After a brief excursion into the fleet of sister brand P&O Cruises (where it was known as the Adonia) Sea Princess has now reverted to its original name, rejoined her original brand and is spearheading Princess Cruises' drive to carve itself a slice of the ever-growing local market for cruises from U.K. ports. Sea Princess is proving a big hit with Brits, who now make up 90 percent of passengers on summer sailings around the Western Mediterranean. And having just spent a week onboard, I can easily see why.
Traditional afternoon teas, fine steak-and-chips dinners (both in the pay-per-use Steak House and in the no-extra-fee main restaurants), BBC costume dramas on the TV and an excellent U.K.-focused entertainment programme make Sea Princess feel like a home from home for British travellers. That's a real achievement for a cruise line which has traditionally catered mainly to Americans.
Sea Princess' appeal extends far beyond Anglophiles. The ship, launched in 1998, is not old but its mid-size style and more traditional features make it a good choice for cruise travellers who like to feel they're onboard an ocean-going vessel rather than a theme park at sea.
True, Sea Princess needs a bit of cosmetic work in parts, but it's due to get it as part of Princess Cruises' ongoing plan to upgrade its older, 2,940-passenger Grand-class ships Grand, Golden and Star Princess, alongside Sea Princess and her 2,272-passenger Sun-class sister ships Dawn, Sun and Sea Princess.
But even without a lick of paint being applied, it's a cosy, welcoming, lovely ship whose atrium area and Vista Lounge are among the most attractive at sea. I suspect Sea Princess's fans will sorely miss the ship in summer 2009, when the larger Grand Princess takes over April-to-September round-trip runs from Southampton there to the Western Mediterraean.
But those who like the Sea Princess style can join her on a summer 2009 cruise around Alaska instead.
There are two virtually identical main restaurants, Rigoletto on Deck 5 and La Traviata on Deck 6. Both are attractively presented with large windows on two sides, wood panelled walls, an elegant red and gold colour scheme and ceilings which, though very low, are glamorously studded with twinkling lights. Food is fairly standard mass market cruise fare (with sprouts featuring rather too frequently for my taste), but meat cuts are very good quality and puddings generally high standard; salads could be crisper but the freshly-baked speciality breads and the cream soups are delicious. La Traviata operates a traditional set-seating system with pre-assigned tables, while Rigoletto offers "anytime dining", allowing passengers to dine when and with whom they please. The Princess "Personal Choice Dining" policy allows passengers to switch from one to the other at 24 hours' notice. Generally speaking, this is an excellent system as it removes the old bugbear of cruise passengers being forced to sit with strangers, but it does cause a few problems. On the first night of my cruise there was an extremely long queue of passengers waiting to be seated (though you can avoid this by making a reservation as soon as you board).
However, similar problems beset the system when I sampled a sit-down breakfast two days later, with passengers willing to share a table having to wait around 15 minutes, and those who preferred to eat by themselves (not an unreasonable request at breakfast time ) facing an even longer wait.
In fairness, it's refreshing to be offered the choice at all, since so many mass-market cruise ships virtually enforce table-sharing at open seating times, but perhaps more dining staff are needed for this system to work really smoothly as only parts of the restaurant were open and waiters, though friendly and efficient, seemed overstretched and harassed at times.
There are two alternative dining venues, the lovely Cafe Corniche on Deck 8, which offers a good selection of pizzas and a more limited range of Italian antipasti, pasta dishes and puddings in a very pleasant setting, and the Sterling Steak House -- part of the Horizon Court buffet on Deck 14 which is screened off and dressed with snowy tablecloths every evening.
This charges a $25 a head supplement and offers good service, terrific sea views and an excellent range of steak cuts, though the choice of starters was disappointing and some of the puddings were stodgy. And you should take a jacket or wrap if you're planning to eat here, as the air conditioning is ferocious.
The Horizon Court is the ship's indoor/outdoor 24-hour restaurant, offering early riser then full breakfasts until 11:30 a.m. , a substantial lunch buffet after that; then afternoon snacks and (from 6 p.m.) dinner. From 11 p.m. until 4 a.m., lighter Bistro dining is available.
Like most of Sea Princess' public areas, the Horizon Court is beautifully designed, with a pleasing garden room freshness and substantial solid teak outside seating overlooking the ship's pools. However, at peak times it does get very crowded and tables are hard to come by.
Because the buffet is arranged into different islands, there are no long queues, but waiters wielding tea and coffee pots could usefully be more extensively deployed, as the self-service drinks machines do tend to log-jam during busy periods.
For casual meals out on deck, the Deck 14 Riviera Grill provides burgers and hot dogs from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., while on Deck 12, Sundaes ice cream parlour sells elaborate and highly calorific concoctions (including the amusingly named 'Dieter's Revenge') for $3.95 each.
And passengers in balconied cabins can breakfast or dine in solitary splendouron the ship's Ultimate Balcony Dining programme. This costs $32 a head for a Champagne breakfast, $100 for dinner, and meals are served course-by-course onto a balcony set up with a white-clothed table and flowers.
Seaboard life revolves around the sweeping black and white marble staircases, glass lifts and gently curved contours of the ship's four-deck-high atrium, which lies midship and contains the Reception and Shore Excursion desks. Deck 6 holds a substantial parade of shops; one deck up is the bay-windowed Crooner's Bar -- complete with cosy sofas and white grand piano -- and on the top level (Deck 8) next to Cafe Corniche is the Monte Carlo Casino. Opposite the casino's roulette and black jack tables is an old-fashioned but curiously charming "007"-themed card playing and drinks area, complete with squishy black leather sofas, a James Bond silhouette mural and navy padded wall panels straight out of an "Austin Powers" movie.
One level down, Deck 7 is the main passenger deck, with the lovely peach, blue and gold Vista Lounge at the aft end and the one-tier Princess Theatre at the prow. The Wheelhouse Bar, just behind the theatre, is an intimate watering hole marred only be streams of passengers walking through en route to the theatre. Part English pub, part gentleman's club, it has stylish leather sofas, brass lamps and nautical paintings on woodpanelled walls. Just outside this bar, on the ship's port side, you'll find a lovely small seating area and a fascinating display of memorabilia purchased from Marlene Dietrich's estate.
Also on port side is the Razzmatazz Nightclub, with steel walls and bar and deep red "wave effect" sofas. Opposite this is the walnut-panelled, large-windowed Champagne Bar, where Mimosas, Bellinis and Champagne cocktails cost $5.75.
Next door is a substantial photo gallery and just off here, up a short wood-panelled corridor, find the ship's Internet Centre and Library. Quiet, large-windowed and equipped with flat screen computers on smart green leather-topped desks, the Internet Centre is stylish but expensive compared to shoreside facilities. Pay-as-you-go costs a hefty 75 cents a minute but there are cost -- saving packages for heavy users, ranging from $55 for 100 minutes to $75 for 150 and $100 for 250. Computer lessons are bookable for $25 per adult, $10 per child (though I suspect the average eight-year-old could teach the instructors a thing or six ... )
Next door, the pretty wood-panelled library doubles as a venue for onboard weddings, which can be conducted by the captain while the ship is actually at sea, thanks to its Bermudan registry. (A major clue as to when a wedding is on is that an archway of white flowers is placed at the library entrance.)
Accommodation ranges from N-grade inside twins to AA deluxe suites with verandah, and there are 19 cabins equipped for disabled passengers.
All cabins are equipped with colour (but not flat-screen) TV, radio, a hairdryer, safe and minibar; all have individually controllable air conditioning and (with the exception of three and four berth staterooms) beds which can be arranged either as twins or a double.
Top-grade suites and mini-suites have substantial balconies; balconies on outside double cabins are partially enclosed and more compact -- with room for just a low drinks table and two sit-up chairs -- but they are attractively presented in clean white with nautical blue flooring and chair seats.
My cabin -- A745 -- was cosy and comfortable, with a fresh cream, blue and peach colour scheme and a well-designed, if small, triple wardrobe providing perfectly adequate storage for a week's run out of Southampton. The bathroom was tiny and cramped, though -- so much so that I had to stand in the shower cubicle to dry off.
And one thing I missed -- being British and therefore obsessed with tea -- was a facility for brewing an early morning cuppa; I would happily have traded the substantial fruit basket which was supplied for a kettle and hot drinks kit, which wasn't.
That's a minor quibble, though, as room service is available around the clock, with hot drinks offered alongside a substantial selection of sandwiches, salads, burgers, hot dogs, croque monsieur and pastries. Service is free but you can sign for a gratuity.
A plus point is that Princess has resisted the temptation -- a keen one in an upfront price competitive market -- to hike up drinks prices.
Minibar drinks range from $1.75 for sodas to $3.85 for Miller or Coors beer, $4.50 for Courvoisier cognac, while room service will bring you a bottle of Pouilly Fuisse for $32 or a fine Chianti Classico for $31 (and even in the restaurants, a bottle of Mouton Cadet claret costs a reasonable $24). Bear in mind, though, that all drinks prices are subject to an additional 15 percent service charge.
Passengers who like to enjoy a pre or post-prandial snifter out on the balcony can save cash on a Stateroom Beverage Package; these range from $17.50 for a "Liquor and Mixer Package" comprising a 375 ml bottle of gin, vodka, rum, bourbon or Scotch and three appropriate mixers.
Six beers cost $18.75; six sodas $8.75, and $17.50 buys four 187 ml bottles of wine.
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|
The Lotus Spa is up on Deck 12 and offers the usual range of facials, massages and body treatments priced (at full whack) from $119 for a 50-minute La Therapie face treatment, $155 for a 50-minute Exotic Lime and Ginger Salt Glow exfoliation followed by a Swedish massage.
Look out for special offers when the ship is in port.
For $100 (including 10 percent tip) I tried an early-morning treatment combining the ginger and lime exfoliation with a shoulder and back massage and a mini-facial, and found it an invigorating -- and not too guilt-inducing -- start to a day ashore.
Sea Princess' spa contains a well equipped, large windowed gym, a sizeable aerobics room (Yoga, Pilates and cycle classes cost $10 a head per session) and a small outdoor area containing a whirlpool and small circular pool.
In all, the ship has four pools -- three on Deck 12, one on Deck 15 -- six whirlpools and a ball games court (also up on 15 at the top of the ship).
Princess' signature, adult-only Sanctuary features lots of thickly cushioned loungers, massage cabanas, signature beverages, light meals and on-call stewards. Enjoying the are comes at a price: It's $10 for a half a day and $20 for a full day, plus there's a $3 service fee for dining orders.
Keen to win the kids' vote, Princess asked some of its child-aged passengers to rename its two older age-group activity programmes. Now, eight to 12-year-olds club previously known as "Princess Pirateers" rejoices in the much funkier name of "Shockwaves", while the "Off Limits" clubs for 13 to 17-year-olds has been renamed "Remix".
These, together with the "Princess Pelicans" club for three to seven-year-olds, occupy "The Fun Zone" on Deck 12, and keep youngsters busy -- broadly speaking -- from 9 a.m. to noon, 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. until 10 p.m.
Child supervision is also available from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. at a price of $5 per child, per hour, and children are invited to a Kids' dinner from 7 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. -- useful if parents want to dine alone. Younger children must be out of nappies and fully toilet trained to join the club.
Compared to some ships (including the newer, bigger ones on the Princess fleet) children's facilities are limited to a couple of rooms, but the youth staff are enthusiastic and the activities -- from making clown hats to designing outfits for a "Fantastic Plastic Fashion Parade" -- quite imaginative.
Other than ping pong tables, a ball court and splash pool up on Deck 15 and the large outdoor Riviera pool on Deck 12 -- which they tend to monopolise at times -- kids have no dedicated outdoor area.
On summer 2008 runs out of Southampton around 90 percent of passengers were British and 10 percent American or other nationalities (though clearly this ratio will change when the ship moves to Alaska in summer 2009).
On my end-of-May cruise there were plenty of young families onboard, and you can expect this to be the case throughout the summer, particularly during school holiday times.
But the rapidly-growing trend towards multi-generational cruising means passengers in the more traditional cruising age range -- 55 plus to 70 plus are also well represented.
This is a fairly dressy ship; of the seven nights I spent on board, two were formal evenings. That said, even on formal nights, smart suits with ties are as acceptable as dinner jackets, and passengers who dislike dressing up can dine casually at the Cafe Corniche or the Horizon Court.
Even there, though (and quite rightly) a reasonable degree of smartness is expected; slacks and polo shirts are fine, but vests, shorts and flip flops should be confined to daytimes out on deck.
This largely consists of old-style variety acts given a modern twist and is imaginative and generally excellent.
On my cruise a very professional Liverpudlian comic, a splendid tenor, a stylish illusionist and an hilarious musical impersonator kept audiences very happy, so much so that it was usually standing-room-only at twice-nightly showtimes in the ship's 600-seat Princess Theatre. I'm not generally a great fan of cruise ship entertainment, particularly of the "medleys from Gigi in fishnet and feathers" variety, but the Sea Princess programme was well thought out and perfectly suited to the largely British clientele.
By day, films are shown on the Movies Under the Stars (MUTS) screen, which overlooks the pools on Deck 14; recently-released films are also shown in the afternoon in the Princess Theatre or the Vista Lounge, and the ship has an array of daily classes and lectures to keep passengers occupied. These range from free and fairly traditional activities like cookery demonstrations, napkin-folding and origami-making sessions and special interest talks to Computers@Sea (see Internet Cafe) and Ceramics@Sea classes, which passengers pay to join.
In Princess Potter ceramics classes, all materials and instructions are supplied and passengers pay according to what they make -- for example a dinner plate costs $30, a coaster set $20.
One thing this ship does excel at is getting people together; social events geared towards groups with shared interests are held regularly -- Medics at Sea, Veterans at Sea, 18 to 25s and Bragging Grannies get-togethers were just a few of those held during my cruise.
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