The name Sun Princess may well be familiar to readers -- this is the third Sun Princess the line has built (and by coincidence, the man in charge of this new build, Richard Parker, worked on the second iteration back in 1995).
Sun Princess, which marks a new class for Princess Cruises -- Sphere class -- has been in the works since 2017 and will be the first of two planned ships.
It is a ground-up new build and not -- as Parker is at pains to emphasize -- a version of the Excel-class of ships Carnival Corp. has been using for many of their latest ships, including Carnival Cruise Line, P&O Cruises, Costa and Aida.
Excel class ships are the same length (1,133 feet) as Sphere class, and 6,000 tons bigger (181 vs 175,500) but carry a whopping 1,000 more passengers. So, in theory, Sun Princess should feel like a very spacious vessel indeed.
We got a first glimpse of Sun Princess at the Fincantieri shipyard in Monfalcone, Italy. Here are our first impressions.
The first thing you notice is the sheer size of Sun Princess, which is 30,000 tons bigger, 50 feet longer and will carry 800 more passengers than the Princess Cruises' previous largest ship class, Royal class.
It's also the first to be built with Ocean Medallion -- the line's wearable device that unlocks cabins as you approach and allows passengers to order food and drink wherever they are on the ship -- informing every aspect of the build; the first to house a ship-within-a-ship complex (the Cabana area) and the first to be powered by Liquefied Natural Gas.
Having said all this, a lot of what is new to Princess is not new to the industry, and many of the features which might have been described as revolutionary in 2017, no longer are: the aforementioned Cabana cabins, with their sliding bi-fold doors leading out onto a private space (though certainly a stand out feature ), are similar to Carnival's Havana cabins; the Dome is almost a replica of the Skydome you'll find on sister brand P&O Cruises two newest two ships, Iona and Arvia, as is the Piazza, which is similar in look and feel to those two ships' atriums.
So breathe easy Princess fans, there is nothing on this ship that will offend or alienate the faithful -- no rollercoasters, bumper cars or climbing walls for Sun Princess.
All the old favorites -- Crown Grill, Alfredo's Pizzeria, Sabatinis, Crooners Bar -- so beloved by Princess cruisers are present and correct, just on a larger scale -- and with one or two tweaks.
However, there are a number of truly stand out spaces -- the Piazza, Princess Arena, the Dome and the Wakeview Terrace. The Sphere, which gives the ship its class name is not a space, but a feature -- a vast glass structure that encases Decks 7, 8 and 9 midships, flooding these three decks with light.
The Piazza (or main atrium) on all Princess ships has long been the beating heart of the ship, the triple-height space at the center of all the action -- whether that's Crooners, Alfredo's, the International Café or where you'll find live music day and night.
However, on some of the larger ships, particularly on sea days, this space can get very crowded and often hard to navigate.
Which is why it's a welcome relief to see how Princess has taken the essential components of the Piazza and expanded it considerably.
It's triple-height (decks 7-9), but way, way wider, with huge sweeping staircases either side, a vast 3-deck high ever-changing LED screen and with a central space that converts into a raised stage. So whereas before you might find a lone harpist or a duo, you'll have a full show instead (no intel at this stage on what those might be).
So rather than the whole of the central area packed with tables and chairs, guests are spread out at the sides with plenty of light flooding in through the Sphere.
There is also an unmarked black door behind the LED screen which leads to "an immersive experience" which we assumed was the line's new 360 dining concept, but were told it was not. A secret bar perhaps? Who knows.
Also, a lovely touch on Deck 8, Alfredo's has gone al fresco, with outdoor seating and heaters (for the start of its maiden season in the Med in February) -- as well as the nearest a ship is allowed to have to a traditional wood-fired pizza oven (and the pies are still free).
The Princess Arena is the main theater, with seating for 1,050, and is so called because of its versatility -- it transforms into a theater in the round as well as a "keyhole" shape, allowing the audience to get up close and personal with the actors.
In the center of the room is a movable stage (similar to that in the Piazza), which rises and falls and revolves.
No word yet on what shows we are likely to see here, but the ability of the space to transform so significantly will allow the line to move on from the traditional song-and-dance revues that seem outdated when compared to what rival lines are putting on.
This doesn't necessarily have to Broadway or West End shows (which in the main require the typical theater layout), this could be more pioneering in-house shows which lines like Virgin Voyages with its bleacher-style seating, MSC Cruises with its in-the-round cabaret-style spaces and Royal Caribbean with its Two70 spaces on Anthem-class ships are putting on.
Princess has also gotten rid of all columns in the theater, so there are no obstructed views.
Rather than a traditional theater (which takes up a vast amount of real estate) remaining unused for most of the day, this multi-configured space will be used throughout the day and evening.
There are 50 suites on this ship -- another first for Princess in terms of the number -- with their own private sundeck, dining room and lounge area -- dotted around the ship known collectively as The Reserve Collection.
And although the Cabana cabins aren't suites (all are classified as balcony cabins), what stood out for us is their exclusivity and size.
There are 76 of this style of cabin, which are classified as balcony. Most lead directly out onto a key-card only shared private terrace, complete with sunbeds and sunken Jacuzzi.
Although this is not a suite complex (like MSC Yacht Club or Celebrity's The Retreat), from what we heard and saw from the renderings, this space has the look and feel of a VIP retreat.
But it's the cabins themselves which are the real stand out for us. Besides having a balcony (or terrace), they also have an additional space which can be opened to create either a double-space balcony area or enclosed to create a conservatory -- and effectively increasing the size of your room by a third.
We absolutely love the idea behind these and predict they will be a huge hit, particularly for families (though there may well be some jealous looks from the rooms directly above).
If you want a taste of luxury at an affordable price point, then these cabins are definitely for you.
Here's where things get a little confusing. We love this space on Deck 8, which as its name suggests is at the aft of the ship -- but we couldn't help noticing how different it feels when compared with the rest of the ship.
Not that that is a bad thing, it's just when you get back here, Sun Princess starts channelling a Miami Beach-style vibe (even calling this area the Wake Club, though note it's open to all), rather than the rest of the ship's laid-back California-cool-tyle vibe.
It's also very similar to MSC Cruises' Seaside class of ships, so cabin decks run vertical in a condo-style with two banks of panoramic elevators between them.
Below here there's a pool that juts right out the back of the ship, plenty of lounger space and a large bar on terraced steps above.
DJs and decks might be a step too far for Princess, but it would be perfect space for both…
If there was one word that stood out during this whistle-stop tour it was "evolution", used multiple times by Parker to describe most of the spaces we visited.
And in our brief tour of a small portion of this ship (we just saw spaces on decks 7-9), there were no spaces that could be described as revolutionary (though arguably some of the technology on display including the Arena and LED screens could be described as such).
But that's not what a Princess passenger expects or wants. Instead the line has taken the best of the brand and celebrates them by making them bigger and better, without ruining their essential DNA.
However, Princess is clearly keeping back a few surprises in terms of new for-fee dining spots, bars and entertainment, so you never know what might be behind that unmarked black door.