Thursday, April 2, 2009

Sun Princess Cruise - March 2009

We have just returned from a 16 day cruise on the Sun Princess. The cruise commenced in Sydney for a 28 day circumnavigation of Australia but we chose to do only the 16 day leg of the journey. The following is a review of what was for us a thoroughly enjoyable trip. All prices quoted are in AUD.

Cabin facilities: Our room was an inside cabin on Deck 11 (Aloha). Our bed was made to a Queen size arrangement. You can have it as 2 single beds and I would suggest this for more efficient use of space. This set up also made better use of the reading lights set on either side of the cabin. The cabin has a fridge and safe. There is a mini bar and like a hotel room you will be charged for items consumed, including the bottled water (the water on board is perfectly safe to drink). There is only one power point. TV programming was good and included 2 movie channels and a couple for the kids too. The private en suite was small of course but quite adequate. I was amazed just how much storage and hanging space there was in the cabin no doubt thanks to clever design. There was a variety of lighting configurations you could use depending on your mood and needs. A phone for onboard communication was also part of the facilities.

Laundry: One self serve laundry facility was provided on each deck. Wash powder, washing machine (of which there are 2) and dryers costs $1 each. There is also an ironing nook. The laundry was used heavily and I found it extremely difficult to get a machine (I gave up in the end). However from what other passengers told us it was a good source of gossip and the occasional skirmish caused by people not returning on time and objecting to others removing their completed laundry! We joked that the laundry was “pumping” more than the Shooting Stars nightclub (more about that later).

Onboard Communication: This was excellent. A daily “Princess Patter” newsletter delivered to your room gave you all the goings on for the day. Occasionally, there was also a Captain’s announcement over the PA. Also separate TV channels gave you information on the ship’s course and weather conditions, an informative presentation for the next shore excursion and even a videocam of the foredeck.

Internet: Several terminals are available. There are different payment plans. I used the pay as you use option. Initial registration fee is $3.95 then $0.75 per minute. Speed is OK but still adequate for email, banking etc.

Food Options: The following is the various meal options. If you have special dietary requirements notify the cruise line at time of booking.

Traditional Dining: Free of charge. There are two dining rooms, the Marquis and the Regency. Evening meal times are 5.45 and 8.00. You will nominate your preference at time of booking your cruise as well as whether you prefer to share a table or dine alone. It might be prudent to select the dine alone option. Some passengers we spoke to were stuck with horror dining companions (the reverse may be true too)! You are not guaranteed of your choices though. We requested the early sitting but were allocated the 8.00 o’clock slot but we were able to dine alone as requested. We were initially concerned that this timeslot would result in us missing the entertainment but we were relieved to find that shows are repeated to cater for the dual dining times. We didn’t use the dining room often in any case. Essentially the food offered was the same as the Horizon Court but presented more formally. I found the dining experience a bit like a production line and rushed. You can take breakfast and lunch there too but they’re only open on set hours. We did lunch there once and found the food experience the same and the service sloppy and impersonal. By the way, if you purchase wine and can't finish the bottle you can ask the wait staff to store the remainder for your return meal.

Horizon Court: Free of charge. Buffet 24/7 dining. Huge selection of meals. The danger here is having eyes bigger than your stomach!

Steakhouse Grill: This is an a la carte outlet charging $20 per person. I didn’t use this option. The menu never seemed to vary and listed meals similar to the ones available free of charge at other outlets. I assume that they are better quality and service is more personal hence the charge. I thought the restaurant was located in a dedicated room but it’s actually one side of the Horizon Court dining room partioned off at evening time. Couldn’t see the point really but other passengers used the facility and reported a good dining experience.

Verdi’s Pizzeria: The pizzas were oven fresh, the service was cheerful and more personal, the atmosphere was more quiet and relaxed and you had “cruisey” piano tunes playing one floor below. Antipasto and a limited range of pasta, salads and dessert were also available. All this free of charge. Needless to say I dined here several times!

Room service: We never used this facility so cannot comment. I think it’s free of charge but best to check.

Icecream Bar: Located near the pool area. Charges apply for sundaes, milkshakes etc. On average icecream was around $3 or $4 a serve. Icecream is available free of charge in the dining rooms.

Waffle Bar: Open everyday between 3.30pm and 4.30pm in the Horizon Court dining room. Freshly baked waffles available with a choice of toppings and icecream. Free of charge. One of the main reasons for the damage done to my waistline!

Fast Food: Available at the Terrace Grill. Hamburgers, hot dogs, pies and fries. Free of charge. I liked the fact the burgers and fries were not greasy.

Alcohol: Hard liquor (spirits) is not permitted to be taken onboard. Bags are screened when returning from shore excursions. You are allowed however to take one bottle of wine or champagne per person per day when returning from shore excursions. If you consume them in one of the dining outlets there is a $20 corkage charge. Clearly not worthwhile. However you can consume them anywhere else free of charge. We purchased champagne when on shore and obtained a metal ice bucket, ice and glasses free of charge via room service. Watch the sunset or laze about the pool with bubbly of your choice at much less cost. Alcohol prices are reasonable on board nonetheless. A beer costs around $6. Scotch and coke about the same. However all drinks attract a 10% gratuity charge so that beer is now $6.60. Cocktails are around $10 (plus 10%). This at first seems good value. But we found them pretty light on for alcohol so essentially we were buying an overpriced fruit drink.

Coffee Card: By purchasing this card you save $0.50 and pay $2.00 per cup of coffee sourced from the espresso bar by the barista. I didn’t buy this card but I bought a cappuccino out of curiosity. I didn’t think it was a lot better than the free of charge serve yourself coffee so I can’t see the point of buying this card. It may be useful though when taking meals in the Traditional dining rooms as there is no self serve coffee machines and there is an additional charge for coffee if you who like to finish a meal that way (I know, bit of a scam really).

Soft drink/soda card: For $4 per day you can have unlimited amounts from all outlets. The deal includes a drink bottle to keep it cold when lazing around the sun.

Tipping: In addition to the compulsory 10 % gratuity on drinks there is an optional $10 per person per day charged to your credit card automatically. If you would prefer to tip personally you will need to visit the Purser’s desk to arrange removal of the charge. Initially I accepted this charge but I wasn’t entirely happy with the service on a couple of occasions so I elected to tip personally. I felt a bit guilty about this because I found out later that the crew don’t get paid a salary. Incredibly, they rely on the $10 fee for their income, the distribution which is determined by seniority. Nonetheless I’m not keen on a tipping scheme that isn’t based on service standards (in Australia tipping is uncommon and generally done only for exceptional service or whilst in an inebriated state).

Princess Card: This card is essentially your “lifeline”. It is used to enter your cabin and charge for incidentals on board. You’ll also need it to get off and back on the ship for shore excursions. Your account is settled automatically via your credit card when your cruise has ended. I suggest that you ask for a statement every few days to ensure you are being charged correctly. We were overcharged on the “Coke” deal which was corrected after a couple of attempts.

Shore excursions: It is highly recommended that you book shore excursions prior to your cruise. If you don’t the remaining ones are extremely expensive (surprise, surprise). Once you’ve made your cruise booking you’ll be given online access to your account which includes a facility for booking excursions. Most of the excursions seemed pricey so we did the shore excursions independently. Be aware though that it’s probably a good idea to pre book hire cars, tours etc because depending on your destination resources can be stretched when a ship carrying 2000 passengers hits port. Keep in mind also that a shore excursion may be cancelled due to poor weather or for safety reasons. Avoid disembarking and embarking at peak times otherwise you’re in for frustrating delays. Most passengers saunter off after breakfast so around mid morning expect lengthy delays for shuttle buses etc. and even worse if a tender boat is required. I suggest rising early and disembark as soon as is permitted. For the same reason try to guess when the bulk of people are returning and work around it.

Gym: Has adequate equipment including walking and cross training machines and cycles. Work out to a great view at the rear of the boat. Wet and dry saunas too. There is also an activities room for yoga, aerobics etc. One on one tuition is also available for various interests (charges may apply).

Entertainment: There are several on board activities held during the day. Every afternoon a movie is featured in one of the theatre lounges. Don’t worry if you miss it. It’s replayed on one of your cabin TV channels. In addition to these the Atrium Lounge hosts cruisey piano tunes mid afternoon followed by an ensemble. Around 9.00pm there is an excellent “old time” sing along and informal dancing. The Princess Theatre hosts 2 excellent “Vegas” style shows at 8.00pm and 10.15pm. The Vista Lounge also hosts 2 evening shows which include acts like comedians, magicians, even a hypnotist! The variety shows are very popular so to guarantee yourself a seat get there at least 15 minutes before the start. The Wheelhouse Bar hosts a very accomplished piano/vocalist duo from 8.30pm until late. For the night owls the Shooting Stars night club kicks on until much later. The club is my only criticism of the entertainment onboard. The young DJ was insensitive to the age group on board. “Any requests?” he asked despairingly to a near empty venue. My request for an early 80s dance number was obliged with disdain. Needless to say the club was a ghost town. I renamed the club “Shooting Ducks”.

Kids: there is a kids designated zone. Includes electronic games and crèche. Don’t know too much about this but charges apply I assume.

On Board Activities: Table tennis, bingo, dance lessons, cooking demonstrations, “Friends of Dorothy” meetings, card games, various outdoor court games like basketball, tennis, soccer etc. Numerous other goings on. Even silly stuff like “Luxury Watch Appreciation” (I’m serious!).

Beauty Treatments: All the girlie stuff. Hairdressing, massage, beauty treatments, even reflexology!

Art gallery: There are several pieces displayed that you can bid for. Looked like tacky bric-a-brac to me but heck, what would I know!

Shopping: A couple of outlets onboard selling jewellery, watches, fragrances, ladies bags, souvenirs and clothing. There is also a photographic service available that uses every opportunity to sell you reasonably priced photos of yourself in formal attire or shovelling food in your mouth or doing the “Funky Chicken” on the dance floor.

Disabled: Good access. Several lifts. Wheelchairs available. Chairlift for pool. Empathetic crew staff.

Formal: A couple of formal nights. I thought twice about bringing a suit. Luckily I did. Most of the guys wore tuxedos and the gals were dressed like they were ready to meet the Queen.

Theme Nights: On our cruise there was an “Island” theme night So pack something island orientated eg. floral shirts for guys and sarongs for the girls (some guys wore these too).

Function venue booking: If you’re celebrating a special occasion you can book space on the boat. I noted that passengers booked the Library and also the bar area at the rear of the boat. You can also host private functions in your cabin. Don’t know much else about this so check with Princess.

Other tips: Unless it’s really urgent avoid the Pursers desk when you initially embark. It’s a lengthy queue! Better still settle in, grab a drink and worry about the minor detail another day (takes the pressure off the staff too!).