The food was amazing! Our waiter was great (although they seemed short-handed), and the food was the best we've had on a cruise. On other cruises we generally ate at the buffet, but not on this one! I have no idea how they did it, but it will be hard for another cruise line to measure up.
We had our pictures taken on formal nights, but there was absolutely no pressure to do so. We ended up buying a few of them.
The exercise room was in use a lot, but there always seemed to be machines available. I didn't use them because I sprained my ankle badly near the beginning (don't ask), and did a lot of hobbling for the rest of the cruise. The medical staff on the ship even x-rayed it.
Our cabin was clean and nicely prepared each day, and the public rooms were well kept up.
We found everyone on the staff to be very friendly, and they always greeted all of the passengers they came across with a smile not matter what their job was. This was the first cruise we've been on where we not only knew the names of our maitre d' and chief wine steward, but they came by the table each night to see if everything was okay. On other cruises they have introduced themselves only on the last night. A great effort and good training had been given to make all of the passengers feel pampered -- it worked!
All in all, it was the best cruise we've been on! Here are some helpful hints to make your Panama Canal crossing more enjoyable:
1) Be sure to get a balcony! You can come and go at will and not lose your place as you would at the upper deck railing. They gave a blow-by-blow account of what you were seeing on loud speakers on the open decks, but they also ran it on the TV. If you turned it up and left the door open while you were going slowly through the locks and along the Canal, you could still know what was going on.
2) Some of the balconies are larger than others, so check reviews for sizes. Our balcony was one of the larger ones with a partial overhang. It held a table and upright chairs as well as two lounges and a small table. The one above us only held two upright chairs and small table.
3) For the morning you start passing through the locks, order a room service breakfast. We were on the eastbound trip and entered the locks at about 7:00 am (we started toward them before it was even light). I hear the buffet and railings get very crowded, while we lounged, looked over the side, and had a delicious, relaxing bacon and egg breakfast.
4) Bring binoculars. I'm not generally a binocular user, but there was so much to see!
5) Take the eastbound trip if you can. The westbound trip evidently skips the stop at the Gatun Locks where you can go on tours and see the locks at ground level and up close, and that was a highlight. Our Celebrity tour took us to the locks to watch them in operation from a viewing room, and also to Portobello, a town about an hour away. In Portobello we toured an old Spanish fort where the canons still rust inside the walls.
6) Bring a hat, even if you don't usually wear one. It is HOT along the Canal as well as at ports at both ends (especially Cartagena, Colombia). Also, tuck a highlighter into your suitcase to mark events and other things in the daily newsletter.
7) Read up on the Canal, how it works, and its history before you go. It's an amazing story, and you'll appreciate what you see so much more. Just the mechanics of it is a story in itself.
Our bus tour of the area was also very good, and we had an excellent guide.
Just so you know, there is also a fort right outside the pier. We didn't get a chance to go there, but it looked like an interesting place to explore.
Be sure to check out the view on the port (left) side going in or leaving the cove for a great sighting of the famous rock arc.
Then we headed farther out into the country where our guide pointed out things like cashews and bananas growing, and told us about the culture. He also passed items like cashew fruit with the nut attached and banana blossoms around the bus for us to see. I don't know if all guides do this, but it made for a very interesting ride and a wealth of local information.
We ended up at the end of the pier at a small local market. The prices were very good, and we bought a carved wooden box and a few other things for family back home.
Note: The pier is very long, and I figured I'd be exhausted by the time I reached the end. Happily, they drive the tour buses up to the ship, and also run shuttle carts back and forth along the pier, so at the end of an exhausting day, you get to ride back to the ship.