Please Pass the Salt – Golden Princess Review Part III

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All that sea air always causes me to work up a bit of an appetite when I’m on a cruise.

Golden Princess

Or at least that’s what I tell myself!  Today we hit the midpoint of my review of my three-night Mexican escape on Golden Princess a couple of weeks ago.

* Part I – How Did I Get Here?! – planning & departure

* Part II – If These Walls Could Talk – cabins & balconies

* Part III – Please Pass the Salt – dining & drinking

* Part IV – Are We There Yet?! – activities and amenities

* Part V – Is That YOUR Inflatable Penis?! – how it all went down

I wanted to try Princess because I like knowing my cruise options and I’m discovering that experience is the best way to figure out what I might like in the future as I continue to sail.  I specifically wanted to dip into mid-range mainstream lines to see what it might be like as I’ve sailed on both small (450 passenger) and mega (4,200 passenger) ships.  I found the food to be good on both, a true mark that size should not matter.

Golden Princess falls smack in the middle of these two ship sizes with 2,600 passengers.  She boasts three main dining rooms, a buffet restaurant, a 24-hour atrium café, two surcharged specialty restaurants (one steakhouse, one Italian), a wine bar, three poolside venues (a pizzeria, a grill, and an ice cream shop), and 24 hour room service.  She also has six other nightclubs/bars/lounges and a theatre.  In other words – OPTIONS!

It’s possible to come on a cruise and spend no money to dine, as several options are always free.  Those selections include breakfast, lunch, and dinner in the main dining rooms (Bernini, Donatello, and Canaletto), Afternoon Tea (which I’ll cover in Part IV), the buffet (Horizon Court), and the International Café as well as the poolside options (Trident Grill, Prego Pizzeria, and Sundaes Ice Cream Bar).

Dining for breakfast and lunch is always available at any open restaurant while cruisers must select one of two options for dinner – Traditional Dining or Anytime Dining.

On Golden Princess, those with Traditional Dining are assigned to a specific seating and table in the Canaletto dining room – either 5:45 pm or 8:15 pm or the Donatello dining room – 5:30 pm.  Those with Anytime Dining can come to the dining room any time during seating hours (Bernini between 5:45 pm and 9:30 pm or Donatello between 7:30 pm and 10:00 pm).

We chose Anytime Dining as only the early seatings were available to book and I do not like dining that early in the evening as I get sleepy after I eat.

Guests in either dining program can also make reservations to dine at one of the specialty restaurants.  Sabatini’s (the Italian restaurant) has a $25 cover charge as does Crown Grill (the Steakhouse).

The ship also occasionally offers special events such as their pop-up Crab Shack restaurant (which operates out of one side of the Horizon Court on select nights) for $20 per person, their Afternoon Tea (complimentary), and English Pub Lunch (also complimentary).

We ended up only doing one surcharged meal because we had a great deal of difficulty managing reservations which cannot be made in advance, only on the ship.  To further the complication, they can only be made by calling a special number from your stateroom between 8 am and 5 pm.  We missed the window on the first day (and when the line was closed after 5 pm, the service desk was unwilling to help us).  The next day I made a special trip up to the room to secure our Crab Shack reservation.  The final day, we were out in port and didn’t think about dining until after 5 pm.  I would have liked to have tried Crown Grill, but will save that for a future cruise.

Our dining experience was as follows:

Embarkation Day:

  • lunch in Donatello main dining room
  • nibbles in Vines Wine Bar
  • dinner in Bernini main dining room

Sea Day:

  • breakfast in Horizon Court buffet
  • lunch in Crown Grill for English Pub Lunch
  • nibbles in International Café & Vines Wine Bar
  • afternoon tea in Donatello main dining room
  • dinner in Crab Shack

Port Day:

  • breakfast in Horizon Court buffet
  • lunch OFF SHIP
  • nibbles in International Café & Vines Wine Bar
  • dinner in Bernini main dining room

Disembarkation Day:

  • breakfast in Canaletto main dining room

My general impressions of the food and dining were not favorable.  I think perhaps my expectations were set fairly high as I heard many advance reports that “Princess has amazing food”.  I read up on message boards and blogs to glean favorite dishes from Princess regulars and tried many of them.  I felt that many fell flat on flavor and I observed that the menus appeared to be both dated and stuffy – I’d describe the overall impression as “1970s supper club fare”.  In other words, they are stuck in the Love Boat’s golden oldies era.

Strawberries Romanoff is one of the lunchtime desserts on Golden Princess.

Strawberries Romanoff is one of the lunchtime desserts on Golden Princess.

But the bigger issue I had was service.

An example?  On the last evening, we ended up in a main dining room (they all have identical menus for any given evening).  The supper club fare was just too heavy form me so I decided to make my meal from three appetizers.  I asked to start with the Caesar salad to be followed by the lobster bisque and with a main of escargot.  Guess what came first?  The escargot followed by the soup with a final course of salad.  It seems the waiters can only take and serve in the order that the items appear on their pre-printed order check – or so it was explained.

Here’s an example of one of our meals – either what I ordered or what my sister did.  A shrimp cocktail with small shrimp, a soupy artichoke dip with two medium sized crostini, a Caesar salad (with my requested extra anchovies), a crawfish dish served in puff pastry, and cherries jubilee.  Not pictured is my sister’s scoop of ice cream.

Shrimp Cocktail on Golden Princess

Caesar Salad on Golden Princess

Artichoke Dip on Golden Princess

Crawfish in Puff Pastry on Golden Princess

Cherries Jubilee on Golden Princess

Cherries Jubilee on Golden Princess

On our final day, we were not allowed to have a small table for breakfast so we had to wait for a full table of 10 to be sat.  Then the waiter bungled half the orders.  In all, that delayed us disembarking.  At the same, time, even with mass seating for Traditional Dining, the Anytime Dining dining rooms seemed to struggle most days. On the first night, we waited in line almost an hour to be seated in Bernini (and the line for Donatello was even longer).

Still, the main dining room was an improvement for breakfast over the Horizon Court the first two days.  I had a great deal of difficultly finding anything there that met my non-wheat, non-corn, non-dairy requirements that didn’t turn my stomach.  I found the buffet food completely unappetizing and limited in range.  I also hated the cheap plastic cups and plates they used – my college dining hall had nicer dinnerware!

I also felt that the English Pub Lunch didn’t live up to the hype.  It seemed to be a mass-production affair where our food was slung down about three minutes after we ordered.  My fish and chips had decent fish, but soggy chips.  (I think the ship had an issue with cooking French fries properly as I tried them one other time and they were the same consistency.)  The staff and tables were decked out in theme (something we also saw for Italian and American themes later in the cruise) but it felt very forced.

I also noticed that the plating was fairly lackluster.  Iceberg lettuce leaves seemed to be the garnish of choice on most things I saw served.  And despite the elaborate supper club descriptions, complete with sauces and such, the food was exceedingly bland.

But I also loved a few things too.

The Crab Shack was a fun concept – I’m not sure if it was worth $20, but it was the best meal we had on board.  (Leave it to me to pick the meal where I was allowed to color on the table!)  I liked the nice cloth crab bibs they handed out and felt the portions were generous.  I noticed that the table next to us tried to negotiate to split the cover charge, despite the fact that they will offer seconds if you finish your first plate of seafood.  The hush puppies were my sister’s favorite thing!

Golden Princess

Coloring on the table in the Crab Shack on Golden Princess

I also enjoyed the light salads and pastry case at the International Café – those were some of my favorite nibbles on board and if sailing solo, I’d probably dine from there and sit in the Piazza to read on many days.

A view of the Piazza opposite Vines Wine Bar and the International Café on Golden Princess.

A view of the Piazza opposite Vines Wine Bar and the International Café on Golden Princess.

And the light sushi plates served at Vines (complimentary with a drink purchase) were my afternoon snack every afternoon on board.

Sushi at Vines Wine Cafe, Golden Princess

Sushi at Vines Wine Cafe, Golden Princess

In terms of drinking, we elected to purchase the All-Inclusive Beverage Package which allows each person to enjoy unlimited cocktails, beer, wine, sodas, specialty coffees, shakes, and bottled water.  The package costs $49 per day per person (plus 15% gratuity) and both individuals in a stateroom must select the package.  We had a sticker affixed to our key card and every drink we ordered that was $10 or less was automatically deducted.  Depending on what your poison of choice is, you need to average 6-8 drinks per day to breakeven so it may not be worthwhile for more port-intensive cruises or lighter drinkers.  I feel my sister could have gone either way on the breakeven at the end of the cruise; I probably came out ahead.

Vines Wine Bar was my favorite spot on the ship.  They had a wonderful selection of wines (most $10 or less) so I was able to sample my way through many of them in the afternoons/evenings.

Vines Wine Bar on Golden Princess

Vines Wine Bar on Golden Princess

We also sampled several cocktails from various venues on the ship.  One issue I encountered was that they were unable (or unwilling) to handle any request not on the pre-printed cocktail menu.  While admittedly extensive, I was surprised that I could not get a Bellini.  Or a Frangelico up.  But they could make a couple dozen specialty martinis and several varieties of margaritas.

Overall, I would not sail Princess in the future without adjusting my expectations about food and beverage service.  And I’d definitely evaluate the math on the All-Inclusive Beverage Package.  I think with the knowledge I now have, my strategy would be to use the International Café for breakfasts and lunches and budget to enjoy a healthy ratio of specialty dining in the evenings.  Or eat more sushi in Vines!


Next up – Are We There Yet?! – evaluating  activities and amenities

About Jennifer Moody

Jennifer is a management consultant and avid volunteer. Her career and volunteer duty travels have helped her log top-tier airline and hotel status annually for the last nineteen years. In addition, she embraces the opportunity to maximize her vacation time by planning extracurricular trips that have taken her to over 60 countries and 48.5 US states. Once an "every week" road warrior, she now only travels around 100 days a year. She resides in her native Fort Worth, Texas where she enjoys cooking, gardening, sewing, needlepoint, wine, and playing with her Border Collie/Great Pyreness mix puppy Harley Quinn.

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