The Crown Princess was the fourth version of the original Grand Class ships, with various modifications, notably another balcony deck, thereby increasing the passenger capacity by 500 from 2600 to 3100. She was the first of the "Crown” class ships, debuting in 2006, and has two sister ships, which followed, the Emerald and the Ruby.
Considering she is in relative terms, a new ship, her design was not well planned. Despite having to accommodate a greater number of passengers, she has no more amenities, and this leads to overcrowding in many venues, both inside and on outside decks, with long waiting times, particularly for "anytime dining”. There were several occasions when some of the elevators were not operational, and some passengers had to walk up 15 decks, while others who were unable to walk, were extremely frustrated at the long wait for any elevator. All balcony cabins, except for the top two decks, are also only semi private, and can be overlooked by those above.
Most of the above cannot now be remedied as that is the way the ship was built. However there are a great number of areas that could be improved or altered.
We over-nighted at the Premier Inn at Southampton airport from where we had a 20 minute journey to the QE 2 Terminal, arriving at 11.30. We drove into the embarkation shed where we dropped off our large cases. We then drove to the short stay carpark, literally across the road where we were met by a Parking For Cruises rep. The handover was dealt with efficiently and we returned to the embarkation shed with our hand cases.
We had preferred boarding which meant we were shown to the first available check in desk ahead of the main queue and and didn’t have any wait at all to go through the check-in process. We were also given a boarding card which enabled us to embark Crown Princess as soon as the process began at 12 noon.
It is helpful to know these Grand Class ships because only the top couple of decks have enclosed balconies, the lower ones are exposed to full view from above, which is why we chose this particular cabin on Lido Deck . As 255 was ready for us we dropped off our hand cases before commencing our familiarisation tour of the ship. Having done this we sat on the aft open deck 15 basking in the warm Southampton sunshine.
After the mandatory safety drill we returned to our cabin to find our two cases had arrived - thankfully - as we had already sailed, and we then proceeded to unpack.
All cabins are relatively moderate in size, and there is not much drawer space and for cruises longer than a week, would pose a problem. The bathrooms are tiny, although there is adequate open shelf space. The showers have only fixed showerheads, which is now very outdated, and not very user friendly. The cabins have two electrical sockets on the dressing table both of which are only 110 volts, but one is rendered useless, due to the proximity to the other, and it is therefore not possible to use the second plug socket simultaneously. As this ship is heavily marketed in Europe, it is unacceptable to only offer American electrical connectivity. The hairdryer also on the dressing table, has now migrated from the bathroom, but is still of poor quality, and is fixed to the wall. The towels are of differing quality, but all, both hand and bath towels are far too small. It is also surprising that unless you are either a suite or an elite passenger, you are not given shower gel, yet body lotion is provided to all cabins, why not? One also has to request bathrobes and fruit.
We were exceedingly fortunate that we had a very good cabin steward who kept everything in excellent condition,and gave a very efficient, professional and friendly service despite having sixteen other cabins.
Having opted for "anytime dining”, after finishing our unpacking, we went to the Da Vinci restaurant, which is one of two designated for Anytime Dining. Arriving at about 7.30, there was a queue of about a dozen passengers waiting to be seated. and a degree of disorganisation concerning table numbers. After about five minutes standing in the middle of the restaurant with four other passengers, we were shown to a table which was wrongly numbered.
Apparently the system appears to be, that should you wish to share a table, your wait is considerably shorter than if you do not. You can reserve a table for the evening by calling the reservation line. There are four lines only which open at 8.00 am and there are only a fixed number of tables in each dining room which can be booked. This percentage varies between 15 and 50 per cent, depending on who you speak to. Once this number has been reached, bookings are no longer accepted and you have to go and wait your turn in line when you want to dine. So much for anytime dining! The second night we were even luckier and were presented with a pager and told to go away and wait until it buzzed! This was about 10-15 minutes later.
Food in the dining room was satisfactory, and all the waiters were helpful and attentive and tried to please, but the service was appalling with 45 minutes the regular wait between the entrée and the main courses. Passengers opting for anytime dining were at a disadvantage, as one of the "anytime” dining restaurants had to accommodate the overspill of fixed seating, and therefore there was always a wait for a table, regardless of the time of arrival.
This is totally unacceptable, exacerbated by the fact that due to the extra 500 passengers, on this "Grand” class ship, fixed seating dining cannot be accommodated in the allotted restaurant and therefore the "overspill” is put into one of the "anytime” dining restaurants, thereby causing an intolerable wait
This applied to all meals, although to a lesser extent for breakfast and lunch. Dining room service breakfast was always only provided in the Botticelli. This is the least accessible of the three dining rooms because you have to go to the rear bank of elevators, so anyone in the forward section of the ship has at least a ten minute walk. Particularly at breakfast, there was also long waits for the elevators. Why do they not serve breakfast in one of the amidship dining rooms?
We were also horrified to find there was an absence of hand sanitisers at any of the restaurant entrances. Princess seemingly have dispensed with these apart from in the Horizon Court buffet, and you are expected to go to the toilets outside the restaurant to wash your hands. Needless to say we saw no one follow suit. Quite frankly the Crown deserves to have Novovirus on board if this is their cavalier attitude to hygiene.
On the first night at dinner, at the end of food service, a coffee trolley was presented and we were invited to choose a speciality coffee.
This was yet another example of many we had already had since embarkation, of a revenue generation opportunity by Princess, but where no mention was made of the cost. We had to ask if regular coffee was still free, as this had not been offered by our waiter. Having ascertained it was and ordering ours, others on our table followed suit. Earlier in the day whilst talking to two other passengers, we were interrupted by a waiter, who was.touting for the wine tasting. He began his pitch by saying it was our lucky day because he was signing up passengers for the wine tasting. It was fortunate because we realised there would be a charge and opted out, and once the other couple realised that it would cost them $25 each, they quickly declined!! We also think the constant "do you want any drinks from the bar” intrusive and very annoying. Even the sail-away drinks offered on deck as we left Southampton, carried a price tag, and many passengers did not realise until they had already taken their drinks.
On the first morning at sea, we went to the 11o'clock gathering of Cruise Critic in Skywalkers which was very well attended with around 50+ passengers, and several officers including the Hotel General Manager and Cruise Director.
Princess’s embarkation and disembarkation organisation is as good as it always has been, and knocks spots of cruise lines with far less passengers to accommodate, such as Oceania, and the operation was slick and efficient.
Dinner on the second night was again slow, despite being on a table with only three of us, and over two hours later, having eaten only three courses which were unmemorable, we were too late to see the show. This had started at 9.30, the curtain was drawn and they would not let us in. As all evening meals were very protracted and occupied several hours, we never managed to actually catch any of the "Showtime”.
The menus for room service breakfast are mediocre. The options do not offer a wide choice, and indeed the only hot dish is what appears to be a bacon and egg muffin with ketchup, the latter being an optional extra!
Unfortunately despite the clement weather, we were unable to swim in the Neptune Pool as this was roped off for several days, apparently this was due to a leak
The gym has a good range of exercise equipment, as one would expect with a ship of this size, and fortunately despite the fullness of the ship, was not utilised very much, so there was not a long wait to use the equipment.
Shore excursions were costly, understandable, when visiting the most expensive Scandinavian country, but more expensive than identical shorexs offered by Celebrity Cruises in these ports. Nevertheless, the two we booked were well organised and enjoyable.
However the port lecturer Lyndon Jolley, who on his own admission is a failed civil engineer, to my mind is also a failed port lecturer. Undoubtedly he had been to the ports which we were visiting, and gave some information about what to see and do etc, but the cardinal sin is to mispronounce the place names. Passengers expect that they will be told the correct pronunciation of the town that they are going to see, and it is also an insult to the host town to mispronounce its name. He repeatedly referred to the port as FLÅM, when in fact it should be "FLOM”. It is wrong of Princess to employ a supposed "expert” when he/or she is not. Although, unfortunately Princess has never been known for the calibre of her port lecturers Princess seemingly do not seem to attach much importance to place name pronounciation, as the Cruise Director herself in conversation with us, about the port of Geiranger which we had just left, rhymed it with danger! . With videoing being so commonplace, why do they have to show poor quality slides to illustrate their talks? In view of the need to maximise revenue, it is in their interest to present the ports in the best possible light!.
On the night before arrival in Bergen, the Captain had said there would be "a slight wind" in fact it was a force 8 on the Beaufort scale, and there was a good deal of movement. One lady had remarked that she had never known a ship to creak as much as the Crown, and several passengers were very unwell, and were glad to arrive in port.
We docked at 10.00 am, after breakfast which was another slow affair. The weather was overcast with low cloud and a drizzle, typically Bergen weather. Our American friend was meeting someone in town and we left the ship together. Because of the size of the Crown we were docked in the container port but fortunately Princess had laid on a free shuttle bus to the centre of the town. Alighting at the park with the fountain, we walked to the fish market and the base of the Floien cable car, where we left our American friend with her Norwegian pilot.
We walked back down the hill to the fish market, which is now very much more tourist orientated, with less fresh pieces of wet fish sold, and more plated food for the tourist to eat on the hoof, although there were long trestle tables to sit at should you wish. The standard of the fish was impressive and looked very fresh with several recognisable species. The exception to this was pieces of very dark flesh which we were told was whale meat. Needless to say prices were exorbitant and the salmon for example, was 200NK which is about £22 per kilo. There were also several large tanks with huge crabs swimming around as well as lobsters, crayfish and sea trout and one particularly huge catfish.
There is also a large indoor market selling similar merchandise to those outside, with equally expensive, but the freshest of fish. Enquiring of one guy the name of a certain fish we were surprised to find that he was an Italian from Milan who had been living in Bergen for six months as there was no work at home! Asked if he spoke Norwegian he said no - English, and he had taught his fellow workers Italian! Apparently this is quite common throughout Norway, not only in Bergen, and indeed we were to meet a whole crowd of Spanish waiters at our lunch stop at Hornindal enroute to Geiranger.
By now the sun had come out and we walked a little further along the jetty wall opposite the Bryggen for videoing. Retracing our steps past the fish market we walked round the other side of the Vagen. This is the old wharf with houses which date back to the Hanseatic era, all made of wood,and now occupied with expensive shops. There have been many projects over the last ten to fifteen years to restore these houses to their original state using the old materials and tools.
With the weather improving we returned to the park, and before getting on the shuttle bus back to the port, we sat by the fountain in the sun. We sailed at 6.00 pm, the same time as the Aida Sul, who being smaller was berthed nearer town. However size counted and we steamed ahead of her. Ate in Da Vinci's and again we had to wait. Dinner is becoming a marathon taking over two hours, for three courses!
Arrival was 8.00 am, and room service breakfast was ordered for 7.00-7.30 and arrived promptly two minutes before our 7.00am wake up call.
Our booked shorex mustered in the Princess Theatre at 8.30am and on leaving the ship by tender, we had a short walk along the path to reach the coaches. Only those on the shorex were allowed to go ashore, so the majority of passengers sailed down to Geiranger, however the tender operation was very well organised by Tony, the Chief Security Officer. Our guide was Heide, a German originally from Hanover, but who had lived in Norway for over 31 years, married to a Norwegian. Apart from "guiding" she was not only a vetenarian, but also rented land and kept sheep a horse, donkey and chickens. She was a very good guide with a good command of the English language.
Driving past the nine mile Stryn Lake we then stopped for coffee at a Best Western hotel, the Raftevolds at Hornindal and were served coffee and a beautiful piece of chocolate cake. We then continued our drive from Hjelle, up the single track road at the start of the old Strynefjell mountain road to the Buldrefoss waterfall followed by lunch. This was a small glass of prawn cocktail followed by poached salmon, boiled potatoes and some cauliflower, carrots and broccoli, the latter of which was not well cooked as usual! It was here that all the waiters were Spanish!
After lunch we drove to Mount Dalsnibba, via a toll road, with 13 hairpin bends, newly tarmacked which we had no doubt paid for in the price for the shorex, as the charge for buses was over £100! This was a great deal better than the original road I had used in 1959 which was a poor surface, with no Armco. The coaches then were not automatic and the driver had to manoeuvre forwards and backwards to get round the bends, overhanging the edge of the road, in so doing! Now it is a doddle in comparison. Arriving at the top, the views down into the Geiranger fjord were spectacular as well as the Tystig Glacier, and not only Crown, but also Celebrity Eclipse and P &O Adonia were visible. Apparently as the Eclipse comes every cruise, they have priority and moor against a pontoon from where the passengers can walk off the ship, whereas both us and Adonia had a very short tender to the shore.
The final stop was Flydalsjuvet from where the foregoing were more visible. We continued down into Geiranger fjord to round off our day trip. Poor Heide very nearly missed the last ferry back to Hellesylt which would mean she would be stranded in Geiranger. Luckily the driver of the coach let her off by the side of the ferry and she had to run to make it, which she did by the skin of her teeth; and as she got on, the ro-ro doors closed behind her. Poor soul she had not waited to collect any tips which might have been forthcoming. The day had been glorious and we were blessed with very warm sunshine and many people including us wore short sleeved tops.
Breakfast in Botticelli with the usual wait! We docked at around 8.00am. Like Hellesylt, Geiranger and Flam to come, Olden is a hamlet, not even a village with really nothing of itself worthy of note. The lakeside offered walking opportunities along the road which carried very little traffic, but this was not for us. With no shore trip booked we decided to see what was on offer shoreside, although we had hoped to get to see the glacier, we were aware the prices could be high.
We found three different options. A miniature train went along the lake, for 150NOK. This went at half hourly intervals. Another option was the Glacier Express, an open topped double-decker bus, three and half hours for 250NOK, which does not go to the Briksdal Glacier. The third option was a coach ride to the bottom of the Briksdal Glacier, from where you had the choice of walking for 45 minutes each way to get to the top, or take the troll car for an extra charge. The coach ride which took only half a hour was 350NOK and the little troll ride, in a jeep type buggy holding 9 plus the driver was an extra 190NOK, payable on arrival at the glacier. Despite the expense, we decided to do this, but unfortunately the next coach available wasn't until 1.00pm, so we returned to the ship and sat on the balcony in the sun.
TIP - if you want to do this trip, get off the ship as soon as possible and go to the building on the quay and book. You will then get the widest pick of departure times. This is not a public bus, as implied elsewhere, but runs just for cruise ship passengers. You cannot mix and match bus times and must return on your allotted time slot.
In view of the walk entailed to get off the ship we left well in time to get the 1pm coach. Several other passengers were sitting waiting, but not all for our trip - some were doing the open top bus. Pretty much on time the coach arrived, when suddenly a horde of about 9 men and women pushed us out of the way in order to get on the coach first, presumably to get the best seats. We later found out they were Russians, off our ship Ironically the bus driver spoke Russian and indeed could well have originated from there, in view of the number of non Norwegian workers we encountered.
The consequence of above, saw us sitting virtually at the back of the coach, but fortunately the journey time was a little under 30 minutes, the driver drove faster than any others, we had experienced so far. The trip ran along the valley and by the lake, before ascending the narrow mountain road until we came to a quick halt at the base of the Briksdal Glacier, where there is a shop and cafe There was only a short wait before we got on the 9 seater buggy, with 7 of the aforesaid Russians, most of whom spoke no English at all, for the 10 minutes ride up nearer to the glacier. We were dropped off at what was a small staging post, complete with toilet facilities, and from here it was shank's pony, another 15 minute walk to the very base of the Glacier. Whilst the path was reasonably wide, there were a great deal of loose stones, so it was quite treacherous in places and with a few steep bits. However we persevered, and finally reached the edge of the glacier. Surprisingly, probably because of all the exertion of walking, it was very warm and sheltered despite being only yards from the glacier. Sad to say that it is receding at a great rate of knots, and there are markers alongside the track stating what year it was at that point. Scientists predict that it will have disappeared in a couple of decades. It was in fact slightly disappointing as it didn't stretch down as far to the lake as seen in picture postcards. Nevertheless it is still a sight worth seeing.
As always, walking back to the buggies was quicker than it appeared on the outward journey, and we returned back to town, the same way we had gone. With only a cursory glance at the shops, we got back on board. Once again we had been so fortunate as the weather had been kind and the sun was warm.
Our luck ran out today as we docked at this famous little village with the famous railway, as the heavens opened and it poured.
Our group went by coach, whilst others took the train first. The rain eased slightly as we drove through a relatively new tunnel which is one of Norway’s longest, to Gudvagen and on through the Naeroy Vallley, climbing up one of Norway’s steepest roads to Stalheim and its hotel. The view from the hotels terrace over the majestic valley Nærøydalen is quite breathtaking. Here we stopped for a coffee and a piece of cake, and managed to dodge the rain to take photographs from the terrace, with the clouds and mist swirling around it made the scene very ethereal. After a short stop we drove down the other side of a very steep road and were grateful for the skills of the experienced Norwegian coach driver. From here we continued to Voss and the Fleischers Hotel, equally as old as the Stalheim, and as well appointed, to a very good lunch with a great variety of both cold and hot dishes available.
After lunch we left to board the train, the platform being only a few feet from the hotel, where thankfully the rain had stopped and we stood on the platform waiting for the train to take us from Voss to Myrdal. From here we changed for the famous Flamsbanen, travelling the 12 mile, 3000 feet drop to sea level and the very picturesque little town nestling at the end of the Sognefjord. The train stops by request at tiny stations and also a viewing platform for the 280 foot Kjosfossen Waterfall, where passengers are allowed to alight to take pictures. The journey time takes about an hour and we soon arrived back at our departure point, and returned to the ship via a very large "shopping” opportunity of which many passengers availed themselves. Retailers give you customs forms when making significant purchases of goods, and at our last port, Stavanger, Norwegian customs officers came on board to refund local sales taxes.
Sailing just before 6 pm, as all passengers were onboard, we slowly manoeuvred our way down the fjords, not reaching the open sea until after midnight.
Our final port was the 3rd largest city in Norway, Stavanger, situated on the extreme south west coast. Since the 1960’s when oil and gas exploration started here, it is now the world’s third largest oil exporter, and its affluence is obvious and indeed it is considered one of the most expensive cities in Norway, even above Oslo..
There are many sightseeing attractions, both in the city and on the fjords, visiting the famous Pulpit Rock situated only a short distance away, .is one which appeals to many. As I had lived for some months on a naval island only a few minutes from Stavanger, it was lovely to revisit old haunts and see how the passage of time had changed the city. One of the sad aspects was to find that the large quayside fish market which once was a very thriving affair, had long since disappeared, to be replaced by a very small indoor market. It was even more disappointing to learn that Norway now has a very large farmed salmon industry, with only a small percentage of salmon caught that is truly wild. This is a very depressing state of affairs particularly as Norway was originally the bastions of beautiful fresh wild salmon.
Unfortunately with only a half day stay in this lovely city, it was time to return to the long line of fellow passengers waiting to board the ship to commence our passage to our last port of call " Southampton.
Whilst we were sailing officially on Crown Princess, it became obvious as the days passed that the ship should have been named the SS Maresca. Fabrizio Maresca was the Captain but despite receiving several invitations to cocktail parties, including the most travelled passenger, he never showed up, hence the "Seldom Seen” Maresca!! One passenger even considered it an affront when the host of a party didn’t turn up to greet his guests and thought it was very rude! In view of the itinerary one could understand that in the waters in which we travelled, it was necessary to have a master on the bridge, but surely there was no necessity to have two, as the Staff Captain was also conspicuous by his absence, and in fact neither were ever seen around the ship.
In conclusion, we thoroughly enjoyed the ports visited but we cannot say the same about the cruise experience. It was all too much of a hassle. This is particularly sad as I have been cruising since 1964, and with over 500 days at sea with Princess, I feel I have some experience of cruising. Admittedly we were aware of the size of the ship before booking, but did not expect all the ramifications which this entailed, and feel my days with Princess could be numbered, unless the Ocean and the Pacific Princess offer some different and interesting itineraries in the future. Princess have several "strap lines” " "consummate host”, "escape completely”. In view of the size of the ship, perhaps they should start using "The Long March” to express what is involved in getting anywhere on board.