grand princess - princess cruises - cruise ship review & photos

Grand Princess - Princess Cruises - cruise ship review and photos

Back in 1998, the introduction by Princess Cruises of the 108,806 ton Grand Princess raised some eyebrows. This giant ship did not look like any other cruise ship around! Opinions of the general public were mixed when first seeing its staggered rows of stateroom balconies,  huge funnel arrangement, non-traditional bow and -most of all- the spoiler all the way aft. But despite its eccentric looks, Grand Princess proved to be a resounding success from the very first voyage, leading to the construction of two identical sisters, Golden Princess and Star Princess.

With the introduction of Grand Princess, Princess refined their "Personal Choice" philosophy even further. With three main dining rooms, the Grand class vessels were the first Princess ships to offer passengers a choice between traditional dining in two seatings; or open seating which allows you to com to dinner when you want to. With many entertainment options, a 24-hour casual eatery, two specialty restaurants, five swimming pools and endless sports facilities, Grand Princess is a ship suited for almost everyone.

On June 5th, 2002, my three friends (Janneke, Demis and Teun Wim)  and I flew from Amsterdam to Florida to first soak up some sun for a couple of days before driving to Ft. Lauderdale on Sunday, June 9th to board Grand Princess in Port Everglades for a 7-day Eastern Caribbean voyage calling at St. Thomas, St. Maarten and Princess Cays.

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Oh, if all cruises could start like this one! Princess knows how to handle crowds, and the embarkation procedures are a shining example of the cruise lines' expertise. We completed our passenger details before leaving home on the website, and consequently are on board within 15 minutes after arriving at the terminal!    

At 3.00 PM our bags are delivered to our cabins, and by the time the ship's main engines are started we are unpacked and ready to fully enjoy our week's vacation. After a somewhat hastened Emergency Drill, Captain Christie comes over the PA system announcing our departure from Port Everglades. First the vintage Ocean Breeze reluctantly leaves her berth with the aid of two tugs, followed by Royal Caribbean's Enchantment of the Seas. At 5.30 pm it is our turn to rush out to sea. Cruise Director  Graham Seymour counts down our departure, and a cheer from all passengers plus three blasts on the ship's horn officially means the start of our long-awaited cruise. Although not many cruise ship afficionados line the apartment buildings further down the entrance channel, Captain Christie manages to have the ship's horn perform a deafening serenade. In the light of the setting sun, Grand Princess picks up speed and sets course for St. Thomas.   

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Traveling in early June, this cruise did not come cheap. Thus, it was no hard decision to opt for an inside cabin, and we were pleased to be allocated two roomy cabins high up on Aloha Deck.  Cabins A516 and A508 are a little more spacious than other standard inside rooms, and have the added bonus of being very close to the amidships elevator lobby. Sporting a huge amount of closet space, these cabins are very comfortable, if not a little on the boring side decoration-wise.

With a private safe, refrigerator, excellent in-cabin TV programming, complimentary use of bathrobes and the best seagoing shower ever, cabins on the Grand class ships come equipped with all the amenities you could wish for. Too bad the "software" does not quite live up to the "hardware" on our cruise. We receive excursion tickets for other people, bottles of mineral water are never replaced and our numb cabin stewardess at times simply forgets to clean our cabin, leaving us "towel-less" after a scorching day on the beach. One other slightly annoying thing is the fact that in these particular cabins, the entrance is next to the beds, and our stewardess is in the habit of parking her trolley right in front of it, waking us up at 7.00 AM each morning with the soothing sounds of her hovering the corridor. Of course she can't much about that, but I would have expected cabin insulation to be better than this.

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Right in the heart of Grand Princess is the beautiful 3-deck high atrium, with an intriguing stained glass ceiling overhead. Connected by staircases that seems to float in the air, the atrium is designed to be a natural point of orientation. No matter where you go on board, the odds are you will pass Grand Plaza many times. Housing the ship's two Purser's Desks, the boutiques, card room, library and two bars, the atrium is always lively, come day or night.

During the day, the shop's staff will set up tables for their "luxury"watch, gold or t-shirt sales, while at night a pianist or combo will fill the atrium with relaxing sounds. Princess does use the atrium space to its fullest extent, and they do it well! For one, they have done away with the traditional Captain's Cocktail Party.

Where other cruise lines make you stand in line, shake hands with the poor Captain and finally cram you in a lounge (which is always too small), officers on Princess Grand class ships "walk" the room, chatting away with passengers, while formally dressed waiters will offer you a glass of bubbly and a hors d'oevre or two. Then the Captain makes an appearance on one of the "balconies" and welcomes you aboard in true British style. Nice touch!

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Grand Princess boasts no less than four full-sized fresh water swimming pools, all open around the clock. That alone puts this ship in a class of its own, but add to that the numerous Jacuzzis and separate children's pools and it is clear to see Princess created a water wonderland at sea. For people like me that plunge into a pool every now and then while on vacation, Grand Princess is sheer heaven!    

All the way aft is the cool Terrace Pool, reserved for adults only. Overlooked by an amphitheater of open decks and overshadowed by Skywalker's Disco overhead, this pool is in walking distance of the Horizon Court eatery and its bar. Just forward of the funnel is the exquisite Neptune's Pool, in fact an indoor/outdoor complex which is two decks high and covered by a sliding glass roof. Every afternoon at around 4.00 PM, the roof silently closes, turning Neptune's Pool into a delightful indoor swimming pool, excellent for nighttime swimming under the stars.  

Further forward and separated from Neptune's Pool by the amidships elevator bank is the bustling Calypso Reef, the ship's main swimming pool. Here, sunning space is at a premium and during our cruise it was home to a more youthful crowd enjoying the sounds of the resident calypso band and the odd pool game. A full-service bar is nearby, as is Ice Cream Bar and the Hamburger Bar. Finally, located a little out the way and directly adjoining the Plantation Spa is the beautiful Lap Pool. This is by far the most exclusive pool, with teak terraces lined with steamer chairs leading down to the turquoise waters.

With more than 2,600 passengers on board, our cruise is fully booked, and while it can be very busy on deck at certain times, there are always lounge chairs to be found for the four of us. First to go are the chairs lining the Neptune and Calypso Pools, but walk around the expansive decks a little, and you are sure to find a secluded spot with lounge chairs aplenty. For a ship this big, it is wonderful to be able to choose between so many pool areas, and the fact that they are open around the clock is equally brilliant. Well done, Princess!

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When booking passage on Grand Princess, you are asked whether you would like to dine in a traditional first or second seating, or choose the "Anytime Dining" option. When opting for the traditional seatings, you are assigned a table in the Botticelli Dining Room, located aft on deck 6. The two other main dining rooms, called Michelangelo and Da Vinci, are located amidships on deck 5 and 6, are both operating on an open seating basis for the duration of the cruise. "Anytime Diners" can report to the Maitre d' at either dining room between the hours of 6.00 and 10.00 pm, requesting a table for 2 to 8. You are also able to pre-book a table at a desired time by calling the Maitre d'.  

"Anytime Dining" works extremely well and the four of us never have to wait more than 15 minutes for a table for 4. If a table is not available immediately, you will be handed a futuristic looking beeper that will start to flash, zoom, and what not when your table is ready. Dining room food is generally very good, with emphasis on steaks and fowl. The menu is quite traditional, and Princess takes no chance by presenting dishes that will by now be all too well known to past passengers. It is nice to see the attention to detail during dinner, with custom designed, high-quality plates and glassware. The petit fours served on formal nights are a nice touch, too, as is the complimentary espresso and capuccino after dinner.  

For passengers wanting a special dining experience, Grand Princess boasts two reservations-only restaurants. The Painted Desert is an inviting eatery on deck 7 featuring Mexican food, plus a margarita bar and live music during dinner. A service charge of US$ 7.50 per person is levied here, and judging from the great smells that vapored around the restaurant it might be well worth the extra surcharge. We choose to celebrate Janneke's birthday by making dinner reservations at Sabatini's Trattoria, the ship's Italian restaurant. We read the jubilant articles that appeared in Princess Patter, browse the preview menu in our cabin, and watch the hard sell on TV,  and are very curious to see if Sabatini's lives up to the hefty US$ 15 service charge. While the food is definitely good, we find the service at Sabatini's rushed and a little chaotic. All diners are first presented with a seemingly endless parade of all appetizers on the menu, presented in tiny bite-size portions. I like the idea very much, but in practice you are stuffed by the time you swallow your zillionth bite-sized portion, which incidentally is served in a mind-boggling tempo. This is not dining, this is digesting! The main course is too much of a good thing for all of us, and after a spoonful of the divine desert my tuxedo begins to feel like a harness. Sabatini's staff have to roll us back to the cabin!

Last but definitely not least is the Horizon Court. Perched high atop the ship on deck 14, this is a buffet restaurant par excellence. While the layout of the actual buffet area is very awkward, resulting in two traffic flows crashing into each other in the middle, the food is superior to the buffets found on most other mainstream cruise lines. I like the elaborately themed lunch buffets (Italian, Oriental), while the midnight snacks are simply sinful. Every afternoon, free ice cream is available here, and at night you will be able to enjoy a casual Bistro-style dinner. Strangely missing is a bar. You have to walk to either the aft open deck or the Calypso Reef pool to fetch your own drinks, which from a revenue-earning point of view is rather strange. That said, there is always a table available in the Horizon Court during our cruise, no matter how many people are looking for something to eat.   

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St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands: the playground of the Caribbean! We are the only cruise ship in port on this Wednesday in June, so we have no problem whatsoever finding a minibus to take us to Magens Bay. While the fare is on the steep side, the views on the way over land and sea make the drive more than worthwhile. And everything they say about Magens Bay is true: it is gorgeous, tropical, clean and relaxed. This must be the ultimate way of spending a day in paradise!

Thank goodness for palm trees, which provide much-needed shelter from the scorching sun. We spend several hours on the beach and in the crystal-clear waters, and take the minibus back to town in the afternoon. Our plans to walk back to the ship are cancelled due to a sudden downpour of "liquid sunshine", so we arrange to be dropped off at the gangway and after a quick look around the Havensight Mall we quickly return to the air-conditioned comfort of Grand Princess.

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The ultimate Hot Spot on Grand Princess is of course Skywalker's Disco, perched high atop the stern in the much talked about "spoiler". Getting to Skywalker's is spectacular: de moving walkway transports you through a glass tunnel. The design of Skywalker's follows a inter-galactic theme, with some paintings of milky ways, orbits and planets. The location of the room on deck 15 is such that it "shivers" considerably when Grand Princess sails at top speed. At night, Skywalker's can get pretty crowded, and I was rather amused to see many under-18s begging the night guards to let them in!

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Home Sweet Home! It is a funny idea having to fly for 10 hours, sail for a couple of days, only to land on Dutch soil again! St. Maarten is half Dutch, half French and another favorite amongst cruise passengers. On the early morning of June 13th, the island welcomes us with clear blue skies and a welcoming sea breeze. We decide to rent a car here, which is made extremely easy as we have to make our way through droves of rental agents on our way from the gangway to the end of the pier. We ultimately play it safe and choose Avis as our "preferred rental partner"; soon we drive off in a charming Jeep Wrangler.   

Now if we only had listened to Janneke, who said that four adults in a jeep would not cause much happiness! The road is bumpy and by the time we arrive at Marigot, the capital of the French side, my friends in the back seat are shaken, stirred, bruised and beaten. But the discomfort of our Jeep Wrangler is soon forgotten when we order a refreshing drink in a roadside cafe in downtown Marigot and see a man on a bike carrying a French loaf. Now if he had only worn a beret the French picture would have been perfect! 

St. Maarten can best be discovered independently, and with the help of the AVIS road map we stumble across many hidden bays and beaches, one more beautiful than the other. It is obvious that the French side holds more natural attractions than the Dutch side, not to mention the infinitely better state of the roads on the French side. So much for my Home Sweet Home feeling!

Philipsburg, the capital of the Dutch side and the only place on the island with a cruise ship pier, has its charm though. The whiter-than-white beach in the middle of town gently makes way to the translucent waters of the Great Bay on one side. Hotels, shops, bars and restaurants line the beach, and after our "Tour de France" we find a shady spot beachside, where we cool down, hydrate and enjoy the fantastic sight of our Grand Princess docked on the horizon. All too soon it is time to return to our floating home. We drop off the car at the terminal and rush on board, where we enjoy a very late lunch in the Horizon Court.

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Princess Cruises is well known for providing entertainment virtually around the clock. From production shows to late night disco, there is something for everyone and British Cruise Director Graham Seymour does a fantastic job in scheduling events for all tastes. The man is wild & wacky, has a terrific sense of humor and his early morning TV shows are hysterical. He is also quite a good singer, which is proven during a great late night deck party on Thursday. In his position as Cruise Director, he is assisted by a mostly British cruise staff, some of whom unfortunately are quite young, rowdy and inexperienced. 

Grand Princess has many public rooms that are custom-designed for Entertainment with a capital E. First, there is the huge 747-seat Princess Theater, three decks high and spanning the full width of the ship. Sightlines in the pillar-less room are excellent and this is where you go for the major evening's entertainment.  There are three hi-energy production shows each week, expertly performed by the Princess Singers & Dancers, although I was a little disappointed to see the exact same show I had seen on Golden Princess last year.

Two of the production shows are performed in the Princess Theater, while the third one can be enjoyed in the beautiful Vista Lounge, located all the way aft on Promenade Deck. The 456-seat Vista Lounge is the secondary show lounge and is the place to go and see the hilarious Passenger Talent Show, and the old-time favorite "When I was not upon the sea", performed by the Cruise Staff. 

The third main entertainment venue is the delightful Explorers Lounge, themed to showcase various exotic cultures and located amidships on Promenade Deck. With only a bar as division between the passage and the actual lounge area, this is a room you will step into quite easily. Karaoke and line dance fans will feel right at home at Explorers, and it also the place to join in the highly publicized Art Auctions that are held continuously throughout the cruise. And if you like the music of Shania Twain, the odds are you will love the Explorers' resident band "S'il vous plait". Yee-Ha!  

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On our cruise, we noticed a distinct lack of enthusiasm amongst the crew. I know this is going to sound strange, but we had the feeling there were too many staff members on board! You would bump into crew all the time; some of them could be seen gazing out of the window in the Horizon Court for hours or arguing (long and loud) in Rumanian with a colleague. Like our cabin stewardess, we found most staff rather lifeless and in no big hurry to be of assistance.

Service in the main dining rooms was generally quite good though, with mostly friendly waiters and professional service. Of course "Anytime Dining" means you will have a different waiter every night, and some of them were downright fantastic. As shipboard life on Princess ships is so unstructured, you will not run into the same faces very easily. On traditionally operated ships, you will have the same dining room waiter every day, go to a show at a set time and perhaps see familiar wait staff there. As Grand Princess is so large its 2,600+ "Personal Choice" passengers flock to all corners of the ship and consequently it must be hard for the crew to "bond". But, to be honest, I do think they could try a little harder...

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At about 9.30 am on Saturday morning we drop anchor off the island of Eleuthera in the Bahamas. The weather does not look all too promising, and the humidity causes the camcorder to cease operations from the moment we step outside. At about 11.00 am we take one of the ship's tenders to Princess Cays, the stretch of beach reserved exclusively for us Princess passengers. After a rather choppy tender crossing we are dropped off at the tiny marina and our first impression is favorable. The place looks extremely well-kept, spacious and inviting.  

The tender marina divides Princess Cays in two, each side having their own food and drink outlets. The north side is the most popular, with shops, snorkeling grounds and more water sports available. Lounge chairs are everywhere along the fine sandy beach, and restrooms and even a children's playground are directly across the footpath. This is by far the best kept "private island" I've ever come across. I use the parenthesis there because Princess Cays is connected to the mainland of Eleuthera by means of a bridge. On the other side of the lagoon houses can be seen, and I even spot the odd car on the island itself.

When the sun appears and warms the sand, we find shelter in the large alfresco eatery. Four self-service lines mean you don't have to wait long before grabbing a burger or hot dog. I feel sorry for the cooks having to stand behind the BBQ for hours. Boy, it's hot! Lunch is an all too pleasant affair, and the food again exceeds my expectations given the rather basic facilities available on the island. The views of the azure waters and our huge ship at anchor make for some nice Kodak (or, in this case, Sony...) moments, and many people can be seen climbing the wooden observation tower, from where you have a fantastic vista.

After a dip in the lukewarm ocean and some sex on the beach (the drink, that is...), it's time to make our way back to our floating hotel. Liquid sunshine starts pouring down, and a flow of passengers can be seen running for the tenders. The sudden downpour gives us the opportunity to check out the small shops on the island, which -again- are extremely well organized. With no waiting whatsoever we can board a tender back to Grand Princess, and when I see Princess Cays slowly disappear on the horizon later that afternoon I realize what a tremendous job the cruise line has done. Imagine the organization involved to put so many people ashore, supply them with food and drinks, and all that in such an easy-going, elegant way. Top marks for Princess Cays!

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I am all too pleased to see the disembarkation handled with the same expertise and efficiency as our embarkation a week ago. Suitcases can be placed in the corridors until late at night on Saturday, and as a non-US citizens we are thrilled not to have to report to Immigration at an unearthly hour. Instead, US Immigration is stationed in the terminal ashore, checking all passports with an unprecedented speed.  All this means we are off the ship, through Customs, Immigration and in possession of our luggage in less than 15 minutes. Another record-breaking affair and further proof of the excellent Princess shore side organization.

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We have come to the end of this cruise review, and looking back at our 7-day Grand Princess cruise, it must be said Princess is doing a great job in many respects. They are a notch above other mass market cruise lines as far as food and stateroom amenities go. The only thing I sorely missed was that special feeling of being part of a big seagoing family. Service was too anonymous for me, and many staff members behaved rather robotic.

That said, we did enjoy a great vacation in extremely comfortable surroundings with good food, refreshing drinks, lots of sunshine and the odd tropical island. And what can be better than seeing distant lands glide by on the horizon, knowing your only worry is what to wear for dinner...



All photos and text: 2002 Bart de Boer -

First published on August 17, 2002 - this revised version published on February 8, 2009

Amenities, decor, charges and services may have changed since this article was written

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