The much heralded refurbishment of Grand Princess has indeed inspired about the vessel a new buzz of excitement. And yet I’ve set out on this seven night cruise along the Atlantic coast of France, Spain and Portugal with a persistent message thrumming through my head. Call me a traditionalist (actually most mariners in the classic mode would never do so because I do love cruising’s racy new ships) but there’s this:
No matter how spiffy a vessel, how many rock climbing walls and bowling alleys there are to challenge, or internationally-renowned entertainment acts to entertain or high flying celebrity chefs for tastebud dazzling, the heart and soul of a great cruise comes from a ship’s crew and staff.
So far, Grand Princess has heart in spades. Complementing that is the fact that its multi-million-pound facelift has taken what was already a comfortable (if somewhat dated) ship and made it more pleasing with contemporary touches that have brought it into line with newer ships like Crown Princess (and its Emerald and Ruby siblings).
The best thing so far? My last few cruises have been taken on ultra-new and ultra-mod ships like Celebrity’s Eclipse, Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas, and NCL’s Norwegian Epic. They’re great fun but what I am reminded of on Grand Princess is how nice it is to cruise on a ship that feels like a ship and not a Vegas-style resort-at-sea.
The new piazza is magnificent. On embarkation day, a rather sedate chamber combo welcomed passengers most of the afternoon. But later, a performance by a Polish acrobatic duo in the piazza’s “theater in the round” drew a standing room only crowd. The balance of the two – traditional music and heart-stopping acrobatics – in this space makes it a destination. You just never know what you’ll see.
Part of the piazza’s appeal too is that casual eateries, such as the International Café, which offers snacks all day (and throughout the night), a coffee bar, Alfredo’s, for pizza (verdict: among the best pizzas we’ve sampled at sea), and Vines, a wine bar. There is no charge for any of the food in this arena (though of course coffees and cocktails are clocked to your account) and that’s a major plus.
Not part of the ship refurbishment necessarily, but worthy of note is that Princess is debuting a brand new menu in Sabatini’s, its Italian alternative restaurant (it’s the first ship in the fleet to have the new offerings). You don’t have to order everything but boy, is it hard to pass up the artichoke cheese soufflé and the incredibly light fried calamari, the day’s pasta special (best carbonara ever), and the branzino (cooked in a salt crust and deboned tableside). As such, we don’t need to eat today. There’s a $20 charge to dine at Sabatini and reservations are highly recommended.
The ship-top nightclub that is replacing the infamous Skywalker disco (with its unforgettable shopping cart handle exterior) still isn’t open yet – we’re told it will debut the day we’re in Lisbon, which is Thursday – but it looks magnificent. It’s bright and bold with lots of color and a fantastic outdoor area with wicker-like chairs.
The verdict’s out at this point about the combination library and tea salon (called Tea Leaves); most times I’ve walked by it’s been pretty quiet though it’s very elegant. I figure if it’s not drawing crowds on this trip — the ship’s mostly filled with British passengers for whom tea is staple — it’s going to undergo a re-think.
There’s plenty more to see – including but by no means limited to the new spa – and we’ll continue to report throughout the week from Grand Princess. Got questions? Post them here and we’ll do our best to answer them. And we’ll also be sharing insights on the ports we’re visiting, which include Guernsey, France’s Brest, Spain’s Vigo, and Lisbon.