January 2016 - Grand Princess to Hawaii
Warning: it's long.
TL;DR - if you went to Cheesecake Factory to celebrate your last birthday, if you're still raving about your stay at the Cleveland Marriott, if you can't move because you're too old or too fat, then this cruise is for you!
This was my first cruise . While I was prepared to encounter a lot of older passengers, as there were many sea days, I had no idea that there would be so many morbidly obese people on board. Not the agent or the cruise line's fault, just shocking. I think I'd be interested in a more active itinerary and entertainment, but the selection of this cruise wasn't done by me in the first place (I joined friends who had already booked).
It seems as though the cruise attempts to imply luxury, but can't help being stuck firmly in the grasp of its middle-class clientele. My expectations were (perhaps unreasonably) closer to Michelin Star, yet I felt more Ruth's Chris than French Laundry. Fine if your previous luxury escapades have been limited to Cheesecake Factory and the Cleveland Marriott, but a bit of a letdown for those who more regularly patronize Manresa and the Mandarin Oriental. I felt at times as though I were trapped inside of Disneyland--attention was paid to every detail, but I was sentenced to endlessly endure the mediocrity of the masses.
Facilities were generally very well maintained. I enjoyed the wood paneled Wheelhouse lounge, and spent endless hours inside the Vines wine bar. Service was, across the board, outstanding and delightful. Traditional dining was a lovely opportunity to forge lasting relationships with both tablemates and service staff and by-and-large, the food was done quite well considering the volumes and storage constraints. I’ve rarely observed such detailed attention to traditional French culinary technique, so finding perfectly tournéed potatoes on my plate brought be back to my culinary school days. Outstanding staff included Mark and Jermone, our late-seating servers in the Boticcelli dining room, Jenny and Romil in the Crooner’s lounge, and Bon in the Vines wine bar.
Specialty restaurants were adequate, but not the outstanding experience that I was expecting. Steakhouse steaks were choice, not prime, and somewhat flaccid. The wine tasting event was not hosted by a certified Sommelier, but by someone who had “once worked as a hotel sommelier”. Information imparted during the wine tasting was rudimentary at best, and factually incorrect at times. The special Fondue dinner featured quite watery fondue, which was explained as a reaction to passengers complaining about cheese that was too thick at the previous event. Formal dinners featured special entrées and of course you could always order as many dishes as you liked. They were even accommodating in letting me compose my own combination of proteins and veggies from the menu card (as I’ve mentioned, the service was outstanding). If getting as many lobster tails as you like is your idea of luxury, then you’ll relish the experience.
The biggest disappointment was The Sanctuary, an adult-only retreat at the front of the ship. It’s touted as an opportunity to “escape completely to this plush, outdoor spa-inspired setting with signature beverages, light meals, massages, attentive service and relaxing personal entertainment.” Our experience was quite different. As The Sanctuary is located quite close to the main pool area, it was impossible to escape the afternoon games and activities amplified over speakers so as to generate maximum excitement, or the ongoing “Movies Under the Stars®” (which was not limited to when the stars were out). As a result, we were constantly assaulted with all manner of shouting, cheering, dialogue and explosions. In addition, it took over 90 minutes to receive our first drink order (after waiting nearly an hour for a server to appear), and over 2 hours for food and the promised and very necessary noise-canceling headsets. Apparently, although noise cancellation and relaxing music are both advertised and definitely necessary, the mp3 players are kept several decks below and inconvenient to access. Even once the mp3 player arrived, the headset was shorted and suffered from poor sound quality. As we politely brought these deficiencies to the attention of the staff, they made every attempt to make amends. Our service was escalated three times, to increasingly senior staff, but even they couldn’t compensate for broken electronics and over-amplified activities by the pool. By-and-large, not worth the added cost ($40pp). We spent the following afternoon relaxing by the small adults-only pool at the stern, where we found better service and more peace. Kudos to the service team for trying, except for the initial giggly Japanese woman who would nod and say ‘yes’ even though it became apparent that she didn’t even understand what we were asking, and who didn’t make her first appearance for 45 minutes and then only sparsely and occasionally thereafter.
The unlimited drinks option was key, as it includes many of the other added-cost items such as barista coffee drinks and soft drinks. We easily consumed more than the $50/day cost, considering that each coffee drink ran ~$4 in the am, a couple of sodas at lunch were ~$3 ea, mai tais at the pool were ~$8, a glass of wine before dinner ran ~$8-$10, and we receive 40% off of full bottles of wine, complimentary sparkling water bottles at dinner, and free bottles of water for excursions.
All-in-all, I appreciated the opportunity to disconnect and relax in a way that I’ve never been able to before. I suspect, however, if I ever go on another cruise I will choose one that more closely fits my demographic.