Overview:This seven-day cruise followed the eastern itinerary, which had stops at St. Thomas, St. Maarten, and Princess Cays. There were three at-sea days. I will be using a scoring system where appropriate. There is no objective basis for the scoring -- it is based solely on my personal tastes, observations, and experience plying the high seas. This will be from 0 to 10, with 10 being highest.
Score: 4Some background here: A few months ago Princess made a splash about passengers being able to access their bookings via the Princess web site. We were told that wondrous things would happen if we completed all the usual forums on-line, or manually, and submit them to the cruise line forty days before the cruise. "Express Check In" was the passkey to embarkation day bliss! With the express check-in label affixed to our document pouch, we would be whisked aboard the ship ahead of all the less fortunate passengers! Well, sadly, this was not the case for us.
Pardon my tedium here, but this annoyed me.
I wanted to see how well "Express Check In" worked, so I purposely arrived at the pier at 10:15 am. I realized they would not be ready to board people yet, but wanted to see just how quick I could be aboard. I asked the man at the information desk where the "Express Check In" passengers were to report. He told me there was no special desk for us, and we were to queue up with everyone else. "But once they open up, at 11:45, you will move right through the check-in process and be aboard in no time." Well, this was shaping up to be a major disappointment! I was fourth in line at the rope barricade and stood until they opened up -- precisely at 11:45. At this point numerous rude people rushed the line and ran to the check-in desks. We still managed to be checked in within five minutes and boarded the ship at just before noon. The clerk still did everything they always do; she checked ID's, made sure we signed everything, took the Bahamas Immigration cards, scanned my credit card, and issued our cruise cards. It was a standard check-in in my view. Actually the score would have been higher if they hadn't made such a big deal about "Express Check In". I have always thought highly of Princess' embark/debark skills. The need for this new program really escapes me.
Oh -- there were some people that boarded the ship early. The passengers that had booked hotel rooms for the prior night through Princess were checked in at the hotel. They "whisked" by us and boarded around 11 am.
Score: 8My dismay over the check-in vanished after we boarded. We were not escorted to the room, but were guided via well-placed crewmembers. I knew where it was anyway (I study deck plans all the time. I know, I sometimes wonder about me too), and we were in the cabin within minutes of boarding the ship.
Cabin B423 is on Baja Deck (deck 11), starboard side, mid-ship. This is a standard outside cabin with a balcony. Note about the balconies on the Grand Princess: Those on decks 11, 12, and 14 are the most private. The decks below start extending outboard, and those balconies can be looked down into from above. However, some of the lower deck balconies are deeper too, so there still can be some privacy.
I found the cabin to be just fine for the three of us. There was adequate storage space and enough room to move around without excessive crowding. I liked the layout with the bathroom being isolated from the beds by the closets. This ensured that those needing to use the bathroom at night didn't disturb others when they turned on the bathroom lights. The decor of the cabin was somewhat neutral. The climate controls worked perfectly and it was always nice and cool.
All cabins have a refrigerator, not to be confused with the mini-bars that many other ships have. The only thing in our refrigerator was the ice bucket.
The balcony was small, but functional. There was a small table and two chairs. I didn't use it as often as I have on previous cruises. Balconies used to be special, but they are ubiquitous these days. To me, the explosion of balconies has detracted from the exterior looks of many new ships. Vessels such as the Grand Princess look as much like seagoing beach condos as they do ships. However, this is what the consumer wants -- and I will probably be in a balcony cabin again, sometime next year.
Our cabin steward, Edwin, was polite and promptly took care of every request. Toiletries were replenished daily.
Personal Choice Dining:
Score: 8I wanted Personal Choice Dining (PC Dining), but Princess never seemed to understand this and continued to have First Seating listed on my online booking information, even after my agent requested the change twice. Sure enough, our cruise cards showed us as being at first seating. I could have ignored it and gone to the PC dining rooms, but I like to do things right so I went to the maitre d' to change.
There was a line of people wanting to change their dining options, and the staff was pushing Personal Choice heavily. Those that wanted to go from personal choice to traditional seating really got a sales pitch. For this cruise, two of the three main dining rooms were already set aside for personal choice. They were delighted to see me give up some first seating spots!
Even if you go with personal choice, they "assign" you to a dining room. This is done to balance things as best as possible. There is nothing to prevent you from using the other room, and then there is the chance that some traditional seating people may decide to try it out some night. Regardless, we "obeyed" and used the Michelangelo dining room. The Da Vinci dining room was the other choice for "PC" dining. The Botticelli, which is aft, was the traditional seating locale.
Most nights we were seated immediately, as in "right now". For some reason the formal nights pose a challenge. Princess goes so far as to warn everyone using "PC" dining of seating delays on formal nights -- particularly from 7pm to 8:30pm. This was printed in the Princess Patter on the front page, along with an endorsement of the Horizon Court dinner buffet for that evening. The Patter mentioned that some of the main dining room menu items would be available at the buffet.
The only delay we had was on the last formal night, where we waited for thirty minutes after arriving exactly at 7pm. They weren't lying!
Note: Personal Choice does not excuse you from following the dress code. All main dining rooms follow the nightly dress suggestions - and I did see some people turned away for daring to show up wearing shorts and t-shirts. This was not enforced in the Horizon Court.
There was never any pressure to seat us at another table in order to fill it. Despite fears to the contrary, I found the wait staff to be friendly and accommodating. My fears had to do with the new tipping policy -- brought on by personnel choice -- where they automatically charge each passenger $6.50 per day for dining room tips. You can adjust the amounts, or not participate if you wish, but you have to go to the purser to do so. I left it alone and never felt the service suffered.
The only downsides to Personal Choice are that you don't get a chance to meet new people as at a traditional seating, and you usually have a different waiter every night. You can ask to be seated at a table served by the same waiter if you choose. Also, the staff can never set up a rhythm. As soon as they clear a table, new diners are sitting at it. I found the pace quite hectic, and the room noisy. We were typically done within one hour, which appeared true for most people. No lingering here!
Would I use "PC" again? Probably not as my main choice. I found I missed the traditional seating. There were a couple of nights that I preferred having the "PC" option -- which included the Horizon Court buffet for dinner.
Dining Room Food:
Score: 7.5The food in the dining rooms was quite delicious and attractively presented. It certainly wasn't as bad as I have read in some recent reviews. Some dinner menus didn't seem very inspired, and, in deference to the masses, most dishes were not highly seasoned. Sample menu from French Night: (the expected) snails, onion soup, frog legs, roast duck, and roast pork. Pasta, which has been a hallmark on Princess ships, was always on the menu. The seafood was the best choice, and I stuck with it on most nights. For dessert I stayed with the ice cream. It was superb (and the only place where it was included in your fare). Beef was usually tender, but mostly overcooked. I do not do frog legs. The soup at dinner was always wonderful.
Dining room lunches were good. Sample items from the lunch menu: vegetable curry, steak sandwiches, and shepherd's pie.
Dining room breakfast was standard issue, with a specialty item every day. Eggs' Benedict on one morning, Huevos Rancheros on another, etc. Nothing special here, nor was it expected.
We did not patronize Sabatini's Trattoria or The Painted Desert. These are the extra-fee restaurants, with Sabatini's charging $15 per person, and the Painted Desert charging $8 (this includes a margarita!). I do not like this trend in charging for "special" food, and will have nothing to do with it. I did note that The Painted Desert never seemed to be full. Reservations are recommended for both places.
Score: 7Many items that were not served in the dining room on the previous night were offered in the buffet the following day. This is not a problem to me, as long as the food was properly stored. For instance, the mussels served on the previous night in the dining room appeared next night in the buffet. I had several and they were still very good. The buffet also had jerk chicken, several pastas, a cutting board with prime rib (this beef was excellent), along with numerous other offerings such as smoked duck breast. Everything I tried was quite good. Desserts were limited though, mostly to various tart-like pastries. Salad items were fresh, although limited to the usual things (this plagued the main dining rooms too).
Lunch and breakfast at the Horizon Court were standard, although the lack of an omelet station was noted. Instead, they mass produced omelets and brought them out on trays.
For reasons unexplained, the music that played in the Horizon Court -- regardless of the time of day -- was a never-ending loop of singers like Tony Bennett, Patsy Cline, and Shirley Bassey's greatest hits. Anyone care to have an encore of Goldfinger?
I will include the pizza stand and short-order grill with the buffet rating. The pizza was outstanding, but limited to two selections -- a plain cheese version every day, and one that changed (pepperoni, vegetable, artichokes and anchovies). It was baked continuously from 11am to 7pm and served in a cafeteria line out by the Neptune's Reef pool. Adjacent to the pizza stand was the burger/hot dog grill. The food here was okay, but nothing noteworthy. Lines at both places could be long at times, particularly on at-sea days.
Score: 8All of the ship's bars were staffed with capable bartenders and servers. There are five bars located outdoors and I never had to wait long for service at any of them, even during at-sea days. There are seven bars and lounges inside the ship, including the much hyped, but underused, Skywalker's Disco. Skywalker's Nightclub towers above the ship's aft end. It sits unused during the day. The moving stairway was never operating (probably a safety hazard), and I never bothered to go there late at night.
Note that the Mermaid's Tail bar, which is in between the pizza and burger lines, catches all the cooking odors and people usually do not sit there too long.
I liked spending some time in the Wheelhouse Bar every evening. This is the nautical themed bar next to Sabatini's. It was cool and quiet, with the ship's best bartenders serving up great cocktails.
Passengers heading into the Princess Theater mostly use Snooker's Sports Bar. There is no bar service in the theater, and you must fend for yourself.
Score: 6Princess has never been at the top when it comes to shows, at least to my tastes. So I was surprised when I learned that Marty Allen was the featured act on our cruise. He and his wife, singer Karon "Kate" Blackwell, did a show once per cruise. I understand they are booked on the Grand Princess for a couple of months straight. Anyway, it was classic Marty Allen and everyone loved him -- how can you not like a comedy legend? He is also a very nice man and was approachable throughout the cruise. "Hello De're!"
The ship's entertainers are capable, but the shows follow the usual themes -- retrospectives of various music styles or famous shows. They did a rather odd show that involved a Monty Python-type fellow and a vague movie set theme. This chap was wandering the theater before the show, yelling at people as they entered and blowing a whistle. The show was technically excellent, but hard to follow. Very curious indeed.
The poolside band was forgettable, as were the various lounge musical acts.
Score: 9Cruise Director Graham was very engaged in the daily activities, much more than I have encountered with other cruise directors over the past few years. English Pub Night was a fun time, with Graham leading the audience in a boisterous time.
The other cruise staffers were fine, although a bit overshadowed by the Cruise Director.
The entire service staff was gracious, friendly, and always helpful. I have been on other cruise lines' ships' where there was an undertone of discontent. This was not apparent on the Grand Princess.
Score: 6I was surprised at how small the Princess Theater is -- almost cramped. It has seats only, with none of those little tables or couch-style seats. Small tables fold out of the chair arms. Sight lines were good from all seats.
The other lounges are cookie-cutter, and if you were suddenly transported from a lounge on Celebrity's Mercury to one on the Grand Princess, you probably wouldn't notice.
Note that at night the servers in the Explorer's Lounge wear pith helmets and khaki safari uniforms. Please, try not to laugh at them.
The casino is large but not much different than those on other ships. Many people were complaining about the lack of winners. I agree. It was a fairly quiet place with few slot machines alarming, and not much noise at the tables.
The middle elevator lobby, at the upper decks, does not have a stairway. The deck plan shows steps, but these are only used in emergencies and are otherwise closed off. I didn't like this, as I had to wait for elevators just to go up a couple decks to the pools.
Speaking of the pools: The aft one is for adults only. The forward one is a lap pool with a machine that creates water current to swim against and is for adults only, except between noon and 3pm when supervised children can use it. The two mid-ship pools are open to all ages all the time -- so all the kids go to them -- yet these are the deepest pools! These are from 5 feet to 7 feet deep. The lap pool is the shallowest at 3 feet to a little over 4 feet deep, yet kids can only use it for three hours a day. I just don't understand it. Not all kids are great swimmers, nor do they want to have to float continually because they can't touch bottom. Who dreamt up the pool protocol for this ship anyway? All the pools are fresh water. There is a splash pool for toddlers, located next to the teen's only "Off Limits" spa and sunning area. The teens apparently took "Off Limits" literally, since I never saw anyone in there.
Signs abound around the lounge chairs, warning that chairs unused for thirty minutes will have personal items removed. I didn't see anyone enforcing it, but I didn't see any widespread "chair hoarding" either. Nevertheless, if you showed up after 10 am looking for a seat around the pools you were probably disappointed. The main pool areas are broken up to give a more intimate appearance to each, but they may have gone too far with this idea.
Everyone I talked to that tried the Princess Links golf simulator and miniature golf course was underwhelmed.
Voyage Of Discovery is a huge video game arcade. There is a small soda bar in this area, but I never saw it in operation. Games include flight simulators, motorcycle simulators, and other games -- some involving violence. The games do not take cash. You have to buy a $20 token card that you insert in each game's controller. It deducts the fee and off you go. You can easily burn through a card before you know it. This is the same theory as using cruise cards -- it doesn't look like real money so you spend more.
There is a basketball court that was in use most of the time. The adjacent "Center Court" bar is no longer used.
The "I Scream Ice Cream Bar": the source of a petty grievance I have with Princess -- charging for ice cream. Oh, but it's Haagen Dazs! Who cares? Dish up some generic ice cream, and I will bet no one will complain. Rumor has it that Princess will be abandoning the charges for ice cream.
Music plays constantly in The Conservatory, which surrounds the Calypso Reef pool area. For some reason, this is always new-age music. I happen to like some of Enya's stuff, but it got old after a while. This area has a magrodrome glass roof, which was closed at night and opened every morning. I must say this pool area was never loud, which was nice.
My son didn't spend a lot of time in the Kid's Program this time. Maybe he sensed something missing in it. The kid's area was not especially easy to get to, and not as big as I thought it would be for a ship this size. Celebrity's newest ships have it beat. The staff appeared professional, but a sense of indifference struck me. I did like the pagers they gave you, so they could call you immediately if needed.
Score: 8Perhaps the best of the so-called "private beaches", Princess Cays is beautiful. Well laid out, with good facilities, Princess Cays has a nice children's area with a gate. Food is a nice picnic/barbecue. Many passengers are not aware there are two sides to the island. Almost everyone getting off the tender goes to the left side, if you are facing inland. But, if you go right and over a small footbridge, you will be in a smaller beach area that is less crowded and has a bar and food line too.
There is a mixture of Princess bars/shops and local vendors, so you will need both cash and your cruise card.
The beach is nice, although there are some rocky areas, so always bring water shoes. All sorts of water sports are available - for a fee.
I will not score St. Maarten and St. Thomas. We confined our shore time to beach visits and hitting the shops. These islands are not big, and after you have been there a few times you run out of things to do that can be confined to the few hours the ship is in port.
Score: 10There is no Express Check-Out, which was fine with me. I knew Princess would have us off the boat faster than any other cruise line could. I was not disappointed. They started moving people off the ship at 7:50am, and our "color" was due to be called at 8:45am. They called our color at 8:50, and we were standing in the airport at 9:06am, having already checked our luggage with Delta at the pier. Our plane left at 11:30 am.
Overall Cruise Experience:
Score: 8It was a nice, pleasant cruise. We had near perfect weather and calm seas for the whole trip. I gained back 5 pounds I had lost before the trip. Princess continues to offer a well-honed product, topped by a very friendly and helpful staff. The staff usually garners the highest scores when people rate Princess. Food was good and plentiful. There was never any stress, and I left the ship rested and tanned.
I have named this our "cruise of anonymity." With Personal Choice Dining and so many other passengers, I didn't really meet anyone else for the entire week. This made me feel a little empty. Could it be that I have finally been on a cruise ship too big for me? The Grand Princess is a fine cruise experience, and probably plays well to first time cruisers. There were many of us at the Captain's Circle reception though, so the ship attracts repeaters as well.
But in the end analysis, I do not see myself doing the Grand Princess again anytime soon. With so many new ships out there I am like a kid in a candy store. I want to try a different ship every time I cruise. Of course, a nice discount fare could change my mind!
PHOTOS courtesy of Princess Cruises.
For lots more SeaLetter photos and information on Grand Princess, click HERE.
Dave Beers is the head administrator for the SeaLetter Cruise Forum and lives in Alabama with his wife, Vanessa, and young son Jacob. Dave served in both the Marines and the Navy, and spent a great deal of time in several far east and Mediterranean countries. He took his first "civilian" cruise in 1992 and cruising has been a primary interest for him ever since. He has written numerous reviews and articles about cruising. Dave and his family are also veteran SeaLetter Cruise Bashers.
In his professional life, Dave works for the federal government as a supervisor with the Tennessee Valley Authority. He may be reached for questions or comment at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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