In April, Travel Agent boarded Grand Classica, the second ship of Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line, for a look at the ship and its two-night cruise product to Grand Bahama Island.
Formerly the Costa neoClassica, the ship was in great shape, recently renovated, and a "step up" for guests interested in a mini-cruise getaway.
But the inaugural cruise was indeed a "shake down" with lots of process issues during the sailing. So we went back two months later on June 9 to see how the product had progressed. Here's the first part of our two-part story on Grand Classica.
Boarding at Palm Beach
Arriving at the terminal, we headed for a table outside at which staff tagged our luggage with our stateroom number, and pointed us to the proper door. It was quick and easy. After clearing security, we dropped our luggage at the terminal's inside baggage drop; it arrived at our stateroom about two hours later.
Upstairs, at check-in, the bright, open terminal was well-staffed. The check-in counter process moved guests through quickly, despite our arrival at a peak period. The ship was booked to 80 percent-plus occupancy, yet there were few if any lines.
Waiting for the ship clearance, we settled into a pre-boarding area with restrooms, a ship's photographer to take a boarding shot and a shore excursion desk. Given that this is a short cruise, it's a nice service to allow guests to book Freeport shore excursions here; then they don't waste precious vacation time at the shore desk after boarding.
Guests in wheelchairs or needing assistance in boarding waited in a specially designated area. Boarding was smooth and on time.
Flow, Processes & Crew Staffing
Serving 1,680 passengers, Grand Classica has a crew of 590. Definitely, it appeared there were more crew members onboard than during the inaugural voyage. Also, they seemed more properly positioned to assist guests.
Overall, the crew seemed relaxed and friendly, not frazzled as they were on our first voyage back in April. Many crew have come from other cruise lines, so they're experienced. Overall, I felt they absolutely knew what was needed to serve guests well.
Service and flow worked well in the Yellow Elder dining room and the Rock Grill restaurant. I found a similar situation at the purser's desk and elsewhere around the ship.
Bartenders were generally in good supply around the various lounges during their opening hours. That said, the large Encore Lounge could have used a few more bar waiters taking orders without the guests having to repeatedly beckon at times.
Provisioning of restaurants and bars seemed normal, an improvement from the first cruise during which waiters explained that "we're out of" this or that.
Shore desk staffers were helpful in explaining options to guests, and the line has a good range of Grand Bahama excursions -- everything from swim with the dolphins to beach stays and 'round island tours.
I was particularly impressed with Diego from the shore excursion side; he's currently working on some potential new ideas to give guests an authentic island experience and help the local economy at the same time.
Our outside stateroom, #7066, was quite comfortable with two twin beds, storage drawers, plenty of closet hanging space, a closet safe, a small vanity/desk surface that extended from the wall (with a mirror above), a desk chair and a small flatscreen TV.
In addition, there was a lot of space between the beds and the vanity area. In fact, it would have been nice in this size cabin to see a second chair for the second guest to use in watching TV.
The small bathroom was simple but perfectly adequate. It had a small shower, a toilet and a large vanity with a single sink. Mustard colored towels provided a nice splash of color.
Stateroom stewards? I never saw or met my steward, but my friend who accompanied me did. I was out and about in Freeport and around the ship a lot, so not seeing the steward was likely the result of my activity-packed schedule.
Nightly stateroom cleaning was fine for bathroom cleaning, replacement of towels and nightly turn-down. The steward also left a cute towel animal on the bed at night (see the photo in the slide show above).
One improvement coming in guest staterooms is the addition of more 110 volt outlets and UBS plug-ins, according to to Ludwig Lozano, the ship's hotel director. Vanity plug voltage in our cabin was 220 voltage, with a sign cautioning people about that.
Tip? Right now guests can plug one UBS charging cord for a phone or tablet into the back of the television, so I was able to charge my cell phone. My traveling companion found one that worked with her charging cord at the very bottom of the floor near the vanity.
The stateroom had one stand-up flyer for "The Bull to Go," which was room service (complimentary for the delivery itself), with burgers, veggie burgers, wings, fried shrimp, snacks and drinks available at a la carte pricing.
That said, we'd like to see the line add simple instructions in staterooms for key spots to dial with the bed-side telephone. It shows a number to call for emergencies but nothing else. We hadn't a clue where to call to reach housekeeping, the front desk or shore desk.
Overall, though, we felt the stateroom was quite nice and spacious for a two-day product. There was lots of storage. It was clean, and our large porthole window had good views and a good shade.
Cuisine offered in the ship's main Yellow Elder restaurant (shown in the photo above) was quite creative and tasty. It's certainly comparable -- or even better in some cases -- than mainstream contemporary line experiences for longer voyages.
Dining here is included in the cruise fare so no extra charge. Guests can choose between early or late seatings, and just show up.
The shrimp avacado cocktail was nicely presented, some dishes were quite creative such as chipotle smoked BBQ onion soup and a watercress and endive salad with walnuts, cranberries and roasted pears. Desserts were appropriately yummy with good presentation.
Entrees ranged nightly from black-pepper crusted Ahi Tuna Nicoise salad, terriyaki glazed Atlantic Salmon to a mustard-rubbed petite beef tender.
In addition, the specialty Admiral's Steak & Seafood Restaurant has a more upscale menu -- everything from Angus beef to lobster -- for $33 per person, plus an 18 percent service charge. Reservations are needed.
Hint? When cruisers dine in Yellow Elder, the nightly menu also has a separate sheet with some items from the Admiral's menu at a la carte prices.
So I ordered the Yellow Elder's terriyaki glazed Atlantic Salmon (shown below) from the regular (no extra charge) menu and then added on a $6 escargot appetizer from Admiral's; the latter was cooked perfectly and very tasty.
The indoor Ocean View Buffet restaurant was so-so, nothing exceptional. As we observed on the first cruise, the guest flow in the buffet can be a bit confusing and traffic flow a bit frenetic.
Given the space's physical structure, good directional signing to such stations as desserts, soup or salads might help. So would painting the walls a lighter color (not green, which overpowers the space).
Outside, behind the buffet restaurant is the open-air, covered Rock Grill, which turns out really good hamburgers, hot dogs, bratwursts, fries and onion rings on a complimentary basis.
In the evening, it transforms into a lovely specialty restaurant with a "volcanic hot rock-type" menu at an added charge per person. The bar and some outdoor seating remain open, but most of the restaurant is roped off for this specialty venue.
The red plastic tables and chairs are elegantly transformed with tablecloths, silverware, red water glasses, wine glasses and cloth napkins. Guests order beef, chicken, veggies, lobster, scallops, shrimp and so on, and watch the meal cooked before their eyes on a slab that's been heated to 800 degrees.
The $28 cover charge (plus 18% service charge) includes such entrees as Angus beef tenderloin medallions, chicken satay, a mixed seafood platter (scallops, shrimp, fish) Duroc pork chop and Angus beef sirloin kebabs.
Guests also then pay extra for the top dishes such as a Maine lobster tail or surf and turf.
For a starter, I'd recommend the Thai chicken coconut soup, a spicy treat and among the best I've had anywhere. For a main course, I ordered the lobster and scallops, my friend the beef and both were excellent too.
Portions were fairly large and quality of the meats was very good. Most of all, it's a fun, and tasty experience.The server will place the hot slab with meat or seafood in front of the diner. As the food cooks, the diner then turns it appropriately.
Don't want to do it yourself? The servers are accommodating and will assist tableside -- as shown in the photo at left -- and then present the finished meal in front of the guest.
Near the shops is A Slice Above, the pizza parlor added by the line. I didn't get a chance to sample it, but other guests said they loved it. And there's a pool grill. Plus the interior Grand Cafe offers coffee specialties, pastries and gelato.
As for breakfast, the line offers complimentary breakfast in Yellow Elder and the Ocean View Buffet, a champagne breakfast for $16.50 plus an 18 percent service charge in Admiral's (reservations recommended), and a late riser's breakfast (complimentary) in the Rock Grill from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. Lunch is offered only in the buffet restaurant.
Stay tuned for Part Two of this story which covers onboard activities and entertainment. Don't miss our comments about the entertainment, the crown jewel of this short cruise experience, especially our feedback on the Tina Turner tribute. I also give personal impressions of opportunities for agents and parting thoughts about this short-cruise product.