Grand Princess Caribbean Collection 14 days 3-27-09 E725 AD Mini-Suite
Our first Elite cruise and one of the best cruise vacations we've ever had. Definitely ranks in the top three. And once again we did not have time to do it all. Maybe on a B2B2B we might just be able to, but not on this one.
Several years ago we swore off the large ships preferring to stay with the Sun and Coral classes, but now we do enjoy the Grands once we switched to Anytime dining and got away from the main flow. By eating dinner very early or very late you can break out of the crowd, get to the venues early enough to get the choice seats and avoid the last minute rushes.
Princess personnel on this cruise were great. From Tim Donavan, the cruise director, down to a particular buffet steward from the Ukraine named Valeria, we had great interactions with a lot of the personnel. Learning about them, their home country and their life on board the ship is always an interesting and important part of our cruises.
The Grand has still not received her full Gem Class Upgrade. The Casino has not been moved, Vines and the International Café is not there, the Crown Grill is missing and the new interior suites have not been installed, but MUTS was installed years ago and flat screens are being installed ship wide. But that wasn't too much of a problem, although I would have like a little better sushi selection.
Our first cruise as Elite was pretty incredible. That little black card really gets some attention. We were thanked everywhere, from the security people on the docks to the purser's desk for cruising again with Princess throughout the entire cruise. The bar setup with tradeouts was more than adequate for us, but the real deal is the free laundry. For the first time we packed just about right.
Service across the board was simply excellent. Never an issue with any of the bar staff, room steward, cruise staff or food service personnel, except maybe a few overachiever head waiters - more on that later.
Itinerary was first rate. We'd only been to a few of these before and we liked all the little islands and ports, went ashore on most and stayed "home" on others. Our favorite was Barbados, followed by St Thomas and then Grand Turk. We snorkeled, hiked, walked, snorkeled and walked some more.
Pre and Post Cruise - We flew in to MIA the previous day, once more out of Denver in a spring time blizzard, since United does not service FLL anymore. We used SAS transport to go the Hampton Inn Plantation $60 for two of us + tip. Nice drive from MIA. Did Chili's down the street from the hotel for dinner. Shopped at Target next door for last minute items and then used the free shuttle from the Hampton to the cruise terminal arriving at about 1130 and getting on the ship about 1230. Except for anxious moments at DEN waiting for our flight and fearing it may be cancelled, it was pretty uneventful. We used Princess busses for the trip back to MIA. Color was called at 0900 and we arrived at MIA at about 1030. Could have made a 1200 flight with no trouble at all.
THE DETAILS - PEOPLE
Princess claims, and rightly so, that their people make a difference. For us, it's a big difference and some of the people that really made a difference were:
Aldwin (Cabin Steward) - We did it again. We had a cabin steward that was as close to perfection as you could ask. Never once, not once in 14 days did we ever return to the room and catch him cleaning it. The guy was absolute magic.
Tim Donavan (Cruise Director) - We last sailed with Tim on the Caribbean Princess in April of 2006. Quite frankly, we were not impressed then. But on this cruise it was like he was a totally different guy. (He might have been under the weather during the 2006 cruise - it happens.) Witty, charming, came to the CC meet, had a really good morning show, would talk to people in the hall, and had a good entertainment lineup. We enjoyed talking to him and his staff.
Bruno Bogazzi (Maître De) - Bruno was the first Maître De we had a lot of interaction with. We seemed to run into each other all the time because he was constantly on the move checking HC, Steakhouse and the Dining Rooms on a constant basis. Being on a first name basis with the Maître De has three advantages - 1: It seems to impress your fellow passengers, 2: It really makes a compliment to the service staff meaningful when you make it in front of the Maître De and 3, it helps to curb overeager head waiters who like to crack whips on the service personnel under them. (A few of the head waiters were the "crack the whip" kind. Being a manager myself, I prefer the "lead by example" kind. If a waiter is backed up and busy, don't get behind them and push, help them out with clearing tables, serving water or wine or just visit with the people to make them feel welcome.)
Valeria (Breakfast Buffet Steward in HC) - We've never been this impressed with a Buffet Steward before, but the Grand setup in the HC was a little bit different than we are used to. Each pair of stewards were assigned an area of 10-12 tables. Their job was to clean and set tables, serve juice and coffee and respond to passenger requests. (On our more recent cruises on the Island and the Dawn, the buffet stewards mainly bussed dishes while a cart of beverages was pushed around by a dedicated drink person.) Valeria was from the Ukraine and she was in high demand. At least 4 of us wanted to sneak her off the ship in our luggage. Very personable, efficient and quick in service. She is the only Buffet Steward in 16 cruises that I religiously filed a comment card on just about every morning. (Take that you whip cracking head waiters!)
Jordan (Bar Steward) - As we were walking down the hallway after we boarded we hear our name being called. It was Jordan, a bar steward from the Island Princess 15 day Panama canal trip in 2008. He remembered us from over a year ago! And still the same smiling face, great service, even remembered our drink preferences! (Sour Apple Martini, Long Island Iced Tea, Diet Coke and two waters.) So he kept us well lubricated for this trip as well.
Junction 21 (Explorer's Lounge Band) - Brits do country, and rock and roll. They did almost any kind of music and we spent almost all of our dancing time there. With the Wheelhouse mainly full of smoke and the dance floor at Skywalkers not exactly sprung wood, we opted to spend much of our time with Junction 21. They did all the specialty nights in the explorer's lounge, but there were times we wished they played longer into the night.
For the most part the cruisers on this cruise were a younger crowd than you would expect for a 14 day cruise. I would guess the average age in the 50's, not the 60's as we have seen in past longer cruises. A lot of Europeans, who would stay on for the transatlantic, were on the ship as well. There were about 1700 Captain's Circle members. 139 fellow Elites. (So much for our invite to the most travelled party!)
We met a wide variety of people, including many from our 80+ CC group. The Sailaway was well attended as was the get together in Skywalkers on the 2nd day at sea. This was attended by the Captain, several senior officers, cruise staff and Tim Donovan.
Forgettable and Amusing People - Amazing to me what Princess does specifically and on purpose, according to these people, to tick them off. Almost as amazing was the number of Cruise Liner Certified Ship's Masters, Medical Doctors, Ship's Engineers and Maritime Lawyers that were on this cruise! We were treated to endlessly amusing lectures on how much better the ship could be handled in the breeze, how much easier to dock if they did it this way, how an hour long elevator shutdown (for no other reason than to tick off this particular passenger) ruined their cruise, and even more amusing was the obviously starving people in the Dining Room reservations line that were totally indignant at having to wait until the doors were actually opened before they could eat. On top of that indignity they were actually forced to wait an extra 5 minutes for those in front of them to be seated. Dinner delayed at least 10 minutes. Oh the shame, oh the hunger.
Almost Amusing but Actually Embarrassing People - Several US, some British, some Canadian and some Germans providing running commentary during excursions as to how this or that would never be allowed in their parent country. How disgusting, disagreeable, unsafe or simply not up to their standards various housing, transportation, clothing, food, street vendors, were. At times it was amusing, at others just a bunch of intolerant (explicative deleted) people.
THE PRINCESS CAPTAIN'S CIRCLE ELITE PROGRAM
WOW! I'm not sure it was worth the $60k or so to get there, but it sure is convenient and impressive once you attain it! The bar setup, which included Gin and Brandy that we traded for Vodka, actually lasted us quite a long time. It was nice to come back to the room and have a drink before bedtime while coming down from a night of dancing. We missed out on the free wine tasting and forgot to order our free Canapés, but took full advantage of the laundry which only lost two pairs of socks and one tie, which was later recovered.
Loyalty programs are intended to attract and kept frequent quests. I belong to HH, United and Princess. Their programs do indeed attract and keep me coming back. Rumor has it that Princess is evaluating a Super Elite class above Elite. Can't wait to get there!
Alright we admit it. We watch Iron Chef, Top Chef, Good Eats, Chopped, Hells Kitchen, Kitchen Nightmares and several other cooking related shows. We're amateur foodies who really don't care what it's called or how it looks - we want it to taste good.
Dining Room - Absolutely wonderful. The Grand has the new menus. We liked the new menus which gave us a few old favorites, but a lot of new stuff to try as well. I like to try new stuff while cruising. If we don't like it, we'll send it back and get something else. The new menus mix the soup and salad course into one, although you can still have both, and have a 5 selection main course. One selection is a "Home Cooking" selection and consists of a more simple dish. A braised beef shank course was one such selection. We didn't try everything. I would say that at least 75% of the menu is changed, at least in wording, if not recipes.
We ate primarily in the Michelangelo dining room on Deck 5 at 530PM. We had no trouble making reservations for a table for two. We ate at four different tables over the 10 or 12 dinner nights and always had good service although two tables had very, very good, quick and efficient service. The food was always hot and the baked breads to absolutely die for. The bakery on this ship was better than any other ship we have been on. I could just eat bread and butter all night and be very happy. Standouts were Italian Night. Best Eggplant Parmesan I have ever had and Continental night where the escargots (to dip the wonderful bread in) and Duck A L'Orange were absolutely delicious. There were also several more Lamb dishes on the various menus including an entire lamb shank and a braised beef shank that were very tasty.
Buffet - One of the weakest points in the food area. Breakfast was both the weakest (hot foods) and the best (breads, cereals, fruits) from my perspective. Scrambled eggs were always overcooked, the meats very greasy (except for Canadian Bacon), omelets and scrambled eggs containing any kind of seafood just did not work for me, but we found the fruit fresh and tasty, and the cereals and yogurts to be more than adequate. We rarely ate lunch in the HC. The attempts at sushi just did not work (although the seaweed salad was to die for). Judy enjoyed several of the braised items and the artichoke salads, but I preferred the pizza and burgers. We only did dinner once or twice and the selections were a partial mirror of the dishes being served in the dining rooms. However, lamb served from under a heat lamp and fresh cut rack of lamb in the dining room are just two completely different animals. Essentially the HC suffered in comparison to the dining room. That's not bad, just a fact of life.
Pizza and Burgers - We missed having fresh guacamole and salsa on the burgers like the Island had, but otherwise very good. Pizza was thin crust with Cheese and Pepperoni always available and a special pizza that rotated through a very good combination pizza to an ok anchovy pizza to so-so tuna pizza. But you really can't beat a beer, pizza, burger and a movie!
Chef Joel Directo and Bruno Bogazzi put on a show and feast that was pretty incredible! It's not just the food (9 courses), or the wine (champagne, red, white, dessert and a vodka shooter), or the cookbook, or the photos or the flowers or the looks of all the other passengers while you are wined and dined or the discussion with the Maître De or the chef, its simply an event NOT TO BE MISSED!
Tour of Kitchen with Appetizers and Champagne
Blue Crab Margarita with Avocado and Mango - Very tasty ceviche.
Tartar of Sterling Silver Beef Filet - Not a tartar fan to start with. Probably could have used more seasonings.
Fontina Cheese & White Truffle Mini-Quiche & Sun Blushed Cherry Tomato - Very tasty and went very well with the Champagne being served.
Bliss New Potato with Caviar and Crème Freche - My least favorite. Just don't have that refined palette for fish eggs I guess!
Table Seating in Dining Room with White Wine - Sancerre Michel Redde - and more appetizers and freshly baked breads - even better than the ones in the rest of the dining room - oh yum!
Asparagus Risotto with lobster tail and claw - Absolutely fantastic. Always wanted to try risotto and this was really good. Paired very nicely with the wine.
Bloody Mary Sorbet with Grey Goose Vodka - To Die For. The spicy bloody mary sorbet with the vodka just was great as a palette cleanser. We all wanted 4 or 5 to go.
Main Course - Paired with a red wine - Artesa Elements from France
Trio of beef, veal and pork tenderloin flambéed with a jus, salsa verde, béarnaise sauce with cherry tomatoes and creamy mouseline potatoes. - WOW, WOW, WOW and more WOW. I'm still drooling.
Desserts - Paired with a Sauvignon blanc dessert wine.
Potted Stilton with port wine reduction, candied walnuts and rosemary biscotti - Oh My God! The stilton by itself was pretty flavorful but when paired with the wine it was a symphony. Sort of like when the rat puts the cheese and the strawberry together in Ratatouille - fireworks on your tongue!
Chocolate Fallen Cake, Whiskey soaked raspberry soft center - This dessert was served with totally edible sugar garnishes on a totally edible sugar plate. It was a very good dessert but the presentation was just fabulous.
Steak House - Another one of those WOW moments. The Crown Grill has not yet been installed, but they have changed the menu from the standard Painted Desert or Sterling Steakhouse menu. We actually had goose liver for the appetizer. Not the greatest, but I'm glad we tried it. Judy had the filet and I had lamp chops. Service was excellent, the food superbly cooked and presented. The lamp chops were much bigger and better than the ones in the dining room. No mint jelly, but a mint sauce that was much less sweet and much, much better on the lamb. Judy's filet was perfectly cooked and simply seasoned. I traded a lamb chop for a slice of filet. Great combination. But the jewel in the crown was the fresh baked cobbler (apple and berry) with a scoop of apple cider vanilla ice cream on top for dessert! This was Judy's b-day dinner and one great meal!
Here's where things get a bit trickier. Princess has cut back on the entertainment budgets over the past few years. More movies, less live shows, fewer live bands or less band members. It has been noticeable.
Shows - We saw only one production show - Do you Wanna Dance - and while it was ok, it was not the best Princess has offered in the past. (All right we've been listening to Bruno, Len and CaryAnn too much.) The comedians were ok, Dan Horn and Cary Long specifically we have seen several times before. If you haven't seen them before, they are a must see. If you have, there is little new material added in the past 4 years. Alexander the Illusionist was back with about the same show, but its always fun to watch his box trick at the end - who will come out of the box?
London Pub Night was the best of the lot on board. We've seen Pub Nights on many different ships, but not since Trevor Bradford's fairy character on our first Princess cruise have we ever seen a better fairy than Tim Donovan's. We were having trouble breathing as was the rest of the audience. If you've ever seen pub night you can imagine what I'm talking about. If you haven't there is simply no way to describe it!
Movies - We went to MUTS twice - Iron Man and Australia. Too busy dancing for the rest. MUTS on the Grand is an add-on and the seating is a bit different than on the Crown, Emerald, Ruby and CP. But MUTS is one thing we really enjoy on the larger ships. Where else can you relax with a drink and food and snuggle in. It was actually chilly both nights, high 70's and a bit windy, but you can call for extra blankets. On the Grand you need to sit next to the pool near the center for the best sound and view.
Games - We don't do standard trivia, but we do like to see people embarrass themselves like in the Marriage Game. Don't miss the Blankety-Blanks game show. It's a different way to do trivia.
Activities- We missed both wine shows, even the free one. We did the ballroom dance classes (Merengue, Cha-Cha, Swing) with Donna to pick up new steps and also the line dancing class with PeeWee (Electric Slide, Elvira, Honkey Tonk Stomp, Achey Breaky, tush push, hot-hot-hot, hey baby, mambo #5 - I think we are finally getting the Tush Push!
Bands - Three bands were very good. Flare, Accent and the aforementioned Junction 21. Unfortunately with the smoke situation in the Wheelhouse, we didn't get that much dancing time with Flare or Accent except during Island Night and the Sailaway Party.
Dancing - Our new cruise thing is dancing. Ballroom, Latin, Nightclub, doesn't matter. Judy got me into dancing 2 years ago and now I can't get enough of it - it's a great aerobic activity and makes the food and drink taste even better. Fortunately we got pretty much all we needed on this cruise. Primary dance floors are in the Wheelhouse and Explorers. Some dance classes and dancing are done in the Vista lounge as well. These are sprung wooden dance floors that are simply great for ballroom, Latin and rock and roll dance. Skywalkers has a tile and glass dance floor that is not smooth enough for ballroom or Latin. Basically only Nightclub freestyle and slow dancing there. Spins and turns are very difficult on such a sticky floor surface.
Parties - 50's and 60's Night, Island Night, Country Night were all a lot of fun. (We missed Disco Night). Junction 21 was the band.
50's and 60's feature jitterbug, swing, twist, hand jive, with the game being an Elvis imitator - hint PEEL THE BANANA.
Island Night is not to be missed either. Games, group dancing and simply a lot of fun. The success of these activities are totally dependent on the cruise staff and they were very good on this cruise. Had the standard Macarana, the cruise Macarana, Hot-Hot-Hot, Dollar Dance, Electric Slide, Jitterbug, Salsa and the Hooki Loo.
Country Night was fun with a couple of line dances (Achey Breaky, Honky Tonk Stomp), the tush push staff challenge, the bang-bang game and cotton eyed joe group dance.
The staff gets you up and involved. It is very hectic, but a lot of fun. Get involved or just watch, we had a great time.
THE CABIN (E725)
We liked this cabin a lot. Bed, desk, couch, two flatscreen tvs and fridge. Bathroom had a tub and two of us could actually be in the bathroom or shower at the same time. The overly friendly shower curtain, it liked to wrap around you, so prevalent in the Island mini-suites was missing here. The air vent over the tub kept the curtain up against the tub. The balcony, fully covered, had a small round table, two chairs and two of the new style balcony loungers.
It was much bigger than the Dolphin mini on the Island during our first Panama Canal cruise and bigger than the bumpout mini on the Island Alaska cruise. Because of our lower luggage total on this cruise we actually had a lot of extra counter, closet and floor space on this cruise.
This room actually had a sleeper sofa and a pull down bunk bed over the sofa. Two flat screen tvs, one pointed to the bed, one pointed to the sofa with lots of connections on the back. The refrigerator was actually much bigger than I remember on the Sun and Island class. Plenty of room for a 6 pack of cans, two water bottles and a couple of sparkling water bottles.
The Grand Princess is the original Grand Class ship from Fincantieri. As such there is one major difference from all the others - no central stairway. That was about as confusing to me as anything until I realized that they added the central stairway later to the Star, Golden and then the Super Grands.
The Ship just completed a wet dock, but did not receive all the "Gem Class Upgrade" Amenities. In fact, nothing really major appeared to be done - although Deck 5 seemed to be substantially different than the Golden's or the Star's deck 5 (pre-upgrade). The Casino was not moved and the Crown Grill and Vines were not installed, nor were the new internal suites installed. However, new flatscreen TV's were in our room and are apparently being installed all over the ship. MUTS was installed on the Grand years ago as a precursor to the CP being rolled out and MUTS being retrofitted onto the Star last year and the Golden this year.
Rumor has it that the Grand suffered substantial bow damage in the 2008 transatlantic crossing that will be repaired in a major 2010-2011 dry dock. We looked at it closeup at Granada and there are quite a few dented and buckled plates around the anchor.
This was a great itinerary. Much better than the Western Caribbean. Trinidad was changed out for Grenada due to unrest there. No big deal as we had not planned to get off the ship in Trinidad under any circumstances.
The weather on this cruise was phenomenal. Temperatures in the low 80's for the entire cruise. Much, much cooler than we have experienced in past April cruises when temps were in the high 80's low 90's and any breeze was welcomed.
Aruba - We did the Mi Dushi Sail and Snorkel. This was a schooner snorkel, not a Catamaran. Snorkeling was so-so as water clarity was not great, and fish variety was simply not there. Under clearer water conditions, the sunken freighter could have been incredible, but even my underwater photos were pretty cloudy. Lunch was better, but quite frankly, unless you drank a lot or wanted to swing off the boat on the rope swing, there wasn't a lot to do after lunch. Not a lot of shade on the schooner either. Both of us got a little burned on this one.
Curacao (BBQ Priest!) - We walked into and around town. Nice quaint little village. The fort next to the swinging bridge give you a great picture view of the quay entrance. Several new shops have opened on the walking path to town, but apparently the Hard Rock café is no more. The swinging bridge is different and kind of neat to watch as well.
Grenada - Walked around town, took pictures, bought stuff and went back. Fixed up a lot since the last time we were there. The little shopping mall on the dock is much better than the dirt parking lot with pushy stall vendors. Prices are, of course, higher, but its air conditioned and reminds us of home. People in the various shops were extremely friendly and very happy to see us.
Barbados - We did the Catamaran Sail, Lunch and Snorkel. This was a really good excursion and a lot of fun. Three snorkel stops, one of which was with the turtles, which came within inches of me (got some great photos), but water clarity was lacking. In addition the snorkel times were only 20-25 minutes each stop. The really scary part was the boat traffic. We almost got run over by a glass bottomed boat and one of our group almost got hit by a jet ski. Lunch was great. Fresh local food for lunch including flying fish. Tasted a lot like Mackerel, but it was good. They then brought the boat in and anchored off the beach. You could wade to the beach and do some swimming, but behind the catamaran was kind of the speed zone with lots of jet skis zipping past. No diving off the boat.
St. Vincent - Not much here and we've been here before so we stayed on the ship. Kind of a nice break to have the ship to yourself, especially the hot tubs.
St. Kitts - We did, or at least attempted to do, the Mt Liaguama volcano hike. Princess advertises it as a strenuous hike. That's an understatement. It is. Judy just could not make it. So about 2/3 way up, 3 miles to climb 3500 feet, we turned around. Going down is actually more dangerous because of the steep terrain, loose rocks, tree roots and muddy ground. I got her off the mountain just about when the group made it back to the vehicles. I want to do this hike again, but I want to do it myself and get to the top. Everyone else said it was an incredible view.
St. Thomas - We actually docked at Havensight this time - the Emerald was at Crown Point. Just looked around and shopped. Both Judy and I were still hurting from the previous day coming off the mountain, so we hit the hot tubs early.
La Romana - Based on various CC reviews, we just stayed on the ship.
Grand Turk - In ways, nicer than Princess Cays. Beach combing, good snorkeling, pool and music, lots of shopping, lots more to do. Margaritaville was a disappointment. The nachos platter had canned cheese sauce and soggy corn chips which really ruined it. On the other hand the fresh fried conch was excellent as was the drinks! So the Princess Cays BBQ is actually much better food, the drinks were as good, but there is much more to do on Grand Turk - better snorkeling, a very large pool. The waverider was not working when we were on shore, not sure why, so we did not get to see it in action.