MS Diamond Princess - A Review
A Princess Cruise Experience to end all cruise experiences
In summary, MS Diamond Princess is a good sized, well appointed ship; unfortunately Princess offers only an average cruise experience.
The bug has bitten us again but this time we're cured for good. We made one of those impulsive last minute decisions and booked a cruise on the "Diamond Princess", scrambling on board bound for Beijing with the ink on our Chinese visas just about dry.
The Princess experience turned out to be a bit similar to the Celeb one, probably not as good, but they have some good features.
We took a mini-suite on Deck 9 that we expected to be at the back of the ship but turned out to be only one cabin from the front; at around $140 per night per person it seemed like a good deal by Australian standards. We soon found out that other passengers (including Australians) had got fares closer to $50 per night, booking through US web-sites where Princess evidently dump tickets they can't sell elsewhere. Australian and NZ travel agents are understandably outraged by this practice and point to some potential risks, however are evidently unable to do much about it. It obviously doesn't work for Princess either, as the ship was only three-quarters full and I can't see that sort of money covering an extra passenger's food costs.
Passengers were (to be brutally honest) mostly overweight and elderly; more than half of them seemed to be Americans, no doubt taking advantage of aforesaid cheap tickets. To put this in perspective, I am 60-something and felt young on this cruise. There was a smattering of people in other age groups and probably only a dozen or so children (they were great). If you had been looking for a fun family holiday, you would have hated this one.
"Diamond Princess" is BIG. At 116,000 tonnes gross, she is a dolphin's dick short of 300m long and can carry 3100 passengers. If you do a basic division of the tonnage by the passengers, this is potentially a much more crowded ship than Celeb's "Millenium", although not as bad as smaller ships including the old "Pacific Star" (see separate blogs). Like all newer cruise ships, she is based on a cattle-carrier design, with five accommodation decks sandwiched between those with passenger facilities like dining rooms, lounges etc. On the ouside, she isn't particularly sleek, but then she wasn't built for speed. A square stern and unusual bow (which is convex in profile) completes the picture. Inside, she is as spacious as one would expect, and appointments are luxurious without being "tacky".
The ship is powered by four big diesel engines and has electric propulsion; don't be fooled as I was by the pods on top of the funnel structure, which look like gas turbines but aren't. There is a single gas turbine there somewhere which is only used for extra grunt when needed, or for cruising in "environmentally sensitive" areas. This is Princess-speak for "It's cheaper to use the diesels unless we're forced not to", as environmentally sensitive areas do not evidently include Australia's Great Barrier Reef. Vibration from the engines can be felt throughout the rear half of the ship; it is particularly bad on Deck 14 in the casual dining area and (from walking around) seems unpleasant on passenger Decks 12, 11 and maybe 10 (there is no Deck 13). A funnel duct through the ship is very noisy and affects cabins 600-611 on all decks.
The ship is very well stabilised and didn't roll or pitch noticeably at any stage of our voyage, although we had to contend with Force 10 storm winds and seas up to 8m. Under these conditions, however, there was an unusual "wiggling" movement of only a centimeter or two, which felt like a persistent mild earth tremor and was a bit disconcerting. Up the front where we were, there were also heavy banging noises accompanied by severe vibrations. The first time this happened I thought we had collected a fishing boat; as it went on I wondered if an anchor was loose. We saw divers inspecting the hull in Nagasaki a couple of days after the storm, but were told this was a routine inspection. We met another passenger who had problems being awoken by untoward noises elsewhere - he had been told that no other cabins were available, although the crew were consistent in their reckoning that we were 600 short of a full passenger list. The cabin in front of ours was empty although I wouldn't have recommended it.
The best feature of this ship is the Promenade Deck, which sweeps right around the ship (notwithstanding some stairs) giving passengers access to every inch of its length (you can do "Jack & Rose" impressions on the bow!) The worst feature is the lack of any forward observation lounge (or even a decent area of deck), which would be a total pain for scenic cruising, particularly in bad weather. There is a forward lounge called "The Sanctuary" which is designated for adults only, but it is only open from 8-12am and from 1-5pm, and costs you US$10 to use for the four hours. Few did.
We arrived in Sydney early Saturday morning after an overnight flight from Perth and eventually found a place where we could stash our suitcases for 8 hours or so without any help from Princess, who didn't want to know us before the scheduled embarkation time. Embarkation through the Overseas Passenger Terminal went pretty smoothly and we boarded at Promenade deck level. There was a desk labelled "Alcohol Declaration" or something similar, evidently intended to remind passengers that they are only allowed to take one bottle of wine on board.
Disembarkation went fairly smoothly at all ports, mostly according to the port facilities, which varied from decrepit wharves where a light breeze against the ship may have dragged the whole mess into the sea (Dalian), through container terminals because the ship was too big to go anywhere else (Hong Kong), to ritzy terminals accommodating a couple of ships of the size of the "Diamond" (Tianjin - port for Beijing). In a couple of ports which do not cater for large ships "alongside" (Arlie Beach and Port Douglas), Princess hired large local catamaran ferries to supplement the ships' tenders (lifeboats).
Although the cruise ended at Tianjin at 4am, our cases weren't required until fairly late the previous evening, the cabin service was unaffected, and we were given plenty of time to have breakfast before disembarking at a comparatively civilised hour.
Public rooms are many. They include the Princess Theatre, which is large but unimposing, and the smaller more appealing Explorers, Club Fusion and Wheelhouse Lounges, which have stages/dance floors. There is a lounge optimistically titled "Skywalkers Nightclub" which is perched high behind the funnel and serves as a nice (mostly rearward) observation lounge in the daytime and is pretty much deserted at night. There are a couple of small intimate lounges which you really have to seek out. Consequently the ship has great flexibility to present a variety of activities simultaneously, whether day or night. All interior public areas are very well appointed and for the most part, non-smoking (as are the cabins and balconies - Yay!!) There is the inevitable casino (181 pokies) and three small areas designated for kids of different ages at the back of the ship.
There is a large internet cafe, library, day spa, gym, good shops and even an art gallery where you can choose works to be auctioned during the voyage, and (Yay again!) there are six passenger laundries, each with coin-operated washing and drying machines, and free irons.
On deck there are the usual bars, two large swimming pools, three smaller ones and several spa pools. The port side of the Promenade deck and of the main pool area are permitted smoking areas (there weren't many smokers). A more disagreeable smell was frequently evident on part of the Promenade deck on the starboard side (in the vicinity of the Princess Theatre and Wheelhouse Lounge); perhaps the ship's waste treatment plant is vented here somewhere. Up top, there are facilities for table tennis, deck games, an 8-hole mini-golf course, and a simulator where you can practise your swing on some of the World's top courses.
Cruise ship architects must leave the cabin decks until after lunch. It's hard to imagine anything as unimaginative as 85 or so dog-boxes along the outside of each passenger deck, served by two 240 meter-long dead straight corridors, but that's what they do. I took a photo of one but my camera seems to have spontaneously deleted it as being of no possible interest.
All of the side cabins seem to be the same width (about 2.7m) and have similar fittings. Inside cabins and outside cabins on Decks 14, 12, and 11 seem to be generally about 6m long, with another 1.2m or so of balcony. They include a bathroom with a shower, and small sitting area. Cabins on Deck 10 seem to be the same but have a deeper balcony (about 2.4m); cabins on Deck 9 (styled "mini-suites") have a larger bathroom with a bath (!), decent sized wardrobe, plus a generous sitting area which is directly underneath the balcony above, then a 2.4m deep balcony. As a consequence of this design, balconies on Deck 10 have limited privacy or protection from sun and rain; balconies on Deck 9 have none. How you end up with the least privacy and protection by paying the highest rate defeats me.
All cabins have an ensuite with toilet, basin and shower; there is also a TV, hair dryer, stocked fridge, phone and writing desk. Our bed at least, was very comfortable.
There are some larger suites at the front and stern; I'd be a bit wary of either because the front balconies would be very windy and the stern ones pretty noisy.
Dining on a Princess ship is a little different. There are the usual casual and a la carte (fixed seating) dining options, of course. "Horizons" is a casual buffet affair on Deck 14 where most people seem to go for breakfast and lunch, but it is open most of the time and does a passable dinner too. They serve plenty of hot and cold food, snacks, fruit and desserts. If you go for fixed seating you are allocated a table and a sitting in the a la carte "International" dining room, and get to sit with the same people at the same time for dinner for pretty much the whole cruise, as on most other ships.
Princess have something called "anytime dining" which is a convenient hybrid of the two. If you nominate this option you can choose to visit any of four a la carte dining rooms on the ship reserved for this, basically when it suits you (most are open for dinner only). You can still go to "Horizons" on Deck 14 if it suits you better. We nominated fixed seating when asked, because we didn't understand the anytime dining concept, however our table in the "International" was empty after a week when we all realised how convenient the "anytime" option was, and switched. This was possible because the ship wasn't full; if the idea appeals, get in when you book. Anytime diners can't use the International dining room at dinner time, and fixed seating diners can't use the Anytime dining rooms unless they book first. All five are a la carte and serve the same food; only the decor is different. A major benefit of this system is that there appears to be no end of cruise back slapping party.
The Anytime dining rooms on this ship are only dimly lit, so you need to get a table under a light if your vision isn't 20-20. They also have small steps in the floor around which the waiters hover, warning patrons not to break their necks in the gloom. The tables made for two are very close together and have a bench seat on one side, so forget about intimate dining.
If that isn't enough for you, the ship has two other dining rooms where you can book a table (at a US$20 per person premium), get a different menu, and get really fussed over. We tried both and they are worth the difference for a special occasion (and both have flat floors). Sabatini's has an Italian style and the signature dish is lobster; served on the shell before someone comes back and extracts all the meat for you. The Stirling Steakhouse is just that, and I have never had a better steak.
If that's too much or "Horizons" is too formal for you, there are pizza and burger counters near the main pool, which are open most of the time. You won't find a more miserly-topped pizza or a smaller burger anywhere. There is also a soft-serve ice-cream booth which serves popcorn on movie nights (all gratis).
Nobody goes hungry on this ship. The a la carte fare is very international, but the servings sometimes too small to be satisfying, so a top up in "Horizons" may be in order afterwards (where you can also see what you're eating). Being healthy eaters, we were disappointed to find a lot of the food too salty or too sweet for our taste, and had to lay in some provisions of our own whilst in port. If you like Australia's favorite breakfast cereal or natural meusli, hi-lo milk, strawberries or avocado, you'll be disappointed.
We only found one place where we could get freshly brewed coffee, it costs extra and we always had to compete with bar patrons for service and seating.
The ship's crew includes a lot of Phillipinos and Thai; their service was generally friendly and first rate as far as our experience went. The ship's officers were glimpsed occasionally in small packs, their habitat seemed to include the Sterling steakhouse. We had an Italian Captain for the first week of the cruise whose cheerful noon PA broadcasts we looked forward to; after his arrivederci's we had a dour Brit who was seen or heard less frequently.
There is a limited room service menu which is available 24/7 and is delivered free (a nominal delivery charge applies for pizza). You can have a romantic dinner served on your balcony but it costs an arm and a leg.
There is a daily 4-page newsletter which has an editorial by a particular officer on the front page and details of the days activities on the inside - the back is reserved for ship information, including opening times of dining rooms, the library, day spa etc. The TV has around 20 functional channels which feature activities, movies, port information, voyage progress, and international news channels including CNN, NBC, BBC and (wait for it) Australia TV! Unfortunately it is hard to find headline news amongst the commentary from any of these sources, and it would have been nice to know what was going on in the rest of the World.
Information was what was really lacking on this cruise. We passed other ships (including the original Princess "Love Boat") and islands without a clue what they were; the voyage TV channel was choked with extraneous information so that you frequently had to wait a couple of minutes just to find out the ship's position.
The ship has a staff of versatile entertainers, augmented by special guests who join the ship for only one or two appearances. There was a pretty good band, a small orchestra, a string quartet and a long haired Frenchman (?) who gave a plausible piano/vocal accompaniment to a computer. The old biddies loved that!
The entertainment appeared fairly well balanced, from singing/dancing shows to comedy and magic, but the movies were a bit disappointing. They are shown in the Princess Theatre, or on a big LED screen above the main pool "under the stars". This sounds very romantic but the weather has to be right, and we didn't find the deck chairs comfortable enough to go the distance. The screen incorporates a 64kW sound system which by one account is enough to light up a medium-sized city if the ship arrives after bed-time.
The daily schedule includes all the usual bingo, bridge, bowls, putting, table tennis and trivia tournaments, plus the occasional art auction and craft workshop. There is normally a movie, and games on deck and in the pools, weather permitting. If none of that appeals, there are talks which on our cruise featured an expert and well-published author on trans-Atlantic ship travel. These attracted a good following, but other "once-offs", by the Ship's 3rd Officer and by our Barrier Reef Pilot, were more relevant. There is supposed to be something called "Scholarship@sea" which is evidently a more serious learning programme, but we saw no evidence of it on this cruise.
The only thing that came close to a party was the visit of King Neptune and his lovely Queen Double-D, on the occasion of our crossing of the Equator, for the initiation into his Kingdom of those who had not previously done so. Neptune decreed that passenger pollywogs who unwittingly volunteered (and the aforesaid 3rd officer, who didn't) were required to "kiss the fish" and suffer annointment with copious amounts of cold spaghetti, jelly, raw eggs, chocolate sauce and various bits of fish and liver, followed by an unceremonious dunking in the pool, which was closed for the rest of the day.
Not all of the above is everyone's idea of entertainment. You always have the choice to read a book, watch the flying fish, or just soak up the sun and/or the passing view. If that sounds too boring, you don't need a holiday; you should probably stay at work.
Your food on board (except Sabatini's and the Stirling Steakhouse) and entertainment are covered by your fare, and tea/coffee (except barista coffee) is available free 24/7. You have to pay for just about everything else (in US$ using your "Cruise Card").
- Drinks are pricey by Australian standards; probably higher than you would expect to pay in a restaurant. Wine starts at around US$34 a bottle (+15% gratuity) for a fairly ordinary wine. We bought a couple of bottles in port and brought it aboard without challenge though; Princess' liquor policy seems to be reserved for those who would abuse it.
- The guest laundry costs US$2 for a washer or a dryer; this goes in the slot in the form of US quarters, which can be obtained from the services desk at cost.
- Internet access varies according to which plan you choose, from 55 cents/minute to 75 cents/minute. This is satellite based, so fairly slow; you pay the same rate whether you use one of their computers in the Internet cafe or your own on the ship's wireless network (which extends to cabins). We have the misfortune to rely on Telstra's wireless 4G network at home, so I brought my dongle along and was able to get good reception with that almost anywhere we could see Australia (much better than at home). If I'd succeeded in talking to a real person at Telstra/Bigpond before leaving, I might have been able to use it further afield, but who expects service from a telco these days?
- Items in the ship's shops were highly variable; some much cheaper than you would expect in Australia and some not cheap at all. There were the usual half day sales of specific goods (eg clothing, watches, costume jewellry) which were offered quite cheaply.
- If you have a flutter in the Casino the chips go on your Cruise Card but the pokies take cash. There were a couple of Blackjack tutorials and regular "Texas Hold'em" tournaments there, but no serious inducements to participate.
- Photographs which are taken of you will be offered for purchase at around US$20 per print.
- Shore excursions booked on the ship seem to range from about US$50 - US$200 per person (depending on the port); more if other activities (eg diving) are involved. More on these later.
Princess' tipping policy is on an "opt out" basis; unless you elect to do so you will be automatically charged US$12-14 per person per day for gratuities distributed entirely beyond your control. Gratuities of 15% are added to any drinks charges you may incur - these cannot be escaped.
If you have a few drinks, a few photographs, a shore excursion or two, visit the day spa or the signature dining rooms and follow Princess' tipping advice, it would be very easy to more than double the cost of your fare (depending on what you paid for that).
I put this in as a seperate item because I couldn't otherwise decide whether it fitted under Costs or Rip-offs.
Princess provide an excellent Ports Lecturer who gives illustrated talks on places to be visited, usually a couple of days before the port so that they can be screened on your TV the day before. These have lots of tips on things to see, do, eat, shop and watch out for, how to get around, and even where to worship or play golf (there is a difference, apparently). These talks are illustrated with maps and photos, but you come away with nothing other than a feeling of being simultaneously well informed and overloaded by choice.
The printed Port Information sheets which came to our cabin did neither, giving usually a potted history of the place, a list of attractions, and a map that frequently didn't show where they were. The maps never included any scale (which would have been nice for walkers) any public transport routes, shops or tourist bureaus, a few didn't even show the position of the ship or the shuttle bus drop-off points.
Princess clearly want everyone to go on their shore excursions, by making it as difficult as possible to DIY. They issue dire warnings about getting back to the ship on time, but the Princess Tour parties get priority in getting off, and frequently arrive back long after everyone else has been told they need to be back on board. One couple we met who got lost in Hong Kong on Friday afternoon, rang an emergency number provided for the ship's agents only to get a recorded message to the effect that the office would re-open on Monday morning!
The tours we went on all included visits to workshops of some sort where we could (supposedly) see stuff being made and "have the opportunity" to buy it. In one case this amounted to being followed all around the shop by a salesperson with a piece in which we had shown a passing interest - in the process it dropped from $1450 to $895 but we couldn't look at anything else, and eventually sought refuge in the toilets until the bus was ready to leave. Merchandise at these places was generally priced well above the souvenir/gift market level (diamond jewelry, cloisonne pottery and jade carvings) and not the sort of stuff you would buy in such a shop, let alone carry around with you overseas. Presumably Princess gets a commission.
We couldn't find out what was included in our post-cruise Princess tour or when any "free time" would be, until after the tour had started, so had no opportunity to see anything it didn't include that may have been on our "bucket list".
Of course you can't choose who you are going to be stuck with for the day on a bus tour. We had to put up with the usual "Oooh my Gaawds" from the Americans, an Australian who seemed to think everyone should be interested in his opinions on anything, a few who just sneezed and coughed their way around, and a couple who only seemed to get out of the bus to "light up".
Best advice is to avoid Princess tours if at all possible. Do your research before you leave, because it's too difficult, too expensive, and too late once you are on the ship (see also note under Health, Safety and Security).
Princess aren't fussy about how or where they relieve you of your money. There are some bad areas that we discovered:
- The Sanctuary
Excluding kids and charging others for the use of an area that on any other ship would be a popular gathering place for young and old, day and night, is discriminatory and indefensible. The fact that it is empty or almost empty most of the time renders the concept a waste of both space and money. The alternative Skywalkers Lounge was also reserved for loyalty customers on some occasions.
Shore tours cost from 50% to 100% more than it would cost to arrange the same thing yourself. This may sound like free enterprise, however the real rip-off is the way in which Princess promote these tours by discouraging the DIY option.
A tour of the ship is offered for US$150 per person; it doesn't include the Bridge or Engine Room. I can't think what else might be of interest for a fraction of that price.
- The Lotus Spa
Having decided to try services on offer we enquired about acupuncture treatment. The quote came back at US$150 per person per session, which seemed expensive to us but perhaps it's not. What amazed us was the disclaimer on the back of the form which had to be signed; basically offering nothing in the way of an outcome and accepting no responsibility whatever on the part of Princess or the practitioner for anything at all - this probably wouldn't be legal in a civilised country, but then this is a US ship. We declined, and never went near the spa again.
- Currency Exchange
Having decided that we would do our own thing in Nagasaki, and having been warned by our Port Lecturer that "sharks" could charge up to 20% commission on currency exchange, we confronted one of the ship's money exchange machines for some Yen. The rates on the screen didn't look too flash, but without much choice we put in 100 Australian dollars and received 6000 Yen and 11 US dollars change. On checking with Ozforex.co.au on return I found that the aussie dollar on that day (all week, actually) had been worth just over 85 Yen and just over US$1.07, so what I received was worth about $80.70 Australian, representing a 19.3% commission/fee. This is shameful, and really borders on a scam.
- Medical Services
These are not the sort of things you hope to need while you are away, but the expectation is that someone will give a stuff if things go wrong whilst you are in Princess' care. Well they do, but it costs plenty. Half-way into the cruise, Rita was unfortunate to loose her footing on a wet, slippery deck and was unable to grip a large, wet, slippery handrail which was within easy reach. As a result she fell to the deck, earning the Bruise of the Cruise in a tender place and injuring the hand with which she had tried to break her fall.
The bill for subsequent consultation, x-ray, plastering up of the hand and painkillers came to US$577. An injection for seasickness (which had prevented her from keeping the pain killers down) was administered in the cabin later by a nurse, for which we were charged US$105 including a consultation. Two days later the plaster came off and was replaced a supportive glove - US$63. That was a size too big and made the thumb go numb, so it was dispensed with two days later. Now we didn't expect the Captain to come rushing down to the cabin with a bunch of flowers, but we may have expected more than a phone message recorded by Customer Services and a visit from Security, who wanted to dot the "i's" on the Incident Report.
By the end of the cruise the thumb was still numb and a localised swelling remained around the injury site. At a final consultation (US$40) we asked for the x-rays and copies of the medical and incident reports to take with us, only to be told that we could have a copy of the x-rays for US$30 and a (sanitised) Medical Referral Report for US$90; we declined both as no-one seemed to know if anything was broken anyway. A copy of the Incident Report was provided free (after two further requests).
Health, Safety and Security
Princess don't seem to be greatly concerned with health issues; the health police were always present with the alcohol gel at "Horizons", but it wasn't offered at any of the other seven dining rooms. The crew seemed to spend more of their time varnishing the handrails outside than wiping the ones inside, in fact they helpfully varnished the entire length of the Promenade deck handrail whilst we were in port (Busan) so that it was nice and wet when people approached it to view the farewell performance on the wharf (duh!).
There was a safety induction video screening on the cabin TV when we embarked, dealing with procedures for fire, man overboard etc, and everyone had to report to Muster Stations with lifejackets in hand before departure. We were shown how to put these on but no-one showed us to our lifeboat stations or told us what to do if we couldn't get to our allocated muster station, nor did the drill appear to be repeated for the benefit of 150 or so passengers who we were told joined the ship in Hong Kong. The crew had a couple of safety drills whilst we were in port. Rough weather prompted closure of some of the more exposed decks, and there were warnings about ice on the decks when the weather got cold late in the cruise. The exposed decks themselves were a mixture of wooden decking, carpet, and fake decking that may have been a type of linoleum; the latter was very slippery when wet as we had found to our cost. Decking on the balconies was of perforated plastic tiles; serviceable but uncomfortable under bare feet.
Security was unobtrusive to the point that you wondered if it was there. Although there are a lot of CCTV cameras around the ship, the security staff were only visible during embarkation and disembarkation; your mug shot was linked to a cruise card scanner which enabled comparison whenever you left or re-boarded the ship. Hand luggage was x-rayed on boarding, and you went through a metal detector as you would at any airport.
err, well, not quite...
When you get home you get an email from Princess saying that they value your opinion and would you mind completing a "short survey". This involves a series of statements on their services which you have to score on a scale of "strongly disagree" to "strongly agree" or somesuch. If you score in the lower part of the scale you are asked for details (they're not interested in why you think anything is done well). The survey took me two hours and I haven't heard back yet...
|If I've got something wrong or anything has changed since February 2012 please let me know; I'm not particularly fussed if you disagree with the opinions expressed, but would like the facts to be straight. Hopefully you can spot the difference.|