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Arrival/embarkation: After our 10-hour direct flight from LAX landed at Heathrow, we collected our luggage, and quickly located multiple Princess representatives who shuffled us into a holding area with other cruisers. After a brief wait (which was a nice chance to get a restroom/refreshment break) all we herded onto multiple coaches for the 90-minute commute to the port at Southampton. We had no need to handle our larger pieces of luggage after boarding the bus (of course this is if you had pre-arranged transport to the dock with Princess, at a cost, but a very nice option to use). Once at the dock, and after going through the check-in process, all were directed into a very large seating area to hold for boarding onto the ship as your group was called. Not really clear why we were queued up in this manner, but the reason provided was that the gangway was very warm (if 72 seems warm, ok), but nonetheless, those who were not Elite status had to wait. There is a small refreshment area as well as adequate seating and facilities to accommodate everyone - but you know how anxious everyone gets when they want to board. In any case, once our group was called, boarding was as immediate as walking up the gangway and having your picture taken by security.
Cabin: We were traveling with four other family members, but my wife and I were the only pair who opted for a cabin with a balcony. We were on the Caribe Deck (10) near the front of the ship and had an oversized balcony with four chairs (two were reclinable), a small table, and plenty of room to mingle. The room itself was what we usually expect on Princess, and really still in very nice condition. It is nice to see that they've converted to flat-screen TVs. The fridge is always a plus, and the closet space to hang clothes was more than enough. I had pre-arranged my tuxedo on the Cruisewear web site and it was hanging in my closet before we boarded - I highly-recommend using this service, especially on a long cruise like this one (with more than one formal night) - saves you a few pounds of weight in the luggage. Once the cruise is completed, you simply leave the tux hanging in the closet. Our room steward, Suchet, was very quick to refresh our cabin on our absence or as requested, again, something we are accustomed to on Princess.
Generic Crown Princess atmosphere/offerings: One area I thought to be a little in lacking, or at least different than other Princess cruises we've done was the relative lack of "hoopla" presented by the Cruise Director. Don't get me wrong, I am fine without most of the fluff usually thrown about, but I was really surprised at the low-keyed Bon Voyage festivities on the decks as we pulled out of Southampton. This seemed to be the case throughout the cruise from my observation. I guess I am just used to having the Cruise Director providing a very vocal presence during the cruise. Again, not an issue for me as we can do without most of that anyhow, though in our case we had two cruise "rookies" with us, and for their benefit it would have been nice for just a little fluff. As expected, photos were being snapped at every port, in the dining rooms, and video was recorded at various functions, etc during the cruise. The Princess Patter was filled with multiple activities and events for all to enjoy otherwise. Overall, from what I could determine (based on those quiet hallway comments, etc.) most folks were satisfied.
Food: I read a lot of the reviews out there and honestly the cruise operators will never completely win any small battles on this front. There are simply too many different likes/dislikes in the cruising public to make a true and fair assessment. A buffet is a buffet - and the Crown Princess buffets as far as my group were concerned, were just fine. The food offered was diverse and many of the late-lunch & dinner buffets were themed: Creole night, Mexican Lunch, Seafood night, etc. There were other offerings besides the theme related fare also - something for everyone really. I will add to all of this regarding buffets was that I always heard at least one person complaining about something while grazing in the lines - and I have come to expect that. I ate just fine at the buffet thank you.
Sit-down dining: We attended actual sit-down formal/semi-formal dinners many nights. We opted for anytime dining, which worked out very well for us as we at times returned to the ship from excursions a little later than expected, etc. We ate in the DaVinci and Michaelangelo dining rooms (which carry identical menus by the way). I felt like the offerings were there for shy eaters (who don't stray from what they would eat at home) as well as the "explorers" (who will try something new like venison, etc). There were plenty of very good and diverse desserts to choose from each night, and gosh we did multiple desserts on multiple nights. They pre-post that evening's menu selections in the area just prior to entering the restaurant - so really, you can see if you are interested in doing the sit-down that night or going to the grazing line instead on the 15th deck.Extra-fee dining: As we were celebrating a wedding anniversary, we scheduled a dinner in the Crown Grill. There is a base $25 p/p charge, and if one opts to add larger lobster entrees above that, $9 more (which I chose to do). The menu in this dining room is very good, with multiple steak, seafood, poultry, etc. entrEes. You are able to order just as much as you would like. Our server made a very good suggestion that we used - we had them bring out a sampling (large) of most of the side dishes offered, which was enough for everyone in our group (6) to enjoy exactly what they wanted. If one side dish was finished, it was possible to have them bring out more of the same. Overall, we all really enjoyed our dinner in the Crown Grill.
Other food notes: The Trident Grill is located near the pool area on the Lido (15) deck. Hamburgers, hot dogs, fries, etc, available here nearly all day. The Pizzeria, also located near the pools, offers three different pizzas - a pepperoni and a margherita available every day, and one special pizza that changed daily. My group really enjoyed the four-cheese pizza, and I tried a different one that actually included hot chiles and tuna. The Trident Grill and Pizzeria are good, quick options to any sit-down or buffet for lunch - plus since it is located near the pools, to do not need to put a shirt on...or shoes! There is a free soft ice cream bar right next to the pizzeria, which offers ice cream on the cone, including sprinkles if preferred (please see my note about the other ice cream available on the 5th deck for a fee). The International Cafe is a nice little area with some seating located right off the piazza on the 5th deck. There is one side at which they offer fancier coffees, lattes, hot chocolate, for a small fee. To the other side of the counter you can enjoy free pastries, doughnuts, etc. There are also candy/caramel apples, small tapas trays, and other offerings for a small fee. This counter also offers a three-scoop gelato tray (with toppings) for $1.50 - we tried it and it was quite good and a good change from the soft-serve on the Lido deck. There is a Wine Bar on ship also, but I never really observed many folks using that venue during the cruise. As a last resort, it is possible to purchase chips, peanuts, candy, from the sundry store on ship (only opened while at sea). One option I will suggest to all would be to try and hit one of the port-located grocery stores while walking ashore - can pretty much get whatever you crave from home there.
On-board Activities: Well you have your standard fare on board - Bingo, a Casino (which I might add cannot be opened very much while in UK waters), Princess Theater shows (comedy, dance, etc), trivia games, a library, internet area, poolside contests. The "Movies under The Stars" held near one of the main pools on the Lido deck was well-attended each night (and it was not always that warm out). Free popcorn is provided, along with wool blankets, and a different chaise lounge cover that has a small pillow sown into it. Always something to do on board, and places to go to be alone if preferred (despite the fact there are 3,000 others cruising with you).
Laundry Notes: Good news since my last cruise - the laundry rooms are open around the clock. $1 for a load of wash, $1 to dry. There is a change machine in the laundry room, as well as vending for detergent/dryer sheets (US $$$). I highly recommend bringing with you the new Purex Complete 3-in-1 laundry sheets instead. Same sheet is used in the washer, and then goes right into the dryer with the clothes. These are as flat as a dryer sheet but much more convenient.
Cruise Critics: We had a group of more than 40 join in at the Cruise Critics Meet and Greet on our second day aboard. We met in the Adagio Bar on the 16th deck. It was fun to meet face to face with the folks with whom we have been communicating over several months about this trip. There were two additional meetings in the following days as well.
Ports of Call:
Guernsey, England: This was a bit of a surprise for us. A spectacular little island and a great way to make our introduction into the UK. We had no planned excursions and simply walked about on our own. A great little town with nice shops and little places to eat. We walked out to Cornet Castle which has a commanding view of the town as well as the ocean. Made it in time for the firing of the large military cannon. Our whole group was very happy with our short visit to Guernsey.
Cobh/Cork, Ireland: We pre-arranged for a driver to pick us up at the dock and go exploring. This was a huge time advantage over taking the Princess-organized tour. We made it to Blarney Castle roughly 45 minutes prior to the first tour bus and our group scrambled up to the top to kiss the Blarney Stone. We explored around the castle a bit more, and by the time we started walking over to the Woolen Mills shops, the line to kiss the stone was 45 minutes long. After some brief shopping, our driver headed off to Kinsale. Kinsale was a treat. We hit many little shops and at the suggestion of our driver John, had a wonderful fish and chips lunch at Dino's. Kinsale is a great little place to visit and is one of the better places for all types of dining. From Kinsale, John drove back towards Cobh through magnificent countryside. You hear about the emerald isle, but really, it was indescribably green in person. We toured a lovely little cathedral in the heart of Cobh and got back on the ship. This is not a knock on the Princess-led excursions, but having our own driver made this so much more personal. John was proud to describe the history, the culture, and the myths for us and provided his voice by way of Irish songs along the way. Plus, we did not have to wear one of the silly stickers on our shirts.
Dublin, Ireland: Again, opted for doing no "official" tours and jumped the $5 p/p shuttle bus Princess had arranged to drop us off in the middle of town. We walked all over the place exploring wonderful shops and viewing magnificent old buildings. The flower boxes were everywhere. Made it over to St. Patrick's Cathedral next. Bear in mind that there is an admission charge to go into the cathedral, although the exterior is exquisite as well as the marvelous public park on the grounds and both are free. The interior is so steeped in history that it seems overwhelming really. Spectacular stained glass throughout, not to mention fabulous sculptures and stonework. You really seem small in this place of worship and history. Hmmm, after all that worship, we could not leave Dublin without visiting the Guinness Storehouse. There is an admission charge to get into this venue also, but that gives you an opportunity to shop at a really neat Guinness Store for trinkets, tours the brewery exhibits, but also to free beer! There is an observation/bar area that has a 360-degree view of Dublin that is wonderful. Because this room (and it is a large room) gets a little crowded, it gets hot also. The beer seemed to help a lot though.
Liverpool, England: Our little group broke into two factions - one took the "In the Steps of the Beatles" tour, while the others went to "Northern Wales and Conwy Castle". The Beatles tour was bus-based, without much time to shop, etc, but our traveling partners that went on it said it was excellent. There were many stops at many significant Beatles related places - Strawberry Fields, birthplaces, etc. Their guide was a Beatles historian with many, many factoids on the Fab Four and the background. The Northern Wales/Conwy Castle tour was another beautiful drive though unbelievable countryside. The Conwy Castle was immense and the walls stretching through the town were quite long. From the top of the castle turrets it was easy to see for many miles. We slowly strolled the streets after touring the castle. Our tour included a stop at a hotel in Betws-y-Coed where we were treated to a nice luncheon. This was followed by some shopping in town on our own. It is a very small, but very well kept little village.
Belfast, Northern Ireland: Again, we did this shore on our own. As I recall (and I could be wrong) there are complimentary shuttle buses that picked us up right at the dock and brought us back as we wished. It was possible to walk the streets of Belfast from the central drop-off point. We managed to ride the "Belfast Wheel" - a 200-foot high enclosed Ferris wheel that offered sweeping views of the area. Many historical buildings and architectural interests to view in Belfast.
Greenock/Glasgow, Scotland: This is where we made our only poor choice. Should have opted for an official excursion into Glasgow, but instead chose to walk around Greenock. This looked promising as we got off the ship (and town is within walking distance I would add). Actually, outside of seeing a few old buildings, the shops along what was billed as their main shopping avenue were a bit run down, and the mall very close by was a 1970s era mall from what I could surmise and in need of some upkeep. Not extremely bad here, but I would suggest either getting into Glasgow proper, or staying on the ship.
Inverness/Invergordon/Loch Ness: Again our little group went different ways here. One part of the group did the Princess led tour of the Loch Ness, Inverness, etc. The reviews were all positive, although it was mentioned that there was not much in the way of shopping at the Loch Ness location. Invergordon is merely the port town at which our ship docked. I did a walking tour on my own and really enjoyed the walk. Gorgeous views along the waterfront and up into the surrounding hills. The main shopping street had wonderfully unique offerings. The people were extremely friendly. I walked into the most-interesting little museum in town: the Invergordon Naval Museum and Heritage Center - great little displays and historical items. All in all a great, compact little port city.
Edinburgh, Scotland: We again hired a private coach to pick us up at the tender dock and plop us down in front of Edinburgh Castle. This was another huge place with indescribable rooms and views. There would not be enough words to describe everything here - has to be visited to be appreciated. I highly recommend obtaining your tickets to the Castle on the internet ahead of your trip. You can print out the tickets at home and walk right in without waiting in any lines. From the castle (at the top of everything) we walked down the Royal Mile. It was the 4th of July and as fate would have it, we happened to be walking down the Royal Mile at the same time there was a National Regimental Parade taking place. This was a trip highlight - a large procession of bagpipers, followed by a large military band, other military troops, and finally, retired veterans. I had goosebumps as "Scotland the Brave" was being played so majestically. It was magical. I think all of us had the greatest time wandering from shop to shop, from street to street, looking around Edinburgh. This was a really enjoyable place. One that we are sure we'd like to revisit.
LeHavre/Paris, France: Our last port of call. We took the Seine River Cruise tour offered by Princess. Our decision really boiled down to this - takes roughly three hours by bus to reach Paris from LeHavre, and of course three hours to return. So there was only about four good hours of time to squeeze Paris in - about like having one hour to see as much as possible in the Louvre. Additionally, since we had my older in-laws with us, we thought it might be easier to take the river cruise. This was a good choice, and actually, our bus made a couple of good, key stops along the way - we stopped first at a spot with a commanding view of the Eiffel Tower and we had a good 20 minutes there for pictures/quick shopping. Then the bus meandered through some significant streets on which were prominent buildings/architectural features, etc. Eventually we reached our very large covered riverboat for the cruise. From our terminus point, we had an even closer view of the Eiffel Tower, and along the way were alongside the Notre Dame cathedral, etc. The cruise included a very good lunch with unlimited wine being served. The boat was air conditioned, and the shade covers pulled back to allow for an all-inclusive upward view. There was a young French woman who played the violin as we dined, and she was wonderful. Spectacular cruise overall. Our bus took us from the riverside again past significant buildings and neighborhoods, and finally ended up at the Gallerie Lafayette - a ridiculously large shopping place. We had about an hour here, and this place is just gigantic! There is an observation deck on the 6th floor of one of the buildings that permits another view of the Eiffel Tower. Sadly our day in Paris came to an end with the long ride back to LeHavre and the reality of our ship.
Disembarkation: As we had a relatively early flight out of Heathrow (12:00 p.m. local), we were one of the first groups off the ship. For the most-part the process went really smooth. After sliding our cruise card one last time on the security check, we lumbered down the gangway and quickly located our luggage in the holding area, clearly marked by color. We wheeled our luggage out to the bus, it was loaded on, and off we went for the 90-minute drive to the airport. Since we had already checked into British Airways from the internet, all we had to do was check our bags in, then wait for the flight. British Airways was really efficient in that regard.
Now alas it is back to reality.