Southern Caribbean Cruise March 1998
WHY THIS CRUISE?
After sailing with most of the other "main line" cruise companies, we wanted to try Princess Cruises. Also, we had heard good things about the Dawn Princess, and we had not been to several of the islands of this itinerary. Interestingly, we wanted to sail on the Feb. 21 departure, but it was booked up even though we called for reservations in August of 1997. The eclipse, no doubt.
Getting to San Juan is usually more of a hassle than sailing out of S. Florida, but our arrangements went without a hitch. We elected to go the same day as cruise departure because there are several non-stop flights from our Charlotte, NC departure point, and the late departure time of the sailing (11p.m.) provided some margin for delays. Had I been coming from the West Coast, however, I definitely would have gone down the day before. As it was, we delayed sailing about 1/2 hour to accommodate some late flights. Even so, some travelers coming out of Denver missed the sailing due to adverse weather that affected their flights.
We arrived at SJU about 1:05. We were cruise only, so we collected our bags at baggage claim and located the Princess Rep. who directed us to a bus. We had anticipated paying a ground transfer fee at the bus, but we flowed aboard with the rest of the travelers with no coupons collected from anyone. Subsequent discussions with other travelers who did book the air/sea package revealed that transfer coupons were not included in their documents, so either Princess is including ground transfers in the price of the cruise (doubtful), or we got away with one.
Check in at the pier was quick and efficient. I particularly liked the "one stop check-in" procedure that gave us our boarding pass, door key and credit card activation all at one time, all in one card. We were settled in and at the buffet by 3:30.
Unfortunately, El Nino apparently followed us from NC where it has rained pretty much non-stop all winter, and it was raining in San Juan. We've been to San Juan before, however, so we used the opportunity to unpack and nap. Nevertheless, it would have been nice to start the cruise in the bright sunshine. We sailed about 11:30p.m. as the theme from "The Love Boat" played over the public address system.
Several reviewers have already described the Dawn Princess quite eloquently and completely, so I will direct my remarks more toward comparing and contrasting Dawn Princess and Princess Cruise Lines with other ships and lines I have sailed on recently (Grandeur of the Seas, Ryndam/Maasdam, Zenith). Suffice it to say that this is a beautiful ship with stunning public rooms, beautiful interior decor and excellent design.
We had our usual inside room, located amidships on deck 11 (Aloha 510). True to the many reports of downsizing, this room was quite small, noticeably more so than the standard inside cabin aboard Grandeur of the Seas. Small I can live with, but I was perturbed that this cabin did not even have a place to sit other than the bed or the stool at the makeup table. However, the bathroom was fairly good sized, and there was a lot of storage space. In fact, we did not even fill up all the drawers and closets (a first)! We liked the safe, which used a numerical code instead of a credit card, the small refrigerator which eliminated those perpetually slushy ice buckets, and the terry cloth bathrobes.
This ship was laid out somewhat differently in that most of the public rooms and both dining rooms were located on the lower decks. Therefore, there is no particular reason to pay a premium for the higher decks. The Baja Deck is located about midway between the lower activity decks and the upper sun decks and is sandwiched between two decks of cabins, so it is a good choice. Our room on Aloha Deck was fine, although we did get the reverberations from "Achy Breaky Heart" line dancing during the late night deck party. Fortunately, the line dancing terminated just as I was getting an achy breaky head.
*Tip*: Rooms to avoid: Emerald Deck outside rooms (underneath the jogging track), Aloha Deck A-700 number rooms (underneath the weight and workout room), and Caribe Deck C-500 number rooms (above the casino).
If you're into sunning and can never find a deck chair on most ships, this is the ship for you. There was deck after deck of sunning area with numerous lounge chairs, and I never saw a day or time when all the chairs were in use.
For those of use who are solarly challenged (we burn easily), the Promenade Deck offered a fine alternative lounging area with real wooden deck chairs and comfortable cushions. It was also a good jogging deck with a teakwood surface that completely encircled the ship (3 laps to a mile). The only problem was that it had to be shared with walkers, shuffleboard players, and rail spectators, causing some congestion.
The Dawn Princess has two separate but identical dining rooms on different decks. The dining rooms were attractive and comfortable but I don't believe they had the dramatic appeal of the two-level dining rooms connected by a grand staircase that you find on Galaxy and the RCI Vision Class Ships. The noise level also seemed to be somewhat high, maybe due to the relatively low ceilings. On a positive note, the central, low location of the dining rooms made for a stable ride during the rough weather we encountered.
The Horizon Court was the informal dining alternative. It was open longer than any other ship I have been on, and offered an alternative sit-down option for dinner. Also the seating area was large enough to accommodate most diners except at peak rush hours, and an efficient staff of bus boys kept the tables clean for rapid turnover. We never had trouble finding seats here as we did last year on Grandeur of the Seas, although the schedule of ports and tours may have been factor.
Princess Cruises makes a big deal of its pizza restaurants, and I'm not sure why. Dawn Princess devoted a significant amount of space to its sit-down restaurant, LaScala pizzeria. But get this! You had to order a complete pizza (no slices), you could not take the pizza out of the restaurant, and you could not order the pizza to go. If I'm going to eat pizza on a ship, it would be as a single slice dispensed in a fast-food manner in an appropriate location, such as by the pool, along with the hamburgers and hot dogs. Dawn Princess' format seemed peculiar and a waste of space that could have been better used elsewhere, such as expanding the casino.
Speaking of the casino, here was a big bone of contention! I'm not a big gambler and I have no delusions that I'm going to finance my cruise from the proceeds of my gaming. But I do enjoy Blackjack and I do expect the odds to be only slightly in favor of the house. Not so here. Dawn Princess used some strange rules which really tilt the odds in their favor: no double downs after splits, double downs only on 9,10,11, dealer doesn't deal his second card until everyone else has played, and $5 minimum/$100 maximum limits. (OK, the maximum wasn't a factor for me, but the minimum was, plus it's the principle I object to.) The final insult was that the casino charged you 3 percent to charge chips to your credit account! My recommendation: save your gambling for Vegas and Reno.
SHOW LOUNGES & ENTERTAINMENT:
Dawn Princess has two show rooms (Princess Theater and Vista Lounge) which are used simultaneously. This provided less crowding and a wider variety of entertainment than on some other ships. Several nights we attended a show before dinner in one lounge and another after dinner in the other. The entertainment was generally very good. Even the"dance spectaculars," which usually leave me cold, were enjoyable, partly because they integrated some alternative entertainment forms such as gymnastics into the performances.
FOOD AND SERVICE:
The overall food was good, on par with HAL, maybe a little below RCI and below Celebrity. The fish dishes were all prepared from previously frozen fish, inevitable, I guess, but as a result the fish was good but not great. The beef dishes seemed relatively better. Pasta was featured at every meal, but tablemates commented that it seemed greasy. Interestingly, there was little chicken featured on the menus. You could always order a plain chicken breast off the "healthy" menu, but there were few chicken dishes among the main selections. Since I eat chicken about 330 days the rest of the year, this was no big deal, but I did find it unusual. Overall, there seemed to be less variety and choice of entrees than on previous ships, and my dessert consultant opined that the dessert offerings were lacking in variety and quality.
The buffet food was more convenient than it was gourmet. Most of the offerings were served cafeteria style with limited variety. So far, only Holland America has offered a provision for custom order eggs and freshly toasted breads at the casual breakfast buffet.
The dining room service was excellent, as good as RCI and Celebrity, a little better than HAL. Our Phillipino waiter was older than most waiters we've had, about 50 I would guess (not that that's old), but he was highly efficient, friendly and fluent in English. Ditto for the assistant waiter who hailed from Romania. Cabin service was also excellent.
There are no wine stewards on Princess; your table waiter takes your wine orders. While this takes some of the ceremony (snobbery?) out of the wine purchase process, I found the procedure actually more efficient and expeditious than with a wine steward. Wine price and selection seemed on par with other lines. Overall, I had absolutely no complaints about any service in the dining room.
I had a big complaint with the ice cream service, however. Like most ships, Dawn Princess had an ice cream shop close to the pool where you could get afternoon ice cream. But they charged for it! This is the first experience I've ever had where a cruise ship charged for any item of food, including ice cream served on deck. After all, free food is a sacred cow, widely advertised and expected by cruise travelers as their birthright. They didn't charge for ice cream served as a dessert in the dining room, so why should they up on deck? What's next? A surcharge for burgers by the pool? An extra fee for afternoon tea? This is a bad precedent and is an example of several areas of "nickel-diming" that we found (more about that later).
THE CRUISE ITSELF:The first day was at sea. We had high winds (30-35 knots) and waves of 10 - 15 feet but it was warm and mostly sunny. The ship rode well in the rough seas but the motion was enough to cause some people discomfort. Interesting, this is four years in a row when we have encountered rough weather the first day of our cruise, at the same time of year. I don't ever remember rough weather in cruises prior to this, so I don't know if it's just our bad luck, a change in weather patterns or just good old El Nino following us. My companion is somewhat susceptible to motion sickness, but between the patch (back on the market now), ginger ale and staying topside, she managed the day well. Most importantly, the weather did not prevent us from attending the Captain's dinner and reception, although this was somewhat of a misnomer since the Captain didn't even attempt a receiving line with over 2000 passengers aboard. We went anyway, because free champagne is free champagne, after all.
Aruba was our first port. This is a great place to rent a car. The roads are good, traffic is light and you can see the whole island in a day. Bypass the rental car lot right by the pier and walk into town where you will find better rates. We rented a Chrysler Neon with (sort of ) air conditioning for $53, including insurance. The rates seem to vary according to how many ships are in harbor and what time of year it is. Open air jeep-type vehicles were popular rentals, but it's hot and windy in Aruba most of the time, so you might think twice about these unless you really want to bounce around off the beaten track. Scooters were also available but I wouldn't recommend them if you want to travel much farther than the nearby luxury hotels and beaches.
We covered most of the island and the sights easily in a day. The eastern part of the island near natural bridge was very dramatic with the waves crashing against the cliffs. There are many nice beaches on the western side of the island. We spent some time at Baby Beach in the southern corner of the island, which is a sheltered, shallow water beach with crystal clear water and excellent snorkeling (but no changing or bathroom facilties). This was a also a "tops optional" beach which, alas, I did not discover until I had run out of film.
Our next stop was LaGuaira, the port for Caracas, Venezuela. There's nothing at the port, so if you want to get off the ship, a tour is the way to go. Based on advice from other cruisers, we took the half day city tour and glass factory visit. The glass factory was interesting with good glass bargains. Unfortunately, the retail shop had been picked pretty clean by the time our p.m. tour bus arrived, a testimony to the values. Some new inventory was placed on the shelves while we were there, producing a shopper's equivalent of a shark feeding frenzy.
The city tour was interesting if for no other reason than to see the squatters erecting shanties all up and down the mountains. Other than that, there was not much of interest to see, other than a big, congested, traffic clogged city. Our tablemates took the 8 hour "Four Wheel Drive Coast Adventure" tour and hated it. Recommendation: visit the glass factory or stay on the ship.
Grenada was next on the agenda. This was the only port where we had to tender . The harbor and adjoining waters were scenic, but this is a poor island trying hard to find tourist attractions. We shared a cab and visited a modest waterfall mobbed by trinket vendors and swarming with falls jumpers looking for tips. Not a memorable experience. There is a fort at the entrance to the harbor which looked interesting but we did not have time to see it. Grenada does have some inexpensive spice souvenirs which make good gifts. Recommendation: visit the fort for good pictures of the harbor and ship at anchor, walk around the harbor, buy a spice necklace and head back to the ship.
Dawn Princess in Dominica
Photo by Paul Jaffe
Thursday came next, so this must be Dominica. This relatively undeveloped island is really quite pretty and is working hard to develop an eco-tourism image. Unfortunately, when you unleash 3500 fanny-packing, camera toting tourists onto a small island at one time, finding tranquillity in nature is next to impossible. Picture Times Square on New Year's Eve, transposed to a narrow mountain trail in a rain forest. That's what we had on our Dominica Highlights tour as we visited the Trafalgar Falls and Emerald Pool. Needless to say, it was hard to enjoy the raw beauty of the area when you had to wait in line for fleeting glimpses of natural beauty sites, usually obscured by ball caps, video cams and belly-distended tank tops. Those who avoided the tours in lieu of taxis did little better, and the island's main attractions were pretty much gridlocked all day long from what I could tell. Recommendation: try a cab anyway and try to time your visits to the attractions in between the major tour departures.
Our last day was spent in good ol' St. Thomas. Since we've been there and done that on several occasions, our activity was limited to confirming that there are no true shopping bargains in St. Thomas. I did buy an obligatory T shirt for my son with a St. Thomas logo that I subsequently discovered was made in Gastonia, NC, about 30 miles from where I live. So much for exotic souvenirs. The highlight of the day was a tour of the ship's bridge, a tradition of old that has largely gone my the wayside on other lines under the guise of "security" when the real reason is "it's too much trouble." Our friend El Nino returned to bring rain most of the afternoon and into the next day as we arrived back at San Juan.
Disembarkation was efficient and routine. The only wrinkle here was that departure priorities were based on deck levels (highest first), except for the earliest departing flights booked on the air/sea packages. We had a late flight so we dragged our feet in getting off the ship, but we were still at the airport by 11 a.m.
This was a good cruise (still have never been on a bad one) but not a great cruise. Positives: the ship, the service, the entertainment. Negatives: the itinerary, the tours and the nickel-diming. In addition to the previously mentioned charges for ice cream and casino chips, Princess charged for soft drinks with meals, a first in my experience. Also, if you wanted mineral water in your room, instead of the steward providing it on a daily basis and automatically applying the cost to your charge, you had to call room service every time, hence a service and delivery charge. Also, they gave you only an 11 ounce bottle instead of the standard 25 ounce size. Bottom line: $2.30 for an 11 ounce bottle of Perrier. Give me a break! I expect to spend money on vacation, but I hate being nickel and dimed. These examples are more ammunition for the all inclusive concept in cruise pricing.
These items are admittedly somewhat nit-picking, and overall, Princess provided an excellent cruise product and I would have no problem recommending this ship and cruise line to anyone. Dawn Princess sails on different itineraries on alternate weeks, and I think the other itinerary (Classic Southern) has more interesting ports, everything else being equal. I realize that it is unfair to draw conclusions about a cruise line from a single cruise, but what the heck, I'll do it anyway. Comparing the cruise lines I have been on, I would rank Princess above Carnival and Norwegian and below HAL, Celebrity and RCI. Just one man's opinion!
PORT CONGESTION. Our experiences with crowding in Grenada and Dominica highlight an ever increasing problem. As more and larger ships enter the cruise market, destinations in areas like the Caribbean are being overwhelmed. In most cases, the allure of the islands is their beauty and tranquillity, both of which are compromised when too many people try to take advantage of these qualities. Other than Cuba, there don't appear to be many new opportunities for expansion in the Caribbean. Thus the problem will only get worse. The net result is that the ship will become the primary attraction for a cruise, which is not all bad, but neither is it all good. I have always enjoyed the variety of ports and the sea/shore rotation. I don't pretend to have a solution for this situation, except to say that those of us who want both sea and shore vacations may have to start looking beyond the Caribbean.
SERVICE PROVIDERS AND TIPS. I have gone on about the miscellaneous charges aboard Dawn Princess. I also noted that prices have gone up on photos, drinks, tours, etc. Nobody likes price increases but such is life, and we accept them (more or less). Interestingly, though, the suggested tip guidelines, if my memory serves me correctly, are exactly the same now as when I first started cruising in 1978! We had an opportunity to visit at length with one of the dining room stewards during a rare lunch in the main dining room (this must be the Rodney Dangerfield of shipboard dining). These unflaggingly cheerful and efficient workers labor in a status that comes as close to indentured servitude as we are likely to find these days. The waiters sign contracts, the length of which depend on what country they are from. This waiter, from the Philippines, had to sign a 10 month contract. During that 10 months, he has virtually no days off, very little free time during the day, no chance to get off the ship, no retirement, no sick leave, no benefits. When his contract is over, there is no guarantee that he still has a job when he wants to come back to work. Despite this, they continue to give outstanding service in an intense customer-contact job that is truly demanding. Given this, I submit the $3.00 per day per person guideline we have used for years is woefully inadequate. I also submit that this work arrangement argues strongly for an alternative compensation system whereby the waiters/busboys and cabin stewards are not completely dependent on tips for their livelihood. This would probably mean a slight increase in cruise fares, but I think that would be a fair trade off for enabling these hard working men and women to become career employees rather than throw away laborers.
Richard Shipman is a pilot for U S Airways (formerly USAir), a freelance writer and an avid cruise fan. He lives in Concord, North Carolina (just outside of Charlotte) and can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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