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Copyright © 1995-2005 
Linda Coffman


Dawn Princess 
Sept. 21 - Oct. 1, 2005
Mexican Riviera

by George and Eleanor Smart

Cruising in September on the West coast brings picture perfect temperatures, 82-92 breezy degrees in the day and 72 at night. Seniors come out in force and kids, freshly in school, stay home. This easygoing 10-day cruise to Mexico will take the stress right out of you, with lots of time to relax. The food, often criticized in other reviews, was surprisingly good later in the cruise. Don't look for super intensity or a party all the time. There's lots to do, but remember: seniors are out in force and kids are in school. Staff aboard the Dawn is a friendly helpful crew of the usual mix: Italians at the helm, British, South Africans, and Australians as social hosts, Indians running security, Romanians as stewards, and Filipinos serving dinner. The mood aboard was pleasant but a bit subdued, matching the crowd perfectly.

Getting There. Pier 35 in San Francisco is reached easily by cab from the airport at San Francisco or Oakland. Southwest and JetBlue and other discount airlines serve Oakland so it may be a better choice. Four people in a cab round trip is cheaper than four Princess bus tickets, and there is no waiting. Although embarkation opens around 12:30, Princess recommends arriving after 2pm. Take this advice, as the huge initial crowd makes for a long wait to board.

Recent Changes. No cruise line wants to be higher than average within their amenity range or people will tend to choose a competitor. With post-911 added security and rising fuel prices, cruise lines have to cut costs and raise revenue to compete. Princess is no exception, here are some the changes we noticed:

  • Coffee drinks such as expressos or lattes are no longer free with a meal. Expect to pay $1.50-2.00 each.

  • Free soft serve ice cream at the buffet is gone, but there's a for-fee sundae bar open in the afternoons. Ice cream and sorbets remain free with dinner.

  • Waiters at dinner will actively peddle a featured liqueur every night for $3.95 to $8.00, including the glass.

  • You must sign a receipt for room service breakfast and there is a tip expectation. Previously, breakfasts were delivered with no paperwork and no expectation. There is also a "gourmet" room service breakfast option for $12.50 per person.

  • No more free lemonade at the buffet. Only coffee, unsweetened tea, and water.

  • No more medals or decent prizes for winning trivia contests. Sure it's just a game, but how about something more than a luggage tag?

  • The onboard store prices are higher and offer few bargains, just convenience.

  • No free welcome drinks on embarkation day, and a somewhat scaled back Captain's reception on formal nights. 

  • The pizza restaurant is now sit-down instead of buffet, set up to
    encourage sales of wine and beer. Expect to wait 30 minutes for your pizza.

  • No more free cruise bingo or other free cruise giveaways during the trip.

  • Note: the free cruise given for turning in the end of trip survey is for ALL Princess passengers, not just your ship for that week. 

Ports: This was Dawn's first port call to Catalina after months on an Alaskan itinerary. The tenders were never deployed correctly and many people including us gave up after a long wait and went back to our room. Oh well, another time for Catalina. Puerto Vallarta has great shopping and one absolutely must-do excursion, the Jungle Canopy, a thrill of a lifetime! You're in a climbing harness, gloves, and helmet zipping across treetops from platform to platform, 30 to 90 feet up. Not for those afraid of heights. Gravity does all the work, all you have to do is ride and slow down towards the end. Exceptionally well-instructed, easy, safe, and fun. The hardest parts are a 5-minute hike at the beginning and a 20 minute hike at the end up a very steep trail. Mazatlan is ho-hum, not much history and too many all-the-same vendors. Cabo is the most beautiful port, most people agreed, with stunning views from pretty much all angles. And San Diego is an unusually clean vibrant and walkable city from the port area. Try the SEAL amphibious tour from Seaport Village for a scenic voyage around (and in) the Bay.

Good Deals:

  • Drink prices: All throughout the ship, drink prices were exceptionally reasonable. $4 bar specials, $6 martinis, inexpensive wine by the bottle, all a welcome deal for the frugal traveler.

  • Soda cards remain a top bargain. $39.95+15% gets 10 days of unlimited sodas plus a refillable drink container. By marketing these, Princess gets revenue without having to clean up thousands of soft drink glasses. We drank at least a dozen club sodas a day between us.

  • The food starts out just ok but gets better and better with the last few days taking on moments of greatness--our favorites were the seafood dishes and the homemade sorbets.

  • Ship photographers kept out of sight and only came around at dinner on formal nights. The rest of the voyage we rarely saw them prowling. 

  • The steakhouse is only $15 per person, quite good compared to $20 or $25 for alternative restaurants on other cruise lines. The cuts of meat are enormous, although the ambience is not (during the day, it's the starboard side of the buffet!)

  • Lobster tail night: fantastic! They'll bring you as many as you want. This is true for any item, by the way.

Two guys on Princess' staff sit near the gangway and "police" people bringing alcohol on board. They will take it and give it back the last night of the cruise so bar revenue is not threatened. The "policing" consists of the very occasional weary question, "Do you have any alcohol?" So unless you're toting in a case of Budweiser or something else large and obvious, just put the bottle in a backpack and keep on walking past these guys who are clearly bored out of their minds.

Not So Good:

  • In the Spa, bring your wallet! Prices are up. A basic massage is $110 for 50 minutes, even more for stone, wrap, seaweed, or other exotic treatments. The staff is abrupt, approaching rude, displaying that annoying Euro chic arrogance that doesn't play well in the US. The spa manager responded in this way when asked about last day discounts, as if I was a complete social idiot. "They may do that on OTHER ships," he said, "but we do NOT have such discounts here," he said with contempt. (We've sailed on ships where spas offer 50% discounts while in port or on the last day.) The Spa staff is required to pitch you incredibly overpriced cosmetic and lotion product during and after each service. Just tell them in the beginning that if they say one word about "product," no tip. That usually works.

  • Internet access is expensive and slow at 35 cents per minute in the Internet room. Wireless in the lobby runs about the same. Both run off satellite which can cut in and out frequently. Plans call for in-room internet or shipboard wireless "one day." Don't hold your breath. Cruise lines are notoriously slow to implement technology changes. That's why phone calls are still $10 a minute!

  • The casino is about the worst I've ever seen--small, uninteresting, and populated with stingy slots and dealer-run table games like roulette, craps, and blackjack. There's no poker, sorry to say. Some of the Grand-class ships have poker rooms but the Sun-class, of which Dawn is a part, does not. The casino manager, like the spa manager, responded to my question as if I was an idiot. "Sometimes professional players come on those ships," he said. "You wouldn't want them to take your money, would you?" If I had been thinking more crisply, I would have responded, "you mean like this casino does on roulette, blackjack, and craps?" 

  • Finally, all hands on deck for... teeth whitening! With the slightly disturbing disclaimer, "Approved by the FDA and the ADA but not available in the US" the $199 deal, done by a "teeth whitening specialist" (translation: a spa employee) purports to be cheaper than a dentist. One of our group got it, and it worked, but watch out for the $309 add-on product they'll be hawking afterwards. Goes down to $159 on some port days.

Overall, a relaxing cruise on a good ship but not-so-exciting an itinerary. I would drop Mazatlan and pick up Acapulco, or stay longer in Puerto Vallarta or Cabo. Princess is the best of the middle-range lines, better than Carnival, Norwegian, Costa, or Royal Caribbean and not as good as Celebrity or Holland. Do the Jungle Canopy!

To see all our reviews, visit Happy Cruising!

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