Because some of the reviews I read leading up to our cruise was so helpful, I wanted to thank people and also provide a good review of my own so that others can benefit from some of my experiences. So that you know, my wife and I are in our lower 30s and are pretty active people who like to do things. We were expecting a cruise to provide a good vacation that takes a lot of the issues involved with vacations away. This was very important as we traveled with a varied group of family members. I can provide some insights there as my parents and brother's family (including infant) were aboard. I think I will approach this review as a log after some sweeping statements.
My impression as a first-time cruiser is that the Grand Princess is an excellent ship and it is a solid value as a vacation. I am not sure I will rush to take another cruise, but I certainly was not displeased in any way with this vacation. It is a neat way to spend a week. The service on board for the most part was very good. My wife and I did not have the most wonderful room steward in the world and there is a controversy over chocolates that continues to brew, but the room was clean and had a bed so that is what counts! In the dining rooms, it was impeccable considering we had a 1-year-old at our table and she was not the most patient person at the table. She is more patient than I am, but that is not saying very much. The food? I guess at some point I should talk about that. I have almost exclusively positive things to say about food in the dining room. It was very good. Of course, everything was neither gourmet nor 5 star but this was not my expectation, and I was not disappointed. The food in the Horizon Court buffet was obviously a step down, but was fully adequate. I will comment further below. The entertainment was pretty good considering this is a cruise ship. The review programs were good for what they were (singing, dancing, etc.), and the alternative entertainment was very good with the exception of a comedian I just did not get at all.
Now, on to my daily log.
SUNDAY Well the day started pretty early for the family. My wife and I arrived from California at 11pm Saturday night and after waiting inexplicably for our bags for an hour in the Fort Lauderdale Airport baggage claim section, we headed to my brother's home in Coral Gables. No time for anything that night other than falling asleep, but in anticipation I was up at 5am Sunday morning. Being 2am PST, I was a bit tired, but was still the first up to welcome Pluto, my doggy niece who would not be joining us on the cruise. We were all ready to go at about 11am after some errand running and a final hat shopping spree for my wife. We got to the dock at 12noon and were set to board. The lines for embarkation were not very long, but I was a bit at a loss as to why others thought embarkation was such a breeze. There were probably 4 couples in front of us, and it took at least 10-15 minutes per couple to be processed. Eventually, we were processed and headed on to the ship.
After walking the maze assisted by smiling Brits all the way, we made it to our cabin right next to the main pool area on the 14th deck at about 1:30. I was immediately impressed. We had the highest category outside double without a balcony and the room was very large. I would say it compares favorably in size to most NY hotel rooms, for example. No doubt there would be enough rooms for all of our things, even with overpacking. We even could have fit another couple of suitcases under the bed. No complaints at all about our cabin or our beautiful view outside the ceiling to floor window. I am glad we did not get a balcony in retrospect actually because I think this room was larger than most balcony rooms.
After getting settled by putting away our carry-on items, it was time for the food orgy to commence and we walked down the hall to the Horizon Court buffet. It was fairly standard buffet food but there were very good choices daily. I had roast beef and various other tasty items. Also, the best dessert item was chocolate, chocolate chip cookies. Enjoy them because they will return again only towards the end of the cruise. At about 3, we were ready to explore. We had planned on lounging by the pool, but it was a windy and rainy day so the choice was to explore and we were not disappointed. While the ship is large, it literally took about 30 minutes to learn where everything was and we had no problems the rest of the cruise. Our luggage was delivered at around 5 and we were all unpacked and ready to start the evening at 6.
Because we had a baby, we felt it made sense to go with Personal Choice dining. We always ate before 6:30 and never had an issue getting a large table for 8. Note, however, that if you do take personal choice and plan to eat alone (for couples), that after about 7, there WILL be a wait for a table. Just plan on it and put your name in a little early. Dinner was quite good this night. I went with the prime rib and seafood turnovers. I generally ordered two entrees. Both were very tasty, and I give them high marks. Despite beginning dinner at 6:15, it was obvious we would not make it through dessert before the departure, so we put off dessert until later (another positive about Personal Choice) and went to watch the departure. This was a bit disappointing, as by this time the wind was fierce and the rain strong. We still watched the departure and we were very happy that our vacation was officially underway. After the departure, we went back to the dining room to continue our meal and get dessert. No waiting, and we had no problems ordering only dessert, although my brother intelligently also ordered another prime rib. Kudos to him! The special desserts were not very impressive so we tried some of the always offered items such as sundaes (good), love boat dessert (a very very rich chocolate brownie type of dessert), and the NY style cheesecake (it is neither NY style, nor especially cheesecake...in short do not order is my recommendation). This would start a theme for our vacation. The meals in the dining room are excellent, but the desserts are not top-class. Get stuffed before the dessert. The ice cream is always good, and some desserts are ok, but the tiramisu is really the only outstanding dessert served that we saw.
After dinner, there was more exploration including a weeklong obsession of my wife's at the casino. She loves casinos (I discovered) and especially likes slot machines. I did not like this as it began a weeklong losing streak (or so I thought). Still we had fun and I must admit that it was fun seeing my wife so excited about the casino. We concluded our evening entertainment by going to the Disco at the very top of the back of the ship. It was a great view, but very quiet, which was a consistent theme throughout the cruise. We were off to bed by about 12:30 which brought a long day to a nice end.
MONDAY My wife had made plans to go work out this morning as she laughingly decided that if she worked out she could eat as much as she wanted and not gain weight. I admired her enthusiasm. So, instead of working out, I joined the rest of my family for my only breakfast in the dining room. I order an omelet that was very good but the service took very long. It is simply the nature of the dining room. So, after breakfast, at 10am I was very impressed with myself and decided to join my wife in the gym. The gym is nothing spectacular, but it is a ship after all. I lifted some weights and used the few machines and then rode the exercise bike for a half-hour, which for me is quite the accomplishment. Note that the first couple days the gym is crowded, and if you want to use a treadmill, you will need to sign up for it. After a bit of time, people stop kidding themselves and you do not need to sign up any more. My wife really liked the exercise classes and since she is quite the class taker back home, that is saying something. Some courses were strictly for beginners, but they were pretty good about telling you that up-front.
After the gym, my wife and I decided to take advantage of the 50% prices in the Voyage of Discovery arcade and that was a lot of fun. Note that if you are going to use the arcade, on Monday and Saturday, prices are 50% so this is the time to do it. Prices are quite reasonable taking this into account. We liked the jet ski machine and auto racing especially. I would like to inform all interested parties that I did nip her at the finish line the one time we raced cars against each other! After this, it was time for lunch and we went to the Horizon Court buffet for that. We did not go at all to the dining room, but the menus were not very stellar and we did not want to spend that much time doing lunch when we could be having fun. After lunch, we had planned to head to the art auction, but the weather turned sunny and we headed out to the pool to play, which basically constituted doing nothing and being lazy. After a couple hours of this, it was time for a well-deserved nap to save up reserves for dinner.
Dinner came luckily and not a moment too soon. I was starved! I had the rack of lamb and the chicken kiev and both were quite tasty. There were some that thought the chicken was dry but I was not dissatisfied, so you will need to take that up with them. For dessert, I had the blackforest cake, which was not bad, but again not outstanding. We finished dinner just in time for the first production show, Lights Camera Action. We arrived at about 8:15 and the theater was packed. My wife and I were lucky and got some of the last seats available. Go in on the 6th floor entrance and you can generally find something. The show was good for what it was ad my wife who likes these things more than I do really enjoyed it. I thought the camel was very entertaining, but that tells you something of my maturity level! After this, I was ready for the entertainment highlight of my week, the hypnotist. He did not disappoint at all. The show was hilarious, and he can do some amazing things. I did not agree with the choice of the crowd for most entertaining hypnotee (is this a word?), but there were no disappointments in the show. After the show at 1am it was off to dream land for us.
TUESDAY We were now fully into cruise mode and this was a day of relaxation for the real work of ports came tomorrow. We started with the breakfast buffet. I guess I should comment on this buffet. The breakfasts probably left the most to be desired of any meal on ship. The fruits were not especially ripe, and it is hard to keep eggs, pancakes and french toast fresh in such an environment. It passed, but was not up to the standards of the other meals. I generally had sausage links, french toast, a danish and yogurt. You will not get fat from breakfast food unless you are a true glutton, in which case you should wait until 11 when the grill and pizza bar opens! After breakfast, my wife and I got primo places by the pool. This would be the only time during the week that we would camp out at the pool, but it was worth it for one day. We were right in the sun by the main pool. At 11:30 we had snorkel lessons as neither of us had ever snorkeled before and would be off on an excursion the next day to see turtles! by 4, we were done with the pool and went back to the cabin for a nice afternoon nap.
Dinner came and it turned better than expected when glancing at the menu. I went with the crayfish and beef medallions, both of which beat my expectations. I was getting sufficiently fat by this point in the cruise. After dinner, we went to the Vista Lounge to see the comedy magician. His show was not especially bad, but was quite short and not very impressive. On almost all of his tricks, it was evident how he performed them, and just when you thought his warm-up was over, he was saying good night. Following this came another couple hours of losing at the casino. I was beginning to wonder if it was a good idea introducing betting to my wife!
WEDNESDAY Ahhh, our first day at port in St. Thomas and it was an early morning for us because we were signed up for the 8:30 snorkeling trip to Sea Turtle Cove. We had an early breakfast and were off the ship well in time for our snorkeling trip. We took a sailboat to the cove but unfortunately the wind was coming straight against the ship and we motored it there instead of sailing. I was a bit apprehensive of the snorkeling since I had never done it before and was not so sure I could breathe underwater. I put on my mask and fins and jumped in. For about 5 minutes I struggled and did not snorkel as much as hold my breath and look at the clear water for fish. But, after this I figured it out and was snorkeling like an experienced semi-pro! It was great out there with stingrays, turtles and colorful fish everywhere. My wife struggled like I did for a few minutes and even got salt water in her eyes and lungs but after getting her to join me she had a great time. The one thing I can strongly recommend is to wear a shirt in the water. I ended up with a very bad sunburn on my back, as did my wife. Mine blistered but she got away with just the lobster red skin. Still, the snorkeling was a blast. We came back to the ship for lunch and were off to shopping in St. Thomas, or rather browsing. We walked to and from downtown with no difficulty at all and had fun looking through the shops. The shopping is fine I guess, but I do not get going crazy and buying a lot of things. We had no gemstones on our shopping list so I cannot tell you much about that. I can tell you about tennis bracelets as I got one of those for my wife for putting up with me for the first year of our marriage. It was earned so I cannot necessarily call it a gift.
We got back to the ship at about 5:30 and got ready for dinner. Wednesday might have been the weakest menu of the bunch but it was fine. I got a rabbit dish (very tasty) and shrimp diablo (if you like spicy food very good). Following dinner, my wife and I went to English Pub Night with low expectations. We were tired and just wanted something to watch. It turned off that we were off base, as it was hilarious. There were stupid games with the audience and silly songs by the cruise staff led by the cruise director. But, if you go in not expecting highbrow drama or even comedy it is a fun time. Note, however, that my parents went and did not like it at all so it may be a show for the younger audience. After this, we went quickly to the Princess equivalent of Who Wants to be a Millionaire...or win champagne anyway. This game moved very slowly, but was sort of fun. My wife even got called up but the host asked some hard questions and refused to allow for translation by me (English is my wife's third language) and she bowed out quickly. To be fair, not sure my translations or even me being at the front would have helped. We ended the evening by making a donation at the casino, but this was quick as my wife was convinced she would not win anything and cut her losses.
THURSDAY Another port day which made me happy because it meant more snorkeling for me and I really liked it even with a burned back, which by now was hurting pretty good. We woke up and had an early breakfast because we wanted to go to the Dutch side of the island pretty early. We again walked and after making some phone calls (do not use the center by the ship and instead go into town and use one of the plethora payphones) made it to downtown Philipsburg in just over 5-10 minutes. St. Maarten has a very long shopping strip but again not all that much of real quality. We bought some souvenirs and some very good chocolate (free tastes available at the Belgian Chocolate Factory) and they even delivered it to the ship for us. We made it back to the ship at about noon and had a quick lunch in anticipation of our snorkeling trip. I noticed going back to the ship that the water was rough and was worried since my wife had felt a little seasick earlier. She was now taking pills and the problem was alleviated but in rough seas, no pill is going to help. We learned when showing up that our trip had been cancelled. This was disappointing but they said all on the morning excursion had gotten seasick and on top of this, no fish were to be seen. So, better to not go than go and get seasick and see no fish anyway. We made lemonade of lemons and decided to go to the French side of the island, Marigot. We negotiated with a cabbie and got taken there lickety split while being told a lot about life on the island. The cabbie lived on the French side of the island and had a great perspective. The Dutch side is very commercial and the French side more refined, which is very evident when going to the French side. We walked around a while and soon it was time to find our same cabbie to go back to the ship. We got back on literally at 4:30 just when we had to get on.
This was a big night for the family as we had all been looking forward to going to Sabatini's, despite the $15 cover charge. Based on how hard it is to get reservations (we made them by 2pm Sunday and our first choice had been filled already) and the reviews we had read, we had very high hopes. To be honest though, I do not understand why this place is popular at all. The service is very good, but the meal is exceedingly long and while some of the things are tasty, they are no better than in the main dining room. The amount of food served is not even exceptional. In short, I would not recommend anyone to spend a night away from the dining room, much less $15 on this restaurant. The lobster was very good, but not as good as in the dining room. After Sabatini's we went to the Island Party and it was entertaining but nothing special. After this, we were off to bed at 1am even without hitting the casino. I was pleased.
FRIDAY Our last day at sea and it was a pretty big one for us. We were supposed to catch up on all the video camera and picture taking that we had been lazy about up to this point. After breakfast, we went to videotape things around the boat so that my wife's family could see about our vacation. In our adventures, we were reminded of the ping pong tables on the 15th floor and set out to play. I was a little confident but my wife took the match 3 games to 1. She was brought up to be a table tennis star back home so I cannot say it was a crushing defeat. Plus, I would take my revenge the next night! After our tour, it was time for lunch, and this was our best lunch on the cruise. I had prime rib and sushi. The sushi is not well done especially and is mostly veggie sushi but I had missed the spicy wasabi and this helped to fill a void in my life. After lunch, my wife and I attended a rumba class. I am not the most graceful dancer (heck I am not even good) but I stuck it out until the time she figured out I was hopeless, which took longer than expected. The afternoon then turned into rest.
Friday night's dinner wins the gold star in this reviewer's opinion for best dinner of the cruise. Both the beef wellington and lobster ravioli were outstanding, and even the chocolate mousse dessert was scrumptious. This was a great way to start our busiest night of the cruise. First up was the early show of Rhythm of the City on the Princess Theater. We easily got seats and it was another well-performed review. The downside is that there was no camel but my wife insists that should not detract from its value as entertainment. I am still not convinced. After this, we went to the cruise version of the Newlywed Game hoping to be picked. Our hopes were soon dashed as the lounge was packed. We were not one of the four chosen couples but were entertained by the show despite it being a little slow moving. We planned to end our evening with an encore performance by the hypnotist but it started by watching the comedian on board, Billy Vader since his show was in the same lounge where the hypnotist would be about 10 minutes after his show. I would say we deserved seats for the hypnotist after being forced to endure the comedy show. This guy was just horrible. He got lots of laughs but I still do not know why. Again, maybe it was generational, although my father was also not impressed. The hypnotist show resembled very closely his first show (same taglines and intros, etc) but given the nature of hypnotism was sufficiently different to be entertaining. We finally got to sleep at about 2am.
SATURDAY This was our last day on the cruise and reality was setting in but my wife was very excited about going to the beach on the private island, Princess Cays. I was not as excited as my back hurt a lot and I had visions of sand never getting out of our things. We woke up and went to breakfast and were on our way to the beach soon. We spotted a place to the left side of the island (based on help of other reviewers) and found chairs easily. We sat in the sun for a while and then had lunch (definitely not stellar but the fruit was better than on the ship) and I was ready to go. But, my wife wanted to stay and my father convinced us to go snorkeling. He won and I am glad he did because while not as good as in St. Thomas there were a lot of fish to be seen. It ended up that we were one of the last tenders back to the island for 3:30 departure. We got back and showered and packed and were all ready for dinner and our last night on the cruise. I had the Prime Rib and linguine with clams, both of which again were excellent. I also took a lobster tail off one of the two extras we ordered (you can never have too much) and it was quite good. The Baked Alaska was tasty as well although being in Personal Choice you sacrifice the parade.
After dinner I insisted upon a rematch of Ping-Pong with my wife and the rest of the family joined us as well for a full tournament. The finals not surprisingly fitted an interfamily brawl and I am thrilled to say I am now champion. Even the baby enjoyed the ping-pong tables and throwing balls to and fro which was a bit of a theme of the cruise! After this victory I felt sufficiently satisfied to join the family for a last night at the casino. My wife did not even plan on betting anything but my mother insisted she take $21 from her and she set off. I sat at the blackjack tables with sister-in-law playing and expected the worse. I went to check up and found my wife down to her last quarters and then lost. We had forgotten the dollar so I said go ahead and play and she inserted it and went to town. I expect about 30 seconds before taking a walk on the deck but she never came back and I wondered why. I went to check back on her and low behold she was winning a fortune (well not fortune but enough to make it a fun night!). by the time we were done, we ended the cruise with a $5 profit in the casino, which I am still pretty excited about. Well done honey! To basically close our cruise, we took a stroll on deck and went to bed.
SUNDAY Sunday started very early as my wife needed to meet with the very pleasant INS at 6am and that went off without a hitch. Our flight was not until 10:30 so we were not too hurried. We came back took showers and joined the family for breakfast. To say they want you off the ship that morning is an understatement. Breakfast basically consists of leftovers from the midnight buffet and eggs. No big deal, but do not expect a red carpet sendoff. I must say that after my above statements regarding embarkation and that Princess did not live up to expectations, that disembarkation easily lived up to what everyone said. We had red tags and were off the ship by 8:15am and after purchasing the $5 Princess bus transfers were in the airport at our gate with an hour and a half to spare. This was impressive.
Now it is time to get back to real life but I have the memories and fun of being with my family and getting to know my niece a little bit better even if we basically connected best when I would sing! Hope everyone else has as fun a cruise as we did.