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Cruise Line Review

Princess Cruises - Cruise Line Review provided by Cruise Critic

About

What began as the little cruise line that could--operating one small luxury liner between Los Angeles and the Mexican Riviera in 1965 (and later Alaska)--has evolved into a cruise industry giant. Princess Cruises has 12 ships sailing the globe on more than 150 itineraries that range from seven to 72 days.

Princess' big news in 2004 is its near-unprecedented new ship expansion. In the space of about three months the cruise line will have added three new vessels. Diamond Princess, the fleet's new biggest-ship-ever, was the first, was christened at the end of February; next up are Caribbean Princess and then, finally, Diamond's sister ship--Sapphire Princess.

Fleet expansion hasn't been limited to 2004, of course. In 2003, the company launched sister ships Coral Princess and Island Princess. In 2002, the company acquired two vessels from now-defunct Renaissance Cruises and, after minor refurbishments, introduced Tahitian Princess and Pacific Princess. Star Princess, sister to Grand Princess, also joined the fleet in 2002.

Princess recently became part of the industry's giant Carnival Corporation when the latter acquired the cruise line's parent company--U.K.-based P&O Cruises. And even though Princess Cruises is now part of the world's largest cruise corporation, operation of the line has, by and large, remained the same.

The Fleet

Princess' fleet can basically be divided into four groups. Falling into the "mega ship" category is the line's Grand class of vessels, which includes the 109,000-ton, 2,600-passenger Grand Princess, Golden Princess and Star Princess. Technically, the new Diamond Princess (and its sister ship) are considered part of the Grand Class but, because there are fairly significant differences, these 116,000-ton vessels really do belong in a class of their own. As does Caribbean Princess, which is unique in its own right.

On the plus side, these post-Panamax ships (so named because they are too wide to fit through the Panama Canal) are distinguished by the ultimate variety they offer--in dining options, public rooms (from bars to a wedding chapel) and affordable balconies. On the minus side, you will experience a bit more of the "crowd factor."

Next in line is the 92,000-ton, 1,970-passenger Coral Princess class, which also includes Island Princess. These just slide through the Panama Canal, which means they can offer more varied itineraries. They feature many of the same amenities as the Grand-class ships with less of a big-town, big-crowd ambiance.

The 77,000-ton, 1,950-passenger Dawn and Sun Princesses were launched in the late '90s, and, at that time, were considered "big ship innovators," offering a wider range of amenities and options than had previously been common. At this point, the Sun-class ships are a good all-around choice--balancing lots of options with a slightly more intimate environment. Originally, there were four ships in the Sun class; Sea Princess and Ocean Princess were transferred to sister cruise line P&O and now sail as Adonia and Oceana respectively.

Four ships in the Princess fleet fall into the "intimate and small" category. The 45,000-ton, 1,200-passenger Royal Princess, launched in 1984, and the 70,000-ton, 1,590-passenger Regal Princess, unveiled in 1991, are considered classics. As such, they don't have the space to offer the same breadth of services (no Internet cafes, limited children's' facilities) but serve as pathfinders--offering more unique itineraries and, in general, longer voyages. Finally, the 30,277-ton, 680-passenger twin ships--Tahitian Princess and Pacific Princess--offer primarily the traditional cruise experience--more intimacy onboard but fewer options (Personal Choice Dining is not available on these vessels, for instance).

Onboard Atmosphere

On the onboard front, Princess Cruises is known for introducing innovative features, amenities, and programs. Its Personal Choice Dining program, which permits passengers to opt for cruise-dom's traditional set-seating dining or a more flexible open-seating plan, keeps getting better. In its most recent evolution, Diamond Princess features one traditional style dining room and four alternative-like eateries (Vivaldi, for Italian; Santa Fe, for Southwestern; Pacific Moon, for Asian-fusion; and Sterling, a steakhouse). Personal Choice Dining is available on all ships except for Regal, Royal, Tahitian, and Pacific Princesses.

The cruise line also takes credit for the industry's first Cajun and Creole restaurants at sea (on Coral and Island Princess respectively). Another innovation is its ScholarShip@Sea Program. Available on Coral and Island Princesses, it features numerous educational- and hobby-oriented learning experiences in areas that range from cooking demos to digital photography. In addition, the company has also emphasized an "affordable verandah" strategy, particularly on its Grand- and Coral-class ships and beyond. Internet cafes have also been a relatively recent addition; all ships--save for Regal and Royal Princesses, which offer laptop rentals only--have been refitted with web-accessible computers.

Itineraries

Destination-wise, the breadth of itineraries is a great strength for Princess, whose ships offer everything from the same-old-same-old Caribbean to exotica, like Africa and the Far East. It is an industry leader in Alaska/Northwest Canada, with not only one of the highest concentrations of ships sailing seasonally in that region but also for its pre- and post-cruise land options. Princess owns lodges in areas such as Denali, McKinley, Kenai and Fairbanks. It opened the Copper River Princess Wilderness Lodge, its most recent property, in 2002.

Fellow Passengers

Princess Cruises attracts quite a widespread passenger demographic but, as its ships vary so widely in style and services, it's a good idea to choose carefully. The Island-, Grand-, and Sun-class ships attract broad multi-generational demographics--everyone from solo travelers to family groups will find something to like.

On ships like Regal and Royal Princess, travelers skew older. That's partly due to the fact that there are fewer options, and limited-to-non existent kid's programs. Voyages typically last longer than seven days and the ships tend to travel to more far-reaching destinations.

Tahitian Princess has become the line's "couples" ship and is particularly popular with honeymooners. Twin vessel Pacific Princess, which spends six months under Princess Cruises' auspices and six months as part of P&O Australia, tends to attract a more traditional-minded traveler and offers longer-than-a-week itineraries.

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