Well, first I am so excited that my husband and I finally made it to Panama and Costa Rica! We tried to do a cruise similar to this 10 day route (Ft. Lauderdale to Cartagena, Columbia, Panama, Costa Rica, Labadee Haiti and Grand Cayman Islands) on Carnival back in 2008. It was an 8 nighter, going only to Panama, Costa Rica and Belize. Well, long story short, they changed the itinerary the day we stepped onto the pier and we went to Mexico, Roatan and Belize. Hmph.
So, we picked this cruise solely for the itinerary, mindfully knowing that us 2 30-somethings would be among a majority of older citizens and probably wouldn't make many cruise buddies to hang with during the cruise. But regardless, everyone we spoke to (all ages) were incredibly nice people and we had a blast. That being said... here I go.
We flew into Ft. Lauderdale a day early on February 3rd. We stayed overnight at the Days Inn Bahai Cabana and honestly, I wouldn't recommend it. It was decent enough for a night but it was kind of run down and dingy (rooms were clean) and the lay out is terrible. There are no elevators, so if you are on the second floor with big, heavy suitcases, you are out of luck. No free breakfast. The staff was pleasant, but, I won't return here. It was really close to Port Everglades, thankfully, and cabs came in a matter of minutes when you called them.
We were among the first few people entering into the cruise terminal, around 10:25 am. There were no lines and we were checked in very quickly. The only con was that the photographer wasn't set up yet for the welcome aboard picture because we were so early, but all in all, we never buy those pictures anyway so we didn't mind. Check in was quick and efficient and we waited in the upstairs room for about a half hour until they let us on at 11:15 am! (or around then..)
Rooms wouldn't be ready until 1 pm but we didn't have much to carry, just light backpacks. We roamed the ship and explored and took pictures until noon when the Windjammer buffet lunch opened. When we walked in, it wasn't crowded yet and we were able to comfortably get food and a table without being jostled. The rooms were ready by the time we were done so down we went to drop off our backpacks! We unpacked the few things in our backpacks before going to roam the ship again. Luggage was delivered very fast - I think before we even set sail, we might have had our bags but I can't quite remember. Either way it was fast and we unpacked in no time. Our room was great except our sink drain kept getting stuck and we had to call maintenance on the first day, and second day until they finally unhooked it and we were able to manually operate it. Maintenance always came within 20 minutes and were pleasant. Our cabin steward, Raul, introduced himself right away, gave us his card and got us a table for our balcony since we were missing one for some reason. He continued to be good during the cruise, however, I felt he always started later than some of the other stewards and our room wasn't ready sometimes when we would leave at 8:30 am and come back before lunch.
We did my time dining, which I thought was FANTASTIC. My husband and I do not like the early seating because on long port days, we would feel rushed. We do not like the second seating because we try not to eat late at night and starting dinner at 9 pm is well, bad for the body. Lately we had been cruising with NCL (this is our first RCI experience) and we loved the flexibility, so My Time was perfect for us. We had the same waiter most nights so he got to know us, which was nice.
Now, all of the food we ate on the cruise was delicious, however, we were severely disappointed with selection. We did not understand why RCI has so much Indian food...there was a whole section each lunch and dinner at the buffet of Indian food, and the dining room menus always had one Indian entree. We felt it was an odd cuisine to have so prevalent, especially when many people do not like it. Also, there were only 2 nights where there was a special chicken dish for dinner in the dining rooms. Most of the week was fish, pork, and lamb...3 things we do not eat. Yeah, we could have ordered a plain chicken breast or pasta every night but never on any other cruise line have I experienced such a lack of variety and hardly any chicken. So we were disappointed in menu's and selection at both the Windjammer and Dining Room but like I said, everything we did eat was VERY good.
We ate at Chops Steakhouse one night too - all I can say is WOW! great value for the extra money...and DELICIOUS!! A+++
I was also disappointed in the food available during the Superbowl "party" they hosted. While we appreciate them showing the Superbowl and providing food, everyone knows that Superbowl food should be appetizers, and lots of them. They served wings (fine). Otherwise it was a hot dog. I found this odd because every day between 3 and 5 pm they had snack time in the Windjammer, and all of the snacks were like, typical Superbowl food - pigs in a blanket, spring rolls, quesadillas, nachos, etc. They could have done much better with the Superbowl food.
The activities were pretty good, however, with a lot of the Arts n Crafts activities (which I like) - you can go to the first one free...but any ones they have after, you have to buy something for it. That bothered me, especially because all craft classes on NCL are free. I went for scrapbooking...so ultimately I didn't mind that I had to buy the scrapbook pack...I would have anyway...but all they did was teach us foldings with scrap paper and you didn't need the packs anyway. So...why can't someone just sit and learn to fold with paper they provide?? It seemed silly. But I only went to one jewelry making class since I would have had to buy more bead kits on other days. The trivia was held multiple times a day and was a lot of fun. We never won, which frustrates us! But we have fun. I tried the rock wall, which was harder than it looked, and the mini golf course is pretty good. All in all we had fun on the ship every day and the activities staff (while short staffed) are all very nice people and a lot of fun. Ricardo was FANTASTIC with scrapbooking and trivia, but he is being moved to the Brilliance soon. Frankie was also very entertaining!
My husband and I were surprised at drink prices - LOWER than some NCL drinks!! very nice surprise...AND...you get a lot of booze for your buck. My husband's Captain Morgan and Coke was all liquor and a splash of coke!
On to the ports... Labadee, Haiti was stop #1. It was a lovely day...we went on the Dragon's Breath roller coaster - SO MUCH FUN! Plus it is $19 for 2 people total (single ride), so not tooooo expensive. We also played in the Arawak Water Park area and got a good workout climbing onto the slides and trampolines. The BBQ was decent, and I liked that you could rent a locker for the day ($10) and keep going in and out of it. It's a small area, and you can walk from one end to the other in about 10 minutes. The market area was a little dicey - the Haitians are very persistent when it comes to visitors and we were a little overwhelmed.
Cartagena, Columbia was stop 2 and it was a very short day - 7 am - 1 pm. We ended up booking a tour through RCI just because it was a short day and we didn't know the taxi situation. We loved our tour (Delux Cartagena and Fort)but we could have hired a taxi for the day to take us around to a few stops. Always use the men in Blue and have some ideas ready for where you want to go. I found the port very interesting and I bought myself some emerald earrings, since they are known for emeralds. We used Mr. Emerald and have the certificate of authenticity, etc. and they were very nice. For any problems, there is a US based number you can call and an e-mail address.
Colon, Panama was number 3. You HAVE to do a tour if you stop in Colon. There is not much around the pier at all, except a shopping area. We did Colonial Panama and Miraflores Locks (through RCI) and it was great! The canal was active when we stopped at the Locks and it was interesting seeing the old French Quarter. We know a lot of people used My Friend Mario for tours, but we were happy with the quality and price of ours through the ship.
Puerto Limon, Costa Rica was next and again, there isn't much besides some shopping around the port. (Very safe area, just not much - and you can't bargain with them over prices, they just don't do it). We did the Jungle Breeze zip lining tour, which was great! We debated getting into one of the red taxi's to go to a pineapple or banana plantation after, but we were so tired from zip lining that we just shopped a bit and headed to the ship, despite it being the longest port day - 7 am - 7 pm. It is easy to get off the ship and find the red taxi's - they all have lists with round trip prices of where they will take you. If we weren't so tired, we would have used them.
Lastly, we stopped in Grand Cayman. I'd been there before, but my husband hadn't. We chose to do an excursion to the Turtle Farm. It was AWESOME. Everyone told us to go swim with the sting rays... however.. the tides were too rough the day we were in port and everyone who had a snorkeling excursion booked was cancelled. But we got to snorkel with the turtles since the turtle farm has a man made salt water lake to swim in with turtles and fish. We also got to hold turtles and play with them. I highly recommend this excursion - I had so much fun. After we just roamed the streets around the tender area and did some shopping. Good jewelry sales as always.
I didn't LOVE the way RCI disembarks... I am used to picking the time I want on NCL, but here they just assign you. We had one of the last times, and they close the breakfast buffet by 8:30 am. When you don't have to get off till 9:20 am, there isn't much else to do... and you are still forced to wake up early to get your food. Luckily we could still go play mini golf, so we got in another round before heading to the airport. We also got lucky and Jetblue put us on a flight an hour and a half earlier than our original flight, getting us in to NY early. Too bad we came home to a horrible surprise of no heat, and a leaky hot water heater, but at least I had a good vacation before finding that "lovely" surprise!!