Cruising Is Not For Everyone
My partner, and I cruised on the Sun Princess from October 12, 2003 until the 22nd. This was our first cruise and I doubt we would do it again. Our expectations were set way too high and we did not see the supposed 'value' of a cruise vacation. Some of our complaints were minor, but the aggregate effect was depressing. I will attempt to break this down by category.
I had always heard one line about cruising: "Oh, you won't believe the food!" I could believe it. It was not special. The majority of what we ate, whether in the Dining Room or the Buffet, was banquet food. Production line food, prepared en mass, in advance, and held in warmers for who knows how long. The buffet food had the added distinction of usually being cold. (They don't use steam tables, but instead an ill-conceived, ineffective system of warming lights and hot surfaces.) The simple things like pancakes were tough and tasteless. I was tempted to trim them and use them for insoles. I could put Dr. Scholl out of business. The high end items, like the lobster tails, were overcooked and tough. The rest of the food was impersonal and seasoned for the lowest common denominator of the sensitive geriatric set.
Desserts were particularly disappointing; it felt like they were just going through the motions.
The dining rooms were loud, and every table is next to a waiter station so patrons can enjoy the traffic and noise of the food and dishes going back and forth.
The Horizon Court buffet suffers from spotty air conditioning. I was also surprised at the plastic plates, mugs, and drinking glasses, although they were some of the hottest items at the buffet: They were always fresh from the dishwasher. So if were getting a cold salad or a cold dessert or a cold beverage, you could count on putting it on a hot plate or in a hot glass.
The beverage selection in Horizon Court was dismal: the water had that fresh, garden hose flavor. The juices in the morning and the iced tea at other times were all from cheap concentrate from a dispenser. This reminded me of a college dining hall. The coffee tasted like a cross between instant and vending machine.
Aside from the foam rubber pancakes, the breakfast buffets had some weird choices for breakfast. Nestled between the bacon and scrambled eggs, one could find French Fries, or baked beans, or some Chinese noodle dish. ("Hey Harry, we have a hole on the buffet, what do ya got to fill it in that's quick and cheap?")
Bright spot: The pizzeria, Verdi's, served hot 'gourmet-style' pizzas that were actually made-to order. At night, they also did a decent lasagna. The service was personal and not production-line-like.
For the most part, the crew was friendly and attentive. Although with the international make-up of the staff being primarily from poor Eastern European and Pacific Rim countries, most of them sounded like they were going to audition for the role of Latka in a reunion of the TV show 'Taxi'. The language barrier only seemed to be a problem when you asked for something outside of the norm.
There were exceptions to the 'friendly and attentive' attitude. The people chosen to make toast on the buffet line looked and acted about as happy as the McDonald's crew members assigned to the 'Fries Station.' The dining room waiters and assistants many times were rushed. This made us feel like there was a competition between the waiters to see how soon they could turn a table. I cannot say that meals were relaxing or soothing.
From the time you enter the dining room, the hosts slam you into a table with all the finesse of the ride operator at Space Mountain placing you in a roller coaster car.
I had heard that the benefit of a cruise vacation was that it was 'all-inclusive,' except for the alcohol. And I heard that with increased competition that cruising was cheaper than ever.
As they compete to drop the upfront price of the cruise, they skimp on amenities and find every conceivable way to vacuum your wallet like a liposuction surgeon working on Rosie O'Donnell.
Soft drinks are not included. Ice cream is not included. Wine tastings are an upcharge. Yoga and Pilates require a fee. Internet use is $2.50 for five minutes. The two mile trip from the airport to the dock is ten bucks. To eat in the Steak House was an extra $8. The list goes on. And if you do find a free activity on board, you can count on a flock of waiters walking around with order pads with their battle cry of "Drinks? You want drinks?" Freaking locusts.
The drinks are priced at full bar prices and "for your convenience," a 15% gratuity is added on to every bar and wine purchase.
Also, "for your convenience" you are billed ten dollars per day, per passenger, for gratuities for your cabin steward (3.50) and your dining room staff (6.50). For crying out loud, the crew should be paid normal wages and this money should be in the upfront charge for the cruise. I don't tip the guy painting the ship, I don't tip the piano player, and I don't tip the guy taking care of the flowers and plants on board, so why the hell should I tip the other folks that are just doing their jobs UNLESS they go out of their way for me? If I am just a normal consumer of expected goods and services, I see no reason to pay above and beyond the already agreed upon rate for the cruise. This is just a ploy to make the trip seem cheap upfront.
The shore excursions were the biggest disappointment. We signed up for three for our first three ports of call. The first one in Curacao was supposedly highly recommended by, past participants, Tour E, the 'Sea and See.' At $54 dollars a head, it was overpriced by at least $34. It was so dismal, that we wanted to cancel the other two we signed up for. Unfortunately, the cut off time to change your mind occurred while we were off being disappointed on the first tour. The purser gave us a hard time about canceling the tickets. The best he could do was to try to resell them. (He did eventually find a buyer.) He kept going on about the cut off time having to be strictly enforced. I could see that if I wanted to casually change my mind in some ditzy fashion, but when I am obviously unhappy with the quality of the product, exceptions should be made. After all, the next tour was a bus trip, it was not like they were going to incur any additional expenses if we did not go. Here was a chance to show that they were concerned with the passenger's happiness, and instead it was an ugly incident.
You can book tours of the islands for less than half the price of the Princess shore excursions. One would think that the advantage of going through the tour office would be some sort of satisfaction guarantee, but that is obviously not the case.
The Ship itself:
The Sun Princess is well maintained. The staterooms were small, but I expected that. The rooms were very efficient and functional.
DO NOT book an inside stateroom to save money. If you can't afford a room with at least a window, stay home. We had a large window and were grateful we did. If you are thinking, "what difference does it make, I'll never be in the room anyway?" - you will not be a happy camper. You might not spend a ton of time in there, but it should be pleasant.
There are signs to encourage you to use towels more than once to save our planet. That's fine. I reuse towels at home. But at home, I have racks to hang the towels on to properly dry between uses. The ship doesn't.
The common areas were clean, and there was constant activity to keep it that way. The atrium was all the marble, brass and glass that one would expect in a high-end hotel.
I am guessing that there is some sort of sewage treatment facility on board and perhaps the water used to flush the toilets is cleaned and recycled. Every so often, you could catch a whiff of something unpleasant. That was only once in a great while though.
The ride was smooth and we suffered no sea sickness.
The pools were a little smaller that we imagined and we wished that there were at least one lane reserved for swimming laps. But otherwise they were OK.
The elevators had no air conditioning on our cruise. The main bank of elevators was grouping of six just forward of the atrium. The weird part was that there were not linked all together. Normally when entering an office building or hotel or hospital, there is one call button for the whole bank of elevators. You press the up button, and the first available car responds and the up light goes out. In this case, they were grouped as two, two, one and one. Inevitably, folks would press the up or down button for each separate grouping and wait to see which car arrived first. This means that the other cars were not cancelled and they would stop for passengers that already boarded another car. So every elevator ride was hot and would tediously stop at almost every floor, whether it had to or not.
There is no cold water on a Caribbean cruise. The faucets and showers only had variations of hot and warm. Thankfully, each stateroom had a small fridge that was stocked with ice twice a day.
Ports of Call:
This is where it really broke down for us. We have stayed on St. Martin, Key West, Curacao and St. Thomas for a week or more each in the past. Coming in on a cruise ship and visiting an island is not the same thing. It is like the difference between going to an Imax theater and catching the highlights on TV.
Isla Margarita was the biggest dud. This is a fairly new port for the ships. While they are building a new $21 million port facility in town, the ships currently come in on the other side of the island where there is NOTHING. Nada, zilch. The main town is 45 minutes away by cab.
The Princess Cays had a nice beach, but it was our shortest stop. You had to be back on the ship by 2:00 pm. The food was sub par. I guess I had visions of pig roasts or other fancy fare, but the buffet consisted of hot dogs, hamburgs, macaroni salad, and the like.
Various flavors of lame. The production shows featured singers with limited ranges and unlimited hammy-ness, along with lip-syncing dancers with a moderate amount of talent. There was a hack comic telling jokes that circulated on the Internet months, if not years ago. The jugglers were fine, but juggling has a limited appeal. The movies were obscure releases for the most part (Alex and Emma, Plots With A View, Whale Rider) with Terminator 3 thrown in for good measure.
The disco was a morgue that had a lingering tobacco smell.
On Board Shopping:
$3.50 for a tin of Altoids? Gimme a break!
The rest of the jewelry and alcohol seemed pricey too.
There was an Art Auction just about every day. The expensive items (several thousand dollars) seemed to garner no bids, and the less expensive stuff was hideous.
There were photographers all over the place, but I could not see buying the souvenir photos at $20 a whack.
On the whole, I felt hustled, rushed and at times just plain bored. This doesn't mean that there weren't folks having the time of their lives. I imagine that these folks enjoy Home Style Family Buffet, the Home Shoppjng Network, and look forward to the next Police Academy movie.
Last note: I wish in this time of heightened security that there inspectors going through everyone's luggage and confiscating every Speedo bathing suit belonging to some overweight, old, hairy European.