We decided to go a little further afield and do the 16 day Southeast Asia and China cruise, accompanied by the same couple with whom we have done all our previous trips. We booked the entire package directly with Princess, including an extra three days in Beijing and one night in Singapore. We didn't like the initial air routing which would have required us to pass through US customs and immigration twice, as well as one extra stop en route. Since Air Canada flies direct from Toronto to several China destinations, we asked Princess to arrange one of these for us. Our contact at Princess, Denise Hogan, was able to secure a routing which avoided transiting the US. In fact, she was super about staying in contact with us by phone and e-mail, ensuring that we were kept advised of any changes, helping us arrange payments, ensuring that we were aware of visa requirements, etc. It was great to have someone right at the cruise line that we could contact whenever a question or problem arose.
The hotel used in Beijing was the 5-star Marriott City Wall. The hotel was beautiful and for the most part, the service was at the level expected. However, there was one major problem: the elevators in the main tower were completely inadequate during times of peak traffic, such as when all the tour buses returned to the hotel at the end of the day. At the end of the first day, when I approached the elevator lobby, the line extended out of the lobby and for some distance down the hall. I noted the time and it took 17 minutes until I actually got into an elevator--and there were still a considerable number of people behind me in the line. There were also problems in the dining room for breakfast and it took three days for the hotel to figure out how to cope with several hundred people arriving and wanting to eat within a very short space of time.
We had the same English speaking tour guide for all three days and had a great time. The only thing that marred this period was the presence of two very lackadaisical couples who seemed completely unable to read watches and whose benchmark for being "on time" was to be no more than 15 minutes late. At every stop, the bus was kept waiting for these four people and on several occasions the tour guide had to go searching for them. The three lunches included in the tour package were: OK; less than OK; and superb. While there we booked a last minute evening package of an acrobatic stage show with dinner prior. The stage show was terrific, the dinner inedible, service even worse.
Embarkation (once past the Chinese checkpoint) was fast and easy, as we have come to expect from Princess. Problems were due to Chinese authorities who, despite the cavernous nature of the terminal, set up security inspection just inside the front door, forcing several hundred passengers to stand outside where the wind-chill was just below freezing.
We had booked a restricted ocean-view cabin, but a month before departure, we received a complimentary upgrade to an ocean-view balcony cabin. This was nice of Princess, but we were not able to use it to advantage. The first five days were far too cold (although I walked three miles on the Promenade deck each morning before breakfast) while the last four were far too hot and humid. I did sit out and read for a few hours, and we did sit out and enjoy wine and cheese on our traveling partners' balcony departing Hong Kong harbour during the middle of the nightly light show. We had two cabin stewards (the first was tour-expired at the end of the first week aboard) and both were first class.
We prefer traditional dining, and had the early sitting in the International. We had a terrific set of waiters and can't praise them highly enough. The food was generally well prepared and well presented, but there were some problems. I suspect the beef being used was Australian, which is not as well finished as what we are used to in North America. Thus, while it was flavourful, it was a bit on the tough side. The range of choices was adequate.
Breakfast and Lunch were taken in Horizon Court and the general impression of our party was that the overall quality was not as good as on our two previous trips with Princess. However, the main problem was related to seating. The first five days out of Beijing were too cold to use a significant chunk of the seating area, which made it difficult to find somewhere to sit once you had your food, and many passengers simply took their plates back to their cabins. A further complication was the fact that there were several marathon mah jong and card games that seemed to start after breakfast and went to mid-afternoon, occupying tables that were intended for dining! Staff should have nipped this in the bud on day one.
We did not eat in any specialty restaurants which did not, in any case, seem very well patronized. One of them is simply a roped off area in Horizon Court
and since there is zero additional ambience, the food and service would have to be awfully good to justify the surcharge.
Speaking of ambience, Princess policy states that t-shirts and shorts are not to be worn in the dining rooms yet for some diners t-shirts, ripped and faded dungarees and flip-flops were their standard dress. The ship either has a policy or it doesn't!
Another questionable policy relates to smoking, which is supposed to be prohibited in cabins and on balconies. From our balcony on deck 12, one can see directly down into those on decks 9 and 10. On one occasion when I stood out on our balcony there were three smokers within view: one woman with a cigarette and an ashtray in her hand, one gent with a large cigar, the stub of which he flicked over the side when done, and a woman on his balcony with a cigarette who was using an ashtray sitting on the balcony table,
I found the on-board entertainment a bit spotty. Princess has obviously invested a considerable amount of money in its on-board song-and-dance troupe. The costumes and sets are the most elaborate I have seen and while the members may lack a bit of skill, they make up for it with energy and enthusiasm. Several critics have complained about the poor skills of the singers and dancers, probably because they expect the quality of a hit Broadway show. The latter would cost more for orchestra seats than the complainers paid per day for their cabin and meals. The other entertainers were hit and miss, but I think too many people expect far too high a level of entertainment. I am sure Princess could book "A-list" entertainment---but not at what most passengers paid for this cruise!
The on-board education programme was great. The port speaker, Hutch, was a bit full of himself, but was a welcome change from the usual sales pitches for Diamonds International, etc. His information on museums, public transit, taxis, local scams, markets, etc. was very useful in planning what to do ashore if you weren't taking a shore excursion. The historian, Dr. Freedman, gave
a great background on each country stretching from paleolithic to modern eras and nicely complemented Hutch's presentation of what the city is like today.
Mr. Maxtone-Graham's history of cruising was very interesting, particularly his large array of vintage photographs of some of the great liners of the early 20th century. His last presentation, a set of skits with his wife, fell a bit flat but, hey, five out of six ain't bad!
I was disappointed to see that Princess is still running its art auction sham. I say "sham" rather than "scam" because although they are not doing anything illegal, I believe many of the practices cross ethical boundaries. I attended all four auction and while somewhere around 20 pieces were sold to passengers, not one of them was actually auctioned. Instead, buyers simply paid the reserve price, which purports to represent a significant saving off what I feel is a somewhat inflated appraised value. What clients don't realize is that they are actually buying a very nice, and expensive, frame with a bit of art (usually a reproduction) thrown in as a bonus.
Normally, we don't take ship's tours which, if you read the back of your tour coupon, aren't really ship's tours because Princess is only acting as an agent for shore-based companies. However, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck...........
In this case, we did book two excursions: Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City, largely because these cities are 2-2.5 hrs by bus away from the dock site and you can't "...get there from here..." without booking a trip through the ship. Being to some extent forced into accepting this option, we felt that these excursions provided acceptable value for the cost---although not as much as the trip we arranged through Cruise Critic in Nha Trang. The main advantage (in addition to cost) of arranging your own excursions is that you don't have to cope with the chaos that results from 10 busloads of passengers descending on the same location simultaneously, particularly when that location is really not geared to handling more than perhaps 25 or 30 people at one time.
My wife tried to use the fitness centre but found it difficult first thing in the morning. Although the instructions say use of the exercise machines is limited to 30 minutes if other users are waiting, many users ignore this dictum and do so with impunity because there was no on-site supervision. She found it was easy to get a machine later in the day---but only if you are willing to give up something else in the programme.
The laundromats are a great idea and are in constant use. I suspect that the ship may make more money off these than it does from the specialty restaurants.
It would be really great if they could be converted to use your cruise card rather than having to feed them copious numbers of quarters.
The bottom line is that we had a great time both on-board and during the port
stops, felt that we got excellent value for the cost, and feel that Princess continues to offer great service and value (after all, we have stayed with them after trying their major competitors). Now, if they would just tweak those areas in which they are a bit weak......