We began our cruise a day early and stayed in the North Beach area at the Winterset. The North Beach group is doing a nice job renovating older motels in the area, and this is a fun area to stay. It is quiet, near the beach, and a great way to start a cruise. I think the Winterset needs some more work, but there are many others in the area to choose from. The Plaza Bistro (another North Beach operation) was an awesome place to have dinner. You need to read the reviews on Tripadvisor to get an idea of what to expect here. It may not be for everyone. The food was terrific, the service professional and the dinner was priced reasonably.
We easily arrived on board by 11:30 a.m. after embarking from the Platinum/Elite lounge. Only Elite passengers now get a continental breakfast!
Our stateroom was decorative and perfectly clean. Roberto, our steward, did an excellent job taking care of our needs inobtrusively. He always had a smile on his face and was very polite. The only complaint was the smaller than usual shower. Even the comedian made jokes about it!
Overall, I was very impressed how Princess maintained this older ship. Everywhere you went it glistened. The varnishing was always carefully done. It was an absolutely beautiful ship! The layout was great, there was plenty of pool space, and we rarely had to wait for a lounge chair even on sea days. I would venture to say it was my favorite ship in the Princess line. The indoor Lotus pool area is definitely a place to visit, and the gym was also very well done.
There were certainly no complaints about the food, even with the new menu. We listened to our waiters, Dragisa and Bozidar, for their recommendations and kept an open mind as to trying different foods. It was great. The service here was also spectacular. Very professional and warm. We ate at the Bayou and had a marvelous meal. It certainly is worth the upcharge. We also spend a lot of time at the coffee bar. Geronimo and Cyril became our friends! They were wonderful servers - congenial and welcoming. It was always a pleasure to stop by for a specialty coffee with our cards.
We were very lucky to have good weather most of the trip. The captain did an amazing job keeping the boat steady even during times when the swells seemed large. I got the feeling the boat was a stable one. We did hit a nasty storm one night which closed the port to Costa Rica the following morning. We were so disappointed as this port was one of the reasons we chose this itinerary.
Aruba - This was strictly a shopping stop for us as we were leaving around noon. It worked out well. We got off the boat, walked to town, did our shopping, walked back and lounged by the pool on a beautiful sunny day.
Cartagena - We took the harbor cruise excursion through Princess. We had a beautiful ride through the harbor on a comfortable boat, then landed and were taken by comfortable bus to a secure shopping area. We boarded the bus and traveled to the fortress for a guided tour. Our tour guide was Elkin, and he was certainly the best. This was a first-class excursion. We even enjoyed our ride back to the boat seeing the sights of the old city. The hawkers are definitely out there swarming, but Elkin's group were bothered the least.
Panama Canal - We took the advice of other reviewers and went to the front of deck 10 through an exit door. Get there early! The canal is interesting to see and worthwhile. However, be prepared, it is a very long slow journey. We took the ship excursion that took us the rest of the way through the canal to the Pacific Ocean. While I think this was the best type of excursion to take, it was by far the worst company to take it with. After a bus ride on a vehicle with uncontrollable cold air conditioning (we stuck the curtains in the broken vents to try and make it comfortable), 300 + of us boarded an old ferry vessel. We could choose to be upstairs or up front in the blazing sun/then rain or inside on one of three levels. Once you got your plastic garden chair seat tightly packed to your fellow passenger, that was yours. There were two bathroom stalls for our group on this 10 hour trip. There were no bathrooms on the bus btw for our 1-1/2 hour trip. The food was comical. We had trays of sliced frankfurters in some unnamed sauce, small pieces of chicken on skewers, little cubed egg fritatas, and a few other unappetizing dishes. There were sweet sodas and water available. It was an insult especially considering the cost of the trip (over $300 for a couple). Ships kept cutting in front of us because of their priority claims, but we finally made it off to land and our buses two hours late. We did hit a tugboat pretty hard in the canal, but don't know whose fault this was. On our way home we hit a torrential downpour, and to our dismay, our bus had no working windshield wipers!! That did not stop the bus from rushing through the mountains to get back to the Island who was patiently waiting for us. The experience was not what I would expect from a Princess excursion to say the least. One saving grace - The bus pulled up right to the gangplank and there were the crew with umbrellas open for us - at least those that did not fly away in the storm. It was a nasty storm!!
As I mentioned before, the Costa Rica port was closed so we took a slow trip to Jamaica.
Jamaica - We took a first-class Princess excursion on Cool Running, a gorgeous catamaran to tour the coast and take in some swimming. We had a fabulous time enjoying the sights and interacting with the very accommodating and friendly crew. Definitely recommend this excursion.
All in all, this was a wonderful cruise. Princess continues to be our favorite line and we are excited to go on the Royal in the fall. Even though there are some cutbacks that you might notice, Princess does not bother you in an annoying way to buy their upcharges. Many of these extras are worth it in my opinion, but certainly appreciate their polite way in selling them.