Tuesday, October 11, 2016

An Open Smile on a Friendly Shore: Diary Entries from the Ruby Princess

September 19, 2016

Started the morning out tying up all loose ends around the house, then I was on my way.  Picked up Bob from the office at 8:00AM, dropped my oldest off at school, and we were on our way.

Traffic was stacked up on the freeway in Davis County, as usual, but a crash further slowed things down, but once past the wreck, the freeway cleared and the driving masses were getting underway again.

We got to the airport at 9 o'clock on the dot, printed our boarding passes and headed upstairs to TSA screening.  Having TSA precheck was supposed to make us go through a lot faster and easier, and I did, but Bob had to be escorted back out and forced to dump the contents of his water bottle and throw away his hair spray.  He finally made it through no sweat on the 2nd try.

Luckily, we made it early enough that we only hung around the boarding area for a little over an hour before boarding was called.  Thanks to my bum knee, the sweet ex-Western gate agent let us preboard and we were one of the very first onboard, so, off we go, and folded ourselves into the not so tall CRJ-900 cabin.  Settling in and watching the rest of the 73 passengers duck their way on, we eventually took a 5 minute delay due to slow boarding and paperwork, but once off the gate we hurried on out to runway 16R and off into the wild blue yonder.

The flight was uneventful, although we did fly over some seriously gorgeous scenery on a route that was first pioneered by Western Airlines in 1975.  The CRJ-900 is definitely a FAR cry from the 727's and 737's that used to fly the route (all the way up to 2004), but for the 2 hour flight it is, the RJ works.

Once on the ground, we hauled ourselves down the long and lonely corridor to Canadian Customs and Immigration.  Swipe the passport at the kiosk, take the declaration printout to the counter, stamp the passport (which we didn't get!!), and off to baggage claim and find our bags among the myriads of foreigners entering Vancouver (we came in around the same time as one of the Korean Air, Norwegian, Icleandair and Trans-Pacific Air Canada flights came in, so customs was packed).  Luckily, upon exiting the sterile area, our chauffeur was there and we were on the road in less than two minutes, and on our way to the Canada World Cruiseport.  Good thing I had the foresight to book a private driver, if he hadn't, with our delays, we would've missed the boat.

Offloading our bags and schlepping them through the Cruise Terminal, then through the first round of security and up into a massive, cavernous room that separated the cruising masses into smaller, more manageable boarding groups, Bob and I had a slight wait (no more than 20 minutes), then through what seemed like endless miles of cordoned off pathways, we made it to the check in line, and with our preferred check in status (one of the many benefits AAA members get when they book their cruise through us), we were on the Ruby Princess in 5 minutes, and up in our stateroom in less than 10, with my bags waiting.

Onboard the Ruby Princess

The Ruby Princess is one of 3 Grand-Class ships operated by Princess.  Built between 2007 and 2008, the Ruby was christened by Ryan and Trista Sutter, of The Bachelorette, and her maiden voyage took place on November 8, 2008.  She has room for 3,080 passengers and 1,200 crew.  For the remainder of 2016 she can be found in the waters between Alaska and the Mexican Riviera, before entering drydock for a refit on December 10.

Our cabin was A735, on Deck 12, the Aloha Deck.  It's a typical Balcony Stateroom, around 231 square feet, and nicely laid out for its size.  The balcony adds an additional 45 square feet, and seats 2, somewhat comfortably.  Upon entering the stateroom, we found welcome notes from Princess and AAA, thanking us for joining the Familiarization (FAM) trip, along with an invitation to the Boticelli Dining Room for the first Group Dinner, along with an invite before hand for drinks and mingling in the Adagio Lounge, where we met the majority of our FAM trip cohorts from AAA and from the Signature Travel Network, my previous consortia.

The dinner was amazing, and Princess' hostess for the FAM had the foresight to seat me and Bob at a table for 4 with one of the agents from the Vancouver, WA office and one of Signature's highest netting Luxury Agents, whom I met last year at the Luxury Travel Expo in Las Vegas.  As I said, the meal was superb, but it wiped us out, so we just headed back to the cabin and passed out.

September 20, 2016

Bob woke up before I did, but we managed to get a little bit of breakfast on the Lido Deck buffet well before our first onboard seminar at 8:30.

Today's presentation was on Princess Cruises and their more focused and increased sailings to Alaska for the 2017 and 2018 sailings.  They went over and explained the 4 ships that will be devoted to Alaska for the Spring (including the Ruby Princess), as well as an overview of the rail and land excursions available only to Princess passengers.  During the last 15 minutes or so, the crowd was whittled down to just the AAA agents and a brief overview of the additional benefits of booking our members through a AAA Vacations or Sojourns Cruise went on.  Good stuff, and plenty of info for me to digest and explain to our members when they call in for their next cruise.

We were on our own after the seminar and I spent Day 2 at Sea getting a tour of several different category staterooms, and a very cool and informative sit down with the Captain's Circle Hostess, going over the different levels of the Captain's Circle (think along the lines of Elite Status with the legacy airlines).

Stopped by the stateroom to relax for a bit and found invitations to dinner for us in the alternative dining restaurant, Share by Curtis Stone, along with one for dinner the following night at the Crown Grill Steakhouse down on the Promenade.

Share by Curtis Stone  is an intimate little corner of Deck 16, the Sun Deck.  It recently launched during the Ruby Princess' last drydock and has been wowing cruisers on each sailing, oh, and it's only available on the Ruby and Emerald Princesses, for now.

The Cover Charge is $39 per person, but is well worth every last, red penny, and it just happens to be open only for dinner.  The whole point to Share, according to Curtis Stone is to "amplify that feeling of just being together and sharing everything with one another and asking "what are you going to choose? 'Cause if you choose that, then I'll pick this and try yours as well."  In this overfed Travel Agents opinion, they have this down to an art form.

There are 5 reasons why you should pick Share at least on one night during your cruise, that'll be worth the splurge:

1 - You won't find food like this ANYWHERE else on the ship
      Before Share, the Ruby Princess only had the buffet and the Steakhouse, with the normal, average run of the mill offerings.  Share has changed the typical cruisers mindset.

2 - It's perfect for large groups...or couples
      The space is somewhat large, very open and airy, with long farmhouse style tables and well appointed booths tucked away in dimly lit corners, adding a slightly romantic touch to the evening.

3 - The ambiance is upscale...but not stuffy
      Share's upscale rustic decor and family style dining allow you to dress your best and still feel relaxed.  Imagined lighting, and eclectic wall art blend with wanderlust-inspired trinkets, a nod to Curtis Stone's passion for travel (sounds like a page out of my own book!).  You'll feel more like your in someones home, talking, laughing and passing plates across the table.

4 - Service is second to none
      One HUGE takeaway for me was the service.  If you are lucky enough to get Magdalena from Poland as your server, you're gunna have a devil of a time leaving the table.  She is one of the greatest human assets Princess Cruises has, and boy, were we taken care of and entertained at dinner.  She knew the menu by heart, went over it and explained several things to us, the ingredients, and also what wine best paired with each plate.

5 - You'll actually have room for dessert

After dinner I went down to the Explorers Lounge on Deck 7 to catch the comedian doing his stand up routine while other agents either hit the casino, the promenade, or the Magic to Do show, created by Broadway director Stephen Schwartz.  Later on it was over to Club Fusion for some much needed karaoke, then off to bed, for we had yet another seminar at sea in the morning.

September 21, 2016

Yet another early start, I do have to say though, those Princess Luxury Beds (even the Twin Size), they are so comfortable and cozy, the instant I laid down I was out quick, and apparently it even helped with my sleep apnea.  There are very few beds where I have slept in and not needed my CPAP machine.

This morning's seminar was on Princess' Sister Line, Cunard.  The subject was the remade and revamped Queen Mary 2, fresh out of drydock in Germany.  Funny thing is, I'll be on the Queen Mary 2 in just a few weeks, on the iconic TransAtlantic crossing, that Cunard made famous during the 19th and 20th Centuries.  After the seminar we were led on a tour of the theatre, as well as the backstage and behind the scenes areas, places regular passengers never see, where several dancers from the show told us and even showed us how they put on a show on the open seas (could you imagine trying to do a flying pirouette with the boat bobbing up and down?).

The rest of the afternoon I spent perusing the ship and outdoor areas.  Tons of photos were taken and areas explored.  Headed back to the cabin to get started on the journal for this voyage, as well as try out the Room Service.  Exceptionally service and a tasty dish was laid out and this writer went right to work...and falling asleep on the balcony in the middle of writing.

After my nap on the balcony, I took a shower and got ready for dinner in the Crown Grill, the Ruby Princess' steak and seafood restaurant.  Located on the Deck 7 Promenade, the Crown Grill is a very dark and subdued place where a carnivore can feast in peace with some of the best cuts and catches around, at an additional cost of course.  After dinner, Bob and I were amped up, so we hit up Club Fusion for a final round of karaoke before disembarkation in the morning.

September 22, 2016

Woke up to the sound of a busy port, and the balcony door wide open.  One of the better ways to wake up, if you ask me.  Bob was out on the balcony enjoying the view and his last few minutes onboard.  A knock on the door by our steward reminding us we had to be off the Ruby Princess by our appointed time, and I was up and getting ready.  45 minutes later we made our way down to the Promenade Deck and in line to disembark.

The San Pedro, California Cruise Pier shares the harbor with the massive shipping vessels and and smaller, leisurely Catalina Island ferries.  As luck would have it, we were the only cruise ship in port at the time, so customs was a snap and we found ourselves out on the taxi stand within an hour, waiting for a shuttle ride to LAX, which only took 20 minutes, in moderate traffic.

Before we knew it, we were schlepping our bags through the Delta Airlines side of Terminal 6 (the former Continental Airlines terminal), waiting for our flight back to Salt Lake City, with the company of a fellow AAA agent from the cruise, waiting for her flight back to Sacramento.

Thanks again to my bum knee, we pre-boarded before anyone else.  Our Airbus A320 was the first one delivered to Northwest Airlines back in 1991, but a recent facelift and cabin refresh made this plane surprisingly comfortable and cozy.  Mood lighting and and very attentive crew made the flight a good one, until we hit the weather heading back behind the Zion Curtain into Utah.  We got tossed around a little bit, which Bob and I thought was fun, and landed in a downpour of rain that didn't let up.  I ended up dropping Bob off at his car back at the office and off I went home, finding out tornadoes touched down in our neck of the woods.

Princess Cruises has a good thing going, and the Ruby Princess and her kind are a step above a lot of ships nowadays, and for mass markets, a great fit.  I'd love to get back onboard the Ruby Princess again someday.  The Globetrotting Adventures of Frank and Dylan continue...