Golden Princess Canada/New England September 28- October 5, 2002
With cruise prices falling, we decided to watch the leaves drop from the decks of the Golden Princess.
Our weeklong vacation was very nice and we have very little to complain about. But maybe after six cruises the "wow" factor has become more elusive.
The Golden was absolutely spotless. There's no debate; the Princess ships are beautiful. Polished marble, chrome and wood fill the public areas. As music fills the atrium, it's easy to forget you are on a ship in the ocean and not in a land locked luxury hotel.
Princess has trained its staff well to send passengers subliminal messages that everything about the cruise is "excellent." During the week we were told to have an "excellent day," that beef was an "excellent choice and to be sure to mark "excellent" on our survey forms. Webster's defines "excellent" as being of the highest and finest quality." The current prices and deals are certainly excellent. But while the quality of the food, service and overall cruise experience are high, none of it was the highest or the finest.
Our original plan was to arrive in New York, rush to the ship to drop luggage and eat, and then meet a friend to see ground zero. We arrived at the pier and found a giant crowd lined up to board. by 1:45 we were not even close to the boarding area. We got out of the line and grabbed a taxi and headed to the financial district (this turned out to be an "excellent" decision). We found a small deli behind the Marriott and had a small bite to eat (we were booked for early seating and would eat again in four hours). The deli happened to be at a corner that was surrounded by police, fire and other emergency personnel. We discovered a small building across the street from the deli was going to be knocked down because of the damage it sustained in the September 11th attacks. We saw a large crack running down the fašade of the old structure much like what you've no doubt seen on TV following an earthquake. We finally had to leave before the demolition because time was running out and we wanted to see ground zero.
A friend of ours made arrangements for us to go into a restricted area to see ground zero. Words can not even begin to describe the sadness that still hangs over the land where the towers stood. One year later and crowds still jam around the fence that surrounds the site. Most people stood silently and looked in disbelief. A few days earlier I was in the doctor's office and saw the People magazine featuring all the widows who had given birth to a child since the tragedy. Being a father of a two-year-old, and expecting another in a few months, I couldn't read the article. Anger rose up in me when I saw some venders hawking t- shirts, postcards and snow globes within feet of the fence. But a look at my watch made me realize we had to find a taxi fast.
We arrived back at the pier at 4:28 and found no lines. In fact they had already removed the check- in computers. We were ushered on board and taken to the Purser's desk and given our cruise cards. The lady behind the desk welcomed us on board and told us dinner was open seating at any of the restaurants the first night. This turned out to be wrong and created a bit of a hassle later on.
Cabin Steward Gustov greeted us when we arrived in our two cabins and we asked that the twin beds be put together in one of the cabins. We also asked for guardrails for the 2-year old's bed. We asked Gustov about those rails twice, but I'm not sure he understood. Frankly, I don't even know if they exist, even though Gustov said they did. We asked for terry robes and received them the next night. We brought a case of Caffeine-free Coca- Cola since my pregnant wife is supposed to limit caffeine and put the cans in the mini- refrigerator. This was the first time we brought our own drinks on board a cruise. The Coke card was not an option because of the caffeine factor. The Coca-Cola refillable containers appear to be very thin and I would imagine you'd have to get it refilled two or three times to equal the amount of Coke in one can.
One of the highlights of the cruise was the sail- away from New York past the Statue of Liberty. What a shame the ship can't go slower, because the sights are awesome. Cruise Director John Anderson provided interesting information about the Hudson Bay area. pointing out the old pier where the Titanic was supposed to have docked and showed where the World Trade Centers once stood. The sun was setting behind Liberty and a fire boat sprayed water into the air. These were the Kodak moments of a lifetime. Some passengers enjoyed the view of New York from the comfort of one of the hot tubs on deck! We tried to find places to avoid the wind.
After the wonderful sail-away, we thought we'd go to dinner. We went to the Donatello Dining room, which is usually reserved for Personal Choice dining. We were told we had to go to our assigned dining room (Canaletto). Our dining room happened to be hard to find. Once we found it, we were told we were too late, that we should have been there at 6:30. They sent us back to the first dining room. I asked that they call and tell them we were being sent back. Back at the first dining room, they tried turning us away again and apparently had not received the call to allow us to eat. I suggested they call the other dining room and work it out with each other and then tell me where to go. We were seated.
During our week we found the food better on the Golden than on the Dawn. While they had the same dinner menus, we thought the presentation and taste was much better on the Golden. My wife hates buffets, but enjoyed the Horizon Court's breakfast. Maybe it was our imagination, but there seemed to be more variety than on the Dawn. For example, there were two or three different kinds of hash browns every morning. Our favorites were the deep fried ones like you find at McDonald's. It's funny how a little thing like hash browns can change your whole perception (all of a sudden my wife looked forward to the Horizon!). We only encountered lines during breakfast one morning-in Newport. It seemed that everyone on the ship decided to eat breakfast at the same time that day. The staff was clearly working hard to catch up. One morning I heard one of the kitchen staff say something about an egg beater omelet, so I wondered if anyone could order an omelet. I asked for a special omelet (bacon and cheese) and it was cheerfully made. The chef on the Golden deserves credit for keeping the buffet food fresh and hot. not always an easy task on a buffet. The area where Princess continues to fall short remains desserts. especially on the buffet. Each day at lunch we found a selection of tarts, filled with custard and topped with blueberries, strawberries or a number of other fruits. A tray of very hard chocolate cookies was always there, along with a tray of crunchy (but not hard) chocolate chip cookies. A few days there were a few triangle slices of sheet cakes. Why not "recycle" dining room desserts from the previous night?
Our lunches were usually a combination of pizza and buffet offerings. We'd eat at a table on the deck between the Horizon Court and the Pizza & Grill counters by the pool. We'd each get what we wanted from the various venues and eat together. Pizza was a hit with everyone. The cheeseburgers were quite good-thick and moist with a nice grill flavor. The salad bar in the Horizon was very complete and hit the spot during the last couple of days.
Can I just make a note about drinks? The drink stations offered iced tea and coffee. They were often out of ice. Why can't Princess offer juice or lemonade like Holland America? The ice tea is the horrible dispenser kind (Forgive me, I'm southern-and if it's not sweetened with sugar just after it's "brewed" then forget it!). Half way through the cruise, the morning juice selection dwindled down to only orange or grapefruit juice. Guava, cranberry and others were available in the main dining room.
A rare sight is becoming less rare in the main dining rooms-waitresses. Our waitress, Virginia from Romania, was very elegant and tried her best to please us. We actually became more amused as the week went on by the attention she paid to my wife. We could not figure out if the attention came because my wife is pregnant or if it was a cultural thing. In some countries the woman is "really" the one in charge of family situations. Virginia would ask me how I liked my food, but would look at my wife to verify my response. She would check with my wife to find out what to bring "the kid (our 2-year old son)." If I ordered something for him, she would glance at my wife to make sure it was ok. Virginia worried when my wife ordered pasta as the entree. Apparently she thought pasta was more appropriate as a side dish. Our complaint in the dining room was over the details. We've been spoiled on previous cruises by staff members who would think of the details before we did... such as sour cream for the potato or cranberry sauce for the turkey. These lapses certainly did not stop us from enjoying the food.
But I will complain about the lack of drinks brought to the table. The first three nights we had to ask for iced tea. It would be brought to the table during the entree course. Once the glass was empty-that was it. We had to ask for refills every night. It wasn't until the last night that we received tea at the beginning of our meal. Again, once you finished the tea-you had to ask for more or drink water. And on the subject, another very minor detail: The slice of lemon was always at the bottom of the glass. You had to fish it out if you wanted to squeeze it or before you added sugar.
There is a lot of discussion about Personal Choice Dining. It should be noted that in the traditional dining room we were offered Bananas Foster, Cherries Jubilee as well as Baked Alaska. It is my understanding those items are not offered in the Personal Choice Dining Rooms.
Oh yes, about dress. I was one of a handful of men wearing a tux. I happen to have one of those cheap $100 tuxedos from a manufacturer outlet (and who would know? So what if something gets spilled on it?). Very few long dresses or sequin tops on the ladies. On "resort casual" nights, I didn't see a single man wearing a jacket, so save the suitcase space!
Our cabins were on the Caribe deck (C711 & C717). Now that we bring a child and mother-in- law with us, we've found it's so much cheaper to go with two inside cabins. Yes, we'd like to return to the outside one day, but since they charge for a 2-year old and mother-in-law, we might as well get two cabins and have the extra space (and EXTRA BATHROOM!). Naps go so much easier when toddler is in a dark room next door and adults can talk or watch TV in the next cabin. In all honesty, now that we've tried inside, we really don't mind them at all. Our cabins in theory can hold four people. They had pull-down beds on the walls for two extra passengers. that meant the closets were extra large. These cabins had no tubs but did come with small refrigerators. We tried asking for raspberries for the fruit bowl, but never received them. We appreciated the refilled ice bucket every day, but wondered why our used glasses were never replaced. Our two-year-old sleeps in a "big" bed at home with side rails. We asked our cabin steward if rails existed and he said yes, but they never appeared. We just pushed the chair up to his bed. This was our second Princess cruise and we noted something this time that we didn't notice before-the amount of paper delivered to our cabin each day. We received flyers for photo specials, for inch of gold, for clearance sales, collectible sales and of course ever present art auctions. Each was in addition to the daily newsletter, The Princess Patter, which included ads for everything we got separate flyers about. We're normally not bothered by this kind of thing, but noticed what seemed to be a very excessive amount.
On the sea day, my wife and mother-in-law took our son to the children's room. He's too young to actually enroll in the program, but he could play as long as an adult stayed with him. He loved it. It also gave us an up-close look at the kinds of things they offer. We now understand why everyone raves about the children's programs on these ships. They had toys and crafts and it all appeared very alluring to one girl who couldn't participate. Her parents had not enrolled her and she came by several times while my son played. The staff gave her the paperwork to take to her parents but apparently they never filled it out. We saw the child wandering the ship several times during the week all alone. It broke our hearts. We also discovered the children's pool and outdoor play area. Because of the cool weather, the children stayed inside. But it was not hard to imagine how the area would be packed with little ones on warmer days. The arcade was huge and I'm sure gets plenty of business when school is out.
We tried to catch several movies during the week. They are shown in the Princess Theatre in the afternoons. I saw Spiderman on our sea day, but missed the others because we were always on shore. We couldn't help but to compare to Holland America. They have separate movie theatres and so films can be show in the evenings as well. When on HAL, we would go to the main stage shows and then take in a movie. With a small child and work schedules, we never get to see movies anymore. There is also no popcorn like on HAL.
There is no doubt about it-Princess spends money to mount its main stage production shows. It's amazing to see the high energy dance steps on a moving ship. "Lights, Camera, Action" is fast and has a bit of an edge to it. I realize Princess is trying to attract younger cruisers to these musical reviews, but I think they're trying a bit to too hard to be "hip." We're in our 30's and wish they had thrown in a few more musical numbers that "everybody" would have identified with. The show, "Words and Music" is less flashy and was indeed "excellent!" This show allows the vocalists to really show off their talent. We actually went to see this show on two nights because we enjoyed it so much. There is also a 50's-style show that was very good and would be entertaining for every age group-kids and adults.
Just about anywhere you go on the Golden you can find live music. Our two-year old son seemed to especially enjoy the live musicians. In fact, he wasn't pleased at all when we tried to move him away from the music. Piano players, string quartets, jazz bands and others could be found in the lounges, by the pools and in the atrium. Our regret was not being able to spend more time enjoying their talents. It's so hard to do everything! We enjoyed our quick dance on night.
Photographers were everywhere. Portable portrait studios were set up in so many different locations we lost count-and this was not just on formal nights. This brings me to a general comment. The entire ship seems cheapened by the continuous hawking. the atrium is crowded with portrait photographers, boutique sale tables and art auction displays. The ship is really beautiful; too bad you can't see it without the clutter.
The Golden really does have it all. The gym was filled with the latest exercise equipment and we REALLY had every intention of using it! The indoor pool is more than just a pool. it has wonderful atmosphere with upscale lounge chairs, tables and live music.
Dilemma for the next cruise: how to watch the sail away from each port from Skywalker's Lounge. This venue is located above the sea and offers the BEST views. The problem is the ship normally leaves each port between 5 and 6 o'clock. So if you have early traditional seating you miss out. If you have Personal Choice you can watch the sail away, but then you probably wouldn't finish dinner before the early shows (8:30 curtain, but you MUST get there early to get a seat). The late shows are too late after a full day of excursions.
Speaking of excursions.. Since the Canada/New England season is so short, I will not go into detail.
Halifax - We rented a car from Hertz. They have a pickup service at the ship, but we decided to walk along the waterfront to the Casino Hotel where the car pickup point is located (approx 15 walk). We enjoyed the walk and the ability to get an up-close look at some of the boats and buildings along the way. We drove to Peggy's Cove and took pictures. Our full size car was roughly $34 and Hertz provided written directions (easy!). After snapping plenty of pictures at Peggy's Cove, we went to the nearby memorial for the Swiss Air plane crash. It's a beautiful view. We then drove through several fishing villages and couldn't find a place to eat, so we ended up back in Halifax and then decided to eat lunch on the ship. After lunch we drove around Halifax and discovered the Public Gardens. All of the flowers were still in bloom! We walked around the park while mother-in-law stayed in the car with sleeping child. Back in the car, we followed a walking tour route as quickly as we could. We stopped at a few places for one of us to hop out and take a picture. We rushed back to the hotel to drop off the car and got back to the ship with about 15- minutes to spare before they pulled the gangway.
Saint John - A pleasant surprise. The locals were VERY friendly, giving each woman a fresh rose and each man a lapel pin. Throughout the day, strangers went out of their way to welcome us. We spent the morning following a walking tour map from the visitor's center. The map provided some information but would have liked to have "heard" more from a guide (not sure though if a two year old would agree). Stopped by the restored general store and schoolhouse. There are a lot of hills in Saint John, so expect to get some exercise. We walked through the Victorian house area as well as through some commercial areas. We had no idea Saint John would be so fun. Went back to the ship for lunch and then more walking to visit the old market (a quick peek is all you need because it's mostly fresh meat and vegetables) and simply wandered around.
Bar Harbor - The AAA Tourbook and Chamber recommended Acadia National Park tour via the local company (Acadia National Park Tours). The bus pickup is about a 5-minute walk from the tender pier. Our tour was $10 ($8 with AAA discount) in a school bus without air conditioning. Princess sponsored excursion was $24 in a tour bus. The tour stops at the famous tea house inside the park for you to try some famous local root beer. A few yards away from the tea house is the horse gate that's featured in the opening segment of Martha Stewart's TV show (she has a home nearby). After lunch on the ship our son and his grandmother went to the cabin for naps (which one needed it the most?) and my wife and I went shopping in Bar Harbor. We found some awesome deals at the Timberland outlet store. Almost every store had huge sales going on because apparently the town closes down for the winter, so stores wanted to get rid of their merchandise. We decided not to try the lobster ice cream.
Boston - My favorite day! We met a cousin who took us on a short car tour of Boston so we could get a few pictures of some historical sites. Then we drove to her home near Walden Pond. The leaves were starting to turn. This was the day we enjoyed the must-have lobster rolls and clam chowder. She drove us through some amazing towns - Lexington and Concorde. We passed by the North Bridge, the Colonial Inn where George Washington stayed and more.
Newport - This was the port where we really needed an extra day. House tours and little boys do not mix well. We decided to only go inside one mansion-Rough Pointe, the home of Doris Duke. A van picks you up at the visitor center (near the tender port) and then takes you back. The unique thing about her house is the fact that everything inside was actually hers and in the house when she died. Some of the other mansions in Newport are full of reproductions and antiques that have been brought in to illustrate the Gilded Age. Most of the families moved their possessions or sold them over the years before the houses became tourist attractions. We did some of the cliff walk by ourselves (it's free and open to anyone), however we would have liked to have had a guide to tell us about the mansions we passed. When you have a family, you skip the guide and save the money the ship would have charged. The famous Vanderbilt mansion, The Breakers, was covered in scaffolding. Many of the mansions were sold by the families in the 60's and early 70's because the heirs couldn't afford the upkeep. The local collage now owns many of the mansions and uses them for classroom and dorm space. The Preservation Society owns the mansions that are open to the public. A daily trolley pass is $5. It takes you through the town and down Belview Avenue where all the mansions are located. The pass allows you to get on and off as much as you would like.
Back on Board our waitress informed us it would be very helpful to her if we marked "excellent" on our comment forms. I would like to find out more about how the company evaluates their staff based on passenger comment forms. Getting off the Golden is a slow process. I don't quite understand why so many people were all dressed and sitting in the lounges an hour and a half before the disembarking procedure was to begin. Why not eat a slow breakfast in the dining room. read a magazine or book?
While we waited to get off, we noticed a fairly large number of crew members getting off the ship with bicycles. We wonder where they store those things. I guess we had our shore excursion time, now it was the crew's turn in New York before the next group of passengers arrived later that afternoon.
We hurried to our cab and to the airport saying "next time" we'll be sure to visit the gym, play the games on deck, read a book, see more movies, attend the cooking demonstration, walk the deck and go swimming. But right now, we just need to rest from our vacation.