We have just returned from the Island Princess Panama Canal transit which embarked Vancouver on September 23rd. I kept up a daily blog for friends and family back home and the review below is a loose summary of my daily musings. My wife and I are from the UK and were travelling with my Father who celebrated his 80th birthday on board. If anybody would like to read the illustrated full blog, please feel free. It can be found at:
Although we have cruised a number of times before, this was our first with Princess. Also, my review might appear a little back to front with notes on the ports of call first, so apologies if that causes confusion.
Overall, it's been a fascinating trip during which we have seen and experienced so many new things. We joined in Vancouver and did not have any time to see the city, so I cannot really comment further. However, I wish we could have had more time in San Francisco, one of the great cities of the world, but the highlight was the Golden Gate. Being in the harbour on the same day that the hosts won the Americas Cup was also a great "I was there when it happened" moment.
Although we did not see much of Mexico and the Baja peninsula as we booked a seabound excursion, catching the fish (now confirmed as mahi-mahi), and spotting the fin whale were huge bonuses.
Nicaragua was special, particularly for its spectacular scenery and lakes and volcanoes. It is also a country struggling to get to its feet after years of conflict, so is not yet spoiled by tourism. The people are genuinely grateful to have visitors and to spread the word as to how beautiful their country is. I am sure that with the right political will, Nicaragua can become a Eco-tourist destination and become as successful as it's neighbour, Costa Rica.
Speaking of which, Costa Rica has such a rich and diverse ecology that there is always some unexpected surprise around each corner. As well as the crocodiles and scarlet macaws, I shall remember Punteranas for the tropical deluge, the thunder and the lightning, standing out on our balcony at night and listening to the pouring rain.
The Panama Canal transit was, of course, the highlight of the itinerary. It was a dawn to dusk affair, and combined a magnifcent example of mans triumph over nature together with a fascinating glimpse of the way in which a huge percentage of the world's trade is transported across a continent. This was my second full canal transit but this time I know I will be able to recall many more of the details than I do from my first transit some 45 years ago to the month.
Cartegena was only a short stop and I think we experienced as much as we could given the time available and the unbearably hot and sticky conditions. Although we did not have first hand experience, others who we have spoken to said that they were hassled constantly while walking around the old town, taxi drivers were attempting to overcharge and one unfortunate passenger had his camera stolen. However it would not put me off visiting the Colombia again.
If you did not want to go shopping in Aruba, then swimming was the only real option and being a lover of nature moments, the opportunity to swim in a no limits tropical fish tank is one that I would recommend to anyone who has not tried snorkelling.
As for Princess cruises, (as mentioned, with a caveat that this is our first cruise with them), I have been impressed with their organisation apart from the Aruba disembarkation was a little chaotic and that should have been resolved earlier with a simple announcement which would have eased the confusion and concern. However, the check in process at out hotel in Vancouver was a definite plus and eased our waiting times and queues at the terminal. If only US Immigration could be as organised. Disembarkation at Fort Lauderdale was a nightmare, again solely because of the Immigration process. In fact it was so slow getting everyone through that out post cruise tour had to be cancelled otherwise there was a danger that some people might have missed their homeward flight.
The staff on board the ship have been unfailingly helpful and efficient. We opted for late seating traditional dining in therovence dining room. Frederick and John, our waiters, have provided an excellent service and are masters at getting the timings of each course right so that the other diners on our table are not left waiting with empty plates. The waiters in the Horizon Court buffet ensure that tables are cleared and cleaned constantly. In our favourite lounge, the Wheelhouse Bar, our evening drinks are almost ready for us on arrival. I like the way that we are escorted to our chosen seats and also the way the waiting staff have a different uniform to suit the ship's itinerary or theme night - snazzy stars 'n stripes waistcoats for American night, tropical shirts for Caribbean night - and all very smart to boot.
Both our stateroom and ship itself are spacious, clean and smart and there are certainly enough events, shows and seminars to keep any passenger busy throughout the day. We have been to a few of the evening shows, some more enjoyable than others, but from a purely personal perspective, they are not really "our thing". We like the fact that there is live music playing somewhere on the ship almost continuously from midday until midnight, be it the hard working (and extremely good) bands in the Wheelhouse or Explorers Lounges, or on the Lido deck, to the classical trio and pianists in the Atrium. Definitely something for everyone. Stages in three of the lounges as well as the main theatre mean that all kinds of shows, big and small, can be playing simultaneously, so another plus.
The port/marine biologist lecturer, Ken Williams, has been informative, but rather too much to try and cram into 45 minutes. The other lecturer who shall remain nameless talked too much about himself and just read the on screen PowerPoint presentation, so zero points for him.
I also have it on extremely good authority that all the staff in the Spa are helpful, with the yoga instructor in particular giving lots of encouragement to her class of novices.
Despite my earlier concerns that the Horizon Court buffet appeared a little small, we have never had to wait for a table to be freed up and so my fears were unfounded. A wide and appetising range of food is always available and with small variations daily, this keeps the menu fresh. We also tended to stay out of the heat of the day and headed to the pool around 5pm by which time there was plenty of room to swim, soak in the jacuzzi or grab a quick hot dog or pizza slice from the Lido grill. Icecreams could be obtained until late in the evening also. We did not use the speciality restaurants as the menus were a little too fussy for my Father who prefers plain cooking. Next time though, we will give them a try. Our evening meals improved significantly after the two day Vancouver to San Francisco leg and have been hot, sizeable and cooked to perfection, although perhaps just lacking a tad, presentation wise. However, I would hate to call this a criticism.
The ship was sailing with a full compliment of passengers and I would hazard a guess that the average age is around 65. 80% are American, 10% British, 5% Australian and 5% others. We have not seen or experienced any incidents of rudeness or impoliteness. In fact, everyone is more than happy to strike up a conversation, although we are a little weary of having to explain that Jersey is an Island in the English Channel and not a US state on the Eastern seaboard,
Last, but by no means least in this review, a special mention of our dining companions. So, Larry and Anna, Doug and Karen, if you are reading this, thankyou so much for your company over the last two weeks, for your wonderful stories, the endless laughter and making this voyage so memorable.
And finally, I would like to quote St. Augustine. "The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page".