CruiseMates' Readers Cruise Reviews


Princess Cruises Diamond Princess Mexico March 20, 2004

My husband and I cruised on the March 20 sailing of the Diamond Princess to the Mexican Riviera to celebrate our 15th anniversary. Since I am a college professor, we scheduled it during my spring break. I consulted lots of reviews to figure out what to expect - so now I am writing my own to help those of you who are new to cruising or trying to decide on a ship/line/itinerary. We left our three kids at home with their grandparents, so we were pretty much guaranteed to enjoy the cruise no matter what happened! We only cruised once before, five years ago on Celebrity.

Getting to LA

We live in Grand Rapids, Mich. and decided to fly to Los Angeles the day before departure. I booked this cruise 11 months in advance and we used frequent flyer miles to book our flights on United. Our flight from Grand Rapids to Chicago O'Hare boarded half an hour late, then sat on the runway for another half hour due to congestion in Chicago. Already we knew we had missed our connection to LA. After taking off and flying for half an hour, the pilot announced we were going to return to Grand Rapids because there wasn't a slot for us to land in Chicago and we did not have enough fuel to circle the airport. So, we ended up back where we started. Eventually our plane took off again and we landed at O'Hare three hours later than we should have. Because of spring break, the first O'Hare to LA flight United could give us with confirmed seats was at 10 a.m. the next morning. We were not excited about spending the night in Chicago, especially since we had hotel reservations in LA. We ended up going standby on the last flight to LA that night! We were so relieved to get on that plane!

We arrived in LAX around 11 p.m. We were amazed that our luggage actually made it there ahead of us. We boarded a SuperShuttle van and went directly to our hotel ($33 one way), the Sheraton San Pedro. The Sheraton was very nice – we got upgraded to a suite with a port view (whether it was because I called earlier to request a port-view room or because we checked in so late, I'm not sure). I booked the room for $89 through the Sheraton website. We were too tired to get up early on Saturday to watch the Diamond Princess come in, but did spend a little time walking around the area. We found a little sub shop that served a nice homemade breakfast and purchased a couple of bottles of wine to take on the ship.

Embarkation

We used the hotel's complimentary shuttle service to the pier, arriving at the World Cruise Center at 11:30 a.m. We left our bags with a porter at the curb, then proceeded inside and up the escalator to the check-in desk with no waiting (we used "express" check-in since we had filled out all our information on line, but all passengers use the same desk based on your cabin's deck). We were issued a boarding number - these are given out on a first-come, first-serve basis, so there is some advantage to arriving earlier in the morning if you want to get on the ship sooner. There is a large waiting area with quite a bit of seating, although by the time we arrived most of the seats were full. We found a spot on the floor. Boarding started at 12:15 p.m. for the suite and Captain's Club passengers. Our number was called by 12:45. We waited in a short line for the security check, then walked onto the ship and to our cabin, stopping only for the photographers to take our embarkation picture and the security people to take our picture as we swiped our cruise cards. We were impressed by how smoothly this process went. Our suitcases were delivered to our cabin by 4 p.m.

Accommodations

We had a balcony cabin (Caribe Deck C252) that seemed a reasonable size and was efficiently arranged. The decor was nice -- good color scheme and coordination. I loved the seascape print on the wall across from our bed! Our only complaint was the small size of the shower (as others have commented, the grab bar is in an awkward spot, resulting in banged elbows). There was a small refrigerator, a programmable combination safe, and plenty of storage for a seven-day cruise, especially closet space and number of hangers. The mattress was on the firm side (fortunately just the way I like it). The balconies on this deck are large and half-covered, half-open. We had a dining-type table with three chairs and two lounge-type chairs. These balconies are not really private - the open sections can be overlooked from balconies above (although not from the upper public deck spaces like the balconies on the lowest deck). A couple times our peaceful contemplation on the balcony was disturbed by loud conversations from our neighbors (and once by our neighbors' second-hand smoke), but it wasn't a huge problem.

Public Spaces

The Diamond Princess is a beautiful ship inside and out. It was fun to be part of the ship's inaugural season, when everything is brand-spanking new. We did notice that "new ship" smell in our cabin when we first came in, but adjusted to it almost immediately. I really liked the decor of the public spaces - rich and understated, elegant but not garish. Some of my favorite elements were the floor mosaics in the atrium space and other areas, and the stairwell paintings (we made a vow to never use the elevators on our cruise to compensate for all the wonderful food). The ship is also huge! It took us until the third day to explore all the public spaces. Once we got a feel for which things were forward and which were aft, we were able to navigate the ship pretty well.

The pool areas were very nice. Our favorite was the aft area, with terraces overlooking the pool -- it was more relaxing and less populated than the main pool area. (If you don't save lounge chairs early, it is difficult to find a good spot. Since we are not dedicated sun-worshippers or interested in being in the middle of the action, we had no trouble finding a place to sit.) On the cooler days, I liked the green lounge chairs in the conservatory pool area. Also, the nightclub, Skywalkers, was almost deserted during the daytime - a great place to read and relax with a nice view of the ship's wake.

The exercise facilities were impressive. My husband used the treadmills several days during the trip (if you want an early morning time on a day at sea, sign up in advance). Later in the cruise it tended to be less busy. I used the running/walking track on the top deck several different times. If you are a speedy runner, this will feel more like an obstacle course due to the slow walkers. Actually, I enjoyed walking around the promenade on Deck 7 more than on the track - it's nice that it circles the entire ship.

Dining

On the whole we were very happy with the food. One reason I chose Princess was for its "Anytime Dining/Personal Choice" option. For maximum relaxation I did not want to have to be anywhere at a set time each night for dinner! For the most part, this worked well for us, although if you want to eat at a popular time and not wait, you should make reservations for dinner every night of the cruise as soon as you board. Our experience worked like this: the first night (Saturday) we showed up at the Asian theme dining room (Pacific Moon) at 6:35 p.m. and were told there were no tables until 7:30. So we went to the atrium and listened to the musicians until we could eat. On the other hand, several groups of passengers were displeased that they could not just walk up and get a table. By the way, each of the four Personal Choice (PC) dining rooms served the regular ship's menu (which changed nightly) as well as menu options that fit the theme of the room (which are the same throughout the cruise).

For the second night I tried to make reservations in the early afternoon and was told the earliest opening for any of the dining rooms was 7:30 p.m. Rather than taking such a late time, we decided just to show up. So that night (Sunday) we went to the Mexican theme dining room (Santa Fe) at about 6:15 p.m. and were seated immediately at a table with another couple. The third night (Monday), we showed up at the Sterling Steak House at 6:20 p.m., were told that the earliest available time was 7:30, so we walked to the Italian dining room (Vivaldi) and got seated immediately at a table for two. The fourth night (Tuesday) we tried the Sterling again at 6:20 p.m. They were again full through 7:30 so we went to the Santa Fe dining room and were immediately seated with a family of four. The fifth night (Wednesday), we tried the Sterling at 7 p.m. They were booked until 8:30, so we went back to the Pacific Moon and were immediately seated at a table for two.

I realized that the Sterling is the most popular eating venue and determined to make reservations for the next night. When I called the next day my options were either 5:30 p.m., or 7:30 or later. We took the 5:30 reservation and enjoyed our dinner there that night (Thursday). In the end I was happy with our dining experiences - it was nice to spend time together but also to eat with others occasionally. There is no penalty for not showing up for reservations (and we could see tables sitting empty because of this), so I'm not sure this is the most efficient way to run the PC dining system, but maybe they will make some improvements once they get a feeling for which venues are most popular. I also understand that traditional dining passengers are free to make reservations in the PC dining rooms, so this may be adding to the congestion.

We ate breakfast and lunch most days in the Lido deck (Horizon Court) buffet along with dinner the last evening (Friday). The variety and quality were not excellent but very good. The layout is a little different than a typical buffet where you walk through one line -- there are different stations with different categories of food. This was very confusing the first day, when everyone was trying to figure it out - people tended to just get in line, not realizing that they could have walked directly to the station serving what they wanted. After the first day, things operated more smoothly. That first day it was also difficult to find an open table once you had your food - this was one of the few times the ship felt crowded to me. I had planned on trying breakfast and/or lunch in the main dining room for a more relaxing experience, but we were never ready to eat during the times it was open. It was nice to be able to cruise the buffet for snacks in the afternoon when we were relaxing by the pool. We also stopped by for ice cream at 3:30 p.m. when it was served for free. The pizza from the grill by the main pool was fresh and tasty. We never did try the hamburgers from the grill but the fries were excellent.

We didn't try the extra fee restaurant, Sabatini's, but we did talk to people who thought it was worth a try for the interesting and unique food and the lengthy multi-course presentation (two hours plus).

We both purchased the Coke stickers for $22.50 each, which allowed us to drink any fountain soda pop for free during the week on the ship. You get an insulated cup with the purchase; at first I thought it wouldn't be very useful, but it was nice to keep getting this refilled and have it with me while lying out at the pool or reading. We only tried a couple "drinks of the day" -- the rum punches at sail-away and strawberry daiquiris later in the cruise. We took advantage of the "bucket-o-beer" special one afternoon: five bottles for the price of four - it worked well to put a couple of them in the refrigerator in our room for the next day. We didn't purchase any wine with dinner. I brought two bottles of champagne and a bottle of white wine on board with us and kept them cold in our refrigerator. Room service did a good job of bringing glasses when we requested them.

Service

In the dining rooms, service was professional and courteous but rather impersonal, since the servers seemed very busy (waiting on too many tables?). It was also quite slow. The first night, we spent almost two hours at dinner. The waiter mixed up our appetizers and soups with another table's - he apologized profusely when he discovered the mistake. This was a contrast to our last cruise experience with traditional fixed seating - the waiters then spent more time chatting with you, and they had efficient service of the different courses down to a science. The choice between traditional and personal choice dining just depends on what kind of vacation experience you prefer. All the bar servers were helpful, whether taking our drink orders or filling up our Coke cups.

Our room steward did a good job picking up after us, although a few things were overlooked on occasion. For example, there were still paper items (and two small boxes of Rice Krispies) left in the desk drawers from the previous passengers when we boarded, and one night he forgot to leave pool towels in our room. We were a bit concerned about getting them before our early excursion the next day, but when we paged him the next morning he brought them right away. Although we had filled out an on-line form at the Princess web site indicating that we wanted robes and fruit in our cabin, we still had to ask for the robes, and they left a card for us to fill out for fruit requests every day. We also indicated that we were celebrating an anniversary within two weeks of the cruise dates, but nothing special occurred (although I was somewhat grateful for this after seeing other anniversary couples serenaded by the waiters in the dining room - not my thing!). I'm not sure there is any point to collecting this info on-line.

Activities

We didn't participate in many of the organized daytime activities onboard, although there were plenty listed in the ship newsletter each day. We did do the wine tasting demonstration for $7.50 per person on the first day at sea. We got to sample two red and two white wines along with a dessert wine, which was interesting although I can't say I learned anything new from the commentary.

We went to quite a few of the shows in the evening. On Sunday night we went to the production show "The Piano Man," which I enjoyed (I've always liked Billy Joel and I was in love with Barry Manilow as a teenager). The singers and dancers did a good job - the male vocalists were quite impressive. My husband was rather bored by it, though, but then musical revues are not his thing. On Monday night we saw a comedian, Rick Starr, who was pretty funny. Tuesday night we saw Kenny James, a vocalist who specializes in Motown-type music. He was very good (if you like that type of music). My husband took a little nap during the performance. Immediately afterward we saw comedian/ventriloquist Dan Horn in one of the lounges. His performance was amazing and hilarious (even when he goofed up he was funny). Wednesday night we saw the hypnotist show with Robert Mesmer. He was also funny and what he did with people was amazing (if a little creepy!). Thursday night we saw a comedian/impressionist, Michael Wilson, in the Explorer's Lounge - he was good. Friday night we saw another comedian, Sarge, who was also good.

We didn't go to any of the dancing venues (big band or disco). I was not all that impressed with the pool band - basically two guys with a steel drum and a keyboard who were pretty low-key. I recall on our last cruise a really great band that played everything from reggae to rock-and-roll around the pool and got people moving. We spent maybe an hour total in the casino playing slot machines - we lost so consistently that it wasn't even good entertainment!

Fellow Passengers

The passenger age on average seemed a little higher to us on this cruise than on our last cruise in the Caribbean. But every age was still represented. There were quite a few kids on this cruise, which made sense since it was spring break. They did tend to take over the main pools (especially on cooler days when most of the adults preferred the hot tubs), but overall the kids seemed well-managed. We met several extended families who were cruising together. We overheard a few "party-hearty" spring break types out on our balcony (and there was a group at our wine-tasting session that was a bit out-of-hand). The ship made an extra stop in Cabo San Lucas on the second day to drop off some passengers (rumor had it that they had been drunk and disorderly and got into a fight), so apparently the cruise lines do have limits! Nearly everyone we saw dressed up for the formal nights.

Ports

Our first port was Puerto Vallarta. I had booked the "Las Calletas Hideaway" excursion through the cruise line ($79 each). We met our tour group on the pier (we were scheduled to be there at 7:35, but we didn't leave until after 8 a.m. - obviously there isn't a lot of incentive for punctuality). Approximately 100 passengers boarded a boat for the one-hour trip to a small private cove where John Huston (the director of the film "Night of the Iguana") used to have a home. The trip was filled with commentary and dancing by the boat's crew. We spent the morning and early afternoon at the private beach, with beautiful water (water sports like snorkeling and kayaking were available), and paths running up the green hills behind the beach. You could book a massage in an outdoor hut, pet the white-tailed deer, or view a cooking demonstration (but pretty much all I did was relax in a lounge chair on the beach after walking the nature trails).

There were hammocks tucked away in various isolated locations. In hindsight, one of the best features of this excursion was no annoying vendors (more on that later). They served us a wonderful fresh-cooked lunch including seafood paella (yum!). They also had on open bar. I alternated margaritas with fresh lemonade for the duration of the day. I would highly recommend this excursion - it's expensive, but if you want to relax with a limited number of other people in a beautiful spot while enjoying great food and drink, this is the tour for you. The party really picked up on the trip back to the pier, with loud music and entertaining crew members - a really good time!

Our next port was Mazatlan. I had booked a tour independently via the Internet with Randi's Happy Horses (highly recommended by many reviews I read - $45 per person cash only). We met Randi and her assistant at the cruise terminal (you need to take the tram) around 8:30 a.m. Our group of about a dozen people then boarded local taxis (basically a pickup with benches in the truck-bed for you to sit on, all part of the Mexican adventure!) for the five-minute trip to the fishing dock. We then took a water-taxi across the channel to Stone Island and boarded a tractor-driven wagon for the trip to the horse farm. I was a little nervous as a first-time horsewoman, but the horses were happy and gentle, and we really enjoyed our ride through a coconut farm and out on the beach. We then relaxed at Victor's Restaurant, an open thatch-roofed area right on the beach. We enjoyed cold Mexican beers and heavenly fresh-grilled shrimp kebob for lunch for a very reasonable price ($20 total for two of us - cash only). The beach was largely empty and the water was great - cold and refreshing with fun waves. We left (reluctantly) for the ship around 2 p.m. - using all the previously mentioned modes of transportation in reverse. This was a really great excursion (check out mazinfo.com for more info)!

Our final port was Cabo San Lucas. Since this is a tender port, I decided to take a ship-sponsored excursion (this way you get priority for the tenders and are assured of getting back to the ship by the 2 p.m. sail-away time). I chose an ocean kayaking/snorkeling expedition (two to two and a half hours, $39 each). Our tour met in the Wheelhouse Lounge, then boarded a tender. We re-gathered for the water taxi ride to the kayaking beach. We used two-person kayaks (more like canoes, actually) to paddle along the rock formations out to a little beach where you could go snorkeling, which my husband did (although there really isn't much to see - no reefs like in the Caribbean). After our beach break we paddled back to the spot we left. Once again I enjoyed this excursion - the scenery was spectacular and paddling your own kayak across the bay in between the tender boats was an adventure.

After the excursion we took a walk down the beach (Medano Beach, I believe), checking out the big resort hotels. Here it became clear how fortunate we had been on our previous excursions in avoiding vendors. Although they always took no for an answer, someone was always coming by with beaded necklaces, Mexican blankets, temporary tattoos, etc. at least every two minutes. We eventually found a nice little bar fronting the beach and had some margaritas and fish tacos ($20 total) while gazing out at the bay before walking back to catch the water-taxi to the tender pier, and got on a tender around 1 p.m. It is too bad the ship does not stay longer in Cabo - it looked like it would have been nice to walk around the downtown area here.

I'm not much of a shopper, so I can't comment on how the shops rate at the different ports. We just bought a few souvenirs at the stores near the pier in Mazatlan.

Disembarkation

I had booked an 11:17 a.m. flight out of LAX at the end of our cruise, and was a little concerned about whether we would make that early flight. As it turned out this was not a problem. I stopped by the purser's desk early in the cruise to request priority disembarkation. The last night our luggage tags were delivered, placing us in group Red 1 (basically the first group off the ship). On our final day we got up at 6 a.m., dressed and packed our remaining items (our main bags had been collected from outside our stateroom the night before), and went up to the buffet for breakfast. We picked up our carry-ons and said good-bye to our cabin at 7:30, going to wait for our color to be called in the Explorer's Lounge.

Promptly at 8:00 they started disembarkation - we were among the first dozen people off the ship. We found our luggage with no problems, and handed it off to a porter who directed us outside to the shared ride shuttle area. I had reserved a shuttle for the trip to LAX - they didn't have me on the list but we still boarded a SuperShuttle van within 10 minutes, arriving at LAX at 9 a.m. There were no lines to check in at the United counter, but we did end up spending almost a half hour in the line at the security checkpoint. Of course with an early flight like this, you are taking a risk - if the ship arrives late, or there is some delay with customs or immigration, you might not make it. We were back in the Grand Rapids airport by 8:30 p.m.

Overall it was a great cruise. We were looking for an opportunity to spend some quality time together, relax in a warm climate, be pampered with fine service and food, see some beautiful scenery, and do some interesting things that we can't do at home with three kids. This cruise achieved all that! I'm going to be spending a lot of time reminiscing over the photos we took! If anyone has any questions, please feel free to email me.

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