Wanting a break from flying & with my Wife pestering me to go on a cruise for some time,in a moment of weakness I relnted & back in January I booked a cruise to Iceland & Norway aboard the Crown Princess for July 29th.
My reluctance has nothing to do with sailing,I love it & where possible would much rather use a ferry than a plane but more than a couple of days on board did not appeal.
My enthusiasm did not alter as cruise time approached,this was costing me serious money,I suddenly had to buy a suit,proper slacks,proper shirts(neck size-don't ask me I haven't bought one in 20+ years!),a final last minute shopping spree sorted them just in time to pack.
By this time my Wife was also having 2nd thoughts,we had found out about the $10+ tipping per person per day,the 15% on drinks,the price of the drinks,no tea & coffee facilities,$10 each for half a day in the Sanctuary,only 1 bottle of wine each to be taken on board,we could buy a Half bottle of Vodka from the Steward for £10.63(no doubt plus 15%),some items on the buffet may incur an extra charge,$20/$25 each extra to eat in the 'proper' restaurants,her claim that all was included was well & truly coming back to haunt her as we wondered how much flushing the loo would cost!
So Thursday July 29th found us at Chester Station to catch an Eavesway Coach(an exellent service,it cost us £148,probably as much as petrol would have cost,no parking fees,really good) to Southampton arriving about 1315hrs,the luggage was removed from the coach & then we alighted.
We waited our turn to be sent up an escalator in groups to arrive in what looked like Hell,take a ticket & a seat we were told,easier said than done with so many people in there,but we found one,eventually our turn came & we headed for a check in desk,tried to squeeze in between the 4 at the desk to our left & a similar number on the right & tried to listen to what the Lady was saying above the racket before heading off for the expected pre boarding photo shoot(although little did we suspect at this point how many of these there would be!) & boarded the relative peace & quiet of the vessel.
The next part worked surprisingly well,finding the customer services desk to be quiet we changed the auto tipping to a figure we were happy with,deposited an amount of cash for our on board account(my Wife was happier doing it that way) & headed for our cabin.
Finding the cabin was easy,slightly mixed feelings as we entered,the bathroom is disapointingly small,we've had bigger on overnight ferries,it looked like somebody had been writing on the walls in a number of places & this wall covering had been scraped off to remove it leaving unsightly patches,overall though,the room was spotless,there was loads of storage space,it was well equipped & quite roomy but the clincher was the balcony which was probably as big as the room,quite superb,one observation being that we at first took to be 'farewell messages' from the seagulls on the balcony furniture turned out to be paint,in fact all over the vessel there were paint splashes & just general iffy paint jobs(looked like I'd done it!),I guess the mark of a hard working vessel.
We set sail on time in glorious sunshine,with us sat on our balcony enjoying a lovely sunny summers evening,sipping the Champagne we had bought with us,how could I have had any doubts?........
Dinner time saw us head for the Da Vinci room,seeking a table for 2 but persuaded to share a table with 6 others,all really nice people,but we both had a feeling that it wouldn't always be that way,how right we were!
Then followed 3 days at sea,during which some of our worst nightmares came true,the Crown Princess is beautiful but spends most of her year roaming the Carrib. where her large outside spaces come into their own,but as we sailed up through the Irish Sea(where a large number of passengers were already wearing coats,hats,scarves,gloves,etc while we were still in t shirts & shorts) & up toward the Arctic Circle the decks became vast empty spaces,wherever you went inside so,it seems,did the other 3000+ passengers,making for cramped & overcrowded conditions.Breakfast,lunch or dinner in the buffet became a battle to get a table,certainly a table for 2 became impossible,some of the sharing was not a nice experience!
Normally when away if things got this crowded we would retire to our room where would would share a bottle or two of wine while my Wife knitted & I listened to music,here the price of drink made this a big no,no!
Ok for reference,2 large Jamesons Irish Whiskey came in at $22+,2 bottles of Grolsch $13+,2 pints of Stella $15+,cocktails were $6.95,the cheapest bottle of wine $24,both + 15%,it was going to be a sober trip!
We settled into a routine,early rise for breakfast(not what we had planned) in the Da Vinci(occasionally in the buffet although the food there was sometimes cold) & we booked a table for 2 each evening in the Da Vinci,apart from the 3 nights(the 2 formal nights & the last night) in The Crown Grill.The food was superb,service excellent although the Da Vinci did resemble a mad house at busy times,the staff were magnificent.
My Wife found herself a cosy seat in the Explorers Lounge on sea days for knitting,while I strolled the decks,exploring every nook & cranny,this was heaven to me,many years ago I was a regular sea traveller to the Isle Of Man,many times just for day trips & just standing on deck watching the world go by was wonderful to me,so I was quite happy.
We loved the Crooners Lounge where three Mexican guys,Goce,Jose & Oswaldo were the life & soul of the party,quite brilliant,along with Doreen in the Wheelhouse Bar & our Steward,Phong,were the people we were really sorry to say goodbye to at the end of our cruise.I think a special mention also to the Phillipino guy at the Calypso Bar,the outside bar below the movie screen,no matter what the weather or temperature he kept smiling,no doubt while dreaming of the return to the Carrib!
Having said that we didn't get to enjoy these areas as much as we might want,too often the Crooners Lounge would be full with people reading books from the nearby Library & the Wheelhouse Bar would be full with people doing quizzes,even when you wanted to pay those prices sometimes you couldn't!
So we really loved the Crown Princess,warts & all,it's a beautiful ship,a wonderful crew,she is big & it was so impressive how the crew manouvered her in what seemed impossibly tight locations.
So now the really irritating thing is the way Princess have turned her into a cash cow,leaving us with the impression that the only ultimate escape they are interested in is your escape from your cash!
Having already mentioned the welcome aboard photo shoot & the lack of room to move inside at times,well it got much worse,the area between Crooners & the Wheelhouse is a pretty busy area,add a photo shoot area one side & tables outside the shops on the other & not only have you got lines of people trying to get through this area but now having to battle past crowds which have gathered there to be photographed(photos were $29.95 each) or to shop,this was a regular occurance,indeed table & phot opportunities kept springing up everywhere making getting around a real pain,just to amplify the problem there was the art auctions where every chair,table,pillar,wall,set of steps,etc in the Explorers area had at least one piece leaning against it making it ineveitable that they would be knocked over or people would trip over them,& making seating in the area difficult.
The photos were the biggest problem for most people tho',the photographers seemed to be everywhere,they tried to get everybody as they got off the vessel at each port,all around the vessel in the evenings,out on deck when cruising the Fjords,even when we were trying to have a peaceful meal in the Crown grill where we thought we would have peace & quiet.
As for the shore excursions,we had a manic run up to the cruise & had decided to forget the organised tours(they seemed very expensive) & just have leisurly strolls at our stops,the first of which was Rekjavik,bad planning,not only did we disembark in gale force winds & driving rain but it was a Bank Holiday,not only that but a shop workers bank holiday so pretty much everywhere was shut,we took a shuttle bus into what was pretty much a ghost town,visited the very impressive church,took the lift up the tower for wonderful views before taking the shuttle bus back to the ship for the best piece of entertainment of the cruise(the intended entertainment seemed pretty poor but it wasn't my kind of thing so it could just be me!),there were 2 gangways out,one was closed,the other,a steep & narrow wooden one being in use,one member of crew kept shouting at the long line of people waiting to form 2 lines,totally ignoring the fact that people were also trying to get down the gangway followed by pure farce,some poor souls in wheelchairs having to be physically,carried,dragged,whatever up this gangway,what year is it,how can they not have a better system than this,meanwhile we in the lengthening line watched the ever darkening sky!
Second stop in Iceland,Akureyri,a very pretty little town where did some strolling,photo taking & then some people watching outside a very busy & pleasant cafe while downing a few beers,before returning to the ship,a good day.
Another day at sea followed before our first Norway stop,Aalesund,high level pics I had seen made the place look unbelievably pretty so after exploring the harbour & town area we headed up the 418 steps(my knees haven't recovered yet!) for the view,wow,absolutely breathtaking,we headed back down & because of my Irish roots we headed the Dirty Nelly's Irish Bar only to find it shut,we went downstairs next door & enjoyed some superb beers while chatting to the owner,returned to the ship for a wonderful send off,another great day.
The next day saw us cruising the Fjords,quite magnificent,stopping at Geiranger on a very hot day,another impossibly beautiful place,strolling up to the waterfall & church before returning dockside for the customary people watching & beers at Cafe Ole,taking the frequent tender back to the ship.
Olden was next,another misty start as we again cruised up Fjords to reach another beautiful place,by now we had decided that we must return to Norway,the people & scenery made a huge impression on us,usual routine of exploring,people watching & beer before probably the biggest send off of the trip so far in brilliant sunshine!
The last stop was Bergen,it had long bugged me how they had worked out the schedule on this trip,Bergen seemed to have more to see but here we were arriving at 0700 on a Sunday morning & leaving at 1400hrs,what would be open,well the Tourist Info was & we headed there for tickets for the Funicular,a good move avoiding the long lines at the station itself,getting up there just before the weather closed in & ruined the view,this was to become one of their 300 rainy days in a year it seemed,we took shelter at the Fish Market where the seats were nearly all soaking,they didn't seem well prepared for all the rain they apparently get!To add insult to injury instead of berthing at the Bryggen as we had expected at the last minute we were told that we would be at the Container terminal as the CP was too big,sounds a poor excuse,she has been here before,more likely a reason being that there were 2 other Cruise Ships there!All this meant shuttle buses again from the Museums,the last one being at 1245,making the chance of getting a last beer in Norway unlikely as Sunday laws phorbid sales of alcohol until noon,an Oriental lady on one of the fish market stalls did sell bottled beer though,couldn't understand a word on the label so it probably was alcohol free but it looked & tasted right & was selling well!A poor finish to what had been a great time in Norway,not surprisingly there were not too many people to see us off in such a remote spot!
A few days previously I had checked our online account,surprised at how much was left,a message on the bottom told me that we were cleared for automatic check out & did not need to visit Customer Services again,luckily I did,asking how long it would take for the remaining funds to be credited to the card I had registered I was rather surprised to be told that it wouldn't,I had to go to Customer Services to collect it or lose it,so much for not having to go there again!
So began the jouney back to Southampton where we arrived at 0500hrs on the Tuesday morning,a wet welcome,we had breakfast before heading for our designated departure point,clutching the tiny coloured tear off bits from the luggage tags which we were told to guard with our lives as they are required to leave the vessel & collect your luggage,I've still not been asked for them so I guess it's OK to throw them away now!
Entering the baggage hall we located the line of luggage marked Purple which was our colour,only to find our suitcases in the neighbouring Orange line,far easier than expected,we had heard some horror stories about this part,exiting the terminal we duly found our Eavesway bus waiting to whisk us back to Chester.
Overall we enjoyed it,a beautiful ship with great crew,a great pity that Princess left us with an overall money grabbing feeling,would we do it again,our hearts say yes,our minds are less certain,looks like back to the USA next year!