This was my 12th cruise overall, and 6th on Princess. Six cruises makes you an "Elite" member of the Captain's circle. The only important upgrade is $100 worth of free internet, which we greatly appreciated. We flew to Santiago direct from Toronto and arrived one day early, staying at the Diego del Almagro hotel, 1 km from the airport, with free shuttle service. A very good choice if you just want to rest up from the overnight flight. Next morning we got the shuttle back to the airport at 9 am. There were Princess people everywhere, and our bags were immediately put on a big truck headed for the ship. We boarded a coach and set out for the 2 hour drive to Valparaiso shortly thereafter. Arriving in the port around 11:30, we were taken to a very nice Sheraton hotel, where there was a registration desk set up in a ballroom, with refreshments available. Very pleasant way to check in for the ship. We had about a half hour to walk along the waterfront and then back on the coach to the pier. We had to line up in a cargo shed to get our key card and then on a shuttle through a mountain of containers to the ship. We boarded and were in our cabin at 1:10. Very efficient overall.
The ship was sparkling. She had recently been through a dry dock and almost everything looked fresh, especially the paint on the exterior. The Atrium has been renovated to resemble that of the newest ships. The only sign of neglect we noticed was the fabric on the chairs in the Dining Room (we ate in the Portofino almost all of the time). There were stains on many of the chairs which was a bit of a turnoff as you sat down to dinner. We were midship on Caribe deck and delighted with our cabin and our room steward. We enjoy the much larger balconies to be found on Caribe.
We eat almost all of our meals in the Dining Room, breakfast and lunch included. It is far more relaxing, better tasting food and controlled portions than if you eat a lot in the buffet. On the second night of the cruise, we discovered Table 126 and its other Table for 2 neighbors in the Portofino dining room. We had a tremendous waiter, Luis from Portugal (Hi Luis!), assisted by Mihai, who was on the last cruise of his contract but didn't act like it. They were extremely friendly and helpful and really made the cruise for us. We have been fortunate to have had several great waiters on Princess over the past few years (Daniel on Golden, Ryan on Island come immediately to mind). We like Anytime dining but also like to have the same waiter each night, once we find a good one, and since we like to eat a little later than the first sitting of Fixed, and want a Table for 2, Anytime works for us. I wish you could actually make a standing reservation for a specific table at a specific time, but they wouldn't do it for us this time. So we just made sure we arrived in time to get one of Luis's tables each night. Overall, the food was very good, I thought. Taste seems to have improved on Princess in the past couple of years. We had a few disappointments, but not many. The disappointing thing is that they seem to have cut way back on quality and quantity of beef entrees. I never had any really good beef on the cruise, and Prime Rib was never even offered. We ate our Anniversary Meal in the Crown Grill, and it was a major disappointment. I will not spend the extra money to go there again. The Filet I ordered was tasteless and the service was poor. Overall the food is not quite as good as on Holland America and upscale cruise lines, but it isn't that far off.
Entertainment - The Star had a veteran Cruise Director - Richard Joseph, making his first trip on the Star, and Deputy Julie James. We have cruised with both of them before and they are both very good at their jobs. The rest of the Cruise staff were mediocre, as we noticed on our last cruise on the Island. The Production shows were predictably good (we had seen two of them on other cruises, but enjoyed them nonetheless) and the solo entertainers brought on board were generally very good. There was a good variety of musicians playing at various venues on the ship. One thing we did notice, is that the "prizes" offered for winning various passenger participation events have been cheapened considerably. We received a rose and 4 chocolates for winning one event - winning the same event last year netted us a bottle of bubbly and $300 Spa certificate.
Itinerary - I have added comments about the various ports elsewhere in this review. Overall, I would say the itinerary is disappointing from Valparaiso until you get to the Amalia glacier. After that, it is great. It is a very special experience to round Cape Horn. We enjoyed cruising the Chilean fjiords and loved Stanley and Montevideo. Note, if you are cruising in the same direction as us, starting in the Pacific and ending in the Atlantic, you want to be on the Port side of the ship for the best views. Or Starboard if going the other way.
Disembarkation - This was not a highlight of the experience, once leaving the ship. Utter chaos on the gangway and in the terminal. We were supposed to be getting on a coach to begin our land tour, and even the usually helpful Shorex guy had no idea where we were supposed to go. We stood in a cramped area for what seemed like a very long time, getting bumped and jostled, before someone finally came along and directed us to the coach.
Land tour - We began our 6 day land tour, with 2 days each in Buenos Aires, Iguazu Falls and Rio de Janeiro. It was the best part of the trip for sure. We had just an outstanding Tour Director - Neidle Lee of SAT Tours. I have done a lot of land tours, especially with Globus (for whom she also works) and have never met her equal. It was a most pleasant way to end the trip.
Overall, this cruisetour exceeded my expectations. I was not happy to learn after final payment had been made for the cruise, about all the extra charges, such as the $132 US pp entry fee for the privilege of landing at Santiago airport. It was bureaucracy at its finest, as the agents were rejecting even slightly used US currency. Be sure to bring crisp new bills! And then there was the fiasco of having to send our Passports to the Brazilian embassy for Visas - which cost over $250 total and meant we were without passports for over a month. The ridiculous excess baggage fees flying to Iguazu Falls, and finally the departure tax to leave Brazil, which I was delighted to discover had already been paid when I purchased my air ticket. But while those annoyances still lead me to feel I will not be back this way any time soon, I still enjoyed the trip immensely and come home with many good memories.