If you’re a regular reader of this site that probably narrows you down to one of two or three people and you’ll know this already but for any first-timers it’s worth giving a quick warning that this post might be a smidge on the long side. What can I say? I like to take photos when we’re travelling and I’ve been known to write a bit too. There’s a decidedly more compact (for me) overview of this particular cruise here – Sapphire Princess Cruise: Hits And Misses – but this post will concentrate more on the Sapphire Princess itself and provide an easy jumping-off point to the ports that we visited on this week-long roundtrip cruise from Southampton stopping at Guernsey, France, and Spain.
We knew roughly what we were going to be getting as we’re old hands at cruising with Princess Cruises these days but this was to be our first time on Sapphire Princess and there was a special reason we were looking forward to it. Our very first cruise was our honeymoon, it was to the Far East, and it was on Diamond Princess (view the cruise posts here: Cruise: Far East 2008). Diamond and Sapphire are sister ships, both being the only ships of the Grand-class design built in Japan, and both sharing some features not present on other ships of the class in the Princess fleet. This would be our chance to see with more cruise-experienced eyes elements of the ship that we’d likely overlooked when awed on our first cruise almost a decade earlier. In fact, Diamond was originally named Sapphire and vice versa; some last-minute name-swapping took place in the wake of a fire after promotional material had been sent out in order not to delay sailings. Had it not then our honeymoon would likely have been on the ship bearing this name instead.
Embarkation is usually pretty slick and probably would have been for this cruise too had the port worker in Southampton realised our tickets gave us priority boarding (from your fifth cruise with Princess onwards you reach Platinum level which includes this as one of its benefits). That was sorted after a few minutes when I queried it and subsequently followed the normal route: short queue, advance to the desk, get passports scanned, get credit card read, get handed cruise cards, wander through security, then onto the ship to have the cruise card scanned and a photograph taken to match against when getting on or off. Princess take your photo at the security gate on the ship when first boarding; this differs from P&O, for instance, who take your photo in the port building.
The atrium (or piazza as Princess like to refer to it on their ships) is the first thing you’ll then see (well, after you’ve run past the photographers trying to snap you for the gallery if you’re us, that is) and it follows the fairly standard Princess style you’ll see on any of their ships; warm, light, fairly neutral colours are the norm here. Typical arrangement was followed with, generally-speaking, drink and food options off the lowest level, shopping and customer services off the middle, and main lounges and bars off the top.
I didn’t bother taking any photos of our cabin or bathroom as they were in most respects identical to every other one we’ve been in on Princess ships. Unlike our Diamond Princess cruise, though, where we were in an inside room, for this cruise aboard Sapphire Princess we’d chosen a balcony room and had selected one on Caribe deck. There are three types of rooms on Princess cruise ships that have balconies: suites, mini-suites, and balcony rooms. Mini-suite rooms are a little larger than standard rooms and have a double-depth balcony that is fully exposed above. Standard balconies are covered but those on the C-deck have a double-depth balcony too, half-covered, half-exposed. If you like the idea of a large balcony with the chance to sun yourself or look at the stars at night and don’t mind the chance that someone might see you from above (quite why you’d be bothered by this is a mystery) then I’d recommend C-deck balcony rooms. If you take a look at this post from our first time aboard the Crown Princess cruise ship you can see the C-deck balconies and below that the mini-suite balconies as seen from our room; you can see a couple of shots of the room itself which was identical to that we experienced on the Sapphire with the exception of new, larger, wall-mounted TVs featuring an entertaining safety drill video to the tune of The Love Boat and a good selection of movies and programmes on demand.
Something I drew my wife’s attention to were the carpets along the hallways as these provide a visual queue as to which side of the ship you’re on if you get turned around at any point (something she’s prone to do). The red and green accents indicate port (left) and starboard (right) sides respectively. Another guide on these sorts of Princess ships is that most of the standard elevators (not some around the atrium area, though) face forwards. As our room was on the starboard side we simply had to remember to turn right when exiting an elevator and to make sure the carpet had green markings.
Many people head straight for the buffet when they first board, the source of almost-around-the-clock eating on a Princess ship. We like to get a drink instead as it really brings home the feeling we’re actually on holiday and makes for a great photo to post on social media to annoy anyone you know who’s working. Our bar destination of choice is Crooners at the top of the piazza as you’ll find the other lounge bars won’t typically be open at the time you’re getting on. We headed there from our room via a quick nose in the Princess Theatre and walk through the Wheelhouse Bar.
A fantastic introduction from Princess Cruises over the last year has been the removal of the need to bring your lifejacket to the mandatory muster that takes place before you leave port on the first day. May every cruise line bring this in please. The muster was gratefully short too so with that done we headed up to the top of the ship to see the Sapphire Princess casting off from Southampton on its week’s cruise down to a handful of all-new ports for us.
This was our second cruise on Princess at the magical Platinum level status (the first being our Baltic Heritage cruise of the year before) so it was our second chance to try out the Elite Lounge. Effectively, Skywalkers Nightclub (usually) is set aside for Platinum and Elite members for a couple of hours in the early evening and free snacks are provided along with discounted drinks. On our previous cruise we hadn’t been too impressed with the set-up; there was one discounted cocktail each day which we mostly weren’t interested in and the food choice was pretty poor. I’m pleased to say that it was a vastly improved situation on the Sapphire Princess. A set selection of cocktails were offered and the food range and quality (expect dips, chips, breadsticks, cheese; that sort of thing) was substantially better too. Needless to say but it didn’t take many evenings to make our way through the cocktails offered.
One of those parts of the Sapphire Princess it shares with Diamond and no other Princess Cruises ship is the Wake View Bar. We have fond memories of this location from our honeymoon cruise in the Far East where we disappeared to it on a number of the sea days. Technically located on deck 6 but only accessible down a spiral staircase at the edge of the dance floor in the lounge at the aft of the ship on deck 7 it’s a small bar with some seating, a few porthole windows to gaze out at the ship’s wake (hence the name) and was generally a quiet spot ideal for reading on our first cruise. We were happy to see it again but its usefulness on this particular cruise was limited; we never found if or when the bar was actually open there and on the one day we decided to read in it there were no lights on and a noisy game of bingo taking place in the lounge was thundering down into the spot. I’d like to think on a longer cruise it could be better utilised.
The other notable difference on Sapphire and Diamond is the arrangement of the dining rooms with some additional splitting down the middle taking place to form more separate venues. They’re still served from the same kitchen areas so it’s arguable as to what benefit this brings, if any, and the effect is of making the smaller rooms a little more intimate at the expense of reducing the potential views in both directions of the sea. What it does seem to do is increase the chances of getting in without standing in a long queue or being handed a buzzer (we always go Anytime Dining if we can as we don’t like to commit ourselves to a set time or group of people with whom to potentially share a table). I will cover food and drink aboard this Sapphire Princess cruise in more detail in a separate post but I will state here that the general quality of food (i.e. not speciality dining) aboard Sapphire Princess was the best we’ve had on any cruise ship.
In the past we’ve been disappointed with the wines aboard Princess ships. They’ve probably been very good for what they are but our palates prefer heavy reds and this has been something that we’ve found impossible to get hold of; it’s something where our P&O cruises have really exposed an area in which Princess could improve. I’m happy to report that there certainly seemed to be some progress in that respect as our daily visits to the Vines wine bar at the bottom of the piazza can attest to. While still not as heavy as we’d like we were happy to see a Malbec aboard for the first time and although the venue was understaffed our actual service by Ronnie and the knowledge he demonstrated there (as well as the impromptu wine-tasting he provided in my hunt for the heaviest red they stocked) was exemplary.
Adjacent to Vines was Alfredo’s Pizzeria where the pizza is made fresh and free for you. There’s not a huge range of pizzas to choose from but what they produce is fantastic. We were lucky enough to decide to eat there one lunchtime when there was only one other couple present so we were seated right by the window. On other occasions when we considered going (even one evening we thought we might skip the main dining room in favour of a pizza) there was a queue waiting for tables to free up which tells you all you need to know about the quality. One thing to note was that they had an Italian red that wasn’t offered next door and which was probably the best of the wines we drank on Sapphire Princess.
Skywalkers Nightclub was a daily fix at the end of every evening for us. It’s a place, again, that triggers great memories, not the least of which being listening to disco music and watching a thunderstorm on the horizon while leaving Singapore in 2008. We tend to sit around the dancefloor area as we like to people-watch and it’s a good place to strike up conversations with the DJ who is usually perfectly happy to play whatever you like (Rob Zombie for us, second cruise in a row). The removal of the drinks promotion hours on Princess ships clearly had an impact as the nightclub was practically empty most evenings and you can read the Hits And Misses article linked at the top of this post for more problems here too. A shame, but it’s still possibly our favourite place on these ships. What was good, though, was that we got to see a couple of celebrities in there. The first was a soap actor who was every bit the alpha male around any group of people who talked to him (if the group had an attractive woman in it); amusing to watch. The second was Gareth Gates who looked terrified when approached by some of the passengers and didn’t stay long but whom we bumped into on the way back to our cabin and had a quick chat with; an absolutely lovely person.
We left Southampton on the Saturday. The following day found us anchored off St Peter Port in Guernsey. This was a port we’d decided not to take an excursion at simply because it’s a fairly notorious port for cancelling stops altogether. As it was the weather was warm, the seas were calm, and there was no trouble getting ashore at all. We’d taken a later-than-usual breakfast then headed down to the photo gallery area where numbered cards were being handed out for the tender boats. With some spectacular timing on our part we were told we could leave immediately and were on the boat and heading from the Sapphire Princess to Guernsey inside five minutes. Individual posts covering what we did can be found here:
- The Bluebell Woods and Ozanne Steps – We went for a walk along a coastal path south of the island’s capital in search of a set of steps built for a former governor to provide easy access down the cliffs to a private beach.
- Clarence Battery – On our way back to St Peter Port we stopped for a look around an old gun emplacement.
- Guernsey Aquarium – We’re fond of an aquarium and we couldn’t pass up a visit to one housed in former World War II tunnels used by the Germans during the occupation.
- La Valette Underground Military Museum – More tunnels but this time housing a museum dedicated to wars.
- Castle Cornet – It’s hard to miss the castle when you’re in the island’s capital city.
- St Peter Port – We finished up our visit to St Peter Port with a wander through its streets in search of beer.
Monday was a sea day. As regular art-purchasers on Princess ships we’d been invited to a gallery viewing the day before and had met with the staff there. We’d later received a handwritten letter inviting us to a private preview on the sea day before the auction which we duly attended and indicated that one of the Lebo pieces had caught our eye. You can try to guess which one. No surprise then when we bought it and another piece too. What was more of a surprise was that I won a free piece (to be selected from four) as I’d been the most enthusiastically clapping. Anyone who knows me will know this to be… unlikely. Nevertheless, as luck would have it, one of the four pieces was another Lebo print. You can never have too many. Art auctions aren’t for everyone and they could generally do with being a bit shorter but we enjoy them.
Tuesday saw us arrive in France. Not the port we were supposed to be at because of yet another French dockers strike but at least we actually got to set foot in the country from a cruise ship for once. Our original plan had been to visit a cognac distillery but with the change of location for the Sapphire Princess to La Rochelle we opted to simply take a walk around on our own to see what the coastal city had to offer. The answer to that was: a surprising amount. La Rochelle was absolutely beautiful and filled with all the sorts of things we like, topped off by discovering a little gem of a drinking location that ate up the whole afternoon. Posts of the French city are:
- La Rochelle – Our bus ride from the port into the city and first impressions from a wander along the waterfront.
- La Rochelle Towers – We took the opportunity to climb two of the three medieval towers along the city walls.
- Charruyer Park – A pleasant walk through a former marsh turned into a park thanks to a generous donation.
- La Rochelle Aquarium – Another port, another aquarium. You can’t keep us away from them.
- Belle Du Gabut – The surprise discovery was an area given over to street art and temporary structures providing musical entertainment, festival-type activities, and food and drink.
In the evening we saw that Black Panther was showing on the Movies Under The Stars screen and as we’d not seen it and not seen any movie on the screen on a cruise ship at night we decided to try it out. Almost everyone was staying inside for entertainment provided by the Sapphire Princess staff because it was windy and the air had a bite to it so the ship felt deserted on the top deck. Ultimately, only around six of us braved the movie and we only managed it with multiple blankets covering us. We’d heard that popcorn and hot chocolate were supplied for these movie viewings but if that is the norm then we managed to choose the exception night. Glad to have seen the film at sea, though, as it’s something to say you’ve experienced.
On Wednesday we arrived at Bilbao, Spain. You already know that we’re art fans and you might know from reading any of my other travel accounts that I also keenly appreciate architecture so the obvious draw for us was the Guggenheim Museum. We took an organised excursion which also included a walking tour of the old town area of Bilbao. This was not without its problems, covered in the individual posts:
- Bilbao Walking Tour – A wander through the winding, pedestrianised streets of the old town.
- Guggenheim Museum – An all-too-brief visit to the architectural masterpiece that is the building itself and a viewing of some of the impressive art pieces inside.
The final stop for us was the next day at A Coruna but the place we wanted to see was inland via coach: Santiago de Compostela. Rather than go for anything guided we decided to pay for the Princess ride into the city with free time to wander as we wanted; the main reason for this was that we’d done some research and had our eyes set not just on the famous Santiago de Compostela cathedral but on a nearby museum too. We really enjoyed this stop and found the lack of exploitation of the pilgrims who regularly visit surprisingly nice to see (being the cynical atheists we are). Posts describing our visit to this Spanish city are here:
- Sapphire Princess At A Coruna – Views from our balcony of the port.
- Santiago de Compostela, Part One – Our arrival in the city and visit to the cathedral.
- Part Two, The Museo do Pobo Galego – The museum we wanted to visit with an incredible triple helical staircase just begging to be photographed.
- Santiago de Compostela, Part Three – A little bit more exploration, a stop for a drink, and discovery of a festival taking place.
Friday was a sea day as the Sapphire Princess sadly headed northwards back to England. Checking the daily guide that tells you what’s going on around the ship, the Princess Patter, we spotted a few activities taking place that we decided we’d take a look at. First off, though, was a walk around the ship to grab some photos. The weather wasn’t ideal and you can probably find almost identical photos from other ships of the class on this site but it typically takes more than that to stop me and my camera.
Prior to cruising out of the UK the Sapphire Princess had been based in Asia and evidence of this was present throughout the ship with the bilingual signage. We’re looking forward to seeing similar touches when we next board Diamond Princess later this year for a tenth wedding anniversary treat to ourselves.
The first time that a cruise ship visits a port it is usually presented with a plaque and these are prominently displayed on Deck 7. I love the variety of styles and the pride in their port cities that the designs demonstrate.
One of the activities we stopped to watch was the ice carving demonstration. This was something we’d last seen ten years ago and our memory of that occasion was flimsy to say the least so it was nice to see it all fresh. Taking photographs of blocks of ice in a way that shows the shape is not the easiest of tasks so the two carved pieces are a mermaid and a fish (possibly an angelfish) in case it’s not easy to see.
The main activity we were interested in was the culinary demonstration. This took place in the Princess Theatre and was hosted by the maître d’hôtel Generoso Mazzone and the executive chef Ottavio Bellesi. We were shown how to make Trenette alla Moda Ligure (pesto sauce), Gamberi alla Fra Divolo (flambéed shrimp in hot and fiery tomato sauce with pearl rice), and Tiramisu. As reasonably interesting as that was it was mainly the constant chatter from Ottavio that made the demonstration worth viewing; he was typically Italian and very funny indeed.
Cooking demonstrations are all well and good but that wasn’t the real reason we were interested in this cruise activity. At the conclusion of the food preparation we were all led to the rear of the ship for what was described as a “Galley Tour”. In fact, this was simply a wander through the kitchens rather than any real tour but it was not something we’d done before and still interesting enough for us to be pleased to have done it. And videoed it.
A regular activity that we do whenever we can is the trivia. Our track record with Princess is that we’ve won at least one quiz on every cruise we’ve taken but things weren’t looking good on Sapphire initially. We had paired up with another couple on the first two days on the ship but despite our best efforts we weren’t getting anywhere close to the people who were winning. However, there were mutterings from various quarters in that regard; the people winning had been on the ship during its transitioning cruise from Asia to Europe and it was suspected that the quiz questions were not rotating slowly enough. We resigned ourselves to not really having a chance on this cruise but still kept on at it as we like a good testing of our general knowledge. I’m pleased to announce that on the very last quiz and on a tie-break we won and our track record is still intact. Quiz prizes are not fantastic on a Princess cruise – that’s arguably part of their charm – but if you’re taking part in the quiz to win the prize then you’re doing it wrong anyway.
Being on a cruise is better than not being on a cruise; this won’t come as a surprise to anyone. Our cruise on Sapphire Princess wasn’t perfect by any means but the issues we encountered with occasional drinks orders being wrong or being missed out by staff we can assign to it being just one of those things. We’re not the sort to put in major complaints about a bit of bad luck especially when people work as hard as they do onboard. If we had to pick the worst thing about this cruise it was that it was too short. We are most definitely fortnight-long cruising people at heart.
Sapphire Princess was in good condition overall and wasn’t really showing her age anywhere. A Princess cruise suits our temperament perfectly; it’s the right mix of attentive service and relaxed attitude we like while at sea taking us to the destinations that fulfil the itinerary that is the prime driver for our holiday choice. We’re simply not interested in ships with climbing walls, zip lines, or racing tracks. La Rochelle was the standout port on this cruise (a surprise as it was a late replacement) and our decision-making at Bilbao is the one area we’d have loved to do over. However, the week from Southampton to Guernsey, France, and Spain was a great, short cruise that would make an ideal first cruise itinerary for would-be cruisers. Much as we enjoy the weekend cruises they’re really just too short to give a true cruise experience so this was perfect in that respect.
In a few months (from time of writing this) we’ll be flying out to Tokyo to get back on Diamond Princess and we’re very much looking forward to seeing our first cruise ship again and comparing elements with her sister ship, Sapphire.
For another review of Sapphire Princess on a cruise taken just before we boarded her see Cruise Lifestyle‘s Cruise Ship Review: Sapphire Princess Public Areas & Dining. If you’re interested in gluten free options on the ship then Gluten Free Horizons has a post about it here: Cruising Gluten Free on Sapphire Princess.