At last, time for the post you’ve all been waiting for – a review of the cruise that inspired our European vacation. Our Istanbul to Rome, Eastern Mediterranean cruise was actually the fourth leg of our ship’s, the Emerald Princess, voyage through the Mediterranean, as she had sailed from Barcelona to Rome, Rome to Athens, and Athens to Istanbul before picking up her new contingent of passengers in Turkey. You actually can combine two or more segments into a “Grand Mediterranean” cruise of sorts, and in fact, we met several passengers that were doing just that. We would just be doing a traditional, single-segment cruise and getting off in Rome, however.
As with my previous cruise reviews, this one will be heavy on photos, so I’d recommend a hearty internet connection for best viewing. I will not be reviewing our ports of call in this post, as those will covered by separate, future posts in this trip report series.. This would be my 7th cruise, and my wife’s 4th.
Cruise Dates: Saturday, June 27, 2015 to Saturday, July 4, 2015
Background on Princess Cruises
Princess, owned by Carnival Corp., is a mass-market cruise line, but one that targets a somewhat more upscale clientele than Royal Caribbean (RCCL), Norwegian (NCL), or Carnival. Its closest direct competitors are Celebrity Cruises and Holland America Line, though it is a step down from Carnival Corp.’s other upscale offering, Cunard. Princess’ target demographic falls somewhere between Carnival/NCL/RCCL and Celebrity/Holland America. I wouldn’t call Princess family unfriendly, but if you’re traveling with small children, NCL and Disney are definitey superior in that regard. As far as activities go, Princess is definitely more sedate than RCCL; you won’t find things like the artificial rock wall or surf simulator on board, though your standard shipboard goodies (multiple pools, hot tubs, fitness center, spa, sports deck, etc.) are available.
The Ship, Embarkation, and Our Stateroom
The Emerald Princess is a relatively new ship, having been launched in 2007, with its last major overhaul in December, 2012. She is a “midsize” ship in today’s cruise industry parlance, with a capacity of 3,092 passengers and containing 15 public decks. Most of the ship is fairly easy to navigate, but as is common with ships of the Emerald’s vintage, some of the public areas and dining rooms at the forward and aft ends of the ship can only be accessed by specific stairways or elevators.
As usual, we arrived in Istanbul the day before the ship was scheduled to depart, and enjoyed a combo guided/on-our-own walking tour of the Old City, a relaxing dinner in Sultanahmet, and straddling Europe and Asia on a cruise of the Bosphorous. Princess provides staggered check-in times for guests based on the deck you’re assigned to. Our assigned check-in time was 2-2:30 P.M. We received a rather ominous-sounding e-mail from Princess about a week before leaving home warning that significant delays were likely at Turkish immigration before boarding the ship, suggesting that the process may take an hour and a half or more. So, we all braced ourselves for the worst – only to show up at the pier, with no lines to be found anywhere! What I expected to be a terrible embarkation process was actually one of the easiest. We were on the ship and on the way to the buffet in less than half an hour. Personally, I’d much rather brace myself for a bad experience and end up with a great one than the other way around, so so far, so good. I certainly prefer the over-cautious approach here to what we experienced on a Celebrity cruise back in 2012, when we were generically told that boarding might be delayed, only to have my parents have to stand out in the hot Florida sun for nearly two hours.
Our stateroom was on Deck 9, the “Dolphin Deck”, towards the forward end of the ship on the starboard (right) side, and very close to the aft elevators and stairs. Our room category was “Mini-Suite with Balcony”, a larger stateroom with approximately 323 square feet of space, a separate living area, shower/tub combo in the bathroom, and of course, a 57-square foot balcony to enjoy the sea and watch the world go by. The room also features two TVs – one to watch from the bed, one from the sofa.
View from the living area towards the bedroom
View from the bedroom towards the living area
The ever wonderful balcony
Bathroom with tub/shower, and a toilet photo just for Brad
This is a spacious stateroom by cruise ship standards, and there is a good deal of storage space throughout the stateroom. The open cabinets underneath the TV came in extra handy as we started picking up junk at the ports along the way. And of course, I highly recommend upgauging to a room with a balcony if you take a cruise. Not only is being able to sit outside and get some fresh air and sun while listening to the ocean awesome, it also affords a place to dry your clothes if you get them wet at the pool or the beach.
Our itinerary snaked its way from Istanbul to Rome like so:
Not a great outline, but our route would take us through the Sea of Marmara, through the Dardanelle Straits, down the Aegean Sea to Mykonos, across the Aegean and then the Mediterranean to Valletta (Malta) and Messina (Sicily), and then finally up the Tyrrhenian Sea coast to Naples and Rome. Four countries, seven days.
I thought this was a great itinerary. On the first day of the cruise, the ship takes a scenic sailing of the Dardanelle Straits, providing vistas of both Europe and Asia while you catch glimpses of historical sites ranging from the Roman Empire to World War II.Mykonos and Malta are small enough that even with only a day to visit, you can see a lot of what both places have to offer. Messina is a short drive to the wonderful medieval village of Taormina, and though you won’t have much time there, you can enjoy a road trip up the winding narrow roads to Mount Etna. Naples itself isn’t much, but the ruins of both Herculaneum and Pompeii are close by, allowing for plenty of time to see one or the other.
Virtual Tour of the Ship
For ease of navigation, I’ve set up this virtual tour of the Emerald Princess to start at the bottom of the ship and work up from there. You typically enter the ship on Deck 4 or Deck 5, depending on high or low tide; however, there are no public areas on Deck 4, aside from the on-board medical clinic. Deck 5 (Plaza Deck) is where the action really begins, so I’ll start there.
If you’ve chosen traditional, fixed timing dining (more on how that works later), you’ll head down nightly to Deck 5 for dinner at the Michaelangelo Dining Room, in the ship’s aft. The dining room is quite similar to what you’ll find on other mass-market cruise lines – a large dining room, with tables for parties of various sizes, and an Italian theme throughout. I did like the imitation stars up on the ceiling. Honestly, the Italian theme gets old after you’ve had a few cruises under your belt, but given that this cruise was actually heading to Italy, it felt appropriate.
Also on deck 5 are the Internet Cafe, a coffee bar serving espresso drinks and pastries (extra charge for the coffee if you don’t buy a coffee card), The Vines wine bar/lounge, and future cruise sales, and the Princess Fine Arts Gallery, where you can buy (mostly overpriced) items of modern art if that’s your thing.
Sample piece in the art gallery
Vines wine bar and lounge
The most impressive feature on Deck 5, though, is the multi-level Piazza atrium with its spiral staircases, which is fully visible from top to bottom here. All ships have something similar, and it’s probably my favorite public area on every one I’ve been on, but the Piazza was even more dramatic on this cruise, with commemorative decorations marking the 50th anniversary of Princess Cruises (it began operations in 1965). A piano player and/or singers periodically play live music here, usually in the evenings.
Full view of the Piazza from the front
View from the back showing spiral staircases
Walking up one of the staircases
Deck 6 (Fiesta Deck) contains two dining rooms for guests opting for “Anytime” dining, DaVinci and Botticelli; I haven’t included photos from either, as they are basically identical to Michaelangelo. The remainder of Deck 6 contains the ship’s shopping area, guest services, the casino, and the main entrance to the Princess Theater (additional seating is available in the upper level, on Deck 7). My apologies for the dearth of photos from this deck; I apparently didn’t have any of eithe the casino or theater that came out.
Guest services desk
Deck 7, the Promenade Deck, is what I like to call “Lounge Central”. Aside from the upper level of the Princess Theater, the “Crown Grill” specialty restaurant, and the Photo Gallery where you can buy both cheesy and formal cruise photos, you’ll find your most popular bars and lounges here – the Wheelhouse Bar, Crooner’s Bar and Lounge, and the Explorers Lounge. Deck 7 is also home to the ship’s nightclub, Club Fusion. During the day, the lounges also host activities like trivia contests and card tournaments.
The Explorers Lounge
Decks 8-12 are exclusively for staterooms, so the remainder of the ship’s public areas are on the open, upper decks. Since many of these amenities span multiple decks, I’ll cover the important ones in no particular order. The ship’s crown jewel can be found on Deck 15, the Lido Deck – the main pool, the Neptune Pool, surrounded by the open air movie theater. There are also two hot tubs at the pool, and a poolside grill that you can’t see in these photos. (No wisecracks about how Lido missed the boat, please.)
Wide view of the Neptune Pool and the open theater
View towards the back of the pool
Main pool bar
My nephews Taylor and Ravi horsing around with a stuffed dolphin at the front of the pool area
Princess broadcasts movies on the big screen daily, or twice daily on sea days. This is probably the best feature aboard Princess ships; watching a movie out in the open with the seabreeze is a really cool thing.
Behind the Neptune Pool is a second pool, the Calypso Pool. It is slightly smaller than the Neptune Pool, and doesn’t have a view of the big screen. But it is also next door to the buffet, making it an easier walk to grab a bite to eat if you’re feeling lazy. There are also two hot tubs at this pool.
Speaking of buffet, as mentioned, it’s right behind the pool, at the aft end of the Lido Deck. Note that if you look at the ship’s deck plan, it looks like there are two restaurants taking up the aft of the deck, Horizon Court and Cafe Caribe. However, it’s all one single seating area, something a lot of patrons didn’t seem to figure out. If you walk in and can’t find a table in the front section of the Horizon Court, just walk back to Cafe Caribe, and you’ll find plenty of seats. There are also a handful of tables on both sides of the Calypso Pool, but those tend to go quickly.
Sample buffet line
Outdoor seating area
There is actually a third pool, one deck down – the Terrace Pool. It’s small, but if you’re in the mood for a view of the ship’s wake while relaxing in the water, this is the place for you.
The busy pool area
Terrace pool from upstairs, with the great view of the ship’s wake
The upper decks also contain a variety of sports areas – table tennis courts, a basketball court, and a pretty lame putting green. Royal Caribbean does the golf-at-sea thing a lot better; many of their larger ships have full-on miniature golf courses. There is also a measured jogging/walking track up on Deck 19 (Star Deck), but truth be told, the outdoor path on the Promenade Deck is better. That track runs all the way around the ship – 3 times around equals a mile – and you can enjoy open views to the front, back, and sides.
Table tennis courts
Breakfast and lunch are on your own schedule – the Horizon Court/Cafe Caribe is open for both, along with one of the main dining rooms – but for dinner, you have a choice of two options. You can choose a traditional fixed seating, with a fixed time of 5:30, 6:00, or 8:00 each night, along with the same table/table mates. Otherwise, you can opt for “anytime” dining, in which case you can go down any time during regular dining hours (5:30-10:00). You aren’t guaranteed a particular time or table, though you can call early in the day to reserve a time. Or you can always head up to the buffet or order room service. Out of our party of 11, nine of us chose the 8:00 fixed seating, so we had a table to ourselves.
I was a little disappointed with the dining on this cruise. Not the service per se – the waitstaff provided excellent service as we’ve come to expect – but the food quality was not as good as on our last Princess cruise to Alaska in 2013. Inconsistency in the main dining room is the issue here. Some dishes were excellent, such as a pasta carbonara with sundried tomatoes, while others were mediocre, such as an overcooked prime rib. The story overall was that the pasta dishes were generally very good, but several of the meat and poultry dishes were dry and/or overcooked. The buffet was pretty much as expected. Average food overall, but it gets the job done when you’re just trying to get something in a hurry, or don’t feel like sitting down for a long meal. They do keep a couple of Indian dishes on the line at lunch and dinner if that strikes your fancy. I did miss the “make your own sandwich” bar that I thoroughly enjoyed on my last Royal Caribbean cruise.
A sampling of the dishes we enjoyed:
Hot & sour soup – pretty good though not terribly spicy
Excellent pasta carbonara with sundried tomato
A sadly hammered prime rib
A simple yet tasty ice cream sundae
Another very good pasta dish, a small portion of eggplant parmagiana
The Emerald Princess also has a “buy-up” option, the Crown Grill, for a surcharge of $20 per person, I believe. We didn’t try it, so I can’t comment on the quality. The coffee bar makes decent espresso drinks, if a little on the weak side; ask for a double shot and you’ll get a good drink. Princess also offers a reasonably good deal on “soda cards”, which can be purchased for roughly $56/person for the 7-day cruise and include not only sodas, but mocktails, shakes and malts at the poolside grill, and fruit juices. Given that mocktails are normally $4-5 a pop, the card is actually a decent deal at $8 a day. In addition, while I think there’s technically a rule against one person sharing a card to buy sodas for multiple people, this wasn’t enforced by the waitstaff on this cruise. They would bring drinks for both my wife and I without issues. Your mileage may vary. Speaking of the poolside grill, they do make a good hamburger, which can also be ordered in the main dining room at lunchtime.
Activities and Service
We attended a couple of the “enrichment” seminars, specifically about the history and culture of the ports we would be visiting. While not bad, I was surprised that the ship didn’t have an on-board location expert/naturalist like on our past cruises to Alaska and the Panama Canal. Given the rich history of the ports we’d be visiting in the Mediterranean, this would have added a lot to the cruise, I would think. My brother and I also attended a wine tasting, which was lame and definitely not worth the $25 charge. Mediocre wines, and the same corny jokes I’ve heard on my last two cruise wine tastings. Similar to other mass market cruises, a variety of shows are offered in the Princess Theatre in the evenings, ranging from musical revues to comedy shows. Somehow, though, we managed to make it through the whole cruise without seeing a single one. Just lost track of time, I guess. Unlike our last Princess cruise to Alaska, we didn’t see the obnoxious hard sell for port shopping at “preferred” vendors, which was a pleasant surprise.
I won’t talk about shore excursions, as I’ll cover those in my trip reports, but overall, I thought the Princess-operated tours were fine, as long as you know what to expect. You’re going to be in a large group, you’ll cover a lot of ground, and you won’t have a lot of time at your stops. But you’ll get a consistent experience, and the ship will wait for you if the tour is running late. If you want something more personalized, though, book a private tour, or try your hand at negotiating a cab for the day in port.
I’ve generally been very impressed with the service on Princess cruises, and this cruise was no exception. Our waiters at dinner were superb, and most everyone else we encountered, from front desk staff to our room steward, were friendly and helpful. I was bummed out that our steward didn’t make us any of those cute towel animals, though. A couple of the bar staff were a bit dour – not that they were rude, but they weren’t exactly welcoming, either.
If you’ve ever cruised to Rome, you’ll know that the cruise port is actually in Civitavecchia, approximately 45 miles north of Fiumicino Airport (FCO) and 60 miles northeast of Rome itself. I guess to err on the side of caution, Princess assigned us a debarkation time of 6:45 A.M. for our 11:45 A.M. flight to London, and does not recommend booking any flights out of Rome until after 11 A.M. That had me bracing for a mess at customs and a long drive to the airport. But we were on our bus on our way to the airport by 7, and reached the airport by 8 – meaning we had to sit around on the floor for 45 minutes, as the British Airways counter didn’t even open until 3 hours before flight time. Annoying, but I guess it’s a testament to how efficient Princess has made the disembarkation process. Beware that our travel time to the airport was likely atypical; this was a Saturday morning, and I would expect a longer drive on a weekday.
Good cruise overall. The itinerary was great, and service standards at Princess still seem to be good. We had no issues with anything, the cabin crew were friendly and helpful, and they were proactive (if a bit overly cautious) about alerting us to possible delays on embarkation and disembarkation. Food standards seem to have slipped a little, though it was encouraging to see that the prices for “extras” like soda cards have come down a little (or, at least, they’re including more goodies). Princess is probably my favorite cruise line at the moment, and I’d recommend them to anyone thinking of taking a floating vacation.
Note: this post is part of my multi-part trip report series about my wife and I’s trip to Europe in June/July, 2015. Read the trip report introduction for an index and background about our trip.