The Sparkling Sapphire

Princess Cruises’ newest ship features enhanced public areas, themed dining

By: M.T. Schwartzman

SEATTLE It’s a tall order to introduce three ships in 92 days. But Princess Cruises did that and more.

Its new trio of megaships the Diamond Princess, Caribbean Princess and Sapphire Princess all feature several product enhancements such as upgraded services and innovative public rooms.

I had the chance to sample the new features during a mid-June cruise on the 116,000-ton Sapphire Princess, currently cruising in Alaska’s Inside Passage from Seattle.

A wholly new space, Club Fusion, wows guests with 31 high-definition video screens, a bandstand/dance floor and video poker stations.

Personally, I preferred Churchill’s, a combination cigar lounge and sports bar with 12 TVs big and small. Taking its cue from 1998’s Grand Princess, this clubby room has upside-down pool tables suspended from the ceiling and sports memorabilia adorning the walls with a decidedly British fox-hunting motif.

Also excelling as a room to relax in is the Wheelhouse Bar, which has become a standard, nautically themed lounge on all the company’s ships. Similar in ambience is the Wakeview Bar, a downstairs extension of Club Fusion. Connected by a circular stairway, this secluded hideout is the kind of nook rarely found on today’s megaships.

Another idea first introduced on the Grand Princess and improved upon with the Sapphire is the top-deck, disco-in-the-sky. In this latest design, the “shopping cart handle” (as it’s now affectionately known) is nestled closer to the superstructure. This design allows for an exterior balcony 125 feet wide overlooking the aft pools. The lateral edges, meanwhile, extend almost as far as the bridge wings, allowing for dramatic views forward as well.

“No other class of ship has these views,” noted Mike Moulin, the recently retired commodore of the Princess fleet.

Even the ubiquitous Internet center has gotten a makeover, becoming a true cafe on the Sapphire and Diamond. In addition to 26 terminals (with four more in the library), the cafe serves beer, wine, coffees, soft drinks and bottled water.

Internet services include surfing the Web, sending and receiving Web-based e-mail (such as AOL), and creating photo e-mails using desktop Web cameras all for the reasonable at-sea price of 35 cents a minute.

In conjunction with these hardware improvements, Princess has introduced a new concierge system for making dinner and spa reservations. Passengers may pick up the handset of their in-cabin phone and with the touch of a button make appointments for dining or a massage.

Spa reservations also can be made online in advance of the cruise at, where passengers may pre-book shore excursions and fill out immigration forms too. The system, based on proprietary software created in-house by Princess, reduces the need to stand in line to make appointments, according to Jeffrey Kohl, the line’s director of spa operations.

The ship’s dining scheme has an innovative new twist as well. Four themed restaurants serve Italian, Southwestern, Asian Pacific, or American steak house fare. These are part of the company’s Personal Choice Dining program, which allows passengers to eat dinner when they wish. The steakhouse represents the best deal, since on most other Princess ships it operates as a restaurant with an extra charge.

In any of the dining rooms, passengers may choose from a theme menu, order off the shipwide menu, or mix and match. Other dinner options include the reservations-only Sabatini’s Trattoria, which has a $20 service fee, or the Horizon Court casual buffet. Traditional dining is still offered in two seatings in the ship’s main dining room.

For lunch and midday snacks, the most casual eateries abound around the pool. There’s Prego for a daily variety of pizza. The Trident Grill offers hamburgers, hot dogs, chicken breast sandwiches and the like, all served with a side of fries. For dessert, Sundaes dishes up ice cream for a nominal extra charge.

Even in Alaska, where the air temperature during a lazy day at sea was 65 degrees (rising to the lower 70s in the direct sun), the pool decks were filled with passengers soaking up the rays or the scenery. Older folks seemed to prefer the Conservatory, a glass-enclosed pool area amidships, while families with children congregated around the open-air pools and Jacuzzis.

Indeed this was a multi-generational sailing. One group of 15 ranged in age from 2 to 74. Yet another group of 12 ranged from people in their 20s to some in their 70s. Nor was this unusual: On formal night I saw two separate groups of 19 and 20 individuals posing together for pictures on the steps of the atrium which made me wonder: With so many options to choose from, how did they all agree on where to eat dinner?


Ship: Sapphire Princess
Gross Tonnage: 115,875
Capacity: 3,286 total, 2,674 double occupancy
Hits: Themed dining with a choice of two menus (specialty menu and shipwide menu) in each.
Misses: Air-conditioning was a bit on the warm side.
Itineraries: From this fall through next spring, the Mexican Riviera; Hawaii, Tahiti and the South Pacific; Australia and New Zealand; Southeast Asia and China; the Far East and Alaska.
Fares: Published early-booking fares start at $949 per person, double, for a category K inside cabin on a 10-day Mexican Riviera itinerary from San Francisco.

Agents Applaud Sapphire

If you’re booking kids, think of the Sapphire Princess. That was a key message from a dozen California travel agents who sailed on the June 20 cruise of the Sapphire Princess.

“I’ve heard nothing but raves from people with children,” said Gloria Sanfilippo of America’s Vacation Center in Escondido.

“Princess welcomes them,” added Laura Donati of Gulliver’s Travel in San Luis Obispo. “That’s a big selling point for me. I sell Princess a lot to Alaska and that’s one of the reasons why. The kids have something to do, and the parents have something to do, too.”

Even with 200 children and teens aboard, the younger passengers were well managed, noted Kathy Keithley of the TravelStore in Los Angeles. “They do a good job of keeping them organized and occupied.”

The dining arrangements also received praise. “It is the ultimate example of Personal Choice Dining,” said Sharon Bernhardt of Altour International in Los Angeles, “because of the selection of restaurants and the ambience each offers. Each one is distinctive. The decor really takes it to another level.”

Another agent, Carolina Palmer of Acacia Travel in San Diego, was impressed by the variety of the menus. “The combination of menus is something I haven’t seen with any other cruise line,” she said.

Other agents were pleased with the ship’s layout, which they said was another selling point. “One of the big pluses is how easy it is to navigate your way around,” Keithley said. “With this ship it’s a snap.”

Congestion, even with a full complement of passengers, was not an issue, said Teresa Solorzano of Travel Dynamics Group in La Jolla. “I don’t feel like everyone’s in the same place,” she said.

Another agent mentioned the spaciousness of the open decks. “The pools were well planned,” said Sandra Badgley of Montrose Travel. “On other cruise lines, you can’t even get a seat.”

Overall, the agents agreed they would have little problem selling this ship. Speaking for the group was Jill Hussey of Montrose Travel when she said, “I think it’s an easy sell.”