Our cruise was the 18 night "Northern Explorer" leaving 14th April 2009, just after Easter and sailing from Sydney to Perth (Fremantle) "around the top".
The ports were Sydney-Brisbane-Townsville-Cairns (Yorkey's Knob)-Cooktown-Darwin-Kimberley (scenic cruising)-Broome-Exmouth-Geraldton-Fremantle (for Perth)
In our party was my wife and I in our mid 40's, our two children, aged 10 and 14, and my wife's dad who is 74.
We found the cruise through the internet one night and sent off an enquiry. The travel agent contacted us the next morning and from that moment the whole trip happened effortlessly.
The cruise personaliser on the Princess site worked very well and we made some requests on it, including food allergy problems and a birthday celebration for my daughter and booked our shore tours through it and were very happy the results.
We drove to the embarkation point and on arrival at Wharf 8 in Darling Harbour we were amazed at the efficiency of the vehicle movement through the passenger drop-off and bag drop area...our bags were out of the car and gone in minutes. We made our way inside the terminal, filled out our health card and were on the ship in less than 20 minutes. The smiles from the check-in staff and Princess security and the friendly atmosphere were to remain all the way through the cruise from all the crew.
The ship was leaving at 4pm and we had arrived at 12 so after finding our staterooms (to next to each other) we made our way up to the Horizon Court buffet for lunch. What a spread! An awesome array of food available and there was a beautiful vista out the windows overlooking the ever busy and pretty Darling Harbour.
The sailaway was fantastic out of the Harbour, under the Sydney Harbour Bridge and past the Opera House with the sun setting behind. Simply spectacular.
We had the first sitting for dinner and made our way to the Marquis dining room. We were greeted at the door and shown to our table by the head waiter. He told us that he would be with us shortly to discuss the special food requirements for my wife and children - we hadn't said a word to him, that was all organized through the cruise personaliser and he was prepared and waiting for us. It was a lovely introduction to the care and attention we were to receive. All the dining room staff had a way of making everyone feel special. Other reviewers have already commented on the famous Princess food and it is something they can be proud of. I would like to add that for people with serious food allergies going to restaurants can sometimes be a frustrating experience, not here, the head waiter would visit us each night and discuss the next night's menu and the results were wonderful. The whole family was able to enjoy a wonderful dining experience and we looked forward to it every evening. One word about our waiters "Outstanding".
I have already mentioned the Horizon Court buffet and this was somewhere we visited frequently....breakfast, morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea and a late night snack and coffee. We really enjoyed the variety of food available. The "waffle man" was a real hit. The kids wanted to bring him home.
We went to a number of shows. The variety and standard was very good and our kids loved them. We were disappointed with one of the acts, a comedian and juggler....his juggling was OK, but his comedy wasn't very good and certainly wasn't acceptable for a 'family' show (which the cruise staff told us it was - clearly they hadn't told him). All the other shows were terrific.
The stateroom itself wasn't huge but we found it adequate with ample wardrobe space. It was spotless when we arrived and kept that way by the steward and the bed was very comfortable (we asked the steward to convert the twins to a double which worked nicely). A comment about the shower...I'm not a big person but found the recess pretty small, I'm not sure how some of the big people on board coped. We appreciated the pull out clothes line...it got used a lot.
There was an issue with the lack of powerpoints in the room, there were plenty of US style points but only one Australian point. Fortunately, lessons learnt previously had me bring a powerboard for each of our rooms and converters but otherwise it would have been awkward juggling various battery chargers and running a laptop.
The TV in the room was adequate and had a wide variety of news and entertainment programmes and movies (including kids shows and movies) plus a useful progress map and info on one of the channels although the tourist information on some of the ports was a bit misleading...the Twelve Apostles was shown as a tourist spot for Fremantle (they're on opposite sides of Australia) and visiting Ayers Rock when you only have a day in Darwin - not likely! So whoever is putting together those videos needs to get an atlas out.
The safes were OK although the keypad could be frustrating and require a number of attempts to accept the PIN to open it. If I wanted to be nit-picky I could make the comment that I can fit my laptop inside most hotel safes but I couldn't get it in this one. But this won't affect most people so I won't mention it!
The laundry...grrr....grossly inadequate. The number of machines should be at least doubled or allow 24 hour use, plus there needs to be a rule - written or otherwise - that if you are not in the laundry when your load finishes it can be removed and put aside by the next person waiting to use the machine! (Perhaps we should use a 'tender ticket' system here too). Maybe even ban the person from using the laundry again. The laundry seemed a constant scene of frustration.
The kids club was a bit hit-and-miss with the activities - the tour of the bridge was pretty special - but our daughter made some new friends and was able to choose which activities she wanted to go to and other times we spent in the pool, which was extra fun when it turned into a "wave pool".
Most of our ports were by tender access. We thought the ticket system worked very well, usually only waiting about 15 minutes after collecting our tickets. However, when it was a 'walk-off' disembarkation Princess dropped the ball. It really was a bit of a shambles until most people were off. They would announce a disembarkation time and then invariably be late. It wasn't their fault usually having to wait for quarantine officials to arrive, but nevertheless it became a problem for them. It would have been much better to still use the ticket system and call people in numbers rather than trying to manage an irritated crowd standing around the exit and extending down the corridors. This is especially so in Broome when the buses hadn't arrived to carry us down the wharf (you weren't allowed to walk on the wharf) so the crowd had built up substantially before finally being allowed out.
Once you were off the ship, however, and in the port the shore tour arrangements and shuttle buses were plentiful and well organized. The cost adds up for a family of five so we only did a couple and found the Kuranda Railway tour to be very good but our Exmouth glass bottom boat tour was cancelled by the operator at the last minute due to the skipper being injured. We were offered and took the city highlights tour, but this was a very average tour. We were told by other passengers that on the whole they thought the highlights tours had been disappointing so that would be something to think carefully about.
The photographs seemed expensive to me and on the whole I wasn't happy with them. There were four or five photographers on board and one of them was outstanding, a couple average and one was terrible with photos being out of focus or blurred. When everything else is so good it's the things like this that stand out.
The wireless internet access was just OK (I took my laptop with me). I thought it was expensive and don't think it should be priced on minutes but rather downloads, or even better free! I expected it to be slow but found it frustrating to be getting charged while it slowly connected to the system. Still, if you can get over the price and accept that it will be slow then it worked OK. At least it was reliable, I didn't experience any dropouts and was able to connect every time I wanted. Also, because our room was close to the Atrium I found I was able to connect from my room which was a bonus.
MOBILE PHONE RECEPTION
This was a welcome surprise to us. The ship uses a facility called MCP to relay mobile phone signals. My son has an Optus account and had full access almost 100% of the time. We have a very sick friend and we could speak to her every day whether in port or out to sea. A big thumbs up for this facility. I have a Telstra phone and while it picked up a 2G signal it wouldn't use it, so if you want to have mobile access check your phone with your provider. I know mobiles can be a nuisance but to be contactable when a loved one is very sick is a real comfort.
The ship was scheduled to dock in Fremantle at 6am and we were the second color group to leave. We were told to meet by 7.05 - we did (after breakfast in Horizon, of course) and were off the ship and had our bags by 7.15. Princess really have the embarkation/disembarkation process running smoothly. I collected our rental car from close by the dock and had no trouble at all collecting the family...we drove off waving goodbye to our beautiful ship and the wonderful crew that had given us a fantastic holiday.
Crew - wonderful
Food - awesome
Stateroom - no serious complaints
Atmosphere - fun, happy and friendly
Entertainment - excellent
Tender access to ports - worked very well
Walk-off access to ports - much patience needed
Laundry - take a good book
Without hesitation I would cruise with Princess again and happily recommend a cruise with them and the Sun Princess. I overheard a few dissatisfied people so I guess not everyone will agree with me, but from our perspective it was a first class holiday with a happy, friendly and accommodating crew, an entertaining captain and a lovely ship.