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Cruise Ship Review

Sapphire Princess - Ship Review provided by Cruise Critic

Sapphire Princess, along with Diamond Princess, its near-identical twin, has much in common with the Grand-class style of vessels that are Princess' largest -- but also features some distinctions.

Diamond and Sapphire Princess were introduced in 2003 and 2004 respectively and followed earlier Grand-class vessels such as Grand Princess, Golden Princess and Star Princess. (Just for perspective: Diamond and Sapphire's design represented a shift from the original triumvirate; taking the concepts even further was the Caribbean Princess and its brethren. Even more evolutions are evident on the Grand class' most recent vessels, Crown Princess and Emerald Princess).

Uniquely built in Japan, at Mitsubishi's shipyard in Nagasaki (all the other Grand-class ships have been constructed in Fincantieri's Italian yards), Sapphire Princess showcased a number of new features onboard. Club Fusion, the younger-at-heart secondary lounge, complete with in-table gaming and multiple flat-screen televisions, was a radical part of Princess' efforts then (and now) to attract younger passengers who enjoy the nightlife. That concept was so successful it's now found on ships that followed.

As well, these were the first to get rid of Grand Princess' awkward "shopping cart design," eliminating an odd overhang above the aft pool. This area is now open to sunshine and is far more welcoming.

Sapphire Princess also introduced a couple of other new approaches that didn't work well enough to be replicated on future ships -- though we're not sure why. The ship's Internet cafe is absolutely gorgeous, occupying a bright, light-filled space with windows fronting on the promenade; it also has a coffee bar and cushy, comfortable seating. And designers' approaches to its main dining rooms -- cutting down on the typical cruise ship banquet ambience of big restaurants -- meant that four restaurants exist where there were originally two. In addition to feeling far more intimate and welcoming, each of the four has its own theme -- the brash Santa Fe, the gilded Vivaldi, the serene Pacific Moon and the clubby, cozy Savoy. While the differences are largely cosmetic (all use the same menu, aside from one specialty geared to each theme), each restaurant offers a welcome diversity of ambience. The Wake View Bar, oddly accessible only via circular staircase that descends from Club Fusion, is just absolutely charming -- and almost always empty as it's nearly impossible to find. And we love the cozy Churchill's, the cruise line's cigar and sports-themed bar, which is another "hidden" gem, located by the main theater's first level.

There's plenty of the familiar here, too. The Lotus Spa, though largely identical in style and sensibility throughout the fleet, seems prettier here; the men's and women's locker rooms are more modern (and less starkly utilitarian) in design, the relaxation room where you sip iced cucumber water before spa treatments uses Japanese screens to a soothing effect, and the thermal suite -- though admittedly on the small side -- has the benefit of a frosted glass window which lets light inside (a big improvement on the cavernous but cellar-like ambience of the thermal suites on later models).

Oddly, though, on this late 2007 cruise aboard Sapphire Princess, the ship feels a bit outdated even though it is only three years old. It's spotlessly maintained, so it's not about that. But having cruised on Princess' latest models, it's clear that Sapphire Princess (and, no doubt, Diamond Princess, too) could do with a bit of a makeover, perhaps with the incorporation of some of the more spectacular new facilities aboard Crown Princess and the like. The atrium here in particular is awfully dull. Dining options, especially on longer cruises with more days at sea, are predictable. Neither alternative restaurant appeals, and the Horizon Court buffet is overly congested (more options, such as the fantastic light fare International Cafe and the Vines sushi bar on newer ships could cut down on masses descending on the buffet during mealtimes). And it would be lovely to see Princess expand some of its best recreational options onboard, ranging from Movies Under the Stars to the lovely adult-only Sanctuary outdoor lounging place.

But then what we would lose in the process?

Regardless, what Princess' Grand-class vessels do achieve, whatever the individual quirks and features, is an apt blend of cruise traditions and contemporary innovations.

Dining

On Sapphire Princess, passengers can opt for traditional evening dining or the cruise line's "Anytime" option. The former occurs primarily in the International, which offers two seatings (same waiters, time and tablemates each evening) at 6 p.m. and at 8:15 p.m. Vivaldi, the Italian-themed restaurant, also participates in traditional dining by offering one seating at 6 p.m. The restaurant opens up to passengers at large at 8:15 p.m.

For those who want more flexible options, the "Anytime" restaurants include the aforementioned Vivaldi, along with the Pacific Moon (Asian), Savoy (steakhouse-like) and Santa Fe (more Tex-Mex in style than desert Southwest). All serve the same menu aside from one specialty offering that's geared to each eatery's theme (osso buoco, for instance, in Vivaldi and fajitas in Santa Fe). These, with the exception of Vivaldi, are open from 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.

You can make reservations for these -- and if you're counting on a special table for a special night, I'd recommend them. Otherwise, waits weren't too bad even at prime time dining hours (restaurant style pagers are available to beep you when a table is ready); I also found that restaurant managers had a good sense of which dining rooms were busier than others and would frequently suggest alternatives if one eatery or another got backed up.

Breakfast and lunch are open seating and hosted at the International Dining Room. Breakfast, which features a standard menu with a daily specialty or two (typically the same choices available in the buffet, such as flavored pancakes or eggs Benedict), is served from 6:30 - 9 a.m. on port days and 7 - 9:30 a.m. on sea days. Lunch, whose menu occasionally reflects Horizon Court options as well, is available from noon - 1:30 p.m. The International is not blessed with a plethora of two-tops, and headwaiters are apt to encourage passengers to join in at bigger tables, particularly during busy times but do try to make amends to passengers who want a quieter dining experience.

Afternoon tea -- complete with white gloved waiters serving scones, piping hot tea and petite sandwiches -- is offered at the International from 3:30 until 4:30 p.m.

The Horizon Court, on Deck 14 aft, is the ship's buffet venue (there are buffet stations on both sides), and it's open around the clock, serving a mix of steam-table fare and cold sandwiches and salads. The big negative about this venue is that it's simply far too small for the passenger load; finding a table not just at peak breakfast and lunch hours but frequently at off-peak times as well often necessitates a "Can I share your table?" with other passengers -- a tribal rite that may be fun for some and torture for others.

Low-key dinner is available here, too; the menu frequently mirrors that of the dining rooms though no special effects are implemented, such as white linen tablecloths or waiter service. It's just a buffet.

Open only at dinner are two fee-extra alternative restaurants. Sabatini's Trattoria, for $20 per person, is located on Deck 7 midship and is the line's popular Italian option. You choose only your entree; waiters bring around platters of antipasto, as well as hot and cold starters before you get to that point. The tiramisu is not to be missed. All in all, it's a delightful experience.

Sterling Steakhouse, again a concept found on numerous other Princess ships, is an extreme alternative, being that it's set up each night in a corner of the Horizon Court buffet. Its ambience is fairly unappealing (merely the addition of white linen tablecloths), and it comes with a $15 per person cover. The menu includes steaks and chops, along with steakhouse-type appetizers.

On Deck 14, adjacent to the Calypso Pool, is a grill that's open from 11 a.m. until 5 p.m.; you can get hot dogs, cheeseburgers, veggie burgers and chicken sandwiches (among other things), along with French fries. There's also the Prego pizza counter offering a selection that ranges from day to day. Sundaes ice cream bar offers ice cream and frozen yogurt sundaes from under $5. Create your own by selecting a flavor and toppings (like whole chocolate chip cookies and Caribbean rum cake), or order from the menu of concoctions.

Room service is available, and there's no extra fee, but it offers one of the most limited menus I've seen in cruising. For breakfast, it's limited to continental fare (pastries, cereal and coffee, for instance); otherwise, you can order a handful of sandwiches and salads (under "hot dishes" you are limited to soup and sandwiches). You can also order room service pizza -- that, involving in essence the delivery of a medium size pie, incurs a $3 charge that we're told was levied more to stop people from taking advantage of the option -- and then leaving the food untouched -- than anything else.

The "service" aspect of room service needs some work; orders were consistently incomplete or flat out wrong and ten-minute-long waits just to order in the first place seem rather ridiculous.

Select wines and champagnes are available for purchase via room service, as well as several liquor-and-mixer specials for $15, and six-for-five beer and/or wine packages. Canapes, and snacks are available for purchase to accompany your cocktails, from guacamole and chips to pate de foie gras.

Public Rooms

The very core of Sapphire Princess is its Grand Plaza atrium. It's not a contender for tallest or widest at sea, nor does it aim to be; it's just a warm central area to meet for a drink, do some souvenir shopping at the boutiques or -- my favorite -- check out the latest "foodie" works of art. One afternoon I admired a delicate chocolate Eiffel Tower, another a piano sculpted entirely of bread.

Sapphire features Princess' largest and most appealing Internet Cafe, with 29 computer stations and tables with cup-holders for laptop users. Assorted pastries and muffins are available during the early hours, and specialty coffees and soft drinks are available for purchase (though the "bartender" was often off duty during port calls). There are some nice touches here, including Frank Sinatra tunes, frosted glass and metal detailing throughout, and sleek black monitors and keyboards (the actual connection is touch and go, though). Sit in the first few seats on either the left- or right-hand side upon entering if you enjoy people watching while waiting for your e-mail to download. Access is 75 cents a minute with packages available that lower the cost to as little as 40 cents per minute. Wireless access is 50 cents per minute straight out ... no special packages available.

Accessing the Internet, while highly dependent on various conditions -- you are at sea after all -- was, oddly enough, consistently better than recent experiences on newer ships in the Princess fleet.

The Library is a cozy reading room with a mediocre collection of fiction and nonfiction books, CD's and listening stations (comfortable chairs with a space to plug in headsets and built-in CD players -- you can check out CD's from the library or use your own), and a cluster of computers with Internet access. Directly outside is a Writing Room, an open space with plenty of seating for composing letters and postcards. The Princess Fine Arts Gallery, off of the Grand Plaza on the Plaza Deck, features reproductions and original artwork, available for purchase. Hearts & Minds Wedding Chapel is a small but functional space for vow renewals and the like.

With so many people onboard, you might think getting around the ship would be difficult, but traffic was light or nonexistent pretty much everywhere on the ship -- with the exception of the Promenade area between Club Fusion and the Explorer's Lounge, especially when formal or gangway photos are on display (pay counter is here as well). Getting back and forth, forward to aft, on the Lido Deck can be a bit of a challenge, as you must cut through Horizon Court, an even more difficult feat at busy chow times like lunch. Also, the International Dining Room is located in the dead end of an aft-ship maze I often found myself here by accident. You have to climb back up a flight to Promenade Deck and find another staircase or elevator, midship or forward -- there's no other way out (the medical center is actually directly beneath this space, I finally learned).

Cabins

This ship, like all of the relatively recent builds in Princess' fleet, offers affordable outside and balcony staterooms: More than 70 percent of the ship's cabins are outside, and 78 percent of these feature private verandahs (748 of its 1,337 total passenger cabins).

All cabins are outfitted with a television system that, depending on locale, includes channels like CNN, BBC, Discovery, ESPN and the like. Princess shows movies (from the past few years) on two channels; we especially love the line's romance channel, which on our trip offered showings that ranged from genuine classics like "The Philadelphia Story" to more recent hits such as "Sleepless in Seattle."

Standard interior cabins, at 168 square ft., feature a roomy closet, shelves hidden behind a mirrored door, bathroom with shower, twins-to-queen bed underneath a mirror surrounded by pastel padding, a small table off to the side for room service or other items, small refrigerator, private safe, and a desk area with a large mirror and TV with remote control. Standard outside (oceanview) cabins include these same amenities but measure 183 square ft. -- and, of course, feature a view. An outside with a balcony is just that: an outside room with all of the usual amenities, plus a private verandah (237 - 300 square ft.). All of these of course have small ensuite bathrooms, shower only.

My mini-suite with balcony (354 square ft.) was, in essence, a longer version of a balcony cabin. It was very spacious, adding a seating area with Pullman couch, cocktail table, bathrobes, corner chair, an extra TV and, of course, a private verandah. However, most mini's are located on Dolphin Deck and, as such, feature verandahs that jut out from the side of the ship (rather than being nestled into it); this means that there's no roof, and therefore Dolphin Deck verandahs are anything but "private." You (and it) are completely visible from decks above (verandahs on the Caribe deck also jut out, though not as far, and are about halfway exposed).

Suites include whirlpool tubs and a wet bar, and a grand suite clocking in at 1,329 square ft. will get you a separate dining area and personal computer.

Bathrooms in mini-suite-and-above categories are quite comfortable (featuring full tubs) and stocked with Lotus Spa-original shampoos, soaps, conditioners and creams. The hair dryer (available in all cabins) isn't wonderful; I wish I'd had room in my suitcase to pack my own.

On all cabins with standard balconies, furnishings include two blue mesh chairs (quite comfortable) and a small round metal side table. Furniture becomes high quality -- and there's more variety -- as you move up the category scale.

There are two connecting family suites on this ship (each with two bathrooms), and 27 handicap-accessible cabins.

Entertainment

Princess continues to develop and tweak its Scholarship@Sea program which features a range of activities, from lecturers on various topics such as marine life, magic and the Concorde (some subjects addressed on a recent voyage) to more hands-on tutelage on computer skills, photography techniques and scrapbooking.

The ship's ceramics studio offers a fantastic creative outlet on sea days; you can paint bowls, plates, picture frames and the like, and staff members will fire them up in the onboard kiln. (Don't get too carried away, you still have to transport the pieces home.)

In the "nice touch" category is the line's effort to introduce passengers of like-minded interests to one another via its Common Interests gatherings. The cruise director on our voyage had organized them for engineers, Cruise Critic members, teachers and others. Typically, these informal meetings are posted in the daily Princess Patter, and they gather in the Wheelhouse Bar.

One of the ship's most stunning public areas is Skywalker's Disco & Observation Lounge high up on the Sky Deck. Though already a Princess staple, Skywalker's on Sapphire Princess actually hangs over the aft end of the ship, so that its 125-ft. balcony and dramatic floor-to-ceiling windows offer fantastic, unobstructed panoramas both day and night. (When you can, observe the ship's wake by moonlight.) The decor is a nod to outer space with stars and swirls, but done with great style -- I loved the brass table lamps with miniature moon-shaped cutouts.

After hours, Skywalker's becomes a hopping club scene, but I preferred it as a quiet place for a cocktail-with-a-view before supper. Even more intimate (but less scenic) is the Wake View Bar, hidden deep within the ship on the Fiesta Deck. Hint: Access this space via the spiral staircase in Club Fusion on the Promenade Deck. This is a very quiet place during the day to have a cocktail and collect your thoughts, or even to do some reading, with no music and little chatter -- it was unusually empty during my sailing. At night, however, this neglect is understandable due to Wake View's nearness to the often-rambunctious Club Fusion crowd.

Princess' signature Wheelhouse Bar is another great place to meet before a meal, with friendly bar service, a cozy members-only-club atmosphere, and nautical art and history displayed throughout. Though I enjoyed having an uncrowded place for pre-dinner drinks, it was almost disappointing to see that this venue was not more populated during this time, as the live jazzy music was quite good. (The scene -- and the dancing -- picks up a little later in the evening.) Sports fans and cigar enthusiasts should scoot down to Churchill's Lounge, a combination cigar lounge and sports bar. Though an odd pairing, this is the ideal place to view satellite broadcasts of various sporting events when available.

Club Fusion serves as a dance club, theater and game room, with super lighting and sound. This lounge features a whopping 42 high-definition video screens, which gives it the high-tech feel of a big-city hangout. This space is truly multipurpose: A nice sized dance floor attracts nightlife lovers, and tabletop slot machines keep gamers entertained. Explorer's Lounge, with the feel of an African safari, is a cabaret-style lounge featuring singing and dancing acts, as well as occasional magicians and comedians. Snag a spot near the Tangier-inspired windows.

Princess' trademark shows, however, take place in the two-story Princess Theater, which seats 705. The most striking element here is a huge, black backdrop curtain laced with twinkling fiber optic lights -- very, very neat (and no doubt very expensive). Seats do indeed fill up, so be sure to arrive early; drink service is available and prompt. A warning: There aren't enough seats for everyone during popular events.

The Asian-themed Grand Casino is a marriage of Vegas glitz and Far East glamour, with images of gondolas on the earth-toned walls surrounding clanging slot machines and gaming tables. Chips may be charged to your stateroom account, but be aware there is a three percent surcharge for this. After several visits to the casino I was ready to throw in my gambling towel, until I had a stroke of (albeit modest) luck on the triple-cherry quarter-slot in the far right corner -- martinis at Crooners were on me that evening! Note: Grab a change bucket before you sit down, or else you'll have to carry your winnings to the counter in cupped hands; the buckets aren't scattered about the room conveniently, at least not by the last sea day.

Fitness and Recreation

There are five pools (and plenty of poolside bars) onboard Sapphire, including a kids-only wading pool and an adults-only fitness pool. The indoor Calypso Reef & Pool, covered by a retractable crystal magradome, is decorated in a coral reef motif, while Neptune's Reef & Pool, a spacious open-air area with colorful mosaics and lots of space for tanning, fills the ship's full-size outdoor pool requirement (both are located on the Lido deck). There is also an out-of-the-way Terrace Pool at the aft end of the ship on the Aloha deck just below.

The Lotus Spa is infused with Asian flavor, and perhaps one of the reasons the design is so well executed is that the ship was actually built in Japan. Camel and sage walls and chairs induce immediate relaxation; tall exotic plants and heavy black doors framing opaque glass transport you to the Far East. Another nice touch? Spa staffers wear black kimono-style frocks accented by big, bright flowers, designed exclusively for Princess by L.A. fashion maven Sue Wong.

Sapphire has a high-tech fitness center with 35 cardiovascular stations, 17 weight training stations and 12 spinning cycles; a center court for Ping-Pong, tennis and basketball; a jogging track; shuffleboard areas; and a nine-hole putting course (hours fluctuate). Cyber Golf, a for-fee golf simulator, looked like two claustrophobic cubbyholes in which players aim the ball at an image projected on the back wall. Then again, I am neither a sports fan nor a video game enthusiast, and the gentleman putting there that afternoon assured me he was enjoying playing like Tiger Woods, even if just for a day. Reservations can be made via Princess' concierge service.

Also neat: Look for the super-sized chessboard, with pawns and other playing pieces nearly as tall as some of the ship's younger guests!

Family

Sapphire Princess' kids programs are divided by age group. Princess Pelicans, for the 3- to 7-year-old set, feature games, movies and crafts. Shockwaves is for those from 8 to 12 years old and Remix, with its own teen center curries favor with those 13 to 17 years old.

Kids' facilities are open on sea days from 9 a.m. to noon, 2 to 5 p.m. and then again from 7 to 10 p.m. In port, hours are 8 a.m. - 5 p.m.

Beyond playrooms, there are outdoor wading pools for the young set and a small swimming pool for teens.

There's a video arcade tucked way down on Deck 6, between the casino and Princess Theater (you may be pleased to know that it's not housed smack dab in the center of the youth facilities and thus not perhaps such an easy temptation for kids!).

Kid-friendly activities take place elsewhere on the ship, too, including a "Wizard of Oz" sing-a-long one afternoon in Club Fusion. Group kid-sitting is available for $5 per hour from 10 p.m. through 1 a.m. Pre-booking is required, and private babysitting is not available.

Fellow Passengers

There were a lot of multi-generational groups on this sailing -- families and older folks traveling with their children and grandchildren -- but very few young couples.

Note: Staff members were wonderful about helping wheelchair-bound passengers on and off the ship during port calls. A team of three helped one woman up a steep gangway (picture a 45-degree angle); she smiled and cracked jokes with them the whole way up.

Dress Code

During a seven-night cruise, there are two formal nights (cocktail dresses, gowns or dark pants suits for ladies, dark suits or tuxedos for men), and five smart casual nights (most men wore a shirt/tie/sports jacket outfit while women dressed up in skirts or pants with a nice blouse, shoes and jewelry). During the day, resort casual seemed to be the norm.

Gratuity

Princess assesses an $10.50-per-day charge automatically to each passenger's shipboard account ($11 for passengers occupying suites and mini-suites). Go to the purser's desk if you want to make adjustments -- up or down. Please note that a 15 percent gratuity is automatically added to all bar tabs.

--by Melissa Baldwin, Managing Editor. Updated by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in ChiefSapphire Princess, along with Diamond Princess, its near-identical twin, has much in common with the Grand-class style of vessels that are Princess' largest -- but also features some distinctions.

Diamond and Sapphire Princess were introduced in 2003 and 2004 respectively and followed earlier Grand-class vessels such as Grand Princess, Golden Princess and Star Princess. (Just for perspective: Diamond and Sapphire's design represented a shift from the original triumvirate; taking the concepts even further was the Caribbean Princess and its brethren. Even more evolutions are evident on the Grand class' newest vessels, Crown Princess, Emerald Princess and Ruby Princess).

Uniquely built in Japan, at Mitsubishi's shipyard in Nagasaki (all the other Grand-class ships have been constructed in Fincantieri's Italian yards), Sapphire Princess showcased a number of new features onboard. Club Fusion, the younger-at-heart secondary lounge, complete with in-table gaming and multiple flat-screen televisions, was a radical part of Princess' efforts then (and now) to attract younger passengers who enjoy the nightlife. That concept was so successful it's now found on ships that followed.

As well, these were the first to get rid of Grand Princess' awkward "shopping cart design," eliminating an odd overhang above the aft pool. This area is now open to sunshine and is far more welcoming.

Sapphire Princess also introduced a couple of other new approaches that didn't work well enough to be replicated on future ships -- though we're not sure why. The ship's Internet cafe is absolutely gorgeous, occupying a bright, light-filled space with windows fronting on the promenade; it also has a coffee bar and cushy, comfortable seating. And designers' approaches to its main dining rooms -- cutting down on the typical cruise ship banquet ambience of big restaurants -- meant that four restaurants exist where there were originally two. In addition to feeling far more intimate and welcoming, each of the four has its own theme -- the brash Santa Fe, the gilded Vivaldi, the serene Pacific Moon and the clubby, cozy Savoy. While the differences are largely cosmetic (all use the same menu, aside from one specialty geared to each theme), each restaurant offers a welcome diversity of ambience. The Wake View Bar, oddly accessible only via circular staircase that descends from Club Fusion, is just absolutely charming -- and almost always empty as it's nearly impossible to find. And we love the cozy Churchill's, the cruise line's cigar and sports-themed bar, which is another "hidden" gem, located by the main theater's first level.

There's plenty of the familiar here, too. The Lotus Spa, though largely identical in style and sensibility throughout the fleet, seems prettier here; the men's and women's locker rooms are more modern (and less starkly utilitarian) in design, the relaxation room where you sip iced cucumber water before spa treatments uses Japanese screens to a soothing effect, and the thermal suite -- though admittedly on the small side -- has the benefit of a frosted glass window which lets light inside (a big improvement on the cavernous but cellar-like ambience of the thermal suites on later models).

Oddly, though, on this late 2007 cruise aboard Sapphire Princess, the ship feels a bit outdated even though it is only three years old. It's spotlessly maintained, so it's not about that. But having cruised on Princess' latest models, it's clear that Sapphire Princess (and, no doubt, Diamond Princess, too) could do with a bit of a makeover, perhaps with the incorporation of some of the more spectacular new facilities aboard Crown Princess and the like. The atrium here in particular is awfully dull. Dining options, especially on longer cruises with more days at sea, are predictable. Neither alternative restaurant appeals, and the Horizon Court buffet is overly congested (more options, such as the fantastic light fare International Cafe and the Vines sushi bar on newer ships could cut down on masses descending on the buffet during mealtimes). And it would be lovely to see Princess expand some of its best recreational options onboard, ranging from Movies Under the Stars to the lovely adult-only Sanctuary outdoor lounging place.

But then what we would lose in the process?

Regardless, what Princess' Grand-class vessels do achieve, whatever the individual quirks and features, is an apt blend of cruise traditions and contemporary innovations.

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.The 116,000-ton, 2,670-passenger Sapphire Princess debuted in 2004 as the fifth of nine ships in Princess Cruises' wide-ranging Grand class.

The series has evolved significantly between Grand Princess (1998) and Ruby Princess (2008), so Sapphire and nearly identical sister Diamond Princess have some variations in terms of size and features (more on that in a second). Distinctions aside, over the past half decade, Princess has been busy standardizing its Grand-glass ships -- adding poolside jumbotrons (Movies Under the Stars), "Piazza-style" atriums and adult-only deck spaces (the Sanctuary) initially found only on the line's newest ships, Crown (2006), Emerald (2007) and Ruby Princess. Sapphire emerged from a month-long refurbishment in February 2012, gaining said signature features -- and the makeover couldn't have come soon enough. The formerly dull atrium has been transformed into the effervescent Piazza, a public area with a wine and tapas bar, bakery, pizzeria and performance space. And after years of dedicated service, the rest of the ship benefited from the refit, too. Throughout Sapphire, passengers will find new bar countertops, tiling, teak decking around the main pool, furniture in the casino, an upgraded buffet and a new top-deck "lawn court" (artificial grass) for putting, bocce and croquet.

Back to the unique stuff: Sapphire and Diamond were built in Japan, at Mitsubishi's shipyard in Nagasaki (the other six Grand-class ships were built in Fincantieri's Italian yards), and they are the largest Grand-class ships by volume, while carrying more than 400 fewer passengers than their youngest siblings. Sapphire and Diamond also debuted Club Fusion, the younger-at-heart secondary lounge, complete with in-table gaming and multiple flat-screen televisions, which was a big part of Princess' efforts to attract younger passengers who enjoy the nightlife. That concept was so successful it's now found on ships that followed. As well, Sapphire/Diamond were the first to get rid of Grand Princess' awkward "shopping cart design," eliminating an odd overhang above the aft pool. (Grand Princess, which debuted the cart, lost it during a 2011 makeover.)

Sapphire Princess also introduced a couple of other new approaches that didn't work well enough to be replicated on future ships -- though we're not sure why. First the main dining room is split into five (instead Princess' typical two) -- cutting down on the cruise ship banquet ambience of big restaurants. In addition to feeling far more intimate, each has its own theme -- the brash Santa Fe, the gilded Vivaldi, the serene Pacific Moon, the clubby, cozy Savoy and the grand International (the largest). While the differences are largely cosmetic (all use the same menu, aside from one specialty geared to each theme), each restaurant offers a welcome diversity of vibe. The Wake View Bar, oddly accessible only via circular staircase that descends from Club Fusion, is just absolutely charming -- and almost always empty as it's nearly impossible to find. And we love the cozy Churchill's, the cruise line's cigar and sports-themed bar, which is another "hidden" gem, located by the main theater's first level.

All said, the "new" Sapphire Princess represents the line's commitment to onboard uniformity, in the form of aforementioned marquee attractions, across its fleet. But while Princess spends big bucks to maintain and standardize its mega-ships, an equally defining factor is the impressive mix of itinerary options on offer that cover six continents. Through this blend of route diversity and brand cohesion, the line aims to offer quintessential Princess, whether you're in Asia, South America or the Caribbean.

Dining

On Sapphire Princess, passengers can opt for traditional evening dining or the cruise line's "Anytime" option. The former occurs in the International, which offers two seatings (same waiters, time and tablemates each evening) at 6 p.m. and at 8:15 p.m.

For those who want more flexible options, the "Anytime" restaurants include the Vivaldi (Italian décor), Pacific Moon (Asian), Savoy (steakhouse-like) and Santa Fe (more Tex-Mex in style than desert Southwest). All serve the same menu aside from one specialty offering that's geared to each eatery's theme (osso buoco, for instance, in Vivaldi and fajitas in Santa Fe). These, with the exception of Vivaldi, are open from 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.

You can make reservations for these -- and if you're counting on a special table for a special night, we'd recommend them. Otherwise, waits aren't typically too bad even at prime time dining hours (restaurant style pagers are available to beep you when a table is ready); restaurant managers have a good sense of which dining rooms were busier than others and would frequently suggest alternatives if one eatery or another got backed up.

Breakfast and lunch are open seating and hosted at the International Dining Room. Breakfast, which features a standard menu with a daily specialty or two (typically the same choices available in the buffet, such as flavored pancakes or eggs Benedict), is served from 6:30 - 9 a.m. on port days and 7 - 9:30 a.m. on sea days. The lunch menu occasionally reflects Horizon Court options as well, is available from noon - 1:30 p.m. The International is not blessed with a plethora of two-tops, and headwaiters are apt to encourage passengers to join in at bigger tables, particularly during busy times but do try to make amends to passengers who want a quieter dining experience.

Afternoon tea -- complete with white gloved waiters serving scones, piping hot tea and petite sandwiches -- is offered at the International from 3:30 until 4:30 p.m.

The Horizon Court, on Deck 14 aft, is the ship's buffet venue (there are buffet stations on both sides), and it's open from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m., serving a mix of steam-table fare and cold sandwiches and salads.

Low-key dinner is available here, too; the menu frequently mirrors that of the dining rooms though no special effects are implemented, such as white linen tablecloths or waiter service. It's just a buffet.

The Piazza, added during the 2012 refurb, has a number of light bite options. The International Cafe serves fresh-baked breads and cookies, alongside time-appropriate small repasts, like Panini sandwiches, salads, bagels, muffins and pastries. There is no charge to eat here and it's open 24 hours. Also new is Alfredo's Pizzeria, which dishes out fresh-baked pizza from lunch to late evening. Vines, the wine and tapas bar, serves over 30 wines by the glass alongside a selection of sushi and other small plates options (wine for fee, tapas free).

Open only at dinner are two fee-extra alternative restaurants. Sabatini's Trattoria, for $20 per person ($10 for children under age 12), is located on Deck 7 midship and is the line's popular Italian option serving pasta, seafood and meats. Dinner begins with herbed focaccia grissini, rosemary flatbread with air-cured prosciutto, and marinated green and black olives. Then you choose an antipasti (soft shell crab over baby arugula), a pasta (vegetable papardelle), a secondi course (duck with fava beans and pancetta, or baked striped bass in a herbed salt crust) and a dessert (raspberry frangipane tart tiramisu). All in all, it's a delightful experience.

Sterling Steakhouse, a stand-alone concept on most Princess ships (typically called the Crown Grill), is set up each night in a corner of Sapphire's Horizon Court buffet. Its ambience is fairly unappealing (merely the addition of white linen tablecloths), and it comes with a $15 per person cover. The menu includes steaks and chops, along with steakhouse-type appetizers.

On Deck 14, adjacent to the Calypso Pool, is a grill that's open from 11 a.m. until 5 p.m.; you can get hot dogs, cheeseburgers, veggie burgers and chicken sandwiches (among other things), along with French fries. There's also the Prego pizza counter (Sapphire's second pizzerias) offering a selection that ranges from day to day. Sundaes ice cream bar offers ice cream and frozen yogurt sundaes from under $5. Create your own by selecting a flavor and toppings (like whole chocolate chip cookies and Caribbean rum cake), or order from the menu of concoctions.

Sapphire's Wheelhouse pub serves up a Brit pub lunch -- think bangers, fish and chips and the like -- on sea days. There is no additional cost to dine here. The obligatory pint of Murphy's, of course, is extra.

Room service is available, and there's no extra fee, but the menu is limited. For breakfast, look for Continental fare (pastries, cereal and coffee, for instance); otherwise, you can order a handful of sandwiches and salads (under "hot dishes" you are limited to soup and sandwiches). You can also order room service pizza -- that, involving in essence the delivery of a medium size pie, incurs a $3 charge that we're told was levied more to stop people from taking advantage of the option -- and then leaving the food untouched -- than anything else.

Select wines and champagnes are available for purchase via room service, as well as several liquor-and-mixer specials and six-for-five beer and/or wine packages. Canapes, and snacks are available for purchase to accompany your cocktails, from guacamole and chips to pate de foie gras.

Public Rooms

The very core of Sapphire Princess is its Piazza, the aforementioned Italian-style atrium inserted in early 2012. The bustling, three-deck space is a combination bakery, Internet cafe, wine/sushi/tapas bar, pizzeria and performance venue. You'll also find the guest services and shore excursion desks here.

With so many people onboard, you might think getting around the ship would be difficult, but traffic was light or nonexistent pretty much everywhere on the ship -- with the exception of the Promenade area between Club Fusion and the Explorer's Lounge, especially when formal or gangway photos are on display (pay counter is here as well). Getting back and forth, forward to aft, on the Lido Deck can be a bit of a challenge, as you must cut through Horizon Court, an even more difficult feat at busy chow times like lunch. Also, the International Dining Room is located in the dead end of an aft-ship maze I often found myself here by accident. You have to climb back up a flight to Promenade Deck and find another staircase or elevator, midship or forward -- there's no other way out (the medical center is actually directly beneath this space, we finally learned).

The Library is a cozy reading room with a mediocre collection of fiction and nonfiction books, CD's and listening stations (comfortable chairs with a space to plug in headsets and built-in CD players -- you can check out CD's from the library or use your own), and a cluster of computers with Internet access. Directly outside is a Writing Room, an open space with plenty of seating for composing letters and postcards. The Princess Fine Arts Gallery, off of the Grand Plaza on the Plaza Deck, features reproductions and original artwork, available for purchase. Hearts & Minds Wedding Chapel is a small but functional space for vow renewals and the like. Both the gallery and the chapel were refreshed in early 2012.

Web rates start at 75 cents per minute, and packages are available for heavy users (100 minutes for $55 or 55 cents per minute, 150 minutes for $75 or 50 cents per minute, and 250 minutes for $100 or 40 cents per minute). You can also, via Wi-Fi, hook up your own laptop in public spaces and cabins. Accessing the Internet -- you are at sea after all -- can be hit or miss.

Cabins

Sapphire Princess, like the majority of ships in Princess' fleet, offers affordable outside and balcony cabins: More than 70 percent of the ship's cabins are outside, and 78 percent of these feature private verandahs (748 of its 1,337 total passenger cabins).

All cabins are outfitted with flat-screen TV's that, depending on locale, includes channels like CNN, BBC, Discovery, ESPN and the like. Princess shows movies (flicks from the past few years and classics) on two channels; we especially love the line's romance channel, which on our trip offered showings like "The Philadelphia Story" and "Sleepless in Seattle."

Standard interior cabins, at 168 to 182 square feet, feature a roomy closet, shelves hidden behind a mirrored door, shower-only bathroom, twins-to-queen bed underneath a mirror surrounded by pastel padding, a small table off to the side for room service or other items, small refrigerator, private safe, and a desk area with a large mirror and TV with remote control. Standard outside (oceanview) cabins include these same amenities but measure 183 to 194 square feet -- and, of course, feature a view. An outside with a balcony is just that: an outside room with all of the usual amenities, plus a private verandah (237 - 300 square feet).

On all cabins with standard balconies, furnishings include two blue mesh chairs (quite comfortable) and a small round metal side table.

Mini-suites with balcony (354 square feet) are, in essence, a longer version of a balcony cabin. Mini-suites add a seating area with Pullman couch, cocktail table, bathrobes, corner chair, an extra TV and, of course, a private verandah. However, most mini's are located on Dolphin Deck and, as such, feature verandahs that jut out from the side of the ship (rather than being nestled into it); this means that there's no roof, and therefore Dolphin Deck verandahs are anything but "private." You (and it) are completely visible from decks above (verandahs on the Caribe deck also jut out, though not as far, and are about halfway exposed).

Suites (507 to 706 square feet) include additional space, walk-in closets, larger balconies, whirlpool tubs and a wet bar. At the top of the line is the Grand Suite, clocking in at 1,329 square feet. This accommodation adds a dining area and personal computer.

There are two connecting family suites on this ship (each with two bathrooms), and 27 handicap-accessible cabins.

Bathrooms in mini-suite-and-above categories are quite comfortable (featuring full tubs) and stocked with Lotus Spa-original shampoos, soaps, conditioners and creams. The hair dryer (available in all cabins) isn't wonderful; pack your own if you require power.

Balcony furniture becomes high quality -- and there's more variety -- as you move up the category scale.

Every cabin deck has a self-service laundry facility -- a nice touch.

Entertainment

Princess' day-time entertainment offerings emanate from its Scholarship@Sea program, which features a range of activities, from lecturers on various topics such as marine life, magic and history to more hands-on tutelage on computer skills, photography techniques and scrapbooking.

The ship's ceramics studio offers a fantastic creative outlet on sea days; starting at $15, you can paint bowls, plates, picture frames and the like, and staff members will fire them up in the onboard kiln. (Don't get too carried away, you still have to transport the pieces home.)

The Piazza, added in early 2012, is another wonderful daytime (and nighttime) space. The venue features circus-style performers like acrobats and jugglers.

One of the ship's most stunning public areas is Skywalker's Disco & Observation Lounge high up on the Sky Deck. Though already a Princess staple, Skywalker's on Sapphire Princess actually hangs over the aft end of the ship, so that its 125-foot balcony and dramatic floor-to-ceiling windows offer fantastic, unobstructed panoramas both day and night. (When you can, observe the ship's wake by moonlight.) The decor is a nod to outer space with stars and swirls, but done with great style -- I loved the brass table lamps with miniature moon-shaped cutouts.

After hours, Skywalker's becomes a hopping club scene, but we preferred it as a quiet place for a cocktail-with-a-view before supper. Even more intimate (but less scenic) is the Wake View Bar, hidden deep within the ship on the Fiesta Deck. Hint: Access this space via the spiral staircase in Club Fusion on the Promenade Deck. This is a very quiet place during the day to have a cocktail and collect your thoughts, or even to do some reading, with no music and little chatter -- it was unusually empty during my sailing. At night, however, this neglect is understandable due to Wake View's nearness to the often-rambunctious Club Fusion crowd.

Princess' signature Wheelhouse Bar is another great place to meet, with friendly bar service, a cozy members-only-club atmosphere, and nautical art and history displayed throughout. It also has live jazzy music. (The scene -- and the dancing -- picks up a little later in the evening.) Sports fans and cigar enthusiasts should scoot down to Churchill's Lounge, a combination cigar lounge and sports bar. Though an odd pairing, this is the ideal place to view satellite broadcasts of various sporting events when available.

Club Fusion serves as a dance club, theater and game room. This lounge features 42 high-definition video screens, which gives it the high-tech feel of a big-city hangout. This space is truly multipurpose: A nice sized dance floor attracts nightlife lovers, and tabletop slot machines keep gamers entertained. Explorer's Lounge, with the feel of an African safari, is a cabaret-style lounge featuring singing and dancing acts, as well as occasional magicians and comedians. Snag a spot near the Tangier-inspired windows.

Princess' trademark shows, however, take place in the two-story Princess Theater, which seats 705. The most striking element here is a huge, black backdrop curtain laced with twinkling fiber optic lights -- very, very neat (and no doubt very expensive). Seats do indeed fill up, so be sure to arrive early; drink service is available and prompt. A warning: There aren't enough seats for everyone during popular events.

The Asian-themed Grand Casino is a marriage of Vegas glitz and Far East glamour, with images of gondolas on the earth-toned walls surrounding clanging slot machines and gaming tables. Chips may be charged to your cabin account, but be aware there is a three percent surcharge for this. Note: Grab a change bucket before you sit down, or else you'll have to carry your winnings to the counter in cupped hands; the buckets aren't scattered about the room conveniently, at least not by the last sea day.

Fitness and Recreation

There are five pools (and plenty of poolside bars) onboard Sapphire, including a kids-only wading pool and an adults-only fitness pool. The indoor Calypso Reef & Pool, covered by a retractable crystal magradome, is decorated in a coral reef motif, while Neptune's Reef & Pool, a spacious open-air area with colorful mosaics and lots of space for tanning, fills the ship's full-size outdoor pool requirement (both are located on the Lido deck). There is also an out-of-the-way Terrace Pool at the aft end of the ship on the Aloha deck just below.

Movies Under the Stars, added in 2012 by Neptunes', is a major attraction and is on all day (with family fare), as well as into the night. Complimentary popcorn is served during evening features.

The Lotus Spa is infused with Asian flavor, and perhaps one of the reasons the design is so well executed is that the ship was actually built in Japan. Camel and sage walls and chairs induce immediate relaxation; tall exotic plants and heavy black doors framing opaque glass transport you to the Far East. Another nice touch? Spa staffers wear black kimono-style frocks accented by big, bright flowers, designed exclusively for Princess by L.A. fashion maven Sue Wong.

Sapphire has a high-tech fitness center with 35 cardiovascular stations, 17 weight training stations and 12 spinning cycles; a center court for Ping-Pong, tennis and basketball; a jogging track; shuffleboard areas; and a nine-hole putting course (hours fluctuate). Cyber Golf, a for-fee golf simulator, looked like two claustrophobic cubbyholes in which players aim the ball at an image projected on the back wall. Reservations can be made via Princess' concierge service.

In October 2011, Sapphire gained Princess' signature, adult-only Sanctuary. The top-ship space features lots of thickly cushioned loungers, massage cabanas, signature beverages, light meals and on-call stewards. To make room for the new space, the sports court on Sapphire Princess was relocated to a new space on top of Skywalkers nightclub. Enjoying the are comes at a price: It's $10 for a half a day and $20 for a full day, plus there's a $3 service fee for dining orders.

Family

Sapphire Princess' kids programs are divided by age group. Princess Pelicans, for the 3- to 7-year-old set, feature games, movies and crafts. Shockwaves is for those from 8 to 12 years old and Remix, with its own teen center curries favor with those 13 to 17 years old.

Kids' facilities are open on sea days from 9 a.m. to noon, 1 to 5 p.m. and then again from 6 to 10 p.m. In port, hours are 8 a.m. - 5 p.m. and 6 - 10 p.m.

Beyond playrooms, there are outdoor wading pools for the young set and a small swimming pool for teens.

There's a video arcade tucked way down on Deck 6, between the casino and Princess Theater (you may be pleased to know that it's not housed smack dab in the center of the youth facilities and thus not perhaps such an easy temptation for kids!).

Kid-friendly activities take place elsewhere on the ship, too, including a "Wizard of Oz" sing-a-long one afternoon in Club Fusion. Group kid-sitting (for kids ages 3 - 12) is available for $5 per hour from 10 p.m. through 1 a.m. Pre-booking is required, and private babysitting is not available.

Fellow Passengers

The typical Princess passenger is about 50 and relatively well-traveled. The line also attracts a solid number of multi-generational groups -- families and older folks traveling with their children and grandchildren -- and some younger couples.

Dining

On Sapphire Princess, passengers can opt for traditional evening dining or the cruise line's "Anytime" option. The former occurs in the International, which offers two seatings (same waiters, time and tablemates each evening) at 6 p.m. and at 8:15 p.m.

For those who want more flexible options, the "Anytime" restaurants include the Vivaldi (Italian décor), Pacific Moon (Asian), Savoy (steakhouse-like) and Santa Fe (more Tex-Mex in style than desert Southwest). All serve the same menu aside from one specialty offering that's geared to each eatery's theme (osso buoco, for instance, in Vivaldi and fajitas in Santa Fe). These, with the exception of Vivaldi, are open from 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.

You can make reservations for these -- and if you're counting on a special table for a special night, we'd recommend them. Otherwise, waits aren't typically too bad even at prime time dining hours (restaurant style pagers are available to beep you when a table is ready); restaurant managers have a good sense of which dining rooms were busier than others and would frequently suggest alternatives if one eatery or another got backed up.

Breakfast and lunch are open seating and hosted at the International Dining Room. Breakfast, which features a standard menu with a daily specialty or two (typically the same choices available in the buffet, such as flavored pancakes or eggs Benedict), is served from 6:30 - 9 a.m. on port days and 7 - 9:30 a.m. on sea days. The lunch menu occasionally reflects Horizon Court options as well, is available from noon - 1:30 p.m. The International is not blessed with a plethora of two-tops, and headwaiters are apt to encourage passengers to join in at bigger tables, particularly during busy times but do try to make amends to passengers who want a quieter dining experience.

Afternoon tea -- complete with white gloved waiters serving scones, piping hot tea and petite sandwiches -- is offered at the International from 3:30 until 4:30 p.m.

The Horizon Court, on Deck 14 aft, is the ship's buffet venue (there are buffet stations on both sides), and it's open from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m., serving a mix of steam-table fare and cold sandwiches and salads.

Low-key dinner is available here, too; the menu frequently mirrors that of the dining rooms though no special effects are implemented, such as white linen tablecloths or waiter service. It's just a buffet.

The Piazza, added during the 2012 refurb, has a number of light bite options. The International Cafe serves fresh-baked breads and cookies, alongside time-appropriate small repasts, like Panini sandwiches, salads, bagels, muffins and pastries. There is no charge to eat here and it's open 24 hours. Also new is Alfredo's Pizzeria, which dishes out fresh-baked pizza from lunch to late evening. Vines, the wine and tapas bar, serves over 30 wines by the glass alongside a selection of sushi and other small plates options (wine for fee, tapas free).

Open only at dinner are two fee-extra alternative restaurants. Sabatini's Trattoria, for $25 per person, is located on Deck 7 midship and is the line's popular Italian option serving pasta, seafood and meats. Dinner begins with herbed focaccia grissini, rosemary flatbread with air-cured prosciutto, and marinated green and black olives. Then you choose an antipasti (soft shell crab over baby arugula), a pasta (vegetable papardelle), a secondi course (duck with fava beans and pancetta, or baked striped bass in a herbed salt crust) and a dessert (raspberry frangipane tart tiramisu). All in all, it's a delightful experience.

Sterling Steakhouse, a stand-alone concept on most Princess ships (typically called the Crown Grill), is set up each night in a corner of Sapphire's Horizon Court buffet. Its ambience is fairly unappealing (merely the addition of white linen tablecloths), and it comes with a $25 per person cover. The menu includes steaks and chops, along with steakhouse-type appetizers.

On Deck 14, adjacent to the Calypso Pool, is a grill that's open from 11 a.m. until 5 p.m.; you can get hot dogs, cheeseburgers, veggie burgers and chicken sandwiches (among other things), along with French fries. There's also the Prego pizza counter (Sapphire's second pizzerias) offering a selection that ranges from day to day. Sundaes ice cream bar offers ice cream and frozen yogurt sundaes from under $5. Create your own by selecting a flavor and toppings (like whole chocolate chip cookies and Caribbean rum cake), or order from the menu of concoctions.

Sapphire's Wheelhouse pub serves up a Brit pub lunch -- think bangers, fish and chips and the like -- on sea days. There is no additional cost to dine here. The obligatory pint of Murphy's, of course, is extra.

Room service is available, and there's no extra fee, but the menu is limited. For breakfast, look for Continental fare (pastries, cereal and coffee, for instance); otherwise, you can order a handful of sandwiches and salads (under "hot dishes" you are limited to soup and sandwiches). You can also order room service pizza -- that, involving in essence the delivery of a medium size pie, incurs a $3 charge that we're told was levied more to stop people from taking advantage of the option -- and then leaving the food untouched -- than anything else.

Select wines and champagnes are available for purchase via room service, as well as several liquor-and-mixer specials and six-for-five beer and/or wine packages. Canapes, and snacks are available for purchase to accompany your cocktails, from guacamole and chips to pate de foie gras.

And for a really special evening, try the Ultimate Balcony Dinner. You need a cabin with a verandah, of course. The $100 per-couple charge includes a four course meal, a half bottle of sparkling wine, a pre-dinner cocktail and a photo portrait. The Champange Brunch is another option. For $32 per person, a waiter comes, sets up the table, and presents several covered plates with quiche, fresh fruit and lots of (way too many of) pastries. As the name indicates, you also get a split of Champagne.

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