It's hard to put my finger on exactly what wasn't right about this cruise. It was over Christmas, and we wanted a get-away of rest and relaxation, and we definitely got that. But some things were a little off with this cruise as compared to our other Princess sailings.
If you've read through the previous comments, you know the common complaints: no stairs mid-ship, slow elevators, small and cold pools, small balconies, etc. They're all true!
Luckily, our cabin was near the rear of the ship, and the elevators in the back were pretty accessible. It was only when we were in the piazza or heading to/from dinner that the elevators were crowded and slow. The elevators seemed to stop at every floor, even though there was no one there to get on/off.
We had three days at sea, and when we went to the sun deck (17), it was almost impossible to find two loungers together after 10 AM. Throughout the day, we saw passengers wandering about with folded towels in hand, trying to find a seat. As two adults (with no kids), we tried to get into the Retreat area (adults only), but even by 7:45 AM on sea days, all the loungers were taken. We sat on loungers in between the two pools and stayed away from the chaos on 16 as much as possible. There are just too many people on board for the size of the pools and the number of lounge chairs on the decks. We had over 800 children on board because it was Christmas week, and the captain reminded us all to exercise patience with so many children aboard. Because of all the families, Deck 16 was loud and super-crowded.
There were plenty of bar staff wandering around to take drink orders and clean up used plates and cups, and everyone we encountered was very friendly and helpful. The captain came on the PA system around noon each sea day to update us about things like weather--we did run into some showers each afternoon, forcing us inside (where we usually sat on our balcony). Speaking of the balcony, they're completely comfortable for two people. We did not have the footstools, as others mentioned, but we were able to share drinks and appetizers out on our balcony without any problems. We also had no problems with soot, as was also mentioned in earlier reviews.
Our first stop was Princess Cays, which was just what we wanted: a relaxing day at the beach. If you just want to hang out and enjoy the beach, turn right when you get off the tender. To the left, it's much busier and louder, with all the water sport activities going on. The lunch was fine, not great. Burgers, hotdogs, chicken--basic outdoor BBQ food, but nothing special. We ordered drinks from the bar and were surprised to find out they were $12 each! For a plastic cup that maybe held 8 ounces. We walked around in the afternoon and bought a couple things from the vendor huts. Getting back on the ship was a bit of a nightmare: we got off the beach at 3:15 (4:00 was the last tender time), and the line was SO LONG!! We couldn't even see the end of the line. I'm not sure how many tenders were in operation that afternoon, but it clearly wasn't enough.
Christmas Day was spent in St. Thomas. We booked the Dolphin Swim excursion, which took us off the island for the entire day, so we didn't actually get to see anything on St. Thomas. The excursion was poorly organized. Told to be on the pier at 8:15 AM, we were up and off the ship early, only to have to fill out customs forms and waivers while standing there (why we couldn't have done this earlier, I don't know). There was only one guide on the pier trying to give out paperwork and then check it and collect our passports. Two people would've been much better. The guide took our passports (since we were going to the BVI of Tortola), only to drop the entire box of passports in the water as we finally boarded the ferry. She had a flippant attitude about it all, which really annoyed us. The ferry ride was rather rough going over, and the teenagers on board acted as if we were on a roller coaster, which got old fast. The ferry ride back was much calmer, although the boat was loud and dirty. The Dolphin Swim was really extraordinary, but the whole thing is a less than natural. The experience was organized, but we were a really big group, and our time wasn't as personal as the smaller groups that came after us. The dolphin trainers were wonderful, as were the dolphins, but don't even bother taking your cameras--they are not allowed in or near the water. Instead, they have photographers who take photos of each contact with the dolphin for each person in the group. We bought a CD/photo package that was almost as expensive as the excursion, but the pictures WERE really wonderful and it was worth it to have those memories. After the swim, we were instructed to order lunch (not included), which we chose not to do--a cheeseburger was $14--and instead just waited for the time to go back to the ferry. We collected our passports (many of them were wet and ripply) after the swim and headed back on the ferry. The guide had the gall to solicit tips after what happened with the passports!
The day after Christmas, we were in St. Maarten/St. Martin. We booked the excursion of the beach break to Orient Beach. We loved our guide, Vilma, who was a native St. Martiner. She was humorous and knowledgeable about the island, and gave us good advice regarding the pushy sellers we'd encounter on the beach. Compared to the dolphin excursion, this one was very well organized. We got some fruit punch on arrival at the beach (with or without rum) and Vilma directed us to our section of the beach. It was Boxing Day, which she said was a very busy day, and the beach chairs were so close together that it was difficult to walk between the rows. We paid $3 for the umbrella rental, but so did all our neighbors, and it turned out we didn't even need it because of the shade from all their umbrellas! As soon as we sat down, people started coming up to us selling everything from hair-braiding to tattoos to jewelry to clothing and artwork. It was non-stop, and they were pretty aggressive. We found out you could get almost everything they were selling more cheaply at the souvenir shops in town, but we did feel good about helping the local economy, which heavily depends on tourists. Lunch at the Waikiki Bar (included) was barely fair--go with the fish or ribs and not the chicken. We were cautioned that we might see topless sunbathers, but we only saw one older woman walking along the shore who was topless.
We were then at sea all day Friday and Saturday on our way back to Ft. Lauderdale. As I mentioned above, the early risers get the best seats on the decks, so it might be worth it to get up early, stake out your spot, and have some breakfast before settling on the lounger for the day.
We ate in the anytime dining room almost every night, and we didn't have to wait too long for a table. We prefer to sit at a table for 2, and we were fine with waiting for one to open up. The key to timing dinner is to leave about 2 hours for the whole thing, and to not go immediately after a show lets out, which is when the longest waits are. We liked the food, knowing it is pre-plated banquet fare, but it really wasn't as good as previous Princess cruises we'd taken. On the morning show, we heard the head chef talking to one of the cooks about not adding too much salt because of the older passengers on board who were watching their sodium intake, but we both thought the food was bland, bland, bland. The appetizers were varied, and we did like some of the soups, but there were a couple of nights when nothing on the main course appealed to us. Lots of beef and pork and turkey, and there is always a vegetarian option. Depending on where we sat, the service ranged from great to neglectful, depending on the waiters. One night, we didn't order any wine or drinks with dinner, and the waiter noticeably ignored our table.
We went to a bunch of shows and games, and they were good, but not great. The magician's tricks and illusions went on a little long, and we didn't really get the whole concept of his show. The singers were good, but the dancers were a little tacky. I don't know if it was their routines or their costumes or their wildly flinging hair, but we didn't love their dancing. We went to a soul music show (which wasn't really soul--more Motown), which had live music that was very good. We loved the comedian, Al Katz, who was really funny. His first night was in the theater, which was pretty full, and his second night was in the Vista Lounge, which was packed. Get there early (but not 45 minutes early, as some people have suggested). We played bingo a couple of times but didn't win. Get there early for that, too, and take a pen or buy a dauber to mark your cards. The cruise staff were fun-loving and we went to a couple of the trivia games--they were silly and we had a good time identifying songs.
There was plenty of live music on the ship. Bands played out on the decks, and there was a pianist in the Wheelhouse Bar, and more bands played in the piazza. I couldn't keep them all straight, but they played a variety of live music that was all enjoyable.
We got our disembarkation information, and one of us was listed as a Walk-off (correct) and one wasn't (incorrect). I was able to fix it quickly at the main desk. Our walkoff time was 6:15 AM (yawn), but that was a good time to get off the boat before the craziness of everyone else's leaving. Breakfast in the buffet opened at 5 AM that day, so we had breakfast before leaving the ship. Going through customs took about 15 minutes (there were only 3 agents working, so the lines got considerably longer as the morning went on), and our ride met us in the pickup area. We were home by 7 AM, tired, tan, and happy.