This was our 6th cruise, although our 1st aboard a Princess ship. We have previously sailed with NCL (once), Carnival (once), and Royal Caribbean (3 times). I notice this has run pretty long. Skip to the bottom for a brief summary if you wish. I guess I'll go with the 'good news' first.
We (as usual) arranged our own air transportation to San Juan. We had a little bit of problem locating the Princess rep at the San Juan airport, but not too bad. She just wasn't in the area where we had previously found cruise line reps. The airport is undergoing renovation and signage isn't exactly wonderful. We bought the Princess transfer so transport to the ship was straightforward - although we did have to claim our own luggage, unlike our 3 RCCL trips. Embarkation was painless and quick. There were only about 30 other people being processed at the time we got there so it took about 10 minutes. Crew were stationed conveniently to guide us to our cabin. The cabin was a balcony cabin (yep, had one last time and got spoiled) and had ample storage, a nice little desk and chair, built in hair dryer, refrigerator, safe, and a small balcony with little plastic chairs and a little round plastic table. There were a couple of bad things about the cabin, but I'll get to that later...
One pleasant difference from other cruises: the mandatory life boat drill. We mustered in areas where there were seats. We were NOT made to stand for 45 minutes outdoors in the heat in an uncomfortable crowd. The 'familiarization exercise' was handled in a much more useful manner, and it was made clear that just because there might be an emergency, it may not be necessary to abandon ship. All the other drills we've attended seemed to assume that abandoning ship was the entire object. They also EXPLAINED why it was not necessary to take a roll call at the muster exercise. Very well done indeed.
The Dawn Princess is a very nice ship. It is what currently passes for a medium size - about 77,000 tons and roughly 2000 passengers. The layout is similar to other ships we've been on, except the central atrium seemed to be a bit smaller and only went up 8 decks. There is a rather complicated set of stairways spanning decks 5,6,and 7 that, while interesting looking, takes away a bit from the open, airy feel we have found on other ships. I think the smaller atrium may have contributed to the overall effect of making the ship seem bigger. We didn't feel crowded - except that sometimes the elevators got a bit full. The decor is very tasteful and comfortable. The condition of the ship is excellent. Everything was clean and in good repair. We even saw a crew washing some glass panels along the outside rail in the rain. Maybe not the very best use of time. There wasn't even any dust in the overhead sprinkler heads. I believe they are making their best effort to keep the ship CLEAN to reduce the chance of a Norwalk virus outbreak. We were given information on that on at least 2 occasions - bottom line: wash your hands often and well. We were advised that if we showed symptoms we should dial 911 on the ships phone to speak to the medical staff AND THERE WOULD BE NO CHARGE. That was reassuring as a trip to the ship's infirmary can run to a couple hundred bucks easy.
Almost all the food we ate (and there was plenty, what with the 24 hour buffet...) was pretty good. Exceptions noted below. As has been the case on all the other cruises we've been on, the crew we came in contact with provided excellent service and made every effort to accommodate (buffet exception below). Our cabin attendant, Riza, came to the cabin and introduced herself shortly after we arrived and did an excellent job all week. No funny little towel animals or pillow sculptures, but so what? She and the other personnel we passed in the passageways always spoke to us. The cruise director, Paul, actually seemed to deviate a bit from the 'standard cruise directors manual'. He did not (far as I ever heard) repeat the same word-for-word cruise jokes we have heard on all the other cruises. He seemed to actually have a sense of humor and could ad-lib on the fly. Too bad ALL cruise directors aren't so talented. The captain failed to run the ship aground - so he was OK. We never met the captain. Since the problem with the Norwalk virus, they have all done away with the 'meet and greet' handshake at the captain's reception.
We elected 'Personal Choice' dining. This is open seating dining much like a restaurant - show up between 6 and 10 pm whenever you get hungry. The ship has two formal dining rooms, one being for the traditional first and second seating and the other for 'PC' dining. We very much preferred being able to take meals when we were ready instead of being forced to plan our evening around a fixed meal time. We ate in the dining room three times, the Sterling 'Steak House' once, the 'Pizzeria' once and the 24 hour buffet all other times. I will note that the service in the 'PC' dining room seemed like maybe it was just a bit off. I think that's probably because all the diners aren't on the same course at the same time. Still, service was pretty good and at least one waiter, Oscar, was quite accommodating and pretty amusing.
Princess, like some other lines, has now made 'autotipping' the default. Unless you tell them NOT to, they will automatically charge your cabin account $10 per person per day for gratuities which are divided equally among the service staff. We didn't find any fault with the service (except as will be mentioned below), so I guess it's OK. At least it relieves the necessity of having a lot of cash available at the end of the week to hand out tips. Seems like it kind of removes the incentive from the individual crew members though. I'm not totally decided -- we let it go at the default.
The 'good' entertainment consisted of a comedian. They actually presented two. The guy the first night was OK, the second guy was excellent. We even bought his CD. I'm not going to name names as you won't get a choice of on-board entertainers if you sign up to cruise on this ship, just keep in mind that 50% of the comedians were excellent, the other 50% just OK. The shipboard production company employed singers and dancers that seemed to be of fair ability. Not great or exceptional - but fair to middlin'. More on this below.
Other good features: The pools and hot tubs were available all the time. On other cruises, about the time I was ready for a soak later in the evening, the hot tubs had been closed. Here, I went for a nice soak at 11:00PM. An excellent decision on someone's part. We also found the 24 hour buffet to be an excellent idea. It turns out that in the real world, not everyone is ready to eat at the same time. Of course, 'normal' mealtimes were more crowded, but we never had a big problem finding a table. Except, of course, the morning of disembarkation. The stores aboard seemed OK, nothing much special, usual necessities, booze, logo goods. The casino seemed a bit smaller than some others we've seen. And, very few video poker machines (not good). The show lounges were OK, with clear sight lines everywhere. The only odd thing - no exit aisles at the sides of the 'main' theater. They used the main 'theater' as a movie theater, which was OK too, except the seats in there don't really lend themselves well to 2+ hours of sitting - and NO POPCORN. Much of the silliness that goes on aboard - you know: ugly legs contest, belly flop contests, etc. - was kept a bit quieter. They were there, but annoying announcements were not made over the intercom all the time.
Here, I'll mix a little bad with the good. BAD: The mattresses on this ship are apparently made of plywood. Even though the twin beds were shoved together into a 'queen' as requested, the mattresses are hard as rocks and there was a definite hard ridge in the middle where the two twin mattresses met. This is similar to the situation we encountered on the Carnival cruise we took. Royal Caribbean and NCL have apparently decided that passenger comfort should extend to sleeping arrangements as well as lounge chairs as their beds were somewhat more comfortable. Princess and Carnival should learn a lesson - extra firm mattresses are NOT, repeat NOT good for your back. We both 'woke up' after the first night sore and tired after flopping around all night trying unsuccessfully to get comfortable. GOOD: We mentioned to our cabin attendant (Riza) the next morning how horrible the bed was, and she arranged to put a foam pad on the bed that same day. Apparently they have a supply of them aboard. Why they don't automatically install them I can't imagine. Anyway, the foam pad made enough of a difference that we were able to sleep the rest of the week. If you experience a similar problem, I suggest that you COMPLAIN instead of just 'lumping' it. Maybe something actually can be done to make it better.
We didn't take any of the shore excursions offered. They are pretty pricy and we just didn't feel like being at a particular place at a particular time. Especially, we simply were NOT going to get up EARLY on vacation to get to a tour that departed at 8:00 AM. Start without us. I think the cruise lines should consider 9:00 AM the earliest possible start time. Maybe 10:00 AM. We mostly wandered around areas close to the docks at the ports of call:
St. Thomas: Stores, shopping, American -- been there 6 times. Nice place.
Tortola: Hadn't been here before. The town is a short walk from the pier. Roosters running around all over the place. Meals almost-ready-to-eat I guess? Some interesting shops, very nice spice store, friendly folk. I got a nice deal on a new suit at a shop in town.
St. Maartin: Shops, beaches, been here 4 times. Very nice place. Good prices on stuff if you need any stuff. I bought several silk and linen shirts (NOT logo tourist goods) that I couldn't get around Chicago except maybe at much higher prices. If I could even find them. I've seen similar goods in the shops in the casinos in Las Vegas, but again: at much higher prices.
St. Lucia: didn't do much. Been there before, wasn't much impressed.
Barbados: Took a local cab to an 'Orchid Farm'. Ran us $50 for the cab (gasoline is over $6.00 per gallon!) and $15 to get in. Still cheaper than the shipboard tour. Traffic in Bridgetown is HORRENDOUS! The cab drivers there breath new life into the phrase "a miss is as good as a mile." If your heart can't take fender-to-fender tolerances of ½ inch or so -- don't get in a cab. I can't imagine trying to drive through there in a rented car. Antonio, our driver, was very pleasant and courteous. Gave us a bit of a tour and dutifully answered any questions put to him. The 'Orchid Farm' was also very pleasant; we were glad we went. We always had docking space in port and never had to 'tender' into town - which is good.
Now, for the "BAD."
The FIRST thing we had to do with Princess (other than the greeter at the airport) was the transfer from the airport to the ship. You'd think that with a name like 'Princess' they wouldn't like the first thing their passengers experience to be a rattletrap, run-down bus with torn and stained seats. And yet, that's just what we got. Although it appeared as though someone had made an effort to clean the bus, it was in such bad condition and the seats were all so badly ripped and stained that I felt like I needed a delousing when I got off. I can just hear it now: 'Those are independent operators and we have no control over their equipment.' The head office at Princess needs to GET some control - those busses make a really bad first impression.
And the LAST thing we had to do with Princess, (other than a ride on another crappy bus) Disembarkation: someone needs to seriously address this process. This is really nasty. You are expected to pack up 'the greater part' of your stuff BEFORE dinner the last night aboard and put it outside your cabin. It disappears into the hold. Then after dinner you must pack up whatever is left - except clothing for the next day - and put THAT outside your cabin. Of course, you will need to keep your toiletries, the soiled clothing you are still wearing, your medications, and whatever you may have overlooked in the cabin -- which you will have to somehow fit into your carry-on luggage in the morning. Good luck. OR, you have to strip down, stuff everything except the very bare essentials (you don't really need to brush your teeth, do you?) into that last bag, and hope you didn't pack away something you will really need in the morning. (Oops, I'd have sworn I left out a pair of socks?...) Adding injury to insult, you must get up quite early on disembarkation day (maybe 5:00 AM if you have an early flight and want to shower...) to meet with customs (get in a line almost as long as the ship and shuffle, wait, shuffle, wait, etc. for about 40 minutes) to show them the forms you filled out the night before declaring that you didn't buy anything in excess of the duty-free allowance. Really, I didn't. I swear. Then, you must hang around and get breakfast or try to locate somewhere to sit in the common areas of the ship until EVERYONE has met with customs and disembarkation can commence. (Because they have already disabled your room key and you can't go wait there.) This process will probably take 3 or more hours. It is a terrible, terrible way to end a nice relaxing vacation. I have heard that NCL has at least tried to address this problem by allowing passengers to handle their own bags off the ship and sleep a bit later the last day. My wife claimed the ordeal of getting OFF the ship almost spoiled the whole trip for her. We've gone through it before, but for some reason it just seemed worse this time. I'm thinking I'll be looking real closely at NCL the next time we think about cruising.
Other bad things: The ship designers were apparently drunk one day. The little balcony off the cabin is nice, however this particular ship is constructed such that the outside wall of the balcony is solid steel plate up to just about 2 inches below the rail. You can't see a thing unless you are STANDING at the rail. If you are sitting in the little plastic chair, you see nothing but steel plate and a bit of sky. All the other ships we've seen had GLASS (or at least rails) in that area to afford a view. I feel like I was cheated. My recommendation is DO NOT spend much extra for a balcony aboard this ship or its sister. Further, the illustration of the balcony cabin on the web site shows a reclining lounge chair on the balcony. HA! If there were one out there, you'd have to stand on it.
Which brings up another thing about the cabin. Although it was in general pretty nice, I suspect they shaved a few square inches here and there from the INSIDE of the cabin to make part of the balcony. it was OK, but seemed a little tighter than I was expecting. Also, and this is weird, the little toilet area was apparently designed the same day, by the same drunks, as the balcony wall. They made the shower stall a little bit bigger than we've mostly seen (which is good...), but they took the space for that expansion away from the area between the toilet and the door. Anyone much larger than I am would have had to leave the door open to sit upon the throne. Never mind trying to hold a book or magazine between your face and the door. Definitely NOT a restful situation. And furthermore, they expanded the 4 inch high sill for the shower floor so far into the floor of the bathroom that even a smaller person than I can't sit straight upon the toilet and have a place to put their left foot (Right foot in Port side cabins?). Outside the shower floor: uncomfortable; inside the shower floor: uncomfortable; on top of the sill: uncomfortable. I found I had to 'ride side saddle' just to take care of business. Very serious design flaw.
Although in general the food we actually ate was mostly pretty good, I'm inclined to agree with another review I read noting that the food seemed extra greasy. An example: at the 'outdoor' grill on Lido deck (hamburgers, hot dogs, etc.) they precooked the burgers to reduce preparation time. The precooked patties were stored in a container on the side of the grill soaking in grease. Them greasy burgers tasted pretty good though. Hope my arteries aren't too mad. Some of the other dishes, and I'm really referring to the buffet here, seemed a bit... over lubricated... also.
You may have noted the phrase "the food we actually ate." I put it that way because there was quite a bit of food we did not, would not, eat. Odd, perhaps I'd say unusual, dishes on the buffet. Not recognizable. Odd combinations. Peculiar ingredients. No thanks. One night, the selection at the buffet was so unappetizing we elected cheeseburgers as our entre. And, except for the Sterling 'Steak House' the beef was of questionable quality. It was OK, but barely. I had a grilled sirloin one night, and although edible, I'd have been pretty mad if I'd bought it at a local grocery store. The prime rib we were served the first night in the buffet was pretty good, but the prime we were served the last night in the dining room maybe not so good. Again, it was good, but not excellent. This may have been partially due to the method of preparation. We prefer NOT to have any 'special' spices or marinades applied to our prime rib, and we prefer that they finish cooking it on the barbeque grill. We just took what they brought us.
In fact, after eating the prime the last night, my wife got a very bad case of the 'twitches', and I got a migraine, which we SUSPECT may have been due to MSG on the beef. Maybe not, but we did (on the last night) notice a bit of small print at the bottom of the menu stating that anyone having food allergies or concerns should notify the head waiter or maitre'd. That also caused us to SUSPECT that perhaps there were food additives we probably didn't want. At any rate, neither of us were able to sleep much the last night -- making a bad ordeal even worse. If you don't tolerate MSG or other food additives, I would strongly suggest that you do notify the maitre d' upon embarkation. I will note an exception to the beef complaint: the steaks we were served in the Sterling 'Steak House' were of good quality. Cost us an extra $15 each though...
You may have taken note of my use of quotes around the phrase 'Steak House.' This is because, unlike the last ship we were on (RCCL), THERE IS NO STEAKHOUSE! They just section off a piece of the buffet dining room, throw some cheesy southwest patterned polyester tablecloths on the tables (which I have never seen in a real steakhouse by the way), roll in a podium for the 'maitre d'', and: viola, a 'Steak House.' Pathetic. We usually compare any attempt at a 'steakhouse' to The Outback steakhouse near us, and once again, as usual, we found the on board Sterling Steak House fell well short of a favorable comparison. I can't recommend you blow an extra $15 (each) on it. By comparison, the actual steak house aboard our last RCCL cruise was excellent, the service we got there was well above excellent, and was actually worth the extra money - we ate at that one 3 nights out of 7.
Speaking of 'ancillary dining' - we ate at the on-board pizzeria once. We had heard others raving about it, and noticed ship's officers dining there on several occasions. You can't help but notice; the pizzeria is also NOT in a separate room. It's sort of stretched along the 8th deck around the atrium. It's a very pleasant area, but suffers extra pedestrian traffic. Anyway. We are from the Chicago area, and are accustomed to getting good pizza. I was astounded to find that I COULD NOT GET A SAUSAGE PIZZA at their 'pizzeria.' Not available. They had other things, but didn't even have a ground beef option, which I would have accepted as a reasonable substitute. Around here, when we order pizza at the office, roughly 50% of those polled want sausage pizza. And it wasn't even available. I ordered a plain cheese pizza. And it was HORRIBLE. The sauce was bland and watery and the crust not very flavorful. My wife had a salad and macaroni and cheese. Which she ate, but didn't seem very impressed with. I am puzzled as to why anyone would think the food at this 'pizzeria' was any good. Maybe they have something else that's better - they did have a few other 'Italian' dishes available. At least it didn't cost extra. One good thing I did notice here though: they did not appear to over use garlic in their recipes, which indicates the chef at least has a clue as to authenticity.
Speaking of garlic, my wife complained of having been woke up on several mornings by the stench of 'burnt garlic bread' in our cabin. I only caught a whiff of it a couple of times -- and I'm very sensitive to garlic stench -- don't know where it was coming from. Maybe a kitchen vent was a little too close to our cabin? It didn't bother me much, but it does indicate yet another design flaw, I guess. And, as long as I'm complaining about stench, I guess I'll mention that although Princess forbids smoking in dining rooms and other indoor common areas, and designates outdoor areas, they don't have non-smoking decks, or cabins, or even port/starboard smoking preference with respect to cabins. We had to play musical deck chairs a couple of times because of people smoking where they ought not to have been. And the casino seemed a little bad at times. At the time I booked the cabin, Princess told me, 'we don't discriminate about smoking' in the cabins. Which of course means that they DO automatically discriminate AGAINST people who do not care to be around others who are smoking, or to be put in a room that has been 'tainted' by the smoke of a previous occupant. I had to abandon our little balcony on 2 occasions because someone upwind of me was smoking a cigar. I will say however, that there was no noticeable odor of stale tobacco in our cabin. Unless maybe that was the 'burnt garlic bread' stench my wife was bothered by? I guess it's possible that the mattress and/or pillows on one side of the bed had been 'stenchified' by a previous occupant. I don't want to think too much about that.
As to the on-board entertainment: more bad news I'm afraid. Although there was an excellent comedian, and although the onboard production cast were fairly capable, the choice of material was pretty bad. Seemed like nothing but bunches of odd 'show tunes' -- and not necessarily the expensive shows either. Seemed like mostly old stuff -- although I don't really know, not being gay myself. Cheap royalties maybe? It was tired, trite, boring. Then, to further deaden our entertainment possibilities, they trotted out a HYPNOTIST act for crying out loud. For 3 or 4 different 'performances.' I suppose people went to see it because that's what was there, but come on! A hypnotist? We didn't go as we don't consider that to be entertainment. They had another singer - impressionist I guess - that we also didn't bother with. He may have been good; don't know - I'd rather see the ACTUAL singer than someone doing an impersonation.
We were further disappointed by the total LACK of any music being presented anywhere (that we ever found, anyway) that was geared towards our age group. It appeared that SOMEONE thought the entire complement of ships passengers must have been in their 70s and 80s. I think I mentioned the show tunes. Also, seemed like 'big band' sorts of stuff, and maybe old 'standards.' There was a guy in the atrium playing and singing sometimes. He shouldn't have been singing. There didn't seem to be any rock 'n' roll playing anywhere (and I DON'T mean from the 50s - I mean 60s and 70s), and I didn't even see a guitar player in the ship's orchestra. I heard a guitar at least once during a production number, but I didn't actually SEE it. I suspect it was 'memorex' not live. Even the cruise director made fun of the fact that the Disco was usually empty. Well, it's a DISCO, and as we all know, disco is dead -- they should maybe reclaim that square footage for a better purpose. Maybe turn it into a Rock 'n' Roll venue. Get some good bands aboard or something. Anything.
Another red flag: I didn't see any popcorn available anywhere, any time. Not even at the movie presentations. I simply do not understand this.
Still more bad: Included beverages seem to be: coffee, tea, water, milk, OJ and GF juice at breakfast. NO lemonade. No soda. They have a soda program for $22 - all the fountain pop you can drink all week. Kids or adults. BUT! It doesn't include cans of pop - only fountain. Bottled water available - for a price. You may as well add 22 bucks apiece to the cost of your cruise right now.
When the air pump was working on the hot tub, the water was too cool. I couldn't find a switch to turn it off.
The movies for the on-board movie channel (channel 21, I think) were not mentioned in the on-board newsletter. You have to be lucky enough to catch the listing on-screen between movies. My wife must have complained to me a dozen times that they really, really should list the movies and times in the Princess Patter (or, as we came to call it, the Pitter Patter). We also suspect other events went unmentioned as well. We know of at least one - a sushi buffet that we happened to see being prepared one day. We double checked the Pitter Patter: no mention.
The on board internet service is stuck way in the back of the boat in what appears to have once been a walk-in closet next to the beauty salon. I had a very bad time there. First, the card readers wouldn't read the cards we were first issued - had to go down to the purser and get it replaced. Then, it didn't work quite right, but finally worked. However the computer didn't work right. They sent someone up. It STILL didn't work right. Others were having similar problems. I went to see the purser again (Randall) who ASSURED me that the charges for the first couple of failed attempts would be 'taken care of.' I was finally able to use a different computer. Those 'taken care of' charges showed up on my final bill at the end of the trip and I had to go stand in line for 30 minutes the morning of disembarkation to get it cleared up. The couple of bucks worth of bum charges made me WAY more than a couple of bucks worth of angry. And at 50 cents a minute - that stuff should work like magic each and every time.
Another note on the 'autotipping': They whack you $10 per person per day regardless of where or when you choose to dine. This isn't a problem EXCEPT when dining at the 24 hour buffet. Whenever we ate in the formal dining room, the 'steakhouse', or the 'pizzeria' the service was good. At the buffet it was non-existent. There are NO trays, just platters and plates. You must always carry: your plate, your tableware, your salad plate, your soup bowl, your bread plate, your beverage and any creamers, stir sticks or whatever else with you from the buffet area to your table - or make several trips which means you are bucking traffic and adding to the congestion (see next paragraph). Never, ever, did a staff person offer to assist by carrying a plate or beverage. Never, ever, did a staff person help find an available table (luckily this wasn't really a problem), Never, ever, did a staff person offer to bring us a soda or other 'you-got-to-pay-for-it' beverage, or offer any other assistance besides clearing off the dirty dishes. Even though I had paid $22 for fountain soda, I ALWAYS had to walk to the bar and get it myself. On only 2 occasions did any of the staff come to the table and offer to refill a beverage (coffee or juice at breakfast). And on neither occasion was any needed at the time the offer was made. I've made up my mind now, there was no reason for me to have paid a 'dinner' gratuity for the occasions we ate in the buffet. I recommend you consider this carefully and personally hand gratuities to those deserving of them. If they want to throw them in a common pot, that's their business.
Regarding the 24 hour buffet areas: There are 2 identical buffet setups on opposite sides of the buffet dining room. They normally alternated back and forth instead of keeping both open at the same time. I understand why they do that, but it appeared rather as though the room was designed to have BOTH sides available to handle the traffic. The buffet area was usually crowded and you have to navigate carefully while carrying all your stuff (without a tray...) to avoid collisions. Another instance of poor design.
SUMMARY: GOOD : Embarkation good, ship nice, lifeboat drill big improvement, crew very good, quality of food OK, cruise director funny, seating pretty comfortable, SOME entertainment was very good, 24 hour food available, Personal Choice dining good, 24 hour pools and hot tubs.
SUMMARY: BAD : disembarkation process bad, beds way too 'firm' - but complain and maybe you can get a foam pad, steel plate on front of balcony - no view, balcony smaller than expected, toilet very uncomfortable due to design, 'steakhouse' not worth the money, no sausage pizza - pizza not good, food sometimes a bit greasy, questionable quality of beef - possible food additives; make sure to advise the maitre d' of food allergies when you board, information missing from newsletter, internet inconvenient and troublesome, entertainment mostly geared toward very old people - production numbers poor, varieties of food often not to our taste, service in buffet dining room non-existent, buffet layout crowded, no popcorn, elevators slow and sometimes too crowded, wife troubled by intermittent odor in stateroom.
I'm noticing that the 'BAD' paragraph handily outweighs the 'GOOD'. I overheard someone on board complaining that they were also very disappointed, and that they had expected more from Princess. Their speculation was that the Princess line had been going sharply downhill since having been bought out by Carnival. We had no earlier experience with Princess, but I will say that I really did expect better. I can't say that I would never sail with Princess again as we still had a pretty nice time (even the worst cruise we've been on so far was still enjoyable), however I am now ranking the cruise lines we've sailed with thus: 1. NCL closely followed by 2. RCCL then a gap until 3. Princess another big gap and then finally 4. Carnival.