This is a review of our 12 day cruise around the British Isles, starting August 12, 2009 from Southampton.
We are a couple in the early 40s, living in Switzerland. This is cruise number 8 for us, the 2nd in 2009, number 9 (Oasis of the Seas in December 2009) is already booked, so you see we somehow seem to like it.
We cruised on the Crown Princess one time before, in August 2008 in the Baltic Sea, see our review http://www.cruisecritic.co.uk/memberreviews/memberreview.cfm?EntryID=45591
Before the cruise started we ha some nice days in London, staying in the Apex City of London Hotel. We would like to recommend this hotel as it was a very good value for money. We paid 100 GBP per night (excluding breakfast) booked via www.hrs.de (Hotel Reservation Service). The hotel is located just a 3 minute walk from Tower Hill tube station and the Tower of London itself. Some other train stations to connect to other locations are also within walking distance (5-10 minutes max. to Fenchurch Street station and Tower Gateway DLR station). As the hotel is located in a business area there are only some restaurants and pubs around, but enough if you do not want to travel into the center to eat there. We had two very nice guided tours with London Walks www.walks.com where I would like to recommend especially the Secrets of Westminster Abbey walk which was extremely entertaining and informative. Buy the discount card they sell for 2 GBP at your first tour if you are planning to have more than one tour with them!
We travelled from London Waterloo station to Southampton Central station by train, which we booked at www.megatrain.com They are selling train and bus tickets (not only for this connection but various throughout the UK) for a very low price. We paid for two tickets just 7 GBP ! Even the taxi from the hotel to Waterloo cost us more, but still just 11 GBP (pre-ordered, which included an extra cost of 2 GBP already) You are using the usual train from Southwest trains, they just fill up trains at low frequency times by doing this. Train was quite empty when we boarded as it starts from Waterloo and is completely empty if you are early after they open the access to the track. From Southampton Central station we decided to have a walk to the ship, as the weather was very nice. OK, honestly we would not do that again, as with heavy luggage even the not very long distance felt a bit longer than it was. Took us maybe 30 minutes, so it is possible but you might like to spend the extra 5 GBP (estimated) for a taxi.
Embarkation Not much to tell about that, it was quite quick and easy. Took us maybe 10 minutes to get a free counter and another 30 minutes to be in our room. There is some waiting time depending on when you arrive after you checked in as they board by groups, you get assigned to a group depending your arrival time in the waiting room.
Stateroom As last year we booked a balcony cabin on Caribe deck as we like the extended size of the balcony you have on this deck only. Half covered and half open it is nice for every weather. OK, nearly every weather, as we had some days with rain and fog during this cruise where even we did not want to spend much time out there. C326 is on Port side, so in most ports we had a nice view on what is going on, although the ports in this cruise had not much of a view to offer. The cabin itself has enough room for all the things you usually have with you and for the suitcases under the bed. The bathroom is not very big, has a shower with a curtain, but everything is functional enough. Beds are comfortable, the TVs are replaced with flat screens now but that does not improve the program they are offering very much, as you might imagine. Some movies, some CNN and BBC news and some onboard information, nothing you should really look ahead to. The fridge is spacious enough to store your own drinks during the cruise.
General information First some words about the use of Internet on board. They seem to have improved the availability of WiFi in the staterooms since last year, as we had a good signal in our room this time, which was not the case last year when we could use it only in some public areas of the ship. But the rates are still way too high for what they have to offer. Internet is still very slow on board. What I did this time is buying a Vodafone TopUp and Go mobile broadband package in a Vodafone shop while we where in London. For 35 GBP you receive a USB UMTS modem stick and a preloaded SIM card for 1 GB of data transfer volume. You pay by volume, not by time used, so the speed you are connected with does not matter, for example when you read or write mails or reviews like this it does not cost you any money. When you use the Princess time plan you are charged by the minute so better do that offline. 1 GB of data volume is enough for about 30 hours of surfing, that is what Vodafone tells you. Clearly that depends on what you do in the Internet, so try to avoid downloading big files or streaming movies. In my case I often surfed the internet on my usual mail, news, google, ebay whatsoever sites and it cost me rarely more than 0.10 GBP per hour! Connection speed while in UK ports was very good, but you must be aware of some things if you plan to do this: - Connection is only available while in UK ports, during your daily tours in UK and while you are close to the UK coast, so no internet with this card on sea days or while in Guernsey, Cork, Dublin or Le Havre. - do NOT use this when the provider shown in the connection screen is not Vodafone UK. As usual with mobile phones you sometimes get a connection to a roaming partner (marked by a small letter R in the name) and if you connect you will use up your 15 GBP instead for 1 GBP for some hundred KBs (yes!!!) within a minute or so. So be careful, I was not and connected on Guernsey and needed to rebuy a new 15 GBP package when we were in the next UK port. - in Invergordon and South Queensferry there is just a GPRS connection available with relatively low speed, but probably still as fast as on the ships WiFi You get the starter package and the TopUp vouchers in any Vodafone shop in UK. Unfortunately you cannot buy just the SIM card as I intended to do, as I already owned an USB modem, but OK, with 35 GBP including the necessary hardware and software you have enough for the whole cruise probably. Compared to the minute packages on board still cheap.
Food As last year in general we think the food on board is OK but not more. There are good and bad things obviously depending on personal taste mainly. Some dishes just looked good and did not taste very well, sometimes it was the other way around. We usually had breakfast in Horizon Court or Cafe Caribe and besides being quite crowded that was OK most time. Princess is hiding the Make to order omelets now better than last year, you have to ask one of the employees behind the counter where they offer scrambled or boiled eggs now to get one, but they are still there and very good. Advantage of this secret breakfast option is you usually have no lines to order it. For lunch we also most often had the buffets and there is plenty of choice with a good variation during the 12 days of the trip. Nothing special to mention though, it is always try and error to find out what you like. Optional like most time of the day you can have a pizza or a burger. You can also have lunch in the DaVinci dining room on deck 6, but we never tried that. Probably not a bad option as it was always hard to find a free table in the buffet restaurants. Dinner we had sometimes in the Anytime dining rooms and sometimes at the buffets. Very often but not always you find the same dishes on the buffet which they offer in the dining room. We had no problem to get a table for 2 (not sharing) whenever we tried, so Anytime will still be our option of choice in the future. Service was everything from very slow to very quick depending which waiters we got, but all of them were very friendly and sometimes entertaining. Food quality in the dining rooms was OK but for our taste not better than on the buffets, that is why we used that also quite often. Topics of the dinner buffets in Horizon Court were Bon Voyage, Crown, Princess, Italian Trattoria, English, Bavarian, Rijstafel, Island Seafood, Down Island, Mediterranean, Continental Chefs and Creole Cookery. Sometimes the topic matched the food quite well, other times you had to guess what the name stands for. If you are still hungry after dinner times you get a small buffet in Cafe Caribe until 4 am in the morning or some fresh made to order dishes (steaks etc.) in Horizon Court. There is also some nice sandwiches and sweets in the International Cafe at various times. This year I tried the ice cream (3 scoops for 1.50 USD) again and this year it tasted very good (try Nutella, that tastes like a mix of Hazelnut and chocolate), so they obviously improved that compared to 2008.
Entertainment The entertainment offered on Crown Princess did not really match our taste very well. They had two comedians we liked very much (Rikki Jay and Don Ware) and one with a very old fashioned kind of humor where we left the show after maybe 20 minutes (Duggie Brown). Unexpectedly (as we usually do not like that) the ventriloquist Don Bryan had a nice and funny show. They had a magic show (Phil Keller from France) which showed quite spectactular tricks, but unfortunately all of them looked liked "seen that before" and we were missing the nice little magic tricks many cruiseship magicians usually show. The BMX acrobat doing his show in the Piazza was also really good. The different kinds of music they were playing seemed to us made for an audience of 60 years and up, so nothing we really liked. The production shows as far as we have seen them were not worth the money they might put into them. Casino was open only on few days for a few hours as we cruised within UK borders most of the time, so that was rarely an option. Anyhow I won one of the few Texas Holdem tournaments they offered, so you probably are not surprised that I liked it.
Shore Excursions We did not book a single tour with Princess this time, would love to see more people showing them that they charge way too much money for their offerings. But the tours were more or less booked out, so they make their money still. Maybe when we are 20 or 30 years older we might think different and do that also for our convenience, but if you are somehow fit and know how to use the internet and forums like this you are able to get much more for your money.
In St. Peter (Guernsey) we just walked through town, visited Castle Cornet with its beautiful museums and enjoyed what we saw. Nice little town, you could use a regular bus to tour around the island and visit most of their tourist spots as well.
In Cobh (Cork) we took a train, the train station is just a few meters from where the ship was docked. We also walked around in Cobh later after we returned, both cities were nice, but nothing spectactular.
Next port was Dublin, where we used the ships shuttle bus (5 USD each way) to get into the center. Very beautiful city with lots of things to see and do. We had a good tour in Trinity College which included entry to the Book Of Kells. Can be booked just after entering Trinity College when you use the entrance coming from the City Center.
In Liverpool we took a City Tour HoHo bus which only cost 5 GBP for the whole day (yellow buses) and stops very close to the place the ship was docked. We were very lucky to be in town when in St. George hall the tile floor was uncovered, this happens only very few days of the year. Very impressive building. What we liked about Liverpool is that they seem to care a lot about the tourists, maybe because of a bad image the town had in the past. There was a free shuttle bus to the city center and they had printed overviews what you should visit on exactly that day the ship was docked. Not just the general tourist brochures but real helpful information.
In Belfast we had booked a tour with Caroline McComb and they had three busses full of people from the Crown Princess that day. First major stop of the tour was the Carrick-A-Rede Rope Bridge and we loved that spot. What a beatiful landscape and nice views! The second major stop was Giants Causeway and to be honest, compared to the rope bridge this was way behind. The biggest problem was that the bus driver unloaded the bus here for lunch and to visit the Causeway and told people they have enough time for both. Lunch took 60 minutes leaving only 30 minutes to walk down to the Giants Causeway and back up. We skipped lunch, so we did not have the problem, but it hit us nevertheless later, as people were 45 minutes too late at the bus and we had to wait for them. So we had to skip Duluce Castle and most of the Belfast city tour that they had planned. Anyhow, the landscape in Ireland is really very green and beautiful and we probably will be back somewhen to have a closer look on everything we might have missed.
Next stop was Greenock (for Glasgow) where we had booked a private tour in a van for 8 to visit Loch Lomond and Stirling Castle. Unfortunately it was raining a lot that day, but still it was a nice tour costing us just 35 GBP per person, compare that to a full day ship tour, which had the same weather :-) We had a quick photo stop at the castle where they filmed Monthy Pythons Holy Grail, nice to have seen that. At Stirling Castle we bought the Explorer Pass which gave us entry to many scottish tourist spots (valid in 3 out of 5 days) for GBP 22. In fact we just saved one GBP as we only used it in Edinburgh Castle again, but you save lots of time as you do not have to stand in line for a ticket in Edinburgh. One nice thing about Greenock we would like to mention is the way they cared for the Crown Princess while docked. Everybody (!) was personally getting a handshake from local people in local outfits (Kilt etc.) and they played scottish bagpipe music the whole day, using also a very funny guy in a costume we enjoyed a lot. Great show, thanks to Greenock !
In Invergordon we once again were booked on a private tour with 7 people in total, and that one also started quite rainy but weather improved during the day. Cyd from Ocean Links Tours did a great job showing us some of the highlights of the North Highlands of Scotland. Best part of the tour was Dunrobin castle with an outstanding Falconry show. A visit to Clynelish distillery and Dornoch were also nice and interesting. Paid GBP 55 per person including entrance fees, so that was also good value for money. Saw again nice bagpipe band when we left the port.
Edinburgh was clearly the highlight of the cruise for us. The castle is really outstanding, but also the whole city centre has so much beautiful and interesting things to offer that you have no chance seeing everything on one day. We took the train from Dalmeny to Edinburgh Waverly for just 3.70 GBP for the return trip. You can either walk up the 120 stairs through the forest or walk up by road with no steps, the first took 15 minutes the second some 5-10 minutes more, but we are quick walkers. Tender service from Princess did not feel very well organised in this port, so we had quite long waiting times both times when we left the ship. What was really annoying is the fact that Princess told us that anyone not booked on the ships tours has to use tenders until 23:00 only, although all on board was 00:30. I asked if they really want to tell me that they leave us behind on the pier if we arrive between 23:00 and 00:30 and they said no they wont but it will be on our own risk. What kind of behaviour is that ? Anyhow, we enjoyed the Military Tattoo and came back by train, arrived 23:40 at the pier and had no trouble using the first available tender before any of the many Princess buses was even in sight. It took probably until 01:45 in the night before all their busloads were tendered back on board. The Tattoo was as spectactular as we have dreamt of and we had brilliant views towards the castle from our East stand B seats, which were really the smallest seats we ever had to sit in. If you have the chance to see it you should go and try to get seats with number 1 and 2 as we had, at least you have one seat (no. 1) with nobody besides you to have a little more space. Spend the 1 GBP for the seat cushions to rent, it is a good investment.
Final port on this trip was Le Havre, but we knew from a former cruise that there is not much to see and do on a sunday, so we just made it a quiet last day on board. Had a quick walk in town in between (20 minutes walk) to stretch our legs and came back with the 5 USD shuttle Princess offered.
Disembarkation This was really quick and easy. Got on time (07:45) to the Michelangelo Dining room, were called just 10 minutes later to leave the ship, catched our luggage and did not even have to wait for a taxi. Trip to Southampton Central was GBP 4.60 and we were there by 08:15 to take the next train to London Waterloo at 08:30