John Raoux  /  AP
The cruise ship Crown Princess docked in Cape Canaveral, Fla.
By Travel columnist
updated 7/14/2006 2:06:05 PM ET 2006-07-14T18:06:05

The brand-new, 113,000-ton, 3,080-passenger Crown Princess introduces several innovations to the Princess Cruises fleet, including a three-story atrium, new casual dining venues, a “Serenity” area, passenger reality shows and an expansion of some shipboard favorites. It’s all part of Princess’s new company motto: “Escape Completely,” which I did last month, on a nine-day round-trip cruise to the Caribbean from New York City.

Something old, something new

While the ship is new, its name is not. Named for one of Princess’s most popular ships of the recent past, the all-new Crown Princess is a big ship with a small-ship feel. Even with 3,000 passengers on board, everyone can find a place to call his own, and there is something for everyone.

In fact, Princess’s passenger demographic has changed over the past few years. The explosion of family travel has meant there are fewer old men playing shuffleboard than in the past, although I’m glad to say some still do. You can usually find them sequestered in the aft, adults-only Terrace Pool area. Drinks and party games draw lots of young couples and groups of friends to the Neptune’s Reef pool area, while families head to the Calypso Reef pool area, where they can splash and dog paddle while watching movies on the giant screen above.

Two new features offer completely different takes on the “Escape Completely” theme. In the dramatic, three-story Piazza Atrium, passengers can eat, drink, be entertained and shop till they drop. Exhausted? Then head for the new, adults-only “Serenity” area where, for a $15 half-day pass, you can lounge on luxury chaises and receive Evian water spritzes and cold towels. As the ship’s official godmother, Martha Stewart, would say: “It’s a good thing.”

Food, food and more food

After observing the feeding frenzy on board this ship, I came to realize that people are, basically, no different from dogs. Remember when you left the bag of Alpo out and Fido tried to eat himself to death? Well, it’s the same here, and many passengers seem to prize this big ship primarily for its ability to dispense mass quantities of munchies at all hours. Happily, the food is great, and there are plenty of excellent dining options. There are 13 places to eat meals, plus free 24-hour room service (with 55 items on the menu) and constant snacks on offer.

A great way to start a New York sailing is with a “Brooklyn Balcony Nosh” on your balcony. The Manhattan skyline and the Statue of Liberty make the perfect backdrop for this typical New York meal: a Nathan’s hot dog, Junior’s cheesecake and a bottle of Brooklyn Lager ($7; available only on embarkation day).

Princess’s flexible dining plan allows passengers to choose assigned tables or open seating in any of the three dining rooms: Botticelli, Da Vinci and Michelangelo. Buffet-style dining is offered in the Horizon Court and Café Caribe; both have excellent breakfast and lunch entrees, and Café Caribe offers themed dinner menus.

Looking for something special? Check out the two pay-as-you-go restaurants: The Crown Grill, an upscale New York-style steak-and-seafood restaurant ($25), and Sabatini’s, on scenic Deck 16, where you can dine on terrific regional Italian cuisine ($20). Tip: Go hungry to Sabatini’s; it’s a continuous feeding frenzy.

There are two casual dining venues in the Piazza Atrium: The International Cafe, offering pastries and sandwiches along with coffee drinks (some for a fee) and Vines Wine & Seafood Bar, where for a nominal charge you can indulge in sushi and cocktail-style shellfish along with premium wines.

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Without question, Princess has the best pizza at sea (more than 12,000 slices were served on this cruise alone). For a taste, hit the poolside venues of Prego, Trident Grill and Scoops, which also serve hot dogs and ice cream. If you want a cocktail before or after dinner, you have a choice of a dozen bars (but the view from Skywalkers Nightclub on Deck 18 can’t be beat).

The in-room “Ultimate Balcony Dinner” is a wonderfully intimate dining experience. For $50 per person, you’ll get your own waiter and a table beautifully decked out in crisp linens, flowers, silver, crystal and china. My companions and I dined on lobster and filet mignon (the best steak on the ship) and were delighted with the food – and with the sunset in the background. The “Ultimate Balcony Breakfast” ($25), on the other hand, isn’t nearly so ultimate. While the entrees are lovely, there is no setup; room service staff just drops off trays full of food.

Cabins

The focus on the Crown Princess is on balcony staterooms, which account for about 60 percent of the cabins. Standard balcony cabins range from 233 to 285 square feet; more spacious digs can be had the ship’s suites, which range up to 1,279 square feet. Mini-suites (a good size at 324 square feet) have a private sitting area, two TVs, a tub in the bathroom, luxury mattresses and a choice of pillows (feather or nonallergenic). The 28 full-size suites (including two family suites) offer such extras as a walk-in closet, whirlpool tub in the bathroom, DVD player, one-time free bar setup, fresh flowers and plush bathrobes and slippers. All balconies are outfitted with reclining loungers and a small metal bistro set.

The smaller, ocean-view and inside cabins range from 158 to 182 square feet, and 25 cabins (in several categories) are handicap-accessible. All cabins are outfitted with twin beds that convert to a queen, a telephone, hair dryer, safe, mini-fridge, closet, bathroom with shower, and television. The décor is in tasteful colors of gold, peach, blue and green.

I truly enjoyed the comfy confines of my mini-suite on Deck 9, but there was no privacy on my balcony. All balconies on this deck are uncovered, which means that everyone above can look down on you. Princess designed the balconies this way because customers wanted more sun. Since I like my skin cancer-free, I ventured out only during sunless hours, which, unfortunately, were few. Tip: Want the best of both worlds? The standard balcony cabins on Deck 10 offer bigger balconies than do the mini-suites, and they are half covered, allowing for both sun and shade.

Entertainment

The “Escape Completely” theme really finds its mark in the ship’s entertainment offerings, which are many and varied. Lavish, high-tech production shows play throughout the cruise in the Princess Theater. Smaller productions are mounted in the various lounge venues. The Piazza hosts all kinds of acts all day, including a pianist, an opera singer, a string quartet, 50s-style quartet singers, jugglers, clowns, people who pretend to be statues and one very odd mime who, as my daughter found out, likes to stick participants’ fingers up his nose for a good laugh. (Tip: There’s a bathroom close by where you can wash off the mime snot.) The casino was always jam-packed, despite the smoke-filled rooms.

Taking its cue from TV reality shows, Princess has developed a new series of passenger competitions, and these were a huge hit on my cruise. In “Princess Pop Star,” you can croon your way to the top; in “Ballroom Blitz,” you can shake your booty to the top; in “The Bee@Sea,” you can S-P-E-L-L your way to the top. For those who can’t sing, dance or spell, there are “edu-tainment” options such as guest lectures and Princess’s “ScholarShip@Sea” program, which offers learning courses from culinary to computer arts. Internet access on board is a bit slow and, unfortunately for those with laptops, Wi-Fi is available only in the Piazza area. An excellent photography department offers both formal and informal portrait opportunities — great for those hard-to-get family pictures.

Another highlight: “Movies Under the Stars.” The giant 300-square-foot screen lights up with a variety of programs throughout the day and night, including first-run movies. I have to confess the most fun was the midnight showing of “Titanic”; there is nothing quite like watching a sinking cruise ship on a cruise ship.

In keeping with Princess’s romantic history as “The Love Boat,” the big screen is also used for live video proposals. I was lucky to witness one of these live “Engagement Under the Stars,” when Jonathan from Canada made his proposal to Esther, who, thank goodness, said “Yes!” The couple has already set a date and they plan to take their honeymoon on — you guessed it — the Crown Princess.

Sportier pursuits include mini-golf, basketball, tennis, jogging and golf practice (with a swing simulator or with the onboard golf pro; there is a fee). There is also a huge gym with weights and every cardiovascular machine you can think of. Aerobics classes are free, while yoga, meditation, Spinning and Pilates classes cost $10 each.

The Asian-inspired Lotus Spa, operated by Steiner Leisure, offers a tranquil environment and many exotic therapies. I had several excellent massages along with a facial and tooth whitening. To my surprise, I ended the whitening treatment seven shades whiter. The spa also has a small pool with an adjustable current for a workout that can equal many laps in a traditional pool.

For kids and teens

So parents can “Escape Completely,” the Crown Princess offers a strong children’s program arranged by age, each group with its own facility and counselors.

“Princess Pelicans” (ages 3–8) offers a mini rock-climbing wall, beanbag chairs and a crafts area. The 8- to 12-year-olds program, formerly known as “Princess Pirateers,” is now named the much cooler “Shockwaves” and offers an air hockey table, PlayStation 2 and lots of space for sitting and chatting. My kids raved about the Junior Chefs@Sea program that takes Shockwaves participants to the ship’s galley to learn cooking from the executive chef and staff.

Princess has reconfigured its programs to appeal to its finickiest cruisers. The “Remix” area for teens (previously called “Off Limits”) is now a mature living room setting similar to a coffee shop. It comes equipped with air hockey tables, foosball and PlayStation2 consoles. Teens also have their own outside whirlpool (no adults allowed) and a small arcade room across the hall. A bonus is the teen makeover program, run by youth counselors and boutique staff in conjunction with Clinique, which teaches skin care to girls and boys, and makeup techniques to the girls.

Another innovation, which Princess has quietly rolled out over the last 18 months, is the “Youth Security Program,” in which staff in their early 20s watch over the teenagers. These highly trained personnel continually monitor the hallways and public areas to make sure kids don’t drink or get out of hand. Captain Andy Proctor noted that this program has substantially cut down on the number of complaints from adults about teens’ shipboard behavior. It should also give parents an added measure of reassurance about the safety of the ship for younger passengers.

Crown achievement

Princess has a winner with the Crown Princess, and it is definitely a hit with passengers. There are some “teething issues” (mainly slow elevators and long immigration lines for customs clearance in San Juan), and the cost for “extras” on board do add up. But in the end, if you’re going to cruise with the masses, I cannot think of a ship that does it with more style and elegance than the new Crown Princess.

Anita Dunham-Potter is a Pittsburgh-based travel journalist specializing in cruise travel. Anita's columns have appeared in major newspapers and many Internet outlets, and she is a contributor to Fodor's "Complete Guide to Caribbean Cruises 2006." E-mail Anitaor visit her Web site anitavacation.com.

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