Princess' new vessel is a 'Star' attraction

Travel Weekly's San Francisco bureau chief, Laura Del Rosso, cruised three nights aboard Princess Cruises' Star Princess, sailing from Los Angeles to Ensenada, Mexico. Her report follows:

rincess Cruises' newest ship arrived on the West Coast in March with much fanfare. And, much to the delight of travel agents, who long have wanted a glamorous new ship based in Los Angeles, it's likely to stay put for a while.

The Star Princess probably is destined to sail the West Coast year-round -- the 109,000-ton, 951-foot vessel simply is too large to move to other prime cruising spots without undertaking a long sailing. Too wide to pass through the Panama Canal, the ship cannot easily be repositioned to the Caribbean or Mediterranean.

In fact, to get to Los Angeles from Italy's Fincantieri shipyard, the ship sailed through the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal and across the Indian Ocean to Singapore, where it embarked on a 26-day inaugural voyage across the Pacific.

On its transpacific sailing, the hefty vessel broke records everywhere it went, Princess said.

"Each time it entered a port in the Pacific, it became the largest [cruise] ship to ever visit that port," said Phil Kleweno, company president.

The Star Princess will be repositioned to Vancouver from Los Angeles this month, where it has been conducting seven-day Mexican Riviera cruises. From Vancouver, it will cruise Alaska, and at the end of the season in September will return to Los Angeles through May 2003 for another season of Mexico sailings.

Line officials hinted the remainder of the Star's 2003 itineraries might not be vastly different from 2002.

But during a three-night sailing to Ensenada, Mexico, Princess executives emphasized to passengers -- who included a large group of representatives from top-producing travel agencies -- that the ship's selling point is that the vessel itself is the "star."

"Being on the ship alone is the experience," said Kleweno.

The third of the line's Grand Class vessels, the Star Princess closely resembles its sister ships, the Grand Princess and the Golden Princess. Except for some changes made based on Princess executives' experience from operating the other two ships, the Star is practically identical to those vessels.

Among the design highlights are a three-story atrium featuring marble staircases and glass elevators. A large disco and observation lounge is located above the stern and is accessed by a glass-enclosed moving sidewalk.

The Star Princess' few differences from its sisters include a larger Lotus Spa, developed exclusively for Princess ships and expanded in response to its popularity on the two other ships.

Like its sisters, the Star Princess has three main show lounges with rotating entertainment which, judging from the response of the agents and other passengers, was one of the top features of the voyage.

The singers and dancers in the jazz and swing-era revue "Da Beat" were excellent. "Da Beat" is one of two new productions for Princess, and it's the kind of show that appeals to all ages.

The Princess Kids Room was given more space on this ship than on previous vessels; it's now the largest such facility in the fleet, with different areas for age groups 3 to 7, 8 to 12 and 13 to 17.

The Star Princess will be repositioned from Los Angeles to Vancouver this month for Alaska sailings. As with other Princess ships, the Star Princess provides Personal Choice dining, enabling passengers to eat meals in an elegant dining room whenever they want and with whomever they want.

There also is fixed-seating dining for those who want the traditional experience as well as a 24-hour restaurant and two more eateries -- Sabatini's trattoria and Tequila's, a Southwestern casual restaurant -- where an extra service fee of $15 and $8 per person, respectively, is charged.

The fee didn't seem to bother any of the passengers. In fact, within a few hours of boarding, it was impossible to get a reservation for the rest of the voyage.

However, once reservations are obtained, it takes only one visit to Sabatini's to figure out why the Italian restaurant is so popular. Lively waiters often burst into song and folk dances, and the food shone: sea scallops with a dollop of caviar sauce; risotto with asparagus topped with guinea fowl ragout; and light, airy gnocchi with gorgonzola sauce.

The meals at the ship's main dining room also were excellent, with a rack of lamb that was juicy and tender and a swordfish grilled just right with a hint of herb butter.

Kleweno said the alternative dining plan, which the line introduced in January 2001 on the Grand Princess, has taken off after what he conceded was a shaky start.

"We probably could have done a better job of introducing [the program], because it did create some confusion with travel agents," he said.

Twenty percent of passengers who choose the traditional fixed-seating option before the cruise end up switching to Personal Choice on board, Kleweno noted, and over the years, that percentage is expected to rise. On the Mexico sailings, one-third opted for the fixed dining.

Tipping is the main concern for passengers new to Personal Choice. The line handles the issue by automatically adding a tip of $10 per person, per day, on passengers' bills, covering state room steward and wait staff, unless guests request it not be added. The tips are pooled and allocated to the staff.

In the dining rooms and throughout the rest of the ship, there weren't crowds of people anywhere. The ship is large but not overwhelmingly so, except for the first day or two when guests struggle to learn their way around. (The very good signage helps.)

Kleweno said Princess is emphasizing its "Where I Belong" campaign this year. Its message focuses on the line's unstructured and relaxing atmosphere.

That theme, which is especially geared to younger cruisers who prefer unstructured time and options, will be carried through to the introduction of Princess' new ships: the Coral Princess, scheduled to debut in December; the Island Princess, expected in June 2003; the Diamond Princess, slated for July 2003; and the Sapphire Princess, set for a May 2004 entry.

West Coast retailers get their wish

By Laura Del Rosso

LOS ANGELES -- West Coast agents said Princess' newest vessel gives them a product to sell to clients who want a premium class, large-ship cruise -- and a home port within easy driving distance.

Agents also said they're happy a cruise line finally recognized that Southern California is underserved with such ships.

"The West Coast has been like a stepchild," said Gary Pollard of Ambassador Tours in San Francisco. "We get the ships from the Caribbean when they've done their time [there] and the lines decide to move them West.

"This ship is going to be here forever because it can't go anywhere else," he added, referring to the Star Princess' beam, which makes the ship too wide to transverse the Panama Canal.

The only potential block to strong sales, Pollard said, is that many West Coast residents are too familiar with the Mexican Riviera and might be looking for new cruise destinations.

But that's where the glamour of a new, large ship is important in selling cruises from Los Angeles, he added.

"It's a perfect ship for L.A. because there are a lot of people who don't care for the ports of call, and the ship is a resort in itself," said Richard Molander, president of Travel of America in West Covina, Calif.

Molander said he has sailed on Princess' other Grand Class ships and found "no real surprises" on the Star Princess.

"I like these ships. They are large, so they don't appeal to everyone, but everything is designed to give a small, intimate feel," he said.

By contrast, it was Jill Hussey's first time on a Princess Grand Class ship. An agent at Montrose Travel in Montrose, Calif., Hussey said she was "pleasantly surprised."

"I was thinking that it was going to feel huge, but it never felt that big," she said. "Large ships aren't for everybody, but I think for people who want a lot of choices and activities, they're great."

Hussey said because many travelers prefer to stay close to home, the agency expects to sell the Los Angeles sailings with ease.

Helen Wirshen of Sisters Three Travel in Scottsdale, Ariz., agreed the Star Princess sailings will be popular due to Los Angeles' proximity to major population centers.

"I see my clients driving from Arizona and taking a vacation in Southern California before or after the cruise," she said.

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