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Ms Yeo Gek Tiang

Age: 61

Occupation:Retired Education Officer

Number of Cruises: 5

Cruise Line: Princess

Ship: Star Princess

Sailing Date: July 16th, 2006 We

Itinerary: Western Caribbean


We are a sub group of 8 passengers within the bigger party of about 50 Singaporeans who flew about 6000 miles from Singapore to Copenhagen to join the Star Princess in her 10 day cruise to Scandinavia, Russia and Berlin from July 14th to July 26th 2006. Not all the Singaporeans in the group knew each other or were  traveling as a conducted tour although we registered through the same Singapore travel agency. Nevertheless, “Great minds think and act alike” and so many of us chose this itinerary because we wanted to experience the tourist sites and different cultures of the Scandinavian countries and Russia, although a few of the seasoned travelers among us had visited some of these countries by land before. Some of us chose the Princess cruise to try a different cruise line as many in the group had sailed on the Celebrity Millennium to the Mediterranean the previous year.

The Star Princess, launched 4 years ago, is among the newer ships in the Princess fleet, and is the third of a tri, its sister ships being Grand Princess and Golden Princess . It’s a big ship with a passenger capacity of 2600 but surprisingly, in spite of the number, there were enough facilities in the public places and dining rooms to cater to the passengers most of the time.  For example, we were able to get seats in the Princess Theatre or Vista Lounge for the evening entertainment. .

Although there was a fire on board the ship in March 2006, there was nothing to show for the damage suffered, the restoration and repair works having been done to perfection and conformed to greater safety standards. So I believe our cruise which was the second or third cruise after Star Princess’ return to cruising, could not have been safer.

Embarkation and Disembarkation: Credit must be given to the Princess staff for the systematic and efficient handling of luggages during embarkation and disembarkation in Copenhagen. On the whole, the land staff at the port was helpful and efficient. Our small group of 8 was particularly impressed with one staff member, Linda, a cheerful and warm lady who offered us some useful tips on what to do with our time in Copenhagen as we had arrived too early for embarkation, we appreciated the provision of light refreshments and the clean toilets at the reception. We were happy that our luggage was safely delivered outside our staterooms when we boarded the ship later in the afternoon. However, a few of us were chased off by the cold and curt attitude of a service staff who handled the registration regarding our credit card details. This contrasted with the friendly Linda we had met earlier.

The disembarkation procedure on the last day was also efficiently handled as all of our luggage was placed neatly in the tent when we disembarked from the ship. However, we were rather surprised that there was no public call at the stipulated time for disembarkation for the Gold 4 group that morning – although the majority of us took the initiative to disembark on our own without waiting for the PA announcement.

We also had no complaints regarding disembarkation and re-embarkation for all the shore excursions, even for St Petersburg, which, before the cruise, we had heard horror stories of having to wait for long hours and having to bear with long queues. Worse still, we were even told that those who did not book Princess tours for St Petersburg were “threatened” that they would not be allowed to disembark early or could disembark only after the passengers who took Princess organized tours had done so. For the benefit of future cruise passengers, I would like to categorically emphasize that we did not experience such threats or discrimination for the St Petersburg shore excursion. We did book our tour with DenRus a private tour agency that we had found on the Internet. In fact the disembarkation at St Petersburg was swift and smooth, and the directional signs for the Russian Immigration booths were clearly stated. There were three queues for the Princess tours and one for independent or privately arranged tours. We must also give credit to the Russian immigration officers who did not spend too much time checking our passports or finding trouble with our travel documents. This is in line with international moves to encourage tourism among all countries, whether it is by sea, air or land. My one cent’s worth of advice to Whom It May Concern – Please make it simple and easy at immigration check points for bona fide travelers with proper travel documents and more people will want to visit your country! Moreover, tourism money is good money!

I must give this feedback to the Princess management regarding their shore excursion tour guides. Once when were on our own walkabout in Talinn (Estonia), we approached a person carrying a Princess tour placard for directions back to the ship. And we were rather disappointed that he refused to help us although it was very obvious that we were passengers from the Star Princess. One of my group members also overheard a similar incident when a passenger who had joined a private tour in another port (Berlin?) had strayed and lost her group. It seemed that this lady also frantically approached a Princess tour leader who refused to help. Hey what is this? Aren’t we supposed to help one another in times of need as part of the Princess cruise group, if not as part of the greater human race? It is little acts of service and kindness during such desperate situations that will make or break our cruise experience, either in the ship or on shore, a pleasant and memorable one. I hope the Princess management will take note of this feedback and act on it.

Staterooms:

We occupied the Inside Stateroom and were happy with it, as this 10 day itinerary to Scandinavia and Russia had 3 days at sea and at least 6 shore excursions to take,this did not leave us with much time to spend in our cabin. Moreover, when we visited one of the staterooms with a balcony, the area of the two staterooms was the same, except for the balcony. We had wanted to book a stateroom with an ocean view but those that were available to us at the time when we were booking, were those with obstructed views. I think that there should be more staterooms with ocean views without obstruction, this to cater to people like me who want an ocean view but who don't want to spend too much money.

The staterooms were hygienically and well maintained by the room stewards who worked unobtrusively when we were not in our cabins. At least twice a day, the towels were changed and wastepaper bins in our cabins emptied. However, we found the bathrooms too small compared to those in the Celebrity Millennium (which we had cruised in the Mediterranean a year earlier). The walk in wardrobe outside the bathroom was spacious and conveniently located.

Dining:

Like most cruises, food was plentiful and generous. There are at least 10 dining rooms with different atmospheres ranging from upscale such as Sabatini, a Sterling Steakhouse to smart and casual for traditional dining like Amalfi. And of course, the most popular is the Horizon Court which is casual and open 24 hours a day. There is always something to eat, day or night.

Our group of 8 opted for the traditional dining routine at Amalfi. We were pleased with the warm, attentive and friendly service of our head waiter, Evgeni and the assistant waiter, Ovidiu. We were also appreciative that the head waiter, Antonio was visible and came to say hello to us on several occasions. We were rather disappointed that we did not get to meet or see the Captain even on the formal evenings, unlike our previous cruise to Alaska on the Dawn Princess when we got to meet the Captain in person. I believe that it is the small but significant gestures such as when the Captain of a ship makes the effort to meet the majority of his passengers, instead of just members of the Captain’s Circle that makes a cruise more memorable for the passengers.

There was variety in the menu which changed every day except for certain favorite items such as the salads and american cheese cake. The food on the whole was good, sometimes a bit too salty for the health conscious ones in our group. The desserts were tempting and sinful but we got around by sharing so that we got to taste a little of each dessert. We enjoyed the Bomb Alaska on the last evening before disembarkation, in particular the fanfare and parade by the waiters each carrying a Bomb Alaska on a tray at shoulder level before serving.

There were at least two nights featuring a special theme, the Italian night and American night when the dining staff was dressed in costumes and colors to fit the chosen country theme, there was a special menu to match the theme.  I thought the theme chosen could be more related to the countries visited in this cruise, for example, there could be a Danish, Swedish or Russian theme instead.

Of the two alternative restaurants that we patronized, we enjoyed the Sabatini’s Italian multi-course feast and did not mind the US $20 cover charge. The food was really unique, varied and substantial. The service, especially of waitress Ana Maria, was equally commendable. All these together with the many attractive paintings on the walls made it a truly memorable dining experience at Sabatini and I would strongly recommend it to other passengers. We could not say the same of the food or service at Sterling Steakhouse.

Another dining room we enjoyed going to was Portofino where the breakfast and high tea were good. Most of us enjoyed the freshly baked bread and buns as well as the scones and finger sandwiches which were served in generous portions. And the service at Portofino was also attentive and efficient.

We had most of our breakfasts at the Horizon Court where the food stations had good spreads of hot, cold, savory and sweet items which were quickly replenished each time the food was running low. In particular the pastry and fruits were always plentiful. The muffins were one of the best I have tasted. However, it would be a bonus if ice cream could be made available, free of charge during some of the meals in this 24 hour eatery, like in our previous cruise.


Public areas:

Although the ship had more than 2000 passengers, on the whole the public rooms were not overly congested or overflowing with people except for the formal evenings when the Grand Plaza atrium was crowded with formally attired gentlemen and beautifully dressed ladies, many waiting in line to take their formal portraits or pictures.

At other times, the three retail shops and the corridor outside were also crowded with passengers eagerly browsing or selecting bargain items. In spite of our pre-cruise resolution not to be tempted by goods on sale in the shops (including those on shore), we could not resist some of the offers such as Russian dolls, jewelry including amber, specially designed Princess T-shirts and bags. Anyway, the consolation is that resolutions are made to be broken.

We frequented the Princess Theater and the Vista Lounge for many evening entertainment as well as for talks on Shore excursions and to play Bingo. The seats in these showrooms were in attractive colors and very comfortable. Our nightly haunt was also the Atlantis Casino where collectively we (the three sisters) contributed at least three hundred dollars on the jackpot machines. While we are unable to comment on the other casino games, we feel that some of the jackpot machines were rather outdated and could be replaced with the newer models, especially those with the bonus spin feature.

Another favorite room of ours was the Card room where there were adequate tables stocked with many card and board games. There were no mahjong sets which we would like to strongly recommend in view of the increasing number of passengers of Chinese descent who have taken to cruising and who love a game of mahjong once in a while at sea.

There were many other public places in the ship that we passed through but did not really make use of the facilities such as the Library, the Princess Fine Arts Gallery, the unique wedding chapel, and several lounges. Given time we would love to just sit and relax in many of the cozy corners found along the corridors of the ship. At least one person in our group did make use of the Internet Café, although sparingly as the cost for surfing and sending emails can be exorbitant.


Entertainment:

Entertainment on board the Star Princess was varied, often grand and lavish and enjoyable. Most of the evening performances were taken by Princess’ own cast of 22 entertainers plus 25 musicians under its versatile and talented Cruise Director, John Lawrence. Their most entertaining productions were “Words and Music” and “Destination Anywhere”. Two very impressive guest performers during this cruise were Mac Frampton who is very versatile and talented on the piano, along with Philippa Healey, in addition to being just as good on the piano, Philippa also has a powerful and beautiful voice. There were many other great musicians and show biz personalities (like a comedian and illusionist) on board performing in the other lounges and show rooms but we just did not have the time to watch or listen to them. For example, many big screen movies were screened and in the Explorers’ Lounge with its dance floor, many of the energetic and young at heart were dancing away. There was the Skywalkers’s Nightclub at the top of the ship which came alive around 10 pm, we never set foot in this one as we are not the young disco type.

We would like to highly commend Cruise Director John Lawrence for his many informative and expert talks on the shore excursions, especially for his insights into the history and culture of St Petersburg. Actually some of the facts are boring but John Lawrence was able to deliver in such an interesting and passionate way that the facts and stories came alive and thus kept many of us awake, much as we would love to doze off after a full meal or a late night. He is indeed a man of many talents.


Recreation and Fitness facilities:

My husband, with his passion for exercise and running, made full use of the gym and exercise facilities for his morning exercise routine which was not disrupted although he was on vacation. I visited the gym only twice and found the gym adequately equipped and with enough treadmills to go around, even with one or two machines, out of order. I observed that there were daily programs such as conditioning and aerobics workouts as well as yoga and other specialized services, some of which came with a small additional charge.

There is also a small jogging track on the top deck but this track is rather short and interrupted so much so that it's not good for running on. Other sporty activities which we saw but did not make use of or join in included paddle tennis court, virtual golf , shuffleboard, ping pong and a nine-hole putting course.

In terms of water-based facilities, the pool areas included 9 whirlpools, two main but small pools and the Oasis Spa and Pool located at the back of the ship. My sister and I made use of the whirlpool only once and thereafter lay on the deck chairs, which were plentiful and rather underutilized. On that occasion, the wind was very strong and so we rested and relaxed for only a short while.

Another facility which we were aware of but did not make use of was the Spa with its own gym, workout studio, beauty salon and treatment rooms. One reason why we did not avail ourselves to the service was the time factor while the other reason was cost. The spa treatments did not come cheap even with the special offers towards the end of the cruise.

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Tips and Service

Princess recommends a $10 per passenger per day flat service fee that goes to cabin stewards and wait staff. The amount is deducted on a daily basis from the passenger’s account. In a way, this is a convenient practice as it standardizes and simplifies the process of deciding the amount of tips to give.

However, I must comment that on the whole the service on Star Princess was only mediocre, with the exception of the few waiters whom I have commended earlier in this review. When we traveled on the Dawn Princess to Alaska in 2000, we were very impressed with the high standard of service from the cabin stewards and wait staff. Wherever we went -along corridors, in the dining rooms and public areas- we were greeted with cheerful and sincere “Good morning/ afternoon/ evening sir / m’am,” or a simple “Hello” or smile even from the staff who was not serving us directly. We felt so welcomed and important. However, it looks like quality service, courtesy and manners of this standard are things of the past and not to be expected. How sad!


Shore Excursions

The cruise itinerary was interesting and varied. We experienced the diverse cultures, history and geography of seven different countries in this 10 day itinerary. Our group took the following shore excursions:

1. Royal Stockholm – NY1- B (7 hours)
We enjoyed Stockholm where we had the good fortune to be led by Dr Fischer, who is a pastor, very knowledgeable about the inside out of Royal Stockholm. We visited the Gamla Stan – historic Old Town, Royal Palace, Coronation Church, City Hall (Stadshuset) with its famous blue room where the annual banquet honouring the Nobel laureates is held. A nice lunch at the Hilton Hotel was included in this tour which we enjoyed.

2. Helsinki City Highlights – HEL-D (3 hours)

We were not so fortunate in Helsinki where our tour guide was rather indifferent in attitude and spoke in a dull monotonous voice. Nevertheless we covered the Senate Square, Temppeliaukio Rock Church (which was a disappointment after what we had heard about it), the Market Square and the Grand Central Church. Thank goodness it was a half day tour; otherwise we would have to suffer the monotonous and uninteresting voice of this guide. Tour guides can either make or spoil a tour for its guests.

3. 2 Day St Petersburg Tour – by DenRus Travel and Tour company

The highlight of this cruise was, of course, St Petersburg with its fascinating and impressive historical palaces and museums. We thoroughly enjoyed the visit which was organized for us by DenRus, a private and independent travel and tour company specializing in St Petersburg tours. Our customized, comprehensive two day program was expertly and competently conducted by Oksana, an English speaking guide. Our itinerary covered the following:
Day 1
• a Metro ride to see a very beautiful train station with huge crystal columns and chandeliers (can you imagine the grandeur and luxury?);
• Peterhof and a guided tour of the Grand Palace (Russian Versailles)
• Lunch at Tchaikovsky restaurant
• Shopping for amber and jewelry in one of the shops
• Inside visit to the famous Spilled Blood Cathedral
• Peter-and-Paul Fortress and Cathedral
• Boat trip on the Neva and Canals
• Inside visit to St Isaac’s Cathedral – tombs of all the Russian Tsars
• Evening program- Folklore show at Nicholas Palace – traditional dances and music performed by various Russian schools of arts. Ambience of the venue including the hall and seating was rather disappointing
Day 2
• Guided tour of the Catherine Palace of Pushkin
• Shopping for scarves, amber etc
• Lunch at another Russian restaurant, Demidov
• Inside visit and guided tour of the best collections at the Hermitage Museum

Although our visit to the Hermitage was rather rushed and short because of the time factor, (we had to be back in the ship by 5.30 pm before it set sail for the next port) we were shown some of the more significant rooms and displays. In fact, one can spend years browsing and examining the Hermitage treasures. On the whole our group of 21 was happy with the St Petersburg excursions organized by DenRus.

We would like to reassure future tourists from Singapore (and elsewhere) that there is no need to apply for individual Russian visas as DenRus is a government recognized tour agency which is authorized to conduct visa-free tours for cruise passengers, as long as their stay does not exceed 72 hours. Based on our experience and dealings with DenRus, which we found trustworthy, reliable and responsible, we will certainly recommend DenRus to other cruise passengers visiting St Petersburg who prefer to be in smaller groups with their own personalized itineraries.

4. Tallinn, Estonia – free and easy

Our group decided to explore Tallinn on our own. So we disembarked from the ship at 8am and walked towards the Town Hall Square through the Stout Margaret Tower along cobbled streets and narrow sloping alleys. It was not too difficult to find some of the landmarks in Tallinn such as the mansions and guildhalls along Pikk Street, Toompea Castle (seat of parliament), the Dome Church, Swedish church and museums. However there was one landmark that a few of us in our group missed due to the time factor – Dunkri – the Cat’s well. We feel that the time in Tallinn which is such a unique and pretty town with plenty of market stalls and shops to browse in was too short. The ship was only anchored in Tallinn from 8am to 1pm.

5. Gdansk and Sopot (Poland) QYD-J (6.5hrs)

We opted for this excursion which took us to Gdansk for a walking tour of the historic Main Town where we also visited St Mary’s Church. The Main Town was an interesting place which boasts of an array of buildings and monuments. There were many shops selling amber as well as other souvenirs and many cafe's and eaterie's. Please be warned that there are pickpockets and I nearly fell victim to a young gypsy-looking lady who covered one hand with a brown knitted scarf under which her fingers groped for the opening of my satchel which was hung across the front of my body. This happened when I was buying ice cream and she came next to me to carry out her business. When I felt the pressure of her hands on my bag, I turned and looked at her and uttered “This lady is a pick pocket!” She muttered in a foreign language, most probably to deny and then walked away.

While the Main Town is worth visiting, the visit to the so-called resort of Sopot, the “summer capital of Poland” was not worth the effort. There was nothing unique to see except the walk along the long wharf and the beach.

6. Berlin of the 20th century –ZWD-A (12.5 hrs)

We boarded a chartered train for the 3 hour train ride to Berlin. In the non-air conditioned cabins many of us were perspiring in the summer heat. There was nothing scenic nor spectacular to see during the drive through the countryside. However, the narrated city drive in Berlin and some of the historical sites of the 20th century including Checkpoint Charlie (a border crossing), Brandenburg Gate, previously a symbol of division between East (Communist) and West Germany, Reichstag which was the House of Parliament from the German Empire, World War II Memorial with the sculpture by Katha Kallwitz of a mother and her dying son, and the Allied Museum, devoted to the allied preservation in Berlin, were of historical interest to the more academically inclined among us. After the serious part, we were taken to the famed Kurfurstendamm for some shopping. At the risk of being “shot down” by the shopaholics, I feel that there was nothing special to shop so this part of the itinerary could have been omitted and more time given for us to explore some of the historical sites such as Bebelplatz Square and Reichstag. The return train journey back to the ship was more tolerable as it was cooler in the evening.


Overall Comments

On the whole the facilities and logistics of Star Princess were up to expectations. It is a big ship with all the amenities and luxuries to pamper the cruise passengers. Food was plentiful and generous. The bakers in the dining department did a marvelous job of producing yummy, mouth watering pastry, buns, scones and muffins which we thoroughly enjoyed throughout the cruise. If not for the other tempting foods available, many in our group would have lived on the bread and buns alone.

However, service from the crew (including the Captain) on the whole could have been better, friendlier and warmer. For the crew, the start of any cruise could just be another job to service a new horde of passengers but for many of us, it is natural that we would be looking forward to a hassle free and enjoyable vacation of our life time, as most of us have saved and scrounged to make the trip possible. So some pampering and quality service would be welcomed and this would make a difference between an ordinary cruise and a quality Princess-standard cruise.

The cruise itinerary to the various countries was commendable although there could be more time for Tallinn. Some of the itineraries of the shore excursions for example, for Gdansk and Berlin could be improved upon.

Would I recommend this cruise to others? Yes I will, as cruising is fun especially with the right company, right ship and right itinerary. There is always something for us to do on board the ship.

Author’s note
I compiled and wrote this account as a personal record and to share my cruise experience with my family, relatives and friends. The views and comments are therefore entirely my own. I apologize for any errors or conflicting views, if any.

5 August 2006

 

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