by Bernard Soltz
When the 2-for-1 offer arrived from Princess for the first sailing of the Ocean Princess from San Juan, Puerto Rico, I seized the opportunity. The Ocean Princess is the fourth ship in the Grand Class series. Except for name, these four, the Sun Princess, Dawn Princess, Sea Princess, and Ocean Princess, are practically identical. The cruise date for the inaugural sailing was February 26 to March 4, 2000. The itinerary, new to me, was San Juan, Curaçao, Isla Margarita, St. Vincent, St. Kitts, St. Thomas, ending in San Juan. This would be my tenth cruise, but only my second with Princess.
San Juan, Puerto Rico
I did my own air, and we flew from Tampa, near my winter home, to San Juan. Princess met Theresa and me as we went to retrieve our baggage. "No need to do that," the Princess rep said. "Give me your claim checks and I'll see that your bags are delivered to your cabin." And so it was. Princess has the baggage handling routine well in control. We boarded one of the waiting buses, and were soon on our way to the Ocean Princess.
We boarded the ship just after 1:00 p.m., and found our way to our stateroom, C502, a verandah accommodation located amidships. The room was, like most of the ship, done in earth colors, mostly light shades of brown. I found the décor pleasant and relaxing, much more so than the blue, or dark brown, or green on some other ships. The two lower beds were joined together and made up as a queen-size bed, as we had requested. Our ship's credit cards, dining room assignments, and guides were set out on the dresser. Everything was fresh, new, and inviting, but, I must confess, even with a verandah, the room did seem a bit small to us. Nevertheless, when our bags arrived, we managed to find sufficient storage space and were able to stow our empty bags under the bed.
We arrived too late for a sit-down lunch in the Sardinian dining room, but found a buffet in the Horizon Court, Deck 14. This was one of the finest buffets on any ship in memory, and could have been a dinner-spoiler if Theresa hadn't cautioned me. Good job, Princess. Following the buffet, I joined a group doing a conducted tour to get the lay of the ship. I was impressed with some of the amenities, such as a golf simulator (I'm not a golfer) and PCs in the library (on many ships now).
The ship departed at 11:00 p.m. Though tired, we sat on our verandah and watched as the lights of San Juan fell behind. By the time we cleared the channel, we were more than ready for bed, and well satisfied with our first day on the Ocean Princess.
The design of sister ships has been described adequately in earlier editions of the SeaLetter. Rather than go over this ground again, I'll just provide the basic data now, and let those readers who must know the details search the index. The Ocean Princess displaces 77,000 tons, is 856 feet long, holds 1,950 - 2,300 passengers, has two main dining rooms, two main show lounges, and over 400 staterooms with private balconies.
About This Review
This review covers the dining and entertainment experiences, recreational facilities, personal observations, new innovations from Princess, and last, but in detail, the ports and tours.
We were assigned to early seating in the Tuscan Dining Room, where we found congenial dining companions at a table for eight. The Tuscan Dining Room was open only for dinner; all other meals could be taken in the Sardinian Lounge, where open seating was observed for breakfast and lunch, or in the Horizon Court, the buffet on Deck 14. I deemed the quality, preparation, and service of food in the dining rooms to be excellent. Neither Theresa nor I were ever served a bad dish. Our waiter and assistant waiter were recruited from Mexico, gave good service, and were quite attentive to our needs.
If you're a devotée of the midnight buffet, don't look for that on any of the "Love Boats." Princess did away with that a couple of years ago. For those who must eat after midnight, food service is available in the Horizon Court from Midnight to 4:00 am.
As I always do, I compared the food on the Ocean Princess to food served on the other lines on which we've traveled. Before embarking, I had ranked the cruise lines for food as follows: (1)Celebrity; (2)RCI; (3)Princess and Holland America; and (4)Costa. Part way into this cruise, I had revised my list, putting Princess before RCI, and almost on a par with Celebrity. Theresa agreed, but with one caveat: "No tie; Celebrity is still my favorite!" she said. Oh well, we'll be sailing on Celebrity again before too long, and I'll rate again. I'll let you know what Theresa says then (if you haven't already guessed).
Major productions and the more elaborate presentations were given in the Princess Theater; the more intimate shows were performed in the Vista Lounge. The shows I saw in the Princess Theater were very good to excellent, but just like all the other shows I've seen on the various cruise lines. I will say that the cast performers were a cut above what I've seen and heard before, and some will surely be seen later in TV or the movies. The most memorable performance was that of Juan Carlos, a native of San Juan. He received standing ovations at both performances, and they were well deserved. Quite a talent!
I am happy to report that the gym facilities and the spa were all that I could have hoped for. Especially delightful were the sauna and steam rooms. These were easily accessible, and always nice and hot! They were also sensibly located, so that one had easy access to whirlpool or swimming pool, or exercise area. Good planning, Princess.
The passengers on this cruise were the most prosperous-looking I have ever run into in my cruising life. I saw a high percentage of men in tuxedos on the formal nights, and the women were all gowned beautifully. I attributed this to the possibility that this inaugural sailing had attracted a highly affluent group. On the other hand, we are well along in a period of great prosperity, and this may be an expression of that prosperity. It may also be a combination of the two.
Captain's Cocktail Party
On previous cruises, the Captain's Cocktail Parties were held in the theater. On this cruise, the party was held in the Atrium, using all five decks to accommodate the attendees. Closed-circuit TV carried images of the captain and his staff to passengers on all the decks. So, we have gone from the horizontal party to the vertical party. What's next?
A wine tasting seminar was given in the Tuscan Dining Room on Monday, our full day at sea. The charge was $5.00, which was refundable if you purchased wine after the seminar. This was a win-win situation, since almost everyone selected something for dinner that night. The tasting was presented in a very professional manner, and the wine stewards were very knowledgeable. (Believe me, I know; I'm a wine judge.) The only criticism I would make is that the tasting was done at the low end of the wine spectrum, that is, the wines presented were the low-priced wines. I would have welcomed another tasting that featured pricey wines, or better yet, a vertical tasting. Unfortunately, this was the only tasting offered on the cruise.
Most of the passengers were eligible to attend the Captain's Circle party for past cruisers. Princess, in order to assess the rank of the past cruisers, asked the members to stop by the desk and have their status checked. I told the purser that Theresa and I were second-time cruisers, and was told that our invitation for the party, along with pins designating our rank, would be sent to our cabin shortly. When they arrived, I was surprised that I had been made a Commodore, a rank reserved for those who have cruised with Princess ten or more times. Was this a clerical error? Were the maritime gods smiling at me? This will have to be our little secret!
On Sunday morning, I went to the library to pick up a copy of the maritime edition of the New York Times. When I could find no newspaper of any kind, I went to the main desk on Deck 5 to ask why. I was told that Princess was no longer printing newspapers every day for distribution in the library; instead, individual copies would be printed only on request. When my copy of the Times was handed to me, it was still hot from the Xerox machine. Why does Princess have this new policy? Too much waste, I was told. And one of the young ladies at the desk offered that we were destroying too many trees. So, why not set up a channel on the ship's closed circuit TV for newspapers? But, then, how could we do the Crossword?
Princess tried a new procedure that permits passengers to charge gratuities to their shipboard accounts. Those participating were given a voucher for each person they wished to tip. The vouchers were to be placed in appropriate gratuity envelopes and handed to the staff member at the end of the cruise. The recipient used the voucher like cash. This innovation simplified things for me. On the other hand, I realize that this information goes into the ship's computers, and the amounts given to each person becomes a matter of record, surely not something that the waiters, stewards, and so forth want others to know. How long do you think this new system will last?
Ports of Call
I would like to list all the tours Princess offered, but space does not permit. However, I will describe the tours I took and give you my take on the islands.
This is a delightful island just 35 miles north of Venezuela. Its Dutch ancestry can be seen quite distinctly in its architecture, and Dutch is the official language. Snorkeling and scuba diving tours, among others, are available, but I chose Tour CUR-B, "Curacao Highlights," a bus tour which would make it easier for Theresa to see the sights. This tour took us across the Queen Juliana Bridge, which offered a superior view of Willemstad, to a distillery where the original Curaçao Liqueur is made, to Brievengat House, a colonial estate, and finally back to the ship. I left Theresa on the bus in town and made my way on foot to the Mikveh Israel Synagogue, founded in 1732, the oldest synagogue in the western hemisphere. From there, I found my to the famous pontoon bridge, and then back to the ship.
Isla Margarita, Venezuela
This a 360-square-mile island situated 14 miles off the coast of Venezuela. It is densely populated by 675,000 people. Spanish is the official language. I had long known about the luxurious hotels and restaurants in the bustling city of Porlamar, and had friends who vacationed there at bargain rates, air included. I was anxious to see this city. I booked tour PMV-A, one of six offered by Princess, because it said that we would visit Porlamar before we returned to the ship. The Ocean Princess anchored at Guamache, a 45-minute cab ride from Porlamar. Our first stop was El Valle, the birthplace of Santiago Marino, one of the heroes of Venezuelan independence. His restored house was impressive and, if you've been to southern California, you've seen its like many times.
Next was a stop in Asunción to see its church, and finally, Porlamar, where we were given 20 minutes to walk down a few blocks on one of the commercial streets. Big Whoop!! This is not the Porlamar I wanted to see. Our guide pointed out buildings on the horizon which he said were beach front hotels, and called our attention to some of the new construction of condos some blocks from the beach. These, he said, with air conditioning, swimming pool, and other amenities, could be had for $40,000 USD. I deemed these a great bargain for Americans. Now, if Bill Gates would just lend me his LearJet for the winter!
So, if you want to avoid the unnecessary history lesson and go directly to Porlamar, skip the ship tours and take a taxi direct. One word of caution: most of the cab drivers speak only Spanish. You've been warned.
Kingstown, St. Vincent
This is a small island located in the Windward Islands, between St. Lucia and Grenada. It is home to 120,000 people, and has been independent since 1979. Princess offered only four tours in St. Vincent: a city tour; a tour of the Gardens and Port Charlotte; a hike along a nature trail; and a coastal cruise. We chose the Kingston City Tour, SVD-A, which offered air-conditioned buses. The highlight of this tour is the Botanic Gardens, oldest in the western hemisphere, established in 1765: very interesting. Take the 9:00 am tour and be back on the ship at 11:00 am.
Basseterre, St. Kitts
This is a small island, just 65 square miles, with a population of 48,000. English is the official language. The island could be reached only by tendering. Princess offered 8 tours, and 5 of these were aquatic-related. The others were a rain forest walk, golf, or a bus ride to a fort 30 miles away. Since the city's main attractions were all within walking distance of each other, I elected to go ashore on my own. The town proved more lively than I had expected because an election was in progress. During my walk about town, eager party members handed me sample ballots, even though it was quite obvious that I, Caucasian tourist in shorts, carrying a camcorder, was not eligible to vote in their election. This was more fun than I would have had on any of the ship's tours and, while I waited for a tender to take me back to the ship, I wondered what these islanders would be doing after the election. Planning a coup, I guessed.
Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas
This is everybody's favorite stop, and Princess offered 20 tours. We had been there many times, and planned no touring and no shopping. However, I did sign up for snorkeling on the "Wild Thing," a high-speed catamaran. I rode the "Wild Thing" five years ago, and I had been looking forward to being on it again ever since we signed up for this cruise. This was Princess Tour STT-Q, and it did not disappoint. I look forward to riding the "Wild Thing" every time I visit St. Thomas, providence permitting.
San Juan, Puerto Rico
Princess offered three sightseeing tours and one hotel getaway for passengers with late afternoon flights. We have done most of these tours at other times, and recommend them to anyone with the time.
Photos courtesy of Bernard Soltz.
Bernard Soltz hails from just outside Philadelphia for part of the year and "snowbirds" in Florida during the winter. He and his wife Theresa are very experienced cruisers and can be reached at email@example.com.
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