The idea of cruising had always appealed to me. Well, to be honest, the idea of unlimited free food and a chance to see a quick snap shot of a foreign place probably appealed more than the idea of formal wear and games of "shuffle board".
I had sent for a few cruise brochures from all the major lines and quickly whittled them down to a short list of 3: P&O, Royal Caribbean and Princess. In fact P&O were pretty much off the list as soon as I read a review about the formal evenings - I believe the line that stuck in my head was something like "formal wear wasn't just limited to the restaurants, so if we fancied sticking around after dinner we were going to have to sit there trussed up like guests at wedding just to get a Gin and Tonic". So that was them straight off the lists. I don't like being told what to wear and from the day I left school no-one has ever tried, so it sure wasn't going to start while I was on holiday.
Royal Caribbean seemed good. The brochures spoke of these massive ships with everything you could imagine. It sounded great. But the prices simply weren't very keen and the itineraries, although nice, were a tad predictable. Also I couldn't shake the feeling that their ships were perhaps a bit too showy and well, a bit brash. And probably would attract the kind of people that are equally so.
Therefore Princess seemed to be in the running. I liked the large ship designs and the South America cruises sounded great. I'd always wanted to see Rio, Buenos Aeries and the Falkland Islands, but they are a very long way from home. So being able to pull them all in as part of a tour seemed pretty much ideal. I must admit I hadn't really heard of Princess before I started googling potential lines, so I didn't really have any preconceptions. After reading some reviews, by and large the feedback seemed to be pretty good.
With the decision made we booked directly through the Princess website, which was a painless if rather underwhelming experience. We choose our cabin, which was a suite right at the back of the ship as there wasn't much of a price difference between that and the next category down. We paid a 10% deposit and chose to arrange our own air travel - with the final payment date being in January before we departed in March.
We quickly got an email from them confirming our booking has been accepted. That was the only thing we got from them for about a year - I don't know, perhaps I thought they should have seemed a bit more grateful that we'd committed to spending nearly £5,000 with them. A "thank you for booking letter" probably wouldn't have gone amiss?
With hindsight, we could have shopped around. Unlike many airlines and hotel companies, Princess don't guarantee you'll get the best fare booking directly with them - so in the future it will certainly be worth while checking a out a few travel agents.
Joining the Ship
After we had made our final payment we began using the cruise personalizer on the princess website. This allows you to enter all your passport and insurance information ahead of time so that the check in process is speeded up. We also used this to select from a range of tours that were available in each port.
We had our colour-coded luggage tags to apply for our suitcases and we were quickly relived of our luggage when we arrived at the cruise terminal in Rio. The check in process did seem a bit strange for a first time cruiser and it was only thanks reading about the embarkation process in advance I knew more or less what to expect.
It was a bit like organized chaos, only with out the organization. We were supposed to get 'expedited embarkation', but when we asked for this, from several different people were told a flat-out "no" and pointed in a vague direction a long and fairly slow moving line.
We then had to join another queue which wasn't moving. The rather harassed looking woman who looked like she should be running the show, was trying to get people to board by number, which we didn't get to hear about until we had been stood there for a quite a while. We then left the queue, sat down and with 2 minutes we were called back. About 100 people further away from the front than we had been.
Eventually we got on board had our picture taken and began the process of locating our cabin. It was a very long way from where we got on. I was expecting the ship to be big, but it was the length I hadn't really appreciated. When we got out of the lift on our deck, our room was right at the other end. The corridor almost vanished into infinity as it was such a long way from where we were, to where we needed to be.
I hear the term "understated elegance" quite a bit when people refer to a Princess Ship. I can see what they mean. The decor is neutral and timeless, blending woods, marbles and thoughtful lighting in all areas on the ship. That's not to say the ship is modern, it isn't, in the purest sense. If you are expecting 5 star-hotel cutting edge design or stark minimalism, you could be disappointed.
Most public areas also have a "theme" which is carried through in the choice of carpeting and furnishing and helps create difference atmospheres in different spaces. From a design point of view the whole ship is a triumph. Although there were well over 2,000 people on board, often it felt like there was just half a dozen of you. Sure the areas around the 2 central pools were crowded when the sun was out, but you could normally find some solitude in the terrace pool (right at the back) or the Lotus Spa Pool (tucked away in a space near the front).
The 3 story atrium right in the centre of the ship had recently been made over with a new "pavement style" cafe, which provided excellent donuts first thing in the morning and hot cookies in the afternoon. Although it was a nice space, from a design point of few it was a tad busy - they couldn't decided what theme would be nice so, they simply decided on all of them. There are some rather attractive sculptures that surround the two glass elevators, but there were more lost in the background, rather than being the feature I suspected they were intended to be.
Finding your way around seemed pretty daunting straight off, but as soon as you go the basic layout it was easy to deal with. There are 3 decks of passenger areas (which the atrium links together) with decks 5, 6 and 7 providing the majority of the evening's restaurants, lounges and entertainments venue. From deck 8 (Emerald) upwards you have the majority of the passenger cabins, topped with more public space, including the buffet and pools between decks 14 (Lido) and 17/18 (Sky).
All this vertical separation meant there had to be an easy way of getting from deck to deck which is provided by 3 banks of lifts and staircases spread around the ship. Lifts were often easy to get, except for the time the theatre shows ended, when there were temporally crowded and highly coveted.
We had booked a suite right at the back of the ship and it was worth every single penny. Size wise, if you can imagine a slightly larger than normal hotel room, you would be about right. There was a small tiled entrance lobby, opening on to a living area with a very large sofa (at least 6 and half feet long) with a further chair and a coffee table. There was a "wet bar", which consisted of a sink, work space and mini bar fridge. Despite having a "free" mini bar set up included with the suite, we did have to ask for it to be filled; which was disappointing as it would have been nice to enjoy a drink straight away.
The bedroom area had a large desk-cum-dressing table with a generous amount of mirrors and storage space which was complimented by a large walk-in wardrobe complete with 4 racks of hanging space and a place to store your suitcases. The beds were very comfy and the choice of pillows provided ensured a decent sleep every night. The suite had 2 flat-screen TVs, which took forever to turn on, which meant if you wanted to hear a public announcement on channel 32 all you ever got was "muchas gracias"; that being the tail end of the Spanish translation of what you'd just missed.
The bathroom had 2 entrances and a dividing door in the middle - meaning the shower cubical and Jacuzzi bath were in one room, with the toilet and sink in the other. The bath tub was large and deep, although the Jacuzzi was so loud it was about as tranquil as taking a bath at the end of an airport runway. The shower had a "massage" function, but the water pressure was a tad disappointing and the water always found its way under the door.
The toilet was a vacuum type, which worked efficiently, if a little loudly and the sink area had a large mirror and plenty of storage, although the tap had only 2 temperatures, warm and hot. There was also a shaver charging point, but it wasn't the correct size for a European shaver plug.
Curiously though the toilet and sink were the furthest away from the bedroom area, meaning you had to walk through or all the way around to use the loo at night. Presumably it was designed like this so your guests could access the toilet directly from the living area in the unlikely event you wished to take a shower in private whilst simultaneously hosting a party. A nice touch was the different light combinations that could be achieved around the whole suite with the lamps providing a comfortable and relaxing glow. The most appealing touch, from my point of view, was the two of us being the custodians of a real, living and growing plant for 2 weeks aboard!
Our cabin steward was a friendly chap, who came in twice a day to tidy up and to make the bed. Although the cabin was clean, it wasn't spotless - with thick areas of dust on surfaces slightly out of the way and the marble topped side tables always had ring marks on them. He was also a devil for taking things away and not replacing them, like pool towels and wine glasses - but the servicing was generally acceptable, if a little slapdash, but it was always delivered with a smile.
We ordered the complimentary room service quite a few times, particularly for breakfast on port days. Delivery was always prompt, but without fail they ALWAYS forgot at least 1 item, which became tediously annoying.
Undoubtedly the highlight of the suite was the balcony. With patio doors from both the living and bedroom area it provided a stunning view across the back of the ship and a clear view to each side. The furniture was wooden with a table with 3 chairs, 2 sun loungers and a smaller table for drinks. We had some of the best times here and watching the sun set over Buenos Aeries, from my own personal deck area, while we set sail in the early evening was probably one of the most agreeable experiences of my life.
Food, Drink and Entertainment
As a first time cruiser the concept of having food freely available 24 hours a day seemed a little odd at first, but, for the sake of this review, I did manage to get used to it. We chose "anytime dining", which, as the name suggests, we could turn up for our evening meal at anytime between 5 and 10pm in either of two dining rooms. We never had to wait whether we wanted a table for two or if we were dinning with friends. The menus changed daily and whilst all the food onboard was of a high standard, we did enjoy several absolutely faultless meals. Out of the whole cruise we only had questionable food on one occasion and crappy service on just two.
Considering the sheer amount of people to be fed every night, it was a testament to the staff and the design of the dining room that you always felt like you were getting a pretty personal service, rather than simply being one of the huddled masses.
The buffet opens 24 hours a day and also offered some really decent food, although it was rare we ever grabbed more of a snack from here, it was nice to take some cakes or cookie on the way thorough to lounge about on deck.
Very much worthy of note is the pizza and burger place next to the central pool. Both burgers and pizzas were exceptionally good and provided without charge.
On the first day we both purchased a "soda card" which basically meant you could enjoy unlimited coke, diet coke and sprite without charge in any restaurant. It wasn't particularly good value at $4.50 + 15% tip per person per day, but it did mean we could enjoy a drink at any bar without worrying about a mounting tab. Also they added so much ice to each drink if you were paying for them individually you would either become very poor or very thirsty.
As suite guests we enjoyed a special "club breakfast" in Sabatini's Italian Restaurant, which was excellent and provide very, very good food with attentive service each morning and was a very nice "perk" that we weren't expecting when we booked.
Prior to the cruise we had pre-paid for 6 bottles of wine, for which we received vouchers to redeem either with room service or with the evening meal. At the time of writing (March 2009) the dollar / pound exchange rate was dire, so purchasing in advance saved a considerable amount of money - especially as we ended up with 9 vouchers instead of the 6 we paid for.
We only went to two shows during the voyage and one in the Princess Theatre "Words and Music" a show that I enjoyed about as much as a colonoscopy - although my companions [who actually like musical theatre], though it was "very good".
After a few days at sea, we had 2 port days, which meant getting up early and experience some of the Princess Tours we reserved before joining the ship. The first day started off with much standing around - primarily due to the local authorities delaying the proceedings. They do indeed like their bureaucracy in South America and most transaction involving multiple items of paper work with the furious stamping of officialdom. Fortunately we were sheltered from this as the ship kept our passports through-out the cruise.
The next day's tour meetings ran rather more smoothly and we were off the ship in pretty good time and soon herded onto the world's oldest bus with a non-working microphone.
We then were thankful for a rest of another few sea days on the way down to the Falklands islands. It was during this time we had the second formal night, where we enjoyed the special "chef's table", that was worth every penny of the $75 each charge. Interestingly there were only 8 of us experiencing this sensation and 2 of the people had only booked in the day before after seeing it advertised in the Princess Patter (the daily newspaper).
It was tendering back to the ship in Stanley we had our first taste of the wind that Southern Oceans can serve up at a moment's notice and the half an hour trip back to the ship was a slow and uncomfortable experience.
It was just as we were about to leave the anchorage at the Falklands Islands that the captain came over the loudspeakers - including the ones in the cabin - that due to storm that had kicked up a few hundred miles to our south, they were canceling tomorrow's planned scenic cruising of "Cape Horn". It was disappointing. Like many people the kudos of being able to say we had been "round the horn" was one of the main reasons we picked this cruise. That said, Cape Horn's infamy as the junction between the mighty Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, with the terrible weather this can bring, meant that it was always going to be a possibility that we weren't going to make it.
This change meant we ended up taking a different route to that was advertised and the next 2 port days of Punta Arenas and Ushuaia were swapped around.
The following morning, we enjoyed another room service breakfast, for the first time with everything we had ordered. This was followed 20 minutes later by a phone call to make sure "everything was to our satisfaction". We hadn't complained previously, but obviously someone had and it was good to see Princess were doing something about it.
At Ushuaia again we were delayed leaving the port. Another stiff wind had appeared out of nowhere and was blowing us onto the dock - and was fast than the ship thrusters could push against. As there were no apparent tug boats, we were left sat there for a couple of hours, just long enough to ensure that by the time we got to the "spectacular glaciers" we had been promised a great view of, it would be pitch dark.
From here the next 3 days were to be spent at sea, viewing the Chilean Fjords on the way back up. The next morning we were sure enough surrounded again by spectacular scenery, dulled only by another announcement from the captain. There was another storm on the way (rather a theme for this cruise), so we were heading back out into the Ocean for 4 hours, which may be a "little" uncomfortable followed by the shelter of more "inside passages". It was a tad rough, but nothing too major. Although the ship was rocking the pills I had been downing since Rio were keeping the majority of my sea-sickness in check.
Then, mid-afternoon, we hear from the captain yet again. We weren't going back inside, instead we were going to try and outrun the storm. This sound very exciting - a real life race!
By the next morning, it was clear that we came a distant second and were pretty much stranded, slap bang in the middle of a severe storm. "Storm Day", as it came to be known, was thoroughly unpleasant for everyone concerned.
Out aft suite became completely uninhabitable for most of the day. It was impossible to walk or even sit - as every few seconds you stomach was forced into your feet, followed by an equally intense feeling of near weightlessness. We both decide to take sanctuary by the indoor pool [all of which were emptied] for much of the day. Although high up, the position, roughly amidships, lessened the worst of the motion and it was nice to be able to lie down and enjoy the semi-fresh air of the "conservatory", while indulging in donuts and pastries from the buffet [the sugar helps settle your stomach].
While we sat there, we watched events unfold around us. As the ship heeled over from side to side there came a very real feeling that sooner or later that gravity might get the better of us. You know it was a particularly big "dip" when a load of deck furniture [chairs, tables, glasses, cutlery], that had previously been immune to the motion started to crash its way downhill.
The mood was subdued. Staff were thin on the ground as they were feeling just as rough as the rest of us - those that were working didn't look great, but they were quick at clearing away the mess. Our cruise director says it was the worst weather he'd experienced in 12 years. We did get some video footage of the 30 foot swells, complete with a sound track of crashing plates we filmed later in the day as the weather eased.
Returning to our cabin that evening greeted us with lots of broken glass for items we had stowed but had somehow managed to "jump" free, together with the contents of the now-open drawers and desk paperwork, as if tossed around by an overzealous poltergeist.
As we were getting ready for the formal night, the captain's voice again joined us in our cabin. After a bit of waffle he then paused and proclaimed "I have a statement to read...". The gist of it was that because we had made almost no progress that day, we would be a full day late arriving in Valparaiso.
I was stunned. Fortunately we had planned 3 extra days at the end of the cruise before our flights home, but many people had fairly rigid plans. To assist us the captain made the internet cafe free to everyone, as well as the phones. Unfortunately this resulted in very long lines to even get near a computer, plus the constant message that "all routes busy" when trying to dial out on the phone.
From that point onwards the passenger services desk was pretty much besieged. People were struggling to get confirmation information and those with "Princess Air" were having flights home routed via Outer Mongolia and families being split up on to different flights at different times.
It did however give us an extra free day on board, so we weren't too bothered about it [one might say almost verging on pleased!] and gave us some time to have dinner with the many new friends we had met during the voyage.
Nationalities on the ship included quite a sizable Argentinean group, that embarked in BA, together with many Americans, Canadians with a fair few Europeans and Chinese thrown in for good measure. The vast majority of the people were extensively world travelled which resulted in great company and great conversations. Indeed some of the great people we met on board made our cruise far more enjoyable than it otherwise have been.
As the new disembarkation day approached a new problem was becoming apparent. Those people who had put (like us) we wish to disembark at 8:30am, were for some reason given a departure time of 9:45. It turned out that they had just given out the times more or less randomly, so again almost the entire ship queued up (for an hour at a time) brandishing colored luggage tags, requesting changes. It was badly organized and the staff couldn't really have cared less by this point. While we were stood in line, one of the desk staff decided to go on a break, so left the desk, walked over to the edge of atrium and enjoyed the street entertainer for 10 minutes, before calmly resuming their duties.
On disembarkation morning we received our final "folio", with the message that "as per my request", they had converted the USD bill into pounds sterling and charged 3% for the privilege. This wouldn't have been so bad, other than the fact that way back at check-in I had ticked the box telling them not to do this and written, in large letters, across the sheet that I wanted to be billed in USD (as my credit card company weren't going to charge a commission for the conversion).
We tried to get this resolved at the now infamous passenger "services" desk, who basically told me there was "nothing they could do" and I would have to contact Princess on my return to the UK. Eventually we left the ship and, despite "happy face" at the desk, we very sad to leave disembark. On reflection it was annoying that the very last bit of customer service we received had been so poor.
Our journey home involved 3 plains and about 18 hours of flying, plus 8 hours of layovers. Even so we were positively glowing about our experiences to anyone that cared over the following days. This was our first cruise holiday and we loved it and will definitely be back for more, more than likely with Princess.
Many of the other passengers we very annoyed with the weather disruption, but I struggle to see how our itinerary could have been different, given the circumstances that we experienced. Throughout they were very good at letting us know what was going on and updating us as to our situation. At the end of the day if you go sailing in the Southern Ocean, whether on massive cruise ship or a small sailing yacht, you are at the mercy of Mother Nature.
When taking this cruise we expected a new type of holiday and an adventure in a far away land. In reality, we got to experience a flavor of an entire continent, a years worth of weather in just 2 weeks and, above all, the fabulous experience of being on a cruise ship. I understand that this holiday probably wouldn't be for everyone, but for me - I loved it.