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Cruise Ship Review

Emerald Princess - Ship Review provided by Cruise Critic

Emerald Princess, which debuted in April 2007, follows the highly evolutionary Crown Princess, whose launch took place a year before in March of 2006. (A third ship in the class, Ruby Princess, launched in 2009.) All three ships are virtually identical in layout and design, so if you have sailed on Crown Princess ... well, you won't have any trouble finding your way around Emerald or Ruby. (The layout for all three is based on the Grand-class ship design, though slightly larger.)

But for those who haven't traveled on Princess' Grand-class ships -- or for travelers for whom an Emerald Princess voyage is a first cruise with the line -- the ship will surprise, and in most cases, delight you with far higher levels of cuisine, service and amenities than you would expect on a modern, mega-ship catering to over 3,000 passengers. There's the Italian-styled piazza, around which are centered the International Cafe (with its excellent coffees and scrumptious pastries, quiche and chocolate fondue); across the way is Vines, the ship's wine and sushi bar (it's got the only really good wine list onboard).

There's the occasional "street theater" in the three-deck high piazza. Offerings range from stilt walkers to comedians, and from chef and bartender demos to a pianist singing Broadway tunes. People flock to this part of the ship, day and night. Another neat Crown feature that made the transition is The Sanctuary, the top deck's adult-only outdoor spa area. And Skywalkers Nightclub, Princess' distinctive top-ship disco, is as pared down from older versions (as it was on Crown) -- which means the pool below it is much sunnier and cheerier.

In some ways this ship is better suited for Caribbean itineraries, where it spends half the year -- and when you have lots more time to enjoy the onboard ambience -- than on the Mediterranean cruise on which I sailed. That's simply because the days in port are so intense that onboard activities, which run day to night and offer some genuinely fun diversions, get the short shrift. Most passengers are simply worn out by evening, and prefer buffet dining at the Cafe Caribe over long, languid dinners at Crown Grill or Sabatini's, and early bedtimes to late night carousing at Skywalkers.

Wherever you cruise on Emerald Princess, what's clear is that this latest offering from Princess epitomizes much of what the line does best. The experience onboard is sophisticated to a point -- but also wholesome and down to earth.

Dining

Princess has deftly maneuvered the tight rope at dinner time between pleasing passengers who prefer a traditional dining experience (set time, tablemates and restaurant) with those who desire flexibility. Passengers can opt for the structured choice in the Botticelli Restaurant (seatings at 6:15 and 8:30 p.m.). The Michelangelo and Da Vinci restaurants handle the flex-dining crowd where passengers can turn up anytime between 6 - 10 p.m.; beepers are provided during busy times -- or you can opt to dine with other passengers.

Editor's Note: Because passengers can pre-request their evening dining option (traditional or anytime), the maitre 'd onboard will tweak as best he or she can to accommodate everyone.

Typical dishes served in the three dining rooms include Strasbourg duck liver pate with black truffle, gnocchi pillows filled with Asiago cheese in a truffle creamy coulis, aged beef tenderloin in a whole grain mustard crust with chasseur sauce or baked Italian crepes filled with Fontina cheese and porcini mushrooms. As well, Princess features standards on every menu; these include sirloin steak, grilled chicken or salmon.

Desserts range from amaretto torte to vanilla souffle with Grand Marnier sabayon.

Breakfast and lunch are served daily in, usually, Da Vinci; it's open seating during these meals. Hours are 7 - 9 a.m. for breakfast and noon - 2 p.m. for lunch. An elegant afternoon tea is also served here from 3:30 - 4:30 p.m.

While main dining rooms are a focus for many, one of Emerald Princess' greatest strengths throughout the day is its sheer volume of noshing options. The Horizon Court is the ship's buffet venue and it's open for breakfast, lunch, snacks and dinner. Hours are: 6 - 11:30 a.m. for breakfast; 11:30 a.m. - 3.30 p.m. for lunch; and from 3:30 -5:30 p.m. for a light snack buffet. Typical breakfast offerings include omeletates, pastries, cereal, etc. For lunch, you'll find deli fare, made-to-order sandwiches and meats, and a whole hosts of sides and salads.

Just beyond the Horizon Court is the smaller and slightly more intimate Cafe Caribe. While also a buffet-style venue, the adjacent Cafe Caribe offers terrific themed buffets for lunch and dinner (such as Asian one day for lunch, with an expansive sushi bar, and French Provencal on an evening for dinner). It's also the best place onboard for "home food" -- our roast chicken, mashed potatoes and pea dinner one night was just the ticket. Wines are sold only by the glass here.

It is open from 5:30 - 11 p.m. for dinner and from 11 p.m. - 4 a.m. for "bistro dinner." The latter's aimed at night owls, and the few evenings we actually were up late enough to check it out we were unimpressed with dried out, steam-table fare.

For even more casual noshing, we adored the cluster of food emporiums around the Piazza. Vines, the ship's wine bar, has, in addition to the best selection of wines onboard (far, far superior to the pedantic list available in the main venues), freshly prepared sushi. There is an additional cost, but this is not your standard "buffet" sushi, left out for all to grab at. You order your rolls, and a chef actually makes it in front of you. The International Cafe, across the way, has its own bakeshop (with onsite ovens so you can smell the tantalizing cookies, desserts and croissants as they cook). For breakfast, there are croissants and pastries, and for lunch there are salads and quiches, all included in your cruise fare. The cafe does have a short menu of specialty items that are a la carte priced -- the chocolate fondue is worth every cent and calorie.

The Cafe is also a coffee bar; lattes, espressos and more are available here and all command a price. Most formal are the ship's two specialty restaurants. Sabatini's, which levies a $25 per person service charge, is the fleet's Northern Italian-themed restaurant based on an eatery in Florence. And, as with Crown Princess, it's been moved to a top deck (previous iterations on older ships were situated lower down). The dining experience now comes with gorgeous views -- so if you want to see the sunset plan to dine fairly early). In terms of the menus, while basically the same, they've been pared down slightly (no pizzas are offered, for instance), and passengers are served small bites of a variety of different tastes, from antipasti to the main course. You only actually select your main course; there are plenty of fish dishes, (my favorite has always been the lobster with pumpkin risotto).

One neat aspect to dining here is you can have your dessert served in the adjacent Adagio, a piano bar.

Crown Grill is another popular venue that debuted on Crown Princess; it's a seafood/chop house and is elegantly dark. There's an open kitchen and the seafood, including lobster, is so fresh it's occasionally still alive. It costs $20 per person to dine at Crown Grill.

We loved the new Chef's Table concept; 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 cocktail and appetizers in the working galley. Anyone who's done a tour of any ship's huge galley will understand that these are 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. The chance to see chefs and waiters in action -- a real behind-the-scenes experience -- is worth the price of admission alone. Then you're lead 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. The Chef's Table is $75 per person.

In-cabin dining options abound. There's a no-fee room service menu (continental breakfast in standard cabins, and a selection of sandwiches, salads and entrees throughout the day). Pizza delivery costs $3 per pie. And for a really special evening, try the Ultimate Balcony Dinner. You need to reside in a cabin with a verandah, of course and what you get is a romantic meal for two outdoors (complete with table set with white linen and festooned with flowers). The $100 per-couple charge includes a four course meal, a half bottle of sparkling wine, a pre-dinner cocktail and a photo portrait.

The Champange Brunch is also back. For $28 per person (and of course a balcony), a waiter comes, sets up the table, and presents several covered plates with quiche, fresh fruit and lots of (way too many of) pastries. As the name indicates, you also get a split of champagne.

Public Rooms

The impressive atrium of the Emerald Princess with its sweeping tiered staircase is the focal point of the ship and it succeeds in being grand but not too over the top. This is the venue for gentle daytime entertainment, from engaging street theatre entertainers to relaxing classical interludes from string quartets and the ship's pianists. With the patisserie serving up tempting pastries, it is a popular spot for an afternoon treat.

Despite the fact that Emerald Princess accommodates the most passengers in the fleet, it is still possible to find intimate and quiet nooks and crannies, such as the library (books are sparsely stocked but there are fantastically comfy leather chairs, facing out windows, with listening stations).

There's a 24-hour Internet center. 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). As well, wireless is available throughout the ship's public spaces, but not yet in cabins.

One nifty Princess feature is its wedding chapel, which hosts marriage ceremonies and vow renewals.

Cabins

Princess has always been an industry leader in offering a high ratio of balcony cabins (which means that they're value priced as well as generally available) and Emerald Princess excels in that regard with 880 on tap.

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! Staterooms are simply and tastefully furnished, all with ensuite facilities, and most have twin beds that can be converted into a queen-size bed.

They also have individual air-conditioning systems and are equipped with a mini-fridge, hair dryer, and flat-screen TV with a variety of films, television programmes and news channels. One special-to-Princess feature is its romance channel -- which showcases classic and contemporary chick flicks and other worthy entertainment! Cabins are also equipped with a multi-channel music system, and a writing desk.

Most cabins tend to have two bunk beds that fold down from the ceiling above the main beds, enabling the cabins to cater more easily to families. This layout also keeps the sleeping area compact, so it is still easy to move around the cabin. There is also a handy walk-in closet area with plenty of storage space, plus a safe. Bathrooms are efficient, with generous enough space for stowing toiletries, and are shower-only in standard categories (from insides to balcony staterooms).

Sizewise, standard cabins are neither overly generous or excessively miserly. Insides are 160 square ft., outsides range from 158 to 181 square ft. and staterooms with verandah are 233 to 285 square ft. (the last includes the balcony in the measurement).

Thirty staterooms in a variety of categories have been equipped for disabled travelers.

For more spacious accommodations, the ship offers a couple of different options. Beds are made with plush duvets and lots of pillows; bathrooms have good quality towels.

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 for free 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.

Entertainment

The 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 (on particularly boisterous evenings the joint may erupt into a passenger singalong). 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.

Club Fusion was also busy during the day -- with Ballroom Blitz, line dancing, bingo and Jeopardy -- and into the evening with other varied 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 (albeit in more limited fashion on my Med sailing), 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 and adults only later on.

The Princess Theater is the ship's main show 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.

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 (with action flicks and such). Occasionally the line will program special events (like the Super Bowl).

Fitness and Recreation

Emerald Princess has plenty to offer fans of pampering with its Asian-style Lotus Spa, which spans two decks and offers a mouth-watering array of treatments. They range from an "Aromapure" Seaweed Massage (costing $195) to "Aromastone" Therapy ($195) to revitalising hair and scalp treatments.

One of the more novel attractions on deck is The Sanctuary - a cordoned-off adult-only retreat with cream awnings that give the appearance of a tented-style shaded haven. For $15 for half a day (open from 8 a.m. - 12:30 p.m. and 1 - 5:30 p.m.), guests can relax on sumptuous sofas or padded chaise lounges and enjoy massages (extra natch) in special outdoor cabanas while "serenity stewards" bob about dispensing chilled face towels, Evian water atomizers -- and for an extra charge of, "healthy" drinks and light meals, and even MP3 players for rental ($10), loaded with "relaxing" music. Be sure to book ahead for this facility on sea days, which is when it tends to be most popular and soon gets fully booked.

Like most ships, Emerald Princess has its own fully equipped gym, plus a sports court where enthusiasts can practise their basketball and paddle tennis skills. They can also pound the decks on the ship's jogging track, swim a few lengths in the lap pool or perfect their swing on the golf simulators before striding the greens of the Princess Links nine-hole mini-golf course.

At the end of the day, this is a big ship with the facilities to match -- but there are a lot of passengers to entertain and on sea days the decks can get pretty crowded (it can prove fairly difficult to find sunbeds close to the pool, which is fairly essential if you're trying to supervise children).

Family

There are three kids clubs for kids between the ages of three and 17. Princess Pelicans serves those aged three to seven; Shockwaves is for ages eight to 12; and Remix for 13 to 17-year-olds. Activities range from pirate parties and treasures hunts for younger cruisers to Playstation tournaments, JuniorChef@Sea cooking classes and hip-hop dance classes for older kids.

Remix, a relatively new concept for Princess, is hip and edgy. There are Playstation2'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.

Youngsters have their own "Chill Out" splash pool. And it goes without saying that more generic attractions such as Movies Under the Stars hold an instant appeal for them too -- but beware of what's being shown as sometime the language is more suited to an adult audience than young viewers. The two main pools on the Lido Deck are popular with children, but they are deep so kids need to be reasonable swimmers.

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."

Fellow Passengers

It tends to be a wide-ranging mix from couples of all ages to a large proportion of families -- particularly in the school holidays. The mix of passengers is split with the majority being Americans (around 70 percent), followed by Britons (about 15 percent) and other cruisers from as far away as Australia and Japan.

Dress Code

It's all pretty relaxed most evenings. There is one formal night on each one-week cruise and around two formal nights of cruises of 12 to 14 nights. Most men were in suits and a number were wearing black tie while the ladies opted for long or short evening dresses on these nights -- but if you didn't, it wasn't a big deal. There were no raised eyebrows!

Gratuity

A discretionary charge is automatically added to the bill at a set rate of $10.50 per person, per day, for each adult and each child ($11 for passengers occupying suites and mini-suites). Bills for services onboard such as bar charges and wine orders with meals are subject to a 15 percent charge.

--by Sara Macefield and Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in ChiefEmerald Princess, which debuted in April 2007, follows the highly evolutionary Crown Princess, whose launch took place in March of 2006. (A third ship in the class, Ruby Princess, launched in 2009.) All three ships are virtually identical in layout and design, so if you have sailed on Crown Princess ... well, you won't have any trouble finding your way around Emerald or Ruby. (The layout for all three is based on the Grand-class ship design, though slightly larger.)

But for those who haven't traveled on Princess' Grand-class ships -- or for travelers for whom an Emerald Princess voyage is a first cruise with the line -- the ship will surprise, and in most cases, delight you with far higher levels of cuisine, service and amenities than you would expect on a modern, mega-ship catering to over 3,000 passengers. There's the Italian-styled piazza, around which are centered the International Cafe (with its excellent coffees and scrumptious pastries, quiche and chocolate fondue); across the way is Vines, the ship's wine and sushi bar (it's got the only really good wine list onboard).

There's the occasional "street theater" in the three-deck high piazza. Offerings range from stilt walkers to comedians, and from chef and bartender demos to a pianist singing Broadway tunes. People flock to this part of the ship, day and night. Another neat Crown feature that made the transition is The Sanctuary, the top deck's adult-only outdoor spa area. And Skywalkers Nightclub, Princess' distinctive top-ship disco, is as pared down from older versions (as it was on Crown) -- which means the pool below it is much sunnier and cheerier.

In some ways this ship is better suited for Caribbean itineraries, where it spends half the year -- and when you have lots more time to enjoy the onboard ambience -- than on the Mediterranean cruise on which I sailed. That's simply because the days in port are so intense that onboard activities, which run day to night and offer some genuinely fun diversions, get the short shrift. Most passengers are simply worn out by evening, and prefer buffet dining at the Cafe Caribe over long, languid dinners at Crown Grill or Sabatini's, and early bedtimes to late night carousing at Skywalkers.

Wherever you cruise on Emerald Princess, what's clear is that this latest offering from Princess epitomizes much of what the line does best. The experience onboard is sophisticated to a point -- but also wholesome and down to earth.

Dining

Princess has deftly maneuvered the tight rope at dinner time between pleasing passengers who prefer a traditional dining experience (set time, tablemates and restaurant) with those who desire flexibility. Passengers can opt for the structured choice in the Botticelli Restaurant (seatings at 6:15 and 8:30 p.m.). The Michelangelo and Da Vinci restaurants handle the flex-dining crowd where passengers can turn up anytime between 6 - 10 p.m.; beepers are provided during busy times -- or you can opt to dine with other passengers.

Editor's Note: Because passengers can pre-request their evening dining option (traditional or anytime), the maitre 'd onboard will tweak as best he or she can to accommodate everyone.

Typical dishes served in the three dining rooms include Strasbourg duck liver pate with black truffle, gnocchi pillows filled with Asiago cheese in a truffle creamy coulis, aged beef tenderloin in a whole grain mustard crust with chasseur sauce or baked Italian crepes filled with Fontina cheese and porcini mushrooms. As well, Princess features standards on every menu; these include sirloin steak, grilled chicken or salmon.

Desserts range from amaretto torte to vanilla souffle with Grand Marnier sabayon.

Breakfast and lunch are served daily in, usually, Da Vinci; it's open seating during these meals. Hours are 7 - 9 a.m. for breakfast and noon - 2 p.m. for lunch. An elegant afternoon tea is also served here from 3:30 - 4:30 p.m.

While main dining rooms are a focus for many, one of Emerald Princess' greatest strengths throughout the day is its sheer volume of noshing options. The Horizon Court is the ship's buffet venue and it's open for breakfast, lunch, snacks and dinner. Hours are: 6 - 11:30 a.m. for breakfast; 11:30 a.m. - 3.30 p.m. for lunch; and from 3:30 -5:30 p.m. for a light snack buffet. Typical breakfast offerings include omeletates, pastries, cereal, etc. For lunch, you'll find deli fare, made-to-order sandwiches and meats, and a whole hosts of sides and salads.

Just beyond the Horizon Court on the Lido Deck is the smaller and slightly more intimate Cafe Caribe. While also a buffet-style venue, the adjacent Cafe Caribe offers terrific themed buffets for lunch and dinner (such as Asian one day for lunch, with an expansive sushi bar, and French Provencal on an evening for dinner). It's also the best place onboard for "home food" -- our roast chicken, mashed potatoes and pea dinner one night was just the ticket. Wines are sold only by the glass here.

On the same deck, midship, you'll also find a pizzeria and an ice cream bar, as well as the Trident Grill, which serves the usual grilled items like hamburgers, hotdogs, chicken and fries. All are open daily from 11 a.m. to 1 a.m.

It is open from 5:30 - 11 p.m. for dinner and from 11 p.m. - 4 a.m. for "bistro dinner." The latter's aimed at night owls, and the few evenings we actually were up late enough to check it out we were unimpressed with dried out, steam-table fare.

For even more casual noshing, we adored the cluster of food emporiums around the Piazza. Vines, the ship's wine bar, has, in addition to the best selection of wines onboard (far, far superior to the pedantic list available in the main venues), freshly prepared sushi. There is an additional cost, but this is not your standard "buffet" sushi, left out for all to grab at. You order your rolls, and a chef actually makes it in front of you. The International Cafe, across the way, has its own bakeshop (with onsite ovens so you can smell the tantalizing cookies, desserts and croissants as they cook). For breakfast, there are croissants and pastries, and for lunch there are salads and quiches, all included in your cruise fare. The cafe does have a short menu of specialty items that are a la carte priced -- the chocolate fondue is worth every cent and calorie.

The Cafe is also a coffee bar; lattes, espressos and more are available here and all command a price. Most formal are the ship's two specialty restaurants. Sabatini's, which levies a $20 per person service charge, is the fleet's Northern Italian-themed restaurant based on an eatery in Florence. And, as with Crown Princess, it's been moved to a top deck (previous iterations on older ships were situated lower down). The dining experience now comes with gorgeous views -- so if you want to see the sunset plan to dine fairly early). In terms of the menus, while basically the same, they've been pared down slightly (no pizzas are offered, for instance), and passengers are served small bites of a variety of different tastes, from antipasti to the main course. You only actually select your main course; there are plenty of fish dishes, (my favorite has always been the lobster with pumpkin risotto).

One neat aspect to dining here is you can have your dessert served in the adjacent Adagio, a piano bar.

Crown Grill is another popular venue that debuted on Crown Princess; it's a seafood/chop house and is elegantly dark. There's an open kitchen and the seafood, including lobster, is so fresh it's occasionally still alive. It costs $25 per person to dine at Crown Grill.

We loved the new Chef's Table concept; 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 cocktail and appetizers in the working galley. Anyone who's done a tour of any ship's huge galley will understand that these are 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. The chance to see chefs and waiters in action -- a real behind-the-scenes experience -- is worth the price of admission alone. Then you're lead 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. The Chef's Table is $75 per person.

In-cabin dining options abound. There's a no-fee room service menu (continental breakfast in standard cabins, and a selection of sandwiches, salads and entrees throughout the day). Pizza delivery costs $3 per pie. And for a really special evening, try the Ultimate Balcony Dinner. You need to reside in a cabin with a verandah, of course and what you get is a romantic meal for two outdoors (complete with table set with white linen and festooned with flowers). The $100 per-couple charge includes a four course meal, a half bottle of sparkling wine, a pre-dinner cocktail and a photo portrait.

The Champange Brunch is also back. For $28 per person (and of course a balcony), a waiter comes, sets up the table, and presents several covered plates with quiche, fresh fruit and lots of (way too many of) pastries. As the name indicates, you also get a split of champagne.

Entertainment

The 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 (on particularly boisterous evenings the joint may erupt into a passenger singalong). Known for its martinis, Crooners serves 52 different types! 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.

Club Fusion was also busy during the day -- with Ballroom Blitz, line dancing, bingo and Jeopardy -- and into the evening with other varied activities, from trivia to "Princess Pop Star," a take-off on American Idol, to Bee At Sea, a spelling-themed competition. This venue also hosts Captain's Circle meetings for frequent Princess cruisers.

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 (albeit in more limited fashion on my Med sailing), 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 and adults only later on.

The Princess Theater is the ship's main show 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.

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 (with action flicks and such). Occasionally the line will program special events (like the Super Bowl). Also keep an eye out for boutique kiosks in this area, which will allow you to shop for items without cutting into your tanning time.

Fitness and Recreation

Emerald Princess has plenty to offer fans of pampering with its Asian-style Lotus Spa, which spans two decks and offers a mouth-watering array of treatments. They range from an "Aromapure" Seaweed Massage (costing $195) and "Aromastone" Therapy ($195) to revitalising hair and scalp treatments and Botox.

One of the more novel attractions on deck is The Sanctuary - a cordoned-off adult-only retreat with cream awnings that give the appearance of a tented-style shaded haven. For $15 for half a day (open from 8 a.m. - 12:30 p.m. and 1 - 5:30 p.m.), guests can relax on sumptuous sofas or padded chaise lounges and enjoy massages (extra natch) in special outdoor cabanas while "serenity stewards" bob about dispensing chilled face towels, Evian water atomizers -- and for an extra charge of, "healthy" drinks and light meals, and even MP3 players for rental ($10), loaded with "relaxing" music. Be sure to book ahead for this facility on sea days, which is when it tends to be most popular and soon gets fully booked.

Like most ships, Emerald Princess has its own fully equipped gym, plus a sports court where enthusiasts can practise their basketball and paddle tennis skills. They can also pound the decks on the ship's jogging track, swim a few lengths in the lap pool or perfect their swing on the golf simulators before striding the greens of the Princess Links nine-hole mini-golf course.

At the end of the day, this is a big ship with the facilities to match -- but there are a lot of passengers to entertain and on sea days the decks can get pretty crowded (it can prove fairly difficult to find sunbeds close to the pool, which is fairly essential if you're trying to supervise children).

Family

There are three kids clubs for kids between the ages of 3 and 17. Princess Pelicans serves those aged 3 to 7, Shockwaves is for ages 8 to 12, and Remix caters to 13- to 17-year-olds. Activities range from pirate parties and treasures hunts for younger cruisers to PlayStation tournaments, JuniorChef@Sea cooking classes and hip-hop dance classes for older kids.

Remix, a relatively new concept for Princess, is hip and edgy. There are PlayStation2'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.

Youngsters have their own "Chill Out" splash pool. And it goes without saying that more generic attractions such as Movies Under the Stars hold an instant appeal for them too -- but beware of what's being shown as sometime the language is more suited to an adult audience than young viewers. The two main pools on the Lido Deck are popular with children, but they are deep so kids need to be reasonable swimmers.

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."

Fellow Passengers

Fellow passengers come in a wide range of ages, both couples and families -- particularly during school holidays. The mix is split, with the majority being Americans (about 70 percent), followed by Britons (about 15 percent) and other cruisers from as far away as Australia and Japan. You'll likely find that many have traveled with Princess in the past. In fact, on one recent voyage, we were informed that 500 of the folks onboard would be doing back-to-back sailings.

Gratuity

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

Dining

Princess has deftly maneuvered the tight rope at dinner time between pleasing passengers who prefer a traditional dining experience (set time, tablemates and restaurant) with those who desire flexibility. Passengers can opt for the structured choice in the Botticelli Restaurant (seatings at 6:15 and 8:30 p.m.). The Michelangelo and Da Vinci restaurants handle the flex-dining crowd where passengers can turn up anytime between 6 - 10 p.m.; beepers are provided during busy times -- or you can opt to dine with other passengers.

Editor's Note: Because passengers can pre-request their evening dining option (traditional or anytime), the maitre 'd onboard will tweak as best he or she can to accommodate everyone.

Typical dishes served in the three dining rooms include Strasbourg duck liver pate with black truffle, gnocchi pillows filled with Asiago cheese in a truffle creamy coulis, aged beef tenderloin in a whole grain mustard crust with chasseur sauce or baked Italian crepes filled with Fontina cheese and porcini mushrooms. As well, Princess features standards on every menu; these include sirloin steak, grilled chicken or salmon.

Desserts range from amaretto torte to vanilla souffle with Grand Marnier sabayon.

Breakfast and lunch are served daily in, usually, Da Vinci; it's open seating during these meals. Hours are 7 - 9 a.m. for breakfast and noon - 2 p.m. for lunch. An elegant afternoon tea is also served here from 3:30 - 4:30 p.m.

While main dining rooms are a focus for many, one of Emerald Princess' greatest strengths throughout the day is its sheer volume of noshing options. The Horizon Court is the ship's buffet venue and it's open for breakfast, lunch, snacks and dinner. Hours are: 6 - 11:30 a.m. for breakfast; 11:30 a.m. - 3.30 p.m. for lunch; and from 3:30 -5:30 p.m. for a light snack buffet. Typical breakfast offerings include omeletates, pastries, cereal, etc. For lunch, you'll find deli fare, made-to-order sandwiches and meats, and a whole hosts of sides and salads.

Just beyond the Horizon Court on the Lido Deck is the smaller and slightly more intimate Cafe Caribe. While also a buffet-style venue, the adjacent Cafe Caribe offers terrific themed buffets for lunch and dinner (such as Asian one day for lunch, with an expansive sushi bar, and French Provencal on an evening for dinner). It's also the best place onboard for "home food" -- our roast chicken, mashed potatoes and pea dinner one night was just the ticket. Wines are sold only by the glass here.

On the same deck, midship, you'll also find a pizzeria and an ice cream bar, as well as the Trident Grill, which serves the usual grilled items like hamburgers, hotdogs, chicken and fries. All are open daily from 11 a.m. to 1 a.m.

It is open from 5:30 - 11 p.m. for dinner and from 11 p.m. - 4 a.m. for "bistro dinner." The latter's aimed at night owls, and the few evenings we actually were up late enough to check it out we were unimpressed with dried out, steam-table fare.

For even more casual noshing, we adored the cluster of food emporiums around the Piazza. Vines, the ship's wine bar, has, in addition to the best selection of wines onboard (far, far superior to the pedantic list available in the main venues), freshly prepared sushi. There is an additional cost, but this is not your standard "buffet" sushi, left out for all to grab at. You order your rolls, and a chef actually makes it in front of you. The International Cafe, across the way, has its own bakeshop (with onsite ovens so you can smell the tantalizing cookies, desserts and croissants as they cook). For breakfast, there are croissants and pastries, and for lunch there are salads and quiches, all included in your cruise fare. The cafe does have a short menu of specialty items that are a la carte priced -- the chocolate fondue is worth every cent and calorie.

The Cafe is also a coffee bar; lattes, espressos and more are available here and all command a price. Most formal are the ship's two specialty restaurants. Sabatini's, which levies a $25 per person service charge, is the fleet's Northern Italian-themed restaurant based on an eatery in Florence. And, as with Crown Princess, it's been moved to a top deck (previous iterations on older ships were situated lower down). The dining experience now comes with gorgeous views -- so if you want to see the sunset plan to dine fairly early). In terms of the menus, while basically the same, they've been pared down slightly (no pizzas are offered, for instance), and passengers are served small bites of a variety of different tastes, from antipasti to the main course. There are plenty of fish dishes, (my favorite has always been the lobster with pumpkin risotto).

One neat aspect to dining here is you can have your dessert served in the adjacent Adagio, a piano bar.

Crown Grill is another popular venue that debuted on Crown Princess; it's a seafood/chop house and is elegantly dark. There's an open kitchen and the seafood, including lobster, is so fresh it's occasionally still alive. It costs $25 per person to dine at Crown Grill.

We loved the Chef's Table concept; 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 cocktail and appetizers in the working galley. Anyone who's done a tour of any ship's huge galley will understand that these are 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. The chance to see chefs and waiters in action -- a real behind-the-scenes experience -- is worth the price of admission alone. Then you're lead 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. The Chef's Table is $95 per person.

In-cabin dining options abound. There's a no-fee room service menu (continental breakfast in standard cabins, and a selection of sandwiches, salads and entrees throughout the day). Pizza delivery costs $3 per pie. And for a really special evening, try the Ultimate Balcony Dinner. You need to reside in a cabin with a verandah, of course and what you get is a romantic meal for two outdoors (complete with table set with white linen and festooned with flowers). The $100 per-couple charge includes a four course meal, a half bottle of sparkling wine, a pre-dinner cocktail and a photo portrait.

The Champange Brunch is another option. For $32 per person (and of course a balcony), a waiter comes, sets up the table, and presents several covered plates with quiche, fresh fruit and lots of (way too many of) pastries. As the name indicates, you also get a split of champagne.When Emerald Princess debuted in 2007, it was one of the largest ships in Princess' fleet, and it was rightly celebrated for delivering far higher levels of cuisine, service and amenities than you would expect on a modern mega-ship catering to more than 3,000 passengers.

There was, and still is, an Italian-style Piazza, where people flock day and night to enjoy "street theater" that includes everything from stilt walkers to comedians, chef and bartender demos, and a pianist singing Broadway tunes. The Piazza is flanked by the International Cafe (with its excellent coffees and scrumptious pastries, quiche and chocolate fondue) and Vines, the ship's wine, sushi and tapas bar (with the only good wine list onboard). The ship also offers Movies Under the Stars and The Sanctuary, the top deck's adult-only outdoor spa and sun deck area. Princess was the first to offer these onboard attractions, and both have been widely copied by other lines.

While the ship may not offer all the nonstop action or modern innovations of today's newest ships, what Emerald Princess does best is get passengers to engage in its varied destinations through a wide selection of terrific shore excursions. The ship's itineraries in the Caribbean, the Baltic and the Mediterranean are all first-rate. Our 11-night cruise in the Baltic was utterly masterful in terms of highlighting the assets of each port of call. On some large ships, shore excursions feel like cattle calls. Not so here.

In some ways, Emerald Princess might be better appreciated on Caribbean itineraries, where it spends half the year -- and when passengers have lots more time to enjoy the onboard ambience -- than on the Mediterranean and Baltic cruises. That's simply because the days in port are so intense that onboard activities, which offer some genuinely fun diversions, get the short shrift. Many passengers are worn out by evening and favor buffet dining over long, languid dinners at specialty restaurants like Crown Grill or Sabatini's. They also prefer early bedtimes to late night carousing at Skywalkers Nightclub, the top-ship disco.

Wherever you cruise on Emerald Princess, what's clear is that this offering from Princess epitomizes much of what the line has done best over the years. For first-time cruisers especially, Emerald Princess delivers the goods.

Dining

Princess has deftly maneuvered the tight rope at dinnertime between pleasing passengers who prefer a traditional dining experience (set time, tablemates and restaurant) with those who desire flexibility. Passengers can opt for the structured choice in the Botticelli Dining Room (seatings at 6 p.m. and 8:15 p.m.). The Michelangelo and Da Vinci restaurants handle the flex-dining crowd -- passengers who can turn up anytime between 5 p.m. and 10 p.m.; beepers are provided during busy times, or you can opt to dine with other passengers.

Typical dishes served in the three dining rooms include Strasbourg duck liver pate with black truffle, gnocchi pillows filled with Asiago cheese in a truffle creamy coulis, aged beef tenderloin in a whole grain mustard crust with chasseur sauce, and baked Italian crepes filled with Fontina cheese and porcini mushrooms. As well, Princess features standards on every menu; these include grilled salmon with herb and lemon compound butter, spice-rubbed tri tip roast, grilled beef filet medallions, burgers and pan-seared corn-fed chicken with thyme jus. Vegetarian choices are marked and always available. Desserts range from amaretto torte to vanilla souffle with Grand Marnier sabayon.

Breakfast and lunch are served daily, usually in Da Vinci; it's open seating during these meals. Hours are 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. for breakfast and noon to 1:30 p.m. for lunch. An elegant afternoon tea is also served there daily from 3:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.

The breakfast menu is extensive, featuring Maine blueberry pancakes, eggs Florentine, a fresh fruit plate, grilled minute steak with ranch-style eggs, and frittata con funghi. Lunch includes a brunch option for late risers, along with a host of selections that range from burgers and vegetarian burritos to London mixed grill and crisp-fried calamari. Desserts -- a fresh fruit tartlet, cinnamon rice pudding and double chocolate fudge cake, as examples -- round out the menu.

While main dining rooms are a focus for many, one of Emerald Princess' greatest strengths throughout the day is its sheer volume of noshing options. The Horizon Court is the ship's buffet venue, and it's open for breakfast, lunch, snacks and dinner. Hours are: 6 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. for breakfast, 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. for lunch, 3:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. for a light snack buffet and 5:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. for a full-blown dinner. Typical breakfast offerings include made-to-order omelets, pastries, cereal, etc. For lunch, you'll find deli fare, sandwiches and meats, soups, and a whole host of sides and salads. Dinners are sometimes themed -- a Bavarian Bierfest, for example, and a Mexican Buffet. We tend to be big fans of buffet dining, but the choices at Horizon Court -- pretty much across all meals -- were surprisingly limited and the quality uneven. In contrast, our dining experience in the formal restaurants was terrific in terms of both food and service.

Just beyond the Horizon Court on the Lido Deck is the smaller and slightly more intimate Cafe Caribe. While also a buffet-style venue, the cafe offers terrific themed buffets for lunch and dinner (such as Asian one day for lunch, with an expansive sushi bar, and French Provencal on one evening for dinner). It's also the best place onboard for comfort food -- our roast chicken, mashed potatoes and pea dinner one night was just the ticket. Wines are sold only by the glass there.

On the same deck, midship, you'll also find a pizzeria and a complimentary ice cream bar, as well as the Trident Grill, which serves the usual grilled items like hamburgers, hot dogs, chicken and fries. All are open daily from 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.

For even more casual noshing, we adored the cluster of food emporiums around the Piazza. Vines, the ship's wine bar, has freshly prepared sushi and tapas in addition to the best selection of wines onboard. This is not your standard "buffet" sushi, left out for all to grab at. You order your rolls, and a chef actually makes it in front of you. Same with the tapas. The sushi and tapas are complimentary when you order a glass of wine.

The International Cafe, across the way, has its own bakeshop (with onsite ovens so you can smell the tantalizing cookies, desserts and croissants as they cook). For breakfast, there are croissants and pastries, and for lunch there are salads and quiches, all included in your cruise fare. The cafe does have a short menu of specialty items that are priced a la carte -- the chocolate fondue is worth every cent and calorie.

The Cafe is also a coffee bar; lattes, espressos and more are available there for a fee.

Most formal are the ship's two specialty restaurants. Sabatini's, which levies a $25 per person service charge, is the fleet's Northern Italian-themed restaurant based on a typical ristorante in Tuscany. The dining experience on Deck 16 comes with gorgeous views, so plan your meal to coincide with sunset. While pondering their menu choices, diners are treated to herbed focaccia, rosemary flatbread with air-cured prosciutto, and marinated green and black olives. The meal includes antipasti, a nightly special pasta dish and entrees like duck with fava beans and pancetta or baked striped bass in an herbed salt crust. Sweets -- including raspberry frangipane tart with macerated wild berries or an almond, hazelnut and pecan napoleon with praline mousse and caramel pecan brittle -- end the dinner.

One neat aspect to dining there is that you can have your dessert served in the adjacent Adagio, a handsome piano bar with comfy seating. It's a nice, quiet alternative to some of the louder venues onboard.

Crown Grill, the other specialty restaurant, is a seafood/chophouse with an open kitchen. Specialties include Chilean sea bass and brioche-breaded king prawns, four-ounce Maine lobster tails, New Zealand double lamb chops, a Madeira-glazed Wisconsin veal chop and an array of steaks. It costs $25 per person to dine at Crown Grill.

For a very intimate dinner, we loved the Chef's Table. 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 a Champagne cocktail and appetizers in the ship's working galley. What's neat about Chef's Table is that your group occupies a corner of the main galley at the height of dinnertime. The chance to see chefs and waiters in action -- a real behind-the-scenes experience -- is worth the price of admission alone. Then you're led out to specially designated tables in a private dining area and served a multicourse menu paired with wines that are selected just for the evening. The Chef's Table is $95 per person.

In-cabin dining options abound. There's a 24/7 no-fee room service menu; in standard cabins, this includes continental breakfast and a selection of sandwiches, salads, entrees and desserts throughout the day. Pizza delivery costs $3 per pie. Suites can order room service from the regular daily dining room menu; they can also have an in-suite afternoon tea service. And, for a really special evening, try the Ultimate Balcony Dinner. You need to reside in a cabin with a verandah, of course, and what you get is a romantic meal for two outdoors, complete with table set with white linen and festooned with flowers. The $100 per-couple charge includes a four-course meal, a half bottle of sparkling wine, a pre-dinner cocktail and a photo portrait.

The Champagne Brunch is another option for balcony and suite passengers. For $32 per person, a waiter sets up the table and presents several covered plates with quiche, fresh fruit and way too many pastries. As the name indicates, you also get a split of Champagne.

Public Rooms

Even with 3,100 passengers, it's still possible to find intimate and quiet nooks and crannies, such as the sparsely stocked library on Deck 7, the seating outside of the Explorers Lounge and in the Adagio Bar. In the Atrium, on Deck 6 and 7, are the ship's four boutiques. Calypso Cove sells guidebooks, snacks, liquor, local souvenirs, toiletries and Princess logowear, while the upscale Meridian Bay features designer handbags, sunglasses and jewelry. Essence focuses on perfumes and luxury watches, and Facets is all about jewelry.

The Passenger Services desk is on Deck 6. Lines can get a little long at times. If all you're interested in is getting a copy of your folio, there's a machine by the desk that will print out your account statement when you insert your key card. The shore excursions desk is on Deck 7.

A 24-hour Internet center can be found on Deck 5. Rates are 79 cents per minute, and packages are available for heavy users (100 minutes for $69, 200 minutes for $99, 400 minutes for $159 and 600 minutes for $199). As well, Wi-Fi is available throughout the ship. Emerald Princess also charges a one-time activation fee of $3.95 for use of both Wi-Fi and the ship's computers. You can use the printer, which is handy for printing out boarding passes, at a cost of 50 cents per page.

One nifty Princess feature is its wedding chapel, which hosts marriage ceremonies and vow renewals. The chapel can also be used for conferences and other events.

There are several self-service laundry facilities onboard. Washers and dryers require eight quarters each, while soap and fabric softeners require five quarters. There's a change dispenser in each laundry room, but ours was out of order for most of the trip. It's best to bring your own quarters, but you can get change at the reception desk in a pinch.

Cabins

Princess has always been an industry leader in offering a high ratio of balcony cabins (which means that they're value priced and generally available), and Emerald Princess excels in that regard with 880 on tap.

All standard cabins are uniquely laid out with a little hallway off the main hallway that leads to your open-door closet and to the bathroom. Staterooms are simply and tastefully furnished with a writing desk (no couch or comfortable chair), and most have twin beds that can be converted into a queens. Each cabins also has its own air-conditioning system and is equipped with a mini-fridge, safe, hair dryer, and flat-screen TV with a variety of films, television programs and news channels. One special-to-Princess feature is its romance channel, which showcases classic and contemporary chick flicks. The TVs are also equipped with a multi-channel music system. Cabins have 100-volt electrical outlets. Ice is provided daily, and a fresh fruit plate is available upon request. Storage is plentiful with what amounts to a walk-in closet and roomy drawers on the bedside tables.

Some cabins have two bunk beds that fold down from the ceiling above the main beds, enabling the cabins to cater more easily to families and groups. This layout also keeps the sleeping area compact, so it is still easy to move around the cabin.

Bathrooms are efficient, with generous enough space for stowing toiletries. They're shower-only in standard categories. The only toiletries in the standard staterooms are shampoo and body wash.

Size-wise, cabins are neither overly generous nor excessively miserly. Insides are 160 square feet, outsides range from 158 to 181 square feet, and staterooms with verandahs are 233 to 285 square feet (including the balcony). Basic verandahs each have two deck chairs and a coffee table.

Thirty staterooms in a variety of categories have been equipped for disabled travelers.

For more spacious accommodations, the ship offers a couple of different mini-suite and suite options. In all suite categories, beds are made with plush duvets and lots of pillows; bathrooms have high-quality towels and expanded toiletries. Each suite's balcony is furnished with padded teak loungers and a table and chairs.

Those opting for more room should start by looking at 323-square-foot mini-suites, which each include a separate living nook and a full-length couch, along with a chair and an extra television. Its bathroom comes with a tub.

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 perks include a separate sitting area, DVD and MP3 player (DVD's are available for free to borrow), free laundry and dry cleaning, and a more elaborate bathroom. Suite amenities include daily canapes, a welcome bottle of Champagne, fresh flowers, a pillow menu, a terrycloth bathrobe and slippers, a range of Lotus Spa toiletries, a one-time complimentary bar setup and special disembarkation arrangements. Unlike on other lines, there's no over-the-top, 1,000-plus-square-foot suite onboard.

There are two family suites on Emerald Princess; these measure 607 square feet. Essentially, each of these mini-suites has an attached inside stateroom; they can sleep six to eight people.

One especially nice touch: If you are worried that your luggage might be overweight, your steward will weigh your bags for you the day before disembarkation so that you can make proper adjustments.

Entertainment

The Piazza is the hub of the ship and a marvelous destination. Located on Deck 5, the first deck of the three-story atrium, it serves as an impromptu performance venue and demo area. 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 the Piazza, the ship has an overwhelming number of entertainment options, plus a variety of lounges, each with a different personality. Crooners, on Deck 7, is right in the heart of the action, overlooking the Piazza. It also features a vocalist. (On particularly boisterous evenings, the joint may erupt into a passenger singalong.) Crooners specializes in martinis, serving 52 different types. Explorer's Lounge is primarily an event venue for everything from art auctions to guest lectures. At night, it often serves as a secondary movie theater.

Club Fusion, also on Deck 7 (and not the nightclub, despite the name), is busy during the day -- with Ballroom Blitz, line dancing, bingo and Jeopardy -- and into the evening with activities from trivia and "Princess Pop Star," a take on American Idol, to Bee At Sea, a spelling-themed competition. This venue also hosts Captain's Circle meetings for frequent Princess cruisers.

The Speakeasy Cigar Lounge is the only place to smoke a stogie. It's tucked into Gatsby's Casino, which has an assortment of slots and game tables. On our cruise, the almost nightly Texas Hold'em Tournament was very popular. On sea days, cashiers open at 10 a.m. During port days, the full casino opens 30 minutes after sailing.

The Wheelhouse Bar, a Princess tradition, has nautical character but lacks the intimacy we've associated with smaller versions on other ships. And Adagio, located next to Sabatini's in a light-filled corner on Deck 16, is an elegant, Ritz Carlton-esque venue with a cabaret singer and pianist. Late-night action -- think DJs and dancing -- is to be found in Princess' trademark Skywalkers Nightclub.

The Princess Theater is the ship's main show venue, and it also hosts movies from time to time when not featuring production shows and comedy acts. The ship-produced shows -- tributes to everything from disco to the Beatles -- were okay, not great.

Facets of the overall "edutainment" program include culinary arts demonstrations (wine tastings, ice carving and the like) and a destination lecture series that, on our Baltic cruise, featured not only useful port information but also thought-provoking lectures on topics like "The Last Days of the Romanovs."

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 (with action flicks and such). Occasionally the line will program special events (like the Super Bowl).

We ordered all of our shore excursions online in advance of the cruise, something we had never done before. The selection was robust, but Princess' online brochure was descriptive and concise, making it easy to hone in on the tours that were just right for us. We also liked how Princess tagged its "best of" and "most popular" shore excursions. The process was very user-friendly, and the tours, with only one exception, lived up to their hype.

We have to give a special shoutout to the shorx desk on Deck 7. Our stayover in St. Petersburg coincided with the G-20 Summit. Our stop in Stockholm coincided with an official visit by President Obama. And our port call in Tallinn, Estonia, coincided with a marathon that attracted thousands of runners. In each case, Princess and our local guides on the ground managed the situation so deftly that there was very little disruption to the ship's tours on those days.

Fitness and Recreation

Emerald Princess has plenty to offer fans of pampering with its Asian-style Lotus Spa, which spans two decks (16 and 17) and offers a mouthwatering array of treatments. They range from a Thai Herbal Poultice Massage (costing $195) and Hot Stone Massage ($195) to revitalizing hair and scalp treatments and facials. The massages last 75 minutes. Also on offer are teeth-whitening, facials, salon services and a "Gentlemen's Pamper Package" that includes a facial, scalp massage and double close shave.

The Thermal Suite, with its heated ceramic loungers, tropical rainforest shower, aromatic and steam rooms, is another indulgence. On our 11-night cruise, an unlimited pass cost $108 per person.

One of the ship's special attractions is The Sanctuary on Deck 17 -- a cordoned-off adult-only retreat with cream awnings for shade. It's open from 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and 1 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. For $20 for a full day, passengers can relax on sumptuous sofas or padded chaise lounges and enjoy massages (for an extra fee) in special outdoor cabanas while "serenity stewards" bob about dispensing chilled face towels, Evian water atomizers and -- for an extra charge -- "healthy" drinks and light meals. You can rent MP3 players for $10; they come loaded with "relaxing" music. Be sure to book ahead for this facility on sea days, which is when it tends to be most popular and books up quickly.

There are two Lido Deck pools, Calypso and Neptune, midship on Deck 15, with adjoining hot tubs. The lounge area around Calypso can get loud, due to the location just above it of Movies Under the Stars. There is a smaller, more private pool on Deck 14 at the stern of the ship.

Like most sizable ships, Emerald Princess has a fully equipped gym. This one has more than 40 cardio machines with TV hookups, medicine balls, free weights and weight machines. Annoyingly, the treadmills aren't accessible until 8 a.m. because cabins are situated beneath them. There are complimentary stretching, core strength and ab strengthening workouts, and, for a fee, passengers can sign up for body sculpting boot camp, yoga, Pilates, TRX and cycling classes.

The sports court on Deck 19 has a basketball and Ping-Pong court, as well as a putting green, golf simulator and greens where you can play croquet and bocce. There's a so-called jogging track, too, but it takes 16 times around to make reach mile.

Family

While Emerald Princess is fully equipped to serve children, it isn't necessarily a magnet for young families. That is due in part to the ship's longish itineraries, including in the Caribbean. On our Baltic cruise, for example, there were 15 kids younger than 18, and five of them were officers' children.

That said, there are three kids clubs on Deck 17 for children between the ages of 3 and 17. Princess Pelicans serves those ages 3 to 7, Shockwaves is for ages 8 to 12, and Remix caters to 13- to 17-year-olds. Activities range from pirate parties and treasures hunts for younger cruisers to PlayStation tournaments and JuniorChef@Sea cooking classes for older kids.

Remix is hip and edgy. There are PlayStation2's, movies and music, Karaoke, giant screen TVs, 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.

Youngsters have their own "Chill Out" splash pool on Deck 17. They must be potty-trained and under the supervision of a parent to use it. And it goes without saying that more generic attractions, such as Movies Under The Stars, hold an instant appeal for kids, too -- but beware of what's being shown, as sometime the language is more suited to an adult audience than to young viewers. The two main pools on the Lido Deck are popular with children, but they're deep, so kids need to be reasonable swimmers.

Children must be 6 months old in order to sail. There is no private in-cabin babysitting, but group babysitting is available for a fee for children 3 and older.

Fellow Passengers

The majority of passengers are American (about 70 percent), followed on our Baltic cruise by Canadians and Australians. In all, passengers represented 40 nationalities. The average age on Baltic and Med cruises is in the mid-60s, but that skews considerably younger on Caribbean sailings. You'll likely find that many have traveled with Princess in the past.

Dress Code

It's all pretty relaxed on most evenings. There is one formal night on each one-week cruise and at least two formal nights on cruises of 12 to 14 nights. Most men wear suits, and a number don black ties, while the ladies opt for evening dresses on these nights. But if you didn't, it wasn't a big deal; there were no raised eyebrows.

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 all beverage purchases onboard, as well as spa services.

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