It is probably important for you to know my family and I are seasoned cruisers. Over the past 15 years we've sailed a total of 23 times on Celebrity, Holland America, Cunard, Royal Caribbean, Carnival, NCL, and MSC. This was our first sailing on Princess Cruise Lines. We picked this cruise largely because it was the only choice for this itinerary in November 2011.
The Diamond Princess is a lovely ship with a pleasant crew, good dining, great wine pricing, quiet state rooms, and good maintenance. Basically, it had everything what you would expect from a more upscale cruise line with a few significant weaknesses: their specialty dining, Internet, and hit or miss lounge entertainment. Even with those weaknesses, we would sail on the Diamond Princess again given the right itinerary. We would not sail on the Diamond Princess if it was doing a transatlantic or transpacific crossing where the emphasis is on the ship rather than the ports. For us the ship's specialty dining weakness keeps it from playing more than a supporting role in a successful cruise vacation.
The embarkation process was one of the best we've experienced. It was quick, efficient, and most surprisingly some of our baggage made it to our stateroom before we did! On some lines it takes hours before your baggage shows up at your door, which is one reason we try to carry on as much as possible. Also, I would rate the front desk as one of the more cruise friendly of any line I've sailed on. I especially appreciated their attitude toward adjusting the involuntary tipping charge of $11.50 per person. I've always felt it's a bit steep to charge a family sharing a cabin just as much as if they occupied two staterooms.
The ship is in great shape. The refurbishment done a year ago looks like it could have been done last month. All the public areas are updated, modern, and in good repair. Carpets are clean and in good repair both in the public areas and the staterooms. We especially liked the decor of the lounges and bars which were all done in wood. They reminded us of a high-end English pub. We enjoyed the art deco theme carried through the whole ship. In many ways, its dÃ©cor is on par with the Queen Mary II.
It took us several days to get our bearings. This is one of those ships where many of the pubic decks do not span the length of the ship as the kitchen is midship on decks 5 and 6. This requires you to climb a few levels of stairs and then descend back down to reach the International dining room on deck 6.
Unlike many other ships, there isn't one large dining room, but four smaller dining areas. This gives a more intimate feeling of being in a specialty restaurant rather than a banquet hall, something we liked. You could also choose from "anytime" seating or the traditional early or late seating.
In the main dining areas the food quality was average to slightly above average for an upper end cruise line. They especially did their steaks well, which is unusual for most large scale food operations. The wait staff is very good and we were especially impressed with the friendliness of Franco, the Vivaldi's assistant Ma'tre d'. We appreciated his passion in giving us tips on how to get the best deals are our various ports of call, entertaining our children, and bringing us a few extras from time to time. Prapaporn, our head waitress, kindly and candidly gave us her recommendations for the best dishes each night.
The specialty restaurants are the Italian restaurant, Sabatini's, and the Sterling Steakhouse. The additional charge of $20 is one of the lowest at sea. Unfortunately, having dined at several of the specialty restaurants onboard Celebrity, Holland America, and Cunard, we were disappointed. Those lines feature specialty restaurants that are, well, special. They have that Michelin star feel and the food they produce is on par with any really good restaurant anywhere. Typically the wait staff has worked hard to earn the privileged to be chosen to work in those restaurants. They typically are especially passionate about what they do. That wasn't our experience on the
Sterling's steakhouse is actually a portion of the Horizon's buffet restaurant on the Lido deck that's turned into the steakhouse in the evenings. Sabatini's is a separate dining room but strangely it actually has less of a feeling of intimacy than the main dining areas. The service is no more abundant or specialized service that any other dining room on the ship. While the fare is a little better than what is served in the main dining rooms, it isn't so unforgettable that you would gladly pay the extra charge to eat there more than once on a cruise.
The Chef's dinner was a different experience. While pricey at $95 a person, we still felt it was a good value. Unlike other Chef's dinners at sea, this one included a tour and appetizers in the galley. The nine course dinner was a sumptuous experience which ended with a complimentary picture of the group and a signed Princess cookbook. If your budget is tight, I would recommend skipping the specialty restaurants and doing the Chef's dinner.
We were especially pleased with the coffee on the ship. That may sound like a little thing unless you are a coffee drinker. One of our perennial complaints
on other lines is how weak the coffee is. We found the coffee on the DP quite acceptable.
One annoying difference on the Diamond Princess was that the only time juice is available is in the mornings. After then, you've got to pay for juice. Most other lines we've sailed on have complimentary juice available all day. Another peculiarity is that in the Lido there were no salt or pepper shakers on the table. If you wanted salt or pepper you had to ask a waiter and they would deliver you a small ration. When we quizzed the waiters they were perplexed as to why the DP had stopped putting out salt and pepper. A number of folks must have complained because on the next to last day of the cruise the salt and pepper shakers appeared.
We were especially pleased with how the Diamond Princess caters to wine lovers. Most of the wines were priced at 2 to 3x's retail well below the 3 to 4x's retail charged on most other lines. In addition, their corkage fee is a reasonable $15 a bottle, as opposed to HAL and Celebrity who charge $25.
Princess has one of the best wine tasting events of all the major lines. For $25 we tasted 6 wines ranging from $32 to $150 with the average being about $80. The event lasted 90 minutes and included an educational and passionate lecture by sommelier Dave Lightfoot. We found Dave to be one of the most knowledgeable and accommodating sommeliers on any of the 20 ships we've sailed. That said, the one weakness is that he is the only sommelier to look after a total of 6 dining rooms. While he does an outstanding job, I suspect he could use a little support. At the time we sailed with them there was only one decanter on board.
This was probably the quietest stateroom we've ever had. We are not sure why, but perhaps the reason was our stateroom (P303) was across from the art collection rather than other staterooms. The cabin layout was different from other lines with a result of a little more space and privacy with a little less storage room for clothes. Our only complaint was that the bunk beds drop down lower than most other ships. This is good news for those in the top bunks and not so good news for those in the lower bunks, which in our case were the parents.
This isn't an area in which the Diamond Princess excels. The fitness area is one of the smallest we seen on a ship this size. Still, they managed to pack in a satisfactory number of treadmills and elliptical machines. They also have a good set of barbells and a minimal variety of weight machines. They appear to keep their equipment in good repair as all of their cardio machines and televisions were in working order the full length of our 16 day cruise.
The men's locker room and saunas left a lot to be desired. The ship has both a public and private dry and steam sauna. On our cruise there were many times I was the only person in the public steam sauna. But, there may have been a reason as the temperature rarely rose above 105 degrees Fahrenheit. The day there was SRO in the steam sauna was the day the dry sauna was not working. Repeated requests to increase the temperature did little good as the party line was they were turned up as high as company policy allowed. Since it was company policy to have lukewarm saunas, I didn't bother paying the $199 fee for unlimited use of the high-end sauna.
One other irksome issue with their fitness area was the size of the lockers. They are the smallest of any ship I've ever sailed. They don't have enough depth for a pair of shoes and are about 12" square. Most of the locks didn't work, many of the keys had disappeared. This was addressed a week into our cruise when they installed combination locks on most the lockers, a great idea. The front desk was chronically understaffed, however switching the lockers to combinations made a big difference.
Unfortunately the Diamond Princess doesn't have a spa bar featuring a lighter, healthier fare and a selection of fruit juices and smoothies. The Calypso bar on Deck 14 is the only place on board where you can get a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice for $2.75.
We thought the entertainment was average for most cruise lines. The singers and dancers were talented and performed the standard musical reviews ubiquitous to most cruise lines. The guest comedian's and vocal artists were also very good.
The theater is unique to most modern ships, which often have two levels and spacious seating with tables interspersed for holding drinks. The Diamond Princess Theater has no balcony and the seating is very much like any theater with no center isle and compact seating. Small fold-out tables located in the arms of the seats (like in the emergency row of an airplane) do resolve the issue of what to do with your drink.
The one area that didn't meet the standards of other lines was the nightly lounge. On our cruise they seemed to have over-weighted pianists, quartets, and guitars playing elevator music. There just wasn't much selection of music before or after dinner or charismatic performers that we looked forward to listening to each night.
This was probably the low point of our cruise experience on the Diamond Princess. I run a small business and being connected to my staff is imperative, even on vacation. I depend on having a functioning Internet while on board any ship. Unfortunately, the ship experienced some damage to their Internet four days prior to our cruise. While the Internet wasn't completely down, it was taking 20 minutes just to connect to retrieve my email.
Accessing websites or downloading periodicals to iPhones or iPads was out of the question. While normally a 250 minute package accommodates me, I had to buy the 500 minute package just to check email twice a day.
It took another four days into our cruise for them to proclaim the Internet "fixed." However, I saw no improvement whatsoever. Internet connections as sea are always slow, but this experience was much worse than normal. I am not sure what the real story was, but if you value a good Internet connection I would highly recommend avoiding the Diamond Princess unless they can convince you they've corrected the problem.
The shopping experience is ubiquitous to most every other cruise line. There is nothing exceptional to highlight here.
If you are on a cruise stopping in Hong Kong it's typical that the ship will have a Hong Kong tailor (it was Princeton Tailors on our cruise) on board that will take your measurements and have a custom suit, sport coat, jacket, or shirt waiting for you at Hong Kong. I suspected the price I would pay on board was higher than in port, however, since I was totally unfamiliar with Hong Kong and where to find a good tailor I opted to order a suit and a shirt on the ship. The price I was quoted was $650 for a two-piece suit (Italian 150's wool) and $95 for a shirt. I asked the young lady if I would be badly disappointed in their prices if I decided to order the same goods in Hong Kong. She assured me that while their prices were just a little higher than a custom suit priced significantly cheaper would be made by Indians and not as good quality. I should have known better.
We were met in Hong Kong by some good friends who reside there. The ship bused us from the commercial container port to the Marco Polo Gateway Hotel at Harbor City, just three blocks from my good friend's tailor. Who could resist that? I bought a two-piece suit that was a bit better quality (Italian 150's with a wool cashmere blend) for $350 and a three piece suit made of the same material for $450. Custom shirts were $40. Those prices included shipping and duty to the US. The tailor measured me in the morning and I returned for a fitting on my way to catch a shuttle back to the ship. The bottom line: don't buy a suit on the ship. Instead go visit Roger at Manhattan Tailors on Nathan Road. He can be a bit tricky to find as his shop doesn't open onto the street. Look for his sign "Manhattan Tailors" and take the small corridor. His very small shop is located about 50' off the street. He is near the Jordan subway stop.
Port Talks and Shore Excursions
The port and cultural talks by Hutch were some of the best we've encountered on any ship. We've often had to work hard to get information on doing ports by yourself since a huge profit center for the cruise line are the ship's excursions. Not so with on the Diamond Princess. The port talks were full of relevant and helpful information, complete with pictures of bus stops, land marks, change bureaus, and highlights. We applaud Princess for this information and program.
One significant downside to the Diamond Princess that we didn't expect, the ship is so big that we could not get into the passenger terminals in many ports, forcing us to dock at the container ports or tender. The big downside to that is it required extra travel time on shuttles which added 30 to 120 minutes each to reach many of our Asian ports of call. We've learned that when doing an Asian itinerary a smaller ship is a big plus as it gives you an extra few hours in each port for sightseeing and shopping.
For the most part, we did each port by ourselves or through a previously arranged tour with a local company. You can find reliable and highly rated tour companies by visiting www.TripAdvisor.com and looking under "Tours" and on the chat boards on www.CruiseCritic.com. We've never been disappointed following the advice of previous travelers and typically save 25 to 75% off the ship's prices.
Our kids have always enjoyed the kids programs on board most ships...when there are other kids. Sailing in November isn't a great time to meet other kids as most are in school. Still, there were enough kids on our cruise to make going to the kids club worthwhile for our 15 and 10 year old. They gave the programs mixed reviews, but overall they enjoyed it and kept going back.
The Diamond Princess is a lovely ship with a pleasant crew, good dining, great wine pricing, quiet state rooms, and good maintenance. Basically, it had everything what you would expect from a more upscale cruise line with a few significant weaknesses: their specialty dining, Internet, and lounge entertainment. Even with those weaknesses, we would sail on the Diamond Princess again given the right itinerary. We would not sail on the Diamond Princess if it was doing a transatlantic or transpacific crossing where the emphasis is on the ship rather than the ports. The ship's specialty dinning weakness keeps it from playing more than a supporting role in a successful cruise vacation.