This was a Princess Cruise, on the Sapphire, from Leam Chebang, Thailand to Sydney, Australia -- 20th December 2007 to 9th January 2008.
This is the first time I have attempted to write a cruise review and whilst it may sound a little harsh at times I have tried to be as honest and truthful as I can be. I am a 51 year old male from the UK and travelled with my wife and 2 sons ages 18 & 20 in 2 separate inside cabins on deck 10. This is approximately my tenth cruise. It was however my first cruise with Princess cruises.
Embarkation We had flown to Hong Kong where we stayed for a couple of enjoyable nights at the excellent Langhams before flying on to Bangkok, Thailand for a further three enjoyable nights at the wonderful Bangkok Hilton Millennium, booking our hotels independently from our cruise and flight itinerary. The first gripe I have is the luggage weight allowance. Princess Cruises booked these flights in the knowledge that you are embarking on a 20+ day cruise, including more than half a dozen formal and informal nights requiring suitable clothes to conform to their dress codes. My two suits and hard bodied suitcase weighed in at 15 kilos. That leaves me a further 5 kilos allowance to pack enough clothes, etc. to keep me suitably attired for the remaining 4 weeks. This is quite simply impossible and subsequently we had to pay several hundred additional dollars on both legs for excess luggage. Princess has the ability to increase the luggage allowance at the time of booking with the airline, however they chose not to, despite the fact that it would appear that non UK passengers don't seem to have this problem, yet UK passengers are paying up to 45% more than other non UK passengers (more on that later) and Princess is happy to supply flights to passengers not fit for purpose. We took a 3 hour taxi ride from Bangkok to Leam Chebang to embark the Sapphire Princess. The process was smooth and well organised and our excessive weighing baggage was at our cabin before we got there. We had been unable to book a better grade of cabin than inside and had been waitlisted since March 07. Despite further inquires at the customer services desk we were told the ship was full and we would have to stay in the cabins we had been allocated. The ship left that evening a little late due to a medical emergency.
The Cabin Or stateroom as they like to call it -- what can you say about an inside cabin? It was small but comfortable, the shower was extremely small and we were unable to shower properly due to the curtain constantly sticking to you during the process. The toilets in both cabins smelled of stale urine for the entire length of the cruise and despite several attempts by staff, they never managed to cure it. We had no tea or coffee making facilities, unlike most ships we had travelled on previously, and the TV programming was the worst I have encountered, around six channels of constant Princess Cruise infomercials, CNN out of sync for the whole cruise, BBC world and a few very old movies and poor quality programmes repeated constantly. Whilst I appreciate one doesn't go on a cruise to watch TV, there are occasions when due to illness, bad weather, etc. that there is little else left to do. Our cabin steward was called Marvin; I think we got off to a bad start as he seemed to take it as a personal insult when we pointed out the toilet smell problem. For the entire length of the cruise he was unhelpful, huffed and puffed whenever we were in the cabin and he wanted to enter it to clean, and he never ever greeted us with a good morning/afternoon unlike every other cabin steward onboard. Perhaps it was the time of year (Chistmas & New Year) and he was missing his family. I must say, however, that despite his persistent rudeness he did a very good job cleaning the cabin.
Dining We chose the Anytime Dining option as we didn't want to be tied down to a specific time. Now in theory this sounds like a great concept. You turn up to any one of the four designated restaurants anytime before 10pm, get shown to your table and enjoy your dinner. However this was not our experience on most occasions. I'm not sure if this was because the ship was full, but on at least 6 or 7 occasions we visited all 4 restaurants to be told there was nothing available from between 30mins to an hour. At this point you are given a bleeper which goes off when a table is available. Whilst this doesn't sound like a big deal you have to queue at each of the four restaurants before you are told there are no tables available, so in total the wait for the table on some evenings took up to 2 hours before we sat down to eat. And what was the solution to this problem that was suggested by the very helpful maitre 'd? Book a table at a specific time each evening to ensure you get seated! Well surely this defeats the whole concept of Anytime Dining and you may as well go back to set dinner sittings. The idea is great but seriously flawed.
The quality of the food and service was ok. The variety of the menu we felt was average. The best way I can describe this is when on a recent P&O cruise, after looking at the menu there was nearly always more than one dish we fancied. However on many occasions there was nothing we fancied on the menu. Not the best I have had and not a patch on P&O. Also, the lack of a traditional Christmas dinner on Christmas Day was unforgivable. This ship caters exclusively to US passengers and despite the bulk of passengers on this cruise being Australian, British and Canadian they were simply not catered for. The service we received in the four restaurants was varied depending quite simply on who served you. Our general experience was the Philippine & Thai waiters were pleasant, helpful and efficient; however the eastern bloc waiters were in general quite surly and a gloom seemed to descend over the table during service. One in particular took 25 minutes to acknowledge we had sat down. Whilst I realize it is unfair to generalize, this was our experience.
We had the occasional breakfast in the buffet, however after the outbreak of norovirus during week one the buffet was no longer self service and the staff member had to serve you with everything including the coffee and tea. This led to long queues and we stopped eating there.
Room service was poor. The stateroom booklet suggests you should have to wait approximately 20 minutes for the food to be delivered. On more than one occasion we waited longer than 20 minutes just for them to answer the phone. When they eventually did, their understanding of the English language was limited and ultimately they got the order wrong. The quality of the food was poor and the waiters who delivered were generally rude if you did not tip them. On one occasion my wife ask the waiter to take a tray away with some used plates on it, and he snatched the tray and left. Half an hour later we left our cabin to find he had dumped the tray outside the cabin next door.
Entertainment I have to say that with a few exceptions the entertainment was very poor, especially as this was Christmas/New Years and 20 long days, so you would think that Princess would make an effort (push the boat out, so to speak). I have to admit that I don't like dancing & singing costume type shows, or should I say miming shows (backstage tour guy said they don't even sing) and therefore can't offer an opinion on these. The exceptions were Deep Blue, a 5 piece band from Trinidad who played in Club Fusion most nights and were very good. Also, The Sapphire Princess Orchestra were outstanding together, with the exceptional string quartet whose name escapes me. The pianist was ok together with Allan & Lodonna. Bernhard Reid, the comedy magician, was amusing and the Checkerboard Guy was good. However, most of the rest were quite simply appalling. Masquerade, a four piece band from Las Vegas, were the worst band I have ever had the misfortune to listen to. They quite simply could not sing or play their instruments properly. One day whilst playing by the pool, I witnessed them stop and restart the same song 3 times. The female singer forgot the words regularly and the guitarist regularly played the wrong notes and would stop playing mid song.
Ventriloquist Kenny Byrd was strictly for kids but was billed as suitable for adults. The two American comedians were past their sell by dates and fluffed their lines regularly. The hypnotist took 30 minutes to explain his very average show and 15 minutes to perform it. There were others who were instantly forgettable.
The daytime activities were nonexistent unless you include the following: Trivia Challenge, Card & Games Get Together, Pictionary & not forgetting the unforgettable Afternoon Trivia Challenge. On a sea day it could become quite tedious and boring and this would force you to attend things like the overpriced art auction or bingo just to pass the day, especially if the weather was not good. I went to the library once which is quite simply not big enough and only contained a very poor selection of a few hundred books when I looked. Just a note on the bingo, I have to say this does not appear to be good value for the money. They would regularly take receipts on ticket sales of several thousand dollars per bingo session, yet with the exception of the final day, would only give a few hundred dollars in prize money, and this should be looked into. I found the cruise director Sami likeable, approachable and professional in her job. Unfortunately the same could not be said for her English female colleagues. They didn't seem to grasp the concept of the microphone and would regularly wail and shout into the mouthpiece with their high pitched shrill and patronizing verbal diarrheah. This had to be endured on a daily basis. My final word on the entertainment is regarding New Years Eve, the main event was in the atrium, not an ideal place to find a seat or get a drink, yet this was deemed suitable for a New Years Eve party. The other option was the indoor pool on deck 14, where the heat was incredible at 90 degrees + and everyone in their formal dress. The problem with a pool party is the pool is in the way and there are very few chairs, no dance floor & it's too damned hot! However there was a great venue on the ship to have a New Years Eve party, Club Fusion, lots of seats, great bar, fantastic stage and lights, big dance floor, air conditioned. So what's the problem? They thought it would be a good idea to show a film there on New Years! Why?
I was really fed up at the pool party but ended up in the Skywalkers Disco, which was not very busy at all until about 1am, and I ended up having a fantastic night despite my moaning.
Destinations The main reason we picked this particular cruise was the great ports it visited. One thing we learned early on is that organised tours are a very poor value for the money and we always make our own way independently.
Our first port was Ko samui. This was by tender and very time consuming, a complete contrast to Bangkok and a nice place. However we had a bad tender experience returning to the ship. After queuing for a long time to return we boarded a local boat that was being used along with the Sapphire tenders. After reaching the ship we floated around in the sea a few hundred yards from the ship for about an hour for no apparent reason. When we eventually boarded the ship I asked the security guy why we had been bobbing about for over an hour on the sea. He said he was unable to tell me as the Thai crew spoke no English and no Princess crew were onboard. Surely this must be a serious safety issue? I have to say that because of the size of Sapphire Princess we had to tender the majority of ports. This was both time consuming and tedious, taking away almost half of your allotted time ashore on some occasions. Also when you did arrive ashore there would inevitably be a 45 minute shuttle bus ride to the nearest town and these would finish an hour before the last tender, reducing your time ashore even further. Call me cynical but when you are ashore you are not spending on the ship and that doesn't bode well with Princess.
Singapore was great as was Vietnam and Malaysia, different and interesting. We had a further 7 sea days separated by our first stop in Darwin, Australia on New Year's Day. Now I don't know about you, but I don't think this was the best bit of planning I have ever seen. I feel sure with a bit of thought we could have managed a sea day on the first hangover of the year, and just to add insult to injury a late start was out of the question as you had to be back onboard by 3pm. Darwin, for all intents and purposes, was closed. We then visited a further two great Austalian ports before we sailed majestically into Sydney harbour at 5.30am. We managed to get a great spec above the bridge and it is an occasion that I won't ever forget, bringing this cruise to a memorable and fitting conclusion.
Conclusion Despite what you may think, we had a really great time on this cruise. However, we could have had an even better time given a few changes by Princess. There is no doubt that this is a magnificent ship. However, I do feel that Princess has gone too far to get more and more dollars out of you. In addition I have never queued so much in my life for almost everything. I think it's disgraceful that they charge your onboard account with a "Discretionary" $11 dollars per day per person (almost an additional $1000 with 2 kids in tow). You should cancel this as soon as you board and tip as you see fit, and not allow this to be used as a subsidy to Princess' disgraceful pay structure, together with the additional charges to get a decent meal, charges for coffee, and ice cream, constant cameras in your face revenue raising, a further 15% on drinks, the outrageous charges made by the spa & the grossly inefficient and overpriced internet connections.
But the thing that annoys me the most is the grossly unfair practice that dependent on your country of origin will depend on how much you pay for your cruise. We paid $25,000 for 2 inside cabins and flights, not including hotels. We came across Australians, Canadians and Americans who paid on average 40% less than we did. This cannot be right and leaves a bad taste in the mouth and smacks of sharp practice. This should be stopped.
Finally there is the 21 rule. This ship is registered in Hamilton and flies under the British Ensign. Princess targets the British market where we can drink alcohol at 18. It does not sail from the USA and is not required by law to have an age 21 rule, so why? P&O and Cunard both have an 18 rule. So, why am I bothered? Because this rule is unnecessary and unreasonable. Surely if the Americans don't want their children to drink alcohol then they can stop them. Don't enforce it on others who can drink sensibly. This stupid rule effectively ruined my 20 year old son's holiday.