Background: My wife and I (late 40's/early 50's) took a 7 day Eastern Caribbean cruise, out of Fort Lauderdale, on the Ruby Princess. The voyage took place February 5th through February 12th. This is the 10th cruise for my wife and I, but our first with Princess. We have cruised with Carnival (7 times), Royal Caribbean (once), and Celebrity (once).
Pre-Stay and Embarkation: We flew in from Fort Worth, on Saturday, stayed at the Marriott Fort Lauderdale North, and rented a car from Alamo. The hotel was more than adequate for the night. On Saturday, we had an awesome lunch at Kelly's Landing. They specialize in New England seafood, and they definitely delivered. Chowder, crab cakes, scallops, and mussels were definitely a treat. We drove down to the beach on Saturday night and enjoyed the touristy ambiance. We had drinks overlooking the water and watched three cruise ships leave out of Port Everglades.
We had gotten the message that the Ruby Princess had the norovirus the prior cruise, and that embarkation was being delayed to 2:00 P.M. Normally, I try to get to the cruise terminal around 11:00 A.M, since most ships "really" start boarding around noon. But, I knew that wasn't going to be the case this time. We dropped off the rental car around noon, and took the free shuttle to the pier. We arrived around 12:40 P.M, dropped off our bags with the porters and walked over to the Convention Center to check in. The convention center is literally right across the road from Pier 2, where the Ruby Princess was docked. Checking in took all of 5 minutes and we were given a piece of paper for our place in the queue for boarding. Boarding started right at 2:00 P.M. (like stated) and all the elite, platinum, and suite guests went first. Our group (F) was called a little after 3:00 P..M., and were onboard around 3:20 P.M. The process went as smooth as can be expected, due to the circumstances.
Ship: The ship is extremely large (114,000 tons) and it can be quite confusing initially. The most important thing to remember is that decks 7 (Promenade), and 15 (Lido) go from one end of the ship to another. The others have a roadblock somewhere that may force you to go up or down to go around them. The ship, while slightly worn in a few areas, was in great shape. I won't go into the specifics of ship, since they can be seen in the brochure, and are spelled out in so many other reviews..
Cabin: We had an obstructed view cabin (Category FF) on the Emerald deck. Our cabin number was E330 and it is directly above the Library on the Promenade deck. We didn't hear a peep from below, or even from people walking in the halls. The quietest cabin I have ever had. Even though the cabin is supposed to have a "fully" obstructed view, that was really not the case. We only had a small rescue boat outside our window, thus I would say that our view was obstructed only 25%, at the most. We had no problems seeing the water below or the islands from our window. One caveat though; we did see someone sitting right outside our window one day, using his laptop. So, you may want to keep the drapes closed if any "private" activities are in progress. The room was laid out well, and we had plenty of storage space. I definitely liked the large space to hang things up. The bed was definitely firm as stated by many, but wasn't so bad that it affected our sleep. The bathroom was extremely well laid out, but the shower was tiny. I'm a pretty big guy and it was definitely claustrophobic. Plus, the shower head was at my neck level, so I had to do a limbo-like act to wash my hair. The room had a refrigerator in which we stored our own stash. We brought on a 12 pack of water and a couple of liters of Ginger Ale, in one of our carry ons. Our cabin attendant (Janlan) was extremely efficient and did an admirable job. The usual chocolates, and the next day's Princess Patters awaited us every evening.
Dining: We were assigned table 137 in the Botticelli dining room for the traditional second seating (8:15 P.M.). The Botticelli dining room is located in the far back (aft) of the ship, while the two Anytime dining rooms are in the middle of the ship. The table assigned to us was right next to the wall, furthest away from the windows. Our two waiters were marvelous. They were Juan (from the Philippines) and Frosina (from Macedonia). These two made dining such a pleasure, since they were both so personable and friendly. Every request was happily done and we never wanted for anything. It didn't hurt that their two other tables never showed up for a single meal. Thus, our table was the only one they had to service. The food, while not great, was consistently good. We usually had two appetizers and two entrees nightly, which allowed us to occasionally try items not in our everyday diet. Most hit, a few missed, but we certainly never went hungry.
The buffets at the Horizon Court and the Carib Cafe were extraordinarily good. I don't see how people compare this food to the Golden Corral or Luby's. The breakfast had all the usual fare, and it was all very good. They had smoked salmon daily, made to order omelet's, and all the baked goods were very good. I actually enjoyed having the staff serve us (due to the Norovirus precautions) since buffets can tend to get messy due to all the people digging into the trays with wild abandon. The lines didn't seem too bad, except the servers added to the congestion within the buffet area. The lunches were top notch and we didn't have a problem finding quality food to eat. We sampled the Carib Cafe for dinner right when they opened (5:30 P.M.) a couple of nights, just for a small helping, since we came back late from port a few times and couldn't wait till late seating. I would say that around 50% of the nightly items on the Main Dining Room (MDR) menu can be found in the buffet. The food I sampled was very good. I really enjoyed the leg of lamb, cerviche, and bouillabaisse. This cruise seemed to have an abundance of raw seafood, especially the appetizers The pizza was excellent (thin crust), while the Lido Grill had the usual BBQ deck fare. We enjoyed the International Cafe (Deck 5) for small snacks and desserts. The desserts on board were really good. Not only did they look good, but they tasted good also. Carnival's desserts look good, but all taste rather bland. So, I was pleasantly surprised to be rewarded with wonderful flavor to go along with all those calories.
Now on to our major disappointment for the entire cruise. On Wednesday night we booked the Crown Grill. We had 7:00 P.M. reservations. We got an excellent table, but the place was packed. Our waiter Ovidu (from Romania) was extremely unprofessional. Right off the bat, he made some flippant remark about " being here all night and he doesn't stress" when we mentioned about how crowded the room was. Well lets just say that it took close to two hours before we ever got our entrees. We had a period of 25 minutes, of just sitting there, without anyone coming to check on us. Two hours for drinks, an appetizer, and a salad just isn't a good flow. When we got our entrees it didn't improve. My 22 ounce Porterhouse was extremely fatty, with maybe 10 ounces of edible meat. My poor wife's ribeye steak was the kicker. It was slightly overdone, but when the steak was flipped over half of it was burnt horribly. The sides were very mediocre, as it looked like they used the same garlic sauce over every one of them. My wife ended sending back the steak, after they saw she ate 1/5 of it. The manager came over and we told him about taking two hours to get the entrees and then the quality being poor. Everyone had the same weird response, "We cook everything fresh". We must have heard that phrase ten times. They replaced it with a lobster entree, which took another 25 minutes to get. At that point, she was too aggravated to eat, and were ready to just leave. Then the assistant Maitre D arrived, who is the Crown Grill manager's boss. We explained the situation to him and he was very nice. He told us they overbooked the room (156 reservations when 120 is optimal) and that he would look into "it". Whatever "it" was. We ended up getting the meal comped. After settling down, and having dessert, we walked out at 10:25 P.M. Over three hours, so most of our evening was wasted. But, that was our only negative experience with food we had all week. Everything else was exemplary.
Service: In a word, EXCELLENT. It started with our waiters, in the main dining room, to all the staff on the ship. I rarely saw a dirty table in the Lido dining room, and they were constantly on top of things. The majority of the bar staff was not pushy, and quickly and efficiently processed the drink orders, usually with a smile. The general attitude of the ship staff was extremely upbeat and they seemed to take great pride in what they were doing. Kudos to management for keeping their employees motivated and happy, especially during the trying times.
Entertainment: We saw the majority of the scheduled entertainment and most were well done. Please remember this is neither Las Vegas nor Broadway, so temper your expectations. The production shows "Broadway Ballroom", "Stardust" and "Once Upon a Dream" had very good dancing and choreography, and excellent vocals by the four main singers. They were fine for after dinner entertainment. I would have to say that they are definitely geared more towards the elder set. Many songs predated me, and I'm no spring chicken. We saw one of the two comedians (Phil Tag) and he was very amusing. David Cats, the illusionist, was a true showman and put on enjoyable show. I can see why he is up for Princess entertainer of the year. The band "Accent" are a great cover band who played a plethora of different songs, all extremely well. We enjoyed listening to them after the late production shows. The ship also had some variety acts in the Atrium (juggler, musical stylings, theme nights, etc.) that we saw if timing was right. The ship seems to slow down around 11:00 P.M., so any activity after that didn't seem well attended. The running gag from the CD (Ron Goodman) was that the Skywalker's disco was rocking all night long, from all seven people that were there.
Activities: We participated in very few of the activities. I attended a few trivia contests, but wasn't a winner. Most of the activities were typical for all cruise lines (ice carving, pool games, bingo, etc.) that we passed on. There were very few children on board, and they did not cause any problems, that I saw.
Ports: We have already been to St. Martin and St. Thomas, and I highly recommend purchasing a shore excursion outside of the cruise lines. With a little online detective work you can get exactly the excursion that interests you at a price 1/3 cheaper than the cruise line. According to an inside source, the cruise line skims that amount of money and more, right off the top, from your excursion ticket price. Also, you can skip the large crowds, the obligatory extra long shopping stops, and the inevitable waiting around, as I'm sure most people would prefer.
Princess Cays: Waited until 11:15 to tender over to the Princess' private island. We enjoyed the beach and the buffet. It was truly just a beach stop. We jumped into the line for the tenders leaving the island around 2:00 P.M, since they were starting to get long. The sun can get very strong and the wait for the tenders is directly in the sun. Plan accordingly.
St. Martin: Read great reviews about a tour company, so we booked with Bernard's Tours. We had the Mailman for our driver, and he provided great running commentary of everything there is to know about St. Martin. He provided water, sodas, and his "magical" rum punch for the trip. Our 5.5 hour tour took us to an iguana farm, Orient beach (some scary human scenery on display), Marigot (for pastries at Sarafina's), and then to Maho beach (to watch the BIG planes arrive). It was a great tour and well worth the price we paid. He dropped us off at the pier, but we also had the option to be dropped off in town to shop.
St. Thomas/ St. John: Docked at Crown Bay at 6:20 A.M. They let people off early, but who wanted to leave at that time. We left the ship at 8:00 A.M. and grabbed a cab to Red Hook Ferry to catch the 9:00 A.M. ferry to St. John. Upon arriving in St. Johns at 9:20 A.M., we negotiated a tour of the island and later to be dropped off at Trunk's Bay. We got a lovely little tour of the island, showing us all the highlights that lasted 1.5 hours. We then spent another 1.5 hours at Trunk's Bay enjoying the beach, and the beautiful blue water. We then took at cab back to the harbor area, had a drink, and picked up a few souvenirs before taking the 1:00 P.M. ferry back to St. Thomas. We then caught another cab back to the cruise dock. A lot of traveling, but well worth the time to see such a wonderful place. We were able to use our cell phone to place calls back to the U.S. for free. St. Thomas is considered within the U.S., for AT&T, so we caught up with our kids and friends before heading back onto the ship at 3:30 P.M.
Grand Turk: Wanted to go to Jack's Shack, but didn't want to walk in the heat. We ended up at Margaritaville, right at the dock. Enjoyed the drinks and the party atmosphere. We picked up a few trinkets at the dock side stores.
Debarkation: In a word, EASY. Due to fact that our flight back to Fort Worth wasn't until 2:30 P.M., we decided to put our bags out the night before, and not do self-assist. I asked for the latest debarkation time available and was given tags that equated to a 9:55 A.M departure time. We finished breakfast at around 9:10 A.M., and had to wait until 10:15 A.M before our color luggage tag was called to disembark the ship. We grabbed a porter, gathered our bags and went through customs, all in about 10 minutes. We had to wait 20 minutes in a taxi line and was at the airport at 11:15 A.M. A leisurely lunch at Chili's, and a few hours to wait before we took off in a packed plane. We arrived in Fort Worth, on time, ahead of the snow storm.
Final Thoughts: Even though I pointed out some deficiencies, my wife and I had a really good time on the cruise. I feel that if you go in with a good attitude, and roll with the punches, then how can you not have a good time. Both the Princess cruise line and the Ruby Princess ship are very well run and know how to give the customer a solid, positive cruising experience. This cruise was a great value and allowed us to experience places that we would not otherwise see. I would definitely take a Princess cruise again. My wife informed me that we are going on Princess for our next cruise, no ifs-ands-or-buts. Who am I to argue.