My voyage on the Emerald Princess was my sixth cruise, my past history consisting of trips on Carnival's Imagination, Paradise, Triumph, and Glory as well as the Emerald's sister ship the Crown Princess. While my overall vacation was a blast, I feel that the Emerald itself provides just an average value for the money at this time and I don't think I would choose Princess for Europe again any time in the near future.
Embarkation The Emerald Princess Mediterranean itinerary runs between Venice and Barcelona. We embarked in Venice, which I was pleased about as I had a basic familiarity with the city after spending four days there previously. Most passengers fly in a night before boarding is permitted, which I highly recommend. Embarkation was scheduled to begin at 1:00 p.m. Saturday and run as late as one the next day, when the ship would finally depart. We boarded at around 3:00 p.m. Saturday and faced a very short wait at check-in. The embarkation process was particularly easy for Mr. Chelledun and I since the Venice airport lost all of our luggage, leaving us with nothing but a small carry on-bag containing toiletries and medications and my laptop. My parents did have luggage to check in with the ship, and received it in time for our 8:30 p.m. dinner time. After two Princess cruises, I have to say the line does an above average job with making the embarkation process as smooth as possible.
Our Room Per usual, Mr. Chelledun and I booked one of the cheapest, smallest rooms on the ship. This time our room, E310 was literally in the lowest class, due to the astronomical costs associated with going up even the tiniest category on a twelve-day Mediterranean cruise. Despite this, we actually ended up in better shape this time than on our previous Princess cruise since we had a room intended only as a double rather than as a quad. This meant no fold-out beds overhead and no bumping my head every morning. The room was bland but clean, with beige walls and a couple of Greek-inspired paintings hanging on either side. The bathroom was correspondingly tiny, with space for a shower, toilet, and little else.
While people often complain that Princess gives less room space for the buck than other mass market cruise lines, and it does, in my opinion the poor layout is to blame for the cramped feel of the rooms. In both my small room and my parents' much larger junior suite, it was a regular occurrence to open the bathroom door and smack someone in the head who was trying to get clothing out of the closet. The hairdryer, for some reason, is firmly mounted over the desk, making it necessary to primp in the main room instead of the bathroom. Larger, more expensive rooms are still far too narrow in terms of space between the bed and the wall. Mr. Chelledun and I don't typically care that much about our room, especially on a port-intensive itinerary, but twelve days of bumping into each other did get a bit old.
Public Spaces The Emerald Princess is in very good repair as a result of being nearly brand new. The public areas are tastefully decorated. Some are very attractive, others are a bit boring. Our very favorite space was Crooner's Martini Bar, a well-staffed lounge overlooking the ship's central atrium. The Crooner's bartenders knew us all by name at the cruise's end, and contributed greatly to our cruise experience with their daily jokes and card tricks. I also enjoyed watching shows in the plush chairs of the intimate Explorer's Lounge, and dancing in the top-floor Skywalker's Disco which overlooks the ocean.
Other public rooms left my group saying "why?" The main showroom, Princess Theater, is simply too small for the popular shows that play there. I complained about this after sailing on the Crown Princess and the poor design is echoed on the Emerald. During the first two out of four production shows, the theater was completely packed, with some patrons sitting on the steps and standing in the back of the theater. I just can't understand why Princess doesn't duplicate the grand theaters found on most other large cruise ships. Club Fusion, a dance club which turns to showroom for the popular Princess Idol event, suffers from many seats with blocked views thanks to GIANT pillars situated throughout it. My dislike of these small showrooms is symptomatic of my major complaint about Princess -- after two voyages, I still don't care for the layout. The ships' public spaces are too sectioned off, slightly claustrophobic, and lack a sense of awe. Why design a huge ship to feel like it isn't a huge ship? Princess fails to take advantage of the height and girth of its ship by limiting what could have been an amazing atrium to a three-story one, and breaking up its formal dining areas into three low-ceilinged rooms. Members of our group have sailed on Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and NCL, and all of us ranked Princess last in terms of interior ship layout.
The ship's exterior areas fare better in my evaluation. None of the pool areas were ever terribly crowded during our journey, perhaps because everyone had more than enough sun during our lengthy times in port. Fresh water in the two main pools makes for a more pleasant swimming experience than on other lines. I also like the readily available pool bars, and everything outside was always neat and clean. It is also possible to walk laps around one of the ship's lower decks. All five of us participated in an on-ship Walk on Deck for the Cure 5K event for the Susan G. Komen Foundation, and in doing so learned that 7.5 times around the ship equals 3.1 miles.
Food Food is always available in mass quantities of varying quality on any cruise. We weren't really as concerned about the ship's food on this particular trip, since we ate many meals in port to sample local cuisine. Still, we definitely ate enough meals on the ship to get a good feel for the available options. The main dining room food was a big notch above average in terms of quality. One night I enjoyed the best rack of lamb of my life. Other recommendations include most pastas, the beef Wellington, baked spinach, and the neopolitan ice cream dessert. Really, I would love to have dining room food this good on a less port-intensive cruise. While we generally enjoyed our server team and food in our 8:30 traditional seating, my family commented repeatedly that Princess seems to understaff its dining rooms. Whereas other cruise lines offer a cocktail server/wine steward in addition to wait staff, the Princess setup requires the assistant waiter to disappear into the wine cellar for long periods of time, leaving the main waiter alone and stressed out for much of the meal. As a result, occasionally we had a wait of as much as an hour between appetizers and the main course or a half hour between receiving our dessert and our coffee.
While the formal dining room food was great, the more casual venues definitely disappointed on this trip. I complained about the layout of the casual Horizon Court and Cafe Caribe buffets on my last cruise, as the lack of a defined line going one way results in traffic jams in every direction. This problem was dramatically amplified on the Emerald as so many passengers skipped formal meals in favor of an attempt to grab something quick. Even once we were able to get our food from the buffet, it wasn't very good. I tried flavorless pastas, oddly mushy desserts, and bland omelets before swearing off the buffet altogether. Mr. Chelledun and I took to ordering a breakfast of fruit and bagels from room service each morning in an effort to avoid the whole zoo. We weren't thrilled with the grill food either, which consisted of overcooked hamburgers and hot dogs which had sat too long. The one bright spot for casual dining is the International Cafe and its fresh sandwiches, salads, and cookies.
Entertainment After receiving amazing entertainment on the Crown Princess this January, Mr. Chelledun and I were psyched to enjoy some excellent shows and movies during our trip. While the itinerary is port-intensive, a couple of sea days (one unexpected) and a couple of short port times make it so the on-ship entertainment experience does still matter somewhat. Unfortunately, we were very disappointed with the shows and activities on the Emerald. It seemed that fewer activities were being offered than on a typical cruise, perhaps because a week's worth of events was being spread over a twelve day period. Worse, any time interesting events were made available, they were scheduled in competition with each other.
Several of the comedians we saw were absolutely terrible. One was so bad I walked out of a show for the first time ever on a cruise ship. We aren't easily offended folks or anything, this was just a matter of him being incredibly unfunny. Each Princess ship also advertises at least two different Las Vegas style shows spread throughout the duration of the cruise. This twelve-day trip actually had four. The newest of these production shows, Groovy Shoes, has some potential but also some parts that are just…odd, cheesy, or boring. This show feels like several different music videos have been stuck together, and a few of them seem to be from a much earlier decade. Also, there are only so many songs which can be twisted to be about "shoes" or "feet" without sounding completely stupid. We didn't use Movies Under the Stars, the on-deck, open air theater facility, at all on this trip. This was mainly because many evenings the facility was designated for a child or teen gathering. Very, very little on-deck music was played in the pool area. On our Ephesus port day, everyone had to be back on ship by around 12:30, so the afternoon was for all practical purposes a sea day. Still, the band performed only from 3:45 to 4:45.
To be fair, there were some entertainment highlights. We enjoyed the production show Motor City, which had a great set of songs performed by talented vocal artists. One very funny comedian had the entire Explorer's Lounge in an uproar with his physical stunts. Princess Pop Star, an American Idol-style competition, is always entertaining. My sister participated this year, which made for a good time for the family. We also had a good time enjoying free cocktails at both the Captain's Welcome Party and the Past Guest party. On the whole, though, entertainment this trip seemed to be lacking.
The Ports The real reason we booked this cruise was for the amazing itinerary. It did not disappoint. We saw a tremendous variety of unique places and things. Emerald Princess calls at Venice, Athens, Kusadasi (gateway to Ephesus), Istanbul, Mykonos, Naples (gateway to Pompeii/Amalfi Coast), Civatavechia (gateway to Rome), Livorno (gateway to Florence/Pisa), Marseille, and Barcelona. Two sea days are scheduled, which provide for forced relaxation. We wanted an itinerary with a little bit of everything, but heavy on the Italy ports. In the end, I was surprised that my favorite stops were, far and away, the Turkey ports. Istanbul may be the most amazing city I've ever been to and the Ephesus ruins are breathtaking. Other particular favorites were our Pompeii/Amalfi Coast stop, Athens, and Barcelona, where we spent two and a half days post-cruise. We came away from the trip with stunning pictures and happy memories of everything from touring Istanbul's spice market and Blue Mosque to sipping Lemoncello in Sorrento to time spent admiring Gaudi's art and architecture.
After branching out some on our last cruise, I've come to conclude that Princess tours are vastly overpriced and of questionable quality, as they take place on busses in groups too large to maneuver easily around a busy city. Most use the same vendors one can book privately, keeping the markup margin as profit. As such, our group of five used private tour guides, prebooked a taxi, or got around on our own in all the ports. In doing so, we saved a ton of money while receiving more personalized tours. I won't go into too much detail about our particular experiences, but I will specifically recommend Shorex Turkey (http://www.shorexturkey.co.nr/) out of Turkey, which we used for both Istanbul and Kusadasi. This company is probably the most well-run tour operator I've ever had the pleasure of dealing with and our guides dramatically enhanced the overall quality of our experience in Turkey. In Athens, we had an extremely memorable experience with Spiros (email@example.com) which included one of the best meals I've ever enjoyed in any country. In Naples we arranged for a private tour through DriveAmalfi with Salvatore (firstname.lastname@example.org) to tour the Amalfi Coast. Unfortunately our ship was late docking in Naples due to some shipping traffic and so we did not get off the ship and start our tour for several hours. The positive side to a late docking was our ship delayed leaving the port for 1 hour so we did get to see all that we had planned for the day. We stopped for lunch at a restaurant called S. Giovanni. Great spot and the food was good. Had a sample taste of lemoncello and meloncello as well. Purchased a bottle of lemoncello in Amalfi and had no problems with it in the checked luggage back home. In Santorini we decided to do a day on our own for this port stop.
Tendering ashore was quite a thrill as the tender boat and the docking areas (off the ship and also on the island) were not always in sync. Quite a few times they had to stop people from boarding or disembarking the tender since the boat was moving too far away from the step off point. We took the tram up to the top -- 4 euros each one way. Spectacular view when you're going up or down. Lots of donkey poo on the streets. Ventured out through the narrow streets and donkey poo to find the famous blue doom church. Spent time at the archeological museum, did some shopping/browsing and then headed back to the ship around 1:00pm and had lunch onboard the ship for a change.
Overall I should finish by noting that the three star rating is for my Emerald Princess experience only, not my overall fabulous vacation. Fortunately, we spent the majority of our days in fabulous ports, nearly all of which receive five stars from me. In the end, I'm not sorry I picked this ship and its diverse itinerary. Had I opted for a land trip instead, most of the trip would have been spent in Italy, and the Turkey ports that turned out to be my very favorites wouldn't have even been on the radar. Still, the ship itself had a few kinks that brought it down to an average rating for me. While food is very good, entertainment is somewhat lacking at this time, and the layout is just not my cup of tea. Given the very, very high price per person, I'm not convinced the Emerald Princess is the best value for Europe at this time.