Costa Rica is an ecotourist's paradise, and an ideal destination for a small-ship cruise. The region is one of the most bio-diverse in the world, with opportunities to see exotic wildlife on land and in the water. Combine that with beautiful beaches, water sports from snorkeling to kayaking, active land pursuits like hiking and ziplining and ports inaccessible to large cruise ships, and active travelers can revel in a unique cruise getaway.
Many cruise lines stop in Costa Rica and Panama -- and many transit the Panama Canal -- but not many offer entire seasons exploring Costa Rica's Pacific Coast because their ships are simply too big. Windstar Cruises and Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic are two of the small-ship lines that offer cruisers the chance to immerse themselves in this Central American destination, combined with a full crossing of the Panama Canal.
While both cruise lines visit roughly the same areas of Costa Rica and Panama, their trips and ships are markedly different. Windstar offers more of a typical cruise experience, with plenty of creature comforts and choice in what you do in port, but with onshore experiences priced a la carte. Lindblad is an expedition line and takes a more nature-based approach to the journey, with all excursions ashore and at sea included in your fare, and staffs its ships with expert naturalists and photographers.
If you're looking for an off-the-beaten-path getaway in Costa Rica and a bucket list transit of the Panama Canal, we compare Windstar vs. Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic's cruises.
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Itinerary and Shore Excursions
Both cruise lines offer weeklong sailings to Costa Rica and the Panama Canal. Windstar's cruises sail one-way between Puerto Caldera, Costa Rica and Colon, Panama (or vice versa). The ship calls at Quepos (close to Manuel Antonio National Park), Bahia Drake (near Corcovado National Park), Golfo Dulce (a sheltered bay dividing the Osa Peninsula from the mainland), Isla de Coiba in Panama for a beach and water sports day and Fuerte Amador, the port for Panama City. In many ports, passengers journey to shore in inflatable Zodiacs, which can be tricky for people with mobility issues. Unless you opt for private tours, you will be booking large group excursions through the ship. Shore excursions cost extra, often between $80 and $150, and may include nature walks, dolphin watches, boat rides to see wildlife, kayaking or snorkeling.
The ship cruises the Panama Canal mostly at night, in the dark (though this will change in 2017 when Windstar switches to daytime canal transits). Windstar does offer tours to the canal and its visitor center during the call in Fuerte Amador, so if you want to view the locks during the day or see the wildlife in the Gatun Lake area, you will need to book a ship-sponsored or independent excursion.
For Lindblad Expeditions, the focus is really on getting into Costa Rica's forests and sea, with an emphasis on active exploration. Its cruises embark in Herradura, Costa Rica, and also finish in Colon (or vice versa). They call at Manuel Antonio National Park, the Osa Peninsula for Corcovado National Park, Golfo Dulce and Isla Coiba for water sports, and then spend a morning exploring islets in the Gulf of Panama before crossing into the Panama Canal at night. The ship will overnight at Barro Colorado Island in Gatun Lake, a wildlife research site, with guided walks through the forest during the day. That evening, the ship will continue through the canal out to the Caribbean. All water sports and visits to national parks and other attractions (like the Casa Orquideas botanical garden) are included in the fare. The itinerary is very active, with hikes for multiple levels and water-based, naturalist-led expeditions in either kayaks or landing crafts in various destinations.
Choose Windstar if: You want a lot of choice in how you spend your day, either onboard or onshore, and don't mind spending extra for tours, or if you want to spend more time relaxing on a beach.
Choose Lindblad if: You are fascinated by nature and wildlife, and want a really unique experience in the Panama Canal that focuses on biodiversity as well as engineering.
Windstar employs two of its 212-passenger yachts, Star Breeze and Star Pride, on Costa Rica and Panama Canal itineraries through 2017. The ships are small cruise ships, with three comfortable indoor lounges for activities and hanging out; one main outdoor bar and a couple of indoor ones that open when the lounges are in use; a spa, salon and fitness center with sauna and steam room; a tiny casino; a small library-computer room; two whirlpools and a small swim-against-the-current pool; and a classy deck area for lounging in the sun. The ships also have a water sports marina, with a saltwater pool, kayaks, pedal boats, standup paddleboards and lounging mats as well as motorized water sports, put in use when the weather permits. Passengers enjoy an upscale cruise experience and personalized service from a large crew.
Lindblad Expeditions uses the 62-passenger National Geographic Sea Lion on cruises through 2017. The three-deck ship has one main, very functional lounge with a bar and library area, used for socializing and enrichment talks; a sun deck with padded teak loungers and tables and chairs, with space for alfresco exercise classes, as well as a few outdoor cardio machines; and a one-room spa with a limited menu of options. High-tech features include a video microscope, hydrophone and splash cam. The ship carries walking sticks, snorkeling equipment, standup paddleboards, kayaks and Zodiacs. Naturalists, photo instructors and guest lecturers lead excursions, give talks and help passengers get the most from their sailing. The ship is comfortable but minimalist, more of a mode of transport than a place you'd want to hang out in rather than be ashore.
Choose Windstar if: You're looking for a traditional luxurious cruise experience on a smaller ship. It's the best for people who might want to spend some time onboard and enjoy creature comforts and onboard amenities.
Choose Lindblad if: Your focus is on the destination, and you don't really mind the limited options of an expedition ship, such as smaller, bare-bones cabins and minimal dining options.
If you want a cozy home-away-from-home, Windstar offers spacious cabins and suites, ranging from 277 to 575 square feet. All are suites with windows; some have French balconies or true balconies. Cabins feature separate sleeping and living areas, beds that convert from twins to queens, comfortable couches and chairs, walk-in closets, minibars, and large marble bathrooms with double sinks, a shower/tub combo and L'Occitane bath products.
Lindblad, on the other hand, takes a more utilitarian approach to cabins on the much smaller Sea Lion. The ship has three categories of cabins: 90-square-foot cabins with two single beds, windows that can't be opened and access to an interior hallway; 94-square-foot cabins that open onto the outside decks and have windows that can be opened; and 120-square-foot cabins with two windows, a table with chairs, and some featuring double beds and pullout beds for a third passenger. Bathrooms are small and sinks are often inside the cabin, rather than in the room with the toilet and shower. The smart design allows for plenty of storage and outlets for charging electronics, but travelers should note that Sea Lion does not have locks on its cabin doors; all rooms are keyless.
Choose Windstar if: You prefer to spend time relaxing in your cabin or on a private balcony and must have nice amenities like fancy toiletries and walk-in closets.
Choose Lindblad if: All you need from a cabin is a decent bed at night and are fine sleeping separately from your spouse.
Windstar follows in the dining traditions of luxury and big-ship cruises; Star Breeze and Star Pride each offer several dining venues, as well as room service. The main dining room is chic with mirrored geometric wall designs, coffered ceilings and simple chandeliers. Varied dinner menus offer starters, soups, salads, mains and desserts, and chefs try to incorporate local ingredients when possible. You'll find classic dishes like beef Wellington or duck a l'orange, and the typical cruise mindset of ordering as many appetizers and desserts as you'd like. An indoor-outdoor buffet restaurant serves breakfast and lunch (with menu items available to order), and then turns into a candlelit steakhouse venue for alfresco dinner in an intimate setting. All meals are included in the price of the cruise. Room service is available, and snacks are served throughout the day in one lounge.
National Geographic Sea Lion has only one dining room, where breakfast, lunch and dinner are served daily. Breakfast is a buffet, lunch is either buffet or family style and dinner is served -- though passengers are asked to sign up for one of three entrees in the morning to avoid food waste. When possible, the chefs try to source local, seasonal ingredients; food is generally simple but tasty. Hors d'ouevres are served in the lounge during cocktail hour, and bar snacks are available during the day. The ship does not offer room service. The dining room is homey, with big picture windows letting in light. In Costa Rica and Panama, local vendors offer coffee and chocolate tastings onboard.
Choose Windstar if: You're looking for upscale dining with lots of choice on individual menus and want a ship with multiple dining venues. It's also the line for you if you want a more formal restaurant atmosphere or want to dine only with your travel companions.
Choose Lindblad if: You are content with limited food options and prefer a more laid-back dining atmosphere where you can socialize with other passengers and the expedition leaders.
Pricing and Inclusions
Starting prices for Windstar cruises (ocean-view suites) range from $2,199 to $3,399. Fares include all meals and nonalcoholic beverages, but gratuities, alcohol and shore excursions cost extra.
Fares for Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic cruises start at $6,190 or $6,390 for the smallest cabins. Fares include all meals and nonalcoholic beverages, excursions and guides ashore, the expertise of the onboard naturalists and photography instructors, but gratuities and alcohol cost extra. Essentially, it's twice the cost of Windstar (even when you factor in tour prices), though you're getting much smaller cabins and more limited onboard amenities.
Choose Windstar if: You're looking for a more affordable cruise with luxury touches, but don't mind paying extra for drinks, tours and tips.
Choose Lindblad if: You're willing to pay a premium to sail with a very small number of fellow passengers (Sea Lion is nearly a quarter the size of Star Breeze) and benefit from the expertise of the Natural Geographic naturalists.
Choose Windstar if: You want to see Costa Rica and Panama in a relaxed, comfortable way that's more like a traditional cruise. It's the line for you if you like to explore ashore but come back mid-afternoon to spend time in your cabin, and you want a bit of entertainment (like casino play or listening to live music) at night. This is also the itinerary for you if you want to visit Panama City on a tour during the cruise rather than as a pre- or post-cruise add-on.
Choose Lindblad if: You want an intimate experience with expert guides taking you to nature-based areas, sometimes with exclusive access. It's the line for people who want a journey by water that's not a typical cruise, who don't want to dress up, who prefer exploring ashore to remaining onboard and who can afford to pay for this kind of experience.