First time cruiser chose Crown Princess for the itinerary - Athens to Barcelona July 7-14.
First, the good:
Our state room was fantastic.
I spent a year reading reviews on cruise critic to lower my expectations, so I was just stunned by how beautiful and comfortable the state room was (Balcony, R-230), efficiently designed, with great lighting, visibility, and ventilation. It was love at first sight. I had been expecting sewage smells and bad grout and broken beds. Everything was fantastic.
The service is amazing.
A thousand crew members provide "Disney" levels of service. They compete with each other to be first to refill our drinks. They are knowledgeable and friendly.
Crowds are minimized.
I hate crowds and lines, so I was thrilled that Princess has engineered processes that minimize the impact of having so many people in such a small space. Any time a line might form, they hand out numbers and give you a comfortable place to sit in a lounge, with a drink, and when you are called, you just go -- no lines. We had any time dining, and we never waited for a table. There was never any kind of line at Horizon Buffet, and we could always get a window seat. Unless an event had just let out, we never had to wait for an elevator, and even then we could easily go to a different elevator bank or spend a few minutes on the promenade deck.
The food was excellent.
My traveling companions disagree -- they concur with the majority on Cruise Critic who describe the food as "nothing special" -- but I don't know what their gripe is. The Horizon Buffet is extensive, it is open non-stop from 6am-11pm, and the view from the dining area is to die for. My colleagues wanted eggs benedict every day, instead or rotating between eggs florentine, eggs benedict, and fried eggs. My colleagues wanted more cut fruit instead of whole fruit. The bagels should have been next to the lox. But there was eggs, and bacon, and blueberry blintzes. There was every kind of danish. It was a great spread.
But if the Horizon Buffet was good, the Dining Halls were better. Impeccable service and a terrific menu. Half of the menu stayed the same, and half changed daily, so you could stick with shrimp cocktail and grilled salmon, or go exploring. All three dining halls are identical, except for the wall paintings. The quality of the food was uneven -- I prefer my pot roast with more gravy, and the ribeye wasn't the best cut. Relying on the server's recommendations is a good strategy if you are torn.
If the Dining Halls are better, then Sabatini's and Crown Grill are best. The food is the best that can be summoned on a cruise ship, which is far beyond my requirements. What you are really paying for, though, is space and quiet. The Dining Hall is busy and noisy; the specialty dining venues are quiet, with far-apart tables. My colleagues didn't like it; they found the ambiance pretentious and fake.
Don't bother with the Deck 16 running track; instead is is just 2.8 laps to a mile around the Promenade deck, and the views from the stern and the bow never get old.
The Piazza is a great place to relax and get a drink. We really liked the International Cafe, with gelato, dessert cakes, sandwiches, and drinks.
The X-Trio was first rate, and we always welcomed a chance to hear them play popular standards on a violin, guitar, and accordion. They made the Piazza magical.
What a delight to be able to do laundry on board. There ought to be more than two washer/dryer combos per deck, and you ought to be able to buy laundry soap without visting guest services, but we made it work.
Our cabin steward Larry was magnificent, our stateroom was constantly refreshed.
The Princess Patter did a good job alerting us to what was going on on the ship.
Part 1 Summary
So: A gorgeous ship, a comfortable state room, a first-rate itinerary, delicious and abundant food, beautiful views, what's not to love?
Because of all these wonderful things, I was broken-hearted to leave the Crown Princess, and I wish I were still aboard. However, there were some bad things, too, and they were bad enough that I will try a few other cruise lines before I return to Princess.
The Endless Ripoffs
You are literally pounded with ads for overpriced Jewelry, Watches, Perfumes, Photography, and Spa Services. For the Spa, they give you a $50-off coupon for services that are overpriced by more than $50. For the others, there are daily specials, raffles, super-sales, hard-sells, etc. It's tawdry.
The Mother of All Ripoffs -- The Champagne Fine Art Auction
The Casino and the Fine Art Gallery use up a LOT of space on the ship, so even if you ignore them, you are still ripped off by loss of space that could be used for something else. But we attended the Champagne Fine Art Auction to try to understand what it could possibly be, and we we aghast. It was the most despicable collection of psychological techniques for high-pressure sales that I have ever seen in my life. We found a nice Kinkade Disney "Beauty and the Beast" piece that we knew for a fact could be had at the Disney store for $500 ($450 online from Kinkade, it turns out, in the largest, highest quality, most select version), and The Fine Arts Gallery offered it to us for the "rock bottom" price of $7,020. I won't go into all the details about all the scams and psychological tricks, but suffice it to say that Princess should be protecting its passengers from this kind of scam, not perpetrating it. This is unforgivable, and it colored for us the entire rest of the trip, because we knew that Princess would be willing to prey upon its captive passengers in the worst conceivable way. Bloomberg did an expose on Park West's Art Auctions at Sea a couple years ago, titled, "Prepare to Be Seasick." Read it.
Princess sold dozens of excursion at each port, which means dozens of tour guides. One of those tour guides will be the worst of all, and you have a chance of getting assigned to that guide. This is a structural problem -- finding 24 great tour guides is really difficult. But if you book an independent tour, like Viator, they aren't running as many buses, so they can afford to be more picky and in fact they do better quality control. Every Viator I have ever taken has been better than every Princess excursion I took. Princess was paid to do better, but in fact did worse. I'll try much harder to book independent tours in the future.
Ultimate Drink Disaster
The one Princess Scam Machine that you cannot possibly avoid is the Beverage System. Costco included an Ultimate Beverage Package in our tour, so we thought we had avoided any friction around that, but we were so, so, so wrong. First, even if you have a package, you still have to show your card so they can manually write down your account information every single time you get any kind of drink. So that's annoying. And the rules around that are one drink at a time, so you won't be ordering a Diet Coke for your partner who is off at the restroom. Unless they are there to order their own drink and show their own card, they'll have to wait. The delay and friction around the dinner table as everybody gets carded for every drink at every meal distracts from whatever moment you are trying to have.
Second, the Ultimate Lie is that you can have 15 glasses of wine per day, but you can't have even one Diet Sprite. Fountain soft drinks are included, but their fountain choices are limited, and canned soft drinks are not included. That means not only do they charge me $1.73 for each Diet Sprite, but I have to go through an apology ritual with the server who tries to sell me on a sugared spite and apologizes five times for having to charge me $2.30, but consoles me that I get 25% off the $2.30 (hence $1.73) for having bought the Ultimate Lie Package. I had to go through this every single day for every single Diet Sprite at every single meal.
We all know that they get Diet Sprite for 25-cents a can, probably less than they pay for the wine and mixed drinks they are retailing for $9 each, so charging for canned soft drinks is a major ripoff and a major inconvenience.
The port o'call lectures were boring beyond words -- you could bond with other passengers over this -- I literally fell asleep. The activities were insipid or insulting -- Paper Flower Making, Napkin Folding, Speed Painting. We tried some of these. No kids summer camp can compete with the stupid here.
I loved the X-Trio, and the musical lounge acts were maybe so-so. The "I was Mufasa" guy in the Crown Theater was talented, and his show was tolerable. The ambient music in the ship was poor -- too much whiny Millennial Indy music for the mostly over-fifty crowd, and four times at least we had to hear "Sailing Away," so call it unimaginative.
But the two Stage Shows were a disaster. Don't blame the singers, dancers, and musicians -- they were first rate talent, who signed up to do Disney-style musical reviews, but the producer and director of these shows -- and let the blame flow like a river all the way to the Entertainment Director and the Cruise Director -- ought to be fired so fast and so hard that they never experienced anything like it.
The problem with the Soul Motown show was that they chose some of the worst tunes to fill the time. This happens when a director is bored of the standard tunes and wants to entertain themselves more than the entertain the audience. It was okay, but it would have been a better show if they had done platinum hits of any decade, or show tunes, or the Great American Songbook, or anything.
The problem with Blame It On The Boogie, is, first, that Disco is not worth reviving. Second, the Disco Era was about more than just having sex, but this show simply staged a 40-minute on-stage orgy, which was so UN-family friendly that at one point the actors caricatured the sleaziest possible men and started sexually assaulting the women on stage. That nobody at Princess thought this was inappropriate -- or at least thought they could do better, that there were SOME standards for stage entertainment on Princess at all -- boggles the mind. It was a tough way to finish the cruise and left a bad taste in our mouths.
Princess obviously slashes its entertainment budget compared to other cruise lines, but what I witnessed wasn't just low-budget. It was poor judgment and bad taste.
So Princess has a great ship, a great crew, great service, great food, and you can have a great time. I will try to find a cruise line that isn't so aggressively, furiously intent on scamming its passengers at every turn. If there is no such line, I might return to Princess, and if I do, I will just do everything in my power to ignore the Shopping, Spa, Casino, Art, and Entertainment, and I am sure I will have a nice time.
14th Deck Riviera Balcony, way up toward the front of the ship. Gorgeous room, full closet, loads of storage, lots of lighting, great ventilation, mini-fridge, one electric outlet on the desk, one in the bathroom, plenty of water pressure, powerful heating/cooling system. We loved it.
If you are boarding at Piraeus, and the ship is docked at Berth 12, you need to know that it isn't a plausible walk from the subway. Better to take a cab.
The ruins of Akrotiri are very interesting if you care for Mycenean-era civilizations. We were forced to take the cable car down, which was a 40-minute wait in the heat. Many others chose to walk down the donkey path.View All undefined undefined Reviews
This was my favorite port. Hiking up 100+stories to the castle is worth it, and a great accomplishment. The touristy town of Kotor is a delight with narrow streets and many shops. We found a Montenegran restaurant off the beaten path, which was very good and had WiFi: Cesarica.
We had hoped that this would be more like Etna's summit, instead of just the Sapienza Refuge at the base of the ski lift. But there were lava flows, and a small minor caldera. We did not have enough time in Taormina -- one hour isn't enough to walk to the Greek Theater, see it, and Walk Back.View All undefined undefined Reviews
There was too much selling on this excursion -- they dragged us through Inlaid Wood factory, Limoncello Factory, and Cameo Factory, although the cameos were concededly interesting. Sorrento is very beautiful, but Pompeii is just stunning. Very glad we went.View All undefined undefined Reviews
Sagrada Familia is not to be missed, and if you don't have a tour then you'll need to buy your tickets online months in advance because they sell out. But don't neglect Gaudi's other work -- Casa Batllo especially, but also La Pedrera and Park Guell, to get a richer understanding of what Gaudi was up to (for example, his other works aren't religious at all).