Panama Canal passage being high on our bucket list, we'd been contemplating a Panama cruise ever since doing the Baltic capitals on the Norwegian Sun last May. We soon settled on the Norwegian Pearl Atlantic-to-Pacific cruise in April 2011. Joined the roll call; set up for a couple of shore excursions; considered the best use of four mileage program airplane tickets; started debating packing options between my one-small-bag inclination and DW's kitchen-sink preference.
Then a number of factors changed at the same time that NCL put a few Star vacancies on a hot sale. On Sept 28, less than a week before sailing from San Pedro, we jumped ship to the Star's Pacific-to-Atlantic passage.
We said we'd take whatever cabin we could get. (We started cruising five years ago on the Star to Alaska and knew we could live with an inside cabin.) In the end we got a small room with a porthole down behind sickbay. Our close neighbors included the cute magician-juggler couple that does Extreme Las Vegas and the wonderful Diva Beverly Bishop from New York.
Although we were two decks below the kitchen end of our favorite MDR, The Versailles, getting there with DW's rolling walker took two elevator trips and a long haul down the Deck 7 promenade. My hope to find a shortcut through crew passage's remained futile.
I had every good intention to be an honest critic and sample all available dining options. First problem: our muster station was in the Aqua and we didn't like the low ceiling and lingering scent of fried fish. I checked out all the fee-reservation restaurants but could not bring myself to paying the fare, not even for Cagney's. Others in the Cruise Critic gang advised me otherwise, but folks we met at shared tables in Versailles reinforced my stinginess.
I broke fast each morning in Blue Lagoon, the only place with really good coffee ready before dawn. DW sleeps in and likes the buffet up in the Market Cafe. Except for the Silver Latitudes lunch with captain and other officers, we had all other meals in the Versailles and never were less than very pleased with choices, quality and service. DW had a mild reservation about the large size of portions -- and the wait staff's chagrin at plates not cleaned.
Our CC meet-and-mingle the second morning out of San Pedro was beautifully planned and well served by the cruise director and senior staff. Unfortunately, about a dozen of us jumped on the list after the room was reserved, so it was a little crowded.
So was the general meeting for all Latitudes members. It was in the Spinnaker Lounge, and most of the 1,100 who were eligible attended. Turned out we outnumbered the crew. The Spinnaker was our worst disappointment. For our Alaska cruise it was a wide-open observation lounge just above the driver seats. That was converted to high-end suites a couple years back, so the big main lounge is now a dark, low-ceiling space above The Versailles at the aft end of the ship. The officers at Meet-and-mingle said there is no going back. (We only went back to the Spinnaker for one more event, a hilarious pastry-making contest featuring Hotel Director Dallas, the executive pastry chef and Our Cruise Director Ray.)
I had only signed up for one NCL shore excursion, a segway tour of our first stop, Cabo San Lucas. The reservation didn't make it to the ship from the Internet, though. We had to lighter at Cabo, but the ship's boats and local water taxis got everybody who wanted to visit ashore within 90 minutes. There was only one other ship at anchor, so the town wasn't too crowded.
At dock in Acapulco we waded through the first four layers of tour hustlers, then joined a couple from Victoria in a SUV with a great driver (who says he drives a city bus on the days when cruise ships aren't in port and showed us the calender listing 111 cruise ship stops for the year.) For $20 each he took us all around to old parts and ostentatious new suburbs such as Las Brisas and got us a terrific vantage to watch the cliff divers.
Leaving Acapulco we got a taste of life above steerage when a wonderful CC couple invited us for sail-away bubbly and hors'd'oevrs in their forward penthouse on Deck 9.
The next stop, Huatulco, is a fairly recent addition to the tour agenda and mostly new. Without taking a bus tour of nearby attractions, there is not much that cannot be seen in a couple hours of strolling.
Similarly, Puntarenas in Costa Rica is strollable if you don't want to get on the big bus and head for the coffee plantation. We hit our worst weather there. A road washout in the mountains caught three NCL buses. The rest of us had to wait more than an hour past scheduled sail-away while the 130 late tourists straggled back. As they got off the buses, they all but kissed the ground.
After an easy sea day and night, we arrived at the entrance to the Panama Canal just before dawn. More than 50 ships of all sizes were waiting in the bay to go through, but we got in line right behind an Arab League panamax container ship. We were together all the way through from Miraflores to Pedro Miguel to the Culebra-Gaillard cut to Gatun Lake, the Gatun three-step locks and out into the Atlantic by dusk. I was really glad to have had that on my bucket list -- and glad that I had read McCullough's "Path Between the Seas" beforehand.
Many of use were ready by then to head for Miami, but the panjandrums of cruising ordain a stop in Colombia. You can get a taste of the country out past Cartagena for a fairly modest sum, and there's a trip on a four-master for those with a taste for the pirate experience. A saunter up the dock past the lovely old Freewinds to the parrot zoo and souvenir shops sufficed for us.
We enjoyed the food and entertainment on the two-day voyage north past Trinidad, Dominica and Cuba and around to Florida.
On debarkation we outsmarted ourselves. In an effort to get to the Fort Lauderdale Airport in time to make a better airline connection than had been possible before the cruise, we had arranged with another couple for a van to pick us up at 8:30 a.m., so we were set to walk our own luggage off as soon as the ship cleared. About a third of the passengers apparently had the same idea, so the line at the gangway wrapped clear to the fantail on the Deck 7 promenade. We made it to the waiting area well before the time we had agreed to meet the shuttle driver, who had agreed to take five of us for $20 each. He stood us up. Finally, around 10 a.m., the four of us still left got in a yellow-cab SUV. The fair for all four was less than $75. Advice: either get a cab to the airport or use that outfit so frequently mentioned over on the cruise-air-Miami thread. Or get one of the NCL-arranged local-attractions tours.
We did luck out with a terrific air connection leaving that afternoon. Apart from a four-hour weather delay in Denver, all was better than we had any right to anticipate from such short-notice planning.
I'm really not ready to be a two-cruise-a-year person, but we did pop for the deal where you get a $100 OBC kickback for paying $250 on your next NCL cruise. Now we're reviewing the bucket list. New Zealand is on there. So is Tahiti. And either a Volga cruise or the Rhine.