Although our hotel room was on the first level next to the parking lot in front, we fortunately did not experience any noise during the night. The next morning we had the nice breakfast offered by the hotel (yogurt, cereal, cheese omelettes, biscuits and gravy, hardboiled eggs, warm cinnamon rolls, coffee, and juice). Then we headed to Total Wine, where we bought nine bottles of wine and some beer and cider for the cruise. This all went in our carryon luggage. While we'd like to avoid the $15 per bottle corkage and haulin-g wine on board, we aren't impressed with Princess's wine list. Most of it is big corporate wine (the ubiquitous and overpriced Santa Margarita pinot gris) and hasn't changed in years. Listings in some cases don't even list the
producer (merely a generic "Puilly Fuisse," "Premier Cru Chablis," or "Chateauneuf du Pape" ) and lack any vintage date. Sure, Princess needs sufficient quantities for all its ships, but how about a Tempranillo or Malbec? The latter go for $8 at home.
Although the hotel has a shuttle to the port three times for $8 each, we elected to take a taxi ($8 plus tip). We left around 11 a.m.; it takes just a few minutes to get to the port terminal. Because we are Platinum members of the Captain's Circle, we went to a separate waiting area in the back
of the terminal building. At around 11:30 a.m. the doors opened and we were the first to check into the Caribe deck, getting aboard at 11:40 a.m. and going to our cabin. The beds were not in the correct configuration (together), so we told our cabin steward Benjamin, who said that was what he was told. We also requested robes and wine glasses. He said the robes were being washed; we got them the next day but never received the wine glasses. Two months before the departure date we requested the eggcrate mattress topper, which request showed up in our travel documents from Princess. But it was not there when we checked in. A reply to a Cruisecritic message board inquiry says this advance fax request is only successful half the time. Although the beds are pretty hard, we just did without the topper. We then headed to the Horizon Court for lunch, as it was still too early to start the Scavenger Hunt to get stamps of various departments (Spa, Photo Gallery, etc.) on our sheet for prizes at the sailaway party. What follows are observations of various aspects of our cruise.
Horizon Court was very hot during the lunch before we sailed. At breakfast it was often difficult to find an empty table. Sometimes we saw one person sitting at a table for six. More tables for two are needed. Also, this area has poor traffic flow. The closest set of doors leading in were part closed, so one had to zig-zag (using the other set of doors) to enter, slowing down traffic. And because there's only two entrances at port and starboard, the flow is not smooth, with people exiting forced to come back through those dining, trying to find a table, or going through the buffet. One day at lunch sushi was offered and another day an extravagant dessert spread at the far front of the area by the stage and bar. The dessert bar was not advertised, so many only heard about it if they either stumbled on it or heard about it by word of mouth.
For breakfast and lunch the choices were fairly vast but not very varied during the 10 days. I was pleased that my favorite almond-chocolate croissant was available every morning rather than on alternate days as on past cruises! The bananas every day got riper and riper when by the last few days most were spotted and very bruised. My wife went through three just to find enough good
parts to eat.
As always, we partook of the excellent pizza available by the pool, bringing it back to our room for lunch or snack. Note that each day around 3:30 p.m. a cart rolls through the Lotus pool area (and maybe the other too) with warm cookies and cold milk; you might have to ask for the latter.We had Anytime Dining, so ate in the Bordeaux dining room. A few times we waited as much as 15-20 minutes for our beeper to say a table for two was ready. Waits depended on what time we dined, of course, with longer waits around 7 p.m. It would be nice if the entire ship was on Anytime Dining, as we've heard that sometimes the fixed dining people come into the other dining room if they don't feel like eating at their assigned times, which leads to waits for the Anytime people. We thought the food in the dining room was very good this cruise, with only a few repeated dishes from past cruises, thankfully. (We don't eat land flesh, so rely on the fish and seafood dishes.) This is not highly seasoned food, as it is meant for the masses, so does lack salt and spice. Ask for some Tabasco to spice up the gamberi al diavolo and soups. For some reason the chocolate in desserts is not very prominent.
The first night we ate in the Bayou Cafe. Though we arrived at 6:30 p.m., no one else was dining there and by the time we left only two other tables were filled. I doubt Princess can justify so little revenue/use from such a large space, which is a shame as the food and service were excellent. I had the alligator ribs, catfish, and bread pudding (more of a custard), while my wife
had the shrimp kabob, catfish, and bread pudding. We had expressed an interest in the prawns entree, so the waiter brought an order of that too. With all the side dishes, we left very full! One sea day for lunch we went to Explorers Lounge for the British Pub lunch. Had fish and chips
with Strongbow cider. Also available but not on the menu was fried shrimp. In the bars after 8 p.m. well drinks, Long Island Ice Teas, and Pina Coladas were $2.95.
We have cruised on Princess several times, but this time the service was probably the best we've ever experienced, with very few glitches. At our first lunch in the Horizon Court a host took our plate and found a table for us, while other servers made sure we had a beverage. Every time we passed a cabin steward in the hall or a staff member he or she greeted us. The only real problems were the ones mentioned above with our cabin steward and with the Captain's Circle lounge. Platinum and Elite members have a lounge reserved for appetizers each night from 5 to 7 p.m. We happened to see a sign the second evening in the Explorers Lounge reserving part for the frequent cruisers. We asked the Captain's Circle hostess about this, as we never received any notice of the lounge, as we had in the past on the Ruby Princess. She said our steward should have left us a flyer with the daily appetizer listing and would follow up. We never heard from her again or received any flyer. A poor way to treat your frequent cruisers! We later learned that 55 percent (over 1,000) of the cruisers this voyage were members of the Captain's Circle (Gold, Platinum, and Elite levels).
We attended the first show in the theater, which featured dancers and a comedian, with our cruise director Stuart Mac. I attended the first Adrian Zmed show on canal day. Some posters have criticized his show for being egotistical, but he just reviewed his career and same several songs. He was very entertaining and clearly the best and most talented act I've ever seen on Princess. I also went to the magic show and comedian Billy Vader. Both were good, though Billy could tighten up his act (he blew some jokes and rambled a bit). Stuart was part of the act, and Billy cracked him up to tears. We only saw the pianist in Crooners once, and he heavily relied on synthesizers, so wasn't particularly appealing. The pianist in the atrium was very good, though we never caught his name. This cruise we noticed that the Princess Theater or Universe Lounge was frequently used at night to show movies rather than live acts, no doubt to cut costs. Of course, this forces people to go to the only live act in the other theater/lounge, which can't accommodate everyone at times. The Princes Theater has no exits at the bottom, which makes
exiting at the top very slow. Most of the live acts performed three times, so it was easy to get to one of the shows. Just avoid the first one if it's early (before 7:30 a.m.), as that one usually packed the theater while the later shows were about half full.
The only time we noticed a lot of motion on the ship was from Jamaica to Panama, when we hit 10-foot waves. We had on our wristbands and ate our chocolate-covered ginger and had no problems. Our cabin was clean (though the bathroom sink was very slow to drain) and the ship was in very good condition. We did see a few areas where Princess has cut back since our last
cruise over a year ago. The Captain's Welcome Aboard Party served cheap sparkling wine versus a variety of cocktails in the past. And there was the increased presence of movies mentioned above. We found some of the social staff had such thick accents that it was difficult to understand them. Fortunately smokers were not a problem this cruise, though we'd like to see
it banned on balconies and in rooms as some other lines have done. We did lose some sleep from the adjacent cabin one night, where a noisy party finally broke up at 11:20 p.m. Prizes for the twice-daily trivial contests and morning show quizzes were decks of cards - not much variety and not the shopping bag promised one day. We ended up with nine packs! The minigolf range is not well marked, and few people seemed to be using it. It's on deck 15, through a door to the right of the golf simulator. One afternoon we were at the adults-only Lotus Pool when three kids and their mother came in and stood by the pool. We wondered why there were there when it became apparent that was where the day's golf ball-chipping contest was being held. Why not
use the other pool or splash pool for this event, and why hold an event where it brings children to an adults-only area? We just left. Overall, there must have been just a dozen or so (a few people said 14) children on this voyage. It seems the other cruise lines are pulling ahead with more features on ships to attract families, but Princess seems not to want to go in that direction, hence the older, mostly retired passengers on its cruises we've been on. One afternoon we attended the tropical rum tasting, but the host just read his dialog and never addressed the three thimblefuls of rum we were served. Our fellow passengers were the most diverse of any cruise we've been on so far, with many from Canada and the Midwest plus Australia, Mexico, the Netherlands, Great Britain, Switzerland, and Germany. The Patisserie is not much, just a few covered trays of tiny pastries, with coffee and tea for purchase at the bar. I bought a coffee card ($24 for 15 drinks, including free brewed coffee and hot chocolate), using it for weak-flavored cappuccinos. I used only six punches and was told the card was good on other Princess ships. In the evening it offered four different wine flights for $8 or $9. This was a nice offering but wasn't publicized except there at the bar. Would be nice if a self-serve ice machine was available. Our final invoice was confusing, as some charges ended up under dates days later than they were incurred
(even though other charges were incurred at the same exact place and time) or in totally different dining rooms. Surely Princess can produce a clear and accurate folio. Also, the online shore excursion descriptions are badly in need of proofreading; there's so many errors Princess should be embarrassed.Panama Canal
The canal crossing of course was the highlight of this cruise. Before your trip be sure to read “The Path Between the Seas” by David McCullough (it’s over 600 pages) and maybe even buy the Panama Canal Map offered by Cruise Map Publishing Company at Amazon.com (cheaper -- about $15 with postage -- than at the publishing company’s Web site). The latter has lots of information and helps you follow where you are in the canal. Another good reference is Alan Walker’s Panama Canal Cruise that can be found in a Web search. As far as the “best” side of the ship to be on, the port side seems to be the best if you’re going from the Caribbean to the Pacific in the right set of locks, but when making your cabin reservation you won’t know which side of the locks you’ll be in. Dr. Thomas Ryan, who provided commentary during our canal day as well as a seminar in the theater the day before, said that of his 179 previous trips through the canal 171 were through the right set of locks, as we were doing.
At 5 a.m. that day I went to the front of our deck (Caribe) to view the transit. Only a few other people were there in the dark and warm, humid air as we approached the breakwater at Limon Bay. My wife joined me at 5:30 a.m., by which time several more people had arrived. It gets crowded, so get to the front of decks Caribe and Baja early! We had a spectacular sunrise just
before entering the Gatun locks. Just ahead of us Holland America’s Zuiderdam was traveling in the left set of locks. The front of the ship gives the best perspective when entering the locks, and the stern the best view when exiting the locks, so move around during the day to see all views. At 9:30 a.m. our balcony brunch (extra $32) arrived. Two tables were set with a tablecloth and seven(!) plates of quiche, fruit, pastries, and smoked salmon and a champagne bucket for the half bottle of blue top Heidseick. After that huge repast and early start to the day, we needed a nap. We woke just in time to see the Culebra Cut and pass under the Centennial Bridge. During the day we saw several areas where widening of the canal and construction of the new set of locks was underway, with dynamite barges and dredges on both sides as well as trucks hauling loads from the hillsides. The skyscrapers in Panama City could be seen in the distance -- very impressive. Our day’s transit cost just over $320,000. Once we reached the Pacific it was time for dinner. I went off to see two shows and then the end of the Academy Awards broadcast in Explorers Lounge while my wife went to our cabin. Upon returning to our cabin, I found the fuel barge and tug from before dinner still on the port side by our cabin and a wife trying to sleep amid the noise. I called Passenger Services, which didn’t seem aware of the procedure taking
place outside and wanted to know what the noise sounded like, so I held the phone out our balcony door for him to hear. He said he would look into it and get back to us. Ten minutes later he called to say the refueling was nearly over and the anchor was being taken up. A half hour later the barge finally left, but it was midnight by then. Frustrating that passengers weren't informed of this noise ahead of time.
Our itinerary was supposed to have included a stop at Fuerte Amador for a few hours, but this stop was canceled for an unexplained reason a month or so before we left. It was disappointing to go all that way and not stop at all in Panama. We traveled directly from Jamaica to Punta Arenas with only a brief fuel stop after exiting the canal that night.
See the separate reviews of the three port stops.
?Acapulco was our departure port. Many other passengers were staying for a night or more, but we were going directly home. After the process of getting through immigration (done early on the ship in the Universe Lounge by one member of the group) and collecting our luggage, we found a van with four other passengers who were going to hotels that were on the way to the airport.
After dropping them off we hit a long traffic jam caused by construction of a bridge project. It took 1 1/2 hours to get to the airport (and $50). The lines at the airport were long, as each passenger’s checked luggage had to be hand searched before getting to the ticket counter. Other passengers with earlier flights were allowed ahead, so the line moved very slowly. We finally got done 10 minutes before our flight was supposed to start boarding. But with the long lines we ended up leaving a half hour late. There was hardly room at the six gates for all the waiting passengers. At all times it was very hot and humid. This airport needs some serious renovation! After going through Dallas we arrived home at 11:35 p.m. – back to reality.
It’s just amazing what some complain about during their cruises, such as dirty windows and improperly filled doughnuts! Manage your expectations, people; this isn’t a luxury cruise line.
In the week after we returned, we received an email from our travel company for an April Panama Canal cruise that was half of what we paid. Ces la vie!
All in all, a great vacation. Now to agree on where to cruise next!