Sapphire Princess -- California Coastal Cruise -- April 28 --> May 5, 2012
First a little about me. This is my twentieth cruise overall, my second on Princess and my first on the Sapphire Princess. In response to someone who wanted more details I began writing my reviews while on the ship. Normally I begin my review while waiting to board the plane. But this time I am not flying. I started packing Saturday morning a little after 7:00am and finished packing a little before 9:00am. I use a packing checklist which makes it fairly easy. So the only thing I forgot were the luggage tags which I obtained at the port (note to self -- add the luggage tags to the check list). I left home at about 10:20am and was parked at the cruise terminal by 11:10am. So now I'm beginning my review after dinner on the embarkation day.
One thing I don't like about this cruise is the first day is not a day at sea. And, just as bad, the last day is not a day at sea either. We will visit Santa Barbara on Sunday, spend Monday at sea, visit San Francisco on Tuesday, spend Wednesday at sea, visit San Diego on Thursday, visit Ensenada on Friday, and return home on Saturday.
This is a group cruise. I haven't had the best of luck with my group cruises. The cruises have always been great, but one thing or another has popped up pre cruise. One of the two reasons I was interested in this cruise was I that I wanted to go on this cruise so I could meet the travel agent I booked with (the other reason is I want to sail into San Francisco under the Golden Gate Bridge). Although the travel agent I booked with is not my normal travel agent, I've had the chance to read her posts on one of the cruise forums I belong to and I've had the chance to speak to her on the phone. I have nothing but respect for her. Unfortunately, about a month prior to the cruise, she died. I'll never get the chance to meet her. She was a special person and while I'm richer for knowing her, I'm poorer for never having the opportunity to meet her.
I spent a lot of time taking lots of pictures (over 1800) and I want to post many of them (over 200). So it is going to take me several posts to completely post my review with the pictures. I don't know how many people will post while I am posting, but I figure it will take me 36 posts to finish, so bear with me. For those that are interested, the review is over 9700 words (14 1/2 type written pages).
For those reading this review in the review section, I cannot post the photos in the review section. Instead at the end I'll provide a link to the photographs.
I also took some video, and if I figure out how to post the videos, I will.
Saturday, April 28 -- Embarkation day
Check in was a snap. There was no one in line ahead of me. Princess assigns passengers a boarding number after you checked in. I was in group four. I don't recall how long it was until I was able to board because I found someone from the group and was talking to them the whole time (and thus not looking at my watch). Actually a person from the group found me. I was wearing a duck cap given to me by the travel agent I booked with and so I kind of stuck out. I've never meet any of the people in the group. Basically we are a group of people who post on a cruise forum. They are however a great bunch of people.
At any rate my bad luck with group cruises continued. When I received my room key it had the wrong time for my dining (it shows early traditional and I want late or Personal Choice). As I'm walking away from the check in counter a Princess employee sees me shaking my head. She asks what is wrong and I explain the wrong dining time is listed. She tells me how to fix it. While I was not upset by this (I was only shaking my head because I noticed the error, not because I was upset) I do have to give this person (and Princess) credit for caring. Again, I did not go to her nor did I say anything. It was, at the time, simply an issue I would have to take care of once I boarded the ship.
While waiting to board another member of the group came over to me and apparently the error in the dining time was not limited just to me. So he said he would take care of it, and he did. That said, I do have to say that I am not a fan of flexible dining and the two reasons for this will present themselves before the day is over. First of all, without a set dining time you have to get several people to agree on a time and place (there are four Personal Choice restaurants on the Sapphire Princess). Experience has taught me that this is not all that easy, and tonight was no exception. Finally we agreed on a time (more or less). The other reason I don't like flexible dining is that it has been my experience that the service is not as good, and tonight's service was not up to the standard I am used to when being served by the same wait staff for the entire week. Yes, I know it was the first night, but that is one of the problems with flexible dining. Every night is the first night with whichever waiter and assistant waiter team you end up with.
Please understand, after all is said and done, the issues I have mentioned don't subtract from the cruise, they just don't add to the cruise. Positive experiences do add to the cruise, just like the lady who took an interest in me after check in.
At any rate, once I boarded the ship I headed to my cabin. Yes, the cabins were ready and it was before 1:00pm (I don't recall the exact time, but it was before 1:00pm). After putting my carry-ons in the cabin I began to tour the ship. I started on the top most forward deck and worked my way aft. My goal at this point is picture taking. I knew I would eventually find the food and when I did I had lunch (more or less a little of several different things). Finally I found the pizza station. I asked for one slice and he gave me two. I held up one finger (if I had touched the plate he would not be able to take the extra piece back). I had already been grazing (some lunch meat, a couple of chicken wings, two sandwiches, some cheese, a milkshake and shrimp) so I wasn't all that hungry by the time it came to the pizza (which I ended up eating on my balcony).
About this time the cabin steward showed up and said hello. I asked for ice (I always ask for ice). One of my two suitcases also arrived. Then the phone rang. Apparently the group was having an impromptu get together on deck five and down I went (my cabin is on deck ten). We have scheduled a get together at 5:00pm, but this meeting was a spur of the moment idea (and a good one at that -- as this is the first time we have all meet).
Soon it is time for the muster drill. We carry our lift vests to our muster station (the Pacific Theatre for me) and get scanned in. After the muster drill I go upstairs to put away my life vest and head to the Outrigger bar for the first of two sail-away parties (two different roll call groups).
While there I note that as we pass the break water we turn right -- a first for me (this is the eighth time I have sailed out of Los Angeles -- all of the other cruises headed south). Then at 5:00pm I head over to the Wheelhouse Bar to meet with the group I am traveling with, which apparently includes our new travel agent, who has convinced most of the group that she didn't get off the ship in time with the rest of the visitors. I too was fooled even though I should know better. I've been on several ship tours and the cruise lines keep tract of visitors the same way they keep tract of passengers. In fact, just like the passengers, visitors have to provide information to the cruise line in advance of the visit. You cannot just show up at the dock and visit for a few hours.
While talking to someone the subject of fuel usage came up. The person I was talking to mentioned that the QE2 (I wonder if he meant the QM2 as the QE2 is retired) gets only six inches per gallon. I know this is false and I tell him. He is not convinced. So I explain, at six inches per mile that comes to over 10,500 gallons per mile (actually 10,580 gallons). It is about 3,500 miles from New York to London. So that would require over 35 million gallons of fuel. Even at fifty cents per gallon that comes to over $17,500,000. I don't know how many people the QE2 holds, but it is less than the 2600 the QM2 holds. At $3,000 per person (I am sure the average is less) that is only $7,800,000. That is less than half of the alleged fuel consumption. Simply put the ship gets a lot more than six inches per gallon. I believe the figure is actually about 50 feet per gallon, which is one hundred times better than the alleged figure, bringing the fuel costs down to a more reasonable $875,000 (at $2.50 per gallon - I don't know how much the ships pay, given that they buy in bulk - kind of like shopping at Costco).
At any rate, here is where the fun begins for dinner. We decided to all eat together. But of course not everyone agrees on what time. Eventually we agree to meet back in thirty minutes and see what the restaurant can do for us. When I return to the cabin I note that my second bag has arrived and I unpack both bags, which pretty much fills up the half hour for me.
Then I head back down for dinner. As I enter the elevator the push buttons are to the right. To my left is a three year old boy who is very excited to have an ice cream. However, I'm looking to the right and I don't see him. Suddenly there is this (for lack of a better term) scream to my left. This startles me and I jump a bit, which of course gives everyone else in the elevator a good laugh. Now I am looking to my left and I see this small boy with a chocolate mustache and beard holding out his prized ice cream cone for me to see. No question that he is enjoying the cruise.
In fact I am pleasantly surprise at the number of kids on this cruise (I would guess thirty to forty), which is a lot for Princess during a school time cruise. My last cruise was pretty much devoid of kids as it was twelve nights during March. The kids add a little extra energy to the cruise and I enjoy a little extra energy. Unlike most school time cruise passengers, I don't mind being splashed in the pool (given that I am already wet) and sometimes have a little fun retaliating. I have taught myself how to put my hands together under water then bring my hands completely out of the water and by squeezing my hands together I can squirt the water about twelve feet. Most kids have never seen this before and are quiet surprised when I get them back that way.
At any rate soon we have two tables (an eight top plus a four top) for the twelve of us. Most of us enjoy dinner. However, one member of the group orders what he believes is a Cajun dish and when it arrives it has none of the Cajun spices. He describes it is like having the food in brown gravy. He asks the waiter, who of course is not American, for some Cajun spices and the waiter doesn't understand what Cajun spices are. So the waiter gets the head waiter who doesn't understand what is being asked of him either. Doing his best under the circumstances, the head waiter offers anything else on the menu. However, everyone else is at least half way done with their dinner and our group member doesn't want to start all over and hold everyone up.
Finally someone suggests adding some Tabasco sauce. That is something the head waiter knows about and off he goes to get a bottle of Tabasco sauce. I'm eating a very small steak (two very small filet mignon steaks shaped like a hamburger) from the alternative choice menu. I didn't realize that the alternative menu is the one that appears every night; nonetheless it works out well for me, since I am not that hungry. The steak is okay, not great and not bad. At any rate I look up to see the head waiter returning with one small bottle of Tabasco sauce on a silver platter. I'm not kidding; he is carrying this one tiny bottle of Tabasco sauce like it was the featured item of the meal.
After dinner I check out the shops onboard. All I am really interested in doing is checking out what is available and getting back to my cabin to work on this. I have been running around most of the afternoon in the sun taking pictures and I am tired. So, until tomorrow morning -- good night.
Sunday, April 29 -- Santa Barbara
I wake up at 6:00am and the sunrise is nothing special. However, it is happening just outside my balcony door so I take a few pictures just to prove I was there. I've got an 8:30am wine tasting tour so after working on this for a while it is time to get ready.
First I have a power breakfast consisting of one banana (no monkeying around). Then it is off to the Princess Theater where we meet before getting on the tender to the pier. This is our only tender port. Once on shore we are directed to a white bus where the tour guide informs us that we are at the wrong bus. There is another white bus and again we are told it is the wrong bus. Finally it takes a Princess employee to get everything straightened out. The people on the first white bus somehow convinced the tour guide that they belonged on that bus and they didn't. So they had to off load and then we loaded on the bus and began our tour.
The tour was one of the best tours I have ever been on (and one of the most expensive at $155). We visited two places, both very different and both very enjoyable. First was a wine club operated by someone who obviously enjoys fine wine. His club features very highly rated wines and provided the best advice I have heard for pairing wine with food. Eat what you like and drink what you like. We were able to sample six wines (one white the rest red), all from California. He grows grapes but does not bottle them himself. The area he lives in is beautiful.
I noticed that someone in our group had a very nice camera setup and seemed more interested in taking pictures than participating in the tour. I asked if he was one of the ship photographers and he is. I asked if his footage would end up in the Reflections DVD and he said yes, so I'll likely buy it.
Next we visited a commercial winery. The growing season just started so no bottling was going on. It is interesting how little is involved in making the wine. There is a press for squeezing the graphs and big vats where the grape juice turns into wine -- and that is it. We were given the chance to sample eight wines, three white, three red and two desert wines. After that we enjoyed a nice trip back to the ship.
Given that Santa Barbara is only about one hour from where I live, I really was not interested in doing any souvenir shopping (which I did on an earlier land visit about two years ago). So I took the first tender back and then had lunch. After lunch I uploaded my photographs and then worked on this.
It is around this time that I realize that I am so confused by all the dinner switching around that I have no idea what or where I am now assigned. I may just go buffet tonight. Tomorrow night our travel agent has arranged a dinner at the Sterling Steak House, at which time I'll find out what is what.
Speaking of pictures, I am traveling light this time (if you don't count the tripod). On my last cruise I realized that I took most of my pictures with the 16 -- 85 zoom lens. So I bought an 18 -- 105 zoom lens and left the 55 -- 200 zoom at home. I want to see how it works out. For travel off the ship I take a point and shoot camera that is small enough to fit in my pocket. I am not real interested in lugging around a DSLR with me while on a tour. I hope to put the tripod to good use much later tonight on the ship.
While I am spell checking my review the phone rings. Now I have a new plan for dinner. One member of the group I am with made reservations for 8:00pm at the Savoy Restaurant and I have been invited. One of the things I like is that the embarkation Patter (the ship's newspaper) lists the dress code for the week, the dining room hours for the week and the itinerary. This is very helpful in my opinion and I referred to it at each port.
So, with my evening now planned, I'm going do some photo editing. If I feel up to it, I'll catch the production show after dinner. It starts at 10:15pm (given that I'll be eating during the earlier show).
Dinner in the Savoy restaurant was great. Good service and good food. I had the Surf & Turf. Apparently one of the waiters recognized one of the couples I was eating with. They said he was a great waiter, so now we have reservations for his table at 8:00pm on Tuesday (San Francisco). Monday is a sea day and we will be enjoying dinner in Sterling's Steakhouse at 6:00pm thanks to our travel agent.
After dinner four of us head over to the Princess Theater for the production show, Do You Wanna Dance. The show was very good, though I prefer a little more energy. After that it is back to the cabin to update this and edit a few photographs. Then I have plans to sneak out around 1:00am with my tripod and see if I can get some good photographs. The seas are fairly calm, and we are not moving that fast. Also, the fog has rolled in which makes it rather nice in my opinion. I'm not sure why I feel that way. Maybe because of the mystery, 'cause I can't see a thing outside. It is gray on top and black on the bottom, except right next to the ship where the lights highlights the waves the ship is making as we move through the water.
Monday, April 30 -- Day at Sea
At about 2:30am I head out to deck seven to start photographing the public rooms with my camera mounted on a tripod. While I was able to get lot of pictures of public places without any people in the pictures, there were several drawbacks. First of all, to get all of decks seven and six plus the atrium on deck five took about ninety minutes (I returned to my cabin around 4:00am). The reason I didn't go after the restaurants on deck five is the restaurants are not well lit. I am not using the flash (the reason for the tripod) and as a result the restaurants look dark. Another drawback is that I lost a lot of sleep. Of course I knew today was a day at sea or I would never have tried this. Nonetheless, I see a nap in my future in the afternoon. A third drawback is that I am a little limited with the tripod (it must be on level ground -- not usually a problem on the ship) and it cannot hang over rails (which is a problem). Finally, most of these pictures I could have taken hand held. It was a good experiment, but I don't see me taking a tripod on any future cruises unless I am going to do time-lapse photography (or go back to San Francisco).
So, after four hours of sleep I wake up around 8:00am. It is still foggy out. I shower, shave and dress and leave the cabin so the cabin steward can do his thing. After a breakfast consisting of a little of this and a little of that, I browse the onboard shops looking for something that catches my eye, but nothing does.
So then I head over to the photo gallery see if I want to purchase the embarkation photographs and/or the Santa Barbara port stop photograph. Now first of all I normally by pass the embarkation photograph (this is my twentieth cruise, I've got plenty of embarkation photographs). However, Princess set up the embarkation photographs in a place where I could not walk around it without getting in the way, so I "volunteered" for the photo (I was the third person in line, so it was not that bad). It turns out the embarkation photos are a set of two 8x10s (at $20 each). One has a map and a summary of the cruise [a total 1315 miles though the distance from San Francisco to San Diego (481 miles) is less than the distance from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara (139 miles) plus the distance from Santa Barbara to San Francisco (422 miles)]. The other photo is me standing on a tropical beach (not the inside cement floor I was actually on) with the ship in the background.
If I buy both embarkation photographs I get a free scrapbook kit which I have no interest in, but there is someone on the cruise who I know does. The Santa Barbara photo is printed as an 8x10 but includes three photos, a 6x8, a 4x6 and a 2x3 wallet sized photo. In addition I also bought the Reflections DVD package which is $50 and includes the Reflections DVD, a scenic DVD (basically Princess stock photographs) and a choice of two other DVDs. I choose the DVD showing the Sapphire Princess refurbishment (done earlier this year) and the Historic Panama Canal. And just like that I spent $110 in the photo gallery. I don't know what it is about Princess, but on my last (also my first) Princess cruise I also spend a fortune on photographs.
I did spot an interesting machine outside one of the shops. If you swipe your card you can get a printout of your onboard account. Now since I already have my card why would I have to swipe it? I could swipe someone else's card and get their onboard account printed out, but I don't need to swipe my own card -- I already have it. And just in case you are interested, other than my name there is no personal information on the printout (such as cabin number or full credit card information). The TV does not provide onboard account information.
When I return to the cabin the room steward is still working on it, so I drop my photo purchases and grab my laptop computer and my camera and head to the library. Why you ask? Because I want to take a video of something and I don't know how to do it, though I did accidently take a short video on my last cruise (but now I want to take the video on purpose and I don't know how). Nonetheless, knowing the camera could do more than I would know about, I preloaded the entire instruction manual on the computer. Pretty soon I have the basics figured out.
Then I return to the cabin where the cabin steward has now finished, drop off my laptop and head over to the indoor pool. There are three pools, one outdoors with a MUTS screen (Movies Under The Stars/Sun), one indoor pool (actually a retractable top which is closed the entire cruise) and the Sanctuary pool (which is outdoors). I'm headed to the indoor pool. I know that the outdoor pool (aka Neptune's' Reef pool) and the indoor pool (aka Calypso Reef pool) have nobody in them, but that is only because none of the kids realize how much the water is splashing around, or they would be in the pool having a ball (and the squealing would add to the sound effects on the video). Since the sound effects are better in the indoor pool, that is where I am headed. I end up with two one minute videos of the waves in the pool complete with the sound of the waves hitting the sides of the pool. If I figure out how to post the videos I'll include a link when I post this review.
After that is it back to the cabin to get ready for a Meet & Greet organized by one of the roll call groups I was part of. During the Meet & Greet someone pointed out that one of the restaurants was serving pub food. So fourteen of us head over to the Savoy Dining Room on deck 5 for a British-Style Pub lunch. I had (clear the room of anyone under eighteen before reading further) Bangers & Mash (the mash is mashed potatoes) . Fish & Chips was the table favorite (English chips are our French fries and our potato chips are English crisps).
After lunch (actually during lunch) I was having trouble keeping awake, so it was off to my cabin for a nap. I followed up the nap by updating this and viewing my videos, which came out fairly good for a first and second attempt (ever). Compared to the 30,000 plus photographs I have on my hard drive. And now it is time to prepare for formal night and an early dinner at the Sterling Steakhouse.
Before dinner I posed for about three pictures (in front of the ship, next to some flowers in the atrium and next to the atrium stairs). In the process I could not believe how either rude or inattentive some people are. One lady walked between the photographer and me. There was plenty of room to walk behind the photographer. Was she really that rude or just so oblivious to what was going on around her that she didn't realize what she was doing? Another instance was when the elevator arrived. As the doors opened the "gentleman" nearer to the elevator just walked right in, so I figured no one was trying to get out. As I started to walk in I realized that there were several people trying to get out. I stopped outside the elevator to let them off. One of them mentioned how hard it was to get off the elevator. I doubt that the person that comment was meant for heard it.
At any rate we all meet at the Sterling Steakhouse (part of the rear starboard side Horizon Court during the day - they just add a sign and table cloths) at 6:00pm for dinner courtesy of our travel agent. I was surprises she was not joining us. I figured she was paying for it; she should at least enjoy some of it. I had the fourteen ounce rib eye steak. It was very good. For those that are interested, there is no lobster on the menu. As I recall, there was a Porterhouse steak, two New York steaks (with and without the bone), two Filet Mignon steaks (eight ounce and ten ounce) and a chicken breast. Dinner took about two hours and we all had a good time.
After dinner I returned to the cabin, got out of my formalwear (suit and tie -- which is more formal than I like to be) and did a little proof reading of my earlier entries. Then it was off to bed for me, as I wanted to be up in time to see us passing under the Golden Gate Bridge (or if the water level was high enough -- crash into it).
Tuesday, May 1 -- San Francisco
A little before 6:00am I am up and notice that the lights on land are getting closer. I go out on my balcony and we are very close to the Golden Gate, which is the entrance to the San Francisco Bay (thus the name of the bridge). I take a bunch of pictures as we pass under the bridge from my balcony (which is why I wanted a starboard side balcony). Then I go up on deck and notice that the forward observation deck is still roped off. I really believe they should have opened it prior to us passing under the bridge. First all we are not going that fast and second of all this is one of the most famous bridges in the world. It also would have been nice if we had arrived an hour later (when it was light outside) like the NCL Pearl did. The Regent Seven Seas Navigator was right behind us and is docked next to us at pier 35. The NCL Pearl is docked under the Oakland Bay Bridge. The NCL Pearl is closer to downtown, but all the action is over here at pier 35 (okay, actually at pier 39, but that is our next door neighbor).
I go back to the cabin to shower and dress. I'm meeting someone for lunch, so I dress up in my tux t-shirt. Then I take my tripod and go to the upper deck for picture taking followed by breakfast so my cabin steward has time to clean the cabin. Lots of people make comments along the line of tomorrow is formal night (because of my tux t-shirt). So I explain that I am meeting someone for lunch.
I'm back in the cabin, updating this, uploading my pictures (I took 370 this morning) and getting ready for my lunch date. I can see the Coit Tower, so after lunch that is where I am head to get some good pictures of the ship and the surrounding area, and then perhaps a ride in a cable car. So until later, good-bye.
I met my friend and we had lunch at the Slanted Door inside the Ferry Building. It was nice to lunch with a friend at a port stop (a first for me). It was a change of pace from the usual port tours that I go on. I even dressed up for her, wearing my tux t-shirt and put up with lots of jokes about tomorrow being formal night (most of the people just laugh 'cause I'm also wearing my duck cap). After lunch I headed back pier 35, where the ship is docked so that I could get my bearings for the trip to Coit Tower. Just as I get to the pier a taxi pulls up and off loads it passenger. So I figured I would get a cheap ride to Coit Tower. Much to my amazement, the taxi driver not only didn't know how to get there, she did even know what Coit Tower was, until I pointed to it (it is a city landmark, how could a taxi driver not know about it???). I figured I could get lost on my own; I don't need to pay someone else to do it for me. So I walked.
I figured it was a tall building. As long as I headed uphill and toward it I would find it. So off I headed until I came to a dead end with a sign on the right that said no Coit Tower access. I saw this as a good sign. I figured if they needed to post that sign, I must be close. So I back tracked two blocks, and went two blocks across before coming to another dead end with some stairs. I went up the stairs and then headed uphill again. Soon I came to sign on the left that said no Coit Tower access. So now I figure I must be getting close as Coit Tower must be between the two signs. Still headed uphill I came to another sign with a light on top of it. The sign said that if the light was on the Coit Tower parking lot was full. So I figured I would follow that street. Soon more stairs and at the top of the stairs I found myself at the base of the Coit Tower.
The ride up was $7.00. I took a bunch of pictures and the ride down was $20 (okay, I'm kidding, it was only $7.00 round trip). As I am walking back to the ship I found another photo opportunity. I didn't go down the same way I came up, as I was on the sidewalk the entire way (except for the stairs leading to the base of Coit Tower).
I then headed back to the ship and laid down. That was not an easy walk and it was a warm sunny day in San Francisco. I actually ended up napping until dinner time. I went with the pasta appetizer and chicken for dinner (I wore my formal t-shirt to dinner and heard more jokes about tonight not being a formal night -- that is the last time I am going to over dress for dinner on a cruise). After dinner I took some night time photographs of San Francisco as we sailed away and a couple of pictures of the bridge (it is not very brightly lit up at night). I also took some night time photographs of the upper deck of the ship (hand held). Then it was off to bed as I was very tired (at least tomorrow is a sea day).
Wednesday, May 2 -- Day at Sea
I am still tired when I wake up around 7:00am. I didn't miss a good sunrise photo opportunity as it was overcast. I lay in bed and watched the second half of Pirates of the Caribbean: On stranger Tides. I was still tired when I finally got up. The only reason I got up was so I could dress and leave the cabin so the cabin steward could do his job. After breakfast I checked out my formal portraits and bought two of the photographs (at $25 each - yuck!).
When I returned to the cabin the cabin steward had not even started yet. So I dropped off my photographs and grabbed my camera for some at photographs on the top deck while the ship is at sea. I returned to my cabin just as my cabin steward finished cleaning it.
I uploaded my photographs and then reviewed the photographs. That is when I learned something important about the video mode. I can rotate the camera from landscape to portrait. However, video shot in portrait cannot be rotated and thus gets viewed sideways. I made a note of that and some other photographs I neglected to take and then took a nap. I'll correct the mistakes later in the day.
When I woke up from the nap it was midafternoon. I grabbed some lunch and then took the video and photographs that I was missing. I came back to the cabin and uploaded the photographs and video. Satisfied I checked the TV and found something interesting on marine mammals to watch.
It is late afternoon when I finally get around to updating this (I have to keep it current now as I will have no more sea days to do so). And now it is getting close to dinner time and tonight is formal night again. So I'll be back at you after dinner.
Lobster was on the menu tonight and one person in our group was very happy about that, as he had at least three lobsters. I went with the shrimp appetizer and beef short ribs, both of which were good. Tonight is another production show and since they only outlaw video and flash photography, I bring my camera. The SLR is very good a capturing dimly lit scenes hand held. After the show I update this and do a little proof reading. Tomorrow is San Diego and I'll go to Sea World on my own unless it is hot, then I'll go to the zoo. So, until tomorrow, good night.
Thursday, May 3 -- San Diego
I was up in time to get some pictures of San Diego as we came in. Nothing really exciting there. For me the fun began once we docked. I was on the forward observation deck (the roof of the bridge) when I heard sirens. Sure enough there was a medical emergency on board. So I decided to take some pictures. I took pictures of the ambulance arriving, the paramedics getting out of the ambulance and taking the stretcher to up the gangplank, and then I waited for them to come out. When I saw some people coming out I took more pictures. However, turns out that was someone being taken off the ship in handcuffs by four police officers (no, I don't know what he did, I'll assume he wore jeans last night (which was a formal night) until I get better information. Finally the paramedics came down with a person in the stretcher. The person was sitting up and breathing oxygen (I don't know what was wrong with this person).
Once we were cleared to leave the ship I went outside to get some good pictures of the ship. The ship was facing away from the dock in San Pedro (it backed in), Santa Barbara is a tender port, the pictures I got in San Francisco were looking down at the ship (there was nowhere I could get a side view - and yes, I checked). That left only San Diego and maybe Ensenada (depends on where we dock) for good side views photo opportunities of the ship. I was able to get good clear pictures of the port side of the ship (which was docked with the starboard side next to the dock).
While taking pictures of the ship I noticed two school aged girls carrying pillows. I thought that was a bit strange until I got close to the Star of India and notice a whole class of kids with sleeping bags. At first I thought they were getting ready to board the ship for the night until I was in front of the HMS Surprise. There was a class of school aged kids getting their pre-boarding lecture, so the other kids were actually on their way home. I resisted the urge to tell them I would be spending the night on a ship also (and my ship was bigger than their ship - and has a pool).
After that I went back onboard, showered, dressed, had breakfast and got ready to head to Sea World. The taxi ride to Sea World was $29 with tip and I quickly realized that for me the cost of the ship's excursion ($89) would have been less (once transportation and admission was added up).
Admission to Sea World was $73 but I had an Auto Club discount. So I paid $53 plus $42 for the Penguins Up-Close tour and $60 for the Wild Arctic Up-Close tour (both are behind the scenes tours and both are great). So in the end I paid $155 (my ticket says I saved $20). I realize $700 ($175 x four) for a family of four would be a bit steep, but these behind the scenes tours were well worth the money.
I bought my ticket at 10:30am. The first tour was 11:15am. The second tour was 1:45pm. The Sea Lion and Otter show was at 2:45pm (the only whale show was during the second tour) and I wanted to leave between 3:30 and 4:00pm to make sure I got back to the ship on time.
Before the first tour I went over to the dolphin petting pool, but they are no longer selling food to feed the dolphins. So I went next door and took some pictures of the otters. Between the two tours I walked around and had lunch (a funnel cake -- one of my favorites). Then after the Sea Lion and Otter show I took pictures of the seals (the food trays were $7 each and contained five fish each -- I didn't buy any) and walked around a bit more. Given all the taxis waiting outside, I now realize I could have stayed an extra half hour if I wanted to (I left at 4:00pm and was back to the dock at 4:15pm). Passengers were due onboard by 5:30pm.
The first tour was the Wild Arctic tour. We got to touch and feed the beluga whales, feed the walrus (walruses don't like to be touched) and look at the polar bears (there was some concern the polar bear would feed on us if we tried to feed or pet it). The beluga whale encounter was my favorite.
The second tour was the Penguin Encounter. We didn't get to feed the penguins, but we did get to touch one. Apparently some of the penguins are a bit nippy, so they have to be careful which penguins they bring out for everyone to see. The penguins live in a 28 degree air conditioned room and will overheat in a 68 degree (room temperature) room. So after bringing one out, the group was split in half and we were able to spend some time in their home. For the most part the penguins just stand around like cruise ship passengers waiting for the dining room doors to open on formal night. Since it is getting close to winter in the Antarctic, the lights were dimmed and we were told no flash photography (so next time I will visit in our winter - their summer). Still, I was able to get a few good pictures with my smaller camera (a Canon A590IS). I did not want to carry my DSLR (a Nikon D5100) around, but if I ever do this again I will take the better camera.
Back at the ship I just laid down for a while until dinner. I had just finished a lot of walking around in the sun (with only my duck cap to protect me). There were eight of us at the dinner table this time and we ate at 7:00pm. We were next to the waiter where we had eaten for the last three nights and our old waiter warned the new waiter about one member of the group (not me -- I've been good). Well, one thing lead to another and soon all sorts of things were being done with the napkins, none of which I can mention if I want my review to get published. It was all in great fun, and even included one of the head waiters. After dinner I was still tired from all the walking around in the sun, so I just laid down and went to sleep.
Friday, May 4 -- Ensenada
I checked outside for the sunrise a little late this morning. However, I didn't missing anything, as there were no clouds in the sky, and thus sunrise was nothing more than an orange ball rising above the mountains. There is nothing really special about cruising into Ensenada, until I noticed all the sea lions. I was able to get a few good pictures of the seals. There must be more than sixty sea lions that hauled out on the rocks near where the ship docks. These are wild sea lions, not trained sea lions like at Sea World.
After taking a few pictures I headed back to the cabin to shower and dress. Then it is off to the buffet for breakfast. After that I grab my travel camera and head out for my 9:15am wine tasting tour. The first stop is at some hotel that was originally run by the mob back in the days of prohibition. Well, it was close (across the street from the dock), but other than that it was not that interesting. Then we drove though the shopping district (eight blocks) before stopping at the old winery (it is no longer used for making wine). This tour group was more than twice the size of the Santa Barbara group. The tour guide spoke perfect English (she grew up in the United States) but she was not as knowledgeable about wine as the Santa Barbara tour guide was. I felt the wine tasting was disorganized. In short, the Santa Barbara tour cost seven times as much ($155 vs. $24) and was ten times better. I guess you get what you pay for.
One note, the tour guide correctly stated that each passenger (over the age of 21) is allowed to bring back one liter of an alcoholic drink. She then said that Princess was considered a common carrier and as such you could bring back five or six cases, as long as you were honest about it on the customs form. I figured she just misspoke and I pointed out two her that five or six cases would be 60 to 72 bottles (45 to 54 liters). She acknowledged I was correct. I said nothing more. If a couple shows up at the customs station with three bottles (2.25 liters) properly declared, most likely (but no guarantees) the customs agent is going to let it go. If you show up at the customs counter hauling five cases of wine behind you, I assure you, you are going to hear something a little more complex than just, "Have a nice day".
The end of the tour consisted of one hour of shopping time. I told the tour guide I would walk back to the ship. On the way I bought a belt, a wallet and some vanilla. I arrived back at the ship about fifteen minutes before the bus. I dropped everything off in my cabin and got my good camera and tried to get more pictures of the sea lions. The security guards would not let me near the sea lions, but I still got a few good pictures.
The travel agent that died really liked ducks. Now there is a lot of duck stuff that the live travel agent (the owner of the agency) would like to get rid of. I was given several small plastic ducks to give to the kids. So I took my Princess tote and about a dozen ducks and went on a small kid hunt. In about one hour I had given out all the ducks I was allotted and the Princess tote that I was given as a returning passenger. The way I see it, one, I don't need the tote (I have several from Royal Caribbean) and two, I'll get another one on my next Princess cruise anyway.
Most of the kids I was able to sneak up on and surprise them with a small duck in my hand which I was clearly trying to give them (and they took it). However, one little boy saw me coming and ran up to me with his hand open. Before he could ask for money I stuck the duck in his hand. Boy did he have a surprised look on his face. His mother just laughed (she got the tote).
Then back to the ship to join the group for a farewell to the travel agent (and friend to many in the group) who died. The group of people I was with are great. I would love to cruise with them again, though I already have already done my two cruises for this year and already have three cruises booked for next year. I am hoping to go to the Mediterranean in 2014. Also, my favorite lines are Carnival and Royal Caribbean (and the rest of the group seem to prefer Princess and HAL). I will remain loyal to my regular travel agent, but I think the two of them (the owner who is still alive and the one that died) are great. If I go with this group again I'll certainly book with her this same travel agent. Other than the person I wanted to meet dying, this was a very enjoyable cruise.
That said, I think the service on Royal Caribbean is better than the service on Princess and I think the food on Carnival is on par with the food on Princess (even though Princess is supposed to be a step above both lines).
For example, though I told the room steward I would eat late, several times he came into the cabin before I left for dinner. Also, there were things on the desk that were in my way, so I moved them to the table behind the desk. He kept moving them back to the desk (and I kept moving to the table). Also, I felt that guest services were understaffed. I would also prefer more forward observation areas on this ship. There are two decks and one of the decks is roped off most of the time. Even when not roped off, access to the observation deck above the bridge is limited. I also don't like the fact that you cannot get your own drinks in the buffet and if you want silverware (so you can eat on your balcony), you have to take it from a table that is not being used. Finally the lack of energy on this ship subtracted a bit from the overall atmosphere in my opinion.
That said, the overall layout of the ship and the especially the cabin is better than the Royal Caribbean or Carnival ships. At least in my opinion the layout of the ship was very logical. I understand from one of the members in the group that has been on this ship several times, that Princess added more seating in the atrium during the revitalization (done earlier this year) which apparently was badly needed.
The cabin is divided into two parts. The closet and bathroom are separate from the sleeping and sitting area. I really like the layout of the cabin; though I wish the shower was bigger (it is bigger than the standard Royal Caribbean shower but not as big as the standard Carnival shower). To be fair, I've also been on NCL twice, and although the shower size is generous, I don't like the layout of the bathroom (I have not been on the Epic). The cabins on the Caribe Deck (deck 10), which is what I am on, have big balconies that are about one third covered and two thirds open. The balconies above me (the Aloha and Baja decks) have smaller balconies that are completely covered. The mini suites below me have completely exposed balconies (don't even attempt to join the balcony club if you are in a Dolphin Deck mini suite). Also, the self service kiosk, where you swipe your card to get a printout of your onboard account that Princess offers is better than an interactive TV (in my opinion) and much better than having to get in line at guest services.
So, I certainly would like to cruise with these people again, and I am sure I'll cruise with Princess again. However, I still intend to spend most of my time on Carnival and Royal Caribbean ships.
The itinerary was good except that I would like the first and last days to be sea days. Also, I would like to see Monterey substituted for Santa Barbara. Another itinerary (that would only work in the summer) would be San Francisco (it would be a late arrival, like noon to 8:00pm) followed by a sea day, then either Seattle or Vancouver, then Victoria and two sea days back to Los Angeles. Or it could begin in San Francisco, visit Monterey, sea day, Seattle, Vancouver, Victoria, and finally a sea day back to San Francisco. Unfortunately Mexico is having some problems right now and it is not a real popular destination for most cruise passengers.
I just read that Princess will homeport the Grand Princess in San Francisco year round starting in May 2013. So, there may be some interesting new itineraries soon. This same cruse leaving from San Francisco would work great. Day at sea, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, San Diego, Ensenada, day at sea and returning to San Francisco. I would do it. I would also leave early and visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium the day before the cruise began, or stop there on the way home after the cruise.
Well, it is late now, or early, depending on your point of view, as it is 12:10am on Saturday (meaning it is disembarkation day). So, I better get some sleep (as I have to drive home). I didn't get my pictures sorted nor did I finish proof reading this, so I'll have to do that later today so I can get my review posted in a timely fashion. So, see ya later.
Saturday, May 5 -- Disembarkation
Clouds on the horizon and none overhead made for a pretty boring sunrise. In fact, we were already in the harbor by the time the sun peeked above the clouds. Also, to my surprise, we pulled straight into the dock (normally Princess backs in). I wonder why? Either way the cruise is over. I'm showered and dressed and soon I'll be meeting my new friends for a last meal together (hopefully not forever). Then I'll drive home, perhaps take a quick nap (I'm tired), and then work on this. My goal will be to have it fully posted before Sunday (tomorrow) morning.
I note that I did not mention dinner last night. We were at the same table we were at Thursday night. We had fun, though not as much fun as we had the prior night. The eight of us ordered six different dinners. I had the New York steak. While good, it is not as good as a rib eye (even though they cost the same in the stores I shop at). Just so you know, many of the dinners can be ordered as an appetizer (just point out to the waiter that you want it as an appetizer).
I almost made two rookie mistakes while packing last night. I almost packed my room key. I left it in the shirt pocket when I put the shirt in the laundry bag. Then I almost packed the luggage tags, which I put with the Princess Platters (the ship's newspaper). I kept all my Princess Platters and I am taking them home. That would have been the perfect mistake to compliment the mistake of not packing the luggage tags that are all printed out and ready to be put on the luggage -- back home. At least I remembered to keep a set of clothing to wear today (some people forget and pack all their clothes and then the next day don't have anything to wear (except for a smile) until they get their luggage (which has already been off loaded).
My experiment with the camera has mixed results. Taking the single lens (18-105 zoom) rather than two lenses (a 16-85 zoom plus a 55-200 zoom) worked out great. Other itineraries will require the longer lens. The tripod produced too few rewards for the effort, so it will not be traveling with me in the future (unless I go to San Francisco again - there are more night time photographs I want to take).
My onboard account was a little bigger than I would have expected (since I didn't buy anything in the onboard stores). Over three hundred dollars went to shore excursions ($179) plus the photo gallery ($160). That accounts for more than two thirds of my onboard bill. The gratuity is automatically charged at the rate of $11.50 per person per day (another $80). That basically means I spent $35 on drinks (including milkshakes), not counting the wine tasking.
I met with most of the group for breakfast in the International Restaurant which is the traditional restaurant at the rear of the ship on deck six (but you can't get to it on deck six) and we had our last (and my first) breakfast together. My departure time was 9:35am and my color/number was called right on time.
The customs agent asked a question I didn't like. "Why did you cruise by yourself?" I found the question rather insulting. Of course this was not the time or place to make a big scene. I simply replied, "Because I am not married." As far as I was concerned, the reason I cruised by myself was none of his damn business which is why I didn't volunteer any information about the group I was with.
By 10:00am I was loading my luggage in the trunk. By 10:50am I was taking it back out again.
You will have to copy and paste the links below ...
Here is the link to 214 photographs - http://travel.webshots.com/album/582790364EFBUqz
Here is the link to half a dozen videos - http://s18.photobucket.com/albums/b103/ZefH/Princess%20Sapphire/Sapphire%20videos/