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New Princess Vessel Shines on Inaugural Sailings

Princess is on a roll. Just one year after it scored big with the beautiful Coral Princess and Island Princess, the Love Boat line has topped itself by launching one of the best new megaships to come along in years.

April 8, 2004 -- Princess is on a roll. Just one year after it scored big with the beautiful Coral Princess and Island Princess, the Love Boat line has topped itself by launching one of the best new megaships to come along in years. Built by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in Nagasaki, Japan, the 116,000-ton, 2,670-passenger Diamond Princess is Princess's biggest ever (and third in the world behind Queen Mary 2 and Royal Caribbean's Voyager ships), but she's also a poster-child for the line's philosophy of offering "big ship choice with small ship feel." You'll realize just how big the ship is the first time you forget something in your cabin and have to walk allllll the way back for it, but when you're sitting in the cozy Wake View Bar or in a small pool in the stern, looking back over the ship's wake, you might well think you're on a 40,000-ton ship, rather than one three times that size. It's an appealing combination, giving passengers a large ship's range of options but packaging it all in a more personal, human-scaled package. You won't feel lost in the crowd.

Outside, Diamond has one of the most beautiful profiles in the business, sleek and streamlined. Enormous numbers of cabin balconies line her four-and-a-half decks, but manage to avoid the common "slab-sided" look through graceful tiering. And where Princess's Grand-class ships (Grand Princess, Golden Princess, and Star Princess) are frequently criticized for their "shopping cart" look -- owing to their elevated stern discos, set on slanted supports high above the rest of the ship -- Diamond's designers opted to move that disco down to deck level, just forward of the funnel with its pair of silver "jet engine" pods -- elements that were introduced on Coral and Island and have become a focus of passenger speculation. Are they part of the gas-turbine engines? Are they space-age funnels? Answer: No, they just look nice.

Inside, the ship's public rooms mix a clubby, intimate ambience with an appealingly uncluttered design. Where some lines (Carnival, Costa) try to overwhelm the senses with a kind of "more is more" design philosophy, Princess's ships stick to a more minimalist, smooth-textured approach. Rather than a Vegas-style atrium shooting up through the ship's nine main decks, Diamond's lobby space is admirably restrained, rising only three decks and laid out in creamy marble and wood, with understated grillwork art fronting the atrium elevators and musicians performing throughout the day. On its top level, a Rat Pack-themed bar called Crooners serves 56 different martini recipes in two sizes: the standard "Sinatra" and the supersized "Deano" (sic), with clusters of low-slung wicker-frame chairs giving a '50s rumpus room effect. Very slinky, very fun.

Most other indoor public areas are located on this deck and the one below, with some standout spaces including Princess's signature Wheelhouse Bar, an elegant lounge that recalls classic ocean liner design, and the aforementioned Wake View Bar, a very small, classy, intimate nook hidden down a flight of spiral stairs right in the stern and full of dark wood, leather chairs, and paintings depicting turn-of-the-(19th)-century tobacconists. Few people seem to ever find the place, so let's keep it to ourselves, huh? For kids, Diamond's Fun Zone center is divided into four separate and sizeable rooms, each designed with an age group in mind. Younger folks get a climbing maze, flower-backed chairs, toys, computers, and a great, cushiony amphitheater for watching movies. Teens get a sort of Austin Powers lounge, brightly colored and looking like a normal adult bar on some less restrained ships. Adults can play in the port-to-starboard disco/nightclub, which sits at the highest point of the ship and has a balcony looking back over the stern, if you want to head out for air or romance. Below is a huge four-deck horseshoe descending in tiers, offering pools, hot tubs, bars, and sunning areas. During the day, this area is a quiet, resortlike space, far removed from the more beachlike tenor of the main pool deck.

The biggest innovation aboard Diamond is in her dining arrangements, an extension of Princess's "Personal Choice" program in which passengers choose either traditional, fixed-seating dining or more unstructured "anytime" dining. Aboard Diamond, traditional-seating passengers dine in the 518-seat International Dining Room, with its simple but elegant wood-panel walls and classical paintings, while anytime diners get four restaurants, each with music and decor to match their theme: Japanese paintings and gorgeous framed kimonos in Pacific Moon (Asian), Anasazi themes and grayed wood floors in Santa Fe (southwestern), 18th-century European style in Vivaldi (Italian), and totally classic dark wood, sturdy chairs, and subdued lighting gleaming off stainless architectural fixtures in Sterling (steakhouse), the latter with a killer onions ring appetizer with cayenne dipping sauce. Yum. Now here's the innovation: In addition to the themed menus in those four anytime restaurants, each also offers guests the option of ordering from a shipwide menu-of-the-day, which is also served in the International room. Want more? Anyone dining in any restaurant can request a special item from any of the others. And more? Guests in the traditional restaurant are offered the menus of the specialty restaurants on different days throughout the week. Goodbye arguments about where to dine, hello choice.

Guests wanting to gorge long and hard should make a reservation at Sabatini's, the extra-cost ($20) Italian trattoria, which serves eight-course, 2-1/2-hour smorgasbords. Romantics, though, have an even better option: dinner served by a dedicated waiter on their private balcony, at a table set with tablecloth, hurricane candle lamp, and champagne. While the waiter is setting everything up, you and your significant other are treated to a complimentary cocktail in one of the ship's bars. The whole thing costs $50 per person, but what's money against romance? (The balcony-dining program is being introduced on these two ships and will be rolled out to the rest of the fleet if it proves popular. You can also order breakfast served on the balcony for $25 pp, an option that Princess first introduced in Alaska, while sailing in Glacier Bay.)

In among Diamond's innovative aspects, expect some of the same features that have made Princess's Grand-class and Coral-class ships such winners: comfortable cabins, relaxing indoor/outdoor "Conservatory" pool areas, large Asian-themed spas, and a Scholarship@Sea program that offers classes as diverse as pottery-making and web design. Rather than being a formulaic class for rank beginners, the latter is a serious, informative lesson, taught in small groups and with lots of room for question-and-answer. Thumbs up.

I found my personal favorite Diamond experience by accident, late one night. Like Princess's Grand-class ships, Diamond has a promenade deck that allows you to walk up to the very bow, one level below the open top deck (which, as aboard most ships, is closed to passengers). There was no moon, we were out of sight of the Mexican coast, and as I reached the very foremost part of the ship I made a discovery: Standing right in the bow, with no light coming from above, behind, or to the sides, the sky and sea merged into an infinite blackness pricked only by thousands of stars. The wind whistling past my ears drowned out the ship's hum and throb, and I felt as if I were all alone, flying on the wind into outer space.

Second star to the right, and straight on till morning...

Diamond Princess sails 7-night Mexican Riviera cruises from Los Angeles through the end of April, when she repositions to Seattle for 7-night summer Alaska sailings. The ship returns to Southern California in September to resume its Mexican program, visiting Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlan, and Cabo San Lucas.

In related news, Princess has already unveiled an even newer ship, the 113,000-ton Caribbean Princess, which made its debut in Fort Lauderdale just last week -- just one month after Diamond Princess's christening. It's the company's first ship to be positioned in the Caribbean year-round, and its launch was celebrated with a bit of past-meets-future theatricality: Actress Jill Whelan, who for nearly a decade played the captain's daughter, Vickie Stubing, on The Love Boat TV series, did double duty, playing the ship's godmother at its christening ceremony and playing the bride at her own wedding, which was celebrated in the ship's chapel. A full review of Caribbean Princess will appear in the next Frommer's Cruise Newsletter, at which point Princess will be preparing to launch yet another new megaship, the Diamond's sister-ship, Sapphire Princess. What a hat trick.

Princess Cruises: tel. 800-PRINCESS,

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