Written by Suzy Cruisy, sailing with hubby only on this voyage.
Fort Lauderdale - depart 4pm
Princess Cays – 9am - 3:30pm
Sea - formal night
St. Maarten – 10am – 6pm island deck party this evening
St. Thomas - 10am - 4pm - formal night
Grand Turk - 1pm - 6pm
Fort Lauderdale - 7am arrival
Pre-Cruise Hotel - Since we live in California, we can't make same day flights even if we wanted to. Its either day prior or red-eye. Our choice is always day prior, so we booked the Hilton Fort Lauderdale Airport.
We had a fine stay there. The room was clean and comfortable. The airport shuttle was free and reasonably prompt (they want you to call when you arrive rather than a set schedule). And they use an outside provider for shuttle service to the pier you can set up when you arrive. The cost is $9 per person. If you have a large party, you can request a private van of your own through another vendor they work with. We did the private shuttle since we had some friends meet us for breakfast, so it worked great.
Princess Check in at Port Everglades is usually very smooth. We had a delay due to a US Coast Guard inspection that caused a bit of a headache, but it wouldn't be worth writing about since it wasn't the norm. This will happen every time a ship comes to the US from a foreign port. We were sailing on the first Caribbean voyage after Ruby's Europe season.
TIP FOR EMBARKATION DAY - Head to the buffet at the extreme aft "Cafe Caribe". Its less crowded than the two sides.
Crown Grill - We did dinner in the $25 per person pay-extra steakhouse the first night. Although the food and service were fine, we didn't find them to be of much better quality than the dining room.
If you want to avoid the grouchy, tired travelers though, it was a great quiet respite on the first evening. No crowds at all.
Princess Cays - Our first port is Princess' private beach in the Bahamas. This is the only tendering port in the itinerary, so we let the first wave of folks go earlier than us and then made it down to the tender area around 11am for our 11:55 reserved activity. Unlike a regular tour, you mostly rent equipment there but the loungers are free to use. Because they could run out of equipment, you do actually rent for a specific time period, but on our day I wouldn't say they were going to run out of equipment.
We chose to rent two sea boards. These are hard floating devices you propel by kicking and stroking with your hands and they have a viewport in the bottom so can IN THEORY look out the bottom and see fish. Well, Princess Cays is sandy with boulders, and there were no fish to be seen. The surf was a bit rough too (probably from a storm far off that caused our first night onboard to be rough). It was hard to stay balanced on the board AND there were no fish. It just wasn't fun. If you want to just float around, getting a regular float would be better. And then lay perpendicular across it. Take some kind of water shoes to wear though, as the rocks are sharp. Its not an idyllic sandy beach by a long shot.
We can give kudos to Princess for having a great BBQ on the island though, which was a great lunch after our aerobic activity. And then we headed over to the line to tender back to the ship after lunch, as a rainshower was fast approaching. We also didn't have TOO much longer at the port and didn't want to be in the even bigger crowd that waits until the last minute to go back.
St. Maarten - I stayed onboard today, as I've been to this island before and wanted a day of rest onboard. I had a pedicure in the spa. However, my husband went shopping and wandered around town. If you like shopping, this is the best port for it. He had to take a water taxi for $6 over to the main town from our pier, but had a lot to look at once he was in town. He was gone the entire day.
There were three other ships in port with us.
St. Thomas - Although St. Thomas US Virgin Islands is beautiful in itself, we toured off island. We took a ferry ride across to St. John and then did an island tour there. There were lots of twisty roads, jungle, and some nice views. Not a huge long or interesting tour, but OK for a first time. Not a tour I'd specifically suggest. Some of the snorkeling beaches were beautiful though so if you were going across on the ferry for that, it would be worth your time.
The ferry boat ride each direction was 45 min and we sat on the side of the ferry and got soaked by the sea spray on the way OVER, so we were wet the whole island tour in the open air busses. A bit uncomfortable, but being wet in the tropics seems normal.
If you're going to spend a beachy day, then maybe St. John, but otherwise touring town and shopping or doing beach stuff is better in St Thomas.
Grand Turk - My favorite stop of the entire week!
The port of Grand Turk in the Turks & Caicos Islands is a Carnival Corp built port. So, its everything you need on one stop. There is a great long free beach RIGHT at the cruise pier called Governor's Beach. Part of it is in front of a VERY large Margaritaville with the usual restaurant, bar and retail, but also multiple pools and lounge chairs. AND there is a surf rider there at the pier if you want to try the body board on man-made surf machine simulator. The cost for that is $29 for an hour, $39 for 1.5 hours.
There is also lots of shopping, including the usual jewelry stores, Del Sol t-shirts, other misc retail, some native crafts booths and another food stop or two. Its possible to rent cars and do an 'island' tour also, but the area is so small you'd really be wasting your money.
My husband did a scuba dive through the ship tour. The first dive was a wall dive after a 15 min boat ride that was a bit interesting but there was not great visibility that day even though the water looked pretty clear when the ship stopped. He saw a lion fish and a barracuda as interesting animals of note. After a 26 min surface interval they did a coral and fish dive that was nothing to write home about. Also the depth gauge on the console didn't work on his rental equipment, but he was with a group so he wasn't concerned safety-wise. He rated the dive 'OK' but not spectacular.
The Ship - Even though I'd been to most of these islands before (hence the non earth shattering shore excursions), it was my first time on one of Princess' newest class of ship that contains the Ruby, Emerald, Crown and Caribbean Princess. These have an extra deck of people as compared to the regular Grand-class that I'd been on many times (Grand, Golden, Star, Diamond, and Sapphire).
There are a couple of major differences, but none are things that make me love or dislike this class of ship as compared to others. (Diamond/Sapphire are still my favorite.) First, major differences are the much wider hallways inside on Deck 7. Because of a whole extra deck of passengers, they made the inside spaces wider to accommodate everyone. This doesn't SEEM like a big deal, but you know what's weird? There are only straight backed chairs with cushions on the Promenade area and NOT loungers. If you want to lounge and read, it won't be here.
Another major difference is the uncovered second pool made for Movies Under The Stars. Obviously, these ships made for it rather than having it added after the fact are different. The sound system for one is amazing for movies (and terrible and if you want peace and quiet). You can hear the booming from the action flicks far and wide. I wonder how bad it is to be on Riviera deck right below that? Anyway, no covered pool on these ships. Just a big open area with tiers of viewing lounges facing the screen.
The second pool area is much smaller than other Grand Class ships, but still nice.
One thing that really impressed me about Ruby Princess was the sheer number of power operated handicapped accessible doors. For example, doors between the promenade deck and the interior were powered in the center whereas I’ve not seen this on other ships. If you or someone you travel with has limited mobility, this is a great option!
Ship Service – As with all cruise lines during the past few years, I noticed a slight dip in service, but nothing I couldn’t live without. We had Anytime / Flexible Time dining, and because we were always willing to sit with others, we never once had to wait with a buzzer. Those that insisted in dining at tables for two and with just their own party were waiting though.
We found the waitstaff service to be hit and miss. Some were great. Others really not. They served lobster in the main dining room Friday evening (Grand Turk) and NOT the second formal night. That was odd for a repeat cruiser like myself. That evening our assistant waiter was so busy unshelling all the lobsters that he never got around to offering us coffee. One thing I did NOT like is their attempt to sell bottled water. They will offer you ‘still or sparkling’ water, but if you’re not careful and you say still, you’ll end up paying $5 for a big bottle of water. If you are happy with regular stuff, just say you want tap water. And in case you didn’t know, water on ships is probably the best tap water you’ll ever get anywhere! They have such a great filtration system that its never necessary to buy water on a ship. Of course, when departing for a shore excursion having a bottle is handy, but if you just refill a used bottle of your own with the ship’s tap in your room you’d be set. And all rooms have refrigerators, so you can have cold at your disposal as well.
I found the room steward to do a good job, although he seemed more harried than normal. Not his fault at all, but I was disappointed to learn that you can’t get dry cleaning AT ALL on Princess now due to their environmental initiatives. So, be sure you pack multiple sets of formal clothes, or simply plan not to eat in the dining room on formal night. Any formal wear requiring dry cleaning will not be able to be cleaned until you take it home!
Entertainment – Evening entertainment was varied, as it always is on Princess. This is one of the reasons I like Princess Personal Choice Cruising so much. There are entertainment options galore in the evening, so you can pick what you want to do the most and then schedule your own dining time around that if you choose the Anytime Dining.
Something new I loved was the week’s Entertainment Highlights in the Welcome Aboard Princess Patter daily paper. If you just reference that, you can see the planned entertainment for each night of the entire cruise in the Princess Theatre, Explorer’s Lounge, Club Fusion and which movies were going to be on Movies Under the Stars in the Evening. (Movies Under the Stars seems to be constantly running, so this list was just the major movies going on for evening entertainment. You’d find the daytime ones in the daily Patters.)
Most of the time, production shows are repeated. So, if you pay attention to the list, you can schedule to see one of the shows on its second night with less crowds. Of course, if there is a Movie Under the Stars movie on only one night, you can then go out of your way to schedule that for one of your evenings. I love this!
Specifically, there was a comedian who was SO popular for the first half of the week, Phil Tag, that we never got to see him! The Explorer’s Lounge was packed for each of his shows, with people showing up an hour in advance to get a seat. We thought the fervor would die down after the first night or two, but on his last night we couldn’t get a seat. The second half of the week had a comedian named Steve Moris we’ve seen before. He is quite good, but we loved him more the first time we ever saw him on the February 2011 Sapphire Princess.
We skipped the illusionist, but did catch the production show Broadway Ballroom, which we enjoyed. We prefer to play poker in the casino as our main entertainment, so we don’t go to the regular entertainment as much as others. Besides that, when you cruise Princess often, you start seeing the same shows over and over and we decided to purposely skip some of them so we could see something fresh and new on our next cruise.
Movies Under the Stars is quite fun. We watched Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides during one of the casual evenings. They had fresh popcorn and lap blankets available at the start of the show, and also came out with fresh cookies and milk. It was a bit breezy and our drink cups and popcorn was blowing around a bit, but it was still plenty warm in the Caribbean to be outside. It even misted rain on us towards the end of the movie, but it wasn’t enough to drive us in. I do have to say that you should grab a lap blanket before the show starts regardless if you need it yet or not. Once it got windier and I’d sat there a while, I wanted the cover and there were none left in the holder. I had to scrounge around for one not being used.
Activities – As far as sea day activities, we participated in things we usually do. I did the On Deck for the Cure breast cancer donation walk. You contribute $15 or more, they give you a hat, you make 8 laps of the promenade (5K) or whatever you’re up to in order to participate. One of the activities crew staff members stands next to a table with a water cooler and cups and cheers each time you make a lap. They did this at 9:30am on the final sea day. This is actually something offered on all Carnival Corporation cruise line brands (Carnival, Cunard, Princess, Holland America, Seabourn and Costa), so its on nearly every cruise I do! I figure with all the extra food I’m eating, a forced 5K walk is just the thing, plus I love supporting the cause.
Another thing I always do is ceramics painting. It only costs $5 for the little fish spoon holder you get to paint, and its very relaxing. I heard a RUMOR that they’re going to do away with Ceramics@Sea and have another arts and crafts activity in its place starting in 2012, but that is not yet confirmed.
My husband also participated in a poker tournament. They have various tournaments in the casino throughout the week, but of course most activity is on the two sea days.
Italian Piazza – Princess has a new area of the ship on nearly all of their ships now. Its called the Piazza. The point is to have the bottom of the atrium be like an Italian street and draw people to it and spread them around the ship better. In the past, the bottom of the atrium was rarely used, but now it’s a gathering place.
Multiple times a day they have entertainment there. During the first half of our week there was a fabulous Flamenco Dancing couple called Flamenco Express. I loved watching them, and caught their show three or four times. Each time they performed something a little different, so it wasn’t a repeat. The second half of the week we had a really good juggler whose name was Aaron Bonk who also did different shows each time. You never know what varied entertainment you’ll get here, but its been good each time I’ve seen it.
Also in this area is the International Café, which is always open. You can get great sandwiches, cookies, ice cream, desserts, and pay-extra specialty coffees in this area. I particularly loved the cashew chicken salad mixture. One night I had a bowl of it and another day a sandwich! When you don’t want to stand in line upstairs, remember this is an option. There are some small tables to sit in right around the café counter.
Another mainstay of the Piazza style atrium is the Vines Wine Bar. Vines is open until 11pm each night. Obviously, they have some great wines to purchase by the glass, bottle or flight. They also have some wine tasting events there, and some good food. If you purchase a drink there, you can have free sushi!
New food and service touches on Princess – New is a relative term, but if its been a few years since you were on Princess, here are some new features they’re touting. Now included with free coffee, tap water and tea in the Horizon Court buffet you can also have lemonade. Lemonade is in blue pitchers in the beverage area. Its unmarked though, so you need to know you can ask for it.
Warm cookies and milk is something that has been out a while. It’s a couple of guys that roll a cart around on the pool deck / buffet deck late in the afternoon. I was a bit frustrated that I couldn’t find out an exact time for this as I really wanted to try it. When I finally did locate the guys, they said they come out ‘when they’re done baking’ the cookies, so the time isn’t set. As I said above though, they also offered some when we did the Movies Under the Stars, so if you wanted some around an evening movie start time you might be able to find them there.
And a BRAND new feature that I didn’t personally see, but you should watch for is high tea offered from a cart during tea hour of 3:30pm to 4:30pm on the promenade deck. Supposedly if you’re sitting reading a book or just lounging on the outdoor promenade deck you can be served tea and scones in your seat on sea days! I planned to catch this on the last sea day, but missed it because I was busy watching the juggler in the Piazza!
Port Shopping – If you’re planning to shop, its advisable to attend the port and shopping talk on the ship. Once its over, the shopping guide can give you VIP cards for the shops and items you are most interested in. Although you might find this a hoax, it really does work. I attended the shopping talk the morning we were to arrive in Grand Turk. I was interested in the jewelry in three different shops, so I asked for VIP cards for all three. Although the first two didn’t have anything I really wanted, I did find a pendant I liked at Diamonds International and about $90 was whacked off my quote price once I showed the VIP card. So even if you plan to just window shop, doesn’t hurt to have a VIP card handy!
Fort Lauderdale Disembarkation - We breezed off the ship about 8:45am. We asked for a 8am disembarkation color, but it took us longer to get organized.
We were quite bummed that Princess canceled our disembarkation tour (riding a boat on the intercoastal waterway with a few stops). They said they didn't have enough participation. Since our flight wasn't until about 6pm, we wondered what we would do all day on Saturday after they broke the news about 9am.
Turns out the luggage storage company at the Fort Lauderdale airport has a kiosk at the pier and its easy to hand off your bags for $6 per bag to store for a day. http://www.bagstogo.net/ Pick up in Fort Lauderdale is downstairs by baggage claim at the airport and really easy. They will also take bags to the Miami Airport for you.
Once that was done, we inquired with some of the pier staff about the water taxi service. The Princess pier at Port Everglades was actually close enough to walk to the www.Watertaxi.com stop 7. Just out of the pier, around the convention center, across the big street (causeway 17?) and to the Hilton Ft Lauderdale Beach. We did a loop from there with a stop in the middle and taxied to the airport about 2pm. Loved it for a great way to spend the day!
Overall – I had a great experience on my 40th cruise! Overall I enjoyed the service and the food and entertainment. I loved the ship’s warm tones décor with lots of wood accents (as is common on all Princess ships). I’d suggest this itinerary and ship to anyone interested, and I’m looking forward to my cruise on Ruby’s sister ship the Caribbean Princess in February, 2012!
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