We recently took a week-long cruise aboard one of Princess Cruises two Asian-built Grand-class cruise ships, Sapphire Princess, as it’s just come across to the UK where it will be based for a while. As some people who read this might know our very first cruise was on Sapphire’s sister ship Diamond Princess back in 2008 (you can see photos and reviews of the ship and ports we visited here) and later this year we’ll be revisiting that ship to redo part of our honeymoon cruise for our tenth wedding anniversary; with Sapphire being based out of Southampton (and therefore very close to us) we thought we’d take the opportunity to jump aboard for a short cruise because we still had a small amount of holiday allowance for the year to eat up.
NOTE: this brief review just contains a few photos taken on my phone and will precede more in-depth port stops and excursions, ship explorations, and detailed information with many (many) photos regarding Sapphire Princess and our particular itinerary covering France and Spain that will appear in the site’s portfolio section over the coming weeks (and months at the rate I process things).
Overall, we loved this cruise on Sapphire Princess but it wasn’t without its problems. The issues I highlight here may seem minor but the effect was cumulative over the short time onboard the cruise ship and just took the shine off everything.
A few details to start:
- It was a seven-night roundtrip cruise from Southampton with four port stops.
- We paid £779 per person for a balcony cabin on Caribe deck (if you’re familiar with Princess’s Grand-class ships then you might know that these balconies are typically twice the size of normal ones and are half-covered).
- We had £50 per person onboard credit because we’d used a Future Cruise Deposit from a previous cruise (always worth picking up when you’re cruising with Princess).
- The original itinerary was Guernsey, Le Verdon (France), Bilbao (Spain), A Coruña (Spain).
- We drove and used Penguin Parking which is our preferred car parking arrangement when we’re cruising with Princess (we use CPS for P&O).
Dropping off our car and getting taken over to the terminal was a breeze. Dropped off our luggage and entered the terminal. Technically, this part didn’t go as smoothly as it should have as we were handed numbered cards and told to wait despite having priority boarding passes. After a couple of minutes I queried this and we were allowed through as we’d expected. The person checking hadn’t paid attention to the ticket well enough but this was a minor thing and she was probably a port employee rather than a Princess Cruises one.
Disembarkation was similarly simple and all of our port stops went smoothly, without much delay at all.
We know what to expect from a stateroom on a Princess ship and this was mostly as we’d anticipated. We knew the beds would be the new luxury ones and they were; they were certainly comfortable although I couldn’t say just how much of an improvement it really made to sleeping as I find it very easy to sleep on a ship anyway, especially when there’s a bit of movement from the sea. And when I’ve been drinking.
We hadn’t expected the TV to be replaced – on the Crown Princess last year we still had the small, corner-mounted TV – so it was a pleasant surprise to discover a large, wall-mounted screen opposite the bed. Far easier to watch a movie together (and we did one night) and it freed up some extra storage space (for souvenirs as it turned out) as well as made getting access to the additional plug sockets simpler.
The condition of the room and bathroom, and the size and condition of the balcony were all as we’d hoped. I know some people grumble about shower curtains rather than glass doors but that makes no difference to us. A tiny point was that the shower screamed when you used it but it was otherwise fine and we just don’t spend the amount of time under a shower that makes constant screaming something to worry about. On the bumpiest of the nights at sea there was a knocking from one of the mirrors in the cabin but it’s a ship, it’s at sea, and sometimes things knock. It wasn’t enough to keep us awake.
We’d heard this might have been the case and were so pleased to discover it was when we got on board: you no longer need to take your lifebelts to the safety muster. So much better. So much shorter. Also: definitely worth watching the general safety video on your TV in your stateroom as the safety information to the theme of the Love Boat is actually pretty entertaining and includes some star appearances too.
Getting on to some of the locations around the Sapphire Princess…
OKAY: Dining Rooms
The dining rooms on Sapphire Princess and Diamond Princess are a little different to those on other ships in the Princess fleet in that the main ones are split in half to form four venues. This is all fine and it does reduce queues at the dining room doors for Any Time diners (which we always do if we can) as there are more entry points. However, when a venue can’t sit you it’s then recommended that you head off and try one of the other rooms. You end up walking about a bit more. As does everyone else. Not really a big deal but we found that one room was never able to sit us for the entire week.
I have to now say that the food was superb. By far, the food quality was the best we’ve ever had on any Princess ship (or any ship for that matter). In fact, through a combination of great food in the main dining rooms and the compactness of the week’s cruise we decided not to make use of any up-charge specialty dining options while on Sapphire.
My biggest small criticism of the dining room experience, though, was that service was a little slow at times. For the most part we could see that the waiters were thundering around as fast as they could so there are no complaints directed towards them in that respect. There was just this nagging feeling that they may have been understaffed by a couple of people here and there and everyone was trying to compensate right at the limits of what they were capable of.
HIT: Alfredo’s Pizzeria
Bottom of the piazza and some superb, free, freshly-made pizza. Not a lot else to say about this other than the pizza was gorgeous and the wine we chose to accompany our view out the window at the sea was excellent too. A definite place to visit.
We love the idea of Vines – it’s a place that specialise in wines right next to the pizzeria – but we’ve had mediocre experiences on Princess cruise ships in the past because the red wines they’ve had available were a little on the thin side and lacking variety. This definitely seemed to have improved a lot on Sapphire with a bigger range of wines (they actually had Malbec finally!) and we had some excellent chats with the one-and-only person we ever saw working there, Ronnie, which included an impromptu wine-tasting to find the heaviest he had on offer (I’d tell you but then you wouldn’t have an excuse to have your own wine-tasting event). Like the dining room experience it seemed Ronnie was occasionally trying to do too much for one person and there were some quite lengthy delays as he went hunting wines or getting clean glasses but, overall, a hit and a location we visited on several occasions.
MISS: Wake View Bar
We have fond memories of this little location down a set of spiral steps in Club Fusion at the aft of the ship on Diamond Princess and we knew Sapphire Princess shared the same design. Sadly, if it was ever used or promoted we didn’t see it despite several visits during the cruise. We sat there on one occasion when we just had enough light from the portholes to read but it was otherwise dead in our experience.
OKAY: Movies Under The Stars
Prior to this cruise we’d only ever watched one movie on the big screen on a Princess ship and that was The Boss Baby (don’t judge us) during the day. We’d not seen Black Panther so when we saw it listed we decided to try the full movie at night experience Princess is famous for. We enjoyed the movie so why is this only rated “Okay” then? We thought there was popcorn handed out by staff but there was no popcorn. Nor, for that matter, any staff. Huddled under two layers of blankets (it was a smidge absolutely freezing) us and four other people made it through the movie without seeing another soul on deck. There was also a bit of buzzing from the sound by the screen but that was only noticeable at brief periods. We might have been misinformed about the popcorn and will look out for another chance to try this feature at some future point, though.
I’m torn between a HIT and a MISS here. On the one hand, it’s one of our favourite locations and somewhere we visit every evening on a Princess ship (well, those that have Skywalkers, that is) almost without fail; music, dancing, drinking… we like these things. And we also had some entertaining chats with the DJ (DJ JT for this cruise) which is becoming a bit of a tradition.
It was so quiet there, though, and it’s easy to identify exactly what the problem was: the removal of BOGO looks like it might just kill off Skywalkers. We talked to someone on the ship who said the same thing. Because it’s out of the way with its glorious views of the horizon at the back of the ship you need to either know that the club is there or have a big promotion of some sort in the Princess Patter. In the past that promotion was simple: cheap drinks from 22:00 to 23:00. On this cruise I don’t think we ever saw more than two dozen people at any one time in Skywalkers with perhaps 8 being the most we ever saw on the dancefloor together.
On the plus side we got to make requests without any fear of rejection and ended up dancing to Rob Zombie (second cruise in a row for us), Rob Base and DJ EZ Rock, and Sugarhill Gang. Still, I really, really hope Princess sort out something to encourage more use of Skywalkers as there was a genuine fear for its future during this cruise on Sapphire.
The other locations on the ship were either not used (Sabatini’s, Steakhouse, Casino) or were no different than any other cruise on a Princess ship (Art Gallery, Explorers, Wheelhouse Bar, Club Fusion, Piazza, Pools, Buffet) so you can read any of the other reviews from the cruise portfolio links on this site for them.
One thing to quickly mention here is that we won the last trivia game of the cruise which continues our streak of always winning at least one on every Princess Cruises ship. For the first couple of days we teamed up with another couple to no success but quite a bit of hearsay from them regarding just how many people were grumbling about the trivia in general. The problem stemmed from the lack of variety of quiz questions being asked and the fact that some people had been on Sapphire Princess for almost 50 days on its repositioning cruise from Asia to Europe; as a result people noticed very quickly that those passengers who had been on the ship for a while and who strangely sat at the back for all trivia games were getting ridiculously high (near perfect) scores. We even noticed ourselves on one quiz where a man who’d been on for several weeks was almost handing his answer in before the question was completed. Hmmmm.
Anyway, we won the last one (and on a tie-breaker) so that’s all that matters there.
HIT: Culinary Show
We attended a culinary demonstration as it included a walk through the ship’s galley afterwards and we’d never done that before. That was good, but the star performance came from Ottavio Bellesi, the head chef, during the show itself. Very funny indeed, lots of little asides, some catty comments; like Bruno Tonioli in a chef’s outfit. The only criticism of the show was that the overhead cameras that projected what was being cooked or prepared onto the large screens in the theatre were often unable to see a thing because of the chefs’ hats.
Now, by and large the service was great. 95% of the time we were served quickly and with a smile. But… on every single day without fail we had cause to sigh in frustration at something. It might have been just one little thing but day after day it happened. This is not an exhaustive list:
- Remembering how quiet Skywalkers was, it took 20 minutes to get served one evening. After we had our drinks three other couples entered the club and sat down near us. They looked at menus. They put them down and got their cruise cards out ready. Time passed. They were looking around, shrugging their shoulder, shaking their heads. I went around to the bar and suggested to the head steward that he might want to consider directing some staff to our area rather than have them all congregate out of sight as there were some upset-looking people there.
- Whilst generally excellent in the Wheelhouse Bar we had the wrong drink brought to us on one occasion.
- At dinner one evening we were on a table for two alongside three other 2-seater tables, all occupied. The wrong main course was brought out for both us and one other couple next to us.
- I had to head off in search of another member of staff to find Ronnie in Vines on one evening as he had disappeared for ten minutes and nobody could get a drink; he had run out of glasses and there was nobody else to sort this out, apparently.
- We sat down at a recently-vacated table in Explorers that had a single napkin on it. This is the sign for “we don’t want a drink” in case you don’t know so we removed it as, unlike the previous occupants, we did. After a minute a steward walked over to our table and dropped a single napkin on it then walked off before we could say anything so we didn’t end up getting anything there.
- Again in Explorers on another evening a steward made her way down the pairs of seats… and then skipped us over completely. I asked my wife if we were invisible.
- Once you reach Platinum level loyalty with Princess you get invited to a short event where the Captain and senior staff thank you for coming back, you can have your photo taken with the Captain, and you get to see who has cruised on the ship the longest. Most people are not interested in any of that. However, you do have the chance to win a bottle of champagne for attending, and – most importantly – there are free nibbles and drink. Almost everyone attends for the free drink and I know we did. We sat down. The waiters came around and served the people to the left, then vanished to refill trays. Then the waiters came around and served the people to the right, then vanished to refill trays. At this point, although we’d been there a while, this wasn’t a problem; waiters were being directed to sections where people hadn’t been served and we figured we would be next. But we weren’t. They all disappeared and hit another section of Club Fusion. Then, after about ten minutes they came back to our area and started taking away glasses and even getting more drinks for people who’d already been served. We were missed out two more times as the staff wandered around until our obviously quite-pissed-off-looking faces attracted the attention of somebody.
There were a few more instances like this and, as I’ve said, these aren’t huge issues. They do point at some lack of attention and perhaps lack of numbers of staff on occasion. It was just so disappointing that we couldn’t seem to get through a day without incident.
I’ll finish this review of the Sapphire Princess cruise with a quick overview of the ports we stopped at and experiences there. Check back on this site periodically and you’ll find all the detailed descriptions of each location along with the many photos I took should appear.
This was our first time visiting each of these locations.
We didn’t book an excursion here because you never can be sure you’ll get into St Peter Port due to the need for tender boats and frequent rough sea and strong wind conditions. We got in with no problem and were able to simply walk to the tender boat ticket location, pick up a ticket, walk down to the tender boat area, and walk straight onto the boat with possibly a whole minute’s worth of queueing. Ten minutes sees you on land. We went for a walk along the coastal, clifftop path that heads towards Fermain Bay. On the way we passed through the Bluebell Woods and descended the Ozanne Steps to the sea. At this point my wife aggravated an old injury in her foot so we made our way back at slower pace, stopping at Clarence Battery, visiting the Guernsey Aquarium (inside a tunnel used in World War II), visiting a museum (similarly), and visiting Castle Cornet. A few pints of local ales and ciders rounded off a very enjoyable day on the island.
We were not supposed to dock here but on boarding we had a letter in our room explaining that the French – brace yourself – would be on strike in Le Verdon so other arrangements were being made. This was the second time we’d tried to cruise to France and the second time strikes had scuppered our plans. Our cognac-tasting excursion (that we’d really been looking forward to) was cancelled so we decided to just get the free shuttle bus into La Rochelle which was the alternate port. What a lovely, lovely place La Rochelle is! We bought tickets and climbed the two of three towers that were open along the city walls (we’re always climbing up things), took a walk through a large area of parkland, visited the aquarium, and were planning to grab some drinks in one of the popular bars we’d passed until I spotted some distant street art. That led to the discovery of Belle du Gabut, a small area containing art, yoga huts, massage areas, food stalls, bars, and space for music. Talking to the woman at the bar I discovered the place is present in La Rochelle from May to September and this was its second year. The local amber ale was wonderful. We loved this little discovery.
Wanting to make sure we visited the Guggenheim Museum and not being familiar with distances involved we had an excursion to take a walking tour of the old town followed by a museum visit. Whilst we enjoyed what we saw and what we heard (our guide really knew her stuff) the excursion didn’t really suit us and needed some tweaking. The first problem was that there was a toilet stop before our walking tour. It hadn’t even been that long since we got off the cruise ship but this ate up twenty minutes of our time while we waited for members of our group to finish. The tour of the old town involved jumping out of the way of trucks which are apparently allowed down the otherwise pedestrianised area until 11:00. That was approximately when our walking tour finished so that wasn’t the greatest bit of scheduling. We had twenty minutes of free time (should have been more but those toilet people, eh?) to explore on our own so had a quick wander and some photos before getting back on the coach as it wasn’t enough to do anything else. We then had to wait another ten minutes because two women were late back. Would it shock you to know they were the same women we waited for at the toilet stop? Probably not. Subsequently, we didn’t have anywhere near enough time in the museum itself. On the plus side, at least we knew it was a modern art place; this apparently came as a shock to some of our group. Guggenheim itself: very nice. Just wish we’d had more time there.
Our final stop in Spain saw us take a Princess coach excursion to Santiago de Compostela. The architecture and history appealed to us. On the way we had loads of great information about the region from our guide. Our time (about four and a half hours) in the city of religious significance was our own and we visited the cathedral (free unless you want to see some of the exhibitions or venture onto the roof (we didn’t this time)) then made our way to Museo do Pobo Galego (some pictures on Facebook here) mostly because we’d seen some photos of a staircase there. It was actually a really lovely place inside and out; dedicated to the Galician area, language, and culture, very cheap entry, definitely worth a visit. We finished our visit to the city with a visit to a bar where a white bean and chorizo soup was served with the beers we ordered. All very lovely; absolute chaos trying to actually get someone to take my money for the drinks but still wonderful. Prices in Santiago de Compostela everywhere (museum, bar, souvenir shops) were stupidly low. It’s probably the least “probably ripped off because we’re tourists” I’ve ever felt in a place.
The places we visited on our Sapphire Princess cruise were wonderful although we’d have liked more time in Bilbao. The ship itself was in good condition and we mostly enjoyed our week at sea on her. Some niggling service problems weren’t enough to warrant too much of a concern because we’d like to think they will be sorted out, these things sometimes happen, and it’s mostly just dumb luck that they all happened to us. I think our main problem was that a week is not enough time on a cruise ship for us – we do like the fortnight cruises – and being UK-based and that short meant the overwhelming majority of passengers were British. Horrible as this may be to say, but we just prefer to cruise with a more international crowd; it’s more interesting for us to experience that kind of cultural diversity. All of which means we are really, really, really looking forward to Diamond Princess in Asia later in the year.