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Exploring the Golden Princess

| August 12, 2004

Is bigger better? In the case of the 109,000-ton Golden Princess, which I sailed on recently, it was. This cruise had three high points: a wide-reaching and very flexible dining program; an extensive, high-quality entertainment and activities line-up; and a Southern Caribbean itinerary that was terrific. This was the largest of the Princess cruise ships I've ever sailed on, and it took me a while to get used to its size. There is an incredible number and variety of public rooms for all sorts of purposes, but none felt so big as to be overwhelming. There were nearly 2,800 guests on board and about 500 of them were under 18 (this was a summertime cruise). There always seemed to be people around, but not in such numbers as to be oppressive.

DINING

Golden Princess
Princess has had a flexible dining program for a couple of years. As part of the reservations process, a guest has to determine if they want Traditional Fixed seating or Anytime dining. Those who choose Traditional Fixed are assigned a table in the Canaletto Dining Room at one of two dinner seatings. Those who choose Anytime are not assigned to a specific table for dinner. That's essentially the difference. Other than dinner, guests have a tremendous number of options for other meals and snacks. Even guests who choose one or the other style of dinner seating before the cruise can make a change during the cruise. I like the flexibility of the Anytime approach, as it lets me decide when I go to dinner. The tradeoff is that you won't have the same table every night, so the wait-staff doesn't get to know you as well. For the Anytime people, the maitre d's in the virtually-identical Bernini and Donatello dining rooms do a great job of sorting out all the requests for times and table size. There may be a short wait at the prime hours, but that's to be expected.

Daytime meals are served either in the Donatello dining room – open seating – or in a number of other locations, including the Horizon Court with very extensive buffets that are available 24 hours a day -- a casual and quicker alternative. For lunch and other daytime snacks, there's the pizzeria (I do believe it's the best pizza I've had at sea), the grills for hot dogs, afternoon tea and the ice cream bar (extra charge for Haagen-Dazs ice cream – the only discordant note in the entire dining program, since regular ice cream is served free at dinner).

Dinners are also served on a reservations-only basis in the Desert Rose Steakhouse and Sabatini's Trattoria. The additional charge at Desert Rose is $15 per person and the main course steaks are superb. The rest of the meal isn't special. At Sabatini's, the charge is $20 a person and well worth it for those who like lots of high quality Italian fare, especially pastas and shellfish (I could have eaten there every night). This meal is a longish experience but well worth the time. A nice touch in both of these specialty restaurants is that the wait-staff will serve items from the main dining room's kids menu if requested. They also do not charge if kids do not eat a full meal.

ACTIVITIES AND ENTERTAINMENT

Skywalker
During the one day at sea on this cruise, Princess provided a non-stop schedule of things to do. Many were traditional: bingo, horse racing, art auctions, shopping seminars, ice-carving, pool games, dance classes, etc. But there was also the Princess ScholarShip @ Sea Program; it's less daunting than it sounds as it includes computer courses at many different skill levels, from basic computer to website design, ceramics, photos classes (lots of digital camera training), wine-tasting and more. Some of these courses had a fee attached but they were not unreasonable. Golden Princess was built before the line introduced these programs, but they've done a nice job of creating ceramic and computer training areas from other spaces. There were lots of spa and exercise training programs; the Lotus Spa offered a wide range of excellent treatments and a terrific staff -- there were even discounted prices on port days. And even on those days in port, a variety of onboard activities was still offered. This is a far cry from the old days of cruising when nothing was really available for those who stayed on board.

In the evening, there was plenty to see and do, including three productions shows with four leads and 15 back-up singers and dancers. There was quite a range of cabaret performers as well; the illusionist was outstanding (ok, maybe a bit theatrical) and the comedian was world-class. There were lots of game shows, dance parties (including a great hoedown), evening movies, live music in a variety of lounges and a very active casino (double odds for craps players – hurray!). The once-a-week late-night deck party was in a great location: aft with three decks of viewing and dancing space.

Consistent with the flexible dining program at dinnertime, the evening activities were scheduled at a variety of hours. Some of the main shows were early and some later; every thing seemed staggered so you could really pick and choose what and when you wanted to see or do. Once you got used to having to plan out the evening, it worked very well.

ITINERARY

The southern Caribbean itinerary is an absolute winner. It began and ended in San Juan; after the one day at sea, we went to Barbados, St. Lucia, Antigua, St. Maarten (the Dutch side) and St. Thomas. We docked in all five ports, so it was easy to get on and off; there was no tendering. Princess provided an extensive range of shore excursions, mostly reasonably priced, from the usual sightseeing, swimming and shopping to cave climbing, ATV-ing (oh the mud you'll wear), mountain biking, flightseeing, swimming with sting rays or dolphins and lots more; guests could be as active or inactive as they wanted to be. The ship will be doing this itinerary through next spring; then it goes to Europe for the summer and returns to the Southern Caribbean run in the fall of 2005.

Note: The ship rode very smoothly and was exceptionally well maintained. However, some guests in the very aft section reported heavy vibration when the ship was being maneuvered as it entered or left port.

In summary, the Golden Princess is a big ship with lots to do. It is not a quiet ship (virtually the only place I found a music/people-free area during the day was the sky-high disco – great couches for sitting and watching the water or reading). Service overall was very good and certainly helpful and friendly. There were lots of couples with ages ranging from their 20s to 60s; there were families of every size, friends traveling together, etc. I'd recommend it to virtually everyone, especially pizza lovers.

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