After an intense three-day pre-cruise land tour in Alaska that included a plane, a train and a handful of motorcoaches, Island Princess looked like eye candy when we first spied her at the cruise terminal in Whittier.
Here was our refuge, our refueling station. We had cruised with Princess once before -- on Coral Princess, Island Princess's sister ship (her twin sister, as it turns out). The two ships are identical -- right down to the restaurants, the entertainment venues, the layout and decor. Immediately, we felt at home.
That's not to say Island Princess doesn't deliver some pleasant surprises. The public space is sleek, and even though she launched in 2003, there's no hint of wear and tear. Service was very good, particularly in the dining room. And the entertainment was top rate. But the thing that really stood out during our seven-night cruise through Alaska's Inside Passage was the quality of life onboard. Island Princess does a remarkable job of creating a quintessential Alaska experience that's highlighted by a lecture series featuring a state naturalist, National Park Service "ranger talks" and a presentation by the first woman to win the Iditarod. There's even a Princess travel guide and map that allow passengers to detect their navigational positions while referencing tales, points of interest and photos of the route.
Editor's note: During Island Princess' Central America season, the educational focus shifts to the Panama Canal.
And what's not to love about the private Alaskan Balcony Brunch, which includes Alaskan king crab quiche, smoked Copper River salmon, fresh fruit, homemade pastries and chilled champagne? Or waiters distributing hot toddies on deck? Or, of all things, a reindeer chili and rockfish chowder cook-off? And where better to enjoy Baked Alaska than in Alaska?
The 1,970-passenger Island Princess was designed to go through the Panama Canal, so it is trimmer and more compact than other ships in the Princess fleet. But thanks to a creative design, it features two full decks of public spaces as opposed to a traditional single Promenade deck.
Indoors, it doesn't scrimp either, offering as much in the way of public room space -- lounges, eating areas, entertainment venues, library, boutiques, cigar bar and Internet cafe -- as Princess' larger vessels.
Island Princess, by the way, has two banks of computers on Emerald Deck, or you can buy a wireless card for your own laptop. There are lots of wonderful nooks and crannies in the public spaces of the ship, including comfortable seating at the base of a sweeping four-story atrium that serves as the centerpiece of the ship's interior.
My husband Gil and I found the food on Island Princess to be good overall -- but a bit uneven, and sometimes mediocre. The 24-hour buffet delivered a few bombs (inedible trout almondine, watery eggs scrambled with salmon, and a sliced-off-the-grill stuffed pork loin I couldn't bite through) -- but that's the nature of a lot of buffets: There are winners and losers. And frankly, there's enough of a choice that a questionable option or two isn't going to ruin your day. We stuck with the buffet's salad and fruit bars, hands-down winners. More to my surprise, some of the dinner entrees in the formal dining room trended toward bland. As for selection, however, you can't beat it. Imagine our difficulty at dinner one night having to choose between beef Wellington, broiled lobster tail and pheasant. Problem or bliss?
Here's the skinny on the ship's dining options:
First, the venues. There are two formal dining rooms, Provence and Bordeaux. Despite their seating capacity (510 and 570 seats, respectively), they are successfully designed to create intimate spaces within a larger one. The dining rooms have two seatings, usually at 6 and 8:15 p.m. For those who don't care for the traditional dining option (which means same time, same waiters, same tablemates), "Anytime Dining" is available in at least one of the dining rooms between 5:30 and 10 p.m., depending upon availability. Same-day reservations may be made by calling a "dining hotline" between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.
Horizon Court, the round-the-clock buffet, shares space on the Lido deck with two swimming pools, a terrific pizzeria, and, one deck above that, a hamburger and hot dog grill. There's 24-hour complimentary room service as well. (The Alaska Champagne Breakfast & Brunch for Two, which included a half bottle of French champagne, did carry a charge of $28.)
There are also two "alternative" restaurants, Sabatini's and the Bayou Cafe & Steakhouse, with nominal cover charges. Sabatini's ($20) has an impressive -- and seemingly infinite -- fixed-dinner menu with Italian and seafood favorites in a formal setting. The more casual Bayou ($15) features Cajun- and Creole-influenced foods as well as premium steaks.
Room service offers Continental breakfast only. Hot and cold selections are available for lunch and dinner; passengers in suites may also order from dining room menus.
To round it all out, there's a patisserie and ice cream bar, neither of which is complimentary.
As for those all-important three squares:
Breakfast: There are three choices: complimentary room service; a formal sit-down meal in the elegant Bordeaux dining room; or, as most probably experience it, the buffet-style breakfast in Horizon Court. Gil and I were typically up early, and we would hit the buffet by 6:30 a.m. -- before the rush. Overall, it was fairly pleasing. Among other offerings, there's a fruit bar, a cereal and yogurt bar, all manner of breads, and the usual suspects: eggs, bacon, ham, potatoes, pancakes and crepes. There's also a station for made-to-order omelettes.
Lunch: Horizon Court is probably the crowd favorite because of its exhausting selection, but we enjoyed two other options as well on this last trip: the pizzeria, and a formal lunch in the Bordeaux dining room. Both were terrific. I marveled at the luncheon menu choices in the dining room, and thinking about them now makes me hungry. Some of the standouts included chicken gumbo, Cobb salad, poached salmon with a cucumber salad, and Irish stew. How to choose?
Dinner: Given our cruise route, we indulged in a lot of Alaskan specialties during our first seating dinners in the Provence dining room: venison, halibut, turbot, grouper, salmon. The desserts were also memorable. In fact, one of our traveling mates ate nine -- count them, nine -- pieces of cheesecake during the trip. Traditional dining also includes a vegetarian menu as well as the health-focused Lotus Spa menu, which offers options like chilled yogurt and tamarind soup, filet of baby turbot with a fennel Pernod sauce and tropical fruit smoothies. I'd also give high marks to Sabatini's, the Italian specialty restaurant. We didn't eat dinner at Horizon Court, though of course it has ample offerings that include some of the same dishes served in the dining rooms as well as daily specials.
Island Princess has the highest percentage of cabins with private balconies in the entire Princess fleet -- a real advantage for viewing glaciers up close when you're in Alaska or transiting through the locks of the Panama Canal.
It's no small accomplishment, really. Eighty-three percent of outside cabins have balconies -- compared with an industry standard that's closer to 60 percent. And when we're traveling with friends and family, as we often do, it's our practice to unlock the door between adjoining cabins for companionable oceanview visiting and room-hopping.
Staterooms come in six configurations, ranging from an inside cabin of 156 square ft. to a 470-square-ft. suite. There are 20 wheelchair-accessible cabins. Most cabins are also designed to accommodate third and fourth berths, which make them family friendly. Standard inside, outside and balcony cabin bathrooms are shower-only.
Our choice: a mini-suite with balcony at roughly 300 square ft. Does size matter? Consider this: Even with 13 of us in the cabin for a pre-dinner happy hour, it still felt roomy. The mini-suite has a queen-size bed (that can be converted to two twins), a sofa and matching chair, huge closet, a safe, and a bar with nicely rounded corners that contains a mini-fridge as well as two TV's. The bathroom is also terrific, featuring a tub with shower. Upgraded bathroom amenities at the mini-suite level include Lotus Spa shampoo, conditioner, body wash and lotion. Our mini-suite balcony had four comfortable chairs and a table.
Other special in-room amenities in the mini-suites include luxury mattresses, satin pinstripe bed linens and fluffy European-style duvets. At embarkation, there's also a glass of champagne waiting and a luggage protector on the bed. As in the regular cabins, stewards provide turn-down service and a daily bucket of ice.
The suites take service to an even higher level with luxurious towels and bathrobes, a daily delivery of deluxe canapes, Complimentary services include Internet access, dry cleaning, laundry and shoe polishing -- even a leather wallet is provided for the passenger's cruise card. Suite passengers are also treated to expedited embarkation, preferred Anytime Dining reservations and personal shore excursion reservations.
Editor's note: There are coin-operated washing machines and dryers onboard, along with ironing boards. This takes some of the stress out of the packing challenge.
Gratuities, which are automatically charged to onboard accounts, are $11.50 per person (including children), per day, for passengers staying in standard accommodations and $12 for passengers staying in mini-suite and suites. A 15 percent gratuity is added to beverage purchases onboard, including wine at dinner. Spa and casino staff members do not share in the gratuity charges -- if you use these services, tips are advised.
Room service gratuity is not included, and we recommend that -- especially for prompt service -- you have a couple of singles handy.
|Fitness and Recreation|
One of the biggest things I've come to appreciate about cruising is that it doesn't necessarily have to interrupt your workout routine.
Most days, I'd walk four miles on the relatively quiet Promenade Deck (2.8 circuits equal one mile). In fact, one day we participated in "On Deck for the Cure," a 5K walk to raise money for breast cancer research. There's also a shuffleboard court, table tennis and a nine-hole golf putting course.
Island Princess has an oceanview gym with weights, elliptical machines and treadmills. Again, this is a ship that's focused on selection. Among the classes the fitness center offers: step aerobics, stretching, Pilates, spinning, yoga, circuit training, upper and lower body conditioning, and exercise aimed at "bums and tums." The Pilates, spinning and yoga classes are $10. Programming also includes seminars with titles such as "Burn Fat Faster," "Facelift in a Jar" and "Secrets to a Flatter Stomach."
Next to the fitness center is the Lotus Spa, a relaxing Asian-inspired retreat that offers a full range of body and facial treatments, steam and sauna facilities and hair salon. There's even a thermal suite, where passengers can veg out in a heated ceramic lounge while they enjoy a tropical/fog shower.
Spa services include a Tahitian scalp massage, hot stone massage, a lime and ginger "salt scrub" and rehydrating facials, among many other choices.
The fitness center and spa are located on Lido Deck, which also houses two pools and five hot tubs. One of the pools, covered by a retractable glass dome, has a swim-against-the-current feature.
Although there weren't that many children on our cruise, Island Princess is quite family friendly. On the Aloha Deck, there is a dedicated children's pool; Off Limits, a teen center and disco with special activities for passengers 13 - 17; The Fun Zone, a special refuge for the 8- to 12-year-old crowd; and Pelican's Playhouse, where youth center staff host a daily schedule of age-specific activities for those ages 2 - 7.
Programming includes what you might expect: scavenger hunts, ice cream parties and video games for the younger set, and for teens, late night movies, "pizza and mocktail" socials, and dance classes with the ship's professional dancers. During our cruise, a National Park Service ranger also gave a talk about Glacier Bay designed specifically for children.
Private babysitting is not offered, but there is late-night group babysitting available from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. for pre-booked kids ages 3 - 12.
Island Princess' Alaska cruises, because they tend to be shorter and occur during summer, draw a younger crowd than the Panama Canal itinerary, which trends toward 60-plus. Passengers are largely American, though during our cruise, which was fully booked, 10 countries were represented.
Cruises of seven nights or more usually have two formal nights -- and folks do get decked out. Men typically wear a dinner jacket or dark business suit, while women tend to favor evening gowns, cocktail dresses or trouser suits. Otherwise, the recommended evening dress is smart casual -- an open-neck shirt and slacks for men and a dress, skirt ensemble or trouser suit for women. Shorts and T-shirts are not permitted in the dining rooms. Daytime, it's pretty much anything goes.
There's no lack of entertainment choices, day or night, on Island Princess. Basically, you can be as busy -- or still -- as you wish to be. On our cruise there was nothing more mesmerizing than watching a glacier calve, searching for whales or just relaxing in the glow that attends the almost ever-present daylight of Alaska summers.
The daytime programming is surprisingly robust. And for real added value, there's an enriching educational component that complements the itinerary. As an example, a naturalist delivered several presentations covering topics such as glaciers, bears, whales and volcanoes. National Park Service rangers offered compelling live commentary on Glacier Bay as we passed through it. And in a "Princess exclusive," 1985 Iditarod champion Libby Riddles shared her story about the grueling dogsled race that put her in the history books.
Movies Under the Stars (M.U.T.S.), the big-screen outdoor theater that's proven so popular with the line's newest ships, will be installed aboard Island Princess in October 2010. Passengers can enjoy movies, concerts, sporting events and other special programming throughout the day and evening.
On top of that, there's much of what we've come to expect from Princess: ice carving demonstrations; trivia challenges; afternoon movies in the Princess Theater; a cooking show and galley tour; wine tastings; art auctions; cocktail demonstrations; bingo; and dance classes. During our cruise, the Scholarship@Sea program also offered computer and ceramics instruction.
Nights, our friends-and-family crew enjoyed an array of activities: dancing in the Explorers Lounge; gambling in the Paris-themed casino; participating in a Name That Tune challenge; watching a Newlyweds and Nearly Deads contest; enjoying cognac in the cigar bar; and viewing some first-rate Vegas-style shows in the Universe Lounge and Princess Theater. There's really something for everyone, including a classical concert with a string quartet, stand-up comedy, a variety show, and, if that's not enough, a cabaret. Another treat: There are first-run movies broadcast each evening on your stateroom TV.
As for shore excursions, the selection was so vast that Gil and I didn't focus on them until we were onboard. Flightseeing? A glacier walk? Train ride through the Yukon? In the end, we signed up for a trolley tour of Skagway and, as dog lovers, enjoyed one of our favorite outings ever, a dogsled ride at the animals' summer camp in Juneau. 120 Alaskan huskies. Need I say more?
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