This was our 10th cruise, and our 25th wedding anniversary (on the 24th). We are both 46. Previously we have sailed on four Carnival ships and five RCCI. In March of this year we sailed to the Eastern Caribbean on RCCI's "Explorer of the Seas" and had a FABULOUS time. This was our first Princess cruise. We'll be comparing a lot with the Explorer in this review.
For this cruise we traveled with my sister-in-law and her husband. Since the two ladies were stressed out about flying, we agreed to drive. We rented a van and drove to Ft. Lauderdale (1460 miles). We left on Friday at 3:30 pm and arrived at our hotel at 4:00pm Saturday. Driving (which I didn't do any of) was not as bad as expected and much better than agonizing over flying. The best decision at least for me!
We stayed at the Ft. Lauderdale Marina Marriott. We booked through Priceline at $40 for the night. We were given a beautiful room overlooking the marina with a palm tree next to our balcony, and a nice view of the yachts. Brother-in-law smokes and their smoking room had a view of the cruise ships. We ate dinner at the restaurant at an outside bar/cafe (there is a nice restaurant inside but we wanted to save our money for the casino). Unfortunately, I was too pooped to sight see so we hit the hay early.
We drove the 5 minutes to the port in the morning and parked at the pier. Rates were $10 a day. We arrived at the Grand check in at about 11:00am. Inside the terminal my bandage scissors (I am a nurse) were confiscated. I don't know why since they left my metal nail file which I could do a lot more damage with than with blunt ended scissors, but I did not argue.
We waited in what turned into a very long line until almost noon. Customs officials were late arriving, which caused most of the delay. Once the line began moving, it went very fast and efficiently. We had completed all our paperwork on line, so we only had to sign our cruise cards and go on our way. Be sure to have your Bahamas card completed!
Once on board, we ran straight to our rooms to check them out. We had rooms 8721 and 8723 on Emerald deck. The mini suite balconies (Cat AD) on the Emerald deck are completely private (one of my concerns). The room is plenty big enough (34.5 x 10) with a fridge, two TV's, and a sitting area with a sofa. Nice big bathtub too. The balcony is 7 x 10. As someone else had stated, the towels are thin and not too soft, but that is a minor thing. We did make use of the robes that you can request to use. This is a nice touch we have not had on Carnival and Royal Caribbean. Our room steward Gil was great. I asked for a lounge on the balcony, and was very happy to see it arrive the next morning. By the way, our room was VERY quiet. I am normally a light sleeper and I never heard a peep in the hall or from the showroom below.
Impressions We really liked the personal choice dining. We had a bad experience the first evening with a terrible waiter and switched from traditional to personal choice after that. The switch was as easy as telling the Maitre'D in the personal choice dining room the next evening, that we wanted to change - DONE.
If anyone is unfortunate enough to have Eugene in the Botticelli Dining Room, run to get your seating changed. We are not fussy about waiters. We have had great ones, good ones, and ho-hum ones, but this guy was terrible. He never did introduce himself or the assistant waiter, never smiled, and sighed when a change in appetizer was politely requested by sister-in-law. He banged things down on the table, and generally looked like someone who hates his job. Very poor impression on Princess to start the cruise. In contrast, when we switched to personal choice, we were lucky enough to be seated at table #78 in the Michelangelo dining room. This is a great table with a window and a terrific waiter (Manuel from Portugal) and assistant waiter (Paulo). Although we were not successful in reserving the table ahead of time, we did manage to get Manuel and Paulo every night. We dined between 5:30 PM and 7 PM and never had to wait a minute for a table. Manuel and Paulo worked extremely well together and were very enjoyable. Since we wanted our tips to go directly to Manuel and Paulo, we cancelled the automatic tipping and gave them tips personally, along with our thanks for a pleasant dining experience.
Note, there were no dining room waiter entertainment activities - no singing, Macarena, etc, and we did not miss it. Someone on their first cruise would likely enjoy that kind of thing, but it does get stale after a few cruises (and who can do just one cruise)! There was no midnight buffet. Again not missed by us now, but I do think it is too bad for first timers to miss this experience.
There were formal nights on Tuesday (at sea day) and on Friday (Cozumel). The rest were "smart casual" with no semi-formal night.
We did not try Sabitinis nor the Painted Desert. We also did not buy ice cream. We don't like to patronize these places. We think it encourages charges for more services in the future, and is not a good trend for cruising.
We found the layout of the ship frustrating and confusing, especially if you're used to climbing stairs on the ship. The stairs in midship only go up to the 7th floor. You are forced to either use the elevator or walk forward or aft to walk up to the next floors. Some of the elevators don't go to the upper levels, but you don't know that until you have hopped in. We were on the Empress deck 8, in the aft part of the ship. To get to the casino on deck 6 for example, you could not simply walk down 2 flights of stairs and walk to midship where the casino was, but you had to walk down 1 flight of stairs, walk to midship and walk down the next flight or walk to midship and take the elevator down. There are no stairs midship above level 7. The ship seems to be designed to use the elevator all or most of the time. What were the designers thinking?
The ship is pretty. However, I missed the large atriums we enjoyed on almost all other ships. This one is small, only 3 floors high. There are some nice lounge areas. The sports bar, Snookers was not always open??!! And sister-in-law found the limited internet hours maddening. The ship rarely felt crowded - lots of nice little intimate areas. Buy and bring your own drink to them though because there just aren't as many waiters ready to serve you as there are on RCCI and Carnival.
Some Positives Hot tubs and pools open all night which was very nice! Also pads on the lounges. Few children and teens whooping it up - older average crowd than we are used to. More buffet choices at breakfast and lunch (Horizon Court ). No cold eggs all week! Good coffee. Fruit basket in cabin. Lifeboat drill inside instead of in the hot sun. Production shows were wonderful - very very good. Disembark was easy after we waited an hour for the inconsiderate folks who didn't go to immigration when told to. (This was the first time we had to go to immigration since we are US).
Some Negatives Most of the hot tubs are very small. Enough room for only 4 adults or 6 very close friends. Many are in the full sun with no overhead protection. No bar service in the Princess Theater. The meats at dinner are cooked an extra grade. If you normally like your prime rib medium, it will be cooked throughout. No pink middle. You have to order medium rare to get a pink middle. I learned after a couple nights. Drinks do not measure up to either Carnival or RCCI, although the "Berried Treasure" was very good. I missed my Love Connection (RCCI) terribly. Prices were not consistent for drinks at each bar. No free lemonade or punch at lunch. The Skywalkers Nightclub on the back of the ship is really nice. It's Princess' version of the Royal Crown Lounge on RCCI ships. It affords great views and is always open to go and sit, but something we missed there is that there is no bar service until it opens up for business at night. RCCI gets the nod for this because there was always someone to take your drink order almost anytime.
Deserts were not as good on this ship as on past cruises, but are certainly not bad. Dining rooms are all small with very low ceilings. Not large, wide open multiple level dining rooms as are in many of the newest ships.Comments Food was very good overall. Except for the buffets though, I did not think it was that much different from Carnival and RCCI. Presentation was better though. Barbecue on Princess Cays, not so good.
Always found something to make us happy though - no bad meals - miss it terribly.
Entertainment Comedian / magician James Michael acts like he missed a few days of Ritalin. We liked his act a lot - we needed a good laugh after recent events.
Singer impressionist Tony Cherry very good, but didn't sing anything modern. London Pub Night- fun- don't miss
Island Night Deck Night- good fun and a great location on the rear pool of ship; enjoyed throwing the streamers.
Liked the band, S'il Vous Plait in the Explorer lounge. They are an extremely versatile band. The female vocalist was excellent and could sing anything. Probably the best band we've ever listened to on the ocean.
Newlywed / Not so newlywed game is always good for laughs - we always go. Having so many choices every night was a big plus. Most shows were repeated twice and the Princess Patter tells you when they are on the first night for the whole week, so you can plan ahead. The first of 3 shows that we saw was in the Vista Lounge. The name of it was "Gotta Sing Gotta Dance". We didn't care for this show all that much, not because the singers and dancers weren't very good, but because they didn't sing anything that we've ever heard before and the set wasn't as elaborate as in other shows that we've seen on other ships. We later found that this was the exception. The other shows, "Lights Camera Action" and "Rhythms of the City" were in the larger Princess theater and were absolutely top notch productions. The sets were very elaborate and we enjoyed them very much.
Princess Cays We enjoyed just lounging around. As others have said, if you like it quieter, go to the right after leaving the tender. We did not feel at all crowded. Eat on ship! Typical native crafts and hair braiding. Tender required. Princess uses lifeboats for tenders and have poor ventilation - yuck. Doesn't last long luckily. Thanks to all who suggested water shoes - don't go without!
Grand Cayman Our favorite! Love 7 mile beach. Tender again. We took a cab to beach for $3 a person. We were dropped of at a hotel and paid $2 a person for beach access (the only way to get on the beach is to pay). Beach has white soft sand and no coral or seaweed. If you walk a bit you will find a quiet area without all your fellow cruisers (if desired). We felt like we had the beach to ourselves. Sister-in-law and her hobby preferred to stick close to our drop-off area since it had a bar!
Shopped in the afternoon, but didn't buy anything - this is a rather expensive island.
Costa Maya No tender - was a bit rough so they had to re-maneuver the ship to a slightly better position at the pier. Shops are right off the ship. They put on a nice welcome performance with traditional Mayan costumes, but only for the first couple hours. It's small but nice. Go early, and bring camera.
Small beach (free) is a short walking distance from the pier. It was cloudy and rough but we enjoyed it. Locals expect a tip for setting up lounge chair.
Cozumel We went on the jeep tour and had quite an adventure. It poured rain and we were drenched by the time we got to the end of the pier. Bring a cheap rain cover! Then we had to slog through water over our ankle to the jeeps. We were lucky- ours had windows- not all do. You will go an hour on a VERY bumpy road. Two jeeps got stuck. Water was very deep in the puddles. We had entertainment from sister in law who squealed and hollered the whole way (afraid we would get stuck).
Do not go if you have a real back or neck problem. The excursion warns you of this and we agree. You'll need a chiropractor after this trip.
The ruins are a joke- a little bigger than an outhouse (really). "Authentic Mexican meal" was fruit, soda, fajitas with beef or chicken, and nachos. Brother-in-law enjoyed, but we did not. Flies all over. The people cooling had to keep fanning them away. Something about September when turtles are hatching makes them worse. Beach is beautiful, except we weren't allowed in water because it was too rough. There are no facilities after a quick stop 10 minutes into the trip! I'll let your imagination consider this one, since you spend an hr riding, 30min at ruins, 1hr at beach, 1hr to ride out again.
We laughed more on this tour than we did any other time, but I am afraid it really is a bit of a rip-off.
Lots of shops in town at Cozumel right off the pier. More than we remembered from a few years ago. Silver, T-shirts, blankets, crafts.
Laundry has irons which I discovered too late. Sister-in-law and hobby got us the anniversary package with shrimp cocktail, chocolate covered strawberries, and champagne - very nice - yummy. Nice surprise. Bring large zip-lock baggies. They really came in handy when it rained to protect the camera, and store wet clothes.
Cruise Director was John Cleford is very good (reminded us of Mr. Bean). Other staff was also very good. The assistant cruise director "Peter", is going to make an excellent cruise director. We think he's ready now. He is very funny and seems to be very comfortable on stage. Always someone at the door at beginning and end of shows. They were a very visible staff unlike some other cruises we've been on.
Save your money and don't get a manicure. Lousy job, $15 for less than 10min. Wanted me to spring for a $40 arm massage with it (I can massage my own arm, thanks)
Overall, we had a great time (we always do). We will be returning to Royal Caribbean though. The crowd is a bit younger and so seems more lively. The promenade on Explorer just can't be beat. We loved to sit along it and watch people go by. The Explorer is much easier to get around than the Grand. And I can have my Love Connection in the theater!