The following is based on our 26 June 2004 cruise on the Caribbean Princess and will be published in parts as they occur when the cruise is in progress. To get started some background information is in order.
This cruise is the second of a series of one on one cruises with me and one other family member. The first was on the Golden Princess in March of 2004 with my daughter Whitney and I. This one is with my daughter Sydney and there's one in October with my wife Lisa on the Star Princess before we bring everyone together for a full family cruise in December on the Diamond Priincess.
This series came about quite by accident. Normally we all go on a Spring Break cruise each year. This year with Sydney (the oldest) going off to the University of Kansas as a freshman spring break dates didn't like up right and Sydney was in spring training for the university rowing team so she couldn't go anyway.
What was initially viewed as a bad deal has turned out to be a great way for me to spend some quality time with each of the kids. The best of the series though will be the Fall cruise with my wife Lisa, our first vacation without the kids since we had them.
Each one of the series is special with its own itinerary, ship and flavor. This one, on the new Carribean Princess, in its Innaugural Season, promises to be one of the most unique of any of our cruises so far. This ship is simply one of the the latest and greatest in what the cruise industry has to offer and the early reviews indicate she is everything she's been advertised to be and more.
Before we get on with the final stages of all that though, lets turn back the clock to the planning stages of this cruise.
What follows is a condensed version of the complete travelog which appears on our website which will include photos, digital video and interviews with fellow passengers as the journey progresses.
Just days remain now before this cruise begins so we'll get right to it by starting with our air transporation arrangements.
One note to remember is that this an account of our journey, done our way, intended to entertain and inform. If you're looking for advice check out Dr Phil, right after Oprah, weekday afternoons.
If it's specific cruise related advice you're hungry for then www.cruisecritic.com is THE best source you'll find for the very latest information.
Come along as we begin our journey We'll be flying from Kansas City (MCI) to Fort Lauderdale (FLL) a day before the cruise, a practice we follow religiously for a number of reasons.
First, travel day from our Midwest home is a long one no matter which airline or scheduled flights we take. We want to begin our cruise refreshed not all tired and worn out. A night?s hotel stay in the port city takes care of that and usually is well worth the money. For this precruise hotel stay we bid on and won the Wyndham at the airport through Priceline.com with the help of Amber on www.biddingfun.com. We like the close by location and will be staying a few days post-cruise on the beach so seeing the ocean right away is not a top priority.
Second, we like to be some of the air travelers with flexible travel plans that the airlines look for when a flight is overbooked. With the flexibility offered by our relaxed schedule we can opt to take a later flight on one of the legs of our trip from MCI to FLL (which usually connects in Atlanta, Detroit, Chicago or Dallas, depending on the airline). We're rewarded, compensated or bought off (call it what you will) with travel vouchers that often represent a substantial chunk of the next cruise's air cost. On our last cruise earlier this year when Whitney and I sailed on the Golden Princess, we ended up the trip with $400 each in travel vouchers ($800 total), enough to buy air for all four family members for our December holiday cruise.
Going a day early can really pay off and being some of the "lucky" ones is not all that hard if you plan ahead
Traveling in a day early, as mentioned, provides us with the necessary flexibility to take a later flight. Sometimes that flight might be a few minutes later at a different gate or several hours, even the next day later. At some point we have to weigh what we'll get out of it against the inconvenience.
On that Golden cruise I mentioned, we also ended up with a food voucher for $50 because our next flight would not be leaving for several hours. We've had flight changes that gave us a free night in a hotel too. The trick is to know that the gate attendants have a lot of authority to grant lots of goodies, you need to be one of the people they deem worthy and be in the right place at the right time...something that is not all that hard to do
Before each flight or leg of a days air travel, we check in at the gate, even if we've printed our boarding passes at home. The main reason is to check and see if the flight is full. If it is or not we offer our help should they need someone to take a later flight. Here's how that conversation goes:
"Is this flight full?"
"Oh yes, completely full"
"If you need someone to take a later flight we might be able to, we have flexible travel plans and will be sitting right over there. There's four of us, if you need four seats let us know or even if you need just two let us know, we can split up" (Point to closeby seats in waiting area)
Special Note: Get them to "bump" part of your party and really cash in due to the extra inconvenience
Then it's a matter of keeping your eyes and ears open to the events that may unfold which present you with the opportunity to cash in. They may motion to us to come back to the counter or they may announce that the flight is overbooked and that they are seeking volunteers with flexible travel plans (us!) to take a later flight.
Pounce! It's payday!
To increase chances of this happening we book flights with connections that are close in time to each other. If the initial flight runs behind and it is the airlines fault, say due to an equipment malfunction, they'll make a deal. Be careful on this one though because if its a weather-related delay causing the whole air travel system to bog down then you're on your own and that can backfire.
And flight delays or missed connections are another good reason to come in town a day or more early. A breakdown in equipment in Denver can affect flights in Florida.
Just as flexibility is important in air travel so it is with Ground Transportation (GT). In the Fort Lauderdale area, as is typical of most cruise ports, there are a number of options from which to choose to get us from point A to point B. The trick is to discover which is the most cost effective. That doesn?t always mean which is the least expensive; there are other factors to be considered.
For this, like any cruise vacation, we begin by sketching out what our GT needs are. Not how we?ll go about getting there but where we need to go. We start with a story of what is going to happen to us from the time we leave home until the time we return home. See if you can figure out the GT needs for this scenario:
We?ll fly out of our local airport to Atlanta where we?ll connect with a flight that takes us to Fort Lauderdale. As soon as we land we will need to get to the US Coast Guard office where Sydney has a recruitment interview. She?s thinking about joining the Coast Guard that could be a really cool move for this college sophomore. She had a great freshman year at The University of Kansas but grew weary of the college scene rather quickly. Should be an interesting meeting.
After the Coast Guard meeting we?ll head back to the airport area to our pre-cruise hotel, the Wyndham for the night. Depending on time available and how we feel we might go out for dinner or just get something to eat at the hotel. The next morning we?re going to want to be at the port rather early, probably around 10AM just because we like going early and being one of the first to board. On the way we?ll need to stop by the Publix grocery store on 17th street for some sodas and other provisions not offered on the ship.
So to outline our GT needs, they are:
· Transfer from home to airport · Transfer from airport to Coast Guard office · Transfer from Coast Guard office to hotel · Transfer from hotel to someplace to eat dinner · Transfer from dinner place back to hotel · Transfer to Port, stopping by grocery store for embarkation
The popular choices in Fort Lauderdale are
· A taxi- that will work for every leg of our GT needs and is convenient. Using Yahoo?s map and driving directions feature, a conservative estimate of the cost of GT using a cab would top $100 total · A limousine service- not really practical at all- a possible good choice if the GT need was to go from the Fort Lauderdale airport to, say, a hotel in Miami AND a high value was placed on making the GT a luxury experience. Often it is thought that because a limousine seats 8 to 10 passengers that it will accommodate them for a transfer on a cruise vacation. Not safely. The storage space is often inadequate for the amount of luggage even 4 passengers might have. I used to recommend this option a lot but finally ran into an honest limo company owner who told me flat out I was wrong and that?s why. Still, if a limo is a good application for you I still recommend Limos Of Miami or Absolute Limousine as two reasonably priced and efficient companies serving the area. · Tri-rail trains- Florida has a great system in place if you want to take the time to figure it out- I don?t think most vacationers want to though- I sure don?t. I?m just not a big van of public mass transportation. I think I will take the wrong transfer and wind up in a bad part of town where I will be someone?s lunch · Super Shuttle/ Airport Shuttle- these rates are posted like typical cab rates and might be a good selection for a trip with limited GT transfers going to covered areas · A rental car- Advantages- a flat rate for the day, most with unlimited mileage. The size vehicle is easily customized to the size of your party. Shuttle service is often offered that is convenient from the airport or to the cruise port. Disadvantage- You have to drive
I went with the rental car and reserved a Ford Focus through Budget Car Rental for $23 for the day. It will be plenty big for just the two of our luggage and us and it affords us the flexibility to make our transfers happen on our own schedule for a fixed rate. Upon arrival in Fort Lauderdale, an Budget shuttle will pick us up and take us to the car. When we?re ready to go to the port, we?ll drop the car at Budget?s 17th St office and be shuttled by them to the pier.
That takes care of our pre-cruise GT needs. But what about after the cruise?
Our ship comes back to Port Everglades on a Saturday. The day before, on Friday, my wife Lisa and other daughter Whitney are flying down to spend a couple days with us, celebrating the Fourth of July on the beach watching fireworks. We did this on New Years Eve after our Holiday cruise on the Carnival Legend (awesome ship) and had so much fun it just seemed like a natural idea?.and a nice consolation prize for the family members that didn?t get to go on this cruise.
We?ll have them take a cab from our friend Will at Castro?s Limousine Service (954-593-9052) who runs a fleet of Ford Excursions ($8 per person) to the Holiday Inn on the beach. We stayed there post-cruise in December so they know the lay of the land and should have a nice part of the day Friday and Saturday on their own before we join them post-cruise Saturday morning.
From our two Carnival Legend cruises and one Golden Princess cruise out of Fort Lauderdale I know that there are plenty of cabs available. That would probably be a good choice if all we were doing was going to the hotel, hanging around, then going to the airport when we finally go home.
We have bigger plans than that
We?ll disembark the Caribbean Princess probably about 9:30 or 10:00 without much problem. From there Budget will pick us up again and take us to their 17th street location to pick up a car, this one a Ford Explorer, to accommodate 4 people. We?ll need that because · There?s a chance that Sydney might be taking the test for getting into the Coast Guard, · We have a total of 5 meals to eat someplace there, · I bought tickets online through Ticketmaster for the Florida Marlins vs Tampa Bay Devilrays game on Saturday night · As long as we?re in driving mode, I want to drive around and become more familiar with the area, checking out hotels and restaurants recommended by CC members and neighborhoods where we might live some day
This one will cost more because it?s two days and a larger car but it still is the cost effective way to go as it provides us with unlimited ground transportation at a reasonable cost which we know up front.
That?s another factor I like about rental cars, pre-reserving limousines or taxi?s that you can get rates for in advance; it?s easy to budget for them. Regular taxicabs are iffy on being able to pin down the exact cost. When planning I like to get as many good, hard numbers as possible. This goes along with wanting to plan as much as possible right up to and after the cruise because once on board that?s where the planning stops. The only plan for on board is for each member of our party to have the fabulous cruise they dream it will be. Getting them there in as painless a manner as possible is my job. Once on board its up to each one of us to make it a great vacation.
We booked our first cruise entirely through the cruise line (Carnival) thinking they own the ships, they should know what to do and when to do it.
Our flights, transfers and the sailing all came off without a hitch and our obsession with cruising was born.
Shortly after our obsession with cruising was born came our second child, my obsession with planning.
I look at the cruise as the starting place, an unfinished work of art waiting for the final touches, touches that will make it a masterpiece or a poster for sale at Wal-Mart; nice to look at but not much depth.
Booking the cruise is the most important stop on the road to a Fabulous Cruise Vacation but the road leading to it and away from it are equally important. A wreck in either area can ruin the whole thing.
My job is to not only reduce the possibility of any wrecks but to make the drive a pleasant one.
If Step one is the cruise, step two is a pre-cruise hotel stay. We did not have this on our first cruise and by the time we made it to the ship after our long travel day it was naptime. In addition, I didn't really care for being a part of a huge herd of passengers pushing and shoving to get on board. Once was enough.
By the time our second cruise rolled around, also out of Miami, we'd discovered the Cruise Critic message board and became empowered with the belief that we could make our own airline and hotel reservations. We did just that added two days to the beginning of our vacation that allowed us to explore Miami, South Beach and the surrounding area as well as plan flight times that were convenient to OUR schedule, not some master plan hatched by the cruise line.
Everything was going just fine until we came back from that cruise, went back to the Cruise Critic message board to report about our trip, and discovered that there was a better way to book the hotel room.
The scary and intimidating Priceline.com
We read of people who stayed in very nice 4 star hotels for less than we paid for our Best Western 3 star (at best) hotel and paid less than half what we did.
That's a lot...and worth investigating.
There are several online resources I consulted to make sense of it all. BiddingforTravel.com is one and BiddingFun.com is another. Fellow CruiseCritic member and founder of www.biddingfun.com Amber Bllecher tells us,
"The most important thing to remember is researchbefore you bid. Know what hotels are in which zones at what levels"
Zones? Levels? It all sounds so intimidating...but it does not have to be and taking the time to understand how it all works, even briefly, can reap considerable rewards.
Now, Priceline is THE way we book hotels, there's simply no better pricing available.
The one thing I do not like is that on priceline you don't know for sure what hotel you'll get until you place a winning bid. You can narrow it down but you don't find out for sure until the bid is accepted.
This is where Amber's advice is pure gold.
On this cruise we're booking a pre cruise hotel and want it to be close to the port and airport. Our flights bring us into town just the afternoon before the cruise so there's not any real reason to book a beachfront hotel in Fort Lauderdale plus I've not stayed at an airport hotel around there for quite some time and I thought it would be nice to have some experience in that area.
We placed a winning $40 bid on the Wyndham at the airport. It looks to be a good hotel and I've been a big fan of the Wyndham chain for quite some time so I'm happy.
Since that booking though, our post cruise plans changed to include bringing my wife Lisa and daughter Whitney down to Fort Lauderdale to join us post-cruise for a Fourth of July holiday. This is a result of coming in under budget on our last cruise and this one so far...so planning really can pay off!
They'll be coming down the night before our ship comes in and while they are familiar with the area, we decided to try really hard to get the Holiday Inn for the post cruise hotel as we'd stayed there in December as a family before our Carnival Legend cruise.
So I did my research but didn't feel really confident that a priceline bid would get me the Holiday Inn. Thanks to general information on Amber's site I WAS able to narrow down the selections on Hotwire.com, which sports a bidding system somewhat similar to Priceline.
To me, the big difference between the two is that hotwire generally gets more specific on which property you'll likely be bidding on but costs more. Not as much as "the other guys" which include Hotels.com, CheapFares.com, Orbitz.com (good for air for me though), Travelocity and the like. Hotwire gives more detail on what the different star ratings mean and with the help of Amber's site I was able to get the Holiday Inn for more than I would pay on priceline IF I got it but less than the other guys and surely less than booking direct with the hotel.
In this case, while I wanted a decent price, I was also very interested in getting the hotel I wanted and Hotwire offered the opportunity to get it.
After our first Princess cruise, a Spring sailing on the Golden Princess I was quite impressed. So impressed that when I returned I booked several more Princess cruises for the future. After our recent summer sailing on the Caribbean Princess I am beginning to feel qualified to be head-over-heels in love with this cruise line and ship design.
What follows is indeed a glowing report of a fabulous cruise, our best, running away with the lead a lap or two ahead of the rest of the pack. That's not to say that there are on critical examinations of some of the ship's features and methods of doing stuff, there will be.
In brief, this was a close to a perfect cruise as I have yet experienced.
For those considering a Princess cruise that may have sailed another line or have never sailed before, here's the information you may be looking for to help make up your mind. For seasoned Princess or other line cruisers I invite you to open your mind gather your own impression from these pages, with your own eyes and not filtered through some other source or person.
First, some facts and numbers:
Passengers: Chris (me) 49, 9 cruises Sydney (my daughter) 19, 8 cruises
Accomodations: Category BB balcony cabin C753, aft
Cost of this cruise: Pre-cruise hotel and expenses (1 day) $125 Cruise Fare including port charges and taxes $2293 Onboard Purchases total $1050 Photo Shop $20 Spa $220 Gift Shop $127 Gratuities $140 Laundry $15 Internet Cafe $53 Sailing Video $30 Onboard Credi -$50 Bar Charges $495 Post-cruise hotel and expenses (3 days) $387
Major Review Area Scores: (1= lowest and 10= highest)
Embarkation 10 Cabin 9 Fellow Passengers 10 Ship design 10 Ship features 10 Entertainment Showroom 9 Lounge acts 10 Bars/disco 10 Teen activities 9 Poolside 10 Crew Cruise Director 10 Support Staff 9 Bar Staff 10 Hotel Staff 10 Dining options Room Service 9 Main dining 9 Casual Dining 9 Upcharge dining 9 Itinerary 9 Gaming/Casino 8 Disembarkation 9
To compare ships or other lines would not be fair but I really don't much care so I'll just tell you right now: This ship is awesome and I am totally spoiled.
One facet that struck me right off the bat was that they've gone out of their way to be sure that everyone has plenty to do and plenty of places to eat . With the design of this ship, you see, Princess added an additional deck of passenger cabins. In what appears to be a knee-jerk reaction to this they've also added Club Fusion, aptly dubbed Club Confusion by the staff, in which the idea is to have something going on all the time rather than sit idle much of the day like her counterpart on other Grand Class ships. In addition, on most nights, the main showroom features 3 showtimes, not 2 like other ships, and the addition of the popular "Movies Under The Stars" offers yet another additional venue and something else to do.
Personally I think they've worried too much about this but the extra additions are welcome and for the most part well done. More on all, in probably more detail than you're looking for, later.
Explaining dining options is always a challenge to someone who had not "been there and done that", but on the Caribbean Princess the explanation is further complicated with the addition of the zany Caribe Cafe. This is basically two more cafeteria lines disguised as an additional dining option with a zest of confusion thrown in for laughs. With an early flight out of Kansas City International Airport, a hours drive from where we live, we opted to spend the night at a hotel by the airport. The original plan was to drive to the airport and leave a car in long-term parking @$5 per day ($55 for the trip) . On investigation I found that winning priceline bids were coming in at $30 to $40 for 2 to 3 star hotel in the airport area. I placed a winning bid of $35 on the Quality Inn which would let us park our car there for the duration of our vacation, shuttle us back and forth from the airport and feed us breakfast in the morning.
Easy decision?and we technically get to start vacation a little bit early if the time you leave home counts as the starting line. Personally I count right after the last thing I have to do at ?work? as the beginning of the vacation.
This was our first time at a hotel like this, a pretty darn nice place for the road warriors of the business world. Adequately appointed rooms and public areas were well managed and efficiently set up. The morning breakfast included a make-your-own-waffle bar and other assorted continental breakfast type stuff. It was more that I expected for sure.
The night before we scheduled a shuttle transfer at 5:30 for the 5 minute drive to the airport and our 6:30 flight.
Surprisingly, the shuttle was full with passengers going to an assortment of airlines to different destinations. Ours, however, seemed to be the only flight headed for a cruise. Tough luck for those other people huh?
We'd decided NOT to check our luggage at curbside at the airport with a skycap and walk it into the terminal ourselves, saving the obligatory tip required to insure that our luggage was not sent to Alaska.
Well that idea fell through as soon as we got unloaded from the shuttle, two traffic lanes away from the curb. With just two travelers (like I didn't know this when planning this move) we were one person short of being able to have someone with the luggage at all times while it was being moved from place to place.
The friendly American Airlines skycap who knows us by sight by now got yet another contribution from us. Oh well, I tried.
The first leg of our flight brought us to Chicago and I suspected that today's flight would be uneventful compared with the last time I flew in here.
That was a twenty years ago and I had flown into town for a job interview at the OHare airport. Dang oddest interview I ever had..or so it seemed. I met the guy who was interviewing me at the airport, or shall I saw he met me. As I came off the plane he was standing there waiting for me. After five quick minutes of reviewing my resume he was off and I was left bewildered as to why I even bothered flying into town.
I didn?t have to wait long to find out why
In Chicago there's this phenomenon called "lake-effect snow" that was predicted accurately to descend on the airport and surrounding area and, in effect, blanket the place in a foot of snow in a very short period of time.
The five minute interview turned into a 2 day stranding at that airport at the closest hotel I could find while waiting to be dug out.
That was in December though and this is June. No snow, just a two hour layover. Not enough time to get stranded but plenty of time for lunch.
Since this was the second of the series of one-on-one cruise vacations, first one being with daughter Whitney and this one with daughter Sydney, I had automatically fallen into the default parent setting of making sure everything was "even" as far as the base experience goes.
On Whitney's trip last March we had lunch at Wolfgang Pucks place in the Cincinnati airport (which regular readers will remember had bewildered me as it is not actually even in the same state as Cincinnati). Lucky me, there was another Wolfgang Pucks place here too.
Actually there were about 3 million places to eat here but keeping everything "even", a practice that just has to happen; no discussion necessary, Wolfies place got the nod. At first I thought "Oh good, this one says its his "express" version. One might be led to believe that "express" meant "value". If one followed that logic they would have to believe that ten bucks for a Caesar salad was a real deal. $27.00 later we had completed the required contribution to Mr Puck's fame and fortune and were on our way, along with two $3.00 bottles of water that didn't really quench my thirst much more that the $5.00 per CASE water we buy at Sam's club.
Moral of the story, stick with plan A and eat those snacks I had packed for nourishment along the way.
I don't bring this up because I am a cheapskate. I?m not. But I do try to keep an eye on expenses. So far we were not doing so well on the travel day budget of $50 for miscellaneous expenses.
It would get worse from here, budget-wise.
Travel-wise, the whole flight thing went off as planned, no problems. We made it to Fort Lauderdale a little ahead of schedule along with our luggage and our record was still perfect; we've yet to ever lose a piece of luggage. I'd love to believe that's because we double tag each bag and put that same information inside so I will. Hey, we may still be on land in reality but it can be bent from time to time a little bit.
In Fort Lauderdale, the luggage carousels are downstairs and right behind them is a bank of desks for all the car rental agencies. I stationed Sydney by the carousel for our flight and spent $2 for a self-service cart to load it all on to, determined to make moving this stuff happen successfully with just two of us.
While she waited I walked down to the Budget Car Rental desk to check in but found a sign stating that the desk was closed but to proceed to the end of the terminal where a shuttle would pick us up. Ok, no problem.
After gathering up our luggage we easily transferred the cart full out and to the left to a sort of car rental cul-de-sac where huge shuttles were already lined up from all the respective car rental agencies.
Good system, very efficient.
If I had to do it over, based on our car rental company experience so far, I?d have picked any other car rental company but Budget. By the time we made it to the Budget bus, it was full and we were to wait for the next one which would be ?right behind me? the driver of the full van told us.
Alamo, Thrifty, Hertz and Avis, in that order, took top prizes for the most shuttle busses today, or so we and another party of people waiting for the next budget bus to come had voted. It really wasn?t that long but our two groups felt kind of like second-class car renters as the other parties were whisked off to their awaiting rentals in sir-conditioned comfort while we were left wilting in the 90+ degree heat.
Eventually the Budget van did come and I guess that first driver must have had a twin brother because he looked exactly like the one that was "right behind him". I thought about sneaking up behind him later and yelling "Boo!" just so he'd have something to compare to when using the phrase "right behind me" in the future.
At the Budget mega-rental-plex, a few minutes later, we decided that I would run in and pick up the car real quick while Sydney stayed with the luggage at curbside where I would be along shortly to pick her up in the "Ford Focus or similar" vehicle we had reserved.
I'd chose the Focus because Whitney, back home, had her eyes set on one for her first car, a purchase that was looming upon our return and only about a year late for that now 17-year old who was just now learning to drive. (Before her attitude was always "Why should I learn? Sydney can just take me places)
When I got into the Budget office, a large, glass-enclosed building with 10 work stations being manned by 4 people, I got in line with my Budget "fastbreak" express card thinking this would take a matter of seconds.
I was not alone. The other dozen people ahead of me were also savy car rental operators with their own impressive "fastbreak" cards who were similarly duped into believing they were special too.
As I waited, watching the Budget people work in such slow motion that I was sure I would know the exact number of floor tiles in this place before I got a car, I could see Sydney outside waiting for me to bring that car around and pick up her and the luggage.
Not known for her patience, her cheery attitude was wilting as the hot sun beating down upon her and I could just hear her mind saying "What the heck (or some other expletive) is he doing in there", I hope he's having a good time while I am dieing her!, Where's Whitney for me to yell at?? or something else to match the look on her face.
Finally to the counter, the Ford Focus had turned into a Chevy Malibu which was fine. We were going to have the car for a day, it really didn't matter to me.
I do need to make a note to find out if our personal car insurance covers us when we rent cars. Every time I do this (which is not often) I wonder but end up buying their insurance just to be safe. This time they also offered an option to "prepay for the gas I would use". That just sounded like such a bad deal as the Budget rep started to explain it that I declined, in spite of his furrowed brow and look of intolerance for my ignorance. I took the car insurance though which ran the $23+ gas cost for our Ground Transportation on this trip up to $40; still a good deal compared with cabs or other options.
Exiting the Budget office I walked past Sydney to get the car and was not sure who was hotter, the pavement or her.
A few minutes later though we were loaded and on our way to the Coast Guard Recruiting Office, our first stop and the big reason why renting a car was a good choice for our Ground Transportation needs on this trip. As discussed earlier it is just the most cost-effective mode for this trip.
Money is one thing though and convenience is another.
I?d done several Mapquest driving scenarios for the various places we would be going to and had exact directions to the recruiting office. I am the driver and Sydney is the navigator.
As we left the Budget mega-rental-plex the friendly gate attendant asked where we were going, took a look at the directions I had printed, and gave us a simpler, verbal version that he said would be much quicker. Cool! Sydney was anxious to get there and get on with it.
As we headed in the right direction I warned Sydney to let me know as far in advance as she could when to change lanes, make turns, etc. We were doing just fine until, for some reason, she switched from the verbal directions given by the Budget dude to the written ones I had printed and we fell into the "I'm-in-a-strange-place-Twilight-Zone-highway-of-terror" mode.
She assumed it was my fault for not following her Mapquest rendition which told me to go "1.23 miles or 1.1245 minutes then" blah, blah blah.. I knew better though because I had been in "I'm-in-a-strange-place-Twilight-Zone-highway-of-terror" mode before.
Just ask Lisa (DW).
I am the only person in the world that can take 7 hours to get from the airport in Las Vegas to the MGM Grand Hotel in a rental car. I'm not saying I get lost easy but ...ok well maybe I do get lost easy. And maybe her directions were fine then too. But after passing Hoover Dam a few times I figured the best bet was to just head towards the bright lights and hope for the best. Hey, what can I say? It's a long flight from Kansas City and the drinks are free. More on that and what Lisa calls my "Vegas walk" (more like a stagger) some other time.
An hour later we made the 8.57 minute trip to the recruiting office and I took the blame for being late. I figured I better or there was no way that they would let Sydney drive one of their boats. She'd end up in Cuba and blame it on her sister just because that's what sisters do.
We had a great meeting with the recruiter who turned out to be (no lie) the stunt double for Ed Harris in the movie "Radio" with Cuba Gooding Jr. The end result was that Sydney will be joining the Coast Guard after her sophomore year of college either at home in Kansas or at home in Florida in an officers training program that will pretty much pay for everything through grad school, should she decide to head that way.
After that we checked in at the Wydham Airport Hotel, a nice place that their web site does not do justice to. It kind of reminded me of the Hyatt Grand Cypress in Orlando just not as big or glitzy. Great tropical-landscaped pool area, nicely appointed rooms, convenient free parking (forget the valet), and a decent price through priceline.com.
Ok, here's a little something I added to my knowledge of pricline.com stuff. When we book through priceline we don?t get the goodies we would normally get by being members of the Wyndham Frequent Guest program. On check in I paid and extra $30 to upgrade to a club level room which included breakfast and , I assumed, the goodies we would have gotten as a Wyndham member; some drinks and snacks in the room. We got the breakfast but that was it.
I think this varies from chain to chain though because Sheraton and its Starwood Preferred Guest program are solidly in place regardless of how the room is paid for.
Still, it was a nice room and a nice hotel, no complaints.
We decided to go back out, stop by the grocery store for provisions for the cruise and to make sure we knew where the other Budget rental office was, the one closer to the port that would shuttle us to the ship after dropping the car in the morning.
Good thing we did because we spent the next 4 hours learning that part of Fort Lauderdale like the back of our hands and NOT finding the office at all. We even went back to the Budget office we picked the car up from and they didn?t know where it was exactly.
The plan is to call them in the morning and see if they can give us directions to where they are. If they can?t I am going to park the car in the middle of some busy street and tell them to come pick it up.
I believe we will be joining other rental car companies little clubs before the next cruise.
But the whole thing was totally fun. We?d had a great day, a super meeting with the recruiter and could have gone home right then having had a great trip.
But we still had a cruise to go on! It seems all agree that Princess rules the embarkation procedure world and this sailing was no exception. I think if someone ever reported a bad experience in this area I'm just sure they would be a liar.
Speaking of dishonest, low-down, dirty rats.
I would be one of those who smuggled stuff on this ship.
Pre-cruise (you may remember) I begged and pleaded for information about the possibility of walking on the ship with a case of something...anything.. not offered on the ship. On our Golden Princess cruise earlier in the year I noted that Princess did not sell Heineken or Corona as well as Dr. Pepper....all needed to make for an enjoyable cruise. Not a deal breaker; no one would have their cruise ruined without them, but this became more of a quest, perhaps a time-between-cruises-killing quest.
I got reports that varied from "Oh Sure, we always just walk right on with our case upon case of whatever we want" to "There is NO way you will get that on board!" and everything in-between. Here is our experience:
The morning of embarkation we were driving around on the way to drop the car off at the Budget Car Rental office on 17th Street from where we would be taken to the port by Budget Shuttle. (That all worked out very nicely by the way- very efficient)
Not it was crunch time, I had to decide if I was going to attempt this or not.
I decided to go for it but realized that it was not so much the beer they'd object to but the brazen and open bringing it on the ship part. Everyone had no problem bringing cans of any beverage as long as they put it in their checked luggage. But I wanted bottles.
At the liquor store I found the boxed case of Heineken I wanted to take on that ship. As I paid I noticed that they had sheets of colored tissue paper for wrapping gift bottles of wine and I saw the light.
Funny how in the blink of an eye you finally see it.
I asked for a few sheets, thinking I'd tape it around the case of Heineken making it less obvious to the naked eye what I had there. Remember I was going to be one of the first in line and subject to a long period of scrutiny.
I did not want to be made an example of.
The friendly liquor store clerk asked if it was a gift so, going with the flow, I said "Yes.....Yes it is!. My brother is getting back from Iraq tonight and he said the one thing they didn't have that he wanted very badly was a Heineken"
The now even more interested the increasingly patriotic clerk replied "Oh well we have some very nice wrapping paper over here at the other counter, here let me get that for you and lets go pick some out"
Enjoying the ride I said "Oh that would be great, we're all going to meet him at the airport. I just can't wait to see the look on his face"
"Well normally we charge $5 for this but you tell him thanks for us too"
(I momentarily felt guilty here)
"Sure thing, will do, thanks!"
(The guilt did not last long)
Now you may be wondering why I would go to such lengths just to get a box of beer wrapped to smuggle on to a cruise ship. Why would I lie about my brother who would be more likely baking a souffle than defending our country (long story, some other time)? Well that's a dillema that Lisa (DW) has wondered about for decades and still has no answer for.
My take on it?
It's just more fun that way!
We made it through embarkation just fine with that wrapped like a special occasion gift case of Heineken (I planned on saying it was a present for the Captain which I must present in person if stopped) sitting atop my roll on carry on luggage, 2 6-packs of Tonic Water, 18 cans of Bloody Mary Mix and 3 12 packs of Coke/Sprite in our checked luggage.
The interesting thing about it all is I bet I only had 3 or 4 of those Heinekens and all of them were consumed in our cabin (see bar bill above). It was just the notion of being able to do it and report back here if it was possible or not. The Princess SourPusses as I call them, were there from the moment we stepped foot on the dock before embarkation until the moment we left the ship.
These are the people who moan and complain about anything they can get their hands on. It's what they do and they love doing it.
Anything will "ruin their cruise". They are bored, their kids are bored and they meet boring people.
They look way down their nose at the people who are having the time of their lives and refuse to let anything stand in the way of it. The Princess Sourpusses always look like they are going to be sick soon, are sick, or dream of being sick. If they did get sick it would surely be my fault and guess what?
I could care less.
It's those people's problem and they may or may not deal with it.
The Princess Sourpusses are around and resent all these "new" people that have invaded their cruise line.
The point of this is not to scare someone away or make them hessitant to cruise with Princess (like I was) because of the Princess Sourpusses. But they do exist and are easily ignored.
Just tuck that thought away and remove that objection to cruising Princess, you'll be glad you did...as I am.
This Caribbean Princess sailing had simply THE most fun group of passengers I've seen. All ages, sizes, and types of people were there...yes even some Princess Sourpusses...but I've never seen so many having a good time, in their own way, at once.
Let's see why that might be We had selected (not settled for) Personal Choice dining because of our experience with it earlier in the year on the Golden Princess. We liked it then and were looking forward to the same options, plus a few more, on this sailing.
We were not disappointed.
Personal Choice is really nothing complicated or difficult to understand, although I sure managed to before our first experience with it.
The notion that you can dine "where, when and with whoever you like" is for the most part true...even moreso on this ship.
Traditional dining will offer your choice of two seatings for dinner, one early and one later. You pick which one you want and hope to get it. This is still a very popular option and reflects decades of seagoing dining tradition. In other words, if you're looking for a lot of boring old people, that's the place you'll find a bunch of them. You'll also find scaredy cats who hate change with a passion or are first-time cruisers who are following the advice of well-meaning travel (buffoon) agents. The group that's also there is a bunch that's having a fabulous vacation and happen to be in traditional dining because that's what they prefer.
The fact of the matter is that unless you've got some regularity problems, small children that must eat at a specific time, or some other logical (probably not) reason, you're missing the ..ahem..."boat" by not trying Personal Choice. With few exceptions not even worth talking about, the menu and style of service is the same if not better when following the Personal Choice plan...wait a minute, that sounds like a Weight Watchers diet I was on once...make that: Personal Choice offers a rich dining experience that, if skipped, is a lot like missing formal night.
Pause for gasping
Well it's true.
Personal Choice offers dining as cruising is offered in its contemporary form:
Do what you want, when you want to.
That probably really makes the Princess SourPusses mad...but again: it's their loss.
The dining options are pretty simple with the exception of the Caribe Cafe which was thought up by someone on an acid trip at the time. Let's go there first.
The Caribe Cafe, more accurately called the Caribe Cafe Buffet, adjoins the Horizon Court Buffet, both aft.
Side note: In previous versions of this ship the space it occupies provided room for tables and chairs by the Outrigger Bar, what was a great place for a Cruise Critic meeting in the past but is too crowded now. For future meetings I'm going to push for the Sterling Steakhouse, empty during the day, which hosted the Friends of Dorothy get together. They set up a nice buffet of snacks but no one attended. I if we get in their faces about it they'll do it for Cruise Critic which would indeed attend since we all go anywhere there is food to fill our gaping maws.
What they've done with the design of the Caribe Cafe is to allow the option of having four, not two, buffet lines open at the same time which is exactly what they did on, for example, Embarkation Day. The menu was exactly the same and no body cared because we were ravenous cruise passengers at the first feeding.
Pretty clever of them huh?
The Caribe Cafe designers went out of their way to disguise this though.
During the day it appears to be similar to the Horizon court but with some different food choices. What is dang odd is that nobody still seems to be able to figure out the scramble system of serving yourself from different stations in the Horizon court.
But the Caribe Cafe, more of a straight line cafeteria, for some reason brings out the station hopping skills guests should have used in the Horizon Court which causes some bottlenecks around the good stuff and of course nasty glances by Princess Sourpusses who may have lost their way and wandered into this area while looking for someone to complain about the coffee to.
They are ALWAYS complaining about the coffee.
I make a point of taking my first sip right in front of them and saying (ala Folgers picture of calm benevolence; Mrs Olson, ) "Now Dat's Goood coffee...good to the last drop!"...or something like that.
What is really wierd and takes some getting used to in the Caribe Cafe is dining there at night. Whoever thought this idea up must have majored in Ambiguity. The place closes early in the afternoon so they can set up the tables with table cloths, wine glasses and silverware in a manner that is not coincidentally like the main dining rooms. The food is still buffet style, you still serve yourself, but they put Creole seasoning on the tables and feature food with Caribbean names...most of which is quite good and unique. One night I had (I kid you not) skewers that had huge shrimp and hunks of lobster. Pretty good for buffet fare.
Funny though, I always thought of Creole style as like New Orleans and Caribbean style as like Jamaican. Is this one of those things that everyone but me knows?
The odd part is deciding what to do.
You'll see passengers circling the place trying to decide if they can get in there with shorts or casual wear on like they can in the other (Horizon court) buffet. It's a real dilemma. I finally gave up trying to figure it out when I saw a bunch of kids I'd met earlier in the day by the pool having dinner and a good time.
I'm pretty sure that the same dude who designed Club Confusion is in cahoots with the dude who designed this place.
The cool part is that it all works. The Caribe Cafe is a great dining venue offering some really unique cuisine. Indeed, they could have simply added a couple more lines to the Horizon Court to open during peak times. But they chose to add yet another dimension to Personal Choice dining.
Tip: If both are open, go to the Horizon Court first but keep going and go through the line at the Caribe Cafe too. Just pick the good stuff, there's plenty of choices.
In addition to these two buffet style dining venues there are other offerings as well Other dining options include:
The Pizza Place/Grill Open from lunchtime through early evening, this is a good place for a good slice of pizza or a burger, chicken sandwich or hot dog. A bar separates the pizza place from the grill and spans the width of the aft of the ship. This is a great place to grab a quick bite to eat and maybe take a dip in the pool to wash the sand off after a day at the beach
Ordering off the menu in your cabin I'd heard that it was possible to have room service send down a menu from the dining room from which you could order and have it delivered to your stateroom. If you're in a mini or full suite this is no problem. On this sailing we were told that the service was normally reserved for suites but that they would send us a menu anyway. We were indeed able to order everything we wanted off the regular dining room menu. For comparison purposes we ordered the Fettuccini Alfredo which is a favorite of mine in the dining room to see how that translated to being served in-cabin.
It was good. Not as good as in the dining room but one heck of a lot better than a sandwich.
Room Service Not that the regular room service fare is not good, it is quite good. I guess that's a matter of opinion but my day would not be complete without an order of Caramel Flan from room service. Other favorites included French Fries served with Ranch Dressing (hey try it) and burgers. There was no problem with a special request of a BLT along with Honey Roasted Peanuts and an awesome snack/pretzel mix.
Just dropping in at peak times at a PC dining room As yet another experiment and test of the system, we tried dropping into the Coral PC dining room without reservations at 8:00, a peak time when lots of people were standing around with pagers waiting for a table. We were told it would be about 10 to 15 minutes for our party of 2 sitting by ourselves. It was 12 minutes so I think they did pretty good there. Our service that night, by the way, was the best ever in the dining room. I'm sure that has a lot to do with the individual service teams but this one was tops.
Scoops The Haagen Daz was being scooped up but not with any big lines as we had experienced on the Golden earlier this year. I think many passengers had gotten the news that iced cream was served in the Horizon Court from 3 to 3:30 and went there. I think others simply passed the place without noticing it as the Ceramics classes were being held right beside it, kind of overshadowing the whole thing. I was looking for Cruise Critic Members/Haagen Daz owners to get a free shake or malt but none could be found.
The Martini Bar/Coffee Place I don't even know if this place has a name but its on the lowest floor in the atrium. It's a quaint little place kind of tucked away by itself used mostly as a service bar for waiters to get drinks for the guests enjoying the atruim music or just relaxing with a book. But there's always a little something to eat here! That's unique because there is really no other place within 50 feet of it that food is served. To me, more than 50 feet away from a food venue is too far and I get nervous. I wonder if all the other passengers are at the food places I can't see gobbling up all the food and leaving nothing for me. In the morining there's a continental breakfast served, in the afternoon they have cool little cookies. A Princess Sourpuss would probably take one or two to linger over a cup of coffee with. I load up a plate and ask the string quartet if they know any good fiddle music that we can dance to.
The Bars and snack mix They don't brag about it but hidden behind all the bars is a really good pretzel/snack mix and peanuts that are there for the asking.
Tea Time I have yet to make it to tea time. I just know I am missing a big event that would add yet more dimension to our cruise experience but I always seem to be doing something else!
Oh well, there's always the next time! Would you please comment on the after Midnight action in various bars throughout the ship. We are 40's who like to stay up very late.
Midnight is as good a place to start as any. Lets start there and work backwards.
About midnight the mainline shows are letting out and there's a midnight "R" rated show someplace. It might be a magician, comedian or the like and usually lasts an hour. One of the most hilarious ones I saw was a hypnotist but the quality of the shows were all top knotch.
Lisa (DW) and I will be going on the Star Princess in the Fall, our first vacation by ourselves in 20+ years. She asked what would be different the other day and the first thing out of our mouths was "You'll see more shows".
After a bunch of Carnival cruises, a line with great Vegas-style shows that get high marks, we'd not been to many shows in the last couple of years choosing a quieter, more secluded cruise experience. (Yes, it's possible on Carnival) But there's something about these Princess shows that beckoned us to see them and I'm really glad we did. They're well done, professionally produced (plug for Sydney's friend from the CP), and quite entertaining.
After the midnight show head to Skywalkers.
Here is one brilliant idea. I can just imagine the Princess board meeting and somebody saying they'd like to attract a more lively crowd, not just younger, but more active. Some of the Carnival party bunch but not the frat buddies.
Someone else said "Ok, we'll take their money but you better keep them FAR AWAY from our regular passengers! If they hear loud music we'll never hear the end of it"
And so was born Skywalkers, perched 50 feet above the deck, all the way aft on the ship. The music and lighting system are top knotch and their apt DJ's will play anything from 50's music to the very most current music right on the cutting edge of today's music business, often at the same time.
You'll enter from deck 18 and access the club from a moving "skywalk" that takes you from the ship to the club at a pace fast enough to get you there quickly but slow enough that it invites those of all ages to attend. It's not "catapult's" nightclub so it doesn't go too fast and I've often seen people with walkers and scooters give it a try too...it's totally handicapped accessible.
One night I saw a lady with her oxygen tank there and wondered if she would be selling that later in the night to people in the smoking section.
Speaking of which it is very effectively divided half smoking and half non-smoking and ventilated very well so neither group is bothered by the other.
Skywalkers will be open about as long as the crowd stays. We closed the place every night on this cruise and last spring on the Golden Princess and that was between 2 and 3AM...more toward 3AM when the next day was at sea and more toward 2AM when the next day was a port day.
For a quieter but still fun place to go the cigar bar (if you can tolerate the smoke) between the lower level entrances to the Princess theatre is a good place to go but it does not stay open quite as late.
After 3AM, find someone with a balcony and relax there. We did that most nights. I've always enjoyed sunsets and sunrises at sea, the time of night right before the sun starts to make it's way into the picture is also a favorite. During that time on a clear night the stars can be simply brilliant and if there's a shooting star to be seen you've never seen one as clearly. Between the passing ocean, the active night sky and the memories of the day you'll be reflecting on and the promise for what tomorrow brings it's quite one of my favorite times of the day.
A side note- I've yet to hear the out of control teens running amok down the hallways at this time which I see reported here. I suppose that by then they've been arrested and thrown in the brig or passed out someplace out of sight. Movies Under The Stars and Making Reservations- I think this is a simply brilliant idea born of the same notion as Club Confusion and the Caribe Cafe in an attempt to keep us occupied. I'd read stories that it was difficult to hear and that the sound bleeded over into other areas. They must have addressed those issues because I did not find that to be the case. My first experience with Movies Under The Stars came along quite by accident as I strolled around on deck and happened upon a playing of the Tina Turner:One Last Time concert. This was awesome for all ages and very enjoyable. During these concerts (they do a Tom Jones one later in the week) it's not the popcorn and cushy lounge chairs by invitation, you can just wander in and find a seat. There are waiters to get you drinks but most people I saw with food had brought it from a buffet. We signed up early for the two shows that were playing, picking one at 7:30 and the other a couple nights later for the 10:30 show. We didn't make it to either one but recieved tickets early in the day in our stateroom mailbox. There is just so much to do on this ship that it's difficult to decide which things to do and which things to skip. When we were scheduled for the 7:30 show was on the first formal night, along with Ryan, Amy (ccmembers) and another family we'd met along the way. We watched as 7:30 came and went before dessert. Oh well, better luck with the next showing at 10:30 on another night that we had reservations for. We didn't make that one either because we were at a show earlier in the night and by then we'd fallen into the Skywalker's routine that dominated late night entertainment...something we didn't know when we made reservations. And that's the tough part By recommendation we made reservations for the Movies, Sabatinis and the Sterling Steakhouse all within an hour of boarding. Easy. We wondered why people stood in line for hours in front of Sabatinis later in the day to make their reservations. We thought we knew exactly when we wanted to go to each of those places. What we didn't anticipate was meeting so many nice people on board, becoming friends and a part of their plans as well as them a part of ours. That pretty much blew all our reservations right out the window...in a good way though. I think I'd still make reservations early, right after boarding, as part of the list of things we do right when we get on the ship...perhaps taking the place of "check dining room table assignment" as we would have done before discovering the wonders of Personal Choice dining. Or we might consider doing what I heard others had pretty good luck at....waiting until the last minute. They're reluctant to commit to seats at Movies Under the Stars that go unclaimed at showtime but I know for a fact that there were some and they're not assigned. Dining reservations, however, are not that hard to get at the last minute, probably due to people like me who made them early and then their plans changed. We called to cancel our reservations like good little boys and girls do but I bet there were a lot of people who just did not show. In the dining rooms, I am told, they hold the table for ten minutes then give it up. I suppose it has a little to do with being in the right place at the right time with flexible dining plans. Remember too that there are multiple options to anything you can make a reservation for. Like a bunch of other guests I felt a sense of urgency to make those reservations so I wouldn't miss out on stuff. While a reservation does guarantee that you'll be able to do one of these things it doesn't guarantee a good time.....and to me that's what it's all about. I won't for a minute fret and worry about making a 7:30 movie reservation while enjoying a lovely formal night dinner with new-found friends. They still offer afternoon movies in the Princess Theatre that we enjoyed a whole lot on previous cruises. If you've never done it, you owe it to yourself to see some movie while at sea. Many people think "Why watch a movie at sea? I can do that at home!" True, but every time you see that movie, a clip of that movie, or that movie mentioned in conversation, you'll think of your cruise..for a long time in the future and think "...I saw that on the cruise!" St Maarten- We'd been to St Maarten several times before so we knew what to expect and what was going on there....except for one thing. We liked going to Everything Cool on our last cruise there earlier this year but had heard that it was closed. Now on board the Caribbean Princess the rumor was that it was closed but moved down the beach a ways. We'd see when we got on board. First stop off the ship was Sharkey's, a little bar on the side of the pier that I love to spend time at on the way back from the ship. As might be expected with this bunch we'd hooked up with we started the day there as well
We had to wait for the rest of our group to roll out of bed and make it to the pier and found that drinking liquids out of these little cups made the time pass more enjoyably. In addition the 2 for $5.00 any kind of beer special helped too. Actually, this turned out to be one of the best decisions we made on the cruise and one I'd do again for sure. When we docked there were a total of four ships in port including the Carnival Glory which I swear was stalking us from port to port, the Celebrity something-or-other and a RCCL something of the Seas. They all started dumping passengers on the pier at the same time and the line for the water taxi we were planning on taking on our quest to find Everything Cool was backed up and moving slow. We decided to kill some more time at Sharkeys with fellow CC Members Ryan and Amy who were killing time before their Americas Cup racing thing.
The only thing I regret was not buying a Sharkey's T-shirt. Everybody who went on the Kon-Tiki Party Boat had one and I think we were just as "happy" as they were so I should have bought a shirt to commemorate the occasion. Again, this happy bunch of passengers from the Caribbean Princess had redefined cruising. Like I said, I always liked to stop and relax at Sharkeys on the way back to the ship in the afternoon...now I'll have to stop on the way off the ship from now on too! Fun lesson to learn there for sure. By the time the rest of our gang showed up and/or we gave up on them the water taxi line was like nothing so we walked right on the taxi and went right over to the beach. Yes, Everything Cool is still there but it's been moved down the beach. If you were in the water looking at the beach it's moved to the left of where it was. One cool thing about the new location is that there is a bar perched three stories above the beach that has an awesome view and is not in use much. You'll have to climb a spiral staircase to get there but it's also where the restrooms are located. We'd planned on doing some shopping but opted to stay right there at Everythings Cool. The kids did JetSkis causing Sydney pain for a couple days from using muscles she didn't know she had but it was fun and a great day at the beach. On the way back the water taxi line was really long (we stayed too long at the fair) so we took a taxi back ($3) and called it a day....ashore.....there was still plenty more happening for the rest of the day. Graham Seymour and Island Night- I never thought much of Cruise Directors before. They were heard on the loudspeakers selling stuff, present at the big shows but that was about it. I never did see one out among the passengers although on Carnival there were a few colorful ones that seemed in touch. Then I cruised with Graham Seymour on the Golden Princess earlier this year and then again on this sailing. Here's a guy who I did see on deck with passengers a lot, at a lot of shows and most impressively on a traditional Princess event called Island Night. Island night fell at the end of our day in St Maarten. This theme night invites guests to wear tropical clothing and join the crew in the aft section of the ship for fun, games, music and a night that will truly be one of the most memorable if not THE most memorable of the cruise. On our Golden cruise I stumbled upon the crew setting up for this and doing a sound check mid-afternoon before the events were to begin about 9:30 then be carried directly upstairs to Skywalkers for the rest of the evening. The same practice was followed on this sailing and I was equally impressed with the precision, detail and energy poured into creating this special night for the guests. Graham was firmly in control of this night. His night This is where if you had any reservations about Graham Seymour being an outstanding Cruise Director they were all washed away as his staff began the evening with some fun and games Then enter Graham. From the moment he steps foot on stage it's obvious that this is HIS night and he owns it as sure as the live ocean backdrop behind him is breathtaking. He starts with a lip-sync contest that featured our friend Keith who seemed to be popping up in all the passenger-participation events and on this one, simply following along to "Jailhouse Rock" was not enough. But when Graham took center stage there was no doubt who this show was all about and he brought the house down while the packed aft area of the ship enjoyed refreshments and snacks. Remember, Island Night is done on decks 15, 16 and 17 aft which take up a lot of space, belly up to the Outrigger bar, and is just steps away from the Caribe Cafe where you can go and grab more of the impressive array of snacks being circulated around the decks by the crew. But we carried the party up to deck 18 and Skywalkers for a great night of continued entertainment and the place was just packed. Guests of all ages (that were over 18) crammed the place with a standing room only crowd that was there to have a great time. I'm not talking just young 20-somethings, all age groups were represented here with one thing in common: they'd been to island night and didn't want it to end. One of the things I read a lot about before sailing on the Caribbean Princess was the crowding on the ship. There were indeed a lot of people on board and there were times when it was indeed crowded. I think all these big ships need just one more pool. But, to me, the crowding was not a problem. There were always chairs to be had, especially if you didn't mind tossing aside the towel that was saving them. In fact, the crowding really made the pool games a lot more fun. During the day the pool olympics and volleyball tourament were especially well attended and held in the mid-ship pool that offered good views for lots of people all around the event. These events were indeed crowded, but there were lots of places, inside and outside on the ship to find peace and quiet if that's what we were looking for. I liked that the Movies Under The Stars was utilized during the day for music videos. But while that was going on and dominating that particular area, a short distance away Deep Blue, the awesome house band that would be leaving the fleet for a while after a couple more sailings, was playing elsewhere with the steel drum Caribbean-flair music you might more traditionally associate with cruising, open decks and a day at sea. At night much of the action moved inside to the different venues around the shiip. From the Wheelhouse bar with a nice trio doing old favorites to the Piano Bar, an addicting area that saw a LOT of regulars each evening to, of course, Skywalkers for late night high-energy action (and drama sometimes if you've been following Sydney's review) there was something for everyone. Yes, a quiet stroll on deck could be had. Yes, the hot tubs were open late. Yes, there was late-night dining in either the Caribe Cafe or Horizon Court. Like I said in the beginning, this was as close to a perfect cruise as I've yet experienced. I'm trying really hard to be critical here but they've really gotten this ship together in a short amount of time. There are a lot of features on this ship to keep most everyone busy. Some people require less to amuse them than others. Like me. I'm devoting a photo essay to simply the carpet of the Caribbean Princess. Yeah, that's right, the carpet Regular readers will remember or have viewed on this website the gallery of urns from the Carnival Legend. In designing the Caribbean Princess someone took a lot of time and effort with the carpet. Here's a link to our carpet gallery!
In general I think the cruise lines do a pretty darn good job of making us feel at home. On this cruise, this crew went out of their way to make that happen. Here's an example of just how good they are:
I really wanted to explore all the dining options I could. One of the little-known but talked a lot about ones was the ability we supposedly have to order off the dining room menu in our cabin. The story went that all we had to do is call room service, request a menu, and it would be delivered to our cabin from which we could order dinner. The only other information I remembered reading about this was to be sure to order everything all at once, down to salt and pepper, because that's exactly what they'd bring.
The reality for us was somewhat different.
Where I think service really gets an opportunity to shine is when something goes wrong and this was no exception.
Sydney (designated switch board operator in our cabin) called to order the menu and I could tell (sitting across the room) that she was having trouble communicating with whoever had answered the phone in room service. My first impression was that it was a language barrier that she would overcome and everything would be ok. Soon though it became apparent that the person on the other end of the phone had no idea what she was talking about.
She handed the phone to me
Here's the exchange that occured in the conversation that followed:
"Sir, we do not offer dining room service in the staterooms"
"Oh, I was told that if we called room service that you would send a menu and we could order from it to be delivered to our cabin"
"Who told you that?"
(Pause as I try to figure out how to explain to this guy that a bunch of people I've never met off an internet bulletin board site told me)
"Well that's just what I heard.....a friend told me"
"No sir, we don't offer that service but the dining room opens at 6:00"
"Ok nevermind I guess I was misinformed"
"Well sir I don't know why you would be told that...blah blah blah"
(He was becoming uncharacteristically irritating now)
"Ok just forget it"
(Click as I hung up the phone)
:::about a minute passes:::
(The phone rings, Sydney answers)
"It's for you, it's the Maitre D'"
"Sir this is the Maitre d', I wanted to call to apologize, the person you talked to before was confused. Normally we reserve that service for our suite guests but would be happy to offer it to you tonight (door knock as I am talking) a menu is on it's way right now"
That door knock was a waiter with a menu. When we called back they could not have been nicer, took our order and when the dining room opened brought it to us just as ordered.
I was impressed with how they handled the whole thing. If they'd just said "no, we dont do that" it would have been good for me and a burger or yet another order of caramel flan would have tided me over till we could have found something else to eat.
But that's the way the whole crew was. I was impressed with the crew on our Golden Princess cruise earlier in the year but even moreso with this bunch that at times seemed to be there just for us.
They really take the time and appear to have the time to take care of business rather than being rushed trying to do too much at once.
I was talking to our room steward who also never seemed to be rushed but working at a steady pace throughout the day how many cabins they each had. He told me everyone had 17 cabins, one had 18 because that's just how the numbers worked out. I thought that sounded like a lot until I saw him in action, close up, one morning.
These guys are really well trained.
We'd slept in one morning and really pushed the envelope on getting our room made up, finally able to vacate it just 5 minutes before his shift ended. Always concientious about getting in and getting it done I told him I had to wait for a phone call but he was welcome to come in and do it while I waited.
Wow, what efficiency! This guy literally turned over our cabin in about 5 minutes. Made the beds, cleaned up our mess, changed towels, straightened the bathroom, cleaned the balcony, etc. I was impressed.
I found the same care, concern and flexibility in every area.
We got to know several members of the crew from various departments to the point where we exchanged email addresses, something we'd not done before. I gotta tell you: this is no slave ship.
Sometimes we hear about the long hours the crew works for not so much money, blah blah blah. Every one of the crew that I talked to was there because they wanted to be and having a great time doing their jobs. That's everyone from the ships officers to dj's in the clubs to waiters and cabin stewards. Yes, they all talked of when they'd be going home.
I had the opportunity to talk one on one with the members of Deep Blue, the popular Caribbean band that was onboard. Our sailing represented one of the last they'd be doing before heading home to Trinidad for some rest and relaxation. It was also part of the second contract extension they'd accepted just because "they love doing it" they said. They love the people, they love the lifestyle...they just love to do it....and it shows in their music.
Like so many of the other members of the crew their being nice is not a forced, they were told to do it nice; they mean it. They're having fun and it's contagious.
Where exactly that comes from I don't know.
I know that they all spoke highly of the Captain and fondly of the Cruise Director but I don't know enough about the managerial structure of a ship to know which one sets the tone. I suspect both.
It was hard to believe that this ship had set sail just a matter of months prior to our sailing, they were just that good Laundry and Valet Service
While on board I had the opportunity to try the shipboard laundry and valet service and wanted to report on how that worked out as well.
Most articles of clothing can get same day service by paying a 50% of the normal charge service charge and getting them in by 9:00 AM. Regular service when handed to our cabin steward got it back by 5:00PM the next day. We tried it both ways and found the service good and the prices reasonable. Our cabin steward had the appropriate form to fill out and took care of it for us.
Dining Options At A Glance
In each cabin is one of these handy guides to all the different dining options. We used it on the first day to help map out when we'd make reservations for the different nights of the week as we were in Personal Choice dining. As I noted previously, that was just a plan. We made our reservations, painlessly, in the first couple hours we were on board but what we'd reserved and what we ended up doing was quite different.
There's also a quick reference Bar Guide that I thought was helpful
Movies Under The Stars Tickets
We made our reservations, one for an early 7:30 show and one for a late 10:30 show within a couple hours of embarkation. On the day of the show they deliver your tickets in your cabin mailbox.
Here's the backside- note the waitlist policy
Future Cruise Sales
Much has been said of this must-do service offered while you're on board but here's a form you can fill out when onboard if the Future Cruise chick is not available at the time you are:
No review would be complete without a little discussion about the desserts! Well surely any discussion of desserts on Princess would have to include the Loveboat Dream (always available).
I think it's one of the best things they do but on our Caribbean Princess cruise Sydney was enthralled with the ice creams and sorbets....had them every meal...well except for one slice of cheesecake she slipped in on the first formal night.
I read from time to time where "all the desserts taste the same". I think those comments must be based on the buffet desserts which do seem similar to me. In the dining room though there's a lot of diversity on evey night's menu which makes it difficult for me to choose sometimes. I know we can get whatever we want but I've been trying to be able to get up from the table on my own recently and a couple desserts does not help much in that area!
Still, you could always find me in the Horizon Court sometime between 3:30 and 4:30 in the afternoon sampling the homemade ice creams they offer there. I really liked the Peach!
Scoops, the Cruise Critic Member-owned Ice Cream palace on board did not get any of my business on this trip though; they did not have the ice cream bars that I liked on the Golden (and ashore). Not that I really suffered much for lack of them.
Any discussion of dessert that includes me has got to give a nod to room service's Caramel Flan, Creme Brule's second cousin, as a real winner. I can'g go a day on board without one. In fact on this cruise I tried, I really tried, to set up "Caramel Flan Time" each day for both Sydney and I by ordering two. Sometimes, ok most of the time, she wasn't there though and hers would stare at me until I ate it. Nevermind that I ordered it while she was in the shower, on deck sunning, or at a show...I tried to create a pleasant bonding experience which got turned into a sorry addict feeding his weakness.
I wish I had a copy of all the dessert menus (Jon?) so I could remember all the different ones I tried but I don't.
I do think the desserts and pastries are one of Princess' strongest culinary areas though even down to the little cookies they have out for the enjoyment atrium dwellers in the afternoon. On the dinner menu they're called Perdongies or something like that and the are heavenly too.
I'm still kicking myself for two dessert events I have missed both on this cruise and on the Golden earlier this year: Tea Time and Creme Brule night. Next cruise I am going to make a point of it but Tea Time is either a busy time of the day for me or naptime and Creme Brule night always falls on a "wierd food" night that I exercise my Personal Choice rights and skip the dining room.
Disembarkation- the icky part Just when I had successfully burried that memory you have to bring it up!
Well Disembarkation is also a breeze on Princess albeit a sad breeze.
Embarkation gets thumbs up from everyone, they give us exactly what we want: to get on the ship fast!
IMHO how Princess handles disembarkation is one of the big keys to how well embarkation does go. They start two days before by giving exit information, customs cards and luggage tags. The room stewards keep the rooms up in top condition all through the voyage but pay special attention towards the end with an eye on the next group of passengerrs.
I was talking to our room steward two days before the end of our cruise and he already had a list of who would be in each cabin and any speical requests they had so he could begin planning his day and be prepared on "turnover" day.
Princess requests that guests vacate their cabins and wait in public areas giving stewards more time to get in there, turn the cabin, and get ready for the new batch of passengers. Platinum members are invited to wait in the Wheelhouse Bar, a cozy mid ship location, where a continental breakfast is served and USA Today is available for those that just can't wait to jump back into reality. Others wait in various areas around the ship while color groups are called in an order that was published and given to us in our mailboxes.
I thought that was a nice touch- knowing where you were on the list as the various color groups are called. Another nice touch is the Log of the Voyage we're given that shows where the ship was and where it went every step of the way.
When our group, Aqua 3, was called, we started walking and pretty much never stopped until we reached the luggage area, found our luggage and had a porter transfer it to our waiting rental car shuttle.
The part I hate about this is that you have to look at the people that will be taking over "your" ship and boarding next as you leave. On one hand it's a sad moment, but on the other hand I looked back on the week and what was our best cruise ever and I can't really feel too bad.
Ok I can feel bad and I am going to and you can't stop me!
As I said in the beginning of this, our cruise was darn near perfect. I illuminated some areas where there were opportunities to improve, things went wrong, or things could have gone better but all in all they confirmed my belief that Princess offers just what we're looking for in a cruise line and they delivered it every step of the way.
I was not alone in this feeling though.
That last night in Skywalkers our "gang" was seriously exchanging email and land addresses, phone numbers and AIM screen names with more conviction than any group I'd seen on any cruise I've been on.
I bet we do see them again.
I sure hope so. For digital video of this cruise visit our website at www.LifeIsCruising.com