First of all, about the ship. The ship's overall material condition was good. Plenty of fresh paint everywhere. Being a Navy guy, I know how difficult it is to keep a ship in good shape being at sea all the time, but I thought Princess was doing a good job. Some of the carpet inside the ship was ready for replacement, but things were by no means shabby. For any cruise newbies, I always bring some sort of solid air freshener for the bathroom. It keeps things smelling nice.
After seven previous cruises (3 with Princess), this was the first time we went alone. In the past, it was lots of family and friends. Our son is in college and we needed some alone time. What a great decision! We met a bunch of great folks on the trip and had a wonderful time at dinner. We did anytime dining, so we got to sit with different people. One weird small-world story -- we sat at a table where one of the ladies there grew up ten miles away from our home town.
Princess makes a ton of money off their art sales, and we have done the last two cruises on the Emerald with Jay, who is fantastic. The Ruby art guy is nice enough, but can't hold a candle to Jay. The dude is 60 and needs to get an adult haircut. His perm was so over the top it made him look silly. Also, I didn't like getting screwed with $100 shipping charge on a small/med size picture. I think art sales were way down from past trips, partly because of this guy. He just didn't connect with the people. There was also little new art available; most was the same stuff we have seen on past cruises.
Sabbitinis and Crown Grill: NEVER saw the places full, yet you couldn't get a reservation after the second day. We tried walking up twice to the Crown Grill as we went by to one of the MDRs, but got blown off both times by the ma'tre de. Princess has to figure out how to better manage those two assets. Like I said, the ma'tre de was not even vaguely interested in getting us a seat in an empty Crown Grill. Yes, I understand that dinner goes long in these places and they had lots of ressies for later times that could conflict, but I could have lived without the attitude.
Had the British lunch in the pub on the first at-sea day. The fish and chips were excellent and the staff super. I highly recommend sitting at the bar and interacting with the bartenders and wait staff. A super time.
The food all around was better this time out. Much better. Good job limiting portions and the quality was up.
Entertainment: best yet of our four princess cruises. Really liked the gameshows. The band "Speakers" was very good, but it seemed like they worked too hard trying to please everyone. Several times with a good crowd on the dance floor they would deliberately go away from that music line/theme and drift back 50 years. Then the floor would empty and they would be playing by themselves. Really stupid. But to reiterate, the entertainment was the best of our four cruises. One negative in the lounges was constantly being interrupted to buying drinks. I mean, I get it. Princess makes tons of money on alcohol, but it got a bit tiresome this trip. Regarding entertainment, we don't really count the casino as entertainment. It's just an area to avoid because of all the nasty smoke.
Wine: Our sommelier was a nice kid but is waaaay over his head and not ready for the position. He looks and sounds a lot like Ben Affleck -- is that why he got the job? We brought two bottles of our favorite wine this trip and paid the corkage fee at dinner. That's fine. Our wine was much better and much cheaper.
Ah, those Canadians! About one third of the ship was Canadian this trip. My wife and I grew up in the hills of east Tennessee and are southerners through and through. And we had a blast hanging out with all the Canadians on the ship! What a hoot!
About Pictures: Not as many people buying pictures this trip, it seemed. The photography staff did fine, but we didn't really like our pictures and didn't get any either. But that wasn't their fault. One note; they were selling high quality binoculars in the picture area, touting a "20% discount". Not sure where the 20% came from. They had a nice set of Nikon 5.5 Monarchs listed at $399. But you could buy the exact same pair fore $259 on Amazon (yes, I checked). The girl at the counter was shocked when I told her. Too funny!
Grand Turk Dune buggy ride -- expect to get filthy! Fun, fast paced ride through the dusty back trails all over the island. A real surprise. I was worried it would be fuddy duddy ride around, but our tour guide drove the lead buggy like he stole it and we had to keep up. Awesome!
St. Thomas Castaway Girl catamaran swim/snorkel: great crew and a fun beautiful ride, but Buck Island snorkeling isn't that great anymore. Lot's of other tour outfits going there now. Castaway Girl runs two cats from the Princess Pier and we have sailed with both groups, having lots of fun both times. Again, don't go for the snorkeling. Lots of better places on St Thomas for that.
Castaway Cay: As much as it sucks to fight the crowds wanting to get off the ship right away, you just have to. The clamshells and chairs are first come first serve even if you reserve one ahead of time. The problem is that if you are late you get stuck in the second/third/fourth row and can't see anything but the one in front of you. My recommendation is to get off the ship quick and head to the right side of the island (clamshells on both sides). It is definitely quieter and prettier over there, though the water is rockier. Water shoes are definitely needed. When you arrive, you have to "check in" at the watersports hut (one on either side of the beach) to trade in your reservation slip and get a token to give to the attendant near the clamshells, but it's very important to send the rest of your group onward to try to claim your clamshell while you wait in line.
Regarding food on Castaway Cay: There are two places to eat, one on each side of the beach, both doing burgers/dogs/barbeque, and my recommendation is to skip eating lunch if you can. The lines are stupid long from the time they open around 11 until closing at 1:30. Honestly, skipping a meal here is good for you for more than a couple of reasons. Hit the bar instead. You will enjoy the calories much more there.
St. Maarten: We were the last of five (that's right, FIVE) ships pulling into St. Maarten. Needless to say, the place was packed, but once you got off the pier things were fine. But therein lies the rub. I highly recommend you skip the water taxi ($8 round trip each) if you want to go to town, and take a van over for $3 each. When you want to return, buy a $5 each ticket back to the ship at the water taxi pickup point. The water taxi line was at least a half hour wait because of all the ships. BUT you can't easily see the line to the water taxi until you buy the ticket. So, if there are lots of ships in port, take a peek before buying your pass. There are lots of things to do in St. Maarten reviewed to the nth degree, so I will skip what to do.
St. Thomas: Princess parks at a pier well to the west of downtown, so you have to get a taxi over to the main area. Some excursions, like the one we took (described below), leave right next to the ship.
Grand Turk: The weather dictates what you do here. The last time we visited, the weather was bad and diving/snorkeling wasn't very good at all. Thinking about the weather, we decided to do a dune buggy ride. I was worried it would be fuddy duddy ride around the island. Boy, was I wrong. Our tour guide drove the lead buggy like he stole it and we had to keep up. Expect to get filthy from all the dust and dirt. We had a great time on this fast paced ride through the dusty back trails all over the island. A real surprise. Awesome!
Disembarking was no problem. This was our first time doing the early walk off and it was a snap. Lot's of grumpy people, though, but hard to blame them when they are going back to snow.