Pros: Personal choice dining, good entertainment, activities galore!
Cons: Don't forget your Dramamine, this mega-liner is surprisingly UNSTABLE in rough seas!
At first sight, the imposing hull of the Star Princess is just plain overwhelming. This ship is HUGE, dwarfing everything around it and making any harbor seem inadequate for its presence.
We recently celebrated our birthdays on the Star Princess (Dec 14-21,02), cruising to the Mexican Riviera. This particular itinerary included the first 2 days at sea, stops in Puerta Vallarta, Mazatlan, and Cabo San Lucas, and the last day at sea before returning to L.A.
This was our first experience on one of these mega ships, and since we have really taken a liking to small ship cruising, we were a bit apprehensive. After all, the Star Princess, built in 2001, boasts a gross tonnage of 109,000 and is nearly 1000 feet long! Normal passenger capacity is 2600, but on this cruise so close to the Holidays, the ship was packed with 2800 people, 400 of them children!
Embarkation was surprisingly efficient given the sheer volume of people. Make sure you pass along all of your personal information to Princess a few weeks prior to departure, either on their website (this earns you a $50 ship board credit), or via e-mail or fax. You are then awarded an 'express' status at check-in, eliminating waiting in long lines!
Our cabin L227 was located on Lido Deck 14, a quiet spot below the Lotus Spa, and close to the bridge in the front of the ship. We liked the location so high up, and noise was never an issue. However, if you tend to get sea sick, you'll be well advised to reserve a more centrally located cabin on one of the lower decks. The Star Princess does not weather rough seas well and the rise and fall action in both the front and rear of the ship is significant. We've been on much smaller ships in 25 foot seas and experienced less motion than on this ship in mere 12-15 foot swells. So, don't be fooled into thinking that bigger means more stable!
During the last day and night, when the Star Princess cranked up her speed to 22 knots in order to make it back to L.A. on time, quite a few passengers suffered from sea sickness. Some made the mistake and went to the infirmary where the charge for a doctor's visit and a dose of Dramamine was a whopping $60! You can buy Dramamine in one of the boutiques on board for $2.95, better yet, just bring it along, or wear the patch.
The standard cabins are well designed with either 2 twin beds or a queen, desk with chair, one additional chair, TV, small fridge, safe, and more closet space than what we have experienced on other cruises. The closet acts as a divider between bed and bath area, giving more privacy. The bath, just adequate for one person at a time, has a shower and the typical lotion, shampoo, and conditioner supply, an adequate amount of towels and 2 large beach towels, which are to be used at the pool and to be returned to your cabin. I found it helpful that the hairdryer was located at the desk (yes, there is a mirror) instead of in the bath, making getting ready for 2 people more time-efficient.
All outside cabins have balconies, large enough for 2 chairs and a small table. Our balcony was extremely private, but those on some of the lower decks are definitely not! This is one feature I did not like about this ship, especially since some of the more expensive suites are located on those levels. The balconies on the Emerald 8 and Dolphin 9 decks project out (ship is wider below) and are fully visible from the upper decks and cabins, so don't even entertain the thought of sunbathing in your birthday suit, unless you like an audience! Yes, you get more sun on these fully exposed balconies, but I much rather have privacy.
There are lots of dining options on the Star Princess. You can choose traditional 'Fixed Seating' (early or late), with the same assigned table in the Amalfi Dining Room for the duration of the cruise (good for families). We opted for the much more flexible 'Anytime Dining', in either the Capri or Portofino Dining Room, where you can arrive anytime during dining hours and be seated either by yourself or placed at a table with others. We enjoyed it (no chance of getting stuck with boring table mates!) and met many wonderful people throughout the cruise. No reservations are required and we never waited longer than 5 minutes before being seated.
Overall, the food on this cruise was slightly above average, at times even excellent. The service in the main dining rooms was a bit slow, we just didn't feel that the waiters gave it their best or tried to interact with the guests. Dinners took almost always close to 2 hours, a little longer than I care to sit at a table. On the other hand, we found the food and service excellent in the 2 additional restaurants, Sabatini's and Tequila's. Reservations are virtually a must here, although we went to Tequila's on the first night of the cruise without reservations and it was practically empty. You are charged an $8 cover charge for dinner at Tequila's, but get a large complimentary Margarita (normally $6.95), so you are really only out a couple of Dollars. The real bonus, however, is a much better atmosphere than in the somewhat noisy Capri or Portofino and, there was excellent live entertainment throughout the dinner hours, even a small dance floor!
The even more expensive Italian Restaurant 'Sabatini's' requires a $15 cover charge (no free alcohol), but serves 5 gourmet courses, with all the ambiance, attention, and great service one would expect in an expensive restaurant. The biggest secret about Sabatini's is their Brunch (11:30 to 2:00), which is served only on days at sea. Yes, it still costs you $15 per person, but includes all the Champagne, Wine, Mimosas, Screw Drivers, or Bloody Mary's your little heart desires. Three of those, and you are ahead of the game, considering the price for alcohol on this ship! We took advantage of it on the last day at sea, and low and behold it was just us and one other couple! Where were the other 2796 people??? Not one person we talked to later seemed to even be aware that this was offered, a marketing slip-up to say the least. It's a magnificent brunch, even includes caviar, so don't miss out!
The Horizon Court Buffet on Deck 14, where food can be found around the clock, was well organized and we never found lengthy lines. The food here was consistently good, with a wide variety of choices amid wonderful displays of decorative carved fruits and vegetables, as well as impressive ice sculptures. The only bad thing here was the COFFEE, so if you can't do without a good cup of coffee in the morning, try eating breakfast in one of the dining rooms, where the coffee was much better.
There is a charge for soft drinks on the ship, the best deal is the Coca Cola sticker for $20 for unlimited fountain soda. Ice tea and fruit punch is free.
Also, on Deck 14 you find Prego Pizza, the Trident Grill, and Scoops (Haagen Daz ice cream). The Pizza was good, but we recommend skipping the burger at the Trident Grill unless you enjoy a good case of indigestion. We found them greasy and not very tasty. To make matters worse, there is no ice tea to be had there, only sodas and alcoholic beverages. It requires a 1/4 mile hike to the Horizon Buffet if you want ice tea with your burger. Go figure!
Scoops, the little ice cream shop, is not free! But they do serve those irresistible ice cream concoctions, and business was swift. If you must have ice cream and don't want to pay for it, wait until about 3:30 p.m., and you'll be able to find it in the Horizon Court. Flavors change daily.
There is no shortage of bars! I counted at least 8, but am sure that there are more. The emphasis on liquor sales is high and at times a little irritating on the Star Princess, obviously their biggest money maker. There is a duty free shop on board with some excellent deals, but not for consumption during the cruise (you can pick up any purchases during the last night at sea). A liter of Bailey's for $10.95, or a liter of Drambui or Grand Manier for $21.95, just to mention a few, are really great deals! Remember, only one liter per person can be brought back to the U.S. duty free. Also, you are not allowed to bring alcohol from shore although some people managed to sneak it on (wrapped in beach towels!).
Security is consistently high, all bags are scanned when returning to the ship after being ashore. Even your ship card has advanced to the point where it now projects a picture of you onto a little screen when re-boarding, making identification much easier.
The Star Princess has a wonderful array of pools, four in all. The Calypso Reef and Pool has a retractable glass ceiling, Neptune's Reef and Pool is the most centrally located and open air. A very small pool in the rear of the ship is for adults only, but lacks sufficient sun. My favorite was the Current Pool (resistance pool) in the front of the ship, right next to the Spa, which was rarely crowded. The drawback there is, if you want to lay out in the sun nearby, you have to listen to the constant dribble of the basketballs on Center Court just above. A busy place all day long, so is the jogging track, Golf Simulator, Paddle Tennis, and ping-pong tables, all to be found in that general vicinity up on the Sports Deck. All pools are heated by the ship's engines. There seemed to be an abundance of lounge chairs, and even on days at sea we had no trouble finding empty ones.
Entertainment on the Star Princess was excellent and above the norm. The Princess Theater and the Vista Lounge (at opposite ends of the ship) cranked out some wonderful Las Vegas style productions, but there were also top notch performances by comedians and magicians. All shows were popular, and we found it wise to arrive in either theater about 15 minutes early to secure a decent seat.
We did not spend much time in the casino, but I did manage to win $50 on a nickel slot machine. Goes to show you what a high roller I am! They even let you charge your chips or tokens to your shipboard account to make spending a little easier!!!!
We also neglected use of the spa, nor did we exercise in the gym. Just taking the stairs and avoiding the relatively slow elevators gave us sufficient exercise to keep our weight in check. Well, almost. On the last day, our cabin steward pointed out that the steam bath and sauna in the spa were free of charge. This bit of news would have been much more helpful earlier!
A short note about our female cabin steward. Although she was very friendly and efficient, she lacked the imagination of those on other cruise ships, who made a real effort to please and stand out. Perhaps the incentive is gone since tips are automatically charged to one's shipboard account, although we would have probably left something extra, had she tried a little harder. The same is probably true for the dining room staff.
One of the more popular places on the ship is the Skywalker's Night Club, perched high up in the rear on Sky Deck 17 in what looks like the 'whale tale' of the ship, seemingly suspended in mid air. This ultra modern contraption is only accessible by the Skywalk, an all glass tunnel complete with a people mover! It's definitely the most happening place until the wee hours of the morning. If you have a fear of heights, stay away, and remember what I said earlier about the motion of this ship.
The amenities on the Star Princess are almost too many to mention and it takes longer than a 7 day cruise to take advantage of them all. There is no doubt that this ship is gorgeous, with well designed public areas. Never once did we feel crowded. It's still hard to imagine that there were 400 children on board. We hardly noticed them, except in the pools, where supervision could have been better.
There was so much more, the shops, the fabulous atrium, a card room, a well stocked library, movie presentations, an extensive art gallery, art auctions, dance lessons, bingo, trivia games, talent shows, etc. Way too much to mention it all.
The overall decor on the Star Princess is pretty, but not what I would consider elegant. There is some emphasis on jungle scenes, especially in the atrium and around the Explorer's Lounge. I felt the artist did much better with landscapes and structures than attempting to depict African animals which did not seem anatomically correct. Perhaps, I was the only one to notice, but I'm a stickler when it comes to wildlife.
As you stroll about the decks, be aware that a webcam is mounted high up by the bridge, filming activities on the ship. Some of the footage can be viewed live on the Princess Cruises' website, princess.com. So, smile, you might be on camera!
There were two formal nights, but passengers don't seem to take these as seriously as years ago. We found that a good percentage of them did not dress up, so don't worry if 'formal' is not your thing. Quite frankly, it was fun during the first two cruises we took, but it has gotten old now and we are much more comfortable in casual attire.
We took one shore excursion at each of the ports of call. All were water related such as snorkeling and kayaking trips, and we did not spend much time on shore at all. I just don't enjoy having to turn away 4 year old children peddling 'chiclets', or their mothers with yet a smaller babe in arm, trying to sell you jewelry, or handmade dolls. I usually succumb to their begging which always turns out to be a big mistake, since all others in the immediate vicinity instantly hone in on me! Instead, we took to the waters, a much more peaceful and enjoyable experience.
I must say, however, that I did not find the Mexican Riviera particularly good for snorkeling. Much of it can be attributed to rough seas, consequently the water was stirred up and murky, with poor visibility. There was no live coral to speak of, at least not where we were, and even the divers were less than thrilled with their experiences. Their highlight was the sighting of some white tipped sharks, and ours was finding an octopus which we even got to touch. It was just a small one, but it's amazing how tenatious those suction cups are.
We were in Cabo San Lucas on my birthday, a perfect sunny day with mild temperatures. After a full day of swimming and snorkeling, we left the harbor right at sunset with a full moon already high up in the sky. It was spectacular, but what put the icing on the cake was the appearance of a few humpback whales, some of them breaching out of the water, tale slapping and fin waving for quite some time. It does not get much better than that, at least not for this 'whalewatcher'!
Mazatlan, the so-called 'shrimp capital' of Mexico, was our least favorite stop. The smell of fish there is so strong that it literally woke me up early in the morning as we arrived (we always sleep with our balcony door open). The smell was so penetrating, we couldn't eat breakfast on deck but had to retreat to inside the Horizon Court. I even had to skip the usual helping of smoked salmon, just the thought of eating something 'fishy' made me queasy.
Cabo San Lucas, with its fabulous rock formations, was the most scenic stop. Here, we enjoyed a zodiac ride out to the sea lions who come to these waters to mate and have their pups. We actually got quite close to large numbers of them, huddled together in noisy groups atop some of the rocks. Snorkeling here was the best, we saw a good variety of fish but the clarity of the water still left something to be desired.
We booked all of our shore excursions on line, prior to departure. Make sure you check for newly added excursions once you are on the ship. There are probably some savings to be had with vendors at the various locations, but I've heard some horror stories. Not all of them are reputable and safety is not their primary concern! Especially in Mexico, we always prefer to stick with the ship's excursions, even if it means having to go in larger groups.
One note to would-be snorkelers. Some young women in our group were so skiddish about this adventure, that they screamed loudly every time a fish came near. PLEASE, Mother Nature and screaming don't jive!!!!!
A little tip about packing. Temperatures during the first and last day of this cruise were very cool and packing a sweater, jacket, or sweatshirt is a must. Also, it can be quite cool in the theaters, as well as in the restaurants. Bring a light sweater to carry with you in the evening.
All in all, we can certainly recommend this cruise and were generally very pleased with the ship, in spite of its size. Princess has to be commended for the smooth handling of such a large volume of passengers. A pleasant surprise, to say the least. In all honesty, we still prefer the smaller ships, but for a family vacation with children, this ship is hard to beat.