My family had been to Disney World and on the Disney Cruise before, so in February of 2003 I decided to take them on a different type of vacation. We visited Disneyland for 5 days, followed by a 7 night Mexican Riviera Cruise on Princess. This would be our first Princess cruise, and as a travel agent I wanted to see how their kids programs compared to the excellent ones Disney has. Also we were excited to try out a new ship on a new cruise line with a new itinerary for us! Rather than give a day by day account of this cruise, I will tell you about the different parts of our cruise in this report: Disneyland Portion, Our Stateroom, Recreation And Activities Onboard, Itinerary and Ports of Call, Cruising With Kids, Dining, Entertainment, and Embarkation/Disembarkation.
We found this “self made” land and sea vacation an excellent fit. After spending a few days walking around theme parks it was nice to relax on a 7 day cruise.
by Tim Larison, CLIA Master Cruise Counsellor (MCC)
Family Members: Tim, Anne, Andrew (age 9), and Joshua (age 9) Larison
While we would have liked to have a verandah or window stateroom on this cruise, we got an excellent deal on a inside category M stateroom so we decided to give it a try. This is the first time we had taken a cruise with an inside stateroom. Our stateroom was on the Aloha deck – the second highest passenger deck on the ship (deck 12). We loved this location! We were only one deck away from the pools and recreation areas, close to the kids club on deck 15, and midship. The Star Princess had 5 elevators at three different locations (aft, midship, forward). We found we rarely had to wait very long for an elevator when it was necessary to go to the lower decks. Our stateroom was small but functional. We had two single beds below separated by a center dresser. Above each bed was another bed that came down from the wall. Our kids loved sleeping in the upper beds.
TIP: The upper beds each had a safety rail to prevent the kids from taking a tumble in the night. For extra security, we asked our cabin steward for extra pillows and we wedged the pillow next to the safety railing for more protection. With this setup we felt secure our kids would not roll out of their beds.
While the sleeping area of the stateroom was small, it did have a large clothes closet, a good sized bathroom, a desk, and lots of shelf space. We carried 5 suitcases onboard and we were able to fit everything with room to spare.
When we wanted a look outside, we either went up a deck by a nearby staircase, or we changed to the shipboard channel in our stateroom that had a continuous view from the bridge. TIP: When you are on the cruise tell your family and friends back home that they can monitor your sailing through the Princess web site (www.princess.com). There is a bridgecam on many of the Princess ships that are updated every 30 seconds, with the photo being displayed live on the internet. My mother enjoyed following our cruise this way.
TIP: When you checkin to your stateroom you are given a foldup map to the ship that easily fits into a pocket or a purse. We carried this guide around with us all week and found it very helpful to navigate this large ship. Ask your stateroom attendant for additional copies for other members of your family. Also there are maps of the ship with a “you are here” dot at each elevator. TIP: When getting off the elevator it was sometime hard to remember which side our stateroom was on. The staterooms with an even number had a red carpet in the aisle, the odd numbered side had a blue carpet in the aisle. Using this info we always remembered which side our stateroom was on.
Recreation and Activities
Onboard The Star Princess is a new ship (built in 2001, first sailing in early 2002) with many amenities. We particularly liked the large pool area on deck 14 that had a retractable roof. On our first couple of days at sea sailing out of LA it was cool outside. The roof in this pool area was closed and allowed people to swim in relative comfort – safe from the cool temperatures outside. Also in this area was a large ping pong room where we spent alot of time. Unlike other ships I have been on where the ping pong tables have been located outside on a deck, this covered area allowed us to play ping pong without the wind affecting the game. This area with the retractable roof will come in handy for those taking the Star Princess in the cool temperatures of Alaska this May. In addition to the covered pool, the Star Princess had another large outdoor pool, a smaller lap pool where you could swim against a current, many hot tubs, and two small kids pools outside of the children’s area. The minimum depth of the large pools was 5 feet, which made it difficult for our kids to swim there. Other recreational activities onboard included a basketball court, a 9 hole minature golf course, a golf simulator, and a jogging track. You can see pictures of many of these areas if you click on “pictures” link at the right of this report. For the non-sports oriented, there was a large casino onboard. The Casino was open when we were at sea. My wife and I played blackjack here one day at a $3 minimum table – it was nice to have a couple of lower limit tables for the casual gambler. There were plenty of slot machines in the casino, as well as video poker machines and craps tables. Several poker tournaments were held during the cruise as well. Other non-sports activities included a game room, where you could play bridge with other passengers or other games. A well stocked library was onboard where you could check out two or three books for the voyage. The ship even had an art gallery and frequent art auctions on the “at sea” days.
The ship had a large internet cafe with over 20 internet terminals. I checked my email a couple of times each day on the cruise and never had a problem finding a terminal. On our cruise the charge for the internet was 35 cents a minute. There was no plan where you could buy unlimited internet access but I found I spent less on the internet on this cruise than when I bought unlimited internet access for a 7 night cruise on another cruise line. TIP: If you plan on checking your email on the ship, before you leave home set up a yahoo account and forward your email there. I found it quick and easy to check my yahoo email each day on the ship. TIP2: Onboard they give you extra incentives for booking your next Princess Cruise. At each internet terminal you can browse the Princess website free of charge. This helped us in planning and booking our next cruise before we left the ship. Overall I was impressed with the wide variety of activities available on the Star Princess. There was something for everyone.
The Itinerary and Ports Of Call
We really liked the Itinerary on this cruise: Three “at sea” days gave us plenty of time to explore the various features of this wonderful ship. We liked having two at sea days to start the cruise so that we had time to relax and learn about the ship. After 2 1/2 days at sea we were ready to visit some ports, and having ports to visit on 3 consecutive days was a nice break. Finally to finish the cruise we liked having one final “at sea” day before returning home. I wish all 7 night cruises were scheduled this way! I will describe our activities at each of the ports below.
- At this port we did our longest shore excursion – a 7 1/2 hour journey to the Hideway at Las Caletas. This was a wonderful secluded cove that was only accessable by boat. The famous film director, John Huston, once had a home here. We took a 45 minute boat ride from the Star Princess to reach the cove. There were many beach chairs setup on a private beach with a variety of water sports activities. Sitting on the beach chairs and looking out over the ocean was very relaxing. Anne and Josh took the one hour kayak tour. The kayak excursion had a guide and it was good for first time kayakers like Anne and Josh. Anne also enjoyed snorkeling here – she reported the water wasn’t as clear as when she had snorkeled in the Caribbean but it was still fun. For lunch we had a wonderful buffet lunch in a covered area overlooking the beach and the ocean. This was an excellent excursion for kids. In addition to the water sports, they also had some special activites for kids like “feed the deer” and “make your own pottery”. We really enjoyed our day at the beach here and we would recommend this tour for future cruisers. The most popular excursion at Puerto Vallerta that others on our cruise took was the “Swim With The Dolphins” tour. TIP: The dolphin swim was completely sold out before our cruise, so if you are interested in this activity be sure to book it ahead of time.
At this port we did not see a good shore excursion that our nine year olds would be interested in. They loved the kids programs so much that they had no problem staying in the kids club for a few hours while Anne and I went on the “Mazatlan Highlights and Papantla Flyers” shore excursion. We found this tour to be very interesting. It started with a city tour of old town Mazatlan, including a visit to a beautiful old cathedral in the center of town. Next we saw two cliff divers. Finally we were treated to a Mexican dance exhibition highlighted by the Papantla Flyers. The Papantla Flyers climbed a large pole and descended from the pole upside down as they circled around on a large rope. See my pictures for a photo of this event. We were struck by the poverty in old town Mazatlan. We saw children begging for money on the street and many street vendors hawking their wares to us tourists. This was in stark contrast to the rich country club areas we were driven through outside of town. If we visit Mazatlan in the future we would like to do the Sierra Madre tour that I heard good things about from other people on our cruise. We like our shore tour, but we would rate this port as the third best of the three we visited. This was the only port we encountered aggressive street vendors and beggars. I will always remember the cliff divers we saw – who risked their lives diving for us and then begged us for tips afterwards.
Cabo San Lucas
We were at this port the shortest (only 6 hours) which was too bad because it was the most beautiful port we visited. Here we took a whale watching tour with our boys. For the first hour of the tour we saw no whales but we weren’t too disappointed – the scenery from the boat was breathtaking. Cabo has many beautiful rock formations. In the last hour of the tour the whales showed up. The kids were thrilled as the whales popped out of the water all around our boat. TIP: The whale watching tour was sold out before our cruise – if you are interested in this excursion be sure to book it ahead of time. TIP2: If you do the whale watching tour book the SECOND one of the day. We took the early tour and as I said we did not see any whales the first hour. We saw lots of whales at the end of our tour, and reports from passengers who took the second tour said they saw many whales. I think with the later tour more boats are out so there are more reports of where the whales may be located. We would like to return to Cabo someday to stay longer. It is in a beautiful location and from our whale watching boat we could see many nice resorts.
Overall we liked the diversity of shore excursions offered on this cruise. The three excursions we took were all very different – a day at the beach, a few hours exploring a city and Mexican Culture, and a two hour whale watching excursion.
Cruising With Kids
We had been on the Disney Cruise line with our nine year old twins before, and we weren’t sure how they would like a non-Disney cruise. We were pleasantly surprised – our kids absolutely loved the kids club and we couldn’t keep them away from it! When we were checking in for the cruise we saw almost all adults in the waiting area. “Aren’t there any kids on this cruise?” Andrew asked. Once onboard we did find other kids. In fact there were 27 kids from age 3 to 7 on the cruise, and 47 kids from ages 8 to 12. Compared to a Disney cruise, there are far fewer kids, but on this cruise our boys got to know the other children better. A Disney Cruise is like going to a large elementary school, where there are many fun activities but there is also a large number of other children. This Princess cruise was like attending a small schoolhouse in the country – fewer kids but more friendly. Our boys got to know many of the kids well that they had met in the kids club. When we were on other parts of the ship as a family we would frequently hear “Hi Andrew and Josh!” as one of their friends from the kids club would recognize them. The Princess kids clubs were well organized. Our boys were in the 8 to 12 year old group – the Princess Pirateers. I was impressed with the detailed organization of the club. On the first night of the cruise we got a handout telling of all the kids club activites, scheduled by the minute, for the rest of the cruise. There was a wide range of activities offered – arts and crafts, games, contests, movies, karoke, scavenger hunts, dancing, etc. The counselors had a rule that was impressed on the kids the first night – if there was any activity they did not want to participate in just say so and they could sit it out. The kids club was far more than a couple of adults watching the kids play video games the whole time – it was well thought out with a good variety of events. The kids club was open from 9 to 12 noon, from 2 pm to 5 pm, and from 7 pm to 10 pm on most days. On a couple of nights they took the kids to the buffet for dinner at 6:15 pm – our boys chose eating with their friends on these nights rather than eating with us in the formal dining room. For days at ports the kids club was available during the day if you preregistered by 5 pm the night before. After 10 pm you could pay for group babysittingat the kids clubs for $5 per hour per child (open until 1 am). There is also a separate area for kids ages 3 to 7, and another area for teens. The teen area was particularly impressive with a huge tv screen and a big lounge (bigger than the teen area we had seen on the Disney cruise).
A couple of TIPS about the kids clubs: 1. Make sure to register your kids on the first night of the cruise. Even if you aren’t sure how much time your kids will stay in the clubs, you must be registered for them to participate. After our kids tried the club on the second day, they were to spend far more time in the clubs than we anticipated before the cruise. 2. Check to see what nights the kids club will take the children to dinner. This will give you a chance to make an “adults only” reservation at one of the speciality restaurants (see “Dining” below) while your children are eating with the other kids. For adults on the cruise who want to avoid kids, there were plenty of areas on the ship where you rarely saw children. The nighttime shows, for example, are geared more toward adults. Kids can attend but we saw very few.
Overall we were very impressed with the kids club and we would not hesitate to take our kids on another Princess Cruise. We still love the Disney cruise and I would rate Disney as the top cruise for kids, but the Princess Cruise really surprised us at how well they handled their kids programs.
I can describe the dining in one word: Excellent! We had the early “traditional” seating time for dinner (6:15 pm). We liked the traditional seating. Another option on the cruise is “Personal Choice” seating, where you can eat whenever you want between 5 and 10 pm. With our traditional seating time we had the same waiters every night – we liked that very much. Our waiters were quite friendly (one from South Africa, one from Portugal) and they were great with our kids. We never had a wait with our traditional seating time. With Personal Choice I saw long lines for dinner on one of the formal nights (everyone wanted to eat at the same time) but on other nights Personal Choice seemed to have minimal waits as well. Our “traditional seating” dining room was located on deck 6 – the “Amalfi Dining Room”. This was one of three large dining rooms on the ship. The food was wonderful all week – there was a good variety of selections and the quality was very good. The kids menu was limited (hamburger, hot dogs,etc) but that wasn’t a problem for our kids – they enjoyed ordering off of the adult menu each night. Another dining option available was the 24 hour Horizon Court buffet. We ate breakfast here a couple of times. The hours were particularly convenient when we had an early shore tour. On our whale watching day we ate breakfast in the buffet at 6 am. TIP: If you have time, breakfast and lunch at the Portifino dining room is almost as good as dinner! The buffet is good for a quick meal, but for a better meal at breakfast or lunch in a sit down restaurant try the Portofino.
The Star Princess had two specialty restaurants: Tequilas (a Mexican Restaurant), and Sabatini’s (a Italian Restaurant). Tequilas has a $8 cover charge per person which includes a free margarita. We ate at Tequilas one night while our kids were eating with their friends in the kids club – we loved the food and the quieter atmosphere when compared to the main dining room. While we didn’t get the opportunity to eat at Sabatini’s, we heard good reports about this restaurant as well from other cruisers. TIP: If you want to eat at Sabatini’s, it is good to make reservations shortly after you board. This restaurant fills up fast. We were able to get reservations at Tequilas a couple of days into the cruise. Another food option is a wonderful Haagen Daz ice cream parlor next to one of the main pools. The ice cream is an additional charge here ($2.80 for two scoops) but worth it. Also by the pool is an area where you can get pizza, hamburgers, and hot dogs at no additional charge. Room service is also available. The Star Princess charged extra for soft drinks at meals, so if you like soft drinks a “soda card” was a good buy on the first night of the cruise. This card gave you unlimited sodas for the week. We choose to skip the soda card and we drank water at most meals.
There were two formal nights on this cruise. We had pictures taken on the first formal night (Sunday night). The dress code at Tequilas was not quite as strict on formal night – we decided to skip the second formal night and ate at Tequilas instead. There was one downside to the excellent food on the Star Princess – I gained more weight on this cruise than I have on any other cruise I have taken in the past. Time to get back to Weight Watchers!
The Star Princess had many entertainment options. There were two big shows each night – one in the large Princess Theatre and another in the Vista Lounge. There were 5 different comedians on our cruise (the best one was “Sarge” on the last two nights). Princess has a large cast of dancers who gave different shows during the week. The production show “Dance!” was the best one we saw. In addition to the large shows, there are a few smaller lounges onboard with bands and dancing. A large disco at the top of the ship (“Skywalkers Night Club”) featured late night dancing and entertainment. During the day and on some evenings there were first run movies offered in the Vista Lounge and in the Princess Theatre. In addition there was a movie channel on our stateroom tv that featured first run movies. We were so busy with the other entertainment and recreational activities that we never did make it to a movie on this cruise. Kids are allowed at the nighttime shows but they really are more for adults in content. Our kids were happy to spend time in the kids club in the evening.
We found getting on and off the ship very easy. When we checked in to the cruise terminal on the first day we were given a number. At boarding time people were called by number to board the ship – no need to wait in line. We were given an assigned time to get off the ship (8:15 am) and flexibility to eat breakfast and return to our stateroom any time before then. The Princess transfers to the airport after the cruise were quick and efficient.
We had a great time on our Princess Cruise and we would definitely cruise with Princess again. In the back of my mind before the cruise I thought Mexico might not be as good as some of the Caribbean cruises we had taken in the past – I was pleasantly surprised by the ports we visited and the diverse shore excursions offered. Most important for us is that our kids had a good time on the cruise, too, thanks to a well run kids club with lots of activities.