I follow these boards frequently (especially 6 months prior to a booked cruise) and continue to be amazed at how helpful they are. I always "pay it forward (and back)" by writing a detailed review of our experiences (you can see my other detailed reviews by clicking on my name). Here is our latest, on the Crown Princess, April 23-30. Let me tell you the bottom line first: it was a great cruise. You will a number of criticisms that may make you think otherwise. I point these out so as others can avoid the pitfalls we had and capitalize on the advantages and tidbits we discovered.
My wife and I, in our early 50's and our daughter (25) came along with my wife's sister who stayed alone on the Plaza deck, room P301. We (the three of us) booked a mini suite but one week prior to sailing, got upgraded to a penthouse suite!
We arrived into FLL the day before and used the free shuttle to the Crown Plaza hotel, just down the street from the entrance to the ports. It is a newer hotel and very comfortable. Many hotels in the area have a two-bed setup, but be careful, many of those are full size beds. The Crown Plaza had two queen beds and a sofa. We paid $149 last minute and this included free Internet. Can't beat it.
We went to the infamous Total Wine to purchase our cruise provisions and were blown away at the selection. We live in California, in the wine country, and I have yet to see such an expansive collection of wines. We were looking for some good Pinot Noirs and Cabs and were blown away with a selection of over 100-150 pinots! We then went across the parking lot to a placed called Coco's Asian Fusion Bistro Restaurant (not to be confused with the coffee shop) and had excellent sushi. I highly recommend this place and the service was extremely friendly.
We arrived at the port (took a taxi since it was $10 for the 4 of us vs. a van offered at the hotel which was $5 per person) at 11:15. Since three of us were upgraded to a suite we took advantage of the priority boarding as they were already handing out boarding card 4's. We included our sister in law with us and they didn't seem to mind (we were not obvious about it). We waited maybe 20 minutes and were on board before noon.
Our cabin was already ready! We dropped off our items and immediately called the dine line to put our names in for the Chef's Table, and the Crown Grill for the first formal night. More on both of these later.
We went to the main dining room and had a relaxing lunch vs. the buffet that already was getting crazy. However, the lunch in the MDR was very slow (took nearly an hour and a half). I wanted to get out and explore this huge ship (over 3100 on board this week). This ship is huge compared to our typical cruise that has 700-1800 passengers.
Let me point out the positives and negatives of various venues we took advantage of or were offered.
Penthouse Suite, R417
Again this was a fabulous surprise on a free upgrade. We nearly booked it originally due to the numerous perks, but the "double the price" was a bit hard to justify.
Obviously the size was perfect for the three of us and the cabin is well laid out providing a curtain between the "living room" and the bedroom to provide extra security. Separate lighting allowed for either our daughter or us to stay up later to read, etc. without disturbing the other(s). The location was also nice, with a separate wall from the stairs/elevator banks so as not to have too much hall noise. And being close to the Lido (deck 15) was also advantageous.
Our room was warm the entire cruise until the last night. We asked on the first day for a fan; they wouldn't bring us one (or they didn't have one). We then called the hotel manager and he came to our room and said he would have it taken care of. They (engineering) came several times and made adjustments to the thermostats and said that was the best they could do. Our sister-in-law's room was much colder as were most areas of the ship. In addition, we did not have "cold" water the entire cruise. While not a major distraction, it is hard to get used to brushing your teeth with warm water. This was not an issue on lower floors.
A huge issue for others considering a penthouse suite located mid-ship is the location. As I read in the days leading up to the cruise, after we learned of our upgrade, the noise was bothersome. The deck above is the Lido deck, the pool deck and you constantly hear noise from upstairs; just people walking resonates very loudly in the room and this starts at 5:30am and goes well into the night. If you don't want to wear earplugs at night, I would think twice before ever booking this room again, despite the great perks described below!
The balcony is very narrow also. Nicely equipped with a wooden table and two chairs and two balcony chairs, however, you cannot put any other chairs around the table (nor will they give you extras, we asked). Further, the lounge chairs cannot be turned to face straight out looking at the ocean. This is how narrow the deck is (the width is less than the length of a lounge chair). Further, it is nearly impossible to nap outside with the soothing ocean sounds, as again, you are right below the Lido deck and the noise of people walking above you. It is constant and at least for me, annoying. Finally, Princess has not gone the way of restricting smoking on balconies as other cruise lines have started. As we are not smokers and sensitive to it, it seemed to be constant and "focused" on our balcony. Caveat emptor.
The list of perks for suite guests is impressive. Here are my impressions of those offered.
We loved doing Sabatinis for breakfast. This is high on my list to free you of the crowds. There were never more than 4 other couples for breakfast when we were there. Nice Italian music playing and the wait staff was amazing. The included lattes and cappuccinos are a nice treat. I like ice tea sometimes and they made it fresh (brewed and poured over ice). Really over the top experience and a great, quiet way to start your day. Sure you can say that breakfast is breakfast and a similar experience can be had at the main dining room, but for us, this was a highlight each day (and the hours are more extended than the MDR).
Free Internet access. Signal was good for both my laptop and iPad in the suite. We used over 800 minutes, but alas, it is so slow (we knew this) and you often get logged off midstream that it took many minutes to download my Wall St. Journal on my iPad. We own a vacation home in Sonoma wine country that we rent and so checking email daily and responding to inquiries is a must. This perk is a huge part of the benefit of a suite. By the way, we found out that if you use the Internet in the Internet cafe using the ship's computers, the speed is much quicker vs. a laptop in your room.
Dry cleaning is also a great perk. We used it several times and although it often took over a day to get our clothes back, it still was a welcome perk. They charge your account and then they credit the amount about a day later. Odd.
Finally, we ordered an egg crate for our bed. The bed in general was very comfortable and we are picky bed people. So that was a huge plus.
Many of the other perks were either not advertised openly or you had to ask to receive. Example, dinner menus were not offered unless asked. I have seen several others point this out. It took us 3 days before we could convince our room steward to provide these and even then, they typically came (lunch and dinner) either after lunch or even after dinner. This didn't pose too difficult a problem but they are not readily available if you are planning on dining in suite.
A pillow menu was never provided nor were we asked. We just lived with the pillows provided. Our fault...
The canapEs that are delivered often arrived after we went to dinner vs. prior. Our dinnertime was known by all (6pm traditional dining) but still would arrive late. And often did not arrive at all. We ended up with 2 nights of delivered canapEs. We could have said something, but they really were not that special (at least for the two nights received).
Although there were three people in our suite, only two bathrobes, slippers and leather shipboard room key covers were provided. But again, after asking several times, these were all provided. It is not like they didn't know there was three in our cabin....
We were invited to attend the Chef's dinner and it was as great as others have pointed out. As described, there is way too much food, but great service and very enjoyable. Found it odd that it is done right in front of other diners in the Michelangelo dining room. You could hear the "I want that" comments from neighboring diners. If they do it this way to encourage others to want to experience it that would make sense, but then again, there isn't enough spots to accommodate anyone who asks. In fact, our cruise did it twice. We had 10 people at our table (I hear they can and often do go to 12 per table). We did ours on Monday, the Caribbean themed dinner in the MDR; the worst meal of the cruise so said our waiter in the traditional dining room. I guess it must be served in the regular dining room as no other place existed, but I found this odd and a bit awkward. For anyone considering this, I would highly recommend it. One note: the wines served are very ordinary and not as much a highlight as the food. We were served a Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand that I think costs $8-10 on land and a Sonoma Zinfandel that is $12-15 on land. We also had a dessert wine, a late harvest wine. So for the numerous courses, there were only 3 wines served. They went through two bottles of each for the 10 of us. Again, the wine was not all that exciting, but for $75 per person...especially when you consider the personal service, the cookbook received, the rose for the ladies, AND several photos that they take and print for you while you are eating. This was definitely a surprise and delight event.
We landed traditional dining in the MDR at 6pm for the 4 of us. Elena, our waiter and Arren, the assistant were incredible. Apparently Elena is an assistant to the Head Waiter and it clearly showed in her skill and experience. Service was always excellent or even better. Food was also quite enjoyable throughout the week when we did eat there (we ate at both alternative restaurants and the Chefs table for three of the nights). Princess has consistently done a good to great job with the food. We also never felt rushed (like we did on Holland over last summer where food was put down in front of you at the same time a dish was picked up). The fish, meats, everything was well prepared, well laid out and always hot. We just had a few things that we returned (typically shellfish that smelled to fishy).
We ate at the Crown Grill on the first formal night (Sunday). Others have posted that they didn't understand why you would book here on the night that they serve steak in the dining room. The main reason is we don't like the requirement of dressing up on formal nights. I know there are as many people that write about this on the boards that dislike it as those that like it so I won't argue either way, it is just not for us. I wear a suit and tie 5 days a week; my vacation should not have this same requirement.
We chose to dine at the Crown Grill on a formal night due to what I read here on CC: that you did not have to dress formally in the alternative restaurants. Thanks goodness I read that, as you would have never known this to be the case if you asked someone at the purser's desk! Prior to the meal, I doubled checked at the purser's desk on whether you could dress more casual on formal night in one of the alternative restaurants like Crown Grill or Sabatinis just to be sure. The purser was adamant that you HAD to dress formally. I pushed back and said I thought I read that this was not the case. I asked him to call the Maiter'd and he agreed. Sure enough, CC was right: smart casual is appropriate in the alternative restaurants on any/all nights of the week. While the purser didn't apologize, he said he did learn something. And he also informed the other pursers, as they were not aware of this policy either. I find this disappointing that they would not be aware of this policy (and that I had to insist that this be checked).
The dinner at the Crown Grill was excellent throughout; the mussels enjoyable as we split those for an appetizer, and created our own surf and turf choosing a steak and lobster (Maine lobster, unlike what is served in the MDR which was usually Australian or other cold water). We enjoyed a nice bottle of Caymus Cabernet which they thoughtfully decanted given it was a 2008.
Sabatinis was also an excellent experience. I was surprised at how empty both here and at the Crown Grill was; not sure if the extra cover charge is too much for others or what the reason is that these places are not enjoyed by the 3100 others we had on our cruise. The mustard encrusted sea bass was divine. This was also a real highlight for the week. And the numerous pre-courses were also very well done and delicious. And the service staff were the same ones we had at breakfast which as mentioned earlier, were excellent.
We went to the Horizon Court buffet for breakfast on one day when we had an early excursion and this was a mistake; beyond super crowded, many items were cold and finding a seat nearly impossible. A big disappointment for us.
To cover the remaining places to eat onboard, we had lunch at the International Cafe and yes, the chicken salad was very tasty, but the Panini sandwiches are not grilled when ordered. So an Italian ham sandwich with fresh mozzarella cheese loses something when not melted. They said they could put it in the microwave oven for us and we declined (?). The pizza is very tasty, if not very, very greasy; the hamburgers were excellent and the hot-dogs were also a standout for a grill serving so many passengers. You certainly have a lot of options onboard and you can't go wrong with most of them. The ice cream bar only served vanilla or chocolate, very limited, but you could have gelato (for $1.50 a scoop) at the International cafe if your heart was set on ice cream.
We had planned on this being a beach week; every port we would go to a beach to relax and spend time in the water and to snorkel if possible.
Our first stop in Grand Cayman we opted for the 7-mile beach to hang out. It was not quite what we expected as the beach is very narrow and they have 3 rows of lounge chairs under a "reserved" area with umbrellas. So those at the back couldn't see the water nearly as well as those in the front. But alas, we spent most of our time floating in the water so it didn't much matter. The people running the excursion were helpful and so we went with the flow.
In Roatan (which we heard the previous week was skipped due to high winds), we opted for the Tabyana beach with lunch excursion. I should note that during the night cruising to Roatan, we woke up to a strange burning smell. When we arrived, the air was very hazy and smoky. Apparently, many parts of this region have open fires, often on the mainland and it rises in the upper atmosphere and drops at places like Roatan (all this said by the captain). It was very hard on the eyes and made for a super greenhouse effect that held the heat and humidity in. Those with allergies or breathing problems would have been very upset.
The port is kind of a joke, reminding me of a previous cruise to Costa Maya: it was generated by the cruise industry, Carnival I think of which Princess is a part of, for cruise passengers. You can't even walk off the ship without immediately going into a store for them to sell you stuff. But alas, you pass through all the liquor and perfume displays along with the numerous jewelry counters (with the typical, "come over here, I will show you something nice") to end up in a courtyard full of recently built, modern stores. You pass by all these to end up at the bus pickup point.
Our excursion was supposed to include transportation to the beach, nearly a 45-minute drive. It was also supposed to be an air-conditioned bus. Well two of the three were, ours was not. I complained to the person shuffling us into the busses and he said that is all there is. We were packed like sardines on the bus for this very long ride, with no a/c and the smoke in the air. This was unacceptable. We arrived exhausted, sore, and hot. Not the way to start an excursion. The beach ended up being nice and the snorkeling was excellent (there are locals floating in kayaks to make sure you don't touch or stand on the coral; we applaud this!). The food provided was hot dogs and hamburgers and a few other items but nothing to write home about. While we found the people friendly running this private for Princess location, the high heat caused by the smoky overhang was too much to take and we headed back early to the ship (yes, this time in an a/c bus). I did speak to the purser's desk about this issue and they said they would contact the local tour operator to try and prevent this problem to future trips. The other beach option is Mahogany beach, which is located next to the ship (arrived via chairlift and only after you walk by many of the shops). The excursion desk told us that there is very little shade there and it is a man-made beach so snorkeling would be non-existent.
In Cozumel, we went to Passion Island (with a lunch). Again talking to the excursion desk, they recommended this island as great for a relaxing beach day. The crew that took us there and specifically the lead guide Alex were excellent. Super friendly and helpful. Further, while the island has a number of excursions by the other cruise lines arriving there, Princess has a private area that others are not allowed into. Princess passengers can go over to the other areas that have shopping, but others are not allowed in the Princess area. The advantage of this is we only had 42 people so it was like you had the beach to yourselves. The disadvantage is you had to walk farther to get a drink as the other parts of the island had a bar closer to the water and one closer to the food. The food ended up being excellent and again, the wait staff were super friendly and helpful. They had a large smorgasbord set up for us and I must say, the mahi mahi was the best I have ever had. Beyond fresh! The guacamole and pico de gallo were fresh and excellent. And the included drinks flowed freely. I recommend this place highly to consider!
We rented a sanctuary bungalow on Princess Cay and opted for the additional private served lunch. We were given 4 priority tender passes. We went over with our passes at 9am, one of the first off the ship.
The experience was truly exceptional. The sanctuary bungalow had the extra features we wanted (and were adult only) and some we were not aware of vs. the standard beach bungalows. They are located at the end which was positive and negative: a little farther away was the positive and negative. There was nice shade at the bungalow and an "upgraded" set of 4 lounge chairs. The shade came from an overhang out front of the hut and more palm and other trees to sit under in addition to an umbrella. None of these were offered for the regular beach bungalows. In addition, there are water misters in front of the hut that provide a cooling effect (despite the humidity). So relaxing at the hut was exceptional and a spectacular view 180 degrees around. There was a lot of peace and tranquility as the staff prevented others from walking by. That sounds bad as I type it, but again, we were able to relax, read and sleep with no distractions. I guess this would have been similar with the sanctuary area on the ship. We ate inside with the air conditioning and ceiling fan and then relaxed outside. Bar staff made frequent runs by the bungalow that was nice not having to go down to the bar (not that it was that far). We snorkeled and were impressed (and surprised) that a reef still exists albeit small. There were some great fish and we got some ideal underwater photos. They do keep you confined to a roped off area and dare to go past the boundary! A security guard on a jet ski flies at top speed down the entire length of the beach to stop on a dime in front of you to tell you can't be there. Really ridiculous. He did more damage to the shallow coral going at top speed down the entire length of the beach than any person snorkeling could do! (Well, maybe not as there are those who insist on standing...)
It took about 10 minutes to walk back to the tender, and another 10 min waiting in line to get on. This was at 2:20 for those that wondered. All in all, this was a great day and another highlight of the cruise. We have been to a number of private islands but this one was very special and enjoyable.
We ordered the extra lunch and were quite impressed, especially with the seafood platter: lobster tails, huge shrimp, all which tasted fresh and was chilled.
We saw one comedian we liked, and one show we hated (Destination). Really poor in terms of quality. We don't often do these, as they seem to have generally gone down hill over the years.
I attended the "high end" wine tasting which was expensive ($25). The head sommelier was so talkative to the point of being ridiculous. The wines were good, but $25 for the amount of small pours received seemed out of line. Alas, the 100 plus others that did this must not have thought so.
Oddities / Annoyances:
The staff was generally not as friendly as we remember. Example: My daughter who was staying in our penthouse suite (she is 25) stood in the line at the purser's desk to ask a question. She stood in the line for suite guests, as she should. She was called out by the pursers saying, "You shouldn't be in that line." Talk about embarrassing! I know there are a lot of people that probably stand in that line that shouldn't, but to automatically assume you shouldn't be there? Would have been much better to ask, "Are you a suite guest?" Or something more non-presumptuous.
Monday morning at 4:30AM a general all alarm call to locate a couple came over the speakers in our cabin. Come on, we were not coming into a port, we tendered at Grand Cayman so it wasn't like it was an immigration check. To disturb (wake up!) 3100 people to find someone? That was crazy and inexcusable. And this was the talk everywhere you went the next day.
We learned that Princess rewards everyone in a position to sell you something in some fashion so as to motivate everyone to sell. This was especially noticeable on the first several days. I found it uncomfortable as to their degree of "pushiness." Revenue maximization really felt prominent in many venues: the jackpots for bingo were always fixed vs. based on how many cards they sold: $100 first game, $150 second, $200 third and $400 for blackout unless you hit blackout in x number of draws. This is unlike I have seen on many other cruise lines, where the game winnings go up to adjust for the number of players. Similarly, the slot tournaments and the blackjack tournaments are fixed in terms of payout in the casino despite the number playing. I realize the ship has to make money, but this was a bit egregious. The spa was as bad in terms of up selling as I can remember. And the five-minute sales pitch eats into your massage treatment time! That is terrible....
The elevators, especially mid-ship are poorly designed in terms of efficiency. We often waited a long time to ride. And being on the 14th floor and so many activities on 5, 6 or 7th floor, this was not well laid out for the number of passengers. There are two "banks," a set of 4 on one set of buttons, and another set of two on separate buttons. Everyone that uses these mid ship elevators pushes both sets of buttons so inevitably, you stop on nearly each floor with no one getting on (as the other bank of elevators arrives and they get on those, still requiring the other bank to stop). Further, and I realize by now you are saying, man is he picky; there are lights above the elevators indicating whether it is going up or down. They use triangles that point up and down. I was surprised that they didn't color code these to be green up and red down or vice versa. They are both red. When you are looking the 20-40 feet away to see the direction of the elevator, it is difficult to tell what the direction it was going. Again, this is a small item, but a simple one to correct for Princess if they desired (one for the suggestion box).
The head maitre'd, the executive chef, Elena our headwaiter and Pol our cabin stewards were all super friendly, helpful and a joy to be around. They know their jobs and do them exceptionally well.
The coffee card is great if you like good/fancy coffee. Be sure and ask for a large as they always will make you a small unless you ask (and want) a large; both sizes are included as one punch. Further, as many others have mentioned, as long as you have one punch left, you can have unlimited regular drip coffee. This coffee was the best on the ship outside of Sabatinis and the Crown Grill.
As mentioned, the excursion to the private island and the sanctuary bungalow there and the passion island excursion in Cozumel were fun and memorable.
A breeze. One of the simplest and least crowded I have experienced. We were at the airport in less than 30 min from the point we decided to get off the ship (via taxi).