Princess Pacific cruise review: from Vancouver to LA with whales, sealions, breweries, great views and Alcatraz

Welcome to #ChooseCruise – the national October campaign from industry body Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) which brings together the whole cruising family to showcase holidays afloat.

The British cruise market had a record 1,971,000 ocean and 210,400 river passengers in 2017 and Mirror Travel will be highlighting cruise holidays, news and offers throughout the month… so get set to head up the gangway!

Mirror Travel Editor Nigel Thompson joins Coral Princess on a cruise from Canada to California…

Most cruise ships leaving from Vancouver, Canada, turn northwest and head to Alaska. I joined the 2,000-passenger Coral Princess, which steered south along the Canadian and US Pacific coast for a heavenly 1,512-mile itinerary to the City of Angels. Here’s how I did it.

Vancouver skyline with mountains
Vancouver skyline with mountains

Vancouver, British Columbia

There can’t be many better places to start a cruise than this spectacularly situated city.

From the UK you’ll need an overnight stay before heading up the gangway, and if your flight arrives in time you could have a great evening at the excellent bars and restaurants.

I was on the late flight so just had time for a nightcap before crashing out at the brilliant Pan Pacific Hotel, which is part of the cruise terminal.

The next morning I enjoyed a stroll and a coffee or two at Coal Harbour waterfront, where the seaplanes taking off and landing seem to rival the raucous seagulls in number.

Embarkation beckoned and was an absolute doddle. The hotel transfers your bags to your ship so you simply head to the check-in desks. Before you know it, you’re on board with a cuppa (Twinings English Breakfast, thankfully) ready for a 4.30pm sailaway.

Victoria, British Columbia

The first stop is a small city with a big appeal and a lot of flowers: I walked in from the ship via the harbour path, stopping at the delightful Fisherman’s Wharf floating village, home to bars, restaurants, ice cream and souvenir shops, whale watching and kayaking tour firms and private homes.

Nigel boards a water taxi in Victoria BC

The city centre is dominated by the beautiful Victorian BC legislature building and the grand dame Fairmont Empress hotel.

It’s a great place for a relaxed stroll and I took in Canada’s smallest Chinatown, some jolly souvenir shops, the historic Bard & Banker pub (try the local Phillips Lager) and the popular Sam’s Deli for a sandwich. Great place (check out the fun water taxis) – I loved it.

As a massive bonus, after an early evening sailaway, I saw dozens of whales spouting, rolling out of the ocean and flipping their tails – it could have been a hundred, I spotted so many. A very special sighting.

Fisherman’s Wharf floating village in Victoria BC

Astoria, Oregon

Buoy did I have a good day ashore in this sprawling town by the mouth of the mighty Columbia River.

Pre-cruise research recommended the 125ft Astoria Column, on top of a 600ft hill, for spectacular 360-degree views – so with the weather fair I decided to walk the 2.7 miles.

The first half was along the river path, a pleasant route which followed the tracks of a tourist tram line on a wooden boardwalk.

Then I cut inland to the town centre – home to several museums and brewpubs – for a pitstop at Street 14, a great coffee shop, before heading ever upwards and through the forest.

A thigh-sapping hour later I reached the column, built in 1926. It’s free to climb, then most people pay $1 for a little balsa wood glider to throw off the top to see how far it goes.

The views are indeed fantastic, taking in the Pacific, the Columbia estuary, 3,288ft Saddle Mountain and an awful lot of trees.

Nigel’s jail mugshot in Astoria

My little glider landed in one of these after a surprisingly long flight bobbing about in the breeze. A dollar very well spent and proof that simple pleasures still exist in the digital age.

After the walk back I felt I deserved a portion of the award-winning fish and chips at the Bowpicker stall in a car park by the Maritime Museum.

The fish is albacore tuna and it’s much firmer than our traditional cod or haddock, and delicious. Expect huge queues – a woman behind me had driven 50 miles for hers!

I’d spotted the Buoy Brewery on the walk in to town and stopped off for a taster on the way back – a wise move. It has a cracking pub, great beer, fab river views and, best of all, a colony of boisterous, playful sea-lions living in the wooden piling underneath.

One glass of Buoy Light lager oh-so-easily turned into two and I sat looking over the river, watching passing lumber ships, skimming cormorants and bobbing sealions.

An A-list day ashore in a town that’s a Hollywood movie location (The Goonies, The Ring Two, Kindergarten Cop and Free Willy, for example), and there’s a museum in an old jail which has an amusing opportunity to see what your mugshot would be like if you were arrested.

Free Willy

Sea Day

A cruise sea day is usually a very relaxing experience and this was no exception. I slept in a little, watched some nifty fruit carving by the chefs, browsed the shops and headed to The Sanctuary at the stern to chill out and read.

It’s a private retreat with light meals, extra-special service – and “chill” was the word with a north wind which necessitated blankets and a fleece. The plunge pool remained unplunged.

San Francisco, California

Coral Princess docks in a great location here, at Pier 27 just a couple of minutes’ walk from the terminal for the ferries to Alcatraz .

If a visit to the former prison isn’t on your wish-list, then it should be: it’s one of the best tourist attractions on the planet.

I joined an excursion for a two-hour visit to The Rock, but you could easily spend much longer. I’m not normally a fan of audio tours but the one here is terrific, narrated with fascinating insight by former inmates and guards.

Closed in 1963, much of the jail – built as an army fort in the 19th century – is showing its age, worn by the ravages of time and hostile climate of the Bay. It adds to the grim but compelling atmosphere. The tour takes you inside the bleak cells, including The Hole where the baddest of the bad did solitary in the dark.

Coral Princess

You also see the exercise yard where the jailbirds grabbed a few precious hours outside, playing baseball and bridge, or simply gazing forlornly at the San Francisco skyline or the Golden Gate Bridge (the views are glorious).

You’ll also see the dining room hatch where infamous prisoners such as Scarface, The Birdman and Machine Gun Kelly queued for their meals (the food was good) and the horrible toilets (Al Crapone?) in the workshops where the inmates made military uniforms.

Prison cell on Alcatraz

An extraordinary/horrendous/compelling place – do not miss it. The tour also headed across the Golden Gate to the northern viewing point and on to pretty Sausalito, where I had lunch but little time for much else.

Back in town, I watched the famous sealions at Pier 39 , decided Fisherman’s Wharf was looking a bit tatty, hiked up the insanely steep roads to see Lombard ‘The World’s Crookedest’ Street, found Chinatown was pretty deserted on a Sunday evening, and jumped on a Hyde-Powell cable car for a thrilling switchback ride.

Cable Car with Alcatraz Island in the background

Sea Day

As before. But that keen north wind had become even more enthusiastic. A plunge-free day again.

Santa Barbara, California

So I went on the whale-watching tour. The sea was rough and I saw none (they were all in Canada!). No matter, I had a great experience with a pod of hundreds of dolphins zipping about the boat, playing in the bow wave and surfing the wake, calves sticking to their mums.

Back on terra firma I headed to Santa Barbara’s lively State Street for excellent tacos and beers at the friendly Sandman Mexican bar and restaurant, then had a look round the farmers’ market, which was brimming with fabulous local produce, such as luscious golden raspberries from the Golden State.

Los Angeles, California

LA skyline

Wow, what a week it was. A 6am alarm to disembark for the flight home was slightly ­challenging, though as that trip was not till 9.35pm I had time for a terrific eight-hour tour of LA. But that’s a story for another day.

On board

The entertainment

Standards are pretty high and I enjoyed everything I saw, which was pretty diverse too.

Comedian Scott Wyler was quickfire and laugh-out-loud funny (although a few jokes for the predominantly American audience passed me by) and the ship’s talented singers and dancers clearly enjoyed their Motown and Mardi Gras shows as much as I did.

The Partridge Family

There was also a talk by Oscar-winning actor Shirley Jones (remember the Partridge Family ?!) but the highlight was undoubtedly the two illusion shows by America’s Got Talent finalist Hawley Magic.

I was in the front row for the husband-and-wife act both times and watched bewildered at the incredible tricks. At one point he conjured two women out of thin air!

The food

It’s good and with plenty of choice. The Horizon buffet does a decent spread, with curry the pick. The Bordeaux restaurant was excellent, with a cracking French onion soup and goat’s cheese souffle, good mains and lovely desserts.

Two speciality restaurants, Sabatini’s (Italian) and Bayou Café (Cajun/Creole) cost $25 and $29pp. I tried the latter and enjoyed baked oysters and a superb fillet steak.

Alcoholic drinks are a little pricey, not helped by the dollar-sterling exchange rate.

Service ship-wide is excellent – snappy and attentive but never intrusive.

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Cruise holidays

Book the holiday

BOOK IT: Princess Cruises has a seven-night Pacific Wine Country sailing from Vancouver to Los Angeles on Emerald Princess, leaving on April 11 and calling at Victoria, Astoria, San Francisco and Santa Barbara. From £1,695pp for a balcony cabin including flights from London, transfers and hotel in Vancouver. Find more at princess.com

TOP TIP: Don’t miss the San Francisco night-time sailaway – head on deck for an unmissable moment as you glide under the illuminated Golden Gate Bridge.

MORE INFO: Go to sftravel.com, tourismvancouver.com, tourismvictoria.com, travelastoria.com, santabarbaraca.com and discoverlosangeles.com.

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