We did back to back sailings on the Grand in February -- the 4th and 11th. This was the 6th time we have sailed on Princess to celebrate our Valentine's Day wedding anniversary (31 years). We like the Grand and have sailed on her a total of 107 days before these cruises, and were especially interested in seeing all the changes that were made during her major dry-dock. And yes, we were mostly impressed. While we still miss Skywalkers (had some wonderful times there that are now fond memories) the One5 club is very nice. For the most part the changes are positive. Last year we celebrated on the Emerald and they had a mass renewal of vows ceremony in the piazza that was fun, the Grand was nicely decorated for Valentine's Day but that was it. Overall it was a good cruise.
As almost always embarkation was fast and efficient. Our in-transit embarkation for the second cruise was a little different from other B2bs we have done, perhaps because there were 860 people doing B2B so there was no special attention. We joined the masses milling around on deck 5 at the designated time where security advised us to wait "a few minutes" before we disembarked. After a while we were released and headed down into the terminal and through customs, where the guides told us to go through the door on the right if we wanted to go back directly on the ship. We did so, and were herded into a waiting area where we sat as directed, and it wasn't long before we were headed back onto the ship. So it wasn't so bad but many of those we talked with were wishing Princess still had a true 14 day itinerary in the Caribbean rather than just 7 day cruises that require a return to Fort Lauderdale and an in-transit day. We loved the 14 day Caribbean Collection they did on the Grand the last few years and took it annually. Since retirement we can take cruises longer than 7 days so will be looking at other cruise lines for real 14 day cruises rather than wasting the days sailing back to Fort Lauderdale only to have more sea days returning to the Caribbean. The other problem with combined 7 day cruises is that the standard 7 day cruise model repeats -- same menus, entertainment, even jokes on the Wake show -- so it can get less interesting.
We have always enjoyed the Grand, especially the Vista Lounge (a much better second theatre than Club Fusion) and The Conservatory -- the covered Calypso pool area where you can actually read with some peace and quiet (compared to the larger ships where MUTS and Neptune pool activities seem to compete by turning up the volume controls so all you end up hearing is loud noise.) The Grand had seemed less crowded than the larger ships when we sailed her in the past but this time it seemed more crowded. The enhancements made to the piazza are very nice and opening up the area under Skywalkers a welcome addition. The separate pastry and dessert station in Horizon Court (HC) seems to improve traffic flow at the "real food" stations but can block transit through HC itself. Seating areas in the HC seem very crowded. While most of the changes are positive there are some negatives. There was a lot of space given to Leaves (tea bar and library) where it is much harder to see what books are on fewer shelves as the tables and chairs are too close to the books, and there seem to be fewer books. Interestingly we have only seen a few people having "customized tea service" at Leaves so that looks like a big waste of valuable space. The Captains Circle Host and the Future Cruise Consultant now share a very small closet type space next to the Crown Grill with only 2 chairs provided for passengers waiting to see either of them. This is very different from the old Grand where there was sufficient space to wait as well as explore future cruise options on the computers there. So good luck if you want to book a cruise onboard, might be best just to get some future cruise credits and talk to your travel agent.
The Grand seems to be famous for elevator problems noted in reviews, but with no passenger stairs midship from decks 7-14 those elevators do require a bit more patience than usual. Overheard a funny conversation in one of those elevators where a woman was complaining that "they took out the midship passenger stairs during the dry dock" -- and other passengers agreed with her!
Our cruise was a combination of an Eastern and Southern itinerary. We have been to all these ports before and all have unique things to offer. The old forts at San Juan are very interesting and you can easily spend all day exploring them if you like old forts. On this itinerary the ship does not arrive in San Juan until 4 pm so your daylight viewing hours are very limited. We opted for a short walk around town while it was still light. And if you are interested in rum and other such libations be sure to check out the clearance store on the first floor of the terminal, some amazing two for one offers there. St Martin is unique with its French and Dutch sides, and interesting beaches. And of course there is shopping. St Thomas is our shopping favorite and we like the Havensight dock rather than Crown Bay -- the Grand docked at Havensight this time so that was a plus -- some nice purchases to celebrate Valentine's Day. The weather at Princess Cay was absolutely beautiful so we decided to go ashore -- not our usual activity as we often just stay onboard and enjoy the ship rather than do the tendering process. We remember when Princess Cay had a few hammocks and a few chairs, it has been vastly improved since then so if the weather is good we'll probably do it again. But on our second week the weather was not so good, and with heavy swells the Captain decided that tendering was not an option so we headed for Curacao without stopping at Princess Cay. Curacao is unique with its brightly colored buildings (story is that started when the mayor decided that buildings should be painted in different colors, and the inside story is that the major owned a paint company.) It is an easy walk into town and the swing bridge is an experience not to be missed. And lastly Aruba -- desert and goats and beaches and shopping. Unique to this itinerary are the evening hours in both San Juan and Curacao, with scheduled arrival times at 4 pm and 1 pm respectively. With the cancellation of the Princess Cay stop on the second week we arrived in Curacao 3 hours early at 10 am so there were more daylight hours to sightsee.
We are booked on the 49 day around South America cruise on the Grand in January 2013 in cabin C412 so we decided to book it on this cruise just to make sure it was what we wanted to spend 49 days in. It is an interior cabin midship on Caribe deck. For a basic cabin it was fine, although we would highly recommend the twin bed configuration rather than queen as it seems to have so much more room that way. The only negative was with the bathroom towels that at times were well worn and harsh, the kind you might get in a cheap motel. Pity the poor passengers who get sunburned and have to use those towels!
The Food and Service
Our basic conclusion was that food on the Grand overall is rated good. We had some dishes that were absolutely great and well deserving as being rated excellent, but also some surprises that were not so good -- major problem being overcooked, especially the lobster and lamb. Service was also generally good to very good, especially when we had waiters we have known before on other cruises. In the buffet area service level can range from overbearing -- how many times will they ask if you want juice -- to almost non-existent if you are seated in the deck area by the pools. Seems that on every cruise something happens that is really funny and this time it involved a passenger and Horizon Court servers. Apparently the passenger was getting irritated because no one offered coffee to him so he got up to get it himself. A server walked by and took his plate and cleared off his table. The guy came back with his coffee but his breakfast was gone -- not a happy way to start the day! He stomped off apparently in disgust, maybe looking for someone to yell at. So as they say your results may vary, and that might explain why some reviews are so positive and others so negative.
The major negative for us from a food perspective is that the dining room is now closed for lunch on port days. That won't affect those passengers who spend all their port time ashore or usually do the buffet, but for those of us who miss their favorite luncheon menu items in the dining room setting it is just another example of obvious Princess cutbacks that diminish the Princess experience.
If you have cruised on Princess before you have no doubt seen the current production shows, perhaps many times. We have seen them all many many times so we didn't go this cruise. We did see some really good acts, including Michael Wilson a comic impressionist, Juan Carlos guitarist from San Juan and his four dancing ladies (folkloric show while in San Juan), and a comedy/magician show by Christopher James. The Ultimate Deck Party was fun, and it is always interesting to drop in on the theme night parties. We enjoyed the art auctions as usual as well as getting some good books from the library. As they say there is indeed something for everyone on a cruise.
The process was simple and on time although the lines at customs were long and I always seem the pick the one that is the slowest.
We have cruised a lot on Princess and the most traveled passenger luncheon is always a highlight. Our major goal for this cruise was to celebrate our anniversary and relax, and we did exactly that. We will be back on the Grand repeating this 14 day itinerary in November/December to celebrate my birthday.