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Age: 45

Occupation:Elementary School Principal

Number of Cruises: 4

Cruise Line: Princess

Ship: Grand Princess

Sailing Date: March 11th, 2006

Itinerary: Western Caribbean

We had a fantastic time on our Grand Princess cruise out of Galveston March 11-18. This was our fourth cruise, our third on Princess, and the second year in a row we sailed on the Grand out of Galveston during Spring Break. Our cruise last year ended badly when my dad unexpectedly passed away while we were gone, and we had to leave the ship mid-cruise. We decided we liked the ship enough to try it again, and we’re glad we did – this was an excellent trip for us, and most importantly it was uneventful!

We arrived at the port (Terminal 2) at 10:50. There was very little traffic and we had no problems at all entering the driveway and dropping off our luggage. It was immediately obvious how much the city has done to improve the traffic flow at the Port of Galveston since we first cruised from there in 2002, and even since last March. Jim drove over to EZ Cruise Parking (pre-reserved on their web site) while I stayed at the terminal with the carry-ons. He walked back to the terminal after parking the car, as he was told there would be approximately a 30 minute wait for the shuttle. We checked in at 11:20, and waited in the seating area for boarding to begin. We were in the second group to board, at about 11:45. Our cabin wasn’t completely ready, but we were able to drop off our carry-on luggage.

“The Problem”
While we were waiting to board I looked to see what our table assignment was for dinner. I was shocked to see the words “Anytime Dining” imprinted on my card where my Botticelli table assignment for 2nd seating Traditional should have been. This was the only real problem we encountered on our cruise, but for me it was a big one. We booked this cruise on July 1st, and had been confirmed for late seating Traditional dining at a large table ever since we booked the cruise. Traditional dining is important to us, and since we travel as a couple we always request a large table. We enjoy meeting a group of people we know we will see every day, and we like the personalized attention we’ve always received in traditional dining.

I wasn’t happy at all to see the “Anytime Dining” on my cruise card! We spent our first 45 minutes on board waiting for the representative of the Maitre’d so we could request to be moved back to traditional dining. They were able to accommodate us on Sunday, but I thought the employee was somewhat condescending and didn’t understand what I was talking about when I referred to the Cruise Personalizer. She kept insisting either we or our TA must have changed our dining request, and only relented a bit when I was able to produce written documents that showed us as confirmed in late traditional. (I guess it’s a good thing I’m detail oriented and print everything up and bring it with me.) I’m glad we were able to be moved back to traditional, but I missed the anticipation and excitement of going to dinner the first night and meeting my tablemates for the week.

The Rest of the First Day & Night…the Good, the Not-So-Good, and the Bizarre!
The Good –

We had an active Cruise Critic roll call for this cruise, and one of the participants (thanks, Phyllis!) had arranged a get together in the Wheelhouse for 2:30 on embarkation day. She contacted Princess, and they had set aside part of the Wheelhouse for a private “no-host” party. This get together was well attended, and it was great to put faces with the names of the people I had been “chatting” with for months.

We had ALL our luggage before 2:00! That’s a record. It was so nice to get everything put away so we could begin the business of being on vacation. We find that the cabins on the Grand have plenty of storage space, with “walk-in” closets and a large cabinet for folded items. This was our second time in a mini-suite, and we very much enjoyed the upgraded amenities, especially the mattresses and the bedding. The champagne on embarkation day was also a nice touch!

We always enjoy sailaway from Galveston. It’s fun to sip a big tropical concoction and wave to the people on the pier by the Harbor House. Future Grand passengers need to be aware there is a limited bar menu available while docked in Galveston. For example, I was able to order a regular Pina Colada, but I couldn’t get a Malibu Colada until after we sailed. It has something to do with Galveston’s liquor laws. There is a separate and limited bar menu for the Port of Galveston.

We were scheduled to sail at 4:00, but in actuality it was almost 5 before we left. The Grand NEVER leaves Galveston on time. It seems like even when the ship is on time or early arriving, departure is delayed. I wonder why they don’t just publish a later departure time.

The Not-So-Good
O.K., I admit I was predisposed to dislike dinner on the first night. I probably didn’t give it much of a chance, because I was still stewing over being moved out of traditional dining. I didn’t like it. I didn’t like anything about it. I wanted to be sitting at a table for 8 in the Botticelli, and instead I was sitting at a table for 2 in the Michelangelo. Do you get the idea that I’m obsessing? You would be correct. The service was professional if impersonal, the food was the same, but I didn’t like it. I didn’t think dinner had the same flow that it does in traditional dining. With every table being at a different place in the meal, the wait staff seemed more hurried and less able to interact with the passengers.

The Bizarre
Fast forward several hours, to 3:05 a.m. What do I hear but the captain’s voice coming over the loudspeaker in my cabin! That was a first! Apparently they were looking for a young “lady” that had decided to “upgrade” to a cabin with a new friend. The announcement was the talk of the ship the next day, especially after there were 2 more announcements during breakfast on Sunday looking for “missing” passengers. Captain Nash, in his noon announcement requested that parents know where their teenagers were at all times. Boy, I would have liked to be a fly on the wall when Captain Nash was speaking to that teen (Kelsey-something of Caribe 6-something) and her mom. He couldn’t have been happy, especially knowing he was about to wake the entire ship because a teenager decided to run amok.

Our Wonderful Staff
Our room stewardess and waitresses were exceptional. They were all far and away the best we have encountered on any of our cruises. Our cabin attendant, Mihaela, was efficient, personable, and friendly. Our waitress, Katalin, and her assistant Alexandra were outstanding. They provided personal service with a smile, and always stopped to chat when we saw them around the ship.

We made reservations to go to Sabatini’s on Monday night when the Caribbean menu was being served in the dining room. We really enjoyed this experience. Sabatini’s provided very attentive service and small tastes of many interesting and different foods. The meal begins with several cold appetizers, such as marinated mushrooms, roasted vegetables, mussels, and shrimp. The cold appetizers were followed by a pizza, then the hot appetizers…we had two or three different pastas, fried cheese, and potato pancakes. The appetizer part of the menu is set, and you are brought just small portions of everything. We then chose our soup and our entrée. Jim and I had them split the scallops and the “Tiger Prawns” (these were actually just regular Gulf Shrimp) so that we both had some of each. Dessert is selected from a tray. Sabatini’s is probably not for everybody, but if you enjoy lingering over a long meal and are somewhat adventurous about tasting different foods, then you would probably enjoy it. We saw some older teens in the restaurant and they appeared to be enjoying the experience, but I think it would be torturous for young children.

“The Problem” – Part II
Here I am, back on dinner again! Have you ever sat by yourselves at a table for 8? We have, and it’s awkward. We weren’t the only ones who found ourselves in that situation in the “completely full” traditional dining room. There were actually entire tables that weren’t used all week, and other large tables where only one couple showed up for dinner during the cruise. We ended up joining forces with another CC member we met on an excursion and sitting together. Finally on Wednesday another couple came to the table. The newcomers were first time cruisers and they had been busy, so they were just eating in the buffet or one of the other dining rooms. I think this is a problem that Princess could correct with better communication and more detailed explanations of the dining options. Perhaps they need to implement a policy that if you don’t show up after two nights or you eat in one of the anytime dining rooms, you will have to give up your spot in traditional. It seems like there are always huge waiting lists for traditional dining, but this was our second cruise in a row where the traditional dining room has been AT MOST three quarters full. There were complete tables that were empty for the entire week. No one checked cruise cards for the anytime dining rooms, so many people with traditional ate there if they didn’t feel like eating in the traditional dining room at their set time. This affects both traditional diners by creating lots of empty places in the dining room, and affects anytime diners by creating longer waits for tables. I know the dining system isn’t set up to have passengers switching back and forth. If there isn’t anyone monitoring a system, it can break. Like I said, I think this could be easily fixed with very little effort. I know anytime dining is an excellent choice for many people, and traditional works for others, but you can’t have it both ways. I just think if you choose traditional, that is what you should do – not switch back and forth. O.K. – End of rant. We will now return to our regularly scheduled cruise review.

The Ports
Our itinerary was changed in January when the Grand was having some electrical problems that affected her speed. Feedback from passengers was positive, so Princess made the change permanent for the rest of this Galveston season. Grand Cayman was eliminated, and replaced with Playa del Carmen. I viewed this change as positive, since it gave us a full day in Belize and a full day in Playa del Carmen, instead of a half day each in Belize and Grand Cayman.

Costa Maya
OOPS! Did I say Costa Maya? This was a “drive-through” port on our cruise. Although we had glorious weather the entire week, it was VERY windy (gale force winds) the first couple days. When we arrived in Costa Maya I could see the waves breaking over the top of the pier we were assigned to. A Norwegian ship had already taken the only straight-in berth, and the Grand would have had to dock parallel to the shore. It didn’t bother me because I love sea days, but I know many people were disappointed. Still, Costa Maya can be a tricky port to dock in when conditions are perfect, and I think Captain Nash made the right decision. I don’t think anyone would have wanted to risk us ending up like the Grandeur of the Seas did last spring, when it hit the dock in Costa Maya and ended up with a long gash in the hull and a three day stay for repairs.

We had a great time in Belize this year. We took the ship’s “New Waves Catamaran Snorkel to Rendezvous Cay.” Our excursion picked us up at the ship and we cruised about 45 minutes to the smallest island I’ve ever seen. As the guides said, “population 4 palm trees!” The snorkeling was guided with three exit points for people who got tired and just wanted to relax on the beach. I found the water in Belize to be a little hazier than other ports, but it was still an enjoyable swim. The last leg of the snorkel took us out beyond the island’s coral barrier, where the currents were quite strong. We were tired after the snorkeling! After a quick lunch on the ship, we headed into port. This was our third visit to Belize, but the first time we’ve actually gone into port. We were pleasantly surprised. The vendors weren’t pushy at all, and we purchased some beautiful handcrafted bowls made of different native woods. All in all a very pleasant day.

Playa del Carmen
We took the Princess excursion to Xcaret. The park was beautiful, and showed little damage from the summer’s hurricanes. We floated down the underground river, and visited the aquarium, the butterfly enclosure, and the Mayan village. Playa del Carmen has exploded in recent years, and there are many new resorts being built as people look for options outside Cancun.

Wow! I wasn’t prepared for the damage from Hurricane Wilma. It was sad to see the crumbled ruins of the piers and the dead vegetation. We tendered in and shopped at the pier, but we didn’t venture into town. Our excursion was OUTSTANDING. We took the “New Waves Snorkel at Palancar Reef.” The snorkel boat picked us up at the tender pier, and we cruised about 45 minutes to the reef. We stayed fairly close to shore, so I got to see Chankanaab and a couple of the big all-inclusives that are still rebuilding. I had seen pictures, but I don’t think I really grasped the magnitude of the damage until I saw it in person. The thing that struck me the most was how brown everything was. Cozumel had always been so lush and green, and now it’s sparse and brown. Buildings can be reconstructed, but some of the repair work is going to be up to Mother Nature and will take time. Back to the snorkeling…in one word, it was amazing. Although many of the shallow reefs were destroyed by the hurricanes, Palancar is deep enough that it escaped major damage. We saw many coral formations and tons of fish. I was busy taking pictures (I have an underwater housing for my digital), but only about half of them are decent. I find underwater photography difficult, and I can’t seem to convince the fish to stop and pose!

I was prepared for the worst and got something less than that, but I also think Jim and I were fairly lucky. In Belize there were no problems with tendering at all. All local boats were used. The tenders were fairly small and they loaded and unloaded quickly. In Playa del Carmen and Cozumel large ferries were used for tendering. These took a LONG time to load and unload, especially when they returned to the ship and everyone had to go through security and have their belongings run through the scanner. We were fortunate in that we were among the last ones on/first ones off in both ports. In Playa del Carmen we went up to our balcony and watched the ferry we were on finish unloading. We had been in our room for 35 minutes before all the passengers were off the tender.

In my opinion, Princess has improved their production shows. We thought the quality of the singers and dancers was much better than on previous cruises. We didn’t make it to too many events during this cruise, but that was by choice, not lack of availability. Our goal was to relax and just enjoy being on the ship, which we were able to do. Looking in the Patters, it seemed there was something to appeal to many different tastes – production shows, comedians, musicians, “Princess Idol,” trivia, etc. I’m not familiar with the children’s program, but I did hear someone say they felt there weren’t enough organized activities for the children in the evenings. We spent a little time in the casino where we never seem to have much luck. On the last night the gambling gods smiled on me, and I hit a couple of slot machines for $350.00! Not a fortune, but not a bad way to end the trip either!

Again we were prepared for the worst, but what we got was the easiest, fastest, smoothest disembarkation ever. About 800 passengers opted to do the self-disembarkation and carry their own luggage. They left the ship beginning at 6:30 a.m. We opted for one last leisurely breakfast in the dining room, and vacated our cabin at 8:45. We waited for our tags up by the aft pool on deck 14. Now comes the part that amazed me. Our tag color was called at 9:50. We pulled into our driveway in West Houston (1 hour drive from the port) at 11:20! That’s off the ship, bags collected, through customs, car retrieved, and home in just an hour and a half! It simply doesn’t get any easier or smoother than that!

A Few Thoughts
The Passengers –
This was a sold-out Spring Break sailing with more than 800 children! I HAVE to travel during peak times since I am a principal and I’m tied to the school calendar for my vacations. I think the Grand handles the passenger load very well and there are numerous places to get away from the crowds if that’s what you want to do. The aft pool is my haven when I travel during school breaks. The size and design of the Grand are also why I like the ship better than RC’s Rhapsody. On the Rhapsody I never felt like I could get away from the crowds unless I went to my balcony. On the Grand, I could always find a public place that was relaxing and peaceful, even if there was a “sexy legs” contest going on at the main pool.

Tipping – We gave our outstanding cabin attendant and waitresses generous and well-deserved tips on Friday night. If you want to tip directly, it has to be in addition to the auto tips, and you’ll need to put your cabin number on the tip envelope. If you’ve taken off the auto tip, then the employee must put the tip into the shared pot.

Food – I thought the food on this cruise was good, with some things being excellent. We only stepped foot in the Horizon Court for two quick meals, and I think that really made a positive difference in our opinion of the food. A buffet is a buffet, and there’s only so much you can do to fancy it up. If you don’t care for buffets, go to the dining room for lunch and try some pasta. Princess makes some of the most delicious pasta dishes I’ve had anywhere.

The Coffee – I know everybody likes to complain about the coffee, so I had to talk about it. It wasn’t as bad as I remembered, nor was it as good as I would have liked it to be. We took large insulated mugs with us this time, since I’m an early riser and like to let Jim sleep as long as possible. I ran up to the Horizon Court and filled my mug every morning when I got up. Some mornings the coffee was weak and some mornings it was strong, but it was always very hot! If you wake up after 7:00 and want a better cup of coffee, try the fresh brewed coffee at the Promenade Bar on deck 7.

Lists & Poop – There’s been a lot of talk this season about the Grand having a permanent list. We never noticed a list of any kind, except for when we were tendering. When we were in port to tender, the ship was listed in order to bring the gangway even with the tender. I had also read a lot of comments about a strong sewage odor. The only time I noticed anything unpleasant was on the last day, and I’m not sure if that was the ship or the Gulf of Mexico! Seriously, I did catch a couple nasty whiffs of something the last day, but I’ve smelled the same thing to some degree on every cruise I’ve taken.

The End – Well, that’s probably more than you cared to know. I haven’t written a review of any kind since our first cruise, but this trip was so fantastic for us that I wanted to share the experience with future Grand Princess passengers. I think my husband and I are fortunate to have the Grand sailing from a port so close to our home.

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