WHO WE ARE
We are Charles and Judy from Colorado Springs. Flew in two days early because I could not stand one more day staring at a pile, and I mean a big pile, of suitcases. We stayed at the Doubletree in San Pedro. I am a HHonors members and try to stay at Hiltons because I use points. The last time we stayed here I was disappointed. Not this time. The remodel is over with and its very nice. Not to mention the chef is pretty good and the food is tasty. A room upgrade to a suite didn’t hurt either. We had plenty of room to lay everything out as we re-packed for boarding.
Ketchikan, Juneau, Icy Strait Point, Kodiak – 2 ports in Alaska we’ve never been to. Across the Northern Pacific, avoiding the typhoons. Down to Yokohama (twice) and Hiroshima Japan as Kushiro was cancelled because of the delay across the Northern Pacific and Osaka because of the failure of the re-fueling barge to show up to refuel us on the first time into Yokohama.
Then Beijing, Incheon, Shanghai, Okinawa, Taiwan and Hong Kong. On to Vietnam and two new ports, Ha Long bay and Hue, then Phu My. Over to Manila, Guam, Honolulu, Kauai and back to LA.
Most ports had nice long port times. As in docking by early morning and leaving at night. We had a mix of private excursions and DIY planned. One of our fellow organizers on this cruise (Pam of pamandcookie) organized a whole bunch of excursions. I took the easy way out and found a vendor in Vietnam to take care of everyone at all the ports. Then several other people jumped in with other private excursions as well. Princess made a big mistake by pre-charging for excursions. That removed the final incentive, for me and others as well, to book with Princess.
WHAT WAS MEMORABLE?
FELLOW CRUISE CRITIC PEOPLE
They made the cruise. And there are too many to name them all (over 300 on the roll call), although those we spent lots of time excursioning with (Pam, Ralph, Marty, Sue, CL and Meei, Ken and Susie), dancing with (Jadine and Sean, Suzanne and Jim) and people watching with (Jane and Bill) will be very hard to forget! And we can’t forget John and Cheryl (TheRabbit) as he became a milepost in the crowd – literally! It was so great being able to walk down the hallway and actually recognize people and talk to them. It was like one big neighborhood.
Pam (Pamandcookie), especially, gets major kudos and thanks for all the excursions she put together. All of her excursions were better, longer and far cheaper than the corresponding Princess ship excursions. I don’t think I could have survived putting all of those together.
Jane has to get major props for the on-board activities she handled. The slot pulls, the luncheons, the farewell dinner and the IPAD classes.
Other people stepped up and handled Mah Jong and bridge as well, which were well attended in the Bayou Café and the card room. They made the sea days a bit more bearable for a lot of people.
I got to meet so many people from the roll call that my brain is on person name/face overload! You know how you always joke that when giving gifts, give the gift of CASH. Well Jadine (JAcruise200) gave us a little bag with a card and gifts and OMG it was CASH! But oh so delicately folded dollar bills into the shape of a deer - complete with antlers - and a catfish – complete with whiskers and eyes from the dollar bill motifs. So intricate and beautiful! They are gorgeous and must have taken hours to fold. Can’t thank her enough. They are incredible and Judy wants to learn how to do it! (Good, cause anything I folded always ends up looking like my handkerchief in my back pocket.)
But a special thank you is due to Jadine and her fantastic origami. These pieces are now proudly displayed in Judy’s unicorn cabinet and they are gorgeous.
We spent many hours in the 5-7PM timeframe dancing with Sean and Jadine in Explorer’s. It was one of must do’s every sea day that we could.
SERVICE ON THE SHIP
We have actually sailed with several members of the crew before – Yeru from Peru, Miranda, Frankie and his wife, Jean-Paul. Despite corporate cutbacks, the crew on the Coral was second to none. The service provided was excellent – especially the bar service in all areas of the ship.
This itinerary, despite the weather issues and the immigration issues, offered a once in a lifetime overview of Asia with a round trip to LA.
Missing Kushiro and Osaka was disappointing, especially Osaka and access to Kyoto. But overall, with the early arrivals and late departures in most stops, the ports made this trip worthwhile.
THE PORTS - PRIVATE EXCURSIONS
Four ports stand out as the most memorable excursions of all times. Incheon – DMZ, Ha Long Bay – the Junk Cruise, the Keelung Night Market with CL and his college buddies and the Korean BBQ dinner in Seoul.
In Incheon on one of Pam’s tours, we ended up getting adopted by a Korean Village and their Party Bus and treated as honored guests. It was a very memorable experience.
The junk cruise in Ha Long bay was incredible. Everything was nearly perfect. The weather was perfect, the sights fantastic, the food great, the entire day was everything you wanted in a foreign port.
CL and his two college buddies gave us one heck of a foodie tour of the Keelung night market in Taiwan. The food was definitely local and authentic, but it was CL and his buddies – their taking care of us, guiding us, getting us lost and found, picking out the right food stand – that made the trip so memorable.
The Korean BBQ dinner in Seoul during the Incheon port call, something else Pam set up, was fantastic. All of us had a great time eating, drinking and cooking in the middle of Seoul. The food was great, the company and comradery even better.
THE PORTS – DIY
Hong Kong, Hiroshima/Miajima and Kodiak. These three ports were the most memorable from a DIY point of view. (Any of the other Alaskan ports, Okinawa, Guam and HI ports are all good DIY ports.
At Hong Kong I did the Ngong Ping cable car to the Big Buddha via the subway system. (Judy had her cruise cold and stayed on the ship.) Complex and scary to plan, but oh so easy to execute. And breathtaking views from the cable car and the mountain top alongside the Buddha.
In Hiroshima, we went to Miajima first via the tram and ferry, tried all types of oysters, and then went to Peace Park. Again, scary to plan, but very easy to execute.
In Kodiak, as in Icy Strait, we rented a car and caravanned with 3 other cars looking for bear. And found them, both live and tracks. While the rainy weather could have been better, the picnic on the shore of the bay, the mother and her two cubs, the black sand beach, the sign warning fisherman that bears were stealing their catch – all were an experience we will never forget.
MOST MEMORABLE MOMENTS
Whenever cruisers come together, they swap stories of memorable moments. Things and events that happen during a cruise that we will talk about for years. Here are some of the most memorable moments of our 60 day cruise:
OFF THE SHIP -
Dolores taking a picture of Flat Stanley and Flat Stephanie next to a steaming pile of bear scat in the middle of the road at Icy Strait – and I didn’t get a picture of her taking a picture!
The Japanese school kids at Peace Park practicing their English on us, by asking questions – sort of taking a survey.
CL translating the Kanji script at the Forbidden Palace revealing that the word “Deportment” carved into the gate should have said “Department”.
The applause I got from the South Koreans when getting back on the ‘party’ bus after going down into the DMZ tunnel and coming back out literally soaked in sweat.
The sheer beauty and solemnity of the Punchbowl cemetery.
CL and his two college buddies, standing in the middle of flow of people, all three pointing in a different direction as they argue over which way to go next in the Keelung night market.
Pulling up and seeing a bear across the little creek, everyone getting out of the cars so quietly as to not disturb the bear, about 100 yards away, and then Harvey accidently hitting the panic button on his keyfob setting off the horn, lights, etc. during the driving around Icy Strait. (The bear took one look at all of us and went back to eating…stupid tourists!)
The creepy sound 100’s of feeding koi make when boiling up around fish food being dropped in the water at the “extreme” fish feeding event outside Manila.
People in several different languages cheering on the little turtles as they tried to get a piece of bread tossed on the water before the koi in Sankien gardens.
Stopping in the middle of a busy Beijing freeway during rush hour to drop off the tour guide on the dashed white line between lanes.
Negotiating with the lady in the Shanghai market.
The cyclo ride in Vietnam and WE ARE ALL GOING TO DIE!
ON THE SHIP –
The curious case of the morning orange juice – and the trials and tribulations of Marty. Morning breakfast was always a fun and ‘noisy’ affair. But Marty (BIGKAHUNA) always ordered a ‘large’ OJ. What he got was indicative of how the morning would go. Early in the cruise he would get the one glass. Sometimes 2. One time it was FIVE. And then once it was 3, but only, according to the waiter, 2 on the table at a time. It became an unwritten test and morning starter to our day.
Marty’s last dinner of doughnuts, frosted flakes and vanilla ice cream – with a few carrots, celery and asparagus for healthy eating – all delivered by a parade of fellow cruise critics.
Dancing at night with Sean and Jadine (JACruise200) in Explorers.
On the balcony overlooking Hong Kong harbor, at night, with the lights all aglow, with my love.
Our farewell get together with Pam and Ralph(Pamandcookie), Dennis and Barb(gus617), at Ken and Susie’s(SandKinWA) place during sailaway in Nawilliwilli.
Our verbal communications used during tours to communicate with the back ranks – WALKING, STEP (Step Ralph, step!), RAMP, STAIRS!
Emptying the atrium into the gangway line one morning by loudly announcing WALKING to our group as we trooped off the ship…and then being followed by almost everyone in the atrium…
THE NOT SO MEMORABLE PARTS OF THE CRUISE
I’m going to be a bit critical of Princess in this part. I’ve been positive so far, because, after all, this cruise was for the itinerary. But on the other hand, we’ve had a lot of sea days. And the 15 sea days from Manila to LA, with only 3 port days, were as much a part of the cruise, and cost the same amount, as a port day.
We’ve only sailed Princess, so I’m not going to say Carnival does this, or Regent does that, or Holland America did this, that or the other. I can only compare experiences on past Princess cruises, and we’ve done two major ones in just the past year (Panama Canal – 34 days – Island – October 2017; Australia to Japan – 42 days – Diamond – April 2018), so we have some pretty specific recent experiences to compare to.
The crossing from Alaska to Japan was fraught with the outer bands of a typhoon tossed ocean. Judy spent a lot of time horizontal in the bed. Likewise the crossing from Guam to Hawaii, most of the 7 days, were not the roughest, but enough to keep us from dancing most of the time.
It has made me rethink our cruising plans in the future after the upcoming world cruise. After the March and April cruises on the Diamond that required long flight times to Sydney and back from Narita, I believe we prefer those long flights to sea days that could be wracked with bad weather – especially on a ship with just so-so entertainment like the Coral had.
Princess can’t control the weather, but they can control the itinerary scheduling, and scheduling this cruise during typhoon season may not have been the best idea. I understand that they wanted to get Alaska in the mix, but they might want to consider an April – May version of this in the opposite direction, hitting Alaska in May. But I doubt they will ever do this particular itinerary again.
Missing Kushiro was weather related. Missing the refueling in Yokohama, and thus missing Osaka plus the wasted day in Tokyo Bay at anchor was entirely on Princess – regardless of any issues with the fuel vendor or the Tokyo Bay regulations on bunkering while at anchor. Princess did compensate us $150 each for this episode, so they consider the matter closed.
Hopefully they have learned that a good backup plan for these once off cruises would be a good idea. Likewise the long immigration lines at a variety of ports was not Princess’ fault. The changing processes and procedures as to getting off the ship, the line/sequence, the meeting locations for getting a number, the crossover crowding between getting a number and a gangway – those were entirely on the ship and I have detailed them elsewhere. In fact, we the passengers started organizing the pre-line lines, just to avoid the chaos. It should never be the passenger’s responsibility to do the ship’s job for them.
This is where the majority of the issues reside. We got bored. A lot of us got bored. Boredom on a cruise ship, for us, is rare, but getting more common in the past couple of years. Shipboard entertainment simply did not meet expectations. Yes, corporate cutbacks are noticeable in the quantity and quality of the on-board entertainment. Especially in the 15 sea days from Manila to LA. Without Elua on board, there would have been almost no activities beyond trivia during the day, and the night time entertainment left much to be desired – as in the T-Rex chasing the weenie around the theater and headlining the Crooner’s piano player (Daniel) into the theater and calling it a show.
Daniel actually forecast it best in the show between Kodiak and Japan where he and Miranda, the CD, did a show in the theater and he said – ‘we’ve run out of entertainment’! Déjà vu!
The daily sea day activities were really lacking from Manila to LA. A lot of the activities on the patter were sales related events. Art related, Spa related, Casino related or Effy related. A lot were unhosted and several were hosted by Cruise Critic people – Mah Jong, Bridge, Knitters and Knatters, pickleball, etc. Where was Giant Jenga, ring toss, scavenger hunts, the Quest, paper airplanes, fruit carving, bar wars on those 15 long sea days from Manila to LA? There is no rule that says you can only do one on a 60 day cruise! People on a 60 day cruise with so many sea days are desperate for something interesting to do besides trivia. Digital photography classes? Computer classes? Future Cruise presentations? A lot was missing from a normal sea-day schedule.
Basically it appeared as though the ED was just going through the motions of making sure everything typically done on a 7 day cruise is done at once in the cruise – a checklist if you will.
A T-Rex Chasing a Weenie Around the Theater Got a Standing Ovation? (And I didn’t get a picture!) What’s Next – Gong Show Winners?
There were a few bright spots in the entertainment. Josh Young, a singer from Broadway, was fantastic, Levenstein, a comedian, was pretty good, but the guy who brought the house down was Kieran Powell, a ventriloquist who put together a show, with audience participation, that was memorable. And every one of his shows would prove different because of the different audience members he would pick. The ‘Dating Game’ segment was LOLUYPO funny. He even got a standing ovation from the theater, which is rare for a ventriloquist act. The Hula show in Honolulu was also, as usual, outstanding.
The entertainment staff was also very accommodating to our Cruise Critic group. We came on the cruise with a plan and Cruise Critic coordinators for Mah Jong, cards and pickleball. Corporate and the staff brought additional Mah Jong sets to the ship.
After the cruise started, Kieran (ACD) edited the playlist for ballroom dancing down to a good subset of dance tunes for a 1700 to 1900 dance session in Explorer’s. Mike Witte (the ED to Hong Kong) added in an extra hour starting at 1600 at our request for people having dinner at 1700. The 1700 to 1900 dance session was deleted after Manila by the new ED, but reinstated at several of our requests. After all, nothing was happening in Explorer’s anyway – what’s the issue?
Mike also stopped by on several occasions to chat about schedules and activities – and get feedback from the Cruise Critic group. He took our feedback seriously and implemented a lot of the suggestions from the group. I even got a few phone calls from him – after all I did volunteer to help coordinate Cruise Critic events. After Mike left in Hong Kong, nothing. We rarely saw the new ED and never chatted beyond saying hello in the hallway – and even then left feeling like we were bothering him. Any messages to him had to be relayed through the CD or ACD’s and in writing.
We had plenty of dancing and the Sound was a great band to dance to. We went to the wheelhouse a couple of times to listen to the Blue Jade Quartet, but the floor was packed with ‘professional’ dancers. But one of the best and biggest dance floors on the ship, the Universe, was not used for dancing. In the HI to LA segment, Elua did Hawaiian music dance segments in the Wheelhouse. The floor and the venue was super packed. Why not move them to the Universe? Especially in the Guam to HI segment. Could have put them in Explorer’s instead of another music trivia game. Once again, ELUA in wheelhouse – check. Sound in Explorer’s – check. Other segments in Wheelhouse filled – check.
The production shows were just ok. Nothing that wowed me or Judy. The last production show, What the World Needs Now, was an extra show thrown into the 60 day cruise and it was literally phoned into the ship from the looks of it. A lot of vocals, some semi-choreographed walking, hand movements and sitting by the dance troupe, the show band doing the music and some color graphic icons thrown up on the big LCD screen just in case you didn’t know what was going on in the show itself.
One of my biggest issues with the production shows in the theater was the sound. Where we sat, the microphones were simply not balanced between the singers and the band and the backing tracks. One of the male lead vocalist’s microphone (Kwame’s), since he has such a soft voice, needed to be boosted, but it wasn’t and the band music blew him out, as it did, but not so much, to one of the female leads. BTW, sound balancing in the theater was an ongoing problem depending on where you sat, between the band sound and the vocalist. Not sure if it was an equipment problem or what. Even Josh Young had a few issues with balance.
During the days from Japan to Manila, sea day entertainment was not a big issue for us as we had lots of resting up and prepping for the next port to keep us busy. (The sea days from Kodiak to Yokohama were pretty rough and with Judy stuck in bed, it really didn’t matter.) The 7 sea days from Guam to HI were bereft of entertainment at night for the most part, and then suddenly, major shows and activities (a production show and a comedian) are all scheduled on one night! The Universe Lounge was greatly underutilized and when it was used for rebroadcasting the show in the Theater, the sound and video was very poor quality. Nightly movies would have been a much better option – especially with frequent rain storms interrupting MUTS.
The 5 sea days from HI to LA had a pretty full nightly entertainment schedule, which was good, but that still did not make up for the 7 days from Guam to HI, or the 3 days from Manila to Guam. Some of the scheduling did not even make sense. For example, we had the Love Boat Disco Deck Party, one of our favorite activities, on the night of Nawilliwilli, rather than the following night after a day at sea. Most of us had just spent two long port days in a row, in hot weather, walking our rear ends off, and now disco dancing is scheduled after that?
That’s just not doable. Country Western night was also on a busy port night. I do not remember a 50’s/60’s night, or a disco night, or any of the other major party nights. Once again, checklist item or trying to schedule to maximize passenger participation?
One of my pet peeves was the scheduling a production show 3 times in one night. On prior ships I have seen additional shows scheduled on consecutive nights in order to accommodate everyone and give the dancers a bit of a break. Again, with 10 at sea nights from Manila to Honolulu to fill, you’d think the ED would want to stretch things out rather than bunch them up in one night, while leaving other nights empty.
And where is the rule that you can only have one Liar’s Club, or one Marriage Match Game per segment or cruise? What’s wrong with multiples? Too much work? Nightly variations on trivia were more the norm at night, and after 30+ days on a ship, some trivia players were taking it way too seriously. Which is why we avoid trivia.
Future Cruise presentations for Princess cruises were lacking as well. Only a few presentations, 2-3, were given during the entire cruise! I specifically invited the Future Cruise Consultant to give a World Cruise presentation. He did not show up. We could have had several presentations covering all of the 2019 and 2020 destinations, but did not. Too bad. A great marketing opportunity lost and at least something to do for some of us.
Likewise, the photography department left a lot of time on the table to enhance their sales, and provide at least some daily entertainment. Rentals of GoPro’s were offered at $30 per day – a ridiculous amount BTW – but where was the class explaining the use of the GoPro? Or highlighting the cameras on sale? Or the binoculars? You’d think in 15 days at sea you could have at least 2 or 3 photo classes? Again, a missed opportunity to improve sales and provide a little more meat for the customers.
The enrichment lecturers, quite frankly, left a lot to be desired as well. Some attempted to actually talk about subjects that I happen to know a lot about, and they got it cringingly wrong. Some tried to give the impression that they knew a lot about the supersecret black defense world, but anyone who has actual knowledge of how the CIA or NSA operates is completely forbidden to talk about it EVER – even from “open” sources.
One series of lectures on cyber crime was completely devoid of anything practical on what or how to prevent or detect it – and that’s what I wanted to know. The lecturer just tried to impress everyone by throwing in random acronyms or IT jargon and history to impress, not to inform.
There was only one lecturer (Chris Impey) that discussed physics (from particles to astro-physics) that I enjoyed. His lectures were good, although his briefing format (video + audio clips in Powerpoint) had content and playability issues that sort of ruined the flow of his actual presentation.
Likewise, destination lectures pre-HI were ok. Not the best, not the worst. But Dave’s (Elua) lectures on HI were really, really good, but there were only two of them. He covered the important points – access, transportation, brief history, money, food, local customs, must see’s, must do’s. He did not shill for the Shore Excursions desk. Heck even a couple of shore excursion presentations would have been a welcome addition to the schedule.
No computer classes? Jane held a few small IPAD classes within our Cruise Critic group that were greatly appreciated and she volunteered to do ones for the whole ship, but was never taken up on her offer by the staff or the IT guy. And it wasn’t like space was an issue on the ship. Explorers had empty time, as did the Universe, as did Hearts and Mind and Wheelhouse. When we were only Island last October, the lack of the Universe was noticeable in Mike and Callie’s scheduling – packing Explorer’s, the Wheelhouse and MUTS with stuff. This time, as I’ve stated before, the Universe was underutilized.
This was very disappointing compared to prior cruises. So much could have been done - but wasn’t.
CRUISING NOTES OF INTEREST
Jean-Paul and the dining room crew, along with the line cooks, set up a special surprise for everyone in the dining room. They cancelled the dining room breakfast and scheduled a “Brunch” for 1000 on deck 5. I was busy room servicing for Judy when I got a call from Sue telling me I had to come down and see this. Unfortunately, I had to decline, but got a report from Pam later that it was absolutely phenomenal.
They had rearranged the entire dining room to incorporate an elegant Sunday style Brunch buffet with all kinds of breakfast and lunch foods served by the cook and chefs behind the scenes in the galley. According to Pam it was a spectacular display of flowers, ice carvings, elegantly prepared, and tasty, food. They couldn’t say enough good things about it. Sorry I missed it. So if you see breakfast cancelled and Brunch at 1000, do not hesitate, run, don’t walk to get in early and take your camera to photograph the tables and food.
On the day after Kauai, Jean-Paul, with his wait staff, and the Chef and his kitchen staff, put on another brunch in the main dining room and this one I did not miss! Magnificent presentation and food. Best food on the cruise since the Chef’s table oh so many weeks ago. It was WOW, WOW food of all types. Hot dishes to order on a set menu, with two pasta stations, cold salads, baked goods (with a garlic olive oil bread that was incredibly delicious), meats and cheeses, a chocolate fountain with fresh cut and skewered fruits, fresh fruits of all types, all presented in stunning displays. A visual and tasty treat! Very enjoyable.
We did ‘cash’ in our photo package voucher – for $349 pre-cruise – a good bargain. Every photo that has one of us in it is included and the JPEG file is included as well. We definitely got our money’s worth out of this package with over a hundred photos.
Received 24 of 36 bottles our water order on the first sea day. We got the last 12 bottles just before Vietnam. Compared to the costs on-board and the hassle of bringing water back to the ship, this was a bargain as well.
I really hated to post this on the first sea day, but we found something that could really affect people’s health on the ships. We bring our own shampoo and conditioner for long cruises since Princess started using the bottles in the shower instead of the packaged Lotus Spa stuff. Usually our steward gives us new or empty/cleaned spare bottles and swaps them out for us. This time we had to dump the old stuff out and clean the bottles, but what we found in and around the bottles was GROSS.
Behind the bottles on the chrome attachment plate was black moldy goopee gross stuff. We used a healthy dose of Lysol spray and Clorox wipes to clean it up.
Even worse though was that the black moldy goopee stuff was in the shampoo/conditioner and the body gel bottle as well. Especially on the cap threads. (Judy had to clean the pump head threads with Q-tips.) After rinsing for several minutes in hot water, we got it all cleaned out, black stuff everywhere.
I’m not sure if it was bacteria, fungus or just some kind of chemical reaction between the soaps and the containers. I don’t want to know. I wanted it gone.
The reason the stuff is there is pretty clear – these particular areas just don’t get cleaned very often – they probably don’t think it’s important. But anyone that might be sensitive to mold or fungus might have a reaction to the stuff when the shower is running and dispersing some of this in the air.
So pull the caps and look at the threads in bright light and look behind the bottles with a flashlight and see what you see.
THE CORAL CLASS
Being on the Island last October, and now the un-modified Coral, reminds me of how much I enjoy this class of ship and when she is sold in 2027 to make room for the new build Royal-Regal-Sky-Ocean-Alexandrite Princess, she will be sorely missed as the last of her kind. For those not familiar with the Coral, she was built in France and has been referred to as an ‘Explorer Class’ or ‘Sun II’ class. She’s actually an intermediate design between the Sun class (Sea, Sun) and the Grand Class (Grand, Star, Golden) with Explorer’s, a two story Universe Lounge, a large wheelhouse and a lot of balcony cabins.
The Island and the Coral have the infamous bumpout balconies that requires a detailed website and photos to determine if your balcony is covered, uncovered or partially covered. But the main difference is the uncrowded nature of the ship. With both Decks 6 and 7 being entertainment and venue decks, the crowds are split a bit. The elevators are fast, the promenade deck wide and all the way around.
The Island was butchered, in anticipation of the 100kT limit for Venice, in the last dry dock with the Universe being removed and the lower level turned into the Gym and a whole host of cabins added to the aft end of the ship where observation decks existed. (Very wide and deep observation decks perfect for the Panama Canal and Glacier viewing that are only on the Coral.)
Now, on the Island, only the forward decks and the aft Emerald deck, a lot smaller, still exist. The additional cabins apparently have a lot of vibration issues and, quite frankly, make the back end of an otherwise elegant design look like the back end of an 18 wheeler rather than a cruise ship.
The really good news is that they cancelled a similar refit to the Coral. Don’t know why, but at least we get to enjoy her on a 60 day odyssey in her almost ‘original’ intended design. The public spaces are remarkably uncrowded compared to a Grand or especially a Super-Grand.
THE ELITE LOUNGE
The Elite lounge was open from 1615 to 1815 in the Universe. Lots of elites on this cruise (900+ on the first leg, 1000+ on the second), so the lower level was pretty packed during prime time and the food line was long. They have pared the ‘special’ drink list ($6.50 each) down to 6 or 8 from the original dozen. Only two that I care for – the Mexican Mule (tequila instead of vodka) and the Port Lemonade (Citron Vodka, port wine and sprite). But they do not have the martini glasses or small water glasses with veggies. You can use tongs and get a variety of veggies from serving bowels including bell peppers, asparagus, carrots, celery, cucumber, tomato and a few others I don’t recall. Great selection even during the great veggie shortage between Guam and Honolulu.
Chef’s table was fantastic. New dishes, a really, really good chef, and excellent service. The Ahi tuna appetizer, instead of the crab ceviche, was different. The stars were the pumpkin risotto and the mango-orange sorbet with the Grey Goose vodka. Jean-Paul really came through for the Cruise Critic people as the first 10 signups were at the first Chef’s table, and they held it to 10 rather than the typical 12 they would run through.
CRUISE CRITIC FUNCTIONS
As I said previously, the roll call had been active since May 2017. Various members organized many private tours in almost all the ports. Those private tours filled almost immediately, but some of the vendors expanded the tours with additional busses. (In Ha Long Bay, our private tour person organized 10 junk boats of around 16 people each.) One important lesson learned is to keep track of the roll call if you want private tours and to sign up a soon as possible. Several people have missed out on these private tours and had to do Princess tours.
Activities are important to organize. We had several volunteer coordinators or various activities on this cruise. From games to slot pulls to luncheons to dinners to M&Gs we put together a list and had people sign up so that we could provide Princess with a count. Providing them with a count gives them an important heads up.
Early coordination with the corporate meet and greet person paid off. I contacted Princess in July and let her know of all the activities we had planned and requested she contact the ship to let them know we were coming – and to take that early vacation before we arrived! I then had the individual volunteer coordinators contact her for their needs. For example, corporate sent new Mah Jong sets to the ship because of the interest. Mike, the ED, was able to set up a World Cruise get together, RV get together and the luncheons, the farewell dinner and Chef’s table was well organized by Jean-Paul.
FOOD AFTER MIDNIGHT
There is no ‘new’ food available from about 0000 to 0400 – unless the IC has ‘leftovers’ from dinner. If not, they don’t have any food. There is no food at all in the Patisserie/Atrium bar. The IC starts placing continental breakfast food items at 0400 and are all pastries. The egg mcmuffin sandwich is nowhere to be found except in the HC on certain days. The pastries include glazed doughnuts (they go fast), cake doughnuts, and various sweet breads like raison, carrot, walnut, and a couple of types of muffins like bran, maple, banana and/or walnut. Around 1100 the IC switches to soup, (one), 3 or 4 cold salads and 4-5 sandwiches that can be pressed by the panini press if desired, along with a few desserts. These choices remain the same all through the night till around 0400 in the morning or until they are all gone.
Brewed coffee is available in the IC 24/7, in the Patisserie when open, and takes one punch of the old cards or is included with the new E-café-Card. Specialty teas are only available in the IC. Specialty coffees are available in the IC, the Patisserie and on Deck 14 in the Horizon Court dessert bar area. The specialty restaurants and the dining rooms also have access to coffee machines, but not brewed coffee. Typical bagged tea and syrup coffee/hot water is available 24/7 in the Horizon Court beverage bar.
IMMIGRATION IN ASIAN PORTS
Delays in immigration processing was to be the #1 issue on this cruise. Yokohama was an absolute disaster with the terminal just not being prepared to process so many people on a holiday. The ship was not zeroed until 1500! Some people who needed to get off, did not get off until 1200 and that was with an 0700 arrival!
The itinerary could have been structured a bit more friendlier for immigration purposes (sticking with the same country between ports, like Japan or China) but then would have been operationally an issue with the extra time and fuel required to backtrack as well as trying to get an embarkation port (like Shanghai) somewhere in the middle. Incheon was an excellent example of what happens when the ship has some control over the immigration process. Stations were set up in the Universe and it was an all hands call out of the crew to help process people as quickly and efficiently as possible.
The ship tried the same thing in Guam, but it was just too many people and not enough US ICE agents.
Bottom Line – When docking in China or Japan expect to get off the ship 75 to 90 minutes after the scheduled docking time – IF you are diligent enough to get up early and get in line – 2 to 3 hours if you are not. Then factor in that all-aboard is 30 minutes before departure. For example, Okinawa has a scheduled time of 0700 to 1430. With an all-aboard time of 1400, one could easily expect to be off the ship by 0830 giving you only 4 to 4.5 hours in port.
Another good example. Because of the Cluster in Yokohama, and to some extent Tianjin, of the ship issuing immigration numbers, like tender tickets, in Crooner’s, one of the passengers issued hand written tickets, starting at 0500, to form a line to get in line to obtain the immigration tickets when the cruise staff arrived.
While that may seem presumptuous on our part, it helped organize the line in Crooners to stretch back to the wheelhouse rather than be a free for all mob when the cruise staff arrived. Of course then with the gangway on deck 6 starboard, the line to go out formed well before the numbers were called. So when the 1-100 group was called, we had to ‘cut’ in front of the existing line with people holding tickets 101+, and had to listen to the grumbling. But that was the instructions from the crew. Get your ticket number and go to the gangway from a public lounge area only when called.
Immigration was a nightmare. Docked at 0700. Last persons off the ship at 1500. Not really Princess’s fault. Computer failure and lack of immigration agents screwed up everyone. They used a tender numbering system for the around 1000 people not on ship’s tours. We were 71 to 74 and we got off the ship at 1000. I talked to a person around the 170’s and they got off at 1115. Everyone was told that the ship had to be zeroed. That meant all passengers off. Some passengers apparently hid, according to one security officer, on the ship and had to be escorted off. People waiting to get back on had to wait until 1500 to be let back aboard because of this. If this is true, this is being extremely inconsiderate. Still, not Princess’s fault.
I really felt bad for those on private tours. Pam got off almost immediately and then spent 2 hours waiting for other people in her tour group. Others had similar problems with some members having numbers in the high 2 or 3 hundred. I’d like to say that I anticipated this issue, but can’t really. I expected the typical Japanese efficiency – but did not get it.
Docking was at 0700, but the Chinese are serious about immigration. It was around 0800 when we finally got clearance to leave the ship. The numbering system used, similar to tenders, was confusing and hectic. People were lined up at 0500 in Crooners, which only had one exit to fore and one exit aft and it was on the same deck and basic location as the Deck 7 starboard gangway exit. So it was a mess. The Patter clearly stated that each person in line should get tickets for their “group”, like a tender port, but with no ‘lounge’ to meet in. And Ralph got 19 numbers for our “group”. Didn’t go over well with other people in line. Princess needed to do it in the Universe lounge where at least you can separate ticketed vs. un-ticketed persons away from the gangway chaos and have a defined entry and exit pathway.
The Chinese pretty much had their act together in the terminal. Multiple stations for independents and a separate area with multiple stations for Princess tours. Nice terminal. Good signage. Plentiful restrooms. Immigration was serious. Face to face, passport, photo, no fingerprints though and the computers were up and running! We got through and were outside at 0840.
So an aside about the Chinese Visa. Several people didn’t have it. Some never intended to get off the ship. The couple in the cabin next to us was told by their travel agent they didn’t need it! They were allowed on the ship in Los Angeles, but not into the country. Our Visa’s were checked. The ship did have to be zeroed and ship’s personnel were going to escort the non-Visa holders through immigration after all had left.
VIETNAM, MANILA AND HONG KONG
These were very simple. Just get off the ship. Hong Kong did have a thermal scanner to check your temperature, but nothing that held anybody up.
THE GREAT SEARCH FOR HIGH SPEED BANDWIDTH
When we were in the “good” ship board satellite communications latitude and during the day, between 0700 and 1700, connections were very slow when using elite minutes. In the morning I could almost watch the speed go downhill in direct proportion to the number of people in line for coffee. Similarly, on the other hand, the speed goes up immensely starting at 1700 to 1830 (dinnertime – first shift). Judy was able to update two apps on her iphone, with about 250mb of data, in the 90 minutes of “decent” connectivity. BTW – those two apps exceeded the daily data limit of the basic on-board $19.95 internet package.
First of all, both our phones use T-Mobile One Plus with the 256kB/sec throttled unlimited data in 120 countries including all on our itinerary. This speed is sufficient for google maps and Facebook, but not updating of apps. For serious app updates, security updates, and most serious website use, you need high speed access and because of today’s graphic intensive applications, a lot of data bandwidth.
For this cruise I specifically bought a TEPPY – an international virtual SIM MyFi spot – with a 1GB high speed data limit and unlimited 256kB (2G) for a 24 hour $9 day pass. As a backup, Tmobile has 512mb high speed data pass for $5 with a maximum for 2 passes per day per phone.
First of all, let me say that the Tmobile $5 day pass was the most disappointing. I was only able to access the page once on the way into Yokohama harbor and was not able to tell which phone received the boost or when the boost occurred or even if I got the boost in the first place. (It turns out Judy’s phone got the boost, but only after you restarted the phone.) I was never able to access that page, it simply would not load, for more passes again over the next 3 days. Even chatting with t-mobile via the 256kB/sec 2G data rate was too painful to endure to try and straighten things out.
Future note – Was able to re-access the page in Beijing. Actually got it to work and load properly with 2G and was able to designate which phone received the boost. Default was the prime phone on your account so it loaded on Judy’s phone the last time, not the one I wanted. Got an email that it was in effect, on the phone it was in effect on, but it recommended a restart just to make sure. Restarted and it was definitely very fast and loaded 3 updates, plus updated facebook and several other things, but nothing major or important. Just a check of the functionality and it worked great.
Another future note edit – Was not able to access the page in Seoul very easily. Long time to load, which indicates connection issues. Maybe not 2G since even Google was not loading properly. I left the page loading in my pocket and it was up the next time I looked at the phone. Ordering was easy and it did provide very fast connections, after rebooting the phone, but it still was not as good as the connection in Beijing. Go figure!
The TEPPY worked perfectly. Turned on, easy to use, high speed, but the laptop burned through the 1GB data limit in a matter of minutes. When throttled to 2G speeds, it’s not much more useful than the Tmobile phones on basic. Phone connection via the TEPPY is the best option for judicious use of the high speed. I had forgotten that a Windows PC will automatically start downloading ‘stuff’. Symantec burned through 500MB during a download, followed by Windows security and monthly update stuff. I turned off as much of that as I could.
Free WiFi – Everyone touts free wi-fi and how to follow the crew to find it. To a large extent this is true. To a smaller extent, free wifi is still limited in bandwidth, because the crew is there, and the time it takes to update stuff or do business is still a long time. And in Yokohama, the internet connection was limited to 30 minutes at Osanbashi and at World Porters, meaning if you can’t download it in 30 minutes, you aren’t getting it. On the other hand, the WiFi at Hiroshima was incredibly fast. Almost as fast as home, but with 300+ users sitting in the terminal. We were able to update at least 15GB worth of stuff in about 20 minutes across four different devices. Nice!
Hiroshima would remain the best of any of the port Wi-Fi stops. Hong Kong, Shanghai, Honolulu would have port wi-fi and Guam would have wi-fi at the shopping mall where the shuttle drops you off, but in all cases, speeds were very load dependent and with lots of people, the speed dropped to very low levels – think dial-up!
The Horizon Court food ranged from OK to Good. Cold salads continue to be my favorite, but everything else, quite frankly, is same old same old. Fewer and fewer selections as well. Its food. It’s nothing to rave about and it’s not horrible like on the Diamond in April. The pizza, thank goodness, is pretty good with a well seasoned crust and Alfredo’s in Sabatini’s for lunch is a welcome comfortable place to enjoy my favorite pizza.
Burgers are dependent on when you place your order. If you get a fresh burger, which takes a while to prepare, it can be quite good. If you arrive at the end of a sequence and they ‘re-heat’ an older burger patty, then you’re kind of stuck. Same with the fries. When they are cooked and salted properly, they are good. When not, they kind of suck and during busy times the oil loses too much heat and you get soggy underdone fries.
They do have the smokehouse and grill in the evenings, but these are just too late for us and when we tried them several years ago, they were just ok. According to Pam and Ralph, there were a pretty good alternative to the HC.
Quite frankly, the food on the ship is why we eat more and more off the ship to get that WOW factor meal. I gave up on really great shipboard food many years ago. But I really write it off now, and don’t get too upset about it, because we’ve been cruising a lot over the last year and there are just so many different dishes they can supply. And also, with regard to waistlines, this is not such a bad thing after all!
There are a couple of important points to make. This was a 60 day cruise. So we have seen about all the different types of food Princess has a recipe for. A bit of boring ‘seen that, tasted this’ is going to be there no matter what. Secondly, we did not eat dinner in the MDR at all. Judy can’t eat dinner past 1600. So our experience in the MDR was breakfast and lunches, with the HC, Grill, Alfredo’s, Elite Lounge and IC as the backups.
The food is seasoned well, but after 60 days, it is so repetitive, it just becomes boring. For breakfast in the HC, scrambled eggs plain, scrambled eggs with something, American breakfast sausage, British or German breakfast sausage, ham, eggs, omelets cooked to order, plain pancakes, pancakes with some fruit in it, various breads, various cereals, sausage gravy and biscuits, various fruits, various pastries. And it’s basically the same every day.
In the HC for lunch, sandwiches, three stew/stir fry type curry/Asian dishes to put over rice, white rice, flavored rice, fried fish, sautéed fish, carved meat, braised chicken, steamed vegetable, salad bar, French fries, mashed potatoes and gravy. And this basically repeats every day with some variety in the carved meats, steamed vegetables and the over rice dishes.
In the MDR for breakfast you have the featured items, Eggs Benedict, French Toast, Spanish Tortilla, Country Breakfast and English Breakfast, with the standard accompaniments, from the griddle (pancakes and waffles), from the sea (smoked salmon), various pastries, cereals and juices.
For a while the MDR lunches were a treat. But only for a while until they too became same ole, same ole. Main courses of fish, meats, vegetarian option. Pasta selection. Salad or soup selection.
But back to the food. All of this would most likely not be an issue on a 15 or 19 day Panama canal cruise. Not with LA and FLL available for restock. Keep in mind this ship was doing 7 day Alaska cruises prior to this 60 day monster, so I’m sure the strange ports and corporate pre-ordering in little known ports has played a large role in this as well. Same with the menu ‘tiredness’. Face it, after 60 days, getting on shore to try even McDonalds sounds VERY appealing!
A couple of cabin notes. We were in C637, a forward facing bumpout balcony cabin. For an Alaskan or Panama Canal cruise its great. For entering and exiting a harbor, its great. But for open ocean, no way. The balcony funnels wind into the cabin and you could not do a UBD if you were moving due to the wind. The cabin A/C works! Yeah! BUT we are in a starboard cabin, which means on an eastward crossing, the sun, at this time of year, will be on our side of the ship. Forcing the curtains closed during the day and afternoon to prevent the cabin from warming to over 75 due to solar heating. I should have booked a port side cabin because of the ship’s routing. We would have been in the shade the whole trip back.
VIETNAM EXCURSIONS AND TRAVEL AUTHENTIC ASIA
As the primary excursion organizer in the three ports of Ha Long, Chan May and Phu My, I highly recommend using Travel Authentic Asia to organize your tours. Ms. Le and her staff made it easy for me to organize 10 busses/junks for Ha Long, 8 busses to Hue from Chan My and 8 busses in Phu My (5 to HCM and 3 to Vung Tau). We limited the busses to 16 people each, give or take a single. Prices were $77pp for Ha Long Bay, $80pp for Chan May Hue and $65pp for Phu My – either tour. This included lunch at each destination – and not a simple cheap lunch either, 8-10 hour tour times, air conditioned busses, a guide and a driver.
From all accounts everyone was ecstatic over Ha Long Bay with only 16 people on a 40 person junk, lunch and the sights of the bay. Similarly, everyone was very happy with the day in Hue, except for the heat of course. There were issues on the Phu My stop, but 3 of the 5 busses to HCM and one bus to Vung Tau had a great day. Two of the busses to HCM had issues, but still got to see a lot of the city and the two busses to Vung Tau missed one stop each. My bus in each stop had a great time.
With 5 busses to HCM and 3 busses to Vung Tau, there were bound to be issues. Some were passenger caused – the wrong people got on the wrong bus and in one case the wrong tour, and two didn’t even show up. This caused an initial delay in getting out of the gate and getting people back on to their correct bus – although some never would. Neither the guides nor the drivers did a good job of holding to the list. Lesson learned – from now on, make sure you assign a lead person to each bus to double check the list with the guide.
One of the busses to Vung Tau went to a closed local market. Unfortunate as I deliberately picked a local market tour to give everyone an idea of how the Vietnamese shop. You have to see it to believe it. But the particular market the guide chose was closed. Another bus to Vung Tau missed the fish farm and the passengers elected to skip it and go back to the ship rather than turn around. They had the impression that the guide/driver were not familiar with the area. (It was hard to find the turnoff as we missed it on the first try and had to U-turn back to it.) But for some of us the fish farm was a real highlight as nothing like this aqua culture layout exists in the US. But all three busses did the rice cracker and rice wine ‘factory’, the large Jesus statue, the Nirvana Pagoda, seaside lunch and the White Palace.
Two of the busses to HCM had issues with the guide’s organization and directions – designating a meeting place and time when the group split into different directions. Overall both enjoyed the sights and sounds of HCM – especially the scooter displays – but just had some minor issues with the guides.
I’m actually surprised there weren’t more issues with this number of people on this number of busses and this number of tours, and nothing like some of the horror stories coming out of some of the Princess tours.
Going into this cruise I was dreading organizing this number of tours, but Travel Authentic Asia and Ms. Le made it easy. She just kept adding busses/guides/junks as more and more people on the roll call signed up. She kept track of payments, deposits, bus assignments and gave everyone plenty of time to swap assignments around as people wanted to see the sights with familiar people. She was even accommodating people and changes after we left LA. Very, very flexible and very nice to work with. She provided contact information for the guides, and other people at her office, to call in case of a delay in getting off the ship – and accommodated all manner of dietary restrictions. (Wanda, our resident vegetarian got so much food she couldn’t begin to eat it all.) Ms. Le also provided everyone easy to read lists, (at least for most of us!), as to the bus assignments and the busses were clearly labeled, marked and parked close to the ship or the tender dock. All in all, it was better organized than Princess tours, with longer tour itineraries, more sights to see, more things to do, more flexibility in deposits and payments, much, much cheaper and far smaller groups.
Was it perfect? Not for everyone. For me it was pretty darn close – I did want MORE SPRING ROLLS AT LUNCH! But then nothing rarely is, but upon reflection and considering value, I would not hesitate to do this again in a heartbeat with Ms Le. I would certainly NOT do a ship’s tour in Vietnam ever again – and we did one in 2012 at an ungodly price.
Please note that there are several companies with similar sounding names. Two of them are Authentic Asia Travel & Authentic Asia tours, but Travel Authentic Asia is the correct name and their website (travelauthenticasia.com) reflects that. Read Less