Tuesday, January 24, 2006

REVIEW-Grand Princess - January 14-21, 2006

Grand Princess January 14-21, 2006

We now ONLY cruise out of Galveston/Houston and this cruise was the final of our cruises on the primary local based ships: Rhapsody, Conquest, & Grand. We have sailed all three now within the past few months, so that will be our basis for comparisons. DW & I are in our 50’s and are experienced travelers.

We arrived at EZCruise Parking at our usual time of about 11:15. It’s about a five hour drive for us from central Texas. Not quite as simple as in past. They now have two parking lots and the Grand pax were to park in Lot #2. We found the lot and then had to wait awhile for shuttles. New system with some kinks to be worked out, but EZCruise was good as usual. (I’ll have a separate thread on Parking/Galveston) The Grand was at Terminal 2 instead of the larger Terminal 1 where the Elation was docked. Didn’t create many problems though, a line for security and then into the check-in lines. We used the Platinum line which was shorter and saved a lot of time. We were on the ship about 12:30. Overall, a very good embarkation process.

Saturday, Day 1--Embarkation-Galveston
I was very impressed with the Grand staff upon boarding. Lots of staff to assist and direct pax to their cabins, which were readily available. I may have accidentally run into the mysterious Admiral Nelson as there was a ships officer looking for cabins in our area as we first arrived in our cabin area. He disappeared as we dropped off our carry-ons. Since the Grand is one of the few ships to have a restaurant open on embarkation, we went to the dining room for lunch. Our first cruise food and a proper lunch at that. It was not crowded at all as I guess most went to the buffet or were still boarding. After a brief ships tour and a quick match of miniature golf we returned to our cabin. The goodies had arrived. This was my first cruise to sail as an Elite so I’m not sure exactly what was provided as an elite member and what may have been left by our new friend Admiral Nelson. I suspect the Chocolate Strawberries may have been a gift and the fruit, cookies, et al were Elite benefits. We also received a bottle of wine from our TA in addition to the Elite bar setup. Our cabin stewart, Mario, came by and introduced himself. “Mustard” drill went well. I like the system on the Grand best. You stay in your assigned public area and don’t go out to the life boats. Ours was muster station D in the Vista lounge. Our C-C roll call had set a meet & greet for the Oasis Bar following mustard drill so we met our group and had our sail-away from deck 15. Good bye Galveston, hello new friends. The C-C survivors retired to the Wheelhouse Bar. What a wonderful bar, my favorite on the ship. We had late seating for dinner in the Botticelli dining room which was good but nothing special. Much too tired from the long day, we skipped the welcome aboard show and retired for the evening.

Sunday, Day 2--Sea Day
This is a sea day and a day to rest and relax. I had breakfast in the dining room and the Eggs Benedict were excellent. Best of any on any of the other ships by far. DW had breakfast at the Horizon Court which had a very good buffet. After breakfast we explored the rest of the ship we hadn’t seen on Saturday. A little shopping in the boutiques and relaxing until lunch. We again had lunch in the dining room. Red Snapper was very good. Deserts were just OK, but we had to check the desert station on the Horizon Court. They had the best cake I have ever had. I think it was a white chocolate chip cake soaked with some type of liquor. After a nap I spent some time in the future bookings office and the internet cafe which is much faster than the R or C. I trusted the same day dry cleaning with my suit this morning which I would need back in time for the Captains reception. Just after 5:00 Mario brings the suit. Another knock at the door a little later, what? Complementary Canapés!! Wow, It just gets better & better. The Captains reception was held in the atrium area which was somewhat new to us. Dinner was again adequate but nothing special. Dessert was a chocolate soufflé which was very good. When we got back to the cabin there was a bottle of Champagne, no question who it was from as there was a card from the Admiral. Thanks so much. The feature show was Curtain Up, a salute to Broadway. We thought it was a great show.

Monday, Day 3--Costa Maya
A bit of a breeze today and the water is choppy. Glad this is not a tender port. I had breakfast in the dining room and the Eggs Florentine were very good. DW has been ordering room service breakfast. We disembarked and went to the little village of Mahaual. We found a great little restaurant on the beach which later became C-C group HQ. We had a great group of folks to enjoy the afternoon. Of course who would have known you could get proper mojitos for $5 in Mahaual. After an afternoon of mojitos, mayan liquor, & massages we had to return the Grand. We called it a day after dinner. Dessert was another soufflé.

Tuesday, Day 4--Belize
A beautiful day in paradise. Weather perfect. This was the first tender port and it went off very well. DW stayed aboard to relax and I went to find my tour group. We were originally to meet at 8:00 but was changed to 10:00 because of the Grand's' new extended hours. DO NOT USE CORAL BREEZE, they never showed up and I was told they had lost their license. Another couple from the Grand and I were able to book the same tour through Paradise Air. This was a snorkel trip to the Coral Gardens, the Shark/Stingray alley, and Caye Caulker. This was a fantastic excursion. The coral was OK, similar to most caribbean spots, but the Shark/Stingray’s were far superior to Grand Cayman IMHO. There were numerous large stingrays, nurse sharks, and a very large barracuda that stayed just off our position the entire time. Lot’s of good photo op’s here. We went ashore for lunch on Caye Caulker. Here I split from the group to go the the Caye Caulker Split and the infamous Lazy Lizard. Great spot for a few Bilikins. Returned to the rustic dock for the return and had to buy a fresh coconut spiked with rum for the return trip to Belize City. I would not have been able to take this tour if not for the changed itinerary, so I feel fortunate.
The Circle Club reception was held in the Vista Lounge, It was nice, Captain Andy arrived late as leaving Belize is a bit tricky due to the barrier reef. Tonight at dinner the head Matre'de and chef came by the table. I mentioned that the Red Snapper from the 2nd days lunch was the best meal I have had, so far, and he told me they would gladly prepare it again for me for dinner any night upon request. Wow. Very impressed. Dessert was banana flambé.
We did the 50’s-60’s show and thought is was very good. Couldn’t make anything else as my legs were gone from snorkeling.

Wednesday, Day 5--Playa del Carmen
We considered Xcaret for the day as we were in a perfect place, but decided to just visit the town of PDC and make it an easy day. We were in no rush to reach shore. Light breakfast & internet cafe in the morning. It was about 10:50 when went to the tenders. Having a priority pass we just joined the line at the gangway so it was fairly simple for us. Unfortunately it wasn’t as simple for the others. Tendering was going very slow. The seas were very choppy and the gangways were moving forward & back AND up & down. Mind your head!! A couple I later met went to the Vista lounge at 11:15 and didn’t get ashore until 2:30. The staff was doing the best they could, the seas were not cooperating. While ashore we checked some boutique hotels, the beach, I had a shrimp cocktail, did a little shopping, and then we were ready to return. I guess just by chance of timing we got the very large tender-which isn’t good. It took well over an hour to load, move 300 yards, and then unload. Seems too long to me, but we weren’t really in a hurry. Tonight's dinner is one of the best, it was Italian night. My entree, an Italian pork chop was good, but the appetizer, eggplant parmesan was the best appetizer of the cruise. Desert was Tiramisu. After dinner we attended the comedy show of Jack Wilks. He was great, he did a lot of jokes about Princess, cruising, and cruise events such as the art show, spas, etc. Not the usual cruise jokes about the toilets, a bit more clever. i.e.--”did anyone ever figure out the combination to the shower” I mention because DW called maintenance about the shower temps. He also made light of the tender problems that day.

Thursday, Day 6--Cozumel
Cozumel has been one of our favorite places for 23 years when we first visited the then small village of San Miguel and the island. Divers by far out numbered tourist in those days. We wanted to be off earlier as we have a full day planned so I was up early. I enjoyed a great breakfast in the dining room, the lumberjack breakfast. Ranch style eggs on a small breakfast steak with hash browns. Also a wonderful fruit appetizer. Best breakfast of the cruise. I’m afraid I held us up a bit. We were so hoping for an improvement in tendering and it was much better. Weather was better than had been forecast. It was cloudy, but less wind than Wednesday. This helped tendering. We basically walked on board the tender and fortunately saw the couple who had to wait so many hours the day before walk aboard as well. Only a 20 minute process to shore today. We rented a jeep and proceeded to Paradise Beach. I had heard about it so much on these boards I wanted to check it out. DW recommends the peach spritzer. This will be a Dos XX’s day for me at all stops. We stayed about an hour and left before PBTom got there. Seems like a very nice place, especially for families. We are now off for our favorite spot, Playa Bonita. We took the now repaired highway around to the “wild side”. Guess what--the hurricane has created new features: natural bridges extending from the shoreline into the water. There is a new parking area here so that you can stop and take photos. Very impressive and this will add to the “wild side” reputation. Soon we are at Playa Bonita. We were there just following Katrina and they had repainted the building. Now because of Wilma, it has to be repainted again. It is now a white building which I think is their new base coat. They will get that turquoise color back soon I hope. They have repaired and expanded the main palapa and are using umbrellas on the beach. Still as beautiful as ever and our favorite spot on Cozumel. After several hours we are off for San Miguel and Los Cinco Soles. We are greeted by Leah who remembers us as this is our 5th visit and purchase of Talavera in five months. DW wanted to check a shop just off the main square so I waited at a corner sidewalk table at Las Palmeras to watch the jeep and all the people in town and old pier. We’re off to Puerto Maya and as I return the jeep DW is doing the last minute shopping. We’ll meet at Fat Tuesdays which isn’t crowded as I guess most have returned to their ships. We make the last tender and return about 5:30. A great day in Cozumel. Tonight we eat at the Painted Desert Steakhouse. It was very good, especially the jumbo shrimp cocktail and porterhouse. I insisted that we ALSO have escargot since I knew it was being served in the dining rooms and the waiter did comply reluctantly. The intimacy of the smaller room and the company were actually the highlight of the experience. After dinner we went to the Cinematastic show. DW enjoyed it very much, I’ll admit I was too tired. Long day so back to the cabin to see what type of chocolate Mario has left on the pillow.

Friday, Day 7--Sea day
Nice Day. partly cloudy, but clearing. Good day for Lido deck events. Eggs Benedict were again excellent. I think the breakfasts have been great on this cruise. Some cabin organization, and relaxation before our big noon function. We were invited to the Captains Luncheon and it was fantastic. The Senior officer at our table was the chief technical officer and his wife. They were a very nice couple as were the other guest couple. I hope we weren’t too rowdy (in this smaller setting) because from the laughter, I know our table had the most fun. Excellent three course meal with choice of wine, by far, the best meal of the cruise. I was so tempted to eat my wife's appetizer that she didn’t touch (as I would have done in the dining room), but I didn’t want to seem too indelicate with the Captain at the next table. We had an afternoon meet with some C-C group members and then began packing. One last cocktail in the Wheelhouse Bar. The last dinner we spent with C-C folks at a special table arranged by Spongerob. Even with the table change the Matre'de’ was able to get my special request for dinner, the Red Snapper as promised by the chef. A good dinner, but the highlight was the Baked Alaska. Wow, excellent and done in the Princess style, nothing compares from other lines.

Saturday, Debarkation
We thought the self would go off a bit sooner than expected since the ship was early so we were ready early and sure enough---they started about 6:30 a.m. We went through customs without any problems. We were on the sidewalk waiting for EZCruise by 7:00 a.m. We were off the island by 7:35 and home at 12:30. We left the ship so early that we hadn't eaten breakfast and since I’d become used to good breakfasts we stopped for some Miga's in Hearne, Tx and they were great!

General Observations
We really enjoyed this cruise. One of our best by far. The good friends we met and the new Elite status certainly enhanced the experience. The new Cruise Director is Neil Chandler. He was good, not too pushy with bingo, etc..., but informative. His morning show, Wakey, Wakey was very humorous. Overall the food was good, but I think the lunches were actually better than most dinners. Breakfast was always good. The staff on this cruise was super. With only one exception, everything was handled in a positive and a most helpful manner by staff, crew, waiters, etc. One of the reasons we did the traditional dining was to assure good service, but would not hesitate to use personal choice as all members of the dining staff were good when we ate other meals in the DaVinci dining room or Horizon Court. Our cabin attendant was very good. He made our bed as specially requested, left extra ice, and called us by name the entire cruise. We really didn’t do any pool activities nor use the spa, but there were more than enough activities to keep us busy. I liked the layout of the ship especially that the casino was forward and not midship. We were pleased with the port changes and especially the credit given. I think Princess is a first class operation.