Background: We are a professional couple...him early 40's, her early 50's. This was our 14th cruise together, 10th on Princess. We've previously sailed on the Sun Princess, Dawn Princess, Grand Princess, Crown Princess, Ruby Princess, Island Princess, Golden Princess, and Sapphire Princess. We consider ourselves to be well-traveled usually with multiple trips out of the country each year.
Pre-cruise: We arrived in Sydney a day early. We were a bit concerned about the electronic visas (ETAs) that we had paid Princess to obtain for us because we had been unable to get written confirmation either from Princess or our travel agent prior to leaving home. But, there were no issues clearing Immigration or Customs when we arrived. We had booked one night at the Lord Nelson Brewery Hotel in the Rocks area of the CBD so we grabbed a cab outside the airport. Since we arrived in the early morning, our room was not yet ready so we dropped off our bags and headed out to explore the city. The hotel is in a great location within walking distance to the Harbour Bridge, the Opera House, and Circular Quay. We walked under the bridge along the edge of the harbor around to the Opera House and took lots of pictures. Then we took the ferry from Circular Quay over to Taronga Zoo and spent about 5 hours exploring all the exhibits. It was an enjoyable way to pass the time and stay awake to adjust to the time change. When we returned to the hotel, we were able to check in and freshen up. We walked a few blocks to the Argyle restaurant for dinner and then headed back to the hotel. By this time we were very tired. We went to bed about 7:00 pm so we could be well rested for our embarkation the next day. The next morning we flagged a cab outside the hotel and it was about a 5 min ride down to the pier.
Embarkation: We arrived at the pier at 10:00 am. They opened the check in at 11:15 am and then we waited about half an hour before we were allowed to board the ship. The embarkation went relatively smoothly but they did not clearly identify the waiting areas for pre and post check-in. Many people were entering the terminal and sitting down in the area where the people who had already checked in were waiting to be allowed onto the ship. They also did not clearly identify an area for Suite, Platinum, and Elite passengers to wait separate from the general boarding area. After dropping our hand luggage in our stateroom, we headed down to the dining room for lunch.
Sailaway: The sailaway out of Sydney Harbour is breathtaking. Since the Dawn Princess is one of the older ships in the Princess fleet, it is small enough to fit under the Harbour Bridge. It was fun to pass under the bridge similar to sailing out of New York Harbour under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. Then you sail right past the Opera House and out into the Tasman Sea.
Ship Info: The ship is very nice. It had gone through a dry dock since the last time we were on it back in '04, so things were just a bit different than we remembered. But, all of the Princess ships are well maintained and their designs are very similar so it was easy to find our way around.
Stateroom: We booked a Category BF (balcony) Guarantee and were assigned a category BB balcony...Room A312 on Aloha deck. There was plenty of storage as we have become accustomed to on Princess. We had requested an egg-crate mattress topper ahead of time and it was on the bed when we arrived. We felt the location of the room was quite good and although we were a bit concerned with movement being that far forward (since we had heard that the Tasman Sea could be a bit rough), we had no issues in this regard.
Dining: We prefer Princess' anytime dining and normally request it on every cruise. Unfortunately, the Australia ships do not offer anytime dining. We were placed at a table for eight but there were only two other couples so we ended up with two empty settings each night. It was a nice change of pace to have meals with the same people every night but we will most likely continue with the anytime dining on future cruises. We enjoy the flexibility of going to dinner whenever we choose over the rigidity of fixed dining times. Overall, we felt the food in the dining rooms was very good. We also utilized both the on-deck grill and pizza place for lunch some days. The food from the grill was good and the pizza was very good.
Service: We felt the service was on par with previous Princess cruises we've been on. We never ran into a rude or seemingly unhappy crew member. Everyone was friendly and helpful. Overall, service was very good.
Daytime Activities - We spent most of our daytime hours in the Sanctuary. Despite the extra cost, we enjoyed the Solar Eclipse day package which included champagne breakfast and a free dinner in one of the specialty restaurants. I must say that this is the first time that our Sanctuary stewards were somewhat forgettable. While we never felt neglected, they never really went out of their way either. This is not in line with our previous experience and we'll just chalk it up to those particular individuals. It won't stop us from enjoying the Sanctuary on future cruises. We also took part in the usual daytime activities that we enjoy like trivia and horse racing.
Nighttime Entertainment -- The production shows were quite a bit better than we remember them being on recent Princess cruises. The lead male vocalist was very good and the lead female vocalist was OK. The dancers were good, not great. The comedian, James Michael, was very funny. We have seen him before on other cruises and it was nice that he has changed up his routine while keeping the signature ending to his show. The other night-time activities led by the Cruise Director staff were entertaining and pretty typical with what we have seen on other Princess cruises.
Casino - We both enjoy gambling a bit but we do it just for fun so we are what you would call "low rollers". We did spend some time at the tables and had fun even though we had probably the worst luck we've ever had on any cruise. The casino is very small and does not have some of the games that we were used to seeing, like Let It Ride. These had been replaced with some variations of Black Jack that we were told are popular with Australians. The casino was never busy and we often had to ask them to open a table for us, which they were always happy to do.
Spa - We decided not to use the spa this time.
Ports/Shore Excursions: We pre-booked most of our excursions through Princess. We usually use Princess excursions in ports that we've never been to before because we like the security of knowing that they are already set up on the ship's timetable and we've always been pleased with Princess' execution of the tours.
Brisbane, Queensland, AU - This is the only port where we did not have a Princess excursion booked. Through our pre-cruise research, we had decided that we wanted to visit Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary where we would have the best opportunity to hold a koala. There were no Princess tours that included this park, so we just grabbed a cab at the pier and went on our own. There is a tour that is sold at the pier which includes a boat ride up the river to the Sanctuary but we're glad we chose the cab option. We arrived shortly after the park opened before it got busy and we were able to head straight to the main koala enclosure for our "Koala Cuddle". Since there was nobody waiting behind us, we were each able to hold the koala for quite a long time (approximately 5-10 minutes) and we got to talk to the keeper that whole time about the koalas in the park. Later in the day we went back to this area and the line was quite long and they were only allowing people to hold the koala for about 3 minutes. They were even nice enough to let us go back for a picture re-take when we saw the first one they took and didn't like how it turned out. Bonus...they had swapped out koalas by then so we got to hold a different one when we went back! This park was a highlight of our trip. It is small but well maintained and the shows and interaction with the animals is fantastic. We fed the kangaroos for about 20 minutes and could have stayed even longer if we wanted.
Airlie Beach, Queensland, AU - We did the Princess tour to the Great Barrier Reef. Although we were really looking forward to snorkeling the reef, this tour was a bit of a disappointment. The large catamaran holds 300 people and took 2 hours to reach the reef. By the time we entered the water, we had to fight for space with all the other people on the tour. And, this area of the reef is not like you imagine. Basic green and very drab. No vibrant colors and not nearly as many fish as we expected to see. Afterwards, we agreed that if we had it to do over again, we would stay on land somewhere and book a private tour out to an area of the reef that is not visited by so many people. Live and learn. Either way, be prepared for rough seas. The return trip from the reef was very rough and DH was quite nauseous despite taking medication. Many others were sick as well. If you are prone to motion sickness, be aware. The one advantage to doing the Princess tour here was the fact that the rough seas made us about an hour late in our return to the ship. If we had been on a non-Princess tour, the ship would have left without us.
Townsville, Queensland, AU - This port was cancelled due to rough seas. After trying for about an hour to get the tenders running, the Captain announced that the tender operation could not be done safely so we would be leaving and moving on to our next port of call. Our Princess tour was refunded.
Port Douglas, Queensland, AU -- We had originally scheduled to visit the Great Barrier Reef again at this port. Our hope was that the experience would be better this time than at Airlie Beach. After seeing how rough the seas were, we decided that it wouldn't be worth the potential seasickness to visit the reef again. DH went to the gathering place and spoke to one of the Shore Excursion staff. Luckily, there was a couple there who wanted to go. Princess was nice enough to refund our money and sell our spots on the tour to the other couple. Afterwards, we determined that this was the right decision when we were talking to the Casino Host and he told us that he had been on both tours before and they were basically the same. As an alternative, we went ashore and purchased a rainforest hike and riverboat tour. It was nice and relaxing and the scenery was beautiful. We were happy with our choice and can't say enough about Princess' willingness to help us change our plans at the last minute.
Total Solar Eclipse - While we did choose this itinerary over other potential ones because of the inclusion of the solar eclipse, it was surprising to us just how exciting it was. Based on our discussions with others onboard, we would estimate that approximately two-thirds of the people were there mainly for the eclipse. They came from all over the world to see it. Now we know why. It was amazing! Princess did a great job all around...from the positioning of the ship to the free eye protection and expert narration on the PA system. They also put together a mini-documentary of the event and offered fantastic professional photos for sale (at surprisingly reasonable prices!). It was truly a highlight of the trip.
Disembarkation: Because we have Elite CC status, we were able to choose our disembarkation time later to better align with our departing flight time. We had breakfast in the dining room and then waited in the Platinum/Elite lounge until our color was called. Once again, Immigration and Customs went smoothly and we only waited about 10 minutes for a cab to the airport.
Summary: Overall we had a wonderful time as we've done on every Princess cruise previously. If you enjoy the good stuff and don't sweat the bad stuff, it's pretty difficult to have a bad time on a cruise. We enjoyed the Dawn Princess once again and now we can check Australia off our bucket list!