Brooklyn has always been a town of immigrants, from the Irish and Italians of yesteryear to the Dominicans, Chinese, and Jamaicans of today. And now we have one more: Princess Cruises' (tel. 800/774-6237; www.princess.com) new Crown Princess. Built and outfitted at the Fincantieri shipyard in Monfalcone, Italy (near Venice), the 113,000-ton, 3,080-passenger vessel arrived at the new Brooklyn Cruise Terminal in mid-June and was christened by lifestyle media mogul Martha Stewart -- yet another appropriate Brooklyn metaphor, as the terminal's gritty Red Hook neighborhood continues its long transition from low-income enclave to trendy, gentrifying hot-spot.
The latest in Princess's five-vessel Grand-class series (after Grand Princess, Golden Princess, Star Princess, and the slightly larger Caribbean Princess), Crown is both a continuation and an extension of all that made those vessels tick, with a handful of new features that add zip to the overall package.
Relatively massive -- with a gross tonnage that makes her the fourth-largest passenger vessel class in the world (after Royal Caribbean's Freedom of the Seas and the five Voyager-class ships, plus Cunard's Queen Mary 2) -- Crown continues Princess's design philosophy of offering big ships with, as they claim, "a small-ship feel." An exaggeration? Yep, but the core of the idea is sound. Though they give an impression of immensity from the outside, inside the Grand-class ships avoid grand spaces and glitz almost completely, with an easy-to-navigate layout and surprisingly cozy public areas that never feel as crowded as you'd think they would considering there are almost 4,000 people aboard, including passengers and crew.
What's Inside . . .
Like all the Princess ships, Crown sticks to a palette of pleasing (if a bit plain) contemporary decor that vice president of fleet operations Rai Caluori describes as "not jarringly thematic" -- for which we can all be grateful. Public rooms, primarily clustered on decks 6 and 7, are done up in caramel-colored wood tones and color schemes emphasizing warm blue, teal, and rust, with a few brassy details and touches of marble.
On 6, up in the bow, the two-story Princess Theater is a simple, well-equipped space for big musical revues. More interesting is the next-door Gatsby's Casino, designed on a Prohibition speakeasy theme with faux brick walls, barrel tables, and surprisingly open, unclaustrophobic layout. A small cigar lounge is attached. Just astern is the ship's understated three-deck La Piazza atrium, home to the passenger services and shore excursions desks as well as to all the onboard shops; the 24-hour International Cafe for a selection of snacks that changes throughout the day; a small Internet center; another room that looks like an Internet center but is in fact a future-cruises planning center; Vines, a wine bar that serves tasting flights as well as chilled seafood; and Crooners, a Rat Pack-themed martini bar.
The atrium is a venue for vocal groups and magicians, who perform at various times of the day. It also offers wireless Internet access or passengers traveling with their laptops.
Deck 7 is home to the ship's three most appealing public rooms. Club Fusion is a one-level show lounge for small-scale entertainment and passenger-participation events. Evenings here feature several different events scheduled one right after another, to encourage passengers to hang. Farther forward, the travel-themed Explorer's Lounge is decorated with Egyptian, African, and Middle Eastern themes and is the venue for comedians, music, or karaoke nightly. In one corner is a great Arabic/Moorish nook with pillowed couches and faux geometric latticework "windows." It's almost like a club within a club. Beyond the atrium, the clubby, old-world Wheelhouse Lounge offers laid-back pre- and postdinner dancing in a setting that recalls old ocean liner days, with memorabilia, paintings and models of ships, and tables with fold-up sides -- for use in heavy seas, don't you know.
Up on the topmost deck is Skywalkers, a disco/observation lounge offering floor-to-ceiling windows with impressive views both forward, folooking over the ship itself, and back toward the sea and the giant vessel's very impressive wake. Pleasantly decorated and with intimate, sunken nooks to port and starboard, it can get very smoky at night -- about the only space aboard that does.
Just below the disco is the ship's impressive spa/gym complex, arranged in a horseshoe shape around a small spa pool and two hot tubs surrounded by lounge chairs and tiered, amphitheater-style wooden benches, all presided over by a cross-legged Buddha. The spa too has elegant Asian decor, with Oriental-style furniture and artwork. As is the case fleetwide with Princess, the oceanview gym is surprisingly small for a ship of this size, and its ceiling is set so low that passengers over six feet tall will bump their heads when using the elliptical trainers, and come disconcertingly close when running on the treadmills. In the center there's a large aerobics floor with bikes for spinning classes.
Other public rooms include a small library and a wedding chapel where the captain himself performs about six or seven bona fide, legal marriages every cruise.
Standard outside cabins without a balconies ranges from 233 to 285 square feet (including balcony), while insides measure 163 square feet. All are richly decorated in light hues and earth tones, and have safes, hair dryers, minifridges, and TVs. Storage is adequate, with an open hanging area and a small closet with shelves. Drawer space is scattered around the cabin. Cabin balconies are tiered so they get more sunlight, but this also means your neighbors above can look down at you. Be discreet.
What's Outside . . .
Like some other recent ships (Royal Caribbean's Freedom of the Seas comes to mind), outdoor spaces aboard Crown outshine indoor spaces. Newest and most scrumptious is The Sanctuary, on a deck just above the spa's Buddha pool. Three-quarters canopied and dotted with lounge chairs, trees, and private cabanas, it's a perfect onboard chill-out space, staffed with "serenity stewards" tasked with making sure things stay quiet. Light meals, massages, and beverages are available. Originally intended to be a freely accessible space, The Sanctuary now carries a $15 fee for half-day use, a measure intended to limit use to those who really, really want some peace and quiet.
Below, the pool deck is divided into two halves: one for the traditional pool and music experience, the other housing Princess's now-signature "Movies Under the Stars" venue, with a 300-square-foot video screen lording it over the pool and deck chairs below. Movies, concerts, and other programming is televised throughout the day and evening, with ushers on hand during peak showtimes to help seat passengers. There's free popcorn and roaming waiters for anyone interested in a drink or cocktail, and the sound system is boomin'. It's a great experience at night, when the picture is clearest.
In her stern, Crown continues Princess's recent success in designing the most attractive cascading decks in the business, stepping down deck-by-deck to a cozy hot-tub nook and a small pool. One down-note is the ship's promenade deck, which has been narrowed so much (to accommodate expanded indoor space) that it's no longer able to hold traditional reclining deck chairs. In their place are wooden chair-chairs which, though nicely designed, are still just not right in the tradition department.
What's to Eat . . .
Rather than offering totally "Freestyle" dining like NCL or traditional fixed-seating dining like Holland America, Princess treads a middle path, offering passengers the option of choosing their own style: dining at a fixed time every night, with the same companions, or playing it loosy-goosy and showing up whenever they like within a fixed window. Three main dining rooms are divided between the two options.
For a more intimate meal, there are two alternative, reservations-required restaurants. Sabatini's specializes in Italian cuisine, featuring an eight-course menu emphasizing seafoodÂ?you better be hungry. Service is first-rate and the food is tasty, at $20 per person. Decor is lovely, with wooden pillars, widely spaced tables, illuminated glass ceilings, and fountains burbling just outside the windows, on an open patch of deck. Weather permitting, you may be able to dine outside too.
The second alternative venue is the Sterling Steakhouse ($15 per person), where you can choose your favorite cut of beef and have it cooked to order. Decor is dark and woody, with a bar facing the viewing kitchen. Artwork on the walls sticks to a King Arthur theme, for no good reason I can think of.
More casual dining is available at the buffet, at one end of which is Cafe Caribe, serving Caribbean specialties such as jerk chicken, grilled Caribbean rock lobster, whole roast suckling pig, Guiana pepper pots and curries, and paella-style prawns (no cover charge). Musicians play Caribbean music, and passengers can order their meal cooked to taste at the cafe's open kitchen.
During Crown's New York season, passengers can order a "Brooklyn Balcony Nosh" that bundles a Nathan's hot dog, a bottle of Brooklyn Brewing Company beer, and a slice of Junior's cheesecake, all delivered to their cabin for $7. Passengers on the ship's starboard side can nosh while looking at one of the best New York views anywhere, taking in lower Manhattan, the Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge, the crisscrossing Staten Island Ferries, and Governors Island, until the late 1990s home to the largest U.S. Coast Guard base in the world.
What's the Verdict?
The verdict on Crown Princess? A solid 4.5 stars. Cruise travelers not attracted by the zap-it-to-ya sensory overload of Carnival, the rah-rah "Get Out There" sporty vibe of Royal Caribbean, or the primary-color fun that is today's NCL will appreciate Crown's restrained yet fun ambience, which is definitely tailored to the kind of modern adult demographic exemplified by the ship's own godmother, Martha Stewart. Yeah, it's all good.
For her inaugural season, Crown Princess is offering 9-night eastern and western Caribbean sailings though October, all from New York's new Brooklyn Cruise Terminal. Western Caribbean routes visit Grand Turk, Ocho Rios (Jamaica), Port Canaveral (Florida, for access to Orlando and Cape Canaveral), and Grand Cayman. Eastern Caribbean sailings stop at Grand Turk, San Juan, St. Thomas, and Bermuda's West End. In fall the ship will reposition to San Juan for winter Caribbean sailings.
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