This is a detailed review of the April 6, 2003 sailing of The Grand Princess. This was my first cruise with Princess and I have nothing but good things to say. I loved the ship! It was tasteful and beautiful. The decor was understated and elegant, lending itself to a soothing, relaxing environment, while at the same time being as upbeat and lively as our group was. I hope this review helps to inform those interested in this ship and itinerary and also helps anyone thinking about booking a cruise on this Grand ship.
I planned this trip for my husband, myself and four friends of ours (two other couples) who had never cruised before. Their delight was such a relief! Cruising with a group was a new experience for us and totally changed our usual cruise routine - but it was so much fun!
I'll try to break down my experiences.
Pre-Cruise: We flew out of JFK in New York City on Saturday April 5, 2003. Security was tight, as was to be expected. Our flight was on Delta and despite trying to organize six adults and our entire collection of over-packed luggage everything went very smoothly. We arrived in Fort Lauderdale on time and checked into the Amerisuites Hotel on 17th Street. It was only a short wait at the airport for the Amerisuites van, which we quickly filled with our luggage and boarded for the short ride to the hotel. We left cold brutal weather behind in New York City and welcomed the warmth of the sunshine in Florida. The Amerisuites has several restaurants close by as well as various places to shop for anything you might want to pick up at the last minute. We ate at the Tex-Mex restaurant across the parking lot and started our vacation off nicely with a walk up the causeway to see the ships in port. We swam in the pool that evening and enjoyed each other's company with some salsa music, dancing and liquor that we purchased nearby. It was an attractive suite and the price was extremely reasonable. I would stay in this hotel again. From our window in the hotel I could see some of the ships in port and I was able to see The Grand on Sunday morning. I'd worked hard on organizing this trip for my friends and I couldn't wait to introduce them to cruising. Looking out the window upon waking on Sunday and seeing our ship heightened my excitement. We were about to start our adventure. We gathered for breakfast in the hotel lobby area and were greeted by many others heading to Port Everglades to board their ships. Our breakfast was good; there was a waffle maker and fresh batter, among the usual continental breakfast staples. We finished eating, gathered our luggage and lined it up outside to wait for the hotel shuttle to the pier. There were many people and their piles of luggage, all clamoring to grab the two Amerisuites shuttles as they hustled people to and from Port Everglades. The wait wasn't long, as our group was able to fill one of the small buses and we were off to the port.
Embarkation: Princess was seamless in this operation. They really have this exercise down to an exact science. Amazingly, the lines were short and check-in was a breeze. We were posing for our embarkation photo in less than thirty minutes. I can't express enough how utterly smooth and painless this process was. It was just an indication of things to come.
The Ship: I'd read that the Grand is showing wear and tear. If it is I didn't notice it anywhere, believe me, I looked! Everything was immaculate and I didn't see anything on this vessel that needed repair or attention. Getting used to the layout of the decks took me a day. It's just not that hard to figure out. Public areas seemed to flow easily and there was never any congestion or long waits for elevators. The ship of course is huge, but it always felt intimate and comfortable. There were never crowds or long waits in the Horizon Court Buffet areas. Everything was nicely laid out and staff members were courteous and helpful. The bars and lounges were attractive and intimate. Service was courteous, prompt and attentive no matter where we were. The subdued color scheme was elegant; the artwork was interesting and often quite beautiful. I'd say it was a soothing, relaxing environment.
Cabins: We had mini-suites E729, E727, and E725. Our cabin steward opened the dividers to our balconies so that we had easy access to each other's cabins without having to use the hallway. These mini-suites are the last 3 cabins starboard side, aft. Our cabin, E729 had a balcony that was a little larger because it was the last cabin aft and it wrapped around, giving it enough space for 2 full lounge chairs, as well as the two upright chairs and round table. The balcony was covered and totally private. Afternoon sunshine always poured onto this space making it a favorite spot to relax pre-dinner. We like to book cabins that we enjoy spending some time in, and this cabin was wonderful. There is nothing like sitting on the balcony late at night before bed, listening to the sounds of the ocean and star gazing while we talk about our day. Several late nights we gathered on our balcony and enjoyed a few drinks, each other's company, laughing hard and being silly, totally immersed in the atmosphere and experience. We are big fans of room service breakfast and ordered it nightly to be enjoyed every morning on the balcony. You are not limited to what is printed on the breakfast form to be placed on your door each night! Write anything you like on it and they will bring it piping hot at the time specified. It was lovely! The cabin itself was beautiful. There was a full bathtub in the bathroom and plenty of shelf storage next to the mirror. A large opened closet made for more than enough room for our hanging clothing and shoes. There was a closet with double doors covered with a full-length mirror that was all shelved inside and contained the safe, which is operated with your own personal code. The sitting area had a sofa, table, comfortable chair and separate television. The sofa is a pullout and above in the ceiling is a pull down single bunk. Roomy, spacious and decorated in lovely peach and blue colors, I would book a mini-suite like this again in a heartbeat.
On the first day of the cruise our friends in cabin E725 noticed a musty smell in the area outside the bathroom and discovered that the carpet was wet. They reported it, and the entire carpet was replaced on our first port day while we were ashore on Princess Cays. I thought this was amazingly prompt and considered it terrific service. My friends didn't consider this a huge deal, nor did they voice a big complaint. They reported it just wondering if someone could come with a wet-dry vacuum to try to dry the carpet out some. None of us expected to see that brand new carpeting waiting outside the door the morning of our first port day. Kudos to Princess for the excellent response to what we thought was a minor inconvenience! This is just another example of the outstanding service we received throughout the entire cruise.
Cabin Steward: I believe this needs special mention because our cabin steward was the hardest working, most attentive and wonderful young man I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. Eldee, from the Philippines, was serving us on the last week of his ten-month contract. Not one detail was ever overlooked and he went above and beyond to make our vacation special. He certainly achieved that! There was always a smile on his face and every request was promptly attended to. I asked him one morning how it was that he could work so tirelessly every day for what seemed like endless continuous hours. He smiled and replied, "It's my life". I hope Eldee is enjoying some well deserved time off doing something he loves right now. Needless to say, we all tipped him generously on the last morning before we left the ship. We shook his hand and thanked him from the bottom of our hearts for being so wonderful. He smiled his signature smile. It was obvious that he is a dedicated young man and he deserves the best life has to offer.
Pool Areas: Fresh water pools that even by the end of the cruise remained clean and at cool refreshing temperatures were a delight. Light and dark blue mosaic tiles, live tropical plants and sea-themed sculptures made these areas comfortable and inviting. The "swim against the current pool" was adjustable, tailoring it to different swimming strengths and abilities. The hot tubs were usually all in use, but never crowded with children. There was always space to take a soak if desired. Yes, there was the usual deck chair saving, and with a group of six it was a challenge finding space together for all of us, but we did stake out our favorite spot and with a little patience and rearranging, always found a group of lounge chairs together. Drinks were always just a hand wave away, but never was there pressure or drink hawking. The band that played daily by the pool was always well received. The music definitely made for a Caribbean atmosphere. I happen to enjoy music of any type and even the piped in music around the pool when the band wasn't playing made me feel relaxed and happy. I was on vacation and soaking up everything I could, letting my senses enjoy every taste, smell and sound.
Food: There was something to suit every preference. The Horizon Court Buffet had a wide selection of varying and diverse dishes. Since we spent our sea days out by the pool we lunched in the buffet. The pizza was very good, fresh and hot. There were never long lines making it convenient to grab a quick snack on a whim. We dined at the Painted Desert alternative restaurant one night and everyone was pleased with both the food and the service. Coming from New York City we all felt that the cover charge was minimal ($9.00 per person) considering it included a Margarita that would have cost us that much alone in a similar land-based restaurant. We chose Personal Choice and opted to dine on the late side most evenings. We never waited for a table in either Personal Choice dining room. The service was impeccable. The food was good to excellent, choices varied each night with something interesting to tempt the palate. Presentation was appealing and portions large enough to satisfy the hearty appetite.
There was never a question ordering two different selections and we did this often, trying something new or a favorite for the table to share. We were never charged for sodas at any dinner venue, sometimes even served cans. One person would order alcoholic drinks and wine for the table and always ordered our standard sodas, showed their soda sticker and it would promptly arrive and be refilled without asking. Water glasses were kept filled with fresh ice and water. I've often heard people complain about the difficulty with soda cards and not once in any bar or food venue on this ship was there ever a question or a charge for someone ordering six sodas with one soda card (we did each have a sticker) and on more than several occasions we were served canned sodas with a glass of ice. Cash tips were handed out generously at dinner and at the various bars and lounges. The outstanding service made us feel catered to and pampered and was rewarded in turn. Sabatini's was a gastronomical experience not to be missed. Again, the additional charge per person ($15.00) was minimal, as we figured the same service, food, wine and drinks on land would cost our group close to a thousand dollars (no kidding!). We all rolled out of dinner stuffed to the gills savoring each morsel we ate. We ate in Sabatini's on our last night as we wanted to end our cruise with something special, and it was!
A Note About Personal Choice Dining: Since we were a group of six this option was perfect for us. It gave us the flexibility to organize ourselves each evening in an unhurried manor. Gathering for drinks on our balconies while we got dressed for dinner was so relaxing. Watching the captivating sunsets while talking and laughing about our day or posing for pictures was bottom line fun. We had the option of relaxing in one of the lounges for a drink, strolling the shops or browsing for our photos in the gallery. Sometimes we would just casually explore, making unscheduled pit stops for drinks on a whim and at our own pace make our way to the dining room. I would choose this dining option again, even when cruising alone with my husband. Sometimes early seating is just too early and late seating is just too late. Personal Choice suited me. This may not be the case with everyone, but I certainly enjoyed it. I didn't find a lack of service by not having the same wait staff each night. Every wait staff member we encountered gave us outstanding and attentive consideration.
Ports of Call: We really lucked out in the weather department as we were on the heels of a nasty storm system that had been preventing the ship from making scheduled ports of call for three weeks. A staff member told me that we were the first group to be able to visit Princess Cays, (among our other ports of call) in weeks. The weather was hot and balmy, perfect beach weather. We didn't book any excursions except for the Dolphin Swim in Cozumel. We all decided to play it by ear and enjoy doing things on our own as a group.
After breakfast we headed for the designated lounge to get our tickets to board the tender to take us ashore. The wait wasn't long at all as they called groups of over one hundred at a time. It was a quick ride to the island. Princess Cays is a laid back relaxing beach day. There are shops, food, drinks, lounge chairs and a very pretty beach to sun and swim on. We didn't have to walk very far into the shallow ocean waters to see dozens of colorful tropical fish swimming through our legs and around our feet. We walked through the fenced off area to shop at the booths set up by the locals. One of my friends picked up a bottle of Mango Rum there. No bags were being searched or any liquor purchases confiscated by the ship (at every port this was the case), so we enjoyed this delicious liquor on the rocks several times while getting dressed for dinner. The guys purchased some Cuban cigars to enjoy on the balcony and I picked up my usual finds, tee shirts and ashtrays, magnets, inexpensive necklaces and cute silver bracelets for the kids I left at home. It was a nice way to start our adventures on land.
Grand Cayman was our next port of call. This was another tender port. The ride seemed rocky, but it was fun. We had rented snorkel gear for the week from the ship. Lugging our beach bags, we left the ship and took a taxi to Seven Mile Beach. It was a van and we all were able to ride together. Another hot and sunny day made the sight of that turquoise ocean very inviting. The beach itself was very quiet and low key. Where we were dropped off seemed almost pristine. There was no shade, only a building housing bathrooms and an outdoor shower. An ice cream truck provided our only source of food. I didn't quite get the hang of snorkeling and I was happy to lounge on the beach while most of the group took to the water. They reported good snorkeling, seeing many varieties of tropical fish. A taxi van took us back to town where we did some shopping and snacked on conch fritters. We were all starving! We got in line to get back on the tender. After another fun, rocky ride back to the ship, we dropped off our bags and ran to the buffet.
Costa Maya had to be one of the most interesting enjoyable port days I can ever remember. From the reading I had done I wasn't sure what to expect, but it was amazing! One of the couples in our group of friends is from Central America and Spanish is their native language. Their ability to speak the language of Mexico made it possible to wander off the beaten path and have a real adventure in this beautiful town. After speaking to several local cab drivers we found one that took us into Majahual to an area that wasn't built up yet. A dirt road led us on foot past local vendors with booths filled with amazing bargains to be had. I would have never been able to shop here without my Spanish-speaking friends; I would have been eaten alive! The local merchants were more than happy to try to take advantage of us, however, this was not to be the case. As we wandered passed horses tied up to palm trees and gazed at the untouched beach behind them I really felt a sense of adventure fill me. Beautiful silver rings and bracelets, hand made Mexican blankets, Aztec calendars, Mexican vanilla, fire opal rings set in silver and gorgeous hand made lace were only some of the local treasures we were on the hunt for. Because our friend was able to bargain with the local people in their language, we got fabulous deals! We were having a great time. It was genuinely an adventure and I felt immersed in the local culture. The items I brought home with me are treasures, in part because of the memories they will always invoke. A new restaurant had just opened up along that strip of dirt road and we headed for it after finishing up our shopping. What a treat! A gorgeous rustic tall palm covered hut housed our outdoor eating venue as we gazed at the beach we were all soon to relax on. Wonderful authentic Mexican food was our lunch followed by the traditional after meal tequila shots. The smoothest tequila I've ever tasted. Wonderful! We bought our waitress a couple of shots that she downed with us. She was a young mother, hard working and so interesting to talk to. We headed for the chairs on the beach, dropped our bags and ran into the ocean. It was a beach that seemed so untouched by humans. The water was the color of turquoise stone with the tropical fish we'd become accustomed to. We relaxed here for a while, had another shot of tequila, the restaurant called for the taxi that delivered us, and we headed back to the pool, bar and shopping area where the ship had docked. We swam in the pool, had a yard tall margarita, danced, strolled the shops, danced some more.
The salsa music was blasting; another group from the ship joined us to dance and the bar servers brought us huge Mexican hats to play with. We all let our hair down and had the best party you can imagine. I think we were the last group to get back on the ship that day! I loved this port!
Cozumel: I'd booked the Dolphin Swim as soon as I was able to online through the Princess web site. Everyone was looking forward to this experience. I've always dreamt of doing this ever since I knew it existed. The memories of that day will always be in my heart. It really was the experience of a lifetime. We had our usual balcony breakfast, got ourselves ready to roll and got off the ship in time to meet the excursion leader who offered a refund to anyone who might be allergic to a small type of jellyfish. The weather had been stormy during the prior week that we were told brought in the black tide, jellyfish that looked like living, breathing Reese's Peanut Butter Cup wrappers! One couple found this frightening and backed out. Refunds were being given because of these unusual ocean conditions. This wasn't going to deter any of us! We were placed in taxis, two by two and were taken to Chankanaab Park, where the Dolphin Swim takes place. Chankanaab is a national park and a treasure. This recreation spot is carved out of jungle landscaping and kisses the beach. We arrived with time to spare, got ourselves lockers to keep our belongings in, gathered with our group and set off on our days adventure.
After being placed in damp life vests we were seated in a cool room to watch a training video. We were so anxious we all watched in anticipation of what was to come next. When it was over we were led to the water area where the dolphins were waiting. We walked down the stairs into the penned off ocean area, and it was filled with those little black jellyfish! We tried our best to pretend they weren't there. After my friend did his first trick with one of the dolphins, all thoughts of peanut butter cup wrapper jellyfish were gone! I was hooked. Just being able to touch, pet, stroke, kiss, be pulled and pushed up into the air by these amazing animals was worth every potential jellyfish itch! We had free time to swim with and pet them. When it was time to say goodbye and the two dolphins swam by for their last strokes as they waved, I was speechless and grinning ear to ear. The video and pictures are priceless. We turned in our life jackets, watched the amazingly edited video, which of course we all had to purchase, went to the photo shop to buy some more pictures, and we had our memories secured! People were being advised not to snorkel because of that black tide of jellyfish. We decided to stroll the park and see the sights. We found a nice place to have a light lunch and warm up in the sun on the beach right there. After finding a bar that made delicious drinks in whole pineapples we walked through the jungle paths looking at huge iguanas and other lizards, feral cats and gorgeous plant life. We wandered around through the Mayan Ruin replicas. In one of the huts a woman was making hand made tortillas. We strolled our way back to the taxi area and handed our return tickets to the driver. After being dropped off in town, we shopped some more. The shopping area closest to where the ship was docked is like a small outside mall with shops of all kinds. We gravitated to Carlos'N Charlie's where I was introduced to their famous shots. I had another yard tall drink, bought an adorable picture of my husband smooching me on the cheek under a huge Mexican hat, and we ran for the ship! Another great port day!
Entertainment: We're not ones for the shows, so I can't comment on the quality. I don't choose the ships I book for the entertainment, as we tend to like to make our own! I did enjoy several of the lounges and bars. We laughed at the comedian one night; he was very silly and funny. Skywalkers disco was lively and a lot of fun. The room itself floats in space above the back of the ship. The Wheelhouse Bar was an intimate lounge where we danced to the romantic music of the band. The Explorers Lounge was a fun place to have some drinks and listen to the brave Karaoke singers. The Atlantis Casino had slot machines galore and I even came out ahead! Don't forget to check out the ceiling in the casino, it changes from dusk to dawn periodically. The guys enjoyed playing Let It Ride and Blackjack. It was easy to find a place to go that suited our mood. Changing our minds wasn't a problem either as this ship offered something for every whim. I love finding one of the pool bars late at night to relax with a tropical drink, listen to the ocean and feel the wind.
Strolling the outer decks late at night can be romantic and always makes me feel adventurous. I love the feeling of being on a cruise!
Debarkation: We were able to remain in our rooms until our luggage tag color was called. Sitting on our balconies for the last time we were all sad our vacation was over. The process was again painless. We walked off the ship and quickly located the entire collection of our luggage in the terminal. After flagging down a porter we were directed to the customs line. We handed in our declaration form and off we went. We used our Princess transfers for the bus ride to the airport. With so many ships pouring out homebound vacationers the airport was a mess. Our flight wasn't until later in the afternoon. We were shuffled from line to line. Security seemed tighter in Fort Lauderdale than it had in New York City. Eventually we were checked in and issued our boarding passes. We found a table at a pizzeria and our long wait began. Once they began boarding for our flight things progressed and our flight home went smoothly except for a short delay on the ground. We didn't want our vacation to end, but despite our wishes we were soon on the ground in New York City complaining about the weather.
How Princess Handled Illness Onboard: I'll never know exactly what made me so sick, but the first evening shortly after sail-away I fell ill. Once I started vomiting it became an endless non-stop event. After hours of misery I was so weak I couldn't even get out of bed. My husband had called for towels three times. I had tried to keep down two different prescription anti-emetics I had brought with me to no avail. Bonine didn't stay down either. by 3:00 in the morning I told my husband he had two options. Shoot me, or call the ship's doctor! He'd been resting sporadically on the couch, getting up to check on me frequently. He was feeling very helpless because the only thing I could squeak out of me were orders not to shake the bed and to just leave me alone. He called for the ship's doctor explaining how sick I was. Within twenty minutes or so the doctor arrived at my cabin with a nurse. I was questioned in detail and did my best to answer everything I was asked. My vitals were checked and I was given two injections. One was to stop the stomach cramping; the other was to end the vomiting. I was given instructions on what to eat for the next few days as well as a prescription for Compazine (a very effective anti-emetic, anti-nausea drug). I was also told not to eat in the buffet areas for the next 48 hours. The nurse left a detailed report for me to fill out for the CDC in Atlanta and Princess. The history of where and what I ate for the three days prior to embarkation was one of the most detailed reports I'd ever seen. In addition to all of this, the next morning there was a knock at my door. A man in a white haz-mat suit complete with a gas mask was there to fog and disinfect the entire cabin and bathroom. On the last morning of the cruise he appeared again.
Princess did not charge me for the medical care I received. I felt this entire episode was handled with the utmost regard and concern for the protection of every passenger on board. I also felt that I was treated professionally and with respect. Princess certainly handled this situation properly. I had a bad night, but things happen and it didn't ruin my vacation. I was fine the next day, as if it never happened. We did have rough seas that first night. I seemed to notice the motion more in our particular cabin location. Was it seasickness? Something I ate? My nerves? I'll never know for sure. I do know that if it had to happen I'm glad I was in such good hands. It's also reassuring to know that the Princess staff and crewmembers do everything in their power to protect their passengers from potential outbreaks of illness.
Summary: I give The Grand high marks all the way around. I am not a picky stickler for detail and I don't go out of my way to look for things to complain about. I understand that many things can and do go wrong on vacation, and at anytime. Given this, I tend to roll with things and I can have a good time almost anywhere. If I had to try to look for something to complain about, it would be very hard to find something negative to say about this cruise. Yes, there was motion- ships move! We did follow some bad weather, but we were so lucky to have great weather the entire week. Princess gave me a wonderful vacation and wonderful memories. I would take another Princess cruise without hesitation.