January 27, 2007
I'm Al (age 65, cruise #23, third on Princess, second on the Grand), she's Josie (age 61, cruise #2, first on Princess). This was our first voyage together... and having survived a week in cramped quarters, and sharing a bathroom, we've decided to proceed with our wedding plans.
The Cruise Director, Neil Roberts, was competent, if not exceptional. The same can be said of his staff. As for the rest of the crew, those we encountered were friendly and eager to please.
Just a word about "your personal shopper," Jennifer: this is one slick chick. She says all the right things in all the right ways, so as to induce a "feeding frenzy" amongst the uninformed, gullible passengers. Those silly "Savvy Shopper" books ("Hurry, we only have 200!") sold in a matter of minutes (and at $25 a pop). She even predicted a finite ending to the world's supply of tanzanite ("The price keeps going up, so buy now. By 2010, the mine will be dry.") Sure... and those hundreds of stores with thousands of pieces will shut down! This has to be the biggest hype and cleverest marketing ploy in the history of both cruising and jewelry... ever wonder why 99.9% of the stuff is sold at cruise ports? I couldn't keep up with the number of times she mentioned, "tax-free and duty-free," or quoted some outrageous savings over US retail. The Western Caribbean is simply not a particularly favorable shopping location... certainly not in the league with St. Maarten or St. Thomas. But this gal presented her spiel in such a manner as to entice the unknowing into believing that the merchants are standing at their doors, eager to all but pay them to take the stuff off their hands. She's very good at what she does, so a word to the wise...
Then there's the art auctioneer, Daniel. Unlike the situation on other cruise lines, he actually works for Princess, and the program is run entirely in-house. He's young, well-traveled, intelligent, personable, and seemingly an inexhaustible source of knowledge. Yet it seemed a bit odd that he referred to a prominent Israeli artist as Levi Dorit (always called her Levi, as if she were his next-door neighbor) when in fact her name is Dorit Levi... just something to ponder. It also seemed somewhat strange that every piece purchased was sold at the opening bid... not one bump on any work! Hmmmmm... . Josie was lucky enough to win a "free" piece of art (with a $20 charge to ship it), but her invoice was somehow juxtaposed with another... and a charge of over $1400 appeared on our statement (just another reason why I always check it a day or so before the end of the cruise). It was eventually resolved, but we had to be a bit more proactive than necessary before the matter was rectified.
FOOD: For the most part, meals were very tasty and nicely presented, although a couple of appetizers missed the mark. Those smaller cocktail shrimp were soggy, and had a profound iodine taste (they just don't freeze well). A crab quiche was gritty, and lacked texture. But salads (a nice variety, by the way) were always crisp, soups were very flavorful (the cold ones were wonderful), main dishes quite satisfying (the tournedos of beef tenderloin were fabulous, and the lobster tails... all four of them... were prepared perfectly). Desserts were their usual decadent selves. By the way, there's a huge difference between the real coffee served at dinner and that reconstituted syrup in the dispensers... . the latter might be able to take the paint off your car! We didn't avail ourselves of the specialty restaurants... and apparently neither did many others. Each time we passed them (including prime dinner hours) they were sparsely occupied. Buffet offerings were the usual fare... nothing special, but very satisfying.
ENTERTAINMENT: I've never been a fan of cruise shows... and this voyage confirmed that. Josie hadn't seen many, and we did attend a couple. Save for some techno-gimmicks and costume changes, the song-and-dance numbers weren't much above high school performances. While the house orchestra was better than most, and one of the lobby pianists displayed an incredible passion for his music, the other duos, trios and club bands just weren't very good. The comedians were ordinary at best... I guess that since there's no more midnight buffet, their material is limited.
SAILAWAY/DAY ONE (at sea): As the ship departed Galveston, I found myself in some sort of time warp. I hadn't sailed Princess in over two years (Caribbean Princess, 11/04) but something other than the Electric Slide and Macarena had to have popped up during the interim. Unfortunately, nobody on the social staff has discovered anything to replace those shopworn, threadbare activities. The dozen or so people who participated appeared to enjoy themselves... but the other 2500+ passengers pretty much ignored what was happening. This should be more of a festive occasion... even the music was uninspiring.
We spent most of our first day exploring the ship, relaxing in the Conservatory (our favorite place on deck) and meeting up with all those folks from the Cruise Critic thread. Several of us hooked up for some shore excursions... very nice people. It was fun to associate the faces with the names.PORTS OF CALL:
DAY 2/Costa Maya: We arrived at about 9:00 a.m. One of the smaller Carnival ships was also in port. This was my third visit, but my first since May of '05. I was expecting to see a bit of progress ("bit" being the operative word), but the place looked virtually the same. There's an edifice just outside the port which was about 25% complete when I was last there... and I swear, the same two workers were erecting the same wall, and had probably added a dozen or so concrete blocks over the past year-and-a-half! It's Mexico... and it will be done when it's done. Realistically, the port is a good ten years away from becoming the "next Cozumel" (not that it's anything to strive for). We booked a tour of the Mayan ruins through Native Choice (www.chacchobenruins.com) and took a van to Mahahual, where we met up with Ivan. He's a remarkably intelligent, engaging and fascinating individual... actually born at what proved to be site of long-lost treasures, raised in the Mayan culture, secured a college degree (speaks five languages), and returned to his roots (with an American wife, no less). His father actually discovered the site, only to have the Mexican government seize the land in the name of historical significance. His knowledge of the Mayan civilization goes far beyond that of the typical tour guide, and his personal experiences added much to the tour. If you're going to see any Mayan site, this is the one (if for no other reason than that its being centuries older than the others... and it still hasn't been fully excavated); and be certain that you ask that Ivan be your guide (he is part-owner of the company).
DAY 3/Roatan: We docked at about 7:00 a.m., and were the only ship in port. I was really looking forward to this stop, as it's the only one I hadn't visited. Overall, it was disappointing... just not much there. We booked with Bodden Tours, and a very courteous driver/guide was at our disposal. There were only four of us, and we pretty much saw what was there in a couple of hours. We stopped at an iguana sanctuary ($5pp additional) which is dedicated to preserving the various species, since about 85% of the locals eat them. There are about 4000 there, along with some other wildlife... but it's more of a photo opportunity than anything else. We also visited the beach at the west end (another charge... $10 per vehicle) which is lovely... but I live close to two of the top ten beaches in the world, so it wasn't very impressive to me. Apparently, many Europeans visit, judging from the languages spoken at the various resorts. There are several high-end developments underway ($350k and up for a 1-br. 2-ba. 870 sq. ft. condo) which are also being marketed overseas. All they're buying is the view, which is beautiful, especially to Europeans. Along the way, we stopped at several photo-friendly spots, coincidentally occupied by native hustlers selling everything from coffee to coins... and the tradition is being passed on to their children (not unlike Jamaica, St. Lucia and other such places). On the positive side, though, was the availability of bargain-priced souvenirs (we stocked up on $2 coffee mugs)... but if we don't visit the port again, it won't be a major disappointment.
DAY 4/Belize: We were one of five ships anchored about 9 miles offshore (Carnival is apparently constructing a permanent dock, but it's years away, since the area will have to be dredged to accommodate the mega-ships). Our group met at 8:00 a.m. at the site where tender tickets were distributed, and we all disembarked together (we were two of 31 who booked a cave tubing excursion with www.cave-tubing.com... the hyphen is important... through our correspondences at Cruise Critic). This turned out to be one of our all-time favorite shore trips. Yhonny (all 5'2" of him... "small but effective") and his crew of six provided an exciting, well-organized and memorable day ("We don't sell excursions; we sell adventures!"). On the way, we all celebrated Josie's birthday with a spirited (literally) toast using local cashew nut wine. The guys were just great, although the wine tasted more like furniture polish... I guess it's an acquired taste. Be prepared for quite a trek to the jump-off site through a rain forest (they market it as 30-35 minutes, but it's closer to an hour) and it can be a bit treacherous (very muddy and slippery); but the guys were there to help, and everyone made it. Insect repellent turned out to be our most valuable commodity, since those red ants love imported meat. Once we were lowered into our inner tubes (no mean feat, by the way) we were hooked up to each other in groups of 5 or 6 (there was a total of 38 people) by placing our feet under the arms of the persons in front of us (it's not as funky as it sounds). As we pushed off, we were guided through the caves and down river in complete safety. Any apprehension we might have had quickly dissipated... the guys were in total control. This is in sharp contrast to the excursions booked through the cruise lines. Groups of fifty were escorted by only two guides, went through only one cave (we did two), stopped about halfway down the river, and weren't tethered in any manner (their trip bordered on the chaotic... people bumping into cave walls, floating away from the group, becoming entangled in the marshes... and for more than twice the money we paid). Our trip was $45pp, the ships' about $99. We wouldn't hesitate to do it again!
DAY 5/Cozumel: We decided to forego any planned activity, and just go ashore for a while (I've been there at least a dozen times, and nothing really appealed to us... that cave tubing experience was excitement enough)! Here's where Princess really dropped the ball. The combination of Hurricane Wilma and the Why-Do-It-Today-When-You-Can-Do-It-Next-Year Syndrome has resulted in a very limited number of docking berths. As a consequence, five of the seven (count ‘em, seven!) ships in port had to tender, including the Grand (we were one of four over 100gt). As if this weren't bad enough, the wait for the tender itself seemed interminable, as did the time it took to load 500 (yes, 500) passengers onto a vessel that was pitching and rolling, while people attempted to board. There was absolutely nobody from Princess aboard the tender to assist, and we literally passed folks down from one set of hands to another. A good number of them had considerable difficulty keeping their balance. Given the line's standard of service, this was totally unacceptable. Of course, with the population of Cozumel increasing by about 15,000 for the day, we felt very uncomfortable having to step off the sidewalks into the chaos of oncoming traffic. Those "Savvy Shoppers" were scurrying from store to store, looking for those free baubles and worthless trinkets offered by the "recommended" merchants (translation: those who pay kickbacks to the cruise line), only to find that some were not free, or that a minimum purchase was necessary. After picking up a few things at the $1 store, and taking a couple of photos, we headed toward the sanctity of the ship... a much better ride back in a smaller, air-conditioned tender. We spent the balance of the day relaxing, wandering the ship, talking to people... certainly better than fighting crowds in pursuit of those perceived once-in-a-lifetime bargains.
DAY 6/at sea: After breakfast, we packed everything we wouldn't be using, and thus had the entire day to ourselves. The weather turned chilly as we headed north, so we spent our final day indoors... thankfully, the temperature in the Conservatory was delightful. We actually had the opportunity to enjoy a sit-down lunch, and vowed to do it again on future cruises. Both of us are conscious of our weight and overall health... and it was wonderful not to have to look for a seat while carrying trays. We attended the art auction, poked around the shops (there was the equivalent of a yard sale in one of the dining rooms... mostly leftover merchandise from the '06 European season), browsed the photo gallery (we actually purchased two... previously $19.95 for an 8x10, now $21.95 for a 4x6)! But they wound up costing us nothing out of pocket, since we had a shipboard credit from our travel agent. We attended the comedian's second performance (no better than the first) and called it a night after that.
DISEMBARKATION: The ship arrived back in Galveston around 6:00 a.m., and the process began around 7:45. It was almost comical to see the people who chose the Express Checkout option struggling with their luggage... . older women trying to yank suitcases the size of a small car, while their husbands kept urging them to hurry. Apparently, it was a popular choice, since it took well over an hour for those folks to depart. Our color and number weren't called until well after 9:30... this system obviously needs work. Once we got downstairs, we quickly located our luggage, and were out the door in a few minutes.
SOME FINAL THOUGHTS: Overall, it was a lovely cruise, especially for the price we paid (under $1000 for the two of us, with an additional $100 onboard credit)... it would probably have cost us more to stay home! We purchased some liquor aboard ship (not nearly the bargain that we'd get in St. Maarten, but less than in port, and about half of what we'd pay at the local package stores). When we arrived home, we discovered that we were two bottles short. We have to go through some contorted process to receive a refund, but we'll eventually get our $30 back... again, a procedure which should be streamlined. Would we sail the Grand again? Only if we got another deal. The timing was perfect... Josies' birthday, sailing out of Galveston (she lives in Houston), a good time of year to cruise. The ship will be leaving Texas in late April for Europe, and isn't scheduled to return for the ‘07-'08 season. There's a huge state-of-the-art terminal being built in the Houston area, so Galveston has its work cut out (only Carnival sails from there year-round, with other lines cruising for part of the season). But it was a week away from the grind, and some quality time spent with the love of my life... now to book our next cruise!