Having researched many Panama Canal itineraries, we were pleased with our 15-night trip on Vision of the Seas. We wanted an itinerary that actually transited the canal and also spent a day in Panama for touring. We were a bit concerned that maybe the ship would feel too small for that length of trip, but it never became an issue at all. We never felt cramped or crowded, except for the actual transit through the canal (more on that later). I had read some reviews that made it sound like the ship was in bad shape, but we did not see anything alarming. In fact, we always saw maintenance crew painting, sanding and refinishing wood rails, cleaning carpet, etc.
Embarkation in San Diego was a breeze, mostly because we had priority access. The general line appeared to be quite long and some passengers commented they waited in line for well over an hour. We encountered the usual log jam caused by the boarding photos. I am not sure why they do not just make two lines, one for those who want the photo and one for those who do not. Our room was ready by 1 p.m. and we could not have been more pleased. Most of our luggage had arrived by 3 p.m., which was an added bonus. There was an overall noticeable decrease in number of staff since our last RCCL cruise, particularly in the cabin attendant areas. We did not have any problems, but some cruisers complained their rooms were not tended until late in the afternoon, short of towels, lack of towel animals, etc. Bar service was lacking, particularly in the Diamond Lounge area.
We chose My Time Dining (MTD), although I have to admit I was a little nervous about having to prepay the gratuity. Surprisingly, the service far exceeded our expectations to the point where we just kept going back to the same team of Cruz and Janice every night. They always made sure our experience was exceptional, and I was ready to adopt Janice and bring her home in my suitcase! Most of the food choices were outstanding and the dinner menu never repeated during our entire cruise. I remember the shrimp ravioli and shrimp stir-fry being particularly delicious.
The entertainment was quite good most of the time and, like the dinner menu, never repeated during the entire cruise. Being America's Got Talent fans, we were excited to see comedy juggler Charles Peachock, who did not disappoint! Broadway's Michelle Murlin, Star Search's Kenny James, entertaining violinist Gary Lovini and ventriloquist Brad Cummings are a few of the other performers we really enjoyed.
The Ports of Call were fine, and all were made better by attending the lectures by Dr. Tom Ryan. I was a bit skeptical the lectures might be a sales pitch, but these were truly informative, educational, and entertaining lectures. Some ports/excursions were hampered by shortened length of time in port. Five hours in Cabo is barely enough time to disembark/tender/reembark. Even though we have been to Cabo many times, this time we ventured out to the Salsa Salsa excursion, which was just a ton of fun. The beach in Puerto Vallarta never disappoints. It was challenging to book an excursion in Guatemala, as our first two choices were cancelled the day before arrival. We decided to take the advice of the shore excursion staff and booked the San Juan Del Obispo Palace and Antigua. The excursion ended up being much better than the written description, great lunch, and our tour guide, Aura, was just outstanding. In Costa Rica, we did the Train, Boat, and Bus adventure, which was quite unorganized and disappointing overall.
I took copious notes at the Dr. Ryan lecture, so I was ready for all the not miss' points during the Canal transit! I can't even explain how interesting it is to experience the entire process and think about all of the manpower and ingenuity it took to build the canal at time in history when all of our modern day technology did not even exist! The one low point was the abundance of rude cruisers who would block entire areas with lounge chairs, umbrellas, and about anything else they could to stake a claim' on the limited amount of deck real estate. Honestly, it was worse than anything you might have experience with people hogging chairs by the pool. This was definitely an area where Royal Caribbean did not do a good job of crowd control to make the experience equitable for everyone who paid a lot of money to transit the canal.
The following day was spent in Colon, Panama. We did the Colonial Panama and Miraflores tour. Our tour guide, Rosie, was hilarious; however, the tour was less than expected. The visit to Colonial Panama was rushed. No time to go inside buildings/churches and no time for browsing at the outdoor arts and crafts market. Lunch consisted of what appeared to be a 6-inch Subway, but it was just dry bread and turkey in a Subway wrapper! The Miraflores visitor center was disappointing. I expected guides and explanations, but there was only a 10-minute movie with time for self-exploration. It was, however, fun to watch boats transit the locks like we had done the day before.
Our last port was in Cartegena. I really wanted to go to Rosario Island, but the tour was not offered due to shortened time in port. We decided to go on the Land and Sea tour, which was insanely uncomfortable and overall horrible. People with long legs, extra weight from a lot of trips to the Windjammer, or ambulation issues beware! They jammed about 60 people into a small open boat. It was extremely hot and humid, but they required that we all wear bulky life vests for the entire hour and a half around the bay! No bottled water or any beverage was offered until much later. We love boating, but I was never so glad to get off a boat in my entire life. We then went to the Fort, where it required an extensive hike up an incline and many challenging steps. Some of the people on the tour opted to stay on the hot bus for more than an hour because they simply could not ambulate what was required. Again, I attribute most of this to lack of sufficient detail in the tour description.
Our last two days was spent relaxing at sea (contemplating our next cruise) before arriving at Ft. Lauderdale. Disembarking went better than expected. There was a line at customs, but it moved fairly well. This was the first time we purchased the ship transfer to the airport and, I must say, it will be the last time we do that. It was an unorganized mess. Thankfully, we did not have an early flight, so we just went with the flow, but next time we will just take a cab.
We can now cross this one off our bucket list. We had a great time on this cruise and might even do it again after the new locks are completed. After all, vacation is what you make of it!