Princess Cruises Caribbean Princess by mikepowie Eastern Caribbean April 1, 2007
We just got back from our first cruise: on the Caribbean Princess during the first week of April. My overall impression of the Caribbean Princess experience is difficult to summarize, because, while positive, my recommendation is heavily qualified by some of the experiences we had on the ship. We did lots of research before this cruise, and I must say, many of the Cruisemates reviews were very helpful
Background Information. My wife (26) and I (31) decided to take a cruise for our honeymoon after we got married this past fall. Neither of us has cruised before, the times were good and the prices were right. As such, this review is more catered to first time cruisers. My wife is a teacher, so we are limited in when we can go on vacation. We considered a shorter cruise on Celebrity Century, but thought the full week on Princess would be nicer, the ports on this cruise seemed more interesting, and the price was only marginally more. While we managed to have a nice honeymoon, cruising on this ship during spring break is something I believe honeymooning couples should really avoid, unless you want to be surrounded by children.
The rest of this review will be mostly about the ship and my critique of the product put forth by Princess, but I think it's important to explain why our experience was only good and not terrific. There were—according to the cruise director staff—upwards of 1,000 children on the ship and YOU FELT IT! Kids throwing temper tantrums in the public rooms; kids in the adult pools (the staff did try to remove them, but it's a little hard when it's the parents bringing them there); kids running down the hall, slamming doors, and yelling to their friends down the hallways (It's a ship, not a sound-proof hotel. That meant our afternoon naps were interrupted constantly.). Unattended eight year olds playing on precious gym equipment. We returned to our room at half past midnight and a boy—maybe 9 or 10—was playing on the stairs, running around, bumping into an elderly couple and us, completely left to himself. What I found most offensive, I think, was that many families acted as though the ship was their living room. Shouting across rooms as though no one else exists. Kids throwing dinner rolls from one table to another in the formal dining room, while their parents sat at another table completely unaware and unconcerned.
My favorite: despite a note by the ship physician about a small Norovirus outbreak during our sailing and that we should take all necessary precaution, one woman evidently thought it appropriate to change her child's diaper on an upholstered couch outside a public lounge. My point is not to lament the fact standards for raising children have changed or that our society has gotten coarser. It is, however, to state that if this is typical of the Caribbean Princess, we will not cruise on such a ship again. While Princess genuinely put together a nice product, this drawback—which permeated the entire cruise—is something that I cannot see beyond. I expressed such feelings on the customer feedback forms they provided at the end of the cruise. I only hope they receive enough such comments to consider how they want to position themselves as a cruise line. If families are the most lucrative for them, then they should, in my opinion, abandon their "Love Boat" vestiges so that people know what to expect.
Embarkation: We flew down early Sunday morning (the day of the cruise) from Washington National to FLL on US Airways. I know this was somewhat risky, but we figured we had enough time to be rebooked if something happened, and being early April, the risk of really bad weather seemed rather remote. Fortunately, we had no problems. Unlike our return, the trip down was very nice. We arrived at FLL at about 10am. We collected our bags and waited in line for a taxi for about 5 minutes. The fare to the Princess pier in Port Everglades (with a nice tip) was $20. We had four suitcases and tipped $6 for all of them. I mention this because I read some conflicting accounts of this interaction. I take it as a given that such people should be tipped. I saw no signs saying "tipping not required", but my wife says she did. We were on the ship by 12:30 or so.
Much has been written about the ship, and I am a first time cruiser, so I have little with which to compare it. I will just say that public rooms are very nice, clean and well maintained. Here's a brief overview of the bars/lounges: the Wheelhouse bar is never crowded and a very attractive place to get a before/after dinner drink. Skywalkers is a nightclub—a nice venue with loud music, but empty when we were there. Club Fusion is a multi-tasking lounge. Princess Theatre seemed adequately large for the shows. Yeah, you have to get there early for a good seat, but you could show up beforehand most nights and get some seat. Dining rooms were nice enough.
The stateroom was a little less nice, I thought. It was perfectly fine, but seemed to show a little bit of wear and was of slightly cheaper construction than the public rooms. One thing for first time cruisers: the bathroom is tiny. It's functional, but tiny. I knew to expect small, but I was a little surprised by how small. Think of it as an airplane bathroom with a shower. You'll manage, but it's tight. The rest of the room is as I expected: smaller than a hotel room, but adequate. On the other hand, our balcony on the Caribe deck was larger than I expected, and larger than most on the ship (I would say 8' x 8'). We did not particularly mind it being partially exposed. Our cabin steward, Tony from the Philippines, was excellent. Based on what I had read, this was not a surprise for us. Cabin stewards seem to do a nice job, more or less uniformly. It's so nice asking for something once and without fail, it happens. Spoiled
Service: Based on everything I had read and heard, I expected good service on Princess, and by in large, we were not disappointed. Look, I understand people have different expectations, and experiences with different personnel may completely justify different conclusions. Granted, I don't have other cruise ship experience, but I have traveled quite a bit, dined in more than enough fine dining restaurants throughout the U.S. and some abroad. It's hard for me to imagine a vacation for comparable costs within the U.S. and receiving the same level of service. My impression was that most of the staff—dining, purser's desk, stewards, waiters, entertainment staff—work very hard to please passengers, or at least meet reasonable expectations.
Another thing I was worried about based on the reviews was the hard selling of products. In our experience, it was completely tolerable. Let me state that I hate having to deal with that stuff. While I think I am polite about it, I hate having to tell a sales clerk multiple times when I am buying a shirt that I don't want to open a store charge account, or that I don't want the extended warranty on a CD player that costs $50. I found this not to be a problem on Princess. For a birthday gift, I reserved a Swedish massage at the spa for my wife. She reports a nice massage with no hard sell, not even a soft sell. Yeah, they take your picture, but it was only during 1) embarkation, 2) St. Maarten, 3) St. Thomas 4) on the second formal night in the dining room and 5) at Sabitinis (we actual received a free one for ordering the $100 balcony dinner). It only takes a second if you say "sure, we'll pose" and I never had someone ask me if I wanted to buy them. Before shows, waiters do come around asking for cocktails and drink orders, but most times I didn't order anything alcoholic, or ordered a Diet Coke using my coke card (which was $32 with gratuity), and that was fine. Other than once or twice having several waiters cover the same area (probably by mistake), did it ever seem a little excessive to me. I was happy this was not an issue for us, because I had read conflicting accounts.
Food and Dining: I think this aspect of cruising is the hardest to get uniform opinions on, because expectations vary, taste buds aren't the same, different items on the same menu vary in quality, and where you eat on the ship matters quite a bit. That said, I thought the food was always acceptable, and often rather good. Not the best I've ever had in my life, but a week of very good food for sure. The buffet, yeah, it's a buffet. Kind of what I expected. I expected something better than the one in the cafeteria in college. I expected perhaps something on the order of a mid-price Vegas buffet. Perhaps there was less selection, due to being on a ship, but it was roughly comparable. Not what you would get at the highest end buffets, but adequate. That said, we rarely ate there. We got room service for breakfast at least 3 times, and found that a satisfying way to eat, especially since we had a balcony. We also ate in the dining room for breakfast twice, which I thought was worth it. Depending on the day, we either skipped lunch, ate at the Prego Pizza by the pool (I would classify the pizza as being of the style of—but a notch lower—Bertucci's), or had a very light buffet lunch. We did this so we could indulge in the dining room at dinner, where we ate every night except twice. Once, we ate a Sabatini's, which like most reviewers I highly recommend, and once we had the $100 Ultimate Lobster Balcony Dinner, which I also recommend for people celebrating truly special occasions. It includes cocktails, a half bottle of Moet & Chandon, canapés, about four courses after that yeah, over the top. We brought our own bottle of wine and were not charged the customary $15 corking fee (the two other bottles we brought were charged in the dining room, but hey, that's completely fair in my mind). They did something special for my wife, who is basically a vegetarian. Too much food, and the only complaint was that we had to not eat half of each dish in order to get to everything and I was still overstuffed. Our waiters, Miguel and Michael, were terrific and we tipped them extra. It's not the kind of experience I would ever like to get used to, but we were glad we did it. By the way, I weighed in after returning and somehow managed to lose a pound or two on the cruise. My wife claims she gained a pound. I credit working out in the gym (which had enough machines that I never had to wait more than a minute, and I only worked out during sea days), taking the stairs all time (we took the elevators literally twice), pacing ourselves until dinner and not snacking.
Formal Nights: I personally am of the mind that such events are times to make oneself presentable, and it is not priggish to expect that of others. Now, I have close friends and relatives who would find dressing up for such an event pretentious and bourgeois. Well, they spend their vacations hiking in the Sierra Nevada mountains for a week, not going on cruises with formal nights; and if they did cruise for some reason, they would make themselves presentable, or at least scarce and eat at the buffet on formal night. I wore a dark suit and my wife wore dressy cocktail dresses. It ran the gamut. Based on what I read, I expected some people not to be wearing a tux, a suit, a jacket, a tie or even long pants. I was not mistaken. There were people in the dining room in jeans. You would see people in shorts and T-shirts walking around people in tuxes and suits in the main atrium. It didn't really surprise me, but I just don't get it. If one wants to make a statement, fine, but being lazy and inconsiderate and still otherwise concerned about one's appearance enough to suntan and wear your new T-shirt with "St. Maarten" written in a mock Tommy Hilfiger logo does not bestow "rebel" status upon you. It cheapens the experience, but certainly something I can live with. In all fairness, lots of people did dress up, including many children. That was nice to see.
Activities and Entertainment: another area where opinions differ widely. In general, I thought it was good. Nothing terrific, but it made the evenings sufficiently entertaining. The way I see it, the transportation to the ports, the lodging and the food more than make up for the price we paid for the cruise. So, I viewed the entertainment as free. Realizing such things are subjective, here is my feedback. Comedian Steve Moris was awful. We saw him the first night and thought, "Uhhh, is this the entertainment?" If he didn't have a nice-guy persona, or if people had actually paid to see him, I am confident he would have been booed off the stage. Fortunately, things improved. Comedian Tom Briscoe in the Explorer's Lounge was pretty good. He does the 40-year-old-slightly-overweight-married-with-children material and it works well. Moris tries that too, but Briscoe actually has something called a sense of humor. Definitely a fine way to spend 45 minutes. Adam Ace is very good—a little more high-energy. And despite a real bite to his humor, he seems to have a wide appeal. Certainly would have paid money to see him at a comedy club. Saw him in the halls a few times. Nice guy. Saw Ed Fernandez, the hypnotist. I think if you see him twice, you realize the volunteers are really just playing along. Totally unconvincing and a little tedious. I've wasted time in worse ways, I suppose. Saw "Piano Man". Let's just say that while Barry Manilow, Neil Sedaka and Liberace albums aren't exactly in my CD player at the moment, the show was reasonably well done. Lovena Fox has a nice voice and has a pleasant on-stage personality, but her performance seemed a bit ho-hum, but it was still decent. A small-time performer named Bruce Smith looks better than he signs, and he exudes a smarmy conceit that quickly becomes apparent. I doubt he will be performing solo for long based on the lukewarm reception. We were curious to see Bert Stratton after all that has been written about him. I didn't know what to expect, but I imagined someone older. He looks (and acts) like a cross between Jim Carrey and Jerry Lee Lewis. High-energy would be an understatement. I actually found his on-stage demeanor slightly off-putting. He can certainly play a tune, but I guess I don't see what the big deal is. That said, for those that love him (and he has quite the loyal following), there are tons of opportunities to see him. The guy does work very, very hard. I give him credit for that. Didn't see "Caribbean Caliente".
Played in the casino a few times, which was generally fun, perhaps because my wife did rather well and I did OK at craps and blackjack. Don't know what to say here. It's a casino on a ship. I've been to Vegas several times: it's not a Vegas casino, but it has enough table games to keep things busy. Having a non-smoking night was nice. And I am glad to see that you can always find a $5 table, and occasionally a $3 one. I was expecting higher minimums. I don't get why they have all this space dedicated to slot machines that nobody uses. I wanted to play Texas Hold ‘em, but all they have is a place where you play other players on a computer. Please. Also, I don't understand why they don't hire a couple of cocktail waitresses to pass out free drinks. They do that in regular casinos, and you would think that would bring more people in. I suppose I shouldn't complain, since I guess if they made it more appealing I would spend too much time there. The dealers were generally nice, but not all. Here, I would rate their friendliness as comparable to Vegas.
Ports/Excursions: Much has been written about St. Thomas, St. Maarten and Princess Cays, so I will try to keep it brief. I won't pretend 7 or 8 hours on an island makes me an expert. We booked excursions on St. Thomas and St. Maarten through Princess. In St. Maarten we did the Butterfly Farm and Orient Beach. I thought Orient Beach was the nicest beach I've ever been on—much nicer to swim in than Princess Cays. In St. Thomas we did the Turtle Cove Snorkeling Adventure after a morning or sightseeing and some shopping. A crew of three met us on the dock and we went snorkeling on the boat, called the Dancing Dolphin (they have a website). We saw fish, sea turtles and reefs in clear blue water (the weather was cooperating). And had lots of rum punch on the way back. A great time, affordable and highly recommended. Both St. Thomas and St. Maarten have lots of shopping. The real bargains seem to be very cheap liquor and cigarettes. For example, a bottle of Stolichnaya Vodka for $5.75 in St. Maarten. Yeah, cheap. I bought my wife some Caribbean Topaz in St. Maarten. Princess Cays wasn't too impressed, but it was fine since the weather was nice. A decent way to spend a few hours at the beach, but the line to tender there and back was long, and it really didn't seem much better than just hanging out on the ship at the pool when all said and done. The cookout on the beach was slightly less good than just eating at the buffet, and the line was a little on the long side. And there were lots of flies swarming around the food, though that bothered me less than some others.
Miscellaneous Advice: here's one, courtesy of my wife, for women (and men) with long hair that has probably been stated previous: bring your own hairdryer. Most evenings she gave up after about 25 minutes with the wall hairdryer and still had wet hair. Pretty bad. I was able to use the self-serve washers usually without a wait. We found that convenient, especially since you tend to change underwear frequently on the trip. We flew Spirit Air on the way back (first and last time with them). Didn't enjoy the fact that you have to pay $10 for each checked bag over one. We had liquids in all bags, so we couldn't just carry-on the smaller bags we brought (we had actually packed two each so we wouldn't exceed the new 50 pound limit). US Airways still allows two. Also, FLL is a pretty bad airport. The line for the women's bathroom extended 20 people long outside the bathroom for hours. They had one place selling food and sodas inside the terminal (a 20 ounce soda was $2.50). We knew Princess service had spoiled us, so we didn't need to be reminded upon disembarkation, but we got the cold water to the face nonetheless.
Final Thoughts: As I stated a few times in this review, I was happy with Princess as a cruise line and what they offer. As someone who wasn't sure I would cruise more than once, I feel confident I will again. That said, I don't recommend this particular ship or itinerary to those seeking refuge from large numbers of children (at least during holiday periods) running around and loud multigenerational families acting a bit like the ship is their private yacht. At times, it felt like a trip to a posh Disney World resort, and that's not what I wanted. The services, food, facilities, etc. were all sufficiently upscale for me to feel like I was in luxury. Perhaps other premium lines, like Celebrity or Oceania, which I gather are more adult-centric, are the way to go in the future. I will continue my research before I book again. That said, I did get the sad-to-be-back at work syndrome on Monday, so I know I had a good time.
And I like to keep in mind this experience: during the second sea day when the raucousness of the children was reaching a crescendo, we met a 60ish gentleman in the adult pool. We told him it was our first cruise, honeymoon, etc. His kids were grown, but like me, he had to cruise during vacations because his wife is a schoolteacher. He said that it was his second cruise, but it might as well have been the first. He had cruised previously on a Western Caribbean trip on Carnival. He told us that the service, amenities and behavior of the passengers on the Caribbean Princess were so much nicer and not like the awful, noisy, slobbish behavior that he experienced on Carnival. He was delighted to find a cruise line he liked, and that there was a difference. It put our poo-pooing into perspective, especially when we saw the Carnival Glory in port at St. Maarten.