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.
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.
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.