Ship Reviews

Ship Review: Sapphire Princess

Sapphire Princess is a midsized cruise ship and you feel it the moment you board, with an easy to remember layout, super-helpful staff, and enough space to cater to the increasingly varied tastes and demands of the modern cruise industry – despite her advanced age.

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Boarding Sapphire Princess in Dubai during her annual turnaround in the city, one of the first things you notice is that she’s a ship that looks larger than she is, because although 116,000-gross tons is certainly big, it’s actually midsize in the modern cruise fleet.

Based on the Grand-class cruise ships, which were first introduced in 1998 and were at the time the largest and most expensive cruise ships ever built, Sapphire Princess occupies that sweet spot between large enough for a few bells and whistles, but small enough to be easily navigable.

In fact, during a single afternoon aboard we were able to easily orientate ourselves and figure out where her primary public spaces are without the aid of a deck plan. And while she may be 15 years old (middle aged by cruise ship standards), she doesn’t look it, thanks to a major refurbishment in 2012, and a nip-and-tuck refit in 2018.

She has one of the best kids clubs (Camp Discovery) at sea, as do most of the larger Princess cruise ships, and many design elements harken back to an older age of cruising – the deck doors to the promenade for example have the old-fashioned antechamber design, like an airlock, to prevent water getting into the ship in bad weather. And her Wheelhouse Bar & Lounge is one of the most nautically-focused we’ve seen on any ship, even Queen Mary 2.

The Wheelhouse Bar aboard Sapphire Princess

It’s just one of fifteen bars and two lounges aboard the ship, many of which were added during her extensive 2012 refit, along with the Movies Under the Stars and the towering nightclub that occupies the trademark ‘bridge’ across her stern.

The ship is easy to navigate because the 2012 refurbishment put the Piazza at the heart of all the entertainment aboard. It’s a meeting point, eatery, bar and shopping area all in one, and because of this it’s always busy and full of shipboard life. It’s also where you go for guest relations, shore excursions and so on.

The circular, three-deck space also doubles as an entertainment hub, with nightly music and occasional acrobats. It’s the only space on-board that ever feels crowded, and as more and more passengers boarded the ship in Dubai or returned from shore excursions, it became a buzzing hive of activity.

Central Piazza aboard Sapphire Princess

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On most midsize to large cruise ships, the same could also be said of the main dining room during the dinner service, but Sapphire Princess has no main dining room. Instead she has five dining venues that are assigned depending on your stateroom, with the combined total serving as the MDR hub. It creates a more intimate and personal atmosphere, but passengers who like the dramatic double-deck atrium of a grand dining room at sea may find them a little too cozy.

Dining aboard Sapphire Princess

Princess Cruises has always strived to set itself apart with the quality of its food, and aboard Sapphire Princess the standard is particularly high and varied for a ship this size. This is true of both the complimentary and specialty dining options.

There is one main dining room, which is split into five different small restaurants, all of which have their own unique ambiance and décor, but offer the exact same menu, cooked in the same kitchen.

There are two specialty dining experiences (Sterling Steakhouse and Crab Shack) but they’re not served in a dedicated space, but rather in one of the main dining rooms or a corner of the Horizon Court Buffet.

Sabatini’s, an Italian dining experience, is the only dedicated specialty restaurant on-board, and can be found on Deck 7.

The main dining rooms:

There are the Savoy and Vivaldi on Deck 5 aft, Pacific Moon and Santa Fe on Deck 6 midships and The International on Deck 6, occupying the full beam aft. Because of the placement of the kitchen, you have to go to Deck 7 to get to the aft dining rooms, which can make the photo gallery area between Explorer’s Lounge and Club Fusion crowded during meal times.

Santa Fe Dining Room aboard Sapphire Princess

Savoy, Pacific Moon and Santa Fe are for passengers on Princess Cruises’ flexible “Anytime Dining” option, with dinner running from 5:30 to 9:30pm every night rather than in set sittings like Vivaldi, where you can eat at 5.30pm with the same tablemates and waiters, or on “Anytime Dining” from 7.30 to 9.30pm.

International Dining Room aboard Sapphire Princess

The International is the only dining room that offers traditional seating at both sittings first at 5:30 and then at 8 pm. This is also the only one of the restaurants serving breakfast and lunch, also in an open seating style, but Santa Fe is where you’ll need to go for Afternoon Tea every day between 3.30 and 4.30pm.

It should be noted that although Princess Cruises offer a wide selection of vegetarian options there aren’t any halal or vegan choices on the main dining room menus.

The buffets, pizzerias and poolside grill:

The ship’s buffet is the Horizon Court up on Deck 14 to port and starboard of the funnel, just aft of the Calypso Reef & Pool. It’s huge, so it never feels crowded, and the floor-to-ceiling windows make it a bright and inviting space. There’s also some outdoor seating by the Outrigger Bar on the Horizon Terrace aft.

Horizon Court aboard Sapphire Princess

The Horizon Court has buffet stations on both sides, offering the same food and several cooking stations with themed cuisine such as pizza or wok-fried noodles. Breakfast is served in a continental style from 5am to 6am, and a full breakfast from 6 until 11.30am. It then switches directly into lunch, offering the cooking stations and create-your-own sandwiches and build-your-own salads and classics such as burgers, dogs, pasta and roasts.

There’s also a Pastry Shop, serving delicious, freshly made pastries throughout the day and into the evening. Light snacks are served in the afternoon from 3 to 5:30 pm, when it goes directly into the dinner service. The pop-up specialty restaurant Sterling Steakhouse is available aft in the evenings.

Al Fredo’s Pizzeria aboard Sapphire Princess

A Princess favourite, Alfredo’s Pizzeria on Deck 5 (open from 11am to 10pm), can be found off the Piazza, serving capricciosa, Romana and the Sapphire Princess, which includes Parma ham. Pepperoni and margherita options aren’t listed, but they’ll make it for you if you ask.

Also on Deck 5 is the Piazza’s International Café, where you can get a variety of coffees from early in the morning until late at night. There are also a wide and tasty selection of pastries at breakfast, which are replaced with sandwiches wraps and melts for lunch and dinner.

Then there is the Trident Grill and Prego up on Deck 14. Trident is the poolside grill offering grab-and-go options like hot dogs, cheeseburgers, veggie burgers and chicken sandwiches from 11am to 5pm. Prego is the ship’s second pizzeria, but its more of a counter than a sit-down restaurant, open from 11am to 11pm.

When it comes to the extra-charge dining options, they’re fairly limited for a ship this size. Sabatini’s is the only permanent one. Located on Deck 7, there’s a US $29 charge for its pastas, seafood and meat dishes, which are spectacular.

The pop-up specialty dining experiences:

Starting with Sterling Steakhouse (US $29 for adults, US $14.50 for children) the chops, steaks and lobster, all served with a selection of sides including delicious garlic and herb French fries, are all fantastic. There’s also seafood appetizers like shrimps, scallops, and mussels that are some of the best on any cruise ship (or land for that matter). But the major drawback is the location. Located in one corner of the Horizon Court buffet, there’s none of the atmosphere of a specialty dining experience.

Also in the Horizon Court (but only once a week rather than nightly) is the Crab Shack (US $29 for adults), which is more laid-back and involves bibs and crab-crackers. Diners are served popcorn shrimp in a basket, followed by soup, and get to choose from “Bayou-style Mad Dog Boil,” which includes crawfish and corn on the cob, or steamed Alaskan king crab legs, a mixed steamer, or a shrimp pot for the main.

Not so much a specialty dining option as an a la carte treat, the poolside ice cream parlor Swirls on Deck 14 offers frozen yogurt sundaes for US $5 that you can create yourself by selecting a flavor and toppings. It also provides soft-serve ice-cream for free throughout the day.

Last but not least is Princess Cruises’ popular Chef’s Table and Ultimate Balcony Dining.

Chef’s Table costs US $95 and includes a personal, behind-the-scenes galley tour (including hors d’ouevres) with the head chef, followed by a six-course wine-pairing dinner. It usually happens twice on every cruise of a week or more.

The Ultimate Balcony Dining experience can be done for either breakfast or dinner, with both costing US $100. Dinner includes a four-course meal, a half-bottle of sparkling wine, a pre-dinner cocktail and a photo portrait, while breakfast includes a chilled half-bottle of Champagne, an assortment of fresh fruit and pastries (such as Princess’ Norman Love chocolate bites), as well as smoked salmon and quiche.

Entertainment & Bars aboard Sapphire Princess

From bow to stern, there is always something happening aboard Sapphire Princess. Starting up front is the 705-seat theatre, where production shows, and special performances by guest entertainers are held.

There’s a 270-panel LED wall that’s used in some of these productions, and a black curtain in-laid with thousands of fibre-optic lights to create a constellation effect at the end of each show, which is very nice. Unlike on a lot of cruise ships, there is a beverage service within the theatre itself, although pre- and post-show drinks can also be had at Churchill’s on Deck 6, the ship’s designated smoking lounge.

Churchill’s Smoking Lounge

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The Explorer’s Lounge on Deck 7, with its wonderfully African safari decor, is the ship’s other main venue for evening entertainment and live music. In fact live music is to be found everywhere aboard the ship in the evenings. There are various classical musical recitals throughout the day and then dance numbers in the evening in the Piazza, as well as a live band in the Wheelhouse Bar and Crooners Lounge (both on Deck 7).

The wonderfully Safari-inspired Explorer’s Lounge

If you love karaoke, head aft to Club Fusion on Deck 7, where there’s karaoke roulette, Princess Pop Star and Welcome Aboard Karaoke on various nights on each cruise. Up top on the pool deck there’s a traditional sail-away party at the start of every cruise, and Movies Under the Stars almost every night.

At the Captains Welcome Aboard Party in the Piazza there’s a champagne waterfall and various game show-type events such as Musical Charades or Majority Rules Gameshow are held almost every night of each cruise.

On Deck 6 just forward of the ship’s fairly large retail area is the Grand Casino, which is huge for a ship this size.

Reflecting Sapphire Princess’ annual cruise season in Asia, the casino has an oriental flare that leans more toward the elegance of the east than the glitz of Macau. There are an abundance of slot machines and gaming tables and chips can be charges to cabin accounts.

Bars & Lounges aboard Sapphire Princess:

Sapphire Princess has 14 bars and lounges, but some of the bars are so small or hidden away that you could easily spend a week on the ship and be unaware of it, such as the charming Wake View Bar on Deck 6 aft.

It’s only accessible via the spiral staircase at the back of Club Fusion one deck up. This is a quiet place during the day to have a cocktail or read a book away from the music that predominates the ship. At night though, it’s dominated by the music from Club Fusion, but is a nice spot to catch your breath.

Vine’s Wine Bar aboard Sapphire Princess (Image courtesy Cruiseable)

Off the bottommost level of the Piazza is the elegant wood-paneled Vines wine bar, with more than 30 varieties on offer, as well as free tapas and sushi. Wine blending and wine tasting also takes place here on some days during the cruise, led by an experienced sommelier. The 45-minute session is a lot of fun of sniffing, swirling and experimenting and only costs US $15 per person (or US $37 if you include cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, a merlot and a Malbec).

Also off the Piazza is the eponymous Bar Piazza, which is open during the day, but remains nice and quiet for watching the sea from the large windows or having a coffee while catching up on emails or reading. At night, it’s quiet popular as a pre-dinner drinks spot, with live music to boot.

Some of the bars we’ve already mentioned, but in the interests of being thorough – Churchill’s is one deck up and all the way forward by the theatre. It’s the only smoking lounge on-board, but doubles up as a sports bar for satellite broadcasts of various sporting events.

Another deck up to 7, and all the way aft, is Club Fusion, the ship’s dance club, with a huge dancefloor and 42 high-definition video screens. Club Fusion is just aft of Explorer’s Lounge, where the nighttime fun is a little less frenetic than Club Fusion, with cabaret shows, magicians and comedians.

Further forward still on Deck 7 is Crooner’s Bar, overlooking the atrium from the topmost level. It specializes in a huge selection of cocktails and although it’s fairly small, it has a nice intimate atmosphere, complimented by a live piano and occasional vocals.

Forward of the atrium is the unashamedly old school Wheelhouse Bar, a signature location aboard every Princess ship. It has a colonial gentleman’s club feel to it, complimented by a decidedly masculine nautical theme, with maritime décor and historical artworks above almost every table. There’s live jazz music here that picks up incrementally as the evening progresses, especially after the last theatre showing.

Moving up to Deck 14, there are three bar areas, all of which serve the three pool areas and sundecks. Outrigger Bar aft overlooks the aft pool and is a great spot for watching the sunset or sunrise, with a number of tables arranged in a horseshoe overlooking the pool.

Mermaid’s Tail Bar

Further forward, Calypso Bar services Sapphire Princess’ covered Calypso Reef conservatory, with a magrodome roof that can be opened or closed depending on the weather. And serving the main pool area (Neptune’s Reef) is the Mermaid’s Tail Bar. One deck up from here is Tradewinds, for the ship’s sundeck, and further up still, but at the aft end, is the small Oasis Bar, serving sunbathers and the hot tubs overlooking Outriggers.

Calypso Bar

And leaving (arguably) the best for last, is Skywalkers Nightclub all the way up on Deck 17. This bar is a cocktail lounge by afternoon and early evening and a busy club scene later on. It has a 125-foot balcony and dramatic floor-to-ceiling windows that provide ideal views during the day or night, and because it actually hangs over the ship’s wake, it’s a great spot for pictures.

Skywalker’s Night Club (Image courtesy Katherine Armstrong)

It’s the most avante garde of Sapphire’s bars and lounges, with a outer space décor that includes stars, swirls and brass table lamps with miniature moon-shaped cutouts. It works better than it sounds.

Pools & Spa aboard Sapphire Princess

There are more pools aboard Sapphire Princess than you’d initially think. Five in total (if you count the kids-only splash pool). Like her bars, some of them are hidden away, like the adults-only pool just below The Sanctuary on Deck 15, which might seem like it’s part of The Sanctuary or Lotus Spa, but is actually open to everyone.

The Conservatory

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Down below on Deck 14 is the spacious open-air Neptune’s Reef & Pool, with colourful mosaics and lots of space for sunbathing. It’s the ship’s only full-size outdoor pool and sits forward of the indoor Calypso Reef & Pool, covered by a retractable crystal magrodome in an area called The Conservatory.

Neptune’s Pool

Another out-of-the-way swimming spot is the Terrace Pool on Deck 12 all the way aft (serviced by the Outrigger Bar). And while not strictly a pool area, the sundeck on Deck 16 aft has two hot tubs and a bar and is almost always quiet and calm for relaxing in the sun. Another great sundeck is on Deck 18 above Skywalkers, but is has no bar or hot tubs.  At the other end of the ship you’ll find more sunbathing around and just above the Deck 16 adults-only pool.

Much of Deck 16’s outdoor space is given over to Princess Cruises’ Sanctuary, which takes swimming and sunbathing to the next level with thickly cushioned loungers, massage cabanas, signature beverages, complimentary light meals and on-call stewards. It can be yours for US $20 for half a day and US $40 for a full day.

Spa & Gym aboard Sapphire Princess

Sapphire Princess features the cruise line’s signature Lotus Spa, a space infused with Asian themes and décor, which is never tacky or over the top because Sapphire Princess was actually built in Japan.

The entire spa complex was refurbished in 2018 ahead of the ship’s return to Europe, and offers 16 treatment rooms in total. Treatments include a wide range of massages and facials, priced from relatively affordable to quite expensive (for the Dubai crowd, a 24-karat Gold Facial is US $325 for 90 minutes).

The spa also features a Thermal Suite with two steam rooms, a sauna and heated tile loungers. Entrance costs US $99 per person, per week or US $179 per couple, or US $20 for a day. If you don’t want to pay this, but still use a steamroom, there’s a small one in both gym changing rooms that can be used for free.

The gym itself is fairly high-tech for a ship of Sapphire Princess’ age, with 35 cardio machines, 17 weight-training stations and 12 spinning cycles. Various fitness and spinning classes are offered throughout the cruise, from four Boot Camp sessions for US $120 to pilates for US $12 per hour. Some free classes are held early in the morning, along with feet and posture seminars.

Kids & Teens facilities aboard Sapphire Princess

Princess Cruises has made a huge effort to considerably up its game in the family cruising market in recent years and now offers a range of outstanding kids and teens facilities and programs.

Aboard Sapphire Princess its no different, she features the Camp Discovery series of clubs for babies, kids and teens that is the result of the line’s partnership with Discovery Communications (which includes the Discovery Channel, Animal Planet and Discovery for Kids), and provides enhanced entertainment with a bit of education as well.

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Sapphire Princess also offers family meals, interconnecting cabins, a port-day drop off at the kids’ club and family activities such as family discos. During her 2018 refurbishment, the kids’ club spaces were completely overhauled.

The Treehouse

The Treehouse and The Lodge (one for kids 3 to 7, and the other for those between 8 and 12) are both located high up on Deck 15 and are flooded with natural light with an outdoor play area and even a splash pool. Under 3s can also go into the Treehouse, but they have to be accompanied by an adult.

The Treehouse has a climbing frame, a soft play area and a mini-theater, as well as tables and chairs and one whole wall fitted with monitors for gaming. There are also plenty of books and arts and crafts and typical activities offered might be learning magic tricks, dressing up, a disco, drawing, colouring and themed afternoons connected with Animal Planet. All 3- to 7-year-olds must be signed in and out of the program by a parent or guardian, while at The Lodge the children can come and go as they please.

The Lodge

This section for 8 to 12 year olds has a round dance-floor-type space and a circle of interconnecting chairs and foosball and air hockey. The main winner among this age group will be the plethora of monitors for video games, but there’s also a small library and arts and crafts on offer. Activities include giant Connect Four, bingo, trivia and design challenges, as well as sports games on the Sports Court.

Both of these spaces are open from 9am to noon, and then from 1pm to 5pm, and then from 6pm to 10pm on seadays. On port days, its open from 8am to 5pm and 6pm to 10pm. Private baby sitting isn’t available on the ship, but there are bookable group sittings for 3 to 12 year olds from 10pm until 1am for US $5 per hour.

The Beach House

Sapphire Princess’ Beach House teens club for 13 to 17 year olds is adjacent to the other kids facilities, but is completely different in design. It looks more like a night club than a kids club, with a dance floor and ‘bar’ serving free mocktails and plenty of seats and sofas. There is a huge TV and several gaming stations. The activities here are more freestyle, without set programming, but there are various events throughout the cruise, such as Scary Movie Night, the Rock the Boat Party, video game challenges, dance competitions and more. The teens using this space are allowed to come and go as they please.

Staterooms aboard Sapphire Princess

Sapphire Princess was designed with a focus on balcony cabins, with around half of all her staterooms featuring a balcony, and more than 70% are outside.

All of the 1,337 cabins on-board were overhauled during the 2018 refit and now have flat-screen TVs on the wall, rather than the shelf, and major cable news networks are screened free, and a massive range of movies are available on demand.

They’re still a little dated though. Although they’re clean and well-maintained, we don’t love the beige walls and dark cherry wood paneling. When you compare it with the stateroom finish aboard the line’s newer ships such as Regal Princess, the difference is amazing.

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None of the cabins have proper double beds, all are twins that can be connected to form a double. There are side tables on the outside of each twin bed and a small table and chair for writing or room service. There’s also a desk area and small fridge.

Unfortunately, Sapphire Princess’ ensuite bathrooms were left as-is during the refurb, so they remain stuck in the 90s, with a clingy plastic curtain for the shower in a small, cramped space.

Interior cabins: Standard interior cabins range from 168 to 182 sqft, with a roomy closet and shelves hidden behind a mirrored door.

There are nine interior cabins classified as accessible, five on Deck 7 and two on Decks 12 and 14. They’re huge, and could even be used as a family cabins as there’s an entrance hall, with three wardrobes, a separate sitting area with a sofa bed and wet bar, and two beds with enough space between them for three side tables and a desk.

Oceanview: There are standard outside cabins and Premier Oceanview cabins. The standard ones are 183 to 194 sqft with an oblong window and walk-in wardrobes opposite the ensuite. The Premium Ocean View cabins are all forward facing and come in at 200 square feet.

Balcony: Balcony staterooms are 237 to 300 sqft and have two chairs, footrests and a small round metal side table on the balconies. Unlike newer ships, the balconies are fairly big. In every other way, these cabins are the same as ocean view. Premium Balcony cabins are identical, but face aft. There are four on Deck 12 and two on Decks 8 through 10.

Club Class Mini-Suite: Sapphire Princess’ mini-suites are 354 sqft and are a larger version of a balcony cabin with a seating area with sofa bed, cocktail table, bathrobes, corner chair, an extra TV and a larger balcony. The balconies aren’t private though, as they jut out from the side of the ship and are completely visible from the decks above.

Club class perks were added during the 2018 refit, such as Club Class Dining in the Santa Fe restaurant – which is an exclusive dinner each evening, and breakfast and lunch on sea days – as well as priority embarkation and disembarkation, complimentary in-cabin wine (and a Terry Shawl robe), priority alternative dining reservations and evening canapes.

There are five different categories of suite aboard Sapphire Princess, ranging from a generous Vista Suite to a massive Grand Suite. No matter which category you’re in, you’ll get a range of suite perks to enhance the cruise experience. Princess Cruises hasn’t yet joined the ship-within-a-ship luxury enclave trend yet, but this comes pretty close.

Suite passengers get priority embarkation and disembarkation in port as well as when tendering and an exclusive disembarkation lounge, as well as priority for shore excursion bookings and specialty dining reservations. You’ll also get a complimentary photo shoot with one of the ship’s photographers and complimentary same-day laundry and professional cleaning services, such as shoe polishing. There’s a VIP line at the guest service desk for suite guests, and golf umbrellas for use during the cruise and a cruise card wallet to take home.

Vista: All the Vista Suites are located on Decks 8, 9 and 10 and are all aft-facing. They’re 525 to 548 sqft with decent-sized balconies that include two loungers, four chairs and a table. There’s also a separate sitting area, walk-in wardrobe and bathtub with a shower in the ensuite.

Penthouse: Located on Decks 10 and 11, there suites are 525 to 572 sqft and have the same large balcony and sitting room as the Vistas, but also come with a dining table for four.

Owners: As is proper, there is just one Owners Suite. Located on Deck 11, its 692 sqft and has an aft-facing balcony, along with a sitting room, dining room and walk-in wardrobe.

Premium: There are five 705 sqft Premium Suites, all facing forward; one on Deck 12 and two at the front on Decks 10 and 11.

Grand Suite: Sapphire Princess’ 1,100 sqft Grand Suite is aft-facing on Deck 11. It has a bedroom, dining room and sitting room with a sofa bed and four chairs. There’s also a writing desk and a bar area. Both the sitting room and bedroom have access to the large terrace, which features another dining table and loungers. It’d be nice if a hot tub had been added here during the refurbishment in 2018. The ensuite bathroom has twin basins and a separate shower stall adjacent the bath.

Sapphire Princess is a contradiction then. She is fairly old in the modern cruise fleet, and is classified as midsize, but feels larger and yet is easy to navigate and has a layout and on-board atmosphere that lends itself to personalized service and passenger camaraderie. But she’s also large enough to offer a range of things to do through the day and night, keeping all ages happy, while still providing that ‘traditional’ cruise experience that is becoming increasingly rare.

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