Star Princess Denali Explorer, Day 5: Boarding the Star Princess

Taking the Train to a Star

Today, we rode the rails en-route from Denali to Whittier, Alaska to embark the beautiful Star Princess! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Today, we rode the rails en-route from Denali to Whittier, Alaska to embark the beautiful Star Princess! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Saturday, June 20, 2015

This morning, I awoke at the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge as I continued my Princess Cruises’ Denali Explorer Tour that began in Anchorage, Alaska on Tuesday and will conclude next Saturday in Vancouver, British Columbia. But today, we’d be saying goodbye to the Lodge and Denali National Park to join the spectacular 2,600-guest Star Princess.

But the Star Princess is hundreds of miles to the south, docked in the sleepy little port of Whittier, Alaska. So how do we get to her? Why, we ride the train, of course!

Our Gold Star car is at the forward end of the train, directly behind the locomotive. It's also exclusive, whereas other cars can be passed through. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Our Gold Star car is at the forward end of the train, directly behind the locomotive. It’s also exclusive, whereas other cars can be passed through. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

At 7:45 a.m., we boarded a bus for the short ride to the Denali Station, where we embarked our exclusive Princess Cruises Denali Express Rail Car. Holding Gold Star tickets, we were ushered into the private car at the front of the train, smack-dab behind the powerful EMD locomotive that sat rumbling on the tracks, waiting to pull out of the station at 8:15 a.m. on the dot.

Reserved for Princess’ Connoisseur Tour guests, this Gold Star car is decked out in Alaska Railroad colours and fitted with a bright and airy restaurant on the bottom level of the rail car, topped with an expansive domed observation car on the upper level. Rather than sitting in a four-facing configuration, all seats are forward-facing and feature as much legroom as a typical Business Class flight. Seating is comfortable, and the views are magnificent.

On the bottom level of our Gold Star car is the attractive dining salon, which features better food than you might expect. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
On the bottom level of our Gold Star car is the attractive dining salon, which features better food than you might expect. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Up top, the domed views from the sitting area are spectacular. Guests are assigned seats, just like on an airplane, so there's no jostling for the "better" seats. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Up top, the domed views from the sitting area are spectacular. Guests are assigned seats, just like on an airplane, so there’s no jostling for the “better” seats. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
What can you see from your rail car? This. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
What can you see from your rail car? This. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
And this. Simply stunning! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
And this. Simply stunning! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

It’s also exclusive: while guests have the run of the six-car train, the only car that is off-limits to other guests is the Gold Star car. Several signs state this fact. Gold Star guests can, however, have run of the train – perfect for shutterbugs who are willing to make the multi-car trek back to the very last car’s observation platform for a unique view of the train as it thunders along.

At exactly 8:15 a.m., the massive diesel locomotive rumbled to life. Its enormous steel drive wheels slipped and skidded on the sun-splashed tracks, finally gaining traction. The train, including our rail car began to move. We were underway.

Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
If Train A leaves the station at 11:00am, and Train B departs half an hour earlier, at what point will....oh, who cares. Here's when two trains meet! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
If Train A leaves the station at 11:00am, and Train B departs half an hour earlier, at what point will….oh, who cares. Here’s when two trains meet! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Zipping past Talkeetna, where we were just days ago. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Zipping past Talkeetna, where we were just days ago. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Curious as to where we are? Check out the interactive monitors at the ends of each car for a GPS-style map. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Curious as to where we are? Check out the interactive monitors at the ends of each car for a GPS-style map. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Smoked Salmon Bloody Mary, anyone? Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Smoked Salmon Bloody Mary, anyone? Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
You're far from trapped on this gorgeous 9.5-hour trip to Whittier. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
You’re far from trapped on this gorgeous 9.5-hour trip to Whittier. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Here’s the deal with the train: it’s a 9.5-hour long journey from the Denali depot to the station in Whittier. Did I mention it’s a spectacularly scenic 9.5-hour journey? It is. Sure, it’s not the shortest rail journey the world has ever known, but it is a rail journey – meaning you can get up, stretch your legs, order coffee and mimosas, or amble down to the dining room on the main floor of the carriage for a bite to eat if you’re so inclined.

The journey may be long, but you are far from being trapped.

The big reveal: Star Princess, as seen after exiting the tunnel in Whittier. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
The big reveal: Star Princess, as seen after exiting the tunnel in Whittier. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Things got off on the right note – literally – when the theme from The Love Boat started playing as we left the station. Our conductor held the microphone up to his iPhone to allow the song to be broadcast across the entire public address system. I’m not a huge Love Boat fan (wrong generation, I guess), but there’s no denying its inexorable link with Princess Cruises; the title theme has almost become the unofficial theme for Princess.

Princess really goes the extra mile to ensure that your pre-cruise land tour and cruise blend together perfectly. To that end, the train stopped briefly in Wasilla, Alaska to embark Princess agents who completed check-in for each and every guest as the train sped south towards Anchorage.

Looking gorgeous. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Looking good, Star Princess. Looking good. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

All you have to do is present your printed boarding pass (that you receive when you complete your online check-in) along with the standard health questionnaire that they deliver to you on the train and your passport. Your boarding pass and form are kept, your passport is scanned, and your stateroom keycards are delivered to you right on the train as it pulls in to Whittier, Alaska.

For those who haven’t been to Whittier before, the journey is a series of grand reveals. The first occurs just south of Anchorage, as the somewhat ubiquitous forests give way to the stunning Pacific Ocean and the edge of the Kenai Peninsula. Running parallel to the highway, the train then winds its way between mountain and sea for over an hour before coming to what looks like a small snowshed inset into the base of the mountain.

Strolling the decks before departure: Movies Under the Stars, or MUTS, on Deck 14. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Strolling the decks before departure: Movies Under the Stars, or MUTS, on Deck 14. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
The Indoor Pool, The Conservatory, spans Decks 14 and 15. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
The Indoor Pool, The Conservatory, spans Decks 14 and 15. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Except this is no snowshed: it’s the entrance to a massive tunnel some 10 miles in length that is shared with vehicle traffic and rail traffic on an alternating 30-minute schedule. This tunnel – which bores straight through a mountain range – is the only way to access the small town of Whittier.

After a short wait, the train blew its whistle and gradually made its way into the tunnel. After perhaps three or four minutes of subway-like conditions, our car emerged from the tunnel and was greeted by blinding daylight – and the beautiful Star Princess tied up at her berth. It’s a majestic reveal unlike any other port in the world.

The glittering atrium aboard Star Princess, decked out in Alaska and Princess 50th Anniversary garb. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
The glittering atrium aboard Star Princess, decked out in Alaska and Princess 50th Anniversary garb. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Check in formalities in Whittier are limited to a brief and simple security search. Because guests have been arriving from various places throughout the day, you don’t queue at all. You just go through security, walk up the gangway, and have your keycard zapped.

As much as I have enjoyed the land portion of this trip, there’s something wonderful about stepping onboard the Star Princess. As you go up the gangway, you smell the freshness of the ocean. You feel the wind whip across your face as the walkway bounces underfoot. Suddenly, you’re stepping onboard, through the shell doors, and into the grand atrium – now known as The Piazza – aboard the Star Princess.

Star Princess is in fabulous condition, right down to the ship's three stairwells. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Star Princess is in fabulous condition, right down to the ship’s three stairwells. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

My first impressions? Star Princess is sparkling. During a refit a few years back, the Atrium was redesigned to more closely resemble the Piazza Atrium concept that Princess debuted aboard the Crown Princess back in 2006. To that end, there’s new stone and marble flooring on the lowest (Deck 5) level that looks tremendous. The ship now sports popular innovations like Vines Wine & Sushi Bar and the oh-so-good International Café, with its specialty coffees, pastries and light bites.

But throughout the ship, I also notice other subtle changes. Much of this I’m basing on past experiences on sister-ship Golden Princess and near-sister Crown Princess.

Have you found the intimate Cigar Bar just aft of the Princess Theatre? Seek it out - it's one cool space! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Have you found the intimate Cigar Bar just aft of the Princess Theatre? Seek it out – it’s one cool space! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Carpeting hasn’t just been changed out and replaced – it’s been entirely rethought with newer, more attractive colours, designs and patterns. Gone are the horrible teal-greens and light red high-traction carpets, replaced instead with dark browns, blues, and soft earth tones. Even in my suite, the carpet is noticeably brighter and flashier than it was as-built back in 2003. Those are the kinds of things I like to see when I step aboard a ship that’s over 10 years old: refurbishments and enhancements that keep her looking like she just rolled out of the shipyard.

My home for the next week is what I personally consider to be one of Princess Cruises’ best accommodations: a Mini-Suite on Dolphin Deck 9.

My home for the next week: Mini Suite D709. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
My home for the next week: Mini Suite D709. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

These middle-of-the-accommodations-pack suites measure 323 square feet with a 61-square foot balcony and are a great bridge between the more spacious (and expensive) full suites that can get up to 1,314 square feet in size; and the smaller, standard balcony suites that typically clock in around 232 square feet, with a 47-square foot balcony.

Upon entering, mini-suites feature a small entryway with a bathroom and walk-in-closet off to one side. The bathroom features a full-sized tub and a larger-than-average vanity, along with some upgraded Lotus Spa bath amenities.

Mini Suites aboard Star Princess feature larger-than-average bathrooms with full-sized tubs. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Mini Suites aboard Star Princess feature larger-than-average bathrooms with full-sized tubs. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
This bathroom arrangement is used on mini-suites on all Grand Class ships. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
This bathroom arrangement is used on mini-suites on all Grand Class ships. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

A main sleeping area is bordered by a vanity and writing desk that are attractively angled, and a little circular mini-bar outcrop that features plenty of storage space and two flat panel televisions: one on either side.

The other end of the stateroom is occupied by a full-sized seating area that comes complete with a chair, a couch large enough for two people, a full-sized coffee table and dedicated lighting.

Say hello to two television sets! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Say hello to two television sets! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

This gives way to an oversized balcony that is absolutely huge. It features two deck chairs, two footstools, and a full-sized table. The only downside to these Dolphin Deck mini-suites? The balcony is entirely uncovered, which could be an issue in rainy Alaska. But if you love the mini-suites, I have a secret for you: there’s about a dozen or so with covered balconies just one deck down on Emerald Deck!

To kick your cruise off on the right note, your stateroom attendant will also come around to offer you a complimentary glass of champagne. It’s a nice touch – and about all the champagne I can reasonably drink!

The best thing about these mini suites other than the room itself? The colossally-oversized balcony. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
The best thing about these mini suites other than the room itself? The colossally-oversized balcony – all of which can’t fit in this photo. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

I’m not just being complementary about these suites. In my former life as an editor in the animation industry, I would book this category of suite on nearly all of my Princess cruises. I splurged on it back in 2007 aboard Crown Princess in Canada and New England, and again aboard Golden Princess in 2008.

For a 2009 Crown Princess voyage around the British Isles, price considerations made me downgrade to a standard balcony on Aloha Deck. It was a fine stateroom, to be sure, but I really missed the extra space from the dedicated seating area, the double TV, and the oversized balcony. That’s the problem with suites: go once, and you won’t want to go back to anything else!

Guests look on...Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Guests look on…Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
...as Star Princess thrusts away from her berth and maneuvers into the channel. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
…as Star Princess thrusts away from her berth and maneuvers into the channel. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

It’s nice to be back on Princess Cruises again. I always feel a bit like I’ve ‘come home’ when I sail with the line. My first Princess cruise was in September of 2007, aboard the larger Crown Princess from New York to the Canadian Maritimes. This was followed by a jaunt on the Golden Princess in the Mexican Riviera; another trip aboard Crown Princess in 2009 to the Iceland, Norway and the British Isles; and a voyage aboard Coral Princess on this very Alaska itinerary back in the summer of 2013.

At night, I take my customary stroll along the Promenade Deck..Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
At night, I take my customary stroll along the Promenade Deck..Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
...and realize how much I've missed ships with actual deck chairs! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
…and realize how much I’ve missed ships with actual deck chairs! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Tonight, we sail southbound for College Fjord, Hubbard Glacier, Glacier Bay National Park, Skagway, Juneau and Ketchikan. I’ve been coming here since 1998, and yet Alaska still holds me captive in her spell. Powerless to help myself, I come back year after year; seemingly on an endless quest to discover what it is that I so love about this part of the world.

That the Star Princess is my home for the next seven days is just the icing on the cake.

Goodnight! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Goodnight! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Star Princess, Denali Explorer

Day 1 & 2Anchorage & Mt. McKinley
Day 3Denali National Park
Day 4Double Denali
Day 5Boarding the Star Princess
Day 6Hubbard Glacier
Day 7Glacier Bay
Day 8Skagway
Day 9Juneau
Day 10Ketchikan
Postcards from Star Princess

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