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Robert Downie

Age: 39

Occupation:Engineer

Number of Cruises: 2

Cruise Line: Princess

Ship: Royal Princess

Sailing Date: n/a

Itinerary: Canada / New England

Cruise Line: Princess
Sailing Date: September 17th, 2002

This was our second cruise, and was booked during our first cruise last summer. Being newbies to cruise travel, we have rapidly become devotees of the entire experience. This trip was definitely an over-the-top exercise for us, complete with first-class air travel and a category AB cabin. Sometime in our lives we hope to live this high on the hog again; for now, we will have to scale back our desires just a little.

The itinerary started in New York, with stops in Newport, RI, Boston, MA, Bar Harbor, ME, St. John, NB, Halifax, NS, Quebec City and finally ending in Montreal. There was an extra full day in Montreal with the ship serving as our hotel room, and 2 sailing days between the stops in Halifax and Quebec. That adds up to 7 ports in 10 days. 5 stops were made in the first 5 days, so those 2 days of sailing came as a welcome break from the shore excursions.

Pre-Trip/Embarkation
Air travel was arranged through Princess on Northwest Airlines. The entire outbound trip was pleasant, after we were able to convince the airport screeners that a neatly-dressed couple with several suitcases did not pose a threat to national security. We got the Full Monty, with all bags searched while checking in, and additional searches at the gate before boarding. We're patriots, so we suffered all of this with good humor. It turns out that anyone whose travel plans do not return from the same airport as their arrival will have a high probability of extra scrutiny. Plan accordingly.

We spent 2 pre-nights in NYC, again arranged through Princess. The only disappointing thing about this portion of the trip was the lack of a Princess representative to meet us at La Guardia. We had been forewarned of this when we received our cruise documents, and were provided with shuttle vouchers to our hotel, but it was only through extreme fortune that we found the shuttle driver easily. He treated us to a demonstration of Big Apple driving tactics. Since traffic moves at a pace only slightly faster than glacial, the maneuvers through traffic and pedestrians are amusing rather than frightening.

Upon arrival at the Millenium Broadway hotel, we found that the reservations were taken care of properly and we were in our room in a matter of minutes. It had taken more than 90 minutes to get to the hotel, so this was highly appreciated. Being the gentleman that I am, I allowed my wife to use the restroom first. New York streets and traffic combine for a very rough ride, indeed! We then spent some time exploring Times Square and getting acclimatized to the city. It takes a little getting used to.

We used our pre-embarkation day to hit the requisite tourist stops, starting with a subway ride down the re-opened line through the WTC site to Battery Park. From there we visited the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Most of the statue remains closed to visitors, so a visit there won't last too long. Additionally, there are security screenings before boarding the ferry, and these are quite thorough. Ellis Island is very well done, and well worth spending a couple of hours viewing the displays. We then made the obligatory journey to the top of the Empire State Building. Unless it's a picture-perfect day for viewing, consider an alternative and save the aggravation. Getting to the top of the building involves much line-standing. We ended the day by going to see Cabaret at Studio 54, then stopping off for a couple of drinks at a small pub. All in all, the people we met were quite friendly and seemed appreciative of the fact that we were visiting their city.

Embarkation the next day proceeded relatively smoothly. Our bags were picked up at the specified time and secured in the lobby. Things got a little behind schedule at this point due to the logistics of handling so much baggage, exacerbated by the arrival of passengers from the RP's transatlantic crossing. This resulted in about 30 minutes delay departing for the ship. We were required to identify our bags prior to loading them on the bus to the pier, and once again at the pier. Checking in at the passenger terminal took only a few minutes. There was some slight confusion when we were given our on-board ID's that actually belonged to another couple with a similar last name. Once we convinced the nice lady that we weren't those people, we were given the correct passes and found our way on board.

In short order we were in our home for the next 10 days, Cabin L334. The cabin measured about 300 sq. ft. including the large balcony. The full bathroom had plenty of storage space behind the corner mirrors, the closets were quite spacious, and there was a decent-sized sitting area. Our cabin steward introduced himself, checked that everything was OK, and we went off to explore the ship. We had plenty of time to take a look around, have a drink, and enjoy the sunshine before attending the safety drill and sailing.

The Ship

In spite of the smaller size of the RP, we never felt crowded at any time during our trip. Most of the public areas are on a single deck, with the exception of the dining room. This makes it very easy to get around, particularly for less-mobile travelers. The Horizon Lounge on the Sun Deck seemed to get very little traffic and was a quiet place to relax. The pool area on the Lido Deck tended to be busy, given that the weather was very nearly perfect during the entire cruise. The other pool on the Sun Deck was closed for repairs, so those who wanted to soak had to concentrate in just the one area.

There are relatively few cabins with balconies on the RP. Most of those are mini-suites and come with a relatively high price tag. Our tablemates complained that their cabin was smaller than equivalent cabins on newer ships.

There is a more pronounced sense of motion on the RP than we experienced on our first cruise (Sea Princess). We sailed through calm conditions for the most part, yet could feel a very gentle roll while the ship cruised between ports. It in fact was quite pleasant, though in rougher seas this might become uncomfortable for some travelers. One of the crew members told us that they'd been through a storm on their transatlantic crossing, and that the experience had been quite unpleasant.

The furnishings and equipment were all well-maintained throughout the ship. There was some visible rust on railings and other exterior steel, but that's just part of the ongoing battle against a harsh environment. It was by no means excessive.

Food and Dining Room Service, Entertainment
Overall, the dining room served excellent meals that were well-prepared, no matter the time of day. I had one disappointing meal that the waiter tried to subtlely warn me away from. I learned to be a little more on the ball and pick up on his cues, and wasn't disappointed again. The four of us at the table all tended to order different items, so we had a pretty good opportunity to sample the varied offerings. It was originally a table for six, but the other two never appeared and must have switched to the early seating.

The service the first couple of nights was lackluster, and there appeared to be some problems between the waiter and his assistant. On the second night, the head waiter pulled the assistant aside for a chat, and service improved remarkably. From that point on, both got very high marks for their service. They also picked up on the fact that we and our table mates were not in a hurry to eat, so they could take care of more demanding passengers while giving us time to talk and enjoy some wine between courses.

We only went to one show during the trip. On that night there was a comedian/magician, who put on quite a good show and was able to get good audience participation. Others told us that the shows were all quite good.

The Cruise
Sailing out of New York is an incredible experience. The terminal is just north of the Intrepid Air and Space Museum, so passengers were treated to an exceptional view of the city. The ship didn't pick up speed until passing under the Verrazano Narrows bridge. It was a warm day, allowing us to spend quite a long time on deck enjoying the sights.

The first stop is Newport, RI. If you're a fan of sailing, the America's Cup races, or mansions that truly exemplify conspicuous consumerism, this is your place. The harbor is too small to allow docking, so we had our first experience with tenders. The crew were very organized and kept close to schedule. The requirement for tendering was not noted when we booked our shore excursions. This was not a problem for us, but there were a few who groused about the difficulty getting in and out of the little boats. There were plenty of spare hands to help those who needed assistance. We opted for a harbor and lighthouse tour on a small tour boat that we thoroughly enjoyed. Those who had an extra cup of coffee before leaving the ship found out that environmental concerns dictated somewhat primitive restroom facilities when we reached the lighthouse site on Rose Island.

The dock in Boston is a few miles away from the historic parts of the city. Shuttle buses were available for a small fee to get downtown. We visited several sites on our own instead of participating in an organized tour. In general Boston a very pedestrian-friendly city, but be aware that there is road construction nearly everywhere. Most of the historic sites are located within a relatively small area. There was a little confusion with the shuttles getting back to the ship. The Golden Princess with its 2600 passengers was also in town, making for long lines at the pick-up point.

Bar Harbor is also another stop requiring tenders. Aside from one of the days at sea, this was the worst weather we experienced - windy and ever-so-slightly chilly, but not bad enough to prevent a lobster lunch dockside. There were plenty of good bargains in town for those who chose to look around a little before buying. We took a tour of Acadia National Park, including a visit to the summit of Cadillac Mountain. The tolerable breeze at sea level translated into high winds up there, making it difficult to walk around. The tour guides will skip the mountain when conditions are too cloudy or windy. Whale watching and other sea-based excursions were canceled that day due to high seas offshore, or a lack of whales, depending on who you spoke to.

We arrived in St. John, New Brunswick the next morning. A piper in full highland regalia welcomed us to port, the ladies received roses when they disembarked, and a band entertained dockside. The shore excursions were extremely well organized. We went kayaking and had a great time, and afterwards were treated to a picnic lunch featuring steak, lobster, and cold beer. The folks who organized this trip were among the nicest anywhere. This is a surprisingly enjoyable activity, and not nearly as strenuous as it might appear. Getting in and out of the kayaks is a little difficult, so it's not for everyone. This tour finished up quite early in the day, and we had plenty of time to relax before sailing. I didn't hear a single complaint about any of the tours. Jet-boat rides through the rapids also got very high marks for thrills and enjoyment value.

Our next stop was Halifax. This time, we had a small but complete pipe band, and an official welcome. We took a bus trip out to Peggy's Cove, and got a complete history of the city and environs from Yackie Jackie (she introduced herself as such), our tour guide. She was a riot, and one of the few tour guides I've seen who could keep an entire group interested for the length of the trip. When we got back to town, we took advantage of the balmy Sunday weather to walk along the waterfront and visit the excellent Maritime Museum.

We then had two days of sailing before reaching Quebec City. 5 stops in a row takes a lot out of you even if you take time to relax. I'd planned a couple of sleep-in mornings, which neatly coincided with the days we had to tender, causing my poor wife to miss out on extra sack time. I'm an early riser, so it doesn't bother me nearly as much. The weather turned cool and foggy, but not rough, creating a good excuse to put out the do-not-disturb sign and sleep in.

On our second day of sailing, we went a little ways up the Saguenay River. It's very picturesque, and probably would be even more so when the leaves start to change. At the mouth of the river, you can see beluga whales, porpoises, and seals if you get up early. We then sailed up the St. Lawrence to Quebec City, arriving well after dark. It's well worth it to go up on deck and view the city as you arrive. The Chateau and Citadel are lit up, making one of the prettiest sights on the entire trip. You have to see it to appreciate it.

The next morning we toured Quebec on our own. The old part of the city is tiny, but very hilly. Walking to the Citadel and Plains of Abraham battlefield is also quite easy, but might be too far for some. The Old City is spotless and quite romantic. You'll find artists, entertainers, small shops, and excellent restaurants. The only downside is that cars are allowed in the narrow streets, requiring pedestrians to keep their wits about them. The centerpiece is the Chateau Frontenac, an elegant hotel that does its level best to protect itself from tourists. Take a couple extra rolls of film, since the city is one of the most beautiful you're likely to see anywhere. You'll alsow find street entertainers.

In contrast to Quebec, Montreal was a bit of a let-down. There is plent to do and see, but it lacks the quiet elegance of Quebec. Once again we did not take any of the shore excursions, deciding instead to explore on our own. We hired a horse-drawn carriage to show us around. The driver was very friendly and gave us a great tour, while extolling the virtues of a socialist society. I diplomatically failed to ask why socialism was considered successful when there were so many people on the street begging for spare change. We then took the Metro out to the Casino de Montreal, another bad decision. It's quite large and impressive on the outside. The inside is confusing and extremely noisy, even for a casino veteran. It's mostly slot machines, with a sprinkling of video poker and table games. Give it a miss unless you just have to throw your money at tight machines. After a short visit, we decided that packing for the trip home would be a better use of our time.

We finished on an up note by going to what will regretably be one of the last baseball games to be played in Montreal. There is so little interest in the game that we were able to get seats behind home plate about 5 rows off the field. There is no way that similar seats would be available in any other ballpark. For about $20 US, we could experience the view that only the rich and famous can elsewhere.

Disembarkation
It's always tough to return to the real world. It was for this reason that I bought first-class air travel, so the adjustment wouldn't be so harsh. We cleared Canadian Customs at the terminal, then boarded buses for Dorval, Montreal's older airport. They were not prepared to have busloads of passengers showing up simultaneously, so there were long lines at both the American and Delta check-ins. In another example of bad socialism, the Canadian government requires that everyone pay a $15 departure tax. After getting your boarding passes, you stand in line to pay the tax and receive a voucher, then give that same ticket to another person after standing in line again. It seems that one person could do both jobs, thereby eliminating a line, but that would also eliminate an important government job. Altogether it took over an hour to get through, and we got to skip the longest line by virtue of having low-numbered seats.

We cleared US Customs and INS without any difficulties, or nearly so. At the last checkpoint, a customs officer asked us to stop, looked at my declaration card with some suspicion after viewing the pile of suitcases on our cart . He then asked if we were the youngest people on the cruise, laughed, and told us to have a nice flight. In all honesty, we're not that young, but there were maybe only a dozen people on the cruise younger than us. I think one couple on board even called us "whipper-snappers".

I quickly regretted not staying an extra night in Montreal to avoid the crush. Canadian airports are about 30 years behind the times, and at Dorval it appears that all flights in and out of the US go through just two gates that share one tiny seating area. Flight information is very hard to find, since they appear to not to have monitors that are everywhere in US airports. The gate staff was noticeably rude. In addition, the facilities are not designed to handle large numbers of travelers. The line to the ladies' room stretched a considerable way down the hall, for example. Weather delays at some airports in the US only made things worse.

Fortunately, our flight was on time, and we were happy to be away from Dorval. I felt sorry for those who had flights later in the afternoon and still had several hours to wait.

Final Thoughts
This was a great trip that far exceeded our expectations. In spite of my whining about airports and such, there was so little to find fault with that the negatives stood out more than they should have. The RP is a beautiful ship, with relaxed but conscientious service throughout. The crew were adept at remembering people, and often stopped to talk when they were off duty. The ship's staff was very visible and approachable, and didn't mind us looking over their shoulders when maneuvering the ship in and out of port. The sun deck overlooks the open-air pilot stations on either side of the ship, used when docking and departing.

Do yourself a favor and stay an extra day, at least, in Montreal, or take a post-cruise tour if you are on the northbound itinerary. The airport facilities in Montreal are so inadequate for the large number of passengers that show up after disembarkation that it's easy to lose that enjoyable vacation feeling. The aggravation isn't worth getting home as soon as possible.

The total offering of shore excursions was a little disappointing. Since there are only a limited number of sailings on this itinerary, the limit on choices is somewhat understandable. Also, this cruise seems to attract older passengers who might not be as interested in more vigorous activities. Most of the available shore excursions were simply sightseeing tours. We tend to avoid lengthy "bus tours" and look for more unusual things to do. Some obvious opportunities were unavailable, such as a round of golf at the oldest golf course in the US at Bar Harbor, and in no place were sailing or fishing excursions offered. If I had to do this trip again, and I would if given the chance, I'd try to plan such activities on my own by doing some research ahead of time.

In spite of that, the tours we went on were very well done, with excellent guides. We heard very few complaints about any of the shore excursions. Most of them offered plenty of time for exploring on your own before or after the tour.

The Royal Princess is a delight to sail on. It costs somewhat more than the larger ships for equivalent staterooms, at least, that's what I've observed by comparing and pro-rating the published prices for the Golden Princess and Sun Princess-class ships In fact, we were originally booked on Regal Princess, but changes to Princess' schedules last year put us on board the Royal.

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