Cabin D729, Mini-Suite
This review is broken into three sections: The Ship; Ports of Call; Contact Information
I began writing this review as a spectacular sun was setting over eastern Canada as we made our journey across the Atlantic to meet up with the Golden Princess in Barcelona. It was a wonderful way to begin a cruise vacation.
Actually, the fun began months ago during the planning process. I've decided that part of the fun of a cruise vacation is in the planning and anticipation. The friends you make through research for the trip just adds to the fun. This is our 14th cruise and the planning had already made it grand.
This review will contain three separate sections. One that focuses on the ship; one that discusses the ports of call; and the final which will list all of the contact information for the tour guides we used and favorite restaurants. My husband and I cruised with our 14-year-old daughter. We selected the Golden Princess for several reasons. First was the itinerary and ports of call. Second, we had cruised with Princess four times in the past and they remain among our favorite cruise lines. It had been two years since we were on a Princess ship so we were looking forward to returning.
We book our own air (and have done so since nearly missing a ship through the cruise line air several years ago). We arrived in Barcelona three days prior to boarding the Golden. It gave us a chance to adjust to the time change, really enjoy a spectacular city and arrive in plenty of time. We didn't want to miss the ship! This was one of the best things we did. by the time we boarded the ship on Thursday, we were completely adjusted to the time change. A lot of passengers who arrived the day of boarding were tired for the first several days.
Our Cabin The Golden Princess is a gorgeous ship. Our cabin, D729, was a mini-suite with a nice sized veranda on the Dolphin deck. It was the third cabin from the rear of the ship. We loved the location. The decks are staggered on this ship so there is little if any privacy on the verandas on most decks. The laundry room was just across the hall (a nice convenience on a 12 day cruise). The cabin was spacious with a king bed, a sofa bed for Amanda, a coffee table, and two chairs. There was a great hutch in the center of the room with two TVs and plenty of shelves for storage. A large closet and plenty of drawers offered more space than we needed. The bathroom was good sized and the balcony was very nice - four chairs and a table.
Our cabin was located deck 9 between two floors of other cabins. For the least noise, we've found a floor between decks of other cabins to be best. If you are under or above public decks, you get a lot more noise.
Our cabin steward, Narciso, was quiet and efficient but often seemed "stressed." I kept telling him we were never in a rush for anything and by the middle of the cruise he seemed to be a bit more comfortable. A nice convenience was our room was directly across from the self-service laundry on our deck. For a 12-day cruise, this was great as the laundry areas seemed to fill quickly, especially on the days at sea. Being so close made it easy to use the facilities early in the morning.
Public Spaces The Lido, Sun and Sports decks offered a nice variety of outdoor activities during the days. There were plenty of deck chairs around the pools at all times. I think this was partly due to the itinerary (we've been on the Grand in the Caribbean and there were never deck chairs available). The pools and hot tubs, all very nice, are fresh water and do not close early like they do on other ships.
The Spa, located on the Sun deck was lovely and I had a great massage, however it had two drawbacks. First is there system of booking appointments. We were on the ship at 11:00 AM (two hours prior to published boarding time) and I had to wait in line 45 minutes to make a massage appointment. Two crew would shuffle paper schedules back and for so much that neither of them could keep anything straight. You would think in the age of technology on a brand new ship that they would have computerized the scheduling of spa appointments. The second drawback is that the massage rooms are located directly beneath the outdoor basketball court. Consequently, there was the constant "thud" of a basketball above the room at all time during the massage. Not exactly relaxing. It makes one wonder who really designs ships! But as I said earlier, the massage itself was great, even with the "thud."
Entertainment Most of the evening activities were all located on the Promenade deck. From the Princess Theater, to the lobby lounge (always hopping with Marucio playing), the Wheelhouse Bar (our favorite hangout where Edy Smith plays a mean piano), the Explorer Lounge and the Vista Lounge. Entertainment throughout the ship was generally very good if not excellent. Production shows were great and the entertainers in the lounge were outstanding. There was always a good variety of evening activities to keep you going late into the night. Unfortunately, I think everyone was pretty tired from the busy port days and the ship was pretty quiet by 11:00 PM.
Dining Even though we are younger (my husband is 38 and I'm 43) we prefer traditional dining. We like having the same tablemates and wait staff each evening. On this particular cruise, one dining room was traditional, one was personal choice and our dining room was split (but probably 75% personal choice). The first evening, we were very skeptical. All of the crew in the dining room seemed to be running around in a frenzied hurry to keep the personal choice diners moving in and out of the dining room. It was an atmosphere we didn't care of at all. Additionally, there were no other people seated at our table, even though we had a table for six or eight. We were considering requesting a move to the all-traditional dining room. However, we REALLY like our waiter (Hakan) and assistant waiter (Chris) so we thought we'd try it a second night. As we were seated the second night, we heard another couple walk by saying to our waiter "we'd really like to be seated with other people." I told our waiter that they could join us and by the third night they brought another couple to the table and we were having a great time. The atmosphere seemed to quiet down as the cruise went along and everyone seemed in less of a hurry. The captain even dined at a table next to us one evening in an inconspicuous table on the side of the room near a window.
The food was very good, although Princess had pretty much done away with their popular tableside pasta dishes and flaming desserts with the advent of personal choice dining. We mentioned this to Hakan and from the seventh evening on, our head waiter was preparing things tableside for our table. We shared with other traditional tables around us and it was a nice touch that they offered to do these dishes for us.
If you are with a group of people or a larger family, I can see the where personal choice is an attractive option. However, we'll probably stick to traditional dining as long as we can. by the way, Princess food is still far superior to Royal Caribbean. The pizza on the pool deck is 1000% better.
We did not try either of the alternative restaurants and the design of the Horizon Court was very disorganized making it difficult at times to get food. There aren't really "lines" like a typical buffet. It's kind of a circular area with an additional food bar in the middle. Consequently, you have people coming and going in all directions. The food here was average.
PORTS OF CALL
For this trip, the itinerary was more important to us than the ship. We really wanted to visit these ports of call. The fact that we could do it on this fabulous ship was a bonus! Before I describe our port experiences, please note that I've listed the cities by their European names. It kind of bothers me that we don't use the "real" names of the cities.
Barcelona We arrived in Barcelona three days prior to the ship's departure. We connected through Paris without any problems and were very happy that all of our luggage arrived with us in Barcelona. We had a bit of a wait in line for a cab to our hotel, but once in the cab it was a short (5 minute) ride to our hotel that cost less than $5. We stayed at the Hotel Colon in the heart of the Gothic district across from the Barcelona Cathedral. It was a perfect spot! We walked almost everywhere from here. We spent our first evening just exploring the area and having an early dinner since we were a bit jet-lagged. Our early arrival in Barcelona allowed us plenty of time to adjust to the six hour time difference - a huge benefit.
On the next morning, we were met in our hotel lobby by a private guide I arranged for through APIT - Barcelona (the Association of Professional Tourists Guides of Catalunya - the state where Barcelona is located). Anna Maria was a marvelous guide and provided the perfect overview of Barcelona. Whether you begin or end your cruise here, we highly recommend at least a � day tour (with a private guide or through the ship) to get acquainted with the city. Anna Maria pointed out things we'd never have noticed on our own. Our tour with her included sites in the Gothic Quarter, Gaudi's La (its unfinished by the way and not scheduled for completion until 2082 !!!) and Parc Guell (another Gaudi development). She also recommended dining and shopping (more on those later).
We found Barcelona to be a warm & friendly city. Cabs were very inexpensive as was the food & shopping.
On our final day before boarding, we walked from our hotel down to the pier to catch our first glimpse of the Golden Princess. On our return walk, we visited the Picasso Museum (a must for anyone who enjoys his art) and then dined that evening at the 4 Cats restaurant - a Picasso favorite.
The morning of boarding, we left for the ship at 11:00 AM. We had a tough time explaining to our cab driver exactly where the ship was docked even though we had walked there. Be sure the driver understand that the ship is not at the main Barcelona harbour. When we arrived at the ship, this was by far the easiest embarkation ever. We walked in, signed our payment card (we have done all of our "paperwork" on line before leaving home), got our keys and walked on the ship. We were in our cabin by 11:30 AM! Since we had been in Barcelona for a couple of days, we didn't get off the ship again even though we overnighted in Barcelona before sailing the next afternoon.
Monte Carlo/Nice This was one stop where we took a ship's tour. We wanted to visit Nice so we did the early morning trip to Nice and had the afternoon to explore Monte Carlo on our own. The tour to Nice was well organized and the drive was very scenic. We had an hour to walk around Nice on our own. We drove past the medieval town of Eze on our return to Monte Carlo�.a great sight to behold on the mountainside.
We lunched at Quai des Artistes, a delightful French restaurant on the harbour in Monte Carlo. We were in search of a water color for a gift so we walked around town after lunch looking for art galleries. After finding the perfect painting, we took our daughter back to the ship and returned to town to visit the casino. There is a $7 per person charge to enter the casino but it was worth it. It is VERY different from any casino you've seen in the U.S. It was very elegant and extremely subdued for a casino. Just walking around was an experience.
Firenze (Florence) This was a GREAT stop. We want to go back and spend a week here. We visited on a Sunday but that didn't have a tremendous impact on what we could and couldn't see. We took the ship's tour here as well (our last one) as it's a 90 minute drive from the ship to Firenze. Our guide was great and gave us tremendous background on the trip to Firenze. That passed the time quickly. When we arrived in the city, another guide joined us (apparently you have to be licensed in the city where you are providing guiding services). She, too, was very good. As we began our tour at the Duomo, the Annual St. John the Baptist parade began so we stayed and watched the festivities. If you are going to be in Firenze around this time of year, read up on the event. It was a great site!
Our guide spent two hours with us before giving us a couple hours to explore on our own. It was very informative but there is no question that there was just far too much to take in in one day. You need four or five days here to truly appreciate the city and everything it has to offer. We met friends from home for lunch who were vacationing in Italy and explored with them for the rest of the day. Of course, the highlight for Amanda was the two gelati stops at the SAME store�.Vavoli's. Our map said it was the site of the best gelati in the world. Amanda agreed!
Napoli (Naples) We hired a private car and guide here through a service in Roma (Rome). We'd highly recommend doing this at this stop. Our driver/guide, Pietro Mastromano, was outstanding! This was a terrific port of call for us. I knew before we arrived that we wanted to visit Pompeii early and spend the rest of the day along the Amalfi Coast. We arrived in Pompeii and even though it was early in the day, it was very hot and crowded. There is very little shade here on a hot summer day. It was extremely interesting and we could have stayed much longer except for the crowds and heat.
After leaving Pompeii, my favorite part of the tour began. Pietro took us to a charming mountain town called Ravello where we ate a wonderful lunch at a small Italian restaurant and visited the quaint shops before moving on. I could spend a week here. Uncrowded, secluded and picturesque! An ideal spot after the crowds of Pompeii.
From their we drove to the coastal towns of Amalfi and Positano. Breathtaking is the only way to describe these. The drive is reminiscent of the Coast Highway in northern California only the cliffs are steeper and the villages much older. I loved this area and could easily spend vacations in any of these coastal towns.
Venezia (Venice) This was probably the port we were most looking forward too prior to the trip. We were not disappointed. We knew there would be a lot of tourists so we were prepared for the crowds. The sail into Venice is amazing. You want to be at the front of the ship or on the starboard (right side) of the ship as you sail into Venice. If you have a veranda on the starboard side, all the better. On this sailing, the ship docked away from the main tourist areas so you had to take one of the ship's water taxi or take a vaporetta (local water taxi) to get to the tourist sites. This wasn't a big deal to us but probably bothered some people.
We had planned a private cultural tour here the first afternoon through www.venicescapes.org. However, upon arrival, we learned our tour guide had an accident and was unable to accommodate our tour. We were flexible and headed out on our own. We may have missed out on a bit of the culture but we had a grand time exploring the streets and canals on our own. The food was incredible from the gelati to the pizza, sandwiches and pastas. The first day we just roamed. It was amazing to walk down an alley into a square with a spectacular church. Photo opportunities abound (I took about 200 photos in Venezia alone). The amount of Murano glass is amazing. You do not have to take the tour to Murano to find plenty of beautiful glass. We had visited the Murano glass factory in Venezuela so we didn't feel the need to go in Italy. We took a late evening gondola ride (a must) and then searched for dinner. The gondola was $75 for 45 minutes.
This was probably the find of the cruise. We were walking from alley to alley looking at menus and finally selected a restaurant with what we thought were good pasta dishes. To our surprise, we picked what turned out to be the best restaurant of the trip - Ai Leoncini. We shared three pasta dishes and a veal dish. The ravioli in a tomato cream sauce was some of the best pasta we've ever had and we eat a lot of pasta. As it turned out, we discovered we entered the "back" door of the restaurant and when we left through the "front" door, we were just off St. Mark's Square.
Princess did run continuous water shuttles from the ship to St. Mark's Square but we also purchased a 24 hr. vaporetta ticket that allows you to ride any water bus all day long. Water taxis (which are smaller, private boats) are very expensive and we didn't see anyone using them.
On day 2 in Venezia we got an early start to see the Doges Palace and St. Mark's Basilica. Doges Palace begins selling tickets at 9:00 AM (we were first in line - a one time occurence). Escorted tours like those from the ship are allowed in at 8:45 AM while individual tourists are allowed in at 9:00 AM. I'd recommend bringing a map of the Palace from a tourist guidebook. Posters in many of the rooms describe where you are but with all the tour groups you often couldn't get to the posters. They also have audio hand held recorders to rent for $3 that describe the rooms. The Palace was indescribable. Paintings filled every room and ceiling. Amazing gold molding could be found everywhere. The palace contains a great collection of armour and swords. There is so much here that it is overwhelming.
When we left to go to St. Mark's Bascilica at 10:30 AM the lines were enormous so we were forced to skip going inside. While we hated to miss it, we were on overload at this point. We finished our visit to Venezia by doing a little shopping and having another calzone.
Sail away, in our opinion, was even better than the sail in. Andre Bottecelli played over the ship's loud speakers. Get a spot on the rear of the ship. It is fabulous back here! There were not very many people and the view as you leave Venezia is unobstructed and unforgettable.
Athena (Athens) We once again hired a private tour guide here. The guide we originally hired had tourists the previous day that wanted him for a second day so we ended up with the partner of the person we originally booked. As it turned out, Dimitri was a fabulous guide and driver and we couldn't have asked for anyone better. We got an early morning start. Our first stop was at the "original" Olympic stadium. It seems ashame that they do not play to use it during the next summer Olympics which will be held in Athens. From there, we went to the Acropolis. Without question, this was at the top of our list for sites we visited. An important note that I had read in other reviews - there is a tremendous amount of walking on very old, uneven stones, including walking up and down some steep areas. It is very important to wear proper shoes here and be very cautious, especially if you have trouble walking. Words really cannot describe this masterpiece that sits atop this exciting city. The Acropolis should not be missed if this is your first time to Athens. Our last stop was at a great restaurant in the Plaka. We could definitely spend more time here and would love to visit the Greek Isles on a future trip. The people here were wonderful!
Kusadasi/Ephesus Again, we had made arrangements for a private guide. Our situation here was a bit unusal. I had been corresponding with our tour guide (Lale Kosagan) for several months when I learned her 5-year-old daughter was scheduled for surgery during our visit. She enlisted the services of her sister (Hale) who is also a guide. The great thing was Hale could be with us both days in Turkey. She and our driver, Uhls, drove from Istanbul to Kusadasi the day before we arrived. They spent the day with us then drove back to Istanbul to meet us the next day. We were amazed since it was an 8 hour drive each way and the cost for her, the driver and the car for each day was very reasonable.
Hale was delightful and another wonderful guide. I don't know if we simply lucked out or if all guides in Europe are good but we were fortunate that we had great guides everywhere.
We spent most of this day touring Ephesus. We visited the Virgin Mary's house, the ancient city of Ephesus where the "library" must be seen to be believed, had a terrific lunch on an outdoor patio overlooking a scenic valley and visited a rug factory. Actually, the rug factory was a lot of fun (I had read a lot about "rugs" before we left) and the process amazing. As a special treat, Uhls bought us a bag of fresh peaches which we took to our head waiter that evening at dinner. He flambeed a wonderful dessert for our tableside!
Istanbul It was great to get off the ship in Istanbul and have Hale and Uhls meet us again. It would have been great to have one guide to tour all of Europe with! I'd strongly recommend using the same guide in both locations. It made the second day even better. In Istanbul we visited the Blue Mosque, the Palace (be sure to go into the Harem) and finally the Grand Bazaar. The traffic was horrendous and it took a long time to navigate the city streets. This is a BIG city. by the time we reached Istanbul, we were tired. While we always wish cruises would last longer, we were ready to head home. On the final morning, we disembarked and took the ship's tour up the Bosphorus River. This was a relaxing ride and best of all, they transferred our luggage and us to the airport at the end of the tour. I'd recommend this excursion if you have a later flight.
Our return trip (with an overnight in Frankfurt) was uneventful. I took some 600 photos and probably could have taken more. The sites, the people, the history and culture were fabulous even though it was easy to be overwhelmed by it all.
SHOPPING We really didn't do a lot of shopping. We did this trip to see the sites. We did purchase several nice souvenirs (the pottery in Ravello was my favorite) but I can't report on great buys on leather goods, jewelry, etc. as we didn't look for any of the these items.
FINAL IMPRESSIONS We had been on the Grand Princess in the Caribbean several years ago and did not care for it at all. We were pleasantly pleased, however, with the Golden Princess. We've come to learn that cruising is about the entire experience, not just the ship and not just where it goes. While the Golden and Grand are sister ships and in many ways the same, our experience on the Golden was much better than on the Grand. The passengers, the atmosphere, the service�.everything was a step ahead of the Grand. So when you read these reviews, keep in mind that your experience could possibly vary from others depending on a number of different factors. The most important thing, regardless of the ship or where you go, is to have a wonderful time!
Final comment: Go on-line and complete all your immigration information, onboard credit card form and shore excursions. It will make your cruise vacation much more enjoyable!
CONTACT INFORMATION Here is a listing of the guides we used and some of our favorite restaurants. Email me for more info.
Barcelona Hotel Colon: $150 per night; Phone 34-93-301-1404 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Tour Guide: Anna Maria Sangenis Crotogino; Phone 34-93-207-3321 Booked through APIT-Barcelona: Email: email@example.com
Restaurants: Caputxes in the Gothic Quarter; Phone 34-93-319-7757 4CATS in the Gothic Quarter: 34-93-302-4140
NOTE: 34 is the phone country code if calling from the USA; country codes are listed for all countries below. You do not need the country code once you arrive I that country.
Monoco Restaurant: Quai des Artistes on the harbor
Napoli Tour Guide: Pietro Mastromano Phone: 39-081-870-8985
Venezia Restaurants: Ai Leoncini (our favorite restaurant for the entire trip) just off St. Mark's Square (Piazza S. Marco); Phone: 39-041-523-6049
Food & Wine Store: Antica Drogheria Mascari: www.imascari.com
Athena Tour Guide: Dimitri; Phone: 30-093-788-3786
Kusadasi/Istanbul Tour Guides Lale Kosagan Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Hale Koca Email: email@example.com