By Mary & Vincent Finelli
One week prior to departure, all eyes were on Hurricane Wilma, the strongest storm ever recorded in the Caribbean. At first it was thought Wilma would pass over South Florida on Friday morning the Oct. 21st. However, unfortunately for those living in Cozumel and Cancun, Wilma, a category 5 hurricane, stalled and pounded both of these resort areas for two days. Finally, she made a hairpin turn and headed straight for Florida and the Keys. She was not downgraded to a tropical storm as predicted, but rather on Monday the 24th she crossed over the width of South Florida and struck directly everywhere from Miami north to West Palm Beach, as a Category 2 or 3.
We were lucky, the Star Princess sailed into Ft. Lauderdale on Sunday the 23rd and disembarked her passengers just in time. We embarked at noon (even though our ticket suggested 2:00pm as the optimum embarkation time). We felt with Wilma breathing down our necks, we should anticipate the boarding time, and we were right. Star Princess anticipated sailing time by an hour and a half. We sailed at 3:30pm, since Port Everglades was shutting down for hurricane safety reasons. This cruise was to become an exercise in flexibility; at first most of the passengers were just happy that it was not canceled due to the weather. However, Commodore Cesare Ditel made welcomed itinerary changes; after all, safety comes first! He is the Senior Commander on the Princess Lines and we were delighted to place ourselves in his very capable hands.
Sunday we set sail for Ocho Rios, Jamaica; then Monday at 3:30pm it was announced that our course was changed to San Juan, Puerto Rico. We berthed there at 5:30pm on Tuesday. The new itinerary included St. Thomas USVI, Tortola BVI, and Princess Cays, Bahamas.
Embarkation was speedy and orderly; we had wheelchair assistance from the moment we entered the port terminal straight through to our stateroom on Caribe Deck 10. We were located by the forward lifts (elevators) and had been assigned to the Amalfi Dining Room which was aft, a long walk from our cabin. We immediately went to see the 2nd Maitre D' Vincenzo Petrucci, who kindly changed us to the Portofino Dining Room Midship. We had a table for two by the window.
Excellent. We heard comments about first night dining experiences. With "Personal Choice Dining," it is always better to speak with the Maitre D' when arriving on board, rather than waiting for dinner time and ending up in a crowd of passengers attempting to make changes.
All set, we headed for the Welcome Aboard Buffet. It was ample and delicious, but a bit rushed for some, since the Boat Drill had been moved up an hour earlier to accommodate early sailing. We started our cruise with Hurricane Wilma nipping at our heels. We learned that the hurricane eye passed directly over our home in Boca Raton, FL and did major redecorating of our trees and landscaping while blowing out our pool screen structure. We saw the devastation in Ft. Lauderdale on our way home. High rises in both Miami and Ft. Lauderdale had most of their windows blown out and South Floridians would remain without electricity and traffic lights for weeks. Miami was closed to non residents for over one week. Nature's fury was evident all around.
The Star Princess is one of four of the Grand Class Ships: The Grand Princess, the Golden Princess, and the Sapphire Princess are her sister ships. The bronze plaque on board the Star states she was built in the Fincantieri Monfalcone Shipyard, Cantieri Navali, Italy. She is hull #6051 launched in 2002 at a cost of $450 million, and she is exquisite. Her length is 951 feet; beam is 159 feet including the bridge wing; her tonnage is 109,000 and her draft only 26 feet. Her maximum speed is 24 knots and she has Bermuda registry. The Star has 18 decks, 1,301 cabins and eighty percent of her outside cabins have balconies. She has 28 wheelchair accessible cabins (18 outside, 10 inside). There were 2,800 passengers on board with a crew of 1,200 which is a great passenger to crew ratio. Her crew is listed as British and Italian reflecting the origins of Princess--the merger of Sitmar Italian Line and P&O British lines.
Star Princess has the same elegant all white exterior of her sister ships. There are four swimming pools and nine whirlpool spas; there are three main dining rooms: the Amalfi, the Capri and the Portofino (all in the same lustrous maple wood paneling with brass and etched glass wall sconces. The ceilings are studded with tiny twinkling star lights. There are gold gilt ceiling moldings, elegant draperies of blue and gold and all table linens are the lovely "Fili d'Oro." There are seven other dining venues including the Horizon Court Buffet (24 hour service) Tequila's (southwestern style with reservations and a nominal charge) Sabatini's Trattoria (fine upscale Italian dining, reservations required and a nominal fee) and Prego's Poolside Pizzeria and the Trident Grille.
The Star Princess, like her sister ships, is easily spotted in port or on the seas, due to the unique rear "spoiler" high over her stern, which houses the Skywalkers Night Club (deck 17) accessible by a moving walkway (Skywalk). This vision of space has a raised dance floor and lots of chrome trim. The ceiling is starred and the carpeting has planets comets and asteroids. From up here in the daytime, cruisers can look down on the Sports Deck and the ocean.
Gala Deck 4 has the medical center.
Plaza Deck 5 forward has a Laundromat and cabins. Midship are the Art Gallery, Reception and Tour offices, the Lobby Bar, Library and Card Room and on board shops. Toward aft is the Capri Dining Room and the Galley.
Fiesta Deck 6 forward is the Princess Theater (with stairs to the theater), Shooters Bar, the Video Arcade, the Grand Casino, the Reception Desk, Boutiques and the Portofino Dining Room, the Galley and the Amalfi Dining Room aft.
Promenade Deck 7 forward is the Princess theater balcony with wheelchair access ramps and the last three rows reserved for passengers with limited mobility. The last row had room for wheelchairs and seats for companions. Excellent! When going toward midship there is the Promenade Bar, the Internet Cafe, Tequila's alternative dining, the lovely wedding chapel and the Boutiques. These venues are arranged along a serpentine corridor. Toward aft is the Explorers Showroom, the Wheelhouse Bar, Sabatini's Trattoria and the Photo Shop (there is excellent photography on board with formal and black and white sittings available). All the way aft is the Vista Lounge with an intimate design and stage. All seats here have a great view of the stage.
Emerald Deck 8, Dolphin Deck 9, Caribe Deck 10, Baja Deck 11 and Aloha Deck 12 are all staterooms and there are Laundromats on every deck.
Lido Deck 14 has staterooms forward. Toward midship are Neptune's Reef and pool area, Mermaid's Tail Bar, Prego Pizza, Trident Grill and the Conservatory. Midship are the Calypso Reef and Pool. Aft are the Horizon Food Court & Terrace and the Outrigger Bar.
Sun Deck 15 forward has the Gymnasium with many types of exercise machines, the Oriental Lotus Spa and Current Pool. Here Vincent enjoyed the whirlpool and Mary the current pool, whose temperature was perfect! This area is decorated with an Asian theme with murals, a statue in lotus position and a huge gong resembling a bell. It is very beautiful especially in the morning. Midship are the Tradewinds Bar and Princess Links with Putting Green and Golf Course Simulator. Aft is the Fun Zone and Off Limits the teen area.
Sports Deck 16 forward is Center Court, the Jogging Track and the top deck of Fun Zone and Off Limits.
Sky Deck 17 is the Skywalkers Night Club suspended high above the ship.
This ship has very simple, clean lines of design and lovely unique art work. There is interesting original art work in every stairwell, but the ship itself is a design jewel or STAR.
Here is where Star Princess shines. The service under Passenger Services Director Gianfranco Sampiero is excellent. The ship is in pristine condition and her crew is on its toes. We were impressed by Executive Chef Mario Rotti and his exquisite dishes. The Senior Maitre D' Mario Propato is assisted by three other Maitre D's. In the Amalfi was Vincenzo, and in the Capri was Roberto and in the Portofino, where we dined, was Rodel De Leon. These accomplished men kept the dining room staff humming. Assistant Maitre D' Antonio Mesquita, our Waiter Jon Dumitrescu and his assistant Preecha Homsombath made sure that everything was perfect. The service was impeccable. The meals were always nicely paced each evening. Food temperature was perfect. All items were varied, innovative, fresh and plated to please the eye and the palate.
We had each morning Continental breakfast in our stateroom: juice, coffee, tea, milk, cold cereals, rolls, Danish and croissants. It was always on time and served by the crew in their formal white "Bell Hop" jackets.
Lunch was always available in the Dining Room or the Buffet on Deck 14. At lunch we were served wonderfully by Jansud Thammarat, Jindapong Niwat and their assistant Aji. We like the Dining Room best with appetizers like Roast Beef Andalouse (Spanish Style), Fried Calamari, Vitello Tonnato (thinly sliced veal with tuna sauce and capers), Bresaola (air cured beef with arugula and sliced Parmesan cheese, broiled mushroom and eggplant, etc.. Soups included hot ones like minestrone, French onion, cream of mushroom or asparagus, split pea, chicken broth with matzo balls, and cold ones like gaspacho. Salads were varied and included iceberg, Romaine, endive, and watercress etc. and were combined with fruits and nuts. Everyday the noon menu had two pasta selections such as the following: spaghetti aglio olio and peperoncino; lasagna; fusilli with tomato and eggplant; rigatoni carbonara (with eggs, bacon, and cream sauce). Entrees included Salad Nicoise, chili, Chicken Oriental, Blintzes, fish and chips, Cobb Salad and London Mixed Grill (beef, lamb, and English banger), Red snapper, and Savory Short Ribs. Desserts were terrific cakes, pies, ice cream, yogurts and sherbets, all made fresh on board, plus fresh fruits and cheese plates of famous international varieties (Edam, Brie, Ricotta, Parmigiano,
Dinner was the same as above only more irresistible dishes. Chef Rotti definitely believes in variety and each evening in the Portofino was a feast. We have to mention the table for twelve next to ours was the Oldani Family Reunion: The rightfully proud mother was radiant every night seated at the head of her beautiful family. As our three year old grandson Nicolas says when the family is all together "It's just like a party!" Mrs. Oldani-Asensio celebrated all week with her four sons and daughter and their spouses. They even had their own Captain USN, so it was dinner with the Captain every night!
A typical dinner menu had at least twenty selections, not including the Dessert Menu which usually had upwards of ten offerings. Appetizers included Lobster Terrine, Antipasti of Prosciutto and Cantaloupe, Shrimp Cocktail (always available) and Eggplant Parmigiana, etc. Soups were the classics bisques, onion etc., plus cold fantasies like Pina Colada, cream with rum, etc. Salads were fresh and included radicchio, Boston Bib, baby spinach, watercress and arugula combined with various nuts and fruits.
Entrees had a different unique pasta course each night: i.e., Pasta with lemon chicken and broccoli in a tomato sauce. Unique items like filet of Zander fish, or a lobster turnover demand tasting. Yet, there was also standard holiday fare like Smoked Virginia Ham, Nebraska Prime Rib, Roasted Turkey, Pot Roast with Polenta, Rock Cornish Hen, Roasted Leg of Lamb and Shrimp Fra Diavolo or Boneless Chicken Kiev. Each menu was nicely balanced with an "Always Available" selection: Salmon Filet, Beef Filet, Chicken Breast, Fettuccine Alfredo, or vegetarian and healthy alternatives.
Desserts each evening were so tantalizing, that even when Vincent said no dessert tonight, he failed to stick to it. There were Soufflés, Tiramisu, Pear tart, Creme Brulees, Yam Pie, Black Forest Torte, a Duet of White and Dark Chocolate Mousses, Ice cream Bombes, Cheesecakes, and not to mention Swan Puffs swimming on a chocolate lake.
The only way to survive a culinary cruise like this one is to ask for appetizer portions, we did, and it was wonderful to sample so many delicacies. We also dined at Sabatini's Trattoria where "pranzo" Italian dinner is served with impeccable style. Food and Beverage Manager David Montes is in charge with Asst. Maitre D' Roberto Casula. Our two waiters were Gabriel Albu and Francesco Szeasz, both of whom spoke Italian to Vincent. Excellent! Pizzaiolo Demetrio Sobremonte especially makes and bakes focaccia and individual pizzas and garlic breads. They are wonderful and made to the patron's taste. When we asked for extra crispy, Demetrios responded "A La Commodore Cesare." A meal in Sabatini's is an event: three hours of twenty or so courses, music and endless attention. It truly brings Italian food and service on board to the zenith. The meal begins with an endless series of appetizers including Caviar, and deep fried Camembert cheese; then, a medley of pastas including Spaghetti and Vongole, Cannelloni and the lightest Ricotta Gnocchi ever. Chef Rotti's specially prepared Lucullus was superb (pasta and mozzarella sealed in a packet of eggplant and baked). Entrees are excellent, Mary had the Lobster Tails and Vincent the Sea Scallops. The dinner ended with limoncello, a Neapolitan liquor made on board with lemons. This dinner could be called "Sapori d'Italia" (flavors of Italy), an excellent gourmet tour of Italy!
Stateroom C304 on Deck 10 Caribe is wheelchair accessible. When entering on the left is a huge bathroom with safety rails all around and an oversized 5'x5' shower. There is a single sink with a triple mirror with shelves for toiletries. Then there is a double bed flanked by two bureaus (six drawers in each and reading lamps). The far wall is all floor to ceiling windows to the large 10'x16' balcony, which held two chairs, two chaises a foot stool and a small table. When entering on the right there is a wide foyer, a triple armoire with hangers and shelves and a personal mini safe. Next, there is a mini bar, small refrigerator, and a TV. There is a large desk/vanity with three large drawers and a thin paper drawer and a hair dryer. The room also has a coffee table and two upholstered barrel chairs. The colors are restful and our Steward Miguel Pineda was terrific.
Cruise Director Tim Donovan is an engaging MC for the week's many activities: quiz and game shows, dance classes, Pilates, Yoga, port lectures, Scholarship at Sea Program, galley tour and a cooking show (which was a hilarious comedy involving the Chefs, Maitre D's and the audience) pottery classes, etc. There is something for all, but one may just stroll on the Promenade, sit in a deck chair and watch the sea or read a book. The Las Vegas Style shows each evening were very entertaining. The Princess Fun Zone has three categories: Princess Pelicans ages 3 to 7 yrs. (enroll from morning to night if you like); Princess Pirateers ages 8 to 12 yrs., with activities such as arts and crafts, sports tournaments, ship board Olympics, Scavenger Hunts, and "Edutainment"); The Off Limits, for ages 13 to 17 yrs., has a teen center with video games, movies, giant screen TV, ping pong, and jukeboxes. There are Teen Only Disco and Dinner Parties, Sports Tournaments and Shipboard Olympics. We have noticed on cruises that the youngsters, like the adults, soon find each other and have a great time.
PORTS OF CALL
Day 1. Ft. Lauderdale Depart 3:30pm
Day 2. At Sea
Day 3. San Juan, Puerto Rico Arrive 5:30pm Depart Midnight
Day 4. St. Thomas, USVI Arrive 7:30am Depart 5:30pm
Day 5. Tortola, BVI Arrive 7:15am Depart 5:50pm
--We had an excellent tour of Tortola by bus. We enjoyed spectacular views of the island's high peaks and beautiful crystal clear waters and beaches. Some of the ride had elements of a roller coaster. This Island is the play ground of the rich and famous like Virgin Airlines owner Brandson, Oprah Winfrey and Bill Cosby, etc. There is great wealth here and abject poverty living side by side.
Day 6. At Sea
Day 7. Princess Cays, Bahamas
--We sailed near Princess Cays where the ship had planned a barbecue, shore, and water fun, but unfortunately the sea was too rough to tender ashore safely, so the stop was canceled. Thus the day was spent on board with great fun and of course more casino and shopping time.
Day 8. Ft. Lauderdale Arrive 6:30am
The Port Everglades we returned to was vastly different than the one we sailed out of just one week before. Hurricane Wilma had left her mark every where.
Princess does not rush passengers out of their stateroom or off the ship. Passengers are advised to wait in their staterooms or in the public lounges, and not in the gangway area, until their luggage tag colors are called, so that an orderly exit can be achieved. However, as usual some passengers do not comply. We hated to say good-bye to our new friends and especially our old one: PSD Gianfranco Sampiero. We had wheelchair assistance from our stateroom through passport check and customs right out to the curb. No problem.
The change of the itinerary did not affect our enjoyment of this cruise, even though we heard some people
express their disappointment when the Commodore announced it from the bridge. We have cruised many times in the Caribbean, so it does not matter which ports we visit. We now cruise for the enjoyment of the ship, service, and, most of all, the delicious cuisine, which on Princess ships is one of the best at sea. Moreover, for us cruising is resting and relaxation, which we had plenty this time, escaping the daily routines of our life on land and, in this case, getting away from the fury of hurricane Wilma. When we returned home, we were happy to hear that the electricity had just been restored the evening before. How lucky can you get?
Gratuities are automatically charged to your sea pass card, unlike some other lines where you must sign a request. There was a mix-up and gratuities were not charged. Vincent noticed the error when our final account statement arrived and the lovely Jr. Asst. Purser Yolanda Mills Rosati made the adjustment. It is very important to check your final statement for discrepancies. The hard working staff deserves proper recompense!
While on board, we have booked another future cruise on Princess, yet to be determined. Our next cruises are on the Navigator of the Seas, Dec. 3rd, on the Costa Magica, Jan. 8th, and on the Carnival Liberty, Jan. 29th. By then we'll have planned a few more cruises for the Spring/Summer 2006, and in the autumn we'll cruise on the new behemoth Freedom of the Seas.