BACKGROUND INFORMATION: I’m a “mature” adventurous and active solo traveler who has cruised 41 times with various cruise lines. This cruise was a journey to the land of my Viking ancestors and a wish-list destination for many years.
TRAVEL TO EMBARKATION PORT: Amtrak Acela train Boston-Stamford, CT, limo to JFK airport area hotel. Flight on Virgin Atlantic Upper Class JFK-London Heathrow the next day. Superb, outstanding service on Virgin Atlantic – absolutely beautiful flight and far better food than on the cruise ship. Royal, upscale limo service from Heathrow to Canterbury, Kent via IChauffuer Service of London, the world’s best.
HOTELS: JFK Airport Hilton in New York, good except for terribly loud room air conditioner. Canterbury, England’s Canterbury Cathedral Lodge the first night in England, a good stay as well, included breakfast. Transport to the Dover cruise terminal via Chestfield Cars, a local livery service who was excellent.
SHIP INFORMATION: The aging Ocean Princess is still a lovely cruise ship. This was my first voyage on this ship. It appeared clean and well maintained on first exterior impression. At approximately 30,000 tons and with about 625 passengers, it’s intimate and a lot easier to navigate within than the 150,000 monster floating office buildings more popular today. The interior of the ship resembles a classic, elegant English country estate, with beautiful carpeting, wood paneling,brass, marble, and art work. There is a small central atrium area two decks high, with an elaborately elegant red-carpeted stairway descending from deck 5 to deck 4. Overall, the interior is beautiful despite a few signs of wear on some of the wooden furniture. Lovely public rooms, and easy to get around within the ship (directional signs are a bit small and hard to read, however).
ACTIVITIES: These were aimed at the average age of the passengers, and on my cruise, this age was probably late 60’s on up. Some activities were geared to those less active, such as puzzles, bridge games, casino gambling, trivia contests and Bingo. There were two kinds of bowling activities in the carpeted atrium, which were a lot more fun than it might sound like, especially when the ship was rolling – big favorites with the UK and Australian passengers. Ping-pong, shuffleboard and walking around the fitness track were available, but iffy with the cold northern weather outside. There were the usual port lectures, and a lot of seminars which appeared at second glance to be infomercials for products and services available on the ship. Sea days had the typical “bargain sales” in and outside of the small boutiques aboard. There was an excellent library, and an internet café. Princess had a representative on board to book future sales, and who also acted as the Captain’s Circle loyalty representative, but hours were limited. Fitness fans had plenty to choose from, starting at daybreak – yoga, stretching, etc. The ever-popular Zumba Fitness class was available, and one of the best offerings on the cruise – the deputy cruise director, Corey, was outstanding as an instructor and really gave a great workout (a blessing with a lot of high-calorie foods on the ship). A variety of dance classes were available. This ship’s activities had a notable degree of refinement to them, and if you are looking for belly-flop contests or hairy-leg contests, this is not the ship for you. A navigational lecture and galley tour, as well as a behind the scenes TV program, were well received.
SERVICE: The crew onboard for this cruise was one of the most cohesive and contented groups I’ve seen in years of cruising. Most, if not all public contact crew, were enviably multilingual, and seemed very genuinely happy to be of service at any time. There was a happy, relaxed, and upbeat feeling to this crew, despite their obvious and constant hard work day and night. My cabin stewardess, Emma, was the best and most energetic and friendly I’ve ever seen. The dining room waiters at my table were quick to deliver orders, and again were genuinely and incredibly friendly and eager to please. I have some digestive issues which can make travel a nightmare, but my waiters always went out of their way to check the menus and have items prepared with or without certain ingredients to be sure I was well fed and satisfied. The first day and night of the cruise, there was some minor confusion having things delivered to cabins or just finding things on the ship due to a major crew exchange, and the new folks on board trying to mesh with the ship’s existing crew, but it all smoothed out and nobody really should complain because they did not find some lotion in their cabin right away. Yes, it all should be perfect for what it costs, but humans are not perfect – and to be going on a cruise is what matters.
PORTS AND SHORE EXCURSIONS: One of the best itineraries I’ve ever seen, with a blessed sea day between most of the ports. I arrived in England two days before the cruise, and spent two nights in Canterbury, Kent – it’s worth it just to see the magnificent ancient cathedral there. Two great nights, one each at the Canterbury Cathedral Lodge, and the last night at House of Agnes. Marino’s take-out fish and chips is close to House of Agnes, and had excellent food for a very low price. I had a drive-by of Dover Castle when the ship returned to Dover, and would like to see more of Dover next time I’m in England. Dover was decorated for the 70th anniversary of D-Day on the day the ship sailed, and there was quite a feeling of history when the ship sailed past the White Cliffs of Dover.
Bergen, Norway was the big-city port, and then as the ship progressed farther up the west coast of Norway, the ports became small towns, and then tiny fishing villages. Perfect blend of big and small, and all incredibly scenic. The star ports had to be Magdalenafjord, a scenic cruise there, and then the port call at Ny Alesund, where there is an Arctic research station. This is about as close to the North Pole as anybody can get, and the most northerly inhabited area on the planet. On the southerly return journey, a few more fishing villages and small towns were visited, with one larger town as well.
Shore excursions were good overall, with the tour buses clean and prompt on the tours I took. However, there was just one Norwegian guide who spoke beautifully accented English, and one English lady who was also excellent. The other two tour guides tried their best, but one was from Portugal and the other from Romania, and they had very heavy accents and challenging use of grammar which made it very difficult to understand them. If I couldn’t walk to what I wanted to see, I took a half day or shorter bus tour, not being one to sit on a bus all day. Roads in the parts of Norway visited were often barely a lane wide, and some roads were winding, twisting, and steep mountain roads with no guard rails in places. Adequate tourist information was available online or at convenient tourist information centers in all the ports, with maps in many languages, and it was nice to just set out on my own and explore. Two ports offered great hiking opportunities, which I took fuill advantage of. Two of my tours were cancelled “due to lack of interest” – one would have gone to Edvard Grieg’s home for a concert of his music, and the other was a half-day hike to a scenic waterfall and valley. For the really adventurous, one port offered a Zodiac excursion out to crab pots for an up-close experience with king crab, but I unfortunately missed that one. There was also sea kayaking at some of the fjord ports. Abundant museum tours were offered, and overall, there was something for most interests and abilities.
CABIN: I had a midship deck 7 balcony cabin, which appeared larger than the usual balcony cabins on the more modern ships. Beautiful dark wood and blue-toned carpeting. Full-glass balcony wall, and a nice-sized balcony with two comfortable adjustable chairs and a small round table. Even with the cold weather itiknerary, it was well worth it to have the balcony and it’s fresh air and incredible views, and I enjoyed some really good naps out there, well bundled up. The beds were the usual two twins put together for a generous queen, and the mattress was very comfortable, with three kinds of pillows available. The incredible cabin stewardess, Emma, soon remembered which style pillow I preferred, and made up the bed at night with my favorite pillows. Bed linens were good quality, smooth and sweet-smelling, and with a lightweight comforter instead of a blanket. It was incredibly quiet, and never heard anything from the corridor or adjuoining cabins 99% of the time. There was a small sofa, a desk and chair, flat-screen TV, safe, and tiny refrigerator. Lots of good wood hangers in the closet, which was medium-sized. There were enough small drawers for what I brought, both in the desk and in the closet unit, but two people on a longer cruise might wish for more storage space. There were some open shelves as well, and two night stands with storage. Other than some obvious wear on the wooden furniture, the cabin appeared well maintained and was very clean. Lighting was adequate, but could have been brighter. As an Elite member of Princess’ Captains Circle loyalty program, I had a complimentary mini-bar set-up in my cabin, and a few extra items in the bathroom amenities, and a handy bathrobe. Both the US and European style electric outlets were available. Internet reception was spotty due to where the ship sailed, but definitely available in the cabin. TV programming had very good variety. There was the usual twice-daily cabin service. I was surprised not to see the bed linens changed daily, as on prior cruises, and this was probably a once a week item, perhaps due to small laundry facilities or limited fresh water on this small ship, perhaps, but it would have been nice to have the linens changed more often. It was also a bit difficult to sleep well with the blazing sun 24 hours a day above the Arctic Circle - cabin curtains and drapes just don't keep out bright light well enough.
The bathroom seemed about 20% larger than the usual shipboard bathrooms, and was very clean except for a bit of noticeable scale or water discoloration at the base of the shower walls. Brand new toilet, and Emma kept everything sparkling clean. Lots of towels, but half of them were threadbare and scratchy. There were shampoo and shower gel dispensers in the shower, which had a handy pull-out clothesline available. There was a low-powered hair dryer in the bathroom, and adequate but small shelves within a cabinet and out in the open in a corner of the bathroom. Light was good, but could have been brighter.
The deck I was on had the only Laundromat on the ship. Considering the length of most of the cruises on Ocean Princess, each deck could have used its own laundry. Pricey to wash and dry, but very convenient. Some of the units went out of service periodically, probably from overuse, but were promptly repaired.
Overall, this cabin was one of the very best I’ve had for its category. Central location and the small size of this ship made it quick and easy to walk a few decks up or down for food, entertainment, spa, and open deck access. With its smaller size, motion is more noticeable on this ship, and the higher up and more forward or aft the cabin location, the more you will be aware of the motion.
DINING: Those who remember the early days of Princess might be disappointed at the food on this ship – or perhaps it was the itinerary and an aim to cater to the preferences of the majority of the nationalities on this ship. The heavy hand of the Carnival Corporation was also noticeable – they are obviously trying to save money and economize, but cruise ship dining is not the place to do this. I’ve never seen so many peculiar food combinations on a cruise, to the point of it being almost psychedelic or perhaps randomly selected by computer.
The buffet was convenient for fast meals at breakfast and lunch. However, it seemed like there were mostly fruits and vegetable items, with the rest leftovers from prior meals. There were cold cuts of meat and cheese, and a salad bar, and hot items from all food categories at all meals. The deserts were mainly some kind of fruit or odd pudding thing, with very little in the way of cake items. The most unfortunate thing about the buffet was the food temperature and freshness – the first early diners there for breakfast and lunch, myself along them, constantly found the hot food items lukewarm to cold, and pastries which were always out in the open, were stale and hard and dry. Someone put the buffet together too early, and repeated comments and tactful complaints to the food authorities on the ship did not seem to make a difference – hot was warm or cold no matter what. People listened politely and did nothing – and considering how much food is enjoyed on a cruise, plus what it costs to cruise, this was negligent. There is also the obvious health concern about food poisoning when hot items are not kept at proper temperature, or cold at their temps, especially with meat and fish and poultry. Mashed potatoes were either swimming in too much butter, or watery, or both.
The buffet had one server supplying Belgian waffles and pancakes, and he was usually far behind the power curve when it came to these items being available. Having four waffles for 100 people is not good service. The waffles were usually cold and soggy unless I got lucky and was right there when they were freshly made.
There were enough supervisors and managers around the buffet area, but they did not seem to do much with either suggestions or getting things done. Some of the more mysterious food offerings had no identification tag placed above or near them, and repeated questionings about what was a particular food, or what was in it (for those with nut or other allergies, this could be a real problem) often produced just blank stares – the serving people do not have enough working English to communicate properly in many instances. Many of the foods were a true mystery, as they were in containers, or just anonymous brown lumps, and it was anybody’s guess what they were eating – or perhaps should not be eating. I asked someone on the crew about the food items available, and they said the company does a computerized analysis of the nationalities on the ship, and aim the offerings at the majority nation. I know our UK travelers were very happy with the food, as they had their baked beans, kidneys, sausages, and other known food items available in good quantity, and these nice folks were the definite majority in the passenger compliment on this trip.
Another gripe with the buffet restaurant was seeing cups and the plastic drinking glasses placed tops down on the tables. I watched the waiters cleaning the tables after a diner had left, and they used the same dirty gray rag from a bucket of dirty gray water which was placed on the floor next to a tray of clean drinking glasses. Putting clean dishes and glasses on a table which is “cleaned” this way is a terrible health hazard.
It was hard to get the right utensils to eat with in the buffet, as the napkin roll contained what appeared to be a large serving spoon or tablespoon, a really tiny desert fork, and a knife. The only time proper utensils appeared was at the dinner table.
One thing Princess really could do better with is their plates at the buffet. They are large plastic oval plates, and there are no trays. One is expected to put their soup bowl, salad (on plate or separate bowl), hot and cold entrée items, and a desert (plate or on top of the other foods) all in one container, as one needs a free hand to serve with and possibly balance against the ship moving around, or to carry a beverage. It was not very appetizing to pile all these foods on top of each other, or have desert swimming in salad dressing, hot cold foods, and cold hot foods – it was like a plate of garbage by the time I sat down at a table. I think Princess does this one-plate system to avoid waste, but it is terrible for the food quality and enjoyment by the passengers. To their credit, Princess has put a Purell dispenser right in front of the entry doors to the buffet (they sure need one at the entrance to the dining room!), but some passengers ignored it, and I saw more than one person use their fingers to serve with, lick their fingers, and then stick them into the next food item.
Some of the crew all over the ship apparently have to work when sick, and I saw a lot of upper respiratory infections and colds, with waiters wiping their noses on sleeves or napkins and then handling our food.
It seems that gone are the days of really elegant or gourmet cuisine on cruise ships, or at least with Princess. Some of the soups looked like dirty dishwater with leftover scraps floating in it. Some of the main entrees at dinner included macaroni and cheese, roast turkey, fried chicken, hamburgers, steak, and odd types of tortilla-type appetizers. The fish selections were what are normally used as bait on commercial fishing boats, and was underdone most of the time. There was one small lobster tail in the entire 16 night cruise, and it was dry and tough. The appetizers were more of the bizarre combinations of alcohol, fruit, and things with names so peculiar even a Google search did not yield information. Same dry, hard rolls at dinner every night. The meat, which I don’t eat, looked like tough brown shoe leather, or was nearly raw. All entrees came with a tiny mat of soggy vegetables or undercooked vegetables, and some of the baked potatoes had rotten spots on them. The very few international entrée items were OK, but again had some bizarre variations for those who know and love Indian or Indonesian or other good international cooking. The once-legendary fetuccini Alfredo has now turned into limp noodles with such a watery sauce that it’s nearly invisible and definitely tasteless, and was never really served hot. Deserts which used to be quite elegant are now reduced to various types of ice cream and more bizarre fruit and sauce combinations.
I felt sorry for our extremely gracious and competent young assistant waiter, who every night had to interrupt our meal with his obviously mandatory sales pitch for some weird after-dinner drink or coffee, at an inflated price, and always with a souvenir glass included. He genuinely felt badly interrupting us, but had no choice with his waiter and supervisors watching him.
There was an obsession with pepper, bell peppers, garlic and onion, which is not the smartest thing for some older people to eat in large quantities. To Princess’ credit, however, the servings were generous, and presented in a very attractive manner. It was edible art form most of the time, until one actually bit into it. There were the usual “always available” entrees for those not wishing a gastronomic adventure – shrimp cocktail, roast chicken breast, steak, salmon, etc. I did not eat in the dining room for breakfast or lunch, and cannot comment on what it was like with those meals.
There is the apparently compulsory Baked Alaska parade with blaring, tinny, trashy music at the end of the last meal on the ship, which keeps the waiters involved when they could be continuing the dining service, and it added a garish air of a drunken carnival to the lovely dining room and ruined the meal for me completely. Not everybody likes Baked Alaska, and waiting for the menu for the regular deserts to arrive, and then the desert itself, wasted another 30 minutes while I sat and watched the melting, overcooked Baked Alaska show and service.
The dining room itself is small and lovely, but located at the aft end of deck 5 on the ship. The rumble and vibration of the engines is very noticeable, and the low metal ceiling in the room creates such bad acoustics that it was impossible to hear anybody unless one shouted, even to the person sitting next to me. It was a total roar of noise and with older people on board with hearing difficulties, it was a struggle to communicate.
Waiters apparently had to offer their suggestions of what they believed the guests would enjoy for dinner, but I always find this irritating - everybody has different tastes and preferences, and usually select what they like unless they ask for suggestions.
The food was a huge disappointment on this cruise, especially since vacation is the only time I can get off a strict diet and really enjoy eating, and I actually lost two pounds.
ENTERTAINMENT: There is a small production theater company on board, with a lead male and female singer, and approximately 6 dancers. Due to injury and family crises, the dancers dwindled down to three or four by the end of my cruise, but did a valiant and professional job of putting on the shows anyway. Most were very good, but still had the air of a high school theater company performance. The small live orchestra was superb. The female lead singer had a belting, jazzy singing style, but she was at least two notes off key with every note she sang. The male singer was better, but not by much. The Cabaret Lounge is the theater for this smaller ship, and sight lines are not good due to the nearly flat floor – good acoustics, lighting and sound, however. The featured acts were the worst of 1950s vaudeville, with the usual vocal impressionist, magician, and lounge singer. Some of it reminded me of third-rate has-beens who never quite made it to the big time, or any time. The audience response was very tepid and unenthusiastic, except for the production shows. The other singers on the ship were also off key. The music selections were age-appropriate, and some of it was very good for reminiscing about the good old days.
For those preferring movies or TV, there were movies shown in the lounge during the day and also available on the cabin TVs.
The cruise director was a hearty, jovial and cheerful man, and did a nice job –but his mercifully infrequent ship-wide announcements during the day for Bingo and other entertainment unfortunately sounded like a carnival barker hawking some kind of cheap goods or entertainment, and could be very disruptive when one was trying to rest or nap or concentrate on something in a public space or one’s cabin. Announcements could be blocked in the cabins, but were clearly audible out in the corridors and all over the public spaces.
DISEMBARKATION: This got a gold star for being convenient and organized. Top-level loyalty folks had a private waiting lounge, and could leave when they wanted. There is the 6 AM walk-off express for those being their own porters. If you did not like the assigned disembarkation time, a simple request at the guest services desk produced a time more convenient, with no hassle. Bags were removed silently from the corridors during the last night, and were neatly arranged in the terminal at Dover upon arriving there to collect my bag. Nobody appeared rushed, stressed, or impatient, and there was no elevator hogging or shoving or pushing. The ship had actually docked around 3:30 AM, but of course nobody left the ship that early. I wasn’t even aware of arrival, so smooth and quiet were the actual operations going on. Passengers could stay in their cabin until 8 AM, and breakfast was served early enough to make it all work out for everybody. At least my cabin stewardess respected my need for privacy and time for last-minute packing, and left my cabin alone until I left it for the last time, unlike other cruises where the stewards get into the cabins when they can to speed up the turnaround, and often invade when one’s belongings are spread all over the cabin in a general last-minute mess, or one needs to use the bathroom or get properly dressed.
SUMMARY: The Ocean Princess is aging, but is still a lovely small ship. Her itineraries are spectacular, and she can go where her larger sisters cannot. This is a good adult, sedate and peaceful cruise experience, with absence of loud rock music blaring everywhere. People on the ship are old enough to remember face to face socializing, and that’s a bonus as far as meeting people from other places and lifestyles – conversation still exists! Despite the rather peculiar food, I did not starve, and could always cobble something together. I went for the ports and the ocean voyage, and everything else was secondary. Princess still begins its annoying habit of trolling for an "excellent" rating about the middle of the cruise, with every PA announcement containing the "excellent" word someplace. Smart, savvy and experienced cruisers really resent this, and are quite capable of giving their own honest opinion without being brainwashed.
This cruise was a fascinating attempt at upscale cruising ambience by a cruise brand owned by a low-budget and often tacky cruise line, and it actually worked most of the time – rather like what one believes is a sterling-silver object, and then on close inspection, discovers it to be silver-plated instead.