It almost looks fake. You can?t take your eyes off of it. Juneau also has some good shopping. The weather there was like Ketchikan, 60?s and overcast.
The last stop was Skagway. This is a gold rush town. We took a bus into the Yukon Territory to a tiny town called Carcross (almost ran over a mother moose and her baby along the way). The bus stopped a few times for photos. The town is tiny and boring. We came back to Skagway via the White Pass Railroad. This is another of the highlights on the cruise. The views from the rails were spectacular. You can really get an idea what it was like for the gold miners after seeing the terrain that they have to go thru. Skagway also has lots of shopping (just like any cruise destination). No change in the weather here.
We next sailed thru Glacier Bay. This has one spectacular glacier after another. There was some calving (ice breaking off the glacier face). This makes an incredible cracking sound that may be heard for miles. The colors of the glaciers are beautiful. The bay is full of small (and not so small) icebergs that break off the glaciers. In addition, we saw quite a few sea otters (many with their pups) and whales (from a distance). The weather in this area was quite different. The sky was partly cloudy, but the temperature was in the low 50?s. The temp went up quickly when we left the bay.
The next day we were in College Fjord. This was very similar to Glacier bay, but still spectacular. The weather was similar, also.
The next day we disembarked in Whittier and took a bus to Anchorage. Along the way, we stopped at the Alaskan Indian Heritage Center. It was interesting, but we didn?t have enough time there. We just walked around Anchorage and hit some stores because we had to get up early the next morning.
Next, we took the Alaskan Railroad to the Princess McKinley Lodge. The rail trip was great. There are lots of sights to see along the way (there is a tour guide with you). The breakfast also was good. Unfortunately, Mount McKinley was not totally visible during our stay there. We did a rafting excursion there that was great. The guide was knowledgeable about the area, and we learned much. The lodge was beautiful with great views.
Next, we took the train to the Princess Denali Lodge. We had a very good lunch on the train. The lodge there was very nice with great views also. We went to the home of a former Iditerod champion as an excursion. His talk was interesting and informative.
The final rail trip was to Fairbanks. The bus trip to the rail depot took us on a 3-hour tour of the Denali National Forest. This was also very informative, but we wished we saw more of the animals. The train ride to Fairbanks was not nearly as spectacular as the previous trips, but dinner was great. In Fairbanks, we did a riverboat tour, and a goldmine tour. The riverboat was somewhat boring at this point in the trip, but the goldmine was very amusing. We didn?t really go into town as we were both pretty much shopped out. The next day, we flew home and crashed.
If we had it to do over again, we would have done the land tour first and the cruise second. It would have been much more relaxing that way. The biggest problem that we encountered was that as we went further north, the days became increasing long. We knew that would happen, but, nonetheless, it was disconcerting. Going to bed at midnight and it looked like 6 o?clock outside was not too easy. Considering everything, the trip was great and I would recommend it to everyone.