Sapphire Princess Review
Princess Cruises was previously it was a subsidiary of P&O Princess Cruises. The company is now one of ten cruise ship brands owned by the American Carnival Corporation and accounts for approximately 19% share of its revenue. In 2015, Princess Cruises will celebrate its 50th Golden Anniversary of the company’s founding.
At the time of writing (January 2015) Princess have a fleet of 18 ships, ranging from around 30,000 gross tonnes (688 passengers) to 141,000 gross tonnes (3,560 passengers). Nine of there ships are based on their ‘Grand Class’ design.
In 2012 I cruised on-board P&O’s Ventura to the Mediterranean. Ventura is based on the Princess ‘Grand Class’ design. I booked the ship essentially for the itinerary. For various reasons I was not very impressed with some aspects of the experience. Part of the problem was the behaviour some of the clientele on my particular cruise. I was also not over impressed with the food either. Even Ventura itself, did not really impress me. I can’t really pinpoint why.
In November 2014 I saw a very good-value nine night itinerary from Beijing to Hong Kong, on Sapphire Princess, with stops at Korea, Shanghai and Japan. I could not resist it, although I did have concerns about cruising on another ‘Grand Class’ ship.
I am pleased to report that I had nothing to worry about.
Sapphire Princess entered service in 2004. She is the fifth of nine ships based on their ‘Grand’ Class design, which ran from 1998 to 2008. The first of the series ‘Grand Princess’ (1198) was the biggest most expensive cruise ship ever built at the time. However the ‘Grand Class’ design has been modified over the years.
Sapphire is a large ship, at 116,000 gross tonnes and 2,670 lower berths. However today many ships supersede her size. The ship was in pristine condition and had been refitted in 2012.
Sapphire (and sister Diamond Princess) were built in Japan, at Mitsubishi’s shipyard in Nagasaki. The other Grand-class ships before and after were built in Fincantieri’s Italian yards. Sapphire and Diamond are the largest Grand-class ships in terms of gross tonnage (volume) but carry around 410 less than later versions of the class and I’m pleased to say that it felt like it.
All of the 13 passenger decks (numbered 4 – 17, without a deck 13) are known by numbers, but also have names. In addition they are commonly known by letters (the first letter of the name). My cabin, for example was on deck 8, which is E Deck or Emerald – so take your pick.
The ‘Piazza’ (Atrium) is the heart of the ship and occupies the full width of the deck and four decks high. It has the ‘International Café’ in one corner which provided excellent speciality Tea, Coffees, cakes and toasted sandwiches. Only the tea and coffee was chargeable. However you could purchase a discount card. I’m pleased to say that the Café was not using long-life milk like they did on Ventura, which gave their hot drinks with milk a very peculiar taste.
In the other corner of the Piazza was ‘Alfredo’s Pizzeria’ (No surcharge). The menu was pretty simple; they just served Pizza, and drinks, nothing else. However they were cooked freshly and were excellent.
There were also a bar, a wine-bar and the reception desk in the Piazza, not forgetting two glass panoramic lifts. The Piazza space is also occasionally used for entertainment from a pianist or string quartet and the Captain’s party.
Most of the ship public rooms are situated on decks 6 (Fiesta) and deck 7 (promenade). There are plenty to choose from.
The ‘Princess Theatre’ at the bow of deck 6/7 is typical of those on big modern ships. The seats are comfortable, raked, with excellent site lines. It is probably bigger and better equipped and certainly more comfortable than many of London’s West end Theatres.
Near to the Theatre (deck 6) was Churchuill’s lounge, a smoking room, sealed by a glass door. It feature many leather chairs and framed paintings on the walls. Next to that was the Casino. This was much larger than Ventura’s, reflecting the fact that Brits do not embrace gaming tables with as much passion as American cruise passengers do
Moving to deck 7 (promenade) the Wheelhouse bar is next to the upper level of the theatre. This is very atmospheric with mood lighting, more leather chairs and nautical touches, including many paintings of historic ocean liners on the walls. It also has a small stage for entertainment. It was always very well air conditioned, in fact some might say too well.
Explorers lounge amidships (deck 7) is one of two traditional show lounges (in addition to the main theatre), with non-raked seating. Its stage is on the port side of the ship with the seating orientated towards it. Although situated amidships, you can pass through the back of this lounge with minimal disruption to the audience. It is quite an attractive space and is used for port talks etc.
Club Fusion, at the stern (deck 7) is the other traditional style show lounge, although rather ‘trendy’ and is obviously designed to attract the younger crowd. It seemed to be much underused on my cruise. I only ever saw keep fit taking place within it and not very much entertainment.
Club Fusion has a circular staircase at the rear which takes you down to a tiny and charming bar called the ‘Wake bar’ (probably because it overlooks the wake of the ship). Strangely it only has some small port holes, so the actual view is minimal, but it is wonderfully secluded. I bet most passengers never find it.
Skywalker’s is a bar/disco perched high on the aft of the ship (deck 18). On the original ‘Grand Princess’ design, this room was raised high on two columns (nicknamed the shopping trolley handle). However possibly due to stress fractures in the steel and the fact that the rear terrace pool was put in shade, the design was modified for the first time on Sapphire and Diamond. The whole room has been dropped down onto the deck.
The bar/nightclub is still one of the highest parts of the ship and offers excellent views mainly of the ships port side, starboard side and stern, but there are only a limited number of forward facing windows.
I picked an Ocean View on deck E (Emerald or deck 8), cabin 231. This was considerably cheaper option than the standard ‘balcony grade’. It had a picture window, supposedly partially obstructed by a lifeboat. However the degree of obstruction varies significantly for this grade. My cabin had almost a totally unobstructed view. (Unfortunately a ship deck plans do not always reveal the true extent of the obstruction).
The cabin was in excellent condition. The décor had a ‘retro’ brown wood (Formica) look to it, resembling a cabin on a much older ship, which I liked. There an excellent ‘almost’ walk-in-wardrobe area with a long clothes rail, which my wife found to be perfect for her generous range of clothing that she always packs. There were two single beds, which could be pushed together to from a double. There was an LCD TV, a safe and a Fridge. (No kettle which Brits love and Americans are unconcerned about)
The bathroom products supplied were adequate, although not luxurious. The shower had a good pressure of water.
The TV’s range of channels was quite poor featuring mainly Sky and BBC news. However on-demand movies were free, unlike P&O, who charge quite a large fee for each one viewed..
Room service (free) was very efficient. They generally got my order right and delivered it on time, something that many other ships/lines have often failed to do.
Earlier Grand Class ships (and Ventura) have three main dining rooms. Two are directly above/blow each other on decks 5 (Plasa) and 6 (Fiesta). The third is at the stern of deck 6.
On-board Sapphire Princess (and Diamond) the designers have divided the two on decks 5 and deck 6, into four dining rooms. They are genuinely divided down the middle with wall and have different décor, different doors and different names.
They are – deck 5 port: the Savoy and starboard: Vivaldi. Deck 6 port: Pacific Moon port and starboard: the Santa Fee.
Each of the four is of course more intimate than the previous two. Each dining room has very classy décor, although being single height, they do lack a little of the ‘wow’ factor found in some ships that have the luxury of double and even triple height rooms.
The four dining rooms are allocated to ‘Anytime Dining’. Strangely the menu is exactly the same in each. They probably all share the same kitchen anyway.
The fifth dining room, ‘The International’ (deck 6, stern) is the biggest, although still modest in size, considering the size of the ship. It is allocated for ‘traditional’ dining, with two fixed evening sittings. It is also used for lunch. (Open seating).
Strangely subsequent Grand Class ships have reverted back to having three larger dining rooms. I don’t know why?
The ‘Freedom’ dining worked brilliantly. In fact it worked better that NCL’s Freestyle does, on occasions. There were never any queues to get in and a table for two was always possible.
The Menu was always interesting. There was a good choice of American dishes, including steak and lobster tail of course, as well as a section of Asian dishes. However these were always quite westernised, although really good. The quality of the food was probably above average for a mass market ship. I never had a bad meal. In fact I rarely had a mediocre one either. The service was also very sharp and discreet – just how I like it. Personally I don’t require speeches of party tricks form my waiters.
Afternoon tea is served in The Savoy dining rooms at 3.30pm on sea days. It lasts around an hour and not quite as formal as Cunard’s – there’s no harpist or string quartet, just some recorded background music. The scones, tea-cakes, crumpets and sandwiches were distributed efficiently by waiters, without limit.
The ‘Horizon Court’ buffet (deck 15), adjacent the busy pool deck areas, is reasonably large and divided into two main areas. At times of low demand, one section is open, while another is closed. At time off-peak demand both areas are open, but like any big ship can struggle to cope with the high numbers.
I never actually used the buffet on this cruise, but the food looked as good as any I’ve seen, on any other mass market ship.
Hand sanitation was not enforced by the crew so many passengers did not bother. Not surprisingly later in the cruise there was a Norovirus outbreak. Only then did they begin the sanitisation programme. (Surely this is a case of closing the gate after the horse has bolted).
As a result staff began to serve much of the food in the buffet, to the customers, rather than them being able to help themselves. Although an understandable precaution, this slowed the whole process down. Personally I felt the dining room experience for breakfast and lunch was always more civilised.
My chosen cruise was in a cold and wet climate, so I cannot comment on the usage of the deck and pools. However internally, the ship never felt over crowded, Apart from when events took place in the Piazza, despite little use of the outer decks.
Like most ships, if you wanted to see any show or entertainer In the Theatre, and required a prime seat, it was wise to arrive a little early.
The ship of course has extensive beauty and fitness facilities at the bow of deck 16/15. I cannot comment on these as I am neither beautiful nor fit and am never likely to be, whatever the treatment. At the front of deck 16 is ‘The Sanctuary’ which is ‘tranquil’ adults only area with loungers and a nearby pool and the beauty centre.
In addition to the cabin laundry service, there are a number of self-service launderettes, with washing, drying and ironing facilities. These were all free to use. You just need to buy some washing powder on-board.
The ships entertainment was very traditional in style and a little uninspiring. It was not that it was bad, but little was outstanding either. There were certainly no surprises. The main shows were a mix of guest singers, a comedian, a juggler, and a pop violinist. In addition there were several ‘flesh and feather’ type production shows, featuring show tunes, performed by the on-board troupe.
The troupe always performed backed by an excellent live band. The singers within the troop were better than many I have seen on-board other ships. (Good singers always seem in shorter supply than good dancers or musicians).
The musical artists around the ship were rather sparse and uninspiring too. The string quartet was competent, but looked to be rather introverted performers. I guess that they would rather be playing in a concert hall, than on a ship. The lounge pianist did not excite me either. A duo in the ‘Explorers’ bar (female vocalist, male keyboard player) played such laid-back ‘Musak’ it was easy to not notice they were actually playing. This was great for talking over, with friends, but I did not find them so entertaining.
There was a late night disco in ‘Skywalkers’ each evening but rarely more than a dozen passengers actually found it. Skywalkers is quite a small space, it could have certainly accommodated more people than that. However it is well hidden at the highest point of the ship, at the very aft.
I think the ships low-key evening entertainment encourage many passengers to go to bed early, even the younger ones.
“Movies under the stars” and pop concerts were shown on the decks giant video screen at selected times. The video screen was of excellent quality and the sound also good (with English subtitles too). However the weather was so poor that blankets were required and all screenings were very poorly attended. It’s still a nice idea though and obviously works well in warmer climates.
Unusually on the top deck there is a secluded area called the “lawn court” which is an area of Astro-turf for putting and croquet.
Sapphire has just two alternative dining rooms (carrying a surcharge) which is a small number compared to the latest ships. However that is not necessarily a bad thing!
I am pleased to say that the food in the main dining rooms was so good that I did not feel the need to pay a surcharge for the two speciality restaurants.
A small corner of the ‘Horizon buffet’ (deck 15) buffet at the rear of the buffet was roped-off each evening and became the ‘Sterling Steakhouse’. This was a surcharge venue. I never tried it. The food may have been great, but I would expect more than a corner of the buffet for my surcharge. I suppose it gave them more seating capacity for the buffet at lunch time when it was not a steak house.
Sabatini’s was an alternative Italian restaurant located on the promenaded deck (7). In contrast to the steakhouse, this was purpose built and looked very attractive. I did not try it either.
For those who are addicted to pasta, but on a budget: there was pasta served in the main dining rooms and at the buffet, on occasions.
You can expect two formal evening each week, where smart dress is required.
Smoking was only allowed on the starboard side and not in any public rooms, including the Casino
There was a wrap-around promenade deck, although there were a set of stairs towards the bow, port and starboard, to negotiate.
My cruise with Princess gave me very little to complain about.
Sapphire princess is in excellent condition for a ten year old ship. She is a very comfortable floating Hotel.
The ‘Grand Class’ design is no longer state-of-the-art. However it has been a tried, tested and modified design over for 16 years, with two clones now cruising for P&O (Ventua and Azura). I suppose the mantra has been: “If it’s not broken, why fix it?” (Although no more ‘Grand Class’ ships will be built, with the bigger ‘Royal Princess’ design now on stream, however the deck plans do have much commonality with the ‘Grand Class’).
Princess’s five dining rooms give this medium/large sized ship a more intimate dining experience, than many. ‘Anytime Dining’ really worked for me, but you can still book the ‘traditional’ dining option (fixed time and table) if you want it.
Princess have a very ‘solid’ product with very good food, consistently good service and some reasonable entertainment, although a little low key on my particular cruise. The product does not try to be exciting or ground-breaking, it is just dependable. Their entire fleet has a high degree on on-board uniformity, which makes regulars feel very at home.
Perhaps the main attraction of Princess for many (and also the reason that I booked) is their range of interesting world itineraries, including Asia, with some very reasonable fares.
If the fare and itinerary were right, I would not hesitate to book them again.
Ventura Review: http://wp.me/PfRKD-1CM