My husband (30) and I (28) have taken several cruises, including both Royal Caribbean ships out of Galveston – Splendour of the Seas in March 2004 and Rhapsody in November 2003. We sailed the Celebrity Millennium out of Ft. Lauderdale in March 2001 and I sailed Cunard's Princess out of New York as a girl. We enjoy middle-America type restaurants like Outback, Red Lobster, TGI Friday's, etc., on a regular basis; and nicer restaurants like Fogo De Chao, Texas De Brazil, and Ruth's Chris Steakhouse on special occasions. We generally stay at Hilton Garden Inns and enjoy this nicer style of hotel.
We live just north of Houston, so we drove to the port of Galveston, arriving at the parking area just past noon. We parked at the new "EZ Parking" lot instead of the Dolphin lot as we usually do. This was a mistake. We may have saved $20 for the week, but service was lacking. This lot uses small buses holding only about 16 people, where the Dolphin lot uses larger buses. When hundreds of people and their luggage are trying to get a ride at the same time, bus size really matters in waiting time to and from the ship.
Embarkation was a headache. After waiting 90 minutes to catch a bus to the terminal, then we waited in line another 45 minutes. We were told the ship did not clear customs when scheduled because of a delay by the customs officials. This in no way upset our cruise experience and was probably just part of the adjustment process, since this was Princess' first cruise out of Galveston. I would expect this problem to be fixed for future cruises. It did not happen again when we arrived back in port and debarked. Our debarkation couldn't have been smoother. As "locals," we usually are relegated to the last group off the ship, but we were in the middle this time. We've never gotten off a cruise ship so quickly.
My husband and I had an inside stateroom (C404) on the Caribe deck. My twin sister and her husband traveled with us, and had a stateroom two doors down (C330). These were much larger than our previous Royal Caribbean inside staterooms. We had beds in the Queen configuration (which actually between Queen and King sizes), and there was plenty of walking room on both sides of the bed.
A wall separated the bedroom/desk area from the bathroom/closet area. This was nice; we could have a small night light on in the bathroom, and it didn't light up the sleeping area. There was plenty of storage space for two adults who over-packed, not knowing if it would be warm or cold. The beds were plenty high for our suitcases to fit underneath. There was a floor-to-ceiling storage area with shelves adjacent to the closet for folded items. We like to hang most of our items, so we brought extra hangers and were glad we did.
The room was decorated in nice shades of yellow, blue, and pink. The shower was in a corner, so it was triangular and offered adequate space. Each of the rooms has a small refrigerator that is nice for keeping bottled water chilled. We bring our own to save money and prevent dehydration. The room also offered a full-length mirror on the back of the bathroom door and large wall mirrors over the desk area and the bed. These made the room feel even larger. The lighting isn't very good for make-up application, so you may want to bring a lighted mirror of your own.
Service with a Smile
Our room steward and the rest of the staff did their jobs well, with a smile and a friendly word each time we saw them. Even those off duty were friendly and helpful. The maitre d' surprised us with his level of professionalism. My husband and I had Early Fixed Dining, and my sister and her husband were waitlisted. We talked to the maitre d' about seating us together at a table of four. We tried to give him a $20 tip for his help, but he refused it and asked us to save it for something else. He arranged for us to have the same table in the Da Vinci dining room (Personal Choice) each night at 6 p.m. Even though we were in the Personal Choice dining room, we got to eat at the same time (chosen by us) each night with the same wait staff. This made it feel like Traditional Dining.
Food and Restaurants
Finding the Traditional Botticelli Dining room was a bit confusing, but the directional signs by the stairs help. Directions to the other two dining rooms were straightforward. The food in the dining room was good to excellent. I only returned one item (a cold pumpkin soup) in exchange for another. We expected a different steak to be offered each night, but a sirloin on the fixed alternate menu was the only kind available.
Most beef dishes were not steaks. This was a slight disappointment. The steaks they did offer were tender, though. They had a nice fish offering at each lunch and dinner in the dining room. I should also mention about half of all tables in the Personal Choice dining rooms are tables for two. My husband and I sat at both round and square tables for two at breakfast and felt they offered plenty of room even when we ordered extra items. When dining for breakfast or lunch without our travel partners, my husband and I never had to wait for a table for two.
The buffet food is a different story. We found the food here to be bland and unappetizing in appearance. In the evenings, the buffet offered several of the dining room menu items, but they weren't prepared as well. The seating for this area was outstanding, though. There were small groupings of tables. The areas never felt crowded or noisy due to the layout, and they provided an intimate atmosphere for dining even with the ship fully booked.
We did not visit the alternate dining rooms, but the menus looked appealing. The Sterling Steakhouse was small and had a cozy atmosphere. If you want a quality steak I would suggest dining here. The charge was $15 per adult. Sabitini's Italian restaurant had a very elegant ambiance and was $20 per adult. The people we talked to who visited either place had only compliments.
The food offered at the pools was amazing. It wasn't the usual frozen pizza warmed in an oven -- the staff tossed the pizza crusts right in front of you, added sauce and toppings and then placed it in the oven. This gave a delicious final product. They usually offered three different varieties, one always being pepperoni. My husband said the poolside and dining room burgers are among the best he's ever eaten. At lunchtime, the dining room offered the burgers with bacon and all the trimmings. The pool didn't offer bacon, but they were just as good. They also had chicken burgers, really good hotdogs, fries, and other poolside type food of high quality.
The alcoholic beverages were not watered down. The prices were comparable to land-based prices, but the alcohol ratio was much stronger. You could order small, medium, large, or double.
An ice cream parlor between two of the pool areas serves specialty sundaes and Italian Gelato. The prices were $1.50 for two scoops of ice cream, 25 cents for one topping or a dollar for unlimited toppings, with about a dozen toppings to choose from. They also offered specialty sundaes for $3.75 each. Of course, the buffet offers free ice cream each afternoon from 3:30-4:30. There was always a choice between vanilla and chocolate (or both), with sliced almonds, caramel, chocolate sauce, and sprinkles to add more interest. We took advantage of this almost every day.
The purser's desk was most helpful. During peak times, a second purser's desk was opened to alleviate the lines. The staff here handled some ridiculous questions and complaints with grace and ease. The shops onboard had the normal selection of cruise-related items: port and cruise line shirts, hats, etc. at slightly inflated prices. The price on alcohol was pretty standard -- a little better than U.S. prices, but not as cheap as in the ports of call. The jewelry was beautiful, but overpriced. (You could find anything they offer on eBay for a fraction of the cost.)
There are four pools, two of them adult-only. There were two hot tubs in each of the pool areas, and the spa pool also offered saunas and steam rooms. Even on sea days the pool areas were not crowded. In fact, the pool in the spa area was usually empty or had fewer than half a dozen people. (Of course, there were less than two dozen children on board, so that may have made a difference.)
There were always plenty of lounge chairs available, and we noticed staff removing towels from unoccupied ones. We visited the tennis court overlooking the front of the ship and had a marvelous time. This court is not for professionals, but is perfect for causal play. There are four ping-pong tables above the adult pool at the stern, with plenty of rackets and balls available.
The nine-hole Putt-Putt is a bit difficult to find if you don't follow a ship's map. There are no signs pointing it out, but it is worth finding. The course looks brand new. The difficulty level is high for people who don't putt-putt often, and it's a challenge when the ship gets moving. We also visited the game room several times. I think many new games were added here as well. There are two air hockey tables for $1 per play as well as other arcade games. Most games cost 75 cents to a dollar per turn.
I can't say enough about the "Movies under the Stars." Our entire group loved this feature above all others. The movies shown were new DVD releases, and they change every month or so. Around 5:30 p.m. everyone was asked to begin vacating the area right around the main pool to prepare for the evening's feature presentation. The pool loungers were covered with a thick canvas to prevent the water from coming through onto your clothing. A wool blanket was also provided to keep warm, but the weather was so nice, we didn't need it.
It was wonderful to sit outside with the wind gently blowing, listening to the ocean in the background, and watching a movie on the big screen. The picture was much sharper than I would have imagined for the angle and size of the screen. There were a few times when the image was a little dark, but you could still see it. We would cruise the Grand Princess again just for this feature! They even show Monday Night Football each week on the screen during football season. They offer free popcorn and candy. (The candy costs $2 a box, though.)
We didn't attend many of the shows because they were directed toward the AARP crowd. We did, however, go to the comedian/juggler performance. The performer was extremely talented and funny. He was in the Vista Lounge at the stern, and the ceiling was too low to permit his grandest juggling tricks. Hopefully they will move him to the Princess Theatre where the ceiling is higher. This area also provides more seating with no blocked views -- a fabulous area for performances.
This was a wonderful cruise all four of us enjoyed thoroughly. We would recommend it to anyone, especially those wanting to cruise out of the Galveston/Houston area. Even if it costs more, it is far better than any of the other ships sailing from this port! You will get your money's worth and more.