First, look at Capt. Mike Moulin, on the bridge, with the Venice, Italy, skyline looming close on his port side.
"This is the most difficult harbor we have," says the captain, a veteran of nearly 40 years at sea, as he looks out, and down, at the narrow course his ship must follow to reach open sea. "I'm just sort of treading on thin-shelled eggs. . . . When we swing about, we'll only have about 60 feet of clearance aft, and about the same fore." And since the ship's draft is 26 feet and the harbor's shallowest point is about 31 feet, he notes, "we'll have about 1.6 meters [5 1/4 feet of water] underneath us when we cross the sandbar today."
Now say hello to Jeanette the waitress, in the atrium lobby with a bottle of Dutch beer.
"There are a lot of bars on this ship," Jeanette says, pouring and speaking in a thick Scottish burr. "The casino, Snookers, Skywalkers, the Wheelhouse, the Vista Lounge. . . . But it's tricky. Sometimes I find myself in a hallway and I suddenly think, 'Oh, no! Where am I?' "
You can't blame the captain and the waitress for being a bit absorbed in their work. They ply their trades on the Grand Princess, biggest cruise ship in the world, which boarded its first passengers May 26. Whether or not you like big cruise ships, it's a wonder to behold.
From the stained-glass windows in the wedding chapel (called the Hearts and Minds room because it also can house business meetings) to the discotheque suspended above Deck 16 like a race car's rear spoiler, the Grand Princess is an engineer's daydream come to life. It measures 109,000 gross register tons, stands 50 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty and sprawls 53 feet too wide for the Panama Canal.
At $450 million, it cost more to make than any previous passenger ship, and about $150 million to $200 million more, in fact, than James Cameron's movie "Titanic." The Grand Princess has 1,300 passenger cabins (thus about 2,600 passengers on each of its sold-out cruises this summer) and a crew of about 1,100. It has a dozen bars. Step out onto the teak promenade of Deck 7 and start jogging: You will complete a mile with just three laps.
"I saw the cutaway drawing, and I said, 'I wanna go,' " says Chuck Dunn, a retired engineer from Redondo Beach, referring to the schematic chart in the brochures.
Dunn, a veteran of 26 cruises, brought his wife, Lois, along with two daughters and a son-in-law. Because Lois Dunn is unable to walk, they stayed in one of the ship's 28 wheelchair-accessible cabins. The day before disembarking, they pronounced themselves largely satisfied, but said they believe the room needs a few sink and toilet improvements, the purser's desk needs more information and the main theater's wheelchair seats need better sight lines.
But no opinion on a cruise ship, it seems, is ever unanimous. Consider Hywel Jones, a retired Toronto physician, who liked the music, liked the high tea, liked the public spaces. Jones' only quibble is the scale of the thing. "I think I like a smaller ship," Jones confesses over tea. "Unless you seek out and talk to people, you're lost."
To roam the ship is to join an oversized game of Clue. There is the theatrical cast of characters, complete with British officers, Filipino room stewards, Italian and Hungarian waiters, a half-dozen Chinese acrobats and, frequently, a few distinguished old men dozing away in the atrium armchairs. There is the medley of public and private rooms: the fine-arts gallery, the lobby bar, the library, the writing room, the card room, the dining room--and that's just Deck 5 on a ship with 18 levels in all. Finally, there's the staggering inventory of props, from the unseen 40-ton, six-bladed port propeller that pushes the vessel along, to the peacock feather headdresses that adorn the dancers in the main lounge.
And, as in a proper game of Clue, there are mysteries that need solving.
For instance, how many kitchen workers does it take to prepare dinner for 2,600? (208)
How many passengers can make ship-to-shore calls at once? (12, paying about $9 per minute)
If you're in one of the ship's 180 mini-suites, how do your butler's duties differ from your room steward's? (Not even the butlers and room stewards seem to know; Princess says it's working on that.)
When does the disco get busy? (Autumn, perhaps. That's when lower prices and shorter itineraries in the Caribbean are expected to attract a younger crowd.)
And who was first to wed in the Hearts and Minds chapel? (Jon Riddle and Evelyn Choi of Burbank, in a June 2 ceremony performed by the captain in international waters and authorized under the ship's Liberian registration papers. More wedding reservations are already coming in for this fall.)
But the larger question hanging over the ship, of course, is whether bigger really means better.
"We haven't been on a cruise before, and we think it's marvelous," volunteered Brian Tompkins, a 50ish fellow who bellied up to the nautically themed Wheelhouse bar one evening with his wife, Margaret. "The quality is brilliant. We think it's a great value for the money," said Tompkins, who journeyed from Manchester, England, to board the ship.
"I was a bit dubious," added Margaret. "I thought it would be a bit old for us. But it's a very nice mixed bag. There are a lot of middle-age people and some young people."
Gabriella Rosenberg, of Baltimore, cruising with her just-retired husband, Paul, and four friends, reported on Day 9 that "so far, we love everything. We have no complaints. None. This is our third cruise, our second with Princess."
Rosenberg seems to have plenty of like-minded company, not just on Princess ships but aboard the burgeoning fleets of Carnival and Royal Caribbean, the trade's other largest companies.
The cruise industry has been growing steadily for nearly three decades. A little more than 5 million Americans took cruises last year, most of them on ships with more than 1,000 passengers. Thirty new ships are due for introduction over the next few years, increasing the industry's passenger capacity by half. The hoopla over the movie "Titanic"--despite the dismal fate of that ship--has surely helped the trade more than hurt it. And for now, the Grand Princess' size places it among the most visible ships in the trade.
Originally scheduled to debut May 14, the Grand Princess was delayed when work at Italy's Fincantieri shipyard ran behind. Thus, the Grand Princess debuted May 26, when the first paying passengers trooped aboard in Istanbul. I boarded in Venice on June 1, the ship's sixth day in service, and disembarked in Barcelona June 7.
To get aboard the long-sold-out first cruise, I had to abandon the Travel section's usual policy of booking anonymously, and instead reserved a cabin as a working journalist through the L.A.-based company's public relations office. I paid a prorated fare for a standard inside cabin, which is the cheapest room available--roughly $320 per person per day, double occupancy, on Mediterranean itineraries. But because Princess officials held the most affordable rooms for civilians and placed roughly 40 members of the press on the same deck in mini-suites, I found myself upgraded to a pricier cabin--a windfall that real-world customers do get occasionally but can never count on.
The Grand Princess supersedes Carnival's Destiny (101,000 gross register tons; 1,321 passenger cabins; debuted in 1996) as the biggest passenger ship afloat. But Princess' fame will likely be fleeting: Royal Caribbean International has crews at work now on an unnamed vessel that it says will carry 3,600 passengers, amount to 136,000 gross register tons (a measurement of ship volume, not weight) and debut in 1999.
But Grand Princess is the ship of the moment. Thanks to its layout and circulation patterns, the Grand Princess feels like a ship with half as many passengers as it has, maybe even a third--still a big ship, but a negotiable one. Cabins are shrewdly laid out, and more than half (710) have balconies. Food in the main dining rooms is as good as anyone could expect from such a mass operation, with genial, adept service and surprisingly adventurous menus. One night, for instance, buffalo and quail stood in for the old reliables, beef and chicken. Other nights yielded rabbit and escargot (and there were always multiple vegetarian options).
Inevitably, there were a lot of cruisers wandering around lost and half-lost. Finding restaurants, lounges and other services gets easier once you realize that most journeys begin with an elevator ride to Deck 7 (where most of the food, drink and stores are) or Deck 14 (where the pools and outdoor areas are). Once you've reached those floors, no place important is more than two flights of stairs away. But stairwell access differs fore and aft, and every passenger seems to spend plenty of time marching from the front of the ship to the rear, or the other way around.
Given the scale of the operation, shore excursions are handled with remarkable smoothness. After an 8 a.m. arrival at the Italian port of Livorno, for instance, the ship's tour operation put 1,758 passengers on 37 buses to Florence, Pisa and the neighboring Chianti wine country. Despite a few detours to pick up strays at the end of the day, they were all back on board in time for the 8 p.m. departure.
The flow wasn't as smooth at Monte Carlo, where only about half of the anticipated 2,038 passengers got the shore excursions they signed up for. But that was the fault of turbulent seas, which forced Princess to curtail ship-to-shore tender service in the afternoon. Even a 951-foot-long ship can't block a 10-foot swell from tossing tenders around like toys.
The list of on-board activities, meanwhile, is long indeed, from the largest casino at sea to the reading room, the virtual reality arcade, various spa services, the paddle tennis court, the five swimming pools, the nine whirlpool spas, the nine-hole putting green, the three entertainment venues, not forgetting the jumbo-sized chess pieces on the Lido deck. The ship's day-care operation (ages 2 to 12; free while the ship's at sea, $4 per child per hour while in port) has its own territory. So does the adjacent teen club (ages 13 to 17). Both run supervised activities on sea days from 9 a.m. to noon, 2 to 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 1 a.m. (On days in port, the hours are the same, except that programs stay open through midday hours.)
"The amount of toys they have up there? Incredible!" said one mother, a first-time cruiser from Colorado who came aboard with her husband, a 5-year-old and a 2-year-old. "And the day care is fantastic."
If passengers tire of their assigned dinner seating (6:30 or 8:30) or their seatmates in one of the ship's three main restaurants, they can book a reservation at the Painted Desert (Mexican / Southwestern food) or Sabatini's Trattoria (pizza and pasta), or step up without reservations to the 24-hour Horizon Court buffet. Princess counts eight different dinner options altogether, seven lunch options and three breakfast options. Having choices, whether loading calories or burning them, is the selling point of a big ship.
The Grand Princess has problems too, most of which seem small and curable. Having paid $320 per person, per day or more to get on the ship, for instance, nobody was too happy about being charged another $1.90 for a scoop of Haagen-Dazs ice cream by the pool, or $2 for a cup of cappuccino in the atrium coffee bar. (As on most cruise ships, alcoholic beverages also are extra.)
Many also were annoyed by the ship's $3.50-per-head reservation charge in the Painted Desert and Sabatini's, but cruise-line officials note that without some sort of fee system, passengers wouldn't take the reservation system seriously and the crew would be left with no idea where anyone would be eating. I didn't mind the reservation fees as much as I minded the mediocre food at the Painted Desert, which left many diners unimpressed.
Other shortcomings, such as climate control and ragged service, may have been remedied by now. But on that first cruise, many public rooms and cabins were frequently too cold, even though temperatures were mild outside.
One morning, my room service order was entirely ignored ("Very sorry, Mr. Rayburn," said my butler a couple of times, thereby offering a clue to where the problem might lie.) On two other mornings, a room steward woke me with knocks on my door at 7--not because I'd summoned him but because someone else had summoned him by beeper and mistakenly keyed in my room number. And on a third morning, my wake-up service was provided by two irate fellow passengers griping in the hall, apparently about not getting the room service breakfast they wanted.
Many inaugural cruisers said the Grand Princess' European itinerary was its greatest attraction--Istanbul, Athens, Venice, Florence, Monte Carlo and Barcelona, all on the same cruise--and those ports will remain on the ship's schedule for the remainder of this summer. Next summer's itineraries will be in the Mediterranean too. But the Grand Princess will be spending the rest of the seasons as a Caribbean ship.
In September, the ship will cross the Atlantic and settle into a routine of seven-day cruises based in Florida. These itineraries, which typically will include four port calls and three full days at sea, are designed to take advantage of the ship's elaborate on-board facilities, and are expected to draw cruisers with a median age of 40; on European itineraries, the figure is likely to be over 50, as it was on my cruise. (Among the celebrity entertainers aboard this first sailing, median age was about two decades beyond that: The headliners were Red Buttons, 79, Alan King, 70, and Rita Moreno, 66.)
The rest of the entertainers were aimed at younger audiences, most notably the gyrating dancers in "Glamour," the glitzy musical production show in the ship's largest theater. In all, the ship carries 45 musicians (including a country-and-western duet and an R&B; quartet), 18 dancers, four singers and more than 40 behind-the-scenes stage workers. Many passengers admired the performances of stage pickpocket Bob Arno, the juggler / comedian Barnaby and the Hungarian string combo--including the merry but misguided passenger who, at the end of one performance, offered the Hungarians a heartfelt "Gracias!"
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Booking the Grand Princess: For this summer's 12-day Mediterranean cruises between Istanbul and Barcelona (already sold out), brochure rates begin at $4,180 per person (assuming double occupancy) for a standard inside cabin (no window). An outside cabin (no balcony) runs $5,580; a mini-suite with balcony is $6,914. Next summer's fares are expected to rise slightly.
After the ship repositions for fall to the eastern Caribbean, seven-day itineraries will be based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (port calls include St. Thomas, St. Maarten and the cruise line's private island), from Oct. 4 through April 11, 1999. Brochure rates on that itinerary begin at $1,538 per person for a standard inside cabin; $2,889 for a mini-suite with balcony. (Fares include meals, air fare to and from Los Angeles, port charges and taxes.)
Don't take brochure rates too seriously. Many travel agents can get discounts, and cruise lines often reduce fares by as much as 30% to encourage advance bookings.
For more information: Contact Princess Cruises, telephone (800) 421-0522, or a travel agent.
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A CITY AFLOAT
1. Two 800-square-foot grand suites, each with large balcony, spa, living room with fireplace, wet bar, refrigerator, three TVs and walk-in closet. There are 26 smaller suites with similar amenities, including two family suites that sleep up to 10 each.
2. 180 mini-suites have balconies, separate sitting areas, spas and marble and stained-glass fixtures.
3. Disco/observation lounge, with floor-to-ceiling windows, is 150 feet above the water.
4. Glass-enclosed moving sidewalk to disco.
5. Virtual reality center, with video games and a simulated underwater sea ride.
6. Writing room.
7. Vista Lounge, one of three main showrooms, seats 457 and offers Las Vegas-type acts.
8. Three main dining rooms, the Da Vinci, Botticelli and Michelangelo, each seat up to 500 people per meal.
9. Sabatini's Trattoria, pizza and pasta.
10. Wheelhouse bar, cocktails and music.
11. Horizon Court, 24-hour buffet.
12. Calypso Reef pool area, with bar, whirlpool spas, retractable glass dome.
13. Princess Theater, ship's main showroom, seats 748 for Broadway-style shows.
14. Explorers cabaret club.
15. Reading room; books to loan, CD-ROM computer terminals.
16. Nine-hole putting green simulates play on well-known golf courses.
17. Promenade lounge and bar, also serves as a coffee bar/patisserie and wine-and-caviar bar.
18. Duty-free boutique shops.
19. Mosaic-tiled midships pool, with spas and adjacent hamburger grill, pizzeria and ice cream bar.
20. Three-story atrium served by glass elevators and adjacent to shops, card room and art gallery.
21. Painted Desert restaurant, with Southwestern cuisine.
22. Limelight digital photo studio, where passengers are photographed in front of fantasy backdrops.
23. The 13,500-square-foot casino offers poker, roulette, craps, blackjack and slot machines.
24. A wedding chapel can also be transformed into a conference room for group meetings.
25. The Plantation Spa has a gym, health spa (sauna, massages, aerobics room), swim-against-the-current lap pool, outdoor jogging track and juice bar.
26. Oasis Spa, with nearby court for paddle tennis, volleyball and basketball, bar.
27. Snookers sports bar broadcasts live sports events.
28. Full-service beauty salon.
29. Fun Zone, a fully supervised children's center, has a kids' pool with slide, a castle and a dollhouse. Adjacent is the Off Limits teens-only club with a private spa.
30. Card room accommodates bridge, backgammon, checkers, chess players.
Terrace pool (aft)
Conservatory, a glass-enclosed sitting area with music (overlooks Calypso pool)
Lobby bar (next to atrium)
Medical center, with a video tele-medicine program that links ship's medical staff with emergency department at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in L.A.
Los Angeles Times graphic Schematic courtesy of Princess Cruises
159 feet wide (too wide to fit through the Panama Canal)
201 feet high (50 feet higher than the Statue of Liberty)
Fincantieri shipyard, Monfalcone, Italy
1,300 (710 with balconies)
1,100 (including 109 officers)
5,220 (20 lifeboats/tenders, 2 rescue boats, 60 rafts)
Eastern Caribbean (fall, winter, spring).
Prices: About $200 to $900 per day, per person (includes air fare, all meals, port fees, taxes)
Glassware: 96,396 pieces
Bath towels: 13,200
Rolls of toilet paper: 18,000
Silver-plated flatware: 51,612 pieces
Boxes of facial tissue: 8,640
Wooden coat hangers: 59,300
DAILY FOOD CONSUMPTION (passengers and crew)
Salt: 200 lbs.
Carrots: 322 lbs.
Game/poultry: 1,431 lbs.
Beef: 1,600 lbs.
Veal: 306 lbs.
Bacon: 390 lbs.
Shellfish: 852 lbs.
Smoked salmon: 104 lbs.
Potatoes: 1,170 lbs.
Butter/margarine: 551 lbs.
Bananas: 960 lbs.
Ice cream: 910 lbs.
How the Grand Princess compares to other large passenger liners
Year completed: 1998
Gross register tons: 109,000
Length (feet): 951
Passenger capacity: 2,600
Year completed: 1969
Gross register tons: 70,327**
Length (feet): 962
Passenger capacity: 1,900
Year completed: 1961
Gross register tons: 76,049**
Length (feet): 1,035
Passenger capacity: 2,565
Year completed: 1936
Gross register tons: 81,237**
Length (feet): 1,019
Passenger capacity: 2,139
Year completed: 1912
Gross register tons: 46,329
Length (feet): 883
Passenger capacity: 2,600
Year completed: 1907
Gross register tons: 31,550
Length (feet): 787
Passenger capacity: 2,165
** After refitting
Researched by SCOTT J. WILSON / Los Angeles Times