Janet and Ray Zegarski
Number of Cruises: 36
Cruise Line: Princess
Ship: Sea Princess
Sailing Date: June 18, 2005
Itinerary: Norwegian Fjords and North Cape
Review of MS Sea Princess Cruise
– Norwegian Fjords & North Cape
June 18 to July 2, 2005
Southampton, Stavanger, Trondheim, Tromso, Magdalena Fjord, Ny Alesund,
Honningsvag, Geiranger, Bergen, Southampton
This cruise marked our thirty second cruise together, with four others taken separately. This was our second sailing with Princess Cruises, both on the Sea Princess. The earlier Sea Princess cruise was before the ship was transferred to P&O Cruises, from Princess. Earlier this year, the Sea Princess was returned to her original home line. The main impetus for choosing this cruise line/ship was the unique itinerary. We have wanted to cruise Norway’s North Cape, and this cruise also offered the opportunity to land on the archipelago of Spitsbergen (also known as the Svalbard Islands), within 700 miles of the North Pole.
Some of the details and our
impressions of the ship and the cruise experience will be presented (sort of) in
the following manner: Pre-cruise; Embarkation; Ship; Ports of call; Dining;
Service; Final Wrap-up. Apologies are offered in advance for what promises to be
a quite lengthy review.
Pre Pre-cruise: As mentioned, this is an itinerary that we have wanted to do for some time. Not many cruise lines offer the full coastal experience, and those that do usually only offer it once a year. When we saw this itinerary in September of 2004, we decided that 2005 would be our year to make this cruise. We contacted our travel agent had him send our deposit and we were booked. Being owners of the requisite number of shares of Carnival Corporation stock, we also sent the documentation for the Shareholder Benefit (cabin credit based on length of cruise). We were very surprised when in November, 2004 we received notification from Princess Cruises offices in California that our Shareholder Benefit would not be honored, since our travel agent had arranged for us to receive a $100 USD cabin credit for the booking. The notice from Princess said that only one cabin credit can be used per cruise. They were canceling our $250 USD credit and allowing us the $100 USD credit. We told our travel agent and he immediately started a long series of back-and-forth e-mails and telephone calls attempting to resolve this issue. We have previously received the Shareholder Benefit, in addition to other cabin credits, on other Carnival brands in the past via our travel agent. When he got nowhere with the Princess representative, he asked for her contact at Carnival and made his/our case anew. The person at Carnival agreed that both credits should be honored and that all would be taken care of. The Princess rep was new to Carnival’s Shareholder benefit program. Case Closed! Or, so we thought. When our travel documents arrived, the flight information page showed an On-Board Credit of $250 USD. Another series of e-mails and telephone conversations resulted in the rep at Princess suggesting that we were lying about having received both credits in the past. When asked about the "resolution" back in November, the rep at Princess stated that the person at Carnival was not familiar with Carnival’s policies, and in any ev
ent, Princess is it own company. She also stated that the person at Carnival should have told us that the Princess interpretation of the policy would be the binding one. The person at Carnival, when asked about this, confirmed that Princess will have the final say on their ships. More on this later.
Prior to this cruise, we had found a roll call thread, for this sailing, on the Cruise Critic Bulletin Board website. Over a period of a few months we had formed a small but dedicated group, of mostly seasoned cruisers. Besides the normal "chit-chat" that goes back and forth, we decided to try and meet for lunch, at noon, on the first sea day. One of the couples agreed to speak with the head waiter in charge at the Dining Room that day and request a table for the eleven of us. They set us off in a corner by ourselves and we had such a wonderful time that we agreed to make it a standing reservation, at the same time and place, for each of the sea days, with no pressure if someone decided to do something else at that time. "The Dirty Dozen, minus one" managed to meet each of the scheduled times. These luncheons, that occasionally almost ran into tea time, turned out to be one of the highlights of this cruise for us. What a wonderful group of old friends that we had met for the first time.
Pre-cruise, London (Day 1): Due to the spanning of a number of time zones, we opted to leave early and spend two nights in London, pre-cruise, to allow time for our biological clocks to reset. By means of a Cruise Critic posting board, for a different cruise that we will be taking later this year, we became somewhat (in a cyber-space manner) acquainted with a couple who lives north of London. As circumstances presented themselves we were able to join them for dinner the last evening before leaving for Southampton. Sylvia and Niels are originally from Belgium and introduced us to a wonderful Belgian restaurant (Belgo Centraal) in London’s Covent Garden neighborhood. We were fortunate to be joined by our good friend George, who lives in California, for both the dinner and the cruise.
Our flight to London was uneventful , after boarding the plane and then waiting at the gate for an hour and forty minutes for, "paperwork to be completed". We normally make our own air travel arrangements, but this trip decided to use Princess’ Air Package, which included transfers from airport to hotel , to ship, to airport. As it turned out, we would have probably been on the same plane if we had made our own air travel arrangements. Due to our ‘paperwork’ delay, we arrived in London about one and one-half hours after George, instead of the originally scheduled ten minutes. George had patiently waited for us at the luggage claim area. When we claimed our luggage and proceeded to find the Princess representative, she informed George that they had originally had a separate car waiting for him since they knew about our delayed arrival. However, she reluctantly made arrangements to place George with us in the same transport to the hotel. At the hotel, we were informed that our rooms were ready, except for a "final inspection". Our wait was about 15-20 minutes, which we spent getting caught up on happenings since our last previous get together. After dropping off our carry-on bags in our rooms, we set about to explore a bit of London (George’s first trip across the ‘pond’), despite some intermittent showers. We strolled to the Covent Garden area to verify the location of Belgo, and we had lunch at a delightful place in Covent Garden Market. We then checked out the theaters in the area and finally a look at Trafalgar Square before heading back to the hotel for some rest. We took a nap and then decided to go back out for some additional sightseeing. Since George had and additional three time zones to adjust to, we allowed him to get additional sleep time, agreeing to meet for breakfast the next morning. After our nap, we headed out toward St. Paul’s Cathedral, and the Millennium Bridge. We got to the area just as a fund-raising walk staged by London’s newspapers, for funds toward the restoration of Big Ben, and the clock, was in its final stages. This added an extra level of festivity to the early evening. We walked across the Millennium Bridge over to the Globe Theatre replica, just as the evening performance crowd was assembling. We were tempted to see if we could still get tickets, but decided not to try for fear of getting tickets and then falling asleep during the show, after our long travel day, nap notwithstanding. We walked about some more and then grabbed a light supper before returning to our hotel for a full night’s sleep.
Pre-Cruise, London (Day 2): We arose early and met a well rested George and went to breakfast in the hotel restaurant. After breakfast, we all agreed that George’s desire to see the Changing of the Guard Ceremony at Buckingham Palace was worth the try. Since the weather was, for London in June, unusually warm and sunny, with only moderate humidity levels, we set out on a walking route, which took us through Whitehall and onto Marlborough Road. While traversing Marlborough Road, we noticed the guard preparing for their march to Buckingham Palace. We decided to remain there and had a front row view of the formation of the Color Guard, the band, and the guard contingent itself. While we did not see the actual changing ceremonies, we did get an extremely close-up view (less than 10 feet at one time), and listen to a preview of the band playing. We then followed the ‘parade’ down the Mall toward Buckingham Palace, where the crowds were much larger. We all agreed that we had a great view and probably saw more than if we had continued directly to the palace. After reaching the Queen Victoria Monument and watching the Mounted Guard ride by and the relieved guard unit return to St. James Palace, we took Birdcage Walk toward the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey and Big Ben. We then headed along Victoria Embankment to Waterloo Bridge and then back toward the Strand and a lunch of some ‘pub grub’. We then followed the route of the previous evening so that George could experience the Millennium Bridge and St. Paul’s Cathedral. Then it was back to the hotel to get ready for dinner at Belgo; a wonderful time was had by all. Belgo is a wonderful restaurant, the mussels are outstanding, the beer selection enormous, the desserts decadent, but by far, the camaraderie was what made the evening so memorable.
Embarkation: As per instructions from the Princess representative, we placed our luggage outside our rooms by 0730, the hotel staff then collected them and we next saw them in our cabins on the ship. Then it was off to breakfast at the Pearl restaurant in the hotel – a bit pricey, but superb food and service. After checking out from the hotel, we boarded busses to the port at about 1000. Due to heavy traffic, the supposed two hour trip took closer to three hours. The wonderful weather had many locals heading for the beaches, according to our driver. Check in was reasonably quick (about 30 minutes) and painless; passport checked, tickets taken, cruise card given and its use explained, signature authorizing charging of shipboard purchases, directed to gangway. We had completed all the required immigration information on-line prior to leaving home which helped speed things along. The "Welcome Aboard" photo was handled professionally and with great dispatch, a harbinger of more good things to follow? One last stop prior to boarding; one has to stand at a pre-determined spot and place your cruise card into a slot and be photographed for the ships security system. Each time we subsequently left and returned to the ship, we had to insert our cruise card and the security officer could compare the photo with the passenger, while the ship’s computer tracked the coming/going. Finally, on board! We were met in the lobby by a crew member who checked our cruise card and directed us to an elevator and told us, "go up to Baja Deck 10". When we got off at Baja Deck, another crew person looked at our cards and pointed us toward a hall way and said, "go to the left and look for your stateroom on the right". We found B-618 easily enough, but missed the pampered feeling that one gets on Celebrity or Holland American while being escorted to your stateroom. After disposing of our carry-on bags, we set out to search out our cyber cruisemates, explore the ship and partake of some lunch. Lunch was available in the Horizon Court and the Riviera Grill. We opted for the Horizon Court Buffet (more on this later). After lunch, we stopped back at our cabin prior to exploring the ship (mainly to pick up the pocket sized deck plans that we forgot to take with us). Some of our luggage had arrived, and we met Gonzaldo, our very pleasant cabin steward. Gonzaldo introduced himself and showed us the location of our life jackets, explained the operation of the room safe, the temperature controls, the various knobs/dials in the bathroom, pointed out the refrigerator, and told us how to contact him if we wanted anything. For the Passenger Muster Exercise, we carried (as instructed) our life jackets to our Muster Station (Vista Lounge). The room was quite full and I was grateful not to have to be in such close quarters wearing life jackets. It appeared very disorganized, but the crew person in charged got everyone seated and explained the emergency procedures, then with the help of additional crew members made sure that all present donned life jackets properly. No roll call was taken, but it was explained that while we were at our muster stations, crew members were making a sweep of all staterooms, to make sure all were unoccupied, just as they would do in an actual emergency. We felt comfortable that this exercise was competently handled, and the process is sound.
Ship Particulars: The Sea Princess was built at the Fincantieri Shipyards (Italy) in 1998; she is 857 feet in length and 106 feet wide, with a G.R.T. of 77,499 tons, and a double occupancy Passenger capacity of 1,950, carrying a crew of 900. The propulsion is Diesel Electric; there are 2 stabilizers; bow and stern thrusters obviate the need of tugs (in all but most severe conditions); cruising speed is approximately 20 knots, top speed is 21.6 knots. The Sea Princess had just undergone a dry-docking and partial refurbishment during its transition from P&O Cruises to back to Princess Cruise Line.
Stateroom: We were on Baja Deck (10) cabin B618 (Outside Double with Balcony, port side, just a bit aft of midship). This location is directly above and below staterooms on Decks 9 and 11. There was no discernible noise from either , nor from the cabins on either side of ours. The stateroom was about 21 feet by 11 feet, including the bathroom and closets (listed as 179 sq. ft. In brochure); the balcony was a cozy 4 feet by 11 feet. This is small, but adequate for sitting with a book or having a light breakfast or lunch/snack from room service, and not much else. The two beds were made up in a queen size configuration, as requested, and were quite comfortable. There was one full length closet, one that had two bars each providing enough length for shirts/blouses, or pants hung over the bar of a suit hanger (the top bar would be difficult to reach for someone less than about 5 feet 6 inches tall; the remaining closet had three fixed selves (one mostly taken by the safe) and three wire baskets that swiveled out for access. There was ample room at the bottom of the closets even for all of Janet’s shoes; the desk/dressing table and the night stand contained ample drawer/shelf space for the remainder of our clothes (we do not travel light when we cruise). There was no difficulty placing the empty suitcases under the bed. The bathroom was adequately sized and the shower was large, by cruise ship standards; it would have been even nicer if it had been equipped with a hand held option as many ships now provide. No problems with amount of hot water and/or pressure, at any time. Temperature control was easy to maintain/change, as desired, which was helpful due to the varying temperatures we encountered on this itinerary. Also, on this itinerary we were to have six days where the sun would not set, and a number of others where we would have 18 to 21 hours of daylight. Fortunately, the drapes were sufficiently thick to keep the cabin dark enough to provide for a full night of sleep, if that was your preferenc
e. Our Cabin Steward, Gonzaldo, was most pleasant and willing to please, and had that knack that the true professionals have of never being in the way, but always there when needed. Everything was maintained to our preferences. Princess has a process where each passenger has a fresh beach/pool towel placed in their cabin each day, or more frequently if needed; at one point we had six towels in our cabin and had to ask Gonzaldo to please not leave any more, unless we requested them. Princess also supplies robes in each stateroom for passengers use. When we first boarded, we did not see any robes in our cabin and thought perhaps this policy had been changed. When we later met Gonzaldo, he apologized and assured us that he would make sure that they were in our cabin as soon as possible. They were there within 15 minutes, and were brand new.
Public Areas: This a fairly large ship, with a total passenger capacity of 2270, with slightly over 2000 on this cruise, but the only times we saw any real congestion was in the Horizon Court buffet and just prior to the opening of the Traviata Dining Room at dinner. The congestion at the entrance to the dining room is easy to resolve, remain seated in one of the lounges until the "hungry hordes" get in, then leisurely stroll to one’s own table. There is some congestion in the area of the on-board shops when the tables are placed in the walkways for the sale promotions. In a sense of fairness, we need to note that we did not spend a lot of time taking notes in all the public areas. In most cases our opinions are based on casual observations while moving about the ship at different times of day/night.
Horizon Court: The congestion in the buffet area, in the Horizon Court, is more problematic. Before getting to the buffet lines, each passenger must stop and use the hand sanitizing solution dispensers. Early in the cruise the staff was quite adamant about enforcing this, but their resolve seemed to weaken during the latter stages of the cruise. There are two buffet lines, one on starboard side, the other on the port side; both are set up identically. They are further sub-divided with a hot buffet on one side, cold buffet on the other; the middle area is set up with salads and/or other incidentals, depending on the meal being served. The salad station is comprised of two smaller islands. Unfortunately the lettuce and salad dressings are located at the first island and the rest of the salad ingredients are at the second island. This requires moving back against the flow, if one wishes to add the salad dressing on top of the completed salad. The beverage station is at the end of the cold buffet side; the desserts are in the center of the cold buffet side. You can imagine the congestion as passengers move from side to side, or stop in the middle area, especially to get desserts or beverages while those in line on that side of the buffet are attempting to finish their movement through the area.
We did not partake on the Sterling Steakhouse offering in the Horizon Court, which is a casual dining alternative available each evening from 6:30 to 10:00PM, at an additional charge (if memory serves us correctly, the charge was $15.00 USD per person). The buffet lines are open for pastries and beverages, breakfast, lunch, light snacks, dinner buffets, and Bistro and late snacks, with minimal closures for change-over. This arrangement allows for availability of food 24 hours/day. This over and above that available from room service.
Princess Theater (Promenade Deck 7, Forward): This is the primary showroom; it is also used for movies, but no popcorn. It is set up like a land-based theater, with decent sight lines and acoustics. We attended a few of the shows here, and found the room adequate. One aspect of this venue that we found somewhat irksome is that there are no aisles along the walls of the theater; late arriving guests have to make their way to the extreme left/right seats by passing in front of all those already seated in the center portion of the seats. We don’t cruise for the entertainment, but Ray does enjoy watching the dance routines (an effort to relive earlier thespian days?). Also with the timing of late seating and the start times for the shows, we found it practically impossible to find seats in this small venue theater, competing with those passengers who were coming from Personal Choice (earlier) dinner seating. This will continue to be a problem for those who prefer late dining, since enlarging the room does not seem feasible, or even possible. One curious tidbit was that during the dry dock some of the carpeting seems to have been replaced on the steps in the aisles used for entering and leaving the theater. That wasn’t what was curious, but some of the new carpeting had obvious holes cut out and patched (and not always competently) which made for a tacky appearance.
Vista Lounge (Promenade Deck 7, Aft): This is the secondary show lounge, more of a cabaret venue; also used for movies (still no popcorn) and lectures. This smaller configuration leaves some less than ideal sight lines, not a big deal for a stand up comedian or lecturer, but critical for sight gags and projected images, or production shows. Princess should be applauded for trying to spread out the passengers in to different venues, especially since none of those they have can accommodate sufficient numbers at one time. Not one of our favorite rooms. Also a frequent home to "Bingo!"
Premier Cru Bar (Promenade Deck 7, Midship): A smallish, but comfortable, champagne and caviar bar; of course, other types of libations were also available. Music from Crooner’s Lounge drifted back here, but was muted enough not to be disturbing. This turned out to be our favorite pre-dinner place to enjoy a cocktail and "people watch". It was a bit confusing the first few times this venue was mentioned by Cruise Director, or other staff members, since it sounds the same as "Crew Bar".
Razzmatazz (Promenade Deck 7, Midship): This is the ship’s dance club, and seemed quite lively most nights. This isn’t our type of venue, so we can only comment that those we saw in there each night, as we strolled the deck before turning in, seemed to be having a fine time. Some of our new friends from Cruise Critic seemed to enjoy it enough to be there until closing most nights. This is also where they held Karaoke
Explorer’s Bar (Plaza Deck 5, Atrium): An intimate little niche bar that only seemed to attract folks while they were waiting for their Rigoletto Dining Room times, or perhaps an after dinner drink. We had also noticed some passengers having pots of tea in this area, on a few afternoons.
Crooner’s Lounge (Promenade Deck 7, Atrium): This lounge billed as a tribute to Frank Sinatra & The Rat Pack, proved to be a popular spot at most times of the day. This was home to the "Trivia" challenges, piano sing-a-longs, before/after dinner dancing, afternoon relaxation, also a good people-watching spot.
Wheelhouse Bar (Promenade Deck 7, Forward): This proved to be our favorite after dinner/late night watering hole. The dark paneling, nautical paintings and memorabilia, and views out on to the Promenade Deck, gives this room the real feeling of being on a ship rather than in a resort hotel. Due to the layout of the ship, this room gets more than necessary (sometimes distracting) amount of traffic with passengers going to/from the Princess Theater. This is one of those design features that not much can be done about at this point. In my opinion this is the only thing that keeps me from rating this room "Outstanding"; it is very nice, but could be better. This room is also the usual home to the "ever popular" Art Auctions (there were six of them for this twelve day cruise).
Sundaes Ice Cream Bar (Riviera Deck 12): Hagen Daz ice cream, but be sure to have your cruise charge card with you, treats here are not included in cruise fare. Did not ever seem to be crowded ( we wondered if they include a 15% gratuity? We never found out).
Pizzeria (Dolphin Deck 8, Atrium): Surrounds the top of the Atrium (2/3 of the way around). This room seemed to be a popular stop for passengers of all ages, but especially for families with youngsters. Pizza was pretty good and made to order, which predicated ordering a whole pie (approximately 9 inches) of whatever type topping you wanted. It was here that we experienced a strange bit of "pleasing the customer". Ray had ordered a Boddington beer with his pizza and the server returned a very blank look and stated, "We don’t carry that brand", despite the fact that table menu lists it as being available. Ray asked if she could please check; a second person (supervisor?) came out and told us that they just started carrying that brand on this cruise, but they had sold out already. This was the second full day of the cruise! Other bars did have it in stock and so did the Pizzeria, a couple of days later. The pasta dishes here were also excellent. This made for a good place to stop after returning from shore excursions.
Grand Casino (Dolphin Deck 8, Midship): Not one of our usual haunts on a cruise, so we can’t comment too much on this room. We did wander in to take a look around and it seemed typically like most other ship’s casinos. The Sea Princess is a bit different from many cruise ships that we’ve been on in that you do not have to walk through the Casino to get to other public spaces on the ship. This is especially good news to those extremely bothered by cigarette smoke; casinos tend to be rather smoky, even on newer ships. The entrance to the Casino is located just across the Atrium from Pizzeria.
Seaview Spa, Gymnasium, Beauty Salon, Card Room, Library, Pool Decks Bars, Boutiques on Board: These were all similar to what one might find on any modern cruise ship with nothing special to make them memorable.
Dining: We had selected late seating (our norm) and were assigned to the Traviata Dining Room on Plaza Deck 5, at a table for six. On the first evening the table was set for seven, but the other two passengers never showed up and the table was then set for five the remainder of the cruise. Our waiter, Vincenzo, and his assistant, Kamil, provided us with service that was fairly well paced and efficient, without ever feeling hurried. This was important since we and our tablemates enjoyed each other’s company and were always one of the last groups to leave the Dining Room. Kamil was quick to ascertain everyone’s beverage preferences and deliver them at the desired times. We found the food to be of good quality and preparation and presentation was fine. Ordering multiple appetizers, or entrees, or desserts was not a problem, nor was ordering appetizer sized portions of the evening’s pasta presentation. We were a bunch of experienced cruisers who knew what we wanted/expected, and Vincenzo and Kamil delivered. Princess line does not have wine stewards in the Dining Rooms; we ordered our wine each evening usually through Vincenzo. The advantage to this is that service seemed to be quicker than on ships where 3 or 4 wine stewards had to cover the entire dining room; there is also the option of telephoning your wine order earlier in the day and having the wine waiting at your table. The disadvantage of no wine stewards is that it is nice having someone knowledgeable of the wines in the ship’s cellar, in case one wants to try something new/different. Of course, that assumes the wine steward is knowledgeable, regrettably not always a safe assumption. Breakfast and lunch in the Dining Room, usually only the Traviata Dining Room, on Emerald Deck 6, was open seating. At breakfast, the other options are Room Service, or the buffet in the Horizon Court. We had room service with light breakfast on our verandah a couple of mornings, and the food arrived promptly as scheduled and quite hot. The breakfast buffet was normal, nothing special, and one had to contend with the poor traffic flow mentioned earlier. We tried the buffet when under time constraints, but preferred the service of the dining room. Selection in both venues was adequate. Lunch time options, other than dining room were the Horizon Court buffet and/or Riviera Grill (hot dogs, burgers, etc.), and of course room service.
Shore Excursions: The ports visited on this cruise are ones we had never visited in the past, and this was a primary motivation for booking this itinerary. We will share some of our experiences at the ports we visited. If you have no interest in these ports, feel free to skip ahead to the rest of our review.
Stavanger: This was one of only two ports where we had purchased ship’s excursion packages. We chose the Sightseeing Cruise Along Lysefjord (3 ½ hours). We had to meet in the Princess Theater and receive our numbered bus passes, and then off to the bus for a short ride to our cruise boat. These boats were catamaran jet boats with seating arrangements that resembled an airplane passenger cabin, only much roomier. While Lysefjord extends some 50 miles inland, we traversed only about 22 miles of the route. The cruise was well narrated and many points of interest were explained from their historical/geological/folklore perspectives. We also had a stop at a lovely beach area under the overhang of one of the cliffs at Helleren, where we were treated to a snack of local waffles and beverages, served in the atmosphere of rustic log cabin type pavilions. While the weather was cloudy, with some rain and fog as we left the ship, the fog lifted during our cruise, and the rain reduced to only a few intermittent showers. One highlight, for us, was to see Pulpit Rock. We had seen many pictures of the formation and were really surprised at what a different perspective one gets when viewing it from water level and gazing up the 600 meter height. We also stopped at the base of a waterfall where crew members extended a bucket on the end of a boat gaff to collect water for anyone who wanted to taste this recently melted ice.
Trondheim: Where we were docked here was about two miles from the center of town. Princess provided shuttle bus service, at the price of $4.00 USD per person each way. Never having been to this port, we opted for the shuttle into town, but decided to walk back since it did not seem to actually be two miles. It is an easy walk, and Princess was willing to refund the costs on any unused shuttle tickets. The shuttle dropped us off near the main square in town, where there was an open air market with a number of booths selling Norwegian wares and also fresh fruit and flowers. We are not sure if this was a normal event, or something prompted by the cruise ship being in port. The main shopping area of town surrounds the square. Only a short walk from the square is the Nidaros Cathedral, built beginning in 1070 by King Olav III Kyrre. This cathedral served as the coronation church until after the Reformation, but none since 1906. It is still considered a national sanctuary, by many people, and perhaps the most impressive building in Norway. There is a small admission fee (40 NOK), and flash photography is not permitted inside the cathedral. Instead of waiting for the tour to top of the steeple in the cathedral we decided to further explore the town and perhaps stop back. We ran into a couple from our Cruise Critic Group who suggested we may wish to hike up to to the fort on top of the hill for some very nice views. It is not a very long walk (about ¾ mile) but the road is very steep. In our estimation it is worth the effort. In addition to the wonderful views (high above the top of the cathedral), there is a small museum (we did not enter since it was close to closing time) and a small refreshment area. On the way to and from the fort, one crosses over the arched bridge named Gamle Bybro, from which you can see the picturesque wharves and warehouses on stilts along the waterfront. Many of these building have been converted into restaurants, clubs and galleries.
At Sea: The noteworthy aspect of this day at sea was when we crossed the Arctic Circle at 66 degrees, 33.0 minutes North. The crossing took place at 08:23 AM, but no announcement was made at that time. We had seen other reviews where a recognition event took place during the crossing, and had looked forward to marking the actual crossing. Later in the cruise, passengers received in their cabins certificates, signed by the Captain and the Navigator, announcing that we, "became a member of the most honourable Order of Bluenoses" when the Sea Princess crossed the Arctic Circle.
Tromso: This was another port where Princess offered their, $4.00 USD per person each way, shuttle service to the center of town (about two miles), with refunds for unused tickets. On our trip into town, our driver showed us the underground route, which included two underground traffic circles (round-a -bouts). He also offered advice on how to use the public busses to reach various tourist attractions. In subsequent conversations with other passengers, most of the other drivers were not as accommodating. Two of our "must do" activities for this port were the cable car ride to the top of the mountain and the Arctic Cathedral. Since both are reasonably close to each other, but across the harbor from the town center, we opted for the local bus (Route 26) to the cable car station. One can purchase their cable car ticket directly from the bus driver and the return trip bus transportation is included in the cost (80 NOK per adult). At the top of the mountain, there is the ubiquitous souvenir shop and also a restaurant, along with some spectacular views. It was raining a bit while we waited for the cable car, one leaves about every seven-eight minutes (actual trip is four minutes), but had stopped prior to our ascent. The day was still somewhat overcast, but the views were still quite impressive. After descending from the mountain top by cable car (there are also hiking trails for those so inclined), we chose to walk the quarter mile, or thereabouts, down the hill to the Arctic Cathedral. The design is somewhat reminiscent of the Sydney Opera House, only instead of sails, the design here is evocative of an iceberg or mountain crest. The primary building materials are concrete and stained glass. After viewing the church and purchasing some postcards depicting the winter views, we headed out to the bus stop and recrossed the harbor bridge to the center of town, where we continued our tourist explorations. Unfortunately, we felt that we did not have enough time to visit the Polaria, Tromso’s museum of the Arctic, with it’s exhibit on life in Svalbard, our next port. Perhaps next time? Because of the uncertainty of the weather cooperating, and unsure of the exact route to follow, we chose to take the shuttle back to the ship. The return trip was via the overland route, and we were confident that we had made the right decision in taking the shuttle.
Magdalena Fjord/Ny Alesund: This was another of the ports that convinced us to take this cruise. We definitely wanted to go to the North Cape of Europe, but when we saw that this cruise included a stop at Ny Alesund on the island of Spitsbergen, part of the Svalbard archipelago, that sealed the deal. Spitsbergen is the most northerly place on the globe where people live year-round. Spitsbergen, which is located at a latitude of 79 degrees North, was the departure point for many of the more important polar explorations, including those of: Edward Parry; Dr. Fridtjof Nansen; Adm. Stefan Makarov; Robert E. Peary; Ronald Amundsen; Richard Byrd; Lincoln Ellsworth; General Umberto Nobile, and others. At Ny Alesund there was a thriving coal mining operation from about 1916 (although the coal vein was first discovered by whalers in 1612) until a tragic accident in the 1960’s. Today the remaining 60 buildings, situated at about 765 miles from the North Pole, are used primarily for research facilities and their associated infrastructure. There is however, a Post Office, a souvenir/general store, a museum, and even a hotel. There are raised walkways and roads where all traffic is directed due to the fragile nature of the arctic tundra. This area is also a bird sanctuary and arctic terns can be seen nesting almost everywhere, even right next to the roads/walkways. You do not have to look for them, they will fund you and let you know that you are encroaching upon their space. A hat is an extremely good idea, as is carrying a stick which you raise if the terns get too territorial; they will usually attack the highest point of their percieved intruder. We did not find them to be much of a danger, more a nuisance, and only a very few were more than slightly aggressive. The only downside to this port visit was that due to wind and sea conditions, and the port authorities only allowing the ship to use one docking berth for the tenders, the tendering operation was painfully slow, despite having five tenders in the w
ater. After about two hours, the port authorities allowed the captain to position the ship closer to the island, and while this shortened the distance of the trip, the one tender berth did not allow for shortening the time of the trip by very much. The result was that we had less time ashore that we would have liked, despite the Captain moving the departure time to later. However, while we were still ashore the Captain began sounding the ship’s horn letting everyone know he was going to depart at the revised time and wait no later than that time. Despite the bumps in the road, it was a very worthwhile ‘excursion’. We had been to "Fin del Mundo" (End of the World) at Ushuaia, Argentina, the southern most city in the world, and now to the most northerly place of year-round habitation on the globe.
Honningsvag: This was the only other port where we had pre-booked an excursion. We booked a tour to the North Cape, acclaimed as the northern most point on the European Continent, although we learned that the acclamation is not undisputed. Knivskjelodden, which is about 9 km away is technically further north than the marker at the North Cape Hall. We figured it was not worth splitting hairs since we had been to Svalbard two days earlier. This far North, the midnight sun shines from mid-May until the end of July. Of course, the midnight sun was only a rumor this morning; rain and fog were the predominate weather characteristics. However, we had an early morning tour booked, so off we trudged. By the time the bus was heading out of town the ground fog had begun to lift, but the rain continued. On our trip north, the rain became intermittent and the fog was only seen at the upper reaches of the mountains. By the time we had traversed the long winding road to the upper plateau of the North Cape, both rain and fog were gone, but the sky remained overcast. Our driver slowed/stopped a few times to allow passengers to take photos of groups of reindeer grazing with their owners’ initials/symbols spray painted on their sides. By the time we reached the North Cape Hall, the weather had improved significantly. We viewed the video explaining the history of the area and then set out to explore. There are a number of exhibits relating to the history along the tunnel through the mountain leading to the Grotten Bar, including a hewn out chapel. The Grotten Bar is a large event venue which could accommodate 300-400 (our estimate), which , by way of floor to ceiling windows and a doorway opens out onto a large outdoor deck-type area that overlooks the cliffs, called the Royal Box. Once back above ground on the plateau, there are walking areas to allow for closer looks at the cliffs and the Arctic Ocean 1,000 feet below. There is also a large metal sculpture representing a globe that seems to require visitors to climb its base to pose for that "once in a lifetime" photo opportunity. Of course we did! There is also a sculpture "Verdens Barn (the Children of the World)" dedicated to Peace which has six discs, each of which were designed by children from different countries around the world; these discs are being viewed by a woman and a child. The statements on each disc is simple and yet touching. Based on other reviews we had read, we were expecting that the weather could be very cool, windy, rainy, and possibly foggy. Fortunately, it was not any of these. Of course, there is also a very large souvenir shop at the North Cape Hall, with its own post office. Once back in town there is little to occupy one’s time, just a few tourist type stores and a number of stores providing the necessities for the local inhabitants, and a few restaurants. The tourist type stores are mainly located in the area of the ferry dock, a couple of blocks from the cruise ship pier. This was one stop we had been anxiously awaiting, and we were not disappointed.
Geiranger: This was another port where it is most advantageous to be out on a balcony, or open deck, while traversing the fjord heading into the anchorage area. The scenery is well worth the effort, even though you will travel the same route on the way out of the fjord. By way of personal observation, it seemed the better viewing was on the port side heading into the fjord and starboard leaving the fjord (that would place you on the side of the seven sisters waterfall). We were scheduled to arrive in Geiranger earlier in the cruise, but on our first day, we were advised of a change in itinerary. The main road into the town was closed due to the danger of avalanches. Fortunately, they were able to remove the threat via induced/controlled slides, and re-open the road. Geiranger is another tender port; hopefully things will flow smoother than at Ny Alesund. Happily, the tendering operation worked well, except that everyone could not be in the first tender. We had not booked any excursions, so we were in no hurry. We picked up our tender tickets and waited on deck until our number was called (about twenty minutes. While tendering did not pose problems for those on excursions, a "computer glitch" did . Apparently Princess’ computer was telling the tour department that there were 251 people booked for the bus tour to the top of Mt. Dalsnibba, when there were really five hundred, and they only had capacity for about three hundred. It was too late to get more busses on site and many passengers were told "We’re sorry", even some who had booked well before the cruise. This made for quite a few ‘unhappy campers’, despite the tour department’s apologies and complimentary bottles of wine, in addition to a refund of the cost of the tour. The weather was spectacular! Skies were cloudless, allowing for full sunlight and air temperatures in low 70’s. We walked up the rather steep hillside road to a small local church and then up to the Fjord Center and Museum. One of the guides at the museum store told us that this was the best weather day that they had seen since April. We then walked back down the hill to the main part of town and did a bit of shopping and stopped for ice cream. Standing in the warm sunshine it was hard to believe that just four days earlier, the road was closed for fear of avalanches, although snow was quite visible on the higher mountain elevations.
Bergen: Our last port of call and another spectacular weather day; sunny cloudless skies and mild temperatures starting in mid 50’s to about 70 degrees. The weather is worth noting since Bergen typically has rain 300 days a year. The walk from cruise terminal to the fish market at Torget is about 15 minutes, at a leisurely tourist pace, if one doesn’t stop at one or more of the interesting shops/attractions along the way. We again had no excursions booked, but did want to ride the funicular up/down Mt. .Floyen, so we headed directly there. We were seconds too late to make the train that was in the station when we arrived, so we had about a ten minute wait. The views from the area surrounding the upper station are quite magnificent. Also at the top there is a snack bar, souvenir shop, and a restaurant. On the roof of the overhang above the entrance to the souvenir shop, there is a scale model of the funicular cars which shows where they are in their transit; this would help one decide if they needed to head for the station. If one is not that schedule driven, the cars run about every ten minutes, or thereabouts. When we came down the funicular, the queue waiting to go up stretched back outside the building on to the sidewalk; our estimate was about a 45 to 60 minute wait. We then walked about Torget and through the fish market, and surrounding shops; we even stopped to watch a five feet tall, cello playing, penguin! Then it was on to Bryggen, the restored timbered buildings that are on the UNESCO World Heritage List. While many of these original buildings have been ravaged by fire over the centuries, they have been restored using materials and techniques harkening back to the original specifications, albeit with modern updates, like electricity, and modern plumbing. Wandering the historic back alleyways of this area is quite fascinating and interesting. After a while, Ray who was feeling a bit out of sorts, headed back to the ship while Janet and George went on to explore Hakon’s Hall and the Rosenkrantz Tower, which they enjoyed very much, except for maybe the climb up the very narrow winding stone staircase to the upper reaches of the Tower, although the view was very nice. This being our last stop in Norway, Princess had arranged for Norwegian Tax-free representatives to be on board to process tax refunds for purchases made in Norway, during the cruise. One foggy day at sea was all that remained before our return to Southampton.
Entertainment: This is not an aspect of a cruise that will usually determine whether or not we have a great cruise experience. We attended a couple of the headlined shows and they were very good to exceptional. Beyond the usual production (song and dance) shows, there were comedians, magician/illusionist, and of course the passenger talent show. The music in the various lounges/bars was pretty good, based on our somewhat limited movements beyond Crooner’s lounge, and The Wheelhouse. We did not attend any of the Movies Under The Stars (MUTS), but did walk by a few times and were amazed at how bright the picture was even when there was no sunset for about one half of our cruise days. Each passenger is provided with a personal wireless receiving unit and ear phones for use during day time viewing; these were delivered to your cabin and collected at the end of the cruise. Thankfully, Princess does not subscribe to the "singing/parading waiters" in the Dining Room, under the guise of ‘dinner entertainment’. The lone exception is the traditional parade of the Baked Alaska.
Overall Ambiance: As mentioned earlier, this was our second cruise on the Sea Princess. What we again were able to observe was a crew that was warm and friendly, whether they be Officers, service staff, or deck hands. Everyone would smile and exchange greetings, even if my assumptions are correct, that they did not always understand what was being said, due to language differences. This cruise was different from others we have taken in that the passenger make up was predominately British (about 1300+ of the slightly over 2000 passengers), with approximately 450 U.S., and the rest comprised of small numbers from Canada, Japan, France, Germany, Korea, South Africa, Australia, and a number of other countries. This was actually refreshing in that the Brits seemed to treat dining a bit more formally than the ultra casual affair that dining seems to be evolving into on cruises with a predominately North American passenger clientele. We cannot recall seeing any jeans in the Dining Room on any evening, and saw many men wearing ties almost every evening.
One exception to the usual wanting to please the customer attitude was the Future Cruise Sales Consultant. We mentioned the difference of opinion we had with Princess prior to this cruise over the Shareholder’s Benefit available through Carnival Corporation, parent company of Princess Cruise Lines. Ray stopped by to see Kimberley one day and inquired about a couple of possible future cruises. When the topic if the Shareholder’s Benefit came up, Ray was told that the onboard credit for booking while on a cruise would be deducted from the Shareholder Benefit, as per the policy. Ray stated that he had never encountered that with any of the other Carnival family of cruise lines; Kimberley replied, "We are not Carnival, Princess has its own standards that will never change". We also have standards, and unless they are offering an outstanding unique itinerary, we may not see cruise number three on Princess. There are a number of other cruise lines out there.
Another enjoyable aspect of this cruise was the photography (Did we really say that?). The photographers were extremely professional, one might even say magical, since they managed to make us look good on a few occasions. They were at the gangway at some, but not all, port stops, but were not "in-your-face" to pose. In the dining room, one of them even took time to have folks straighten ties, brush back hair, and was content to wait while we decided what groupings we might want. Since their cameras are now all digital, they perform a quick check and can redo obvious ‘misses’. This is a far cry from the "smile... good bye" rushing one usually sees. Public address announcements were kept to an appreciated minimum.
While Princess is still not our favorite cruise line, we were suitably impressed, in all but one aspect. Good Job !