Number of Cruises: 7
Cruise Line: Princess
Ship: Coral Princess
Sailing Date: n/a
Itinerary: Pacific Coastal
2-Day San Francisco to Vancouver
May 8, 2003
I took advantage of some great pricing to take a two-day relocation cruise on Coral Princess from San Francisco to Vancouver, BC from May 8th to 10th. My partner couldn’t go, so I convinced a good friend of mine to join me. Bob enjoys sailing but had never been on a large cruise ship before, and was dubious about whether he’d enjoy it. I thought this might be a good way to win another convert to cruising, and I was right.
This was my 7th cruise, having been on Royal Caribbean, Celebrity (three times), NCL and Princess once before. I’m partial to Celebrity for their high level of service, sophisticated clientele and their generally excellent food. My only previous experience on Princess was on a similar 2-day relocation cruise on Sun Princess two years before, and I enjoyed this trip on the Coral much more than my previous experience. Still, this trip confirmed my impression that Princess targets the middle-of-the-road, middle-America traveler who doesn’t want too much creativity or challenge. It also reinforced for me that the choice of ship can make almost as big a difference as the choice of cruise line.
I’ll organize this review by topic rather than itinerary, since this 2-day trip is only repeated twice a year. I’ll try to give some detail about the ship and make comparisons to other ships I’ve been on to help you get a sense of what the Coral is like.
Boarding: San Francisco doesn’t have a proper cruise terminal, and until it does, boarding here will not be very pleasant. The cruise lines use Pier 35, which is a working pier from the 1920’s, and is basically a large shed. There is no separation between the passengers waiting to check in and the forklifts loading baggage and supplies for the cruise. There are no seats and no refreshments. I did see that Princess was taking care of passengers who needed wheelchairs, and they also allowed Platinum members to go to the front of the line. I’m sure Princess did the best they could, but it took 1 ½ hours from when I got in line out on the sidewalk until I was boarding the ship. For such a short cruise, that’s about 1 ½ hours too long! I understand that contracts have been let for a beautiful cruise terminal right beside the Bay Bridge, but construction is delayed because of allegations of corruption. Welcome to life in San Francisco!
Cabin: We had booked a mini-suite, B223 at the very front of the Baja deck. My only previous cruise on Princess had been in a regular balcony cabin on Sun Princess, which was the smallest cabin I’ve ever been in, as they took the space for the balcony out of the cabin itself. By contrast, the mini-suite had a bathroom with full-sized tub and large countertop, an open closet by the bathroom that they call a “walk-in”. It’s more like a “walk-past” closet, but it is larger than regular ship closets, and there’s a separate set of shelves with the safe beside the bathroom door. There were two single beds that could make up into a queen and two nightstands followed by a decent sized desk.
In the middle of the room was a unique feature: a semi-circular built-in cabinet with a mini-fridge in the bottom (not stocked) along with some shelves, granite counters, and two TVs on the top. One TV faced the beds and one faced the sitting area. There was one remote control for the two TVs, and if you stood in the wrong place you might change the channel on the wrong TV. The TV cable system has several movie choices, CNN, two Princess channels one of which showed continuous Princess ads and the other showed information about the Coral, shore talks, etc. There’s also a bridge-cam (for inside cabins – been there) and a channel that continually scrolled, showing maps of the ship’s position, the temperature, wave height, etc. Finally, there are several music channels.
The sitting area was what made it a “mini-suite”, and it consisted of a full-sized sofa, a small oval coffee table, and a single chair. The area seemed a little bare, and could have used another chair or a chest. Perhaps they keep it bare so the sofa can be opened out to a bed, but it seemed a little cheap. Finally, there is a sliding glass door out to a large balcony with a sturdy white plastic table and two chairs. Unlike the cocktail furniture in regular balcony cabins, this set seems large and sturdy enough to have a complete meal on. We, however, didn’t get to use it at all thanks to the weather along the Pacific Northwest coast: windy, chilly and a little damp. It would be perfect for breakfast or dinner while the ship was docked in a warm location.
Our cabin steward, Dino, knocked on the door and introduced himself as soon as I got in. I asked for some terry cloth robes and for the beds to be separated, which he took care of during the afternoon. Although you don’t establish as much of a relationship on such a short cruise, he was both responsive and professional. I had a problem with the door to the safe in the cabin, which was off the hinge – I’m not sure how that could happen. Since I didn’t see Dino in the hallway, I called the purser’s desk about it. Nothing was done for 24 hours, and it was only when I mentioned it to Dino that he immediately called for an engineer and had someone there in minutes.
Dining: I had not been impressed with Princess’ cuisine on my previous short cruise, and this trip didn’t change my mind on that. However, I appreciate that they have a variety of choices at dinner that are competently prepared and presented: chicken, several fish dishes, sirloin and NY strip. They also have one or two vegetarian options every meal – I tend to notice that since my partner is vegetarian, although I’m not. Their wine list is uninventive, short and moderately priced – bottles of mostly mainstream California wines from $18 to $30 a bottle. There’s nothing creative or challenging about Princess’ food, but it’s also inoffensive for most Americans, who are presumably their target market.
We had chosen “Personal Choice” dining, Princess’ version of dine-anytime. Coral Princess has two main dining rooms, and you have the choice of traditional assigned times and tables in the Provence dining room, or dine anytime and anywhere in the Bordeaux. I normally prefer traditional dining on a cruise so you get to know your table-mates and waiters, but I didn’t want to scare Bob away from cruising if we had a bad experience. The ship also has two extra-cost restaurants which we didn’t try given the short trip: Sabatini’s, Princess’ signature Italian restaurant; and Bayou Café, which is a New Orleans style restaurant and bar. Sabatini’s had an interesting menu, and the space looked very elegant. There is a $15 charge for eating there. I’d be happy to try it on a longer cruise. The Bayou Café had a less inspiring menu, but the live jazz trio playing both nights was pretty good, and the $10 charge includes a cocktail. We actually spent some time in the Bayou Café the second evening, and enjoyed the jazz music. Again, I’d be happy to try it on a longer cruise. It was a little noisy with the live jazz and the bar up front, so you might not be able to talk across a table there.
We ate both dinners and breakfasts in the Bordeaux dining room, and ended up having the same waitress and assistant waiter each time. After being seated in Ideko’s area for breakfast the first day, she recognized us from the night before and was increasingly warm each time. We did notice that the only tables for two seemed to be in her area, right in the middle of the restaurant. Normally, I would prefer to be seated by the windows and out of the path of the waitstaff, but we appreciated her warmth and good service. I think she’s the first woman I’ve seen as a waiter in a ship’s dining room, so I wish her well.
We ate lunch in the Horizon Court (the buffet) on our day at sea. Just as I recalled from the Sun Princess, the layout is bad and causes congestion, as everyone has to enter and exit through the same doors. It wasn’t at all busy when we were there, but even so there was some bumping of trays. Also, there are several food stations in the middle of the floor, which forces the staff to cross the floor with large pans to refill them and take away the empty platters, which further interferes with traffic. The food selection was pretty good for a buffet, including a number of healthy and fresh choices.
The seating area is very pleasant, as the Horizon Court fills the entire front of the ship and has floor to ceiling windows that curve all the way around. There’s also a skylight over the middle, raised seating area. The bar stewards circulate with sodas and beer, but no wines, which they can get from the bar. There’s a piano under the skylight for mealtime music.
Entertainment: We saw two large production shows during our two-day cruise, “Dance”, in the Princess theater in the front of the ship, and “Tribute” in the Universe Lounge in the back of the ship. Both were a notch above most shipboard stage productions I’ve seen. The Princess theater has good sightlines, but is really just a theater with regular movie theater seating – there’s no balcony, and no cocktail service in your seats. The seats are rather small. The Universe Lounge is an interesting combination of nightclub and theater, with comfortable sofas and chairs with cocktail service, along with a full production stage with video walls, three revolving and hydraulic stage segments, fog machines, etc.
As mentioned above, the jazz trio in the Bayou Café was great and was well worth a drink or two while enjoying their music. The Wheelhouse bar is a very comfortable, wood-paneled space with leather furniture and oil paintings of ships and nautical themes that, unfortunately, had an incongruous pop band playing every time we walked through. I would have been happy to relax in the space if not for the band. The Explorers lounge was set up for Karaoke one night, and with a disco later. During the daytime it had the paintings for the art auction displayed. The Crooners bar in the Atrium was a martini bar with a piano player in the evening that was a great spot for a creative martini or glass of champagne. Look for the hula-dancing waiter there.
The casino is well laid out and has enough choices that I didn’t mind losing some money there each evening. It doesn’t have that claustrophobic feeling that some shipboard casinos can have.
We attended two lectures during our two-day cruise, one on the history of the “great” ocean liners, and another by a naturalist on the great Orca and other whales. The first speaker was very light and general, with slides of ocean liners from the turn of the (last) century until the present accompanied by tidbits and gossip. The second speaker was very technical and detailed, but was very educational. I believe that these speakers were both part of Princess’ new educational programs at sea, which include the Coral Princess’ pottery classes with shipboard kiln, cooking classes, and full lecture series on longer cruises.
Exercise: I enjoy working out in the gym on any cruise, and the gym, aerobics room, and spa on the Coral are refreshingly spacious after having been on the Sun Princess. The gym is surrounded by windows, and is equipped with a full set of Cybex selectorized equipment as well as a half-dozen treadmills, elliptical trainers, and four recumbent cycles. The aerobics room is also surrounded by windows and our cruise offered a selection of yoga, step, spinning and stretching classes. The more popular classes (spinning and yoga) had a $10 charge. I was surprised that the locker rooms are small and are completely separate from the gym. The men’s included lockers with two small showers and a steam room. Princess must intend that they be used only by spa-goers, and not by those exercising in the gym.
The main swimming pool has several whirlpools around it. There is another small, deep pool at the very back of the ship behind the gym with a glass windscreen and sunning area. There is also a shallow wading pool and sunning area on the very top of the ship forward, above the Horizon Court. There is an enclosed “Conservatory” pool with a sliding glass roof that was heavily used during our trip due to the windy cold weather. However, Princess made no effort to keep children out of this otherwise elegant, restful area that I’m sure would be perfect in Alaska. The ship has a padded running track around the deck above the pool that looked wide enough to allow jogging without fighting with sunseekers. There is a half-basketball court surrounded by a net behind the funnel, and a mini-golf course along with a golf simulator for a charge. Finally, the ship has a full, wrap-around promenade deck that allows circuits of the teak deck in all weather.
Layout and Decor: As I noted at the beginning, Princess clearly tries to go with the mainstream, and avoid anything adventurous or daring. That said, the Coral Princess has one of the best layouts I’ve seen on any ship. With the exception of the Horizon Court, there is no space on the ship that feels crowded or cramped. Decks 6 and 7 both have a wide passageway down the starboard side between the Atrium and the Universe Lounge. The passageway is wide enough that it never feels crowded, with windows and seating areas that pass by the two specialty restaurants on Deck 7 and the Casino and Explorer lounge on Deck 6. The Atrium is surrounded by bars and lounges on several decks, including a large and quiet library with a decent selection of books and large leather chairs by the windows. Opposite the library is a good-sized cardroom, also with lots of windows. The internet lounge is at the top of the Atrium, where internet access is 50 cents a minute for those who need to keep in touch while on vacation.
Conclusions: The Coral Princess impressed me with her layout and exercise facilities, the level of service of her staff, and the entertainment choices. I was not so impressed by the food and wine selections. I can’t speak to any cabin categories other than the mini-suite we were in. I’d be happy to sail on her again given the right itinerary and price, but I think I’ll feel more comfortable returning to Celebrity for my next cruise (10-day Mexican Riviera on Celebrity Mercury, October 26th). Happy cruising, whichever line and ship you choose!