Our week on the Star Princess, April 17 – 24, 2005 was just as expected: fantastic! I’m going to try to cover everything I think I would have liked to know before I cruised on the ship, with some kind of order and random thoughts thrown in here and there. So bear with me, this could be a little long! First a little background. My wife and I are in our early 50’s, enjoy a variety of activities, good quality food with variety, also a variety of shipboard entertainment and of course visiting interesting ports and meeting new people, both on board and on shore. This was our seventh cruise, fifth with Princess (one with Royal Caribbean – great, would go with RCI again if the price was right; one with Carnival – not even close to the standards of Princess in virtually every category). We have now completed the tour of the Grand Class ships (Grand, Golden, Star); our other two where on the Ocean Princess, which has been renamed and is in Europe under the P+O banner. We would cruise on the Grand class ships again, but I still prefer the slightly smaller Sun class. More on that later.
We flew from Providence, Rhode Island to Fort Lauderdale (by way of Chicago - ! – in both directions – yuck!) the day before the cruise and stayed at the Fort Lauderdale Airport Ramada. I cannot recommend this place as it is old, in need of refurbishing, quite expensive for what you get and quite frankly we felt a bit unsafe there, although I can’t really tell you why. Also, there vaunted free shuttle to the cruise port does not start running until about 1 p.m., which was too late for us – we like to get on board as soon as possible and enjoy almost a full day on board, if possible. Also the free hot breakfast was barely edible, crowded, and was run by Brunhilde the Restaurant Lady! ‘Nuff said about that place. Suffice to say we’ll find other accommodations next time. Having said that, I heartily recommend going to a cruise port at least a day before, if possible, as it relieves the stress of travelling and you board the ship the next day in full-on vacation mode!
We took a taxi ($15 with tip) to the port at about 10:30 a.m. the next morning, knowing that we would be early for embarkation and that the previous week’s passengers would still be disembarking. Always tough to see those sad faces as people leave, and keep from smiling too much in anticipation of our cruise that’s about to start! We dropped off our luggage (keeping our carry-ons with a change of clothes and other stuff we didn’t want in the big bags) were directed to the side of the terminal facing the area where luggage is gathered and found that there were already a few dozen people waiting in line to get into the building. This area is covered, which is good because it would not be pleasant out there in the hot sun or the rain. More people began arriving soon after we got in line, and before long there were probably a few hundred waiting. The doors opened at about 11:30 and we went into the terminal, where we had to again wait for a 10 minutes or so in lines. For some reason, Princess had given me Platinum status in spite of the fact that this is not supposed to happen until AFTER our fifth Princess cruise (and not my wife, who was a bit miffed, but had the people at the Purser’s desk give her a new Platinum card later in the week!). We had booked a balcony room, Aloha deck, room A502, but the Platinum check in line was immediately quite long, so when the check-in process started, we went to the check-in people at the Aloha deck area. Within no more than three minutes, because we had done the pre check-in docs on-line, we had our cruise cards, where told our cabin was ready, and were on our way to boarding the Star! As many have said before, Princess has the whole embarkation process down to a science and both Carnival and (to a lesser extent) RCI could learn a lot from them.
After the obligatory boarding photo, we headed onto the ship (don’t you love that feeling when you first step on board?) and knowing the basic location of our cabin from the Princess Website, went to our cabin. There were Princess personnel at the elevators and stairs to cheerfully direct you to your room. A502 was no surprise as we’ve booked cabins with balconies before on the Grand class ships, but it was definitely nice being on the top deck that has balconies with no one above us looking down (the deck above hangs over and is the “roof” of the balcony. Plenty of storage, spotlessly clean, and we met our cabin steward, Vicky from the Philippines, almost immediately. She was unfailingly friendly, accommodating, efficient and professional for our time on board, learning our name immediately and greeting us with a smile every time we met. I am sure that Princess instructs their entire staff to smile and greet the passengers at all times, but it is one big reason we love Princess so much – the staff makes you feel special, and lets you know that they appreciate the fact that you’ve chosen the Princess line.
Then it was off to the Horizon Court for lunch. First random thought: I see some complaints about this area in various reviews. Yeah, it can get crowded in there at times, and no, there are no trays, and no it is not gourmet cuisine but man, if you can’t find SOMETHING you like there, I have to wonder what the heck you eat at home?? It’s true that the breakfast choices in the Horizon Court can get a little boring but again, what do people normally have at home? And there is a varied and cooked to order menu in the regular dining rooms for both lunch and dinner. Unfortunately, the coffee in the Horizon Court is still barely drinkable at best. It is something I’ve come to expect and although a bad cup of coffee is certainly not going to keep me from cruising with Princess, it is a small but significant annoyance that is a common complaint, and I have to believe that Princess could do something about it if they wanted.
We ate all our dinners (with the exception of the evening in Old San Juan) in the Amalfi dining room, aft, second seating traditional. We were again blessed with great tablemates, a retired couple from Ohio (16 previous Princess cruises!) and a woman and her mother from Connecticut and Florida. Lots of fun every evening, a great wait staff (a young woman waiter from Romania and her assistant from the Philippines. They provided excellent, efficient and friendly service. The matre ‘d stopped by our table every evening and always brought by the next evening’s menu for one of our tablemates, who had special dietary needs and would pre-order her next dinner. Another random observation. While the food (as usual) ranged from very good to excellent (the lamb and especially the lobster tails where stand-outs – and this is from a native New Englander who is very picky about his lobster!), certain things have been eliminated or de-emphasized, which I think is a shame. No more specially prepared pasta dishes by the head waiter, no more bananas flambe in the middle of the dining room, no more frogs legs on French night. Not that any of these things matter that much…I don’t even eat frogs legs anyway! But these little touches, plus very little notice given of Italian, French, Caribbean or American nights (which used to be a pretty big deal and fun) besides different color vests on the wait staff, takes away from the whole dining experience. One of quite a few small cutbacks we took note of…again, not enough to make us change cruise lines, it just makes me a little sad…oh well, nothing stays the same I guess.
The overall shipboard experience was very good. We saw most of the evening shows, all were good to very good (although singer Greg Bonham, who has been on Princess as long as we’ve been cruising is getting a bit “long of tooth” and I really don’t think we need to hear an Australian medley, Greg’s interpretations of songs by Air Supply and Olivia Newton John! – He is certainly a totally professional entertainer though, kind of a throwback to old Vegas style). The various lounges had some very good bands (Onlyne, the 5-piece band that plays in the Wheelhouse bar and at the sailaway on St. Thomas was very good, as was the duo of Kari and Jeri in the Explorer’s Lounge, a jazz guitarist who plays at various times in the atrium, and although we don’t care for the style, the pianist Jere Ring had a huge audience every night. Always love the string quartet in the atrium too. We felt kind of bad for the miriachi trio in the Mexican place – they seemed to be very good but there was hardly anyone ever there. The band on deck was a duo playing along with pre-recorded music. Steel pan and bass. Another of those little cost cutting measures – same thing on the Golden last year – no more 4- or 5-piece reggae/calypso bands. Too bad, because they really set the mood I think.
Lots of karoake and Princess Idol stuff at night, which was well attended but didn’t interest us. I held my own in the casino but saw a couple of good hits (one guy cash out $4000 in chips from craps, and one of our tablemates hit for $1000 on a quarter slot machine).
We were rocking and rolling a bit on the first night out of Fort Lauderdale and for the next sea day; didn’t bother us (we kind of like it lying in bed at night, actually) but some had problems. Oh well – if you don’t want to feel a ship move, and sometimes it will move a lot, maybe you should reconsider a cruise vacation. Sorry to be harsh, but that’s the way I feel.
Our first stop in Old San Juan featured torrential rain, but after fortifying ourselves with a couple of free rum punches that were available in the terminal, off we went to the Parrot Club where we’ve eaten before, for the BEST grilled tuna I’ve ever had, and Kathy’s meal was fantastic too. This place is highly, highly recommended but get there as soon as it opens at 6 p.m. or you will probably have a long wait.
The next day was St. Thomas, and we got off the ship as early as possible and headed over to St. John as we always do. It was a fairly cloudy day and the water was a bit churned up at Cinnamon Bay so the snorkeling wasn’t quite as good as we normally have there, but the beach and campground area is still breathtakingly beautiful. St. John continues to be a magical place, and is still our favorite of the 14 or so islands we’ve visited.
After that it was Tortola, where I’d booked on line a day of sailing and snorkeling with Patouche (www.patouche.com
). I absolutely cannot say enough about this operation - professional, fun, informative, great food and drink, and great value at $90 each for over 6 hours of sailing and snorkeling at three locations at Cooper and Peter islands across from Tortola. The snorkeling was THE BEST we’ve ever experienced, and the people who run Patouche could not have been nicer. Highly recommended.
Sea days: not as much of a problem with chair hogs as I’ve seen in the past, although the central pool area had saved chairs just about from dawn on, on every sea day. I did hear though that the Princess attendants where a lot more diligent than they’ve been in the past about removing towels after a reasonable amount of time. I stick to the area near the stern pool, top deck near the hot tubs and never had a problem getting a chair – in fact, on a couple of the sea days I was up there at about 8:30 a.m. and I was the first one there. There were still chairs available up until about 10:30, although most of them were on the windier side of the ship. Never a problem getting a drink attendant and Princess continues to offer very reasonably priced “drinks of the day.”
On formal nights I noticed fewer tuxes than in the past, maybe 25% at best, with the overwhelming majority of the men wearing suits. A few wore sport coats and ties, which to me look a little “dressed down” for these occasions, but that’s just one opinion. Whatever. I also saw fewer really, really fancy dresses on the women than I’ve seen in the past, but that may have been some kind of fashion thing of which I confess total ignorance! Anyway, everyone looked great. The Captain’s Circle party was the usual, with a half-hour of free drinks.
Next it was Princess Cays, which looked wonderful after the refurbishing after last year’s hurricanes. It was an absolutely perfect day, although you can certainly feel a difference in the water temperature there compared to down in the Virgin Islands. There was a huge line to get back on the tenders by 2:00 p.m., but it moved reasonably fast. All in all, a great day.
Then it was the “farewell dinner” – said goodbye and ‘hope we meet again’ to our table mates…gave a little extra tip beyond the auto tipping to our room steward and wait staff. For what it’s worth, the general feeling among the staff is that, as far as I can tell, they DO NOT like the auto tipping for all the reasons that have been thoroughly discussed on various cruise boards. Can’t really blame them. Perhaps they get stiffed less often but they certainly don’t see any rewards for exemplary service either, from most passengers. Point of information: Princess pays its waiters $50 a month; all the rest of their pay comes from tips. Even less for the asst. waiter.
In conclusion, a bunch more random thoughts. Yes, you can see little things that have changed in the last few years; whether or not this is the Carnival factor, I really don’t know. There is a lot more pushing of things like the unlimited soda, bottled water, the art auction, etc., but not to the point is annoying, for me at least. I think the whole “no free ice cream, no free cappacino after dinner” thing is a non-issue. Too bad, but oh well. Yes, the Star is beginning to show its age, with faded varnish on the rails outside some of the balconies and cigarette holes in the upholstery in Skywalkers lounge, but the cleanliness of the ship is extraordinary and we often saw people cleaning, painting and vacuuming. I think it is amazing that the ship looks as good as it does (and all Princess ships we’ve been on, for that matter) considering there are up to 2600 people coming on board and leaving every week. People also get all worked up about the cruise director, who can certainly set the tone for the cruise but should not be a make-or-break factor, in my opinion. Sammi Conneen-Baker is the CD on the Star and we thought she did a terrific job, very funny and with a quirky sense of humor (pretty darn good singer too!). And she seemed to be everywhere at once – when does that lady sleep?! The size of the Grand-class ships can be a bit intimidating at first, but amazingly, you can always find a quiet area (like Skywalkers during the day, or around the atrium) to sit back with a good book. About the only real problem area is the passageway along deck 7 between the atrium and the Vista show lounge in the stern. Between having two big bars, plus the piano bar, plus Sabatinos, and all the pictures displayed along the wall, and people trying to get to the Amalfi dining room in the stern and the Vista lounge, it can and does get very crowded there in the evening. This is a major flaw in the design of these ships, in my opinion, and really speaks to the lack of a large atrium area such as you find on the Voyager-class ships of RCI. The only bad experience we had with a staff member was, surprisingly, with the lady who books future cruises. We did put down a deposit for an open booking, which is a great deal by the way, but she was patronizing, pushy, quite unhelpful and frankly does not reflect well on the Princess organization. I don't know what her problem is, but both of the times I talked with her, she was snippy and unpleasant, and I heard her being that way with others too. Hmmm, very curious...
Bottom line: cruising in general and with Princess in particular is still the best vacation value out there. There is no doubt that some of the little things that cruisers used to take for granted on middle-tier cruise lines are no longer there; if you want those things, go Crystal or Radisson (and pay 3-5 times as much). But we can’t wait for our next Princess cruise and we were thoroughly satisfied with virtually everything about our week on the Star. Happy cruising to all, thanks for reading my rambling discourse and I hope I have answered some questions you may have about the beautiful Star.