Coral Princess blends the exotic (an international staff, elegant Italian restaurant, celebrity-style spa treatments) and the familiar (cruising's ubiquitous buffets, poolside umbrella drinks and, yes, bingo). The ship is a vacation destination that offers up a pleasing amount of glitz yet makes passengers feel right at home.
The 91,627-ton ship, built just trim enough to traverse the Panama Canal, accommodates 1,970 passengers and 900 crewmembers. On our 10-day trip -- from Fort Lauderdale through the Caribbean to Panama and back -- the ship was fully booked. But remarkably, there was a surprising sense of spaciousness onboard, a function of both design and operational efficiency.
Decks 6 and 7, Fiesta and Promenade, are dedicated exclusively to lounges, entertainment venues, main and alternative dining restaurants, boutiques, an art gallery, cigar bar and a wedding chapel. In other words, public space. On many ships, there's a cramped feeling because such space often bumps up against a line of staterooms, making walking through tight corridors somewhat of an ordeal. Not so here.
And nowhere is that feeling of openness grander than on the top deck, which has two outdoor shuffleboard courts, child-size chess pieces along with a gameboard and a netted basketball court. Truly, you feel on top of the world.
To ensure the ship has staying power, Princess gave the ship an enormous makeover in November 2009. Coral Princess came out of dry dock with the line's signature Movies Under the Stars screen on its Lido Deck -- a delightfully attractive, adults-only, two-deck Sanctuary -- and flat-screen television sets in staterooms. New soft goods, carpeting in coral and turquoise hues, draperies and bedding were also added.
Introduced in 2003, Coral Princess -- along with sister vessel Island Princess -- is an aberration for Princess Cruises. The line only launched two ships this size before joining the rest of the cruise industry in building ever-more-massive ships -- like those in the Grand class. Not part of either the group of biggest-in-fleet vessels or the mid-sized Sun class of ships, Coral Princess falls somewhere in between. And in many ways, it represents the best of both.
Size-wise, it falls just within Panamax boundaries, which means Coral Princess can travel through the canal, enjoying an itinerary flexibility not possible with the bigger ships. It also features more "personal choice" amenities and services than would, say, the Sun class of ships. An interesting tidbit: The 77,000-ton Sun Princess carries 1,950 passengers. Coral Princess measures nearly 92,000 tons and carries just 20 people more.
As for operational efficiency, Coral Princess is a logistical showpiece. At our final disembarkation, it took just 10 minutes from the time our group was paged to exit the ship for us to collect our baggage, pass through the U.S. Customs and Immigration checkpoint, walk around the port terminal, and pop into a taxicab. Now that's a thing of beauty -- and it was that kind of crispness that defined our entire voyage.
Our band of travellers, friends and family ranging in age from 2 to 79, found just about everything about Coral Princess to our liking. Sure, there were garden-variety complaints: a table reservation mix-up, Internet access cards that went on the fritz, a couple of room service misadventures and dramatically uneven room temperatures throughout parts of the ship.
In the end though, none of it really mattered. The proof? By the time we had all departed for home, we had already planned our next trip … on Coral Princess in Alaska.
There are two formal nights on a 10-day cruise, and people dress to the nines on those evenings. Otherwise, dress is so-called "smart casual," which translates into something you might wear to a cocktail party or nice restaurant: A silky top and pants, a skirt and pretty sweater set or a comfy sun dress for the ladies and nice slacks and a shirt (no tie or jacket required) for the men. No jeans or shorts are permitted in the dining rooms, though.
Editor's Note: Coral Princess' theatre now hosts the line's own spinoff of NBC's "The Voice," called "The Voice of the Ocean," in which passengers who are handpicked from karaoke auditions earlier in the week compete for winning title.
Entertainment options on Coral Princess offer something for everyone, ranging from Vegas-style shows and first-run movies to karaoke, virtual golf and casino gambling. Pick just about any spot in the public areas -- the lounges, the atrium, the pool decks -- and there's live music of one sort or another.
On either side of the Promenade and Fiesta Decks are the ship's two grandest venues: Princess Theater and the state-of-the-art Universe Lounge. Tucked between those are the majority of bars and lounges, including the night-clubby Explorers Lounge, the more sedate Wheelhouse Bar, the retro-yet-sophisticated Crooners martini bar, the gentlemanly Churchill's cigar lounge and the full-service casino, with its variety of table games -- poker, blackjack, roulette -- and state-of-the-art slots. Blackjack and slots tourneys are scheduled during each cruise.
By day, the ScholarShip@Sea program continues to focus on enrichment (to some degree) and offers a wide range of programming. On our cruise, there were dance classes, lectures on fashion and bridge, as well as computer instruction. The morning we got to the Panama Canal, a speaker provided a primer on the canal's history and how it works.
In particular, we enjoyed some of the gigs announced in Princess Patter, a guide to the ship's daily activities. Chief among them were two wine tastings, a culinary demonstration with the executive chef and the galley tour.
Movies Under the Stars (M.U.T.S.), the big-screen outdoor theatre, was installed aboard Coral Princess in November 2009. Passengers can enjoy movies, concerts, sporting events and other special programming throughout the day and evening. At night, movie-goers can curl up on deck chairs with complimentary blankets and tubs of popcorn.
Shore excursions are varied and range in level of activity and in price. All offerings have been vetted by the ship.
Perhaps more than anything else, the focus on fitness was the biggest surprise of the ship.
There's an oceanview gym with weight machines, elliptical trainers and treadmills, all upgraded during the 2009 dry dock. Pulse group cycling, yoga, Pilates and aerobics classes are on offer. As the cycling instructor emphatically noted, "You must go fast! Push it hard!" Prices for the classes range from $10 to $40 and are even more costly for one-on-one personal training.
Additionally, passengers can attend lots of seminars on everything from abs and metabolism to ageing and detoxifying. In fact, a passenger from Canada said she chose Coral Princess specifically for its fitness program in her effort to build a cruise around detoxification, fitness and the healthy eating she found on the Lotus Spa menu.
Next to the fitness centre is the Lotus Spa, a serene Balinese-inspired health spa and salon featuring a stunning variety of treatments. How's this for multiple choice: a Tahitian scalp massage, a mud room for couples, "gentle touch" teeth whitening, and a cellulite reduction program, popular in Europe, called ionithermie algae detox -- and that's just for starters. In the "thermal sanctuary," you can relax in thermal grottos, aromatic steam chambers, sauna suites or hot stone loungers. To top things off, a stylish beauty salon offers everything from regular haircuts to colouring and hair consultations, eye and neck lifting treatments and sunglow makeovers.
One of the largest attractions of the spa, post dry dock, is the adults-only Sanctuary, a two-deck, outdoor relaxation venue. Caring and unobtrusive staff, known as Serenity Stewards, provide cooling Evian misters, chilled towels, MP3 players and healthy and refreshing drinks and snacks, like fruit skewers, spring rolls and smoothies, while you veg out on padded lounges. Fees are $10 for a half-day.
Multiple pools do a respectable job for sun aficionados. The Lido Pool, now outfitted with Movies Under the Stars, is the centre of outdoor activity on the Lido Deck, while the nearby Lotus Pool is a swim-against-the-current pool for a bit more of a workout. Both are flanked by hot tubs. Another pool is tucked away on Deck 12 aft outside the youth area. Kids can enjoy two splash pools -- one by the Fun Zone and a second hidden away up top on Deck 16.
One of the most wonderful places onboard is the relatively quiet outdoor promenade on Deck 7, a terrific place to walk or run (2.8 circuits equal one mile). For top-of-ship athletics, climb to Deck 16, where you'll find basketball and shuffleboard; mini-golf and a golf simulator are one deck below.
Coral Princess was designed to go through the Panama Canal, so it is smaller than the line's larger ships. Yet it doesn't scrimp, offering as much in the way of public room space -- lounges, eating areas, entertainment venues -- as Princess' larger vessels.
The centrepiece of the ship is an eye-catching four-level atrium, a favourite meeting place and ideal people-watching arena. On Deck 5, you'll find the passenger services, shore excursion and future cruise sales desks; Deck 6 houses the ship's boutiques; Deck 7 sports the art gallery and wedding chapel; and Deck 8 is home to the Internet Cafe, card room and library.
Self-service laundry facilities are stationed aft on Decks 8 to 12 and on Deck 5. The medical centre is on Deck 4.
The ship's two main restaurants serve up traditional five-course evening meals. Princess offers set seating at 6 p.m. and 8:15 p.m. in the Bordeaux dining room -- this is what we opted for -- and flexible, eat-when-you-want anytime dining in the Provence dining room. Coral Princess is pushing its anytime dining plan for people who want more flexibility in their schedules than traditional fixed seating allows. It probably doesn't work well for large groups who wish to share their meals together (which we were), but otherwise, it's a terrific option. Basically, you can dine in the Bordeaux dining room anytime between 5:30 p.m. and 10 p.m., depending on availability. Or you can always make a reservation. The menus are the same in both venues.
And those menus did not disappoint. Among our favourites: Executive Chef Martial Diffor's own fettuccine alfredo, twin broiled lobster tail, beef wellington and deep-sea cod in a coriander butter sauce. All meals are cooked to order.
Tip: Take the galley tour to fully appreciate the production involved here.
Menus in the main restaurants also include vegetarian choices as well as innovative Lotus Spa dishes, which offer healthier options like chilled yoghurt and tamarind soup sprinkled with grated lemon zest, filet of baby turbot with a fennel pernod sauce and a tropical fruit smoothie flavoured with lime.
Passengers who wish for more formal daytime fare can also choose sit-down service for breakfast and lunch in the Bordeaux dining room.
Coral Princess also offers plenty of other fine dining choices, which we sampled as well.
Not to be missed: Sabatini's, with a $25 cover charge, is a culinary standout with its varied menu of outstanding Italian favourites. Appetizer choices include porcini mushroom in extra virgin olive oil and fresh tarragon; steamed black mussels with garlic, fennel and saffron; and breaded fried delicate soft Italian cheese in a Mediterranean olive tapenade. Also on the menu are four types of pizza, salad or soup, pasta and "Secondi Piatti," ranging from langoustines with lime and cilantro to shallot-crusted veal chops and desserts guaranteed to tempt the most dedicated dieter. Our three-hour meal elevated the dining experience to "event" status.
The Bayou Cafe and Steakhouse, a New Orleans-themed restaurant, serves up gumbo, jambalaya and shrimp creole, along with premium steaks. It has a $20 cover. The Bayou, which has live music, takes itself less seriously than Sabatini's and has a kicky ambience. Several New Orleans specialities on the menu include smothered gator ribs, oysters Bienville, Toulouse chicken and chorizo jambalaya, a mixed Cajun grill and -- as the final piece in this wonderful gourmet puzzle -- desserts that include buttermilk bread pudding with pistachio caramel sauce, fried yellow peach pie with cranberry relish and banana whiskey pound cake with a honey orange glaze.
Horizon Court, a buffet with menus that change daily, has terrific -- almost overwhelming -- choices for breakfast, lunch and dinner. On any given day, the impressive fruit and veggie salad bars offer a nice respite from the vast array of hot choices. One evening buffet featured duck l'orange, roast beef, sea scallops, turbot and coq au vin. Remarkably, breakfast never got tiring. Who knew you could prepare eggs so many different ways? Lemonade and iced tea are offered throughout the day in Horizon Court.
Horizon is on the Lido Deck, sharing space with the two big swimming pools, and there's no problem enjoying your meal from a deck chair. Also near the pools are a hamburger and hot dog grill, a pizzeria and an ice cream bar serving complimentary soft-serve ice cream. Hard ice cream is available on the dessert menus during lunch and dinner in the dining room, at no additional charge.
Of course, there's also enhanced 24-hour room service. The all-day room service menu features salads, sandwiches and pasta. Passengers in suites can enjoy a full-service breakfast, while a continental breakfast is offered in the other staterooms. Another option, for verandah level (and up) passengers, is the lobster balcony dinner, priced at $100 per couple. An elegant Champagne Breakfast, served in all category staterooms, is $32 per couple.
Staterooms come in six configurations: Insides (156 to 166 square feet), Outsides (162 to 212 square feet, some are obstructed), Balcony Cabins (217 to 232 square feet), Outside Mini-Suites (300 square feet, no balcony), Mini-Suites with Balconies (285 to 302 square feet) and Balcony Suites (470 square feet). Impressively, 83 percent of all outside cabins have private balconies. Twenty cabins are wheelchair-accessible.
Our nicely appointed mid-priced Oceanview Double with Balcony was roomier than some motel rooms we've stayed in, with amenities that included a sizeable mini-refrigerator, a safe, complimentary slippers and robes, a flat-screen TV, a daily delivery of ice and turn-down service. It also had a spacious closet. And while the shower-only bathroom is tight, it's efficiently designed.
The balcony was a real treat, and with four adjoining cabins, we were able to unlock the doors that separate the balconies to create one long balcony for oceanview visiting and room-hopping. There also isn't the cascading balcony effect you see on Princess Grand class (and beyond), and because we couldn't see the balconies below us, we were able to maintain a sense of privacy.
Passengers looking for some added space without a suite-like price point should consider a mini-suite. But remember: These are really just jumbo-sized balcony cabins. Save for the extra leg room and a bathtub, they don't come with any additional perks.
Suite passengers get a few extra amenities. Suites are outfitted with two television sets, and passengers can enjoy complimentary laundry and shoeshine, a selection of pillows, daily in-room canapes and high tea and free Internet access.
Decor -- in all categories -- is simple yet savvy, and features wonderful blues, greens and earth colours. Accents: Why coral, of course!