Renaissance Cruises operated eight little ships with unglamorous names (R1 to R8). Renaissance went bankrupt approximately ten years ago, when the former P&O Princess Group purchased R3 and R4. These ships became "Pacific Princess" and "Tahitian Princess" (now renamed "Ocean Princess"). The Group also acquired R8, which sailed from the UK as "Minerva II". R8 subsequently joined Princess Cruises as "Royal Princess", and has now returned to the P&O fleet as "Adonia".
At this stage, I must admit to bias. I love the R-class vessels, having enjoyed cruises on Pacific Princess (R3), Tahitian / Ocean Princess (R4), Azamara Journey (R6), Azamara Quest (R7) and Royal Princess / P&O Adonia (R8). These little ships can enter smaller ports and are ideal for "special" or "exotic" itineraries. Because they carry no more than 700 passengers, they offer a more intimate cruising experience. However, they cannot provide the same range of facilities as the latest "mega-liners".
Quality is more important than size and I am happy to enjoy low-key entertainment in a cabaret lounge, as opposed to lavish shows in a glitzy theatre. I do not mind that the ships have only one main restaurant with fixed sittings (plus a self-service buffet and two speciality restaurants) -â€" and the bathrooms are rather small. The cruise itinerary, service and value for money are more important aspects.
My wife and I had to choose between two similar cruises to the Holy Land and Egypt -â€" on Pacific Princess or Azamara Quest. However, Azamara had cancelled all visits to Egyptian ports, so we opted for a twelve-night voyage on Pacific Princess.
We flew to Rome on October 6th and stayed four nights at the Hotel delle Muse, before boarding Pacific Princess. The hotel is ideal for a reasonably priced city break. Please see my review at www.tripadvisor.co.uk/ShowUserReviews-g187791-d205063-r120533599-Hotel_delle_Muse-Rome_Lazio.html#REVIEWS.
It is very easy to travel in and around Rome. However, you cannot purchase tickets on buses or trams. You should purchase your tickets from a newsagent, tobacconist or vending machine before you board the bus or tram. Then, you must insert your ticket in the yellow validation machine on the bus or tram. Ticket options include:
B.I.T â‚¬1. Standard one-way ticket - valid for one Metro ride or 75 minutes on all buses and trams within Rome.
B.I.G. â‚¬4. Daily ticket, valid until midnight for unlimited Metro, bus, tram and train travel within Rome
B.T.I. â‚¬11. Three-day tourist ticket, valid for everything listed above.
C.I.S. â‚¬16. Weekly ticket
You can also purchase regional versions of these tickets, for travel within and outside the city. For instance, a B.I.R.G. one-day regional ticket for Zones A & B is excellent value at â‚¬6 and will take you from Rome to places such as Frascati, Grottaferrata, Albano Laziale, and Tivoli.
We had explored many of the historical sites during previous visits to Rome. This time, we wanted to see some of the surrounding towns and villages. I have penned the following summary of our visit to Rome and the subsequent cruise.
We travelled by bus and train from Rome to Ostia Antica to see the archaeological site, which is noted for the excellent preservation of ancient buildings, magnificent frescoes and mosaics. It was well worth a visit -â€" and the layout reminded us of Pompeii. EEC Citizens, aged 65+ are entitled to free admission upon production of their passports.
We went by bus and train to Frascati, a hill town known for its white wine. We visited the cathedral, explored narrow streets and admired magnificent views towards the City of Rome. Then we travelled by bus via Grottaferrata, Marino and Albano Laziale to Castel Gandolfo, where we saw the exterior of the Pope's summer residence. The countryside is beautiful and Lake Albano, which is located in the flooded crater of an extinct volcano, was the base for the canoeing and rowing events of the 1960 Summer Olympic Games. We returned to Rome by train.
We travelled by bus to Tivoli and visited Villa Gregoriana. The ruins of the ancient villa aren't spectacular. However, the landscaped gardens on the hillside were constructed 200 years ago by Pope Gregory XVI and are blessed with wonderful scenery and beautiful waterfalls. Visitors from the UK are entitled to free admission, upon production of National Trust membership cards. Later in the day, we visited the palace and the incredible gardens at Villa d'Este. Both villas are listed as UNESCO world heritage sites.
We travelled by train to Civitavecchia and boarded Pacific Princess. Our cruise departed at 6 pm.
Sorrento (a tender port)
Having visited Naples and Sorrento on previous cruises, we did not want to travel to Pompeii or the island of Capri. This time, we decided to explore the Amalfi Coast, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site, famous for its scenery and little villages, clinging to the cliffs and hillsides.
We travelled along the coast by local bus via Massa Lubrense - and explored Amalfi town. Our next stop was Positano, before we returned on the bus to Sorrento. We planned this trip in advance, using timetables provided by the very helpful tourist information office at Sorrento. A one-day bus ticket costs â‚¬ 7.20.
Although the roads are very narrow and twisty, we experienced no problems. However, I would not recommend independent travellers to attempt this tour during the summer months, because traffic congestion can cause serious delays.
October 12th - At sea. A beautiful sunny day.
October 13th (afternoon) - Patmos, Greece
This is a small island in the Dodecanese. It has no airport, and is more suited to island hopping than mainstream tourism. We shared a taxi and went to the hill-top monastery of Hagios Ioannis Theologos (Saint John the Theologian) and its museum, followed by a visit to the Cave of the Apocalypse, where St. John is reputed to have written the Book of Revelations. The monastery and cave are UNESCO World Heritage sites.
October 14th - Kusadasi, Turkey
Having visited Kusadasi, Ephesus and other archaeological sites on previous cruises, we spent a leisurely morning in town -â€" avoiding shops that advertised "genuine fake watches" etc. However, I did purchase a pair of cheap plastic beach shoes, to protect my feet during our subsequent visit to the Dead Sea (see below).
October 15th - At sea. Another warm and sunny day
October 16th - Haifa, Israel
PacificPrincess should have called at Haifa on October 16th and Ashdod on the following day. However, Princess Cruises became concerned about safety issues at Ashdod, so the Captain decided to remain in Haifa for two days on October 16th and 17th.
We went ashore with friends, Merlyn and Roger, who had booked private shore excursions through "Guided Tours Israel" (based upon good reviews on Trip Advisor - www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g293983-d1946663-Reviews-Guided_Tours_Israel_Day_Tours-Jerusalem.html). The tour company was very efficient and agreed at very short notice to re-schedule our excursions, to reflect changes to the ship's itinerary.
On our first day in Israel, we travelled to Jerusalem by minibus -â€" with visits to major Jewish and Christian sites (Western Wall, Via Dolorosa, Church of Holy Sepulchre, etc), followed by panoramic views from Mount Zion/Olives. Our visit coincided with the Jewish Holiday of Sukkot, so the old city of Jerusalem (listed by UNESCO as a world heritage site) was very crowded. Our knowledgeable tour guide, "Moshe" was truly excellent with a great sense of humour.
In the afternoon, we travelled to the Dead Sea, which is the lowest point on earth. I nearly lost my plastic beach shoes, which became stuck in the muddy shoreline. Floating in the warm and murky waters was a memorable experience, but not one I want to repeat.
October 17th - Haifa, Israel
Once again, our guide was Moshe. We toured Northern Israel with visits to Nazareth, Capernaum, Tabgha, the Sea of Galilee, the Mount of Beatitudes and Yardenit, the baptismal site on the Jordan River. Upon our return, we had insufficient time to explore the City of Haifa, because the ship's revised schedule required an early departure from Haifa. However, we did pay a brief visit to the impressive Bah''Ã Gardens, yet another UNESCO World Heritage site.
TIP. There is a duty free shop in Haifa Cruise Terminal. Liquor prices were very attractive -â€" and much cheaper than the duty shops at Kusadasi, Santorini and Athens Airport.
October 18th - Port Said, Egypt
We usually prefer private shore excursions. However, we felt it would be safer to book a ship's tour to the Pyramids at Giza and the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo. The authorities delayed our departure. Then, the convoy of coaches travelled to Giza with an armed escort.
At the Pyramids and the Sphinx, we were attacked by hordes of souvenir vendors who were so aggressive that we were glad to escape. After an adequate buffet lunch at Le MÃ©ridien Pyramids Hotel, we saw evidence of recent conflicts, including the burnt-out National Democratic Party building, next to the Egyptian Museum.
Our visit to the museum was far too short -â€" and curtailed, because the ship's tour also included a compulsory visit to a souvenir shop. Yet another reason to avoid expensive ship's excursions! However, we saw Treasures of Tutankhamen and other exhibits. The Museum provided headphones but unfortunately, our guide seemed incapable of using the microphone properly, so most of her commentary was inaudible.
Driving standards in Egypt were appalling. Vehicles travelled nose to tail in dense traffic at breakneck speeds, swerving without warning from lane to lane. We saw two serious collisions - and I am amazed there weren't more.
October 19th - Alexandria, Egypt
Having booked a car and English-speaking driver for the day, we visited the main sights of Alexandria - including Fort Qait Bey, Pompey's Pillar, The Catacombs / Kom al-Shoqafa, Abu al-Abbas al-Mursi Mosque, a drive along the Corniche to Montazah Palace Gardens, the Library of Alexandria and the Roman Amphitheatre. We had a thoroughly enjoyable day!
However, Port Said, Cairo and Alexandria were absolutely filthy - and garbage had not been collected for many months. Consequently, there were piles of refuse everywhere. Vendors were far too aggressive and even the Tourist Police demanded baksheesh. Egypt is certainly not our favourite country for a vacation!
TIP. It is virtually impossible to avoid paying baksheesh. Upon arrival, obtain a small supply of Egyptian one-pound coins or notes -â€" which are worth approximately 17 cents (US) or 11 pence (UK) and much cheaper than tipping with dollar bills. Keep your Egyptian currency separately - and don't let anyone see that you also have foreign currency. Carry a supply of antiseptic hand cleanser and/or baby wipes -â€" for use after touching anything.
October 20th - At sea. We attended a superb luncheon for the "most travelled passengers" - and were invited to sit at the Captain's table.
October 21st - Santorini, Greece (a tender port)
We had arranged a round trip tour of the Caldera by traditional wooden boat. We booked the excursion through Pelican Travel Services (www.mysantorini.com/Santorini-caldera-round-trip.html). The cost was very reasonable at â‚¬28 - plus a â‚¬2 admission fee to the volcano.
I recommend this excursion as an option, for anyone who has visited the main island previously. However, Santorini becomes very busy in summer, when the crowds become unbearable, if four or five large cruise ships have anchored in the Caldera. (You can check cruise schedules at www.cruisetimetables.com/cruises-to-santorini-greece.html.)
Fortunately, Pacific Princess and the Wind Surf sailing ship were the only arrivals on October 21st, so we had less than 20 passengers on our tour. I doubt whether it would have been so enjoyable in the summer heat, if we had needed to share the excursion with 100 other passengers.
Our guided tour visited the dormant volcano on Nea Kameni, where we climbed to the rim of the crater. The crater was inactive, except for warm rocks and a few jets of sulphurous steam. However, stout shoes are essential and you must be reasonably fit. Then, we had an opportunity to jump into the sea and swim to the hot springs (33Â°C / 91Â°F) at the adjacent island of Palia Kameni. Next, the boat sailed to the little harbour at Ormos Korfu on the island of Thirasia - a sleepy village with a beach and a few tavernas. After a two-hour break for lunch (not included in the price), the boat stopped briefly at Oia, before returning along the coast to the old harbour at Fira.
October 22nd - Athens
We disembarked at Athens and transferred to the airport for our flight to the UK. The transfer was provided by Princess Cruises and included a short, guided tour of Athens with views of the Parthenon etc. As a result of ongoing civil unrest in Athens, we saw piles of refuse in parts of the city. Not as bad as Egypt but this was probably not the best time for a vacation in Greece! However, the city tour was an unexpected and welcome bonus.
Facilities in our cabin (#6046) included adequate hanging space, plenty of drawers, a refrigerator, a flat screen television and a small, en-suite shower room. The range and quality of the toiletries was impressive and our cabin steward was excellent.
We are on the Elite tier of the Princess Captain's Circle, so our refrigerator was stocked with a selection of complimentary drinks. Laundry facilities were also complimentary and we had Wi-Fi access to the Internet, with a free allowance of Internet time.
TIP. Cabins 6030 to 6046 and 6033 to 6049 on "R class" ships have "obstructed views". The view from some of these cabins is so restricted that there seems little point in paying a premium for an outside cabin. However, cabins 6036, 6039, 6046 and 6049 offer reasonable views -â€" whilst cabins 6030 & 6033 are virtually unobstructed.
The itinerary included only three sea days, so daytime entertainment was limited. Pacific Princess provided the usual mix of competitions, quizzes and other fun and games.
The ship offered entertainment every evening. However, our cruise itinerary included some long and very tiring shore excursions so after dinner, I did not attend many performances.
Entertainment in the Cabaret Lounge featured:
' The Pacific Princess Singers and Dancers and the Pacific Princess Showband, who provided standard cruise ship fare. Five production shows were "Bonsoir Paris", "Shake Rattle & Roll", "Words & Music", "Tribute" and "Dance".
' Christopher Riggins, a vocalist who described himself as a "Pop operatic" tenor. No match for Pavarotti and far too loud (although that might be a problem with the sound system in the Cabaret Lounge). His performances would have been more enjoyable, if the sound engineer had turned down the volume.
' John Ware, a comedian.
' Dain Cordean, comedy magic.
' An Egyptian folkloric show (local performers from Alexandria)
' Port Lecturer, Richard Detrich
' Evening or Late Night Movies -â€" "Unknown"; "The Fighter"; "The Conspirator"; "Source Code" and Pirates of the Caribbean - on Stranger Tides.
The Casino Lounge and the Pacific Lounge included:
' Dancing (various)
' Musical sounds of the Cruisetones
' Music through the night with David Crathorne
' 50s & 60s Sock Hop
' Country and Western Hoe Down Party
' Latin Night
' Champagne Waterfall Party
Cruise line shore excursions tend to be over-priced -â€" and we prefer to explore alone or in small groups. Consequently, we only booked one of the ship's excursions.
The Princess Port Guides were well written and unlike port guides on some other cruise lines, they provided a lot of useful information (not merely lists of shops that had paid for inclusion).
Food and Drink
Cuisine is an important aspect of any cruise.
My wife must adhere to a gluten-free diet and avoids anything that contains wheat, rye or barley. For breakfast, gluten-free toast was available upon request. The headwaiter in the Club Restaurant presented lunch and dinner menus in advance, so my wife was able to order modified options for the following day. Our head waiter ensured that all her meals were gluten-free and she also received a freshly baked roll with dinner every evening.
Our waiters in were brilliant and we really enjoyed our meals, which were always attractively presented. The size of the portions was "just right" and the choice and quality were truly excellent (with the possible exception of the duck a l'orange, which tends to be disappointing on Princess ships).
However, I wish Princess would improve the quality of their standard coffee, which is made from liquid concentrate and is disgusting. Fortunately, passengers can purchase cappuccino, espresso and other specialty coffees as an alternative.
TIP. If you prefer real coffee, save money with a coffee card, which you can purchase from your waiter or from any of the bars.
The Panorama buffet restaurant was very good -â€" and far better than the Conservatory buffet restaurant on P&O Adonia (a sister ship to Pacific Princess).
The Panorama offered an extensive selection of hot and cold items for breakfast and lunch -â€" and attractive salads at lunchtime. Breakfast options included freshly made omelettes. Lunch menus always included a hot carvery option. It was so difficult to choose and the displays of fresh fruit were simply amazing. At Haifa, the buffet also offered filled sandwiches and bread rolls for passengers who wanted a snack for the long day ashore.
Princess ships cater primarily for the American market so for breakfast, the Panorama restaurant serves American crispy bacon. However, the breakfast display also included ham steaks and English bacon, for passengers who might prefer their bacon less "well done".
Orange and apple juices were available at breakfast -â€" and passengers can enjoy iced tea or delicious cold lemonade at other times. Coffees and a selection of different teas were always available.
The Panorama restaurant remained open until 11 pm every evening for a buffet dinner and/or bistro/pizzeria. However, we opted for waiter service in the Club Restaurant. We did not try either of the specialty restaurants.
So what were the best -â€" and "not so good" aspects of Pacific Princess?
Most aspects of our cruise were exceptionally good. Food in the buffet and main restaurants was outstanding -â€" and much better than our recent cruise on the P&O ship, Adonia.
Loyalty benefits of the Platinum and Elite tier of the Captain's Circle are superior to the equivalent tiers on P&O Cruises. And the complimentary laundry service provides a massive incentive to sail with Princess, in preference to any other cruise line.
Princess was as good as or better than P&O in most areas -â€" so the following aspects are little "niggles".
Many passengers have complained repeatedly that ordinary coffee on Princess ships is dreadful. I wish Princess would follow the lead of its sister company in the UK (P&O Cruises) and install coffee machines that consume real ground coffee. However, Princess Cruises have ignored that criticism for many years, so I am not hopeful that the coffee will improve.
Another annoyance was the absence of hot (or cold plates) in the buffet restaurant. Sometimes, the plates were so cold that hot food had cooled, by the time you reached your table. Princess Cruises should follow the lead of P&O Cruises, and install electrically heated carts to dispense hot plates. At other times, every plate was hot -â€" even if you wanted a salad or cold dessert.
P&O and some other cruise lines have installed tea / coffee making facilities in passengers' cabins (similar to hotels on both sides of the Atlantic). That would be a very welcome addition on Princess ships.
Fox News and BBC World were the only television news channels on Pacific Princess. There were no domestic TV channels from the UK -â€" not even the European edition of CNN. (Contrary to popular belief, BBC World is an international channel, which provides very little British news.)
We were delighted to be able to watch Sky News on Azamara Quest in November 2010, on Azamara Journey in January 2011 (cruising from San Diego) and P&O Adonia in August 2011. Princess sell cruises to many British passengers, so it would be helpful if they could add Sky News to the range of TV channels (subject to availability of satellite reception).
Most cruise lines, including P&O Cruises and Azamara Club Cruises, deliver a daily newssheet to passengers' cabins. Editions from Headland Media include "Britain Today", "The Canadian" and "USA Times". The Passenger Relations desk on Pacific Princess told me that Princess Cruises have discontinued this service. That is a retrograde step, particularly as the range of television news channels is so limited.
Pacific Princess played canned music around the swimming pool and sometimes, in the buffet restaurant. The music was intrusive and I would have preferred no background music in any of the public areas. Tastes vary and you cannot please everybody all of the time. That is why the cruise director on Azamara Quest responded to passenger feedback in November 2010 by banishing the music. He commented that passengers who like music around the pool should use an iPod or personal stereo.
Princess Cruises in the UK arranged our British Airways flight from Athens to London. Princess added every passenger to a group reservation, which prevented anyone from selecting their seats, ordering special diets, or checking-in on-line. The problem could have been avoided very easily, if Princess Cruises had applied a different airline locator reference to each surname.
Four cruise lines, Princess Cruises, P&O Cruises, Azamara Club Cruises and Oceania Cruises operate former Renaissance ships, which are virtually identical. I haven't sailed with Oceania, so I cannot comment on their ships. However, passengers would enjoy a really superb experience, if cruise lines could combine the best aspects of P&O, Princess Cruises and Azamara Club Cruises.
In the meantime, Pacific Princess scores at least nine out of ten. Consequently, I would happily book another cruise on either of the Princess "small ships" -â€" provided the price and itinerary are right.