Pacific Princess Performs
We have just returned from a 12-day cruise on Pacific Princess, sailing from Athens to Venice, with calls at Volos, Varna, Constanta, Odessa, Yalta and Istanbul, ending in Venice and including 4 sea days. We had not sailed with Princess Cruises since February 2008, opting instead for Silversea and Oceania, mainly because we have been fortunate to have sailed pretty much all the itineraries offered by Princess that are of interest. Our last 2 Princess cruises were on large ships and we have decided that these are not for us. This imposes a further restriction on choice when it comes to selecting a cruise, as there are (currently) just 3 'small' ships in the fleet, reducing to 2 next year when Royal Princess follows her former namesake to P&O in the UK.
As is our custom, we had stayed for 2 days pre-cruise in our port of embarkation, just in case our luggage had failed to keep up with us, which has happened on 3 occasions, either outbound or on our return. Our choice of hotel was the Holiday Inn Attica Avenue, only around eight miles from the airport, for a couple of reasons. First, many of the Athens hotels are in the Omonia Square district, which research had warned is no longer a good area, a point confirmed by our taxi driver. Secondly, the hotel has a half-hourly interval free airport shuttle. The downside is that there are no restaurants close by, although a suburban railway station is a short walk away, which links into the city centre.
The hotel is quite modern and very presentable. Our room had all the standard amenities of a European hotel of this category and was comfortable and quiet. It appears to be primarily a short-stay place for people flying into/out of Athens, who are staying a night or two before onward travel. Breakfast offered a reasonable selection in typical Continental style, whilst the dinner menu was adequate for the occasion, not particularly cheap but the Greek salads were good at the end of a hot day, if not constituting a hearty meal. Meal service was generally not with a smile. We partook of the good-sized swimming pool and sauna in the basement. We would stay here again.
Reliant on postings on Cruise Critics, we booked George Kokkotos, originally a New Yorker who returned to Greece after 25 years, to provide "the best taxi service in Athens" for a day trip to Corinth and then a transfer from hotel to pier the following day. Despite efforts personally by George and us, we failed to book in advance a Corinth Canal cruise; the cruise company didn't seem interested in our business. After a drive of about 80 minutes, we arrived at the canal, which provides a maritime connection between the Aegean and Ionian Seas. Its construction involved a deep cut through the landscape and the sheer walls and narrow width make for an unusual sight.
Time was then spent wandering through the remains of Ancient Corinth before a tour in our car, driven by Jimmy (whose English was excellent), round modern Corinth. After crossing the canal at the locks at the entrance to the Ionian Sea, Jimmy recommended a restaurant overlooking the sea, which was popular with locals. After walking round the ruins of Ancient Corinth, the iced water was most welcome!
On the 7th, Jimmy collected us for the 20 minute run to Piraeus where we boarded Pacific Princess at noon. As usual, the 'preferred guests' line was longer than for first-timers and we were one of the first on board. We had already made 6 trips on one or other of the 8 former Renaissance R Class ships, including Pacific Princess herself in 2006, so it was familiar territory to walk aboard on Deck 4 in Athens.
By virtue of travelling with friends, we opted for a Deck 8 mini-suite in order to offer more space for entertaining; previously, we have had standard balcony cabins on these R Class ships. The mini-suite is quite spacious, has plenty of wardrobe and drawer space and a bath/shower. The settee is bigger than in a balcony cabin, 3 chairs that could be used when dining en-suite and four balcony chairs (2 recline a little), together with balcony table and occasional table in the cabin. Overall, we were impressed with our accommodation, though there should be a hair dryer in the room, not just the wall-mounted one in the bathroom, as has been provided by Oceania on its ships.
There were no obvious changes to the ship since our last cruise on her in 2006 and the general condition was very high. Having sailed on the equivalent R Class ships now run by Oceania Cruises, the substitution by Princess Cruises of the original teak furniture for meals outside the Panorama buffet, devalues the ambiance. There are also the typical Princess sun loungers (Oceania provides teak loungers with cushion pads, which have white covers that are changed daily, and white towels in-situ). Both these features cheapen the product. The swimming pool is filled with sea water, which is replaced almost daily, much better than fresh water pools that end up full of the sweat and sun cream of inconsiderate passengers who don't bother to shower before entering the water.
Service by the crew was as good as we have had on a Princess cruise for a long time. This was especially so in the Panorama buffet, where the "you'll have to go to the dining room for that" was replaced by "I'll go down to the dining room galley and bring it up for you; - shades of Silversea. The ship's executive chef was highly visible during breakfast and lunch here, something we had not seen previously.
Dinner was taken in the main dining room. We were told there was a 100-long wait list for second seating, a disadvantage if one takes a late availability deal. We had booked a year ago, so had no problem. We do not as a general rule like fixed seating dining of which you have no option on Princess's three smallest ships, however if you have a "good table" it is a bonus and we were very fortunate to strike lucky and our table companions were delightful and the table gelled in a few days. Waiter service was excellent, though the one morning we took open-seating breakfast here, the service was indifferent, and very slow. With one exception, the food was also approaching the standards of Princess of decades past; it was served hot and even fish dishes were not overcooked. Gone are the threadbare themed menus - French, Italian, International and the two gala dinners - where we could recite the items without reading the menu. Desserts especially have become more appealing, though our waiter made no attempt to serve soufflEs out of the china bowl. The one black mark concerns the cheese course at dinner because the cheese comes straight from the fridge and is consequently far too cold to be enjoyable. Other cruise lines manage to serve cheese at room temperature, so why not Princess? We had to suffer the princess tradition of the Baked Alaska parade. Isn't it time this farrago was dropped, not least because I didn't see our waiter serve any of it to any of his tables. We did not try any of the 3 dining options where a cover charge applies.
An innovation to us, however, was the use of the Steak House restaurant on most nights as a cocktail bar for Elite, Suite and Platinum passengers. On days when the facility is offered, there is a cocktail of the day at a reduced price and an appetiser. We only availed ourselves of the facility once, when Sandemans 20-year tawny port was offered for $2.99 (plus 15%), with, appropriately, Stilton cheese as the appetiser. We later saw the port on a dining room menu for $7.25 a glass.
Entertainment was the usual mixed bag in terms of both variety and quality. Ironically, one of the best appreciated was provided by J J King, the cruise director, on the last night, when he sang and performed an Elvis impersonation as part of a 30-minute set. This was followed by the cruise staff performing "If I was not upon the sea", a cruise ship classic, sadly rarely seen these days. Regrettably, there were only about 20 in the audience, the lure of an evening in Venice or the imperative of packing being counter-draws.
We were surprised to find a much lower percentage of Americans on board than we are used to, though on a Silversea voyage in April round Arabia, there were only 10 USA citizens travelling! In round numbers, of the 681 on Pacific Princess, 360 were American, 160 British, 100 from Dominican Republic (DR), 25 from Spain, 10 Australians and a total of 38 declared nationalities. Those from the DR were not travelling as one party but, when combined with passengers from Mexico and elsewhere, Spanish was to be heard frequently, though this league of nations rubbed along well. The DR contingent seemed to bond as a group and kept the nightclub alive well into the small hours. Otherwise the ship was pretty well dead after the post-dinner show had finished. Low onboard spend per capita on the 3 small ships in the fleet is rumoured to be behind the impending transfer of Royal Princess to P&O and one wonders for how much longer Princess will keep the other two. There was a roughly equal divide amongst the passengers between those who prefer the large modern 'resort at sea' ships and those who prefer a traditional cruise ship environment on a smaller ship that does not entail a half-mile walk to get anywhere.
As might be expected, the Captain's Circle lunch, held in Sabatinis, for the top 40 most travelled passengers, was almost exclusively a US/UK affair, with the top three cruisers being from the UK, USA and UK respectively. This lunch is a nice touch, with each table being hosted by an officer (like old times!), with top-notch food and the presentation of the head chef and his galley team. We are very satisfied with the Princess loyalty scheme for past passengers, the free laundry being especially welcomed by my wife!
Turning briefly to the ports of call, in Volos we hired a cab for 50 Euros for a round trip to Makrinitsa 17 kms away (half an hour each way), a delightful hillside village, with views of the bay and our ship, though now something of a tourist mecca, especially on a Sunday. Our cab was able to drive to the village, whilst the ship's tour buses had to park some way off because of access issues. The cab waited for our return.
We sailed through the Bosphorus in the early evening, with the plethora of ferries taking workers from the European side of Istanbul to suburbs on the eastern side in Asia. A commentary from the port talk lecturer accompanied the transit.
Varna (Bulgaria) was a pleasant surprise. We negotiated a 10 Euros taxi ride to the cathedral at the topside of the town, mingling here with some of the ship's tours, who were told they couldn't go inside for no obvious reason. After time spent in the cathedral, we crossed over the pedestrianised area that led eventually along the main shopping street, very wide and with a Parisian feel. After about a mile from the cathedral, we reached McDonalds, always handy for a complimentary 'rest room'. Then it was a right turn and a continuing downhill stroll through the Sea Gardens and back to the ship. We enjoyed this short taste of a Bulgarian city.
Constanta (Romania) provided an interesting contrast to Varna; both in two former Communist countries but subtly different. Whereas Varna's shopping area at least had the air and feel of a degree of affluence, neither the size nor architecture of Constanta could rival its Black Sea neighbour. The main street was unprepossessing and the solitary modern shopping mall had at least 25% of its outlets vacant and the remainder offering large discounts. A free ship-to-shore shuttle bus was provided and we caught it part-way back to the ship to the city museum, housed in a lovely, but crumbling building. Continuing downhill in the unbroken searing heat, which lasted throughout this cruise, we visited the St Peter & Paul Cathedral before reaching the waterfront, with a derelict, 1920s-built casino, a reminder of more prosperous times. Whereas Varna had a commercialised beachfront, Constanta did not, but it was good to stroll along the promenade to a modest lighthouse, donated by the Genoese (Italy) in the 19th Century to mark the links between the two places over past centuries. The lighthouse has been moved in recent times and is adjacent to some municipal buildings. Whilst Constanta was far from the most interesting place we have ever visited, it was certainly worth seeing because of the insight it offered on past and current life in Romania, which is why we travel.
Of all the four Black Sea ports visited, Odessa was definitely the grandest and retained an air of affluence and grandeur. Ascending the Potemkin Steps (reached via an elevated roadway across the dock rail system and maybe 200 yards from the ship) by the free funicular (unventilated and pungent with less hygienic locals) we walked a block into town to a main thoroughfare, turned left and (with some local direction) left again to reach the Opera House. This, like so many of Odessa's buildings is very attractive. Strolling through gardens parallel to the sea and the boulevard we had first walked along, brought us back to the Potemkin Steps.
We had arranged a private tour in Yalta with Sergey Sorokin an ex history professor at Kiev University. None of the ship's tours offered both Sevastopol and the Livadiya Palace in Yalta but we fitted both into a packed day, which also included the battlefield at Balaclava, scene of the charge of the Light Brigade. Sevastopol's Panorama Museum, depicting the Crimean War battlefield in 1853 ranks as one of the best we have seen anywhere. The scene is illustrated in a 360-degree painting, where the aspect is from an elevated position above the town and surrounding hills and sea. Sergey fitted in everything we wanted and was highly informative.
Having visited Istanbul previously, we opted first to take a local ferry to the Asian side and saw Hydrapasa railway station, gateway to the east in the last century and Kadiköy. To get to the Karaköy ferry terminal, in the shadow of the Galata Bridge, was about a 15 minutes stroll from the cruise terminal. We returned to the Eminönu ferry terminal on the opposite side of the Golden Horn, being closer to our visit to the subterranean Cistern, reached by a 5 Euro taxi ride from the ferry. The Cistern was built as a reservoir to keep Istanbul supplied with water during a time of siege. From here, the taxis wanted 20 Euros to return us to the ship, so we opted to follow the tram line back towards Eminönu until we reach the first tram stop, from where we caught the tram to right outside the cruise terminal at a fraction of the cost of a taxi.
In the port notes provided on board Princess recommend 15-20% tip in each port for good service. This is ludicrous. In the areas visited, 5-10% is the norm for good service and the Princess figure is purely what would be expected in an American port. We have previously visited countries where any tip is regarded as an insult, so Princess needs to be more sensitive to local circumstances before recommending such a high blanket figure everywhere.
We sailed into Venice, with superb views of the city, arriving in the cruise terminal at noon on the 18th. A water taxi service runs from here to St Marks Square, with a day ticket costing $15, which Princess Cruises provided. As we opted to stay on the ship, we were credited with the cost of this ticket.
Next morning's disembarkation went reasonably smoothly, the only hiccup concerning our pre-booked airport taxi through Limousine Venice. We presented ourselves at the appointed spot outside the cruise terminal at 08.40 for our 08.45 collection. After 5 minutes, we located a guy from the company, who gave us a piece of paper with our name on it and he rang for a vehicle. This finally arrived at 09.05 and the trip to the airport took 20 minutes. With the HAL Nieuw Amsterdam also disembarking at the same location, one can appreciate demand for cabs was high at this peak time. Fortunately, we had built a contingency allowance into our schedule to reach the airport so there was no problem. By virtue of Venice being a popular turn-round port for many cruise companies this year, a contingency of 30 minutes is certainly advisable for private airport transfers. Limousine Venice charged 60 Euros for 4 people, whereas Princess Cruises wanted $54 (say 50 Euros) Per Person for a transfer. Passengers for our flight, who booked a ship's transfer, had to disembark an hour earlier than we did.
In summary, this cruise has reinvigorated our flagging loyalty to Princess Cruises. The brand has edged upscale and the standard of service across all departments and dining room food (in particular) was as high as on more luxurious lines. The only issue for us is that Princess is currently far more restrictive in the ports of call when compared to other lines.