Our cruise began with a 6 day pre-cruise land tour. We made our own flight arrangements to Sydney and arrived early Sunday morning and took a taxi to the Four Seasons Hotel. We were pleasantly surprised to find that Princess had arranged special check-in for cruise tour guests and we were able to get our room key immediately. The Four Seasons is a lovely hotel very well situated near the waterfront and the rooms and buffet breakfast were very good. We spent Sunday wandering around Sydney, which just happened to be celebrating the 75th anniversary of the harbor bridge. Streets were blocked off to auto traffic and everyone seemed to be having a wonderful time. Had dinner at the Quay restaurant overlooking the harbor and opera house. That evening had an orientation meeting with our tour guide, a delightful American, Jim Diaz, who has lived in Australia for many years. On Monday our group took a bus tour of the city and then a harbor cruise/lunch (not the greatest food). We had dinner on our own at a delightful little pizza place just a couple of blocks from the hotel. Sydney is a very accessible city and we thoroughly enjoyed our stay there. On Tuesday morning we flew to Ayer's Rock. We were able to leave our two big suitcases behind and were told that they would be transferred to the ship for us (and indeed, they were waiting for us in our cabin when we arrived on board ship.) For this flight and all the others we took on the cruise tour, Jim handled all the tickets and baggage issues and the whole process was extremely easy. Unfortunately, in Ayer's Rock we encountered a lot of rain but it was quite a thrill anyway to see waterfalls flowing off the Rock! A word of caution to anyone going to the interior of Australia...yes the flies are as bad as you've heard! We apparently had fewer flies because of the weather, but they were very annoying and we were glad for our fly netting. We went for a sunset viewing of Ayer's Rock but, of course, it rained. Nevertheless, our coach driver had provided canapEs and champagne and we stood under our umbrellas watching the Rock and had quite a hilarious time. We also toured, and hiked into, the Olgas, and we were actually glad that the weather was a bit cooler...I'd hate to make the hike in 100 F weather! We stayed at the Sails in the Desert hotel...it was okay but food prices were a bit exorbitant. The following day we took a long bus trip to Alice Springs, stopping on the way for lunch and a camel ride (for those adventurous among us) Alice Springs was interesting (the desert park particularly) but I'm not sure it was worth the long bus ride to get there. We next took a plane ride to Cairns. What a fun little city! A shopper's paradise with loads of stores and lots of restaurants. We ate at Cafe Meze, a cute little upstairs (open air balcony) restaurant with great sangria and excellent seafood. The highlight of our cruise tour came the following day with a catamaran ride out to a pontoon moored on the Great Barrier Reef. It had been raining in Cairns so we were a bit worried, but after an extremely rocky ride (lots of folks got seasick) out to the pontoon, the sun came out and we were able to snorkel. It was amazing. We've snorkeled in Hawaii and Puerto Rico and this was the best! They served a buffet lunch on the pontoon (not very good) and then, after more snorkeling, we boarded the catamaran back to Cairns. The following day we boarded a plane for Sydney. The weather was so bad in Sydney that our captain said he might not be able to land the plane and would have to divert to Brisbane...it was a few tense moments but after circling for a while, there was a small break in the weather and the captain took the plane down to the applause of the passengers, most if not all of them Princess cruise tour participants who were ready to board the Sapphire Princess. Embarkation was extremely easy...by the time we arrived at the ship it was past 7 pm and there were no lines. We were quickly on board and in our cabin and our luggage was all there. We had to stop unpacking to go to the muster drill, but managed to finish unpacking and have a lovely late dinner at the International Dining Room.
Our cabin steward was Carmelo, who has been mentioned by another reviewer. We also found him to be an excellent steward....there when we needed him and unobtrusive the rest of the time. He quickly learned our names and always cheerily wished us a good morning or good evening whenever we saw him. Our mini-suite was spacious and we loved our balcony. Yes it was uncovered and yes people could look down on us but we still made good use of the balcony, especially traveling through Fiordland. We even had a couple of warm sea days and ordered room service and had lunch on the balcony.
Sapphire Princess is a lovely ship and Captain Bates a charming man. We were fortunate to meet him and cruise director Paul at the cruise critic get together the first sea day. We loved hearing Captain Bates'little nautical tales and trivia each noon. We found the food to be the best of any cruise we've taken (with the exception of our first cruise on HAL's Rotterdam). We had anytime dining and tried all four restaurants, but our favorite became Pacific Moon. The maitre d' soon got to know us and we had uniformly excellent (and in a couple of cases, outstanding) service. We found that getting to the dining room after 7:30 was the best timing and we had to wait only once for a table. We ate breakfast a few times in the dining room and a few times in Horizon Court. I loved the Egg Beaters mushroom omelette in the dining room and found plenty of good food in the buffet. A couple of times, when my husband didn't want breakfast, I went to Horizon Court and then brought my platter down to the cabin. I do wish that Princess provided trays as they do on HAL and Celebrity. It was a bit awkward trying to balance juice and coffee on the platter as well as silverware and the food!
It was the Jewish holiday of Passover while we onboard and I have to applaud Princess and Executive Chef Marcello Berardi. Staff cordoned off an area of the Horizon Court and provided a complete seder service and dinner (led by a rabbi). Chef Berardi himself greeted us when we arrived and the food he prepared was outstanding. Princess even provided an excellent Kosher wine (our wait staff saw how much we were enjoying it and brought a second bottle to our table!)
The public rooms on Princess never felt crowded and we enjoyed sitting in the Explorer's Lounge after breakfast (and our two mile walk on Promenade Deck or on the jogging track) and reading. We were disappointed however, with the entertainment on board and the lack of things to do in the evening. The production shows were not very good and the singers, I'm sorry to say, were at times excruciatingly off key. The only good entertainer, our opinion, was Jeri Sager, an American Broadway singer and actress. The lounge entertainers weren't good either. A couple of times we went up to the Skywalkers Bar, an absolutely beautiful room with great views and a good DJ, but few people were there and so we didn't stay long. There was one good lecture on board about Fiordland, but not much else of interest to us. Shops were dreadful...overpriced and nothing particularly interesting. On other cruises we've found much more variety and more bargains. One thing we missed on Princess (which we'd found very interesting on HAL and Celebrity) were the port lectures. And we appreciated on the other cruise lines, up to date information about weather, shuttle service, etc. in the various ports. We got none of this on the Sapphire.
I tried to use the gym but found it always crowded with waits for the treadmills, so we instead walked briskly on the promenade deck or the jogging track. I had a massage in the Lotus Spa and enjoyed it very much despite the attempt afterwards to sell product.
I have no comments on the shore excursions because we had arranged for private tours in each port, but I will say we had no problem getting off the ship to meet our tour guides. Disembarkation in Auckland went extremely smoothly except we had some difficulty locating our luggage in the main hall...bags were not where they were supposed to be and it took a while to find them.
All in all, we thoroughly enjoyed the cruise and land tour and feel Princess did an excellent job. The Sapphire Princess is a wonderful ship and has a great crew and we'd love to cruise on her again.