SOUTHERN CARIBBEAN MEDLEY Curacao - Barbados - Dominica - St. Thomas
My wife and I are 53 years old. This was our eighth cruise. Our previous cruises have been the Eastern & Western Caribbean on RCL; Alaska, Panama Canal & Bermuda on Princess; and, the Mexican Riviera on HAL.
We made our own airline arrangements. Many reviews extol the virtues of arriving for a cruise a day early. Arriving early has plenty of advantages: you do not have to worry about airline delays; if your luggage is misdirected, there is an additional day for it to catch up; and, you can decompress from traveling before starting the cruise. The disadvantages are the cost of a hotel room for the additional night and if your luggage does not catch up with you before the cruise leaves, the cruise line has no responsibility for getting it to you.
This was our first trip since security for all luggage was put in place at the airports. We did not notice any additional delays going or coming due to the additional security. We used cable ties on our luggage and none of them were removed either during the trip out or the trip back. Announcements were regularly made at the Ft. Lauderdale airport that film should be placed in hand carried luggage and not placed in checked luggage. It seems to me that the announcement is a bit after the fact but this is a word to the wise.
On our day of embarkation there were at least nine cruise ships at Port Everglades. Roughly 25,000 passengers were going and coming from ships. The security measures caused everything to move very slowly. Our airport shuttle was not scheduled until 12:30 but we had to check out of the hotel not later than 11:00 a.m. Someone failed to show for the 10:30 shuttle so we volunteered for the open slots and arrived at the ship about 11:00. We handed our luggage to the longshoreman and watched as it was placed in the transport bin. About 11:30 the doors opened to begin the embarkation process.
There was no express check-in. I wonder if express check-in is being phased out as special check-in lines are now available for Platinum Captain Circle members. Due to the large number of early arriving cruisers, there were fairly lengthy lines for checking in. We had preregistered on the internet which made registration a simple checking of forms and signing of names. We noticed that there was a line most of the afternoon waiting outside of the reception building. I believe that part of the delay was caused by the necessity of filling out a Bahamian customs form. The other part of the delay was the strain upon experienced Princess employees of processing 5,000 passengers for two large ships (Grand Princess and Dawn Princess) at the same time.
The ship and our room
The ship is beautiful and not showing her age (1997) a bit. Captain Mariano Manfuso is in command of the ship. It is amazing to me that a ship can transport 2,000 passengers every week of the year for more than 5 years and still look as good as the Dawn Princess. There is an ambience of comfort, class and reflection throughout the ship. The ship is incredibly well designed as are all the Sun Class ships. There are very, very few moments during the cruise when you have any sense that there are approximately 2,000 other passengers sharing the experience with you. The dining rooms are designed with dividers and level changes mixing tables of different sizes to create a feeling of intimacy even though there are about 500 other diners present.
We were on the Caribe deck, Cabin C414 which is an interior room. The room is small but, considering the amount of time you spend in your room, more than adequate. The room can be made up into a Queen bed or twin beds. The bed was not as comfortable as the beds we experienced on our other cruises. I think the framing used to hold the mattresses and the mattresses themselves may need to be replaced. It took longer than I had anticipated for the first two suitcases to arrive. It would not be until later that evening that our third suitcase arrived. Our room steward told us they were sorting the luggage which caused the delay. It was a minor annoyance when our luggage had arrived at the ship and had been placed in the bins so early. There were no storage problems. The suitcases fit under the bed and there is ample closet and drawer space for clothing.
Each room has a television with limited programming including recurring programs on the ports, shopping and excursions. Unlike the verandah cabins where the desk, dresser, night stand, and television/refrigerator area are all the same height, there is a floor to ceiling cabinet which holds the television at the highest level, the refrigerator at the lowest level, and a shelved section with a door in the middle which contains the safe and a fair amount of storage area. The hair dryer is located outside of the bathroom on the wall next to the desk area. There is one outlet over the desk and that is it in terms of regular outlets. I do not know what a European outlet looks like but there is a strange looking outlet in the bathroom.
The ship is 857 feet long. After looking at the hallway outside of your room and realizing how many times you are going to walk that hallway it is advantageous to spend some time considering your room location before booking your cruise. There is a laundry room on each floor. Each laundry room has two washers, two dryers, an ironing board and an iron.
The food was consistently very good. There were few occasions when the food was outstanding but, more importantly, there were no occasions when the food was not good. There was an excellent variety on the menu every night and all of it was well prepared. I am spoiled, living in the Midwest, by the quality of beef that I have grown accustomed to eating. The beef onboard was not bad, it just does not rise to the level of the beef I am used to eating at home. On the other hand, the quality and variety of the seafood served at dinner was excellent!
There are only so many things you can do for breakfast but each day the kitchen staff was able to come up with something new and interesting on the breakfast menu in the dining room. The menu for lunch included fuller meals that would be considered dinner as well as contemporary lunch items. Again, the variety was excellent and the food was well prepared. To be honest the service at breakfast and lunch in the dining room was not the same quality as the dinner service. However, it was at least twice as good as the service we received at breakfast and lunch in the dining room aboard Holland America's Statendam. We enjoy having breakfast and lunch in the dining room whenever time permits. Being served while meeting fellow cruisers is a lovely way to enjoy breakfast and lunch. The conversations with the other passengers seem to add to the entire cruise experience.
The Horizon Court is a buffet which is open around the clock. It was okay but we didn't think it was anything special. If you were to compare the Horizon Court to the Lido Buffet onboard Holland America, you would find that the Horizon Court pales in comparison. We only ate in the Horizon Court when scheduling required it or we were looking for a quick snack. The Riviera Grill is located outside above the main pool. It serves grilled items - hamburgers, hot dogs, grilled chicken, bratwurst etc. We only ate there once and it was fine. The Riviera Grill closes at 5:00 p.m. so that it can be transformed into the Sterling Steakhouse.
We paid the $8.00 charge to eat at the Sterling Steakhouse one evening. The steaks were very good although a couple of the steaks that our group were served contained a fairly high percentage of gristle. The service had greatly improved from our experience in the steakhouse on a prior cruise.
The pizzeria serves a very nice pizza. I have to wonder why they do not have a standard Italian sausage pizza. The pizzeria was quite busy during the cruise and has obviously become a favorite alternative dining venue.
Friendly and efficient describes the overall service. We were walking through a narrow hallway and a crew member was on a ladder replacing an overhead light bulb. As we made our way around his ladder, he wished us a good day and apologized for being in our way in the friendliest tone of voice. This incident typifies the attitude of the onboard staff. Our experience has not been the same on Holland America or Royal Caribbean.
Romy, our room steward, was efficient and friendly. Our waiter and assistant waiter were only average. They were efficient but they did very little to go beyond what was expected. Drinks, coffee and tea, were an afterthought and refills were difficult to get most nights. Rarely, if at all, did either of them attempt to engage the table, offer recommendations, or go above and beyond basic service. Based on our four Princess cruise this was highly unusual. On the other hand, our head waiter, Amedeo, was present every evening to discuss the menu, make recommendations for the following evening, send sample plates to the table, and to be of assistance in any way that he was able.
I must mention our dinner companions: Sandra & Tom, Karen & Harry and Vickie & Rick. They were absolutely wonderful! The satisfaction of the entire cruise was raised to another level due to the camaraderie of the dinner table. A "small world isn't it" story is in order here. Ten to twelve couples on this cruise had been corresponding on a cruise chat board for some time prior to the cruise. The first night at dinner while conducting introductions we learned that a couple of us from the cruise chat group had been seated at the same table for dinner!
Often overlooked are the personnel working the Purser's Desk. These people were always friendly and helpful.
About six weeks before the cruise, Princess sends a list of all available excursions. You can book your excursions at that time (by mail, facsimile or over the internet). We booked a couple of our excursions on the Princess home page and our excursion tickets were included with our cruise tickets. We booked two excursions independently. If you are considering a tour of a town or a tourist site that carries no risk and can be easily reached by taxi, you may want to consider touring independently. Alternatively, if the tour is unusual or runs the risk of delay or physical injury, you should consider booking with Princess. If something goes wrong, and you are on a Princess excursion, Princess will work it out. If you are on an independent tour and something goes wrong you are on your own. However, when the risk is minimal or non-existent, the Princess excursion will cost you more; it will be less personal; and, the delays will be exasperating. We learned that when the situation is right we can see more of what we want to see in less time with a lot less aggravation at a much better price by touring independently. If you cannot decide whether to book a Princess excursion or to tour independently, you can book the Princess excursion and cancel onboard if you choose to tour independently. If cancelled in time there is no penalty.
Paul Burns was the Cruise Director. He has a rapier wit especially with the bingo crowd. Princess has a major problem with respect to managing the entertainment venues. In the past the timing of the shows was brilliantly arranged for traditional seating so that everyone had a couple of opportunities to see the shows. Then came Personal Choice and Anytime Dining. What had been a brilliant arrangement now no longer works very well. The reason is simple - the inherent control of crowd flow based upon dinner times is out the window. Passengers can dine whenever they want and, as a result, they can go to whatever show or shows they want to see whenever they want to see them. More than once I overheard discussions concerning making dinner plans to accommodate show times. This leaves those having traditional dining with late seating unable to find seats at the popular shows. On this ten day cruise we were only able to find seats at three shows. This was particularly disappointing as we both enjoy the entertainment.
After leaving Ft. Lauderdale we spent two days sailing to Curacao. I had intended on spending a lot of time reading during our days at sea. As it turned out, there was so much to do that often the day passed before I realized it. I did do a little reading but a lot less than I had intended. Part of the reason is the infernal deck chairs on the Promenade deck. Every time I sat in one (and I had no trouble finding a chair any time I wanted one) my eyelids shut. It was just amazing!
Each day at sea there were two sessions of bingo. The basic pack of three cards for each of five games ran $20 per session . The sessions get more and more crowded as the cruise goes on because of a roll-over on the last bingo game. The prize reached $3000 before someone won it at the last session.
Art auctions have become as much a part of cruising as bingo. I was pleased to note that the hype concerning the art auctions was greatly reduced from our prior cruise. One of my frustrations continues in that it detracts from the beauty of the ship to have the millions of dollars of art which decorates the ship hidden behind the items available for purchase at the art auctions. These pieces do not even compare to those pieces decorating the ship yet they constantly were covering up the "good stuff".
Our first port was . . . . Curacao
Curacao is one of the Dutch ABC islands, the others being Aruba and Bonaire. On a previous cruise we stopped at Aruba and I determined it was not one of my favorite Caribbean islands. I was pleasantly surprised by Curacao. There is a new pier to accommodate the large cruise ships. We were fortunate to be able to dock at one of the old piers in town. The approach to Willamsted is fairly narrow. Most ships enter through the narrow passage into a harbor area, turn around and come back to the pier. If you are interested in such things you should be on deck. The Costa ship in front of us made that precise maneuver. We, however, simply pulled into the channel and sidled over to the pier. On leaving, we pushed away from the pier and backed out of the channel. An interesting maneuver!
The Queen Emma bridge crosses the navigation channel. It is a pontoon bridge built more than 100 years ago. It swings to the side to allow ships to pass. When it is open there are ferries to transport pedestrians back and forth across the channel. Willamsted is a bustling place. My wife noted that it has more shoe stores than any place she has ever seen. There is plenty of shopping. A block or two away from the main shopping street you will notice unoccupied store fronts. There were enough of them to make me wonder if the economy in Willamsted is suffering or if the store owners have simply squeezed too hard for rent. The main area of Willamsted was relatively clean and the bright pastel colors of the buildings give the place a charming atmosphere.
We took a tour from the ship in the afternoon. The Triple "S" tour - Sharks, Seaquarium & Submarine - was a two part tour. The first part took us to the seaquarium. It is an interesting place that we did not have quite enough time to explore. There are the standard aquarium displays. They also have outdoor holding tanks that were being refurbished. There is also a diving aspect to the aquarium which was not part of our tour. Additionally, the seaquarium has a tourist submarine which was not operating but was available to go into to observe underwater. The tour of the seaquarium finished with a dolphin show. Overall, it was worth seeing but it was not something you have not seen before. The second part of the tour was the submarine. Actually it was a semi-submersible which is essentially a glass-bottomed boat. We were bussed to a resort where the semi-submersible was based. The trip on the semi-submersible is the best that I have been on. The quality of the tour was the narration of the tour guide and the activity on the reef. A very interesting tour!
The Missed Port
The cruise was supposed to go to Isla Margarita which is a Venezuelan island. Due to the unsettled political climate in Venezuela, the port was cancelled and we wound up with an additional sea day and a few additional hours in Barbados.
We had been to Barbados more than 5 years ago. At that time it was one of our favorite islands. We were anxious to see if anything had changed which would cause us to reevaluate our opinion. It had not changed and Barbados is still one of our favorite islands!
We booked an all day excursion with Glory Tours (www.glorytours.org). They were not allowed to pick us up at the cruise terminal so arrangements were made for pickup at Pelican Village. Glory Tours does not have an office at Pelican Village rather the van just pulls into the parking lot to pick you up. Pelican Village is a very short walk from the cruise terminal building.
There were only two couples on the tour and we had a new clean van in which we rode. Ricky was our tour guide and he was informative, charming, knowledgeable and everything you could ask for in a tour guide. Ricky suggested that we go to Harrison's Caves first so that we could get there before the tours from the ship began to arrive. He was successful because when we finished the tour the place was packed! The caves are nice but are the wettest caves that I have toured. The tour is on an electric tram that stops a couple of times for closer investigation and photographic opportunities. I hardly ever miss an opportunity to take a cave tour. Other than the tram there was not much different about this tour from other cave tours. The audio/visual presentation before the tour does a good job of describing the difference between Barbados and the other Caribbean islands.
Leaving Harrison's Caves we traveled through the country. We made several stops for photographic opportunities. Ricky conducted on on-going commentary as we were driving around. We stopped at St. John's Church before crossing over to Bathsheba and Cattlewash where we had lunch. What a breathtakingly beautiful place!
After lunch, Ricky took us to see the painted rocks. The painted rocks is a location where an artist painted rocks on both sides of the road to look like African animals. We then moved on to Orchid World. Orchid World is a large complex devoted to the growing of orchids. They were beautiful!
The last stop on the tour was the wildlife preserve. We arrived just before the animals were fed. Few of the animals were caged. The monkeys, deer, tortoises, and agouti all run free. It is a humorous sight to see the tortoises circling the food like rocks around a fire with the monkeys standing on the backs of the tortoises to get to the food. Then the deer reach over the whole bunch to grab something they want to eat. An interesting place!
Ricky was going to take us back to the ship but we had him drop us off downtown. We had about an hour and a half before we needed to get back. The main part of Bridgetown, Barbados is an interesting place mixing typical city shopping with the tourist shops found in Caribbean ports. I highly recommend Glory Tours. We will be using them again next January when we return to Barbados.
We left Barbados and sailed to . . . . Dominica
Dominica is a third world island. One look at Roseau up close and you know that you are no longer on the beaten path. However, that very lack of sophistication and the undeveloped natural beauty of the island is what is attractive about Dominica. From my lead-in you already know that this island is not for everyone. The island is covered by a tropical rain forest. It receives 350 inches of rain a year. The showers come and they go in typical Caribbean fashion. Be prepared for rain in Dominica.
In doing my research for the trip I found Ken's Hinterland Adventure Tours (www.kenshinterlandtours.com). All of the tours involve some degree of hiking in the rainforest. Hiking in a rain forest is not my wife's idea of a vacation so she chose to take the whale watching excursion offered by the ship. I, on the other hand, chose to go exploring. I took the Middleham Falls & Ti Tou Gorge tour. The information concerning this tour warns - "Persons should be in good physical condition to do this trip, good sneakers or hiking boots must be worn, Shorts and T Shirts are appropriate." Now I can hike with the best of them, however, I had four coronary by- passes four years ago. I made sure I had my nitro pills with me and dressed appropriately for a hike. What I found was that the Middleham Falls tour is a mountain hike on a primitive path through the rain forest that seemed to be at least three (3) miles in length and rises 800 to 1000 feet. This is not a hike for the timid nor the inactive nor anyone with heart problems or likely to have heart problems!!! The hike requires you to climb over boulders, through creeks and streams, and find toe holds in tree roots as you raise or lower your body. The payoff is the magnificent forest you are hiking through with a beautiful 300+ foot waterfall at the end of the hike. I am sure Aaron, our guide, wondered if I was going to make it. I am glad that I took the hike but I would never have attempted it had I known what it involved. It was a wonderful experience but never again!
The second portion of the tour was the Ti Tou Gorge. This involves a short hike. Then you take off anything you don't want to get wet (no changing room or lockers or anything of that sort - leave your valuables locked in the vehicle and wear your bathing suit). You swim in really cold water into what appears to be a cave in a rock wall with overhanging vegetation. Actually it is either a crack in the rock or a crevice eroded by the water. From the top of the water to the top of the gorge I'd estimated it to be 50 - 60 feet. The gorge is very narrow. It is a short swim into the gorge to the waterfall. There are actually two waterfalls - one behind the other. It is a really incredible site!
I highly recommend Ken's Hinterland Tours. They are dependable, knowledgeable and thorough. Our guide was Aaron who was a very good guide and was an expert at describing the vegetation. They do offer less active tours.
My wife was highly complimentary of the whale watching tour. She gave high marks to the tour guides. They saw several whales and lots of porpoises.
On to . . . . St. Thomas
It had been many years since we were last in St. Thomas. Nothing much seemed to have changed. It looked cleaner and better organized than during our last visit. I note that virtually every store in the main shopping area now has a jewelry counter. In the past there was a plethora of jewelry stores. Now, in addition to all the jewelry stores, if you go into a T-shirt shop or a pharmacy, or to buy linens there is the ever present jewelry counter.
We had some extra time and decided to take the tram across from the Havensight Mall. The tram was pricey ($15.00 each) but what an outstanding view! We were pleasantly surprised to find that a lady was giving parrot shows at the top. Overall, it was a very pleasant little side trip away from the hustle and bustle of the shopping.
The next day was a sea day before we arrived at . . . . Princess Cays
It was overcast, windy and cool when we arrived. Our head waiter, Amedeo, had advised us not to rush over to the cay. He said that at about 10:00 the sun might come out and it would warm up a bit. He was wrong about the sun but it did warm a bit. It was still too cool to go swimming and most passengers stayed on the ship. We went over and had lunch. All the food served on Princess Cays comes from the ship. There is a covered cooking/serving area with four buffet lines. Hamburgers, hot dogs, bratwurst, knackwurst, ribs, chicken legs and grilled chicken were served together with salads and desserts. The food was good.
Princess Cays is the private get away for Princess Cruises. It is actually at the Southern tip of Eleuthera island in the Bahamas. Princess does not own the cay but leases it. The area has been created by Princess and was totally destroyed several years ago when a hurricane took it away. There is the ever present gift shop and Bahamians have vending stations located around the cay. There are no roving vendors bugging you to buy something. Princess has constructed several covered areas for both serving food and eating. There is a tower which you can climb to get a great view of the ship anchored in the deeper water. You have to tender in to Princess Cays.
There was an abundance of lounges available on the beach. Speaking of beach, there was no natural beach on Princess Cays. All of the sand has been brought in. Consequently, there is quite a bit of rock both in the water and around the beach. In one area there is a slight covering of sand with solid rough rock underneath. It is a great place for stubbing toes and chafing feet. Princess would have you pre-reserve your beach toys (floats, flippers, masks, water bikes, kayaks, sunfish, and other such items) prior to arrival at the cay. The fees charged are fairly hefty. The fees are not refundable so when you have weather like we experienced you get charged even though you don't play with the toys.
Sailing overnight before we returned to . . . . Ft. Lauderdale
Debarkation was the smoothest of any cruise we have been on. We went to breakfast in the dining room. While eating breakfast our debarkation number was called. We finished breakfast, returned to our cabin, said our final good-bye to our room steward and walked down to the debarkation level (there was no possibility of getting an elevator). I have kept a cruise card from each of our cruises as a memento of the cruise. The new Princess policy is to collect all of those cards at debarkation. We walked through the various check points collected our baggage and we were on our way.
The Dawn Princess is a wonderful ship! She has been tastefully appointed with an understated elegance. The staff is friendly, efficient, and first class. If the opportunity presents itself, we would certainly cruise on the Dawn Princess again. In fact, while aboard we booked a cruise on the Sun Princess for next year at the same time. There are some real advantages in booking while onboard. The down payment is only $100.00 per person and you receive varying amounts of shipboard credit (from $50.00 to $150.00 per person based on the length of the cruise and type of cabin you book). The shipboard credit is in addition to any credit or perks you get from your travel agent. Your onboard booking is transferred to your travel agent. by the time we had arrived home our travel agent had the booking and had mailed us a receipt!
Princess is a wonderful cruise line which does so many things right. When you spend as much money as you do on a cruise and take hard earned vacation time you expect the experience to be something very special. Princess understands this and does not disappoint.
We would be happy to answer any questions. Just drop us an E-mail. Bill & Lu Schwartz