We just got back from our first ever cruise, 12-nights on the Caribbean Princess to Norway and Iceland. We have been on small luxury dive boats in the Maldives and Indonesia before, but this was clearly different! We were unsure whether a cruise was "right" for us as we generally want beautiful natural scenery and peace and quiet on our vacations - safaris, small remote islands, etc. Cruise ships seemed to us like floating Las Vegas hotels, which is fine for a long weekend but not really what we want to do for two weeks straight. However, we were very keen to go to Norway and a cruise seemed like the best way to see the fjords. The ship also looked big enough to provide a lot of quiet areas. Also, we were travelling with an infant, and the ability to stay in one "hotel room" and not have to continually pack and unpack while still being able to see lots of different places was an attraction.
We picked this Princess cruise largely because of the great itinerary. We looked at a lot of different cruise lines, but choose Princess from a broad list of choices (Cunard, Celebrity, Fred Olsen, Royal Caribbean) that seemed to offer similar quality onboard experiences due to the far superior itinerary, sailing dates and start/end port (Southampton, we live in London) of this cruise.
Hopefully this review will be helpful to potential first timers, to people looking to go to Norway but unsure about what ports they really want to visit, and to people considering Princess.
Embarkation -- super smooth and quick, no problems. We were in the first group of the staggered boarding, arriving at the pier around 11:40am. We walked right through to check in, then right through security and on board. Twenty minutes from taxi drop off to room.
Room -- D734 aft balcony. Fantastic room! We loved the aft and spent many hours sitting on the (huge) balcony on sea days watching the wake. We slept with the door slightly open and loved the white noise and fresh air. We would definitely recommend this to anyone who has not tried an aft room, and especially for anyone with an infant as the white noise from the wake can really drown out other noise and help a baby sleep. We were surprised by the size of the closet, which had a huge clothes rail that was bigger than most hotel room closets and had plenty of space for clothes.
Food -- This is obviously a very subjective area, and different people will have very different reactions to the exact same thing depending on what they are used to and what they want. To give some perspective on our views, we eat "healthily", rarely eat fast food and appreciate food made with the best ingredients and cooked well. We like a wide variety of cuisine and have lived, travelled and eaten all over the world.
We ended up eating at the Horizon Court/Cafe Caribe for almost all of our meals as our baby's schedule made it impossible to sit down for 1.5 hours in the MDR, and we did not want to subject anyone (including ourselves!) to a fussy, crying baby at mealtime. Overall, we were pleasantly surprised with the quality of the food. Some meals were ok, most were good, and often they were very good. The carving station was alternatively good or very good (brisket, veal chops), and there was plenty of choice of other starter/main courses, so there was always something that we were happy with.
The fruit, however, was bland and not very good. However, we are used to getting very good fruit, so our "standards" here might be very high. We were also not impressed with the deserts, as the cakes that we had were all fairly dry, and were more like store bought cakes rather than bakery made cake. But we did like the cookies.
We did eat breakfast in the MDR one morning and it was not very good. We both ordered salmon and scrambled eggs and when they came they were clearly not freshly cooked and seemed like they had been sitting around for 15+ minutes. We ended up eating the rest of our breakfasts in the buffets, and were very happy with the quality and variety of the food there. This was a surprise, as we expected the quality of the MDR to be much better than the buffet. Perhaps we were there on a bad day, but....
Service -- This was also a pleasant surprise, and better than expected. Again, this was our first cruise so we cannot compare the service to what it was on cruises 5, 10 or 15 years ago. But considering how badly service levels have deteriorated in luxury hotels/resorts/restaurants across the world over the past 10 years, and after reading lots of service complaints on Cruise Critic, we were not expecting a lot. However, staff were almost universally friendly and very helpful. Wait staff and bartenders were quick and efficient, and with only two exceptions (one of the HC waitresses, and the older bartender at the bar between the outdoor pizza and burger stations) they were all very friendly -- and other support staff were almost all also quick with a smile and a hello. Out of a staff of 1000+, that is really nice and unusual. There was only one real hiccup in service the whole time, but it was dealt with beautifully and turned the incident into an example of great service. I was eating alone at Cafe Caribe and had a glass of wine. I went back to the buffet to get a dessert and when I went back to my table, it had been cleared, including my glass of wine that still had a large sip left. The waiters then saw me and realized that I had not left, and that they should not have cleared my not-yet-empty wine glass. Before I said anything or reacted in any way at all, one of them immediately came to the table, apologized and said they did not realize that I did not in fact leave, and said that they were bringing me another glass of wine "on the house". The fact that they did this right away, and without any comment or suggestion on my part, was nice. It was of course the right thing for them to do, but again, they handled it extremely well.
Other -- We were a bit concerned that the Movies Under the Stars would be very loud and intrusive and would detract from the peaceful beautiful surroundings that we came to see. This was not the case, however, and it was easy to find quiet areas on the decks to enjoy the scenery.
Ports/Excursions -- The itinerary was the most important reason why we chose this cruise, and we were looking forward to the beautiful natural scenery and relaxed atmosphere of Norway and Iceland. They certainly delivered! We did a Princess excursion in one port (Olden), used a local tour agency in one (Geiranger), rented a car in three (Alesund, Akeruryi, Reykjavik), and just walked around town in Bergen.
Geiranger -- Geiranger is generally considered to be the most beautiful fjord in Norway, and it was amazing. Sailing quietly through Geiranger fjord was fantastic. We then did a bus tour to Mt Dalsnibba, which has incredible views down into the fjord. There is beautiful scenery everywhere you look here, making this 2 hour bus tour is a must do. We used Geirangerfjord service http://www.geirangerfjord.no/ as recommended by others on Cruise Critic, which for $40 offers the exact same tour on the exact same type of buses as the $129 Princess tour, except without a stop for coffee and pastries. This is one of the few black marks for Princess -- their tours are very expensive compared to alternatives. I understand that using the cruise line tour offers some benefits -- most notably protection against missing the boat if the tour is late -- and am willing to pay a higher price because of that, but $129 vs $40 for the exact same thing (minus coffee) is a joke. For comparison, I looked at the Royal Caribbean excursion price list, and saw that Princess excursions are also very expensive compared to RCI. For example, the Mt. Dalsnibba bus tour on RCI is $60, or less than half what Princess charges (and still 50% more than what you can book on your own). The difference in other excursion prices is also quite large. Princess charges $199 and $129 for excursions that RCI charges $120 and $75 for. These are EXACTLY the same excursions, and probably use the same local contractor. And before anyone replies "don't tell Princess how to run their business, they know what they are doing, they make a lot of money selling excursions and they charge what the market will allow", please note that I am not telling Princess what to do, I am just pointing out to people that the price difference between Princess and other alternatives and cruise lines is quite high, and they may want to take that into account when booking their own excursions or even cruises.
One other point. We really loved the sail in and sail out of Geirangerfjord (and the fjord all the way out to Alesund). There are many discussions on this message board about whether to do the full day bus tour that starts at Hellesylt and meets the ship at the end of the day in Geiranger (and miss the sail in to Geirangerfjord, but enjoying the fjord on the sail out), or to stay on the ship to enjoy both the sail in and sail out of the fjord. As enjoying this journey from the deck of the ship is such a great experience that would be a shame to miss, one should take into consideration the possibility that bad weather could affect the sail out. Staying on the ship for both the sail in and sail out gives you two chances to have a nice sail.
Olden -- I did the Princess tour to Lake Lovatnet and Kjendallen Glacier. It was very nice, especially the 1 hour or so boat ride on Lake Lovatnet. Recommended.
Alesund -- We rented a car and drove an itinerary recommended by CC member Trotto, who lives in the area. The highlight was road 655, which organized tours do not visit. I ran out of superlatives describing Geiranger, so I will repeat them here -- this was a stunningly beautiful drive, similar in many ways to the sail in/out of Geirangerfjord, with countless waterfalls coming down very steep and high mountains. It was also very quiet and peaceful, with almost no traffic. It was about a 6 hour roundtrip from Alesund and you have to pay attention to ferry times (there are 3 ferrys in total that you have to take) to make sure you do not miss the ship, but this drive was one of the top 3 highlights of the whole trip.
Bergen -- We were primarily interested in the beautiful scenery on our trip, and not so much in cultural or historical places, or shopping. Bergen is a nice enough town, but quite frankly there was not much in it that interested us. We walked around town for an hour or so and then headed back to the ship. If you are planning a Norway trip and want a rest day from one of the port days, Bergen is the place to do it.
Akeruryi -- We rented a car in Akeruryi and drove out to the waterfalls Detifoss and Selfoss, about a 2.5 hour drive out to Detifoss, so a 6 hour round trip including visiting time. It was well worth it as Detifoss was amazing, more impressive than the other beautiful waterfalls we also saw in Iceland (Godafoss near Akeruryi, and Gullfoss near Reykjavik). This was one of the highlights of the whole trip. Adding to Detifoss' beauty is the fact that since no organized tours go there, there are not many other people and so you can enjoy it in peace, in great contrast to the tourist hordes that clog up Gullfoss. When we arrived, there were about 10 other cars in the parking lot, and over the next hour only another dozen or so more came. The drive to/from Detifoss was very beautiful too. This and Geiranger were our favorite ports.
Reykjavik -- We again rented a car and drove the Golden Circle, stopping at Geysir and Gullfoss. This was another beautiful drive, with nice contrasts between lush green valleys and desolate volcanic moonscapes. Driving is really the best way to see Iceland, as you can choose where you stop and can go off on side roads.
Debarkation -- Very smooth. We did not realize that there would not be passport control coming back into the UK. That was a pleasant surprise as we just had to walk off the ship with our group, pick up our luggage and walk out the door. 15 minutes from debarkation lounge to the taxi rank outside the cruise terminal.
Overall - We had a great time on this vacation. It was an absolutely fantastic itinerary and Princess delivered a very good experience. Will we sail again? Yes, but we will be itinerary driven and are interested in other Arctic type cruises (Norway, Greenland, Antarctic), and not so much in warm weather, Caribbean type cruising. We have actually booked several Northern Norway cruises for next summer and will spend the next 6 months figuring out which one we will take. Visiting Norway by cruise ship may be the best way to see it as sailing through the fjords is such a highlight and you avoid the very high meal and hotel costs there.