By Fran Golden and David G. Molyneaux
(A version of this article was first published by the Miami Herald)
A long parade of past passengers, hundreds of them touring the 3,560-passenger Royal Princess before its June inaugural in Europe, wore knowing smiles and meandered the ship as if they felt at home.
Ask these folks how many times they had been to sea with Princess: “Seventeen,” one says. “Nineteen,” says another. “More,” chortles a third.
Good reviews are essential from this weathered bunch, because Princess Cruises, a venerable line, markets itself as sailing up-to-date versions of traditional ships on which past passengers can expect consistency.
Princess fans need not worry. The new Italian-built Royal Princess, the largest “Love Boat” ever, feels classically Princess.
In a cruise vacation world where nearly everyone bringing out a new ship talks about amazing new gadgets and the latest wow-producing accouterments, Princess has chosen a different path.
Changes without rocking the boat
Princess made its changes, expansions, and updates on Royal Princess — the line’s first new ship in five years (since the Ruby Princess in 2008) — without rocking the boat.
Yet to gain the attention, too, of new, younger passengers, Princess turned to the Duchess of Cambridge (Kate Middleton) to serve as godmother. At a dockside naming ceremony in Southampton, UK, the significantly pregnant Duchess set a young, hip tone that garnered positive press around the world. The ship apparently made the royal grade because after a private tour, Kate reportedly asked whether she could come back and bring along her husband, Prince William. The answer, as you might expect, was an unqualified “yes.”
The new Royal Princess, the line’s third ship to carry the name, is cruising in the Mediterranean until October, then in the Caribbean out of Fort Lauderdale through April 2014, before returning to Europe.
While you won’t find features like rock-climbing walls, waterslides or amusement park attractions on this ship, there are some knockout new features.
All outside cabins have balconies, which brings the bonus of moderate pricing for those coveted spaces.
Piazza is the ship's signature feature
But the star of the show is the Piazza atrium (pictured above), expanded in size and use from previous ships — where it’s become a signature feature. The Royal Princess atrium is an elegant three-deck space done up in marble, with sparkling floor-to-ceiling light fixtures, grand undulating staircases, theatrical balconies, and water fountains.
On Royal Princess, the Piazza is clearly designed as the hub of the ship, filled with dining, drinking, entertainment and schmoozing venues. It’s a place to hang out for hours, to be entertained by a piano player or a string quartet, to see and be seen.
Grab a latte ($2.50) from the expanded, 24-hour International Café — where the complimentary treats in glass cases include paninis, individual pecan pies, chocolate mousse and other temptations — and choose a Piazza-view table to people-watch, much as you might do in the piazza of a small Italian town.
The coffee shop also has a tea service where you may choose your own blend (from $2.75 per cup). Or head across the Piazza for scoops (from $2.75) from the gelato shop.
Try the Royal Bellini cocktail
Other Piazza options include Princess standards such as the Vines wine bar, plus some new offerings: most notably Bellini’s for champagne (the Royal Bellini cocktail combines chocolate, peach and champagne, $15) and Ocean Terrace seafood bar for sushi ($4.50 for two pieces) and oysters.
The expanded, 141-seat Alfredo’s, now on the Piazza, has the best pizza at sea, just as Princess brags — thin crust and hand-tossed. Try the Pizza Royal Princess, topped with Parma ham, buffalo mozzarella, cherry tomatoes and shaved Parmesan. There is no cover charge.
In a bold move, Princess has relocated the ship’s reception and shore excursion desks down the hallway from the main atrium and put the Lotus Spa adjacent, rather than on an upper deck.
Moving the spa to prime real estate, where the passenger traffic is heavy, was designed to remind cruisers to book spa appointments, an in-your-face marketing concept. The location has other advantages, including the opportunity for Princess to dedicate more spa space.
Princess Cruises' first hydrotherapy pool
The spa has a large relaxation area called the Enclave (a fee applies) where guests may luxuriate in the cruise line’s first hydrotherapy pool. There’s also a Turkish-style hamman, Roman-inspired sauna (all for mixed sexes) and a pair of waterbeds.
Treatment rooms include Couples Villas with whirlpools (from $449 for a couples massage). For solo spa-goers, a signature Royal Experience package ($399 for 75 minutes) involves two therapists giving you a simultaneous facial and massage. The ocean-view fitness room is on an upper deck.
Two Princess specialty restaurants are now connected to lounges, with the Crown Grill steakhouse ($25) steps away from the Wheelhouse Bar, and Italian Sabatini’s ($25) now adjacent to Vines wine bar.
Among new dining options are the Chef’s Table Lumiere (a fee applies), a private area in the middle of a main dining room, creatively surrounded by a curtain of light. A larger and reconfigured Horizon Court buffet — with more action stations — is transformed at night with two new alternative dining options, Crab Shack and Fondues (each $20).
Princess is touting its new pastry shop in Horizon Court, but what the line appears to have done is simply enhanced its buffet desserts and put them all in one spot.
Food for sale at any extra fee
Princess has more food and beverages for sale on Royal Princess than on any of its other ships, the line’s position being passengers who want something special will pay extra for it. So, if you want soft serve ice cream, it’s free as usual on an upper deck. But if you want gelato from the shop in the Piazza you’ll pay extra.
Up on the expansive sun decks, there are welcome changes. An expanded adults-only (18 and up) oasis serves up two areas, the Retreat Pool and the Sanctuary. While you can lounge at the pool for free, the plush Sanctuary sunning area requires an admission charge ($15 per person for a half-day).
Both areas are equipped with Princess’ first private cabanas — a feature that has become popular on other lines including Holland America. The tented cabanas have billowing curtains and come with cushy seating, a minibar and snacks (rental is from $50 for a half day at the pool, from $80 at The Sanctuary). At the top-of-the-line are two huge, high-ceiling Royal Villas in the Sanctuary where couples can get an Exotic Couples Massage (from $449), or up to four people can share a package that combines spa treatments with treats including caviar and champagne (from $1,500).
Kids are not left out of the equation. The ship offers expanded space for youth centers complete with outdoor areas.
Toddlers under 3 have their own play area. Princess Pelicans (ages 3-7) can play on a new mini air hockey table and ride tricycles in a playground. Shockwaves (ages 8-12) have their own dedicated outside area with lounge chairs and indoors can play games including skeeball. Teens in Remix (ages 13-17) get special attention with their dedicated space including a lounge area equipped with DJ booth, foosball, skeeball, and the latest video games and an outdoor lounge with contemporary seating and a wading pool. Staff at Remix said the lounge usually stays open to 1 a.m. but has remained open as late as 3 a.m.
For a gentle “thrill,” Princess designed two walkways that should provide popular views, depending on your ease at standing on a solid glass floor with nothing but the swirling sea below.
The SeaWalk and SeaView Bar are on opposite sides of the ship on the pool deck. Each open-air space cantilevers 28 feet off the side (wider even than the bridge). As you walk, you can see the sea some 128 feet below you. On the SeaView bar side of the ship are stools at the edge of the walkway, which are likely to become popular perches.
Bigger Movies under the Stars screen
Nearby, the main pool area is outfitted with an impressive fountain that during the day is a fun water spray feature and at night becomes part of water-and-light shows, including one accompanied by a Frank Sinatra soundtrack. Some of the shows also make use of the ship’s huge Movies Under the Stars Screen, the largest in the fleet (the outdoor movies concept was pioneered by Princess).
In the ship’s Princess Theater, the largest in the fleet, performers do streamlined, 30-minute shows that make use of LED screens and other technology. Meanwhile, The Princess Live! TV Studio is a new venue for interactive game shows and a new daily, ship-wide TV program called The Wake Show.
In the comfort of your own cabin, there are on-demand movies and TV shows, all for free — accessible using an easy to navigate system that Princess developed in-house.
In a clever move, cabin hallways on Royal Princess are decorated with 1,000 photos submitted by former Princess passengers.