The Panama Canal has been on my bucket list for a few years. Now that we are retired, we have more time to travel. This is the longest cruise we've taken. However, some people were on the ship for almost a month, having sailed Alaska, and the Pacific Coastal to Los Angeles.
We are Platinum Latitudes members, having sailed NCL many times, as well as Celebrity, Royal Carib, and Viking River Cruises, all more than once on each. We've stayed in Ocean view rooms, balconies, mini suites and full suites. We originally booked a balcony for this trip, when a special deal came out to book the mini suite for a couple of hundred $ more, we jumped on it. Thank goodness we did!
We stayed overnight at the Best Western San Pedro. A good hotel with a hot breakfast, in a not so good neighborhood. It was fine for one night, plus they had free transport to the cruise terminal in the morning.
We arrived at the port around 12:10. Lots of people to check you in, it was a breeze. That's where it stopped. After going through security we couldn't believe the people waiting to get on the ship. There were no more seats to sit and wait, people were sitting on the floor and standing. Seems there was a hold up in the boarding, some security issues. Finally after waiting till about 1, they started the boarding process. After that it ran smoothly, perhaps another 15-20 minutes we were on. Our cabins were ready, we put our luggage in the cabin and met our friends in the beautiful Tsar's dining room for lunch.
Lunch was not as good as I remember, service was spotty and my appetizer was cold. No worries, my steak sandwich was hot. This first impression of dining in Tsar, left us not wanting to go back, but try the other options.
By the time we finished lunch, it was almost time for the Mandatory Life boat drill. We were instructed to go back to Tsars, sign in and watch crew put on life vests. That was it. My feeling is if the ship was sinking, there would be chaos and people would run for the first life boat they saw, not the dining room. Oh well......
We had some time to put away our clothes before meeting up with cruise critic members for sail away at the Great Outdoors. The mini suite was very large with plenty of room for the two of us. The balcony had a lot of room, you could easily fit 4 comfortably. The sofa was huge, I think it made into a king sized bed! There was a black out curtain between the bed and the sitting area and balcony, we made use of it daily, as my husband rises earlier than me. It pulls back and attaches to the wall most of the time, unless you want privacy or one wants to sleep in, then it stretches the length of the room. We really enjoyed this feature. The TV seemed to be adequate for the space, however, can I tell you how tired I was of FOX and MSNBC news constantly blabbing away for 16 days! I was longing for CNN, ABC, or CBS! There were occasional movies that repeated and a kids channel. Anyhow, the bathroom was spacious, and there was a lot of room for your clothes, suitcases, etc in the cabin. We had a coffee maker with coffee replenished daily.
We met our cabin steward, Mark Flores, before sail away, we introduced ourselves to him once and from that moment on, he used our names. I asked him to empty our refrigerator, it was done by the time we came back from sail away. We ordered a liter of vodka for the cabin, I asked Mark to bring the mixers that go with it, he said he would tell room service. They were there when we returned. Mark kept our cabin spotless, he greeted us by name with a ready smile, and replaced towels and ice often. I don't think we've had a better cabin steward ever! His service was 5+ stars!
After sail away and before dinner, we went to our friend's balcony cabin for cocktails. (they ordered 3 bottles for the room!) When we walked into the balcony room we were shocked at the size of it. It was so much smaller than the mini suite. I was VERY happy we changed to the mini suite. Their balcony could fit 3 of us, very crowded at that. The sofa was half the size of ours and the walking space between the wall and the bed was tight. There was a kettle, not a coffee maker, the bathroom was much smaller, I think the TV was smaller also. On a cruise like ours, with 16 days and nights, and 7 of the days being sea days, I highly recommend a mini suite.
We ate dinners at the more casual restaurant, Azura. Also we had 2 meals at Le Bistro, a dinner at Chin Chin, and La Cucina. Many times we ate at the buffet, where the food was good and you could always find something you like. The buffet was crowded on this ship. We always managed to find a place to sit. Breakfast was usually on our balcony. We are light breakfast eaters and would have a pot of coffee in the room, then walk up one flight of stairs to the buffet and bring down our croissants, yogurt, cereal, fresh fruit and enjoy another pot of coffee while staring out at the sea. Lunch was at the Great Outdoors, or on the pool deck while sailing, as they always had some kind of BBQ.
Most of the staff members on this ship were smiling, friendly, helpful. Some were great! Especially the "washy washy singers". What smiles, and positive attitudes through out the entire cruise.
We were fortunate to have dinner with Captain Lars in Tsars one night. We learned of his life on and off the ship.
The weather on this cruise was something you couldn't order! It was sunny and warm, with only the afternoon of the canal crossing having rain. Temperatures ranged from low 80's F to high 90's F. We spent many afternoons on loungers on deck 13, above the pool deck, listening to music, drinking a beer, catching the suns rays! It was breezy while cruising, keeping us cool!
The average age on the ship was 64.4. I know that because I went on the ship's tour and it was posted in the crew area. The cruise consultant said it was young for a Panama Canal crossing. There were few children, I think 25. Many people were from New Orleans, that is where we ended the cruise. There were approximately 1430 Americans and 870 foreigners. (I don't remember the exact count)
The entertainment was good to excellent. I especially enjoyed La Cirque Bijou. Get to the theater early for seating on this one. Doors open 45 minutes before showtime.
We did not do any ships excursions. We booked one tour in Costa Rica online before leaving. Another we walked off the ship in Puerto Vallarta and found a mini van for 6 of us, many offer tours as you get off the ship on all stops.
I was worried about Cartagena, Colombia, however it was easy to find taxis and tour guides to take you around. If you go into old town you will be hounded by pesty touts trying to sell you everything. We had to duck into a restaurant to get away from the constant hounding. I still say, don't miss old town, it is beautiful, put blinders on and go! There is a wonderful aviary at the port, with an over priced shop, and cheap beer,wifi and food. If you don't want to venture into town, at least see this, I saw more birds there than on the entire trip.
Our favorite thing about this cruise.......Transit through the Panama Canal! Read "The Path Between the Seas" before you take this cruise. You will learn all that was involved with putting this engineering marvel together. It will be 100 years old in 2014! We were up early, 5:30, on deck to go under the Bridge of the Americas by 6:30. The outside deck was packed, we stayed up there for a half hour, then went to the wonderful solace of our balcony. A Panama Canal expert comes on board and gives a narration the entire length of the canal, pointing out various interesting items and facts. His lecture comes over the tv in your cabin, as well as the intercom on open decks.
After the transit and Cartagena we had 2 sea days, a Cozumel stop, then one more sea day till we arrive in New Orleans. I could barely sleep as we entered the Mississippi and arrived in New Orleans. I wanted to see what we were sailing by, unfortunately it was dark! When I went out on my balcony around 2am, my neighbors were also out there peering into the darkness. I think it would be great to sail from NOLA so you could see this part of the cruise!
Bring binoculars! I used them most days.
This was a wonderful cruise, I marked something off my bucket list. I highly recommend anyone to transit the Panama Canal, and read about it before you do.