Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Comparing Two Cruise Lines: Princess and Holland America

After my February Caribbean cruise on Holland America, I promised to do a piece comparing that company with my long-time favourite, Princess Cruises. Now that I've come back from my Panama Canal cruise with Princess, it's time to deliver the goods.


Before starting the comparisons, there are some significant points of similarity. Both companies are generally considered as being in the "premium cruise" category, a designation which is reflected in fares, quality and range of foods offered, and general overall service. Both offer a "classic cruise" type of experience with broadly similar daily programming and an overall, low-key atmosphere. Don't go to either of these companies for endless parties or for razzle-dazzle, theme-park types of attractions.
Anyone who knows me will readily understand why the calmer, quieter vibe of these two lines suits me right down to the ship's keel.
One other general comment. My comparisons are between the companies as they are, and not as compared to what they were like before the pandemic struck. In my opinion, it's pointless to keep hankering for a past which is gone, over, and done. 
The Booking  Process:
Both companies offer booking by phone directly, on line directly, or through third-party travel agents. There is one significant difference. Holland America does not offer a refund of the deposit you pay to secure a reservation. The deposit of hundreds of dollars is forfeited as soon as you pay it. Princess still offers a fully refundable deposit, except on certain promotional discount fares, and you can get a full refund of all monies paid up to the final booking date of the cruise.

Winner:  Princess


Cabins are broadly comparable in terms of space. The space for putting away clothes and such is about the same, with Princess offering a slightly larger hanging closet. Both include a digital safe, and both include a small refrigerator. Holland America, on their newer ships, puts a small assortment of adult beverages in the refrigerator as a pay-as-you-use minibar, such as you might find in an upscale hotel. The beds are similar, with the Princess bed having a slight edge in overall comfort. Holland America, on the ship I was on, had a near-bathtub sized shower stall and more space to spread out your toiletries, whereas the Princess shower is about the size of an old glass phone booth and the vanity isn't much bigger.
A notable point: Holland America's three newest ships, the Pinnacle Class, actually offer a dozen cabins geared to solo travellers. It's a small gesture to a large and growing group of cruise patrons, but it also represents a trend which has gained even more speed on some other lines. You should be prepared to book early to get one. None of the Princess ships currently in service have any solo cabins.
Winner:  Holland America, because of the much more spacious bathroom, and the solo cabins.
Cabin Service: 
Princess still offers the traditional turn-down evening service as well as fuller cleaning service in the morning, although such amenities as chocolates on the pillow and the automatic daily ice bucket have vanished. Holland America now offers one daily service, your choice of morning or evening, by a team of two room attendants. There is a card you can fill out for the room attendants to request such services as daily ice bucket service. 
Winner:  No real winner. Cabin service was excellent in both companies.

Food:  Meals are a big part of what you pay for on a cruise. Following on are several sections dealing with the whole business of meals. This first section relates purely to the menu.

Overall, Princess wins for the menus in the main dining room. They offer a larger assortment of both appetizers and main courses each night, and their menu selections are more adventurous with less repetition within a single cruise. Princess makes more of an effort to incorporate regional and local dishes within their menus each day.

In the buffet, Princess also offers a wider selection, with new emphasis on vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free food options taking up a notable amount of the available space.
When you want a light snack, Princess offers on almost all ships the International Cafe, which serves up assorted small sandwiches and cakes, from Italian meats to Austrian stollen in season, along with premium coffees and teas and a full bar service. Holland America, on its largest ships, offers the Grand Dutch Cafe with a menu composed of such unique Dutch specialties as vleeskroketten or bitterballen as well as premium coffees and teas and a full bar service. Both cafes are excellent.

In the specialty restaurants, for which you pay extra, both Princess and Holland America give their very best for these upcharge customers. The one noteworthy difference is in the Italian area, where Princess presents a multi-course gourmet extravaganza at Sabatini's while Holland America's Canaletto has a much smaller and more conventional Italian menu -- although also at a smaller charge. Along the same lines, both companies offer a classic steak house experience and there's really nothing to choose between the Princess Crown Grill and the Holland America Pinnacle in quality of food. Holland America's Tamarind has no direct competitor on most Princess ships, and offers a truly epic Asian-fusion menu. Similarly unique is the Bayou Cafe and Steak House on Princess' two smallest ships, Island Princess and Coral Princess. Overall, the fact that Holland America offers five premium restaurants for 2600 passengers on their newest ships (the Pinnacle Class) while Princess offers just 2 for 2,200 passengers on the comparably sized Island Class ships is noteworthy.

Winner:  Overall, Princess scores for food quality and diversity, but Holland America deserves definite recognition for a broader and more diverse range of specialty food experiences.

Food Service:  As well as what you eat, how it is served is equally important.

To start with, the buffets. Both lines indicate that you can have table service of beverages in the buffet, a desirable factor for those of us suffering from the shakes, rattles, and rolls of advancing age. Overall, Princess handled this a bit better, but it largely depended on the passenger always sitting in the same general area of the buffet and forming a personal connection with a particular server who would thereafter come running whenever they saw you walk in. Holland America did it pretty well at lunch time, but at breakfast your choices were usually limited to either going and getting your own, and hoping you didn't slop hot coffee on your hand, or else doing without.

In the main dining rooms, Princess scored heavily. Service was excellent: prompt, organized, and attentive. Holland America's staff often seemed uncertain of who was to do what, for which tables, and at what times. 
Re: reservations. Princess now has the entire dining reservation process available through their app, and it works well as long as you don't reserve a time for the main dining room at the top of the hour. Reservations can be made literally months before the ship sails, and then modified as needed/available. With a reservation, the longest I had to wait for a table was 7 minutes while others with reservations who had arrived ahead of me were seated. Holland America still requires you to reserve by phone each day for the main dining room. Both lines limit the number and size of reservations to leave room for walk-ins. As a walk-in diner on Holland America, I was often faced with a wait for a table of half an hour or more. Both companies will now hand walk-in diners a beeper if they have to wait for a table.

In the specialty restaurants, both lines fully lived up to the need to provide a premium service experience in accordance with the dining surcharge. Both lines offered reservations through the app for the specialty restaurants. No complaints there.

Winner:  Princess hands down, in the main dining room, and by a smaller margin in the buffet. That said, both lines need to up their game in the buffet in a big way.

Food Costs: This item applies only to the specialty restaurants, since food at all meals is otherwise included in your fare.

Point by point:  Both lines charge extra for premium coffees and teas, whether served at the buffet, in the dining room, or at a café.
For the steak house, I paid US$29 on Princess and US$59 on Holland America. Food and service were indistinguishable between the two. Holland America's steak house must be judged a massive rip-off by comparison.

For the Italian restaurant, I paid US$15 for Holland America and US$35 for Princess. However, the quality and originality of the Princess menu at Sabatini's, and the quality of the service, not to mention the much more spacious venue, set it in a completely different league from Holland America's Canaletto. I'd judge them equal for value, but Princess is far out in front with a truly unique and unusual meal experience. No spaghetti and meatballs on this menu!
Note that these prices appear to shift from time to time. I suspect that if there is a principle, it's that you get a better price by reserving earlier, but pay more if you wait until you're on board, at least with Holland America. 

Other specialty restaurants are not comparable, since I haven't patronized them.

Winner:  Princess, although Holland America is a formidable competitor.

Meal Seating:  No question in my mind, Princess is the hands-down winner here. Seating in both the buffet and in the main dining room was far more crowded on Holland America. At busy times, someone was always just about in your lap. Princess offers more space to relax and enjoy your meal. 

Winner:  Princess.

And that will be quite enough on the entire subject of meals!

Public Spaces:  Public spaces on both ships were adequate, with enough room for people to move around without being crowded. Princess offers a more spacious atrium, with more room to move about, sit, etc. Holland America creates a more memorable atmosphere due to the line's long-standing tradition of commissioning contemporary artists to create works specifically for their ships. On Holland America's most recent ships, each vessel contains more than two thousand commissioned original art works, all sizes from small sculptures to floor-length paintings, from life-size figure sculptures to the immense stainless-steel spiral "thing" in the atrium of the Nieuw Statendam. By comparison, the now-standard warm-toned Italian look of nearly all Princess ships seems relatively bland and boring.
On the outdoor decks, many (most?) ships on both lines still offer a full-length or nearly full-length promenade deck, and it's always popular as a place for extended walks, especially on sea days. Princess continues to place large numbers of comfortable chairs and side tables on the promenade, providing ample seating for people who want to sit outside but out of the direct sunlight. Holland America had only a very limited number of seats -- perhaps a dozen for the entire promenade deck. The Royal Class of Princess ships eliminated the promenade altogether, a massive move in the wrong direction.
Holland America's ships continue to feature a major pool area at the stern of the ship, with a large sundeck space facing the ship's wake. On Princess, the Grand Class ships have a smaller pool at the stern, with limited deck space around it. Whether the stern pool is designated "adults only" or not seems to vary from ship to ship on both lines, but the Holland America stern sundeck is a great feature.

Winner:  Holland America, for the range and quality of its art commissions, and for the major stern pool and sundeck.

Both companies offer multiple entertainment experiences in various areas of the ship through the day, and ramp up the music in the bars during dinner hours, as well as having major shows in the theatre.

I'm no great friend of theatre production shows, so my comments relate to the more low-key entertainment in lounges and atria (and I must confess, I am astonished that the spell checker recognizes the correct Latin plural of "atrium"!). 

Princess sticks stoutly to the tried-and-true formula in which each musician solo or team presents mostly the "greatest hits of the 50s to the 80s", suitably arranged for whichever instrument(s) or voice(s) happen to be on hand. I've been told that this kind of musical revue also describes most of their theatre shows.At best, you may get a really good jazz pianist who can riff on old standards with greater imagination.

Holland America, on the other hand, has gone full-throttle into emphasizing music as the signature mark of their ships, with the development of the Music Walk on their newer ships, a string of specialty music venues which each feature a different type or style of music: B.B.King's Blues Club, with its own in-house blues band, Billboard Onboard, where the greatest hits formula gets reimagined as "duelling pianists", complete with ringside seats around the pianos, the Rolling Stone Rock Room, with its own rock band, and Lincoln Center Live, where classical music is presented. Clever scheduling allows you to move from venue to venue, as each one in turn presents a 45-minute show. 
Also distinctive is Holland America's in-house modern dance company, Step One Dance, which takes the stage in the main theatre, itself a fascinating amalgam of traditional stage and contemporary digital and video technology.
Winner:  hands down, Holland America, for a distinctive and truly unique approach to entertainment. 
Internet Service

In today's world, internet connectivity is an essential service. Both lines charge extra for this service, but with notable differences. Princess has a two-step rate plan, at a flat fee per week, to buy service for just one device or (at a higher rate) for up to four devices. Holland America offers a three-tier program which allows for more use of internet connectivity as you pay more. On the lowest tier, it allows for simple browsing and texting but that's all. Note that some of the Holland America premium rate packages include only the lowest level, which is what I had. 

Princess internet functions at varying degrees of efficiency, depending where you are on the planet, and I suspect Holland America would be the same (I was cruising with HA in the Caribbean which is one of the real hot spot zones). More complex jobs (like blog posts) had to be done on Princess in the very early morning because the service would slow down markedly as the day went on. I was unaware of a similar slowdown on Holland America, but couldn't really judge the difference because it was the simple browsing and texting service.

Winner:  no clear winner. 

The App

A key part of any modern cruise is the whole area of electronic connectivity, but more specifically the use of a custom-designed app by each company to help organize the services offered.

These apps can not be used for reserving cruises. That has to be done through each company's main web site due to the size and complexity of the search functions. The apps are used to handle the onboard services once a cruise has been booked.

Here's a quick rundown of some of the things you can and can't do on each company's app (P = Princess Medallion Class, H - Holland America Navigator).

[1]  Check in before arrival at the pier.   P   H

[2]  Advance reservations for shore excursions.    P    H

[3]  Advance reservations for specialty dining.    P    H

[4]  Advance reservations for main dining room.    P

[5]  Daily schedule of events on board.    P    H

[6]  Custom personal schedule including onboard events, your excursions, your reservations.    H

[7]  Navigate around the ship.    P    H

[8]  Online casino games.    P
[9]  Order food and drinks delivered to your current location on the ship.    P
A couple of comments on this far-from-complete list. The lack of # 4 on Holland America is a serious hole in their offering. Princess really needs to get with the programme on # 6. You can customize the ship's daily schedule but can't include your excursions, reservations, etc. As for # 9, it's a regular routine to hear fellow cruisers complaining about why their food orders either didn't show up or took forty or fifty minutes to get there. I have never used that service, since it always seems to cause problems. 

Winner:  No clear winner in this department. Each company has its good aspects, but each company also needs to rethink other aspects of their app.
Overall Winner
You're not going to back me into that corner! Both cruise lines offer desirable experiences, but both also have their glitches. I intend to continue cruising with both of them.

Tuesday, May 9, 2023

The Panama Canal Epic # 6: The Pacific Resort Metropolis

Our final port of call for the cruise was at Puerto Vallarta -- a combination of major city and resort area which is home to a substantial population, and a resort destination for many thousands more from North America and numerous other corners of the globe.

The highlights tour which I took was a combination of coach tour and walking, and gave a quick "greatest hits" survey of what this vibrant city of nearly 300,000 people has to offer.

Our tour began at the 3-berth cruise ship terminal towards the northern end of the city, and just south of the international airport. Not surprisingly, this sector of the city, known as the Marina area, houses some upmarket stores and restaurants as well as a number of modern, high-rise hotels representing major international brands. Here's a view of the Marina district waterfront from my balcony as the Island Princess sailed out at the end of our visit. The massive and wildly coloured Westin hotel is a real eye-catcher, both for its main building and for its equally colourful waterfront facilities.

It took us about 25 minutes to drive into the centre of the city, the Old Town district. Here you can find several of Puerto Vallarta's most famous attractions. However, my first sight in the Old Town was of a decidedly quirky character, a rooftop statue of a dancing cow.

From the point where the bus dropped us off, we walked down one short block to the waterfront, and the world-famous oceanside promenade, the Malecon. 
Here, there is a fascinating collection of public art works of varying character -- from graceful to grotesque, from comical to serious.

Of course, it's a huge challenge trying to photograph these artworks when so many members of the tour party must have their picture taken in front of every single sculpture! But I did my best. It took me two pictures to grasp the entirety of this piece.

Nor does it help matters at all when the guide, Rosalia, urges you to take a seat on the sculpture's lap and have your picture taken there. Oops! My bad!

This figure, very different in texture and colour, represents an indigenous medicine woman, although to my eye she has also a strong air of the Mother Goddess -- and that may well have been the intention.
One of the best known is the boy on the seahorse. From its reputation, I expected it to dwarf all comers but in fact it is just one among many and by no means the biggest.

This Neptune is my personal favourite.
Almost as exciting for me were the daring aerobatic manoeuvres of the Pelican Air Force.


We then walked up into the town again to visit the central Plaza, where the open-air bandstand hosts popular concerts and shows on weekends. 
Beyond the Plaza, we walked to the Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a building which is by no means as grandly-sized as its reputation might have you expect. It is in fact rather compact, except for its height.


Life on the Plaza: I was tickled by the exact wording of the tour agency's sign, and laughed heartily at the pair of t-shirts in the store window. 

One of the real annoyances of these organized tours is the inevitable stop in a large and boring store. In the case of this tour's big jewellery store, I suspect most of us hit the boredom mark after about 15 minutes of a 35-minute stop -- and that was in spite of the small bar offering free margaritas to all comers, at 9:45 in the morning. This day drinking is crazy!
After that stop, we drove south through the city and out onto the narrow, twisting highway climbing up into the coastal Sierra Madre on the way to the scenic bay of Mismaloya. This coastline is peppered with numerous hotels and condominiums, perched high up on the steep slopes above the Pacific or, in rarer cases, down by the shore.. 

There  aren't actually many places where you can see any kind of view from the road, just a quick snatched glimpse if your timing is good and you aren't driving.

There is one small roadside pullout with a good scenic point which gives a clear view of the famous offshore rocks known as Los Arcos de Mismaloya, presumably because they were once connected by a natural arch.

On the drive back into town, we had to detour up and down a couple of streets of the neighbourhood between the Rio Cuale and the mountains, an area known as the "zona romantica" or "zona rosa." The streets here are filled with shops, restaurants, bars, hotels, and other businesses catering primarily to gay travellers. Puerto Vallarta has for years been one of the principal LGBTQ destinations in the Americas.
The bus then stopped on a bridge over the Isla Cuale in the river, and we walked down a flight of steps to a small souvenir and gift market and a large restaurant. We were offered a free drink again, and a chance to enjoy a light meal in the sizable outdoor covered dining area. I was not yet hungry, and was more attracted by the chance to get some photos of the gardens and flowers on the island.


That lunch stop went on quite a bit longer than planned, and was primarily responsible for making the tour arrive back at the pier nearly an hour after the scheduled time.
This was an intriguing "quick look" at Puerto Vallarta. Contrary to what many people might think (especially many of my gay friends). the idea of spending any amount of time here doesn't appeal to me. The streets are narrow and crowded, many of the shops and restaurants likewise (not surprising, given the age of many of the buildings in the older areas of town), while the lavish hotels of the Marina district are cut off from the rest of the city by the waters of the Marina, and cut off from me by their hefty room rates.  

However, for those who are intrigued -- and not just LGBTQ travellers, either! -- Puerto Vallarta offers some lovely seaside settings, beautiful beaches on Banderas Bay, intriguing places to discover on foot, and generally more congenial weather than areas farther south (apart from the rainy summer months). 

The morning after we sailed from Puerto Vallarta, I was having early breakfast in the buffet. I knew it was early on a sea day because most of the passengers weren't up and doing yet, and I actually nailed a rare table-for-two, facing the windows on the starboard side. One look outside was enough to tell me that we were out of the tropics. The sky looked different. The clouds looked different. Even the wide open ocean water was behaving very differently from the way it had acted for most of the last two weeks.

And then, so suddenly that it startled me a little, there were the rugged mountains of Baja California looming up out of the sea mist. 

And with that, I knew that we had passed Cabo San Lucas and were on our way back north, next destination the Port of San Pedro at Los Angeles in two days time. I found out just how true that was when I set out onto the promenade deck for my morning walk, and found the ship sailing directly into the teeth of a stiff, chilly northwesterly breeze which blew at full throttle down both sides of the ship. The captain's noon report quoted an air temperature of 16 degrees Celsius, quite a shock to the system after nearly two weeks of nonstop temperatures in the 30s!

Lest this whole voyage begin to seem unlikely to any skeptical readers, I attach this photo. This certificate was dropped off in my cabin on the night of May 8, 2023, the day we visited Puerto Vallarta.

Way back in 2000, I got a similar certificate for crossing the Arctic Circle and voyaging all the way to Spitsbergen, one of the two or three land masses on the entire planet closest to the North Pole. What I did with that certificate, I don't remember. In fact, I think it may even have been a certificate for surviving a Polar Bear Swim (in the ship's pool, ha ha!) at 6:30 am on a July morning when we were at our closest approach to the North Pole.
This entire set of blog posts about the Panama Canal voyage is dedicated with much love and sadness to the memory of my niece, Jennifer. Jenn died suddenly and unexpectedly on the day after we set sail from Florida, and this sudden loss, at the early age of 44, truly coloured and shaped my entire experience during this cruise. Jenn and I never had an opportunity to travel together, but we did swap travellers' tales from time to time, and I would have loved to have her along on this voyage, sharing her own insights and reactions to all the varied experiences that this trip has brought me. I'll never have that opportunity now, but her joyful smiles and hearty laughter are mine forever, in my memories, and never to be forgotten. Rest in Peace, Jenn.

Sunday, May 7, 2023

The Panama Canal Epic # 5: The Nine Bays of Huatulco

Set in a wild and rugged area of Mexico's Pacific Coast, in the state of Oaxaca, Huatulco is a resort area community which has been developed over the space of forty years or so, with development accelerating rapidly in the early 2000s with the opening of the international airport and the cruise pier. The Huatulco area contains nine rocky bays in all, each of which contains a lovely natural sand beach.

Interlude: Language Lesson

Proper pronunciation of those names:  Hualtulco = "Wah-tull-co" and Oaxaca = "Wah-hah-ca."

The main centres of the resort are in Santa Cruz Bay, around the town of La Crucesita, Chahué Bay, and in Tangolunda Bay. The five westernmost bays are reserved as a national park. 
 Our ship docked at the cruise terminal in Santa Cruz Bay.
My tour was again a two-part excursion. The first part was a coach tour. But to get to the coach, we had to walk a considerable distance. The tour ticket said "250 metres." Hah! That walk was 250 metres like Niagara Falls is just 20 metres high. Later on, of course, I realized that the "250 metres" referred to the walking distance at the tour stop in La Crucesita. Nothing said about the walk from the ship to the bus, which was much closer to a full kilometre. Rather sneaky of them! And in the stifling tropical heat and humidity, I was already dripping wet by the time we finally reached the bus.

 Don't get me wrong -- I can and often do walk multiple kilometres a day at home, or in other locations with more humane heat and humidity.  And just to reinforce the point, the host in the dining room at dinner that night said -- and I quote: "Hey, I'm Mexican, and I can't take the heat and humidity here!"
Our first stop was up a lengthy hill at a lookout point above Santa Cruz Bay.

Although it looks like Island Princess is occupying the entire bay, there's actually a fair bit of open water around the ship. The area behind the ship is occupied by the large marina, where local tour boats dock.
We then drove back through Santa Cruz bay area and around the larger Chahué Bay, which appears at the far right of the above picture. On the ridge between Chahué and Tangolunda, we stopped at another lookout point, overlooking Tangolunda Bay.

Ranked # 1 in difficulty for travel photographers by Those Who Know is the effort to snag a picture of a brightly coloured destination sign like this, with no other human beings posing in front of it. I almost managed to pull it off. Almost.

The tour coach then returned to Chahué to visit the inland "downtown" area of La Crucesita. It's one thing to ask me to leave an air-conditioned tour coach on such a sweltering day to visit a historic town where multiple styles and cultures are all interwoven into a complex tapestry of human lives. It's another matter altogether when it's a modern, purpose built dormitory community for the staffs of hotels, and when almost anything that looks older than 1980 is a fake. Not to mention that the big Number One Scenic Attraction is the church, built around 1990, with its rather garish ceiling paintings and its chapel dedicated to the Virgin of Guadelupé. I stayed on the bus.

We were then dropped off back at the marina, where our tour stickers gave us our pass to board a single-deck catamaran, appropriately named Tequila, for a scenic water tour of the Bays of Huatulco. That meant, of course, the five western bays, the ones set aside in the national park and barred from any further development.

Helpful Hint: If you are ever in Huatulco, and take one of these scenic cruises on a larger vessel than a small outboard motorboat, get yourself a seat on the starboard (right) side of the boat. Ours, and other cruises, were all going slowly westwards, as close to the coast as possible, and slowing or stopping frequently to let people get pictures and video. On the eastbound trip back to Santa Cruz Bay, the boats went farther out from shore and travelled more quickly.
With that note, here are some of the scenes from the 90-minute cruise. 

No, that's not snow on the rocks -- it's bird poop.

The highlight was the most spectacular blowhole I've ever seen in my travels -- and I've seen a few. What made this one so crazy was the way that the hole shot the water out at about a 45-degree angle off vertical. Our guide assured us that it can easily shoot 2-3 times as high in December and January, when wind and currents conspire to bring the highest tides of the year on this coast.

In this more distant view from the return trip, the spout is visible against the extreme right-hand end of the cliff face,

Sadly I missed a couple of even better shots when an extra large wave smacked against the rock face to the right of the blowhole just as the blowhole itself spouted. Sigh.

Less dramatic but no less beautiful were the nearly deserted beaches, especially at the westernmost of the nine bays. Here, the guide told us, the beach was about a 20-minute hike from the end of the road. If that's 20 minutes like the bus was 250 metres from the ship at the start of this tour, then thanks, but no thanks. But it certainly looked very placid and peaceful.
Throughout the boat tour, the bar was dispensing free water bottles, beer, lemonade, fruit punch (regular or spiked), and margaritas. I behaved myself in those departments, and so was still perfectly able to hold the camera steady as we motored back into Santa Cruz Bay at the end of the trip.