Day 1, Destination Hawai’i With Princess Cruises’ Grand Princess: Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay
SAN FRANCISCO – The largest cruise ship in the world when it was launched in 1998, Princess Cruises’ Grand Princess carries 2,600 passengers and a crew of 1,150, making it a standard-size ship compared to today’s megaships with passenger capacities nearing seven thousand.
Partially refurbished this past March, details for which I will explore in the coming days, Grand Princess will take five days to reach the first of the four Hawaiian Islands to be visited. The return to San Francisco will then take seven days, including a required one-day stopover at Ensenada, Mexico. (Yes, we packed our passports.)
My only prior trip to Hawai’i – Maui and Kauai — was by air a couple of decades ago. My wife, Jialin, is making her second visit to Honolulu and Maui.
My purpose in returning to Hawai’i is two-fold, to complete an assignment for All Things Cruise, and to photograph one of the final subjects that will complete a book I’ve been working on for several years, Cruising the World, From Gondolas to Megaships.
Our arrival in San Francisco was a day early allowing time to photograph around Fisherman’s Wharf near our hotel. Unexpectedly, the weather was beautiful with an absence of fog. Nevertheless, I was reminded that when I think of San Francisco — a city I visited often in the past on stopovers going-to and coming-from China — I think of a poem by its most famous resident poet, Lawrence Ferlinghetti:
“The changing light / at San Francisco / is none of your East Coast light / none of your / pearly light of Paris / The light of San Francisco / is a sea light / an island light / And the light of fog / blanketing the hills / drifting in at night / through the Golden Gate / to lie on the city at dawn.”
Boarding the Grand Princess went efficiently, except for an elderly gentleman, apparently in charge of the only stapler at the terminal entrance, who reluctantly stapled our pre-printed tags onto our bags in a most surly manner.
By the time we accomplished having our bags tagged, the porters at the terminal entrance had inexplicably disappeared. That left it for us to roll our luggage up several flights onto the ship. As the staterooms were not ready to be occupied upon boarding, we dragged the bags with us to the buffet at the Horizon Court on the Lido deck. A leisurely lunch by one of the pools was some consolation for our effort as the food was tasty and plentiful, particularly the ample choice of desserts.
Our scheduled departure at 4 PM in the afternoon had most passengers on deck waiting in anticipation of passing under the Golden Gate Bridge, considered to be one of the most beautiful bridges in the world, the fifth most photographed landmark in the USA, and consequently, one of the most recognizable.
As the light of the setting sun disappeared over the horizon, the ship remained at the dock, delayed by passengers who failed to attend the required muster, or perhaps another vague reason, such as waiting for late passengers or medical supplies being delivered to the ship that were slow to arrive. The explanation wasn’t made clear.
Consequently, as daylight had vanished after 5PM, only photos of the bridge in silhouette from a very long distance were possible.
Not until sometime after 7 PM — while we sat in the Princess Theater enjoying the rapid humorous patter of Carlos Oscar, a comedian from “an island full of Puerto Ricans, Manhattan” — did it become evident that the ship was finally moving.
After the show a fellow passenger reported that we had passed through the Golden Gate and the bridge was now well out of sight.
Day 2, Destination Hawai’i With Princess Cruises’ Grand Princess: Grand Entertainment
ABOARD the GRAND PRINCESS – In addition to a very comfortable bed and bright new carpeting, our compact, and well organized, inside stateroom is equipped with a large high definition TV screen.
Upon first turning on the TV, a 14-minute video starts up playing the familiar theme song to the classic TV show The Love Boat, but with new safety lyrics. Several of the original actors from the show charmingly ham it up while welcoming passengers on board to safely experience the activities and features of Princess ships.
The TVs in all staterooms feature a daily information video hosted by the ship’s cruise director, Kevin Tugwell, called The Wake Show. Activities on board for the day and upcoming excursions are announced that are intended “to keep everyone busy.” The list is quite extensive with choices offered ranging from the usual trivia contests, karaoke, champagne reception and art auction, ballroom dance classes, and casino, to others as disparate as line dancing and acupuncture for seasickness. Of course there are the requisite bars, clubs and lounges, a dozen strategically located onboard. Some of the drinking spots provide live musical entertainment, both instrumental and vocal.
If the ship somehow doesn’t offer enough entertainment to please everyone, there are TV channels MSNBC, CNBC, Fox News, the BBC, ESPN and ESPN2 received live via satellite available in every room. NFL games also appear live on the big screen poolside, normally the venue for Movies Under the Stars. No need to miss out on the latest news and sports while at sea.
On our first morning aboard, Jialin attended a Zumba class in the ship’s Vista Lounge.
Afterward we both attended a presentation in the Princess Theater on the first Hawaiian island to be visited, the Big Island of Hawai’i. “Ambassador of Aloha” Rowena Vasquez, a native of Hawai’i, introduced the many attractions to be seen on the Big Island. In the coming days at sea, Oahu, Kauai, and Maui will be subjects of her talks. During her appearance, passengers were invited to attend classes during the cruise in celebration of a “King Kamehameha Festival” where instructions on making leis, learning to dance the hula, ukulele playing and other aspects of Hawaiian culture are to be covered.
Princess likes to emphasize that the Grand Princess is a big ship with a small ship feel. Numerous restaurants, theaters, bars, swimming pools and gathering spots are intended to foster an impression of intimacy despite the large number of passengers on board.
The genius loci on the ship is the centrally located Italian-style Piazza. Princess converted an ordinary mid-ship atrium into the colorful Piazza – decorated on the Grand Princess with giant Hawaiian cloth prints — to use as an all-purpose hub of activity. Live entertainers ranging from pianists to Mariachi musicians appear regularly. Traditional events held there are the Captain’s Welcome Cocktail Party and Champagne Waterfall — during which bubbly is poured over a tower of glasses by passengers – and a popular balloon drop in celebration of the end of the cruise.
Comprising three decks connected by spiraling staircases, passengers can gather in The Piazza or may linger there over coffee or drinks at popular lookout spots. Unobstructed views of The Piazza, from the International Café (coffee by day and cocktails at night), Vines (wine bar), Crooners, and the Piazza Bar encourage people watching, including periodic action on The Piazza’s dance floor.
Entertainment in the Princess Theater changes nightly throughout the cruise. While the seating capacity is undersized based on the number of passengers on board, the stage sets and lighting are first rate. A big plus is a sound system that delivers clearly to the farthest corners of the theater.
The second night’s entertainer, accomplished vocalist Jennifer Singer, was a hit in the Princess Theater. Broadway songs made popular by Carol King, Barbra Streisand, Sarah McLachlin, Tina Turner, Gloria Estefan, and Celine Dionne were performed to standing-room-only crowds at both 7:30 and 9:30 show times.
Day 3, Destination Hawai’i With Princess Cruises’ Grand Princess: Specks in a Vastness of Blue
ABOARD the GRAND PRINCESS – During four days at sea en route to Hawai’i, there is time to contemplate the oldest of the world’s seas, the Pacific Ocean, and the place of the Hawaiian Islands in it. Ranger John, former national parks employee, is onboard to help with a seminar entitled “Think Hawaiian Geology is Boring? No Way Baby, It’s Explosive.”
It’s commonly known that the islands of the mid-Pacific are the result of volcanic action, the eight Hawaiian Islands being the best known. Unlike the Galapagos, Aleutians, and the volcanic islands on the western Pacific Rim, such as those of Japan and Indonesia that are on the edges of the tectonic Pacific Plate, the Hawaiian Islands lie in the middle of the plate. Over millennia, as this Pacific plate has moved northwesterly, a hot spot venting magma from the earth’s crust has successively produced a string of islands both below and above sea level from Midway to the most southeasterly above water, the Big Island of Hawai’i.
When we drive about on the Big Island in a few days, I’ll cover two significant features of the island, Kilauea – one of the world’s most spectacular active volcanoes — and the world’s tallest mountain from base to summit, Mauna Loa, at 30,085 feet, greater than the 29,029 feet elevation of Mount Everest from sea level to its summit.
Certainly the Pacific Ocean is vast — 60 million square miles. All of the earth’s continents could fit within its borders with room to spare. It can look black as India ink on a starless night, or ultramarine blue endlessly sparkling in the tropical sun. The largest and deepest ocean on earth; it is a watery wilderness dotted with specks of land that are the most isolated lands on the planet.
The islands of the mid-Pacific are barren desert, so remote that no life would have survived on them absent coconuts that floated from island-to-island providing sustenance for the few animals that were able to reach the islands over time.
Those animals that do inhabit the Pacific’s islands, such as spiders and geckos, have mostly been blown there by the wind. With half the world’s cyclones, some as wide as 800 kilometers, the opportunities for animals to become castaways are frequent (e.g., the geckos in Hawai’i originated in New Zealand.)
Sixty-two seabird species regularly use the tropical Pacific. Among them, the albatross is capable of flying 10,000 kilometers, while others can fly for four years and return to land only to breed. Millions of those seabirds in the central Pacific can be found congregating on the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge.
Below the water’s surface, life is abundant in even the most desolate parts of the Pacific. At dusk, squid– more abundant than fish–come up from the depths and descend into the abyss at dawn. A voracious predator, squid can weigh up to 110 pounds and reach more than six feet in length. As they increase in numbers due to changes in climate, they are migrating from tropical waters to more northern latitudes, causing fishermen to worry that they will soon diminish valuable fish stocks.
Squid have their own predators to worry about as whales can dive to great depths to catch them. Fortunately for squid, sperm whales are only a threat when they come to the tropics every fifteen years to breed.
In his epic book, Pacific, The Ocean of the Future, prolific author Simon Winchester recounts the many theories of how the Hawaiian Islands, located in great distance from islands in the west, were reached and settled.
The islands of the Pacific were not populated until expert seafarers and navigators of the Lapita culture began reaching out into the vast expanses of the empty ocean to find them 2,000 years ago. Descendants of people from the mainland of South China 8,000 years ago, the Lapita were the ancestors of today’s Micronesians and Melanesians, and the Polynesians who settled the triangle of islands from New Zealand (Aotearoa) to Easter Island (Rapa Nui) to the Hawaiian Islands in ancient double-hulled canoes using traditional voyaging techniques.
Without the use of any technical devises, the ancestors of Polynesians, the Tahitians, were able to travel thousands of miles by observing the sea, the stars, and passing birds and fish. In 1769, Captain James Cook was astounded when a priest in Tahiti drew a map of the ocean extending two thousand miles showing all the major island groups including Fiji, Tonga, and the Marquesas. Since the skeptical Cook had not discovered most of these islands himself, he believed that islands as far away as Easter Island and the Hawaiian group must have been reached by Tahitians drifting accidentally with the currents and winds and not by design.
Navigating skills practiced by Polynesians for hundreds of years were integral to their culture and celebrated in sagas, songs, and poetry. All travel within the Polynesian triangle – an area the size of North and South America combined — relied on the knowledge handed down orally from the experience of ancient elders. Yet the skills vanished suddenly when incoming Westerners banned inter-island voyages in canoes. Determined to be too dangerous for the informal and unstructured Polynesians to continue, the skills of the navigators became a casualty of the belief of the new European masters in their racial superiority.
Those skilled Polynesians sailing from Tahiti were the first to arrive in the Hawaiian Islands in about 700 AD. Today only 126 pure Polynesian-Hawaiians remain. The 10% of the population that are considered native Hawaiians are a mix of Polynesian with Americans who came in 1820, Chinese in 1852, Japanese in 1868, and others later on including Portuguese, Samoans, and Puerto Ricans. Hawai’i is a melting pot of all these diverse people that get along amicably by practicing the Ways of Aloha, which I will explain later.
Day 4, Destination Hawai’i With Princess Cruises’ Grand Princess: Aloha Honolulu
HONOLULU, Oahu – Our stateroom on the Grand Princess is on the 12th deck, also known as the Aloha deck. When the elevator door opens on this deck, passengers are greeted with a hearty “Alo-ha!”
Undoubtedly the word in the Hawaiian language best known throughout the world, Aloha has a deeper meaning than hello or goodbye. To Hawaiians, Aloha is spiritual, a way to a harmonious life, and is embedded deeply in the culture.
The meaning of Aloha encompasses love, affection, sharing, peace, compassion and, at times, pity and grief. It is a set of values and a guidance system transmitted orally from the ancients through storytelling, and chants and legends, since they had no written language. It’s “do the right thing” and more, as Hawaiians will go out of their way to help a neighbor or even a stranger in need of assistance.
I was eager to learn more about Hawaiian culture and anticipated visiting the Polynesian Cultural Center, a Polynesian-themed park and living ethno-museum, and the Iolani Palace, the beautifully restored palace built in 1882 by King Kalakaua, the first monarch to circumnavigate the world, who collected the finest in furnishings for the palace during his travels. Unfortunately the Polynesian Center isn’t open on Sundays and we didn’t make it to the Palace before it closed for the day. Nevertheless, I was able to enjoy local folkloric performers of traditional and modern Hawaiian music and dance, The Halau Hula Olana Show, in the ship’s Princess Theater in the evening.
Since Jialin visited Honolulu for several days a few years ago and hadn’t been to Diamond Head, we decided to make that our priority for the day. We opted to take the public city/county buses, which have the catchy title TheBus. The fare is only one dollar per ride, or a 1-day pass can be purchased for $5.50 for unlimited rides. Two rides, No. 20 and No. 23, got us to the base of the Diamond Head Memorial.
As it turned out the walk up the incline that skirts the outside of Diamond Head was a bit arduous until reaching a vehicle tunnel that leads inside. It costs $1 for walkers to enter what is surprisingly a gently rolling expanse of greenery dotted with broad shade trees filled with an abundance of chirping birds. Not what I expected to find inside a volcanic crater, no matter how extinct.
A bit exhausted from the trek up, I declined when Jialin suggested we climb further up the side of the crater to an overlook high above Honolulu. It seemed to me steeper than anything I’ve climbed in my younger days, including several ascents of the Great Wall of China. I rather enjoyed leisurely resting on a bench in the shade listening to the birds and watching four mongooses rollicking around picnic tables searching for scraps and crumbs while Jialin took an hour and a half to tackle the mountain.
I was impressed with the photos Jialin had taken from the summit, particularly the views of Waikiki Beach directly below. So, to the beach was our next stop.
Waikiki was hopping with activity. I suppose it was due to being Sunday, as local youths seemed to preoccupy the beachfront furthest from the big hotels. With less sand and large pools of water near the shore, there were a few young men performing youthful stunts, such as diving off the roof of a shelter at the end of a pier.
Further down the beach, near the fabled Royal Hawaiian Hotel, the beach was a buzz of activity. Surfers carried their boards in and out of the water, three catamarans doing snorkeling and sightseeing cruises loaded and unloaded passengers, and outrigger canoes with tourists paddling erratically launched into the waves. All of this among and despite bronze bodies scattered about nearly every spare yard of sand.
The waves were a bit placid for surfing today, but Waikiki is, nonetheless, nearly synonymous with the sport. (It’s on Oahu’s North Shore, site of the Banzai Pipeline, where seven miles of breaking waves are some of surfing’s most challenging waters anywhere in the world.) Standing prominently near the beach is a statue of local idol Duke Kahanamoku who practically invented the modern sport of riding the waves in Oahu.
Day 5, Destination Hawai’i with Princess Cruises’ Grand Princess: Garden Isle of Kauai
NAWILIWILI, Kauai – As the oldest of the Hawaiian Islands geologically, Kauai is the most highly eroded. The resulting landscapes of jagged peaks and ridges, canyons, and precipitous cliffs have a prehistoric feeling. Combined with thick, lush rainforest vegetation, the island appears to be the perfect setting for a movie about earth at a primitive stage, which probably explains why Stephen Spielberg filmed Jurassic Park on Kauai.
Spielberg also used Kauai as a background in Raiders of the Lost Ark and Hook. King Kong was made here as well. Hollywood apparently favors it as a useful stand-in for locations from Tahiti to Australia. Another of the island’s outstanding features, its exceptionally non-primitive resorts, was instrumental in making Blue Hawaii, starring Elvis Presley.
Kauai’s spectacular beaches and dramatic seascapes and landscapes attract celebrities such as Lisa Bonet and Alicia Keys, as well as tourists – Captain Cook holds the distinction of being the first. It recently enticed Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg — to great opposition from the locals — to attempt to build a personal 100 million-dollar estate here, unsuccessfully to the approval of the neighborhood.
Four-fifths of Kauai is isolated with roads only around its perimeter, except for the gap of cliffs and valleys of the Napali Coast (Na Pali means steep cliffs in Hawaiian) that is observable on an excursion from above by helicopter or plane, or from sightseeing boats and kayaks from the water.
Being thrifty and less adventurous, we opted to rent a car to have the flexibility to explore for a few hours on our own. For some odd reason, my request for an economy car for the day resulted instead in a beastly Ford SUV the size of a hearse. It was not what I expected, nor wanted, for climbing the winding, and windy, narrow road from sea level to 3,600 feet to view the vistas of Waimea Canyon, described as the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific” by Mark Twain. As the drive is a bit arduous, it gave me an appreciation for tour bus drivers who must successfully maneuver large vehicles routinely around tight corners and over the swaying pavement of the two-lane highway.
Another of the attractions of Kauai is Smith’s Boat Tours that operates 14 flat-bottomed riverboats on two-mile cruises on Kauai’s meandering Wailua River — the only navigable river in Hawai’i. The source of the river is one of the wettest spots in the world, a crater on Mt. Wai’ale’ale.
The destination for the one-hour-and-twenty-minute round-trip cruises is the Fern Grotto, a lava cave in the midst of a tropical rainforest. Formed millions of years ago, the grotto is a geological wonder filled with tropical plants.
Along the way, cruisers on the Wailua can have a peek at Opaekaa Falls.
On my previous visit many years ago, I was able to drive along the North Coast, reputed to be one of the most scenic places in the world. Famous as “Bali Hai” in the film South Pacific, it features miles of beautiful white-sand beaches, lush rainforests, and mountain waterfalls. Unfortunately, it is not currently advised to go there as the road is under reconstruction and a tie-up could easily cause missing the boat back in Nawiliwili.
For visitors with more time to spend, Kauai’s most popular outdoor activities include zip-lining above the tropical forest canopy, hiking through the jungle, swimming in natural pools, river kayaking and tubing. Snorkeling at one of the island’s beautiful beaches or along the Napali Coast would also be a delightful opportunity for a glimpse of the incredible coral, fish, and sea turtles to be viewed offshore.
Day 6, Destination Hawai’i with Princess Cruises’ Grand Princess: Maui Hoops & Beaches
LAHAINA, Maui – Many basketball fans were in town today for the second round of the Maui Jim Maui Invitational tournament being held at the Lahaina Civic Center. Scheduled from November 25th through the 27th, the 2019 teams included BYU, Chaminade, Dayton, Georgia, Kansas, UCLA, Virginia Tech, and Michigan State – a collection of programs that boasts a combined 198 NCAA Tournament appearances, 44 Final Four berths and 16 national championships. (Michigan State lost yesterday to Virginia Tech and plays UCLA today for fifth place.)
As my son and daughter are Michigan State grads, and I’m a Hoosier-born basketball fan, I wore an MSU T-shirt around town to mingle. I was also curious about the seemingly redundant name for the tournament, “Maui Jim Maui Invitational.”
Originating in 1984 as the Maui Invitational, I learned that the name was changed in 2015 when the Peoria, Illinois-based sunglasses manufacturer Maui Jim became the tournament sponsor. So who was “Maui Jim?” was my next question. Of course Wikipedia had the answer: The sunglasses company, founded in Lahaina in 1980, was named after a fisherman who sold sunglasses on the beach called “Maui Jim.”
Apparently Maui Jim has now moved up from the beach to a superstore on Lahaina’s Front Street.
“I went to Maui to stay a week and remained five. I never spent so pleasant a month before, or bade any place goodbye so regretfully. I have not once thought of business, or care or human toil or trouble or sorrow or weariness, and the memory of it will remain with me always.” –Mark Twain
A former royal capital of Hawaii, the port of Lahaina attracts shoppers and strollers to its quaint streets lined with traditional Hawaiian architecture, such as the historic Pioneer Inn pictured here.
But to appreciate the grandeur of the scenic attractions of Maui, it’s necessary to escape the town to explore. With eighty-one white sand beaches surrounding two volcanic peaks, and treasures of the deep offshore, there is much to see and do.
Here are two of the most popular:
The Road to Hana — a winding drive around the northern and western coasts — passes numerous secluded palm-fringed coves of sandy beaches and rolling surf. Taking a minimum of three hours of difficult driving to get there, as well as to return on the same narrow lanes, it is not recommended to try in one day in a rental car. I survived it thirty years ago, but I was so much younger then. However, Princess offers an all-day excursion to Hana and back, without the strain.
Another Maui attraction is watching the spectacular sunrise from the 10,000-foot summit of Mount Haleakala. It requires a pre-dawn drive to the top that is unfortunately not possible during a limited cruise stopover. Nor is taking a cruise to witness a brilliant Maui sunset while dining, offered by several sightseeing boats operating from the Lahaina wharf.
Nonetheless, there are daytime cruises from the waterfront to snorkel, whale watch when in season, or glimpse undersea life in a spacious air-conditioned Atlantis Submarine, or in a semisubmersible glass bottom boat, Reefdancer –The Yellow Semi Sub. Diving cruises usually go to the underwater Molokini Crater where 250 species of fish and marine life can be seen with visibility up to 150 feet. Snorkeling, scuba and snuba diving are all possible in the calm waters to be found in the crater.
The highest concentration of humpback whales on earth – four to five thousand, two-thirds of the North American stock — can be found in the waters off Maui. They breed in the warm waters of Hawai’i in winter before migrating three thousand miles to Alaskan waters during the summer months. Watching the mothers teach their calves to breach would be awesome to photograph. Frequently dolphins and turtles can be spotted on whale watching cruises as well.
Day 7, Destination Hawai’i With Princess Cruises’ Grand Princess: Eating Well in the Neighborhood
ABOARD the GRAND PRINCESS – Deciding on where to eat the next meal on a cruise ship is a bit like deciding which neighborhood restaurant to eat at back home. There are choices to be made, and onboard the Grand Princess the choices are numerous.
There are two main dining rooms for passengers who like the flexibility of eating anytime within the posted hours. They are on separate decks and appear identical, except for the paintings on the walls. Actually the paintings are reproductions of the respective master artist’s works. The Da Vinci Dining Room, or what I like to call “Lenny’s,” serves breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea, and dinner. The Michelangelo Dining Room, or “Mick’s” for short, serves only dinner. Menus in both dining rooms, as well as in the Botticelli dining room, are the same.
The Botticelli Dining Room is reserved for traditional diners with seating for early dinner at 5 PM or late seating at 7:30 PM. The décor of this dining room mirrors the other two, but is decorated with reproductions by early Italian Renaissance master, Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi, known as Sandro Botticelli.
For buffet aficionados who love food — and plenty of it — there is the Horizon Court with two identical sections on the Lido deck. Both are open during the busiest hours but normally are not overly crowded. Selections for all meals are somewhat limited, although the quality and variety offered is sufficient to satisfy most people’s tastes. Particularly tasty are the freshly baked breads and pastries. Several choices of delicious desserts make deciding on only one quite difficult, so choosing to taste a few at a time often wins out.
New dining venues on the Lido deck — all near the pools — are Slice Pizzeria (pizza by the slice), Coffee & Cones (soft-serve chocolate and vanilla cones are free, but specialty coffees are not), and The Salty Dog Grill.
In addition to regular burgers and fries at the Salty Dog, the “Ernesto Burger” draws serious acclaim. Created by burger expert Ernesto Uchimura, the special burger ($5 charge or $8 with a beer) is ground from prime rib-eye and short rib steak, plus some pork belly, gruyere cheese, caramelized kimchi, jalapeno, and aioli, served on a brioche bun.
Located at the lower level of The Piazza are the International Café and Alfredo’s Pizzeria.
The International Café is a very popular spot where service is usually quite efficient despite a busy location and popularity. The offerings are fresh and the options are changed daily, served by the friendly, enthusiastic staff. Pastries, sandwiches, soups and salads are all at no charge, although specialty coffees available are not.
At Alfredo’s Pizzeria, made-to-order 12-inch pizzas in seven types are hand-tossed, baked in ten minutes, and served at tables in a small alcove open to viewing activity in the Piazza. Wine by the glass is available for purchasing.
Lastly, there are two specialty restaurants requiring reservations, Sabatini’s Italian Trattoria ($25 cover charge) and Crown Grill ($29 cover charge). Another specialty venue, Crab Shack, only serves in a section of Horizon Court on a few sea days during the cruise.
Sabatini’s a la carte menu of the “highest quality Italian cuisine and premium seafood” more than fulfills the expectations of most diners. Cruisers on the Grand Princess — and another few select Princess ships — enjoy a new menu designed by Italian chef Angelo Auriana. Encompassing five courses, a meal at Sabatini’s invites lingering over each course highlighted by main course choices of baked striped bass in a zucchini crust; garlic shrimp with vegetables; lobster prepared three ways; chicken supreme stuffed with eggplant; a 10-ounce strip steak; or roasted veal rack with mushroom ragout.
Jialin and I had the pleasure of dining at the Crown Grill – Premium Seafood and Chop House — on a formal night.
She enjoys a good steak and I rarely eat beef. I maintain that the only beef worth eating is a nice filet mignon.
On a ship with plenty of satisfactory food options, a specialty restaurant that has an additional charge for a meal must go to extra efforts to differentiate itself and display added value. What differentiates the Crown Grill, we believe, is not the “premium aged beef” that is promoted to entice passengers to reserve a meal there. What they do best are the appetizers, soups and salads, and desserts.
There are eight cuts of chops and steaks on the menu, as well as Wisconsin veal, New Zealand lamb, and “Surf & Turf” featuring Maine lobster for an additional $10. On the seafood side are a “mussel and smoked sausage pot,” Chilean sea bass, prawns, and the lobster tail as a separate main course.
Jialin thought the New Zealand double lamb chop that she ordered was satisfactory, but no better than lamb served in the main dining rooms. My filet mignon turned out to be dry and over-cooked. I was offered another one by the waiter and it was only slightly more moist and tender. I had previously had a small filet mignon in the main dining room that I felt was delicious, with no added expense. The question it raised in my mind, consequently, is where is the added value in the Crown Grill?
First, the service in the Crown Grill is excellent. Personal attention is given to each guest that is not possible in the busy, often noisy, main dining rooms.
Second, the appetizers are creatively presented and provide a nice, light touch as a starter. Equally flavorsome were the soups, a shrimp and pancetta bisque for me, and an inventive Black and Blue Onion soup for Jialin (the black is for Jack Daniels whiskey in the broth and the blue is a Roquefort cheese crust melted on top). Mixed salads of greens with roasted bell peppers and avocado with a grape-balsamic dressing for Jialin and marinated goat cheese with baby spinach, beets and basil vinaigrette dressing for me, were perfect.
As the final touch to a leisurely meal lasting nearly two hours, four enticing desserts were offered. As I mentioned previously, the desserts are so good on the Grand Princess that two or more following a meal are nearly obligatory. The executive pastry chef ‘s solution is to provide a sampling of all four: molten Dutch chocolate fudge, lemon meringue pudding tart, seven-layer s’mores stack, and a milk chocolate peanut butter bar with honey roasted peanuts that is so mouthwateringly good that it’s almost a crime.
Yes, a special meal at Crown Grill is a welcome change-of-pace from the other dining venues. But next time I’ll order the sea bass.
Day 8, Destination Hawai’i With Princess Cruises on Grand Princess: Origins of the Islands
HILO, Hawai’i – It took Mark Twain ten days to cruise from San Francisco to the Hawaiian Islands on a newly launched passenger and cargo steamer in 1866. He was immediately charmed upon arrival, writing that “…no other land could so longingly and so beseechingly haunt me.”
Consequently, Twain’s travel dispatches describing “the loveliest fleet of islands that lies anchored in any ocean” published in the Sacramento Union newspaper, and later in book form as Roughing It in the Sandwich Islands, heightened awareness of the islands by Americans and launched the beginnings of what is now the Hawaiian travel industry.
Our first Hawai’i landing is not in the lovely Maui that Mark Twain wrote about, but in pouring rain on the largest of those Hawaiian Islands, the “Big Island” of Hawai’i. Receiving an average 127 inches annually, the port of Hilo on the Big Island is the second wettest spot in Hawaii, the first being in Kauai. The weather report today for Hilo was for a 65% chance of rain, which I facetiously interpreted as a 100% chance of rain that would last 65% of the day.
By the time we docked at 8AM and were on the way to the Hilo airport to pick up a rental car, a lime green Jeep Wrangler, the skies had partly cleared. For the next hour sunshine persisted until we arrived at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park.
Upon arrival we caught an informative talk on the geology of the five volcanoes on the island by Park Ranger Debbie at Kilauea Visitor Center. She described how volcanoes created every island of what are now the Hawaiian Islands, bubbling up magma over 70 million years from a vent in the ocean floor. While three volcanoes on the Big Island are now dormant, Kilauea and Mauna Loa are quite active.
Located over a hot spot as well as a magma reservoir, Mauna Loa, the world’s most massive mountain, comprises 51% of the entire island and is overdue to erupt according to scientific measurements. Most recently Kilauea, the youngest of the island’s five volcanoes, made headlines for an aggressive eruption in 2018. Fortunately, it has now settled down permitting the 505-square-mile Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park to reopen, although viewing the active Kilauea caldera is still not possible.
Following our Visitor Center visit we began the 38-mile round trip drive in a torrent of rain down the winding Chain of Craters Road that descends 3,700 feet to the steep 60-foot cliffs on the island’s current edge.
We hoped to see the famous H’lei Arch, eroded from a cliff, but access to the arch was closed. The rain, however, began to subside as we turned around to retrace our descent. On the way back up the road passing by small craters, the weather slowly improved, at least enough to view a couple of the extinct craters and contemplate the vast expanses of lava fields, and the more recent lava streams that had flowed through them.
Lava has different names in Hawaiian. Taking a piece as a souvenir is considered an act of disrespect. Should a tourist be tempted to do so surreptitiously, they should be aware that Pele, the goddess of volcanoes is always watching.
Driving back to Hilo from the park we had an opportunity to get a relatively clear view of Mauna Kea. At 13,796 feet above sea level, the summit of Mauna Kea is the highest point in the entire Pacific basin. Its forests range from tropical to alpine at higher elevations and it’s the only place on the Hawaiian Islands that has snow in the winter. At the 9,000 feet level, astronomers from 11 countries operate telescopes at the world’s largest astronomical site.
A popular, although expensive, way to see the Big Island’s volcanoes is in a helicopter or small plane. Another option is to explore the volcano with a boat trip, where often dolphins and manta rays may be seen surrounding the boat. Needless to say, both are dependent on the weather to operate and I found that renting a Jeep Wrangler is a more reliable means of transportation for viewing.
Not limited to volcanoes as an attraction, the Big Island is home to numerous tropical gardens that thrive on the island’s fertile volcanic soil. Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden is one of the unique gardens and cultivates over 2,000 species of plants. The 20-acre Nani Mau Gardens is known for its picturesque waterfalls and walking paths, and Panaewa Rainforest Zoo & Gardens showcases animals from rainforests around the world.
Unfortunately, we were unable to see one of the Big Island’s most beautiful areas, one that was once a meeting place of Hawaiian Kings. Centrally located in the heart of the Big Island’s lush rainforest, the Wai’po Valley (Valley of the Kings) matches its incomparable landscape with legendary history, a saga replete with “mighty Polynesian kings, sugar barons, and tales of war and treachery.”
Conveniently near Hilo are two picturesque falls. We were able to reach one, Rainbow Falls, before an afternoon torrent of rain interrupted a trip to the second, 442-foot high Akaka Falls. Rainbow Falls gets its name for rainbows that appear when mist from the water striking the river 80 feet below creates a prism of color in sunlight. While the rain held off during our visit, the lack of sufficient sunlight denied us the rainbow.
Day 9, Destination Hawai’i With Princess Cruises’ Grand Princess: Views & News
ABOARD the GRAND PRINCESS – Like a comfortable decades-old La-Z-Boy reclining rocker that you couldn’t imagine parting with, the 22-year old Grand Princess keeps sailing on with a satisfied clientele that does not dismiss the benefits of maturity. Only partially refurbished, mainly with new carpeting in much of the ship, the traditional cruise ship ambiance of the public areas obviously suits the tastes of many old-time cruisers.
From all appearances passengers on this cruise have enjoyed themselves. At one of two Captain’s Circle cocktail parties for members who have qualified for membership by virtue of having taken five or more Princess cruises, it was announced that over half – nearly 1,500 – of the passengers on board were members. Strongly represented were cruisers from the San Francisco Bay area and other Californians. The few elevator glitches, door malfunctions, and occasional leaky pipe on the ship are not likely to discourage any of them from sailing again with Princess.
NFL Football on Movies Under the Stars Screen, Captain’s Welcoming Party , Explorers Lounge, Captain John Harry Smith, Hula Dancer in Princess Theater, Sunset from Bow of Grand Princess and Grand Princess Singers & Dancers (©Dennis Cox/WorldViews)
Tradition aside, Princess is not content with standing still in the competition among cruise lines to innovate and enhance their fleets with larger next-generation ships.
Two Sphere Class megaships, with capacities of approximately 4,300 passengers and dual-fuel powered — primarily by Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG), an environmentally friendly advanced fuel technology — are expected in 2023 and 2025. Both will be approximately 20% larger than current ships in the Princess fleet.
Three new marginally smaller 3,600 passenger capacity Royal Class ships are also being added to the Princess fleet. Sky Princess debuted in October 2019, Enchanted Princess is due in 2020, and the Discovery Princess is scheduled for 2021.
An exciting innovation currently underway by Princess is making most of its ships Medallion Class. Grand Princess will join the growing fleet utilizing the Ocean Medallion, a first-of-its-kind wearable device on March 29, 2020.
Princess Ocean Medallion, courtesy Princess Cruises
Promising to “make cruise vacations even more enjoyable,” passengers will receive the new complimentary devices, slightly larger and thicker than a quarter coin, a couple of weeks before departure. Medallions can be worn as a wristband, pendant, clip, or kept in a pocket or bag.
The medallion can be pre-programed with each passenger’s unique digital identity to include only the personal information the client wants entered. Enabled are food and drink preferences, interactive gaming, custom entertainment, smart navigation, and the ability to locate other passengers wherever they are onboard. Medallions can be used for payments, unlocking stateroom doors, speeding up embarkation, and finding the way around the ship turn-by-turn. All of Princess’ Medallion Class ships are scheduled to be in operation by 2020.
Another welcome aspect of the new technology will be MedallionNet, which is being promoted as the “fastest Wi-Fi on the high seas.” It will come to the Grand Princess on February 21, 2020, and to six additional Princess ships this year. Eight ships are already equipped.
For those interested in cruising in the future on the Grand Princess, upcoming itineraries beyond the next two Hawai’i cruises, include a Mexico cruise over the holidays and an Alaska cruise next spring, all out of San Francisco. Southeast Asia itineraries out of Singapore are scheduled to begin next fall and 2021 cruises will depart out of Southampton, England.
Story and Photos ©Dennis Cox/WorldViews
Dennis Cox is All Things Cruise Writer and Official Photographer
NOTE: Photos from this Grand Princess cruise will be included in my forthcoming book, “Cruising the World, From Gondolas to Megaships,” to be published in February 2020. –Dennis Cox