Overview of Coral Princess Alaska Cruisetour, July 2019:
Getting to Alaska
Our flight to Seattle was on a Virgin Airlines Boeing 787 in Economy. We had looked to upgrade to Premium Economy but the price was prohibitive. It was a good flight with decent food and great cabin crew. Immigration at Seattle Airport was a nightmare, taking an hour to actually get into the immigration hall and another hour to get seen. The immigration official was very polite. As per our instructions, we got the hotel shuttle from the airport to the Hilton Doubletree Hotel. This was ideally located about 5 minutes from the airport. It is a VERY large hotel and I had read reviews about long queues at the Front Desk, which was indeed the case, taking about 20 minutes to get to the front and get checked in. Our room was somewhat old-fashioned but clean and comfortable with very comfortable beds. We had a very pleasant dinner at the 13 Coins restaurant a few minutes along the road from the hotel. We had booked the whole flight package through Princess and they had very kindly booked us on to an Alaska Airlines flight to Fairbanks at 0630 the next morning, meaning a 4am wake-up call...
Due to the early flight, we arrived in Fairbanks by mid-morning, taking into account that Alaska is one hour behind Seattle - 9 hours behind the UK. We were met at the airport by a Princess Rep and transferred to the Fairbanks Princess Lodge very efficiently with a small number of other people. The Lodge is nicely situated on the river with pleasant public areas, although the main restaurant was rather dark and dreary. The buffet breakfast was not good. Our room was fairly basic but again had comfortable beds and we were lucky to have one with a river view.
On day one, we took a shuttle into the town centre for a walk around in the pleasant, sunny weather. We went to the local cultural centre, which provided an interesting film and lots of interesting exhibits showing the history and way of life in Alaska. we then had a nice wander along the river and a very tasty, home-made, blueberry ice cream before getting the shuttle back to the hotel. In the evening, we had a pre-booked excursion to Pioneer Park for a Salmon Bake meal, followed by a theatre show all about Fairbanks and the Gold-rush. It was all very touristy - but hey, we are tourists!
On day two, we were on an all-day included tour. This started at the site of the Alaska Oil Pipeline, an 800 mile pipe transporting oil across the State. We then boarded a replica train to visit Gold Dredge 8, a restored gold dredging 'factory'. It was interesting to learn about how they dredged for gold and we all got a chance to pan for – and find – some small chips of gold. Mine were – apparently – worth $18. You can of course buy a myriad of things to put your gold into – most costing more than the gold you had just panned!Complimentary Coffee & Cookies were served in the on-site shop. After the return train journey and further coach ride, we arrived at a Steamer Landing Stage, where we had an included lunch before getting on the Paddle Steamer. The sail along the river included seeing a float-plane take off and land, a stop alongside a famous Husky Kennels with demonstration and a visit to a re-created Athabascan Native Village with guided tour. Again the weather was warm & sunny and a good time was had by all. Complimentary snacks were served on board and you could also buy beers etc.
That night, we ate at 'Pike's Landing' just up the road from the Princess Lodge. It was a pleasant meal taken out on the terrace by the river and was very busy. A local woman with her niece asked if they could share our table and we enjoyed great conversation with them.
On day three, we transferred to Denali by coach to the Denali Princess Lodge, just down the road from the entrance to the National Park. This is apparently the largest hotel complex in Alaska. Rooms are in mainly two-storey blocks scattered around the site, again on the edge of the river. The site includes several restaurants and shops but there are also independent restaurants and shops just across the road. Our room looked recently refurbished and was comfortable but could have benefited from better lighting. That evening we had pre-booked an excursion to go on a horse-drawn wagon into the Tundra and have a meal in a wooden pavilion. This was great fun and to our surprise also included alcoholic refreshment with dinner!
Day 4 saw us on our full-day Tundra Wilderness Tour in Denali National Park. This took us some 65 miles into the Park amidst great scenery and we saw lots of Caribou, a Moose, Ptarmigan (the State bird of Alaska) and Dall Sheep. Sadly we did not see any bears. Nor were we luck enough to get to see the top of Mount Denali, the highest mountain in North America. Due to cloud cover only about a third of visitors get to see it. That night we tried to eat at a local restaurant but there was a long wait so we ended up eating on-site at 'Fannie Q's', named after a local pioneer woman. It was a nice meal with a singer/pianist entertaining us too. As in Fairbanks, it was strange to see the sun still pretty high in the sky after 1100pm!
Day 5 saw us transferring by rail to Coral Princess in Whittier for our cruise. This was 8.15am – 5.30pm. I thought this might feel like a long day but it flew by. It is a double-decker train with 'dome-car' on the top level for good views and restaurant facilities downstairs, together with outside viewing platforms. The food was surprisingly good and pretty much on a par cost-wise with the Lodges. We enjoyed pleasant conversation with both Breakfast and Lunch table-mates. The scenery was amazing on this trip and really show-cased how diverse the State is, passing by/through mountains, plains and coast. Also, we were lucky enough to get a great view of Mount Denali along the way.
We had deliberately chosen the Coral as we both prefer (by today's standards) smaller ships. She is just over 90,000 tons (so a smidgeon bigger than P&O's Arcadia) and carries approximately 2000 pax. Built in 2002, she obviously shows some small signs of wear – mainly around balcony doors etc. but is very well-cared-for internally. She had a re-fit in January this year. Internally, she is typically Princess, with many similarities to P&O's Oceana, which of course was previously Ocean Princess. Our standard balcony cabin was fine, although the shower stall was pretty tiny. She has very good facilities for her size – Main Theatre, two show-rooms – one over two decks, four bars, two main dining rooms and two for-fee restaurants, two pools (one indoors) and five jacuzzis.
Food and service were very good – probably a notch above P&O. Whilst I seldom have any complaints about P&O, the staff on Coral were generally quite outgoing without being over the top or 'in your face'. Evening menus were good, with meats cooked exactly as requested but as is usually the case with USA cruise lines, vegetable accompaniments were not exactly generous. We ate in Sabatini's, the Italian for-fee restaurant one evening, where the food was fabulous but served in far too large portions. The Horizon buffet was far superior to those on P&O but as someone who is fairly conservative with food tastes, I sometimes felt the choice was limited for me. Princess cater to a very diverse cross-section of pax meaning a lot of asian dishes daily. This was particularly difficult at breakfast time, when dishes included noodles, congee, steamed cabbage, baked apple and bread & butter pudding with custard... The breakfast in the main dining room strangely had a very limited menu and when I did have Eggs Benedict there, I was somewhat disappointed at the cheap, thin cut of 'ham'.
Musical Entertainment was very good, with the production shows being outstanding. To be honest, they blew P&O out of the water with the shows in all respects - staging, performance and professionalism. Their most recent shows are produced by Steven Schwarz, who wrote the Broadway & West End hit show, 'Wicked'. We didn't see any of the comedy shows or partake in quizzes as we thought they would be totally geared to Americans. We heard very, very few other English accents on board. Princess provided very good, expert guides to the area to broadcast across the ship whilst glacier viewing etc.
Thanks to having cruised with Princess before and many with P&O, we were both at Elite Level in the Captain's Circle Loyalty scheme. This gave us priority boarding in Whittier, upgraded toiletries, Canapés in our cabin on Formal nights, Deluxe Afternoon Tea in the cabin on one day, a stocked mini-bar, 150 internet minutes (each), unlimited free laundry, Elite Lounge each evening with complimentary snacks and low-priced drink specials, free wine-tasting event and disembarkation lounge with refreshments. There were only 30 Elite pax on this sailing so in lieu of a 'most-travelled' event, we were given one complimentary cover charge per person to use in either of the specialty restaurants. The afternoon tea was ridiculously generous and the food would have served 4 easily. There were 10 finger sandwiches/rolls, 7 scones (with jam & cream), 10 cakes and 6 cookies! Needless to say, we couldn't get through anywhere near all of it! Apparently we were in the top 10 most-travelled on this cruise. We were also lucky enough to receive a bottle of champagne at the Captain's Circle Party when ours was one of the three invitations drawn out at the 'raffle'. If we had purchased anything in the on-board boutiques, we would have received 10% discount but to be honest, neither of us actually ventured into the shops. Drinks on-board were – as you would probably expect – expensive. A couple of g&ts routinely came in at around $21 (£17)and a couple of cocktails at $23 (£19) by the time the 18% gratuity was added on to the bar prices. The cheapest bottle of wine was around $38 (about £32).
Overall, I was pretty impressed with Princess and would happily consider cruising with them again. The major drawback for me is that they have very few 'smaller' ships sailing where I might want to go.
The first day was a sea day, with a visit to the Hubbard Glacier in the afternoon. A very impressive glacier and we stayed here for a couple of hours.
Day two of the cruise was also at 'sea' in Glacier Bay National Park. We had visits to two glaciers here as well as passing by others. A glorious day in lovely weather.
Our first port of call, a pleasant little town – quite picturesque. We had booked an independent tour here (with Dyea Dave) which took us up into the Yukon Territory of Canada by mini-bus. As part of this, we visited a small Husky Dog-Sledding kennel, where we were able to meet some 4 week-old puppies, a stop at Carcross Desert – an area of sand dunes totally unexpected in where it is – Emerald Lake and the village of Carcross, where we had lunch. On the way back to Skagway, we were dropped off at Fraser to get the White Pass & Yukon Railroad, a narrow gauge railway with spectacular views and twists & turns. Along the Klondike Highway we were lucky enough to see a number of Black Bears, which made up for not seeing any in Denali! On arrival back in Skagway, we had to visit the Skagway Brewing Company to try their famous Spruce Tip Blonde Ale – which incorporates hand-picked Sitka Spruce Tree tips. It was gorgeous.
The State Capital of Alaska but quite small by our standards. Here, we had pre-booked a helicopter flight through Coastal Helicopters up to the Herbert Glacier, where we were able to get out of the helicopter and walk around on the glacier, tasting some of the ice-cold melt-water too. Wonderful sunny day and a fabulous experience. When we returned to the town, we walked around the main sites before going back to the ship.
A small, quaint albeit touristy town. We had pre-booked an independent tour with Island Wings on a float-plane up to an area called the Misty Fjords National Monument. It was far from misty, being another gorgeous, warm & sunny day. The scenery from the plane was stunning and we then landed in a remote fjord and were able to get out of the plane on a small beach. Another stunning day. On our return, we had some lunch on the ship and then went for a little walk around the pretty town and picked up some last minute souvenirs.
After the last day at sea, we disembarked in Vancouver, where we had three nights booked at the Pinnacle Vancouver Harbour Hotel. Disembarkation was fine but there was a long queue for taxis. Tip – if you can manage your luggage easily, go through the Convention Centre/Hotel and pick up a taxi in front of the hotel! During our time here, we saw Gas Town, Fly Over Canada, the Capilano Suspension Bridge & Park, Granville Island and Stanley Park. Well worth a few days at the end of the cruise.
We took a taxi to the airport for our Air Canada flight home. We had upgraded to Premium Economy and it was worth it for the extra space alone. The flight was on time and after landing at Heathrow, were back to my house within less than 2 hours of touch-down.
This was a stunning trip and easily the most fantastic holiday I have ever had. The natural wonders were the star of the show and the middle three days of the cruise were amazing. I have to keep convincing myself that I have done this. It is a long flight and it is a very expensive holiday but thoroughly worth it. I am very happy we chose to do it with Princess and would highly recommend them for Alaska.
Many thanks to Dawn MacIntosh, Susan Parr and their colleagues for their help & attention in putting this package together.