Two months got the cruise bug again. This time we are taking two adult daughters and a friend. Booked a balcony guarantee for three and a mini guarantee for us.
In short order we got cabin assignments; Baja 743 for them (second cabin from the rear) and Dolphin 215 for us.
Five days before the cruise, I learn the company I had used to obtain the booking has gone belly up. Triple check and our cruise has been paid for and is secure.
The morning of embarkation, we woke up to a weird cloudy sky. Found out quickly that the hills of North Eastern Los Angeles were once again on fire. The strange thing is this exact same thing happened last year when we took the same cruise. In addition, another large fire broke out to the East.
Got our junk together in record time and all five of us met down at the docks just before noon. We would have been on board in record time, except the wife recognized the person who checked us in as an old friend from 18 years ago. So after all the jabbering, we breezed through security and were in our cabin by 12:30.
The sky south of the ship was a bright blue, while everything to the North was a dark gray to black, from all the smoke. Went up for a snack at the Horizon Court. Rather strange to look out one side of the ship to a bright San Pedro, and then turn your head to see what appears to be the makings of a terrible storm.
Went forward on Lido to the pool area to watch Ports-O-Call to go by at "sail away". People were swimming, dancing and really trying to have a good time. Unfortunately, the sky was raining ash from the fire 20 or so miles away. Ash from dust-sized particles to large one-inch chunks of burned vegetation fell on the entire county. While most just brushed their hair off or swiped a towel at a chair, some folks were having a problem just breathing. We were not having a great time so decided to fall back into the cabin and wait for the ship to push back.
Just as we were entering the cabin an announcement came over the P/A from Captain William Kent. The brush fires were so bad, 50% of the freeways coming into Los Angeles from the North were closed this morning and were still closed. 300 or so passengers had not made it onto the ship; the Captain stated he had orders from Princess Corporate to delay departure from 4 PM to 7 PM. So much for the great "sail slower and save fuel" concept.
Went to dinner at 6 PM at the anytime "Santa Fe" room. Another disconcerting experience -- we were seated next to a window on the starboard side that was level with the second floor of the cruise center. Eating prime rib and glancing up every so often to see a longshoreman staring at our family eating.
7 PM came and went but the ship stayed put. Captain came on again stating he had been ordered to wait until 8 PM for the last 17 passengers. As it happens, we ran into a couple of the latecomers that night. They said they came into Los Angeles over the "grapevine" expecting to get to the cruise center in the usual 3 hours. Hit a wall of brake lights, waited a while and finally turned around and drove a couple of hundred miles to get around the problem. The 3 hour drive turned into an 8 hour endurance race. More about this later.
A little after 8 PM we pushed back and eased into the channel. The Captain once again came onto the P/A to say everything is fine and we will get into Puerto Vallarta on time.
This is the first time we have indulged in a mini-suite and it may have spoiled us. Dolphin 215, starboard side about 120 feet behind the bridge wing.
For those who have not had the privedge; bathroom is about three feet longer so a bathtub could be wedged into the space. The tub is rather deep and installed even higher to accommodate the plumbing pipes between tub and deck. Only after getting in and out do I find the hand bar that was hidden behind the towels.
I didn't think the extra 12 feet of "sitting room" would make that much difference. I was wrong. The sofa/couch is a welcome addition and the small table and second chair that have always been in the way in our balcony cabins, now have a logical place to be. Half the time when we are in the cabin one of us is on the sofa.
Being on Dolphin, the balcony is about 9' by 10'. A table, two ridged chairs and two reclining chairs fill this area. A table and two full loungers would have been perfect.
Plenty of storage room, about the same for the standard balcony. Only difference is the TV/refrigerator/sideboard looking thing. Shaped in a half circle on the wall opposite the desk, it has two TV's on the top shelf (one for the bed and one for the sitting area), a large granite counter space, refrigerator and two large shelves.
Need an electrical plug, no problem. Just inside the door, a double outlet near the floor, and in the bathroom a single outlet for low amp devices only. A double outlet at the desk and behind each of the two TV's. Nine outlets, no problem, right? The outlets are so close together and the plugs and transformers for my devices are so large, I can only plug in one thing at a time at any of the locations. I guess that power strip I forgot back at home would have come in handy.
We meet our steward, Rico Lalap, who is pleasant enough. The room is set up as twins, so when we ask for the bed to be changed to a queen, with egg crate and robes, he states he'll change the setup within the hour and will try to supply the egg crate and robes today, but can't promise they will be available. We say anything would be appreciated and more than likely these will be the only requests for the week. By the third day, we have no other requests and Rico has a true smile when we pass in the hall.
I set up the laptop at the desk and soon discover I can link up via Wi-Fi from the cabin. Don't know if the ship has been upgraded or it's because we were so close to the bridge. I don't care, just happy for the convenience.
When the ship was first put into commission, the plan was to have one large traditional dining room with an early and late seating. Four smaller rooms were to be used as P.C. (Personal Choice) dining. For this ship 1/3 traditional and 2/3 P.C. Over the years the concept of P.C. changed to "Any Time" with any nuance that the ship itself instituted over the years. Anyway ON THIS cruise this is what's going on. The Savoy, Pacific Moon and Santa Fe are the anytime dining rooms. The International and the smaller Vivaldi are traditional seating. Bottom line, we have anytime dining and have had to wait every night for a table no matter what time we arrive. Don't know if anytime is on the way out or if Princess just changes what dining rooms do, depending on how many people want traditional.
And now a word about dining room dress code. On the first night we saw someone turned away because he was wearing shorts that were mid calf. Ten minutes later a man with shorts and T-shirt was shown to a table. On the first formal night, a man was turned away from two rooms because he had no tie. The third room he was admitted without a problem. Whatever dress code there is depends on who is working the door.
We sailed South at the normal fuel burning 21 knots and arrived at the scheduled time of 10:00 AM in PV. Other than a walk over to Wal-Mart, we just enjoyed the empty ship. After leaving Puerto Vallarta, my wife spoke with a woman who lives in the "valley" in Los Angeles, a 90 minute drive on a normal weekend. Due to the fires closing freeways, they got to the pier at 8:45, long after the ship had cleared the break water. They flew down to P.V. to meet the ship.
In Mazatlan, we found the old cruise center had some new paint and another room had been added. But the passengers getting off the tram still have to deal with a gauntlet of time share salesmen, vendors and 20 or so men trying to get you into their limo, R.V., taxi or golf cart. Since the cruise center only allows certain sales people in, they must have to pay for the privilege. In other words, the cruise passenger is subjected to the pushiest salespeople I have ever seen with the approval of the cruise center. New paint on the cruise center, calling the clean part of town "Golden Zone" and calling every day hotels "resorts", Mazatlan is still a small industrial city that needs to clean up more than just the streets. Anyway, the five of us went to Stone Island using King David. Several hours of quiet time near the beach with some simple food and a plate of boiled shrimp. Yes there were a few vendors selling the usual stuff. A simple no and they move on. A return trip to Stone Island in the future is not out of the question.
In Cabo, we again opted to stay on the ship. This is the abbreviated stop so anything one plans can only last a few hours. After 1:30, the last passengers returned from shore but we didn't leave. There was a mechanical failure in the life boat's wenching system that was never actually repaired. It took hours to recover the tender/life boat and the ship did not pull anchor until long after sunset.
Princess had again scheduled the Sapphire to sail slower to conserve fuel and return to Los Angeles at 8:00 AM, two hours later than the usual 6:00 AM. Again the Captain had to drop the hammer and head North at full speed. We were told we would dock at 11:00 AM, but due to the lack of head winds we shaved an hour off the time. Our disembarkation group was to meet in the Casino, rather surprised that there were less than 30 people there. As we waited for our group to be called for disembarkation, we watched Christmas decorations being put up about the ship. We were off and on the way home by 12:20 PM.
The ship itself was in excellent condition. Bright paint, only sign of wear I found were the hand rails inside the elevators. Even the carpets looked new. I know the ship is more than a few years old, so I did look for anything negative I could find. Two burned out light bulbs, that's it.
Overall the food quality was good, only excellent quality we experienced was the one night we tried Sterling. Horizon Court food was sometimes cold and on the greasy side. Items on the standard room service menu tended to be dry. Service in the dining room was excellent as usual.
The CD and staff were bright and cheery but seemed plastic at times. Happened by a "repeat" show one night and saw the assistant CD do the exact four minute intro word for word. A number of different stage productions were presented during the week, I don't think there was a repeat performance of any one show. There were a few "comedians" who did 30 minute shows who only had a good 10 minutes of material. Quite a few pax were observed to leave the theatre in the darkness. Dan Bennett performed three shows one night but was sandwiched in between the Newlywed Show and movies; he had to cut his act short due to time constraints. Too bad, his act was the best available for the entire week. I can only assume Princess has cut back on the budget for entertainment and depends more on stage shows, movies and shows costing nothing since the talent is provided by the passengers for talent such as Princess Idol.
Hopefully Princess is paying attention. We have cruised with this line repeatedly because of the attention to detail and quality of product provided in the past. In my opinion, it appears they have started to cut corners as far as food and performers brought on board. As mentioned, they attempted to save money by reducing ship speed. It makes one wonder where else the bean counters have forced cuts.
All five of us had a great time. My 20 something who had turned her nose up at the thought of a cruise quickly planned her day around trivia and bingo. Like her father, she looked for somewhere to hide so she wouldn't have to get off the ship.