Number of Cruises: 2
Cruise Line: Princess
Ship: Grand Princess
Sailing Date: October 26th, 2003
Itinerary: Western Caribbean
My wife, Barb, and I decided to use some of our tax refund money to cruise the Caribbean on the Grand Princess, having given the Mexican Riviera a go last fall on the Star Princess. Both ships are exquisite. The Star Princess is the newer of the two and, therefore a little spectacular.
We had been told prior to boarding that the ships were “identical”. They had similar floor plans but the Star Princess had a much more spectacular atrium with fine tropical bas-relief sculptures adorning the elevators.
We had inside staterooms on both ships. There again, the ships were not identical. The Star Princess had far more storage space which gives the Star Princess bragging rights but in our case proved somewhat irrelevant since we only had one large suitcase, two small suitcases and two totes, one containing my camera gear. Small as the closet was, there was plenty of suitcase storage under the beds.
YOU CAN LOSE THINGS IN A STATEROOM
A word about those bureaus in the staterooms. I had brought along an apple peeler because I like my fruit peeled. It disappeared after the first day and I thought perhaps someone had confiscated it, although I don’t see how an apple peeler could possibly be threatening to anyone. As it turns out, it had been sitting high in an upper drawer. When the drawer we re-opened, it got scraped off the top of the drawer and fell down under the bottom drawer. When I removed the bottom drawer I not only found the peeler, but a pair of men’s black shorts. So if you’re missing your passport or other valuables, check under the bottom drawer.
WORRIED ABOUT SEASICKNESS?
One thing we had worried about in advance prior to booking a cruise was the possibility that one or both of us might get seasick and spend the entire cruise in bed. We purchased and wore – religiously – on each cruise those elastic motion sickness bands, one for each wrist. We never got sick once and on each cruise we hit very rough seas on the last one or two days at sea. The bands ($5.99) have a small half-marble that places continuous pressure on the underside of the wrist. The box says it uses the “science of acupressure” to relive all forms of nausea…We called it voodoo. But it works.
THE FOOD IS DELICIOUS
We’re not connoisseurs of fine food. In fact, I’ve never had a bad meal at Denny’s, I liked airline food when they still served it, didn’t mind hospital food and even liked Army food. Heavens knows I prepared enough of it on K.P. at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.
So you wouldn’t be surprised to know that we thought the food on the Grand Princess (and the Star Princess for that matter) was superb. We can’t help comparing in our minds the value difference between airlines and cruise lines. “Flying Pretzel Airlines” will charge $500 for a round trip and give you nothing but a beverage and a bag of pretzels. A cruise line will charge, say, $500 for a seven-day cruise and give you a week of comfortable quarters, daily housekeeping, a chocolate for your pillow, free stationary, unlimited soap and shampoo, unlimited dining, excellent entertainment, your own stage and professional technicians if you want to do your own entertaining at karaoke or at talent night and, not incidentally, transportation from port to port. It’s almost cheaper than staying home. How do the cruise lines do it? Why can’t the airlines offer more amenities and still make money?
We opted for anytime dining because we enjoy meeting people, sharing stories and getting cruise tips. Most of our fellow diners had a lot of nice things to say about Princess cruises. But one couple had been on some Royal Caribbean Cruise Ships and couldn’t think of anything good to say about Princess. After riding on two Princess ships, I can’t imagine where there could be any difference between a three-star ship or a six-star ship. The food was good. The service superb. The staff friendly and efficient. What do they want? Godiva chocolates?
We were on a limited budget so we didn’t sign up for too many excursions. However, I wanted to get in some snorkeling but my wife doesn’t swim; an excellent solution to that problem was the semi-submersible Nautilus undersea tour and reef snorkel at Grand Cayman at $49 a person, booked through Princess Tours.
The Nautilus is basically a deep-hulled boat with many windows on each side of the hull, which puts the viewer perhaps a dozen feet underwater. The ship is comfortable and air conditioned. The tour passes over a couple of wrecks and the narrator offers an informative description as you ride.
A couple of photographic hints are in order here: If you are trying to take pictures through that thick glass, you need a camera which either does not have a flash or one on which the flash can be switched off. Otherwise the glass will just reflect light back into your lens and you will get no picture. It’s a good idea to use a fast film, at least 400 speed, with 800 probably better.
By the way, if you need photo supplies while on board, the Photoshop on Promenade 7 has film, cameras and will sell prints of formal and informal photos taken by photographers on board. I needed a little battery for my Elph APS camera and they had one for several dollars, which was comparable to stateside prices. By comparison, their prices on underwater one-time-use cameras were around $16, as compared with $6 or $7 at Wal Mart.
They claim it won’t hurt film but all the articles I’ve read in professional photography magazines say otherwise, especially where higher speed films (ASA 800) are repeatedly X-rayed, as they are coming and going. For that reason, I always carry a lead-lined bag and make sure all my film is inside. I not only had room for more than 20 rolls of film but also crammed in my Fuji one-time-use underwater camera and my little Elph camera.
Here’s a little trick I stumbled onto that probably saved me hundreds of dollars. I’m extremely near-sighted and can’t see much through a mask under water. I couldn’t fit my regular glasses under a mask and if you went to purchase a mask with a specially vision-corrected lens you’d be looking at some big dollars. I went to the Goodwill and found a pair of glasses for $1.99 that were close to my prescription, removed the bows and popped them into the mask. (I brought the mask into the Goodwill to test the fit). They worked beautifully, well enough for me to read the camera settings on my Minolta and to change focus.
Besides an old Minolta underwater flash camera I also had a Fuji one-time-use non-flash underwater camera with ASA 800 film that I carried in a zip-lock bag tied to my side until I was ready to use it.
SALT WATER IS MORE BUOYANT
One thing I for which I was not prepared. I am used to swimming and snorkeling in fresh water. When I’m ready to dive to the bottom, I just dive and go down. No problem. At Grand Cayman I wanted to dive down to get a closer view of the coral and some views of fish other than those looking down at them. I could not dive down more than a foot or two. I don’t know how anyone ever drowns in the ocean. Next time I snorkel in the ocean, I’ll bring along a weight belt to achieve a zero-gravity situation.
I saw some reviews that considered Costa Maya a so-so stop. Actually, since we were limited on excursions, we considered Costa Maya a pleasant surprise. It’s the most user-friendly shopping area we visited, certainly much more than Cozumel. Since we planned to spend the day browsing around the shops at Costa Maya, we were pleasantly surprised to find that the local Mayans staged some excellent and colorful shows in the open amphitheater. I would highly recommend you bring along plenty of color film because the costumes are a real treat for photographers.
And come to think of it, the Costa Mayans very generously provided a beautiful, fountained, tiered swimming pool smack dab in the middle of the plaza. You can either splash in water about a foot deep around the various fountains, or move down a few dozen feet to water about three feet deep or continue another few dozen feet into deeper water. There is also a swim-up bar if you get thirsty.
Get tired of the pool and you can wander over to the ocean area a few hundred yards away and take a dip. On one side of the pier the shore has a lot of sharp coral reef and it is posted for no swimming, a sign a lot of people ignore. On the other side of the pier is a nice sandy beach. You have to be careful walking on the “no swimming” shore, especially where the waves crash in over the reef.
Wear some of those beach shoes, which I did. They are made for walking in water and for walking on rough beaches. However, I wasn’t careful enough while walking where the waves were splashing in and stepped into what I told my wife was the world’s largest, deepest gopher hole. Fortunately, I didn’t hurt myself but it was embarrassing standing there with one leg completely in the hole and the other straight out.
We didn’t book any of the Princess excursions because we thought they were a little beyond our budget. And we figured that Cozumel would offer a situation similar to what we ran into at Puerto Vallarta where swarms of tour guides and cab drivers and shuttle buses would compete at very tempting prices for your excursion dollar. Didn’t happen. There weren’t any swarms of cab drivers and tour guides so we just browsed the shops, sweated a lot and watched some of the entertainment.
You might want to bring a video camera into Cozumel to get some footage of those crazy Mayans who fly around upside down on that big May pole. They sit around at the top of the post for 15 or 20 minutes while one of them blows a whistle and a narrator talks about the significance of what they are doing. Probably praying. Awhile later they tie their bungee cords to their ankles and start whirling groundward. Unfortunately, I left my video camera on the ship so I had to settle for still photos.
You won’t see much difference between the souvenirs in the shops at Cozumel than in the shops at Costa Maya than in the shops at Princess Cays; the cheaper souvenirs are all made in China, anyway. I bought a matching set of cufflinks/tie clip for $10 that most likely came from the Orient. But what the hey, it had a rhinestone and none of the Mexican silver cufflinks come with rhinestones.
Entertainment – In general, we liked the shows we saw, enjoyed the comedians and thought the musicals were very professionally staged. But there’s a big however, here. However, we’re 65 years old and the music to us sounded mostly like teenie-bopper music. It’s the sort of stuff we switch off on the radio and usually go hunting for some Broadway tunes or easy listening. A very large percentage of passengers were seniors and many of them had the same opinion about the entertainment and the music – it all seemed geared to the younger crowd. And the karaoke and talent shows are so late. I’m usually in bed by 8 p.m. So are a lot of other seniors. Karaoke doesn’t start until 10:30 or 11 p.m. And the talent show was held late on the last night of the cruise. Couldn’t they have that just as well in the afternoon? What’s the big deal about midnight entertainment?
We really enjoyed participating in the karaoke and in the talent show. There again, the karaoke music catalog was geared to the younger audience. You won’t find many Como, Crosby, Nat King Cole, Carpenters, Ames Brothers, John Denver, Mills Brothers, Four Lads, Four Aces or Kingston Trio melodies in those karaoke catalogs. You’ll more likely find “Born to Be Wild” “Crocodile Rock” or “YMCA.”
I brought along costumes and my own backup disks thinking I might do Sinatra’s “From Here to Eternity” or “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” I also brought along a monster mask with a ferocious, angry look that was going to wear while singing “Put On A Happy Face,” for which I also brought a disk. I also brought along an audio backup tape of Louis Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World.” They either couldn’t or wouldn’t accommodate any outside CD disks or tapes, so you were stuck with their kiddie catalog. I did an Elvis number instead, “American Trilogy,” which was well received.
While it’s true that karaoke and talent shows often bring out the worst of singers they sometimes ferret out the best as well. One of the things that first attracted me to karaoke was the fact that, for the first time ever you could sing along with a real professional fully orchestrated backup.
And on a ship like the Grand Princess, you have much more professional sound systems than in many other venues.
A word about the passenger talent show: My wife wanted to do “You Can’t Get A Man With A Gun” from “Annie Get Your Gun.” We couldn’t very well bring a gun on board but she needed some kind of gun prop. I didn’t want to get security up in arms by even bringing a toy gun. So I took a toy gun prop that looks like a real six-shooter, scanned both sides of it into the computer, cut out the pictures and traced the pattern onto a piece of Styrofoam. Then glued to gun cutouts to both sides of the Styrofoam. Voila, a gun that looked real on stage but didn’t alarm anybody.
Toward the end of the song, a stage assistant came out with a very real looking rifle for her to hold.
I sang a Perry Como number in the talent show, “And I Love You So.” It was wonderful performing in such a professional environment as the Vista Lounge/Theater in front of an enthusiastic audience of several hundred. It was standing room only. I am not used to working with spotlights since most of our shows are at functions that raise money for Meals on Wheels.
I was planning to step down and work the audience, shaking hands with the ladies when the song hit the part where it says, “the day you took my hand.” But when I stepped off the stage, I realized all I could see was the spotlight and all the heads had disappeared into blackness. No one to shake hands with.
We got in and out of Customs coming and going without problems. Airport security at Fort Lauderdale was quite another matter. Although Princess Cruises got us to the airport with a couple of hours to spare before our flight, the airport security people paid no attention to departure times on people’s tickets. We were held up with checks and double checks to the point where they were announcing that our plane was boarding and we were still being checked by security. A guy ahead of us in line refused when ordered by security to leave the line he was in to go to a longer line, since he had already waited 20 minutes. Barb and I, like sheep, went to the longer line as ordered; we later found out the guy ahead of us still had two hours before his plane was to depart. Why don’t those security people check departure times on tickets?