Due to our determined desire to get two spaces in "The Sanctuary" on the Ruby we got a taxi to drop us at the terminal at 9am! Yup, we were number 1 in the queue! Unfortunately there were 130 odd Elites and VIPs who were able to board before us. Oh the "plans of mice and men"!
Embarkation: Considering that FL is the largest cruise port in the world today the embarkation was extremely slick and well organised and we were the first onboard (of the "plebs" that is). At this point "Operation Sanctuary" kicked into gear and I and our son went to the cabin while DH, elbowing his way, went directly to the Sanctuary (having studied the most direct route over the last 3 months!). DH was 4th in line and the Sanctuary was already full. DH left our name on a waiting list with the much pressured Luigi (Sanctuary Supervisor), whose unenviable job is to tell everyone that there are no places left. This is because, usually the Elites generally get the very few places that there are available when the Sanctuary is popular on the busier cruises. What was very tough for Luigi were all the people giving him hell for the lack of places. We found that just being nice and understanding gave us a better chance than those who ranted and raved. The great news is we had a call the following morning - WE WERE IN!!
Cabins: As mentioned previously, for the Christmas Cruise we had a balcony cabin on Aloha. We had prepared ourselves for a bunk bed style situation and having to get dressed in shifts due to space shortages and having to shuffle around each other. However, there was a lot more room than expected and the 3 of us, in fact, did well. I would suggest that a standard balcony cabin is absolutely fine for a family of 3. The cabin also had plenty of storage space for the 3 of us with 20 days worth of clothing etc. The third bed was bought during turndown service from the ceiling where it was stored out of the way during the day. The bathroom was small but certainly had enough storage for my many bottles. I consider myself to be extremely fussy but our steward Armand did an extremely excellent job of keeping our cabin spotless and responded to any requests instantly.
We relocated to our Mini-suite on Dolphin Deck on turnaround day. I packed up our smaller bits -toiletries etc. but left the hanging clothes for the stewards to transfer. Magic Smagic, all was done, the stewards worked together and we were resettled in our new digs in no time at all. Wow, all this space! Our son now slept on the sofa bed in the lounge area with his own TV. DH was in heaven with the bath. These mini-suites are great value. Again, our new steward John was extremely efficient and more than matched our previous steward who as previously stated was excellent.
Balcony/Smoking: Both balconies were more than adequate for our needs, however due to the Princess smoking policy that allows smoking on balconies and in cabins, we found that every morning and evening our local happy smokers ruined any chance of us truly maxing our balcony time. Even when the ship was moving their awful smoke permeated via the balcony into our cabins. Anyone who is not yet decided on this matter just needs to walk down the passage ways of any deck and the stink outside the smoker's cabins must surely decide this issue. One night I was woken at 3am by the reek of cigar smoke coming in through the passage way door. Come on Princess, this is unacceptable, there must be a solution! Can we still cruise with Princess due to this smoking policy? With all the smokers from those lines who restrict smoking comming over for this smoking free for-all, our enjoyment can only be further blighted. We love Princess and their lovely staff but this policy will see me really going over to Celebrity!!!
Sad Sad Sad !!!!
Dining: Mixed thoughts here. Since our Diamond Princess Cruise in 2008, the "Trough" (Horizon Court Buffet) seems to have deteriorated badly with minimal choice and fairly boring food. We think that budget cuts are involved here as meals were uninspired and seemed as minimal as possible. Vegetarian choices were disappointing and DH on a "Trough" mission often came back with Hamburger or hotdog from the pool grill as nothing had caught his eye. Also very disappointing was the non-existent party deck buffet on the much acclaimed "White Night" and the very limited "midnight" buffet on New Years Eve. In fact, our impression was that there was no difference between that buffet and every other buffet. It would have been nice for a special effort to have been made after all most of the ship were still up and about after midnight. However, all the service and the staff did their very best considering that the more "casual" and often rude passenger that frequented this venue. We made an error and had dinner one night in the "Carib Cafe". If you like fine dining and sophistication, don't take this option.
Having got the negative out of way, the rest of the dining venues were excellent. A big favourite with myself was the International Cafe with a limited but excellent selection of light salads, soup of the day and sandwiches backed by the normal excellent Princess service. This place is great for quick getaway breakfasts before going ashore.
We did Anytime dining and struggled with making reservations on the Christmas Cruise. Princess have a problem here as you can only make a reservation on the day after 8am. More often than not there were not reservations available when we wanted to dine even when we phoned at 8.01am. However, while chatting to the Maitre D of the Michelangelo Dining Room he kindly arranged a permanent table with a fantastic team (Sherwin and Roman- two excellent young men doing a great job). The food and choices were excellent every day and we felt had improved since our Diamond Princess cruise in 2008. Of course doing back to back cruises we had repeat menus but this meant we could choose our favourite choices again.
We tried both speciality restaurants (Sabatini's and the Crown Grill) and were very happy with the quality and menu provided. In fact, DH claims he had his best ever Rib eye steak. Unfortunately, both evenings were spoilt by irresponsible parents bringing there extremely young children to a 9pm dinner arrangement and considering these meals are long it was no surprise when these mites started playing up big time and disrupting the restaurant for everybody. Unfortunately, Princess Management in both instances were toothless but apologetic.
Simple and correct solution, have an age limit in these restaurants after 9pm (for the child's' sake as they should be in bed!). On the whole, the food was great, varied and the service excellent.
Entertainment: We didn't do very well here and only saw a few shows. Outstanding were the Illusionists, Tony Laffan and Kasey-Laura both in the Princess Theatre and the Explorers Lounge. See both shows as they are very different. The best shows I have ever seen on a cruise ship. Also excellent were the two comedians on the Christmas Cruise, clever and funny. Unfortunately, on the New Year Cruise the comedians we saw were crass and stupid, in particular the one with the toilet paper jokes. The first time we have ever walked out of a show early! The Production shows unfortunately did not match the Diamond in 2008. While they were not bad they were not particularly special and the leads seemed unbalanced and unconvincing. The Princess Theatre was excellent, in particular the lighting during the shows.
The Sanctuary: Heaven on a ship! The Sanctuary proved an absolute must for us as we are not very good a joining in the noisy poolside fun or loud "Movies under the Stars" that was perpetually permeating the outdoor ship environment. In fact, if you are sun adverse you would have a problem on a warm cruise finding a quiet, shady spot. With this in mind our US $600 (20 days) investment was an absolute must on a full holiday cruise.
The Sanctuary was everything we had hoped for, quiet, sophisticated with stunning sea views. We were allocated our own sea facing loungers for the entire cruise and were pampered in every way possible. The wonderful Bosco, our Serenity Steward, realised I loved afternoon English tea with scones, jam and cream. Naturally, he would materialise every afternoon with the above (the scales at home are proof of this!). DH fell asleep one afternoon when it got a bit chilly and I returned to find him nicely tucked-up with blanket still fast asleep - all Bosco's doing! This extra care is what the Sanctuary is all about. Away from the crowds turning your cruise into a private and romantic time.
This is the best spot on the ship for sailaways and we used it everyday.
The Ship in General: Granted the Ruby Princess is still fairly new, she is in excellent shape and the staff keep her pristine clean. DH while wandering around the upper deck between 1am and 2am, commented on the impressive cleaning effort that was going on in the pool deck restaurants and "Trough" area. No shortcuts taken here. However, a big concern was the lack of food security in respect of hand washing being enforced at the entrances of all restaurants. Having experienced an outbreak of Noro virus on the Diamond the year before, we believe that Princess needs to be tougher on passengers and needs to educate folk on why they need to wash their hands! Also, would it not be great if people did not lick their fingers before touching serving utensils within the buffet area? Quite disgusting!
Ports of Call
We are just going to list our ports with a few tips and impressions. As a family we don't go cruising to shop so cannot really tell you much about shopping although St Thomas did look good. I must say it is quite sad how Princess chases the shopping buck.
Antigua: Grabbed local taxi (van) with folks from Celebrity Summit (docked next to us) and went to see the basics of the island being Shirley Heights, Nelsons Dockyard and a general drive around. It was easy to get the taxi just outside the port entrance and put us together in a group. Cost about $30 per person for a roughly 3-4 hour tour.
Barbados: As above grabbed taxi, however, watch the taxi mafia. They seem to want to put you into a line that results in a particular taxi route (downtown and beaches south of Bridgetown). We wanted to go north up the west coast to Holetown and Speight town and come back inland. Luckily, a non-mafia taxi lady spotted us and helped us. Don't be forced into the queue; keep walking until you get to the non-mafia taxis.
St Lucia: Being Christmas day, the island was closed so we took a Princess tour on a catamaran playing Christmas Reggae music with lots of other passengers. Sailed to the Pitons, had a swim off the boat and saw the beautiful views of St Lucia.
St Kitts: On this island there seem to be two ways of touring. The heavily advertised and expensive steam train that really only showed a limited amount of the island at $99 per person. We took a local taxi (van) and saw the whole island for $20 per person for 2-3 hours. We are confident that we saw more than the people on the train.
St Thomas: We went to St Thomas both on the Christmas and New Year cruise and did the same thing both visits. That was to charter a private yacht taking a maximum of 6 passengers. We used High Pockets and Simplicity Charters. I would suggest, if you are interested and I highly recommend both yachts that you "Google" then Tripadvisor - St. Thomas for excellent reviews. Both these days were the highlights of our cruise and they delivered on every aspect as promised by their websites. We had two exceptional days of sailing, snorkelling (guided tour with Simplicity), great food, unlimited drinks and fantastic fellowship with the crews and their dog. You really can't go wrong here! The cost was $130 per person for the day and seeing a catamaran go past bulging with 100 fellow Ruby passengers paying not much less, music blaring and boozy people, this is a no-brainer.
Princess Cays: Again, we stopped here on both cruises. A beautiful island, well set up for a cruise ship of about 1000 people. Hell on earth for a cruise ship of 3260 people! We went ashore after major delays with tendering caused by the weather, tried some snorkelling that I would imagine would normally be excellent. Visibility was not great due to the waves so we left the island after only one hour and spent the rest of the day at our beloved "Sanctuary" being spoilt. On the New Year Cruise, the weather was better, so the tenders worked but we did not bother to go ashore.
Dominica: It is all about Levi and Bumping Tours! This very professional outfit took care of a wonderful day that saw us drive into the mountains, swim in Titou gorge, Trafalgar Falls and via a tour of the island finish snorkelling at Champagne Reef. This is a real must-do. Contacting Levi is the smart way to see Dominica. This is a lovely island and my personal favourite.
Grenada: Due to the fact that we were only there for half a day, we went for a walk through the town, walked up to a fort for fabulous views and went back to the ship. Clearly, there is more to this island than we saw and we will have to visit again. It had a lovely feeling and I think there is a lot going on here.
Bonaire: We only had the intention of snorkelling at this island and arranged a tour via the internet with "Renee Snorkelling Tours". We did the morning snorkel which is the best choice as the wind tends to pick up in the afternoon. She took us to two sites, both within sight of the ship. Excellent snorkelling and Renee professionally pointed out all sorts of interesting fish and coral including a scorpion fish. You try and spot a scorpion fish! We saw barracuda, eagle rays, plenty fish and no sharks. In the afternoon we took a walk through the town that has some lovely shops and was nice and clean. Will definitely visit again - a DH favourite.
Aruba: We were in port for a whole day and took a tour with "Bully" a man with a terrific knowledge and pride in his island. We really saw every inch of the island from the top to the bottom. Included in his tour was the nature reserve with its desert sites, caves, wildlife etc. He then took us to the lovely Alto Vista chapel with its cultural influence on the island. We continued to the lighthouse and came back via the tourist hotels and shops. I must say, I don't think you could do a better tour of Aruba and Bully is the man when it comes to Aruba. Try had to get Bully via the inter-net. He is professional and a real gentleman
Cruising the Caribbean is a great way of seeing the islands. This was our first foray to this part of the world and we were amazed by how different and unique each island was. Every person we met on the islands was very friendly and welcoming and at no time did we feel insecure or at risk.
Finally back to Fort Lauderdale: On returning to FL we took a Princess tour to the Everglades and then on to the airport. Unfortunately we got the coldest wettest day Florida ever had (Sunny Florida, is this a myth?) It was very wet and cold and the alligators stayed away.
However I must say this tour I believe would have been excellent on every other day and the poor tour guide did a grand job of amusing a bus load of frozen folk who could hardly stare out the mist covered windows (This was in Florida I promise) No seriously this tour would normally be great and it is great way to get to the airport.
Happy Cruising ME & DH & Brat