This was our 28th cruise and the fifth with Princess, previously sailing with Holland America (9), Cunard (5), Disney (5), Royal Caribbean (2) and Celebrity (2). We really had a good experience, although the ship is more than 10 years old and is showing its age, especially in the cabins. This is our second time on board this ship. We thought all the ship staff and crew were very friendly. We have learned to manage our expectations when on holidays, expect the unexpected, and you will not be disappointed.
After the first full day (Sunday), we went on red alert for norovirus, and all self-service food was suspended for the rest of the week. Staff served you at the limited beverage stations and in the buffet. Please remember to wash your hands or use the hand sanitizers often, especially before you eat.
This was our first time to Texas. We took the Princess EZAir and paid about 10% more than the best airfare we could find for our travel dates. The winter has been terrible for any kind of travelling, especially flying, and we thought it worth the small amount to get next port protection, in case things went wrong along the way. We also chose to go in early and leave later, to give ourselves some pre-cruise and post-cruise time in the Houston area.
We were very fortunate with our United flights, which were Syracuse to Washington Dulles and Houston on the outbound, and Houston to Chicago to Syracuse on the return. If a transfer of flights is required, try to pick airports that are more south like Atlanta or Philadelphia, over Chicago or the NYC area airports. As expected, there were multiple flight delays and cancellations due to weather on our travel days, but we were not affected.
Once in Houston and George Bush Airport (airport code IAH), there are lots of choices of hotels to suit your budget. We always like the Starwood hotels and there was a nice Sheraton here on JFK Blvd. The taxi fare is about $100 from IAH to the Bayport Cruise port. Princess charges $24 per person for the transfer, from either IAH which is further out, or from the Hobby Airport. There did not appear to be many choices of hotels or car rentals near the Bayport Terminal but there are some, as we saw hotel shuttles at Bayport. We were told by Princess staff that their transfers operate between 11:30 am and 1:30 pm. These all operate from Terminal C, baggage area, where Princess sets up a booth. We got to the airport at 10:00 am and was surprised to learn that shuttles left at 9:30 already, so if you want to get on board sooner and are taking the shuttles, get to the airport by 9 am.
The transfer took about an hour and we were on board by 12:30 pm. All you see along the way are freeways and oil refineries. Lunch is served in the buffet but our lunch in the Coral Dining Room (open from noon to 1:30 pm) was a nice way to start the cruise without the buffet crowds.
We had an oceanview obstructed, E603, where you can see parts of lifeboats. The additional cost for the balcony room was not justified on this voyage, for us anyway. Saving the money for a balcony room on the Royal or Regal Princess later this year.
Food overall was very good, although steak and meats were tough some nights. Temperature of food was often lukewarm. Oh well, beats cooking at home. We had the Anytime Dining where we experienced some really long waits (average of 30 minutes) as we wanted to have a table for two on most nights. Note that the Island Dining Room is for Anytime Dining from 5:30 pm to 9:30 pm each night, but Coral Dining Room also has Anytime Dining from 7 pm to 9:30 each night, so you can choose from two restaurants for Anytime Dining after 7 pm. We did not try any of the specialty restaurants, although we had a British-style pub lunch in the Crown Grill on one of the sea days. By way of comparison, our opinion is that the best food we have had on any cruise was the Celebrity Reflection. The food on Princess, even though very good, rates near the bottom of all the cruise lines and ships we have been on.
Entertainment was good, as always. Three Broadway-style production shows, which were Do You Wanna Dance, Caribbean Caliente and Born to Be Wild. They finally removed Piano Men, which we saw four times on the previous four Princess cruises. There was also a welcome aboard show, vocalist/instrumentalist Zach Winningham, comedy of Jay Moor, and magic/illusion by Hawley Magic.
We did not use the spa or casino. There are no covered pool areas. If you are not travelling with children, go to the aft pool on Deck 14 or the forward pool by the Spa, both of which are for adults only. The forward pool has a wave machine to allow you to swim in place. There are lots of quiet places to go, so no need to pay for the Sanctuary, unless you want to.
We had been to Cozumel before, so just took a cab ($8 one way for up to 4 people) from the Princess port at Puerto Maya to San Miguel for a walk around the shops and downtown area. In Roatan, the ship stops at the Carnival Corp. port at Mahogany Bay, with its own beach. The beach is only for cruise ship passengers as you have to show your cruise ID to get in. You can rent various water sports equipment. The basic beach chairs are free for use. You have to pay for your food and drink so except for a couple of beers, you can walk back to the ship for lunch. There is a ski-lift style chair which takes you from the terminal to the beach for $10 per person, ride all day. Unless you have mobility problems, you can walk it in under 10 minutes. Take the scenic forest trail instead. If you want to snorkel, you can rent equipment there too, or bring your own. Walk to the end of the pier for the better snorkelling area. The snorkelling and swimming areas are roped off to prevent you from going out to sea too far. In Belize, we did not venture outside the shopping areas at the tender port. The immediate downtown area in Belize City looked a bit sketchy when we wandered a few blocks past the Radisson Hotel.
Due to expected fog conditions at Bayport, we arrived back in Houston by Friday evening, and because of Texas laws, the casino was shut down, and additional taxes were charged on our drinks. We took the option of the self-disembarkation and were off the ship by 9 am. We headed for the Princess bus and were at Houston airport by 10 am to pick up our rental car and continue with our tour of the city.
This cruise was a chance to get away from the cold and snow, so our expectations were fully met.