Ranked #17 Princess fleet
Ranked #95 among all ships
Regions: Alaska, California, Hawaii, South America
Prices Start at:$79/day
One of the early Mega-ships still with the Skywalker's Nightclub, look for bargains ...Read the CruiseMates report
Ranked #17 Princess fleet
Ranked #95 among all ships
Regions: Alaska, California, Hawaii, South America
Prices Start at:$79/day
One of the early Mega-ships still with the Skywalker's Nightclub, look for bargains ...Read the CruiseMates report
This was my 7th Caribbean cruise and the 4th with Princess. I'm a Princess Captains Circle Member (for what ever good that is worth) and have been on all of the Star Princess Sister ships.
The only commitment I'll make about the cruise service and food is that it has deteriorated since being acquired by Carnival. Be for warned.
The big problem I had was being "UPGRADED". When we arrived at the embarkation building, we walked up to the Lido deck booth to check in because our booking confirmation was for cabin L222. We loved being on the Lido deck because the pools, Jacuzzis and Horizon Court (buffet) are on the same deck and a short walk from your cabin. The cabins are the highest up on the ship and the view is fantastic. Most Lido deck cabins have an overhead cover and are very private. Another real plus is not having to depend so much on those dreaded elevators.
My mistake was booking my cabin by using the 800 PRINCESS number. Of course you can book on-line but I'm not very comfortable with that, I can view on-line exactly what roomsare available and request the exact cabin I want while I'm on the phone with the Princess sales representative.
Needless to say I was very angry at being pushed out of my cabin for the reason I suspect is a power travel agency or a large group that wanted to stay around the same area and Princess accommodated them.
I went to the pursers desk and of course got nowhere with the counter person so I asked to speak with a supervisor. After a short wait an officer named Robyn came out (no doubt after reading my profile) and from this point on Princess Cruises lost a loyal customer. She kept repeating that this was an upgrade and I should be happy with the cabin I'm receiving (D118). I demanded the room in which we were confirmed (L222) and she flatly refused. She said the ship was completely full and I had no choice but to accept their "UPGRADE". Please Robyn, I'm not that stupid.
Yes D118 is a mini suite and you get a small tub instead of a shower and a nasty couch that you'll never sit in. D118 is 3 cabins from the bow of the ship and if I can sum up our experience of riding in this cabin the best word I can think of is â?oMOTIONâ?. Frankly these are cabins that nobody wants because when the ship is moving the balcony is useless. There is so much wind and buffeting from the slip stream coming of the front of this ship that you keep the door closed and just have to be content looking out the window. The Dolphin deck is the lowest balcony deck so everyone can look in (even the bridge) and there is no cover.
People, read the passage contract (terms and conditions) Princess has available on-line. I finally did and frankly you have no rights to a cabin number guarantee. I guess the only alternative is to book your cruise with a power travel agent so you'll have the opportunity to bump someone else from their cabin. DO NOT BOOK ON-LINE WITH PRINCESS.COM OR CALL 800 PRINCESS, You're nobody to Princess. Next time I'll go with RCCL until Carnival acquires them.
Having cruised before on a different cruise line, I was a bit skeptical on how Princess and the Star Princess would measure up.
Well, it did. There were so many things to do, from movies to snorkeling classes to computer classes, to ceramics and so on! We had a hard time deciding what do to, there were so many things to choose from.
Our balcony room was fabulous. There was nothing like waking up with the sun, picking up the phone to order coffee and have it arrive less than 5 minutes later, giving you the opportunity to enjoy your coffee on your private balcony.
The food was good and plentiful and outstanding. The only low light was Tequila's - a cover charge restaurant. The service was not good. Princess cruises prides itself on anytime dining, where you can choose several restaurants to eat from and you are not stuck at one table the whole week. That is the route we went and it was wonderful! We only had to wait in line a couple of times and the food in the other restaurants was the same menu as the traditional dining room.The only low point was the coffee in the food court - very bitter. Service in the restaurants was also spectacular. We never wanted for anything and were always well taken care of.
The ports of call were another story. Cozumel was ok. Their port was damaged during Hurricane Wilma and we had to be tendered in on Cozumel's tenders. That was not a pleasant experience. The shore excursion we went on was a dune buggy ride, which was a lot of fun, but it was too windy at the beach. I did hear others speak of their trips to the Mayan ruins and they seemed to enjoy it. Of course, the whole idea was to buy, buy, buy.
We never made it to Grand Cayman. A storm was blowing in and the closed the port for two days, so we sailed on to Jamaica. Originally we were supposed to go to Ocho Rios, but the hurricane changed our trip to Montego Bay. That was a trip that I wish I had stayed on the ship. We went out on the Coral See, a half submarine, supposedly to see the coral reefs. The water was way too choppy and it was hard to see anything. It was a waste of money. The cruise line will suggest that you go to the City center to shop for jewelry and watches. Unless you wished to be constantly hassled by vendors, I suggest that you limit your shopping to the Terminal itself, which was not half as stressful. Inside the terminal is a little tropical bar area. Have a meat pie - they were delicious! All in all, I would not want to go back to Jamaica.
Our last stop was at Princess Cays, their own private island in the Bahamas, and that was the highlight of our trip. The whitest sands, the bluest seas, lots of of fun activities and cabanas if you just want to laze in the sun. Tropical music and a feeling of joy. My husband could have stayed there for a week! The only complaint about it was that we didn't get to stay long enough. At 3pm, we were back on board and sailing for Port Everglades.
Disembarkation was easy. It was smooth and well run and it took us no time to get off the ship. Transfers to the airport were also very smooth.
The ship was large - 2600 passengers, but it was beautiful. Three different pool areas, including one for adults only, which I liked. The staff was wonderful. Many people have mentioned that since Princess now automatically adds gratuities to your bill, that the service would not be as good. I disagree - we had the best staff.
All in all, we can't wait to go again. We'll definitely do it again!!
My wife and I just returned from our 10 night Baltic Cruise on board the Star Princess. Whilst our memories are fresh we thought it might be useful to write a review before we forget any of the ideas we want to mention. The review is split into 2 parts : the ship itself; and the ports of call.
I was celebrating my 40th birthday, and my wife just a couple of years younger. We thought we would be just about the youngest passengers - in fact that was not the case at all. There were several couples in their twenties and thirties, plus a lot of large family groups, ranging in age from zero right up to grand parents. It was right in the middle of the summer holidays which probably also added to a younger overall age group. All that being said, we felt it was good to have a large range in ages - it meant that activities on and off the ship were targeted at all people, and gave a lively feel to proceedings.
As far as nationalities of passengers : at a rough guess Iwould say approximately 60% were American, 25% European, and a reasonable number of Mexicans.
Now onto a review of the ship :
Boarding : We boarded extremely quickly. We arrived at the port at 1.30pm, and within 10 minutes were in our cabins. Princess and the Danish authorities deserve praise for the speed of this. It was slick, and very efficient. Likewise, our luggage arrived just minutes after that. Very impressive. As for the timing of other passengers, it was fairly equal through-out the day. Most boarded between the 1.00pm and 4.00pm slot.
Cabin : we took a risk and booked an inside cabin. We are glad we saved the money. The cabin was really quite spacious, nicely decorated, and never for a minute did we feel claustrophobic. There was a very large amount of hanging and clothes space. Where the window would have been, there was a large mirror. This was the first time we had ever had an inside cabin, and we would do it again (on this ship). The money saved, approximately US$300 per person went a long way to paying for the shore excursions, drinks on board etc. One important note : on this Baltic Cruise you only have one day at sea. The rest you are on shore. This negated the need for a window or balcony. Trust me you are going to be out all day, and have no time for sitting on verandah's!
Food : this is a touchy subject, as everyone has differing opinions on cuisine. For us, we felt this was the weakest part of the cruise. Yes, you have several dining options, but none of them we felt was really that impressive (as far as taste goes). That's just our opinion. Don't expect top quality. We've had better on other lines. However, full marks to Princess for its "Personal Choice Dining." This eliminates fixed seating. You can dine in the main dining rooms at any time you wish. There are pros and cons to this. If you don't book, you can expect to stand in line for some time. Conclusion : make sure you reserve in the morning for the time slot you want. You are allowed to, and you'll be glad you did. For those that didn't you'll be given a pager, and have to wait in line. There is traditional fixed seating for those that prefer. Early and late sitting. This is in a separate dining room. Same food, just you have to stick to your times.
A brief summary of the various food and drink outlets :
Horizon Court - this is the buffet restaurant. Open 24 hours, with a wide range of food. Quality - what you would expect from a buffet line. Dinner is definitely better than lunch, which was fairly poor. Breakfast is good. Most people dined there for breakfast.
Portofino & Capri - these are the 2 main dining rooms, split onto different floors. There is no staircase linking them, so you have to go to one or the other. These are Personal Choice Dining only - meaning no fixed seating - so you turn up when you want. But remember to book if you don't want to wait. The vast majority of people ate dinner in these 2 rooms. You are allowed to book a table for just the 2 of you if you want. Likewise for 4. The menu changes nightly, but some items remain each night. For example Steak, Caesar salad, and some other items are available any day. Food quality is ok, but not exceptional. The good : lobster thermidor, beef Wellington. The bad : soups. Either very thick and starchy, or salty. Note - the breakfast here is good. A la carte, and relaxing. If you are not in a hurry to get out at the beginning of the day it provides a very civilized way to start.
Amalfi - the fixed seating version of the above.
Sabattinis - alternative dining. $20 per head. Italian theme and menu. We would like to say it felt up market in there, but alas it didn't. Difficult to pinpoint exactly why. The décor is ok, the service is good, the ingredients very good. It just fell short, somehow. They bring you a succession of courses. We lost count how many. Maybe seven or eight. Including various appetizers, soups, canapés, pasta, and your main course. We went there for a break from the main dining rooms. We went once.
Tequilas - their 2nd alternative dining. It's Tex/Mex. $15 per head. The steak here is excellent. The cuts are presented to you in advance. Sizes are large. We had the sirloin. It was possibly one of the best we have ever had. The service also is excellent. Just about every passenger we met, spoke highly of the restaurant. Just 2 downsides - 1/ the portions are huge. We gave up halfway. I suspect most others did too. 2/ Ambiance - the restaurant is almost in an alleyway, midships. You almost feel like you are seating in the main hallway. Shame that, as the food is excellent. The wait staff are Mexican and very personable.
Pool Deck - there is a pizza stall, and separate burger stall. Both are popular from lunchtime onwards.
Ice cream stand - contentious point this - it's not free. That seemed to upset a lot of people.
Other facilities :
Show lounges. The Star Princess has 3 of them. The main theatre and 2 others : the Vista Lounge and Explorer Lounge. Full marks to Princess for this. Most evenings there is a good cross section of entertainment.
Bars - the "Wheelhouse" on level 7 is a nice wood paneled club. Alas, no-one seems to go into it. Could be the band. Shame really, as we liked the place.
There is a sports bar on level 5. The only place you are allowed to smoke cigars. So people did. If you are a non-smoker, this will put you off. There is a lot of smoke.
Again, a shame, as it's nicely themed. For those who want to party late into the night there is a disco right at the rear of the ship, in a strangely shaped room, perched right out of the back of the ship, over the water. Quite unique.
The decks - this part deserves special mention. There is a huge amount of space for lounging, swimming or just lazing about. There is a main outdoor pool, a covered one (which was kept shut for the Baltic cruise as weather is too cold) a smaller outdoor pool at the back, which has terrific views out to sea, another mini pool by the gym, and a variety of Jacuzzis dotted around the place. A huge choice. Whilst on the subject of being outside, don't forget that half the year this ship cruises the Baltic. Temperatures are quite cool. Mostly in the 16C - 21C, with the occasional hotter day. This means a lot of the outdoor facilities are for the hardy, or those wearing a lot of clothes!
Kid's Club - again this deserves praise. They have extensive facilities for children aged 3 upwards. They split the kid's into 3 age groups, thereby being able to target activities best suited to them. Kid's will have an excellent time.
Internet - there is a dedicated room with at least 15 terminals. Cost is 35 cents per minute. There are also 2 terminals in the library. Same cost. Princess does offer wi-fi capability for those with a laptopb; in the main atrium, but the range must have been poor, as we saw people huddled in 1 spot, as they couldn't roam very far at all. Speed of connection in the internet room is slow. Count on it taking 10 - 20 minutes to collect your mail, read it, and reply back.
Casino - one of the smallest we have seen. But I think Princess has got it right, as this was possibly the least used room of the entire ship. They have all the tables you would need, so if you do gamble, it's all there.
Health Spa, & Gym. Very extensive, and nicely done. The gym was popular. Massages less so. They are quite pricey.
Formal night - you'll get 2 of these. Most people make an effort, with a lot of the men wearing tuxedos, or smart suits.
So that's the ship. In summary, we like the ship. It's big, but easy to navigate. If you want classy, then you may be disappointed. It's pretty much a 3½ star affair. But if you want facilities, it's impressive.
Now onto the ports of call. I shall keep this fairly short, as it's simple for most people to get the facts on the web.
Copenhagen - this is where the cruise starts. It's a very pretty city. Compact and easy to walk around. Lots of historic stuff, and plenty of canals. Reminded us a little of Amsterdam. The locals are extremely friendly and polite. Easy going, with excellent English. Of all the cities we went to, we probably likes the Danes the most. We flew into Copenhagen 3 days before the cruise. That's too long. The city is small, and can easily be covered in 1½ days. Big note : it is expensive. As you will find out, this is not the place to do your shopping. It's the place to look at.
Stockholm - you get here on Day 3, (as day 2 is at sea.) It has been mentioned elsewhere by people reviewing the cruise that this will be your most frustrating port of call. Why? Because you are not being dropped off in the heart of the city. You anchor at Nynashamn, which is 1 hour from the city. By the time the ship has dropped anchor, dropped the tenders, ferried you ashore you have already lost 1 hour. You then take a train into Stockholm which takes another hour. By this time it's 9 o'clock. You have to leave by 2.50pm or you'll miss the ship. Just over 5 hours in Stockholm is a crime, as it's one of the highlights of the trip. Beautiful city, so much to see, and so little time. Whilst we were there, HAL Westerdam was in town. And I mean in town. They docked right in the centre, not like us at Nynashamn. Praise to HAL for that. All the above being mentioned, you will really only have time for 2 things in Stockholm - 1/ The Vasa museum - an excellent place that is built around a huge galleon that was hauled up from the ocean bed 2/ A walk round the historic area, called Gamlastan. Very scenic, and gorgeous little boutiques
Helsinki - for us, this was a disappointment. Less pretty than Stockholm or Copenhagen. You will struggle to find something to do here. There is a nice harbor front, where you can watch the boats go by. Some of these take you to the outlying islands. We took a boat to the zoo. Nice trip across the harbor. Shame about the zoo.
St Petersburg - this is the longest port of call. You get 2 full days. You'll need it, as St Petersburg is a large city, way too big for you to walk. The attractions are very spread out, and you'll need transport. Added to which the Russian authorities don't want you just walking anywhere. The ship offers tours. We elected to get a visa in advance and use a private tour company. For us, this worked out great. For $340 per head, this was just a little bit more than the ship's tour. However, ours was just the 2 of us, in a Mercedes Benz. No coach loads of people to wait for. With army style precision, we were able to get around, and see the sights for as long or as little as we liked. On day 1 we say all the normal sights in town, and on day 2 we went out to Catherine's Palace and Peterfhof. The guide spoke great English, and was exceedingly knowledgeable.
Tallin - this is a real gem of a place. The Estonian people are exceedingly friendly, and their little city if very pretty. They go out of their way to give you a good time. You only get half a day here, but that's just about enough, as it's small and easy to walk around. Don't bother to get a ship's tour, as within 10 minutes your in the heart of town, and will want to walk around at your own pace.
Gdansk - or Danzig as it's sometimes called. Again we didn't take a tour. We used the ship's shuttle into town, and then walked around at leisure. You'll find Amber everywhere. Gdansk is probably your best place to do shopping. Prices are noticeably cheaper than elsewhere, for the same thing.
Warnemunde - this port offers a real dilemma. Princess uses it as a launch pad to take you to Berlin. Problem is, that's 3 hours away, and costs approx $300 per head for the various tours. So 3 hours in each direction, adds up to 6 hours, in 1 day, and a lot of money gone. Everyone will have their own opinion on whether it's worth it. As for us, it came at the end of the cruise, and we opted not to go to Berlin. The result : a boring day in Warnemunde, which whilst vaguely nice, doesn't warrant a whole day there. And here's the rub : you stay at this port the longest. From 7.00 am to 10.00pm. (Could have really used that time in Stockholm.) The verdict on all of this: either you sit in transport for 6 hours and spend $300 per head, or stay locally and get bored!
So that's the cruise. We enjoyed it. We don't like spending endless days at sea, so this itinerary is perfect for us. Almost every day is a new port. However, just realize that you'll get on average 5 hours in each city.
Special mention to the Cruise Director, John Lawrence. His shore notes are superb. Very detailed, and factual. He's not a good comedian though! So you'll have to put up with his aging gags. It's worth it, because his port knowledge is excellent.
As you can see we took almost none of the ships arranged tours. This decision was made as most of the cities are very walkable. If you are able-bodied I would definitely advise it. Those who chose the tours saw the same things as us, but were stuck in buses, and attached to very large groups. No time for shopping, or dashing off to see something you want to see.
The weather was mostly ok, and typical of the Baltic, for that time of year. Take layers of clothing with you, and an umbrella.
Would I recommend this cruise : yes. But please Princess, sort out Stockholm. It's a crime to allow passengers so little time.
Any questions, contact me at email@example.com
My wife and I were on the June 4, 2005 Baltic cruise on the Star Princess. Ed Schlenk has done an excellent job in his review of the same cruise that he took on Mar 15, 2005. I will not attempt to match his 15 page review, but will just add a few bits of information that might be helpful to anyone taking this same cruise.
We spent three days in Copenhagen before the cruise. Because it took us about 30 hours to get there, we were exhausted. We used the three days to regain our strength before the cruise. Had we not done this, the first few days of the cruise may have been very tiring. As I walked down the hall from our cabin, I noticed several cabins had the "do not disturb" signs on the doors for the first two or three days. I believe some of those people never left their cabins during that time.
If you need help in Copenhagen, just approach someone on the street and ask your question in English. Don't bother to ask whether they speak English. We only met one person inthat city that did not. The same is true in all the Scandinavian countries.
EMBARKATION: Embarkation was the best we have experienced. We left our hotel about 11 AM and took a taxi to the ship. We expected to be waiting until after noon, but were told to go directly into the processing room. We are Platinum members so we went to that line, but none of the booths were busy. We were done in less than 10 minutes and on board a few minutes later.
The ship was very nice, the food was very good, and the service in the dining room was always excellent. Our room steward did an excellent job. Our only food complaint was about a dinner we had at Sabatini's Trattoria. My wife ordered shrimp and they were burned on the bottom. It appeared they had been left in the pan too long. Up until then all the various courses were very good and well prepared.
The entertainment in the small show room was not up to par. We prefer the one man acts in the small theatre to the large production shows in the big theatre. The juggler was excellent, but the comedian and magician both looked like they should have retired a few years ago. I believe the comedian even cut his act short because he just was not getting any reaction from the audience.
PORTS: We often will do our own thing in the ports and usually walk into town if it is a reasonable distance. If the cruise line has arranged for shuttle buses, we will take advantage of this service. I called Princess before we left and asked whether they were going to have shuttles available in any of the ports. I was told that none of the ports would offer this service. In fact, Tallinn and Helsinki did offer the service and it was mentioned on the front page of the Princess Patter. Both locations charged $8.00 round trip. The buses ran back and forth all day.
Stockholm was nice, but it is a shame that the ship is unable to dock in the city. On a previous cruise, we had a captain that lived in Stockholm and he told us how beautiful the approach to the city was with several thousand islands along the way. We saw none of this, because the Star anchors offshore 25 miles south of Stockholm. We purchased the Stockholm on Your Own tour that dropped us off in the older part of the city. It was a very enjoyable day, but I am not sure the bus ride was worth $62.00 per person; especially since the bus had no air conditioning.
At Helsinki, we took the shuttle into town and followed one of Rick Steves' walking tours around the downtown area. We were able to see everything that the bus tours would have included. It is quite pretty and easy to get to everything on foot.
St. Petersburg was spectacular. The palaces of Catherine and Peterhof are beyond description. They should not be missed. Both are included on a full day tour. The lunch that day was also excellent. The first day we took a half-day tour of the Hermitage and a couple of small palaces in St. Petersburg. Both tours had EXCELLENT guides. They were probably the best guides we have had on any tour taken on our 20+ cruises. Most of them were school or university teachers. They all spoke fluent English with slight accents.
Tallinn was one of the best stops on the cruise. As you approach the city, you have a picture perfect view of the old section from the ship. We had a great guide who took us through this part of the city and did a wonderful job explaining everything. She was probably not over 23 years old and spoke four languages. He English was perfect and she went out of her way to make sure everyone enjoyed the tour. She was also very pleasing to look at.
Poland was disappointing. Our bus driver was from another city and did not know his way around Gdansk. The guide tried to describe the sights for us and tell him where to go at the same time. It did not work. The city was covered in graffiti, even the houses in the better neighborhoods. Once we got into the old section of the city, the tour became more enjoyable.
We planned to walk an area in Olso that we had not seen before, but the rain was very heavy when we left the ship. About 50 feet away, several men were selling bus tours and we decided to take one. They were $18.00 pp and we had an excellent guide. She pointed out the highlights of Olso as we drove through the downtown area. We then went to Frogner park where she gave us a very informative tour of the Vigeland sculptures. Next was the Bygdoy area where people were dropped off at various museums. From here you could either go back to the ship by bus or stay longer at the museums and take the ferry back to the center of town. We chose to see the Kon-Tiki Museum where they have both the Kon-Tiki and the Ra II. We then took the ferry back to town ($.4.00 American one way) and walked back to the ship. There are shops just a short stroll from the ship and we spent some time there before returning to the ship for lunch.
Before leaving home and while on the ship we kept checking the Internet to see what the weather was going to be like in the different ports. Many other passengers had done the same thing. Rain was predicted for every port, but on arrival we had warm and sunny days in every port except Oslo. I hope you are as fortunate as we were. Pleasant weather really adds to the enjoyment when on the land tours.
Notices were included in the Princess Patter saying that taxis would be "extremely limited" in Copenhagen and they suggested that people going to the airport should purchase bus transfers for $40.00 per person. We were staying one more day in Copenhagen, so we only needed to get to our hotel. We left the ship about 8 AM and walked directly to a waiting taxi. There were quite a few behind him. I don't know whether people leaving the ship at a later time would have any trouble finding a taxi or not. We were at our hotel about 15 minutes after leaving the ship.
CRUISE REVEW and PORT GUIDE (lengthy)
BACKGROUND: I am in my late fifties and with my wife have been on sixteen previous cruises on six different cruise lines. What follows is a highly personalized review, with travel suggestions for the budget-minded cruiser. Since this review is quite lengthy, I have HIGHLIGHTED paragraphs with a key phrase in all caps so that the reader can skip down to any topic of particular interest. I will begin with general cruise information, followed by specific Star Princess information, and end with suggestions for independent port of call excursions.
Please remember that prices and itineraries change, and some of the following information may not be accurate at the time of your cruise. Although our cruise was on the Star Princess, the general cruise information and the port information given in this review should be useful to any cruiser on a Baltic itinerary.
LAST THINGS FIRST: In summary, this is a very enjoyable 10 night, port-intensive cruise on an enormous (109,000 tons, 2600 passengers, and 1100 crew) but well-designed and well-run ship, cruising round trip from Copenhagen, and calling at easy-to-enjoy ports in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe.
PROs: Very reasonablecruise price ($1,100 per person for the best inside cabin category including all port fees and taxes, which is especially important now that the dollar is worth so little in Europe); great ports of call (each is or was an historic capital); ease of making inexpensive independent shore excursions (great public transport); ease of communication (almost everyone in Scandinavia speaks English).
CONs: Expensive airfares to Europe in high season; expensive visas (or non-visa shore excursions) in St. Petersburg; distance from the dock to the city center in several of the ports; different currencies in almost every port (more about all of these issues later in this review).
ITINERARY: This cruise begins and ends in Copenhagen, with stops at Nynashamn (for Stockholm), Helsinki, St. Petersburg, Tallinn, Gdynia (for Gdansk/Danzig), and Oslo. This itinerary alternates between Oslo and Warnemunde (for Berlin) based on departure date. The disadvantage of this itinerary is that only a part day is available in Stockholm, Tallinn, and Oslo. The advantage is that this cruise begins and ends in the Baltic area, and one does not waste cruise days (and expenses) repositioning from England or Holland to the Baltic Sea. There are two days at sea, near the beginning and end of the cruise, to recover from jet lag and excursion fatigue.
SECTION 1 -- GENERAL CRUISE INFORMATION
WHY CRUISE IN EUROPE: European cruises tend to be expensive relative to North American cruises, especially when one adds the cost of airfare from the U.S. However, cruising is a way of controlling your costs by pre-paying most of your expenses in U.S. dollars. In addition, most European cruise ports are user-friendly and can be thoroughly explored for about $10 per person (see port sightseeing suggestions below).
Some of our favorite cruise lines like Celebrity and Holland have recently priced their European (and Alaskan) cruises out of our market, but Princess offers some very reasonable cruise fares in this region, and we were very happy with the quality of this Princess cruise. Ironically, while on this cruise I received an e-mail from Princess advertising that their subsequent Baltic Star Princess cruise departures were being discounted even further, beginning at $800 per person (I don't know if port and tax were included) for an inside cabin during late May and June, 2005. Such news is always frustrating for those who have already booked and paid for a cruise, but cruises are like stocks or airline tickets - someone has always paid less than you did, so don't sweat it. If you did your homework, you still got a good value.
WHY CRUISE THE BALTICS: European cruises are ideal for some itineraries like the Greek islands, the Turkish coast, or the Norwegian fjords. For sightseeing in Europe I usually prefer a land-based vacation because most of the great cultural centers are not easily accessible by cruise ship (Paris, Berlin, Madrid, and London are all too far from the nearest port for an easy day trip). The Baltic nations are an exception - because of their sea-faring history, each of these nations placed its main city on the coast, and each of these cities has its own unique flavor.
CHOOSING A SHIP: Once you know where you want to cruise, the next major question is which ship to take. Part of the decision will be the price. Unfortunately some cruise lines no longer allow travel agents to discount fares as they did in the past. As a result, we switched to Princess.
Our only previous Princess cruise was on their small and elegant Tahitian Princess. We were a bit worried about the large size of the Star Princess, but when we looked at the space ratio (which is a rough estimate of space per passenger based on the ship's tonnage and passenger capacity), we relaxed. There were a few times when embarkation or disembarkation at ports of call was slow because of the ship's large size, but we never felt crowded onboard.
SPACE RATIO is an indication not only of the adequacy of public areas but also the roominess of the average cabin. In general, luxury ships have space ratios above 50. Premium ships are usually in the mid to upper 40's. Most standard ships are usually above 40. Mass-market ships are often in the 30's.
To determine the space ratio of a ship, use the brochure or the internet to find the ship's tonnage and divide this by the average passenger capacity (two per cabin, not the maximum capacity). For example, the Star Princess is 109,000 tons, divided by 2,600 passengers gives 42 tons of space per passenger (tonnage is a measure of enclosed space rather than weight).
Space ratios can be a surprise. The new Caribbean Princess class of ships has essentially the same hull and public areas as the Star Princess class of ships, but the Caribbean class adds an entire extra deck of passenger cabins, so their space ratio (36.5) is significantly less than that of the Star class, even though the ships look alike. Space ratio is not always reliable, but often we use it to provide an estimate of cruise ship comfort.
CRUISE REVIEW WEB SITES and their cruise forums can provide an excellent guide, but since you are reading this you probably already use them. Among my favorites are www.cruise-addicts.com, www.cruisemates.com, and www.cruisereviews.com. They all offer a wealth of information in addition to their reviews and forums, and some have e-mail alerts regarding cruise bargains and cruise industry news. Planning a cruise is sometimes half the fun, and these web sites are a good way to do this.
FINDING THE BEST CRUISE PRICE AND AGENT: The internet has revolutionized cruising. There are several web sites with excellent information about cruise opportunities, with information about ships, itineraries, and current prices. I often refer to www.icruise.com, www.cruise.com, www.cruisetar.com, and www.cheapertravel.com. The latter is the site of Pavlus Travel, which provides excellent discounts on name brand land and cruise operators. We used Pavlus to book this cruise, and relied on their web booking engine, which offers an additional discount to the price. We have always been happy with Pavlus's service and prices.
Unfortunately, some major cruise lines are trying to block agents from offering discounts, and more and more often prices are not available on the net - one must call the agent to price the cruise. In the end, this means we will either be cruising less often or will switch cruise lines (as we did for this cruise) to those cruise lines whose prices are more transparent (and a better value). PRE-CRUISE PREPARATIONS: Besides making sure that your passport has an expiration date more than 6 months after your last travel day and that you have any visas necessary based on your nationality and ports of call, the best preparation is to PACK LIGHT and to buy (or copy from your library) maps and guidebook INFORMATION ABOUT PORTS OF CALL. I am always amazed by the number of cruisers who travel unprepared for what they will see and do in ports of call. Travel is an education, and that education should begin as soon as you book your cruise.
PACKING LIGHT is easy. My wife and I each travel all over the world with only a regulation (21x13x8 inch) airline carry-on bag with wheels, even when cruising. This allows maximum flexibility and peace of mind.
When cruising I take three outfits: one formal, one informal, and one casual. The formal outfit is a black suit with white shirt and tie; the informal is a sport jacket with matching shirt and slacks; the casual is a knit shirt and nylon pants. I wear black shoes with rubber soles. In the tropics I add a T-shirt, shorts, sun hat, Teva-style sandals, and umbrella. In cool climates I add a turtleneck, polypro sweater/jacket, a warm cap, and a Goretex-type rain jacket/windbreaker.
My wife's travel clothes are analogous - she packs cocktail slacks and a designer jacket for formal wear; a sweater, blouse and black slacks for informal wear; and a knit top and nylon slacks for casual wear. She also takes a pair joggers, Teva-style sandals, and (on cruises) low heels.
Microfiber clothes don't need ironing and they can be hand-washed in the evening, towel-wrung, and hung in your room at night (we pack a few lightweight plastic hangers for this). The clothes will be dry by morning. Leave your blue jeans at home (you're not that young and they're not that practical). Don't worry about impressing any "fashionistas" onboard your cruise ship -- they are more interested in what they themselves look like than what you look like.
A GOOD GUIDEBOOK with maps makes all of the difference when traveling, even on a cruise. I recommend Rick Steves guides for major European cities and Lonely Planet guides for great maps and details about every other corner of the world. Not having a guidebook makes a cruiser dependent on package tours, which are usually high quality but relatively expensive, and they may not cater to a cruiser's personal interests. Photocopy the guidebook chapters about your ports of call so that you can carry just a few pages ashore and discard the copies (or give them to your steward for his/her shore leave) after you have used them. Pre-cruise reading is the best investment you can make in getting the most out of your vacation.
JOHN LAWRENCE, the cruise director on our Star Princess departure deserves special mention at this point. He provides the very best port of call information we have ever encountered on any cruise. He does it with clear directions (and photos) of how to travel to (and within) each port city on your own using public transportation. He includes great background and sightseeing information for each port. Fortunately his presentations are repeated on your cabin TV the evening before each port of call. He deserves the NOBEL PRIZE for cruise directors! None of our previous cruise directors has come close in this important service.
AIRFARE: Perhaps the greatest downside of European cruising is the high price of airfare from the US to the embarkation port, especially since the European cruise season overlaps the high season airfares. We have had better luck purchasing our own airline tickets rather than relying on the cruise line. As an example, we were quoted $1350 per person for airfare from our local midwestern airport by the cruise line, and that does not allow a choice of airlines or routings (unless surcharged). On the net we found that one-stop airfares were $1150 and two-stop airfares were $850 for the dates we needed.
In the end, we drove farther to a hub airport and took Icelandic Airlines for $680 per person. The limiting factor in our choice of airlines was that the cruise begins disembarking at 0600 but Princess recommends not taking any return flight before 1130, which left us few options for any airport near our home.
A small airline like Icelandic can be a problem if there is a delay since there are few or no alternate flights to get one to the cruise dock in time. That is not a problem when one purchases air through the cruise line. Staying overnight in Copenhagen before the cruise might be an enjoyable insurance against delays or lost baggage.
Icelandic Airlines is very strict about carry-on bag weight - no more than 10 pounds, which is the weight of a good quality carry-on when empty! We are used to their games and simply empty our carry-ons into our day packs, check the empty carry-ons, and take the day packs onboard the plane. Ironically, the overhead bins have been almost empty on our flights. Because of this policy against our carry-ons and because of their "thin" coverage of European routes, we would certainly never recommend Icelandic Airlines to friends. We try to avoid Icelandic Airlines when we can, but it did the job for us in this case.
MONEY MATTERS: One advantage of cruising is that most expenses can be charged to one's shipboard account, which is billed in US dollars to one's US credit card. If one's credit card is in some other currency, the ship will make the currency conversion before charging. I do not know what the conversion rate is, and suggest that any non-US cruiser look into this before agreeing to credit card charges onboard.
A useful alternative is to take travelers checks in US dollars and cash them on board as needed. There is no fee for cashing them and one gets full value in US cash. Just be careful to count your cash - twice I have been shorted $100 by the purser when cashing travelers checks, and one of those times was on this cruise. Luckily I caught it both times. There is no receipt for these transactions, and you will have no recourse once you leave the pursers' desk if there has been an error.
While in port, we always rely on ATMs. They are widely available in Europe and work well with our local bank cards (make certain your card has a 4 digit pin, which is the standard around the world). Do NOT use your credit card or your shipboard account for a cash advance on the ship or in port - this carries a hefty fee (3% or more) and possibly additional interest. Using a credit card for purchases is fine, but keep in mind that VISA now charges a conversion fee of 1% for all transactions in foreign (non-US) currencies.
SECTION 2 - STAR PRINCESS INFORMATION
PRE-CRUISE BROCHURES: Princess has useful pre-cruise information in its brochures regarding what to expect on board, how one can be reached while cruising, etc. It also has a separate beautiful brochure detailing its shore excursion options for the Baltics. Even if you do not take their excursions, this brochure will provide you ideas for your own independent shore excursions, and it makes a great resource for photos and captions if you "scrapbook" your travels. Both these brochures should arrive with your pre-cruise documents.
I also like to tear out and pack the sales brochure deck plans for the ship, since these are more detailed than the pocket guides you will find in your cabin. These deck plans are great for selecting your cabin and for the first day or two onboard when finding one's way to the library or dining room or internet salon can be a challenge.
My only major complaint about Princess Cruise's pre-cruise information is that it includes absolutely nothing about the initial location of the ship. They assume one will purchase their airport to ship transfers (which cost a great deal more than public transportation). Some cruise lines are wise enough to include the name of the dock and directions how to reach it. Princess should print the name and location of its embarkation docks so that independent travelers can find them by taxi or other public transport.
PRE-EMBARKATION: The Star Princess docks at Copenhagen's Orientkaj (Orient Quay) which is north of Copenhagen's center. It is in the Frihavn complex, but that complex is several miles long. We met several passengers whose taxis took them to the Langeliniekaj, which is a popular cruise terminal (near the Little Mermaid statue), but which is two miles from the Orientkaj. One person we met on the cruise said that she and her mother were dropped by their taxi at the wrong quay, and they had to walk the two miles along the waterfront with their suitcases since they could not find another taxi.
GETTING FROM CPH AIRPORT TO THE SHIP CHEAPLY AND QUICKLY BY TRAIN: This could not be easier, and it costs less than $5 per person (taxis are about $40-50 I believe, but the taxis do take credit cards). On arrival, get some Danish Kroner (in May 2005 about 5.8 DKK to the dollar) at any ATM in the arrival area, and walk to the train ticket window in terminal 3 (just follow the signs - it is well-marked). Ask for tickets to the NORDHAVN (not Noorport) Station. This station is about 6 blocks (an easy 10-15 min walk) from the ship - you can even see the ship from the train platform when you arrive. It is best to take the airport train (which leaves every 15 minutes) a few stations past central Copenhagen station to the Oosterport Station, and then switch platforms to for the local train to Nordhavn Station (which is only one stop farther). There are escalators/elevators in all train stations, so baggage is no problem. Traveling by train from the airport to the ship was so fast and easy that the Princess transfer passengers who were on our flight actually arrived at the ship by Princess bus shortly after us.
At the end of the cruise, take the same train connection back to the airport. You can ride from Nordhavn Station to Oosterport Station, buy your ticket there, and switch to the airport train (ticket machines are on the platform at Nordhavn Station, but we preferred dealing with the agent at Oosterport Station).
This is very important at the end of your cruise because taxis are inadequate on the dock and the taxi line had hundreds of people when we got off the ship. We sailed right by the taxi line, and went from our cabin to the airport check-in line in just under one hour.
EMBARKATION: Once we were at the ship, embarkation went smoothly. We were given numbers based on arrival time, and were allowed to sit and wait until called rather than standing in a long line. It pays to complete all cruise documents in advance, since one qualifies for express check-in that way. This can be done by internet, mail, or fax, and is explained in your cruise documents.
We arrived at the airport at 1pm, were in our cabin by 3pm, and then went back into central Copenhagen for a canal cruise and sightseeing before returning to the ship at 7pm. This meant that we missed the boat drill, but the purser allowed us to join the late arrivers' boat drill the next morning. I would not want to cruise without going through a boat drill on each ship.
FELLOW PASSENGERS on this itinerary seemed to be predominantly American (English is the onboard lingua franca, even among the polyglot crew), with a significant minority of UK/Commonwealth and Asian passengers. There were quite a few Chinese passengers, which underlines the new wealth that is to be found there. Entertainment and most other activities are conducted in English, but shore tours are available in a variety of languages. Most passengers seemed to be in their 60's and 70's, with some younger and quite a few older. There were about 2 dozen children aboard, all well-behaved and well-cared-for by the onboard youth program. The number of children will probably be greater during summer departures when schools are not in session.
SMOKERS can be a problem on European cruises, but were not on this cruise. The dining areas are non-smoking, and portions of the lounges are well-marked as non-smoking areas.
DRESS CODE: Passengers are well-dressed in a country club sort of way. Few people wore shorts except to the gym, in part because of the cool weather and in part because shorts are not common in northern European cities. Although there are more suits than tuxedos on formal night, many women wore gowns or elegant dresses (one of our favorite activities on formal nights is to sit near the photo sessions and watch the portraits being taken, then see the results on display the next day.). There are only two formal nights -- eight of the ten evenings are "smart casual" rather than formal. I wore a sport jacket on casual evenings and my wife wore a dressy sweater simply because the dining rooms tended to be cool. Some of the days at sea and in port were quite cold in May, and we were glad to have layers to adjust between overcast skies and sun. We had only one day of heavy rain (and were glad to have Gore-tex jackets and umbrellas), and the remaining days were partly cloudy or sunny. There were no warm days, but this will change for later cruise departures.
THE SHIP: Much has been written about the Star Princess and her sister ships the Grand Princess and the Golden Princess, so I will not go into too much detail here. The Star Princess is huge, but almost all activities are on deck 7 (Promenade deck) or are near the atrium on decks 5 and 6, so it is easy to find one's way around. The buffet and large pools (one indoor, one outdoor) are on deck 14 (there is no deck 13). The Skywalker lounge is on deck 17 aft, and only two elevators (of the four aft) go this high. The ship is tastefully decorated in low-key beige and light blue, without much glitz (except for the casino, which was surprisingly empty most of the time). There is a small but easily enjoyed art collection in the stairwells.
THE CABINS are comfortably efficient. Instead of the long narrow format found in many newer ships, these cabins are split into a bath/dressing area and a sitting/sleeping area. This configuration is ideal since one can rise early, bathe, and dress without bothering one's mate in the sleeping area. In addition, the walk-in closet does not have doors, so there is no interference between bath and closet doors. Shelf space is narrow and enclosed. There is an abundance of closet space with numerous wooden hangers, which thankfully are not the hookless type found on some ships. A small 4-digit programmable room safe provides security for cash and passports.
CABIN SELECTION is a personal decision. Some cruisers complain that the balconies are staggered so that each deck can look down into the balconies of the lower decks. Personally, I think this adds sunlight to the balcony space. Some have said that aft balconies offer more privacy and wind protection, but I do not know if this is true. I would avoid the few balconies on deck 8 forward, which are surrounded by the promenade deck upper walkway, giving little privacy. The lower deck balconies are larger than those on the upper decks due to the staggered arrangement. I would avoid cabins directly under the gym and laundromats, because of potential noise. Our cabin was directly under the spa pool. I was worried about possible noise from the pumps, but no noise was detectable. Because there is little to see while Baltic cruising and because the ship docks at industrial ports away from the city centers, this is one cruise where I was happy to save money and choose an inside cabin. The absolute darkness available with inside cabins is great for jet-lag and excursion-fatigue naps during the day.
THE PUBLIC AREAS are adequate to handle the large number of passengers. Rarely did we have to skip a show because a theater was full. The main POOLS may not be large enough for a sunny Caribbean cruise, but they were little-used this far north because of the cool weather and perhaps because of the incessant loud muzak that was played around them. The GYM is small but has about a dozen weight-machines, a small free-weight area, ten treadmills, and ten cycles or ski-tracks. Fortunately the aerobics area is walled off so that the usual blast of gut-thumping music is muted during these classes. Unfortunately the gym has three TVs which usually run on three different channels, so bring your earplugs anyway. The LIBRARY has small collection of books but a wonderful honor system - there is no book sign out or threat of fines. The CABARET THEATER AND LOUNGES have loud (but not painfully loud) good music, but few people danced on this cruise, unlike most other cruises with passengers of the "Sinatra" age. The MAIN THEATER has very good sightlines and comfortable seating (it can be chilly, so take a sweater). The SHOPS have a nice selection but seemed quite expensive. They augment the enclosed shops with "sidewalk sales" around the atrium, for those whose are threatened with shopping withdrawal symptoms between ports of call. The INTERNET salon is busy even though it has about 30 terminals (and a few more in the library). This is in part because frequent cruisers (6 or more cruises) on Princess get free internet access. Otherwise, the internet rates are quite high ($.35 per minute on our cruise was advertised as a "special" rate). The internet response times are quick enough, but unfortunately Princess does not allow you to compose your messages off line and then cut and paste your messages quickly on line. There are no receipts for internet use, so track this on your own - you will be surprised by the size of your internet bill at the end of the cruise. The PHOTO GALLERY is near the lounges and dining rooms, so this can be a major bottleneck at dinnertime. The photos are good quality, but quite expensive as on most cruises. People seem to do almost as well with their own digital cameras, and there is a small digital vending machine to burn discs and make prints. The ART auctions are standard for cruises. The art is left visible for browsers through most of the cruise.
FAVORITE PLACES ONBOARD: We especially enjoyed the wrap-around promenade deck (decks 7 aft and 8 forward) for walking. The Sky-walker lounge (deck 17 aft) is a great place to enjoy the sailaways in a cozy environment with 360 degree views. The pizza station and omelet station (deck 14 forward) were just around the corner from our cabin. They were little-used because they are distant from the buffet, but we were happy to have them nearby for quick snacks in our cabin.
ENTERTAINMENT options are impressively extensive on a ship this size. All of the musicians and most of the performers were very professional and quite enjoyable. A string quartet plays in the atrium in the evening, adding a touch of class to pop classics. I wish Princess would allow their quartet to give a real concert (classical music, onstage, with no microphones) during days at sea. Theater and cabaret performances are often scheduled mid-evening, with some repeat shows later for traditional diners. If you like evening entertainment, I suggest the anytime dining option for maximum flexibility.
DINING is a pleasure and exceeded our expectations. We chose traditional dining, late seating (8pm), since we like to know our waiter and discuss menu options with him/her. The presentation may not be as elegant or the service as formal as on some premium cruise lines, but every meal was a pleasure. The waiter also acts as wine steward (there is no sommelier visiting the table). The dining rooms are single story and separated, unlike the multi-story atrium dining rooms on some ships. We found the paneled alcove ambience of our dining room very pleasant. We usually opt for a table for two for intimacy and relaxation at the end of the day, but on this cruise we were placed at a table for eight. Our tablemates were a delight, in part because each couple was from a different country and so there were no incompatibilities due to sports or political allegiances. My respects to the Maitre d' for such insight in assigning tables.
We used the buffet at breakfast but usually skipped lunch and had dinner in the dining room. The buffet's port and starboard dining areas are large attractive, but the two buffets are in alcoves which seem quite small for the number of passengers onboard. The buffet food itself was always nicely presented and tasty. There are no specialty buffet options like the pasta station, stir-fry station, and specialty salad stations one finds on some ships. We appreciated the fact that the buffet offered food throughout the day, so that when we got back from shore excursions we could have a snack or pastry, which were always delicious. Surprisingly, there is no free ice cream station - this is surcharged at an area near one of the pools. We did not mind, since good ice cream is available everywhere at home.
The Italian (Sabatini's) and steakhouse (Tequila's) surcharged restaurants never seemed busy when we passed them, but we never ate in them and have no first-hand impressions. One friend said that Sabatini's offered tastings of so many items on their menu that she was unable to eat anything more by the time the main course arrived. She said the food was very good though. Tequila's has a Mexican décor and live Mexican music. Perhaps its emptiness reflected the fact that many cruisers associate Mexican fare with comfort food rather than upscale dining. It is probably more popular on Caribbean itineraries.
HEALTH issues are taken seriously by Princess. Before boarding one must sign an affidavit attesting that one is free of Norovirus symtoms. Washrooms have handwash reminders and are designed so that one does not have to touch the door handle when exiting. Gel dispensers are available (but not easily seen) near the buffet areas, which is important since many people have handled the serving tongs before you. I always gel my hands after going through the buffet line and before eating.
SAFETY is also taken seriously. Passengers are screened each time they return to the ship, and there is a security perimeter around the ship at each dock. Security guards in uniform are discreetly positioned around the ship, which we appreciate since we were previously the victims of theft (my wife's bag) on a different cruise line.
In spite of al the recent press about anti-American feelings in the third world and in Europe, we have never felt unwelcome in any of our extensive travels. The world may have strong opinions about what America has become in recent years, but we as individual Americans are still treated politely and are often greeted warmly.
SECTION 3 - SCANDINAVIAN AND BALTIC PORTS OF CALL ON YOUR OWN
As I mentioned earlier, Star Princess cruise director John Lawrence deserves a special prize for his excellent port of call lectures, which give detailed information on what you will see if your are on a group shore excursion, and how to see it on your own if you prefer. His talks are reprised nightly on the ship's TV system and are worth watching. I wish other ships would do the same - most shore information is geared to shoppers, with emphasis on the cruise line's "approved" stores. It is depressing to think that for some people shopping is the most fulfilling activity after traveling thousands of miles to a foreign country.
The Scandinavian Baltic ports each have their own currency, but ATM's are widely available (ideal for small transactions) and credit cards are widely accepted. Prices can be high, but many of the best sights are free. Some museums may be closed on Mondays (or other days), so your plans may need to adjusted. Again, make certain that you have a good guidebook (Rick Steves or Lonely Planet), and make copies of the appropriate chapters to carry with you on shore. Also, make a copy of the current exchange rates for the various currencies. The Wall Street Journal has this, or you can find this on the internet. It helps to know how many zlotys (or whatever) you want dispensed. We rarely took out more than $20 worth of any currency.
Except for Russia, we did not carry our passports ashore (too valuable). We make extra copies of the photo page and carry that instead. The ship's key card is enough id when going through security. Take along a day-pack with a snack (plus water in Russia, water elsewhere is safe) and a rain jacket or umbrella. Pickpockets can be a problem anywhere (especially in Tallinn and Gdansk), so take only a small amount of cash and keep valuables in a money belt under your clothes. One woman on our cruise lost her wallet while in a church - the pickpocket unzipped and re-zipped her purse without her even noticing.
COPENHAGEN: If you arrive a day early you will have adequate time to see the highlights. For orientation I recommend picking up a city map and some Danish Kroner when you arrive at the airport. ATMs are also available in larger train stations and in shopping areas. Begin with a canal tour with Netto Badene company. It is only 30 DKK ($6) and lasts about 90 minutes. You can catch it at Nyhavn, the little mermaid statue, or below the Holmen Bridge, whichever is most convenient. Just look for their docks and signs. They run hourly in the summer till about 5pm. Another company offers a similar tour for 50DKK, with all the same stops and nothing extra for their price.
A stroll down Stroget, the pedestrian center of the city, from Tivoli gardens to Nyhavn is a pleasure in good weather. Tivoli itself is over-rated and can be skipped. The Rosenborg Palace is small compared with the palaces you will see in Russia, but the castle and gardens are pleasant and the crown jewels are fun. If you are into revisiting the '60's hippie scene, a walk through Christianstad (on a nearby island, reachable by bus) will take you through a safe and fun marijuana-era time-warp. I honestly have never visited the art museums in Copenhagen, but they are near the center of town and quite accessible. The Glyptotek is the best known of these. Since we had only a few hours between our arrival (3pm) and sail-away (9pm), we simply took the boat tour and Stroget walk, and then did our boat drill the next morning by permission of the purser.
STOCKHOLM (FROM NYNSHAMN): Stockholm is a great city but the visit on Star Princess is cut short because it anchors at Nynashamn an hour south of the city (by train or cruise bus) and one must wait for tender passes - which leaves little more than half a day in the city even if one starts out early. Tender passes are nominally available at 0700, and independent travelers are supposed to be able to tender ashore easily between 0700 and 0730 when the tour groups are supposed to leave, but the tender arrangements for independents were disorganized and disappointing. We were ready at 0645 but barely made the 0805 train to Stockholm. Hopefully Princess will do a better job in the future.
Once ashore, it is a 15 minute walk to the left (south) to the small Nynashamn train station. Tickets are available for 95 Swedish Krona ($14) at the small kiosk just before the station (which takes credit cards). Tickets for seniors are 45 SK ($8). These tickets are good for the entire day, including all public transport in the city. The train takes an hour each way (it is a suburban commuter line with many stops) and runs every hour (0735, 0805, 0905, etc. northbound; 1250, 1350, 1450 southbound; beware, the latter is the last train which will get you back to the ship in time; verify schedules in case of changes!).
The train arrives at Stockholm's central station, where you can pick up a transport map. Near the station to the northeast is bus #47, which will take you to the famous Vasa ship museum (opens at 1000), the Nordic museum, and Skansen (the open air folk museum). If you have not seen it before, I recommend the Vasa followed by Skansen (good weather) or Nordic museum (bad weather). The same bus #47 will take you back to the city center for a walk through historic Gamla Stan (old town) and a visit to the Royal Palace (the interior does not compare with Russian Palaces, although the armory museum is famous for those inclined). There is a musical/military changing of the palace guard at mid-day, but time is so limited that I would rate this a skip since it can be seen elsewhere. The one other sight of interest is the famous city hall, where the Nobel prizes are awarded. For architecture buffs, the one-hour tour (1000 or 1200) is worthwhile. Although most museums and the city hall charge $10-$15 entrance, the Stockholm card is probably not worth it since you already bought a transport card and shore time is limited.
HELSINKI: The Star Princess docks in an industrial area to the southwest of the city center, but public transport is ideal - the bus stop is only 50 meters from the dock. Bus #16 goes along the esplanade to the farmer's market and harbor, and bus #14B goes north to the national museum and rock church. I recommend the former, since the latter do not open till 1100 and 1000 respectively. Helsinki is on the euro system, which makes purchases easy. An all day bus pass is 5 euro ($6.50) for a single, and 8 euro ($10.40) for a couple or family traveling together. The bus driver does not sell these, but ours took us to the farmers market for free, where we bought a pass at the small ferry terminal (the ferry to Suomelinnen island and all trams and buses are included in the pass) at the east end of the farmers market. Alternately, the tourist information office is in a yellow building just west of the market and opens at 0900. Free toilets are available (ands so is free internet access) in the small museum next door to the tourist information.
In Helsinki I would start the day with a walk through the farmers' market for good photos and souvenirs. Then take a look at the senate square (the large Lutheran church does not open till 0930 and is stark inside), then up to the Russian Orthodox church (opens at 0930) where you can discreetly photograph the icons (no flash). If the weather is fine, consider a walk on Suomelinnen island, the historic fortress for which Helsinki was built. Walking tours are available, but one can do it on one's own. It is actually two islands joined by a small bridge. The ramparts and views are pleasant, and ferry connections are frequent since commuters live on this island too. Free toilets are near the dock by the archway. A grocery store for picnic provisions is through the archway and up the hill.
Back in Helsinki, the underground "rock" church is very interesting, especially acoustically (there will be recorded music and occasionally a morning concert). Within walking distance of the church to the northeast is the national museum, which is also very enjoyable. A no-brainer is to hop-on-hop-off the 3T or 3B tourist trams, which travel in a circle past most of these sights, clockwise or reverse. Personally, I prefer to take regular trams and buses for the few sights not within walking distance. Buses 16 and 14B can take you back to the ship anytime.
I would have recommended the Arabia china and crystal factory located near the north end of tram line 6 as a great place to shop at the end of the day, but the prices in dollars have gotten so high since our previous visits that even their outlet is out of our price range now.
ST. PETERSBURG: Visiting this great city by cruise ship is a very bittersweet experience. The good news is that one does not need a visa if one is with an approved Russian tour company (booked through the cruise line or booked independently). The bad news is that these tours are very expensive (plan on spending almost $200 per person per day for a comprehensive sightseeing tour whether booked privately for six people or booked through the cruise line for a busload).
A Russian visa costs US citizens about $200: $120 basic visa fee, more if expedited; $35 required support letter from a Russian agency, the cruise line will not provide these; $40 or more for a visa processing agency in the US if you do not deal directly with the Russians; $15 or more for fed-ex shipping. In addition, the ship docks at the industrial port (Kanonersky Island) which is isolated halfway between the city center and the summer palace (Peterhof), with a good two mile walk to the port gate and another mile walk to public transport. Special taxis are available from the ship, but these add about $30 each way to the city center. Regular city taxis are not allowed within the port complex, so it may take two taxi rides when returning to the ship independently.
In the end, I very, very strongly recommend booking a tour with a private Russian agency. These are much more personal (just a few passengers instead of a busload), they cover more territory in greater depth, they offer special options like lunch with a Russian family, and they cost about the same as the cruise's busload tours. Princess does offer private vehicles and guides for touring St. Petersburg, but these are charged against the ship account of only one of the passengers and are non-refundable. The private tours charge each passenger a pro-rated fee which is payable near the end of the tour. No deposit is needed to hold the privately booked tours.
I recommend using the internet to compare the shore excursion options and prices between the cruise line's web site and the private agency web sites, then make your reservations accordingly.
We booked with DenRus (www.denrus.ru) and were very happy with their service. We did not want to pay the price for a private tour for two people, so we asked DenRus to put us in touch with a small group at a lower price. We joined two other couples, and together had a private driver and private guide in an 8 seat Toyota minivan (with 8 functioning seatbelts, which is important when traveling abroad). Our guide and driver were excellent, and we were able to get off the ship as soon as it cleared (almost an hour after docking) and sight see non-stop from 0730 to 1800.
Passengers who took the ship's tours were disappointed when their waiting lines extended almost the entire length of the ship. There are only 8 Russian officials to stamp the passports of about 2,000 disembarking passengers, so consider an afternoon tour on your first day if you are taking any of the ship's tours. Our tablemates later told us they waited for two hours to get from the ship to their tour bus that morning! The ship may hold back visa passengers until all tour passengers have cleared, but they cannot legally hold back non-visa Russian tour agency passengers. We simply waited out of the way in the alcove at the bottom of the stairs on deck 4 forward and walked off with the first ship's tour group.
Since the St. Petersburg tours are so expensive and since we have visited St. Petersburg before on land tours, we opted to take a one day tour and spent the second day relaxing onboard the ship. In the end, we saw an amazing amount of the city in one day (Nicholas Church, Catherine Palace, city tour, family lunch, Peter and Paul fortress and church, Hermitage, and a quick Michael Palace visit) and were able to focus on the sights we found most interesting since we had our own guide. Because our group was only 6 people, we were efficient and did not have to wait for shoppers or stragglers.
In addition to DenRus, Red October (www.redoctober.spb.ru) has a good reputation. We chose DenRus because they were able to offer us a small group to join, to reduce our costs. If you have a Russian visa but still want a guide, I have heard good things about Peter's Walks (www.peterswalk.com) which I believe costs about $35 per hour for a private guide. (Peter makes a very good impression on the internet and I hope to use his guide service on a future land tour).
TALLINN: Star Princess has only a half day here, but the upper and lower old town can easily be seen in that amount of time, and it is an easy 15 minute walk from the ship (one can see the ship from the old town's ramparts). On disembarking, simply head west to the port gate, where you will find maps of the old town and even a modern shopping mall for last minute purchases. The way into town is reasonably well-marked - just look for the large round building next to the town's northern gate (it's affectionately called "fat Margaret" gate). Alcohol is cheap in Tallinn, so you can get some on your way back to the ship. We like the liquor prices (we used them on previous visits) at the RIMI supermarket, which is two blocks north of the McDonald's near the eastern gate of the old city.
Tallinn has some fine old churches and great panoramic overlooks. There are many nice shops and quaint streets. Sidewalk cafes (even McDonald's) have great atmosphere. Since there is no public transport, you will not need any local money unless you make purchases, which often can be made with a credit card. There is a good tourist information office two blocks south of the main square. They offer walking tours, but I believe the first tour leaves at 1100, which may not give you enough time to get back to the ship unless you break off early.
GDANSK (from GDYNIA): The Star Princess docks at Gdynia, which is a large industrial port. Virtually everyone continues on to Gdansk (Danzig to German speakers) by cruise bus or public train. The dock is about 2 miles from the train station. On disembarking, walk 100 meters to the right to catch one of the many local taxis. A full taxi with four passengers should cost about 16-20 Zlotys (about $5-$6 US should be enough) from the dock to the station. Some taxi drivers will be happy to offer a day tour, but we did not price this.
On entering the Gdynia main station ("Glowny"), get some zlotys from the ATM at the far end of the ticket booths. The train to Gdansk costs 4 zlotys (about $1.25) each way (2.80 zlotys per segment if you get off at the seaside resort of Sopot or the famous cathedral at Oliwa). Gdansk train tickets are sold at the small "SKM" booth around the corner from the main ticket booths (the SKM line is small and sells its tickets separately from the major inter-city train lines). There are about 12 stops between Gdynia and Gdansk, and the trip takes almost an hour.
Once in Gdansk, take the pedestrian underpass east under the boulevard in front of the station, then walk a few minutes farther east to the St. Catherine's, St. Bridget's, and St. Nicholas churches. Of these, the latter is the best preserved but least famous. We were there for mass on Sunday, and it was jammed - the first time a cathedral came alive for us. From there continue east and south to the river, which has a nice walk to Mariaka Street (for cheap amber) and the nearby main street (for the city hall and St. Mary's cathedral. The city hall has a nice but small museum, and the cathedral has 400 steps to a beautiful view from the top of the tower for 3 zlotys ($1). Gdansk was completely destroyed in WWII, but it has been rebuilt in the old style and is a walker's paradise, just like Tallinn.
Amber jewelry is beautifully set and wonderfully cheap here, and if you did not buy your fill in town, more is available from dockside vendors when you return to the ship (they take zlotys, dollars, and euros - learn your exchange rates and bargain).
If you leave Gdansk by the 2pm train, you will get to Oliwa (on your way back to the ship) in time for the famous 3pm organ recital (free-will offering). At the Oliwa station, zig-zag west and north, cross the large boulevard, and keep the Oliwa park fence on your right for about a mile as you walk farther west and north to the cathedral entrance. After the recital you can walk and picnic in the park on your way back to the station. Trains leave about every 15 minutes. The seaside resort of Sopot is another stop on the same train line, but we have never been there.
OSLO: Because of the distance from Copenhagen, the star Princes only spends a half day in Olso, but it docks adjacent to the old fortress, within easy walking distance (10 minutes) of the city hall. Since museums do not open till 1000 or 1100, I suggest taking the tram to Frogner Park (the Vigeland sculpture garden) which is free and open 24 hours a day. There is an ATM at the east end of the city hall square (Handlesbank building, up the stairs and then around the corner). Alternately, walk to the west end of the square for another ATM and the tram station which has a vending machine selling transport day passes, which I are 60 Krone ($9.50) each. The tram station nearest the ship at the east end of the square does not have a ticket machine and the tram drivers do not sell day passes - they sell just single ride tickets. Each tram stop has a good transport map in its shelter.
Every time I visit Oslo I am moved by the Vigeland sculptures. They seem so much more human than anything by Michelangelo or other famous artists. I could spend a day in the park, but after an hour usually continue two tram stops north to the Majorsteuen metro station (T-bahn) for a ride on the #1 train westbound to the end of the line on a mountain overlooking the city and the fjord. One can take photos from the train platform and return to town by train. I prefer to walk 30-45 minutes downhill on a wide gravel pathway (lighted at night for cross-country skiers) to the Holmenkollen train station, passing a scenic stave church and the bottom of the famous ski jump on the way. Alternately, the Holmenkollen restaurant veranda, a short walk uphill from the Holmenkollen station, has gorgeous views overlooking the city.
I suggest then taking the train back to the national theater downtown, for a view back to the palace and a short walk to the national art gallery, which is behind the university plaza. The museum is closed on Monday. It has a very enjoyable (and free) collection of impressionists, and some fantastic paintings by Edvard Munch (including one of the four versions of the famous "Scream" - another was stolen from Oslo's Munch museum, hence the heavy security at both museums).
From the art museum, continue walking east along the main shopping street. The stores, parks, and people are all beautiful here. When it is time to return to the ship, walk back via the old fortress (Askerhus). The view of the ship from the ramparts is great (the ship dwarfs the fortress), and there is a back gate which leads down a short path to the pier at the south end of the fortress.
An alternative to the above Oslo options is to take the public ferry or bus from the city hall square to Bygdoy island, which has several museums, including and open-air folk museum, the Kon-tiki museum, the Fram museum, the maritime museum, and a Viking ship museum. Each of these has a separate entrance fee, but each is accessible on the Olso day card, which is expensive and is available at the tourist information office when it opens in the morning. We enjoy these options when we have more time in Oslo.
ENDING THE CRUISE: By now you are exhausted and ready to return home. Disembarkation in Copenhagen begins shortly after the ship is cleared (about 0615) and continues till about 1000. Passengers are given color-coded tags for their bags, which are left out in the hall the night before. I do not know how long baggage claim and clearance takes at the dock side since we have never cruised with more than a carry-on. I believe that baggage transfers to the airport are handled by the cruise line if you buy their transfer package.
Again, the cruise line suggests not booking any return flights from CPH before 1130. Again, for independent travelers the short walk and then train from the ship to the airport takes about an hour. Taxis are inadequate at dockside -- the lines are very long. With all the other cruisers flying home too, allow another hour for check-in at the airport.
FINAL THOUGHTS: Don't worry, be happy, and have a wonderful time on your cruise! Ed Schlenk (efschlenk at hotmail dot com)
This was our 16th Princess Cruise, our 4th Transatlantic Cruise, one previous with Princess and I have 6 cruises with HAL and 10 cruises with Celebrity. I have elite status with Princess and booked a BE guarantee last December with an upgrade to BA. Right after I paid my money they were selling mini suites for hundreds less than I paid. I wrote Princess on this and they upped my onboard credit by $50. Cabins were selling for $699 at 30 days out. This is just a caution to those who might book this cruise early. I booked my air through Princess and flew on the day of the cruise with one two hour stop in Atlanta to change planes. Picked up bags in Fort Lauderdale, found a Princess representative and I was on a hot bus to the dock within an hour after arrival.
Embarkation: I showed them my Platinum embark, was at the desk in 15 minutes and on the ship in another 10 minutes. The Platinum Captain's Circle check-in does save time.
Cabins: The cabin C610 (cat. BA) was attractively decorated and good sized for the price. Thebalcony, while large, offers little privacy if your cabin is on Caribe deck. The shower is smaller than Celebrity and you get a bath/shower on HAL in this category. It also has a fixed shower head, instead of a hose and wand arrangement like Celebrity offers. Cabin service was efficient and unobtrusive. I got a free mini bar set up and opted for 12 Miller lights as I figure I might as well get what I drink. Took advantage for the free laundry and dry cleaning for elite members on several occasions. I also enjoyed the better bath robes and canapés on several times. The 10% boutique was also used more than once. Public Areas: The public areas are nice and never feel crowded. The ship doesn't feel 109,000 grt. Enjoyed the small intimate bars. Met numerous passenger that I had talked with previously on the internet. They had good shows on board and the comedians were great. The bars had a buy 5, pay for four Becks light special on the Lido bars. I got this all cruise long and put them in the cabin fridge. Got a bottle opener from the room steward. I missed some shows that were at 9 PM only due to being in second seating Traditional. There was plenty of activities to keep you busy all day including lectures and classes of all kinds. I went to the free wine tasting for elite members and enjoyed the library on board. You will not be bored on a Princess ship.
Dining: I requested 2nd seating traditional dining when I booked and I got some of the best tablemates I ever had and a good waiter too. We ate all our meals here except when we got back late from Amsterdam when we ate in the Capri. We went to open seating for breakfast and lunch in the Portofino Dining room every day when not on tour. The attendance in the main dining rooms was far less that capacity due to number eating in Lido. Avoid large tables as we had service problems at lunch on them for two straight days, I complained and they put us at a table for two with a good waiter and the service problems ended. The breakfast menu in the Portofino is limited with one kind of pancakes and a two inch diameter item they call a hash brown. They had better potato's and French toast daily in the Lido so I complained as to why I could not get them in the Portofino. I had to write the hotel manager before they brought me potato's like they had upstairs and French toast. They claim Princess does the menu's so I will take that up with them in a letter. We had pizza, hot dogs and burgers several times for a snack. The afternoon tea in Portofino dining room had good tea, good company and scones. All the restaurants were nicely decorated and the food in all the Dining rooms was generally good, but not up to Celebrity standards. The food in the Lido was also good.
Tours: We did tours in all the ports. In Southampton we considered the London tour but it was too long on the bus. It got back at 9:30 PM. We did the Cofu castle, but it was meant for the physically fit and my wife could not do it. In Paris we did the Seane River cruise and had a good lunch while Paris passed by and we finished two bottles of wine. This tour is recommended. We did Amsterdam in a nutshell and it also was a good tour with a good lunch, but drinks were Dutch and expensive so we stayed with water. In Oslo we did the easy Oslo and enjoyed it also. All the Princess tours were first class. Getting your sticker to go on tour in the Princess theater on the other hand was chaos.
Disembarkation: This was smooth. They had the Wheel house bars set up for suite, platinum and elite members and it was great. They had coffee, good juice and pastries and comfortable seats. They put me on a line bus quickly and I got to the airport faster going than coming. Copenhagen airport was large and no one told you where to go, I found the ticket counter just ahead of the crowd. Washington Dulles was even worst. We had two hours between flights and had to run to catch our flight home with 10 minutes to spare. The ordeal wore my wife out.
Overall, I was satisfied. I put a $200 deposit down on a future cruise. Most of the problems centered around the breakfast menu and Princess will get a complaint letter on this, but I will sail them again. They do have the most balcony's, give good value for the money most of the time for the money most of the time and their people are friendly.
My husband and I (ages 51 and 53) just returned from the February 20th sailing of the Star Princess. Overall it was a pleasant and relaxing experience. This was our 6th cruise and our 2nd on Princess. We had previously sailed on Grand Princess and loved that ship. We flew from Boston to Fort Lauderdale the day before sailing and stayed at the Holiday Inn on the beach. I got it for a great price on Priceline. It was clean and quiet but certainly not a very attractive hotel.
We arrived at Port Everglades at 11:45 and were in our stateroom by 12:15. We were in a mini-suite on Dolphin Deck, category AA. The balcony is not covered and juts out from the ship but we loved it. We had cocktails on the balcony every evening and coffee every morning. We thoroughly enjoyed our mini suite and would book it again. A little extra room just made the cruise more comfortable. The room did show some wear: frayed drapes and stains on the couch. Our room steward, Ricky, was wonderful. He kept the room immaculate and made sure we had cleanpool towels daily. He was attentive but not intrusive.
We chose personal choice dining because we had found it perfect for our schedule on the Grand. We did have to wait one evening (first formal night) for 30 minutes. The other evenings we chose to eat late, at 8:30 and never waited. We did eat at large tables and met very nice and interesting people. We also ate some breakfasts and lunches in the dining room. Overall the food in the dining was good. It was not exceptional but on par with land resorts. There was enough variety and I particularly liked the lamb on Island Night..really tasty. I also appreciated the always on the menu items of shrimp cocktail and Caesar salad. I felt the desserts in the dining room however were excellent. I am a true chocoholic and the chocolate desserts I had were great. We ate some breakfasts and lunches and 2 dinners at the Horizon Court. I felt the food here was inconsistent. For example the French toast was good but the pancakes were cold and rubbery. We also had pizza, burgers, and hot dogs at the grills. The pizza was great and my husband loved the burgers.
We attended many of the evening shows. We always went to the late performances and never had a problem finding a seat. The comic Sarge was super. We saw him twice and thoroughly enjoyed both routines. We also attended the Broadway Review and the show entitled Da Beat. Both shows were energetic and enjoyable. To get out of the sun we enjoyed the movies shown in the afternoon in the Princess Theatre.
Our itinerary was Eastern Caribbean and included San Juan, St. Thomas, and Tortola. The ship was scheduled to dock in San Juan at 3PM. It never docked till 9PM and each person received a $50 shipboard credit for this late docking. The ship's claim was that rough seas caused the lateness. Many passengers didn't believe this as Star has been docking late consistently in San Juan for the past month. Our next stop was St. Thomas and we took the ship tour to Megan's Beach. It was a nice beach but very crowded and the trip was too short. Tortola was our next stop and we took the ship tour to Lambert Beach Resort. This was a full day and included lunch. It was a nice beach and we got to see much of Tortola while riding there. Our tour guide Ray, was great. I would return to this island. Finally we reached Princess Cays. What a great place to relax. We got off the ship early and just relaxed on the beach and ate at the barbecue.
We really enjoyed the pool that was all the way aft. This was the adults only area and was always quiet and relaxing. There are lounge chairs here as well as tables and chairs. We often got our lunch and brought it out here to enjoy the fresh air and the view. It was also breathtaking at sunset.
Overall we enjoyed this cruise. I would have to say that even though the Star is a sister ship to the Grand, I liked the Grand better. When we sailed on the Grand it was not yet owned by Carnival, and I found the Grand's atmosphere and climate more pleasant and positive. The crew in all areas seemed happier and more satisfied with their jobs on the Grand. I also feel that the crew members were more attentive on the Grand. One evening on the Star I received the wrong meal and there was no attempt to get me my correct order. At breakfast we often had to find our waiter to get coffee refills and toast. These are just small incidents but they do make a negative impression on passengers.
We will sail again on Princess but we will also look into Celebrity and Royal Caribbean. Hopefully Princess will be able to retain its own personality and atmosphere now that it has been acquired by Carnival. Star is a beautiful ship and the Eastern Caribbean is an enjoyable itinerary.
Just arrived back from a one week cruise on the Star Princess. I wish I could say something good about the cruise but I can't. I have traveled the world and had many great trips. This was not one of them. Everything was average to poor. Bad service, food was cold and fair quality, long lines for dining and shows, poor attitude of crew, and a staff that only cared about making money on extras.
Perhaps this is a consequence of being owned by Carnival. Try another cruise line.
B419 - Covered Balcony Traditional Dining Late Seating Costa Maya, Cozumel, Grand Cayman, Ocho Rios Charles and Judy Crain - 47 and 49, engineer and homemaker, respectively.
A good cruise overall.
It does suffers by comparison to the 1/2004 Island Princess cruise, which was an almost perfect cruise. But a good cruise and well worth the price paid.
Our balcony cabin was spacious, more so than the Sun Class balconies, but smaller than the mini-suite we had on the Island. The balcony is covered and not viewable from above. The dividers between balconies are solid and you have to lean out to look around. The balcony had 3 resin chairs and a resin table.
The dining room food was good, not world class, but not bad either. The dining room staff was not perfect, but made for an enjoyable dining experience and reinforced our opinion that late seating, traditional dining is the only way to go - as long as you like your wait staff. For us, traditional dining has been fun for the past 4 cruises. We have always enjoyed the banter with the wait staff, the people watching, the leisurely mealpace and the different foods.
The entertainment was ok to good, not unforgettable, but enjoyable. The cruise director staff was friendly, outgoing and certainly competent, but lacked that special spark that was present in the staff on the Island Princess - a sort of zany craziness that made us feel right at home.
We will not do another Western Caribbean if we can help it. Costa Maya is simply too small when two Grands and Splendour of the Seas show up at the same time. Cozumel is Cozumel, but when 7-8 ships are in port simultaneously, it can get hectic. If we go there again, we will do more inland stuff rather than a sail and snorkel. Grand Cayman is heartbreaking seeing the damage done, but 5 ships there are 4 too many for tendering operations. However, the people and the snorkeling were first rate and I would not mind going again. From the dead rat on the dock at Ocho Rios to the aggressive vendors and drivers, we were not thrilled to be there and will stay on the ship if we ever go back - unless we get to dock at the "real" pier.
Unless an absolute bargain presents itself, we will not sail on a Grand Class again, nor will we sail ever, even in a bargain situation, on the Caribbean Class Grands. Why? In a nutshell, too many people. Most events were packed 15-20 minutes before show time to overflowing, so moving from one to the other was not possible. The gym is almost always crowded, the lap pool as well. The Coral class has almost the same number and same size of public rooms, less one dining room and a smaller horizon court, but almost 800 people less.
Now don't get me wrong. We had a good time, didn't regret going, we still like Princess and are sailing on the Sun in April, but Island Princess trip in January outshined the Star in every category. It basically spoiled us.
Sunday - Sailaway Dinner Menu - Monday - Captain's Welcome Menu- Formal Tuesday - Italian Night Menu Wednesday - Caribbean Island Night Menu Thursday - Chef's Choice Menu Friday - Captain's Gala Menu - Formal Saturday - Landfall Menu
Being an engineer I like to define my terms. So here's the definitions for the terms I use when describing how the food was.
FOOD TERMS OK = Edible, it's a meal. GOOD = Equivalent to a stateside restaurant chain - Red Lobster, Chili's, Olive Garden. VERY GOOD = Equivalent to a local favorite restaurant. Different flavor or unique combination. EXCELLENT = Incredibly good taste and texture. You crave more.
SHOW, ACTIVITY OR EXCURSION TERMS Not Worth It - Run laps, stairs, work out - do anything else OK - Only if you have nothing better to do. Good - An enjoyable or fun time. Don't Miss - Self Explanatory
CRUISE LOG - The following is a day to day log of the cruise from our perspective, what we did, what we liked, what we didn't like.
12/5/04 - Embarkation
We stayed at the Holiday Inn - Airport on Sheridan. It's a $15 cab ride from the airport and a $20 cab fare to and from the port. The hotel has a pool, fitness center, free internet access, a decent breakfast buffet and a fantastic sushi restaurant walking distance on Sheridan to the west.
Wan's Sushi House 3327 Sheridan St., Park Sheridan Plaza, Hollywood 954-987-1388
Very Good Sushi.
The hotel has a bus shuttle for $10 per person, which we took on Sunday at 12:00. We were on the ship at 12:45 (a 30 minute check-in time!), our luggage arrived at 1:45 and we were in the pool by 2:30 after wandering the ship and taking pictures and having some quick pizza (good stuff) at the pizza bar. We made reservations at Sabatini's for Wednesday night, at the Maitre De's recommendation, and we made reservations at Tequila's steak house for Saturday or Landfall dinner. (We later cancelled those in order to eat in the dining room.)
The muster occurred at 4:30, after which we went down to the library and waited until 5:15, but no one from the CC boards showed up. Not wanting to miss the sailaway, we went up on deck and watched all the other ships sail out as we did.
Dinner was at 8:15 in Amalfi and we finally had our table by the window, but it was dark so all we could see was our wake in the ship's lights. Our head waiter was Albuquerque (Portugal), yes just like the city. Our waiter was Pompei (short for Pompeillio) (Romania) and the assistant waiter was Lucia (Mexico).
Criticism - The pathway into the Amalfi is terrible. Two stair cases down and only two elevators into a small lobby area (which allowed smoking!) The elevators almost never came down, which created a jam of wheelchairs and carts at the entrance to the dining room from early seating people leaving and late seating people arriving. This eased after the first night substantially as people shifted to Personal Choice - and then ran into crowds there as well, but the layout and entry could be better.
This was the Sailaway Menu. I had the Epicurean Lobster, which was OK, Judy had a shrimp cocktail which was good. We both had the Cream of Porcini mushroom soup which was OK to start, but very good after additional salt and pepper was added. Judy had the Conchiglie pasta and I had the filet of Zander. Both were good. Our table mates had the Smoked Virginia ham which they liked. Service was brisk and reserved, everyone was still checking each other out, but the relationships would get better.
The Showtime feature at 10:30 showcased the Star's new cruise director, Neil Roberts, who had just flown in that morning. A nice guy, but the lack of sleep was apparent and the unfamiliarity and lack of interpersonal dynamics with the rest of the cruise staff showed. But then, he'd only met them a few hours before.
After the show, we toured the ship, especially Skywalker's and turned in about mid-night.
12/6/04 - Day At Sea - First Formal Night
Up early prior to 0630, and determined to keep up an exercise routine, I hit the first snag. The gym didn't open until 0700. On all of our previous cruises the gym was open 24 hours. So I ran stairs for 15 minutes. We had not been able to tour the gym the prior day, so I checked out all the weight equipment and ellipticals. Judy joined in on the whole body workout session at 0800, which she liked, while I swam in the lap pool. A great workout for sure, especially when the lap pool is on high! After showering we hit the buffet around 0930. Food was ok. Standard buffet faire. Note that the Neptune Grill serves make to order omelets in the mornings - didn't try one.
We caught the first 30 minutes of the Costa Maya/Cozumel Port and Shopping talk with Richie. Nice guy. If you want freebies, sit to his left in the 2nd or 3rd row as he will throw out samples during the talks. At 1030 was our first line dancing class with Erin. It turns out after four cruises, we finally have some line dances down just about right. At 1100 was horse racing, then lunch and a quick power nap. Judy signed up and went to Pilates at 2:00, while I went to the diamond shopping seminar, and learned quite a bit from Richie and Dawn about Tanzanite, Mexican Fire Opals and Diamonds.
At 430 it was time for my second workout, then into the lap pool to get our snorkel gear into condition and to try out my new waterproof camera case for my digital camera. Taking a $290 camera into the water is not an easy thing to do, but its good that I practiced with it prior to the real thing.
After swimming I did my one and only trip to the Casino. I played video poker for about 15 minutes, hit a Royal Flush for the first time in my life, but had only bet $0.25, cashed in and left. If I would have bet the 5 quarters, the trip would have been completely paid for, but then if I had won the lottery, I'd be typing this from the internet café on the Island Princess en-route to or from Hawaii! If wishes were fishes..
We went back to the room and watched the rest of the port and shopping talk on TV that we missed in the morning, then got ready for the Captain's welcome gala. There we could snag some free, albeit watered down, drinks before dinner.
The pre-dinner crowd in the lobby area was not as intense this night. Formal nights tend to scare away quite a few diners. Our table mates did not show either and did not show for the remainder of the cruise. They probably switched to PC dining.
This was the Welcome dinner menu. Judy had the Duck appetizer and I had the Crab Quiche. Both were good. She had the lobster bisque and I had the chilled yogurt soup. Both were good, but the chilled yogurt was different and tasty, but sweeter than I like in a soup. Judy had the Mahi-Mahi, as did I, but I added the Mahi-Mahi filet to the tournedos of beef. Both were good as well. More importantly, the staff started opening up to us and the interactions were very pleasant. This contributed to both Judy and I thoroughly enjoying this meal much more than the Sailaway and looking forward to Italian night, our favorite.
After Dinner, it was off to the Vista Lounge and Comedian Philadelphia. Based on previous comments I knew we had to get there early, and was that ever true. The place filled up by 10:30 and people had to leave as it was SRO in the back. Philadelphia was good. Not as much fun as Kevin Hughes on the Island Princess in January, but good enough to make it worth while.
To bed around 12:00 again.
12/7/04 - Costa Maya
The Grand was in port prior to us and had MUTS installed already. The Splendour of the Seas was also in, but hiding behind the Grand., but it had a rock wall as opposed to MUTS.
Breakfast at the Horizon Court was, again, OK. Not much more to say there. No morning workout, so we left for the port about 0900. I wanted to price some diamonds based on our talks from yesterday. Very expensive to say the least, but intriguing to see how well Richie had tagged the sellers and given us pretty good tips (35% off list for diamonds and 65% off list for jewelry). The quotes I got were right on the money with a little room for more bargaining.
Just for the record, I don't get the deal with the Caribbean and diamonds. The 1 carat G-IS1-round in Costa Maya, with solitaire ring, was priced at $7200. This week back home I have been pricing diamonds and they are about the same price, if not a bit less. So I don't understand the allure. Even with bargaining, I don't think I would have saved much at all. However, the selection is much more varied in the Caribbean, that's for sure.
After hearing of a couple getting everything stolen, don't know which ship they were from, and tired of fighting crowds and pushy vendors, we went back to the ship and spend an hour in the lap pool.
Not much happening that afternoon, so we spent it soaking up some sun and wandering around the decks. At 715, we took in the James Michael magic and comedy act. This one we would have to rate as OK to Good. The adult show later in the week is better.
This night was Italian night, our favorite night in the dining room and our scheduled anniversary celebration night. Unlike the previous two cruises, the head waiters, as in our first cruise, cooked a pasta appetizer. Albuquerque added fresh green jalapenos to his pasta and it was INCREDIBLY GOOD, EXCELLENT and other superlatives. Judy and I both had the eggplant parmigiana. She didn't care for it too much, but I thought it was very good. The minestrone soup was good, but it quickly was put away for Albuquerque's pasta.
For the main course, Judy ordered the Pappardelle pasta, but did not like the strong flavor. She quickly got rid of the plate and had Pompei bring her more of Albuquerque's pasta, which he did. I had the Gamberi with a fillet of swordfish added. Both were very good. And about this time, Pompei brought me another dish of Albuquerque's pasta - mmmm, good.
For desert we had the traditional round Princess celebration cake with ice cream. The waiters gathered and sang happy anniversary to us. We sat around and talked with the waiters until about 1000.
Way too much food. We couldn't even make it to the Island Night party. I heard it was a lot of fun.
12/8/04 - Cozumel
We docked in Cozumel next to Carnival Glory at the new set of docks south of town. Our Palancar reef excursion had been cancelled so we signed up for a catamaran sail and snorkel. We won't be doing this again. I wanted to snorkel, not sail on a booze cruise. Other people had a good time, but I would have preferred more snorkeling. This excursion started at the dock near the duty free tunnel/gauntlet exit nearest the ships. It was a Fury catamaran. A carnival group was loading a fury catamaran in front of us. They piled about 50-75 people on that boat! We only had 24 on the same size boat! This is one thing I like about Princess excursions.
The cat sailed north for about 3 miles along the coast while we got lectured on snorkeling. Then it u-turned and sailed south and dropped us in the water about 300 yards from the dock! We drifted north for about 45 minutes looking at the sparse coral near the shore. I did get some underwater shots with my new camera setup, but I seriously needed more practice. Then we loaded up the cat and sailed south along the coast for about 5 miles. The cat beached, along with 4 others, at Fury beach where a BBQ, lounges, water toys, volleyball and kayaks, plus all you could drink. Judy hung on the beach while I snorkeled out from the beach. Not great snorkeling, but better than nothing.
We stayed at the beach for "one Mexican hour" and then sailed back to the dock. The party on the boat began. Line dancing, margaritas and beer flowed freely. I drank while Judy danced, which would cause problems later, but we didn't know that at the time. (The dancing not the drinking.)
Judy and I had to do some serious vanilla shopping at Las Cinco Soles, which just happened to be next to Pancho's backyard. Anxious for some serious chips and salsa, and a frosty margarita, I got us a table while she bought vanilla. She is a tamale nut, so I ordered her some tamales and a small margarita, while I did the hot salsa, guacamole, chips and LARGE margarita. The combination was very good.
So after margaritas and lunch, we lurched back to the ship, had another margarita at the Atrium Bar, went to our cabin and promptly napped out.
Our dinner reservation at Sabatini's was for 7pm, but after dancing on a moving ship, having a couple of margaritas for lunch, Judy was not up for the dinner at all. We had to leave after the first set of appetizers. The maitre' de was very understanding and we were not charged at all. He was concerned that the food or service was bad. For the time we were there, the service was impeccable, though stiff and formal, and the food was very good.
Bedtime, needless to say, was early.
12/9/04 - Grand Cayman
We were to anchor in Grand Cayman about 1200. That left time for an 0700 workout for me and an 0900 pilates class for Judy. Line dancing with Erin was at 1100.
Grand Cayman was hit hard. New roofs and blue roofs (tarps) were the norm. The green island I remembered from January was leafless and almost treeless.
Judy was still a little uncertain about getting into another small boat, so she sat out the Wreck and Reef snorkel and I went ashore. Two Carnival ships, an RCL and the Westerdam were already anchored and the tender wars had begun.
For this port, Princess had all of the excursions meet in the theatre. We were then taken to a tender where we had priority. Even with all the delays we were only 15 minutes late in getting on shore.
Fortunately, this was one of the better snorkel excursions. Unfortunately I didn't take the camera. We first snorkeled the wreck of the Callie, which is about 400 yards north of the tender terminals, still inside the harbor and about 150 yards offshore. The wreck is really neat to snorkel, about 15-25 ft underwater. Water visibility was good, but not as good as I saw it in January. Water temperature was perfect. I really kicked myself for not brining the camera. We snorkeled here for about 40 minutes, then picked up anchor and moved out and north about 500 yards.
This was the reef part of the snorkel and it was really impressive. Huge 6' long tarpon cruised the gulleys between the coral reefs - and me without my camera. Lots of fish, lots of coral and interesting rock formations. Time went by quickly and we snorkeled for about 45 minutes, picked up and headed back to the tender terminal. I caught the very next tender and was back on board in less than 30 minutes. The RCL ship had left and both carnival ships and the Westerdam was in the process of leaving. I rated this excursion as a Don't Miss for sure. If we ever go back to Grand Cayman, I will do this one again.
The good news was that Judy got a couple hours of sleep and felt much better. I was invigorated by the snorkeling and didn't need a nap, so we spent the next few hours watching us sail away from the top decks. The breeze was warm and the rapidly darkening sky against the lights of Grand Cayman were a relaxing and beautiful sight.
The schedule for this evening was hectic. We wanted to see Live Wire, but the only showtime for us was 1030. But 1000 was the country and western dance party. We couldn't let our line dance instructor down. In addition, the adult version of the James Michael comedy/magic show was on at 1130. It was going to be a late night.
Dinner was the Chef's Choice menu. By this time, it was like dining with friends. The wait staff knew us, we knew them and dinner was an enjoyable experience. Judy opted for Shrimp Cocktail and I dared the Green Asparagus, both of which were good. Judy had the diced vegetables in oxtail broth, which she thought was very good, while I had the lentil cream soup which I thought was good. For the main course she had the black tiger prawns, as did I, but I added the boneless chicken kiev as well. The tiger prawns were very good, the Chicken Kiev good.
Tonight Albuquerque was cooking bananas foster - An extremely sweet dessert. I'm sure they were very good, but also very, very sweet and we couldn't finish them all.
During the course of the meal we talked to Albuquerque about his pasta. 3 years ago on the Ocean Princess, Gino, our head waiter, cooked pasta on our Alaska cruise. It turns out that Albuquerque knew Gino and had exchanged emails with him in the past few months. Gino was on the Sun Princess (I hope he's there when we sail on her in April.) During the course of the conversation about Head Waiters cooking pasta, we told Albuquerque that while Gino cooked very good pasta, Albuquerque's addition of the green jalapenos made the difference and his pasta was the better of the two. You would have thought we just told him he won an Iron Chef competition! He thanked us profusely, shook our hands, and went and made us some crepes to go with dessert. Stuffed as we were, we couldn't turn them down. I also mentioned to him that we had cancelled our steakhouse reservations because we really enjoyed having dinner in the dining room.
Just as we were leaving he came back to the table and announced to us that he would be making us pasta the following night - just for us and very special. He asked what we preferred and we settled on spaghetti.
After dinner we went to the country and western dance. It was extremely crowded, so much so that if you got up and danced, you lost your seat. So we just stayed out on floor and line danced for the next hour. A very good time was had by all.
Immediately after the dance, we hot footed to the Vista Lounge to see the James Michael adult show. You have to get to a show early if you want a good seat. The show was good. It had some really funny moments and some really lame ones, but it was entertaining.
After the show, it was off to bed.
12/10/04 - Ocho Rios
We had never been to Ocho Rios or Jamaica before. We don't plan on going again. The first clue was the dock. We docked at the old mineral loading dock, greeted by a dead rat on the dock when we got off the ship. (Later we found out that the Star was the first Grand class to dock at this dock and the captain had to flood the tanks and cause a list to get the boarding ramps to line up just right.) Carnival Victory got the prime parking spot on the new dock, next to the new shops - it really pays to be early.
We went out to the traffic snarl at the end of the dock and met our excursion group. The bus ride through the town was interesting to say the least. Jamaican's use horns more than people on the east coast! It was on the bus ride that I noticed people walking from our dock along the street to the new mall shop at the end of the new pier where victory was parked - Jimmy Buffets' Margaritaville is in this complex. Almost every one of those people were being tailed by a local: some a discrete distance behind; some right alongside and apparently not taking no for an answer. One poor women looked very upset and harassed. Judy and I had planned to shop after the excursion, but not if we had to run a gauntlet to get there.
Unfortunately, our sail and snorkel cruise was essentially a booze cruise with emphasis on Rum, not snorkeling. The rum started flowing before we left the dock and didn't stop until we got back. The catamaran sailed west back past the Star, past the falls and anchored just off the new hotels. The water was not very clear and we snorkeled for about 45 minutes. Then it was back to the dock, rum flowing - and the selling began. First it was cigars, then it was t-shirts, then it was pictures, then it was videos, then it was bootleg music CDs. The crew seemed to be genuinely upset when you didn't buy everything they brought out. For anyone who would want to drink, this is the excursion to go on, but we wanted to snorkel -big disappointment there. This was a definite not worth it.
We got back to the ship about 200 and decided, after seeing the gauntlet we would have to run, to stay aboard. That's when we noticed the ship had a definite list, which the Captain explained later that was deliberate to get the ramps lined up with the dock. We ate a light, late lunch and watched sail-away.
The evening was the last formal evening, Captain's Circle, a new Comedian (Rodney Johnson) and 70's night in the Explorer's lounge. Captain's Circle is another great place to snag free, but watered down, drinks. We even got a picture with the Captain this time.
Dinner was Captains' Gala. Lobster, Escargot (Not the clam's casino as on the CP menus), Beef Wellington and Albuquerque's spaghetti. The Escargot was very good, especially for dipping bread in the garlic juice. We both had the Roasted Garlic Veloute soup which was good until I added salt and pepper and then was very good. The lobster was excellent, the best Judy said she ever had. I had the beef Wellington (excellent) with two lobster tails - very good to me. In the Beef Wellington, the spices had penetrated the meat. It was wonderful.
But the highlight was the spaghetti. We noticed that Albuquerque had disappeared after a while and I thought he'd forgotten. Nope, he brought us a silver dish heaping with spaghetti, a sauce made of olive oil, fresh tomatoes (cherry), fresh basil and green jalapenos. It was heavenly. We ate one helping instead of salad, and a little bit more during the main course. Needless to say, we were stuffed after dinner. Completely and totally stuffed.
70's night was way too slow. Hardly anyone there was dancing except the cruise staff. No one feels like dancing in a tux. So we wandered over and waited for the comedy show. Some people didn't like Rodney at all. He was ok. Probably not as cutting edge as Philadelphia. His highs were not as high, but his lows were not as low either. It rated an OK. We probably should have went to see Da Beat, but we like comedians.
12/11/04 - Day At Sea
I always hate the last day at Sea before docking. The impending doom that is the end of a cruise just hangs over your head like a dark cloud. But we both had to work off last nights dinner, so today would be an active day.
Breakfast at the Horizon court was, well, a buffet breakfast. Nothing special.
At 1000 we went to the summary line dance class with Erin. We reviewed the dances for about 45 minutes.
After class we decided to pack at least one suitcase before working out, and then at 130 I started my workout and Judy went to Pilates at 200. After showering, we hit the buffet which featured fake sushi, which was actually good. (Fake sushi is cooked shrimp, crab and smoked salmon in Negri style and in California Rolls.)
After lunch it was dicey horse racing and the big derby. That was fun to watch and apparently Neil, the cruise director, had caught up on his sleep because he was much more invigorated or at least more comfortable than before.
The Passenger Talent Show was at 530 and most of the people were actually quite good. There was a pretty funny lady from New York doing standup, a lady with a great voice and a young couple. She could really sing. The show though was just ok.
James Michael and Rodney did a show at 715. Rodney was much better than the previous day and James Michael had some new skits/stunts/magic tricks. We rated this show as good.
Our landfall dinner was at 815. We had already cancelled the Steakhouse reservation to be with the folks in the dining room. This was the baked Alaska night, so dessert would be extremely sweet. Judy had a shrimp cocktail and I had the Vol-au Lent a la Reine. It was very good and Judy's shrimp cocktail was good. I had the fresh green asparagus soup, which after pepper and salt was good, but Judy's chilled yellow pumpkin soup was just ok. We're just not cold soup fans. She has the sea scallops, which were good, while I had the prime rib, which was also good.
The biggest problem with this meal was the service. It wasn't Pompei's fault though. To do the parade of the baked Alaska, they pull the assistant waiter away for about 15 minutes and then rush the dinner service to get everyone on dessert at the same time. Add to this the fact that all three of Pompei's tables, except for our table, were now filled to capacity for the baked Alaska and you have a recipe for a harried and harassed waiter.
Needless to say, it wasn't the best moment, but basically we just waited until things calmed down and people watched for a while. Once Lucia got back, things picked back up. We said our goodbyes to Pompei, Lucia and Albuquerque and went up to see the finals in the Princess Idol competition. However, because we'd sat at dinner so long, there was no way to get a seat. We stood in the back of the lounge, in the hallway actually, for the first two acts and then turned in for the night.
12/12/05 - Debarkation
We really tried to sleep late on Sunday, but no dice. The Sun Princess was in the secondary dock, with the Star in the primary spot.
We docked at 0700 and immediately noticed that the outside air temperature was 55 degrees F. No kidding! We went up to breakfast about 0745 and really didn't have to fight lines. We were purple 2 in color. They started calling colors at 0818.
0818 - Red 1 and 2 0823 - Red 3 and 4 0831 - Brown 1 and 2 0836 - Green, Light Blue and Orange 1 0840 - Orange 2 and 3 0846 - Orange 4 and 5 0851 - Gold and Purple 1 0905 - Purple 2 and 3
We were at the cab stand at 0930, in a cab and back at the Holiday Inn by 0945 where we stored our luggage, flight was not out until the next day, and went to see a movie.
We've never had a debarkation this smooth before.