I'll begin by saying that we are seasoned Carnival cruisers. We, and another couple we travel with often, wanted to sail another line to compare and contrast, and ultimately decided on Princess. We chose the 7-day itinerary leaving from Houston and visiting Cozumel, Roatan Island, and Belize City. We left on Jan 4, 2014.
The Bayport Cruise Terminal in Houston is quite small and parking is very convenient (but expensive; $80 for the week). We arrived at approximately noon and stood in a long line for a little while, but the line moved pretty quickly and overall it was a smooth process. We were checked in and on board within probably an hour.
We went directly to our rooms (R741 for us and R745 for our friends, interior staterooms) to drop our carry on luggage. Most of our checked luggage was already there, though some didn't show up til very late. The staterooms were more than adequate. Small, but very well-utilized space, plenty of storage, and with the use of mirrors felt much larger than they were. The carpet was somewhat dated, as well as the tile in the bathroom. The shower is small, but that is to be expected. The shower head was great! The location of these two rooms was perfect because of their relative location to the adult pool area (Terrace Pool is literally 10 steps to the door and up 8 steps…) and the bar and Caribe Cafe. Overall the room was very comfortable for two people.
The ship itself is a different story. As I mentioned, out entire purpose was to compare to Carnival. Whereas Carnival ships have bright flashy colors in most areas, the Caribbean Princess (CP) is more understated. The environments are smaller and more intimate, which we found interesting (not better or worse, just different). The CP utilized a more pastel color palate vs the brighter colors you'd see on Carnival. The one thing that struck me right away was the stone flooring in the Piazza - I really thought that was nice. But thats where it ends. The layout, design, and decor of the decks is almost identical to what one would find on Carnival (which is fine, we are repeat customers with Carnival, but we felt like we were splurging on this cruise and had higher expectations; we paid about 1.5x what the same itinerary was with Carnival for this week). In the Caribe Cafe and Horizon Court (buffet areas), the Golden Girls would have been very comfortable; lots of wicker and pastel pinks. The Piazza area is beautiful (I mentioned the stone floors) with marble stair cases and a large piece of blue and green glasswork that hangs from above. However, once in the not-so-public areas, its just like any other ship. In the stateroom hallways on Riviera deck, we noticed several places needing repair; the carpet was hanging off the wall in once place and the ceiling slats were hanging down in another. There were also 3 ceiling leaks that we counted; one in the entry way to the buffet and one coming from under the wall in our stateroom hallway (the 3rd I can't place right now). The decks were nearly all covered in a blue indoor/outdoor carpet or turf-like material, and they were constantly saturated (not just wet, saturated - like squish up between your toes when you walked). The deck areas were smaller and more numerous, more divided up, it felt like. The lounge chairs were made of a hard plastic with blue mesh covering, and I'd say at least 20%-25% were broken or in need of repair in some way. We kept having to "switch out" lounge chairs so that we could get 4 useable ones together if we all wanted to lay out. The pools were fresh water, but were very cold. But its January, so that just is what it is. What was frustrating, however, is that the one and only hot tub by our room had a net over it most of the cruise. We only were able to get in twice (and the hot tubs were about the only water on board we could enjoy, because the pools were so cold).
The food left quite a bit to be desired. The buffets were very consistently mediocre, and varied little with their selection from day to day. On the last morning, the breakfast buffett offered the usuals (bacon, sausage, eggs, corned beef hash, fresh fruit, etc). However, there was also baked beans, smoked salmon, rice and tomatoes, and miso soup. ??? Not really what we'd consider breakfast food. During other meals, they would "take up space" on the buffet lines with trays of folded up lunch meat and sliced cheese. Those typically weren't popular selections. There were no self serve drinks. Princess focuses on service. The waitstaff wants to do everything but feed you, and by day 2 or 3 it had become annoying. We are accustomed to being able to have coffee or tea or juice anywhere and anytime. On Princess you have to be waited on. I see what they're trying to accomplish, but it was kind of inconvenient. The coffee was not good, by the way. It tasted old, everywhere. The dining room food was as good as it ever is on any cruise, which is pretty good. I enjoyed most of what I had there. The best of all was Prego's Pizza Bar. PHENOMENAL pizza. Not a huge selection (Cheese pizza that they call "Margharita", Pepperoni, and a daily special) but its awesome. That was always our go-to if the actual dinner didn't sound good. There are a couple of other small eateries around the ship and they were all pretty good too. We did not visit Sabatini's (for food) but heard it was good.
Princess's cleanliness impressed me at first. Though dated, the ship seemed really clean. The staterooms were clean. There was an attendant at the beginning of each buffet line enforcing passengers to use the provided Purell hand sanitizer (I'm a nurse, so I was very pleased with this). Despite these efforts, on day 5 (our 2nd to last sea day), the Captain made an overhead announcement that there was an outbreak of Norovirus on the ship. Norovirus is a gastrointestinal virus that causes nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. From this point forward through the end of the cruise (and even through to the next one, we heard staff saying), there were no more salt and pepper shakers on the tables, the buffets were no longer self serve, nets over most pools, etc. I'm sure there was a very specific protocol the staff followed, and despite one episode of vomiting a few nights prior, neither I or any of my party got sick. Thankfully…
The service, as I mentioned, was meticulous almost to a fault. The waitstaff would almost trip over themselves trying to do something, anything for you. I'm one that would really just rather have things available and do for myself, but I guess most aren't that way. If you want to be waited of for every single thing (drinks, seasoning your food, etc), Princess might be for you. The stateroom staff weren't quite as attentive. On prior cruises we had become very friendly with our porters early on, and on this cruise we didn't learn his name til day 5 or 6. The rooms were cleaned promptly, and even multiple times a day if necessary, but they weren't as "interactive" as on other lines. Perhaps trying to stay behind the scenes…
The entertainment was probably better than I've seen in the past, but I didn't attend every single show. The two that I saw were sing-and-dance numbers, and while there were talented singers, the production overall was pretty campy. Just good ol' cruise ship shows… But still better than others. Aside from the shows in the theater, the on board activities were, um, slow. Princess will tell you that the average age of passengers is 50. I'm not sure thats mathematically accurate. The population on board is old. Old. Princess knows their demographic and caters to it. You won't find the deck parties and pool parties that you do on Carnival. The group I was traveling with has ages of 52, 34, 33, and 29. We were the young ones by 20-25 years. There was lots of bingo, bridge tournaments, board games, and dominoes. Line dancing was about as exciting as it got. Which is terribly unfortunate because we lost a port and ended up with an extra sea day, but I'll talk about that next.
The ports on the itinerary were Cozumel, Roatan Island, and Belize City. We were to have one sea day going from Houston to Cozumel, then Roatan, Honduras, then Belize, then two sea days going from Belize City back to Houston. The first sea day and the Cozumel day went swimmingly. We did have some rain in Cozumel, but it lasted 30 mins or so and blew over. We swam and snorkeled and drank beer and had a lot of fun. We were scheduled to be on Roatan the next day but missed the port "due to weather". This was my 5th cruise and never have I ever missed a port. The seas were rough and the Captain said it was unsafe to dock. So instead, we sailed back and forth in the Bay of Honduras between the mainland and Roatan all day. There was another ship in port on Roatan but I couldn't tell what line it was. The Carnival Dream, which had been in port with us the day prior in Cozumel, was following us in to port in Roatan as well. We never saw what happened to that ship. We were told that they too aborted port, but we never saw them again. So if they did in fact abort, then they went on somewhere else instead of wasting an entire day sailing back and forth in the bay. Even though we were refunded for our excursion, disappointed isn't a strong enough word to describe how we felt. We asked crew members later, and they said that missed ports are quite common. Some other passengers that we met said this was their 3rd time with this particular itinerary and they had yet to make Roatan. The next day was Belize City and we had a fantastic day (despite it being rainy and pretty cool). Our original excursion was cancelled (imagine that) due to "flooding in the area", so we rebooked a different excursion for an extra $30/person (it was the "only one available") and had a great time visiting the Lamanai Mayan ruins. It was hands down the best part of the cruise, even though we had to pay more.
The debarkation process was not as smooth as the embarkation process. We were about 5 hours late getting into Houston because of fog. I assumed that the ship used GPS to determine position, but apparently it uses Mayflower technology that still requires the use of sight. We sat anchored off Galveston island until sometime mid-morning. Thankfully we drove down from the DFW area and didn't have flights scheduled, but others did and missed them. We didn't get off the ship until nearly 4pm. I'm not sure how late that made the others trying to get on for the next cruise.
Overall and in summary, if your expectations aren't too high, and you like an older crowd, and you don't mind 5 sea days on a 7-day cruise, and food isn't terribly important to you, Princess is fine. Our expectations were high, and we were disappointed. Especially since we could have paid less with Carnival and had at least as good a time. But now we know...