Note: I dwell on the food a bit, since I think that's important on a cruise. To get "excellent", you simply have to do a better job than my wife or I! For this ship, buy the coffee card -- it entitles you to the better regular coffee at the International Cafe, no charge. Note: call your hotel from the airport when you arrive to get a shuttle, there is no parking at the airport for pickups.
Day 1: Boarding in Fort Lauderdale
Stayed overnight in the Hampton Inn, which offers shuttles from the airport and to the ship the next day. Bonus is the Old Heidelberg restaurant within walking distance of the hotel, and it's a 5 star German experience. Shuttle to the ship at 11:45, and we wait around until 12:45 while the workmen still on board clear immigration (that's the story, anyway). Bonus after refurb is going to our cabin and dumping the carryon first for a change. Lunch: good curry, rest ordinary. Discover the secret "back porch" on deck 10 -- a dozen chairs, call from your room and get drinks. Mini-suite seems smaller than advertised, but has a tub and a bigger closet. Also blocks the bathroom door, so you don't light up the whole room for your mid-night potty break. Usual lifeboat drill at five. Dinner: ceviche (just fish and lime juice), mushroom soup (decent), prime rib(g) with an excellent grilled tomato and a 2 inch piece of tough grilled sweet corn. CrÃ¨me Brulee for dessert. Across the table had a tasteless sugar free mango cheesecake. Service very slow, orders mixed up / substituted, other waiters stepped in to help ours.
Day 2: at sea
Breakfast in Horizon -- ordinary, slow juice service, but a Masked Booby going by to provide interest(sorry, I'm a birder...) No smoked salmon in sight, turns out you can get it in the dining room only. Morning trivia: lost by one with 16/20, Afternoon had 14, 14.5 to win. Stop by the library to pick up the daily Sudoku and word puzzle sheet. Lunch totally forgettable. Dinner: beef medallions(g), shrimp cocktail (available every night, 6 medium, decent), French Onion soup(poor -- mine is a LOT better), Gourmandises for dessert, turns out to be an excellent cookie assortment, just the thing for a mild diabetic.... I share around the table. Lose an hour tonight, Aruba is on Atlantic Time. Watch TV a bit, northeast getting pasted with a blizzard of up to 3 feet in places, all flights canceled.
Day 3: Aruba
Water mixer in shower has broken, can't get any cold water. Turned it left, and it unscrewed in my hand. Bread Pudding in the breakfast line, and some good broiled tomatoes.
Dinner of Crab Cake(edible, too much breading), Corn/Sausage chowder(ok), Blackened Rockfish (more like baked, with no spices whatsoever, but good with an excellent romanesqu sauce). Give up on the sugar-free dessert and have crÃ¨me brulee again. Tshirts and hats are on sale for our big canal cruise, so splurge and buy 2 for 20 bucks. Will report later on how cheap they are on land. You know, most of the slot machines are 1 cent, but have all the small bets disabled -- some of them have a minimum bet of 30 cents! Greedy bastards.....
Day 4: Cartagena
Off the boat and walk to the visitor center. Behind the visitor center is an excellent patch of woods -- they have a few captive birds (Macaws, some passerines, a monkey) but other birds and one monkey visit and partake of the feeders and watering points. Some of the captives piss a birder off -- they have Rose-Breasted Grosbeaks on migration from the States, for instance -- but I restrain myself from busting the lock and setting them free. (These captive birds "don't count" on your life list, incidentally) After a fine morning of birding, I walk back to the ship for lunch. After lunch, return and develop the birder plan: walk around the woods for 20 minutes, then pull up a chair in the shade pointing at the woods and drink a beer so you don't get dehydrated in the tropical heat, then repeat. After 3 sessions of the birder plan, time to leave. There's a free shuttle from the ship to the visitor center to spare the 1/3 mile walk on the concrete, if that's your preference. Dinner of an excellent piece of Corvina. News around the ship features the Carnival Triumph, now being towed to Mobile after the engines burned up down by Cozumel. The usual "limited toilets", no air conditioning, no lights. Didn't last year's occurrence get down to PBJ sandwiches before they got there?
Day 5: Panama Canal
Since this is the whole point of taking this cruise, up early to watch the approach. Through the Gatun Locks by 8 and into the lake. Breakfast in the dining room, and I discover the smoked salmon stash on board: I'll be back..... Cruise across Gatun Lake for a couple of hours, then enter the engineering marvel of the Gaillard Cut. Through the last two locks at about 4 and into the Pacific. Panama City is visible and very large in the distance. For a birder, this was a decent experience -- you're pretty close to the shore a lot, the shores are wooded and there are few shoreline birds. No sandpipers, etc. A few egrets, herons, one kingfisher (Ringed, unfortunately, and I looked at thousands of excellent perching branches -- he was at the Miraflores locks on the wall!) You will get to see Frigatebirds at a distance of 20 feet, plenty of Pelicans and Laughing Gulls, a few Royal Terns. I got to see Frigatebirds bathing by scraping the surface (and yes, they can get back in the air). Dinner in the Bayou to celebrate Mardi Gras. Nothing special for the occasion, except some free dollar store beads. Really makes you look forward to Valentine's Day. The sausage appetizer and Gumbo were good, but the Gumbo was more like seafood soup. The grilled Shrimp was good. My wife felt the catfish was undercooked, and serving it on a bed of French Fries was not acceptable in a specialty restaurant. They put some unsauced chopped cabbage on everything. The fried green tomatoes and potatoes were poor, but I rooted through the veggies for the lima beans, which I love. On the whole? Not worth it.....
Day 6: At sea
Princess Patter this morning features an announcement at the bottom that the port on Friday (San Juan del Sur) has limited landing facilities, and handicapped passengers can't be accomodated. This is the first notice I've seen. This would have me downstairs pounding on the desk and demanding a day's refund on the cruise fee! They just figure this out? Also included is the "tonight is the last chance to cancel your tour" notice. Breakfast in the dining room: salmon and Mexican omelette/refried beans. Needs some more taste, heat. Lunch upstairs, Hungarian goulash quite good. Lose trivia by Â½ point this time. Brown Booby passes by at breakfast, Blue-footed Booby at lunch. Looking for a trifecta, but nothing at dinner. Dinner was Steak Diane, sadly inferior to my own..... Back an hour to Central time, which is a good thing, since my tour leaves at 7:15 tomorrow.
Day 7: Puntarenas, Costa Rica
Pull into port at 6, I eat breakfast and ready to go on Tour#1 at 7:15. Pier is two lanes wide, at least 1500 feet long, forcing the buses to back onto the pier. Decently efficient on loading/queing. Tour goes about a mile on the north side of the peninsula, then board a boat at go up the river to look at the crocs and various birdlife. I get two lifers (collared Plover and Grey capped Flycatcher (which the narrator called as a Kiskadee). Since she was calling Dowitchers "Sandpipers", the information was bit unreliable.... Up and back, about an hour total. Load on the bus and go to the Macaw Sanctuary, about an hour out of town. Decent tour, Rudulfo runs the place as a charity / wildlife refuge and does a good job. He has a newer book than mine, more knowledge of the local birds... I wander around and get a dozen lifers on my own, follow Rudulfo's directions to get a few more (the hummers are hitting flowers in the pen with the spider monkey). Since birds in cages don't count for listers, I don't even bother with the standard lectures and kinda go parallel with the tour, out in the grass. The best birding is at the end of the cages, next to the little stream. We get to see Scarlet Macaws defending their nest box, a Toucan in a tree. The place is lousy with Clay colored Robins (national bird of Costa Rica), and if you knew the trouble you have to go to, to see just one in Texas.... We have a snack of fruit from the locals -- excellent pineapple, papaya, bananas, watermelon... Really good stuff, and as a diabetic, I get to taste a bit. Back through the gift shop (I avoid the whole process and just hand Rudulfo some cash for bird seed) visit the washroom (long trough for the guys, non-working faucets for the washup) and back on the bus. Hour back to the ship, have lunch, then take the free shuttle (cute trainy thing) to the shore. Maybe a hundred vendors, not pushy, selling local crafts and coffee. Put a half mile on the clock, buying a couple of wood puzzle boxes for the grandkids, a couple ocarinas for them, a sample pack of Costa Rican coins to put in the puzzle boxes -- then spot the Ruddy Doves and some Tropical Kingbirds. About a thousand White-winged Doves on the ground. Work my way back to the ship, sampling local beers (Imperial, Bavaria, Pilsen) for $2-3 a bottle. Dinner is some excellent Short Ribs (a little fatty), then to bed.
Day 8: San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua
Failed to book a tour for this port -- all except one are "2 hour bus ride, get badgered in the market by street vendors, 2 hour bus ride back"; plus all the pictures online show the volcanoes buried in the haze, so what's the point. The sole Ecolodge tour is very pricy at $150/4 hours and sold out. So I wait until 10 and the tenders are free, go ashore, and wander around. The port has about 20 vendors set up -- Tshirts are $5, embroidered Tshirts are $10, and you could get pottery vases for maybe 3 bucks after bartering. There was a large selection of wood bowls, necklaces, placemats, etc. I pass right on by, exit the port fence, go along the shore road for a block or two, then go right a block to the base of the hills to bird. Decent birding, several batches of parrots/keets pass by (one landed and was 3 Crimson fronted Parakeets), the usual Social Flycatchers, Tropical Kingbirds, a large dove of some sort that needs more study (tail like a Mourning Dove in flight, but larger). There's a Boat-billed Flycatcher building a nest half way up the cellular tower that I got a glimpse of lugging a stick. Most interesting were the three King Vultures soaring over the hills when we came into the harbor, and we had a Brown Booby on the back sunporch of Deck 10 for the morning. There were a couple of Grackles cleaning up on the top deck for breakfast. Don't miss: free rum samples at the Flora Cana booth right off the tender. A couple vendors sell the 8 year old (decent, skip the cheap stuff) for $9/half, $15/fifth. The local beer is Tona, decent and similar in taste to Pilsen in Costa Rica -- little bit hoppy. The landing proved to be a couple feet wide, six steps up and two down. No way a wheelchair would make it. Stopped at the local bank for coins for the grandkids. $3 got me a handful of assorted. Security made me remove my hat, scanned my bag, and I had to show my passport to exchange my 3 singles! Escargot for appetizer, Prime Rib for main course at dinner.... Good food, indeed. Departure delayed Â½ hour for "immigration issues", according to the announcement. That turned out in the morning to be a heart attack that killed a guy on the hike up the volcano, according to fellow passengers.
Day 9: at sea
Morning walk: from the smell, someone threw up on the Promenade, and it still smells. Working late, shower at 8:30 and we're out of hot water in the shower, still have hot water in the sink. Word to the wise: plan ahead. Breakfast of the usual stuff -- Cantaloupe hard, Honeydew fine. Brown and Masked Boobies riding the air in front of the ship, 2 porpoises/dolphins seen out from the stern. Morning trivia had 16, 19.5 to win. Special lunch: English Pub Grub in the Bayou, your choice of Breaded Shrimp, good Cod fried, Scottish Egg, Chicken Curry. That's it. Had to do the afternoon trivia by myself when the ladies attended the high tea, and got smoked. Dinner had an excellent piece of tilapia, a not so good seafood salad (calamari was tough), good butter pecan ice cream. Captain announcement that we're modifying course to close the land -- there's high winds predicted. Turned out to hit 90 knots is gusts with 16 ft waves, ship rolling moderately since it's off the quarter. Wreaked some havoc on the top deck during the movie with spray and howling winds. ESPN quit working, never to return...
Day 10: at sea
Shower at 7:45 was just barely on the cool side. Breakfast in dining room, lost morning trivia by one (again). Usual lunch, with brown booby passing the ship in mid-salad. Tequila tasting for free in afternoon, with 4 drinks raffled off, a fifth given away, very small tastings. Hint: get up and dance, you get more raffle tickets. Nap after. Dinner was Italian; special pasta fresh tossed, tiramisu, seafood salad (better this time), excellent cold Bellini soup, Limoncello shots with souvenir glass for $5 (not cold enough). Pavorotti video after gave us a chance to use the free drink coupon from the Captain's welcome.
Day 11: at sea
Shower at 7:15 was just about right. Liked the free champagne breakfast so much from the travel agent that we bought one on our own. Nice day on the balcony, about 70. Traveling through a fishing area -- pass a dozen boats and some floats securing catch lines of some sort. Birdy, see Frigatebird, Masked Booby, and a batch of Terns of some sort (Off the Jalisco coast) Done by 10 or so. Attended talk on "Navigation at Sea", which turns out to be "Bridge Tour by PowerPoint". Jet engines on top deck turn out to be plastic shrouds for gas turbine intakes and are non-functional. Run through "why the Princess can never have an accident like the other ships" - the standard question and answer for these type of things. After the Costa ran aground last year, the "entire Carnival fleet" adopted the Princess bridge model. Afternoon trivia: got 17, 18 to win... Dinner: Marlene and Robert at our table had a meat mix of chicken, pork, lamb and described it as "the worst dish of the cruise". Should have had the Orange Roughy or the Scallops -- they were excellent. Thyme infused Strawberry Sorbet for a palate cleanser before the main course, nice try....
Day 12: Cabo san Lucas
Up early for the whale-watching tour; not to be missed. Mother Humpback and calf jumping and playing, couple of juvenile humpbacks cruising around. Keep an eye out for the sea lions -- they hitch rides on the fishing boats and can be seen in the marina. 2.5 hours, free margaritas/pina coladas/ beer, some chips and salsa fresca (nice and spicy) -- decent value. They check your bags getting off the ship, so watch what you bring ashore -- no food items. Back to the dock for a couple hours of power shopping -- I bought a Tshirt to help the economy of Mexico. Town is nothing but buildings; I try to get some birding in by going to the nearest trees behind one of the hotels, but all there is - House Sparrows. Back to ship, lunch was sort of Italian, and the cream puff was very good with the almond cream filling. Go on deck as we round the corner for California, there are more whales to be seen. Dinner at Sabatini's. Not very crowded on the last formal night. Good Calamari appetizer, some bread with evoo to start it off, nice tomato soup with not so good calamari, marinated beefsteak, zabaglione for dessert Decent value for a special night (one that ends in y...)
Day 13: at sea
Classic American breakfast in the dining room, and the hash browns weren't any good in there, either... Captain announces that the weather is going to be bad starting about noon and continuing bad until we reach port in LA -- he is altering course to go closer to the land again. About two in the afternoon, the waves are approaching 15 feet, the temperature outside is about 60, the wind is getting up there, and attendance around the pool is zero. I watch the Egg Drop competition at 1300 hrs, which is pretty funny, since I was the district and regional judge for Science Olympiad and conducted workshops in that very subject! These were pretty pathetic, and mostly consisted of putting your egg in various cushions "liberated" from lounges around the ship. Waves got up to 20 feet, and attendance at dinner was about half -- got great service!
Day 14: disembarkation
One of the better experiences -- could stay in the cabin until nine, wander downstairs and wait until 9:45. If the customs people were faster, would have been on the bus in 15 minutes, but they added a half hour in the queue to the process. Off to LAX for our flight home.