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12/28/04 Ė 1/8/05
by Robert and Margarett Downie
ABOUT US: We are in our early 40ís and have sailed a total of 8 times with Princess. This is our fourth visit to Grand Princess. We have cruised with Princess exclusively since discovering cruising just a few short years ago. Our previous experience with Princess has always been pleasurable and left us impatient to return. This cruise was no exception.
ITINERARY: Embark Galveston, day at sea, Costa Maya, Belize, Grand Cayman, Ocho Rios, day at sea, Cristobal (for Panama Canal), day at sea, Cozumel, day at sea, disembark Galveston.
One of the reasons we selected this cruise was for its additional length and the stop in Panama. Obviously, Grand Princess is too large to transit the locks, so tours of the Canal were arranged from Cristobal. Port times at most ports-of-call were limited, forcing most people to book shipís excursions rather than touring independently. Even the stop in Cozumel was a relatively short 7-1/2 hours. There was time enough to do everything we wanted in each port, but little extra time for shopping or soaking up local flavor if a tour was planned.
EMBARKATION/DISEMBARKATION: Our pre-cruise stay was at the Hotel Galvez, a wonderful historic hotel. Princess uses this hotel for their pre- and post-cruise stays. The Princess rep at the hotel found room on one of their transfer buses for us, and permitted us to check in at the hotel the morning of the cruise. Aside from a lengthy wait in traffic at the terminal, the boarding process was quick. We had received our cruise cards at the Galvez and simply walked on board, stopping only for the requisite security photo.
If you have been spoiled by the efficiency of cruise ports in Florida, Galveston will come as a rude awakening. Traffic at the terminal was worse than any of our previous experiences, including the notoriously congested New York City cruise terminal. The local authorities make no attempt to separate taxis, private vehicles, hotel shuttle, and airport transfer buses. The result is chaos worthy of a third-world nation. Actually, this is not fair to those in less developed nations, who in my experience try to do the best they can within their limitations. No visible effort was made by local authorities in Galveston to control the situation.
Disembarkation was another story altogether. All passengers were required to clear Immigration on board ship. The process began at 6:45 AM with those heading to the airport. Disembarkation began promptly at 8:30. I would have expected all the airport transfers to have been long since departed when we we left the ship at 10:30, but was surprised to see that the last airport transfer bus was only just pulling away. One member of our group later reported that they made their 1:00 PM flight from Bush Intercontinental with only about 5 minutes to spare. Early flights from Houston are not an option. Houston Hobby, the nearest airport, is about 45 minutes away; Intercontinental is about 75 minutes away.
We waited about an hour after disembarking for the Galvez shuttle to make its way through the traffic and pick us up. It was literally a free-for-all as passengers who were more recently disembarked fought their way through those who had been waiting for some time. The shuttle drivers from the Galvez did their very best to load as many as possible, and should be commended for their efforts.
THE SHIP: Grand Princess had a 7-day wet-dock prior to commencing service from Galveston in October. The ship was in good condition and several small enhancements had been made to the interior since our previous visit. If one wished to look closely, signs of wear are visible, as should be expected. Holiday decorations were found throughout the ship. The most impressive display, made entirely of food items, was set up in the atrium.
One major change is the addition of Movies Under the Stars to Grand Princess in the Neptune Pool area. This feature is a large screen monitor similar to those found in sports facilities and an impressive sound system. After a few days, the novelty of the movies and sports programming seemed to wear off. Movies Under the Stars might be a popular diversion for 7-day cruises, but likely will not be a selling point for longer itineraries in Europe or in any locale where the weather is cool. Sound from the movies and other programming can occasionally be heard on the balconies below. It is not while the ship is underway. Only in port can noise be considered a potential problem.
Food and Dining Room Service: While I cannot claim to be close personal friends with Maitre díHotel Elia Tinonin, his presence on board as a familiar face from past cruises made me confident that our food and dining service would be excellent throughout the cruise. In fact, it would be very difficult to find anything deserving of a negative comment in this department. The quality and presentation of menu items during breakfast, lunch, and evening meals was superb.
Purserís Staff: I have rarely had reason to interact with the Purserís staff for anything more than cashing travelerís checks or seeking information. During our cruise, a minor emergency developed when I discovered that our passports and other documents had been mislaid. We assumed
they had been left in Galveston. A very helpful young officer called the hotel from the ship, and determined that the missing items had not been left there. He then arranged for someone to assist us in a cabin search. Although we had been through everything at least three times, or so we thought, a security officer and assistant purser showed up to thoroughly search for the missing items. Before panic could take hold, our passports were found hidden away, no doubt having been shoved aside while we unpacked. An added bonus to all this was their ability to diminish any sense of
embarrassment. The people involved were conscientious, helpful, and understanding.
Special Occasions and Pre-Order Service: We celebrated Margarettís birthday while on board. I
requested some special occasion items and gifts for the cabin and dining room. Everything was taken care of flawlessly, scoring many points with she-who-must-be-obeyed.
Weddings on Board: We had been in contact with several fellow passengers via the internet prior to the cruise. One of the couples we met planned to be married during the cruise. We attending the wedding, officiated by Captain Mariano Manfuso. The ceremony was dignified and quite moving. The Wedding Coordinator had taken care of all the details. It was a privilege to be part of this event and see how very professionally the entire proceeding was carried out.
The Crew and Staff Attitude: Not once during the cruise did we witness any member of the crew having a bad moment. To the last individual on board, the crew and staff treated passengers with friendly respect. Our cabin steward, waiter, and assistant waiter became very much like close friends. The level of teamwork displayed would be the envy of any organization.
New Yearís Eve: The New Year festivities on board were spectacular. Almost every passenger was decked out in the finest dress. Parties were underway in every public area of the ship. The dining rooms had a special celebration menu for the evening that turned out to be one of the most enjoyable meals I have ever had during a cruise. It was definitely a night to be remembered.
Damage, Theft, and Vandalism: In spite of a relatively low number of minors aboard this cruise, the degree of damage and theft that took place was very disappointing to the staff and crew. Clearly, all of the incidents were the work of a very few troublemakers, yet their ability to cause grief was a serious stain on an otherwise superlative cruise. The incidents went far beyond the usual noise in passageways and elevator parties. Damage and/or outright theft took place in several public areas, including the arcade, art gallery, sports bar, and reportedly some cabins were vandalized. The most disheartening aspect of all this was the effect it had on many crewmembers, who view the ship as their home, not just a place of work. Fortunately, video surveillance in an unexpected area helped identify some of the guilty parties. It should be noted that Princess takes a very dim view of such activities and will hold parents responsible for the actions of their minor children.
It is somewhat troubling to hear of such incidents during a cruise, and even more troubling to read reviews from other sailings that list similar instances of disregard for the ship and furnishings.
PORTS OF CALL
Costa Maya (Majahual): We chose not to participate in any organized excursions here, and made our way to the fishing village of Majahual via the shuttle buses available at the Costa Maya facility. The cost to go into the village is $3 for the trip to the village, and $2 return via taxi. After doing a little shopping for gifts, we found a pleasant spot on the beach to relax with some adult beverages at La Mexicana, a beach-front bar and restaurant. The weather was a little too cool and windy for swimming, but pleasant enough to spend some time in the shade of a palm tree and enjoy the scenery.
Belize: Our port time was quite limited in Belize, and because the ships have to anchor several miles offshore, a significant portion of the port time is taken up just with tendering back and forth. Local tenders carrying up to several hundred people at high speed are used instead of the shipís own boats. We selected a tour that went about 70 miles inland to the Mayan ruins at Cahal Pech. It is an important site archeologically for the unique nature of some of the artifacts recovered, but has only seen limited restoration work. Our guide was extremely knowledgeable and made the trip a rewarding experience. It is unfortunate that our time was so limited, since there was much more to see than our schedule permitted.
Grand Cayman: Grand Cayman is in the early stages of hurricane recovery, so the devastation caused by Ivan is still very apparent. Many businesses and tour operators are struggling to re-open. Most excursions were cancelled because of high winds prior to arrival. Fortunately, the weather abated when we arrived and tendering ashore was allowed to proceed. We walked north of the port area a short way to Rackamís for lunch and cocktails. Many local people were there recovering from their New Yearís Eve festivities. We were content to sit in the sun and visit with the people we met there, while enjoying some incredible seafood and cool drinks.
Ocho Rios (Jamaica): We booked separate excursions in Ocho Rios. The tour area and buses were extremely well organized and we were on our way to our activities within just a few minutes of being allowed off the ship. I played golf at the Sandals Resort course while Margarett went to Dunnís River Falls. Both of us had a great time, and enjoyed the local people we met on our tours. We had arrived on a Sunday, so shopping was out of the question. This was the only port call where there was extra time to do so if we wished. Neither of us ran into pushy vendors or anyone trying to sell drugs.
Cristobal (for Panama Canal): It is very unusual that Grand Princess or any of the Grand-class ships make the trip to Panama. The ship docked at Cristobal and all shore excursions were organized from that point. Our tour took us to Panama City, where we boarded a tour boat for passage through the Miraflores and San Miguel locks, then continued through the Canal to the Chagres River dredging station. From there we returned to Cristobal by bus. Once again, we had very little time to visit the market area adjacent to the dock before departure, having had to wait some time for commercial ship traffic to clear the locks at Miraflores. A very few brave souls ventured outside the port area on their own. It is not an inviting area and anyone off a ship will clearly stand out as a tourist.
Cozumel: I chose to play golf at the Cozumel Country Club. This is a challenging Jack Nicklaus course that requires plenty of extra balls if tee shots are anything less than laser accurate. Patrons are warned not to attempt to retrieve balls from the water hazards because crocodiles, including some rather large specimens, are present. Margarett went the folklore shore and did some window-shopping with friends we had met on board. We both enjoyed the display put on by those returning late to the ship after consuming the high-octane margaritas. We always enjoy visiting Cozumel and consider it a fine candidate for a land vacation, some day.
It is my hope that the success of the two holiday cruises from Galveston will encourage Princess to offer similar itineraries in the future. The mix of port days and sea days was just about perfect, leaving plenty of time to relax and visit with new friends. Unusual itineraries like the one offered on this cruise are a welcome change from the typical milk runs to commercialized destinations featuring the same carbon copy shops, tours, and trinkets. The path less traveled is always more interesting.
This cruise ranks as one of our most enjoyable trips with Princess. It was unfortunate that a few instances of bad behavior on the part of those traveling on the same cruise, and the fiasco at the cruise terminal intruded upon what was otherwise an almost flawlessly executed performance on the part of the staff and crew.
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