This was my eighth cruise, fifth on Princess, and first through the Panama Canal…and it was a pleasure.
As is the case with other experienced Princess cruisers, the Island quickly became my favorite. It seemed just the right size, with an easy-to-navigate layout, an appealing version of standard Princess décor, and plenty of nice little touches. One favorite was the covered Lotus pool, done up in a pleasant Asian theme, with soothing New Age music constantly in the background. The Wheelhouse Bar had an especially fascinating mini-museum of maritime artifacts. There was a dedicated "art" room, which meant few "masterpieces" were clogging the other public areas. On this cruise, Movies Under the Stars was usually showing nature footage accompanied by good music during the day, making the main pool area pleasant to hang around. And the passenger-to-space ratio was better than average for a ship of the Island's size. Sometimes it seemed we had the whole ship to ourselves, and perhaps because a lot of the pax were elderly and/or disabled, there was almost always plenty of room in the hot tubs, pools, and on the loungers.
Several downsides: the gym was pretty small, but adequate; several decks in the aft, including he aft pool, were occupied by the upcharge Sanctuary; no International Café; and one of the entertainment venues, the Universe Lounge, had the worst sightlines of any theater or club I've ever been to.
The food was the standard Princess menu, though the main dining room cuisine seemed better prepared than usual. There were lots of very-good-to-excellent dishes, very few outright disappointments. We pretty much avoided the buffet except for the occasional pre-port breakfast. Pizza, especially the daily specials, was yummy. And dinner at Sabatini's was a lovely excuse to gorge on seventeen courses of good food.
Perhaps the very best thing shipboard, though, was the crew. The Cruise Director, Rich Joseph, was outstanding: friendly, personable, accessible. He even ran some trivia games. And the rest of the entertainment staff followed suit, especially Bernie, the much-loved Chilean woman who got me hooked on Zumba. Partway through the cruise we switched from late traditional to anytime dining, and no waiter particularly stands out, but most of them were both efficient and obliging. When we asked the headwaiter for a special order of escargots sometime during the cruise, the very next night he presented each of us with not one, but two servings. Our cabin steward, Debbie, was great too. Even the purser's staff was notably friendly. Kudos to Princess for the quality of the Island's staff.
Entertainment was the usual Princessy mix. The Adrian Zmed show was surprisingly entertaining, the other production shows, some of which we'd seen before, were what they were. The musical acts tended toward middlebrow seniors' tastes - how many performances of "I've Got the World on a String" do I want to hear on a cruise? And I could do without performers telling us that Good Popular Music ceased to be around the time of Vic Damone, or regaling us with endless tales of their wonderful families. But a couple of the comedians (Scott Wyler, Duncan Tuck) were genuinely funny, and I got put under by the hypnotist, and that was fun, too.
Embarkation went smoothly. First port was a too-short morning in Aruba. No tme for scuba, but we took a cheap local bus to Catalina Bay to do some very good snorkeling in the same spot frequented by tourist boats. In Cartagena we took a taxi up to the fort, then walked through increasing heat to the old town, where we did a sweaty but fun walking tour and went to the disappointing, overpriced Inquisition Museum and entertaining, free Gold Museum. Our passage through the Canal was delayed, a good thing as we entered the first locks when it was already daylight. The transit was fascinating, the commentary good, the onboard crowds always manageable. The day in Panama City commenced with a hike up Cerro Ancon for some good views and birdwatching, then a walk to the old town for some enjoyable sightseeing and lunch at the Café Coca Cola. In Puntarenas, we did an excellent zipline excursion with the highly recommended Odyssey Tours, which included a delicious lunch and trips to see scarlet macaws and crocodiles. And in Cabo, we tried parasailing for the first time - great! - and then did an enjoyable snorkeling cruise with EcoCat…lots of fishies.
Summing up, I'd have to happily say that Princess did it again. For cruisers like us, who like our thrills (see above for ziplining and parasailing) but can do without an onboard ice rink, a giant mall through the middle of the ship, bellyflop contests, and the like, the comfortable elegance of Princess hits the sweet spot. At the end of this cruise we reached platinum status and though I'm tempted to go back and try Celebrity or Holland again, it's the "if it ain't broke…" deal. No cruise is totally enjoyable, but this came pretty close.