This was our first-ever cruise that we took to celebrate our 25th anniversary. We followed some advice from our travel agent, some from viewing different cruise sites on the internet, and did other things just cause we wanted to!
I have not focused on food through this review. Being on weight-watchers (and having lost quite a bit of weight before the cruise) I was a little concerned that we not focus totally on food. I ate lightly for breakfast and lunch, and ate well at dinner, coming home only 3 pounds up on the scale. ALL food we had (with the exception of Mark's Pot Roast one night at dinner) was incredibly excellent!
At the end of this review are some "lessons learned".
Day 1 - San Juan: We booked our tickets through the cruise line. We were quite concerned after reading several reviews from people who were routed various ways with long stopovers. However, we were quite fortunate to be booked on a direct flight. When we got to the airport we were pleasantly surprised to see that we were booked in first class seats!
We arrived in San Juan airport at 1:30 on a beautiful sunny Sunday. We walked down the terminal a bit until we saw people holding signs saying Princess Cruises. We stood in a holding area, pleased that we did not have to go down to baggage to claim our bags. The cruise line would pick them up from our luggage tags that were sent to us before we left home. We then boarded an air-conditioned bus that delivered us to the dock. We went through the terminal building, signed away our credit card, were given our cruise cards, and off we stepped to the biggest ship we've ever laid eyes on. We didn't believe it could possibly float! We were going to just drop off our carry-on bags and then go to Old San Juan, but we got caught up in exploring the ship so never made it.
From the moment we stepped on board, walked through the atrium and up to our stateroom, our mouths just hung open in wonder at the beauty. Some people have commented that on other ships they are personally escorted to their rooms, but not having this wasn't the least bit of a problem for us. There was staff about every 20 feet to welcome us with a smile and point us in the right direction. We were glad that we brought a change of clothes and our bathing suits in our carry-ons, as we didn't see all of our luggage until after dinner.
We went to the dining room for dinner and met our tablemates for the trip. One couple was from England, and the other from Wales. Both couples were on their second week of their cruise, and we replaced another American couple at their table. We all enjoyed each other's company enormously throughout the week. We learned a few new words (such as fortnight means two weeks), and they told us that we changed their stereotyped versions of Americans being loud and bossy. We spent several evenings with each other, and ran into them several times on off-shore adventures.
Day 2 - At Sea: We ate all our breakfasts and lunches (when on-board) at Horizon Court. The food was always delicious, pleasantly arranged, the staff eager to help, and the most wonderful Executive Chef who would walk through the dining room or buffet area saying in a beautiful singsong voice "Good Morning."
Being naturally early risers, we were up for breakfast by 7:30 Monday morning. After breakfast we went to the Riviera Deck and easily found a couple of lounge chairs. Throughout the morning we had a snorkeling lesson in the pool, Mark played in a ping-pong tournament (taking 2nd place), we played Crackpot Jackpot Bingo (with unlucky cards), both of us entered a putting contest (with unlucky putters), and explored the ship a little more. In the afternoon when we returned to the pool deck we had a bit more trouble finding lounge chairs, but finally located two next to each other. That night we went to the Princess Theater to see "Rhythms of the City", one of the wonderful singing/dancing shows that were performed throughout the week. The entertainers on-board were talented and delightful to watch. It always amazed us that they could dance with grace and style, even in high seas!
Day 3 - Barbados: As we had a tour planned in the afternoon, we decided to go walking through Bridgetown in the morning. This was a big mistake! Every other step throughout this tiny street you are accosted by a taxi driver asking you to go in his cab. I felt very unsafe in this town and made sure my husband was next to me every moment. We did find a cute little Internet shop where we paid $2 US for 15 minutes of internet time. So, instead of sending postcards to our family, who probably wouldn't receive them until after we arrived home, we sent one email to everyone saying hello and a bit about our adventures so far. We then took a few pictures and quickly returned to the ship.
We had booked the Photographic Tour of the Island for the afternoon, so met down on the pier when it was time to go. I had my big Nikon, several lenses, filters and tripod for what I was hoping to be a wonderful opportunity to get some great shots of the Island. We got on a nice mini-bus with a delightful guide and started our journey. I seemed to be the only one with "serious" photo equipment, but that didn't phase me. However, we seemed to be passing by all the great photo-ops! At one point the bus pulled over and people shot pictures through the window. I asked if we could get out to take some pictures and was given a funny look and told ok, but to hurry up. Hmmm.at this point I should have started getting suspicious! But, our guide was very interesting and gave a wonderful point-to-point history of Barbados as we continued our journey. When we stopped at St. John's Church everyone followed her into the church for more touring and history lessons, while I took my equipment and shot away. When we arrived in Bathsheba, billed as "truly a photographer's paradise," everyone seemed more interested in the rum inside the Edgewater Hotel than in shooting the magnificent coastline. Oh well, thought I, their loss. It was a long drive and we felt that the description in the Adventures Ashore book were very misleading - this was not the tour I thought it would be! When I finally went to the Tour Office to complain a few days later I was told that it was impossible for me to have gone on the Photographic Tour, as that had been cancelled! So, instead Princess automatically booked me on the Scenic Tour. Since the names were similar I didn't question it when I looked at my tickets. After insisting that I shouldn't have to pay for their error, and the tour desk insisting that we had already taken the tour and should have read our tickets more carefully, they finally agreed to refund ½ of our money "in good faith." At least touring the other side of Barbados made us realize that this was a beautiful Island, but our tablemates booked a taxi for $20 and got virtually the same tour with stops as long as they wanted wherever they wanted!
Day 4 - St. Lucia: We took a $12 taxi ride over to Rodney Bay and stayed at a beautiful beach for the day. Mark wanted to go over to Pidgeon Point and climb up to the fort, but I nixed that idea in favor of more suntan lotion and swimming. We had lunch at an outdoor bar which had a great deal of trouble exchanging the currency into US $'s. This was the only place all week where we experienced this difficulty.
Day 5 - St. Kitts: This was the most fun day of the cruise. We had a full day Catamaran/Snorkel adventure booked through the cruise line. We were on the Eagle, with a very attentive, courteous, fun crew. We sailed over to a secluded little spot at the bottom of some cliffs that the British couple next to me claimed to look exactly like the coast of Scotland. At this point we got on our snorkels and fins and started our snorkel adventure. It was really lovely - we saw a Morey Eel, and another woman saw an octopus, along with many beautiful fish. Mark slipped and banged his leg on the ladder when coming up from snorkeling, which ended up with a trip to the Dr. once back onboard the Dawn. (His story grew throughout the day to finally end up with his telling everyone that he saved the entire snorkeling party single-handed from a school of Barracuda!) We then sailed over to a lovely little beach area where a fully cooked bar-b-que was waiting for us. There was a coconut salad that looked like cole slaw that was really out of this world. We spent a couple of hours on the beach before heading back to the catamaran and partying all the way back to the pier. Drinks flowed freely, which one young couple took more than their share of, so we were placing bets on which one of them would be first to be Man Overboard. However, the diplomatic and attentive crew kept eagle eyes on them throughout and the day ended with no unintentional swimming.
That evening we ate dinner at Horizon Court. We saw a very talented comedian, Jim McDonald, in the Vista Lounge.we laughed till there were tears coming down our cheeks.
It was Tropical Island Night Deck Party on the Riviera Deck Poolside. Everyone was dressed in their tropical clothes and much dancing and partying, conga lines etc. went on throughout the evening. We met two delightful British sisters, well into their 80's. The one sister didn't miss one single dance. They were delightful and we ran into them several times throughout the rest of the week.
Day 6 - St. Maarten: We had decided that this would be our shopping day. We tendered to the pier of Philipsburg in Great Bay and walked to the shopping area. There are hundreds of little shops, one after the other. The people were very pleasant and all willing to bargain here. We had lunch at Cool Beach, then decided to go to the French side to look for a specific piece of jewelry that we couldn't find in Philipsburg. When we asked the young lady at Cool Beach were to grab a taxi, she advised us to walk down one street and catch a bus. The taxi would have cost us $20, the bus was $1.50 each. It was air conditioned and clean, and we took it around to Marigot. On the bus we sat next to four adorable school children and struck up a delightful conversation with them. Marigot is lovely, but much to our dismay all the jewelry stores were closed for lunch from noon to 2:30! Most of the other shops were open, and the open-air market at the pier was bustling, but we were surprised to see closed stores with ships in port! We walked around and made some small purchases, then caught another bus back to the Dutch side to finish our shopping before returning to the ship. We spent the day shopping, so unfortunately didn't have the opportunity to explore the rest of this beautiful island. Several people went to Orient Beach out of curiosity.there were many bare-bottomed men, but the women were only topless for the most part. (Hopefully they were using SPF 65 sunscreen!)
Day 7 - St. Thomas: Mark went golfing at 8am to Mahogany Run. The golf course was in good condition, but he felt it was not a true test of golf - that the course was "tricked up" and didn't reward a good shot. He warns those going to take many balls - his golf partner lost 30 (10 of which were Marks on loan!). Mark only lost one for the day. He would never go back to play this course again, although he complains that he has nothing to compare it to in the islands (he was only allowed one golf day!). He says the course was made for Billy Goats, not Humans. He was one of two people on the excursion who brought his clubs from home, but they fit very nicely under the bed, and his golf bag held all our shoes perfectly for the plane ride!
I went on a half day Sail-away/Snorkel adventure while he was putting the greens. The seas were very rough and the captain only put up the jib throughout the trip. The Fury's Captain and his Mate were both from Texas, and while they were charming, it was not as enchanting as having locals as we did on the catamaran. We went over to a little bay where the seas were much calmer for our snorkeling. This was better than the day in St. Kitts. The mate from the boat came into the water with us and pointed out and named all the fish we were seeing. He also dove down with our cameras to take close-up shots of several fish on the bottom, and let us hold a sea urchin. We then sailed back to the dock.
I had quite a bit of trouble with my key card getting into my room upon return to the ship, and it required two frustrating trips down to the Purser 's desk to get it straightened out. I ate a quick lunch, hoping that Mark would return from golf in time to join me on a trip to Megan's Bay. Finally at 2:00 I left him a note of where I was going, told him to slip on his bathing suit and bring the camera (he had for golf), packed up a bag, and took a $4 taxi ride across the island to the bay. It is spectacular! About 25 minutes later Mark found me, but forgot the camera - so this is forever in my mind instead of on film.
Overview and Lessons Learned: We would never consider getting a room without a balcony on any future cruise! The room was small, but big enough for our needs - and we loved having the balcony. We were on Baja Deck, B-502. We were totally amazed at the amount of storage space. The little bins that swivel out of the cabinet hold tons of things. No problem with closets or drawers either. All our luggage and golf clubs fit under the bed so were out of the way throughout. They do need to come up with some system when attaching two twin beds to make a queen bed. The gully in the middle of the bed was uncomfortable and made snuggling through the night somewhat difficult.
The staff was all pleasant and attentive. One night Mark went to bed early and I was going to meet our tablemates at the Wheelhouse Bar. I got turned around a bit and asked an officer the way - he personally escorted me to the bar. The cruise director, Tim Donovan, was funny and a delight. He was always smiling and peppy and seemed to be up from the wee hours of the morning to very late at night.
Mark, who is somewhat crowd-aphobic, never felt crowded on this ship. You would never guess at any time that there were 1,950 passengers on board! The design of the ship is ingenious.
Second seating for dinner was definitely the best choice for us. We would come back on board from our various activities during the day, take a little nap, and then take our time getting dressed for dinner. The shows were all offered after dinner for us to view. Also, don't miss High Tea at least once during the week. We were dressed casually in shorts and it was fine. This does, however, seem to be the training ground for future waiters, so there are a few times where the clotted cream doesn't quite make it to it's intended spot!
Our two lessons learned: First always make sure that your on-shore excursions are EXACTLY what you signed up for! Second - when you receive the paper to sign up for the hotel stay in San Juan if you have a late flight, act on it immediately! We hemmed and hawed, then tried to sign up the day before disembarking. They were all closed and we ended up spending six hours in the San Juan airport. We thought we'd take the opportunity to go to Old San Juan, but we had our carry on bags to tote about, and there weren't any lockers at the airport to park them in.
All in all, we loved cruising and we loved the islands we visited. Our tablemates said these islands were much better than the ones they visited on their first week of the tour. We each took Monday off work to catch up and get back in non-vacation mode, and am I ever glad we did!