Grand Princess October 4, 1998 Eastern Caribbean Cruise
Cramped. Not enough open space. Perhaps not as much room as I had expected. Pool deck too small to house us sun worshippers. Promenade deck will be too narrow. Dining rooms appeared to not be capable of 2,600 passengers.
I got off the plane in Fort Lauderdale two days before we were to sail on the Grand Princess. I rented a van with my Boston buddies and we were off to the biggest and newest and most expensive excuse to cruise. We were greeted at the pier by Denise from the Princess Public Relations department in Long Beach. We were issued a media packet, and then it was across the "gangplank of love" for a quick lunch and a whizbang tour.
I found my way to the Wheelhouse Bar where the fifty or so media type people were gathering to receive and solicit accolades. I liked this lounge and was dying to get out of there and explore. But we were off to a nice lunch in the DaVinci Dining Room before we could stretch a leg.
The meal was tasty and the chocolate soufflé made me want to find a cabin and catch twenty winks. The company at the table was interesting. Jay was the Travel Editor for the Miami Herald and there were three lovely ladies from Broward County that provided wonderful conversation.
As I watched my time, I realized I had less than an hour to run through the ship and get a feel for this brand new princess of the sea. One of my concerns was walking to the back of the ship on the Dolphin Deck and trying to find a Room Steward that would open D734 and let me have a peak at my soon-to-be home. But no luck. I had to settle for seeing the suites that Princess had intended us to see.
The suites and cabins we saw were well appointed, and I was very glad to see a change from the Carnival Oranges and Browns. The pastels, highlighted by an overtone of teal and beige, enlarged the otherwise fairly tight rooms. Mirrors added to the image, but not the depth. The verandahs were good-sized and I could not wait to be sitting on mine -- with sailing just 48 hours away.
This futile effort shortened my tour de ship to a paltry 30 minutes - and this is why my first thoughts of the ship were less than favorable. Attempting to view the largest vacation resort afloat in 30 minutes is, well, ludicrous. I did my best to see the highlights, but the rush did almost more harm than good. I climbed back into my van and headed off to the wind-strewn Keys. Just one-week prior, Hurricane Georges was beating down on the former homes of Ernest Hemingway and Jimmy Buffet. My friends were anxious for my initial opinions and I found myself biting my tongue for the next hundred miles or so. Two of my good buddies had never cruised before and I certainly did not want to tilt their first encounter on the Grand. Of course, they were in awe of her sheer size, and I felt it better to just say that she was a very nice ship and we'll have a good time.
Sunday, October 4th was the day of the first sailing from the Caribbean for the Grand Princess. She was indoctrinated into the world of cruising in May, sailing in the Mediterranean on 12-day cruises. I was on her inaugural Caribbean cruise and Princess had done quite a shebang in New York launching her amid getting lots of fanfare.
We boarded early on Sunday. I like to board a ship early. We were told to check our luggage; we carried ours on. I am a creature of habit and like to unpack as soon as I board.
Embarkation at the Fort Lauderdale pier was easy. They have you check in according to your deck and cabin number. A very friendly gentleman was waiting on us, and before he could say good luck and bon voyage, we were on our way to the gangplank with our room keys in hands.
The boarding passes have several functions with Princess. First, they get you on the ship and they are your boarding pass for the next seven days. Second, they get you in the rooms. Third, if you need to charge anything on the ship or even on their private island (beach), your handy-dandy plastic card acts as a charge card. And just in case you feel your luck is about to change and you need a few extra bucks in your hands for the casino, yep, you guessed it, the card can even get you an advance.
Approximately 70% of the cabins on the Grand Princess have verandahs. I was in the majority for the first time; one thing nice about traveling with friends is splitting the cost. This was true of our cabin. Greg and I spent an additional $300 per person to have the verandah, and I was anxious to see if it was worth it.
Cabin D734 (category BD) is on Dolphin Deck, which is Deck 9 on the deck plan. It is directly in the stern of the ship - just above one of the twin propellers. Actually, "just above" is a bit of a mis-statement: it must be at least 100 feet above the turquoise waters of the Caribbean.
As you enter the cabin, the bathroom is on the left and the two closets flank it. The bathroom is efficient and has a corner shower, which FYI, never sent scalding water down my back. The two closets are ample. One is for hanging clothes, life vests, shoes and extra pillows. The other houses the safe and about six shelves, some of which are only 15" deep.
The room had two twin beds with a nightstand between them. The desk has the phone, lamp and drawers on either side. The hair dryer is built into the wall near the sliding doors above the small desk - which is a good idea, getting it out of the bathroom. One person in the shower area is about all she can handle. On the other corner is the entertainment center. A color television with remote and 10 channels is on top of a dry bar, which sits above the 3' high refrigerator. Our bar wasn't dry.
The verandah had a table and two small chairs and two nice large chairs that recline. Plastic and white, they may not be pretty, but durable and practical is what you must have on the outside - given the intense sunshine and salt spray the ship can encounter.
I had no complaints about the room. If I were taller, the bed would have been a bit snugger, but being the average height for an American male turned out to be an advantage for a change. The location was great. I loved looking out the back of the ship at the churned up water - that combination of deep blue, foamy white and a crystal blue. Our verandah was unusual because no one could see in it. The majority of the cabins with verandahs have neighbors above that can look down into your "private lanai". We lucked out.
Our permanent table was in the DaVinci Dining room, which is one of three very well-appointed rooms. We sat at a table of eight in front of a large hand-painted mural near the back. The dining room decor and schematics made me feel like I was at a fine dining establishment, instead of a large, cavernous cruise ship dining hall.
Only 30% of our meals were consumed in the DaVinci. We did six dinners there and, overall, were satisfied with our experience. I find cruise food to be pretty good, and occasionally you can find a nice soup, appetizer, entrée or dessert - and that was exactly the case on Princess. My favorite caloric indulgences were the Crab Quiche, Chocolate Hazelnut Torte, Mahi Mahi and the pasta with "fresh" red sauce.
We sampled several dishes each night between us to give us a good comparison of types of dishes. In general, the fish dishes seemed to be the most consistent. Beef and chicken, like all other cruises I have been on, were middle of the road. My friend Eric fell in love with the homemade red Marinara sauce and every night we had the waiter bring us a tray of it.
The evening fare was fairly generic - few things caught my eye - and I tried new dishes. From the "whatever it is worth department," I usually pick out an entrée and find someone at the table that would like to share an additional select morsel. The loss of space is worth the suffering - especially if the entrée is tasty.
The highlights of the food were the Painted Desert Dining room and the pizza. We made an impromptu visit one night into the Painted Desert and after some minor begging, was given a table for four right next to the two piece country folk singers stage (they book days in advance). The Tortilla Soup and Tequila and Lime grilled chicken were terrific. I wanted to eat there every night. And then they had to go and top it off with Pumpkin Cheesecake - I think I'm getting withdrawals just talking about the meal.
The pizza is prepared near the main pool from noon till 6 PM daily. The only complaint about the pizza is that I found myself missing it late at night. This is good pizza. Thin, soft, cheesy and covered in that delicious red sauce. Of the four times I sampled it, I never waited in line more than four minutes. I could not help think that the majority of passengers had not discovered this oasis on an oasis. They made them fresh and hot and in all of Boston, there is only one pizzeria in the North End that can compare!
The Horizon Court is the 24-hour buffet/dining room that is on the pool deck. Breakfast was fine - the assortment of fruits, cheeses, bakery goods, cereal, fried and scrambled eggs, pancakes, yogurt, breakfast meats and juices could satisfy the average American or European. But there was nothing sexy about this dining façade. The food was plentiful and constantly being refilled, but something left me kind of cold in this dining room. But alas, I never left hungry after breakfast or lunch and some of the window tables were quite nice.
One evening I wandered into the Trattoria to take a peek at the décor and layout. I walked by the kitchen area, which is in the far corner of the café. It surprised me to see pasta that had already been cooked sitting next to vats of sauces. Maybe I don't know much about fine Italian cuisine, but I thought good fresh pasta was cooked to order. And on top of that, the room left me cold. Dining in a room with a tiled floor takes something away from the ambience, for myself.
The layout of the ship's entertainment is different than any other ship I have sailed on. Being young enough to still enjoy dancing, Skywalker's Disco was my main source of evening non-gaming entertainment. But with it at the back of the ship and up ten decks from the Promenade Deck, the flow of late night revelers was drastically changed. Problem is, for me it didn't really matter - but I did find myself not partaking in the other lounges that offered live entertainment. In fact, I wonder if it hurt the bar activity in the other lounges.
My first impression of Skywalker's was that it was too cramped and the dance floor was inadequate. However, after sailing on her for seven nights and being up there 'til the wee hours on almost all of them, the disco is just fine. In fact, it was my most fun nightclub on the low seas. Given the mix of ages on Princess cruise lines, the disco is the perfect size and quite a spectacle, hanging effortlessly seventeen stories above the water. The moving sidewalk leads you into an elevated dance floor with a powerful sound system and a dazzling light show. The views forward of the ship are great and the energy is all over the place.
The Explorers lounge is a good-sized lounge mid-ship on the Promenade Deck. The art auctions were held there and we gathered there prior to disembarking for our tenders. The servers wear the tan explorers hats and decorative camouflage outfits. The large theater had a nice feature - little trays that pop up between your seats - kind of like when sitting in the bulkhead seats on an airplane.
Going to a stage production on a cruise for me is difficult. Most shows are the same - and while that is not a knock to the entertainers, how much can you do on a ship? But I did wander into several productions and for the most part was satisfied. The hypnotist was a big hit, although I find that stuff as hokey as World Federation Wrestling. There were some terrific Chinese acrobats, and a husband and wife team that did some amazing stunts on stage one night. The only stage production I saw, I found myself shaking my head because the prerecorded music and voices takes away so much from the dancing talent.
Pools and Exercise
If you have sailed on a Carnival ship and had trouble securing a lounge chair around the pool area, than you'll understand why I was at first concerned on the Grand Princess. But what I underestimated was how the four main pools would handle the crowds of sunworshipers and that the older a crowd gets, the fewer there are who want to sit in the sun.
The main pool is pretty large as far as ship pools go. I was surprised that all were filled with fresh water - vs. the usual salt water found on other ships. The lounge chairs are comfortable and most can be found above the pool. There are not many lounge chairs around the pool. There are two 8-person hot tubs adorning the main pool and a small fountain and sitting area around the pool as well. I liked the layout and for the demographics of the ship, the main pool was fine.
The covered pool was usually quiet - but the two hot tubs seemed to be busy quite often. There is very little seating area around this pool and while it might suffice for the pool-goers at heart in inclement weather, it serves little purpose on a sunny Caribbean cruise. But the aft pool was a treat. It is surrounded by several horseshoe shaped decks that look down to this medium-sized pool. My first encounter in this pool was at nighttime with very few people around. The view was spectacular, with the ominous disco hovering above with the "sky passage" and lights from the other decks dotting the sky. It's a long way up to the disco and only here can you appreciate the fête of Fincantieri - the ship builder from Italy.
The two hot tubs aft were my favorite spot to watch the daily sunset. They each hold 15+ people and there is one starboard and one port. Leaving St. Thomas one evening, we had numerous new friends in there with us toasting the island, the sunset and our favorite excursion. There is a bar in between the two freshwater hot tubs just in case you need some toasting material!
I did not jump in the wave pool near the spa - though I did want to at least try it. The pool is very small and visible from almost anywhere in the spa due to the proper use of glass windows. The aerobics floor was very large, in fact, perhaps too large -- as I only ever saw 20% of it's maximum space being used. The Spa received several complaints - mainly the insufficient size of the weight area and lack of machines. The Carnival Destiny's spa was far superior and considerably larger. But Grand passengers managed to sweat, nonetheless.
The basketball/paddle tennis courts received little use and many asked why they did not set this up for volleyball. The rubberized track was 1/3 mile long and was very busy in the morning. Late in the day the heat was too oppressive - even though the view was priceless. I never played the miniature golf course, but there seemed to be a steady stream of passengers playing the front nine.
I usually do one excursion per cruise - the rest is on my own with my friends. In St. Thomas, I would highly recommend the Wild Thing snorkeling adventure. It picks you up at the pier and takes you first to Buck Island -- just a quick trip on this twin-hulled super-fast boat. The snorkeling at Buck Island is very good and after drinking all the salt water I could, the rum punch was a nice relief enroute to St John. We pulled up to a gorgeous private beach and our group snorkeled while the others just beached it. After an hour or so, it was back on board for a very fun ride back to the ship. We got caught in a brief rainstorm where all on board were once again drenched - but it seemed to loosen everyone up and the rum punch soon began to really flow fast. The $59 cost was well worth it.
In St. Maarten, six of us rented a van-taxi for the day. We negotiated $25 per person and off we went to explore this beautiful island. Due to the fact that hurricane Georges came through just a week earlier, the vegetation was not nearly as lush as normal, but the hills in Philipsburg still provide a terrific view of the ship engulfed in the turquoise waters of the Caribbean.
This was one of my favorite taxi drivers from the islands. We stopped many times along the way to take pictures and gawk at the landscape - both in admiration and in horror. Two of my buddies had never been to a Caribbean island and had never been exposed to the permanently parked rusting cars, street goats and poverty. But the views of the outlying islands and waters made up for it.
We stopped by taxi-driver Robert's ocean view apartment (that goes for $350/mo.) and met his wife and continued our way to Orleans Beach. We managed to make a quick pit stop at a local grocery store and secured some local cooking spices and a handful of local beers. We disembarked the cab at Orleans Beach and found some nice lounge chairs with umbrellas. It was hot, and soon we were all missing the 20 knots per hour wind from the Grand Princess. This is a beautiful beach, not just because it is topless, but because of the waters and the hills surrounding us. The nudist colony that is attached to this beach is always an interesting walk - just don't bring movie cameras with you and they won't ask you to leave.
I looked forward to visiting Princess Cays because I had never been to it before, but I was not sure what "it" really was. I saw a map of where we were headed and it looked like a pretty big island for a cruise line to have purchased. And even when the ship anchors off her coast about 3/4 of a mile out, she looks like a small island.
Truth is, it is the Bahamian Island of Eleuthera. I believe that Princess bought the rights to the southern most end of the island and named her Princess Cays, but do not believe she will show up on a map as Princess Cays - unless of course it is a four color Princess Cruise Lines brochure.
Now that that mystery was solved, I tendered over to her for a short day of sun and fun. If ever there was a perfect day for this, that was the day. The sun was very hot and many people were finding solace under the palm trees that adorned the beaches, either there or in the warm Bahamian waters.
A group of us waited for 30 minutes for the crew to radio to the ship to have a volleyball brought to us by tender. This was the ship's first visit to the island so such a small glitch was almost unnoticed (except by those 10 or so people baking in the brilliant sunlight!) After two competitive games, we lost and headed to the beach with snorkels in hand. The snorkeling was fair, but when in Eleuthera...
I have been numerous times to Coco Cay and Great Stirrup Cay and would say that Princess Cays is the nicest of the three. It is spread out, the sand is silky smooth, the waters are turquoise and inviting, the buffet lines never seem to get long, the food is adequate, there are only a handful of local goods stores and no vendors walking the beach, the number of covered chairs is sufficient, the hammocks are plentiful and the sunshine is nonstop. Of course one must tender into Princess Cays, but the boat ride provided terrific shots of the ship.
Fine - I never seem to complain about service on a ship. Our meals were delivered on time and our cabin was kept clean. The bartenders served cold drinks and it was nice not having servers pound you with drink offers all day long. The mix of 1,100 staff members was quite diverse, but managed to make the trip comfortable.
Only one complaint that I had had to do with the Captain's Party on the first formal night. As I approached the covered pool area (which is where they chose to hold the reception), I noticed a gentleman take off his jacket and he was soaked. Soon I found out that it was because it was so terribly warm at this party. Not only could no one see the Captain when he went to his second floor perch next to the band to welcome everyone, but most people had already left.
There were not many on the ship, but my hat is off to Princess for making the voyage of children more fun. They have a great game room for the kids and the children must get their own plastic credit card to play the games -- which are varied and fun. There is a "Candy Bar" for kids - no alcohol, just candy in a bar-like setting. Plus they have their own sun deck and hot tub, along with paddle tennis, basketball, ping pong and shuffleboard.
I was surprised by how well she absorbed the crowds. From the tiered dining rooms, to the many pools, to the numerous lounges -- I did not feel cramped on the ship and found plenty of room for myself, whether it was a secluded lounge chair or a quiet table in the disco. Even the wait in the casino was short if you are like me and need to sit at the same spot.
My room steward, waiter, headwaiter, busboy, a few dealers and several bartenders knew me by the end of the cruise. People think that big equals impersonal, but I tend to disagree - with some exceptions of course. I prefer a ship with lots of options - if I wanted nothing but rest and relaxation, I'd stay on a deserted island.
The differences on this ship were subtle. For one, I wish I could appreciate all the fine art that filled the halls and stairway areas. The three-story atrium makes better use of the space. There was always a hot tub awaiting you. The aft pool was open late. The disco didn't keep other passengers awake. There were Ping Pong balls. Champagne is common and flows several times for all passengers. The Writing Room was actually busy.
Grand Princess is a grand lady of the seas and Princess has done a terrific job investigating what people want and how to get a younger crowd on board. This ship changes my opinion of Princess and states their eagerness to change others'. She is more than seaworthy; she is worthy.
Doug Terhune is quite the experienced "solo cruiser" and is a regular columnist and reviewer for the SeaLetter. He recently began his monthly "Ship Tips" columns.
Doug's special interest is interviewing various officers on his cruises, including interviews with the Tropicale's head chef, the Inspiration's Chief Engineer, and the Sensation's Captain. To find all of Doug's SeaLetter columns and cruise reviews, use the SeaLetter Search Engine entering "Douglas Terhune" as your search phrase.
Doug can be reached at: Doug@sealetter.com.
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