Between us my cruising friend and I have sailed on five Princess ships on itineraries including the Caribbean, Asia, Hawaii and now the Mediterranean and were looking forward to joining the newest ship of the line, Royal Princess, to see what improvements have been incorporated into the new design.
Embarkation in Venice was relatively smooth and quick as Platinum cruisers, preceded by the novelty of crossing the lagoon on very choppy waters by water taxi. We correctly didn't expect our mini-suite to be ready immediately and had planned for this by carrying aboard clothes suitable for lounging around the pool and swimming as the weather was very warm. Deck 16 has two smallish pools separated by a raised area containing fountains used for a water and light show in the evenings (somewhat lame and something of a waste of space.
Horizon Court/Bistro has been re-designed it seems with the express purpose of ensuring passengers have to walk around two completely separate buffet areas to see the full range of food available for any meal. Many items were in both buffets but equally many were not We were never able to identify any logical reason for the different food-range, names/decor of the two sections or why they were separated. On the plus side, available seating seems to be an improvement, but the new high bar-style tables with stools in one section were inappropriate for eating and the last to fill. The food choices seemed more limited than on previous cruises with breakfast particularly disappointing with an increased emphasis on stodgy choices. The fruit selection was limited and repetitive and breakfast favourites like grapefruit absent. Vegetables such as grilled tomatoes, mushrooms and spinach appeared rarely on the breakfast buffet,being available only at the omelet station, but a greasy sweet corn dish and several variations on fried potatoes and baked beans were available daily. Some breakfast cereals were only available in one or other of the two separate buffets. The 'new' pastry shop simply seems to have replaced the usual dessert section of the buffet and, on the one occasion we dined at the buffet, this section was the only part of an otherwise closed area still open. This meant passengers wishing to dine and have dessert that evening had to eat their appetiser and main course in one restaurant and then move to the other for dessert. Despite this a much larger proportion of passengers seemed to opt for the buffet at night with the main dining rooms quiet on most nights of the cruise - perhaps reflecting the large numbers of families with children opting for more casual dining? Food labelling at both the buffets and on menus was less informative than in the past, with no indication of healthier choices (Spa items on menus of previous cruises), or ingredients in dishes although there was some indication of vegetarian and gluten free on written menus only. Main dining room food also seemed plainer and stodgier than in the past with few choices for those of us who enjoy lighter, spicier food. We ordered an extra side dish of steamed vegetables most nights to overcome the small portions of vegetables served with meals.
Our favourite new feature is the adult-only Retreat pool area, and it saved us from sharing the main pool area and its two smallish pools with the 800+ children on board. Chair-wars were more apparent than ever on sea days and improved signage that chairs cannot be reserved for more than thirty minutes without being sat on might have helped overworked deck attendants having to sort out endless arguments about 'ownership' of loungers. On the one day we used the pools on Deck 16, four deck attendants were employed full-time controlling the behaviour of hordes of children whose parents seemed nowhere in sight.
Unfortunately on our cruise the Sanctuary was booked out on two sea days out of three by "guests of head office" despite other paying passengers being unable to pre-book. One morning I was part of an angry queue of passengers waiting to book into the Sanctuary for over an hour, only to be told at opening time (8.30 am) that a telephone call had just been received from 'head office' booking all but one seat. Crew had not been informed earlier and so were unable to save passengers from wasting time queuing and instead had to spend their time bearing the brunt of angry and frustrated passengers. We were never able to sample this feature of the ship.
Passenger services and tour desk staff were as unfailingly helpful and courteous as on previous ships, but Royal Princess still seemed to be sorting out teething problems on our cruise so written advice, staff advice and actual events seemed inconsistent more frequently than is ideal. Changing times of excursions, or meeting places without prior notice seemed final straws for some passengers who demanded refunds for things not running exactly as expected. We rode out these inconveniences and were mostly happy with excursions although many were very expensive and overly long. More half-day options would have been welcome. For example we would have preferred to select one part of some excursions instead of having to take all parts together such as the breakfast cruise in Istanbul (wonderful) followed by a walking tour of the Blue Mosque, followed by a carpet-making demo and then shopping at the Grand Bazaar. Too much for us and many others who were happy to just sit for an hour to await the return coach to the ship than walk any further. Likewise in Rome, where shorter options were not available and our walking tour guide seemed oblivious that the huge number in our group had strung out over a block with those towards the back having absolutely no idea what they were looking at by the time they reached it.
Entertainment on this ship included some excellent production shows -particularly the final one- but the number, variety and quality of other entertainers on board did not match thise of earlier cruises with Princess and poor attendances at the Princess Theatre reflected this. The Vista Lounge has previously been used for alternative shows and dancing but not on this ship although at least one of the acts performing to a small audience in the theatre would have been much better suited to the more intimate Vista Lounge environment with its cabaret-style seating. Passengers also seemed to be buying far fewer drinks in the theatre - perhaps partly due to the lack of folding tables in seat arms that have been available on other ships. Instead of performances in the Vista Lounge, passengers can now see alternative entertainers in the Piazza, but this brightly lit central atrium with its shops, bars and constant through traffic forces much of the audience to stand and block stairways in order to catch a glimpse of what is going on, rather than sit comfortably, drink in hand and enjoy the performance. The cruise director and small staff were less in evidence on this ship without the usual games and entertainment around the pools, but there also seemed little space available for this.
Crooners bar is similar to other ships, although the grand piano was never in use during our regular pre-dinner drinks, but the bar staff were excellent - learning passenger names and drink/snack preferences on the first visit and welcoming us back by name and 'your usual?' table/drinks appearing with Absolutely no effort on our part. The Wheelhouse bar by contrast seems much smaller and is missing the stage and dance floor of other ships.
Royal Princess has an abundance of extra eateries available with additional cover charges. We didn't try these as the choices were not to our taste, seeming to focus on heavier but equally bland choices as the main dining room. A good Asian option offering beautiful Thai or Malaysain curries with lots of fresh vegetables or Vietnamese/Cambodian items with the emphasis on fresh lightly cooked ingredients would have been a wonderful addition for us rather than the somewhat hackneyed Crown Grill and Italian options that mimic much of what is available on the main dining room menu. The new Seafood Terrace was not open on the two occasions we thought we'd try it for lunch, and the International Cafe did not seem to offer anything (beyond a variety of coffees) that was not available in Horizon Court/Bistro.
The Lotus Spa has moved from its upper deck position on other ships down to deck five and has the addition of the enclave steam and sauna area with pool and rain showers. It offers some exclusive treatments not available on other ships including a wonderful keratin express blow out service in the hair salon that met the promotional promise of ensuring frizz-free hair for the remainder of the cruise! Treatments are expensive and the usual product sales pitch is inevitable, but this is common in land-based spas too. The gym and fitness centre is still on the upper deck separate from the spa and offers the usual equipment for cardio and resistance training plus a few additions. Lack of supervision in this area made it a magnet for the many children on board to treat the gym as a play area and this may have contributed to the number of non-functioning pieces of equipment. A range of classes, mostly at extra cost, is available but these no longer appear in the daily Patter newsletter making them less obvious. Additional classes like Zumba were held up top on the sports court in the open air and sun without air conditioning or other weather protection and the walking/jogging track is co-located. This has a great addition of exercise stations along the way to enable a self- styled circuit training course. Unfortunately this is now the only option for walking as the 'Promenade' deck is not available for walking on this ship and perhaps needs a change of name? Large numbers of walkers up top made the possibility of jogging much less easy.
Re-designed mini suites on Royal Princess seem smaller than on other ships and the balcony so tiny it is usable by only one person at a time. It was impossible to get the footrests hidden beneath the chairs out from under without the skills of s contortionist and we didn't use our balcony for the first time ever on a Princess cruise. I can't imagine trying to breakfast or dine in such a confined space, but at least it gives the option of having a door open in the suite. Mini-suites still have the only shower located over the bath so not great if you have any mobility issues, and we experienced very low water pressure meaning it took a long time to rinse out shampoo/conditioner. We'd have liked to buy more of the Lotus Spa body lotion available in the cabin, but Lotus Spa staff were unaware of the product and unable to assist. Hair dryers are now located in the desk drawer with fixed cords through the back of the drawer making them impossible to use closer to a mirror, so I wish I'd practised blind blow drying prior to the holiday! The flat screen TV's with a range of movies and television shows on demand are a great improvement, although the choice of television programs was very poor, we did enjoy a couple of movies - Skyfall and the Intouchables. There were problems with the information services however and the location of the ship and local weather was stuck on Venice for the first few days before being switched off altogether. The Wake Show and Port lectures were often not available despite being the first ship to have its own TV studio, although the usefulness of this escaped me and it served to reduce the Wheelhouse Bar area so that it has no dance floor or stage.
I would avoid Royal Princess for future cruises and I believe many of the re-designed features are a step backwards rather than an improvement. For my money the Grand class ships are far superior in design for passenger comfort, space and amenities. Will I cruise Princess again? Probably, but not on this ship.