The Man With the Golden Gang Report on the Nov. 23/02 sailing of the Golden Princess
Because of the tradition of wearing my tuxedo on formal nights on a ship, the somewhat weak reference to James Bond in the title seems fitting.
We set out from Ft. Lauderdale, with our group of CruiseMates friends (some who knew each other from previous sailings, some who had never met) onboard the Golden Princess. This was around cruise number 30 for us, with previous cruises on Carnival, Celebrity, Holland America, Princess, Royal Caribbean, Seabourn cruise lines.
The 109,000 ton Golden Princess was built in 2001. She's 951 feet long, and her normal capacity is 2600 passengers, and 1150 crew, and she stretches to 17 Decks high. This itinerary featured 2 days at sea to begin with, then stops at St. Martin, then St Thomas, followed by another day at sea, and ending with a stop at Princess Cays, before returning to Ft. Lauderdale.
Due to the length of this report, for those with short attention spans, I'll offer some quick rankings (1-10) of the various aspects of the cruise, and I'll elaborate later.
Embarkation - 7 Maintenance and Cleanliness- public areas - 9 Cabin- 5 Entertainment -7 Entertainment staff-8 Cruise Director and staff -8 Entertainment venues- 4 Dining Rooms - Food - 7 - Service Staff-5 - Head Waiter-3 Casual dining - Food quality and choice -7 - Layout - 6 Personal Choice Dining -1 Ships Layout - 2
If you've read any of my previous ship reports you're very likely to find this particular report takes on a much more negative tone than usual. There is no such thing as a bad cruise, but this one surely does not rise to anywhere near my top 10 list. Now I'll try and explain why.
My Initial Reactions-
I had just sailed this ship 11 months ago, to celebrate New Year's Eve 02. I wasn't in love with it then, so some might ask themselves why I chose to repeat it. Good question! The first thing we noticed was how much less smoothly the embarkation process went in comparison to our previous Princess cruises. Arriving at the pier at approximately the same time as we did 11 months ago, we didn't find ourselves walking up the gangway until an hour later. I believe this was likely due to a delayed debarkation from the previous week's cruise, rather than anything different in the Princess embarkation system.
As had happened on our New Year's cruise, even though we had completed the registration process online, when our documents arrived they were missing the "express check in" sticker that this process is supposed to ensure. This was not really an issue, as express check in lines, on non express check in lines were about the same. It is just an observation that someone is not paying much attention to the process. If they are going to encourage people to participate in the process of registering online, they should at least take steps to be consciences of the results.
Once we walked onboard, rather than being greeted by white gloved staff to take over the handling of our carry-ons, and show us to our cabin, we were herded rather like cattle, to one particular set of elevators. Having been on the ship before, I knew this bank of elevators was the opposite direction from our cabin. I tried to make my way in the correct direction (and I remembered some awfully long hallways), but I was told by a crew member that this was not allowed, and I had to stay with the herd. I'd heard Princess had been using electric prods to keep passengers in line so I obeyed.
This didn't ruin my cruise, by any means, but it also did nothing to make me feel welcome onboard!
We made our way to our mini suite cabin on Dolphin Deck, and though a decent size, and pretty well laid out, I think it's poor use of the English language to use the word suite (mini or otherwise) in reference to these cabins. With the size, and the amenities they're equipped with, they are nothing more than a standard balcony cabin on any of the other major cruise lines recent new builds. No question, very decent cabins, but any semblance to a suite is only in the designers imagination.
What disappointed more, especially knowing this ship is only 2 years old, was the severely stained sofa and chair in the cabin's sitting area, as well as the stained carpets. While I understand ships are heavy use pieces of equipment, these are simple maintenance and housekeeping issues, and not what one would expect from what is considered in "the industry" to be a Premium Cruise Line.
Through the cruise the air-conditioning in our cabin was more of a dream than a reality. Though we kept both thermostats at their lowest settings, the system seemed to work minimally. The cabin was never cool, though admittedly it never got sweltering hot either, so the system must have been working to some limited extent.
The maintenance and upkeep, fortunately seemed much better in the ship's public areas. In those areas, the ship sparkled with cleanliness, as it should.
One other concern about our mini-suite cabin is only applicable to tall people. The mini suites are equipped with bath tubs, which also double as showers. The ceiling in these bath tub enclosures are not very tall. I'm 6'3" tall, the ceiling is about 6'3 ½ inches tall, so after smacking my knuckles on the ceiling a couple of times, I learned the key was to skip washing my armpits.
After the initial peak at our cabin we headed to the Horizon Court for our first of many visits to the feeding frenzy. All over the ship we saw temporary bars set up, and bar waiters roaming around, pushing the all you can drink soda cards (for both children and adults), along with special Coca Cola cooler cups.
I'm somewhat of a sick puppy with the amount of soda I consume, so I purchased the card and cup for $22.50 for the week. The problem--- after making the purchase, finding a bar waiter to refill it was a pretty much impossible task. One basically was required to go to a bar yourself for sodas.
Of course, the obvious reason for this. outside of the original purchase price, there is no gratuity included for the server. So, unfortunately the bar waiters concentrate their efforts on finding people who are ordering drinks which aren't already paid for.
The theory was demonstrated later the first night when I was in the casino playing Blackjack, and ordered a soda from a waitress. 40 minutes passed with no drink before I asked a casino supervisor to expedite the delivery.
The Road to Disrespect-
This cruise was to be my first encounter with Princess's "Personal Choice Dining". "Dine when you want, with whom you want" says their promotion. I spent the entire first day onboard choosing the ladies I wanted to dine with. I told them they'd be required to dine with me because it's my Personal Choice. And also told them what time to meet me at the dining room. All showed their excellent judgement, and didn't show up.
The first night we arrived at one of the PC dining rooms to find a significant number of people in line. Some holding small electronic pagers flashing to indicate their table was ready, and the remainder waiting to be handed a pager. When I requested a table for 8 the Maitre D rather bluntly told me if we want a table for 8 we really should have made a reservation. I wondered silently. though I later thought I should have wondered aloud. If I should have made reservations, why didn't I simply reserve "traditional dining" and not have to bother with this hassle?
Of course, because Princess is so intent on "encouraging" their Personal Choice program, that they can not accommodate all the requests for Traditional.
It took only 20-25 minutes of waiting in a lounge for our pager to light up, and when we returned to the dining room we had to literally push our way through the line up to get to the door and be seated at our table. If they are going to use this pager system they really need to create a separate entrance for those responding to their page. As it operates now, those who are just arriving in search of a table are in the same line as those responding to their page, and trying to enter the dining room. Basically, this creates longer lines than necessary, and people stand in line to request a table and to get to their table when it's available.
Frankly, even with the waiting and line ups, I would have adapted to the situation without complaint for the benefit of the flexibility. However, that flexibility was taken away by the Maitre D almost insisting we make reservations, rather than just showing up at his door. Had we just been allowed to show up at the dining room each evening, make our request, get our pager, and go off to wait the 20-25 minutes having a drink in a lounge, we'd have been perfectly content.
As we went to sleep this first night, I recalled more vividly why I was under whelmed by this ship the first time I sailed her. Plus, with a few new wrinkles adding to my disappointment, my impression after one night onboard was not very flattering.
Outside of our cabin we've noticed the ship is very clean and well maintained. Yet my feelings regarding the layout are still less than enthusiastic, even in comparison to our last cruise on her. I've grown to like her less with experience, rather than more.
On Decks 5,6 & 7, where most of the public rooms, and dining rooms are located, there simply isn't good passenger flow. Our cabin was located on Dolphin Deck (Deck 9) forward. As we went down the forward staircase to go to the dining room on Deck 6, if we forgot, and took the wrong hallway, we found ourselves walking through the centre of the Desert Rose alternate restaurant. We chose not to eat here, but I could see how the hallway traffic would irritate people who were dining here.
Another display of errant design, as far as I'm concerned, is they way the Lido Deck is laid out. Around the two centre swimming pools only one row of lounge chairs really gets any sun. The remaining loungers are under the roofs of the decks above.
Of course more open air loungers are available on the decks above. A reasonable solution in this case, when the winds are low.
On other mega ships we've sailed, the pool decks seem to make better use of the massive amounts of space available rather than create smaller areas, where the end result seems to make these areas feel crowed and congested.
The strong point on this ship was the entertainment. Not necessarily the specific entertainers, but the various number of entertainment venues.
And most evenings the scheduled entertainment in each is varied and interesting. But, even this area suffers somewhat from poor design. The Promenade bar featured a talented and popular piano player. However the bar is quite small, over striving for that "intimate feeling". So, many times the overflow crowd enjoying the piano player were left standing in the hallway. This fellow was drawing such big crowds that one night they enlarged his venue by moving him down to the bottom floor of the atrium, and they filled the atrium with conference centre style stacking chairs. It accommodated the larger crowds, but not in the comfort of a nice lounge.
The Princess Theatre is too small for a ship this size as well, and for the more popular shows, people either stood in the aisles, or were turned away.
Perhaps the most glaring shortcoming in designs are the areas immediately prior to entering the Donnatello and Canatello Dining Rooms. The latter is located on Deck 6 at the stern, and one can only get there from the deck above. This problem is exaggerated further by the fact there is virtually no room outside of the dining room for people to gather, causing quite a log jam of passengers prior to dinner seating.
The Donnatello dining room is located on Deck 6, amidships, but also suffers from the lack of an area for passengers to congregate, or meet for a drink. Immediately outside of the entrance to this dining room are the ship's shops.
Considering the size of this ship, it seems to have been a glaring oversight not to have some sort of lounges immediately next to the dining rooms, so passengers could meet for pre dinner drinks, or wait for table space to open in the dining rooms. This would be especially helpful in servicing PC passengers.
The low ceilings in all the dining rooms created a high noise level as well. It was sometimes difficult to carry on normal dinner conversation without yelling.
Though the wait staff in the dining rooms was very friendly, the service was spotty. On a number of occasions our orders weren't even taken until 30 - 40 minutes after we were seated. They were however good about replenishing the bread baskets we were furiously attacking while waiting. During the cruise we tried 5 different dining room service teams. While some were fun to joke around with, none provided excellent service.
I'm not a drinker, but on a couple of occasions tablemates ordered wine with dinner, and asked for recommendations from the staff. Princess no longer employs Sommeliers, and the staff we encountered certainly had limited knowledge of the products they were selling. For fun, I asked one if a particular wine had a cork or screw top. The response. I'll go ask.
Basically this ship seems to be suffering from a lack of attention to detail when it comes to passenger services. No major disasters to be sure, but we felt somewhat bombarded with mishandling of so many little things. They just seemed to keep adding up, to the point where viewed totally became quite irritating.
We had a wonderful time, and a fun cruise, because we were with some wonderful people from CruiseMates. However, I have to say I don't believe Princess had a lot to do with this, and during the course of the cruise earned a bit of disrespect from this passenger.
Princess Cruise Line, perhaps more than any cruise line, seems to get a large percentage of repeat passengers, and they seem almost unusually devoted and loyal to Princess. Personally, I have to question what it is they see in it, that I'm missing.
Many of them seem to love the Grand Class ships, and after my 3rd sailing on this class of ship, I'm still shaking my head, wondering why.
Princess, Celebrity, and Holland America are considered Premium brands. In my never so humble opinion, Princess has fallen behind, and there is a significant gap between Princess and the other two.
I think Princess has a good thought in operating the Horizon Court 24/7, rather than midnight buffets. The way the buffets are set up is a bit odd though. During busy times stepping into the buffet area can feel like a Moj Pit for old people. ( I have to find a young person to tell me how to spell that, and none is handy).
It can be fun pushing smaller people around at the buffet, as there are no organized lines. You simply zig zag in and out of whatever stations you're interested in.
Selection is wide and varied. Some of the variations meet with great success, some not so.. I was surprised to see there was no station available for fresh made to order omelettes or eggs for breakfast as is so common on other lines. Here they had eggs cooked daily in almost all manner desirable, but they all suffered badly from chaffing dish syndrome. The buffet also managed to serve daily some of the worst French toast and pancakes I've had at sea.
Fortunately I'm not a big breakfast person. 80 cups of coffee and I'm set for the day. If breakfast is an important meal for you, I suggest giving the dining room a try.
I'm uncertain if Princess has changed their pizza recipe since we last sailed this ship in January, but the pizza was ugly. Soggy thin crust. doesn't it sound delicious?
Princess lunch buffets have absolutely the best salad selections of all the lines we've sailed. If you're a salad person, it's very easy to have a full lunch on their salad choices.
Dining room food was mostly quite good. A couple of hit and miss items, but mostly satisfying. If it came with good service, it would have tasted that much better.
I'm certain there were others on this sailing, who could have thought this cruise was near to perfect. And they wouldn't be wrong. There is a simple explanation.it's the reason there are many different cruise lines. You can't make all the people happy all the time, and on this trip, I get to come home and be a whiner. Something different for me, but I'm rather enjoying "putting it all down" on paper.