Cruising - Taking the 'Big One'...

With Peter Thorpe

Cruising the Mediterranean was the 'big one' for us

A lot of people in my age group talk to me about taking the ‘big one’. The holiday of a lifetime. They are typically recently retired or are about to retire and are now empty nesters. This is their first opportunity to go forth and explore the world. And, for many, this “big one” will involve an overseas cruise, either as a part of the journey or perhaps even the whole journey.

My wife and I fit that mould fairly well. We have travelled to many places over the years and even taken river cruises but we had never taken that iconic big cruise ship holiday – so we decided to bite the bullet and just do it. I thought readers might like to share our experience, along with a few helpful tips…

As first-time big ship cruisers, we decided to play it safe and picked a Mediterranean cruise with Princess Cruises. We figured the Mediterranean would be nice and calm and we wouldn’t need to get our ‘sea legs’ sorted. That turned out to be a good decision. At no time did we detect even a slight movement in the ship, even on blowy days with a few white caps. Of course, it would take a pretty big blow to move the ship we were on. The Emerald Princess is 113,561 tons and is 290 metres long. It holds over 3,000 passengers and 1,200 crew. It’s a big ship, more like a floating city…

Sip a cocktail in The Piazza lounge and watch the world go by

We realised just how big when we first came to board. Our cabin was a balcony stateroom and I’d recommend you don’t settle for anything less. True, you can save hundreds and even thousands of dollars by booking an internal cabin. However, there’s nothing quite like sitting out on your balcony with a nice cool drink and a good book or simply working on your tan and watching the ocean go by.
Princess cruises became widely known from the TV series “The Love Boat” which was filmed mostly onboard the Pacific Princess. Princess Cruises are in what is widely known as the ‘premium’ class. That is to say they are a little bit up market from mainstream lines like Carnival, Royal Caribbean or Norwegian but not as upmarket (or expensive) as say Seaborne, Crystal or Cunard. There are no rock-climbing walls or wave machines, etc., so you won’t find as many children and young families on board. I think it’s fair to say that they cater nicely to our demographic – seniors looking for a peaceful and relaxing holiday experience.

Our two-week Mediterranean cruise started in Athens and ended in Rome. This also allowed us to extend our holiday by spending a few days in each of these great cities before and after our cruise. The cruise stopped at several iconic ports including Santorini (Greek Isles), Montenegro, Sicily, Barcelona, Gibraltar, Marseille, Genoa, Pisa and finally Rome.
Our cabin was reasonably spacious with a comfortable bed and a walk-in wardrobe. The ensuite bathroom was small but adequate. Of course, it takes a while to get used to your surroundings and it’s pretty easy to get disorientated wandering around the decks and passageways for the first few days.

At night, you usually eat in your allocated dining room and are waited on with excellent table service and a choice of courses. The food was generally excellent and on a par with any upmarket restaurant. You also have the option of casual any-time dining or you can even have your meal served on the balcony in your cabin, if you are feeling lazy or just want some private time.

TIP 1: When dining in your allocated dining room, if you like a glass of wine with your dinner, buy a bottle. If you don’t drink it all, your drink waiter will then put this away for you for the next time you dine and it’s a lot cheaper by the bottle, than by the glass.

TIP 2: When ordering room service, here’s a tip for cruisers who enjoy a beer.  All beers are about the same price. Most are 330 ml size but Grolsch comes in 450 ml bottle at the same price. It’s a Dutch beer and I have to say, it’s a really nice drop. And if you buy 4 you get a fifth one free. The more you drink – the more you save!

The baloon drop is quite spectacular

Your dining room seating will normally be at a table of ten people. This is a good way to get to meet fellow passengers and exchange experiences. And, if you don’t like the table guests you are allocated, you can switch tables without any problem.
In addition to the traditional dining rooms, there’s lots of choices of places to eat including a seafood restaurant, steak house, hamburger cafe and pizza place plus an ice creamery. Lots of dining options to choose from and all of them were good. There’s also the option of dining at one of the onboard specialty restaurants, for an extra cost.
One such restaurant on our ship was “Share” by Curtis Stone, our very own Australian gourmet chef and restaurateur. We had to give that a try and it didn’t disappoint with a six-course fine-dining experience fit for a king or queen.
You can also order drinks and food to your cabin at any time through room service.
There are a number of different bars on board, most offering entertainment, which ranges from the traditional piano man or guitar player, through to classical string duets and even comedians and quiz nights.
The on-board entertainment is generally good and there’s really no excuse to get bored. One night we danced in the main lounge to a balloon drop – where they drop hundreds of balloons on you and you have to pop as many as you can. Another night there was the onboard disco, with the ships disco dancers setting the mood. There are also a number of shows in the main auditorium with entertainers, dancers and magicians, etc.
Here they also hold “The Voice of the Ocean”. As the name suggests, this follows the format of the popular TV show, The Voice, except it draws its talent from the passengers. It’s very professionally presented complete with swivel chairs and judges chosen mainly from the crew and the professional entertainers on board. This was lots of fun. The audience get to vote for the contestants and some of the talent was surprisingly good.

The Voice of the Ocean features talent from the passengers

In addition to live entertainment, there are also a series of lectures you can attend on various subjects. We found the lectures about upcoming destinations particularly useful. This enables you to gain inside information and handy hints about the ports you are about to visit.
There are two swimming pools on the ship. One caters for children and one has no children allowed. This is great for adults who are looking for a peaceful time by the pool. The pool area also serves as an outdoor movie theatre, showing recently released movies along with classics.

Enjoy glittering live shows in the main auditorium

Formal Nights
You will find your cruise has two or three formal nights where they encourage you to dress for dinner. This includes the Captain’s welcome cocktail party. Dress for these nights is really up to you. Men can opt for a dinner suit or just jacket and slacks. Ties are not needed. And for the ladies, well it’s a chance to frock up and be as glam as you like. The basic rule is no jeans, shorts or thongs etc. Plus, if you really don’t want to dress up at all, you can simply dine casually on those nights.

The champagne fountain at the Captain's welcome on board party

Shore Excursions
This is a bit involved so I’ll save this for another article which I’ll publish here soon. Meanwhile, here are a few more tips that I think you’ll find very useful, should you wish to embark on a cruise of your own:

GENERAL TIPS FOR CRUISERS

A Tip About Tips
The Mediterranean Princess cruises are run from the USA office, so all monetary transactions are in US dollars. We were surprised some time after we booked our cruise to receive an email from Princess, telling us there would be a daily gratuity charge on our cruise of $14.50 per guest per day. That’s around $A580 for the two of us for the trip.
I called our travel agent and complained I had not been told about this and was not happy. I don’t mind giving tips where they are deserved but this was not part of the deal, as far as I was concerned. She said not to worry and to just tell them at the onboard office that I didn’t want to pay it and they would remove it. I did that and they removed it without fuss. I later spoke to a lot of other people on board and found that they all had done the same thing. Warning: Do this at the very start of your cruise – it’s too late to do it at the end. When the cruise ended we simply put some money in an envelope and handed it to the crew members who we felt had earned it.
Note: apparently, this automatic gratuity system does not apply with Princess cruises that originate in Australia. Good onya Aussies!

Mobile Phones at Sea
Switch your mobile phone to aeroplane mode the minute you board the ship. There are lots of horror stories of cruise passengers forgetting to turn off their phone’s data and coming home to huge bills for international roaming. Turning on aeroplane mode is the simplest way to make sure there are no shocking surprises when you get your next phone bill. WIFI packages on board are not cheap but depending where you are sailing to, connections are getting better all the time as the technology improves.

Getting Power
Pack a compact power board to give you more outlets for phones, tablets, Kindles, laptops, curling irons and all the things you need to plug in. (PS You won’t need a hairdryer. They have them onboard). Most cabins have limited outlets. You’ll also most likely need a convertor plug (on our cruise it was USA to Australian standard). And if you forget to bring one or the plug you take isn’t the right type, they can usually help you out with one at the passenger services office or the onboard shop.

If you’re thinking of taking a cruise, I hope you found this helpful. Go forth and have fun – we certainly did. Bon Voyage!