Review of SUN PRINCESS
16 Day Panama Canal Cruise, April 25, 2002
By J. McKenry & MurrayOnHawaii.com
The SUN PRINCESS is a beautiful ship operated by Princess Cruise Lines. Readers might refer to various online sites and cruise brochures which describe its specifications better than could be covered here.
Accommodations: Our Sun Princess cabin was a Category BC, with veranda. It was very nice and new enough, but too small, including the bath.
Dining rooms: There are two main dining rooms for dinner, one for Traditional reserved dining and one for Personal Choice dining. A designated one of the two (for the entire cruise) was available for lunch and breakfast, with open seating. Horizon Court, located on an upper deck, is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and serves buffet style. It is also open 24 hours with limited food choices during the off hours. There is no “formal” midnight buffet. Sterling steak house serves dinner by reservation and charges $8. There are also a Pizzeria/trattoria, open much of the day, and a hamburger/hot dog stand. Observations on Sun Princess dining appear below in the “Dining Facilities Operation” section.
Food: Overall the food was disappointing. Our comparison is to 4 previous Princess Cruises (last one 5 years ago) and 10 on other lines including Royal Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, Renaissance, Cunard, and Sun Olympic (no luxury lines). It is disappointing because after the demise of Richard Revnes’ Royal Cruise Line about eighteen years ago ( it continued briefly under another owner, possibly under the same name ), Princess succeeded Royal as our favorite cruise line. Princess’ food was of better quality then.
Two or three dinners were very good but food generally was tasteless and bland. Some of the more attractive offerings were lobster tail twice, crab legs twice, filet mignon (surf and turf) once, escargots once (which the wife thought was the best menu item), and much shrimp. Sounds better than it was. Lobster tail was ok but short on taste. Crab legs were ok first time but second time were not firm and hardly tasty. Filet tasted more like a good top round. One excellent dinner was grilled shrimp and (probably) halibut. Among side dishes, which overall were not notable, spinach was very good and served frequently early on, which was good for the spinach minority. Potatoes were unimpressive. Fish appeared regularly for both lunch and dinner, and ranged from very good to a couple that were not so good. A nice touch on Horizon Court was a carving roast, also regularly on the menu. We tried a veal roast and it included excellent gravy. The only other sampled was beef, and it seemed overcooked and bland. There were usually two pastas on Horizon. Occasionally one was good but most did not knock one’s socks off. There was variety on Horizon Court but not a great deal to rave about. One late night snack on Horizon was responsible for our most unfortunate dining experience. The chef offered a rare treat, an American sandwich. Anticipation turned out to be short lived, however. Instead of happiness in a club sandwich we peeked inside first and found a piece of raw bacon.
The main positive in desserts was the made to order sundaes available with dinner in the dining rooms. We ordered them regularly with vanilla ice cream and they were consistently excellent, although the wife didn‘t appreciate the hot dishes on which they were served. I like ice cream that has started to melt. We cannot vouch for other flavors. Coffee ice cream was overpowering. (incidentally one has to dig into one’s pocket for ice cream outside the dining room.) The other good desserts were excellent cocoanut cream pie and key lime pie, both served once. Beyond that, in the vernacular, desserts were lousy. All the rest were European style rather than American. Tarts came with a crust that called for the power drill you left home, and there was a plethora of gelatin things. Those who like dark chocolate fared better since it, as usual, was the basis for all the chocolate desserts. That group would possibly have enjoyed the something that looked like a brownie. One of my fond hopes is someday to be on a cruise that has, at least, some American milk chocolate. We came to learn that when something came along that looked American, like cake that fooled us, but only once, it was better left unsampled. Who could imagine a chef doing anything to tapioca pudding, other than possibly burning it? We found there was something else. It was tasteless.
A savior for the food, at least around lunchtime, was cheeseburgers, served in the hamburger/hot dog stand adjacent to Horizon Court. They were very good, surprisingly. Most cruises we have been on, they were anything but.
Dining Facilities Operation: The main, or notable, ingredients for successful personal choice dining, are estimated to be two or more reasonably spacious, separate dining rooms, all reasonably elegant, as ships’ main dining rooms normally are, and a corresponding, able to be handled, number of passengers, should a ship be so lucky. A balance between open seating and required reservations is equally important, and that balance is a variable which depends on the number of passengers and number of dining rooms. At least one room should honor reservations, generally reservations only, but could also honor open seating so long as it is worked in around reservations. At least one room should be devoted exclusively to open seating with no reservations honored. This does not preclude people wishing to dine together in open seating from doing so. They would simply make up their own group and wait in line together.
Personal choice dining, a reasonably accurate description of the concept, exists by design on most luxury cruise ships, and is more noticeable on ships that choose to have more than one dining room. Among premium cruise lines, however, of which Princess Cruise Lines is one, it is more of a trend, perhaps about three years old, although probably on the way to becoming more than a trend, especially as new ships are built with more dining rooms. It is a difficult concept, however, to retrofit into existing ships. Norwegian Cruise Line may represent the initial experiment. We are not familiar with Norwegian’s configuration or the results. A good example among premium, or near premium, cruise lines is the new, shadowily existent, Renaissance line. It came on the scene near the same time as when the concept was being considered. Renaissance ships were designed with that type of dining in mind. Theirs have one main dining room along with two specialty rooms, and they implement the concept beautifully.
Princess’ system is to use one of two equal main dining rooms for open seating while the other remains dedicated to fixed (traditional) seating. Beyond that, a certain amount of slight of hand is employed as two other “rooms” are brought into the mix, promoted as other choices. One is called, taking great liberties, The Sterling Steak House. The other is the ever popular Horizon Court. Thus Princess advertises (at least) four “personal choice” alternative dining options while the latter two are, at best, marginal additions. The Sterling Steak House is actually a little corner of Horizon Court which is Horizon Court by day and Sterling Steak House by night, when a portable bar and a couple of other temporary decorative touches are mingled with a few Horizon tables. Horizon Court is undeniably pretty and very spacious, but it is a buffet and has its own motif, which is not the same motif as the two main dining rooms. To further infringe on the concept of personal choice, pure or impure as it may be, Princess Cruises cheats on open seating. In the dining room dedicated to open seating, it also honors reservations.
Princess’ “personal choice” thus appears to be a hodge-podge coming across as a misleading and confusing hybrid. It exemplifies the difficulty of adapting the concept to a ship which lacks the necessary dining resources. It might be the result of a corporate compromise, wanting to keep up with the Jones without having the resources, but coming close. But that is speculation. Prior to the cruise we tried to find out from Princess and anyone else what “personal choice” meant, but the answers we received were inconsistent and confusing. We read into them a reflection of what we expected to find, once on board, a hybrid system reconcilable only with difficulty, or perhaps not, to the concept of “personal choice”.
On Princess’ behalf they should be given credit for wanting to provide passengers with an option currently popular in the cruise industry. They might even have allowed that its workings would be difficult to predict. Perhaps they thought in terms of evaluating its effectiveness over a period of time. In the meantime, perhaps PR could be relied on to provide credibility. More speculation. For passengers, as “personal choice” is now, it is probably dining in transition.
Entertainment: Princess is the best. Dance production shows; swing, soft, and Latin music for dancing; vocalists featuring the same; tasteful comedians, whether they be stand up, magicians, or jugglers. Princess seems to focus more on quality assurance in providing what, in their estimation, their clientele wants, rather than merely purchasing what is out there.
Ambiance: Again Princess is the best. The same caring attitude that has always been their trademark, the pleasant passenger oriented feeling displayed by all the service personnel. The Purser’s desk is excellent in providing all kinds of information and solving an equal range of problems. Such ambiance is universal to varying degrees among cruise lines, but Princess excels.
Tenders (boats to shore): For the first time Tenders introduced themselves as a factor in selecting a cruise. We have tendered to shore on various cruises because a port could not accommodate a particular large ship, but on Sun Princess because of its size, it was a common occurrence. Of five ports (Cartagena was cancelled and replaced by a Panama port which never materialized), three required tenders. On a previous cruise we had experienced tenders being discontinued after a few hours because of rough seas, but we hadn’t before encountered a tender operation as challenging as Princess‘.
The Grand Cayman harbor provided the tenders there and that operation went smoothly. Huatulco, Mexico, however, apparently was not so equipped and Princess used its own tenders there, which turned out to be a boat of another color. One could have thought of it as a circus as passengers watched from the rail, but that would neither be fair, nor take into account the inherent danger. One crew member fell overboard, and had to be pulled out of the water. One tender had to be taken out of operation for a technical problem. While that was going on, once the boats arrived in the vicinity of the ship for passengers’ embarkation, each pilot seemingly took forever to position at the ship’s dock. Boarding became uncertain, at best. Eventually, although events probably discouraged some from trying, all who wanted to go ashore, went ashore, albeit very carefully.
The return from shore was a different adventure. As each boat would approach the dock, there appeared to be a contest underway as to which one could ram Sun Princess the hardest. All tenders produced several “hit and miss”es, and in addition to rattling several sets of bones, before tying up successfully, our boat, for example, all but succeeded in throwing a woman seated on the end of a bench to the deck. In spite of the striking tactics, however, there was a plus side. Sun Princess exhibited a tough hull. In fairness to the boat crews the water was choppy and, to their credit, the next tender operation saw a complete turnaround. At Cabo San Lucas when Princess did the tendering again, all went smoothly. No one was lost and there was no apparent damage.
Noise: The final night, northward along the California coast to San Francisco, the sea was mildly rough and a loud, banging metallic noise kept us awake for 3 hours. Calling the purser’s office in the wee hours the response we received was that the noise was caused by rough weather and extended throughout the ship. What we heard, however, was coming from directly below our cabin, and we entertained the possibility that the tender, which was directly underneath and a deck below, had not been fastened securely. After comparing notes with other passengers the next morning, we thought our explanation made more sense than the Purser’s, but neither is verifiable. Admittedly we may have been influenced by the quality of the tender operation a couple of days before, but in any case, such noise is not expected of a large, late model ship.
Disembarkation: Pluses and minuses. We arose about 6:30 which wasn’t bad. Usually it’s the bum’s rush; get out of your cabin and don’t come back; all the breakfast service people are tense; and things you want there are not available. In this case, however, breakfast was the same menu as every other morning, the service was relatively unhurried, and there was little pressure. Checking out, there was waiting, as always, and the process was almost leisurely. Until we were called to debark, that is. Then it became (and I apologize for the term) “stupid”. Groups were called in sequence but there were many line crashers, not unusual, but Princess used no mechanism to control them. We were in the first group at the perimeter of the atrium in a line that narrowed into a corridor, which led to the gangplank. There were roughly over a hundred passengers in front of us, four or five abreast, with no movement for fifteen minutes. There were a couple of wheelchairs jockeying for position and a handful of uniformed INS and Customs people trying to squeeze across the line to a restricted exit on the right. All of that time the departure was disorganized and once the line started to move another ten minutes were required to reach the gangplank. It was a procedure that was left out of control and unbecoming to any cruise line.
Travel writers, who can be taken with a grain of salt (except for this review), hit on something when it was reported a couple of years ago that Princess is going for the “mass market”. We believe that is the case. Princess still has most of the same old refinement but they seem to have foregone attention in some areas in favor of what appears to be concentrating on profitability. Huge ships, more passengers, disproportionately less cabin space, lower food quality (not lower service quality), and savings on some transportation arrangements, to mention a few areas.
This is not the same Princess we knew five years ago, even taking into account the larger ship size which adjusts a viewpoint significantly. Food is the critical determinant. It is not the same quality Princess food we knew.
Whereas Princess had been at the top of our list among premium cruise lines, after this cruise, it is back in the pack, and as far as food is concerned, at the bottom of the pack. As we were told prior to this cruise by two other former Princess cruisers, and we found it difficult to believe, they would not recommend Princess. Our opinion may be somewhat marginal in that regard but we do feel it is worthwhile to point out some of the downside we thought we saw. Our position might better be stated by the outlook that our next cruises will be on a different cruise line, not Princess.