Age: 21 to 35
Number of Cruises: 3 to 5
Cruise Line: Princess
Ship: Dawn Princess
Sailing Date: n/a
Itinerary: Southern Caribbean Explorer
My wife and I cruised for one week on the Dawn Princess Southern Caribbean Explorer Itinerary. We had previously cruised on NCL's Dreamward (now the Norwegian Dream) and Fantasy Cruise Line's Amerikanis. . Here are some observations, recommendations and just plain pontifications regarding this cruise:
1. Things Princess and your travel agent should tell you but probably won't
Ignore the cabin categories set forth in the brochure. As far as I could tell, there were only four actual cabin categories: inside, outside, mini suite and suite. If you are going for an inside cabin (as we did), get the cheapest one you can. The same goes for any of the other types of cabins. The only difference between the cheap inside cabins and the more expensive ones is location - and here's the kicker - the cheap ones actually have a better location. We were on deck five, which is the lowest passenger deck. Most of what you will do on the ship except for sitting by the pool or eating at the buffet will take place on decks 5, 6 or 7, and the pool is on deck 12, so everyone has to take the elevator anyway. The dining rooms are on 5 and 6; the gangway is on 5; the shops are on 6 and most of the bars, as well as the theater and lounge are on 7. Deck 5 is far more convenient to just about everything than, say, and deck 11. The money you save on your cabin can be used to splurge on shore excursions, souvenirs and drinks. Except for location, every cabin gets the exact same service and amenities. We were probably in the cheapest cabin on the ship and yet we were one of only three couples seated at the captain's table.
Also, ignore the ship's port talk. It is just a blatant sales pitch for the ship's tours and for ship-associated shops in port. They give you only basic information on how to see the islands on your own. (Although the port brochures placed in your cabin at the beginning of the cruise were actually very helpful). We were able to arrange private tours at several ports through taxi drivers for significantly less than the ship's tours where you get stuck riding around with a busload of octogenarians. We also became convinced after hearing their shopping tips that Princess owns a lot of stock in the company that mines tanzanite, because they sure pushed us to buy a lot of it. I would recommend that you spend the twenty dollars to buy the guidebook on Caribbean ports of call available at most major bookstores (sorry I don't have the title handy right now). That book gave us far more information than the cruise line did about how to see the Islands. That said, if you wish to do the more unusual tours, such as scuba, kayaking, bicycling, etc. the ship's tours may be more efficient than doing them on your own.
This particular cruise is heavily promoted in Europe as a two-week cruise. I personally believe this is a positive factor, but some may not. Probably a third of the passengers were European, mostly from England. Be aware that the buffets and shows are geared to satisfy British taste as much as American. I personally thought the comedians and the cruise staff were a hoot, but there were some that didn't enjoy the distinctively British humor. Also, one of the lounges was closed off on two separate occasions to accommodate a private group from Greece.
Because a third of the passengers are on a two week cruise, this cruise is subject to the axiom that the longer the cruise the older the passengers. My wife and I are in our mid 30's, and while we weren't the youngest people on the ship, we were close. I would put the average passenger age at close to 60. Of course, with 2000 people on board, there were still quite a few close to our age. Overall, this didn't bother us, but I can see how it may bother others, and you should go into this aware of the age factors.
2. The Ship
The ship is flat out gorgeous. It is really hard to fault the design in any way. It is easy to get oriented and easy to find your way around. The crew is friendly and helpful and keeps the ship in tiptop shape, and there is a clear attention to detail that elevates many rooms from nice to outstanding. There is no place on the ship that is not well thought out. Take a little time to admire the artwork placed all around the ship. If I had to come up with a complaint, it is that during busy times you sometimes had to wait too long to get an elevator. But it didn't happen often, and was a minor problem at best.
Don't worry about the number of people on board. A tremendous amount of thought and detail went into making it seem smaller than it actually is. There were times when I just could not believe that there were actually 2000 other passengers on the ship. We never had trouble getting a lounge chair, finding room in a hot tub (well OK once, but that's because a group had planted themselves there and refused to budge), or taking a dip in the pools. There is so much deck space, that you could usually find a place where you were virtually alone. There were little or no lines for the buffets, bars or other public areas.
One possible negative. The ship seemed to rock more than the Dreamward. Although the weather was fine throughout the cruise, you definitely knew you were on a ship, and there were frequent shudders, which went right through the ship. Many people remarked on the motion. The captain explained to us that is were because the winds were coming from the wrong direction and that other weeks you can barely feel the motion. Personally, I had no trouble with the motion, but it was enough to cause my wife to get out the Dramamine on a few nights. Maybe we just got unlucky, but if you are prone to seasickness, keep this in mind.
Some tips we learned that can save you some aggravation:
A. Show up at least 15 minutes early for anything in the Vista Lounge, as most of the shows there are one time only affairs, and it can get really crowded at times, sticking you way in the back or even denying you a seat if you arrive late.
B. Go to the pool and hot tubs at the rear of the ship instead of the one in the middle, especially on the day at sea. I think some passengers never figured out that it was back there, and we sometimes had the pool with its three hot tubs all to ourselves. Also, you can only take so much reggae music before your head starts to explode.
C. Become a morning person. By midnight the ship is dead. There is some nightlife in the disco, but if you're still up at 1:00 you will be one of the few. Docking usually takes place by 8:00 a.m., and can be pretty noisy. If you're a light sleeper, don't plan on sleeping in. Heck. You wanted to go ashore anyway, didn't you?
D. If you are starting to get too much sun, but still want to sit outside, go outside on deck 7, which has a roof over it. You'll have to endure the joggers though.
3. Food & Dining
The food on the ship was usually good and occasionally excellent, but sometimes just average. The head chef is Italian, and you will do best to stick to the Italian dishes. A pasta course is offered with each meal, and was often the best part of the dinner. It is when he branched into other cuisines that it got dicey. The creme brulee we had on French night was a disaster. Also, I had to send steaks back three different times because they weren't done right. That said, if you're not expecting gourmet food, you will be very happy. The pastry chef deserves high praise. Almost every pastry we tried was excellent.
If you have cruised before, and enjoyed the singing, dancing and entertainment by the wait staff that take place on many ships, this cruise may disappoint you. Except for the far too frequent out of key singing of happy birthday/honeymoon/anniversary at the individual tables, there were no real shows put on by the staff. Instead the service was more formal and professional, and the meal service closer to that of a fine restaurant. I did not consider this to be a negative, but you should be aware of the difference. We dined in the Venetian dining room. I am told that there was far more levity in the Florentine dining room, so if this is what you are looking for you should probably request that room in advance.
Be sure to take at least one night to dine in the Horizon Court, where they offer a full sit down menu separate from the dining room. (This takes the place of a midnight buffet). Because it is prepared separately, and made to order, the food here is actually better and fresher than in the dining room. They have a nice selection of about 8 entrees to choose from along with daily specials. However, this is clearly where they train potential new wait staff, and the service, while usually enthusiastic, can sometimes be pretty awful. Do not miss getting the panna cotta dessert (sort of a creme caramel, only better). It was my favorite single food item on the ship. We actually took to coming here each night after the shows just for dessert.
The buffets are all pretty good. Make sure you check out the horizon court at lunchtime, where they are usually grilling excellent sandwiches to order. The breakfast buffet is also very good, and will give you a chance to see what they eat for breakfast in England (is that really baked beans?). While you're sunning on the deck, pop in and grab a plate full of pastries to snack on. You're on vacation. You can lose the weight when you get home. Also, though it may seem odd, go for pizza in the pizza parlor at least once. It is excellent. They give you a whole small pie, but there's nothing to stop you from only eating one or two slices and leaving the rest behind (except the taste). We never got the ice cream, since we balked at shelling out two bucks for it just out of principle.
4. Clubs and Entertainment
Alcohol on the ship is reasonably priced. If you've always ordered the bar brands, treat yourself to the top shelf brand. It is usually only another fifty cents to a dollar. I used the opportunity to try out a few expensive liquors that I had always wondered about but wasn't willing to ante up the dollars on to try in the States. Single malt scotches are especially a bargain, with brands that would cost 10 to 12 dollars a glass in New York or Philadelphia selling for $4.50 a glass. If you are a beer connoisseur My one complaint is that it was hard to get drink service on the deck. I usually had to get up and walk to the bar to get my own drink. Sounds petty, but you want to be pampered while on board.
My favorite bar was the Windjammer bar on the very top of the ship. It's a great place to sit and watch the ship slowly sail away from port or to look at the people walking around the main pool area. It also seemed to attract a younger crowd than the other bars, possibly because you have to go up two flights of stairs to get there. I also liked the Wheelhouse bar. You really feel like you are in a luxurious club rather than on a ship. By all means, strike up a conversation with the bartender. Like Isaac on The Love Boat, several of the bartenders went out of their way to remember my name and favorite drink throughout the cruise. Really makes you feel welcome.
As for the entertainment, well everyone has his or her own taste in entertainment. My wife and I didn't like the production shows on the ship, but many of the other passengers did. In my opinion, both of our previous cruises had better shows. The "Gotta sing gotta dance" show is the type of bare bones song and dance review that requires top talent to pull off. Suffice it to say the talent was far from top. The "Pirates" show was on the same time as the Newlywed game in the Vista lounge. We caught half of each, and found the Newlywed game far more entertaining. If you enjoy going to shows at the local playhouse, you will probably enjoy these shows. Just don't expect off Broadway, or even Vegas style quality.
If our cruise was typical, most of the passengers are pretty reserved, so the loony audience participation stuff only worked on a small scale. Personally I find this to be no great loss. Though they scheduled things like pool games and a passenger talent show, they were usually canceled due to lack of interest. However, horse racing was massively popular. Just figure that if it is an activity enjoyed by the elderly, it will be popular (Bingo anyone?). The best show we saw was London Pub Night, where the Cruise Director placed audience members in awkward situations and basically made fun of them. Everyone but the participants had a good laugh. Assuming he hasn't moved to another ship, my best recommendation is to go to any show where Graham, the cruise director, is heavily involved, because he always kept people laughing.
In contrast to the ship's shows, most of the bands that played in the lounges were very good (there was one exception). Since they sign on for six-month stints, it is likely that you will get different lounge entertainment than we had, but I would assume that the quality would continue. One big problem in my opinion is that the bands are mostly assigned to a single lounge throughout the cruise. This means that if you like or dislike a particular group, you end up going back to or avoiding the same place each night, which defeats the purpose of having so many options. For example, I really liked the Wheelhouse bar, but the band that played there at night was the one exception to the good quality lounge band. It was a mediocre wedding/country band, which tried to play every style of music to please the whole crowd, thus pleasing no one. I avoided going there after the band started to play. The other entertainment was generally stellar. There was a very good string quartet, which played in the foyer each night before dinner, a good jazz trio, a nice lounge act, and a truly wonderful piano player who was a virtuoso on both jazz and classical pieces. Of course, there was also the obligatory reggae band, which played by the pool each afternoon.
5. The Ports
As I stated above, the pressure in the port talks to take the ship's tours is pretty intense. I think they deliberately tell you as little as possible about how to do the port on your own. If you do take the tours, be warned that every senior citizen on board (and there are a lot) will be on the tour with you. This is nothing against the elderly. Some of my best friends are elderly. I don't want to cross AARP or get on some geriatric hate list. Nevertheless, by definition a tour goes at the pace of the slowest person, and some of the best sites require some significant hiking to see. I had the misfortune to arrive at Trafalger falls in Dominica at the time the tour was there, and there's a big difference between being one of 20 or so tourists at the site and being one of 200 (fortunately I was able to wait until the tour left to really enjoy the site). When planning your trip, I would suggest that even the most spontaneous people plan in advance what you want to do on each given island. You have only a limited amount of time there, and don't want to spend your time in a "what do you want to do now? - I don't know, what do you want to do?" type of debate.
This port is designed with tourists in mind, and most people will feel very comfortable here. We went into the town, did some shopping, went to some bars and went into a casino for a while (and actually won a little, unlike on the ship). If you plan on doing some serious shopping, either do it here or on St. Thomas. While everyone from the ship crowded into the ship's "recommended" jewelry store, we shopped at some more out of the way places, and my wife got a ring at very good price compared to the States. We also went to some bars and cafes, met some people from some other ships, and had a good time. Check out Senor Frogs, a complete hole in the wall with a lot of character. Of all the stops, this had the best downtown. It's a shame that Aruba comes early in the cruise when most people are anxious to hit the beach instead of going to town. Speaking of the beach, we didn't go there, but I talked to someone who did, and he told me that the wind was blowing so hard they practically got sandblasted.
Most of the passengers never left the ship at this port. Their loss. The port talk does its best to talk you into taking the tour, which runs $80 per person, and spends most of its time at a glass factory, where they apparently put on a heavy sales pitch to get you to buy glass figurines. Don't listen to them, and don't let the look of La Guaira scare you away from Caracas. La Guaira is a port. It's like docking in Hoboken, NJ and thinking you're really in New York City. There is a lot of poverty in Venezuela, but there are also some very nice areas. La Guaira just isn't one of them.
We hired a taxi driver for the day for $100. The driver took us everywhere we wanted to go, walked around the city with us, pointed out all of the sites, translated for us when we wanted to buy souvenirs, paying for them with local currency and letting us reimburse him with US dollars, and took us to a nice local restaurant for genuine Venezuelan food. He was friendly, helpful and informative. I can't imagine a better tour guide. He stayed with us the entire day, and never left our side. All this for $60 less than we would have paid to sit on a bus, drive around the countryside and watch someone blow glass. (I have nothing against a glass factory except that there are a number of them in the States, and I hate to go all the way to Venezuela to see something I could just as easily see in Syracuse).
Be aware that Caracas is a huge city, along the lines of New York or LA. If you would feel uncomfortable in New York, don't go to Caracas since it is almost as big, but foreign. But if you like the city, you will love Caracas. It has a feel and a personality unlike any city in the USA, and the people we met were all very friendly. It also has a very beautiful downtown. I'm sure there is crime and such, as in any city, but I never felt ill at ease while walking the streets there. Much like you don't typically go into Harlem when you visit New York City, you don't go to the bad areas of Caracas. Personally, Caracas was my second favorite stop (next to Dominica).
After spending the entire day in Caracas on Tuesday, we didn't feel up to a whole day of touring on Grenada. We just went into town for an hour or so. What a waste. We found ourselves thinking of the Titanic as the ships passengers all rushed to get on the lifeboats (which they used for tenders) while the string quartet played classical music in the foyer. This set a proper mood of disaster for the rest of the day in Grenada. You can't walk ten feet in Grenada without someone trying to sell you something - usually some disgusting looking spices on a string. The setting of the town is very pretty, but it is clearly not set up for tourists. There is actually very little to see or do there. Most of the other passengers who went to town were, like us, heading right back to the ship within an hour. I talked to someone who went to the beach, and they said that the beach was pretty, but they got so sick of people trying to sell them stuff that they left early. The guidebooks all say that the interior of the island is lovely, so maybe that part of the island would be worth the trip. However, you only get 6 hours in Grenada, and you'll spend an hour getting the tender in and back, so in my opinion it really doesn't make much sense to even leave the ship.
The only word I can use to describe Dominica is paradise. This is the most beautiful place I have ever been. There are no real beaches here, but you'll never miss them. You will be too caught up ogling the natural beauty and variety of Dominica's rain forests. Once again, we passed on the ship's tour and hired a taxi driver for a private tour. For $80 we hired a driver for the whole day, who drove us all around the island, took us to the main sites and answered all of our questions. This was actually a splurge, since you could have gotten together with two other couples and hired a driver in a van for around the same price. You absolutely have to go to both the emerald pool and Trafalger falls. Disney has spent millions of dollars trying to duplicate a place like the emerald pool, without coming anywhere close. It is a very easy hike down from the road, and you will only lose your breath when you get to the bottom and catch sight of the falls and pool. I didn't believe that such places actually existed. Don't mar the beauty of it by sharing it with 200 other people on the ship's tour. Trafalgar falls is equally breathtaking. Separate cascades come down on either side of you in the lush rain forest. Here's a tip for seeing Trafalgar falls. When you get to the viewing platform, you will notice a trail going further down the mountain. Don't let your guide talk you out of going down there. (You aren't allowed to go if you are on the official tour). The beginning part is not very steep and gets you a better close-up of the falls. And, for the truly daring (and spry), you can climb the rocks to the very base of the falls for an unbelievable view. Believe me the risk is worth it. In case you haven't figured it out, this was my favorite stop on this cruise.
St. Thomas is designed for cruise ship passengers. Some might say it's overrun with cruise ship passengers. You will be one of about eight ships in port when you get there. We spent the morning at Magen's Bay in St. Thomas. Magen's Bay is a picturesque beach in a tropical cove surrounded by lush mountains and forests. It is also as crowded as Ocean City in the middle of August. If you don't mind the crowd, it's a nice place to go. It's a U.S. National park, and there are changing and restroom facilities, a snack bar, and a gift shop. Despite the palm trees, there is no doubt that you are back in the USA. Rent a couple of floating mats and go for a swim. The water is lovely.
We also went into town to do some shopping. That was a mistake. The merchants’ downtown are almost as annoying and aggressive as the peddlers in Grenada, but without the sympathy factor of Grenada's obvious poverty. Each jewelry shop has a pitchman that stands outside and hassles the tourists who don't enter their shop. Some were quite rude about it. We were in St. Thomas on a previous cruise, and the amount of aggressiveness has increased quite a bit since then. If you wish to shop, I would suggest you go to the shops near the port, which have comparable, and in some cases cheaper, prices and far less of an attitude. By all means, if you like to drink now and then, buy your allotment of duty free alcohol in St. Thomas. The prices are actually more than 50% cheaper than in the states. I bought a few bottles of Single Malt Scotch, which I wouldn't even think of buying in the states.
6. My Top 10 things to do on this Cruise:
10. Floating on a mat in the middle of Magans Bay, St.
9. Bar hopping in downtown Oranjestad, Aruba. Don't miss Senor Frog's.
8. Sit down dining at the Horizon Court at a quiet table for two.
7. Sitting at the windjammer bar, smoking a Cuban cigar, and watching the ship slowly sail away from port as the sun sets.
6. Playing one of the three nickel slot machines hidden in the back corner of the casino. It takes so much longer to lose your money that way.
5. Taking an all day private tour of Caracas, Venezuela.
4. Snacking on the pizza margarita in the pizza parlor.
3. Sunning by the aft pool, sipping a pina coloda, and alternating between the hot tub, the pool and the lounge chair.
2. Sneaking yet another panna cotta dessert in the Horizon Court. Yum.
1. Touring Emerald Falls and Trafalgar Falls in Dominica. By far the highlight of the cruise.