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Embarkation was fairly painless. There was a health questionnaire this year and we were somewhat surprised to find out that we had to complete Bahamas immigration forms. Thank goodness we had pens, but it was a pain to try to complete them with no writing surface and I think they should have been mailed out ahead of time as they were last year. Once boarded, we headed for our category BD balcony cabin. It was fine for the two of us and while I found the closed in balcony a bit of a disappointment as I liked the open air balconies on the Grand Princess, it was fine. As we walked around the decks, I kept an eye open for the condition of the ship itself and was pleasantly surprised to find her in excellent condition. Everything was immaculate and well cared for and I never noticed any bad smells mentioned by previous cruisers. As in any large organization, some of the staff take their duties seriously and some are slackers, so it wasn?t surprising that towards the end of the cruise we overheard someone complain about the washroom near the casino not being cleaned properly for days. If nobody reported it, who in charge would know? That being said, I must question the timing of the varnishing of the railings along the edge of the Windjammers bar on the first sea day as a lot of people, heedless of the small signs, leaned on the fresh varnish and got it on their clothing.
It was sunny and very hot and humid when we reached Curacao. Our $29 Princess ?Island Highlights? excursion didn?t leave until afternoon, so my husband, mother and teenaged daughter and I grabbed a cab and headed into town to look around and do some shopping. The heat and humidity were overpowering and I?m afraid we started to fade after an hour or two, so the only things we purchased were Tylenol and Advil. We headed back to the ship to catch our bus and were somewhat disappointed in what we got to see of the Island. The only benefit to using the Princess trip was that the guide spoke English. We did enjoy the taste of Curacao liqueur, but we never go to see how it was actually made which would have added more interesting information than just a stop in the gift shop and tasting room. The ?handicraft market? was a sad joke with only the usual touristy souvenirs made in Taiwan available. We might have been further ahead to book a private tour if we could have found one with an English guide. The rest of the group bartered at the pier for a taxi tour and found one for $10 each, but the guide didn?t speak any English at all and they don?t speak Spanish, so needless to say, there was no running commentary on the sights.
I had booked the Princess Isla Margarita $20 shopping trip and were very disappointed with it and cannot recommend it to others. We waited in the hot sun for 45 minutes to board the bus for the 45-minute drive to Porlamar and while the guide spoke quite passable English, the sound system on the bus was so bad that we really couldn?t hear much. I did learn how to get back to the port (?Por favour, El Guamache, rapido!?) in case we missed the bus, but the first stop was at a pearl and souvenir shop on Santiago Marino Street in a derelict area off the main shopping boulevard. Quite frankly, we were dying to get back on the bus rather than miss it! Little girls were hawking grubby terry dishtowels for $3 US and three men harassed everyone to buy sunglasses for outrageous prices. The pearls in the store were no bargain and our guide went in bare-necked and emerged with a lovely necklace on, in spite of the fact that she didn?t seem to pay for anything. Obviously, she and the storeowner had a deal of some kind. We spent almost 2 hours there walking around in the heat until we could re-board the bus to head to the Sambil shopping mall in the rich part of town. The economic disparity between the two areas was shocking. The shopping mall was a typical North American mall with a lot of the same stores as you?d find back home, but the prices were higher. Only those who purchased coffee and cigars found deals. I found a small terracotta jug and a bowl at one store on the main street and a terracotta lizard at one of the stalls around the port when we returned, but that was all we purchased that day. If I ever went back, I?d stay in the port area and go to the beach near the ship. Eight of the others hired a van for a trip to the mangroves for $15 each plus $5 each for the boat ride, then returned to the port and headed for the beach. The vendors in the port area are not pushy and there were no vendors on the beach itself.
One of our group had arranged three private excursions for us on the islands we visited during the following days. In Barbados, my husband, sister-in-law and her friend did the Princess Brewery & Distillery tour and had a nice afternoon. My mother took the Island Highlights bus tour and said she really enjoyed it. The other 10 of us took the ?Best of Barbados? tour from Glory Tours for $85 US each. We had to walk outside the gates of the port to find the van, but we met up with our driver Ricky with no problem. It was hot, sunny and very humid and we had a ball! We first toured Harrison?s Caves, then did a bit of a scenic tour to see the surfing waves at Bathsheba Beach and stopped for lunch at the Sand Dunes restaurant for a lunch of chicken or fish plus trimmings. Every time we re-boarded the van, we all took different seats, sort of like musical chairs, so each person had a chance to enjoy the bit of air conditioning which the van had. Off to the wildlife preserve, while we only saw one green monkey, we enjoyed the animals roaming freely and especially the rum punch served afterwards. Ricky brought us back to the coast and we all cooled off jumping into the water off of the glass-bottomed boat to swim with leatherback turtles and clouds of fish on the coral reef.
On Dominica, my daughter, sister-in-law and friend took the Princess $69 Dominica River tubing excursion and had a really fun time. Once again, the rest of us had arranged for two air-conditioned buses to take the 14 of us on an island tour for $30 US (plus $2 admission to the Emerald Pool). Unfortunately, we had one bus with air conditioning and one without, so the older and younger folks were divided by air conditioning needs. We toured the rain forest, driving on the left side of the worst roads imaginable at rapid speed, causing great hoots of laughter on the twists and turns as we slid along the seats. While some hiked up the steep hill to Trafalgar Falls, some of us just waited at the gift shop area. The Emerald Pool was nice to see and four of us ventured down to swim in the cool, refreshing water. If the legend about looking 10 years younger is true, you couldn?t prove it by me! Unfortunately, the walk down to the bottom of the ravine is tricky and the walk back up is torture to tired legs, then you?re stuck in a wet bathing suit for the remainder of the trip, but the water was lovely. We piled back on the buses and headed for Mr. Nice?s Fruit stand. The machete bearing Mr. Nice has an open-air fruit stand along the side of the narrow highway outside Roseau, in the middle of barely tamed jungle. Here he serves up fresh bananas, coconuts, sugar cane, cinnamon, etc. and demonstrates how to squeeze the juice out of sugar cane so everyone can have a taste. You can leave him a small donation for his efforts if you enjoyed yourself (and we did!). We then headed for the highest viewpoint in Roseau and took lots of photos of the spectacular view of Roseau and the Dawn Princess in port. These private tour operators take their obligations seriously and, once again, we were back to the ship about 3 hours prior to pulling out of port. Dominica was a beautiful place with the friendliest people we met on the trip, and I?d love to go back again.
Our day in St. Thomas was beautiful and sunny with just a bit of a breeze. Once again, we had arranged for an all day trip with Godfrey tours for $20 US in an open large safari SUV and while we thought we would be alone and get to pick our own itinerary, this was not to be. Instead we were joined by another group from another ship which somewhat restricted us. However, we had a two hour tour which included a brief stop at the Mountain Top gift shop and overlook, a brief stop for photos at a road-side viewing point and then a three hour shopping trip in downtown. Eventually we halted at Coki beach where 5 of us climbed off and let the rest return to the ship. The water at Coki was just beautiful; cool, clear and not crowded that day at all. We were approached by a lady carrying an armload of colourful sarongs and, after having a bit of a fashion show right there on the sand, our group purchased several. To make the day even better, a very funny man brought us drinks, so our afternoon was bliss. The bus returned for us and took four of us back to port and one woman back to the jewellery store to pick up her purchase. We strolled through the shops around the port area and purchased a few items, then re-boarded the ship.
The next day was our last sea day and, while we had rough water, that didn?t seem to stop anyone from having a good time. The water in the pools slid back and forth so much that it became like a washing machine for human beings and they finally had to lower the level a bit. My daughter and one of the women took part in the pool games which were loads of fun to watch, especially when you included the sloshing pool, wet t-shirt exchanges, rapid banana consumption and men with empty bottles held in their swim trunks while others tried to pour ice water into the bottle. To make the afternoon even more special, the magician had himself wrapped in 65 lbs of chains then jumped into the pool. It took him 2 minutes to come back to the surface, but it was quite an impressive trick. It was also the second formal night and included the Captain?s Circle cocktail party (which none of us attended, unfortunately). After dinner, the fun of Island Night began out on deck. The place was packed and, in spite of the world?s worst band playing their hearts out, the water exploding out of the pool every time the ship shifted and a cool wind, the conga lines weaved through the crowd, everyone danced and sang along and had a wonderful time. I have never seen so many people at the pool for any event on a cruise!
Our final day was spent on Princess Cays. It was supposed to be overcast but instead was mostly sunny and perfect beach weather yet again. Our group of 17 ventured ashore and found lounge chairs with a bit of shade for our senior citizens. We ate a large lunch of ribs, hotdogs, burgers, salad and fresh fruit and spent the afternoon talking about a future cruise. As all luggage had to be packed up and out into the hallway by 10 p.m., most of us headed back onboard early to do the packing and get ready for dinner. While it took a bit of ?friendly persuasion? (otherwise known as praying that the zippers would hold), we managed to successfully fit everything into the suitcases and haul them out to the corridor. Everyone attended our final dinner in casual clothes as all of our finery was being collected by the luggage porters. After dinner, when we went back to the cabin to grab our cameras for the disco, the hallway was devoid of any luggage, so the 10 p.m. deadline wasn?t quite accurate, and earlier is better.
After a good night?s sleep, we all ate our last breakfast in the Horizon Court, then headed back to the cabin to collect our carry-ons. We all gathered on deck 7 and waited to be called. Some of our group had early morning flights so were gone rather quickly, others of us were staying in Fort Lauderdale for a few days so were called later. In any case, we were off of the ship and out into the terminal parking lot by 9:45, to await the hotel shuttle.
Again this year, we stayed at the Hampton Inn Plantation due to its proximity to the Broward Mall. We had excellent rooms for a reasonable price. As usual, we ate the complimentary breakfast at the hotel and ate our noon and evening meals at the mall.
Fort Lauderdale airport on a weekend is bedlam under normal circumstances, and the Saturday we Florida left was no exception. It is obvious to travellers that most North American airports were constructed long before the new airport security measures came into effect. In Lauderdale, there is neither the space nor the proper accommodation for long line-ups of passengers waiting to go through security and luggage screening. We are very fortunate in our city to have a new airport, and the difference in the flow of passengers through it contrasted with Fort Lauderdale Airport is stunning to the observer. To add to the noise, confusion and hordes of passengers, this time we added a new wrinkle ? Jetsgo, a Canadian discount airline had gone bankrupt and ceased all operations without notice the day before. This of course caused a panic with passengers holding tickets who showed up at the airport to find the Jetsgo counter closed with no indication of where to get help. We saw one young lady on the phone crying, asking for money to be sent to her so she could pay for a hotel and await a flight from another carrier. Those who booked through travel agents had help finding other flights, but those who direct booked or booked on-line were pretty much out of luck for several days. Those who booked using a credit card may get their money back as the credit card companies have pledged to reimburse them for services not rendered. If however the passenger used cash to buy the ticket, they are out of luck as far as a refund goes. I guess this is one more reason to use a travel agent rather than booking yourself.
Money-wise, we did very well and spent less on board than we had budgeted for. We saved quite a bit of money using private tour operators rather than Princess tours and saw more of the ports than the Princess tour would have allowed. My idea of buying a shipboard credit for each special occasion over the past year proved its worth as it took several days to move us from the credit side to the debit side of the ship?s account. Our travel agent liked my idea so much that she has passed it on to other budget-conscious cruisers. We could have saved money on Princess photos, but the downside of hooking up with such a large group is that there are always different folks in the shots, depending upon the day and the port. They are a nice reminder to have and we?ll put them in the photo album, of course.
It was wonderful to have such a large and diverse group to travel with and we had a fabulous time. We are now in the process of planning next year?s cruise to the Mexican Riviera via San Francisco and we?re going to try to stay together and travel en mass on a yearly basis. We will definitely stay in touch via e-mail.