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By PAUL MOTTER
I have not been on a Princess cruise in quite a few years, and so I am very excited about the Emerald Princess cruise we begin in Europe next week. With my first Princess cruise I became a big fan, and so I have been researching to see whether today's Princess will meet my expectations. So far, I see nothing to indicate it won't be as great as ever.
As a cruise line, Princess has grown more quickly than most. Now I see quite a few Princess bargains listed in this newsletter, se let's take a closer look.
Cruise lines are divided into separate categories by the professionals, the mass market lines of Carnival, NCL and Royal Caribbean are officially know as "contemporary." The category above them is called "premium" and that is where you find Princess, Celebrity, Holland America and Disney.
The thing about "premium" cruise lines, however, is that they most often offer you the better value for your cruise dollar. They usually cost just a fraction more, but the ships are more elegant, there are fewer passenger and more crew for ships of equal size in the comtemporary market and they often offer almost all of the onboard amentities and diversions for people of all ages as the contemporary ships do.
In my mind, of all the "premium" ships, Princess represents the best value proposition, especially for families or younger than average cruising couples (in their thirties or forties, for example) who are looking for a classier cruise but still with plenty of onboard fun and onboard activities as well.
For example, Princess has a number of ships in the 115,000 gross tons size category, including the Diamond, Sapphire, Caribbean, Star, Golden and Grand Princess. However, unlike the slightly smaller Carnival ships which often pack in as many as 3300 passengers, these ship carry on average about 2600 passengers. These ships are big, but they feel more spacious.
Bottom line, for slightly more than a Carnival cruise, and about the same price (even less at times) than a Royal Caribbean cruise on ships of comparable size, you get more value. In what sense?
Princess originated the idea of true 24-hour food service, and not just from Room service delivery. They started having a buffet area open for food 24-hours per day back in 1997. This is something you still don't find on most ships, even the mass market ones.
For sit-down dining, you have a choice of four dining times, and a choice between traditional cruise ship dining with the varying dress codes each night (including formal) and the same table, waiters and other service people. Or you can opt for "personal choice" dining which allows you to dine in an informal setting, with open seating anytime between 5:30 to 10:00 pm, with more relaxed dress requirements, no suit, tie or gown required, ever.
Those are the "included" dining options. For those who want something extra, the specialty restaurants aboard the newer ships include Sabatini's, an Italian restaurant in which the last I dined I simply could not believe how much food we were served. In traditional trattoria style, course after course arrived, from a small pallette pleaser, to appetizer, salad, another appetizer, soup, entree, sorbet, dessert and post dinner cheese selections (to help you finish your wine). Every time a new course arrived we all said in unison, "I don't believe it."
The other restaurant with a nominal service charge is the Crown Grill (seafood and chops), equally pleasing. In addition, there are poolside hot dogs & burgers, the Ice Cream Bar, Vines, a wine & seafood bar, Cafe Caribe, the Horizon Court, the International Cafe and the Pizzeria.
Other than dining, how does Princess rate? I checked the reader's poll in CruiseMates and most readers rate Princess as:
Excellent (our highest rating) for overall service, staterooms, overall appearance, shore excursions, and value for money.
Superior (our second highest rating) was awarded for the cuisine. The largest percentage of our readers rated the ship a "nine" on a scale of one to ten. The one feature that rated highest was service.
To see the ratings by our readers of various cruise ships, visit our reader's poll.
Kids and the young at heart enjoy Princess cruises a great deal. There are myriad computer classes (some of the best at sea) with terminals in the main theater to accomodate large class sizes. Movies are shown on a large screen in the main theater and Princess also innovated the idea of movies under the stars, showing feature films outdoors on the pool deck.
Princess ships also offer some of the largest casinos at sea, and a huge video arcade for the kids with everything from Pong to a virtual roller coaster.
"The Sanctuary" is a Spa-inspired setting with calming music and scents, healthy cuisine, strong jucuzzi-style hot tubs, and no minors allowed. The pool deck includes a "swim against the current" pool, nine holes of miiniature golf and a golf simulator.
Princess was one of the first cruise lines to offer PADI scuba diving certification training on board, so by the end of your cruise you can take a scube dive with professional instructors.
Remember, you get all of this for about the same price as any other Caribbean cruise, but Princess' ships also sail throughout the world, so be sure to join the Captain's Club so you can accrue the benefits as quickly as possible.