Click photos for larger version and additional details.

Crown Princess towering over terminal.

Linda waiting to board.

Our sitting area in the mini-suite.

Tub-shower in the bathroom.

Terraced balconies. Can you see Linda?

Can you see Linda now?

Christmas decorations in central plaza.

Goodies 24/7 at International Cafe

Coffee bar International Cafe

In Civitavecchia! Unbelievable.

A market like every market.

Tracing the labyrinth in Lucca.

CROWN PRINCESS REPOSITIONING CRUISE

Venice to Galveston, December 2-22, 2012

PART I

Neither rain nor cold nor gloom of morning could keep us from our appointed cruise ship. Three interesting days in Venice (see Venice Postcard) now culminated in our walk to the cruise port, me pushing two suitcases and Linda toting everything else. I forgot that Linda knows Crown Princess, having sailed on her previously with some of her girl friends. In fact, she has accumulated enough Princess cruises to reach platinum status, a level sufficiently high to rate special check-in privileges and additional perks. Walking to the ship from Piazzale Roma, Linda has a moment of nostalgia when the ship first comes into view, towering above the port buildings.

We picked this cruise more for the dates, price and itinerary than deliberately seeking out Princess. We wanted a late departure, a new departure port (to us) and a final destination of Galveston, the closest cruise port to our home in San Antonio. This cruise fit the bill. Signing up in February during the “wave” season when many tempting specials were offered, we found such reduced prices that we could afford, for the first time, to book a mini-suite, the next step above a normal balcony stateroom (323 square feet, including balcony, compared, for example, to an inside cabin of exactly half the space, 162 square feet).

We had contemplated extending this cruise by booking the 12-day Mediterranean cruise that preceded it, but rejected that possibility for two reasons. First, there were eight ports in the 12 days. We prefer sea days, finding continuous port stops to be distracting and tiring. Aboard the ship, port days don't involve cruising, just sitting dead in the water with activities curtailed. Port tourism rates a distant third or fourth place among our reasons for cruising. Secondly, as Mediterranean cruises experience more demand than repositioning cruises, the prices were higher --not just for the 12-day portion, but the whole 32 days. Demand determines cost. The 15-day version of the transatlantic portion, starting in Barcelona, also cost more. Only the 20-day cruise from Venice qualified for the deepest discount. So we took it.

After a brief wait, check-in goes smoothly as part of preferred group “B,” so that by 12:30 p.m. we already find ourselves on Deck 15 in the Horizon Court enjoying a lunch buffet. Our stateroom is available upon boarding, a very nice convenience that we don’t find on other cruise lines, which often set a time such as 2 p.m. or even later, requiring one to drag one’s carry-ons around the ship for a couple of hours. Luggage delivery takes several hours, which we don’t consider a hardship. So, here we are once again, on the verge of another sea voyage. We love it.

We find stateroom D224 on Deck 9, "Dolphin Deck," a few doors distant from the passageway leading to the forward bank of elevators. Down two decks is the theater, while up on Deck 16 awaits the fitness center and spa. Reaching the rear bank of elevators (leading to the buffet up on Lido Deck) requires quite a hike down the endless narrow hallway (I count 220 steps, about the length of two fottball fields end to end).

Our abode exudes efficiency and comfort. We enter into a passage that runs beside the bathroom, proceeding until we reach an opening on the right. There we discover a generous six feet of closet (including 25 wooden hangers), a floor to ceiling cupboard with mirrored doors and a safe for locking up valuables, and the door to the bathroom. Above the clothes rod a shelf holds three life preservers plus blue and white striped towels for use at the pool.

I open the door and step over the threshold into the bathroom. On the right, the usual sink, mirror, and corner glass shelves. Straight ahead, the typical vacuum-powered toilet, with towel rack above. But on the left, ah, wonder of wonders, a full size bathtub with shower. Plenty of room for two people. During rough seas, I imagine the water would splash out. I notice they located the emergency drain fairly low, to prevent over-filling. A pull-out clothesline provides a place for hand washables to drip into the tub.

Back in the entrance passageway, on the wall of the closet area, perches a small half-round shelf, perfect for depositing one’s room card after entering, to prevent misplacing it. Enter the main cabin, a space about ten feet wide and twice as long, divided into two areas. First, the queen size bed, matching end tables and reading lights. Beneath the end table is a shelf (where I keep my pajamas), and two drawers. Convenient switches on the headboard control the overhead lights from the bed. A full wall mirror above the headboard produces the impression of roominess. On the opposite wall hangs a large watercolor print of a pleasant port scene with requisite buildings, water, boats, and distant mountains. After the bedroom, the sitting area siddles up to the glass wall and sliding door that leads out onto the balcony, the latter furnished with two lounge chairs with adjustable backs, two foot stools, and a table. A weather resistant rubber material covers the balcony floor. Beneath the handrail, a glass partition allows us a full view of the sea.

Standing out on the balcony, we discover that Deck 9 is the lowest row of balconies, and also the furthest out. Above our balcony we have open sky. The balconies for Deck 10 are stepped further inboard, above our sitting area. When we look down from our balcony rail, we see an uninterrupted view of ocean. When Deck 10 looks down, they see our balcony (and others like it). I guess we will have to dispense with nude sunbathing. Decks 11-13 are recessed yet one more step, looking down at the balconies of Deck 10, and then beyond them, Deck 9, and then finally, the sea. I think we're on the perfect level, with the best arrangement of room and balcony.

Meanwhile, back inside, the bedroom and sitting areas are separated by two features. On the bed side is a low stem wall with an angled desk, above which is another mirror. To one side are a switch for a dedicated desk light in the ceiling above, plus two outlets for plugging in my laptop and a cord for recharging the kindles. Because of the angle, I can sit at the desk and still have a nice view of the ocean. Under the desk are two roomy cupboards, a lower one in which I keep paperwork, books, notes, sudoku puzzles and the like, and an upper one, where we store our collection of snacks, gluten-free cookies, bags of nuts and prunes, and assorted types of chocolate.

On the opposite wall, redirecting the entrance passageway further out into the room, is a half-round arrangement of shelves and cupboards six feet across and ceiling high. On the top shelf are two flat TV screens, one facing the bedroom, and one facing the sitting area. In the middle is a wide shelf, holding a tray, glasses and ice bucket, with plenty of space to deposit the things which we use frequently. Below, on the left, a curved door opens to reveal a refrigerator. On the right, more open shelves, edged with low brass railings to keep items from sliding off in times of rocking or rolling.

The sitting area features a couch on one wall, which opens into a bed. Hence, the third life jacket and pool towel. As a result of its function, the couch is not very soft, being the equivalent of a hard mattress. It’s width calls for a couple of pillows behind one’s back to sit comfortably. Opposite the couch sits a glass-topped table, high enough to hold food from room service, and a comfortable sitting chair. On previous cruises, we have sought to leave our small cabin in search of quiet reading places. On this voyage, we have found the perfect such spot, right here in our stateroom. The glass wall lets in plenty of light and gives us a gorgeous view of the ocean passing by.

The conservative color scheme utilizes beige and natural wood tones. On the walls of the sitting area are two more large framed watercolor prints with similar port scenes, all in the same pleasant style. The water has been depicted especially well, with realistic reflections and opaque patches. The subject is somewhat ordinary, with several buildings arranged at angles to each other, giving the flavor of a real rather than contrived scene. The walls consist of pre-patterned hardboard, while the carpet has a brown and beige pattern with small turquoise dots. When we unpack, we have plenty of space for our things, with room under the bed for our suitcases. We declare to each other that this stateroom is the nicest we have ever had.

The reason Deck 9 lies relatively low on the ship can be explained by the deck numbering system. Most ships have Deck 1 around the water line, with several more decks below that, such as zero, “tween” deck, tank top, and so forth. Those lower decks comprise the work areas for laundry, printing, recycling, and other tasks, as well as most of the crew quarters. On this ship, the deck numbering begins at the very bottom, such that when we exit the ship at water level, we do so on Deck 4. Our Deck 9, therefore, is only five decks up from the waterline, whereas on other ships it would be nine decks up. As in high rise buildings, the higher the deck, the greater the status and the cost. This numbering system makes everyone feel they are on an upper deck. The highest deck is Deck 18, the location for Skywalker Lounge, a circular panoramic sitting area built around the funnel -- the equivalent of the Royal Viking Lounge on Royal Caribbean ships.

VENICE ENDANGERED

The Telegraph in the U.K. has an interesting article this weekend - "Cruise Ships Could Be Shut Out of Venice Over Erosion Fears."
The article points out that environmentalists and heritage groups have long complained that mammoth cruise ships plow through the shallow Venetian lagoon and damage the fragile canal banks, wooden piles and mud banks on which the city rests.
The article shows a photograph of Royal Caribbean's Voyager of the Seas looming over the beautiful canals and bridges of Venice.

 

I find the decor on the ship so understated as to feel ordinary. The most pizazz an3d vitality evidence themselves in the circular, three-deck-high central plaza, thanks mostly to the Christmas decorations and the International Cafe. The plaza makes for a clumsy performance venue, although we have many pleasant evenings sitting and listening to the string quartet or piano player while playing Phase Ten, eating desserts, or working on our sudoku puzzles. The upper decks, namely Deck 6 and Deck 7 surrounding the open Piazza have few seats or tables -- a terrible omission.

The largest venue, the theater, has virtually no decoration on walls, ceiling, or curtains. Linda's previously favorite seats, in side balconies up near the stage, were eliminated in favor of a slanted floor arrangement that probably seats more people buy is quite boring. The main dining rooms have low ceilings and the sea view restricted by heavy curtains.The prime consideration for interior design seems to be utilitarian function. I don't consider that a criticism, exactly. Our tastes are quite plebian, without requiring a lot of glitz. For example, I don't like Las Vegas at all, the epitome of pretense and shallowness. I would much prefer the plain Princess approach. Yet, I am left with the nagging feeling that Princess has held back, pinched pennies, cut corners. The public art is barely worth mentioning.

I always thought Princess was a bit more upscale than Royal Caribbean, but it is proving otherwise. My experience has been with the Voyager class ships (Mariner of the Seas, Voyager of the Seas), with their spectacular 500-foot-long open promenades, evocative three-deck-high open dining room, and fancy theater. The stairwells are filled with art work worthy of stopping and examining.

Princess does better with the plush, more intimate spaces, such as the three large lounge areas, the Wheelhouse Bar with its pub atmosphere, Explorer's Lounge, and Fusion Lounge, the latter having the largest dance floor. Here, we enjoy hors d’oeuvres before dinner (a perk for platinum members and suite residents) as well as recorded dance music later in the evening. The DJ watches to see if anyone is dancing. If the music turns out to be unpopular, with no one getting up to dance in the first minute, he stops it and goes on to something else. I favor the waltz. Although I'm still a beginner, for me, the waltz feels the smoothest, for which I know the most variations (the conversation step, the twinkle, the spin, the turn out). The worst is disco or swing. I still don’t have a reasonable handle on what to do. I watch others, but can’t remember their movements. The slow one-step remains a favorite, since my primary goal is to have Linda in my arms.

We rarely miss the evening entertainment. At home, most evenings we streama program from Netflix, whether Foyle's War, Monarch of the Glen, Downton Abbey, Doc Martin, Wallander, Agatha Christie, or something else. Here on the ship, attending the program is part of our daily routine. Despite the size of the theater, most programs are repeated three times, at 7:15, 8:30, and 10:15. What a lot of work for the entertainers. One evening we hear a very excellent ventriloquist at the 10:15 show, in which only 60 people populate the sea of empty seats. The entertainer gave us the full treatment, as if it were a full house.

Cleverly, each theater seat comes with a retractable table in the arm rest (like the bulkhead seats on an airplane), which makes it easy for us to play cards while waiting for the show to start. Typically we arrive 30 minutes early to claim our favorite seats. If we weren’t playing cards waiting in the theater, we would just be doing it somewhere else. So why not there, in the best seats in the house.

The bottom level of the Piazza, Deck 5, contains the International Cafe, the 24-hour venue for getting various coffee drinks, light salads, pastries in the morning, and desserts throughout the day. Each day they offer a gluten-free and a sugar-free dessert, usually a pudding or mousse but once eclairs. Here, we can get gelato (although they never have coffee flavor, our favorite.).

We purchase a coffee card, only then remembering that we have two unfinished ones at home that we could have brought with us. For a cost of $29, for the 20-day cruise we can consume 15 specialty coffees, as well as receiving unlimited numbers of brewed coffee and tea. Herein lies a story.

One evening in the theater we sat next to a woman who complained vociferously about the terrible coffee in the Horizon Court buffet, which she claims is made from a coffee syrup, and is not brewed through a filter and coffee grounds. I can see how making coffee from a concentrate would avoid disposing of all of those filters and coffee grounds. Frankly, I hadn’t noticed. As a matter of principle, she refused to buy a coffee card, even though in the International Cafe one could get “real” brewed coffee, or espresso drinks. Then there is the cold blended drink with coffee, chocolate, caramel syrup, cherry, milk, and whipped cream. Um-m-m-m-m. How many calories is that?

The first nine days of our cruise encompass six ports, namely Civitavecchia, Livorno, Cannes, Barcelona, Lisbon, and Ponta del Gado (Azores). We barely establish the rhythm of a cruise when it is time to stop again. Worse, I can never figure out which is the port side and which is starboard as I can’t look out the window to see the direction of our movement. In port, there is no such movement. I must rely on the signs.

I can’t tell if my standards have increased or if the quality on Princess is slipping. In my mind, I considered it to be somewhat upscale, but in our comparison to Royal Caribbean, it has been coming out in second place. For example, I have found the food to be quite bland and sometimes disappointing. There have been some highlights, of course, like the crawfish tails in tomato sauce, but then the crab cakes consisted of all filler with no identifiable crab. The soups taste the same, overly thickened and gummy, as if the main ingredient is the same roux with slightly different flavorings.

I have started asking others if they feel the same way, and have heard many gripes. The first was when we boarded in Venice and discovered that for our “convenience,” they had automatically charged every stateroom $15 per person for water taxi tickets. If we didn’t want to use them, we had to go to the purser’s desk and cancel them, to receive a credit back to our account. What a really bad idea, gratuitously charging us for something we didn’t request. We were glad someone told us to be sure to cancel our tickets. I had to pull them out of the trash and read the fine print. Had I not, we would have been out $30.

There used to be an alternative menu, said one cruiser, in case the day’s menu wasn’t of interest. It had certain staples, such as steak. He used to order the steak frequently. That menu has been eliminated. At breakfast, there is no low fat or nonfat yogurt. Not on the whole ship. Only full fat yogurt. What'is that all about? Does no one in the menu planning department consider that many people try to reduce fat and calories, especially on a cruise ship?

I’m sure the recession has caused a certain amount of belt tightening, but I find the number of selections in the buffet very limited, especially when it comes to vegetables (what, being a vegetarian and all). Potatoes, yes, in many forms. And sometimes sliced carrots. The peas with pearl onions are good. Usually the vegetables are combined in a heavy sauce with cream or cheese, as if just a simple naked vegetable would be offensive.

Yes, I’m sure I could order a plate of vegetables at dinner in the dining room and would likely get something. The service at dinner remains a high spot, with friendly waiters operating more or less efficiently. There have been a few slip ups, but that can happen. One of the supervisors, Emile, has taken an interest in my gluten free requirements. Each evening he brings me a menu to order gluten free choices for the next evening. I asked him how many people on the ship are gluten free. He said between 50 and 60. One evening, he apologizes that the dish they had tried to make fell apart when they used rice flour rather than wheat. So I order a shrimp cocktail instead.

“I’ve never felt so gigged,” said one cruiser about the shuttle bus fees. Last year, I felt 12 dollars was exorbitant, but here Princess charges 16 dollars, both in Barcelona and Lisbon. We pay it grudgingly, for the convenience, even though immediately outside the gate are taxis available at a fraction of the cost.

In the restaurant business, I think an excellent chef should charge just enough for the customer to feel a little stretched, but still willing to pay it, because of the quality. In rental properties, it is a grievous mistake not to raise the rent every year, if only by a few percent. So, if Princess decides to squeeze a few more bucks out of us, I suppose we could call that good business -- as long as the requisite quality comes with it -- despite the terrible public relations snafu. When the quality is missing, the charges seem exorbitant.

Equally bad for customer care are the attitudes (also a weakness on Royal Caribbean). One woman had some sort of egregious interaction with a crew member to the extent that she carried her complaint all the way to the hotel director, only to have him side with and excuse the crew member. At breakfast one morning, a cruiser ordered eggs benedict. “I wouldn’t do that,” warned someone at the next table, but she persisted. She received a concoction covered with a crusty material which had presumably once been hollandaise sauce. She berated the supervisor, explaining that a sauce was supposed to be fluid, not crusty. He replied, unapologetically, that it was necessary to keep the plates under a warmer, and so the sauce gets to be that way.

Funny, other cruise lines manage to make perfectly edible hollandaise sauces. Here, apparently, an excuse is as acceptable as good performance. As a former restaurant manager and serious dining critic, I will have to say that some of the omissions seem to originate at the upper levels of management. For example, after a port day in Livorno, many people go to the dinner buffet rather than the sit down dinner, as they are dressed informally and don’t feel like getting all spiffed up.

Only one buffet line is open, out of four, with a tremendously long line. People voice their complaints, saying this is unacceptable and asking why they can’t open another line. Because they aren’t prepared, that’s why. Instead, the staff send people down to the dining rooms, declaring all dining rooms “anytime dining,” so anyone can show up without a reserved time, however they are dressed. People left grumbling, “this is ridiculous.”

I have seen many restaurants slip because of poor training of the staff, inattentive supervision, and downright disinterest. Only a few days into the cruise there have been so many noticeable and unnecessary slip ups that they connote a pattern. Mind you things aren’t horrible. We continue to thoroughly enjoy our cruise. Uncritical cruisers may not even notice these things. Perhaps I’m just picky.

Still, some policies make no sense. Take the gelato, for example. Three scoops cost $1.50, certainly very reasonable. I imagined the small European-sized scoops. Not having either chocolate or coffee available, we order one serving of “nutella,” which is chocolate-like. We receive three small separate bowls, each with a scoop of gelato the size of my fist. The quantity is unnecessary and the presentation nonsensical. We would happily pay one dollar for one scoop that size, which would in fact be twice the price. Even sharing one serving, we each feel we have eaten too much. As a single serving, well, count the calories. (Oh, I guess I’m not supposed to do that on a cruise ship.)

I once read a review of the Ritz Hotel in Paris, which complained that they had no-name soap, rather than from some famous hotsy totsy company. Think of the marvelous appointments and flawless service, which went unappreciated so that the reviewer could bitch about the ordinary soap. In a way, I'm doing the same thing for Crown Princess, which has many wonderful features.

Most of our activities take place wiithout a hitch. I work out three out of every four days, finding either free weights or machines available, sometimes with a very short wait. The mens’ locker room has a few lockers, three showers, a sauna and a steam room. I use the sauna daily with great pleasure, as it seems to make my arthritis feel better.
Similarly, Linda enjoys going to formal tea some afternoons, reporting that service is good and the scones delicious. The ship isn’t crowded, with the exception of certain popular venues at peak times (all of the tables in the Piazza are generally taken at 7:00 p.m. when the string quartet plays, for example). The quiet space up in Skywalker lounge on Deck 18 is a favorite haunt of Linda’s in the mornings, while I sit at the stateroom desk writing into my laptop. Linda walks each morning on Deck 7, the promenade deck, encountering only a smattering of other walkers.

The biggest shocker for me has been to discover that my all time favorite maritime historian, John Maxtone-Graham, whom I mention and quote in my book, is on board as a lecturer. At 83, he still spends half his year at sea, lecturing. What a life! I plan to corner him and see if he will take a look at my manuscript.

Cruise director Lisa, much to our relief, switched from unflattering tight dresses which showed lumps and bumps that no one wants to advertise to wearing pants suits. She looks so much better.We can’t help notice the difference of personality worship for cruise directors on other cruise lines compared to a distinctly low profile for Lisa. She also teaches the dance class and directs the passenger pop choir. Many cruise directors were once performers. I suspect a few years and 25 pounds ago, Lisa may have been a dancer and musician. Very personable, she does very well teaching the salsa, waltz, tango, and other dances.

The entertainment has been quite good, with the exception of the Whyte brothers, even if their father did play with Herman’s Hermits. The resident “orchestra” seems more the size and quality of a band, but the four singers and 13 dancers do a credible job. One evening’s production is accompanied by recorded music, which is a much more full sound than the small band can produce. I am often critical of the quality of cruise ship entertainment, but I have felt the choreography and costuming in the production numbers have been excellent, and the energy level admirable. Now and then I encounter a couple of the male dancers in the fitness center, lifting some hefty weights. No wonder they can throw the women dancers around so easily.

While not crazy about port visits, I’ll have to admit that investigating Civitavecchia is quite rewarding. We find a friendly cafe where we do email for an hour. Two cappuccinos cost one euro each, followed by two gelatos (coffee, of course) at the same bargain price. The internet connection races at the fastest speed we have encountered for a while. Then, in the market, after viewing the glowingly fresh vegetables and fruits and passing through a smelly indoor area for meat and fish, we peruse the vendor stands with clothes and jewelry and other items. Linda replaces her broken watch for five euros, and we find a stylish travel bag, perfect to replace Linda’s worn-out carpet bag. Costing ten euros, we assume it is plastic, and probably made in China. But when we get back to the ship and look inside at the tag, we discover to our surprise it is real leather, and made in Italy. What a deal. You can purchase the whole world at full price. What’s the challenge in that? We like to find the bargains.

In Livorno, we take a tour to Lucca, a walled city within driving distance. The town holds no surprises, except for the circular plaza in the center, where the Roman amphitheater used to stand, and the huge earthworks that are part of the encircling walls.The weather is bitterly cold and we are all freezing. Our guide says she saw a few snow flakes this morning.

We don't go into Cannes. We've been there before and haven't found much to attract us. We get off the ship in Barcelona to find an internet connection, discovering one in the terminal building. That's as far as we go. We could stroll down Las Ramblas, I suppose, to enjoy the street performers. On our last visit, we sat and watched a "headless" mime sitting in a chair with his head in his lap. Tourists loved to take photos, leaving tips in his box. Very clever. No talent required, just sit and hold your head in your lap, reaping your reward.

Walking around in Lisbon we again enjoy our time. True, we do our email at Starbucks, but I am able to get a chai tea latte with soymilk while Linda checks the dates for going to Hawaii with with her son Mike, daughter-in-law Audrey, and the grandkids, Anna and Kenny. During our stroll down the pedestrian shopping area we notice the extensive mosaics in the sidewalk, made from very small black and white chips, similar to what we have seen in Madeira, and will soon encounter in the Azores. It must be a Portugese tradition. We buy, write, and mail a postcard to Anna, then I purchase a small souvenir ceramic tile (a craft for which they are famous here) and a bottle of port wine. We pass many attractive restaurants, but chose not to indulge. Ponta del Gado is small and quaint, requiring a modest amount of time to explore.

Back at the ranch . . . er, I mean ship . . . , special precautions have been instigated ship wide to address the outbreak of norovirus. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) requires special procedures if the number of cases reported exceeds two percent of the passengers or crew. Since we have 3,400 passengers, that would mean 68 cases. Now, machines with hand cleaner are everywhere, whereas before we felt they were a bit scarce. At the previously self-service buffet, gloved crew members serve up the food items to which we point. Several times in his daily announcement the captain has requested that everyone wash their hands frequently and call the medical center immediately if they experience symptoms. In reviewing CDC cruise ship reports on line, I note that Princess has had more cases than any other line.

An update reveals that cases of norovirus continue to be reported, so the precautions will be maintained. Further, we learned from a crew member that once we reach Ft. Lauderdale, CDC representatives will be boarding the ship, which I don’t think is routine. For some reason, they have discontinued handing out little glass carafes full of peanuts at the bar, even though they aren’t a shared item. “No menus, no food,” says the barman.The demonstration dinner called Chef’s Table has also been discontinued.

We never touch a railing, pull out our chairs with our feet, press elevator buttons with our elbows, and wash our hands vigorously. Linda once served as chaplain in a hospice, and became accustomed to frequent washing. So far, we have had no problem. I wonder if the virus might be spread by crew members rather than cruisers, as they might be reluctant to miss work by reporting in sick.

All in all, we’re having a great time, doing what we love most: cruising and being together. This report will continue once we get further out into the Atlantic.

 

To go on, see Crown Princess 2.