Last week I toured Princess Cruises' new Royal Princess, still under construction near Venice, Italy. At 141,000-gross tons, she's the biggest Princess ship and the largest cruise ship ever built in Italy. Her inaugural sailing is June 13 from Southampton, England. She is 1083-feet long, 17 decks tall, has 3600 lower and 780 upper berths. The “ship’s horn” plays the first two stanzas from the "The Love Boat" TV-show theme song: “Love, exciting and new; Come aboard, we’re expecting you.” (See the video here.)

Here is a sneak peak at the Royal Princess.

Royal Princess – and a Regal sister

Approaching the Fincantieri shipyard we saw two ships under construction; Regal Princess is the younger sister to Royal Princess, not scheduled to debut until June, 2014. Only seven months along she appeared rather skeletal, like a honeycomb waiting for worker bees.
But the nearly completed Royal Princess was started two years ago, and on the outside she only appeared to need a good scrubbing. As we approached, industrial cranes towered hundreds of feet over our heads. We donned hard hats and crossed a tenuous gangway supported by wooden beams.

Inside were hundreds of rugged Italian men toiling diligently. I have seen ships under construction before, so I know how much is done at the very last minute, but this interior seemed far from complete -- no carpet, exposed ceiling ducts, few finished surfaces, holes with wires dangling everywhere, scribbling (in Italian) all over the unpainted walls, and fixtures still sitting on pallets.
But we accompanied by the ship’s designers; Teresa Anderson (from Princess) and Giacomo Mortola (a Genoa-based independent) using renderings and blueprints as visual aids to their narrative.

Royal Princess – First Sights

“The good news is the elevator is working,” said our leader, Rai Calouri, Princess' executive vice president of fleet operations. We rode up to deck 14 and walked forward to the navigation bridge. When finished, this bridge will resemble that of the Starship Enterprise, but we only saw dozens of technicians reading blueprints and manuals, ready to connect computer screens, steering mechanisms, and control panels for fire doors and smoke detectors. The captain’s chair and “wheel” were dead center, elevated for a better view. Behind us was a “safe-room” style situation center with redundant navigation systems and surveillance monitors -- ready for lockdown.

Beyond the Bridge

Cruise ship bridges are fascinating, but our “Star Trek” reverie was broken when Calouri reminded us that an entire ship awaited inspection. We ascended two more stories to the Lido deck (deck 16), where many of the best new Royal Princess features will appear.

All Princess ships feature big screen “Movies under the Stars” (aka MUTS), but the Royal Princess screen will be 30 percent larger than any other at sea. Below the screen are two swimming pools separated by an elevated “island” platform with 85 computer-controlled fountains that can shoot dancing water 33 feet in the air.  These fountains, combined with a sophisticated sound and light system including lasers, will offer computer-generated water, sound and light shows nightly.

A Bigger and Better Lido

Aft are two connected Lido restaurants that together can seat 1,400 people, including 200 tables for two -- almost twice the size the corresponding eateries on other Princess ships. The first, Horizon Bistro, will feature cuisine theme nights like Brazilian churrascaria or pub fare. Self-service is provided from dedicated “action stations” for easy access. Guests in bathing suits are welcome for “grab and go” food like sandwiches, yogurt and pastry.

The second, Horizon Court, offers five meat carveries, a rotisserie, five soups, hibachi grills, pasta and salad bars and more. Calouri was especially proud of the only Lido pastry kitchen at sea with a 24-hour dedicated chef and staff baking fresh croissants, waffles and French toast for breakfast, classic desserts for lunch and dinner, and flambé in the evening – including a fountain of chocolate.

The Sanctuary - Ultimate Indulgence

The Sanctuary and the Retreat Pool, fully forward on deck 17, are tranquility areas for adults only. Access will cost $15 for a half day or $25 for a full day. Inside are four Sanctuary Cabanas, an additional $80 per half-day, include a TV, robe and slippers, welcome cocktail and healthy snacks (dried fruit and nuts). Two other cabanas contain massage tables for couples; prices based on the treatments selected.

Cabana dwellers can also order a gourmet picnic; a premium bottle of wine paired with antipasti, artisan sandwiches, pizza and fresh-baked desserts. These come in $40, $60 or $80 options, all good for two people. All cabanas have Wi-Fi access, and all devices have headsets to maintain the tranquility.

Seawalk and Seaview Bar

Deck 16 contains a special thrill: The SeaWalk, a structural outcropping that takes guests 28-feet beyond the edges of the ship, with a glass floor showing the 128-foot drop to the open ocean below. For balance, the opposite side of the ship has its own outcrop with glass floor as part of the SeaView Bar. The view below should keep drinkers in their seats.

New Dining Experiences

Princess has always featured smaller, quieter dining rooms to give the ship a more intimate feeling. One of the Royal Princess dining rooms, Concerto, will offer a unique dining experience called “Chef’s Table Lumiere.” Once guests are seated, a curtain of thousands of fiber-optic light strands descends from the ceiling glowing with soft colors. Dinner is a wine-paired tasting menu. Similarly, the Symphony and Allegro Dining Rooms feature a private dining experience called the “Wine Cellar,” where up to 12 guests will enjoy a special menu developed by noted winemakers pairing their best vintages with classic carved meats like crown of veal rack, lamb Baron and veal rack a l’Orlov.

Sabatini’s – the signature “tasting-menu” Italian restaurant on all Princess ships -- has some new twists on Royal Princess. Guests can order a la carte for dinner, and also get lunch there for the first time. Another first is the Pub Lunch to be served in the Wheelhouse Bar and adjacent Crown Grill, consisting of traditionally British fish-and-chips or bangers and mash.

Novel and Handy Entertainment Features

Royal Princess is unique in the entertainment department.  The ship will introduce a new concept called “Princess Live!” – essentially a TV studio that broadcasts to passenger staterooms day and night. The programming day will start with a morning show, followed by visits from officers, entertainers, enrichment speakers and more until midnight. No cruise ship has ever tried this, and

Calouri says the goal is “never more than 15 minutes without something on the air.”
Another first will be the free “Intranet” access from any Wi-Fi capable device, allowing users to see the daily schedules, read about entertainment, ports of call, and other ship details. Going a step further is the no-charge interactive TV in every stateroom. You will be able to pull up TV shows and movies on demand – and never pay a surcharge.

The main Princess Theater showroom is the largest on any Princess vessel. The other usual Princess venues -- the Vista Lounge, Crooner’s Lounge and the Wheelhouse Bar, are all bigger and better.

The Atrium – Real Life “Social Networking”

Most Princess ships have atriums, but the piazza here is twice the size, and restyled as a social hub where guests can gather for coffee, gelato, sweet treats, fine wine, pizza, martinis, cabaret-style entertainment and more. The key is opening up the surrounding venues -- like visiting a vibrant European city center.

There are restaurants like Alfredo’s Pizzeria, Vines Wine Bar, and Gelato. The International Café for coffee and free pastry is open 24 hours a day. Other charmers will be Vines, a wine-tasting bar that will also serve tapas; and Ocean Terrace for sushi, ceviche and caviar, overlooking the Atrium on deck 7.

Booking Royal Princess

When bookings for Royal Princess opened last March, the line had its busiest sales day ever. The maiden season includes the most popular Princess European itinerary, the Grand Mediterranean. On October 9 she heads across the Atlantic to home port in Fort Lauderdale.

The first four cruises are sold out. Later 12-day Mediterranean cruises start at $2,190 per person, or $3,395 for balcony cabins. From November 3 to April 20, 2014, she will be sailing the eastern Caribbean at rates from $754 for inside and $949 balcony. Next summer she visits the Baltic Sea.