The high-class, high-tech Sky Princess has finally launched, and Sue Bryant is a fan.
More than four decades since The Love Boat soap made the old Pacific Princess a star of the small screen, and five years since Princess Cruises launched a ship for the international market, Sky Princess made its long-awaited debut in Trieste in October.
Fans of Princess Cruises will find much that’s familiar on the 3,660-passenger ship, which is the fourth of a series of six Royal Class vessels that began in 2013 with Royal Princess. Regal Princess and Majestic Princess followed, although the latter is dedicated to the Asian market. Now, though, the wait is over. All of the line’s trademarks are here: Movies Under The Stars; the gorgeous Piazza, all gleaming marble and sparkly lights; Sabatini’s, for top notch Italian food; the classy Crown Grill Steakhouse; and the luxurious Lotus Spa. You won’t find amusement parks, water slides or go kart tracks on Princess ships and like its sisters, Sky Princess is more about elegance and relaxation than gimmicks.
There’s plenty that’s new, and all of it for the better. I loved the Piazza at the base of the three-deck Atrium; it really is like a town square and you could sit here all day, snacking, shopping, joining the occasional dance class, drinking coffee or wine, people watching, and later, taking in the entertainment. A few new touches make it even more fun. The International Café now serves light snacks 24 hours a day and was my favourite spot for a quiet breakfast of pastries, fruit and a passable flat white.
Vines, the popular wine bar, has a new tasting and blending experience in partnership with Napa Valley’s prestigious Silverado Vineyard. The revamped Gelato is a find; the ice creams and sorbets here are made as part of a collaboration with the University of Gelato in Bologna – who would have known such a place existed? I put Gelato’s claim of traditional ice-cream making techniques to the test with a scoop of creamy pistachio and a second of tangy mango sorbet. Both were sublime.
There are plenty of other restaurants around the Piazza; the new Bistro Sur La Mer, offering French classics with a contemporary twist at US$29, is new, while Alfredo’s Pizzeria has had a redesign. Both offer al fresco dining, a welcome addition.
Sabatini’s, too, is vastly improved, with new menus from Angelo Auriana, executive chef of the swanky Los Angeles restaurants The Factory Kitchen and Officine BRERA. A night at Sabatini’s used to mean fasting all day to make space, then bingeing and staggering out of the restaurant, feeling over-stuffed (for me, at least). Now, the food is much lighter and even my not-very-healthy choices of burrata followed by eggplant parmigiana were elegantly presented and just right in portion size.
The pool deck has a slightly different layout from the sister ships, with the SeaView bar shifted to under the big screen, creating extra space for loungers. There are two big pools, rather than one main one and a splash pool. The glass Sky Walk, a signature feature of Princess Cruises, features on both sides of this deck, cantilevered out over the water. I took a deep breath and walked along it, nothing between me and the foaming sea, 16 decks below. Another cool new feature here is two circular sitting areas in padded wells between the pools, shaded by a triangular sail. They’re like Jacuzzis but without the water and were always full with people chatting, drinking cocktails and watching the big screen.
The pool deck is certainly a beautiful space but it was too noisy for me. The Movies Under The Stars screen is impressive, and super high definition, but the constant blaring of film soundtrack, sports commentary or music was relentless. I far preferred the peaceful Wakeview pool aft on deck 16, a new feature, with dreamy views over the wake and a handy cocktail bar; perfect for sailaways or pre-dinner drinks. And then there’s The Retreat, an adults-only space, virtually hidden, forward on deck 17 and blissfully free of noise. You don’t even have to pay to use this.
You can play recluse to your heart’s content one deck up in The Sanctuary, a haven of serenity, with uninterrupted forward views, waiter service and a large hot tub. A day here, with a reserved lounger, costs $40, or $20 for half a day, while one of the private cabanas, screened off by cream curtains and coming with their own TV, headphones and drinks, costs $220 per cabana per day.
Appealing to high-spending customers is a growing trend among the mainstream lines and Princess has added two spectacular Sky Suites to Sky Princess, with 270-degree views from their wraparound balconies – the largest balconies at sea, we’re told – two bedrooms and stylish living and entertaining space. If you’re on your Sky Suite balcony, you have the best seats in the house for watching the big screen on Lido Deck below – and there’s a certain smug pleasure in knowing everybody’s looking up at you, too. Sky Suites come with their own concierge who can arrange things like a pizza party, a cocktail reception, stargazing and, interestingly, the chance to choose the movie that will be shown on the big screen. These suites are already practically sold out for two years, at around US$7,000 per person for a week.
The ship has 52 cabins more than its predecessors but doesn’t feel crowded; some of the public rooms have been opened out and there’s an enormous amount of deck space. Some of these extra cabins are located around The Retreat, while there are six new Penthouse suites and two forward-facing suites, also on deck 17, with no balcony but spectacular views.
Accommodation across the spectrum has had a refresh, with lighter, more contemporary décor. My balcony cabin had cream and gold tones, with pale wood, gauzy curtains and a stylish padded headboard. Bathrooms are compact and here, I do have a gripe; I’m surprised that even in 2019, cruise lines continue to fit ships with clingy shower curtains.
Princess Cruises has always been big on entertainment and the new shows on Sky Princess won’t disappoint. In the Princess Theatre, Rock Opera was my favourite, mashing up ‘popera’ and songs from the shows with spectacular sets and dance routines and dazzling designer costumes by Jackson Lowell, who has created outfits for Katy Perry, Pink, Jennifer Aniston and Elton John. It stars tenor Brian Justin Crum, a finalist on America’s Got Talent.
Take Five is a new feature for Princess, and a welcome one, as it’s a stylish jazz bar with a resident trio who play anything from swing to Cuban. It was fairly quiet on my preview sailing but I can imagine it’ll be hopping when the ship is full. Also new is Inspired Silliness, a puppet show from the Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, home of The Muppets, on show in the Vista Lounge. This one’s for the whole family but an adult show is in the pipeline.
The bottom line? This gentle evolution from the sister ships is welcome. Newcomers to Princess should love the elegance and the variety on board, while regulars won’t be disappointed.
One of the most exciting features of Sky Princess is the cool gadgetry. Although Princess Cruises introduced OceanMedallion in 2017, Sky Princess is the first in the fleet to be fully fitted with the technology, which includes 116 kilometres of cable and 7,000 sensors embedded in the ship’s structure. There are two elements: the app, MedallionClass, you download to your smartphone and upload a photo and personal profile; and a disc the size of a poker chip, the OceanMedallion itself.
The medallion is your room key, credit card and ID. It doesn’t actually store data – that’s all safely encrypted in the ship’s system – but it’s like a car license plate, unique to each wearer. The door opening feature is nifty. As you approach your cabin, a screen on the door lights up and your picture appears with a welcome message as the door clicks open.
You can use the app to order drinks or food from anywhere you like, track friends and family round the ship, pick your favourite activities from the daily programme and play interactive games. And should you find the idea of being wedded to your phone on holiday intolerable, just tap the medallion onto one of the many screens around the ship and all the same functions are available.
What’s also pleasing is that the crew’s handheld devices detect who is in the area and they can immediately see your picture and address you by name as they bring your drink. As Prag Shah, the cruise line’s global head of experience and innovation operations says, “We’re not turning our crew into robots. We’re enabling them to provide a higher level of service.”
OceanMedallion won’t cost you anything; it works on the ship’s own network, so you don’t have to pay for WiFi, although this, too, is impressive. MedallionNet is super-fast and although it costs $9.99 a day, that covers four devices and it’s good enough for streaming.
I had a couple of reservations. Buying a drink is so seamless that with no chit to sign, it would be easy to lose track of just how many piña coladas you’d downed. And no doubt there’s further money to be lost via a gambling app, OceanCasino, which allows you to feed a virtual fruit machine on your phone from anywhere on the ship.
Some passengers were muttering about Big Brother but OceanMedallion has more than 99 per cent take up – and it genuinely works. I liked the personal service element and I loved the ease of everything. I wouldn’t bother with the gambling but that aside, this is a significant leap forward in cruise ship technology.
Highs: Great variety of dining, Broadway-quality shows and quiet places to relax, including The Retreat and The Sanctuary. Lows: Too much noise around the main pools and clingy shower curtains in cabins.
Best for: Families, couples, groups of friends; essentially, anybody looking for an elegant, classic big ship experience with contemporary touches rather than gimmicks.