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Bucket List Cruise
Panama Canal & Central America
Fort Lauderdale (Port Everglades)
This is our fourth Princess cruise. This is the smallest ship we have ever cruised on. We chose this cruise because of the 10 day Panama Canal itinerary.
We stayed overnight in Ft. Lauderdale and took shuttle to the cruise terminal. We met people from our town in the airport shuttle on the way home who missed the first two days of the cruise because of airport delays. When flying in winter, we now always fly down a day early. We arrived at about 11:00 and went through the check-in process, got a number and sat and waited until about 1:30 before we were boarded. The check-in was smooth and orderly, we weren't sure what the delay was in beginning to board passengers.
We went straight to our room to drop off our stuff and began to explore the ship. The buffet was crowded, but not any more so than embarkation day on any other ship we've sailed on. Our luggage was delivered to the room by about 6:00.
We did get our Scavenger hunt ticket filled out and deposited and More
went to some of the area tours and to the to the Sail Away party. Actually, there were more people at this party than on many other cruises we've taken. It was relaxed with music and a cameraman catching people and displaying them on the Movies Under The Stars (MUTS) screen.
The layout of the ship was a little different. We try to walk as much as possible instead of taking elevators (always down usually up). Our room was in the back of the ship, the buffet is at the front of the ship, so we got in a lot of walking. The only way to make it to the buffet without going outside on the Lido deck is to walk through a lot of cabin hallways. These were times that we appreciated a smaller ship.
The buffet was usually crowded before and after excursions and early into serving times. If you waited about a half hour after serving began, there was usually little or no line. Servers were friendly and helpful. Evening service was more relaxed and choices were similar to what was served in the dining rooms. Several special buffet presentations were great including desserts, sushi, Mexican specialties.
There was even an outdoor lido buffet one evening.
Afternoon tea was a pleasant diversion with tiny sandwiches, deserts and scones with jam and clotted cream. Sometimes live music was played at tea.
We really enjoy at sea days, so it was nice to start a voyage with two of them. We had anytime dining, but we really don't like to take a couple of hours to eat, so we usually only use the dining room on formal nights. We check the menu and check the buffet. Usually they are serving exactly the same food from the same kitchens, so in the buffet, you can choose to try a little bit of many options instead of just one whole entree. We did not have problems with waiting. From past cruises, we know that seating and waiting is an issue on formal nights, so the night before, we look at our schedule, figure out when we want to eat and call in an reservation early in the morning. If it looks busy and we don't have a reservation, we just wait a half hour and the line is usually better.
Almost everyone dresses up on formal nights. We love getting our photos taken, even if we don't buy very many. We've met some interesting people waiting in line. (Especially for casual portraits - be sure to have some taken with Mark, his sense of humor is delightful!) If you don't want to stay dressed up, many people change after dinner.
We enjoy watching movies outside on MUTS, but unfortunately, many football games and concerts were shown here at night instead of movies.
We don't go to too many of the shows. My husband is a musician, so we pop in and see what's going on and usually leave after a little while. The shows seemed pretty average for Princess. The Nat King Cole review was very good. We did stay for all of that one. The best entertainment was at the Bayou Cafe. You don't have to eat there, there is a small stage area on the left with performances. The Jean Mac Trio was wonderful. If they are on board, and you like jazz standards, don't miss them.
We also love the Trivia contests. Most people were very friendly. Competition was high, but people were mostly friendly about it. It was nice that the same teams didn't win all of the time. It was interesting that there were few people playing at the beginning of the cruise, but the last few days ere packed!
A warning for those of you who are sensitive to smoke, for some totally unknown reason, Princess chose to put the Churchill Lounge on deck 7 starboard side on the Promenade deck. Even with the doors closed, the smell of cigar and pipe smoke permeated the whole area. We eventually found detours to walk that avoided the area.
We always take Princess excursions. This time we were glad we did because several of our tour buses had maintenance and traffic issues. We visited Aruba (Butterfly Farm, Rock Formations and Shopping), Cartegena (Highlights of Cartagena, Fortress and Las Boedas), the Panama Canal (Panama Canal & Locks Transit by Boat), Puerto Limon-Cost Rica (Veragua Rainforest Tour) and Ocho Rios-Jamaica
(Dolphin Cove, Shark Show & Dunn's River Falls). I've put review of our shore excursions on this site.
If you want to watch the ship go through the canal, be aware that folks already had seats lined up across all of the front viewing areas by 5:00 a.m. Bring your rain gear, just in case. It poured! Many people left to go get their gear and some arguing ensued about "saved" places. If you don't mind watching the process in reverse, go to the back of the ship on decks 8, 9, and 10 for great, way less crowded viewing. We started up front for the first lock, went to our balcony for the next and then ended up at the back of the ship - by far the best area.
There were very few children aboard. I counted a total of 11, most under the age of about 4. The people we met on board were wonderful. There were mostly older cruisers (we're 57 and were some of the younger cruisers on board), but there were also a few young couples (two couples that got married on board - Congratulations!) and many middle aged folks. Everyone we met was interesting to talk to, polite and caring. We met several couples who will probably become life-long friends.
The staff was wonderful. The customer service desk was always helpful. If you are interested in the service that brings your bags to the airport and you don't see them again until your flight reaches home - be aware that it needs to be booked before the ship reaches Aruba. We've used the service on other Princess cruises, it's great, but we've always had more time to book it, so don't let the deadline pass if you are interested.
We also splurged and did the Platinum Portraits. Paul did an amazing job. He took more than 80 pictures and narrowed them down to 50 to make a slide show. We were both almost crying after the slideshow, it was that touching. Do be aware that it is very expensive (minimum package was around $500.00 - the top package was several thousand, but we considered it a once in a lifetime thing. As much fun as it was, I won't let myself be tempted again because I'll want them all! He really was that good. If you had several family members involved, it would be a better bargain. We actually received our photo package today only 15 days after our cruise.
The ship was showing its age. Everything was spotless and in good condition, but the hallway floors were spongy and made strange noises in some places. I believe is is going in for some changes around May.
All things considered, this was one of our all time favorite cruises. We'd love to go back in a few years after the new canal upgrades are finished. Less
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Port and Shore Excursions
Very small factory. The guide greeted us with a demonstration of cutting open a piece of aloe and then led us through a small "museum" area and up a flight of stairs to view the processing area where no photos were permitted. out of four areas, only one had any activity. Three women were working. One filling blue bottles, one putting on the caps and one applying labels. We were then brought downstairs into the gift shop. The samples on display seemed high quality, but the prices were extremely high. This was a disappointing stop.
Unfortunately, our bus developed some mechanical problems, so we were sitting on the bus waiting for a fix for about 40 minutes.
Interesting park-like setting. A cave-like cluster of rocks had metal bars to protect the cave paintings inside. It was easy to take photos through the bars. We only had about 20 minutes to explore the area due to earlier bus mechanical problems. I would have liked a bit more time to do some exploring and climbing. We did find it more interesting than the CasiBari rock formations we visited on a past cruise.
We developed more mechanical problems on the bus, so had no time at all for the planned shopping and in fact were late by about 1/2 hour in returning to the ship. This is why we generally book excursions from Princess, you never know what might happen and the ship will wait for you.
It was raining for most of this visit, but during the heaviest rains, the guides kept us under a porch for an introductory lecture/demonstration of some of the butterfly research and species at the farm. we were then led back to the enclosed garden area where we heard more information and were able to wander and explore and take lots of photos.
Beautiful gardens, several fish and turtle ponds and many beautiful butterflies where ever you looked (in spite of the intermittent drizzle).
I would definitely recommend this part of the tour.
Very charming small church. It has a garden courtyard and a small museum of religious sculptures. The church has some interesting architecture, nice stained glass windows, an ornate altar and a relic skeleton under the altar of St. Peter Claver. A colorful parrot was posing on the end of a stairway banister.
Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas
A long, hot walk to the top, but our guide (who had to be close to 70!) took us up in segments. He was very informative. Many pushy vendors, but we took our guide's advice, didn't make eye contact and repeated no thank you and they mostly left us alone.
The underground tunnels and passageways were amazing. Be sure to bring a flash camera if you love to take picture of tunnels and hallways.
The views of the surrounding city were also amazing.
Beware if you plan to take a taxi here. The traffic in Cartagena was the worst we've ever seen anywhere. The excursion said a 15 minute ride to the fort - it took about 45 minutes with the traffic.
The architecture is very interesting. We only had about 20 minutes, due to the heavy traffic. Basically, these are small souvenir shops, one after another, for a block or two in either direction. Most of the shops had the usual touristy stuff. There were a few with local art work or emerald jewelry, but we really didn't have much time to check them out.
We were also supposed to stop at a shopping mall, but weren't allowed to do so because of time constraints. We pretty much just made it back to the ship in time for boarding.
Palacio de la Inquisicion
We walked through the streets with our guide. People we were with said that the neighborhood was very reminiscent of New Orleans, with lovely balconies, often filled with flowers. Cobblestone streets, small picturesque alleys and bustling people, fruit carts and vendors everywhere.
The palace had many interesting museum-like displays. The upstairs exhibits were air conditioned.
The replicas of the instruments of torture were a bit disturbing, as was the courtyard with the guillotine and viewing balconies, but the history was fascinating.
The Panama Canal was pretty much the reason we chose to go on this cruise. We really don't have the time (or money) to cruise for more than about 10 days, so we chose to take the excursion that goes all the way through the locks to the pacific ocean.
After our ship passed through the Gatun locks, we were tendered ashore to pick up a motor coach to the ferry that would bring us all the way through the locks. Our tour guide was okay. She was an older woman who supplied us with some basic information about the area on the way to the ferry.
It was an on again off again rainy day, so we chose seats on the ferry under the roof and directly on the back of the ferry. We were protected from the rain and had a great unobstructed view from the back. Some friends we had met on the cruise were calling the ferry "the African Queen". It really wasn't that bad. It was an older boat, the bathrooms had some issues, but it was clean and appeared to be completely safe, if a little "well loved".
The ferry boat captain narrated the trip. a small buffet lunch was served and a local woman was selling molas and other souvenirs upstairs. (If you want to buy the molas, they reduced the price toward the end of the trip.) You were able to touch the sides of the locks on several occasions if you chose.
It was very interesting getting a closer view of the locks than we got on the Island Princess.
We were able to see much of the work being done to widen the canal for the future locks that are being constructed. It was amazing to pass under the two bridges that pass over the canal. Not bridges that I would want to drive over!
We boarded our same motor coaches for the trip back to the ship. This time we traveled on the relatively new highway and arrived in about 40 minutes. Our coach's sound system went out and for some reason, our guide put on a Spanish sitcom instead. Many people grumbled about it, but she explained later that she thought all people enjoyed laughing and that she thought we might enjoy it.
The Colon area was not somewhere I would feel comfortable wandering around. There is a small shopping mall about 5 minutes from the ship, but those I talked to who went there were not real impressed.
I would definitely recommend this excursion.
We had originally planned to walk up the falls. As we walked down to the area and saw the amount of water and the distance of the walk, we decided to just enjoy the view instead! The falls is very beautiful. There are steps that follow alongside that are wide and easy to walk, with small viewing and rest areas along the way.
There are lockers you can rent if you are planning to walk to falls. You really can't carry a backpack or anything of substance. You WILL get wet. In some areas, the water was at least adult waist high. People had to hold hands as they climbed, so it was difficult to take photos if you were climbing. Don't even think about using a non-waterproof camera! Of course, they had people taking photos and videos the whole time that they were more than happy to sell you.
Leaving the park, you must walk through an area of vendors. They are very pushy. If there is anything you might be interested in buying, offer about a third of their asking price and walk away if they don't take it. There will be another vendor more than willing to have your business.
When we left, we took a shuttle bus according to our wrist band color and could choose our next stop.
We were pretty much just dropped off here and told to take a shuttle back when we were ready to return to the ship. We wandered to the shark encounter area and watched a pleasant show with several young men interacting with and feeding some large (probably nurse) sharks. There was an area to the right that had a swim with the stingray encounter going on and an area behind it that had a swim with the dolphin encounter going on. When the shark encounter was over, we wandered back up the hill toward the main dolphin area. We visited with some very friendly parrots and their handler who placed them on our heads and shoulders and had us hold them for photos. (No charge for this and he was thankful, but reluctant to take our tip.)
We met several of the local cats - primarily Boots and Toby but many others were hanging around. We took up seats near the swim with the dolphin encounter. Be aware that if you are actually swimming with any of the critters, you cannot take a camera. They will be happy to sell you photos and DVDs! If you have someone along who is willing to sit outside the area, they can get get photos and video depending on the area you are in. There are three shows going on at the same time.
The shows were entertaining and I got some great photos and video. (If you were the young couple who got married on the cruise, if you get in contact, I have a picture the groom swimming with the dolphin that I'd be happy to send you.)
We found out that the cats sometimes get some of the fish fed to the dolphins. I'm sure that's why thet were hanging out.
There is also a small covered area that sells food and drinks and some souvenir shops. A musician was performing island music on site.
The shuttle bus will bring you to Dunn River Falls, to a shopping area or back to the ship if you are wearing your wrist band.
There is a small shopping mall called the Taj Mahal that is about a 5 minute walk from the ship. It had an assortment of stores, bars and eateries with all price ranges.
This also included a short version of the aerial rainforest tram.
Once again, we had bus issues! Due the the early rains, the road to the rainforest was too wet for our large bus to make it, so we sat for about 40 minutes while smaller buses were sent down form the park to pick us up. Our guide left the bus to get local plants, talked to a nearby farmer and retrieved an interesting hanging nest. He even went into a tiny store and bought us some local snacks to taste while we were waiting.
The rainforest park was very educational. We were given the option to pick one of two routes. The more strenuous one would take us to a waterfall, the other would not. Most people chose to take the least strenuous walk, but our young guide convinced us that ii wasn't too bad. For those of you on the fence here, the waterfall route has 350 step of varying height and widths, usually with a handrail. There are also a few steeply sloping stretches without steps. The downward hike wasn't bad, but the hike back uphill was a bit challenging. The waterfall was nice, but not a must-see if you have any doubts about your ability to make the hike.
We saw cages of many types of snakes, an indoor frog exhibit, both with cages and in an open dark enclosure where the guides, with flashlights, highlight the frogs. There was also an enclosed butterfly area that was very nice. Not quite as impressive as the butterfly farm on Aruba, but very close.
Our guide was very knowledgable. The tram ride was very interesting, if a little short. We heard toucans and saw a sloth in one of the trees overhead. After we departed the tram, we hiked to and from the waterfall and took the tram back to an open sided visitor center for a light lunch. The sandwich was so-so, but the fruit was excellent, as was the Costa Rican coffee and fruit juice.
Our bus had somehow managed to make it to the park and the ride back to the ship was interesting as our guide continued to share information about his country. I'd love to go back to this area.
There was a small shopping area with local handicrafts and souvenirs near the dock. The vendors were pleasant and not pushy.