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Cruise Ship Review

Golden Princess - Ship Review provided by Cruise Critic

Editor's Note -- Golden Princess will be in dry dock until May 5, 2009 receiving the most extensive refurbishment the line has ever done. The ship will receive the signature Movies Under the Stars big screen, the adults-only Sanctuary, a piazza-style atrium and the Crown Grill steak and seafood restaurant. Princess Cruises is sharing every step of the dry dock through an online journal on the Princess Web site and daily updates via Twitter.

When Golden Princess' sister ship Grand Princess first left port in May of 1998, it helped launch the era of mega-ship sailing. Like the Grand, the Golden, a vessel weighing 109,000 tons with a double-occupancy capacity of 2,600 passengers, offers a boat load of possibilities for passengers. We especially liked:

Sabatini's, one of the ship's two specialty restaurants, is one of our favorite ocean-going eateries. During the five-course marathon meal, you eat your way through 11 types of antipasto plus some very tasty pasta, pizza and your choice of an entree. This meal is well worth the extra $20-per-person fee.

Personal Choice Dining enables passengers to pick either traditional, fixed-seating dinner service at 6:15 p.m. or 8:30 p.m., or to dine anytime between 5:30 p.m. and 10 p.m.

A high number of cabins -- 711 out of 935 outsides -- feature balconies. With these you can enjoy moonlit views and sea breezes and also book the Ultimate Balcony Dinner for an extra fee.

The teens-only sun deck provides this hard-to-please group an outdoor place to mingle, and the splash pool area (while small) offers parents a tot-friendly place for water play with their pre-schoolers.

Three pools ease the swim crunch. The outdoor Calypso Reef draws kids, teens and adults while the covered Neptune Reef provides a climate-controlled space so water enthusiasts can get wet even in inclement weather. The outdoor spa current pool, targeted for swimmers 16 and older, is best at odd hours when it's not filled with kids.

With three show lounges -- the Princess Theater, Vista Lounge and Explorers Lounge -- you can find some entertainment no matter what time you finish dinner.

A comfortable ship, Golden Princess floats a tasteful decor of beige accented with soft pastels. The only times you feel the crowds are during the popular 8:30 p.m. show in the Princess Theater when latecomers stand in the aisles, and afterwards when passengers stream toward the elevators.

With supervised activities in the Fun Zone (a children's area for ages 3 - 7 and 8 - 12), Off Limits (the daytime teen room) and FX (a nighttime disco for ages 13 - 17), Golden Princess works well for families. Interestingly, onboard our 10-day British Isles and Western Europe sailing in July, teenagers significantly outnumbered the younger kids.

Dining

We really liked the flexibility of Personal Choice Dining. It gave us the same freedom of land-based nights out. We showed up in the designated dining room whenever we felt like it between 5:30 p.m. and 10 p.m., which freed us from the "hurry up and get dressed for dinner" rush that all too often comes after a long and active day in port.

Because of the popularity of Personal Choice Dining, the ship utilizes both the Bernini dining room from 5:30 until 10 p.m. and the Donatello from 6:15 until 10 p.m. If you're willing to meet new people and join a group table, then you may be seated more promptly. But if you desire a solo table during the popular 7:45 to 8:30 p.m. slot, you may wait up to 15 minutes. By arriving around 7 p.m., we were able to finish our meal in time to double up on our evening entertainment, taking in the first show at the Princess Theater at 8:30 p.m. followed by the comedian or singer in the Vista Lounge at 10 p.m. ... with enough time left over to throw away our quarters in the casino's slots.

A tip: Reservations for a specific time for any size group, even for a couple, may be made the same day.

Traditionalists who like the camaraderie of the same table and service from the same waiter -- the one who knows you like extra lemons with your iced tea -- booked the Canaletto dining room for either 6:15 p.m. or 8:30 p.m. service.

Despite seating hundreds of people at once, the dining rooms didn't feel cavernous. Railings divide the rooms into manageable areas and the drapes, carpeting and other measures absorb much of the background noise so that you don't ever have to yell to be heard by your own tablemates. An adequate selection of wines ranging from $20 to $50 per bottle was available.

The Horizon Court served ample buffets. Breakfast featured the usual array of hot and cold cereals, smoked salmon, scrambled eggs, omelets, and alternating days of waffles, pancakes and other traditional fare. For lunch, in addition to cold cuts, the spread included a hot fish, chicken or pork dish (often all three), vegetables, greens and sometimes special platters such as sushi. For dinner the Horizon Court also offered a wide variety of hot and cold entrees along with salad and desserts.

Room service, although limited to a set menu of breakfast items or sandwiches, salads and burgers, was available 24 hours a day. Along with a Continental breakfast of pastries, coffee and fruit, room service delivered hot items such as eggs, omelets and oatmeal cereal. For people like us who like a hot breakfast but don't want to get dressed to enjoy one, this was a nice touch.

Golden Princess offers two specialty restaurants available by reservation only. To be sure you get the time and day you desire, reserve these well in advance.

If you like Italian fare, don't miss Sabatini's, well worth the $20 per person extra charge. You select your entree, a soup or salad, and your specialty pizza -- the smoked salmon slice was particularly good -- then the waiter brings you everything else. Start with 11 types of antipasto including melon, sun dried tomatoes, porcini mushrooms in olive oil, steamed black mussels, crab cakes, eggplant, shrimp, fried cheese and marinated artichokes. Make your way through minestrone soup or a seafood cioppino (very tasty) and pizza, followed by three types of pasta. Continue with an entree and end with dessert. By the time we licked the last of the flourless chocolate cake from our forks, we were stuffed and very happy.

In contrast, Sterling Steakhouse seemed a bit tepid, but the steaks and, surprisingly, the fish entree, were good. The waiter warned us off the barbecue chicken, saying it's "really for the kids," a tip we appreciated. A singer with a backup band played music, mostly country tunes, and it was fun to watch some couples twirl around the dance floor. The fee for a three-course dinner is $15 per person.

Although there's no midnight buffet, food is available all the time. From 11 p.m. until 4 a.m., a section of the Horizon Court morphs into the Bistro, offering waiter service and entrees that include pasta, western omelet, steak, chicken and broiled salmon.

The Ultimate Balcony Dinner, little-publicized outside the warm Caribbean, proved to be our favorite shipboard dining experience in 20 years of cruising. Our personal "butler," after draping our balcony table and chairs in yellow linen, began our experience by offering us Champagne and smoked salmon canapes. Then, the ship's photographer snapped our complimentary photo. Next, we dined on our balcony, enjoying the seascape, the swooping gulls and the breezes as our butler served us course by course, discretely positioning himself behind the cabin drapes or out in the hall when not needed. The food was good and bountiful. We started with blue crab in pastry shells, followed by salad, then lobster tails and filet mignon...and for dessert, walnut and vanilla mousse plus chocolates. The meal was both romantic and memorable, and though an indulgence at $100 per couple, well worth the extra splurge.

Public Rooms

Part of Golden Princess' charm is its layout, combining ample outside space with inviting indoor lounges, both large and small. With two major show venues -- the main Princess Theater, a two-story space with virtually no obstructed views of the stage, and the secondary Vista Lounge -- plus several smaller lounges and bars, the Golden gives passengers options, thereby mitigating crowding.

In the evening at the popular Promenade Bar at the top level of the three-story Grand Plaza atrium, the crowd spilled out into the hallway to listen to the piano tunes and to banter with the pianist. In the late afternoon, a pianist played at the Lobby Bar at the base of the atrium, creating a relaxing spot to sip a glass a wine and listen to music.

For smokers, the Players Bar offers cigars and cognac in an intimate space. We especially liked the Promenade Deck's Wheelhouse Bar for its comfortable couches, live oldies band and modestly sized dance floor where even we felt at ease moving to slow rhythms. The bigger Explorers Lounge was the site for trivia games, the art auction, between meals dancing and other entertainment.

The moving ramp that takes passengers into Skywalkers enhances the spaceship-like feel of this top deck (Deck 17) disco with the panoramic sea views. The place didn't get busy until after midnight. Each night a deejay spun country, contemporary, Latin or other dance tunes. Open to ages 18 and older, the nightclub only serves alcohol to passengers 21 and older as do the other bars onboard.

For deck strollers like us who exercise by taking long walks, the Promenade Deck proved perfect. It's open to passengers almost all the way around, requiring just a short jog up one flight of stairs and then down to complete the circuit.

Cabins

Golden Princess has an impressive number of outside cabins with balconies: 711. The balconies are larger on the Caribe and Dolphin Decks than on the Baja Deck. But, from the Baja Deck you can look down and see passengers on their Caribe and Dolphin Deck balconies and from the Caribe Deck you can see those on the Dolphin Deck. So be careful which deck you choose, or what you do. (The couple cuddling in their nighttime attire two decks below us probably forgot we had a good view.) As long as we're on the subject, many of the mid-ship and forward balconies are visible from the bridge, so remember: Unlike on some other ships, you're not as alone on your balcony as you may think.

Of 1,301 cabins, 1,096 are standard inside or outside cabins, including the 711 with balconies. Golden also has 22 suites, 180 mini-suites, 1 grand suite and 2 family suites, each of which can sleep up to 10 people (if four are children; otherwise, eight adults can be accommodated). Cabins range in size from 165 to 255 square ft. and suites range from 325 to 800 square ft.

Tastefully decorated in beige, cream, muted pink and other soft colors, standard cabins come with televisions, in-room safes, mini-refrigerators, hair dryers, bathrooms with a shower and a desk. Mini-suites add a sitting area with a pull-out sofa and passengers automatically receive bathrobes (however, other passengers can ask for robes; when we asked our room steward he brought them quickly). Dry cleaning services are available for a fee and each passenger deck has self-service, coin-operated washers and dryers.

Entertainment

One of the bonuses of being on a big ship is choice, and that includes the entertainment.

Our 10-night cruise featured two big shows in the Princess Theater: "Words & Music," songs from Broadway musicals, and "Caribbean Caliente," an elaborately costumed and choreographed production with singers and dancers. It was an enjoyable evening even though it seemed a bit odd to be watching this tribute to the Caribbean while cruising the British Isles.

The Vista Lounge hosted "Shake, Rattle & Roll," a golden oldies rock medley, as well as "Country Roads," a mix of country songs. Other nights you could take in a comedy juggler/unicyclist, pianist who sang ballads and rock tunes, and a songstress with an operatic range.

We also appreciated the comics. On some European cruises we've been on with other lines, comedians were banned because of the difficulty in translating the jokes into different languages. Perhaps because a vast percentage of the passengers were English speaking, Golden Princess hosted comics. It felt good to laugh at the relationship-themed routines of Kevin Hughes who appeared on two nights.

Feature movies from the recent past such as "Finding Neverland" and "Ocean's 12" ran in the afternoon and at midnight in the Princess Theater. The next day you could watch these at selected times in your cabin.

Movies Under the Stars (M.U.T.S.), the big-screen outdoor theater that's proven so popular with the line's newest ships, will be installed aboard Golden Princess in April 2009. Passengers can enjoy movies, concerts, sporting events and other special programming throughout the day and evening.

Through Princess' ScholarShip@Sea program, lecturers discussed art, diamonds and digital editing. A hands-on mini-course in Photoshop or Microsoft Word cost $25 per course.

For wine lovers, the ship staged one tasting for $7.50 per person and a gourmet tasting for $25. In addition, there were trivia contests, art auctions, paint-your-own-ceramics sessions, backstage tours, line dancing classes and, of course, gambling in the casino.

Fitness and Recreation

With three pools onboard there was less of a rush to grab a lounge chair than on ships with just one or two pools. Alas, some passengers still insisted on saving a chaise for the afternoon by plunking down a towel and a book in the morning.

In warm weather most kids and teens congregated around the outdoor Calypso Reef pool while the glass roofed Neptune Reef pool attracted fewer kids and more adults. But on rainy or chilly days (and you can count on a few of these on a British Isles voyage), the climate-controlled Neptune Reef pool was a nice plus.

In addition to these two pools, the spa features a small outdoor current pool. Although targeted for swimmers 16 and older, the pool is often filled with kids and bobbers, making it difficult if not impossible to swim. The spa staff simply shrugged their shoulders, refusing to ask the underage kids to leave the pool.

The Lotus Spa offered a range of wraps, massages and treatments, including facials and teeth whitening, done by competent therapists. My husband really enjoyed his hot stone massage. Despite prices higher than one would find in land-based establishments, spa services book up quickly, especially for the popular afternoon hours. Lotus also offered Generation Y Spa services for teens 13 - 17. A parent must be present when the teen tries these facials, scrubs and exfoliation treatments. Parents can join in the relaxation by booking a mother and daughter or father and son side-by-side massage.

Unlike on some other ships, Golden Princess doesn't offer a pre- or post-massage relaxation area, only some chairs that ring the often busy treatment check-in desk, and there isn't a thermal sanctuary suite with heated mosaic tile lounge chairs. The small dressing room has three very narrow showers. Incongruously, the sauna and the steam rooms are located on the outside area facing the coed current pool, which made it awkward to sashay over wearing just a towel. The women covered their glass-fronted sauna with a towel, which of course, slipped off every time someone opened the door.

Although the aerobics area took up a major portion of the gym, enough treadmills and bikes were available so that waits were minimal. The sea views from the gym made exercising more fun than usual. Golden Princess hosted a variety of free fitness programs, including a walk-a-mile morning wake up, stretch and abdominal classes. Pilates and yoga sessions cost an additional $10 per class.

Passengers can also practice at the putting green, and shoot hoops on a half-size basketball court.

Family

Although the Fun Zone, the activity area for ages 3 - 12, isn't as large as on later Grand-class ships, the program is the same and well thought out. For most of the day, except for ice cream socials at the Horizon Court and a few other activities, 3- to 7-year-olds spent much of their time in the bright red, blue and yellow room face painting, coloring, making puppets, decorating masks and playing games.

The adjacent area for 8- to 12-year-olds has craft tables, games and a plasma television, and leads into an alcove with computers. These kids also created lanyards, played bingo and other games in the Fun Zone, and used the ceramics studio and other shipboard spaces. Children ages 8 and older may, with their parents' permission, sign themselves in and out of the program, a freedom cherished by cruise-savvy kids.

When at sea, the free children's program operates from 9 a.m. until noon, 2 until 5 p.m., and 7 until 10 p.m. Reserve ahead for group babysitting, available from 10 p.m. until 1 a.m. for $5 per child, per hour. On port days, the children's program operates from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. and from 7 until 10 p.m., also complimentary.

At Off Limits, the teen center located on the other side of the Fun Zone's computer alcove, 13- to 17-year-olds mingled and played ping pong, foosball and cards. Teens also got to know each other during hip-hop dance classes at the aerobics studio, obstacle races on the sports court and dances at FX, the teens-only disco (held in the ceramics studio from 10 p.m. until 1 a.m). Teens can also hang out, sun and soak in their own hot tub on the teens-only deck area. The only problem: The outdoor space is Deck 16 forward while Off Limits is Deck 15 aft, thus preventing teens from easily drifting between their designated indoor and outdoor areas.

Deck 16 also has a splash pool that parents can use for young kids.

Fellow Passengers

On our July British Isles/Western Europe voyage, Americans accounted for nearly 75 percent of the passengers. Almost 20 percent were British and the remainder were from Italy, the Caribbean and other locales. We saw many multi-generational groups -- parents, kids and grandparents. Interestingly, teenagers significantly outnumbered kids between 3 and 12 years of age. The couples ranged in age from their 30's to their 70's. We noted some singles, but these people generally were traveling with friends.

In the Caribbean, Golden Princess attracts a much higher ratio of Americans, as well as families with younger kids.

Dress Code

On a 10-day cruise, there were two formal nights and eight smart casual nights. On formal nights, most women wore gowns or cocktail dresses and men wore tuxedos or dark suits. Shorts and t-shirts are not acceptable attire in the dining rooms. Men don't need to wear a jacket or a tie on smart casual evenings though some did.

Gratuity

Unless instructed not to, Princess will add a gratuity of $10.50 per day, per person to your shipboard account ($11 for suites and mini-suites). The charge covers your stateroom steward as well as your dining room staff. The majority of passengers appreciate the convenience of this automatic tipping, but if you want to tip on your own in cash, you may do so.

--by Candyce H. Stapen, author of National Geographic's Guide to Caribbean Family Vacations.When Golden Princess' sister ship, Grand Princess, first left port in May of 1998, it helped launch the era of mega-ship sailing. And, like Grand Princess, Golden Princess -- a vessel measuring 109,000 tons with a double-occupancy capacity of 2,632 passengers -- offers a boatload of possibilities.

Golden Princess may be a ship whose design was created more than a decade ago, but Princess hasn't let it show its age. In particular, a significant refurbishment in 2009 added a lot of features -- like the Piazza, the Sanctuary and the Crown Grill -- made popular in the line's newer, Crown Princess series of ships.

Old or new, our favorite onboard spaces include the following.

The Piazza is the perfect onboard hub, surrounded by the International Cafe for coffee and anytime snacks. (The aroma of baking cookies is heavenly.) Vines Wine Bar is also nearby for tapas and drinks. Clusters of cozy chairs make this the best place to enjoy the "street theater" type entertainment, meet with friends or just people-watch.

The two specialty restaurants, Crown Grill and Sabatini's, take onboard dining up a notch. During a five-course marathon meal at Sabatini's, you'll eat your way through eight types of antipasto, plus some very tasty pasta, entrees and desserts. The New York-themed Crown Grill expands the typical steakhouse menu to include all sorts of seafood -- while still offering a wide assortment of premium-grade beef. Both are well worth the extra fee.

The Sanctuary is an oasis of calm for adults, with snooze-inducing cushy lounge chairs, a soothing atmosphere with touches of greenery and the ultimate in pampering -- al fresco massages.

Movies are always better on the big screen, and Princess' pioneering Movies Under the Stars has made its way to Golden Princess' Calypso Reef Pool. Enjoy a concert or sporting event as you splash around during the day, or curl up next to your sweetie under a blanket with some popcorn to take in a feature film at night.

The teens-only sun deck provides this hard-to-please group with an outdoor place to mingle, and the splash pool area (while small) offers parents a tot-friendly place for water play with their pre-schoolers.

Four pools ease the swim crunch. The outdoor Calypso Reef draws kids, teens and adults, while the covered Neptune Reef provides a climate-controlled space so water enthusiasts can get wet even in inclement weather. The spa's outdoor current pool, targeted for swimmers 16 and older, is best at odd hours when it's not filled with kids, while the Terrace Pool provides great views at the aft of the ship.

The three show lounges -- the Princess Theater, Vista Lounge and Explorers Lounge -- allow you to find some entertainment, no matter what time you finish dinner. Production shows and performances by headline entertainers are repeated three times over two nights, so everyone has a chance to enjoy them.

A comfortable ship, Golden Princess floats a tasteful decor of beige, accented with soft pastels. The only times you feel the crowds are during the popular 8:30 p.m. show in the Princess Theater, when latecomers stand in the aisles, and afterward, when passengers stream toward the elevators.

With supervised activities in the Fun Zone (a children's area for ages 3 to 7 and 8 to 12) and Off Limits (the daytime teen room), Golden Princess works well for families, especially on the ship's seven-day summer Alaska sailings. In the winter, when the ship focuses on longer cruises to Hawaii, the ship caters to an older clientele.

Dining

Personal Choice Dining offers flexibility. It gives the same freedom as land-based nights out. Show up in the designated dining room whenever you feel like it, between 5:30 p.m. and 10 p.m., if you want to free yourself from the "hurry up and get dressed for dinner" rush that all too often comes after a long and active day in port.

Because of the popularity of Personal Choice Dining, the ship utilizes both the Bernini dining room from 5:30 until 10 p.m. and the Donatello from 5:30 until 9:30 p.m. If you're willing to meet new people and join a group table, then you may be seated more promptly. But, if you desire a solo table during the popular 7:45 to 8:30 p.m. slot, you may wait up to 15 minutes. By arriving around 7 p.m., we were able to finish our meal in time to double up on our evening entertainment, taking in the first show at the Princess Theater at 8:30 p.m., followed by the comedian or singer in the Vista Lounge at 10:15 p.m….with enough time left over to throw away our quarters in the casino's slots.

A tip: Reservations for a specific time for any size group, even for a couple, may be made throughout the cruise.

Traditionalists who like the camaraderie of the same table and service from the same waiter -- the one who knows you like extra lemons with your iced tea -- can book tables in the Canaletto dining room for either 5:30 p.m. or 8 p.m. service.

Despite seating hundreds of people at once, the dining rooms didn't feel cavernous. Railings divide the rooms into manageable areas, and the drapes, carpeting and other measures absorb much of the background noise so you don't ever have to yell to be heard by your own tablemates. Each dining room is its own enclosed room, rather than a tiered multi-deck space. The decor is lovely and floral, with paintings of country gardens.

Each night, diners have a choice of two pastas, appetizers, soups and salads, and main courses. Vegetarian, healthy and "homestyle" (essentially meat-and-potatoes type dishes) items are marked on the menu, as are local Pacific Rim dishes on Hawaii itineraries. Always-available selections include Caesar salad, shrimp cocktail, broiled chicken breast and grilled beef medallions. An adequate selection of wines, ranging from $20 to $50 per bottle, was available.

Open-seating breakfast (7 to 9 a.m.), lunch (noon to 1:30 p.m.) and afternoon tea (3:30 to 4:30 p.m.) are also served in the Donatello dining room. A nice touch is that late-riser's breakfast items are always included in the dining room's lunch menu.

The Horizon Court serves ample buffets on Deck 14, with the stations all contained in one area, so you're never in danger of overlooking food options. Breakfast, beginning at 6 a.m., features the usual array of hot and cold cereals, smoked salmon, scrambled eggs, omelets, and alternating days of waffles, pancakes and other traditional fare. For lunch (11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.), in addition to cold cuts, the spread includes a hot fish, chicken or pork dish (often all three), vegetables, greens and sometimes special platters like sushi. Afternoon snacks are available from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. For dinner, the Horizon Court also offers a wide variety of hot and cold entrees, along with salad and desserts. Late-night snacks, available from 11 p.m. to 4 a.m., include a variety of hot and cold dishes, salads, fruit, sandwiches, breads and desserts.

The dining options continue out by the Calypso Reef pool, where chefs toss pizzas at Prego Pizzeria (open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.) and grill up burgers and dogs at the Trident Grill (11 a.m. to 8 p.m.). Satisfy your sweet tooth with soft-serve ice cream and all the toppings at Sundaes Ice Cream Bar.

The International Cafe, located on the Piazza, is another casual dining option, added during the 2009 dry dock. From 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., it serves complimentary snacks, including breakfast pastries, soups, quiche, salads and desserts. (Think warm, melty cookies, as well as fancier items.) Specialty coffee drinks cost extra. It's quite pleasant to grab a seat in the atrium, munch on your snacks and observe whatever entertainment is happening in the Piazza (or simply people-watch).

Next door, Vines Wine Bar (11 a.m. to 11 p.m.) serves up complimentary sushi and tapas. Its corner of the Piazza is like stepping into a traditional winery with oak barrels for tables and flooring that looks like tiled stone. Pair your meal with a great glass of wine, or skip the light bites for a do-it-yourself tasting with a wine flight.

Golden Princess offers two specialty restaurants, Sabatini's and Crown Grill, available by reservation only. To be sure you get the time and day you desire, reserve well in advance. Dinner is served in both venues from 6 to 11 p.m.

If you like Italian fare, don't miss Sabatini's, well worth the $20-per-person extra charge. You select your entree and a soup or salad; then the waiter brings you everything else. Start with eight types of antipasto, including melon with prosciutto, porcini mushrooms in olive oil, crab cakes, fried calamari, shrimp and fried cheese. Make your way through a white bean soup or garden salad, followed by two types of pasta. Continue with an entree, and end with dessert. By the time we licked the last of the tiramisu from our forks, we were stuffed and very happy.

In contrast, the Crown Grill (which replaced the Sterling Steakhouse in 2009) has a more traditional vibe. A New York-style steakhouse, its ambience is set with black-and-white photos of New York City, red woods and carpeting paired with blue upholstered chairs (a hint of patriotism, perhaps?). The menu focuses on seafood, chops and steaks, with the additional choices of appetizers (black tiger prawn and papaya salpicon, lobster cake), soups and salads (black and blue onion soup, marinated goat's cheese and heirloom tomato salad) and the delectable sides that always crop up in steakhouses (garlic fries, corn casserole, creamed spinach). The fee for a multicourse dinner is $25 per person, but to truly indulge, shell out an extra $9 for whole Maine lobster or Brazilian lobster tail.

Room service, although limited to a set menu of breakfast items or sandwiches, salads and burgers, is available 24 hours a day. Along with a Continental breakfast of pastries, coffee and fruit, room service delivers hot items, such as eggs, omelets and oatmeal. For people who like a hot breakfast but don't want to get dressed to enjoy one, this is a nice touch.

The Ultimate Balcony Dinner proved to be our favorite shipboard dining experience in 20 years of cruising. Our personal "butler," after draping our balcony table and chairs in yellow linen, began our experience by offering us Champagne and canapes. Then, the ship's photographer snapped our complimentary photo. Next, we dined on our balcony, enjoying the seascape, the swooping gulls and the breezes as our butler served us, course by course, discretely positioning himself behind the cabin drapes or out in the hall when not needed. The food was good and bountiful. We started with blue crab in pastry shells, followed by salad, then lobster tails and filet mignon...and for dessert, walnut and vanilla mousse, plus chocolates. The meal was both romantic and memorable, and though an indulgence at $100 per couple, it was well worth the extra splurge.

Public Rooms

Golden Princess' public rooms and entertainment venues are clustered on Decks 5, 6 and 7, with the focal point being the Deck 5 Piazza. The center of the Piazza is a circular open space, surrounded by comfy seating and a piano to one side -- the central space, in turn, is circled by public venues, like the Internet cafe, library, art gallery, Vines Wine Bar, International Cafe and, on port days, the gangway.

The Internet Cafe and library share a space, dotted with multiple workstations and lined on one side with bookshelves. Internet use costs 75 cents a minute, or you can purchase a time plan (100 minutes for $55, 150 minutes for $75 or 250 minutes for $100).

One deck up, the Passenger Services Desk faces the atrium with the Shore Excursions Desk at its back by the Crown Grill. Also facing the steakhouse are Future Cruise Sales and the Captain's Circle Office. Around the atrium, Essence sells perfumes and cosmetics, while Castaways sells Princess logo items and sundries. Head aft to find the Photo Gallery along the corridor that fronts the Explorer's Lounge, Wheelhouse Bar and Sabatini's.

On Deck 7, more shopping options await with Facets for watches and fine jewelry and Meridian Bay for more jewelry and souvenirs.

Six onboard laundromats, located on passenger decks, feature washers, dryers, ironing boards, sinks and vending machines for detergent (as well as change). A load is $1 for either wash or dry. There's a medical center on Deck 4.

The Hearts and Minds wedding chapel on Deck 15, aft, has a lovely backdrop of a manicured garden, which opens to reveal a large, flat-screen TV. Princess has cleverly designed the chapel to double as a meeting facility -- a high-tech sound system is hidden in one corner, the room is wired for Wi-Fi, and a webcam can broadcast lectures or vows to friends, family and colleagues off-ship.

Cabins

Golden Princess has an impressive number of cabins and suites with balconies: 736 to be exact. The balconies are larger on the Caribe and Dolphin Decks than on the Baja Deck. But, from the Baja Deck, you can look down and see passengers on their Caribe and Dolphin Deck balconies, and from the Caribe Deck you can see those on the Dolphin Deck. So be careful which deck you choose, or what you do. (The couple cuddling in their nighttime attire two decks below us probably forgot we had a good view.) As long as we're on the subject, many of the mid-ship and forward balconies are visible from the bridge, so remember: unlike on some other ships, you're not as alone on your balcony as you may think.

Of 1,316 cabins, 366 are standard insides (measuring 160 square feet), 214 are standard outside cabins (168 to 206 square feet), and 514 are balcony cabins (185 to 193 square feet, with balconies measuring 45 to 81 square feet). Golden Princess also has 42 suites (ranging in size from the 304-square-foot Premium Suite with 180-square-foot balcony to the 864-square-foot Grand Suite with 450-square-foot balcony) and 180 mini-suites (268 square feet with 55-square-foot balconies). Six sizes of suites are available, including two family suites, each of which can sleep up to 10 people. (If four are children -- otherwise, eight adults can be accommodated in the 493-square-foot cabin with 102-square-foot balcony.)

Tastefully decorated in beige, cream, muted pink, baby blue and other soft colors, standard cabins come with flat-screen TV's, in-room safes, mini-refrigerators, hair dryers and desks. Bathrooms feature showers (with the dreaded curtains) and come with small bottles of shampoo and conditioner, as well as soap. Princess' unique quasi-walk-in closet arrangements situate storage space in a type of anteroom or hallway by the bathroom. The plus is that the bedroom area feels larger without closet doors getting in the way; the minus is that many of these closets lack doors, so your wardrobe is on display for everyone to see. Standard balconies are each furnished with two chairs and a small metal table.

Mini-suites add a sitting area with pull-out sofas, second flat-screen TV's and bathrooms with tubs. Mini-suite and suite passengers automatically receive bathrobes. (However, other passengers can ask for robes; when we asked our room steward, he brought them quickly.) Suites come with upgraded faux teak balcony furniture. The Grand Suite features an enormous whirlpool tub, sitting/dining area with wet bar and walk-in closet.

During the 2009 dry dock, new cabins were added on Decks 6 and 15. On Deck 6, seven new window suites were added to the space formerly occupied by the casino. Uniquely located on a deck otherwise devoted to public spaces, the suites are 341 square feet and feature two picture windows each. Up on Deck 15, two deluxe outside cabins and 10 balcony suites (Owner's and Penthouse Suites) replace the previous golf simulator and video arcade. They're the highest cabins on the ships with expansive ocean views. The outsides measure 212 square feet each and come with picture windows. The suites range in size from 374 to 411 square feet, with 162 to 180-square-foot balconies, and are decorated in neutral, earth tones and light woods. They feature separate bedroom and sitting areas and marble bathrooms with both shower and tub.

Entertainment

One of the bonuses of being on a big ship is choice, and that includes the entertainment. Both the Princess Theater and Vista Lounge can host production shows and featured entertainers, and each show runs three times onboard -- two performances in the Princess Theater, followed by one repeat performance in the Vista Lounge the following evening.

The Princess Theater is done up more like a Broadway theater than a typical cruise-ship show lounge. It has same-level orchestra seating, with stadium seating behind and a few boxes -- though there's no second balcony level. The Vista Lounge is more cabaret-style, with light blue chairs clustered around small drink tables and large windows facing aft, making the room pleasant and light during the day.

Side by side on the Promenade Deck, the Wheelhouse Bar and Explorers Lounge are smaller entertainment venues, hosting theme parties, karaoke, pianists and dance bands, as well as trivia and games during the day. The blue-and-gold Wheelhouse Bar has a nautical theme with model ships and captain's wheels on display, and it boasts plenty of nooks for tete a tetes. We especially liked its comfortable couches, live oldies band and modestly sized dance floor, where even we felt at ease moving to slow rhythms. The larger Explorers Lounge has a somewhat over-the-top Egyptian theme, not quite in keeping with the "casual elegance" exuded by the other venues.

The Grand Casino has been moved to Deck 7, just forward of the atrium. It's outfitted with nine gaming tables for poker and blackjack, as well as tables for craps and roulette and oodles of slot machines. There are even screens for video poker. If you're extra-competitive, look for poker and other tournaments held throughout the cruise.

The moving ramp that takes passengers into Skywalkers Night Club enhances the spaceship-like feel of this top deck (Deck 17) disco with its panoramic sea views and outer space-inspired decor. The place didn't get busy until after midnight. Each night, a D.J. spun country, contemporary, Latin and other dance tunes. Open to ages 18 and older, the nightclub only serves alcohol to passengers 21 and older, as do the other bars onboard.

Other places for drinks include the Promenade Bar at the top of the atrium, where you'll find a pianist in the evening and $2.99 drink specials after 8 p.m. For smokers, the Players Bar, tucked away behind the Crown Grill, offers cigars and cognac in an intimate space, with big TV's for watching sporting events.

Movies Under the Stars (M.U.T.S.), the big-screen outdoor theater located above the Calypso Reef Pool, shows movies, concerts, sporting events and other special programming throughout the day and evening. Afternoon movies may be shown in the Vista Lounge, as well, and on in-cabin TV's.

The video arcade is oddly located on Deck 6 near the Passenger Services Desk. It's nowhere near the youth facilities.

Through Princess' ScholarShip@Sea program, lecturers discuss art, diamonds and digital editing. The line brings on specialists to speak about destination-specific topics, such as Alaskan wildlife and sled dog racing, or Hawaiian culture, history and marine biology. Hawaii cruises also feature activities like hula-dancing, ukulele-playing and lei-making.

For wine-lovers, the ship staged one tasting in the dining room for $7.50 per person and a gourmet tasting for $25. In addition, there were trivia contests, art auctions, paint-your-own-ceramics sessions by the Calypso Reef pool, backstage tours, line-dancing classes and, of course, gambling in the casino.

Fitness and Recreation

With four pools onboard, there was less of a rush to grab a lounge chair than on ships with just one or two pools. Alas, some passengers still insisted on saving chaises for the afternoon by plunking down a towel and a book in the morning.

In warm weather most kids and teens congregated around the outdoor Calypso Reef pool, while the glass roofed Neptune Reef pool attracted fewer kids and more adults. But, on rainy or chilly days, the climate-controlled Neptune Reef pool was a nice plus. The Conservatory offers extra indoor deck space above the pool, and it's there you'll find Ping-Pong. Tucked away on Deck 12, aft, a smaller pool offers views off the back of the ship. Terraced sun deck space above on Decks 14 and 15 ultimately lead to a hidden retreat -- the Oasis Bar and Spa, with two hot tubs, sun loungers and a giant chess set.

In addition to these pools, the spa features a small outdoor current pool. Although targeted for swimmers 16 and older, the pool is often filled with kids and bobbers, making it difficult, if not impossible, to swim. The spa staff simply shrugged their shoulders, refusing to ask the underage kids to leave the pool.

Above the spa and spa pool is the Sanctuary, Princess' adults-only, spa-inspired deck area. Access to this gated sun deck is available by purchasing half-day passes (8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. or 1 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.) for $10 per person. There, you'll find two cabanas for al fresco massages; cushy padded lounge chairs in striped, neutral hues; and serene, potted plants and small trees. Serenity Stewards provide cooling Evian misters, chilled towels, MP3 players and healthy and refreshing drinks and snacks like fruit skewers, spring rolls and smoothies.

Editor's Note: On Alaska cruises, if you book the Sanctuary during scenic cruising by a glacier, you'll be treated to plush fleece blankets, earmuffs and binoculars, as well as private commentary by park rangers and naturalists. Special menu items on these days include Alaska Rockfish Chowder and freshly fried "Beaver Tail" pastries, fried dough shaped like a beaver's tail and often served with toppings like cinnamon sugar and maple butter.

The Lotus Spa offered a range of wraps, massages and treatments, including facials, Chinese herbal medicine and acupuncture, men's barber services and teeth-whitening, done by competent therapists. My husband really enjoyed his hot-stone massage. Despite prices higher than one would find in land-based establishments, spa services book up quickly, especially for the popular afternoon hours. Lotus also offered Generation Y Spa services for teens 13 to 17. A parent must be present when the teen tries these facials, scrubs and exfoliation treatments. Parents can join in the relaxation by booking mother-and-daughter or father-and-son side-by-side massages.

Unlike some other ships, Golden Princess doesn't offer a pre- or post-massage relaxation area -- only some chairs that ring the often-busy treatment check-in desk. Also missing is a thermal sanctuary suite with heated mosaic tile lounge chairs, common on other vessels. The small dressing room has three very narrow showers. Incongruously, the sauna and the steam rooms are located on the outside area, facing the coed current pool, which made it awkward to sashay over wearing just a towel. The women covered their glass-fronted sauna with a towel, which, of course, slipped off every time someone opened the door.

Although the aerobics area takes up a major portion of the gym, enough treadmills and bikes are available so that waits are minimal. The sea views from the gym made exercising more fun than usual. Golden Princess hosts a variety of free fitness programs, including a walk-a-mile morning wakeup, stretch and abdominal classes. Pilates, yoga and Tour de Spin sessions cost an additional $12 per class.

Passengers will find shuffleboard on Deck 16 and can shoot hoops on a half-size basketball court. A golf simulator on Deck 15 lets you practice your swing at various virtual courses. A nine-hole mini-golf course is located on Deck 16 behind the Movies Under the Stars screen.

For deck strollers who exercise by taking long walks, the Promenade Deck proves perfect. It's open to passengers almost all the way around, requiring just a short jog up one flight of stairs and then down to complete the circuit.

Family

Although the Fun Zone, the activity area for ages 3 to 12, isn't as large as on later Grand-class ships, the program is the same and is well-thought-out. For most of the day, except for ice cream socials at the Horizon Court and a few other activities, 3- to 7-year-olds spend much of their time in the bright red, blue and yellow room face-painting, coloring, making puppets, decorating masks and playing games.

The adjacent area for 8- to 12-year-olds has craft tables, games and a plasma television, and it leads into an alcove with computers. These kids also create lanyards, play bingo and other games in the Fun Zone, and use the ceramics studio and other shipboard spaces. Children, ages 8 to 12, may sign themselves in and out of the program with their parents' permission, a freedom cherished by cruise-savvy kids. One deck up, The Fun Zone has its own outdoor deck with a whale-shaped kiddie pool, play houses and tricycles.

When at sea, the free children's program operates from 9 a.m. until noon, 2 until 5 p.m., and 7 until 10 p.m. On port days, the children's program operates from 8 a.m. (or half an hour before the ship arrives in port) until 5 p.m. and from 7 until 10 p.m., also complimentary. Reserve ahead for group baby-sitting, available from 10 p.m. until 1 a.m. for $5 per child, per hour.

At Off Limits, the teen center located on the other side of the Fun Zone's computer alcove, 13- to 17-year-olds mingle and play Ping-Pong, foosball and cards. They also get to know each other during hip-hop dance classes, obstacle races and pizza parties. Teens can hang out, sun and soak in their own hot tub on the teens-only deck area, which is accessed by a set of stairs just outside the youth lounges. Older kids can come and go from youth activities as they please.

In Alaska, kids, ages 3 -to 17, can opt to participate in Junior Ranger and Teen Explorer programs in Glacier Bay. Interactive projects teach young travelers about the natural and cultural history of the region.

Fellow Passengers

Golden Princess' demographics change with the seasons. On its two-week Hawaii cruises, expect an older crowd -- specifically retirees with more time for vacation. Seven-night Alaska sailings tend to be skewed younger, with more families and multigenerational groups.

Dress Code

Evening attire is typically "smart casual," but two or three nights will be formal, depending on the itinerary length. On formal nights, most women wear gowns or cocktail dresses, and men wear tuxedos or dark suits. Men don't need to wear jackets or ties on smart casual evenings, though some do -- open-neck shirts are just fine. Shorts and T-shirts, frayed or holey jeans, and swimwear are not acceptable attire in the dining rooms. For Alaska cruises, bring layers, and be prepared for both warm, summery days and chilly, rainy ones.

Gratuity

Unless instructed not to, Princess will add a gratuity of $10.50 per day, per person, to your shipboard account ($11 for suites and mini-suites). The charge covers your stateroom steward, as well as your dining room staff. The majority of passengers appreciate the convenience of this automatic tipping, but if you want to tip on your own in cash, you may do so.

--by Candyce H. Stapen, Cruise Critic contributor; updated by Erica Silverstein, Senior Editor.Editor's Note -- Golden Princess will be in dry dock until May 5, 2009 receiving the most extensive refurbishment the line has ever done. The ship will receive the signature Movies Under the Stars big screen, the adults-only Sanctuary, a piazza-style atrium and the Crown Grill steak and seafood restaurant. Princess Cruises is sharing every step of the dry dock through an online journal on the Princess Web site and daily updates via Twitter.

When Golden Princess' sister ship Grand Princess first left port in May of 1998, it helped launch the era of mega-ship sailing. Like the Grand, the Golden, a vessel weighing 109,000 tons with a double-occupancy capacity of 2,600 passengers, offers a boat load of possibilities for passengers. We especially liked:

Sabatini's, one of the ship's two specialty restaurants, is one of our favorite ocean-going eateries. During the five-course marathon meal, you eat your way through 11 types of antipasto plus some very tasty pasta, pizza and your choice of an entree. This meal is well worth the extra $20-per-person fee.

Personal Choice Dining enables passengers to pick either traditional, fixed-seating dinner service at 6:15 p.m. or 8:30 p.m., or to dine anytime between 5:30 p.m. and 10 p.m.

A high number of cabins -- 711 out of 935 outsides -- feature balconies. With these you can enjoy moonlit views and sea breezes and also book the Ultimate Balcony Dinner for an extra fee.

The teens-only sun deck provides this hard-to-please group an outdoor place to mingle, and the splash pool area (while small) offers parents a tot-friendly place for water play with their pre-schoolers.

Three pools ease the swim crunch. The outdoor Calypso Reef draws kids, teens and adults while the covered Neptune Reef provides a climate-controlled space so water enthusiasts can get wet even in inclement weather. The outdoor spa current pool, targeted for swimmers 16 and older, is best at odd hours when it's not filled with kids.

With three show lounges -- the Princess Theater, Vista Lounge and Explorers Lounge -- you can find some entertainment no matter what time you finish dinner.

A comfortable ship, Golden Princess floats a tasteful decor of beige accented with soft pastels. The only times you feel the crowds are during the popular 8:30 p.m. show in the Princess Theater when latecomers stand in the aisles, and afterwards when passengers stream toward the elevators.

With supervised activities in the Fun Zone (a children's area for ages 3 - 7 and 8 - 12), Off Limits (the daytime teen room) and FX (a nighttime disco for ages 13 - 17), Golden Princess works well for families. Interestingly, onboard our 10-day British Isles and Western Europe sailing in July, teenagers significantly outnumbered the younger kids.

Dining

We really liked the flexibility of Personal Choice Dining. It gave us the same freedom of land-based nights out. We showed up in the designated dining room whenever we felt like it between 5:30 p.m. and 10 p.m., which freed us from the "hurry up and get dressed for dinner" rush that all too often comes after a long and active day in port.

Because of the popularity of Personal Choice Dining, the ship utilizes both the Bernini dining room from 5:30 until 10 p.m. and the Donatello from 6:15 until 10 p.m. If you're willing to meet new people and join a group table, then you may be seated more promptly. But if you desire a solo table during the popular 7:45 to 8:30 p.m. slot, you may wait up to 15 minutes. By arriving around 7 p.m., we were able to finish our meal in time to double up on our evening entertainment, taking in the first show at the Princess Theater at 8:30 p.m. followed by the comedian or singer in the Vista Lounge at 10 p.m. ... with enough time left over to throw away our quarters in the casino's slots.

A tip: Reservations for a specific time for any size group, even for a couple, may be made the same day.

Traditionalists who like the camaraderie of the same table and service from the same waiter -- the one who knows you like extra lemons with your iced tea -- booked the Canaletto dining room for either 6:15 p.m. or 8:30 p.m. service.

Despite seating hundreds of people at once, the dining rooms didn't feel cavernous. Railings divide the rooms into manageable areas and the drapes, carpeting and other measures absorb much of the background noise so that you don't ever have to yell to be heard by your own tablemates. An adequate selection of wines ranging from $20 to $50 per bottle was available.

The Horizon Court served ample buffets. Breakfast featured the usual array of hot and cold cereals, smoked salmon, scrambled eggs, omelets, and alternating days of waffles, pancakes and other traditional fare. For lunch, in addition to cold cuts, the spread included a hot fish, chicken or pork dish (often all three), vegetables, greens and sometimes special platters such as sushi. For dinner the Horizon Court also offered a wide variety of hot and cold entrees along with salad and desserts.

Room service, although limited to a set menu of breakfast items or sandwiches, salads and burgers, was available 24 hours a day. Along with a Continental breakfast of pastries, coffee and fruit, room service delivered hot items such as eggs, omelets and oatmeal cereal. For people like us who like a hot breakfast but don't want to get dressed to enjoy one, this was a nice touch.

Golden Princess offers two specialty restaurants available by reservation only. To be sure you get the time and day you desire, reserve these well in advance.

If you like Italian fare, don't miss Sabatini's, well worth the $20 per person extra charge. You select your entree, a soup or salad, and your specialty pizza -- the smoked salmon slice was particularly good -- then the waiter brings you everything else. Start with 11 types of antipasto including melon, sun dried tomatoes, porcini mushrooms in olive oil, steamed black mussels, crab cakes, eggplant, shrimp, fried cheese and marinated artichokes. Make your way through minestrone soup or a seafood cioppino (very tasty) and pizza, followed by three types of pasta. Continue with an entree and end with dessert. By the time we licked the last of the flourless chocolate cake from our forks, we were stuffed and very happy.

In contrast, Sterling Steakhouse seemed a bit tepid, but the steaks and, surprisingly, the fish entree, were good. The waiter warned us off the barbecue chicken, saying it's "really for the kids," a tip we appreciated. A singer with a backup band played music, mostly country tunes, and it was fun to watch some couples twirl around the dance floor. The fee for a three-course dinner is $15 per person.

Although there's no midnight buffet, food is available all the time. From 11 p.m. until 4 a.m., a section of the Horizon Court morphs into the Bistro, offering waiter service and entrees that include pasta, western omelet, steak, chicken and broiled salmon.

The Ultimate Balcony Dinner, little-publicized outside the warm Caribbean, proved to be our favorite shipboard dining experience in 20 years of cruising. Our personal "butler," after draping our balcony table and chairs in yellow linen, began our experience by offering us Champagne and smoked salmon canapes. Then, the ship's photographer snapped our complimentary photo. Next, we dined on our balcony, enjoying the seascape, the swooping gulls and the breezes as our butler served us course by course, discretely positioning himself behind the cabin drapes or out in the hall when not needed. The food was good and bountiful. We started with blue crab in pastry shells, followed by salad, then lobster tails and filet mignon...and for dessert, walnut and vanilla mousse plus chocolates. The meal was both romantic and memorable, and though an indulgence at $100 per couple, well worth the extra splurge.

Public Rooms

Part of Golden Princess' charm is its layout, combining ample outside space with inviting indoor lounges, both large and small. With two major show venues -- the main Princess Theater, a two-story space with virtually no obstructed views of the stage, and the secondary Vista Lounge -- plus several smaller lounges and bars, the Golden gives passengers options, thereby mitigating crowding.

In the evening at the popular Promenade Bar at the top level of the three-story Grand Plaza atrium, the crowd spilled out into the hallway to listen to the piano tunes and to banter with the pianist. In the late afternoon, a pianist played at the Lobby Bar at the base of the atrium, creating a relaxing spot to sip a glass a wine and listen to music.

For smokers, the Players Bar offers cigars and cognac in an intimate space. We especially liked the Promenade Deck's Wheelhouse Bar for its comfortable couches, live oldies band and modestly sized dance floor where even we felt at ease moving to slow rhythms. The bigger Explorers Lounge was the site for trivia games, the art auction, between meals dancing and other entertainment.

The moving ramp that takes passengers into Skywalkers enhances the spaceship-like feel of this top deck (Deck 17) disco with the panoramic sea views. The place didn't get busy until after midnight. Each night a deejay spun country, contemporary, Latin or other dance tunes. Open to ages 18 and older, the nightclub only serves alcohol to passengers 21 and older as do the other bars onboard.

For deck strollers like us who exercise by taking long walks, the Promenade Deck proved perfect. It's open to passengers almost all the way around, requiring just a short jog up one flight of stairs and then down to complete the circuit.

Cabins

Golden Princess has an impressive number of outside cabins with balconies: 711. The balconies are larger on the Caribe and Dolphin Decks than on the Baja Deck. But, from the Baja Deck you can look down and see passengers on their Caribe and Dolphin Deck balconies and from the Caribe Deck you can see those on the Dolphin Deck. So be careful which deck you choose, or what you do. (The couple cuddling in their nighttime attire two decks below us probably forgot we had a good view.) As long as we're on the subject, many of the mid-ship and forward balconies are visible from the bridge, so remember: Unlike on some other ships, you're not as alone on your balcony as you may think.

Of 1,301 cabins, 1,096 are standard inside or outside cabins, including the 711 with balconies. Golden also has 22 suites, 180 mini-suites, 1 grand suite and 2 family suites, each of which can sleep up to 10 people (if four are children; otherwise, eight adults can be accommodated). Cabins range in size from 165 to 255 square ft. and suites range from 325 to 800 square ft.

Tastefully decorated in beige, cream, muted pink and other soft colors, standard cabins come with televisions, in-room safes, mini-refrigerators, hair dryers, bathrooms with a shower and a desk. Mini-suites add a sitting area with a pull-out sofa and passengers automatically receive bathrobes (however, other passengers can ask for robes; when we asked our room steward he brought them quickly). Dry cleaning services are available for a fee and each passenger deck has self-service, coin-operated washers and dryers.

Entertainment

One of the bonuses of being on a big ship is choice, and that includes the entertainment.

Our 10-night cruise featured two big shows in the Princess Theater: "Words & Music," songs from Broadway musicals, and "Caribbean Caliente," an elaborately costumed and choreographed production with singers and dancers. It was an enjoyable evening even though it seemed a bit odd to be watching this tribute to the Caribbean while cruising the British Isles.

The Vista Lounge hosted "Shake, Rattle & Roll," a golden oldies rock medley, as well as "Country Roads," a mix of country songs. Other nights you could take in a comedy juggler/unicyclist, pianist who sang ballads and rock tunes, and a songstress with an operatic range.

We also appreciated the comics. On some European cruises we've been on with other lines, comedians were banned because of the difficulty in translating the jokes into different languages. Perhaps because a vast percentage of the passengers were English speaking, Golden Princess hosted comics. It felt good to laugh at the relationship-themed routines of Kevin Hughes who appeared on two nights.

Feature movies from the recent past such as "Finding Neverland" and "Ocean's 12" ran in the afternoon and at midnight in the Princess Theater. The next day you could watch these at selected times in your cabin.

Movies Under the Stars (M.U.T.S.), the big-screen outdoor theater that's proven so popular with the line's newest ships, will be installed aboard Golden Princess in April 2009. Passengers can enjoy movies, concerts, sporting events and other special programming throughout the day and evening.

Through Princess' ScholarShip@Sea program, lecturers discussed art, diamonds and digital editing. A hands-on mini-course in Photoshop or Microsoft Word cost $25 per course.

For wine lovers, the ship staged one tasting for $7.50 per person and a gourmet tasting for $25. In addition, there were trivia contests, art auctions, paint-your-own-ceramics sessions, backstage tours, line dancing classes and, of course, gambling in the casino.

Fitness and Recreation

With three pools onboard there was less of a rush to grab a lounge chair than on ships with just one or two pools. Alas, some passengers still insisted on saving a chaise for the afternoon by plunking down a towel and a book in the morning.

In warm weather most kids and teens congregated around the outdoor Calypso Reef pool while the glass roofed Neptune Reef pool attracted fewer kids and more adults. But on rainy or chilly days (and you can count on a few of these on a British Isles voyage), the climate-controlled Neptune Reef pool was a nice plus.

In addition to these two pools, the spa features a small outdoor current pool. Although targeted for swimmers 16 and older, the pool is often filled with kids and bobbers, making it difficult if not impossible to swim. The spa staff simply shrugged their shoulders, refusing to ask the underage kids to leave the pool.

The Lotus Spa offered a range of wraps, massages and treatments, including facials and teeth whitening, done by competent therapists. My husband really enjoyed his hot stone massage. Despite prices higher than one would find in land-based establishments, spa services book up quickly, especially for the popular afternoon hours. Lotus also offered Generation Y Spa services for teens 13 - 17. A parent must be present when the teen tries these facials, scrubs and exfoliation treatments. Parents can join in the relaxation by booking a mother and daughter or father and son side-by-side massage.

Unlike on some other ships, Golden Princess doesn't offer a pre- or post-massage relaxation area, only some chairs that ring the often busy treatment check-in desk, and there isn't a thermal sanctuary suite with heated mosaic tile lounge chairs. The small dressing room has three very narrow showers. Incongruously, the sauna and the steam rooms are located on the outside area facing the coed current pool, which made it awkward to sashay over wearing just a towel. The women covered their glass-fronted sauna with a towel, which of course, slipped off every time someone opened the door.

Although the aerobics area took up a major portion of the gym, enough treadmills and bikes were available so that waits were minimal. The sea views from the gym made exercising more fun than usual. Golden Princess hosted a variety of free fitness programs, including a walk-a-mile morning wake up, stretch and abdominal classes. Pilates and yoga sessions cost an additional $10 per class.

Passengers can also practice at the putting green, and shoot hoops on a half-size basketball court.

Family

Although the Fun Zone, the activity area for ages 3 - 12, isn't as large as on later Grand-class ships, the program is the same and well thought out. For most of the day, except for ice cream socials at the Horizon Court and a few other activities, 3- to 7-year-olds spent much of their time in the bright red, blue and yellow room face painting, coloring, making puppets, decorating masks and playing games.

The adjacent area for 8- to 12-year-olds has craft tables, games and a plasma television, and leads into an alcove with computers. These kids also created lanyards, played bingo and other games in the Fun Zone, and used the ceramics studio and other shipboard spaces. Children ages 8 and older may, with their parents' permission, sign themselves in and out of the program, a freedom cherished by cruise-savvy kids.

When at sea, the free children's program operates from 9 a.m. until noon, 2 until 5 p.m., and 7 until 10 p.m. Reserve ahead for group babysitting, available from 10 p.m. until 1 a.m. for $5 per child, per hour. On port days, the children's program operates from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. and from 7 until 10 p.m., also complimentary.

At Off Limits, the teen center located on the other side of the Fun Zone's computer alcove, 13- to 17-year-olds mingled and played ping pong, foosball and cards. Teens also got to know each other during hip-hop dance classes at the aerobics studio, obstacle races on the sports court and dances at FX, the teens-only disco (held in the ceramics studio from 10 p.m. until 1 a.m). Teens can also hang out, sun and soak in their own hot tub on the teens-only deck area. The only problem: The outdoor space is Deck 16 forward while Off Limits is Deck 15 aft, thus preventing teens from easily drifting between their designated indoor and outdoor areas.

Deck 16 also has a splash pool that parents can use for young kids.

Fellow Passengers

On our July British Isles/Western Europe voyage, Americans accounted for nearly 75 percent of the passengers. Almost 20 percent were British and the remainder were from Italy, the Caribbean and other locales. We saw many multi-generational groups -- parents, kids and grandparents. Interestingly, teenagers significantly outnumbered kids between 3 and 12 years of age. The couples ranged in age from their 30's to their 70's. We noted some singles, but these people generally were traveling with friends.

In the Caribbean, Golden Princess attracts a much higher ratio of Americans, as well as families with younger kids.

Dress Code

On a 10-day cruise, there were two formal nights and eight smart casual nights. On formal nights, most women wore gowns or cocktail dresses and men wore tuxedos or dark suits. Shorts and t-shirts are not acceptable attire in the dining rooms. Men don't need to wear a jacket or a tie on smart casual evenings though some did.

Gratuity

Unless instructed not to, Princess will add a gratuity of $10.50 per day, per person to your shipboard account ($11 for suites and mini-suites). The charge covers your stateroom steward as well as your dining room staff. The majority of passengers appreciate the convenience of this automatic tipping, but if you want to tip on your own in cash, you may do so.

--by Candyce H. Stapen, author of National Geographic's Guide to Caribbean Family Vacations.When Golden Princess' sister ship, Grand Princess, first left port in May of 1998, it helped launch the era of mega-ship sailing. And, like Grand Princess, Golden Princess -- a vessel measuring 109,000 tons with a double-occupancy capacity of 2,632 passengers -- offers a boatload of possibilities.

Golden Princess may be a ship whose design was created more than a decade ago, but Princess hasn't let it show its age. In particular, a significant refurbishment in spring 2009 added a lot of features -- like the Piazza, the Sanctuary and the Crown Grill -- made popular in the line's newer, Crown Princess series of ships.

Old or new, our favorite onboard spaces include the following.

The Piazza is the perfect onboard hub, surrounded by the International Cafe for coffee and anytime snacks. (The aroma of baking cookies is heavenly.) Vines Wine Bar is also nearby for tapas and drinks. Clusters of cozy chairs make this the best place to enjoy the "street theater" type entertainment, meet with friends or just people-watch.

The two specialty restaurants, Crown Grill and Sabatini's, take onboard dining up a notch. During a five-course marathon meal at Sabatini's, you'll eat your way through eight types of antipasto, plus some very tasty pasta, entrees and desserts. The New York-themed Crown Grill expands the typical steakhouse menu to include all sorts of seafood -- while still offering a wide assortment of premium-grade beef. Both are well worth the extra fee.

The Sanctuary is an oasis of calm for adults, with snooze-inducing cushy lounge chairs, a soothing atmosphere with touches of greenery and the ultimate in pampering -- al fresco massages.

Movies are always better on the big screen, and Princess' pioneering Movies Under the Stars has made its way to Golden Princess' Calypso Reef Pool. Enjoy a concert or sporting event as you splash around during the day, or curl up next to your sweetie under a blanket with some popcorn to take in a feature film at night.

The teens-only sun deck provides this hard-to-please group with an outdoor place to mingle, and the splash pool area (while small) offers parents a tot-friendly place for water play with their pre-schoolers.

Four pools ease the swim crunch. The outdoor Calypso Reef draws kids, teens and adults, while the covered Neptune Reef provides a climate-controlled space so water enthusiasts can get wet even in inclement weather. The spa's outdoor current pool, targeted for swimmers 16 and older, is best at odd hours when it's not filled with kids, while the Terrace Pool provides great views at the aft of the ship.

The three show lounges -- the Princess Theater, Vista Lounge and Explorers Lounge -- allow you to find some entertainment, no matter what time you finish dinner. Production shows and performances by headline entertainers are repeated three times over two nights, so everyone has a chance to enjoy them.

A comfortable ship, Golden Princess floats a tasteful decor of beige, accented with soft pastels. The only times you feel the crowds are during the popular 8:30 p.m. show in the Princess Theater, when latecomers stand in the aisles, and afterward, when passengers stream toward the elevators.

With supervised activities in the Fun Zone (a children's area for ages 3 to 7 and 8 to 12) and Off Limits (the daytime teen room), Golden Princess works well for families, especially on the ship's seven-day summer Alaska sailings. In the winter, when the ship focuses on longer cruises to Hawaii, the ship caters to an older clientele.

Dining

Personal Choice Dining offers flexibility. It gives the same freedom as land-based nights out. Show up in the designated dining room whenever you feel like it, between 5:30 p.m. and 10 p.m., if you want to free yourself from the "hurry up and get dressed for dinner" rush that all too often comes after a long and active day in port.

Because of the popularity of Personal Choice Dining, the ship utilizes both the Bernini dining room from 5:30 until 10 p.m. and the Donatello from 5:30 until 9:30 p.m. If you're willing to meet new people and join a group table, then you may be seated more promptly. But, if you desire a solo table during the popular 7:45 to 8:30 p.m. slot, you may wait up to 15 minutes. By arriving around 7 p.m., we were able to finish our meal in time to double up on our evening entertainment, taking in the first show at the Princess Theater at 8:30 p.m., followed by the comedian or singer in the Vista Lounge at 10:15 p.m….with enough time left over to throw away our quarters in the casino's slots.

A tip: Reservations for a specific time for any size group, even for a couple, may be made throughout the cruise.

Traditionalists who like the camaraderie of the same table and service from the same waiter -- the one who knows you like extra lemons with your iced tea -- can book tables in the Canaletto dining room for either 5:30 p.m. or 8 p.m. service.

Despite seating hundreds of people at once, the dining rooms didn't feel cavernous. Railings divide the rooms into manageable areas, and the drapes, carpeting and other measures absorb much of the background noise so you don't ever have to yell to be heard by your own tablemates. Each dining room is its own enclosed room, rather than a tiered multi-deck space. The decor is lovely and floral, with paintings of country gardens.

Each night, diners have a choice of two pastas, appetizers, soups and salads, and main courses. Vegetarian, healthy and "homestyle" (essentially meat-and-potatoes type dishes) items are marked on the menu, as are local Pacific Rim dishes on Hawaii itineraries. Always-available selections include Caesar salad, shrimp cocktail, broiled chicken breast and grilled beef medallions. An adequate selection of wines, ranging from $20 to $50 per bottle, was available.

Open-seating breakfast (7 to 9 a.m.), lunch (noon to 1:30 p.m.) and afternoon tea (3:30 to 4:30 p.m.) are also served in the Donatello dining room. A nice touch is that late-riser's breakfast items are always included in the dining room's lunch menu.

The Horizon Court serves ample buffets on Deck 14, with the stations all contained in one area, so you're never in danger of overlooking food options. Breakfast, beginning at 6 a.m., features the usual array of hot and cold cereals, smoked salmon, scrambled eggs, omelets, and alternating days of waffles, pancakes and other traditional fare. For lunch (11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.), in addition to cold cuts, the spread includes a hot fish, chicken or pork dish (often all three), vegetables, greens and sometimes special platters like sushi. Afternoon snacks are available from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. For dinner, the Horizon Court also offers a wide variety of hot and cold entrees, along with salad and desserts. Late-night snacks, available from 11 p.m. to 4 a.m., include a variety of hot and cold dishes, salads, fruit, sandwiches, breads and desserts.

The dining options continue out by the Calypso Reef pool, where chefs toss pizzas at Prego Pizzeria (open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.) and grill up burgers and dogs at the Trident Grill (11 a.m. to 8 p.m.). Satisfy your sweet tooth with soft-serve ice cream and all the toppings at Sundaes Ice Cream Bar.

The International Cafe, located on the Piazza, is another casual dining option, added during the 2009 dry dock. From 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., it serves complimentary snacks, including breakfast pastries, soups, quiche, salads and desserts. (Think warm, melty cookies, as well as fancier items.) Specialty coffee drinks cost extra. It's quite pleasant to grab a seat in the atrium, munch on your snacks and observe whatever entertainment is happening in the Piazza (or simply people-watch).

Next door, Vines Wine Bar (11 a.m. to 11 p.m.) serves up complimentary sushi and tapas. Its corner of the Piazza is like stepping into a traditional winery with oak barrels for tables and flooring that looks like tiled stone. Pair your meal with a great glass of wine, or skip the light bites for a do-it-yourself tasting with a wine flight.

Golden Princess offers two specialty restaurants, Sabatini's and Crown Grill, available by reservation only. To be sure you get the time and day you desire, reserve well in advance. Dinner is served in both venues from 6 to 11 p.m.

If you like Italian fare, don't miss Sabatini's, well worth the $20-per-person extra charge. You select your entree and a soup or salad; then the waiter brings you everything else. Start with eight types of antipasto, including melon with prosciutto, porcini mushrooms in olive oil, crab cakes, fried calamari, shrimp and fried cheese. Make your way through a white bean soup or garden salad, followed by two types of pasta. Continue with an entree, and end with dessert. By the time we licked the last of the tiramisu from our forks, we were stuffed and very happy.

In contrast, the Crown Grill (which replaced the Sterling Steakhouse in 2009) has a more traditional vibe. A New York-style steakhouse, its ambience is set with black-and-white photos of New York City, red woods and carpeting paired with blue upholstered chairs (a hint of patriotism, perhaps?). The menu focuses on seafood, chops and steaks, with the additional choices of appetizers (black tiger prawn and papaya salpicon, lobster cake), soups and salads (black and blue onion soup, marinated goat's cheese and heirloom tomato salad) and the delectable sides that always crop up in steakhouses (garlic fries, corn casserole, creamed spinach). The fee for a multicourse dinner is $25 per person, but to truly indulge, shell out an extra $9 for whole Maine lobster or Brazilian lobster tail.

Room service, although limited to a set menu of breakfast items or sandwiches, salads and burgers, is available 24 hours a day. Along with a Continental breakfast of pastries, coffee and fruit, room service delivers hot items, such as eggs, omelets and oatmeal. For people who like a hot breakfast but don't want to get dressed to enjoy one, this is a nice touch.

The Ultimate Balcony Dinner proved to be our favorite shipboard dining experience in 20 years of cruising. Our personal "butler," after draping our balcony table and chairs in yellow linen, began our experience by offering us Champagne and canapes. Then, the ship's photographer snapped our complimentary photo. Next, we dined on our balcony, enjoying the seascape, the swooping gulls and the breezes as our butler served us, course by course, discretely positioning himself behind the cabin drapes or out in the hall when not needed. The food was good and bountiful. We started with blue crab in pastry shells, followed by salad, then lobster tails and filet mignon...and for dessert, walnut and vanilla mousse, plus chocolates. The meal was both romantic and memorable, and though an indulgence at $100 per couple, it was well worth the extra splurge.

Public Rooms

Golden Princess' public rooms and entertainment venues are clustered on Decks 5, 6 and 7, with the focal point being the Deck 5 Piazza. The center of the Piazza is a circular open space, surrounded by comfy seating and a piano to one side -- the central space, in turn, is circled by public venues, like the Internet cafe, library, art gallery, Vines Wine Bar, International Cafe and, on port days, the gangway.

The Internet Cafe and library share a space, dotted with multiple workstations and lined on one side with bookshelves. Internet use costs 75 cents a minute, or you can purchase a time plan (100 minutes for $55, 150 minutes for $75 or 250 minutes for $100).

One deck up, the Passenger Services Desk faces the atrium with the Shore Excursions Desk at its back by the Crown Grill. Also facing the steakhouse are Future Cruise Sales and the Captain's Circle Office. Around the atrium, Essence sells perfumes and cosmetics, while Castaways sells Princess logo items and sundries. Head aft to find the Photo Gallery along the corridor that fronts the Explorer's Lounge, Wheelhouse Bar and Sabatini's.

On Deck 7, more shopping options await with Facets for watches and fine jewelry and Meridian Bay for more jewelry and souvenirs.

Six onboard laundromats, located on passenger decks, feature washers, dryers, ironing boards, sinks and vending machines for detergent (as well as change). A load is $1 for either wash or dry. There's a medical center on Deck 4.

The Hearts and Minds wedding chapel on Deck 15, aft, has a lovely backdrop of a manicured garden, which opens to reveal a large, flat-screen TV. Princess has cleverly designed the chapel to double as a meeting facility -- a high-tech sound system is hidden in one corner, the room is wired for Wi-Fi, and a webcam can broadcast lectures or vows to friends, family and colleagues off-ship.

Cabins

Golden Princess has an impressive number of cabins and suites with balconies: 736 to be exact. The balconies are larger on the Caribe and Dolphin Decks than on the Baja Deck. But, from the Baja Deck, you can look down and see passengers on their Caribe and Dolphin Deck balconies, and from the Caribe Deck you can see those on the Dolphin Deck. So be careful which deck you choose, or what you do. (The couple cuddling in their nighttime attire two decks below us probably forgot we had a good view.) As long as we're on the subject, many of the mid-ship and forward balconies are visible from the bridge, so remember: unlike on some other ships, you're not as alone on your balcony as you may think.

Of 1,316 cabins, 366 are standard insides (measuring 160 square feet), 214 are standard outside cabins (168 to 206 square feet), and 514 are balcony cabins (185 to 193 square feet, with balconies measuring 45 to 81 square feet). Golden Princess also has 42 suites (ranging in size from the 304-square-foot Premium Suite with 180-square-foot balcony to the 864-square-foot Grand Suite with 450-square-foot balcony) and 180 mini-suites (268 square feet with 55-square-foot balconies). Six sizes of suites are available, including two family suites, each of which can sleep up to 10 people. (If four are children -- otherwise, eight adults can be accommodated in the 493-square-foot cabin with 102-square-foot balcony.)

Tastefully decorated in beige, cream, muted pink, baby blue and other soft colors, standard cabins come with flat-screen TV's, in-room safes, mini-refrigerators, hair dryers and desks. Bathrooms feature showers (with the dreaded curtains) and come with small bottles of shampoo and conditioner, as well as soap. Princess' unique quasi-walk-in closet arrangements situate storage space in a type of anteroom or hallway by the bathroom. The plus is that the bedroom area feels larger without closet doors getting in the way; the minus is that many of these closets lack doors, so your wardrobe is on display for everyone to see. Standard balconies are each furnished with two chairs and a small metal table.

Mini-suites add a sitting area with pull-out sofas, second flat-screen TV's and bathrooms with tubs. Mini-suite and suite passengers automatically receive bathrobes. (However, other passengers can ask for robes; when we asked our room steward, he brought them quickly.) Suites come with upgraded faux teak balcony furniture. The Grand Suite features an enormous whirlpool tub, sitting/dining area with wet bar and walk-in closet.

During the 2009 dry dock, new cabins were added on Decks 6 and 15. On Deck 6, seven new window suites were added to the space formerly occupied by the casino. Uniquely located on a deck otherwise devoted to public spaces, the suites are 341 square feet and feature two picture windows each. Up on Deck 15, two deluxe outside cabins and 10 balcony suites (Owner's and Penthouse Suites) replace the previous golf simulator and video arcade. They're the highest cabins on the ships with expansive ocean views. The outsides measure 212 square feet each and come with picture windows. The suites range in size from 374 to 411 square feet, with 162 to 180-square-foot balconies, and are decorated in neutral, earth tones and light woods. They feature separate bedroom and sitting areas and marble bathrooms with both shower and tub.

Entertainment

One of the bonuses of being on a big ship is choice, and that includes the entertainment. Both the Princess Theater and Vista Lounge can host production shows and featured entertainers, and each show runs three times onboard -- two performances in the Princess Theater, followed by one repeat performance in the Vista Lounge the following evening.

The Princess Theater is done up more like a Broadway theater than a typical cruise-ship show lounge. It has same-level orchestra seating, with stadium seating behind and a few boxes -- though there's no second balcony level. The Vista Lounge is more cabaret-style, with light blue chairs clustered around small drink tables and large windows facing aft, making the room pleasant and light during the day.

Side by side on the Promenade Deck, the Wheelhouse Bar and Explorers Lounge are smaller entertainment venues, hosting theme parties, karaoke, pianists and dance bands, as well as trivia and games during the day. The blue-and-gold Wheelhouse Bar has a nautical theme with model ships and captain's wheels on display, and it boasts plenty of nooks for tete a tetes. We especially liked its comfortable couches, live oldies band and modestly sized dance floor, where even we felt at ease moving to slow rhythms. The larger Explorers Lounge has a somewhat over-the-top Egyptian theme, not quite in keeping with the "casual elegance" exuded by the other venues.

The Grand Casino has been moved to Deck 7, just forward of the atrium. It's outfitted with nine gaming tables for poker and blackjack, as well as tables for craps and roulette and oodles of slot machines. There are even screens for video poker. If you're extra-competitive, look for poker and other tournaments held throughout the cruise.

The moving ramp that takes passengers into Skywalkers Night Club enhances the spaceship-like feel of this top deck (Deck 17) disco with its panoramic sea views and outer space-inspired decor. The place didn't get busy until after midnight. Each night, a D.J. spun country, contemporary, Latin and other dance tunes. Open to ages 18 and older, the nightclub only serves alcohol to passengers 21 and older, as do the other bars onboard.

Other places for drinks include the Promenade Bar at the top of the atrium, where you'll find a pianist in the evening and $2.99 drink specials after 8 p.m. For smokers, the Players Bar, tucked away behind the Crown Grill, offers cigars and cognac in an intimate space, with big TV's for watching sporting events.

Movies Under the Stars (M.U.T.S.), the big-screen outdoor theater located above the Calypso Reef Pool, shows movies, concerts, sporting events and other special programming throughout the day and evening. Afternoon movies may be shown in the Vista Lounge, as well, and on in-cabin TV's.

The video arcade is oddly located on Deck 6 near the Passenger Services Desk. It's nowhere near the youth facilities.

Through Princess' ScholarShip@Sea program, lecturers discuss art, diamonds and digital editing. The line brings on specialists to speak about destination-specific topics, such as Alaskan wildlife and sled dog racing, or Hawaiian culture, history and marine biology. Hawaii cruises also feature activities like hula-dancing, ukulele-playing and lei-making.

For wine-lovers, the ship staged one tasting in the dining room for $7.50 per person and a gourmet tasting for $25. In addition, there were trivia contests, art auctions, paint-your-own-ceramics sessions by the Calypso Reef pool, backstage tours, line-dancing classes and, of course, gambling in the casino.

Fitness and Recreation

With four pools onboard, there was less of a rush to grab a lounge chair than on ships with just one or two pools. Alas, some passengers still insisted on saving chaises for the afternoon by plunking down a towel and a book in the morning.

In warm weather most kids and teens congregated around the outdoor Calypso Reef pool, while the glass roofed Neptune Reef pool attracted fewer kids and more adults. But, on rainy or chilly days, the climate-controlled Neptune Reef pool was a nice plus. The Conservatory offers extra indoor deck space above the pool, and it's there you'll find Ping-Pong. Tucked away on Deck 12, aft, a smaller pool offers views off the back of the ship. Terraced sun deck space above on Decks 14 and 15 ultimately lead to a hidden retreat -- the Oasis Bar and Spa, with two hot tubs, sun loungers and a giant chess set.

In addition to these pools, the spa features a small outdoor current pool. Although targeted for swimmers 16 and older, the pool is often filled with kids and bobbers, making it difficult, if not impossible, to swim. The spa staff simply shrugged their shoulders, refusing to ask the underage kids to leave the pool.

Above the spa and spa pool is the Sanctuary, Princess' adults-only, spa-inspired deck area. Access to this gated sun deck is available by purchasing half-day passes (8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. or 1 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.) for $10 per person. There, you'll find two cabanas for al fresco massages; cushy padded lounge chairs in striped, neutral hues; and serene, potted plants and small trees. Serenity Stewards provide cooling Evian misters, chilled towels, MP3 players and healthy and refreshing drinks and snacks like fruit skewers, spring rolls and smoothies.

Editor's Note: On Alaska cruises, if you book the Sanctuary during scenic cruising by a glacier, you'll be treated to plush fleece blankets, earmuffs and binoculars, as well as private commentary by park rangers and naturalists. Special menu items on these days include Alaska Rockfish Chowder and freshly fried "Beaver Tail" pastries, fried dough shaped like a beaver's tail and often served with toppings like cinnamon sugar and maple butter.

The Lotus Spa offered a range of wraps, massages and treatments, including facials, Chinese herbal medicine and acupuncture, men's barber services and teeth-whitening, done by competent therapists. My husband really enjoyed his hot-stone massage. Despite prices higher than one would find in land-based establishments, spa services book up quickly, especially for the popular afternoon hours. Lotus also offered Generation Y Spa services for teens 13 to 17. A parent must be present when the teen tries these facials, scrubs and exfoliation treatments. Parents can join in the relaxation by booking mother-and-daughter or father-and-son side-by-side massages.

Unlike some other ships, Golden Princess doesn't offer a pre- or post-massage relaxation area -- only some chairs that ring the often-busy treatment check-in desk. Also missing is a thermal sanctuary suite with heated mosaic tile lounge chairs, common on other vessels. The small dressing room has three very narrow showers. Incongruously, the sauna and the steam rooms are located on the outside area, facing the coed current pool, which made it awkward to sashay over wearing just a towel. The women covered their glass-fronted sauna with a towel, which, of course, slipped off every time someone opened the door.

Although the aerobics area takes up a major portion of the gym, enough treadmills and bikes are available so that waits are minimal. The sea views from the gym made exercising more fun than usual. Golden Princess hosts a variety of free fitness programs, including a walk-a-mile morning wakeup, stretch and abdominal classes. Pilates, yoga and Tour de Spin sessions cost an additional $12 per class.

Passengers will find shuffleboard on Deck 16 and can shoot hoops on a half-size basketball court. A golf simulator on Deck 15 lets you practice your swing at various virtual courses. A nine-hole mini-golf course is located on Deck 16 behind the Movies Under the Stars screen.

For deck strollers who exercise by taking long walks, the Promenade Deck proves perfect. It's open to passengers almost all the way around, requiring just a short jog up one flight of stairs and then down to complete the circuit.

Family

Although the Fun Zone, the activity area for ages 3 to 12, isn't as large as on later Grand-class ships, the program is the same and is well-thought-out. For most of the day, except for ice cream socials at the Horizon Court and a few other activities, 3- to 7-year-olds spend much of their time in the bright red, blue and yellow room face-painting, coloring, making puppets, decorating masks and playing games.

The adjacent area for 8- to 12-year-olds has craft tables, games and a plasma television, and it leads into an alcove with computers. These kids also create lanyards, play bingo and other games in the Fun Zone, and use the ceramics studio and other shipboard spaces. Children, ages 8 to 12, may sign themselves in and out of the program with their parents' permission, a freedom cherished by cruise-savvy kids. One deck up, The Fun Zone has its own outdoor deck with a whale-shaped kiddie pool, play houses and tricycles.

When at sea, the free children's program operates from 9 a.m. until noon, 2 until 5 p.m., and 7 until 10 p.m. On port days, the children's program operates from 8 a.m. (or half an hour before the ship arrives in port) until 5 p.m. and from 7 until 10 p.m., also complimentary. Reserve ahead for group baby-sitting, available from 10 p.m. until 1 a.m. for $5 per child, per hour.

At Off Limits, the teen center located on the other side of the Fun Zone's computer alcove, 13- to 17-year-olds mingle and play Ping-Pong, foosball and cards. They also get to know each other during hip-hop dance classes, obstacle races and pizza parties. Teens can hang out, sun and soak in their own hot tub on the teens-only deck area, which is accessed by a set of stairs just outside the youth lounges. Older kids can come and go from youth activities as they please.

In Alaska, kids, ages 3 -to 17, can opt to participate in Junior Ranger and Teen Explorer programs in Glacier Bay. Interactive projects teach young travelers about the natural and cultural history of the region.

Fellow Passengers

Golden Princess' demographics change with the seasons. On its two-week Hawaii cruises, expect an older crowd -- specifically retirees with more time for vacation. Seven-night Alaska sailings tend to be skewed younger, with more families and multigenerational groups.

Dress Code

Evening attire is typically "smart casual," but two or three nights will be formal, depending on the itinerary length. On formal nights, most women wear gowns or cocktail dresses, and men wear tuxedos or dark suits. Men don't need to wear jackets or ties on smart casual evenings, though some do -- open-neck shirts are just fine. Shorts and T-shirts, frayed or holey jeans, and swimwear are not acceptable attire in the dining rooms. For Alaska cruises, bring layers, and be prepared for both warm, summery days and chilly, rainy ones.

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

Personal Choice Dining offers flexibility. It gives the same freedom as land-based nights out. Show up in the designated dining room whenever you feel like it, between 5:30 p.m. and 10 p.m., if you want to free yourself from the "hurry up and get dressed for dinner" rush that all too often comes after a long and active day in port.

Because of the popularity of Personal Choice Dining, the ship utilizes both the Bernini dining room from 5:30 until 10 p.m. and the Donatello from 5:30 until 9:30 p.m. If you're willing to meet new people and join a group table, then you may be seated more promptly. But, if you desire a solo table during the popular 7:45 to 8:30 p.m. slot, you may wait up to 15 minutes. By arriving around 7 p.m., we were able to finish our meal in time to double up on our evening entertainment, taking in the first show at the Princess Theater at 8:30 p.m., followed by the comedian or singer in the Vista Lounge at 10:15 p.m….with enough time left over to throw away our quarters in the casino's slots.

A tip: Reservations for a specific time for any size group, even for a couple, may be made throughout the cruise.

Traditionalists who like the camaraderie of the same table and service from the same waiter -- the one who knows you like extra lemons with your iced tea -- can book tables in the Canaletto dining room for either 5:30 p.m. or 8 p.m. service.

Despite seating hundreds of people at once, the dining rooms didn't feel cavernous. Railings divide the rooms into manageable areas, and the drapes, carpeting and other measures absorb much of the background noise so you don't ever have to yell to be heard by your own tablemates. Each dining room is its own enclosed room, rather than a tiered multi-deck space. The decor is lovely and floral, with paintings of country gardens.

Each night, diners have a choice of two pastas, appetizers, soups and salads, and main courses. Vegetarian, healthy and "homestyle" (essentially meat-and-potatoes type dishes) items are marked on the menu, as are local Pacific Rim dishes on Hawaii itineraries. Always-available selections include Caesar salad, shrimp cocktail, broiled chicken breast and grilled beef medallions. An adequate selection of wines, ranging from $20 to $50 per bottle, was available.

Open-seating breakfast (7 to 9 a.m.), lunch (noon to 1:30 p.m.) and afternoon tea (3:30 to 4:30 p.m.) are also served in the Donatello dining room. A nice touch is that late-riser's breakfast items are always included in the dining room's lunch menu.

The Horizon Court serves ample buffets on Deck 14, with the stations all contained in one area, so you're never in danger of overlooking food options. Breakfast, beginning at 6 a.m., features the usual array of hot and cold cereals, smoked salmon, scrambled eggs, omelets, and alternating days of waffles, pancakes and other traditional fare. For lunch (11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.), in addition to cold cuts, the spread includes a hot fish, chicken or pork dish (often all three), vegetables, greens and sometimes special platters like sushi. Afternoon snacks are available from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. For dinner, the Horizon Court also offers a wide variety of hot and cold entrees, along with salad and desserts. Late-night snacks, available from 11 p.m. to 4 a.m., include a variety of hot and cold dishes, salads, fruit, sandwiches, breads and desserts.

The dining options continue out by the Calypso Reef pool, where chefs toss pizzas at Prego Pizzeria (open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.) and grill up burgers and dogs at the Trident Grill (11 a.m. to 8 p.m.). Satisfy your sweet tooth with soft-serve ice cream and all the toppings at Sundaes Ice Cream Bar.

The International Cafe, located on the Piazza, is another casual dining option, added during the 2009 dry dock. From 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., it serves complimentary snacks, including breakfast pastries, soups, quiche, salads and desserts. (Think warm, melty cookies, as well as fancier items.) Specialty coffee drinks cost extra. It's quite pleasant to grab a seat in the atrium, munch on your snacks and observe whatever entertainment is happening in the Piazza (or simply people-watch).

Next door, Vines Wine Bar (11 a.m. to 11 p.m.) serves up complimentary sushi and tapas. Its corner of the Piazza is like stepping into a traditional winery with oak barrels for tables and flooring that looks like tiled stone. Pair your meal with a great glass of wine, or skip the light bites for a do-it-yourself tasting with a wine flight.

Golden Princess offers two specialty restaurants, Sabatini's and Crown Grill, available by reservation only. To be sure you get the time and day you desire, reserve well in advance. Dinner is served in both venues from 6 to 11 p.m.

If you like Italian fare, don't miss Sabatini's, well worth the $25-per-person extra charge. You select your entree and a soup or salad; then the waiter brings you everything else. Start with eight types of antipasto, including melon with prosciutto, porcini mushrooms in olive oil, crab cakes, fried calamari, shrimp and fried cheese. Make your way through a white bean soup or garden salad, followed by two types of pasta. Continue with an entree, and end with dessert. By the time we licked the last of the tiramisu from our forks, we were stuffed and very happy.

In contrast, the Crown Grill (which replaced the Sterling Steakhouse in 2009) has a more traditional vibe. A New York-style steakhouse, its ambience is set with black-and-white photos of New York City, red woods and carpeting paired with blue upholstered chairs (a hint of patriotism, perhaps?). The menu focuses on seafood, chops and steaks, with the additional choices of appetizers (black tiger prawn and papaya salpicon, lobster cake), soups and salads (black and blue onion soup, marinated goat's cheese and heirloom tomato salad) and the delectable sides that always crop up in steakhouses (garlic fries, corn casserole, creamed spinach). The fee for a multicourse dinner is $25 per person, but to truly indulge, shell out an extra $9 for whole Maine lobster or Brazilian lobster tail.

Room service, although limited to a set menu of breakfast items or sandwiches, salads and burgers, is available 24 hours a day. Along with a Continental breakfast of pastries, coffee and fruit, room service delivers hot items, such as eggs, omelets and oatmeal. For people who like a hot breakfast but don't want to get dressed to enjoy one, this is a nice touch.

The Ultimate Balcony Dinner proved to be our favorite shipboard dining experience in 20 years of cruising. Our personal "butler," after draping our balcony table and chairs in yellow linen, began our experience by offering us Champagne and canapes. Then, the ship's photographer snapped our complimentary photo. Next, we dined on our balcony, enjoying the seascape, the swooping gulls and the breezes as our butler served us, course by course, discretely positioning himself behind the cabin drapes or out in the hall when not needed. The food was good and bountiful. We started with blue crab in pastry shells, followed by salad, then lobster tails and filet mignon...and for dessert, walnut and vanilla mousse, plus chocolates. The meal was both romantic and memorable, and though an indulgence at $100 per couple, it was well worth the extra splurge.Golden Princess, a vessel measuring 109,000 tons with a double-occupancy capacity of 2,590 passengers, offers a boatload of possibilities. While Golden Princess' design was created more than a decade ago, its indoor public spaces feel modern -- specifically Princess' famous Piazza. Golden Princess also has the Sanctuary and the Crown Grill, made popular in the line's newer Crown Princess series of ships.

Golden Princess is in line to get another refurb in early 2014, when cosmetic work will be done to fix spots that are showing some wear. The most noteworthy change will come in the ship's Horizon Court, its buffet area, which will be expanded to improve the flow.

Our favorite onboard spaces include the following:

The Piazza is the perfect onboard hub, surrounded by the International Cafe for coffee and anytime snacks. (The aroma of baking cookies and cafe lattes is heavenly.) Vines Wine Bar is also nearby for tapas, sushi and drinks. Clusters of cozy chairs make it the best place to enjoy the street theater-type entertainment, meet with friends or just people-watch.

The two specialty restaurants, Crown Grill and Sabatini's, take onboard dining up a notch. At Sabatini's, you'll eat your way through Italian favorites like antipasto, pasta and tiramisu desserts. The New York-themed Crown Grill expands the typical steakhouse menu to include all sorts of seafood while still offering a wide assortment of premium-grade beef. Both are well worth the extra fee.

The Sanctuary is an oasis of calm for adults, with snooze-inducing cushy lounge chairs, a soothing atmosphere with touches of greenery and the ultimate in pampering -- alfresco massages.

Movies are always better on the big screen, and Princess' pioneering Movies Under the Stars has made its way to Golden Princess' Calypso Reef Pool. Enjoy a concert or sporting event as you splash around during the day, or curl up next to your sweetie under a blanket with some popcorn to take in a feature film at night.

The teens-only sun deck provides this hard-to-please group with an outdoor place to mingle, and the splash pool area, although small, offers parents a tot-friendly place for water play with their preschoolers.

Four pools ease the swim crunch. The outdoor Calypso Reef draws kids, teens and adults, while the covered Neptune Reef provides a climate-controlled space so water enthusiasts can get wet even in inclement weather. The spa's outdoor current pool, targeted for swimmers 16 and older, is peacefully located off the ship's Lotus Spa, while the heated Terrace Pool provides great views at the aft of the ship.

Three show lounges -- the Princess Theater, Vista Lounge and Explorers Lounge -- allow you to find entertainment, no matter what time you finish dinner. Production shows and performances by headline entertainers are repeated three times over two nights, so everyone has a chance to enjoy them.

With supervised activities in the Fun Zone (a children's area for ages 3 to 7 and 8 to 12) and Remix (the daytime teen room), Golden Princess works well for families, especially on the ship's seven-day summer Alaska sailings. In the winter, when the ship focuses on longer cruises to South America and Mexico, the ship caters to an older clientele.

Dining

Anytime dining offers flexibility, with the same freedom as land-based nights out. Show up in the designated dining room whenever you feel like it, between 5:30 p.m. and 10 p.m., to free yourself from the "hurry up and get dressed for dinner" rush that all too often comes after a long and active day in port.

Because of the popularity of anytime dining, the ship utilizes both the Bernini dining room from 5:30 p.m. until 10 p.m. and the Donatello from 7:30 p.m. onward. If you're willing to meet new people and join a group table, then you could be seated more promptly. But, if you desire a solo table during the popular 7:45 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. slot, you might wait up to 15 minutes. The dining room host will hand you a pager that will buzz when your table is ready. By arriving around 7 p.m., we were able to finish our meal in time to double up on our evening entertainment, taking in the first show at the Princess Theater at 8:30 p.m., followed by the comedian or singer in the Vista Lounge at 10:15 p.m., with enough time left over to throw away our quarters in the casino's slots.

Tip: Reservations for a specific time for any size group, even for a couple, can be made throughout the cruise.

Traditionalists who like the camaraderie of the same table and service from the same waiter -- the one who knows you like extra lemons with your iced tea -- can book tables for the traditional dining plan in the Canaletto dining room for either 5:30 p.m. or 7:45 p.m. service.

Despite seating hundreds of people at once, the dining rooms don't feel cavernous. Railings divide the rooms into manageable areas, and the drapes, carpeting and other measures absorb much of the background noise, so you don't ever have to yell to be heard by your tablemates. Each dining room is its own enclosed room, rather than a tiered multi-deck space. The decor is lovely and floral, with paintings of country gardens.

Each night, diners have a choice of two pastas, appetizers, soups and salads, and main courses. Vegetarian items are marked on the menu. Always-available selections include Caesar salad, shrimp cocktail, broiled chicken breast and grilled beef medallions. An adequate selection of wines, ranging from $20 to $50 per bottle, is available.

Open-seating breakfast (7 a.m. to 9 a.m.), lunch (noon to 1:30 p.m.) and afternoon tea (3:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.) are also served in the Donatello dining room. A nice touch is that late-riser's breakfast items, such as corn flake crusted French toast, are always included in the dining room's lunch menu.

The Horizon Court serves buffets on Deck 14, with the stations all contained in one small area, so you're never in danger of overlooking food options. Breakfast, from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m., features the usual array of hot and cold cereals, smoked fish, scrambled eggs, omelets, and alternating days of waffles, pancakes and other traditional fare. For lunch (11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.), in addition to cold cuts, the spread includes a hot fish, chicken or pork dish (often all three), vegetables, greens and, sometimes, special platters like sushi. For dinner (5:30 p.m. to midnight), the Horizon Court also offers a variety of hot and cold entrees, along with salad and desserts. For early risers, a continental breakfast is served from 5 a.m. to 6 a.m.; those looking for a post-lunch snack can grab something between 3:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. When it's not busy, one side or the other is shut down; we rarely had to wait in line, but we did struggle finding a table. The staff, however, keeps an eye out for this and efficiently ushers people to open spaces. The selections for breakfast and lunch there are heavy on the carb and sweet side, so if you're looking for some leaner options or protein, Donatello might be a better option. Horizon Court will undergo a complete overhaul as part of the ship's refurbishment, scheduled for early 2014. The area will be opened up, providing more space and better flow.

The dining options continue out by the Calypso Reef pool, where chefs toss pizzas at Prego Pizzeria (open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.) and grill up burgers and dogs at the Trident Grill (11 a.m. to 11 p.m.). We loved swinging by Trident Grill for a midday snack and delicious French fries. Vegetarians be warned, though: While a "veggie burger" is offered, you'll probably be surprised when you're handed mashed potatoes mixed with peas, carrots and broccoli formed into a patty and put on a bun. Satisfy your sweet tooth with soft-serve ice cream and all manner of sprinkles at Sundaes Ice Cream Bar.

The International Cafe, located on the Piazza, is another casual dining option. Open 24 hours, it serves complimentary snacks, including breakfast pastries, soups, quiche, salads and desserts. (Think warm, melty cookies, as well as fancier items.) We enjoyed the prosciutto, mozzarella and chicken breast sandwiches. Specialty coffee drinks cost extra. It's quite pleasant to grab a seat in the atrium, munch on your snacks and observe whatever entertainment is happening in the Piazza (or simply people-watch).

Next door, Vines Wine Bar (11 a.m. to 11 p.m. or 4:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. on port days) serves up complimentary sushi and tapas with the purchase of a drink. Its corner of the Piazza is like stepping into a traditional winery with oak barrels for tables and flooring that looks like tiled stone. Pair your meal with a great glass of wine, or try one of several reasonably priced wine flight options.

Golden Princess offers two specialty restaurants: Sabatini's and Crown Grill, available by reservation only. To get the time and day you desire, reserve well in advance. Dinner is served in both venues from 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.

If you like Italian fare, don't miss Sabatini's, a steal at the $25-per-person extra charge. Our favorites included the buffalo mozzarella (essentially, a big old hunk of fresh cheese), fried calamari and lobster three ways. The menu is heavy on seafood, but the staff is willing to tweak items to keep those who don't eat fish happy. Pasta is, of course, wonderful, and our waiters sang to us as they added Parmesan and fresh-ground pepper to our plates. By the time we licked the last of the tiramisu from our forks, we were stuffed and very happy.

The Crown Grill has a more traditional vibe. A New York-style steakhouse, its ambience is set with black-and-white photos of New York City, red woods and carpeting paired with blue upholstered chairs. The menu focuses on seafood, chops and steaks, with the additional choices of appetizers (black tiger prawn and papaya salpicon, lobster cake), soups and salads (black and blue onion soup, marinated goat's cheese and heirloom tomato salad) and the delectable sides that always crop up in steakhouses (garlic fries, mashed potatoes, creamed spinach). The fee for a multicourse dinner is $25 per person.

Room service, although limited to a set menu of breakfast items (pastries, coffee, fruit) or sandwiches, salads and burgers, is available 24 hours a day.

The Ultimate Balcony Dinner proved an incredible dining experience. Our personal "butler," after draping our balcony table and chairs in yellow linen, began our experience by offering us Champagne and canapes. Then, the ship's photographer snapped our complimentary photo. Next, we dined on our balcony, enjoying the seascape, the swooping gulls and the breezes as our butler served us, course by course, discretely positioning himself behind the cabin drapes or out in the hall when not needed. The food was good and bountiful. We started with blue crab in pastry shells, followed by salad, then lobster tails and filet mignon ... and for dessert, walnut and vanilla mousse, plus chocolates. The meal was both romantic and memorable, and though an indulgence at $100 per couple, it was well worth the extra splurge.

Public Rooms

Golden Princess' public rooms and entertainment venues are clustered on Decks 5, 6 and 7, with the focal point being the Deck 5 Piazza. The center of the Piazza is a circular open space, surrounded by comfy seating and a piano to one side. The central space, in turn, is circled by public venues, such as the Internet cafe, library (with board game selection), art gallery, Vines Wine Bar, International Cafe and, on port days, the gangway.

The Internet Cafe and library share a space, dotted with multiple workstations and lined on one side with bookshelves. Internet use costs 79 cents a minute, or you can purchase a time plan (100 minutes for $69, 200 minutes for $99, 400 minutes for $159 and 600 minutes for $199). There is also a one-time $3.95 account activation fee.

One deck up, the Passenger Services Desk faces the atrium with the Shore Excursions Desk at its back by the Crown Grill. Also facing the steakhouse are Future Cruise Sales and the Captain's Circle Office. Around the atrium, Essence sells perfumes and cosmetics, while Calypso Cove sells Princess logo items and sundries. Head aft to find the photo/video gallery along the corridor that fronts the Explorer's Lounge, Wheelhouse Bar and Sabatini's.

On Deck 7, more shopping options await with Facets for watches and fine jewelry and Meridian Bay for more jewelry and souvenirs.

Six onboard self-service laundry facilities, located on passenger decks, feature washers, dryers, ironing boards, sinks and vending machines for detergent (as well as change). A load is $1 for either wash or dry. There's a medical center on Deck 4.

The Hearts and Minds wedding chapel on Deck 15, aft, has a lovely backdrop of a manicured garden, which opens to reveal a large, flat-screen TV. Princess has cleverly designed the chapel to double as a meeting facility. A high-tech sound system is hidden in one corner, the room is wired for Wi-Fi, and a webcam can broadcast lectures or vows to friends, family and colleagues off-ship.

Cabins

Golden Princess has an impressive number of cabins and suites with balconies: 736. The balconies are larger on the Caribe and Dolphin Decks than on the Baja and Aloha Decks. But from the Baja and Aloha Decks, you can look down and see passengers on their Caribe and Dolphin Deck balconies, and from the Caribe Deck you can see those on the Dolphin Deck. So be careful which deck you choose and what you do when you're on your balcony. (The couple cuddling in their nighttime attire two decks below us probably forgot we had a good view.) As long as we're on the subject, many of the midship and forward balconies are visible from the bridge, so remember: unlike on some other ships, you're not as alone on your balcony as you might think.

Of 1,316 cabins, 366 are standard insides (measuring 160 square feet), 214 are standard outside cabins (168 to 206 square feet), and 514 are balcony cabins (185 to 193 square feet, with balconies measuring 45 to 81 square feet). Golden Princess also has 42 suites (ranging in size from the 304-square-foot Premium Suite with 180-square-foot balcony to the 864-square-foot Grand Suite with 450-square-foot balcony) and 180 mini-suites (268 square feet with 55-square-foot balconies). Six sizes of suites are available, including two Family Suites, each of which can sleep up to 10 people. (If four are children -- otherwise, eight adults can be accommodated in the 493-square-foot cabin with 102-square-foot balcony.)

Subtly decorated in beige, cream, baby blue and other soft colors, standard cabins come with flat-screen TVs, in-room safes, mini-refrigerators, hair dryers and desks. Bathrooms feature tiny showers (with the dreaded curtains) and come with small bottles of eucalyptus-scented shampoo and conditioner and bath gel, as well as soap and lotion. Princess' unique quasi-walk-in closet arrangements situate storage space in a type of anteroom or hallway by the bathroom. The plus is that the bedroom area feels larger without closet doors getting in the way; the minus is that many of these closets lack doors, so your wardrobe is on display for everyone to see. Drawer space is limited to the desk area, but ample shelving in the closet makes up for it. Standard balconies are each furnished with two chairs and a small metal table.

Mini-suites add sitting areas with pull-out sofas, second flat-screen TVs and bathrooms with tubs. Mini-suite and suite passengers automatically receive bathrobes. (However, other passengers can ask for robes; when we asked our room steward, he brought them quickly.) Suites come with upgraded faux teak balcony furniture. The Grand Suite features an enormous whirlpool tub, sitting/dining area with wet bar and walk-in closet.

On Deck 6, you'll find seven window suites. Uniquely located on a deck otherwise devoted to public spaces, the suites are 341 square feet and feature two picture windows each. Up on Deck 15, two deluxe outside cabins and 10 balcony suites (Owner's and Penthouse Suites) replace the previous golf simulator and video arcade. Signs still point to the golf simulator, so you'll likely see confused passengers milling around. The Owner's and Penthouse Suites are the highest cabins on the ships, offering expansive ocean views. The outsides measure 212 square feet each and come with picture windows. The suites range from 374 to 411 square feet, with 162 to 180-square-foot balconies, and are decorated in neutral earth tones and light woods. They feature separate bedroom and sitting areas and marble bathrooms, each with both a shower and a tub.

Entertainment

Both the Princess Theater and Vista Lounge can host production shows and featured entertainers, and each show runs several times onboard. The Princess Theater is done up more like a Broadway theater than a typical cruise-ship show lounge. It has same-level orchestra seating, with stadium seating behind and a few boxes, though there's no second balcony level. The Vista Lounge is more cabaret-style, with chairs clustered around small drink tables and large windows facing aft, making the room pleasant and light during the day.

Side by side on the Promenade Deck, the Wheelhouse Bar and Explorers Lounge are smaller entertainment venues, hosting theme parties, karaoke, pianists and dance bands, as well as trivia and games during the day. The blue-and-gold Wheelhouse Bar has a nautical theme with model ships and captain's wheels on display, and it boasts plenty of nooks for tete-a-tetes. We especially liked its comfortable couches, live oldies band and modestly sized dance floor, where even we felt at ease moving to slow rhythms. The larger Explorers Lounge has a somewhat over-the-top Egyptian theme, not quite in keeping with the "casual elegance" exuded by the other venues.

The Grand Casino is on Deck 7, just forward of the atrium. It's outfitted with 11 gaming tables for poker, blackjack, craps and roulette, as well as oodles of slot machines. There are even screens for video poker. If you're extra-competitive, look for poker and other tournaments held throughout the cruise.

The moving ramp that takes passengers into Skywalkers Night Club enhances the spaceship feel of this top deck (Deck 17) disco with its panoramic sea views and outer space-inspired decor. The place didn't get busy until after midnight. Each night, a D.J. spun country, contemporary, Latin and other dance tunes. Open to ages 18 and older, the nightclub only serves alcohol to passengers 21 and older, as do the other bars onboard.

Other places for drinks include the Promenade Bar at the top of the atrium. For smokers, the Players Bar, tucked away behind the Crown Grill, offers cigars and cognac in an intimate space, with big TVs for watching sporting events. It's completely enclosed, so, for the most part, the smoke didn't seep out into other areas.

Movies Under the Stars, the big-screen outdoor theater located above the Calypso Reef Pool, shows movies, concerts, sporting events and other special programming throughout the day and evening. Afternoon movies might be shown in the Vista Lounge, as well, and on in-cabin TVs. At night, you might also be able to catch a late movie in the Princess Theater.

The video arcade is oddly located on Deck 6 near the Passenger Services Desk. It's nowhere near the youth facilities.

Through Princess' ScholarShip@Sea program, lecturers discuss art, diamonds and digital editing. The line brings on fascinating specialists to speak about destination-specific topics, such as Alaskan wildlife and sled dog-racing. We enjoyed the enrichment activities onboard, especially the expert lecture on Alaska as we sailed through Tracy Arm.

For wine-lovers, the ship staged one tasting in the dining room for $7.50 per person and a gourmet tasting for $25. Passengers can purchase ship tours, which will take them to places such as the bridge, the medical facility and engine control room for $150 per person.

Fitness and Recreation

With four pools onboard, there was less of a rush to grab a lounge chair than on ships with just one or two pools. Alas, some passengers still insisted on saving chaises for the afternoon by plunking down towels and books in the morning.

In warm weather, most kids and teens congregated around the outdoor Calypso Reef pool, while the glass-roofed Neptune Reef pool attracted fewer kids and more adults. But on rainy or chilly days, the climate-controlled Neptune Reef pool was quite crowded. The Conservatory offers extra indoor deck space above the pool, and it's there you'll find Ping-Pong and, interestingly, jigsaw puzzles. Tucked away on Deck 12, aft, the smaller heated Terrace Pool offers views off the back of the ship. Outriggers Bar, on Deck 14, overlooks the Terrace Pool. Sun deck space above on Decks 14 and 15 ultimately lead to the Oasis on Deck 16, which includes two hot tubs, sun loungers and a giant chess set. The Oasis Bar is also located there, but it was closed during our trip, and we were told it's open seasonally.

In addition to these pools, the spa features a small outdoor current pool, activated with the touch of a button. It's targeted for swimmers 16 and older. It's flanked by two hot tubs.

Above the spa and spa pool is the Sanctuary, Princess' adults-only, spa-inspired deck area. Access to this gated sun deck is available by purchasing half-day passes (8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. or 1 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.) for $10 per person, per half day. There, you'll find two cabanas for alfresco massages; cushy padded lounge chairs in striped, neutral hues; and serene, potted plants and small trees. Serenity Stewards provide cooling Evian misters, chilled towels and, at a nominal fee, MP3 players and healthy and refreshing drinks and snacks, such as fruit skewers, spring rolls and smoothies.

Editor's Note: On Alaska cruises, if you book the Sanctuary during scenic cruising by a glacier, you'll be treated to plush fleece blankets, earmuffs and binoculars, as well as private commentary by park rangers and naturalists. Special menu items on these days include Alaska Rockfish Chowder and freshly fried "Beaver Tail" pastries (fried dough shaped like a beaver's tail and often served with toppings like cinnamon sugar and maple butter).

The Lotus Spa offers a range of wraps, massages and treatments, including facials, Chinese herbal medicine and acupuncture, men's barber services and teeth-whitening, done by competent therapists. We enjoyed the bamboo massage, which made us feel a little bit like a piece of dough being worked over by a rolling pin -- in a good way. We also tried out the teeth-whitening and were satisfied with the results -- and the price, which was significantly less than we would have paid on land. Spa services book up quickly, especially for the popular afternoon hours.

Unlike some other ships, Golden Princess doesn't offer a pre- or post-massage relaxation area -- only some chairs that ring the often-busy treatment check-in desk. Also missing is a thermal sanctuary suite with heated mosaic tile lounge chairs, common on other vessels. The small dressing room has three very narrow showers and not a lot of privacy. Incongruously, the sauna and the steam rooms are located on the outside area, facing the coed current pool, which made it awkward to sashay over wearing just a towel or bathrobe. The women covered their glass-fronted sauna with a towel, which, of course, slipped off every time someone opened the door.

Although the aerobics area takes up a major portion of the gym, treadmills, stationary bikes and ellipticals are available, along with weight-training equipment and a small assortment of free weights. If you arrive during peak morning hours, you'll likely have to wait for equipment; we showed up at 7:30 a.m. and waited about five minutes for a treadmill. The sea views from the gym made exercising more fun than usual. Golden Princess hosts a variety of free fitness programs, including stretch, Zumba and abdominal classes. Pilates, yoga, boot camp and Tour de Spin sessions cost an additional $12 per class. TRX costs $45 for a three-class package. Participants in boot camp classes use the free weights in the main gym area, so if you arrive while class is in session, you might not have access to the weights you require.

Golden Princess doesn't have a traditional jogging track. We asked several different crewmembers where the jogging track was located, and all of them directed us to Deck 7: the Promenade. Yes, you can jog on the Promenade deck, if you're comfortable feeling a bit like a jerk running between people out enjoying the views. You'll also have to walk when space is tight around the aft of the ship, and you'll need to take a flight of stairs up to Deck 8 to get around the bow of the ship before returning down to the Promenade Deck. During peak hours in the early morning and around dinner, jogging is nearly impossible. For deck-strollers who exercise by taking long walks, the Promenade Deck proves perfect anytime, though. A mile requires you to put in 2.5 laps.

Passengers will find shuffleboard on Deck 16 and can shoot hoops on a half-size basketball court. A large putting green, with a number of holes to practice your short game, is located on Deck 16 behind the MUTS screen.

Family

Although the Fun Zone, the activity area for ages 3 to 12, isn't as large as those found on later Grand-class ships, the program is the same and is well thought-out. For most of the day, except for ice cream socials at the Horizon Court and a few other activities, 3- to 7-year-olds spend much of their time in the bright red, blue and yellow room face-painting, coloring, making puppets, decorating masks and playing games.

The adjacent area for 8- to 12-year-olds has craft tables, games and a plasma television, and it leads into an alcove with computers. These kids also create lanyards, play bingo and other games in the Fun Zone, and use other shipboard spaces. Children, ages 8 to 12, may sign themselves in and out of the program with their parents' permission, a freedom cherished by cruise-savvy kids. One deck up, The Fun Zone has its own outdoor deck with a whale-shaped kiddie pool, play houses and tricycles.

When at sea, the free children's program operates from 9 a.m. until noon, 2 p.m. until 5 p.m., and 7 p.m. until 10 p.m. On port days, the children's program operates from 8 a.m. (or a half-hour before the ship arrives in port) until 5 p.m. and from 7 p.m. until 10 p.m., also complimentary. Reserve ahead for group babysitting, available from 10 p.m. until 1 a.m. for $5 per child, per hour.

At Remix, the teen center located on the other side of the Fun Zone's computer alcove, 13- to 17-year-olds mingle and play Ping-Pong, foosball and cards. They also get to know each other during hip-hop dance classes, obstacle races and pizza parties. Teens can hang out, sun and soak in their own hot tub on the teens-only deck area, which is accessed by a set of stairs just outside the youth lounges. Older kids can come and go from youth activities as they please.

In Alaska, kids from ages 3 to 17 can opt to participate in Junior Ranger and Teen Explorer programs in Glacier Bay. Interactive projects teach young travelers about the natural and cultural history of the region.

Fellow Passengers

Golden Princess' demographics change with the seasons. On its two-week-plus South America cruises, expect an older crowd, specifically retirees with more time for vacation. Seven-night Alaska sailings tend to be skewed younger, with more families and multigenerational groups. On Alaska sailings, expect a more international group of fellow cruisers, especially Asian and Indian travelers.

Dress Code

Evening attire is typically "smart casual," but two or three nights will be formal, depending on the itinerary length; a standard seven-night cruise will have two formal nights. On formal nights, most women wear gowns or cocktail dresses, and men wear tuxedos or dark suits. Men don't need to wear jackets or ties on smart casual evenings, though some do; open-neck shirts are just fine. Shorts and T-shirts, frayed or holey jeans, and swimwear are not acceptable attire in the dining rooms. For Alaska cruises, bring layers, and be prepared for both warm, summery days and chilly, rainy ones. Passengers generally tend to dress more casually on Alaskan cruises.

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