The ship - although scheduled for dry dock later this year, this is still a beautiful ship with gorgeous public spaces. I didn't hear exactly how many were on board, but judging from the number of upgrades and last minute bookings, we were not completely full. The ship rarely felt crowded except for those times when show and dinner times overlapped.
Embarkation - princess instituted embarkation by deck so our friends were at 1:00 and we were at 3:00. Since we wanted to see the Maritime Museum, we dropped off the luggage and grabbed a taxi. After touring the Museum, and lunch nearby, we were able to walk back (a bit longish but doable) for check in.
Debarkation - we walked off right at 6:15AM, but even those folks who had to collect their luggage had a good experience. Luggage was arranged in groups according to color group and upright so you could see the tags. Color group tags were not checked and some folks just walked out ahead of their assigned times. There were no customs or passport checks. People were directed to their waiting buses or the taxi area. There were luggage trollies and some porters for those needing help. Kudos to Southampton. They've got it down right.
Dining - not as good as last year when the two star Michelin chef was on board, but still above average. The main issue here was we were under Noro virus preventive measures from about day three or four, which meant no captain's receptions, lots of hand sanitizer, and staff serving food in all venues. We were under the impression that there were over 120 cases (heard from someone who had to go to medical for another reason). Good to know - they ask you to call 911 if you feel ill. This will incur a $50 charge for the advice, even if a doctor never sees you. Except for the first day, there wasn't a back up at the dining rooms that we observed or heard about.
Service - good but not outstanding. Although a relatively new crew, the extra shifts helping in the buffets seemed to tire the crew a bit. There were fewer perky smiles. We didn't fill out our card for outstanding service.
Entertainment & recreation - this is a port intensive itinerary so we didn't see that many offerings. The new production show isn't yet on the Crown. The specialty acts that we did see were good, especially the violinist. Zumba was offered three times, and I see that it will soon be fleet wide. The 5K deck walk was haphazardly administered & participation was low.
Tendering - we made both scheduled tender ports. Guernsey was a bit iffy, depending when you tried to leave. We got onshore in 45 minutes but others were delayed due to the winds. Edinburgh went smoothly but I had my group at the meeting spot 75 minutes before hand to make sure we got off.
Weather - we had a rough first night with gale force winds. The ship was bobbing, rocking, and the stabilizers were very noisy even on the higher decks. Sleep was in short supply that night. We also had wind and showers in Dublin, Belfast and outright rain in Liverpool. Bring layers. Guernsey and Le Havre were sunny, and the latter was in the 70s.
Shore excursions - we made independent arrangements in all ports, and thanks to Cruise Critic folks, they went smoothly. Folks were on time, flexible and great traveling companions. Those with empty spots were able to fill them by departure time. I will cover these more in depth elsewhere, but in brief I can recommend the following:
Cobh/Cork - eCoach. Due to delays docking, we weren't able to beat the Princess buses so it was crowded everywhere, but it couldn't be helped. It usually works. Pre purchasing tickets for Blarney Castle didn't help. We still had to queue in the same single line as folks who were buying their tickets that day.
Belfast - All Taxi Tours sent a minibus for 12 of us instead of taxis so we were comfortable. We got out to Giants Causeway in good time. Other groups had taxis not show up. We also had a bomb scare but with a local driver, actually made it back with 15 minutes to spare. The ship left almost 2 hours late that day. Police had to clear one route into port for all the Princess folks to get through. This was after the Queen & Obama had visited.
Dublin - a shared cab to town and pre purchased HOHO tickets will get you to Trinity College or Guiness before the worst of the crowds.
Liverpool - miserable rain & wind, but the volunteers were wonderful. Look for them in red jackets if you have any questions at all. We went to the Maritime Museum and Liverpool One, the largest shopping center in Europe. Others took the HOHO. We had to curtail our activities here due to the strong wind and rain that is exhausting to walk in.
Glasgow - we did the HOHO here after a shared cab ride into town. We pre booked with FSD Taxis and they were early at both pickup spots. There was a "Taste of Scotland" food fair going on in George Square that day with lots of free samples, including whiskey! There is a nice pub in a repurposed church across from the Botanic Gardens.
Edinburgh - we can't recommend Craig of Mini-Tours more highly. His intimate knowledge of the area made this a highlight of our vacation. Since Stirling Castle is undergoing renovations, he took us a tour of the hidden Edinburgh which included the private school used to depict Hogwarts in the Harry Potter films, Craigmillar Castle, a 1300s castle where Queen Mary visited, with a turret to dungeon guided tour, and lunch at the Sheep's Heid Pub, Edinburgh's oldest pub. There were no crowds anywhere in the morning. After lunch, we had time in Edinburgh near the Castle and the Royal Mile, but with 22 buses in the area, we all felt the morning couldn't be matched. Craig does require a 100£ deposit which can be done through PayPal.
Invergordon/Inverness - some folks took the free tours offered by the Inverclyde volunteers. We had a taxi tour through Shore Excursions which covered Beuilly Priory, Urquhart Castle, parts of Loch Ness, Cawdor Castle and Cullodan Battle Field (briefly).
Le Harve - Normandy battle sites through Overlord Tours. Although a long day, this is a "dont miss". There were four minivans - 3 went to the American sites and 1 to the Canadian. Our guide was Julien, a WWII buff whose detailed knowledge of the sites and battles made the history live. We covered Omaha beach, Ste. Marie Eglise for lunch and the museum, and Utah Beach. Although 100€ may sound high, Princess is charging $249 per person for this tour. Credit card number taken, but payment is in cash at the end of the day. (The best tour operators are booked way in advance, and prefer payment in cash. Edinburgh can be a difficult locale since there are fewer guides here. There is a HOHO, however.)
Transportation - no problems with Smiths for Airports, London to Southampton in a shared car for 4; Woodfords in a minibus for Southampton to London (for just 6 people - they ran out of intermediate cars), and Just Airports for London to Heathrow for the 2 of us. The drivers were early, professional and knew how to get from point A to point B. The shared rides were arranged here before hand.
Our roll call had over 200 signed up. About 50 came to Sail Away, over 120 to the Meet and Greet, and about 2 dozen to the Hail and Farewell (arranged after we boarded so not everyone heard about it). It worked to have sign up lists in the library for shared cabs and tours. I just put "Sign up for Cruise Critic Members" at the top of each list. We even gained a couple of folks who were new members who did to not know how to post or use the forums.
Thanks to all the CC folks who helped us plan such a terrific vacation.