Editor's Note: Star Princess' theater now hosts the line's own spinoff of NBC's "The Voice," called "The Voice of the Ocean," in which passengers who are handpicked from karaoke auditions earlier in the week compete for winning title.
The Princess Theater is pretty plain, with light wooden bannisters and seats in a sea of deep rose. While the concept is uncomplicated, so are the sight lines. Whomever or whatever you're there to see, there's a good chance you'll have a decent and unblocked view. Our sailing hosted run-of-the-mill variety shows from the ship's mainstay song-and-dance team, a comedian, a ventriloquist, a man described as a "singer, pianist and entertainer" and a vocalist. While we never heard any complaints about the evening entertainment, we didn't hear rave reviews, either. For us, it seemed to be a weak point on the cruise.
When not out on a spectacular shore excursion, we found the highlights of the onboard activities each day were the ones that tied in our location or something educational. Princess offers a number of enrichment programs onboard, such as Discovery at Sea, the line's partnership with the Discovery Channel. Activities related to Discovery at Sea include plenty of themed trivia (sharks, ocean habitats, even the paranormal), along with a family hunt around the ship for Big Foot, a Deadliest Catch challenge at the Neptune pool and a crab-sorting game (we were in Alaska after all). Tied into our itinerary was a number of activities listed as "Klondike Festival" in our Princess Patters; they included learning the penny whistle, dancing along with a whiskey jug band and making bracelets out of gold nuggets. In addition, North to Alaska programming brings special guest lecturers onboard. We listened to New York Times bestselling author Nick Jans discuss his book "A Wolf Called Romeo" in a very personal way; naturalist Shari presented a number of enrichment lectures about marine life, Alaska's national parks and more; and Iditarod champion Libby Riddles presented her book about sled dogs and adventure.
Other general onboard activities include games in the casino, art auctions, bingo, sales at the boutiques, trivia, table tennis tournaments, fitness classes like Zumba, movies (indoor and outdoor), dance classes, scrabble and Sudoku tournaments, arts and crafts, demonstrations like ice carving or napkin folding, spa events, a charity walk and live music. A galley tour is typically held once per cruise. For $150 per person, you can also take a behind-the-scenes tour, visiting crew areas that include the bridge and the theater's backstage.
The Promenade is a major focal point for entertainment on Star Princess. Styled as a "boulevard," this area houses the three main showrooms -- Princess Theater (forward), the Explorers Lounge (midship) and the Vista Lounge (aft) -- as well as the nautically decorated Wheelhouse Bar and both specialty restaurants (Sabatini's and Crown Grill). The Vista Lounge does double duty as cinema and live performance venue, hosting a variety of indoor "big-screen movies" throughout the week, as well as spill-over comedians and cabaret performers from the theater. The Explorers Lounge, with its dance floor and nightly live music, has the potential to host energetic themed evenings, but we hardly saw anyone shaking a tail feather. Musical performances by cover bands, piano players and acoustic guitarists take place in hallways and lounges around the ship on any given evening.
The Grand Casino on Deck 6 is open on sea days and evenings after the ship sails from port. Smoke-free days and nights were hosted during select times, which we found interesting given the rising amount of smoking restrictions in recent years. Table games and a cornucopia of slot machines attract crowds, and tournaments are scheduled each cruise for slot and blackjack players. A bar is centrally located to provide gamers with liquid courage.
One of Princess' signature offerings fleetwide is its Movies Under the Stars program, showcasing brand-new and beloved feature films (as well as news, sports events and other programming throughout the day) on a big screen outdoors. On Star Princess, seating is located midship near the Neptune pool on Deck 15. We noticed that one film was shown on days in port, while three to four different showings took place on sea days. Blankets and popcorn are provided.
The bars on Star Princess are pretty low-key; sip some afternoon vino at Vines, or grab a nightcap at Wheelhouse without much fuss. To turn it up a notch, head to Skywalkers, a nightclub on its own deck. Whatever you're in the mood to drink, you won't be far from an outdoor bar or lobby lounge that serves it.
Vines (Deck 5): Vines is a wine bar located just off the Piazza, serving more than 30 varietals, as well as sushi and tapas that are free with any glass of wine. The space is done in dark woods and with bottle-lined walls. The selection of tapas and sushi rotates daily, but there is no written menu. A staff consisting of "knowledgeable Wine Tenders" is on hand to help you select a wine perfect for your mood -- whether you're a connoisseur or not. Glasses range from $7 for a cabernet or Riesling to $17 for a glass of Veuve Clicquot brut. A wine and chocolate tasting experience is available each night by reservation, pairing a handpicked selection of reds with five gourmet Norman Love chocolates for $25 per person.
Lobby Bar (Deck 5): As the name suggests, this bar is where the action is happening in the Piazza. Seating is available around either side of the bar, in a common area or along the windows behind the bar. This behind-the-bar seating (tables for one or two) is where we found a quiet moment among the crowds to do some reading, check emails and even order a cappuccino. (The International Cafe is steps away, but a kind waitress retrieved our coffee so we wouldn't have to wait in line.) It makes for an easy meeting place and a visible hangout to do a bit of day-drinking. Plenty of passengers were seen buying their drink packages there on the second day.
Shooter's Bar (Deck 6): Shooter's is located behind a small door between the casino and the Princess theater. Smoking is permitted in this cigar-style bar, so it is largely closed off from the main thoroughfare. It's the most convenient place to grab a drink before heading in to a show in the theater. If smoke doesn't bother you, it's also a quiet place to have a nightcap.
Crooners (Deck 7): Crooner's is a centrally located bar overlooking the atrium. It's the place to read and relax while gazing out the window during the day and to enjoy light music and drinks at night. A pianist is typically found tickling the ivories in the evening, with occasional string melodies played by a duet at night or even in the afternoon. Located near Crown Grill, Crooner's is the perfect place for that pre-dinner cocktail.
Explorers Lounge (Deck 7): This lounge with bar service is huge, and a stage in front hosts a variety of bands each evening (some just fine, some not as great), along with Princess Pop Star, a karaoke-style singing competition for those 18 and older. This venue also hosts art seminars and auctions throughout each cruise. A gold-bordered plaque with a lion denotes the lounge as you walk aft on Deck 7, and once inside, you'll find scenes of ancient Egyptians and hieroglyphics surrounding alcoves with booths and an array of tiny tables with little lamps, most with seating arrangements for four.
Wheelhouse Bar (Deck 7): A favorite hangout of ours, Wheelhouse is the perfect place to keep the night going, although the venue typically closes around 1 a.m. Next to Sabatini's, the Wheelhouse is a dark but sophisticated lounge that feels like you're having a tipple at a historic governor's mansion (or in this case, a seafaring captain's). Presidential-looking portraits and dusty books line the walls, and the whole place has a nautical-days-of-yore feeling. At night, a band or duo typically plays in the back of the room, but it's sectioned off enough that if you don't care to listen, it won't much affect your conversation. A selection of specially crafted (and indulgent) Norman Love cocktails is available to order there ($12 each).
Vista Showlounge (Deck 7): An alternative to the theater, Vista Lounge features a number of nighttime activities and entertainment, including Discovery at Sea trivia, comedians, dancers, ventriloquist acts and the final of the Princess Pop Stars competition. Typically, the shows in the theater and the lounge will rotate, so if you miss a night at one, you can probably catch the act again in the other venue. The Vista is more open and relaxed than the theater, which has tiered seating. During the day, it plays host to bingo games and ballroom dance lessons.
Outrigger Bar, Calypso Bar & Mermaid's Tail (Deck 14): The Outrigger, Calypso and Mermaid's Tail are all outdoor bars near the ship's pools and sun decks. They're also the spots to grab a beer to go with your burger at lunch. Outrigger is aft, just above the Terrace pool; Calypso is midship in front of Horizon Court and near the Calypso Pool; and Mermaid's Tail is located forward between Prego pizzeria and Trident Grill (closest to the Neptune pool). Typical drink menus offer a variety of vodka, whiskey and other cocktails for $8.95; beer from $4.95 for a Miller or Coors Light to $5.95 for a Stella Artois or Strongbow Cider; beer cocktails for $7.25; and wine for $7 or $8 a glass. Alcohol-free cocktails are offered for $5, and soda is $2.
Tradewinds Bar (Deck 15): Looking down on the Neptune pool, Tradewinds is an outdoor drinking hole with a killer view of Movies Under the Stars. There is a tiny wooden bar that arcs in front of Tradewinds and offers stools that face the big screen. If you can snag them, it's like having mezzanine seating to a motion picture -- but with drinks and fresh air.
Oasis Bar (Deck 16): An off-the-beaten-path bar, Oasis is an outdoor outlet all the way aft near the top of the ship, but below Skywalkers Nightclub. If you're looking to hot tub it with a view, this is a nice place to do so. There's also a hot tub designated for children with a kiddie set of stairs, but we never saw it open on our sailing.
Skywalkers Nightclub (Deck 17): For the after-after party, Skywalkers is the only true late-night venue on the ship; the eye-catching nightclub levitates over the back of the ship in a design lovingly known as the "shopping cart" because it resembles a shopping cart handle. The name Skywalkers becomes apparent as you take a moving walkway up a slight incline past windows and beams of neon pink light -- seemingly into the sky. The motif is bright stars and swirls, which works especially well in the glow of night. A DJ spins tunes, with various theme nights (think '80s, '90s and disco), well into the wee hours, and the dance floor is a mix of bored teenagers, curious night owls and regulars. BOGO hour (buy one get one free) is in effect each night from 11 p.m. to midnight. It's a dangerous -- but fun -- prospect after a long evening of wining and dining. (We sometimes noticed BOGO also from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. Check your daily schedule.) Even though nighttime hijinks don't start until after 10 p.m., Skywalkers is the perfect vantage point to take pictures during the day, especially pulling into or out of port. The Elite Lounge is also located there.
There are four pools onboard, so despite Star Princess' huge passenger capacity, pool areas are so varied and plentiful that none seem overcrowded (and very few people "reserve" deck chairs). With nine whirlpools sprawled across the top outdoor decks, everyone can find room for a soak.
Neptune's Reef and Pool is Star Princess' main pool, located smack in the middle of the ship on Deck 14, below the Movies Under the Stars screen and surrounded by ice cream, pizza and the grill. The pool is flanked by hot tubs, with plenty of seating and the Mermaid's Tail bar nearby. In the distance, you can see a family of orca whales dancing in a playful statue looking down on the area.
Our vote for best family pool onboard, the Calypso Reef and Pool is dazzling, outfitted with colorful mosaic tiles and scenes of marine life. Also on the lido deck, the pool area is steps away from the Horizon Court buffet, the Calypso Bar and an overlooking sun deck area with padded loungers called The Conservatory. A retractable dome roof provides protection from the elements, so despite the weather, a family could spend the entire day there. Two hot tubs are nearby.
The Terrace (or aft) pool is peaceful and serene -- though it's not located at the spa. All the way at the back of the ship on Deck 12, the Terrace pool is a quiet area with fantastic views of the wake. Just above, on Deck 14, is the Outrigger Bar if you're looking for a cocktail to coincide with your lounging. One evening, a live acoustic guitarist was playing by the pool as the sun set, and it was something special.
Star Princess' fourth pool is so secluded it seems exclusive, but it's open to all adults. The Deck 15 pool -- situated below the Sanctuary and near the Lotus Spa -- is a meditative place to go for a dip; you can also take advantage of the two hot tubs on either side. A statue of Buddha watches over the pool, which includes a swim-against-the-current feature, and a decorative green bell enclosed in a circle sits high above the bathing area.
Both a lawn court and a sports court are located outside at the very top of the ship on Deck 17. It's the spot to engage in a friendly game of Ping-Pong, shuffleboard, oversized chess, bocce, croquet or basketball. A nine-hole putting course is available; on Deck 16, "Cyber Golf" offers passengers 30 minutes of golf simulation for $30 or 60 minutes for $50. It's available by appointment only. (Call 6000 to make a reservation.)
The Sanctuary, forward and way up toward the top of the ship on Deck 16, is an adults-only retreat. Covered in an AstroTurf-like lawn with padded loungers and topiaries, the space is certainly subdued, with attendants called Serenity Stewards assisting you with any request. Passes for the enclosed relaxation space run $20 for a half-day (8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. or 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.) or $40 for the full day. Passes for your entire cruise are also available upon request, but prices vary by length of sailing. For an additional cost, book an alfresco massage in a private cabana, or have a healthful smoothie or drink. From a complimentary menu, order a snack, or even unwind with a themed playlist available on Bose noise-canceling headphones. On cold-weather itineraries, enjoy the comfort of a fleece blanket and earmuffs (which provide a playful pop of red), hot beverages, chowder and pastries. Special one-day Glacier Bay viewing packages are available on sailings through Alaska for $60 per person (6 a.m. to 3 p.m.). While the sun deck is entrance fee-only, the Zen pool below and adjacent hot tubs are complimentary.
Protected by a retractable roof, the Conservatory on Deck 15 overlooks the Calypso Pool and is where it's at for families. Its padded loungers offer a place to soak in some nice views while still keeping eye on the brood splashing below. The only issue is the strong stench of chlorine when the roof is closed, but we noticed -- weather permitting -- doors to Deck 15 were kept open so some fresh air could pass through.
Most of the ship's public rooms are designed around the centrally located three-story atrium, called the Piazza. The filigree-decorated set of panoramic elevators and graceful sitting areas attract crowds, and it serves as the ship's key meeting place.
Starting on Deck 5, you'll find the Art Gallery just forward of the atrium, with two wide hallways of columns and wood-paneled partitions featuring mostly painted artwork. Vines wine bar and its associated gift shop are also on Deck 5, offering a selection of sweet gifts from candies, fresh flowers and teddy bears to Guylian and Normal Love specialty chocolates. Next to that is the Internet cafe and library, a pretty stale space with 15 to 20 computer stations, a printer and a wall of shelves sparsely filled with books and board games. A one-time $3.95 activation fee applies to any Internet package, and options are: pay as you go for $0.79 per minute, 100 minutes for $69, 200 minutes for $99, 400 minutes for $159, or 600 minutes for $199. Laptop rentals are $5 per hour, but use is complimentary (if available) with purchase of an Internet package. Printing is $0.50 per print job. We found the wireless Internet (even when used in our cabin) to be relatively reliable, compared with that found on other cruises.
On Deck 6, you'll find the passenger services desk. Also on this deck are the atrium boutiques where you'll find liquor, sundries, apparel and logo items at Calypso Cove, and perfume and cosmetics at Essence. The Platinum photography studio is nearby.
One floor up on Deck 7, you can browse with a bigger budget at Facets, a jewelry and watch shop, or find costume jewelry, accessories and other gifts next door at Meridian Bay. Walking from the center of the atrium, down the long corridor past Wheelhouse, Explorers and Sabatini's (aft to Vista Lounge), you will pass through the photo and video gallery. Choose to purchase captured memories throughout your cruise from shipboard photographers and videographers, or pause to gawk at strangers' portraits (organized on large wooden partitions by port location or onboard event).
Heading forward on Deck 7, bookending either side of the Crown Grill are the shore excursions desk (with shopping host hours), along with the Captain's Circle loyalty information desk and future cruise sales.
The Hearts & Minds wedding chapel, done in demure taupes and browns with a faux stained-glass facade in the front of the room, is on Deck 15 forward. This room is also used as a meeting place for passenger-led/self-guided religious services onboard, as well as sessions of Friends of Bill W., LGBT gatherings and more.
The medical center is midship on Deck 4.
Self-service launderettes are located throughout passenger decks 8 through 12. Tokens can be purchased at machines inside the laundry rooms by swiping your cruise card. A load of wash is $3, a dryer load is $3, and detergent or softener is $1.50. Use of the iron and ironing board is free. There are only about two washers and two dryers in each room, and one or two on our floor were out of service during our cruise, so set aside a couple of hours if you need to do laundry. Professional laundry and dry-cleaning services are also available onboard for a fee.
Forward on Deck 15 is the Asian-influenced Lotus Spa, run by cruise ship spa mogul Steiner, with a beauty salon, men's barber shop, lounge and treatment rooms. The spa is open 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, with the exception of the first and last days of your cruise. Green lotuses imbue the carpeting, and the tranquil space is enhanced with jade-like pillars and a statue of Buddha outside in the courtyard in front of the Sanctuary pool. (Windows face out to that area.) Services include seaweed wraps, hot stone massages, manis/pedis, keratin blow-outs, hot shaves and pro-collagen quartz lift facials. A 15 percent gratuity is automatically added to all spa services. While the sauna and steam room are open to all patrons, the spa's thermal suite is only available for an additional fee. A day-pass to the Lotus thermal suite ($29) will buy you access to a heated aromatherapy relaxation room.
The onboard gym, known as Lotus Health & Fitness, is located within the Lotus Spa, forward on Deck 15; hours are 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, with the exception of embarkation day and the final day of each cruise. Equipment consists of free weights, a few stationary machines, a row of treadmills arced along a window and a small, separate room for stretching, yoga, Pilates and similar classes. The equipment seemed adequate, while the space was definitely crowded the first few days of our cruise.
Daily fitness programs are pretty varied and include TRX suspension training, body sculpt boot camp and personal training, as well as yoga, Pilates, Zumba and abs classes -- for a fee. We liked that the complimentary stretch class was not only offered early in the morning, at 7 a.m., but also in the evening, at 5 p.m.
Outside on the Promenade Deck (Deck 7), you can walk a mile by completing 2.5 laps around the deck.
Both youth and teen centers are located aft on Deck 15. Consult the appropriate Pelicans, Shockwaves or Remix Patters for daily activities and events for your child's age group. In order to appreciate most of the daytime enrichment activities that families could participate in together -- including Discover at Sea trivia, guest speakers and more -- children should be at least 9 years old.
Star Princess' expansive Fun Zone program is divided into two groups: Princess Pelicans (ages 3 to 7) and Shockwaves (8 to 12), but they're generally grouped together as "youth activities." Hours run approximately from 9 a.m. to noon, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. Programs typically break up at mealtimes (to promote family togetherness), though there are special food-related functions, as well. One plus about Princess' kids program is that the staff arrange diversions while the ship is in port -- at no charge -- to give parents a chance to engage in the occasional kid-free day off.
Kids onboard can take part in a wide variety of activities, from arts and crafts like T-shirt coloring to video games and learning-based projects in conjunction with the ship's relationship with the California Science Center. On our Alaska itinerary, there was also a junior park ranger program during our Glacier Bay scenic cruising; a national park ranger came aboard for the day to teach kids about Alaska's national parks and answer their questions.
The Fun Zone space is bright and geometrically shaped, so the tiling, cabinets and backsplashes look like construction paper cut-outs. There's also an enclosed area with a mini-basketball setup and a wading pool.
Late-night babysitting is available nightly from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. if pre-booked by 8 p.m. the same day; a $5 fee applies per hour, per child. Private babysitting is not available, nor can staff change diapers.
Teens have their own program, Remix. The space is geared for those ages 13 to 17, and the clubroom has a juice bar, jukebox, dance floor and big-screen TVs. Teens can take part in activities that include hip-hop dance classes, yoga workshops, video game play, foosball, teen-only dances and hot tub parties, sports tournaments and scavenger hunts. During formal nights, a teen-only dinner is hosted to let mom and dad have a romantic night for two. Hours mirror those of the kids club, except the teen club is open until 1 a.m.
Important to note: An informal group called Club 18-21 meets on the first night and is aimed as a social outlet for those young adults aged out of the teen clubs, but not old enough to imbibe at the bars. Listed activities in the Princess Patter included nighttime Wii Sports. Skywalkers, the dance club, is open to those 18 and older.