I'm a newlywed with 15 cruises under my belt. My husband has now gone on 7. We are 59 and 64 respectively. We are frugal, adventurous and silly. We love adventure, good food and wine. And trivia. We live to laugh and this cruise filled the bill on all accounts.. Here are the highlights
Embarkation-- booked the W hotel via Hotwire for two nights prior to sailing. It is a fabulous, luxury on-the-beach property minutes from the port. We grabbed a cab at 11 and glad we did. Traffic to the port is horrendous ( there were 8 ships I port!). I was determined to be among the first on-board in order to book The Sanctuary, the Chef's Dinner and the Ultimate Ship's Tour. Slight deadly due to immigration but on board by 130. The port is nothing special but all were efficient and courteous.
Our cabin-- we got upgraded to a starboard balcony E723. We had one cabin steward, Renato, and he was terrific. Quiet, efficient and responsive. The cabin was perfect with one of the most comfortable beds I have ever slept in. There is a huge closet with REAL wooden hangers. Oodles of space for storage. Two bed stands with drawers. Excellent light for nighttime reading. Comfortable chairs on a very private balcony. And two chairs in the cabin as well.
Booking the extras--I immediately bought a soda card, a wine package, and ran to The Sanctuary to book 2 chairs in the aft, adults-only section of the ship for the duration of the cruise. The Santuary is pricey at $210 each and worth every single penny. I like shade and our lounge chairs were shaded 80 per cent of the time. I also booked cruise-long access to the Thermal Suite which includes sauna and steam room and heated mosaic beds. $128 and again, worth every penny. I never took a shower in my room--always went to the large, roomy spa shower. And booked The Chefs Dinner ($95 extra per person and again worth every penny--I could write a whole review of this meal alone) and The Ultimate Ships Tour ($150 each, and you guessed it, worth every penny as it included photos and amazing access to every corner of the ship)
The Food--we chose late dining and were blessed with interesting dinner mates at our table for 8. the food is varied and damn good. I had extra anchovies on my Caesar salad every night. The fish and seafood were particularly good as were the pork dishes. I found the steaks a little tough, but tasty. In addition to the Chef's dinner we ate at The Bayou one night. Well worth the $20 extra charge though we had to send sausage back as it was jndercooked). We generally had breakfast in our room and lunch at the buffet. (A lunch menu is also available at the Sanctuary) Three formal nights. Service was understated and excellent. There was a miscount on our wine package--elegantly managed personally by Andre the sommelier. My only disappointments were no eggs Benedict on breakfast menu, no bagels on room service menu.
The Entertainment--the production shows were excellent. the Bayou show was stunning. Gavin the cruise director and his team were top-notch. The comedians were a little tame for my taste but Scott Wylie is a master of the one-liner. Steve Cauotte was the exception--brilliant comedian. The mentalist was annoying and the magician Gaetano, was good but his act felt like a time warp from the 70s. Karaoke was a blast, the classical music concert provided by the atrium's trio, Elegy, was an unexpected delight. I also got recruited for the Princess Choir which was a joy.
The shows were well timed to maximize attendance. Both theatres are beautifully appointed with good acoustics. And there was always somewhere to dance. The Wheelhouse was a great space for that but the band was a little dull. My only complaint? A real piano bar where we could have group sing-alongs would be so great (though BOTH pianist/singers were great).
The spa--I am used to free steam and sauna rooms on Carnival but bit the bullet and as noted above paid for access $128 for the duration of the cruise). A cozy space with deliciously hot, hot steam rooms. The gym is free. My biggest disappointment? Coed facilities. I hate wearing a bathing suit in sauna/steam rooms. Had one massage on special and it was a great relaxer before the last formal night. But there's nothing like leaving a sandy beach and heading straight for the nice, big steamy spa showers. I hate sand in my room!
The Ports--overall, great ports but too little time in each
Aruba--we met up with some other CCers and took a cab to Ahashi Beach (the rocky part before the big park) . We got there before the crowds arrived on boats from cruise excursions and experienced swimming in an aquarium load of fish and coral. $20 each way or 1/4 the price of an organized tour with twice as many fish.
Cartagena--we opted to share a cab to the old city and walk around on our own. Went to the History Museum (all the Inquisition stuff is deliberately exploitative and gruesome--i wouldn't take children) and the contemporary art Museum store. And just wandered the streets and back alleys. I got a gorgeous silver and emerald bracelet at a good price I think:)
The Canal--this is the reason to take this cruise. A full 9 hours of informed fascination. Bill Keene does a nice job of narrating throughout. The trick is to view from multiple vantage points throughout the day. It may be worth buying spots at the Sanctuary for just that day (think it is $60 but includes champagne and other goodies). You can see it all from there. Don't miss the lectures beforehand either. Really deepened the experience
Fuerte Amador-- as my grandmother grew up in the Zone, we wanted a special experience and hired a private guide for the day. Mario,from myfriendmario.com was perfect. He picked us up just outside the port and tailored our day to us. We visited some neighborhoods, went to the Panama Canal headquarters, did a walking tour of the old town and went to a great Italian place, Moxaco, for lunch. We also went to the trans ocean museum which had a special exhibition on Gaugin. Mario's parents were Chinese railroad builders and he knows so much about the city and its history. $120 for six hours of his time. And, you guessed it, worth every penny. Our only complaint? Poor coordination and communication regarding the tenders into the port. We waited almost an hour. Even folks with ship tours were delayed and complaining.
Puntarenas--with other CCers we went with the 6 in 1 tour with Odyssey tours. Juan was our Guide and he was informative and flexible. Perfect day. There were 10 of us. We saw monkeys and macaws, visited Villa lapas, a lovely beach and had lunch in Jaco Beach along with stops at a couple of good gift shops.
Some other points--
Five days at sea was a fine end to the cruise (tho I wish they'd add Cabo as a port on the return).
We were lucky to have great weather throughout which always puts a good spin on things.
Oh, and my cruise bill? after taking advantage of nearly every amenity and upsell the ship had to offer, fate smiled on me. A $2000 jackpot on Deuces Wild and a net gain on blackjack whittled it down to a few hundred dollars.
We found the deals for jewelry on-board hard to resist. There was a Swarovski Crystal box under the Christmas tree for me with a beautiful twin-banded bracelet.
Disembarkation--We got off in San Pedro via self-assist after a full breakfast. Grabbed a cab to rent a car and headed up the Pacific Coast Highway home. Cabs were pricier than expected (45-50 to airports)
This was our first Princess cruise. And not our last. We are already booked on Pacific Princess for next December's transatlantic cruise. And I just booked the repositioning cruise in Sept. from Vancouver to San Francisco.
Please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions!