We're destination cruisers; by the way Princess counts, these were our 15th and 16th cruises with the line, enough that we get free internet and free laundry as Elite members of the Captain's Circle program.
We picked the cruise because the itinerary (from Valparaiso to Rio, at least) was so attractive. From Rio north, it was simply more convenient and less hassle to stay on board, enjoy warm weather and fly home from Ft. Lauderdale than to end the cruise in Rio and get home from there.
We spent three pre-cruise nights in Santiago, staying at the Radisson Plaza, which was excellent. The city is a great place for tourists, with friendly people, and we thoroughly enjoyed our time there.
I tried to find a Princess transfer from the city to the port of Valparaiso on sailing day. No, I was told, there would be a transfer from the airport, but from downtown only Princess pre-cruise package buyers would be taken to the port.
Not true: a Princess rep at the Intercontinental Hotel said we could take a Princess bus if we reserved a day ahead. Can't this outfit get its facts straight?
Taking that transfer was Plan B for us, since we had arranged, thanks to a contact made on CruiseCritic, to take a private transfer by van with Annette and Richard from Sydney, Australia. After a few tense moments in the hotel lobby, our van and driver and guide arrived and off we went. The trip included a winery visit and drive through the highlights of Vina del Mar and Valparaiso en route.
No one had told us that the cruise terminal in Valparaiso is a 10-minute drive from the pier, but it mattered not: the check-in process was very efficient: it took just 32 minutes from the moment our van stopped until we closed our cabin door.
We saw the impact of America's economic woes as soon as we got on board: US citizens were a minority of the passengers, outnumbered 749-556 by Brits and making up only 29 per cent of the total complement. From my time spent on the CC message boards, I thought there would be a horde of Aussies, but there were in fact just 96 of them, led by Anna, the redoubtable Kinkacruiser.
Before sailing, we heard from the man I call Bad-news Billy, the Captain, William Kent, apparently a highly able mariner and certainly a gentleman of great self-confidence. He seemed to take some perverse pleasure (humorously speaking) in preparing his passengers for bad weather. Day after day, we were treated to his fears of high winds, big swells, clouds and rain, plus the daunting prospect of mal de mer. In fact, all the way to Rio, we had, for the region, very good weather, as you'll hear. When the bad news didn't pan out, Billy sounded apologetic if not disappointed.
This was our second cruise on Star Princess: some things had changed. Service staff, under a female New Zealander as Hotel Manager, were more cheerful and most gave the impression of enjoying their work. We were particularly impressed by Andras from Hungary, our head waiter in the dining room, a man of great charm who responded well to any request. Katherine, the boss of the Internet center, maintained her cool amidst the frequent upheavals of technology in a very remote part of the world. Julie in the shore excursion office displayed solid professionalism.
Some public areas - notably the Vista Lounge - were kept cold, what felt to me like freezing cold; the area right outside it suffered, again, from unpleasant toilet and garbage smells. The elevators, however, did seem to work more efficiently than during our last time on board. And the skills of the tender drivers at our two anchorage ports had improved considerably over our last experience of them.
Service on the Lido Deck was uneven at best. Bar waiters there were reluctant to fetch anything which didn't attract a gratuity; some food servers had a talent for staring over the heads of passengers, thus avoiding any work. Our cabin steward was, shall we say, methodical.
The Horizon Court buffet food quality had declined since our last time on board; even my wife resorted to eating lunchtime cheeseburgers instead. The buffet ran out of Raisin Bran, as usual, and even ran out of fresh fruit (prunes excepted) before the end of the cruise. (Princess has been in business since 1965; you'd think they might hhave learned a little about food consumption).
In the dining room, appetizers and desserts were excellent, but main courses were bland and unimaginative. Menu repetition was common: Princess told us in writing that "repetition is an opportunity of choice."
All the production shows were repeated in the second segment of the cruise: no surprise there. The dancers were skilld but the four lead singers too often had the wrong type of voices for the material they were required to deliver. The other entertainment was mediocre at best, perhaps the result of budget-cutting. Scheduling of evening events was poor: the times often made attendance difficult for anyone eating after eight p.m. When I complained to the cruise director, it was suggested we eat earlier.
He, Frank Castiglione, otherwise performed well and was more accessible to passengers than several others with whom we've cruised. There was a welcome absence of loudspeaker announcements, except for the annoying 'Art Director" who apparently believed that potential buyers can't read.
The Front Desk suffered, like others we've encountered, from the hidebound Princess bureaucracy. When I asked for the summary sheet of nationalities on board I was told it was a secret document. When I appealed to management and mentioned that the cruise director had read from it first night out, it gradually became less secret. On this and other matters, I found that any issue beyond the routine and mundane had to be referred to a supervisor, or beyond.
For the second time in a row, we found the Captain's Circle hostess less than helpful. The daily offer of free canapes in the Skywalkers Lounge for Platinum and Elite members ran from five until seven, well out of synch for people eating after 7:15. When I suggested an adjustment, the hostess first said it was none of her business and then that Food and Beverage refused to change the time for 'staffing reasons.' A minor matter, of course, but minor matters add up and eventually send customers to a different cruise line.
These annoyances aside, the ports made the cruise. We passed Chile's Romanche glaciers on a fog-free morning, visited Ushuaia on a rare sunny day, rounded Cape Horn in virtually a flat calm, anchored off Port Stanley on a day when the Falkland Islanders were wearing sunscreen and approached Rio in bright sunny weather.
Ah, Rio. Like the Taj Mahal and the Sydney Opera House, it is one of the very few places which outdoes the pictures you've seen of it. We were luckier than some fellow passengers: with a private tour (arranged on the CC message boards) we were able to delay our visit to Christ the Redeemer until the obscuring clouds had cleared. Princess had been slow to offer a tour which included the statue, Sugar Loaf and the beaches, and when it did, the cost - $229 each - was ridiculous. So, despite some hilarious (in retrospect) administrative snafus, we got the seven-hour tour we wanted, with five other couples, and saved more than $200 between the two of us.
North of Rio, the passenger complement was one-fifth smaller and the ports - Salvador, Fortaleza, Barbados, Antigua and St. Thomas - considerably less exotic. Bad News Billy sounded almost happy when we had constant rain one day and showers for a few more. It got even hotter and more humid, and competition for poolside chaises rose accordingly. By steaming at a pokey 14 knots for one lengthy stretch, the ship saved money by avoiding a port call, having already substituted for the one at Recife for reasons never quite clear.
Somebody fouled up in St. Thomas - Princess and US Immigration each blamed the other - and hundreds of passengers needing a particular form to gain entry discovered there were none on board. So a lengthy delay ensued as the forms were brought over from the airport. Happily, we weren't affected; those who were got no apology.
Our 29 days on board ended three days later in Ft. Lauderdale. We were among the last to disembark and the process was smooth and quick. We spent a delightful day cruising the waterways on the nifty fleet of water taxis, overnighting at the refurbished Pier 66 before flying home the next morning.
Overall, a satisfactory experience, with some very good moments. We know Princess well enough to be inured to its weaknesses and to enjoy its strengths. Truth is, I'm ready for a better class of cruise line. But I've said that before and been lured back to this one because its itineraries are often so attractive.