We did back to back sailings on the Grand in April/May -- an 11 day Canary Islands and a 17 day Mediterranean & Adriatic. This review covers the Mediterranean & Adriatic cruise. This was our 56th cruise on Princess, and 13th on the Grand. Overall it was a very good cruise although it started with an "issue."
This was the second of our b2b sailings this time on the Grand so no embarkation was involved, we were just told to meet at Alfredo's at 9:45 am to get new pictures taken for our new cruise cards. So we were there at 9:45 am but nothing happened until about 10:30 am when they showed up to take our pictures.
The Grand is an older ship and is showing her age -- even with the drydock facelift. But there seems to be much less rock and roll than on the newer ships. On the warm and sunny days on this cruise all the deck loungers were occupied early. Also, trying to find any place where you could sit and read in the inside public areas was almost impossible, seemed very common that passengers would get up and dress, find a chair in a public area, and then spend the rest of the day there. The bars had more card players and readers and snoozers than drinkers. Skywalkers used to be a good place to watch the sea and read -- the One5 is dark with few windows. Needless to say this ship can feel and actually be extremely crowded in public areas especially on sea days. While Princess seems to be extremely proud of the redecorated piazza it now looks to us more and more like a multi-story outlet mall with a food court and street vendors and street performers and photographers, in other words it has really lost its elegance and charm.
The Itinerary and Ports
We picked this itinerary because it went to some ports on our bucket list (as well as old favorites) and we could do a b2b with our Canary Islands cruise. Doing b2bs does help spread the cost of airfare over multiple cruises but sailing the Med out of Southampton does add two sea days each way where the weather can be questionable and the seas rocky. So next time we do the Med it will probably be sailing in and out of a Med port, especially if we are doing b2b sailings. But on the other hand, most of the Princess Med cruises just go back and forth between the same ports with the same itinerary so non-repeating b2b opportunities are limited.
We've been to Cadiz, Venice, Split, Corfu and Gibraltar before but Malta and Dubrovnik were new for us. In Cadiz we had planned to walk through the old town -- had done the hop on hop off bus with beautiful sunny weather last time we were there -- but this time it was so cold and rainy that we never left the ship. The next port was Valletta Malta and we took a ship's tour to a fishing village, a stop at a vineyard for wine tasting, a stop at a glass blower shop, and scenic drives in between. Malta is beautiful and the tour was good, we will definitely come back to Malta. We have been to Venice before and done all the touristy things you must do in Venice like ride in a gondola so we strolled leisurely to St Marks (a very long circuitous route) and took the vapporetta boat almost the full length of the Grand Canal to the people mover and then back to the ship for a very enjoyable day. Last time in Split we did a ship's tour to a Roman historical site and a medieval village so this time we just walked around the Old Town and saw the major historical sites. Dubrovnik was a delight, even more so than we had anticipated. We did the ship's tour of the city walls with a very funny, knowledgeable and entertaining tour guide -- and the weather was beautiful. At the end of our tour the guide told us we had been up and down 600 steps! We've done a full day tour of Corfu before so have seen the major sights, so this time opted for a visit to the Koum Quat liqueur distillery and island tour. Again the weather was superb and the tour enjoyable. In Gibraltar we walked through town and the botanical gardens since we have already visited the caves and seen the apes.
We had booked a guarantee and received a cabin assignment a few months later. We were assigned P208 -- deck 5 forward, actually way forward and across from the laundry! So we anticipated that it might be very bouncy but it also might smell laundry fresh. Surprisingly we only had a few nights (in the Atlantic) when the waves were large enough to cause creaks and groans and bangs and booms when the waves hit the bow -- other than that it was rather smooth. It also proved to be a very convenient location with easy access to the International Cafe for morning coffee and we often saw the paintings we bought on board as we walked through the art gallery frequently. The cabin did seem a little smaller than others and had a very unusual floor with bumps and ridges, felt like there was a manhole cover or something under the carpet. There seemed to be very little going on in the laundry so that was not a problem at first -- but late in the cruise there was a strong sewer like odor in the hallway for a few days. Internet access in this cabin was not dependable as the signal quality was poor and the connection when possible was often dropped. But as usual on Princess our stateroom steward Bibiana was excellent!
The Food and Service
We had an unusual surprise (the "issue") this trip using anytime dining. We have gotten very used to anytime dining and treasure it's flexibility to be able to eat at different times in the different dining rooms, to have a table for two or eat with new friends, and to be able to make a reservation for a specific time so we can plan our evening's entertainment knowing when we would be finished with dinner. But this time on the Grand we were informed that there would be no dinner reservations -- none would be taken! For each night we would have to stand in line and if we did not want to share a table with strangers and wanted to have a table for two we would probably be given a pager and have to wait until summoned. The first night we got in line at 8:15, got a pager and waited 20 minutes to be summoned, so since dinner took longer than expected we were late to the theatre and all the seats were taken -- so we missed the show we wanted to see. Since this was a huge change from what we had experienced since anytime dining started we asked for clarification -- was this policy change for just this cruise, or would it be permanent on the Grand, or was it yet another negative change in Princess service levels that would be implemented fleet wide? The only explanation we received was that too many people wanted tables for two so they decided not to take any reservations. Now at that time we had nine cruises booked with Princess for the future -- and the possibility of cruising under the new policy of "you can dine whenever it is convenient for us and we really don't care how it affects you" didn't sit well with us. We had already expressed our disappointment with the new policy of closing the dining room for lunch on port days, of the changes in menus to cheaper dishes (goodbye to the rack of lamb), and the greeting when you enter the dining room becoming "do you want to share?" -- or the short form which is just a blurted out "share?" If you listen to Princess marketing you would expect something more genteel like perhaps "Good evening, welcome to your personal choice dining experience, how can we as your "Consummate Hosts" serve you tonight and help you "escape completely?"
As it turned out we were told the "no reservations" situation was for this cruise only so it wasn't another fleet wide change, but were also told it might happen again at any time. We did end up with a definite seating time but the experience has us thinking again about doing traditional dining since "personal choice" really isn't about your personal choice except for when you want to start standing in line. And it is yet another reason we are more seriously thinking about cruising other lines more often.
For the most part the food in the dining room was very good and the service was as well. We also met up with some of the waiters we had sailed with before whom we were really glad to see again. We found the Michelangelo much more enjoyable than the DaVinci this cruise. The Horizon Court was good for breakfast (great omelets made to order) and OK for lunch but the lights over the food are so hot they can make some of the serving spoons almost too hot to handle, and they dry out the food as well -- it can get to look very unappetizing and not taste as well as it might when fresh. The Trident Grill still has great cheeseburgers and hot dogs, and if you like specialty pizzas Alfredo's was generally available.
Entertainment was the usual you would expect on a cruise, varied and good. The production song and dance shows were enjoyable (even though they haven't changed for years) and the guest performers were supplemented by performances by ship staff members. Andrew (one of the production show singers) and Melissa (one of the cruise director's staff) did great solo performances. Ron Steta (a superb guitarist in the Grand Princess Orchestra) performed often in the piazza and even did a fantastic matinee in the Princess Theatre on the last day -- talk about saving the best for last! Siobhan Phillips has an unbelievable voice and was extremely funny as well. We also enjoyed the MacDonald Brothers and ventriloquist Jimmy Tamley -- probably the best ventriloquist we have ever seen. There were some British comedians we saw but we didn't quite get some of the jokes that most of the audience found extremely funny -- must have been the cultural difference...
Disembarkation was quick and easy, and we took Princess transportation to Heathrow and arrived in plenty of time for our flight.
Princess seems to be suffering from an organizational dysfunction -- marketing promises customers more and more at the same time that accounting is cutting costs and converting costs into revenue opportunities. The end result can be a huge expectation gap for the passengers -- fueled by exorbitant claims such as the current Princess "We Are The Consummate Host" advertising campaign at the same time that service levels are noticeably being reduced. We wish they would either actually be "The Consummate Host" they claim or adopt a more believable slogan.
If you believe that everything on your cruise will be "perfect" you will probably be disappointed. The best cruising slogan we found is -- "It Is What It Is." So get past the "issues" quickly and get on to enjoying!