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A NEW BID FOR CARIBBEAN THRONE

For some time, Princess Cruises has longed to take a bigger role in the Caribbean. Traditionally, the "Love Boat" line sailed primarily from the nation's West Coast.

Now, with the advent of its newest and biggest ship, the 951-foot Caribbean Princess, the line is making its move. Princess has assigned the 19-deck vessel to year-round Caribbean cruises out of Port Everglades and has stocked it with amenities and services designed especially for passengers cruising this region.

Among them are movies on an open deck, a special stage show featuring Caribbean music and a new dining area offering Caribbean specialties. Princess also has stationed the Golden Princess for year-round Caribbean sailings and will have eight ships cruising the Caribbean this winter.

Its new Movies Under the Stars program was an instant hit. Weather permitting, the Caribbean Princess shows films twice nightly on a 300-square-foot LED screen on the pool deck.

It's the informality of the showings that seems to charm passengers. They sit or lie on chaise lounges and snack on free popcorn or can buy candy such as Sour Jacks and Twizzlers for $1.95.

"Just like home!" exclaimed one passenger as she snuggled under the blankets provided by attendants to ward off the open-deck breeze.

Admission is by ticket (they are free but limited by the number of chaises available. The only drawback we found during a viewing this summer was that the chaise and blanket were so comfortable that we, among others, nodded off during the film.

Princess says reaction has been so positive to on-deck movies that it will install similar programs on all its ships.

Also created especially for the Caribbean Princess, a new stage show leans heavily on Caribbean music and features songs made famous by Ricky Martin, Enrique Iglesias, Gloria Estefan and Bob Marley.

The ship's Cafe Caribe has such specialties as grilled rock lobster, jerk chicken and Guiana pepperpots. It's a blend of buffet and tablecloth service, with live music nightly.

Caribbean food, of course, is just one option onboard. The ship also has the Sterling Steakhouse, an attractive alternative restaurant with a charge of $15 per person. Diners can choose from six steak entrees or prime rib. Both the food and service were excellent.

Oddly, most of the decor of the steakhouse, including a pair of saddles at the door, is Southwestern. The reason: On Princess' earlier ships, this space featured Southwest dining, and there wasn't enough time for the shipyard to change the decor (except for the murals) on this ship.

The other alternative restaurant, Sabatini's Trattoria, also features superior food and service. But here, diners are served a sample of every dish, including appetizers, pizza courses and Italian entrees.

For those who want exclusive dining, the Caribbean Princess offers the Ultimate Balcony Dinner, another industry first. For $50 per person, passengers can dine on their cabin's balcony (and there are 881 cabins that have balconies.) A waiter serves a four-course lobster meal that also boasts cocktails, fresh flowers and champagne.

Beyond these special dining venues, I thought the regular dining rooms' food was a cut above the cruise ship norm. Passengers can take the evening meal at any time in the Coral and Island rooms, though there was often a wait for tables between 7 and 8 p.m. The Palm dining room operates in the traditional cruise ship manner, with assigned first and second seatings (6:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.). The Horizon Court buffet restaurant on the Lido deck is open 24 hours.

Princess has taken what was a secondary lounge on its earlier ships and made it into a multipurpose room named Fusion. It is used for culinary demonstrations, bingo, a makeover show and a TV-style reality show called Princess Idol.

A surprise for me was the modest cost of drinks, another factor that should help the cruise line solidify a niche in the Caribbean. Though domestic beers cost $3.25 and imports $3.50 _ about the same as on other cruise ships _ mixed drinks are considerably lower. A drink made with Johnny Walker Black, for example, is $4.25, compared with $5.50 on Carnival and Royal Caribbean ships.

One of the most pleasant areas onboard is the sports complex at the bow of Deck 17. Under a large canvas roof, guests can play paddle tennis in a screened-in court, test their skill at pingpong tables or their mental acumen at a king-sized chess set, or watch the action in the spa swimming pool a deck below.

Though this ship can carry 3,100 passengers using just the bottom two beds per cabin (a whopping 3,782 passengers using all the available berths), it did not feel crowded.

"Where are all the people?" wondered first-time cruisers Bonnie and Doug Sawle of Camrose, Alberta, who had expected to encounter lines onboard.

For the Sawles, the cruise more than met their expectations. "We were impressed with little touches, like the way the staff greets you in hallways," said Bonnie Sawle.

They were less happy, however, with various surcharges _ for soft drinks and dining in alternative restaurants, for example _ typical aboard many ships now.

More pleased were clients of the Lotus Spa. Not only were some of the treatments innovative, but their costs in many cases were lower than on other ships. Spa users can relax on heated lounges in the thermal suite at no extra charge, and the spa pool has an adjustable current flow against which guests can swim.

The line also offers online reservations of spa treatments, another new procedure for the industry. Once passengers have booked their cruise, they can choose and reserve spa treatments on the Internet, along with shore excursions.

Internet reservations may be a boon for passengers, but the Internet service onboard was not. More than a few passengers were upset by aggravatingly slow service, especially since they were paying 35 cents a minute for it. (Guests who have six Princess cruises under their belt and are Captain's Circle platinum members get free access.)

The ship has three show lounges, duty-free shops, a casino, a cigar bar and a nine-hole putting course.

If you go

The Caribbean Princess sails seven-night cruises departing on alternative weeks from Port Everglades to the eastern and western Caribbean.

There are numerous fare options depending on cabin category and season. To get more information or make reservations, contact a travel agent or Princess: www.princess.com or call toll-free 1-800-774-6237.

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