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April 22, 2004 -- There are certain traits every big ship with a shred of dignity has these days, and the brand new 3,100-passenger Caribbean Princess, the fourth and biggest sister in the Grand-class series, is no slouch. Like her brethren, you'll find lots of dining options -- six main venues, plus pizza, ice cream and a sandwich grille for endless snacking. The many entertainment outlets include a main show theater, a pair of large multi-purpose lounges for music, comedy and other diversions, plus a handful of bars on deck and below. For kids, an impressive area is divided into separate rooms for teens and younger kids, and that's not counting two private outdoor spaces. As to be expected there's also a well-equipped ocean-view gym and sprawling spa, and did I mention the 881 cabins with private balconies? There are classes to fill your days, from wine tasting to computer and cooking, and of course plenty of those nasty, though seemingly popular, art auctions.

But the Caribbean Princess is more than just the newest state-of-the-art mega-liner, it's got some decidedly un-cookie-cutter-like qualities that set her apart from the crowd. I experienced them for myself on a recent cruise in mid April.

Some ships have rock-climbing walls, dizzying multi-story atria or twisting slides that pour passengers into the pool. This ship has a giant movie screen rigged to her funnel. Called "Movies Under the Stars", it's just like it sounds: you can now watch free movies, concerts and other televised programs on a huge screen on deck while the stars (hopefully) shine above and warm sea breezes swoosh past. Ushers are on hand during show times to seat passengers with reservations (general admission style), and chaise lounges are laid out with an extra pad and cozy plaid lap blanket. There's free popcorn, movie-style candy (that's not free), and roaming waiters for anyone interested in a drink or cocktail (can't do that at your local Lowe's multiplex). The $1.5-million 300-square-foot LCD screen offers a crisp picture to the nearly 200 lounges included in the official viewing area.

Other impressive firsts on the ship include a spa operated in-house by Princess; the vast majority of ships outsource their spa operations to a firm called Steiner. The Caribbean Princess' Lotus Spa offers the broad selection of trendy treatments most other big ships do, from hot-rock and aromatherapy massages to Rasul (a steam and mud pack treatment for couples), but toots its own horn with a great new feature: an on-line reservations system. You can now just go to the Princess web site (www.princess.com), scroll through the treatment options, and pre-book the service of your choice. No other line is offering this perk, at least not yet. All you need to do is show up at the spa at the time(s) you choose; no more waiting in long lines the first day of your cruise in hopes of snagging a decent time for your favorite shiatsu. Other appealing aspects of the new spa include black Asian-style therapist uniforms and a menu of services that leaves out some of Steiner's favorites, like the sketchy Ionithermie "cellulite-reducing" (ha!) treatments and the facials that call for the use of little electronic rollers. Plus, the Lotus Spa management swears they won't shamelessly hawk their skin care products to guests, as Steiner typically does, just as you're coming out of your massage-induced coma (instead, the Lotus folks will simply hand you a card listing the products they used; no spiel and no pressure to buy).

The Caribbean Princess also has a new Caribbean-themed buffet-style dining venue called Cafe Caribe that was carved out of the Horizon Food Court. Slightly more elegant than the other areas of the buffet, it's open evenings and features Caribbean cuisine and lots of lobster. If you'd like to dine-in one night, the Caribbean Princess is also the first to offer the "Ultimate Balcony Experience," a $50 per person splurge that gets you dinner and champagne, complete with flowers and a team of waiters, served to you on your balcony (wind and weather permitting).

Though you'll also find them on her sisters, Grand, Golden and Star, the Caribbean's great mini suites deserve acclaim again. Perfect for families cruising with kids, all 180 of them boast a mini-fridge, two -- count 'em two -- TVs, roomy bathrooms with large tubs and a shower, a full-sized pull-out coach, private balconies, and tons of storage space (on a recent cruise with my toddler twins, I never came close to filling up all the drawers).

Like her sisters, the Caribbean Princess also offers supervised kids programs for ages 3 through 17. If you're cruising with younger kids, parents are permitted to bring their under-age-3 offspring to the play areas if they supervise them (many lines, including Celebrity and Royal Caribbean, do not allow children still in diapers to use the facilities even if accompanied by their parents). On the Caribbean Princess, there's a wonderful secure outdoor space stocked with tricycles and a mini basketball set up where I spent hours with my 17-month-old sons. Since Princess ships rarely see more than 10 children under age 3, we had the place to ourselves. Not bad, considering it had ocean views from two directions (aft and portside).

The final verdict: a great ship if you're looking for big big big (and don't mind lines and the somewhat impersonal vibe mega liners can't help but exude), but something that's mellow on the eyes. The d?r is a sea of safe medium-wood tones, soft blues, greens and corals. No eye-catching art collection like Celebrity or the Vegasy razzle-dazzle of Carnival's bright ships, the Caribbean Princess sticks to the straight and narrow -- including her itineraries. The ship will call the Caribbean home year-round sailing seven-night routes in the eastern Caribbean (Princess Cays, St. Thomas and Sint Maarten) and western Caribbean (Princess Cays, Jamaica, Grand Cayman and Cozumel). All cruise are roundtrip with departures out of Ft. Lauderdale.

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