Our cruise on Diamond Princess marked a number of firsts for us. Although we have been cruising for 15 years, this was our first time on Princess, our first visit to the Mexican Riviera, and our first cabin with a private balcony. It was also our first cruise on a ship that was less than one year old. So, we were looking forward to our holiday with great anticipation.
Overall, we rate our Mexican Riviera cruise on Diamond Princess among the best of any cruises we've taken. While not perfect, which would be an impossibility, this one excelled in all of the major categories -- service, entertainment, dining, comfort, activities, shore excursions, and the ship itself. To be fair, it is possible that the fact that we had traditional dining influenced this score to a great degree. Still, we came to relax and visit new places, and in those respects Diamond Princess was highly successful in exceeding our expectations.
Every leg of our trip went very smoothly. We booked air, pre-cruise hotel, and transfers independently, which I highly recommend for the flexibility and pricing. We flew America West non-stop from Boston to LAX, and our return flight nine days later included a one-hour layover in Phoenix. Thanks to several recommendations, we booked ExecuCar for our transfers to and from LAX. ExecuCar was most professional, and I liked the convenience of booking online and providing credit card information in advance. We stayed two nights at the glorious Queen Mary Hotel (which could have a review of its own) and took a metered taxi on Sunday morning for the short trip to the cruise terminal in San Pedro.
CHECK-IN AND EMBARKATIONThis was about the smoothest we have ever had. We entered the cruise terminal at 12:55 and were onboard by 1:15. We had completed our embarkation paperwork online several weeks before leaving, so we were directed to an Express Check-In line, which may have facilitated the boarding process. Once onboard, we were escorted into the central elevators and up to the deck on which our cabin was located, a good thing as the size of the ship was somewhat overwhelming to me at first. One of our four bags was already waiting for us outside our cabin door when we arrived, and the other three were delivered by 1:45. Our first Princess cruise was off to a great start!
SHIP PARTICULARSDiamond Princess was constructed in Nagasaki, Japan by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Ltd., and debuted in March 2004. Her vital statistics, courtesy of Princess Cruises, are as follows:
PUBLIC AREASDespite her size, Diamond Princess very rarely felt crowded, and the layout was not difficult to figure out after that first overwhelming impression. Passenger flow was smooth on nearly every deck (with the exception of Deck 7, on which the galley cut off access to the International Dining Room, aft). Even in the photo gallery, I did not have to contend with mobs of passengers.
The Atrium appeared much taller than its three levels, perhaps due to the decorative elevators, curved staircases, and spacious sitting area on the ground level. The only time it felt crowded was during the Champagne Waterfall on the second formal night.
The gym was a decent size and offered a good amount of equipment. I did my weight circuit on the machines and free weights, and also used the elliptical machines. Treadmills were always available when I went, although a sign-up sheet was posted for the busier times.
CABINWe selected cabin C531, a category BA on Caribe Deck 10, amidships. The cabin was separated into four distinct areas -- living/sleeping area, dressing area, bath, and balcony.
Space was well-utilized in the living/sleeping area. Two twin beds were positioned together under a mirrored headboard, flanked by two nightstands, each with an open shelf and two drawers. The bedside lamps had dimmer switches -- very nice touch. The desk/vanity provided additional storage via three drawers, and also featured another large mirror and wall-mounted hair dryer. A desk chair and armchair were adjacent. In the corner opposite the vanity was a wedge-shaped floor-to-ceiling cabinet housing a refrigerator, shelf, and on top, a television. An upper berth was kept out of sight inside a ceiling panel over the bed, yet we did not use this as our 11-year-old preferred to sleep on the floor in his sleeping bag -- and there was just enough room for him to do so.
Although it made for a smaller living/sleeping area, the separate dressing area was a good use of space as well, in my opinion. It included a large closet that ran almost the entire width of the cabin, providing both ample hanging space and a barrier between bed and bath. Perpendicular to it was a narrow closet that contained several shelves and a programmable safe, with a full-length mirror covering the door. The bathroom was small, yet functional, and had sufficient storage with three shelves and enough space on the counter top for the essentials. The shower was tiny, perhaps just one square yard of standing room, but we managed.
The balcony -- our first -- was huge (The balconies are larger on the category BA cabins than they are on the other B* cateogory cabins) and accommodated a small plastic dining table, three chairs, and two padded lounging chairs. As we were on Caribe Deck, our balcony was partially covered by the balconies of the Baja Deck cabins above. If we leaned over our railing, we could see the balconies of the Dolphin Deck mini-suites below. I wasn't bothered by this at all, and found that neighbors pretty much left everyone alone. I used the balcony quite a bit, most often for writing, enjoying a cup of tea, or letting my hair dry naturally outdoors. I've heard that once you have a balcony, it's hard to "go back to" a non-balcony cabin. We will find out this summer if this theory applies to us, as we have a standard outside cabin booked on another ship.
I had a chance to check out a mini-suite that was occupied by friends who were traveling with us. Their cabin was enormous compared to ours, with an additional sitting area that contained a sofa bed, a second television, and more storage. While our standard cabin was fine for us -- and we would choose it again -- the roomier mini-suite would be a better choice in my opinion for a family with small children or a family with older kids, mainly due to the extra interior space.
DININGShipboard dining is fairly important to us, and we value good service and the variety, presentation, and quality of the food. Diamond Princess excelled in all of these areas.
International Dining RoomWe requested, and received, traditional early seating, which started at 6:15 pm each evening in the International Dining Room. The one-level room was nicely decorated with paintings of various major world cities adorning the tan-colored walls. The food was superb. Generally, I ordered a fruit appetizer, consommé, fish or steak, and either a cheese platter or the sugar-free suggestion for dessert. Highlights included zander (a new variety of fish for me), mahi mahi, beef Wellington, prime rib, and escargot. We were also able to order from the Anytime Dining restaurants on a rotating basis, and my husband gave high marks to the sushi appetizer and duck entrée from the Pacific Moon menu. We also enjoyed several breakfasts and lunches in the International Dining Room, which were offered every day, including sea days.
We visited Horizon Court on Lido Deck several times during the cruise, which was easy to do as it never closed. The buffet offered a wide variety of selections. Among the items I tried during breakfast hours were grits and mueseli, both of which were excellent. The lunch menu changed every day, and I enjoyed the Asian soups that were regularly offered. There wasn't a buffet line, so to speak, but groups of stations in a small area. I had read that this arrangement was confusing, yet I found it convenient to head over to the station I wanted rather to stand in a long line when all I wanted was one item.
Anytime DiningWhile we opted for Traditional Dining, the specialty menus from the four Anytime Dining Rooms were available to us on a rotating basis. Similarly, the Anytime Dining Rooms offered the menu from the International Dining Room in addition to the menu specific to each locale. This was a nice feature, in my opinion, as it allowed all passengers the opportunity to sample from all of the no-fee dining rooms. We did not try Sabatini's, the extra-tarriff restaurant, yet the aroma was marvelous.
SERVICEService on Diamond Princess was near impeccable. This started with the quick embarkation and extended nearly flawlessly throughout the cruise. Although tipping is now done via automatic deductions from passenger accounts, I found no evidence that service levels are minimal or sub-par as a result.
Our cabin steward, May, was a real gem. She quickly learned our schedule and was lightning fast with servicing the cabin while we were out. One evening, as I returned alone to the cabin, May was outside and asked for my key card so that she could open the cabin door for me. These little things may seem trivial, yet are nice touches that show one's pride in his or her work.
Our assistant waitress, Zelda, exemplified the main reason we enjoy an assigned table in the dining room. After the first evening, she knew I enjoyed a cup of Earl Grey after the main course at dinner, and dessert would begin with Zelda stopping by with a pot of hot water and teabag and asking, "Would you care for your Earl Grey now, Mrs. Plotnick?"
Our waiter was also very attentive. One of our tablemates, a charming 9-year-old lad, loved eating sliced tomatoes, and our waiter made sure to bring him a plate every evening. One night, when the young man asked politely for green olives in addition, the waiter at first stated that the kitchen had only black olives, but he then realized that the bars might have green olives on hand. Within minutes, he returned with a bowl filled with green olives, a ritual that continued nightly thereafter.
Princess's top-notch service was also evident when we renewed our wedding vows onboard. Our ceremony was held in the chapel on the second formal night and Captain Tony Yeomans presided. Princess provided a lovely orchid bouquet and boutonniere, and the chapel was beautifully decorated with candles and more flowers. Everyone was wonderful and treated us like royalty. They even blocked off the hallway outside the chapel so that there could be no intruding by passersby.
The only lapse in service was around the swimming pools, where those on duty were unable to stop the unruly and unaccompanied children who were disobeying the posted rules and making it a dangerous environment for themselves and others. We, however, did not let this mar our vacation. We simply found something else to do, and returned to the pools in the early morning hours, before these kids were turned loose by their "parents." It is my experience, however, that this situation is not unique to Princess.
DAYTIME ACTIVITIES / SEA DAYSWith three sea days, one of our objectives was to do nothing. And we spent a lot of time doing just that. My husband and son and I used the pools as much as we could. My men also played basketball and miniature golf while I read/wrote/napped in a lounge chair one deck above the covered pool. (This is a great place to sit -- always a choice of chairs available.)
Princess offered many daytime activities, ranging from the sedate (wine historian lectures) to the zany (pool games). We did try out a few organized activities on an impromptu basis.
I joined a ship tour at 2:30 pm on embarkation day -- informative for me as I had not been on this class of vessel previously. Although it included a stop outside the spa, there was no pressure to go inside and book treatments or entice us to book. It was exactly as advertised -- an orientation tour of the ship.
Afternoon tea was held daily in one of the Anytime Dining Rooms (Pacific Moon), yet I went just once. Rather than an open seating, waiters gave each group its own table, making it hard for singles to meet new people. The scones were very good (cream and jam on the side), as was the variety of the sandwiches.
I also enjoyed a "Meet the Captain" session held in Club Fusion on our last sea day. It began with a prepared Q&A by cruise director Billy Hygate, in which we learned how Captain Yeomans was inspired to work at sea, and how he eventually ended up with P&O as a crew member in the 1970s. One of the passengers had the gall to ask what a captain earns, and he quickly responded, "Not as much as you might think, and not as much as my wife thinks."
EVENING ACTIVITIES AND ENTERTAINMENTEvening entertainment was excellent, in our opinion. The two main production shows -- "Piano Man" and "Undercover" were highly entertaining, and each had an encore performance during the week for those who had missed it or (like us) wanted to see it again. There were also a variety of alternative activities run every evening.
"Piano Man" featured the music of Billy Joel (not enough), Neil Sedaka (very well done), Liberace (beautiful -- black/white costumes represented piano keys in one number), Barry Manilow (very good), and Elton John (excellent mix). "Undercover" had an espionage theme. Highlights included a colorful depiction of "Green Hornet" which was done in neon-colored costumes against a black backdrop and a very long and comical sequence on "Austin Powers." Yet the true star was the set designer. I have never seen such elaborate sets change so frequently during a performance. Platforms emerged from the stage floor, Maxwell Smart appeared to walk through doorways of light before descending in the phone booth, and black and white panels formed a perfect backdrop for "Spy versus Spy."
Comedian/juggler Dan Bennett was entertaining and I enjoyed the banter that preceded his juggling routines. I wasn't as impressed with the performer in the American Songbook as he constantly hyped his accomplishments, although several of the medleys (particularly the one of Harold Arlen-composed songs) were good.
Unlike the last ship we were on, there were plenty of choices in entertainment if one did not wish to see the main show. We spent time listening to various styles of music in the variety of lounges onboard. We danced to hits of the 1960s, jazz, as well as ballads. There was also an excellent comedian in the Explorer's Lounge one evening.
We also enjoyed "Princess Idol," the Princess version of the popular U.S. television show in which passengers volunteered to be contestants. Some passengers were comically dreadful, while others showcased amazing talent. As the players change every week, I encourage passengers to see this show if they can. It was held in Club Fusion throughout the cruise, with the finals held on the last evening.
The Captain's Welcome Aboard party was held in the atrium. This was quite nice and a welcomed alternative to the parties held in crowded show lounges. While we did not get to pose for photos with the captain, the roominess and brightness of the space more than compensated. Captain Yeomans addressed the gathering from one of the tiers overlooking the atrium.
ITINERARY AND SHORE EXCURSIONSAs this was our first visit to western Mexico, we opted for a Princess tour in each of our three ports. Each was organized and run very well, providing seamless transfers from ship to tour. We were also highly impressed by the handicrafts -- in all our cruises, this is probably the most number of items we've purchased, although we spent very little money.
Additionally, one of the highlights of this itinerary was viewing the marine life off the Baja coast. One day, while I was doing my morning walk, I spotted a group of dolphins -- at least a dozen -- making their graceful dives through the ocean. My husband told me he saw a whale, and I heard similar stories of varied marine life from other passengers.
Puerto Vallarta, JaliscoAs a first-time visitor, we opted for the City and Coastal Drive tour. From our bus, we saw the location where "Night of the Iguana" was filmed, and much of the Malecon, a picturesque promenade by the ocean dotted with many statues. We stopped to take photographs of the most important statue -- a seahorse with a child on its back, which is the symbol of the village. We also stopped at la Iglesia de nuestra Senora de Guadalupe, a beautiful cathedral, and we then drove a bit outside town to a refreshment stop adjacent to a crafts market, where we bought three small colorful ceramic figurines. While at times the tour felt like a pitch for some of the hotels, I think that this is a good tour for a first-time visitor who wants to learn about the brief history and the culture of Puerto Vallarta. Next time we visit, I would like to see more of the town -- perhaps a more comprehensive excursion, or simply a walk along the Malecon to get a closer look at the interesting statues.
Mazatlan, SinaloaOur Colonial Villages Tour in Mazatlan was a major highlight of the trip. This five-hour tour took us to several towns in the Sierra Madres, followed by a return to Mazatlan for a performance of the Papantla Flyers. Viewing life in the Sierra Madres was a fascinating experience. Our first stop was a brick-making yard at the foot of the mountains, where the bricks are manufactured by hand. From there, we made the long drive to the village of Malpica, where we saw artisans create floor tiles ($2 each -- we bought five) and where we stopped by a bakery for wonderful treats made in their brick ovens. Then, it was on to Concordia, where we saw cedar furniture being made in a large hut. Adjacent was an artisans' market, where we spent another $10 on carved wood figurines -- both were incredibly detailed. Further into Concordia, we stopped for a beverage at a restaurant (which had a nice courtyard and colorful interior) and walked about the town square. Then it was back on the bus for the scenic 50-minute drive back to Mazatlan. Once in Mazatlan, we were treated to a performance by the Papantla Flyers, a group of five men who learned this ritual as children. We watched in awe as each of four men made 13 revolutions from a rope suspended from a pole (total of 52 represents the number of weeks in the year), while a fifth man kept a beat with a drum and flute. Watching these men spiral downward from a 75-foot pole was breathtaking.
Cabo San Lucas, Baja Peninsula SurAs our time in this port was very limited, it was an early day for us. We awoke by 5:30 AM in order to make a 6:50 AM tour that combined a beach visit with a boat trip to the impressive Los Arcos rock formations. The tour was excellent. After tendering to shore with our tour group, we boarded a large catamaran -- Cabo Rey -- and had a 45-minute cruise around Los Arcos. During this tour there were a few seals in sight, some frolicking in the water, others basking in the sun. After returning to the mainland, we were driven to the Hotel Hacienda Beach Club, where we stayed from approximately 9:00 am to 11:00 am. Our son spent nearly all that time playing in the sea. Even in that short span -- and with 35 SPF sunscreen -- we got a lot of sun that day.
DISEMBARKATIONDisembarkation from Diamond Princess seemed very organized, yet the process slowed once we left the ship. We waited in the nearly empty Princess Theatre for our group to be called. As we had an early flight, we were called rather quickly and were off the ship before 9:15 am. However, we had no inkling that we were in for a 45-minute wait outside the ship to pass through Immigration. Having a passport did not expedite the process. Thankfully, our driver from ExecuCar waited for us. We left the pier at 10:00 am, and arrived at LAX at 10:30 am. We were through security and waiting at our gate by 11:00 am, ample time for our 12:45 pm flight. Still, I will no longer gripe about the Immigration procedure that occurs aboard ship. At least in that case, one is not standing on concrete with all one's carry-on bags. Even so, this was not a major issue, and I mention it only so that future cruisers out of San Pedro on any cruise line will be prepared.
FINAL THOUGHTSThis small-ship fan was won over by the 18-deck, 116,000 GRT Diamond Princess. We would definitely return to this ship, or consider one of her sisters or near-sisters, for a future cruise. We also liked the people and culture of western Mexico and would love to return to all three ports someday. It would also be great to explore further on the coast by cruising south to Acapulco or up the Sea of Cortez. We were very impressed with our first Princess cruise, and vow to not let another 15 years elapse before boarding a Princess ship again.
Photos courtesy of Lisa Plotnick & Princess Cruises
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Lisa Plotnick, a writer who lives in Massachusetts with her husband, Neil, and young son, has written many SeaLetter Cruise Magazine articles, cruise ship reviews and book reviews. Lisa is a fan of the classic liners, unfortunately a dying breed in the early 21st century. The Plotnicks have cruised once or twice a year for the past fifteen years and have been on most of the major cruise lines as well as several lesser-known lines.
Lisa is a SeaLetter Columnist and also assists in the management of the SeaLetter Cruise Forum. She may be reached for questions or comment at: email@example.com
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