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Floyd Russak MD

Age: 48


Number of Cruises: 8

Cruise Line: Princess

Ship: Royal Princess

Sailing Date: June 2nd, 2003

Itinerary: Western Europe

Travel to London
We traveled from Denver to Gatwick via Cincinatti on Delta. Nice flights with good service but Gatwick is not as convenient as Heathrow to either downtown London or Southampton, where the boat leaves from. We generally dislike using grossly overpriced ship transfer buses, especially in London where the trains, and even taxis, are much faster than the buses.

We spent our first night in London enjoying the sights, and trying to stay awake so we could adjust to the 7-hour time change. London is a great city, though very expensive (even more so than New York) and we had to work hard in advance to find reasonable accomodations. The best deals were from which books many hotels’ remaining inventory 3 weeks before your date of travel. We found a nice family suite (London hotels virtually never allow you to put more than 2 people in a standard room, even if they are small children) in a 3-star hotel (the Queens Park) for $105 which was 70% of the usual rate. The Gatwick Express is a nice train which runs every 15 minutes from Gatwick for about 12 pounds (1/2 price for kids 5-16 and free for kids under 5), but be sure to arrive 10-15 minutes early or you will not get a seat. It takes about 45 minutes to Victoria Station, less than ½ the time of a bus. London was wonderful, and we enjoyed Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, a pub lunch, making brass rubbings at St. Martins-in-the-Field, and a double decker bus tour and just hanging out in Trafalgar Square and Picadilly Circus, both fun for the kids.

To Southwick
Southwick is about 150 miles Southwest of London, so the easiest and quickest way to get there was on the train, which left every 15 minutes from Waterloo station to Southwick Central. From Southwick Central it was an easy 2 mile, 3 pound taxi ride to the ship. Southwick is a rather ugly city, and I would not consider spending any time there.

As usual with Princess, the embarkation was a breeze, with no lines and taking only minutes with courteous and helpful staff. The British are very efficient and the Southampton terminal was used to handling large numbers of people. This was the pier from which the Titanic sailed. We had a brass band sendoff, something that was repeated at several of the ports.

The Ship
The Royal Princess was the smallest of the 7 ships we have been on and it was a joy. Since it has a varied itinerary, it attracts top-notch crew, and slightly older, more experienced passengers. One woman had actually been living on the ship, using it as her full-time home for almost 5 years! The crew-to-passenger ratio was almost 1:2. Although the ship is pushing 20 years of age, it looks almost as good as the newer ships; in some ways it was more classy, with all teak decks and larger windows than usual. Porcelain in the sinks and tubs was slightly chipped, though, and the elevators looked and felt very old. All of the common areas, with the exception of the pool, gym/spa and Lido Cafe, are on the 2nd and 3rd floors, making it very easy to get around and find places. The fourth floor had a nice teak promenade deck going all the way around the ship, something often missing on newer ships. Would therefore avoid 4th floor cabins if you value privacy out your window. Bathrooms were large, but could use a shelf under the sink. There are no inside cabins. We had a partially obstructed view cabin, which really was fine as we still had a much better view than on most ships, due to the large window. The lifeboats blocked only the top of the window on our 5th floor (more on the 6th floor). There was great closet space, but only 8 tiny drawers. One of the beds folds into the wall in the daytime (if you wish) making the room feel larger. The young captain, Nick Nash, was very friendly and informative, especially when we docked in his home port of Falmouth. He always did a great job of explaining what he was doing and why; it was fun to watch the ship offloading its pilot at each port.

The gym was great, almost as big as the one on the Grand Princess, for 40% the number of people, so it was never crowded. It had new, top of the line Cybex equipment and plenty of good treadmills, bicycles and stair-steppers. There was no pushy spa staff, but anything you wanted was available. The gym had fantastic 180 degree views around the front of the ship.

The ship had lots of very small swimming pools (about 5), but only one jacuzzi on the Lido Deck and one in the spa. One pool was a small lap pool. There were plenty of chaises and chairs, and it was never hard to find one. The bar staff were always there if you needed them but never pushed the drinks. The all you can stand soft-drink sticker is a good deal at $25 including tip for the almost 2 week cruise, especially if you have kids.

The ship has the nicest, largest library I have ever seen on a ship, and the books can be checked out (honor system) 24 hours a day. The library includes an internet center (steep at $30 an hour) and also the Captain’s Circle and Future Cruise Desks. The Riviera Lounge on the back of the ship was one of the only bars, and there was an infrequently used disco at the top rear of the ship.

The very large game room was well stocked with games and always seemed to be full of bridge and mah-jong players.

Princess seems to have it right with only 2 shipboard announcements a day, and not in the rooms. I felt uninformed on Celebrity with no announcements, and Carnival drives you crazy with the cruise director squawking 30 times a day.

There is only one large very elegant dining room. For some reason, 2nd seating is very unpopular, even though it was much better on this cruise, since most of the port stops went until 6 or 7 o’clock. By choosing 2nd seating, we were able to get a fantastic table for 4 in the back right by the window. The food was the best of any cruise I have been on, one notch below top restaurants in a large city. The service was definitely tops, and, unlike other ships, the head waiters here get very involved in giving you an excellent experience. Ask for Jose from Portugal; he was fantastic and has been on the ship for many years. The Maitre’d had been on the ship for decades and was married to one of his American passengers. Wine selections were excellent and reasonably priced and the ship had a nice wine tasting which was a bargain at $5 per person (free if you had cruised with Princess before).

The production shows were of top quality, whether Las Vegas or Broadway style, and the staff did amazingly well despite a stage fairly devoid of modern technical advancements. One of the lead singers had just left as the lead in Phantom of the Opera in LA. All the dancers were excellent, often of Broadway quality, though, as is often the case on Princess, some were a little chubby.

The individual shows were good to very good, especially the Scottish and Irish comedians.
There are few columns blocking your view in the International Theatre, but because it is all on one level with little slope, sight lines can be poor. All seats in the lounge were comfortable, and the staff were readily available with drinks, though they did not push them.

An interesting cruise - we felt that each port was a little better than the last. There were only 2 days at sea, both right near the beginning of the cruise, making it a little hectic toward the end. The ship usually was in port about 7am to 7pm, so you could do a fair amount. However, I would have preferred fewer ports and 2 days at each stop.

Bilbao, Spain
This large city in the Basque country looks similar to any other large city, and is not as pretty as Madrid, Barcelona, or Cordoba. It does have, however, the fantastic new Guggenheim Museum which is definitely worth seeing if you like modern art. Skip the shuttle bus, which only takes you to a bleak train station in the middle of nowhere and spring for a taxi (about $10) into town. The Basque Museum in the old quarter is supposed to be great, but was closed from 1 to 5, so plan your day around it. The Guggenheim is open all day.

Le Verdun, France
We were excited to be going here, as we had reservations at Chateaux Laffite Rothschild for a tour and tasting. Unfortunately, the ship docks in the middle of nowhere, so there was no way to get there, except to pay $300 for a taxi. This is one port where you may want to consider shore excursions. The ship did offer a $4pp shuttle to a little beach town called Soulac-Sur-Mer, which was quaint and pretty, and we spent the day there. The water was about 60 degrees Fahrenheit, making for a brisk swim.

Greenock, Scotland
This port is about 35 miles from Glasgow and about 90 miles from (more interesting) Edinburgh. Skip the ship’s train station shuttle and take a taxi to the train station (cheaper and much nicer), but plan for the trains to Glasgow and Edinburgh which only run about once an hour. Glasgow is a somewhat grimy city, but the people are very friendly and the accents are fun. Take the double decker bus tour which you can pick up (every 10-15 minutes) right in front of the Central Train Station where you are dropped off. For about $12 you can ride all day getting off if anything interests you. If you have kids, the People’s Palace and great Science Museum are fun stops. We ate lunch at a fancy restaurant called Roganos, which served Winston Churchill; the food was great but good meals in Europe generally take 3 hours - too much time to spend if you just have one day. I recommend eating in the pubs or cafes at all the ports.

Dublin, Ireland
Dublin was a surprise. The ship docks very near town, but unfortunately there was a taxi strike, so we took the ship’s shuttle ($4pp) into town. Despite it being a city of 2 million, it was friendly and fun. We again did the double-decker bus tour ($12 for all you can stand including on-off and you get a discount if you show your ticket from another city). We went to Trinity College and saw the Book of Kells (overrated) and enjoyed Irish stew in a 13th century (!) pub. Christ Church and Saint Patrick’s Cathedral were very interesting, and we learned a lot of history. The kids were bored, though, so we spent the afternoon at the Dublin Zoo.

Cork (actually Cobh Island {pronounced Cove}), Ireland
This was a port where you definitely should rent a car, although you have to keep reminding yourself to drive on the “wrong” side of the road. We used Great Island Rentals right at the ship’s gangway. They charge 35-70 euros a day for a nice car (lower price if you reserve in advance which we unfortunately did not do). A fun little river ferry takes you from the island to Cork, saving an hour on the shuttle/train. Not much to see in Cork but nice to drive around on your way to Blarney Castle, which takes about 30 minutes to get to. Blarney Castle is great. Although it is partly ruined, you can wander around and feel the history of all the rooms. The obligatory kissing of the stone is fun; after climbing to the top of the castle, you lie on your back and hang upside down over the edge while holding onto some bars - scary if you’re afraid of heights (be sure to tip the helper before kissing it if you want him to hold your legs). The grounds around the castle are among the most beautiful I have ever seen. The Woolen Mill nearby is a fun place to shop and the town of Blarney (only one block) is great to wander around.

From Blarney, we took an easy, beautiful drive (45 minutes through the country) to Kinsale, a truly beautiful town with lovely shops, antique stores and pubs all within a few city blocks. Come back to the ship an hour early to enjoy the new and interesting museum, right at the ship’s pier. The Titanic and Lusitania stopped here at Cobh after leaving Southampton (the last stop for both before meeting their fates - well chronicled in the museum.

Falmouth, Cornwall, England
A beautiful town full of lovely second homes for rich Brits with one of the largest, deepest, and most beautiful harbors in the world. The harbor is protected by Pendennis Castle, built by Henry VIII, which can be visited and is fairly interesting. The town offers to the cruise passengers a free shuttle right at the ship, which goes “the long way” into town showing you all the beautiful sights. Rent a car at Hertz (about $50 and they will pick you up and drop you off at the ship) or take one of the ship’s tours going either west to Penzance and Land’s End or east to the pretty little town of Polperro.

Le Havre, France
Options here include a 3-hour bus or train ride to Paris, but we chose to drive (you could also taxi for about $40) to the town of Honfleur, right across the Seine on a beautiful bridge. It was one of the loveliest towns I have ever seen. Even if you are not a great music fan, do not miss the whimsical Erik Satie (the famous pianist composer; you will recognize his songs) Museum.

In the afternoon we drove 30 minutes north to Fecamps (home of the Benedectine monastery and liqueur) and Etretat, a lovely town nestled between 2 huge cliffs with arches similar to those in Cabo San Lucas. If I had it to do over again, I would have done ships tours to Honfleur and Etretat, as the Hertz people did not speak English and we got lost several times trying to return the car.

Rotterdam, Holland
Here we docked right in the city next to the spectacular Erasmus bridge after traveling several miles up the Niew West River. Rotterdam is a very industrial city with little to see except for a good Maritime museum. We had wanted to take the train to Amsterdam (about an hour) but work was being done on the tracks and the trains were delayed. You have to go on your own if you want to see the Anne Frank House, as they do not admit tours. We rented a car (again at Hertz, arranged in advance; we thus paid less than ½ of what people who walked up paid) right near the ship’s shuttle bus stop in town, but were too nervous to battle traffic around Amsterdam, so we drove to the lovely town of Delft (absolutely gorgeous) and then on to Gouda (home of the famous cheese, but not much to see). Renting a car here was easy, fun and cheap (about $30), but the ship’s tour to Delft, might be easier and cheaper if you are only one or two people.

Zeebrugge, Belgium
Unfortunately, we arrived on a Sunday, so the taxi companies were all charging double rates ($30-40 each way instead of $15-20), to get to Bruges (pronounced brew-heh in the local Flemish or Brewzsh in the French). Again, the ship docked in the middle of nowhere (no rental cars and the ship’s shuttle took you to a train station with trains to Bruges only every hour; I only recommend the taxi or the ship’s “Bruges on your own”; this is a town to explore on foot, canal boat (only 5 Euros for 30 minutes), or horse drawn carriage (only 25 euros for 45 minutes). Negotiate your taxi fare in advance, as they often don’t use the meter. Don’t try to talk French to the local Flemish natives; they find it offensive, as they dislike the French “Walloons” who live in the southern part of their country. Everyone in Belgium speaks fluent English, as it is required in the schools.

Bruges was the most beautiful Gothic town I have ever seen. All the buildings from 1100 to 1600 A.D. are perfectly preserved. Be sure to try the great waffles, frites (french fries - they were invented here), and chocolate.

Taxis can be hard to find in Bruges. To return to the ship, step into any 4-star hotel and order a drink and ask them to call you a taxi. It will be there in a few minutes with no extra charge.

Again, incredibly smooth and simple, with no waits, lines, or customs/immigration. Since our flight was in the morning, we had reserved a private station wagon (for 75 pounds) to Gatwick from ATS Taxi. However, he never showed, so we took a public taxi (115 pounds). Heathrow is 1/3 closer and cheaper, but there is no easy way to get to either airport except by bus or taxi.

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