A Review of our Emerald Princess Cruise of Alaska’s Inside Passage
It was with some trepidation we arrived at the cruise ship dock in Seattle. We were about to board for a one-week Alaska cruise sailing the Inside Passage on the Emerald Princess.
Why the trepidation? Prior to this our largest cruise ship had a capacity of 135 passengers (and there were only 85 of us)! So, 3500 passengers on one ship was mind blowing and as we arrived nothing allayed my fears. The boat is the size of a small floating city!
And after boarding I realize my estimate is not far off- the ship is 19 stories and has 3500 passengers and another 1200+ in crew!!! Oh my! What have we gotten ourselves into!
Welcome Aboard the Emerald Princess!
Arrival, check-in and boarding all go amazingly smooth. Seriously some hotels should come and watch this! Princess Cruises is a well-run organization and they have thought of everything! They have obviously done this before. Even Mark, always on the look-out for a better way to do anything, has no complaints.
It is unseasonably warm in Seattle, over 90 degrees and we are baking sitting around the pool waiting for our luggage to be delivered so we can change into shorts or a bathing suit.
Alaska Cruise Tip #1: Bring a carry-on bag with everything you might need if your luggage doesn’t arrive for a couple of hours. Pack bathing suits and a change of clothes and anything else you might need.
But we are suitably impressed they have music playing, the bar and grill are open and you can get a bite to eat.
Full Days at Sea Cruising Alaska’s Inside Passage
We are on the weeklong cruise via Alaska’s Inside Passage roundtrip from Seattle. With two full days at sea and most of a third we have plenty of leisure time on our Alaska cruise. Our first full day on the boat is a day at sea with plenty of time to explore the boat and see what there is to do.
And we are impressed, there is a never-ending variety of entertainment shows, movies, naturalist talks and films, exercise classes and more to do onboard the ship. You can’t possibly be bored onboard the ship no matter what your interests.
It also quite refreshing to have to unplug from technology- no internet, no mobile phones, just your fellow travelers. You can message other people in your party on the boat using the Princess@Sea app – a handy little app with all the day’s activities and a copy of your shipboard account. (You also get a paper copy of the day’s activities delivered daily to your cabin.)
Some of our onboard activities included briefings from the naturalist as we cruise Alaska’s Inside Passage. The naturalist pointed out wildlife and shared stories of life in Alaska and wildlife tales. Onboard stage shows included “Blame It on the Boogie” (70’s DISCO music) and “I got the Music”. We enjoyed a culinary demonstration, a tour of the galley, trivia night and the Sherlock Holmes Musical Murder Mystery Trivia (which was hilarious). And these are but a few of the things we did on board the ship.
There was plenty of time to relax and we found the library full of books and games. Keeping with the Alaska theme, Libby Riddles, the first woman to win the Iditarod, a 1,000 miles dog sled race across Alaska, was one of the speakers on board the ship.
To get us in the mood for our upcoming British Rock Tour in London we went to the British Invasion Music Trivia! Stay tuned for more on the tour to come!
We were amazed how many extended family groups were cruising together. In our group three generations were traveling together and we all enjoyed it!
Much to my surprise there is a lot of shopping onboard- jewelry, art, and everything in between. At times, I felt like I was in a live studio of the Home Shopping Network. But if you want to go on a cruise to shop, you are well covered.
The spa on board offers a full array of services. And while they are probably more expensive than at home, it can be a wonderful way to relax and enjoy your time on the ship. The couple’s massages are better value than some services.
This spa has wellness services including personal training, Zumba classes are held on the ship daily and there is a walking track so you can get some physical activity in as well.
On both of our full days at sea, dress for dinner was formal, which gives you a chance to dress up and head out for the night! Without having to worrying about how you get home!
Ports of Call on Alaska’s Inside Passage
We stopped at three ports on the way north through the Inside Passage to Alaska: Ketchikan, Juneau and Skagway. And made on stop in Victoria, British Columbia on the way south.
All the Alaskan ports of call are isolated, small towns. You cannot reach Ketchikan or Juneau by road, only sea or air.
Sailing the Inside Passage to Alaska and the cruise ship industry has been a boon for these towns. Often there are 4 (or more) huge cruise ships in town for the day. Our guide told us Skagway, a town of 1000 permanent residents swells to about 2000 in the summer and sees almost 1 million visitors, and you guessed it, most arrive on cruise ships! Wow!
Ketchikan: 1st Port of Call Cruising Alaska’s Inside Passage
Ketchikan began as a fishing town in 1883, with the opening of a salmon saltery. Today about 8,000 people live in town year-round, and about 13,500 in the summer.
Ketchikan is known as an arts and crafts town and many local artists sell their work in town. During the winter, after the tourists are gone, the community has a lively arts and theater scene.
Creek Street, is a historic area with many of the old buildings intact. This was the red-light district, and many of the brothels have historic plaques with their colorful history. Today they are small, quaint shops selling arts, crafts, jewelry and t-shirts. It is a lovely stroll alongside the creek. (Photos above)
Near Ketchikan is a temperate rainforest. You can visit and do a hike through this unique ecosystem. Other options off the ship included visiting the local Tlingit’s culture and learning more about their way of life including their carvings and symbols, and totem poles.
George Inlet Lodge, a historic lodge built in the 1940’s as a cannery bunkhouse is the spot where we have a crab feast, enjoying fresh Dungeness crab, some white wine, and maybe the best cheesecake I have ever had! With fresh Alaskan blueberries.
And well fed, we then boarded a small bI-plane for a scenic flight over the fjords and back to Ketchikan. Luckily while we were eating the weather cleared and we had spectacular views.
Ketchikan started and has prospered as a fishing town, it is known as the “Salmon Capital of the World.” On Park Avenue, an underwater viewing platform allows you to watch the salmon journey up the stream to lay their eggs on the salmon ladder. Gold and copper also were found nearby, timber was once a booming industry as well. Today, the town’s main source of income is tourism.
Juneau: 2nd Port of Call Cruising Alaska’s Inside Passage
Arriving via a small ship, our arrival in Juneau was different from most of our fellow cruise passengers. At 8 am the morning we were to arrive in Juneau, some of us got off the Emerald Princess into smaller ships to cruise Endicott Arm all the way to Juneau. The Emerald Princess followed the same route, but our smaller ship allowed us to go within a mile of Dawes Glacier. Endicott Arm is a 29-mile-long fjord, 1.5 miles wide which ends at Dawes Glacier. We could also stop and watch wildlife on the way to Juneau. We saw humpback whales, bald eagles, sea lions and harbor seals. And we had great weather!!
We were very lucky, at the face of Dawes Glacier, an iceberg broke off below the surface and shot up. They are called “shooters” and it is rare to see one!
Arriving several hours after our fellow passengers, we showered, ate on board the ship and then headed out to explore Juneau.
Juneau was a Tlingit settlement and a fishing community. In the 1870’s mining came to Juneau and a period of gold mining began. More miles of mining tunnels exist within Mt. Roberts than there are roads in Juneau. In fact, there are also more hiking trails than roads, with 262 miles of the former and only 45 miles of road.
If you have been enjoying the beer from the Alaska Brewing Company onboard the ship, this is your opportunity to visit the brewery and/or the visit the Alaska Brewery Depot in town to buy merchandise (tours to the brewery leave hourly from here).
There are lots of bars, restaurants and shops in town. Juneau is known for its arts and craft galleries.
If you need some exercise, there are many hikes leaving from town. Follow Gold St. to Basin Rd and you find several trailheads. You can walk up to Mt. Roberts, where the tramway runs, for a magnificent view, or take the tramway up and walk down.
Skagway: 3rd Port of Call Cruising Alaska’s Inside Passage
Our final stop in Alaska on our cruise was Skagway. A very small town, which relies heavily on tourism in the summer months, Skagway was our only Alaskan stop reachable over land. You can drive to Skagway from Whitehorse in Canada.
One of guides told us stories of the grocery barge being late and the town running out of groceries. Most people keep a small vegetable garden just in case.
The town is a quick walk from the cruise dock. With original wooden buildings, none more than two stories, the town is quaint. Exactly how you picture an old western town or the set on a Western movie. The local Park Rangers offer a free 45-minute walking tour of the town. Perfect to get a bit of exercise off the ship.
We headed off with a local photographer for a photography shoot. I find these can be helpful to both learn to improve my photography skills but also to see and learn good places to take pictures where you are visiting. If you think about it, you know where you live and where you can get good photos. Heading out with a local photographer usually means you will get some great shots. (I did this as well in Phnom Penh and I have some great photos from that day as well.)
We then had a wander around town and then returned to the cruise dock to board the White Pass Railroad for a train trip.
Skagway, like Juneau, grew rapidly. In Skagway, gold was found in the Klondike. Many men (and horses) died just trying to cross the pass to get to the gold fields. An enterprising businessman decided a train was needed. Together with an experienced railroad man, the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad was built in 1898 in only 26 months.
An amazing feat of engineering: The route has tunnels, trestle bridges, a cantilever bridge and amazing scenery. Climbing 3000 feet in only 20 miles, the route is steep. It runs a total of 110 miles, ending in the Yukon Territory. After the gold rush ended, the railroad was still used for freight and bringing ore from other mining operations to the port.
Eventually when the mining ended, the railroad was closed in 1982. In 1988, the railroad was reopened as a passenger railway and today is a very popular tourist attraction. Many of the over 1,000,000 visitors to Skagway make the trip.
The railroad is in the International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark, a designation shared with other engineering marvels such as the Panama Canal, and the Eiffel Tower.
Victoria: 4th Port of Call Cruising Alaska’s Inside Passage
Last stop was Victoria, on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada. As an island, it enjoys a microclimate which is surprisingly warm. Boasting over 2100 hours of sunshine, 26 inches of rain and spring and summer temperatures from 65-90 degrees Fahrenheit. Fort Victoria, as it was known when settled in 1843, was a trading post for the Hudson Bay Company.
This was a very short port call- arriving at 7:30 p.m. and departing at 11:30 pm. Excursions were brief, and you could stay on the boat and see a fireworks display as Canada celebrated it’s 150 Anniversary on Canada Day.
We went to Butchart Gardens, a 62-acre garden which was begun over 100 years ago by the Butchart Family. The Butcharts ran a successful cement factory, Jennie, the company chemist, began converting the exhausted limestone quarry into a garden. Today this is the Sunken Garden, the oldest part of the present-day gardens.
And the gardens are amazing. Better than many public gardens we have seen. The variety of plants, the size, how well maintained it is, combine to make it a truly amazing garden. The rose garden is better than any English Rose garden I have ever seen! And the Japanese gardens would be stunning in the fall. The Japanese maples and the ponds are beautiful.
Unfortunately, we did not have time to see Victoria in the daylight. I will have to visit again! Victoria is considered Canada’s “most British” city and the public buildings and many old mansions are built in Victorian and Edwardian style. High tea is served at the Fairmont Empress Hotel. There are many English pubs in town and a castle. Criaderas Castle was the home of Robert Dunsmuir a Scotsman, who made his money from coal on Victoria Island.
Onboard Drinking and Dining: Restaurants, Bars and Premium Dining
For the full day at sea, dress for dinner was formal attire. If you really want to make a night of it, the spa offers hair styling services for the ladies and shaves for the men. You can make a reservation in one of the specialty dining rooms (and additional fee applies). We tried the Crown Grill a full-service steakhouse, and Share, a restaurant by Curtis Stone, an Australian Chef. Share features a 6-course menu. It was the best meal we had on the boat! (And that is saying a lot, as the food and service onboard the Emerald Princess was excellent.) Very enjoyable dinner!
The menus in the restaurant change daily. Alaskan salmon, crab legs, and a feast of other seafood options were featured on the menu. And don’t worry if you don’t like seafood, there are plenty of other options. Deciding what to eat might have been the most difficult thing on the entire cruise!
Alaska Cruise: Inside Passage Tours and Excursions in Port
There are a wide variety of Alaska cruise tours and excursions available. You have several options for your activities in each port:
- Book through Princess Cruises- this is easy and convenient and all very well organized. We took this option.
- Organize them yourself. You can organize your own tours in each port, several people we met had used this option. Many of the tours are the same as the ones from Princess and use the same tour operators.
- Book the day you arrive. At each port, there were options to book activities when you got off the boat. I would suggest if you want to do this option you do a bit of advance research so you know what time these tours depart and can get off the boat in time. You do run the risk the activity/tour is full. But if you decide you want to do something at the last minute this is great.
- Do your own thing independently.
Alaska Cruise Tips and the Best Time to Cruise to Alaska
Cruise Tips for Your Alaska Cruise Sailing the Inside Passage
- Bring Clothes for Cold Weather and Rain
- Get organized and think about what you want to do in each Port- book excursions ahead of time or know what you want to do before you arrive
- Book Specialty restaurants in advance
- Set up the Princess@Sea app on your phones so you can message each other and find each other on the boat.
- The Port of Seattle offers a free luggage transfer service. You can check you luggage straight to your flight from the cruise ship. This way you can explore Seattle for the day luggage free and head to the airport for an evening flight.
- Find more tips on our full list of our cruise tips for first time cruisers.
Best Time to Cruise to Alaska
The cruise season to Alaska is short- lasting late April to early October. It can be very busy so book early. The peak times are late June through August and this is when things will be their busiest and the prices most expensive. It is also your best chance for clear weather.
Our cruise was in late June and we were very lucky with the weather. We did not have any rain on our excursion days, and some days were clear (which apparently is a bit unusual.) Warm clothes were essential. It was chilly on the water and the wind can be quite cool. After our 90-degree day in Seattle we never wore shorts again.
If you want to avoid the peak times travel in May or September. Your cruise ship is also less likely to be fully booked.
Highlights of Our Alaska Cruise Experience on the Emerald Princess
- No two people’s cruises would be the same-the variety of things to do onboard, places to eat, and excursions ensure your cruise will be your own.
- Great with a group of friends, family, multi-generational groups as there is a wide variety of activities for all ages.
- The dining, service and staff were all excellent. No complaints at all.
- The fact we only had to unpack once.
Lowlights of Our Alaska Cruise Experience on the Emerald Princess
- Rough weather- we had 12-16 hours of very rough weather as we made our way from Skagway to Victoria. It was too rough to be outside and even a bit rough inside at times.
- Not enough exercise- we didn’t exercise as much as we would normally. Not due to lack of opportunities but due to too many other things to do. At the end of our cruise we felt in need of some exercise.
- Too short a time in port. The time spent in port in most of these ports is very brief. After the excursion or activity there was little time to explore the towns.
Fun Facts from our Alaska Inside Passage Cruise on the Emerald Princess
Many people love cruising, they return time and time again and can be quite loyal to a cruise line. The passenger on our cruise with the most days spent on Princess Cruises had spent over 650 days cruising with Princess Cruises.
Several of the staff we met also loved cruising. The longest serving staff member we met was one of the managers and he had spent over 30 years in the cruise industry!
You can find more information about Princess Cruises to Alaska on their website.