The OH and I took a cruise to Alaska on the Grand Princess, May 20-30, 2013. Neither of us had been on a cruise before, and planning for it kind of ate our life starting in February. This is a very long writeup. Photos later.
Embarking was a zoo. We hired a driver to take us to Pier 35 in San Francisco. There was a massive traffic jam so that it took almost an hour from when we got onto Embarcadero to Pier 35, and then there was a huge rush to pull in and get all of our luggage out of the van. I use a mobility scooter and the OH had a sprained ankle, plus we were carrying a lot of photography equipment. So we were hoping someone could help us not only with our "checked" luggage but also with our carry-on luggage. We also didn't want to wait in a long line. I handed a $5 to everyone we encountered in a uniform and finally one guy helped us cut in line and led us directly to the security scanner. After that, we were able to go to our stateroom right away, although we'd heard that you usually can't get to your stateroom until later in the afternoon.
Apparently the problem with getting help with our checked luggage was that the port union workers wouldn't carry stuff across the dock boundary and Princess employees were not allowed to.
We had a mini-suite with a balcony mid-ship on Deck 9 ("Dolphin"). We went onto the balcony and the OH said it was almost worth all the hassle just for that.
Our luggage was delivered and we met our cabin steward, and then it was time for the muster drill. When you heard the emergency signal you had to get your life jackets from your cabin and go to a designated area. This was also somewhat chaotic. There wasn't any place to sit by the time we got to our muster area, and we waited a long time for everyone to get their cruise card scanned and for the muster staff to talk to each family with small children to make sure they had the correct kinds of life jackets. And then the rest was a long announcement over the PA, not just about mustering and life jackets, but also about other safety issues, such as "you're not allowed to smoke on your balcony, but we're also reminding you not to throw cigarettes off your balcony, because they might get sucked back into the ship and cause a fire" and "don't go into the crew areas, even if a crew member invites you." One would never have remembered all of it, even if one could hear it, which of course hearing-impaired people couldn't. Then we watched the staff demonstrate putting on life jackets, and finally we practiced putting on our own life jackets, and then it was over. The funniest part was when we first got to the muster area there were some old ladies sitting in the first set of seats in the bar area looking very smug, presumably because they had gotten there early. 😄 The next funniest part was when the PA system started with the wrong announcement, the one we had heard earlier about muster starting in 15 minutes. People booed.
We sat in one of the bars and rested a while, then tried to go back to our cabin. The OH decided to take the stairs and I waited for an elevator, which took forever.
The ship blew its horn and sailed away from dock. We took pictures from our balcony as we went under the Golden Gate Bridge.
Most of the food on board ship is included in the fare, but there are two "specialty" restaurants that have an extra cover charge. We decided to eat at one of them, the Crown Grill. When I called for a reservation I had to wait on hold several minutes.
We went downstairs and had a short stroll around the Promenade Deck, which has a walkway on the outside, under where the lifeboats are.
The shrimp bisque at the Crown Grill was SUPERB. Otherwise, dinner was about what you would expect from a good steakhouse. Oddly, each dish was served by a different server, and the sauces and potato toppings were served separately too. There was also a salt menu, with three different kinds, which did in fact taste different. At the end of the meal I tried the included-with-your-fare coffee. I'd heard it was pretty awful. It was.
After dinner we explored the center of the ship. The Grand Princess has an atrium (Piazza) that is three decks high with curving staircases. Around the atrium on each level are various boutiques and bars. The Crown Grill was at the top level (Promenade Deck). We looked over the rail, and two decks down we saw a trio of women playing 2 violins and an accordion. They were quite good. We learned later they are called the Lady Hit Trio. There was music in the atrium most afternoons. When there wasn't music, there was usually some kind of game or contest.
At bedtime I went out to look at waves illuminated by the moon and the ship's lights.
We had heard that one doesn't feel any movement on large cruise ships but that wasn't true of the Grand Princess. The ship was rocking quite a bit. I was glad I had taken a scopolamine patch. I don't know if the motion would have bothered me if I hadn't, but as it was I really liked the rocking.
I woke up around 7:30. The ship was rocking A LOT. The captain made an announcement over the PA system that we were in a bad weather system, and the ship was having to slow down, which might affect our arrival time into our first port, Juneau.
The OH brought me a coffee and a custard pastry from the coffee and snacks bar ("International Cafe") on Deck 5. The cafe had real coffee, which was very good, but it cost extra. The pastries and sandwiches were included in the fare. Later that day I bought a coffee card, which let me get as much real coffee as I wanted, and also had punches for 15 espresso drinks.
At noon, the captain made a PA announcement that we would be late into Juneau. The navigation officer said the wind was 40 knots, or force 8 on the Beaufort scale, which is a gale. Ship had slowed down to 15 knots (17 mph) and had moved closer to the coast, where the weather wasn't quite so bad.
Most of the passengers we talked to who had cruised before said this was unusually rough weather in their experience. There were barf bags out near the elevators. It was a little difficult to move around with hands free, but there were grab bars in most places. I wondered how the more tottery passengers were managing.
The Crown Grill was serving British pub lunch (no cover charge). I had bangers & mash, the OH had steak and kidney pie. The waiters seemed a bit nervous about the motion of the ship. The heat lamps near the station where waiters were picking up plates were swinging a lot. Service was very efficient.
After lunch I went to the theater, forward, for a Navigation at Sea lecture. You can get to the theater from Deck 6 or 7, but from Deck 6 you have to go through the casino, and the casino allows smoking. That's the way I went, and I was feeling a little queasy by the time I got to the theater. A lot of the lecture was actually about the environmental impact of cruising and how the various waste streams the ship produces are handled. Of course the general message was that cruising is not a big environmental impact compared to all the shipping activity and oil spills and other things that happen at sea. There's probably some truth to that, but I still feel a little weird about cruising. The navigation part went into the history of navigation and the hierarchy of officers on the ship.
I felt more queasy in the theater than I did elsewhere on the ship, maybe because it was farther forward. After the lecture I went back to the room and napped.
Traditionally on cruises, passengers are assigned a specific table and time for dining and share dinner with other passengers (the same ones each night). Nowadays, most cruise lines also give you the option of eating on your own schedule, and we chose this ("Anytime Dining"). It was still recommended to make a reservation, though. So we made a reservation and we were glad of it because when we got to the dining room, there was a line of people without reservations.
Most beverages on the ship are not included, but you can buy various beverage packages, one of which gives you all the non-alcoholic beverages you want, including milkshakes and fruit juice (but not fresh squeezed orange juice). The waiter sold us one of those. The OH ordered a mocktail called a "Fruity Rita" (he'd tried one that morning) which had grapefruit, orange, and pineapple juice. It was really good and we had several of them every day.
The menu had many sections—appetizers, salads and soups, pastas, and main courses of the day, and also a selection of "always available" courses. We had a hard time deciding what to order. We ended up ordering a pâté appetizer, an appetizer portion of fettuccine Alfredo (because many people on the CruiseCritic.com web site had recommended it), a halibut bisque, and a cold "soup" based on apples, which came in a parfait glass and was similar in texture to a smooth gazpacho. We also ordered a shrimp cocktail and a side of veggies. For some reason the waiter seemed uncomfortable that we didn't want an entree, so he also talked us into ordering a seafood skewer entree. All the food was good to superb. The pâté and soup were really unusual. The fettuccine was good but we didn't understand why people raved about it. After all that we were handed a dessert menu. We had "apple spring rolls" and butter toffee ice cream.
A photographer came by and took our picture. They print up the pictures they take and display them in the photo gallery in the hopes that you will buy prints. You can also have formal or casual portraits taken with a variety of backdrops. We had as little truck with this as possible.
Back in the cabin I read a magazine that described the various Caribbean ports that Princess goes to (including an island that it owns outright). The magazine also had tons of ads for duty free jewelry and watches at chain shops in most of the ports. Jewelry and watches were a big shopping theme; each night there was an insert in the daily newsletter of events (Princess Patter) about how you could buy watches and jewelry on board or in the ports.
Throughout the day we went outside to take pictures from our balcony. We could only see clouds and waves and the sides of the ship, but the sun went in and out all day and created some nice light conditions.
There was a fair bit of bumping during the night, but this morning the motion of ship was somewhat calmer.
On Deck 14 ("Lido") is a buffet restaurant that's open all day. We went up there right when they were changing from breakfast to lunch. It was a thorough buffet. The best thing I had was a goat cheese artichoke "tart". The pineapple was also good. There weren't any tables for two available, so the waiter seated us with a woman from Ohio who said she had taken this cruise four or so times before, but in the past she had always gone in August, and it hadn't been like this weather-wise.
A noon announcement from the captain said that the weather was a tiny bit better but not much, and he thought most of us probably didn't sleep very well, and we were about 6–8 hours behind schedule, and he thought it might be less bumpy by tea time. The officer of the watch said we were traveling at 20 mph and the wind was at force 6.
After lunch I went to an origami class. We learned how to fold 3 things from a piece of paper the size of a dollar bill: a swan, a heart, and a T-shirt. There were 40 students in the class and the instructor said the last time he held the class there were only 7. So he had to run out and get more origami paper, and he had to demonstrate using a projector. The class was offered again later in the cruise but that time it was described as "bring your own bills."
At 4:30 the captain announced that we were changing our itinerary. We would not stop at Juneau, but instead we would do scenic cruising in Endicott Arm. The OH was bummed because he was really looking forward to doing a photography excursion in Juneau. I was looking forward to doing a "sled dog camp" excursion where the dogs pull you in a wheeled cart and you get to hold puppies, which helps to socialize them. But I was also excited that we'd get to see more glaciers.
The cruise featured two nights where people were supposed to dress up in formalwear for dinner, and tonight was one of them. The OH wore a suit and a bolo tie. I wore slacks and a blouse, but I didn't really have formal shoes. At dinner we were seated with a youngish couple and an older couple, both living in California. (Most of the people on the cruise were from California, probably because it was round trip from San Francisco.) Both men were actually from Texas and were military (Princess offers a military discount). I enjoyed listening to them, but the gender politics were weird...e.g., none of the women at the table mentioned what we did for a living.
I had asparagus soup and barramundi. The OH left early because he wanted to catch the theater show. I went back to the cabin and it was much more pleasant out on the balcony than it has been, so I sat out there for about 20 minutes just watching the waves. I could watch the waves forever.
We had lunch at Alfredo's, a pizzeria restaurant (cost included in fare). The pizza was very good. We sat by the window and saw land for the first time since we sailed.
We did scenic cruising in Endicott arm in the late afternoon and evening. Starting at about 3pm we holed up in our cabin to take photos from our balcony and watch a TV channel that showed the ship's progress on a map, along with some weather info. We sailed north on Chatham Strait into Tongass National Forest. At 5:45 pm we were in Stephens Passage and from there into Endicott Arm, a fjord. Between us we took around 1000 photos. Aahz went up to the top deck of the ship and took many pix of a jaw-dropping sunset.
In Endicott Arm I didn't see anything that looked like an active glacier, but there were some blue ice floes (glacier ice is blue). The conditions varied between cold/windy and cool/calm during the scenic cruise. The ship was no longer rolling. I couldn't even tell we were moving unless I looked outside.
This was the first day that I was frustrated by having almost zero Internet access. We bought a package of 150 minutes, but it was so slow that all I could do was access my shell account. I wanted to look up the areas on the map we were passing through, and read about glaciers and fjords.
In the afternoon we ate little sandwiches that the OH got from the International Cafe and we had room service dinner (included in the fare). The Moroccan crock pot veggie curry was quite good.
By the time I woke up we were already docked in Skagway (which was meant to be our second port, but was actually our first). There were several other cruise ships also docked.
For lunch we went to the Lido deck and had hot dogs and pizza from the poolside grill. A lot of people had gone into port so the ship was very empty.
To get off the ship we had to go through a line where we got our cruise cards scanned. A sign said that we needed to show our IDs too but it seemed they didn't really care about that.
We went on the White Pass & Yukon Route narrow gauge railway tour to the White Pass summit. The train tracks ran right alongside the pier. Going up, I was on the right side of the train, which didn't have particularly good views; I was looking into the rock and forest a lot. But there were tons of tiny waterfalls. I tried to get pix of them. It was hard to get pix from inside the train but I got a few good ones.
At the top we switched sides and flipped the seats around and the engine went from one end of the train to the other. Coming back down I saw spectacular views of a fjord about 1000 feet deep. The tour narrator described how gold prospectors had to traverse this on foot/ pack animal with a literal ton of supplies. We also saw some wooden trestle bridges and went through two tunnels.
Skagway seems to mostly exist to serve the tourist trade. The downtown area is about 3 blocks long. The town has fewer than 1000 year-round residents. In the summer the population doubles with people working in the tourist trade.
We had to get our bags and ourselves scanned when we got back to the ship.
We ate dinner in the dining room. We had the same waiter, who remembered that the OH liked the Fruity Rita mocktail and brought him several of them. The creme brûlée was top tier.
We left port around 7pm and I took some more pictures. We spent the rest of the evening going over our photos of the train trip.
Today in the morning the ship did scenic cruising in Glacier Bay. The OH was up on the top deck of the ship for a couple of hours starting before dawn. He woke me around 6:30 am.
At 8:00am we officially sailed into Glacier Bay. We took aboard a naturalist from the National Park Service, who lectured over a loudspeaker from the top deck.
The ship sailed into the Tarr Inlet to the Margerie Glacier. Before that we passed an inactive glacier (Grand Pacific Glacier I think?). The ship turned around two or three times so people on both sides could see the glacier. We watched for chunks of ice to fall off, called "calving", accompanied by a booming sound. I got pix of a few of these. This glacier is active and stable (not advancing or retreating).
We saw sea birds but no other wildlife.
We ate lunch in the Da Vinci main dining room. I had rigatoni with cheese sauce and gumbo. We ate dinner also in the main dining room. I had a fruit cocktail with lychee, watermelon, and candied ginger; and a very good quiche. For dessert we had an apple streusel a la mode and a cheese plate.
In the evening the ship was rocking a tiny bit again.
The OH woke me at 6 am and I took pix of the ship docking in Ketchikan around 7 am. There were also float planes taking off and landing. There is no road access to Ketchikan so everyone has a boat or plane. The main street (Creek Street) was set into a hillside with many colorful mansions. I took pix of workers setting up the gangways for getting off the ship.
We went on a boat excursion called Misty Fjords and Wilderness Explorer. The boat had a lower and upper deck, both of which had enclosed seating areas which were warm and pretty comfy with bucket-style seats. The upper deck also had an open area. A naturalist on board lectured about the landscape and the history of the area. He said he wasn't considered a real Alaskan because he only arrived in 1975. They also had a Native artist on board, who was selling his art (I didn't get a chance to see it) and also gave a talk. He used to be a commercial fisherman until he had some injuries. They fed us some snacks: strawberry strudel, clam chowder, and smoked sockeye salmon.
The ride to Misty Fjords National Monument took about 90 mins at 30 knots. We stopped at New Eddystone Rock, an old volcano plug sticking out of the water. Then we went into a cirque, which is a rounded valley carved by a glacier. At that point we saw a humpback whale. It seemed too small to be a humpback, but I think my sense of scale was messed up. Everyone crowded over to one side of the boat and it was hard to see, but I managed to get photos of its back and its spray.
After the tour we went to afternoon tea in the main dining room (which they offered every day). We sat with a couple of women who said they had taken 14 cruises, mostly on Princess. Waiters clustered around with sweets and sandwiches — it reminded me of a dim sum restaurant — and kept trying to talk everyone into eating more food. The food was included in the fare so I don't know why they were doing that.
We left port at 4pm. Later on we had pizza from the Lido deck pizzeria and I took some more pictures of sunset colors in the water.
We were at sea all day heading to Victoria, BC. The OH had come down with a bug, which he blamed on spending so much time outside in the cold on Glacier Bay day. We were both lazy and stayed in the cabin in the morning. Later on I bought a few souvenirs and ordered a DVD set that was supposed to be made on this specific cruise.
We had the pub lunch at the Crown Grill again. I had a scotch egg, chutney and a salad. We sat with a family, two generations. They had done a flightseeing/dog sled tour where you ride a helicopter to a glacier where there's a sled dog camp set up, and you get to ride in a sled and even control the sled if you want. They had pictures on a cell phone. The daughter said although this was her second cruise, she didn't like cruising and was mostly doing it for her husband because he didn't like other forms of travel. She used to work in assisted living and said that cruising reminded her of assisted living. I could see her point, insofar as it was an enclosed environment with a lot of older people and some of the activities on board were kind of dull. But it sure beat the heck out of the assisted living place my Mom used to be at.
The shipboard naturalist had put a binder in the library/game room/tea room with recommended books about Alaska, glaciers, sailing, and weather. I copied the list into my iPad.
It was another formal night in the dining room and we didn't want to dress up or sit with people we didn't know, so we ate at the buffet instead. The ship had begun rocking a fair bit again and after eating I felt a bit nauseated, so I lay down and read some when we got back to the cabin. I felt better after about half an hour. The OH took a long nap and around 10 I went back to the buffet for dessert. I enjoyed people watching there because there was a mix of people in casual and formal clothes.
The OH woke me at 7ish. We were already docked in Victoria. We were supposed to get together with some friends. But it began to rain, and my scooter isn't supposed to get wet, and I felt pretty tired, so we canceled. We took pictures of a barge alongside ship; I think it was offloading one of the "waste streams." There were a lot of seagulls and terns and little black-white-and-orange ducks, and a couple of bald eagles, and we took lots of pix from the balcony. The OH went out to a pharmacy to get some cough medicine. He said he'd be back in an hour or so but he got sucked into taking photos and took two hours.
We ate lunch at the pizzeria on Deck 5. The security line for reboarding was right next to the pizzeria so I enjoyed people-watching.
When we left port at 2pm, seagulls followed the ship for a long way.
We were at sea all day heading back to San Francisco. I spent a lot of time sitting on the balcony looking at the waves. I saw some cetacean spouts.
We were asked to put most of our luggage outside our cabin this evening, in preparation for disembarking the next day.
The OH woke me at 5:15am because it was dawn and we were approaching the Golden Gate Bridge. He went up to Deck 15 to take pictures and I took pictures from the balcony. We docked around 6 am.
We were allowed to choose what time we wanted to disembark. We chose 9:30, but we had to be out of our cabin at 8am. We thought it would be a zoo on the lower decks so we went up to the Lido deck, which was practically empty.
Actual disembarking wasn't as crazy as I thought it would be. The elevators weren't as crowded as I expected; we were called by groups, and our group was called at the exact time they said it would be. It was also fairly easy to retrieve our luggage once off the ship; it was all stored in an area for our group. There were lots of porters around to help.
The awful part came next — a lot of people waiting on the sidewalk to be picked up, taxis and buses arriving and leaving, supply trucks arriving to put things onto the ship (which was going to turn around the same day and go back to Alaska, this time on a slightly different itinerary). We were out there for 45 minutes and our driver missed seeing us twice and had to go back around, and it took him 20 minutes to go around the block.
But we got home before noon. For several days it felt to me like the floor was rocking.
Things I liked about cruising:
Sitting on the balcony looking out at the water, or the port, or whatever there was to see. Feeling the breeze.
I liked these things so much that I would go back and do more cruising in an instant.
Going on touristy excursions in port.
General friendliness and politeness of other passengers. We talked to each other in the halls, waiting for the elevators, in the elevators. I'd heard that cruise passengers were rude about elevators and I was pleasantly surprised that almost everyone was pretty polite.
Disability friendliness of environment and staff (at least for mobility disability. Not so much for hearing impairment).
Music in the atrium.
Food. And the real coffee.
Things to do on the ship that I didn't do:
Games and trivia, raffles, shopping for jewelry and watches, getting photographed and buying photo packages, seeing movies (there were three places showing movies: a large outdoor poolside screen, the theater, and the stateroom TV), seeing live shows in the theater, lectures and demos that were sales-driven, gambling, drinking alcohol, dancing, exercise classes, spa treatments.
It was reasonably easy to avoid the stuff I wasn't interested in, and mostly I didn't feel like people were pressuring me very hard to buy stuff.
I was sorry I didn't go swimming. It was mostly too cold to use the open air pools, although I saw people in the hot tub. But there was also an enclosed pool.
Things I felt weird about:
The environmental impact.
Being unsure about tipping, and unsure in general about how to act around people trying to serve me.
The labor practices on board ship. Quite a few of the staff I saw seemed to be reasonably happy (I was watching them interact with each other) and not anxious. But I know there were lots of staff I didn't see.
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