This was my 7th. cruise and my second on Princess. This is how cruising should be and was better than my cruise in 2010. Mind you, anything was better than last years (see my review Celebrity Infinity October 2010 Panama Canal). The ship had a refit in May of this year but the internal decor and general layout of the ship is much the same as the Golden Princess (and the rest of the "Grand" class of Princess ships). We sailed from Miami to go around the eastern Caribbean visiting Princess Cays (a private island owned by Princess), US Virgin Islands, Dominica, Grenada, Bonaire and Aruba. The weather did not get off to a good start as we caught the end of a tropical storm out of Miami which lasted a couple of days. But the temperature was in the high 20's/low 30's so I can't complain!
Embarkation. An absolute doddle! Despite the fact that I didn't have a boarding pass-I refused to input my credit card details to allow me to print it off at home. I was asked for my boarding pass and when they found out that I didn't have one, I was redirected to a secondary queue in which I was given a small form to fill out and told to go onto the main embarkation lines. The whole process was extremely well organised and took less that 20 minutes. I was given my room keycard and boarded the ship.
PLEASE NOTE: Princess, like every other cruise line, makes a charge on your onboard account of between $10 and $15 per person, per day-this includes children!. On Princess, this is called a "Hotel Charge". This charge is put on EVERY passengers account-and is distributed amongst the staff as "gratuities". For a family of four, based on a charge of $10 per person/day for a 10 day cruise, this will cost $400 (around Â£300) on top of your onboard spending. If you don't know about this, it could come as quite a shock. The first thing you must do is go to the Guest Relations desk and ask to be removed from this charge. Princess cannot refuse to do this if a guest asks to be removed. You will then be free to tip as you see fit and not as Princess wants you to.
Princess will encourage guests to use a credit card for onboard purchases although all purchases are done via your keycard as cash is not accepted onboard. Your credit card will be charged at the end of the cruise. I refuse to do this and opt to put a cash deposit on my keycard. I can then keep an eye on my account so that I can keep to my own budget.
Cabins. My cabin had an oceanview window which was a free upgrade from Princess. It does make a big difference as opposed to an inside cabin which I normally have due to the cost of travelling alone. The cabin felt light and airy and was well fitted out. My steward-John-was extremely helpful and couldn't do enough for me.
Guests. These were mostly American (we did sail from Miami) with a small amount of Brits. I didn't hear any other language apart from English from the guests. I would have expected a small amount of Spanish/European accents but this wasn't the case on this cruise.
Food. Excellent! I opted for the traditional dining at 8.15 in the Botticelli dining room. I was on a table of 8 but after the first night, a couple of my fellow diners disappeared. One of my table-Paul from Bournemouth-did bump into them later. They said they had met some friends who they didn't know were on the ship and had moved tables. I can't comment on this but it seemed that they were quite aloof and didn't want to know about other people. Two of the guests allocated to my table never even turned up so that left four of us. The other couple was Phil and Dale from Chicago. I was also disappointed that many of the tables in my dining room were empty virtually all the time. On one night, I counted ten tables in my immediate area empty. Yet in the other two dining rooms-Michealangelo and Da Vinci-which were for the "Any Time" dining, were full all the time. Considering that the menus were the same for all the dining rooms, why book a traditional dining table and then not turn up? The exception was the two formal evenings then all of the dining rooms were full. Go figure! The menus in the main restaurants was quite varied and very good but the general choice didn't flick my switch. An exception was the second formal night which featured Beef Wellington-possibly my favourite meal.
The Horizon Court and Cafe Caribe buffet didn't disappoint. The breakfast menu didn't change much and was in the American taste with hash browns, corned beef hash etc. but the lunch and evening meal menu changed every day, and the food on offer was of the best quality. However, if you decide to go for a late breakfast-say between 9.30 and 11.00, be prepared to wait a very long time. I had a few beers on one night and didn't get up until 9.30. I went to the Horizon Court buffet and was confronted by queues that snaked right around the self-service buffet and out into the main seating area-which was also completely full. I had to wait until 11.15 to even get a look-in at the buffet. In fact, I was so late that the lunch service had opened!
In the Wheelhouse Bar on two occasions, there featured a British "Pub Lunch". These two days were very popular indeed with the queue for a table quite lenghty. The luches included genuine British fish and chips, a ploughmans lunch, steak and kidney pie along with a selection of meals that you would expect in a traditional British pub.
There are several speciality restaurants including the Crown Grill (a steak house), Sabatinis (Italian) and a few others. These restaurants have a small cover charge-typically around $15-$25 per head not including alcohol. I would recommend trying one of these as I have done on past cruises. The food is prepared to order on an individual basis by the chefs actually in the restaurant so that you know that it will be cooked to your own taste.
Entertainment. I can't comment of any of the shows as I didn't go and see any. I am not a "show" person and I don't like musicals. The rest of the trip included the usual karaoke and a Princess Cruises Talent Contest. This was basically "X Factor" by another name. There was also a couple of comedians, one of which did an "adults only" late night show which, I was told, was very good. All of the bars had some kind of band or pianist which played MOR music and was not intrusive. The bars were well attended with the Explorers bar being the most busy. The Skywalkers nightclub on deck 18 was not well attended. Initially, after say 11 pm, it could be quite busy. But at around 1 am, people started to drift off back to their cabins which left the club very empty. On my last trip with Princess, the nightclub regularly didn't shut until 3 or 4 in the morning.
On the first formal night, the Captain started a "Champagne Fountain" on deck 5. I wanted to video this, but space was extremely limited and I estimate that almost a quarter of the guests (around 500 possibly more) were mingling about. This made it very busy indeed and I eventually gave up trying. Princess need to sort things out so as many people as possible can see this. I was very disappointed.
Excursions. The excursions provided by Princess are very good, very reasonably priced and can be booked online before you go-and you don't have to pay for them until you get on board. The charges are added to your onboard account. The trips cater for all tastes from general sightseeing right down to certified deep sea diving, swimming with dolphins and even a submarine which dives down to 100 feet! I opted for sightseeing in Princess cays, an eco-hike in the US Virgin Islands, Trafalgar Waterfalls in Dominica, Seven Sisters Waterfalls in Grenada and an Ostrich Farm in Aruba. I didn't go on a trip in Bonaire, opting to do my own thing for the day.
NOTE: If you decide to do your own thing and explore the ports without going on an official tour and you miss the ship-tough. The ship will not wait for you. We picked up a couple in Aruba who had missed their own Princess ship two weeks previously and were left to fend for themselves. If this happens to you it's your fault and no recompense will be forthcoming from Princess or anyone else.
There are a couple of flies in the ointment. On my excursion to the Trafalgar Waterfalls, the trail to the second of the falls is treacherous! The trail was littered with tree roots and rocks, was extremely steep, very slippery and you have to be very careful indeed. Some of my fellow travellers-senior citizens-had to be assisted by the rest of us. I don't mind helping but Princess should have warned people that the trail was only for the adventurous Not only was the trail difficult, it was at tree-top height. The guard rail was very flimsy and at times the trail was only a couple of feet wide. I dread to think if anyone fell as we couldn't see the forest floor. The trail almost resembled a rock face and even an experienced rambler would have difficulty with walking on it. Not only was this dangerous, several tours turned up just after us which meant that there were up to 80 people going up and down this trail making passing very difficult.
On my trip to the Seven Sisters falls in Grenada, we got to the visitors centre (basically a wood hut with a lean-to shed nearby) and the heavens opened. At this point I will concede that I am in the Tropics and in a rain forest so rain is expected. But not like this. This rain was of monsoon proportions and was bouncing off the floor to waist height. I estimate that around two inches of rain fell in about three hours. Our tour guide-Kendrick-went back to one of the buses to put on some waterproof clothing. I spoke to him about the fact that I was not prepared to carry on with the walk in this weather. Six of my fellow guests agreed with me and we stayed behind under the lean-to. Kendrick and I got into an argument in front of around 40 people with him saying I was "another Brit moaning about the weather". I replied with I was not prepared to carry on in monsoon rain getting soaking wet and told him to "p*** off with the rest of the tour". I would like to add that a sign at the entrance to the waterfalls said "enter at your own risk". Kendrick also told us that we would have to cross a river (there was no bridge) and when we got to the falls it could be "a little muddy". I later learnt that "a little muddy" meant ankle deep mud and the river had to be crossed by stepping stones. After a couple of hours, the tour returned with several of the people stripping off down to their undies (male and female) due to the fact that they were completely soaked. I'm glad I didn't go and in my opinion this tour should have been cancelled. I have spoken to my travel agents about these excursions and I have been advised by them to put my concerns in writing to be forwarded to Princess.
Disembarkation. Again, extremely well organised. I opted for a trip to the Dolphin Mall shopping centre as I had a few bits to buy for friends and family. We had around three to fours hours in this centre which was very clean and I am reliably informed one of the safest shopping centres in Miami. We were then taken directly to Miami Airport for our flights home.
In conclusion-a very good cruise, great food, very clean ship, great staff and very relaxing. The guest ages were very varied and there was not many children on board. I would recommend Princess Cruises to the first-timer and to experienced cruisers.