Goodbye pool deck buffet, hello private ‘cabana’ decks: This cruise line is getting creative with its newest ship

Princess Cruises isn’t a line known for radical change. So, perhaps it should come as no surprise that its next new ship, Sun Princess, won’t be wildly different than the 15 vessels already in its fleet.

As I saw this week during a sneak peek at the half-finished ship at the shipyard in Italy where it is under construction, Sun Princess was designed around many of the tried-and-true Princess elements that the line’s fans have come to love. It’s got a central Piazza lined with cafes, bars, shops and restaurants and lots of relatively uncluttered deck-top pool and lounge space.

Still, as a top executive in Princess’ shipbuilding program toured me through the vessel’s work-in-progress public decks on Wednesday, I realized that, in its hallmark subtle way, Princess had made some significant tweaks to the formula that it has been following for many years.

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Under development for over six years, Sun Princess is the first of an all-new series of ships for the line. Compared to to Princess’ existing ships, Sun Princess feels bigger and more spacious. And, indeed, it is.

Sun Princess is about 21% bigger than the biggest ships currently in the Princess fleet — yet it’s designed to hold just 17% more passengers.

In other words, its space-to-passenger ratio will be greater, making the ship feel roomier — if only modestly.

It’s also the first Princess ship with suites that come with exclusive access to a private restaurant, lounge and sun deck — a sign Princess is finally getting serious about pampering its best customers.

Cruise writers stroll through an unfinished area aboard Sun Princess, which is under construction at a shipyard in Italy. GENE SLOAN/THE POINTS GUY

In addition, Sun Princess will boast an innovative new type of “cabana cabin” along the ship’s extra-wide 10th deck, which will come with access to a private deck area (sort of a riff on the Havana class cabins found on a handful of Carnival Cruise Line ships). Plus, the top deck of the ship is getting some unusual-for-Princess sizzle with the addition of a glass-dome-topped pool area that will transform into a nightspot after the sun goes down.

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With 10 months of construction still to go before Sun Princess is ready to sail, there is much still unfinished on the vessel. I experienced this firsthand as Richard Parker, Princess’ director for newbuild guest experience and product development, led me and several other cruise writers on a nearly-three-hour tour of its main public areas.

As is typical at this stage of construction for a new ship, the exterior of Sun Princess and the framing for its interior spaces is mostly complete, but lots of finishing work remains. Many spaces were empty shells with roughed-in wires and plumbing.

Related: The 9 most exciting new cruise ships of 2023

Still, the outlines of what Princess executives hope will be a transformative vessel for the brand already are starting to take shape.

Here are the most notable new things that I saw in the works after I stepped aboard the 4,300-passenger vessel at the Fincantieri shipyard near Monfalcone, Italy.

Finally, some love for suite guests

Princess is years behind its competitors in offering a top-notch array of suites on ships and all the related amenities that suite-loving cruisers have come to expect — from private restaurants for suite guests to private sun decks. But better late than never, as they say.

Among the most notable new-for-Princess things that is coming together on Sun Princess is a grouping of 50 suite accommodations that Princess is calling the Signature Collection. That’s more suites than the line has ever put on a vessel, and they come in a wide range of sizes from a relatively modest 304 square feet (for what’s known as a Signature Penthouse Suite) to a sprawling 1,260 square feet (for a Signature Sky Suite).

Even more notably, the suites will come with exclusive access to a private restaurant, a two-deck-high lounge overlooking the ship’s wake and an outside sun deck — a first for Princess.

The latter is Princess’ first move toward offering the sort of “ship-within-a-ship” upscale suite areas that have become a mainstay on many of the big vessels operated by Norwegian Cruise Line and MSC Cruises for years and that have more recently popped up on Royal Caribbean ships and Celebrity Cruises vessels, too.

The roughed-out, curving balconies for giant suites are already taking shape at the back of Sun Princess. GENE SLOAN/THE POINTS GUY

“This is really upping the suite game for us,” Parker noted during a stop at a yet-to-be-finished space that will be the home of the new restaurant for suite guests.

Unfortunately, Princess didn’t cluster all the new suite features in one area, which seems odd given that the line’s executives started from a blank slate when designing this new class of vessels.

An artist’s drawing of what the aft area of Sun Princess will look like when completed. PRINCESS CRUISES

The Signature Restaurant, exclusive to suite guests, is located in a public area off the ship’s central Piazza on Deck 7, far from most of the biggest suites. Those accommodations are located at the the back of the ship on decks 15, 16 and 17.

And while the two-deck-high Signature Lounge is logically nestled among the biggest suites on Deck 16, it’s in an area filled with lowly inside cabins. The suites aren’t separated into a private keycard-accessed area like on some ships operated by competing lines.

The Signature Sun Deck, meanwhile, is just above some of the biggest suites. But it’s just a breakout section of The Sanctuary, the extra-charge, adults-only lounge area found atop Princess ships. It also seems small given the number of people staying in Signature suites (100, assuming two people for each of the ship’s 50 suites).

All in all, I would call it a good start. But Princess still has a ways to go if it wants to offer a truly world-class suite experience.

New cabana mini-suites

In addition to a broader array of suites, Sun Princess has an unusual new cabin type that has a built-in “cabana” as part of the room configuration. It also comes with a separate private balcony area and special access to a shared private sun deck just beyond the balcony.

If that all seems confusing, it is — until you see it coming together in person. Then it makes sense and seems very cool — even in a very unfinished state.

Picture a balcony cabin that is of normal width but very, very long. Walking into the room from the door, you first pass a bathroom, a bed and a sofa, as you normally would when entering a Princess balcony cabin. But before you reach the balcony, you enter another small room — the cabana. This space is in between the main part of the room and the balcony.

Related: The 5 best places you can visit on a Princess ship

Featuring a daybed and offering the look of a cabana on a cruise line private island, the cabana is like a bonus room that can be opened up from either side — either extending the size of the interior part of the room or extending the balcony space.

Two still-under-construction Cabana Decks will be exclusive outdoor lounge areas for passengers staying in Cabana mini-suites. The balcony area for the Cabana rooms can be seen toward the left. GENE SLOAN/THE POINTS GUY

Including the cabana and balcony space, these super-long rooms measure 329 square feet — 40% bigger than a standard Sun Princess balcony cabin.

But the extra lounge space doesn’t end there. All of the new cabana mini-suites — 44 in all — are located on Deck 10, which is wider than the other cabin decks on the ship. The extra width has allowed the ship’s designers to add private sun decks with hot tubs in front of the 22 cabana mini-suites on each side of the ship.

Each of these private sun decks, called Cabana Decks, is a collective space, but one that is only accessible to people staying in cabana mini-suites.

In addition, each of these cabins are part of what Princess is calling The Reserve Collection, a new category of cabin with upgraded amenities that comes with access to a private restaurant (called, simply, The Reserve Collection Restaurant).

For those of you who have sailed Princess for some time, The Reserve Collection is similar to what Princess used to call Club class.

An artist’s drawing of how the Cabana Deck (pictured unfinished above) will look when completed. PRINCESS CRUISES

After seeing the spaces that the Cabana mini-suites will occupy (still heavily under construction), I think they are a great choice for passengers who love spending time on their cabin balconies. You’ll have oodles of deck space both within the outline of your room and just outside it for lounging in the sun.

That said, some cruisers who cherish privacy may not like the idea of other passengers being able to walk in front of their balconies — something that will happen as Cabana mini-suite guests access the Cabana decks.

No more buffet on the pool deck

Yes, you read that right. Sun Princess will be the first Princess ship (and one of the few vessels operated by any line) lacking a buffet restaurant on its main pool deck.

Don’t worry, buffet lovers: There still will be a buffet-like venue on Sun Princess. It just will be located eight decks below the pool deck, closer to the ship’s central Piazza and other interior features.

“There’s many reasons why we did it,” Parker said of moving the location. “One is the [greater] amount of space [available], but also it gives us instant access to the promenade deck,” Parker said.

Called World Fresh Market, the buffet-like eatery will be located on Deck 9, which is where the ship’s outside promenade is located. As a result, the food zone can spill out onto the promenade deck.

“Outside, we will have additional food outlets, details to come in the future,” Parker said.

Including the outdoor venues, which have yet to be announced, it’ll be a giant space with many separate “storefronts” with different food options, Parker suggested.

Princess Cruises executive Richard Parker discusses a new Wake View Terrace under development at the back of Sun Princess. GENE SLOAN/THE POINTS GUY

“One of the feedbacks that we got from our guests is that they want more choice. They want more options. We’re going to give them more choice and more options,” he said.

While Parker was a bit coy on exactly what World Fresh Market would be like, we got the sense it’ll be something like the Indulge Food Hall on Norwegian Cruise Line’s new Norwegian Prima, which is our favorite new quick-serve food venue at sea.

As for the lack of a buffet up by the pool, Parker said the line didn’t expect that to be a problem for poolgoers. There still will be plenty of places to grab a quick bite up at the top of the ship.

The Dome

By far the most unusual new feature in the works for Sun Princess is The Dome — a multilevel deck area at the top of the ship that will be covered with what the line says is the first true glass dome ever constructed on a cruise ship.

We didn’t get to see The Dome during the tour, as the heavily-under-construction top deck of the ship was off-limits. But Parker showed us drawings of what was planned and offered a detailed explanation.

Located at the front of the ship, The Dome will be an indoor, climate-controlled pool area with tiers of seating facing the bow, such that passengers on multiple levels will have views of where the ship is heading.

An artist’s drawing of The Dome area planned for Sun Princess. PRINCESS CRUISES

But it’s at night where the area will really hit its stride — or so Princess is promising. A cover will slide out over the pool, turning it into a stage, and the entire venue will turn into a nightspot that Princess says will have a vibe similar to Florida’s South Beach.

Parker said the space would feature state-of-the-art lighting effects and be rigged to allow for aerial performances.

This is a notable development for Princess, which typically doesn’t have many over-the-top features on the top decks of its ships.

Compared to many of its big-ship rivals, which have turned the top decks of their ships into floating amusement parks with waterslides, go-kart tracks, roller coasters and more, Princess is known for a more serene, almost “old school” sort of deck-top experience that focuses around relaxing pool and lounge zones.

Note that The Dome planned for Sun Princess seems to be part of a budding cruise trend of sorts, as Royal Caribbean recently unveiled that its next new ship, Icon of the Seas, would have a giant glass dome on its top deck, too. Called the AquaDome, Icon of the Seas’ dome will be home to water shows with aerial elements, like the AquaTheaters found on the line’s Oasis-class vessels, and — if anything — seems even domier than what Princess is planning.

Other new and revamped venues

Parker hinted that Sun Princess would have a few more new features yet to be announced, including at least one new-for-the-line restaurant. At one point, he pointed to a doorway leading into an off-limits area that he said would house “a new immersive experience, and I’m going to tell you nothing else.”

He said the big reveal was yet to come.

A still-secret, new-for-Princess immersive experience will lie beyond this doorway. GENE SLOAN/THE POINTS GUY

Still, for the most part, the key venues under development for the ship will be familiar to Princess fans, if not carbon copies of earlier versions.

During a stop at the ship’s main theater, now called the Princess Arena (it’s called the Princess Theater on other ships), Parker noted its new-for-Princess in-the-round shape that also can be converted into a more traditional proscenium-type theater and a keyhole-type theater to allow for different types of productions.

“It’s a brand new concept for us,” Parker said. “Thinking of shows in the future and things we’d like to do, sometimes the theater as a (traditional) proscenium theater can have limitations. What we’ve built here is a theater that can reconfigure itself.”

The ship’s three-deck-high piazza, called the Sun Princess Piazza, also is getting an upgrade that was on display, with a new circular shape, a stage that pops up from the center of the floor for performances and a giant, three-deck-high moveable LED screen that will play a role in evening productions in the space.

Related: The ultimate guide to Princess ships and itineraries

“What you’re seeing here is sort of an evolution of the piazza,” Parker said, noting that it had been specifically designed as an entertainment venue.

The sides of the Piazza will be glass walls in a sphere shape — constituting the first three levels of what from the outside of the ship will look like giant spheres attached to the sides of the vessel rising nine decks high. Such walls of glass at the sides of the ship are, notably, something that also is in the works for Royal Caribbean’s new Icon of the Seas.

The sides of Sun Princess will feature giant sphere-like glass walls that are currently in place but with temporary coverings. GENE SLOAN/THE POINTS GUY

“It’s actually quite an engineering feat,” Parker said as he led us outside onto an open-air promenade area on Deck 7 where we could look up at the rounded structure.

The spheres on the side of the ship, along with The Dome at the top of the vessel, are the origins of the class name for Sun Princess and at least one sister vessel on order for 2025: the Sphere class.

Parker also showed off the ship’s main restaurant, which will sprawl over three decks (6, 7 and 8) at the back of the ship. That’s a departure for Princess, which typically has split up its main restaurant into two or more spaces in different parts of the ship.

Still, while massive compared to any single restaurant on other Princess ships, it won’t have a cavernous feel, as its footprint will be broken up into many smaller nooks, Parker said.

“Even though it’s large capacity, you don’t get the sense of that capacity because you only see the group around you,” he said.

Circular openings will connect the three decks of Sun Princess’ main restaurant. GENE SLOAN/THE POINTS GUY

Parker said each of the restaurant’s three decks would serve the same menu but at a different level of formality, with the bottom deck reserved for a longer, more formal service and the two decks above getting progressively faster and more casual in their ambiance.

“If you want to just come in and get out, you’ll do that on Deck 8, and if you want a more formal dining experience, you’ll do that on Deck 6,” he said.

Bottom line

Sun Princess won’t be a radical departure for Princess, as it’ll be built around many of the line’s signature features. But in addition to being significantly larger than the typical Princess ship, it’ll boast a number of new-for-the-line innovations that could make it a Princess fan favorite.

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