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FTF's cruise specialist rates a new Caribbean-bound Princess ship to see how well it fares with families.

Today’s cruise lines draw rave reviews for appealing to children and even moody teens, but what about that even more elusive subset – tweens aged 10 to 12? With this in mind, I embarked on a recent seven-day voyage with my 12-year-old daughter Chloe aboard the Caribbean Princess, where together and separately, we explored the various nooks and crannies in this year-old ship, which managed to convey an intimate ambience despite the fact that it holds some 3,000-plus passengers.

Check-in

Breezy and quick. Cruisers who have waited interminably in the broiling sun for their turn to check in for other cruises will appreciate the shady and expansive waiting area in the Ft. Lauderdale cruise port.

Tip: Single parents (or those – like myself – traveling without their spouse) need to have notarized permission from the child’s other parent or legal guardian to travel outside of the country. I always travel with such a form, but this is only the third time in 12 years I’ve ever been asked for it and the first time by a cruise line.

Décor

Open, airy and full of natural light. This is not a ship modeled after a Las Vegas nightclub, nor does the art reach out and grab you by the throat on every stairwell and public room. If you like glitz and glamour, you may be disappointed, but those who enjoy a fresh décor with unpretentious furnishings will feel right at home.

Staterooms

Spring for a balcony if you can. Our balcony room on Aloha Deck (12) offered some 285-square-feet of living space, complete with two single beds (that can be combined), a TV, minifridge and desk/vanity area and the must-have balcony just big enough for a table and two chairs. After the veranda, the best feature of the stateroom was the walk-in closet complete with shelves, plenty of hanging space, a mini-safe and a full-length mirror.

Service

Maybe it was the influence from the top dog – the ubiquitous and ultra-friendly Captain Guiseppe Romano – but the on-board service was consistently first rate. From our cabin steward, who materialized when we needed him but was otherwise never intrusive, to the wait staff in the restaurants and the front desk personnel, everyone seemed to be having a good time.

Rave: When I wanted to change shore excursions in St. Maarten because the one we really wanted was canceled, the shore excursion personnel took extra time to help us find just the right thing – despite the long line of toe-tappers forming behind us.

Dining

Hate assigned seating but don’t want to pay extra for specialty restaurants every night? Try the Anytime Dining option with pick-your-own-time dining in one of the main dining rooms, but reserve first – especially on formal nights – or you may have to wait. You can also choose the traditional fixed seating plan, but be sure to set aside one night for a carnivorous chow down at Sterling Steak House for a surcharge of $15. Another highlight is Trattoria Sabatini, a pasta and seafood restaurant with a $20 surcharge where the staff more or less brings you everything on the menu and you just pick your entrée. Don’t even think of eating earlier in the day if you want to survive the meal, and if you’re on a low carb diet and wavering, be prepared to be bombarded with multiple desserts and pasta dishes from all sides.

You can avoid formal night altogether at the 24-hour Horizon Court buffet or try island fare at the Café Caribe buffet. We took advantage of poolside pizza, burgers and fries for a quick bite on shore excursion days and pampered ourselves at the room-service champagne breakfast for two served on the balcony for $25 per person.

Tip: For a taste of Britain, try the afternoon tea – complete with finger sandwiches and treats – offered daily by white-gloved waiters, or spring for an ice cream at Scoops on the pool deck.

Spa

The Lotus Spa offered a pleasant way to experience some Mom and Daughter bonding. We popped for joint manicures and pedicures, which, while expensive at around $100 total per person, included free bronzing make-up sessions and great ocean views. Chloe, who banged up one nail a few hours later, received a free touch up.

Rant: Unlike the rest of the ship, the front desk staff at the spa were abrupt and just barely polite. Once inside, though, the treatment specialists were top notch.

Tip: Book early. I booked my Chakra hot stone massage ($175 and worth every cent) on line several weeks before the cruise and still had to settle for an 8 a.m. time slot on an at-sea day. We booked our salon treatments on-board, and once again, drew the early morning slot.

Play & Learn

Five pools, a mini-golf area, Movies Under the Stars (or under the sun, when shown poolside during the day), an Internet Caf̩, a ScholarShip@Sea program Рcomplete with wine tasting and pottery painting Рand plenty of shops kept us busy when at sea.

On most ships, Princess has a Kids Zone for ages 3-12 with activities broken down by the number of young sailors aboard and their ages. I wondered if the Pirateers Kids Club group, designed for kids aged 10 to 12 (the break down varies according to how many kids are on board), would hold Chloe’s attention, but knowing that she could sign herself in and out at will (parents are given the option of allowing that flexibility at registration) tipped the scales in its favor. The activities – charades-type group games and beaded-jewelry sessions, among them – drew her back again and again, and she especially liked roaming the ship with her new girlfriends on scavenger hunts. Although she ignored the bank of PlayStation 2 equipment, her brothers, she assured me, would have loved it. There is also a dedicated Teen Center stocked with video games, juke boxes, Karaoke and other diversions, and some scheduled supervised teen-only activities.

Shore Excursions

There are so many family-friendly shore excursions on this itinerary – which featured stops on Princess Caye (the ship’s private beach on Eleuthra, Bahamas), St. Thomas and St. Maarten – that you almost can’t go wrong. Unless your youngster is really into expensive jewelry or sightseeing from a bus, I recommend skipping the plethora of shopping excursions and island tours in favor of a beach day in St. John (a scenic boat ride away), kayaking in the marine sanctuary in St. Thomas, or just about any snorkel experience available from sailboat, catamaran or motorboat. Be sure to avoid the booze cruise excursions, however, designed for young adults intent on drinking and partying more than seeing the sights.

Entertainment

The usual assortment of comedians and musical reviews, punctuated with a surprisingly good show by talented members of the ship’s staff. Chloe’s favorite show was “Let’s Rock,” which featured a number from “Hairspray,” complete with outlandish costumes and singers with serious pipes.

Price & Details

Seven-day cruises start at $549, with an early booking discount. 800-PRINCESS or www.princess.com

Tip: Don’t pay full price. Book early – three to six months for the best discounts — and unless you’re an experienced cruiser, work with a travel agent who specializes in cruising through www.cruising.org.

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