We took advantage of a 'stay and park' package at a Holiday Inn in Southampton to allow us to drive 270 miles to the port the day before, which was a good decision. The room was fine and a meal there (too tired to venture further) was satisfactory, if a bit pricey.
This package included a taxi to the docks, and embarkation was fairly efficient, if a little slow because of delays in the security area - no surprise to those of us who had lived through the Olympics security arrangements debacle to hear that G4S were responsible for this! The whole procedure was late in starting (about 40 mins) and was stopped for a while to allow catch-up. Despite this, the dining room stopped serving lunch at 1:20 (I doubt more than a few dozen passengers were aboard by 1:00) and we had to go to Horizon Court, but it wasn't too frenetic as boarding was steady rather than rushed.
We had specifically chosen our Caribe midships stateroom, and were very happy with the position. We got less use than we had anticipated from our balcony, but that was the fault of the weather and not Princess! It was interesting to see the infamous 'painted floor' on the balcony, but this was less ugly than I had anticipated, and we didn't have any problems with slipping when it was (fairly frequently) wet. The furniture consisted of a fairly small, but not tiny, white table and two adjustable loungers with foot stools underneath. While not luxurious, I didn't find mine too uncomfortable to read / lounge on.
The actual cabin (or 'stateroom' to use the cruise line's slightly more pretentious description) was comfortable and clean, and looked after efficiently by our steward. He was friendly and did his job, but wasn't particularly outstanding, and sometimes you had to ask a couple of times for things to be done (replacement of light bulbs, for example) He seemed to have a lot of cabins to care for, but didn't seem to progress down the corridor very quickly some days!
The bed was comfortable, and we didn't need to ask for an 'egg-crate' topper. Apparently there was a choice of pillows, and we certainly seemed to have an assortment, including a particularly lumpy foam one - do you remember those pillows made of cut up bits of foam? When I was unwell I asked for, and quickly received, a couple of extra ones to allow me to rest propped up. The bed linens were clean and replaced regularly, and we were warm enough under our 'sort-of' duvet.
The carpet was cleaned one day, but the cases under the bed weren't moved, so I suppose this was just a 'freshening' procedure.
We asked for a basket of fruit and got two bananas! Hmmm ... The choices were apple / orange / banana / kiwi, I think.
We had taken some bottles of champagne, to drink in our cabin, and champagnes glasses were provided and replenished. There were two tumblers for soft drinks, but after the first night, mysteriously, only one glass in the bathroom.
Storage was reasonable, with three shelves in the bathroom but a tiny shelf in the shower, so I was happy that I'd taken a very cheap over-the-door organiser which I could reach from there. There is also a shelf under the wash basin, which held our wash-bags and a couple of other items. Lighting was generally OK, and as someone who is very short-sighted I was delighted that the mirror in the bathroom extended on one side up to the front of the vanity unit.
There is plenty of hanging space, and enough wooden hangers for us, and I think you could get more if needed. The shelves in the cupboard (for underwear, T-shirts etc) were tiny but, with a bit of juggling, were adequate. The shelf over the rail held life jackets and bulky fleeces, but was too high for me to use for smaller items.
In the cabin there were drawers in the bedside lockers and desk, enough to allow one to keep the place reasonably tidy.
Electrical outlets? We just used the one on the desk, with an adaptor which allowed us to recharge via UK plugs and USB leads. This worked well for us.
Not an issue (at all) for us, but I did hear comments from other passengers who were disappointed that there were no towel animals.
We had seen many reports that the Grand Princess is 'showing her age' despite her recent dry-dock. We didn't see much evidence of this, in that she is well-maintained, and we saw repainting and meticulous cleaning of lifeboats etc going on very regularly. The sight of about 10 engineers all working frantically in the bottom of the small aft pool was quite something! Deck and inside areas are generally well maintained, with just some minor issues like the retractable doors into the Horizon buffet area - one made a dreadful racket (which was annoying if sitting in the adjacent pool area) and the other kept jamming. Also there was quite a lot of creaking (the doorway from the forward stairwell to Dolphin Deck seemed to be quite noisy whenever the ship was moving) much of the time, and it was very noisy when we went through a storm in the Bay of Biscay - we were kept awake by a really loud banging / crashing sound from just above our cabin, which sounded like (but wasn't) a very heavy door swinging open and closed and was just irregular enough to lull you into drifting off before it started up again! I'm not sure how much quieter, if at all, it would have been on a newer ship.
The public spaces were attractive but didn't always meet the needs of the passengers on this particular cruise when it was too inclement for all but the hardiest to spend much time out of doors. During the day it often seemed crowded and it was difficult to find a quiet space to sit and read other than in one's cabin. DH is an early riser (and coffee-drinker) and was very pleased with his choice of the Piazza bar to work at a table early-morning - but unfortunately for him everyone else made the same discovery and this area was generally very crowded. I hardly ever saw a free chair in the central piazza, and if I did it was being 'saved' with a purse or book! In the mornings he sometimes used Alfredo's (which doesn't open until 11:00) but obviously had to move on to complete his dratted assignment. Because of the many activities going on most public areas were either in use for something like Trivia, or full of coffee drinkers, not unreasonably. Another point though, was that when you did find somewhere to sit and relax you were generally subjected to fairly loud music - from the piazza entertainers (good) or elevator-music (not good). So, comfortable but not always as relaxing as it could be - this being exacerbated by the weather.
It was Halloween while we were on board, and there was a magnificent display of carved Pumpkins in the Piazza, and a few other spooky decorations around the ship. Unfortunately I was ill on that day, and didn't go out to dinner, but I heard that all the waiters were dressed in Halloween costumes, but DH didn't take any pictures! I did see the pumpkin carving demonstration, which was fascinating to see, but the assistant CD struggled with the patter, given a crew member who was not very communicative! Perhaps his English was not good, but it was definitely more a visual than an audio event.
The captain, Roger Bilton, seemed calm and competent, and his crew appeared to respect him, which is essential. He, and a number of senior officers, attended our CC M&G, and it was an excellent opportunity to talk to them. In general, the service was fairly good, but rarely exceptional. Somehow the crew seemed 'tired' and I think they found the (scheduled and unscheduled) sea days hard work -- although they had plenty more ahead for the TA crossing.
The muster was very efficient, and, clearly in the shadow of Costa Concordia, taken more seriously by all passengers - no laughing and sniggering, everyone listened carefully. The information provided was much clearer and more extensive than previously. All cruise cards were scanned to ensure that everyone had attended. There is a frequent safety loop on the information / navigation channel which includes a bizarre section on 'how to enter a rescue craft' which just shows a diagramatic representation of a boat being lowered but nothing at all about how or where to get in to it!
Smoking is always a contentious issue, but it wasn't a significant (negative) factor for us on this cruise, unless one had to walk anywhere in the vicinity of Snookers Bar as the fumes from this spread (locally) well beyond the doors. I would have thought that during the dry dock they could have 'air-conditioned' this inside smoking space, like the Speakeasy cigar lounge on Emerald Princess, so that the doors could be kept closed, and the noxious fumes kept inside! Because of the location of our cabin, we generally used the forward elevators, so quite often walked through the Casino to reach the atrium, and noticed that there always seemed to be smoking here, but it wasn't particularly obtrusive, but would have been if we stayed around, I suspect. There were generally a few smokers on one area of the Promenade deck, plus an occasional solo crew member lurking at the stern end of this deck. It's possible to avoid the smoking area (if one so wishes) on the Lido deck, but you have to remember to use the other side to approach the Horizon Court buffet.
We were disappointed that we didn't manage to have an embarkation lunch in the Dining Room, but food in the Horizon Court Buffet was always satisfactory. One change from our previous Princess cruise was that lemonade is no longer 'on tap' and has to be ordered from a waiter, which sometimes took quite a long time. Service was rather variable in that there were quite often several waiting staff hanging around and joking / avoiding the passengers' eye! Also, am I the only one who gets irritated that you have to get a whole new napkin / cutlery wrap when you just need another knife? The alternatives are 'stealing' one from another place setting (not good for the next passenger seated) or sneaking up to the waiters' station and purloining one from there - although I was usually caught and handed ANOTHER napkin / cutlery set. My other quibble was that the aft section of the Horizon court seating area (next to the doors out to the deck) was very cold in the evenings, uncomfortably so. Overall, the food in the buffet was reasonable, but never particularly exciting.
We had booked Anytime Dining and tried both main restaurants but quickly came to the conclusion that the service was significantly better in the Da Vinci DR than in Michelangelo - and the food seemed a little better too. I'm not sure why this was. In general the menus were good and the food at least good - although I heard some comments from fellow passengers about the deterioration in the standard of the beef I had some lovely filet mignons. Service was generally good - although the pantomime with the pepper mill (no, I don't need 23 turns of black pepper on my small portion of pasta, thank you!) reminded me of a bad trattoria in the 1970s! Also, I felt that there was more pressure to buy bottled water (no, thank you, iced ordinary water is fine) or bottles of wine (no, thank you, we want different wines with two courses) or liqueurs after the meal, than on our previous cruise. We did bring on a bottle of port after Lisbon, and although this caused some confusion, not being table wine, they were eventually happy to keep this for each evening, obviously after we had happily paid the corkage. They only served tawny port on board, and we wanted LBV, so we were happy with this. We rarely waited more than a few minutes for a (shared) table, although those passengers wanting tables for two were often given pagers.
International Cafe remained popular throughout, although I did have to explain to one fellow passenger late in the cruise that the food was free, as she had been wondering why so many folks were happy to pay extra for their cakes here! I now know why everyone raves about the chicken salad - a spoonful of this complemented a panini very well.
We ate at Alfredo's a couple of times, once when we were not very hungry they were happy to split one pizza between us, and a second time, by which we were in training mode and managed one each! We saw several of the officers eating in here from time to time. Good standard pizzas, but a limited number of options for the toppings.
We had been under the impression that there would be tapas / sushi served in the adjacent Vines, but never saw any evidence of this.
Few people seemed to take advantage of the very wide selection of teas available in Leaves, but the library / games part was well used. I just saw a few folks partaking of the little sandwiches. The range of books here was OK, but booking them out was sometimes difficult as there was not always a staff member in attendance at publicised times.
Prego's pizzeria and Trident Grill were conveniently on the Lido deck, and we did use these for lunch on one fairly warm day. Food was fresh and hot and tasty.
We did have afternoon tea in the DR once, but felt it was very rushed, with all the food being offered almost simultaneously, and wasn't a particularly relaxing experience, as it should be.
I managed, with considerable effort, to stay away from the ice cream bar, but DH reports that the ice cream was good!
We didn't eat in Sabatini's, as it was not offering anything we couldn't get in our excellent local Italian restaurant, but we did have a superb surf-and-turf meal in the Crown Grill where the food and the service were both excellent. Our most memorable experience, definitely, and worth the up-charge, for a special treat.
I was unwell for a couple of days (NOT the dreaded norovirus, just a non-specific fever) and did order a club sandwich from Room Service, which was excellent, and arrived well before the time they predicted. They couldn't get me lemonade, but iced water was fine.
We dabbled in a few organised activities, and they were enjoyable but rather variable in standard. I went to a couple of the craft ones, and although the supplies were adequate, the tuition was not - luckily there were experienced crafters amongst the passengers, as the designated crew member didn't have a clue! DH went to a Texas-hold-'em class which he enjoyed, and he got a couple of coupons to use in the casino which was fun.
Entertainment: we didn't go (by choice) to any of the 'big' shows, but heard good reports from fellow passengers. There was a good variety of performers / entertainers around the ship, e.g. in the piazza - although I found the bicycle / hoop acrobat entertaining I did just come across him doing the same routine on at least four occasions. Interestingly, this was a new feature for this cruise, and the staff from the shops etc. were keen to catch a glimpse of this. Playthoven were excellent, and played often in this area. There were a variety of other performers, some combining comedy or magic with their musical routines, and there was always good quality entertainment available. It wasn't the warmest of cruises, but a few folks braved the Lido deck to watch Movies under the stars, and there seemed to be a broad selection of films shown here, in the Princess Theater or Vista lounge, or on the stateroom TV.
The Cruise Director and his deputy were both British and seemed to do a satisfactory job, without being overwhelming or intrusive -- these are never going to be the staff on board we personally seek out, but that's just us being stuffy!
The majority of passengers on board were from the UK, with significant numbers from the USA and a few from other nations, e.g. Germany. We met several US travellers at the CC Meet and Greets, and at dinner for the first few nights, but after that seemed to meet almost only Brits. This was a pity as we like to meet up with passengers from other parts. It seemed that many of the US passengers had been on previous leg(s) and most seemed to be staying on board for the TA leg to Fort Lauderdale.
Inevitably, one of the stutters in getting on board was the 'embarkation photograph' -- given the heavy fog in Southampton this was taken against an unconvincing and generic backdrop, and I didn't see many being bought on board. The photographers were, in general, unobtrusive, apart from the 'Pirates' at dinner on the first or second night who were assailing all incoming diners at the restaurants -- and some on exit too! The thought of having our photo taken with a couple of crew dressed up in bad pirate costumes and a parrot was not a good introduction! However, we did have an informal photo session later in the cruise, and I bought a couple of prints -- these were proper 'studio-style' pictures, against a white background rather than those strangely unconvincing backdrops. The photos were all displayed in the gallery, but the prices were almost discretely hidden! There was quite a lot of promotion for the cruise video CD. I wish they would sell the images of the pictures on DVD, and then I could reprint as required for an album.
In-cabin announcements were minimal, and other than the daily 'officer of the watch' report at noon they were generally from the captain regarding the weather conditions and the decision to miss a port. General announcements around the ship were not intrusive.
We booked shuttle buses for Lisbon and Funchal, but with a bit more information about the port facilities etc would probably not have needed to book the former -- we walked back to the ship in a few minutes from the tram stop after our visit to the Jeronimos monastery, and it hadn't dropped us in a particularly useful place on the way in. So, at least $16 spent unnecessarily. We knew we would need transport in Funchal, so booked the (relatively expensive) shuttle, and when we didn't make port this was automatically refunded to our account. Several other port authorities provided free shuttle buses and in other ports we were just a few strides away from the town.
We booked a tour to see the Las Canadas National Park in Tenerife, which was not an unmitigated success -- but again this was due to the weather, outside the control of Princess Cruises. Luckily we saw some of the views on the way up, as it was all cloaked in mist on the way back down! We booked a second tour, to Santiago de Compostelo, but I wasn't well enough to go on this and send DH on his own. He said that it was very interesting, and their guide gave a lot of fascinating background information and analysis during the journey. These tours were good value.
Disembarkation was an absolute breeze! It was the swiftest and most efficient we have ever encountered, and we were off the ship, with our luggage some 20 minutes before our projected time to disembark - full marks to Princess this time!
The weather, while not controlled in any way by Princess, was a major factor in this cruise, and in retrospect it was probably not an ideal time or route for the voyage. We left Southampton in thick fog -- my sailaway photograph shows nothing but grey beyond the deck railings! We had anticipated that the weather would be better in the Canaries, as, although it was sunny in Gran Canaria and Lanzarote, it was showery in Lisbon, there was hill fog and rain to quite a low level in Tenerife, and we didn't even make it into Funchal as the weather was too stormy! Crossing back up the Bay of Biscay during a storm was a life experience, but actually the ship handled it pretty well, although it did creak and groan alarmingly at times. We certainly didn't envy those many passengers who were staying on board to sail back to Fort Lauderdale, who would be passing back through those troubled waters!
Many people were disappointed that, of all the ports we were due to visit, we missed Madeira, as the Canary Islands themselves are a popular vacation destination for the (majority) UK travellers, but few had visited this beautiful isle. So, I think that we may have made a poor choice to take this particular cruise at this time of year, and I wonder if Princess were pushing it to extend the season in Western Europe this far.
Apart from the missed port, the generally poor weather meant that few passengers used the outside facilities most of the time, leading to the ship feeling crowded at times. I think that we would happily sail on this or a similar Princess ship again, but only to a port-intensive, warm cruise to the Mediterranean or Caribbean, and would make a different choice for a cooler weather cruise, or one with a high number of cruise days. I was unlucky to be ill on the cruise, and this did reduce my overall enjoyment, but all in all it was a pleasant break, if not outstanding.