I'd like to start things off by sharing a few of the best pictures I shot during our cruise...
All of these photos and most of the videos were shot with my Canon EOS 70D digital SLR camera
and are the copyrighted work of Jim Zimmerlin.
Please do not use these photos without first obtaining my permission.
Officially known as Mount McKinley
The locals all call it Denali
We were very lucky to have several days of good weather
which provided many opportunities to see and photograph Denali
A day of "scenic cruising" through Glacier Bay national park
was probably the best day of the entire vacation
Another highlight of the trip was an excursion in Skagway
on the White Pass & Yukon Route railway
Great weather allowed people to enjoy the outdoor pool on Lido deck
in stark contrast to the mountains in the background, topped with snow!
Notice anything strange about that last photo?
I'll reveal the secret... later in this review!
In addition to still pictures, I also shot a lot of video.
This first video is kind of a "greatest hits" compilation of the best whale and glacier videos I got.
Click the triangle in the center of the video screen below to start the video playing.
A tip about the videos on this page:
They default to playing at a resolution of 480p on this page, but I recommend that you watch them in high definition at a resolution of 720p for best quality. To do so, you have to click on the YouTube logo in the lower right-hand corner of the video screen to open the video up in a new window on YouTube, and then change the "settings" (also in the lower right corner of the screen) to the resolution of your choice. When choosing 720P resolution, it is recommended that you also set the video to play full screen. (The full-screen toggle is also in the lower right corner of the video window.)
Before we get any further in to this story, I guess I should introduce myself...
I'm Jim Zimmerlin (everyone calls me Jim Zim) and I always cruise with my wife, Kellyn. (Pronunciation tip: it rhymes with Helen.) We're from Grover Beach, California... a little beach town on the California coast about halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. We've been cruising since 1996, and this was our 25th cruise overall... but only our second with Princess cruise lines. There will be a lot more cruises with Princess in our future... I am sure of that!
Kellyn and I usually keep it simple and just cruise by ourselves, but for this Alaska trip we made it a family affair and cruised with my siblings and their spouses. I'm sure you've heard of "dysfunctional" families. Ours is actually a functional one! Here's our little group of Alaska cruisers:
Back row, left to right:
My brother-in-law, Jim Klaustermeyer
My sister, Sally Smith
My brother, Dan Zimmerlin
My sister-in-law, Elizabeth Stern
My wife, Kellyn Zimmerlin
Next to me, in the front row:
My sister, Judy Klaustermeyer
I think it's fun to compare that last photo of me and my siblings
to this photo of us, taken in 1968, with our (now deceased) parents
That's me in the front row in the blue shirt... the baby of the family!
One last thing about our family, before I get back to the Alaska cruise photos...
They say that "the apple doesn't fall far from the tree".
Here's our mom, back in 1982, on the gangway of the original "Love Boat"... the Pacific Princess.
Here's a tip for you if you'll be taking a cruise with a bunch of friends
or family members:
Be sure to call Princess (1-800-774-6237) and link all the reservations together. Once they know that a bunch of you are travelling together as a group, they'll be sure to seat you together at dinner and they'll also be sure to put you in nearby rooms during the land portion of your cruisetour.
The Cruisetour Itinerary
This was not just a cruise, it was a cruisetour... which means that we didn't just do a Princess cruise, we did a cruise plus several days on land in Princess lodges. Here's the rundown:
Saturday, June 14: Cruise begins in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
Sunday, June 15: At sea
Monday, June 16: Ketchikan
Tuesday, June 17: Juneau
Wednesday, June 18: Skagway
Thursday, June 19: Scenic cruising in Glacier Bay
Friday, June 20: Scenic cruising in College Fjord
Saturday, June 21: Disembark at Whittier. Train ride to Talkeetna. 2 nights in the McKinley Princess Lodge.
Monday, June 23: Train ride to Denali. 2 nights in the Denali Princess Lodge.
Wednesday, June 25: Bus ride to Fairbanks. 2 nights in the Fairbanks Princess Riverside Lodge.
To help you visualize where all these places are in relation to each other,
here's a map of Princess ports and lodges in Alaska...
If you're interested in booking a similar cruisetour or checking to see what a vacation like this costs,
go to this page at Princess.com or ask your travel agent about cruisetour # JA6 known as the 13-night Denali Explorer
When considering the price of this vacation, do also consider the price of airfare
to get to Vancouver or Fairbanks and to get home from the other.
Airfare to and from Fairbanks is especially expensive because Alaska airlines has little competition!
I enjoyed every day of this vacation, and could probably list 100 great moments I had during the two weeks. But if you asked me what was the one best day of all, I'd have to say it was the day we were in Glacier Bay. It was absolutely GORGEOUS!
If I were to write this story in chronological order, the Glacier Bay thing would get buried down at the end of the cruise story... long after a lot of people might have gotten bored with the story and stopped reading! So, I'm not going to do this in chronological order! Let's start with Glacier Bay...
The best way I can show you the beauty of sailing through Glacier Bay is to show you this video I created with little video clips I shot throughout the day. If you only watch one video on this entire page, this is the one to watch:
One thing to point out about the video is that the ship you see in parts of the video is the Norwegian Pearl. We were cruising on the Coral Princess, but the Norwegian Pearl was visiting almost all of the same places as we were that week... so I had the opportunity to get some good pictures of her from my vantage point on my balcony on the Coral Princess.
For someone like me that likes to take photos, being in Glacier Bay was an amazing experience. Getting great photos was as easy as shooting fish in a barrel! As the ship made its way through Glacier Bay, there was just one photo opportunity after another. Here are some of the best photos I took that day...
This is actually my favorite photo from the entire vacation.
I think it totally captures the beauty of taking a cruise ship vacation in Alaska.
This photo shows a valley carved out by a glacier many years ago.
Of the more than 100,000 glaciers in Alaska, 95 percent are currently thinning, stagnating, or retreating... and more importantly, the rate of thinning is increasing. European explorers such as Captain George Vancouver and Captain James Cook made some pretty good maps of this area back in the late 1700's... right at the start of the Industrial Revolution. It's shocking to see the maps of how far the glaciers extended at that time (they covered ALL of what is now Glacier Bay national park) and to compare it to where we see them today.
On the positive side, it made me feel so fortunate to have been able to make this trip and to be able to see the remaining glaciers... because I can certainly foresee a day when my grandchildren might cruise to this area and not see a single one.
The sailboat in this scene helps you to understand how tall that glacier is as it meets the water.
You can also very clearly see the blue tint of the glacier.
That's not some photo enhancement... it was really blue, just like you see here.
Glacial ice is blue for the same reason that bodies of water appear blue...
it absorbs all the light at the red end of the visible spectrum and blue is what's left to see.
During our visit to Glacier Bay, it was just one beautiful scene after another.
On one of the TV channels, you could listen to a Glacier Bay expert explain what we were seeing.
After seeing so many beautiful mountains and glaciers,
there was no way I could remember their names by the time I got home!
We were told many times throughout the week that we were very lucky to be having clear weather
which allowed us to see mountains that had not been seen in many of the previous cruises this season.
Here's another photo where the scale of things is more apparent thanks to a boat in the foreground.
I think the little orange boat contained videographers from the ship's staff,
shooting some material for the DVD that they sell on the ship.
This is another spot where a glacier used to meet the ocean, years ago.
It's scary how much they've receded over the last few hundred years.
Notice that there aren't any trees! We are not in the mountains, above the tree line... this is at sea level! There are no trees because a glacier wiped them out, and that glacier was there so recently that not much has grown back yet.
One little detail to notice in the photo: the bird that just happened to fly by at the moment I snapped the picture. As a photographer, I was kind of impressed that the shutter speed was fast enough to catch the bird without motion-blur... and yet the depth-of-field was large enough that both the bird and the mountains are in focus! Out of curiosity, I looked up the shooting details that were saved along with the RAW image file... and noticed that I had set the camera to shoot at iso 100 with a shutter speed of 1/100th of a second. I let the camera automatically pick an aperture setting that would give a proper exposure. The camera set itself to an aperture value of 5.0 in order to properly expose the shot. This is what's known as shooting in shutter-priority mode. I forced the iso to 100 rather than leave it in auto-iso mode, because I didn't want the camera to go to a high iso setting to get the shot. That would introduce noise (graininess) in to the photo.
A question that I often get is "do you use any tricks to make your photos look that good?" Well, I don't consider them "tricks"... because that implies that I'm doing something dishonest or deceitful. Using the right photography gear, and doing the appropriate post-processing is just part of the art of photography. But to answer the question...
It all starts with having a good digital SLR camera and some good lenses for it. I shot these photos with a Canon EOS 70D camera, and the majority of the photos and video clips were shot using the 18-135mm Canon EFS lens. When shooting things at great distances, I used a big expensive 100-400mm Canon zoom lens. I also pack around a wide angle 16-18mm Canon lens for shooting things in very close quarters... such as a video you'll see further down the page where I show you how tiny the shower in my stateroom was! Finally, anytime I'm shooting scenes involving the sky or bodies of water, I put a polarizing filter on the lens. If you've ever worn a pair of polarized sunglasses, you know how much better things look outside when looking through a polarized filter.
That's the equipment I used. Now, regarding the "tricks" employed...
One of the keys to getting the best photos from a digital SLR camera is to shoot in RAW mode rather than in JPG format. This is more labor-intensive because you have to eventually convert your photos to JPG format before sharing them on the Internet... but it's totally worth the work. Working in RAW format preserves all the original quality of the original photo and gives you the most effective options for post-processing of the photos. Speaking of post-processing, Canon digital SLR cameras are set to a somewhat soft level of sharpness by default... so I boost the sharpness level of any photo that's a "keeper". I also always check the white balance of the photos and re-adjust as necessary. This ensures that the colors look natural and correct. Finally, speaking of colors... I find that I like my photos to have the saturated color levels that you used to be able to get out of Kodachrome film back in the old days. So, I have my Canon camera set to shoot with saturation levels boosted by 4 steps. If that ends up being too saturated, I can always bring it down during post-processing.
One last trick is, when possible, to shoot photos in multiple ways. Take the shot in automatic mode, then take it again with the aperture forced all the way open. Take it again with the aperture forced all the way down. Take it again with the iso set to 100. Take it again with the lens zoomed in a little more, or with the camera flipped 90 degrees. Of course, when you're taking people photos, you probably don't want to do this. People don't want to stay posed while you shoot a photo 5 different ways! But mountains and glaciers really don't mind... and they don't move very fast, so you get a lot of chances to take and re-take the shot in different ways! The downside is that when you come home from your 2-week vacation, you've got 1000 photos to sort through. But that's not actually a bad problem to have, if your goal is to end up with the best possible photos.
That's your little photo lesson for today! Now you know all my "tricks"... and you can see why it takes me a couple of days after I get home from vacation to go through all my photos and to tweak all the "keepers".
While in Glacier Bay, I posed for a photo with my brother and sisters.
Camera on a tripod... with a 10-second self timer. Got it in just one take!
If you're interested in Glacier Bay, download this
and visit the Glacier Bay National Park web site
Another favorite part of our cruise was our day in Skagway. We all decided to take the "White Pass Scenic Railway excursion" which is a 3.5 hour ride on the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad... one of the last remaining narrow-guage railroads in North America. The history up there is just mind boggling! During the Yukon gold rush, thousands of people poured in to this area in hopes of striking it rich. Here's a picture from 1898 of miners making the trek up in to the hills near Skagway, before the WP&YR railroad was completed.
The trip on the WP&YR railroad is absolutely the most popular excursion for cruise ship tourists in Skagway. Not only is it fun, gorgeous, and historic... but it's ultra convenient, too! The train is waiting for you just a few feet away from your cruise ship...
So, as you can see, the train ride begins at the cruise ship dock in Skagway. After a little bit more than a hour and a half ride up the mountain, you're actually in Canadian territory. Up until a few years ago, you actually had to show a passport to get on and off the train! That caused a few headaches for tourists and the train operator because a lot of folks wouldn't remember to bring their passport with them when they got off the ship. So the WP&YR railroad got smart and began a policy of not letting anyone off the train at the top of the mountain... thus eliminating any need for passports. What happens at the top of the mountain now is that all passengers stay onboard while the locomotive uncouples from the train cars, moves down to the other end of the train and couples up to the last car so that the train can proceed in the opposite direction, back down the mountain. In other words, if you're in the last train car on the way up the mountain, it becomes the first train car on the way down the mountain.
You can actually see this process in action very well at the tail end of a time-lapse video I created on our train excursion up to White Pass. I attached my cell phone to the last car of the train, facing behind the train. This presented a beautiful view behind the train, the entire way up the mountain... and reduced a 100 minute trip up the mountain down to a three and a half minute time-lapse video. Take a look at the video, and be sure to have your sound turned on so you can hear the music that accompanies the video. I think the music matches the video quite nicely!
Download the route map of the WP&YR railroad
By the way, I did check with the train conductor to make sure it was OK for me to attach my cell phone to the train in order to create that video. He said it was OK with him, as long as I wasn't going to try to hold them responsible if something happened to my phone along the way. I actually have a very secure clamp arrangement that I use to attach my cell phone to all sorts of things like trains and cruise ships to create time-lapse videos on my vacations. Here's a look at what it actually looked like, clamped on to the last car of the WP&YR train:
With my cell phone securely attached to the train in order to make the time-lapse video, I was free to shoot some nice still photos with my Canon digital SLR camera. Here are a few of my favorites from the trip on the WP&YR railroad:
Once the train gets out of Skagway, the tracks follow the Skagway river for a while
It starts to get really interesting as the train gets in to the mountains
The further up the mountain you go, the more beautiful it gets
If you have a fear of heights, there are a few places that will freak you out a little!
This picture has so many interesting elements:
Mountains, trees, a very steep edge, the train going around a curve, and a tunnel, too!
It just keeps getting more beautiful the further you go up in to the hills!
Here's what it's like inside the rail cars
My sister posed for a photo out the side of the train
Ketchikan was actually the first port-of-call of our cruise. (Remember, I decided to NOT tell this story in chronological order because I seriously doubt many people will read this all the way to the end!) I shot a time-lapse video of our arrival in to Ketchikan, and of the departure, too. The first two minutes of the video are what we saw from our balcony as the ship arrived in Ketchikan, and then the rest is what we saw that afternoon as we left...
I mentioned that I make these time-lapse videos using my cell phone. In case you're curious for more details so you can try it out yourself sometime, it's done with an Android phone using the Droid Timelapse app... available from the Google Play store. There's a free version so you can play around with it and see if you like it. I use the paid version of the app, which is called Droid Timelapse Pro. The Pro version allows you to keep recording with the phone's LCD screen turned OFF. This saves a lot of battery power when shooting a time-lapse over several hours.
Once we arrived in Ketchikan, we all went out on an excursion to a beautiful place called Misty Fjords. We got off of our big cruise ship and boarded a smaller boat that was docked just a few hundred feet away from the Coral Princess. Here are a few pictures from our Misty Fjords excursion...
"New Eddystone Rock"
Misty Fjords is sometimes known as "the Yosemite of the north".
You can truly see why in this picture... which looks a lot like Yosemite's El Capitan.
The still pictures don't really convey the full beauty of what we saw on the Misty Fjords excursion.
I think I did a better job of capturing it in this video from my Canon 70D:
Overall, we had really good weather on both the sea and land portions of our cruisetour. However, out of the entire two week vacation, the worst weather hit us in Juneau. It was a very gray day as our ship arrived in Juneau, as you can see in this time-lapse video...
(There is no sound in this particular video, by the way)
In the video, you can see the Norwegian Jewel and a Royal Caribbean ship (I think it may have been Radiance of the Seas) were already at the dock by the time we arrived.
Of all the days for the weather to get crappy, it was actually a lucky break for it to happen to us in Juneau. Our planned activity for the day was a whale watching excursion... and it really didn't make a whole lot of difference that it was raining that day. The whales certainly didn't care! As for us humans, we mostly stayed inside the whale watching boat... except for brief moments outside (in full rain gear) to shoot videos and photos of the whales. (When whale watching, I recommend shooting video.)
We didn't actually see a whole lot of whales on our whale watching excursion. Yes, we saw a few... but not a lot, and only one that was very close to our boat. My advice, if you really want to see lots of whales up close and have lots of opportunities to get pictures of them... is to take a cruise to Cabo San Lucas in January or February. That's one of the places where whales hang out during the winter... and there are a LOT of them. We did a cruise on the Carnival Splendor in February of 2010 and I got a whole lot of great humpback whale pictures during a whale watching excursion. Take a look at my Carnival Splendor review to see those whale photos from Cabo.
Just to prove I did actually do the whale watching excursion in Juneau, here's a picture I snapped of my brother-in-law, Jim Klaustermeyer, during a brief break in the weather that day...
Thinking about that whale watching trip reminds me of an aspect of the cruise that really impressed me. The whale watching boats take off from Auke Bay... which is on the complete opposite side of Juneau from where the cruise ships dock. So, it requires about a half hour bus ride to get there. Here's the impressive part... the bus drivers are WAY more than just bus drivers... they're also part tour-guide, part entertainer, and part comedian. We had this amazing driver on our bus ride to Auke Bay. She was a young girl in her 20's by the name of Sydney... and she had this incredible personality that just poured out during our 30 minute drive through Juneau. I laughed and learned a few things and had such a great time that if I had met her in California I certainly would have tried to set her up with my son! She impressed me. I tipped her well at the end of our ride, and I made sure to fill out a comment card to her tour company to let them know what a gem they had in Sydney. I'll talk more about the amazingly great bus drivers and tour guides later in this review, when we start talking about the land portion of the cruisetour.
Norwegian Jewel / Norwegian Pearl
I'm sure you probably figured this out already, but I'm a cruise ship fanatic. I just LOVE cruise ships. I guess you probably figured that out somewhere around the part where I mentioned that this was my 25th cruise, so far! So, let's do some cruise ship talk for a little while now.
I want to talk about the Norwegian Pearl and Norwegian Jewel... who we saw quite frequently during our cruise.
Norwegian Pearl, in Juneau
I guess there's only so many places that cruise ships can go in Alaska... so whatever ships you see at the beginning of the week, it's quite likely you'll see them again at some point. We saw the Pearl and the Jewel over and over again throughout the week.
Here's a little video that gives you a nice close-up look at the Norwegian Jewel when she was docked in Ketchikan...
I have a special interest in Norwegian Cruise Lines because I did actually sail with them one time, back in 2008. I had done a couple of Carnival cruises at that point... and wanted to try NCL to see how it compared. It turned out that it compared quite poorly back in those days! In 2008, my cruise with NCL was like watching a minor league baseball game compared to the cruises I had experienced with Carnival... which were major league, all the way. So, I've never been back on NCL since then, but I've seen their colorful ships during many of my cruises.
Anyway, something interesting happened in Juneau with the Norwegian Jewel and Norwegian Pearl. I guess there are only so many berths at the cruise ship pier in Juneau... and more ships that want to dock there than there are places to put them. So, we witnessed something interesting that afternoon in Juneau: the Norwegian Jewel and Norwegian Pearl traded places. Remember that the Norwegian Jewel was already docked in Juneau when we arrived first thing in the morning. They were also the first to leave... fairly early in the afternoon. As soon as the Norwegian Jewel pulled away from the dock, the Pearl took her place. I caught it in this time-lapse video:
Notice how gray everything was in that video, due to the weather!
Also, notice how the Captain really has to fight the wind to get that big ship docked.
It's interesting to me that Norwegian Cruise Lines had to share one berth for two ships in Juneau. I saw something similar happen in Cozumel, Mexico, one time. There were a whole bunch of cruise ships in Cozumel that day, which is actually fairly normal... except this time there was one more cruise ship than Cozumel had dock space for... so, one unlucky ship had to tender her passengers to shore. Care to guess what ship that happened to be? The Norwegian Jewel. I wonder if the department within NCL that's in charge of logistics has some issues. It would seem so.
Here's another look at that clamp thingie I use to lock down my cell phone for the time-lapse videos
Finally, one more NCL story... and this one's the best one!
There's a guy I know from work who did an Alaska cruise on the Norwegian Pearl right around the same time we were doing our Alaska cruise on the Coral Princess. This story really illustrates how cruising with Princess can be like the major leagues and cruising with Norwegian can be a minor league affair.
Our cruise on the Coral Princess took us along "the inside passage"... a waterway that's more like cruising on a river than cruising out on the open sea. You don't get rough seas along the inside passage, because there are large land formations between you and the open waters of the Gulf Of Alaska. But take a look at the route the Norwegian Pearl takes as it leaves it's embarkation port of Seattle:
If you look at that Norwegian Pearl route map carefully, you'll see that the Pearl takes the inside passage on the way BACK, but heads out in to open water on the northbound part of the cruise, which is the first two days. So, this guy I work with got on the Norwegian Pearl in Seattle with his wife... all excited about their Alaska cruise. The ship immediately headed out to open water, where it spent two days working its way north to Juneau. The water out there in the Gulf Of Alaska was rough... and the boat was really rocking. By the time they made it to Juneau two days later, the guy's wife was SO seasick that she simply had no desire to continue with the cruise. To add insult to injury, her husband, the guy I work with, managed to get food poisoning from something he ate during those first two days on the ship. So by the time they got to Juneau, they were DONE! They bought plane tickets home, and that was it for their Alaska cruise. It was over two days after it started!
We had a lot nicer time on the Coral Princess, which took the protected inside passage on the way north rather than heading out in to open water. That's the way they do it in the big leagues, NCL!
Ship Life Aboard the Coral Princess
So far, I've told you a whole lot about the places we visited and the things we did there... but not much about life on the Coral Princess itself. Let's talk about ship life now.
One of the things I always enjoy about a cruise is the entertainment. At home, my wife and I are homebodies and we just never go out much. There aren't comedy clubs in our little town, and even if there were... I doubt we'd ever go to one. But on a cruise, we love to go to the comedy shows!
Comedian/impressionist Jason Neistadt performs on the Coral Princess
Comedian Al Katz
I enjoyed the comedy on the Coral Princess, and I think my siblings all did, too. Having been on more than twenty Carnival cruises, I did notice a few differences between Carnival comedy shows and what they did on the Coral Princess. The comedians themselves were a bit older than some of the ones I've seen on Carnival... and I'm sure that helps them tailor their material to the older crowd that tends to do an Alaska cruise with Princess. Carnival also tends to have a lot of edgy black comedians... and both of these guys on the Coral Princess were pretty far from that. To be fair to Carnival, though, I do have to point out that if comedy is your thing... you might want to look at Carnival because on a 7-day Carnival cruise they typically have four different comedians doing at least four shows each. On both of the Princess cruises I've been on, it was just two comedians, and two shows each.
With that said, however, I have to say that I like the way Princess does comedy better than Carnival. On Carnival, they have small comedy clubs with limited seating... and it's frequently difficult to find a seat. Most Carnival comedy shows are standing-room-only unless you get there quite a bit early. On the Carnival Sunshine last year, we went a half hour early to a comedy show in order to get a good seat... and the room was already packed without a single available seat. Carnival likes the vibe of a small comedy club and thinks that it helps the comedian's frame of mind to play to a standing-room-only crowd every night.
Princess goes the complete other way... having their comedy shows in the very large Princess theatre. I think that works a LOT better for the passengers. It's a lot easier to get a seat, without having to show up 45 minutes early. I'd also like to mention that I like the way Princess has designed their Princess theatres with theatre-style seating. On Carnival, the big theatre has bench-type seats with little tables in front of them so you have a place to put a cocktail. I think Carnival does it this way to encourage drink sales before and during the shows. To me, it's actually kind of annoying the way Carnival has bar waiters walking around the theatre in the middle of a show. It distracts from the show. And to design the theatre with those bench seats, little cocktail tables, and enough room for waiters to walk by... they waste a lot of space. Princess is able to fit a lot more passengers in their theatres than Carnival does... and the theatres have much better sight lines, too. In the main theatres on Carnival, many of the seats have blocked sight lines due to poles that support an upper level of theatre seating.
The bottom line: I think the theatres and the comedy shows on Princess are better.
The had a pretty good band on the Coral Princess. They called themselves "Solutions". Kellyn and I stopped and listened to them in one of the lounges one night, and I caught one song on video...
I wonder how many people sail on the Coral Princess and never discover The Sanctuary. I bet it's a fairly large percentage. The Sanctuary is tucked back at the aft end of the ship and it's fairly well hidden! You pretty much have to go through the Fitness Center to get to it... and I think you know that only a small percentage of people ever visit the fitness center during a cruise!
Anyway, The Sanctuary is a relaxing spot with super-comfy loungers and day beds as well as some healthy snacks and an attendant to bring you whatever you might need. Carnival has something similar called the Serenity Retreat... but on Carnival it's open to all adult passengers and there is no extra fee... so it tends to get very crowded. It's hard to ever find an empty lounger in the Serenity Retreat on Carnival. Princess goes a different way... charging a fee for access to The Sanctuary... which keeps it much more emptied out... especially on an Alaska cruise where it can be a bit cold outside!
A much better place to hang out and relax on the Coral Princess during an Alaska cruise is by the Lotus Pool, in the middle of the ship on Lido deck...
Notice that the Lotus pool has one very important feature that The Sanctuary lacks... a feature that's fairly vital on a cruise to Alaska... that glass roof that keeps the weather out! On a Caribbean cruise, that glass roof can be slid open to let the warm weather in... but in Alaska it stays closed and makes the Lotus pool area a very nice place to relax and spend some time. I spent time in the pool (heated, fresh water, not salt water) on several different afternoons during our cruise... and in the Jacuzzis, too. It was a really great place to relax. If you don't want to get in the water, notice the second story above the pool. That's a real nice area with some very comfy loungers, as well as some ping pong tables, too.
Now I'd like to give you a look at the atrium area within the Coral Princess. This is mid-ship, from deck five up to deck 8. Around the outskirts of the atrium you'll find the guest services desk, shore excursion desk, and Internet cafe... as well as gift shops, bars, and the entrance to the casino and one of the main dining rooms.
This was a clever design choice in the atrium:
They had some unusable space under a staircase, so they built a small waterfall there.
The sound of the waterfall is very soothing as you walk through this area.
There is often something going on in the atrium. Sometimes it's a musical performance like a pianist playing classical music, or a small group of musicians playing stringed instruments, or even the show band doing a few songs... other times it was an organized activity like a contest to see who could design a container to protect an egg dropped from the top of the atrium to the hard floor three decks below.
One of the events held in the atrium was a performance by "The Coral Princess Pop Choir". This was simply a small group of passengers who like to sing. They met in a secluded room for two or three rehearsals earlier in the cruise, and then one day they performed for us all in the atrium. It was totally corny, but good clean fun... and I taped it because one of my sisters was in it. Check it out:
One day in the atrium they had some of the chefs get creative with vegetables. It was a fun photo-op!
Cruises are excellent for multi-generation families because there's something for everyone. While Mom and Dad are having a drink at one of the bars, Grandma and Grandpa can be taking a nap in their cabin and the kids can be up on the Sports Deck playing basketball...
In addition to the basketball court, the Sports Deck also has a mini-golf course and, of course, the classic cruise ship activity: shuffleboard! Just below the Sports Deck is a full fitness center. This picture only shows a small portion of it:
There's a self-serve laundry facility on every floor of the Coral Princess that has cabins on it.
The laundry facilities are located towards the aft end of the ship.
If you're going to be travelling on the Coral Princess sometime in the future, be aware that the self-serve laundry machines are operated with quarters. If you don't happen to have a bunch of quarters with you, you can easily get some from the cashier in the ship's casino or from the guest services desk in the main lobby.
Some interesting cruise ship laundry trivia, based on our experience during 25 cruises:
On Carnival's newer ships, you don't need quarters to use the laundry facilities! The machines operate off of your cabin keycard, and the charges are billed to your onboard account.
On Norwegian cruise lines, there are no self-service laundry facilities at all on any of their ships!
The laundry facilities are always busiest on the last full day of the cruise. Try to avoid needing to use the laundry facilities that day!
The laundry facilities also tend to be busy on the afternoon of "formal night" as people iron their clothes and get ready for the big night.
Always locate laundry facilities on the deck plans and make sure your room isn't nearby! It tends to be a bit noisy around the laundry facilities.
We had some very nice dinners in the Bordeaux dining room, and because I was dining with my siblings and it was a somewhat formal setting... I never brought my camera to dinner to get pictures of any of the delicious things we ate there. I did, however, have my camera with me a few times during casual breakfasts and dinners... so let's take a look at some of those photos...
The pizza was good and I have no complaints. Just be aware that it's more of an Italian-style thin crust pizza than a New York or Chicago-style pizza with a thicker crust like you would more typically find in the USA. I enjoyed it regardless. Sprinkle some Parmesan cheese on it, and you're good to go. By the way, if the goal is to get a quick pizza lunch... just stand to the right of the pizza counter and pick up some pre-made pizza by the slice. The pepperoni pizza you see here was one of the types they have available by the slice. If you have time to wait, stand to the left side of the counter and place an order for a choose-your-own-toppings pizza... and then stick around and wait while they cook it for you. I have to compliment Princess here and say that I think what they do with pizza is better than what's offered on a Carnival cruise. The slices are larger on Princess, and you have the option to create your own pizza by choosing the toppings... which Carnival does not offer.
The pizza counter is right by one of the swimming pools on Lido deck... very centrally located... you can't miss it. Next to the other swimming pool on Lido deck, you'll find the ice cream place. It's free, by the way. My one little complaint is that they only have ice cream... there's no frozen yogurt like you can get on Carnival.
There's also a grill for hamburgers and hot dogs, called the Trident Grill, but it's not quite as centrally located as the pizza and ice cream are. You have to walk up to the next higher deck above Lido to find the Trident Grill. I suspect a lot of people never make it up there during an Alaska cruise because it tends to be a little cold up on those outer top decks. However, as you can see from the picture below, the Trident Grill is very well protected from any wind and rain.
I couldn't bring myself to try a hamburger at the Trident Grill, because I am too spoiled by the awesome Guy Fieri burgers they offer on Carnival! It's the best burger I've ever had on land or sea. Since we're on the subject, I think I better include a photo of one... from my last Carnival cruise. Prepare to drool with envy!
If you're only looking at the photos and not reading the full text... don't get too excited here.
This is a Guy Fieri burger from Carnival Cruise Lines... not a burger from the Coral Princess!
Now let's talk about breakfast for a minute, shall we? Before we do, I just want to reiterate that I had a totally great cruise on the Coral Princess and I'm fairly certain I'll be cruising with Princess a lot more in the coming years, and a lot less with Carnival. But with that said, I do have to point out one area where Princess has a lot of room for improvement... and that's breakfast.
As I've mentioned, this was my second cruise with Princess. The first was on the Sapphire Princess, about five months earlier. On both cruises, I was less-than-satisfied with breakfast. Carnival really seems to have breakfast down... so it was a disappointment each morning on Princess compared to what I was used to on a Carnival ship.
The good news is that the Coral Princess has a much-less-awkward setup for omelettes than the Sapphire Princess did. On the Sapphire Princess, if you wanted an omelet at the breakfast buffet, you submitted an order to the chef... and then filled your plate with anything else you wanted and headed to a table in the dining room while the chef cooked your omelet. At your table, an attendant would come by to offer coffee and orange juice and other beverages... and you would tell him that you had ordered an omelet and he would go off and get it for you. At least that's how it worked in theory. In reality, there was such a delay between the time you sat down at the table and the attendant finally came by the table... let alone made it over to the kitchen, grabbed your omelet, and made his way back to you with it... that by the time your omelet had arrived you had gotten so hungry that you finished everything else on your plate first. That was the Sapphire Princess omelet system.
The Coral Princess had a somewhat better setup. At the buffet, you could simply wait as the chef made your omelet to order... and then once you had the finished omelet on your plate, you could go get the rest of the stuff you wanted and then find a table and eat. This worked out better. Here's a photo of the omelet chef and his little setup on the Coral Princess...
So, it's a better system than what they had on Sapphire Princess... but there's still a problem. It's slow! This guy cooks one omelet at a time. When one omelet is done and served to the guest, he starts the next one. This is just too slow of a process in a busy buffet line on a ship with thousands of passengers. Carnival's system is far better... each omelet chef has three little omelet pans to cook with. So each omelet chef can make three omelets at a time... and during peak times there are as many as four omelet chefs with their own omelet stations scattered throughout the breakfast buffet area. On Princess, at peak times they have two buffet lines going... so there's two omelet chefs making one omelet each at a time... giving you a total output of two omelettes at a time. On Carnival, they can crank out as many as 12 omelettes at a time between their four omelet stations.
Here's a photo of one of my typical breakfasts from the Coral Princess buffet...
A couple of things to point out in the photo: Look at those potatoes. (Sorry they are completely out of focus!) Those potatoes were tremendously under-cooked. Same problem with the bacon, most of the time. The slice of bacon you see there is the most well-done slice I could find at the buffet that day. One other thing to point out in the picture... the Lawry's Seasoning Salt. I bring that from home. It makes breakfast taste a lot better than salting it with regular salt.
So, breakfast was a disappointment for me on both of my Princess cruises... but that's one of only a very few minor negative things I can say about Princess. Mostly I've really enjoyed both of my Princess cruises, and I definitely plan to cruise with Princess more!
My wife really likes Princess, too. One of the aspects that she's very positive about is how they handle people with special dietary needs. My wife has to eat a gluten-free and dairy-free diet, and she's found that Princess was very willing to accommodate that. In the breakfast buffet each morning, they were able to set her up with a gluten-free muffin. She LOVED that! Be sure to notify Princess in advance of any special dietary needs, and if you want them to have a gluten-free item waiting for you in the buffet, just let them know at the same meal one day earlier. In other words, if you're going to want a gluten-free muffin for breakfast on Wednesday, let them know when you're getting your breakfast on Tuesday. You're probably thinking "what if I want something gluten-free on the first day?" Don't worry too much about it. They were able to provide her with a gluten-free muffin the first time she asked, even though she hadn't asked them to have one ready. It just makes it easier for them if you let them know the day ahead. Talk to the person at the pastry area, not the folks in the main entree area. By the way, we noticed that just about every day at lunch and dinner they had a gluten-free dessert item available... clearly marked as gluten-free in the dessert section of the buffet line.
Another very positive thing I'd like to point out about the Princess buffet is that they serve an afternoon snack beginning at 3:30 PM each day. Once I discovered this, it became something I really looked forward to each day... because one of the snack items they serve is cookies. They typically had either peanut butter cookies or chocolate chip cookies, and if you got there right around 3:30 they were still warm from the oven! I probably looked like a big fat pig leaving the buffet with a big plate of chocolate chip cookies each afternoon... but what people didn't realize is that I would take them back to our four cabins and share them with my siblings. It probably looked to people like I had quite the sweet tooth, though!
One of my minor complaints with Carnival (after 20+ cruises with them) is that their cakes and cookies aren't very good. So, it was delightful to discover really good chocolate chip cookies in the Princess buffet each afternoon. One thing I learned is that if you crave a chocolate chip cookie at snack time but you only see some other type of cookie... just ask the guy at the dessert area for some. They often had a tray or two of them hidden away, even when they didn't have any out for the taking.
Finally, there's one other thing I really like about buffet dining on
Princess versus what I noticed after 20+ cruises with Carnival:
It seems like Princess puts a lot more effort in to the dinner buffet than Carnival does. I really like the breakfast and lunch buffets on Carnival, but the dinner buffet is always kind of a disappointment to me. I just get the feeling that they want you to go to one of their main dining rooms at dinner time, and so they just don't put a lot of effort in to the dinner buffet. Let me give you an example.
On Carnival, if you go to the dinner buffet every night of your cruise, you will notice that one menu item never changes: every night at dinner, they offer one kind of potato, and one kind only: a baked potato. If you want mashed potatoes, French fries, pan-fried potatoes, or any other kind of potato... you're out of luck.
I really like that Princess puts a lot more effort in to their dinner buffet than that. On both of my Princess cruises, I was delighted to see multiple potato choices. On several occasions, I noticed that they actually offered FOUR different types of potatoes in the dinner buffet! So, thank you, Princess Cruises, for putting a lot more effort in to it than Carnival does. It has not gone un-noticed by this potato lover!
To Cruise First, Or Last?
When you're booking a Princess cruisetour, one of the first decisions you have to make is whether to do the cruise portion first and the land portion second, or the land tour first and the cruise portion second. There are plusses and minuses each way, but let me tell you why I lobbied heavily with my siblings to do the cruise FIRST.
One thing I've learned in all my cruise travels is to do everything possible to make sure that you make it to the ship on time, and with your luggage. I've read too many stories on cruise critic about people who (because of flight delays) couldn't get to the ship before it sailed, and about people who didn't have any luggage on their cruise because the airline lost it. I try to keep my pre-cruise travel arrangements very simple, with plenty of time between connections, and with lots of extra time built in to the schedule in case things go wrong. The riskiest thing you could ever do would be to fly in the day of the cruise! That leaves no time to scramble if problems come up.
So, I lobbied heavily with my siblings to cruise first and do the land tour second because it's much simpler to get to Vancouver than it is to get to Fairbanks. From the little regional airport near my hometown, I can get to Vancouver in just two flights... and some of my siblings (who live near big-city airports) could get there with one non-stop flight. That's simple, and minimizes the chance of luggage getting lost or flight delays causing problems.
Fairbanks, on the other hand, is a bit trickier to get to. For me, from my small-town regional airport, it would take 3 flights on two different airlines to get to Fairbanks... which increases the odds of my luggage getting lost during one of the connections... especially at that point where the luggage has to get transferred from one airline to another. Taking three different flights also increases the odds that a delay in one flight will cascade in to a total F.U.B.A.R. of the entire schedule. So, I convinced my siblings to cruise first, out of Vancouver. And it worked out BRILLIANTLY for us... not just in the way I expected, but also in several ways I hadn't thought of. Let me explain...
The cruise portion of our cruisetour was strictly a northbound cruise. We got on the ship in Vancouver, cruised north for seven days stopping in three ports, and at the end of the seven days we got off the ship in Whittier (near Anchorage) and began the land portion of the tour. My point is that for the entire time, the ship was heading NORTH. This was summer, and we were up towards the top of the globe, where the sun doesn't rise in the east and set in the west like it does back home. The sun was always in the SOUTH, all day long. So, it turns out that the Coral Princess is beautifully designed for a northbound cruise with the sun in the south... because there are these great public decks at the back of the ship which are not only wind-blocked by the ship itself but which also are bathed in warm sunlight as long as it's not a cloudy day. And we had a LOT of sunny days on our cruise! Check out these wonderful warm public decks at the back of the Coral Princess...
Because of all that sunshine, and the wind being blocked by the structure of the ship, the "feels like" temperature on those back decks was probably a good 20 degrees warmer than what it felt like out on our balcony. If we had done the land tour first, and cruised second, we would have been cruising southbound... and these decks at the back of the ship would have been in shade and completely unusable! We were lucky to have chosen a northbound cruise... as these decks were like a little slice of paradise! Kellyn and I came back here one afternoon to enjoy the sun and watch for whales. I got the best whale video of the entire vacation right here on this deck at the back of the ship... and didn't even have to get cold to get it!
At this point, I have to totally give a pat-on-the-back to my brother, Dan. I normally study deck plans very thoroughly and by the time I get on a ship, I am very familiar with the layout. Somehow, with the Coral Princess, I was a little off my game... and I did a lousy job of studying the deck plans before the cruise. I never had a clue about these wonderful sun decks at the aft end. Lucky for me, my brother had never cruised before and felt a little cooped up on the ship. To help himself feel better, he decided to walk every level of the ship, from one end to the other... getting a little exercise and at the same time exploring every inch of every public area on every level of the ship. After he discovered these warm sun decks at the back of the ship, he casually mentioned it to me one day. I was surprised, because I pride myself in knowing the ship I'm on... and I didn't know anything about sun decks at the aft end of Coral Princess. So, I went and checked them out... and I'm so glad I did. Thank you, Daniel!
Here's a photo of the aft of the Coral Princess, which gives you a distant view of where those sun decks are located. The Sanctuary is up at the top, right above several levels of sun decks.
Here's one other photo from the aft end of the ship. I thought the rounded balconies on these cabins at the aft corners were kind of interesting!
If you have a set of deck plans handy... that's cabin E737 on the bottom, and D725 above it. You can also see a little bit of C727 above that. Notice that the balcony partition on D725 has been opened. I guess they are travelling with the folks in D723, next door.
Finally, there's one other advantage to doing the cruise first and the land tour second... and I bet this never occurred to you! If you've ever bought a bottle of booze in the gift shop during a cruise, you know that the prices are excellent... but the downside is that they don't actually give you the bottle of booze until the last night of the cruise.
On the last night of our cruise, I went to the gift shop and bought a bottle of Malibu rum for $15. Because it was the last night of the cruise, I was able to take it with me right then and there. So, on the last night of the cruise, and for all of the land tour, I was able to enjoy mixed drinks of Malibu rum & Coca-Cola... at bargain prices. At $15, and with no taxes added to that, I got that bottle of rum less expensively than I can buy them at Costco at home. And it was easy to get Coca-cola to mix with it... both on the ship, and in the Princess lodges. On the ship, there's Coca-Cola right there in your cabin, in the mini-bar refrigerator. The price is $2 per can, as I recall. On the land portion of the cruisetour, in the Princess Lodges, there were vending machines just down the hall from our room... with cans of Coca-cola going for $1.50
Choosing a Cabin
An Alaska cruise is not like other cruises you may have taken. For example, on a Caribbean cruise, once the ship leaves port there isn't much to see outside... just open ocean, some nice sunsets, and the wake trailing behind the ship. On an Alaska cruise, you don't get out in to open water very much because you're sailing the inside passage... unless you were foolish enough to book with NCL! Ha ha ha.
Anyway, much of the cruise is through narrow waterways with land all around. There is SO much to see! Not just mountains and lighthouses and things like that... but wildlife, too. You might see whales, dolphins, seals, and even eagles... right from your balcony. It would be a horrible mistake to do an Alaska cruise in an inside cabin with no windows... you would miss so many beautiful sights outside. Even an ocean-view cabin with a window would be a mistake for an Alaska cruise, in my opinion.
This is just one of many beautiful things we saw from our balcony
as the Coral Princess cruised "the inside passage" to Alaska
As far as I'm concerned, for an Alaska cruise, most people should decide between a regular balcony cabin, a mini-suite, or a full suite.
Between our seven family members on this cruise, we had four cabins: a suite, two mini-suites, and one regular balcony cabin. All four cabins were together in a row on deck nine of the ship, and as soon as we got onboard we asked our cabin steward to open up the balcony dividers so that we could all pass freely on to each other's balconies... making it easy to hang out together on the balcony and easy to get from one cabin to the other.
Here's a little video I put together that shows you exactly
what the differences are between a mini-suite and a regular balcony cabin:
I wish I had remembered to shoot a video tour of my sister's full suite next door, but I was having so much fun on our cruise that I just never got around to it. In lieu of a suite video tour (pun intended) let me show you a little diagram of a full suite:
A full suite is MUCH larger than a balcony cabin or a mini-suite. Rather than being in the shape of a long, thin rectangle like a mini-suite is... a suite is more of a square shape. It's the same length as a regular balcony cabin, but about twice as wide. There's a door that can be closed between the bath/shower area and the toilet area. There's a curtain that can be pulled closed between the bed area and the entertaining area with the couch, table, and chair. There's a walk-in closet. Also, the suite comes with a fully-stocked mini-bar at no additional charge... they bring you free appetizers in the late afternoon or early evening, and you also get priority embarkation and disembarkation from the ship. Embarkation at Vancouver was one of the slowest I've seen in 25 cruises... so having priority embarkation would sure be a nice thing! A suite definitely has a lot going for it... including those nice perks.
A couple of things to point out about the room that we stayed in, cabin D419:
My wife's little gripe with Princess, after our first two Princess
cruises, is that they don't have a magnifying mirror anywhere in the cabin. She got used to the fact that on
Carnival, there's a magnifying mirror in the bathrooms. This makes it really easy for her to see what she's
doing when she puts on makeup.
My big gripe with Princess, after our first two Princess cruises, is
in regards to the (tiny) size of the shower and the very basic shower head. We were in regular balcony cabins
for both Princess cruises, and both times the shower was just way too small. When I moved my arms around to
apply soap or shampoo, I would bump in to the metal grab bar mounted on the wall... as well as get tangled up
in the shower curtain. We got used to larger showers in even the most inexpensive cabins on Carnival...
as well as a removable shower massage device mounted on a rail that you could adjust up or down to match your
height. I've decided that on all future Princess cruises, I will stay in a mini-suite (or better) so that I
never have to endure the tiny showers again.
You can actually use the HDMI input on the television. On Carnival, the TVs have HDMI inputs, but there's no way to use them. The TVs are configured in such a way that there is no way to switch over to something connected to the HDMI input. So, it was nice to see on Princess that you could actually hook a video camera or other device in to the HDMI port and view things on the TV.
Here's a picture that shows what my family's four balconies looked like, as seen from the pier. I added the yellow annotation below our balconies, to make it easy for you to see which cabins we had and how much wider the suite is.
D421 is a suite, D419 is a regular balcony cabin, and D417 & D415 are mini-suites
Each full suite has a name. D421 is "the Maldives Suite"
My brother and sister clowning around on our big 4-cabins-combined balcony
While we're on the subject of cabin selection, I'd like to pass along a few tips for new cruisers:
Never take a "cabin guarantee" where the cruise line gets to assign your cabin. While you may occasionally get lucky this way, you also run a good chance of getting one of the worst cabins on the ship. Trust me, you DO NOT want to end up with the cabin above the disco.
Use Google to find the deck plans for the ship you'll be on and check them carefully to understand what is above, below, and next to the cabin you are thinking of booking. You're always safest if you choose a cabin that has cabins above it and cabins below it. Be really careful when picking a cabin that has some kind of public space above or below it. You may notice in the photo above that we did not have a row of cabins below us. We were OK with this because a look at the deck plans revealed that we had the library below us. A library wouldn't be noisy. You DO NOT want a restaurant above or below you... you'll hear plates and glasses clinking all morning and all evening. Be really careful about being one deck below a space with chairs or loungers... you'll often hear people scooting them across the floor.
When possible, try to pick a cabin in the middle of the ship rather than one all the way forward or all the way aft. When you're in a cabin at one extreme end of the ship or the other, it always seems like the places you want to get to are all the way at the far other end of the ship. In the middle, it's not much of a walk to anywhere on the ship. You also tend to have the least amount of ship motion if the ship hits heavy seas.
For anyone NOT in a cabin with a balcony, I'd like to offer you a tip on a good place to go to take photographs when the ship is in motion. The first thought that comes to everyone's mind when they went to go somewhere on the ship to see the view is to go up to the top decks. Bad idea! It's too crowded there... because that's where everyone goes. Here's a picture I snapped of the people all crowded around the railing on Lido deck as we cruised through Glacier Bay.
It's really hard to get a good photo up there when so many people are crowded around you and elbowing you for a spot at the rail. You're much better off to head down to the Promenade deck (deck 7) where not only is it much less crowded, but you're also more protected from wind and rain.
Deck 7 - The Promenade Deck
A perfect place for viewing (or photographing) the sights
if you're not lucky enough to have your own balcony
If you're researching the idea of taking a cruise to Alaska,
here are a few documents you might want to download:
Princess Patter newsletters for the entire week (.pdf)
Coral Princess deck plans (.pdf)
Cruisetour route map (.pdf)
Cruisetour route map (high-res .jpg)
Captain's log of the cruise (.pdf)
Complete list of Coral Princess restaurant and dining venues (.pdf)
White Pass & Yukon Route railroad map (.pdf)
Glacier Bay visitor's guide (.pdf)
Glacier Bay map (.pdf)
Disembarkation information (.pdf)
The Secret I Promised To Reveal
Towards the beginning of this page,
I shared this photo and asked if you noticed anything strange about it...
The secret is that I doctored the photo ever-so-slightly. Princess doesn't generally put anything on the big screen while cruising through Glacier Bay. I didn't like the way the photo looked with a blank TV screen, so I decided to alter the photo a little bit to make it more interesting. I asked myself... "if you could put anything you wanted on the big screen, what would it be?" Well, that was a fun mental exercise as I ticked off all the comic possibilities... photo of myself, photo of a naked woman, Norwegian Cruise Line logo, cute kitten photo from any one of 1000 web sites devoted to cute kittens... the list went on and on. I decided it had to be something whimsical, but at the same time something that at first glance the viewer might not actually notice didn't belong there. I settled on some faked photo of a jockey riding a dolphin that I found on the Internet.
In Fairness to NCL...
I sprinkled this review with a few snarky comments about Norwegian Cruise Line. My view of NCL developed during a 2008 cruise on the Norwegian Star, and was reinforced by little things I've observed about NCL over the years since then. However, I recognize that it's not completely fair to form an opinion of an entire cruise line based mainly on one cruise six years ago on one of their older ships. I've been keeping an eye on them over the last few years and have been impressed with what they're doing with their newest ships. Therefore, we're going to give NCL one more try later this year... and I suspect it may actually turn out to be one of the most memorable cruise experiences we'll ever have. Let me explain why, with this little video...
Our 6-day Land Tour
Our week on the Coral Princess was only half of the adventure! This was not just a cruise... it was a Princess cruisetour. After the 7-days on the ship, we did a 6-day land tour... visiting three Princess Lodges in Alaska. Click here to read about it.
The Cruise Ships We've Been On
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