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Joanne and John Bowers

Age: 48 and 60

Occupation:Database Mgr.

Number of Cruises: 1

Cruise Line: Princess

Ship: Grand Princess

Sailing Date: February 16th, 2003

Itinerary: Western Caribbean

We like independent travel. That is why we resisted a cruise vacation for years. We thought we’d be confined to a ship for days on end with nothing to do, then herded about on excursions. Happily, our fears were unfounded. We had a wonderful, romantic, relaxing vacation on the Grand Princess. It was the best vacation we’ve had so far.

Reviews are subjective. What we liked, you might not like. What didn’t bother us might bother you. Our goal in writing this review is to help others prepare for their first cruise. Finally, a big “thank you” to all who write reviews (especially Tom and Mary Milano – you inspire us). We wouldn’t have done it without you!

Prior to the Cruise: Lessons Learned

Do your homework! Spend time researching the different cruise lines and ships. Read the reviews (cruisereviews.com helped us enormously) and message boards. We thought about what was important to us: Delicious food, good wine, a touch of luxury, not a lot of children running around, not a “party all the time” atmosphere, a good mix of age groups, an interesting itinerary. By process of elimination, we chose the Grand.

Gratuities are a part of travel. Read your ship’s guidelines for tipping and build the tips – and extra for superior service – into your budget. (If you don’t get good service, you can always adjust the suggested amount downward.) We feel that if you can’t afford to tip, you probably can’t afford to travel.

We made our own air travel and hotel reservations. We arrived in FFL the afternoon before the cruise. This turned out to be a good thing because a blizzard hit the Mid-Atlantic and the Northeast a few hours after our plane took off from Baltimore-Washington International. If we had waited until the day of the cruise to fly into FFL, we would have missed the ship. If you don’t make your air travel arrangements through Princess, consider arriving in FFL the day before the cruise; you never know about weather, aircraft mechanical problems, or terminal evacuations.

We waited until 3 weeks before the cruise to make hotel reservations. This was a mistake; all the hotels/motels near the port were completely filled. We spent the night at the Holiday Inn By the Sea (about a 15 minute shuttle ride to the port). It was an older hotel, which was fine for a one-night stay. The hotel’s private beach was filthy – full of cigarette butts and soda straws. On Saturday night we walked a few blocks to Commerce Street. There were several restaurants, bars and shops there; it was quite lively. We watched a cruise ship, probably out of Port Canaveral, sail by.

Consider carefully what you want to pack because stateroom closet and storage are small. We mixed and matched basic colors to expand our wardrobe without packing a lot of extras. This strategy worked well for us.

Pack water shoes. There are exposed rock and coral on the beaches and in the water.

Bring sturdy sneakers or walking shoes if you book an excursion to the Mayan ruins. The ground is uneven and rocky; some sites require a strenuous climb.

Pack over-the-counter medicine, sunscreen and personal hygiene products as needed. You can buy these items on the ship, but you’ll pay a high price. A package of 4 Bayer aspirin, for example, cost $1.09; a box of 10 Tampax cost $3.75. We’ll gladly spend money for a nice bottle of wine, but not $1.09 for 4 tablets of aspirin!

Review your cruise documents carefully when they arrive in the mail. We completed the Cruise Personalizer on the Princess web site, but found errors and omissions on the documents. For example, we live in Virginia; our documents showed that we lived in New York. Our passport numbers and emergency contact information were missing. Make corrections and fill in the blanks before you arrive at the terminal (you’ll board the ship faster).

Bring plenty of small bills ($1s, $5s, $10s) for purchases and tips in the ports. Vendors accept U.S. currency, but they don’t have a lot of U.S. dollars to give in change. In Grand Cayman, change was given in the local currency (another reason to carry small bills with you). Excursion guides and motor coach drivers expect tips.

Passengers are permitted to bring bottled water, soda and wine on board. Leave hard liquor at home; if discovered, Princess will take it from you and hold it until you return to FFL.

Bring a change of clothing, medicines, toiletries, and bathing suits on the ship with you. Our luggage was delivered to our stateroom by 3:30 p.m., but others did not see their luggage until after 6 p.m.

Sail Away Day

Embarkation was a breeze! We arrived at the terminal at 12:30 p.m. It took 15 minutes to check our luggage with a porter, fill out the required Bahamian customs form (have a pen handy), present our cruise documents to an agent, receive a security card, have our pictures taken by the ship’s security personnel, and pose for an embarkation keepsake photo ($9.95).

Speaking of pictures, most of the keepsake pictures are $9.95 each. Formal night photos are $21.95 each. You are not obligated to purchase pictures. If you don’t want to pose for one, just say “No thanks.”

Take care of your security card. You will need it every time you embark/disembark. It’s your room key, your onboard credit card, and your entrance into the duty-free stores. John lost his card on the third day. He reported it immediately to the Purser. John reviewed a printout of our account to make sure there were no unauthorized charges, and another card was issued right away.

Almost everyone advises that you check out your table assignment immediately after boarding. We did not do this because we opted for Personal Choice (“anytime”) dining (more on that later). The first thing we did after inspecting our stateroom was head to the Horizon Court buffet for a light lunch. The Trident Grill (burgers and fries) and Poseidon’s Pizza were also open, as well as a few of the bars. Afterward, we read the Princess Patter and the port information sheets that we found in our stateroom, then went on a tour of the ship conducted by a member of the Cruise Director’s staff.

If you booked excursions through Princess, your tickets will be in your stateroom when you arrive on board. If you can’t find them, or if you discover errors, visit the excursion desk (Deck 5) ASAP.

Carefully consider how much soda that you and your family will consume before you purchase a Coke sticker on the first day. The sticker costs $22.50; it entitles you to all the soda you want on board (not in the ports) during the cruise. Sodas are free in the dining rooms during meals, but you must purchase them in between. Glasses of soda cost $1; cans cost $1.50. I purchased the sticker, but didn’t drink enough to break even. John doesn’t drink soda, so he was no help here. Next time, I’ll use the $22.50 to purchase a bottle of wine at dinner!

Coffee and hot/iced tea was available free in the Horizon Court. Bottled water was sold at the bars. Tap water tasted just fine.

A mandatory muster (30 minutes) was conducted at 4 p.m. The drill acquainted us with our life jacket and where to report if an emergency arises while at sea.

Sail Away was scheduled for 5:00 p.m., but we didn’t leave the dock until 7:00 p.m. due to late arriving flights from the snowy North. A Sail Away party with lively Calypso music was in full swing on the upper decks.

Our stateroom balcony had a lovely view of the harbor, so we had our own Sail Away party there. We regret not ordering a tray of hors d’oeuvres ahead of time (the ship requires 6 hours notice). There was a ship-wide count down to 10, the horn blasted, and we pulled away from the dock. At that point, the theme from the Love Boat, Celebration Time and Sail Away were broadcast throughout the ship. We passed three condos on our way out to sea. The residents flashed their balcony lights, rang bells and sounded air horns. The ship blasted its horn three times in acknowledgement. The Harbor Pilot turned on his boat’s siren and flashing lights and urged us, through a microphone, to “eat the lobster.” Sail Away was a lot of fun.

The Ship

The Grand’s size is intimidating at first, but directional signs are everywhere. In addition, a pocket-sized map of the ship’s interior is placed in every stateroom. It took us only a day to find our way around the ship. Think of it as an adventure!

The ship was beautiful. It was clean the entire trip. We didn’t see evidence of serious wear and tear anywhere.

There were 2,800 passengers on our cruise, yet the ship never appeared crowded. We always found a chair by the pools, even on sea days. (An “adults only” pool is located on Deck 14 aft.)

Self-service laundries are located on most decks. Washers ($1.50) and dryers ($.50) take quarters. There are $1 change machines and vending machines for detergent and fabric softener. Built-in ironing boards and irons are available free of charge. We used the laundry room once. The washer filled and drained slowly, so it took over an hour to wash one load. I washed T-shirts and bathing suits in the bathroom sink, using shampoo for detergent, and hung them in the shower to dry. If you don’t want to wash your own clothes, the ship will do it for you (for a fee). Dry cleaning services are also provided.

Stop by the Purser’s Desk every night for a printout of your account. It’s a good reality check. All purchases on board are cashless; it’s easy to get carried away. Besides, mistakes happen. You’ll want to catch and correct them as soon as possible.

Tips for our stateroom steward, waiter, waiter’s assistant, and Maitre D were automatically charged to our account. We didn’t have a problem with this practice; it saved us from writing out little envelopes and making sure we had enough tip money on our last day. Our friendly, efficient stateroom steward provided superior service throughout the cruise, so we gave him an extra tip (in cash) every other day with a short “thank you” note. He always remembered to thank us for thinking of him.

Stateroom

Our stateroom, A256 on Deck 12, was the size of a very small hotel room. It was quite comfortable, though. Our balcony was covered and relatively private (no one could look down on us). We spent a lot of time on that balcony. We ate breakfast there every morning, napped, had cocktails in the evening, and watched the sun set.

Our stateroom steward, Cenin, introduced himself to us right before the mandatory muster on Sail Away Day. We asked for robes; they appeared almost immediately. Cenin was a wonderful stateroom steward; if you are fortunate enough to be assigned to him, you will be well cared for.

Because we were on a high deck, we felt the ship roll when we hit rough seas. I wore Sea Bands during those times. They worked!

Our closet was adequate because we packed light. It contained plenty of wooden hangers. A bedside table and desk had several drawers for T-shirts and underwear. We stored our soft-sided bags under the bed.

The bathroom was small, but not impossible. We had a shower (no tub). There was no vent system in the bathroom; after a shower we had to open the door to let the steam out. Soap and tubes of shampoo, conditioner, and body lotion were refilled without us having to ask. Bathroom towels were changed every morning and evening as needed.

Your steward will give you fresh beach towels every evening if you leave the used ones on the bathroom floor. We heard that passengers were charged for missing towels, but I can’t verify that.

Each stateroom has a hair dryer, television, mini safe, and mini refrigerator. The dryer doesn’t have much power; if you have long, thick hair you might want to bring your own. Your steward will fill your ice bucket every morning and evening.

Your steward will turn down your bed every evening and leave chocolates on your pillows. He/she will also provide bathrobes, upon request, for you to wear during the
cruise. (If you like the robes, you can buy them in the gift shop.)

There were two couples in adjoining staterooms a few decks below us who were constantly loud. They yelled to one another across the balcony partition. They yelled when they stood right next to one another. We learned where they were from, what excursions they took, who was in the bathroom, what their spouses did to drive them crazy, what time they ate, and much more just by sitting on our own balcony. Please respect others and talk quietly. If you don’t feel like walking next door to visit friends, please use the phone or rent a walky-talky from the Purser’s Desk (or bring one from home).

Dress

Shorts, no matter how neat and clean, are not permitted in the dining rooms. You may wear them in the Horizon Court. Beach/pool attire is not permitted in the dining rooms, Horizon Court, or public areas (Atrium, library, etc.).

Princess suggests that passengers wear “smart casual” dress in the dining rooms. What “smart casual” is a matter of interpretation. John and I enjoyed dressing up for dinner. Some passengers didn’t, however, and wore jeans, capri pants, and cropped T-shirts in the dining rooms. This didn’t disturb us; we were on vacation and vowed not to let little things bother us.

The majority of passengers dressed up for formal nights. Men wore either tuxes or dark colored business suits; women tended to wear black and glitter. John wore a black business suit, white dress shirt and dark tie; I wore black velvet pants, a glittery red top, and black velvet heels. Again, we saw all manner of dress from black tie, to business suits for men and women, to casual slacks and shirts.

Most of the time we wore T-shirts, shorts, casual slacks, or just a bathing suit and cover-up on the ship and in the ports.

Dining Aboard the Grand

The food was surprisingly very good. I say “surprisingly” because we didn’t think it was possible to prepare great tasting food for so many people every day. During a galley tour and cooking demonstration, we discovered that food is prepared from scratch daily, including the bread and rolls.

We chose Personal Choice dining and were pleased with it. No, we didn’t have the same waiter every night, nor did we eat with the same people. That wasn’t important to us; the freedom to chose when we wanted to eat and with whom (if anyone) was far more appealing. We received great service from every waiter we encountered. In fact, it was fun to meet new ones every evening. Everyone had his/her own style. One night we had a waiter from Mexico; he gave us a mini-lesson on Mexican history in between courses.

Personal Choice diners eat in the Da Vinci dining room or the Michelangelo dining room. The Botticelli dining room is reserved for the “Traditional” diners. The Da Vinci had tables for 2, 4, and 6; the Michelangelo had tables for large groups. We rarely waited more than 20 minutes for a table for two in the Da Vinci; most nights there was no wait at all. Maybe we were lucky, or just picked the right times (usually between 6:30 and 8:00 p.m.). We heard you could make reservations to dine at a certain time every night, but we never did.

Room service is available 24 hours a day (no charge, but tip the server). We ordered room service for breakfast once and it never arrived. From then on, we picked up breakfast in the Horizon Court and brought it down to our balcony.

The Horizon Court is open 24 hours a day. It becomes a “bistro” (waiter service and a menu) after 11 p.m. We didn’t try the bistro.

We did not eat at the Trident Grill, but we had a slice of pizza from Poseidon’s on the last sea day. It wasn’t bad; it just looked better than it tasted.

The “I Scream Ice Cream Bar” served Hagan Daz (plain, soft-serve, sundaes, floats, ice cream-and-alcohol combinations). It was expensive (prices beginning at $2.50), but the bar did a good business throughout the cruise. If you don’t want to pay for ice cream, order it for dessert in the dining rooms.

There is “open seating” in the dining rooms during breakfast and lunch. The menus offer eggs, toast, cereal, eggs benedict, pancakes, chicken pot pie, pasta, salads, and sandwiches. We didn’t eat breakfast or lunch in the dining rooms because we didn’t want to (or be tempted to) eat three large meals a day. We went to the Horizon Court and ate light breakfasts and lunches.

It’s possible to eat in moderation during a cruise. The Horizon Court has plenty of fresh fruits, vegetables, green salads, soups, vegetarian sushi (on sea days), lean meats, fish, and sugar-free desserts. The dining room dinner menu has a healthy choice section with appetizer/salad, soup, and a simply prepared fish. The regular dinner menu features a 5-course meal, but you don’t have to eat all five. John has to watch his salt and fat intake. I follow his diet. Some nights, however, we splurged on the fattening stuff (lobster bisque, pasta, prime rib). We shared a dessert every night and never felt deprived. The soufflés (especially the Love Boat Chocolate Dream) were heavenly! I gained only 1-1/2 pounds during the cruise; John actually lost a little weight.

One night we couldn’t finish dinner, so the waiter wrapped it up for us in foil (in the shape of a swan) and we put it in our refrigerator for lunch the next day. On another night, a waiter refused to give us the leftovers. He explained that we could get sick if we didn’t refrigerate them properly. I don’t know if Princess has a policy about leftovers, or if the waiter was acting on his own. Again, we were on vacation; leftovers weren’t worth an argument.

If you order a bottle of wine with dinner and can’t finish it, ask the waiter to store it for you for another night. Better yet, bring it back to your stateroom! We enjoyed our “leftover” wine on our balcony as we watched the sun set.

The Grand has two alternative dining rooms, Sabatini’s (Italian) and the Painted Desert (Mexican). Reservations are necessary. Both are open for dinner every night, and for brunch on sea days. I heard both restaurants fill up fast so if you’re interested, make reservations ASAP after embarkation. Sabatini’s cover charge is $15/person; it has an extensive menu (over 15 courses!). The Painted Desert’s cover charge is $8/person and includes a margarita. We didn’t eat at these restaurants, but the food looked and smelled delicious.

Bars, Entertainment and Other Shipboard Activities

There are many activities aboard the ship, especially on sea days. Examples: Card tournaments, an island deck party, bingo, horse racing, a belly flop contest, port and shopping discussions, wine tasting, trivia contests, champagne art auctions, gaming lessons, a cooking demonstration, galley tour, makeovers, ice sculpting, and snorkeling lessons (to name just a few). Check the Princess Patter (newsletter), delivered to your stateroom each evening, for times and costs (if any).

Virtual reality golf costs $20 for 30 minutes of “play time at any course in the world.” Miniature golf and shuffleboard are free.

The ship had supervised activities for children and teens. We don’t have children, so I don’t know much about these programs or what they cost.

Yoga, aerobics, spinning, and other exercise classes are offered every morning. There is a charge for some classes, but most are free. The ship has a gym; you must sign up to use the machines (there are not, naturally, enough to go around). If you like to do your own thing, you can walk around the Promenade Deck three times (to equal one mile), use the running track on the top deck, or walk up and down the stairs between decks instead of using the elevator.

The Grand has a full service spa on board. Prices were high ($40 for a manicure, $55 for a pedicure, and $150 for a hot stone massage). I decided spend my money on other things. If you want to indulge, wait until the last day or two before the ship returns to FFL (the prices drop then).

Some bars open at 9:00 a.m. A different rum-based drink is featured daily. We didn’t care for them; they were too sweet. The Mai Tai was awful. Have a margarita instead, or a vodka martini. Small drinks cost $3.25; medium-sized are about $4.75; and large are about $6.25. Drinks served in a Princess souvenir glass cost more. In the evenings you can dance at the Wheelhouse Lounge. Other bars throughout the ship feature Country Western music, theme nights (like a 50’s sock hop), and piano music. One bar, Snookers, is a sports bar.

Skywalkers is located on Deck 17 aft, then up a moving ramp to the very top of the ship. If you like DJ music (a different theme every night) and dancing, this place is for you. It opens around 10 p.m. and closes in the wee hours of the morning. We enjoyed going early for a nightcap, and watching the ship’s wake far below.

A very good Calypso band plays on Deck 14 every afternoon around 3:30 p.m. A classical music quartet or piano player performs in the Atrium in the early evenings.

The Princess Theatre and the Vista Showroom were the venues for hypnotists, jugglers, comedians, dancers, special events (like London Pub Night), and movies. We did not attend any of the shows; none of them interested us. We preferred to spend our evenings in the casino, on our balcony, dancing, or listening to music.

The casino was crowded in the evenings. Slot machines were much tighter than the ones in Las Vegas. I heard a rumor that they loosen up just before the ship returns to Florida. John played several games of blackjack during the cruise and lost about $30 overall. I played Roulette one night and made $75. The casino claims to follow Las Vegas rules, but it doesn’t. For example, in Las Vegas, there are 8 decks to a shoe in blackjack; on the Grand there were only 6. Also, there is no surrender in the ship’s blackjack game.

The library has a wide selection of books that you may borrow for the duration of the cruise. Needlepoint kits are sold there for $7 each. A writing alcove has desks overlooking windows; it’s stocked with stationery and envelopes for you to use free of charge (you buy stamps and mail letters at the Purser’s Desk). The library and writing alcoves are quiet corners of the ship to which you might want to escape at some point during the cruise.

Ports

This was our first time in the Caribbean, so we felt it was necessary to disembark at every port just to say, “we were there.” Some ports were better than others; if we cruise there again, we’ll stay on board at Costa Maya and, perhaps Grand Cayman (although we really didn’t see much of Georgetown the first time around; more on that later).

Don’t be afraid to stay on the ship if the ports don’t impress you. We found the ship to be very enjoyable on port days. Most people disembark; the ship is quiet, the pools are not crowded, the gym is practically empty, and you can enjoy a drink or lunch in peace!

Whatever you do in port, keep an eye on the time! You must return to the ship 30 minutes before it sails for the next port or you could be left behind. We saw passengers running down the pier in Cozumel, waving their arms and screaming “Wait, wait” while dockworkers removed the gangway from our ship. Luckily, those people were able to board; if they were just 3-5 minutes later, they would have missed the boat. The ship waits only for those passengers who are delayed on excursions booked through Princess.

We had to board tenders at Princess Cays and Grand Cayman. Tenders run between shore and ship continuously, up until 30 minutes before the ship sails. We docked at Costa Maya and Cozumel. We did not like the tender experience; it was the only time that we felt “herded.” In some ports, however, there is just no way around it.

Princess Cays (Day 1) – A nice beach on which to spend a few hours. It has two bars, a few souvenir shops, and locals who sell straw baskets and hats (they also braid hair).

There are no excursions available on Princess Cays. You may rent water toys on shore (sailboats, paddle boats, kayaks, and snorkeling equipment), or go on a 15-minute banana boat ride.

Unless you have a compelling reason to be among the first on the beach, don’t be in a rush to board the tenders. Tendering began around 10:00 a.m. We went to the Explorers Lounge to get our tender tickets at 10:30 a.m. and discovered there were hundreds of people waiting ahead of us. We had to wait 45 minutes to board a tender – and you have to stay close to the lounge to hear your number called. Our advice is to remember that you’re on vacation – sleep late, have a leisurely breakfast, and tender ashore after the first wave of passengers.

There were plenty of empty lounge chairs in shady spots when we disembarked around 11:15. We noticed, however, that chairs were harder to find after 12 noon. Large water coolers and cups were placed in several locations around the beach. Bring your own water; the water in the coolers had an unpleasant aftertaste. At noon, the ship’s staff served a BBQ lunch on shore (hot dogs, hamburgers, chicken and ribs, baked beans, green salad, and corn on the cob). The chicken and ribs were the best of the bunch.

Georgetown, Grand Cayman (Day 3) – We tendered ashore around 10:30 a.m., allowing those passengers with excursions to disembark first. We made a big mistake by not booking an excursion. There was not much to do in this port except shop or head to the beach. Unless you really like cigars, china, glassware, T-shirts, trinkets, coins, and jewelry, shopping will get old fast. We couldn’t even find a restaurant close by (we returned to the ship for lunch and stayed there). Our advice is to book an excursion with the ship or an independent contractor, take a taxi to Seven Mile Beach, or remain on the ship.

The streets in Grand Cayman are narrow and very congested. Don’t expect the cars to stop for you – if you see an opening, dash across the street at once! Car rental agencies are located across from the tender dock. If you rent a car, factor in gridlock when you make your plans. (We heard the worse time to be in traffic was between noon and 3 p.m.)

Costa Maya (Day 4) – This port was ok. Located near the Mexico-Belize border, it is a “developing resort.” We heard that some of the cruise lines are heavily invested in it, gambling that it will become another Cancun. Right now, it’s just very small area carved out of the jungle.

Shops, two small restaurants, an amphitheater for Mayan folkloric shows, a saltwater swimming pool (with a swim-up bar), restrooms and lockers, a bar and two man-made beaches are located in an open plaza at the end of the pier. The beach to the left as you face the plaza was crowded; there was no one on the beach to the right. We sat on the beach to the left. It was pleasant; there were comfortable chairs and thatched roof structures to keep out the sun. There was so much exposed rock, however, between the beach and the water (and in the water) that it was impossible to wade, let alone swim. If you want to swim and snorkel in Costa Maya, book an excursion or take a taxi to another beach.

We did not pay to use the beach, bathroom/changing room, or the pool. The folkloric show was free, too. All facilities were clean and well maintained.

You can rent bicycles and hire taxis in the plaza. The closest town, Mahajual, is a 10- minute drive from the port. I don’t know what’s there; I heard it was a fishing village. A couple from another cruise ship told us they taxied to Mahajual, looked around, saw nothing, and returned to port.

We found refuge in the Taco House during another thunderstorm. We ordered margaritas and Sol beer, ate burritos, guacamole and chips. I thought the burritos were quite good; they were smaller and lighter than the ones served in the U.S. John thought they were just ok. The salsa was the hottest I’ve ever had (and I love hot salsa)! Sol, for those who haven’t tried it, is a light beer that is much tastier than Corona.

Most of the shops sold jewelry and overpriced trinkets/souvenirs (like huge sombreros covered with glitter). We were not impressed with the quality of the jewelry, which tended to be silver-plated instead of sterling silver. Other shops sold liquor, rugs, leather bags and boots, and medicines that require prescriptions in the U.S. John purchased mini bottles of flavored tequila for $5 each as souvenirs for friends (the ship didn’t take the bottles away from us). The clerks in the trinket shops were not very willing to bargain; if they felt so inclined, they knocked $1 off the price and that was it. We saw passengers put items back on the shelves and walk out.

Cozumel (Day 5) – This was our favorite port. We docked at the Punta Lagosta Pier at 7 a.m. Luckily for us, the pier was located across the street from the main shopping street, Carlos N Charlie’s, Senor Frogs, and an easy 15 minute walk to the Plaza at San Miguel. Other cruise ships were docked at the International Pier, about 1-1/2 to 2 miles away.

We booked an excursion through Princess to the San Gervasio Mayan ruins, followed by a beach break at Playa Sol. We boarded an air-conditioned bus at the end of the pier. Our guide, Margarita, was knowledgeable and very proud of her Mayan heritage. The ruins, located at the edge of a jungle, were once a temple complex dedicated to a fertility goddess. All Mayan girls were required to make a pilgrimage there before marriage. We saw large iguanas sunning themselves on the ruins and in the trees (they won’t come near you). Wear sturdy shoes; the ground is rocky and uneven. The site has a few shops that carry trinkets, T-shirts, and books on Mayan culture.

After 2 hours at San Gervasio, we drove around the island on the coastal road (the only paved road). Margarita served bottled water, Pepsi and Sol, and gave us lessons on Cozumel’s history, geography, weather and vegetation.

The second part of the excursion was a 1-1/2 hour beach break at Playa Sol. Admission and a voucher for a free margarita (or plain juice) were included in the cost of the excursion. The path to the beach was lined with souvenir and jewelry shops. Margarita showed us how to identify authentic black coral jewelry. Cozumel is known for its black coral, but much of the “black coral” sold to tourists is black plastic or black onyx.

If you want to spend a day on a beach, we recommend this one. The beach was clean; the water was crystal clear. The facilities were well maintained. Several bars were located around the beach, as well as an open-air restaurant. Umbrellas were available (rent was $4, and required a $5 refundable deposit). I won a Playa Sol T-shirt in a trivia contest conducted by the beach’s Activities Director. John won a Cozumel T-shirt in one of the shops because he had a “lucky number” on his ID tag. (We heard that Playa San Francisco was a nice beach, too. It’s located next to Playa Sol. Both beaches are about a 10-minute ride from the Punta Lagosta pier. You must pay an admission, unless you’re part of an excursion.)

Margarita returned us to the pier at 12:30 p.m. We showered and changed in our stateroom, then disembarked again to explore San Miguel. Our first stop was Carlos N Charlie’s, across the street from the pier.

We heard a lot about Carlos N Charlie’s from people who traveled to Cozumel, so we decided to eat lunch there. Well, if you love loud – and I mean L-O-U-D – music, boisterous patrons of all ages, impromptu conga lines, tequila-drinking contests (or watching them), and waitresses who blow on whistles for who knows what reason (we could hear them on the ship), then you’ll be very happy at CNC. We had to practically scream at each other to be heard. John hated it; I tolerated it just to say we were there. The food and margaritas were good, but we both had splitting headaches by the time we left. Next time we’ll try Kiss My Cactus, Pedro’s Backyard, or eat on the ship.

Cozumel was the best port in which to purchase jewelry. Look carefully for the shops that carry a large selection of good quality sterling silver jewelry (the junk sold in the trinket shops is silver plated). Most of the clerks were professional and knowledgeable. They were also willing to bargain, especially after 3 p.m.

The duty-free shop across from the pier was well stocked with liquor, cigarettes, pure vanilla, perfume, rum cake, candies, rum-filled chocolates, coffee, and lots of other items. A small bottle of pure vanilla (about $3) makes a nice souvenir or gift.

We returned to the ship around 5 p.m. and, from our balcony, watched the sun set over Cozumel. Beautiful!

Disembarkation

It went smoothly, beginning around 8 a.m. The morning before disembarkation, your steward will give you instructions and color-coded luggage tags. The color will determine when you leave the ship. Before you go to dinner the night before disembarkation, you’ll put most of your luggage outside your stateroom. You can place a smaller piece or two outside your door before you go to bed.

We woke up fairly early (6:00 a.m.) on “disembarkation day.” When the ship docked at FFL, I cried! We had breakfast on our balcony, then went to the Explorer’s Lounge to wait until our luggage tag color was called (less than 45 minutes).

The first passengers to disembark are those with red luggage tags (early flights home and Captain’s/Platinum Circle members), followed by those on Deck 14 (yellow), then Deck 12 (cream), and so on down the decks.

Luggage was retrieved in a huge warehouse. It was sorted according to the color of your tags. John found his luggage immediately; a large piece of luggage fell on top of mine, so I didn’t see it right away. A friendly Princess staff member helped me locate it. If you have a bag that looks like a lot of other bags, tie a colorful ribbon around the handle so you can spot it easier.

You may purchase an airport shuttle ticket from the excursion desk (Deck 5) the day before disembarkation. Shuttle vouchers cost $5/each; a taxi costs $12. We took the shuttle and had no complaints.

After you complete your first cruise aboard Princess, you are automatically enrolled in the Captain's Circle. We received a packet with two ID cards and two pins; we’re supposed to receive a Princess magazine periodically, and e-mails about special cruise deals. After five Princess cruises, you are automatically upgraded to the Platinum Circle (with more perks).

Bottom Line

The Grand Princess was beautiful, the service was wonderful, the food was delicious, and we can’t wait to cruise again (Eastern Caribbean or Panama Canal next time). The weak spot was the ports. We were not impressed with them. Perhaps if we had booked an excursion or had gone to the beach in Grand Cayman we would have enjoyed it more. Costa Maya… well, there’s not much there right now. If we sail on the Grand to the Western Caribbean again, we’ll probably spend more time on the ship than in the ports.

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