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Cruise Ship Review

Diamond Princess - Ship Review provided by Cruise Critic

When this ship was launched in winter 2004 we were impressed. On a return visit we were even more impressed. The Diamond debuted as the Princess fleet's biggest, at 116,000 tons (sister ship Sapphire Princess also holds that title) and the first cruise ship built in Japan in more than a decade. This is one of our favorite ships in the Princess fleet and here are some of the reasons why:

Personal Choice Dining. There is one main dining room featuring set seating at 5:45 and 8 p.m. for those who like traditional service; in response to demand, Princess recently expanded to include the Vivaldi restaurant (for the first seating only). For those who want more flexibility, there are four, intimate, themed venues where you can dine fee free any time between 5:30 and 10 p.m.

Club Fusion is all about high tech with big high definition TV screens and a state-of-the-art sound system and a decent dance floor, and really redefines the concept of secondary show lounge. It's also the perfect venue for games shows and a redefined talent show called Princess Idol.

Skywalkers Nightclub, the sky-high disco introduced on the Grand-class ships, has been expanded and redesigned here to include more space and a balcony overlooking the aft pool.

The huge Internet Cafe on Diamond has, count them, 29 computer stations with flat screens and a coffee/pastry shop. It's rare to have to wait for a terminal. And rates are 35 cents per minute, which is cheap by shipboard standards.

The large number of cabins with balconies -- 748. Even though some of the balconies aren't exactly private (mini-suites on Dolphin Deck are totally exposed; cabins on Caribe Deck are partially exposed) they provide a wonderful space for stargazing, smooching, intimate outdoor meals and smoking.

We are even fond of the atrium on this vessel, a proud focal point including Art Nouveau glass-and-brass designs on the atrium elevators. The ship's shops are located on two decks and the atrium also boasts bars including the ship's martini bar, as well as the purser's desk. At only three decks the space feels like an upscale Parisian shopping arcade.

The dining rooms and variety of lounges disperse the crowds and make you feel like you're on a much smaller ship. That said, there are times the Diamond does feel big, particularly at night when you find yourself at the wrong end of the hallway from your cabin. We saw more than one woman take off her heels to make the trek.

Diamond Princess, with its four pools, plus a kiddie splash pool, extensive children's center and cutting edge entertainment and programs, is particularly well suited to families, and that's probably why there were a good number of multigenerational groups onboard: grandparents traveling with their kids and the grandkids. But couples will find much to like on this vessel too, including the fact the restaurants have a decent number of tables for two.

Dining

On this ship it's all about choice, including the option to have no choice. When you book your cruise you pick either Personal Choice Dining or traditional dining (and you can even change your mind when you get to the ship). With the traditional dining setup, you eat in the International Dining Room (or Vivaldi, early seating only) at the same table and same time nightly with the same assigned tablemates.

Personal Choice Dining is more of a restaurant-type option; in this case you can eat in any of four, themed (no surcharge) dining rooms, and you can eat whenever you like and with whom you like. Want to have a table for two one night and a table for eight the next? No problem. Want to eat at 6 p.m. one night and 8 p.m. the next? No problem. The only catch is the themed dining rooms get filled up, and reservations are suggested.

One change made by Princess about a year after launch is that all restaurants, even the specialty dining rooms, serve the same menu (each menu does include a smattering of themed cuisine) but the rooms themselves still offer unique ambiences. The specialty restaurants are Santa Fe, Pacific Moon and Vivaldi (after 7:45 p.m. only). The former Sterling Steakhouse has been renamed the Savoy.

Added in the restaurant makeover was Princess' signature Sterling Steakhouse; it's located in an unused-at-night section of the Horizon Court buffet area. The space features a more elegant evening look -- and the same menu as the rest of the fleet's Sterling Steakhouses. Service charge is $15.

The International Dining Room is also open for open seating breakfast and lunch.

The restaurants offer a good selection of wine from $20 to $50 per bottle. You can bring your own, but may be charged a $10 corkage fee. There is a charge for espresso or cappuccino. Don't miss a chance to finish your meal with the Italian liquor limoncello.

Room Service is available 24 hours a day, but the menu is limited. The breakfast menu is limited to yogurt, pastries and bread, fruit, cereal, coffee and juice. The otherwise round-the-clock menu offers fare such as deli and club sandwiches, salads, soup of the day, grilled burgers and cheeseburgers, and a few dessert items. If you're entertaining there are canapes available for a fee; you can also order wine, beer and drinks, including full bottles. On all room service deliveries a tip (a dollar or two for the average order, more for party orders) is requested.

There is always something to eat at the Horizon Court buffet on Lido, which also offers a bistro menu with waiter service (for drinks) into the wee hours. Lunch in Horizon Court is pretty uninspired with your typical hot items and cold salads (we preferred to grab a burger or a slice of pizza by the pool). But breakfast here is better than in the dining room -- the buffet included fried eggs, eggs benedict, cereals, crispy bacon, corned beef hash, French toast with cornflake crust and fresh fruit. With the buffet areas on two sides, there was rarely a crowd. Seating is indoors and outdoors.

Don't miss afternoon tea, served daily in the Pacific Moon, with sandwiches, pastries, and warm scones with cream (tea connoisseurs will notice however that the pour Lipton).

Another must-do at least once during your cruise is the reservations-only specialty restaurant Sabatini's, named for the famous trattoria in Florence, and serving an inspired Italian menu (again, Princess does Italian well). The cozy venue, with Italian music playing and murals on the walls, is open daily for dinner and occasionally for lunch, and a fee of $20 per person is charged. They pile on the food here, so come hungry. We particularly enjoyed the extraordinary cannelloni.

Princess sells a soda pass for $22.50 ($25 with souvenir cup). You have to pay for ice cream sundaes ($3.50) if you order them on the pool deck.

Public Rooms

We've made no bones that we like the layout of this vessel, from the enticing Grand Plaza atrium, a warm, central spot for meeting up with pals, to the rocking Skywalkers on the very top of the ship. Only one tiny quibble is we often got lost looking for the various dining rooms.

At Crooner's martini bar in the atrium, you can order a 007 (traditional martini with Vermouth), watch passersby and just feel downright sophisticated. The Explorer's Lounge has our heart for being such an accessible space, and we like the Egyptian-inspired decor.

The Wheelhouse Bar is bigger than on other ships, but still has a nice, club-like ambience and nautical accents. We were very impressed with the bartenders here who will concoct original creations if you ask -- one made a cosmo-type drink and then took out matches and burnt an orange rind to add extra flavor. Club Fusion, a new entertainment lounge with dozens of high-definition TV screens and an energetic, high-tech vibe, is just plain cool and a perfect venue for "Princess Idol," the ship's takeoff on "American Idol" (it's also used for other game shows and dance events). The Wake View Bar underneath Club Fusion (you have to take the staircase in the back of the club) is a hidden spot with aft-facing portholes that serves as the green room for the Princess Idol show (with interviews from there broadcast in Club Fusion). We always drop our jaw at the spaceship-like Skywalkers, and here the trademark disco and observation lounge is bigger and even has an aft-facing balcony (for smooching and smoking) in addition to floor-to-ceiling windows. Princess' wonderful stage shows take place in the Princess Theater. Get there early, it gets full.

Our very favorite spot for nighttime imbibing and chatting was tiny Churchill's, the ship's cigar lounge/sports bar, where we were as comfortable as if in someone's living room.

The ship's small library includes music listening stations. The wedding chapel doubles as a venue for religious services and computer classes. The Internet Cafe is huge and enticing, especially with its coffee bar (cappuccinos and the like come at a nominal cost, but the tasty pastries are free). Access is 35 cents per minute; wireless users can also get access for $10.50 per half-hour in the wired atrium.

There is a dedicated art gallery where you can buy reproductions and original art (more art is for sale, of course, in the frequent art auctions).

Cabins

This ship specializes in affordable cabins with balconies (there are 748). More than 70 percent of the ship's cabins are outside. You get views, but you don't necessarily get a lot of interior space, or outside privacy. On Caribe deck, for instance, from the balcony you can see the balcony below and the people above you can see you. Inside cabins start at 168 square ft., and standard outside cabins are 183 square ft. Balcony cabins run 237 to 300 square ft. (and that includes the verandah). There are bigger mini-suites and suites, and the top Grand Suite is 1,329 square ft.

The decor is rather bland and includes mirrors (to give the illusion of more space). Bathrooms in standard cabins are tiny (but we like the Princess Eucalyptus bath products). Mini-suites and up have bathtubs. Nice bathrobes (waffle cotton) are available for use on request (you can also buy one to bring home for $45). Cabins have safes, refrigerators and hairdryers. In-cabin TVs offer in-house movies, CNN, ESPN, TNT, cartoons and Discovery Channel. You get chocolates at turndown. The ship has two connecting family suites and 27 handicapped-accessible cabins.

How good is the cabin service? Our cabin attendant called maintenance to replace a light bulb we didn't even realize was out.

Entertainment

Princess knows entertainment and the stage shows are very impressive. On our cruise "Piano Man," featuring the songs of Billy Joel, Neil Sedaka, Barry Manilow, Liberace and Elton John, with a piano player and the six-piece as Diamond Princess Orchestra backing up the troupe of singers and dancers, drew raves. And we particularly enjoyed "Undercover" in its premier season, an entertaining show based on a spy theme: 007 to Austin Powers.

During our seven-night cruise we impressively had three wonderful comedians as well as a comic magician performing in both the Princess Theater and Explorer's Lounge. There was music virtually at every turn: live jazz in the Wheelhouse, a crooner at Crooner's, karaoke in Explorer's, quieter piano music or strings in the atrium, techno rock (or anything else you want to request) at Skywalkers. Second-run movies are offered in the Princess Theater or Explorer's Lounge. Club Fusion hosts Princess Idol, a ship favorite, basically a talent quest -- several rounds take place throughout the cruise -- based on American Idol (if the smoky-voice winner on our cruise had an album out I'd buy it).

The casino draws crowds to its clanging slot machines and lively tables, with frequent tournaments and contests (on the Diamond, bingo also draws a huge crowd as does wooden horse racing).

On the activities front there is nearly always something happening from line dancing classes and art auctions to napkin folding to shopping and beauty seminars. Princess' ScholarShip at Sea program offers courses in photography, computer technology, culinary arts and more (some for a fee). On this ship you can also create ceramics, with a studio located above the Neptune Pool (bring home a fish-shaped tray for $22). Lectures are on such topics as "What Makes You Tick,' conducted by a therapist, and "Makeover Madness," offered by giggling members of the spa staff. (Note: The makeover lectures included a big sales pitch for products.)

There were two wine tastings on our seven-day cruise. At the $7.50 per person tasting, Marius from Poland told us about the vin-ee-yard, and said the New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc had a nice are-o-ma, "very winey." The separate gourmet tasting was $25 per person.

A nice touch one afternoon was a public interview session with the Captain, where he answered such questions as "If you're here who's driving?" Answer: "I have no idea."

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 Diamond Princess in November 2010. Passengers can enjoy movies, concerts, sporting events and other special programming throughout the day and evening.

Fitness and Recreation

There are four pools including the popular Neptune Pool and the Calypso Pool with a sliding glass roof providing for all-weather swimming. Little kids also get their own splash pool. The pool near the spa is designated adults-only (there is nice private sunning space above this pool).

Golfers get plenty of attention with a virtual golf simulator on Sports Deck (Deck 16), $50 for 45 minutes. A golf pro runs the show and offers lessons (he also leads golf shore excursions). There's also a 9-hole putting green. Those who like to keep active will enjoy the jogging track, basketball and paddle tennis court, all on Sports Deck.

Relaxing comes easy at the Asian-themed Lotus Spa, where a reasonable $83 will get you a Couples Rasul Ritual, a treatment involving mud and based on a traditional Moroccan cleansing ritual. Look for lots of discounted day-in-port specials.

Some of the massage rooms have the basketball and jogging track above producing squeaking noises (the New Age music was turned up louder than usual to compensate). Still, the Blissful Hot Stone Massage ($175), delivered by a Swedish therapist, was one of the best we've had at sea.

The spa's Thermal Sanctuary Suite is a must-do, an oasis with heated mosaic lounge chairs, an Aromatic steam room, a refreshing mint/fog shower and other steam and sauna options. You can enter free with a spa treatment or pay a fee for a week's use.

A beef: The spa does not provide slippers (though they do provide robes), or even combs or hairdryers for those who take a shower.

The gym is a surprisingly narrow space in front of the ship with ocean views and dozens of implements of destruction (or construction as the case may be). It was less crowded than you'd expect with a California crowd, and rarely were the equipment signup sheets necessary. There are about a half dozen fitness classes per day, half for a fee ($10 for Pilates and SpinXpress).

Family

Children and teens get an impressive amount of designated indoor and outdoor space (nearly 10,000 square ft.).

The little kids' Fun Zone is all primary colors and very kid-friendly. The Off Limits area is cool enough to impress even the most cynical of teens.

Activity-wise, Princess Pelicans (3 - 7) get to do arts and crafts like paining their own t-shirts and have a bunch of games and movies to entice. Pirateers (8 - 12) get to do scavenger hunts and participate in science programs (such as learning about coral reefs). Teens get activities like the "Dating Game," disco parties and casino nights. There's a shipboard Olympics contest and karaoke for all kids. Little ones will also enjoy the outdoor play area and splash pool.

Group babysitting is available (private sitting is not) for $5 per hour, per child, from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. Pre-booking is required.

Fellow Passengers

Mostly an American crowd, from west of the Mississippi (although there will be some Easterners too). Lots of multigenerational groups (grandparents traveling with their kids and the grandkids). Children and teens although not in overwhelming numbers. Couples in their 30's to 70's. Some singles of various ages (mostly traveling with friends).

Dress Code

For a seven-day cruise, there are two formal nights and five smart casual nights. On formal nights, men wear dinner jackets or dark suits and women cocktail dresses, gowns or fancy pants suits. On smart casual nights there's no need for men to wear a tie, although some will wear jackets. During the day, resort casual wear is the norm. T-shirts and shorts are verboten in the dining rooms.

Gratuity

Princess automatically adds a $10.50 per person (children included), per day gratuity to shipboard accounts ($11 for passengers occupying suites and mini-suites). You can move the number up or down as you so choose at the purser's desk. All bar bills have an automatic 15 percent gratuity added. Tips in the spa and beauty parlor are at your discretion and can be added to your bill (no need to carry cash).

--by Fran Wenograd Golden. Boston-based Golden, whose contributions to Cruise Critic include features, ship reviews and destination-oriented port profiles, is the travel editor of the Boston Herald and also co-author of Frommer's Alaska Cruises & Ports of Call and Frommer's Europe Cruises & Ports of Call. When this ship was launched in winter 2004 we were impressed. On a return visit we were even more impressed. The Diamond debuted as the Princess fleet's biggest, at 116,000 tons (sister ship Sapphire Princess also holds that title) and the first cruise ship built in Japan in more than a decade. This is one of our favorite ships in the Princess fleet and here are some of the reasons why:

Personal Choice Dining. There is one main dining room featuring set seating at 5:45 and 8 p.m. for those who like traditional service; in response to demand, Princess recently expanded to include the Vivaldi restaurant (for the first seating only). For those who want more flexibility, there are four, intimate, themed venues where you can dine fee free any time between 5:30 and 10 p.m.

Club Fusion is all about high tech with big high definition TV screens and a state-of-the-art sound system and a decent dance floor, and really redefines the concept of secondary show lounge. It's also the perfect venue for games shows and a redefined talent show called Princess Idol.

Skywalkers Nightclub, the sky-high disco introduced on the Grand-class ships, has been expanded and redesigned here to include more space and a balcony overlooking the aft pool.

The huge Internet Cafe on Diamond has, count them, 29 computer stations with flat screens and a coffee/pastry shop. It's rare to have to wait for a terminal. And rates are 35 cents per minute, which is cheap by shipboard standards.

The large number of cabins with balconies -- 748. Even though some of the balconies aren't exactly private (mini-suites on Dolphin Deck are totally exposed; cabins on Caribe Deck are partially exposed) they provide a wonderful space for stargazing, smooching, intimate outdoor meals and smoking.

We are even fond of the atrium on this vessel, a proud focal point including Art Nouveau glass-and-brass designs on the atrium elevators. The ship's shops are located on two decks and the atrium also boasts bars including the ship's martini bar, as well as the purser's desk. At only three decks the space feels like an upscale Parisian shopping arcade.

The dining rooms and variety of lounges disperse the crowds and make you feel like you're on a much smaller ship. That said, there are times the Diamond does feel big, particularly at night when you find yourself at the wrong end of the hallway from your cabin. We saw more than one woman take off her heels to make the trek.

Diamond Princess, with its four pools, plus a kiddie splash pool, extensive children's center and cutting edge entertainment and programs, is particularly well suited to families, and that's probably why there were a good number of multigenerational groups onboard: grandparents traveling with their kids and the grandkids. But couples will find much to like on this vessel too, including the fact the restaurants have a decent number of tables for two.

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.

Family

Children and teens get an impressive amount of designated indoor and outdoor space (nearly 10,000 square ft.).

The little kids' Fun Zone is all primary colors and very kid-friendly. The Off Limits area is cool enough to impress even the most cynical of teens.

Activity-wise, Princess Pelicans (3 - 7) get to do arts and crafts like painting their own t-shirts and have a bunch of games and movies to entice. Pirateers (8 - 12) get to do scavenger hunts and participate in science programs (such as learning about coral reefs). Teens get activities like the "Dating Game," disco parties and casino nights. There's a shipboard Olympics contest and karaoke for all kids. Little ones will also enjoy the outdoor play area and splash pool.

Group babysitting is available (private sitting is not) for $5 per hour, per child, from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. Pre-booking is required.

Dining

On this ship it's all about choice, including the option to have no choice. When you book your cruise you pick either Personal Choice Dining or traditional dining (and you can even change your mind when you get to the ship). With the traditional dining setup, you eat in the International Dining Room (or Vivaldi, early seating only) at the same table and same time nightly with the same assigned tablemates.

Personal Choice Dining is more of a restaurant-type option; in this case you can eat in any of four, themed (no surcharge) dining rooms, and you can eat whenever you like and with whom you like. Want to have a table for two one night and a table for eight the next? No problem. Want to eat at 6 p.m. one night and 8 p.m. the next? No problem. The only catch is the themed dining rooms get filled up, and reservations are suggested.

One change made by Princess about a year after launch is that all restaurants, even the specialty dining rooms, serve the same menu (each menu does include a smattering of themed cuisine) but the rooms themselves still offer unique ambiences. The specialty restaurants are Santa Fe, Pacific Moon and Vivaldi (after 7:45 p.m. only). The former Sterling Steakhouse has been renamed the Savoy.

Added in the restaurant makeover was Princess' signature Sterling Steakhouse; it's located in an unused-at-night section of the Horizon Court buffet area. The space features a more elegant evening look -- and the same menu as the rest of the fleet's Sterling Steakhouses. Service charge is $15.

The International Dining Room is also open for open seating breakfast and lunch.

The restaurants offer a good selection of wine from $20 to $50 per bottle. You can bring your own, but may be charged a $10 corkage fee. There is a charge for espresso or cappuccino. Don't miss a chance to finish your meal with the Italian liquor limoncello.

Room Service is available 24 hours a day, but the menu is limited. The breakfast menu is limited to yogurt, pastries and bread, fruit, cereal, coffee and juice. The otherwise round-the-clock menu offers fare such as deli and club sandwiches, salads, soup of the day, grilled burgers and cheeseburgers, and a few dessert items. If you're entertaining there are canapes available for a fee; you can also order wine, beer and drinks, including full bottles. On all room service deliveries a tip (a dollar or two for the average order, more for party orders) is requested.

There is always something to eat at the Horizon Court buffet on Lido, which also offers a bistro menu with waiter service (for drinks) into the wee hours. Lunch in Horizon Court is pretty uninspired with your typical hot items and cold salads (we preferred to grab a burger or a slice of pizza by the pool). But breakfast here is better than in the dining room -- the buffet included fried eggs, eggs benedict, cereals, crispy bacon, corned beef hash, French toast with cornflake crust and fresh fruit. With the buffet areas on two sides, there was rarely a crowd. Seating is indoors and outdoors.

Don't miss afternoon tea, served daily in the Pacific Moon, with sandwiches, pastries, and warm scones with cream (tea connoisseurs will notice however that the pour Lipton).

Another must-do at least once during your cruise is the reservations-only specialty restaurant Sabatini's, named for the famous trattoria in Florence, and serving an inspired Italian menu (again, Princess does Italian well). The cozy venue, with Italian music playing and murals on the walls, is open daily for dinner and occasionally for lunch, and a fee of $25 per person is charged. They pile on the food here, so come hungry. We particularly enjoyed the extraordinary cannelloni.

Dining

On this ship it's all about choice, including the option to have no choice. When you book your cruise you pick either Personal Choice Dining or traditional dining (and you can even change your mind when you get to the ship). With the traditional dining setup, you eat in the International Dining Room (or Vivaldi, early seating only) at the same table and same time nightly with the same assigned tablemates.

Personal Choice Dining is more of a restaurant-type option; in this case you can eat in any of four, themed (no surcharge) dining rooms, and you can eat whenever you like and with whom you like. Want to have a table for two one night and a table for eight the next? No problem. Want to eat at 6 p.m. one night and 8 p.m. the next? No problem. The only catch is the themed dining rooms get filled up, and reservations are suggested.

One change made by Princess about a year after launch is that all restaurants, even the specialty dining rooms, serve the same menu (each menu does include a smattering of themed cuisine) but the rooms themselves still offer unique ambiences. The specialty restaurants are Santa Fe, Pacific Moon and Vivaldi (after 7:45 p.m. only). The former Sterling Steakhouse has been renamed the Savoy.

Added in the restaurant makeover was Princess' signature Sterling Steakhouse; it's located in an unused-at-night section of the Horizon Court buffet area. The space features a more elegant evening look -- and the same menu as the rest of the fleet's Sterling Steakhouses. Service charge is $25.

The International Dining Room is also open for open seating breakfast and lunch.

The restaurants offer a good selection of wine from $20 to $50 per bottle. You can bring your own, but may be charged a $15 corkage fee. There is a charge for espresso or cappuccino. Don't miss a chance to finish your meal with the Italian liquor limoncello.

Room Service is available 24 hours a day, but the menu is limited. The breakfast menu is limited to yogurt, pastries and bread, fruit, cereal, coffee and juice. The otherwise round-the-clock menu offers fare such as deli and club sandwiches, salads, soup of the day, grilled burgers and cheeseburgers, and a few dessert items. If you're entertaining there are canapes available for a fee; you can also order wine, beer and drinks, including full bottles. On all room service deliveries a tip (a dollar or two for the average order, more for party orders) is requested.

There is always something to eat at the Horizon Court buffet on Lido, which also offers a bistro menu with waiter service (for drinks) into the wee hours. Lunch in Horizon Court is pretty uninspired with your typical hot items and cold salads (we preferred to grab a burger or a slice of pizza by the pool). But breakfast here is better than in the dining room -- the buffet included fried eggs, eggs benedict, cereals, crispy bacon, corned beef hash, French toast with cornflake crust and fresh fruit. With the buffet areas on two sides, there was rarely a crowd. Seating is indoors and outdoors.

Don't miss afternoon tea, served daily in the Pacific Moon, with sandwiches, pastries, and warm scones with cream (tea connoisseurs will notice however that the pour Lipton).

Another must-do at least once during your cruise is the reservations-only specialty restaurant Sabatini's, named for the famous trattoria in Florence, and serving an inspired Italian menu (again, Princess does Italian well). The cozy venue, with Italian music playing and murals on the walls, is open daily for dinner and occasionally for lunch, and a fee of $25 per person is charged. They pile on the food here, so come hungry. We particularly enjoyed the extraordinary cannelloni.

Public Rooms

Family

Diamond Princess' kids programs are divided by age group. Princess Pelicans is for the 3- to 7-year-old set; Shockwaves is for tweens from 8 to 12 years old, and Remix, with its own teen center, takes 13- to 17-year-olds. Tucked away on Deck 15, opposite Izumi Japanese Bath, the kids' facilities on Diamond Princess are smaller than on other Princess ships, as the Australasian demographic tends to sail with fewer kids. Despite its smaller size, the space has everything needed to keep children busy, including video games, arts and crafts, board games and more.

Children's activities are scheduled morning, noon and night, but parents are expected to take their children for meals. Private baby-sitting is not available.

Gratuity

The cruise line automatically bills $12 per person, per day, for mini-suites and suites and $11.50 per person, per day, in all other staterooms; that includes children. The tips are split among the waitstaff, stateroom stewards, buffet stewards and housekeeping staff.

After undergoing a $30 million refurbishment, 10-year old Diamond Princess looks anything but faded. All gleaming brass and glass -- with Asian accents like three-deck silver statues of peacocks, dragons and mermaids in the atrium -- the ship is beautiful.

But it's the laid-back, subdued atmosphere that really makes it feel comfortable. It's hard to say whether that feeling was a result of being on a reduced capacity sailing (only 1,700 passengers on our cruise) or the intriguing mix of fellow cruisers, which is par for the course for Diamond Princess, now that it sails permanently in Australasia. On our sailing, about half were from Japan, while most of the other half was from Australia and New Zealand.

While the cultures are completely different, the easygoing mentality of the Australians and New Zealanders blended beautifully with the polite quietness of the Japanese. Though Easterners and Westerners didn't interact a lot, it was always with respect and a sense of adventure when they did. Westerners loved watching the Japanese learn to samba and kept their cameras at the ready on formal nights when ladies in stunning kimonos came out for dinner. The Japanese practiced their limited English with big smiles and mingled with Westerners any time ballroom, Latin or line dancing was on offer.

Dancing and music are a big part of the experience onboard Diamond Princess. Music can be found in at least five venues every evening, from a daytime jazz trio in the Atrium and late-night pop music in the disco to evening ballroom in Club Fusion and a fantastic piano player in Crooner's Bar.

But if you're not into music and dancing, don't worry. It's never too loud, and there's always something else to do, whether it be a comedy act in Explorer's Lounge or trivia in Wheelhouse Bar. Want to stay in for the night? There's always a nice selection of movies on demand on your in-cabin TV.

Dining

Free dining

Princess has not yet joined the cruise bandwagon of downsizing its free dining options in favor of for-fee alternative restaurants. Nearly all of the dining options onboard Diamond Princess are free, including the whopping five main dining rooms: Savoy, Vivaldi, Pacific Moon, Santa Fe and International Dining Room. There's also a gratis buffet, grill, pizza place and ice cream counter.

Main Dining Rooms: All dining rooms offer the same main menu items, though each offers a small selection of signature items, as well, resulting in some 10 items on offer every night, most of which can also be made in appetizer size. On sailings carrying a majority of Japanese passengers, entree sizes are kept purposely small, and our waiter encouraged us to order multiple dishes or double our entree order. This created the ideal opportunity for tasting, and most folks at our table typically ordered two to three main items every evening. With few exceptions, food in the main dining rooms was the best on offer on the ship, even better than what we found in the for-fee restaurants. For instance, the miso-glazed salmon instantly earned honors as the best salmon dish we've ever had.

On sailings that are not full, only certain main dining rooms will be open. On our sailing, only Pacific Moon, Santa Fe and the International Dining Room were in use on a daily basis. On two of the sea days, the Savoy dining room opened for a special British-Style pub lunch that featured fish and chips, bangers 'n' mash, and steak and kidney pie, with bread pudding for dessert.

On all other days, the only main dining room open for breakfast and lunch was the International Dining Room (except for Sabatini's, where suite passengers could eat breakfast). Lunch in the International Dining Room was especially popular with the Japanese passengers, as it always offered a variety of Asian and Indian dishes.

On sailings that originate from Japan, Anytime Dining is not available -- only traditional early (5:30 p.m.) and late (7:45 p.m.) seatings. However, the ship reverts to standard Princess dining when it sails in Australia, with the International Dining Room offering traditional seating, Vivaldi Dining Room offering a traditional early first seating and then Anytime afterwards, and the Santa Fe, Pacific Moon and Savoy dining rooms always offering Anytime Dining. Each will offer a signature dish, as well -- something not offered during Japan sailings.

Horizon Court: Those looking for a more casual option than a dining room can opt for the ship's buffet, Horizon Court, on Deck 14.

Continental breakfast starts at 5:00 a.m., and the full breakfast buffet runs from 6:00 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Breakfast at Horizon Court on an Asian cruise is unlike any buffet breakfast you'll find at sea. Along with the requisite scrambled eggs, omelets made to order, French toast, pancakes, cereal and fruit, you'll find items that appeal to Japanese tastes like Miso soup, stewed fish, stir-fried cabbage and fried rice. An excellent selection of pastries is also available every morning, including fruit tarts, plain and chocolate croissants and a variety of muffins.

Lunch runs 11:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., though the full selection gradually makes way for more snack-sized items like make-your-own sandwiches around 4:00 p.m. As with breakfast, lunch options include typical Western dishes (pasta, carving stations, etc.) and Asian dishes like udon noodle dishes and sushi. Dinner runs from 5:30 p.m. to 11:00 p.m., again with a mix of Western and Asian dishes. Both lunch and dinner include a variety of desserts, including a large selection of sugar-free options.

On Australian cruises, the Asian-style buffet items will only be offered if there is a large contingent of Japanese passengers onboard.

Trident Grill: Located on Deck 14 forward, near the Neptune Pool and Prego pizzeria, this small poolside grill offers traditional burgers and hot dogs. For passengers lounging by the pool in need of a quick bite it's a great option, but for those eating in the buffet, it's a longer walk if you want both grill and buffet food at the same time. The grill is open all day, from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Prego: On the other side of Neptune Pool is the poolside Prego pizzeria. Open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., the slices on offer are nothing special, and past Princess passengers complained Diamond Princess' Prego had been downgraded in comparison with other ships. Like Trident Grill, Prego is perfect for poolside eating, but it's not convenient for combining with a meal at Horizon Court.

Swirls: Tucked away on Deck 14, between Calypso and Neptune pools, Swirls is the ship's ice cream bar, offering soft-serve in a cone or cup. Flavors are always the same: vanilla, chocolate and green tea. Swirls is open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Lobby Bar: A small selection of pastries is served throughout the day at the Lobby Bar on Deck 5. It's also the only spot on the ship to get free cappuccinos.

Room service: Passengers can order breakfast room service by hanging a card with their choices on their doorknob the night before. Options include cereal, eggs with various sides, French toast, fruit and juices. Lunch and dinner items include soups, salads, sandwiches and desserts. Pizza can be ordered too, but there's a $3 surcharge.

Fee Dining

There are only three restaurants onboard Diamond Princess that come with a surcharge. None got a stellar review from any of the passengers we spoke with, though the three-way lobster at Sabatini's got a few thumbs up. On our sailing of Diamond Princess, none of the three were ever full. One quick note: none of the three specialty restaurants offers vegetarian fare beyond one or two appetizer choices.

Sabatini's: Hidden away behind the Photo and Video Gallery, Sabatini's can be hard to find. A medium-sized restaurant with a capacity of 92 diners, Sabatini's serves Italian fare that's heavy on the seafood, especially shellfish. Appetizers, for instance, include marinated shrimp, calamari and soft-shell crab. Main dish choices include baked striped bass, garlic infused shrimp, lobster three ways (lobster tail, lobster risotto and lobster sauce), chicken skewers, strip steak and grilled veal chop. ($25 per person)

In addition to serving dinner, Sabatini's also is open to suite passengers for breakfast. Items include eggs made to order, French toast, fruit parfaits, free mimosas and cappuccino.

Sterling Steakhouse: Unlike steakhouses we've been to on other cruise ships, Sterling does not provide an elite, exclusive atmosphere. Situated in a somewhat nicer back section of Horizon Buffet that's decked out at night with decorative linens and special table settings, Sterling Steakhouse is, nevertheless, the place to dine for meat-lovers. Items served in the 78-seat restaurant include New York Strip and Kansas City Strip steaks, Rib-Eye, Filet Mignon and Porterhouse steak. For an extra fee of $10 each, diners can opt for carpaccio of Kobe beef, surf & turf and Onigara-Yaki Lobster Tails. The lobster tails and a pan roasted Chilean sea bass are the only alternatives to red meat. ($25 per person)

Kai Sushi: The largest sushi restaurant in Princess' fleet, Kai Sushi can seat 66 diners, but it was never even close to half full on our sailing. An a la carte eatery only open for dinner, Kai Sushi offers a variety of sushi and sashimi, as well as a small selection of other seafood items like the marinated cocktails Ahi Tuna Poke and Chili & Lime Jumbo Lump Crab Margarita, as well as a seafood udon noodle dish.

Cabins

Diamond Princess is old enough that its 1,351 cabins are not the downsized options passengers find on newer cruise ships. Decorated in earthy blues, reds and browns, with light beige to cherry-colored wood, even the smallest inside room is comfortably sized with enough space to store an average cruiser's necessities. Though storage depends on cabin category, all offer at least some drawer space and sizable closets with plenty of hangers. Suite closets add more shelf space, and the most expensive categories include walk-ins.

Bathrooms range from cozy and perhaps a bit cramped in inside cabins to comfortably large in suites. All have shelves to hold your basic toiletries, and all but the largest suites have plastic curtains in the showers. You'll find bar soap for hands, face and body, and individual dispensers of non-brand name shampoo, shower gel and moisturizer. Because the ship draws such a large Japanese contingent, many of the bathrooms also feature Japanese-style bidet toilets with a selection of after-use water spouts, a seat warmer and even a dryer.

All cabins have safes, telephones, coffee machines, mini-fridges, full-length mirrors and hair dryers. Each passenger is provided a bathrobe and slippers for use during the cruise.

Additionally, each cabin has a flat-screen TV, with suites having two. Much of the TV programming revolves around ship and port activities. A variety of movies are on demand each day, and several news and sports channels are available.

Twenty-four cabins are accessible in a choice of three cabin categories.

Interior: The 377 168- to 182-square-foot Interior cabins are comfortable for solos or for two people. Each interior cabin has two beds that can be combined to form a queen; some also have Pullman beds to accommodate up to two more passengers. Each cabin has two small night tables with drawers, a round table and a desk with a chair.

Oceanview: Diamond Princess has 226 183- to 194-square-foot oceanview and 10 200-square-foot forward-facing premium oceanview cabins. A handful of the obstructed and nonobstructed standard oceanview cabins also come with Pullman beds to accommodate up to two more passengers. All feature the same items included in Interior cabins.

Balcony: Seventy-five percent of the cabins on Diamond Princess feature private balconies. Of those, 522 are standard or premium balconies with approximately 191 to 231 square feet of cabin area and 46 to 88 square feet of balcony. Balconies feature small round tables and mesh chairs. Some standard and premium balconies come with Pullman beds to accommodate up to two more passengers. All balcony cabins feature the same items included in Interior cabins, plus an extra chair each.

Mini-suites: The 186 mini-suites, which can accommodate three passengers apiece, are 274 square feet and feature balconies, each of which is approximately 80 square feet. Cabins are roomier, with separate sitting areas and sofa beds. Bathrooms offer combination tubs and showers. Some mini-suites also have Pullman beds to accommodate fourth passengers. Mini-suites feature all the same items as lower cabin categories, as well as two flat-screen TVs, more shelf space in the closets and welcome glasses of Champagne.

Suites: There are 28 suites in four suite categories onboard Diamond Princess, ranging in size from 205 square feet to 904 square feet, with balconies from 114 square feet to 425 square feet that have a table, two to four chairs and two loungers. Suites feature all the same items as lower cabin categories, plus additional drawer space, a separate sitting area with sofa bed, a walk-in closet and full bathroom; select suites also have hot tubs. Additionally, suite passengers receive a complimentary minibar set up and DVD player with access to a DVD library, a pillow menu, fresh flowers on embarkation and deluxe Lotus Spa toiletries. Other suite perks include priority embarkation and disembarkation at tender ports, free laundry and dry-cleaning, free use of the Lotus Spa thermal suite, an elite lounge with free hors d'oeuvres, an included meal at a specialty restaurant on embarkation evening and more.

Family suites: Each of the two family suites with interconnecting cabins can accommodate six people and are approximately 468 square feet with a 144-square-foot balcony. Each has a living room area with two sofa beds into which both cabins open. Family suites have all the same amenities and perks as other suite categories.

Entertainment

Though Diamond Princess is home to a subdued, quiet atmosphere most of the time, there's a lot going onboard. Daytime fun runs the gamut from trivia and dance classes to art auctions and indoor obstacle races. Once the sun goes down, the ship is all about live music, singing and dancing. Entertainment is offered in both English and Japanese, with some offerings only offered in one language or another.

Theater

The Princess Theater, located on decks 6 and 7, serves as the ship's main theater. There, passengers can catch one of the line's traditional song-and-dance production shows. On non-production show nights, Princess offers a variety of other acts. On our sailing, a young Japanese magician performed, as did a juggling comedian, both doing shows that combined English and Japanese. Only on one evening was a show (a traditional Japanese storyteller) offered only in Japanese.

As with most traditional cruise ship entertainment, the quality of any given performer -- whether part of the ship-based troupe or a special act -- was mediocre at best. Dancers aren't always in sync, musicians strain to reach high notes, and one of our dinnermates saw the magician crawling off the stage during his disappearance finale.

Afternoon movies are shown in Princess Theater, alternating daily between English and Japanese.

Daily Fun

You can choose to do as much or as little as you want on Diamond Princess, but you probably can't do it all. There's just too much. Trivia sessions are offered two to four times a day at various bars and lounges. Classes on offer just about every day include photography, ballroom or Latin dance, Japanese (or English) language, arts and crafts, hula dancing and even ukulele. Golf putting challenges, Ping-Pong tournaments, 60-second obstacle contests, bingo and poker tournaments are other daytime options, as is Movies Under the Stars (the daytime version), which at times showed movies in English or Japanese, as well as concerts and even round one of the finals of the Australian Rules Football championship. The casino is located on Deck 6.

One offering in which Diamond Princess is sadly lacking is destination lectures. Considering the exotic nature of the cruise itinerary, at least from a Westerner's perspective, a few lectures on the places we were going would have been appreciated.

At Night

Music and dancing are where it's at onboard Diamond Princess at night. Virtually every bar and lounge offers some kind of music and space for dancing, from light piano music at Crooners to ballroom and Latin music in Club Fusion and DJ dance music in the Deck 17 Skywalkers Nightclub. Theme nights (think 50s rockabilly, Caribbean deck party and Country & Western) are also common. With such a large Japanese contingent, karaoke is offered at least once most evenings, as are Princess Popstar competition rounds.

Not interested in music? Game time doesn't stop at night. Trivia sessions are frequently offered in the evening and at night, as is the occasional interactive game show ( "Can you tell which entertainment crewmember is lying?" or The Marriage Game).

And, of course, Princess' signature Movie Under the Stars is featured every night (weather permitting) on the Sun Deck. Nightly movies alternate between English and Japanese. Popcorn and blankets are provided free of charge.

Diamond Princess Bars and Lounges

Diamond Princess offers a nice selection of bars and lounges. Not a party ship in any way, Diamond Princess' venues are comfortable, quiet places to read books during the day and easygoing places to chill with cocktails in the evening.

Churchill's Cigar Lounge: This tiny bar, only open in the evening, is where smokers can go to indulge in a cigar and watch sports on TV. Despite attempts at ventilation, Churchill's always smells like smoke.

Club Fusion: Regardless of its techno-sounding name, Club Fusion is actually the place to go on Diamond Princess for ballroom and Latin dancing. A large dance floor is the perfect setting for dance lessons during the day and the best place to test out your new moves at night.

Crooners Martini Bar: A small open bar with limited seating on Deck 7, Crooners gets going in the evening with lively -- and often sing-along -- piano music.

Explorers Lounge: We're not sure how the 20s-era Egyptian explorer decor fits in on the Asian-accented Diamond Princess with its somewhat gauche golden sarcophagi and oversized paintings of Egyptian gods and Greek ruins. But the nightclub-style lounge is a popular place, playing host to a variety of activities. During daylight hours, you'll find trivia, art auctions and language lessons. In the evening, the space is given over to live music and comedy shows.

Lobby Bar: Not the kind of bar you hang out in, the Lobby Bar is simply a place to grab a drink, pastry or cappuccino while hanging in the atrium to watch a demonstration or participate in some interactive fun.

Outdoor Bars: Princess provides a bar at each pool, as well as in outdoor areas with a view. These outdoor spaces include: Outrigger Bar, at the very back of the ship on Deck 14, with views of the ship's wake, just above the aft pool; Calypso Bar on Deck 14 midship, next to the covered Calypso Reef & Pool; Mermaid's Tail Bar, on Deck 14 forward, next to the Neptune Reef & Pool and convenient for Movies Under the Stars; Tradewinds Bar on Deck 15, not far from the Lotus Spa and Pool; and the Oasis Bar, on Deck 16 aft, with a lovely view of both the ship's wake and the outdoor section of Izumi Japanese Bath.

Wake View Bar: A small space all the way aft on Deck 6, Wave View Bar is a secluded spot to relax or chat with friends.

Wheelhouse Bar: A largish lounge on Deck 7, with some of the plushiest leather and upholstered seating on the ship, Wheelhouse Bar features subdued nautical decor, from the captain's wheel outside the lounge to its nautical chart carpeting. In the evening, Wheelhouse is the perfect place to have drinks with new friends or dance with that special someone to light, live music. Occasionally host to nighttime trivia, Wheelhouse is also where you'll find the light sounds of Duo Cinnamon -- our favorite way to wind down after a long day.

Diamond Princess Outside Recreation

Pools

Diamond Princess has eight whirlpools and four regular pools, not including those in Japanese Izumi Bath. Of the four, the only indoor pool is the Calypso Reef & Pool, located midship on Deck 14. It gets a little stuffy in this area, but on a rainy day, it's the only place to go for a swim. The nearby Neptune's Reef & Pool is the ship's main pool, with lots of chaise lounge seating. It's right by Movies Under the Stars, so it can be a bit noisy for those just looking to read or fall asleep. The aft pool on Deck 12, is a Princess signature element and a perennial favorite. The swim-against-the-current lap pool in Lotus Spa is for adults only.

A unique bathing option, found only onboard Diamond Princess, is Izumi Japanese Bath. Styled after traditional Japanese public baths, Izumi features two indoor areas and one outdoor hydrotherapy pool. Both indoor areas have four heated whirlpools -- two completely inside and two open-air. One of the indoor sections also has a regular sauna and awesome looking seated waterfalls, called utaseyu, in which the falling water massages your neck and back. The other indoor section has a mist sauna infused with eucalyptus.

In keeping with traditional Japanese baths, to use either of these indoor sections, you must remove all clothing. No bathing suits of any kind are permitted. Because of this, each area switches from day to day from just for men or just for women. The outdoor section, with the hydrotherapy pool and chaise lounges, is unisex, and bathing suits are required. Entry to Izumi costs either $20 for 90 minutes or $80 for five bathing experiences.

Sun Decks

Areas to sun yourself can be found on Deck 16 near the Oasis Hot Tubs; Deck 15 above the Neptune Reef & Pool and where Movies Under the Stars is shown; Deck 14, next to Neptune Reef & Pool and aft by Outrigger Bar; and Deck 12 at the aft pool. For kid-free sunning, adults can hit the small sun deck on Deck 15 near the Lotus Pool or pay an extra fee for Deck 16's The Sanctuary.

Recreation

Diamond Princess has a small sports deck on Deck 18 with a half-sized basketball court; a volleyball net can be strung up there, as well. A nine-hole putting course is on Deck 16 midship, and there's a shuffleboard course on Deck 15.

Diamond Princess Services

Diamond Princess has the usual assortment of cruise ship standards, including an art gallery on Deck 5, photo and video gallery on Deck 7 and four shops spread out over decks 6 and 7. While the shops feature the typical essentials like logo apparel, toiletries, jewelry (costume and gemstone) and perfumes, they also feature high-end fashion items from brands like Fendi, Salvatore Ferragamo, Burberry, Coach and others to appeal to Japanese shoppers.

A small Internet cafe is located on Deck 5, next to the library and across from the atrium. Wi-Fi is available shipwide. Passengers can purchase Internet minutes via the pay-as-you-go option at 70 cents per minute or buy a package: 100 minutes for $69, 200 minutes for $99, 400 minutes for $159 and 600 minutes for $199. If you purchase an Internet package on embarkation day, you'll also receive up to 40 additional minutes for free. On the last full day of a Diamond Princess cruise, you also can purchase a special 15-minute plan for $8.99. As with all Internet at sea, speed is slower than you would get on land, especially during peak times and sea days.

Next to the Internet cafe is the ship's library, with a selection of fiction and nonfiction books in English and Japanese, as well as several board games. All items are free for passengers to borrow on a trust system; there is no sign out. You'll find daily trivia and Sudoku printouts in the library, as well.

Casino-lovers might be a bit disappointed on Diamond Princess, as the casino is relatively small and not overly active, especially on sailings with a majority of Japanese passengers. (Japanese people rarely gamble, and when they did on our sailing, they stuck to roulette and occasionally blackjack.) Additionally, on port-intensive sailings, the casino is closed for long hours; even when the slot machines are open, the table games often remained closed.

Self-service laundry facilities are located on all decks with passenger cabins. Machines are coin operated, and laundry products are available for purchase. Passengers can also use the iron and ironing board in each spot for free.

Cruisers can book shore excursions at the shore excursions desk on Deck 5, one deck beneath the passenger services desk. Those who want to book their next cruise can visit the future cruise sales desk, also on Deck 5.

Diamond Princess offers a Chapel for vow renewals on Deck 6.

Fitness and Recreation

Lotus Spa is located on Deck 15 at the front of the ship. The space, decorated in Asian-inspired paintings and bamboo sliding doors, offers traditional cruise-ship treatments, including a variety of massages, facials, wraps and scrubs, as well as teeth whitening, acupuncture and Botox. Spa specials are offered throughout the cruise, usually on days when the ship is in port.

A beauty salon is adjacent to the spa, where passengers can get hair treatments, styling and color treatments. A 15 percent gratuity is automatically added to spa and salon services.

For an extra fee, passengers can also relax in the ship's thermal suite, which has a steam room and relaxation area.

The fitness center onboard has a variety of cardio and strength training equipment with ellipticals and treadmills facing the ocean. Try to go during off hours (super early or late), as it can get busy during peak times, especially on sea days. Swimmers can take advantage of the swim against the current pool in the nearby Lotus Spa pool, while runners and walkers can use the ship's outer promenade deck (Deck 7).

A small selection of for-fee classes is offered at the gym, but you can join free Zumba or jazz dance classes once or twice a day on most days in Club Fusion.

Fellow Passengers

Diamond Princess homeports in Australasia, so the majority of passengers are from Japan, Australia and New Zealand. On cruises departing from Japanese ports, the majority of passengers are from Japan, while cruises departing from Australian ports carry a majority of Westerners. On all cruises, a minority of passengers are from the United States and Canada, with a mix of Europeans and those from other Asian countries. The age of passengers skews toward baby boomers, though you will find a handful of 30- and 40-somethings and even some kids, depending on the season.

Because of the mix of passengers, especially when the ship sails out of Japanese ports, announcements are made in both English and Japanese. The only time this was a problem was during the muster drill when the entire drill had to be done first in English, then in Japanese, and all passengers had to sit through both.

Dress Code

During the day, resort casual is the norm. Most nights are smart casual, with women dressed in skirts or dark pants with blouses and men in collared shirts. Shorts may not be worn to any of the main dining rooms. During a seven- to nine-night cruise, there are two formal nights. You won't see too many women in gowns. Instead, cocktail dresses, skirts and pantsuits are preferred. On cruises out of Japanese ports, you'll also see Japanese women in beautiful kimonos. For the guys, dark suits or slacks with nice shirts and sports jackets are common, with many men foregoing the ties.

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