While chatting with Majestic Princess' Captain Dino Sagani in Trieste's famed Caffe degli Specchi, it becomes clear that he is something of a celebrity in his home town. The cafe's manager is an old friend, people stop to greet him at our table and others stroll by and wave.
I am in Trieste in northern Italy to witness history being made at the Fincantieri shipyards. Milestone events related to three new ships – Sky, Enchanted and a sixth Royal-class ship, currently known as RP6 – are being celebrated in one day. It's an industry first that is being referred to as a "Triple Crown" event.
First, however, Sagani tells us a bit about how a cruise ship is built and provides some insider's suggestions about what to see and do around this enchanting city. There are Roman ruins, a Grand Canal, the fabulously ornate Miramare Castle, "buffet" eateries where locals lunch, atmospheric cafes that serve up Austro-Hungarian goodies that rival anything you can find in Vienna – and, as I discover later, Trieste is amazingly, blissfully free of tourists.
The charismatic captain, who hails from three generations of Triestini seafarers, has spent more of his life at sea than on land. He joined Princess Cruises in 1995 and says taking command of Majestic Princess, which made its debut in Australia this summer, was one of the highlights of his 28-year career.
Sagani's involvement with Majestic began when the ship was floated out of the shipyard in February 2016. It was a family affair of sorts. Sagani's mother, Graziella, did the honours as madrina – the ship's first godmother – and many of the ship-workers and engineers are friends from Sagani's school years. Between the float-out ceremony and Majestic's triumphant sail away from Trieste a year later, Sagani was on board for the all-important sea trials.
"This is when the ship goes to sea for the first time and we put her through a series of tests to ensure she responds to all the specifications – seaworthiness, strength, power, stability and, of course, the performance of the engine and thrusters," Sagani says. "One of the most important trials is an emergency crash stop, when you take her from full speed ahead to full speed astern. It takes about a kilometre to stop – after all, you're moving a city."
It takes about three years to build a vessel the size and complexity of the 3560-passenger Royal-class ships. Once the ink is dry on the contract between the cruise line and shipbuilder, the first steel is cut at an event typically shared by VIPs from the cruise line and shipyard and, sometimes, international media.
The first milestone is the cutting of the steel for RP6, which is beamed live from Fincantieri's yard in Naples. The sizzling steel plate is the first piece of 37,000 tonnes of steel that will go into the creation of the ship, which will make its maiden voyage in 2022.
The next milestone to be celebrated is the keel-laying for Enchanted Princess.
In a contemporary version of a maritime tradition that dates back to the Ancient Greeks, a coin is welded into a module that is the first of many that are joined up to form the ship's hull. At the shipyard, a crowd of hard-hatted observers watch as a welder seals the coin (actually a Princess Ocean Medallion) into place, a priest makes a blessing and Princess Cruises' president, Jan Swartz, presses a button that starts the process of lowering Enchanted Princess' gigantic 500-tonne keel onto blocks in the dry dock below.
Next up is Sky Princess' float-out ceremony. Madrina Kerry Ann Wright, an English second officer serving on Royal Princess, and Sky's Captain Michele Tuvo, are introduced during a round of speeches. The Italian and British national anthems are blasted out and then Wright smashes a bottle of bubbles against the ship's hull. A siren whoops, everyone cheers – and then it's business as usual for the 3000-plus workers who are responsible for transforming these bare bones into a gleaming, working cruise ship that will set sail in a few months time.
Sky Princess is the same size as its Royal-class sisters – Royal, Regal and Majestic – but the ships evolve with every new build. Sky will be the first to feature two-bedroom Sky Suites that accommodate up to five guests and have the line's biggest private balconies. The suites come with a swag of perks, including concierge service, free access to the Enclave thermal rooms and hydrotherapy pool, and two fully stocked bars.
Other first-in-class features include an infinity-style Wakeview pool on the top deck, two "deep-tank" pools near the dancing fountains and a Retreat pool. The Sanctuary area will offer more private cabanas, there will be a new jazz lounge called Take Five and a new cafe in the Princess Live venue. Sky Princess will also be the first ship to have MedallionNet technology (which provides high-speed internet connectivity) built in, rather than retro-fitted – the ship's 4000 kilometres of electrical cables have a lot of work to do.
While RP6 will be the final Royal-class ship for Princess, Fincantieri is also building two 4300-passenger, LNG-powered ships for the line, due in 2023 and 2025. They will be the biggest ships ever built in Italy and the order cements a relationship between the two companies that has produced 19 ships since Crown Princess made its debut in 1990.
There are now two big questions for Princess fans. Who will be Sky Princess' godmother and what will RP6 be called? When the Duchess of Cambridge has been the madrina for one of your ships and the entire cast of The Love Boat has christened another, it's a challenge. Rumours swirl: will Sky be christened by another royal, or maybe a top-ranking queen of the entertainment industry?
As for RP6, we can rest assured it will never be subject to the indignity that befell Boaty McBoatface. Princess Cruises has some formidable traditions to uphold.
Sally Macmillan travelled as a guest of Princess Cruises.
Following its sold-out inaugural cruise in October, Sky Princess will sail in the Mediterranean until November, then relocate to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, for Eastern and Western Caribbean cruises. In April 2020, it starts its first Northern Europe and Scandinavia season. See princess.com
FIVE FACTS ABOUT PRINCESS CRUISES
Princess Cruises launched in 1965 with one ship cruising to the Mexican Riviera. Today, its 17 ships (18 when Sky Princess joins the fleet in October) take more than 2 million passengers a year to more than 360 destinations around the world.
Royal Princess, launched in 2013, is the first of six Royal-class ships. Each carries up to 3560 passengers, and while they are almost identical – all have the signature skywalk – they continue to evolve. Regal launched in 2014, Majestic in 2017, Sky launches in October, Enchanted is due in 2020 and the sixth, RP6, in 2022.
The 1970s TV series The Love Boat was filmed aboard two Princess ships and in 2015 six cast members christened Regal Princess at a nostalgic ceremony in Fort Lauderdale. Gavin Macleod (Captain Stubing), Fred Gandy (Gopher), Ted Lange (Isaac), Bernie Kopell (Doc), Lauren Tewes (Julie) and Jill Whelan (Vicki) did the honours.
Ocean Medallion technology, which allows high-speed internet connectivity and the capacity to personalise preferences before embarkation and onboard, is being rolled out across the fleet. The small, wearable medallion acts as a keycard and tracking device, among other functions.
CRUISING DOWN UNDER
A record five Princess ships will cruise in local waters during the 2019-20 season, offering itineraries from Sydney, Fremantle, Adelaide, Melbourne, Brisbane and Auckland. Newcomer Ruby Princess will join Majestic, Golden, Sea and Sun Princess – between them they will sail more than 900 cruise nights.