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The Grand Princess now offers cruises from San Francisco to the Hawaiian Islands, Alaska and the California coast. Where does the Grand Princess dock in the Port of San Francisco? At Pier 35.

When we told our friends that we were going on a mega ship, they bombarded us with questions. "Will it take forever to get on and off? How will you find your way around? Won't there be long line-ups for meals, shows and activities?"

Admittedly, our cruise on the Grand Princess to the Caribbean (its original cruising destination) was an eye-opener. Our first surprise was at the Embarkation Terminal. Twenty desks awaited the 2,600 embarking passengers. It took exactly five minutes from the time we presented our tickets to the time we arrived in our stateroom.

The Grand Princess
The Grand Princess
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Wider than the Panama Canal

Here we found our second surprise. Our roomy cabin had a private balcony — an amazingly intimate spot on a ship that's longer than four New York City blocks. The balcony (one of 710) was a great place for enjoying room-service breakfasts, balmy breezes, tangerine sunsets and spectacular send-offs.

As the Grand Princess gently moved away from the dock, a crowd of onlookers cheered, sounded car and boat horns, and flashed lights on and off in their apartments.

Taller than Niagara Falls, the 109,000 ton Grand Princess is an expensive ship. At $450 million U.S., its cost was nearly twice that of the Pathfinder mission to Mars. The quality shows.

Grand Princess maps

Marble, brass, wood, fresh flowers and a $2 million art collection decorate the ship. Silverware, English china and Frette linens enhance dining tables. The captain and his crew use high-tech controls to manoeuvre the behemoth within an arm's length of designated docking spaces.

Handy pocket maps and colour-coded carpets and signs helped us find our way around. Because passengers spread out in so many public areas, queues and crowds are rare. Each of the lounge and eating areas has plants or curving dividers breaking up the rooms into small spaces.

Kids' activities

Each night we received a newsletter, which outlined the following day's events. Besides relaxing in one of the ship's five pools, we enjoyed a talk about marine animals, country line dance lessons, bridge, bingo and pool games, ping pong and golf putting tournaments.

Children, three-to-seven years old, enjoyed hands-on crafts such as puppet-making in the animal-themed Treehouse. Kids, eight-to-twelve, hung out in The Lodge, which enticed them with miniature golf and mini-Olympic sports.

Except during dinner and evening shows, we saw few teenagers — probably because they were in the surf-themed Beach House Lounge, drinking mocktails, taking dance classes and competing in video game tournaments.

We spent a full day, map in hand, making our own discoveries. The main library of the Grand Princess houses not only 2,000 books, but also computer stations with DVDs, ranging from astronomy to travel. More choices!

Bars and lounges

In Snookers, the pool tables and balls hanging upside down from the ceiling first caught our attention. Then we spotted the autographed red boxing gloves of Muhammad Ali and other sports memorabilia, displayed along the dark wooden walls.

We ordered a couple Strike Outs (butterscotch schnapps, Baileys Irish Cream and cream), and sat down to watch live satellite sports broadcasts on nine TVs.

You can select from 30 wines by the glass in Vines wine bar in the Piazza atrium, or order martinis at Crooners. Coffee is available in the International Café, along with sandwiches, pastries and cookies.

Grand Princess restaurants

Chef displays hors d'oeuvres.
Chef displays hors d'oeuvres.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Should we have dinner in the Da Vinci dining room, the 24-hour buffet at Horizon Court, Alfredo's Pizzeria or the Crown Grill steakhouse? Whatever we tried, we weren't disappointed.

But our decisions didn't end with the choice of restaurant. The Grand Princess dining room menu offers three appetizers, three soups, salad, pasta, four entrées, as well as healthy choice and vegetarian menus.

Items ranged from traditional prime rib and broiled lobster tail to imaginative creations like Long Island duckling in cabernet cassis sauce.

Then there's the dessert menu. (A 24-hour bakery and 180 cooks prepare the 14 tons of food served on the ship each day. A peek into the galley revealed a steamer, as big as one of the ship's nine whirlpools, and four ovens just for baking soufflés.)

On-board entertainment

One day, when we were relaxing by Neptune's Reef and Pool, we decided to stay in our swimsuits and have burgers for lunch at the poolside Trident Grill. A calypso band played Yellow Bird and other island melodies as we ate.

Passengers enjoy Neptune's Reef and Pool.
Passengers enjoy Neptune's Reef & Pool.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

It was only one of several musical groups on board. On one walk about the ship, we heard the Grand Princess musicians playing the Blue Danube in the Piazza atrium, a cabaret singer in the Crooner's Lounge, a trio creating romantic music in the Wheelhouse Bar, a 50s sock hop in the Explorers Lounge and dance music in One5 Lounge on the 15th deck.

Shows and movies

The casino lured us in with holographic images of fish, seashells and coral and a fiber-optic ceiling that changed from dawn to dusk every twenty minutes.

Entertainment included Las Vegas-style shows, with energetic performers in feathered costumes, laser light displays and a hypnotist. From comedy shows to outdoor movies, we saw two or three performances each night, in a futile attempt to see them all. Invariably, we slept in the following morning, missing our power walk around the ship.

No problem. The Grand Princess fitness program offered step aerobics, thigh-toning, body-sculpting and supervised gym activities throughout the day. (The equipment is top notch.) At the Lotus Spa, we burned up calories in the swim-against-the current lap pool, then relaxed with top-to-toe massages.

Cruise shore excursions

An excellent selection of shore excursions tempted us off the Grand Princess. When we returned from our ports-of-call, we wondered how the crew knew all passengers were back on board.

On embarkation, they gave us cruise cards to use as room keys and charge cards for onboard purchases. A camera captured our photos on a computer database, which the cards access when swiped through the machine when we reboarded.

Each day we returned in time to check e-mails using WiFi in the Grand Princess Internet café, play on the golf simulator and enjoy cocktails at the Oasis Bar.

On our last evening at sea, we watched the sunset paint the sky with broad brushstrokes of apricot and raspberry. We didn't stay on our balcony too long, because there were so many things left to see and do.

We can't wait to experience the shore excursions from Grand Princess cruises departing from San Francisco. The only problem will be deciding if we should book a cruise to Alaska, Hawaii or the California coast.


Grand Princess: www.princess.com