Sapphire Princess -- Our First Princess Cruise -- Very Pleasant Hawaiian Experience
This cruise was our 17th in the past twelve years and our first on Princess. The cruise met our expectations and makes us want to cruise Princess again. Our overall impression is that while Princess doesn't discount its prices too much, and although other cruise lines offer better deals, we ended up feeling that Sapphire delivered a better experience in selected areas ... from the very good food in Horizon Court (Lido) buffet, and excellent entertainment ship-wide, to the very friendly and responsive cruise service.
Hotel- Night before cruise/shuttle to ship:
We flew into LAX from Philadelphia the night before and stayed at the Travelodge LAX on Century Blvd. which was an outdated, very run down property. We woke up to a completely flooded bathroom and hallway floor because a pipe in the wall from the upstairs room had burst. Since we checked in at 1 am and had spent less than 8 hours there, the hotel should have offered some form of decent discount. William the manager, offered only $12 off the room for the aggravation and we told him to keep it ... he obviously needed the money more than we did.
We took the Super Shuttle from LAX (thirty four dollars for two) and got to the ship in about 25 minutes ... pretty quick because it was a Saturday and there was little traffic on the freeways.
While we walked right in at 11:00 am and checked in immediately, we were held in a waiting area for an hour and a half before we were allowed to walk onto the ship. This long wait was unacceptable, and much more time than we have had to wait for entry onto other ships. The only positive is that we were allowed to go directly to our cabin, without any other waiting time.
First Impressions of Ship:
Our cabin on deck 10 (Caribe) aft, near the aft elevators had not been updated during the recent dry-dock ... and we were disappointed that it had not been part of the makeover. Furniture, bedding (slightly swayed) carpeting, etc. look to be from the 2004 timeframe. Layout was ok ... square room, no couch, two chairs, very large closet in hallway adjacent to bathroom which is the old style, with very tight shower. All was very functional and acceptable especially the great amount of storage. We had a very large balcony which is half covered; half open to the deck above. Aft location is very convenient for access to Horizon Court, directly above on Deck 14, and the International Dining Room (deck 6) if you have scheduled seating's at dinner. If you have anytime dining, aft cabin location is not as convenient as the aft elevators have blockages on decks 5 and 6. You have to go to deck 7 midship and take a second elevator to floors 5 or 6 where the four available anytime dining rooms are located. A mild pain, but we got used to it.
Everything, except phone service in our room was very acceptable. Our hand set kept malfunctioning and had to be replaced. Our cabin steward Carlito, gave us great service except the last night when he forgot to make up the room completely. We still gave him a great rating on the ship's post cruise questionnaire we received by email.
The recent dry-dock renovations were mostly to common areas on decks 5, 6.7. The ship's dining rooms and lounges were nicely updated and looked like those of a new ship.
Horizon Court Buffet:
Horizon Court is actually two, split rooms, each with its own serving stations on which you wait in line. Seating is not ample for the size of the ship and without fail you had to share a table at each and every meal. What does work nicely in Horizon Court, and like no other ship is that napkins and tableware are on the table and you are served your beverages, which usually came soon after you sat down. It was a blessing not to have to go and stand on line to get beverages, after being on line for food service.
Because the seating area in H.C. is limited, wait staff does a terrific job of cleaning plates, tables to make way for passengers. The best we have ever seen on any cruise ship.
The quality of preparation, variety of food in Horizon Court was uniquely the best we have ever experienced on any of the 17 cruises. Even breakfast managed to be creative (with as many as five different ways that eggs were prepared). There is literally a bakery shop across from the main food buffet which is more than tempting. While breads were terrific, desserts were disappointing in taste. Most had chocolate flavoring. There were a few exceptions ... terrific, plain Napoleons ... real deal with buttery filo and real French cream. If you like quiche, you'll be in heaven as it is usually offered at every meal, and the warm version in small, one person baked cups is sensational. Frequently, they offered real Genoa salami and on the last formal night, real prosciutto -- great quality. Pastas are also a strong suit at Horizon Court. Terrific sauces (pomodoro tomato and Alfredo), pasta cooked al dente. At lunch and dinner there were carving stations, twice with divine, encrusted tenderloin and many other cuts of pork, turkey, chicken, lamb. Great, thin crust pizza is served until 11 pm on deck 14, Lido. While there is a separate Pizza restaurant on deck 5, this is dedicated to personal pan pizza, which is just not as good as the pizza on deck14.
The most important take-way from Horizon Court is that it delivered wonderful, creative dishes, and a terrific variety that kept you coming for 14 days, and not feeling it was the same old, boring repeated dishes as happens on other ships. Thanks to Horizon Court, this cruise was truly an "eat-a-thon".
Formal Dining Rooms:
We selected anytime dining rather than fixed seating. While the system worked, we had to learn that it is better not to follow explicit instructions. There are four anytime dining rooms Vivaldi, Savoy, Pacific Moon, Santa Fe and each is smaller than the usual dining rooms on most ships, but more intimate and each is decorated in a completely different style. All except Vivaldi were available for dining from 5:30 to10:00 pm. Vivaldi is fixed dining, up until 8 pm, then is anytime dining, afterwards. You are encouraged to call and make a reservation each night. However when we called the first three nights, we could not get a reservation until after 8 pm in any of the anytime dining rooms. We quickly learned that it was not necessary to call ahead and you could be seated almost immediately, at the time you wanted. There is obviously a flaw in the reservation system ... so avoid it.
Food in the formal dining rooms was not as good as Horizon Court, something we have never experienced on any ship. Entrees and desserts were very disappointing. However, breads (ship wide) were among the best we have ever experienced.
Things to do aboard ship/entertainment:
Since there were eight sea days, the Princess Patter (daily newsletter) was extremely important guide to the large amount of offerings of things to do. From free Zumba classes to lectures to Movies under the Stars (day and night) there was something for everyone. We only wished that there was more of a selection of movies, especially in the Princess Theatre, daily. Shopping was subpar compared to other ships, including quality and variety. There were too many cheaply made items that made it hard to buy even if one was tempted to spend money. This is an area that needs to be improved.
Billy and Bex (Director and Assist Cruise Director) are very visible as is their staff. They honestly tried very hard to provide terrific entertainment and a lot of fun when you visited the ship's common areas. There were three terrific major song and dance productions, which was clearly not enough for 14 days of cruising. However, there were also great forms of entertainment in the lounges (Indigo -- Irish and Bulgarian singers who drew large crowds and Linda Gentile (Fabulous pianist -- Liberace protegee), among other acts that filled in nicely for the lack of enough major productions.
As swimmers, we always cringe at how small the pools are on most ships. Not so on Sapphire. The Calypso Pool, under a permanent glass roof is at least 16' x 32' and delivers a wave action on sea days. The other pool, Neptune, is a little smaller and is in the adjacent, open air area on the Lido deck.
Each day there were very interesting lectures and port reviews prior to landing were excellent including great maps and written details. The only problem is that they never had enough hand out to attendees and if you were late, you were out of luck, because you could not get the same handout at guest services, nor the eve before the port arrival (delivered to your room). The best port maps were only handed out at lectures/
Having been to Hawaii before, we did not do any of the ships tours, which like other ships. are outrageously priced. In Honolulu, we did book the Hop ON Hop off bus on line with Viator ($52 for two) before sailing and took the pleasant bus ride all over Oahu which included transportation to Pearl Harbor. Note: we did not visit the Arizona, which we did years earlier. Had we wanted to go we would have booked the free tickets that are available on line, many weeks before the sailing. Getting in the last minute to this memorial is tough to do. You can also take a local bus from the mall in Waikiki for only$1 for seniors that provide a 3-4 hour ride all over Honolulu, which we also did not do.
In Hilo and Lanai there is not much to see in town or nor to shop for. Tours are highly recommended there. We went to the local beach right by a shopping mall in Lanai (right in front of Marriott-Lanai) and were somewhat disappointed by the greenish, cold water. Marriott does have a lovely site, and like all other beach areas in all of Hawaii, all beaches are considered public and allow access to anyone.
In Maui, we walked up and down the streets of Lahaina, viewed the local craft show by the 150 year old Banyan tree and simply enjoyed the ambiance of this great area. In retrospect, we wished we had taken the local bus to Kaanapali beach, just three miles away and spent the day there.
For some reason, the ship is required to stop at a foreign port before landing back at Los Angeles (San Pedro). It stopped in Ensenada for a few hours. We took the shuttle bus to town ($3 pp RT) and walked the streets filled with vendors. It was very run down and didn't feel safe. We gave it an hour and went back to the ship. There were some nice shops right at Port and in retrospect we would have just shopped there.
Since we had an 11:15 am flight we chose the walk-off option and got ourselves assigned to the first group. This turned out to be organized chaos. We had to drag our bags mid-ship to Explorers lounge which was a nightmare of people (we were told that 700 chose this option) and many could not fit into the lounge, yet one of the crew harangued the crowd and constantly forced people to drag their bags into the already filled lounge as to not cause blockage of the walkways. We were left with the feeling that unless and until people forced themselves to go into the lounge, the crew was not going to let anyone off????
Sequestering the first group --- walk-offs - to mid ship made no sense as we actually left from the aft door immediately outside Fusion lounge, at the back of the ship. Although it was announced that the ship was cleared for disembarkation at 8:00 am they did not let the first group go off until 8:45 am.
Had it not been for the fact that it was a Saturday and the traffic on the freeways back to LAX was light, we would have missed our flight due to this 45 minute wait in the Explorers Lounge... We had to take a cab (not Super Shuttle) to get to the airport in time. Cost $57 ... which by the way can be split by 4-6 people, depending on the size of the cab?
Princess needs to improve both Embarkation and Disembarkation. This clearly is a weak point for Sapphire.
Overall the ship delivered a pleasant experience .... But at a price, since Princess does not discount very much these days, compared to other lines. In retrospect, because the food was so good in Horizon Court, we would consider taking another cruise on Princess, especially since the service was so good, especially since the crew seems to go to great extent to ensure a pleasant cruise.
One final word about a Pacific Cruise. This was our first Pacific Cruise ever. We were so surprised that the seas were so rough, in April. The first two days going and coming from Hawaii were extremely rough, beyond our expectations. While we had read less than positive reviews about January and February Pacific transits, we thought that by April, the seas would be settled. Not the case. It was nice to have a covered pool (Calypso) on those rough days, although the crew had to shut both pools down for several hours each of those days due to the rough seas.