Princess Cruises' Sun Princess Western Caribbean Cruise, March/April 1998
We had never cruised with Princess before, and I finally decided that the time was right. Watching the TV series "The Love Boat" over its long run, I always found the logo of Princess Cruises, known as the "sea witch", to be interesting: wind whipped hair that suggests ocean waves ... how exotic. Come on, be honest. Everyone wants to cruise on the "Love Boat"!
We did more than that. During our cruise, filming took place for the syndicated TV revival series "Love Boat: The Next Wave." As I write this review, this new series is enjoying good initial ratings. No one knows if it will survive, but it was interesting cruising with Robert Urich and the other cast members. Passengers were invited to be extras and, if you didn't mind showing up in the Atrium at 6am wearing a tuxedo, you had a good chance of being selected. More on the TV show, and its impact on the cruise, later in the review.
I was quite impressed with this cruise experience and with Princess Cruises in general. It was our seventh cruise, and ranks near the top. Was everything perfect? No, and it never will be. Most shortcomings were trivial, with one notable exception.
We flew into Ft. Lauderdale and were greeted by the Princess representatives. We had booked "cruise only" and were expecting to have to handle our luggage and transportation. I found out that Princess was taking all the luggage directly to the ship, and was giving free bus rides. They didn't seem to care if you were "air/sea" or "cruise only".
Once at the pier, we entered the terminal and found short lines at the numerous check-in desks. I was very pleased to find that they took our credit card info at the same time, which is something that many other cruise lines still make you do once on board the ship. I also liked the security check-in, which you encountered just before walking onto the ship. They took an electronic photo of each passenger and it was matched to your cruise card. At each port, you placed your card in a reader to leave the ship, and again to board the ship. When you did so, a screen showed your photo to the security officer. It was not an inconvenience, and it has the added benefit of letting them know exactly who is still on board and who is still ashore.
We had cabin R305, which is on Riviera Deck (the pool deck). This was our first inside cabin, and I was initially worried that it was too small. Most of my previous cruises have involved mini-suites, so this inside standard cabin took some getting used to. Adding to the cramped feeling was the fact that this was a triple berth. Storage for large luggage was a problem, and this is probably true for standard outside cabins, too. Anything with a depth of more than around 10 inches will not fit under the beds. Closet and drawer space was sufficient for three people; walking-around space was not.
The bathroom was adequate, with a full range of toiletries. The shower was big and triangular in shape. The toilet was angled towards the door, which made for interesting seating positions. The bathroom light switch is in the main cabin area, and you can't get to it with the bathroom door open. This can be a problem when other people are sleeping: hit the switch, then open the door -- light bathes all the sleeping people and wakes them up.
The cabin stewardess was from Poland. She was a very charming young lady, and she doted on our son. Cabin attendants are usually invisible, but not this time. Ours was staked out in the passageway for several hours each day. I passed her just about every time I left the cabin. She was quite friendly and popular with the other passengers.
The cabin was good enough for a 7-day cruise, but I would not like it for much more than that. It had a refrigerator and TV. TV programming was the best I have had on a ship, with reruns of classic shows like "M*A*S*H" and "Make Room For Daddy." They also had CNN, ESPN, and Nickelodeon kids' programming. The stewardess provided fresh fruit on the first day, but I found it curious that replenishments had to be ordered through room service. Why is that?
A major problem with the cabin was encountered on our first night at sea. As the ship headed for Princess Cays, at near full speed in choppy seas, a horrendous grinding noise began in earnest. This appeared to be coming from the inside bulkhead of the cabin, as if the cabin (which is prefabricated) was loose and rubbing against the bulkhead of the cabin next door. Every time the ship rolled or pitched, the metal-on-metal grinding noise rolled through the cabin. You couldn't sleep. I lay there in total frustration, facing the prospect of six more sleepless nights ahead. The ship was full, and no other cabins were available. Thankfully, we had calm seas for the remainder of the cruise, and the noise became less noticeable. I have no doubt that those in the surrounding cabins heard this awful racket too. I believe this problem is significant enough to warrant leaving these cabins empty until a shipyard can repair them.
Humor me here folks. I love to talk about food.
This is the buffet restaurant, and was one deck up from our cabin. Lunch items were varied and generally quite good. Princess likes pasta, and they seemed to have two pasta dishes among the various lunch offerings each day. Cold salads were good, but the tossed salad selections were limited. A carving board with some type of roasted meat was always present and the roast beef was excellent. Seating was usually not a problem, although table bussing was at times slow.
Breakfast in the Horizon Court was good, but monotonous. There was virtually no variety from day to day. I never saw any pancakes or French toast, which the other cruise lines always seem to have. Instead, all we ever saw was scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, some type of potato, and blueberry blintzes. One true oddity, at least to me, was the tray of refried beans that appeared one morning. They did have a tray of fried eggs that were kept under a heat lamp by the toaster, yet there were no omelets available. On other cruise lines, it is just the opposite ... omelets but no fried eggs. Is there anyone out there that can handle both?
The Terrace Grill
This overlooks the pool, and is the hamburger place. They also had hot dogs and chicken patties. I thought the hamburgers were very good -- thicker than usual, and properly seasoned. The chicken is pressed and formed, and not too good. This place didn't seem as busy as you'd think, which is good, because there isn't a lot of seating. There is also beer and soda for sale here.
The pizza place. It is on Dolphin deck, and surrounds the Atrium. You sit at a table and a waiter takes your order. The menu has five or six different pizzas, and a calzone. These are all essentially individual-serving sized and are made to order. The pizza is excellent. I ate there twice and really enjoyed it. Around noon, there was a fifteen- to twenty-minute wait for a table. There is no take-out service, which many people didn't appreciate. To be fair, the layout of Verdi's doesn't really work for a take-out operation. Perhaps Room Service should get a pizza oven.
Regency Dining Room
We were assigned to table 170. We had two retired couples, who were related, and another couple who had won their cruise, as tablemates. When you are traveling with a young child, dining arrangements can sometimes be uneasy. Thankfully, all of our dinner companions appeared comfortable with a three-year old at the table. The "cruise winners" even bought little gifts for Jacob at a couple of ports.
Our waiter, Jim, and assistant waiter, Marco, were great. Service was smooth and unobtrusive. I was quite happy to find that the tables were not set with the traditional full layout of silverware. Rather, the appropriate utensils were set as each course was served. Call me uncultured, but I prefer this system instead of being fenced in by a bunch of forks and spoons.
Dinners were delicious, with an emphasis on seafood entrees. The fish selections, such as grouper and salmon, were excellent. Steaks were perfectly cooked, if you like medium rare. The prime rib was also wonderful. Soups and appetizers were mostly well prepared, although some unusual things like "chilled coconut soup" should be dropped. It was essentially a pina colada, even down to the straw and glass. Desserts could rise to perfection, and yet fall to mediocrity. One night, I had wonderful cake, filled with chilled custard. On another night I had dry, tasteless chocolate cake. The nightly pasta selection was a must have, for me. It was usually served as a side dish with the entree. Al dente is the way to go.
I ate lunch in the dining room once. Yes, I had pasta. Yes, it was good. We had breakfast in the dining room one time, and that was on the last morning. Even though we were all leaving in a little while, and it was open seating, the wait staff was unfailingly pleasant and accommodating. The menu was standard issue breakfast, although I noted that they had a different featured item each day. For instance, Eggs Benedict was not a standard item. It was a featured item on a couple of days, as was French Toast (ala James Beard).
Overall, I was quite pleased with the food quality and service. One thing that did not meet with my approval is the practice of charging for soft drinks during lunch and dinner. This seemed really cheap on the part of Princess, and sadly it was only the first of three examples that I encountered.
It was not as impressive as those on some other ships I have been on. Slot machines were all quite similar to each other, most with wins on one line only. One casino policy is particularly egregious. If you charge gambling chips to your shipboard account, they add a three percent surcharge. This is the second example of cheapness.
Ice Cream Bar
Haagan Dazs ice cream is featured ... and you have to pay for it. This is the third example of cheapness. Is the profit margin really that tight, Princess?
Very nice place. I liked the nautical theme, and all the sturdy furniture. It is like a big den, with glass cabinets holding books and genuine P&O memorabilia. A small band stand and dance floor is in one corner, but it seemed out of place. Also, the location could be better as most passengers walked through the Wheelhouse to get to the Princess Theatre. This detracted from the atmosphere.
Vista Lounge and Princess Theatre
These two rooms shared the load for the nightly shows, with the dinner crowd split up so one night you saw a show in the Vista, the next night you went to the Princess Theatre. The Princess Theatre has no balcony, and there is no bar service. Shows in here were typical of other cruise lines, with the ubiquitous "salute to whatever" show that runs a sampler of various songs styles by the audience. The Chinese acrobats were worth the trip though, as were the ship's two resident singers. Daily movies were also shown here. (Titanic was not one of them). The Vista Lounge had music and dancing, and the comedian shows. It is a standard shipboard lounge, virtually identical to those on any other modern ship.
I didn't go there, but I noticed trays of pastries and cups of cappuccino being served, along with standard bar drinks.
This is the disco, and it is entered through revolving doors. These must be challenging to the over-imbibed. I did not venture there during its operating hours.
This is across from Shooting Stars, and it has gained my official designation as the unneeded bar of the Sun Princess. I believe every mega-ship has one bar more than it needs, and this is the one. You hardly notice it. Actually, it is in a tie with another under-used place ...
This outside bar is located aft, on the Lido deck. It wasn't open that much, and when it was, it had maybe four or five customers. Maybe it was just the crowd on our cruise, but there was a distinct lack of heavy duty drinking, which may have been an enhancement.
This is the pool bar. Well-made drinks and the first really cold beer I have had on a cruise ship. I was never served a beer that wasn't icy cold. I ordered most of my drinks here, and noted that Princess is real serious about not selling to minors (under 21). Signs were posted under the bar warning the staff of the consequences for serving minors. Some numbered law that I assume is Liberian was referenced. Prices were a tad higher than I have paid on other ships, but still typical of resort prices.
As the name implies, this bar is on the top deck overlooking the pool area. Its hours were limited, but it was a good place to get a drink if you wanted to avoid the pool noise.
There are more pools on the Sun Princess than you may realize. Besides the two main pools in the center of the ship, there is a splash pool on the Forward part of Sun Deck, and a spa pool on the aft end of the Riviera Deck. There is also a kid's pool outside the Fun Zone. Finally, there is a small pool on the bow, which I figured was for the crew to use. Jacuzzi's were all around the main pool and the spa pool. The pools were open almost continuously.
Fun Zone Children's Center
A very nice place, with perhaps the best children's staff I have encountered on a ship. Our son usually wants to stay with us, but not this time. He liked the Fun Zone, both on board and on shore at Princess Cays. More on that later.
WARNING: I cruise for the shipboard experience and have grown jaded about most Caribbean ports. If you like Jamaica, Grand Cayman, and/or Cozumel, you may not agree with the following comments.
I have been to three "private islands" on previous cruises. As it stands right now, Princess Cays has them all beat. I was very impressed with the upkeep and cleanliness. It was laid out more like a resort, and less like an abandoned island that we had lucked upon. The children's area was unique. It was fenced off and under the constant vigilance of the youth staff. The kids had a big covered sand area, with toy trucks and such, as well as a slide and climb center. A bathroom was also within the compound. Wonderful!
The barbecue lunch was excellent, although limited in choices. Burgers, hot dogs, and those chicken patties again, all grilled over open flames. No baked beans or other hot vegetable choices were offered. Cole slaw, cookies, and cake, were the remaining options. It was still good.
The only bad thing about Princess Cays is that it is the best stop, and it happens to come first. I would prefer it to be last, which would improve the "fond memories" quotient.
Ocho Rios, Jamaica
I have been here four times now, and quite frankly I am tired of it. I am tired of fighting off hoards of taxi drivers as I try to leave the dock area. I am tired of the Soni and Taj Mahal Shopping Centers, with their fake Cuban cigars and T-shirt shops. I am tired of Dunn's River Falls. This time, we were treated to the sight of a local man standing alongside the road, naked and bathing in a stream. He gleefully pointed out certain aspects of his anatomy to passersby. I do not plan to step foot in Ocho Rios again. I have done it all, and now have seen it all. And that's the truth! But if you must go, stick to a tour.
A nice, safe, clean island. I feel safer here than I do in my hometown. Curiously, did you know that the Cayman Islands used to be territories of Jamaica? What happened?
If you love snorkeling and other water sports, you will probably like Grand Cayman. One of our dinner companions took the diving bell tour that deposited him and another passenger eight hundred feet underwater, on a shelf of the Cayman Wall. Not me! By the way, he said the bottom was littered with beer cans and plastic cups, most of which were standing straight up.
Harmless enough place. This was my third time here. The local Mexican people are very nice. Unfortunately, Cozumel suffers from terminal tackiness. I suggest going to Chankanaab State Park, which is a quick taxi ride from the International Pier. They have done a lot of remodeling of the park, and it is becoming quite nice. The beach is okay, and it is a quiet place to get away. A little open-air bar on the beach is pleasant.
I think the thing that impressed me the most on this cruise was the attitude of the crew. They were great! Everyone had a smile and a greeting, from officers to deck hands. I had heard stories about the British crew members being too reserved for American tastes, but I did not find this to be true. Of course, maybe I am too reserved for my own tastes!
The TV Series
When we boarded, they were already busy filming by the pool bar. Robert Urich was wearing his Captain's uniform, and most of the passengers seemed fascinated by it all. They had an aggressive filming schedule, and we found out that the production company had barred their employees from leaving the ship when we were in port. The director, and the assistant directors ("AD's" to use their jargon), were pleasant when dealing with the passengers. There were times when they asked us to stand-by lest we walk on set during a scene. They also asked us to be quiet on occasion; this included the unforgivable practice of having the pool bar blenders silenced for several minutes at a time.
The novelty wore off by day three, and the crowds stopped watching most of the filming. When we first boarded, no one seemed to mind if we video taped or took still photos of the action. By day three, there were inserts in the daily Princess Patter newsletter asking us to stop it. They said it was distracting to the actors. We later found out that tabloid reporters were trailing the ship, flying ahead to each port and trying to buy pictures from the passengers. Sleaze bags.
Without a doubt, the smoothest I have had. Princess uses the usual color-coded luggage tag system, but they give the appearance of enforcing it. You are supposed to tear off a same-colored tab from your luggage tags, and use it as a "pass" to leave the ship. The implication is that if they call "yellow" and you have a "red" tab, they will make you wait your turn. Riviera Deck was the first deck to leave after those with early flights, and we were in the bus (again they didn't care if you were air/sea or cruise only) 20 minutes after Customs cleared the ship. Delta had check-in onboard early that morning, so all we had to do was find our bags, put the claim tickets on them, and drop them off at the Delta truck. Princess then hustled everyone to buses, and we were off for Ft. Lauderdale Airport. It was seamless.
This beautiful operation was subsequently spoiled by Delta, whose late flight departure caused us to miss our connection in Atlanta. We were further victimized by Delta's standby procedure, which apparently placed us at the bottom of the list. People who were just trying to get an earlier flight were boarded while we sat and watched. Delta did give me a hotel room and we flew home the next morning, 18 hours later than originally planned. Isn't deregulation wonderful? I have placed Delta on indefinite suspension.
I highly recommend the Sun Princess. It is a beautiful ship, with a charming crew. Good food, good shows, cold drinks. With the exception of the cabin noise, this was a truly great cruise. Had we had choppier seas, I may have had a different opinion. Do yourself a favor and book something on a lower deck. But do it!
Dave Beers lives in Alabama with his wife, Vanessa and 3-year old son Jacob. Dave is a frequent contributor to the cruise sections of CompuServe's UK Travel Forum and can be reached for questions or comment at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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