We took the 10 day Panama Canal partial transit on the Island Princess from December 20-30, 2012. This was our 15th cruise overall but first on Princess. Overall we were extremely happy with all aspects of the cruise, with only a few areas where we see an opportunity for improvement. Here is a summary of our impressions:
Embarkation: We arrived at the port at 1:30. After dropping our bags with the porter we proceeded to check in. There was a small line that moved very quickly and the whole process took less than 15 minutes before we were on board and could go directly to our cabin. Having the cruise cards already prepared and then taking our photo for security as we stepped aboard clearly expedited the process.
Cabin: We had a standard balcony cabin mid-ships on deck 11. It was quite roomy and we were particularly impressed with the amount of storage available. Between the bedroom and the bathroom was an alcove with a floor to ceiling cabinet and a full length closet rod with lots of hangars for our clothes. The bedroom had two night stands with 2 drawers each and a desk with an additional 4 drawers. The shower was typically small but adequate. The balcony was roomy enough for both of us to sit and stretch out our feet.
Dining: We had elected any time dining but we ate in the main dining room only twice, opting for the Horizon Court buffet the rest of the time. The food was very good throughout the ship with a great variety of choices including mainly healthy options. One thing we were very happy with was how they managed the opening of the buffet lines to minimize congestion and we never had an issue finding a seat. The two times we used the main dining room it appeared that they were still struggling with the concept of any time dining. The first time we had reservations but when we showed up it looked like a free for all. When we were finally seated we were surprised to see that there were still 1/4 of the tables empty. The second time we showed up right after it opened and we were 2nd in line but it still took us nearly 5 minutes to be seated. Not a long wait, but indicative of the need to become more organized in seating people.
Bars and Lounges: We enjoyed the Wheelhouse Bar as a venue for dancing. It had a nice intimate feel to it. The Universe Lounge was primarily an alternate setting to the Princess Theater for shows. Seating was a problem both times we went both because it is not big enough compared to the Princess Theater and there are many seats with poor sight lines or obstructed views.
Entertainment: This was a standout area for the cruise. In our 15 previous cruises we had seen everything from world renowned performers to production numbers worthy of an average high school musical. Princess brought in some standout acts for this cruise. This included Donnie Ray Evins from Las Vegas who did a dead on Nat King Cole tribute and a separate soul show, Diane Cousins, a comedian/singer from Wales and a comedian named Billy Vader. The ship's singers were of uniform high quality and very versatile, backed up by talented dancers. The production shows were all very well done, with special kudos to the elaborate sets for Down on the Bayou. A nice bonus was Movies under the Stars poolside where we finally got to see The Hunger Games.
Pools: There are two main pools on the ship, the outdoor Horizon Pool and the indoor Lotus Pool. We opted for the latter and never had an issue finding a lounge chair. The water was warm for swimming and there were 2 adjacent hot tubs. There is also an ice cream serving area by the pool.
Shore Excursions: Although we rarely take the shore excursions offered through the ship, for a variety of reasons we used Princess for three excursions on this cruise. We were pleasantly surprised as we have also had a few major disappointments in the past. In Aruba we took the island overview and beach break as we were only in port for the morning. It included a visit to Casibari Rocks, Natural Bridge and the California Lighthouse. When we got to the beach the surf was unusually rough so they were nice enough to offer us a choice of staying there or returning to town, which showed customer service and initiative not often seen on mass produced shore excursions. There was no option in Panama except to use ship tours once we were in Gatun Lake. We did the Panama City tour which included a museum visit, a trip to Panama Viejo ruins and a walking tour of the old colonial,city- Casco Viejo. It was well paced and provided a good mix of history and culture. Because we were there on Christmas, the guide had to make a last minute change because some parts of the ruins were closed. He did this in consult with the passengers rather than just skipping that part, which was a nice bonus. In Costa Rica we chose the banana plantation, rain forest train ride and canal cruise. The tour was well paced and offered a great chance to see monkeys, sloths and a number of different birds.
Other observations: The crew were uniformly friendly and helpful. The one unpleasant surprise was that there were no hand gels stations at the entrance to the main dining room or most lounges. It has been many years since we were on a ship that relied on customers remembering to wash their hands before coming to a public area.