ROYAL PRINCESS - A Different Perspective
Pictures Link with almost 500 photos of Royal Princess: http://www.flickr.com/photos/eroller/sets/72157637829464656/
November 10, 2013
7-Night Eastern Caribbean
Princess Cruises is probably the most consistent cruise line in the business. When you sail on Princess you pretty much know exactly what to expect. The vast majority of their ships are decorated and laid out exactly the same, and the food, service, and entertainment are generally decent. This can be a great thing for Princess regulars that like the familiar and want more of the same. I'm not one of them. In fact I like just the opposite. I like to change it up and experience new things, which is why I enjoy cruising on as many cruise lines and ships as I can. I especially enjoy prototype new builds and ROYAL PRINCESS was high on the list of new designs to experience. My history with Princess dates back to the late 80's so I have seen the line essentially transform from a premium/luxury line with small ships to the mega mass-market ships that Princess employs today. As of late I've been sailing more frequently on lines like Celebrity, Royal Caribbean, and Cunard over Princess simply because I have become somewhat bored with Princess. The same old design simply doesn't excite me and frankly the pastel decor that Princess loves to use seems dated. I usually do a bit of research prior to any cruise, just to get the feel of how a ship is being received. Generally speaking, Princess regulars do not seem very pleased with ROYAL PRINCESS. She is a departure from what they are used to, and there are a lot of features that Princess regulars enjoy that are lacking on ROYAL PRINCESS (RP). Of course there are plenty of new features to make up for them! For me ROYAL PRINCESS was a breath of fresh air, and perhaps a reason to return to Princess and enjoy additional cruises on the Royal or her new sister ship the REGAL PRINCESS. It would certainly be nice to take advantage of my new Elite status with Princess!
Those of you not familiar with Princess might be wondering what all the fuss is about with ROYAL PRINCESS and why so many Princess regulars are disappointed with the ship. Due to the design of RP some traditional features of past Princess ships are missing. Some examples include a wrap-around Promenade Deck, an aft pool, the Explorers Lounge, an observation lounge, larger balconies, a midship staircase, and a glass enclosed pool. In addition the layout of RP has some distinct differences although it's easy to see she is an evolution of the Grand Class ships. I have to say none of the omissions from the Grand Class ships bothered me or impacted my experience in a negative way (except one). Having sailed a variety of cruise lines, the design of RP follows suit with several new builds of competing cruise lines most of which I quite enjoy. There is one aspect about RP that I do consider a design flaw, and best to get this out of the way now and concentrate on the positive moving forward. I'm speaking of the elevators and the lack of a midship staircase above Deck 7. I've sailed on over 100 cruises and on a great variety of ships, and I've never experienced elevators as packed, slow, and as poorly programmed as those on ROYAL PRINCESS. It's really a shame as these elevators impact almost every passenger on the ship, and they tarnish what is otherwise a truly beautiful vessel that is very nicely run. The main issue with the elevators is that there are simply not enough of them, but the analyst in me decided to dig a little deeper. There are 14 elevators for 3560 passengers based on double occupancy. That equates to a ratio of 254 passengers for each elevator (254:1). Compare this to some of the other largest ships sailing today. RUBY PRINCESS 220:1. QM2 119:1. OASIS OF THE SEAS 225:1. CELEBRITY ECLIPSE 237:1. MSC FANTASIA 233:1. NORWEGIAN BREAKAWAY 251:1. DISNEY DREAM 178:1. As you can see, ROYAL PRINCESS actually has the worst ratio of any large ship sailing today. Unfortunately the ratio is only part of the problem. The way the elevators are programmed in the forward and aft sections compound the issue. The two port elevators are controlled by one call button, and the same with the two starboard elevators. Of course everyone pushes both call buttons and enters the first elevator that arrives (if is is not full). This means another elevator will stop on the other side even if there is no one to board since the call button was previously activated. Basically every elevator becomes a "local", stopping at every deck, usually full to the limit, and taking forever to get you where you need to go. Often times if an elevator stopped you could not board because it was completely full. The six midship elevators are programmed properly and are all synced with each other, but because there is no midship staircase above Deck 7, people were forced to take an elevator even if only going up or down one deck. The only other option would be to walk all the way aft or all the way forward to the nearest set of stairs. The elevator situation was really out of hand, and major source of frustration for everyone onboard. I sincerely hope Princess is taking action to correct or at least improve the situation as I know they are well aware of it. I certainly let them know my opinion on the survey that was emailed to me after the cruise. Because of the elevator situation, I really cannot recommend the RP for the mobility impaired, as they would be spending half their cruise just dealing with the elevators. I did speak to a few passengers in scooters, and they were beyond frustrated with the situation. I also think it's vital on RP to choose your cabin location wisely. I would recommend going forward or aft, and on a middle deck so walking up to the pools or down to the lounges is not so far out of reach. That was honestly my only major complaint about the ship, and now that it's out of the way I can discuss more pleasant aspects of this gorgeous vessel!
Our cabin was M129, located high up (Deck15) and forward in the ship. It is a new category for Princess called a Deluxe Balcony. There is a little extra interior space so a small sofa is included instead of just a chair which is featured in the standard balcony cabins. The extra space was welcome, and I would say the size is typical of most standard balcony cabins on other ships. The cabin is very nicely appointed, with soothing colors and quality furnishings. A large flat panel TV is now mounted on the wall directly in front of the beds. It can't be turned so best to watch it while lying in bed. The TV is interactive and it's an excellent system. Very intuitive with plenty of choices for on-demand movies and TV shows. All free I might add. There are also informative channels such as the morning "Wake Show" by the Cruise Director, a weather channel, forward facing live bow view, and the ship's position map. I also enjoyed the music channels which featured severals genres. What is missing is the ability to check your shipboard account or order room service. There are two other ways to check your account, and one is with a cool smart phone app available for free while you are sailing on RP. Besides checking your account, you can look at the ship's itinerary, check what is happening onboard and map it out, and find out just about any other information you want to know about the ship. I really enjoyed using this app. The other way to check your account balance is from two kiosks located by Guest Services that will automatically provide a printout. The bedding in the cabin was excellent and I felt the mattresses were perfect. A refrigerator and nice size safe is included along with bar soap and a bottle of lotion in the bathroom. There are dispensers in the shower for shampoo and body wash. Missing were robes and slippers. Our cabin steward was amazing and such a nice guy. I spoke with him at length about the situation in the Philippines and I felt so bad for him and his colleagues that had to work while they were still in limbo about friends and family back home. It had to be tough and I did my best to make his job as easy as possible, asking for nothing and leaving the cabin as tidy as possible. Kudos to Princess for the layout of these cabins which are ideal for privacy. When you walk out of the bathroom you actually enter an open closet area which you can't see from the cabin itself. This is an ideal dressing area providing complete privacy from other occupants of the cabin. I felt closet and drawer space was more than sufficient, and I liked the large sink area in the bathroom. The shower itself is a little larger than a typical Princess ship, but not as big compared to some other cruise lines. Water pressure was pretty dismal but I'm not sure if that was just in this cabin or all. The a/c worked great in the cabin and pretty much the entire ship was kept at a comfortable temperature, with the exception of the elevators which could get very hot.
ROYAL PRINCESS has many beautiful public areas, but most impressive is The Piazza. I never got tired of looking at this stunning space! Yes it's a little on the glitzy side but not in a bad way. The Piazza is really the town square of RP, and it's always buzzing with activity and things to do. Essentially it's the same concept as the Royal Promenade on Royal Caribbean ships, but instead of a long promenade it's a central square. Off The Piazza are shops, eateries, lounges, and bars. There are also performances, bands, and dancing just like on the Royal Promenade with Royal Caribbean. I really liked the concept and found myself enjoying The Piazza daily. On the lowest level of The Piazza is a Gelato shop, where you can purchase generous 3-scoop sundaes and banana splits for $2.75. I thought this was one of the best bargains on the ship! Right next store is Celebrations selling confections and flowers but it was never very busy. I'm not sure how long this shop will last. A nice Internet Cafe is also located here with great sea views and large screen desktop computers. RP has wifi throughout so if you have your own device such as an iPhone or iPad you can use it just about anywhere, including out on deck and in your cabin. The only problem is that the internet service on RP is about the slowest I've experienced on any ship. It wasn't just slow, but agonizing slow! It didn't take long using up my free minutes just downloading simple emails to my iPhone. Why the internet service is so much slower compared to other ships I don't know. The International Cafe, which is now a Princess landmark is also located nearby, and it continues to serve up a nice selection of complimentary sandwiches and sweets 24/7. Walking forward on Plaza Deck you enter a very attractive lobby area that includes the Shore Excursion & Passenger Services desks, as well as the entrance to Sabatini's, one of the specialty restaurants onboard RP. We didn't dine in Sabatini's this time around, but I thought the space was beautiful and one of the nicest looking on the ship. I did take advantage of the Lotus Spa, which is all the way forward and essentially right underneath the Princess Theater. I thought the spa was beautiful with its black stone decor. I bought a week long pass for The Enclave which is the thermal suite area of the spa. Inside The Enclave are heated relaxation beds, a therapeutic pool, and a choice of steam and sauna rooms. There are no ocean views as The Enclave is in a center location. I made good use of my pass enjoying The Enclave daily, usually after a workout in the gym or the 5pm gathering with new friends. I have to mention that the fitness center is no where near the spa, and while not a huge issue I do prefer when these facilities are adjacent to each other. The fitness center is actually located up on Deck 17 aft, about as far away from the spa as you could get! It's a nice fitness center though, with great ocean views and all new Precor equipment. I liked that there was open deck space just outside the fitness center to catch a breath of fresh air.
Other favorite public areas include Crooners which is the piano bar, The Wheelhouse which is a more sedate piano bar (very Cunard-esque), and Club 6 which is the nightclub. Lacking on RP is any kind of observation lounge/bar like Skywalker's on previous Princess ships. I really missed having a beautiful lounge/bar with great views of the ocean. Speaking of ocean views, there is no wrap-around Promenade Deck on RP. There are a few viewing areas with seating on Deck 7, but no deck available to passengers that wraps around. My understanding is Princess will open up some of the Deck 7 crew spaces to passengers on sister ship REGAL PRINCESS, but even so those spaces are very narrow and views will be blocked by lifeboats. The open upper decks of RP are quite expansive, and to my surprise more spacious and large than I expected. There are three pools in total although one is just a plunge pool. Even so the pools were never overly crowded and the two main pools were quite large by ship standards. The pool water is fresh but on the chilly side which I actually enjoyed. I don't like it when the pools are too warm. Finding a deck chair was never a problem, even when I strolled out late around noon or 1pm. I'm happy to say that Princess still has live music by the main pool and towels are plentiful and don't need to be returned to the cabin or a manned towel hut after use. The Skywalk is also located topside, and I thought this was a pretty cool new feature. It's a walkway that extends out over the sea below, and the floor is made of glass! It's a pretty cool sensation sailing at 20 knots and seeing the ocean pass below your feet from 16 decks above! Not quite as cool is The Fountain. It's directly midship between the pools and is a very small scale version of the fountain show at the Bellagio in Las Vegas. It just isn't that exciting and it takes up too much valuable real-estate that could be used for another pool or to enlarge the existing plunge pool. For a bit of peace and quiet the adults-only Retreat Pool & Bar is the place to be. It can get a little windy but on a warm day it actually feels quite nice. Forward of the Retreat Pool is the adults-only Sanctuary. It's beautifully done but there is an extra charge to use this space if one is available. On this particular cruise the Sanctuary seemed sold out most days which means it's popular and I'm sure Princess is happy about that! Unfortunately The Sanctuary utilizes the only forward facing real-estate on the ship, so most people will never get to enjoy that view. Thankfully you can enjoy a beautiful aft facing view at the Horizon Terrace. There is wonderful seating here to dine alfresco or just to relax and have a drink at the bar. Most Celebrity ships also feature an aft area like the Horizon Terrace, which they call the Sunset Bar. What I enjoy on Celebrity is that during sunset they have a solo guitarist that plays. It really makes for a magical setting.
What is a cruise without food, and on ROYAL PRINCESS I can assure you that you won't starve! We dined at traditional late seating in the aft Allegro Dining Room. I felt this was the most attractive dining room of the three, with the decor being much more bold than the two center dining rooms. Service was great and the cuisine was quite tasty. I have to confess I'm not that fussy when it comes to food so perhaps I'm a bit easy to please. The menu is quite extensive and I loved the huge variety of "always available" food choices. One night was dined at The Crown Grill which is an extra tariff steak & seafood restaurant and I thought the cuisine was excellent. This venue is actually connected to the Wheelhouse Bar and I really liked the arrangement. It made it feel a little like a dinner club. The Horizon Court & Bistro with its Pastry Shop surely ranks as the best or at least one of the best buffets at sea. The layout is excellent and the food choices are immense. If you can't find something to your liking here than you are just too picky! Not to be outdone is Alfredo's, a complimentary pizzeria serving up some of the best personal pizzas at sea in beautiful surroundings. The gorgeous Piazza is on one side with ocean views on the other. What more could you ask for? Back topside there is the Trident Grill serving up decent grilled fare such as burgers and chicken, and adjacent is Prego which is yet another pizzeria serving up pizza by the slice. Hidden but not forgotten is Swirls, featuring soft serve ice cream to satisfy that sweet tooth. All in all I felt the dining choices were excellent as was the service in each of them. In fact the service on the entire ship was excellent. There was never a wait to get a drink at any bar, and plenty of bar staff on deck if you wanted that drink by the pool. Every crew member I encountered was friendly and seemed to enjoy their job. This was really astonishing considering how many Filipino crew members there are onboard and the uncertainty that faces them at home. I really applaud them and I don't know if I could perform so well under similar circumstances. I noticed that Princess is becoming a bit more like Celebrity with a little more attention to detail. Things like passing out cold towels and water/juice while waiting to board the ship in various ports. I think it's the small touches that really differentiate one cruise line from another these days, and it's nice to see Princess stepping it up a bit in this regard.
After a fairly recent cruise on CARNIVAL BREEZE I was concerned that the lackluster entertainment on that ship might have found its way to Princess. I'm pleased to say this is not the case. There is plenty of live music throughout the ship and on deck, lots of activities, and plenty of shows. I'm a fan of the cruise ship production show and on Princess they are alive and well. There were a few production shows during the week and I very much enjoyed what I saw. There is a full compliment of singers and dancers and sometimes even a full orchestra on stage. The production shows are presented in the Princess Theater. It's an impressive theater upon first sight, but unfortunately that favorable impression quickly fades when you sit down. The space between rows is VERY tight and there is no room for drinks except in your hand. There is no aisle along side bulkheads so if you end up in one of those seats, you are pretty much stuck for the show like it or not. The good news is that every seat is unobstructed and has a great view. I would highly recommend an aisle seat on the lowest level near the stage if possible. It means arriving early but you will be far more comfortable during the show. Secondary shows are in the aft Vista Lounge while passenger participation type shows are in the midship "Princess Live" venue. Princess Live is something new for Princess, and clearly it's copied directly from the Celebrity Central concept on the Celebrity Solstice Class ships. I'm not a fan of this style of entertainment so I really can't comment on the success of this venue. I can say that often there were people gathered at the door to Princess Live so I'm assuming it's very popular and perhaps the space is not large enough. In addition there was the usual compliment of cruise ship magicians and comedians, piano performers at The Wheelhouse and Crooners, nightclub dancing at Club 6, movies under the stars, a casino that was packed nightly, shopping with a pretty good selection of merchandise, bands and performances in The Piazza, and yes the fountain show up on deck. One night was a well attended deck party that included a performance on deck by the dancers & singers choreographed with the fountain. That was the one fountain show I did think was pretty cool.
The itinerary for this cruise is what I call the Caribbean "milk-run". It's a great cruise for first timers who have never been to the Caribbean before. St. Thomas and St. Maarten are core Caribbean ports that all the major cruise lines call at with their largest ships. I picked ROYAL PRINCESS for a couple reasons. First I wanted to sail on the latest and greatest from Princess Cruises. I was not disappointed and the ship provided new interest and incentive to once again return to Princess Cruises. Secondly the name Royal Princess has special meaning to me, as I sailed on the original Royal Princess back in the 80's with my recently deceased grandmother. One of my grandmother's wishes after she passed was that my brother and I scatter her ashes in the Caribbean during a cruise. This was really fitting since my grandmother is the reason I became so interested in ships at such a young age. She started taking my brother and I on cruises when I was around 10 or 11 years old. My brother and I honored her wishes and her final resting place is a beautiful and unspoiled inlet called St Mary's Creek located on the coast of St. John. I could not imagine a more beautiful or spectacular setting to say our final goodbyes and I think my grandmother would have been quite pleased with our choice. The other port for this cruise was Princess Cays, which is a private beach for Princess passengers located on the Bahamian island of Eleuthera. I've been lucky enough to visit all the private islands and beaches of the major cruises lines, and Princess Cays is clearly in the middle of the pack. It's by no means the best, but it is a nice beach and a pleasant way to spend the afternoon. My favorite is Disney's Castaway Cay, followed by Royal Caribbean's Labadee, then Holland America's Half Moon Cay. We were lucky to enjoy very pleasant weather during this cruise, with only a few showers, plenty of sunshine, and gorgeous sunsets. I loved our evening sail out from St. Thomas. It was truly magical.
Disembarkation in Ft. Lauderdale was efficient and effortless as was getting on and off the ship in every port. I never encountered any substantial lines or delays with one exception. Embarkation in Ft. Lauderdale left a lot to be desired. We arrived by car around 11:00am and it took over 30 minutes just to drive into the Terminal 2 area to drop off our luggage. We saw a massive line outside the terminal that ran all the way down the side of the terminal and beyond. That is no way to start a cruise so we drove off and had lunch in Ft. Lauderdale, then stopped at the Mercedes dealership to check out the new CLA (quite impressive BTW). We returned at 2pm to find no lines what so ever and an effortless embarkation process. I would highly recommend arriving later as opposed to earlier, as clearly Terminal 2 in Ft. Lauderdale is not sufficient to handle ships the size of ROYAL PRINCESS.
I hope it's obvious that I quite enjoyed ROYAL PRINCESS and the overall Princess experience. Is the ship perfect? No but I haven't found the perfect ship yet (I keep trying!). I will say that RP is enough of a departure from the typical Princess experience & decor that I have a renewed interest in sailing on Princess, specifically ROYAL PRINCESS and her new sister REGAL PRINCESS. One final footnote is that Princess recently announced some changes to the design of REGAL PRINCESS that will include such features as an aft pool and a promenade deck with more passenger accessible areas. This is a step in the right direction and it's great that Princess is listening to feedback and taking appropriate action. I hope they also address the elevator situation as from my perspective this is the biggest failure of RP that also impacts the most people.
Please enjoy the pictures located at the link at the beginning of this review, and be sure to let me know if you have any questions. I'll do my best to answer them.