I've just returned from the April 13 sailing of the Star Princess to the Mexican Riviera. Before I left I became completely addicted to the Cruisemates message boards, so I'm writing this review as a thank you for all the great information and advice. About us: we're both professionals in the San Francisco Bay Area, and this was our very first cruise (we're 27 and 28, have traveled in Europe and the U.S., but never before in Mexico).
We had an oceanview stateroom in the forward section of the Plaza deck. The window was quite large and let in lots of light, so the room always felt cheerful and surprisingly spacious. Our room had a mirror, desk, hairdryer, TV, small refrigerator, big closet with lots of hangers, and lots of drawers for storage. Luggage all fit under the bed. The bathroom was very small (think: airplane), especially the shower. Ladies, if you're planning to shave your legs in the shower, start taking yoga now before it's too late. Once you've mastered wrapping your knee over your head, shaving will be a breeze. Towels, pool towels, shampoo, conditioner, soap and lotion are provided. I brought a plug-in air freshener/night light, which seemed really clever until I discovered it had a polarized plug that didn't fit the bathroom electrical outlet. Fortunately there was some sort of fan in there so it never got too stuffy.
Our stateroom steward was a lovely young woman with mysterious ways. We're accustomed to hotels on land, where the housekeepers replace toiletries and towels and make the bed, but are not supposed to touch our stuff. Our stateroom steward, on the other hand, seemed to spend a lot of time rearranging our stuff into neat little piles on the desk, but would forget to bring us shampoo and conditioner. We decided our mess might be distracting her, so we arranged our things into neat little piles ourselves before leaving the room. When we came back, all our piles had been rearranged into entirely new little piles in brand new locations, and our pool towels had disappeared! Still no shampoo. We tracked her down in the hallway and found out she didn't know where to get new pool towels, so she took the dirty ones but didn't replace them (we got some eventually, though!) To solve the shampoo problem, we took to leaving her little notes in the evening if she forgot anything in her morning visit. The artful rearranging was her strong point-every day it was our private joke to try to guess her new hiding place for the Princess Patter (daily ship newsletter)-the weirdest was inside a folder tucked behind the TV! All joking aside, we realized she meant well, but was probably new to the job (understandable on a brand new ship).
Ship Facilities and Entertainment
We picked this ship partly because it's so large (holds over 2500 people), since we both are very prone to motion sickness in cars and airplanes. I'm happy to report that most of the time we could hardly tell the ship was moving. The last day was extremely rough (they had to cancel the show in the Princess theater above our room), so we took Bonine just in case. We were just starting to feel unwell when the medicine kicked in, so I'm glad we brought it.
There are two large pools and three small pools-all heated, fresh water, one of them with a retractable roof for cold days. This came in handy, since all the sea days were cold and windy (about 60 degrees on deck). Unfortunately, the large pools tended to be dominated by the 12-and-under set, with lots of screaming, splashing, and belly flops into the pool. I really wish both large pools had retractable roofs; then one could be designated for adults only. As it was, we got as much use as we could out of the two smaller outdoor adults-only pools. The two small pools in the aft of the ship were especially nice-they were almost always empty and serene. We had a lovely evening on a warmer day in Mexico, watching an amazing sunset from the far aft pool, all by ourselves. The pools weren't quite what I would ideally wish for (my ideal being the Bellagio pool area in Las Vegas), but certainly were better than expected for a mid-priced cruise ship.
On colder days, we stayed in and watched a movie in their theatre or went shopping (lots of reasonable shopping, with a changing selection every day). One day we went to a concert by the Capriccio string quartet, which was very enjoyable. Our favorite hangout was the Wheelhouse Lounge, a beautiful, cozy bar with dark wood decor and comfortable couches. The waiters there were knowledgeable and very friendly, with amazing memories-they always remembered us and our previous drink orders! Prices were very reasonable by San Francisco standards ($5 for most mixed drinks, $3.50 for the daily special). One night they had $3.50 martinis of every description in the Wheelhouse Lounge-we tried some new ones and they were very skillfully prepared. We watched some entertaining passenger karaoke, and caught an enjoyable show by the comedian Sarge. Sometimes, when our money was weighing us down, we watched it disappear in the casino (Very Stingy slots). Speaking of money, we absolutely loved using our cruise card for all expenses. It was so liberating not having to carry around a wallet and worry about having small bills for tipping-15% automatically added to the bar bills, and tips for stateroom and dining staff were automatically billed to our account daily ($10 per person). I found it incredibly convenient to have everything consolidated in one bill on my credit card at the end. We only used cash for the casino and for purchases and tips while in port.
The formal nights were fun, and a great chance to wear those old company Holiday Party dresses I never thought I'd be able to wear again. Having everyone dress up greatly increased the festive atmosphere, especially on the last night when they built a champagne waterfall at midnight in the Atrium; everyone threw streamers from the balconies above, and the dancing lasted until the wee hours.
We usually ate at the Horizon Court buffet for breakfast and lunch, then had dinner in the dining room. The Horizon Court has a large selection of food that, if not especially exciting, was at least reasonably fresh and well-prepared. Every dish has a time listed for when it should be replaced, and it was clear they followed these times to the minute. It's not gourmet, but there's generally something for most people. We are both mostly vegetarian, but we do eat fish and shellfish. We never had any trouble finding things to eat in any of the dining venues on ship. In fact, the dining room had a full vegetarian menu every night. We never got sick from any of the food, never even indigestion (a vacation first, believe me!)
The dining rooms seemed to have better food than the buffet. Actually, it seemed to get better as the cruise progressed, perhaps as the chefs took on more fresh food in port and let themselves be creative. The first night we were less than impressed, but several other nights left us very satisfied. At home we eat out in a wide variety of restaurants, and on special occasions we splurge on 5-star restaurants. The food on ship was more like two or three star level, like the sort of place where you would pay $7-15 for an entree. The presentation is very nice, though, which makes the food seem of higher quality. My pet peeves were the soups that tasted the same every night, and the saltine crackers served with the cheese course (good cheeses, though!) We usually had an appetizer, a soup, an entree, and then cheese or dessert. Sometimes we followed that up with coffee and biscuits, if they had any available. We especially liked the food on Italian night-we had to waddle out afterwards! I actually feel guilty voicing any criticism of the food when I consider the fact that we didn't have to pay extra for meals. The quality and variety is truly amazing when you try to calculate the budget they must have to work with.
We went with Personal Choice, and we loved it. Both of us are very shy and uncomfortable talking with strangers (I know, it's a miracle we found each other!), so we would have dreaded the traditional seating. I just wish they had more tables for two available, since those seemed to be in highest demand. Generally if we showed up between 7 and 8, they would tell us to come back in 20 minutes. Between 6 and 7pm, or 8-9 pm, we had no trouble being seated immediately. Reservations can be made, but they must be done by 5 pm and we were never that organized. We never had the same waiter twice, but only one out of all our waiters was less than perfect. The rest were attentive, friendly, refilled glasses and removed dirty plates instantly.
We only tried afternoon tea on the last day. Apparently a lot of other people had the same idea, since they seemed to be prepared for a much smaller crowd. We were served once and then never again-everyone else at our table left in frustration (yes, you have to sit with strangers for this one, but most people kept to themselves). We waited patiently and were served scones again later (delicious!). The little sandwiches were very refreshing, too.
Tequila's, the alternative Mexican restaurant, was surprisingly good. It's worth the $8 price for the "free" margarita they serve (a whopping 16 oz!) I was expecting toned-down gringo food, but the salsa and guacamole had generous amounts of fiery chilies. The tequila-flamed shrimp were very good, and the flan dessert was a perfect, refreshing finish to a spicy meal. If you like authentic Mexican food, it's worth a try. We found it a welcome break when we were getting a little tired of the Horizon Court food towards the end. It wasn't crowded, so I doubt if reservations would be necessary.
After seeing all the mixed reviews of Sabatini's, we decided we'd rather spend $30 on an Italian restaurant we know is good in San Francisco. $15 each also seemed steep without any drinks included with dinner. We tried the pizza place by the pool once, just for plain cheese pizza. It reminded me of Costco pizza. (I'm not knocking it-I happen to like Costco pizza!)
As for beverages, tea, coffee, iced tea and water are free all the time, plus orange juice in the mornings only. (All the tea bags are plain Lipton, surprising on a ship with so many British crew members!) We don't drink soda, but we do drink lots of water, so we brought a travel Britta and some water bottles for our room fridge and it worked out well. The water in Horizon Court tastes awful; ditto for water straight out of the room tap. But the Britta cleaned it up beautifully. Dining room water tasted fine. Several wines were recommended for each night's menu; we usually chose one available by the glass and were always happy with our choice.
Ports and Shore Excursions
We signed up for all our excursions on the Princess website as soon as we got our cruise information in the mail. It worked well--we had no trouble getting tickets for everything we wanted. The weather was warm in Mexico (70 degrees in the morning up to 90 in the afternoon), which was welcome after our chilly days at sea.
In Puerto Vallarta, we took the Coastal Drive and City Tour. Our guide, Jose, was funny and knowledgeable. We stopped to check out the cathedral, then drove down for brief stops at Mismaloya Beach and one other point along the coast. Then we proceeded to a beautiful open-air restaurant with a palapa roof, with stunning views of the coastline below. We had a free soft drink or beer, then headed on to the city for a 20-minute shopping stop in the block of shops recommended by Princess. After all the hype about the millionaires and celebrities in Puerto Vallarta, I was surprised and saddened by the obvious poverty everywhere-clearly the wealth has not trickled down to the people. We bought some reasonably priced leather items at Rolling Stones, which had a great selection of all types of leather. Everyone accepted American dollars-in fact, you could usually get a discount if you paid cash instead of credit card.
There were flea markets by the pier at all the ports we visited. I liked Mazatlan's market the best-best variety, atmosphere and marked prices. But if you've been to Olvera Street in Los Angeles, you've already seen a better selection of Mexican items, often at better prices. If you feel compelled to break the law, Cuban cigars are widely available. We bought a wonderful bottle of anejo grade tequila. I always used to think all tequila went down like Drano, but this stuff gives our 12-year old single malt scotch some stiff competition. We could have bought it for about the same price back home, but it was still a great souvenir.
In Mazatlan we took the Deer Island Sea kayak tour. They didn't give us any instructions on steering the kayaks, so it was scary at first as we drifted out to sea while figuring out how to steer. But once we got the hang of it, we had fun (great workout!). This is an excursion for people who are physically fit-it also includes a hike, but we preferred to hang out on the little beach instead. Overall, I have to admit this excursion sounded better in the brochure description than it turned out to be in real life. The fish were literally leaping out of the water, so fishing at this port was probably very good
In Cabo we took the Sail and Snorkel excursion to Santa Maria cove. The motor-sail boat (Princesa) was beautiful and well-kept, with an able and friendly crew. We came upon a humpback whale and her baby while sailing; when the captain cut the motor, they came right up within a few feet of the boat. It was an incredible sight, and apparently extremely rare. It was our first time snorkeling, and we found it really easy and fun. Even people who couldn't swim had no trouble floating with the life vests provided, and the water was crystal clear-very cold, but we got used to it quickly! We had a fantastic time swimming with all the tropical fish. On the way back, the crew served guacamole, chips, tuna sandwiches, beer, and margaritas. We went up close to Los Arcos for photos, then headed back. It was a marvelous tour, without a doubt the best we went on and the only one I would do again.
If we did this itinerary again, I would probably stick to the beach and water activities, maybe try the Krystal Vallarta pool area. The bits of the towns I saw were interesting, but for me, the best features of these ports were the natural beauty of the scenery and the lovely climate.
Embarking and Disembarking
We drove to the Los Angeles harbor and parked there ($10 per day). Arriving at the ship at about 11:30 am (there's a complimentary shuttle if you have to park far away), we got in the express line because we had already filled everything out on the Princess website. Within seconds, we got to check in, only to discover that they had no internet connection and couldn't access our information. So we had to fill everything out again. Then we got in a huge line to board the ship. In retrospect, it probably would have been better to arrive around 1pm, when the lines were much shorter, but I'm too paranoid about unexpected delays. But overall it was pretty easy.
Disembarking started out well, but passengers failing to follow directions delayed everyone. Each deck was supposed to report in to customs in the Vista Lounge at a specific time, starting with Aloha deck and working downwards. It went so well that they were ahead of schedule by the time it was Plaza deck's turn, so we got to go early. Very short line, very fast. Customs is easy: you hand them a sheet confessing all the useless junk you bought on your trip, they check your passport or other I.D., they stamp the sheet and off you go. Unfortunately, there was one couple, a certain Mr. and Mrs. X on Aloha deck (I won't say their names even though it's burned in my brain after an announcement every five minutes) who failed to show up at their appointed time for Customs. They were among the first who should have shown up, but about three hours later there were still AWOL despite constant ship-wide announcements. A few other people also failed to show up, but these two were the worst offenders. In the end, they delayed everyone from leaving by about an hour, because we weren't allowed to leave until everyone had been through Customs. (Believe it or not, our Cruise Director said the same thing had happened the week before because of one man who didn't follow directions!) The ultimate irony is that, in spite of their bad behavior, Mr. and Mrs. X must have been among the first to leave because the ship was emptied from top to bottom and they were on Aloha deck. We sat in our room watching TV until it was time to leave-the public areas were too crowded with people cursing Mr. and Mrs. X. Once ashore, we had to fight our way to our luggage through something like a shark feeding frenzy (probably people made late by Mr. and Mrs. X), then slowly made our way to the curb, where a couple of women with no official uniforms or anything were collecting our customs forms. That part could have been better coordinated. We overheard someone saying the wait for a taxi was one hour, so we were really glad we drove. The car was still there, now covered with a thick layer of seagull target practice and sand (don't say I didn't warn you!) For disembarkation, you can probably expect to experience some stupidity and rudeness. Try not to let it ruin your hard-earned worry-free vacation.
We were very happy with our first cruise, and in many ways it far exceeded our expectations. The Star Princess is a beautiful ship that will keep you well-fed and entertained while you effortlessly travel from port to port. Mexico was a fun and easy destination, and the people there were all friendly and very grateful to cruises for bringing so many tourists to energize their economy. I would do this itinerary on this ship again, just choosing some different shore excursions for variety. As for cruising, I'm so glad I've discovered such a relaxing mode of travel-can't wait for the next one!