When Golden Princess' sister ship, Grand Princess, first left port in May of 1998, it helped launch the era of mega-ship sailing. And, like Grand Princess, Golden Princess -- a vessel measuring 109,000 tons with a double-occupancy capacity of 2,632 passengers -- offers a boatload of possibilities.
Golden Princess may be a ship whose design was created more than a decade ago, but Princess hasn't let it show its age. In particular, a significant refurbishment in spring 2009 added a lot of features -- like the Piazza, the Sanctuary and the Crown Grill -- made popular in the line's newer, Crown Princess series of ships.
Old or new, our favorite onboard spaces include the following.
The Piazza is the perfect onboard hub, surrounded by the International Cafe for coffee and anytime snacks. (The aroma of baking cookies is heavenly.) Vines Wine Bar is also nearby for tapas and drinks. Clusters of cozy chairs make this the best place to enjoy the "street theater" type entertainment, meet with friends or just people-watch.
The two specialty restaurants, Crown Grill and Sabatini's, take onboard dining up a notch. During a five-course marathon meal at Sabatini's, you'll eat your way through eight types of antipasto, plus some very tasty pasta, entrees and desserts. The New York-themed Crown Grill expands the typical steakhouse menu to include all sorts of seafood -- while still offering a wide assortment of premium-grade beef. Both are well worth the extra fee.
The Sanctuary is an oasis of calm for adults, with snooze-inducing cushy lounge chairs, a soothing atmosphere with touches of greenery and the ultimate in pampering -- al fresco massages.
Movies are always better on the big screen, and Princess' pioneering Movies Under the Stars has made its way to Golden Princess' Calypso Reef Pool. Enjoy a concert or sporting event as you splash around during the day, or curl up next to your sweetie under a blanket with some popcorn to take in a feature film at night.
The teens-only sun deck provides this hard-to-please group with an outdoor place to mingle, and the splash pool area (while small) offers parents a tot-friendly place for water play with their pre-schoolers.
Four pools ease the swim crunch. The outdoor Calypso Reef draws kids, teens and adults, while the covered Neptune Reef provides a climate-controlled space so water enthusiasts can get wet even in inclement weather. The spa's outdoor current pool, targeted for swimmers 16 and older, is best at odd hours when it's not filled with kids, while the Terrace Pool provides great views at the aft of the ship.
The three show lounges -- the Princess Theater, Vista Lounge and Explorers Lounge -- allow you to find some entertainment, no matter what time you finish dinner. Production shows and performances by headline entertainers are repeated three times over two nights, so everyone has a chance to enjoy them.
A comfortable ship, Golden Princess floats a tasteful decor of beige, accented with soft pastels. The only times you feel the crowds are during the popular 8:30 p.m. show in the Princess Theater, when latecomers stand in the aisles, and afterward, when passengers stream toward the elevators.
With supervised activities in the Fun Zone (a children's area for ages 3 to 7 and 8 to 12) and Off Limits (the daytime teen room), Golden Princess works well for families, especially on the ship's seven-day summer Alaska sailings. In the winter, when the ship focuses on longer cruises to Hawaii, the ship caters to an older clientele.
Golden Princess' public rooms and entertainment venues are clustered on Decks 5, 6 and 7, with the focal point being the Deck 5 Piazza. The center of the Piazza is a circular open space, surrounded by comfy seating and a piano to one side -- the central space, in turn, is circled by public venues, like the Internet cafe, library, art gallery, Vines Wine Bar, International Cafe and, on port days, the gangway.
The Internet Cafe and library share a space, dotted with multiple workstations and lined on one side with bookshelves. Internet use costs 75 cents a minute, or you can purchase a time plan (100 minutes for $55, 150 minutes for $75 or 250 minutes for $100).
One deck up, the Passenger Services Desk faces the atrium with the Shore Excursions Desk at its back by the Crown Grill. Also facing the steakhouse are Future Cruise Sales and the Captain's Circle Office. Around the atrium, Essence sells perfumes and cosmetics, while Castaways sells Princess logo items and sundries. Head aft to find the Photo Gallery along the corridor that fronts the Explorer's Lounge, Wheelhouse Bar and Sabatini's.
On Deck 7, more shopping options await with Facets for watches and fine jewelry and Meridian Bay for more jewelry and souvenirs.
Six onboard laundromats, located on passenger decks, feature washers, dryers, ironing boards, sinks and vending machines for detergent (as well as change). A load is $1 for either wash or dry. There's a medical center on Deck 4.
The Hearts and Minds wedding chapel on Deck 15, aft, has a lovely backdrop of a manicured garden, which opens to reveal a large, flat-screen TV. Princess has cleverly designed the chapel to double as a meeting facility -- a high-tech sound system is hidden in one corner, the room is wired for Wi-Fi, and a webcam can broadcast lectures or vows to friends, family and colleagues off-ship.
Personal Choice Dining offers flexibility. It gives the same freedom as land-based nights out. Show up in the designated dining room whenever you feel like it, between 5:30 p.m. and 10 p.m., if you want to free yourself from the "hurry up and get dressed for dinner" rush that all too often comes after a long and active day in port.
Because of the popularity of Personal Choice Dining, the ship utilizes both the Bernini dining room from 5:30 until 10 p.m. and the Donatello from 5:30 until 9:30 p.m. If you're willing to meet new people and join a group table, then you may be seated more promptly. But, if you desire a solo table during the popular 7:45 to 8:30 p.m. slot, you may wait up to 15 minutes. By arriving around 7 p.m., we were able to finish our meal in time to double up on our evening entertainment, taking in the first show at the Princess Theater at 8:30 p.m., followed by the comedian or singer in the Vista Lounge at 10:15 p.m....with enough time left over to throw away our quarters in the casino's slots.
A tip: Reservations for a specific time for any size group, even for a couple, may be made throughout the cruise.
Traditionalists who like the camaraderie of the same table and service from the same waiter -- the one who knows you like extra lemons with your iced tea -- can book tables in the Canaletto dining room for either 5:30 p.m. or 8 p.m. service.
Despite seating hundreds of people at once, the dining rooms didn't feel cavernous. Railings divide the rooms into manageable areas, and the drapes, carpeting and other measures absorb much of the background noise so you don't ever have to yell to be heard by your own tablemates. Each dining room is its own enclosed room, rather than a tiered multi-deck space. The decor is lovely and floral, with paintings of country gardens.
Each night, diners have a choice of two pastas, appetizers, soups and salads, and main courses. Vegetarian, healthy and "homestyle" (essentially meat-and-potatoes type dishes) items are marked on the menu, as are local Pacific Rim dishes on Hawaii itineraries. Always-available selections include Caesar salad, shrimp cocktail, broiled chicken breast and grilled beef medallions. An adequate selection of wines, ranging from $20 to $50 per bottle, was available.
Open-seating breakfast (7 to 9 a.m.), lunch (noon to 1:30 p.m.) and afternoon tea (3:30 to 4:30 p.m.) are also served in the Donatello dining room. A nice touch is that late-riser's breakfast items are always included in the dining room's lunch menu.
The Horizon Court serves ample buffets on Deck 14, with the stations all contained in one area, so you're never in danger of overlooking food options. Breakfast, beginning at 6 a.m., features the usual array of hot and cold cereals, smoked salmon, scrambled eggs, omelets, and alternating days of waffles, pancakes and other traditional fare. For lunch (11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.), in addition to cold cuts, the spread includes a hot fish, chicken or pork dish (often all three), vegetables, greens and sometimes special platters like sushi. Afternoon snacks are available from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. For dinner, the Horizon Court also offers a wide variety of hot and cold entrees, along with salad and desserts. Late-night snacks, available from 11 p.m. to 4 a.m., include a variety of hot and cold dishes, salads, fruit, sandwiches, breads and desserts.
The dining options continue out by the Calypso Reef pool, where chefs toss pizzas at Prego Pizzeria (open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.) and grill up burgers and dogs at the Trident Grill (11 a.m. to 8 p.m.). Satisfy your sweet tooth with soft-serve ice cream and all the toppings at Sundaes Ice Cream Bar.
The International Cafe, located on the Piazza, is another casual dining option, added during the 2009 dry dock. From 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., it serves complimentary snacks, including breakfast pastries, soups, quiche, salads and desserts. (Think warm, melty cookies, as well as fancier items.) Specialty coffee drinks cost extra. It's quite pleasant to grab a seat in the atrium, munch on your snacks and observe whatever entertainment is happening in the Piazza (or simply people-watch).
Next door, Vines Wine Bar (11 a.m. to 11 p.m.) serves up complimentary sushi and tapas. Its corner of the Piazza is like stepping into a traditional winery with oak barrels for tables and flooring that looks like tiled stone. Pair your meal with a great glass of wine, or skip the light bites for a do-it-yourself tasting with a wine flight.
Golden Princess offers two specialty restaurants, Sabatini's and Crown Grill, available by reservation only. To be sure you get the time and day you desire, reserve well in advance. Dinner is served in both venues from 6 to 11 p.m.
If you like Italian fare, don't miss Sabatini's, well worth the $25-per-person extra charge. You select your entree and a soup or salad; then the waiter brings you everything else. Start with eight types of antipasto, including melon with prosciutto, porcini mushrooms in olive oil, crab cakes, fried calamari, shrimp and fried cheese. Make your way through a white bean soup or garden salad, followed by two types of pasta. Continue with an entree, and end with dessert. By the time we licked the last of the tiramisu from our forks, we were stuffed and very happy.
In contrast, the Crown Grill (which replaced the Sterling Steakhouse in 2009) has a more traditional vibe. A New York-style steakhouse, its ambience is set with black-and-white photos of New York City, red woods and carpeting paired with blue upholstered chairs (a hint of patriotism, perhaps?). The menu focuses on seafood, chops and steaks, with the additional choices of appetizers (black tiger prawn and papaya salpicon, lobster cake), soups and salads (black and blue onion soup, marinated goat's cheese and heirloom tomato salad) and the delectable sides that always crop up in steakhouses (garlic fries, corn casserole, creamed spinach). The fee for a multicourse dinner is $25 per person, but to truly indulge, shell out an extra $9 for whole Maine lobster or Brazilian lobster tail.
Room service, although limited to a set menu of breakfast items or sandwiches, salads and burgers, is available 24 hours a day. Along with a Continental breakfast of pastries, coffee and fruit, room service delivers hot items, such as eggs, omelets and oatmeal. For people who like a hot breakfast but don't want to get dressed to enjoy one, this is a nice touch.
The Ultimate Balcony Dinner proved to be our favorite shipboard dining experience in 20 years of cruising. Our personal "butler," after draping our balcony table and chairs in yellow linen, began our experience by offering us Champagne and canapes. Then, the ship's photographer snapped our complimentary photo. Next, we dined on our balcony, enjoying the seascape, the swooping gulls and the breezes as our butler served us, course by course, discretely positioning himself behind the cabin drapes or out in the hall when not needed. The food was good and bountiful. We started with blue crab in pastry shells, followed by salad, then lobster tails and filet mignon...and for dessert, walnut and vanilla mousse, plus chocolates. The meal was both romantic and memorable, and though an indulgence at $100 per couple, it was well worth the extra splurge.
One of the bonuses of being on a big ship is choice, and that includes the entertainment. Both the Princess Theater and Vista Lounge can host production shows and featured entertainers, and each show runs three times onboard -- two performances in the Princess Theater, followed by one repeat performance in the Vista Lounge the following evening.
The Princess Theater is done up more like a Broadway theater than a typical cruise-ship show lounge. It has same-level orchestra seating, with stadium seating behind and a few boxes -- though there's no second balcony level. The Vista Lounge is more cabaret-style, with light blue chairs clustered around small drink tables and large windows facing aft, making the room pleasant and light during the day.
Side by side on the Promenade Deck, the Wheelhouse Bar and Explorers Lounge are smaller entertainment venues, hosting theme parties, karaoke, pianists and dance bands, as well as trivia and games during the day. The blue-and-gold Wheelhouse Bar has a nautical theme with model ships and captain's wheels on display, and it boasts plenty of nooks for tete a tetes. We especially liked its comfortable couches, live oldies band and modestly sized dance floor, where even we felt at ease moving to slow rhythms. The larger Explorers Lounge has a somewhat over-the-top Egyptian theme, not quite in keeping with the "casual elegance" exuded by the other venues.
The Grand Casino has been moved to Deck 7, just forward of the atrium. It's outfitted with nine gaming tables for poker and blackjack, as well as tables for craps and roulette and oodles of slot machines. There are even screens for video poker. If you're extra-competitive, look for poker and other tournaments held throughout the cruise.
The moving ramp that takes passengers into Skywalkers Night Club enhances the spaceship-like feel of this top deck (Deck 17) disco with its panoramic sea views and outer space-inspired decor. The place didn't get busy until after midnight. Each night, a D.J. spun country, contemporary, Latin and other dance tunes. Open to ages 18 and older, the nightclub only serves alcohol to passengers 21 and older, as do the other bars onboard.
Other places for drinks include the Promenade Bar at the top of the atrium, where you'll find a pianist in the evening and $2.99 drink specials after 8 p.m. For smokers, the Players Bar, tucked away behind the Crown Grill, offers cigars and cognac in an intimate space, with big TV's for watching sporting events.
Movies Under the Stars (M.U.T.S.), the big-screen outdoor theater located above the Calypso Reef Pool, shows movies, concerts, sporting events and other special programming throughout the day and evening. Afternoon movies may be shown in the Vista Lounge, as well, and on in-cabin TV's.
The video arcade is oddly located on Deck 6 near the Passenger Services Desk. It's nowhere near the youth facilities.
Through Princess' ScholarShip@Sea program, lecturers discuss art, diamonds and digital editing. The line brings on specialists to speak about destination-specific topics, such as Alaskan wildlife and sled dog racing, or Hawaiian culture, history and marine biology. Hawaii cruises also feature activities like hula-dancing, ukulele-playing and lei-making.
For wine-lovers, the ship staged one tasting in the dining room for $7.50 per person and a gourmet tasting for $25. In addition, there were trivia contests, art auctions, paint-your-own-ceramics sessions by the Calypso Reef pool, backstage tours, line-dancing classes and, of course, gambling in the casino.
Gratuities, which are automatically charged to onboard accounts, are $11.50 per person (including children), per day, for passengers staying in standard accommodations and $12 for passengers staying in mini-suite and suites. A 15 percent gratuity is added to beverage purchases onboard, including wine at dinner. Spa and casino staff members do not share in the gratuity charges -- if you use these services, tips are advised.
|Fitness and Recreation|
With four pools onboard, there was less of a rush to grab a lounge chair than on ships with just one or two pools. Alas, some passengers still insisted on saving chaises for the afternoon by plunking down a towel and a book in the morning.
In warm weather most kids and teens congregated around the outdoor Calypso Reef pool, while the glass roofed Neptune Reef pool attracted fewer kids and more adults. But, on rainy or chilly days, the climate-controlled Neptune Reef pool was a nice plus. The Conservatory offers extra indoor deck space above the pool, and it's there you'll find Ping-Pong. Tucked away on Deck 12, aft, a smaller pool offers views off the back of the ship. Terraced sun deck space above on Decks 14 and 15 ultimately lead to a hidden retreat -- the Oasis Bar and Spa, with two hot tubs, sun loungers and a giant chess set.
In addition to these pools, the spa features a small outdoor current pool. Although targeted for swimmers 16 and older, the pool is often filled with kids and bobbers, making it difficult, if not impossible, to swim. The spa staff simply shrugged their shoulders, refusing to ask the underage kids to leave the pool.
Above the spa and spa pool is the Sanctuary, Princess' adults-only, spa-inspired deck area. Access to this gated sun deck is available by purchasing half-day passes (8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. or 1 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.) for $10 per person. There, you'll find two cabanas for al fresco massages; cushy padded lounge chairs in striped, neutral hues; and serene, potted plants and small trees. Serenity Stewards provide cooling Evian misters, chilled towels, MP3 players and healthy and refreshing drinks and snacks like fruit skewers, spring rolls and smoothies.
Editor's Note: On Alaska cruises, if you book the Sanctuary during scenic cruising by a glacier, you'll be treated to plush fleece blankets, earmuffs and binoculars, as well as private commentary by park rangers and naturalists. Special menu items on these days include Alaska Rockfish Chowder and freshly fried "Beaver Tail" pastries, fried dough shaped like a beaver's tail and often served with toppings like cinnamon sugar and maple butter.
The Lotus Spa offered a range of wraps, massages and treatments, including facials, Chinese herbal medicine and acupuncture, men's barber services and teeth-whitening, done by competent therapists. My husband really enjoyed his hot-stone massage. Despite prices higher than one would find in land-based establishments, spa services book up quickly, especially for the popular afternoon hours. Lotus also offered Generation Y Spa services for teens 13 to 17. A parent must be present when the teen tries these facials, scrubs and exfoliation treatments. Parents can join in the relaxation by booking mother-and-daughter or father-and-son side-by-side massages.
Unlike some other ships, Golden Princess doesn't offer a pre- or post-massage relaxation area -- only some chairs that ring the often-busy treatment check-in desk. Also missing is a thermal sanctuary suite with heated mosaic tile lounge chairs, common on other vessels. The small dressing room has three very narrow showers. Incongruously, the sauna and the steam rooms are located on the outside area, facing the coed current pool, which made it awkward to sashay over wearing just a towel. The women covered their glass-fronted sauna with a towel, which, of course, slipped off every time someone opened the door.
Although the aerobics area takes up a major portion of the gym, enough treadmills and bikes are available so that waits are minimal. The sea views from the gym made exercising more fun than usual. Golden Princess hosts a variety of free fitness programs, including a walk-a-mile morning wakeup, stretch and abdominal classes. Pilates, yoga and Tour de Spin sessions cost an additional $12 per class.
Passengers will find shuffleboard on Deck 16 and can shoot hoops on a half-size basketball court. A golf simulator on Deck 15 lets you practice your swing at various virtual courses. A nine-hole mini-golf course is located on Deck 16 behind the Movies Under the Stars screen.
For deck strollers who exercise by taking long walks, the Promenade Deck proves perfect. It's open to passengers almost all the way around, requiring just a short jog up one flight of stairs and then down to complete the circuit.
Although the Fun Zone, the activity area for ages 3 to 12, isn't as large as on later Grand-class ships, the program is the same and is well-thought-out. For most of the day, except for ice cream socials at the Horizon Court and a few other activities, 3- to 7-year-olds spend much of their time in the bright red, blue and yellow room face-painting, coloring, making puppets, decorating masks and playing games.
The adjacent area for 8- to 12-year-olds has craft tables, games and a plasma television, and it leads into an alcove with computers. These kids also create lanyards, play bingo and other games in the Fun Zone, and use the ceramics studio and other shipboard spaces. Children, ages 8 to 12, may sign themselves in and out of the program with their parents' permission, a freedom cherished by cruise-savvy kids. One deck up, The Fun Zone has its own outdoor deck with a whale-shaped kiddie pool, play houses and tricycles.
When at sea, the free children's program operates from 9 a.m. until noon, 2 until 5 p.m., and 7 until 10 p.m. On port days, the children's program operates from 8 a.m. (or half an hour before the ship arrives in port) until 5 p.m. and from 7 until 10 p.m., also complimentary. Reserve ahead for group baby-sitting, available from 10 p.m. until 1 a.m. for $5 per child, per hour.
At Off Limits, the teen center located on the other side of the Fun Zone's computer alcove, 13- to 17-year-olds mingle and play Ping-Pong, foosball and cards. They also get to know each other during hip-hop dance classes, obstacle races and pizza parties. Teens can hang out, sun and soak in their own hot tub on the teens-only deck area, which is accessed by a set of stairs just outside the youth lounges. Older kids can come and go from youth activities as they please.
In Alaska, kids, ages 3 -to 17, can opt to participate in Junior Ranger and Teen Explorer programs in Glacier Bay. Interactive projects teach young travelers about the natural and cultural history of the region.
Golden Princess' demographics change with the seasons. On its two-week Hawaii cruises, expect an older crowd -- specifically retirees with more time for vacation. Seven-night Alaska sailings tend to be skewed younger, with more families and multigenerational groups.
Evening attire is typically "smart casual," but two or three nights will be formal, depending on the itinerary length. On formal nights, most women wear gowns or cocktail dresses, and men wear tuxedos or dark suits. Men don't need to wear jackets or ties on smart casual evenings, though some do -- open-neck shirts are just fine. Shorts and T-shirts, frayed or holey jeans, and swimwear are not acceptable attire in the dining rooms. For Alaska cruises, bring layers, and be prepared for both warm, summery days and chilly, rainy ones.
Golden Princess has an impressive number of cabins and suites with balconies: 736 to be exact. The balconies are larger on the Caribe and Dolphin Decks than on the Baja Deck. But, from the Baja Deck, you can look down and see passengers on their Caribe and Dolphin Deck balconies, and from the Caribe Deck you can see those on the Dolphin Deck. So be careful which deck you choose, or what you do. (The couple cuddling in their nighttime attire two decks below us probably forgot we had a good view.) As long as we're on the subject, many of the mid-ship and forward balconies are visible from the bridge, so remember: unlike on some other ships, you're not as alone on your balcony as you may think.
Of 1,316 cabins, 366 are standard insides (measuring 160 square feet), 214 are standard outside cabins (168 to 206 square feet), and 514 are balcony cabins (185 to 193 square feet, with balconies measuring 45 to 81 square feet). Golden Princess also has 42 suites (ranging in size from the 304-square-foot Premium Suite with 180-square-foot balcony to the 864-square-foot Grand Suite with 450-square-foot balcony) and 180 mini-suites (268 square feet with 55-square-foot balconies). Six sizes of suites are available, including two family suites, each of which can sleep up to 10 people. (If four are children -- otherwise, eight adults can be accommodated in the 493-square-foot cabin with 102-square-foot balcony.)
Tastefully decorated in beige, cream, muted pink, baby blue and other soft colors, standard cabins come with flat-screen TV's, in-room safes, mini-refrigerators, hair dryers and desks. Bathrooms feature showers (with the dreaded curtains) and come with small bottles of shampoo and conditioner, as well as soap. Princess' unique quasi-walk-in closet arrangements situate storage space in a type of anteroom or hallway by the bathroom. The plus is that the bedroom area feels larger without closet doors getting in the way; the minus is that many of these closets lack doors, so your wardrobe is on display for everyone to see. Standard balconies are each furnished with two chairs and a small metal table.
Mini-suites add a sitting area with pull-out sofas, second flat-screen TV's and bathrooms with tubs. Mini-suite and suite passengers automatically receive bathrobes. (However, other passengers can ask for robes; when we asked our room steward, he brought them quickly.) Suites come with upgraded faux teak balcony furniture. The Grand Suite features an enormous whirlpool tub, sitting/dining area with wet bar and walk-in closet.
During the 2009 dry dock, new cabins were added on Decks 6 and 15. On Deck 6, seven new window suites were added to the space formerly occupied by the casino. Uniquely located on a deck otherwise devoted to public spaces, the suites are 341 square feet and feature two picture windows each. Up on Deck 15, two deluxe outside cabins and 10 balcony suites (Owner's and Penthouse Suites) replace the previous golf simulator and video arcade. They're the highest cabins on the ships with expansive ocean views. The outsides measure 212 square feet each and come with picture windows. The suites range in size from 374 to 411 square feet, with 162 to 180-square-foot balconies, and are decorated in neutral, earth tones and light woods. They feature separate bedroom and sitting areas and marble bathrooms with both shower and tub.
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