Our family has taken a number of Eastern and Western Caribbean cruises in recent years, but until December 2006 we had never sailed a Southern Caribbean itinerary. We were anxious to try out a Southern Caribbean cruise on the newest ship in the Princess fleet – the Crown Princess. The cruise exceeded our expectations! In this report I will describe some of the features of the Crown Princess and the ports we visited. Anne will contribute her comments on various parts of the trip preceded by the words “Anne’s take:” And we’ll get a kids view of the trip from our sons Andrew and Josh.
By Tim Larison Travel Agent and CLIA Certified Master Cruise Counselor (MCC) With Contributions by: Travel Agent Anne Larison, and our sons Andrew and Joshua (12 year old twins)
We visited four ports this cruise for the first time (San Juan, Barbados, St Lucia, Antigua) in addition to returning to St Maarten and St Thomas. If you have read my past cruise reviews you know I like to setup private shore excursions in each port instead of taking cruise line excursions. For this cruise we took more private excursions than we ever had on a Caribbean cruise, and we were very pleased with the quality of the excursions.
Barbados - Cameron Reid tour
We arranged a private tour with Cameron Reid of www.scenicbarbados.com. This turned out to be a very good choice! Cameron was there waiting for us as we got off the ship at 9 a.m. He gave us a map of Barbados and said he would give us a customized tour based on our interests. We decided on a historical/scenic tour rather than one with water sports (we were to be in the water on visits to other islands later in the week). Cameron did a great job of telling us the history and culture of Barbados as he drove us around the island in his Toyota Camry. We learned that Barbados became independent from England in 1966 and is one of the few independent Caribbean islands. I saw other tours in open safari vehicles and larger tour busses – we were happy to have Cameron just for us (I sat in the front seat, while Anne and the boys sat in the back). We stopped at the Highlands and had a scenic view that Cameron said was similar to Scotland. We visited St John church, with an old cemetery. As we toured the cemetery we could hear owls hooting. The highlight of the day was a visit to a wildlife reserve ($35 extra charge for our family of four), where we saw many types of creatures close up. The boys enjoyed looking at the many turtles that were crawling over the grounds. We also saw python snakes, flamingos, deer, parrots, a variety of other colorful birds, wild island monkeys, and more. The boys were bored in parts with the scenic and historical drives, but they really perked up when we visited the wildlife reserve. If you are touring Barbados with kids I recommend spending an hour or so at the wildlife reserve.
Tour Grade: B+
I can’t imagine a better tour guide for Barbados than Cameron Reid. He was knowledgeable, courteous, flexible, and provided us with a great tour. We all thought he reminded us of the actor James Earl Jones. Barbados itself I would not rate it at the top of Caribbean islands for scenery (the islands we were to visit later in the cruise were more interesting) The wildlife reserve was a nice stop especially for our family who enjoys visiting zoos back home.
Anne’s Take: The personal attention from a private tour guide is a huge benefit over other types of tours, such as on a tour bus. We have been on tours where we feel like we are lost in a crowd. We enjoy going at our own pace. Even though the boys did not find this tour as exciting as some of our tours in the days ahead, they were exposed to a variety of unique experiences. Not only the amazing wildlife reserve, but the boys were fascinated by the cemetery at St. John’s church. The century-old mausoleums and crypts were quite interesting.
Josh said: “Going to the wildlife reserve was really fun. I liked all of the turtles that were walking around.”
Andrew said: “Awesome Turtles!! Everywhere you looked there was a bunch of these colorful reptiles. You better be careful or you could step on one. Also in this wildlife reserve we saw a bunch of colorful birds (but they were also stinky).”
St Lucia – Cosol Tours
On this island we booked another private tour – Cosol (website: www.cosol-tours.com ). provided us with an excellent excursion. What made the tour so interesting (especially compared to Barbados) was the variety of attractions we saw and the different experiences we had. St Lucia has many mountains which made for some great picture taking (highlighted by the famous twin peak “Pitons”) We also stopped at a waterfall, an active volcano, a botanical garden, and a banana plantation. We were the only tour group allowed into the Hilton Jalousie resort beach (pictured above) – we enjoyed an hour here swimming in a tranquil bay in the shadow of the Pitons. Anne and the boys report that the water here was warm and refreshing – not as cold as December swimming they have done at islands north of St Lucia in the Caribbean on other cruises. Cosol and our driver “Baptist” were perfect hosts – they had a cooler filled with water bottles, soft drinks, rum punch, and Piton beer that they opened frequently during the 6 hour tour for complementary refreshments for their guests. We also stopped at several food stops along the way (eating fresh bananas at the banana plantation, having fish cakes at a fishing village, and sampling warm, hot native St Lucia bread). Though lunch was not included in the tour we didn’t need lunch – there was plenty of snacking during the day to keep our appetites satisfied. Our tour group consisted of two 8 person vans. Our van actually could hold 12 passengers so we had plenty of room to spread out. Our driver Baptist gave us a colorful narration of the history and culture of the area along our journey. One word of caution – St Lucia has many winding mountain roads so if you are prone to motion sickness it is a good idea to take medication before the tour. Our family was fine though Andrew reports he felt a little queasy at the end.
Overall Tour Grade: A+
I have taken some wonderful private excursions in Alaska and in the Mediterranean – I would have to rate Cosol’s tour as the best one I’ve ever taken in the Caribbean. Caribbean islands tend to be flat with not as many interesting things to see as cruise locales in other parts of the world. We found St Lucia to be an exception to this – with many interesting features and still with the signature beautiful beaches that the Caribbean is known for. In addition to St Lucia being a great island to tour, Cosol was a wonderful host and provided excellent value for the money (his tour was longer and less expensive than the cruise line offerings) Anne’s Take: Our local hosts did take very good care of us. We drove through many small towns and fishing villages on our tour of the island. This gave us a good sense of the island, its people and all it has to offer; from the very poor areas, where they work very hard to make their living off the land and the sea, to the resort areas where you can truly enjoy the year-round warm weather. We did have occasion to run across a few topless sunbathers, both on St. Lucia and also St. Maarten. Just be aware that this practice is common on some Caribbean islands. Our boys are still at the ‘too embarrassed to look’ stage, but in a year or two that will change.
Josh: “On St Lucia we saw a volcano and it smelled really bad. It was really fun when we went to the beach and played in the water. The bread and drinks that he gave us were refreshing.”
Andrew: “There was just too much to do in St. Lucia! Active volcanoes, beaches, food, bananas, banana ketchup, Johnnycakes, waterfalls, everything you can imagine, Amazing!”
Antigua – Adventure Antigua’s “Eco Tour”
At this island we did something different – a six hour boat tour with Adventure Antigua (website www.adventureantigua.com ) featuring snorkeling, swimming, hiking, plenty of food, and educational talks on the ecology of Antigua and its surrounding islands. We thought this tour was an excellent choice for families. Andrew and Josh had never been snorkeling before, and the crew was patient with the boys in teaching them this new activity. All snorkel gear was provided in the tour price. In addition to all the water fun we experienced, we learned some new things, too. In the tour description Adventure Antigua states “The emphasis of the tour is on the ecology and history of the area. The warm, clear waters, protected by over twenty little islands, countless reefs, flats and mangrove nurseries are always calm and there are perfect opportunities for spotting some of the local residents, including Turtles, Frigate Birds, Herons, Pelicans, Spotted Eagle Rays, Sting Rays, Barracuda, Osprey, Turns, Noddies, Laughing Gulls, and the beautiful Tropic Birds. The crew will talk about local flora and fauna and the interesting scientific turtle project at Jumby Bay, and guests will be entertained by their anecdotes and stories of local history and folklore.” In addition to snorkeling and some wonderful views from our small tour boat, we also took short hikes on a couple of small islands.
Overall Tour Grade: A
Adventure Antigua did an excellent job running this tour. The day was most suited for those who are into water sports, so Anne and the boys got more out of the tour than I did (a non-swimmer). Some parts of the tour did require that you know how to swim to get the full enjoyment of the day’s activities (such as swimming to one of the small islands to climb a rock formation). Nevertheless, I still enjoyed the scenic boat ride, the delicious catered lunch, the numerous photo opportunities, and learning of the history of the area. This tour is not the best choice if you have mobility issues. Climbing into and out of the small boat took some coordination, and visiting the restroom on the boat required a climb down a six foot ladder to an enclosed cabin. Also those prone to sea sickness would be wise to take precautions as the ride can be rough in spots.
Anne’s take: This was a favorite tour of mine. I loved being on the boat and visiting the small islands and beaches of Antigua. We immediately sat under the covering that the boat provided. Some folks were in the sun on the front and back of the boat all day. This would have been way too much sun for our family. The other thing that this tour provided was a view of all the many luxury resorts available for vacations all along the Antigua coast. Our guides pointed out the many resorts and even stopped the boat along the way to explain the history of the resorts and their current status for vacationers. This was helpful to Tim and me for our travel business. We were exhausted at the end of the day after our hiking, boating, snorkeling and climbing, but it was well worth it.
Josh: “On Antigua we had a boat tour where we saw great scenery and ate good food. It was also my first time snorkeling. I thought it was going to be hard, but it was easy! I even got to climb up onto a big rock in the ocean.”
Andrew: “In Antigua we went to an awesome beach, where I went snorkeling for the first time. Also we did hiking and climbed @#$% Gate (H word) which was quite creepy but fun. Also the banana bread back on the boat was really good.”
St Maarten - Joyce Prince tour
At St Maarten we took the last of our private tours, a custom itinerary designed for us by Joyce Prince (website www.joyceprince.com/ ). Joyce tailors each tour to the wishes of her clients. We had been to St Maarten twice before, picking one beach and staying there for most of our day. This time, as travel agents, Anne and I wanted to see some of the resorts on the island and to get a look at many of the other beaches on the island. Joyce was great in showing us around the island, explaining the differences between the Dutch and the French side, and frequently stopping so we could take pictures of the different beaches. Once again we found the personal attention of a private tour guide so much better than being herded into a large tour bus. The boys would have preferred time at the beach so they did not find this tour as interesting as our tours on the other islands. However we all enjoyed the shop Joyce picked out for us at the end of the tour for souvenir shopping.
Overall Tour Grade: A
We enjoyed our morning tour with Joyce Prince very much. The best part of Joyce’s service is the custom itinerary – she presents a variety of tour options for you and you can pick the features that interest you the most. While our tour was more of a whirlwind scenic tour, visiting several resorts and beaches, for other clients Joyce told us of taking people zip lining, to a secluded spot for a picnic lunch, or to a nice beach for several hours. In addition Joyce is very personable in telling stories of the area and in answering questions.
Anne’s Take: During our tour of the island with Joyce, we spent time in an area of the island that offers private homes for rent. Joyce is familiar with many of these properties. In addition to being a tour guide, she offers many other services to families who come to St. Maarten for vacation. Cooking private meals for families and watching children for parents who go out for adults night away from the kids are among her many services. Joyce does it all!
Josh: “St Maarten was fun because we had a friendly tour guide who showed us all around the island. We visited lots of beaches and got souvenirs at the end.”
Andrew: “I liked St. Maarten because I’ve been there a couple of times and it was as good as ever. We had a nice tour guide who took us around and showed us beaches (sadly we couldn’t play on them.) Then at the end I got this cool model boat thing as a souvenir.”
With our busy tour schedule at the other islands and with only one “at sea” day on this cruise, we decided to stay on the ship at St Thomas. We had been to St Thomas twice before on recent cruises, and did not see the need to have another beach day here. Instead we played a number of games on the Crown Princess’ sports deck, watched a movie, and participated in onboard trivia contests and games this day. We did notice that the Crown Princess docked in a new area on St Thomas – the Crown Bay pier. Most of the shopping near this pier was under construction – we took a short walk off of the ship but found most of the stores had not yet opened for business. We did see a small boat pier within walking distance of the ship – some of the passengers took a boat from this pier to a nearby island for a day at the beach. This was a better setup than having to take a taxi to Red Hook to take a ferry off the island.
The Crown Princess first sailed in June 2006 – the sister ship of the Caribbean Princess. We were fortunate to sail on both ships in 2006. The two ships are similar, but the Crown had some improvements which I will mention below.
We originally booked a balcony stateroom for the cruise. Then a special came along where we could get two inside staterooms at a combined lesser price than one balcony stateroom. We opted for more space and the two staterooms. This was our first cruise where Anne and I were in one stateroom and the boys in another – it worked out extremely well! We enjoyed the extra room we had. Having two bathrooms allowed us to shower and get ready for dinner after the day’s shore excursion much quicker than on past cruises. The staterooms themselves were arranged in typical Princess fashion. The staterooms are smaller than what we have seen on other cruise lines (like Disney) but the storage in the room was efficiently designed.
Stateroom Grade: B+
Other than the small size we were very please with our staterooms. Our stateroom attendant provided excellent service, too, for the entire cruise.
The Crown Princess had three dining rooms, a large buffet divided into two sections, and two specialty restaurants.
Personal Choice Dining
This was our second Princess cruise with personal choice dining – where we could dine any time between 5:30 pm and 10 pm. Just like our Caribbean Princess cruise earlier in the year, the personal choice dining worked out fine for us. We never had to wait for a table – even one night where we had dinner at 7 pm with some friends (a group of 8 in all) we were seated immediately. The dining room food was very good – we have consistently had excellent food on our past Princess cruises and this cruise was no exception. Anne and I particularly liked the shrimp cocktail appetizer offered on the menu each night. We also had very good breakfasts in the dining room on the mornings where we weren’t in a rush to get to a shore excursion. The dining room breakfasts were much better than what we had in the buffet.
Dining Room Grade: A
Horizon Court Buffet/Café Caribe
I thought the Horizon Court Buffet wasn’t quite as good as buffets we have had on Princess in the past. For breakfast there was no “cooked to order” omelet bar like we’ve seen on other ships. On our Princess cruises in the past the buffet was open 24 hours – on this cruise the buffet closed at 11 pm. Café Caribe The Crown Princess also had a second buffet, the Café Caribe, located directly behind the Horizon Court in the aft of the ship. In the evening the Café Caribe had a different, more “upscale” menu than the regular buffet during the day. We found this a good alternative to the Personal Choice dining rooms on one or two nights where we wanted to remain in our casual clothes for dinner.
Buffet Grade: B
(a downgrade from our past Princess cruises because of more limited hours and less food choices)
Pizza and Grill
Near one of the pools Princess offered fresh cooked pizzas throughout the day and grilled items such as hamburgers and hot dogs. Our boys particularly liked this dining option for lunch and on the nights the adults ate at the specialty restaurants. Scoops Ice Cream What has Princess done to Scoops???!!! We had always enjoyed the Haagen Daz ice cream served at Scoops on past Princess cruises. You did have to pay extra for ice cream at Scoops but in the past it was well worth it. On this cruise Haagen Daz was gone and instead Princess was serving an inferior brand of ice cream at the same price. We miss the Haagen Daz days and now would not recommend Scoops for an ice cream treat. Free ice cream is offered in the buffet in the late afternoon as an alternative.
Specialty Restaurant: Sabatinis Italian Restaurant
This was the third time I have eaten at a Sabatinis – the first dinner was on the Island Princess in Alaska and the second on the Caribbean Princess. The Crown Princess version of this popular Italian restaurant was the best I have dined at yet. Unlike on the other two ships where Sabatinis is located on a lower deck in the interior of the ship, Sabatinis on the Crown Princess is located at the top of the ship on deck 15. Anne and I were fortunate to get a window table, and we enjoyed seeing the ship sail away from the lights of Bridgetown, Barbados as we dined. The food at Sabatinis is plentiful and excellent. If you have read my other reviews of this restaurant our dining experience on the Crown was similar – we dined for 2 ½ hours through 10 to 15 meal courses. From proscuitta ham, calamari, ricotta cheese, minestrone soup, beef, pasta, ravioli, and more our waiter from Sicily kept bringing out more and more food. This time we knew what to expect from Sabatinis so we took small samples of all these delicacies, so by the time we finished our main entree (shrimp for Anne, grilled lobster tails for Tim) we were pleasantly satisfied rather than being overly stuffed. It is easy to overeat in this restaurant so we have learned to pace ourselves.
Sabatinis Grade: A
I would rate this as my 2nd favorite specialty restaurant on any cruise ship (2nd only to Palo on the Disney cruise). The $20 per person cover charge was well worth it for this intimate dining experience.
Crown Grill The Sterling Steakhouse we have dined at on other Princess ships has been expanded and renamed the Crown Grill. If you are a steak lover, this is the place for you. Anne had an excellent cut of Filet Mignon here. For the non-steak eaters there was still a good selection of seafood dishes (Tim enjoyed his tiger prawn entrée). While the Crown Grill did not have as many meal courses as Sabatinis, there was still plenty to eat. In addition to our main entrée, we were given a choice of appetizer, soup, and salad before the main part of the meal. To complement our entrees we had a choice of 8 different side dishes – we could order all 8 if we wanted to (we ordered 6 to share – I especially liked the creamed spinach and the scalloped potatoes) The wait staff was attentive and offered to bring more food periodically. When our waiter saw I had devoured all of the creamed spinach he offered to bring another serving. I declined that offer because I wanted to save room for dessert. Anne and I each had a dessert sampler platter, with a small portion of each of the 5 desserts the restaurant offers. That turned out to be an excellent choice. We left the Crown Grill as satisfied and full as we had departed Sabatinis the night before.
Crown Grill Grade: A-
Princess does a great job with their specialty restaurants. The Crown Grill has a completely different menu and atmosphere than Sabatinis. I would rate Sabatinis a little higher simply because I love Italian food, but the Crown Grill is also a very good choice. The cover charge at the Crown Grill is $25/person and not quite the value Sabatinis is.
Overall food grade: B+
On the Crown Princess the dining room food and the selections in the specialty restaurants were as good as ever – an above average dining experience. The buffet and ice cream offerings were a downgrade from what we have had on past Princess cruises.
Josh: “The food on our cruise was great! I had lots of steak for dinner that was really good. The hamburgers and pizza on the top decks were a great snack when I was hungry.”
Andrew: “Pasta!!!! Every night I had that delicious pasta. Even though it was green or it had tuna (which I despise) Or if it was covered with a hunk of caviar, I still ate it and it tasted good. No pasta bar in the buffet, so pasta lovers don’t get your hopes up for quick and plain pasta. Steak isn’t my thing but I can you there is a lot of it from the looks of Josh’s plate.”
Princess Theatre The main Princess theatre featured two production shows and a variety of comedy acts during the week. We only attended one show in the main theatre (“Destination Anywhere”); we didn’t think this production was as good as the shows we had seen on the Caribbean Princess earlier in the year. Movies Under The Stars One of our favorite features on the newer Princess ships is a large outdoor movie screen by one of the pools. On this cruise we didn’t watch as many movies as we had on our Caribbean Princess trip in February mostly because this cruise had two less “at sea” days. Princess also showed movies during the week in the main Princess theatre, in the Explorers Lounge, and in Club Fusion. Other Activities Anne and I played music trivia in Club Fusion for several nights. On one evening we had an old gentleman from England helping us– he said he attended a Buddy Holly concert in England back in the 50′s!
Overall Entertainment Grade: B+
The production shows and movies were a step below what we saw on the Caribbean Princess. The lounge acts were very good (especially singer and “piano man” Brett Cave, website – www.brettcave.co.uk ), and we enjoyed the trivia contests scheduled throughout the cruise.
We saw more kids on this cruise than on any of our other three Princess cruises. The large children’s area on the Crown Princess was more than big enough to accommodate them. Because of our busy touring schedule the boys were not in the club as often as on our past cruises, but they report below they had a good time when they did participate in the kids club activities. Anne sat next to a teacher on our flight to San Juan. Princess hires experienced teachers to help with the children’s clubs on a contract basis. We generally have found the kids club counselors on Princess more experienced than what we have seen on some of our other cruises.
Josh: “I liked the kids club a lot. They had lots of games and TVs. Also, they had special night like casino night where we played games like poker and blackjack.”
Andrew: “The kids club was fun even though we didn’t go there often. I played some games on the PS2′s and played poker and blackjack too. They also showed movies for younger kids to watch like Cars and other stuff. I bet if we were a bit smaller we would have loved it even more.”
Internet Café/wireless access
The Crown Princess had a large internet café that had a strong internet connection throughout the whole cruise. We found that Princess had raised the price of their internet access to 50 cents a minute. At those prices I logged in and logged off quickly to check my email but didn’t spend much time browsing. There was no offer to buy a block of internet minutes to reduce the rate. The ship also had various wireless “hot spots” in different areas but internet connectivity was not possible in your stateroom. In addition various classes were offered as part of Princess “Computer at Sea” curriculum. I attended a free lecture on the use of Adobe Photo Shop Elements that was interesting. Other classes had a $25 per session charge.
We stayed at the San Juan airport Best Western the night before the cruise. We arrived past 11 p.m. so we appreciated the convenience of the hotel; we were able to walk to the Best Western from the baggage claim area. Our room was basic with one of the smallest “flat screen” televisions I’ve ever seen in a hotel room (you can see this in our pictures). The free breakfast buffet in the morning was satisfactory, and we especially enjoyed the game room. I liked the free wireless internet access to catch up on my email after a long day of air travel. Next time if we arrive in San Juan earlier we plan to stay at one of the resorts near the port – the Best Western was priced about the same as the nicer hotels in the port area. This would also give us the opportunity to explore San Juan which we did not have time to do on this trip.
We really enjoyed our pre-Christmas cruise on the Crown Princess. We especially liked the variety and quality of the private shore excursions we took, and the new islands we visited on this Southern Caribbean itinerary. The weather was pleasant and warm all week, which was a nice change from the cold we came from in Denver (we were greeted with 3 feet of snow on our return). The Crown is another fine ship in the Princess fleet and we will recommend her highly to our clients. After this fun cruise we will consider sailing on a different Southern Caribbean itinerary (perhaps to the islands of Aruba and Grenada) in the future.
Anne’s Take: While the flight to San Juan was long, it was definitely worth it to spend time in this area of the Caribbean. I told Tim I wouldn’t mind going back to the Southern Caribbean every December! The weather was perfect and getting away from the cold of our Colorado winter was even better. Princess cruises have always been at the top of our list. This cruise and the Crown Princess were no exception. From swimming and playing ping pong with the twins every day, enjoying the excellent food, to the amazing shore excursions, this was one of our best cruises yet.