Cruise: 15 day Panama Canal transit cruise aboard the Coral Princess from Ft. Lauderdale to Los Angeles with stops in Aruba; Cartagena, Colombia; Fuerte Amador, Panama; Puntarenas, Costa Rica; and Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala
Overall rating 4.5 out of 5 stars
Embarkation: Lots of knowledgeable Princess staff made the process smooth and quickly. Unfortunately the drop-off point was over a block away. Why not in front of the terminal like airlines? A waste of time and unwieldy trek carrying personal baggage.
Food: Meals were great in the dining rooms or cafeteria. Multiple divergent choices always made my palette happy. Staff was extremely attentive making substitutions or adjustments to enhance the experience. We requested and received early sitting in formal dining with unknown cruisers to enjoy a leisurely dining experience yet leave time for dancing and entertainment. Unfortunately one of the couples made for a poor experience and the matre d', would not make changes. So we opted for "Anytime Dining" with other couples. This meant a different location each evening, with mostly outstanding serving staff except for one evening where they were only good.
Staff: "How can I be of assistance?" was a line heard almost everywhere. Fetching a special food item or letting us know the best time to use the aerobics gym floor to practice social dancing. Our stateroom was keep clean, made up and refreshed. We kept busy enjoying activities so we rarely encountered the attendants.
Entertainment: Since social dancing is our thing, we only went to a single show, a comic who was very good even using Princess taking the brunt of several jokes. Two small groups provided dance music each night. The three piece Phoenix Rising offered mostly swing with a good mix of Latin even a waltz or two each night. The keyboard and guitarist alternating singing. The floor was usually crowded with great audience participation. The other group, three instrumentalists and two singers was lower key, except when they performed on deck for a very entertaining ruckus audience participation Caribbean night.
The day before arriving at each port Bill Keene presented information about the local environment and what to expect at the major tourist sites. Unfortunately neither he nor anyone on board could provide information about each of tours. All would direct us to the material found on the Princess website or its brochures. Bill provided rather conservative information for example, saying do not photograph locals in direct opposition to all tour guides. No one tried to stop us or ask for money. Some actually encouraged photo taking.
Princess was continually offering seminars, sales, art auctions and portrait photography session to increase its revenue. Fortunately participating in the sales pitches were optional or the overall experience would drop several stars.
Ports and Tours:
Aruba was a waste of time and Cartagena too short. The following ratings apply to the tours, not the port or country.
Aruba - Arikok National Park Hike, Beach Swim & Shopping
Rating 1 star
After a pleasant 40 minute De Palm Tours drive through the desert landscape of very low brush and tall cactus; well narrated by Gino. Arriving at "trail head" we were met by a park guide for a leisurely stroll down a paved or manicured pebble path to an old farmhouse being reconditioned using cactus skeletons and mud mixed with grass. Gino provided better commentary of the countryside's plants and animals (bats, birds and lizards) then the park guide. Passengers from two Princess ships were crammed into the bus and tour. There should have been more guides and smaller groups for the tour. Then we were off to a pleasant beach for a quick swim and back to the ship with no time for shopping (fine with us).
Cartagena, Colombia - Old City Walking Tour, Las Bovedas & Shopping
Rating 2 stars
A short trip through the city with narration by a knowledgeable guide. First stop a brief viewing of Fort of San Felipe (so brief we could have stayed on the bus as it slowly drove in city traffic). Then to a walking tour of the old city with equally brief tour of a museum and city parks (shopping limited to street vendors) and a long stay at an emerald museum (read jewelry store not listed on the itinerary and a waste of time for most on the tour) Back to the bus to visit one of a strip of artisan shops (read souvenir stores). Then back to the ship. An inconsiderate passenger got on the wrong bus. We wasted over a half-hour with a distressed spouse while search parties went in vein to find the hapless passenger. He purposely boarded the other bus, their guide should have caught the error but they were actually short a passenger. Never did find out if that person was found.
Fuerte Amador, Panama - Panama Canal & Locks Transit By Boat
Rating 5 stars
Riding a small boat through the Panama Canal and locks gives one an entirely different perspective of the traverse. In the small boat you are dwarfed by the enormity of the locks and Panamax ships (those designed to just fit the canal with a few feet to spare). You are at the mercy of the canal pilot (every boat must have one) we waited almost an hour for him to arrive then wait again to begin the journey with other small boats. We were fortunate to have the same guide on the bus as the boat. He was very knowledgeable of the history, working of the canal and the region. Two other busloads of passengers each had their own guide to describe the journey. Lunch served on board was at beast unremarkable.
Puntarenas, Costa Rica - Corobici River-Raft Float, scenic Drive & Lunch
Rating 5 stars
RCR Rafting provided us with a very enjoyable 2-hour float tour on 6 passenger/paddlers plus guide/paddler rubber rafts commonly used in whitewater rafting. Comparing this to previous rafting trips it was slightly more aggressive than a float trip for a half dozen or so class 2 or 2+ small areas of rapids (on a scale of 5). Before leaving the boat guide explained how to paddle through the rapids (the current carried us down most of the river), then gave paddling commands to negotiate "rapids". During the float portion our guide pointed out a plethora of animal life from lizards to crocodiles, birds and monkeys. At the end we boarded the bus for return to the at the river drop-in point Restaurant RincÃ³n CorobicÃ for an excellent lunch and view the 200 plus images taken by photographers who leapfrogged the rafts in one person kayak. The entire set of images plus a file of stock Costa Rican flower, fauna and scenery could be purchased for $30 then download a few days later. Then the 45 minute return bus ride to the ship. Our guide narrated the ride in both directions pointing out history and farms from sugarcane to fishponds. We had time left to walk into Puntarenas past the tourist bazaar. The Mega Super market was our destination to purchase local coffee, beer and food.
Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala - Highland Textiles, Antigua, Lunch & Shopping
Rating 3 stars
Only structure at this port is a tourist bazaar and bus parking lot. Our tour required a 45 minute drive to textile cooperative at San Antonio Aguas Calientes. At least 20 stalls offered a wide variety of local textile and other handcrafted items. Most vendors had common offerings and all said they made the articles. It seemed too many items for a single person to create. Perhaps they made a few items but all appear hand made. Then on to a textile museum (read store with a guide to briefly describe several rooms of manikins clothed in region specific garb). Then onto lunch at Casa Santo Domingo, an unexpected pleasant venue. This is an upscale hotel, restaurant, gardens and museum set in the ruins of a monastery. Great local food buffet which we took white clothed tables and chairs (sweet red chili relleno, steak, black and white tortillas, plantains) surrounding plush gardens including the preverbal local artisans weaving and making beadings items, the ruins and a unique museum. It showed many exhibits of original stone carvings found in the ruins and else ware and modern artist creations often in glass. Casa Santo Domingo was an unexpected jewel of this tour. Our last stop was Jade SA American archeologists who .rediscovered Jadeite in Guatemala and built a vertically integrated operation of acquisition production and sale of jadeite jewelry. The tour begin with a lecture of the history of Guatemalan jade and the company then a tour of the demonstration factory and store. While the jewelry was diverse and beautiful I have no idea of the competitiveness of prices. Traveling back to the ship we saw the many small volcano cones and hills of the area. A week later one of the volcanos had a minor eruption. The tourist bazaar stalls had much of the same handcrafted items seen at the cooperative.
Went very smoothly with lots of Princess people to answer questions. Our only gripe was that had we known we could have left earlier then our scheduled time. We left a small tagged bag at the luggage collection area. They found it and forwarded to us the same day by FedEx.