This is a review of the cruise that my wife and I took on the Island Princess Panama Canal cruise on November 29, 2013. This was an 11-night, round-trip, partial-transit cruise from Ft. Lauderdale, with stops in Aruba, Cartagena, Panama, Limon, and Ocho Rios, and 5 at sea days.
We live in South Florida and drove to Port Everglades, arriving around 12:45 (check-in was supposed to start at 12:30). We parked in the Midport Parking Garage, which was right next to the ship in Terminal 19. The garage was pretty full – the only open spaces were on the uncovered roof deck.
The lines were short at that time, so check-in and embarkation were painless. The crew members now use hand-held scanners to read your cruise card when you embark or disembark, which is convenient for both crew and passengers. These scanners were also used for the mandatory mustering at 3:15, so they didn’t have to do a roll call.
The ship was supposed to sail away at 4:00, but was delayed about 45 minutes due to a late flight. It took several hours for our luggage to get delivered to our room.
The Island Princess is 10 years old and was refurbished in October 2010. By current standards it’s not a very big ship, with a capacity of just under 2000 passengers plus 900 crew members. The common areas were nicely decorated and in good condition. There were between 1500-1600 passengers on this sailing, and in many parts of the ship it felt like there were a lot fewer passengers than that. Unlike every other cruise I’ve taken, on at sea days there were always plenty of available deck chairs.
Our cabin was C230, deck 10 (Caribe), on the port side near the front of the ship. The balcony was a decent size, with two reclining chairs and separate footrests and a larger than usual round table. The room was large and nicely decorated, with plenty of closet space and shelves, plus 6 narrow but deep drawers in the night tables and desk. There was a minisafe, though it was too small for an iPad. There were two large TVs. The bathroom had both a bathtub and shower, and a good-size vanity and shelves.
The tiles in the bathroom were showing signs of wear and tear, and outside on the balcony, there was some rust and peeling paint. Other than that, the room was in good shape, and it was in a convenient location.
One issue with this particular cabin: We would often hear what sounded like pumps and rushing water, which could get quite loud at times, even overnight. The noise didn’t last very long when it happened, but I would avoid this cabin. The noise seemed to come from somewhere above the entryway, even though we had cabins above and below us.
There were two main dining rooms, the Provence on deck 6, for people with fixed seating times, and the Bordeaux on deck 5, for people on the Anytime Dining plan, which is what we chose. There’s a separate line in the Bordeaux for people who make reservations, but you don’t really need them. In fact, the one day we made reservations, we had to wait longer to get seated than we did any other night. The line for the Bordeaux is usually longest after the 6:30 Princess Theater show lets out, but even then, you don’t have to wait long, especially if you’re willing to share a table. We opted to sit alone each night; most (maybe all) of the tables for two are next to another one, and in some cases they’re so close together that it’s like sharing a table for 4. We only ate in the Bordeaux for dinner. The food was good overall, typical for cruise line food. The portions were just right, not too small or too large -- we could actually have 4 courses without feeling stuffed. Shorts for men are not officially allowed in the main dining rooms for dinner, but that was not enforced. Ironically, the Bordeaux was one of the only dining venues without a Purell dispenser by the entrance (I don’t know about the Provence).
We decided to try the specialty restaurants, the Bayou Café and Sabatini’s, both on deck 7, in part because I didn’t want to wear a suit jacket for the two formal nights (the formal dress code only applies to the main dining rooms). I went to Sabatini’s to make the reservations for both restaurants about an hour after embarking, because I read in the forum that formal night is a busy night for these restaurants (partly because of the relaxed dress code). The reservations book was empty when we made our reservations – we were the first. Both restaurants were pretty empty throughout the cruise – we ate at the Bayou Café on the first formal night, and at Sabatini’s the second. We didn’t think the food was any better than what you get in the main dining rooms, not really worth the surcharge, though the portions were bigger. Maybe we would have been more impressed if had tried the steaks at the Bayou Café.
The pizza from Princess Pizza on the pool deck (14) was excellent, and I had that for lunch almost every day. I had a hot dog and fries from the Grill & Bar (deck 15) one day, and didn’t think much of them. We tried the Horizon Court a couple of times for lunch, and both times it was crowded and hard to find a seat – this was the only place on the ship that felt crowded (and the ship wasn’t full).
We had breakfast delivered to our room each morning. The orange juice is in very small glasses, so order 2 per person. Note that if you order a danish for breakfast, you’ll get the same kind every day, so if you want variety, try the Horizon Court. When you order breakfast, you can specify the delivery time in half-hour ranges (e.g., 7:30-8:00) – breakfast usually arrived about 5 minutes earlier than the requested time.
On this cruise there was a variety of entertainers in addition to the usual Princess Singers and Dancers. There were a few different comedy acts, a vocal impressionist, and a couple of singers. We saw the comedy acts: stand-up comedian Scott Wyler, who was pretty good, comedian/magician Lorenzo Clark, who wasn’t that good, and comedy duo Alfred & Seymour, who were very funny. We only saw one production show (Piano Man) in addition to the short production show that was part of the Welcome Aboard Show, which was good. We didn’t see impressionist or singers.
On most nights there were shows in the main Princess Theater at 6:30 and 8:00. On some nights there were additional shows in the smaller (but not small) Universal Lounge. We never had trouble finding seats in the Princess Theater. We saw one show in the Universal Lounge (Scott Wyler) – we arrived just as the show was starting, and it was standing room only.
The “party band,” Magnitude, was pretty good, but they didn’t play that much – maybe an hour or so by the pool, an hour in the evening at the Explorer’s Lounge, and at some of the deck parties. The other “dance band,” the Playlist Band, played all evening in the Wheelhouse Bar, and although they played some good baby boomer tunes, they were a bit too mellow for our taste. There were other musicians elsewhere on the ship.
There was the usual large “Movies Under the Stars” screen over the main pool area. They played feature films at night, and older films, football games, and concert videos during the day. The audio was pretty loud, so if you at the pool but weren’t watching whatever was playing, it was pretty distracting.
We decided against sneaking any alcohol onboard in our luggage, so we just carried on a couple of bottles of wine. The prices for wine bottles in the dining room were very reasonable, by restaurant standards. If you wanted wine or other liquor in your cabin, you could order it from room service – the liquor bottle prices were higher than what you’d pay at home, but still cheaper than buying individual drinks from the bar. The prices for room service wine and liquor are listed on the Princess web site here: http://www.princess.com/learn/onboard/gifts_services/cellars_culinarydelights/princess_cellars/index.jsp. We used room service a few times, and they were amazingly fast – they always showed up less than 5 minutes after I called.
We looked at some of the duty-free prices for alcohol. For what we looked at, the prices were okay, some better than others, but not so great that it was worth buying onboard and schlepping bottles home. Bear in mind that if you buy duty-free liquor and fly home, you can’t carry the liquor on the plane, you have to check it with your luggage.
PORTS AND SHORE EXCURSIONS
We did shore excursions at each port, all booked through Princess except for the one in Ocho Rios. We booked everything in advance, though that probably wasn’t necessary on this sailing. The only stop that used a tender was Gatun Lake in Panama.
The port lecturer, Bill Fall, was awesome. He’s an American who grew up in Panama because his father worked on the Canal. He was extremely knowledgeable about Panama and the Canal, and he did a great job presenting the material. He also knew quite a lot about the other ports, and those presentations were also excellent. We didn’t see any of his presentations live, but we watched the replays in our cabin.
Here’s what we did at each port:
ARUBA: We did the Snorkeling Cruise & Antilla Shipwreck shore excursion, which was pretty good. There were a lot of fish at the first snorkeling stop, though not a big variety. At the Antilla wreck site, the visibility was very good (unlike the last time we did this excursion), we could see the entire wreck from the surface. We had a full day in Aruba (8:00 – 7:00), which is a new feature of this itinerary – previously the stops in Aruba were a half day only.
CARTAGENA, COLOMBIA: We did the Highlights of Cartagena, Fortress & Las Bovedas shore excursion, which we enjoyed. The tour guide, Ishmael Morales, was very good, easy to understand, and funny with a dry sense of humor. The Old City is very interesting. The street vendors in Cartagena are very persistent. We considered using one of the highly-rated local tour companies here, but we were happy with the ship’s tour.
PANAMA CANAL/COLON: We started watching the transit through the canal from our balcony (port side), and moved upstairs to the upper deck as we approached the Gatun Locks. Although it wasn’t too crowded up there, it was difficult to see well, especially because of the high glass barriers at the railings, so we ended up returning to our balcony and watching the transit from there. There are two channels through the locks, and we went through the one of the left side, so unfortunately we couldn’t see what was happening in the other channel from our balcony. We had the TV tuned to the ship webcam channel so we could get a forward view and listen to the commentary. Note that the sun shines on the port side in the morning, so it was very hot out on our balcony. We heard later that it was better to watch from the stern once you entered the locks – it’s less crowded, there are no glass barriers (at least on some of the decks), and you can see more of what’s going in both channels. In any case, it was fascinating experience and the highlight of the cruise.
After making the transit, we stopped in Gatun Lake and left the ship (via tender) to take our shore excursion, Panama Canal & Locks Transit by Boat. We were taken by bus to a ferry that made the transit through the Pedro Miguel and Miraflores Locks to the Pacific Ocean, where we took a bus from Panama City back to Colon and re-boarded the ship. This was a great tour, I highly recommend it. Note that only passengers with Princess shore excursions are allowed to disembark in Gatun Lake – everyone else stays on the ship as it goes back through the Gatun Locks to Colon. By the way, don’t plan on exploring Colon on your own – the city area outside the terminal is very run down, dirty and dangerous for tourists.
LIMON, COSTA RICA: We did the afternoon Rainforest Walk, Canal Cruise & Banana Plantation shore excursion, which we enjoyed. We did the Banana Plantation first, but unfortunately the workers were already gone for the day (they only worked a half day on that Friday), so we didn’t get to see the plantation in operation. We did the Tortuguero Canal cruise and rainforest walk at a reserve that included an animal rescue center; we only saw birds and an iguana on the canal cruise, but the highlight of the tour was seeing the sloths, monkeys, toucans, and other birds at the rescue center. We didn’t see any other wildlife during the (brief) rainforest walk through the reserve, though there were a lot of mosquitoes there, so you might want to use bug repellent for this tour. The tour guide Alex was good. We considered using one of the local tour operations instead of doing a Princess excursion, but we went with Princess mainly because we didn’t want to do an early morning tour.
OCHO RIOS, JAMAICA: We wanted to do a beach day at this stop, so we bought a day pass to the all-inclusive Jewel Runaway Bay Beach Resort from Resort for a Day (resortforaday.com). The resort was nice, but unfortunately this was the only day of the cruise where it rained most of the day, so we only got about an hour on the beach. We had lunch at the grill near the beach, but the food there was nothing special – if we went again we would do the buffet lunch instead. Alcohol was included with the day pass, but the mixed drinks lacked both alcohol and flavor. We were the only two people from the ship who went to this resort, and the receptionist there had never heard of the Island Princess, so apparently this is not a popular option for Princess passengers. Note that the officials who worked at the terminal seemed to think we had to be back on the ship by 5:00, when we actually had to be on by 3:30 – when you leave the ship, always note the posted departure time, don’t rely on others to know this.
We chose the express “self-help” disembarkation option, which means we were in one of the first groups to disembark, but we had to carry all of our luggage off the ship. Our group was called to disembark at around 7:20. As usual, Customs was understaffed, so there was a long and slow-moving line to clear Customs (I think we waited about 45 minutes). The ship was docked at a different terminal from the one we departed from, so we had to take a shuttle back to the Midport Parking Garage. Other than the wait in Customs, our disembarkation process went reasonably well, but I can’t speak for those who left the ship later and had to claim their bags. Note that for passengers with flights, Princess provides an option (for a fee) to have your luggage taken directly to the airport and checked in for your flight, so you only have to bring your carry on bags to the airport.
In summary, we enjoyed the cruise, and the Panama Canal itinerary is one you should try at least once. We did the partial transit round trip to avoid the hassle of flying, but if you’re flying anyway and have the time, you should consider the full transit – I did a full transit many years ago (on RCCL) and it was very good.