by Magnolia Blossom
British Isles & Ireland
July 11, 2006
About us: 26th cruise, 4th with Princess 53/58 year old married couple, seasoned travellers , not especially picky.
Pre-cruise: Tried to book our hotel through Princess and was told repeatedly "call back six months out". So, I called at 6 1/2 months out - "too early", called the next week -same line, called the next week, "sold out, you should have called earlier". We did however find a decent rate (as London goes) at the Airport Hilton and decided to stay there since we really did not want to "do" London again - just rest. The shuttle left from the airport the next day so it was a good choice.
Shuttle: Got down to the greeting area about 8:30 and was on the first bus out by 9:30 or so. Two hour drive to the pier. No problems. NOTE: If you are flying in early and will meet the shuttle back at the airport : you cannot meet the shuttle at baggage claim as your voucher says, you meet at the "passenger greeting" area outside customs. No telling how long I would have wandered around baggage claim if I had not run into a Crystal Cruise employee at breakfast and asked her for the exact location.
Embarkation: Arrived at the pier about noon, which should have been about boarding time but the ship had been an hour late arriving due to fog so we did not board til 1:00. Check-in itself took all of 3 minutes then we were off to the waiting area. Large room, plenty of seating although only a water cooler was available. Not a biggy but it struck me odd since some of the other lines have food service staff there with tea, coffee and cookies.
Cabin: We had an inside cabin on deck 10. Typical inside cabin. Contents were a refrigerator, hair dryer, safe, TV. There was plenty of closet space and loads of hangers. Soap and shampoo are of the old fashioned variety and not the wall mounted liquids.
Ship: We had been on the Grand in April so orientation did not take long. The ship was in very good repair and had a pleasing decor. No neon like Carnival and not quite as stark as NCL. There is an enclosed pool area, with retractable canopy, which was nice for the cooler days and evenings. This is a family pool as is the main pool midship. There is an adult only pool at the rear of the ship and outside of the spa. Those two areas were not highly used and made great get aways.
Skywalkers Lounge is at the top of the "shopping cart handle" and seemed to be the most underutilized place onboard. The disco did not open until 10 p.m. and it was occasionally used for private group parties but other than that you can grab a drink and head up there to have the whole place to yourself for sailaway.
Dining: I'm not going to say alot about the food because it is such a subjective matter. I found it fine. Not gourmet, but none of the ships with thousands of passengers can offer fabulous food so I was not disappointed. There are two dining rooms for any time dining (our preference) and one for traditional. I was told there was a waiting list for traditional dining but I think that is typical. Service was friendly and efficient. Wine service is by the waiter, not a wine steward. We typically dined between 6:00 and 7:00 and chose to share a table with others so we never waited at all. We ate one night at the steak house and food and service were superb. The buffet was actually a little better than usual, I thought. There were two omelet stations each morning which fortunately were not in the middle of the serving line. My only beef with the buffet is that Princess offers only coffee and tea. Lemonade would be a nice addition. And yes, the coffee is wretched, horrid, yuk.
We only used room service for morning coffee. It comes from the dining room rather than buffet and is marginally better . You will have a door hanger menu you can put out each evening and ours was always delivered promptly. Room service tipping should be done when delivered.
Ice cream is served at the buffet each afternoon for free, but if you want it otherwise it's $3.95 at the ice cream shop. Don't know why this bugs me but it does. I was told there is a pre-paid punch card program for the shop that was buy 10 get 1 free, but that didn't seem like much of a deal to me.
Grill: They had hamburgers, vegetarian hamburgers, hot dogs, brotworst, knockworst and chicken breasts available. There were always fries and occasionally onion rings. My husband was thrilled that they had hot saurkraut for his hot dogs and if they'd have only had chile he'd have been in heaven. And the hot dogs were the nice big fat ones not those anorexic little skinny things.
Pizza was pretty good and they usually had three varieties. The grill and pizzaria are only open until 7:00 which was a bit disappointing for days when our excursions didn't get in until 6:30 and we just wanted a simple little dose of junk food.
Entertainment: We did not make any of the regular shows as we prefer to dance and gamble. The one we did make in Dublin was a local dance troupe and band. The early show was a group of young people doing Irish folk dance and they were cute. The band was good and the show enjoyable. I believe the late show was a more professional group of dancers but I can't speak to that personally. There were two very good dance bands. One played in the Explorer's Lounge and the other just down the way at the Wheelhouse Bar. The atrium each evening was filled with music from either the string quartet or pianist. Very nice. Later the piano man showed up at the martini bar and he had quite a following. It was a bit loud for me, but if you sat on the floor below it was enjoyable. Oh, I should clarify that this bar borders the atrium, it's not really loud enough to hear on an adjoining deck!
Casino: Good variety of slots penny through $5. Payout seemed about typical and I came out about $50 down which wasn't bad for the amount of time I spent there. Usual table games. Hubby plays blackjack and pretty well paid for the cruise, so certainly can't complain there. Friendly and efficient staff. Unfortunately the slots still pay out in coins and haven't gone to the paper tickets yet. The casino was closed for Dublin as we did not depart there until after midnight.
Bar service: There was the usual drink of the day although I must say, Princess seems to push their fru-fru drinks less than any other line. Being a simple woman, I just drink simple things. Prices for a single Dewars and soda was $3.85, smirnoff martinis were about the same. I know some have complained about the high price of drinks on cruises but I didn't see it on the Golden, unless of course you were drinking doubles, premium brands or fru-frus. Room set ups were available but we didn't availe ourselves of them this time so don't know what the prices were. There was not a wine program such as NCL s buy 5 get a sixth free program. Soda cards were available at about $4/day. Guiness is available onboard but only canned, not draught.
Spa: Didn't partake of services but the usual array are to be had at what seem to be ever escalating prices. There is a steam room and sauna for both males and females (separate, in case that isn't clear) but they are not inside, they are poolside. So much for wearing just a towel in the sauna. The spa showers are the same size as those in the room which was disappointing because that's my husband's trick - showering in the spa where they have normal size showers. Oh well - suck in that gut and get in the shower!
Odds and Ends: Changing money can be done by two machines on decks 5 and 6. One will convert various currencies to British pounds, the other to euros, or vice versa. There was a $3.50 service fee which isn't bad if you're doing a lot, so do all your money at once. You can always change it back. You will need pounds in every port except Dublin where you will need euros. Everywhere we went took plastic so we only used cash for incidental items.
Laundramats: What a friggin' disaster. I don't usually do laundry onboard but I did need to do one little load. Between decks 8, 9 and 10 there were 8 irons. 2 worked and 1 had a bad hot spot. The money changers and soap dispensers had lower pay out odds than the slot machines and the dryers are not very warm. Took two cycles (30 minutes each) to get 1 small load of whites to the damp stage. Every woman who came into the laundry picked up the phone to call and complain but to no availe. They did send one poor little guy up to face the angry horde and all he did was fiddle with things and left them no better than when he arrived. Moral : do not count on having an iron to use. Plan on bringing either a steamer, de-wrinkle spray or both. Better yet, do what I did, call from the laundry and ask the purser's desk to send up a round of drinks.
Captain's party: pretty well done in the atrium. They had the usual assortment of beverages plus beer and in case you don't know, you can always ask them for a special drink and they will get it for your. I don't think the captain showed for the early party which made no difference to me.
Captain's Circle party: Was in the Vista Lounge and had the typical band, and drinks. See above comments. The captain was busy taking us out of port so could not be there but did address us by the PA system. They said this set a record for the Golden - 1,600 repeaters on board and three couples doing a triple back to back. Wow.
Fellow cruisers: Primarily white Americans middle aged and slightly older. Less than 20 wheelchairs and 3 of those were children. There were maybe 100 children under 18 on board. All of them were well behaved. This is not an itinerary for those with disabilities due to lack of handicap accessibility in castles, palaces and many of the coaches. Most of these people were seasoned cruisers and were more interested in the ports than partying. By 10:30 most evenings the place was pretty quiet. But of course, the excursions were pretty tiring and many began early.
Tendering: we tendered at 3 ports (or was it 4?) and each time it was done with the ship's life boats. Each day they used 3 boats which did not seem adequate for early morn and late afternoon.
Reboarding: Terrible. Although they used two gangways to disembark folks in the morning for excursions they only used 1 for reboarding each afternoon. In Inverness there was a line of 450-500 people at one time waiting to board. Took over an hour for some folks since they likewise were only running 1 scanner.. Not happy campers. They didn't seem to learn from this experience as the cruise went on either.
Photos: Very few, which is fine with me but unlike many cruiselines you had to search out the phtographers if you wanted photos. They did however clog up numerous stairways on formal nights which I found aggrevating. At least they weren't in your face every time you had a mouthful of cheesecake. Who needs the evidence - I have my thighs!
Meetings on board: There was a combined meeting of Friends of Dr. Bob and Bill W. each day. Not every day but frequently was a GLBT Rainbow meeting as well. There was a Masonic meeting one day and a service club meeting. My hubby's favorite is always the Veteran's meeting and this time there were two gentlemen who were POWs from the Batan death march. They told amazing tales and everyone there was deeply touched.
Intenet service is 35 cents per minute. There are about 18 computers in the cafe and 3 more in the library. Frequently one third would be out of order.
Golf: First night out we had dinner with a rabid golfer. He told us all the golf tours had been cancelled and two weeks prior to sailing he had scrambled to arrange his own games. There was a group of 8 who seemed to play almost daily as I'd see them lugging their clubs past the bar. So, if you are taking this cruise to golf your way through Scotland and legendary courses you may want to double check with Princess as there were some mighty disappointed people on this cruise.
Religious Services: Friday evening services were held for those of Jewish faith. A Roman Catholic group was onboard and their priest held mass several times and all were invited. I do not know what provisions, if any, would have been made for mass otherwise and I do not recall seeing any notice about protestant services.
Excursions: Let me do the ports we did on our own first.
Edinburough - we hopped a cab (18 pounds per cab which seated 5) to the castle. Our delightful cabby dropped us near the ticket office. Tickets to the castle were about $20 each and they take Visa and MasterCard. We toured the castle, walked down the main drag to the palace. Several cruisers who were exiting the palace said it wasn't worth the admission price and si nce we were tired we grabbed a cab back to the ship. Lots of interesting places to eat and drink along the miracle mile (although it is a bit longer than a mile) and very, very easy to do on your own. The castle is well worth seeing and you could easily spend the entire day there.
Belfast - a free shuttle is available at the pier and drops you downtown at the tourist information center. There we bought tickets (with plastic) for the hop on/off bus. You can buy your tickets from the driver at any stop but then you must pay cash. We had a lively guide who talked extensively about the troubles and while the tour was interesting, let's just say, nobody was pulling the call cord to hop off until we were nearly done and arrived at the botanical garden of Queen's College. I was astounded by the Peace Wall and how divided, literally, the city still is.. The gardens are beautiful and it was a nice respite to wander about them. Back onboard to the beginning and a sampling of a few pubs, where we met one of our favorite bartenders from the ship having a Guiness on tap! Tickets for the bus were $18 I think.
Invergordon - Highland Castles and Loch Ness. This is a very long trip. Covers 1 castle with beautiful gardens, lunch (which took waaay too long) and tours of castle ruins on the banks of Loch Ness. Lots of walking, steep incline at the ruins, Very tight squeezes on the road to the ruins which was an excursion in of itself.
Glasgow - The Scottish Experience, Landscapes, Lochs & Sheepdogs. Another very long trip.. Hour and a half or more trip to Loch Katrine where we boarded a steam powered boat to cruise the loch - very pretty. The boat was 45 minutes late so we stood on the dock waiting without a working vending machine or bathroom to be had. Cruise was about 45 minutes and we were back on the bus off to lunch. Didn't take quite as long as the day before but still too long by my standards. I think the cruise lines would be better off sending nice box lunches rather than doing formal sit down affairs that drag on forever. anyway . . . off to the Wool Center for a demonstration of sheep dogs. This was hugely disappointing. We have always had Shetland Sheepdogs and while this was nice it was not what I expected. Most of it was in an auditorium and the only herding that we saw was a very brief demo outside where the border collie herded six Chinese ducks into a pen. Local law will not allow them to transport sheep for the exhibit like in the past, because of the epidemic of hoof and mouth disease several years ago. There was nice shopping I suppose, but I'm not a shopper so we wandered about eating ice cream.
Holyhead - Caernarfon Castle. This was my husband's favorite castle. This is a warrior's castle. No girly tapestries on the wall, no sissyfied petit point chairs, just dungeons and tunnels and turrets and well - you get the point.. Nice tour, but once again, you spend a lot of time getting there.
Dublin - Malahide Castle and Irish Pub. Malahide was a very nice castle, although one fully furnished and made liveable. Then we were on to a pub for an Irish Coffee. You could actually order something else if you wanted. This was a neat place and there were fabulous flowers all over the little village. We had a good time but again. . . . long way there and back. Do you see a pattern emerging here?
So, that's it. We had a jolly good time and would do it again.
Oh - if you have an outside cabin be prepared for sunsets at 10:00 p.m. and sunrises at 5:00 a.m.