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Diamond Princess

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If you're a frequent Princess cruiser, Diamond Princess may come as a surprise to you. Rather than the usual, predominantly North American passenger list, this ship is a floating United Nations -- with heavy Japanese representation, thanks to its homeport in Yokohama.

If you love to meet and mingle with folks from around the world, this ship makes for a great opportunity. Conversely, if you find it annoying that information, safety drills and programming is usually provided in two languages, Diamond may not be for you. But on our voyage, we felt the benefits far outweighed any slight inconveniences.

A big advantage is the way Princess has embraced the destination -- far more than you'd find on the average cruise ship. There are basic Japanese lessons (and English lessons for Japanese passengers); the chance to try on a yukata (summer-style kimono), with help from Japanese volunteers; origami classes; package-wrapping; Japanese festival dance classes; tales performed by a Japanese storyteller; and many other cultural activities. Many of the classes offer an opportunity to interact with Japanese passengers, who come to both learn and help.

Diamond Princess is the only ship in the Princess fleet with a bona fide sushi restaurant, as well as the only one to carry a traditional Japanese bath facility. The buffet restaurant has a ramen bar (hearty Japanese noodle soup) where you choose your own ingredients and a cold noodle bar. Even Swirls, the ice cream shop, adds green tea soft serve to the mix.

As avid cultural explorers, we really appreciated all the opportunities to expand our knowledge of Japanese traditions -- however, there was plenty of typical Princess programming to keep other passengers happy, too. And, in fact, Japanese cruisers are aboard partly to sample a different lifestyle (evidenced by the line for burgers at Trident Grill).

On shorter cruises (there are a number of four-night sampler voyages), the passenger list trends toward very few non-Japanese, which can be a bit overwhelming to some folks. The number of children onboard increases dramatically on these trips, too. (Some passengers on our ship were unaware that our 11-night itinerary was also sold as separate seven- and four-night itineraries and the passenger shift was a bit disconcerting to them.)

Diamond Princess was last refurbished in 2014, and the ship still gleams. The three-deck-high Piazza atrium, with a subtly Asian-influenced chrome sculpture covering the elevators, is the centre of many activities. While some other artwork and decor around the ship gives a nod to Asia, it never seems hokey or forced -- and, in fact, there are also Italian touches found among inlaid marble floors and buffet restaurant paintings, as well as clubby atmospheres (Wheelhouse and Churchill's lounges) and a splashy, after-hours dance club. This ship is no Asian theme park.

Diamond Princess was at full capacity when we were aboard, which resulted in some waits at sit-down restaurants and overflows at some theatre performances. In general, the crew handled it well, although we could notice some stress among waiters and buffet cooks. Particularly on shorter cruises, Japanese passengers are intent on sampling everything the ship has to offer, so they are generally out and about, rather than vegging in their cabins. There's a large number of staff who are bilingual in Japanese and English (and even an additional Japanese cruise director), who help smooth out any confusion and generally keep things running well.

Most nights are smart casual, with women dressed in skirts or dark pants with blouses and men in collared shirts. Shorts, pool attire, ball caps and casual jeans (fraying and/or with holes) are not permitted in the dining rooms offering only table service. During a seven- to nine-night cruise, there are two formal nights; one during shorter cruises. You won't see too many women in long gowns. Instead, there's typically a mix of cocktail dresses, skirts and pantsuits. On cruises out of Japanese ports, you'll also be treated to a few Japanese women in beautiful silk kimonos. For the guys, dark suits or slacks with nice shirts and sports jackets are common. However, we noticed a number of Japanese men in tuxes and a handful in traditional dress.

During the day, resort casual is the norm, with Japanese passengers tending to wear a conservative version of that (long pants for men and more skirts on the women). On the other end, there will be plenty of Americans and Aussies in T-shirts and shorts.

Theatre

The theatre (Decks 6 and 7) is a straight-forward venue with theatre-style seating only. There are no tables, nor is there a bar -- although the seats have a pull-up mini-table, much like you might find in a university lecture hall. The theatre, decorated in shades of mauve and gold, has three different tiers of seats. Shows, usually held twice a night (7:30 and 9:30 p.m.), include guest performers (on our cruise, a famous Filipina cabaret singer, a comedic juggler, a pair of acrobatic comedians and a shadow-puppet performer), production shows by the resident cast and a dance performance by the resident ballroom dance champions. In two ports, the cruise director brought local performers onboard for a single evening folkloric show, which added a nice cultural dimension. Passengers raved about the excellent production show, "Bravo," which featured songs from well-known operas, musical theatre, Elvis and James Bond movies (trust us, it worked!). The quality of the singing and production was better than we've experienced on other, similar-sized ships. The retro-rock production show, "Born to Be Wild," also got a thumbs-up from our fellow passengers. The ballroom couple's show seemed to have escaped from the 1980s, although they were clearly very talented. In the afternoons, movies are shown in the theatre.

Daily Fun

If you tried to do only a fraction of all the activities on offer aboard Diamond Princess, you'd end the day exhausted. Trivia buffs have several opportunities per day to compete. There are various other competitions (carpet bowls, beanbag toss, Ping-Pong, egg drop challenge, bingo, golf chipping, basketball free-throw) to keep you busy. If enrichment is more your thing, you can attend excellent port lectures by the destination expert, or a variety of Japanese cultural classes, including origami, package-wrapping, calligraphy, dance, language, trying on a yukata (summer kimono) and more.

On our cruise, we also had ukulele, hula, ballroom dance and Bollywood dance lessons; a demonstration by the executive chef; and more. And, of course, there were the ubiquitous art auctions, spa seminars and shop staff lectures, all aimed to tempt you to increase your onboard bill. Movies and concerts alternate on the outdoor "Movies Under the Stars" screen, and various unhosted get-togethers are listed in the daily bulletin (LGBT, bible study, veterans and military). Wander around the ship, you're likely to find live music in at least one venue -- whether it's a piano player in the lobby or one of its surrounding bars, a duo of electric violin players or a guitarist.

Once per cruise, there is a "Festivals of the World" performance in the Piazza, where passengers who have taken various dance lessons and ukulele lessons are invited to perform.

At Night

Although we wouldn't call it a party ship, Diamond Princess is a great place for live music and dancing, with tunes of all types -- from ballroom to country. The atrium is usually lively after dinner, and various venues host events like karaoke, trivia, Japanese storytelling, retro quiz contests and theme dances. One popular event in the atrium on each cruise is the "Champagne tower," where bubbly is poured over a mountain of Champagne coupes.

Diamond Princess' casino (Deck 6) houses more than 100 slot and gaming machines; as well as blackjack, baccarat, roulette and craps tables, along with a variety of poker game tables. There's a PokerPro video poker table with 10 places, a Cash Cube game, a Casino Vault game and a Flippa Winna game, plus lotto. An ATM is located here that dispenses dollars -- but you can also play using your ship card. The casino wasn't particularly active during our cruise, but there was the occasional scheduled tournament.

Overall, things tend to quiet down fairly early -- winding down at 10 p.m. and quiet by 11 p.m. -- especially on days prior to a port -- so if you're a late-night party animal, this may not be your ship.

Diamond Princess Bars and Lounges

Lobby Bar (Deck 5): Located on the ground floor of the atrium, this open bar and lounge area is popular with folks who want to keep an eye on activities or music in the atrium and also do a little people-watching. It also has an espresso machine and a menu of espresso drinks, including frozen options (to-go cups available).

Churchill Lounge (Deck 6): This cosy little hideaway is a whiskey and smoking bar. It's panelled in dark wood, with tufted leather furniture in shades of burgundy and forest green. The walls are studded with several TVs to complete the pub atmosphere. While the lounge is accessible all day, its bar doesn't open until late afternoon.

Casino Bar (Deck 6): This bar serves casino patrons and is open during casino hours. You probably don't want to hang out here, unless you enjoy watching other people lose money.

Wheelhouse Bar (Deck 7): The Wheelhouse is another clubby bar -- though much larger and more central than Churchill's, with dark wood panelling, wingback leather chairs and granite-topped accent tables. The low-key lighting is from table lamps and brass sconces. During its opening hours, from 4 p.m. onward, various entertainers rotate through, from the house band to solo musicians. And, there's a good-sized dance floor if you're so inclined. During the daytime, the lounge is used for various classes and events, like language lessons and trivia contests.

Crooners (Deck 7): A small bar with limited seating that's open to the atrium, Crooners gets going in the evening with lively -- and often sing-along -- piano music. Open from 9 a.m., it's popular with readers and people-watchers during the daytime.

Explorers Lounge (Deck 7): This lounge with a dance floor is a multipurpose venue, hosting art auctions, trivia, small performances such as Japanese storytelling, karaoke and ballroom dancing. The bar is open when something's going on at the venue. In terms of decor, the two different levels of table seating are divided by lacy wrought-iron railings and pillars, while the wall murals and relief columns depict Egyptian motifs.

Club Fusion (Deck 7): During our cruise, this was the ship's most popular dance venue, hosting "cult classic" speciality nights, including country line-dancing, ABBA and 70s night. (Even if you're not a country fan, it's a hoot to join a bunch of line-dancing Japanese passengers.) During the day, there's a mixture of trivia, dance classes and other events held here. The decor includes old-timey, black-and-white bar photos and some western murals, with semicircular mauve banquets and rows of high counters with bar stools, perfect for watching the action on the dance floor. The large bar is almost a complete circle, with lots of stools.

Calypso Bar (Deck 14): This bar is located by the indoor Calypso swimming pool, and is open for early risers at 5:30 a.m., closing at 11:30 p.m. It has a semicircle bar with stools and serves best as a spot to catch a little sunshine on blustery days through the protected conservatory glass.

Mermaid's Tail Bar (Deck 14): This busy bar is situated next to the main outdoor pool. Opening at 10:30 a.m., it stays busy until 10:30 p.m.

Outriggers Margarita Bar (Deck 14): Located at the very back of the ship, with great views of the ship's wake, this bar serves sun-seekers around various outdoor decks and a smaller pool, located one deck below. It opens at 10:30 a.m., but is subject to wind and weather closures.

Tradewinds Bar (Deck 15, forward): A deck above the Mermaid's Tail Bar, this open-air venue helps keep sun-worshippers happy and hydrated on nice days. There's a counter with stools that face the Neptune pool below, with good views of the giant movie screen, too.

Skywalkers Nightclub (Deck 17/18): Skywalkers is a large, glitzy DJ lounge. It usually doesn't open until 10 p.m. -- and by that time many passengers are already tucked in bed, we suspect. On nights we checked it out, there was very little going on. That's a shame because it's prime real estate on the ship. Overlooking the wake, with floor-to-ceiling windows, it would be the perfect spot for a sail-away or sunset drink. You must be 18 years old to enter and show an ID. (During the day, it's a great secret hideaway if you want to enjoy the sea in peace and quiet.)

Diamond Princess Outside Recreation

Pools

Diamond Princess has four regular pools and eight hot tubs -- not including those in the Japanese Izumi Bath. One pool and two hot tubs are indoors, while the others are located outside.

The main outdoor splasher is the Neptune pool, located on Deck 14. It's a good size, even large enough for some short laps. Towering over it is the "Movies Under the Stars" screen, which also shows movies under the sun. The pool has two adjacent hot tubs and a shower, as well as a large mosaic tile surround with very shallow water. It's surrounded by a partial deck above, so you can choose a lounger in the sun or shade. There are also tables and chairs serving nearby Prego Pizzeria and Trident Grill. At night, moviegoers grab some popcorn and tuck plaid blankets around them as they watch movies from the loungers.

Calypso, the indoor pool, and its two hot tubs, are located on Deck 14, with a two-deck-high greenhouse roof supported by huge columns covered with mosaics of fish. The partial deck surrounding it one level up is known as the Conservatory. Both levels have cushioned loungers, and the Conservatory level also hosts Ping-Pong tables and a jigsaw puzzle table. You'll notice a chlorine aroma inside the structure, but on a cold or rainy day, it's the best place to go for a swim or to catch a few rays of sun.

The smaller aft pool on Deck 12 tends to be quieter and frequented more by adults. There are loungers around the pool and on areas overlooking it on Decks 15 and 16. As part of the aft sun deck complex, you'll find the two Oasis hot tubs on Deck 16.

Inside the Lotus Spa (Deck 15), the small Lotus pool is for adults only. It has loungers around it and more sunning space on a tiered seating area at one end. There are also two hot tubs here. Upstairs from the pool, The Sanctuary has cushy loungers, potted trees and great views of the water. It's shaded by canvas awnings.

A unique bathing option (found only onboard Diamond Princess) is the Izumi Japanese Bath (Deck 15), which carries a $15 charge for 90 minutes and requires a reservation. Styled after traditional Japanese public baths, Izumi features two indoor areas (segregated by sex) and one outdoor hydrotherapy pool, where men and women mingle. Each indoor area has four heated whirlpools -- two completely inside and two open-air; all have lovely views out over the wake. One of the indoor areas also has a regular sauna and waterfalls, called utaseyu; sit below them and the falling water massages your neck and back. The other indoor section has a mist-sauna infused with eucalyptus. Because of this, the areas switch from day to day between male-only and female-only, so everyone gets to try the different facilities.

In keeping with traditional Japanese baths, to use either of these indoor areas, you must remove all clothing. No bathing suits of any kind are permitted. According to Japanese bathing practices, you should scrub thoroughly with soap and water before entering the bath; traditional washing cubicles are provided for this. Use the handheld shower to rinse off, or try filling the basin and pouring it over you -- you may be surprised at how good it feels. When you enter the baths, make sure to keep your hair up out of the water; some Japanese put a small towel over their heads. In the unisex outdoor section, bathing suits are required. You need to exit back out to the Izumi lobby to access the unisex pool. You'll also find bed loungers here, including some doubles.

On shorter cruises, bath slots tend to sell out quickly -- particularly for women -- so reserve early. If you're an Izumi Bath fan, you can save by buying a $60 card for five sessions.

Recreation

Diamond Princess has a small sports area on Deck 18 with a half-sized basketball court; a volleyball net can be strung up there, as well. You'll find a popular nine-hole golf putting course on Deck 16 (the single stairway up to it isn't easy to find; look for a small sign), and there's shuffleboard on Deck 15. A giant chess set is located next to the hot tubs on Deck 16, and Ping-Pong tables are inside the Conservatory on Deck 15.

Sun Decks

Sun decks surround all of the pools, and loungers can also be found on the open decks above every pool. For quieter, more secluded sunbathing, head aft, to Decks 14, 15 and 16, where you'll find small groups of loungers. Quiet can also be found around the adults-only spa pool and the fee-required Izumi Bath outdoor lounge area. There always seemed to be enough loungers to go around at every -- perhaps because there are so many other activities occupying a fair number of passengers at any given time. Inside the spa complex, upstairs from the adults-only pool, The Sanctuary (also adults-only) has cushy loungers, potted trees and great views of the water. It's shaded by canvas awnings.

Diamond Princess Services

A small library with books and board games is located on Deck 5, off the atrium; it also has daily sheets with crossword puzzles, sudokus and a mysterious game all in Japanese. And, because it's a practice in Japan to stamp a book when visiting various sites, you can also get a nifty (and large) stamp of the ship here. Four computer stations are located in the library.

Next door to the library and open to the lobby, you'll find the internet cafe. It's open 24 hours, with 11 computer stations and one printer, plus an additional printer at the attendant's desk. Internet or Wi-Fi time can be purchased by the minute ($0.79 per minute) or one of four plans: 100 minutes for $69; 200 minutes for $99; 400 minutes for $159; or 600 minutes for $199. On the last full day of the cruise, you also can purchase a special 15-minute plan for $8.99. We found that the ship's satellite Wi-Fi varied in quality depending on our location -- so if you have a bad signal, try moving until it improves.

Diamond Princess has an art sales gallery on Deck 5; a photo and video gallery on Deck 7; and four shops spread out over Decks 6 and 7. While the shops stock items like logo apparel, toiletries, jewelry (costume and gemstone), watches, liquor and perfumes, they also feature high-end fashion items from brands like Fendi, Salvatore Ferragamo, Burberry, Coach and others, to appeal to Japanese shoppers.

You can book shore excursions at the shore excursions desk on Deck 5; a special services desk for Captain's Circle cruisers is located here, too. Those who want to book their next cruise can visit the future cruise sales desk, also on Deck 5. There's an ATM here, as well, that spits out U.S. dollars.

Guest Services is located on Deck 6. There always seemed to be a line. Fortunately, if you just want to check your bill status, there are two machines where you can get a printout by swiping your ship card. There's also a currency exchange machine that will convert a number of currencies into U.S. dollars or Japanese yen.

Self-service laundry facilities are located on all decks with passenger cabins. Machines are operated with $3 in tokens (available for purchase in the laundry rooms), and laundry products (detergent, bleach and fabric softener) are available for purchase using $1.50 in tokens. Passengers can also use the iron and ironing board, and a deep sink in each spot for free. Laundry and dry-cleaning services are also available. Items turned-in to your steward by 9 a.m. are returned by 6 p.m. the following day -- or you can pay 50 percent more for same-day service.

Diamond Princess offers a simple, nondenominational chapel, called Hearts and Minds (Deck 6), for weddings or vow renewals that can be performed by the captain (fee charged).

Spa

The ship's Lotus Spa (Deck 15) is operated by Steiner, and primarily uses Elemis products. The spa is decorated in Asian themes, with paintings, shoji- screen-inspired doors and carpeting with twined lotus flowers. It's open from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. and offers massages, facials and body treatments, as well as mani/pedis and a full range of salon services for both men and women. Special services include Phyto treatments, keratin blow-outs, a DIY couples mud room, acupuncture, Biotec light therapy, and medi-spa Thermage CPT cosmetic facial treatments. We tried out one of the spa therapists' favourite treatment -- the "Exotic Lime & Ginger Salt Glow with Massage" (50 minutes, $143; 90 minutes, $176) and were left thoroughly blissful.

As the cruise goes on, the spa sends out special deals for shore days or makes other offers for multiple services, so keep an eye out.

For an extra fee (which varies depending on voyage length) you can access the thermal spa, with heated ceramic loungers and scented steam rooms. The thermal area felt like a bit of an afterthought; it was lacking the sea views that we enjoy in other ships' thermal spas.

Fitness

The fitness complex (Deck 15) is accessed past the Lotus Spa front desk and salon, with hours from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. It's outfitted with Precor equipment, including 16 treadmills with video screens, seven elliptical machines, two exercise bikes, two recumbent exercise bikes, one rowing machine, Precor circuit machines and sets of free weights. The treadmills, bikes and elliptical are set up to face floor-to-ceiling windows, with great sea views.

A separate room for classes holds class bikes, exercise balls and other gear. Pilates, yoga and Tour de Cycle classes are $13 each, or three for $30. Personal training is also available for a fee. Free exercise classes include Zumba and stretching.

There's no jogging track, but 2.5 times around the Promenade Deck (Deck 7, with stairs up to a section of Deck 8 and down again to complete a full oval) equals 1 mile.

Instead of one gigantic main dining room, Diamond Princess has five different venues serving the same evening menu to sit-down diners: Vivaldi, Savoy, Pacific Moon, Santa Fe and the larger International Dining Room. Some nights, the ship only offers two set seatings per night in these dining rooms; on some nights only open seating is in effect; while on other nights, there is set dining in some restaurants but open seating in others. Check the daily bulletin to find out the dining situation for any given evening.

Only the International Dining Room is open for breakfast and for lunch (Club Class passengers have additional options). Horizon Court buffet is open for all meals, or you can choose pizza and grill items for lunch or dinner by the main pool. Or hang out in your cabin and opt for complimentary, 24-hour room service.

The buffet and sit-down dining venues walk the line between keeping regular American Princess customers happy and providing some familiar dishes for Japanese customers. The hotel manager also told us that portion sizes are kept smaller, to fit Japanese tastes, so hearty eaters may want to order extra -- look at it as a chance to sample more items.

Diamond Princess carries three extra-fee venues: Sterling Steakhouse, Kai Sushi and Sabatini's Italian restaurant. We enjoyed all of them, but found some dishes to be real hits and others to be misses.

In general, we found the food to be good, but not great. As is often the case on a ship, meat tended to be a better choice than fish, which was often overcooked for our taste. We did appreciate the integration of Asian vegetables (bok choy, daikon) and some creative fruit salsas, which brightened up the plates at the sit-down venues.

Due to long lines on sea days for sit-down breakfast and lunch, we tended to hit the buffet, where the ramen bar was a favourite. Diamond Princess' pizzeria is also dangerously good, as are the double-chocolate cookies you'll find at the buffet. (Now you know exactly how we gained those extra 5 pounds.)

A general complaint, among passengers of all nationalities, was the quality of the regular coffee. Thankfully, it's possible to order a (paid) espresso drink from a waiter at any dining venue.

Diamond Princess caters to special diets, with meals for lactose-intolerant, kosher, gluten-free, vegetarian, low-sodium and diabetic diners. It's important to let the cruise line know ahead of time if you have special dietary needs, and there's an opportunity to do it in your online account.

Free Dining

International Dining Room (Deck 6): This is the largest of Diamond Princess' main dining rooms and the only one to offer breakfast and lunch to regular (non-Club Class) passengers. The decor is in shades of greys and light gold, while wall art depicts international landmarks, such as Parliament.

Open-seating breakfast includes American options, like fresh and stewed fruit, cold or hot cereals, yoghurt, eggs and omelettes, bacon, ham, sausage, hash browns, and toast or pastries. If you don't see something you want, request it. We were tipped off by a fellow passenger who had eggs Benedict, even though it wasn't on the menu. For the more adventurous, there's also a Japanese breakfast, with miso soup, grilled fish, vegetables, pickles, fresh fruit, and rice or congee. Our breakfast was OK, but it was obvious the kitchen was slammed on a sea day; some diners' plates at our table were garnished, while others weren't, and everyone's poached egg yolks were solid, instead of runny.

The lunch menu typically includes two appetizers, two soups and a salad; beef burgers with bacon or cheese and fries; a veggie burger; two pasta choices; five main dishes (including one vegetarian and one hearty salad); and three desserts (we particularly enjoyed the warm cherry strudel), plus assorted ice creams, fruit or cheese plates. You might find steak and kidney, Indonesian nasi goreng (fried rice dish), Indian dum aloo (potato stew), Italian cacciucco alla Livornese (fish stew) or a Hawaiian sandwich. We liked the variety but we didn't like that there always seemed to be a long line on sea days.

Check your daily bulletin to find out whether this dining room will be operating in two seatings (usually 5:30 and 7:45 p.m.) or an open seating (5:30 to 8:30 p.m.) format for dinner.

The dinner menu lists six "Princess Favorites" -- which all have a Japanese influence, such as miso soup, mirin-marinated octopus, and grilled salmon with miso sauce -- as well as "Audrey Hepburn's Favorite Pasta Dishes," spaghetti al Pomodoro and farfalle al pesto (the joke at our table being that svelte Audrey only ever ate one bite). Daily choices include three appetizers, two soups and a salad, plus four mains, a pasta and a vegetarian dish. On some evenings, one of the daily specials is a recipe from star chef Curtis Stone. Soups tended to be good, but we noticed some timing issues, such as soggy fried spring rolls. Mains, such as barramundi and Asian-spiced duck breast were tasty and creatively presented. All the pastas we sampled were delicious -- perhaps thanks to the Italian executive chef.

Desserts bring six always-available "Princess Favorites," including fruit and cheese plates, cheesecake, creme brulee, an ice cream sundae and a brownie topped with chocolate mousse. Daily choices often feature a selection from Princess' "Chocolate Journeys," which were usually lovely, but not intensely chocolaty enough for this chocoholic. There are also three daily ice creams, a sugar-free dessert and a dessert special -- for example, bananas Foster flambee.

Daily afternoon tea is served here from 3 to 4 p.m. It's not as fancy as on some ships; the one choice of tea is poured from pots carried by roving waiters, who also dispense scones (with raisins, not currants), cookies and several types of pastries.

Savoy Dining Room (Deck 5): Serving the same dinner menu as the International Dining Room, the Savoy is panelled in dark mahogany tones, with gold-upholstered banquettes and chairs in mauve and blue tones. Mirrors, modern art and flowers on the table complete the look, which might make you feel like you're in a chic New York or London restaurant.

Vivaldi Dining Room (Deck 5): This restaurant also serves the same menu as the International Dining Room -- but as you might expect, the decor is highlighted by a romantic mural of women playing instruments. The room is lined in medium-toned wood panelling, with mauve banquettes and blue chairs -- all set on three slightly different levels. Little lights twinkle in the ceiling.

Pacific Moon Dining Room (Deck 6): Pacific Moon serves the same menu as the International Dining Room. Its decor has a hint of Asia, particularly in the art and the carpet featuring Chinese-influenced designs.

Santa Fe Dining Room (Deck 6): This dining room, featuring Southwestern decor, has deep yellow, orange and purple walls, with flagstone and iron accents. Walls are decorated with sculptures of Southwest imagery as well, and on one wall, candelabras between the windows look like rustic trees. Part of this dining room serves the same menu as the other main restaurants. The other half, with blue banquettes and fancier place settings, is exclusively for Club Class passengers -- those in premium mini-suites and suites. These diners get no-wait seating, some extra menu items and tableside preparations.

Horizon Court (Deck 14): The ship's bustling buffet has two separate lines; as it transitions from lunch to dinner or from dinner to lunch, one line is shut down at a time to make the shift -- so if you're an early or late diner, only one line may be available. The seating area has two sections. One has light-wood furniture, with a mid-century feel; granite-topped tables, light-wood trim, with white tile accents and grey-and-tan carpeting. The other section, further from the buffet lines, has gold banquettes, bentwood chairs with green upholstery and murals of Italian villages.

The buffet is open nearly all day, starting with early continental breakfast from 5 to 6 a.m., then segueing to full breakfast from 6 to 11:30 a.m., lunch at 11:30 a.m. until 3:30 p.m., light snacks and tea from 3:30 to 5 p.m., and dinner from 5:30 to 11 p.m.

At breakfast, you'll find hot and cold cereals, an assortment of fresh and stewed fruit, yoghurt with toppings, pancakes, French toast, bread pudding, eggs (fried, boiled and scrambled), quiche, cold cuts, cheeses, grilled fish, corned beef hash, sausage, bacon, ham and a small salad bar. Many passengers don't notice it, but there's also a sign on the hot line saying you can put in an order for omelettes, with a choice of 14 different fillings. On a separate line, you'll find toast, breads, Danish pastries, croissants and pain au chocolat. For Japanese passengers -- and other curious eaters -- there is congee (rice gruel), a large rice-cooker full of steamed rice, miso soup, chawan mushi (savoury custard), pickled vegetables, nori seaweed and items like natto (fermented soy beans).

Lunch brings a variety of mixed salads, a make-your-own-sushi-roll bar, a ramen bar with changing daily protein and vegetable ingredients, two pastas, a carved meat of the day, several other main protein choices, potatoes, rice and vegetable options, and a salad bar featuring about a dozen ingredients. There's also usually a stir-fried wok option and a cold Japanese noodle station. Desserts (there's always a sugar-free option) tend to the mousse-y or custardy; we found they often seemed to taste alike. Best to stick to the plentiful fresh fruit or cookies.

At dinner, ramen is also an option, and there are plenty of hearty sauce-based mains, such as beef stew, mapo tofu with pork, chicken in cashew sauce, pork in barbecue sauce, and fish with teriyaki sauce. Veggies, some version of potatoes, rice and a salad bar are always available, as is fresh fruit. Desserts are similar to those at lunch.

Trident Grill (Deck 14): Located near the main outdoor pool and movie screen, this grill serves up cooked-to-order burgers, cheeseburgers and veggie burgers -- plus teriyaki chicken and sea bass burgers. It also offers beef knockwurst with sauerkraut and bratwurst, as well as French fries and a selection of condiments and fixings to go with them. We enjoyed the burgers, as did the Japanese passengers, who made this a popular lunchtime spot. The grill is open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Prego Pizzeria (Deck 14): You'll find some of the best pizza afloat at this pizza spot located near the main outdoor pool. There are usually three different thin-crust pies on offer, typically Margherita, pepperoni and a special. We particularly enjoyed the specials, which ranged from "four seasons" to a surprisingly good chicken teriyaki pizza. The pizzeria is open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Swirls Ice Cream Bar (Deck 14): This soft-serve ice cream spot offers chocolate, vanilla or mixed-flavour cups and cones from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. During the daytime, they also have green-tea soft serve on tap. And, for a fee, you can get also chocolate, vanilla or strawberry shakes.

Room Service: Room service is free throughout the day. Breakfast is available by advance order (with a door hanger or through the free Princess app) with half-hour delivery timeframes; our breakfast was always delivered promptly at the beginning of our selected time. Available items include continental breakfast, cold cereals, toast and pastries, fresh fruit and a hot egg, bacon and cheese breakfast muffin. All-day dining includes miso soup and soup of the day, a chicken Caesar salad, chef's salad or mixed greens. Sandwich offerings are club, turkey, tuna, veggie, and peanut butter and jelly. For more serious hunger pangs, there's beef chilli, lasagna, a hot dog, burger and a vegetarian Moroccan dish in a slow cooker. There's also a tasty but strange croque monsieur, which is like a ham-and-cheese sandwich on French toast -- unlike anything we've ever had in France. Dessert brings a luscious fudge cake, caramel flan or a chocolate chip cookie. You can also have a pizza delivered between 11 a.m. and 10 p.m. for a $3 charge.

Fee Dining

Sterling Steakhouse (Deck 14); $29 per adult and $14.50 for children ages 3 to 12: At dinnertime, a rear section of Horizon Court is cordoned off to serve as a steakhouse, with the added touch of white tablecloths and subdued lighting. The menu offers three appetizers (one, a tasty carpaccio of Kobe beef with yummy dipping sauce carries a $10 surcharge), two soups and a salad. You can choose from six different cuts of Sterling Silver corn-fed beef, or opt for a surf-and-turf with lobster tail ($10 surcharge). Seafood fans can order Chilean sea bass or a lobster tail prepared with soy sauce and rice wine ($10 surcharge). We enjoyed both cuts of steak we tried; they were meaty, juicy and cooked exactly as ordered. The assortment of side potatoes and vegetables was tasty, too. For dessert, the lemon meringue pudding tart was indeed tart and satisfying, but the two chocolate offerings (seven-layer s'mores and a milk chocolate and peanut butter bar) looked better than they tasted.

Sabatini's (Deck 7); $29: Diamond Princess still carries the line's older Italian restaurant concept, with columns, murals of quaint Italy and lattice dividers between table sections and banquettes. The next time the ship is in dry dock, both the menu and decor will be updated. For now, the chef sends out a plate of focaccia bread, prosciutto and olives to set the mood. You can choose from six starters, including one of the best fried calamari dishes we've ever had -- on land or sea. A ball of creamy burrata cheese with tomato slices was served very cold, a disappointment, because the cheese is at its best at room temperature. Our meal was definitely a roller-coaster. We chose braised short-rib penne from the list of three pastas; it was short on meat and lacking in the flavour you'd expect from rich, slow-cooked short ribs. From the six mains, we tried the lobster three ways (tail, lobster orzotto and lobster bisque sauce -- two ways, plus sauce, really), which also lacked flavour. A tablemate's bistecca Toscana, a strip steak with rosemary and garlic, was a much better choice. The lemon pie at dessert provided the satisfying citrus snap of a sip of limoncello.

Kai Sushi (Deck 7); a la carte pricing: This chic, modern sushi bar and restaurant sets the tone by greeting you with columns covered in a black-and-white depiction of stylized waves, as they might be shown in a Japanese painting. Inside, the theme continues, with white reliefs of waves above the beige banquettes. A pathway of black and white marble leads you to the sushi bar, where one or two chefs preside. You can choose from three set menus, ranging from $15 to $19, which include miso soup, salad, udon noodle soup and either sushi, sashimi or kaisendon (sashimi atop a bowl of rice). Sashimi orders (five pieces each) range from $12 to $13.75, and sushi orders (two pieces each) are $3 to $5.50. Our sushi was tasty and well-prepared, and we enjoyed talking with the two chefs, who both spoke some English. When we visited, some items on the menu weren't available, but there were also items not listed on the menu -- just ask. On a second visit, we were with a group of eight who made a spur-of-the-moment decision to dine at Kai, and only one chef happened to be on duty. The poor guy was slammed with our huge order and it took a long time for everyone to be served. Kai Sushi is open for dinner daily and for lunch on sea days, and also serves ahi tuna poke (our tablemate raved about it) and "chilli and lime jumbo lump crab margarita," as well as a large seafood udon noodle dish.

Crab Shack (Inside Sabatini's, Deck 7); $29: Usually once per cruise, on a sea day, the pop-up Crab Shack appears at lunchtime in Sabatini's. You can don a giant bib and dine on Manhattan clam chowder, hushpuppies and popcorn shrimp, and a choice of four mains: crawfish with andouille sausage; king crab legs with peel-and-eat shrimp; a mixed steamer of snow crab, king crab, shrimp, clams, mussels and reindeer sausage; and a clam, mussel and shrimp pot. All but the last dish come with corn on the cob and potatoes. The meal is good fun, and a nice break from regular lunches -- just prepare to get a bit messy.

Pizza (Delivery); $3 per pie: You can have a 12-inch pizza delivered between 11 a.m. and 10 p.m., for a $3 charge. Choices are cheese, pepperoni and pizza-of-the-day.

Ultimate Balcony Dining; $45 or $100 per couple: For an extra fee, you can have a special balcony breakfast ($45 per couple) or dinner ($100 per couple), both of which come with a split of Champagne.

Diamond Princess' 1,337 cabins are spread among eight decks. Staterooms are comfortable and soothing, furnished in mellow colours of blue, gold, tan and pale sienna. They're not the downsized options you might find on newer cruise ships; even the smallest inside room has enough space to store an average passenger's necessities. Large, well-placed built-in mirrors add to a feeling of space. Walls are buff-coloured, with medium-coloured wood trim accenting the walls, ceilings and doorways. Bathrooms in non-suite staterooms are a bit tight, but manageable. The decor of the cabins we viewed was fresh and mostly in great condition.

All standard staterooms are furnished with a queen bed (which can usually be split into twins), small round table, desk/vanity (with three drawers) and chair, two bedside tables (with two drawers and a shallow shelf) each topped by a lamp and ample closets with both hanging sections and shelves.

Accessories include a mini-refrigerator, a (rather wimpy) wall-mounted hair dryer next to the vanity, a phone, a small safe (located in the closet), an electric tea kettle with Japanese teacups and green teabags (exclusive to Diamond Princess) and an ice container. Unlike other ships in the fleet, this one furnishes robes and slippers to every cabin class. Art is cheerful framed water landscape prints.

The interactive flat-screen TV can access ship information, including the cruise directors' daily briefing, port talks, some performances, shore excursion information and a nifty map with the ship's position and other information. You can also choose from a nice selection of on-demand movies and TV shows, as well as live news from BBC, MSNBC and Fox.

Cabins have a double U.S.-type 110-volt socket next to the desk, as well as a universal 240-volt socket above the desk. There is also one U.S-type socket and one European-type socket for razors in the bathroom.

The compact bathrooms in the regular cabins have a shower stall with curtain which, when left open, helps make the bathroom seem less claustrophobic. The curtain is also configured to make the shower stall surprisingly less constricted than we expected when you're inside it. The shower has a wall-mounted, hand-held showerhead, with a lever that flips between a gentle rain-type flow to a more focused and forceful flow. We never experienced the fluctuating water temperatures that plague many ships, although we wished the water pressure could have been a bit stronger. Pump bottles of the ship's Lotus Spa-branded shower gel and shampoo/conditioner are in a wall holder in the shower.

A facial tissue holder is built into the vanity, which has a small amount of counter space, in addition to the sink. Three tiers of shelves are in the wall at one side of the vanity, with a pair of drinking glasses on one shelf. Basic toiletries include a bar of soap, a tube of lotion and a shower cap (all Lotus Spa-branded). A shallow shelf running underneath the vanity has some extra space, in addition to holding backup toilet paper and tissues. We suspect that two women sharing a cabin might find bathroom storage a bit tight. A double hook on the door is helpful if you have a hanging toiletries bag.

More than 350 rooms have two extra fold-down beds, and several have one extra fold-down bed, with options in every class. There are two dozen pairs of connecting cabins, as well. Plus, you'll find two family suites, which have two bedrooms separated by a living room with two single sofa beds, and two bathrooms.

Twenty-seven cabins are accessible, in a choice of five cabin categories, ranging from inside to suite. Standard accessible cabins offer considerably more room than their non-accessible counterparts and include full wheelchair-turning space, a roll-in shower equipped with grab bars and a fold-down bench seat, an easy access closet and accessible writing desk. There are also additional low shelves on the wider-than-usual bedside tables.

Interior: These cabins range from 168 to 182 square feet, and come with all the furniture and amenities described above. In most cases, the head of the bed(s) is placed against the side of the ship.

Oceanview: Ocean-view cabins are approximately 183 to 200 square feet, and have either portholes or a rectangular picture window. In some cases, their view is obstructed by lifeboats -- so choose carefully. These cabins have essentially the same layout as the interior rooms.  

Balcony: Seventy-five percent of the cabins on Diamond Princess feature private balconies. Of those, 522 are standard or premium balcony staterooms, ranging from 237 to 277 square feet, including the balcony. These cabins also feature more hanging closet space than the previous categories, as well as a different floor plan, with the heads of the beds against an interior wall. There's an additional upholstered bucket chair inside and two mesh chairs, a small round table and a footstool outside on the balcony. One particularly appealing feature is the floor-to-ceiling sliding-glass doors, which bring much more light and great views into the cabin. As you look over your balcony, in most instances, you won't be looking straight down to the water -- but rather, overlooking the longer balconies of the mini-suites on Deck 9.

Minisuite: Diamond Princess' 184 mini-suites are primarily located on Deck 9, with a few on Deck 8. They're approximately 354 square feet, including the balcony, which is deeper than those on the regular balcony cabins. Balconies are fitted with two mesh loungers with footstools and a small table. These cabins have a separate interior seating area next to the balcony, with a chair, sofa bed and small coffee table. The desk/vanity, equipped with a lamp, is a bit smaller than in the regular cabins, and serves to help separate the sleeping and seating areas. Across from it, a rounded cabinet also helps to divide the spaces. It has a granite-topped bar and two large shelves; up-top are two flat-screen TVs -- one facing the bed and one facing the seating area. The bed benefits from a cushy mattress-topper and you benefit from a complimentary glass of Champagne on embarkation day. The bathroom is more spacious, thanks to the tub, although the vanity space is similar to regular cabins. You do get the benefit of a high-tech Japanese toilet, though, with various water jets controlled by a panel attached to the vanity.

Premium mini-suites (in the most desirable locations) are designated Club Class. In addition to a half-bottle each of red and white wine per cabin and canapes (upon request), these passengers also have a special no-wait seating area in the Santa Fe dining room for dinner and sea-day meals, plus additional menu options and tableside preparations. They also receive priority embarkation and disembarkation.

Suites: There are 28 suites in five suite categories on Diamond Princess, ranging in size from 205 square feet to 904 square feet, with balconies from 114 square feet to 425 square feet. Suite passengers receive a complimentary mini-bar setup, a pillow menu, fresh flowers on embarkation, DVD player with access to a DVD library, cruise-card wallets and Club Class privileges. Other suite perks include an elite pre-dinner lounge, priority embarkation and disembarkation at tender ports, free same-day laundry and dry-cleaning, free use of the Lotus Spa thermal suite and an included meal at a speciality restaurant on embarkation evening (on cruises of six days or longer). Upgraded Lotus Spa toiletries include conditioner, lip balm, loofa mitt, bath salts, gel eye mask, linen mist, nail file, cotton balls and cotton swabs.

Five Premium suites (705 square feet, including the balcony) are located at the front of the ship, with a triangular configuration. They feature a seating area with a sofa bed, chair, coffee table and end table with lamp. Furniture is light-toned wood with sea-green and light-gold upholstery. The bedroom is separated from the living area by curtains. It has its own TV, a vanity with lighted magnifying mirror and a dresser with nine drawers, plus four additional drawers and shelves in a cabinet. There are sliding-glass doors to the balcony from both the living room and bedroom. The outdoor area is furnished with two wooden loungers with a small table, a dining table and two chairs. The bathroom has the standard shower-over-tub setup.

The 15 Penthouse suites are approximately 555 square feet, including the balcony. They feature a seating area with a sofa bed, chair, coffee table and end table with lamp. Furniture is light-toned wood with sea-green and light-gold upholstery. The granite-covered bar is equipped with a small sink. The bedroom is separated from the living area by curtains. It has its own TV, a vanity with lighted magnifying mirror and a dresser with nine drawers, plus four additional drawers and shelves in a cabinet. There are sliding-glass doors to the balcony from both the living room and bedroom. The outdoor area is furnished with two wooden loungers with a small table, plus a dining table and four chairs. The bathroom is clad in marble -- a definite upgrade from other cabin classes -- and includes both a shower stall and a jetted tub, upgraded fixtures and a bouquet of fresh flowers.

The six Vista suites (525 to 548 square feet, including the balcony), located aft on Decks 8, 9 and 10, are similar in set up and amenities to the Penthouse suites, although they have a support beam obstructing part of the view from their balconies.

The 692-square foot (including balcony) Owner's Suite, on deck 11, has an oversized, aft-facing balcony, with similar furniture to the other suites. It also has a glass-topped dining table for four and includes an additional upholstered chair and an occasional table in the living area.

At 1,329 total square feet, the Grand Suite even surpasses the Owner's Suite as the largest, most luxurious stateroom on Diamond Princess. Also located on Deck 11, it features impressive double doors and a lovely marble mosaic entryway, flanked by columns and niches holding orchids. The living room has a sofa, loveseat, two upholstered chairs, a coffee table, two side tables and two end tables with lamps. Built-in cherry-wood cabinetry includes a wet bar and plenty of mirrored shelves with glassware. The wraparound unit also encloses the flat-screen TV, and has seven large cabinets with doors. The desk comes equipped with a laptop computer and additional wall shelves. A curved buffet, topped by lamps and an orchid, separates the round dining room from the living area. The round, glass-topped dining table, seats six. Faux finishes and fanciful murals with peacocks and Roman ruins decorate the walls of both the living and dining areas (you may consider them elegant -- or a bit kitschy). The bedroom has built-in cabinets next to each bed, with shelves and two drawers. The vanity has an additional six drawers and the TV cabinet has four drawers. The bedroom ceiling has a faux finish, with seashells painted in the centre. The bathroom is divided into a toilet room with single sink, and a larger room with a double-sink vanity, shower stall and separate tub. Vanity tops are in elegant tawny-coloured marble, with cherry woodwork; the shower stall, floors and walls are marble. The jetted tub, located in a corner, is surrounded by more beautiful marble mosaics.

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