Saturday, March 24, 2007

Review--Grand Princess--March 17, 2007

Review--Grand Princess--March 17, 2007
Just The Facts
Grand Princess
March 17-March 24, 2007
Captain: Edward Perrin
Cruise Director: James Ibrahim
Ports: Galveston-Costa Maya-Roatan-Belize-Cozumel-Galveston
Weather: Excellent all week

Day 1-Embarkation- Woke early to finish packing and also checked the Galveston Harbor Cam web site. The Grand is not yet docked, which is a worrisome thing. You want to see your ship before beginning the drive. We left the Ranch about 6:30 and drove strait through without major delays so we decided if possible to drop off the bags at the pier before parking at EZ Cruise. We had spotted the Grand while crossing the Galveston Island bridge so no worries. It was only a bit late as we found out. We dropped the bags and DW at terminal one just after 11:00 a.m. I went to EZ Cruise and parked without problem. There was a long line of people waiting to board shuttles with their bags for the pier so we did the right thing. I just walked the 2+ blocks. A slight delay waiting for security, but the line ran smoothly. After we cleared security we went to the “priority check in” and we were checked in without a wait. They had not begun boarding so we made our way to the waiting area and we were taken to the priority area which was just a few seats along the wall beyond the waiting area. The person who took us began the boarding process so our timing on everything was perfect. We were onboard about 11:45. We took our bags to the cabin and luckily it was ready and available. We went down to the Divinci dining room and it was not serving. Only big disappointment of the day. We went to the buffet and it was OK, but I had my heart set on the dining room. After lunch we went to the cabin to rest and relax. The thermostat didn’t work so we told our steward who said she reported it. The fan was blowing hot air, but we left the verandah door open which neutralized the temperature. We exchanged our “elite’ bar for items we would use while waiting. Our bags came fairly quickly. We were unpacked and settled in by 2:30. We had our own welcome aboard drinks on the balcony and watched all the activity of ‘sailing/turn around day at the pier. The weather was wonderful and there were a lot of people walking around Galveston and the Strand. The balcony on deck 14 give you a great view across the island.

After muster drill we met the Cruise Critic roll-call group at the Oasis bar. A very well attended event and a good mixer. We met so many wonderful people. We attended the Welcome Show and met the new CD, James Ibrahim. The comedian was Cary Long who was good. We have late sitting dinner in the Botticelli at 8:15. A nice table completely aft in the dining room. I had shrimp cocktail, mushroom soup and the prime rib. It was good, but not super. Got off to rocky start with waiter, I waited for a menu for a long while after being seated although everyone else had a menu. Also didn’t serve or offer condiments for my iced tea. We’ll see how that works out tomorrow night. Following dinner we went to the cabin and it was like a sauna. Very hot. We called the purser and they sent someone right away. They worked on a temporary fix so I went to the casino and played the Texas hold’em table. I could only last until 1:00 a.m. and just did OK. It was very interesting though. The table was nonsmoking which was nice. The cabin was cooler by the time I got back, so no major problem.

Day 2-at sea- The weather is nice, perhaps a bit cool. I had breakfast, Eggs Benedict, in the dining room and it was very good. They have a different specialty item each morning and I want to again try each during the week. I visited the internet cafe and the connections were good considering we are at sea. Not as crowed as usual. The new system for platinum & elite seems very simple. I think 90% will never notice a difference. I don’t consider it a down grade of benefits at all. Since you no longer swipe your card, it keeps people from opening a row of computers for their kids to play games. Maintenance came to the cabin to fix the thermostat and something in the blower itself. Seems to work fine now. We passed the Ecstasy going south at about 11:30. I ate lunch, Red Snapper, in the dining room. and DW had a buffet from Horizon court and ate on the balcony. We took a nap and missed tea so we ordered light snacks for the cabin. This is formal night and the Captains Gala Cocktail Party. For dinner I had the tournedos of beef and a soufflĂ© for desert. Very good and the service was excellent tonight. We went to the Princess Theater and saw the production show Cinematastic. This was the third time we have seen this show and I found myself concentrating on the ‘dance captain' who we met on a previous cruise. What a bundle of energy. After the show we went to the casino. Tonight is no smoking night in the casino. It seem to be very busy and very noticeable was that people were much better dressed. My thought is yes they get more people than normal and the dinner dress indicates perhaps ‘new’ people into the casino. We went by the Horizon court late as our cabin is on Lido deck. DW was impressed with the selection that late. I made a little desert/fruit plate to take back to the cabin. Tonight we set our clocks back one hour. I think this will place ships time and all our ports on the same time.

Day 3-Costa Maya-The weather is beautiful this morning. Eggs Florentine was the feature breakfast in the dining room and it was good. We docked in Costa Maya next to the Carnival Liberty. From our balcony, which is only about six cabins from the bridge, we have a perfect view of the Captain maneuvering the ship into dock. He backed it into the inner side of the pier. A+ Just after we docked the Carnival Holiday docked in the 3rd position. It was interesting contrasting the newest and oldest of the Carnival ships. Our balcony cabin faced the Liberty so it was also easy to compare the Grand with the Liberty as well. The Liberty seem to be at least one deck higher than the Grand. A nice looking ship.

We went to shore about noon and met up with Cruise Critic friends at El Faro in Mahahual. Spent the afternoon enjoying: mojitos, mariachis and good company. Mojito Monday was quite fun. The ship sailed on time at 6:00 p.m. We had in cabin tea delivered to our cabin and we had our own sail away party on the balcony. Amazingly the Costa Maya Harbor Master tied down the Liberty and wouldn’t allow her to leave. I’m anxious to hear what that was all about. We watched until we could no longer see her. I read on the internet that she was still there very late into the evening.

Tonight is Italian night in the dining room. The eggplant parmesan was excellent, my favorite dish on the Grand. I had it as both appetizer and entree. Tiramisu for desert. Mojito Monday had caught up with me so I retired after dinner.

Day 4-Roatan- It was cloudy very early but cleared by midmorning. The featured breakfast was a special French Toast and DW actually joined me for breakfast this morning. We decided to stay aboard ship today. This was our forth visit to Roatan and we have seen and done almost everything on the island. We enjoyed time at the spa pool, lunch in dining room, internet cafe, and the cabin. Again enjoyed sail away from the balcony. We left at 5:00 and it was still very much daylight and a beautiful day. The sea was like glass. It was Caribbean night in the dining room, one of the weaker menus so I had the New York strip steak which was good. The Caribbean Party is now amidship on Lido deck which is very nice, you can’t use MUTS for movies, but they showed live shots of the party. The poker tables and satellite tournament were full this evening.

Day 5-Belize- Another beautiful day in the Caribbean. Huevos Rancheros was the breakfast in the dining room and very good. My plan today is to go to Caye Caulker and DW, who usually stays aboard in Belize, decided she would go ashore as well. After tendering to Belize City I went to see my friend Marvin at Ecological Tours and he agreed to let us ride one of his snorkel boats over and and back to Caye Caulker. The ride over was rough as we were fighting the ‘easterly' and current. The ‘easterly' winds did provide a great cool breeze off of the caribbean all day though. The boat dropped us off about 11:30 am and this gave us a full 3+ hours on the island. First stop was the Wet Lizard located at the split. Alma is still tending bar. The split had a lot of young folks enjoying the water and sun. Several Bilikins later we began our tour of the island. This is a very laid-back out of the way location with sandy streets and no vehicles. Beautiful boutique looking buildings painted in pastels with palm trees and beach everywhere you look. You can easily see from one side of the island to the other. We bought some banana bread and a meat pie from a bicycle vendor and it was quite good. His wife made them fresh that morning. We met the snorkeling group and returned to Belize City. Much smoother and faster return. We tendered back to the ship by 4:15.

This was the second formal night. Dinner was very good. Escargot was the appetizer and I had the Beef tournedos of beef with lobster. Before retiring we attended the Motor City show which was very good.
Day 6-Cozumel-Again another beautiful day. The Lumberjack breakfast was featured in the dining room. This is the best of the specialty breakfasts. There were six ships in port for only four berths. International pier can now dock two ships which is a recent development. It does help the odds. We were fortunate that we docked at Punta Langosta which is walking distance of town. The Ecstasy was opposite us. We went to town about 10:00 a.m. and went by Mayan Pearl to see Nelly. I got a haircut at Antonio’s while DW shopped. We went down to Havana Blue for mojitos. Jorge still makes the best mojitos in the Caribbean IMHO. We took a taxi back to the ship about 1:30 pm. in time for lunch in the dining room. I took a nap and DW went to a movie in the Princess theater. We watched the sail away and saw two people rushing to the boat as we pulled away. They boarded the pilot boat and caught the ship coming up the rope ladder. Both were crew members who worked in the casino. We ate with friends taking advantage of the ‘anytime dining’. We may just have to try that next cruise. Dinner tonight was good. I had the crab legs. This was also French onion soup night-very good. Following dinner I played Texas Hold’em until very late. Guess who the dealer was...yes one of the late crew members. He supposedly forgot to change his watch back earlier in the cruise so he was off ships time. We also had to set our clocks forward tonight which was easy to do since I was still awake.

Day 7-at Sea-Seas were a little higher overnight, but nothing compared to the last Grand cruise. We got fruit from Horizon court and ate on the balcony. We have caught up with the Ecstasy who left Cozumel two hours ahead of us. Nice watching her from the balcony and we passed her before noon.

We were again invited to the Captains Luncheon as we are frequent cruisers. We sat with Passenger Services Director Franco Consavari & his lovely wife Jo. Franco is head of all Hotel services on board. The food & desert was very good, I had the lamb. We talked with the Captain and also saw Chief Technical Officer John Bates and his wife Linda. We had met John & Linda previously and really enjoy them. Also a chance to meet some of the other officers aboard ship.

We went to afternoon tea and enjoyed the scones which are very good. We walked around the ship and enjoyed the day. We went to the Farewell Variety show featuring Chris Linn and Rollin’Jay Moore. Farewell Dinner was good. I had prime rib. The Baked Alaska parade has returned and it was a very good dessert. Time to cash casino chips and settle sail card account. Did well on poker table, covered the on board account and coming home with some extra pocket $. We returned to the cabin to pack and prepare for debarkation which took the rest of the evening.

Debarkation-We arrive in Galveston and were docked at about 7:00 a.m. They did use a tug to assist the turn around in the turning basin. We are doing self-debarkation and were assigned numbers 350-351. We went to the Vista Lounge about 7:20 and I was a bit worried about going the opposite direction of the gangway. Soon they called for the 100 & 200 numbers and shortly afterward called the 300’s. We got off in very good shape. They had four + customs agents working on the pier-no problems. We walked over to EZ Cruise parking and were pulling out of the parking lot at 8:00 a.m. Arrived home about 1:00 p.m..

Ship / PAX: All the public rooms were well maintained and very clean. The ship doesn’t look worn in any way. There are lots of spaces for various cruise activities on all the public decks. There were a lot of people from Oklahoma and Kansas on board as it is ‘spring break’ for them. More kids than we are used to, but all in all it was a good mix of passengers. Princess did add a group of "Youth Security" personnel due to spring break season. They seemed to have everything under control.

Cabin: We were in a starboard side Lido deck balcony a little more forward than in December. Very good view of the bridge. We did have the new bedding this cruise (didn’t in December). The cabins are smaller than Carnival and does not have a couch. Smaller closets and bath area storage than RCL and Carnival. The cabin is quite adequate though. There was the bar set up and some of the other Elite perks. MaryAnn our Stateroom Steward was good. The cabin safe uses a code. Once the air conditioning problems were fixed all was fine. No towel animals, but none were expected. Just a nice clean cabin.

Food: As many know the Horizon Court set up is probably not ideal. The food was good though. And food is available 24 hours. Very good to excellent food in the dining room. The wait service is generally the best of any cruise line I have experienced. Our waiter, Nick, from Romania was good. Most all the staff are good. We may use ‘Anytime’ next cruise, but you would miss out on some specialty items such as Baked Alaska, Bananas Foster, etc. The sandwiches served at tea are smaller, probably more like proper tea sandwiches. Previously they were on small rolls and croissants and ‘man sized’ tea sandwiches.

3 Suggestions: A line for Elite/Platinum guests at Pursers office. Missed the sea bass usually served on 1st sea day. Review sail accounts on television.

Cruise: We had a great time on this cruise, but usually always do. Everything is so well done and the crew is outstanding. It’s a shame that the Grand isn’t returning to Galveston next year. The Crew or staff would not confirm any rumors about any other Princess ship coming to the new Houston Cruise Ship Terminal in 2008/9 other than what most of us already suspect.
Again, we loved the ports of call on this sailing. We also had a wonderful time with the new friends we met on board. This cruise goes down as one of our better cruises.

Most Improved/Best Improvement: Photographers. On our previous Grand cruises the photographers were very intrusive. Especially during dinner and sometimes on debarkation in ports. One girl in particular in December we avoided like the plague. After rearranging our dinner table in the middle of eating for a photo we swore off photographers especially her. She also actually accosted us upon leaving the ship for walking around her little barrier she set up. It was unsafe, held up debarkation, and a huge inconvenience to those who didn’t want photos. Very bad form. There are plenty of photo opportunities for passengers without accosting passengers. Not EVERYONE wants a photo. On this cruise the photographers were polite and would pass if told a photo was not wanted. A much needed improvement, one I also mentioned to Franco Consavari at the Captains lunch.

Link to great photos of this cruise by our friend John:

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Review--Shark Ray Alley Snorkel & Caye Caulker Tour

Review--Shark Ray Alley Snorkel & Caye Caulker Beach Tour
Ecological Tours & Services--Belize C.A.

I have had the pleasure of taking the Snorkel & Reef tour offered by Ecological Tours / Wet ‘n Wild on a couple of occasions while in Belize. It is a very simple process to meet the tours at the pier in Belize City. You can check-in at the Ecological Tours kiosk located directly on the front of the boardwalk where the cruise ship tenders dock. They have several boats which leave in the morning and return you well before the last tender back to your cruise ship is scheduled to leave. A typical tour consists of a 30-40 minute trip to the barrier reef and a snorkeling opportunity at Caye Caulker Marine Reserve and Coral Gardens which is a protected underwater national park. The park and reef area have a large number of tropical fish and eels in addition to the beautiful coral and reef. You also visit the Shark/Stingray alley for opportunities to view stingrays, nurse sharks, barracuda and other sea life. All snorkel gear and instruction is included. Following your water adventures you have 45+ minutes on Caye Caulker for lunch and to visit the unique shops on this remote barrier island.

I really enjoyed my tours with Ecological Tours and would highly recommend them to anyone.

They also offer tours for cave-tubing and into the interior.