by Mervyn Hancock
April 25, 2009
CRUISING BIG STYLE! MERVYN HANCOCK JOINS THE GRAND PRINCESS FOR A TRIP AROUND THE MEDITERRANEAN.
We whizzed through the dock gates at Southampton with some apprehension, on the weekend after the children had been returned to their classrooms after a half term break! We knew that our cruise ship, The Grand Princess, would be filling up with mainly adult passengers, but wife Sue and I also knew that there were three ships in dock, ready to embark on the first of the 2009 season's Mediterranean cruises, and that the total number of souls taking part in this adventure would total over 7,000.
I expected chaos, but was pleasantly surprised at the slick and efficient operation which saw our car parked, luggage hoisted onboard, and being established in our cabin within the space of 20 minutes. Not bad considering the ship had only docked five hours earlier and was due to set sail again in just 120 minutes.
The Grand Princess had sailed from Fort Lauderdale in the USA and brought over a cargo of Americans, 240 of which would remain with us for the 14 day voyage to Spain, Italy, France and Monaco, and prove to be most amiable travelling companions.
With almost 20 cruises under our belts, Sue and I were considered to be veteran sailors, but nothing prepared us for the vastness of our amazing ship, which dwarfed everything else we encountered, and only needed six walks around the promenade deck to complete a mile! Two other giants set off before us, following more or less the same route, and the numbers and variety of people waving from their balconies as they sailed past demonstrated how cruising has now become a vacation that's affordable for almost everyone.
Indeed, there are so many cruise ships plying the world's oceans at the moment that it is possible to embark on a holiday that costs around £60 per person per night -- and don't forget that food, travel, accommodation and entertainment are all thrown in. Not many, if indeed any, hotels can match that. And with another ship, capable of holding over 5,000 passengers, due to be launched in a few months, competition and prices between the big operators can only get keener.
Thus far, Sue and I had stuck mainly to the smaller ships, which are capable of getting into a bigger variety of ports, but the Grand Princess was a lady with a lot to offer.
We were allocated a mini-suite on deck nine, midships, and very near to the countless elevators which swept passengers up and down to various dining rooms, theatres, bars, salons, pools, gyms and shopping areas.
This was like being in the middle of a large town, with so many places to visit that, at first, we were quite mesmerised by it all.
Should we lounge around on our private balcony in the sunshine, and take advantage of the 24 room service, find a lounger on one of the vast decks, or risk piling on the pounds in the dining areas, where food and drink were available throughout the day and night? Or should we wander around this veritable metropolis on the high seas and simply soak up the atmosphere? We did both, and enjoyed every minute of it!
Princess Cruises offer a really useful dining plan too! You can either choose traditional dinner, with the same companions each evening, or go for "Anytime" plans where you simply turn up when you are hungry, sit alone or join others, and if that doesn't suit, there's a 24 hour buffet offering more or less the same choice of food.
Lobster, steaks, pasta, exotic dishes specially created by top chefs, mouth watering sweets, cakes and other delights were eagerly demolished by an appreciative audience, who seemed to still find room for the afternoon treat of home made ice-cream!
We deliberately stayed away from the eating areas during the morning and afternoon, because it was simply too tempting.
Entertainment was available from early morning to the wee small hours, although no one tried to force anyone to join in! Two main theatres -- as lavish as anything on shore -- offered variety shows, while music and dancing could be found in many other parts of the ship. Many of the Americans favoured the huge Casino, while the discotheque at the very top of the vessel was mainly occupied by people seeking sanctuary, as there weren't many youngsters onboard to take advantage of the nightly boogy-woogying!
Many of the onboard cabins had their own veranda – a trend which is becoming more and more popular, and available as the ships get bigger. Ours had a bathroom with tub and shower, walk-in wardrobes, a Queen-size bed, separate sitting area with a comfortable settee and chair, fridge and two huge televisions – one for the lounge area and the other for the bedroom. Programme choice was limited, but who wants to watch television with so much else going on?
Bargain prices for the initial cruise mean that many people can now take advantage of what used to be, a holiday for the "well off" and often a once in a lifetime experience. But you do need to be aware of those "extras" which seem to crop up a lot more often on the bigger ships, especially those operated by the Americans.
Gratuities are the main taking point among the British passengers – many of whom opted to remove the "discretionary" charge of around £7 per night per passenger -- including children -- which is automatically added to each bill. We were told that this cash is distributed among the crew to people like the cabin steward, waiter and backroom workers, and makes up a large part of their wage. I have no doubt that this is true, but it does beg the question of why they need to rely on such a substantial tip, and whether it should be imposed even before you meet many of them! I do prefer the system operated in the Fred Olsen ships, where you tip individuals at the end of the voyage, and give them what you think they deserve.
Onboard prices for drinks include a 15 per cent gratuity, and by British pub standards are expensive. I paid £10 for a can of draught Guinness and a medium glass of red wine, and even the soft drinks were around £1-40p, although you could buy a "soda package" which allowed you to drink as many as you like.
Another moan on many ships is the charges for "shuttle buses." Often the vessel docks away from the main town and city centres, and you have to pay to get from the port to the shops. Organised shore excursions also add up to hundreds of pounds, so you need to watch that credit card. You don't actually spend money onboard, as everything is charged to your shipboard account and settled at the end of the voyage. My own bill – modest by many standards – came to $1100 or around £730 for two weeks, which included two shore excursions, tips, drinks, cover charge for an onboard steakhouse and some duty free items.
We were looking forward to three of the eight ports of call -- Rome to see the Vatican, Naples for a visit to Pompeii and Monte Carlo to see the preparations for the famous Grand Prix. At all three the local "businessmen" were awaiting the tourists to extract as much money as they could from our short visits. Like £14 for a pint of lager in Monte Carlo, £8 for two ice cream cones in the Vatican, and an attempt to get £5 for a cone of popcorn in Pompeii! But the tours were well organised and worth the money.
Bargain hunters were out in force in Gibraltar, and with cigarettes costing £14 for 200, and spirits as little as £4-50p a litre, it is no wonder that some thoughts turned to smuggling! Don't try it though. You are allowed the old duty free allowance, and customs officers await you at Southampton. We opted, instead, for a wonderful fruity curry in the local pub, run by a cheerful Cornish woman, at normal prices – a real change from the very expensive Euro zone!
Glorious weather followed us most of the way, and we even sunbathed on our veranda through the notorious Bay of Biscay, which was flat calm.
Many of our fellow passengers were on their umpteenth cruise with Princess, and looking forward to even more adventures. On my part I would happily book another trip on Grand Princess, and despite those extra charges, cruising is still -- pound for pound -- one of the best bargains around.
Mervyn and Sue Hancock travelled with Princess Cruises onboard Grand Princess which is offering a selection of cruises from Southampton throughout the year. Contact reservations on 08453555800 for details.