After days of hype over Princess Cruises’ new Royal Princess, culminating in an elegant and truly moving naming ceremony with Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, as godmother, it’s time to focus on what’s ultimately the most important thing: What’s the ship really like?
As a prototype — cruise industry parlance for a new design, rather than the “third ship in a series of” — the first impression is a simple one. Royal might represent an evolution for Princess, but it’s still offering an experience that will feel familiar to fans.
“Royal Princess is like coming home,” says Rai Caluori, its executive vice president of fleet operations, at a Question and Answer session held onboard, “but that’s not to say we haven’t peppered Royal Princess with new features.”
This is what Princess does better than any other mainstream cruise line: It embraces innovations (remember Movies Under The Stars, The Sanctuary and the transformation of a dowdy atrium concept into the electric Piazza? All Princess-inspired). But it also quite seamlessly honors traditions (one dining room is dedicated to a set-seating, set-tablemates scenario, cocktail lounges have an elegant ambience, lovely classical music performances are mixed in with peppier plays and afternoon tea is a staple).
On this prototype, all-new-to-Princess features on Royal Princess include a blend of more radical innovations with some low-key tweaks to existing concepts. New is a SeaWalk, which hangs off one side of the ship and offers vertigo-inducing views some 16 decks below. On the pool deck, a magical fountain — between the main pool and an upgraded Movies Under the Stars screen — does a Vegas-like water and light show at night. There’s Princess Live!, the first television studio to feature audience seating and participation, in cruising. For those of us trying not to gain too much weight, the temptations found at the massive Pastry Shop (its size and breadth of offerings, plus its no-fee extra policy, puts Carlo’s Bake Shop on Norwegian’s new Breakaway to shame) is a plus and a minus.
Following is a catalog of impressions from our first two days onboard. One caveat: Because the ship, docked in Southampton, has largely been operating ship tours throughout the day and planned outdoor entertainment at night has been thwarted by misting skies, this is by no means meant to replicate a full review. It’s just not been a normal period of cruising (which begins, by the way, tonight, with its maiden inaugural preview cruise). That review will launch soon. We’d love to hear your thoughts about what you like (and don’t like) about Princess’ new prototype. If you’ve been onboard, please submit a review here. Or comment below.
The Piazza, already a terrific gathering spot on other Princess ships, is even more magnificent on Royal Princess. It’s bigger, and there are more bars, cafes (a larger Alfredo’s Pizzeria, along with an expanded menu, is a plus, and the International Café, open 24 hours, has an expanded selection as well). It’s got a light, airy ambience that comes off a bit brassy during the day but glows at night.
Technologically, Royal Princess has state-of-the-art propulsion systems and is an environmentally friendly ship, employing what Captain Tony Draper says enables him to “use less power to propel and power the ship. We can go at the same speed but using much less power.”
Despite Royal Princess’ crazy, prenaming event schedules, with passengers coming on and off every day, service throughout the ship has been unflappable.
So maybe you don’t cruise to watch movies in your cabin, but who can argue that occasionally kicking back and catching up on flicks (or some fantastic television series like “The Good Wife” and “Homeland”) is part of the fun of being on vacation. Video on demand, a new initiative for Princess that will ultimately roll out to the rest of the fleet, is a fantastic in-cabin service. There are a ton of good choices (including music and television news channels) and get this: None of them require you to ante up an extra fee.
We haven’t gotten around to many of the newest venues yet (stay tuned) but if the quality of cuisine we’ve sampled in the ship’s main dining rooms, Sabatini, its Italian restaurant, the casually oriented International Cafe and the absolutely delicious pizzas from Alfredo’s is any indication, food is of a high quality onboard.
Day or night, the Fountain Pool, the ship’s family-friendly outdoor spot, is great fun, whether it’s to watch Movies Under the Stars, simmer in a Jacuzzi or watch the evening magic and lights show (kudos to crew on our wintry June evening for providing passengers with fleece blankets).
You can tell when a line really cares about its little passengers by the effort they put into their kids’ clubs (it’s also telling how good a kids’ club is when you think to yourself — “Hey, this is really cool — I wouldn’t mind hanging out here myself!”). And with the Youth Center, high up on Deck 17, Princess really does show it cares about the family market. The Youth Center is divided into three interconnected spots — Pelicans, for 3-7-year-olds, Shockwaves for the 8-12s and Remix for the 13-17s. There is all the stuff you’d expect in a good kids’ club — soft play areas for the toddlers, a jungle gym, lots of monitors for kids to play video games — but also foosball, table tennis, air hockey Skeeball — again a first for Royal Princess. But for us, the standout was the two dedicated outdoor spaces for the youngest and the eldest groups. The Pelicans get their own cordoned off outdoor area with a climbing frame at one end and little go-karts and a tiny track. But the teens also have an outdoor space, but get this — it comes complete with sun loungers, tables and their very own Jacuzzi. And the best thing? Neither of these outdoor spaces is accessible to adults.
Hits & Misses
On most cruise ships, spas are located hand-in-hand with gym facilities, usually on top decks with expansive views. Because “most of the time (you’re in the spa) you have you eyes closed’ it doesn’t need to be at the top of the ship,” says Princess’ Calouri. He’s right. Royal’s 10,000-square-foot spa (the gym is still up on a top deck) is beautiful, elegant, and, most important of all: serene. Miss? Treatments are outrageously expensive — $150 for a 50-minute massage? Add insult here when your therapist is rather heavy-handed with the product pitch. I felt less, rather than more, relaxed when I departed. Also there’s a hint of nickel and diming; passengers who book one of these overpriced treatments are required to pay extra to occupy the serenity room, with its tiny hydrotherapy pool.
The SeaWalk, the walkway that’s cantilevered beyond the ship’s side, offers a chance to look 15 decks below via glass paned panels. The hit? It’s different. Miss? I don’t really get the point of using this kind of space for the kind of thing you’ll try once (or, for the vertigo-impaired, for whom the view down 16 decks via see-through glass blocks in the pathway are terrifying). Also, mini-suite passengers beware: If you’re directly underneath the deck 16 feature, not only is your view blocked but also your balcony is anything but private from SeaWalk onlookers.
Retreat, the expanded adult-only area that’s adjacent to the lovely (and also bigger) Sanctuary, is a superb space and the best in Princess’ fleet. On this ship, the pool, hot tubs and a bar are all in one spot (the design isn’t quite as cohesive on other ships). There’s plenty of space with lots of loungers. Miss? I’m not crazy about the fee-extra cabanas in either the Sanctuary or the Retreat, as it seems to separate the area into “have mores” and “have nots” and disrupts the harmony.
A new stateroom category, the deluxe verandah cabin, is only deluxe if you compare it with the next lower “standard.” It’s pleasant but London-small, and the only real difference is a couple of extra feet for a two-seat loveseat. The real miss? Its shower-only bathroom, along with those found in standard balcony cabins and inside cabins, is ridiculously cramped for a modern cruise ship. It’s not particularly well-designed, either; it’s got the dreaded clingy shower curtain and the toilet roll, oddly enough, is installed so far back underneath the sink that only a contortionist could find it easily accessible.
Are balconies getting smaller? Onboard Royal Princess, even most mini-suites (save for aft cabins) now have narrow balconies, really, just a sliver of space. Better than nothing but … seems like we’re moving backward.
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