This was a chance to see parts on Norway that are easily accessible by ship. We decided against the Hurtigruten style as we wanted at least some time in ports.
Princess offered a very appealing itinerary with the bonus of going far north to 78 degrees at Longyearbyen, Spitsbergen, Svalbard. A total of 7 ports with most in port for at least 9 hours giving us a chance for a brief insight into Norwegian lifestyle and culture complimented with beautiful scenery. The weather was mixed, as you would expect going to this area, but fortunately good conditions prevailed in most key locations.
Departure was on June 29 from Southampton Mayflower Wharf berh 106. Southampton has a huge wharf area so make sure you know which berth otherwise it can take sometime and cost to recover the situation. We arrived around 12.30pm and found a long queue for emabarkation. Dropping off and checking luggage was straight forward. But then everything went slooowwly! It took almost 2 hours to get on board. Communications seems to be the serious issue with passsengers not advised of the status and simply just why things take so long. Customer service staff were around but they just gave the standard company line and clearly did not know anymore.
The ship - Crown Princess
At around 3000 passenger capacity it is large and generally does a good job. It is not the latest in design or presentation but functional nevertheless. Layout is OK but access to Borticelli restaurant is not direct and awkward in the early stages.We did not have any issues with sea sickness evn though it was rough a couple times. The ship is clean.
Cabins - our Dolphin mini suite on level 9 was per the brochure - good space, bathroom, couches for visitors, balcony (used sparingly due to the weather, very comfortable bedding and well attended by the steward. Being towards aft meant being closer to the restaurants.
Restaurants - the buffet Horizon Court is overall quite good. Yes it has its busy times and yes some people hog the window seats but generally you could find a seat. Common sense says you should find a seat/table before you get your food but some people do the reverse and expect a seat to be there just for them. The Caribe section is next door and offers more seating. The food is good with a fair range of variety, some personal dishes (eg omlette for breakfast, gluten free foods). Service is generally OK but you always get moments of slow service with such large numbers. We had anytime dining, normally from 6-7.45pm and shared on 6-8 people tables.Da Vinci restaurant is clearly the most popular (bookings strongly advised by simply dialling in advance-limited to the same day!). The food is quality,a good selection, good size meals for cruising as distinct from a restuarant at home, very good service (but you can get some slowness at the busiest time), special attention if you have a special diet, wine packages are on offer but a single purchase can start as low as US$28/bottle(complusory gratuity included). Michangelo restaurant is similar. Borticelli restaurant has some sections for a more enclosed environment. Access to level 6 aft to Borticelli's is not direct but eventually you determine the best route.We did not partake with the speciality restaurants.
Afternoon tea at Da Vinci is nice. Snack foods - ice cream, pizza etc seemed to be popular at locations around the ship.
A common issue is that only the Horizon Court has hand sanitisers!. This was a complete surprise as for passenger safety, like other cruises, we expected them everywhere.
Entertainment and Activities - the Theatre has 3 show times of about 45 minutes duration. Shows varied but production and cast presentations were the most popular and the solo violinist very good. Solo singers, comedians etc tend to divide people a little but overall the entertainment was very good. The atrium area has variety and again you cannot please everybody all the time.The library is small but alright; the casino we did not use but beware smoking is allowed and when you leave the theatre you walk through the casino!, the bars and coffee lounges seemed to be well attended; trivia sessions were popular,tec nical presentations in the theatre were interesting; swimming pool areas
were popular but it was too cold for us Aussies and the same for movies under the stars. People walked around the deck 7 route on days with agreeable weather.There was always something to do during the sea days - making new friends is a priority.
Shore Excursions - only take the cruise excursions if you cannot organise anything yourself. Yes they are expensive, yes they are limited and yes most regular cruisers tend to avoid them. Briefly the stops (keep in mind parts of the Norwegian coastline is well known for its wet weather - I know the brochures tend to not mention this)-
Stavanger - docks right in town,easy to walk around, easy to visit museums, its a long way to Pulpit Rock and then it can be clouded in. Free wifi at tourist office.
Lofoten Islands - tender here is midway between Gravdal and Leknes. Gravdal has nothing really to offer and some people walked the 3.5kms to Leknes which has a few shops. The best tip is to hire a car through Eirik at email@example.com. He is a local with around 10 cars. You get clean old cars in very good condition delivered to the tender pier for a fraction of the cost of the well known car hire companies. Simply sign a 1 page contract - you are renting for 1 day at the rate and will fill up on return and pay if damaged - the most basic uncomplicated contract ever. And yes he meets you there. Just be careful as the fuel gauge goes beyond the full mark so it may cost extra when completely refuelling upon return - petrol cost of NKR15/litre!Tip - take some food from the Horizon Court and have a picnic on land. Driving south we experienced the most wonderful scenery and stayed away from the daily tourist spots. Just magic, a must do.
Longyearbyen - docked 1.7kms from the town but an easy walk (cruise shuttle cost US$5 one way)albeit a bit murky with coal dust especially if wet.You can walk the town - shops, museums,church. Be prepared for cool/cold weather. Need to remove shoes or wear crocs in some buildings. Some people enjoyed the cruise husky ride.Don't expect lots of locals to be around as they arrange their lives around the best part of the day (7-9pm)rather than by the clock.Free wifi upstairs in shopping complex.
Honningsvag - dock right in town. Most things closed on Sunday. Easy to walk around, see the church and ice bar (if inclined). Big tip - get off early and there is a man who owns 3 cars for hire (first come basis)at 4 or 8 hours at reasonable rates and again cheaper than the big companies. Then drive 34kms to North Cape, see reindeer en route,small fishing villages and take photos when you want rather than flash by on a tourist bus. The weather can change quickly so go early if it is clear skies.
Tromso - dock many kms out of town so take the cruise shuttle at US$5 one way. Arctic cathedral is the no.1 sight, museums to suit, cable car if weather is OK, try the botanic gardens and visit the library for free wifi
Geiranger - enjoy the fjord both in and out. Wow! Pray for a clear sunny day. Prebook on line through the tourist office for a 1.5hrs. hop on/off bus(very limited seats especially if other cruise ships are in port), to the 2 main viewing spots.Tender is very short distance. Easy to walk around town -shops, cafes.
Bergen - industrial wharf so a free shuttle to town centre. Easy to walk around - Bryggen,fort, fish market, shops, funicular (glorious views), lake. A place you wish you had more than just 6 hrs.
General - be early for tenders then no waiting, maps of towns are readily available (on disembarking, tourist office). The on board platter and TV gives very limited information(Princess could be much much better here but tend to push their excursions without giving away much information). Plan and be adaptable but have an idea of what you want to do. At Stavanger, maybe Longyearbyen and Honningsvag you can get back onboard for lunch and then return to shore
General Ship/Cruise - The self serve electronic swipe your cruise card to print you account status is very good and allows resolution of any queries (we had a midnight beer charge yet the docket signature was nothing like ours, so was corrected in a matter of hours). An officer from the bridge gives you a daily status of sailing, distances etc just on midday. The currency exchange machine is useful but beware the rates are diabolical. The itinerary is the number one selling point - just plan accordingly if you are at a village/town on a Sunday when things are closed and also when time in port is limited eg Bergen, Geiranger.Internet access is expensive AND intermittent in this remote location. Use the stairs to avoid the inevitable lift congestion. The ship does have vibrations that are very noticeable in parts of the ship eg aft- an issue for the engineers!
Some Comments - Communication on this ship is POOR. There is poor administration such that the directives from the top - Staff and/or Hotel Managers - are so rigid that staff are lacking or afraid to show initiative to address issues eg only 1 card scanner on return to ship and only use 1 security machine (2 available) yet it is raining and the queues to reboard are long!Also finally just a few umbrellas and 1 minute canopy to assist passengers in the wet weather (just compare with other ships in port and Princess were inconsiderate); departurre points from the ship after lunch when without notice or advice you had to go forward rather than middle - more hassle;opens only half of Horizon Court (and on the non-viewing side)yet passengers back on board in large numbers because of the inclement weather; the patter is bad - why would use 3/4 of the front page just advertising (via respective department manager), wasted space on repetitive security and shuttle notices, wasted space on advertising - casino, the passengers wanted lots and lots of information on the ports and highlights(no mention on when you cross the arctic circle, sighting of whales, going under a bridge - not even a PA announcement) on board. The ship seems to be reluctant to acknowledge "bad" things but rather spends its focus on advertisng is own features. The ship/staff and behaviour highlighted its UNawareness or preparation for a visit to the Arctic (it seems more at home with warm weather locations) - staff knowledge of shore issues/topics/locations - "just see the local tourist office". Smoking is still allowable in areas frequented by non smokers -casino, deck viewing points. The UK passengers repeated time and time again how they got great prices to fill the ship, a story that is common to most cruises ex UK with the current economic situation.
And finally, the cruise director Lisa is robotic, stereotype and focused on sell sell sell. She pushes the Princess cause and lacks in any personal affinity with the passengers. This is highlighted on stage, on TV and around the ship. Please Princess send this lady on another ship so she can see how others do the same job!Send her to language and speaking school to address limited and repetitive language and generate a personal touch in presentation. Find out what is important for the passengers and attend to these issues rather than monotonously regurgitate the obvious and Princess charter. Show her individuality!
SUM: A great itinerary, a good ordinary ship with helpful but hand tied staff in need of some leadership and needs to address some minor matters. The trip is highly recommneded but preferably if you can find another Princess ship. And yes we will use Princess again.