Grand Princess Western Caribbean cruise

Feb. 24-Mar. 3, 2002

Cruising has certainly improved since we last took a mainstream Caribbean cruise (on the Crown Princess in 1992 and RCCL's Monarch of the Seas in 1993 — both vacations with extended family).

Our stateroom (Caribe 609) on the Grand resembled a small room at a good hotel, with a safe, refrigerator, large closet, desk, two chairs, TV that receives CNN, chocolates on the pillow at night, and a decent shower with thermostatically controlled water that always comes out at the temperature you set.

But the highlight was the balcony. Not only did it extend the living area, it allowed us to hear the ocean and check the weather. The Caribe balconies seemed larger than those on the decks above and below. Even though all balconies held a table and four chairs, there was also plenty of room to do stretching exercises, which I don't think would have been the case on other decks. Because of the cantilevered design, anyone standing on the balcony above can see the outer half of the one below, but the barrier between balconies is quite high.

The onboard experience is a pleasure. The ship is huge but is so well designed that it didn't feel huge and it certainly didn't feel like there were 4,000 people on board. The space was divided so well that on the last day I was still discovering new areas of the ship. (Study the ship's layout in a pocket-sized brochure that is among the materials on the desk.) The crew was numerous, friendly and helpful, and Mother was pleased to find two $3 blackjack tables with dealers who seemed to want you to win (she didn't — and don't even mention the tight slots).

The food was excellent, attractive and bountiful and we thought Personal Choice dining worked well. Because we ate dinner early we never waited for a table, although people who came around 7:30 probably weren't seated immediately. Personal Choice diners could eat in the DaVinci or Michelangelo dining rooms, but we preferred the latter because it seemed more tranquil. Almost everything I ordered for dinner was excellent and presented beautifully, but I particularly enjoyed lobster tails, rack of lamb, veal chops, orange roughy and king crab legs. Desserts were delicious, with authentic NY cheesecake and their wonderfully chocolate Love Boat Dream on the menu every night. The menu also offered "healthy choice" and vegetarian selections every night. We were so pleased with the variety of offerings at the 24-hour buffet that we generally went there for breakfast and lunch and carried our trays to quiet tables aft.

We were blessed with good weather six days out of seven, and fairly calm seas except the first night out. The ports of call were perfect for us, as we wanted to snorkel, and the two days at sea were restful. The ship provides informative sheets about each port. (FYI, the first two stops required tenders but we were able to dock at the last two). Princess Cays (part of Eleuthera in the Bahamas) is a lovely stretch of beach with loads of lounge chairs, lunch and fruit buffets, covered eating areas, entertainment, equipment rentals, etc. The designated snorkeling area was excellent.

At Grand Cayman we took a 3-hour trip with Captain Marvin to Stingray City and two snorkeling stops that we had arranged through the internet. My husband and I had done a similar excursion while spending a week on Grand Cayman, but it's such a unique experience that we wanted our niece to enjoy it. There were about 30 of us on board so it didn't feel crowded, and the boat had easy access to the water and a helpful crew. A scuba videographer came along so you could order a videotape of your trip. At each stop our snorkeling guide, Chris, pointed out highlights and even held onto a nurse shark so we could get a close look. The stingray sandbar was ridiculously crowded so we stayed at the edge, where the water was up to our shoulders. This meant that the stingrays not only rubbed against your legs like cats, but actually swam up your body (they are amazingly soft). Chris provided us with squid and feeding instructions, and also let each of us hold a ray by its wings. This is a fun and educational experience, and it's only available in Grand Cayman.

The two ports in Mexico are vastly different. Costa Maya is a stretch of beach abutting endless jungle where they have built a pier and a plaza of typical Mexican stores and a large swimming pool. The day was overcast and cool, but if we had had better weather we would have enjoyed the beach and snorkeling. We walked around the plaza, and although the shopkeepers are friendly, we were turned off by their persistence. If you decide to take a tour of Mayan sites, book it through the ship, as the ship will wait should your tour bus return late (which happens a lot, including the day we were there).

At Cozumel we went to Chankanaab Park for a Swim with the Dolphins excursion that we booked early on through the ship (it fills up fast). Yes, it's very expensive, but the fee includes transfers, park admission, locker, and a truly unique experience. Groups of 6 are in the water with 2 dolphins for about 30 minutes. We started out standing on a platform along the edge of a large enclosure while the dolphins swam by so we could stroke them, kiss and hold their fins. After swimming into the center we held sticks for the dolphins to jump over, and we frolicked in various ways. But the highlights were the "rides," first by holding onto their dorsal fins and then by being pushed from behind. (The dolphins put their noses onto the soles of your feet and propel you so fast that it looked like water skiing!) A photographer and videographer captured everything and had the finished product ready for purchase by the time you were ready to leave the park. We stayed for an hour to snorkel at Chankanaab, which now restricts snorkeling to the outside edge of the reef. We had brought bread and immediately were swarmed by fish. (Note to self: don't laugh while underwater.)

Our family liked much of the entertainment on board, particularly Rhythms of the City and the musical comedy act Kimika. The Princess Theater is as large and well equipped as a medium-sized theater on Broadway, and we were even more impressed after taking the backstage tour. In the Vista Lounge, which is smaller, we enjoyed comic juggler Jack Kalvan. The theaters were the only place on board that felt crowded — there never seemed to be enough seating. We should have relinquished our seats for London Pub Night, which was not our cup of tea. (This was Cruise Director Tim Donovan's first week on the Grand, so it was amusing to count the number of times he said Dawn Princess instead.)

Entertainment was also available in the good-sized Explorers Lounge, where we enjoyed a classical piano concert as well as 50s Sock Hop party (although the band started the show with a Bruce Springsteen song rather than something from the 50s or 60s). My husband wound up winning the Elvis impersonator contest and the two of us went on to win the jitterbug contest, so this was definitely Our Night. (Hubby also won the music trivia contest held during the last day at sea, although he reports that several of the questions had correct answers in addition to the one "correct" answer provided to the staff.) We often stopped into the Wheelhouse Bar to swing dance, where Jackie Harrison and her trio provided music for the range of ballroom styles and quickly learned who likes what.

The gym facilities were good but we thought the $10 charge per yoga class was tacky. (We managed to ignore the constant selling that takes place on board, particularly the art auctions and spa treatments.) We participated in a number of free offerings, including the popular culinary demo/tour and the backstage tour (wish there had been a bridge tour, or even a video presentation on cruise ship navigation), and Mother went to the Mah Jongg gathering, although the cruise staff did not understand that you need a card from the National Mah Jongg League to play the American version.

While the main pool was a bit too active for my taste, I enjoyed the large pool in the conservatory area, which has a retractable roof, and the smaller adult pools aft and in the spa area (which provides a current to swim against). All pools are freshwater and open 24 hours a day. Finding lounge chairs wasn't that difficult, as people would move in order to follow the sun or shade (plus there are numerous lounge areas on the decks above the pool level).

Embarkation went smoothly and quickly. We received a card that serves as ID, room key and charge card and were on the ship within 10 minutes, where they took a digital photo of each passenger in conjunction with the ID card. Security was excellent: Each time you left the ship a computer read your card and each time you re-embarked the crew would check that the person with your card was indeed you. Disembarkation went fairly well, considering that everyone in your "color" is rummaging for their baggage and trying to locate transportation.


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My Washington Post article about family cruising (pdf)

Grand Princess with approximate location of our stateroom circled.
Our balcony as seen from inside the cabin.
The balcony below us.
Passengers listen to a string quartet in the ship's atrium.
The largest of the ship's swimming pools was always lively.
This pool has a retractable roof.
Tropical night had passengers partying on deck.
At Grand Cayman's Stingray City we were able to hold the creatures.
Stingrays live along sandbar, which provides protection from sharks.
A ray expels water from its mouth as guide shows us its underside.
At a snorkeling stop our guide gets acquainted with a nurse shark.
We went to Cozumel's Chankanaab Park to swim with dolphins.
First we had some time to get acquainted.
Then we got a series of "rides" followed by open-water play.
Deep water allowed the dolphins to propel themselves into the air.
We reviewed the day during family dinners.

For a current view from the Grand Princess, select "Live Bridge Cams" at