My entire family greatly enjoyed our 10 night Panama Canal cruise with the Coral Princess. We had previously sailed upon the Coral Princess to Alaska in 2009, and we were very pleased with both cruises. The Coral Princess is in excellent shape, particularly for a ship that was scheduled for a dry dock immediately following our sailing.
We chose this cruise based primarily upon its itinerary. But potential passengers considering booking this cruise should note that that the itinerary is changing, and it appears that an extra day is being added to the cruise so that it will be 12 days and 11 nights in the future. Currently, there is a very short day in Aruba (7 am to 12:30 pm) and it appears that some of the 2014 cruises will make Aruba the first port, and then add a sea day after Aruba, so passengers can experience a full day in that port. If you want to complete the current 10 night itinerary you may wish to sail in 2013 before the changes are enacted. We did not personally feel we needed additional time in Aruba, since we were most excited about visiting Cartagena and the Panama Canal, but we met other passengers who did feel that they would have preferred additional time in Aruba. Currently, there are 5 port days in a row, so a sea day after Aruba would be beneficial to passengers who might prefer to only have 4 port days in a row. On the current itineraries with short Aruba stops, passengers should also be prepared for lines to board the ship, since most of the passengers are trying to reboard at exactly the same time, right before the ship sails.
People interested in shopping in Aruba should note that the stores are not open on Sundays, and do not open until 10 am (except for the ones recommended by the ship at the shopping talk). In Aruba, it is very easy to find a cab driver to give you a tour of the highlights of the island, which include the Casibari rock formation and magnificent beaches. My mother and aunt greatly enjoyed the shopping, and my two year old son greatly enjoyed Philips Animal Garden, where you can have a very nice experience feeding lots of animals. After Aruba's zoo closed, the high profile animals found homes in Venezuelan zoos, and Phillip took in all the rest of the animals. He has created a wonderful home for them, and you can get lots of nice pictures with the animals.
In Cartagena, we loved seeing the spectacular old city, and had an excellent private tour with Dora De Zubiria (firstname.lastname@example.org). Dora is a highly knowledgeable and experienced guide, and we greatly enjoyed her lovely tour of the old city. Please bring water and sunscreen since Cartagena is very warm and humid and there is a great deal of walking since cars are not allowed in the Old City. We also had a very nice lunch at the Club de Pesca (the Mariscos a la cartagenera allows you to sample a variety of excellent seafood). Please note that the service at Club de Pesca is very leisurely, so you should allocate enough time to return to the port (it is a short cab ride from the pier).
In Panama, you can get an excellent view of the boat arriving at the Panama canal on Deck 10 forward (there is a set of doors that you pass through marked private, but no one seemed to mind the few people who were on that deck). My mother knew she had found the right place when she saw the ship's photographers going through the doors in front of her! You can also call room service to arrange for some coffee and a light breakfast to assist you with the early morning (generally around 5 am but ultimately dependent upon the Panamana Canal Authority's clearance) boat entrance through the canal.
In Panama, the Coral Princess docks at Gatun Lake and only allows passengers who have signed up for a Princess tour to leave the boat, as per Panama Canal Authority regulations. The boat returns back through the locks and then docks in Colon, where passengers on Princess cruise tours are able to reboard. We signed up for a short tour Gatun Lakes Cruise and Locks so we would be able to give our son a nap before he got overtired. Unfortunately, we were not informed until the day before Panama when it was too late to switch tours that there would be a substantial gap between when our tour ends, and when we would be allowed to reboard the ship. We were told at the end of the tour that we would be allowed back on the ship in an hour when it docked. The ship arrived on time one hour later, but no one was allowed to board for another hour, and the Panamanian authorities would not tell us when we would be allowed to board. That led to two very long hours standing outside of an elevator at the port in Colon with a screaming toddler who needed to nap. If we had known about this gap ahead of time, we would have either chosen a longer tour with the Embera Indians or simply disembarked in Colon and taken a cab from Colon to the nearby Gatun locks (although if you are planning this, please check the operating hours at Gatun locks, since I don't know what time they close, and the docking time for the Princess boats at Colon can vary based upon canal traffic). People without children who take short Princess tours in Panama are not likely to experience significant problems with the delay in reboarding the ship, since there is a very affordable supermarket and several restaurants with free wifi in the Port of Colon.
The Princess Gatun lake cruise that we took was not very good, since there was very little wildlife (two monkeys and one sloth) and no other ships on Gatun lake. Wildlife and ship traffic are not guaranteed and on another day people might have more luck seeing interesting things on this tour but overall we were disappointed that our only Princess tour was the most disorganized tour we took on this cruise, and we would not want to utilize cruise tours in the future.
Travelers with disabilities or those with small children should note that there are approximately 150 steps to climb to reach the viewing platform at Gatun. There is a platform on ground level for visitors with disabilities, but you can't really see much from there. Parents can, however, take turns with one supervising children on the downstairs platform, and the other climbing the stairs to watch the locks in action. People with disabilities may prefer taking a Princess cruise tour that brings you directly to Miraflores locks, which has a restaurant, a museum explaining the history of building the Panama Canal, and an elevator. Miraflores was chosen to be the visitor center because it is located closest to Panama City, but Gatun generally has more ship traffic so you have more of an opportunity to see the locks in action at Gatun. Princess passengers who want to travel to Miraflores should book this tour prior to departure to ensure that it isn't sold out, since passengers will be unable to travel to Miraflores independently. You can also cancel tours on the boat (I believe they require 24 hours notice for a full refund) so please consider booking a Princess tour if you think you might want to travel to Miraflores.
We had previously visited Costa Rica, and it is a beautiful country with amazing wildlife. We spent the morning at Veruga Rain Forest, which has an interesting gondola ride through the rainforest and hiking paths. It was not quite as spectacular as the Monteverde cloud forest, but quite lovely and a good option if you are docking at the port of Colon. At the bottom of the gondala ride, you can either hike to the waterfall (which requires climbing approximately 350 fairly steep steps but my 2 year old was able to manage most of this with assistance) or hike through a flat path through the rainforest. There are also frog and butterfly exhibitions. In the afternoon, we enjoyed a very tranquil ecocruise at Tortuguera with lots of birds and some animals, including an alligator. Eduardo Humphreys (email@example.com) provided us with a highly skilled 4x4 driver (which is absolutely necessary if you are traveling a long distance on Costa Rica's roads!) and arranged for the lovely ecotour.
In Jamaica, we visited Dolphin Cove, which is an excellent stop for people with children or those who love animals. There are various swim with dolphin programs, and a dolphin touch programs for nonswimmers, pregnant women and children. The Princess tours do not allow children under the age of 8 to participate in dolphin touch programs, so if you want your children to participate in this excursion you would need to book it directly through the Dolphin Cove (and please don't tell them you are arriving on a cruise ship since previous trip advisor reviewers were refused booking when they told Dolphin cove they were traveling to Jamaica on a cruise). The Dolphin Cove has a lovely touch tank, where your child can hold starfish, and you can feed love birds by hand and get your photograph taken with lots of parrots on you. There is also an opportunity to take pictures with either sharks or stingrays. Please note the time of the shark show, since
this show is very bad and the performers in this are also the same people who help you pose with stingrays and sharks. You should visit the other attractions during the shark show, and for the 15 minutes prior to the shark show since the trainers are preparing for the show and can't help you touch the animals. Dolphin's Cove is also located right next to the spectacular Dunn's River Falls, which my family greatly enjoyed visiting. Lunch was excellent jerk chicken at Scotchie's. Richard Brooks at firstname.lastname@example.org provided us with an excellent tour of Jamaica. He guided my family through Dunn's river falls, and helped my mother pick out an authentic Jamaican meal at Scotchies.
My mother and aunt greatly enjoyed the ship activities, including bingo and the shows. We were all very pleased with dinner in the main dining room. Each night at least one or two dishes were outstanding and most were very good. It is always impossible to predict which meals my two year old son would eat, and the servers were very patient about bringing extra food when he decided to eat someone else's entree (even when he ate all of Grandma's lobster tail!) One very nice change from our previous cruise in 2009 was the fact that part of the buffet was only closed at off-peak hours, so passengers did not experience any lines at the buffet or have any difficulty finding seating. The waiters were very attentive in the buffet, and several of the dishes were usually excellent. They consistently did a very good job with roast chicken dishes in interesting sauces (the five spice chicken was my favorite) and the carving station was usually excellent.
My mother was able to successfully utilize her unlimited soda card, but we encountered a bit of difficulty with the wine package. My aunt purchased this package because she was told by the salesman that you can utilize it all over the ship. This is technically true, but each bottle is labeled with your name and left at the last location you drank it, so if you drink wine with lunch on the Lido deck, the steward has to go all the way to the 14th floor during dinner to retrieve your bottle of wine. My aunt was told she couldn't get her wine on the second day in the bingo room since it was too far away, and when she explained the situation to the head sommelier, he immediately cancelled her wine package without penalty. My aunt was very happy with how Princess resolved this issue, and people who intend to drink wine with dinner in the same venue should not experience any difficulties utilizing the wine package. The ship employees work very hard, and the wine package shouldn't cause them a lot of extra work (my hope is that it is generally used by people drinking wine with dinner and therefore doesn't cause any additional stress for the very hardworking employees).
We booked a mini suite balcony, which was quite spacious and easily accommodated two adults and one two year old in a crib. I believe this room could accommodate two children if they could both sleep on the pullout couch (Princess provided us with a nice pack and play for our son to sleep in).
We utilized the E-Z check luggage program, and it worked very well. For $20 per piece of luggage, we were able to leave our luggage outside the room the night before we docked in Ft Lauderdale, and it arrived safely at Newark. Princess also checked my husband and I into our flights. You may encounter some logistical difficulties if only some members of your cabin are enrolled in E-Z check. My husband and I each checked one piece of luggage, so we were both enrolled in E-Z check and Princess checked us into our flight but Princess told us they could not check in our two year old son into the flight unless we paid $20 to enroll him in the E-Z check program, even though he didn't have any luggage to check. Fortunately, he was assigned the middle seat on the plane and we were able to check him in when we got to the airport without any problems. The other logistical issue that arose is that my husband and I were assigned an E-Z check deboarding group that assembled at 8 am, but my son was assigned a 10 am deboarding time in a different location. Our E-Z check deboarding instructions stated that we needed to be in the main dining room at 8 am so customs could clear our luggage. I went to down there by myself to try to ascertain where my family was supposed to assemble, and I was told by an employee that our luggage had been sent away first thing in the morning, and was already at the airport and that we could just leave the ship with our son's departure group. We experienced absolutely no problems leaving at 10 am and our luggage arrived on time, so we were very happy with the E-Z check program.
An unexpected highlight of this cruise for us was the very strong children's program, which provides structured activities for children ages 3-17. We were happy to discover that our two year old son could spend time in the Kid Zone when accompanied by a parent or guardian. Our son loved the developmentally appropriate arts and craft activities, and we were very happy with the care he received there. If you are planning on traveling with children (or if you would prefer a cruise without children), you should try to avoid school breaks. There were only 11 children on our cruise, which sailed on January 8th, and 150 on the previous cruise that left on December 29th. Because there were 4 caregivers in the KidZone on the January 8th cruise, they were able to provide a lot of individualized attention that a two year old needs in order to participate in arts and craft activities. The Kidzone is located on the 12th floor, on the back of the ship.
The Kidzone closes during days in port for lunch 12-1, and for dinner 5-6, and ends its day at 10 pm. But there is outdoor kid play area that can be accessed all the time which has a slide, several tricycles and a small splash pool. The outdoor space can be reached by walking all the way to the back of the ship on the port side of deck 12 on the Coral Princess. The kid zone itself is located on the starboard side of the back of deck 12, and has rooms for young children with balloons and a small foam climbing area and small sinks and potties. Older children have a room with Wii, and arts and crafts. Parents may want to book their rooms closer to the back of the ship (we were deck 9 mostly midship and fortunately a bit towards the back) and very grateful for our easy proximity to the Kid Zone.
Parents should also note that Princess will provide baby food in your cabin if you email them a request at email@example.com, ahead of time. The form states that Princess generally purchases baby food in bulk from Gerber and cannot guarantee any particular flavors so if your child is picky you may want to bring your own food (all of our baby food was the exact same flavor, which was absolutely fine for us since our son eats a lot of adult foods and we only give him baby food as a supplemental way to feed him vegetables). Parents should also note that although Princess offers a very good variety of healthy boxed cereal options, they do not have any Cheerios on board. My son really liked the healthy boxed cereals, and he greatly enjoyed being able to choose from a variety of boxed cereals when we were on tours in port. The room service was very accommodating, and graciously brought us cereal, yoghurt and warm milk every morning and evening. Please note that you can even order room service ahead of time so you will have warm milk delivered right at bedtime. The Lido buffet staff was also very accommodating, bringing our son yogurts during lunch and dinner hours.
Parents should also note that the locks to the room and balcony are located very low on the door, and my two year old son was able to unlock both doors so please supervise your children carefully (my son is a little Houdini, so hopefully other parents may have more luck keeping the doors locked).
Passengers with disabilities and those carrying small children may also experience difficulty getting into the Lido buffet, since there are doors that need to opened with handles. Sliding glass doors are utilized throughout the ship, and hopefully future ships will incorporate them outside the Lido buffet so people can easily enter and carry food out to the outdoor seating. Some days the ship employees would prop open one of the doors, which was very helpful.
Previous Princess cruisers should also note that Princess has added a foam top over the mattress, so you might no longer need to request an egg shell mattress (the steward had received our request for the egg shell mattress, and wisely put it under the bed and told us to try the pillow topper and if we weren't happy with it he would change it to the eggshell crate instead) We were quite happy with the pillow topped mattress, and did not need the eggshell crate. Our steward was also very patient with the food my son dropped in the cabin.
Overall, we were very glad to have taken this cruise and hope that you also enjoy your travels!