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Cruise Ship Review

Grand Princess - Ship Review provided by Cruise Critic

When Grand Princess was being built in the shipyard back in 1998, it was described by the company as "The biggest, the fastest, the most elaborate, the most technologically advanced ... the grandest ship on the ocean."

My, how times have changed. Grand Princess did indeed spend a year as the biggest, fastest and most elaborate ship at sea, but it is now dwarfed by many, many others ... bigger, faster and newer.

The ship, with its distinctive stepped-out balconies and rear upward protuberance (earning it the affectionate nickname "the shopping cart"), is still grand, and although it's very big, it was hardly the "monstrosity" that original description, now some ten years old, seemed to evoke. In fact, I probably couldn't have selected a better getaway than a cruise on this elegant vessel with its gorgeous design elements, plenty of entertainment and recreation options, solicitous and genuinely warm staff, and comfortable accommodations.

Grand Princess is also opening up to the European crowd -- for summer 2008, it's sailing a number of 12-night U.K. and Northern Europe cruises, whie in 2009 it replaces the smaller Sea Princess as Princess Cruises' latest flagship sailing out of Southampton.

Editor's note: The ship is due to go into wet dock in December 2008 for a five-day refurbishment. For the most part, updates will focus on new carpets and upholsteries. However, an exciting new addition for Grand Princess will be The Sanctuary. The gazebos and massage beds will be fitted up on Deck 16 (forward), close to the Lotus Spa and pool.

Dining

The first thing I noticed about Grand Princess's three main dining rooms was how quiet they were. This, to me, is telling: When the ship was being built, someone got it right.

Princess features "Personal Choice" dining, wherein guests may choose to dine at will (whenever they choose with whomever they choose), or traditionally, with two sittings nightly. Two restaurants are dedicated to the flexible dining concept and one to traditional dining.

Botticelli, the traditional dining room, is located aft on Deck 6; the two Personal Choice restaurants, Da Vinci and Michelangelo, are located midship on Decks 6 and 7 respectively. All are pleasant spaces with attentive wait staff and knowledgeable sommeliers; in Botticelli, guests have the advantage of enjoying seagoing traditions like the Parade of Baked Alaska and the introduction of the waiters to the napkin-waving tune of Tarantella. Dinner times are fixed at 6 and 8:15 p.m.

Meals are attractively presented and dining is leisurely. The menus are mostly Continental in orient, with few surprises; lobster tails were really nice, very fresh and well-prepared, and the prime rib was lovely. The bread and rolls are terrific: crunchy on the outside, creamy in the middle. Kudos to the master baker! I have been told that more than 9,000 bread rolls and pastries are made overnight, each night! No wonder they taste so good.

Although the main dining rooms serve a formal breakfast and lunch (open seating), most guests tend to avail themselves of the Horizon Court buffet, located just aft of midship on the Lido Deck. It's an extremely pretty place, with table groupings flanking the window walls on both sides of the ship and two food courts in the middle. The "stations" are set up well, but flow in the cafeteria section itself is poor. I always seemed to end up going in the wrong direction to get my food items.

Breakfasts tend toward Princess's British roots (particularly apt for 2009 with the ship homeporting in Southampton for the summer season), with bangers, baked beans and grilled tomatoes always available. Instead of an omelet station, fried eggs are laid out on a griddle. There is an array of breads, butter and jam; toasted bagels and smoked salmon; and pre-made pancakes. A large variety of fresh fruit, including sliced melon, berries and fresh fruit salad, is a welcome addition to breakfast and the fresh-baked breads and muffins are excellent. For some reason, the croissants are not very good at all (even the chocolate croissants, which usually have me swooning).

Lunch and dinner in the Horizon Court follow the dining room menus, serving many of the same items. The salad stations are wonderful, with tons of add-ons and several dressings from which to choose. Pastas are creative, and there is usually a roast of some sort at the carving station. Freshly made mashed potatoes and gravy are always good.

Horizon Court is open 24 hours with an occasional elaborate midnight buffet available for several hours.

Just forward of midship on Lido Deck is the pizza station and grill, open daily from 11 a.m. until 8 p.m. The pizzas, with a slightly crunchy crust, a spicy tomato sauce and ample cheese and toppings, provide a great snack option or an alternative to lunch items in Horizon Court. The grill serves hamburgers, hot dogs, grilled chicken breasts and sausages with all the fixings, including sauerkraut.

Grand Princess has two alternate dining rooms, Sterling Steakhouse and Sabatini's Trattoria. Sterling, which had been a Tex-Mex eatery (The Painted Desert) prior to its conversion to a steakhouse, has been renovated so that the passenger flow from the showroom to the shops no longer goes through the middle of the restaurant -- it's rerouted to the starboard side instead. Dining here is pleasant and the food very good, with perfectly prepared steaks and fresh fish, as well as a to-die-for raspberry creme brule for dessert. Surcharge is $15 and reservations are required.

Sabatini's, tucked into a corner near the aft of the Promenade Deck, charges $20 for a meal that's more of an "experience" than a simple dining foray. What seemed like hundreds of hot and cold antipasto items kept coming and coming and coming to our table, served in teeny little bites by a cheerful waiter. First came three kinds of marinated mushrooms, then olives and sun-dried tomatoes, then grilled Mediterranean vegetables, prosciutto and melon, carpaccio, pasta and gnocchi, pizza slices ... it seemed to go on forever. My two dining companions and I were shocked when, after about an hour of this, our waiter asked us what we wanted for dinner. Between us, we shared the veal chop (exceptional), langoustines (great, but one of my dining companions was disturbed that the heads were left intact on her plate) and the grilled Chilean sea bass. Make reservations early and plan to spend at least two hours dining.

Those looking for a more intimate dining experience will want to book the Chef's Table, a private dining event where passengers can chat with the chef while dinner is prepared tableside. Cost to participate is $75 per person and includes food and wine.

For another option, try the Ultimate Balcony Dinner, a romantic meal for two outdoors (complete with table set with white linen and festooned with flowers). The $100 per-couple charge includes a four course meal, a half bottle of sparkling wine, a pre-dinner cocktail and a photo portrait.

Room service is offered 24 hours a day, with salads, sandwiches, hot dogs and hamburgers available, as is a Continental breakfast via a door-hung card.

There is an ice cream bar on the Lido Deck that serves sundaes and cones for a fee (ice cream is available for a few short hours every day in Horizon Court with no charge). Afternoon tea is offered daily in the Da Vinci dining room from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m.

Public Rooms

There are some ships that have the razzle dazzle of a disco; some ships that look like children's playgrounds; and some ships that are boringly bland. But Grand Princess has managed to evoke an understated elegance throughout this large vessel with no compromise on quality. There is no soaring atrium, no neon, no copious amounts of brass or marble -- just an overall feeling of elegance with a lot of golden wood trim, contemporary lighting fixtures and a subdued color palette in the carpeting and furnishings.

The only "wow" factors I experienced were at the Calypso Reef pool and at Skywalkers, the former being a glass-domed pool conservatory with plants, light and exquisite tile work, and the latter being the aft nightclub suspended 18 stories above the ocean, accessed via a moving sidewalk which is pulse-lit at night. This non-theme is consistent throughout the ship, from the shops that circle the atrium on Decks 6 and 7 to the many restaurants and lounges onboard: pretty, elegant, subdued decor that doesn't distract from the activities taking place in each venue. I loved it.

Flow, too, is excellent on Grand Princess. The cruise I was on was full, full, full -- but with all of the space and the way it's divided into smaller, more intimate areas, I never felt crowded. There are three elevator areas, the central one having "panoramic lifts" over the atrium as well as the four standard elevators (14 in all).

As stunning as Skywalkers is at night, it's during the daytime that this space is most appealing. It offers uninterrupted and sweeping views behind the ship. There is no forward-facing observation lounge on this ship, which I missed, but the quiet isolation of Skywalkers and the view over the stern's wake almost makes up for it. The Vista Lounge and Explorers Lounge on Deck 7 are the best spots for nightlife. Both are attractive and comfortable, and both offer great entertainment options when the sun goes down and activities designed by the cruise director's staff during the day.

There is a small library on Deck 5, with a few comfortable chairs and three computer terminals. Checkout is on the honor system, which I found very adult, classy and appropriate for this ship. You take a book and commit to returning it before the cruise ends. There isn't a huge selection, but enough so that you're likely to find something appealing. There are also several board games available for checkout.

Not far from the library is what appears to be a very well-equipped Internet center, with several booths with flat-screen monitors. I say "appears to be" because while there are 20 stations, only five of the systems seemed to be working at any given time. To use the ship's computers one just needs to slide the room key-card through a slot; unlike other onboard Internet centers, there is no requirement for a "package" purchase. There is a start up fee of $3.95 however, and then you can either pay as you go or sign up for a package. The cost is 75 cents per minute, pay as you go. Packages start at $55 for 100 minutes and goes up to $100 for 250 minutes. Except for the fact that the system is very slow, there is only one other downside, and that is that the system turns off at midnight on the last night of the cruise, so there is no way to check in for your flight the next day, which many people like to do.

Wireless access is available across the ship and in your cabins, but be warned -- it can be temperamental.

A well-equipped casino is located just forward of the main atrium on Deck 6, with several tables, slots, video poker and roulette.

I had to visit the Medical Center, not just to see the space but because what I had thought was allergies turned out to be a sinus infection. I've seen other ship's medical centers before, but this was the best, as classy as the rest of the ship in both decor and the behavior of the staff. Instead of being dispatched to an antiseptic-looking space with gray linoleum flooring and starched, stiff, uninterested personnel, I sat in a cozy, carpeted waiting room. Attentive nurses inquired after my well-being until I could see the doctor, who was equally caring and concerned. The cost for the visit was astonishingly reasonable, lower than my local Urgent Care, and the prescription I was given probably had a very small percentage over wholesale added to it. I hated being sick, but my experience with the medical staff (and the prescribed antibiotics) made me feel better almost immediately.

Smoking is limited to the port side in most outdoor venues with the exception of the area around Calypso Reef on the Lido Deck and the conservatory above it. There is no smoking in the Grand Atrium, in any of the bars or lounges surrounding it, in any of the restaurants, nor in most of the show lounges including the Vista Theatre (aft). You can, however, smoke in the Explorers lounge or the Princess Theatre (forward). The casino is large enough that it didn't seem smoky at all, although people were certainly smoking there.

Cabins

These days, of course, an abundance of balconied cabins is no big deal, but when Grand Princess was built, the concept was revolutionary. The outside cabins on the top four accommodation decks all have balconies, and one of those decks is dedicated to mini-suites.

The cabins are not big (average insides measure 165 square ft.), but are attractively designed, with brocade spreads and drapes, honey-colored wood and excellent lighting options. The entry door is offset to one side; rather than the closet and bath being opposite each other with the cabin entry in the middle, you walk through the closet area to access the bath. It's a unique arrangement, and aside from the fact that the closet is quite small, the main drawback is that there are no doors to it, so anyone passing by can see your clothing and shoes if your cabin door is open.

The bathroom in standard cabins is of adequate size -- certainly not spacious -- with a small sink console, fairly roomy shower and toilet. Lighting in the bathroom seemed awfully dim to me, but I did appreciate the tiled floor and trim, not easy to find in newer ships with their pre-fabricated plastic bathrooms. There is plenty of hot water and good pressure in the shower. Shampoo, soap and lotion are presented in degradable cardboard packs (suites get large bottles) and are a refreshing eucalyptus scent.

There is a nice sized desk/vanity area with a salon-style hair dryer and drawers, two end tables with drawers, and a console with a mini-fridge and television. The twin beds can be put together to make a queen, but in fact, the size is much closer to a king. Standard cabins have a small chair rather than a sitting area, and a table for room service items, flowers or stacks of Princess Patters.

I have a couple of friends, mature adults, who love to enjoy their cruise ship balcony "au naturel." They'd better be careful if they choose Grand Princess, with its stepped-out balconies visible from both above and below. The top level cabins (Lido, Aloha and Baja decks) are like other ships, but starting at the Caribe Deck, the balconies extend outward. The Dolphin Deck balconies are completely uncovered, with no shade, and are totally visible to those above. Caribe Deck has the best option, with gigantic verandas (about 10 ft. by 10 ft.) that are partially covered. It is on this deck only that anyone wanting some privacy can actually hide from view, as long as they stay under the covered part which remains out of sight from above and below. All balconies, with the exception of some of the lower cost cabins at the bow of the ship, have Plexiglas enclosures, which is why those with extended balconies below can see into the balconies above. The furnishings are heavy plastic and include a dining-height table rather than a low one, making it easier to enjoy room-service breakfast outside.

Suites have an entry foyer, separate bedrooms and an elaborate bath with whirlpool tub. Mini-suites have an extended cabin with a sofa and a divider between the sitting room and the bed. The bathroom is large and has a tub, but not a whirlpool. Suite guests get bathrobes for use onboard, and slippers, which they can take home.

All guests get a small basket of fresh fruit which can be replenished by request.

I was particularly grateful for the extensive in-cabin television programming, which included several first-run movies not yet out on tape or DVD. There is also CNN International; ESPN; Cartoon Network; TNT; a couple of pre-programmed channels with shows from the Discovery Channel, the Travel Channel, HGTV and A&E; plus onboard programming highlighting port talks and shopping options. For any Brits venturing onboard, Sky News and BBC News are also available.

There is a self-service laundry on each passenger deck.

Handicap-accessible cabins are available in almost all categories, have large roll-in showers and rooms large enough to support any turning radius. All show and dining venues are wheelchair accessible, and public bathrooms have accessible stalls. Kits are available for hearing-impaired guests and the cruise line even provides ASL translators. Service animals are accepted with prior notification.

Entertainment

When I first heard about MUTS I was hopeful that Princess had recognized the boomer craze of cocooning with pets and had a dog-friendly program onboard, but no, that's not it. MUTS stands for Movies Under the Stars, and it's the greatest entertainment innovation a cruise line could devise. Located above the Neptune's Reef pool, the giant (300 square ft.) open-air screen is reminiscent of a drive-in movie theater, with one great exception: Because of LED high-tech projection, movies can be shown during the day, even during the brightest sunlight. At night, though, with the pool chaises lined up at an angle, adorned with burgundy pad covers and plaid stadium blankets, with the smell of fresh popcorn wafting through the enclosure, and with a movie or event on the screen, the location becomes like a cozy, relaxing outdoor club where you can make new friends. I was lucky enough to see the Oscars on the MUTS screen, in huge living color, and met many others as we extemporaneously discussed the nominees and the winners.

There's no lack of entertainment aboard Grand Princess. There are first-run movies both in cabin and in the Vista Lounge, production shows in the Princess Theatre, daytime music poolside by the Calypso Band, and of course the many activities devised by the cruise director's staff. And there are the nighttime strains of the Rosario Strings in the Grand Atrium, the comics and individual performers in the Vista and Explorer's Lounges, the country western band in the Wheelhouse Bar and the boogie-'til-morn action in Skywalkers. There's a "party" of some sort nearly every night, too, whether it's the Wizard of Oz sing-along at the Movies Under the Stars or the Island Night party at the aft pool deck, with streamers, leis, limbo contests, line-dancing and lots of noise and music. The British and Europeans are in for a treat when the ship is over in the Continent too as parties include the British Invasion Mardi Gras and the chance to play the game show, Blankety Blank.

One of the things that I found most enjoyable about the deck parties aboard Grand Princess is that they were almost always family friendly. Young kids who were able to stay up late enjoyed the Island Night as much as their parents did, and sang along on the Wizard of Oz night.

There are art auctions, several bingo events, wooden horseracing, pool contests and silliness (knobby knees, anyone?).

Educational entertainment is available too, such as guest lecturers who speak about world events or regional interests, a Computers@Sea program, held in the Internet center, where for $25 you can take a class in beginning Photoshop, HTML, Web design or effective use of digital photography (these were always popular during my cruise).

There are also "paint your own pottery" classes, with "green" clay items that you purchase and paint that are then fired in a special kiln, and are returned to you complete. The most popular items are the set of four coasters at a cost of $20 and the mugs at $15. A platter can be as high as $40. Not only is it fun to be creative while at sea, and to chat with new friends, but these classes also take place in the conservatory above the Calypso Reef pool so you don't feel that you are missing any "vacation" time.

Voyage of Discovery, located high and aft, is a gigantic room filled with virtual reality machines, games and motion simulators.

Fitness and Recreation

The Lotus Spa is a unique, self-contained environment located high up and over the bow of the ship. The spa and workout facility itself surrounds an outdoor pool enclosure, with hot tubs, sauna and steam, chaises and chairs for relaxing. There's a generator to create a resistance current in the pool so you can swim laps without moving. It's a nice, quiet, adults-only area ... or it's supposed to be. There were a couple of children splashing around the hot tubs while I was there, with no one asking them to leave.

Spa services run the gamut of "the usual" (facials, massages, wraps) to exotic rituals and pseudo-medicinal (Get rid of cellulite! Remove toxins!). There is also a nicely equipped beauty salon for hair and nails.

The workout room has a variety of new equipment including treadmills, stair climbers, bikes and weight stations, but the space is fairly small and gets crowded. There is also a large aerobics room at the very front with fabulous views. Pilates, yoga and group cycling sessions are available for a fee, usually $10.

Editor's Note: From December, Deck 16 Fwd will have a distinctly different look to it. Yes, Grand Princess will soon have the indulgent Sanctuary area which is already a success on sister ship Crown Princess. The running track and tennis court will be moved to the back of the ship to make way for a lovely space, featuring a tent canopy, comfy chaises and chairs and gazebos with massage tables tucked inside them. The cost for some respite in the Sanctuary is expected to be set at the same price as Crown Princess (which is currently $10 for half a day).

There are five pools on Grand Princess: the spa pool, which is supposed to be for adults only; the family friendly and always active Neptune's Reef; the quieter and elegant Calypso Reef; the aft Terrace Pool for adults; and the Splash Pool for kids, located in the children's center. Teens have their own hot tub.

The Promenade Deck does not make a complete circuit of the ship, but you can complete one by climbing one deck up near the bow and then back down again. It adds a bit of aerobics to a morning walk. A jogging track is available on the Sports Deck (10 laps is the equivalent of one mile), as is a tennis court. A putting green and golf simulator is located on the Sun Deck. Guests can always get a great workout by taking one of the many line-dancing classes, offered twice daily on most days.

Family

Grand Princess has programs for both teens and younger kids, with the aptly named "Off Limits" for the former (parents aren't allowed) and Fun Zone for younger children (ages three to 12). On any given day, I was likely to see some youngster walking with an original art masterpiece created with mini-marshmallows, beans and macaroni, or with a face painted to resemble a macaw. Teens enjoyed their own private space, with a hot tub and sunning area, and nighttime disco. The Voyage of Discovery virtual reality arcade is very popular as well.

Parents get some alone time with occasional evening programs for young kids; group babysitting is available at night by prior arrangement; Plan on spending $6 per hour per child. Princess does impose an age restriction: Infants under six months are not allowed on board on most itineraries, and 12 months on "exotic" itineraries.

Although the children's program is not available for toddlers under age three, parents can spend time with younger kids in the children's center, availing themselves of the toys, games and available activities.

Fellow Passengers

Princess guests are typically sophisticated but not stuffy, mostly Americans (on Caribbean routes) who enjoy a quality product in an atmosphere of casual elegance. However, during recent times, more and more British, European and other nationalities are testing out Princess. This has been highlighted with the fact that the company has chosen to home port Grand Princess in Southampton summer 2009. Many families choose Princess; multi-generational groups (grandparents, kids, grandchildren) enjoy the dining and entertainment options and family programs. During the Caribbean season the average age is mid- to high-40's; on European itineraries, the average age skews higher.

Dress Code

"Smart casual" is the way Princess prefers to label its general dress code, and smart it was on my cruise. Even the pool-wear seemed to exude "smartness" and class. There are two formal nights on a seven-night cruise: lots of beaded gowns for the ladies and tuxes for the men, although cocktail dresses and dark suits are perfectly acceptable. No swimwear, jeans, tank tops or shorts are allowed in the restaurants at dinnertime.

Gratuity

Princess adds $10.50 per day to each adult's onboard account as a pre-paid gratuity ($11 for suites and mini-suites). Envelopes are available at the Purser's Desk for those wishing to reward individuals and most guests choose to give cash to their attentive room stewards. An automatic 15 percent is added to bar and spa bills. Although not required, it is recommended that gratuities be offered for room service, usually just a dollar or two.

--by Jana Jones, Cruise Critic contributor. Updated by Kelly Ranson, Associate EditorWhen Grand Princess was being built in the shipyard back in 1998, it was described by the company as "The biggest, the fastest, the most elaborate, the most technologically advanced ... the grandest ship on the ocean."

My, how times have changed. Grand Princess did indeed spend a year as the biggest, fastest and most elaborate ship at sea, but it is now dwarfed by many, many others ... bigger, faster and newer.

The ship, with its distinctive stepped-out balconies and rear upward protuberance (earning it the affectionate nickname "the shopping cart"), is still grand, and although it's very big, it was hardly the "monstrosity" that original description, now some ten years old, seemed to evoke. In fact, I probably couldn't have selected a better getaway than a cruise on this elegant vessel with its gorgeous design elements, plenty of entertainment and recreation options, solicitous and genuinely warm staff, and comfortable accommodations.

Grand Princess is also opening up to the European crowd -- for summer 2008, it's sailing a number of 12-night U.K. and Northern Europe cruises, whie in 2009 it replaces the smaller Sea Princess as Princess Cruises' latest flagship sailing out of Southampton.

Editor's note: In December 2008 Grand Princess went in for a five-day refurbishment. For the most part, updates focused on new carpets and upholsteries. However, an exciting new addition for Grand Princess was the The Sanctuary. The gazebos and massage beds have been fitted up on Deck 16 (forward), close to the Lotus Spa and pool.When Grand Princess was being built in the shipyard back in 1998, it was described by the company as "The biggest, the fastest, the most elaborate, the most technologically advanced ... the grandest ship on the ocean."

My, how times have changed. Grand Princess did indeed spend a year as the biggest, fastest and most elaborate ship at sea, but it is now dwarfed by many, many others ... bigger, faster and newer.

The ship, with its distinctive stepped-out balconies and rear upward protuberance (earning it the affectionate nickname "the shopping cart"), is still grand, and although it's very big, it was hardly the "monstrosity" that original description, now some ten years old, seemed to evoke. In fact, I probably couldn't have selected a better getaway than a cruise on this elegant vessel with its gorgeous design elements, plenty of entertainment and recreation options, solicitous and genuinely warm staff, and comfortable accommodations.

Grand Princess is also opening up to the European crowd -- for summer 2008, it's sailing a number of 12-night U.K. and Northern Europe cruises, whie in 2009 it replaces the smaller Sea Princess as Princess Cruises' latest flagship sailing out of Southampton.

Editor's note: The ship is due to go into wet dock in December 2008 for a five-day refurbishment. For the most part, updates will focus on new carpets and upholsteries. However, an exciting new addition for Grand Princess will be The Sanctuary. The gazebos and massage beds will be fitted up on Deck 16 (forward), close to the Lotus Spa and pool.When Grand Princess was being built in the shipyard back in 1998, it was described by the company as "The biggest, the fastest, the most elaborate, the most technologically advanced ... the grandest ship on the ocean."

My, how times have changed. Grand Princess did indeed spend a year as the biggest, fastest and most elaborate ship at sea, but it is now dwarfed by many, many others ... bigger, faster and newer.

The ship, with its distinctive stepped-out balconies and rear upward protuberance (earning it the affectionate nickname "the shopping cart"), is still grand, and although it's very big, it was hardly the "monstrosity" that original description, now some ten years old, seemed to evoke. In fact, I probably couldn't have selected a better getaway than a cruise on this elegant vessel with its gorgeous design elements, plenty of entertainment and recreation options, solicitous and genuinely warm staff, and comfortable accommodations.

Grand Princess splits its time between the Caribbean, where it spends the cooler months sailing one- and two-week Caribbean cruises out of Fort Lauderdale, and Europe, where it cruises the British Isles, Norwegian Fjords and Mediterranean out of Southampton.

Editor's note: In May 2011, Grand Princess underwent a massive refurbishment that eliminated the controversial "shopping cart handle" and added some features, such as restaurants and a new piazza-style atrium, that are already favorites on newer Princess designs. Stay tuned for a fresh new review.When Grand Princess was being built back in 1998, it was described by the company as "the biggest, the fastest, the most elaborate, the most technologically advanced ... the grandest ship on the ocean."

My, how times have changed. Grand Princess did indeed spend a year as the biggest, fastest and most elaborate ship at sea, but it is now dwarfed by many others that are bigger, faster, newer and more technologically sophisticated.

And yet, more than a decade later, the basic ship design that anchors Princess' most popular class (which includes Caribbean Princess, Star Princess, Golden Princess, Crown Princess, Ruby Princess and Emerald Princess) still holds its own thanks to a massive overhaul in May 2011. The multi-million dollar refurbishment of Grand Princess included a complete transformation of the ship's atrium into the much jazzier Piazza (a newfangled addition introduced by the fleet's most recent ships that combines theater in the round with food and drink outlets). It finally got its own version of The Sanctuary, a popular adult-only sun deck that debuted on Crown Princess in 2006. Other additions included new restaurants and lounges ranging from Alfredo's Pizzeria to the Tea Leaves tea salon, the Crown Grill steakhouse and the snazzy One5 nightclub.

A seven-night cruise from Southampton gave me ample opportunity to check out the new and improved Grand Princess. There was barely a nook or cranny that didn't get some sort of special overhaul -- with two exceptions. One of the biggest complaints we heard onboard was that the central bank of elevators was old, creaky and unreliable. (Two were out of service during our cruise, which didn't help matters.) Because the original design of Grand Princess did not include a central stairwell servicing all decks, you've either got to walk forward or aft from the middle of the ship or wait, interminably, for a lift.

The second area that did not get much love was cabins. The public areas received the lion's share of attention (the massive refurbishment also addressed mechanical systems and such), and there has been much chat on our Princess' forums about how dated the cabins continue to look. Frankly, I disagree; our cabin was comfortable and pleasant. Though it's true the color scheme isn't terribly dynamic, Princess has kept up with necessary upgrades, such as flat-screen televisions, and new mattresses and duvets.

Ultimately, what Princess does better than most lines is offer a seamless blend of traditional cruising with the more contemporary options that are necessary these days. Grand Princess may not be the newest ship in the fleet, but (aside from those balky elevators) you'll never know it.

Fitness and Recreation

The Lotus Spa is a self-contained environment located high up and over the bow of the ship. The spa and workout facility itself surrounds an outdoor pool enclosure, with hot tubs, sauna and steam rooms, chaises and chairs for relaxing. There's a generator to create a resistance current in the pool so you can swim laps without moving. It's a nice, quiet, adults-only area ... or it's supposed to be. There were a couple of children splashing around the hot tubs while I was there, with no one asking them to leave.

Spa services run the gamut of "the usual" (facials, massages, wraps) to exotic rituals and pseudo-medicinal (Get rid of cellulite! Remove toxins!). A nicely equipped beauty salon takes care of hair and nails.

The workout room has a variety of equipment including treadmills, stair climbers, bikes and weight stations, but the space is fairly small and gets crowded. A large aerobics room at the very front of the gym offers fabulous views. Pilates, yoga and group cycling sessions are available for a fee, usually $11.

On Deck 16 forward, the newly added Sanctuary is a lovely adults-only area, with gorgeous wrought iron cushioned chaises, iPods for music, and a small menu of food and drink that can be delivered to your lounge chair (service fee is $3.50). The Sanctuary is also handily located near the spa pool (it's down a level). The cost for some respite in the Sanctuary is $10 for half a day, $20 for a full day.

There are four more pools on Grand Princess. The family-friendly and always active Neptune's Reef is more boisterous. Calypso Reef has a glass, retractable roof that closes during inclement weather. The aft Terrace Pool has the best views (out over the ship's wake) and the kids' Splash Pool is located near the Fun Zone. All, save for the kids' splash pool, have adjoining hot tubs.

The Promenade Deck does not make a complete circuit of the ship, but you can complete one by climbing one deck up near the bow and then back down again. It adds a bit of aerobics to a morning walk. A jogging track is available on the Sports Deck (10 laps is the equivalent of one mile), as is a tennis court. A putting green and golf simulator are located on the sun deck. Passengers can always get a great workout by taking one of the many line-dancing classes, offered twice daily on most days.

Family

Grand Princess has programs for both teens and younger kids, and though its program is not as well designed as those on lines like Disney, Carnival and Royal Caribbean, it's adequate. Kids are divided into the Princess Pelicans (ages 3 – 7), Shockwaves (8 – 12) and Remix (13 – 17). Offerings for the younger set include crafts and games. Teens have a private clubhouse, nominal activities (we saw a lot of teens simply hanging out together on stairwells rather than participating in programs) and a whirlpool tub.

Parents get some alone time with occasional evening programs for young kids. Group babysitting is available at night by prior arrangement; plan on spending $6 per hour per child.

Princess does impose an age restriction: Infants under six months are not allowed onboard on most itineraries, and 12 months on "exotic" itineraries. Although the children's program is not available for toddlers under age three, parents can spend time with younger kids in the children's center, availing themselves of the toys, games and activities.

Fellow Passengers

Princess passengers are typically sophisticated but not stuffy, mostly Americans (on Caribbean routes) and Brits (when the ship is sailing out of Southampton) who enjoy a quality product in an atmosphere of casual elegance. Many families choose Princess; multi-generational groups (grandparents, adult children, grandkids) enjoy the dining and entertainment options and family programs. During the Caribbean season the average age is mid- to high-40's; on European itineraries, the average age skews higher.

Dress Code

"Smart casual" is the way Princess prefers to label its general dress code, and passengers by and large dressed appropriately. Even the pool-wear seemed to exude "smartness" and class. A seven-night cruise has two formal nights: think lots of beaded gowns for the ladies and tuxes for the men, although cocktail dresses and dark suits are perfectly acceptable. No swimwear, jeans, tank tops or shorts are allowed in the restaurants at dinnertime.

Gratuity

Princess adds $11.50 per day to each adult's onboard account as a pre-paid gratuity ($12 for suites and mini-suites). An automatic 15 percent is added to bar and spa bills. Although not required, it is recommended that gratuities be offered for room service, usually just a dollar or two. The currency onboard is American dollars.

Public Rooms

Some ships have the razzle dazzle of a disco; some ships look like children's playgrounds; and some ships are boringly bland. But Grand Princess has managed to evoke an understated elegance throughout with no compromise on quality. There is no soaring atrium, no neon, no copious amounts of brass or marble -- just an overall feeling of elegance with a lot of golden wood trim, contemporary lighting fixtures, and a subdued color palette in the carpeting and furnishings.

Flow, too, is, with one major exception, excellent on Grand Princess. The cruise I was on was extremely full (over 100 percent capacity) -- but the way the onboard space is divided into smaller, more intimate areas, I never felt crowded. Three elevator areas (14 elevators in all) provide easy access around the ship. The central bank has "panoramic lifts" over the atrium as well as four standard elevators. The exception: Those central lifts, which weren't upgraded during the refit, could be seriously frustrating. Because the original design of Grand Princess did not include a central stairwell servicing all decks, you've either got to walk forward or aft from the middle of the ship or wait, interminably, for a lift. It didn't help that two were out of service during our cruise.

A new -- and perhaps dubious -- invention aboard Grand Princess is Tea Leaves, a combination tea salon and library. The space itself is dark and windowless, open to a corridor between the Piazza and the shore excursions service desk, and the identity crisis was jarring. Is this a place for a designer cup of tea or a hideaway to simply read a book? The selection of books to borrow is rather measly; board games as well are available to checkout.

Smoking is limited to designated areas -- parts of lounges, casinos and the open decks -- and is prohibited in passenger cabins.

Dining

While lines like Celebrity Cruises and Holland America make a bigger fuss about culinary quality, I was pleasantly surprised by the cuisine onboard Grand Princess just about everywhere. In fact, my picky eater of a husband had trouble getting his slacks buttoned the last day. The dining room fare was consistently excellent; alternative restaurants like Crown Grill and Sabatini's were superb and tough to get into (reservations a must) even with surcharges of $25. Also marvelous: the sea-day pub lunches, hosted in the Crown Grill, and the marvelous Piazza, with its casual fare options.

Princess features "Personal Choice" dining, wherein passengers may dine at will (whenever and with whomever they choose) or traditionally, with two sittings in which you're assigned a table and tablemates, nightly. Two restaurants are dedicated to the flexible dining concept and one to traditional dining.

Botticelli, the traditional dining room, is located aft on Deck 6; the two Personal Choice restaurants, DaVinci and Michelangelo, are located midship on Decks 6 and 7, respectively. All are pleasant spaces with attentive wait staff and knowledgeable sommeliers; in Botticelli, guests have the advantage of enjoying seagoing traditions like the Parade of Baked Alaska and the introduction of the waiters to the napkin-waving tune of "Tarantella." (Mind you, there was a Baked Alaska parade on the last night in the other two dining rooms, but it came as people were in various stages of dining and seemed a bit awkward.) Dinner times are fixed at 5:30, 6 and 8:15 p.m.

Those who opt for flexible dining in DaVinci and Michelangelo can show up anytime at either restaurant between 5:30 - 10 p.m.

One dining room is open each day for those who prefer a more formal breakfast (7:30 - 9:30 a.m.), and on sea days and embarkation day only, for lunch (noon - 1:30 p.m.). At these meals it's open seating for all.

Another more cruise-traditional dining venue aboard Grand Princess is the Horizon Court, the ship's buffet area. A fairly innovative design from the get-go, the Horizon Court is set up in stations rather than one long cafeteria line in order to cut down on lengthy queues. (There are two station areas, one port, one starboard.)

Open nearly round-the-clock (from 5 a.m. - 11 p.m. daily), the buffet venue starts the day with Continental breakfast for early risers and then moves into full breakfast. For breakfast, the selection is reasonably varied. Bangers (and sausages), baked beans, bacon (Canadian and American) and grilled tomatoes are daily staples. Instead of an omelet station, fried eggs are laid out on a griddle. There is an array of breads, butter and jam; toasted bagels and smoked salmon; and pre-made pancakes. A large variety of fresh fruit, including sliced melon, berries and fresh fruit salad, is a welcome addition to breakfast and the fresh-baked breads and muffins are excellent. There's one major omission: Horizon Court offers no option for eggs made to order.

Lunch and dinner in the Horizon Court follow the dining room menus, serving many of the same items. The salad stations are wonderful, with tons of add-ons and several dressings from which to choose. Pastas are creative, and there is usually a roast of some sort at the carving station. Freshly made mashed potatoes and gravy are always good. A new addition to Horizon Court is a separate dessert station.

Just forward of midship on the Lido Deck is the pizza station and grill, open daily from 11 a.m. until 8 p.m. The pizzas, with a slightly crunchy crust, a spicy tomato sauce and ample cheese and toppings, provide a great snack option or an alternative to lunch in Horizon Court. The grill serves hamburgers, hot dogs, grilled chicken breasts and sausages with all the fixings, including sauerkraut.

Tradition aside, on the "new" Grand Princess, our favorite place to eat was actually the Piazza, which has an International Cafe (pioneered on Crown Princess and its two sisters, Emerald and Ruby), where fresh-baked breads and cookies are available alongside time-appropriate small repasts, like Panini sandwiches, salads, bagels, muffins, and to-die-for pastries. There is no charge to eat here. It's open 24 hours.

Also new here is Alfredo's Pizzeria. I loved the concept (and the pizza, made on the spot, was delicious), but the reason I only went once -- and wasn't lured back -- was that the venue really needed to serve more than just pizza. If I'd been able to pair pizza with a simple salad, for instance, it would have made for a great repeat destination (and a true dinner-time option). It opens at 11:30 a.m. and serves pizzas until late evening.

One disappointment on the Piazza front: While the Vines wine bar on Crown, Ruby and Emerald serves sushi and tapas, this version, while beautifully designed, does not offer food. (Though do take advantage of occasional wine and food pairing events.)

Another new option on Grand Princess is the line's popular "pub lunch," available only on sea days. It's frankly too popular -- waiting times are long and the atmosphere is somewhat chaotic -- but the menu's lovely. (The fish and chips were superb.) Bar service is available. The pub lunch is offered in the Crown Grill and there's no extra charge.

Sabatini's, Princess' alternative Italian eatery, charges $25 per person (and worth it). The meal starts with antipasti; the artichoke dip was rich and luscious and the calamari fritti crisp but not oily. The pasta course features a "pasta of the day." For mains, the seafood's superb. Lobster three ways and the sea bass were particular standouts, and the steak's good, too. Try to save room for dessert. And definitely book your reservation ahead of time; Sabatini's is one of the best value-for-money alternative restaurant experiences afloat, and books up quickly.

The Crown Grill, a steakhouse with seafood, is already popular on other Princess ships and was added to Grand during the refurbishment. Dinner costs $25 per person, and standouts include, for starters, lamb carpaccio, cherrystone clams and foie gras. The Black and Blue Onion Soup, with Jack Daniels and Roquefort, is a signature dish. And the mains -- pork chop, veal, lamb, and of course a variety of different cuts of steak -- are hearty. Sides are served family-style.

Both Sabatini's and Crown Grill are open each night from 6:30 – 11 p.m. and, again, reservations are highly recommended.

Princess continues to market itself as a cruise line for romantics, and in keeping with the theme, it offers a pair of balcony dining experiences (available, naturally, to all whose cabins have private verandahs). The most special -- particularly if you time the meal for sunset and/or sailaway -- is the Ultimate Balcony Dinner. The $100 per-couple charge includes a four-course meal, a half bottle of sparkling wine, a pre-dinner cocktail and a photo portrait. You can also opt for a balcony brunch for $32, which is a bit less elaborate, featuring pastries, quiche, smoked salmon and a half bottle of Champagne.

Afternoon tea is offered daily in the DaVinci dining room from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m.

Room service is offered 24 hours a day, with salads, sandwiches, hot dogs and hamburgers available, as is a Continental breakfast via a door-hung card.

There is an ice cream bar on the Lido Deck that serves sundaes and cones for a fee. (Ice cream is available for a few short hours every day in Horizon Court with no charge.)

Entertainment

The new piazza is magnificent. On embarkation day, a rather sedate chamber combo welcomed passengers most of the afternoon. But later, a performance by a Polish acrobatic duo in the piazza's "theater in the round" drew a standing-room-only crowd. This wide range of entertainment possibilities makes the versatile space a popular destination. You just never know what you'll see. The best vantage point is from seating in the Piazza itself -- or grab a table in adjoining lounges, such as the International Cafe and Vines, the wine bar.

Beyond the piazza, Grand Princess has' no lack of entertainment aboard. There are first-run movies both in cabin and in the Vista Lounge, production shows in the Princess Theatre, daytime music poolside by the Calypso Band, and, of course, the many activities devised by the cruise director's staff. In addition, passengers can enjoy the nighttime strains of the Rosario Strings in the Grand Atrium, the comics and individual performers in the Vista and Explorer's Lounges, the country western band in the Wheelhouse Bar, and the boogie-'til-morn action in One5, a sophisticated new venue that replaces the infamous Skywalker's disco.

A well-equipped casino is located just forward of the main atrium on Deck 6, with several tables, slots and video poker consoles.

One of the highlights on Grand Princess is its Movies Under the Stars. Located above the Neptune's Reef pool, the giant (300 square feet) open-air screen is reminiscent of a drive-in movie theater, with one great exception: Because of LED high-tech projection, movies can be shown during the day, even during the brightest sunlight. It's at night that the feature really shines. The pool chaises, adorned with burgundy pad covers and plaid stadium blankets, are lined up at an angle and the smell of fresh popcorn wafts through the enclosure. With a movie or event on the screen, the location becomes like a cozy, relaxing outdoor club.

Another highlight onboard is the deck parties held in the evenings. Mostly family-friendly, young kids who were able to stay up late enjoyed the Island Night as much as their parents did, and sang along on the Wizard of Oz night.

During the day, art auctions, several bingo events, wooden horseracing, and pool contests and silliness (knobby knees, anyone?) provide even more diversions.

Educational entertainment is available, too, such as guest lecturers who speak about world events or regional interests. A Computers@Sea program is held in the Internet center, where for $25 you can take a class in beginning Photoshop, HTML, Web design or effective use of digital photography. (These were always popular during my cruise.)

At "paint your own pottery" classes, you can purchase and paint "green" clay items that are then fired in a special kiln, and returned to you complete. The most popular items are the set of four coasters at a cost of $20 and the mugs at $15. A platter can cost $40. Not only is it fun to be creative while at sea, and to chat with new friends, but these classes also take place in the conservatory above the Calypso Reef pool so you don't feel that you are missing any "vacation" time. Just remember: You are responsible for carting your creations home.

Voyage of Discovery, located high and aft, is a gigantic room filled with virtual reality machines, games and motion simulators. It's open to adults and kids alike and you use your room's key card to pay for the games.

On Grand Princess, as on any ship in the fleet, shore excursion offerings are comprehensive, and range from standard city tours to more exotic fare (such as farmhouse visits, culinary-oriented outings, and even the occasional overnight to another place). The only thing lacking is a focus on recreational outings.

Gratuity

Gratuities, which are automatically charged to onboard accounts, are $11.50 per person (including children), per day, for passengers staying in standard accommodations and $12 for passengers staying in mini-suite and suites. A 15 percent gratuity is added to beverage purchases onboard, including wine at dinner. Spa and casino staff members do not share in the gratuity charges -- if you use these services, tips are advised.

Dining

While lines like Celebrity Cruises and Holland America make a bigger fuss about culinary quality, I was pleasantly surprised by the cuisine onboard Grand Princess just about everywhere. In fact, my picky eater of a husband had trouble getting his slacks buttoned the last day. The dining room fare was consistently excellent; alternative restaurants like Crown Grill and Sabatini's were superb and tough to get into (reservations a must) even with surcharges of $20 or more. Also marvelous: the sea-day pub lunches, hosted in the Crown Grill, and the marvelous Piazza, with its casual fare options.

Princess features "Personal Choice" dining, wherein passengers may dine at will (whenever and with whomever they choose) or traditionally, with two sittings in which you're assigned a table and tablemates, nightly. Two restaurants are dedicated to the flexible dining concept and one to traditional dining.

Botticelli, the traditional dining room, is located aft on Deck 6; the two Personal Choice restaurants, DaVinci and Michelangelo, are located midship on Decks 6 and 7, respectively. All are pleasant spaces with attentive wait staff and knowledgeable sommeliers; in Botticelli, guests have the advantage of enjoying seagoing traditions like the Parade of Baked Alaska and the introduction of the waiters to the napkin-waving tune of "Tarantella." (Mind you, there was a Baked Alaska parade on the last night in the other two dining rooms, but it came as people were in various stages of dining and seemed a bit awkward.) Dinner times are fixed at 5:30, 6 and 8:15 p.m.

Those who opt for flexible dining in DaVinci and Michelangelo can show up anytime at either restaurant between 5:30 - 10 p.m.

One dining room is open each day for those who prefer a more formal breakfast (7:30 - 9:30 a.m.), and on sea days and embarkation day only, for lunch (noon -1:30 p.m.). At these meals it's open seating for all.

Another more cruise-traditional dining venue aboard Grand Princess is the Horizon Court, the ship's buffet area. A fairly innovative design from the get-go, the Horizon Court is set up in stations rather than one long cafeteria line in order to cut down on lengthy queues. (There are two station areas, one port, one starboard.)

Open nearly round-the-clock (from 5 a.m. - 11 p.m. daily), the buffet venue starts the day with Continental breakfast for early risers and then moves into full breakfast. For breakfast, the selection is reasonably varied. Bangers (and sausages), baked beans, bacon (Canadian and American) and grilled tomatoes are daily staples. Instead of an omelet station, fried eggs are laid out on a griddle. There is an array of breads, butter and jam; toasted bagels and smoked salmon; and pre-made pancakes. A large variety of fresh fruit, including sliced melon, berries and fresh fruit salad, is a welcome addition to breakfast and the fresh-baked breads and muffins are excellent. There's one major omission: Horizon Court offers no option for eggs made to order.

Lunch and dinner in the Horizon Court follow the dining room menus, serving many of the same items. The salad stations are wonderful, with tons of add-ons and several dressings from which to choose. Pastas are creative, and there is usually a roast of some sort at the carving station. Freshly made mashed potatoes and gravy are always good. A new addition to Horizon Court is a separate dessert station.

Just forward of midship on the Lido Deck is the pizza station and grill, open daily from 11 a.m. until 8 p.m. The pizzas, with a slightly crunchy crust, a spicy tomato sauce and ample cheese and toppings, provide a great snack option or an alternative to lunch in Horizon Court. The grill serves hamburgers, hot dogs, grilled chicken breasts and sausages with all the fixings, including sauerkraut.

Tradition aside, on the "new" Grand Princess, our favorite place to eat was actually the Piazza, which has an International Cafe (pioneered on Crown Princess and its two sisters, Emerald and Ruby), where fresh-baked breads and cookies are available alongside time-appropriate small repasts, like Panini sandwiches, salads, bagels, muffins, and to-die-for pastries. There is no charge to eat here. It's open 24 hours.

Also new here is Alfredo's Pizzeria. I loved the concept (and the pizza, made on the spot, was delicious), but the reason I only went once -- and wasn't lured back -- was that the venue really needed to serve more than just pizza. If I'd been able to pair pizza with a simple salad, for instance, it would have made for a great repeat destination (and a true dinner-time option). It opens at 11:30 a.m. and serves pizzas until late evening.

One disappointment on the Piazza front: While the Vines wine bar on Crown, Ruby and Emerald serves sushi and tapas, this version, while beautifully designed, does not offer food. (Though do take advantage of occasional wine and food pairing events.)

Another new option on Grand Princess is the line's popular "pub lunch," available only on sea days. It's frankly too popular -- waiting times are long and the atmosphere is somewhat chaotic -- but the menu's lovely. (The fish and chips were superb.) Bar service is available. The pub lunch is offered in the Crown Grill and there's no extra charge.

Sabatini's, Princess' alternative Italian eatery, charges $20, and it was absolutely memorable. On our trip, Princess was unveiling a new menu for Sabatini's; Grand Princess was the first ship to try it, and the menu has since rolled out fleetwide. It was an improvement on an already superb experience. The big difference was that the family style service -- in which tables literally groaned under the weight of the multiple dishes per course -- has given way to a more a la carte-style experience. It's no longer a three-hour commitment to eat here (most folks don't want to miss the evening's entertainment), and you now order off the menu.

The meal starts with antipasti; the artichoke dip was rich and luscious and the calamari fritti crisp but not oily. The pasta course features a "pasta of the day." For mains, the seafood's superb. Lobster three ways and the sea bass were particular standouts, and the steak's good, too. Try to save room for dessert. And definitely book your reservation ahead of time; Sabatini's is one of the best value-for-money alternative restaurant experiences afloat, and books up quickly.

The Crown Grill, a steakhouse with seafood, is already popular on other Princess ships and was added to Grand during the refurbishment. Dinner costs $25 per person, and standouts include, for starters, lamb carpaccio, cherrystone clams and foie gras. The Black and Blue Onion Soup, with Jack Daniels and Roquefort, is a signature dish. And the mains -- pork chop, veal, lamb, and of course a variety of different cuts of steak -- are hearty. Sides are served family-style.

Both Sabatini's and Crown Grill are open each night from 6:30 – 11 p.m. and, again, reservations are highly recommended.

Princess continues to market itself as a cruise line for romantics, and in keeping with the theme, it offers a pair of balcony dining experiences (available, naturally, to all whose cabins have private verandahs). The most special -- particularly if you time the meal for sunset and/or sailaway -- is the Ultimate Balcony Dinner. The $100 per-couple charge includes a four-course meal, a half bottle of sparkling wine, a pre-dinner cocktail and a photo portrait. You can also opt for a balcony brunch for $32, which is a bit less elaborate, featuring pastries, quiche, smoked salmon and a half bottle of Champagne.

Afternoon tea is offered daily in the DaVinci dining room from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m.

Room service is offered 24 hours a day, with salads, sandwiches, hot dogs and hamburgers available, as is a Continental breakfast via a door-hung card.

There is an ice cream bar on the Lido Deck that serves sundaes and cones for a fee. (Ice cream is available for a few short hours every day in Horizon Court with no charge.)

Public Rooms

Some ships have the razzle dazzle of a disco; some ships look like children's playgrounds; and some ships are boringly bland. But Grand Princess has managed to evoke an understated elegance throughout with no compromise on quality. There is no soaring atrium, no neon, no copious amounts of brass or marble -- just an overall feeling of elegance with a lot of golden wood trim, contemporary lighting fixtures, and a subdued color palette in the carpeting and furnishings.

Flow, too, is, with one major exception, excellent on Grand Princess. The cruise I was on was extremely full (over 100 percent capacity) -- but the way the onboard space is divided into smaller, more intimate areas, I never felt crowded. Three elevator areas (14 elevators in all) provide easy access around the ship. The central bank has "panoramic lifts" over the atrium as well as four standard elevators. The exception: Those central lifts, which weren't upgraded during the refit, could be seriously frustrating. Because the original design of Grand Princess did not include a central stairwell servicing all decks, you've either got to walk forward or aft from the middle of the ship or wait, interminably, for a lift. It didn't help that two were out of service during our cruise.

A new -- and perhaps dubious -- invention aboard Grand Princess is Tea Leaves, a combination tea salon and library. The space itself is dark and windowless, open to a corridor between the Piazza and the shore excursions service desk, and the identity crisis was jarring. Is this a place for a designer cup of tea or a hideaway to simply read a book? The selection of books to borrow is rather measly; board games as well are available to checkout.

Smoking is limited to designated areas -- parts of lounges, casinos and the open decks -- and as of January 15, 2012, will be prohibited in passenger cabins.

Cabins

These days an abundance of balconied cabins is no big deal, but when Grand Princess was built, the concept was new. The outside cabins on the top four accommodation decks all have balconies, and one of those decks is dedicated to mini-suites.

The standard cabins are not big (average insides measure 160 square feet, outsides are a measly 168 square feet and basic verandahs are 214 – 257 square feet, including the balcony), but are attractively designed, with honey-colored wood and excellent lighting options. The entry door is offset to one side; rather than the closet and bath being opposite each other with the cabin entry in the middle, you walk through the closet area to access the bath. It's a unique arrangement, and aside from the fact that the closet is quite small, the main drawback is that there are no doors to it, so anyone passing by can see your clothing and shoes if your cabin door is open.

The bathroom in standard cabins is of adequate size -- certainly not spacious -- with a small sink console, toilet and fairly roomy shower. Lighting in the bathroom seemed awfully dim to me, but I did appreciate the tiled floor and trim, not easy to find in newer ships with their pre-fabricated plastic bathrooms. There is plenty of hot water and good pressure in the shower. Shampoo, soap and lotion are presented in biodegradable cardboard packs (suites get large bottles) and are a refreshing eucalyptus scent.

There is a nice sized desk/vanity area with a decent hair dryer and drawers, two end tables with drawers, and a console with a mini-fridge and television. The twin beds can be put together to make a queen, but in fact, the size is much closer to a king. Standard cabins have a small chair rather than a sitting area, and a table for room service items, flowers or stacks of Princess Patters.

Opinion is mixed on Grand Princess' stepped-out balconies. While the top level cabins (Lido, Aloha and Baja decks) are like other ships, with balconies stacked one above the other, those on Caribe and Dolphin decks have balconies that are, for the former, half-uncovered and, for the latter, completely open to the stars. On the plus side, verandahs on these decks are significantly larger than the rest. On the minus? There is no privacy from above.

All balconies, with the exception of some of the lower cost cabins at the bow of the ship, have Plexiglas enclosures. The furnishings are metal and mesh and include a small table.

Most mini-suites, measuring 323 square feet (inclusive of the balcony), are located on Dolphin Deck, have an extended cabin with a sofa and a divider between the sitting room and the bed. There are two flat-screen televisions; one can be viewed from the bed and the other from the living room. The bathroom is large and has a tub, but not a whirlpool.

In the refurbishment, Grand Princess got a handful of new cabins, tucked away alongside the casino on Deck 6. While these are suites (measuring 319 – 341 square feet), they do not have balconies. Design-wise, they feel fresh, colorful and new.

Moving up to full-fledged suite categories, options include a family suite, which essentially is two standard cabins with a living room in the center and an extended balcony. It sleeps eight.

In the "suite with balcony" category are cabins that feature separate sleeping and living rooms, and measure from 468 to 591 square feet. And the ship's grandest quarters, the aptly named "grand suite with balcony," measures 730 feet with a faux fireplace in the living room and a splashy whirlpool tub in the bathroom.

Handicapped-accessible cabins are available in almost all categories, have large roll-in showers and rooms large enough to support any turning radius. All show and dining venues are wheelchair accessible, and public bathrooms have accessible stalls. Kits are available for hearing-impaired guests and the cruise line even provides ASL translators. Service animals are accepted with prior notification.

Princess has its own in-house television channels and also, depending on satellite reception, offers CNN International; ESPN; Cartoon Network; TNT; a couple of pre-programmed channels with shows from the Discovery Channel, the Travel Channel, plus port talks and shopping options.

There is a self-service laundry on each passenger deck.

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