My husband (age 50) and I (age 44) have previously cruised three times on Holland America and twice on Disney. We've also done a few one-time cruises on a number of other lines. We decided to try Princess because it offered an Australia-New Zealand itinerary with dates that would work for us. We honestly didn't have high expectations for Princess and expected it to be a notch below HAL.
We were very pleasantly surprised. In fact, we thought this was our best cruise ever.
We flew to New Zealand on Air Tahiti Nui, stopping over in Tahiti for a few days on the way. That was a fun break and Air Tahiti Nui's business class was excellent, with comfy seats and unusually tasty food. We returned from Sydney to Los Angeles nonstop on Qantas, which also has a very good business class product. We were able to sleep well on both airlines.
Embarkation in Auckland was totally painless. We stayed at the Hilton Auckland, which is literally on the cruise pier next to the ship. We asked the hotel's Bell Services for the best way to get our luggage to the ship. "Oh, we'll be happy to do that for you," they said. We checked out in the morning and asked the bellhop to store our luggage, including hand luggage, so we wouldn't have to haul it around. We went off to have lunch and do a little shopping. When we returned at 2:30, we collected our hand luggage, the bellhop took the rest and we walked right onto the ship with no check-in lines at all. I would say it was less than 10 minutes from the time we left the Hilton lobby until we were in our stateroom. Our bags arrived in the cabin within a half hour.
Our mini suite was spacious, in excellent condition, with a pleasant, light and modern decor. The closet storage was a little small but there were ample storage areas elsewhere in the room. While the layout of the mini suite was pretty good overall, I did wish we had a curtain between the "bedroom" and the "living room" areas, so that one person could watch TV or read while the other slept. However, a sleep mask and ear plugs resolved that issue fairly well.
The bathroom was spacious by cruise ship standards, but could have used a few more shelves for storage. We had hanging toiletry kits and the only place we could hang them was from the towel rod over the toilet. That worked okay.
Almost all of the mini suites are on Dolphin Deck (Deck 9) and the balconies on that deck are completely uncovered, which provides no privacy or shelter from intense sun or rain. I think this was a mistake in the design of the ship, particularly since the mini suites are on the higher end, price-wise. It's hard to understand why the less expensive staterooms have covered balconies. We were lucky enough to have a lot of beautiful days on this sailing, so we enjoyed our spacious balcony anyway.
My single biggest complaint was the bed. Princess must have the hardest mattresses in the industry. The pillows that were initially provided were made of some kind of hard foam. We asked our steward for down pillows and those were cheerfully and immediately provided. The sheets and pillowcases were high quality. The down duvet was nice, though often too hot. I wish they'd also put a top sheet on the bed, so the duvet could be thrown off. (I'm sure our steward would have done this if we'd asked, but we kept forgetting.)
In general we found the service all over the ship to be very good. The crew was friendly and helpful. Our stateroom steward, Carmelo, was just outstanding. He was easily the best steward we've ever had on any cruise. We chose the Anytime Dining and had heard the dining room service might be lacking due to this. Far from it! Our servers were all quite good and some were excellent. Even the people clearing tables in Horizon Court were friendly and helpful.
We thought the food on the ship was quite good. We were really happy with our choice of Anytime Dining. It gave us great flexibility and a change of scenery. We always chose a table for two at dinner and typically sat down around 8:00-8:30. We usually didn't make reservations, but we only had to wait for a table once, and that was a 15-minute wait.
We tried all four of the dining rooms that are available for Anytime Dining. There is really no significant difference between them. I understand the dining rooms used to have different menus, but now they all serve the same thing, except for one "signature dish" per dining room. I think it would be more fun if you could choose from four different menus each night, though I suspect the logistics probably work better this way.
We were sort of puzzled about the "theming" of the dining rooms, which often didn't seem to make much sense. Why does the Savoy have Asian dEcor touches, which would seem more appropriate for Pacific Moon? Why were our servers in the Savoy wearing bolo ties - shouldn't those be worn in the Santa Fe dining room? It was strange but we found it amusing. Overall we enjoyed Vivaldi the most. It seemed to be the least busy - probably because it's not open to Anytime Dining passengers until 8:15 pm - and we felt it had the best service.
We usually ate breakfast and dinner in the main dining room, where we were always seated at large tables, so we had the opportunity to meet new people each time. The dining room food was very good overall and we found the service better than average.
We ate in Sabatini's twice and enjoyed it very much. The menu includes far too much food (you are served ALL of the listed appetizers, whether you want them or not) but the flavors were good, the meat was cooked properly and to order, and the service was attentive. We thought it was well worth the $20 per head surcharge and also left an extra tip because the wait staff was so outstanding.
Afternoon tea was a fun change of pace. I like it that Princess offers this daily (many other cruise lines only offer it a few times per sailing). The service was a little slapdash but the sandwiches and cakes were tasty and the tea was quite good. I think my husband found it a bore, but I enjoyed chatting with the ladies at my table. Perhaps next time I'll just go on my own.
The Horizon Court buffet was all over the place in terms of food quality. We always managed to find something we liked, but we did throw away a few bad dishes. The layout minimizes lines and we were usually able to find seating pretty easily if we walked a bit further into the adjoining areas. Empty tables were cleared quickly, which helped a lot.
We never bothered going to any of the shows, so I can't review the entertainment. I spent many years working in the professional theater and concert business, so I've had the opportunity to enjoy the "best of the best" in entertainment. I've found every cruise ship production I've ever watched to be rather amateurish.
Also, as is typical of cruise ships, the entertainment is geared for people older than us. This is understandable, since we are definitely younger than the average cruise passenger. I do wonder how cruise lines in general will satisfy the expectations of younger passengers, as the Baby Boomers begin to cruise more. Those of us who grew up listening to Jimi Hendrix and Elvis Costello are looking for a different type of entertainment than the current offerings.
Anyway, the entertainment wasn't a big deal to us. We ate late, had a few drinks in one of the bars, and then went back to our stateroom and watched movies. Speaking of the bars, we were pleasantly surprised by the reasonable drink prices, with most drinks running $4.25-$5.50. Some specialty cocktails were as high as $6.50, but that's about the upper limit. The bars we visited were all very nice. We enjoyed discovering the Wake View Bar on Deck 7, which is not easy to find. It is accessed via a spiral staircase from the dance floor of Club Fusion on Deck 8. It's a quiet getaway and a favorite with the ship's officers and entertainers.
We also enjoyed Crooners and the Wheelhouse Bar (though unfortunately Wheelhouse is a smoking space, which we didn't like). There were many other bars that we never even visited. That's the great thing about Sapphire Princess - she's big enough that there are lots of places to explore. We seldom experienced any sense of overcrowding.
There were some recently-released afternoon movies in the Princess Theatre on sea days. For instance, we saw The Illusionist and The Prestige, which made for an interesting comparison since both movies are period pieces about magicians. The same movie was usually shown on the stateroom TVs the next day. I do wish Princess would offer popcorn in the theater when movies are shown, as they do on Holland America and Disney, but that's a minor thing.
Against my better judgment, I had pre-booked a pedicure and a massage in the Lotus Spa. I say this because like the spas on virtually all cruise lines, the Lotus Spa is managed by Steiner. I don't feel their staff members are well trained and I hate the "hard sell" tactics they use in an attempt to flog their spa products. My two services were adequate but not great. I managed to avoid a sales pitch during and after the massage by writing only my name and "not interested in buying products" on the "health form" (which I strongly suspect is nothing more than a marketing tool). The massage therapist asked me perhaps three legitimate health questions so she could tick off some boxes on the form and that was the end of it.
We bought a length-of-cruise pass to the spa's Thermal Sanctuary. It was $150 for a couple and well worth the money, in my opinion. We enjoyed the heated recliners, the steam rooms and the nice multi-nozzled showers. The sanctuary was quiet, clean and pleasant, and never crowded. We found it a calming getaway on the ship. Next time I cruise Princess I will definitely buy the Sanctuary pass and skip the spa treatments.
We also enjoyed the Conservatory, a two-level covered pool area with loungers, which at times could be a nice relaxing escape. It's a very attractive space, though at times it can be very echo-y and loud.
We pretty did our own thing at the ports. We rented a car in Tauranga from Pegasus Rental Car (www.rentalcars.co.nz), which brought the car right to the port for us and did the paperwork on the spot. The car was clean and had an automatic transmission as requested. It had pretty bad paint (nicks all over) but they noted this in detail on the rental agreement without us having to ask. Actually I was sort of relieved that it wasn't a fancy, shiny new car since I had never driven on the left side before - if I had scraped a tree branch or something it wouldn't have mattered.
We drove from Tauranga to Longridge Fun Park in Te Puke, which is right on the way to Rotorua. At Longridge we had an opportunity to see some kiwi fruit growing and then we went on a fantastic jet boating experience, which was both thrilling and incredibly scenic. Since we drove, we arrived way before the cruise ship tour groups and thus we were the only two people in the jet boat, which can hold 25 people. The driver asked if we were thrill seekers and when we said we were, WOW - he really took us on a wild ride! It was great. We then drove to Rotorua and had a look around, ate lunch at Fat Dog Cafe (a fun hippy-dippy kind of place) and drove back at our leisure, enjoying the scenery.
In Christchurch we hired a van and driver through Discovery Travel (www.discoverytravel.co.nz). It was pretty expensive for just two people (if we'd shared the vehicle with another couple or two, the cost would have been much lower, of course) but what a great experience. Our tour guide, Sally, was very knowledgeable and flexible. We saw and did so much more in one day than we ever would have managed on our own!
Sally picked us up from the port and took us wherever we wanted to go. Since the Canterbury region in which Christchurch is located is renowned for its food and wine, we had requested some food and wine experiences and we were certainly not disappointed. We visited three food producers (a chocolate maker, a salmon purveyor that raises and smokes its own fish, and a meat curing company that makes the most delicious venison salami, among other things) and got wonderful tastes of their products.
We then drove up to the Waipara wine region and enjoyed a tasting and lunch at the beautiful Pegasus Bay winery. Then we drove back to Christchurch where we visited some galleries, walked through a stunning garden and got a general overview of the city. We also took a tram (with narration about the sights) around the city center, which was fun. Then Sally took us right back to the ship. Talk about easy and convenient.
We did not use Princess for any shore excursions except the Taieri Gorge Railroad trip in Dunedin, which could only be booked through Princess. While the Railroad excursion was extremely popular and had a huge number of participants, it was handled well logistically. The scenery was spectacular and each rail car had two attendants who served tea and biscuits as well as a box lunch that was quite good. I felt the excursion was a good value. We arrived back in Dunedin in the early afternoon, leaving time for some sightseeing on our own in town.
Cruising in Fiordland was amazing and truly a high point of the itinerary. We have been to the glaciers in Alaska and this was even better. In addition to the astonishingly beautiful scenery, we saw a huge pod of dolphins swimming alongside the ship.
In Hobart we just walked off the ship and explored the town on our own. It's an easy walk to Salamanca Place, which has some great shopping. We had an excellent seafood lunch at Mures Upper Deck, on the way back to the ship.
Melbourne was pretty easy to navigate on our own. There is a dedicated cruise port which offers a staffed information desk and they were eager to help with maps and directions. We bought a one-day tram pass in the terminal and took the tram right from the cruise port into town. We switched to the free circle city tram, which offers narration on the sights. The free tram got really crowded so we hopped off and transferred to another tram (the tram system was pretty easy to figure out and people we met were helpful) to go up to Queen Victoria Market. Mostly the market has miles of junky stuff – think “swap meet” – but there are also excellent food and produce markets to be explored. We enjoyed it.
The highlight of our day in Melbourne was lunch at Flower Drum Restaurant. It had been recommended to us and we were so glad we sought it out. The food was amazing and the service the most impeccable I’ve ever experienced, with many dishes prepared tableside. Though it’s nondescript looking from the outside, the atmosphere inside is elegant. We felt very underdressed in our sightseeing togs, but saw others who were equally casual. Flower Drum is not cheap, but it’s worth the money! We ordered the 4-course Chef’s Special Lunch for NZ$55 and it was fantastic. (There are a la carte offerings as well.) Flower Drum is on a narrow, alley-like street in the center city near Chinatown. While it’s not in an obvious location it is an easy walk from the free tram route. It’s wise to reserve a table because this place is very popular with business people in the area – we just faxed the restaurant with a request and they faxed us a confirmation.
Disembarkation was a breeze. We ate breakfast in the main dining room and when we were ready, we walked off the ship in minutes. We quickly collected our luggage and wheeled it ourselves to the Park Hyatt Sydney, which is maybe 2 blocks from the Overseas Passenger Terminal. By doing so we bypassed the big queue for a cab.
Sydney is an amazing city and we really enjoyed our stay at the Park Hyatt Sydney, which has a great location in The Rocks, with views of the Opera House to die for. From the Hyatt you can walk to all locations in The Rocks very easily. (The Rocks Market, which is held on the northern end of George Street each Saturday and Sunday, was just steps away and very worthwhile.) It took us just a few minutes to walk to Circular Quay, where you can get pretty much any bus, ferry or train.
We took both the Sydney Explorer and Bondi Explorer hop-on/hop-off buses, which include very good narration about the sights, and we enjoyed them very much. We also took a 2 ½ hour Harbour Sights cruise with narration, which was excellent. If you plan to do all three (Sydney and Bondi Explorer buses and a Harbour Sights cruise) I recommend buying a 3-day SydneyPass which includes unlimited access to those, plus unlimited access to all other buses, trains and ferries. It makes life easy and it’s a good buy at AUD$110.
We had some excellent meals in Sydney. In particular I recommend Sailors Thai Canteen, a casual place in The Rocks that serves inexpensive Thai food. Everyone sits at one long communal table. It was great fun. The Canteen does not take reservations. We also enjoyed some fantastically fresh seafood at the lovely and very expensive Ocean Room in the Overseas Passenger Terminal, which is where the Sapphire Princess docks. Some of the fish are taken right out of tanks when you order them (but mercifully, you don’t have to watch). The sushi and oysters are top-notch, and the whole crispy fried fish are delicious. Be sure to make a reservation as this restaurant is popular.
Overall, this was a completely enjoyable trip with very few glitches. When Princess gets better mattresses, we’ll definitely be sailing them again.