We were booked on the Grand Princess to leave 2/2/08 from Ft. Lauderdale for a one week Western Caribbean cruise traveling with our adult children and their spouse or significant other. The plan was to leave Chicago on Friday, 2/1/08 and stay overnight one night pre-cruise to allow for any weather delays. This proved to be prophetic as it started snowing on Thursday and continued for 24 hours, dumping about a foot of snow in Chicago, causing cancellations of 600 flights on Thursday at O'Hare and continuing on Friday. Lucky for us, we were flying United which has its hub in Chicago and we not only had an aircraft at our gate but our flight was on time. The "kids" were taking public transportation from the city while we arranged a taxi from the suburbs. They actually beat us to the gate while we barely had time to check our luggage before the 25 minute cut off time. The anxiety over the weather overshadowed everything else on our minds with us getting up several times during the night to check the snowfall and/or the Weather Channel.
As we finally winged our wayto Ft. Lauderdale with great relief, something my son had said about his passport stamps triggered something in my mind. I turned to my husband and asked if he had brought the passports as they had been sitting on his dresser. The horrified look that he gave me confirmed my fears. We weren't going to land for another 2 hours and had no way to contact anyone for that time. We frantically discussed this with the kids trying to come up with some solution.
The girl sitting next to me overheard our conversation and suggested that we have someone go to the house and FEDEX them to us. The problem was that anyone who had a key to the house was sitting on the plane with us. She suggested that we could get a friend to have a locksmith meet them at our house to open the door, retrieve the passports and then send them to us at the hotel where we were staying the night. This sounded like a good idea to me but DH felt that there was too many parts to this plan that could go wrong and his plan was to fly immediately back to Chicago and come back the next day.
As soon as we landed, we called Donna, our trusty travel agent for advice and she called Princess to confirm that we absolutely needed passports or a certified copy of your birth certificate to be allowed to board the ship. She suggested a national database here in the States which would send you a certified copy of your birth certificate overnight. The fly in the ointment for that idea was that hubby was not born in the USA. We asked her to start checking flights from Ft. Lauderdale when I mentioned the locksmith idea. She became very excited and said that she had a good friend who was a locksmith and she would call him and ask if he would do this for her.
While we went down to baggage claim, we also talked to the Princess rep who met us for the bus transfer to the hotel and told her that DH might not be coming with us. Donna called back and said that while the locksmith would open the house, he would not go in it because of the liability involved with his license. His best friend however was Donna's ex-boyfriend and he agreed to go along and get the documents off Karl's dresser and take them to a FEDEX-KINKOS for next day delivery. Donna had also found the closest FEDEX-KINKOS to our house and that they had late pick-up to 7 PM for next day delivery. Since it was only still 1:00 PM, Chicago time, we felt we had a chance for success.
Confident that we had a solution, we boarded the bus to the hotel. Donna called us about 10 minutes later and conferenced us in with the locksmith who was having trouble opening the lock. He said that he had to make a key in order to open the door and did my key have a number on it. It was the original key which did indeed have a number on it and he was able to open the door! Confirming the hotel address with Donna and the exact location of the passports in the house, she said she would call us later to confirm that the package was on the way. We were just pulling up to the hotel when she did call and said the envelope would be delivered by noon, guaranteed.
Our son-in-law asked us to get the tracking number and he would check it for us the next day. Donna called us back that evening with it and we all breathed a sigh of relief. We were so grateful to her for going above and beyond for us; we could not thank her enough! You would not get someone to do this for you from an online agency or if you had booked directly with the cruise line. She charged the locksmith fee, about $100 and the FEDEX fee about $44 to our credit card. This was a small price to pay for our stupidity. There was no charge for all of her trouble organizing this for us.
Check in at the Marriott North which we had booked through Princess was painless and we asked to have rooms together which were no problem for the efficient clerk who checked us in. I also asked about receiving a package the next day and was reassured that FEDEX definitely stopped there. Our rooms were comfortable and clean, typical Marriott decor which we are familiar with, being Marriott Reward Members. Everything was prepaid, except for any meals or drinks we might have while being there. The hotel had an adjoining nature preserve which was used by guests to wander through. We had wanted to find a grocery or liquor store where we could purchase some wine and vodka to take with us on the ship. There wasn't any within walking distance.
The hotel restaurant was between meals so we all met in the bar for a drink and decided to walk across Andrews Ave. to the small mall for dinner. There was a multiplex there plus several chain restaurants, Chammps, Longhorn, Hooters, Sweet Tomatoes, Dunkin Donuts, some Italian place and probably a couple of others I don't remember. We voted for Chammps and were very pleased with the menu and the large portion sizes which none of us could finish. After only an airport breakfast and all the subsequent anxiety, we were finally hungry enough to eat. It was still only about 6:00 PM but after wandering around the mall, no one really wanted to see a movie so we all decided to head back to our rooms to watch TV and crash.
The next day before breakfast, Jeremy checked the tracking number and said the envelope was currently in Pompano Beach which was the next town away. We went in for breakfast buffet anticipating that it would be there shortly. By eleven it was still not there and I asked him to check it again and it came up with an "exception." I called 1-800-GOFEDEX and they told me that the address was incorrect! But the package was on the truck and I could pick it up at the facility when the driver came back and don't worry because they were open until 7:00 PM. Small comfort when the ship was sailing @ 5:00! I was beside myself and I'm sure the person on the phone could hear the panic in my voice. She said that they could leave a message for the driver and hope that he would respond while still on his route. They asked for the correct address of the hotel which we provided and all we could do was wait. Karl was berating himself for not flying back to Chicago and taking care of it himself! Too many people involved make mistakes happen!
The hotel had given us a letter telling us to meet downstairs @ 11:30-12:00 for "pre-check-in". We had already placed our luggage outside our rooms at 9 AM for bellman pickup so we sent the kids down for the "pre-check-in" thinking we needed our passports to do this. It was simply passing out and filling out the health form and receiving a colored card indicating which bus you would board. We checked out of our room and anxiously awaited a call back from FEDEX. Unbeknownst to us, Donna had also noticed the incorrect address that morning and was also calling FEDEX.
I tried calling FEDEX again around 12:15 and got the same response, that they would send a message to the driver. I got the address for their depot in case we had to go there and retrieve it ourselves. In the meantime, we pulled our luggage out of the Princess pile so it wouldn't get on the ship without us and waited while the Holland America reps boarded about 12 buses for their cruise. We discussed our problem with the hotel manager and he assured us that the FEDEX depot was only 10 minutes away and most Saturday deliveries were over by 1:00 so we should have no problem getting there to get our package and making it to the ship on time. He even said that he would arrange for a Lincoln Town car for us that would be the same cost as a cab and would wait for us. So we had an alternate plan to pin our hopes on. Meanwhile, DH was waiting outside looking for any FEDEX truck that came by so he could throw his body into its path just in case it was the one with our passports. The kids were wondering if after all this planning for a family vacation, the parents wouldn't make it.
Karl had me call again @ 12:50 and the FEDEX person noticed a message that said that the driver would be there in 15 minutes! As soon as I hung up, Donna was calling us with the same news. She was feeling responsible since it was her friend who had put down the wrong address! They all raced outside waiting for the FEDEX truck to make an appearance while our daughter stayed with me calming my frazzled nerves. A few minutes later, FEDEX pulled up and Karl ran to him to claim our envelope. The driver questioned him because our name was spelled incorrectly but DH pulled out his driver's license to prove it was him and then tipped the guy.
And yes, inside were the passports, the bill for the locksmith and the key he had made to get into the house. Princess was still boarding buses and had not yet called our color. Our luggage went back into the pile and we were finally on our way! Had we ever discussed our passports before leaving? Yes, a few days earlier I had asked where they were thinking that if they were in the bank vault, I would have to go get them. But DH had assured me that they were on his dresser. And we then promptly forgot about them with all the anxiety over the weather.
On the bus ride to the pier, I kept touching the passports to reassure myself that they were really, truly in my possession. I think all of us were thinking about how soon we could have a drink when we were on board to "come down" from all the anxiety of the previous 24 hours. At the Terminal, we saw several ships like the Carnival Liberty, Holland America Westerdam, and RCI's Navigator of the Seas and, of course, the Grand Princess. Our son, David, ever the joker, was saying, "Hey Mom, I thought you said these ships were big?" Our luggage had gone on the bus at the hotel and we never had to see it again until it showed up outside of our rooms. Before we were allowed into the terminal we had to show our Passports (!) and our boarding passes which were scrutinized by name and photo. Our carryons were run through the scanner and we passed through a metal detector before passing further into the building.
There were no long lines and we all walked up to the check in for Aloha deck where we presented our passports, boarding passes and most importantly, our credit cards. Passports were scanned as were the boarding passes and credit cards; we were presented with our room keys and then walked through Security one last time showing our room keys before joining the queue for the boarding photos. Karl & I skipped this but insisted the kids do it as a souvenir if they wished to purchase it later. Right into the lobby where we were directed to the elevators and our floor. Our rooms were amidships and right off the elevator lobby so they were easy to find. I like the Princess touch of posting your names outside your room and having a little clear "mailbox" there also.
Karl & I had been on the Coral Princess the year before for a Panama Canal cruise but this was the first cruise for our family. We brought our daughter Alison, 35 & her hubby Jeremy, 34 and our son David, 29 with his girlfriend Missy, 28. There was some concern on our part that the age demographic would be in the "senior" category but there was a number of families on board with a broad range of ages. One family was having a reunion of about 30 members from all over the USA. After checking out our rooms, we went in search of the buffet for a snack to hold us over until early seating dinner. Here was where we found what we considered a major flaw of this ship; there was no central staircase for the passengers to use. Although we were one deck below the Lido deck, we had to go from the middle of the ship to the end each and every time we wanted to go up one deck. Or take the elevators which was a waste of time.
After lunch, David & Missy took off for some exploring on their own while the rest of us relaxed for a few moments. Finally being on the ship, I wanted to savor the experience before rushing off to do something else. But curiosity took over and we started at the top by the Skywalkers night club in the "shopping handle" end of the ship and worked our way down back to the pool deck where we hooked up with David & Missy again for our sail-away drink and bid adieu to Ft. Lauderdale for 7 days. We watched the Holland America ship back its way out of its berth ahead of us and sail down the channel before it was our turn. Leaving the channel we saw the Navigator of the Seas begin their maneuver away from the dock. For most of the cruise, we saw these ships flanking ours on the high seas and at night looking spectacular all lit up against the blackness of the open ocean.
Our luggage had arrived so we could clean up, change clothes and go down for our first dinner with Jorge, our waiter from Mexico and Englebert, our assistant waiter from the Philippines. There had been much discussion among our family about the seating times as the younger generation gets home from work later than we do and are used to a later dining time. I had thought that perhaps we would change to anytime dining after the first night but as it turned out, the ship left most ports by 4:30-5:00 PM and the early dining worked out well as then we all dispersed to our own devices for the rest of the evening. Since I tend to be an "organizer" or as my hubby calls it "bossy," we agreed that since everyone was an adult, they could do what they wanted on the cruise but that we all eat dinner together to share our days. As it happened, we crossed paths most days around lunch by the pool and spent an hour or so recounting their various shore excursions. They never suggested opening the doors between the balconies of our cabins to maintain their privacy. This was a family vacation of 6 adults, not 2 adults and 4 children.
The first sea day was of course, Sunday which happened to be Super Bowl Day. Karl, David & Jeremy all were looking forward to watching it on MUTS but it was very windy on deck as well as a little bouncy. Now Karl & I were never really conscious of the movement, but Alison was feeling rather queasy the first 2-3 days. We all ended up in the Vista Lounge where they showed the game on the big movie screen from an international feed without the commercials. They also did show it on MUTS and in the Snookers sports bar. Karl was disappointed that the casino wasn't taking any action (bets) on the game but not everyone was interested. It was also the first Formal night and we had let Jorge & Englebert know that we wouldn't be in the dining room that night. Princess put out a nice little spread of nachos with guacamole & salsa, pizza and little hot dogs wrapped in dough guaranteed to make you thirsty! The bar waiters were really hustling to fill the drink and the buckets of beer orders. Some passengers went up to the buffet at halftime for something a little more substantial but we all filled up on the junk food and the guys filled up on the beer too. I saw quite a few people dressed up which made sense since only about 400 or so were watching the game out of 2600 on the ship. Not being a big football fan if my BEARS aren't in the contest, I spent the third quarter in the casino before coming back to see the conclusion and the most exciting part of the game. By the time it was over, everyone was pretty loopy from the food and drink and the kids had early shore excursions the next morning in Ochos Rios, so we all headed to bed.
We were all pretty pleased with the Princess concept of "smart casual" in the dining room for most nights. Karl & I have been on 6 Celebrity cruises and while we like the Formal nights, the "informal" nights requiring the gentlemen to wear a sports coat and the ladies a nicer pantsuit or dress which are a bit much for a 7 day cruise. We have done it on a 14 day Hawaii cruise and believe me, it is a lot of packing. At least on that cruise, Karl rented a tux so he could eliminate the suit and extras. We have paid more than once for overweight bags on the airline and he is not a happy camper about it. Jeremy, David & Karl each brought a suit but we only went to one Formal night so while we went for a formal picture, it was a burden to bring it along.
Monday was our first stop in Ochos Rios and we were at an industrial kind of dock a short distance away from the main dock near all the shops. Princess was running a free shuttle there if you didn't want to walk along the road. Alison & Jeremy had signed up for an excursion of ocean kayaking and Dunn's River Falls. David & Missy were going to be more laid back and check out the area if there was anything they wanted to see or buy. Karl & I headed up to the very empty (by 9 AM) gym area to work the treadmills and watch CNN. This was the only stop where we had some rain. A few brief, if intense showers occurred and the sun was out by the time we pulled away from the dock. We ran into David & Missy by the pool and had a grill lunch with them. By the time they were ready to leave, Alison & Jeremy came by so we held the table for them so they could get some lunch. They found sushi in the buffet and were delighted to have this option. I should mention that they took photos of all their dinner food with their digital cameras because they were so impressed with the presentation and selection. This was crab leg night and we were all very impressed with this entree.
Tuesday was Grand Cayman and again the "oldsters" stayed on the ship having been there 4 times already. The "young-un's" actually signed up for the same bus excursion to Hell and other points of interest. They were very on top of things, reading their Princess Patter and knowing to purchase stamps for postcards from Hell prior to leaving the ship. They did point out that they were the youngest ones on this excursion which involved minimal walking. They thought that they wanted to have a day to sleep in and not have to be off the ship every day @ 8 AM for an active excursion. Our weather was great, in the 80's & sunny and once we got past Cuba, the oceans were calm and the ship without any noticeable vibration. By this day, Alison had her sea-legs and was feeling pretty good. This is a night we should have gone to one of the specialty restaurants since it was Caribbean night and the choices on the menu were not too good.
Wednesday we tendered into Cozumel as there were 9 ships in port; 2 Carnival, 2 NCL, 1 RCCL, 1 Celebrity, 1 Costa, 1 Holland America & us, the Grand Princess. This was the only port Karl & I agreed to get off and do some shopping. Now I know what a sacrifice this was for him to accompany me as this is a man who will say that he would rather have his teeth drilled without Novocain than go shopping. But I was on a mission to purchase some Mexican vanilla and a Christmas ornament and he actually wanted some cologne. I also ended up with a lovely silver bangle bracelet courtesy of my husband. A word of caution about the vanilla. Don't buy it in the first store you see. This is what I did and I got the jumbo size for a very reasonable price. The bottle was the approximate size and shape & weight of a bottle of Amaretto. Only after we were hauling it around did I start to think about how I was going to get it home. Too big to carry on by far and pretty heavy to put in a tight suitcase. I had brought several sheets of bubble wrap and some larger plastic bags in anticipation of us being able to buy some liquor prior to boarding the ship, but that hadn't worked out. Lucky for us, our new suitcase had a built in scale and we made it under the allowed 50 lbs. Back on the ship after our shopping and it was time to relax in the hot tub once again.
Thursday was our final sea day and the last Formal night. Karl & I splurged on the Ultimate Balcony Breakfast and for $32 plus a 15% gratuity, it was a big disappointment. We substituted Eggs Benedict for the smoked salmon and we could have just ordered coffee and sweet rolls from room service and gone up to the buffet for a better selection. The split of champagne that came with it was good quality, Moet & Chandon, and we ended up drinking it in the evening when we came back to our room and sitting on our balcony.
This is one of the things we prefer about Celebrity; the full room service menu for all meals including dinner.
David, Missy & I attended some team trivia, winning 3 sets of Princess Luggage tags and going for the last big day of BINGO. I had had some luck in 2006 on our Hawaii cruise by winning the last game of Bingo for about $3500 which I had to split with another person. Always looking to repeat, I went with them. On the last game, the cover-all card, I was down to 1 NUMBER! The Bingo host stopped the game and said that from now on, if you had one number to stand up. So I did. And I was the only one! Unfortunately, he never did call the number I needed and about 4 people ended up splitting the prize. David & Missy were beside themselves with excitement and then disappointment. We headed back to the room to finish getting ready for dinner and our formal family portrait. Most of us ordered the lobster but Missy & Jeremy who are from the East, elected to have the Beef Wellington. They might have had the right idea since the lobster was so small as to be minute and was served w/2 prawns as well. I think they must save the big Lobster tails for the people who pay the $100 premium for the Ultimate Balcony Dinner.
We only saw 2 shows, since the production shows were identical to the ones we had seen on Coral Princess the previous year. A comedy duo juggling act who we recognized from having seen them on the Horizon many years ago and Al Katz, the comedian who was moderately funny. Most evenings we played Blackjack or 3 card Poker in the casino and managed not to lose too much. I think I only lost $200 for the whole week.
Friday, our last day, came too quickly and we prepared to tender off the ship @ Princess Cays. We had pre-booked beach cabanas and snorkeling equipment. I am glad I had read the info about the beach on these cruise boards. The sand was very thick but very soft and actually hard to walk through. The ocean floor however, was filled with rocks covered with seaweed and most people without surf shoes were not venturing out very far. I had pointed this out to the kids before we left, insisting that they get some beach shoes and they were glad that they did. The snorkeling was good, especially with the fish food supplied with the equipment in the deluxe package. The fish just swarmed all around you. The whole area was very clean, well maintained and the buffet was handled well. I don't know if it was because it was winter, but we did not see any bugs or flies around which you would expect with food and open garbage. The bathrooms were very clean and the only complaint was that the faucets to rinse off your feet were in the middle of the sand! I hated to think how much sand we were all bringing back on the ship. I imagine that the vacuum cleaners were going all night cleaning it up. We took off our surf shoes and bathing suits in the shower to try to minimize how much we were tracking into the room. This was the only day we got some sun which was evident when we took off our suits. We all took showers and naps before dinner. Too much fresh air and water!
Dinner was American night and they featured Prime Rib which was very good and of course, Baked Alaska. David had eschewed the other desserts all week for cheesecake and he did the same this night also. I had wondered how Missy would do with the menu every night since she is a very picky eater, but she found something she liked each night and loved the dessert soufflés, as did I. Alas, dinner was over too soon and Karl & I hit the casino one more time to pay homage to Lady Luck but she did not return the favor, so we literally packed it in and got our stuff outside the door for pickup.
We had an early flight @ 11:10 AM and I was wondering how rushed we would be, but we all gathered in the Vista Lounge by 7:30 and we walked off the ship @ 8:30 right onto the bus for Ft. Lauderdale airport and of course the 10 minute ride there. Our plane was on time and we were deplaning @ O'Hare @ 1:00 Chicago time. Our sweet week and our family vacation was at an end. David was staying at the airport as he had an afternoon flight to London as part of a band tour to Europe for the next 9 days. The rest of us all hugged and kissed goodbye and agreed to meet up at someone's house when David got home to share photos. It was very hard to come back to the very cold temps and blowing snow of Chicago after the beautiful temps and sunshine of the Caribbean. The next day, the temps plunged below zero and we were back to reality.
I'm Al (age 65, cruise #23, third on Princess, second on the Grand), she's Josie (age 61, cruise #2, first on Princess). This was our first voyage together... and having survived a week in cramped quarters, and sharing a bathroom, we've decided to proceed with our wedding plans.
EMBARKATION: We arrived around 2:30 p.m. and were aboard ship within ten minutes. The combination of a passport and boarding pass (printed from the Princess website) expedited the process. The cruise was sold out.
THE SHIP: I was a bit apprehensive over cruising on an "older" ship (do you believe it... the Grand already has nine years in the water). It was the first of the 100+ gross tonnage vessels... and look what's happened since her launch in 1998! There are a few telltale signs of wear and exposure (the pool deck and some exterior wood could stand refinishing, and there's some peeling paint, patched carpet, and other minor bumps and bruises) but overall, the ship is in excellent condition. We booked an inside guarantee, and were assigned Stateroom B611 (about midship on an upper deck). Given that we paid so little, we were morethan satisfied (I live in Florida, so water views aren't a priority for me). If there's a major issue, it remains the smoke-filled environment in the casino and nightclubs (I encountered a similar problem on prior sailings). We're not gamblers... but having to pass through on the way to other places was uncomfortable. To Princess' credit, though, they've initiated a "smoke-free night" (6:00 p.m. to midnight on Wednesdays). The discomfort is magnified in the clubs, as they're smaller venues. Frankly, there are better smoke removal systems than that on the Grand; and there didn't seem to be all that much casino action, even at night and on sea days (slot machines were readily available, several tables had only one or two players, and a few were empty). Could there be a connection here?
THE CREW: Our steward, George, was outstanding! He was attentive, personable, and very accommodating. We inquired about adopting him, but the present climate with respect to non-citizens would make such a move impractical. We chose Anytime Dining, and met some lovely people. Service ranged from efficient to impeccable... no complaints whatsoever. We were treated well at every meal. Our preference was the Michelangelo Dining Room on Deck #5.
The Cruise Director, Neil Roberts, was competent, if not exceptional. The same can be said of his staff. As for the rest of the crew, those we encountered were friendly and eager to please.
Just a word about "your personal shopper," Jennifer: this is one slick chick. She says all the right things in all the right ways, so as to induce a "feeding frenzy" amongst the uninformed, gullible passengers. Those silly "Savvy Shopper" books ("Hurry, we only have 200!") sold in a matter of minutes (and at $25 a pop). She even predicted a finite ending to the world's supply of tanzanite ("The price keeps going up, so buy now. By 2010, the mine will be dry.") Sure... and those hundreds of stores with thousands of pieces will shut down! This has to be the biggest hype and cleverest marketing ploy in the history of both cruising and jewelry... ever wonder why 99.9% of the stuff is sold at cruise ports? I couldn't keep up with the number of times she mentioned, "tax-free and duty-free," or quoted some outrageous savings over US retail. The Western Caribbean is simply not a particularly favorable shopping location... certainly not in the league with St. Maarten or St. Thomas. But this gal presented her spiel in such a manner as to entice the unknowing into believing that the merchants are standing at their doors, eager to all but pay them to take the stuff off their hands. She's very good at what she does, so a word to the wise...
Then there's the art auctioneer, Daniel. Unlike the situation on other cruise lines, he actually works for Princess, and the program is run entirely in-house. He's young, well-traveled, intelligent, personable, and seemingly an inexhaustible source of knowledge. Yet it seemed a bit odd that he referred to a prominent Israeli artist as Levi Dorit (always called her Levi, as if she were his next-door neighbor) when in fact her name is Dorit Levi... just something to ponder. It also seemed somewhat strange that every piece purchased was sold at the opening bid... not one bump on any work! Hmmmmm... . Josie was lucky enough to win a "free" piece of art (with a $20 charge to ship it), but her invoice was somehow juxtaposed with another... and a charge of over $1400 appeared on our statement (just another reason why I always check it a day or so before the end of the cruise). It was eventually resolved, but we had to be a bit more proactive than necessary before the matter was rectified.
FOOD: For the most part, meals were very tasty and nicely presented, although a couple of appetizers missed the mark. Those smaller cocktail shrimp were soggy, and had a profound iodine taste (they just don't freeze well). A crab quiche was gritty, and lacked texture. But salads (a nice variety, by the way) were always crisp, soups were very flavorful (the cold ones were wonderful), main dishes quite satisfying (the tournedos of beef tenderloin were fabulous, and the lobster tails... all four of them... were prepared perfectly). Desserts were their usual decadent selves. By the way, there's a huge difference between the real coffee served at dinner and that reconstituted syrup in the dispensers... . the latter might be able to take the paint off your car! We didn't avail ourselves of the specialty restaurants... and apparently neither did many others. Each time we passed them (including prime dinner hours) they were sparsely occupied. Buffet offerings were the usual fare... nothing special, but very satisfying.
ENTERTAINMENT: I've never been a fan of cruise shows... and this voyage confirmed that. Josie hadn't seen many, and we did attend a couple. Save for some techno-gimmicks and costume changes, the song-and-dance numbers weren't much above high school performances. While the house orchestra was better than most, and one of the lobby pianists displayed an incredible passion for his music, the other duos, trios and club bands just weren't very good. The comedians were ordinary at best... I guess that since there's no more midnight buffet, their material is limited.
SAILAWAY/DAY ONE (at sea): As the ship departed Galveston, I found myself in some sort of time warp. I hadn't sailed Princess in over two years (Caribbean Princess, 11/04) but something other than the Electric Slide and Macarena had to have popped up during the interim. Unfortunately, nobody on the social staff has discovered anything to replace those shopworn, threadbare activities. The dozen or so people who participated appeared to enjoy themselves... but the other 2500+ passengers pretty much ignored what was happening. This should be more of a festive occasion... even the music was uninspiring.
We spent most of our first day exploring the ship, relaxing in the Conservatory (our favorite place on deck) and meeting up with all those folks from the Cruise Critic thread. Several of us hooked up for some shore excursions... very nice people. It was fun to associate the faces with the names.PORTS OF CALL:
DAY 2/Costa Maya: We arrived at about 9:00 a.m. One of the smaller Carnival ships was also in port. This was my third visit, but my first since May of '05. I was expecting to see a bit of progress ("bit" being the operative word), but the place looked virtually the same. There's an edifice just outside the port which was about 25% complete when I was last there... and I swear, the same two workers were erecting the same wall, and had probably added a dozen or so concrete blocks over the past year-and-a-half! It's Mexico... and it will be done when it's done. Realistically, the port is a good ten years away from becoming the "next Cozumel" (not that it's anything to strive for). We booked a tour of the Mayan ruins through Native Choice (www.chacchobenruins.com) and took a van to Mahahual, where we met up with Ivan. He's a remarkably intelligent, engaging and fascinating individual... actually born at what proved to be site of long-lost treasures, raised in the Mayan culture, secured a college degree (speaks five languages), and returned to his roots (with an American wife, no less). His father actually discovered the site, only to have the Mexican government seize the land in the name of historical significance. His knowledge of the Mayan civilization goes far beyond that of the typical tour guide, and his personal experiences added much to the tour. If you're going to see any Mayan site, this is the one (if for no other reason than that its being centuries older than the others... and it still hasn't been fully excavated); and be certain that you ask that Ivan be your guide (he is part-owner of the company).
DAY 3/Roatan: We docked at about 7:00 a.m., and were the only ship in port. I was really looking forward to this stop, as it's the only one I hadn't visited. Overall, it was disappointing... just not much there. We booked with Bodden Tours, and a very courteous driver/guide was at our disposal. There were only four of us, and we pretty much saw what was there in a couple of hours. We stopped at an iguana sanctuary ($5pp additional) which is dedicated to preserving the various species, since about 85% of the locals eat them. There are about 4000 there, along with some other wildlife... but it's more of a photo opportunity than anything else. We also visited the beach at the west end (another charge... $10 per vehicle) which is lovely... but I live close to two of the top ten beaches in the world, so it wasn't very impressive to me. Apparently, many Europeans visit, judging from the languages spoken at the various resorts. There are several high-end developments underway ($350k and up for a 1-br. 2-ba. 870 sq. ft. condo) which are also being marketed overseas. All they're buying is the view, which is beautiful, especially to Europeans. Along the way, we stopped at several photo-friendly spots, coincidentally occupied by native hustlers selling everything from coffee to coins... and the tradition is being passed on to their children (not unlike Jamaica, St. Lucia and other such places). On the positive side, though, was the availability of bargain-priced souvenirs (we stocked up on $2 coffee mugs)... but if we don't visit the port again, it won't be a major disappointment.
DAY 4/Belize: We were one of five ships anchored about 9 miles offshore (Carnival is apparently constructing a permanent dock, but it's years away, since the area will have to be dredged to accommodate the mega-ships). Our group met at 8:00 a.m. at the site where tender tickets were distributed, and we all disembarked together (we were two of 31 who booked a cave tubing excursion with www.cave-tubing.com... the hyphen is important... through our correspondences at Cruise Critic). This turned out to be one of our all-time favorite shore trips. Yhonny (all 5'2" of him... "small but effective") and his crew of six provided an exciting, well-organized and memorable day ("We don't sell excursions; we sell adventures!"). On the way, we all celebrated Josie's birthday with a spirited (literally) toast using local cashew nut wine. The guys were just great, although the wine tasted more like furniture polish... I guess it's an acquired taste. Be prepared for quite a trek to the jump-off site through a rain forest (they market it as 30-35 minutes, but it's closer to an hour) and it can be a bit treacherous (very muddy and slippery); but the guys were there to help, and everyone made it. Insect repellent turned out to be our most valuable commodity, since those red ants love imported meat. Once we were lowered into our inner tubes (no mean feat, by the way) we were hooked up to each other in groups of 5 or 6 (there was a total of 38 people) by placing our feet under the arms of the persons in front of us (it's not as funky as it sounds). As we pushed off, we were guided through the caves and down river in complete safety. Any apprehension we might have had quickly dissipated... the guys were in total control. This is in sharp contrast to the excursions booked through the cruise lines. Groups of fifty were escorted by only two guides, went through only one cave (we did two), stopped about halfway down the river, and weren't tethered in any manner (their trip bordered on the chaotic... people bumping into cave walls, floating away from the group, becoming entangled in the marshes... and for more than twice the money we paid). Our trip was $45pp, the ships' about $99. We wouldn't hesitate to do it again!
DAY 5/Cozumel: We decided to forego any planned activity, and just go ashore for a while (I've been there at least a dozen times, and nothing really appealed to us... that cave tubing experience was excitement enough)! Here's where Princess really dropped the ball. The combination of Hurricane Wilma and the Why-Do-It-Today-When-You-Can-Do-It-Next-Year Syndrome has resulted in a very limited number of docking berths. As a consequence, five of the seven (count ‘em, seven!) ships in port had to tender, including the Grand (we were one of four over 100gt). As if this weren't bad enough, the wait for the tender itself seemed interminable, as did the time it took to load 500 (yes, 500) passengers onto a vessel that was pitching and rolling, while people attempted to board. There was absolutely nobody from Princess aboard the tender to assist, and we literally passed folks down from one set of hands to another. A good number of them had considerable difficulty keeping their balance. Given the line's standard of service, this was totally unacceptable. Of course, with the population of Cozumel increasing by about 15,000 for the day, we felt very uncomfortable having to step off the sidewalks into the chaos of oncoming traffic. Those "Savvy Shoppers" were scurrying from store to store, looking for those free baubles and worthless trinkets offered by the "recommended" merchants (translation: those who pay kickbacks to the cruise line), only to find that some were not free, or that a minimum purchase was necessary. After picking up a few things at the $1 store, and taking a couple of photos, we headed toward the sanctity of the ship... a much better ride back in a smaller, air-conditioned tender. We spent the balance of the day relaxing, wandering the ship, talking to people... certainly better than fighting crowds in pursuit of those perceived once-in-a-lifetime bargains.
DAY 6/at sea: After breakfast, we packed everything we wouldn't be using, and thus had the entire day to ourselves. The weather turned chilly as we headed north, so we spent our final day indoors... thankfully, the temperature in the Conservatory was delightful. We actually had the opportunity to enjoy a sit-down lunch, and vowed to do it again on future cruises. Both of us are conscious of our weight and overall health... and it was wonderful not to have to look for a seat while carrying trays. We attended the art auction, poked around the shops (there was the equivalent of a yard sale in one of the dining rooms... mostly leftover merchandise from the '06 European season), browsed the photo gallery (we actually purchased two... previously $19.95 for an 8x10, now $21.95 for a 4x6)! But they wound up costing us nothing out of pocket, since we had a shipboard credit from our travel agent. We attended the comedian's second performance (no better than the first) and called it a night after that.
DISEMBARKATION: The ship arrived back in Galveston around 6:00 a.m., and the process began around 7:45. It was almost comical to see the people who chose the Express Checkout option struggling with their luggage... . older women trying to yank suitcases the size of a small car, while their husbands kept urging them to hurry. Apparently, it was a popular choice, since it took well over an hour for those folks to depart. Our color and number weren't called until well after 9:30... this system obviously needs work. Once we got downstairs, we quickly located our luggage, and were out the door in a few minutes.
SOME FINAL THOUGHTS: Overall, it was a lovely cruise, especially for the price we paid (under $1000 for the two of us, with an additional $100 onboard credit)... it would probably have cost us more to stay home! We purchased some liquor aboard ship (not nearly the bargain that we'd get in St. Maarten, but less than in port, and about half of what we'd pay at the local package stores). When we arrived home, we discovered that we were two bottles short. We have to go through some contorted process to receive a refund, but we'll eventually get our $30 back... again, a procedure which should be streamlined. Would we sail the Grand again? Only if we got another deal. The timing was perfect... Josies' birthday, sailing out of Galveston (she lives in Houston), a good time of year to cruise. The ship will be leaving Texas in late April for Europe, and isn't scheduled to return for the ‘07-'08 season. There's a huge state-of-the-art terminal being built in the Houston area, so Galveston has its work cut out (only Carnival sails from there year-round, with other lines cruising for part of the season). But it was a week away from the grind, and some quality time spent with the love of my life... now to book our next cruise!
We enjoyed this cruise very much, however, the food was disappointing. The dining room was very cafeteria quality. The seafood smelled fishy and the steaks were tough to chew. The chicken had a bit of an odor. They had two paid restaurants you could elect to dine at that were good but we felt the food served here should have been the quality that should have been served in the main dining rooms. The buffet food was good and we primarily dined here because pizza, hamburgers and fries is hard to ruin.
What makes this cruise worth taking is the service. The service was unbelievable. Everyone is friendly which includes the people at the pursers desk. They really go out of their way to make sure you are happy. I highly recommend the dine-any-time feature because you will want the flexibility to avoid the dining room food and there are some days, you don't know when you will eat due to an excursion or the desire for down time.
The tours were well organized but a bit pricey for the options they offered. I would avoid the wine tours because theyare very informal and professional like Napa or other well known wine tours in the United States. On one of our wine tours, we arrived at someone's house and the owner of the winery was taking a nap. They quickly took us to some random garden in their house and then a quick tour of some wine barrels. We were then given 2-3 small sample glasses of wine. The tour guides were disappointing. They were friendly but disorganized. Many of them were boring to listen by providing unnecessary details. Many of them lost passengers and the tours lasted longer than scheduled due to the tour guides being verbose and wasting too much time at certain stops.
I recommend this cruise for it's service and overall organization but for the money you are paying, I would strongly consider Holland America or Celebrity Cruise lines first.
12 DAY CRUISE DEPARTING FROM ROME AND ENDING IN VENICE WITH STOPS AT GREEK ISLES, TURKEY AND CROATIA. WE WERE TRULY AMAZED AT THE EFFICIENCY IN MOVING 2400 PEOPLE ON AND OFF THE SHIP AND IN AND OUT OF LAND TOURS. WE HARDLY HAD ANY DELAYS. EVEN GETTING SEATED IN THE "ANYTIME" DINNING ROOMS WAS QUICK. BREAKFAST BUFFET WAS GREAT. DINNERS WERE JUST OK. I PREFERRED TO EAT A BIG LUNCH ASHORE TO ENJOY LOCAL FOOD. I BROUGHT A BOTTLE OF LOCAL WINE BACK TO THE SHIP AT EACH STOP. SERVICE THROUGHOUT THE SHIP WAS EXCELLENT AND FRIENDLY. WE HAD AN OUTSIDE CABIN ON BAJA DECK FURTHEST TO THE STERN AND HAD NO DISTRURBANCE. THE ITINERARY WAS FANTASTIC. STOPPING ALL BUT ONE DAY AT A NEW PORT. ALTHOUGH SOME MAINTANANCE (IE CARPET REPLACEMENT, PAINTING)WAS GOING ON, IT DID NOT INCONVENIENCE US. WE WOULD HIGHLY RECCOMMEND THIS CRUISE TO ANYONE. P.S. DO NOT TAKE THE DONKEY RIDE TO THE HILL-TOP CITY OF SANTORINI. YOU COULD GET INJURED BADLY.
My husband and I took our 4 kids on a Western Carribean Cruise for Spring Break out of Galveston. We live in West Houston so we drove down to Galveston (about 1 1/2 hours) about 9:30 a.m. Saturday morning. We got there around 11:30, and it was incredible how smoothly the embarkment went. From parking, to checking in...everything was a breeze!! I beelieve the whole procedure from start to finish (ending with us in our cabins was 30 minutes). Our luggage was delivered within an hour. The had the 24 hour restuarant opened and we went and had lunch after we checked our our cabins. The disembarkment went as smoothly as the embarkment. Princess has it down pat!
Our original destinations included Costa Maya, Grand Caymens, Belize and Cozumel. They had repaced Grand Caymen a few weeks a\\before our cruise due to ship some problem, and replace with Playa Del Carmen. They had such a positive paanger report to the port, they kept it. WHen we set sail,the water, due to high winds, was rough the first 3 days of our trip, making the kids sea sick (but nothing that dramamine...I recommendthe non-drowsy kind) didn't take care of. The waters were still rough when we were supposed to dock at Costa Maya, and unfortunatley it was too dangerous the Captain said to do it. SO unfortunately, we were not able to dock and sailed right by it. We were VERY disappointed, but ending up having a great time on the ship that day.
We had a great time! My husband and I were looking more for a relaxing vacation, but with our 4 kids, and all the activities the ship had, we needed another vacation after the cruise! One thing we did note, was that the staff on the Grand Princess were very professional and hard workers, but they never showed the enthusiasm and welcome that we have expereinced at all-inclusinve resorts that we have stayed at. I think I realized why after talking to some of the waitstaff...they have long hours, and no days off for months at a time. They go back to Galveston and then turn right around and do the whole trip again...and again and again....
Notes for other first time cuisers with kids that might be helpful:
1. With kids that are older-bring Walkie Talkies. We had a hard time getting reception when we were in our rooms, but for on the decks and main public areas, they were great. 2. Bring water on board and other drinks that you might like to have to keep in your stateroom. We kept on buying bottle water and that gets expnesive! 3. Bring water toys and floaties/life vest for your younger kids. ALL of the pools were over our 4 year olds head, and the kiddie pool was nothing but a miniature water slide. 5. For younger kids that might be sleeping in top bunks-make sure you bring a portable bed rail. They do have low metal ones on the bunk beds, but they are low and short and in no way cabable of coralling a restless 4 year old. 6. Oh yeah...and don't be like us and forget the stroller!!! We ended up buying one in Cozumel. 7. One last thought, tkow of my kids packed in their camp trunks and that ended up working out awesome!! With the lack of drawer space in the cabins, they used the trunks as their "drawers" and it helped keep the rooms neater!
We would go back to the Grand Princess, but next time we would take an extra week after the cruise just to recuperate!!!
We are three couples from Denver who decide to cruise together, and we surely enjoyed this wonderful cruise out of Galveston, Texas. We flew from Denver into the Bush International Airport in Houston arriving at 9:15 pm, claimed our bags, and got on the hotel shuttle van. We did a pre-cruise night at the Holiday Inn on J F K Blvd. near the airport. This was a good choice for our Houston stay. We stayed in Houston because of the arrival time in Houston, and the because of the higher cost of the rooms in Galveston. After checking into our hotel, we enjoyed a lite dinner in the restaurant at the hotel. This hotel give us a great rates on our rooms, they give us the "cruiser's special".
The morning of our cruise we boarded a shuttle van we had reserved weeks in advance for our trip to Galveston. We reserved this shuttle service weeks in advance for our transfer to the Grand Princess. We read good things about this service in cruise reviews. This shuttle was another great choice we made in preparation for our cruise. Our driver was awesome,he give us a tour on the way to the cruise terminal, He offer us a wealth of information about Houston and Galveston, and for first time visitors like us, we truly appreciated his insight. This service also returned us the airport on the return from our cruise. This was great, while everyone else from the cruise was fighting to board the cruise line's buses or shared the ride shuttles and taxis. Our driver picked us up curbside at the terminal within minutes of our disembarkation. This driver is a pro.
Now about the Grand Princess. My wife and I loved this Grand Princess. This is truly a big ship. It's a beautiful ship, and well care for in every aspect. This was a totally relaxing cruise which is what we look for in a cruise.
The Grand Princess is a beauty from bow to stern, and she is very â?ouser friendly.â? The itinerary is just right for this ship. This was one of the most relaxing cruises my wife and I have taken and we spent a great deal of our time aboard ship, and still found we didn't have time to do all there was to do. If anyone wants a laid back cruise, this is it. And first time cruisers will enjoy it because of its blend of ports and days at sea.
The Grand Princess was a pleasure, from our cabin, our balcony, the food, casino, total relaxation, the very friendly and efficient staff and crew and yes, even the walking. We would do it again in a heartbeat.
Ports include Belize, Costa Maya/Majahual, Grand Cayman, and Cozumel. This was a wonderful cruise the six of us enjoyed thoroughly. We would recommend it to anyone, especially those wanting to cruise out of the Galveston/Houston area. You will get your money's worth and more.
Looking for a great cruise, do on the Grand Princess, if your looking for a good dependable shuttle service to drive you your ship, call Mr. L. J. Cormier at Texas Cruise Ship Shuttle in Houston at 281 443 4430.
You may have heard about the "mishap" on the Grand Princess on Feb. 4, 2006. I will talk about that later. Please allow me to give you a review of this cruise as though it had not happened. There was the problem on the first day and the one due to weather on the last day. Bottom line, except for the first two hours and the last three hours it was a good cruise for us. But I realize that others will not be able to say the same.
I might be comparing this cruise to two others. Rhapsody of the Seas (RCI) and Elation (Carnival).
Parking - Went very well. Used EZ Cruise Parking. Would certainly use them again. We have used both the Dolphin lot and the Port Authority lot. I would not recommend either of these two.
Embarkation - Smooth and quick. Less than 30 minutes from time we entered terminal to being on the ship and in our cabin.
Ship - Very nice. Deck 7 has several nice show lounges and venues. Beautiful "Skywalkers" disco. Dining room very spacious. Some dining rooms (Elation) feel cramped and dark.The Princess Theater is very nice. It seats over 900 and there is hardly a bad seat in the house. The main theater on Elation is terrible.
Entertainment - Excellent! The Magician, Juggler, Comics, & Musicians offered excellent entertainment. The magician does a close up show, in the atrium, on the last day of the show. This is not to be missed. But I could say the same for the juggler and the comics.
Food - Very good. You might be able to find better food but it would not be easy. When we compare the food to Elation - well there is no comparison. The food on Grand Princess was many times better. We chose the "Any Time Dining" experience. This was really different for us. But, I must say, it worked really well. All of the waiters were helpful and friendly.
Crew - Always Friendly. Always helpful.
Ports - What can I say? Ports are ports. But we really love Belize. If you go to Belize, do not book an excursion from the ship unless you just happen to want one of the really special things. If you want to see the Baboon Reserve of just take a tour of the city, etc. hire a driver from the Belize Tour Guides Assn. Do not get a "taxi". Anyone with a car can have a taxi. To be a licensed tour guide you have to be trained and licensed from the government. They are great! You will also save money. You can find them on the dock. They will have ID cards around their necks and will take you to a small building where they will write up the charges. You will see a sign over this that says "Tour Guide Assn". We have done this twice now.
Disembarking - This did NOT go great. Problems, beyond the control of the ship probably caused many people to miss flights. The ship was supposed to dock at 0600. Customs was supposed to clear the ship for passengers to leave by 0830. At 0700 the Captain came on the PA and informed us that the winds were over 70 knots (80mph). This is beyond what the ship can maneuver in. He informed us that we would have to wait for the winds to die down to less than 50 kts and then wait for four tugs to take us in. If you looked you saw dozens of ships anchored around us because they could not go into the ship channel as well. It was 0830 before we docked. The original plan was for the bags to be offloaded and Customs was going to take 2.5 hours to let people off the ship. They must have sped things up because by about 10:00 people were being let off. Because we did not have air connections and we were in less expensive cabins, we had expected to be let off by 11:00 if the delay had not happened. They called our color at 11:58. By about 12:30 we were out of the terminal and before 1:00 we were on the way home. Unfortunately a highway warning sign told us that I-45 was shut down just south of Houston due to a major accident. It took us 2.5 hours to drive from just south of Houston to just north of downtown. I am sure that many of those trying to make flights were not able to do so. It was a nightmare but I canâ?Tt say that this was the cruiseâ?Ts fault. The problems with getting off the ship were compounded by all the people who were trying to get on. Because we were not off, there was no place for them to park and the shuttles that were supposed to be picking up passengers at the airport were stuck trying to get people there.
But that is not the big story.
We sailed at 4:00 (1600) Approximately 2 hours later we are just about 30 miles (or less) from Galveston.
We were in our stateroom, having just returned from the required muster drill, when we perceived that the ship was turning. I commented on it to my wife. She called me to see that the drawers on our dresser were coming open. Having sailed on several other cruises and not seeing this before, I said, "That's new."
The ship continued to turn and a moment later items on our dresser began to slide off. I began hearing groaning sounds from the ship and crashing noises from outside our cabin.
This is where I joked, "Have we hit an iceberg?"
Looking out of our cabin there were people in the hallway. Some were crying and wondering what had happened. The cabin steward was doing his best to control rolling carts and reassure passengers that everything was OK. He commented to me that "This is deck 5. The upper decks will have more movement."
A few moments later the Captain came on the PA and explained that he had to make an emergency turn in tight shipping lanes and return to Galveston because of a critically ill passenger. He also explained that the ship had heeled over more than expected but there was never any danger to the ship.
We left our cabin to find that the ship was in disarray and the crew was busy trying to pick up things. It seems that everything on the port side of the ship had tried to move to the starboard side.
Some people were a little panicked.
Here are some other facts or information we were told.The bottles from just about every bar were tossed from their shelves. (One report put just this loss at $7500.) Some people were dining when everything on their tables slid off, then the chairs and tables in the dining room took off and headed for the starboard side. The ship tipped over so much that water poured from the swimming pools on deck 14. (And there is a 2-3ft wall around the pools.) Several rooms were flooded by swimming pool water. The carpet in the "Horizon Court" buffet restaurant was wet the entire cruise. Television sets in many cabins came off the shelf and crashed to the floor. (Even though each shelf has a 2 inch rail around it to prevent this. A news report listed this as over 80 TVs destroyed.) There were numerous minor injuries. (One news report has the number of reported injuries as 27.) We watched a Coast Guard cutter rendezvous with the ship within sight of the lights of Galveston. Several people were moved from the ship to the cutter. After the incident I noticed several people with, what looked like, brand new casts on arms etc. One has to wonder why someone would go on a vacation, that probably involved the beach and swimming etc. with a cast on their arm. We were also told that a chef was taken off the ship with injuries due to burns during the turn. (This has been confirmed by some news agencies.) We have been told, by friends and connections now on the ship, that the captain has been replaced as of Feb. 14. 2006. We don't know if this had anything to do with the mishap. You can see pictures here. http://www.riotacts.com/theturn.html News report here: http://galvestondailynews.com/story.lasso?ewcd=8a3a7d0d4e5dc3d0
I know that some people have very valid complaints and concerns. I am sure that if my wife had been even slightly injured I would be very angry right now. But for us, and many other people we spoke with, the cruise was fun. If I could, I would go back on it tomorrow. I also know, that if it had been me or my loved one the captain was trying to save by the quick turn, I would consider him a hero. It probably just depends on who you are.
We just returned from a 7-day cruise to the Western Caribbean aboard the Grand Princess. We had a great time! This was our fourth cruise, third on Princess, second on the Grand. The ship is in great shape. There were a few spots that show some age, but nothing really distracting from the beauty of the ship.
We arrived in Galveston on Friday night. There were 16 of us in our group, so we had contracted Galveston Limousine to pick us up at IAH airport. We picked up our luggage and walked out the ground transportation doors. We waited less than 5 minutes when the mini-bus pulled up and took us to Galveston. We stayed at the Holiday Inn Seawall. Not the fanciest hotel, but it served the purpose. Saturday morning the hotel provided a free shuttle to the cruise terminal.
Embarkation: We arrived at the cruise terminal at about 11:15 am. They were not boarding yet and there was a line building. I'd guess we were probably about 200-250 people from the front of the line. The metal detectors and screeners opened at about noon, and we were on the shipby 12:15. I've always been pleased with Princess' embarkation and this was no exception. Within 5 minutes the check-in rep had us ready to go with cruise cards in hand.
The boys (15 & 13) were in an inside cabin and we were in a balcony across the hall. I've never stayed in an interior cabin, but I was pleased with the boys' cabin. Seemed to have plenty of space and wasn't laid out much differently than our balcony cabin. We were on the Grand in 2002 so we knew our way around. We walked around and showed the boys the different areas and how to find places. Since we had to book the cabins with me and one son in the inside and my wife and other son in the balcony, we had to make a stop at the pursers desk to get a key for me to access the balcony cabin and my oldest to access the inside cabin. No problems. The purser's desk didn't even ask questions. We sailed away from Galveston on time and Princess had a great sail-away party on the Lido deck.
Our itinerary was supposed to be Costa Maya, Belize, Grand Cayman, and Cozumel. Due to recent problems with the ships electrical/propulsion they dropped Grand Cayman and we went to Playa del Carmen instead. Princess gave each passenger a $75 onboard credit for the inconvenience. As it turned out, going to Playa del Carmen made for longer stays in all the other ports which was great.
We usually do the Anytime Dining on Princess. Since we had a large group of people we booked traditional dining in the Boticelli dining room. Wow! Great service! Our waiter was Dante from Romania and his junior waiter was Yusen from Bulgaria. They were fantastic. We're never going back to Anytime Dining. After the first night, they had everything we wanted ready without us even asking for it. They knew what we drank, how we liked our food, etc. Top notch service from these guys. The food was very good, presentation was great.
All the ports except Costa Maya were tender ports. After reading all the horror stories about tendering on the Grand, I wasn't sure what to expect. Playa del Carmen was pretty hairy when it came to tendering. The seas were not cooperative and a Norwegian Cruise Line ship left Playa del Carmen without stopping. So there were some long lines to tender there as the crew dealt with the conditions. But in the other two tender ports, Cozumel and Belize, we didn't have any problems at all. We stopped and picked up our tender tickets, but didn't even need them. There were no lines and we walked right onto the tender boat each time. We were on the last tender back from Cozumel and the waves started coming up again. Made for an interesting hop back onto the ship, but no problems.
Ports are kind of what you make of them, so I won't go into much detail. In Costa Maya we went to the Chacchoben Mayan ruins. Very nice set of ruins. We really enjoyed that excursion. In Belize we did the snuba diving trip to Rendezvous Cay. The water was not as clear as I'm used to and I didn't think there was much of a reef system to look at. But the kids enjoyed it. It was their first experience under water. In Playa del Carmen we went to Xcaret. It's a very interesting park. Cozumel we did some shopping at Puerta Maya before our excursion to Playa Mia. Playa Mia is a fun beach. They had plenty to do. It was sad to see the condition of Cozumel after hurricane Wilma. We've been there twice before, so we had seen it before the destruction. Cozumel is bouncing back, but it was hurt pretty bad.
The boys signed up for the teen program in case there was an activity they wanted to do. As it turns out, they only did the free video arcade night. The rest of the time they did the regular ship activities with the adults.
The two stage shows were well done. The rest of the entertainment on board was also good. Rollin' Jay Moore was the headliner comedian and he did a great show. We had seen him last year on the Diamond, but he had new material was very funny. The ship's band Onlyne was very good. They were poolside most afternoons, in the Explorer's Lounge in the evening and played for the deck party one night. We really enjoyed them. Neil Chandler is now the CD on Grand. He did a great job. He wasn't trying to be the center of attention all the time like some CD's do.
Disembarkation: I've read a lot of negative about disembarking from the Grand. I must say it went quite well for us. They began self-service embarkation at about 6:45 am (you can leave the ship first, but you have to carry all your own bags). There were 800 people who opted for self service and they were off the ship by 8:00 am. At 8:00 they started calling for disembarkation by color groups. We were in the fourth group called at about 8:50. We were waiting in the Explorer's lounge, walked down one set of stairs to deck 6 and walked right off the ship, no line. Once in the terminal we had to wait a few minutes while the area ahead of us cleared out. We found our bags without any problem and stood in line about 15 minutes waiting for Customs. Galveston Limousine had a mini-bus waiting for us right outside the terminal doors and we were on the road to IAH airport by 9:30 am.
I could keep going on about every little detail of the cruise, but I won't. I will say we had a fantastic vacation. The Grand Princess is still a beautiful ship. The crew and service were always top-notch. Was everything perfect? No, it never is in any organization. But it was excellent! Princess put together another great experience for us.
My wife and I, along with several other people from our area, cruised the Mediterranean and Greek Isles itinerary on the Grand Princess, with a pre-cruise stay in Venice and a post-cruise stay in Rome. It was the last Eastern Mediterranean cruise of the 2005 season for the Grand Princess.
SUMMARY The late season timing was very good -- nice weather and light crowds at nearly all the stops we made. It was a special treat to walk where ancient Romans, Greeks and Turks lived, worked and played. We stood in the Roman coliseum, walked on the field at the ancient Olympic stadium, sat in the stands at the Pompeii theater, and saw the modern Olympic stadium in Athens. In between, we walked the streets of Venice with St. Mark’s Square at its center, dined at the cafes in the streets of Rome, and toured incredible places with magnificent scenery and met very nice people. All this with a grand class cruise ship as a base of operations.
PRINCESS' SHIP AND ARRANGEMENTS The Grand Princess lives up to its name, with all the onboard amenities of a Princess Grand Class ship. It hasthree large restaurants for evening dining with two set aside for Personal Choice dining, and a nice selection of shops and entertainment -- but the focus of this cruise was the ports.
Hint: For personal choice dining, make reservations before noon. There may be a long wait on some evenings, like formal night for prime time seating, but the flexibility for shore excursion-intense itineraries is a clear advantage if you enjoy having dinner in the dining rooms.
The only disappointment with the ship was with the steak house, which doesn’t come close to matching up with other specialty dining options on other ships.
Embarkation in Venice and disembarkation in Rome were smooth and quick. It is a memorable treat to take the water taxi from the hotel to the ship in Venice.
VENICE AIRPORT TRANSFER Use the water taxi to get from the airport to Venice. Its almost a door-to–door service. Other options may not be as easy. Taxi reservations can be made on the Internet and a taxi will be waiting at the airport, just a short covered walkway walk from baggage claim.
VENICE We stayed at the Luna Hotel Baglioni, a very nice place half a block from St Mark’s Square that supposedly was established by the Knights Templar in the 1400s. The water taxi docks within 15 feet of the entrance. Convenience to the square is a major plus in Venice, where walking is the only way to get around. St. Mark’s Square has the famous places like St. Mark’s Basilica and the Doges Palace that should be toured. Don’t miss the music on the square or the chance to walk the narrow streets with a lot of shops and sidewalk restaurants at night. Our late season visit was nice, with small crowds and comfortable temperatures for more enjoyable walking.
Hint: Street signs are few. Note that “Per Rialto” and “Per San Marcos” are on many corners, so you will always know the way to the Rialto Bridge or St. Mark’s Square.
Take the elevator to the top of the Campanile (bell tower) for photos of the city. Great views! Walk the waterfront to the residential areas for a feel of how locals live. Murano Glass has a large presence in the city as well as having a factory on a nearby island. There is a mini-factory near the square where you can get a glassblowing demonstration and purchase glass in a large showroom.
DUBROVNIK, CROATIA We took the tour to Cavtat and the old city that included a folk dancing presentation in a roofless theater. The drive was a breathtaking trip along a narrow road with a huge drop-off to the water. Cavtat was quaint but not spectacular. I would focus on the old city and its walls next time. The folk dancing was fun.
Hint: Focus on the old city made famous by its ancient walls and importance that rivaled Venice.
CORFU, GREECE We took the island tour, which is a bus ride up a mountain along hairpin turns with great views of the sea. We stopped at Paleokastritsa and Lakonas Village, both with nice views and a lot of olive trees. In Corfu town we saw the old fortress.
KATAKOLON, GREECE A centerpiece of the trip is a tour to Olympia, the ancient site of the original Olympic games. The ruins are much more extensive that we had imagined, and included are not only the stadium but a large number of buildings as well as a museum with significant artifacts including statues. The most impressive may be the statue of Hermes. A guided tour of the ruins is worthwhile.
Hint: Be prepared to walk over uneven ground for at least an hour.
You can also walk along the Katakolon shoreline with its shops and restaurants after the trip to Olympia. The shops are a short walk from the ship’s pier.
ATHENS, GREECE The ship docks at Piraeus, a port city a few miles from Athens. We booked a tour of Athens that included major city sights and a coffee stop.
Hint: Book a tour, because the area is large and very busy with a lot of traffic. Venturing on your own has a much higher risk because of the traffic unknowns and the distance of Athens from the port.
We stopped at the modern Olympic stadium used in the last Athens Olympics, an appropriate contrast with the first stadium at Olympia. We got a nice view of the Acropolis. Athens is a very busy city with unbelievable traffic. (Off-season traffic was actually busy in all the cities. I can’t imagine what traffic must be like in peak season.)
KUSADASI, TURKEY We were impressed with the Ephesus area, especially the Virgin Mary Shrine and the ruins of St. John’s Basilica. Friends toured Ephesus and said they believed the ruins rivaled Pompeii for size and detail. St. John’s Basilica is much larger than we expected, and has as a highpoint a marker noting the position of the tomb of St. John. The Virgin Mary Shrine, on the site of the home where the Virgin Mary spent her last years, is a must-see, especially if you are a Christian, and you will be rewarded with impressive scenery and a special experience.
Shopping in Kusadasi is very near the pier.
SANTORINI, GREECE If you like magnificent scenery you will enjoy Santorini. As a start, the ship anchors in the crater of an ancient volcano with the sides rising almost straight up for hundreds of feet above the sea. Atop the rim are the whitewashed buildings, with blue trim, of the towns that dot Santorini. Tenders take people signed up for tours to Athenios for a bus ride up switchbacks along the cliff sides. Incredible views!
The island is covered with small villages, all with whitewashed buildings, just like the travel brochures and postcards. Grapes and wine are the island’s economic base along with tourism. Vineyards seem to cover every square inch of available land and we stopped at a winery to sample the results. Their wines were quite good with a slightly sweet taste.
Perhaps leaving the island is the most memorable experience. After a tough walk through the streets of Fira, located on top of the edge of the crater, we found three ways to get down the cliff to the tender pier: Walk, donkey and cable car. We were told the walk has 480 steps and opted for the cable car. We were tempted by the donkey ride but couldn’t reconcile looking over the edge of the path from the back of a donkey. The cable car takes only three or four minutes.
Hint: Don’t forget your camera. You can also take the cable car up to Fira, which has a lot of shops near the cable car station.
NAPLES, ITALY Another centerpiece of our cruise was the opportunity to visit Pompeii and its ruins. We were not disappointed! Pompeii is a huge site, perhaps best demonstrated by its two mile long main street. It’s a “you have to see it to believe it” experience. The tour covered a gladiator training school, shopping district, bakery, brothel, baths, a home, and a theater. Frescoes on the walls and mosaics on the floors were interesting, as were the plaster figures made from voids in the ash by the bodies of people who died in Pompeii (they were in special cases in the baths).
The cobblestone streets and sidewalks along the streets were picturesque. Grooves from ancient chariot wheel are easily seen in the stones.
Hint: Be prepared to walk over very rough terrain. Purchasing a map/guide before you tour might be helpful even though the tour guide was good.
ROME, ITALY Rome was a fitting finale to a great cruise and tour adventure. We stayed for two days at the Westin Excelsior Hotel on the Via Veneto, right in the center of the bustling city and next door to the U.S. Embassy. The Excelsior is a very elegant old hotel with all the amenities of a first class hotel. It is very expensive to partake of some of its amenities (e.g., continental breakfast, $35).
Hint: Eat at local restaurants very near the hotel -- nice food and a fun atmosphere with seating in protected areas on the street.
There are very nice shops and restaurants all around the area. We went for several walks in between tours, both during the day and at night, when the atmosphere was special. English menus are available when requested.
We took a tour in combination with our transfer from the Civitacecchia port to Rome.
Hint: We didn’t book the Princess transfer or hotel. I would do so next time for several reasons, including smoothness of the transfer and access to guided tours.
There are almost endless famous places to visit in Rome. We put the coliseum at the top of our list and enjoyed a great tour. The coliseum is much bigger than I expected and includes a museum on its second floor. Don’t miss taking the elevator to the second floor.
We also visited/saw the Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, Circus Maximus site, Pantheon, churches, embassies and several ancient Roman sites. The Westin is just a couple of city blocks from one of the ancient Roman city gates.
Rome’s taxis, traffic and parking are worthy of note. Taxi rides can be a thrill because rules like we know don’t seem to apply. Lots of police are visible on the streets but they seemed oblivious to the action around them. Traffic is heavy, with swarms of Vespas/scooters buzzing around and parked everywhere along with autos and delivery vans -- sometimes three deep in a busy street. Every available spot has at least one parked vehicle.
CONCLUSION: This is a great cruise itinerary filled with opportunities to experience famous cities and sites. The end-of-the-season strategy was rewarded with very tolerable weather and small crowds.