As I sit down to write my review of our Grand Princess holiday cruise, I first have to ask myself what did I want from this cruise?
What I wanted:
- Relaxation -- time away from work, with no phones or computers
- Fun in the sun (a tan would be nice too)
- Spending time with family
- Visiting new places
- Not having to worry about what to make for dinner, not having to make dinner, and no cleaning up
Well this cruise met all those expectations with a grade of 100% A+!!!!
However, I know that Cruise Critic readers are looking for more than my personal needs from the cruise. I know when I read reviews I want to know about the food, the cabins, the ship, the entertainment, etc. So, I will write this review with the Cruise Critic audience in mind. There's some good and some not so good. But please keep in mind that overall this cruise met my needs and expectations of what I wanted with a grade of 100%!
We flew in on Wednesday (3 days early) just in case of bad weather and flight delays. We flew into Miami (it was cheaper) and picked up a Budget rental car. We easily drove the short drive from Miami airport to Ft Lauderdale.
We stayed at the Embassy Suites on 17th Street in Ft Lauderdale. This was a great decision and I highly recommend it to others. There was room for all 4 of us in the room. The staff were all very personable and provided good customer service. The pool area was nice. The hotel was generally in good repair and kept clean. What made it ideal is that the location was perfect. There was a Publix grocery store and lots of other stores to walk around just 1 or 2 blocks from the hotel. We ended up returning the rental car after just 24 hours, as we didn't need it. You can pick up a Budget car in Miami and drop it off at the Quay on 17th Street (3 blocks from Embassy Suites) with no drop off charge. Everything we needed was easily accessible from the hotel. We did a lot of walking, but public transportation (a bus, a trolley, and even a water taxi) would've been available if we needed it. There are lots of small and large restaurants within walking distance. We had pizza one night from a place next to Publix and Chuck's Steak House across the street was a good choice with a great salad bar and reasonably priced entrees. The only thing negative about the hotel was that the breakfast wasn't as good as at other Embassy Suites we have stayed at.
Embassy Suites had self service laundry facilities on some floors, so we were able to do some laundry before checking out. It is $2 per load and you can buy single service laundry detergent in the hotel gift shop. One of my favorite things about the hotel is that we had an excellent view of the port from our window. We slept with our curtains open. Each morning when I woke up, I could look out and see which ships were in port that day. When the Ruby Princess arrived a day early from dry dock, I was so intrigued that we walked from the hotel down to the 17th street bridge to see her at the port. On Saturday morning, it was fun to look out of the window starting very, very early and watch all the ships sail in and wonder which one was the Grand Princess.
EMBARKATION, HOLIDAY SPIRIT, and THE SANCTUARY:
We chose to take a taxi from the Embassy Suites to the port. I suppose we could've walked, but it would've been a very long way with luggage to Pier 21. We called the taxi in advance and were glad we did. It was a bit hectic down in the hotel lobby with some people just off ships trying to check in and others trying to connect with the transportation companies they had arranged. The taxi option worked well and was about $12 for the 4 of us and all our luggage. It would've been cheaper but we got stuck in traffic between the port entrance and Pier 21.
Right before we left, I read on Cruise Critic all about the Sanctuary on the Grand Princess. My daughter and I really wanted this, so we decided to arrive very early at the port to try and get this first come first serve reservation at the Sanctuary. We left the hotel at 9:50 a.m. and arrived at Pier 21 at about 10:10 a.m. By the time we left our luggage with a porter and walked upstairs to the check in area, there were about 50 people in line for check in right in front of us. They had us sit in rows of chairs and let us know that each row would go in order to the counter when it opened. However, those in suites and with elite status had separate rows of chairs and they understandably would go before us. I was still confident that we would be okay reserving the Sanctuary.
I have read other reviews that say people were on board in their rooms by 11:30 a.m. They didn't even start checking us in until Noon then they said that the elite were being held in a pre boarding area until Noon too. So, it was about 12:15 p.m. when we boarded. Unlike other cruise lines, Princess does make the process easy. If you pre-register your credit card online, you don't have to show it again. You simply show your passports and boarding passes and they give you the room cards.
After getting our cards, we did not have to go to a holding area. We walked right on board the ship. There were two entrance corridors onto the ship. They were divided by room number. We went down the one that matched our room number. I think it went to the mid to aft area of deck 5. We thus did not enter into the atrium. I believe that the other corridor did enter at the atrium. This is where the first disappointment of the cruise happened. When we have cruised on other cruise lines at Christmas, there is a wow factor when you first board at the atrium. In the past, we have been amazed by the splendor of holiday decorations, with being greeted with "Merry Christmas" and a complimentary glass of champagne of mimosa, and by the overall welcoming feeling. This did not happen when we first boarded Grand Princess, and in some ways it set the tone for the cruise. I have read in other reviews (and I have to agree) that the staff on the Grand Princess does not always make you feel welcome. We were greeted by staff in elevators who herded us in rather rudely and told us we must go to our stateroom. It felt cold and certainly not welcoming nor in the Christmas spirit at all. At this point, we saw no decorations. My daughter and I told the elevator lady that we did not want to go to our stateroom as we wanted to go and reserve the Sanctuary. She agreed to let us off at the upper deck and for my husband and son to go to our staterooms.
At the Sanctuary, there was only one lady only was in front of us at the Sanctuary desk. We saw her confirm a reservation. Then it was our turn. The gentleman making Sanctuary reservations rather abruptly told us we were too late. He said that they are only able to pre-reserve a percentage of the chairs for the week and that the only other way to reserve a chair was to show up at 8 a.m. on the day you want it and see what is available. This was let down number two.
However, in retrospect, I don't think we would've got our money's worth out of the chair reservation for the week anyway. We never had any problem at all finding open chairs either in the sun or shade on any deck. This surprised me with it being a busy holiday cruise. But any time we wanted a chair on deck, we were easily able to find 2 or 3 together. Plus, the weather was so perfect and the sun so strong that after just 1 hour in the sun, it was enough and time to go in.
THE WEATHER AND SEA CONDITIONS:
It could not have been more perfect. Every day was in the low 80s with mainly sunshine. The seas were mainly calm, except for Monday as we headed south from Princess Cays toward Curacao. It was quite choppy Monday afternoon and evening. I needed a double shot of Bonine and my sea sickness wrist bands that night. This was the only time that I heard the Grand Princess creak and groan. It was a little scary. We were in the elevator and I swear I heard and felt it clang from side to side against the walls. Not fun. But overall, the weather was one of the best things about the trip.
We had reserved two mini suites (AA) next door to each other on Dolphin deck 9 mid ship Starboard side. This was our first time in a mini suite, but we always get a balcony. We like aft and corner wrap balconies best. We also like balconies in the sun, so Dolphin deck seemed perfect. The room was nice, but not as big as my mind had imagined for a mini suite. I did like the extra open closet hanging space and bathtub in the bathroom. The separate sitting area was nice to have, but it was weird to have two TVs right next to each other. You can't really have them both on at the same time. The TV channels were disappointing in comparison to other cruise lines. We didn't get Sky News as I thought. We also only got pre-recorded old episodes from the major networks. They did a good job with ESPN and sports events. CNN was the international version of the news and there was also HLN. The other channels were for movies and Discovery channel specials a little bit. Most channels were related to Princess cruises. What I missed was U.S. news and weather other than what HLN and CNN international offered.
I had read reviews about the cabins being tired looking and in need of repair. I thought ours looked okay. The tile was a bit moldy in the bathroom and there were a few dings in the walls here and there, but nothing worse than most hotel rooms. The cabin steward kept the room clean and tidy. There was room under our bed for collapsible luggage. There was plenty of shelf space next to the closet area. Lighting and mirrors were good. There were more outlets than on other cruises.
The bed was weird. I tend to sleep better on cruises than at any other time in my life. Not so much on this cruise. The bed itself and the bedding was fine, but the hump in the middle of the bed was weird. I think this is due to some sort of contraption they use to connect two twin beds together. It made it feel as if I was sleeping on a slant and rolling out of bed. I couldn't even tell that my husband was on the other side of the bed. I have not experienced this effect on other cruises -- maybe the other cruises weren't two single beds pushed together. I am not sure, but it was weird and I didn't sleep as well as I usually do on cruises.
One thing that almost ruined our cabin experience was smoking neighbors. The hallway outside some rooms smelled badly of fresh cigarette smoke. Our neighbor one cabin over from the kids had smoking parties on the balcony almost constantly. The loudness of the smoking parties, the smell, and the noise of the smoker's coughing really affected our enjoyment of our connecting balconies. Up on deck, almost everywhere we went you could smell smoke blowing to you from one direction or another. I hope the new smoking policies will help this problem in the future.
I didn't find the ship as tired or run down as others have mentioned in reviews. Yes, the carpet was a bit threadbare around the edges, but other than that, I thought it was fine. I was even fine with the blue matting gone on the balconies. It wasn't a big deal. Some of the lounge chairs on deck were broken, but it made for humorous moments people watching passengers laughing through a collapsed chair or fighting with one to change the setting. No big deal.
I did find the layout a bit odd. There was that mystery middle staircase that went to nowhere after Deck 7. How frustrating knowing that our cabin was just 2 decks up in the middle but we had to go all the way to the front or back staircase then down the hall to get there from the atrium. Weird. I liked the atrium area, but it wasn't as elegant or extravagant as other ships I have been on. The three smaller dining rooms instead of one larger one was okay. It made dinner more intimate but lacked the wow factor. I didn't like how you couldn't walk to the front of the ship outside of the Sanctuary without going up (or was it down) a deck. I really didn't like the Conservatory. It made me feel claustrophobic. It felt too hot and oppressive in there for me and for me it was a waste of space. I never did find an outside walking track other than the Promenade.
The spa was nice. On day 3 they offered a special of a full massage, foot massage, scalp massage and facial for $139. It was easy to get appointments and the staff were all lovely. The massage and facial were the best I have ever had and there was no pressure to buy products.
Our room steward was friendly and tried very hard. He knew our names and always tried to find something to talk to us about. He seemed to struggle with English more than other cruise staff we have experienced before and would often giggle nervously when not sure what to say. We had to ask for our free glasses of champagne (and he did check our 21 year old's ID before giving it to her). We had to ask for robes in the room too, even though we had pre-requested them. We were told that he was not sure if any robes were available but would check. This surprised me. But we did get them in our room later that evening.
Other staff that we encountered were not as friendly. When dealing with you directly, they were polite and did their job. However, we often came across small groups of staff standing around talking in their own language and not doing the tasks you normally see. When they saw cruisers approaching, some would stop talking and say hello, but not many. Sometimes we saw wait staff sitting at tables in the buffet or out by the pool eating food and dressed in their uniforms. I have not experienced this on other cruises. Honestly, I didn't get the vibe that we were wanted or appreciated to be there on the cruise. I often felt as if we were a problem just by existing. Isn't that a weird vibe to have on a cruise? For example, we went to the food demonstration on Thursday (2 days before the end of the cruise) and some of the staff sang songs like Happy Trails and Leaving on a Cruise Ship. It was meant to be tongue in cheek humor, but came across that they were sick of us and wanted us to leave already. The ice cream (popcorn during movies) staff often closed down earlier than advertised and gave a "so what" attitude when asked why. The staff in the shops were personable and pleasant. The dining room staff (Botticelli traditional early sitting) were efficient, professional, and nice but I would not call them friendly. They didn't attempt to get to know you on a personal level at all. We had the same waiters each night, but they never asked our names or where we were from. I tried to engage them in conversation about themselves or small talk, but they were all business. But they did a good job with meeting your food needs.
It's hard to put into words, but the vibe from the staff just wasn't the same as on any other cruise I have been on. I don't think it was because it was Christmas and they were sad or anything. It was more of an overall attitude problem that perhaps needed to be changed from the top down. This seems on par with other reviews I have read recently about this ship.
No major complaints about the food. Some meals were good and some made us laugh at how bad they tasted. We were always able to find something and obviously never went hungry. I enjoyed the fruit plate available on the anytime menu. The salads and many desserts were good too. Not liking seafood or lamb, I felt my choices for a main meal were sometimes limited. But that's my problem, not the menu's fault. My husband loved many of the seafood entries. He especially liked the Halibut and Cod. My kids both loved the fettuccini so much they had it every night. We always enjoyed the soufflÃ©, but giggled that they tasted the same every night even though they were supposed to be different flavors.
The kids enjoyed Alfredo's pizza, but my husband and I felt it was not anything special. My son liked the international cafÃ© and even the high tea (yes he is a 14 year old boy but went with a group of peers and they loved it). I only noticed that the British pub lunch was offered on two days. I erroneously thought it was every day. The first day they had bangers and mash (what I wanted), but it was not offered on the second day I went. I did have the chips and mushy peas, and the mushy peas were authentic British chip shop style and very good.
Horizon court was a major disappointment for us. It felt very small, crowded, and very hot. I agree with other reviewers that the saran wrapped sandwiches are tacky. I also struggled to find some main entrÃ©e items that I liked at the Horizon court. The rolls, cheeses, fruit, and pasta dishes were okay. The number or items to choose from seemed much less than on other cruises. Perhaps I was spoiled by the vast buffets on my last cruises on Celebrity Eclipse or Carnival Splendor. On Grand Princess, the desserts are served by a staff member. I like the concept of not serving yourself. There is a sign that tells the list of about 10 choices, but then it is hard to figure out which is which. I don't think the staff member at the dessert station liked me very much or maybe others had the same experience. He often ignored me if I asked a question about what dessert was which. Sometimes he even turned his back to me for about 5 minutes. Why aren't the desserts labeled? Did anyone else experience this? The desserts themselves at the buffet were quite nice if you could figure out which one was which.
At the back of the pool area there is a pizza place and a grill. The burgers and fries at the grill were fine. We only ordered room service once, and that was just my son. He said it came in just 15 minutes and he enjoyed the club sandwich and cookies a lot.
Billy London, CD, was funny when he was on stage, but that was the only time we saw him. He had good stage presence and the other staff seemed to like him. We went to the second night variety show and decided that we didn't need to go and see the juggler's main act. We did see both main venue singing and dancing shows. We enjoyed these a lot. The costumes, stage setting and props were very well done.
We went to a couple of trivia contests. The female host was cranky, but the male trivia host was funny. The food demonstration and galley tour was a must see, except for the singing crew members telling you it's time to go home with 2 days left. My husband went to all art auctions and was happy with the art work but unhappy with the host. He has been to many art auctions and came away with the impression that the host was in over her head and making up things about the artwork that wasn't true. He thought she was bluffing her way through things and not doing a very good job.
My 14 year old loved the teen activities, mainly because of the many friends he made.
Our flight out of FLL wasn't until 4 p.m. so we decided to do a Princess tour of FLL. It was well worth the money and a great way to spend the day. We did the tour of FLL with the Paddleboat tour of the waterways and rich houses. We saw more of FLL than we had in our 3 days there the previous week. It was hot on the Paddleboat tour, but it was interesting. We were dropped off at the airport at about 1:10 p.m. We were glad we did the tour and had fun.
As we were on a tour, we were directed to ignore our assigned disembarkation time and use the tour one. We had to be out of our cabin by 8 a.m. and had a meeting time of 8:15 a.m. in one of the bars for disembarkation. At exactly 8:15 a.m. a crew member escorted us off the ship with no lines or problems at all. Our luggage was the first to be seen in the big hall full of bags and was very easy to find. We then went through customs and put our luggage ourselves on the bus for while we were on tour all day. Hassle free!
As I said at the beginning of my review, I rate this cruise 100% because it met my needs and expectations for this vacation. However, there were some good and bad things about the Grand Princess that others may want to consider compared to their needs. In comparison to other ships I have sailed on, I was disappointed with the staff, the buffet, and the smoking. If given the choice between the Grand Princess and Celebrity's Eclipse (that I sailed on a couple months ago), I would choose the Eclipse.