Bigness has its rewards on an 18-deck cruise ship

It's near midnight aboard the Golden Princess, but the Princess Theater audience is wide awake. Every eye is glued to awesome acrobat Uber Rossi dangling à la Tom Cruise above the laser-lit stage to music from "Mission Impossible."

"Lights, Camera, Action!" - a movie-inspired show with a mix of comedy, dance, and drama - fills the stage with one of the most lavish sets ever created on a cruise ship.

Such push-the-envelope niche shows are rare on cruise ships, which usually rely on Broadway-style shows, which have broader appeal, but are less exciting.

But the Golden Princess, which debuted this spring and summer in the Mediterranean, is not your average cruise ship. The mammoth, 18-deck ship boasts 12 lounges, offering everything from karaoke to a string quartet; three main dining rooms; a 24-hour restaurant and two alternative eateries; four pools; nine whirlpool spas; a nine-hole putting green; a fitness center and spa; and the first AOL Internet Cafe afloat.

And even with 2,600 passengers aboard, we never felt part of a cattle call.

The ship's mind-numbing array of entertainment, dining, and activity options is the heart of Princess's new Personal Choice Cruising program. The whole cruise experience has been revamped to allow passengers to enjoy what they want, when they want it. On this ship, passengers can actually see all 28 shows offered on a 12-day Mediterranean cruise.

The flexibility even extended to munchies. Craving caviar? Head to the Promenade Lounge, where it's waiting on ice. Pick up pizza poolside at Prego. Grab a grilled burger (veggie or turkey even) at the Trident Grill.

Dinners in the main dining rooms are a treat aboard the Golden Princess: Expect well-presented culinary offerings inspired by the various ports of call, such as Italian quill-shaped pasta with kalamata olives in tomato sauce or a Turkish lamb and eggplant turnover.

When my mother and I hit the high seas last spring, our cruise was a full house sailing from Barcelona to Istanbul. The ship's two alternative eateries were definite hot spots - though we were never turned away when a craving for burritos or pasta sent us to the Desert Rose or Sabatini's Trattoria at the last minute.

The Desert Rose is a cantina, the first Southwestern-style eatery at sea. We enjoyed the brie and papaya quesadilla with jalapeños and cilantro sauce and a chili- and cumin-rubbed catfish fillet. While the mediocre chips clearly came off a shelf, the mostly Mexican cooks and wait staff brought the rest of the inventive items to spicy life. And Sabatini's Trattoria, serving up fresh Italian seafood, proved to be a five-course winner.

By the time we disembarked in Istanbul, this Goliath of a ship felt as cozy as home. Bigger, Mom and I agreed, can indeed be better - especially when it means the freedom to choose what we want to do and where and when we want to do it.

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