The schedule: Fly to San Juan, cruise to St. Maarten, St. Lucia, Grenada, Bonaire and Aruba. Then one sea day while we would sail back to San Juan. The reality: lots of San Juan with more of St. Maarten than expected.
We are regular cruisers, primarily with Princess and Celebrity. We had sailed the Caribbean Princess out of San Juan last year and enjoyed the more southern itinerary. We wanted to do it again and since 2012 is the last year Princess is sailing from San Juan, we chose to sail her this year.
Our pre-cruise hotel was the Airport Best Western which was perfect for that purpose. We were arriving after midnight and planned to head to the ship as early as possible so our planned stay would only be about 10 hours. The rooms are tiny and the breakfast is crowded but it's clean and extremely convenient for our specific need. For a longer stay in San Juan, there are much better choices.
We got to Pan American Pier about 30 minutes early but since we're Captain's Circle Platinum we were able to wait in the Priority Boarding Line and boarded shortly after noon. After lunch and exploring, our bags had arrived, giving us time to unpack before visiting the Platinum Lounge for pre-dinner drinks and appetizers. The Caribbean Princess sails at 11:00 p.m. out of San Juan so the muster drill is 8:00. At 7:30, we were sitting at dinner in the dining room and realized that the muster drill would begin in 30 minutes. The wait staff told us not to worry; we'd have another chance so we pushed thoughts of the Costa Concordia out of our heads and finished dinner. That night Movies Under the Stars was showing "Midnight in Paris" and while we relaxing in lounge chairs enjoying Owen Wilson's Parisian adventures, it was announced that everyone who had missed the earlier drill needed to proceed to Club Fusion. Being good little cruisers we did as we were told and got the refresher course on what to do in case of an emergency.
During breakfast Monday morning the captain announced that we were having problems with the motor for one of the propulsion engines and would arrive in St. Maarten later than planned. Some engineers from Princess were flying in to meet us and they'd keep us posted. Okay, cue the rumor mill! Everyone had heard something from someone on good authority and their information was the most up to date, etc., etc., etc. The fact was that no one knew what was going on, probably even the captain. I suspect they'd worked out several scenarios to be implemented once the repair was complete, whenever that was. We decided that we'd just wait to hear what the captain had to say next. And the news from the captain was that they were still working and that we'd spend the night in St. Maarten. We were also advised that we'd have complimentary passes for the water taxis that sail from the dock to town so we looked forward to an easy way to get to the beach.
On Tuesday, we took advantage of the free ride to the downtown beach. Since we didn't plan to stay long we passed on the offer of two beach chairs, an umbrella and five beers for $25. We dropped our stuff, jumped in the water, spent about an hour there, got out, dried off and headed back to the ship. It may not sound like much but it was just what we wanted. That night, about 8:00 p.m., the captain announced that the ship needed to return to San Juan. We would all receive a full refund of our cruise fare as well as a credit towards a future Princess cruise. We were welcome to remain on board until our scheduled disembarkation on Sunday but could certainly leave if we wished. Since we hadn't planned to spend much time in any of the ports, we felt we were getting a great deal. While we stayed on the ship, all of our food and entertainment were free. We had a pre-paid reservation at a resort west of San Juan starting Sunday so we just continued our vacation as planned.
Obviously, we were not among the disgruntled passengers who left the ship early. Some had chosen the itinerary because of the great scuba and snorkeling options in the remaining ports so I understand their disappointment. For those of us who remained, there were a few issues. Because immigration does not usually work the Pan American Pier on the days were docked there, agents had to be arranged to clear the disembarking passengers. Those leaving permanently were allowed to go first; once they were cleared, the rest of us could leave for the day -- that was at about 10:30 a.m. each day. We chose to visit Old San Juan on Thursday. To leave the ship, we just showed our driver's license to immigration and were cleared to leave. Then there was a madhouse of people trying to hail cabs outside. We got lucky and joined some others and the cab just happened to drop us right next to where we wanted to be. Once we finished our wanderings, it was much easier (and cheaper) to get a ride back to the ship. Naturally, on Friday they announced a free shuttle into Old San Juan. To add insult to injury, Friday afternoon we moved to the dock in Old San Juan so we only had to walk a few steps to see everything. We stayed there until the early hours of Sunday morning. I grumbled about it but I think they were making arrangements as fast as they could.
As to other aspects of the cruise, our cabin was fine; we love the closet space on this class of ship although it does make the cabin a bit smaller. Our cabin steward, Lino, was very competent and took care of our needs immediately. This was our first venture into Anytime Dining and we really enjoyed it. I wanted to make a standing reservation for 7:00 p.m. but I was told that they would not take them for that time. However, whenever we arrived at the dining room and said we were willing to share a table, we were seated within minutes. We didn't have the chance to establish the relationships we often have with traditional dining tablemates but we loved the flexibility. Overall the food was good and Princess always excels with their desserts. We did not spend much time in the buffets since we've found we enjoy the dining room more.
We enjoyed the chance to experience Chef's Table a second time, the first being a year ago on the Caribbean Princess. I called to request it as soon as we boarded and we got the notice to meet with the Maitre D' on Monday evening to prep us for dinner the following evening. Two things were different about this Chef's Table from last year's. By Tuesday they knew that possible problems were in the works so rather than schedule two Chef's Tables for the cruise, they put us all together for one -- that meant 22 people rather than 10 or 12. I preferred the more intimate atmosphere last year but I certainly didn't get any less food or wine this time. The other different aspect was that Chef Alfredo Marzi, the Master Chef of Princess Cruise Lines was on board so he was our host. It was made quite clear to us that we were in the company of a celebrity and I was entertained by watching the head chef of the Caribbean Princess defer to the big guy. Everything else was pretty much the same: a tour of the galley that included appetizers and champagne followed by a multi-course dinner in the dining room. Most of it was prepared (or at least finished) tableside and appropriate wines were matched to each course. If you enjoy fabulous food in the company of other people who feel the same way about it, Chef's Table is a great option.
As to the entertainment, the shows were a repeat from last year but I think they've made some progress in modulating the mics in the theatres -- I actually understood what some people were singing. Our favorite music venue is Crooners. Chris Turner at the piano plays a wide range of music and the bartenders are exceptional.
There was one last issue -- disembarkation on Sunday was very slow; we left the ship about noon rather than the scheduled 9:45 a.m. We were told it was an issue with immigration being short-staffed so I think Princess was simply trying to help by holding us in a comfortable place rather than having us line up in the terminal.