About us: A multigenerational group consisting of five women (my senior mom, older sister and her college-aged daughter, my wife and seven-year-old daughter) and one vastly outnumbered 40-something man.
My immediate family arrived a day prior from Miami to help get acclimated. We stayed at the Sofitel in Heathrow T5. The others flew in from New York City/JFK the morning of the cruise. A note about the hotel: It was fine, got it on a decent pre-paid rate, and we had easy access to dining options within the airport. Didn’t want to bother with going into London, we planned a few days at the backend of the trip post cruise and I’ve been before. But, if you fly into T-3, like we did, you have to take the Heathrow Express train to get to it (and subsequently back the following morning to meet the others and out transfers). Not difficult, and no cost associated with it, but it’s a little time consuming and there’s some long walking involved (i.e., daughter: Are we theeeeere yet??? My feeeeet hurt!!).
Transfers/Embarkation: We reserved them through Princess, and while more expensive then a third party coach, we didn’t want to mess around on day one. It’s an approximately two-hour drive through some nice villages like Winchester, and you arrive at Southampton. Boarding was smooth, no issues, the whole process maybe took 45 minutes. Got to our cabins (three in a row port side on Caribe deck), and had our steward open the dividers on the balconies and it was time to relax. We were jet-lagging harder than usual and I developed a bit of a 24-hour bug. It played a role for the first two days unfortunately.
The ship: It’s nice. It can get a little confusing navigating it at first, which decks go through, when to go up, back down, etc. But we all enjoyed it. I’ve had limited cruise experience (Celebrity, Disney, NCL, Princess) and some of the others had been on other lines as well and the ship got no complaints from any of us. I much prefer the Solstice-Class on Celebrity (I’ve been on Equinox and Reflection). The piazza area was very nice, if a bit smaller than I anticipated. Pool areas were nice but we hardly used them on this itinerary (the air was too cold, but the water was always very warm). Our cabins were Premium Balcony. They stick out from the ship so the decks above can look down onto you. The plus is a larger balcony, so we didn’t mind. The minus is, obviously, less privacy. The cabins themselves were a bit small, but storage space and the bathroom were fine. The TV offerings are very limited, no on demand library, and some channels simply didn’t work the way they should For example, the “ship” TV station, never (and I mean never) had the outside temperature listed! It always read “N/A.” Barometric pressure ….N/A. LOL! And no ordering or checking your account on the TV. It was simply outdated.
The food: We’re not in any way food snobs, but it’s true what’s been written: Princess food is not very good. The buffet was fine for breakfast and some dinners, on a Denny’s kind of level. And the dining room offerings were just ok (the service was also hit or miss). What was really surprising was how average the specialty restaurant we tried was. We ate at the steakhouse one night and it wasn’t any better than the dining room. All in all, the food is ok and you’ll get by. A note about the onboard lobster tails (we had it in the steakhouse and the MDR on “lobster night”): they were among the worst I’ve ever had. I know it’s broiled under electric, but yuck, it looked like it was steamed, boiled white, with no seasoning. Blech. The International Café had sandwiches and coffees (upcharge on the latter) that were pretty good. The wine bar claimed to have tapas, but they were just a very limited selection (like three or four) of horrible appetizers. The pub lunch on sea days in the Wheelhouse bar was surprisingly good.
Onboard experience: It was a “Night of the Living Dead” reunion! ;) I jest, but, let’s just say there weren’t many families with kids, and we got a few rude looks on elevators with our daughter. Some guests were sweet and some had no manners whatsoever. It’s like anywhere - take the good with the bad and you’ll be fine. The onboard photographers got out of hand on a few nights, you couldn’t get off an elevator without some dope sticking a lens in your face. I don’t like having my picture taken and I recognize it’s a personal thing with me. But I didn’t like this aspect of the onboard experience.
Movies under the stars seemed like fun, but the weather wasn’t conducive for outdoor movie watching (at least for us, we live in Miami after all). The kids club was good and the employees were nice with our daughter, kudos there. The arcade is worthless. Boo, we were hoping there’d be some games we could play together. I can’t personally vouch for the spa, but everyone else in my family went (multiple times in some cases) and loved it. My mom said her masseuse was one of the best she’s ever had.
Since the trip was so port intensive, we spent most of our time off the ship anyway, or relaxing on our balconies. But again, overall, the ship’s aesthetic was fine.
Misc: We purchased two expensive Go Pro cameras and assorted attachments on board. A package of unopened (and expensive!) attachments, along with a battery and cords, was either a. left in our cabin or b. taken out of our luggage. They were gone when we got to our hotel in London after the trip. I requested a lost and found search and never heard back. No follow up of any kind. I sent another request. I emailed, I faxed. I called. I never heard a peep. No sorry, nothing found. That would've sufficed. Not good, Princess.
Ports/excursions: I tend to try and do things on our own, rarely going through a cruise ship’s offerings. I’ll try and outline how we did what we did in case anyone reading this decides to give them a try.
St Peter Port/Guernsey: This a short stop on day one, and a tender port. It looked lovely from our balcony and … none of us got off the ship to visit! I was still feeling sick, everyone was tired, so we all rested up. Carry on.
Cork: We did Butler’s e-Coach tour to Blarney Castle, Cork, and Kinsale. The highlight was watching mom and daughter “kiss the Blarney Stone.” (I’ve heard the wait to get up to the top of the castle can be outrageous, and it was indeed long, about an hour. too bad but it didn’t leave us enough time to shop in the adjacent woolen mills so be prepared to choose. Also, at times the climb up through the castle can be tight/claustrophobic and harrowing.) We then drove through Cork, but no stop. We did stop for lunch in the port town of Kinsale, which was kind of drab. Not the best day.
Dublin: Weird day here. A few in our group decided last minute to do the Guinness Storehouse ship excursion. The rest of us got a late start and hopped a cab into the city center around 9:30. It’s only a 10-minute drive. Went right to Trinity College and luckily got on the first student led tour of the grounds. It wraps up with a stop in the library and a chance to view the Book of Kells. Great tour, informative, fun, and inexpensive! Left campus and found a massive crowd with police galore. One look up revealed why: A jumper was walking along the ledge of a multi-story building right in front of the college. We hurried my daughter away and walked some side streets until we found the authentic Stag’s Head pub, which I had bookmarked as a lunch possibility. Good pints, service, and pub food. We then walked though Temple Bar, over the River Liffey on the Halfpenny Bridge, along the river, and then, back past the college (where the jumper was still at it!). The city traffic was at a crawl due to this, so we grabbed an ice cream and a taxi back to port. The day started out fun, then got dark, then fun, then dark again. I was glad to find out after my trip that he didn’t jump.
Belfast: This was a great, great day. I had reserved a private tour through Paddy Campbell’s Black taxi tours. I had asked to do a lot, and boy did we. We drove up to the Antrim Coast and visited the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. This might have been the highlight of the whole trip. Everyone loved it. The scenery was stunning, and climbing across was thrilling. Take note, it’s a bit of a hike to and from the bridge. We then visited the Giant’s Causeway and the delightful little fishing harbor of Ballycastle, which is a location in Game of Thrones. I don’t watch the show but some in our group do and recognized it. The harbor was great regardless. We enjoyed lunch and a few pints at a tavern, and then saw another GOT location and Dunluce Castle. We then made our way back to Belfast city and toured the Shankill and Falls political murals and peace line (we all signed and left messages on the Shankill Road wall, including my daughter). We got a heavy dose of history and reality (be forewarned: at times we were in some uncomfortable situations – I personally felt fine, but I could see the concern on some faces) about the Troubles, and while somber, it was a very important part of the day. Our guide Damian was excellent and showed us so much in just one day - it’s still hard to believe how much we did. I highly recommend a tour with Paddy Campbell’s service.
Glasgow: Everyone decided to say on the ship and just shop in the port town of Greenock (“grehn-ick” if you will!). Well, I wasn’t having any of that! So the wife and I walked to the train (about 15 minutes) and went into Glasgow. This is one port we did virtually zero research on. Went to a local art museum which wasn’t so great and then walked around a bit, hung out in a square, and that was about it. (We found out the really good art museum is outside the city a bit after it was too late to go – oops). So we shrugged and went back to the train and then Greenock. Nothing to see here, move along.
Kirkwall/Orkney: Tender port here, but they drop off right in the town center so that was helpful. I wanted to see all the Neolithic sites at my own leisure so I reserved a car large enough for all of us far in advance. Kirkwall has limited available vehicles and almost all were already reserved, but luckily, I found one. (Note: the roads are very narrow, often one lane, and you will be driving on the left side and shifting gears with your left hand. I enjoyed it but had a few close calls.) I reserved a tour of the ancient Maeshowe funerary cairn. It was ok, too long to stand in a tiny room (literally 45 minutes listening to the guide go on and on). Not kid friendly, kept barking at my daughter to stop fidgeting and such. So I barked back and took her outside to look at some cows. The family wasn’t impressed. We then went to the Ring of Brodgar, a very cool stone henge. We walked around, took pictures, and joked about (“Look! There goes a rabbit! It’s the Rabbit of Brodgar! Oops! I just broke wind. It’s the Poot of Brodgar! I belched. It’s the Burp of Brodgar!). We then went to Skara Brae, a stone-aged village that was uncovered by a storm a hundred years or so ago. This was very cool. We had a nice lunch at the onsite café and decided, at the request of mom, to go and look for …puffins. Yay. We went to an amazing and stunning site called Marwick Head. There were beautiful craggy cliffs (dangerous!), crashing waves, but alas, no puffins. We made our way back to Kirkwall and dropped off the car. Did some shopping (found a pretty good record store for old vinyl), popped into the cathedral, and then hopped back on the tender. All in all, an enjoyable day but something was missing that kept it from being an excellent day. Some of the locals seemed grouchy. Maybe that was it. Or lack of puffins, perhaps?
Invergordon/Loch Ness: Ever since I was a small child I’ve always wanted to visit Loch Ness and the Scottish Highlands (never thought I’d actually get the chance). So, what to do with just the one day to play with in the area? Could I actually see the loch, and then some? Enter Ian with Inverness Tours. He put together an amazing day for my family. And that’s no easy task, considering our group consisted of my senior mom, my sister, her college-student daughter, my seven-year-old daughter, my wife, and one frazzled guy - me! (Each one of us crazier than the next.)
He was waiting for us the minute we got off the ship, decked out in traditional dress complete with kilt, and off we went. It’s amazing how much we did — beautiful drives through the countryside, a visit to Loch Ness and a cruise on the loch followed up with a tour of Urquhart Castle, and finally, the goofy Loch Ness Experience. There was shopping for the ladies, then lunch at Culloden Battlefield, then another shopping stop in Inverness, and then, a surprise highlight – a stop at the Clootie Well (Legend has it if you leave an article of your clothing after dipping it in the spring's waters, then make a wish, and then hang it on a tree, it will come true. Awesome! Look it up!). My daughter loved this! All the while we were regaled with animated stories and historical facts about this amazing region. We even stopped off to see an actual Heilan’ Coo! Great guy. Great tour. This day was one of the standouts for all of us during our two-week+ vacation. Highly recommended.
Edinburgh: The inclusion of Edinburgh, along with Belfast, was why we chose this Princess British Isles itinerary over a similar one with Celebrity that didn’t make these stops. Always wanted to visit “Edinbrah” and it didn’t disappoint. The tender here is a bit long, a solid 10-minute ride, and it goes into the little village (if you can call it that) of South Queensferry. Taxis are limited; we had to wait 20 minutes to get one. There is a shuttle bus but the line was huge and I knew exactly where I wanted to go. There’s also a train but it’s a fairly long uphill walk to the station, from what I was told. After a longish taxi ride and plenty of traffic, we alighted at the foot of Edinburgh Castle and thanks to our Scotland Explorer passes (get ‘em online at home before you go, print ‘em, and you’re all set), avoided the long queues and went right in. Superb! What a beautiful fortress. We walked about and enjoyed the amazing views. Afterward, it was down the Royal Mile to Mary King’s Close. I’ve wanted to do this after seeing it on a travel show many years ago. It was fun, but very corny at times (he wife hated it). In retrospect, I would have skipped it. We then went to Grassmarket area and had an excellent pub lunch at the historic White Hart. We shopped a bit, toured the cathedral, and then walked down “The Mound” past the Scottish National Gallery, and through Princes Street gardens (what a great place to just relax, hear some live music, and just be) and along Princes Street. We were going to take the train back (Waverley Station is right there) but decided to hop a cab instead. Getting back was much faster than coming in, only took about 20 minutes. We all loved the city. It had great energy and a cool vibe, and wished we had more time. It was my college-aged niece’s favorite city on the cruise (even over Paris) and she hopes to study abroad there some day. I hope she does too – I‘d have an excuse to go back!
Le Havre/Paris: Most of my group went to Paris for the day, but I've been to the city a couple of times before and wanted to experience something new. I always wanted to visit Mont St Michel, but the ship didn't offer an excursion and was told by many it's too long a drive. Well, it is a long day, but I did it, and then some.
With mom in tow, I got off the ship and went to the Rent-A-Car desk in the cruise terminal building (the only car rental right in the port) promptly at 8:00 and on our way by 8:30. (I reserved a vehicle a few months in advance - it's recommended to do so as they have limited cars at the port and you don't want to waste time going to another agency in Le Havre city center.)
I made it to the city of Caen within an hour, which I had previously decided was my "no turning back point." If we were doing good time, we'd head for MSM, and if not, we'd head into Bayeux, and then tour the D-DAY landing beaches for the day. Since we did get to Caen at approximately 9:30, we went for it. With a short stop for refreshments, plus stopping for photos of MSM on the approach, we arrived just before 11:00.
It was crowded. Lots of school groups. But we didn't wait long to board the bus at the new visitor center (give yourself an extra half-hour each way at least if you try this) and we were at the base of MSM in short order. We reached the summit, toured the abbey, not rushed, at a comfortable clip, and when we were ready, we descended through the charming village streets. Grabbed a couple of baguettes and an ice cream and headed back to the car.
At the car it was now 2:30PM. I said we could take a nice leisurely drive back to Le Havre, stop in a little village - OR - we could try and squeeze in a short visit to Omaha Beach. We chose the latter, so that's what we did.
The drive there, once you get within a few miles, is quite beautiful and exciting. We parked and enjoyed about 45 minutes just walking along the sand, floored by the sheer size of the landing beach, looking up at the hillsides, at the monuments, Pont du Hoc in the distance. (I was very close to trying to squeeze in Pont du Hoc but decided not to push my luck anymore than I already had.) Drove back, returned the car around 6:00PM and got on the ship. It’s a long day but very doable – don’t believe the naysayers! This was another highlight of the trip.
Southampton/London: We reserved a transfer/tour through International Friends, with stops in Salisbury, Stonehenge, and Windsor Castle before getting dropped at our hotel in South Kensington, London (we stayed for an additional two days before heading home). If I had to do over, I’d just do the Stonehenge half-day transfer (we loved it) and have more time in London. Salisbury was ok, but Windsor just isn’t our “cup of tea.” We’re not big on all the opulence the royals are afforded, and it makes us uneasy. But if that’s your thing, you’ll love it. The International Friends guide Nick was great. He was very funny, and I loved the cheeky wit. Too bad a lot of it was lost on the old duds on our coach. I’d recommend them.
Final thoughts: It was a nice trip, not great. Would I sail Princess again? Sure, if the price was right and they offered an itinerary that nobody else offered. But from my limited cruise experience, they’re not in Celebrity’s league.