Demographics: About 90% from the UK and about 95% retired, which surprised me a little -- surely some people in the UK take their holidays in June?
Ship: The Grand Princess has some nice features that disappeared in her later siblings, for example some small mezzanine areas between the promenade deck and its extension around the Emerald deck at the bow that are protected and good places to watch the passing scenery. Also one of the pools is enclosed, making it the only one useable on this itinerary. On the other side, there is no central staircase, making it hard to reach some areas for those who want to avoid elevators. There is a serious bottleneck through the photo display area when the Vista Lounge and/or Botticelli dining rooms are in use because there's no real alternative for getting around this channel.
Princess's new "no smoking on balconies" has finally made it possible to enjoy them. But Princess doesn't really get the (non) smoking issue -- almost everyone smoking on the promenade deck were crew, including one person who spent fifteen minutes of every hour out there having a smoke. Surely it's possible to provide a crew smoking area away from passengers? Similarly, the casino and the bar where smoking is allowed are right by the lower level of the Princess Theatre and were not separated from it by any doors, so this part of the theatre was often noticeably smoky.
The photo business is visibly dying with only a few people making use of the portrait opportunities and/or buying anything (and those fairly obviously blue card newbs).
The spa was almost completely unused on this voyage leaving the staff standing around several places importuning any passers-by to come and have their ions rebalanced and pH altered by hot rocks and the usual run of miracle cures for the gullible.
Princess offered paid shuttles in three ports: the Lofoten Islands, Longyearbyen, and Tromso. The distances from berth to town centre were expressed in each case in "Princess miles" which are roughly half the length of ordinary miles. In all three cases, the walk was an easy one and often faster than waiting for a shuttle bus to be filled. So a walk of, say, three "Princess miles" takes about 20 minutes.
The Movies Under the Stars screen is showing its age with large chunks that either don't light up, or do so in an exotic subset of the original colours. This doesn't stop Princess from using it to play the video equivalent of Muzak. So the unfortunate inhabitants of Honnigsvag had to listen to "Born in the USA" at full blast at 8 o'clock on a Sunday morning because that's what plays at that time in the morning. On several other occasions, we would be sailing past world class scenery listening to annoying and pointless music on the top decks. Despite the single degree temperatures on the outside decks, the full complement of loungers was laid out every morning to get in the way of people looking at the scenery, and put away each evening.
Princess is also fairly clueless about the point of the itinerary of the cruise like this. At every port, we would sail by breathtaking scenery between
3 and 6 a.m. to tie up at a modest destination for 12 hours, only to sail out past the scenery between 6 p.m. and 9, making it difficult to get dinner. Most of the ports didn't deserve more than four hours -- in fact, it was obvious from the start that Princess struggled to manufacture excursions in several places. As a concrete example, the sail into Longyearbyen passes four glaciers, any one of which is better than anything in Alaska, but ten miles away and at awkward times of the day. Making the glaciers the destination and Longyearbyen the sideshow would provide a major selling point. Similarly, we passed within ten miles of Bear Island. Adding a circumnavigation would have cost little and added considerably to the attractiveness of the cruise.
The food was more or less what one comes to expect on Princess. The cafeteria on the Grand has an extra serving place outside among the tables which is used for desserts and, at breakfast, for things like toast and pastries. In deference to the UK passenger mix, toast was made well in advance and allowed to get cold anf soggy, just the way the British like it. Custom omelettes were available at breakfast but they were appallingly bad -- apparently one-egg omelettes, so that the outside was done so fast that the fillings were cold and the cheese unmelted. I gave up having them after two attempts. In the MDR the food was typical, although the beef was much, much better than I've found it on other Princess ships. I wish they would try and introduce at least one new dish a year, or at least mix the existing ones around across different days. As it is, Day 6's menu (say) is exactly the same as Day 6's menu on every other Princess cruise you've ever been on, which gets rather boring.
The evening shows were mainly populated by also-rans from British reality talent shows (and they weren't bitter about not winning one little bit!). The quality was uneven: there were two insult comedians who featured heavily in the first week who were used to much drunker audiences and went way too far with the people they dragged up on stage -- after a few days, the first five rows of the theatre were empty, and there was quite a lot of unhappiness in the audiences about them. It would be better if they had developed some of their own material. There was a pitiful magician who tried to do card tricks and cutting up ropes, both rather tired tricks and not very appropriate to a large venue. We didn't go to the production shows, having seen most of them before. The Cruise Director is a fascinating (horrifying?) collection of both physical and verbal tics: "Welcome to this very theatre on this very night for a very wonderful show...". There were three musical choices in the bars most evening: a pop group with a great drummer but let down by the two lead singers whose voices didn't blend well, a jazz group that was competent but not compelling, and a pianist of the Mantovani type.
We took the daytime transatlantic flight arriving at Heathrow in the evening, and staying overnight at the Hilton at Terminal 4, which is easy to get to and not very expensive. We then took the Princess transfer from Heathrow to Southampton. There are public transport options but they are more complicated and (on a Saturday anyway) potentially much slower. Although we had been given a boarding time, there was absolutely no indication that these were in use. We were onboard about an hour after arrival in Southampton.
The Grand does not have a Riviera deck which I had forgotten, so I was a little concerned that our Aloha deck cabin might be noisy because of Lido Deck activity. Fortunately we were far enough aft that we didn't have any noise. The cabin had slightly less hanging space than previous balcony cabins on Ruby and Caribbean, but the space seemed to have gone into the shower which was much more roomy.
This itinerary alternated sea days with port days. Our first sea day crossed the North Sea enroute to Stavanger. Very little sea life to see, except for reasonable numbers of gannets, and occasional guillemots.
Stavanger is a small and pleasant town with a 13th century church which is worth a visit. There is free wifi (a rare thing in Norway) at the Tourist Information.
From Stavanger to the Lofoten Islands we started to see fulmars and there were some whales around although we didn't see any.
The Lofoten Islands stop involves tendering into a dock that is midway between Leknes and Gravdal, about 2 km from each. We walked into Leknes, which has nothing to recommend it (toilets upstairs in the shopping centre), and then up the hill behind the cruise dock which has attractive views of the area, and then into Gravdal which has an unusual church that it worth seeing (toilets). The Lofoten Islands are already above the Arctic Circle so we began 5 days without darkness. This didn't bother us, but apparently causes sleep problems for some people.
The run from the Lofoten Islands to Svalbard goes almost due North across the open sea but the weather was very smooth for our trip. Sea birds and whales became more common -- pilot whales, some minkes, and some fin whales (big gap between seeing blows and seeing backs) plus increasing numbers of fulmars, skuas, and guillemots.
Longyearbyen is a small town from which you are not supposed to exit without carrying a rifle and flares and knowing how to use them. However the dock and the walk into town are within the town boundaries and the walk is easy. At this time of year there are Arctic Terns nesting in town. They nest right on the ground and the member of the pair not sitting on the eggs is aggressive about attacking anyone who comes within ten feet or so of a nest. Since the nests are sometimes only about ten feet apart, it is not hard to become the target of a dozen irritated terns -- as some of the more clueless passengers did. The terns attack like magpies -- from behind at the top of the head. The only tourist "attraction" is the sled dog rides which start from the other end of town, a brisk 20 minute walk from the ship (there's also a Princess tour for those who don't have any other use for their money). The dogs can be heard howling from the ship although they all settled down once the (wheeled) sleds had left. While we were there, a ship's tour bus stopped at the nearby town water supply (a pond) for a photo-op. This gives you some idea of the ingenuity that was needed to come up with tours at all. As well as the arctic terns, Longyearbyen has purple sandpipers, arctic buntings, eider, black guillemots, and puffins. We saw a bearded seal on the way into the harbour. The normal temperature on the day we were there is 0.5 degrees, and it was +5 so the locals were enjoying the heat wave -- we saw one girl in shorts! Svalbard is also the site of the world's backup seed vault; the entrance can be seen in the hillside just above the aiport.
The sea day from Svalbard down to Honnigsvag was by far the most interesting. Just north of Bear Island we passed through an area that was rich with fish (trawlers busy trying to reduce it to the same desert as the rest, though) and we quickly picked up more than 300 fulmars circling the ship, and several large pods of whales, one large enough to force a slowdown and change of course. Then we passed within 10 miles of Bear Island, familiar to readers of Alistair Maclean.
Honnigsvag is a stop only for access to North Cape. The claim to be the northernmost point of Europe is a fudge, since both Honnigsvag and North Cape are on an island, so why not the northern end of Svalbard? We had not booked the standard (expensive) bus tour to North Cape -- previous reviews had indicated that it's almost always fogged in. The public bus is a doable way to get there if you want, but capacity is limited so it's probably a good idea to hustle over to the ticket office which is right beside the tourist information. We booked the tour to the Stappen Islands which was excellent (and reasonable value). This involved a bus tour about 2/3 of the way to North Cape (we could see the buildings from the turnoff) and then a 1.5 hour cruise around the islands. From the shore, there are no birds to see, but when you get closer there are thousands and thousands and thousands: puffins, auks, razorbills, cormorants (breeding colony), gannets (breeding colony), oystercatchers, white tailed eagles, and kittiwakes (breeding colony). The sail out passes North Cape so you can see it from the sea when the weather is good, as it was for us.
A very short overnight leg brought us to Tromso. The berth is a reasonable, although not very scenic walk into town (well signposted). It is literally across the street from the Botanical Garden which is well worth seeing -- make sure you go right to the top to see the Himalayan Poppies. An all day bus ticket is NK30 which might be worth doing if you want to get around the whole town; there's half hour service from the street in front of the berth, and more frequent service from the university up the hill a bit. We walked into town and looked around (toilets in the big shopping centre at the south end, free internet at the library) and then across the bridge to the Arctic Cathedral. This is a nice bit of city architecture, but less of a success on the inside. The walk to the cable car is not much further but we didn't do it.
Another sea day to Geiranger fjord with decreasing numbers of birds and whales. Many cruise lines, including Princess, drop passengers at Hellsylt for tours that rejoin the ship at Geiranger at the end of the day. You want to be up on the top decks as early as possible for this day to watch the sail in (and the sail out at the end of the day too). Geiranger is the typical fjord that we all imagine from nature documentaries: about a mile wide, mountains to several thousand feet going straight into the water and down deep, and hundreds of waterfalls.
The town of Geiranger is basically only a transition point between ships and tours. There's a decent map of the hiking trails online. We walked up to the Vesteras farm and then out to Losta which took about 3.5 hours roundtrip. The turnoff is at the top of the town immediately past the large hotel. The farm has a shop and toilets. The trail is rated 2 which means that it's demanding. There are makeshift walking sticks left at the bottom of the trail; we made our own for the trip down where it is both steep and shifting. At one place, the trail had become a stream. I doubt if the trails would have been passable much earlier in the year.
Our final stop was Bergen, where we had a short day because of the long leg back to Southampton. The berth is in a container port and the port handles (free) shuttles to the park area in the middle of town. Bergen is easily walkable; the entrance to the funicular is surprising central in the town; much of the town is quite pretty.
Norway is bemusingly full of penguin stuffed animals, fridge magnets, etc. and in Bergen there's an academic publisher whose logo is three penguins. Perhaps they watched too much Bugs Bunny?
The sea day back to Southampton brought the gannets back. We passed through the Straits of Calais just as the last of the light was going so we could see Dover backlit by the last the sun. And so back to port, and a straightforward disembark.
We didn't buy an internet package, anticipating (correctly) that it would not work most of the time. Our Kindles come with 3g so were able to get internet access for free in ports and some of time when we were cruising. Ereaders were plentiful on board -- the ship's library is probablty becoming an anachronism. The cabin TV service was hopeless: satellite channels were off for most of the middle of the voyage, the movie choices were the same as a year ago.
We didn't go to the port lectures, but the comments we heard were very negative, and the narration (e.g. during Geiranger fjord) were at the level of: "And now there's a waterfall coming up on the starboard, or right, side".
Overall, a good cruise. I didn't see much sign of the costcutting about which others have commented -- if Princess wants to cut costs, the spa, photos, entertainment, and top deck staff seem like obvious targets. Most of the weaknesses of the Princess operation were just cluelessness: this is what we do because this is what we do, regardless of where we are, what the passenger mix is, or what the weather is.