I was spoiled right from the start. My husband and I had only been dating for two months when he invited me to take a 10-day cruise with him to the Panama Canal. I didn’t even have a passport and our relationship was pretty fresh. Yet, I could not pass up the opportunity to take an amazing trip with a guy I liked and all expenses paid. This was my private episode of The Bachelor.
I knew nothing about cruising. I grew up taking long road trips with my family. Questionable motels, ghost towns, and a Chrysler that over-heated were the norm. Walking onto the Coral Princess was like Dorothy finally reaching the Emerald City. I found my new home at sea.
Regardless of which ship you take, the atrium is one of my favorite spots. This multi-story space is the beating heart of the ship. There are lounges, bars, and shops. You can grab a drink, buy some perfume, pick up a souvenir, or just lounge and watch fellow travelers scurry by. In the recently renovated ships like the Caribbean Princess, there is a deli, a gourmet coffee shop, and a wine bar with tapas. I love hearing the classic live music echo through this space. This is where the welcome speech from the captain takes place as well as the big champagne fountain. On any night, though, there is usually great music at Crooner’s and oftentimes that comes with a very lively crowd.
There is an indoor pool, one main outdoor pool, and the ships usually have one small adult pool. I am one of those freaks who works out while on vacation. So I can often be found hoofing it up the stairs to the gym. I really like the Princess gym. Good variety of equipment, clean, helpful staff, and a killer ocean view. The spa and secluded adult pool is right next to the gym. I like to get my groove on, then take a quiet swim. I also love the new thermal suites, hidden at the back of the spa. Here you will find a variety of saunas and heated tile lounge seats. It is so quiet and serene, this is the best place to read a novel and dose off.
There are plenty of activities around the ship. Every night, you will find the Princess Patter at your door. The Patter gives an hour by hour breakdown of the fun that can be had the next day. Bingo, casino tournaments, Bridge games, trivia, movies, challenges at the outdoor pool, and ice carving demonstrations are just a few of the activities available. My personal favorite is the art auction. I love art and I love free champagne. Enough said. The movies are often fresh from their theater run, so if you missed it last month, here is your chance. The Princess Patter will also tell you if it’s a formal night. Each voyage has at least one night where passengers wear their evening finest. On formal night, everyone is first class.
On most nights, photographers are ready to shoot your best angle. There is no sitting fee and no obligation to buy. I am not one to make a trip to Sears for a family photo so this is my chance to get great photos for the mantel at home. We used one of the first photos Aaron and I took on the Coral Princess as our engagement photo later. For us, Princess became our real life Love Boat.
When most people think of cruising, they think of food. Lots of it. I like the Princess buffet. Good variety, clean, and usually tasty. You can get crave-worthy pizza and burgers near the outdoor pool. You can also hit up the dining rooms for more formal sit down meals during the day. For dinner, you have two main choices: traditional or anytime dining. Anytime is just as the name implies. You get a pager when you check in and they beep you when a table is ready. It’s like a regular restaurant. However, I recommend traditional seating. You have a set time – roughly 5 pm or 8pm – you get the same wait staff and you sit with the same people. This is your chance to get to know fellow passengers, to get personalized service from the staff (they remember your names), and you never wait in line. Your table is always ready for you. Here is a cruise secret: boring people don’t cruise. I almost always meet great people at my table. Some I actually stay in touch with, even travel with, later. The staff takes the time to remember your favorites and try to bring them to you each night. There are times when my diet coke is waiting for me. Or when the waiter brings my coffee and cream after dinner without me having to order. One of my uncles loves anchovies and those funky little fish showed up at the table every night. By the way, Princess dinners are prepared well and very tasty. I am rarely disappointed. If you have special preferences, say a steak every night, let them know in advance. They will try to accommodate you.
There are also some specialty choices for dinner. Princess usually has Sterling Steakhouse and an Italian restaurant called Sabatini’s. Sabatini’s is heavy on the fish, cream sauces, and pastas. It’s eight courses (!) and you can guarantee you will get full fast. Should you choose Sabatini’s, eat very little that day. You will need the space. There is also the Crown Grill and the Bayou Café & Steakhouse. Each ship is slightly different, so be sure to check the website for their specialty dinner spots. Please note that specialty translates to an extra fee.
For the ultimate in food experiences, you have to try the Chef’s Table. Foodie friends, this is your Mecca. I have done this twice. It runs about $75 per person and is worth every penny. Space is limited, so you must call the dining line the minute you get to your cabin. Beg if you have to.
You start in the kitchen. You wash up and don white coats. You meet the chef and the Maitre D’ who will be your taste bud tour guides. Champagne is a-flowing and appetizers are served all while the wait staff whirls around you. This is the behind-the-scenes view of the dining room action. And you will taste the best small bites they have to offer. Steak tartar, ceviche, and caviar to name a few. You will also see how the meals are created, plated, and whisked away for delivery.
Leaving your white coats behind, you will progress into the dining room for a multi-course meal. Each course is artfully designed – your eyes and your stomach will be delighted. Between courses, you will have a bit of sorbet to cleanse your palate. Expect excellent wine pairings throughout, refill as much as your heart desires. Yes, you have arrived. You will also receive a complimentary photo with the chef as well as a cookbook with some of their best recipes. If there is a recipe from the evening you are dying to have, ask the Maitre D’, and they might ask the chef to write it out for you. This is service.
If you decide to have a lazy afternoon in your cabin, room service is complimentary. If your room has a balcony (I highly recommend), I suggest having a few meals alone watching the waves. Speaking of rooms, Princess does a fantastic job efficiently designing the cabins. Plenty of closet space, a desk that doubles as a vanity, and there is room to easily walk around each side of the bed. No one is cramped, shoved, or squeezed. And I like the clean, classic décor. Nothing cheesy, all style. If you are lucky enough to get – or be upgraded to – a suite, you will have a wonderful voyage. The suites have a family room, the main bedroom, a vanity, a shower, a full bathtub, and double sinks. There is also a double balcony with extra furniture upon which to lounge. Tip: The suites at the back of the boat have deeper balconies and even better views. Suites also come with extra amenities such as plush robes, slippers, and a variety of toiletries.
Much like bringing anchovies to the table every night, Princess staff is extremely attentive. From the room steward to the guy who serves drinks by the pool, they aim to please. Have a bad back? Ask for extra padding on your mattress. They can even change out the mattress altogether. Need medication? The medical staff will find it for you. My mom was having arthritic problems while we were in Scotland and the doctor went to shore to get it for her. On our way to the Panama Canal, some passengers became very ill with the flu. The staff immediately quarantined the passengers, created special meal plans for them, and continually cleaned the ship. No one else got sick and the ship as a whole was saved. Princess Cruises provides amazing service.
I have to mention the Captain’s Circle program. The quick explanation: The more you cruise, the better deals and specials you get. There are currently three levels: Gold, Platinum, and Elite. As a past passenger, you are rewarded with special pricing and a cocktail party on board. You will also have access to free internet, eventually get preferred check-in (skip the lines), and access to certain lounges for disembarkation. My husband, having cruised with his parents since he was a small child, is an Elite member. This means we have free laundry service, free mini-bar, free internet, free afternoon tea in our cabin, and all the amenities offered in the suites. We also get a discount on all merchandise purchased on board. I hitched my wagon to the right traveler. By the way, the complimentary laundry service means we pack a lot less. Even for a long cruise.
Also, if you book your next cruise while cruising, you get even better pricing with ship board credit. You don’t have to commit to a specific itinerary, just commit to coming back. We cruise almost every year, sometimes a few times a year. Look for special four-day trips offered by Princess. There are a few coming up this year and this is the perfect way to test the Princess product.
Princess also offers specialty cruises. We took a wine country cruise a couple of years ago which was a repositioning cruise. This means the ship needed to transfer from the Mexican Riviera itinerary to the Alaskan itinerary. They created an in-between cruise that highlighted the wine regions up the coast. Aside from repositioning trips with cool itineraries, there is also the Art Connoisseurs’ cruise. We got to experience this on our British Isles cruise in 2008. Contemporary artists Bill Mack, Sharie Hatchett Bohlman, and Michael Godard were cruising right along with us. They gave talks, art demonstrations, and shared fun anecdotes from their pasts. Michael Godard did a full painting – start to finish- while explaining his process and also offered to do commissioned paintings for a discounted fee. I was already a fan of his work and took advantage of the opportunity. We ended up with a Gold Series painting that included our personal passions and professions. Godard carefully hid our wedding date in the finished product. The painting now hangs in our bedroom. With the Connoisseurs’ cruise, you not only get a great itinerary, but you also get one-of-a-kind experiences with current artists.
I had no idea when I first stepped onto the Coral Princess, that the way I traveled would forever be changed. Great food, classy décor, fantastic service, and an endless list of activities. While not every trip I take includes a floating vessel, when I want to travel in style and visit a variety of locales, this is the way to go. Besides, you get two trips with every cruise: the adventures ashore and the wonderful life aboard. Princess Cruises is clearly an excellent way to travel.
To see Princess’ latest ship, check out my article on the Royal Princess at https://siteswithstacey.com/2013/07/21/the-royal-princess-maiden-iberian-voyage/.