We boarded the Sun Princess on 10/20/01 en route to our once-in-a-lifetime Panama Canal adventure. We had been reassured that the mix up in our cabin category booking would be straightened out once we boarded the ship. Our request to the purser's office for an upgrade to an ocean view cabin was met with lack of interest by the young man behind the counter, but he said he would contact us later as he reviewed availability. Two hours later, when our luggage was delivered to our cabin we watched in disbelieve as we discovered that one of our suitecases was completely soaked, not with rain water, but with liquor-red wine? Barely one of the garments had escaped the strong smelling brew.
Again, I quickly ran down to the purser's office with the bad news. Unalarmed and offering little appology, a young lady this time, reassured me that the dry cleaners on board, in an overnight effort, would take care of cleaning the items. After listing every single item on the provided receipts, we handed them to the cabin steward. It was not to be until 32 hours later that Iwould be able to change the clothing I wore when I left home. More than this inconvenience, what hurt was the complete lack of sympathy expressed by anyone at the purser's office. They more than proved this two days later by informing us that an outside cabin was available but given their policy of no courtesy upgrades, it would cost us an extra $600. Needless to say, we declined, vowing to cross the Princess lines name off the list of all our future vacations.
Cabins and bathrooms are among the smallest we have found in any of our previous 12 cruises. Though these included added amenities such as a safe and refrigerator, lacking are other conveniences such as reading lights at bed side, bathroom cabinet, etc. The general layout in these cabins could use much improvement. After a first night's sleep I had to ask the cabin steward to turn over our mattresses as the springs were actually coming through. The carpet had a terrible shedding problem. The television in our cabin was no bigger than 13 inches. One evening while half into one of their featured films, the tape was stopped and never resumed. The following day no one had an explanation.
The food quality is definitely sub standard for a cruise line. Most tender cuts of meat are anything but tender. Baked potatos are microwaved into tasteless spuds. Apple pies are filled with anything but apples. Ditto for cherry pies and others. The secret remains with Princess as to the content in the filling of their fruit pies. Soups are always a mysterious 'cream of' that never taste like their name. Most of the main items in the menu of the 24-hour buffet were repeated at least three times during the 10-day period. To top it off, most hot foods are never hot, and ice cream is not on the menu but sold along with alcohol beverages in push-along carts about the Lido deck. And let me worn pizza lovers: Don't expect to get pizza as you know it at the pizza parlor. Pizza is not made to your specifications; you get what you get. My one and only order to try their vegetable creation uncovered a terrible concoction of canned mushrooms, onions and uncooked bean sprouts. No one among the passengers I spoke to about this could believe this was served, and least yet on a pizza!
Entertainment leaves much to be desired. Though the dancers and singers in the feature shows can be considered professionals, their shows are far from that. Production for most shows are cut-rate, skimping on props and the like. Only three main shows were featured during the 10-day cruise with repeated performances and other side shows as fillers. One of these side shows, the comedian juggler, was so bad that it was pure courtesy which kept us from walking out, though it didn't stop several others who boldly expressed their disapproval by doing just that. Given the large group of passengers available to sit during each show, neither the Princess theater nor the Vista lounge have the capacity to accomodate them, so unless we made it a point to arrive and sit at least thirty minutes in advance, we would miss the performance, as happened once.
After such negative experience during this trip we feel that there really is no scale to rate this Sun Princes cruise. So, in general, we rate it as a cut-rate cruise without the cut-rate price, but since the ship did get us to the Panama Canal as promised, one star seems appropriate.
This itinerary includes 7 days on the Sun Princess and 3 days on land. First some personal information; we are a married couple, age 45-50 and we were traveling with 2 other couples approximate age 55. We all traveled from different cities in different states (New York, Florida, Texas) and met in Vancouver for boarding the Sun Princess. Our tickets arrived about 10 days before the cruise, although my sister did not receive her airline tickets until 2 days ahead of our departure. (The travel agent blamed Princess for the mix-up.) Included in the package were 6 color-coded Princess luggage tags, an itinerary, a coupon book with tickets for transfers etc., and the airline tickets. Also included in the coupon book was a list of optional tours that were booked through Princess. We received the information on the optional tours about 3 weeks ahead of the cruise and booked our tours online. The other option was to fax or mail the form, but online you could verify the availability immediately. The package was labeled Express Check-In.
Upon arrival in Vancouver, we went through customs pretty quickly. The procedure was to present your ID,tell them which ship you were boarding and move through. The Princess representatives were right on the other side and ushered us outside to wait for the busses, which we were told were a little late. So we got in line with the other couple hundred people and we were herded aboard. All of our luggage, except our carry-ons were handled by Princess. The drive was approximately 20-30 minutes and we saw enough of Vancouver to wish we had gotten there a day earlier and seen more. Once at the Pier, we looked for the express check-in line, received our cruise cards, and the check-in was over in about 5 minutes. We were stopped to take boarding pictures and once onboard, the Princess staff members were stationed everywhere directing people to their cabins. At the time of our booking, Princess was offering a special on cabins with a balcony for the same price as an outside room. So we all had balconies. Two of the rooms were next to each other so we asked the purser to remove the divider so we could sit together. We were all on the Aloha deck, near the middle of the ship.
The cabins were quite roomy, with a queen size bed (could be configured as singles), a TV, small refrigerator, plenty of closet space, a dressing table, a bathroom with a shower, and sliding glass doors to the balcony. The luggage fits neatly under the bed. Don't forget to ask the cabin steward for the Princess robes. They are provided only if you request them. We deposited our things and proceeded to the Horizon court for the luncheon buffet. Our luggage arrived shortly after the ship left port, although my sister's didn't get there until after dinner. We explored the ship a bit and found the location of the hot tubs, the casino, and the lounges. The public areas on the ship are marvelous and well kept. You can get deck blankets near the pool, extremely useful when you're sitting on the deck lounges trying not to miss the scenery.
We chose to sit at the first seating for dinner and this worked out most nights, although Princess does offer the personal choice dining option where you are not tied to a specific time. We heard from other passengers that the disadvantage to this was that your desired time was not always available, especially if you didn't call early enough or if you wanted a table for two. We did meet another couple in the Personal Choice dining room one evening. We wanted to meet at 7:00, but instead took 6:30. The menu appeared to be the same as the main dining room.
We ate breakfast in the Horizon court (buffet) every day and were pleased with the selection. The view is also quite lovely. It's a nice relaxing way to start your day. The food in the Horizon court was generally of good quality. We found some items were excellent, some just ok, but the desserts were rather bland. There was always a good variety of fresh fruit and cheeses. It would be even better though, if the staff wasn't constantly trying to sell hot chocolate or ice cream. We heard plenty of negative feedback from many passengers about this. The general feeling was that Princess could charge a few more dollars and include those items. Most people we talked to felt that they were being "nickeled and dimed". I can't imagine that the money they make on those items is worth the bad feeling it generates.
Other dining options included Verdi's Pizzeria and the Terrace Grille. We ate lunch at Verdi's and found the pizza to be unremarkable, but the calzone was excellent. The Terrace Grille serves hot dogs and hamburgers, nice for a change. We only ate dinner in the Main dining room. Although the food in the Regency dining room was good, there were several days when the choices had little appeal and some of us ordered from the "always available" part of the menu. (steaks etc..) The portions seemed rather small especially on the side dishes like potatoes and although we knew we could order an extra plate if we wanted to, it was not encouraged. Our waiters were adequate, but not overly friendly, although they did seem to warm up toward the end of the cruise. Perhaps this is the result of the fact that tips for the dining room staff is now included on your cruise card. ($6.50 per person, per day) There is little incentive for them to go beyond their normal duties. Only a few of the desserts were so good that we wanted to share a taste. There were 2 formal nights and 5 smart casual nights on the cruise. Even on the formal nights we saw people in jeans or khakis, so apparently there is no dress code for the dining room.
Daytime entertainment included dance lessons, bingo, Family Feud and various other "fun stuff". The shows in the Princess Theatre and the Vista Lounge were pretty good, but our favorite entertainer was Bert Stratton at the piano. He had a great act, both funny and musically entertaining. Each night, more chairs were set up to accommodate the crowd he attracted. We tried out the casino, but we're not big gamblers so our quarters were eaten by the slot machines pretty quickly. I was amazed by how many children were onboard, even babies. We tried to enjoy the hot tubs our first night onboard but the teenagers and the loud music did not make for a relaxing evening. The cabin steward who took care of our room was excellent, always accommodating and almost invisible.
The Itinerary After a full day at sea, our first stop was Ketchikan. We booked a horse-drawn buggy tour through Princess and upon leaving the ship encountered several "locals" who advised us that the same tours available through the "corporate giant" could have been booked for about half the price with more of the money staying with the native Alaskans. I did check out some of the prices throughout the cruise and most were a good deal cheaper than we had paid. If we go again, I'll book through the local tour operators instead. Another advantage to this is that you know what the weather is like. My sister also booked a jetboat excursion. They were a little disappointed that they didn't see more wildlife. It was an overcast day, but not rainy. We were really blessed with good weather throughout the cruise, especially considering the fact that they measure rain in Ketchikan in feet, not inches. The town itself was filled with shops that cater to the tourists. Souvenirs were quite reasonable and some native Alaskan shops had some interesting things. We stopped to sample some native Alaskan beer, but didn't like it too much, resolved to try another brand later. If you forget any supplies or toiletries, don't plan on buying them in Ketchikan. I priced a bottle of nail polish remover. It was $5.00. I decided I didn't need it that badly. Our second stop was Juneau. We all bought tickets for the Mt. Roberts Tramway and the traditional Alaskan salmon bake, and my sister also booked a helicopter tour. We planned the salmon bake around lunchtime and it was a really nice afternoon. The salmon is grilled outdoors and side dishes are served buffet style. To add to the experience, a folk singer with a very sweet voice entertained us. The helicopter tour was scheduled early in the morning and they were a little worried because the weather was rainy but it cleared slightly and they were thrilled with the experience. The Mt. Roberts Tramway tickets are good all day and the same price whether booked through Princess or at the entrance. The views are spectacular and you would miss some fantastic photo opportunities if you don't do this. Because of the rain, we didn't spend too much time exploring the trails at the top, but on a nicer day that would have been enjoyable.
Of course, there were many tourist shops all over the town and another one at the top of the Tramway. I got my nail polish remover for a mere $1.50 and also got a 12 pack of Coke to go with the rum we had brought onboard. Our next stop was Skagway. A small town filled with false front buildings reminiscent of the gold rush era.
Again, plenty of shops for souvenirs and the White Pass Railway. We all went on the rail ride and enjoyed it. Don't worry if you get a seat on the wrong side of the train for picture taking, you swap seats with the neighbor across from you on the way back. Another couple went on a nature hike/raft ride and had a great time. The guide was very interesting, but be sure to wear hiking boots or good walking shoes. They were a little frightened in the raft but still had great fun.
The next two days were spent cruising in Glacier Bay and College Fjord. These were by far the best days for sightseeing. The weather was spectacular. We spent some time in the hot tubs and actually got a little sun-burned. It was sunny and cool, but a light jacket with a hood and a pair of gloves were all we needed. In the bay there were several whale sitings. We also saw harbor seals and sea otters floating on their backs with their babies on their bellies. Make sure you take binoculars. Our final stop was Seward, where we disembarked. The disembarkation process was very organized, with each group, being assigned a color-number group based on your next destination. The luggage was placed in the hallway the night before with the same color-number tags. When our group was called we boarded a motor coach for Anchorage, the first stop on our land tour. The bus ride was quite scenic with a very knowledgeable driver-guide. We stopped along the way at an animal refuge called Big Game Alaska. Our stop here was about 1 hour, but could have been cut to about 20 minutes. We hadn't come to Alaska to see animals in cages. Our next stop was the Alaskan Native Heritage Center, again, interesting, but an hour was too much time. By the time our bus driver returned, most of the passengers were sitting on the curb waiting. So, after getting up for breakfast at 6:30 AM, we finally arrived at the Anchorage Marriott at about 4:00 PM. We found a restaurant on the waterfront, ate dinner and headed back to the hotel because we had to meet in the lobby at 7:00 AM for our transfer to the rail station. We received a packet of information stating we should sleep in and order breakfast on the train, so we all decided to do just that.
To our dismay, breakfast and lunch are served in the lower level dining compartment which has about 8 tables, so we did not eat breakfast until about 10:00 and then our table was called for lunch about 12:30. Obviously we weren't very hungry. The seating on the train is booth style, 2 benches with a table between, so that one couple is facing the back of the train. Since they have a table, it seems like a better idea for breakfast would be to offer a boxed breakfast similar to the type the airlines have or remove the tables and put in more comfortable seating. The seats on the motorcoaches were better. This turned out to be the worst part of our trip. Even though the scenery was nice, the ride seemed interminable and the itinerary was deceiving in that it mentioned a stop in Talkeetna, but did not mention that no one gets off the train there. We finally arrived at the Denali Wilderness Lodge at about 4:00 PM. We were assigned a room and given tickets for our Natural History Tour for the next morning, 6:30 AM.
The Lodge is a group of rustic buildings, the rooms are adequate and the views are beautiful from certain rooms. Thank goodness we had a "good" room. We did not utilize the hot tubs since we were instructed to bring just an overnight bag, the remainder of our luggage was sent on to the next stop. Dinner was slightly expensive but very good. The tour the next morning was most enjoyable, mainly because of the knowledgeable park ranger. It was supposed to be about 3 hours, but was actually 4 hours. When we got back to our rooms the bed was already stripped. Since our motorcoach did not leave for Fairbanks until 1:30, we had lunch in the dining room. Lunch was much more reasonable than dinner and everyone enjoyed their choices. The Midnight Express Railroad and the Denali Wilderness Lodge looked so intriguing in the brochures that I can't express my disappointment in this part of the trip.
Our next motorcoach was to Fairbanks. Even though several passengers begged the driver to bypass the stop at the University of Alaska museum, he stopped anyway, we rushed through and finally arrived at our last stop, the Bear Lodge. We had dinner here and even though the service was sloppy, we resolved to enjoy our last night. The rooms were very nice, but again, our wakeup call was for 5:00 AM. Our flight home was leaving at 6:30 AM.
My advice to anyone reading this review is that if you choose to do a cruise-land package, make arrangements to do the land portion first and then spend the next 7 days relaxing on the ship. If we go again, we would probably do the cruise alone, or rent a car and do our own touring.