After spending 64 days with Princess in the last two years we were worn out by the line's second-class ambiance, the rife examples of poor organization, the peremptory and paternalistic communication with passengers and the constant hectoring on the PA system to do this or buy that. We figured we'd give this nickel-and-dimeing outfit a miss until we heard that things had improved.
But Princess, as we always knew, does two things very well: excellent itineraries for destination cruisers like us and, sometimes, rock-bottom prices. So last February we got a mailer for this cruise: $70 a day in an outside cabin for 30 days from Sydney to LA, stopping at most of the islands you dream about visiting but find too difficult or pricey to fly to. It was basically a no-brainer.
Boarding Star Princess after three days on our own in Sydney was awful. We stood in line for an hour; no chairs were provided. I blame not the port but Princess, which is, after all, paying a hefty fee for their ship to dock. Rental chairs don't cost all that much even in Australia.
Our "obstructed-view" cabin on Emerald deck was a delight: the view was only about 40 per cent obstructed and the layout allowed you to sit by the window and gaze upon the ocean or the land.
The food on board was generally bland, with less variety in the buffet. I gave up on lunch and had a cheeseburger instead. Our dining-room waiter was no fool: he offered ground pepper on just about everything he put before us. Happily, Princess has restored both lemonade and soft ice cream without extra charge, but still makes you pay for freshly-squeezed orange juice.
Service on board was certainly adequate but seldom noteworthy. Port information was helpful with a couple of exceptions and the management of passengers going on shore excursions was excellent. The captain needs to give a course to his sailors on how to dock a tender; I watched one boat make seven aborted approaches to the ship. The front desk staff tried hard to be helpful and sometimes succeeded. The cruise director, Richard Joseph, and his staff were generally capable and cheerful. Assistant Cruise Director Ben Gee has a bright future in his chosen field.
Best of all, and the main reason why we felt the line has improved, was the almost complete absence of PA announcements, not even to promote Bingo. Finally, a Princess ship where it's assumed the passengers can actually read. We had a noon summary from the bridge and that was about it, apart from the Art Auction promo on most sea days (since art buyers apparently still can't read), until the last day before arrival, when service staff are trolling for extra tips and the passengers are exhorted to take part in the various gimmicks invented to aid in the purpose.
As the Star Princess Retirement Village (90 per cent of the passengers being aged 60+ and many of them on indexed pensions) made its way 10,000 miles across the big, wide Pacific, we encountered at our ports the kaleidoscope of the aftermath of European domination of the area, much of it negative, as in Suva, where the two main ethnic groups can't get along and are ruled by a military dictatorship, or American Samoa, which is like St. Thomas without the liquor stores and discount jewelry, a land of pickup trucks and a sky-high rate of teen drinking and pregnancy where we watched a historic Samoan dance to a tape of rock'n roll. The exception was (Western) Samoa, a charming place where traditional village culture endures. We had nine beautiful days out of 30, cold weather in New Zealand, rain on several islands, high winds at sea but, of course, tropical heat most of the way.
We took eight shore excursions, every one of them overpriced but giving us pretty much what we expected. We were shocked, again, by the number of our fellow passengers, even experienced cruisers, who would get off the ship, wander around the pier area for an hour or two, get back on board, then complain that the port was a lousy place for Princess to visit. Happily, I keep reading on CruiseCritic of people who do their research ahead of time and make enriching arrangements. Unfortunately, I suspect that ports and cruise lines will arrange to further limit access to areas close to the ship, resulting in an increasing inablity to do anything other than take a ship's tour.
In Honolulu, we were subjected to the pointless spectacle wherein US Immigration has to eyeball every passenger, the ship's manifest being inadequate for the purpose; as one Australian put it, "If Americans had to go through this in every different country, the cruise business wouldn't last a month." In Lahaina, port security (and bad tender driving) slowed down boarding and caused a one-hour delay in departure, this after the captain moved departure time up by two hours.
On a cruise with 17 sea days, your daily routine becomes so entrenched that the prospect of arrival at a port can be almost an annoyance, odd as that may sound. We were fortunate to have on board the maritime historian, the old-school and incomparable John Maxtone-Graham. I've cruised with him before, heard every one of his awful jokes, and wouldn't have missed him for the world. He packed the Princess Theatre every time.
The entertainment was good at times but overall, average. The production shows were tired, as were the dancers, in the final days of their seven-month stint. The seventh show of the trip, a new one, made - to me at least - absolutely no sense whatever. There were the usual cadre of specialty acts; only two stood out: magician James Galea and ventriloquist Don Bryan. The Explorers Lounge band Liquid Blue attracted a loyal following. The fifth-floor Atrium saw a number of daytime music and novelty performances, apparently at the expense of one evening musical group in the Wheelhouse Bar. I guess people are buying more lattes than martinis.
This Princess ship, like others of its basic design, has two significant problems: very uneven temperatures from one public room to the next (and even within a room), and an almost-constant stench of garbage and/or sewage at the aft stairwell of the Promenade Deck.
Disembarkation in LA was slowed by the fact that Star Princess was third on a three-ship totem pole: luggage was taken off using hand-carts and a medical emergency added to the confusion. We got ashore 90 minutes late but didn't care because we were staying overnight at an airport hotel.
Overall, good but not great, illuminating but not particularly memorable. Not in our top-five of more than 30 cruises, but certainly good enough to warrant revising upward our view of Princess, particularly since next time, as loyal customers, we'll get free laundry.