When Grand Princess was being built back in 1998, it was described by the company as "the biggest, the fastest, the most elaborate, the most technologically advanced ... the grandest ship on the ocean."
My, how times have changed. Grand Princess did indeed spend a year as the biggest, fastest and most elaborate ship at sea, but it is now dwarfed by many others that are bigger, faster, newer and more technologically sophisticated.
And yet, more than a decade later, the basic ship design that anchors Princess' most popular class (which includes Caribbean Princess, Star Princess, Golden Princess, Crown Princess, Ruby Princess and Emerald Princess) still holds its own thanks to a massive overhaul in May 2011. The multi-million dollar refurbishment of Grand Princess included a complete transformation of the ship's atrium into the much jazzier Piazza (a newfangled addition introduced by the fleet's most recent ships that combines theater in the round with food and drink outlets). It finally got its own version of The Sanctuary, a popular adult-only sun deck that debuted on Crown Princess in 2006. Other additions included new restaurants and lounges ranging from Alfredo's Pizzeria to the Tea Leaves tea salon, the Crown Grill steakhouse and the snazzy One5 nightclub.
A seven-night cruise from Southampton gave me ample opportunity to check out the new and improved Grand Princess. There was barely a nook or cranny that didn't get some sort of special overhaul -- with two exceptions. One of the biggest complaints we heard onboard was that the central bank of elevators was old, creaky and unreliable. (Two were out of service during our cruise, which didn't help matters.) Because the original design of Grand Princess did not include a central stairwell servicing all decks, you've either got to walk forward or aft from the middle of the ship or wait, interminably, for a lift.
The second area that did not get much love was cabins. The public areas received the lion's share of attention (the massive refurbishment also addressed mechanical systems and such), and there has been much chat on our Princess' forums about how dated the cabins continue to look. Frankly, I disagree; our cabin was comfortable and pleasant. Though it's true the color scheme isn't terribly dynamic, Princess has kept up with necessary upgrades, such as flat-screen televisions, and new mattresses and duvets.
Ultimately, what Princess does better than most lines is offer a seamless blend of traditional cruising with the more contemporary options that are necessary these days. Grand Princess may not be the newest ship in the fleet, but (aside from those balky elevators) you'll never know it.
Some ships have the razzle dazzle of a disco; some ships look like children's playgrounds; and some ships are boringly bland. But Grand Princess has managed to evoke an understated elegance throughout with no compromise on quality. There is no soaring atrium, no neon, no copious amounts of brass or marble -- just an overall feeling of elegance with a lot of golden wood trim, contemporary lighting fixtures, and a subdued color palette in the carpeting and furnishings.
Flow, too, is, with one major exception, excellent on Grand Princess. The cruise I was on was extremely full (over 100 percent capacity) -- but the way the onboard space is divided into smaller, more intimate areas, I never felt crowded. Three elevator areas (14 elevators in all) provide easy access around the ship. The central bank has "panoramic lifts" over the atrium as well as four standard elevators. The exception: Those central lifts, which weren't upgraded during the refit, could be seriously frustrating. Because the original design of Grand Princess did not include a central stairwell servicing all decks, you've either got to walk forward or aft from the middle of the ship or wait, interminably, for a lift. It didn't help that two were out of service during our cruise.
A new -- and perhaps dubious -- invention aboard Grand Princess is Tea Leaves, a combination tea salon and library. The space itself is dark and windowless, open to a corridor between the Piazza and the shore excursions service desk, and the identity crisis was jarring. Is this a place for a designer cup of tea or a hideaway to simply read a book? The selection of books to borrow is rather measly; board games as well are available to checkout.
Smoking is limited to designated areas -- parts of lounges, casinos and the open decks -- and is prohibited in passenger cabins.
These days an abundance of balconied cabins is no big deal, but when Grand Princess was built, the concept was new. The outside cabins on the top four accommodation decks all have balconies, and one of those decks is dedicated to mini-suites.
The standard cabins are not big (average insides measure 160 square feet, outsides are a measly 168 square feet and basic verandahs are 214 257 square feet, including the balcony), but are attractively designed, with honey-colored wood and excellent lighting options. The entry door is offset to one side; rather than the closet and bath being opposite each other with the cabin entry in the middle, you walk through the closet area to access the bath. It's a unique arrangement, and aside from the fact that the closet is quite small, the main drawback is that there are no doors to it, so anyone passing by can see your clothing and shoes if your cabin door is open.
The bathroom in standard cabins is of adequate size -- certainly not spacious -- with a small sink console, toilet and fairly roomy shower. Lighting in the bathroom seemed awfully dim to me, but I did appreciate the tiled floor and trim, not easy to find in newer ships with their pre-fabricated plastic bathrooms. There is plenty of hot water and good pressure in the shower. Shampoo, soap and lotion are presented in biodegradable cardboard packs (suites get large bottles) and are a refreshing eucalyptus scent.
There is a nice sized desk/vanity area with a decent hair dryer and drawers, two end tables with drawers, and a console with a mini-fridge and television. The twin beds can be put together to make a queen, but in fact, the size is much closer to a king. Standard cabins have a small chair rather than a sitting area, and a table for room service items, flowers or stacks of Princess Patters.
Opinion is mixed on Grand Princess' stepped-out balconies. While the top level cabins (Lido, Aloha and Baja decks) are like other ships, with balconies stacked one above the other, those on Caribe and Dolphin decks have balconies that are, for the former, half-uncovered and, for the latter, completely open to the stars. On the plus side, verandahs on these decks are significantly larger than the rest. On the minus? There is no privacy from above.
All balconies, with the exception of some of the lower cost cabins at the bow of the ship, have Plexiglas enclosures. The furnishings are metal and mesh and include a small table.
Most mini-suites, measuring 323 square feet (inclusive of the balcony), are located on Dolphin Deck, have an extended cabin with a sofa and a divider between the sitting room and the bed. There are two flat-screen televisions; one can be viewed from the bed and the other from the living room. The bathroom is large and has a tub, but not a whirlpool.
In the refurbishment, Grand Princess got a handful of new cabins, tucked away alongside the casino on Deck 6. While these are suites (measuring 319 341 square feet), they do not have balconies. Design-wise, they feel fresh, colorful and new.
Moving up to full-fledged suite categories, options include a family suite, which essentially is two standard cabins with a living room in the center and an extended balcony. It sleeps eight.
In the "suite with balcony" category are cabins that feature separate sleeping and living rooms, and measure from 468 to 591 square feet. And the ship's grandest quarters, the aptly named "grand suite with balcony," measures 730 feet with a faux fireplace in the living room and a splashy whirlpool tub in the bathroom.
Handicapped-accessible cabins are available in almost all categories, have large roll-in showers and rooms large enough to support any turning radius. All show and dining venues are wheelchair accessible, and public bathrooms have accessible stalls. Kits are available for hearing-impaired guests and the cruise line even provides ASL translators. Service animals are accepted with prior notification.
Princess has its own in-house television channels and also, depending on satellite reception, offers CNN International; ESPN; Cartoon Network; TNT; a couple of pre-programmed channels with shows from the Discovery Channel, the Travel Channel, plus port talks and shopping options.
There is a self-service laundry on each passenger deck.
The new piazza is magnificent. On embarkation day, a rather sedate chamber combo welcomed passengers most of the afternoon. But later, a performance by a Polish acrobatic duo in the piazza's "theater in the round" drew a standing-room-only crowd. This wide range of entertainment possibilities makes the versatile space a popular destination. You just never know what you'll see. The best vantage point is from seating in the Piazza itself -- or grab a table in adjoining lounges, such as the International Cafe and Vines, the wine bar.
Beyond the piazza, Grand Princess has' no lack of entertainment aboard. There are first-run movies both in cabin and in the Vista Lounge, production shows in the Princess Theatre, daytime music poolside by the Calypso Band, and, of course, the many activities devised by the cruise director's staff. In addition, passengers can enjoy the nighttime strains of the Rosario Strings in the Grand Atrium, the comics and individual performers in the Vista and Explorer's Lounges, the country western band in the Wheelhouse Bar, and the boogie-'til-morn action in One5, a sophisticated new venue that replaces the infamous Skywalker's disco.
A well-equipped casino is located just forward of the main atrium on Deck 6, with several tables, slots and video poker consoles.
One of the highlights on Grand Princess is its Movies Under the Stars. Located above the Neptune's Reef pool, the giant (300 square feet) open-air screen is reminiscent of a drive-in movie theater, with one great exception: Because of LED high-tech projection, movies can be shown during the day, even during the brightest sunlight. It's at night that the feature really shines. The pool chaises, adorned with burgundy pad covers and plaid stadium blankets, are lined up at an angle and the smell of fresh popcorn wafts through the enclosure. With a movie or event on the screen, the location becomes like a cozy, relaxing outdoor club.
Another highlight onboard is the deck parties held in the evenings. Mostly family-friendly, young kids who were able to stay up late enjoyed the Island Night as much as their parents did, and sang along on the Wizard of Oz night.
During the day, art auctions, several bingo events, wooden horseracing, and pool contests and silliness (knobby knees, anyone?) provide even more diversions.
Educational entertainment is available, too, such as guest lecturers who speak about world events or regional interests. A Computers@Sea program is held in the Internet center, where for $25 you can take a class in beginning Photoshop, HTML, Web design or effective use of digital photography. (These were always popular during my cruise.)
At "paint your own pottery" classes, you can purchase and paint "green" clay items that are then fired in a special kiln, and returned to you complete. The most popular items are the set of four coasters at a cost of $20 and the mugs at $15. A platter can cost $40. Not only is it fun to be creative while at sea, and to chat with new friends, but these classes also take place in the conservatory above the Calypso Reef pool so you don't feel that you are missing any "vacation" time. Just remember: You are responsible for carting your creations home.
Voyage of Discovery, located high and aft, is a gigantic room filled with virtual reality machines, games and motion simulators. It's open to adults and kids alike and you use your room's key card to pay for the games.
On Grand Princess, as on any ship in the fleet, shore excursion offerings are comprehensive, and range from standard city tours to more exotic fare (such as farmhouse visits, culinary-oriented outings, and even the occasional overnight to another place). The only thing lacking is a focus on recreational outings.
Princess adds $11.50 per day to each adult's onboard account as a pre-paid gratuity ($12 for suites and mini-suites). An automatic 15 percent is added to bar and spa bills. Although not required, it is recommended that gratuities be offered for room service, usually just a dollar or two. The currency onboard is American dollars.
Grand Princess has programs for both teens and younger kids, and though its program is not as well designed as those on lines like Disney, Carnival and Royal Caribbean, it's adequate. Kids are divided into the Princess Pelicans (ages 3 7), Shockwaves (8 12) and Remix (13 17). Offerings for the younger set include crafts and games. Teens have a private clubhouse, nominal activities (we saw a lot of teens simply hanging out together on stairwells rather than participating in programs) and a whirlpool tub.
Parents get some alone time with occasional evening programs for young kids. Group babysitting is available at night by prior arrangement; plan on spending $6 per hour per child.
Princess does impose an age restriction: Infants under six months are not allowed onboard on most itineraries, and 12 months on "exotic" itineraries. Although the children's program is not available for toddlers under age three, parents can spend time with younger kids in the children's center, availing themselves of the toys, games and activities.
Princess passengers are typically sophisticated but not stuffy, mostly Americans (on Caribbean routes) and Brits (when the ship is sailing out of Southampton) who enjoy a quality product in an atmosphere of casual elegance. Many families choose Princess; multi-generational groups (grandparents, adult children, grandkids) enjoy the dining and entertainment options and family programs. During the Caribbean season the average age is mid- to high-40's; on European itineraries, the average age skews higher.
"Smart casual" is the way Princess prefers to label its general dress code, and passengers by and large dressed appropriately. Even the pool-wear seemed to exude "smartness" and class. A seven-night cruise has two formal nights: think lots of beaded gowns for the ladies and tuxes for the men, although cocktail dresses and dark suits are perfectly acceptable. No swimwear, jeans, tank tops or shorts are allowed in the restaurants at dinnertime.
|Fitness and Recreation|
The Lotus Spa is a self-contained environment located high up and over the bow of the ship. The spa and workout facility itself surrounds an outdoor pool enclosure, with hot tubs, sauna and steam rooms, chaises and chairs for relaxing. There's a generator to create a resistance current in the pool so you can swim laps without moving. It's a nice, quiet, adults-only area ... or it's supposed to be. There were a couple of children splashing around the hot tubs while I was there, with no one asking them to leave.
Spa services run the gamut of "the usual" (facials, massages, wraps) to exotic rituals and pseudo-medicinal (Get rid of cellulite! Remove toxins!). A nicely equipped beauty salon takes care of hair and nails.
The workout room has a variety of equipment including treadmills, stair climbers, bikes and weight stations, but the space is fairly small and gets crowded. A large aerobics room at the very front of the gym offers fabulous views. Pilates, yoga and group cycling sessions are available for a fee, usually $11.
On Deck 16 forward, the newly added Sanctuary is a lovely adults-only area, with gorgeous wrought iron cushioned chaises, iPods for music, and a small menu of food and drink that can be delivered to your lounge chair (service fee is $3.50). The Sanctuary is also handily located near the spa pool (it's down a level). The cost for some respite in the Sanctuary is $10 for half a day, $20 for a full day.
There are four more pools on Grand Princess. The family-friendly and always active Neptune's Reef is more boisterous. Calypso Reef has a glass, retractable roof that closes during inclement weather. The aft Terrace Pool has the best views (out over the ship's wake) and the kids' Splash Pool is located near the Fun Zone. All, save for the kids' splash pool, have adjoining hot tubs.
The Promenade Deck does not make a complete circuit of the ship, but you can complete one by climbing one deck up near the bow and then back down again. It adds a bit of aerobics to a morning walk. A jogging track is available on the Sports Deck (10 laps is the equivalent of one mile), as is a tennis court. A putting green and golf simulator are located on the sun deck. Passengers can always get a great workout by taking one of the many line-dancing classes, offered twice daily on most days.
|Expert reviews are provided by CruiseCritic.com, an award-winning cruise community. This objective information can help you choose just the right ship for your next cruise vacation.|