Rating: 5 star rating based on overall experience and price paid. This is not a 5 star ship and things were not perfect, but we enjoyed ourselves and thought the cruise offered an excellent value. But you have to understand that you will be on a 25 year old ship, so temper expectations accordingly.
Background: I am a past guest on most of the major cruise lines including Princess, Carnival, Celebrity, Norwegian, Royal Caribbean and now Croisieres de France aka CDF. We decided to try CDF due to favorable pricing, which included food and alcohol. I believe that alcohol will not be included after some point in April 2015. We were also attracted to the itinerary out of St. Maarten which included visits to Guadeloupe, Martinique, Margarita Island, Venezuela, and 2 stops in the Dominican Republic.
Videos: Some may have seen my YouTube video, "CDF for Americans", where I shared info that I gathered on Croisieres de France prior to this cruise. I expect to do several additional directly and loosely related videos. I recorded a room review and have uploaded it. My YouTube user name is bradfordwillis and if you look at my videos (almost 800 of them!), you should be able to find the CDF videos with the help of the YouTube search function (many are gaming videos).
Dailies: I saved all of my daily "Journal de Bord", which were offered in English. I won't be scanning them, but I will retain them for a bit in case anyone has any questions.
Money: I suggest that you bring along some Euro. We brought about 150 Euro each, although you could get by with more or less than that. The ship and many merchants will accept credit cards. Many smaller vendors, drivers and such will want Euro, especially in Guadeloupe and Martinique. The U.S. dollar is likely accepted at most other ports and widely accepted on the Dutch side of St. Maarten and somewhat (but less) on the French side. Be aware that Visa and MasterCard are most widely accepted. Discover card, less so. I prefer a card that has no foreign transaction fee and use a Capital One Visa for this purpose. Many of the European credit cards have a security chip, while many U.S. cards don't. You probably won't have an issue with this, but if they have a problem with your card, have them run it though manually. Also be 100% sure to call your credit card company prior to sailing and give them your itinerary. Otherwise it may be blocked due to potential fraud and then you really have a problem.
Telephone Communications: Unless you know *exactly* what you are doing, do not use your cell phone. Put it into airplane mode prior to leaving the U.S. and do not exit airplane mode anywhere for a split second. Rates on this ship and on many of these islands are super expensive. Data often runs over $20 per megabyte (yep, a megabyte is almost nothing). My suggestion is to buy the ship's Wi-Fi package (cheap by cruise ship standards) and use Skype for communications. You can enable Wi-Fi on your phone, but again I don't suggest you enable data or voice. I'd recommend you go into your settings, click on cellular, then roaming, and turn off data roaming and voice roaming and then leave it in airplane mode with only Wi-Fi enabled. If you do otherwise and get a big nasty bill, don't say you weren't warned. Skype is cheap and the ship's Wi-Fi is quite reasonable and usually pretty good, when the ship is not in or near the port.
Embarkation/Disembarkation: In a word, bad. We first were scrutinized by St. Maarten pier personnel. Then, we dropped off luggage with some guys who we weren't even sure worked for CDF.
Next, we waited in a very long line in the hot weather sweating, while 2 (yes, 2) agents tried to check in a long line of passengers. They seemed overworked and passengers got off to a slightly grumpy start. Once it was our turn, not having the receipt for my flights seemed to become a major problem (boarding passes were not enough). After more passport scrutiny, we were told to wait outside for an escort to walk us a very short distance to the gate, but no escorts were available. After maybe 20 minutes, an escort walked us to the gate.
Once at the gate, passports were further scrutinized. We crossed the gangway only a few steps where passports were scrutinized again. We went through security screening, with a bag search and major hassle over my "hair iron" which they were going to have to confiscate as it was contraband. Only I didn't have a hair iron, I had a small fabric steamer, which they also tried to take. After I politely protested, it was allowed on board.
Next, upstairs where passports were further scrutinized and one of the reception desk workers was obviously very sick with the flu, or similar. I might also add that this is the first cruise I've been on where *all* passports are held by the cruise line until the day of disembarkation, which is odd.
My luggage never arrived and I was later told it was being held because it contained more contraband. I hadn't showered in a day and had no clothing to wear to dinner. Now, I would have to wait hours to retrieve my bag, even to the point of missing dinner, because security did not open until 8 pm. Finally, they showed up and it turned out the contraband was a tiny pocket knife with a 2 inch blade. Not even a problem, according to security.
So, the embarkation process is the worst I've experienced and I call upon CDF to improve, simplify and streamline this process.
Disembarkation was almost as poor. Lots of waiting around in the same room as those waiting for excursions. Luggage took a very long time to show up, while everyone sweated in the hot sun.
The Ship: The ship is the Horizon, originally built for Celebrity Cruises roughly 25 years ago. The ship is small by today's standards, but has an excellent feel and layout. If you are expecting a new mega ship with a Grand Atrium, specialty dining and such, you will be disappointed. However, the ship itself is quite solid. I told my girlfriend that the bones of the ship are very good. And while CDF keeps the ship very clean, there is no mistaking that this is an older ship. When I first boarded, I thought she looked tired. But after a bit, she looked pretty good to me. Maybe the unlimited drinks helped? Let me also say that I enjoy a smaller ship. As CDF would say, "It's human-sized" and I agree with this.
The Room: We had room 1077, which is a Prestige class ocean view room. We had a foldaway bunk as well as a love seat that opened into a bed. The room was kept very clean, although the window needed cleaning. There was some minor obstruction from the lifeboats below and lifts. I was surprised this wasn't mentioned. Partially obstructed views aren't usually considered the highest category (Prestige) in the ocean view class. The walls seemed pretty thin and we heard constant doors slamming during the night. I believe that we were near a service door, unfortunately. The air conditioning system seemed inconsistent. At times, room temperature was fine. Other times, even at night, the room was uncomfortably warm to the point that I had to sleep without sheets, blankets or clothing. I have uploaded a YouTube video tour of the room. Search CDF Horizon 1077 on YouTube to view.
I purchased the Internet package and I thought it was fairly priced. Speeds were very good, with several periods of poor or no service. However, I was offered extra minutes to compensate me for this. Do be aware that the lower decks do not have in room Wi-Fi internet service available. I believe that only decks 7 through 11 offer Wi-Fi service.
The Staff: The staff was very good and very friendly. Even though it is a French ship and maybe 75% of the passengers were French, all staff members spoke English and all announcements were in French, Spanish, and English, generally in that order. The service was typically very good to excellent. However, one reception area clerk was obviously terribly sick and really should not have been interacting with passengers. When I mentioned that she was sick and needed rest, she seemed embarrassed and did not want to discuss the topic. I later got sick and I wondered if I got it from her. Special kudos to our waiter, Birowo Wicaksono, who was outstanding. Always friendly, always a smile on his face, and 100% spot on and very honest with regard to his recommendations for the evening's best dinner selections.
Sanitation: The ship was extremely clean, but passenger sanitation is not quite up to U.S. cruise line standards. They do have soap dispensers throughout the ship, but not a lot of passengers seemed to use them. At the buffet, so many hands touched those serving spoons and of course, many of those hands were not sanitary. To compare, on a Princess cruise that we took recently, *everyone* had to sanitize their hands in front of a staff member before they were even allowed in the buffet area. I heard a lot of people coughing, so I think that CDF could improve in this area.
Passengers: As mentioned, the passengers were mostly French, with a good number of Spanish speakers, and very few Americans or English speakers. Menus and all printed material were also offered in English, so there were no major language issues. Despite the unlimited drinks on this sailing, passengers were uniformly well behaved. I'm in my early 50's and generally the passengers were older than me, with plenty of exceptions of course. I always enjoy the spirit of the French and this cruise reminded me of a prior trip to Paris years ago, where I had a wonderful experience.
I had spent a little time trying to brush up on my French, purchasing a Berlitz French phrase book and CD. But the reality is that I don't speak French other than a very few basic phrases, so it was of very limited help. Conversely, most of the other passengers spoke French and to a lesser degree, Spanish. But literature was offered in English, announcements were in English and the crew spoke English, so everything worked out fine.
The Food: For us, the biggest surprise was the quality of the food. It was mostly excellent. Everything was prepared fresh and with simple ingredients that paired well and made sense. The menu was not as beef/steak heavy as many U.S.-based cruise lines, but it was highly enjoyable and certainly no one left hungry. I think the lunch buffet was the best I've experienced on any ship. I noticed that they would often swap out food trays and bins even when there was plenty left. So there seemed to be a real emphasis on freshness. The pizza was not very good, which surprised me. Pasta buffet day in the main dining room was excellent. Asian buffet lunch in the main dining room was pretty good, but not as good as the pasta buffet. We seemed to eat a lot of lamb, chicken and pork, but generally it was surprisingly good and we didn't especially miss the usual slabs of beef. Surprisingly, the Gala Night (similar to Formal Night), featured a fancy rolled up menu and really poor quality beef medallions. They were generous cuts of beef, but way overcooked, super tough, and seemingly of a lower quality. I was surprised by this, so it's probably a good thing that they mostly stay away from beef.
The drinks were also pretty good with an excellent variety. The house red wine was French and quite solid for what I assume was a basic wine. Les Granges was the brand, and the red, white and blush were all uniformly respectable. We had a lot of lamb, which was very good. The seafood was extremely fresh and very good. Salad was as basic as it gets, but with fresh ingredients. The French are very much into good food and wine, so while the selections are different than what you might see on a US based ship, it's tasty and generally high-quality food nonetheless. The desserts were mostly delicious.
I have uploaded 2 videos showing the main dining room Search CDF Horizon dining room on YouTube to view.
Coffee: I'm into coffee, so I'll cover that separately. The coffee in the buffet is poor. The coffee in Café Moka is really, really good. They use fresh Italian Lavazza beans, which is what I often use myself, and can whip you up a terrific cappuccino or espresso. Don't forget to visit and try some of their coffee drinks.
Entertainment: We had Miss France on board, with cameras following her constantly, so I suppose that was entertainment in itself. But generally, the entertainment was very good to excellent. There was a Flamingo guitar player named Guillermo Fernandez who was excellent. We also enjoyed the band Sensation Tropical, who had a lot of energy and were musically very solid. We attended 3 shows in the theater and all were very good. I especially enjoyed their tribute to the Beatles. Good dancing, good singing, well-choreographed, and the live band (hidden upstairs on the left side) was also excellent. So generally, entertainment was very solid. I guess my only complaint was that, after and sometimes during some shows, there was way, way too much chatting by the cruise director, another fellow with a similar position, and too many introductions. We spent a bit of time with the cruise director, Mr. Tivoli, who is a nice guy and a good magician, so I'm not picking on him specifically. It's just that they could cut the chatter and introductions by maybe 85%-90% (seriously). There are many TV channels, but only 1 in English (CNN). However, you may find some American subtitled movies and such, but I doubt you came to watch a lot of television anyway.
Dress Code: I didn't see a lot of suits, but most passengers were appropriately attired for the main dining room. I did see some suits and nicer dresses on Gala Night. Most nights, I wore a nice pair of designer jeans, a better quality dress shirt or slacks. I took a black sport coat and wore it once without a tie with jeans and during Gala Night, I mated it with some wool slacks, a tie and a nice dress shirt. My girlfriend mostly wore a nice, but not over-the-top, dress.
Ports of Call: Interesting and varied. For the most part, you should and likely need to take an excursion of some form, or perhaps rent a car. Do not expect to simply walk around the port area and have a favorable experience.
I want to discuss each port, but I do have a general suggestion. Book the ship's tours. While the ship's tours are in French or Spanish only, many of the tour guides also speak English. Be sure to sit at the very front of your bus, tell the tour guide that you are an English speaker, and usually they will attempt to accommodate you somewhat. Some of these islands seem potentially dangerous and the ship's tours did often include security.
St. Maarten: For us, this is where the cruise began and ended. We stayed 2 nights on the back-end and I think St. Maarten is quite lovely. I've used Bernard Tours several times (this time too). He provides beer, strong rum punch, sodas, water and spends 4.5 hours with beach time at Orient Beach (1.5 hours), 45 minutes at Maho Beach, where the planes land right over your head (we got 1 hour), and visits the French capital Marigot, as well as providing a terrific overview of most of the island. He picked us up and dropped us off at the Holland House Hotel in Phillipsburg, which is highly recommended. Get a beachfront room if possible. It was awesome!
Guadeloupe: This was our first stop and it was a generally poor experience. I had searched high and low for a English-speaking tour guide without a lot of success. So we figured that we'd exit the ship and see what we could find. We visited the Guadeloupe tourism desk, located next to the ship, and were referred to an English speaking taxi driver named Frederick (AVOID him!), who said he would show us all around the island and get us back "before the ship leaves" for 50 Euro each. We took him up on the offer and I considered ourselves lucky to have found an English-speaker, as pretty much everyone speaks French only.
Things started off well. He showed us a lovely waterfall and some of the surrounding area. But after only 2 hours, he said he should go no further without another 60 Euro per person. We told him that simply wasn't going to happen and said he had told us he would drive us around for the day at the agreed upon price. He said there was some wonderful thing 10 minutes away he wanted to show us, but wouldn't do it for less money. We felt ripped off and misled by the guy, so obviously stay away from this driver. We told him that if he wouldn't drive us around, at least take us somewhere to eat and we were interested in trying Creole food. He took us to a restaurant called Gwot An Nou 9 Rue Hincelin assainissement 97139 Les Abymes 0590 24 44 27. The prices are moderate, the atmosphere is nice and the food was very good. They didn't speak English, but we got by somehow.
But I think we got very unlucky by getting paired up with Frederick. You may well run into him, as again, most of these guys don't speak English. I hold him responsible for the fact that we didn't get to see much of the island. Shame on Frederick for trying to take advantage of tourists with bait-and-switch tactics. I recommend that you use a ship's tour such as "Creole Colors" or "St. Anne on your Own". Both are inexpensive and you know you'll get what you pay for. Just sit near the front, tell the guide you speak English and hope for the best!
Martinique: This was probably the prettiest island on the trip, as well as the cleanest with terrific roadways and infrastructure. Like Guadeloupe, it is a French Republic and this has a very French feel to it. Martinique also felt like the safest island that we visited. I didn't feel as if someone was apt to slit my throat in order to take my watch and money, and that was not always the case. I don't think that we had security (not sure), but I don't think we needed it. The ship docks in Fort de France, which is a relatively large city. In my view, this is yet another case where you have to do a tour (or drive if you wish) and get away from the port. We did the "Saint Pierre and the Rum Distillery" tour, which is highly recommended. Some may know that St. Pierre was destroyed by a volcano in the early 1900s and only 1 man survived. The entire town was obliterated in nothing flat and the sole survivor was in jail for being drunk on rum. It's thought that the jail's thick walls saved him.
But St. Pierre is quaint and charming. The drive to the city is long and gorgeous with so much varied terrain and elevations. The rum distillery they stop at is Rhum Depaz and the grounds are very pretty with nice tasting rum as well. I had considered doing the tour to the Clement rum distillery, which was more money, but I'm convinced that the "St. Pierre & Rum Distillery Tour" was the right decision.
Margarita Island: The good news is that the people are very friendly. The bad news is that it seems outright unsafe. We had 4 military uniformed National Guardsmen to escort us. I had arranged a private tour, and I believe the driver was not far beyond the main gate. Security told me it's very dangerous to walk beyond the gate of the port area, so I'm not entirely sure why they even stop there.
Since we couldn't hook up with our tour guide, I was able to snag the Fiesta Margarita ship's tour, which was the last to leave. It's a loud open air party bus that blasts music for the 2 hour drive to a very pretty beach where some food and alcohol are provided. I was fighting with my girlfriend, which killed the fun for me, but if you like to drink and party and you'd enjoy some beach time, this is a good value with good security. The island itself is more desert than tropical, but there is some appeal. Still, it does not seem safe without security, even though the people smiled and waved every time they say & heard our brightly-colored party bus. I had to use the restroom on the way back (remember, it's a really long drive and most have been drinking), and they did not seem to have good plans to do that. We ended up stopping on the side of the road and they expected me to relieve myself in front of the entire bus. Instead, I pushed my way several feet into the reeds, which are razor sharp, and immediately sunk into a foot of mud. I was covered with mud and my legs were bleeding quite a bit. It's a good tour, but they need to have a potential bathroom stop somewhere along the very long route.
Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic: We did the Fun Safari to Bayaguana Tour. It was pricey (about $100 per person) and included a lunch that I didn't enjoy. There was something about the food that did not taste fresh. Maybe it was the seasonings, but I have my suspicions. I love to eat but when I'm leaving a lot of beef, rice and chicken on the plate, it tells you that something's up.
Basically, you board a small bus and head out to the countryside where you visit a small town and drive over a lot of dusty, dirt roads. You'll see the modest town of Bayaguana, which is not "exciting" or especially scenic, but is interesting. You'll also visit a very pretty waterfall, where you can swim (I have a YouTube video on this search Bayaguana waterfalls to find it). We also visited a home and were shown coffee beans, a lot of tropical fruit and such.
Again, the tour was interesting and the tour drivers did a great job (also included an armed undercover police officer), but at something like 7.5 hours it was a very long day and frankly, I would have probably preferred another option.
For some, what might be a better option that's cheap, close and interesting is just to visit the nearby Colonial Zone (aka Zona Colonial). For many, it's a 15 minute walk from the ship and there are literally tourist police every block. Otherwise, you'll pay a cab $10-$12 to get there. There are many very old and interesting buildings, bars, restaurants, places to shop and lots of people both locals and tourists. I personally enjoyed this more than Bayaguana and it costs next-to-nothing to do. If you walk, exit the port and turn left at the first major street. Without turning, stay as far to the left as you can for 15 minutes or so and you'll come to a bridge over the inlet. Turn left and cross the bridge and you'll be there. Again, there are tourist police every block (I'm not joking), and they can point you there just in case. They won't speak English but say, "Zona Colonial?" and they'll get the idea. But it's really simple to get there.
La Romana, Dominican Republic: There's limited time at this stop and we had heard that there was a shuttle service to Altos de Chavon, which is a newer village made to look like it's from the 1500s. While there were no shuttles, there were plenty of taxis and we shared one with others. Our fare was $10 per person, but you could pay more if you don't share. Altos de Chavon is not within walking distance. As you might guess, I'll be uploading several Altos de Chavon videos to YouTube. To find them, search CDF Horizon Altos de Chavon. I definitely do recommend that you visit Altos de Chavon. It's located within the lush resort of Casa de Campo and is gorgeous, it's safe, it's cheap, and it's a quick stop when you don't have much time anyway. The entrance fee is only $5. The surrounding area is very upscale and well maintained. Afterwards, our taxi driver (who had waited for us for an hour) drove us to the town of La Romana, encouraging us to shop. But despite a very, very heavy police presence (for a reason, no doubt), it looked pretty sketchy and not particularly appealing, so we skipped it. Our cab driver tried to convince us it was an "easy" walk from La Romana back to the ship, but that didn't appear to be the case.
Venues: Other venues we visited were James Le Piano Bar, which is old school with dark woods and such. There was no piano playing when we were there and it was very quiet, but it's a nice relaxing place to get away and maybe have a snifter of Grand Marnier (extra 3 Euros) or a glass of wine. We also ran into the Captain, Cruise Director and some Senior Officers here. Saphir le Danse Club is okay. It opens late and generally crowds were smaller. My girlfriend likes to dance, so she enjoyed it. I can take it or leave it. We spent a ton of time at the Zephir bar poolside on Deck 11. We had one particular bartender who made us great drinks there. If you find someone like that, slip them $5 and they won't forget you. As mentioned earlier, we absolutely loved the cappuccino and espresso at Café Moka and we spent a lot of time listening to music while sipping drinks at Salon Rendez-Vouz located on Deck 7 just outside of the Le Splendide main dining room.
Conclusion: I had a great time on Croisieres de France and on the Horizon. It's an older ship with a good feel and layout, so make sure you understand this. Service was very good as were the food, cocktails and entertainment. Language was not much of an issue either. Again, this was not a 5 star ship or experience, but I felt as if we received very good value for our money. If you are looking for something different at a reasonable price, consider Croisieres de France and the Horizon! Oh, and don't forget to check for my YouTube videos (my user name is bradfordwillis), as I plan on uploading a number of them. Read Less