With Princess, we always say, you know what you're getting. In fact, we get some surprises too, despite the fact that we've cruised with this line often enough to qualify for Elite-level benefits. This time, a simple winter-break trip for us, we noted some improvements and a number of less pleasant changes.
In the former category, the cruise director and most of his staff were the best we've sailed with in many a year. Billy Hygate, the CD, was the best performer on board, a song-and-dance man who told funnier jokes than the comedians hired to make us laugh. His performance of 'If I were a Rich Man' was superb, equal to the best on the Broadway stage. Billy's young men handled their duties with humor and skill; Alex, Martin and David will each make an excellent CD in due course. Sadly, the deputy CD lacked such talent, despite her other abilities: she insisted on haranguing and bullying the audience into making the responses she wanted to hear whenever she got the chance.
Overall, our progress to and from the ship was smooth and efficient. (I can't blame Princess for wanting to charge us $70 for a bag three pounds overweight). The Princess rep at LAX was helpful and charming, though those near the pier, where we waited 35 minutes in our bus before entry, were unhelpful and more dedicated to flirting and joking with each other.
Embarkation was quite quick, though we were twice sent into the wrong line. Our cabin was as expected, though, for the umpteenth time, the bed configuration was the opposite of what we ordered. Our steward Chris ranks with the best of his ilk.
The pre-sailing safety drill requires serious overhaul: no doubt Princess boss Alan Buckelew takes safety seriously but he should be ashamed at what went on. We mustered in the Princess Theater (more passengers than seats) and were treated to a series of lame jokes from a young woman we never saw again, apparently a junior member of the entertainment staff. Her attitude seemed to be that a safety briefing was some kind of lark. Every muster station should have a uniformed officer -- the person in charge of that station -- present and visible. No jokes: this is important business and should be teated as such.
The Sapphire Princess was in better physical shape than when we were last on board five years ago. The public rooms were still too cold, but the Club Fusion felt less like an icebox and the aft end of Deck Seven no longer suffered from odors of garbage. Maintenance of passenger areas was excellent.
The ship's physical changes include moving the Internet center to Deck Seven, a vast improvement. There was never a time when a terminal wasn't available for me to use up my free minutes and, though I needed no help from them, I felt that the attendants were patient and friendly.
We were told our 8:15 dining time had been moved to 7:45 "because of the time change," which was baloney; we never did get an explanation but the new time worked well enough given the ship's evening schedule of entertainment. We were unlucky in our waiter (who seemed pretty much disinterested in his job), lucky in his assistant (who was on his first contract) and blessed by the fact that 20 of the 26 passengers in their area never showed up for dinner, and two of the six at our table moved to earlier dining. So we got very speedy service, often leaving the dining room after only 75 minutes.
The dress code -- smart casual most nights -- was nowhere close to that in fact: passengers dined in jeans, tee-shirts, sweatpants, whatever. "That," said one passenger cryptically, "is what you get when you put mac and cheese on the menu." In fact, Princess seems to be going out of its way to attract to this ship people who dress on a cruise the way they do to visit a fast-food drive-through.
The menu choices were much reduced from our last Princess cruise, the offerings bland and the portions small. (I believe all cruise lines should offer three different portion sizes). We'd read about the changes at CruiseCritic and can confirm that selection in the Horizon Court buffet has also become less varied and interesting. Desserts (and breads, at breakfast) have been moved to a separate nearby area, but the layout of the buffet remains chaotic. Fortunately, the servers now seem pleased to bring you a beverage which doesn't get them a gratuity.
We noted an improvement in the Sapphire Princess singers and dancers. The talent level was good, though a couple of the shows looked and sounded tired. The new one (to us at least), 'Born to be Wild', was very well done.
The comedians (CD Billy excepted) were poorly chosen: their talents were much better suited to a lounge in Vegas or another venue much smaller than the 700-seat Princess Theater. The specialty acts were adequate but not memorable.
The crew show was a sham, pretty much. Heavily promoted as an opportunity to see and cheer behind-the-scenes crew members, it featured only three acts in this category, the rest being paid entertainers and cruise staff members. I'm not sure what Princess has done to alienate potential performers, but it must have done something.
The Terry Belanger orchestra upheld the Princess tradition as an excellent ensemble; they played backup for, among others, a Four Seasons tribute group, which, as a general concept, struck me as an interesting new approach for the line in the provision of entertainment.
Having visited all the Hawaiian ports before and wary of the sky-high Princess shorex prices, we made our own touring arrangements, including a great air tour with Wings over Kauai, and were quite happy. I noted that the ship's tender drivers in Lahaina, now directed on two-way radio by an officer, had improved their skills since our last visit to this port.
Our disembarkation in LA was swift and efficient with only a brief period in a lineup. Princess delivered us to LAX and the airline check-in lady forgave us five pounds of extra luggage.
So, overall, the cruise provided pretty much what we expected. Given obvious cutbacks by Princess in the dining area, I'm not about to recommend a cruise like this to our friends. In fact I think it's time to renew acquaintances with some other lines on which we've cruised. I'd rate this cruise six to seven out of 10, no huge complaints, but very little to cheer about.
Third cruise-ship visit to Hilo; not interested in overpriced tours. Decided to visit Tsunami and Lyman museums downtown. Paid $15 for the (brand-new) HOHO bus, which was overwhelmed by having two ships in port and not operating exactly as advertised. Bus dropped us off downtown, where we walked around and to both museums. Then continued the 50-minute round trip.
We were told by others that taxis are expensive in Hilo. This is a small place (35,000 in total) where everyone is very friendly and helpful.
We walked (less than half a mile) to the historic Iolani Palace and took a one-hour guided tour ($22 each) with a very informative docent. Then we watched a free concert by the Royal Hawaiian Band before boarding the HOHO bus ($17 each) to visit Diamond Head and the interesting Honolulu Zoo.
In many years of travel, we've never taken a better tour. Ellen, Dori and pilot Josh (and Millie the dog) at Wings over Kauai treated us like old friends, operated with great efficiency and provided a stunning tour of the beauties of Kauai, all at a price half or less than what you'll pay for a tour by helicopter. On this fixed-wing plane, a window seat is guaranteed.
Third cruise-ship visit to Lahaina. Took the public bus ($4 each, all-day) to Maui Ocean Center (saving more than $100 vs. a ship's tour) and to the mall in Kahului, then along the coast to Ka'anapali and back.
We found this mode of travel to be pleasant and relaxing, with lots of scenery. You don't get commentary, of course, but the bus drivers are friendly and helpful.