I have never written a cruise review before, but wanted to write a detailed one, in appreciation for all the great tips and information I have learned from reading previous reviews here. Here goes my very long review!
We went on the 2 week 17Dec11 -- 31Dec11 roundtrip cruise on the Sapphire Princess from LA to Hawai'i to LA (H149). Overall we had a wonderful time, and just loved this cruise. Cruise Director Dave Carson was great (more on him later), and many of the activities, TV shows, and movies were themed around Hawai'i, which made the cruise feel so special.
My husband and I live just 70 miles north of the cruise terminal so we drove and parked our own car (total parking bill at the end was $168). We pulled into the parking lot at 1:30 pm and were sitting in our room by 2:15 pm. We have only cruised 3 times total on Princess so we have no special status or expedited lines, but the whole embarkation process was very smooth and easy. We wanted to carry our medium-sized luggage with us onto the ship as we could easily manage it ourselves, but were not allowed to do so. We were only permitted to carry our backpack and small duffel. However, our luggage was waiting outside our room by 4:30 pm, so it was not too bad.
We were able to get a mini-suite on the Dolphin (Deck 9) for less than the original cost of a balcony room. We had booked a balcony room in December 2010 via an internet travel agent, and checked on the price monthly via e-mail all year long. We changed to a mini-suite when the price dropped sometime in the summer. The mini-suite was very nice, especially the spacious bathroom. However the bathtub was set so high, I think it might be difficult for some people to get in and out of. While the mini-suite was nice, it was only a little bigger than our previous regular balcony staterooms on Royal Caribbean's Mariner of the Seas or on the Carnival Splendor. The Sapphire Princess mini-suite has a sofa where I could sit comfortably and read or watch TV. In a regular Sapphire Princess stateroom, one has to either sit on the bed or in the single chair in order to read or watch TV. I would never bother with a mini-suite on the Mariner of the Seas or the Carnival Splendor as their balcony staterooms feel very spacious to me and come standard with a comfortable sofa, coffee table, and chair, but I think the mini-suite is more of a "necessity" for me on the Sapphire Princess (lol!). Our cabin steward was great, and kept everything in tip-top condition for us.
We originally had fixed time dining at 8 pm in the International Dining Room, but our whole table was moved 2 days later at the request of our tablemate due to some extremely loud and unruly children seated next to our original table. Princess assigned us to fixed 8 pm dining in the Vivaldi Dining Room. It is a shame neither the parents nor Princess made any attempt to control these children, but to Princess' credit, they did move us with no hassle.
I have multiple food allergies and am vegetarian, so the travel agent notified Princess of this at the time of the booking. I also spoke to the Food & Beverage (F&B) Supervisor in both the International Dining Room and the Vivaldi Dining Room, and they could not have been kinder or more understanding about meeting my multiple and very specific dietary needs. After 2 days of the special food they prepared for me, I asked if I could have Indian vegetarian food (which I love) instead, as I was not really enjoying the other food. Mind you, there is always one vegetarian entrÃ©e on the menu, but Indian food was never on the menu. F&B Supervisor Adrian Trifas in the Vivaldi Dining Room was so kind and helpful and assured me it would be absolutely no problem. I was always provided with 2 separate Indian lentil/vegetable preparations, rice, raita (yogurt salad), papads (rice wafers), and Indian flat bread. I could not eat this much, so I requested they eliminate the papads and Indian flat bread. After 2 days of this, I asked Adrian if the lentils/vegetables could be toned down in the spice level as they were a little too hot for me. Again, I was met with nothing with kindness and an immediate accommodation of my request. They never repeated the lentil/vegetable dishes, and I thoroughly enjoyed all of the delicious food they made for me.
My husband (who is not vegetarian), ordered off the regular menu, and enjoyed a variety of dishes including the hot soups, cold soups (served like smoothies), the escargot, the lobster tail, steak, etc, etc.
We selected a table for 8, and were blessed to be assigned really lovely and charming table mates. The other 3 couples were quite different from us, but we really looked forward to seeing them every night at dinner as their delightful company really enhanced the whole cruise experience for us.
My husband and I both agreed the desserts were actually better at the Horizon Court buffet than in the MDR, as the cakes and tarts seemed too dried out in the MDR. Soft serve was available up on deck during the day but regular ice cream was only served in the MDR. I tried 2 or 3 of the ice creams but was very disappointed in the non-premium quality, compared to what we had 2 years ago on a previous Sapphire Princess cruise. While we did not enjoy our June 2011 cruise on the Carnival Splendor very much due to the relentless blasting of music at an extremely high volume everywhere on that ship, at least they served Haagen Daaz in the MDR (or something that tasted like it), but the Sapphire Princess ice cream was a big disappointment to me. I ended up ordering the sorbet most nights and was happy with that.
We also went to the British style pub lunches that were offered 3 or 4 times during the cruise. Although there was nothing vegetarian on the menu for me, my British husband greatly enjoyed these meals which reminded him of the "old country", so it made me happy.
We ate breakfast and lunch every day at the Horizon Court Buffet or the Pizzeria. I always only have a toasted bagel and tea for breakfast so I was fine, but my husband said he was a little tired of the breakfast selection by the end of the 14 days. The lunch selection seemed more varied, and always included a vegetarian pasta dish, as well as rice and one vegetarian Indian dish. The staff at the Horizon Court were so friendly and genuinely helpful in bringing us beverages and immediately clearing up tables. They procurement dept did not plan too well though as they ran out of lemonade on about Day 11. Good thing my husband had brought his own individual serving packages of Crystal Light with him. The Horizon Court was congested several times though, and I think both sides of the buffet could have been opened up more often to alleviate the crowding. Only thin crust pizza is available in the Pizzeria, and it is excellent and actually better than most land based pizzerias I have been to. Cheese and pepperoni pizzas are always available, and they rotate a signature pizza of the day (sometimes vegetarian and sometimes not).
I was a little apprehensive about the condition of the ship as the Sapphire is scheduled to go into dry dock in mid-January 2012, but I was pleasantly surprised at the excellent condition of all the public areas and the very nice condition of our mini-suite.
Cruise Director Dave Carson was amazing and put together a really special Hawai'i themed program over the 14 days, which really enhanced the whole cruise experience for me. His knowledge of the islands, the culture, the Hawaiian language, and Hawaiian music is extensive and he said he had been travelling to the islands for 20 years. It really showed, and I think Princess would be doing a disservice to passengers on any Hawai'i cruise without a Cruise Director who is knowledgeable about Hawai'i and who does not prepare Hawaiian themed activities.
My husband and I participated in multiple activities, and on several occasions, we had to make choices between 2 equally tempting things scheduled for the same time. We never paid extra for any activity as the ones we went to were all free. An activity I especially enjoyed was the ribbon lei making class on the outward journey, and a real orchid lei making class on the journey home (orchids were picked up in Honolulu). Dave Carson gave progressive ukulele lessons daily on sea days, and our dining companions who took his classes said he was a wonderful teacher. Dave Carson also gave wonderful hour long port lectures on each island, prior to our arrival in Hawai'i. His in-depth knowledge about the islands was evident, and we never once had to suffer through any of those ridiculous shopping "tips" during his port talks. The ship was unable to dock in Kauai due to bad weather, and Dave provided an impromptu 1.5 hours of excellent and informative commentary as the captain cruised us around both Kauai and the forbidden island of Ni'ihau. Debbie from Canada, one of Dave Carson's staff members, was another standout and was so knowledgeable about Polynesian culture and led many of classes. She is also an excellent hula and Tahitian dancer, and offered daily classes on sea days. Students from Debbie's and Dave's classes put on a very nice performance the last night of the cruise.
Naturalist Pat Kramer gave excellent talks every sea day on Hawaiian culture, movies filmed in the islands, whales, the attack on Pearl Harbor, Polynesian navigation, the flora and fauna of the islands, etc, etc. Her knowledge, enthusiasm, and un-stilted, natural speaking style made us look forward to her presentations.
Completely un-Hawaiian related, but thoroughly enjoyable, attorney Michael Bishay gave intellectually engaging and fascinating presentations every sea day on different criminal cases. We learned a lot about legal issues and had some of our notions about the law challenged in a super interesting, non-dry, and non-boring way. His presentation style is very audience interactive, and we loved his talks. I give presentations very often for work myself, and although I am nowhere in Michael's class, I can recognize a superb presenter when I hear one. If he is ever speaking on your cruise, do not miss going to his presentations!
I loved how Cruise Director Dave Carson arranged for many of the TV shows and movies to reflect the Hawai'i theme. There were shows on Hawaiian language lessons, multiple documentaries on whales, volcanoes, formations of the islands, movies about the attack on Pearl Harbor, about the young Princess Victoria Kai'ulani, etc, etc. There were even re-runs of the old show Magnum PI which was filmed in Hawai'i, for nostalgia's sake. There were also multiple non-Hawaiian themed movies which were pretty new which I wanted to see, but which I had no time to see either in the Princess Theater or on TV, as we were too busy with all the other fun things we were doing.
One of my "rules" on any cruise vacations is that I must get a treatment at the spa during every sea day, so that I can truly relax. Thanks to previous reviews I read here, I only made a few appointments via internet for the first 4 days of the cruise, and waited for the deals to begin. Well the deals started on the third day and saved me big bucks. Thanks to all previous reviewers! Some involved getting a treatment at 8 am, but most of the deals involved getting treatments at whatever time I wanted and were 50% - 60% off the normal treatment price. Some of the deals were advertised on flyers sent to every cabin, some were offered to me by the masseuse for a future treatment, and some I got just by asking at the spa front desk.
We went to all of the production shows, the comedy acts, the ventriloquist, the juggler, and the special evening singing acts. We were able to see a new performance every night, and really enjoyed ourselves. Some were definitely of a better quality than others, but overall we had a great time.
We opted for the disembarkation where we would handle our luggage ourselves. We were told to wait in a lounge at 8 am, but due to a hold-up by US Customs, were not allowed to get off till 8:40 am. Once we got the all-clear however, everything went very smoothly, and we arrived back at our own home by 10:15 am.
While there were some things we definitely did not like, overall we had a fantastic time and loved our visit to the islands. Cruise Director Dave Carson's Hawaiian themed program really enhanced our cruise.
While on board, we signed up for a future cruise and put down a deposit. We can hardly wait to begin planning our next Princess cruise!