First of all, thanks to everyone on Cruise Critic who assisted me as I prepared for this wonderful cruise. Overall, Princess provided an excellent cruise and good value. The itinerary was the star of the show as were the warm and friendly people of England, Scotland, and Ireland.
Precruise--We flew from Washington Dulles on Icelandair with a change of planes in Reykjavik. Icelandair was approximately $100 cheaper than other airlines and all had mostly terrible reviews on TripAdvisor so decided to try them. The legs from Dulles and Heathrow were uneventful but the legs from Reykjavik were rather unorganized. I would fly with them again if the price was right.
We experienced a long line at Heathrow Border Control. The wait time was about an hour which would have been ok if we were not so tired from the flight. We booked Smith's to Southhampton and it was perhaps the best money spent on the entire trip. To walk out of Border Control exhausted and see a friendly face with my name on a piece of paper was priceless.
We came in one day early and stayed at the Holiday Inn near the port. $145 per night. The West Quay Mall is right across the street with multiple food options. Thanks to info received on CC I knew that the department store in the mall sold wine and we purchased our two bottles there. The morning of the cruise we took a walking tour of the historic area of Southampton, again, only a short walk from the Holiday Inn. I always dread the chaotic cattle call of grabbing a taxi or shuttle to the ship on the day of departure. England has a better way. You simply ask the desk to ring you a cab. They ask what time and you sit in the lobby until a cabbie walks through the door and calls your name!
Embarkation--So........for one reason or another Princess got off to a bad start with many of the passengers as a result of the lengthy, chaotic embarkation process. When our cab dropped us off we were surprised to find a rather long line that moved slowly but steadily. After quite awhile in line we made it to the counter and in short order had our room key. Another line, not well organized, now snaked from the counter and eventually stopped. After 10-15 minutes of the line not moving at all, a Princess rep confirmed the rumor that there was a problem with the alignment of the passenger bridge. It sounded like it was probably a Southampton Port issue but the lack of communication and organization on the part of Princess in dealing with the situation would be a recurring theme. BTW, passengers that boarded very early apparently did not have this problem.
The Ship--Royal Princess is a beautiful ship in wonderful condition. The Piazza/Atrium is lovely with all the familiar Princess venues nearby. Getting a seat in the Princess Theater was not a problem, at least during the later shows that we attended. Entertainment in the theater was excellent. Kudos to Princess for taking a chance and breaking the mold with its production of SILK. The pools were open but only a few were brave enough to swim. The hot tubs did get consistent use.The outdoor movie screen seemed to me to be brighter and clearer than I had experienced on previous cruises. There was dancing every evening in the Piazza and the band on board was excellent and played a wide variety of music.
We booked a standard balcony (Baja deck) about five months out and Princess offered us a free upgrade two months later to a deluxe balcony on the Carib deck. The extra room was minimal but welcomed. The balcony is very small and I was surprised at how small the bathroom was. The shower stall itself was fine but the rest of the bathroom was cramped. As always, Princess provided more than adequate closet space. The cleanliness and overall condition of the room was fine and the service we received from our cabin attendant was excellent.
Food and Bar--We ate 9 out of 12 nights in the Symphony dining room. We arrived each night between 7:45 and 8:15 and never had a wait. We particularly enjoyed our waiter the first night (Cecillio) and asked for his section each night if a table was available. Princess honored our request nightly. Food in the Symphony dining room was consistently good with some dishes excellent. Each menu had something that appealed. Food in the Horizon was a mixed bag. We ate dinner there twice and enjoyed it as a change. Breakfasts, however, got old quickly. We learned to only order eggs from the omelette station. The "hash browns" were pure McDonalds. We ordered room service breakfast on days we needed to leave the shop early for ports and that worked out nicely. Food at the International Cafe was uniformly good. I did not notice a decline in the quality of the pizza as had been reported on CC and ate it a number of times when returning from ports too late for lunch.
We enjoyed a predinner martini at Crooner's most nights and quickly became friendly with the bar staff (kudos to Glady and Lou!). I thought the drink prices were fair with a premium gin martini going for around $10 and a couple of wines by the glass for $8 or $9. As much as I would like to try a drink package one day the math just doesn't seem to work for me.
Ports of Call
Guernsey--A great way to start the cruise with a very small port that is easy to do on your own. We did a walking tour that included the Esplanade, the Candie Gardens (with a wonderful elevated view of the port), an old working library with exhibits on the German occupation, and time for shopping in town. The return to the ship via tender was a fiasco. Again, it is unclear if Princess was responsible for the situation but nevertheless, it was not handled well. There were hundreds of passengers in line who waited in excess of 1 1/2 hours for a tender. The average age on this cruise was high and there were people who really struggled physically with the wait in line. Again, poor communication from Princess during the wait and, unbelievably, water offered at the end of the wait while finally ready to board a tender. Moral of the story--arrive early for a tender ticket to shore and leave St. Peter's Port early.
Cobh (Cork)--We decided to do this on our own as well. Dublin and Belfast were large city ports next on the itinerary so we again toured on our own. Cobh is a great town if you are able to walk hills. A beautiful church dominates the town and we were fortunate to have a first communion class practicing their singing when we entered the building. It really brought the church alive. Check out the remains of the wooden pier that was used by passengers boarding the doomed Titanic. The walk to the peaceful Titanic Memorial Gardens is a long one but it gives you the chance to see most of the waterfront. We had a pint and talked to friendly bartenders and fellow passengers at Rob Roy's in town. Shopping is also available in town if interested.
Dublin overnight--Day one, we decided on the Jameson factory tour to avoid the crowds at the Guinness factory. Nice walk from the Princess shuttle dropoff taking you past parks and up the river. Tour was informative and fun. On my daughter's recommendation we sought out the Brazen Head pub for a pint and meat stew. Very dark and authentic inside and a busy courtyard outside. Finished the day at Auld Dubliner in Temple Bar for a wild afternoon of live Irish music.
Day two, I signed up about two months out for the Dublin Free Walking Tour. This was one of the highlights of the cruise and I would highly recommend it. Our guide, Conor, was a native Dubliner, funny and knowledgeable. The tour was three hours and hit most of the highlights of the South side of Dublin. Even with a very hefty tip it was a value.
Belfast--We booked Odyssey Tours Giant's Causeway, Antrim Coast, and Rope Bridge tour about three months out. The ship was two hours late getting into port due to tides (?!) Odyssey was there to meet us but did have to make a few adjustments to the schedule, primarily eliminating lunch on our own. The smaller coach did indeed provide great access to the coast and the scenery there was as beautiful an any we saw during the entire cruise. We never waited in ticket lines due to Odyssey getting the tixs for us. The Causeway is quite dramatic and worth the time to visit but there are many people there. The rope bride itself is not that impressive but the views are and, again, worth the time an effort to get there. At the end of the day our driver took us for a brief tour of the city of Belfast including the Peace Wall and an informative narrative.
Greenock--We intended to take one of the town tours but took our time getting off the ship and got shut out. The local tourist desk has lots of maps and friendly people and we again took a self guided tour on our own. We walked the beautiful Esplanade and then backtracked to walk the city center. Three times we were approached by citizens of Greenock asking us if we needed any help or information. This is an authentic town of locals not yet altered by tourism and gigantic cruise ships. It was one of our favorite ports and a wonderful DIY opportunity.
Invergordon--We booked the Princess "Inverness On Your Own" excursion. $50 to get you to town and then more than enough time to walk the entire city. Ancient grave yards, a castle, a beautiful river with walking bridges right in the center of town, shopping and authentic pubs. We had our first fish and chips at Gellions pub in town and again met friendly bartenders, locals and fellow passengers. Not much to do at all in the actual port of Invergordon.
Edinburgh--The first excursion I booked was "St. Andrew's, The Home of Golf." It was one of the absolute highlights of the cruise for me to set foot on the Old Course. As a public venue you have full access to the grounds. My favorite keepsake from the entire cruise is a picture of myself on the Swilcan Bridge!
LaHarve (Normandie)--This was a no brainer. An expensive, 10 hour trip to the landing beaches and the American cemetery. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity and highly recommended. We took the Princess tour but I could see the advantages with a smaller group. Still, it was a wonderful experience and the lunch provided blew us away--salad, chicken, potatoes, bread, desert and an entire bottle of wine at each table of four.
Disembarkation--Again chaotic. We chose self-walk off and made it to the meeting area by 6:15. Once there we found a long line that was not moving. After a 15 minute wait, again with little communication from Princess, we find out that the passenger bridge is AGAIN not aligning properly and we will need to take the elevator down two floors to a lower lever to bypass the bridge problem. Obviously, the wait for elevators was now impossible so passengers start to steam down the stairs with their luggage. You can imagine what that scene was like. Again, not sure who is responsible for the bridge situation but even if it is completely the port's fault you would think that Princess would have enough clout to insist that it is fixed sometime during the 12 days the ship was out of port.
Self service laundry was a first for me and a real positive. I washed once mid cruise and was able to pack everything in a large carry on and a back pack.
Princess for some reason has eliminated the TV map that shows the current position of the ship--I really missed it.
I learned from discussions with staff that the nomination forms we are invited to submit for outstanding service can actually result in a financial bonus for them.
IMO, finding good coffee on any cruise line is as difficult as finding an unpleasant Canadian or Australian cruiser!