Ocean Princess Cruise Review by Tom Barnes: Ocean Princess to Southeast/East Asia—An Uneven Ride
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Ocean Princess to Southeast/East Asia—An Uneven Ride
We took a midnight flyer out of LAX to Bangkok on Cathay Pacific (we used AA miles for business class). It was 15 hours of air time to Hong Kong but it was "heaven" because of the flat bed seats and the superior Cathay Pacific service—the best I have ever experienced in 50 years of flying. After a short layover it was three hours to Bangkok where we negotiated with a Limo service at the airport for transfer to Laem Chabang. For 2300 Bhat ($71) we took the 1½ hour ride to the port in comfort. We carry our own medium size roller bags on the ship and the whole embarkation process took 30 minutes. My wife Vonne and I are seasoned travelers as this was my 27th cruise (Vonne's 24th) and I have now visited 94 countries and Vonne 90 We are 67 and 59 and are still very independent travelers.
The Ocean Princess is one of the old Renaissance ships that have been bought up by Princess, Oceana, Azamara and maybe one other line. They all hold More around 675 Passengers and are an ideal size to travel the world. This is our 5th cruise on one of these ships and we have been on this one before when it was the Tahitian Princess doing 10 day cruises through the Society Islands and alternating the Cook Islands with the Marquesas in the South Pacific. Three months ago we were on another former Renaissance ship the Azamara Journey for 12 nights around the Tyrhennian Sea. Since the two cruises were so close together on the same Renaissance type ship it is only natural to compare the two experiences.
You would be hard pressed to find a more interesting itinerary than what Princess put together for this 16 night journey through Southeast and East Asia. With days at sea alternating with port days it was an ideal way to sample Asia. The stops included Ko Samui (island in southern Thailand), Singapore, Phu Mai & Danang in Vietnam, Hong Kong (2 days & 1 night), Keelung (Taiwan), Okinawa, & Shanghai.
Food Our dinner companions for the late or 8:15 sitting were two British married couples, who each came from different parts of the UK, and two single ladies from Canada. We had a wonderful group and were often the last table to leave the dining room. Thank you John and Angie, Rob and Pat, and Helen and Jean for making our dinners so enjoyable and for especially trying to teach me the rules of cricket.
As with most cruises there is enough variety of food to satisfy most palettes. Overall I would have to rate the food basically good but uneven. Some good, some bad, much of it so-so.
We usually ate breakfast and lunch in the dining room when we had days at sea and breakfast in the Panorama buffet on port days. Lunch was ashore on port days and we normally packed two sandwiches with cold cuts at breakfast to eat for lunch on our port days.
Breakfast in the dining room was a nice experience but the menu was very limited. Lunch in the dining room was quite good at times as not many passengers ate there and the cooked to order food could be very tasty. I found that the fish cooked at lunch (I had excellent perch and trout dishes) was much better that the fish cooked for dinner.
One real standout for both lunch and dinner was the salads. The selection of greens was first rate, and the blue cheese dressing was not only different than what you usually get, it was very tasty. My wife really liked the honey-mustard dressing as well.
One feature that the Ocean Princess introduced is the Bistro dining option for dinner on days at sea. The normal buffet still operated on port days but on days at sea and especially the three formal nights you could eat in the buffet but it was set up as a dining room with white tablecloths, servers, and all the amenities of the dining room with food cooked to order and served. For the first time we did not drag our coat and tie and dress shoes and fancy dresses to a cruise that had formal nights. Without that unnecessary baggage we were still able to dine in the Bistro in our "smart casual" clothes and had a wonderful dining experience. My salmon filet was cooked just right and was as good a piece of fish as any that we had on the cruise. The Bistro has three different menus, A, B, and C that alternate.
Cabin Our cabin in "steerage" as we like to call it on lower deck 3 was fine. Lots of room for everything and except for the shower being a little tight it worked out OK. There are a couple of things wrong with it that (see "The Bad) could easily be fixed. We hit some weather going to Taiwan and the ship was rocking and rolling and the lower deck is a smoother ride. The crew would come around and close our porthole but I would open it up. I did leave it closed one night when the ship was rocking in heavy seas. The one disadvantage to deck 3 was you could not walk to the gangway on port days (located on deck 3). You had to go up to deck 4 and over and then down to 3.
Ports of Call Ko Samuii is a terrific resort island and we took the first tender ashore, bargained for a taxi, got a new one, and the driver took us to a number of stops around the island including one for an elephant ride, the famous grandpa (phallic) and grandma (vagina) rock formations, the main tourist beach and other sites. It was 2000 Bhat ($60) well spent.
Singapore is the great entrepot of Asia and we had stayed here before so we kept our journey simple. It was typical Singapore weather, hot and humid and we rode a hop on hop off bus around twice to see the changes from our last visit. The new building is unbelievable. It was a cheap way to see the sights in comfort (great AC) and a front view seat. Finally, we stopped at the free botanical gardens and toured that area including the Orchid garden that had a small fee to enter with a great senior discount.
Hong Kong was new to us and we had two full days. Sadly, the weather did not cooperate for both days were cool and blustery. On day 1 we did too much. First the ferry to Hong Kong island (as a senior I rode free and Vonne was $3 HK or about 45 cents and then the bus to famed Stanley Market. We almost never shop but we actually bought a couple of gift items. The market was OK but nothing unusual and nothing like some of the markets we have seen around the world in Istanbul and Tunis etc. Next, another bus to Aberdeen to see the Sampans and the fish market. Another bus to the central station where we took the MRT to Tung Yee to ride the famed 3 mile cable car. I will let my wife Vonne take over from here:
Off we go to Lantau to take the Ngong Ping skyway cable car ride over the city, a hike to see a giant Buddha, and take the skyway back. We pay a bit more for the "crystal" cable car with a glass bottom (I'm thinking —so you can see the ground approach as you plummet 2000 feet straight down if the cable breaks).
It starts out OK—fine and dandy— We see a forest of green trees below as we ascend the tops of the mountain peaks. We glide over the ocean and see miles of beautiful scenery all around (and below us). We can see the cable car in front and behind us, and the ones returning. We wave to each other and smile. Suddenly, it starts to get colder and the car begins to rock in a strong wind. We ascend into a mist that fast becomes a cloud. We are a cloud. No cable car in front or back. No ocean beneath. Look out the windows and through the glass bottom— solid cloud. It gets even colder. All I have is a weenie, light-weight, cotton zip-up; and Tom has only a light nylon jacket. I realize that if the cable breaks, we will not see the ground through the glass bottom as we plummet to the ground. We both are COLD, and we can't see anything— but we keep moving along in the cloud for about a half an hour, and get off in a misty, cold, windy village called Ngong Ping 360. Out we go to see if we can make it to the Big Buddha— NOT! Too much wind and swirling mist/rain — and not enough visibility. Tom spots a Starbuck's but we opt instead to duck into the Zen Noodle Cafe for some warmth and nourishment before undertaking the return trip back. The Zen Noodle Cafe is small and open to the elements in front, but there are tables tucked inside where it is warm. We share a big bowl of chicken noodle soup and it hits the spot. They also bring us two mugs of plain hot water. Watching others, we see them drinking it (as opposed to adding it to the soup), and we do the same. After another potty stop we brave the wind-chill and make way to return down the mountain; but the weather is so bad, they close the ride and refund the return fare down. What to do? We find a bus back to the MRT and run to board it just in the nick of time. Oh— and you have to have exact fare for the driver because he does not make change, but keeps the difference! Good thing for the coins we received at the Chinese Noodle Soup place! Taking the bus down the mountain, across the valley, and up the next mountain is more scenic than the cable car going up. We see the stuff we missed from the cable car when we were in a cloud. To get back to the ship we take the MRT back to Central Station then to the Star Ferry, and back to Cruise Harbor. It has been a long 8 hours of trekking and maneuvering, and it is again good to be back on ship to a comfortable room and a good meal.
We are so stiff and sore the next day in Hong Kong from the labors of the previous day that we do not do much in the rainy weather. Vonne stays on the ship to heal and I take a two hour walk of the basic shopping areas of Kowloon and I am not a shopper. Just more expensive stuff as far as I am concerned and I can usually get better deals in the U.S. Who buys all this "crap" anyway? Ships Tours As fierce independent travelers we usually do not take ship's tours but go off on our own. We broke our rule this time and went on three ship's tours. They cost about twice what we usually spend when we go ashore independently but they are convenient. The first was a 2 & ½ hour ride to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) from Phu Mai where the ship was docked. This was an adequate tour but was marred (see bad) by a long shopping stop. The other two were much better. A 1 & ½ hour ride to Hue from our port near Da Nang. We had a very nice guide and saw all the historic sites in the Imperial city. The final one was on Taiwan and very pricey at $159 each. With bad weather marring the view the trip to the mineral springs at the Paradise hotel started out as a disaster. The following is my wife Vonne's report on this stop and the ship's tour:
This morning we docked in Keelung, Taiwan and it was raining 12°C (53.6°F). We were signed up for a tour to some outdoor mineral spas, and I had misgivings about the whole thing, but it turned out to be really super For starts in celebration of the Tet, Taiwanese greeters gave us each a red envelope and greeting card with a good luck coin inside. Red is the Chinese good luck color, and parents traditionally give good luck money to their kids on Tet morning.
We took a bus ride in bad weather for about an hour to the mineral springs at the Paradise resort hotel. Before using the baths we had to change into our swim wear and put on a silly shower cap. Then we hustled outside in the cold mist/rain and made our way along a couple of football fields to about 12 stone mineral baths. The mineral water smelled a bit like sulfur and the outdoor baths varied from 20 to 40°C. Each of them offered different types of pressurized water massage. There were pipes having openings the size of large garden hoses on the sides of the walls and down inside the pools with different amounts of pulsating, pressurized water coming out of them. All we had to do was position ourselves in the right place to get a great water massage. We spent about an hour & ½ at the pools and then joined locals for a Tet lunch buffet in the hotel. On the way back we put on rain gear and had an easy hike by the sea on a rock area that had been shaped and eroded by the force of ocean waves over thousands of years. The water had worn away the sides of large rocks and boulders and made them into bizarre sculptures. One in particular was shaped like ancient Egyptian Queen Nefertitti's head. It was about 15 feet tall, and we all stopped to get a photo standing by the sculpture. After walking through a very interesting market we returned to the coach and back to the ship.
Our final ship's tour was on the last day in Shanghai. As our flight left at 6:00 PM we needed to kill most of the day. To Princess's credit they arranged for a half day tour of Shanghai to the Jade Temple, a tea ceremony, Yu Gardens, and walk along the east side of the river to see the Bund from a distance. It was quite enjoyable and it ended at the airport as they dropped the 14 of us off for our flights. This tour was a bargain at $49 each and did not include the usual lunch stop. We had packed sandwiches at lunch so we were fine. Our flight home on AA included 14 hours to Chicago and 4.5 hours back to LAX. It was long but uneventful and certainly not Cathay Pacific quality but it was OK.
In order to compete with other lines Princess will have to step up its customer relations. For example, when we boarded no one paid any attention to us: no welcoming drink, no help with bags leading to our room, no directions to our room. This is a small thing but it sets the tone.
The ship is supposed to have been refurbished but it shows some wear. One of the Jacuzzis is badly scarred and the wood decking is deteriorating. One thing we noticed is that you almost never saw anyone doing maintenance. Compared to the Azamara Journey in which the crew was constantly doing maintenance, this was surprising.
Although much of the food gets high marks there was one thing I could not understand. A high point of the dining experience for me is the veal and lamb dishes. On most cruises, a veal or lamb dish is one of the choices almost every night. For some reason the Ocean Princess did not serve veal until the 5th night and lamb the 6th. We always had beef, chicken, fish, and vegetarian dishes but veal and lamb were scarce. This is one sign of the cutback in food quality that the Princess is practicing. After that, except for a lamb stew once, lamb or veal seldom appeared on the menu. We finally got lamb in the dining room on day 11 and veal on day 12—delicious, but a bit late.
On days at sea we usually ate breakfast in the dining room and the food was fine but there was a very limited menu. For example, no corned beef hash or French toast, two of my favorites. The breakfast buffet had a much wider selection and was typical buffet food. There were often log jams because of the placement of certain food items like the butter. At the omelette station the main cook had his fire too hot and would cremate half the omlette even if you asked for it soft in the French style. It would be half burnt and half raw. Maybe he was new at it but he could not get the knack. One day there was a replacement cook and he cooked it just fine. In days at sea we usually ate breakfast in the dining room. They said they had bran muffins on the menu but when we asked for them they always said they did not have them. When we asked the Maitre de he said he would get them for us and he did after a 10 minute wait. One morning I just went up to the buffet to get the bran muffins and bring them to the dining room. It seemed odd that they had a pastry tray full of donuts, croissants, Danish and other pastries but no bran muffins. We asked why the could not make a few less donuts and a few more bran muffins but we did not get a satisfactory answer. We could get along without the bran muffins but it seemed odd to have them on the menu and not be able to deliver them.
One thing that bothered our dinner table mates who drink wine with dinner. For the first 6 nights they ordered a wine off the menu that cost $22. On the 7th night they were informed that the wine they had been drinking was no longer available but they could substitute a different wine that was similar for more money ($26 a bottle). They felt, and I concur that the substitute wine should have been offered at the same price as the original wine. It seemed "tacky" to charge them more when it was the ship that was at fault for not having an adequate supply of the wine listed on the wine list.
The ship daily bulletin called the "Princess Patter" was poorly organized and composed. For some reason it did not include the eating hours for the restaurant or the buffet. When I asked about this their answer was that it had been included in the first day's bulletin but not subsequent days. There is also a large blue book in each cabin that contained information about the ship but nothing on the dining hours. Finally, the front desk sent me a card that listed the dining hours. The card should have been in the Blue Book in everyone's room. The "Patter" seemed to be more concerned with its advertisement's for the spa, bingo, casino etc. than providing information to the passengers.
For a 16 day cruise there were no news bulletins delivered to our staterooms. This is quite unusual and is just another example of Princess's "pinching pennies" which results in a decline of service.
On one of our ships tours to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) the guide gave us only two minutes to take one outside photo of the Rex hotel in order to preserve a full 40 minutes for a shopping stop at a lacquer factory and showroom. After 5 minutes we had seen enough and there was nothing else to do in that downtrodden neighborhood. As I cooled my heels waiting for the shopping to end I thought about how some of these minutes could have been used to allow us to see the lobby of the Rex. This is one of the problems of ship's tours the obligatory "shopping stop" that always overrules all other considerations. This is the one ship's tour that I would have to rate as unsuccessful.
The general decline in service that almost all cruise lines have suffered from since the advent of automatic tipping about 10 years ago continued. It is not so much that it is so bad as it is the indifference since the automatic tipping. The experience is not the same. In all of our cruises over the last 10 years the only one where the service was as good as the pre-automatic tipping era was the Azamara Journey
On day two my wife arranged to buy $100 worth of minutes on the internet. We wasted 36 minutes trying to send one E-mail that failed. The next morning we tried to get some clarification on how to do this from the internet person and we asked her to restore the 36 minutes we had lost the day before. She restored 6 minutes to our account so we were out 36 minutes (about $15 worth). Not only did her attitude stink, but we felt she should have restored the whole 36 minutes instead of being argumentative and combative. We spent over $7000 to Princess on this cruise and we are being chiseled out of $15 of internet time. It makes no sense and shows a lack of supervision of staff by management.
The self-washing situation could have been a worse disaster than it was except for the forbearance of the passengers who organized the process. Four dryers and four washing machines were available but two of the dryers were almost always broke to cause a huge backlog in the drying process. If the Ocean Princess is going to roam the seas with 30 day cruises it needs to create a 2nd laundry room and make sure the dryers are maintained and working at all times. Most passengers had to spend at least a half a day to do their laundry, hanging out in the laundry that was like a sauna and some had to wait until the next day to have their clothes dried after washing them. My wife tried to rectify the situation by going through the front desk and talked to Adrian and her supervisor Randall. After about 30 minutes and sticking to her guns she got Tony to come down to the laundry room. He saw how bad the situation was with 25 passengers milling about trying to dry their clothes. He brought two guys from the laundry room to bag up the wet clothes of about 8 passengers who were waiting for the dryer. They took them to the ship's laundry to dry them and returned them to our rooms later in the day. If Princess is going to offer 30 day cruises as this was, they need to have more than 2 dryers working. They need to create a separate washing room with more dryers than washers (drying takes 45 minutes and washing takes 30 minutes. This is another example of the "higher ups" not thinking.
Smoke often wafted into our room and we would go to the dining room often smelling of smoke. We told the front desk about this problem but they said they could do nothing about it because Princess policy allowed passengers to smoke in their rooms. 16 days of smelling smoke was a long trip. I don't remember a ship allowing smoking in the rooms for at least the last 10 years. When we were on this ship in 2003, I don't remember smoke being a problem but we could have been in a section of the ship that was non- smoking or that people were not smoking. Princess better adopt a no smoking in the rooms policy fast as other lines have done or they will lose lots of business. There was also a problem in the 4 shady areas around the pool. Smoking was only supposed to be allowed in two of these but frequently the smokers occupied all 4 areas. Non-smokers who wanted to sit in the pool area in the shade were out of luck and had to endure the smoke.
The initial show of the ship's singers and dancers was so bad we walked out. It was a tribute to Motown and they could not pull it off. It was embarrassing. The last day they did two shows that were a tribute to travel (Ports of Call) and Cinema. These were actually good but the Mowtown experience overshadowed everything.
I am not sure we would book Princess again unless the price and itinerary were out of this world. There is no comparison to the Azamara Journey, the same ship but a much superior operation. Princess higher ups need to take a cruise on the Journey to see how it should be done. In the competitive cruising industry Princess should do better. They did better when we first cruised the Tahitian Princess in 2003. Less
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