John and I (Carolyn) are retired Mississippi State University professors in our early sixties, who currently reside in central North Carolina. Both of us are natives of New Orleans and, as such, are interested in good food (and wine!) and good times. Our preferred souvenir is a small regional or national flag. However, I already have flags from all the countries on this itinerary.
We enjoy both cruises and land tours; many of our trips combine the two. Many of our cruises have been in the Caribbean but we have also cruised to Alaska, the Panama Canal, the Mediterranean/Greek Isles, Scandinavia/Russia, Hawaii, French Polynesia, South America/Antarctic Peninsula, the Far East, the North Atlantic (Greenland/Iceland), parts of the British Isles, the Norwegian Fjords, and the Galapagos Islands. We have taken land tours to the Netherlands, Canadian Rockies, Mexico (Cozumel), London, France (several wine regions and Paris), China, Argentina (Buenos Aires, Iguazu Falls, Mendoza wine region), Chile (Santiago, several wine regions) and to many parts of the continental USA.
On our trips, we prefer nature and wildlife tours that involve snorkelling, SCUBA diving, or hiking. In particular, we will hike for miles to see waterfalls, volcanoes, caves, or other interesting geologic features. We also enjoy lighthouses, forts, castles, and anything else we can legally climb up on for a good view.
We are Elite members of Princess' Captain's Circle loyalty program, but have also sailed with Royal Caribbean, Holland America, Costa, Celebrity, and Commodore.
ABOUT THE REVIEW
Other reviews give extensive information on the ship, cabins, food, etc. Our reviews are not like that; they are primarily a journal of what we did in the various ports, including links to tourist sites and maps.
"The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914," by David McCullough (available on www.amazon.com)
"Your Day In The Panama Canal - Northbound: Everything you need to get the most out of your Panama Canal experience," by Richard Detrich (available on www.amazon.com)
"Panama Canal Map," by Cruise Map Publishing Company (available on www.amazon.com)
"Caribbean," by James A. Michener (especially the chapters about Panama and Cartagena; available on www.amazon.com)
TOUR GUIDE CONTACT INFORMATION
Panama: My Friend Mario (Almiza Tours) www.myfriendmario.com
Costa Rica: Alvaro & Diego RamÃrez (Odyssey Tours) www.odysseytourscr.com
REVIEW OF THE CRUISE
SEPT 13 (TUES) - SEPT 25 (SUN) PRECRUISE
We flew to California from RDU almost 2 weeks before the cruise to visit our son, DIL (expecting), and granddaughter. We interrupted our visit with them for a week to tour the Napa and Sonoma Valley wine regions with some college friends. After enjoying a few more days with our son and his family, we were ready to head into San Francisco to embark on the Coral Princess.
SEPT 26 (MON) SAN FRANCISCO, CA (DEPART 7:00PM)
We had been notified by our travel agent about a week before the cruise that boarding would be later than usual, from 2:00 - 4:00 p.m., but departure would still be at 5:00 p.m. However, the day before the cruise, Princess notified us (by e-mail and text message) that heavy sea conditions off the Oregon coast would delay the Coral Princess' arrival in San Francisco; we would be boarding from 4:00 - 6:00 p.m., with departure at 7:00 p.m. This posed no problem for us --- more time to spend with our darling granddaughter!
Our son, DIL, and granddaughter dropped us off at Pier 35 a bit before 4:00 p.m.; check-in was already in progress. After filling out the health form and a short wait in line to check in, we were allowed to board. Right after our security picture was taken, we were handed a card assigning us to early (5:30 p.m.) open seating dinner. We had chosen Personal Choice Dining and our usual strategy is to avoid the first-night chaos in the Personal Choice dining room by having dinner at Sabatini's Trattoria. Unfortunately, Sabatini's was closed tonight and the other specialty dining room (Bayou Cafe and Grill) does not hold any attraction for New Orleans natives. We decided to forego the main dining room and have a light supper in the Horizon Court after sailaway and the muster drill.
While we waited for sailaway, we unpacked our luggage and met our Cabin Steward (Petra, from Hungary). Petra was apologetic for not having the cabin in perfect condition due to the late arrival in San Francisco, but we did not find anything amiss and only needed to request a top sheet for the bed. Perhaps Petra was referring to the shore excursion forms and Princess coupon book that she brought later. We called Room Service asking to switch some items in our complimentary mini-bar setup and to deliver wine glasses, ice, and a lime. Although sometimes Room Service is overwhelmed on embarkation day, everything came quickly, even a plate of lime slices. While John was letting our son and college friends know that we had made it safely to our cabin, I mixed up a gin and tonic to enjoy on our balcony while waiting for sailaway.
The previous time that we had sailed from San Francisco, while it was still broad daylight, we were escorted to the Golden Gate Bridge by two fireboats and a bevy of colorful windsurfers. Because we were leaving at sunset this time, we did not have any escorts. However, we were able to enjoy excellent views of the sunset and the lights coming on all over the city and the bridges. Despite the wind and the vibration and motion of the ship, John was able to get some lovely pictures, especially of the Golden Gate Bridge just after we passed under it, with the towers illuminated by the fading sunlight. It was a bit cool outside, but a windbreaker was sufficient protection.
The muster drill was poorly scheduled for 7:45 p.m., interrupting the sailaway. We waited for a few minutes after the General Emergency Signal was sounded in order to enjoy the view for as long as possible before heading down to our muster station in the Universe Lounge. The Captain's Circle hostess was the muster leader and she had to make repeated pleas for people to stop playing with the Velcro on their life jackets, not to put on their life jackets until the end of the drill, and to pay attention because the muster drill is a serious matter. Although this is typical behavior for passengers at muster, this group seemed to be particularly resistant to following instructions.
The buffet in the Horizon Court included almost all of the dishes that were being served in the main dining room. We skipped the "Welcome Aboard Showtime." During the night, the ship's clocks would be set one hour forward.
SEPT 27 (TUE) AT SEA
This morning we restarted our walking program, which we had ignored for the last two weeks, except for a few short strolls with our granddaughter. The Coral Princess has a wide teak promenade that circles the ship on one level; 2.8 laps equal a mile. Today we eased back into our routine with a 30-minute walk. The temperature was quite cool (60Â°s) and it felt good to stretch our legs.
Later in the morning, our Cruise Critic roll call get-together was held in the Explorers Lounge. Although well-attended by the roll call members (except the honeymoon couples), there were no staff or officers from the ship present. The person who had started the roll call (Wrecks) presented professionally-printed door signs to all of us "Panamaniacs."
After the meet-and-greet, we caught the end of a port enrichment lecture about sea life that we might encounter during this cruise. After lunch, we spent the rest of the day reading and relaxing on the balcony; we also watched a port information lecture about Cabo San Lucas on the stateroom TV. During the afternoon, we saw a large number of dolphins, some quite near the ship.
Soon it was time to get dressed for dinner. This was the first of three formal nights and the evening of the combined Captain's Welcome Aboard Party and Champagne Waterfall. We were planning to skip the party to have dinner at Sabatini's, but while passing through the Atrium, we each were handed a glass of passable champagne.
Sabatini's Trattoria is an extra-charge restaurant that until two months ago featured small servings of 15 cold and hot antipasti, soup, pasta, pizza, main course, and dessert; this was all served over a time span of several hours. The new menu (www.princess.com/learn/onboard/food_dining/specialty_restaurants/sabatinis/index.html) is more conventional, with choice of appetizer/soup/salad, pasta, main course, and dessert. Naturally, you can still choose more than one option for each course. John and I shared three appetizers (soft shell crab, artichoke soufflÃ©, and marinated shrimp), skipped the soups and salads, and each had a small serving of pasta, a main course (lobster three ways), and dessert. This was certainly a more reasonable amount of food to eat, but I rather miss the fun and ceremony of the multiple antipasti served from large platters with a flourish.
SEPT 28 (WED) AT SEA
This morning, we received the disappointing news that the port call in Cabo San Lucas was being cancelled. We have never visited there and were looking forward to seeing the famous Los Arcos rock formations. Supposedly, the effects of Hurricane Hillary would not allow for safe operation of the tenders on Thursday. We thought it was excessively cautious to cancel a port over 24 hours in advance, especially when the sea was glass-smooth. However, we were not driving the boat. This meant we would have six sea days in a row.
Today we upped our walk time to 45 minutes; the air temperature was still pleasantly cool.
Our balcony cabin is the last one towards the stern on the port side. There is a large public balcony across the stern. We were reading and relaxing there while waiting for Petra to make up our cabin. Suddenly she and several officers rushed out on the balcony with a big cardboard box. They carried the box over to the railing and tipped it over. Out flew a large sea bird (probably a brown boobie)! Petra had been called to a balcony cabin to clean up bird poop on the carpet around the bed. When she lifted the bed skirt, she was greatly startled to see a large bird flapping its wings at her. Apparently, it had flown in through the open balcony door and had been hiding under the bed all night. The occupants of the cabin said they had heard unusual noises, but thought those were coming from the hallway. We talked to one of the officers who removed the bird and he said this is a common occurrence. There are small terrestrial birds in the Conservatory and we have seen them in other parts of the ship as well.
After all that excitement, we settled our nerves by attending the Sommelier's Wine Club. This was a wine and food pairing event. Princess reinstated the sommelier position about a year ago and has also improved the wine list. Another innovation (currently only available on the Coral Princess) is a wine card similar to the soda and coffee cards. The cards come in a silver and a gold version for various prices/numbers of bottles of wine. We enjoy wine nearly every night with dinner, so we bought the 12-bottle gold card; this allowed us to buy wines costing $45 or less for an average actual price of $28. The card is only valid for the cruise on which it is purchased.
We made a reservation for an early dinner tonight so that we could see a variety show (Dan Bennett) at 8:15 p.m. and the final performance of a production show (Motor City) at 9:30 p.m. We enjoyed both shows, although we have seen "Motor City" previously.
SEPT 29 (THU) CABO SAN LUCAS, MEXICO (CANCELED)
After increasing our walk to 60 minutes this morning, we spent the rest of the day reading and relaxing. The air temperature was now quite warm (80Â°s). The sea had only slight swells (1-2 ft. according to the "Report from the Bridge" on TV) and we wondered whether it had really been necessary to cancel the port call in Cabo.
Anyone who has read my other reviews knows that we greatly enjoy Princess' osso buco and that it is only served in the main dining room at lunch. We had been checking the lunch menus every day and today was the day! We greatly enjoyed the osso buco and wish it would be served at dinner (perhaps on Italian Night). This was the only time we had lunch in the main dining room.
For dinner, we decided not to a make a reservation for the Personal Choice dining room so that we could test the waiting time for a table for two. We got in line about 6:45 p.m. and were given a beeper, which went off about 20 minutes later; not too bad a wait. By the time we finished dinner, both of the shows had already started. We checked out the Princess Theater, where the production show "Dance" was being performed. It was packed, so we tried the Universe Lounge, which was also standing room only. The comedian (Michael Wilson) was not as funny as the variety entertainer (Dan Bennett) we saw last night, but still enjoyable.
SEPT 30 (FRI) AT SEA
The day started with our usual hike around the promenade. We decided to maintain the 60-minute length through Sunday. After that, there would only be three more sea days (not counting the day of the Panama Canal transit).We expected that the walking on our shore excursions would keep us in reasonable shape until we can resume our 90-minute walks at home.
Today was the "Most Travelled Passengers" luncheon for the 40 people with the most days sailing on Princess. This time we were not at the bottom of the list but squarely in the middle; we were seated with the Chief Engineer. The lunch was held in Sabatini's and, as usual, was delicious. We both chose the avocado and crabmeat appetizer and the beef filet with pate de foie gras. Both the red and the white wines were from Santa Carolina, a Chilean winery, and were excellent. Apparently we were not the only people who questioned the cancellation of the Cabo San Lucas port call. One of the women at our table grilled the Chief Engineer about it and he gave the party line about the tendering being too dangerous.
We spent the spent the afternoon reading and watching for sea life from our balcony. Today the featured animal was the sea turtle. Between the two of us, we spotted seven turtles. This is the first time we have seen sea turtles from a large cruise ship. We also watched a recast of the port lecturer's talk on the progress of the new locks that will allow larger boats to transit the Panama Canal.
Because we had such a filling lunch, we decided to make reservations for a late dinner (after the Captain's Circle party) and forget about seeing the production show. To fend off starvation, we took advantage of the Elite, Suite, and Platinum cocktail lounge. The hors d'oeuvres of the day was a wheel of Stilton and the drink special ($3.99) was Sandeman 20yo tawny port. After that, we enjoyed the sunset while waiting for the Captain's Circle party to start. Nearly 75% of the ship's passengers are members of the Captain's Circle, so four parties were needed to accommodate all of them. There were about 140 Elite members on this cruise; the most travelled couple had over 1,000 days at sea with Princess. The Captain (Fabio Amitrano) announced that he would be leaving the ship in Puntarenas; he was probably tired of hearing complaints about missing Cabo San Lucas. The new Captain would be Mariano Manfuso.
OCT 1 (SAT) AT SEA
During the night, the ship passed through a strong thunderstorm. The bright flashes woke up John, who (only partially awake) thought it was the Japanese fishing fleet. Once we got closer to the storm and the thunder started coming faster after the lightening, it sounded more like we were being shelled by the Nicaraguan navy. The storm was over by the time the sun came up.
This morning we managed to start our walk a little earlier than usual. John calculated that we were walking 13-1/2 minute miles, a good bit faster than the 14-15 minute miles we do at home. Of course, the deck is very smooth and level and there is no head wind. Our biggest problem was avoiding the other walkers, especially those walking against the general flow of traffic. Commendably, there have been a large number of walkers and we were starting to recognize some of the regulars. There have been only been a couple of runners.
Returning to our cabin, we spotted two more sea turtles. After getting cleaned up, we attended a culinary demonstration presented by the executive sous chef and the maitre d'. They cooked one dish from Sabatini's and one from the Bayou Cafe. John and I cringed as they made the jambalaya. It would be nice if Princess actually sent the chefs to New Orleans to find out what Creole and Cajun food really tastes like and to learn that "The Trinity" is not some atrocity that includes bacon. Apparently, the chefs think that throwing okra and hot pepper into a dish makes it "New Orleans cooking." I pity people who eat at the Bayou Cafe and think they have eaten something that is Creole/Cajun in more than name only. End of rant.
This afternoon we attended a port lecture about Puntarenas, Costa Rica. The port lecturer (Bill Keene) asked us not to blame him for missing the port call in Cabo San Lucas when we fill out our evaluations of the cruise. Back at the cabin, we watched a documentary on the construction of the Panama Canal and spotted yet another turtle floating by.
For dinner tonight, we went back to Sabatini's. This time we each got the soft shell crab appetizer and shared the calamari appetizer. We both also had the grilled veal chop with Barolo glaze. The food here has been outstanding and we may make another visit before the end of the cruise.
Then we scooted down to the Universe Lounge for a new production show, "On the Bayou." The set looks like a fishing camp in the Louisiana swamp, with copious quantities of Spanish moss hanging down. The show starts with a jazz funeral and the song topics are more-or-less related to New Orleans: jazz and the blues, prostitution, bayous, voodoo, and Mardi Gras. At the end, some members of the audience near the stage received Mardi Gras beads. Some of the audience was pulled on stage to dance, but we mercifully were overlooked.
This evening the wind picked up considerably and warning signs were posted on the doors to the open decks. There was also a good bit of vibration and mild rocking, although the seas are still slight.
OCT 2 (SUN) AT SEA
I know it is good for us to exercise, but six days of walking around and around the promenade was getting boring. At least it is 2.8 laps to a mile, not 12 laps as on the smaller ships (Ocean and Pacific Princesses). I was really glad that we would be walking on land tomorrow.
Although Catholic Mass is a hit-or-miss proposition with Princess, we were surprised that no interdenominational service was held today. However, there was a Rabbi aboard who held Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, as well as Sabbath Eve services.
Later in the morning, we went to a port lecture on Puerte Amador, the port for Panama City. After that, we spent some more time turtle spotting and saw over a dozen in less than 5 minutes. After lunch we spotted a few more turtles.
This afternoon, the first of two Princess Grapevine wine tastings was held. Previously, these events were complimentary for Elite Captain's Circle members, who could go to as many tastings as they wanted. On this cruise however, we received a voucher to present for admittance to the one Grapevine event of our choice. We tasted six wines: 1 sparkling, 2 white, 2 red, and 1 dessert; all were different from previous Grapevines that we have attended on other ships.
Tonight was the second of the three formal nights. We had lobster and crab cakes in the Personal Choice dining room. After dinner, we attended "A Magical and Illusional Spectacular with the Amazing Gaetano" in the Princess Theater. We had seen Gaetano perform several times on other ships and his show was excellent as usual.
OCT 3 (MON) PUNTARENAS, COSTA RICA (ARRIVE 7:00AM, ALL ABOARD 6:30 PM)
We had previously visited the Atlantic side of Costa Rica (Puerto LimÃ³n) twice. On our first visit, we had taken a ship tour to the Rainforest Aerial Tram (www.rainforesttram.com). On a later visit, we took a boat tour of the Tortuguero Canals (arranged at the cruise ship dock).
For our first visit to the Pacific side, John had contacted Odyssey Tours about their tour "PV2 - Poas & Countrysides." However, the slide show on their website (www.odysseytourscr.com/htmls/poas_volcano_tour.html) about the tour is out of date and the regular tour no longer includes a visit to the La Paz Waterfall Gardens. Therefore, we arranged a custom tour that would include both the volcano and the waterfalls. I was surprised that no one on the CruiseCritic.com roll call was interested in sharing this tour; I think many of them had visited Puntarenas on previous cruises. However, a couple (Donna and Frank from Walnut Creek, CA) from the Princess Facebook roll call joined us. We were a bit jealous when they told us they had spotted and photographed a crocodile from their balcony that morning.
Puntarenas was formerly the main port on the Pacific side of Costa Rica. Now however, the commercial port is at nearby Puerto Caldera and only cruise ships dock in Puntarenas (www.moon.com/destinations/costa-rica/guanacaste-and-northwest/-southern-plains/puntarenas). The pier is about 1/3 mile long and there is a free shuttle to the end of the pier. There is a craft market right at the end of the pier. There are a few other sights in town, but most people seemed to be planning tours to other attractions.
There was some delay in tying up the ship, but by 7:15 a.m. passengers were allowed to disembark. We collected Donna and Frank and headed off for our tour of the central highlands (www.moon.com/destinations/costa-rica/central-highlands).
The owners of Odyssey Tours, Alvaro and Diego RamÃrez, were waiting for us at the end of the dock. They introduced us to our naturalist/guide (Juan) and our driver (Enrique, who we later learned was Alvaro's and Diego's father). We took off in our air-conditioned van via a toll road (Highway 27) for our first stop, the Pos Volcano National Park. It is about a 2-1/2 hour drive to the national park. During the drive, Juan provided interesting information on Costa Rica and its flora and fauna, as well as entertaining us with many old jokes (some real groaners). Along the way, we saw fields of mangos, papayas, and coffee and dairy farms. We also saw large commercial ornamental plant nurseries; at one point, an entire hillside was covered with black material shading the plants. We stopped along the way at Freddo Fresas (Freddy's Strawberries) for a bathroom break and refrescos (fruit slushies) made of strawberries.
Once we got to the Pos Volcano National Park (www.moon.com/destinations/costa-rica/central-highlands/alajuela-and-vicinity/poas-volcano-national-park), Juan gave each of us a bottle of water before the short hike to the crater rim. All of us were feeling the effects of the high altitude (2574 m, about 8400 ft), but John and I could not resist charging ahead with Enrique to see the crater ASAP. When we arrived there, the crater was partially obscured by clouds; by the time the rest of our group arrived, it was totally obscured. However, the clouds cleared after a short wait and we had an excellent view of the main crater and craters from previous eruptions. There are also numerous fumaroles and those proceeded to fill the crater with steam. After enjoying the views of the crater, we walked to a viewpoint of Botos Lagoon, an old crater that is now filled with water. At this point, John and I wanted to take the Botos Lagoon and Escalonia trails back to the visitor center on our own, while the others wanted to retrace our previous (shorter) route. Although Juan seemed doubtful, we won out and made it back to the visitor center first. The trails offered some additional limited views of Botos Lagoon, but mostly provided an opportunity to enjoy a longer walk in the rainforest.
Back at the van, Juan offered us bottles of the local beer (Imperial) to enjoy on the 30-minute ride to the waterfall gardens, which are on the slopes of the Pos Volcano but on the other side from the national park. The road to the gardens was devastated by an earthquake several years ago that also caused over 20 deaths. Some repairs appear to be in progress, but there were long unpaved sections. Perhaps this is why the ship did not offer any bus tours to this attraction, although many 18-wheelers were using the road.
La Paz Waterfall Gardens (www.waterfallgardens.com/index.php) includes animal exhibits as well as gardens and trails to the waterfalls. Juan first guided us through the aviary, where we were all able to hold toucans for photos. We passed through an insect exhibit (mounted specimens). There is also a butterfly farm that includes many feeding stations where we could observe the butterflies (including many blue morphos) close up. After that came a hummingbird garden and an exhibit of white-faced and howler monkeys.
Lunch was served in the Colibries Restaurant. The buffet included both local food as well as something for the unadventurous (i.e., pizza and hot dogs). John and I enjoyed a lunch of gallo pinto (beans and rice, the national dish), chicken, pork, tortillas, and plantains cooked both as a vegetable and as a sweet. We drank mango juice with the lunch. After lunch, we visited the jungle cats area, where we saw pumas, ocelots, margays, and jaguars. The jaguars are gorgeous, powerful animals. We had not realized that they are the third largest big cat after lions and tigers.
Next came an exhibit about the way of life on a Costa Rican farm of a hundred years ago. This area included short rides in a traditionally-painted oxcart. We only wanted our picture taken standing in the oxcart, so we piled in while Juan juggled the cameras. The handler tried to restrain the oxen, but they know their job too well and we were treated to a bumpy, jostling ride. Then we visited a casita (one-room farmhouse) and tasted corn pudding, fresh cheese, and a drink made from sugar. Although there are also cows that provide visitors with milk straight from the source, there was no milking demonstration going on while we were at the casita.
Finally, we came to the trails along the La Paz River that led to what are reputedly the three most beautiful waterfalls in all of Costa Rica. The waterfalls are quite lovely and were full of water. There are side trails that go down to the base or to overlooks of the falls where you can get wet from the spray. There are actually two additional waterfalls on the river, but the side trail to those was closed, perhaps due to the earthquake. We were told that some people who were viewing the fifth fall from the bottom were killed in the quake.
We were really happy to have seen the waterfall gardens. Even Juan and Enrique appeared to enjoy playing tourists at this great site. They seemed to be taking as many pictures as we did of the animals!
We were originally scheduled to make brief visits to Grecia (noted for its unique metal church) and Sarchi (noted for its artisans and brightly-painted oxcarts and furniture). However, to see those sights we would need to return to Puntarenas by a different road (Highway 1, the Pan-American Highway), which was undergoing major construction; it was likely that we would waste a lot of time sitting in traffics jams. Although Juan and Enrique tried to work out an alternate route so that we could at least visit Grecia, we all decided that it would be more prudent to return to the ship by our original route. We were only slightly disappointed to miss those photo ops because we had spent more time at both the volcano and the waterfall gardens than we originally planned. On the way back, we encountered heavy traffic and rain, which made us even more thankful that we had decided to skip Grecia and Sarchi. After this excellent tour with our outstanding guide and driver, we arrived at the ship 45 minutes before "all aboard" time. The rain had stopped temporarily, so Donna and Frank decided to shop at the craft market while John and I chose to return to the ship.
Tonight we had an early dinner (prime rib) and did not want to stay up late to see the hypnotist (Kelli Karl); we were not really interested in the singer (Brandi Chapman) either. During the night, the clocks would be moved forward another hour. We were also reminded that we were halfway through the cruise when we received forms to fill out with our disembarkation plans.
OCT 4 (TUE) AT SEA
Today was another typical day at sea. In the morning, we went to the port enrichment lecture on Cartagena. In the evening, it was French Night in the dining rooms: escargot, French onion soup, and frogs' legs. We still were not enthralled with the idea of seeing either the singer or the hypnotist.
OCT 5 (WED) PUERTE AMADOR, PANAMA (ARRIVE 8:00AM, ALL ABOARD 5:30PM)
We had previously made two partial transits of the Panama Canal from the Atlantic side. On partial transits, tours are only available through the ship. On our first visit, we had taken the "Monkey & Wildlife Nature Cruise on GatÃºn Lake" and on the second, the "Panama Canal & Locks Transit by Boat." For our day in Panama City, John booked the "Rainforest, Colonial Fort San Lorenzo & GatÃºn Lock" (www.myfriendmario.com/tours/pc5) group tour with My Friend Mario (Almiza Tours).
Puerte Amador is a tender port; the tenders dock at a marina on a small island across a causeway from the mainland. While we were getting ready this morning, we could see our sister ship, the Island Princess, in position to begin her northbound transit of the Canal.
Amazingly, we cleared customs at 7:15 a.m. and passengers were able to begin tendering ashore. We took one of the earliest tenders, even though our tour was not scheduled until 8:30 a.m. Mario had sent us detailed instructions on how to reach the pick-up point (at the bus stop just outside the port entrance). Although we were approached by several taxi drivers inside the terminal area, they were not pushy after we told them that we already had already arranged a tour. In fact, one even pointed out the direction to the port entrance when he learned where we were going. It was the same story while we were waiting for Mario to show up; several taxi drivers stopped to offer us rides or tours, but they did not pester us when we declined.
While we waited, we saw a log on the beach near the causeway that looked remarkably like a crocodile; perhaps we were lucky that it was not. Mario and Rey (our driver/guide) arrived exactly when scheduled. However, there was another couple booked on this tour and they had not yet arrived. There was really nowhere (legally) for the air-conditioned van to wait, so Rey took us for a short drive to the end of the causeway and back, pointing out some of the nearby sights. By the time we got back to the bus stop, the other couple (Jeanette and Jack, from Houston, TX) were there; they had gotten stuck in the tender lines behind the Princess tours.
Most of the tour involved sights on the Caribbean side of Panama, about 90 minutes away. On the way to the Trans-Panamanian Highway, Rey drove past a number of sites in Panama with historical ties to the Canal. During the ride, he provided extensive information on the history of Panama and the Canal, as well as on life in Panama.
We turned off the Trans-Panamanian Highway just outside of ColÃ³n and headed for GatÃºn. As we approached the Canal, we could see the busy construction site where the new set of locks is being built for the Caribbean side. At the GatÃºn Locks, we crossed the Canal on a retractable bridge right under the locks. As we crossed the bridge, the locks were being emptied to lower a ship to sea level; we could see the huge volume of water rushing from the discharge chambers into the Caribbean. Most visitors to the Canal do not get to see the locks from this perspective.
Now we were on the west side of the Canal and heading for Fort San Lorenzo, built by the Spanish to protect the entrance to the Chagres River. Soon after crossing the Canal, we crossed a section of the French Canal, de Lesseps' failed effort to build a sea-level canal across the isthmus. From there, we drove to Fort Sherman, which was used by the US to train both jungle fighters and astronauts. There are abandoned roads into the jungle and we stopped at one of these for a rainforest walk. Prior to the walk, Rey passed out cold bottled water. During the walk, Rey spoke about the plants and animals along the trail and some of their uses. We encountered a band of howler monkeys who indeed howled to announce our presence, but they kept their distance. However, we took another side trail and saw about a half dozen much closer up including one on a branch overhanging our trail.
Fort San Lorenzo is in the San Lorenzo National Park (www.sanlorenzo.org.pa/content/blogcategory/23/29/lang,en/). At the entrance station, we made a pit stop and Rey distributed our snack --- local beer (Panama) and Doritos. At the fort we were pleased to find that the ruins were not as ruined as we expected them to be, considering they are in the tropics and over 300 years old. We crossed rickety wooden bridges over the dry moat and up to the central pavilion, where Rey filled us in on the history of the fort. After that, we wandered around the fort and moat independently. We could see another crocodile log on the beach on the other side of the Chagres River, another false alarm. In the park area around the fort, we saw some interesting birds and nests; we also saw mango flowers and papaya trees.
On the return trip to the locks, we enjoyed a cold soft drink. At the bridge over the Canal, vehicular traffic was stopped while a ship exited the locks. When we got out to take some pictures, we were excited to see that the Island Princess was in the first lock. Once the bridge re-opened, we hurried to the GatÃºn Visitors Pavilion to watch her pass through the locks. Rey knew the person who was giving the visitor commentary about the lock and who was originally from Miami. There were only a few other visitors at the Pavilion and the commentator seemed to enjoy personalizing his routine for us Coral Princess passengers. Once the Island Princess had entered the last lock, it was time to return to our ship. This was another excellent tour that delivered everything it promised.
As in Costa Rica, we encountered heavy traffic and rain on the way back to the ship, but the rain had stopped by the time we reached the marina. Although the line for the tenders seemed long, it moved quickly and we were onboard the Coral Princess by 5:30 p.m.
We did not make reservations for dinner because we were not sure when we would be back on the ship. We were changed and at the Personal Choice dining room shortly after 6:00 p.m., picked up our beeper, and prepared to wait for awhile until a table for two was available. We had hardly sat down in the Atrium when the beeper went off. When we went back to the dining room, the Maitre d' escorted us and another couple upstairs to the traditional dining room. Apparently, a number of people with two-tops did not show up for the early seating, so those tables were released to the PC diners. We saw several other couples brought in later. This was the first time we have been moved to the traditional dining room. By the way, the braised lamb shanks with mixed beans were delicious.
We decided to pass on the evening shows (ventriloquist Don Bryan and singer Travis Turpin) in order to be rested for tomorrow's early transit of the Panama Canal.
OCT 6 (THU) PANAMA CANAL, PANAMA (ARRIVE 5:00AM DEPART 4:30PM)
The Coral Princess may have taken on the Canal pilot at 4:00 a.m. and gotten in position to enter the Pacific approach channel at 5:00 a.m., but we did not get up until 5:45 a.m. By that time, it was starting to get light and we were approaching the Bridge of the Americas. This bridge is one of only three that cross the Canal (including the retractable one we used yesterday). It will eventually have to be replaced because it is too low to accommodate some post-Panamax ships that will be coming through the new locks starting in 2014.
John and I dressed quickly and headed to the upper decks to watch the first section of the transit. Our port lecturer gave an interesting narration over the PA system while we transited the Canal. I was surprised that he did not comment on the fact that the sun was rising over the Pacific Ocean, behind the skyscrapers of Panama City. I had learned many years ago from a DC Comic that Panama is the only place in the world where you can see the sun rise over the Pacific and set over the Atlantic. A lady standing next to me remarked on the beauty of the sunrise and I said I thought it was cool that it was occurring over the Pacific; I got a blank look in response. Well, John and I think it's interesting.
On the port side, about halfway between the Bridge of the Americas and the Miraflores Locks, we could see a side channel dating from 1939, when the US attempted to build a third set of locks. We could also see the construction on the new Pacific side locks and approach channels. A single set of locks and the new channels will bypass the existing two sets of locks on the Pacific side and join the Canal between the Pedro Miguel Locks and the Centennial Bridge. Even though the plans are to use as much of the 1939 excavation as possible, an unbelievable amount of earth has to be relocated. These new locks will be in addition to, not a replacement for, the existing locks. Also, the entire canal is being widened and the curves are being straightened to make it safer for larger ships to transit.
After we passed through the Miraflores Locks into Miraflores Lake, we finally spotted a real crocodile --- logs don't drift with that sinuous motion--- confirmed with the binoculars. By now, we were watching the transit from our balcony, with occasional forays to the aft deck for wider views or down to the promenade to watch the change as the Coral Princess was lifted in the locks.
After passing through the Pedro Miguel Locks and under the Centennial Bridge, we entered the section of the Canal (Gaillard Cut) that crosses the Continental Divide. Our port lecturer identified all of the vessels working on widening and maintaining the Canal and explained their jobs; he especially likes tug boats.
After several hours, we reached GatÃºn Lake, which was formed by damming the Chagres River. After several more hours, we began our approach to the GatÃºn Locks, on the north end of the lake. We could see the see the dam on the port side. To operate the new locks, the water level in GatÃºn Lake will have to be raised and the dam is being modified to deal with that change. Finally, we were in the GatÃºn Locks for the three steps down to the Caribbean. We had some great views of the construction underway on the Caribbean side locks.
Just after the ship passed through the GatÃºn Locks, the port lecturer announced that two crocodiles had been spotted sunning themselves on a beach off the starboard side. John got some good pictures of them. He also got some shots of the retractable bridge we crossed yesterday and of the entrance to the French Canal. Soon we were beyond the breakwater and into the Caribbean Sea.
Tonight was Italian Night in the dining rooms. The headwaiters made a special spicy pasta dish, Penne Arrabiata, which we always look forward to having. John enjoyed the Brasato (pot roast) and I had veal scaloppini with Marsala sauce. There were only two shows tonight: an early one (ventriloquist) and a late one (singer); these were the same performers as last night. We couldn't work up enough enthusiasm for either of those, so we relaxed and rested up for the coming day in Colombia.
OCT 7 (FRI) CARTAGENA, COLOMBIA (ARRIVE 8:00AM, ALL ABOARD 1:30PM)
We had visited Cartagena (mappery.com/map-of/Cartagena-de-Indias-Colombia-Map) on a previous cruise. On that visit, we took the ship's "Best of Cartagena and Fortress" tour. That tour made photo stops at all the main sights of Cartagena, but did not allow much time to explore the fortress or the city walls.
We were the first independent passengers to make it out of the port area. Just outside the shops at the cruise ship terminal are tour guides and a bit further is the taxi line. The posted amount for a taxi to the Old City was $15 USD and the price for a trip to the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas was the same; perhaps you could negotiate a lower fare. The driver tried to talk us into letting him wait for us at the Castillo and then taking us to the Old City, claiming it was too far to walk to the Old City from the fort. However, we wanted to walk atop the city walls to reach the historic section. It took nearly 30 minutes in heavy traffic to make it to the Castillo.
The cost to enter the Castillo is C$16,000 pp, which only equals about $8-9 USD. However, if you pay in USD, the actual charge is $10 pp. There is also an audio tour for rent; we did not do that. We bought our tickets and headed up the long main ramp of the Castillo. There are vendors and panhandlers along the way, but that did not pose a big problem for us.
Once up the ramp, we climbed all over the various levels of the fort and enjoyed excellent views of Cartagena. We had the fort almost to ourselves; there were only two or three other couples and a few guards scattered strategically around. Eventually, the tour buses from the ship arrived. Even though it was still early in the day, the sun was already getting hot. By the time they made it to the top of the ramp, some of the tour participants looked in pretty sad shape --- and this was just their first tour stop!
In addition to great views, the Castillo has a warren of underground tunnels (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Castillo_San_Felipe_de_Barajas#The_castle). We explored a few of the shorter ones, and finally found the main entrance by following one of the tour groups into the maze. We took a parallel side tunnel and caught up to the tour group just as they were deciding they did not want to go down the main tunnel and instead wanted to return the way John and I had come. That was probably a wise decision for them as the ramp was steep and slippery in spots. We continued down and down, finally reaching an area where the floor was flooded; we may have been below sea level there. Also, the tunnels were not lighted beyond that point and, although we had brought flashlights, we were not inclined to go wading. We climbed back up, which was actually easier than going down, and explored a bit more. Before we left the fort, we took several pictures with a young man dressed up in a colonial military uniform ($2 tip). He was also playing an eclectic assortment of tunes (e.g., "Sounds of Silence," "Strangers in the Night," "Blue Danube Waltz") on his trumpet.
After about an hour at the fort, we crossed the Puente Heredia to begin a walking tour of Las Murallas, the city walls. Although the walls begin right at the city side of the bridge, that section is not accessible. We walked along Avenida Carlos Lopez (a major thoroughfare) to Calle San Pedro MartÃr, where another bridge crosses from the mainland to the walled city. Here we had to cross the street to reach the ramp to Baluarte de San Pedro MartÃr (St. Peter the Martyr Battery). Looking back from the battery, we had great views of the fort and also the Monumento a la India Catalina, which stands atop a pillar in the traffic circle at the foot of the bridge. Catalina was an Indian woman who served as a translator for Pedro de Heredia when the Spaniards arrived in Colombia; a smaller, gold version of her statue is the Colombian equivalent of "Oscar."
From here, we walked counterclockwise around the walls to the Old Town. Only about 2/3 of the walls are accessible to walkers and the distance is about 1-1/2 miles. The walls range from 20-30 feet high and 10-30 feet thick, putting you nicely above the traffic and providing good views of the city streets and the Caribbean; there was only one section where we needed to descend and walk a block or so before re-ascending. The walls are punctuated by batteries, each named for a saint, and most have cannons (www.fortificacionesdecartagena.com/es/fortificaciones/museo_fortificaciones.htm, in Spanish). We passed a derelict bull ring (Circo Teatro), the Fortifications Museum, Las BÃ³vedas (formerly dungeons, now shops), Teatro Heredia, and other sights.
We finally had to end our walk at the Baluarte de San Francisco Javier; the ramps to the remainder of the walls are gated, perhaps because the walls are too close to the Alcaldia (mayor's office). We walked behind the Naval Museum, the St. Peter Claver Church/Cloister/Museum, and the Modern Art Museum to the Plaza de la Aduana (Customs Square), where we forgot to stop at the Tourist Information Office to pick up a better map than the one we had printed from the Internet. From here, we walked to the Plaza de los Coches, where we would start our walking tour of the historic area. Everywhere we went, there were many pieces of public art --- both historical monuments and modern metallic sculptures. Although there were vendors and panhandlers, we were not bothered excessively. Perhaps they felt that the tour groups from the ship provided easier targets.
There are several good web sites with ideas for walking tours and descriptions of the sites of the Old City (www.cartagenainfo.net/mapas/caminando/flash/english.htm, www.cartagenadeindias.travel/paseo_por.php?la=en, www.lonelyplanet.com/colombia/caribbean-coast/cartagena/sights). People who taxi straight to the Old City are dropped off at the Puerta del Reloj (Clock Gate); this is the only remaining original city gate. Atop the gate is a four-sided clock tower. This gate leads to the Plaza de los Coches, where one can engage a carriage for a tour through the historic area. From there, we walked back towards Custom Square, continuing on to Plaza de San Pedro, and passing the front of the buildings we had passed behind earlier. We had toured the Naval Museum and the St. Peter Claver Church (with the body of the saint in a glass coffin under the main altar) on our previous visit.
Now we were in Plaza de Santa Theresa. From here, we walked along Calle Santa Teresa to Plaza de BolÃvar and its equestrian statue of the hero of South America. The Palace of the Inquisition, the Gold Museum, and the Cathedral are all adjacent to this square. Turning left on Calle Santos de Piedra and left again on Calle Santo Domingo, brought us to St. Dominic Church, reputedly the oldest in the city. Directly in front of the church is the bronze sculpture Mujer Reclinada (Reclining Woman) by the Colombian artist Botero. She is nude and generously endowed in all dimensions, so she is also known as Botero's gordita (little fat one). John wondered what the priest must think about having her in front of the church, but I said it was OK because she must be the patron saint of cruise ship passengers.
From Plaza de Santo Domingo, we walked along Calle de la Mantilla and turned left onto Calle de Don Sanchoco. That street took us back to the Teatro Heredia and the Plaza de la Merced, which we had seen from the walls. Turning right, we walked along Calle de la Merced, passing IglÃ©sia de Santo Toribio de Mangrovejo. This church is noted for having a canon ball come through a window during an attack on the city during a service, but miraculously no one inside was killed.
Turning left after the church, we entered the Plaza de San Diego. This square is surrounded by the Hotel Santa Clara (formerly a Clarist convent), the School of Fine Arts, and many stores and restaurants. From here, we went back towards the Clock Gate, along Calle Chochera del Hobo and passing Parque de Fernandez Madrid.
Once back at the Clock Gate, we exited the walled city and walked along the waterfront (Calle del Arsenal) of the old port of Cartagena. There are two large bronze sculptures, Los Pegasos, of a winged horse family at the head of the bay. By now, we were ready to return to the ship, so we found a taxi ($10). Back at the port, we discovered that the park-like area around the cruise terminal contained a number of birds such as macaws, flamingoes, and a peacock. Like any good theme park, the only exit to the cruise ship dock was through a gift shop. Our entire excursion took about 3-1/2 hours and we probably walked about 4-5 miles.
After a light lunch of four-cheese pizza and iced tea/lemonade (50-50 mix), we watched the sailaway from Cartagena from the stern balcony. As we exited the harbor, we could see two more colonial forts. Then it was time to get cleaned up and attend a port lecture on Aruba. Later, as we were relaxing in the coolness of our stateroom, a general announcement was made asking anyone with O- blood type and a blood donor card to report to Passenger Services to assist in a medical emergency. John (A+) and I (A-) always bring our blood cards in case our type is needed, but they always seem to get enough O- donors.
After dinner (surf and turf), we went to the production show "Tribute." A few minutes before the show started, another request for blood donors was made. We had previously seen "Tribute" on a small ship and it is even more impressive in the Universe Lounge with its movable stage. The circular center of the stage revolves and wedges can move in and out. This show features songs by the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Rat Pack, and some women singers. They showed pictures of the male singers, but not the women; I did not recognize the songs, so I'm not sure which women were being honored.
OCT 8 (SAT) ORANJESTAD, ARUBA (ARRIVE 1:00PM, ALL ABOARD 6:30PM)
During the night, the ship's clocks were set ahead another hour, putting us back on EDT (same as Atlantic Standard Time). The ship docked in Oranjestad (mappery.com/map-of/Aruba-Tourist-Map), close to the main shopping area. Every day for the last week, the ship's weather forecast has predicted a high in the low to high 70Â°s. However, our carefully calibrated Southern skin could tell that the actual highs were in the mid to high 90Â°s. Today was no exception.
We have visited Aruba twice previously. On the first visit, we dove at the Pedernales and Antilla wrecks. On the second visit, we did a full-day jeep tour of the island. That tour covered almost all of the tourist attractions on Aruba.
This time, we had considered taking a taxi to the Casibari Rock Formations and hiking from there to the Hooiberg (www.aruba411.com/activities/hiking.php) and then back to the ship. However, arriving in Aruba at the hottest part of the day evaporated our enthusiasm for hiking 6 miles. Instead, we decided to revisit the sights of Oranjestad.
Disembarkation was delayed while the medical emergency case was taken off the ship on a gurney to a waiting ambulance and his family was escorted ashore. He appeared to be stabilized (no oxygen or drips, gesturing and talking) and I'm sure everyone aboard was hoping for his swift recovery. While this was happening, the line of passengers waiting to disembark grew from the amidships stairways, back to and around the Universe lounge, and back to the Atrium. It turned out that only one gangway was working; it was taking so long to get people off the ship that the ship's tour departures had to be postponed. Finally the other gangway was repaired and everyone was able to go ashore.
We picked up a map from the Tourist Information counter in the cruise terminal and headed off. There were many tour operators along the walkway out of the port. A one-hour tour plus one hour at a beach costs $20 pp. In retrospect, that might have been a good choice for today because we had forgotten how little there is to see in Oranjestad. We started walking east along the waterfront by the yacht basin. This area is lined with booths selling the usual souvenirs and t-shirts. At the bridge near the Renaissance Marina Hotel, we spotted iguanas: one sunning himself on the rocks and another munching contentedly on the grass. We walked through the Renaissance Marketplace and followed a waterside path around the Renaissance Ocean Suites resort to Wilhelmina Park. The bushes along the path were full of shy iguanas and there were a number of them on the lawns as well. We walked across the park and away from the shore along a canal. Then we turned west to Fort Zoutman, where we read the plaques about the history of Aruba and admired the cannons and the Wilhelm Tower. After that, we thought we could do a little window shopping along Main Street. However, Main Street is all torn up for some sort of utilities upgrade. Most of the stores were closed and barred. Next we tried to find the Archaeological Museum using the truly pathetic tourist map. The museum was supposed to be near the Post Office and we managed to find that. Two locals gave us directions, but clearly they had no idea where it was either. We finally gave up and returned to the ship, visiting a couple of shopping centers along the way.
Tonight there was a special Chef's Dinner in the dining rooms. This is not to be confused with the extra-cost Chef's Table ($95 pp, includes a copy of the Princess "Courses" cookbook), which is an extravagant food and wine event and was offered at least three times on this cruise. Nevertheless, this was quite a nice menu, highlighted by the combination lamb chop, veal cutlet, and chicken skewer main course. Of course, the regular menu was also available.
After dinner, we went to see the comedian (Scott Wyler). His act is rapid series of one-liners and short stories, which were quite funny. This was his last show of the cruise and he was obviously having a good time. When his 45 minutes were up, he asked if we wanted more. Then he went on for another half hour.
OCT 9 (SUN) AT SEA
It started raining during the night and eventually rained most of the day and into the evening. One of our fellow passengers is a minister; she volunteered to hold an interdenominational service.
Later this morning, we attended another culinary demonstration, followed by a tour of the galley. In the afternoon, the football game between the New Orleans Saints and the Carolina Panthers was shown both on the MUTS (Movies Under the Stars) big screen and on the stateroom TV. John preferred to watch the game in the cabin, where he was free to hyperventilate until the Saints managed to pull off a victory. Next week we will have to cheer for the Carolina Panthers when they play the Atlanta Falcons (Saints fans' most hated rival).
Tonight was the last of the three formal nights and the Captain's Farewell Cocktail Party. After a delicious dinner of lobster and prawns, we stopped by the party for a champagne cocktail. We went very early (with our books) to the Princess Theater to await the new production show, "What a Swell Party." By the time the show started, it was standing room only. The setting for this show is a country house party in the Roaring Twenties and features music from that period. This was another success for the Coral Princess Singers and Dancers.
OCT 10 (MON) AT SEA
We awoke this morning to a view of Cuba off the port side. After passing between Cuba and Hispaniola, we sailed along the northern coast of Cuba all afternoon. About noon, we saw the Oasis of the Seas sailing in the opposite direction, probably towards Royal Caribbean's private beach in Haiti. We could see rainstorms on the horizon, which fit with our general blah feeling about having to pack. On the positive side, we do not have to endure the airport for a few more days.
We decided to enjoy our last night on the ship by having dinner again at Sabatini's. Tonight we tried the Brazino in Crosta di Sale (striped bass baked in an herbed salt crust).
There was no show tonight in the Universe Lounge and we had seen the production show in the Princess Theater last night. We finished packing and settled in to watch the football game between the undefeated Detroit Lions and the Chicago Bears.
OCT 11 (TUES) FORT LAUDERDALE, FL (ARRIVE 7:00AM)
After disembarking, collecting our luggage, and clearing customs, we waited for the Budget rental car shuttle bus to take us to Budget's off-airport location near the port. We were soon on our way to visit friends in Punta Gorda, on the Gulf Coast of Florida. Instead of taking the direct route across Alligator Alley (I-75) we took the Tamiami Trail (Hwy 41), along the northern border of the Everglades National Park. We hiked several trails in the Big Cypress National Preserve and saw alligators from the boardwalks along the way.
After a fun visit with our friends, we had an uneventful flight from Tampa back to RDU a few days later on Southwest Airlines.