This was our third cruise together, my seventh cruise total, and my second on Princess. Together, we sailed RCCL's Nordic Empress from San Juan to the Eastern Caribbean in March of 2000, and Celebrity's Century from Ft. Lauderdale to the Western Caribbean in February 2001. Immediately below and throughout this review I've made comparisons to the Century, but please remember this is just my opinion.
The following summary describes highlights of our observations about the Grand Princess in general, and in comparison to the Century, as well as a summary of our activities on the cruise. If you want more detail after that, read on.
SummaryWe really enjoyed this cruise and the Grand Princess, and would happily sail her again. This is a relaxing itinerary. Even so, it probably wouldn't be our first choice, when there are so many other ships. We had never cruised during Fall season, and it was great being the only ship in port in both St. Thomas and St. Maarten; when we sailed in February, there were at least five ships in each. The lack of congestion made for a nicer experience. And we really liked having three sea days. Aside from some morning rain in St. Thomas, we had calm seas and good weather throughout.
Things we did:
Things we didn't do:
Summary completed, on with the more detailed report . . . .
Pre-CruiseDespite the World Trade Center tragedy on 9/11 and tropical storm Gabrielle - which hit land 90 miles south of us on September 14th - we made our September 15th Southwest Airlines flight from Tampa to Ft. Lauderdale. The mood in the nearly deserted airport was efficient and solemn, and no one seemed to mind the increased security or delays. This was true even on the return a week later, when the airports were considerably busier. Interesting how these little delays and annoyances were put in perspective for everyone.
We arrived in Ft. Lauderdale in late morning, and called the Amerisuites 17th Street Hotel's courtesy shuttle, which arrived within 15 minutes. The hotel is tucked behind a storage facility, sort of on the edge of nowhere, but it's still just a five-minute walk from 17th Street and Miami, both of which have many restaurants and other shopping. By the way, if staying here pre- or post-cruise, you can leave your car in their lot, saving the $10/day the port garage charges.
While in Ft. Lauderdale, we went on the sightseeing cruise boat Carrie B which was a very enjoyable two-hour cruise on the waterways, with continuous narration and lots of info about house costs, etc. The boat also cruised into Port Everglades, where we saw the Century and the Maasdam docked. The tour normally costs $11.95/pp. Cab to and from the Carrie B was about $6 each way, with tip.
EmbarkationBecause of increased security and delays in the last week's passengers leaving the ships, the shuttle didn't take us to Port Everglades until 12:15. We waited in line perhaps 10 minutes before getting in the door. Security was definitely higher than I've seen before, with the usual conveyor belt security x-rays plus "wand" checks of both bags and people; I think our IDs were checked at least three times before we made it out. Before going upstairs to the ship, we stopped at the duty-free shop for smokes, which we realized meant we had to go back outside and through security again. It really wasn't a hardship - even with two times through several security checkpoints, we were standing on our balcony by 1:00. Painless.
By the way, at the port where tickets are checked and IDs issued, there were signs saying, "This cruise is full, there are no available cabin upgrades," or some such. These signs were also on the Purser's desk. It was rumored there were 700 cancellations, and from watching balcony activity, half- empty dining rooms, and talking to others, it seems there were indeed many empty cabins.
If I may opine: my guess is they just don't want to be bugged for upgrades, and IMHO, that's reasonable. People seem to think they deserve an upgrade if there is space (and sometimes even if there is not). As a fellow traveler and admitted cheapskate, I agree that it shouldn't be a big deal to get an upgrade if there is availability, but the fact is, the most the cruise line is required to do is provide the level cabin paid for. Anything else is icing. In seven cruises, this is the first time I got an upgrade, and I was darned happy to get it. I never book anything less than what I would be satisfied with. Sometimes we set ourselves up for disappointment by expecting more than is reasonable. Book what we can live with, and be thrilled if we get more. No expectations, no disappointments. Okay, I'm off my soapbox now.
The ShipThe Grand Princess is beautiful, and it is true that the design makes her feel much more intimate than her size would indicate. There are lots of small comfy sitting areas around the ship, so it is easy to find a quiet spot to talk or read. Up top, there were plenty of seats - we never had to search for a pool lounger. Other than the photo area on the last night, it never felt crowded anywhere. The ship is clean and well-kept and we saw crew varnishing outside railings and painting several times. She is going into drydock soon for refurbishment; though I saw little that needed refurbishing, the sofas in the Skywalker disco were quite worn, and it's possible there were other things I just didn't notice. Overall, we preferred the artwork and more subdued décor of the Century, but there was absolutely nothing wrong with the Grand; it was very nice.
The CabinWe booked a category BC guarantee and were upgraded to a category BA - Cabin C644, Caribe (Deck 10), port, aft. This was a great location; we couldn't have picked it better ourselves. We were only steps from the aft stairs and elevators, three flights below the Horizon Court and Terrace Pool (14 aft), four up from our Botticelli Dining Room (6 aft) and the casino (6 mid/forward). There is no 13th level.
We met our steward, Cesar, around 1:30 when he dropped off John's rented tuxedo (a service booked on-line that worked well). Cesar was pleasant, efficient, and unobtrusive. Something never seen before was a sign on the desk with his hours, a pager number for him, and whom to call if you needed something when he was not on duty. A nice touch, but we never had to page him or anyone else. We always had the ice, and extra pool and bath towels we requested the first day. The second day we requested robes, which were promptly provided; these were great for balcony sitting. Storage was sufficient, but more hooks for towels and such would be helpful. Otherwise, we had no complaints; the cabin was comfortable, clean and well maintained, and the shower was strong and hot.
The cooler/fridge worked well and we stocked it with soda we had brought aboard. By the way, our steward emphasized that this is just a cooler, and told us it works better if items are already cold, but we found it chilled our soda cans just fine. The refrigerator is a great amenity - we wish more ships provided one. We also liked the (bolted down) bedside lamps with dimmers that gave very nice lighting at night, and the handy switch by the bed for the doorway light.
Folks ask whether port or starboard side is better. Perhaps those on the starboard side might disagree, but we thought our portside location was perfect for this itinerary. In Ft. Lauderdale, we faced the condos in the channel from the port to the Atlantic, where residents come out on their condo balconies to see the ships off, flashing lights, tooting horns, waving - very festive and great fun. In St. Thomas, we had the approach and dockside to Charlotte Amalie's beautiful harbor. In St. Martin, we had the island-side approach, but docked starboard, so once in port we saw only a rather industrial area. At Princess Cays, we had the island view on approach, at anchor, and after sailing. I'm sure the starboard side was lovely, but I wouldn't have traded this cabin for it.
As you can tell, we loved the balcony, and used it constantly. We had coffee there each morning, saw the sun go up on southbound days and down on northbound days, and we ended every night by watching the stars before retiring . . . with the door open so we could hear the water and the wind as we slept like babies. So, do ya think we're spoiled for life?
One comment on balconies: many people didn't turn off their balcony lights at night, which can be bothersome to those who like to sit out late at night and watch the stars. I'm not sure folks even knew they *could* turn the light off. Not a big deal, just mentioning it.
DiningWhen we booked in mid-August, we were waitlisted for traditional first seating, position #153. The week before sailing, we had moved up to #82. As soon as we got on the ship, we went to the maitre d's table, which was staffed by someone other than the maitre d', located by Sabatini's, and again asked for first seating. We were put on a list, told it shouldn't be a problem, and that notification of the change would arrive by 6:00. About 5:45, we got our reassignment to first seating at a table for 8 in the Botticelli Dining Room.
The Grand Princess has three separate dining rooms, and with traditional dining, we were assigned to the same room for the entire cruise; we never set foot in the other two. The Botticelli was a perfectly fine room, but we preferred the Century's beautiful multi-level, windowed dining room. This is a fine point, but the Grand had so many intimate spaces that after several days, it almost felt claustrophobic. I started to think that at least one wide-open space on the ship would be nice.
Our dining partners included one couple with their two grown sons, and another couple, all of us from Florida. We hit it off well, but the table was badly located. I don't have the table number, but it was the first table immediately inside the dining room doors, and had constant traffic back and forth. There were many empty tables in the room (more evidence of cancellations), so we asked to be moved to a less exposed table. The next night, we got notice of a new table. This one was waaaaay back in a corner, but we were by two windows - a fine trade-off.
Our waiters the first night were Solin and assistant Daniel, who gave us friendly but very quick service. That was great for the first night, but I'm not sure I would have wanted that pace throughout. Conversely, and under the category of "be careful what you wish for," our servers at the second table, Henry from the Philippines and Supachai from Thailand, whether by design or neglect, allowed us a very leisurely 1½ hour (plus) dinner most nights. It was slooow. I think it was bad timing, as a few dishes were downright cold when served. However promptly they may be replaced with hot ones (and these were), that just shouldn't happen. The service did improve over the week, so maybe it was just timing. That aside, both were friendly and accommodating, and we ended up enjoying them very much. We thought assistant Supachai a rising star - very helpful, smiling all the time, and he had some good jokes. He was flying home to Thailand on Sunday for the first time in 10 months, 26 hours, he said. Hope he goes back to Princess; he's an asset.
We don't cruise for the food and we are not gourmets. In fact, we usually lose our appetites when traveling. When we do eat, we tend to the less creative, so perhaps we missed the best of what they had. We appreciate that it can be difficult to infuse "grilled chicken breast" with excitement.
That disclaimer in place, we thought the food was okay - not bad, not outstanding, but with some definite high points. It is very good for what it is and for the number of people being fed in a short time. The main courses were fine, but unremarkable (see disclaimer). Desserts were average, and we rarely finished what we had ordered, so you know they weren't spectacular. I had the "Love Boat Dream" the first night, which is beautifully presented and should be to my liking - death by chocolate - but it was too gooey/dense/fudgy, and I didn't finish it. My partner had cheesecake, which was also just okay. After that, we stuck with ice cream and sorbet, which were very good. And the chocolate cake (see below). And the little plates of cookies they put on the table. Gee, no wonder I didn't finish anything.
Food SpecificsJohn raved about a chicken and mushroom puff pastry appetizer served on one of the final nights. Our tablemates seemed to like the fish they had almost every night. One who was more adventurous liked the food more than any other cruise they had taken. We all thought the lobster served the second formal night was excellent - melt in your mouth perfect. The shrimp cocktail was also very good, much better than the Century's, which had popcorn shrimp buried in sauce (a travesty, but one of very few failings). It was on the menu the first night but not the second, so we asked if we could have it again, and every night after we had shrimp cocktail without asking. Our tablemates requested a sugar-free desert one night, and we were baked a different and delicious sugar-free chocolate cake for each of the last three nights. Another tablemate wanted strawberry ice cream (unknown why that isn't standard), and got it by the bowl-full. Once we requested anything, we were accommodated every night. In that way, the service was excellent. It's a fine line, but overall, we liked the Century's service, ambience, and food quality and presentation better, except for the shrimp cocktail and the lobster.
There is a carry-out pizzeria at the forward end of the Neptune Pool, open 11-7. We thought the pizza was very good and took it back to our cabin several times. Unfortunately, it isn't available through room service. It has a nice thin crust that was only improved by a few more minutes in the oven. The food in the Horizon Court was fine, typical cruise buffet fare. The room is lovely with raised seating areas so most everyone has a window view, but the buffet area is poorly organized, with several intersecting food lines and no obvious way to go through without bumping into others; at times, it was like bumper cars. Very good lox was available five of seven mornings, which I took full advantage of, but otherwise, we never had a hot meal there. We took a light lunch back to the cabin a few times, and they had a nice selection of salads, meats, cheeses, breads, fruit, hot foods, etc. Sushi was also available several days, nicely presented. It is impossible not to find something suitable, regardless of one's taste. We did not eat at Sabatini's or Painted Desert: we're not interested in spending more for food.
Personal Choice Dining didn't interest us: one of the things we like most about cruising is never having to decide when or where to eat. We like to have the same servers all week and to tip in person. Sometimes we have to rework our plans a little to make 6:15, but that's an acceptable trade-off for us. We spoke to some who really liked the flexibility of PCD, but there was also the couple who had it (their travel agent actually told them they had no choice), who asked repeatedly to be switched to traditional; for some reason, they were not accommodated. There was certainly room in our dining room for two more, but perhaps I missed some of the story. Thus, the ultimate question: if PCD is forced on people who don't want it, is it really PCD?
EntertainmentWe went to at least one show each night except for the first. The Vista Lounge (Deck 7, aft) has lousy sight lines, with huge pillars around the room that make many seats useless. The Princess Theatre (Deck 5? forward) was larger and had a much better layout than the Vista Lounge. We suggest arriving for any show at least 20 minutes prior to show time to get a decent seat. Saving is definitely frowned upon here and everywhere on the ship.
Steve Michaels, a magician/comedian had some good moments, but the bathroom humor was tiring. Warning: do not sit in the first 6 rows for this show. Trust me. We also saw hypnotist Buck Macleod. I didn't care much for his style, but he was still good. He couldn't resist stooping to bathroom noises and such to embarrass the volunteers, either. What is it about flatulence, anyway? I'm amazed that folks volunteer for these things. Still, it was entertaining and interesting, as these things are, and there were several people who were completely under. Everyone was a good sport. He has an adult show at midnight later in the week that we wanted to see, but it was just too late, and I never did find anyone who had seen it to get an opinion.
I thought juggler Dan Bennett was amazing - hilarious, talented, extremely intelligent, just a hoot. The final night, there was another show with Steve Michaels and Dan Bennett, with all new material. It was good - we liked them even more the second time around (bathroom humor aside). We also saw comedian Glenn Hirsch, who started out slow but improved as the show went on. Marty Allen, alas, was not on this cruise. And I had just run across an old "Let's Make A Deal" where he won a car for some lady in Hackensack or something; it must have been taped at least 30 years ago. I was disappointed I didn't get a chance to mention it to him. Instead, we had Marty Brill. He had a few great jokes, but it was too Catskills for our tastes. The older set did seem to enjoy him, however, so who am I to judge?
The only song and dance show we saw, "Lights, Camera, Action," was excellent. The sets were complex and beautiful, the production values tight, the song and dance well coordinated with good talent, very professional start to finish. This was really a good show.
We don't drink and didn't spend much time in the many lounges, so we missed several of the performers, but we did hear "The Westmorelands" a few times in the Wheelhouse. This male/female team perform standards from the Carpenters to Sinatra - usual lounge music. They had a nice sound and were quite personable. We also heard the Grand Princess Orchestra a few times - mostly big band standards and great stuff, IMHO.
Princess has the edge over Celebrity on entertainment. There were several choices each evening, and every show was pretty good. One curious thing: they put the combined Michaels/Bennett show in the smaller Vista lounge, and reserved the Princess Theatre for a showing of "Shrek." The Vista was packed to overflowing. I don't know if anyone showed up for the movie.
Since our last cruise, we planned to snorkel on St. John next time, but the morning was rainy, so we stayed on St. Thomas. We hired a cab for an island tour, which we enjoyed ($20/pp + we tipped another $5 for the two of us). We saw all the high points, as it were, and spent a little time in the shops in Charlotte Amalie. We'll do St. John next time. I swear.
St. Martin/St. MaartenIn early 2000, we anchored and tendered in, but now there is a dock and welcome center, and there also appears to be a shopping mall going up adjacent (think Havensight in St. Thomas, if you are familiar with that). You can take the water taxi to town for $5/day unlimited, or hire a land taxi at $3/pp each way to town. We took a cab/van from the port to Orient Beach for $6/pp each way. We rented two lounge chairs with cushions and umbrella for $5/pp, which included two bathroom passes . . . don't laugh: the toilets are clean and well worth the 50¢ a visit.
This was my third visit to Orient Beach in four years. It still has some of the most beautiful waters anywhere, but the beach itself has eroded terribly since 2000. What was a 40'-50' wide beach is now about 12', if that. The water and surroundings are still lovely, but the beach is nearly gone, and many of the vendors were closed. (I'm not sure whether this was because of the erosion or because it is low season.) It was not crowded, and we enjoyed ourselves. We prearranged for the cab to pick us up around 2:00. After returning to Philipsburg, we shopped a bit and took a cab back to the ship.
Princess CaysThis is a lovely island with lots of facilities and activities. We tendered over at 10 a.m., and spent a few hours, returning to the ship by early afternoon. We did not eat the barbecue lunch they served, and the only activity we did besides sit was snorkeling. I rented the required vest for $8.00 and snorkeled for quite a while. I believe you can rent a vest for the entire week at that price, but I didn't need it except for this day. The snorkeling was good, with clear water and lots of fish. If you go, swim from the crowded main swimming area around the gazebo into the open area to the right (facing the water). Visibility is much better there. And, though a little rocky, the beach wasn't nearly as bad as some have reported. If you don't use fins, do wear water shoes for protection of your feet from the coral. (Soapbox note: Despite highly visible signs reminding everyone of the fragility of the reefs, we saw lots of people sitting (!) or standing (!) on coral. Please remember to respect your surroundings. Thank you. Off soapbox.).
TippingWhen we asked on the second day, the Purser cheerfully removed the $6.50/pp automatic tip for Personal Choice diners from our folios. Since we had traditional dining, we just tipped on the last night as usual. We did not tip cash. We instead went to a bartender (any bartender), who charged our tips to our shipboard card, and gave us receipts with envelopes. We then gave these to our steward, waiter and assistant waiter. This was a handy service.
DisembarkationWe got our tags and paperwork on Saturday. Sunday morning at 6:45, we had to be at Immigration, which took the form of a line through the Vista Lounge where passports or ID are checked about three times by federal marshals. Though the line was long when we got there, it took only about 10 minutes. It was handled efficiently, and we were off the ship by 9:15 a.m. We had no problem finding our bags, but it was chaotic in the terminal as usual - just part of the experience.
A word of caution: while in line at Immigration in the Vista, someone took a picture of the room - quite innocently, I'm sure - and was loudly and sternly chided by one of the guards. The offending photographer was given a choice to have the film processed on ship and give the guards back those pictures and the film, or surrender the entire roll. I imagine they took the former option. Lesson learned: do not take pictures of any federal marshals, security checkpoints, airports, or other potentially sensitive areas or people.
Finally, a question to my fellow cruisers: on the morn of disembarking, is anyone else bothered by the voice on the PA repeatedly listing name after name of those who 1) didn't show up for Immigration, or 2) won't get their accounts settled? What is the problem with people? If I may, a brief rant: they make the boat, but they can't make Immigration; they buy the cruise, but they won't pay for their on-board expenses when requested. This has been true on every cruise I've taken, and I just don't get it. It is rude to hold up everyone else, especially since we all know these things must be done. End of rant.
PHOTOS courtesy of Princess Cruises.
For lots more SeaLetter photos and information on Grand Princess, click HERE.
This is Peg Leeds' second submission to the Sealetter Cruise Magazine, having submitted a review of Celebrity Cruises' Century
back in April of 2001. Peg still travels less than she'd like to and may be reached at: email@example.com.
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