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Cruiseopolis

The humongous Grand Princess, latest in the 'biggest ship' sweepstakes, is a veritable floating city

June 21, 1998|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

ABOARD THE GRAND PRINCESS — 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.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday July 5, 1998 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 4 Travel Desk 2 inches; 52 words Type of Material: Correction
Big cruise ships--Due to an editing error in the story "Cruiseopolis" (June 21), a silhouette in a graphic illustration comparing large passenger liners incorrectly depicted one ship as the Queen Elizabeth 2. The silhouette, which showed two smokestacks, was of the original Queen Elizabeth, which sank in Hong Kong in 1972. The Queen Elizabeth 2 has one smokestack.

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.

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