Dawn Princess New Year's '97-'98 Southern Explorer
We recently concluded our third cruise over several years departing from San Juan, all touring the southern Caribbean on Princess Cruise Lines. This was the New Year's ('97-'98) Dawn Princess Southern Explorer itinerary, our eighth holiday cruise in as many years, and our fifteenth (plus or minus ... who's counting?) overall.
Last year, we cruised the Sun Princess in the Western Caribbean over the New Year's holiday. With minor exceptions in detail, the two ships are identical. We loved the Sun and we loved the Dawn. Since these opinions are subjective, and details of the ship have been well discussed by others in similar reviews, we'll try to address some other peripheral issues in this report.
Getting There/Getting AboardEven though Puerto Rico is technically a part of the United States, there's a certain foreign flavor, quite different from the usual and popular embarkation points in Florida. San Juan is located 1000 miles east of Florida and one time zone removed from the eastern time zone of the US. This means that many cruise passengers arrive at their destination quite late in the day. We live in Southern California. On our most recent cruise, we left Los Angeles International Airport at 8:20 AM and arrived in San Juan on time at 9:20 PM local time. We had made a one-hour connection at Dallas-Ft. Worth and there was no way we could have made the journey more time-efficient than we did. It simply takes all day to get there.
Because of this late arrival by many of their passengers, Princess and other cruise lines sail away late at night, usually with a scheduled departure around 11 PM. If the cruise ships departed any earlier, it would necessitate the cruise line bearing the expense of bringing in their West Coast passengers a day early and putting them up in a hotel for the night.
We felt we didn't want to chance the logistics (especially in winter, when flight delays are routine) of making that tight a connection: a 9:20 PM touchdown, collect our bags and then race to the pier to get there before 11 PM. There is always a red-eye, but in our opinion, this is a very unpleasant way to begin an upscale vacation such as a Caribbean cruise, essentially just to save the cost of a night's lodging.
Also, since passengers can begin boarding the ship promptly at noon on sail-away day, by taking an air deviation and paying our own expense for one night in a San Juan hotel, we feel we end up with a much more satisfying experience. We can enjoy an additional 11 hours on board ... including two shipboard meals served in that time period ... by coming in a day early for what is really a nominal expense.
As in most tropical resort cities, there is a wide variety of hotel accommodations in San Juan. There are many plush and high-priced beachfront hotels, because, after all, the city is a vacation destination in itself, and not just a big city with a port for cruise ships. However, arriving late and getting up mid-morning (with four hours of jet lag) makes us want to find a clean and reasonably priced hotel just to rest our head until it's time to head for the dock.
On the three occasions we've made this connection, we've stayed at the Best Western Hotel Pierre. This is a city hotel, not too far by taxi from the airport and not too far from the cruise terminal the next day. You wouldn't want to spend your vacation there, but for this purpose it's OK, it's fine. Clean, quiet and including a continental breakfast. You can easily make reservations using the Best Western 800 number, and the cost for the night is $122. The hotel rate was about $90 several years ago, but the difference seems trivial to us, considering that we're comfortable here and when compared to what the rest of the trip is costing.
(For comparison, we had breakfast at the Condado Plaza Hotel & Casino, about ten minutes away by taxi: nice place, much nicer than the Pierre, and supposedly one of the better places in San Juan. The high season rack rate is $320 per night. Frankly, the place looked comparable to a second- or third-tier Las Vegas resort. The Mirage it was not.)
The taxi fare from the airport to the Hotel Pierre is $15, excluding tip. From the hotel to the cruise terminal, the fare is also $15. The particulars are:
Best Western Hotel Pierre 105 De Diego Avenue San Juan, P.R.00911 Tel: 809-721-1200 Fax: 809-721-3118 Reservations: 1-800-528-1234As mentioned, Princess starts boarding at noon, and people were arriving all day long and into the night. Our luggage arrived at the cabin door at 4 PM. It might be a good idea to take a swimsuit with hand baggage, because many people were lying out around the pool throughout the afternoon in San Juan. The pool area was never crowded -- certainly nothing like it was the following day, our full (and only) day at sea.
Pool StrategyThat first full day out is a good time to avoid the pool. The snowbirds are working on their tans, and there is a mad rush in the morning to stake out a chaise. Around the pool that day is one of the few instances you have throughout the cruise that reminds you that more than 2000 passengers are on board. Also, the trade winds coupled with the movement of the ship causes a stiff breeze to blow across the deck: cooling, but not all that comfortable. On subsequent port days, the pool deck was far less crowded.
Cashless SocietiesIn recent years, cruise ships have become cashless. The plastic cruise card which doubles as the cabin door key, is now used for all transactions. In fact, even Bingo has become a mandatory charge-as-you-go type of operation. I think it's safe to say that the cruise lines recognized that people will spend more when they are not peeling off dollar bills. You can use cash in the casino, but you can also get a cash advance against your established credit card. One would think it will only be a matter of time before that very last cash holdout ... tips ... goes on the ship's account. Of course, that would create a paper trail that the tip recipients probably would sooner not have for tax purposes, etc.
Some extra-cost items have risen in price over the years, probably to assure their success as profit generators, as opposed to just being a customer diversions. For example, the ubiquitous souvenir photographs now cost $6.25 each. Remembering, as we do, when they cost half that amount, the prices have inflated far more than other things on board. A tall drink-of-the-day is $2.75 (plus an automatically added 15% tip), about what it has always been. A bottle of California Merlot or Chardonnay with dinner is $18 - $22, about what one would expect to pay in any decent restaurant anywhere.
Incidentally, the photography was much less intrusive than we remembered it being on other recent cruises. There were much fewer photo ops created on the Dawn Princess. On the other hand, the posed studio-type pictures seemed to be more commonplace and popular, with long lines snaking through the atrium before dinner.
Cabin ThoughtsWe cruise quite a bit, and this year have 7-, 11- and 12-day cruises scheduled within a 12-month period of time. Because of this, we try to economize in our choice of cabin. This allows us to travel more often than might be possible otherwise. It would be great to have a balcony, and this category is often one of the first to sell out: they are very popular. Even an outside cabin would be nice. However, for the additional $800 (per couple) that the view would cost, we feel it's not cost effective. We always take the cheapest category, inside cabin.
In earlier days, on ships now considered old, the cheap cabins were small, cramped and lacking. They were often back at the stern, exposed to noise and vibration. They might be located way up at the bow, where there was more rocking & rolling of the ship. Things have changed. On newer ships such as the Dawn Princess, all of the non-suite standard cabins are literally identical in size and layout. If that $800 view is important, you can choose a cabin facing out. If the savings are important, you can choose a cabin literally just across the hall, facing in. Pull the curtain, and you can't tell the difference. Modern technology in engine design and in hull stabilization has also taken location out of the equation. When you're in your cabin and the door is closed, it doesn't matter where you are; for all practical considerations, all cabin locations are the same.
Mal de merSeasickness doesn't seem to be as commonplace as even a few years ago. I'm old enough to remember when it was not uncommon for people to get sick on jet aircraft; nobody does that anymore. The planes are the same and the turbulence is the same -- it's just that people got used to it and/or realized it was very uncool to throw up on a crowded airplane. I think the same thing is happening with ships. As cruise travel becomes more routine with more repeaters, getting sick and talking about it is really quite boring and in very bad form. Especially when many people, including myself, believe it's nothing more than a head trip anyway.
Calling & ShoppingMost of the ports sell phone cards these days for calling home. We could use the AT&T card which worked quite well in every port we visited. Down at the docks (or in the case of Grenada, in the center of town), telephones are plentiful. Try to get there before the crew, however, to avoid a line.
We bought a Seiko Kinetic watch in Aruba. We chose the Colombian Emeralds store because the salesperson was nice and the chain has been around awhile. We later checked their stores in Grenada and in St. Thomas. The prices were identical to the penny. We checked two other independent stores in Havensite Mall located dockside in St. Thomas. In one, they had the watch and the price was identical to what we paid. In the other, they didn't have it and the salesman said they're no good. (What else would one expect him to say?) So, it seems that if you're going to buy something, it doesn't matter which island you decide should receive your money: they're all the same in price. One of the comics on the ship said that the ship docks at a different part of the same island every night. They just go out and change the signs. You sort of feel that way after awhile in the Caribbean.
When we came back home, I checked a couple of Internet websites that sell the watch and it was cheaper, about 7%! Add in shipping, and the price comes out to be virtually the same. If you have to add in sales tax as well, the price is higher at home, but by a small margin.
Lladro figurines cost the same onboard as they did in the St. Thomas stores; we checked some examples. The shipboard selection is almost as good. The only savings vs. buying it at home however, is sales tax.
Havensite Mall (Photo by Paul M. Jaffe)
In the Havensite Mall (we never went into town), there are a handful of stores that have been around for years and that one would consider reputable: Little Switzerland, Colombian Emeralds, Boolchamps, Royal Caribbean, and maybe one or two others. In all of these stores, pricing is identical for the same items and (allowing for the savings in sales tax) very little different from what you would pay at home.
For example, my wife bought Paloma Picasso perfume for $66. At home, it's $70 plus tax. My Sony Mavica digital camera (a hot item these days) cost the same in St. Thomas as it does at CompUSA where I bought it. Again, you save the sales tax, but nothing more. At CompUSA you can return it for a full credit within 10 days. Buy it in St. Thomas, and it's yours for a lifetime. Somewhat cheaper then, but is it worth buying something expensive in a far-off land and having to carry all of it home? You decide. The other shops in Havensite were very much the tee-shirt and straw hat variety, and all seemed to be staffed with sullen clerks who definitely give you the feeling that they are doing you a big favor by just talking to you. So much for the shopper's paradise.
The SalonMy wife had a full body treatment and massage at the salon on the Dawn Princess. This was a concession, as most of these shipboard activities turn out to be. The massage was OK and the price was in keeping with what one expect to pay in a resort hotel anywhere. However, at the conclusion, a major effort was put on her to buy almost $400 in materials so she could do the same thing at home. There was nothing subtle about it: this was pure hard sell. Lots of profit, lot's of commission, just like an extended warranty on a new car. Caveat Emptor!
The BistroPrincess is trying out something new in their Lido Deck Horizon Court buffet restaurant. At dinnertime, it becomes a "Bistro" with waiter service and a full menu. The service staff are strictly entry-level, trying to learn. Very eager, not very good, but not all that bad either. The menu was fine, with a lot of choices and the food is prepared fresh to order and was every bit as good as in the dining room. For people who are tired of the formality of the dining room (even on casual-dress nights) and just want to get away from it all, the Bistro is the place to be. We did it one night, and it was fine. As a plus, we missed having to pose with a "pirate" at the dinner table.
LaundromatsSelf-service Laundromats are on every deck, all over the ship. We never used them, but we spoke to people who did, and they were very happy with the service. It's free and we were told the machines were rarely busy.
ArubaAruba is a desert island which we had visited once before. It's quite nice, actually. It seems to be windy all the time, and on the day we were there, the wind was blowing stronger than it usually does. We rented a Suzuki Samurai right on the dock: $95 for all day. Major rip-off to be sure, but there were four of us and it was convenient. The ship docks at 7 AM, the car rental place opens by 8 AM, and I would guess that by 8:30 AM all the vehicles are rented out. At this rate, they can charge whatever they want. We drove over and had lunch at the Hyatt Regency, arguably the best hotel on the island, and probably as nice a resort as you will find anywhere. The nearby beaches are beautiful, but with the windy conditions, sitting on the sand was like having your own private sandblasting. Not too comfortable.
La GuairaLa Guaira is the port for Caracas. Venezuela is an oil-rich country with great extremes of hillside squatter poverty, and skyscrapers downtown. There seems to be zero middle class. The tall buildings look best from a distance: Latin countries don't do concrete well. We were advised by several people on the CompuServe Travel and Cruise Forums to not take a private taxi into Caracas because of significant crime directed towards tourists. We took a half-day shore excursion into Caracas, and then to a Murano glass factory. (There is some obscure connection with the Murano glass manufacturing in Venice.) This visit was worthwhile for us and we bought some nice pieces to take home. Not the kind of stuff you find everyday and the prices were good.
GrenadaGrenada was the only stop that required tender access. You had to run the gantlet of taxi and tour operators at the foot of the tender pier. Whereas you have this type of thing everywhere in the Caribbean, to our recollection, Grenada was worse than most in this respect. You had to walk 2-3 blocks from the pier before you were finally out of it. Grenada was supposedly pretty lush in the interior and some of our tablemates enjoyed their excursion. We just decided to walk the main drag of St. George's instead, and two hours later we were back on the ship enjoying the pool.
Dawn Princess in Dominica (Photo by Paul M. Jaffe)
DominicaDominica has the dubious distinction of being the second-poorest island in the Caribbean (after Haiti). It also is relatively unspoiled, because cruise ships are just starting to make it a regular port of call. There are few hotels on the island, and air connections are skimpy. The island resembles many others with the ubiquitous rain forest and some waterfalls. Four of us hired a van taxi for four hours for $80. It was a good tour and saved us quite a bit of money vs. the ship's excursion.
In the end, in the Caribbean it's the weather, the sea and the ship. And in this respect, the Dawn Princess acquitted herself magnificently.
Paul can be reached for questions or comment at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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