My family and I are seasoned cruisers. Over the past 15 years we've sailed a total of 25 times on Celebrity, Holland America, Cunard, Princess, Royal Caribbean, Carnival, NCL, and MSC. This was our second sailing on Princess Cruise Lines. We picked this cruise largely because of cost, sailing dates, and the departure port of Galveston, TX.
The Crown Princess is a lovely ship with a pleasant crew, average to above average dining and good maintenance. Basically, it had everything what you would expect from a more upscale cruise line with a few significant weaknesses: their wait staff, specialty dining, long lines, more long lines, and hit or miss lounge entertainment. We are not sure why, but we've rarely been on any other large ship and felt "crowded" except on the Crown Princess. Every venue was packed and there were often long lines to get into anything. We are not sure if the ship just lacks enough public areas or if we were on a cruise where every passenger wanted to attend every offering of interest to us.
The embarkation process was one of the slowest we've experienced and just the beginning of the "cruise of long lines". We arrived two hours after embarkation began and it still took us about 90 minutes of standing in lines to get onboard. Unlike our experience on the Diamond Princess where our baggage made it to our stateroom before we did, it took several hours for our baggage to show up at our door. This is one reason we try to carry on as much as possible.
The ship is in great shape. All the public areas are updated, modern, and in good repair. Carpets are clean and in good repair both in the public areas and the staterooms. We especially liked the decor of the lounges and bars which were all done in wood. They reminded us of a high-end English pub.
It took us several days to get our bearings. This is one of those ships where some of the pubic decks do not span the length of the ship as the kitchen is midship on decks 5 and 6. This requires you to climb a few levels of stairs and then descend back down to reach the Botticelli dining room on deck 6.
The folks at the front desk were very helpful and friendly, especially Daniella, who was most accommodating and helpful with a small issue we had with gaining entrance to a wine tasting.
Unlike the Diamond Princes that had several smaller, more intimate dining areas, the Crown Princess dining areas are large and surprisingly noisy. They leave you feeling you are dining in a banquet hall as we had to shout at our table of six to be heard.
One nice option offered by Princes is that you could also choose from "anytime" seating or the traditional early or late seating. In the main dining room the food quality was average to slightly above average for an upper end cruise line. They did steaks especially well, which is unusual for most large scale food operations. When in doubt on the Crown Princes, go for the steak!
We opted for the more traditional early seating dinning option, which typically puts you in the Bottecelli dining room, which caters only to fixed seating. However, we ended up in the DaVinci "anytime" dining room. This meant our servers were kept busy attending to the anytime diners who's tables were continually turning over, as well as the fixed seating diners. Our experience with this was that the service was a tad less personable that what we normally experience in a dining room that is only fixed seating.
One puzzling issue we experienced was the unavailability of ordering wine at our dinner on the day of embarkation. We had the early dining option that began at 5:30 pm and were told that we could not order wine before 7pm. This was rather puzzling. We had never experienced not being able to order from the full wine menu. Fortunately, I had brought some wine with me onboard so we retrieved a bottle from the cabin.
The specialty restaurants are the Italian restaurant, Sabatini's, and the Crown Grille. The additional charge is a reasonable $25 as compared with other cruise lines that charge $40. However, that extra $15 does buy you a slightly better dining experience onboard Celebrity, Holland America, and Cunard, which feature specialty restaurants that are, well, really special. They have that Michelin star feel which is largely missing from the Crown Princess specialty eateries.
Missing from the Crown Princess specialty restaurants is the experience of having a team of three wait staff serving you, most of whom exhibiting a palpable passion for food. On the Crown Princess you are served by one waiter and while the service is attentive and good, it isn't on par with the cruise lines mentioned above.
The Crown Grille is a seafood and steakhouse restaurant with dark wood and small dining areas that give it an intimate feel. We found the Crown Grille to be a good value and probably a notch above Sabatini's. While the appetizers and salads were average, the steaks and lamb we had were done to perfection.
Sabatini's is more open and has less of a feeling of intimacy than the Crown Grille, however, the experience is still a step above the general dining areas. Our experience in Sabatini's was just the opposite of the Crown Grille. While all our appetizers and pasta dishes were excellent, the entrees we had were not outstanding. I would recommend skipping the veal chop which was dry and tough. Between the two restaurants, we would recommend the Crown Grille.
The Chef's dinner was fully booked prior to embarkation, so we were very disappointed we were not able to experience the dinner. While pricey at $95 a person, when we sailed on the Diamond Princess we felt it was a good value and a superior experience to the specialty restaurants
We were especially pleased with the coffee on the ship. That may sound like a little thing unless you are a coffee drinker. One of our perennial complaints on other lines is how weak the coffee is. We found the coffee on the Crown Princess quite acceptable. I do wish they would use half and half in the Lido restaurants, rather than whole milk which is put into the container marked "cream." The place on board to get real cream, not half and half, is at the International Cafe.
In addition to having real cream, the International Cafe served good espressos and pastries. It was usually packed in the mornings.
The wine bar across from the International Cafe was interesting. It featured a tapas with each glass of wine, which was a generous plate of sushi and sashimi. You did not have the option of ordering the sushi and sashimi separately. The bar featured some of the wines by the glass that were only available by the bottle in the restaurants. Unfortunately the first time we went buy the wine bar there wasn't a menu in sight which left us with the impression it was a sushi bar. We didn't discover otherwise until the last day of the cruise.
One annoying difference on the Princess line is that the only time juice is available is in the mornings. After then, you've got to pay for juice. Most others have complimentary juice available all day. Another peculiarity is that in the Lido there were no salt or pepper shakers on the table. If you wanted salt or pepper you had to ask a waiter and they would deliver you a small ration.
After experiencing how the Diamond Princess catered to wine lovers, we were especially disappointed at our experience on the Crown Princess. Most of the wines were priced at 3x's retail, which were slightly below the 4x's retail charged on Celebrity. We really commend Princes for keeping their corkage fees reasonable at $15 a bottle, as opposed to HAL and Celebrity who charge $25.
The Crown Princess has two reasonable wine tasting events, one for $10 and one for $25. We had attended the Sommeliers wine tasting ($25) on the Diamond Princess were very impressed as we tasted 6 wines ranging from $32 to $150 with the average being about $80 a bottle. The Sommeliers wine event on the Crown Princess didn't feature as many high priced wines as the Diamond, the average cost was about $60.
We did encounter one flaw in our wine tasting experience. My wife and I purchased two seats to one wine tasting. I arrived early and saved her a seat. She was about 5 minutes late and ended up being turned at the door by Tiziano, who insisted our cabin number was not on the list and there was no one inside waiting on her. He would not even allow her to walk through the restaurant to see if she could spot me. This was one of the most bizarre behaviors we've encountered. The only thought we could come up with for Tiziano's strange behavior is that event crashing wine events must be more common on Princess than other lines. Of course, my wife missed the event entirely and I was left wondering what had happened to her. With the help of Daniella at the front desk and the assistant matre'd, Michael, they refunded the cost of both tickets
One systemic difference on Princess is the lack of knowledgeable wine stewards. During our week on board we never did meet the one sommelier who was on board. It was up to him to look after a total of 5 dining rooms. While I am sure he does an outstanding job, he certainly could use a little support. Most other lines have several stewards serving a dining room, so Princess certainly differs from the competition in this regard.
Being wine aficionado's, we brought a bottle of our own wine to enjoy each evening. The two times we ate in the specialty restaurants I delivered a bottle early in the day and requested that it be decanted in time for our reservation. Not once was the bottle decanted, or even opened, upon our arrival in the restaurant. I attribute this to a general lack of wine knowledge by the wait staff.
Our experience with the Diamond Princess was much different than the Crown Princess. The Diamond had some of the quietest staterooms we've ever had. The Crown Princess was fairly average in that hall noise was easily heard in our cabin and one night we had to endure a party thrown by our neighbors.
We do like the cabin layout of Princess, which is different from other lines. Their cabin layout results in a little more space and privacy with a little less storage room for clothes. Our room steward, Richardo, was very attentive and helpful and went out of his way to help us with several requests for packing material.
This is an area in which the Crown Princess is above average. There are a satisfactory number of treadmills and elliptical machines. They also have a good set of barbells and a minimal variety of weight machines. They appear to keep their equipment in good repair as all but one of their cardio machines were in working order the full length of our 7 day cruise.
The men's locker room and saunas were a big improvement from the Diamond Princes and were some of the best of any of the 22 ships I've sailed on. The Crown has both a public and private dry and steam sauna that were 170 degrees Fahrenheit, which is a huge improvement from the 105 degrees maximum temperature on the Diamond Princes.
Another great feature with their fitness area is the size of the lockers. They are the best designed of any ship I've ever sailed. They have plenty of depth and a separate section for your shoes. The combination locks eliminate having to register at the front desk and that makes a big difference in getting in and out of the locker room in a timely fashion. It's often the little things that count!
Unfortunately the Crown Princess doesn't have a spa bar featuring a lighter, healthier fare and a selection of fruit juices and smoothies. The Calypso bar on Deck 15 is the only place on board where you can get a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice for $2.75.
We thought the entertainment was average for most cruise lines. The singers and dancers were talented and performed the standard musical reviews ubiquitous to most cruise lines. The guest comedians and vocal artists were also very good.
The theater is unique to most modern ships, which often have two levels and spacious seating with tables interspersed for holding drinks. The Crown Princess Theater has no balcony and the seating is very much like any theater with no center isle and compact seating. Small fold-out tables located in the arms of the seats (like in the emergency row of an airplane) do resolve the issue of what to do with your drink.
The one area that didn't meet the standards of other lines was the nightly lounge entertainment. On our cruise they seemed to have over-weighted pianists, quartets, and guitars playing elevator music. There just wasn't much selection of music before or after dinner or charismatic performers that we looked forward to listening to each night.
I run a small business and being connected to my staff is imperative, even on vacation. I depend on having a functioning Internet while on board any ship. The Internet was easy to sign up for and operated flawlessly on our cruise. There is an $4 "activation" fee which increases the cost of usage above what is advertised in the package. Internet speeds are ubiquitously slow on cruise ships. I am wondering why airplanes seem to have much faster speeds. Maybe someday the same Internet technology used by planes will become standard equipment on ships!
The shopping experience is ubiquitous to most every other cruise line. There is nothing exceptional to highlight here.
Port Talks and Shore Excursions
Port and cultural talks were non-existent on this cruise. Getting information on the ports was extremely difficult, if not impossible. As seasoned travelers, we don't appreciate cruise lines that push their shore excursions by starving you for general information on port stops. What made the port experience on this cruise even worse is that about 85% of all the shore excursions were sold out before the ship even set sail! Obviously Princess either underestimated the demand for shore excursions or just wasn't able to secure enough tour operators.
We used the Internet onboard the ship to contact several tour companies that were highly rated by www.TripAdvisor.com. Another great place to book private tours prior to departure is by looking under "Tours" and on the chat boards on www.CruiseCritic.com. We've never been disappointed following the advice of previous travelers and typically save 25 to 75% off the ship's prices.
We ended up doing relatively well by booking taxies and tours on the dock at about the cost of the ship's prices.
Cozumel is very easy to negotiate. There is a well orchestrated taxi service at the pier where the ships dock that will take you to almost any beach on the island. Most of the beaches also have a taxi stand, so returning to the ship is no problem. The cost to town is $8 for three people and $16 to most beaches.
Roatan has a wonderful beach where the cruise ships dock. And, while you can take the magic flying chair from the pier to the beach, you can walk it faster yourself (there is a small bridge connecting the beach to the pier) and save $12. We found a little cove full of conch shells and spent the day shell hunting. This was the highlight of our cruise and totally unexpected!
Belize City was the low point port. There are all the normal tourist shops at the port. We heard the ruins and zoo were notable, but we were unable to find a tour or taxi driver that would take three of us. They are all around 30+ miles from the city. We settled for a "city" tour that was advertised to be 90 minutes. I felt pretty good about negotiating the $30 fee down to $15, until I realized our tour lasted only 45 minutes. Actually, that wasn't a problem as there wasn't much to see. Skip the city tour and book ahead for a better option!
Our kids have always enjoyed the kids programs on board most ships...on this cruise they opted to stay with the parents and enjoy reading in their cabin. My 16 year old decided to give the teen's club a visit but was turned away because she didn't have an adult with her to register her. We never did make it back to get her registered, so I don't have much to report on the Crown Princess kid's club.
The Crown Princess is a lovely ship with a pleasant crew, good dining and good maintenance. Basically, it had everything what you would expect from a more upscale cruise line with a few significant weaknesses: their wait staff, specialty dining, long lines, more long lines, and hit or miss lounge entertainment. We are not sure why, but we've rarely been on any other large ship and felt "crowded" except on the Crown Princess. We are not sure if the ship just lacks enough public areas or if it was a coincidence that most passengers were wishing to do what we wanted to do when we wanted to do it.
We would think twice before booking the Crown Princess again if the main focus would be the ship, like on a transatlantic or transpacific crossing. We would sail on the Crown Princess again given the right itinerary where there was no option on one of the better competing lines. For us the ship's dining weaknesses keeps it from playing more than a supporting role in a successful cruise vacation.