There is always something grand and stirring about the introduction of a new ship, no matter if we think we’ve seen it all before and it is just the latest in a sequence of similar vessels.

The ship in this instance, the Ruby Princess, is the latest evolutionary step from Princess Cruises, which began back in 1998 with the debut of the Grand-class ships – their first 100,000-tonner – and then picked up another significant landmark in 2004 with the Caribbean Princess.

Back in early 2004, I well remember a visit to the Fincantieri shipyard in Marghera just outside Venice and being treated to Princess’s vision for their then-latest and greatest, scrambling through the half-finished structures and raw steel that would soon go on to become a glittering new vessel.

The Caribbean Princess didn’t so much represent a revolution but a gradual and logical evolution in ship design from the original Grand blueprint. And so the Ruby is another step in that steady development, an impressive piece of hardware which goes hand in hand with the ‘software’ – the service and amenity advancements – that is a notable feature of the Princess style.

At 113,000 tons and carrying 3,070 passengers (compared to the 109,000 and 2,600 of the Grand-class trio; and the 116,000 and 2,670 of identical sisters Diamond and Sapphire Princess, also launched in 2004 but built by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in Japan), Ruby is the fourth of the Caribbean-class, and the last ship which Princess currently has on its order books.

There is nothing else scheduled through 2012, and Princess are happy to consolidate on the basis of eight new mega-ships in the past five years – a record-breaking new-build spree for ANY of the major cruise lines.

Now comes the opportunity to look back and reflect on how far Princess have travelled in that period and exactly where the Ruby leaves them in terms of the world cruise scene, especially with their newest ship being swiftly followed on to the market by head-to-head competitor Celebrity Solstice.

The simple answer is: in a very healthy position.


VINE AND DANDY

VINES wine bar has become a highly popular feature in the lower level of the Piazza since it was introduced on the Crown Princess, and Princess have also enhanced this with a choice of more than 30 wines, seafood appetisers and now a selection of more than 12 domestic and imported artisan cheeses each day (for a small fee).


For, while Ruby may not boast quite the range of expansive, cutting-edge technical advancements which Solstice can provide, she is a wonderfully warm and polished product, still sparkling from that ‘brand new’ ambience yet immediately comfortable and well-grooved.

It all starts in the heart of the ship with the three-deck high atrium, which Princess now dub The Piazza, the focal point and lively entertainment centre throughout the day. Now, instead of this being the sterile and functional core of old (containing the front desk and shore excursion office), it is a dynamic, living ‘village centre.’

From morning until evening, the entertainments team stage periodic small-scale shows using members of the ship’s theatre company, special acts (we were treated to a superb performance by an acrobatic balancing duo), musicians and ‘street performers’. On our cruise, we had the hilarious duo The Strangelings, who turned up in different guises each evening and added a suitably amusing element to the normal course of events.

But the entertainment can crop up almost all over the ship, making full use of the 12 bars and lounges in addition to the grand Princess Theater, Skywalkers Nightclub and the Movies Under The Stars programme (which Princess introduced with the Caribbean Princess and many other lines have since copied!).

This latter consists of a magnificent 300ft LED screen, bright enough to be watchable under the mid-day Caribbean sun, backed by a 69,000-watt sound system, all set out over the main Calypso Reef Pool deck, and with the addition of loungers, blankets and popcorn for evening show-times of second-run films (up to seven a day). It is a truly brilliant addition to shipboard entertainment and one which the Ruby Princess also makes good use of. The screen can be used for big sport, concert and other events, too, making for a highly versatile facility.

In truth, though, it is not so much the clever gadgetry and extra amenities that make the current Princess offering so enticing as the extra thought that has gone into some of their new features, like the English-style Pub Lunch in the Wheelhouse Bar on sea days and the exclusive breakfast available to all suite passenger’s at Sabatini’s restaurant, complete with complimentary Mimosas.

The Pub Lunch idea (from 11.30am-2pm) in particular was enthusiastically received on our cruise – with a choice of bangers and mash, cottage pie, fish and chips and a ploughman’s while you downed a traditional ale or two – and provided an excellent opportunity at no extra cost.

Other passenger-friendly new features include ‘misting stewards’ around the pool – a quick, refreshing Evian spritz, chilled facecloths for those arriving back from shore excursions and a selection of canap