Prince George was still a few weeks away from making his first royal appearance when his glamorous mother, the Duchess of Cambridge, performed the official christening of Royal Princess in Southampton. The ceremony was a poignant reminder of the time when Diana, Princess of Wales, christened the previous Royal Princess in 1984.
The new 3,600-passenger ship is the 17th in the Princess Cruises fleet. While there are innovations and several “first at sea” features, this line is known and loved for its traditional style of cruising and Royal Princess extends that experience.
Old favourites, new style
Starting in the massive atrium on Deck 5, you’ll find old favourites such as the Italian-style Piazza; specialty restaurant Sabatini’s (on Royal Princess it is handily placed next door to Vines, the wine bar, which serves pre-dinner snacks from the restaurant); and a bigger than usual International Café, which serves panini, pastries and coffee.
New additions include Celebrations Gift Shop; the Tea Tower (where you can choose from 250 blends of tea); a large internet cafe; and for those with a sweet tooth, Gelato – a gelateria that claims to have the biggest choice of gelatos at sea. When will someone install a specialist cheese-tasting room on a ship I wonder?
The Lotus Spa has been moved from its traditional spot at the top of the ship to Deck 5. As you tend to have your eyes shut while being pampered and massaged with luxurious products, it makes sense to have the rooms inside, thus opening up space on Deck 17 for the expanded Sanctuary. It’s certainly the biggest spa I’ve ever seen, on a ship or on land, and I must confess to getting lost in the hushed corridors a couple of times while en route to my delicious Thai coconut poultice treatment.
However, with hundreds of travel writers and agents prowling around the ship on its inaugural cruise, it was a tad disconcerting to have the treatment-room door opened for someone to have a stickybeak at the facilities while I was mid-massage – you can be sure that wouldn’t happen on a regular voyage.
The Enclave part of the spa features three different heated chambers – the Hammam, a Turkish-style steam room; the Caldarium, a herbal steam room; and the Laconium, a dry-heat sauna. Its centrepiece is a subtly lit, uber-stylish hydrotherapy pool – another first for Princess Cruises and a lovely spot for relaxing when the crowds are elsewhere.
The adults-only Sanctuary is 20 per cent larger than on any other Princess ship. It boasts four private cabanas (US$80 for half a day) and two indulgent Lotus Spa cabanas, where you can book in for a selection of spa treatments. You can reserve spots in The Sanctuary for US$15 for a half day or US$25 for a full day. Adjacent to The Sanctuary is the Retreat Pool (also adults-only) and Retreat Bar, which turns into a casual drinks and music spot called the Chill Lounge in the evenings (although it was too chilly on our cruise to test it out).
Fit and young
The fitness centre on Deck 17 pairs a state-of-the-art gym with spectacular ocean views and is geared up for everyone from well-intentioned beginners to gym junkies. I’m sure if I’d been on a longer cruise I would have tested one of the fearsome-looking treadmills (yeah, right) but frankly I prefer walking on deck in the fresh air. Or, at a pinch, doing a yoga or Pilates class.
Also on this deck is the youth centre, which caters for three- to 17-year-olds in age-appropriate clubs: Princess Pelicans (ages three to seven), Shockwaves (eight to 12) and Remix (13 to 17). There are dedicated outdoor areas, a new teen lounge and a play area for toddlers under three.
“We’ve included features on Royal Princess to make every moment of the cruise memorable for our youngest passengers,” says Jan Swartz, Princess Cruises executive vice-president. “We love hearing them tell their parents that they can’t wait to come back.”
Wining and dining
The three main dining rooms each seat 600 people. Symphony and Concerto each have a 12-person table surrounded by a wine cellar, and Allegro features the elegant new Chef’s Table Lumiere (also for 12 people), where select groups dine behind softly glowing curtains of light. Bookings are essential and must be made when you’re on board. The charge for the Chef’s Table Lumiere is US$115 per person, while the Wine Maker’s Dinner is US$40 per person.
The morning after I arrived on the ship, I took myself to breakfast at Concerto and found the piped classical music and coffee-crème decor very soothing for my jetlag. There seemed to be dozens of waiters hovering but my order of Bircher muesli didn’t quite cut it – it was definitely not the real thing.
The pre-christening Gala Dinner at Allegro that night was magnificently formal, as befitting the royal occasion. British-inspired dishes on the special menu included West Sussex pheasant and wild mushroom consommé; Dover sole a la Grenobloise; and the irresistible Royal Princess chocolate trilogy.
For more casual meals there’s the vast Horizon Court and Terrace buffet, which has a pastry shop in the middle. This area becomes the Crab Shack and a fondue restaurant on alternating evenings. Then there’s a plethora of specialty and extra-charge restaurants and cafes throughout the ship. The club-style Crown Grill serves a traditional surf and turf menu, the adjoining Wheelhouse Bar does pub lunches and Alfredo’s cooks delicious thin crispy pizzas to order. Burgers, hot dogs and sandwiches are on offer at the Trident Grill by the pool on Deck 16 (take my word for it, the burgers are tops), and in the evening this becomes a smokehouse-style barbecue venue.
We had fun sampling some of the many bars on board, notably Bellini’s cocktail bar, Crooners and Club 6 (a disco and bar). Club 6 is configured in such a way that you can have a drink in one area and dance in another, so the music doesn’t drown out conversation. Whisky aficionados will enjoy the special tastings at the Wheelhouse Bar, which also serves a range of draught beers.
As the ship is a completely new design for the Princess Cruises fleet, there are several notable “firsts” on board. The most obvious is the SeaWalk, which you see soaring 17 decks above you even before you embark. On the starboard side of the ship, the SeaWalk offers views from all sides – and below through a glass floor to the sea 39 metres below. I don’t enjoy heights, so the sensation was a little unnerving – however the views into the balconies on the deck below might distract acrophobics on a fine day.
On the port side you can have a drink in the similarly cantilevered SeaView Bar. Here, at midday and sunset, the bar staff put on theatrical cocktail “flairing” shows. From the bar, you can also check out the Dancing Fountains show and the massive Movies Under the Stars screen (the biggest at sea) on the top deck.
Princess Live!, a fully equipped television studio on Deck 7, is another first for Princess Cruises. It seats nearly 300 people and broadcasts the daily 8am Wake Show plus live chat shows, cooking demonstrations, games and musical programs throughout the ship. In-room entertainment has also been taken up a few notches with the debut of an extensive program of free on-demand movies and TV shows.
Royal Princess will sail Eastern Caribbean itineraries until April 2014, when she repositions to northern Europe for the northern hemisphere summer season.