For my wife and I, this was our 28th cruise together, our fifth and sixth with this line (as Princess Cruises). Truly, it was an outstanding itinerary. The first 20 days, from Bangkok to Sydney, visited exotic Asian ports before cruising along Australia's northeast coast. It's a long way from home so we opted to continue on for 12 more days to six more ports, ending in Auckland.
Embarkation was reasonably quick but our pre-registry both on-line at during our pre-cruise hotel stay failed to avoid a line-up. The ship was late leaving because of a medical emergency. If the captain had maintained a speed two knots faster, he'd have made our first port, Koh Samui, on time; as it was, the late arrival threw shore-tour arrangements into disarray. Tendering ashore, we discovered, is not a Princess strong suit.
The Sapphire is too big to moor at some cruise terminals, so we'd be bused in from a container dock. The tour office insisted on assembling us in groups on board before anyone could proceed ashore; a bus-number sticker was required before assembly. This rampant bureaucracy delayed every tour but one of all those we took in our 14 ports. I saw no evidence whatsoever that anyone in the shore excursion office had ever taken any of the tours they sold.
The ports, however, were fascinating, none more so than Vung Tau, the (far-away) gateway to Saigon (aka Ho Chi Minh City), which is a teeming place of seven million people and three million motorbikes. They're officially communists in Vietnam, though no one seems too worked up about it.
At our next stop came an incident which illustrated how the people who ran the ship dealt with the passengers. After leaving Kota Kinabalu, we anchored offshore and a fuel barge came alongside for much longer than seemed normal. A rumor swept the ship: we'd run aground and had fuel offloaded, then reloaded after floating free! The cruise director denied the tale and pooh-poohed any notion that we should be told what actually happened, so the rumor fed itself. Many days later, we found out the truth: bunkering was not allowed at the dock in that port, so the fuel barge came alongside; its flow rate -- 50 liters per minute instead of the expected 300 -- kept it in place for many more hours than had been planned. But tell us? Nope. Communication about arrival times from Bridge to passengers was generally non-existent. And the daily Princess Patter might as well have been written in Los Angeles for all the help it was. Still free of charge, though. A daily newspaper, absent one written on board, cost from $3.75 to $15.
The pattern continued: interesting ports on shore, myriad minor annoyances on board. And oh yes, the nickel-and-diming. Princess has turned squeezing every last dollar out of every last passenger into an art form. All the big lines do it to some degree; this one is by far the most egregious. Pay $3 for pizza delivered to your room, pay $5 for a rose, pay $25 for an 8x10 picture, pay 75 cents a minute for the Internet (plus another dollar for coffee in the Internet cafe), pay $3.50 a day for a soda card, pay up to 30 per cent more than the market rate for on-board currency exchange, pay for soft ice cream and freshly-squeezed orange juice on the Lido Deck. Never mind sky-high spa prices, very pricey shore tours and pushing sales of bottled water when we got it for free on every tour but one; one takes all that for granted, at least on this ship.
There were some strong positives. The Princess Theatre is, in my view, the best showroom afloat: technically first-class, great sight-lines, great chairs. But at 700 seats, it's small for a ship carrying 2,700 and more passengers. The Brian Harding Orchestra was the best we've heard on a cruise, and all but one of the lounge bands were excellent; also the string quartet. The guest entertainers -- comedians, jugglers, magicians, singers and the like -- were pleasant but second-rank. Not one lifted the audience from the seats. The Princess singer/dancers were very good (particularly, after I met her on a back-stage tour, the nice blonde one from South Africa).
We found the ship very clean, the cabin storage space very good, the service at the front desk pleasant and efficient. Disabled access is excellent in public areas: we saw several passengers happily moving about in electric scooters. Once we got our room steward working on our schedule and not his, he did a fine job. Breakfast room service was very punctual. The extra-cost Sterling Steakhouse was fine, though you paid $15 each for a meal that used to be served in the main dining room. The safety briefing and lifeboat drill was far and away the best we've been through: serious, informative and very thorough. And the line's website was easy to navigate and use.
Now the negatives, nickel-and-diming apart. The lounges were well-designed for selling and serving alcoholic drinks, but not well set up for daytime events. I don't drink alcohol and I got very tired of Diet Coke, there being no mocktail of the day or lemonade available. The only forward-facing view lounge is Skywalkers, the late-night disco all the way aft. It was barely used during the day, but made a very quiet spot to put your feet up and read. Standard cabins, despite excellent storage space and quiet cooling fans, had the smallest shower stall I've experienced at sea, with inadequate hand-holds.
The Horizon Court buffet on Deck 14 has too few seats and a very confused system of food selection which forces passengers to squeeze past each other to move through it. The food variety was poor and the quality mediocre. Bar service on this deck (and others as well) was slower than should be the case.
We opted for the second sitting of "Traditional Dining;" Despite excellent wait-staff at our table, we had trouble getting to the 10:15 shows on time in the first 20-day segment.
Our second segment, 12 days to Auckland, began in Sydney, the pier a medium walk from the opera house, a work of genius from any angle. What a joy it was to experience the port as 2,500 people rushed to get off and an equal number rushed to get on.
The mood changed. It was as if someone had read the Riot Act to the crew about the quality of service. The new cruise director, a solid pro, was a vast improvement over his predecessor. We always got to the shows on time. The shore-tour desk was no better organized, but the ports were interesting and the weather had cooled to a pleasant level.
On January 21, we docked in Auckland and Princess got us off the ship efficiently. We got home to find that readers of a distinguished travel magazine had ranked Sapphire Princess last among big ships; not exactly a surprise to us. Were I a shareholder I would be both pleased with the impressive generation of on-board revenue and concerned that the number of passengers turned off by nickel-and-diming will outnumber those attracted by even deeper fare discounts. We had a wonderful cruise, have planned another on a much smaller Princess ship, but won't recommend this line without very compelling reasons which trump the problems we encountered.