We are just off the Crown Princess British Isles cruise from 8/4-8/16. This board was a tremendous resource during our planning, so we felt it was only right that we would post a review here so that future planners might have a reference. Some information about us: this was a 10th anniversary trip and our last cruise was about nine years ago so we are by no means veteran cruisers.
EMBARKATION—Painless. We were early, around noon, and were in our cabin by around 12:30. Bags arrived before 2. We did meet some unfortunate folks at the muster drill (at 4:15) whose bags still weren't there yet, but that seemed to be fairly unusual. We used Smiths for Airports (firstname.lastname@example.org) for all our airport/Southampton/London transfers and they were great. I highly recommend them. It rained on embarkation day and that was just about the only rain we saw all trip. It never failed that in every port the locals commented about the terrific weather.
FOOD ON THE SHIP/"EXTRA" RESTAURANTS—We had anytime dining and typically ate around 7:30. We never waited for a table, even though we asked for a table for two, in either dining room. The food ranged from OK to very good.
Keep in mind that even if you have "anytime" dining, they really want to fit you into either an early seating or a late seating so as to turn over the tables twice in a night. But because Da Vinci doesn't take reservations until 7:30, there are lots of different time options. And if you make a 7:30 reservation at Da Vinci, you can show up at 7:15 with very little trouble and maybe grab a little better table. I know it is largely dependent on the waiter you get, but we got much better service in Da Vinci than in Michelangelo, and found the maitre' d in Da Vinci (Giuseppe) to be much, much more accommodating.
Crown Grill: The first night we went, it was pretty good. The second night, it was great. The steaks are not up to a Morton's type of meat, but they are very good and we thought they were superior to the meat served in the main dining room. Sides are very good, desserts are excellent.
International Cafe: Many people seem to think everything here costs extra, but only the gelato costs extra. We ate lunch here several times and really enjoyed the sandwiches, some of the soups, and the desserts. One warning: the chef on duty in the morning was very friendly. The chef on duty in the afternoon/evening may have been a direct relative of The Soup Nazi.
Coffee card: My wife loved it. Some people in the past have wondered if it includes free hot chocolate—ours did.
Ice cream: It was a very well-kept secret that the ice cream bar on deck 15 also had hard ice cream in addition to the soft ice cream everyone seemed to be getting. Gelato at International Cafe was $1.50 for three (!) scoops, but hard ice cream on 15 was free.
Pizza: Thin crust. Pepperoni and cheese every day, plus a special that varied each day.
Room service breakfast: We had this most every day, varying only on a couple of sea days when we decided to do the International Cafe (great muffins, croissants, etc.). Perhaps because we were at the end of the hall, we almost always got delivery a couple minutes earlier than the earliest time we had checked. That's not a complaint. It was actually kind of nice. Had our breakfast on the balcony every day the weather allowed it (all but about two or three) and loved it.
INTERNET ON THE SHIP—We had read some horror stories from those on the British Isles trip before us. Our experience was not the same. Yes, it's very slow compared to what you're used to in your home, but for the most part, we were able to connect when we wanted to connect. Yes, the manager can be a little snippy, but remember he's dealing with 3000 people, many of whom may not be very computer savvy. We were in line behind one gentleman who could not connect. It turned out he was typing the website address he wanted into the Google search field. I imagine dealing with those types of problems lends itself to being snippy.
STAFF ON THE SHIP—We had some mixed experiences here. We never really found that one standout employee that made us want to tell everyone about him/her. We found a couple we would NOT want to tell everyone about. For the most part, it was average to slightly above average. And we realize they are dealing with 3000 people, some of whom require a lot of care, so this isn't necessarily a negative.
CABIN ON THE SHIP—We had the much discussed E731. Yes, it definitely has an extended, fully-covered balcony. We had some rough seas on a couple of days and you definitely feel the movement more at the back of the ship than you do in the middle. But it wasn't anything that would prevent us from trying to get this cabin again. It's on the end of a very quiet hall and very close to a back staircase, although unfortunately the staircase only went down to the sixth floor rather than to the fifth floor. Late at night there was sometimes (maybe 2 or 3 of the 12 nights) a small amount of noise audible from Club Fusion.
ST. PETER PORT/GUERNSEY—The surprise hit of our ports. We did not have a guide and did the town on foot. It was a decent walk, maybe a little more than half a mile, down to Castle Cornet. But the walk is along the waterfront, with lots of little shops, so it goes quickly. Gorgeous castle, gorgeous town, friendly people. Make sure you don't just stay on the waterfront. Go up one block (there are lots of alleys that take you up to the next street) and you'll find the better shops, including a place with great milkshakes made from Guernsey ice cream. Watch out: they have their own currency here, so if you get change in any of the shops, try to specify that you want pounds sterling.
HOLYHEAD, WALES—At a later port, we overheard a passenger on a tender saying Wales was the worst port and that they would rather have had a day at sea. I imagine if you stay in Holyhead this would be true. However, we had a guide, Rhian Jones (email@example.com) who was fantastic, and this became one of our favorite ports. Along with her driver, Martin, they took us all over Wales. We had lunch at a riverside Welsh cafe (Welsh rarebit is actually very good and has nothing to do with rabbit), visited a trio of castles—including one out in the middle of the field that wouldn't be in any guidebooks—toured an Elizabethan town house, visited a church that dates to the 1200s, and wrapped up our day with tea and Welsh cakes in the den of Rhian's farm house, which had an incredible view looking out over what felt like the entire country. I can't recommend Rhian highly enough.
DUBLIN, IRELAND—Jimmy Mulrooney from Dublin Taxi was our guide (firstname.lastname@example.org). Our port day was a Sunday, so many things were closed early in the day. Jimmy gave us a quick driving tour that gave us the feel for the area, then we walked through Trinity and around several of the parks in the middle of downtown. Walking through town with all the church bells ringing was quite memorable. We ended up walking into Saint Patrick's Cathedral just as Sunday service was about to start, so we stayed for that and it was a great experience. Jimmy drove us to Howth and Malahide and we stopped for lunch in Howth—both towns were very busy, but had a very comfortable, local feel. If we did it again, we might even spend a little more time there.
BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND—This is very important: if you get lucky enough to have Michael from Belfast Attractions (email@example.com) as your guide, make time for him to give you the political tour. We knew about the history of Belfast but didn't know about the current status. Michael gave us an eye-opening tour sprinkled with his absolutely incredible personal experiences—he should write a book—that totally changed our view of the city. He also drove us out to Giant's Causeway, which was our favorite natural wonder-type site of the trip. No matter what the weather in the port, it will probably be windy and cold, so bring a jacket. You can walk all the way to the top of the nearby cliff (there is a path), which provides a spectacular view. There is plenty of time to do Giant's Causeway in the morning and the Belfast tour in the afternoon. One strange note: the Princess port information on Belfast that was distributed the night before we stopped made barely any mention of "The Troubles." My impression is that very few passengers saw the side of it that we saw. It's really a must-do.
GLASGOW/GREENOCK, SCOTLAND—Our guide, Gordon Ross (firstname.lastname@example.org) said this might be his last year giving tours. Hopefully, that's not the case, as he is terrific. We drove through Loch Lomond and The Trossachs, and then Gordon walked us through Stirling Castle, which probably was our favorite castle of all that we saw (could be because we had such a good guide). This was also our Tattoo night, so we left Stirling and Gordon drove us to Edinburgh. My impression is that most people did either Loch Lomond/Stirling OR the Tattoo. There is time to do both if you get a guide and don't mind spending the whole day away from the ship. As everyone else has said, the Tattoo is a must-see. You should also make sure to believe them when they tell you it will be cold (and windy!), but we were lucky with no rain. We beat all the buses back and were in our cabin by around 12:30.
KIRKWALL—No guide, we just did the city on foot. If you want to see some of the prehistoric type sites, you'll definitely want to join a tour or get a guide, but if you just want to shop and see the churches and palaces, the tender drops you in the middle of the city. There was an agricultural fair on the day we were there, so several places were closed, but the ones that were open were interesting enough to spend 2-3 hours. Only down side was that it did feel a little like being in Latin America the way you were accosted coming off the tender by locals trying to sell you tours and other various "essential" local products. There is free internet access at the Kirkwall library, which is walkable from the pier.
EDINBURGH—We went through Gordon Ross (see above) and he arranged for us to tour with David Frood. The Fringe Festival was in town, which meant there were hundreds of artists/actors/etc. on the Royal Mile handing out brochures for their plays, comedies, etc. It was an absolute zoo and traffic was incredible (the Tattoo was also in town). I don't believe any of the ship's excursions went to Rosslyn Chapel (famous for being in The Da Vinci Code, among other things), but David took us out there and we thought it was well worth it. Edinburgh was probably our least favorite of the ports, but we lean more towards the countryside than the city.
INVERGORDON—Our guide was Alastair Cunningham (email@example.com), who we'd rank among the best guides we had. He walked with us on Culloden Battlefield and told stories that really made it come alive. He also timed our trips to two castles so that we missed the big groups from the ship, which made the castles much more pleasant to walk through. Loch Ness was gorgeous. Alastair stopped at a cashmere shop in a small town called Beauly that had better prices and better quality items than anything we saw on The Royal Mile.
LE HAVRE—Apparently, two-thirds of our ship went to Paris. We went to Normandy via Overlord Tours with some other folks we'd connected with through this board thanks to the organization of a fellow poster. Definitely feel like we saw more than the folks who went through Princess. Our guide was very knowledgeable.
DEBARKATION: We had independent arrangements (Smiths for Airports again) and weren't scheduled to debark until 9:30. They made an announcement at 9:15 that everyone could debark. Our driver was there early, no problems.
OUTSIDE THE CRUISE: We stayed at the Chancery Court Hotel for two nights in London. Easily walkable location to Covent Garden and a few Tube stops from the big tourist destinations. On one of our free days, we took the Eurostar to Paris and spent the day there. Carine at Unique Paris Private Tours (firstname.lastname@example.org) set us up with a chocolate/pastry tour that was a great way to do two things—eat some great food and see some of the non-touristy parts of Paris. It was one of my favorite things I've ever done in the city, and I lived there for several weeks while in college.
OVERALL: If you've read this far, you've got some serious endurance! We had a great trip and good to great experiences with all our guides. If you have any specific questions, feel free to ask.
I think this is old news to those much more experienced cruisers on this board, but during this trip we decided there are two distinct types of people on a cruise: those who cruise for the cruise experience, and those who cruise for the port experience. At this point in time, we fall into the latter category. We went on this cruise because it was a great way to see some destinations we've always wanted to see. But we found that we also enjoyed talking to the cruise-for-the-cruise folks, and many of them on this very board had tremendous suggestions.
We kept a very light-hearted blog for our kids while we were gone. It has some photos of the cabin, port experiences, etc. and can be found here: http://3z9q.zapd.co (yes, it's "co" rather than "com)