Pre-Cruise Stay: Since Fort Lauderdale was having an art show going on, a lot of the hotels in the port area were extremely booked up so we stayed at the Days Inn Airport / Cruiseport on Broward Blvd by the highway. While the rooms are being renovated one room at a time while the hotel remains open and we were put into a renovated room, the hotel itself has a dated exterior and is in the middle of no where! The neighborhood it's in is very seedy with a set of projects just a block away (and a police station the next block after that down towards Las Olas Blvd). While you could walk about a mile to shops and dining at the Las Olas Blvd mall area, it isn't advisable. I wouldn't stay at this hotel again but if you are out for a bargain then you might want to give this place a shot (the price was too tempting not too given what other hotels were charging)!
Embarkation: Went very smoothly. Being a platinum member I never stopped moving when I arrived. I got there just before noon and moved from giving the porters to the bag to a short line where I was identified for my status and whisked to another area and right on through security. At that time they started boarding and checking in! Within 15 minutes of arrival I was on the ship and in my cabin! Nice job Princess!!
Cabin: We were in the very forward part of Caribe Deck in C101. The cabin was spacious as the other Grand class ships we've sailed on with Princess. The balcony is bigger on this deck and I thank Princess for the upgrade to this deck since we booked this cruise past the 90 day final payment period and were on as a guarantee. The cabin was clean upon arrival and our room steward Sushet was fantastic. Whenever we had a request, which was very rare outside of normal stateroom servicing, he took care of it right away. The cabin's balcony door was a different story though. It seems as though the exterior frame had suffered some damage. It was covered with duck tape to hold it in place. It was worth a chuckle but on the first sea day when the ship was moving along briskly and overnight, the door wouldn't stop whistling as much as you had it locked the whistling still returned. Finally had to call the Purser's office and had to wake up the maintenance guy at 2AM to come and figure out how the heck to make the thing stop whistling! A piece of plywood later rigged to hold the slider firmly shut and tada - no more noise! We used the piece of wood for the rest of the cruise after we were done on the balcony each night. Odd since the ship was in drydock two weeks prior I thought they might have tended to this problem. Either way it got fixed and off to dream land we went. As for the cabin bathrooms, I guess I got spoiled by NCL's shower system as Princess has a fixed shower nozzle that comes out of the wall at about 6 feet. It points downward and you can't get the shower head to move up at all. Consequently being 6 foot 4 inches tall this was a real pain in the butt to get my hair washed! The shower space isn't that big to contort yourself in such a manner as to getting your hair wet. With respect to this I think Princess could learn a little something from NCL's bathroom design which has a nozzle attached to a hose that you can remove to get all areas of your body cleaned.
Public Rooms: In the dry dock two weeks prior the ship received new interior carpeting. Some of the carpeting was shedding but the new carpeting was quite refreshing since the passenger decks can get quite musty with all the sewage problems that occur from sailing to sailing. I'll take the fresh shedding carpet over the nasty sewage smell any day. Some of the chairs were re-upholstered as well in some areas. The ship looked fresh and as good as new. She didn't really show any wear or tear throughout. Some areas of rust on the Promenade Deck were being tended to by the deck crew and were largely scraped and repainted by the end of our sailing. All in all the ship was in fine working order.
Entertainment: Due to the time of the year and the football championships Movies Under the Stars had two night's wasted with endless games being shown. This has become a real hidden treasure and a great alternative to the other ship entertainment such as endless comedians! Only one good movie was shown at night this trip which was Mamma Mia and the popularity of it was astonishing as people were dragging chairs from everywhere to watch it. I love that experience.
Production shows were great. A show on Cole Porter was WAY before my generation and it was just before my moms. While this show wasn't enjoyable for me because I had no clue who the guy was, the set and costumes and overall work of the production staff was great. The Motown show was ok. It would have been better if one of the male vocalists could have kept his notes a little better. This was the only time any of the production staff seemed off in their performance. Destination Anywhere, the first major production, was the best of them all. This is not to be missed. Overall, nice work by the production team in the main theater entertainment.
Daytime entertainment was the same as always with trivia to be had, pool games on sea days and gatherings for various groups ranging from alcoholics anonymous and red hat society to LGBT gatherings. Something new Princess is venturing into that NCL has been doing for quite some time is the Nintendo Wii. While I was the only person who showed up to play it, some new games I had never had before (Wii Fit) were fun and helped pass the day away (as opposed to lounging on deck). The Cruise Staff were very nice and very friendly. Big stand outs on the cruise staff were Elaine (such a darling), Kirstie and David. If you get to know these three people - even if sailing solo - you'll have a fantastic time! David got my mom up dancing and she had a blast.
Other evening activities were also available. Every show lounge had some performance and dancing available. Quadri a quintet onboard was quite good. They had a special classical performance in the Explorer's Lounge during the middle of the cruise. Endless comedians were paraded around with the best one leaving the ship that week who participated in the variety show. The other comedians we skipped. We did take in the magician's show which was quite good.
Now for the discos, DJ Tommy Boy who spun in Club Fusion was at least trying to play a fair mix of music. He had the music onboard that I like but couldn't really play it because the age / demographics were more towards the disco and Motown eras. Motown could be heard playing almost everywhere during the cruise from the Princess Theater to the pool deck. I like Motown but not that much! Rotate the music Princess! Skywalker's disco with DJ Artik was ok. He also had to play to the demographics which on this cruise skewed younger with a lot of 18-25 year olds. The music large centered on hip hop and R&B. Redundancy did pop up since it was the same Top 40 played every night pretty much. Skywalker's on this ship is much better designed than on previous Grand class ships (Star, Golden and Grand).
Spa & Fitness Services: If you wanted to be pampered there were options for you! The Sanctuary was a very warm and inviting place and you could use it to escape from the hustle and bustle of the ship but it also seemed to be a bit over priced in some respects. I guess that is to limit the passengers who wish to use it to what it can accommodate. The fitness areas are comparable to other Grand class ships. A large workout area consisting largely of cardio equipment with a few resistance machines in the mix. I didn't really go to sea to workout and when I wanted to do cardio the Promenade Deck was a much better alternative and probably less likely to spread norovirus.
Enrichment: Princess's Scholarship@Sea program was in full gear. From dance lessons, ceramic painting, photography lessons and teaching magic tricks, you had plenty of options to choose from if enrichment is your thing.
Service: Let me start with all the positives because there are so many. The crew, staff and even Captain are what make a cruise enjoyable and there was barely a let down by anyone. I do have to send out special heartfelt thanks to Elaine on the Cruise Staff for hosting various events during the day that kept me very well entertained including Wii Hoola Hoop and the Friends of Dorothy gathering. She made sure I wasn't bored! Other cruise staff that I felt went above and beyond were Kirstie (from Australia) and David (from Canada - whose mom is on Cruise Critic too)! Stateroom service was excellent and provided by Sushet in the forward Starboard side of the Caribe Deck. We ate in the Michelangelo dining room each night of the cruise from start to finish. The hostess greeter, who later became the sanitizer lady, was extraordinary! She made sure we got a table of our choosing - usually a two seater and on my b-day celebration night she got me a window seat to boot. The dining room's maitre d' was also very nice. At the Purser's Desk the people were so very kind given all the stuff passengers throw at them! One lady from the Ukraine was so very nice and gave me a Princess Patter (second copy) each night when they were hot off the presses (at 8:30PM). She also helped to fix a problem on the folio that was minor and it was quick to fix.
Some service issues were had at the shore excursion desk. This area seemed disorganized and we wouldn't have had to utilize their services had the Grand Turk tour we booked online not been cancelled or if we were given advanced warning of its cancellation so we could have rebooked something else online. The people there couldn't figure out how exactly to bill two folios in the same cabin as opposed to billing two tickets to one folio. This took more time than it really should have and I think the folks in this department could use a wee bit more training on the computer system. The only other gripe I had was with the International Cafe attendant. I had asked on Cruise Critic if it was possible to get a tea (chai) latte from this cafe. Several folks said it was possible. After trying several times the first two days I gave up because the server always had an excuse for standing there. First it was the machine caught fire from the previous cruise and it was out of order, then it was working but could only make regular caffeinated coffee lattes, then it was broken again and it wouldn't be fixed until after 3PM (at 11AM) and then he finally told me that they don't make chai lattes or any non-coffee beverages there unless I wanted to purchase small boxed teas for $1. This was very disappointing and he could have told me that at the start when I told him what I wanted the first time. He seemed very cocky and I wasn't impressed with his service at all.
Dining: I left this for last because out of the entire cruise this was the most disappointing part of it all. The food was always good to order and cooked the way I liked when it came to steaks and various other meat dishes. The problem was in the selection. The food selection in the main dining room at dinner has been shuffled up something fierce with nothing exceptional standing out any more. Beef Wellington and lobster tails were served on the same night as they had been. The night of the Chef's dinner though none of the entrees were appealing and it was hard to find something to order. Some menu items to my astonishment were actually the SAME as what NCL serves! Escargot is long gone from the Princess menu and so isn't larger sections of meats such as the Filet Mignon. If you want any sizeable beef dish you have to go to the Crown Grill, their specialty restaurant. Before one night used to have Filet Mignon on it in the main dining room. Since Carnival took over several food changes have been made and while I could understand this being for cost cutting measures, why should I pay more to sail on Princess when they offer the SAME dishes (spring roll appetizers and strip steak are two immediately that come to mind) as NCL? The cold soups left something to be desired as well. NCL does a much better job.
The buffet areas are typical for breakfast with the same selection you would find anywhere. The omelet station was never busy either which meant two minutes later you were on your way with the item you ordered. After the Norovirus outbreak spread more around the ship and sanitization stations were setup, the buffet moved a lot slower with the crew serving passengers. I didn't mind the wait but others were rudely impatient to the crew and it was completely unnecessary.
Lunch time options in the buffet were ok. Nothing to scream at but poolside burgers and pizza seemed so much more popular. On days when the ship was at sea the line to get a burger or pizza was quite lengthy but it was well worth the wait for both. Princess has the best pizza at sea that I've tasted.
Shore Excursions (Booked Through Princess): St. Maarten Ecoworld Tour. Who knew that St. Maarten had a zoo? I didn't and it was an ok visit to the zoo which allows you to get much closer to wildlife than you can in the United States. Our tour guide was informative and in-depth on her explanations of the origins of the animals (none are actually indigenous species to the island). The zoo gets its financial support largely from cruise ship tourists and I would recommend this tour as it also drives you all over the island with two scenic stops after going to the zoo.
St. Thomas Walking Tour - OUTSTANDING - NOT TO BE MISSED! The owner of the company did a fantastic job giving us the legends and lore of St. Thomas and the surrounding islands. She's a history buff and she knew the islands in and out enough to give a great tour and she had a great personality even though she's been in the business for so long. She was so very enthused about her subject matter and it came out in her presentation. This tour was well worth the money!
Grand Turk - The reason for why we booked this cruise with Princess was to experience this island. Unfortunately the only tour being offered on land at this time is the Hurricane Ike experience that doesn't require you to do swimming, snorkeling or diving. For $19 you get taken all over the island and shown what damage happened to the island, which was quite extensive. Some residents four months later don't have power and the island still needs construction done. Tarps are on roofs everywhere. The tour does stop at the Scenic Lighthouse for about 20 minutes. The tour is very cheap and it is worth it unless you like to just lay on the beach which this island is so small that there isn't much to see there anyway and it could really just be another private island beach day with more upscale shops available than on Princess Cays.
Disembarkation: Again, another smooth flowing process from Princess. Since we booked a post-cruise excursion to Everglades National Park, we were the first ones off the ship after the people who walked-off with their luggage and thereby the warehouse was empty of people killing each other to get their luggage. It was very nice and by 9AM we were on our way to the National Park after arriving in the dining room for debarkation at 8AM. Very smoothly done again Princess!
Overall: Did I think I got the value for my money - not really! I had spent about $300 more for this Princess cruise per person than I would have if I sailed with NCL. With the exception of daytime activities being more abundant on Princess than NCL, there really is no difference between the two brands with respect to food selection and service given. It's sad to see Princess go downhill so badly after the lecherous Carnival Corp sucked the good out of there. For a first time cruiser you'll have a blast on this ship as it does offer many options but you can find a similar product elsewhere for a cheaper price. Princess was the first cruise mom and I took and at the time both of us agreed it was the cruise line "where we belonged" and now it's become the cruise line we're going to "escape completely" from and go with Norwegian Cruise Line.
As for the Noro-virus outbreak onboard from our sailing, this is the first time since I started cruising where it's been bad enough to have a nightly reminder about being sanitary. This particular sailing was full of people new to Princess. A stroll down the Caribe deck on the port side or starboard looking at the stateroom tags, you could tell just how many new people either to cruising or to Princess there were aboard. With this said, I think Princess could do a far better job preventing an outbreak onboard by practicing the same sanitization techniques that are implemented ALL the time on NCL. After the outbreak there were people stationed to force you to use sanitizer at the buffet. On NCL this is standard practice irregardless of an outbreak. When coming back from onshore, only after the outbreak did a hand sanitizer station get setup and were you made to use it before embarking the ship. This practice is standard procedure on NCL. I think Princess needs to re-evaluate its methods to contain an outbreak before it even begins but passengers could do more too such as washing their hands after the bathroom!!