My partner and I (34 and 31, respectively) were on the Caribbean Princess for the Southern Caribbean Explore roundtrip voyage departing from San Juan, Puerto Rico on February 14, 2010, with stops in St. Thomas, Dominica, Grenada, Bonaire, Aruba followed by a day at sea before returning to San Juan on the morning of February 21. It was my better half's second cruise, and my first, so this cruise report is certainly a deeper look at the trip and cruise experience from a beginner's perspective.
Embarkation: Embarkation for the Caribbean Princess was smooth and effortless - we had arrived the previous day and spent the night in San Juan at the Caribe Hilton to avoid winter weather delays that snarled much of the country and showed up at the Pan Am Pier terminal shortly after 2 pm. Once we figured out where we needed to drop off our bags and enter the terminal, we didn't encounter any lines and breezed through check-in and were on the ship quickly. Once on board (through deck 7), we made our way to our cabin on the Emerald deck (deck 8).
The only hitch was that we had no idea which pier to go to in order to board the ship (Pan Am piers or Old San Juan) - thanks to CruiseCritic we learned the correct pier, and a quick call to the Princess 800 number confirmed it. Also, the cabs were more costly than we had anticipated - a cab from the airport to the hotel was about $26, and so was a cab for the very short ride from the hotel to the ship.
Cabin: Despite my desire for a balcony cabin, my partner talked me out of it to take advantage of a great last minute deal on a guaranteed oceanview room. About a week before the cruise we were assigned Room E622 on the port side of the Emerald Deck (deck 8). It was an obstructed oceanview, with one of the larger tenders in front of the window. While it was indeed obstructed, you could still see through the tender and to the side. Having the natural light helped our internal clocks, and I understand other cabins in the same category with the smaller life boats facing them actually had direct views.
I have to say, the room was really nice and much larger than I expected. On entering, there is a short hallway to the bedroom area, much like a hotel, with the bathroom tucked away on the left and an open closet area with a shelf bureau and safe at the end. We didn't pack light - three suitcases, a suit bag, two carry-ons and snorkel equipment for two - but storage was absolutely no problem. The bathroom has a smart layout and we had plenty of space for our toiletries. A lot of people have complained about the "clingy" shower curtain, and I am sure the sliding plexiglass shower doors are nicer, but it was never an issue for us. There is one standard outlet (two prong) in the bathroom.
Forward of the bathroom and closet space is the ensuite room. The two twins pushed together to make a very spacious and comfortable queen bed with four pillows (we requested extra pillows without a problem). There is a desk/vanity with a hair dryer attached to the wall, phone, and two three-prong plugs. I had read here on Cruise Critic to bring an alarm clock and power bar for extra plugs, and I am glad I did for the two cameras, iPods, laptop, cellphones, etc. If you forget an alarm clock, there is an automated wake-up service through the in-room phone. There are also plenty of mirrors, which make the room feel bigger.
The room also had a flat screen TV, with movies, cable programs, ship's bridge camera, bridge station to track movement and speed, even old episodes of the Love Boat (which, admittedly, were neat to watch at night onboard). There was also a chair, small side table, and refrigerator stocked with a bucket of ice and sodas (there is a charge if you drink the sodas). Even so, the fridge easily accommodated two bottles of bubbly we brought aboard - which, is the limit per person to bring aboard. Any liquor is "secured" out of your possession until the end of the cruise when it is returned to you.
After checking out the room and ship related reading materials inside, we were pleasantly surprised to find all but one of our pieces of luggage already outside of our door. The last piece was delivered shortly after we left the room to explore the ship and was waiting in the room when we returned.
Overall we were extremely pleased with the room -- it was very quiet, right across from the laundry if you needed to iron a few wrinkles out of a shirt, and it's location not far from the elevator or a short walk up the hall to the piazza or down the stairs to the promenade made it extremely convenient.
The Ship: My sailing experience up until this point was limited to growing up on the water sailing 30 foot sailboats, so needless to say, the ship was impressive to me. However, despite its large size, I rarely ever felt crowded onboard. Once you mastered the layout, it was easy to navigate. There was rarely a delay waiting for an elevator - although we often chose to use the stairs to burn off some extra cruise calories.
Deck 7 is the promenade deck and it is the easiest way to cut forward or aft to navigate the ship if you are below deck 15. Most of the indoor entertainment is located along this deck and lower ones, including the three story piazza towards the front of the ship where passenger services and the boutiques are located. The piazza was a very pleasant gathering area at night or during the day, and forward of the piazza, you'll find the ship's casino and the theater.
Walking the promenade at night was a treat, and it was easy to enjoy being close to the water breaking along the ship—for that matter, walking the upper decks was also a delight at night to take in the stars and ocean breezes. From the promenade, you can walk forward and up a flight of stairs to the bow of the ship on deck 8 (although it closes after sunset) for some spectacular views. The dining rooms are located on Decks 6 and 5.
Decks 15 and above are where you will find the buffet, outdoor pools, hot tubs, pizza stand, hamburger grill, and ice cream station as well as the sun decks, the Sanctuary, basketball court, teen clubs, etc.
The dEcor may not have been the most ornate at sea, but it was tasteful, reserved, appealing to me because it wasn't Las Vegas glitzy like many Carnival ships described and photographed online. My partner thought Princess could spruce up the buffet area, unlike the rest of the ship it looks a little dated and heavy like a Florida community cafeteria. And the reviews are right on navigating the buffet—it is a free for all and there are no formal lines, so don't wait around.
As far as exercise, the gym is very impressive and I had no trouble using it. We did take the tour of the spa the first afternoon aboard, and were sorely tempted to sign up for a massage and passes priced at $150 for both of us together to use the saunas, heated loungers, and rainforest showers. But in the end, we knew we wouldn't have the time and the rest of the ship's facilities like the adults only pools and hottubs would fit the bill. Likewise, the Sanctuary looked inviting, but we passed because our own itinerary left us little time to use it.
Dining: I have to give high marks to Princess for dining - overall, choices were plentiful and the food was very good. We choose Anytime Dining and it was nice not to be tied down by a set dining time—we found it worked well with our schedules and appetites. On two nights we ate with other passengers and enjoyed the company and chance to meet new people; on other nights we waited for a table for two and savored the privacy together.
With anytime dining, you could choose to eat in the Coral (deck 6) or Island (deck 5) dining rooms—the Palm dining room was reserved for traditional seating—but the menus were the same for each. In fact, we opted not to eat at the two specialty restaurants—Sabitinis and Crown Grill—because we were content with the menu (although I did hear from other passengers the steaks at Crown Grill were excellent, much better than those served in the main dining rooms).
We tried both dining rooms and preferred the Island because the service seemed to be friendlier—in fact, the staff made all the difference in the world. From the moment we were greeted at the door, to meeting Tudor, who has to be one of the best servers at sea, we returned to the Island dining room every night. And I would guess we couldn't have been the only ones who felt the same way, because we saw many other passengers who seemed to gravitate to the dining room as well (including a famous BBC actor, his partner and family).
The typical meal offered an appetizer (spring rolls were some of my favorites) as well as a soup or salad (wonton soup was great - and after tasting the better half's I was sad I didn't try the frozen-rum infused pina colada soup - in fact, all of the fruit soups were fantastic!) followed by a main course (on this trip the pork dishes were very good - and the staff were more than accommodating to make changes if you didn't like the sides). Dessert never disappointed - whether it was cheesecake, crème brule, apple pie or even amaretto ice cream).
Likewise, with so many choices, you couldn't leave the buffet hungry - and the fresh fruit had us returning throughout the day for snacks. We did try the cheeseburgers on deck, but hands down our favorite was the pizza - the best we have ever had outside of New York City. If you like pizza, you'll fall in love with the thin crust. And for a cool treat, we'd pop by the ice cream stand for soft serve or hard ice cream (again, taking the stairs came in handy).
In your stateroom you could order room service from a more limited menu, and you could request fresh fruit like bananas, oranges, apples, kiwis, pears, etc be delivered every morning to your stateroom (which were excellent to take along and snack on during active long shore excursions like the ones we did). You could also get a coffee/tea and juice service delivered with a continental breakfast to wake up to in the morning. All you had to do for both was fill out a card and place it on your door before retiring to bed.
Ports of Call: In addition to the price and ship, the itinerary was one of the prime drivers (if not the prime factor) for us in choosing this cruise. Admittedly, we weren't looking for a Caribbean booze cruise—we wanted to visit islands that were out of the traditional cruise circuit and a bit more natural to would put our amphibian hiking shoes to and snorkel sets to work, and with the exception of St. Thomas, that's exactly what we found.
Our visit to the island of Dominica was the highlight of the trip. In fact, I highly recommend contacting Levi Baron of Bumpiing Tours (www.bumpiingtours.com) if you find yourself lucky enough to visit this natural treasure (so beautiful, in fact, that you'll find out much of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies were filmed on location). Thanks to Levi's friendly, safe, and no-hassle expert tour, we feel in love with Dominica. We swam in the Titou gorge, visited the Trafalgar falls, relaxed in a hot sulfur spring, and discovered fish, coral, and a 400 year old canon from a shipwreck at Champagne Reef. I can't recommend Levi enough - and for those of you hesitant to abandon the overpriced, rushed organized mass herded cruise tours, don't miss out on this wonderful experience. I also can't recommend the incredible tool available to cruisers on CruiseCritic -- member reviews are a great resource to go by.
With such a short time in Grenada, we passed on tours and instead decided to explore the charming streets of St. George's as a pleasant (and low cost) treat. For our visit to Bonaire, we again abandoned the cruise ship tours and rented a small car (if renting from a leading dealer at the airport, call the office and ask to be met at the dock - they will also drop you back off at the dock). I can't imagine doing a better thing - with a good map from the rental company, we explored every inch of the island, seeing the great salt flats in the south, old slave huts, mangrove forests, the interior, snorkeled along the coast, sighted flamingoes in Lake Gotomeer, visited the National Forrest to the north, and saw ancient Indian petroglyphs and moon-like rocky surfaces on the weather beaten western coast. We even encountered a pack of curious donkeys and stopped for a quick photo with them.
On Aruba we found the local public bus system—Arubus—to be a clean, inexpensive, and reliable way to get around the island. For about $6 or $7 total, we traveled from the main station next to the dock downtown up to the Butterfly farm, the resorts beaches on Palm Coast, and the Arashi snorkeling sites on the northern end of the island. You can visit the Arubus website for more information, and pick up a bus route map when arriving on the island. Just watch your time (and pad a little extra time to make sure you are back to the dock a little early) and know the frequency of the bus schedule. As a general rule the buses come along the main line every 10 - 15 minutes; the Arashi bus can take up to an hour between runs.
Also, don't overlook another great stop before or after the cruise itself - Old San Juan. With its rich history, beautiful colonial architecture, restaurants, shops and forts like San Cristobal and El Morro, a visit to Old San Juan is wonderful excursion.
Entertainment: Visiting the piazza onboard yielded some of the most delightful entertainment experiences like listening to members of the Caribbean Princess Orchestra play Dixieland and Jazz favorites, or spending the last evening aboard at Crooners with new found friends listening to piano player Eric Stone as he took song requests.
With busy days in port, we enjoyed escaping the onboard bars and clubs at night to go to the pools and hottubs (which were usually deserted) or strolled along the top decks to enjoy the nights together. Movies Under the Stars is an experience you won't soon forget—it feels a little like a drive in movie (from what I can remember), but from the comfort of a padded deck chair with popcorn and candy readily available.
During the voyage there were also comedians and a hypnotist aboard, as well as themed nights in the clubs and bars, but again we skipped these because we wanted to relax and savor the tropical nights.
One area where we both felt Princess dropped the ball big time was the "Broadway" style shows. Wow, do they really consider that Broadway style? They were terrible—in fact, someone remarked on CruiseCritic that they were like dinner theater, but that is an insult to dinner theater. They were more like kids' talent recital shows with actors cast instead. I mean, I felt bad for the actors - some of them do have talent - but Princess should seriously review the talent and vision of their artistic directors if this is the caliber of entertainment they are offering and billing to passengers as "Broadway" style. There was no story, they were just a collection of scenes which shared the same stage. In fairness some people did enjoy the performances and my better half is an accomplished stage actor himself, and so I have been fortunate to be treated to some good shows—but I have also sat through my fair share of bad shows too and these performances were a big disappointment and ranked pretty far down there.
Crew and Service: Without a doubt, the thing that can make or break the public's perception of a travel or tourism experience are the people they encounter who make it all happen. Before deciding on this cruise we watched an episode on Princess Cruises on the Travel Channel and heard about the Princess Difference - which sounded remarkably like the Disney Difference in customer service that has made their resorts some of the most popular destination spots on the planet.
We certainly saw the commitment to going the extra mile from people like Tudor and his colleagues in the Island Dining Room, and from others like our cabin steward Jose (I honestly don't know if Jose slept a wink the entire trip - it seems he always knew the moment we left our cabin and came in to tidy the place up or turn down the bed for the night, even if we only stepped out for ten minutes). We'd see smiling faces of crew in the hallways and were bowled over when the young woman at the ice cream stand smiled and remembered just how we liked our cones (we visited once a day, but out of 3,000 passengers, that was impressive).
We also encountered some crew members who understandably fell short, after all the crew have to be some of the hardest working people under the sun. Still, it was disappointing when you needed help getting another towel on deck (finding one was a task in itself) - or worse yet - when you needed to get help straightening out a billing error at Customer Service, only to wait in a long line to have a crew member more interested in getting you out of their way than helping you out. In fact, on disembarkation we found ourselves at Passenger Services again trying to straighten out a problem we thought had been resolved the night before.
Fellow Passengers: By and large we encountered a diverse mix of passengers, most seemed to be comprised of Americans and Canadians looking to escape the winter for some Caribbean sunshine and relaxation. There were some couples like us or younger aboard, and some families with children and teens, but most were couples older than us. Everyone is there for a good time and we encountered many friendly people on board and conversations were quick and easy to strike up. After a day or two, you started seeing familiar faces and you'd catch up or trade laughs.
Disembarkation: The day before disembarkation, information is delivered to your room about the process as well as luggage tags and group assignments for leaving the ship, along with your customs forms. Passengers are asked to pack their luggage and place it in the hallway the night before so it can be processed and returned to you in the terminal to clear customs after you leave the ship.
The Caribbean Princess docked back in San Juan at 6:00 a.m., and for the most part passengers were asked to vacate their cabins by 8:00 a.m. We had signed up for EZ Check, which allows you to check in for your flight while still on the ship. For a fee of $20 per person (plus any additional baggage fees from the airlines), your boarding passes are delivered to the room as well as luggage tags for your plane trip home. After disembarking the ship and clearing customs, you turn the checked luggage back over to a Princess representative and the bags are checked through and taken to the airport to meet you again when you land at your final destination.
This is a good service - especially if you plan on spending any time in Old San Juan before departing for home and don't want to haul bags around with you. The disembarkation process is also fairly simple - you gather in a public space until a member of the crew dismisses your group, then you head off the ship, collect your bags in the terminal, and join the queue to clear customs. Don't let the line intimidate you - ours stretched all the way to the end of the building, but it moved very quickly and we were out without hassle.
The only drawback we experienced was dealing with passenger services - again, having spent time the night before to resolve an accounting problem, we thought our account was settled. By 7:00 a.m. on disembarkation day, we were contacted by passenger services and returned again to settle the account - and in the process - had only five minutes before our group was to meet and leave the ship. We asked the Passenger Services crew member if he thought we would have a few minutes to grab a quick bite to eat (forgoing breakfast because we had to straighten the account out again).
To sum up his reaction and response you would think that if we weren't with your group -and off the ship in 5 minutes to collect your bags and go through the Gestapo like process he described—your bags would be shredded in a giant mulcher, your passports and ID's would be confiscated, and you'd be sent by the Department of Homeland Security to Guantanamo. The truth, as we found out, couldn't be further from this - the groups are done to make the process orderly, which is completely understandable, but we could have easily taken about 30 minutes to grab a quick breakfast before heading off the ship, collecting our luggage, and passing through the easy customs process. It just was an unpleasant note to end the trip on. And to judge from the long line of people also at Passenger Services that morning, we weren't the only ones.
Summary: Being a first time cruiser, I confess to researching the ship, cruise line, and itinerary extensively. When you can only go on one vacation a year because of cost (or in our circumstances, busy work schedules) it's only natural to want to make sure it goes great and you get the best bang for your buck and best time for your limited vacation days.
Princess Cruises had stood out to us for their reputation and commitment to service while also being a good value, and the itinerary was an important factor. Still, we asked every passenger who had cruised before to compare this voyage to prior Princess cruises or cruises on other lines, and without exception, everyone said that quality and service had noticeably slipped. Some long-term Princess cruisers pointed to what they believed were the effects of Carnival's corporate culture coming into fuller effect following the line's purchase of Princess, others said that it was a result of an economic downturn that has caused everyone to cut back.
Still, I have to say the cruise was a great experience - for the price we paid, we got to travel to several islands while only unpacking once and never having to worry about wheter breakfast, lunch, or dinner was going to be good (or even necessitate a trip to the local pharmacy). If you were like me and on the fence about a cruise and whether or not it is really for you, I say take a chance, you might just be surprised. Now we just wish we could have taken the time off from work to combine this trip with the alternating second week itinerary trip many other passengers we met were taking. Maybe a week just isn't enough?