Grand Princess 11/3-17/2012
Pre-cruise. We had planned on leaving from JFK on Tuesday October 30th on American Airlines 142, a daytime flight to London Heathrow. With the impending arrival of Hurricane Sandy into the New York area around that time, we considered alternative flights leaving earlier. American Airlines did not open no-fee rebooking until Friday Oct 26th when it appeared certain that Sandy would affect flight ops on the east coast. Since I had researched what flights were available, we were able to rebook that afternoon on AA 138 leaving Saturday at 9:35P and arriving Sunday 8:30A, well ahead of the storm. Keep in mind that the AA agents were not all aware of the fee waiver so it took some time to work out the details, but we were able to get preferred seats fee waived as well. In situations like this, knowing what is available and moving quickly to rebook is essential. As I was waiting for the agent to check on the fee waiver, I saw several seats disappear on the flight we wanted. Also, if your air was booked through the cruise lines, you need to ask for group services directly to avoid lost time.
Once on the ground, British Immigration moved quickly enough and from there we went to the baggage hall to reclaim our bags. In Terminal 3, there is a large sign board to the right as you come off the escalator that will tell on which luggage belt bags from a given flight will be. We arranged in advance for a car service to pick us up and it went smoothly enough despite the fact that I did not own a GSM cell (GSM or Global Standard for Mobile communications is the standard for Europe. They do not do CDMA or Collision Detection Multiple Access as we do in North America). As I gave them my physical description, the driver found us and we were dropped off at our hotel for '36 plus '5 tip. As an alternative to private car or taxi, the Heathrow Express trains leave from a lower platform reachable by elevator where you can buy tickets using credit cards or cash ('18 per person). The trains leave every 15 minutes and take 15 minutes to arrive at Paddington Station in Westminster, just north of Hyde Park. Go to the far end of Platform 1 for first class service and to be closer to the taxi rank at Paddington station (turn right after exiting the platform, right again then left to the taxi rank). This works well if you are a single traveler or your hotel is near Paddington.
Given the short time frame to reserve a hotel, I used Priceline for a hotel for four nights. We got the Doubletree at 2 Bridge Street which is across the street from Victoria Station and a nice four star hotel. At a total price of $220 per night including booking fees, I am sure I left money on the table, but it was still cheaper than the three star Premier Inn Victoria I had previously reserved for two nights.
With four days is London, we did some offbeat tours such as the Middle and Inner Temples, two of the Inns of Court in the City of London similar to law schools and practicing legal groups. What makes it interesting is the Norman chapel that dates from the 12th century and a private park. St Paul's Cathedral ('15p p admission, I think not), London Canal Museum on Wharfdale Street near King's Cross Station ('3 pp admission, worth it if you are into early English transportation systems). Also the usual such as Buckingham Palace (saw the arrival of the Polish President), Big Ben and the House of Parliament, Westminster Cathedral (Catholic) and Abbey (Anglican). We also strolled through the Princess Diana fountain in Hyde Park and the Victoria and Albert Museum nearby. Mostly, just enjoyed walking around parts of London we have not seen before.
Meals in London like much of Europe are more expensive than in the US including even New York City. A good place for breakfast or lunch is Pret a Manger which is a chain well represented in central London. There was one just around the block from our hotel. Dinners were simple since we would have fancier meals on board ship. Note that in many pubs, you order and pay for your meal at the bar. There is usually a number plaque on the table which you give when you order; the food is delivered to you.
Getting around London will involve either London Transport's buses or the Underground (subway). The Oyster card which is an RFID (Radio Frequency IDentification) card gets you the best prices for transport. The deposit on the card itself is '5 but is refundable. Off-peak (after 9:30A), the fare is '2 pp for central city zones. We used '10 for three days, YMMV. There is a London Transport office in Victoria Station in the center bay where you can get the Oyster card and have ticket money loaded on, and get a refund when you are done with it. Alternatively, there is the travel card which is '7 for one day off-peak usage. Other major railway stations will also have these offices and you can get the Oyster card (but not the Travel card) at most Underground stations.
Thursday, we took a train from Victoria to Southampton Central and walked our bags to the Novotel Southampton less than a quarter-mile away. There are two train routes to Southampton, one which leaves from Waterloo via Southwest Railway, takes about 75 minutes for about '36 pp. The other by Southern Railways runs out of Victoria to Southampton and takes about 150 minutes over a longer route, but we were able to book an advance fare special for '4 pp. We booked the Novotel at a non-refundable rate of $126 per night for two nights with full English breakfast. The hotel was fine for what we wanted and was close to the station and local shopping at nearby malls. Friday, we went to Portsmouth to see the Royal Naval Museum which costs about '12 per person. Train roundtrip as '10 pp. Some info on what is available is here http://www.visitportsmouth.co.uk/
Saturday dawned reasonably clear and we walked around a farmers market until 11A when we checked out and took a car service to the port. The car cost about '9 with tip. The Grand Princess was docked at a new terminal at piers 46-7 for Carnival and affiliated lines. Luggage was efficiently whisked off and transferred to the ship. Upon entering the second floor waiting area, we were issued embarkation cards coded for your boarding sequence. Being a bit early, we had to wait awhile before being issued our boarding passes. A little after noon, our boarding sequence was called and we cleared through security and boarding the ship. We were initially booked in cabin D309, a Dolphin deck mini-suite. At the pier, we were upgraded to an aft corner suite B751 on Baja deck, only no one mentioned that to us. After ratcheting around trying to figure out why we could not get into our cabin, the cabin change was cleared up and we got to enjoy our upgrade. Of course our bags were tagged for the old cabin and we did not get them until just before the emergency drill.
Itinerary and Weather. The Grand Princess crossing was 14 days from Southampton to Fort Lauderdale stopping at Le Havre, France; Vigo Spain; Lisbon, and Ponta Delgada, Portugal; West End, Bermuda and arriving Fort Lauderdale. Weather in London and Southampton was colder than normal (highs 50F, lows in the 30s) with some rain and wind in the evenings. Sunday in Le Havre was rather windy and cloudy. We did a ship's tour of city of Rouen and the Cathedral which involve a fair bit of walking through interesting medieval streets. Since it was Sunday, most of the shops and cafes were closed. Across from the Cathedral of Joan of Arc is JM's Caf' that was open serving food and drinks and more importantly, had rest rooms. The ladies room is a separate room within the men's area.
Monday, we transited the Bay of Biscay which had rough seas and 35 mph winds. This was the roughest seas we had during the crossing. On Tuesday, we docked at Vigo and took a tour of Santiago de Compostela. While windy, the sun was out and it was relatively warm. This is a major tourist center and there were at least 25 buses from the ship going there. As you walk from the bus terminal to the Cathedral, local merchants will offer samples of cookies and cake for you to purchase on the way back. While not the largest, this is the most historic cathedral and quite impressive. Lunch was on our own and place we chose was a bit slow so we had to hurry back to the bus afterwards. Perhaps a light snack might have worked better.
Wednesday saw us doing a private tour of Lisbon and the town of Sintra. Entering Lisbon harbor, the ship goes under the 25th April suspension bridge and just behind the bridge on the south side is a statue of Christ the King similar to the one in Rio. Opposite the statue is the cruise port where our driver picked us up. We did a tour of the city with an overlook that gave a panoramic view of the city and harbor. After touring some local sites including a brief stop to sample the local liquor (kind of like a non-sweet cherry), we went to Sintra to tour a palace and garden. Unfortunately, the rain was coming down heavily and after a quick view from the van, we went to Cascais, a coastal town about 15 miles west of Lisbon for lunch. The rain continued pounding down so we went back to the ship with two quick stops for pictures.
After a day sailing from Lisbon to the Azores, we docked at Ponta Delgada in a warm and sunny Saturday. We chose to walk around the Pont Delgada rather than do another tour since the tours offered did not interest us by this point. There are ATMs in the port area outside security if you need Euros. The city slope steeply uphill and the streets and sidewalks are very narrow. We had a nice lunch at a local place behind the main church with local swordfish, vegetables and potato. Note that in many local restaurants, bread, butter and some local cheese spread are priced separately and you pay for it if you use it, about a euro or so, however, beer and wine are reasonably priced. For West End, Bermuda, it was rainy and windy so we just walked around, having been here a number of times before.
Passports for non-EU pax are held by the Purser's Deck to expedite ship clearance. You will get them back after leaving the EU. Have copies of your passport or a passport card for ID when returning to the ship. The weather during the crossing was cloudy most days with some rain until we left Bermuda.
Saturday November 17th, we docked at Fort Lauderdale, our final stop. Cabs are plentiful and cost about $20 with tip depending on traffic and port location. We disembarked about 8:30A and got to the airport by 9:30A for our 11:20A flight. FLL now uses backscatter scanners so you have to completely empty your pockets including paper money or you will get patted down/felt up (hey, my hands are still warm from the last guy/gal ). The process is quick. For a detailed day-by-day description if the cruise, Donna Brown's live blog can be read here.
The Ship. The Grand Princess was the first of the Grand class of ships and went into service in 1997. While the ship does show some wear and rust spots: that is not uncommon for ships of her age and she does not show the kind of wear and tear that some have described. A major overhaul in early 2011 replaced the Skywalker Lounge that was suspended over the Terrace Pool area with the One5 Lounge which was built into the deck structure and added the International Cafe and a new pizza place called Alfredo's on deck 5 in the plaza area. To distinguish starboard (right) from port (left) on cabin decks, the hallway rugs on the port side have red background in the side trim and the hallway rugs on starboard have cream colored trim background. The forward elevator lobby had red and dark blue trim while the aft lobby has light blue with light green trim. The center elevator lobby is U shaped with the bottom of the U facing forward. This appears to apply for all Grand and Crown class ships.
Entertainment is on decks 6 and 7. We did not find much that interested us other than the party band Feedback and one or two performers. Princess seems to have cut back in the amount and variety of entertainment. Then again the prices for this cruise were lower than expected so you get what you pay for. While the water in the whirlpools was hot, jets did not work
Cabin. As I said earlier, we had booked an AB minisuite and we were upgraded to Baja 751 on deck 11 which is a starboard aft corner Owners suite. This suite was huge and would easily make a comfortable one bedroom apartment in Manhattan. Upon entry on the left side of the cabin, there is a round four seat dining table with a sitting area with couch. Beyond it is a desk area with six drawers for storage, a queen sofa couch, two chairs and a coffee table. To the right of the entry is the bathroom which is divided into two sections, a sink and toilet and then a shower and tub. There is ample shelf storage by the sink. The bedroom is also to the right beyond the bathroom. It has a king bed with a second desk with six drawers and a vanity mirror. There is a walk-in closet with shelves for storage and an extra set of drawers. The bedroom has a second entrance to the shower/tub area and a 19 inch flat screen TV. Back to the living area, there is a 26' flat screen TV, a mini-fridge stocked with beer, wine and soda, a wet bar and 8 single serving spirits (cognac, scotch, gin and vodka). The initial fridge and spirits loadout is included in the room price, reloads are charged at regular room service prices. The balcony runs the width of the suite, about 25 feet and had six chairs, two recliners a 30 inch table and some small side tables. There is no cover on Baja deck unlike suites on lower decks so people on the terrace pool deck can look down on your veranda.
Suite amenities include breakfast at Sabatini's, complementary laundry, access to the elite lounge, priority boarding and exclusive line for passenger service among other services. Breakfast at Sabatini's has less selection than the Horizon Court and was slower so we only used it once. Disembarking, there is a separate lounge area with coffee, juices and pastries for suite pax.
The Pax and Roll Call. With cruise of this duration and routing, most of the pax are retired (like us) or close to it. Predicated on our experiences, about a third of the pax were from the British Commonwealth with the remainder being North American with a few from other countries. While the weather did keep many pax inside, the Grand did not feel crowded the way the larger Princess ships with the Riviera deck and its extra 250 cabins.
For the our cruise, there were three formal nights, the first sea day Monday Nov 5th, the second day after Ponta Delgada, Monday Nov 12th, and the next to last sea day, Thursday Nov 15th. Most men wore suits or tuxedos with a few just wearing sports jackets and no tie. The other nights were smart casual. There is a Cruise Critic roll call for this cruise which proved to be quite helpful and informative. One person set up a webpage which had names and pictures of various roll call members, private tours set up by members and other activities such as a private sea day group lunch with about 70 people present. Another member made up cloth poppies for roll callers to wear on Remembrance Day (British) aka Veterans Day (US).
Dining Service. Princess has a decidedly Italian tilt to their cuisine and those dishes are often the best choices. There is both traditional dining (5:45 PM and 8 PM in the Botticelli Dining room (Fiesta deck 6) and Anytime Dining in the Da Vinci Dining Room on Plaza deck (deck 5) and Michelangelo Dining Room (Fiesta deck). With Anytime Dining, you pick the time you want to eat and then deal with the line that may exist. A willingness to share a table generally gets you seated sooner. Breakfast and lunch is served in the Michelangelo Dining Room with open seating. While we have done Anytime Dining on other Princess cruises, this time we opted for early traditional seating. We were joined by two retired couples, one from near Edmonton, Canada and a British couple from north of England. We had lively conversations and a good time was had by all. Note that the Botticelli Dining room can only be accessed by stairs or the rear elevator bank since it is at the aft end of Fiesta deck. The nearest restrooms are on Promenade deck (deck 7) and only two of the four aft elevators go to deck 6. If you have mobility issues and still want traditional dining, be prepared to wait for elevator service.
Each dinner has a collection of small plates that include a salad, several hot and cold appetizers and two soups. There are five choices for main courses that change nightly; usually one or two selections of seafood, poultry, red meat and vegetarian. In addition, there are two pasta dishes, one of which is always Fettuccini Alfredo (very good but very rich). Princess has four always available entrees that are the same each night, broiled salmon, broiled chicken breast, New York sirloin and a beef tournedos. French onion soup, plain tossed salad, Caesar salad and a shrimp cocktail round out the always available selections.
Lunch is structured with small plates and daily entrees, one of which is often an interesting salad. Breakfast is a standard eggs, breakfast meats and fruits with two specials each day. In general, we found the meals to be more flavorful but often more salty than we are used to, YMMV. The red meat dishes were usually tender though Princess tends towards the well done side. Seafood was good and fresh for the most part, since the Grand had been provisioning in European ports, some of the seafood was unfamiliar to us.
The Horizon Court is Princess' buffet area on Lido (deck 14) which is available for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The breakfast and lunch choices are often more expansive than in the dining room. Once you find a table, the waiters will provide your beverage such as juice (several varieties) and coffee at breakfast or ice tea at lunch. Instead of trays and plates, Princess uses a large oval plate that can double as a tray; a good idea since they take up less space on the tables than trays and there is one less item for the pickup staff to clear and clean.
The pizzeria on Lido deck has good thin crispy crust pies which are easily the match of most NYC pizzas. There are pizza Margarita and pepperoni and a special that changes daily. The pizzas in Alfredo's were somewhat better but not enough to warrant paying the extra fare. The afternoon teas (3:30 to 4:30 PM) were nice affairs, but the tea sandwiches and pastries were unremarkable and the timing did not always work for us, still you should give it a try. For Suite, Platinum and Elite pax, Princess offered a semi-private cocktail party in the One5 Lounge from 5 to 8 PM with appetizers and a special drink of the day. With over 1,200 pax at the Platinum or Elite level, it was difficult to find a seat at 5 PM. With the addition of the One5, outdoor seating shaded from sun and wind was added, port smoking and starboard, non-smoking. Smoking on the open pool deck is on the port side, but on the promenade, it is starboard. There is no smoking permitted on the balconies.