We just returned yesterday from a 9-day cruise aboard the Caribbean Princess, sailing from Brooklyn NY to Grand Turk, San Juan, St. Thomas and Bermuda, with five sea days scattered through the itinerary. Our party consisted of my 78 yr-old mother, my 50 yr-old sister and her husband and six-year old daughter, my 47 yr-old sister, and me (51 yrs old). For comparison purposes, some or all of us have previously sailed on Royal Caribbean (Grandeur, Voyager, Monarch), Carnival (Destiny, Triumph, Pride, Legend), Celebrity (Zenith) and Cunard (QM2). With the exception of a significantly substandard debarkation procedure, discussed more fully below, we all agree that this was one of, if not the best cruise we have ever been on.
Princess Website: Before turning to the cruise itself, let me say a word about the "cruise personalizer" on the Princess website. We found it efficient, easy to use and very, very convenient. In addition to getting all the passport, contact and all those other informational items done online rather than by hand the night before sailing, I was able to book all of my spa appointments well in advance. The only improvement I would make to the system is with respect to bon voyage gifts. The way the website is set up, you have to print out a form and handwrite your selections and then fax it to Princess (or call them). You should be able to order them directly on line, the way you can with spa appointments and shore excursions.
Embarkation: We live in northern NJ, so one of the great attractions of this cruise was that it leaves from NY -- no pre-dawn flights, no lugging our carry ons through the airport, just a quick hour drive from home to the pier. We sailed from the new Brooklyn pier last year for our QM2 cruise, and think it is by far the best of the three NY/NJ embarkation ports (the West Side terminal is a nightmare of congestion; Bayonne avoids that, but you actually have to be bussed to the ship after going through the embarkation procedures; its a short hop, but you can wind up waiting for the busses at peak embarkation times). The parking at the Brooklyn terminal is a snap, with plenty of spaces for parking very close to the entrance. It cost us $175 for the 9 nights, which seems very reasonable, since it probably would have cost us that for cabs each way if we had decided not to drive ourselves.
Our boarding passes (printed out online from the website) said that embarkation would begin at 1 pm, but to arrive at 2 pm for faster service. Don't listen to that. As experienced cruisers, we know that early arrivals get through the process quicker. However, we got tied up with other things and didn't arrive at the pier in this case until 2:15. Far from being "faster" there was a mob at the unloading area. We sat in a long line of cars waiting to unload, and had some difficulty getting a porter. Also, by this time the security line went on forever. However, because we were booked in suites, we had priority check in after you went through the security screening (I did hear some suite and platinum elite passengers complaining about the lack of separate security lines for those entitled to priority check in, but personally, I like knowing that everyone goes through the same security clearance to get on board). The priority check in was an absolute breeze. While we didn't get through security until about 3 pm (45 minutes after arriving at the pier), after that we were on board by 3:15.
Cabins: We had three penthouse suites: R405, R408, and R417. I would have to say that they were by far the best suites we have had on any ship, including the Princess Grill suites on the QM2. They are extremely spacious and well laid out, with a curtain that can be pulled to close off the sitting from the sleeping area. The walk in closet was a bit smaller than on the QM2 (a difference you would expect between a ship that is designed for long-term or world cruises, and one that is not), but there was more than enough storage. The bathroom was to die for, with a separate tub and glass shower, marble tile, and all the right amenities. Although I had heard a lot of complaints on the Cruise Critic boards about the beds being uncomfortable, ours were extremely comfortable (I think I heard that the mattresses in the suites were recently upgraded, and that all of the remaining mattresses will be upgraded when the ship goes into dry dock at the end of the year). The suite balconies were very large, with enough room for two lounge chairs, and a table with two straight chairs. Having said that, however, the balconies on the other cabins seemed very small to me, with no lounge chairs and only room for a couple of upright chairs.
The only negative about the cabins is the noise -- not from the adjoining cabins, but from above. The Riviera deck is directly below Lido, and there is a constant stream of moving deck chairs and running (really, thunderous) footsteps from directly above you.
I know that some cruisers spend very little time in the cabins, but that's not us (which is one reason we have always opted for suites). We enjoy an afternoon vegging out in the cabins, watching a little TV, "gathering our strength" for the evening activities. Accordingly, we pay a little more attention than most to the offerings on the ship's TV, which on Caribbean Princess were excellent. Aside from CNN, Turner Classic Movies, ESPN and the usual ship channels (you know, the port talk, the "where are we now" channel, the "don't miss this great shore excursion" channel), Princess has what they call a "romance" movie channel that ran really great old movies (which I realize not only dates me, but is a matter of taste) from West Side Story to Breakfast at Tiffanys to the Bridges of Madison County. They also had a channel like a lot of lines do now that ran a loop of sitcoms and TV dramas like Everyone Loves Raymond and the Closer. Made those lazy afternoons a little more enjoyable.
Suite amenities: I don't usually go on about the "extras" available in suites, as I know the majority of cruisers don't care about them, but some of the Princess suite amenities to me seemed so unique that they are worth a separate mention of their. own. Of course, you have the what I consider "typical" upgrades -- afternoon canapes (though not as good as those on Celebrity, they were a nice addition to the afternoon), flowers, a dvd player in the room, with access to a reasonably-sized dvd library, and the ability to order from the full dining room menu during the hours the dining room was open. But my two favorite "extras" wound up saving me probably a couple of hundred dollars on the cruise -- free laundry and dry cleaning and free internet. IMHO, those are very valuable and very unusual upgrades.
Service: We have been on cruise lines that pride themselves on service but have never, ever been treated as well as we were on Princess. Of course, you kind of expect that your cabin steward will greet you if and when you see them in the hall, but here you couldn't pass any crew member without getting a warm smile, a hello and a question about how you were enjoying your cruise. The staff in the spa, the restaurants and everywhere on the ship went out of their way not only to cater to your every whim, but also to affirmatively ask you if you had any whims that needed catering to.
There were only two exceptions to this, one of them being the disembarkation which is discussed below. The other was a really dumb staffing error in the casino, that should be an easy fix. On the first sea day, the slots opened at 8 am, but the tables did not open until 10. My brother in law happened to hit a jackpot at 8:15 am, and had to wait several minutes for anyone to respond. Finally, someone came over to talk to him, then went back to the cage and came back holding up both hands, signaling "10". My brother in law said, "OK, so someone will be here in 10 minutes?" to which she responded "No, we can take care of it at 10 o'clock." They actually expected him to sit there for an hour and a half and wait to be paid out. Unacceptable -- when the casino is opened, it has to be staffed. (After he justifiably kicked up a polite fuss, they managed to find someone who could complete the payout).
Food and dining rooms: I admit it; I was against booking Anytime Dining, as I had visions of us waiting on line to get a table for six every night. But my sister insisted that we try it, and it was definitely the highlight of the cruise. We only had to wait once, and that one time they gave us a pager, we went to one of the lounges, ordered drinks and were summoned to our table before we could even finish them. And we absolutely loved the freedom it afforded us -- no ticking clock deciding when it was time to get dressed for dinner, no need to have a "relationship" with our waiter (I hope that doesn't sound horrible; I appreciate how hard the staff works and the service they provide, but I really just prefer the unobtrusive service of a waiter who is essentially a stranger every night), no hesitancy to skip dinner on the ground that we haven't told them not to expect us in advance, and no danger of being assigned to table mates with whom you are so incompatible that you begin to dread dinner by the end of the cruise (as happened to us on both the Triumph and the Voyager). If you opt for anytime dining, we recommend that you go to the Palm Dining room rather than the Coral; the Palm is aft and a little harder to get to (you know, go up to Deck 7, then aft, then down to Deck 6, because you can't get through on Deck 6 alone), so people seem to crowd around the Coral which is amidships. The Palm also has a roomier and quieter feel than the Coral.
The quality of the food was excellent, though the dining room menus tended to favor the "chi-chi" over more plain food. We also thought that both buffets -- the Cafe Caribe and Horizon Court -- were very, very good, but would recommend that they have more non-bar beverages available. The only free beverages offered in the buffets were water, iced tea and coffee. On other cruises they have also supplied lemonade and fruit punch. This isn't about the money -- its about not having to flag down a waiter, place an order and wait for them to return with it, in a dining venue that is supposed to be quick in and out.
Actually, our favorite food on the cruise wound up being room service. While, as noted above, suite passengers can order from the dining room menu, we found the sandwiches from the regular room service menu to be outstanding, and a midnight "croque monsieur," turkey sandwich or turkey club became our standard way to end the day.
The pizza and burger grills by the pool were also highlights -- at the risk of sounding repetitive in this review, the pizza was far and away the best we've ever had on a cruise. And while I had originally balked at the thought that a cruise ship would charge for any food, and thus didn't like the idea that "Scoops", the ice cream shop on the ship, charges a "nominal" fee, what they served was delicious and MORE than worth that fee.
Entertainment and Activities: We absolutely loved Movies Under The Stars. Aside from the brilliance of the concept -- sitting on a lounge chair, surrounded by the night sky, munching on a bag of popcorn with a blanket tucked around your legs -- we were surprised at the quality of the movies offered -- including recent Oscar nominees/winners like "Ratatouille," "No Country For Old Men," "Atonement," and great classics like "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and a late-night showing of "Rocky Horror Picture Show."
The casino was more than large enough (if a bit unkind to us during the cruise after that first day jackpot), with a terrific assortment of machines and plenty of table action.
We saw all three of the production shows: "Piano Man", "Do You Wanna Dance" (which premiered this week on the ship) and one whose name escapes me but which was a Latin and Caribbean themed show. We enjoyed them all very much (my mother and I especially liked "Do You Wanna Dance," while my sisters preferred "Piano Man"). In my review of the QM2 last year, I commented that we could tell that the performers were outstanding but that they had been placed in boring, poorly directed shows. Here, the opposite was true. The performers, while very good, did not stand out from other cruise shows we've seen, but the choreography, costumes and direction took them to another level. With the exception of the shows on Zenith, we would again put Princess at the top in this category among all the cruises we have taken.
It was also clear that there were a host of great performances that others raved about that we just did not get to. At night, between comics in the lounges, movies under the stars, the production shows, the dancing lounges, and other activities, you just could not cram everything in.
Oddly, the same was not true of the daytime activities, a flaw especially noticeable on sea days. All of the daytime activities seemed a bit staid -- ceramics classes, art auctions, computer classes, etc. There were not nearly enough more lively events that we see on sea days on other ships, like game shows. (That may account for the thorough report I can make of the TV available in the staterooms!).
The two main pools, the Calypso and Neptune pools amidships, were predictably jammed on sea days. However, the adult-only pools -- the Spa Pool and the Terrace Pool -- were much more sparsely attended, and as a result quieter and more relaxing. One special note about the Terrace Pool, which is at the aft of the ship between Decks 14 and 15 ; unlike every other shipboard pool I have ever been in, it actually has steps to enter and exit the pool -- not just ladders. As a significantly "plus-size" cruiser, that was an unexpected boon; I often have a very difficult time climbing the ladders to exit from a standard shipboard pool. And though my mother is not "plus size," at 78, she also appreciated being able to use the steps, rather than having to jump into and climb out of the pool.
My niece only attended the kid's program one day, since we all tend to prefer to spend most of our time together as a family when we cruise, but the one day she was there my sister reports that she liked the facilities and activities a lot.
Itinerary: When you cruise out of New York, you have to expect to have some shortened days in the Caribbean because of the extra travel, but we did think that the port itinerary could have been organized much, much better. After two sea days, we arrived at Grand Turk at 7 am, and had to be back on board at 1:30 to sail at 2. The next day we spent all day in San Juan, followed by a half day in St. Thomas, from 7 am to 3 pm, then another sea day followed by a stop in Bermuda from 9 am to 5 pm, then one more sea day and home. The two stops in Grand Turk and St. Thomas were much too short, and frankly, for my money San Juan is a waste of a day. I realize people could differ in their tastes, but really the itinerary should be adjusted so that either Grand Turk or (preferably) St. Thomas are a full day.
I won't bother spending too much time on reviewing St. Thomas, San Juan or Bermuda, since they are pretty standard cruise stops and there are lots of reviews of them on the boards. Suffice it to say that we shopped in St. Thomas (had we had a full day there, we would have made it a beach day, probably at Megan's Bay), took a cab to Horseshoe Bay beach in Bermuda (glorious, though still a bit chilly in late May), and never left the ship in San Juan.
Grand Turk is a relatively new cruise ship stop (at least as far as I know). My understanding is that the pier area was built in the last few years by Carnival, allowing the larger liners to make a stop there. We had originally intended to take a cab to Governors Beach, which we understand is a five-minute cab ride from the pier, but when we looked out of our cabins at the pierside beach, it looked very nice and uncrowded, so we opted to go there instead. It was a very good choice. you walk right off the ship, along the pier and through a small shopping area to the beach. There are plenty of beach chairs, and the water is really beautiful (the bottom is a bit rocky at first, but smoothes out after you're in to about your waist). There is also a huge pool area by a bar called "Margaritaville," and judging from the screams and cheers we heard coming from that area, there are plenty of poolside games and activities for those who want a livelier beach day.
Miscellaneous: Unfortunately, we had occasion twice on this cruise to take advantage of the medical facilities; fortunately, they were excellent both times. My mother spent a horrid first night in excruciating pain with what we thought must be a broken wrist, but which turned out after an xray to be a severe attack of gout (which she's never had before). Later in the cruise, I developed a respiratory infection requiring an antibiotic. On both visits, the staff was attentive, and the care excellent.
We had been told to expect that our shipmates would be older than what we were used to, particularly on Carnival, and that did seem to be the case; my sisters and I felt that we fell into the "younger" side of the median age as a whole. However, there were plenty of twenty- and thirty-somethings as well. Also, probably because school is not yet out, there was a definite lack of pre-teens and teens on the cruise, though I don't know whether that will continue to be true in June, July and August.
Disembarkation: OK, here is the only true negative of the review. Disembarkation was handled as badly as we have ever seen it handled on a ship (with the exception of one nightmare disembarkation from the Voyager). First of all, the information provided was sporadic at best, and in our case, just wrong. We were given orange luggage tags, which in the printed information circulated to all cabins meant that we were to gather at Club Fusion, aft. However, all three of our cabins also received letters the last night of the cruise saying that, as suite passengers, we should gather instead at the Explorers Club, where all suite and platinum elite passengers would wait. So that's where we went, and waited until another passenger informed us that the suite and platinum elite passengers were supposed to be at the Wheelhouse Bar, not the Explorers Club. How she knew that, I have no idea. There were no crew members stationed in the Explorers Club whom we could ask. When one finally did arrive, to call another color tag to leave the ship, we asked him where we were supposed to be and he said (while running by us) "Orange -- club fusion." However, after packing our carryons and starting to make our way to club fusion, we stopped at the Wheelhouse bar on the way, and were told that, yes, that was the waiting area for platinum and suite passengers. We showed the person there the letter that had told us to go to the Explorers club, to which she responded "I didn't write the letters." As we moved into the bar, another passenger complained that the lounge was far too small to accommodate everyone (and in fact, we wound up sitting on the floor among our bags), and was not appropriate for passengers entitled to "upgraded" status, only to be told by the same crew member "Lady, I just work here." I have never, ever heard any crew member on any cruise ship say such a thing. The chaos continued when that same person moved through the lounge calling for people with orange tags to disembark, and we moved into the hallway, where we stood, not moving, for thirteen full minutes, bags in hand, before finally being allowed to get off the ship.
None of this had to happen. For one thing, Princess has decided for some reason not to make general shipwide announcements during disembarkation; rather, a crew member goes to the lounge where a certain color is supposed to have gathered and makes an announcement in that lounge, that the "red" or "green" tags may now disembark. Accordingly, you have to be in the right lounge or you will never receive word to disembark -- thus our panic to figure out where we should be. On other cruise lines we have sailed, you could essentially wait anywhere in the public areas, and would then debark whenever the announcement was made over the general shipwide intercom that it was time for your color tag to debark. Even if Princess doesn't want to make that simple adjustment to their procedures, there is no excuse for calling a particular color to disembark, and then having them simply stand in line for ten minutes or more until you begin to let them off -- if you're not ready to let us off, then don't call the color.
Summary: The chaos at the end notwithstanding, this was a fabulous cruise. We are already planning our next one with Princess, and hope that it will be the first of many. Read Less