November 3, 2001
Itinerary: Eastern Caribbean
Note that this cruise was booked before the horrible events of 9/11/01, and because it took place so soon after 9/11, some of my comments were addressing the travel experience of the new era.
This review covers the Golden Princess 11/3/01-11/10/01 cruise from Fort Lauderdale to the Eastern Caribbean. It was an excellent cruise. The best cruise I've taken, although slightly impaired by bad weather.
We booked this cruise in approximately March. This was the second time we used Fred Lanyard as our travel agent and we couldn't be happier. He did a great job as an agent and also did us a huge favor (described below).
We booked flights independently through Continental round trip from Newark. Not only was this cheaper than through Princess, my status as a very frequent flier made it likely we'd fly first class.
We received some paperwork approx two months before cruise day, and received tickets 3-4 weeks before cruise day. I didn't read the first set of papers closely when they arrived but perhaps I should have. It contained excursion info, insurance info, etc., and a request for personal info for express check-in, e.g., passport, credit card, emergency contacts. The cover letter stated that tickets would not be sent till the info was returned or provided online. Well, my tickets arrived anyway, but without all that info pre-printed on them. I subsequently entered the info online, but at embarkation I had to write it all on the ticket again. I intentionally ignored the request for social security number but was forced to provide it at the terminal. I don't remember providing this in the past.
We got to Newark airport about 2 hours before our 8:00 AM Thursday flight. Checking bags with a rep took about 25 minutes. Curbside and E-ticket check-in seemed to be about as long. Passing security took about 20 minutes. We were at the gate with more than an hour to kill. We were lucky enough to both get upgraded to first class -- a nice start to the vacation.
We planned two days in Fort Lauderdale prior to the cruise. We had previously stayed at the Sheraton Yankee Trader. We like it because it's on the beach, has nice pools, and is within walking distance of nice food and shopping. We booked and paid in advance through Travelocity. The hotel seems to have aged a little since last time we were there, but was still fine.
At FLL airport, the shuttle drivers approached us as soon as we got our bags. Only $15 per person to the hotel, they said. What a bad deal -- the taxi was about $15 for two including tip.
As soon as we got into the hotel, I went to do the usual routine -- unfold the garment bag and hang it up ASAP to avoid wrinkles. My heart sank as I realized it wasn't with me. It had never left my house. I only had my suitcase, so I had lots of shorts, polo shirts, underwear and one sneaker. Missing were suits, pants, dress shirts, and one sneaker. My thoughts shifted from "How could you do this, you idiot?" (still not sure) to "What now?" I could buy some clothes and launder them often, buy a pair of sneakers... I knew the bag was right inside my front door.
Suddenly I remembered that Fred and Lois live relatively nearby and were coming on the same cruise. I called Fred and asked if he would bring my bag if I could get it to him. I called my mother-in-law and asked if she would bring the bag to Fred. Both sympathized with my predicament. Fred even offered to meet my mother-in-law half way. It all worked out fine. Now, there’s a travel agent who will literally go the extra mile for you! Thanks, Fred! Thanks, Mom!
Hurricane Michelle (then a tropical storm) was churning up the waters in Fort Lauderdale. A steady 30-40 MPH wind was blasting the coast. Waves were coming all the way up to the wall along the road. So our plans for two beach days were ruined. We still enjoyed walking along Las Olas and other areas. We can recommend Bier Brunner's German restaurant and bar for great beer, food, and service. Their schnitzel is excellent -- don't miss it. The hotel had a limo (well, a new, dark, clean, comfortable sedan) to shuttle us around at only slightly higher than taxi rates - a nice touch.
Our limo got to the pier around 1:00. Luggage handlers were efficient and pleasant. Check-in was a little chaotic. Signs were posted for express check-in but it was not really clear who was eligible. Several people complained about providing info in advance by mail or on line and being asked for it again. This was the case with us too. Still, the whole process only took 10 minutes or so. Staff was pleasant. Signs were posted that ship was full and no alternative cabins were available (this sign was also at the Purser's desk). We had booked an inside guarantee and received enough upgrades to move us up several decks, but were still inside.
Boarding photos then slowed us down and it took about 20 minutes to board. Not all bad as we made friends with a couple we spent much of the week with. Security was no different than previous cruises. However, that was the last week before the National Guard was to come to Port Everglades and "help," so I don't know what it's like now.
We had an inside cabin on Aloha deck (12). We have had inside, outside, and verandah cabins in the past, so we knew what the tradeoffs were. Waking up is hard in an inside cabin, but paying for it is easy. The cabin seemed fairly small as cruise ships go (bigger than Monarch, smaller than Century) but we liked the big open closet. Otherwise there's not much to comment on.
There is a mail slot outside each cabin with the passengers' names on it. We got "sea-mail" several times a day. It's no different than at home: It's 90% junk mail and 9% bills. I bet the art auction and spa sent us 20 pieces of sea-mail over the week. So now I understand this mailbox is for their convenience, not mine. The Princess Patter arrived daily. We found it a little hard to find the important parts of the Patter because it too was chock full of ads, and poorly laid out. We were disappointed that the daily USA news would not be delivered to our cabin, and nobody seemed to know where we could get it. One crew member told us to ask our cabin steward for it. We did, and he acted as if he'd never been asked before. But after that, it did arrive every day. It usually arrived mid-day with day-old news. All other ships did better with news.
Part of the sea-mail was a flier for booking future cruises. Buried on the flier in fairly small print was an offer to stay on an additional week for $199/$299/$399 for inside/outside/verandah cabins. We heard of several who took this offer, and nearly everyone at least briefly considered it.
The TV in the cabin got CNN (seemed to be an English variant), ESPN, CNBC and other entertainment. Reception was perfect.
Golden Princess is an attractive ship. The atrium is smaller than on other ships, but is pleasant and people seem to gather there more than on other ships. The bars and other common areas are nicely decorated. There's a lot of tile and wood (some even real), giving a warm, intimate feeling. They used space well, creating interesting non-rectangular spaces. The auction art is fairly well contained to the gallery. The theater has no bar service, but does have fold-out tables in each chair. Most (maybe all) bars have non-smoking areas.
There are four pools and numerous hot tubs on board. We were able to get chairs by the main pool every time we wanted (about 4 times). It's nice that the pools are open all hours. We enjoyed a dip in the pools and tubs around midnight one night -- a wonderful experience. The pools contain fresh water, not salt water. Unfortunately one day the sea was too rough and all but the aft pool were drained. The captain apologized and filled the pool as soon as it was practical. Even then, there were 4 foot waves in the pool.
There's an internet room on board. I believe the rates were $7.50 per 15 minutes. The internet room seemed to be closed a lot but I didn't really pay close attention. There's also a video game room that looks like it would keep teenagers busy for quite a while (then again, my idea of a cool game may be pretty boring to today's kids). Your quarters will probably go farther here than in the casino! Casino video poker was very popular. I played video blackjack, which had pretty bad rules (from my perspective), e.g., no double down, and blackjack pays 1:1.
We found the quantity of announcements to be appropriate. Revenue-enhancing events were not over hyped. The captain made about 2 announcements per day and the cruise director about the same.
The elevators are painfully slow and have no air circulation. I could write a whole essay on the elevators but I won't. We often walked more flights than we'd like. An unbelievable oversight on such a new ship.
I can't imagine who would buy art from that salesman. He had a hairstyle from the 70s and a matching wardrobe. One of the ship's comedians even joked about this guy's appearance. Nonetheless, we heard second hand that some pieces were selling in the $2000 range. We found the art pieces were pretty well contained to the art gallery. Other ships have "art" displayed everywhere.
The production shows feature the humor of Uber Rossi. It's hard to explain his humor, but it's reminiscent of Cirque du Soleil. Very modern and different. We enjoyed him.
The shows were complex with lots of scene changes and costume changes. The singing and dancing was mediocre. OK, to be really honest, some of the singing was less than mediocre.
The productions shows are mostly backed by pre-recorded music. The music is played way too loud, and that's from someone who is a product of arena concerts. I almost walked out one night but instead held my ears rather than disrupt others.
The magician put on a good show. Even though we usually knew how he created the illusions, some of them were excellent. The last trick fooled us completely.
There was a juggler on board who should be ashamed of his show. I've seen better jugglers working city streets. Sometimes jugglers make up for mediocre skills with humor. This guy had neither.
Seems to me the musicians relied heavily on synthesizers. However, after a couple nights, the synth soloist in the atrium attracted quite a crowd by performing crowd-pleasing songs. There was almost always music in the Wheelhouse and Explorer's Lounge. The string quartet was good but we didn't see a lot of them. A pianist played in the atrium during embarkation and disembarkation, and perhaps other times. The band by the pool was very good.
The cruise director, Alister, seemed energetic and somewhat original. He did a morning television show with his assistant each morning. It was quite corny, but I thought it was a good idea and fairly interesting. He'd get passengers involved with quizzes and other paper mail.
You'll never convert us to Personal Choice Dining, but I know there are others who would never do traditional. We did hear from some on PC that it's hard to get a table between 7:00 and 8:00 PM. Also, you always have people coming and going all around you while you're eating. On the other hand, we like knowing the table will be ready for us, and we like getting to know our table-mates and waiters and vice versa. To each his own. Our table for 8 only had 4 at it. Towards the end of the week we invited another couple to join us. They had been less than thrilled with PC. We had checked in advance with the waiter and head waiter, and they didn't mind at all. This couple commented how much friendlier our dining room seemed... since everyone knew their table mates, even the folks at nearby tables and the staff, the room seemed much more social.
Our dinner service was excellent. Waiter Laslo (Hungary) and assistant Monika (Poland) had only worked together two weeks but were a great team. When Monika first introduced herself, she was so professional we thought she was the waiter. When Laslo began introducing himself, we thought he was the head waiter. We were pleasantly surprised to hear he'd be our waiter. Laslo said they swap in and out of traditional dining room every two weeks. They also rotate around the dining rooms so that sometimes they get easy tables (near the kitchen) and sometimes harder tables.
The meals were usually very good. The twin lobster tails were excellent. I know darn well they were frozen but they tasted fresh. Crayfish was also excellent. Prime rib was on the menu two nights and was excellent. The menu has some items available every night, such as steak, salmon, other entrees and desserts. The "Love Boat" dessert was a chocolate mousse delight. One night we had an anniversary cake that was delicious.
One night Fred and Lois invited us to celebrate our anniversary in the southwestern restaurant, the Desert Rose. I really enjoyed the guacamole appetizer with chips. The complementary margarita was a big hit. The entrees were fine. The waiter seemed to be covering a lot of tables, so although he was quite friendly and funny, he was hard to find. We weren't rushed, though, and managed to spend 3 hours eating and talking. In the future, I won't rush to book added-cost restaurants, but I don't mind the cruise lines subsidizing my fare with others who enjoy this option. We heard of people waiting in line an hour just to make a reservation at Sabatini's. What kind of vacation is that?
The Horizon Court buffet was slightly better than my expectations. It was a disappointment not to see an omelet station for breakfast, but it was better yet to see bagels and smoked salmon. Sushi was offered for lunch twice. No raw fish, but salmon and cooked shrimp sushi were big hits. I found the guacamole one day, but oddly found no chips to go with it. The carvery offered prime rib at least twice. The combination ice/water dispensers never seemed to work right so ice was dispensed in a tray.
Coffee was pretty bad throughout the ship. I know it's some sort of instant coffee but this ship seems worse to me than others I've been on. Sue didn't think it was too bad and remembers having worse on RCCL. Fortunately, I remembered from rec.travel.cruises that I could get espresso in the dining room. The espresso was about the best I've ever had. Some nights I asked Monika to make a double-espresso and then fill the cup with hot water (I've heard this called Cafe Americano in France and in the US, and called Long Black in Australia). Monika had never heard of this but was happy to comply. I recommend it to regular coffee drinkers. Susan and others also raved about the cappuccino. Latte was also available.
Supposedly the buffet becomes a bistro with table service late in the evenings, but the 3 nights we were there, it was just a buffet. First night and last night of the week, they state there will be no bistro. I don't know what happened the other time we were there. I don't think there was anything like the Grand Midnight Buffet we're accustomed to from other cruises. If there was, we missed it.
The 7 day Eastern Caribbean itinerary includes St. Maarten / St. Martin, St. Thomas, Princess Cays (Bahamas), and 3 days at sea.
Sint Maarten / Saint Martin
At St. Martin we docked at the new pier. That's one long pier... about a 10-15 minute walk from gangway to land. There are telephones and internet terminals at the pier. We bought a $10 phone card which allowed 7 minutes of calls to the US. Internet access (in the same clean, cool shop) was $5 for 15 minutes. I overheard someone say she charged phone calls directly to her credit card for about $1.33 a minute, which seems about what I paid.
We wanted to go to both Mullet Bay and Orient Beach, so we rented a car. Rental agents were present and hard at work at the pier. We went with Best Deal Rentals, who promised a nice, air conditioned car for $45. If price is important, you could probably do better. There is a lot of deal-making going on at the rental counters. We got a tiny little Toyota with 30 kilometers on the odometer. Navigating to the Orient Beach was not hard, but I was glad to have a copilot. Most streets seem to be unnamed, so you navigate from point to point. We stopped at a grocery in the French Quarter to buy water. We were off the beaten trail, and I was a little worried when I saw only foreign notes in the register. They had no problem with dollars, though.
Orient Beach was much better than last time we were there. The beach is officially clothing optional to the right, and apparently clothing is not strictly mandatory to the left. We rented chairs ($5 each, I think) and relaxed on the beach. The water was perfect for swimming. We ate a surprisingly good lunch at a restaurant in Club Orient. I thought the Carib beer was pretty good. I had a second sample to make sure. A group of women were encouraged to leave the restaurant after they were caught taking pictures of the "scenery." Since we were so relaxed at Orient, we decided not to go to Mullet. We returned the car after adding a few drops of gasoline.
Other passengers said that St. Martin offered excellent prices on liquor. The stores at the pier were far too crowded to shop in just before the ships departed. Fine with me.
We were due on board at 5:30 for a 6:00 departure. I watched the pier from the pool deck from about 5:25 to 6:00. At 5:27 some poor saps were running the entire length of the pier, carrying their prized duty free liquor in one arm, beach towels in the other arm, thinking they were in danger of being left behind. They made it safely, but were so exhausted from the run, they could barely find the energy to show their cruise cards. This happened again at 5:30. And again at 5:35. Last stragglers at 5:50 and up came the gangway. I noticed about a 20 minute grace period at St. Thomas too. This contrasts with our experience on the Century, where there was not a minute of grace period. Regardless, I don't advise anyone to count on a grace period. With the new security system, the ship's crew knows when they're missing passengers. It remains to be seen whether they care.
St. Thomas / St. John
There is a new U.S. immigration procedure for St. Thomas that requires all passengers (including those planning to stay on ship) to show their passport (or other documents) at a designated time from about 6:30 to 7:30 AM. The line ran half the length of the ship at some times, but the line did move fairly quickly. After showing your passport, you are handed a green card to show as you leave the ship. The second time I left the ship, they didn't ask to see it. I can't imagine how this does anything other than keep honest people honest, but I don't mind.
Rather than see St. Thomas, we planned to spend the day in St. John with Fred and Lois. The four of us took a taxi to Red Hook (I think $8 per person), along with other cruise passengers. The ferry leaves at the top of each hour, and we barely made it. The ferry ride was about 20 minutes and did get a little choppy. Upon arrival at St. John, there were numerous offers for island tours, taxi, or car rental. We rented a 4WD with air conditioning for about $50. Fred was brave enough to volunteer to do the driving as long as he had a copilot to navigate and continuously remind him to keep left. I volunteered for copiloting and later we swapped. Driving was very easy because there was very little traffic. Roads were well marked. Nonetheless, we did end up on a dirt road where a sign was posted: "Tourist information: You are lost!" We took the hint and turned around, but not before taking a picture.
We drove to Trunk Bay, where we hoped to do some snorkeling. There's a fee to enter the park, but the attendant advised us to walk down and look at the water before paying. We did, and saw very rough water, as the remains of Hurricane Michele were churning things up. The life guard walked over to talk to us. He stated that the snorkeling trail was closed because it was too close to dangerous rocks. He said if we decided to swim that we should get in quickly and move away from the beach. The water is roughest by the beach, and if you don't go quickly, you can break an arm or dislocate a shoulder. Well, on that advice, we decided to skip the swimming and ride around the island. We drove around the rest of the island hoping for a calmer beach, but not finding one. Still, we enjoyed the drive and the views. Before long, it was time to head back. There were some nice shops in the area near the ferry on St. John. Overall, St. John was beautiful and is a good option for those who have already seen St. Thomas.
When we were leaving St. Thomas, the Captain came on the PA to say that due to hurricane damage we would not be able to call on Princess Cays. He said it would take them a couple weeks to recover. Fortunately, there was a good alternative available: Nassau. The crew was ecstatic to hear this. I guess that Princess Cays is a work day for them (they have to set up the buffet and drinks), but Nassau is a day off with lots to do. On the other hand, some passengers were disappointed that Nassau requires taxi fares and offers no free lunch. Nobody was really upset.
We walked around Nassau and poked into some shops. The straw market apparently had a recent fire, and was closed. We heard second hand from the ship's port guide that we could walk to a beach by walking off the pier and to the right. These beaches had lots of debris and seaweed washed up on them, and were all but abandoned. One guy was in the water. We decided to head to Paradise Island by taxi. The taxi left us off to the right of Atlantis (I think by a Sheraton). We walked to the beach, and were disappointed again. The water was much too rough for swimming. On the guarded portions (by Atlantis), swimming was prohibited. About a dozen swimmers braved the unguarded water. A hotel on the beach had moderate hurricane damage, including missing balcony railings and windows, and a seriously mangled industrial-size air conditioner. We walked towards Atlantis and invited ourselves in for a walking tour of their outdoor facilities. We heard afterwards that the Atlantis staff doesn't allow this if they see it, especially if you come from the street instead of from the beach.
For the internet-addicted, there seemed to be several options in Nassau. Best option I saw: walk to Bay Street, turn left, and look on the right. On the 2nd floor of a gift shop, terminals were ten cents per minute, with free coffee. There was a short wait for a terminal.
The days at sea were wonderfully relaxing. We enjoy having meals in the formal dining rooms, which offer open seating breakfast and lunch. In the afternoon there were always plenty of deck chairs available. We even found chairs by the main pool on days at sea.
We had to show our passports again aboard ship bright and early. There's always some idiot who misunderstands "mandatory" and holds up the works. The purser paged the Weiser family from Baja 312 so many times, I'd say their luggage was endangered if their name was prominently displayed. But we were off ship by 8:30 and at the gate at FLL by 9:10. Due to our early flight, (10:45), we were among the first off the ship. Again, taxi was faster and cheaper than shuttle.
The flight back had only one first class seat available. Bummer for Sue! I had a view of the newly changed New York City skyline on approach to Newark. What a terrible way to come back to reality...