Grand Princess - Western Europe Sampler
When Princess Cruises released their 2011 itineries in March 2010 they revealed a first for Southampton – a short cruise!  I’d emailed them a few years before when I began this cruising lark, asking if they intended to have any like P&O.  They replied saying no and suggested I try their sister line!  They had shorts in the US and Australia (usually repositioning) so it was high time we did.  So Grand Princess was doing a three-night cruise from Southampton on the 17th-20th September 2011, calling at Zeebrugge and Le Havre.  Princess single rate is on par with Cunard and if you want a balcony you have to pay double, though not if you want inside or window.  But even oceanview started over £600.  Could do four nights on P&O’s newest Grand class, Azura, for a little more than that!  I looked at some travel agent sites and Thomas Cook had a great fare.  Unfortunately it was a Bank Holiday weekend and I wanted to see Becky or Mandi in my local branch to talk about it.  When I went on the 4th May 2010, the price had risen a little, with their oceanview as just under £600 so I opted for inside for £518.94.  It was II and I got a category upgrade to JJ C322 plus $25 onboard credit.  I filled in the personaliser on the 9th January, after renewing my travel insurance, and was delighted to discover Zeebrugge was now Guernsey!  Still crap, being close, but better.  Paid it off on the 1st April and they sent an e-ticket email on the 5th July, which took me by surprise.  I went to the travel agent on the 25th, after I returned from Aurora, to get them to print it and the luggage tags off.

Grand arrived after a drastic refit on the 21st May minus her handle.  One of the reasons I'd wanted to go (apart from being the first of her kind and I'd got over my awful Ventura cruise to try another Grand class), was to go up into the handle - grrrr!  They must have known I was coming!  We had company as I set out to board my 20th ship and line to experience for my 30th cruise in the shape of Indy and Oceana.  I can't believe it's been so many since October 2006 and this was also my 7th cruise line.  Variety is wonderful!  I'm not knocking people who are loyal to one line but it's not for me because you know what to expect.  I've always had an insatiable curiosity and love to try new things.  After all, sticking with one line year in, year out to me is boring and I don't do boring.  As I neared my transport for the next couple of days, I couldn't stop thinking of my very last phone conversation with my good friend, the late journalist, Steve Read.  Many of you will have heard of him from The Sun, Sky Travel and latterly his own site, I Love Cruises, and remember he reported back in December 2010 about the handle coming off, which Princess failed to confirm or deny.  The last time he phoned shortly before he died was regarding this very thing, after I'd found on Cruise Critic what someone said were deck plans despite the fact the handle was still there.  I sent Steve a message, thinking he would be in bed, only he sent several back.  Then at 2.40am the phone rang after he'd seen them for himself.  Princess was supposed to have issued a press release in January only nothing was forthcoming, making him more certain he'd got it wrong and would be eating humble pie.  Even though I tried reassuring him, saying if he was wrong, he could say he was reporting a rumour but if he was, why didn't they deny it but there was no convincing him.  By the time the call ended at 3am we'd discussed many other things too, ship-related and personal.  That was the 5th February 2011, his final news article posted at 3.29pm while Princess announced on the 10th the handle was being chopped off.  He was right but didn't live long enough to find out!  Fate can be cruel.  I hoped, wherever he was, he was celebrating with a G&T.  And so, once something I had looked forward to became bittersweet as I got to see the new look while he didn't and sadly never would.  I desperately wanted to call him to say what this and that were like.  It's at times like those, even having a natter or sending some texts, when I missed him so much.  He always put a smile on my face.  Those of us fortunate to know him were lucky.  He was one of a kind and the world is a duller place without him.  Anyway mustn't be maudlin.  He wouldn't want that.  It was time to check in and celebrate him being right but without G&Ts since I don't like those.  Sorry, Steve.  I also had to celebrate my milestones, which, apart from one Friends & Family trip on Jewel of the Seas, had been paid for by me.  That's something to be proud of.  Steve did hundreds but, like all journalists, got them free and more often than not, only do a few days of a cruise.  I would rather be on from start to finish and have a proper experience than join or leave part-way through.  The Adonia cruise a month before was one such example, where journalists like Sue Bryant from Cruise Critic were on for the first week then John Honeywell of the Mirror and others replacing them for the second then many would write about this wonderous cruise, making people think they had been on the entire trip.  Oh well.  This trip would give me an extra fifteen points added to my P&O Portunus ones - woo!  P&O were stopping sister lines doing that from April 2012 (only Princess counted since they axed Swan Hellenic and Ocean Village!), which is a shame but I was glad of the extra anyway.  I only needed twenty now to reach the next level so, since they changed all the benefits for the new tiers, would still be waiting to be not good enough for a glass of cheap plonk and cardboard vol-au-vent.  I do think points per night is a fairer system, despite how long it takes to reach the next level.  Too many people do short trips only and are the highest tier while those on lower could have done more nights onboard.  Early in 2011, Royal Caribbean changed theirs to points.  Cunard are stupidly credits OR nights despite the fact you can gather points far quicker.  Princess and many others are still credits.  Anyway, because Princess sent a letter saying my deck would be checking in at 11.30am, I caught an earlier ferry over.  I hadn't intended to take it, since it costs more bus, ferry, taxi one way than a bus straight to town then catching a taxi but the return ticket is now valid for one week from date of issue.  I saw we had a strange tug in QEII, Svitzer Ellerby, which must be temporary while Sussex is in for a refit at Immingham.

I arrived as some first timers were faffing about the luggage they'd just handed over.  As I headed inside after handing over mine, I spotted Marie Hill and Mark Kennedy by their taxi.  I knew Marie through Rowan, who I've been on a few cruises with, and this was their first time.  They knew a damn sight more than those two dopey women at the baggage drop though!  The queue was horrendous as Captain's Circle priority check ins were the only people doing anything.  Marie and Mark were very excited about the trip.  Once normal check in began, it was fairly fast, just the queue through security was huge due to all those priority people!  We were all given a letter after the boarding photo was taken.  I was M and they were calling G, which wasn't bad.  The microphone broke so she had to shout but it was all pretty fast.  Straight to the cabins which were ready so I was on by 12.15pm.  My video camera decided to begin the long, drawn out process of conking out when the screen went dim.  Grrr!  I was glad it was only a short trip but really was having no luck with cruises and machines!  My cabin was beside the lauderette so easy to find from either direction.  I liked the little touch of having your name on the letter holder.  The cabin itself was wonderfully spacious for an inside and had plenty of storage in the form of shelves rather than drawers.  The sockets were a bugger to find, being all American next to a light switch.  There is a European one - behind the bed!  That's not really any good, is it?  If you have a bad back like me or some mobility difficulty, you can hardly pull the thing out or, if your steward does it, reach down to plug something in.  The bin in the bathroom was agonising enough to chuck something into because it was on the floor under the sink close to the back wall.  The showerhead was fixed rather than detachable - grrr!  Now each cruise has sailed at 4pm only our itinerary listed it an hour later.  I hoped it would be wrong, with Oceana at 4pm and Indy half an hour later, but no such luck.  The Princess Patter confirmed boring old muster was 4.15pm - I'll go hoarse with all these grrrs!
Time for lunch!  I headed up to find Horizon Court but then saw Prego Pizzeria so grabbed a couple of slices of Margarita instead.  It was incredibly noisy, mostly because of the Blackburn/Arsenal game on the big screen!  I bought the Coke package for $13 plus tax, which wasn't a bad deal considering Vision of the Seas had been $6 a day.  Then it was time to explore and, as I did, already noticed a few design differences to the later versions like Crown Princess and Ventura.
Well that had been better than Ventura for a start!  Suites are built above the bow on later Grand class so where you can walk around on the original, it's balconies on the later ones.  I was beginning to like this one as she was restoring my faith in the class of ship.  Back to the cabin to wait for muster.  I found my case inside, tucked into the wardrobe area and also one which wasn't mine.  Robert, my steward, arrived at that same moment to introduce himself and took the other away.  He was very cheerful and laughing.  The muster station was the Crown Grill on Deck 7, which squeezed in over four hundred people - eek!  I went aft and was ushered down the crew stairs along with others.  Inside our cruise cards were scanned, which they said was for them for training purposes or something and not to worry if yours wasn't scanned, though they did everyone's as the CMA CGM Hydra went by blocking out the light!  Over the speaker came a familiar pre-recorded droning voice - the same one I heard on the QE2 four times!  Once it was over, I was the first out and went to get my stuff and head out, only to find those buggers way ahead!
I headed aft and saw Aad and Nicoline!  I remembered they had been on MSC Poesia a few days earlier because I'd looked at that myself, but forgotten they were also on Grand.  It was great to see them as we were already moving from the dock.  There had been no pre-departure announcement from the Captain like other lines, even those whose Captains don't have English as a first language.
I said adieu to Aad and Nicoline then made my way to the dolphin's gob and hoped I remembered the way!  Getting up to it was slightly different to Ventura, where you had stairs straight up.  This was up, along, round the corner and up.  Apart from the odd jogger (and some can be VERY odd!) and person, I was alone for most of the time there.  It was flipping windy though!  My dad was sat on the wall in front of the hedge at the marina after the wind and rain had picked up as the other two sodded off.
I returned to the cabin to defrost and detangle and saw my bed had already been turned down for the night and goodies left on it.  The bag is similar to the type Celebrity give and I couldn't help but wonder if it comes apart as well.  The other were a breakfast room service menu and option for fresh fruit delivered.
I popped down to the Crooners Bar to get a Coke refill and saw Marie and Mark booking shore excursions.  The way they did this was a plus on Princess.  Often if you don't book beforehand, you have to get the info from the onboard desk but it was in the cabin instead so much better.  They were enjoying it so far and trying the Anytime Dining.  Once I'd got my drink I decided to order room service since I was on second sitting but was on hold ages.  So, since no grub - time to hit the shops in my search for souvenir tat!  Couldn't find any postcards of the ship but bought plenty of other junk I didn't really need including a baby model.  It's similar to those on other ships but the smallest I've picked up despite being from the biggest ship I bought one from!  Then it was waiting till 8.30pm to eat so I turned on the info channel.  This gets the thumbs down from me.  Unlike others ships where you get all the info within about a ten minute maximum loop, this was about an hour!  It would show something, cut to map, stay on map FOREVER, cut to another map, back to first map, stay on it FOREVER, show a bit of something else, cut to map, stay on it FOREVER and so forth.  It took so long gathering the few bits of info I've included below.
Time for dinner in the Botticelli, which is aft and you need to go all the way along on Deck 7 to reach the stairs down or a lift.  This bit was familiar to me because on Ventura we found a patch of carpet which hadn't been brown!  It's funny the things you remember.  My table companions were nice.  Couple whose twenty-eighth wedding anniversary it was that day, mother and daughter from Manchester and mother with two middle-aged daughters from the Midlands, one daughter currently in Boston, Lincolnshire.  This one said she was some sort of travel agent and tried to convince me Grand and Ventura were the same ship, dismissing the numerous differences I'd already found between them.  She also claimed on a German ship she didn't name, you aren't booted off within a couple of hours of docking but can leave when you want to!  Bit if a bugger for the new intake of passengers.  She also said formal is just 'leisurewear' in another colour.  Okay.....  Like every story she told about cruising she omitted important details when she wasn't slagging off particular nationalities or cruise lines!  NCL was one and the reasons?  No dressing up and being able to eat when you like.  All she said was about being given a pager but hey, missus, there are LOADS of eateries to choose from unlike ships which ripped off the system.  On P&O and Princess, for instance, you dine in a set main restaurant.  What the hell is she talking about?  Has she actually been or was just told or read about it?   MSC also came in for a bashing for being Italian and also Italians.  Everyone was getting excited about Berni Flint and his ostrich, so I pointed out that was Bernie Clifton.  Our waiters were good and were also Aad and Nicoline's on the next table.  During the visit to MSC Poesia three days earlier, Melissa Collins Pell from Cruise Southampton had said something very interesting regarding high sodium content in some mineral waters served onboard (such as that day) which make your feet swell.  I avoided the water and stuck to being unhealthy with Coke to wash my food down to see if that helped my own swelling problem.  Now usually I don't include food photos from meals unless there's a specific reason such as room service or the no salt dishes I'd had on Aurora, but I am here because none of the menu selection jumped off the page at you so I chose from the always available.  Dessert was also chosen from the always available options and was the delicious Love Boat Dream.
Because my back was hurting I skipped the shows and went back to the cabin.  Unusually on a cruise, there were things which clashed, with something going on in the Princess Theatre forward and aft in the Vista Lounge.  It's a shame they can't time them so no one has to miss anything.

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© Patricia Dempsey 17th-20th September 2011
Not to be reproduced without permission