We live in a small city (80,000 pop.) in western Montana. We have always used the Air/Sea package from Princess because the rates are usually less than we can get ourselves. We booked our trip over a year in advance. I really wanted to sail on the Grand, and we like to have a balcony. Our travel agent called about four months prior to sailing and informed us that Princess had moved the sail-away time back to around 8:30 p.m. and was planning on flying us in the same day as we set sail.
Our airport is frequently fogged in, and so I had our travel agent book an air deviation to get us to Ft. Lauderdale the day before. Of course, hindsight is 20/20, and this was an excellent move: two flights were canceled the day AFTER we left! We flew Delta and our trip down was uneventful.
We stayed at the Sheraton Yankee Clipper hotel in Ft. Lauderdale, on my travel agent's recommendation (not through Princess). I had asked for a room on the beach; instead, we had a room across from the hotel wing on the beach and had a view of the beach. We were very disappointed with our room (the bathtub hadn't been scrubbed), but the hotel restaurant was pretty good. Next time, we will stay somewhere else.
We had some time to shop before the ship was ready to board passengers. Boarding with Princess is wonderful, providing you have all your paperwork filled out ahead of time. When you enter the terminal, you go through security and get in one of the lines, which are arranged by stateroom number. We had a short wait in line, presented our papers, proof of citizenship, plunked down our credit card (for our cruise cards) and were ready to board in less than 10 minutes. Easy! A word about the cruise card: we love it! You use this card to avoid having to carry cash around the ship with you (except for dicey horse racing).
You get your embarkation photo taken by the photographer, and you're ready to board ship. Just before you go down the gangway, your cruise card is plunked into this computer, they take your picture (mine was worse than my driver's license!), and then each time you disembark or re-board you insert your cruise card into this little gadget, and your picture appears so they know it's you. This was better security than the Sun Princess, which had a cruise card system, too. Embarkation is a snap and has been on all our cruises.
We booked a mini-suite on Dolphin deck, D408 port side, amidships. I felt the mini-suite offered quite a bit of room for a seven day cruise. Our suite was decorated in muted teals and pastels, and the lighting was really good halogen where you need it and a big recessed light with wood trim over the bed. (Can you tell I just finished building a house?) We fell in love with our suite at first site. We had a balcony on the Sun Princess, and no balcony on the Star and promised ourselves that we would never be "balconyless" again. Yes, what you've heard is true: the mini-suites on Dolphin deck are open for viewing from decks above. I really didn't mind, though, because it was quite sizable. There were two lounge chairs and a table with two chairs on the verandah. The port side of the ship is shaded on the way to St. Thomas and is in the sun on the way back to Ft. Lauderdale.
There is a respectably-sized bathtub (I'm 5'7" and fit in it just fine) and quite a bit of counter space in the bathroom. There are several shelves on a wall to place toiletries, two robe hooks, a retractable line to hang up your wet swimming suits, and plenty of hot water with scald protection. The best bathroom at sea I've had yet!
The closet was average sized, and there were real wood hangers, extra pillows and blankets. Princess gives you two robes to lounge in during your cruise. Right next to the closet was a built in armoire (with full length mirrors for doors.) The top shelf housed the obligatory life vests, the next shelf held the safe which you program with your own four digit code; we really appreciate this feature. Then there are about six or seven shelves roughly 18 inches deep to place clothes on.
Our bed was two twin beds pushed together to form a queen-sized bed, and it had very comfortable pillows (which is a personal thing.) We asked our cabin steward to add a blanket to the bed and it was done before our first night in it (his name was Billy and he was wonderful!) There are two night stands with a shelf and two drawers each. There was plenty of room under the bed for storing our luggage (three large pieces and two carry-on bags). There was a desk that had six drawers and the hair dryer was also there. On the desk was the number for our butler Kelvyn (who was a God-send and made our whole trip. We loved him!) and our cabin steward Billy (a real hardworking sweety!).
There were two televisions and one remote that operated both sets. Look out ladies, if your man is a remote fanatic! Stateroom television consists of CNN Headline News, CNN, CNNfn, ESPN, Discovery Channel, a movie channel, the Love Boat channel (reruns of the classic and the new show), a news wire channel that also broadcast messages announced in the hallway speakers, and three music stations. One music station had a real time video from a camera posted topside, and it was neat to look out over the ship's bow or at the activities on deck, depending on which direction it pointed.
The mini-suite has a couch that folds out into a bed (we didn't fold it out), a small chair and a butler's table (one that folds down on either side for more room). There were two prints in the room. There is a complementary mini-bar that includes four small bottles each of: Chivas Regal, Canadian Club, Beefeater's Gin, and Smirnoff Vodka. The small refrigerator is stocked with complimentary club soda, tonic water, Coke and Sprite. If you don't like the gin, they will replace all the gin with whatever else you want. There is also an ice container, filled with fresh ice each day by your stateroom steward. There is a complimentary fruit bowl that you can request be refilled each day with your choice of fruit.
I really liked our stateroom and would want to book a mini-suite for our next cruise. We tend to spend our days relaxing on the balcony, reconnecting with one another and reading books that we don't have time for at home. If you like to mix, and go and do things and plan to spend as little time in your cabin as possible, save the extra money and spend it where your other interests lie. That is the beauty of cruising: you can have exactly the kind of vacation you set out to have -- active, passive, or in between.
In a nutshell, impeccable! Immediately upon arrival, I set about filling out the form for our shore excursions. I always do this to ensure we get to do exactly what want at the time that we want to do it. I was down in line at the tour office when Kelvyn, our butler, knocked on our cabin door and greeted my husband with two glasses of complimentary champagne and an offer to make our tour bookings for us. Whoops! I had to wait in line because eager beaver me got there before they were even open for business.
Our bags arrived very shortly thereafter and we began unpacking. My husband did not pack any of the formal or semi-formal clothes I had set aside for him in the closet. Panic ensued, and I called Kelvyn, our butler. He said he would bring a tape measure to our stateroom the following morning to measure my husband for a rental tuxedo aboard ship. He arrived the next day to take measurements and the tux was delivered with two shirts later on in the afternoon. Kelvyn saved the day!
A note about the butlers: ours was excellent and we tipped him the same as our cabin steward because he was so attentive and cheery despite being so busy. The butler relieves a lot of work from the cabin steward and I think it improved the service Billy provided in the stateroom. One of the folks at our table was not pleased with their butler, and the other was just as thrilled as we were. If you have a butler and he provides good service, I recommend rewarding him.
The stateroom steward provides turndown service and chocolates on your pillow every evening, along with your copy of Princess Patter. The Patter contains all the events aboard ship for the following day along with information about ports of call and shopping opportunities aboard ship. Billy made up our stateroom twice a day, ensuring we had fresh towels, and generally straightened things up. I always find Princess cabin stewards to be friendly when you see them, but very discreet and not high profile about the excellent service they provide.
Our waiters were Nuno (waiter) and Aurel (assistant waiter) and they were extra special. They were very attentive and knew all our names, cabin numbers, and menu preferences by the second evening. Each evening Nuno had an entrée and dessert recommendation, and I was never disappointed by following his advice.
All in all, the service we encountered was excellent. I've found politeness goes an awful long way on any cruise. People who demand and act like the staff is beneath them don't get the service they expect, and wonder why. I think if you set high standards and are polite in requesting the services you require to meet your standards, you'll be satisfied every time aboard a Princess ship. I am well-traveled and have found this approach to really work for me. We met people who complained a lot about the ship's service, but we were never disappointed even when we had the waiters they complained about. I think it's all in your attitude. The only unpleasant aspect of our cruise was listening to people who didn't do anything but complain during lunch at open seating. I also noticed they complained about everything in their lives, not just the cruise and thought they probably didn't know any better. Personally, I found their conversations boorish and rude. We only took lunch on open seating twice for this reason.
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We had 1st Seating in the Botticelli Dining Room. We were seated at a table for eight, but only six of us showed up. We had a wonderful time together. There are three dining rooms on the Grand, and they are designed to create an intimate atmosphere despite the number of people on the cruise. The Botticelli dining room is all the way aft and it is over the engines. You can feel vibration when they fire up the engines to exit a port, but when we were underway, there was no noise or vibration. The food was very good to excellent, and I would expect nothing less on a cruise. My husband is allergic to shellfish, and the waiters were aware of this and discreetly pointed out if he was inadvertently ordering something with fish in it. Nuno and Aurel saved the day (several days!)
We ordered breakfast delivered to our stateroom by Kelvyn nearly every morning but one. The omelet, hash browns and sausage were very good and were delivered hot. I hate cold eggs and was impressed at the quality of the room service food and its prompt delivery. We also ordered club sandwiches on several occasions in the afternoon, and they were delivered within 20 minutes. Every evening before dinner our butler delivered canapés (nothing to write home about here) and the dinner menu to our stateroom.
The pizzeria and hamburger bar near the pool were surprisingly very good. I never missed an opportunity to get the pizza. Mmm Mmm good.
We ate in the Horizon Court and it featured tasty buffet food. Thankfully, the food is served in smaller trays that are replenished constantly, so it isn't cold like many buffets.
We also tried the alternative Southwest dining room [The Painted Desert] one evening. Service was slow for us, but not for our table companions who tried it on other evenings. The food was very good, though. There is a gratuity charge of $3.50 per person in this restaurant because the wait staff here wouldn't receive any gratuity otherwise. Only fair, I think.
Entertainment and Activities
We checked out the casino, and lost $40 in the slots in five minutes (enough said about gambling at sea). We went up to Skywalker's nightclub (in the "shopping cart handle" at the stern). There was a surprisingly good mix of passengers here. They played good dance music and had smoke and light effects that were really neat. A cautionary note here: if you've had a few to drink, and you go up to the disco, and the ship is rocking even a little, and you look out the windows down at the turbulent water thrusting you through the water at top speed, HANG ON TO SOMETHING! Whew! What a rush! It was really neat. My husband doesn't dance, so we didn't return to the disco for the rest of the trip.
There are so many choices aboard this ship that you never feel that there are 2,600 other people with you. Each night there are three shows presented twice, along with at least three other venues with singers, performers, dancing, first-run movies, or even karaoke. Some of the shows are repeated, and the Patter outlines those that aren't if you want to be sure to catch a show. My husband and I really enjoyed the entertainment, except the singing impressionist. (That was a generation gap problem though: he was a good singer, we just don't listen to Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin). Other folks a little older than we raved about him. Don't miss the singer in the piano bar or the production shows. We also enjoyed Dave Heenan, one of the comedians.
A note to exercisers: you need to sign up for time on the treadmill. Exercise bikes, step machines and weights are first come, first served. There are also scheduled classes and a jogging track. Participants in "Cruisercise" can earn points for free hats, coffee mugs, etc. aboard.
If you've sailed with Princess before, you are invited to attend the Captain's Circle party with appetizers and free drinks. They also give away prizes for the most days at sea and the most number of Princess cruises.
The Ship's Spaces
The ship's public areas are very impressive. Princess has continued its design of understated elegance and the creation of intimate spaces, in my opinion, very successfully. The public spaces are lavish with custom carpeting, granite and marble inlaid flooring, and carefully thought-out lighting designs. There is beautiful artwork everywhere. The public spaces are Grand!
The ship has a really good library with many recent hardcover bestsellers and CD-ROMS. There is a card room right next door with a number of games and tables.
The limelight studio was really unique. You can have your picture taken with Commodore Mike Moulin, John F. Kennedy, steering the Grand Princess, or hold a cigar next to President Clinton. We saw a lady get the latter photo and it was very funny. She was a real hoot about it!
Princess Links is a small putting course that reminded me of mini-golf. It looked like fun. There are five freshwater pools, and one is a wave action pool: the wave action pool gave a good workout.
I don't know anything about the kids' facilities, but my husband and I observed that kids were very well behaved on board and parents noted they were happy with activities for their children.
All in all, this is a lavish ship with the goal of offering passengers many choices. I think this broad range of choice contributed to the mix of passengers on board which I really appreciated (aside from the whiners). Passengers with special needs or physical challenges told me they really appreciated the service aboard. There were four people who require dialysis aboard with their doctor. Grand Princess has the medical facilities available to make trips like this possible for them.
The ship is very stable and sturdy. We had moderate seas, and I have always needed Dramamine in the past. Not on Grand Princess. She was very steady in the water despite being so tall. No worries here.
Ports of Call
We always book the shore excursions through the cruise line and have never been disappointed. In St. Thomas, we tried the Discover Scuba Diving tour. I'm a certified diver and wanted my husband to try it out to see what he thought. We took a safari bus across the island to our dive site at Coki Beach. The drive was not pretty, and we saw some impoverished neighborhoods that are worse than any reservation in Montana. I was a little nervous when we pulled up to a bus and it was the dive shop, but our instructor gave us a basic lesson and I was more comfortable: it was the exact same stuff from dive class here at home.
They divided us into small groups, and we donned our equipment and proceeded to the water to test some skills. After that we made a 32-foot, 35-minute dive, and I felt like I was in an aquarium. Wonderful!!!
We took a ride up the gondola at $12 per person. We didn't feel this was worth it. It wasn't part of a tour on the ship, we just thought we'd try it. Thank God we didn't go shopping! Although there are great buys on jewelry and booze, there were five cruise ships in port that day. I understand it was quite busy downtown in the shopping area.
In St. Martin/St. Maarten, we booked the America's Cup Sailing Regatta. I had read that this was the best excursion in the Caribbean, and we weren't disappointed. You are divided into racing teams and proceed to four real, honest to God, America's Cup sail boats. Everyone has a job to do which is explained before the race begins, and you work as a team and sail the boat and compete for bragging rights against the other team. It was exhilarating! Definitely worth it!
On Princess Cays (the Brits say "keys"), we rented waverunners. They have a racing area marked by buoys at the far end of the island away from the other activities so as not to disturb people. FUN! I had heard snorkeling on Princess Cays was good, and I wasn't disappointed. Off the end of the observation dock, there is very good snorkeling. The barbecue prepared by the ship's crew was really good; I made sure to get seconds of the barbecued chicken. I really liked having this as our last stop. It was a great day! Princess Cays has been expanded greatly since our first time there in 1996 and is getting better all the time.
Debarking is very well organized. On the last night, your Princess Patter outlines all debarkation procedures and contains color-coded tags for your luggage. You place your luggage outside your stateroom and it is collected. The following morning, our butler made special arrangements (which they do for everyone in a suite or mini-suite) for us to wait in the Vista Lounge where coffee, tea and pastries were served until our debarkation color was called. They also had newspapers to read while we waited. We proceeded through Customs, easily located our bags and boarded a bus for the airport. This was very easy and the Vista Lounge arrangements were a really unexpected treat before we left.
Sunsets at sea are always terrific. I loved sailaway parties. We saw a whale! The bridge announced there was a whale on our side of the ship. We couldn't find it, but looked up at the bridge (you can see it from the balcony) and noted where all the crew were looking and spotted it right away.
Some hits with us were:
- The service (impeccable)
- The ship itself (elegant and beautiful on the inside, unique design outside that is very functional)
- The food (excellent)
- The entertainment (really fun!)
- The shore excursions (these really make the cruise)
- Our table companions at dinner (genuinely wonderful people)
Some misses with us were:
- People who complain about everything
- Service in the Painted Desert was slow
Other Grand Princess Photos:
Grand Plaza Atrium
- There are little pocket-sized ship maps that are on your desk in your stateroom. Take them with you to help you figure out where you're going. Many people said they had a hard time getting to know the ship. We never had trouble because of our maps. The outside cover is color coded to the carpet on your staterooms floor to find your way home.
- If you're unhappy about something, politely let the appropriate staff know. Princess is very responsive if you give them a chance.
- Book your shore excursions early! The best ones sell out fast.
- Try one of the alternative dining sites one evening. The food is excellent.
- If you get good service, be as vocal about it as you would bad service and reward good service in your gratuity envelope.
- Relax and have fun! I think if you do, it can be the trip of your dreams!
Sabatini's Italian Restaurant
Snookers Sports Bar
Marty Rehbein is in her thirties, married, and works as a City Clerk in Missoula, Montana. Her husband is a highway contractor, and this was their third cruise, previously sailing on the Sun Princess and Star Princess (now P&O Line's Arcadia). Marty can be reached for questions or comment at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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