The 116,000-ton, 2,670-passenger Sapphire Princess debuted in 2004 as the fifth of nine ships in Princess Cruises' wide-ranging Grand class.
The series has evolved significantly between Grand Princess (1998) and Ruby Princess (2008), so Sapphire and nearly identical sister Diamond Princess have some variations in terms of size and features (more on that in a second). Distinctions aside, over the past half decade, Princess has been busy standardizing its Grand-glass ships -- adding poolside jumbotrons (Movies Under the Stars), "Piazza-style" atriums and adult-only deck spaces (the Sanctuary) initially found only on the line's newest ships, Crown (2006), Emerald (2007) and Ruby Princess. Sapphire emerged from a month-long refurbishment in February 2012, gaining said signature features -- and the makeover couldn't have come soon enough. The formerly dull atrium has been transformed into the effervescent Piazza, a public area with a wine and tapas bar, bakery, pizzeria and performance space. And after years of dedicated service, the rest of the ship benefited from the refit, too. Throughout Sapphire, passengers will find new bar countertops, tiling, teak decking around the main pool, furniture in the casino, an upgraded buffet and a new top-deck "lawn court" (artificial grass) for putting, bocce and croquet.
Back to the unique stuff: Sapphire and Diamond were built in Japan, at Mitsubishi's shipyard in Nagasaki (the other six Grand-class ships were built in Fincantieri's Italian yards), and they are the largest Grand-class ships by volume, while carrying more than 400 fewer passengers than their youngest siblings. Sapphire and Diamond also debuted Club Fusion, the younger-at-heart secondary lounge, complete with in-table gaming and multiple flat-screen televisions, which was a big part of Princess' efforts to attract younger passengers who enjoy the nightlife. That concept was so successful it's now found on ships that followed. As well, Sapphire/Diamond were the first to get rid of Grand Princess' awkward "shopping cart design," eliminating an odd overhang above the aft pool. (Grand Princess, which debuted the cart, lost it during a 2011 makeover.)
Sapphire Princess also introduced a couple of other new approaches that didn't work well enough to be replicated on future ships -- though we're not sure why. First the main dining room is split into five (instead Princess' typical two) -- cutting down on the cruise ship banquet ambience of big restaurants. In addition to feeling far more intimate, each has its own theme -- the brash Santa Fe, the gilded Vivaldi, the serene Pacific Moon, the clubby, cozy Savoy and the grand International (the largest). While the differences are largely cosmetic (all use the same menu, aside from one specialty geared to each theme), each restaurant offers a welcome diversity of vibe. The Wake View Bar, oddly accessible only via circular staircase that descends from Club Fusion, is just absolutely charming -- and almost always empty as it's nearly impossible to find. And we love the cozy Churchill's, the cruise line's cigar and sports-themed bar, which is another "hidden" gem, located by the main theater's first level.
All said, the "new" Sapphire Princess represents the line's commitment to onboard uniformity, in the form of aforementioned marquee attractions, across its fleet. But while Princess spends big bucks to maintain and standardize its mega-ships, an equally defining factor is the impressive mix of itinerary options on offer that cover six continents. Through this blend of route diversity and brand cohesion, the line aims to offer quintessential Princess, whether you're in Asia, South America or the Caribbean.
The typical Princess passenger is about 50 and relatively well-traveled. The line also attracts a solid number of multi-generational groups -- families and older folks traveling with their children and grandchildren -- and some younger couples.
During a seven-night cruise, there are two formal nights (cocktail dresses, gowns or dark pants suits for ladies, dark suits or tuxedos for men), and five smart casual nights (most men wore a shirt/tie/sports jacket outfit while women dressed up in skirts or pants with a nice blouse, shoes and jewelry). During the day, resort casual seemed to be the norm.
Gratuities, which are automatically charged to onboard accounts, are $12.95 per person (including children), per day, for passengers staying in standard accommodations and $13.95 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.