Grand Princess Cruise Review by darkenstormy
- Sail Date: April 2010
- Destination: Transatlantic
Yes, the Grand is older and it's interesting for repeat Princess passengers to see the first ship in her class, having sailed her sisters further down the evolutionary line. Considering that she has hosted tens of thousands of guests over the years she looks great, but you can see the high mileage if you look around. Most obvious is what twelve years of salt air and sea spray can do to balcony dividers. The corrosion was evident everywhere out there. It's hard to fault her for design flaws - such as a non-existent midship stair tower - that would be corrected in ships built later. Call it character. She's a comfortably sized ship with adequate public space. Adequate, that is, when everyone spreads out. Instead they hogged the indoor seating, and ventured out to the open decks - where I guess they were afraid of suffering frostbite in 52-degree air - only rarely. In fact, The Sanctuary, where you can pay extra for outdoor privacy was deserted. No surprise, because after Bermuda most everyone stayed inside. But I enjoy any weather warmer than a New England winter so while they were warming chairs in the Atrium I was bouncing a basketball, looking out over the ship's wake, and celebrating - believe it or not - a wind-assisted hole-in-one on the miniature golf course.
Don't sail a transatlantic expecting your fellow cruisers to be spring chickens. We were quite obviously among the younger passengers, even though the half-century mark is not far off for us. They like it warm; they go to bed early. They ride scooters and use wheelchairs and walkers and canes. The cruising clichE is "overfed and nearly dead", for a reason. But, they have the money - and the time - for these itineraries and you've got to give them credit for getting off the couch and getting out there. Our adventure began in Fort Lauderdale where four other ships left port just before us. After two sea days we called at Bermuda on Monday. Monday evening we began the crossing with a long stretch of sea days that wouldn't end until the pace of the cruise shifted at Greenock, Scotland the following Monday, when we'd begin visiting a new port each day thereafter: Dublin and Cobh in Ireland; Falmouth, England and Le Havre, France and Southampton, England, where the cruise would end. We had a roomy mini-suite on Dolphin Deck. The bathroom had a tub, and that meant a comfortable showering experience compared to the usual coffin-sized shower stall in other cabins. There was a separate sitting area with a couch, chair and coffee table - extra space you appreciate on a 15-night sailing. The balcony was fully exposed to the sun, and because we chose a cabin on the starboard side we had the sun on our side as we sailed eastward across the Atlantic.
Our Cruise Director, Billy London is obviously a firm believer in the delegation of responsibility. I saw him at the Captain's Circle Party, the farewell event in the Atrium and on his morning TV show. That's it. Oh, and once having dinner with the Captain in the steakhouse. Is it just me, or should the crew never be allowed to dine with the guests, no matter their rank? I digress. Billy left all the heavy lifting up to "number two, Stuey Stu", his deputy. He was omnipresent. There was a full schedule of entertainment daily but most of it did not appeal to me. I skipped the Huber Marionettes and anyone described as a "singing sensation". I still want the hour Kevin Devane stole from me with his amateurish, unfunny "comedy" set. My time would have been better spent sleeping. Greg Moreland, a "magician", lamely attempted an act using joke-shop props like the linking rings and the knot that slides off of the rope. Your typical birthday-party-and bar-mitzvah guy could do better. We avoided the production shows - been there, done that. And I'm sorry, but I couldn't get excited about daytime activities listed in the Princess Patter such as Paper Airplanes, Elevator Roulette and Come Down and Talk About Your Grandchildren! What's next, tic-tac-toe? Many nights we entertained ourselves in-cabin by ordering room service and playing Scrabble, or watching recent movies on TV. There were lots of those, most recent and all free, from Avatar to Crazy Heart to The Blind Side. The music was good. Tempo Quatro from Hungary kept things lively with their peppy, accordion-based tunes. Funky party band Flare was often heard out by the pool or in a lounge for evening dancing. Dan Hodge held court nightly in the Promenade Lounge and Bar, the Grand's Piano Man. They all superbly set the cruise to music.
Food aboard the Grand Princess was as good as it was plentiful and ubiquitous. We enjoyed it all, from the burgers and pizza by the pool to the Horizon Court buffet to the free soft-serve cones and root beer floats at the ice cream bar to our nightly, second-seating dinner in the Botticelli dining room, served by Alejandra and Andrey, two of the ship's best. Rafael, our big, comical Mexican teddy bear of a headwaiter should be proud to have them on his team. There was a new menu every night of the cruise and, honestly, there wasn't a bad dish in the lot. Prime rib, lobster tails, lots of shrimp, more beef, excellent pasta, hot and cold soups, fish, and salads - all at the correct temperature and in quantities sufficient to choke a horse.
The weather. Everybody talks about it but nobody does anything about it! The North Atlantic in April is not the Caribbean Sea in August. I don't know what some of my fellow passengers were expecting, but I sure overheard a lot of complaining. I don't know why. The seas were as smooth as a millpond, and I don't hide indoors when the temperature is below 60 with anything more than a puff of breeze. I didn't bring a scarf, or gloves, or a parka. I swam in the outdoor pool. I sat on my balcony every day of the crossing; though I must admit it got too chilly to stay long as we neared Scotland. We had only a little rain. I was prepared for worse, given the bad winter Europe had this year. But it was fine.
The cruise was divided into two distinct portions: The Crossing and The Ports. The Crossing allowed plenty of time for naps, reading, movies, going for a walk, air hockey in the arcade and lingering over breakfast, lunch and dinner. The Ports was a five-day grind, one after another, with early starts and long days thanks to the extensive shore excursion schedule we'd set up for ourselves. Our ambitious agenda featured a trip to Edinburgh on Monday out of Greenock, a day with Over the Top tours into the mountains during our Tuesday in Dublin, Killarney and county Kerry during our Cobh call Wednesday, a cliff walk around The Lizard, the most southerly point in England on Thursday from Falmouth and - the pièce de rEsistance - a long ride into Paris from Le Havre on Friday. All were ship's tours except for Dublin. All the guides were good except for Manus from Over the Top. He was friendly and funny, but he'd seen all this a thousand times before and didn't seem to remember that we had not.
It's a long, two-hour ride from Greenock through Glasgow and into Edinburgh, where the highlight was Edinburgh Castle and some free time along Princes Street after lunch. So much to see and so little time - our visit was just a teaser, and I'd love to go back someday and fill in the gaps. Because of the distance to the city the pace of the tour was nuts. The visit to Holyrood Palace turned out to be no more than a bathroom break.
Our Cruise Critic roll call group organized the tour with Over the Top on Tuesday that took us along the coast to Powerscourt Gardens, into the Wicklow Mountains and to the town of Laragh for lunch (where, incidentally, a bowl of hot beef and Guinness stew will set you back almost 12 euros), then to the monastic ruins of St. Kevin's at Glendalough before heading back to Dublin via the Wicklow Gap. The green hills of Ireland are only a half-hour out of Dublin. We saw a lot, but I wish I'd seen more of the city itself. Again, you'd need at least a few days to do it justice. Cruises are great for covering a lot of territory but in no detail. Think of it as a sampler - to build your list of places to return to.
Wednesday we were headed for the hills again, this time to see the Lakes of Killarney from Aghadoe Heights and to drink in the Victorian splendor of Muckross House, where the queen herself spent two nights of her reign. We shopped for souvenirs in Killarney after lunch, good touristy fun. The yellow blooms of gorse painted the hillsides. At first, I thought it was pretty but when I learned it was a thorny, invasive species I began to view it as a blight on the landscape.
The winds howled but the sun shone Thursday in Cornwall along The Lizard, a steep and winding path along the rocky seacoast that turned out to be my favorite excursion. Lunch was at the Witchball. The sign out front said, "Beer is proof God loves us and wants us to be happy", so I knew I was among kindred spirits. They served us fish & chips and a dessert of strawberries with clotted cream - an authentic Cornish delight. We shopped for serpentine stone, had a pasty from the world-renowned Ann's Pasty Shop and bought Cornish sea salt at Retallack's butcher shop. Falmouth was a tender port, and the ride back to the ship in one of the Grand's lifeboats made me feel like I was inside a Maytag during the rinse and spin! The sea had become rough and the boat cut through the waves with the grace of a hockey puck. We held on, my wife beginning to turn green, as water began pouring in! The thing leaked like a sieve. The sea seeped in around the window frames and gushed from an area overhead. "Don't they have a better boat than this to send out on tender duty", I wondered. Back aboard, I gave the boat number to the Purser's desk and suggested it was time for some maintenance - but they would hear none of it. They said it must have been a shore side tender and completely disregarded the report. Take my advice: if you sail the Grand and it becomes necessary to abandon ship, avoid lifeboat number 19.
Then it was Friday - and the big disappointment of the week - Le Havre. We sat in the Princess Theater at 7:00 A.M. waiting for our tour to Paris to disembark. After a three-hour ride we'd be treated to a tour of the City of Light followed by a cruise on the River Seine including lunch. I'd done my homework, reading Eiffel's Tower by Jill Jonnes over the winter. Around my wife's neck was the tower in pendant form, a Christmas present given in anticipation of seeing it first-hand. We couldn't wait to go - but the dockworkers in Le Havre had other plans. They were on strike. As horns honked and a pile of tires burned their picket line blocked many of the tour buses from entering the port area. It ended by 9A.M. but for us it was already too late. The Grand Princess tour staff disseminated confusing and conflicting information over the loudspeakers but in the end - the tour was cancelled. We were left to roam the streets of Le Havre. We browsed the shops, we ate pastry, we had lunch, but it was no April in Paris. So the goal remains elusive - but not abandoned. We'll get there someday, but thanks to a French labor union it won't be in 2010. The cruise ended on that sour note the next day.
London made up for it, almost. We had arranged a post-cruise stay through Princess for a single night - all our schedules would allow. That was the other setback we encountered during the voyage. We were informed midway through the cruise that the hotel we had booked was "full" and that we'd have to be moved. I wasn't happy, but the deed was done - they insisted we couldn't stay at the Crowne Plaza - but would stay instead at the Millennium in Mayfair. On disembarkation day I learned that not everyone was switched, because the Crowne Plaza was the first stop and plenty of passengers got off. But you go with the flow, roll with the punches and make lemonade out of the lemons - clichEs, yes - but words to live by when traveling. The hotel was not nearly as handy to things as the Crowne would have been but our room was clean and ready for us when we arrived shortly after noon.
We bought our tickets for the Big Bus open-top tour of London from the concierge and set off. It was warm and sunny, and we saw all the sights from our upper-deck seats. A cruise on the Thames was included in the price. We boarded after threading our way through the crowd around the London Eye and sailed under all the famous bridges in the direction of the Tower of London and Tower Bridge. Back on the bus, we closed the tour's loop and rode back to our starting point. The hotel was convenient to one thing - and a very important one - food! Dinner that night was at The Audley around the corner on South Audley Street, with pub food and hand-pulled local pints in a convivial atmosphere right out of the Victorian era. You place your order by stepping up to a long, beautiful old hardwood bar. One of my favorite meals of the trip was Sunday breakfast at Richoux, also on South Audley. Imagine: cozy tables set in a turn of the last century setting and Belgian waffles, back bacon and a pot of great coffee for company. Oh, my wife was there too. Sorry - that meal held my attention. I want to go back.
At noon a car picked us up for the drive to Heathrow where our flight would depart - on time, half-full and without incident, even though the UK's airports had reopened only days before, after the Eyjafjallajokull volcano's ash cloud kept people on the ground all over Europe for the better part of a week.
We had ample time to enjoy the ship and not enough in the ports of call, but we are happy with how we chose to spend our time each day. We enjoyed the Grand Princess and all it had to offer, and our list of places to which we must someday return for a more leisurely visit is now longer. Our horizons broadened, our perspectives altered - we returned home with a little more of the world now considered familiar territory.
250,000+ people have entered their email