Posted on Thursday, August 30, 2012 by Peter Knego
Peter Knego embarks on a seven night voyage to four northern Europe ports from Southampton aboard Princess Cruises recently refurbished GRAND PRINCESS.
All photos by and copyright Peter Knego 2012 unless otherwise noted.
Saturday, August 25, 2012
After our typical, lag-inducing flights from JFK and LAX, respectively, my traveling companion, Rob Di Stefano, and I spent a bleary-but-pleasant afternoon roaming through Soho and the Hyde Park-adjacent quarter of London before adjourning for the eve at the Grosvenor Hotel.
When we arrived in Southampton, it was easy to spot the 1998-built, 2,590 passenger, 109,000 gross ton GRAND PRINCESS towering over the famed Mayflower Terminal. This would be my first time stepping aboard the recently refurbished ship since her 1998 debut, when she was the world’s largest.
In the years since, GRAND PRINCESS has been joined by two identical twins (GOLDEN and STAR) and several modified sisters, from the Japanese-built DIAMOND and SAPPHIRE to the one-off CARIBBEAN and the “CROWN Class trio” (CROWN, EMERALD and RUBY). Further, sister Carnival Corp-owned line P&O has their own pair of CROWN Class ships in the VENTURA and AZURA, making the GRAND blueprint one of the most successful in the history of cruising.
In early 2011, GRAND PRINCESS underwent a massive, 28-day transformation at Freeport’s Grand Bahama Shipyard. In the process, the iconic Skywalker’s Disco was removed from its perch atop the ship’s stern and several public spaces were replaced with new venues or completely remodeled. Since then, the ship has been based at Southampton but will be returning to U.S. waters to begin sailing from the West Coast in 2013. The first thing embarking passengers will likely see is the completely rebuilt, three deck Piazza (formerly called the Atrium), which brims with new venues.
Shortly after boarding the ship, we were met by hotel manager Andreas Pitsch, who supervises one of the friendliest, most efficient and hard-working teams afloat. I’ve had the pleasure of sailing with the Austrian-based officer aboard SAPPHIRE PRINCESS and Disney Cruise Line’s DISNEY WONDER. Andreas had arranged with the housekeeping department for me to photograph the wide range of cabins and suites before official embarkation began.
At the top end of the accommodation tier, the Grand Suites are located on midships Deck 11 and measure approximately 700 square feet with separate bedrooms, huge marble bathrooms with Jacuzzi tubs and separate showers, an oak-paneled balcony with another Jacuzzi, a spacious sitting area and a walk-in closet.
All of the accommodation categories will be featured in an upcoming Decked! but it was interesting to note the seven new Window Suites that were carved out of a portion of the Casino on Deck 6, featuring a completely different decorative style from the rest of the GRAND PRINCESS’ staterooms.
In Horizon Court, the buffet style eatery on Deck 14 with astounding views, we laid the cameras to rest for a moment or two and indulged in a massive lunch that would include a mountainous salad, fresh fish, and pasta.
As if that were not enough, we headed promptly to Prego’s Pizza by the Neptune’s Reef pool for a slice of Margherita that ranks among the best available at sea, anywhere.
The Neptune’s Reef Pool is an open-air area with a large LCD screen surrounded by sunning terraces that make it an ideal spot for Princess’ Movies Under The Stars programming.
The GRAND PRINCESS has no less than four full-sized pools, which also includes the Calypso Reef Pool on midships Deck 14, which is just aft of Neptune’s Reef and surrounded the Magrodome-like Conservatory.
And way back at the stern on Deck 12 level, overlooking the ship’s wake, there is the first of two adults-only pools, the aptly named Terrace Pool. When Skywalkers was located directly overhead, the Terrace Pool spent much of its time in the shadows but now it basks in the sun, or, in the case of sailing day, a splash of rain.
One spot that did not exist prior to the removal of Skywalkers was the open-air Sports Court atop the ship and just aft of the funnel on the Deck 17 level.
Up on forward Deck 16, under the sheltered canvas dome at the base of the radio mast overlooking the bow, there is an adults-only Sanctuary which is available for a small fee on either a half or full day basis.
The Sanctuary features cushioned lounge chairs, soothing music, cabanas for private massages and refreshments.
Back inside the ship, we made the rounds of the new venues, stopping first at Leaves, a wonderful new nook that seems to have taken some inspiration from resident Princess interior designer Teresa Anderson’s outfitting of sister line Cunard’s QUEEN VICTORIA and QUEEN ELIZABETH. This space, which would be right at home on either of those ships has clubby, dark paneling and an impressive selection of books and games as well as up to 500 blends of tea leaves and an on-duty tea sommelier to prepare them.
Overlooking the Piazza from the starboard side of Deck 7, Crooners Lounge and Bar has been revamped with new furnishing and soft fittings.
On the Deck 5 level of the Piazza. in place of the old Library, Alfredo’s Pizzeria takes its name from Alfredo Marzi, Princess’ executive chef. An open kitchen enables guests to watch as their favorite pizza is created.
With the removal of Skywalker’s, GRAND PRINCESS was fitted with One5, named for Deck 15, where the new nightclub is located. One5 also serves as a concierge lounge serving up afternoon refreshments and hors d’oeuvres for the ship’s Suite passengers.
Many familiar and popular spaces, such as the Wheelhouse Bar on midships Deck 7, have remained untouched. I love the P&O memorabilia in this room, especially the beautiful builder’s model of British India Line’s KENYA of 1952, a classic colonial liner with gorgeous lines.
Following boat drill, we headed up on deck to watch as GRAND PRINCESS sailed in a westerly direction to the turning basin and made an eastward pivot past the new Ocean Terminal where her slightly larger sister, the CARIBBEAN PRINCESS was berthed near the famed SS SHEILDHALL.
We watched from the shelter of the walk-around promenade on forward Deck 8 as our ship joined a procession that included an RCI behemoth and Fred. Olsen’s BALMORAL and were soon joined by CARIBBEAN PRINCESS on our outbound-journey.
We made our way to the Lotus Fitness Center on forward Deck 15, enjoying the views of the Isle of Wight.
By the time GRAND PRINCESS was entering the English Channel off Portsmouth, we decided to take a dip in the splashy, swim-against-the-current Lotus Pool in the shelter of the Sanctuary.
Reinvigorated by our work out and swim, it was time for dinner in the Da Vinci Dining Room, one of three very similar formal dining venues. In the Da Vinci and Michelangelo, dining is “Anytime”, meaning guests can show up when they like between 6:00 and 10:00 PM or 5:30 and 9:30 PM, respectively. Meanwhile, the Botticelli serves “Traditional” dinner in two fixed seatings at 6:00 and 8:15 PM.
We had a fantastic first dinner that began with crispy vegetable spring rolls and ended with a delicious selection of cheeses. Service from our Bulgarian waiter Giorgi and Mexican assistant waiter Guillermo was fantastic, even though the jet-lag “blur” had set in.
As GRAND PRINCESS conquered some rather punchy seas in the Channel, we made a relatively low key night of it and retired early.
Sunday, August 26, 2012
Belgium lived up to its reputation for somewhat bleak weather as GRAND PRINCESS entered the breakwaters of Zeebrugge Harbor shortly after dawn.
As the ship spun around and tied up in the industrial port of Zeebrugge, we stumbled down to enjoy the “suite breakfast” in Sabatini’s, the ship’s extra-tariff Italian dining venue.
Host Giovanni and his team of attentive wait staff served up a number of delicacies, including yogurt and granola parfait, freshly squeezed orange juice, poached eggs, an omelet-to-order and several cappuccinos to fuel our day in Belgium.
We were among the first to disembark into the gloom, taking Princess’ courtesy shuttle to the nearby town of Blankenberge where we walked to the train station and bought tickets for the ninety minute ride to Brussels.
Both of us have been intrigued by a striking modernist structure called the Atomium and made a mission of visiting it that day, although our time in Brussels would be very limited.
When we arrived at the Brussels North station, we took a taxi to the Atomium. A dedicated fan of the band Sparks, I had first seen images of the structure on the inner sleeve of their 1983 album Sparks In Outer Space, which we conjured up on my i-Phone.
Based on the structure of an iron molecule, the Atomium was built in 1958 for the Belgium World’s Fair.
It’s brilliant aluminum “pods” are linked by striking, tube-enclosed escalators and have been refurbished in recent years.
Meanwhile, nearby in the Parc du Centenaire, another beautiful structure with Frank Lloyd Wright-style-lines beckoned, having been built in 1930 as part of a trio of structures for the 1935 World’s Fair.
In our whirlwind, we struck a Sparks-like pose, then met up with our taxi driver for a ride back to the train station. We were impressed with Brussels for a myriad of reasons, from its huge size, our friendly taxi driver, the impressive architecture, timely trains and delicious baguettes and pains-aux-chocolates.
Fortunately, we missed our stop in Blankenberge (thanks to the train splitting — who knew?), so took a tram from the next stop, missing the pandemonium in our intended stop thanks to a special flower festival that had apparently attracted thousands of visitors that snarled all traffic. The tram took us to Zeebrugge, where we found an interesting light ship museum near the harbor entrance.
Meanwhile, the weather had cleared, allowing the mighty GRAND PRINCESS a chance to dry out in the brilliant sun.
Back on board, as GRAND PRINCESS headed back into a very subdued channel, we were off to reservations-required, extra tariff ($20 per person) Sabatini’s for a lavish multi-course dinner.
One of the best appetizers afloat can be found in Sabatini’s Burata Ala Panna Con Carpaccio Di Pomodori (hand-formed cow’s milk cheese with creamy lava center on tomato carpaccio in balsamic syrup).
Another highlight was a simple-but-brilliant Spaghetti Marinara. No cruise line does Italian cuisine better than Princess…
Our next stop was the two deck Princess Theater, GRAND PRINCESS’ state-of-the-art showroom on forward Decks 6 and 7.
We watched the show “Do You Wanna Dance”, then roamed the ship’s numerous venues, each offering a completely different form of music and entertainment, from Big Band and Jazz to Rock, piano sing-alongs, Disco and even Karaoke. The best thing about it all was that the following day would be spent at sea, allowing us a much-needed chance to catch up on sleep as GRAND PRINCESS motored along her course to Copenhagen.
End Of Part One.
Much More To Come….
Very Special Thanks: Julie Benson, Karen Candy, Brian Henriksen, Andreas Pitsch