Introduction This was my 7th cruise, and our 6th cruise together. We decided to go on this cruise only six weeks ahead of time, and we still managed to get a good deal on a mini-suite. This was our first time sailing with Princess, but our third cruise in the last year, so I will be comparing some aspects of this cruise with our most recent cruise, the Carnival Destiny that we took in January of this year and also to our cruise on Royal Caribbean's Enchantment of the Seas, which we took last July. I will say upfront that we had a wonderful cruise on the Grand Princess.
Pre Cruise We arrived into the Grand's home city of Fort Lauderdale on Saturday evening, and stayed at the Hampton Inn and Suites. The hotel was close to both the airport and the cruise port. We got the information on this hotel from rec.travel.cruises and true to what was advertised, they had free airport pickup and cruise terminal drop off. They also had a van that would take you to various restaurants in the area, and we used this service to get dinner shortly after we arrived. One word of advice, you need to book the port transportation as soon as you arrive at the hotel. We checked in at around 6:30 PM on Saturday night, and the only shuttle time they had available the next morning was for 11:00 AM (which we wanted anyway). One thing that really impressed us is that when the hotel manager saw how many people and bags he had for the 11:00 shuttle, he used his own car to transport some people and bags so that his shuttle driver would only have to make one trip. We were in the hotel's van, and very smartly the van driver added an additional row of seats where the luggage usually goes, then went around back and hitched on a trailer for everybody's luggage! We arrived at the pier at 11:40 AM.
Embarkation We arrived at the port at the same time the first wave of busses from the airport arrived. We checked our luggage with the porters outside and had a five minute wait to get through security. This would be the longest line of the entire cruise. I had filled out all of our documents on line on the Princess web site, but we did not have the Bahamas immigration cards, so we filled those out while waiting to get through security. Immediately after security, we saw the check in area, which was arranged by deck and cabin number. We were in line for about two minutes before being checked in. Here is where the only annoying part of the entire cruise came into play. Even though we had filled out the documents on line, we again needed to fill them out at check in. The agent said that they needed the information in front of them, not just on Princess' computer. After being checked in and given our cruise cards, we were off to get our embarkation pictures taken and proceed to the gangway of the ship. Just before getting on the ship, security again took our picture for our cruise card so we could be identified when we got on and off the ship. We were in our cabin by 12:00 noon.
Our Cabin We had cabin D-214, a mini suite with a balcony on the Dolphin deck near the bow of the ship. Our cabin steward already had the beds converted from two twins into one queen for us. The balcony was used by both of us quite a bit, and we could sit out and read while listening to our walkmans and watch the scenery pass by. This is the third time we have had a balcony and find it hard to go back to a cabin without one.
The Ship The Grand Princess is a little over two years old. She is in excellent shape, and we saw very little wear and tear. The ship has sixteen decks and the rear Skywalker's disco. The main restaurants were on decks five and six; the three showrooms were on deck seven along with the two alternate restaurants Sabatini's and the Painted Desert. The casino along with some shops is on deck six and there are also some shops on deck seven. This ship actually has two pursers' desks. The main one which was open 24 hours a day was on deck six and there was also one on deck five which was open at various times during the day. (The Princess Patter always had the hours shown). There was one pool at the very end of deck twelve (this was the adults only pool), two other pools on deck fourteen and the wave pool was on deck fifteen by the gym and spa. Also on deck fourteen were the grill for hamburgers etc. the pizzeria and the ice creamery (which you do have to pay for). Towards the aft of deck fourteen was the 24-hour restaurant, The Horizon Court. There were many various bars spread around the ship. The elevators were a little slow at times, but they all worked. However, we very rarely used the elevators and walked up and down the stairs 99% of the time-no weight gain on this cruise for us!
Service The service that we experienced on this cruise was the best we have had on any cruise! Our Steward, Jesus from the Philippines was wonderful. He kept the room very clean, the ice bucket full, and we very rarely saw him. Since we had a mini suite, we also had a butler, Daniel from Romania. He brought us canapes and a copy of the dinner menu every night. We asked him to change out our original bar setup to Diet Coke which he did, but we did not have any other special requests of him. He would have made any restaurant and spa reservations that we needed, but we enjoy doing that ourselves. He was very personable and kept trying to do things for us.
We used and very much enjoyed the Personal Choice dining. We ate in the main dining room five out of the seven nights, and each night at a different time. On two of the nights we asked for a table for two and were put at their smallest table, which is a table for four, but only the two of us were seated there. The other three nights there would have been a wait for a table for two, so we joined large tables those nights and had a good time. The waiters were always friendly and gave us wonderful service. One night there was nothing on the menu that my wife liked and the waiter Alphonso from the Philippines said with a twinkle in his eye, "I have another menu for you." He brought over the kids menu, and my wife found many things on there that she liked. Alphonso made sure that she had adult sized portions, and kept checking on her the entire dinner. A couple of nights later we were at a different table and Alphonso came by and checked up on us to see how we were doing. Also memorable was our waiter at the first dinner, Roberto from Italy. He made sure that everything was perfect and even asked if we wanted seconds (which we didn't do the entire cruise actually, except for one lunch where my wife had three desserts, but that's another story). We did not eat at Sabatini's, but did go to the Painted Desert twice. The service there was also great, and Miguel from Mexico who took care of us the second time in was exceptional. Again he made sure that everything was perfect, and if we didn't finish our plates wanted to make sure that nothing was wrong with the food. On the last morning when we went to the dining room for breakfast we were not rushed like the usual last day "thanks but it's now time to go routine." In fact I asked the waiter that was bringing around the pastries if he had any donuts, and he checked and couldn't find any and apologized. Five minutes later he was back with a plate of donuts! The service on this cruise was miles ahead of Carnival, and even a bit better that the great service that we had on Royal Caribbean's Enchantment of the Seas.
Food The food was good on this cruise. At dinner I enjoyed the steaks and prime rib, which were done perfectly. My wife enjoyed the fish entrees, but wished for more lamb and chicken offerings. We both also enjoyed the pasta. The food at the Painted Desert was great! One night I had the tequila chicken and the other night the filet mignon, while my wife had the chicken fajitas one night and the catfish the next. We also enjoyed their appetizers, salads and soups. At breakfast and lunch most days we ate at the Horizon Court, which was very good. My one complaint was that there was only iced tea and water as the "free" drinks at lunch, where both Carnival and Royal Caribbean offer lemonade. We also went to the Horizon Court late at night and tried both the buffet and ordering off the late night menu. Overall, we thought the food was good, the portions large, but the choices limited. The food was comparable to Royal Caribbean, but I have to admit that since Carnival improved their food, we thought that the food on Carnival was better than the food on Princess, the Painted Desert being the exception.
Spa The spa is not normally something I would mention, but we saw great improvement in the spa services on this cruise. Maybe Steiner is catching on, or being dropped by NCL made them wake up, but I went three times (massage, seaweed massage and reflexology), and my wife went twice (two massages) and the Steiner people were polite, good at their services, and we did not get a hard sell on their products.
Ports of Call The ports were part of the attraction on this cruise. We went to St. Thomas, St. Maarten and Princess Cays with three days at sea. This cruise had a first for us; we did not do any ship sponsored shore excursions. St. Thomas is always fun, we wandered around on our own for most of the day. In St. Maarten we took a tour (two and a half hours-$18 per person) offered by one of the taxi drivers, that took us all around the island, including the French side; we walked around Marigot for about half an hour. After the tour we went back to the ship for lunch, then went out and wandered around Phillipsburg for a couple of hours. We docked at the new pier in St. Maarten and took the water taxi to the shopping area. The water taxi charges $5 per person for an all day pass. Princess Cays was very nice. We brought our snorkel equipment with us on the ship, but the waters around the island (and in fact all of our ports) were too choppy, so unfortunately no snorkeling for us this cruise. We had a nice lunch on the island and saw most of the rest of the passengers on the beach, so we went back to the empty pools on board the ship.
Entertainment The entertainment was very good. We greatly enjoyed one of the production shows, "Lights, Camera, Action!" and also saw a couple of comedians, Billy Vader and Jim McDonald. We also enjoyed the comedy juggler Thien Fu. Of course went to the "Newlywed/Not so Newlywed show; even though we know the questions and will never volunteer to go on stage ourselves, we still like to watch that show. We also played in the casino a little and actually broke even! The music we heard around the ship was very enjoyable as well.
Debarkation We thought that debarkation was handled extremely well, especially for a ship the size of the Grand Princess. We finished breakfast at 8:30 AM and our color was called at 8:45 AM. We collected our bags and got a taxi ($12) and were at the Ft. Lauderdale airport by 9:20 AM.
Conclusion We had a great time on this cruise, doing the things we like to do: relax, eat good food, have fun at each of the islands we visit, and meet nice people on board. In general, have a good time. Would we take Princess again? In a heartbeat! We loved being spoiled by their great service and are already looking at booking another Princess cruise.