OVERALL SUMMARY OF CRUISE: Excellent service, great cabin, good food, so-so shore excursions (especially the organization of ship-sponsored shore excursion waiting areas and gangway queues). Will not hesitate to come back to Princess, although on a different ship. Would rely less on ship-sponsored shore excursions in the future in favour of taking the shuttle into ports or taking independent shore excursions.
It's really too bad that I couldn't rate the cruise overall as 4+, because while the ship-sponsored shore excursions left a slightly bitter taste in my mouth to the point of making the cruise experience undeserving of a 5... I still think that it was excellent and deserved more than the 4 that I put on paper.
Now that I got the summary out of the way--please feel free to read on if you're interested in the details. It might be approaching novel length, though, so please bear with me.
PERSONAL BACKGROUND: We are a group of 3 adults travelling with a couple in their 60s-70s as well as their 75-80 year old friends. This was our third cruise with Princess, and our second with Star Princess--the first being an absolutely perfect South America cruise around Cape Horn in January 2009. (I also took a cruise to the Caribbean on RCI's Enchantment of the Seas in August 2000, and my 2 relatives who came with me took a chartered cruise on Seabourn Legend to the Mediterranean in May 2001. So everyone in the group took four cruises overall.)
This particular sailing happened from April 24 2010 to May 12 2010, and was a repositioning cruise for the Star Princess from the Caribbean (Ft. Lauderdale, Florida) to the Baltic region of Europe (Copenhagen, Denmark). While it was possible to combine this sailing with a Copenhagen roundtrip sailing (which is actually the first Star Princess Baltic cruise for 2010), we didn't do so because none of us are retired and we (especially myself) did not have enough vacation time to take a 28-day cruise.
CRUISE DEMOGRAPHIC: Many of the people that we saw on the cruise were 60+ years old. While I did see some babies (and was slightly surprised to do so because, at age 29, I thought I was the youngest person on the cruise), they were very much in the minority. But given the cruise's length, itinerary and the fact that it was in a time where most children in the world are in school, the demographic mix didn't surprise me.
PRE-CRUISE: Given that we were flying to the United States and knowing the lengthy security inspections that take place for any flights to the US, we didn't want to risk missing the ship at Fort Lauderdale and having to catch up to the ship in Europe by plane (which would have resulted in a massive headache given the recent volcanic ash situation). So we booked one night at the Sheraton Fort Lauderdale Airport & Cruise Port Hotel.
It was quite near the Fort Lauderdale - Hollywood International Airport where our flight arrived, but not that close to city areas. However, since all we needed was a place to stay in rather than exploring the city of Fort Lauderdale, our needs were met perfectly. The room was comfortable and clean (if a bit small), and had a view to the pool area.
We paid about USD145 for the room, not including continental breakfast, and the cruise transfers (which cost USD9 per person). We found this hotel without reading through the Cruise Critic forums for hotel suggestions, and I later found out that there were numerous cheaper hotel rooms to be had around Fort Lauderdale. One lesson learned--I need to pay much closer attention to the forums from now on when I look for pre-cruise hotels. And we would most definitely stay at least one night before embarkation day at the port of embarkation in the future.
EMBARKATION: Thanks to our one night pre-cruise stay in Fort Lauderdale, we were able to catch an early shuttle to Port Everglades before the 12pm embarkation and line up while the embarkation lines weren't too long (we weren't Platinum members on Princess and therefore didn't have preferred check-in). There was a slight computer glitch in preparing our cruise cards, but the issue was resolved reasonably quickly and we were on the ship at about 12:15pm and we were able to relax and explore the ship while waiting for our luggage. Compared to our previous cruises where we didn't do a pre-cruise stay, it was much more comfortable for us.
CABIN: We stayed at Cabin B518, which was a balcony cabin at the passenger-only Baja deck located slightly behind the middle of the ship. The Baja deck was sandwiched between two other passenger-only decks (Aloha and Caribe decks), so there was very little exposure to noise compared to decks closer to public areas.
We were quite excited to have a balcony for this cruise because, for most of our cruises (except the chartered cruise on Seabourn Legend that I didn't go to), we stayed in an inside room.
Besides the obvious advantage of a full view of the ocean--which allowed us to take in the wonderful sail-in in Lisbon and the beautiful coastlines of Oslo on sailaway--we had considerably more storage space than when we were in an inside room. For starters, the closet wasn't as near the bathroom door compared to an inside room on the Star Princess. Secondly, there was an additional floor-to-ceiling storage cabinet which proved extremely handy for storing shoes. So I think we are very likely to get a balcony cabin for future cruises.
We were also fortunate enough to not live close to smokers next to or above us, so we were not subject to cigarette smoke. (While we saw an ashtray in the cabin balcony below us, we never noticed the passengers living there smoking in the balcony.)
The room was always kept impeccably clean, with towels and bathrobes promptly replaced and with the pillow chocolates provided every day.
The one flaw that I could find with the room was the third-person pullman bed, which folded up into the ceiling of the cabin during daytime. As the person who used that bed, I must say that it was about as comfortable as the bed I used when living in a university residence--the mattress seemed a little too low, and the safety railings made the bed seem cramped. As for the common complaint on the Princess CC forums that Princess's mattresses are too hard--while I did find it harder compared to other hotel beds that I've slept in, what made the situation a little different in my case is that I actually sleep on a hard mattress at home and do prefer firmer mattresses, so I'm not quite sure if requesting an egg crate would have made sleeping in the third-person bed more comfortable.
PUBLIC ROOMS: Many of the public rooms have a subdued, wooden decor, but are still fairly well maintained. The same cannot be said for one staircase platform on the Promenade Deck (Deck 7) and between the Aloha and Lido decks (Deck 12 / 14 respectively--Princess doesn't have a Deck 13)--for some reason, there was this seemingly tile-shaped piece of wood that seemed to be slightly dislocated when I stepped on it. Perhaps Princess might need to look at this and do some proper maintenance, because it may cause a bit of a hazard for people who try to use the stairs.
Since the sailing was full, I expected a certain degree of overcrowding in the public rooms. The most serious case of large crowds was during elevator rides, as well as during large-scale shows in the Princess Theater and in the Vista Lounge--usually I would find the room at least half-full 30 minutes before the show, and a packed house was pretty much expected 15 minutes into the show. On the other hand, although all the chairs in the Piazza was normally occupied with people drinking coffee, checking their computers, reading or playing cards by 11am--I always tend to find room to sit near the Vines Bar. Not sure if it was tacky of me to sit in the Vines Bar, though, when it wasn't open...
ENRICHMENT AND ENTERTAINMENT: One of my favourite things to do on this cruise was to attend the port lectures during sea days--I attended all of the port lectures, or watched them on the onboard TV, for all the ports except Copenhagen (which we disembarked on anyways). The port lecturer, Patrick, was truly informative and funny, and explored the history, main attractions and cuisine of each port as well as the historical relationships between each of the ports. So I learned something and was quite entertained. Thank you so much, Patrick!
As for the night time entertainment: For the production shows, I watched the Welcome Aboard show, which was a fascinating experience because I had never watched it. Sandwiched the musical / dancing numbers there was an introduction to the various features of the ship, which may merely be review to most of the passengers on the ship who seemed to be past Princess passengers. The quality of the dancing was fine, and the singing was great to mediocre--the mediocrity resting mainly on some of the male lead singers. I recall having watched Words and Music, Ports of Call and Destination Anywhere on my previous cruise on the Star Princess, so I skipped those in favour of variety entertainment such as a comedy magician (whose name I've unfortunately forgotten) and an absolutely fabulous pianist called Linda Gentille.
Movies Under The Stars was also open during this sailing. They showed movies premiered during July to November 2009 such as Avatar, Up, The Blind Side and Julie & Julia. I didn't quite attend the MUTS showings proper because the weather across the Atlantic and especially around the North Sea was too cold for most people to go outside--but I did enjoy a viewing of a silent-film version of Phantom of the Opera in the hot tub, which I will get to reviewing next. I also saw several movies in the in-room TV.
POOLS, SPAS AND FITNESS: Except for the first few warmer days of the sailing, the outdoor pools weren't that well attended, and for good reason--it was simply too cold and windy to go outside for a good part of the cruise! I'm a bit of an oddity though--some might even say that I'm a little crazy--in that I like to soak in a hot tub in relatively cold (although not zero-degree) weather. I enjoy the contrast between the cold air and the warmth of the tub. Here's the rundown on the hot tubs and pools that I had tried--in general, the quality was a mixed bag and perhaps Princess can do a check-up on the hot tubs, because the jaccuzi jets were somewhat weak in most of them. Outdoor pool / hot tubs on Lido Deck: The hot tub on the left side of the MUTS screen is less hot and the jets are somewhat on the weak side, while the other hot tub is very hot and the jets were very strong. Easily the best rarely-used (due to cold weather) hot tub on the ship. Never tried the pool due to the weather. Indoor pool / hot tubs on Lido Deck: The hot tub near the clock had weaker jacuzzi jets than the one further from the clock. Both were usually occupied during daytime and nighttime. The indoor pool was heated most of the time and wasn't very crowded, but there was one instance where the water wasn't properly heated. Lotus spa / hot tubs on Sun Deck: Never tried the pool, but both hot tubs had lukewarm water and very weak jacuzzi jets when I tried them. Aft pool: Usually my favourite pool on Princess ships, it was either closed or it was too cold / windy to go to them on this cruise. The one time I braved the cold to go in and take a dip, the water was at a reasonable temperature, but I still returned to the indoor pool to do most of my swimming.
As for the gym, it was fairly small, but I found that there was at least one treadmill / elliptical machine available the few times I went. Weight machines were also commonly used. If anyone does exercise using exercise balls, you might be out of luck--I didn't see any exercise balls in the gym during non-fitness-class hours, which were the hours where I used the gym.
FOOD: Food in the main dining room (Amalfi) was reasonably good. The fish and seafood was prepared quite well, although according to some of my dining companions the fish became fishier as the cruise progressed. Beef and steak dishes started out as either overcooked or too tough, but to Princess's credit, both the meat quality and cooking improved over time--I found the quality of the beef medallions on the "Alternative Choices" menu more consistent than most of the other beef and steak dishes, although it might have been a result of timing. I wish the same quality improvement applied for the clear soups--the soups tend to be consistently oversalted. There was a distinct lack of cooked vegetables, which we were more accustomed to compared to salads. Dessert was consistently good, especially the Menage a Trois late in the cruise.
The buffet offerings were a little hit-or-miss, especially the burnt breakfast bacon--but I did enjoy the piping-hot fried scallops as well as the cooked vegetables which the main dining room lacked. Also, I enjoyed the tropical fruit selection, although the melons seemed to be on the raw side on the first few days. Pizza was also good.
We never got around to trying Sabatini's or the Crown Grill.
As for the coffee--the complimentary coffee tasted rather awful. The freshly brewed coffee in the International Cafe was excellent, if a bit hot--I enjoyed them mostly on sea days, because I tried one while the ship was docked in Vigo, Spain and was charged 7% VAT tax. The cakes in the International Cafe was always great!
I tried Afternoon Tea twice on the ship--I really loved the scones!
SERVICE: I cannot say enough about the excellent service that we received from the ship. First there was Eric, our cabin steward, who was always friendly and kept our cabin clean and stocked with fresh tiles. There was also the staff at the Amalfi dining room--Devan the head waiter, Alex the waiter and Ryan the assistant waiter--always amicable and recommending various dishes to our table. Finally, much kudos to Aska, the manager at the crystal boutique who always have great recommendations on crystals and Russian handicrafts (especially matryoshka dolls).
DISEMBARKATION: Since only about 800 passengers were leaving the ship on May 12 (while the remaining passengers continued with the Copenhagen roundtrip Baltic sailing), disembarkation was a very smooth process. The Princess Theater was only 1/3 full, compared to the packed house it was when waiting for ship-sponsored shore excursions.
PORTS AND SHORE EXCURSIONS: Speaking fo shore excursions, this was an area where we found very mixed. We took ship-sponsored shore excursions for all the ports, just like we did for our wonderful South America cruise on the Star Princess, and our experience with the excursions ran the gamut from excellent to disastrous. One particular issue is the ship's organization of tour waiting areas and the ship's management of gangway queues. 1) For the shore excursion to Santiago de Compostela--the meeting place was changed from Princess Theater to the Explorer's Lounge at the last minute, without any notification in the stateroom or in the daily newsletter, because Princess Theater could simply not house enough people who wanted to go on ship-sponsored shore excursions. Thankfully Princess later placed any meeting place changes in both the Patter and in the staterooms. Having said that, there were a few shore excursions (not ours) where the new meeting place was the casino, and frankly the casino was too smoky to be a proper meeting location, especially for people sensitive to cigarette smoke. 2) For another shore excursion (couldn't remember if it was the one in Belgium or the one in the Netherlands), the shore excursion announcer asked *each bus* to head to the gangway in order. When this happened, people who were more behind in line all stood up en masse to head to the gangway in front of the people who had actually lined up in front of them in the Princess Theater. The announcer really should have called *each row in each bus* to head to the gangway because if you allow tour passengers to head to the gangway without any regard to line-up order, that kind of diminishes the point of lining up early to get a nice spot in the bus. (And given the number of people taking ship-sponsored shore excursions on this cruise, you will need to line up about 20-30 minutes before the designated meeting time to get a nice spot.) Or maybe I'm just being nitpicky about order?
Now that I'm done with the rant, I'll present a brief rundown of the ports in the order we visited them:
1) PONTA DELGADA, PORTUGAL--Took the Furnas Valley Hot Spring and Botanical Garden tour. The botanical gardens was very lovely and the hot spring was interesting, albeit a little smaller than I expected. The uphill ride to see the view of an island was a bit of a wash though, due to rain. This was a good excursion overall. 2) LISBON, PORTUGAL--Took the Best of Lisbon tour and experienced a spectacular sail-in. Visited the Jeronimos Monastery (interesting monastery building made of limestone), the Maritime Museum (which showed the development of ships and nautical navigation in Portugal) and the town of Alfama (an old town in the Middle Ages; interesting but rather run-down). The one downside was the much longer than expected wait to get to the ship from the pier, because all the tour buses came in approximately the same time, and the Portuguese port authority couldn't handle the volume of passengers; additionally, it was a Sunday. 3) SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA, SPAIN (via Vigo)--Took the Santiago de Compostela tour and saw the outside of the cathedral, as well as explored the town. Given that 2010 was the Holy Year, the security and the lines made it difficult for us to visit the church, although the church would probably take hours to visit because Santiago de Compostela is tied with Rome and Jerusalem as one of the top pilgrimage destinations. The town itself was very charming, with lots of seafood restaurants which we unfortunately didn't get a chance to try. I would like to come back in the future to Santiago de Compostela on a land-based trip outside of the Holy Year, this time with more time to explore the church. 4) LONDON, ENGLAND (via Dover)--Given the size of London, you would only see an extremely brief glimpse of it on a one-day ship excursion. That was what we got--but what a glimpse indeed! We took a sightseeing cruise to the Thames River, then rode the London Eye observational ferris wheel. Both offer spectacular views of the city of London. Then after a lunch break with a delightful 3-course meal of salmon pie, beef shank and creme brulee with English tea, we visited the Westminster Abbey, which turned out to be an amazing albeit congested visit. The guide, David, was wondeful and hilarious. I would absolutely not hesitate to visit London again on a land trip, because it was that good. (As for why we visited London instead of going to Dover instead--this is because 2 people in our group had never visited London before, and would very much like to see it.) 5) PARIS, FRANCE (via Le Havre)--Like London, a big city which is impossible to see all of on a cruise shore excursion. But like London, we did take one anyway--specifically to see the Louvre and eat lunch at the Eiffel Tower. We had the opportunity to see Italian paintings in the Renaissance period and French paintings during the movement of Romanticism, as well as see famous works of art such as the Venus de Milo and Mona Lisa--it was fabulous. Then we ate lunch at the Eiffel Tower--the lunch quality was all right (but did not expect the baguettes to be as hard as a solid rock), and the views of Paris, though good, wasn't nearly as good as what the London Eye had to offer. We rode through the Arc de Triomphe and Champs-ElysEes in the bus, but I did wish for a few seconds that we could get off at Champs-ElysEes. Thanks to this excursion, I fell in love with Paris and a one-week trip there is now on my bucket list. 6) BRUGES & GHENT, BELGIUM (via Zeebrugge)--great towns that offer a historical look at Belgium and some very charming views on the river. We visited the St. Bavo's Cathedral in Bruges and took a walk there. Afterwards, we went to Bruges and had lunch (loved the smoked salmon appetizer and the plate of eclairs, cookies and macaroons!), then we enjoyed a 30-minute cruise through the canal. Finally we bought some souvenirs--notably some excellent Belgian chocolate. 7) AMSTERDAM, THE NETHERLANDS (via Rotterdam)--unfortunately there was a garbage strike in the city of Amsterdam, which I found out started as a 1-day strike on April 30th, and then restarted on May 5th. If Princess warned passengers about potentially being unable to see the inside of the church in Santiago de Compostela, they could absolutely have warned passengers about the impending garbage strike in Amsterdam because of the health and safety issues involved. The garbage strike, combined with rainy weather, made the 1-hour canal cruise less enjoyable than it could have been. Fortunately the trip wasn't a complete wash because the lunch had some of the best fries and bread I've ever eaten on the trip, and the shopping was wonderful. 8) OSLO, NORWAY--very mixed weather; we had sun, cloudy skies, rain and even a bit of flurries during sailaway. We first visited the Open-Air Folk Museum, which was only okay. But the trip got progressively more interesting with visits to the newly under-construction Holmenkollen ski jump ramp and especially Vigeland Park, where we had the opportunity to see some beautiful sculptures from Gustav Vigeland. The sailaway featured some great views of the coastlines and small islands in Oslo. 9) GOTHENBURG, SWEDEN--we took the West Coast Islands tour. The views were beautiful--and that was about the nicest thing I could write about it. The guide was completely unprofessional--did not explain the itinerary, lacked a clear idea about where the washrooms were, failed to wait for people using the washroom before going off on her walk with the other passengers (which may lead to people going to the washrooms being left behind), and could only respond with "the shops were not open" when asked about free time for shopping (which was in the Princess shore excursion booklet). To put it bluntly, Princess really needs to stop using the services of this particular guide. (For more information: we were group C1 on the 8:30am-12:30pm session of the tour.)
FINAL WORDS: For those who read to the end of my review--thank you so much for sticking with me! Hopefully I haven't bored you to tears. Transatlantic cruises, especially repositioning cruises, are a great way to see various European cities. This trip was an eye-opener for me, considering that I've never visited Europe prior to the cruise. It is definitely for older cruisers, however. (Which says very strange things about my travelling age... because I equally enjoy this trip and 2 independently-planned land trips to Japan where I definitely travelled and shopped like a woman in her mid-to-late-20s.) I won't hesitate to go on another Princess cruise again in the future on a different ship, perhaps visiting the Mediterranean. Having said that, I will likely rely less on ship-sponsored shore excursions in the future. Read Less