My husband and I took our first-ever cruise on the Diamond Princess in 2007; since then we have cruised on Celebrity, Crystal, and HAL, as well as on Princess, taking two or three trips a year. We hadn't however, cruised on Princess for a couple of years, but when the Grand was home-ported in San Francisco this spring, we decided to take advantage of the opportunity to sail from home and looked for an interesting itinerary. We found this in the Grand's 30 May Alaskan itinerary, which included Sitka, in our view the prettiest port in Southast Alaska, and Haines, a charming town we had never visited (and which some readers of books on Alaska may know from Heather Lende's "If You Lived Here I Would Know your Name)."
We had sailed on the Grand before, and were curious about how the ship had changed after its extensive drydock in 2011, so the post-drydock changes are probably the place to start this review. It is true that the ship looks sleeker since the elimination of its "shopping-cart handle," where the Skywalker nightclub had been located; however, the Skywalker was also the ship's observation lounge, and we missed this venue, especially on this Alaskan cruise, as it had been a wonderful location from which to take in the beauty of glaciers, etc. while being in out of the cold and mist (the Sanctuary may serve as a substitute on trips to warmer climes, but not on Alaskan cruises, as it is not insulated from the outside temperatures, and some may not want to pay the Sanctuary admission fee). This said, we enjoyed two new venues that were added during drydock: the International Cafe and Alfredo's pizzeria. Alfredo's is, at present, an alternative dining venue without a specialty restaurant tariff. We noticed that Alfredo's was a favorite of younger passengers, for whom it provides a casual alternative to the cafeteria atmosphere in the Horizon Court. And while we raised the average age when we dined there, we too enjoyed the pizza offerings available on the evening we dined there, which we accompanied with a half bottle of cabernet left over from our visit the preceding night to the Crown Grill.
Here are some additional observations.
1) SAILINGS FROM SF: For people living in the SF Bay Area, the opportunity to cruise to several different destinations from San Francisco is a real plus. It is true that until after the America's Cup competition is over, ships must still sail from San Francisco's old cruise pier, which meant that for several sailings there were lines and delays at this crowded location; Princess, however, has tried to ameliorate this problem by giving passengers specific boarding times, starting in the early afternoon after everyone from the previous voyage had disembarked. Enough people respected their assigned times that we had the quickest boarding we had ever experienced at any cruise port! Disembarkation was equally swift and uncomplicated.
2) ITINERARY: The itinerary was a big plus for me. My husband stayed aboard in both Sitka and Haines, but I went ashore, and took advantage of the opportunity to meet local artists, enriching my understanding of Northwest Coast art.
3) CABIN STEWARD: Abraham, our cabin steward, was terrific--he did a good job, and more important to us, he always took advantage of times when we went to dine to clean our room, which required attentiveness on his part as we didn't always eat at the same time each day. He rarely interrupted our reading, writing, or naps to see if we were in the room.
4) ENTERTAINMENT: We attended several evening shows in the Princess Theatre and Vista Lounge--a production show, a folk fiddler, and a comedian, and all were well above average. This was an unexpected surprise, and one which compensated for the fact that there was no classical music ensemble (when there is a classical music group aboard, we always attend their performances after dinner). It should also be noted that the Rhapsody Trio, a Hungarian trio, was very good and appealed both to classical music lovers like ourselves, and to people who prefer semi-classical and popular standards (they will be on the ship until the end of September).
5) "LEAVES:" Leaves, another post-drydock innovation, combines a tea lounge with the library and a board-game venue. As a tea drinker, I enjoyed the variety of teas available here.
6) WINE LIST: We were delighted to see on the wine list at the Crown Grill a vintage bottle of Caymus Special Reserve cabernet. Pricey, yes, but one is always happier to splurge on a wine one knows to be outstanding than on an unknown bottle of younger wine.
7) LOCATION MAPS: Princess continues to have the best "Your location at sea" maps, on Channel 42--a set of maps at different levels of detail that answer questions such as "How long until we get to the Inside Passage?" and "What is the name of that island outside our stateroom window?"
8) SNOOKERS: My husband appreciated the fact that the Grand Princess has retained a cigar bar: he does not smoke cigarettes, but he likes to enjoy one of his two cigars a year while on a cruise, and he appreciated not having to do so while standing outside in a gale. That said, there is an attendant negative for non-smokers: smoke from Snookers rises up the nearby stairwell and elevator shaft.
1) NO OBSERVATION LOUNGE: As noted, we missed the observation lounge, a problem which is obviated somewhat when glacier viewing as the captain rotates the ship so that those with outside cabins can see the glaciers from their staterooms regardless of whether they are located on the port or starboard side.
2) FOOD: The food onboard was, overall, only okay (this is the perennial complaint of cruisers who live in a city with good restaurants at all price levels, but we've had better food on other cruise lines). Granted, we sometimes had a delicious entree to balance an inedibly-tough steak at Sabatini's. However, the best meal we had on our trip was at a restaurant in the small town of Ketchikan, which we chose because an earlier diner had written a review in which he said it was the best food he'd had on HIS trip.
3) HORIZON COURT CROWDING: The Horizon Court was always crowded at breakfast and lunch (one could, to be sure, also have breakfast or lunch in one of the ship's restaurants, take ones plate to ones stateroom, or call room service). And it should be said that, aside from the Horizon Court, the ship's public spaces never felt crowded.
4) STATEROOM MATTRESSES: As someone noted in an earlier review, the mattresses in the staterooms are not as good as those we have experienced on other cruises. We didn't remember having a problem with the mattress the last time we sailed on the Grand, so we failed to request a mattress topper, and my husband experienced some discomfort on the last few nights.
After deciding we wanted to take the opportunity to cruise on the Grand while it is home-ported in San Francisco, I trolled the Cruise critic review site, but there were few reviews of sailings from San Francisco (I suspect this may be because Princess now distributes its post-cruise surveys, which it used to hand out on the last day, va e-mail after passengers return home, which is the time when people would ordinarily be moved to submit a review to Cruise Critic). In any event, I vowed that I would write a review when we returned home. Here is our bottom line: "Would we sail again on the Grand Princess" The answer from both my husband and me is "yes."