We were aboard Grand Princess for her Christmas cruise. It was a last minute decision to cruise and we were hesitant, as we knew it would be a busy cruise with lots of kids (not our style) but we decided to go anyway when other plans fell through.
We had not been on a mass-market cruise for about 5 years and not on Princess since the Star in 1995. Most recently we cruised on HAL, Celebrity and RCI and of those, enjoyed HAL the most for overall quality of the experience. All in all, we have been on many big ship cruises since my first in 1969, but these last few years we have been enjoying the river cruise experience in Europe. We do prefer the smaller ship experience overall but thought it would be fun to get back on a big ship and see what had changed since our last one.
We drove to Miami the evening before the cruise to have dinner with friends who live there. We had a wonderful dinner at Cara Mia in Coral Gables and an enjoyable stay at Sofitel.
The next morning, we arrived in Lauderdale about 11am. Construction near and at the port made it a mess, and the fact that so many ships were leaving that day meant traffic snarls and lots of congestion.
We got parked around 11:30 and made our way to the check in. Embarkation was easy. I am Elite with Princess and check in took about five minutes. We were shown the way to the Elite lounge where we waited about 15 minutes. We were aboard and in our cabin by a few minutes after noon. Our Caribe deck balcony cabin was larger than expected and we were very pleased with the large balcony, and would end up spending a lot of our time there. I had ordered an egg crate topper and bathrobes in advance and the topper was already in place but the robes would not be available until the following day. The cabins do show their age in the furnishings, bathrooms, and the hairdryers. The floor of our balcony was cracked and rusted.
We called the Dine Line and made our request for Chef's Table (we were not confirmed) and also specialty restaurant reservations for 5 nights of the cruise. This is the norm for us, as we prefer both the intimate size of the specialty venues as well as the freshly prepared and generally higher quality food. We called room service and swapped out the items in our mini bar set up for what we wanted. This was all accomplished quickly. We locked our valuables in the safe (too small for a laptop, fyi) and set out to explore the ship.
Grand Princess was decorated nicely for the holiday. I knew she had recently been refurbished and she was overall in good condition. She shows her age in some areas, like the dining rooms with their low ceilings and dated decor. But generally, she is a pretty ship.
I was interested in checking out the Sanctuary so we headed there first. When we asked what time we could check out availability for the following day, we were advised that there was a lot of interest already in booking for the week and that it was unlikely there would any time slots available for passengers not booking for the week. We were told we could come back and check but he was much more interested in convincing us that we really needed to book for the week if we wanted any time at all. The hard sell approach was a turn off and we were not interested, so we left. When we tried later in the week, we received the same brush off so we never tried the Sanctuary. If it indeed was as heavily booked as we were told, then those folks did not use it much and it was rarely more than about 30% full when we were at the gym or the Lotus Pool.
The fitness center has newer equipment but is quite undersized for the size of the ship and the passenger capacity. I went every morning and in all but two instances (when I was there before 7) there was a long waiting line for the cardio equipment and the weight benches were always taken.
The adult pools are both small and stayed busy. We were able to find seats there on Christmas afternoon but not at any other time. It was nice that they did stay adult only as we have been on other cruises where some parents felt that the rules did not apply to them and their kids. All in all, kids were less of an issue than I had thought and only on a few occasions did we see smaller kids racing through public areas, shrieking, with no parent in sight.
The Piazza is the center of the ship and we ended up spending a lot of time there. International Cafe, Alfredo's Pizzeria and Vines were all located in the Piazza on deck 5, as well as the coffee bar. We decided to have lunch at Alfredo's and really enjoyed the freshly prepared pizza. We would return often, as this was the best food we had on the cruise. While we were having our lunch, an older man at the table next to us proceeded to take off one of his shoes, and then his sock, and then took out a small scissors and trimmed his toenails. Yes, this was in the restaurant and was completely disgusting, and we were really surprised that staff stood by and said nothing to him. Totally gross.
Our bags arrived about 5pm so we were able to unpack and shower and change for dinner. We decided to have dinner in the MDR that evening so, after enjoying the Elite lounge for a drink, followed by a wine flight at Vines, we headed to one of the Anytime Dining venues. We were seated right away. This was to be the worst meal of the cruise, followed by the only other night we opted for the MDR, which was the last night of the cruise.
My entree arrived cold so I sent it back. It came back slightly warmer but was totally tasteless. My husband ordered the prime rib and it arrived piled on the plate over a corncob that was shriveled and totally unappealing, and a baked potato that was equally unappealing. I really could not believe the presentation at all. He ate part of the meat, pronouncing it not too bad, and left the rest, which he said was cold and tasteless. I had a cheese plate, which was the best part of the meal. In addition to the poor food, we were three times asked by our waiter if we wanted to sign up for the special $25 wine tasting. We declined the first time, and again the second. On the third try, he told us we could sign up and not show up and not be charged. We declined yet again and really did not appreciate the sales pitch -- especially three attempts when we clearly stated we were not interested the first time he asked. It was annoying. I also did not appreciate being offered sparking water or still with no indication of an extra charge. I did ask and was told that sparkling was extra but really feel that they should be more up front about this, rather than making it sound that it was indeed a choice that was part of the meal.
We went to check out the entertainment out after dinner, which consisted of two different pianists, two bands (one Latin and one house band) and the usual evening shows. We did not go to any shows for the duration, as we do not enjoy this type of entertainment, and in general did not find the entertainment on the ship appealing to our tastes. The lounges were almost empty of passengers and this was the same throughout the cruise whenever we stopped in before or after dinner. The exception was one of the pianists who attracted a good crowd, but whose music was of an older generation than what we enjoy.
We did enjoy a movie in the Princess Theater one night after dinner. There was a steel pan musician who entertained the in Piazza throughout the cruise, and he was good but overall the entertainment to us was repetitious and the Piazza area was often congested.
There were two sea days on our cruise, and we spent most of them on our balcony. There were smokers beneath us and we had to call reception twice to ask them to please enforce their non-smoking policy, as we were not able to enjoy our balcony due to the cigarette smoke. The offenders stopped temporarily but continued their smoking throughout the cruise. Perhaps if the cruise lines enforced their policies as hotels now do, by charging a non-refundable fee to those that violate the policy, there would not be such disregard for the policy.
Dinner on the second night was at Crown Grill. They did not have our reservation when we arrived, even though we had our confirmation card in hand. They were quite busy and asked us to wait 15-20 minutes while they prepared a table. We handed the Matre's a bottle of wine and asked him to please decant it for us so it would be ready to drink when they had our table ready. My husband went to check on our table 20 minutes later and it was not ready and the wine was still sitting there, as it was when we were eventually seated. Service was slow and they were understaffed for the number of guests, resulting in service that was rushed and slow at the same time. Dinner here was just ok. Our appetizers were over salted and my veal chop, ordered medium, was served almost raw. Our server apologized when she saw it and took it back. It was returned cooked properly but was all gristle and fat and I sent it back again. While we are happy to pay extra for a good specialty dining experience, this one left a lot to be desired.
First port of call was San Juan and we had a nice afternoon walking around Old San Juan. We stopped for drinks at the lovely El Convento Hotel and then had Christmas Eve dinner at Ristorante Sofia, which we very much enjoyed.
Christmas Day we spent in St. Martin. We took a taxi to Marigot, hoping to find a nice bistro for lunch, but most everything was closed. We did have a light brunch at Sarafina, a patisserie that offered wonderful sandwiches and French specialty items. We spent the rest of the day at Orient Beach, where we rented two chairs and an umbrella. The beach was a mob scene but the water was beautiful and we made our way to the ship by all aboard.
Dinner that evening was at Sabatini. This was a much better experience than Crown Grill, even though we had dropped off wine to be decanted an hour before dinner and it was sitting on the table unopened when we arrived. Service here was very good and we quite enjoyed our choices, especially the house made pasta which was served properly cooked and at the right temperature. Our entree was the oven-baked branzino, which was cooked in a salt crust. Not a great meal, but certainly a good one.
Food was really the biggest disappointment on this cruise. We did not care for the dinner menus in the MDR and did not go to the MDR for any meals except dinner on the first and last nights - both were poor. Perhaps if they simplified their offerings the overall quality would be better. I had to wonder how their pasta dishes could be so tasty in Sabatini and so tasteless in the MDR. Pasta is certainly inexpensive to prepare as well as something I recalled Princess being known for but the two nights we tried it in the MDR it was bland and tasteless. While we were at dinner on the last night, a woman at the table next to us sent back two entrees before settling for a burger, which she barely touched.
We had a light breakfast each day in the International Cafe, along with several lunches, and dinner one evening in Alberto's. The IC was good but would have been better if there was some variety from day to day, which there was not, except for the soups. As much I enjoyed their Greek salad, a week of it got pretty old. The sandwiches were ok, and we had these couple of times for lunch.
We visited the Horizon Court once in the morning, as I wanted an egg and the MDR was already closed, and that was the only time on the cruise that we ventured there. I did not eat anything here and my husband barley touched his choices; we do not care for buffets in general and this one was no exception. My husband had a burger a couple of days at the outdoor grill and said they were tasty.
I really enjoyed the Zumba classes aboard and wish they were offered more often. The turn out was really strong for them.
We do not participate in trivia, bingo, etc. so cannot comment on those aspects of the cruise.
MUTS is just annoying, period. To me it seems a way to cut back on music at the pool by showing movies instead.
The photographers were everywhere and sometimes did not take no for an answer.
There was always something being sold and our mail slot was stuffed with advertisements every day.
Princess Cays was nice enough. We were happy that we had rented a clamshell, as the sun was very strong that day.
St. Thomas was another mob scene. We spent the morning at the beach and then went to Cuzzins for a late lunch, which was delicious as always.
The Elite lounge before dinner in the evenings was nice but really could have benefited from some type of music, even just background music. Other lines (RCI and Celebrity to name two) IMO take better care of past guests that have attained this high of a status, in terms of providing free drinks, etc. We went three times and stayed for a short time.
The free laundry service was nice and we utilized this perk as well as the included free Internet minutes.
We had dinner one more night at Sabatini and it was good. We had plans to dine at Crown Grill on two other evenings but canceled due to the first experience. It simply was not worth the money.
All in all, the food was not up to par with other lines we have cruised with, especially the MDR and specialty venues.
The staff and service were good on the ship. Our room steward was excellent and took very good care of the cabin. We did not use room service except for one morning, as the coffee was not worth drinking. We ended up purchasing cappuccino or espresso when we wanted a decent cup of coffee.
Debarkation was smooth and well organized and we were off the ship and in the car by 8:00am.
All in all, it was a nice cruise on a pretty ship but we will not be returning to Princess anytime soon. The food was a real negative as well as the entertainment and the constant push to sell you something. And the ship felt very congested quite often. Mass market cruises are just not our thing anymore, so we will stick to small ships and land vacations, especially the adult only all inclusive resorts that we find to be a very good value and to offer a higher standard of food, entertainment and activities.