Okay, here's the scoop: my wife and I flew to LAX on 4/26, stayed two nights on the Queen Mary in Long Beach, hopped on the Sapphire Princess on 4/28 and sailed to Santa Barbara, San Francisco, San Diego and Ensenada. We had an inside cabin (B422) and Anytime Dining. Check-in at the San Pedro pier was pretty painless; we arrived at around noon and were on board in about 45 minutes.
As far as the ship is concerned, I wasn't expecting much. I've never liked the exterior of these ships (although it grew on me....a little), and photos of Sapphire's interiors didn't really do much for me. To my surprise, she was actually quite nice inside....yep, some areas were a bit sterile, some a bit tacky, but others were downright beautiful. I was surprised how sleek and contemporary many of the remodeled rooms were...some would fit perfectly in a Celebrity ship. Overall, I had no problems with a bulk of the interior decor. I will say that Sapphire Princess is one of the best maintained ships I have ever been on. For a vessel built in 2004, she looks as if she came from the shipyard just yesterday. Of course I know she just spent some time in dry dock, but even areas they didn't touch looked brand-new.
The one remodel that's a total failure is the Horizon Court buffet. This is, by far, the worst design I have ever seen (even worse than QM2's King's Court). On each side of the ship are eleven or twelve individual food stations....all within an area of about 30 by 20ft. During meal times it was always crowded, and people constantly ran into one another. There were really no lines, it was just a free-for-all.
Unfortunately the food left a lot to be desired. Hot food in the Horizon Court was lukewarm at best, and the selection was completely whacked out: pork and bean SANDWICHES? Really? Rock-hard, golf ball-sized biscuits with nacho cheese sauce for breakfast? Really? Their attempt at Indian dishes was somewhat laughable...simply adding curry to something doesn't make it Indian food. The pizza, burgers, fries, etc. out on deck were very good and, throughout the ship, desserts were excellent. I did find it funny that, at the ice cream bar, called 'Sundaes', there was not one sundae to be had. The specialty pizza in the atrium was also very good.
The Anytime Dining worked out well. The Sapphire has four anytime dining rooms (5:30-9pm) and we tried all four. We liked the decor of the Vivaldi Dining Room the best so we ate there multiple times. The menu is the same in all four dining rooms, the exception being that each one has its own signature dish. In all dining rooms the quality of the beef was disappointing; nearly every steak I ordered had 'silver skin' running through it. During the first night at dinner, our waiter noticed me struggling with my steak and he walked over and said, "Let me get you another one"; I didn't even say anything, he knew. On the flipside, the pasta dishes were very good....the veal-stuffed ravioli in a mushroom wine sauce was outstanding.
We ate at Sabatini's on the first formal night ($20 per person), and it was only marginally better than the main dining rooms. Service was just about the same. All in all, I'm not sure I would pay the $40 again; it certainly wasn't anything like the incredible experience we had in Millennium's Olympic Restaurant.
We sat through four tunes of the "Do You Wanna Dance" production show before the sharps and flats got the best of me; the lightshow, however, was pretty impressive. With the exception of the pianist, live music throughout the ship was very good. There were two live bands on board, a heavier rock band (Indigo) and another band (name escapes me) that played the standards. I really liked both, although Indigo seemed to be just a bit on the heavy side for the mostly 70-plus crowd.
By far the biggest asset Princess has going for it (at least on the Sapphire) is the staff. Service throughout the ship was nothing short of excellent, and unlike some of the crew on our last cruise (Carnival), they were always smiling and very courteous. I have no qualms about the service at all.
Since I now have Elite status with Princess I received a lot of perks: free mini-bar set up, free laundry, wine tastings, etc. I also received 150 free minutes of internet time. Problem was the internet service was so slow that I wasted probably a third of the time just waiting for the thing to move. However, the perks were nice to have, and since I always have my clothes pressed on board, I saved quite a bit.
I have to say, out of 43 cruises, I have never seen such a concentrated number of walkers, electric scooters, canes and wheelchairs. At night, after most of the passengers had gone to bed (which was understandably early), at least one or two electric scooters were parked in every stair/elevator landing. I mean I've been on cruises plenty of times when my fellow passengers were on the older side, but wow, not like this. To be honest, I don't think a good portion of these people should have been on a cruise....many looked like they could have kicked-off had a good, stiff breeze came by.
Santa Barbara was pretty cool, although all we did was walk to the charming downtown area (about a 15 minute walk) and did some browsing in a few of the eclectic shops.
While in San Francisco, Seven Seas Navigator and Norwegian Pearl were there. About Norwegian Pearl: much to what I'm sure was her passengers' disappointment, she docked miles away, near the Bay Bridge. Not much around it. Sapphire Princess and the Regent ship both docked right in the heart of San Francisco, very close to Fisherman's Wharf. The other thing is that Norwegian Pearl arrived after us and left before we did, so not only does the NCL ship dock far away, her time in port seemed pretty short.
We had purchased a hop-on hop-off day pass (strictly as a means of getting around the city) and it worked out very well. We went to the Palace of Fine Arts (which was a personal goal for me as it was a favorite place of a dear friend who passed away earlier this year) and then hopped back on the bus and got off at the Golden Gate Bridge. We walked over the bridge to the first tower and then the vertigo took over. After that we headed to the Japanese Tea Garden at Golden Gate Park, Chinatown (10 minutes of that was enough), Lombard Street and then back to Fisherman's Wharf. We went on an hour- long cruise of SF Bay and then headed back to the ship. On the way, we stopped at Frank's Nautical Collectibles and I found a treasure-trove of reasonably priced ocean liner items....among other things I bought a French Line CGT cup and a silver-plated ashtray from the second class smoking room on Europa (1930)... $30 for both!
San Diego was a blast. A good friend, a fellow Cincinnatian who moved out to SD years ago, met us at the pier and we spent the day romping around the city. We visited Balboa Park and then drove to La Jolla to see the spectacular views. He also took us to Point Loma to see the Cabrillo memorial, which sits high up on a cliff....more incredible views. After lunch we made our way back to the ship, said our goodbyes and then my wife and I walked over to see the u.s.s. Midway. I was happy to discover the USO tribute to Bob Hope which, being a sentimental sap was quite emotional for me.
Last stop was Ensenada. Since I had already been there, and my wife had no desire to head into town, we just walked around the dock and took some photos.
While we were in San Diego and Ensenada, the Semester at Sea ship, the former Olympic Explorer (now just Explorer) was docked close by. It was my first time seeing one of the two ships in the class and, to be honest, I loved the exterior. It had such a sense of speed about it...very cool.
Disembarkation back in San Pedro was a breeze. We purchased the transfer to LAX while we were on the ship and it worked out well. We were off the ship, on the bus and at the airport within an hour.
Overall it was a great trip. The ship was nice, service was great, we loved the itinerary and I understand that food is always subjective. I do have to eat a little crow in that I had always believed that Princess was notorious for nickel and diming people to death...not so (at least not on this cruise). Sure they had the typical watch sales, spa specials, etc., but they were never in your face about it. In that regard, it was very 'un-Carnival'.
One last thing: the Cruise Director was on the television, non-stop, telling people about what was going on, telling jokes, etc......but NOT ONCE DID I SEE THE GUY. I came away thinking that maybe he wasn't even on board. I mean out of seven days you'd think I'd see him at least once. Never. Don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining; the last thing I want to be subjected to is a totally obnoxious Cruise Director, but this was just weird.