by George Smart & Eleanor Stell
7-Night Roundtrip Cruise from San Juan, September, 2004
(San Juan, St. Thomas, Dominica, Barbados, Isla de Margarita, Aruba, At Sea, San Juan)
After 25 years of "Love Boat" reruns, we weren't expecting much from this, our first Princess cruise. But the Golden Princess was an extraordinary experience. From first sight of the magnificent eighteen-story-high disco towering over the stern to our last expresso on deck overlooking San Juan, this was our very best cruise. Fares during the September hurricane season are sweet deals, and the nice thing is that the ship simply avoids bad weather, if there is any. If you are flexible enough to accept substituted ports (we got Dominica and Barbados instead of St. Kitts and Grenada) you'll have a grand time. Built in 2001, the ship has hundreds of balconies with ample cabin square footage in every cabin class. If you get a balcony, though, get one on Decks 11 and higher, as lower versions are not very private.
Princess treats their customers with exceptional friendliness not found to the same extent on Carnival or Norwegian or Costa, and customers return the favor with relaxed appropriate behavior and common courtesy. This is not a party ship, although there are many opportunities to drink, socialize, dance, gamble, and otherwise have a great time. The ports on the Southern Caribbean itinerary are all interesting, and Princess has a wide range of entertaining and value priced excursions to choose from should you want to explore. While many cruisers extol the virtues of booking excursions independently, we find the small difference in price not worth the hassle. And no ship will leave a ship-sponsored tour behind if it runs late!
This is also a vessel of wonderful deals, such as:
- Drink prices are lower than other lines and much lower than land prices. For as little as $2 and rarely more than $5, you can consume almost any spirit on the menu. The exceptional $22.50 seven-day-all-you-can-drink soda deal is a must-have from Day One that also includes a free metal drink mug. We drank 4-6 per day, each, saving around $60 per person.
- Want a fixed seating dining time but didn't get it? Princess' transition to the "anytime" format makes it harder to obtain. There's a near-secret third option to fixed or anytime seating: buried in the first-day paperwork is a phone number called the Dine Line. Call it every day around 8am and you can dine anytime you want in Donatello or Bernini -- without waiting. Otherwise, expect a 15- to 45-minute wait for the Anytime plan. With the Dine Line, which is free, we bypassed all lines and never waited more than two minutes for a table any night.
- Those seeking cabin peace will appreciate the attentive but low-profile stewards. The beds and pillows, though, are flat and hard. Ask your cabin steward for a foam pad the first day. Tipping him $10 will have it come almost immediately. Otherwise, it may take a few hours or they will run out of pads.
- Best Views -- Up in the disco during the day, you get sweeping 270-degree vistas of the ship and ocean; for eating, get your meal at the Horizon Buffet on Deck 14 and walk 100 ft. straight back to the stern where there are nice tables, rarely used, with beautiful views of the water.
- Food -- The buffet is open 24 hours a day. The best pizza I've ever eaten (truly) is available 11am-7pm every day. Ask for the special of the day. In the main dining rooms, you really can't go wrong. True gourmands will be disappointed, perhaps, but for us average eaters each dinner was spectacular, especially the last three nights.
- Tech -- Internet prices keep falling but you'll still pay about 35 cents per minute. Wireless is available only on Deck 5. Wireless is probably coming to the staterooms in the next year, for a fee.
- Spa -- During the Aruba day, massages go on half price sale: 2 hours for $99, a real steal. Split the time with spouse or hog the whole luxurious experience for yourself! We recommend Sara, a physical and massage therapist from Washington State who's going to be on board until at least January 2005.
- Great Tour, Bad Tour -- The Rhino Riders in Aruba are mini-motorboats, easy to drive, very safe and fun. You take them down the coast about 3 miles, snorkel, then return. Very cool couples thing to do, as you book the event in two's. Forget about going to Jost Van Dyke, BVI from St. Thomas; there are better beaches on St. Thomas and St. John, and you won't tie up TWO HOURS of time waiting to go in and out of US/BVI customs.
Don't forget our standard San Juan advice: use Priceline to get a $99/night room at a $300-400/night resort hotel if you have to stay late or arrive early. Forego the Princess airport shuttles; get there faster and cheaper by using taxis and save $12-15/person. Arrive at the ship earlier than it says on your ticket -- most ships actually start boarding as early as noon or 12:30.
Best to Jimmy and Joyce from the UK, our winning partners for shipboard trivia!
Photo Courtesy of Princess Cruises
George Smart and Eleanor Stell are consultants and speakers, have been on 20 cruises so far and can be reached for questions or comment at:
firstname.lastname@example.org. For their other cruise reviews, see: www.strategicdevelopment.com/travel .
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