Grand Princess: Agents' Questions Answered

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Travel Weekly cruise editor Fran Golden joined the 12-day maiden voyage of the Grand Princess, the world's biggest and most expensive cruise ship, as it sailed from Istanbul, Turkey, to Barcelona, Spain. Since returning, she's talked to agents who have asked questions about the ship. What follows are her answers to those questions.

Is Bigger Better?

golf That's a personal, to-each-his-own matter. I will say the Grand Princess offers amazing variety in entertainment, dining venues and recreational activities. There are four swimming pools (there's a fifth for crew only), three show lounges and even a nine-hole golf course, so passengers have lots of choices. But, it is a bit overwhelming if you are at one end of a deck and your cabin is at another. You have quite a walk ahead of you.

The "Crowds"

The ship's lower berths alone accommodate 2,600 passengers. However, it very rarely feels crowded. The Grand Princess has lots of small public rooms rather than a few large public rooms, so many, in fact, you can nearly always find a quiet place to be by yourself if you want to. The funniest example of crowds was when my friend and I went to the lunch buffet at the Horizon Court on the Lido deck and found a lot of empty buffet trays. I asked a waiter where the food was, and he made a motion like vultures flocking and devouring. It seems the kitchen wasn't quite prepared for the crowds that had descended. The waiter did direct a group of us through the food preparation area to the buffet on the other side, where there was still plenty of food.

Embarkation and Disembarkation

This was very efficient. It took me less than 20 minutes from the time I got off the bus from the airport in Istanbul to check in and get to my cabin. That's faster than on most ships.

Cabins

The cabins are wonderful. They are decorated, like the rest of the ship, in lovely mellow-colored fabrics like blues, golds and tans, with light woodwork. The cabins are a good size and have all the amenities one would hope for: safes, hair dryers, refrigerators, color televisions, telephones, robes and so forth. And of course 80% of the outside cabins, or 710, have private balconies. Twenty-eight cabins are wheelchair accessible, which is more than on any other ship. The suites and minisuites offer butler service in addition to steward service. The butler for our minisuite wore white gloves but showed obvious signs of needing more training.

Food

The food was OK, not spectacular. But keep in mind, this was just the maiden voyage, and we're talking about a kitchen with 200 cooks. The pasta on Princess ships is always fabulous (the chefs are Italian), and they always have good smoked salmon at breakfast, for some reason. And the chefs on this ship did great things with pastries and dessert souffles, plus there's always healthy-choice and vegetarian options on the menu. There also were specialty nights like a Greek night in celebration of the port call at Athens.

Food Venues

There are three main dining rooms, all named for famous artists -- da Vinci, Botticelli and Michelangelo -- and decorated with artwork accordingly. The da Vinci even has a copy of the Mona Lisa. The rooms are not particularly large (the largest is smaller than the main dining room on the Royal Princess), so you don't feel you are dining with crowds. And the waiters were excellent. As to the specialty restaurants, I really liked Sabatini's Trattoria. It's a lively, well-decorated room, and the food was well done. The Painted Desert, the first Southwestern restaurant on a ship, didn't work for me though. Maybe it's because tacos and quesadillas just seem weird when you're in Europe. It may work better when the ship's in the Caribbean. The Horizon Court also is open around the clock, and there are other dining options like a pizzeria and an outdoor grill.

"Start-up Problems"

Despite the ship's delay (the inaugural cruise was canceled), there were only minor glitches on the maiden voyage, such as phones that weren't answered, leaking faucets and a whirlpool that had too many chemicals added and took the color out of bathing suits. And the smoke machine in the disco set off smoke detectors on at least one occasion. Nothing you wouldn't expect on a new ship.

Entertainment

The fact that this ship has three show lounges is a big plus. The Princess Theater is a real theater setup that can handle Broadway-style shows. The Vista Lounge is more suited for Vegas-style acts. Oddly enough, however, on our sailing the Vegas acts, including headliners Rita Moreno, Alan King and Red Buttons, performed in the theater, while the line introduced its newest Broadway-style show, the extremely well-done "Gotta Sing Gotta Dance," in the lounge. I think it would have worked better in reverse. I love the third venue, the Explorers Club. The room is in the middle of the ship on the Promenade Deck, and open, so the performances catch your attention as you walk by, causing you to stop and watch. The decor is safari, with rattan furniture, horn-shaped lamps, artifacts and a wildlife carpet. And the bar staff wears safari outfits. The space is perfectly suited for acts such as the ventriloquist featured on our sailing and other cabaret-style performances. The ship's casino is the biggest at sea at 13,500 square feet and even has nickel slot machines, which is about my style.

My Favorite Things

statueThere are so many. Princess spent big bucks on this ship, $450 million, so it ought to be gorgeous, and it is. The ship's most striking feature is its disco, which juts out the back, suspended 155 feet above the water. From the disco, you can literally look back at the ship. You feel as if you're in a separate pod floating in space. It's quite spectacular. I also liked the fact that there are so many swimming pools that none gets particularly crowded. When there are activities at one pool, you can move on to the next if you want to swim or lounge in quiet. The aft swimming pool, located under the disco, was virtually private. Some of the ship's artwork was interesting, including the several bronze sculptures.

The Ride

Are we on a ship or in a hotel? It was very smooth. The Grand Princess is so technologically advanced it can literally control itself. Capt. Mike Moulin said the ship can alter course on its own better than any human can. He's eager to use the technology to try driving it blind, something he's been practicing to do but hadn't tried as of our sailing.

The Spa

The layout is a bit weird. There are, for instance, no showers in the dressing area, just open showers at the spa pool and in some of the treatment rooms. Also, there's tinted glass that allows you to look out at the deck but doesn't allow people to look in. Even though you know they can't see, it feels weird to watch people outside when you're naked. The beauty parlor is really big. The gym has an ocean view but is a tad small for a ship of this size. There are, for instance, only six treadmills among the state-of-the-art exercise and weight machines in the exercise area. There's a big space, however, for fitness classes. And the swim-against-the-current feature of the spa pool should prove popular with swimmers.

The Kiddies

They are hardly ignored here. There are two-level children's and teens' centers, the latter with its own disco. Kids get access to computers and games, a kiddie pool, a teen whirlpool and even a fleet of bright red tricycles for the younger ones. And the ship has a large virtual reality center, with interactive games and a motion-based simulator "ride."

Daytime Activities

For Europe, given that most people want to see the sights -- the ship visits Kusadasi, Turkey; Athens; Venice, Naples and Florence (Livorno), Italy; Monte Carlo, and Barcelona, with two days at sea -- the activities schedule was rather low-key. Just your typical shuffleboard and bridge tournaments, lectures (including one on historic ships), games like Passenger Feud, art auctions and exercise classes. Most people, if they weren't touring on our sailing, seemed most content to sit in a deck chair and read or catch a nap.

Shore Excursions

These are very efficiently operated, but in some cities it's just better to go off on your own.

And some places, like ancient Ephesus in Turkey, lose a bit in terms of aura when they get crowded.

* * *

Ship: Grand Princess.
Size: 109,000 tons.
Passengers: 2,600 lower-berth.
Length: 951 feet.
Itineraries: The ship's 1998 Europe season of 12-day cruises between Istanbul, Turkey, and Barcelona, Spain, is sold out, but the ship will be positioned in Europe again in 1999. The ship heads in September to New York for its North American debut and will offer eastern Caribbean cruises from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., beginning in October.
Reservations: (800) PRINCESS

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