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Cruise Ship Review

Crown Princess - Ship Review provided by Cruise Critic

As passengers begin tucking themselves into padded chaise lounges and picking up bags of just-popped popcorn before this evening's Movies Under the Stars (MUTS) showing gets underway, a 20-something couple sit nervously on the edge of their chairs. They look a bit out of place -- she's dressed in a more-appropriate-for-dinner-at-Sabatini's get-up, complete with pearls, and he's wearing a blazer.

As the Caribbean sunset turns into splashes of pink, turquoise, sea green and shiny yellow, tonight's flick begins. Or does it? The young man's face is suddenly larger than life as he appears on the vast screen, saying "You probably know where this is going." Indeed she does. The televised marriage proposal follows, and pretty soon she's sporting a two carat diamond ring, ship captain Andy Proctor is offering congratulations and a waiter pours two glasses of champagne. I, among the handful of spectators to this unlikely event, join the others in clapping and cheering while wiping sentimental tears from my face.

"Engagement Under the Stars," a spin-off of the already-established MUTS, is one of three things that make Crown Princess the most special ship in the Princess fleet. The line is resolute in introducing innovative new features (such as the aforementioned MUTS) and then making them that much better. And the third? As the ships in the fleet grow ever larger, Princess manages to continue another onboard tradition: creating an ambiance between passengers and officers and crew, harking back to ships of a cozier size.

Crown Princess is the first ship since Grand Princess that offers both major leaps as well as gentle evolutions. The leaps? The Piazza, a three-deck high performance venue, surrounded by the ultra-fab International Cafe coffee bar with light fare, and Vines, a charming wine bar and sushi joint, are such hot destinations that they're packed with passengers even on sun-drenched sea days. The Sanctuary, a (mostly) shaded zen-like retreat, complete with waiter service, spa menu and massage services, offers a big-ship retreat for solitude seekers. Crown Princess introduces a totally new style of lounge with Adagio. It's a plush and comfortable space, with gorgeous top-of-ship views and a balcony with little tables -- a design evocative of the kind of cozy bar you'd find at a Ritz-Carlton.

In the evolutionary category, it's easy to tell that Sabatini's, the line's popular Italian-themed alternative restaurant, has improved. Not only does it have a fabulous new location atop the ship, but its one-time over-heavy multi-course menus have been pared down in terms of quantity, improving its quality along the way. Cabins are pretty much the same in terms of layout, but upgrades -- from bedding to flat-screen televisions -- put it on a par with any cruise line, upscale or big ship.

Ultimately, what amazed me the most about my nine-night cruise aboard Crown Princess wasn't just the new and improved -- but that even as Princess ships are growing in size, and in the process offering more diversity in terms of entertainment and passenger demographics, the atmosphere onboard was as consistent and as personal as it had been when I traveled on its smaller, more "town-like" brethren, such as the lamented Royal Princess, Regal Princess and Dawn Princess. It did not, in the end, feel much like a big ship at all. Much credit for this goes to the numerous officers and crew who, on 5th and 8th and 12th contracts with the line, were able to recognize returning passengers and welcome them with a warm familiarity.

And in an era when ship ambiences -- due to ever increasing sizes and passenger capacities -- are transitioning from small town to big city, this accomplishment is no small feat.

Gratuity

Princess levies a fee of $10.50 per person, per day ($11 for passengers occupying suites and mini-suites); it's automatically added to shipboard accounts. Passengers wishing to adjust their gratuity should make the request at the purser's desk. Drinks come with an automatic 15 percent tip. Spa treatment bills do not automatically include gratuity; that must be added separately and 10 - 20 percent is considered appropriate, depending on quality of experience.

--by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief

Dress Code

On Crown Princess, which offers nine-night cruises, there were two formal nights (and level of formality ranged wildly, from way-too-casual, jeans and such, to black tie). Most women wore cocktail gowns and pants-outfits; men wore jackets and ties. Daytime, again there was a wide range of attire, but indoors, folks tended to dress country club casual.

Fellow Passengers

We can't think of any passenger "demographic" that wouldn't find something to love on Crown Princess. On our trip, there were seniors, families, gay and lesbian travelers, honeymooners, and friends-and-family groups. The only folks who might find the ship's size a hindrance would be single travelers -- because of its size and its passenger capacity it can be hard to meet people.

Family

Starting with Crown Princess, the line's kids programs and services have gotten a major update. The Fun Zone is still divided into two groups -- Princess Pelicans for the 3 - 7's and Shockwaves for the 8 - 12's. Activities include arts and crafts, video games, karaoke, shipboard Olympics, kids-only dining and scavenger hunts. Port day supervision is available as is group kid sitting (from 10 p.m. - 1 a.m.). Some of the really cool new programs include Jr. Chef at Sea for the Shockwaves group; they get lessons in the ship's main galley on making sushi and fruit pizza along with cake decorating. Parents are required to participate, making for a nice family bonding exercise. Teens can take part in a makeover program at the spa.

What's different is the new approach with teens. A new facility -- called Remix -- is hipper and edgier than ever, featuring Playstation 2's, movies and music, Karaoke, giant screen TV's, card games, board games, Ping Pong tables and juke boxes.Teens also have a separate Jacuzzi and sunbathing area. They can even mix their own dance tracks and take hip-hop dance lessons.

The most unique new aspect to Princess' program -- one they've quietly rolled out -- is a Youth Security Program. Young folks (early 20's) wearing bright yellow -- and instantly identifiable -- polo shirts, patrol the ship (and even are waiting at embarkation) with a purpose of discouraging outrageous behavior before it has a chance to occur. What's more, these staffers, just slightly older than the kids they oversee, are of the same generation so to speak and come across as cool and hip -- and the teens look up to them. As an onboard staffer explained, "they come across as teen-friendly and are not perceived as a police force."

As a non-teen passenger, I also found the yellow-shirted youths to be incredibly helpful if you needed assistance with anything....

Fitness and Recreation

Speaking of something for everyone, Crown Princess offers the best variety of pools at sea. The Neptune's Reef pool is the spot for water games and entertainment, and features whirlpool spas. The adjacent Calypso Reef and Pool is home to Movies Under the Stars (and Sun), so there is constant entertainment there. For solitude seekers, there are two options. The aft pool, mightly improved by the removal of the "Skywalkers" shopping cart handle design, now offers a mix of sunny and shady spots. The Lotus Pool, affixed to the spa but open to all adults, remains a popular spot for swimming against the current; it's small though, and its nine loungers get snapped up pretty quickly. It has two whirlpools.

Entirely new is the addition of The Sanctuary, located where you'll find Ping-Pong and basketball courts on other Princess ships (these have been moved in the re-design). It's a lovely space, featuring a tent canopy over most of it (there are a handful of loungers in sunny places), an astro-turf carpet, and fabulous Italianate chaises and chairs (with decadently thick cushions), covered with the plushest, thirstiest towels. An interesting (and lovely) aspect of the Sanctuary is its service element -- waiters are on hand and a spa menu is available (with a mix of healthy fare, such as tuna pate, and most decidedly unhealthy, a cheeseburger), and you can order drinks (again, everything from fruit drinks and smoothies to a bottle of beer). You can also rent Ipods (with Bose headphones), which have a variety of types of tunes downloaded onto them, for $10.

There is a cost of $10 per person per half day and the Sanctuary is open from 8 a.m. - 12:30 p.m. and 1 - 5:30 p.m. Is it worth it? For anyone who wants a respite from all the "energy" -- absolutely. And while there's no pool here, the fact that the Lotus Pool is downstairs is just fine.

The Sanctuary also has two massage cabanas. Book the massages through the Lotus Spa.

Speaking of which, the Lotus Spa is very similar in design and orient to those found on Caribbean Princess and beyond. It's shaped in a "U" style, offering an Asian ambiance on the side of the treatment rooms and a utilitarian aspect on the other, where you can find the beauty salon and fitness facility. Interestingly, it seems that tooth whitening has become mainstream -- the salon has designed a special cubby for folks trying that treatment. It's got a flat screen television and a nice view of the sea. There's also a barber shop for men.

The fitness facility is slightly larger than those on earlier ships and has all the usual pieces of equipment (stationary bikes and treadmills are topped with flat screen televisions). Open from 7 a.m. - 10 p.m., it offers classes; some, such as "stretch and relax" and step aerobics are free while others, including yoga and Pilates, are $10 apiece.

Spa treatments run the gamut from hydra lift facials to hot stone massage, and from ocean wraps to acupuncture. I tried an "Asian Ritual" that was basically just a fancy name for a basic massage and facial, but it was pleasant nevertheless. One of the most interesting spa experiences ever was the couples Rasul -- there's a private mud-room with steam, and it's a lovely, sweet experience rather than ... well, what you might imagine! It's really do-it-yourself treatment, with all manner of Steiner products set out in the order you should use them -- lotions and potions and then the mud which is soft and not all lumpy. Then you sit in the steam for awhile. It was fun.

I had heard reports from other passengers of the famous Steiner sales pitch (after your treatment your therapist will strongly "advise" you that you need a myriad of beauty products, all of which are sold right here!). If you want to buy, go for it. If you don't, simply say no. Beware: they can get pushy....

Entertainment

New to the Princess fleet, Crown Princess' Piazza is a marvelous destination. Located on Deck 3 -- and the first deck of the three-story atrium -- it serves as an impromptu performance venue, demo-area and, during down times, adjunct to the International Cafe. We loved it. On one sea day, for instance, there was a chocolate demo from the pastry chef, followed by a mime, followed by magic tricks and then a "physical comedy" act. On another day, the young members of Princess' Fun Zone program had a "street fair" there. On the second formal evening, people thronged all three levels to watch the fabled "champagne pour," a Princess tradition.

Beyond that, the ship has so many entertainment options that my head literally was spinning as I tried to figure out which to choose. Each lounge has a different personality. Crooners, on the promenade, is right in the heart of the action, overlooking the Piazza, and features a vocalist. Explorer's Lounge is primarily an events' venue for everything from art auctions to guest lectures. At night, it often served as a secondary movie theater (for more mature fare, like "Memoirs of a Geisha" to counter the friskier offerings of Movies Under the Stars, such as "Beyonce in Concert" and "The Rocky Horror Picture Show". Club Fusion was also busy during the day -- with Ballroom Blitz, line dancing, bingo and Jeopardy -- and into the evening with music-related activities, from trivia to "Princess Pop Star," a take-off on American Idol, to Bee At Sea, a spelling-themed competition.

The Speakeasy, tucked into Gatsby's Casino, is the only place to smoke a stogie. The Wheelhouse Bar, a Princess tradition, has nautical character, but lacks the intimacy I've associated with smaller versions on other ships. And Adagio, tucked into a light-filled corner on Deck 16, is an elegant, Ritz Carlton-esque venue with a cabaret singer/pianist. Late night action is to be found, natch, in Princess' trademark Skywalker's (this version has a nice balcony off the end); it's a kids and then teen disco early in the evening then adults only later on.

The Princess Theater is the ship's main venue, and it also showed movies from time to time when not featuring production shows and comedy acts.

During the daytime, beyond the aforementioned entertainment, Princess is definitely committed to its ScholarShip@Sea program. Some are more light-hearted -- I had a blast bringing out my "inner artist" at Ceramics at Sea (it's tucked into an alcove by the Neptune's Reef pool); you pay only for the plate or frame or whatever you choose -- the paint is supplied and staffers fire it for you to take home. Other facets of the overall program include culinary arts demonstrations (wine tastings, ice carving and the like), an extensive array of Computers@Sea classes and a guest lecture series. On our trip, John Maxtone-Graham, the famed maritime historian, and Colonel Stephen M. Bauer, one-time military social aide at the White House, pulled in good crowds even on sunny days.

Movies Under the Stars, in the Calypso Pool area, is a major attraction and is on all day (with family fare), as well as into the night.

The Grand Casino has the usual array of slots and table games, including Texas Hold 'Em.

Most impressive was the operation of the shore excursion department. Located on Deck 6, staffers there regularly provided visual updates of which tours were sold out (eliminating the need to stand in line and wait for something you couldn't book). Often tours were added as demand required, and occasionally they'd offer a last minute option. The variety as well veered between sedate and almost wild-and-crazy; literally something for everyone.

Cabins

All passengers on this ship get a treat in terms of bedding: Princess' new bedding program, available on other Princess ships only on verandah-plus cabins, have been installed in all staterooms. That means there are plush duvets, good quality towels amd lovely pillows.

All standard cabins (insides on up) are uniquely laid out with a little hallway off the main hallway that leads to your open-door closet and to the bathroom. It's like having a walk-in closet! The stateroom includes shower-only bathrooms, queen beds that can be split into twins, small sofas (some are sleepers), a desk/vanity area and flat screen televisions. Further, alll come with a private safe and (empty) mini-fridges.

Cabins, especially at the lower levels, are quite snug for a new ship. Insides measure 163 square ft., outsides are 168 square ft., and standard balcony cabins run about 233 square ft., which includes the verandah. Those opting for more room should start by looking at mini-suites, at 323 square ft., which include a separate living nook and a full length couch, along with a chair and an extra remote-operated television. Its bathroom comes with a tub. Then Princess has a raft of names for its other suites (Vista, Penthouse, Owners), but they all come in between 468 - 591 square ft. Other perks include a separate sitting area, DVD and MP3 player (DVD's are available to borrow), free laundry and dry cleaning, and a more elaborate bathroom. Interestingly, there's no over-the-top, 1,000-plus square ft. suite onboard.

There are two family suites onboard; these measure 607 square ft.

Twenty-five cabins are designed for the physically disabled, including 16 balcony, four oceanview and five inside.

Public Rooms

The Piazza, which is primarily an entertainment venue, is detailed under the entertainment section (below), but I mention it because it does provide the ship with a central gathering spot. Just off the Piazza is the Escapes Travel Cafe. While not a "real" cafe (no refreshments are served), it's outfitted with personal computers for researching future cruises. Next door is the actual Internet cafe with 25 computers. Rates are 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 (but not in cabins).

The library and card room spread out across Deck 6 and offer games, daily news printouts and books for checking out; it's the usual assortment.

There are five shops onboard, and the fact that we found literally nothing worth purchasing offers a clue about their merchandise! It was pretty much the usual stuff -- duty free liquor that is actually cheaper in ports of call, T-shirts and other logo items, "brand name" fashion jewelry and watches (again, cheaper in ports of call on the ship's itineraries).

The photo gallery stretches a long way on Deck 7 -- between the Crown Grill and the Princess Theater.

Dining

As with all of Princess' most modern ships, Crown Princess offers "anytime" and "traditional" modes of evening dining. Botticelli is home to those who prefer the tradition of set time, table and dinner-mates; on our Caribbean cruise the seatings were at 6:15 p.m. and 8:15 p.m. Michelangelo and Da Vinci are open restaurant style (typically from 5:30 - 10 p.m.). All offer the same Princess menu with various theme nights (of primary import are the formal nights when the chef goes all out with lobster or beef tenderloin). We chose the "anytime" option and rarely if ever did we wait -- though it can get a bit crowded around 7:30 p.m. Service was excellent in both dining rooms. Food, too, was generally very good, and mostly focused on predictable basics (short ribs for lunch, roasted tom turkey for dinner), but there were occasional and always pleasant surprises (the rabbit ragout and frogs legs were excellent!).

There's a vegetarian menu each night (baked eggplant lasagna, bow tie pasta with tomato and fresh basil, panache of arugula, radiccio and butter lettuce among the choices). There's also an "always available" menu, featuring sirloin steak, chicken breast, salmon. There are a fair amount of tables for two and four, and we never had a problem with our requests to sit alone.

One dining room is open for breakfast and lunch; both meals are open seating. A nice touch at lunch is the inclusion on menus of "late riser" breakfast fare; each day features an omelette, French toast or some other selection.

The Horizon Court is pretty much a standard buffet, open for breakfast, lunch and casual dinner. It's tucked away on two sides of the lido in a station set-up (though during slower periods, only one side may be open); you'll find deli fare, made-to-order sandwiches and meats, and a whole hosts of sides and salads. There's a separate pasta "cafe" (though it is still located within the confines of the Horizon Court), and it serves up a couple of specials every day. Out by the main pool is the Trident grill. It offers the usual (burgers, hot dogs, chicken) along with a special each day. The fries are delicious! There's also a pizza counter, and next to that is a for-fee ice cream option. It must be admitted, we weren't too wowed to be paying a couple of bucks for no-name ice cream (apparently Princess no longer carries Haagen Dazs). There's an ice cream counter in the Horizon Court that does not charge.

My favorite place in the buffet region was Cafe Caribe. It's located completely aft (beyond the Horizon Court), and features themed buffets at lunch and dinner that were absolutely outstanding (and fun besides). One that was especially memorable was a lunchtime Asian repast, which included potstickers, sweet and sour pork, and sushi. Evenings at Cafe Caribe were even more special; the tables get linen cloths, and the themes ranged from Provencal to an Indonesian rijstafel rice table buffet.

Adding to the variety were Crown Princess' two alternative restaurants. The Crown Grill is a new concept, a twist on the existing Sterling Steakhouse found aboard other ships. We loved it -- it's both a fish and chop kind of place ($25 per person extra charge) with an open kitchen where live lobsters writhe on crushed ice and meaty steaks are smoking on the grill. Menus here are a bit funky -- the standard menu includes appetizers (the scallop and foie gras was awesome, the cherrystone clam bake was a bit stingy); soup and salads (try the black and blue onion soup), and then takes a fork in the road. One side emphasizes seafood (vongole, seafood stew, striped bass) and the other chops (lamb, pork, porterhouse, filet mignon). There's a third main course option: the lobster menu. It requires a $9 extra surcharge on top of the service fee, and allows you to choose between a 1.5 - 2 pound Maine Lobster or a 12 ounce Australian lobster tail.

Sides are served family style (delicious corn casserole, mashed potatoes, rice, etc.). Desserts, as they were everywhere onboard, were inventive and fun; both times, our waiter recommended the "crown dependence," which is a selection of the desserts. I also loved the seven layer s'mores, a sophisticated take on the around-the-campfire legend.

Dining was a genuinely exceptional experience, though you could tell on our cruise (one of the ship's first) that service was a work in progress. Hopefully, it has now risen to the level of the food.

For anyone who's ever cruised on Princess, Sabatini's ($20 per person charge) is the line's trademark (upscale) Italian eatery. On Crown Princess, it's changed in both substance and decor. Substance-wise, there's still a great menu of food to choose from (and the experience is more about the Italian use of tastings, like the Spanish tapas). What's different is they've reduced the courses (which is actually a good thing -- previous Sabatini's experiences have resulted in feeling overstuffed rather than pleasantly satisfied). Basically, you only choose your main course (a.k.a. "second piatti), which includes entrees such as sea bass, lobster, chicken, veal chop and prawns. For the three courses leading up to it, waiters bring around platters of antipasti (ricotta cheese and elephant garlic flan and the shrimp and artichoke with white truffle oil were wonderful), soups and salads, and then two pastas. You simply choose which you want and how much of it. I must say that the potato and ricotta ravioli was so out-of-this-world that when I came back a second time I asked for a regular helping of that, skipping other options). Desserts aren't as creative as those in the Crown Grill but just as delicious; tiramisu, that classic, was perfectly prepared.

The new placement of Sabatini's -- atop the ship on Deck 16, right next to Adagio and with great expansive views -- is also a plus. The restaurant itself feels peppy and fun, complete with festive Italian-themed wall murals. And tables are spaced for privacy. Note: Feel free to ask your waiter to have dessert served in Adagio's ... a nice way to end the evening.

Two of my favorite dining destinations aren't even in the mainstream! The International Cafe, located on Deck 3 and in the heart of all the Piazza action, offers pastries in the morning, quiche and finger sandwiches in the evening, and tapas at night. It's actually got a pastry chef working right there -- and baking right there -- so the smell, say, of a buttery croissant or the addictive chocolate chip cookies -- wafted around the Piazza. The scents were the International Cafe's best advertisement. It's also the place to go for designer coffees. (Note: Princess is the first in the industry to offer a coffee card; for $24.95 you get 15 specialty coffees, which works out to a 20 percent discount.) The coffees available include the usual stuff -- espresso, cappuccino, latte and mocha, along with hot chocolate and premium tea.

Prior to my trip, there was a lot of confusion over which food items (all beverages are a'la carte) were "free" and which were priced separately. Most everything fell into the former category, and the items that did require a surcharge -- such as the chocolate fondue -- were clearly marked and obviously exceptional.

My other favorite spot was the Vines Wine & Seafood Bar, which specializes in sushi and interesting wines. You have to pay for the sushi, but you'll find it's worth every penny after the sushi chef takes your particulars and rolls 'em up. Pair it with a glass of wine from the adventurous and worldly list, and it's a great light lunch.

Speaking of wine list, the standard offering (available in the dining rooms and at the ship's lounges, save for Vines) is pedantic and uninspired. Mark-ups seemed on the high side -- a Beringer white zinfandel that goes for about $6 in a local wine store is priced at $25 on Princess' list.

Editor's Note: Interestingly, upon embarkation we were bombarded not by drink waiters pushing alcoholic cocktails, but by crew members selling soda cards. They're available only for the whole cruise (not per day) and wind up costing about $4 per day. For me, a diet Coke lover, it was well worth it (in fact I think Princess might have lost money).

There was an afternoon tea service every day in one of the dining rooms and also in the International Cafe.

Room service offers Continental breakfast only in standard quarters, with more elaborate menus offered for suiteholders. There's a 24-hour menu with the usual offerings (tuna sandwiches, burgers, salads, desserts), and while it's limited, it always hit the spot (and was consistently delivered promptly -- and hot).

A don't-miss event (you must have a balcony though) is the Lobster Balcony Dinner. At a cost of $50 per person, it's romantic and fun (and even though we were in mini-suites where there are no coverings over verandahs, everyone was inside and it felt private anyway). The meal is delivered course by course, starting with a cocktail while the waiter sets up your linen-covered table, complete with fresh flowers. A photographer takes a photo. And then the feast begins, with a menu that starts with a crab cake baked in puff pastry, a salad of marinated chevre and mesclun, a choice between the lobster tail or beef tenderloin or surf and turf (a bit of both), and then dessert, a quartet of mousses. Lovely.

Princess has also recently introduced the "balcony breakfast," and I arranged it as a surprise for my husband, in celebration of his birthday. It was also lovely, though not quite as elegant; a waiter sets up the table and then dumps a pile of covered plates nearby. Inside is quiche, fresh fruit and lots of (way too many of) pastries, as well as a split of champagne. Cost is $30 per couple.

And another fun new option is the Brooklyn Balcony Nosh. Available only on embarkation day (as the ship's home port is in, er, Brooklyn), the $7 per person room service offering includes a Nathan's hot dog, a slice of Junior's cheesecake and a bottle of beer from Brooklyn Lager. It's a gimmick, sure, but when we boarded, hungry and tired from traveling, it was great little pick-me-up, enjoyed on the balcony facing the Statue of Liberty, and offered a change from battling the first-day lines at the buffet. As passengers begin tucking themselves into padded chaise lounges and picking up bags of just-popped popcorn before this evening's Movies Under the Stars (MUTS) showing gets underway, a 20-something couple sit nervously on the edge of their chairs. They look a bit out of place -- she's dressed in a more-appropriate-for-dinner-at-Sabatini's get-up, complete with pearls, and he's wearing a blazer.

As the Caribbean sunset turns into splashes of pink, turquoise, sea green and shiny yellow, tonight's flick begins. Or does it? The young man's face is suddenly larger than life as he appears on the vast screen, saying "You probably know where this is going." Indeed she does. The televised marriage proposal follows, and pretty soon she's sporting a two carat diamond ring, ship captain Andy Proctor is offering congratulations and a waiter pours two glasses of champagne. I, among the handful of spectators to this unlikely event, join the others in clapping and cheering while wiping sentimental tears from my face.

"Engagement Under the Stars," a spin-off of the already-established MUTS, is one of three things that make Crown Princess the most special ship in the Princess fleet. The line is resolute in introducing innovative new features (such as the aforementioned MUTS) and then making them that much better. And the third? As the ships in the fleet grow ever larger, Princess manages to continue another onboard tradition: creating an ambiance between passengers and officers and crew, harking back to ships of a cozier size.

Crown Princess is the first ship since Grand Princess that offers both major leaps as well as gentle evolutions. The leaps? The Piazza, a three-deck high performance venue, surrounded by the ultra-fab International Cafe coffee bar with light fare, and Vines, a charming wine bar and sushi joint, are such hot destinations that they're packed with passengers even on sun-drenched sea days. The Sanctuary, a (mostly) shaded zen-like retreat, complete with waiter service, spa menu and massage services, offers a big-ship retreat for solitude seekers. Crown Princess introduces a totally new style of lounge with Adagio. It's a plush and comfortable space, with gorgeous top-of-ship views and a balcony with little tables -- a design evocative of the kind of cozy bar you'd find at a Ritz-Carlton.

In the evolutionary category, it's easy to tell that Sabatini's, the line's popular Italian-themed alternative restaurant, has improved. Not only does it have a fabulous new location atop the ship, but its one-time over-heavy multi-course menus have been pared down in terms of quantity, improving its quality along the way. Cabins are pretty much the same in terms of layout, but upgrades -- from bedding to flat-screen televisions -- put it on a par with any cruise line, upscale or big ship.

Ultimately, what amazed me the most about my nine-night cruise aboard Crown Princess wasn't just the new and improved -- but that even as Princess ships are growing in size, and in the process offering more diversity in terms of entertainment and passenger demographics, the atmosphere onboard was as consistent and as personal as it had been when I traveled on its smaller, more "town-like" brethren, such as the lamented Royal Princess, Regal Princess and Dawn Princess. It did not, in the end, feel much like a big ship at all. Much credit for this goes to the numerous officers and crew who, on 5th and 8th and 12th contracts with the line, were able to recognize returning passengers and welcome them with a warm familiarity.

And in an era when ship ambiences -- due to ever increasing sizes and passenger capacities -- are transitioning from small town to big city, this accomplishment is no small feat.

Dining

As with all of Princess' most modern ships, Crown Princess offers "anytime" and "traditional" modes of evening dining. Botticelli is home to those who prefer the tradition of set time, table and dinner-mates; on our Caribbean cruise the seatings were at 6:15 p.m. and 8:15 p.m. Michelangelo and Da Vinci are open restaurant style (typically from 5:30 - 10 p.m.). All offer the same Princess menu with various theme nights (of primary import are the formal nights when the chef goes all out with lobster or beef tenderloin). We chose the "anytime" option and rarely if ever did we wait -- though it can get a bit crowded around 7:30 p.m. Service was excellent in both dining rooms. Food, too, was generally very good, and mostly focused on predictable basics (short ribs for lunch, roasted tom turkey for dinner), but there were occasional and always pleasant surprises (the rabbit ragout and frogs legs were excellent!).

There's a vegetarian menu each night (baked eggplant lasagna, bow tie pasta with tomato and fresh basil, panache of arugula, radiccio and butter lettuce among the choices). There's also an "always available" menu, featuring sirloin steak, chicken breast, salmon. There are a fair amount of tables for two and four, and we never had a problem with our requests to sit alone.

One dining room is open for breakfast and lunch; both meals are open seating. A nice touch at lunch is the inclusion on menus of "late riser" breakfast fare; each day features an omelette, French toast or some other selection.

The Horizon Court is pretty much a standard buffet, open for breakfast, lunch and casual dinner. It's tucked away on two sides of the lido in a station set-up (though during slower periods, only one side may be open); you'll find deli fare, made-to-order sandwiches and meats, and a whole hosts of sides and salads. There's a separate pasta "cafe" (though it is still located within the confines of the Horizon Court), and it serves up a couple of specials every day. Out by the main pool is the Trident grill. It offers the usual (burgers, hot dogs, chicken) along with a special each day. The fries are delicious! There's also a pizza counter, and next to that is a for-fee ice cream option. It must be admitted, we weren't too wowed to be paying a couple of bucks for no-name ice cream (apparently Princess no longer carries Haagen Dazs). There's an ice cream counter in the Horizon Court that does not charge.

My favorite place in the buffet region was Cafe Caribe. It's located completely aft (beyond the Horizon Court), and features themed buffets at lunch and dinner that were absolutely outstanding (and fun besides). One that was especially memorable was a lunchtime Asian repast, which included potstickers, sweet and sour pork, and sushi. Evenings at Cafe Caribe were even more special; the tables get linen cloths, and the themes ranged from Provencal to an Indonesian rijstafel rice table buffet.

Adding to the variety were Crown Princess' two alternative restaurants. The Crown Grill is a new concept, a twist on the existing Sterling Steakhouse found aboard other ships. We loved it -- it's both a fish and chop kind of place ($25 per person extra charge) with an open kitchen where live lobsters writhe on crushed ice and meaty steaks are smoking on the grill. Menus here are a bit funky -- the standard menu includes appetizers (the scallop and foie gras was awesome, the cherrystone clam bake was a bit stingy); soup and salads (try the black and blue onion soup), and then takes a fork in the road. One side emphasizes seafood (vongole, seafood stew, striped bass) and the other chops (lamb, pork, porterhouse, filet mignon). There's a third main course option: the lobster menu. It requires a $9 extra surcharge on top of the service fee, and allows you to choose between a 1.5 - 2 pound Maine Lobster or a 12 ounce Australian lobster tail.

Sides are served family style (delicious corn casserole, mashed potatoes, rice, etc.). Desserts, as they were everywhere onboard, were inventive and fun; both times, our waiter recommended the "crown dependence," which is a selection of the desserts. I also loved the seven layer s'mores, a sophisticated take on the around-the-campfire legend.

Dining was a genuinely exceptional experience, though you could tell on our cruise (one of the ship's first) that service was a work in progress. Hopefully, it has now risen to the level of the food.

For anyone who's ever cruised on Princess, Sabatini's ($20 per person charge) is the line's trademark (upscale) Italian eatery. On Crown Princess, it's changed in both substance and decor. Substance-wise, there's still a great menu of food to choose from (and the experience is more about the Italian use of tastings, like the Spanish tapas). What's different is they've reduced the courses (which is actually a good thing -- previous Sabatini's experiences have resulted in feeling overstuffed rather than pleasantly satisfied). Basically, you only choose your main course (a.k.a. "second piatti), which includes entrees such as sea bass, lobster, chicken, veal chop and prawns. For the three courses leading up to it, waiters bring around platters of antipasti (ricotta cheese and elephant garlic flan and the shrimp and artichoke with white truffle oil were wonderful), soups and salads, and then two pastas. You simply choose which you want and how much of it. I must say that the potato and ricotta ravioli was so out-of-this-world that when I came back a second time I asked for a regular helping of that, skipping other options). Desserts aren't as creative as those in the Crown Grill but just as delicious; tiramisu, that classic, was perfectly prepared.

The new placement of Sabatini's -- atop the ship on Deck 16, right next to Adagio and with great expansive views -- is also a plus. The restaurant itself feels peppy and fun, complete with festive Italian-themed wall murals. And tables are spaced for privacy. Note: Feel free to ask your waiter to have dessert served in Adagio's ... a nice way to end the evening.

Two of my favorite dining destinations aren't even in the mainstream! The International Cafe, located on Deck 3 and in the heart of all the Piazza action, offers pastries in the morning, quiche and finger sandwiches in the evening, and tapas at night. It's actually got a pastry chef working right there -- and baking right there -- so the smell, say, of a buttery croissant or the addictive chocolate chip cookies -- wafted around the Piazza. The scents were the International Cafe's best advertisement. It's also the place to go for designer coffees. (Note: Princess is the first in the industry to offer a coffee card; for $24.95 you get 15 specialty coffees, which works out to a 20 percent discount.) The coffees available include the usual stuff -- espresso, cappuccino, latte and mocha, along with hot chocolate and premium tea.

Prior to my trip, there was a lot of confusion over which food items (all beverages are a'la carte) were "free" and which were priced separately. Most everything fell into the former category, and the items that did require a surcharge -- such as the chocolate fondue -- were clearly marked and obviously exceptional.

My other favorite spot was the Vines Wine & Seafood Bar, which specializes in sushi and interesting wines. You have to pay for the sushi, but you'll find it's worth every penny after the sushi chef takes your particulars and rolls 'em up. Pair it with a glass of wine from the adventurous and worldly list, and it's a great light lunch.

Speaking of wine list, the standard offering (available in the dining rooms and at the ship's lounges, save for Vines) is pedantic and uninspired. Mark-ups seemed on the high side -- a Beringer white zinfandel that goes for about $6 in a local wine store is priced at $25 on Princess' list.

Editor's Note: Interestingly, upon embarkation we were bombarded not by drink waiters pushing alcoholic cocktails, but by crew members selling soda cards. They're available only for the whole cruise (not per day) and wind up costing about $4 per day. For me, a diet Coke lover, it was well worth it (in fact I think Princess might have lost money).

There was an afternoon tea service every day in one of the dining rooms and also in the International Cafe.

Room service offers Continental breakfast only in standard quarters, with more elaborate menus offered for suiteholders. There's a 24-hour menu with the usual offerings (tuna sandwiches, burgers, salads, desserts), and while it's limited, it always hit the spot (and was consistently delivered promptly -- and hot).

A don't-miss event (you must have a balcony though) is the Lobster Balcony Dinner. At a cost of $50 per person, it's romantic and fun (and even though we were in mini-suites where there are no coverings over verandahs, everyone was inside and it felt private anyway). The meal is delivered course by course, starting with a cocktail while the waiter sets up your linen-covered table, complete with fresh flowers. A photographer takes a photo. And then the feast begins, with a menu that starts with a crab cake baked in puff pastry, a salad of marinated chevre and mesclun, a choice between the lobster tail or beef tenderloin or surf and turf (a bit of both), and then dessert, a quartet of mousses. Lovely.

Princess has also recently introduced the "balcony breakfast," and I arranged it as a surprise for my husband, in celebration of his birthday. It was also lovely, though not quite as elegant; a waiter sets up the table and then dumps a pile of covered plates nearby. Inside is quiche, fresh fruit and lots of (way too many of) pastries, as well as a split of champagne. Cost is $30 per couple.

And another fun new option is the Brooklyn Balcony Nosh. Available only on embarkation day (as the ship's home port is in, er, Brooklyn), the $7 per person room service offering includes a Nathan's hot dog, a slice of Junior's cheesecake and a bottle of beer from Brooklyn Lager. It's a gimmick, sure, but when we boarded, hungry and tired from traveling, it was great little pick-me-up, enjoyed on the balcony facing the Statue of Liberty, and offered a change from battling the first-day lines at the buffet.

Public Rooms

The Piazza, which is primarily an entertainment venue, is detailed under the entertainment section (below), but I mention it because it does provide the ship with a central gathering spot. Just off the Piazza is the Escapes Travel Cafe. While not a "real" cafe (no refreshments are served), it's outfitted with personal computers for researching future cruises. Next door is the actual Internet cafe with 25 computers. Rates are 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 (but not in cabins).

The library and card room spread out across Deck 6 and offer games, daily news printouts and books for checking out; it's the usual assortment.

There are five shops onboard, and the fact that we found literally nothing worth purchasing offers a clue about their merchandise! It was pretty much the usual stuff -- duty free liquor that is actually cheaper in ports of call, T-shirts and other logo items, "brand name" fashion jewelry and watches (again, cheaper in ports of call on the ship's itineraries).

The photo gallery stretches a long way on Deck 7 -- between the Crown Grill and the Princess Theater.

Cabins

All passengers on this ship get a treat in terms of bedding: Princess' new bedding program, available on other Princess ships only on verandah-plus cabins, have been installed in all staterooms. That means there are plush duvets, good quality towels amd lovely pillows.

All standard cabins (insides on up) are uniquely laid out with a little hallway off the main hallway that leads to your open-door closet and to the bathroom. It's like having a walk-in closet! The stateroom includes shower-only bathrooms, queen beds that can be split into twins, small sofas (some are sleepers), a desk/vanity area and flat screen televisions. Further, alll come with a private safe and (empty) mini-fridges.

Cabins, especially at the lower levels, are quite snug for a new ship. Insides measure 163 square ft., outsides are 168 square ft., and standard balcony cabins run about 233 square ft., which includes the verandah. Those opting for more room should start by looking at mini-suites, at 323 square ft., which include a separate living nook and a full length couch, along with a chair and an extra remote-operated television. Its bathroom comes with a tub. Then Princess has a raft of names for its other suites (Vista, Penthouse, Owners), but they all come in between 468 - 591 square ft. Other perks include a separate sitting area, DVD and MP3 player (DVD's are available to borrow), free laundry and dry cleaning, and a more elaborate bathroom. Interestingly, there's no over-the-top, 1,000-plus square ft. suite onboard.

There are two family suites onboard; these measure 607 square ft.

Twenty-five cabins are designed for the physically disabled, including 16 balcony, four oceanview and five inside.

Entertainment

New to the Princess fleet, Crown Princess' Piazza is a marvelous destination. Located on Deck 3 -- and the first deck of the three-story atrium -- it serves as an impromptu performance venue, demo-area and, during down times, adjunct to the International Cafe. We loved it. On one sea day, for instance, there was a chocolate demo from the pastry chef, followed by a mime, followed by magic tricks and then a "physical comedy" act. On another day, the young members of Princess' Fun Zone program had a "street fair" there. On the second formal evening, people thronged all three levels to watch the fabled "champagne pour," a Princess tradition.

Beyond that, the ship has so many entertainment options that my head literally was spinning as I tried to figure out which to choose. Each lounge has a different personality. Crooners, on the promenade, is right in the heart of the action, overlooking the Piazza, and features a vocalist. Explorer's Lounge is primarily an events' venue for everything from art auctions to guest lectures. At night, it often served as a secondary movie theater (for more mature fare, like "Memoirs of a Geisha" to counter the friskier offerings of Movies Under the Stars, such as "Beyonce in Concert" and "The Rocky Horror Picture Show". Club Fusion was also busy during the day -- with Ballroom Blitz, line dancing, bingo and Jeopardy -- and into the evening with music-related activities, from trivia to "Princess Pop Star," a take-off on American Idol, to Bee At Sea, a spelling-themed competition.

The Speakeasy, tucked into Gatsby's Casino, is the only place to smoke a stogie. The Wheelhouse Bar, a Princess tradition, has nautical character, but lacks the intimacy I've associated with smaller versions on other ships. And Adagio, tucked into a light-filled corner on Deck 16, is an elegant, Ritz Carlton-esque venue with a cabaret singer/pianist. Late night action is to be found, natch, in Princess' trademark Skywalker's (this version has a nice balcony off the end); it's a kids and then teen disco early in the evening then adults only later on.

The Princess Theater is the ship's main venue, and it also showed movies from time to time when not featuring production shows and comedy acts.

During the daytime, beyond the aforementioned entertainment, Princess is definitely committed to its ScholarShip@Sea program. Some are more light-hearted -- I had a blast bringing out my "inner artist" at Ceramics at Sea (it's tucked into an alcove by the Neptune's Reef pool); you pay only for the plate or frame or whatever you choose -- the paint is supplied and staffers fire it for you to take home. Other facets of the overall program include culinary arts demonstrations (wine tastings, ice carving and the like), an extensive array of Computers@Sea classes and a guest lecture series. On our trip, John Maxtone-Graham, the famed maritime historian, and Colonel Stephen M. Bauer, one-time military social aide at the White House, pulled in good crowds even on sunny days.

Movies Under the Stars, in the Calypso Pool area, is a major attraction and is on all day (with family fare), as well as into the night.

The Grand Casino has the usual array of slots and table games, including Texas Hold 'Em.

Most impressive was the operation of the shore excursion department. Located on Deck 6, staffers there regularly provided visual updates of which tours were sold out (eliminating the need to stand in line and wait for something you couldn't book). Often tours were added as demand required, and occasionally they'd offer a last minute option. The variety as well veered between sedate and almost wild-and-crazy; literally something for everyone.

Fitness and Recreation

Speaking of something for everyone, Crown Princess offers the best variety of pools at sea. The Neptune's Reef pool is the spot for water games and entertainment, and features whirlpool spas. The adjacent Calypso Reef and Pool is home to Movies Under the Stars (and Sun), so there is constant entertainment there. For solitude seekers, there are two options. The aft pool, mightly improved by the removal of the "Skywalkers" shopping cart handle design, now offers a mix of sunny and shady spots. The Lotus Pool, affixed to the spa but open to all adults, remains a popular spot for swimming against the current; it's small though, and its nine loungers get snapped up pretty quickly. It has two whirlpools.

Entirely new is the addition of The Sanctuary, located where you'll find Ping-Pong and basketball courts on other Princess ships (these have been moved in the re-design). It's a lovely space, featuring a tent canopy over most of it (there are a handful of loungers in sunny places), an astro-turf carpet, and fabulous Italianate chaises and chairs (with decadently thick cushions), covered with the plushest, thirstiest towels. An interesting (and lovely) aspect of the Sanctuary is its service element -- waiters are on hand and a spa menu is available (with a mix of healthy fare, such as tuna pate, and most decidedly unhealthy, a cheeseburger), and you can order drinks (again, everything from fruit drinks and smoothies to a bottle of beer). You can also rent Ipods (with Bose headphones), which have a variety of types of tunes downloaded onto them, for $10.

There is a cost of $10 per person per half day and the Sanctuary is open from 8 a.m. - 12:30 p.m. and 1 - 5:30 p.m. Is it worth it? For anyone who wants a respite from all the "energy" -- absolutely. And while there's no pool here, the fact that the Lotus Pool is downstairs is just fine.

The Sanctuary also has two massage cabanas. Book the massages through the Lotus Spa.

Speaking of which, the Lotus Spa is very similar in design and orient to those found on Caribbean Princess and beyond. It's shaped in a "U" style, offering an Asian ambiance on the side of the treatment rooms and a utilitarian aspect on the other, where you can find the beauty salon and fitness facility. Interestingly, it seems that tooth whitening has become mainstream -- the salon has designed a special cubby for folks trying that treatment. It's got a flat screen television and a nice view of the sea. There's also a barber shop for men.

The fitness facility is slightly larger than those on earlier ships and has all the usual pieces of equipment (stationary bikes and treadmills are topped with flat screen televisions). Open from 7 a.m. - 10 p.m., it offers classes; some, such as "stretch and relax" and step aerobics are free while others, including yoga and Pilates, are $10 apiece.

Spa treatments run the gamut from hydra lift facials to hot stone massage, and from ocean wraps to acupuncture. I tried an "Asian Ritual" that was basically just a fancy name for a basic massage and facial, but it was pleasant nevertheless. One of the most interesting spa experiences ever was the couples Rasul -- there's a private mud-room with steam, and it's a lovely, sweet experience rather than ... well, what you might imagine! It's really do-it-yourself treatment, with all manner of Steiner products set out in the order you should use them -- lotions and potions and then the mud which is soft and not all lumpy. Then you sit in the steam for awhile. It was fun.

I had heard reports from other passengers of the famous Steiner sales pitch (after your treatment your therapist will strongly "advise" you that you need a myriad of beauty products, all of which are sold right here!). If you want to buy, go for it. If you don't, simply say no. Beware: they can get pushy....

Family

Starting with Crown Princess, the line's kids programs and services have gotten a major update. The Fun Zone is still divided into two groups -- Princess Pelicans for the 3 - 7's and Shockwaves for the 8 - 12's. Activities include arts and crafts, video games, karaoke, shipboard Olympics, kids-only dining and scavenger hunts. Port day supervision is available as is group kid sitting (from 10 p.m. - 1 a.m.). Some of the really cool new programs include Jr. Chef at Sea for the Shockwaves group; they get lessons in the ship's main galley on making sushi and fruit pizza along with cake decorating. Parents are required to participate, making for a nice family bonding exercise. Teens can take part in a makeover program at the spa.

What's different is the new approach with teens. A new facility -- called Remix -- is hipper and edgier than ever, featuring Playstation 2's, movies and music, Karaoke, giant screen TV's, card games, board games, Ping Pong tables and juke boxes.Teens also have a separate Jacuzzi and sunbathing area. They can even mix their own dance tracks and take hip-hop dance lessons.

The most unique new aspect to Princess' program -- one they've quietly rolled out -- is a Youth Security Program. Young folks (early 20's) wearing bright yellow -- and instantly identifiable -- polo shirts, patrol the ship (and even are waiting at embarkation) with a purpose of discouraging outrageous behavior before it has a chance to occur. What's more, these staffers, just slightly older than the kids they oversee, are of the same generation so to speak and come across as cool and hip -- and the teens look up to them. As an onboard staffer explained, "they come across as teen-friendly and are not perceived as a police force."

As a non-teen passenger, I also found the yellow-shirted youths to be incredibly helpful if you needed assistance with anything....

Fellow Passengers

We can't think of any passenger "demographic" that wouldn't find something to love on Crown Princess. On our trip, there were seniors, families, gay and lesbian travelers, honeymooners, and friends-and-family groups. The only folks who might find the ship's size a hindrance would be single travelers -- because of its size and its passenger capacity it can be hard to meet people.

Dress Code

On Crown Princess, which offers nine-night cruises, there were two formal nights (and level of formality ranged wildly, from way-too-casual, jeans and such, to black tie). Most women wore cocktail gowns and pants-outfits; men wore jackets and ties. Daytime, again there was a wide range of attire, but indoors, folks tended to dress country club casual.

Gratuity

Princess levies a fee of $10.50 per person, per day ($11 for passengers occupying suites and mini-suites); it's automatically added to shipboard accounts. Passengers wishing to adjust their gratuity should make the request at the purser's desk. Drinks come with an automatic 15 percent tip. Spa treatment bills do not automatically include gratuity; that must be added separately and 10 - 20 percent is considered appropriate, depending on quality of experience.

--by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in ChiefAs the blueprint for the Princess Cruises fleet, the 2006-launched Crown Princess -- as well as its identical sister ships, Emerald (2007) and Ruby Princess (2008) -- aims to showcase everything that has come to define the line. This is quintessential Princess.

Those familiar with Princess will recognize its marquee features: Movies Under the Stars, a poolside big-screen theater introduced on Caribbean Princess (and since nicked by just about everyone in the industry); the bustling, three-deck Piazza, a combination bakery, Internet cafe, wine/sushi/tapas bar and performance venue; the adults-only Sanctuary, a mostly shaded top-ship retreat with thick, plush loungers, massage cabanas and a spa menu; and Princess' signature duo of specialty restaurants, the Crown Grill (steaks, chops and seafood) and Sabatini's (Italian multi-course repast).

But while these fleet-defining features are truly impressive, there's something important to consider: Without a new ship scheduled to launch until spring of 2013, Princess is experiencing a nearly five-year new-ship famine. And so, lacking a buzz-generating new-build on the way, the line has striven to keep things fresh by way of new programs, large and small. The excellent Wheelhouse Pub lunch with its fish 'n' chips and bangers 'n' mash draws a serious crowd; the addition of Wii's and PS3's to the kids' areas; and the introduction of poolside big-screen Wii competitions should have a noticeable impact during peak periods for family cruising; and classes on drink-mixing and astronomy have added a few more "enrichment" options. Best of all are the phenomenal backstairs ship tours -- one that takes passengers into the galley during the frantic dinner rush (at 7:30 p.m.!) and a second that provides an insider's look at the inner workings of the vessel, from the sprawling laundry facilities in the bowels to the top-ship funnels.

There are even smaller, under-the-radar touches: With the exception of a cheese plate, the once for-fee sushi in Vines is now included in the fare. (There was no stopping me from swallowing four orders at a time, which previously would have been followed by a $15 bill.) And, suite passengers can now eat breakfast in Sabatini's with a special menu and sip on reduced-price drinks and free canapes in a designated lounge each evening.

The challenge, of course, is integrating these new touches into the existing Princess framework. Overall, it works extremely well -- an impressive undertaking for a 3,000-plus-passenger, mass-market cruise ship. It's classy without a drop of pretention -- a reason why so many of the passengers I chatted with were repeat or Princess-only cruisers.

But while Crown Princess has solidified its place in the mainstream, there were a few things amiss. Sure, the food is always impeccably presented -- but serving 3,000 people a night has a built-in limitation. The 22-ounce porterhouse in the Crown Grill, a for-fee steak and seafood venue, was disappointingly fatty, but the potato, asparagus and other sides were, on the other hand, superbly memorable. There was also some grumbling about a fall-off in service -- understandable when the goal is to be all-things-for-all-passengers people … from those looking for an upscale dining experience in Sabatini's to passengers who want to show off their yams in the men's sexy legs contest. (There's probably some crossover.) Several fellow cruisers complained of little service issues, like a tea-time eye-roll at the request for a second sandwich, debarkation day confusion and a purser's desk that was unsure of the answers to questions. Personally, I found the main stage production shows, which have been the same since the ship launched in 2006, a little tired.

Still, bonds quickly form with such a personable captain, executive chef and crew. A bartender in Adagio, the ship's top-ship lounge, told me about his wife's Twitter obsession (she's a Twilight fan); the sushi chef hammed it up for the camera; and the maitre d' brought an Italian chef puppet around during a multi-course feast that left us immobile.

Dining

As with all but three of Princess' ships, Crown Princess offers "anytime" and "traditional" modes of evening dining. (The line's small "R-class" trio only has traditional dining.) Botticelli is home to those who prefer the tradition of set time, table and dinner-mates; on our Caribbean cruise seatings were at 6 and 8:15 p.m. Michelangelo and Da Vinci are open restaurant style (typically from 5:30 - 10 p.m.). All offer the same Princess menu with various theme nights. (Of primary importance are formal nights, when the chef goes all-out with lobster or beef tenderloin.) We chose the "anytime" option, and rarely -- if ever -- did we wait, though it can get a bit crowded around 7:30 p.m. If you want to avoid the rush, it's best to make reservations ahead of time. Service was excellent in both dining rooms. Food, too, was generally decent, and mostly focused on predictable basics (short ribs for lunch, roasted tom turkey for dinner, beef Wellington on formal night), but there were occasional and always pleasant surprises (roasted pheasant, quail and venison saddle terrine). There's also a nightly designated "Homestyle" offering, which focuses on what Princess might define as all-American favorites from mom's kitchen, like pork roast with crackling, Texas chili and meatloaf. An "always available" menu includes options like steak, chicken breast and salmon.

A vegetarian menu is offered each night. Baked eggplant lasagna, Moroccan ragout, fettuccine alfredo -- of which the chef told us about 400 are ordered a night -- are among the choices. Lotus Spa options like broiled chicken and seared fish are marked with a flower and are said to be "lower in fat, cholesterol and sodium," though I'm doubtful that the slow-roasted prime rib with fully loaded potato should have been included.

Editor's Note: A word on open seating … while there is a fair amount of tables for two and four, you may be asked first if you'd like to be seated with others -- a result of filling an anytime dining-style banquet hall.

One dining room is open for breakfast and lunch; both meals are open-seating. A nice touch at lunch is the inclusion on menus of "late riser" breakfast fare; each day it features an omelet, French toast or some other selection.

The Horizon Court is pretty much a standard buffet, open for breakfast, lunch and casual dinner. It's tucked away on two sides of the lido in a station setup (though during slower periods, only one side may be open); you'll find deli fare, made-to-order sandwiches and meats, and a whole host of sides and salads. There's a separate pasta "cafe" (though it is still located within the confines of the Horizon Court), and it serves up a couple of specials every day. Out by the main pool is the Trident grill. It offers the usual burgers, hot dogs, chicken and veggie burgers (veggie burgers arecooked to order) along with a special each day. The fries are delicious! There's also a pizza counter that dishes out massive slices, and next to that is a free ice cream option (milkshakes are $3.75, however).

The more interesting part of the buffet region is Cafe Caribe. It's located completely aft beyond the Horizon Court, and features themed buffets at lunch and dinner, which were absolutely outstanding (and fun besides). One that was especially memorable was a lunchtime Asian repast, which included potstickers, sweet and sour pork, and sushi. Evenings at Cafe Caribe were even more special; the tables get linen cloths, and the themes ranged from Provencal to an Indonesian rijstafel rice table buffet. Oddly, the night's theme is not posted in the Patter (the daily, onboard newsletter), so you'll have to wander up to see what's going on.

Adding to the variety are Crown Princess' two alternative restaurants. Crown Grill was a nice experience -- it's both a fish and chops kind of place ($25 per person extra charge) with an open kitchen, where live lobsters writhe on crushed ice and meaty steaks are smoking on the grill. Menus here are eclectic -- the standard menu includes appetizers (the carpaccio of pine nut-coated lamb loin was awesome, while the spiny lobster cake was a little rubbery), soups (try the black and blue onion soup) and salads and then takes a fork in the road. One side emphasizes seafood (vongole, seafood stew, striped bass), and the other focuses on chops (lamb, pork, porterhouse, filet mignon). There's a third main course option: the lobster menu. It requires a $9 extra surcharge on top of the service fee and allows you to choose between a 1.5- to 2-pound Maine lobster or a 12-ounce Brazilian lobster tail.

Sides are served family-style (delicious corn casserole, scalloped potatoes, asparagus, etc.). Desserts, as they were everywhere onboard, were inventive and fun; our waiter recommended the "crown dependence," which offers a bite-sized selection of the desserts. I also loved the seven-layer s'mores, a sophisticated take on the around-the-campfire legend.

Ironically, the meat was the weak link in our Sterling experience. Everything else was excellent (sides, salad, dessert), but the 22-ounce porterhouse wasn't quite up to snuff, with too much fat and gristle for a steak at a surcharge restaurant. But again, the surrounding courses -- goat cheese salad, lamb carpaccio, ridiculously good scalloped potatoes and dessert platter -- almost made up for any main course disappointment.

Sabatini's ($20 per person charge) is the line's upscale, trademark Italian eatery. On Crown Princess, it's a little different than it is on older Princess ships in both substance and decor. Substance-wise, there's still a great menu of food to choose from, and the experience is more about the Italian use of tastings, like the Spanish tapas. Basically, you only choose your main course ("second piatti"), which includes entrees such as sea bass, grilled lobster, stuffed chicken, veal chop and prawns. For the three courses leading up to it, waiters bring around platters of antipasti (chunks of aged parmesan, melon and prosciutto, porcini mushrooms, artichokes, calamari), soups and salads, and then two pastas. You simply choose which you want and how much of it. Desserts aren't as creative as those in the Crown Grill, but they're just as delicious; tiramisu, a classic, was perfectly prepared.

Sampling a bit of everything left me unable to finish even half of my main course, the sea bass. Then, you're expected to eat dessert after that. Pacing is key here.

The placement of Sabatini's -- atop the ship on Deck 16, right next to Adagio and with great, expansive views -- is also a plus. The restaurant itself feels peppy and fun, complete with festive Italian-themed wall murals. And, tables are spaced for privacy. Note: Adagio is a great venue for a pre-dinner drink, as it's usually quiet and relaxed with an undiscovered quality. Also, feel free to ask your waiter to have dessert served in Adagio's -- a nice way to end the evening.

As previously mentioned, Sabatini's breakfast, first introduced on newer sister ship Ruby Princess, has also been added to Crown Princess. Suite passengers can enjoy their first meals of the day in the ship's specialty restaurant from 7:30 to 10:30 a.m. There are some unique menu items, such as brioche French toast and poached eggs dressed with potatoes and vegetables, that you won't find in the main dining rooms.

The outstanding Chef's Table concept, first introduced on Emerald Princess, has been added fleetwide and is not to be missed. A group of up to 10 (and not necessarily all known to one another -- you just sign up for designated evenings) start the night off with Champagne cocktails and appetizers (foie gras, king crab salad in a martini glass, pate) in the working galley. Anyone who's done a tour of any ship's huge galley will understand that these are nearly always held, for obvious reasons, when there isn't much going on! What's neat about Chef's Table is that your group occupies a corner of the main galley at the height of dinnertime, and the looks from some busy waiters were priceless. The chance to see chefs and waiters in action -- a real behind-the-scenes experience -- is worth the price of admission ($75 per person, which includes a keepsake chef's coat). Then, you're taken out to specially designated tables in a private dining area and served a multi-course menu, paired with wines that are selected just for the evening.

Two of the most popular dining destinations aren't even in the mainstream. The International Cafe, located on Deck 3 and in the heart of all the Piazza action, offers pastries in the morning, quiche and finger sandwiches in the evening and tapas at night (open 24 hours). It's actually got a pastry chef working right there, so the smell, say, of a buttery croissant or the addictive chocolate chip cookies wafted around the Piazza. The scents were the International Cafe's best advertisement. It's also the place to go for designer coffees. (Note: Princess is the first in the industry to offer a coffee card; for $24.95 you get 15 specialty coffees, which works out to a 20 percent discount.) The coffees available include the usual stuff -- espresso, cappuccino, latte and mocha, along with hot chocolate and premium tea.

Prior to my trip, there was a lot of confusion over which food items (all beverages are a la carte) were "free" and which were priced separately. Most everything fell into the former category, and the items that did require a surcharge -- such as the chocolate fondue -- were clearly marked and obviously exceptional.

My favorite spot was the Vines Wine & Seafood Bar, which specializes in sushi-like tapas and interesting wines (click here to see the wine list). The sushi offered, a rotating menu of three options (scallops with seaweed, tuna sashimi, California roll one night) and appetizers (little meatballs, mussels). Pair it with a glass of wine from the adventurous and worldly list, and it's a great light lunch or dinner. The sushi is included in your cruise fare. Hours vary depending on the day. In port, Vines is open from 4 to 11 p.m., and at-sea hours are 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.

There was an afternoon tea service every day in the Da Vinci dining room.

On Crown Princess, room service goes beyond the standard continental breakfast and 24-hour menu with the usual offerings (tuna sandwiches, burgers, salads, desserts; note there's a surcharge of $3 for pizza delivery) -- especially if you have a balcony cabin. A don't-miss event is the Ultimate Balcony Dinner. At a cost of $50 per person, it's romantic and fun. (Even though we were in mini-suites, where there are no coverings over verandahs, everyone was inside, so it felt private anyway.) The meal is delivered course by course, starting with a cocktail while the waiter sets up your linen-covered table, complete with fresh flowers. A photographer takes a photo. And then, the four-course feast begins. The menu starts with choices like crab cakes baked in puff pastry, a salad of marinated chevre and mesclun, a choice between the lobster tail or beef tenderloin or surf and turf (a bit of both) and then dessert, which included a quartet of mousses -- lovely.

Princess also has the "balcony breakfast," and it's wonderful, though not quite as elegant as its more involved sibling; a waiter sets up the table and then dumps a pile of covered plates nearby. Inside are quiche, fresh fruit and lots of (way too many) pastries, as well as a split of Champagne. The cost is $28 per person.

Public Rooms

The Piazza, which is primarily an entertainment venue, is detailed under the entertainment section (below), but I mention it here because it does provide the ship with a central gathering spot. Just off the Piazza is the Escapes Travel Cafe. While not a "real" cafe (no refreshments are served), it's outfitted with personal computers for researching future cruises. Next door is the actual Internet cafe with 25 computers. Rates are 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.

The library and card room spread out across Deck 6 and offer games, daily news printouts and books for checking out; it's the usual assortment.

There are five shops onboard, and the fact that we found literally nothing worth purchasing offers a clue about their merchandise! It was pretty much the usual stuff – duty-free liquor that is actually cheaper in ports of call, T-shirts and other logo items, "brand name" fashion jewelry and watches (again, cheaper in ports of call on the ship's itineraries).

The photo gallery stretches a long way on Deck 7, between the Crown Grill and the Princess Theater.

Cabins

Crown Princess offers a limited variety of cabin categories but its 880 balcony cabins (out of 1,532 total cabins) means that plucking up an oceanview room is decidedly affordable. Decor is a little on the mundane side, with light pink, blue, cream and beige dominating the color scheme. In line with the subtle additions, Princess has added a dedicated romance channel, which features many an episode of the "Love Boat" and movies like Sleepless in Seattle, as well as a Leonard Maltin Movie Channel, which shows a combination of new stuff (Benjamin Button, Star Trek) and older classics. Each cabin comes with a little booklet outlining the options.

Each standard cabins (insides on up) is uniquely laid out with a little hallway off the main hallway that leads to an open-door closet and to the bathroom. It's like having a walk-in closet! Cabins include shower-only bathrooms, queen beds that can be split into twins, small sofas (some are sleepers), a desk/vanity area and flat-screen televisions. Further, all come with private safes and (empty) mini-fridges.

Cabins, especially at the lower levels, are a little snug. Insides measure 163 square feet, outsides are 168 square feet, and standard balcony cabins run about 233 square feet, including the verandahs. Those opting for more room should start by looking one of 178 mini-suites, at 323 square feet, which include separate living nooks and full-length couches, along with chairs and extra, remote-operated televisions. Mini-suite bathrooms come with bathtubs, though the ceiling is rather low-set. (At about six feet tall, I had just a couple inches of clearance.) The balconies for the mini-suites on the controversial Dolphin Deck jut out from the ship's superstructure, so they're exposed to the sky and the prying eyes of fellow passengers above. A similarly situated Cruise Critic reader had an interesting solution: She brought a beach umbrella.

Princess has a raft of names for its other suites (Vista, Penthouse, Owners), but they all come in between 468 and 591 square feet. Other suite perks include a separate sitting area, DVD and MP3 player (DVD's are available to borrow), free laundry and dry cleaning, and a more elaborate bathroom. Interestingly, there's no over-the-top, 1,000-plus-square-foot suite onboard.

There are two family suites onboard, which are, in essence, interconnecting cabins that share a living space and large balcony with a table, four chairs and two loungers. Bedroom one has a queen bed and tubbed bathroom within its walls; the second bedroom has two twin beds and a shower-only bathroom. Family Suites measure 607 square feet, which includes the balcony.

Thirty-one cabins are designed for the physically disabled, including 21 balcony, four oceanview and six inside.

Entertainment

Introduced to the Princess fleet on Crown Princess, the Piazza is a marvelous destination. Located on Deck 3 -- and the first deck of the three-story atrium -- it serves as a mini-performance venue, demo area and, during down times, adjunct to the International Cafe. We loved it. At various points, for instance, there was a sushi, fruit and vegetable demonstration; "comedy juggler"; and string quartet. On another day, the Princess singers and dancers offered a few numbers from "Motor City," the Motown production show. On the second formal evening, people thronged all three levels to watch the fabled "Champagne pour," a Princess tradition.

Beyond that, the ship has so many entertainment options that my head literally was spinning as I tried to figure out which to choose. Each lounge has a different personality. Crooners, on the promenade, is right in the heart of the action, overlooking the Piazza, and usually features a vocalist or pianist. Explorer's Lounge is primarily an events' venue for just about everything, including art auctions, dances, standup comedy and guest lectures. Club Fusion was also busy during the day -- with Ballroom Blitz, line dancing, bingo and Jeopardy -- and into the evening with music-related activities, from trivia and the Newlywed, Not so Newlywed Game to "Princess Pop Star," a take-off on American Idol.

The Speakeasy, adjacent to Gatsby's Casino, is the only place to smoke a stogie. The Wheelhouse Bar, a Princess tradition, has nautical character but lacks the intimacy I've associated with smaller versions on other ships. And Adagio, tucked into a light-filled corner on Deck 16, is an elegant, Ritz Carlton-esque venue -- ideal for a chat -- with low-key piano music. Late-night action is to be found, natch, in Princess' trademark Skywalker's. (This version has a nice balcony off the end.) It then becomes a kids' and teens' disco early in the evening; it turns into an adults-only hangout later on.

The roughly 800-seat Princess Theater is the ship's main venue, and it also showed movies from time to time when not featuring production shows and comedy acts. Production shows, which have remained unchanged since the ship debuted in 2006, include "Motor City," a tribute to Motown, and "Destination Anywhere," a mishmash of songs and sets from different eras and locales (Africa, outer space, etc.).

During the daytime, beyond the aforementioned entertainment, Princess is definitely committed to its ScholarShip@Sea program. Some classes are more light-hearted -- I had a blast bringing out my "inner artist" during Ceramics@Sea (tucked into an alcove by the Neptune's Reef pool); you pay only for the plate or frame or whatever you choose ($15 to $30). The paint is supplied, and staffers fire your piece for you to take home. Other facets of the overall program include culinary arts demonstrations (wine-tastings, ice-carving and the like), an extensive array of Computers@Sea classes ($25 for a Photoshop class) and a guest lecture series (free).

Movies Under the Stars, in the Calypso Pool area, is a major attraction and is on all day (with family fare), as well as into the night. Films on our seven-night Caribbean cruise sailing included "Transformers 2," "Harry Potter & The Half Blood Prince" and "Ghosts of Girlfriends Past."

The Grand Casino has the usual array of slots and table games, including one for dealerless Texas Hold 'Em.

Most impressive was the operation of the shore excursion department. Located on Deck 6, staffers there regularly provided visual updates of which tours were sold out (eliminating the need to stand in line and wait for something you couldn't book). Often, tours were added as demand required, and occasionally, they'd offer a last-minute option. The variety veered between sedate and almost wild-and-crazy; there was literally something for everyone.

Fitness and Recreation

Speaking of something for everyone, Crown Princess offers a truly impressive variety of pools up on the sun deck. The Neptune's Reef pool is the spot for water games and entertainment, and it features hot tubs. The adjacent Calypso Reef and Pool is home to Movies Under the Stars (and Sun), so there is constant entertainment. For solitude-seekers, there are two options. The aft pool, mightily improved by the removal of Skywalkers and the shopping cart-handle design of earlier Princess ships, offers a mix of sunny and shady spots. The Lotus Pool, affixed to the spa but open to all adults, remains a popular spot for swimming against the current; it's small, though, and its nine loungers get snapped up pretty quickly on sunny days. It has two whirlpools.

The adults-only Sanctuary, which debuted on Crown Princess, has been such a hit that the line has retrofitted the majority of its ships with the serene feature. It's a lovely space, featuring a tent canopy (with a handful of loungers in sunny places), an Astroturf carpet and fabulous Italianate chaises and chairs with decadently thick cushions, covered with the plushest, thirstiest towels. An excellent aspect of the Sanctuary is its service element. Waiters are on hand, and a spa menu is available with a mix of healthy and unhealthy fare, ranging from tuna pate to cheeseburgers. You can also order drinks (again, everything from fruit drinks and smoothies to bottles of beer). There is a $3.50 service fee for orders, but that doesn't mean you can't order multiple items. You can also rent iPods (with Bose headphones), which have a variety of types of tunes downloaded onto them, for $10.

There is a cost of $10 per person, per half day, and the Sanctuary is open from 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and from 1 to 5:30 p.m. Is it worth it? For anyone who wants a respite from all the "energy," absolutely. While there's no pool there, the fact that the Lotus Pool is downstairs is just fine. One note: On sunny Caribbean sea days, space in the Sanctuary will fill up quickly, so getting there 20 minutes early is advisable.

The Sanctuary also has two massage cabanas. Book massages through the Lotus Spa.

Speaking of which, the Lotus Spa is very similar in design and orient to those found on Caribbean Princess and beyond. It's shaped in a "U" style, offering an Asian ambience on the side of the treatment rooms and a utilitarian aspect on the other, where you can find the beauty salon and fitness facility. Interestingly, it seems that teeth-whitening has become mainstream -- the salon has designed a special cubby for folks trying that treatment. It's got a flat-screen television and a nice view of the sea. There's also a barber shop for men.

The Lotus Spa even features a Thermal Suite, which includes a sauna, two aromatherapy steam rooms and five hot-rock beds. Passes for the week are $99 per person or $150 per couple.

The fitness facility is slightly larger than those on earlier ships and has all the usual pieces of equipment (more than 20 Precor treadmills, 10 ellipticals, some bikes, various weight machines and a small area with free weights). Open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., it offers classes; some, such as "stretch and relax" and step aerobics are free, while others -- including yoga and Pilates -- are $10 apiece. One odd feature of the gym is that the ceiling is quite low. If you're taller than six feet, your head may just reach the ceiling if you're on an elliptical.

Spa treatments run the gamut from hydra lift facials to hot stone massages and from seaweed wraps to acupuncture. I tried the "Aroma Spa Seaweed Massage," ($195 for 75 minutes). I was smothered in a seaweed lotion, wrapped in a tinfoil-like sheet for 20 minutes, then ordered to shower. After that I had a traditional half-body back and neck massage. The massage was outstanding, but I honestly could have gone without the seaweed. A standard, 50-minute Swedish massage (in essence, the second half of the seaweed offering) is $119.

I had heard reports from other passengers of the famous Steiner sales pitch. (After your treatment, your therapist will strongly "advise" you that you need a myriad of beauty products, all of which are sold right there.) If you want to buy, go for it. If you don't, simply say no. I was given no such pitch after my 75-minute treatment, and I left feeling loose and unburdened by a slew of new products.

Family

While Crown Princess' kids programs won't touch anything you'd find on Royal Caribbean or Disney ships, the blend of innovative activities (Wii on the big-screen by the pool) and traditional offerings (pizza and ice cream parties) are more than enough to keep the kids occupied. Located up on Deck 17, the Fun Zone is divided into two groups -- Princess Pelicans for the 3- to 7-year-olds and Shockwaves for the 8- to 12-year-olds. Activities include arts and crafts in conjunction with Klutz, a company known for its funky toy and how-to book combos (juggling, bubble blowing, etc.); video games (PS3, Wii); karaoke; shipboard Olympics; kids-only dining; and scavenger hunts. Port-day supervision is available, as is group kid-sitting (from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m., $5 per hour, per kid). Some of the really cool new programs include Jr. Chef@Sea for the Shockwaves group; they get lessons in the ship's main galley on making sushi and fruit pizza, along with cake-decorating. Parents are required to participate, making for a nice family bonding exercise. Teens can take part in a makeover program at the spa.

When Crown Princess debuted in 2006, it marked a new interest by Princess in teen cruisers. The venue called Remix is hip and edgy, featuring Playstation 3's, movies and music, karaoke, giant-screen TV's, card games, board games and air hockey and foosball tables. Teens also have a separate Jacuzzi and sunbathing area. They can even mix their own dance tracks and take hip-hop dance lessons. On our cruise, an early November Caribbean sailing, there were very few teens signed up -- so the area was often empty. It's definitely busier during family travel seasons.

One of the most unusual aspect of Princess' youth program is a Youth Security Program, which comes into effect when there is a large number of young passengers onboard, usually during peak holiday seasons. Young folks (early 20's) wearing bright yellow -- and instantly identifiable -- polo shirts, patrol the ship (and even are waiting at embarkation) with the purpose of discouraging outrageous behavior before it has a chance to occur. What's more, these staffers, just slightly older than the kids they oversee, are of the same generation and come across as cool and hip. The teens look up to them. As an onboard staffer explained, "they come across as teen-friendly and are not perceived as a police force."

Fellow Passengers

We can't think of any passenger "demographic" that wouldn't find something to like on Crown Princess. On our trip, there were seniors, families, gay and lesbian travelers, honeymooners and friends-and-family groups of all ages. The only folks who might find the ship's size a hindrance would be single travelers -- because of the vessel's size and its passenger capacity, it can be hard to meet people. On our cruise, a November sailing to the Western Caribbean, North Americans (2,800) and Brits (200) dominated.

Dress Code

On Crown Princess' seven-night Caribbean cruises, there are two formal nights, and the level of formality ranged wildly, from way-too-casual jeans and such to black-tie. Most women wore cocktail gowns and pants-outfits; men wore jackets and ties. In the daytime, again, there was a wide range of attire, but indoors, folks tended to dress country-club casual.

Gratuity

Princess levies a fee of $10.50 per person, per day ($11 for passengers occupying suites and mini-suites); it's automatically added to shipboard accounts. Passengers wishing to adjust their gratuity should make the request at the Purser's Desk. Drinks come with an automatic 15 percent tip. Spa treatment bills do not automatically include gratuity; that must be added separately, and 10 to 20 percent is considered appropriate, depending on the quality of the experience.

--by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief. Updated by Dan Askin, Associate EditorAs the blueprint for the Princess Cruises fleet, the 2006-launched Crown Princess -- as well as its sister ships, Emerald (2007) and Ruby Princess (2008) -- aims to showcase everything that has come to define the line. This is quintessential Princess.

Those familiar with Princess will recognize its marquee features: Movies Under the Stars, a poolside big-screen theater introduced on Caribbean Princess (and since nicked by just about everyone in the industry); the bustling, three-deck Piazza, a combination bakery, Internet cafe, wine/sushi/tapas bar and performance venue; the adults-only Sanctuary, a mostly shaded top-ship retreat with thick, plush loungers, massage cabanas and a spa menu; and Princess' signature duo of specialty restaurants, the Crown Grill (steaks, chops and seafood) and Sabatini's (Italian multi-course repast).

But while these fleet-defining features are truly impressive, there's something important to consider: Without a new ship scheduled to launch until spring of 2013, Princess is experiencing a nearly five-year new-ship famine. And so, lacking a buzz-generating new-build on the way, the line has striven to keep things fresh by way of new programs, large and small. The excellent Wheelhouse Pub lunch with its fish 'n' chips and bangers 'n' mash draws a serious crowd; the addition of Wii's and PS3's to the kids' areas; and the introduction of poolside big-screen Wii competitions should have a noticeable impact during peak periods for family cruising; and classes on drink-mixing and astronomy have added a few more "enrichment" options. Best of all are the phenomenal backstairs ship tours -- one that takes passengers into the galley during the frantic dinner rush (at 7:30 p.m.!) and a second that provides an insider's look at the inner workings of the vessel, from the sprawling laundry facilities in the bowels to the top-ship funnels.

There are even smaller, under-the-radar touches: With the exception of a cheese plate, the once for-fee sushi in Vines is now included in the fare. (There was no stopping me from swallowing four orders at a time, which previously would have been followed by a $15 bill.) And, suite passengers can now eat breakfast in Sabatini's with a special menu and sip on reduced-price drinks and free canapes in a designated lounge each evening.

The challenge, of course, is integrating these new touches into the existing Princess framework. Overall, it works extremely well -- an impressive undertaking for a 3,000-plus-passenger, mass-market cruise ship. It's classy without a drop of pretention -- a reason why so many of the passengers I chatted with were repeat or Princess-only cruisers.

But while Crown Princess has solidified its place in the mainstream, there were a few things amiss. Sure, the food is always impeccably presented -- but serving 3,000 people a night has a built-in limitation. The 22-ounce porterhouse in the Crown Grill, a for-fee steak and seafood venue, was disappointingly fatty, but the potato, asparagus and other sides were, on the other hand, superbly memorable. There was also some grumbling about a fall-off in service -- understandable when the goal is to be all-things-for-all-passengers people … from those looking for an upscale dining experience in Sabatini's to passengers who want to show off their yams in the men's sexy legs contest. (There's probably some crossover.) Several fellow cruisers complained of little service issues, like a tea-time eye-roll at the request for a second sandwich, debarkation day confusion and a purser's desk that was unsure of the answers to questions. Personally, I found the main stage production shows, which have been the same since the ship launched in 2006, a little tired.

Still, bonds quickly form with such a personable captain, executive chef and crew. A bartender in Adagio, the ship's top-ship lounge, told me about his wife's Twitter obsession (she's a Twilight fan); the sushi chef hammed it up for the camera; and the maitre d' brought an Italian chef puppet around during a multi-course feast that left us immobile.

Dining

As with all but three of Princess' ships, Crown Princess offers "anytime" and "traditional" modes of evening dining. (The line's mid-sized "R-class" ships only have traditional dining.) Botticelli is home to those who prefer the tradition of set time, table and dinner-mates; on our Caribbean cruise seatings were at 6 and 8:15 p.m. Michelangelo and Da Vinci are open restaurant style (typically from 5:30 - 10 p.m.). All offer the same Princess menu with various theme nights. (Of primary importance are formal nights, when the chef goes all-out with lobster or beef tenderloin.) We chose the "anytime" option, and rarely -- if ever -- did we wait, though it can get a bit crowded around 7:30 p.m. If you want to avoid the rush, it's best to make reservations ahead of time. Service was excellent in both dining rooms. Food, too, was generally decent, and mostly focused on predictable basics (short ribs for lunch, roasted tom turkey for dinner, beef Wellington on formal night), but there were occasional and always pleasant surprises (roasted pheasant, quail and venison saddle terrine). There's also a nightly designated "Homestyle" offering, which focuses on what Princess might define as all-American favorites from mom's kitchen, like pork roast with crackling, Texas chili and meatloaf. An "always available" menu includes options like steak, chicken breast and salmon.

A vegetarian menu is offered each night. Baked eggplant lasagna, Moroccan ragout, fettuccine alfredo -- of which the chef told us about 400 are ordered a night -- are among the choices. Lotus Spa options like broiled chicken and seared fish are marked with a flower and are said to be "lower in fat, cholesterol and sodium," though I'm doubtful that the slow-roasted prime rib with fully loaded potato should have been included.

Editor's Note: A word on open seating … while there is a fair amount of tables for two and four, you may be asked first if you'd like to be seated with others -- a result of filling an anytime dining-style banquet hall.

One dining room is open for breakfast and lunch; both meals are open-seating. A nice touch at lunch is the inclusion on menus of "late riser" breakfast fare; each day it features an omelet, French toast or some other selection.

The Horizon Court is pretty much a standard buffet, open for breakfast, lunch and casual dinner. It's tucked away on two sides of the lido in a station setup (though during slower periods, only one side may be open); you'll find deli fare, made-to-order sandwiches and meats, and a whole host of sides and salads. There's a separate pasta "cafe" (though it is still located within the confines of the Horizon Court), and it serves up a couple of specials every day. Out by the main pool is the Trident grill. It offers the usual burgers, hot dogs, chicken and veggie burgers (veggie burgers arecooked to order) along with a special each day. The fries are delicious! There's also a pizza counter that dishes out massive slices, and next to that is a free ice cream option (milkshakes are $3.75, however).

The more interesting part of the buffet region is Cafe Caribe. It's located completely aft beyond the Horizon Court, and features themed buffets at lunch and dinner, which were absolutely outstanding (and fun besides). One that was especially memorable was a lunchtime Asian repast, which included potstickers, sweet and sour pork, and sushi. Evenings at Cafe Caribe were even more special; the tables get linen cloths, and the themes ranged from Provencal to an Indonesian rijstafel rice table buffet. Oddly, the night's theme is not posted in the Patter (the daily, onboard newsletter), so you'll have to wander up to see what's going on.

Adding to the variety are Crown Princess' two alternative restaurants. Crown Grill was a nice experience -- it's both a fish and chops kind of place ($25 per person extra charge) with an open kitchen, where live lobsters writhe on crushed ice and meaty steaks are smoking on the grill. Menus here are eclectic -- the standard menu includes appetizers (the carpaccio of pine nut-coated lamb loin was awesome, while the spiny lobster cake was a little rubbery), soups (try the black and blue onion soup) and salads and then takes a fork in the road. One side emphasizes seafood (vongole, seafood stew, striped bass), and the other focuses on chops (lamb, pork, porterhouse, filet mignon). There's a third main course option: the lobster menu. It requires a $9 extra surcharge on top of the service fee and allows you to choose between a 1.5- to 2-pound Maine lobster or a 12-ounce Brazilian lobster tail.

Sides are served family-style (delicious corn casserole, scalloped potatoes, asparagus, etc.). Desserts, as they were everywhere onboard, were inventive and fun; our waiter recommended the "crown dependence," which offers a bite-sized selection of the desserts. I also loved the seven-layer s'mores, a sophisticated take on the around-the-campfire legend.

Ironically, the meat was the weak link in our Sterling experience. Everything else was excellent (sides, salad, dessert), but the 22-ounce porterhouse wasn't quite up to snuff, with too much fat and gristle for a steak at a surcharge restaurant. But again, the surrounding courses -- goat cheese salad, lamb carpaccio, ridiculously good scalloped potatoes and dessert platter -- almost made up for any main course disappointment.

Sabatini's ($20 per person charge) is the line's upscale, trademark Italian eatery. On Crown Princess, it's a little different than it is on older Princess ships in both substance and decor. Substance-wise, there's still a great menu of food to choose from, and the experience is more about the Italian use of tastings, like the Spanish tapas. Basically, you only choose your main course ("second piatti"), which includes entrees such as sea bass, grilled lobster, stuffed chicken, veal chop and prawns. For the three courses leading up to it, waiters bring around platters of antipasti (chunks of aged parmesan, melon and prosciutto, porcini mushrooms, artichokes, calamari), soups and salads, and then two pastas. You simply choose which you want and how much of it. Desserts aren't as creative as those in the Crown Grill, but they're just as delicious; tiramisu, a classic, was perfectly prepared.

Sampling a bit of everything left me unable to finish even half of my main course, the sea bass. Then, you're expected to eat dessert after that. Pacing is key here.

The placement of Sabatini's -- atop the ship on Deck 16, right next to Adagio and with great, expansive views -- is also a plus. The restaurant itself feels peppy and fun, complete with festive Italian-themed wall murals. And, tables are spaced for privacy. Note: Adagio is a great venue for a pre-dinner drink, as it's usually quiet and relaxed with an undiscovered quality. Also, feel free to ask your waiter to have dessert served in Adagio's -- a nice way to end the evening.

As previously mentioned, Sabatini's breakfast, first introduced on newer sister ship Ruby Princess, has also been added to Crown Princess. Suite passengers can enjoy their first meals of the day in the ship's specialty restaurant from 7:30 to 10:30 a.m. There are some unique menu items, such as brioche French toast and poached eggs dressed with potatoes and vegetables, that you won't find in the main dining rooms.

The outstanding Chef's Table concept, first introduced on Emerald Princess, has been added fleetwide and is not to be missed. A group of up to 10 (and not necessarily all known to one another -- you just sign up for designated evenings) start the night off with Champagne cocktails and appetizers (foie gras, king crab salad in a martini glass, pate) in the working galley. Anyone who's done a tour of any ship's huge galley will understand that these are nearly always held, for obvious reasons, when there isn't much going on! What's neat about Chef's Table is that your group occupies a corner of the main galley at the height of dinnertime, and the looks from some busy waiters were priceless. The chance to see chefs and waiters in action -- a real behind-the-scenes experience -- is worth the price of admission ($75 per person, which includes a keepsake chef's coat). Then, you're taken out to specially designated tables in a private dining area and served a multi-course menu, paired with wines that are selected just for the evening.

Two of the most popular dining destinations aren't even in the mainstream. The International Cafe, located on Deck 3 and in the heart of all the Piazza action, offers pastries in the morning, quiche and finger sandwiches in the evening and tapas at night (open 24 hours). It's actually got a pastry chef working right there, so the smell, say, of a buttery croissant or the addictive chocolate chip cookies wafted around the Piazza. The scents were the International Cafe's best advertisement. It's also the place to go for designer coffees. (Note: Princess is the first in the industry to offer a coffee card; for $24.95 you get 15 specialty coffees, which works out to a 20 percent discount.) The coffees available include the usual stuff -- espresso, cappuccino, latte and mocha, along with hot chocolate and premium tea.

Prior to my trip, there was a lot of confusion over which food items (all beverages are a la carte) were "free" and which were priced separately. Most everything fell into the former category, and the items that did require a surcharge -- such as the chocolate fondue -- were clearly marked and obviously exceptional.

My favorite spot was the Vines Wine & Seafood Bar, which specializes in sushi-like tapas and interesting wines (click here to see the wine list). The sushi offered, a rotating menu of three options (scallops with seaweed, tuna sashimi, California roll one night) and appetizers (little meatballs, mussels). Pair it with a glass of wine from the adventurous and worldly list, and it's a great light lunch or dinner. The sushi is included in your cruise fare. Hours vary depending on the day. In port, Vines is open from 4 to 11 p.m., and at-sea hours are 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.

There was an afternoon tea service every day in the Da Vinci dining room.

On Crown Princess, room service goes beyond the standard continental breakfast and 24-hour menu with the usual offerings (tuna sandwiches, burgers, salads, desserts; note there's a surcharge of $3 for pizza delivery) -- especially if you have a balcony cabin. A don't-miss event is the Ultimate Balcony Dinner. At a cost of $50 per person, it's romantic and fun. (Even though we were in mini-suites, where there are no coverings over verandahs, everyone was inside, so it felt private anyway.) The meal is delivered course by course, starting with a cocktail while the waiter sets up your linen-covered table, complete with fresh flowers. A photographer takes a photo. And then, the four-course feast begins. The menu starts with choices like crab cakes baked in puff pastry, a salad of marinated chevre and mesclun, a choice between the lobster tail or beef tenderloin or surf and turf (a bit of both) and then dessert, which included a quartet of mousses -- lovely.

Princess also has the "balcony breakfast," and it's wonderful, though not quite as elegant as its more involved sibling; a waiter sets up the table and then dumps a pile of covered plates nearby. Inside are quiche, fresh fruit and lots of (way too many) pastries, as well as a split of Champagne. The cost is $28 per person.

Public Rooms

The Piazza, which is primarily an entertainment venue, is detailed under the entertainment section (below), but I mention it here because it does provide the ship with a central gathering spot. Just off the Piazza is the Escapes Travel Cafe. While not a "real" cafe (no refreshments are served), it's outfitted with personal computers for researching future cruises. Next door is the actual Internet cafe with 25 computers. Rates are 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.

The library and card room spread out across Deck 6 and offer games, daily news printouts and books for checking out; it's the usual assortment.

There are five shops onboard, and the fact that we found literally nothing worth purchasing offers a clue about their merchandise! It was pretty much the usual stuff – duty-free liquor that is actually cheaper in ports of call, T-shirts and other logo items, "brand name" fashion jewelry and watches (again, cheaper in ports of call on the ship's itineraries).

The photo gallery stretches a long way on Deck 7, between the Crown Grill and the Princess Theater.

Cabins

Crown Princess offers a limited variety of cabin categories but its 880 balcony cabins (out of 1,532 total cabins) means that plucking up an oceanview room is decidedly affordable. Decor is a little on the mundane side, with light pink, blue, cream and beige dominating the color scheme. In line with the subtle additions, Princess has added a dedicated romance channel, which features many an episode of the "Love Boat" and movies like Sleepless in Seattle, as well as a Leonard Maltin Movie Channel, which shows a combination of new stuff (Benjamin Button, Star Trek) and older classics. Each cabin comes with a little booklet outlining the options.

Each standard cabins (insides on up) is uniquely laid out with a little hallway off the main hallway that leads to an open-door closet and to the bathroom. It's like having a walk-in closet! Cabins include shower-only bathrooms, queen beds that can be split into twins, small sofas (some are sleepers), a desk/vanity area and flat-screen televisions. Further, all come with private safes and (empty) mini-fridges.

Cabins, especially at the lower levels, are a little snug. Insides measure 163 square feet, outsides are 168 square feet, and standard balcony cabins run about 233 square feet, including the verandahs. Those opting for more room should start by looking one of 178 mini-suites, at 323 square feet, which include separate living nooks and full-length couches, along with chairs and extra, remote-operated televisions. Mini-suite bathrooms come with bathtubs, though the ceiling is rather low-set. (At about six feet tall, I had just a couple inches of clearance.) The balconies for the mini-suites on the controversial Dolphin Deck jut out from the ship's superstructure, so they're exposed to the sky and the prying eyes of fellow passengers above. A similarly situated Cruise Critic reader had an interesting solution: She brought a beach umbrella.

Princess has a raft of names for its other suites (Vista, Penthouse, Owners), but they all come in between 468 and 591 square feet. Other suite perks include a separate sitting area, DVD and MP3 player (DVD's are available to borrow), free laundry and dry cleaning, and a more elaborate bathroom. Interestingly, there's no over-the-top, 1,000-plus-square-foot suite onboard.

There are two family suites onboard, which are, in essence, interconnecting cabins that share a living space and large balcony with a table, four chairs and two loungers. Bedroom one has a queen bed and tubbed bathroom within its walls; the second bedroom has two twin beds and a shower-only bathroom. Family Suites measure 607 square feet, which includes the balcony.

Thirty-one cabins are designed for the physically disabled, including 21 balcony, four oceanview and six inside.

Entertainment

Introduced to the Princess fleet on Crown Princess, the Piazza is a marvelous destination. Located on Deck 3 -- and the first deck of the three-story atrium -- it serves as a mini-performance venue, demo area and, during down times, adjunct to the International Cafe. We loved it. At various points, for instance, there was a sushi, fruit and vegetable demonstration; "comedy juggler"; and string quartet. On another day, the Princess singers and dancers offered a few numbers from "Motor City," the Motown production show. On the second formal evening, people thronged all three levels to watch the fabled "Champagne pour," a Princess tradition.

Beyond that, the ship has so many entertainment options that my head literally was spinning as I tried to figure out which to choose. Each lounge has a different personality. Crooners, on the promenade, is right in the heart of the action, overlooking the Piazza, and usually features a vocalist or pianist. Explorer's Lounge is primarily an events' venue for just about everything, including art auctions, dances, standup comedy and guest lectures. Club Fusion was also busy during the day -- with Ballroom Blitz, line dancing, bingo and Jeopardy -- and into the evening with music-related activities, from trivia and the Newlywed, Not so Newlywed Game to "Princess Pop Star," a take-off on American Idol.

The Speakeasy, adjacent to Gatsby's Casino, is the only place to smoke a stogie. The Wheelhouse Bar, a Princess tradition, has nautical character but lacks the intimacy I've associated with smaller versions on other ships. And Adagio, tucked into a light-filled corner on Deck 16, is an elegant, Ritz Carlton-esque venue -- ideal for a chat -- with low-key piano music. Late-night action is to be found, natch, in Princess' trademark Skywalker's. (This version has a nice balcony off the end.) It then becomes a kids' and teens' disco early in the evening; it turns into an adults-only hangout later on.

The roughly 800-seat Princess Theater is the ship's main venue, and it also showed movies from time to time when not featuring production shows and comedy acts. Production shows, which have remained unchanged since the ship debuted in 2006, include "Motor City," a tribute to Motown, and "Destination Anywhere," a mishmash of songs and sets from different eras and locales (Africa, outer space, etc.).

During the daytime, beyond the aforementioned entertainment, Princess is definitely committed to its ScholarShip@Sea program. Some classes are more light-hearted -- I had a blast bringing out my "inner artist" during Ceramics@Sea (tucked into an alcove by the Neptune's Reef pool); you pay only for the plate or frame or whatever you choose ($15 to $30). The paint is supplied, and staffers fire your piece for you to take home. Other facets of the overall program include culinary arts demonstrations (wine-tastings, ice-carving and the like), an extensive array of Computers@Sea classes ($25 for a Photoshop class) and a guest lecture series (free).

Movies Under the Stars, in the Calypso Pool area, is a major attraction and is on all day (with family fare), as well as into the night. Films on our seven-night Caribbean cruise sailing included "Transformers 2," "Harry Potter & The Half Blood Prince" and "Ghosts of Girlfriends Past."

The Grand Casino has the usual array of slots and table games, including one for dealerless Texas Hold 'Em.

Most impressive was the operation of the shore excursion department. Located on Deck 6, staffers there regularly provided visual updates of which tours were sold out (eliminating the need to stand in line and wait for something you couldn't book). Often, tours were added as demand required, and occasionally, they'd offer a last-minute option. The variety veered between sedate and almost wild-and-crazy; there was literally something for everyone.

Fitness and Recreation

Speaking of something for everyone, Crown Princess offers a truly impressive variety of pools up on the sun deck. The Neptune's Reef pool is the spot for water games and entertainment, and it features hot tubs. The adjacent Calypso Reef and Pool is home to Movies Under the Stars (and Sun), so there is constant entertainment. For solitude-seekers, there are two options. The aft pool, mightily improved by the removal of Skywalkers and the shopping cart-handle design of earlier Princess ships, offers a mix of sunny and shady spots. The Lotus Pool, affixed to the spa but open to all adults, remains a popular spot for swimming against the current; it's small, though, and its nine loungers get snapped up pretty quickly on sunny days. It has two whirlpools.

The adults-only Sanctuary, which debuted on Crown Princess, has been such a hit that the line has retrofitted the majority of its ships with the serene feature. It's a lovely space, featuring a tent canopy (with a handful of loungers in sunny places), an Astroturf carpet and fabulous Italianate chaises and chairs with decadently thick cushions, covered with the plushest, thirstiest towels. An excellent aspect of the Sanctuary is its service element. Waiters are on hand, and a spa menu is available with a mix of healthy and unhealthy fare, ranging from tuna pate to cheeseburgers. You can also order drinks (again, everything from fruit drinks and smoothies to bottles of beer). There is a $3.50 service fee for orders, but that doesn't mean you can't order multiple items. You can also rent iPods (with Bose headphones), which have a variety of types of tunes downloaded onto them, for $10.

There is a cost of $10 per person, per half day, and the Sanctuary is open from 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and from 1 to 5:30 p.m. Is it worth it? For anyone who wants a respite from all the "energy," absolutely. While there's no pool there, the fact that the Lotus Pool is downstairs is just fine. One note: On sunny Caribbean sea days, space in the Sanctuary will fill up quickly, so getting there 20 minutes early is advisable.

The Sanctuary also has two massage cabanas. Book massages through the Lotus Spa.

Speaking of which, the Lotus Spa is very similar in design and orient to those found on Caribbean Princess and beyond. It's shaped in a "U" style, offering an Asian ambience on the side of the treatment rooms and a utilitarian aspect on the other, where you can find the beauty salon and fitness facility. Interestingly, it seems that teeth-whitening has become mainstream -- the salon has designed a special cubby for folks trying that treatment. It's got a flat-screen television and a nice view of the sea. There's also a barber shop for men.

The Lotus Spa even features a Thermal Suite, which includes a sauna, two aromatherapy steam rooms and five hot-rock beds. Passes for the week are $99 per person or $150 per couple.

The fitness facility is slightly larger than those on earlier ships and has all the usual pieces of equipment (more than 20 Precor treadmills, 10 ellipticals, some bikes, various weight machines and a small area with free weights). Open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., it offers classes; some, such as "stretch and relax" and step aerobics are free, while others -- including yoga and Pilates -- are $10 apiece. One odd feature of the gym is that the ceiling is quite low. If you're taller than six feet, your head may just reach the ceiling if you're on an elliptical.

Spa treatments run the gamut from hydra lift facials to hot stone massages and from seaweed wraps to acupuncture. I tried the "Aroma Spa Seaweed Massage," ($195 for 75 minutes). I was smothered in a seaweed lotion, wrapped in a tinfoil-like sheet for 20 minutes, then ordered to shower. After that I had a traditional half-body back and neck massage. The massage was outstanding, but I honestly could have gone without the seaweed. A standard, 50-minute Swedish massage (in essence, the second half of the seaweed offering) is $119.

I had heard reports from other passengers of the famous Steiner sales pitch. (After your treatment, your therapist will strongly "advise" you that you need a myriad of beauty products, all of which are sold right there.) If you want to buy, go for it. If you don't, simply say no. I was given no such pitch after my 75-minute treatment, and I left feeling loose and unburdened by a slew of new products.

Family

While Crown Princess' kids programs won't touch anything you'd find on Royal Caribbean or Disney ships, the blend of innovative activities (Wii on the big-screen by the pool) and traditional offerings (pizza and ice cream parties) are more than enough to keep the kids occupied. Located up on Deck 17, the Fun Zone is divided into two groups -- Princess Pelicans for the 3- to 7-year-olds and Shockwaves for the 8- to 12-year-olds. Activities include arts and crafts in conjunction with Klutz, a company known for its funky toy and how-to book combos (juggling, bubble blowing, etc.); video games (PS3, Wii); karaoke; shipboard Olympics; kids-only dining; and scavenger hunts. Port-day supervision is available, as is group kid-sitting (from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m., $5 per hour, per kid). Some of the really cool new programs include Jr. Chef@Sea for the Shockwaves group; they get lessons in the ship's main galley on making sushi and fruit pizza, along with cake-decorating. Parents are required to participate, making for a nice family bonding exercise. Teens can take part in a makeover program at the spa.

When Crown Princess debuted in 2006, it marked a new interest by Princess in teen cruisers. The venue called Remix is hip and edgy, featuring Playstation 3's, movies and music, karaoke, giant-screen TV's, card games, board games and air hockey and foosball tables. Teens also have a separate Jacuzzi and sunbathing area. They can even mix their own dance tracks and take hip-hop dance lessons. On our cruise, an early November Caribbean sailing, there were very few teens signed up -- so the area was often empty. It's definitely busier during family travel seasons.

One of the most unusual aspect of Princess' youth program is a Youth Security Program, which comes into effect when there is a large number of young passengers onboard, usually during peak holiday seasons. Young folks (early 20's) wearing bright yellow -- and instantly identifiable -- polo shirts, patrol the ship (and even are waiting at embarkation) with the purpose of discouraging outrageous behavior before it has a chance to occur. What's more, these staffers, just slightly older than the kids they oversee, are of the same generation and come across as cool and hip. The teens look up to them. As an onboard staffer explained, "they come across as teen-friendly and are not perceived as a police force."

Fellow Passengers

We can't think of any passenger "demographic" that wouldn't find something to like on Crown Princess. On our trip, there were seniors, families, gay and lesbian travelers, honeymooners and friends-and-family groups of all ages. The only folks who might find the ship's size a hindrance would be single travelers -- because of the vessel's size and its passenger capacity, it can be hard to meet people. On our cruise, a November sailing to the Western Caribbean, North Americans (2,800) and Brits (200) dominated.

Dress Code

On Crown Princess' seven-night Caribbean cruises, there are two formal nights, and the level of formality ranged wildly, from way-too-casual jeans and such to black-tie. Most women wore cocktail gowns and pants-outfits; men wore jackets and ties. In the daytime, again, there was a wide range of attire, but indoors, folks tended to dress country-club casual.

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.As the blueprint for the Princess Cruises fleet, the 2006-launched Crown Princess -- as well as its sister ships, Emerald (2007) and Ruby Princess (2008) -- aims to showcase everything that has come to define the line. This is quintessential Princess.

Those familiar with Princess will recognize its marquee features: Movies Under the Stars, a poolside big-screen theater introduced on Caribbean Princess (and since nicked by just about everyone in the industry); the bustling, three-deck Piazza, a combination bakery, Internet cafe, wine/sushi/tapas bar and performance venue; the adults-only Sanctuary, a mostly shaded top-ship retreat with thick, plush loungers, massage cabanas and a spa menu; and Princess' signature duo of specialty restaurants, the Crown Grill (steaks, chops and seafood) and Sabatini's (Italian multi-course repast).

The ship also showcases Princess' most successful smaller programs and amenities. The excellent Wheelhouse Pub lunch with its fish 'n' chips and bangers 'n' mash draws a serious crowd; Wii's and PS3's in the kids' areas; classes on drink-mixing and astronomy. Best of all are the phenomenal backstairs ship tours -- one that takes passengers into the galley during the frantic dinner rush (at 7:30 p.m.!) and a second that provides an insider's look at the inner workings of the vessel, from the sprawling laundry facilities in the bowels to the top-ship funnels.

There are even smaller, under-the-radar touches: With the exception of a cheese plate, sushi and tapas at Vines is included in the fare. And, suite passengers can eat breakfast in Sabatini's with a special menu and sip on reduced-price drinks and free canapes in a designated lounge each evening.

But while Crown Princess has solidified its place in the mainstream, there were a few things amiss. Sure, the food is always impeccably presented -- but serving 3,000 people a night has a built-in limitation. The 22-ounce porterhouse in the Crown Grill, a for-fee steak and seafood venue, was disappointingly fatty, but the potato, asparagus and other sides were, on the other hand, superbly memorable. There was also some grumbling about a fall-off in service -- understandable when the goal is to be all-things-for-all-passengers people … from those looking for an upscale dining experience in Sabatini's to passengers who want to show off their yams in the men's sexy legs contest. (There's probably some crossover.) Several fellow cruisers complained of little service issues, like a tea-time eye-roll at the request for a second sandwich, debarkation day confusion and a purser's desk that was unsure of the answers to questions. Personally, I found the main stage production shows, which have been the same since the ship launched in 2006, a little tired.

Still, bonds quickly form with such a personable captain, executive chef and crew. A bartender in Adagio, the ship's top-ship lounge, told me about his wife's Twitter obsession (she's a Twilight fan); the sushi chef hammed it up for the camera; and the maitre d' brought an Italian chef puppet around during a multi-course feast that left us immobile.

Dining

As with all but three of Princess' ships, Crown Princess offers "anytime" and "traditional" modes of evening dining. (The line's mid-sized "R-class" ships only have traditional dining.) Botticelli is home to those who prefer the tradition of set time, table and dinner-mates; on our Caribbean cruise seatings were at 6 and 8:15 p.m. Michelangelo and Da Vinci are open restaurant style (typically from 5:30 - 10 p.m.). All offer the same Princess menu with various theme nights. (Of primary importance are formal nights, when the chef goes all-out with lobster or beef tenderloin.) We chose the "anytime" option, and rarely -- if ever -- did we wait, though it can get a bit crowded around 7:30 p.m. If you want to avoid the rush, it's best to make reservations ahead of time. Service was excellent in both dining rooms. Food, too, was generally decent, and mostly focused on predictable basics (short ribs for lunch, roasted tom turkey for dinner, beef Wellington on formal night), but there were occasional and always pleasant surprises (roasted pheasant, quail and venison saddle terrine). There's also a nightly designated "Homestyle" offering, which focuses on what Princess might define as all-American favorites from mom's kitchen, like pork roast with crackling, Texas chili and meatloaf. An "always available" menu includes options like steak, chicken breast and salmon.

A vegetarian menu is offered each night. Baked eggplant lasagna, Moroccan ragout, fettuccine alfredo -- of which the chef told us about 400 are ordered a night -- are among the choices. Lotus Spa options like broiled chicken and seared fish are marked with a flower and are said to be "lower in fat, cholesterol and sodium," though I'm doubtful that the slow-roasted prime rib with fully loaded potato should have been included.

Editor's Note: A word on open seating … while there is a fair amount of tables for two and four, you may be asked first if you'd like to be seated with others -- a result of filling an anytime dining-style banquet hall.

One dining room is open for breakfast and lunch; both meals are open-seating. A nice touch at lunch is the inclusion on menus of "late riser" breakfast fare; each day it features an omelet, French toast or some other selection.

The Horizon Court is pretty much a standard buffet, open for breakfast, lunch and casual dinner. It's tucked away on two sides of the lido in a station setup (though during slower periods, only one side may be open); you'll find deli fare, made-to-order sandwiches and meats, and a whole host of sides and salads. There's a separate pasta "cafe" (though it is still located within the confines of the Horizon Court), and it serves up a couple of specials every day. Out by the main pool is the Trident grill. It offers the usual burgers, hot dogs, chicken and veggie burgers (veggie burgers arecooked to order) along with a special each day. The fries are delicious! There's also a pizza counter that dishes out massive slices, and next to that is a free ice cream option (milkshakes are $3.75, however).

The more interesting part of the buffet region is Cafe Caribe. It's located completely aft beyond the Horizon Court, and features themed buffets at lunch and dinner, which were absolutely outstanding (and fun besides). One that was especially memorable was a lunchtime Asian repast, which included potstickers, sweet and sour pork, and sushi. Evenings at Cafe Caribe were even more special; the tables get linen cloths, and the themes ranged from Provencal to an Indonesian rijstafel rice table buffet. Oddly, the night's theme is not posted in the Patter (the daily, onboard newsletter), so you'll have to wander up to see what's going on.

Adding to the variety are Crown Princess' two alternative restaurants. Crown Grill was a nice experience -- it's both a fish and chops kind of place ($25 per person extra charge) with an open kitchen, where live lobsters writhe on crushed ice and meaty steaks are smoking on the grill. Menus here are eclectic -- the standard menu includes appetizers (the carpaccio of pine nut-coated lamb loin was awesome, while the spiny lobster cake was a little rubbery), soups (try the black and blue onion soup) and salads and then takes a fork in the road. One side emphasizes seafood (vongole, seafood stew, striped bass), and the other focuses on chops (lamb, pork, porterhouse, filet mignon). There's a third main course option: the lobster menu. It requires a $9 extra surcharge on top of the service fee and allows you to choose between a 1.5- to 2-pound Maine lobster or a 12-ounce Brazilian lobster tail.

Sides are served family-style (delicious corn casserole, scalloped potatoes, asparagus, etc.). Desserts, as they were everywhere onboard, were inventive and fun; our waiter recommended the "crown dependence," which offers a bite-sized selection of the desserts. I also loved the seven-layer s'mores, a sophisticated take on the around-the-campfire legend.

Ironically, the meat was the weak link in our Sterling experience. Everything else was excellent (sides, salad, dessert), but the 22-ounce porterhouse wasn't quite up to snuff, with too much fat and gristle for a steak at a surcharge restaurant. But again, the surrounding courses -- goat cheese salad, lamb carpaccio, ridiculously good scalloped potatoes and dessert platter -- almost made up for any main course disappointment.

Sabatini's ($20 per person charge) is the line's upscale, trademark Italian eatery. On Crown Princess, it's a little different than it is on older Princess ships in both substance and decor. Substance-wise, there's still a great menu of food to choose from, and the experience is more about the Italian use of tastings, like the Spanish tapas. Basically, you only choose your main course ("second piatti"), which includes entrees such as sea bass, grilled lobster, stuffed chicken, veal chop and prawns. For the three courses leading up to it, waiters bring around platters of antipasti (chunks of aged parmesan, melon and prosciutto, porcini mushrooms, artichokes, calamari), soups and salads, and then two pastas. You simply choose which you want and how much of it. Desserts aren't as creative as those in the Crown Grill, but they're just as delicious; tiramisu, a classic, was perfectly prepared.

Sampling a bit of everything left me unable to finish even half of my main course, the sea bass. Then, you're expected to eat dessert after that. Pacing is key here.

The placement of Sabatini's -- atop the ship on Deck 16, right next to Adagio and with great, expansive views -- is also a plus. The restaurant itself feels peppy and fun, complete with festive Italian-themed wall murals. And, tables are spaced for privacy. Note: Adagio is a great venue for a pre-dinner drink, as it's usually quiet and relaxed with an undiscovered quality. Also, feel free to ask your waiter to have dessert served in Adagio's -- a nice way to end the evening.

As previously mentioned, Sabatini's breakfast, first introduced on newer sister ship Ruby Princess, has also been added to Crown Princess. Suite passengers can enjoy their first meals of the day in the ship's specialty restaurant from 7:30 to 10:30 a.m. There are some unique menu items, such as brioche French toast and poached eggs dressed with potatoes and vegetables, that you won't find in the main dining rooms.

The outstanding Chef's Table concept, first introduced on Emerald Princess, has been added fleetwide and is not to be missed. A group of up to 10 (and not necessarily all known to one another -- you just sign up for designated evenings) start the night off with Champagne cocktails and appetizers (foie gras, king crab salad in a martini glass, pate) in the working galley. Anyone who's done a tour of any ship's huge galley will understand that these are nearly always held, for obvious reasons, when there isn't much going on! What's neat about Chef's Table is that your group occupies a corner of the main galley at the height of dinnertime, and the looks from some busy waiters were priceless. The chance to see chefs and waiters in action -- a real behind-the-scenes experience -- is worth the price of admission ($75 per person, which includes a keepsake chef's coat). Then, you're taken out to specially designated tables in a private dining area and served a multi-course menu, paired with wines that are selected just for the evening.

Two of the most popular dining destinations aren't even in the mainstream. The International Cafe, located on Deck 3 and in the heart of all the Piazza action, offers pastries in the morning, quiche and finger sandwiches in the evening and tapas at night (open 24 hours). It's actually got a pastry chef working right there, so the smell, say, of a buttery croissant or the addictive chocolate chip cookies wafted around the Piazza. The scents were the International Cafe's best advertisement. It's also the place to go for designer coffees. (Note: Princess is the first in the industry to offer a coffee card; for $24.95 you get 15 specialty coffees, which works out to a 20 percent discount.) The coffees available include the usual stuff -- espresso, cappuccino, latte and mocha, along with hot chocolate and premium tea.

Prior to my trip, there was a lot of confusion over which food items (all beverages are a la carte) were "free" and which were priced separately. Most everything fell into the former category, and the items that did require a surcharge -- such as the chocolate fondue -- were clearly marked and obviously exceptional.

My favorite spot was the Vines Wine & Seafood Bar, which specializes in sushi-like tapas and interesting wines. Light bite choices include a rotating menu of three options (scallops with seaweed, tuna sashimi, California roll one night) and appetizers (little meatballs, mussels). Pair it with a glass of wine from the adventurous and worldly list, and it's a great light lunch or dinner. The sushi is included in your cruise fare. Hours vary depending on the day. In port, Vines is open from 4 to 11 p.m., and at-sea hours are 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.

There was an afternoon tea service every day in the Da Vinci dining room.

On Crown Princess, room service goes beyond the standard continental breakfast and 24-hour menu with the usual offerings (tuna sandwiches, burgers, salads, desserts; note there's a surcharge of $3 for pizza delivery) -- especially if you have a balcony cabin. A don't-miss event is the Ultimate Balcony Dinner. At a cost of $50 per person, it's romantic and fun. (Even though we were in mini-suites, where there are no coverings over verandahs, everyone was inside, so it felt private anyway.) The meal is delivered course by course, starting with a cocktail while the waiter sets up your linen-covered table, complete with fresh flowers. A photographer takes a photo. And then, the four-course feast begins. The menu starts with choices like crab cakes baked in puff pastry, a salad of marinated chevre and mesclun, a choice between the lobster tail or beef tenderloin or surf and turf (a bit of both) and then dessert, which included a quartet of mousses -- lovely.

Princess also has the "balcony breakfast," and it's wonderful, though not quite as elegant as its more involved sibling; a waiter sets up the table and then dumps a pile of covered plates nearby. Inside are quiche, fresh fruit and lots of (way too many) pastries, as well as a split of Champagne. The cost is $28 per person.

Public Rooms

The Piazza, which is primarily an entertainment venue, is detailed under the entertainment section (above), but I mention it here because it does provide the ship with a central gathering spot. Just off the Piazza is the Escapes Travel Cafe. While not a "real" cafe (no refreshments are served), it's outfitted with personal computers for researching future cruises. Next door is the actual Internet cafe with 25 computers. Rates are 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.

The library and card room spread out across Deck 6 and offer games, daily news printouts and books for checking out; it's the usual assortment.

There are five shops onboard, and the fact that we found literally nothing worth purchasing offers a clue about their merchandise! It was pretty much the usual stuff – duty-free liquor that is actually cheaper in ports of call, T-shirts and other logo items, "brand name" fashion jewelry and watches (again, cheaper in ports of call on the ship's itineraries).

The photo gallery stretches a long way on Deck 7, between the Crown Grill and the Princess Theater.

Entertainment

Introduced to the Princess fleet on Crown Princess, the Piazza atrium is a marvelous destination. It serves as a mini-performance venue, demo area and, during down times, adjunct to the International Cafe. We loved it. At various points, for instance, there was a sushi, fruit and vegetable demonstration; "comedy juggler"; and string quartet. On another day, the Princess singers and dancers offered a few numbers from "Motor City," the Motown production show. On the second formal evening, people thronged all three levels to watch the fabled "Champagne pour," a Princess tradition.

Beyond that, the ship has so many entertainment options that my head literally was spinning as I tried to figure out which to choose. Each lounge has a different personality. Crooners, on the promenade, is right in the heart of the action, overlooking the Piazza, and usually features a vocalist or pianist. Explorer's Lounge is primarily an events' venue for just about everything, including art auctions, dances, standup comedy and guest lectures. Club Fusion was also busy during the day -- with Ballroom Blitz, line dancing, bingo and Jeopardy -- and into the evening with music-related activities, from trivia and the Newlywed, Not so Newlywed Game to "Princess Pop Star," a take-off on American Idol.

The Speakeasy, adjacent to Gatsby's Casino, is the only place to smoke a stogie. The Wheelhouse Bar, a Princess tradition, has nautical character but lacks the intimacy I've associated with smaller versions on other ships. And Adagio, tucked into a light-filled corner on Deck 16, is an elegant, Ritz Carlton-esque venue -- ideal for a chat -- with low-key piano music. Late-night action is to be found, natch, in Princess' trademark Skywalker's. (This version has a nice balcony off the end.) It then becomes a kids' and teens' disco early in the evening; it turns into an adults-only hangout later on.

The roughly 800-seat Princess Theater is the ship's main venue, and it also showed movies from time to time when not featuring production shows and comedy acts. Production shows, which have remained unchanged since the ship debuted in 2006, include "Motor City," a tribute to Motown, and "Destination Anywhere," a mishmash of songs and sets from different eras and locales (Africa, outer space, etc.).

During the daytime, beyond the aforementioned entertainment, Princess is definitely committed to its ScholarShip@Sea program. Some classes are more light-hearted -- I had a blast bringing out my "inner artist" during Ceramics@Sea (tucked into an alcove by the Neptune's Reef pool); you pay only for the plate or frame or whatever you choose ($15 to $30). The paint is supplied, and staffers fire your piece for you to take home. Other facets of the overall program include culinary arts demonstrations (wine-tastings, ice-carving and the like), an extensive array of Computers@Sea classes ($25 for a Photoshop class) and a guest lecture series (free).

Movies Under the Stars, in the Calypso Pool area, is a major attraction and is on all day (with family fare), as well as into the night. Films on our seven-night Caribbean cruise sailing included "Transformers 2," "Harry Potter & The Half Blood Prince" and "Ghosts of Girlfriends Past."

The Grand Casino has the usual array of slots and table games, including one for dealerless Texas Hold 'Em.

Most impressive was the operation of the shore excursion department. Located on Deck 6, staffers there regularly provided visual updates of which tours were sold out (eliminating the need to stand in line and wait for something you couldn't book). Often, tours were added as demand required, and occasionally, they'd offer a last-minute option. The variety veered between sedate and almost wild-and-crazy; there was literally something for everyone.

Fitness and Recreation

Speaking of something for everyone, Crown Princess offers a truly impressive variety of pools up on the sun deck. The Neptune's Reef pool is the spot for water games and entertainment, and it features hot tubs. The adjacent Calypso Reef and Pool is home to Movies Under the Stars (and Sun), so there is constant entertainment. For solitude-seekers, there are two options. The aft pool, mightily improved by the removal of Skywalkers and the shopping cart-handle design of earlier Princess ships, offers a mix of sunny and shady spots. The Lotus Pool, affixed to the spa but open to all adults, remains a popular spot for swimming against the current; it's small, though, and its nine loungers get snapped up pretty quickly on sunny days. It has two whirlpools.

The adults-only Sanctuary, which debuted on Crown Princess, has been such a hit that the line has retrofitted the majority of its ships with the serene feature. It's a lovely space, featuring a tent canopy (with a handful of loungers in sunny places), an Astroturf carpet and fabulous Italianate chaises and chairs with decadently thick cushions, covered with the plushest, thirstiest towels. An excellent aspect of the Sanctuary is its service element. Waiters are on hand, and a spa menu is available with a mix of healthy and unhealthy fare, ranging from tuna pate to cheeseburgers. You can also order drinks (again, everything from fruit drinks and smoothies to bottles of beer). There is a $3 service fee for orders, but that doesn't mean you can't order multiple items. You can also rent iPods (with Bose headphones), which have a variety of types of tunes downloaded onto them, for $10.

There is a cost of $10 per person, per half day, and the Sanctuary is open from 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and from 1 to 5:30 p.m. (A full day pass is $20.) Is it worth it? For anyone who wants a respite from all the "energy," absolutely. While there's no pool there, the fact that the Lotus Pool is downstairs is just fine. One note: On sunny Caribbean sea days, space in the Sanctuary will fill up quickly, so getting there 20 minutes early is advisable.

The Sanctuary also has two massage cabanas. Book massages through the Lotus Spa.

Speaking of which, the Lotus Spa is very similar in design and orient to those found on Caribbean Princess and beyond. It's shaped in a "U" style, offering an Asian ambience on the side of the treatment rooms and a utilitarian aspect on the other, where you can find the beauty salon and fitness facility. Interestingly, it seems that teeth-whitening has become mainstream -- the salon has designed a special cubby for folks trying that treatment. It's got a flat-screen television and a nice view of the sea. There's also a barber shop for men.

The Lotus Spa even features a Thermal Suite, which includes a sauna, two aromatherapy steam rooms and five hot-rock beds. Passes for the week are $99 per person or $150 per couple.

The fitness facility is slightly larger than those on earlier ships and has all the usual pieces of equipment (more than 20 Precor treadmills, 10 ellipticals, some bikes, various weight machines and a small area with free weights). Open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., it offers classes; some, such as "stretch and relax" and step aerobics are free, while others -- including yoga and Pilates -- are $10 apiece. One odd feature of the gym is that the ceiling is quite low. If you're taller than six feet, your head may just reach the ceiling if you're on an elliptical.

Spa treatments run the gamut from hydra lift facials to hot stone massages and from seaweed wraps to acupuncture. I tried the "Aroma Spa Seaweed Massage," ($195 for 75 minutes). I was smothered in a seaweed lotion, wrapped in a tinfoil-like sheet for 20 minutes, then ordered to shower. After that I had a traditional half-body back and neck massage. The massage was outstanding, but I honestly could have gone without the seaweed. A standard, 50-minute Swedish massage (in essence, the second half of the seaweed offering) is $119.

I had heard reports from other passengers of the famous Steiner sales pitch. (After your treatment, your therapist will strongly "advise" you that you need a myriad of beauty products, all of which are sold right there.) If you want to buy, go for it. If you don't, simply say no. I was given no such pitch after my 75-minute treatment, and I left feeling loose and unburdened by a slew of new products.

Dining

As with all but three of Princess' ships, Crown Princess offers "anytime" and "traditional" modes of evening dining. (The line's mid-sized "R-class" ships only have traditional dining.) Botticelli is home to those who prefer the tradition of set time, table and dinner-mates; on our Caribbean cruise seatings were at 6 and 8:15 p.m. Michelangelo and Da Vinci are open restaurant style (typically from 5:30 - 10 p.m.). All offer the same Princess menu with various theme nights. (Of primary importance are formal nights, when the chef goes all-out with lobster or beef tenderloin.) We chose the "anytime" option, and rarely -- if ever -- did we wait, though it can get a bit crowded around 7:30 p.m. If you want to avoid the rush, it's best to make reservations ahead of time. Service was excellent in both dining rooms. Food, too, was generally decent, and mostly focused on predictable basics (short ribs for lunch, roasted tom turkey for dinner, beef Wellington on formal night), but there were occasional and always pleasant surprises (roasted pheasant, quail and venison saddle terrine). There's also a nightly designated "Homestyle" offering, which focuses on what Princess might define as all-American favorites from mom's kitchen, like pork roast with crackling, Texas chili and meatloaf. An "always available" menu includes options like steak, chicken breast and salmon.

A vegetarian menu is offered each night. Baked eggplant lasagna, Moroccan ragout, fettuccine alfredo -- of which the chef told us about 400 are ordered a night -- are among the choices. Lotus Spa options like broiled chicken and seared fish are marked with a flower and are said to be "lower in fat, cholesterol and sodium," though I'm doubtful that the slow-roasted prime rib with fully loaded potato should have been included.

Editor's Note: A word on open seating … while there is a fair amount of tables for two and four, you may be asked first if you'd like to be seated with others -- a result of filling an anytime dining-style banquet hall.

One dining room is open for breakfast and lunch; both meals are open-seating. A nice touch at lunch is the inclusion on menus of "late riser" breakfast fare; each day it features an omelet, French toast or some other selection.

The Horizon Court is pretty much a standard buffet, open for breakfast, lunch and casual dinner. It's tucked away on two sides of the lido in a station setup (though during slower periods, only one side may be open); you'll find deli fare, made-to-order sandwiches and meats, and a whole host of sides and salads. There's a separate pasta "cafe" (though it is still located within the confines of the Horizon Court), and it serves up a couple of specials every day. Out by the main pool is the Trident grill. It offers the usual burgers, hot dogs, chicken and veggie burgers (veggie burgers arecooked to order) along with a special each day. The fries are delicious! There's also a pizza counter that dishes out massive slices, and next to that is a free ice cream option (milkshakes are $3.75, however).

The more interesting part of the buffet region is Cafe Caribe. It's located completely aft beyond the Horizon Court, and features themed buffets at lunch and dinner, which were absolutely outstanding (and fun besides). One that was especially memorable was a lunchtime Asian repast, which included potstickers, sweet and sour pork, and sushi. Evenings at Cafe Caribe were even more special; the tables get linen cloths, and the themes ranged from Provencal to an Indonesian rijstafel rice table buffet. Oddly, the night's theme is not posted in the Patter (the daily, onboard newsletter), so you'll have to wander up to see what's going on.

Adding to the variety are Crown Princess' two alternative restaurants. Crown Grill was a nice experience -- it's both a fish and chops kind of place ($25 per person extra charge) with an open kitchen, where live lobsters writhe on crushed ice and meaty steaks are smoking on the grill. Menus here are eclectic -- the standard menu includes appetizers (the carpaccio of pine nut-coated lamb loin was awesome, while the spiny lobster cake was a little rubbery), soups (try the black and blue onion soup) and salads and then takes a fork in the road. One side emphasizes seafood (vongole, seafood stew, striped bass), and the other focuses on chops (lamb, pork, porterhouse, filet mignon). There's a third main course option: the lobster menu. It requires a $9 extra surcharge on top of the service fee and allows you to choose between a 1.5- to 2-pound Maine lobster or a 12-ounce Brazilian lobster tail.

Sides are served family-style (delicious corn casserole, scalloped potatoes, asparagus, etc.). Desserts, as they were everywhere onboard, were inventive and fun; our waiter recommended the "crown dependence," which offers a bite-sized selection of the desserts. I also loved the seven-layer s'mores, a sophisticated take on the around-the-campfire legend.

Ironically, the meat was the weak link in our Sterling experience. Everything else was excellent (sides, salad, dessert), but the 22-ounce porterhouse wasn't quite up to snuff, with too much fat and gristle for a steak at a surcharge restaurant. But again, the surrounding courses -- goat cheese salad, lamb carpaccio, ridiculously good scalloped potatoes and dessert platter -- almost made up for any main course disappointment.

Sabatini's ($25 per person charge) is the line's upscale, trademark Italian eatery. On Crown Princess, it's a little different than it is on older Princess ships in both substance and decor. Substance-wise, there's still a great menu of food to choose from, and the experience is more about the Italian use of tastings, like the Spanish tapas. Basically, you only choose your main course ("second piatti"), which includes entrees such as sea bass, grilled lobster, stuffed chicken, veal chop and prawns. For the three courses leading up to it, waiters bring around platters of antipasti (chunks of aged parmesan, melon and prosciutto, porcini mushrooms, artichokes, calamari), soups and salads, and then two pastas. You simply choose which you want and how much of it. Desserts aren't as creative as those in the Crown Grill, but they're just as delicious; tiramisu, a classic, was perfectly prepared.

Sampling a bit of everything left me unable to finish even half of my main course, the sea bass. Then, you're expected to eat dessert after that. Pacing is key here.

The placement of Sabatini's -- atop the ship on Deck 16, right next to Adagio and with great, expansive views -- is also a plus. The restaurant itself feels peppy and fun, complete with festive Italian-themed wall murals. And, tables are spaced for privacy. Note: Adagio is a great venue for a pre-dinner drink, as it's usually quiet and relaxed with an undiscovered quality. Also, feel free to ask your waiter to have dessert served in Adagio's -- a nice way to end the evening.

As previously mentioned, Sabatini's breakfast, first introduced on newer sister ship Ruby Princess, has also been added to Crown Princess. Suite passengers can enjoy their first meals of the day in the ship's specialty restaurant from 7:30 to 10:30 a.m. There are some unique menu items, such as brioche French toast and poached eggs dressed with potatoes and vegetables, that you won't find in the main dining rooms.

The outstanding Chef's Table concept, first introduced on Emerald Princess, has been added fleetwide and is not to be missed. A group of up to 10 (and not necessarily all known to one another -- you just sign up for designated evenings) start the night off with Champagne cocktails and appetizers (foie gras, king crab salad in a martini glass, pate) in the working galley. Anyone who's done a tour of any ship's huge galley will understand that these are nearly always held, for obvious reasons, when there isn't much going on! What's neat about Chef's Table is that your group occupies a corner of the main galley at the height of dinnertime, and the looks from some busy waiters were priceless. The chance to see chefs and waiters in action -- a real behind-the-scenes experience -- is worth the price of admission ($75 per person, which includes a keepsake chef's coat). Then, you're taken out to specially designated tables in a private dining area and served a multi-course menu, paired with wines that are selected just for the evening.

Two of the most popular dining destinations aren't even in the mainstream. The International Cafe, located on Deck 3 and in the heart of all the Piazza action, offers pastries in the morning, quiche and finger sandwiches in the evening and tapas at night (open 24 hours). It's actually got a pastry chef working right there, so the smell, say, of a buttery croissant or the addictive chocolate chip cookies wafted around the Piazza. The scents were the International Cafe's best advertisement. It's also the place to go for designer coffees. (Note: Princess is the first in the industry to offer a coffee card; for $24.95 you get 15 specialty coffees, which works out to a 20 percent discount.) The coffees available include the usual stuff -- espresso, cappuccino, latte and mocha, along with hot chocolate and premium tea.

Prior to my trip, there was a lot of confusion over which food items (all beverages are a la carte) were "free" and which were priced separately. Most everything fell into the former category, and the items that did require a surcharge -- such as the chocolate fondue -- were clearly marked and obviously exceptional.

My favorite spot was the Vines Wine & Seafood Bar, which specializes in sushi-like tapas and interesting wines. Light bite choices include a rotating menu of three options (scallops with seaweed, tuna sashimi, California roll one night) and appetizers (little meatballs, mussels). Pair it with a glass of wine from the adventurous and worldly list, and it's a great light lunch or dinner. The sushi is included in your cruise fare. Hours vary depending on the day. In port, Vines is open from 4 to 11 p.m., and at-sea hours are 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.

There was an afternoon tea service every day in the Da Vinci dining room.

On Crown Princess, room service goes beyond the standard continental breakfast and 24-hour menu with the usual offerings (tuna sandwiches, burgers, salads, desserts; note there's a surcharge of $3 for pizza delivery) -- especially if you have a balcony cabin. A don't-miss event is the Ultimate Balcony Dinner. At a cost of $50 per person, it's romantic and fun. (Even though we were in mini-suites, where there are no coverings over verandahs, everyone was inside, so it felt private anyway.) The meal is delivered course by course, starting with a cocktail while the waiter sets up your linen-covered table, complete with fresh flowers. A photographer takes a photo. And then, the four-course feast begins. The menu starts with choices like crab cakes baked in puff pastry, a salad of marinated chevre and mesclun, a choice between the lobster tail or beef tenderloin or surf and turf (a bit of both) and then dessert, which included a quartet of mousses -- lovely.

Princess also has the "balcony breakfast," and it's wonderful, though not quite as elegant as its more involved sibling; a waiter sets up the table and then dumps a pile of covered plates nearby. Inside are quiche, fresh fruit and lots of (way too many) pastries, as well as a split of Champagne. The cost is $28 per person.

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