Is bigger better? In the case of the 109,000-ton Golden Princess, which I sailed on recently, it was. This cruise had three high points: a wide-reaching and very flexible dining program; an extensive, high-quality entertainment and activities line-up; and a Southern Caribbean itinerary that was terrific. This was the largest of the Princess cruise ships I've ever sailed on, and it took me a while to get used to its size. There is an incredible number and variety of public rooms for all sorts of purposes, but none felt so big as to be overwhelming. There were nearly 2,800 guests on board and about 500 of them were under 18 (this was a summertime cruise). There always seemed to be people around, but not in such numbers as to be oppressive.
Daytime meals are served either in the Donatello dining room – open seating – or in a number of other locations, including the Horizon Court with very extensive buffets that are available 24 hours a day -- a casual and quicker alternative. For lunch and other daytime snacks, there's the pizzeria (I do believe it's the best pizza I've had at sea), the grills for hot dogs, afternoon tea and the ice cream bar (extra charge for Haagen-Dazs ice cream – the only discordant note in the entire dining program, since regular ice cream is served free at dinner).
Dinners are also served on a reservations-only basis in the Desert Rose Steakhouse and Sabatini's Trattoria. The additional charge at Desert Rose is $15 per person and the main course steaks are superb. The rest of the meal isn't special. At Sabatini's, the charge is $20 a person and well worth it for those who like lots of high quality Italian fare, especially pastas and shellfish (I could have eaten there every night). This meal is a longish experience but well worth the time. A nice touch in both of these specialty restaurants is that the wait-staff will serve items from the main dining room's kids menu if requested. They also do not charge if kids do not eat a full meal.
ACTIVITIES AND ENTERTAINMENT
In the evening, there was plenty to see and do, including three productions shows with four leads and 15 back-up singers and dancers. There was quite a range of cabaret performers as well; the illusionist was outstanding (ok, maybe a bit theatrical) and the comedian was world-class. There were lots of game shows, dance parties (including a great hoedown), evening movies, live music in a variety of lounges and a very active casino (double odds for craps players – hurray!). The once-a-week late-night deck party was in a great location: aft with three decks of viewing and dancing space.
Consistent with the flexible dining program at dinnertime, the evening activities were scheduled at a variety of hours. Some of the main shows were early and some later; every thing seemed staggered so you could really pick and choose what and when you wanted to see or do. Once you got used to having to plan out the evening, it worked very well.
The southern Caribbean itinerary is an absolute winner. It began and ended in San Juan; after the one day at sea, we went to Barbados, St. Lucia, Antigua, St. Maarten (the Dutch side) and St. Thomas. We docked in all five ports, so it was easy to get on and off; there was no tendering. Princess provided an extensive range of shore excursions, mostly reasonably priced, from the usual sightseeing, swimming and shopping to cave climbing, ATV-ing (oh the mud you'll wear), mountain biking, flightseeing, swimming with sting rays or dolphins and lots more; guests could be as active or inactive as they wanted to be. The ship will be doing this itinerary through next spring; then it goes to Europe for the summer and returns to the Southern Caribbean run in the fall of 2005.
Note: The ship rode very smoothly and was exceptionally well maintained. However, some guests in the very aft section reported heavy vibration when the ship was being maneuvered as it entered or left port.
In summary, the Golden Princess is a big ship with lots to do. It is not a quiet ship (virtually the only place I found a music/people-free area during the day was the sky-high disco – great couches for sitting and watching the water or reading). Service overall was very good and certainly helpful and friendly. There were lots of couples with ages ranging from their 20s to 60s; there were families of every size, friends traveling together, etc. I'd recommend it to virtually everyone, especially pizza lovers.