A Look at the New Emerald Princess - Part 1

| Tuesday, 05 Mar. 2013

Emerald Princess Delivers in Europe

Princess Cruises always has a special place in the heart of a cruise lover. They were the original "Love Boat" after all, and introduced many of us to the world of cruising. Part of the company's unique history is that it is West Coast-based, in the beginning catering to the Los Angeles market with cruises to the Mexican Riviera. It was this proximity to Hollywood that enabled the Pacific Princess to become a television star.

In the early days, Princess (and their parent company at the time, P&O Ltd. of London) was hardly concerned about the battles for Caribbean dominance being waged by Miami cruise lines Carnival, Royal Caribbean and NCL. But Princess grew up, just like everyone else in the cruise industry, and today it is a behemoth company with 17 ships which altogether carry well over 30,000 cruisers throughout the world on any given day.

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Sailing Past Venice's Main Canal   View from Bridge - Port Side   Emerald Princess Santorini

By the 1990s, the company had expanded to Alaska, the Panama Canal and Caribbean routes. Most of the vessels were of the Sun-class, which at 77,000 tons and a passenger capacity of under 2000, were very stylish, premium ships that appealed to older, retired folks. They were designed to compete with Holland America and Celebrity, but with the introduction of Grand Princess in 1998, at 109,000 tons the largest cruise ship in the world for a short amount of time, the line began introducing several larger ships to its fleet. These larger ships offered cruisers more amenities and diversions, especially for younger passengers, but also put the line more directly into competition with the contemporary market of Carnival and Royal Caribbean.

At that point, especially after the takeover by Carnival Corporation in 2003, the challenge became one of retaining its core group of Princess dedicated cruisers while expanding its fleet and offering cruises beyond its West Coast comfort zone. Mission accomplished. A cruise on Princess today will find many repeat Princess passengers, mostly still from the west coast, mingling with younger people, including families from around the world.

The Look and Feel of Emerald Princess

Emerald Princess, at 113,000-tons and 3080 berths, is the newest and one of the largest Princess ships yet. At 19 decks tall, 16 of them for passengers, decks five through seven contain the main public areas dominated by the Piazza, an open-spaced atrium surrounded by many of the public rooms. These include the three regular dining rooms, the main show theater, the casino, two entertainment lounges, several smaller lounges such as the Cigar Bar and Calypso Cove, alternative restaurant Crowne Grill, the photo gallery, passenger services, gift shops and tour desk.

Decks four, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve and fourteen are all given over to staterooms. There is no deck thirteen.

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Wedding Chapel   Piazza Entertainers   Princess Theater Kitchen Set

The other pubic areas begin on the top pool deck (deck 15) with the Horizon Court buffet area, several pools, and the pizza and ice cream parlors. The Lotus Spa, fitness center and wedding chapel are forward while the children's zones, and the alternative-dining restaurant Sabatini's and Adagio Lounge are aft. Skywalker's nightclub is on deck 19 aft, although it is not suspended in the air the way it is on Grand Princess.

Having offered the first wedding chapel at sea (with the Captain doing the honors) on Grand Princess, Emerald Princess also offers true marriages at sea, as well as vow renewals. A complete professional digital photography studio in the F/X Digital Photo Center provides those all-important wedding photos.

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Atrium Colors   Piazza Stage   Elevator & stairs

As far as décor goes, as the name Emerald suggests, a subdued green is the accent color to the white and tan marble floors and glass staircases and elevators. Brass railings and dark wood paneling lend a feeling of elegance and warmth to the overall atmosphere.

Premium or Contemporary?

Because Emerald and her six similarly sized sister ships are close in size to the largest vessels of Carnival Cruise Lines, and substantially larger than any of the premium category Celebrity or Holland America ship, there is some debate whether Princess Cruises still belongs in the premium category. Some say it belongs in the "contemporary" category with Carnival, Royal Caribbean and NCL.

We just completed a 12-night cruise on Emerald in the Eastern Mediterranean with a full passenger load. Considering the main difference between the older ships and this one is size and passenger capacity, the question is whether they can provide the same levels of personal service as the smaller Princess ships. We were surprised to find that as far as comfort and service are concerned, we were not aware of many discernable differences between this mega-ship and the smaller Sun-class vessels.

Even with the mass of Emerald, the public rooms have the look and feel of the smaller Princess ships. For example, there are three different dining rooms, each of modest size, rather than a single large one as found on even larger mega-ships. The public rooms have the same names and basic décor as the smaller Princess ships, and while they contain more square footage, they feel just as intimate. Princess passengers in the know will find the expected Wheelhouse bar for singalong music and the Explorer's Lounge for evening dancing.

The atrium does not soar ten decks high like the Carnival ships, nor does it run 100 yards along the length of the ship like the Royal Caribbean mega-ships. The Emerald's Piazza atrium is a mere three decks high with a modest stage for impromptu performances by musicians, adagio dance teams, close-up magicians or comedians.

The main showroom is not an expansive room even though it holds 1600 audience members. It is only two decks high and the seats are snug, so a sense of intimacy is there for every seat in the house.

Opinions may vary, but mine is that the smaller Princess ships are still fully in the premium category, but the newer, post 110,000-ton ships such as Emerald, are probably best described as a cross between premium and contemporary. They are imbued with the architectural design and service characteristics of a premium experience, but the greater emphasis on family amenities and the average age skewing younger leads to crowd flow patterns more typical of a contemporary ship. You won't think you are on Carnival or Royal Caribbean, but you will feel a lot more energy than you will on an 80,000-ton ship.

Emerald Princess Dining Rooms

Much of the credit for making Emerald feel so special is owed to the culinary staff making the dining experience so enjoyable. Six different restaurants serve dinner each night, which every passenger should make a point of understanding before the cruise begins.

As mentioned, there are three regular dining rooms, all of similar size and design. For the more traditionally minded (some might say, experienced repeat passengers), one of the dining rooms offers the standard cruise ship dining routine with two dinner seatings: 6:00 and 8:30 p.m. (subject to change). Everyone is assigned a table with the same waiter and busboy for the entire cruise. On Emerald, this is the Botticelli Dining Room, located fully aft on deck six with commanding views of the deep blue through windows looking out over the stern.

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Anytime Dining Room   Crab legs - Regular Dining Room   Lamb Chops - Regular Dining

Princess also started offering "personal choice dining" several years ago. So additionally, there are two "personal choice" dining rooms, nicknamed "anytime" dining rooms where anyone may arrive at any time for dinner. The Michelangelo (deck 5) and the Da Vinci (deck six) are each equally appealing, practically identical. Both are located mid-ship just aft of the Piazza and open from 5:30 p.m. until 11:00 for open seating dining.

While we heard a few people complaining about "rush hour" backups in these rooms for which a beeper is given, we managed to get seated at a table for two immediately with every visit. Our usual dining time was 7:00, and I can't say when rush hour typically occurs. We never experienced it.

We considered our dining room food to be excellent, and in speaking to the chef, he agrees that the food is actually better in the "anytime" dining rooms. The reason being each portion is prepared a la minute just after the waiter takes the order, while in traditional dining rooms all of the courses are started at a preset time because everyone arrives at the same time. Indeed, we found our food arrived sizzling hot almost all the time, something of a rarity on even the best cruise ships.

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Maitre D & Chef Cooking Demonstration   Lobster Claw Salad - Main Dining Room   Galley Workers

We came to learn a unique aspect of Princess Cruises is that there is no single executive chef for the entire company who designs the recipes for the entire fleet. In a different approach, each Princess ship has an executive chef who is individually tasked with designing the menus, typically in some kind of symbiotic accordance to the itinerary. They work with the mother company's culinary department who must supply them with the food, but the chefs are mostly on their own in creating the menu and deciding how the food will be prepared.

We especially enjoyed the "personal choice" dinners in the Emerald Princess dining rooms. Lunch was also very good, but breakfast was not quite up to the same standards. A downside of dining on Emerald is the fairly high cost of drinks. Even espresso or cappuccino at the end of the meal will have a price, and a glass of wine is a minimum of $5.50.

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Dessert Sampler Main Dining Room   Bottle of Wine   Hamburger Station - Pool Deck

The best way to handle wine on a Princess ship is to order a bottle at a time. If you buy it on the ship the prices are reasonable, or you can bring it onboard and they will charge you a corking fee ($10) to open and store it. Once you purchase a bottle, they keep it in their own cellar, and whenever you want a glass you give them your cabin card. They will pour you a glass for no charge. Beer can also be expensive, but I heard the best deal is the heavy Australian Foster's Lager, which is $6 for a toxic 16-ounces.

The Horizon Court Buffet

Other than dinner, most of our meals were taken in the buffet area, called the Horizon Court on all Princess ships. In the world of cruising, Princess deserves a huge pat on the back for innovating 24-hour dining in the buffet area almost 10 years ago, something that most cruise lines still do not offer. Knowing you can scuff upstairs in the middle of the night and get instant hot food without disturbing your spouse is really handy. Almost all cruise ships offer 24-hour room service, but for me, the convenience of having that buffet open 24 hours/day is almost reason enough to cruise on Princess.

Unfortunately, while some of the food in the Horizon Court was delicious, many items were disappointing. An example is the trays of sandwiches set out daily that sit long enough for the bottom pieces of bread to disintegrate. These were a challenge to even pick up, and after the first taste of watery bread, impossible to finish. Buffet desserts were uninspiring, and ice cream is only available free of charge for an hour a day (from 3:00 to 4:00 p.m.).

On the plus side, all the restaurants have an abundance of waiters ready to serve or assist. I credit this to the food and beverage managers who were ever present to watch how we were being serviced. I have been on contemporary ships where upon asking for water or ice tea I was told to get it myself. This never happened on Princess.

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Maitre D' with Waiters   Buffet Decorations   Stored in the Galley

There is a limited choice in fruit juices at breakfast, and on one occasion a waiter with a cart full of fresh-squeezed orange juice asked us if we cared for any, which we did until we were told it would cost us $3.25 a glass. An example of the somewhat famous Princess "nickel 'n diming" which is more an affront to the senses before one's first cup of coffee than a cost concern. We will discuss how Princess has gained a reputation for this in recent years below.

The ship could manage breakfast in a better fashion. We went to the dining room in search of Eggs Benedict. The closest we could get was a poached egg on plain white toast. I asked for Hollandaise sauce, which was available but arrived cold and congealed. I was also clued in that it is impossible to order a Belgian waffle.

The Horizon Court had a tray of pre-cooked Eggs Benedict one-day, and usually had a tray full of over-easies. Cold eggs of any kind are rarely palatable, but these were better than the shrimp-infused scrambled eggs on Royal Caribbean in any case. I enjoyed the French toast, though others told me it was harder than a hockey puck on some days.

Throughout the day and night, one can get savory hamburgers or pizza (no extra cost) outdoors near the middle pool. The Hagen Dazs ice cream parlor next to the pizza parlor will cost you $1.50 scoop, just as it always has on Princess.

At 5:30 p.m. (until 11:00) the Horizon Court turns in Café Caribe, which is still a buffet but enhanced with themed cuisine, subdued lighting and tablecloths. Waiters are there for additional service. You can dress as casually as you care to, and this is the perfect option for nights when you are exhausted by a tour and just want to eat and go to bed.

Room service was always prompt, and when we noticed on the breakfast order card that the first time slot you can check is 7:30, we wrote in 6:00 a.m. and they delivered it to us on time, every time. Most annoying however, every time room service is delivered there is a signature required, and next to it is a spot for you to add a gratuity (hint, hint). Another downside is room service provides no hot food for breakfast, only rolls, fruit, cereal and yogurt.

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Room Service Pizza

The exception is the Ultimate Balcony Breakfast which includes Cuban specialty pastries, fruit salad served in a pineapple half, chilled marinated shrimp with papaya relish, warm egg and tomato pie with cheese gratin and a half bottle of French champagne. But the cost is $25 per couple. Most cruise lines will set up breakfast on the verandah, with hot food, for you free of charge - except for the champagne, of course.

Room Service lunch & dinner were the typical limited menu of BLTs, hamburgers and apple pie. You cannot order off of the dining room menu, ever. Once again, the exception is the Ultimate Balcony Dinner where they will deliver dinner for two, featuring lobster tail; but the cost is $100 per couple.

You can also order pizza from room service anytime, but there is a $3.00 delivery charge. They do make it fresh and deliver it hot, however. It is not re-heated slices like you will get from the parlor by the pool.

All of these charges are examples of the nickel & diming we alluded to -- perhaps we should call it nickel & dining? Princess is the only cruise line that charges anything for room service meals of any kind. It isn't prohibitive in cost, just annoying. But my goal is not to be all negative here. Bottom line, the room service is the worst feature of Princess compared to other cruise lines, but the dinners were delicious in the main dining rooms, and the alternative dining rooms (described below) are wonderful.

Alternative Dining on Princess

Sabatini's Tratorria is the Italian themed alternative dining venue that appears on almost every Princess ship. The concept is unique in that there is but one decision to make, your entrée. Everything else on the extensive menu is mandatory. It is a "tasting event" where the waiter arrives at your table over and again to dish out the same items to everyone. Beginning with focaccia and local olive oil, through antipasti, seafood salad, soup, pasta, sherbet, the entrée, dessert and finally coffee. The biggest complaint is that by the time you get to your entrée you cannot remember what you ordered. Dinner here takes up to three hours. The service charge is $20 per person.

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Sabatini's   Scallops   Capuccino Creme Brulet Dessert

The Crowne Grill is the other alternative dining spot, and the one we recommend for special occasions. The service charge is $25 per person, but the food is exquisite. Entrees include a four-oz. Maine lobster tail, or chops and steaks of all kinds. For an additional $9.95 you can get the entire 24 to 32 oz. lobster, steamed or grilled. Appetizers, soups and the sides are all ambrosial, and the lamb carpaccio with crushed walnuts and gooseberry chutney was one of the most unique taste sensations I've ever had. Once again, if you already have a bottle of wine (from Vines for example) they will serve it to you by the glass in the restaurant. Or if you order a bottle and have any left over they will keep for you in the wine cellar.

Speaking of Vines, it is the wine-tasting café on deck six where a full-time oenophile will talk to you about wine to your heart's delight. A large menu of wine by the glass for the tasting costing anywhere from $6.00 to $60 is available. If you like the taste you can buy the bottle for your personal use at any time on the ship.

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Lamb carpaccio crushed walnuts gooseberry chutney   The Waiter shows Me My Lobster   The Results - Full Steamed Lobster
   
Crowne Grill Interior   filet mignon foie gras top   Anniversary Cake

Nearby is the International Café, a small coffee klatch and eatery featuring sweets and tapas-like portions of special salads, sandwiches, quiche and other delights. A taste of any of these is just $1.00, and they suggest a full plate of food for $3.00. They also serve enticing candied apples for $3.00 and a hot chocolate fondue for $5.00 (dip fruit, marshmallows or whatever comes to mind). You can also get three generous portions of real Italian gelato here for just $1.50 total. Once again, as always, you have to pay for ice cream on Princess. In the old days the joke was "but it's Hagen Dazs," today it's "but it's Gelato." Anyway, it is delicious and would easily cost you ten Euro instead of a $1.50 if you bought it in Florence. Try it, the serving is more than enough for two people.

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Gelato Selections   International Cafe Menu   Chocolate Fondue
   
Piazza Cafe Menu   Strawberries in Formal Chocolate   Candied Apples

They also serve the only fresh-brewed coffee on the ship at the International Café. Coffee everywhere on the ship tastes over-roasted, bitter and thick; or in other words - European. This is acceptable, even palatable to some people, but when the International Café sells Jamaica Blue Mountain, which had me panting with excitement until I tasted it, I realized the Europeans need a lesson in coffee.

It works like this; there is American roast (the lightest), French roast (medium dark), and espresso (Italian roast, the darkest). You can taste some difference in coffee beans with a French roast, but any coffee bean roasted to espresso darkness tastes exactly the same. The light American roast is the only way to truly appreciate the taste differences in coffee beans, and to over-roast Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee even to a French roast is a travesty for $30/pound coffee beans.

Go to part 2 of this article

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