Before my wife and I went on this cruise, our first with Princess, I got some useful info from the CruiseCritic reviews posted by past passengers on this NZ cruise - Traveller Loodie Jan 2010,Moritz Lady Jan 10 , tezza 58 Feb 10 and ozcruisereview Nov 09, and most of that info is not repeated here.
We are relatively new to cruising - two recent previous cruises on P&O's Pacific Dawn ex Sydney to Noumea and ex Brisbane up the Queensland coast. Both very enjoyable.
NZ is a great place to visit - tourism is an important industry and with 40+ cruise boats a year, they are well organised to receive cruisers. We avoided the Princess shore tours - in general about double the price you can get if you make your own arrangements. Each port has an iSite office selling tours and most are well organised - particularly Napier and Auckland - however they are local city operations and not linked nationally, so booking ahead seems to be a problem. But get to the iSite early if you want a broad choice. The Sun Princess operates a two-gangway system and apart from the slow tender operation in the Bay of Islands, getting off the boat is hassle free and fast. The locals had a shuttle service from the dock to the town in each port typically $15NZ return, generally efficient apart from the queues to get back late in the day.
We separately booked the Taieri Gorge railway trip in Dunedin via the internet - we were in the first group off the boat at 8am, took a taxi to the rail station and had our tickets by 8.30am ready for the 9.30 train with time for a coffee and a walk around the city centre - cost inc taxi, lunch, drinks $240 AUD for the two of us - half the Princess cost and we went further up the line.......a great way the see the city, low plains, mountains and high plains & great photos of the gorge.
So for us, the do-your-own-thing worked fine....in contrast some folk at our dinner table took a Princess tour at every port and were highly complimentary of the quality on every occasion.
Nothing much more to add to the other reviews other than that the weather can be a "lucky dip" for this cruise - particularly crossing the Tasman and at Milford Sound. In our case the crossing to NZ was smooth, with a few lumps and bumps from a 2-3 metre swell on the way back. Milford Sound was misty with light showers - "mystical".
Princess have a national park guide on board for Fjordland/Milford providing an informative commentary, and have a comprehensive slideshow presentation for every port - they do this very well.
Clothing - layers of clothing are the trick - two outer layers or a parka for Milford - elsewhere 17 -22 degrees Celsius - a light pullover was all we needed. Fortunately, not much rain.
Sun Princess is an elegant, well maintained 15 year old ship - it seems that the older cruise boats we get in Australia have mechanical problems from time to time - the inevitable blocked vacuum toilet system, and in our case, one of the four engines failed, resulting in late arrival back to Sydney which upset some folk who had allowed only a few hours for transfer to international flights. Princess seemed to handle the situation well given the circumstances and offered compensation, but if you are coming from overseas I'd suggest that you investigate a Princess flight plus cruise package - the delays then become their problem.
80% Australian, 10% USA, the rest from a variety of about 20 nationalities. Moritz Lady's estimate that 75% of the passengers were in their 60's to 80's seems on the money - I'd go with tezza58 and say 60% over 70 - but still out for a good time and up for a chat. However, the ship was very quiet after 10pm, and if you are looking for a big late-nite party crowd with a hot band, then don't expect to find it on a "retirement village by the sea" cruise like this one. Low temperatures meant that the pool deck was often uninviting in the evenings - unless you like movies under the stars in a deck chair under the cover of three blankets.
Pleasant and obliging - didn't hear any complaints - generally good service from staff but very few in the "extraordinary effort" category that would warrant an additional tip above the $10/day service charge.
The cruise director and deputy director were obviously seasoned veterans - but a bit of the "same-old, same-old'' eg repeating the same jokes to the same audience ......OK but not excellent.
The Captain - not all that visible pressing the flesh around the ship... and when we stopped in the middle of the Tasman for 20 minutes, I would have thought that he would have explained to us the reason...some of the passengers were starting to get worried.
Entertainment - a new music/dance troupe on board for this voyage and took a few performances to get the left leg/right leg dancing in sync. Shows aimed at an older audience with music generally spanning the 30's to the 80's but talk at the dinner table and laundry (more about that later) was that the entertainment including the guest comedians and musical acts generally not on par with other cruise line experiences in the same price bracket....good but not excellent.
And another minor criticism - the "enrichment program". My wife went to a "learn about acupuncture" program only to find that it was a self promotion by the on-board acupuncturist - she left after 15 mins having only heard the lecturer talk about himself. I attended the "learn to play the ukulele class" along with about 30 other hopefuls - a 5-10 minute chat and 3 chord demo which abruptly ended with the "special offer" - buy the DVD and notes plus a free ukulele shipped to your home. We didn't even get to play " air ukulele". Princess needs to lift their game with some of this stuff. The Cooking demo ditto - basic pasta dish (with the head chef apologising because he hadn't been supplied all of the correct ingredients - symbolic of the lack of quality control in the food department) and black forest cake. P&O with celebrity chef Luke Mangan puts this stuff into a 1980's time warp - but maybe Princess think that for the 70 yo plus audience this is fine - other 70 yo plus passengers we spoke to confirmed that they are a bit more adventurous than that.
The Food & Wine
Main dining rooms - good quality, particularly red meat dishes (seafood generally average quality and fish generally overcooked and dry, veal scaloppini with the texture of leather on two occasions...obviously not checked - should not have been let out of the kitchen) , but repetitive after 14 days. In a nutshell,1980's European style hotel mass produced "function" food. Most of the airlines and P&O have started to move on from this by getting consultant celebrity chefs involved in their menus. Whilst we can't expect a la carte cooked to order food for this price, volume produced food can still be properly cooked and seasoned,attractively garnise=hed and varied and interesting - mainland hotels can do this, why can't princess? Princess will have to head in this direction...but when? Good international wine list, and cheaper than P&O. Good bakery and pastry lines ...yum, and nice desserts.
More variety is available in the Lido Buffet restaurant - but often very crowded, compounded by Princess closing off large areas outside rush hour.....very annoying and often unnecessary.
The Pizza restaurant - good pastry base with micro thin toppings - if a mainland "gourmet pizza" is 8/10, then these are 5/10 - very disappointing....and a hamburger from the grill....lightly toasted bun, one lettuce leaf, one slice of tomato, a reheated hamburger patties, add your own sauce.... No 5* hotel would be bold enough to try this on, and likewise, any mainland hamburger joint trying to dish this up would go out of business, along with the pizza joint. But then some people find this OK!?
And now to the laundry.... Moritz lady had me worried with her "one small laundrette for up to 200 people per deck" so we packed extra clothing , but she's got it wrong...by my calculations it's two washing machine/dryers per 400 people per deck. For a 14 day cruise, most folk need to do some washing, so after day 2, the laundrette became a major hassle (compounded by some people hogging the machines by doing 3-4 loads)....but on the positive side, a place to meet people and compare notes while waiting in the queue in the passageway... someone should be selling icecreams at the laundries - they'd make a fortune! In comparison, P&O's Dawn and Jewel for example have large laundrettes with at least 4 times this capacity. So basically, budget $30/day per couple for the ships laundry service, or go through the pain of the "laundry jam".... a bit like a camping holiday.
No hot water at peak shower times on shore days - takes 15 mins to recover... again a bit like a camping holiday.
Formal Nights...what to wear...my observation is that less than 10% of the guys wore a tuxedo, with the rest wearing a suit or sports jacket and tie....some guys rejecting the tie. Ladies... smart cocktail dresses, blouse and slacks, apart from the 10% dressing formal to match their beaus in tuxedos (or is it the other way round?). Most folk are trending to smart casual these days ( I hear that those that like formal head for Cunard line where no tux equals no entry) - and we all realise after a few cruises that formal nights, the champagne waterfall, captain's cocktail party etc and other special events are all part of the push to sell you heaps of photos and to fill out the cruise DVD.
NZ is a great destination - a number of cruise lines now doing this circuit, so more cruise choices are emerging.
Sun Princess - Elegant, comfortable 5 star hotel fit-out blemished by some rust here and there, with 3 star cuisine and entertainment, and staff who are friendly, obliging and professional but short of across-the-board excellence. (Having said that there were a few stand-out examples of waiting staff who would do anything to oblige, and a few others in the cooking/food service area who were obviously a bit jaded or bored and didn't really want to be there). Overall rating 3 1/2 stars.
The general feel in the auditorium at the end of the cruise was that most people really enjoyed themselves and would back up for Princess again (that's the part where the cruise director mentions the email survey and tries to wind-up the audience!) - however some of the experienced cruisers we spoke to around the ship were less complimentary and preferred other cruise lines they had sailed on based on food quality and variety, service and entertainment.... And don't mention the laundries ....OK for a 7 day cruise, but not for 14 plus!
For us - would we go Princess again?...maybe, but we were a little disappointed given that a number of sources had recommended Princess as a step up from P&O in quality ( and price)in the Carnival brand pecking order. Our next two cruises will be back with with P&O Australia (Jewel and Pearl) where we think based on past experience the overall quality and value for money on offer is better than Princess Australia.