We took our 9th Princess Cruise on Ruby Princess from Fort Lauderdale on March 10, sailing the Eastern Caribbean itinerary. We were fortunate to be able to book the Isla Margarita Suite A750, and it, along with John our cabin steward, were the highlights of our trip.
Ruby Princess is a very nice, standard Princess ship. I understand the importance of a brand identity, but it is very hard to tell one Princess ship from another, especially having cruised on them 9 times. It would be nice if each ship had some unique features to distinguish itself and make them a little less like the Marriott Courtyard of cruising. That said, the ship was clean and appeared in great condition on our arrival.
Embarkation was a relatively painless affair, with our Platinum status giving us a waiting area with seats until the check-in area opened. We were among the first passengers on the ship and found our cabin without needing assistance -- which was not offered anyway.
Our suite on the Aloha deck was waiting for us, with fresh flowers, a mini-bar setup, and a warm welcome from John, our cabin steward. We gladly noted the full-size shower and whirlpool tub, the separate toilet/sink room, walk-in closet, large living area and the HUGE balcony facing aft. Many people have questioned the location of the suites on Princess ships, but we can say this suite was ideal. We had absolutely no noise from the Terrace Pool above, nor mechanical noise from the adjacent vent opening. There was no unusual vibration from the propulsion system except when the rear thrusters were being used to position the ship in port, and even then it lasted only a minute. The most obvious feature is the noise of the water when the ship is underway, a rushing sound that varies depending on the speed of the ship. This was never a problem, and we slept with the sliding glass doors open every night, enjoying the water sounds and the gentle breeze. Finally, there is little or no wind on the balcony while underway, making it a very pleasant place to spend a lot of time. It almost feels like a private yacht.
Traveling in a Suite does provide some other benefits: canapes delivered to your stateroom every afternoon (we had chocolate-dipped strawberries most days), Lotus Spa products in the bathroom, an expanded room-service menu, priority tender tickets and, most significantly, access to the breakfast service in Sabatini's that is provided for Suite passengers only. We enjoyed starting each day with the quiet, relaxed surroundings of Sabatini's and the staff who accommodated any food or drink request we could think of. Our cabin steward made sure our suite was perfectly kept -- I think he stopped working on other cabins when he saw us leave so he could clean our cabin. He was unfailingly pleasant, funny and helpful, very much like the cabin stewards of old before mandatory tipping went into effect.
Between the suite and the amenities, we spent relatively little time on the pool decks and made few visits to the Horizon Court. We could easily spend our days reading, relaxing, and watching NCAA basketball on the two televisions in the suite.
We chose this itinerary because it visited two places we had not been before. The days were also organized a little differently than we were used to, and this really worked out very well. The first day was spent in Princess Cays. It was the standard Princess Cays experience. My son and I did the surf fishing and found the gear provided was just adequate, but the conditions are not ideal for surf fishing anywhere on the island.
The second day was at sea, with the first formal night. We are not formal people and didn't dress for dinner, eating in the Horizon Court that night.
The third day was St. Maarten, our first visit there. With 6 ships in port, the town was mobbed, but it was still a pleasant enough place. My son and I went to Maho Beach on a planespotting pilgrimage. We took a public bus/van for $2 each way and it was interesting getting the local's-eye view.
The fourth day was St. Thomas, which we have seen many times before. I wish Princess did not moor at the WICO pier, which forces passengers to taxi to town or anywhere else. I prefer the Havensight port facility. We did go into town and walk around, bought some nice jewelry but didn't do any beach trips. We enjoyed getting back to the ship a little early and watching the sailaway from our balcony.
The fifth day was in Grand Turk, another first for us. If you are expecting this to be the image of Turks and Caicos that you see on television, you will be sadly mistaken. Grand Turk is a small, sparsely populated desert island that was devastated by Hurricane Ike in 2008 and has yet to fully recover. There is really very little to recommend this island as a tourist destination. Instead, Carnival has built a captive port facility in an isolated location and outfitted it a large pool, beach area, and a number of shops and eating places. If you've been to Cozumel with Princess, it's very similar to their captive, remote docking location there (though the beach and pool are a welcome addition). Unlike Princess Cays, you pay for all the food and beverages on land. The water is an amazing blue color and crystal clear. With the maximum of two ships tied up, the beach is *very* crowded. We had the misfortune of taking a shore excursion tour of Grand Turk (nothing really to see there) and being dropped off at Governor's Beach, maybe a half-mile away from the cruise port. Governor's Beach was a horrible place with filthy, unusable facilities. We took the first shuttle back to the cruise center and spent the rest of the afternoon on the ship enjoying the uncrowded Spa pool. Nevertheless, we will not look to return to Grand Turk anytime in the future.
The sixth and final day was at sea on the way back to Fort Lauderdale. This allowed plenty of time for packing and taking care of last-minute disembarkation details, while still relaxing. Much better than running through Princess Cays on the last day, in my opinion.
Throughout the cruise we had very smooth seas and mild weather. Perfect cruising conditions prevailed.
Food and Beverage:
This is never a strong point for Princess cruises, and this trip was no exception. We found the food in the Horizon Court to be especially disappointing on this cruise. We found the exact same seafood mixture appearing in at least four dishes on the cruise: as cioppino, as salad, as some other casserole. Seriously, does Princess think people don't notice this? We experienced Moroccan Night -- creating a run on the Trident Grill as people looked for something without curry or rice. We ate in the Dining Room only one night and again found the menu choices to be unsatisfying, and the service distracted. Since waiters have to serve so many tables now, they are very rushed, with none of the ease and dignified pace of past times. They are very good at food-slinging, but they have no time for much discussion.
The notable exception to this was Sabatini's. In addition to having breakfast there every day, we enjoyed dinner there the last night. Perhaps it was because the wait staff already knew us, but we thoroughly enjoyed the experience. The food is very heavy, but if you take it easy on the portions you can escape without feeling overstuffed. Martin and the wait staff were wonderful!
We enjoyed both comedians on this cruise. We disliked the magician (too much smoke and mirrors and too little magic). We left the opening night song and dance show, it was simply too bad to stay for. We noted that most of the entertainers on the show had been nominated for Princess' Entertainer of the Year award. If they were the best, we would really hate to see the rest.
We took advantage of Princess' EZCheck service, where they check you in for your return flight, give you boarding passes and check your bags straight through to your destination -- no hunting for your bags in the warehouse after the cruise. For $20 a person this is a good deal, but I was disappointed to see that we were charged the airline bag fees for all our bags even though, as a frequent flyer, we should not have been charged for each person's first bag.
Upon disembarkation you proceed directly to the Customs line and then you are outside. I agree with others that many more Customs officers are needed to handle the number of people leaving the ship. We took a taxi to the airport, went straight to the security line, and were at our gate within 35 minutes of walking off the ship.
We enjoyed our cruise. None of them is ever perfect, but they still provided a good value and experience for us. I hope Princess makes efforts to distinguish and improve their product in the future.