In the last four years we have cruised seventeen times on eleven ships of four cruise lines and we have always had memorable cruises. In the 50's and 60's we made three transatlantic crossings (one trip together) on luxury liners between Naples, Italy and New York. That's when we were first captivated by the sea and enchanted by ships: these luxurious floating palaces. Now, during retirement we are finally free to cruise and we love it. This was our second cruise on board the Grand Princess and it will not be our last! The beauty of this ship recalled us like the fabled sirens of old. We were on board for her first birthday party May 4, 1999 and for her third anniversary this year. When launched three years ago, she was the largest ship afloat, now the Voyager of the Seas and her sister ship, the Explorer of the Seas, hold that honor.
She is truly worthy of a return visit, although some elderly cruisers kept repeating that there is a lot of walking, we found her as lovely as ever and easy to navigate. This review will have some specific information for the physically challenged passengers, which may be of note, since recently we have read negative comments on cruising for the handicapped. We say "Phooey"! Going on wheels or on legs doesn't have to be any different. The Grand Princess welcomes all equally as do all of the other magnificent ships on which we have traveled. The Princess has taken extraordinary measures to make cruisers feel welcome and comfortable, more about that later.
FIRST IMPRESSIONS: The Grand Princess is easily spotted in Port Everglades, Ft. Lauderdale, since she is the one with the "Spoiler." This month her new sister ship the Golden Princess will make cruisers do double takes before identifying which is which. She is all white with touches of blue on the upper decks and the orange stripe of her lifeboat tenders. She was the 5,956th ship to come out of the Fincantieri, Monfalcone shipyard. She has a gross tonnage of 108,806 and is 951 ft. long and breadth is 118.8 ft. with a height of 185 ft. above the water line and her six diesel engines have 92,500 horsepower. Her top speed is 24 knots and her two Fincantieri stabilizers have a 90% Roll Reduction. Smooth Sailing.
She can accommodate 3,100 passengers and boasts a ship's crew of 1,060, and many of these crew members were highly visible during embarkation: assisting passengers onboard, and on each deck stationed at the elevators directing passengers to their cabins of which there are 1,296.
EMBARKATION: We arrived at the pier at 11:45 where our luggage was removed from our car. We were greeted curb side by a crew member who pushed the wheelchair up the ramps to the disabled check-in counter. We had to fill out one travel document which was not in our ticket packet. We had filed our personal information sheets via the internet, but brought them along just in case. And, as we had predicted, this information was not available on the computer at this counter --- we simply handed the clerk those sheets, signed a credit card form and were escorted directly on board by the same crew member all the way to our wheelchair accessible cabin (there are 28 onboard 18 outside and 10 inside). Very nice and easy does it!
by 12 noon, we were in the Horizon Court having the Welcome Aboard Buffet which we are very happy to say was excellent (No tired looking, recycled food here-- it was delicious.). In fact normally we avoid the buffet, but we tried it three times this cruise and each time it was excellent. We had fried calamari cooked to perfection, Waldorf salad that was crisp and crunchy, and the fruit and desserts were excellent.
CABIN: Our Baja Deck #B301 wheelchair accessible cabin was very clean, spacious and restful. When entering there is a small foyer which is handier that the usual narrow hallway. On the left, there is the extra large bathroom with one sink two mirrors and a set of three shelves. The shower is spacious (5 ft. x 5 ft.) with chrome rails all around, a pull down seat and a call cord for emergency assistance. Then there is the queen size bed, flanked by two low bureaus each with four drawers, a shelf and topped with reading lamps. The head board of the bed was tucked tapestry and a wall of mirrors. The mirror trick to make the cabin appear larger was not necessary in this spacious cabin, which is about one and one half the size of category BC cabins.
When entering the cabin on the right there is a triple armoire: the first door holds several cubicles and the personal safe; the next two doors are the hanging closets with nice removable wooden hangers. There is ample storage for even two week cruises. Then there is a desk/vanity with three more drawers, and a comfortable chair; the 10 ft. long counter has the telephone and a hair dryer on the wall. There is a coffee table and an upholstered barrel chair, but alas no sofa.. The sliding glass door leads to the balcony (approx. 16 ft. x 5 ft.) with two reclining chairs and a table. The balconies in categories BA and BB on Caribe deck are twice as large as those in category BC on Aloha and Baja decks, but with less privacy from the above decks. The decor is peach/gold and an abundance of maple wood; it is very inviting and the condition is excellent. There is one large picture on the wall depicting a row boat in a calm reflective bay with a small white town on a mountain in the background.
Our Cabin Steward was Vitor Calado of Portugal; he was prompt and always smiling. . . . Thank you, Vitor.
THE SHIP: We found the ship to be in very good condition with perhaps only minor showing of wear and fading in the upholstered chairs and sofas in some of the public rooms (i.e., the seats in the Skywalkers Night Club). From our several talks with the affable gentleman Gianfranco Sampiero, Passenger Services Director, we learned that the Grand Princess is scheduled for an upcoming dry dock, possibly in December, when it will undergo a long list of repairs and refurbishing in order to maintain its elegance.
We found her quite spiffy as is, and easily got around her with the pocket sized directory cards (4"x4") placed in our cabins and color coded to the hallway carpeting. Very handy! The Daily Princess Patter distributed to each cabin the night before also gave the times and decks of each activity. More importantly, it is the layout of the ship which makes it easy to "navigate." Decks 4 through 7 and 14 through 17 are Public Areas (restaurants, shops, reception desks, casino, lounges, theater, pools, spas, etc.). On decks 8 through 12 (no 13) and decks 5 and 14, forward, are located all the staterooms, suites and cabins.
There are three sets of lifts/elevators, one forward, one mid ship and one aft, which make movement easy. At the top of the "spoiler" is the Skywalkers Night Club (17) which presents a beautiful 360 degree view of the ship forward and the wake and the sea aft. Even if you are not into the disco dance scene, you must not miss this view, during the day it is private and serene. Lido Deck 14 houses the Alfresco Bar, Horizon Court, Horizon Terrace, Calypso Bar, Poseidon's Pizzeria, Trident Grill, Ice Cream Bar and two pools. In addition there are two more pools, one at the aft of the Aloha deck (12) and the lap pool in the Plantation Spa on the Sun Deck (14).
Our morning dip was taken in the retractable covered solarium pool and spa while many passengers are still sleeping. It is quiet and relaxing, though after the third day, we felt that the Gregorian chant in the background could be replaced with some other music, or at least expand the repertoire so that cruisers would not be subjected to the same music day after day, hour after hour.
The ship has six laundromats located on decks with staterooms. This eliminates the needs to do ironing in the cabins, which is discouraged for safety reasons. We normally carry enough clothes for the week, but families with small children would be pleased to have access to washers/dryers.
This cruise we took a closer look at the Atlantis Casino and saw many things we had missed on our first cruise aboard: at one end there are huge Dolphin sculptures and on the walls are several simulated aquariums showing 3D pictures of underwater scenes where the fish and other ocean denizen seem to swim at you and then veer off, fascinating.
As usual, the Chapel on board was busy with several weddings and was decorated with large fresh flower arrangements and candles, what a heady scent emerged from the doorway. Other beautiful public rooms that we favored are the Explorers Lounge, a nice tiered room with worldly murals and exotic mosaics evoking travel, and the Wheelhouse Bar, an interesting room with some P&O Line history, portraits, nice ship models and interesting marine hardware.
THE FOOD: Princess Lines states "We have blown conventional dining out of the water"! The new Personal Choice Dining program is an alternative to the traditional fixed seating dining (main or second seating) and allows cruisers restaurant style seating at their preferred time and without reservations required. Passengers are charged $6.50 per person per day gratuity (a bare minimum by U.S. standards) since this eliminates the last night tipping you would have done for the single waiter serving you for an entire week. You may go to any dining room anywhere on board between 5:30 pm and 10:00 pm. Choose the Michelangelo (Deck 5), Da Vinci or Botticelli (Deck 6), or the Painted Desert (Deck 7), etc. and if you want to have a large group dining together, call ahead for a reservation. We chose this plan and loved it. We also tipped individually for extraordinary service, which we had continually (this is our preference, but it is optional). We thought the prepaid gratuity was a good idea, since we recalled many a last night dinner, in an almost deserted dining room, with many cruisers conspicuously absent so that they could "stiff" the hard working waiters. Excellent service deserves generous tips.
For alternative dining in Sabatini's you need to make reservations the minute you get on board ($15 additional charge and it serves lunch and dinner). The first night we dined at Sabatini's with the Maitre d' Mirko and were served with a flair by Davide, and enjoyed the newly designed menu: Antipasti (hot & cold) served from huge platters. We had the veal chops and lobster tails, dessert was Creme Brulee` and Georgia Peach Cobbler and a courtesy glass of Limoncello. The pastas were good cannelloni tricolore, gnocchi al formaggio, the appetizers excellent, but the fish, mussels and clams were not so good.
Hereafter, we dined in the Michelangelo. The two Assistant Maitres d', Oscar Perego (Italy) and Carlos Justina (Portugal), flanked by a line of white coated waiters, each evening greeted and seated diners. They were always cordial and prompt to push the wheelchair to our favorite table. There are no sommeliers, the wine list is varied, but not too extensive and the prices are a good value. We met an interesting couple, Dwayne and Deborah, who became our table mates and with nice and intelligent conversation made our evening dinners delightful events.
Tuesday night we were invited by the Maitre d' Beniamino Acler to a table for four and told that Executive Chef Antonio Cereda would prepare especially for us a risotto ai funghi Porcini (wild mushrooms). Chef Cereda came to greet us at our table since he had met the four of us on previous separate cruises. Our waiter Virgil and assistant waiter Alex gave quick and courteous service. The risotto was delicious and on succeeding nights we had spaghetti vongole, spaghetti aglio, olio e peperoncino and gnocchi as light as clouds. Chef Cereda makes delicious fresh tomato sauces and you can get spaghetti cooked al dente if you specify it and are patient enough to wait a little longer. Other dishes we enjoyed at dinner were prime rib, duck a` l'orange and cornish hen and of course the desserts: souffles, swan puffs, and excellent fruit tarts. We also had Tartuffo, a ball of vanilla/chocolate ice cream covered in dark chocolate and rolled in roasted coconut. Mouth watering!
The Painted Desert Maitre d' Memo accommodated us even though we had not made reservations and we enjoyed the Southwestern fare. The salsa was a bit too spicy for us, we managed to use it sparingly, although other diners acclaimed it perfection. We ate several times at the Pizzeria (Deck 14) where Carmelo makes the dough each morning and serves up pizza all afternoon and evening. The pizza was great: There were a lot of young happy faces around here, as testimonial. There is also formal tea served in the Da Vinci every afternoon 3:30 to 4:30. Room service was available 24 hrs. and always prompt for continental breakfast in the morning, but slow and iffy at other times. They need a caller I.D. system like the Millennium and the Costa Atlantica (once, when our order didn't arrive after a 45 min. wait, we called again only to find out that B301 had been confused with P301). The order arrived in 5 min. with profuse apology.
SERVICE: The service aboard the Grand Princess is TIP TOP and this was particularly evident after our last cruise aboard the new Radiance of the Seas where service was dismal. (We were happy to read in recent reviews that it has improved). The new Captain of the Grand came on board the day we sailed: Captain Andy Proctor of Aberdeen (by way of Kingdom of Fife), Scotland. He is very friendly and approachable and we liked his Scottish kilt joke; however, we would have been curious to see his tartan! The Captain's Circle Cocktail Party for repeaters was extremely nice: red and white wines, Manhattans, Martinis, fruit punch and hot and cold hors d'oeuvres. The Bridge tour was thorough, but no champagne and canapes like the Costa Atlantica, yet still it's a marvel to behold all the hi-tech equipment which makes the easy maneuverability of such a huge ship so awesome. Even the Bridge has wheelchair access!
Each night the chocolate on the pillow ritual is augmented by a love note from differing crew members, after all, this is the "LOVE BOAT"!
ENTERTAINMENT: Cruise Director Graham Seymour set the pace for an upbeat ambiance with his infectious laughter. He went beyond the call of duty in the hilarious production of "If I Were Not Upon the Ship," (A tutu to remember is all we can say about his costume). The Asst. Cruise Director Sylvain "Sly" Couture (Canada) and the rest of the cruise staff kept the passengers hopping and entertained. The shows were a fine mix of singing, dancing, comedy and magic. They were abundant, high quality and many were recently staged retaining old favorites and adding new sections, but nothing of memorable note.
There were the usual daily activities: Bingo, trivia contests (we participated to some and won four), casino gambling (we played the slots machines and poker and lost every time), and there are four pools (one with retractable dome and one lap pool), several Jacuzzis, Gymnasium, Aerobics and Health Spa with saunas and massage treatments. Here the Grand Princess outdoes herself with a British hydraulic lift called the Oxford Dipper (although we didn't observe anyone using it) which permits wheelchair bound passengers to enjoy a swim. Who says, "Stay home!"? Princess makes cruising delightful even for the physically challenged passengers.
PORTS OF CALL: Wednesday: St. Thomas U.S.V.I. "The American Paradise" has exotic flowers like frangipani and jasmine and boasts a great beach, water sports and tours, etc. Mr. Tablecloth is a must, since high quality linens are 60% below U.S. prices!
Thursday: St. Maarten (or Martin) part of the Dutch Leeward Islands, this island is divided between the Dutch and the French. Take a bus tour the first time to get the lay of the land, but there is also scuba diving, kayaking and mountain biking.
Saturday: Princess Cays, Eleuthera, Bahamas (discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1492) is Princess Line's private beach. Tendering is necessary here and there are elevators on Deck 4 expressly for those in wheelchairs to have direct access to tender platforms. The highlights are the ship's barbecue, island music, beach and water sports. Bring cash if you want to purchase souvenirs, credit cards not accepted here.
DEBARKATION: As on other ships, passengers are given color coded tags for their luggage and for debarkation priorities. We had orange tags which were the 4th group to debark. Passengers in wheelchairs, who needed assistance, assembled at the lobby bar on deck 5, until their color was called and thereafter were accompanied by a crew member to the pier exit. by 8:30 a.m. we were on our way home, looking back to a great cruise and forward to doing it again and again.