cruises

Princess Cruises Royal Princess Review

The first new Princess ship in 5 years brings a number of enhancements to the line’s typical layout and design. But a few changes made no sense to us.

March 31, 2014
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In addition to the main dining room (split into three venues) and buffet—both included in the cruise fare—Royal Princess has a larger variety of dining options than other ships in the fleet. In addition to familiar Princess surcharge restaurants such as Sabatini’s (Italian) and Crown Grill (steakhouse), Royal Princess offers the line’s first raw bar, Ocean Terrace, for which menu items carry an à la carte charge. There were two one-off dinners held in the Horizon Court buffet—one a crab feast, the other a fondue splurge. Another surcharge option was one of several special wine pairing dinners—we didn’t try the Chef’s Table Lumiere (which carries a $115 add-on and was sold out by the time we boarded), but we enjoyed the Wine Maker’s Dinner.

Alfredo’s Pizzeria, available on some but not all Grand Class ships, gets more real estate on Royal Princess, as well as an expanded menu. There’s no fee to dine here, but we had mixed experiences. International Café, the ship’s 24-hour coffee station, had what seemed to be a greater variety of treats on offer in its deli case, also without surcharges, and the poolside Trident Grill rolls out a new smokehouse menu at night. But the best improvement seemed to be at Horizon Court, which boasts improved traffic flow and an expanded food selection, including new action stations where food is cooked to order.

In all, while there were no major surprises good or bad in the dining opportunities aboard Royal Princess, the new options will be welcome news to Princess regulars, and the old standbys were pleasantly consistent.

Allegro, Concerto & Symphony Dining Rooms

Rather than a single, two- or three-deck restaurant, Royal Princess splits its main dining room into three separate venues, all using the same menu. This affords a somewhat more intimate dining experience, though each room seats 600 or more. Décor of the Concerto and Symphony rooms, located on decks 5 and 6 just behind the Piazza, was similar, with lots of polished wood tones. But we’d say Allegro, located on Deck 5 aft, was the more striking venue, with its nod to Art Deco and Frank Lloyd Wright styling (seen in the photos below). Breakfast was served each morning in the Concerto dining room, as well as lunch on sea days. A semi-private room within each venue was dedicated to 12-guest feasts, described below under “Wine Maker’s Dinner & Chef’s Table Lumiere.”

During the booking process we were given the option of the traditional dining plan, which meant eating dinner at either 5:30 or 8 p.m., or the Anytime plan, which we chose, allowing us to dine between 5:30 and 9:30 p.m. On the first night of our cruise we came to the podium at 7:43 p.m. and were issued a pager—it didn’t buzz until 29 minutes later, which seemed like an unreasonable wait for a table. Shortly after we were seated the maître d’ came on the p.a. system and suggested that guests should come when the restaurant first opened each night at 5:30, or later at 7:15 or 7:30, “to help us even out the dining experience for everyone.” Since we had arrived only a few minutes after 7:30, this didn’t quite add up. We’ll chalk up the delay to opening night machinations, as we waited little more than 10 minutes our next evening here, the energy evolving from overly busy to pleasantly buzzy.

In the Concerto Dining Room we found the meals above average compared to our other Princess cruise experiences. There were no menu surprises, but almost everything hit the mark. Among the starters we especially enjoyed the creamy asparagus soup which, rather than being creamy was light and refreshing and included an oddly appealing dumpling of poached salmon. Princess does a decent job with salads, and there are always a couple pasta dishes, available in an entrée size or smaller portion as an appetizer (the fettuccini Alfredo is a longtime Princess fave). Both the entrées we tried were excellent. The pan-seared barramundi fillet in a tarn of chive and mustard seed sauce was served with asparagus and potatoes; the prime rib was a better cut and perfectly cooked (better than on other Princess ships we’ve tried this dish). Desserts, however, didn’t wow us.

The breakfast menu for the main dining room isn’t long, but it covers the basics well. This included cereals—hot and cold—yogurt, a smoked salmon plate, several egg dishes, pancakes and freshly baked pastries. The fruit plate arrived two different ways here—once as diced fruit in a bowl (the “assorted melon cocktail”), the other as a plate of freshly sliced fruit. There’s a different breakfast special daily, such as huevos rancheros or the lumberjack special (grilled minute steak with eggs, mushrooms and hash browns).

Lunch is served on sea days, with a different menu each day covering a number of options (including brunch fare for late risers). We tried the fish tacos one afternoon, and the tuna melt another day—neither particularly impressed. Other items that looked better included the nasi goring (Indonesian spiced rice with chicken and beef satays), Irish lamb stew, vegetarian stuffed yellow bell pepper, and there was always a couple pasta dishes, soups and salads.

Afternoon tea was offered daily from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m. in the Concerto Dining Room.

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Horizon Court

Wrapping around the aft portion of Deck 16, Horizon Court is the efficient buffet option aboard Royal Princess. Despite the ship’s size, and the venue’s popularity at breakfast, we didn’t have issues finding an empty table. The buffet lines are expanded and the food selection was somewhat greater than we’ve experienced on previous Princess cruises; most of the fare changed daily. There were action stations where specific items were cooked to order, and a dedicated pastry shop (we usually find baked goods to be a strong suit for Princess). One corner of Horizon Court was dedicated to a couple pop-up restaurants on two nights of the cruise (described below under “Crab Shack & Fondues”). We found hand sanitizers not as prevalent as we would normally expect, but al fresco washrooms were available at each end and side of the buffet.

In contrast with the main dining room, the breakfast selection was more varied. Omelets were cooked to order and there were more than a dozen ingredients to choose from, with egg white omelets an option; a daily scramble was also offered, such as eggs with tomato, goat cheese and mint. There were yogurt parfaits and breakfast burritos and other items not found on the main dining room menu. Princess gets breads and pastry right—we can’t resist the crusty whole wheats and flaky croissants.

Lunch included such fare as tasty fassolada (a white bean casserole with Greek roots), vegetarian lasagna, baba ghanoush, black mussel hot pot, turkey and veal kebobs, hibachi lamb riblets, and various stir fries. The dinner selection offered a similar variety, and items were nicely presented. Soups such as tortellini and spinach or cock-a-leekie were served from cast iron tureens, and there were usually intriguing international dishes such as Bombay seafood paella, pancetta-wrapped cod fish fillet, and chicken paillard with amber ale and onion gravy.

The extensive dessert station was hard to pass up, and light snacks came out at tea time, 3:30 to 5:30 each afternoon. Coffee, tea and iced tea were provided from dispensers, made from a concentrate. Juice flavors available at breakfast included orange drink, grapefruit, tomato, cranberry and apple. The ship’s standard wine list was available, and cocktails from the standard drink menu could be ordered from servers.

Crown Grill

Located on Deck 7 aft, Crown Grill is the Princess steakhouse, a venue that carries a $25 surcharge for dining. We found the add-on to be reasonable for a meal of Sterling Silver beef, served in wood-paneled rooms that faced an open kitchen. On Royal Princess, the Wheelhouse Bar serves as the lounge for Crown Grill, a smart innovation that gets better use out of both of these Princess institutions. If there’s a downside, it’s that—combined—both spots seemed busier than we see these venues (independently) on other Princess ships. We didn’t try for a dinner reservation until a couple days into our cruise and were surprised to find that most tables were fully booked through the end of the cruise. “It’s like this every night,” said the maître d.

We finally got in at 9:15 p.m. and the restaurant was packed. Our waitress, who was friendly and upbeat, seemed to struggle to keep pace. Empty plates and glassware sat on the table unnoticed for most of our meal, and the menu’s promise of gourmet sea salts was never delivered. Fortunately, our meal was good.

The appetizer selection includes such treats as black tiger prawns and papaya, Meditterranean style spiny lobster cake, carpaccio of pine nut-coasted lamb loin, and a cherrystone clam bake. We started with the shrimp and pancetta bisque, which neither heavy nor rich, and followed with the goat cheese and heirloom tomato salad with spinach and yellow beets. We’re not sure about the heirloom tomatoes (they seemed pretty run-of-the-mill to us and almost invisible) but the overall dish was pleasing.

Main courses include a variety of seafood items, such as pan-roasted barramundi papillote, and a Prince Edward mussel pot. We could order 4-oz lobster tails or, with an additional $20 surcharge, there was a whole Maine lobster or 12-oz Australian lobster tail on offer. But we opted for the 14-ounce rib eye, which we found to be competently prepared. We asked for medium-rare and the steak arrived just as ordered, with a reasonable amount of marbling, and almost no gristle. To accompany, we chose a baked potato with all the trimmings—tasty—along with creamed spinach. Other meats available included a New York strip, Kansas City strip or filet mignon, along with a veal chop, lamb rack, or pork chop.

Also available at Crown Grill is a Pub Lunch, held on two sea days during our cruise. Despite the announcement being buried in the Princess Patter in tiny print, this was a popular event—the crowd spilled over into the Wheelhouse Bar. There were just four items on blackboard menu—fish and chips, bangers and mash, steak and kidney pie, and a ploughman’s lunch. We found the fish and chips acceptable, but the service seemed distracted and unprepared for the rush.

Sabatini’s

Another of the surcharge restaurants, Sabatini’s is an Italian venue that will be familiar to Princess regulars. It’s an attractive space located just off the lobby atrium on Deck 5, with cliché’d murals of Italian coastlines lining the walls. We’ve had mixed experiences at Sabatini’s on other Princess ships, and we didn’t have time to dine here aboard Royal Princess. There’s a $25 cover charge for dinner, and you may find the ambiance and service worth it. You can read about our dinner at Sabatini’s aboard Star Princess here.

Ocean Terrace Seafood Bar

We liked this new dining concept for Princess, a raw bar overlooking the Piazza from Deck 7. Items are priced à la carte, and it is possible to run up a modest tab, but it makes a great option for a light meal or for tasty appetizer before heading to dinner. All items are prepared to order behind the bar, and one can sit at the bar or at a series of small tables overlooking the atrium. Curiously, Ocean Terrace didn’t see much traffic on our cruise, but we think will develop a following with time.

The menu was longer than we anticipated, covering such fertile territory as fresh shucked oysters (3 for $6, or 6 for $10), oyster shooters with pepper and vodka, salsa and tequila, or a bloody mary ($3 each, or $7.50 for the flight), and sushi nigiri ($4.50 for 2 pieces). Another section was devoted to tapas, and included such fare as king crab cocktail, a chili and lime crab margarita, and Italian pollastrini sardines (all $6). We also found Balik brand smoked salmon from Russia ($15) and poached Maine lobster tail ($10), as well as a chilled sampler platter that seemed like the best value—$20 for two.

We opted for the ahi tuna poke ($4.50) and a sashimi trio of ahi tuna, yellowtale and salmon (6 pieces for $6). These were just fine, and promptly delivered. While the cocktail menu didn’t appear to include anything that wasn’t available elsewhere, we were happy to see a good list of chilled vodka available, along with Momokawa organic sake.

Alfredo’s Pizzeria

We’ve enjoyed Alfredo’s on other Princess ships, and we looked forward to the venue on Royal Princess, which head been heralded in advance as heaving earned a larger space as well as an expanded menu. Located next to the Piazza on Deck 6, this Naples-style pizza joint is open noon to midnight, and there’s no surcharge for dining here, making it a great option for a light or even full meal. Though not truly Neapolitan (no wood-burning ovens on cruise ships, please!), the open kitchen produces pizzas made-to-order, served in a 121-seat dining room lined with windows facing the sea. Unfortunately, service did not go smoothly on both our visits here, so our enthusiasm was somewhat muted.

The menu offers a half-dozen different pizzas, including the Romana (mozzarella, anchovies, capers and black olives), the vegetariana (mozzarella, grilled zucchini, sun-dried tomatoes, roasted bell pepper, mushrooms, red onion and avocado), and a capricciosa (mozzarella, artichoke, mushrooms, ham and black olives). There was even a Pizza Hawaiiana—but we won’t go there. We opted for one called the Royal Princess, which was a tasty combo of mozzarella, cherry tomatoes, Parma ham and shaved parmesan, delivered nice and hot, straight from the oven.

While the Alfredo’s menu on other Princess ships has little more than pizzas on offer, Royal Princess had greater variety. This included antipasto plates—vegetarian or with ham, salami, mortadella, bay shrimp and salad—a vegetarian minestrone soup, a mixed green salad, a rolled stuffed eggplant dish, a pasta, and desserts. On another visit we tried the vegetarian antipasto, a beautifully presented plate of mozzarella, grilled zucchini, tomatoes and basil—the simplicity was wonderful. We also dived into the pasta—agnolotti stuffed with veal, beef and parmesan, and bathed in a creamy veal and sage sauce. It was quite rich, but also delicious. For dessert we tried the tiramisu, which was acceptable.

Our only problem was with the service. Both times we ate at Alfredo’s less than half the tables were occupied. But servers on the first visit were spread thin, while the waiter on our second visit was under-trained and/or in over his head. Hopefully these issues were anomalies that have since been rectified. If so, the food is well worth a try.

Trident Grill & Prego Pizzeria

Located next to the ship’s main Fountain Pool these venues flanking the Mermaid’s Tale bar delivered fair grilled items and pizzas. At Trident Grill we found burgers (as well as veggie burgers and grilled chicken), hot dogs (including bratwurst) and fries. The cheeseburger we tried here was competent but otherwise not special. We didn’t sample Prego’s pizzas on this cruise, but they didn’t appear to be nearly as good as the ones at Alfredo’s downstairs (admittedly, we favor Neapolitan style over New York pizzas). Cheese and pepperoni were always available, along with a daily special.

But here’s the twist: Another of the new dining venues introduced on Royal Princess is the Smokehouse-Style BBQ, available nightly from 6 to 11 p.m. We gave it a whirl one night and found a short menu starring orange molasses grilled chicken, beef chili, and North Carolina-style pulled pork (along with the daytime offerings of burgers and hot dogs). We’re not barbecue experts, but we weren’t much impressed with the pulled pork or the chili. It’s strictly informal—collect your own silverware and napkins and find a table—but at least there was no line.

International Café & Gelato

The International Café sits at the base of the lobby atrium and, in addition to offering coffee and tea (see next page), it’s not hard to cobble together a light meal here, pretty much any time of day—it’s open 24 hours. The selection, stored in deli cases, evolves through the day, and there’s no charge for any of it. In the morning we found assorted croissants, muffins and donuts, apple turnovers, chocolate bear claws, pear puff pastries and more.

During the afternoon and into the evening there was chicken and cashew Waldorf salad, mushroom and spinach salad, shrimp salad, grilled vegetables, zucchini and bacon quiche, beef and Guinness pie, and various cheeses; small sandwiches included grilled chicken and pineapple with curry mayonnaise, roast pork with avocado and spicy cilantro, and barbecue beef and jack cheese. There were also plenty of sweet treats, such as pistachio pudding, chocolate cream puffs, mocha truffle tartlets, orange short cake etc.

Next door to the International Café was the Gelato café, where eight different flavors tempted us. A three-scoop dish was $2.75, including toppings such as brownies, peaches, M&Ms, etc. There were also alcoholic sundaes available for $6.50.

Wine Maker’s Dinner & Chef’s Table Lumiere

On select nights of each cruise, there are two different special meal offerings conducted in the main dining rooms. One is the Chef’s Table Lumiere, priced $115 per person and limited to 12 guests. They dine in a private section of the Allegro Dining Room surrounded by “a curtain of fiber optic light.” We were all set to try it, but it was fully booked by the time we boarded Royal Princess (reservations are not possible in advance of embarkation). But we were able to sign up for the Wine Maker’s Dinner, a $40 event conducted in the Concerto and Symphony venues, within semi-private rooms enclosed by wine bottles.

The meal was not a literal wine-pairing experience—a different wine accompanying each course—but it did offer a wine-infused dinner that was substantially upgraded from the normal main dining room fare, well-served by two waiters and a wine steward, and accompanied two wines. In our case this was Donnafugata’s anthilia—a full-bodied, summery white wine from Sicily—and Spellbound’s petite sirah, a balanced choice from California. Neither wine was remotely top-shelf but glasses were poured as needed. Combined with the plussed-up menu and dedicated service, the dinner was the best we had aboard Royal Princess, and a fair value, too. The entire experience encompassed two-and-a-half hours.

The evening opened with a preprandial glass of Amadeus prosecco for toasting. The first course was a delicate amuse-bouche, a scallop perched atop a small mound of pea and mint purée. This was followed by a silky white bean veloute with flecks of chorizo, a couple morsels of lobster, and spiked with Calvados. The decadent third course was finished tableside—gnocchi stuffed with asiago cheese and bathed in a portobello mushroom cream sauce. For main course, we were served tournedos Rossini, a dish said to have been created for the Italian composer. This classic preparation of filet mignon was topped with pan fried foie gras and a sliver of black truffle. The dessert was terrific, a Napoleon of three mousses, with truffles and chocolate-covered strawberries for anyone who had room. Lemoncello and espresso were also offered.

If we had a criticism, and it’s a small one, it’s that the overall menu was a bit too rich for our taste—there were three courses infused with cream, plus the very hearty beef. Most of us didn’t finish the entrée. But it was still a special experience and we’d recommend it, particularly for foodies.

Crab Shack & Fondues

On two nights of our cruise the aft port side corner of Horizon Court was set aside for a pair of dining concepts that are new to the Princess fleet, both carrying a $20 surcharge. On one night it was Crab Shack and we arrived to find the buffet venue’s tables covered in brown butcher paper with a “Crab Shack” logo splashed across, and crayons provided for drawing. This set the stage for an informal meal, a bit like a clambake, perhaps.

The appetizer for the evening was popcorn shrimp and hush puppies, which arrived with dipping sauces—tarter sauce and a “Bayou-style” rémoulade. The shrimp were succulent, piping hot and engulfed with tasty batter. This was followed by a robust Manhattan style clam chowder, which we enjoyed, and then our choice of four entrées. These included a clam and mussel pot, peel and eat shrimp in old bay, and the Bayou-style Mud Bug boil. We chose the Royal’s Mixed Steamer, a metal bowl loaded with snow crab legs, jumbo shrimp, clams, mussels and kielbasa, along with a half-ear of corn on the cob and a few new potatoes. It was a scrumptious and messy feast—fortunately a plastic bib was provided to protect our clothes. The meal finished with a cheesecake swirled with caramel—it was okay, but not as special as what had preceded.

On another night, this corner was converted into Fondues, and we won’t make you guess what was on offer. Starters included a chopped salad, a charcuterie platter, and a German potato pancake with cured salmon. We chose the latter, which was served with horseradish cream and sprigs of dill. A shot of kirschwasser—cherry brandy—arrived just before main course, which was a choice of three fondues. There was a traditional Swiss cheese fondue of gruyère and emmental, and another made with sparkling wine and served with bread and chicken morsels. We chose the Bavarian cheddar and beer fondue, which came with rye bread and slices of bratwurst. The dish was quite hearty (we could barely finish it), though it struck us as a bit ordinary, especially considering the up-charge. For dessert there was chocolate fondue served with marshmallows, strawberries and pineapple, or mandel knuspergeback—traditional German almond crisps our waiter recommended against. We opted for the Viennese apple strudel served with vanilla cream, which was marginally satisfying.

We had the same waiter on both evenings here, and he was a gem—upbeat and thoroughly attentive. And on both nights we were impressed that all hot food came out just so (having an open kitchen just a few feet from the tables helps). We fully enjoyed our Crab Shack meal and would recommend it, but the fondue meal was less interesting.

In-Room Dining

On Royal Princess, room service was available 24 hours, with no charge for delivery. The breakfast menu was continental (cold) except for an English muffin with egg, bacon and cheese, served hot in a foil wrapper. The balance of the menu was cold packaged cereals, yogurt, fruit, bread roll, croissant or Danish (with preserves), along with juices, coffee and tea. Breakfast was available any time from 6:30 to 10:30 a.m.

We ordered breakfast one morning using the card hung on the door the night before, requesting delivery for between 8 and 8:30 a.m. We were out on our balcony that morning enjoying the arrival into port, and apparently the delivery was attempted around 7:45 a.m. With no response to their knock, the server returned the order to the galley. A phone call came at 8 a.m. and we were asked if we wanted our order; the order was redelivered at 8:10 a.m. When we asked why the order arrived so early we were told there were many orders for 8 a.m. and they couldn’t deliver them all at once. Unfortunately, when breakfast arrived our egg sandwich was lukewarm—even the coffee (in a thermos) was no longer hot. There was no cream for the coffee (apparently, one has to check it off on the order form, though sugar was automatically delivered).

The all-day menu included three salads (mixed garden greens, Caesar with chicken strips and Chef’s), soup of the day, a half-dozen sandwiches ranging from vegetarian to club house, hot dog, hamburgers, croquet monsieur, lasagna and a Moroccan vegetable crock pot with pita. Desserts included flan, chocolate fudge cake and a chocolate chip cookie.

We ordered lunch shortly after noon one day and were asked to allow 20 to 30 minutes for delivery—the knock on the door came just 16 minutes later. Soup of the day was abondigas, and despite one little meatball it was tasty, faintly spicy (this was also the soup of the day at the buffet upstairs). Our vegetarian sandwich was thick with iceberg lettuce, but also a few thin slices of avocado; the bread had been toasted and the edges sliced off. We were offered a side of potato chips, French fries or coleslaw; we chose the latter but found it to be heavily lathered in mayo and didn’t finish it. Otherwise, it was a decent light meal, and it arrived exactly as ordered.

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