BACKGROUND: I’m a mature adventurous solo traveler who has cruised 45 times on many cruise lines. Most of my cruises have been on Princess ships. I’m currently on a quest to see where my ancestors came from, and many of these places are good cruise ports. This itinerary covered many places my Viking ancestors once lived in, and I’ve always wanted to visit these parts of the world. My favorite Princess ship is the “Ocean Princess”, so it appeared to be a perfect match.
TRAVEL TO EMBARKATION: I enjoyed outstanding Virgin Atlantic flight service to London’s Heathrow Airport from JFK. Stayed at the London Heathrow Airport Terminal 5, close to Heathrow, overnight. Went to Canterbury, England the next day for some sightseeing, and then on embarkation day traveled on to Dover with Chestfield Cars, a very good local limo service. For once the English weather was gorgeous – hot, sunny and dry, and it made local travel and sightseeing a pleasure.
SHIP INFORMATION: The Explorer Class “Ocean Princess” is a beautiful small ship. 30,277 tons, length 592 feet, with 11 decks, and 338 cabins. Maximum passenger load is 672, and as my sailing was sold out, this was a full load – it never felt crowded, however, at any time. There are 375 crew members on board. The ship was purchased “used” in 2002, and refurbished in 2012. The interior is timeless classic, and looks like a stately English country home with traditional furnishings, lovely carpets and paintings, lots of wood paneling, and a gorgeous lounge with a fireplace (not real). Spacious cabins are very nice, and the small size of the ship makes getting around very quick and easy. One main dining room aft, two specialty restaurants, the usual buffet restaurant, and other dining venues. Small showroom, and other lounges and entertainment venues. Compact but well-equipped fitness center, and elegant Lotus Spa salon. Internet café and various function rooms, and a large boutique and separate jewelry store, small casino, hot tubs and pool, private adult “sanctuary deck area”, photo gallery, guest services desk in a lovely foyer area, several bars, and most of the other amenities found in older traditional ships. It’s a very elegant and refined environment compared to the enormous ultramodern ships. There is a definite vibration and rumbling noticeable in the dining room, no doubt from the engine room somewhere below and in the vicinity. For the age of the ship, it appeared well maintained but a bit tired around the edges inside and out. Internet is available, isn’t cheap (upper level loyalty guests get some free time), and is extremely slow. In this itinerary, internet and TV signals were nonexistent due to the northerly remote areas the ship cruised in at times. The ship has stabilizers, which were a blessing on this sailing which encountered some very high winds and rough seas routinely. Most of the ship is nonsmoking both on balconies and inside and some deck areas. There was only one laundry room for the entire group of passengers (elite level loyalty guests got free dry-cleaning), with 6 washers and dryers, coin-operated, and $2 for every wash, dry, box of soap, dryer sheet, etc. Coins could be charged to the room account using one’s key card. The “Ocean Princess” will be sold at the end of the year, according to Princess, and while things may not have been truly wonderful on this trip, I’m sorry to see this lovely small ship leave the Princess fleet.
DINING: There were early and late traditional fixed-seating for dinner, plus other “take-out” places for pizza, etc. The Panorama Buffet has the usual big spreads for all three daily meals, plus afternoon snacks. There is room service, but with restricted hours despite stating in the customer service manual in the cabin that food is available 24/7 – you can’t get any food you want at any time. This caused some issues on my cruise, as this statement about 24/7 dining was very ambiguous and guest services did not have the correct information. There are two specialty restaurants with a cover charge, for Italian and steakhouse type foods – I did not use either this trip. The food appeared to cater more to the British sense of taste and diet, but there were the typical American foods for those less adventurous. There were a lot of Asian and Indian food items, and themed lunch buffets had something from many cultures every day. This was a good opportunity to try something you may not be familiar with or get at home. Food in the dining room came in large portions, and was served at proper temperatures. The menus got a bit “creative” for my personal taste, with a lot of peculiar names, food combinations, poor quality fish, and “always available” foods such as salmon, chicken, and other familiar American food items. A food from each group was featured on all menus – fish, poultry, meat, and vegetarian, with the usual appetizers, salads, soups, and deserts. Some of the meals appeared to be the leftovers from the night before, all mixed together and given a strange name. Tremendous overuse of fruit soaked in alcohol, red and green peppers, heavy seasoning, too much salt, and strange vegetables as edible garnishes. Deserts could have done better - lots of things full of fruit and nuts, and very little imagination other than one or two chocolate “features” which mixed too many rich ingredients into an overkill nightmare. I was very disappointed in the menu choices – it’s sure not the Continental or gourmet cuisine which used to appear on ship menus 20 years ago! I did not see the little heart symbols on the menu this cruise, which used to indicate a healthy item – it’s a relief, actually. Who wants to diet and eat “healthy” on a cruise, where food is such a big item and activity! Salad dressings seemed very weak and watery, and the regular blue cheese dressing was identical to liquid barium, really terrible. Lots of peculiar iced soups were on the menu, and it was hard to decide whether to eat or drink them out of a glass. Birthdays and anniversaries were celebrated by singing waiters and what appeared to be a very nice small chocolate cake. I know the Carnival Corporation is looking at bottom-line profit, but cutting food quality in the dining room and buffet is not the place to save money.
Finding meat loaf, hamburgers, fried chicken, spaghetti, roast turkey, chili and other truck-stop or diner type foods on a cruise ship menu was either an attempt to make American cruisers feel at home, or perhaps the result of some survey where guests wanted more of what they get at home instead of “fancy” cruise ship food. Seeing ice cream as a desert offering every night was the same feeling - if I wanted to eat this way, I would stay home and get better quality.
The Panorama Buffet had more variety and some interesting international-themed buffets at lunch and dinner. There was a spectacular desert buffet at the end of the cruise. However, there were fruit flies hovering over the pastries in the morning and the waffles, French toast, and pancakes were soggy, cold and stale. Plates and glasses were often wet, and I noticed dried-on specks of food on the very tired silverware. Not enough seating, especially when the tables were used as an internet café by people not eating. Good views from the enormous windows. Intermittent waiter service at best, and usually slow. Hot foods were not kept hot, or even warm, most of the time. Cold foods weren’t held properly, either, and some were room temperature. It was a good chance, however, to sample foods from other cultures and things not commonly found in typical American diets. Small plastic oval plates had to hold everything, as there were no trays and adding one more plate for a separate salad or desert maxed out carrying capacity. I rarely had assistance from a waiter when I had two plates of food and a drink glass. A lack of tags identifying various foods was a problem, and some of the waiters did not speak enough English to answer my questions about food content. No labeling identifying possible allergens such as nuts within foods, either. Deserts had some sugar-free offerings, but there was a lot of fruit and cream style items and some really peculiar combinations of ingredients. Everything was attractively presented, especially the side with the salads and deserts. However, it’s hard to make a metal pan of mashed potatoes look elegant, even on a cruise ship. While the waiters were very efficient in clearing tables, they were very slow to notice guests arriving at tables and come over to offer beverage service. Guests leaving their seats to get refills at the buffet often returned to their table to find everything gone that they had left, and other guests sitting in their seats.
STATEROOM: I had a midship, mid-level balcony stateroom. Unfortunately, Princess makes solo travelers pay double, and this trip had steep pricing. The stateroom furnishings showed their age, with nicks, dents, stained fabrics. Very comfortable bed, however, with the two twins combined to a king size. If you don’t like feather pillows, the steward will find a synthetic, firmer pillow if you ask. No blankets, but a lightweight comforter duvet. Nice linens most of the time, but some were tired, and the sheets are changed every four days. Lots of wood hangers in a small closet with a door. Plenty of storage cabinets and shelving units and drawers. Love seat which doubles as a sofa bed. Small desk area with a mirror. Lighting in the room could be brighter, but was adequate. Peaceful blue and neutral color scheme. Sheer white curtains beneath patterned lined drapes – unfortunately the drapes did not close enough nor reach all the way across the glass balcony wall, and the nearly 24 hour daylight coming in at the Midnight Sun latitude at night made sleep very difficult. Decent climate control, very quiet. Phone and several electrical outlets with varying currents. Twice-daily room service. Tiny refrigerator in part of the closet. The beds are low, so storing my huge suitcase beneath the beds was not possible – found an out of the way corner for the luggage, and it did not get in the way. The bathroom is very small and compact, typical plastic module type found on many cruise ships. Decent sized shower with the infamous clinging plastic curtain, and dispensers of shower gel and shampoo/conditioner. There is soap available for the sink and shower, but beware if you have sensitive skin – the soap and shower gel are very harsh and quickly dry out sensitive skin. Elite guests get a small bag of extra bath amenities, as well as a tray of liquor miniatures and some bottled water and sodas. I do not drink, and asked to have the bar tray replaced with sodas and bottled water, and this was done quickly and cheerfully. Ice is supplied twice a day. Either some degree of soundproofing, or the tactful embarkation mention by some officer over the PA of being considerate of other guests especially at night and trying to be quiet in the corridors and cabins, resulted in amazing silence and peaceful quiet 99% of the time on this cruise when I was in my cabin. The balcony was big enough for two people, with two adjustable mesh and metal chairs and a small round metal table. There is plastic tiling on the deck, and a glass wall under the top railing outside. The entire balcony wall of the cabin is glass, providing some spectacular views. There was a modern flat-screen TV with a choice of programming depending on the day and where the ship is to receive signals, plus in-house programs available. Announcements are not heard in the stateroom unless a specific TV channel is on, but if there is something important, there is a speaker within the cabin and announcements can be heard from the captain or other officers should the need arise. I had plenty of room, all the comforts I needed, and peace and quiet. The only problem with the stateroom was a sour odor in the bathroom. No amount of cleaning, chemicals, sprays, or checking could either find the source or get rid of it. Some of the bathroom caulking and grout looked very tired, and there was possibly mold in the shower area or somewhere else. The towels were good sometimes, but most of the time they were nearly threadbare, with some frayed edges, and very scratchy to use.
ACTIVITIES: From early morning to late at night, there is something to do for everyone depending on what they consider an activity. This was a very port-intensive itinerary, with just four or five sea days, and most passengers were ashore in the ports. There were enrichment lectures by guest speakers on various topics. Typical fun and often wacky “parlor games” with the cruise entertainment staff were more popular than one might imagine, especially with the marvelously friendly and enthusiastic Australian guests aboard. Bingo, trivia, port lectures and get-togethers for various professional groups were offered, and there was a lovely library for readers. Internet was accessible, albeit slowly, for the IT folks. Knitting, bridge, board games, and shopping sales kept people busy. Shopping was a big thing on the ship, especially on sea days with the captive audience more than willing to part with their money and have some fun looking at all the “bargains”. The fitness center was very busy with guests enjoying all the amenities there. Lots of spa treatments were available. The marvelous exercise disguised as fun dancing, Zumba, was offered every sea day and was well attended. There were galley tours and food demonstrations. The weather on this trip was not really amenable to sitting around the pool or using the hot tub, or even walking on the jogging track, unfortunately, but some hardy souls were outside anyway. The port days were long and busy, and tired most people out by the end of supper as far as further activities in the evening. Princess continues its scheduling of activities listed as seminars, which are nothing more than infomercials aimed at getting guests to spend money on various treatments, analyses, and products. Unfortunately, these seminars were scheduled at the peak times between meals, and normal activities got stuck in the schedule just before or after a meal, or at some really inconvenient time. This trend has gone on for years, and doesn’t appear that it will change any despite passenger protests. The casino was open on sea days and once the ship left port, but did not seem to have many people in it. Smoking was allowed, but there were some smoke-free days with better attendance. The table games seemed sparsely attended, but the slot machines had a fair crowd at times, especially the penny slots. No coins are awarded in this modern digital age, and the room key is used to establish a “bank” credit – you can charge gaming costs to your shipboard account, or feed paper bills into the slot machines, and then cash out if you have winnings at the end. The photography staff was everywhere in the ports, and did a good video DVD for a souvenir - but all photography was very expensive.
SERVICE: The best service I enjoyed came from my cabin steward, a lively young lady from the Philippines. She was perfect in everything she did, and my cabin was immaculately serviced twice daily at times convenient for my personal routine. Elena in the Boutique was also amazing – always pleased to be of help, with great fashion sense and a warm, wonderful personality and good sense of humor. I remember Elena from my last Ocean Princess cruise, and it was delightful to see her once again, like meeting family while traveling. Gabriel in the jewelry boutique was also very charming and dedicated to good service and friendliness. The waiter’s assistant was a lovely young lady from Ukraine who provided gracious, poised, and beautiful service in an otherwise chaotic dining room. While the ship’s captain perhaps doesn’t offer a “service”, he was one of the more amiable and well-spoken captains I’ve sailed with. His crew obviously respected him and were very fond of him. Every day at noon, the captain reported from the bridge over the PA system, and included chiming the four bells of the noon watch for us to hear. He also was quite fond of nautical trivia, and we got some interesting and sometimes humorous information at the end of the navigational, port and weather reports. This captain was also very safety-oriented, and cancelled a port call due to very high winds. He had a very good command of Italian-accented English, and was delightful to listen to at least once a day with his broadcasts. Simon the cruise director was also a very approachable, articulate, and pleasant gentleman who had far more dignity and ability than most cruise directors I’ve sailed with. Chris, one of the production show dancers, gave 200% with every Zumba class and activity he participated in, no matter the weather conditions or how tired he must have been after the late night shows. He was always pleasant and friendly whenever encountered around the ship.
The rest of the crew was average, but some of the staff had serious burn-out and “attitude”. The front desk staff tried with their English, but there were a lot of misunderstandings due to comments being lost in translation. The staff also was misinformed about things on the ship, especially the room service dining hours. The Captain’s Circle loyalty program person was a very young man with “attitude”, very pressured and not someone I would want to speak with if I were spending thousands of dollars booking a future cruise. Many of the crew in minor authority positions were obviously trying to do their job, but were not mature enough or experienced in what they were doing to present a convincing or reassuring impression. Everyone seemed to be very happy in dealings where the guest had to pay for something, but outside of this, either they could not understand English or just were too immature or burned out to work effectively.
The worst service issues involved the food venues. In the Panorama Buffet, especially in the early morning, the few waiters that were there seemed comatose, just standing and staring out the windows or talking to each other, while the guests waited for beverage service. This continued at lunch, and was just as bad at dinner. I got my own water numerous times, rather than sit and wait while the once lukewarm food got colder. This seemed to wake up the waiters for a moment or two before they disappeared or went back to daydreaming. One waiter decided it was a good time to visit and kept trying to start a conversation with me when I was trying to finish my dinner and meet friends. I ate at the early traditional seating for dinner. My waiter in the main dining room had problems – a lot of them. Either this man was new, insecure, poorly trained, burned out, or any of the above, because he was very disorganized – standing at his service station organizing the silverware and menus, while we waited for menus, orders to be taken, food delivery, water refills, etc. He did not coordinate at all with his helper, and the pair of them did not seem to know which tasks should be done separately or as a team. Absolute total chaos. It did not help that others at my table arrived 20 minutes late for the sitting and we all had to wait while they got their menus and ordered. I don’t believe my waiter understood enough English to take the orders properly, as there were mix-ups quite often. I appreciate how hard being a cruise ship waiter is, and it certainly hasn’t been helped by the noticeable and steady cut-back on dining venue staffing. From what I counted, my waiter and his helper had at least 50 people to serve. What a difference from the early days of cruising when there was a waiter, helper, and bus boy for perhaps 15 people. After a few days with this waiter, all we heard from him after the orders were delivered was “quack quack” for poultry meals, and “yummy yummy” and “love it” for the other types of food, and every order placed was followed by “you need alcohol, wine, beer, you order drinks”. This same waiter did this in the buffet when I had the bad luck to encounter him there. Makes me wonder if Princess is now urging the waiters to sell liquor on top of everything else. Order placement was delayed repeatedly at the start of each dinner by the assistant waiter first showing the wine list, making recommendations, getting the wine, the guest tasting and approving, getting the glasses filled, and then, finally, we could place our food orders. Wine is great with food, if that’s your choice, but it shouldn’t hold up the entire table in ordering dinner when the service is already so slow. It got so bad that I ate the marginally tolerable food in the buffet at dinner just to escape this craziness for the last four nights of the cruise. It took almost two hours to get food at my table, and often we had not received our entrees when others with different wait staff were on the main course. The meals were not improved by the interruption of “how was your day” by the totally useless assistant head waiters. I was annoyed also to find at my first dinner seating yet another table assignment for a table of 10, which used to be called the “old maid’s table”, probably computer-assigned seating because I was traveling solo, and this keeps happening despite repeated pleas and complaints to the passenger relations department to be placed at a table for 4 or 6 when I make my cruise reservations. The Maitre’d acted very put-upon when I asked to have my table assignment changed. I know it’s difficult to do this with a full ship, but it can be done. As an Elite level loyalty member, I would expect better accommodation of my requests after cruising with Princess multiple times. Food is such a big part of cruising, but it was definitely not a highlight on this trip. It does no good to mention bad service to those in charge either, as they scold the waiters who in turn become even worse. The head chef was on vacation, and his substitute had his own distinct regional ideas of good cuisine. Unfortunately, we did not agree on what constitutes good cuisine.
ENTERTAINMENT: I did not go to the shows, as the same programs appear throughout the Princess fleet and I’ve seen them all. They are great as a high-school musical level show, but not something I’d enjoy seeing more than once. The rest were vaudeville-type variety show acts, something I don’t care for. The best entertainer on the ship was Brad Stevens, a very gifted pianist who could play any type of music and had a great line of patter and sense of humor as well. He performed in a beautiful, small lounge with great views of the scenery we passed in the Midnight Sun hours after dinner. After full days in port and the terribly slow dinner service, an hour of good music was enough entertainment for me before bedtime. There were various singers on board and the usual very good live show band for music and dancing, and the variety acts in the shows – something for all tastes, but the days began early and not too many people were up and about late into the evening. Other than what the ship offered, there were a lot of people perfectly content to curl up somewhere with a good book, their I-gadgets, or for conversation. This was not a young person’s party animal type cruise, and I enjoyed interacting with the various people I encountered throughout the voyage every day and just watching the ocean roll by. Cruise ship entertainment on Princess doesn’t change much, and hasn’t through the years, and it’s not something I care much about when choosing my cruises.
SHORE EXCURSIONS: There was a satisfying variety of tour offerings of all lengths and ways of getting around for this voyage. One could walk, ride on a bus, or use watercraft in some instances. Tours ranged from a few hours to all day, with moderate cost. Tours for food, history, sightseeing, shopping, and most other interests were available. I research and book private guides for most of my port excursions, and this worked out very well on my voyage Taxi No. 17 in Akureyri, SeasonTours in Reykjavik, and TourShetland in the Shetland port of Lerwick were wonderful, and well worth the cost when I heard what fellow passengers had to say about their ship-provided bus tours. The only ship’s tour I booked was a repeat of a hiking tour in Bergen, which I had enjoyed on a previous trip. This time it was a disaster, compounded by a very tiny, immature female guide who could not be heard most of the time, and who giggled most of the time. The city was also overwhelmed by summer tourists and the passenger loads of at least four large ships. It took forever to walk with too large a group through the jammed streets, and the wait in line to board the famous funicular cable car to the top of the fjord cliffs for the hike took an hour. The hike was supposed to be three and one-half hours, and by the time we got to the trails we had about 45 minutes of time to hike. I know the city and the trails, and told the guide I’d hike on my own and get back to the ship on my own, and left the group. Had a great hike, but due to lack of time and not wanting to miss the ship, I could not go as far as I had planned. I jogged back to the funicular and to the ship, so it was a great physical adventure on my own and I enjoyed it solo. The group barely made it back to the ship before it sailed, from what I was told. I asked for and received half my excursion cost back after complaining about the poorly organized and operated tour. Some of the ship’s tours were cancelled due to “lack of interest”, but that’s not what I heard from the passengers, who felt they were cancelled because of other reasons. Too many of the tours were simply too long for the senior age group on board, and most involved hours of sitting on a bus going somewhere, rather than being able to spend adequate time at the sights. Some were mainly for shopping or wine or food experiences, but if that’s what interests people, go for it. Early in the cruise, some passengers reported their drivers getting lost, as well as pieces falling off the buses, and after that the tour participation seemed to decline. Some people had better luck just taking a chance on hiring a cab and doing their own touring with a local driver. Many of the ports visited were ideal if one was a walker, and there were trails for hiking and good streets and roads for jogging or using a rental bike. From long travel experience, I know you can’t see every sight even with a full-day tour, and I would rather see a few things well than run myself to exhaustion and be stressed.
DISEMBARKATION: Princess does this right. Either you choose a convenient time and are assigned that, or if you are in no hurry to get off, let Princess put you in the last debarkation group. Cabins must be vacated by 8 AM. Luggage goes out the night before, and you carry off your small personal bags. If you can manage your own luggage, ALL of it, you can opt for express walk-off as soon as the ship is cleared, and many do this. Depending on your shoreside plans, there is an option to suit anyone, be it a tour on the way to the airport, an airport transfer, independent plans, or anything else. Waiting areas are assigned, you get four pages of detailed “how to” instructions to avoid stress and confusion, and it all worked smoothly with no crowds or problems. I was off the ship in four minutes when my color and time were announced. I had a private driver meeting me, set by my own choice of time, and a form is provided on the ship asking when each guest would like to get off the ship. I chose my time, and received color-coded luggage tags and information where to wait. It worked beautifully, probably the best organized activity the ship provided. Nobody likes to see a cruise end, and a lot of people were tired and grumpy. Having a flawless, smooth debarkation at least helps ease the cruise-end depression somewhat. The luggage waits in the terminal, grouped by color, and I found mine in minutes and was outside very quickly. There is a nice staff of mature, polite, and delightful English people at the Dover cruise terminal to assist in any way needed.
SUMMARY: I travel on Princess ships because they are the best I can afford and have the best itineraries for the money and time I have. I endure the dining disasters because the itineraries are so good. I can get a good balcony stateroom at an affordable price – sort of, as Princess does not give discounts for solo travelers, and I have to pay double the per-person fare. I’ve complained about this for years, but so far nothing has been done as with other cruise lines which give solo travelers a discount. Princess used to be a quality product, with elegant Continental cuisine and very good service. Since Carnival bought it, however, it has sadly declined, with the cost-cutting most evident in the food quality and level and amount of service. The ships are not as well maintained as they used to be. The massive international crew component on each ship is a great way to meet the rest of the world, but the lack of communicable English has become a problem in many instances. Carnival’s bottom line is all about profit, and they know their guests will put up with a lot to take the affordable cruises within the Carnival family of brands. It’s all a matter of personal choice, and it’s better than staying home and wishing I were someplace I always wanted to visit – at least for the time being.
Princess still continues its annoying trend of trolling for good reviews at the end of the cruise. Every announcement manages to work in the word “excellent” as much as possible. Seasoned travelers ignore this and report honestly. There were fewer intrusive and annoying announcements made about seminars, sales, etc – a huge relief compared to other cruises. Overall, the ship was lovely, some crew members were truly outstanding, the itinerary was wonderful, and I had a very good time. This was a voyage more suited to mature adults with travel experience who appreciate the out of the way and unusual places, rather than a tropical climate voyage for young party animal travelers who want sun every day, lots of pool deck time, and late nights.
This cruise was expensive, even at the per-person shared occupancy rates. When I inquired of the on-board Captain’s Circle loyalty club crew member why the smaller Princess ships cost more than the very large ones per voyage, I was told, with blunt honesty and a good dose of “attitude”, that the profits are smaller with less people and the company has to face the reality of economics and charge more to make more profit on these small-ship voyages.
I prefer the smaller ships to today's floating cities with their amusement park activities, too many passengers, and modern glitzy architecture. "Ocean Princess" was a joy to live in for two weeks, despite the food issues, and it could get into very small ports without the need for using the tender service most of the time. It had an elegance that more mature travelers obviously appreciated, as many were repeat travelers who had the means to cruise on this ship for back to back cruises. Bon voyage, "Ocean Princess"! Read Less