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Copyright 1995-2003 
Linda Coffman


GRAND PRINCESS
Eastern & Western Caribbean
Back-to-Back in GRAND Style
August 31-September 14, 2003

Grand Princess Cruise ReviewBy Robert Downie

Captain - Giuseppe Romano
Cruise Director - Neil Roberts
Executive Chef - Joachim Grill
Maitre d'Hotel - Elia Toninin

We booked this back-to-back cruise because we could sail both the routes that the Princess Grand-class ships sail in the Caribbean back-to-back. This can normally only be accomplished through sailing the Golden Princess Eastern Caribbean cruise, spending a Saturday night in Ft. Lauderdale, then embarking the Grand Princess for the Western Caribbean. Due to a very slow season in the Mediterranean, the Grand Princess stayed in Ft. Lauderdale over the summer alternating between eastern and western itineraries with Sunday departures for both directions. We have cruised three times previously, all with Princess. Our last cruise was also on the Grand Princess.

EMBARKATION, CABIN, AND SHIP APPEARANCE
Embarkation was delayed about an hour for reasons that were never explained. We arrived at the pier at about 10:30 AM, and there were still passengers disembarking from the previous cruise. By the time embarkation started at 11:30, there was a line that stretched the length of the terminal, back upon itself, and once again for the length of the terminal in the parking area. Porters relieved passengers waiting in line of their baggage. Fortunately for us, we were about third in line, and had all of our paperwork properly filled in. We had our cruise cards in less than 5 minutes, and were the very first people to board the ship. I spoke to others who said that the line outside moved very quickly and heard no complaints about any embarkation delays.

We had a mid-ship Category AA mini-suite for the two weeks that we were to be on board. These cabins are quite well appointed and have lots of storage space, especially in the huge closet. There is a full-size tub in the bathroom. The vanity area is a little small, and the bathroom gets quite hot with the door closed. The bathroom lights generate a lot of heat and it is often necessary to open the door to maintain a tolerable temperature. One change that many will find nice is that the toiletries provided in the cabin are Lotus Spa products, not the generic items provided on previous cruises. These products all contain eucalyptus and might cause reactions in those with allergies.

There are two television sets, one facing the bed area and one facing the sitting area. There is no way to separate these two areas, which is a bit of a disappointment. You can find a spare electrical outlet behind the televisions, useful for a cell phone, camera, or other devices that need to be recharged. The couch folds out into a single bed. This cabin did not have an upper berth, so if room for a fourth person is needed, be sure to check that an upper berth is available. The balcony had two chairs, two semi-loungers, and a small table that was large enough for two to enjoy breakfast outdoors on port days. The balcony is completely exposed, so everyone above you will see what you are eating and wearing for breakfast. Dress accordingly! Noise from the passageway is occasionally intrusive.

We were privileged to be invited to one of the Grand Suites for cocktails. Unlike the Golden and Star, the two best suites on the Grand are on the Lido deck. They are not quite as large, but are nicely appointed and include a fireplace in the sitting room. The balcony is disappointingly small and has little room with a table, two chairs, and two loungers in place. The best balconies on the ship are in the stern suites. I believe that a Vista suite in the stern is a better value than the penthouse or Grand suites for those who want better digs than a mini-suite provides.

The ship is very well maintained, and the staff works continuously keeping things neat and clean. Our carpet was replaced during the cruise on a port day with absolutely no inconvenience to us. Our cabin steward, Ruben, made sure that we were aware that this was planned and sought our permission before the work started. I also saw that the teak railings were being replaced on Aloha deck balconies. The only sign of wear is all the dents at the base of the cabin entrances where cleaning carts have banged into the doorway areas. Once I noticed them, it really detracted from the appearance of the ship. That was the only thing I could find that was amiss with the ship's appearance.

DINING
The biggest question that I had prior to this cruise was if there would be any noticeable changes to the ship or service since the merger between P&O Princess and Carnival. Our last cruise on the Grand Princess took place just before the merger was approved. The only perceptible change was in the dining room, where there appears to have been some economization in the main course selections. The menu items are the same, and quite well prepared, but portions are slightly smaller than I remembered from our last voyage and the desert selections were not quite as artfully presented. We also had a different Executive Chef, so it is not clear if the changes are a result of corporate policy or the style differences between the two chefs.

We chose traditional dining this trip, late seating. On the second night, we found that we had a different waiter and assistant. When we asked the head waiter for the section why the staff had been changed, he replied that they sometimes shift people from one dining room to another. I thought it was unusual that this would be done after the cruise had departed. It therefore took an extra night for our new waiter and assistant to get to know us, and by the third night they still weren't in sync with us as normally would be expected. We considered going to PC dining, but thankfully didn't because the next night they were in tune with the group and took very good care of us for the rest of the Eastern cruise. 

We later found out that a lady seated in our section, who has nearly 40 cruises on Princess, requested to be moved to one of the other dining rooms, and had taken the waiter and assistant, along with the rest of her table, with her. I thought that this was improper, since it had affected in a small way our dining for a couple of nights while we got to know the new staff. Honoring passenger requests is one thing, but such requests should not measurably affect other passengers. To be fair to the staff, it was a difficult situation for them because this particular person apparently has a lot of pull with Princess at the management level. It was by chance that we met one of the other couples at her table on a shore excursion and discovered the reason for the revolving waitstaff. Our tablemates did not share our opinion that the change should not have taken place, so we did not take our criticism to the head waiter or maitre d'.

Food quality was good to excellent throughout the ship. The Horizon Court buffet provides a good selection of breakfast and lunch items. I particularly enjoyed the International Buffet served in Horizon Court on the final sea day. The only items I suggest avoiding are the sushi, which is very nicely presented but is often dry and does not include any raw items. The tamago (egg) was good and will serve those who desire a sushi fix quite well. Each evening, the dining room menu has a different theme. The menus repeated during the second week. The rotation was changed slightly between the eastern and western legs. The only themed menu that I find lacking is the Italian menu. There is no shrimp scampi, nor could we could convince our waitress to see if such could be prepared in place of the fradiavolo. On this night, the head waiters were preparing pasta all'arabiatta, and we decided against interrupting their efforts to press the issue. The French menu is very good, and features a wonderful escargot appetizer and delicious onion soup. It's a shame that so many decide to use this evening to visit Sabbatini's and Painted Desert. The Maitre d'Hotel's wine selection was excellent. Elia Toninin's recommendations were of high quality and reasonably priced. Of particular interest is the Brunello de Montelcione and Luce, two very good Italian reds. There is also a limited-production Schioppetino that is worth trying, and is a bargain given its quality.

The additional charge to eat at Sabbatini's has increased from 15 to 20 dollars. It is still a good price given the high quality of the food and service. Painted Desert had not yet been converted to a Sterling steakhouse. 

ENTERTAINMENT
Entertainment is still first-class and does not appear to have been subject to any cuts. The slate of comedians had some recognizable performers and relative unknowns. It really isn't fair to judge individual performances by name since it is possible that some had off nights. Personally, I enjoyed all of the shows, but was not in the majority for a couple of them that were geared towards younger and hipper audiences. Neil Roberts is a very energetic and entertaining cruise director, and works very well with his staff.

Over the course of the cruise, we spent a fair amount of time in the casino. Although we cannot claim to be big winners overall, there were some good nights, including hitting a royal flush on a progressive jackpot video poker machine for over 2,000 dollars. The dealers were mostly very friendly, and coin fills were taken care of quickly. 

During the Eastern cruise, a group of us that had gotten together via the internet pooled our resources and bought two wooden horses during the auction. We had a decorating party, took the horses to dinner, shows, the casino, and to the Captain's luncheon where Captain Romano suffered to have his picture taken with our two fillies. One horse came in second, so we got most of our investment back, and the other was voted "best dressed" and won a large prize pack of goodies and cheap sparkling wine. It was a really good way for the group to get together and have some fun during the cruise without taking too much of anyone's time.

CRUISE AND PORTS OF CALL

The first two days of the Eastern leg were sea days. The seas were rough due to the effects of Fabian, so Captain Romano changed course to take the ship south of Puerto Rico and into much calmer waters. Even though the hurricane was never closer than 280 miles from the ship, its effects were quite pronounced. In rough seas, the elevators sometimes stop well away from the deck, and caution was needed to avoid a nasty  first step at times.

Our first stop in St. Thomas included the "Champagne Catamaran" to Honeymoon Beach on St. John. This is an expensive excursion, and worth every penny. The boat used was the Heavenly Days, owned by the Bolongo Beach resort. Captain Peter, and mates Vic and Aaron did an outstanding job. The rum punch, champagne, beer, sodas, and water were available from the time we left until we returned to the dock 8 hours later. A simple but tasty lunch was served after we snorkeled at the beach, with gear and lessons available for those who want to try snorkeling for the first time. Instruction and guiding were thorough. We had lots of time at the beach. As a group, the twenty passengers threatened to try and drink the boat dry on the return trip, which we were invited to attempt. We were informed that many groups had tried, and failed, to complete the task. Everyone had a lot of fun without getting stupid, and this ranks as one of the very best excursions I have ever taken. It is not for those who have extremely limited mobility since getting on and off the boat at the beach can be difficult.

Our excursion in St. Maarten was cancelled due to low participation. After a leisurely morning on board, we took the water taxi to Phillipsburg and went shopping. Immediately upon disembarkation, we were set upon by locals aggressively promoting time-shares, hair-braiding, and car rentals. One local lady gave us scratch cards, and informed my wife that she had won a shopping spree, spa visit, or cash at a new resort. All we had to do was take the "free taxi" to visit the resort and collect our prize. I had visions of getting to the resort and being subjected to a time-share sales presentation, and being held hostage by a high-pressure salesman until we agreed to sign on the dotted line before a return cab would be provided. We ran, not walked, from that encounter and into the first jewelry store, where the first sparkly item of the day was purchased. Overall, we enjoyed shopping in Phillipsburg, but it pays to be persistent on price and shop around. I saved several hundred dollars on a watch by refusing to succumb to heavy sales pressure at one store, and found a better price at another. If you intend to shop for luxury items, do some research beforehand so that you can be sure that the price and quality of those items you intend to purchase are acceptable.

The return trip to Princess Cays from St. Maarten requires that the ship run at 22 knots to maintain the schedule. There was noticeable engine noise and vibration in the Botticelli (traditional) dining room during this part of the cruise. Weather conditions deteriorated on the return trip, making for some rough sailing again, though not nearly as bad as the outbound trip. Conditions for tendering were marginal at Princess Cays, and many people simply remained on the ship. The winds increased during the day. It was not a good beach day though I found the trip in the tenders to be quite fun. Captain Romano positioned the ship so that boarding the tenders could be done with the ship protecting the pontoons from the waves and wind. Most water activities at Princess Cays were cancelled due to sea conditions. We used the afternoon to get our laundry done for the Western leg.

On Saturday, prior to the completion of the eastern leg of the cruise, we were provided with new cruise cards, green "In Transit" cards so we could be easily identified by the authorities on shore, and a thorough list of frequently asked questions. The group that was remaining on board was gathered in the casino, then lead through Immigration by one of the junior pursers. All that was required was that we show our passports to the INS agents and have our new cards activated at the gangway. Stewards took care of moving those who had to change cabins.

Although we had the same table in the Botticelli dining room, we had a new waiter and assistant for the western cruise. Monica and Orsi were a very good team and took care of all the little things like refilling water glasses, pouring wine, and bringing more bread before anyone had need to ask. Monica's recommendations were always spot on. As a group, the entire table frustrated her by refusing to use the word "excellent" until the very last evening. Those two were great servers, and as a group we recommended that Orsi be promoted to waiter although we knew it would break up a good team. Our group at table was quite diverse, with varying cruise experience, and that made for wonderful conversation and enjoyment. We all became very good friends during the cruise.

Our second stop at Princess Cays was much nicer, at least in the morning. We were treated to some impressive thunderstorms in the afternoon, which drenched those who tried to maximize their beach time. The weather stayed clear long enough to do some snorkeling and enjoy a barbeque lunch on the beach. The crew really does a good job with lunch and drink service on shore. 

We sailed to Grand Cayman on almost mirror-smooth water. It was a perfect day to enjoy our balcony even with the ship sailing at 19 knots. We avoided the pool areas during the Western leg due to a higher degree of rowdiness than was evident on the eastern sailing. One of our tablemates described the Western leg as being more like a Carnival cruise than Princess, at least in terms of passenger behavior. It was definitely a younger and more boisterous group of passengers than had been on the Eastern cruise. The ship is large enough that it was easy to find a place where the partying did not intrude upon our enjoyment of the cruise. 

At Grand Cayman, I booked a Reef Snorkel and Stingray City tour while my wife took a separate excursion. This is a different tour than the usual Stingray City trip. It is a much smaller boat that carries only about 30 people. The reef is a great place to snorkel in crystal-clear water that is about 18 feet deep. The guide showed us a green moray eel and a nurse shark, in addition to many other fish. One guide carried a video camera and filmed the entire excursion. VHS tapes and DVD's were delivered to the ship for those who purchased them. When we went to the sandbar, there was already a large number of boats there. We had a lot of fun, and after getting over the first encounters with stingrays that literally had me jumping out of the water, I enjoyed feeding and playing with these huge fish that act like puppies. While we were there, some of the big double and triple deck boats showed up, and conditions soon became overcrowded. Some of the smaller boats that sold tickets at the tender dock were dangerously overloaded in my opinion. There were three other ships in Grand Cayman that day, so I can only imagine what Stingray City looks like during high season when six or seven ships might be in port.

We then stopped at Costa Maya (Mahahual) on the Yucatan peninsula. There is a small shopping area here with local vendors and a few chain stores, a small beach, pool, and local entertainment. There are Mayan ruins relatively nearby. Instead of going to the ruins, we loaded up on four-wheel drive military style trucks and drove down the coast to a beach resort at Uvero Beach. On the way we passed through the village of Mahahual. They have just had electricity run to the village, so it is still very primitive. Poverty is a way of life here, so you might see some things that will make you appreciate how much we take for granted here. The people who live there are very friendly, and the village can be reached by taxi from the pier for just a few dollars. The beach we went to was very nice, and completely isolated. Signs of future development are everywhere, and land prices have soared to incomprehensible values. The weather turned rainy on us with afternoon showers, so we decided not to go back to Mahahual although I regret this. The vendors at the pier were very aggressive, but with the weather turning against them I think they were just doing their best to make some sales in the time they had remaining before the ship left. The military is the only law enforcement in the area, and they are very visible. They looked well disciplined and equipped.

The weather was sunny and hot in Cozumel the next day. I was disappointed that we used the Puerto Maya pier instead of the town pier. Its location requires a cab to get into the city. All the usual shops have outposts there but there is less selection and few local vendors. Our excursion for the day was a deep-sea fishing trip. The fish weren't biting that morning, with the exception of a couple of small tuna. Near the end of the trip, I landed a 35-pound wahoo that measured 47 inches long on a down-rigged line. A second wahoo was landed a few minutes after I finished bring mine in. These big fish require a lot of effort to bring in. It's not as easy as it looks on ESPN Outdoors. After fishing, we decided against taking a taxi downtown and decided to return to the ship. We amused ourselves watching those who had consumed one or more drinks than reasonably prudent struggling to return to the ship on time.

From Cozumel, we enjoyed our last sea day as best we could. Somehow we had accumulated quite a pile of booty during our shore stops and tested the capacity of our baggage getting it all stowed away safely. Luggage was picked up very quickly once it had been placed outside the cabin.

DISEMBARKATION AND FINAL COMMENTS
Disembarkation was very quick and efficient. There were some complaints that the announcements could not be heard in the Vista Lounge. For Platinum passengers, the Wheelhouse bar is set up with coffee and juice. Our group was called at 9:00, and by 9:30 we were off the ship, through Immigration and Customs, and headed to the airport. Cruise passengers are directed downstairs to check in at Ft. Lauderdale. I had forgotten to remove the tags after disembarking, and was not permitted to use the curbside check-in. Any bag that contained alcohol was later found to have been opened and inspected by the TSA agents. 

Spending 14 days aboard ship was something I would gladly do again. As usual, the staff and crew were willing to do whatever they could to make the cruise special. Our cabin steward was one of the very best, and went out of his way at times to make sure that we lacked for nothing. We also got to know Captain Romano a little better, and look forward to sailing with him and Princess again in the near future.

Photo: Courtesy of Princess Cruises


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