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Copyright © 1995-2003 
Linda Coffman

Alaska - Seward to Vancouver, BC
September 13, 2003

Island Princess Cruise ReviewBy Patrick & Harriette Regan

We felt that in order to really see Alaska we had to fly to Anchorage for a geographically lengthier cruise. The Vancouver to Vancouver round trip we took last year doesn’t go far enough north, and the one-glacier cruising day was marred by a low fog.

We were mesmerized the first time we watched the Island Princess sail into Vancouver and dock at Canada Place this summer. She’s a beautiful ship. They had a christening ceremony one night with searchlights and an overnight VIP cruise, complete with a guest appearance by Gavin McLeod, the captain of the television series “Loveboat”. The ship returned at dawn the next day, and she left at sundown for her first Alaska cruise. We wanted to cruise on this ship.

We started haunting the cruise boards looking for an attractive price. We booked the cruise and our travel agent sold us a motorcoach transfer through Princess from Anchorage to Seward, where the dock is. We found out later that it was a 3 1/2 hour bus trip. When we booked the cruise we had no idea that we had to travel that far from Anchorage to Seward in order to get to the ship.

We examined a map and decided we didn’t want to ride a crowded bus down that twisty highway, and we considered a one way rental car. We did some checking and found that Princess also offers a scenic 5 hour train trip on the Alaska railroad’s “Grand View Train” to the ship. It’s a little more money, but it sounded great. It offers the adventure of an excursion on our way to the ship. Princess arranges a train car exclusively for their passengers, and a dining car is available. We’re not comfortable on day excursions from a cruise ship because there’s always the feeling of rushing and a lot of riding around in packed to the gills 15 passenger maxi vans. No thank you.

This will be our fifth cruise since Sept. 02. We like the food on Celebrity, but there is always a new-to-us cruise line beckoning. We’re going to compare the value and amenities of the Island Princess to those of Celebrity Millennium class during this cruise and in this review. We want to take advantage of the frequent cruiser programs by cruising mostly on one cruise line. We are looking for our home cruise line.

Air Canada, Vancouver non-stop to Anchorage. Full Airbus 320, courteous cabin crew, decent snack & free headphones. Flying is the hardest part of cruising. The “Airbus” is aptly named. This flight required obtaining an air deviation. Princess put us on Alaska Airlines first but we didn’t want to fly from Vancouver to Seattle and then change planes. Taking the train to the ship meant we had to overnight in Anchorage. Princess offered a hotel downtown with a $200 plus overnight rate. We searched the internet and read some guide books and settled on the Voyager Hotel located downtown across the street from the hotel that Princess uses.

We paid $125. per night and had a nice top floor, corner room in the 38 room Voyager hotel, free broadband internet and free local calls. There was a long bedroom with a big window and an anteroom or foyer where we left our bags. Showtime and HBO were free, and there was an in-room mini kitchen with a microwave, coffee setup, etc. Complimentary pastry and coffee were served in the lobby in the morning. Comfortable place.

A block away was the Sandwich Deck, which served a hearty breakfast and tasty burgers. We wanted to have dinner downtown at Orso but the town was jammed with cruisers coming and going to their ships/tours plus it was Friday night and the locals were off for the weekend. The restaurants were jammed and well dressed obviously cruising couples wandered the streets packed with other cruising couples in the long Alaskan twilight; it was as surreal as a Fellini movie.

We found a micro brewery off the tourist path called The Snowgoose and had sandwiches and beer. They also brew a strong but not hard root beer. Very good and reasonably priced. The music is incredibly loud upstairs and on the patio to the point of being hurtful. It’s more peaceful in the dining room downstairs.

GRAND VIEW TRAIN TRIP (It certainly is!)
We took a cab a few blocks to the Egan Center on 5th St, which is the in-town check in and luggage drop for the cruise lines. You do need to check in early but it’s merely a check in. The buses to the train station start boarding at 12:30PM and the train leaves at 1PM. If one is staying in a downtown hotel then it’s wise to taxi your hold bags to the Egan center between 9 and 10AM and then go back to your hotel and relax until the departure time for the busses to the train station. Much better keeping your hotel room than sitting at the Egan Center for 2 to 3 hours in an oversized, crowded & windowless basement hall.

It would be helpful if Princess would list a suggested check in time as well as the scheduled time for the bus to the train station and the actual train departure time. A 5 minute bus ride to the station, and we board the train to Seward. Lovely dome car. The train crew told us that sometimes the train car taking cruisers to the ship isn’t a dome car, depending on whether the dome cars might have been shipped off to another job. Recently 3 of the 4 dome cars were taken by Congressman Don Young of Alaska for the annual Congressional convention at the Alaska Sea Life Center. The train crew also mentioned that hundreds of gallons of alcohol were donated to the Congressional convention by various companies. It’s a 3 day annual blast for congresspersons and senators to wine, dine, fish, drink free booze and recreate themselves. Does the U.S. taxpayer pay for the congressional travel to this soiree?

It is indeed a grand view train trip; glaciers, tunnels, lakes and soaring eagles. It was a magnificent Alaska day; the kind of day one would hope for when setting off on a cruise. We got off the train, right at the dock; the Island Princess loomed large against the ocean, sky, and mountains. What a beautiful sight!

There was a long check in line but since we filled out our info on the internet we received what is called express check in and we were quickly given our cruise cards and checked through security. One negative, Princess has started putting one’s birthdate on the actual cruise tickets that are handled by many. In today’s world, security has of course been heightened, but birthdate info shouldn’t be printed on the tickets. It’s an open invitation to identity theft. I think it should be left in the Princess computer files.

We started for the ship where we were diverted to be photographed; not with the ship in the picture but in the warehouse where we checked in, against a blue background. This was our embarkation photo. When we saw the finished photo, it had a template framing it, with the name of the ship and the sailing date, the picture could have been taken anywhere. No sense of the cruise. The final irony was that they wanted $19.95 US for the picture. That’s the highest price we have ever seen for an embarkation photo. If we are to be hectored into submitting to posing by ship’s photographers, the photographers should at least stage their pictures by taking advantage of the majesty of the ship as a background. They would sell more pictures.

These photographers were more aggressive than on most ships; they had the advantage of using digital cameras and checking the pictures so they were confidently lurking, like Ninjas at every gangway wearing silly animal costumes and trying to get their arm around you to effect a pose. It was ugly. A simple “no” would not deter them. It took a higher quality “no” to quell their faked exuberance.

This ship was launched just a few weeks ago and everything is fresh and new. No free glass of Champagne was offered at the top of the gangway though, ala Celebrity. Geographically, we had the best cabin location we’ve ever had. Couple of doors from the library on the Emerald Deck, #8. Just around the corner from the beautiful glass elevatored atrium. One of us walks with a cane and we prefer the bathrooms in a handicapped cabin for shower safety purposes even though it means we will not have a tub and we will have an obstructed ocean view cabin. We had a lifeboat blocking most of the view.

This will be our first cruise without a veranda. We love the ocean breezes wafting through the big doorway but this cabin is bigger than the veranda cabins and centrally located. Spacious bathroom with the shower grab bars located perfectly. No storage shelves under the sink though and only 2 little shelves on each side mounted on the wall. The countertop was very narrow, almost an afterthought. Celebrity Millennium class bathrooms are smaller than this one but they have plenty of storage above and below the sink and deeper countertops, which makes them very usable.

The queen bed on Island Princess is one of the shorter queen beds, ala Holland America. Celebrity and Crystal have a tall queen bed that’s an inch or two longer. I’m 6’ 2” and my feet hang off the foot of the bed unless I put my head all the way to the headboard. The bed was comfortable, with a 4-drawer built-in on each side. Two nice closets with the good hangers that hook over the bar, not the ones where you have to slip a knob in a slot as in most hotels and cruise ships. Another closet fully shelved to serve as a dresser and a nice vanity with a hair dryer built in next to the vanity mirror. Two plugs in the vanity area but so close together that you will need a power strip to charge most batteries, electric razors, or laptops. No wall or cabinet door hooks for jackets, robes etc. in the bedroom area. Celebrity has plenty of hooks, not just on the back of the bathroom door. 

A nice cabin but not ergonomically organized and not as good use of colors and mirrors to give a feeling of more space as on newer Celebrity ships. We ended up with a lot of our stuff just sitting out on table tops. We much prefer to be able to easily put it away as with Celebrity. We met our cabin attendant, Joey, from the Philippines. He was doing 17 cabins this trip. Whew. I don’t know how they do it. We would be glad to make our own bed one day a week as long as we could have a few extra towels, and these stewards could get a day off at least 2 or 3 days a month. The question of tipping the attendants on their day off would unravel some cruisers though.

The good news is the library is 2 doors from our cabin; the bad news was that the library had very short hours and was never open past 6PM in port or at sea. Sometimes the night time is the right time to check out books. Celebrity and Crystal have late evening hours at the library ala a video rental store.

Comfortable, beautiful library with popular fiction, biography, travel and a bit of art. Pretty pedestrian stuff. No librarian had a hand in selecting this library. Beautiful, big leather chairs with built in CD players, but you could only use the CD player when the library was open. Staffed by various members of the crew and entertainment staff, not by a person whose only  job is that of librarian.

This is one of the things that makes cruising so special. An unobstructed teakwood deck that wraps around the whole ship on Deck 7. Lovely teakwood loungers to relax in and watch the ocean slide by when you are tired of walking. Island Princess gets a gold star. Only one drawback: there are no drinking fountains along the way, so one pretty much has to lug water if deck walking for exercise. Celebrity doesn’t have these wonderful wraparound promenade decks.

This is our first experience with personal choice cruising. You may eat anytime or at a fixed seating time. We opted for the traditional fixed first seating in the Provence dining room. The personal choice dining is in the Bordeaux dining room on deck 5 which is open until late for dinner. Under this system you can opt for personal choice if you missed your traditional seating time.

Our dining room team consists of Dante and his asst. Adrian. The headwaiter in our dining area is Cristian. They are all from Rumania. We notice that the dining staff on this ship is mostly European. The dining room troops work hard and have an excellent “can do” attitude. They are in the same situation as the cabin stewards, they are worn out from little time off but they do their best to hide it and they never stop smiling and asking if there is anything more they can do for you. It’s getting harder to get crepes on cruises anymore but Cristian manages to get us some for dessert one evening.

The bright spots for us were the Provence and Bordeaux dining rooms where the Maitre d’, Giorgio Pisano, is watching over everything. The hotel manager could take management lessons from the Maitre d’. The food, sauces & desserts are better on Celebrity except for the beef. Princess has better beef, grilled properly. The croissants were awful; they tasted like plain bread and were over baked with no flakiness at all. I was told they were not prepared by the pastry department. They were made from pre-mixed dough, sent to the ship to be baked. They tasted like bread from the supermarket.

The buffet layout is circa 1980s; hard to fathom since this is a brand new ship. Celebrity has wider aisles and better flowing buffet lines. There are no trays on Island Princess just huge oval shaped plates, but it’s hard to balance your drink glass on a platter and also have room for your napkins etc. without the stuff running in to the food on the platter.

No separate omelet stations, just the cook frying eggs with his back to the line so he cannot interact easily with customers ordering and fry eggs at the same time. Celebrity’s omelet bar is away from the main buffet line and relieves the pressure on the main line. The omelet chefs face the line and things move quickly. 

The Island Princess buffet is open 24 hours, which is the one good thing about this buffet, but it’s cafeteria food. Comparing it with Las Vegas, it’s like the buffet at Circus Circus. Huge quantities of food but not well prepared, and presented in an offhand way. Princess needs to fix the buffet food and organize the lines. Actually, take sections of the lines and make them into stations that can be approached from various angles. Being at the Horizon buffet is being in a milling crowd. The servers look a bit confused and hassled and it’s hard for the waiters to get into the crowd in order to help people who need it. There are no drink machines for the orange juice so it has to be pumped out of thermoses that must constantly be refilled by staff, which slows down the lines on a regular basis. The lack of management in the buffet area is painfully evident.

At the Island Princess buffet it was not easy to just grab a cup of coffee; the coffee stations were few and seemed to be in the middle of a crowd. That’s actually the good news because the coffee is catering truck level. We mostly resorted to designer coffee served at a price at  La Patisserie, in the world’s smallest cups. Cappuccino was free with meals taken in the dining room or the alternative restaurants but word has it that Princess is going to start charging for it in the dining rooms soon.

Italian at Sabatini’s ($20.00 cover charge per person) and Cajun at the Bayou Cafe ($10.00 per person, with an additional $6.00 for each person who orders lobster). We had a couple of excellent meals at the Bayou Cafe, worth every penny of the extra charge. Sabatini’s served multiple courses of very good food. They also had the best coffee on the Island Princess. Worth the extra money. Make your reservations early in the cruise.

They had an “Alaska Buffet” afternoon on the second day of the cruise while we cruised College Fjord. All kinds of fish, sushi, etc. but served outdoors by the pool on an extremely cold and blustery Alaska day. Celebrity serves their poolside buffets in the protected pool area where the roof is covered. Princess staff was wrapped in blankets, jackets, etc. trying to keep up a brave front in the stinging wind. Chairs and tables were blowing over. It would have been hilarious if it wasn’t so cold and windy.

I asked a management person why the buffet wasn’t moved to the covered pool area and was told that management didn’t feel it was a big enough area to accommodate the buffet crowd. It would have been big enough because when all the tables were taken outside people would have naturally moved into the Horizon Court to eat the buffet food from outside.

On the 5th day of the cruise they had the “Fish” buffet and they wisely decided to have it in the covered pool area. The staff and cruisers were much happier.

We were awakened at 6:30 AM the first morning of the cruise by the loudspeaker system on the Promenade Deck below us. It was the Ranger doing a program on College Fjord, which we were cruising by at the moment. We were on an Alaska cruise last year at this time and they restricted the loudspeaker commentary to the upper decks where every one was having their coffee and mulled cider and watching the glaciers. I felt it was thoughtless of Princess to broadcast over the loud speakers on the lower decks while people were still sleeping. Compounding the noise, the ranger giving the talk had poor microphone technique and was speaking too loudly, causing the sound to break up and the speakers on the Promenade deck, near us, to vibrate. I took a look out at the promenade deck and it was pretty much deserted. The glacier watchers were indeed on the upper decks.

I made an inquiry about this and received a letter from Alastair Greener, the cruise director, offering an apology for any inconvenience and saying that it was impossible to adjust the volume on the open decks as they were using the loudspeakers that are part of the emergency system and the volume is fixed. The commentary is also on the ship’s TV for anyone who wants to listen while they watch from their cabin or veranda. Celebrity would never broadcast through the open deck speakers at 6:30 in the morning.

The last three days of the cruise there were extended loudspeaker announcements again, throughout the ship, in the mid-afternoon from Cruise Director Greener (the man who wrote me the loudspeaker letter) about the evening’s activities and the final, close out art auction. They had this so called “final” art auction over 2 successive afternoons near the end of the cruise complete with nap-ruining announcements.

The usual daily ship’s newspaper with events, schedules, news, ads etc. The most poorly laid out paper we’ve seen on any cruise line. No separate box listing the dining and snack venues and special buffets. No orderly listing of events. Most of the entertainment offered that day is featured in boxes on a facing page but they don’t always list all of the entertainment on that page. The variety of typefaces chosen and herky jerky layout meant that if you didn’t really study it, you could easily miss something you would have wanted to do. 

Most cruise lines list the ship’s officers as well as the hotel management staff and key troops in an early edition of the paper. Only the Captain’s staff was listed. I still don’t know who the hotel manager/director or chief purser is on the Island Princess. He was indeed the invisible man.

All the latest equipment, big view and a separate room for special classes, spinning etc. There were television sets everywhere and people would watch different channels with the sound on. The sound should be disabled and set on captions like they do in regular fitness clubs. We missed having a spa cafe with healthier, lighter meals, available ala Celebrity.

We never tried the pizza or went to the grill above the pool area. It was too Alaska cold this time of year and we mostly spent time outside on the promenade deck. There was an enclosed jacuzzi and smaller pool area with a sliding roof, decorated in an Asian theme with Buddha and lions done in red and dark tones.

We tried to attend one of the Broadway type shows in the main, 2 level, Universe Lounge. We arrived prior to the show, but the only seats available were upstairs in the back. We usually favor these seats because you can leave quietly if you wish. The sightlines are poor from these seats; they are not staggered or elevated enough, neither are the taller tables with bar stools against the back wall. I suspect no theater designers collaborated with the naval architect who designed this mess. The decor and furnishing were beautiful but the place was not audience friendly. Celebrity wins this comparison

Get there a half an hour early to get good seats. There are hordes of seat saving weasels to contend with, saving multiple seats for those who choose to arrive later. Shame on them. The comedian wasn’t very funny but we waited to walk since so many people left early in his show.

The best. Jazz stylings from the Perry Phillips trio with Efacho Okeke on piano, David Colding, stand up bass and Perry Phillips on drums and vocals. Very pleasant renditions of standards and jazz classics, every night in the Bayou Cafe for listening and dancing. We like jazz and it’s rarely to be found on a cruise ship. There was a jam session one night with the horns, reeds & guitar from the ship’s orchestra playing with the trio, they played some great west coast jazz from the Shorty Rogers, Stan Kenton, Gerry Mulligan era. Great music.

Campbell Simson played solo jazz piano during the brunches at the Bayou Cafe and evenings from 6 to 8 PM. His material ran from Ragtime, New Orleans barrel house piano with a heavy left hand to lovely renditions of the standards. Wonderful. 

Crooners lounge has a piano bar and song stylings from Eric Stone. There was dance music every night too at the Wheelhouse Lounge with the Kathy Farmer trio and the Tito Cruz quartet.

Served in the dining room. The real deal. Warm scones, great preserves and standing upright whipped cream, not the flat watery stuff, along with finger sandwiches and mini desserts. Yummy.

On various decks and easy to use. A must for cruisers trying to eliminate their hold baggage. Celebrity doesn’t have them.

Beautiful with glass elevators, plenty of hotel desk help but no interactive hotel bill or room service ordering on the television. There was always a piano player, or a guitar player, or a string quartet playing. Beautiful staircases. The ship’s newness was apparent here. A lovely place to hang out.

The ship cruises slowly and then reverses its course in the narrow fjord. Great seamanship on the part of the invisible sailing crew. It’s a great experience; what an Alaska cruise is all about. The weather was clear and the sun was shining but it’s still very cold up there. The wind cuts across the deck and the partially protected deck chairs have been swooped by those who leave their gear on them and disappear somewhere inside. Management requests that people refrain from doing this but management makes no effort to stop the practice.

A 35 cents per minute rip-off; it can cost a great deal if you get hung up with your email or reading an on line newspaper.

Have been written about ad infinitum so we will keep it simple.

Old west theme, interchangeable with the touristy areas of the Dakotas or northern Arizona, Colorado etc, wooden sidewalks, lots of shopping, jumping off place for those who want to take the White Pass Railroad excursion. When we got off the shuttle bus ($3.00 round trip) we inadvertently followed some crew members into an internet cafe, the Seaport Cyber Station, which was right next to a great coffee place.

Forget the expensive, incredibly short aerial tram ride, save the 20 plus dollar per person fare. The view is beautiful but the trip is only 4 or 5 minutes each way. All kinds of shopping in easy walking distance. It’s the state capitol.

Had to tender in on a cold, rainy day. Brrrrr! Five ships in town this day; everybody with a dock but us. It’s the first time we ever had to tender at an Alaskan port. There’s a Wal-Mart free shuttle for souvenir shopping at low, low prices.

We viewed the daily television show, featuring cruise director Alastair Greener and his assistant James cackling at their viewing audience. It was like watching a Saturday morning televised kiddy show. I wondered which one of them was the puppet. We were being patronized big time. Had they behaved more like real persons it would have been watchable. There seems to be no middle ground with cruise directors and staff. They are either very good or very patronizing.

I had my doubts about the automatic tipping, but it seemed to eliminate a lot of crew anxiety. We tipped our waiter, his assistant and our cabin steward extra. They were well worth it.

The Island Princess is beautiful. Personal Choice dining works. We took the traditional first seating but we sometimes skipped dinner at our appointed time. If we had too many scones at tea time we went to the Personal Choice or alternative venues at a later hour. We would always let our regular waiters know when we were not coming to dinner and they appreciated it.

The balconies in the veranda cabins are not very private and are the smallest we’ve seen. We truly enjoyed the lounge entertainment and the alternative restaurants. The no omelet station, poorly laid out and managed buffet was the disappointment of the trip with the lame coffee running a close second.

We are going back to Celebrity for our next cruise, but we will try Princess again on the right itinerary. Celebrity has better food in the buffet and in the dining rooms and they keep the loudspeakers to a bare minimum and never for an art auction. We never observed the hotel director walking the ship or checking anything out, and the lack of management showed in many ways.

Princess’ attitude seems to be, it’s all there for you the cruiser; find it and make the best of it. Pottery, golf, spinning class, Rotary Club, Bridge etc., something for everyone. There are cruisers who want to try and do everything. That’s a track meet, not a cruise vacation. The Island Princess is a hotel with a propeller, but not a grand hotel. Grand class cruising on the Island Princess is a misnomer.

This cruise also made us realize that for us the 7 day cruise is not enough. It takes 2 days to decompress and recover from flying to the ship and to get the lay of the ship. We finally relax a bit and really start cruising by the end of the 2nd day on board when we have finally figured out where everything is. Four days later you have to pack and then be thrown off the ship early the following morning. 

We’re looking for that longer cruise next, with a veranda. This cruise proved there is no going back once you’ve had a veranda. We are poring over the fall cruise offers and considering back-to-back eastern and western Caribbean cruises. We’ve had it with cold weather cruising. Tahiti, the south seas, and Australia as cruising destinations look good, but the flights are so unbearably long in order to get there and back.

Happy cruising, Patrick & Harriette Regan

Photo: Courtesy of Princess Cruises

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