I'd like to start things off by sharing a few of the best pictures I shot during our cruise...
(all photos taken with my Canon Digital Rebel T5i)
The ship is most beautiful at dusk, when the lights first come on
The Calypso pool is covered with a sliding dome so it can be used in all weather conditions
There's a big-screen TV at the Neptune Pool, although this shot doesn't show it!
A beautiful sunset at one of my favorite spots on the ship: the terrace pool
The day we embarked from Los Angeles, there had been a big wildfire there.
It put a bunch of smoke in the sky, which made for a beautiful sunset as we sailed away.
The Sapphire Princess at anchor off the coast of California
Before we go any further, I should introduce myself...
I'm Jim Zimmerlin (everyone calls me Jim Zim) and I cruise with my wife, Kellyn. (Pronunciation tip: it rhymes with Helen.) We're from Grover Beach, California... a little town on the California coast about halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Comparing Princess to Carnival
This was our very first cruise with Princess cruise lines, although we had previously done TWENTY cruises with Carnival and one with Norwegian. A big focus of this review will be the differences I noticed on this Princess cruise versus our 20 Carnival cruises.
The biggest difference, apparent from the first few minutes we were onboard, was the mood/vibe/atmosphere of the ship. It was so mellow! When we walked across the Lido deck during those first minutes onboard, it was so refreshing to hear the music of James Taylor playing softly in the background. On a Carnival ship, with their emphasis on being The Fun Ships, you'd be more likely to hear "Gangham Style"... and it wouldn't be playing softly. I'm 56 years old, not 23. If I never hear "Gangham Style" ever again... I'd be totally fine with that! I was delighted with James Taylor... and what that said about the mood that Princess was trying to set.
That mellow mood lasted throughout the entire cruise. It was so wonderfully quiet and relaxing! I've noticed that on Carnival ships, there's background music playing almost everywhere you go. In the hallways... in the restaurants... at the adults-only pool... there's always music everywhere on a Carnival ship. It's part of that whole Fun Ship thing.
I love music. I used to be the Music Director of a radio station. But I'm 56 years old and the music I like is totally different than what a 25 year old would probably like. And, unfortunately, the music on Carnival sounds like it was picked by a 25 year old. On the Sapphire Princess, I almost never heard background music except for by the Neptune pool. I prefer it that way. If I want music, I pull out a pair of headphones and my MP3 player. I totally loved the peace and quiet of the Sapphire Princess!
Here's Kellyn reading a book on her Kindle at the aft pool.
The only noises were the soft voices of other passengers talking.
It was a totally peaceful and relaxing environment on the ship.
Kellyn snapped this picture of me enjoying a dip in the Terrace Pool.
It's filled with fresh water, not ocean water like they use on Carnival!
The other big difference that stood out for me between Carnival and Princess was the food. I know food is very subjective... and what I like may not be what you like... but all I can say is that I liked the food on the Sapphire Princess FAR more than on our 20 Carnival cruises. Kellyn did, too.
Kellyn totally loved the fruit selections at the buffet.
Here's a look at some of the dessert choices at the buffet. There was even more to it than this.
While we're on the subject of food, I have to give you full disclosure: Kellyn and I are a little different than your average cruisers when it comes to food. Whenever we're on a a cruise ship, we eat almost every meal at the buffet, not at the formal dining rooms. I know some people are totally aghast when they hear this about us... but it works for us! Kellyn needs to keep her meals gluten-free and dairy-free... and that's much easier to do when you can look the food over before you choose it, rather than relying on a printed description in a menu. I like the buffet because I can have total control of the portions. I've had so many frustrating experiences in cruise ship restaurants where they will bring me odd portions... like a giant steak and a tiny baked potato along with it.
Here's a photo of my plate at dinner one night at the buffet restaurant on the Sapphire Princess:
Wiener Schnitzel (veal), mashed potatoes, corn, green beans, and a dinner roll.
Note the large portion of mashed potatoes. You'd never get that large of a serving in the traditional dining room.
Here's a funny picture from the Horizon Court buffet, and a funny story to go along with it! The story I heard is that some of the food preparation staff in the kitchen think that the Maitre D' of the Horizon Court restaurant is a bit of an ass... so, they made something special out of a watermelon as a tribute to him, and put it out at the buffet...
The meal I enjoyed the most was actually a very simple one... but it made me so glad I had cruised with Princess! You see, on Carnival it was a bit of a joke with me how sometimes a 7-day cruise to Mexico would feature exactly ZERO Mexican food! So, when I saw they were doing a Mexican-themed buffet one day, it really made me happy!
Beef fajitas, chicken taquitos, nachos, chips, and refried beans... from the Horizon Court buffet.
A cruise to Ensenada, Mexico, that actually featured some Mexican food. What a concept!
Eating lunch and dinner in the buffet restaurant (Horizon Court dining room) on the Sapphire Princess was a total pleasure. It was quite a bit better than what we were used to on Carnival. It wasn't just that the food tasted great, but also the fact that there were so many different items to choose from. The variety was amazing, and I never had problems finding something I liked. There were LOTS more items to choose from than at the buffet on Carnival. I was so amazed by it, that one day at lunch I decided to make a note of everything they offered on that particular day. Here's what they had:
Miso Soup With Tofu
Mexican Albondigas Soup
Szechuan Hot Pot with sliced pork
(and a Szechuan sauce available on the side)
A lamb dish called Gosht Roghni
Braised short ribs
Lasagna (with Parmesan cheese available to sprinkle on top)
Pasta with fresh tomato sauce and basil
A thin steak they called a "minute steak"
Turkey ciabatta sandwich
Shrimp salad and bean sprout sandwich
Grilled vegetable sandwich
Mashed potatoes and gravy
Potato & Onion casserole
Roasted Corn & Pumpkin in cream & herb sauce
Chili Mussel and Lotus Root
Carrozza with mozzarella and anchovy
Indian Dhal Tadka
PLUS... a full salad bar, a large selection of fruit, and a full dessert bar!
Remember... that was just the selections available at the lunch buffet on one particular day. The menu changed at every meal, every day. I was totally impressed by the huge variety of selections. I was getting so frustrated with dinners at the buffet on Carnival ships! Every night at dinner they would have some interesting entrees, but the only potato choice would be a baked potato. It got so old having a baked potato with my meal night after night. Never any other potato option at dinner... just a baked potato. I laughed out loud when I saw three different potato options at the Sapphire Princess buffet one day: mashed potatoes, baked potatoes, and oven-baked diced potatoes... all available at the same meal!
As much as I enjoyed lunch and dinner in the buffet, I have to say that breakfast was a disappointment. On Carnival, I love to have a made-to-order omelet every morning... and they're fantastic. The Sapphire Princess had a very odd setup for their made-to-order omelets. I didn't like it at all. The way it works is that you place an order with the chef, and he hands you a little ticket. When you get to your table, you give that ticket to your server. Then you hope that the server doesn't get busy with other things and that he gets your omelet to you in a reasonable time. Meanwhile, your breakfast partner is sitting at the table with you, trying to figure out whether to start eating her breakfast... or to wait for your omelet to arrive. You're both so hungry that you start eating what you have, and by the time the omelet arrives... you've finished everything else on your plate already. It works better on Carnival... they make the omelet in front of you, and hand it to you hot off the grill the second it's done. Then you go through the buffet line and get everything else you want to eat with it.
Going in to this cruise, after 20 with Carnival, I thought the meal I'd be disappointed with on Princess would be lunch! Several Carnival ships feature "Guy's Burger Joint" by the Food Network's Guy Fieri... and those burgers are SO GOOD that I had one for lunch at least every other day of my Carnival cruises. But the lunch buffet on the Sapphire Princess was SO GOOD that I really didn't spend a whole lot of time missing those Guy burgers.
Let's go back for a minute to that list I posted a few paragraphs ago... the list of every item at the buffet on that particular day. One thing you may have noticed about the list was a fair amount of Asian food. The Sapphire Princess is relocating to Asia in April 2014 and Princess has been doing a lot of advertising to the Asian market in anticipation of the ship's new home. There was a much larger number of passengers of Asian heritage than I had ever seen on cruise ships before... let's say somewhere around 10% of the passengers onboard. So, there was a lot of Asian food... and I bet there will be a LOT more once the ship finally makes the move. The Sapphire Princess, and her sister ship, the Diamond Princess, will both be based in Asia... a very disappointing fact to me, as I really like the layout of the ship and wish I had discovered her sooner than I did!
Which leads me to a discussion of the layout and features of the ship, compared to the Carnival fleet that I'm very familiar with. I've sailed on every class of Carnival ship that there is... from the oldest, smallest Fantasy-class ships to the mid-size Spirit-class and Conquest-class ships all the way up to the big Dream-class ships such as the new state-of-the-art Carnival Breeze. I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed the Sapphire Princess, and that I think she's better in many ways than anything Carnival has to offer.
The most noticeable difference between the Sapphire Princess and the entire Carnival fleet is with the swimming pools. Carnival ships generally have two swimming pools... one at mid-ship, and one at the aft that is usually designated as being for "adults only". The Sapphire Princess has FIVE passenger swimming pools, plus a sixth pool that is exclusively for the crew! Two of the five pools are designated as being for "adults only"... the Lotus pool at the front of the ship, and the Terrace pool at the back. All the swimming pools on the Sapphire Princess were filled with heated fresh water. Most of the swimming pools I've ever been in on Carnival were filled with ocean water, and sometimes it's not even been heated. To be fair, though, I must admit that I would have preferred that the swimming pools on Sapphire Princess be heated even a little warmer than they were. 5 degrees more (Fahrenheit) would have been perfect.
Located near the front of the ship... the adults-only lotus pool is one of five swimming pools you can choose from.
There are two swimming pools aft... the round one is the "Splash Pool" on deck 15
and the rectangular one is the adults-only "Terrace Pool" on deck 12.
You can also see one of the two Jacuzzis on deck 16.
Most of the Carnival ships have a Jacuzzi up at the bow, for crew only.
The Sapphire Princess had two Jacuzzis, and a swimming pool!
I've never ever seen a crew-only swimming pool before. I was impressed!
The Neptune pool is the one with the big screen television
that mostly shows musical concerts during the day and
"movies under the stars" at night.
I really liked the decor and the soft colors of the interiors of the Sapphire Princess... especially after sailing on so many Carnival ships. On all but the newest Carnival ships, the decor can be a bit loud, bordering on tacky... thanks to interior designer, Joe Farcus. Here's a photo from the Carnival Splendor to illustrate my point...
Vegas-at-sea interior design of the atrium of the Carnival Splendor
The interior design of the Sapphire Princess is much more elegant than all but the newest Carnival ships. Here's a photo from the Promenade deck that shows off the classy styling that is typical on this ship:
Deck 7 (Promenade deck) outside of the Wheelhouse Bar... where a lot of great entertainment happens
I want to show you another photo from the Promenade deck... this time from outside. If you like to sit out in the shade and gaze out at the ocean, this is the place for you! The wooden loungers have thick padded cushions that take what would have been a stiff, uncomfortable lounger and makes them very comfortable!
Thank you to Princess for going to the expense of putting those thick cushions on the loungers! It makes all the difference in the world. I was recently looking at the web site of a very expensive cruise line known for luxury cruises of the South Pacific. I laughed when I saw a photo of people lounging around the upper deck enjoying the warm South Pacific weather... they were on wooden loungers with no cushions. That's not luxury!
Back to that last photo... look at the far end of the deck and you'll see a set of stairs going up. You can walk all the way around the outside of the Promenade deck... it's 1/3 of a mile, if I remember right... but when you get to those stairs at the bow, you have to go up the stairs and on to the next deck to make the 180 degree curve around the bow. Then, another set of stairs down on the other side, to get back to Promenade deck. It's a little awkward for people who want to jog all the way around the deck... they usually just turn around at the stairs and head back the way they came. For anyone just wanting to walk around the entire circumference of the ship, it's fine.
Speaking of Promenade deck... here's a photo that made me laugh! To get the joke, you have to understand that I work at a nuclear power plant in California. It's called the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, and it's one of two nuclear power plants in California. The other plant is the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station... which recently had to permanently shut down after experiencing a crippling failure of their new steam generators, which they had purchased from Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. So, I had a chuckle when I saw this plaque, commemorating that the Sapphire Princess had been built by Mitsubishi Heavy...
The closest thing to Carnival's Vegas-at-sea style of interior design that I could find on the Sapphire Princess was a little bit of purple in the atrium...
I found it interesting that the Sapphire Princess only had a 3-story atrium. On Carnival ships, the atrium soars way up to the top... something like 8 or 10 decks tall. It's designed to create a big "wow factor" when you first get onboard. I read something interesting about the new Carnival Vista, currently under construction and scheduled to debut in 2016... I read that it's only going to have a (Princess-style) 3-story atrium. I guess Carnival finally decided that a huge empty atrium was a waste of valuable space that could generate more money if it was utilized for extra cabins.
Something that really impressed me about Princess was their policy banning smoking on all cabin balconies. On Carnival ships, smoking is banned in the cabins, but allowed out on the balconies... with the exception of the spa balcony cabins, where smoking is banned on the balconies.
On one of our Carnival cruises, we had a cabin next door to someone who was a chain smoker... and, unfortunately, he was upwind of us. He spent a LOT of time out on his balcony smoking, and it made our balcony totally unusable to us. After that, we started booking the more expensive spa balcony cabins on Carnival, so that we wouldn't be next to anyone smoking. Unfortunately, though, when you're in a spa balcony cabin on Carnival you might very well be downwind of someone on the next lower deck who is in a regular balcony cabin where smoking is allowed on the balconies. So, even in a more expensive spa balcony cabin on Carnival, we've smelled smoke out on our balcony before. No such problems on Princess, where smoking is simply banned on all balconies.
Speaking of balconies... this shot gives you a good look at how the balconies are tiered on the Sapphire Princess. I found this to be a little odd. Sure, it ensures that every balcony will get sunlight, not shade. I get that. But think of all the extra space they could have given to those upper cabins and balconies if they had simply made all decks equally wide rather than doing the tiers.
Here's something I really liked...
Most cruise ships have hand sanitizer dispensers located at the entrance to their buffet restaurant. That's fine, but it only works if EVERYONE uses it. If one person with a cold skips the hand sanitizer, he's going to get his germs on all the serving utensils when he walks through the buffet line and scoops food on to his plate.
Princess must have figured this out. At the entrance to the Horizon Court (buffet) restaurant on Lido deck, they position an employee whose mission is to make sure everyone who enters uses the hand sanitizer first.
Another thing I liked is that there were LOTS of places where you could go to hang out on a lounger with a thick, soft cushion. I mentioned earlier about the wooden loungers on Promenade deck and how great it was that Princess had gone to the expense of equipping them with soft cushions. In several places throughout the ship, there were very comfortable loungers available. Here are some one level above the Calypso pool...
The nice thing about this area one deck above the Calypso pool is that it's "under the dome". (As they say on CBS-TV.) The sliding glass dome that covers the Calypso pool covers this area, too... making it a great place to relax if the weather isn't cooperating.
Hidden places on Sapphire Princess
During our cruise, I found several places on the Sapphire Princess that were unusually empty. It seemed that few people had discovered these out-of-the-way locations onboard. If you've got a cruise coming up on Sapphire Princess, be sure to check out these hidden gems:
The Lotus Pool
Because it is situated directly below The Sanctuary (which charges a $10 per person, per afternoon access fee) and directly adjacent to the Lotus Spa (where there is a $10 per person, per day fee to use the thermal suite) there is a perception that the Lotus Pool and adjacent whirlpools are only for guests who pay extra for access. It isn't true! This pool and the two Jacuzzis are open to any adult passengers... and they are very lightly used. Every time I visited, there was at least one empty Jacuzzi and few or no people in the pool.
The easiest way to get to the Lotus Pool is to take the forward elevators to deck 15 and then walk through the spa and you'll see glass doors on your left that open to the pool. You do not need to check in at the spa entrance or anything.
If I ever have the opportunity to sail on the Sapphire Princess again, I'm going to book a cabin on deck 14 forward... so that I'm just one deck below the Lotus Pool. It would be so convenient to just walk up one set of stairs to get to this hidden adults-only pool and Jacuzzi... the least used of all the pools and Jacuzzis on the ship.
The escalator to Skywalker's Nightclub
Who would have imagined that you'd find an escalator on a cruise ship?!?!
Skywalker's nightclub is hidden away all by itself at the back of the ship and way up high on deck 17. During the day, it is open to all passengers as an observation lounge... and after dark, it becomes the nightclub. You can access it via outdoor stairs at the aft end of the ship... but it's much more fun to take the aft elevators to deck 16 and then take the escalator from deck 16 up to Skywalker's night club on deck 17. Something about doing that last floor up via the escalator... with its dramatic blue lighting... makes the entrance to Skywalker's very special.
Here are a couple of pictures that show what you'll find at the top of the elevator, within Skywalkers...
The dance floor at Skywalker's Nightclub
Seating area and picture windows at Skywalker's Nightclub
Notice those big pictures windows on the left of that last photo. During the day, Skywalker's is a nice place to come and just enjoy the view out the back of the ship... especially if the weather is not conducive to sitting out at the aft pool.
If you're going to come to Skywalker's with the intention of doing some dancing, you'll either need to come very late at night or bring a group of your friends and create your own party. I visited at 9:45 PM and the place was empty except for the DJ and the bar staff. They told me it was still a little early... that the dance floor doesn't start jumping until a little later in the evening. But if you bring a group of your friends, you can get the party started at any time!
Next... I want to introduce you to the #1 most unknown and least visited place on the ship:
The Wake View Bar
If you visit Club Fusion (or as my wife likes to call it, Club Confusion) back at the aft end of the Promenade deck, you may notice a spiral staircase leading down from the area near the dance floor. I was curious what that spiral staircase would lead to... so I walked down with my camera and discovered the Wake View Bar on deck 6. This is a true hidden gem... a cozy little bar and seating area with port hole windows that look out behind the ship at the wake.
If you ever want to have a private conversation with someone in a cozy little setting where you won't be watched by a bunch of other people... the Wake View bar is the place to go! It would also be a great place if you had a group of people and you wanted a place to hang out, make some noise, and not have to worry about disturbing anyone else. I don't know how often or when they have a bartender at the Wake View bar... there wasn't one when I visited at 4 PM one day... but perhaps there's one on duty in the evenings.
Another spot that's tucked a little out of the way and didn't seem to get much traffic was the sports bar, known as the Churchill Lounge. It's located on deck 6, hidden between the Princess Theater and the casino.
The Churchill Lounge
One reason that this particular bar probably isn't very popular is that smoking is allowed here... so it definitely has an aroma of cigarettes and cigars. But it's full of televisions... so this is the place for you smokers who want to have a drink and a smoke and watch a game on TV.
Finally, I do want to mention one other place that -- while not hidden -- was certainly under-utilized and wide open most of the time during our cruise. Perhaps it was because the weather only heated up one day out of the four days of our cruise. I'm talking about the Terrace Pool at the aft end of the ship on deck 12:
The Terrace Pool
Notice the Mexican flags hanging in the shadows under the Sapphire Princess sign...
that's the Outrigger Bar, which is Mexican-themed... a great place for a Margarita.
Lots of people walk through this area since it's just past the Horizon Court buffet restaurant and has a great view out the back of the ship. But it didn't seem like many people stopped and took advantage of this area. It was never crowded back here... and I found it to be one of the most delightful areas of the ship. Of course, it didn't hurt that my cabin was just a few feet away!
Margaritas, chips, quacamole, and salsa... all the makings of a fun afternoon!
They don't really advertise it and they don't seem to offer it unless you ask... but if you're having drinks back at the Outrigger bar overlooking the Terrace Pool, be sure to ask for chips and salsa. It's free! I do have to say, though, that one thing I miss from Carnival is being able to buy a pitcher of margaritas. You can get them on Carnival ships that have the Blue Iguana tequila bar... but I didn't see it offered on the Sapphire Princess.
Another suggestion regarding the Outrigger bar at the back of the ship is to visit between 4 and 5 PM... when you can enjoy a live performance by a Mariachi band:
I think it's great that they have these guys play at the Outrigger bar for an hour a day. I like the quiet, relaxing atmosphere back here at the aft end of the ship for the majority of the day, but it's fun to have a little party in the late afternoon before dinner. If it had been more than an hour a day, I'd probably see it as a disturbance to the serenity of the Terrace Pool. An hour a day is perfect.
I'm curious about what will happen to the Outrigger bar when the ship repositions to Asia later this year. Will they continue with the Mexican theme? It wouldn't surprise me if they took down all the little plastic Mexican flags, ditched the Mariachi band, and dumped the menu of Margaritas for something more appealing to their new Asian clientelle.
Speaking of the Mariachi band...
I have to tell you about one of the most delightful moments of our cruise. It was one of those un-planned magical moments that sometimes happen when you vacation on a cruise ship. My wife and I were hanging out at the Outrigger Bar, listening to the Mariachi band, and there was a group of young ladies who were totally in to it and having a great time. In between songs, one of the girls spoke to the band and asked if she could sing a song with them. Someone suggested a traditional Mariachi song that both the singer and the band knew... and right there, totally un-scripted and delightfully serendipitous, the woman performed a beautiful little song with the band. She was a passenger... not a crew member... and the whole thing was completely un-rehearsed... which made it so fun to watch and enjoy. Luckily, I happened to have my Digital Rebel with me, and I caught it on video. Place the mouse curser over the picture below, and then click on the triangle to start the video playing... and enjoy!
One other hidden spot on the Sapphire Princess is "The Sanctuary". If you've sailed with Carnival before... you'll understand it by just thinking of it like Carnival's Serenity Retreat, only with a surcharge that keeps it from being crowded, and with a higher level of service.
At each of the little tables next to the loungers, there's a menu of items that you can have the staff bring you... including a MP3 player with relaxing tunes!
The cost of using The Sanctuary is $10 per person, per period... with a period defined as either 8 AM - 12:30 PM or 1 PM - 5 PM. There are sunny areas as well as shady areas, day beds, loungers, and massages are available in special private massage tents. The $10 per person charge keeps this area fairly empty.
We totally enjoyed the entertainment on the Sapphire Princess. The shows seemed a little better, the singers a little more talented, and there seemed to be a greater number of small musical acts than what we were accustomed to with Carnival.
"Do You Wanna Dance"... one of the big production shows in the Princess Theater.
Because it was just a 4-day cruise, they skipped the traditional "Welcome Aboard!" show and launched right in to one of their big music production shows on the first night of the cruise. We enjoyed it a lot... especially compared to what 'shappened lately with "Playlist Productions" on Carnival.
The shows on Carnival used to be very similar to what's offered on Princess... but over the last year or two, Carnival rolled out a new thing called Playlist Productions. On the positive side, Playlist Productions involves some amazing technology upgrades involving big video walls in lieu of traditional sets. It's very cool to see how they've integrated the video walls in to the shows. For example, during musical numbers, things on the video walls will bounce around to the beat of the music. Also, because the show's designer can basically create anything he wants on the video wall, it opens things up to tremendous creativity. Want to do a number about a French nightclub? We'll just create one on the video wall, including a chorus line of 20 virtual dance girls! It's very impressive to see. But the down side is that Carnival was looking for ways to cut costs... and labor is always a big cost... so they trimmed the number of singers and dancers way back. If I remember right, it's a cast of 7 or 8 with Playlist Productions now. That's fine the first night, for the first show... but when you go the next night to see a different show, it's the same cast of 7 or 8 people in different costumes singing different songs. It's weird... kind of like if you were to watch VH1, but every video all day long was with the same group trying to sing in different styles.
So, we liked the big cast of the production shows in the Princess Theater... and they were really talented, more so than what we had been used to on Carnival. One singer in particular really impressed me... and I snapped this picture of her on stage just so I could salute her here on this page and tell the world how impressed I was with her talent.
Iris Burruss... a very talented singer onboard Sapphire Princess.
On a different day, Iris was performing in a Motown tribute in the Piazza, which is the atrium area on the Sapphire Princess. I happened to have my Digital Rebel with me, and recorded one of the songs on video. Unfortunately, Iris' voice wasn't as rock-solid at this performance as when I saw her in "Do You Wanna Dance" the other evening... but I still enjoyed the performance. Here's the video:
One of the things that I really liked about our cruise was the variety of entertaining acts performing all around the ship. You could pretty much just walk up and down the Promenade deck, where all the lounges are located, and on any evening you could find something entertaining to watch. Between the Explorer's Lounge, the Wheelhouse Bar, Club Fusion, the Piazza, and the Princess Theatre... there was usually something going on.
"Singular Duo" performing in the Wheelhouse Bar.
I mentioned previously that there were a large number of passengers aboard who appeared to be of Asian heritage. I guess they must really like to dance, because they were all over the dance floor at any lounge that had one! If you like to dance, there are plenty of opportunities on Sapphire Princess.
The leather jackets were out for "Rock N' Roll Night" with the Entertainment Staff in Club Fusion
I'm afraid that I failed to get photos of some of the other great performers I saw on the ship. Sometimes in the evenings I went out to have some fun and left the camera back in the cabin... missing a few good photo opportunities with the entertainers. One group in particular that really impressed me was known as "Tempo Quatro"... a 3-member group whose female singer belted out a tune in the Piazza one night that knocked my socks off!
The Cruise Director for our sailing was Gavin Chandler.
In this photo, he was answering questions during a backstage tour of the Princess Theater.
Gavin Chandler did a great job as Cruise Director. He was a true pro... which you'd expect, since he's been at it since 1995. I spoke with him one-on-one at two different occasions, and he was quite impressive. Jaime Deitsch of Carnival is still my all-time favorite Cruise Director, though!
Gavin was hoping that our cruise would be his last cruise before retiring to shore life in California with his wife and kids. He was having a little trouble getting a green card, though... and even on the last day of our cruise he still did not know if he was about to permanently retire or just take a little vacation and have to come back aboard the ship in a couple of months and keep working.
In that photo above, Gavin was leading a free tour of the backstage facilities in the Princess Theater. I thought it was cool that Princess offers this for free. On Carnival, they offer a "Behind The Fun" tour that includes the backstage of the theater, plus a whole lot more... including the bridge and the engine control room... but it will set you back $95 per person.
Pizza and Ice Cream
If you like pizza, you're in for a treat on the Sapphire Princess. There's not just one, but two pizza restaurants onboard! My favorite was the casual pizza-by-the-slice restaurant on Lido deck near the Neptune pool. It's known as Prego Pizzeria. I found that somewhat funny since "prego" is slang for pregnant... and if you eat enough pizza, your belly might get so big that you look like you're pregnant!
Prior to the cruise, I had read a few different comments on the Internet from people who referred to Princess' pizza as "the best pizza at sea". I was dubious about that claim, as Carnival re-did their pizza recipe a while back and their new pizza is pretty good. But following my own personal research and testing of the pizza at the Prego Pizzeria onboard the Sapphire Princess, I guess I'd have to agree that Princess' pizza was a little bit better than what they offer on Carnival. The taste is good... there's a little more cheese than Carnival uses... a little more pepperoni... and the slices are bigger, too. Be sure to sprinkle some Parmesan cheese on top!
As I mentioned, Prego Pizza is one of two pizza places onboard the Sapphire Princess. The other one is Alfredo's Pizzeria, located on deck 5 near the Piazza. It's a sit-down restaurant where they serve whole pizzas. The thing that perplexed me about Alfredo's is that the menu lists about five specialty pizzas and doesn't include a basic pepperoni pizza among the choices... or say anything about being able to create a custom pizza with the toppings of your choice. Yet in the photo I took of the chef preparing two pizzas at Alfredo's, the one on the left sure looks like pepperoni pizza to me. So, I guess they will make whatever kind of pizza you want, even if it's not on the menu.
Pizza from Alfredo's Pizzeria on deck 5 near the Piazza.
Insert your own Pizza/Piazza joke here!
While we're on the subject of Alfredo's Pizzeria, I want to clue you in to an interesting trivia fact that you can use to your advantage. Alfredo's was only recently added to the Sapphire Princess. If you're looking at Sapphire Princess deck plans online, you can tell how up-to-date they are by taking a look at deck 5, near the stairs and elevators. If you see the Piazza, Alfredo's Pizzeria, and the International Café... you're looking at current deck plans. If they show the shore excursion office, the Captain's Circle desk, and the "Grand Plaza" on deck 5... you're looking at out-of-date deck plans from before the most recent remodel.
OK... so the pizza was good, in my opinion. However, Princess could learn a few things from Carnival regarding the ice cream situation. On Carnival, there are several soft-serve ice cream and frozen yogurt machines on Lido deck that passengers are free to operate themselves 24/7. It's really cool to be walking around on Lido deck on a Carnival ship and to just make a quick stop at one of the ice cream or frozen yogurt dispensers and to serve yourself. On Princess, there's just one ice cream station, and you have to wait for one of the crew members to serve it to you. It creates a backup, and a line... and it's ice cream only, no fro-yo.
The comedy clubs on Carnival have been a source of both great pleasure and great frustration for me. The pleasure, of course, was from a lot of great laughs in the comedy clubs during the 20 Carnival cruises we've been on. Carnival is really big on comedy... during a 7-day cruise, there would be four different stand-up comics performing in the comedy club. I haven't done a 7-day Princess cruise (yet), so I don't know if they offer that many comedians or not. I only know how Princess did it during our one 4-day cruise. They use a slightly different strategy than Carnival does.
Basically, if you run a cruise line, you've got to pick from one of two comedy strategies:
1. Have your comedy shows in a small lounge... an intimate environment similar to a big-city comedy club on land. This puts the comedian right up close to the audience, making it easy for him to do impromptu bits based on interacting with the audience. Also, because the room is small and there are a lot of passengers on the ship, the room will be packed at almost every show... creating an illusion to the comedian that he's a big hit playing to packed houses every night. This gives him self-confidence, and he gives a better performance when he views himself in this positive way. However, because the room is small... it's standing-room-only just about every night... and this makes the passengers angry because unless they show up super-early, they won't get to see the show.
2. Have your comedy show in the largest venue on the ship... the main theater. This way, everyone that wants to see the show will be able to get a seat and no one goes away mad from being turned away. But there's a down side to having a comedy show in a gigantic venue like that... when you don't fill all the seats, it creates a weird environment that messes with the comedian's mind! Seeing a whole bunch of empty seats makes the performer think that he's kind of a flop, and it reinforces any insecurities that he may have about not being a big hit. It messes with his head, and that can screw up the funny factor!
Carnival goes with strategy #1, and Princess goes with strategy #2. I mentioned that the Carnival comedy clubs had been a source of some frustration for me. A perfect example was my most recent Carnival cruise... where I showed up a half an hour early for a comedy show, and it was already standing room only and I had to miss the show I wanted to see. Frustrating! No such frustration for me on the Sapphire Princess... where the comedy shows were held in the big Princess Theater. But it messed with the comedian's mind!
Comedian Dan Grueter
If you look carefully at the picture, especially over on the left side of the audience, you can see all the empty seats... right up close to the stage where the comedian can see them. It really did mess with his mind! He made a number of comments throughout the show about how things were going badly with the show and how it was perhaps a bad audience. The same show in a smaller venue... he would have felt like he was killing it!
That guy was the only traditional "stand-up" comedy act on our cruise, but they did have an un-traditional comedy act on another night...
"The Comedy of Alfred and Seymour"... featuring an audience member up on stage with them.
There were a lot of laughs during this show, but it was edgy and made me a bit uncomfortable. Basically, the whole act is based on making fun of the disparities between the two young black urban comics and the predominantly white 50-to-80 year old audience. Yes, I laughed... but I didn't strike me as the right act for Princess cruise line.
The promotional video
During our cruise, a professional video crew was onboard... shooting scenes for an upcoming promotional video aimed at the Asian market to build awareness of the ship's upcoming Asian itineraries. A talent agency brought a bunch of Asian-looking actors and actresses onboard for the video shoot... because the white middle-aged California passengers weren't going to be appropriate subjects, based on the market they were trying to appeal to with the video. In fact, we were in a Jacuzzi one afternoon and a cute little Asian girl climbed in with us and excitedly told us about how she would be involved in a video shoot the next morning.
On the second day of the cruise, as the ship set sail at sunset from Santa Barbara, a helicopter showed up... and you could tell from the image-stabilized camera mounted under the cockpit that it was there to get aerial video for the upcoming Princess promotional video. It made pass after pass, buzzing past the ship at various angles and directions, capturing the beauty of both the ship sailing off in to the sunset as well as the ship bathed in the beautiful light of the setting sun. I shot a quick video of the helicopter making a run past the ship...
Of course, there's the fantasy world of advertising... and then there's the real world. I think I can sum it up with two pictures:
Advertising fantasy: beautiful young actress dressed in white, exercising in the morning light of the open deck, with the ocean in the background
Cruise ship reality: 3 middle-aged women in gym clothes exercising indoors because it's cold at 7 AM!
My Amateur Sapphire Princess Video
I'm sure that the big promotional video that the pros made for Princess will be gorgeous... but will it capture the true spirit of the ship and all the fun onboard? I think my little amateur video does! Take a look...
A Few More Sunrise/Sunset Pictures
Photographers call the times around sunrise and sunset "the golden hour" because the great lighting makes for great pictures worth their weight in gold. (Of course, pictures don't weigh much... so that wouldn't be much gold, would it?) I shared a few of my sunrise and sunset pictures with you at the top of the page, but here are a few more...
The sky looked a bit like it was on fire as the ship sailed out of Ensenada.
These clouds kept temperatures a little cooler than I would have preferred during the day...
but it was worth it when the sun set!
At any other time of day, this wouldn't be much of a picture, would it?
I don't know who these people are, but I thought they made this sunrise photo interesting.
This shot's kind of interesting...
While some people were outside enjoying the view of the sunrise,
others were multitasking inside by exercising and enjoying the view at the same time!
That white thing in the sky is the moon, by the way!
At sunset one night, Kellyn and I were taking pictures of each other and one of the other passengers
volunteered to snap one of the two of us together. Then she ran off with my camera, and I never saw it again.
Just kidding about that last part!
Here's a few photos I shot that just didn't seem to fit in anywhere else on this page, up until now...
Of the four days we were onboard, we had the best weather when we visited Santa Barbara...
which was kind of ironic, since we only live a little more than an hour from there.
It was actually a lot warmer in Santa Barbara than it was in Ensenada, Mexico!
Heading back to the ship after a brief shore excursion to the exotic Santa Barbara marina...
I shot this photo when the pilot of the tender popped his head out for a better view.
We got to the San Pedro cruise ship terminal a bit too early and ended up waiting around a long time.
Upside: Group #1 boarding pass!
The boarding experience in San Pedro was a little weird. Our experience with Carnival was that boarding usually began around 11 AM... so we showed up at the terminal in San Pedro at 10:20 AM. That was a mistake. They weren't even ready to look at our documents and check us in until 10:50, and the actual boarding didn't begin until after noon for the Elite and Platinum guests. By the time they called group #1, it was 12:20 PM. After that, though, it was quick... and I think we were in the buffet within 10 or 15 minutes, tops.
The other weird thing I noticed, although it didn't affect me personally, was that their special lounge wasn't large enough to hold all their Elite and Platinum level guests. A lot of them had to sit out in the main terminal... and I do mean that it was a LOT of them, from what I could see. I'm platinum on Carnival, and they always had good lounges to wait in prior to boarding... except in Long Beach!
On an airplane, this would be known as the "Flight Data Recorder"... or "Black Box".
On the Sapphire Princess, it's on the observation area right above the bridge.
I guess it makes sense... if the ship sunk, it would be easy to get to.
But aren't there less public locations on the top of the ship?
On Sunday, a lot of us Californians were excited about the NFL playoff game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Seattle Seahawks.
Unfortunately, even though the ship was tied up at the dock and not moving whatsoever,
the Sapphire Princess had the world's worst satellite TV reception.
It was really frustrating to watch, and then for the 49ers to lose at the end, too!
Sapphire Princess docked in Ensenada, Mexico.
In case you're wondering, "Hamilton" refers to the capitol city of Bermuda, where the ship is registered
Our aft-facing balcony cabin, room A746
Planning a cruise is fun to me, and one of the things I like best is weighing all the options regarding the available cabins. I like studying the deck plans of the ship, looking for cabins that have something special about them... and searching Google and YouTube for pictures and videos from people who have been in that cabin before. Therefore, I always try to post at least a few pictures of our cabin to make it easier for other people who are considering that particular cabin in the future.
Here's a look at the bed and night stands in cabin A746
Looking in the other direction, you can see the desk (note the hair dryer to the left of the desk)
and the television in the opposite corner. I don't know what the heck that is on the TV!
There are three available power outlets in this area: two at the desk, and one behind the TV.
I liked the TV because it had an HDMI input, and I was able to hook my camera to it and see how some of my videos turned out. On Carnival, I've noticed that a lot of the TVs have HDMI inputs... but there's no way to switch over to it. Nothing on the remote, or on the TV, that would allow you to switch inputs. They probably do that so that no one accidentally leaves it switched over to the HDMI input and messes things up for the next week's passengers. It was nice that on Princess, there was no problem in using my camera via the HDMI input.
They must have been slowly upgrading the TVs throughout the ship.
I think they must have done ours previous to our arrival onboard.
Down the hall from us, we saw them working at upgrading the TVs along our entire deck.
Something about the cabin that surprised me was that the room steward didn't make towel animals for it. On Carnival, you'd find a new towel animal every night after the steward turned down the bed. I thought I read that they did it on Princess, too. Maybe not... or maybe just not on 4-day cruises.
The biggest disappointment with the cabin was with the size of the shower and the way the shower head was configured. Even in the least expensive cabins and on the oldest ships, the showers are larger on Carnival than what we had here on Princess. On Carnival, they have this great shower head on a sliding rail so that you can easily adjust the height. The ideal shower head height for Kellyn is much different than what it would be for me... so Carnival's adjustable-height shower head is ideal for us. Also, on Carnival you can remove the shower head from the wall and go handheld. The entire shower experience was the worst 15 minutes of my day every day of our Princess cruise. The arrangement on Carnival is vastly superior in this area.
One thing I've done in many of my most recent Carnival cruises is to book a cabin at the back of the ship. The views at the aft are usually interesting, the balconies are wind protected, and I like being near the adults-only aft pool and the buffet... which are usually at the back of the ship. When possible, I like to be just one deck below the aft pool and buffet so that it's a simple and easy walk up one flight of stairs to get to them.
In studying the deck plans of the Sapphire Princess, I was delighted to notice a few cabins that were not just near the adults-only aft pool, they were basically adjacent to it. Take a look at cabins A744, A746, A751, and A749.
This looked ideal to me, and I jumped at the chance to book cabin A746 so that I would be just a few feet away from the terrace pool, one deck below the buffet restaurant, and two decks below a pair of Jacuzzis. Great location!
By the way... deck 12 is known as the "Aloha deck" and that always made me smile in the elevator. There's an automated elevator voice that tells you what deck you're at when the doors are about to open... so every time we would take the elevator to our cabin on deck 12, the elevator would say "Aloha" when we arrived. If you know Hawaiian at all, you know that Aloha means both hello and goodbye... so that's why I always got a smile when the elevator announced that I had arrived at my deck. Was it saying goodbye to me as I prepared to depart the elevator, or saying hello to me as I arrived back "home" on my floor? Perhaps a little bit of both. I never had such questions when taking the elevator to Promenade deck, though!
See the four blue loungers over on the right side of that photo? Notice that behind them there is a short staircase down. That leads from the Terrace pool area to the cabins on deck 12. We could literally get from our cabin to the Terrace Pool in less than 30 seconds!
One other thing to point out in that last photo... look at those blue loungers on the left side and notice that they're really just hard plastic loungers with a blue cover over them. Not a plush, soft cushion like every other part of the ship has... but a thin little cover. The whole darned ship had wonderful comfortable loungers... except the loungers right outside my cabin at my favorite pool. Bad luck, I guess!
Scroll back up the page, please, and take another look at those deck plans... this time focusing your attention on cabin B750, the Grand Suite that is located directly below our cabin. It doesn't look particularly impressive in the deck plans, does it? Princess does a lousy job of showing it off at Princess.com, too. Here's what you'll see if you look the cabin up at their web site:
The diagram of the floor plan sure doesn't make it look particularly interesting, and I bet they scare some folks off with the special note in the red type about how the view is partly obstructed due to a support beam. But in reality, I bet this was a pretty nice cabin! Take a look at this picture I shot from the tender as I was making my way back onboard from a shore excursion:
The yellow arrow points to the balcony of our cabin, A746.
I've circled the balcony of the Grand Suite, B750, for comparison.
The balcony of the Grand Suite literally covers one half of the entire width of the ship! Our balcony was fairly comfortable, and certainly bigger than many other cruise ship balconies we've been on. But the balcony of the Grand Suite is over SIX TIMES as wide as ours! Here's a shot I took on our balcony, and it actually only shows about half of it:
Imagine what that Grand Suite balcony must have been like! By sticking my head out over the rail and looking down, I could see a little bit of it. It looked pretty sweet! (Insert your own sweet suite joke here...)
I was so curious about that Grand Suite that I just had to look it up at Princess.com and see what it cost. For our 4-day cruise, we paid a total of about $1000 for cabin A746. The Grand Suite goes for over $3700!
Which brings me to the next part of the story...
The Most Amazing Cruise Deal, Ever
I've been cruising for a while, and I've seen some sales... and frankly, the only ones that are ever very good are the last minute deals when the cruise line is having trouble filling up a particular sailing of a particular ship. I guess Princess was having a LOT of trouble filling up the Sapphire Princess in January of 2014, because they lured me away from Carnival by offering me a deal that I simply could not pass up.
To truly appreciate the story of this amazing cruise deal, however, I have to tell you how I heard about it...
So, there I was, in a talk radio studio doing a guest spot on our little town's hot afternoon radio talk show. The subject of the hour was cruising, and I was the guest... brought in to talk about my 20 cruises with Carnival. But within the first few minutes of the show, I was feeling a little ambushed by the host... who it turns out had a very negative perception of Carnival and who insisted that Princess was the way to go and that Carnival was like the WalMart of the seas. I pulled out my trump card, which was that Carnival is almost always significantly less expensive than any comparable cruise on a competing cruise line... and then the host hit me with The Cruise Deal Of The Century as evidence that not only was Princess better than Carnival, they were basically offering free cruises out of Los Angeles during the month of January 2014. You can actually listen to the entire thing in this recording of my KVEC talk show appearance.
In case you didn't listen to the audio clip, what the talk show host told me (live on-the-air, with no chance for me to verify it in advance) was that Princess was offering an amazing deal for cruises in January 2014 out of Los Angeles. If you booked a cabin on the Sapphire Princess, they would credit 100% of that cruise fare towards the cost of another Princess cruise (7 days, or longer) taken any time during the rest of 2014... making the January Sapphire Princess cruise essentially FREE. Well, how could I possibly argue with free? Carnival certainly didn't offer any deals like that!
When the host hit me with that deal live on the air, I just pretty much ignored it and moved on with my other talking points. The reason for that is the old saying about how if you hear something that sounds too good to be true... it probably is. I figured that Dave, the talk show host, was probably totally misinformed... and that once I got home and looked up the details of the deal I would probably find it was full of loopholes or possibly just completely bogus.
So, imagine my surprise when I got home that night... looked up the deal on the Internet... and found out that what Dave said was completely true! Princess was essentially offering free cruises out of Los Angeles during the month of January 2014. Wow, they must have REALLY been having trouble filling up the Sapphire Princess to offer a deal like that! I chalked it up to the notoriously bad January weather that hits Los Angeles almost every year. People probably know that January would be about the worst time to cruise out of LA, as far as the weather is concerned.
There's one other detail of The Cruise Deal Of The Century that you have to understand to truly appreciate what a great deal this was. Yes, the 100% cruise credit was fantastic... but that wasn't the end of the good news. It turns out that they were offering this deal on every cabin throughout the ship. Think about that for a minute. If they're going to credit you back with 100% of your fare, what incentive is there to book an inexpensive cabin? It doesn't matter if you spend $600, $1000, or $3700 for a cabin... Princess is going to credit it all back towards your next cruise. So why book a cheap cabin?
I wasn't the only one to figure that aspect out... and the suites were the first cabins to get booked up. By the time I got wind of the deal, all the suites were booked up. I guess those people in the Grand Suite one floor below my cabin were not so crazy to spend that kind of money on a 4-day cruise after all!
Our Next Princess Cruise
What made The Cruise Deal Of The Century especially appealing to me was the fact that we already had a 7-day Princess cruise booked for the summer of 2014 anyway... and the deal specifically stated that it could be applied to existing bookings. So, 100% of our Sapphire Princess cruise fare will be credited towards the cruise we've already got booked for this summer on the Coral Princess. After such a great experience on my first Princess cruise, I'm looking forward to the Alaska cruise more than ever! It will be especially sweet since I'll not only be cruising with Kellyn, but also with my three siblings and their spouses.
What I Liked About Princess
To summarize everything, here's a list of what I liked about my cruise on the Sapphire Princess, and how it was better than Carnival:
The vibe is SO mellow!
No annoying background music playing throughout the ship
No smoking on balconies
Five swimming pools… fresh water, heated
Hugely better lunch and dinner buffet than on Carnival
No formal night on 4-day cruise
After six cruises, 150 free Internet minutes
Better seating arrangement in the Princess theater than in Carnival's big theaters
Waiter in the buffet keeps your glass full, removes empty plates fast
More free gifts… we got a free Princess tote bag, a fruit platter, and a free bottle of wine... and it was only our 1st cruise!
More music and dancing
Mariachi band at the Mexican-themed bar, one hour per day
There are more outdoor loungers with thick cushions
Nicer interior design (no Joe Farcus)
Free chips and salsa at the aft bar
Free backstage tour
Movies and music played at the mid-ship Lido pool are played at very low volumes so the tranquility is preserved
No pushy drink servers roaming the sunny upper decks
Future cruise certificates will yield a $100 onboard credit. Carnival used to offer this, but doesn't any longer.
HDMI television input that you can actually use
Larger public restrooms
Muster stations are all inside
Restaurants open earlier than Carnival. Breakfast: 6 AM Dinner: 5:30 PM
Closet arrangement is much better. One big closet, not 2 small ones
No shortage of seats for comedy shows, as they are in the big theater
“The Sanctuary” takes Carnival’s “Serenity” area to the next level, for a fee
Larger cast, more talented singers in the production shows
The safes in the cabin use a keypad rather than a magnetic card
Disembarkation was a breeze. We left our room at 8:40 and were in our car at 9:00 AM.
In Fairness To Carnival...
As much as I loved my introduction to Princess, there were still a few things that I liked better about Carnival. Here's a list:
Guy Fieri burgers
Self-serve ice cream & frozen yogurt
Warm Chocolate Melting Cake
Bigger showers and bathrooms in the cabins
Better breakfast buffet, especially omelets
Ship locator and channel guide on the cabin TV system
You can get a pitcher of margaritas for $25 at Blue Iguana cantina
Small comedy club improves the dynamic… comedian feels like he’s playing to a standing-room only crowd, because in most cases he is!
Boarding starts earlier… usually 11 AM.
Platinum guests have a private lounge to relax in before boarding begins, and it's large enough for ALL the platinum guests.
Onboard store seemed slightly better
Not required to bring life jacket to safety drill
Magnifying makeup mirror in the bathroom
I’m Platinum with Carnival!
Need A Travel Agent?
Booking a cruise can be confusing, especially if you haven't been on many cruises before. There are lots of first-time cruiser mistakes that a travel agent can keep you from making.
If you're interested in booking a cruise with any cruise line... please feel free to use the services of my travel agent, Caitlin Gallagher. She's extremely pleasant to deal with, easy to talk to since she lives in the United States and speaks without any kind of an accent, and quite experienced and knowledgeable about different types of cruising. Caitlin is the owner of Ambren Travel. Visit her web site, check out the Ambren Travel Facebook page, or contact her using the information below.
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