This is our review of our Christmas cruise on the Sapphire Princess. Our family consists of me, DH and our 2 DD's ages 16 and 11. This was our 8th cruise on Princess and our 3rd time on the Sapphire doing the Mexican Riviera.
We booked this cruise on Jan. 4, 2012. After Christmas 2011, I decided I wanted a change of pace--I have always been the person in the extended family who ends up hosting the majority of the Christmas festivities, and I felt in need of a break. The idea of a Christmas where I was the one being waited on sounded great to me, so we booked this cruise!
We drove from Phoenix on Friday the 21st as soon as DD#1 was done with her final exams. We spent the night at a hotel in Rancho Cucamonga. The next morning, we drove to San Pedro and toured the USS Iowa. Touring the Iowa was DH's idea and the girls and I more or less got dragged along. But I have to say it was worthwhile. It's docked very close to the cruise terminal and they use a shared parking lot. Something interesting to do if you arrive early at the cruise terminal.
We boarded the ship around 1:30 pm. We got in the Platinum line and boarded quickly. The bottleneck is always at the spot where they take the embarkation photos. After dropping our bags in our rooms, our first stop was the Passenger Services desk . We always book two cabins for our family of four. In the past we have tried to book connecting cabins but Princess doesn't have many of those. So we booked me and DD#2 into a BB balcony cabin on Caribe and booked DH and DD#1 into an inside directly across the hall. When we boarded, we went to the Passenger Services desk and asked to switch rooms. They told us that because DD#1 was 16, we would be allowed to switch. But if both kids had been under 16, it would have been prohibited. Of course, no one does bed checks to see where people are sleeping, but if parents tried to switch under-16 kids without approval it would cause a significant inconvenience with keys. They said that it would take 24 hours to make the switch, but in the interim we were given blank key cards for DH and DD#2 to access their "new" rooms. The next day we got the updated cards, but I hung onto the two blank key cards so that I could always access the kids' room and vice versa. So be advised that if none of your kids is over 16, you can't ask the purser's desk to assign them together.
We also signed me and DH up for the Ultimate Ship Tour. We were the first people to sign up in the notebook. The assistant purser mentioned something about a lottery if too many people signed up. The sign up sheet also said there had to be at least 6 and no more than 12 on the tour. The tour was scheduled for the 27th, the last sea day, at 8:30 am.
Our next stop was the International Cafe for a light lunch. We were very glad to avoid the usual embarkation day crush at the Horizon Court. The atrium was beautifully decorated for Christmas, and Victorian style Christmas carolers were entertaining the passengers.
The carolers in the atrium at embarkation set the theme for a very festive holiday atmosphere throughout the week long cruise. There were lots of Christmasy decorations and activities, such as a Gingerbread House building competition, carol singing, interdenominational services, a visit by Santa for kids in the Princess Theatre, and the Captain reading "The Night Before Christmas" in the atrium. I was worried that it wouldn't seem like Christmas being on the ship, but it did seem like Christmas (albeit a different one).
There was a several hour delay with sailaway. We heard it was because of a delay with fueling the ship. It did put a bit of a damper on the sailaway party to have it going on while the ship was docked in San Pedro! But finally we were on our way.
Much has been written on this forum about the new menus. We approached this cruise with some apprehension because of the negative comments. Overall we did not notice any major decline from prior cruises. As always, there were some hits and some misses. The exception I will note is the tri-tip recently added to the always available menu, replacing the filet medallions. The tri tip tasted like spicy pot roast--a dry and coarse cut that is served with a choice of sauces because it needs all the help it can get. I also agree with those who don't like the appearance of the sirloin burger on the always available menu. In the past, it was something you could always ask for if you wanted and now it's taking a menu spot that would formerly be saved for a "better" entree.
We ate in Alfredo's pizza several times and couldn't quite make sense of it. The pizza is tasty and more "gourmet" than available at the pool. But the served is paced like a restaurant, so you won't get your pizza until about 20 minutes after you walk in the door. The only menu items are pizza (free) and wine--no appetizers, no salad, no dessert. If you want a slow, substantial snack or an alternative meal that consists of pizza only, Alfredo's works well. But these seem like small niches, and people seemed to be treating it that way. It's a nice space with about 20 tables, but at nights usually only about 2-4 tables were occupied.
The International Cafe was nice but limited. It had the same four paninis and salads all week long. The sweets varied, but the offerings are no different than what is available in the buffet. It's a nice addition (and free) but the attraction is not so much better food, as an alternative, slightly classier way of distributing buffet food to people who don't want to visit the buffet.
We have only high praise for the service in the MDR. We had first seating in the International Dining Room. We always feel that first seating is too early, but we have been reluctant to do Anytime because of our kids' food allergies (peanut, tree nut, sesame). We had a table for 4 and our waiter Ruben and his assistant Mauricio were very friendly, attentive and competent. But our highest praise goes to Adriana, the Head Waiter. She brought us the next night's menus (dinner and lunch if a sea day) so our girls could pre-order their food. She was very conscientious and knowledgeable about the food preparation. She helped guide the girls through their selections, and quickly figured out that DD#1 liked to eat mostly vegetarian and DD#2 liked to eat mostly red meat, subject to allergy restrictions.
We also ate a few times in the Horizon Court for breakfast, lunch or snacks. The service was very good, helpful and attentive especially with beverage service. The food was pretty ordinary. I remember it being better on my 2011 Sapphire cruise, but perhaps my opinion was colored by what happened next.
ON CHRISTMAS DAY, THINGS START TO UNRAVEL A LITTLE
We woke up on Christmas morning in Puerto Vallarta. DD#1 said she had a bad sore throat, stuffy nose and generally felt crummy. I took her temperature and it was 100.3. I gave her some ibuprofen. The rest of us got some breakfast and then checked back with her. She clearly wasn't up to going to Puerto Vallarta with us. Basically DD#1 spent the entire day sleeping with the "Privacy Please" tag on her door. I made sure her iPhone and mine were on and accessing the local Mexican cell service. Then DH, DD#2 and I got off the ship to visit Puerto Vallarta.
We have been to Puerto Vallarta several times before and done zip-lining and visited the Krystal Resort. This time we decided to take a taxi to the Malecon, which we had never done. We enjoyed walking along the boardwalk and taking in the sights, including all the interesting sculptures. We visited the historic church and then walked back to find a place to eat lunch. We ate lunch in a beachfront restaurant, where I had an excellent salad and margarita, DH had fish and DD#2 had a cheese quesadilla. We all shared some chips and salsa. We then took a taxi back to the ship. All Aboard was at 3:30 pm and sailaway was at 4:00 pm.
Once back onboard, we checked on DD#1. She was still feeling poor with your basic upper respiratory infection. She had no interest in going to dinner with us, which was a shame because it was the special Christmas Dinner menu. So the rest of us went to dinner without her. They had designated Christmas as a formal night in place of the usual second formal night on the last sea day. The menu included items like pumpkin soup, a festive salad with lots of red and green, Grilled tenderloins of Beef, turkey with all the Trimmings, Baked Virginia Ham, English pudding, Gingerbread souffle, etc. Sorry I can't remember the exact menu.
After dinner, DD#2 went to the Fun Zone where they were having a Casino Night. DH and I decided to go to see Piano Man. We have seen that many times before, going back to our 2005 cruise on the Caribbean Princess. It's now been cut down to 30 minutes. Honestly I think it's time to retire it. Now it's just a revue of Elton John and Billy Joel, with 60 seconds of Barry Manilow. Neil Sedaka and Liberace have been forgotten. And I didn't think that the male vocalists were of the same caliber as the female vocalists.
But my appreciation of Piano Man was dimmed by the fact that I was now starting to feel sick myself. I was starting to feel slightly nauseous and crampy -- not a good sign. We went to bed about 10:30 or 11. By midnight, I was violently sick with vomiting and diarrhea. I spent about 25 minutes puking in the tiny stateroom bathroom. (DH slept through this part, loudly snoring.) I then had a miserable remainder of the night. At 8 am, I dragged my sorry self over to the medical center. I didn't really think they could do much for me, but I felt compelled to turn myself in even though I knew what would happen next. They were very nice and gave me Immodium and an anti-nausea medicine (Avomine), but also told me I was confined to my cabin until at least 24 hours after my last symptoms. The nurse told me (in a nice way) that my cruise card would be blocked to keep me from leaving the ship (as IF I would want to get on a tender to Cabo in my condition), and all the dining venues would be notified that I was not allowed to eat there until further notice. They gave me a special room service menu geared toward people with GI problems (lots of broth and jello). They also tell your room steward not to clean your room and send in a special team called the "hit squad" that shows up with masks, gloves and extra strength disinfectant. I would also have gotten free laundry if I had soiled any clothes, but fortunately that was not the case. I dutifully promised to obey all rules and shambled back to my room, not to emerge again for about 30 hours. They specifically said that DH was not under any restrictions, except that they ask traveling companions not to use self service dining venues.
FYI, they charged me $40 for the medical visit and $33 for the Immodium and Avomine (I should've declined those because I already had some Immodium and Bonine). But they said that my Princess Vacation Protection insurance will reimburse me. Also I cancelled my signup for the Ultimate Ship's Tour. The medical center said that they would give me a form to present to the purser's desk if I was billed for the tour, but I wasn't so billed so I didn't need it.
Did I get norovirus on the ship? Was it that salad I ate in Puerto Vallarta? I'll never know. On this cruise, I tried hard to be careful about hand washing, but I also tend to cling to the railings on the stairs because I broke my foot last August. I'm just grateful that I wasn't sick for 3 or 4 days. And I definitely appreciated the sympathetic and professional way that the medical and hotel staff handled it. It won't deter me from cruising again.
WHALE WATCHING IN CABO FOR THOSE STILL STANDING
We had prebooked a whale watching trip through Whale Watch Cabo, at a cost of $260 for the four of us. But on Wednesday morning, I was in "cabin isolation" and DD#1, while feeling a little better, didn't feel up to the trip. So DH andDD#2 took the tender and then boarded the whale watching boat. They warn you that some people may get seasick on the boat, so DH and DD#2 had taken Bonine shortly before. That was a wise idea, because some tourists onboard do get seasick. They had a great trip and would definitely recommend Cabo Whale Watch. They purchased the photos taken by the tour photographer for $25 (on a memory stick). Also, Cabo Whale Watch refunded us $110 for me and DD#1, which was nice since they weren't obligated to do that.
Back on the ship, DD#1 and I were holed up in our separate cabins and talked by telephone. I subsisted on miso soup and jello brought by room service. I watched endless cycles of Fox News and the Hunger Games. In the afternoon, DD#1, who was not in cabin isolation, felt well enough to go up to the Trident Grill for a slice of pizza. While walking back through the Horizon Court toward the aft elevators, she ran into Adriana, our Head Waiter from the International Dining Room. Adriana asked DD how her mom was doing. Obviously Adriana had seen my name on the list of sick passengers barred from the dining rooms. It was very nice of her to ask about me.
The ultimate ship's tour was worth it, according to DH. He also got the Ultimate Kid's Package for drinks, which involves flashing the card in exchange for drinks--no signing of charge slips every time. The Piazza is nicely programmed and kept buzzing with activities. The Explorer's lounge, on the other hand, seems to have been downgraded from a venue for professional entertainers to things like karaoke, trivia, wedding game, art auctions, etc. In the Princess theater seating was tight for the first night welcome show and, after that, never again. You could walk in as shows started and find good seats. Whether this is due to the 35 minute shows is unknown.
We enjoyed both comedians, Lorenzo Clark and Scott Harris. We saw the new production show, "Born to Be Wild." It's fine if you like that sort of generic song and dance routine, but it wasn't anything really impressive. I guess I prefer something a little different like the Cirque du Soleil style show on Celebrity. We did enjoy the pianist, Ryan Ahearn. He's described as a "World Champion Pianist" and his style is definitely one that shows off his ability to play intense, showy pieces. It was very entertaining.
DD#1 (age 16) enjoyed the teen program. She especially liked the fact that the teen counselors were low key and didn't pressure them to participate in organized activities if they preferred to just hang out and talk and play cards. DD#2 (age 11) didn't use the Fun Zone that much. She has always loved it in the past, but now she's reached the age where she's too young for the teen program, but feels too old for a lot of the kid zone activities. Still, she did go a few times such as the Casino Night and the last night.
As for boorish and classless behavior, you always see something new. On the first night we saw two men in shorts in the MDR, one with a spa towel around his neck and sunglasses atop his head. The sunglasses stayed on top for the whole dinner. Lots of ball caps in the MDR at breakfast and lunch. And people can be such slobs with food. We saw buffet dishes discarded in the elevators and people munching their way through the Horizon Court buffet lines. One night in the Princess theater, a group of six youngish (probably ages 17-20) patrons in the row behind us (the fourth row) was all munching burgers and fries from the Trident Grill on the little wooden tables. I don't know if that's against the rules, but it looked and smelled distinctly un-theater-like. No one said anything.
Overall we had a very enjoyable cruise despite the bumps in the road. The crew of the Sapphire Princess did an outstanding job. I will add however that this was the first time in 8 Princess cruises that we did not purchase a future cruise credit. The new two year time limit turned us off. We already have our vacation plans set for 2013, and by 2014 DD#1 will be heading into her senior year of high school. We just aren't sure if we will fit in a Princess cruise in that time frame, and decided not to tie up $400 on the off chance of a benefit.