We booked our cruise through a cruise only agency, one that we have used for several years. We are too old and too fat to fly internationally in coach, so we usually buy our coach tickets independently and upgrade to Business Class with miles. However on this itinerary we booked Princess air through the travel agent because it was several thousand dollars less than if we had bought two one-way tickets each from the airline. We flew United on the outbound, and a combo of South African Air and United on the return. We flew into Singapore one day early, and booked the Pan Pacific hotel through the travel agent, who had a better price than I could find on the internet. It's a great hotel, and a real steal at $135 including taxes. Because we'd been to Singapore before, we chose to spend our 1.5 days there at the Jurong Bird Park, and the Orchid Garden at the Botanical Gardens. We were glad that we'd flown in early, and enjoyed two leisurely days.
We embarked around 3 PM, taking a taxi from the hotel to the pier. No crowds at that hour, so we were in our rooms within minutes. I had assumed (wrongly) that Princess would have refurbished the ship when they changed it from the Tahitian Princess to the Ocean Princess. So I was surprised to see that the cabin showed signs of wear. Nothing bothersome, just a little tired. Our cabin steward was excellent, as they almost always are.
The itin originally had 13 ports of call, but the Seychelles and Myanmar were removed before departure, reducing the number to 11, on a 32 day cruise. So nearly two-thirds of the cruise was at sea. The Seychelles was dropped due to pirate activity in the West Indian ocean, and I was definitely in favor of avoiding pirates! It was unclear why Myanmar was dropped, but it was suggested that it had to do with the tides in the river, and the scheduled times of arrival and departure. I'd visited most of the ports of call on previous travels, but my husband and our friend had not.
We prefer to arrange our own shore excursions when possible. However on this cruise we only did our own tours in Malaysia, Thailand, and Cape Town. I just couldn't find reliable tour operators in some of the ports that don't have high levels of tourism. Kuala Lampur is a very modern and interesting city. We took a tour with Princess because the independent tour I'd hoped to book fell apart before we left home. In Penang,Malaysia (island) we booked a full-day tour with Mr. PG Lee, at a cost of 30 Malaysian Ringgits per hour (firstname.lastname@example.org). I especially liked the tour at the spice garden and the butterfly farm. And another fresh seafood lunch! Phuket,Thailand (another island) is charming, and has recovered well from the Tsunami, at least in the areas that tourists see. We booked a full-day island tour with Daj, http://www.independenttraveler.com/ at 1800 baht for the day, including petrol. Our guide was pleasant, and we enjoyed tasty seafood lunch at a local restaurant recommended by him. In Chennai we took the Princess tour to Mahabalipuram, to see the sea temples, which are interesting. I am a big fan of India, which isn't everyone's cup of tea, as proved by the reaction of many of the ship's passengers who had never been there before. IMHO one needs to experience the countryside in India, to offset the impact of the large, teeming cities. It's a place that grows on you with the length of stay. But cruises just can't provide that option. Mumbai, with its 14 million people and terrible traffic is also shocking for most Americans. We elected to take the tour which visited three different temples. India's various religions make it a very interesting place to travel.
After several days crossing the Indian Ocean, we arrived in Oman, an ultra-conservative Muslim country. Muscat was small and bright and shiny clean, after India. Female passengers are advised by the Tour Consultant onboard to cover their legs (all of them), their arms (all of them), and also their hair if they plan to visit the National Mosque. A number of ladies just couldn't believe that this applied to them, so they were refused entrance unless they could cover themselves appropriately. The National Mosque is incredible...don't miss it. At the Souk we purchased Diet Coke for $5 a six-pack. Cheaper than $1.95 each onboard! Other people brought on soft drinks and water for their cabins.
We next sailed to Dubai, where we had two days, since they had extra time due to the cancellation of two ports. This was very helpful. A lot of passengers had dinner ashore the first evening and we were ready for some individually prepared food. It's a fascinating city, because everything is so new. The question of whether or not they will be able to repay the bailout money and what will happen if they cannot looms large. In the meantime, construction is at a standstill, and my husband observed that you could probably buy a cement truck pretty cheaply (and all other construction equipment). We took the Princess Desert Safari Tour, which put 4-5 passengers in new Toyota Landcruisers with a skilled driver, who drove us into the desert for some dune riding. Fun! We also visited a camel farm, and had lunch at a desert camp where camel rides were available, and a belly dancer entertained. It's a great tour, although at noon it's well over 100 degrees, which is why the tour is usually run in the early evening. Some passengers mentioned that they had booked the evening tour online, and they picked them up at the ship. However you'd have to know the ship's departure time if it isn't a two day stop.
On the second day we took a Princess tour of Dubai-Old and New. It was a standard city tour. One of the highlights was a small boat transfer across the Dubai creek, where we visited the spice market and the gold souks. I bought saffron in the spice market, which actually came from Iran. The jewelry in the gold souk is absolutely overwhelming! It all begins to look the same after the first three store windows. (Drum roll).
And then we had seven days at sea. That's just too many on a small ship, in my opinion. We had a terrific Cruise Director (Sammi), but the lack of space limits the number and variety of activities that can be arranged. Our previous cruise was a Holy Land itin on the Royal Princess, which is a sister ship to the Ocean Princess, and we loved the smaller ship. But it was a port intensive cruise, with only two sea days out of eleven, which we all needed after our days on shore. On this long cruise I read about eight books on my new Kindle (perfect for traveling), saw at least six movies (the selection went downhill at the cruise progressed), and attended several lectures by the onboard guest speakers. But it was challenging to find appealing activities when the Princess Patter arrived each evening.
We called on the port of Nosy Be, which is on a small island off the northwest coast of Madagascar. We elected to take the Princess tour to the smaller island nearby, where we could see the lemurs for which Madagascar is famous. We did see one variety that is very small, perhaps weighing a couple of pounds. The villagers were thrilled to have visitors, which only occurs a few times a year. The children are let out of school, and they sing and dance to entertain (and request a 'local donation'). I was relieved that there were no accidents in the loading and unloading of the small boats that took us back and forth to the small island. Madagascar is a huge island. I wish Princess would try to develop another port of call somewhere on the island. Three more days at sea before we arrived in Durban, which is quite a lovely city! We did the Princess tour to 'Land of the Thousand Hills', taking us through some beautiful countryside, and ending at a Zulu tribal village where we saw a well done Zulu show, shopped in a nice (and huge) souvenir store, and toured a reptile farm (shudder). At the Durban ship terminal at least 100 vendors set up stalls, selling good quality handicrafts. The prices were much lower than found in the stores. The Zulu bead work is beautiful. In Durban about 100 passengers disembarked for an overnight at a luxury game camp. We picked them up the next day when we called on Port Elizabeth, where there is absolutely nothing to offer tourists. Someone suggested that the only reason we stopped there was to pick up the group who went to the game camp. I think that's probably correct. We took the shuttle bus ($5 each way) to the local mall, which went through downtown but didn't stop. It was a nice enough mall, but not worth the trip.
Finally we arrived in Cape Town on our 31st day, and over-nighted on the ship there. Before leaving home we had purchased tickets online for Robben Island and for the Table Mountain tram for those two days. We docked right downtown, at the Victoria and Alfred (not Albert) Waterfront. What a great location! The first day was spoiled a bit by a downpour, put we visited the Slavery Museum, which was excellent, had lunch and spent the last afternoon packing. The museum included an exhibit about the life of Nelson Mandela. We were planning to stay another week in South Africa, so we bought two-day Hop On Hop Off (HOHO) bus tickets.
The next day brought sunny skies, so we took the HOHO bus to the Kirstenbosch Gardens, which are fabulous, if you like gardens and really wonderful native sculpture. Our next stop on the bus was the Cable Car for Table Mountain, which was totally clear. Another 'don't miss' experience. We continued on the bus to Camps Bay, a sophisticated suburb on the water where we had a delightful alfresco lunch. We spent three nights at a private game reserve, Sanbona, which is about three hours East of Cape Town, in the Little Karoo area. We hired someone to ferry us back and forth since they drive on the other side of the road in S. Africa, and we didn't really need a car. It was a wonderful experience, and quite different from other game experiences in East Africa.
The high points of the cruise were 1) the crew and 2) the other passengers. The crew seemed to work very well together, and were always helpful and good natured, although several of them expressed an interest in working on a larger ship, where I'm sure they make more money in tips. The other passengers were extremely well traveled, both in cruising and in land touring. It was always fun and usually educational to sit at breakfast or lunch with almost all of them.
What didn't work? On the small ships there is not an option for anytime dining. One must pick first of second seating, and we had chosen second seating because we like time to shower, change and have a drink before dinner. There were 530 people on board, with a ship capacity of about 680. Apparently there were a lot of cancellations, since at one time the ship was supposed to have been fully booked. So our party of three was at a table for six, but there were no other guests at our table, and there were several partially filled or even empty tables in the dining room. I do love my husband and our friend, but dinner would have been much more fun if we had had someone with whom to discuss our day's highlights. Perhaps the moral is to choose early seating, when there are lots of sea days. The food was mediocre, although always beautifully presented. We attended a Chef's demonstration early in the cruise where he emphasized that he had 32 entirely different menus. And there were! But it's difficult to successfully duplicate a national cuisine for 530 people in two groups. For example, the Greek dishes tasted similar to Greek food in Greece or even US restaurants, but not the same and not as tasty and fresh. Maybe it's because they have to provision far in advance, and freeze a lot of the food. Maybe it's because they modify the seasonings for the audience they serve. But it generally wasn't very tasty or interesting, in the opinion of many passengers. They do a good job of getting the food to the tables while it's hot. The waiters and the kitchen staff have a well developed system that works very well. They rely on pre-packaged products. The coffee in the Horizons Buffet is nearly undrinkable. It's made from a syrup, rather than brewed. Some passengers figured out that they could use their coffee cards at the coffee counter up there for brewed coffee, and they weren't charged. Iced tea was also made from a syrup, and was so strong it was undrinkable, even after diluting it by 50% with water. One lady solved that problem by ordering a pot of hot tea and three glasses of ice with most meals! It seemed to us that Princess has cut so many corners to remain profitable that they have changed the nature of their product. It felt more like a Carnival cruise or an NCL cruise. We've sailed with Princess many times, and may sail with them again. But we were disappointed with this one. It just didn't meet our expectations. We had a nice time, but it wasn't a wonderful experience, as you want all of your vacations to be. We've booked our next cruise on Oceania, and are looking forward to comparing the two cruise lines.