We have cruised Alaska and the Eastern Mediterranean, but neither my wife nor I had ever visited the Carribean and we decided to book an October voyage immediately after it became clear our favorite baseball team was not going to participate in postseason play. Both of our parents decided to go as well, and we booked three PS suites on the Island Princess thru Costco Travel.
Travel started late Sunday night with the group boarding a non-stop "red eye" flight on Alaska Air from Seattle to Miami. While none of the travelers slept well, the uneventful flight brought the group and luggage to Miami where a van took them to Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale. The Island Princess ship was ready for boarding shortly before noon in a very smooth and organized process. The PS suite was very nice & spacious - not opulent like our NCL "Haven" suite for our Eastern Med Cruise. The double sized balcony was the key feature of the PS suite affording room for loungers with partial overhead cover from the sun. Climate control was excellent in the suite. Overall, the bath, sitting area, and bedroom were all up the the level you would expect in a fine hotel. The minibar was stocked and room service was more than willing to trade liquor / soda for whatever we wanted instead. We never cared to order room service or have dining room meals served in our cabin. I felt the best features of Princess suites were the free laundry and free internet. The internet service was a feature both my wife and I used extensively between our laptop, 2 iphones and two ipads. While not fast, the service was more than adequate for our extensive needs (and thankfully, free!).
The first few days (Monday night thru Thursday morning) were spent at sea. The weather was a bit muggy (temperature in the mid 80s with high humidity) but the seas were very calm. The Island Princess has a fairly well equipped gym with the typical shortage of cardio equipment between 8 and 10 am. The promenade deck actually was a fairly good place to run early in the morning, although I did not like running in the tropical heat.
The Island Princess buffet seemed a bit small -â€" both the seating areas as well as the food stations were crowded during peak times. Princess does a good job with a wide variety of food aiming to please a wide audience. The fruits & vegetables were very fresh, and pizza from the no-cost pizza shop was excellent! A separate no fee shop provided burgers and hot dogs to the passengers. Our group of six had dinner in the Bordeaux dining room nightly, having selected "anytime" dining to accommodate a flexible schedule. The dining experience was quite good, with excellent waiters and an attempt by Princess to give the group the same table and staff despite our inconsistent dining schedule. Having studied Princess postings on cruisecritic.com, we mostly agreed with previous travelers' positive reviews regarding the dining experience. Princess' chefs prepared a themed menu nightly with 6 or so special entrees along with appetizers and desserts in addition to a regular menu of standards. As with most cruise ships, travelers can order multiple entrees, appetizers, salads, soups, and desserts as well as make many substitutions. I found many dishes quite tasty including fettuccine alfredo, prime rib, fried chicken, and lobster. My favorite menu was the "Landfall" finale which included a delicious New York peppercorn steak followed by a dessert of baked Alaska. My wife's favorite dishes included cornish Game Hen, crawfish pot pie, and roast turkey. On several occasions, I ordered the volcano dessert off the children's menu -â€" basically a big banana split. I purchased the Ultimate Kids Drink Package so strawberry smoothies became a nightly beverage. My wife bought a regular drink sticker for her card, so she stuck to Diet Cokes and club soda. Princess also had a separate ice cream stand which served complementary vanilla and chocolate soft ice cream. We did not avail themselves of the premium 'pay' dinner restaurants -â€" Sabatini's (Italian) and Bayou Cafe (Cajun Steakhouse) but did enjoy breakfasts at Sabatini's as suite guests. I considered the main dining room dinners and pizza shop the standouts of the food service.
Entertainment on the Island Princess was variable -â€" One singer, Jacqui Michaels gave an amazing show focusing on songs of legendary female performers including Carole King, Tina Turner, and Ella Fitzgerald. I thought she was the best singer I ever heard on a cruise ship and later learned that Barbara Streisand agreed since Jacqui was a backup singer on Streisand's farewell tour. Other shows weren't as remarkable, and in general, the Island Princess entertainment did not meet the very high expectations set by our Norwegian Cruise to the Eastern Mediterranean. Some evening productions were performed twice on one night and repeated the next day which was a good idea since seats were completely full for some shows. Headline shows included an introductory show with comedian Billy Vader, Island Princess musical productions of Motown, "Piano Men" (Billy Joel/Elton John, Neil Sedaka, etc), Music of the 30s/40s/50s, a ventriloquist, and magician Lorenzo Clark. The Island Princess had an excellent band backing up musical productions but some of the singing was not quite up to par. Princess does a good job showing current movies to entertain travelers during quiet times. One cool feature that all cruise boats will probably copy is placing a large video screen above the pool deck so cruisers could watch movies and sporting events -â€" this made the pool area very popular at night. The Island Princess was very fortunate to have Ken Williams, a very well traveled lecturer, give the introductions to the various ports as well as a great presentation on the Panama Canal. Both of us had been reading David McCullough's great book "The Path Between the Seas" and found Ken's talk quite helpful by putting pictures to the history.
The Island Princess crew does an excellent job at maintaining a clean and comfortable ship. It has the usual amenities found on a 2,000 passenger ship -â€" Basketball court, theater for production shows, separate auditorium for concerts, several bars with different themes, spa, and casino. The two main swimming pools are on deck 14, and have multiple hot tubs attached. For whatever reason, both pools are quite deep with the shallow end being 5'3" making them not very kid friendly. The middle pool area is climate controlled with a glass cover making it quite comfortable during the steamy Caribbean days.
Although I feared hot and humid conditions along with periods of heavy rain (October is part of the Caribbean's rainy season), the weather turned out to be near ideal during the voyage. Most importantly, no tropical storms/hurricanes entered the Caribbean. Other than some periods of quite heavy rain in their first stop, Aruba, conditions were dry and temperatures were in the high 80s. Cloud cover made the Caribbean stops more comfortable -â€" until Jamaica where it was 94 and sunny. The seas were very calm, similar to the our experiences in the Eastern Mediterranean.
At the first stop, a five hour stay in Aruba, we wandered around the capital city Oranjestad. While they did not avail themselves of the incredible snorkeling which Aruba was famous for, the short stay and intermittent heavy rain made many of the tours miserable. We did visit a small beach a short distance away from the cruise dock, and watched an Aruban bird snatch lunch from the sea. Later, they intermittently hid from heavy rains by ducking into the many tourist shops located by the port.
The next day (cruise day 5), Island Princess passengers visited Cartagena, Columbia. This was our first visit to South America, and proved to be a quite illuminating experience. They boarded a Princess tour bus, and visited the largest fort built during Spain's colonial days in the new world -â€" Fort of San Felipe de Barajas. Following the fort visit, the tour continued in Cartagena's old city including the former prison dungeons (now made into 23 tourist shops), the Inquisition Palace, and the San Pedro Claver Church.Perhaps the most educational part of the tour, was the impression left by their excellent guide Wil that the Hollywood inspired vision of Columbia (refer to Johnny Depp's movie, Blow) was far from reality. Cartagena is a beautiful city with great architecture and culture in a country which is making progress against its outlaw reputation.
Day 6 (Saturday) was Panama Canal Day. On our cruise, the Island Princess entered the Gatun Locks, was elevated in 3 steps to 84 feet and then anchored in Lake Gatun for a few hours. Afterwards, the ship returned to the same water elevator and re-entered the Caribbean -â€" the so-called partial transit itinerary. It is very hard to appreciate the incredible feat of engineering in a most hostile environment 100 years ago before the advent of equipment and technology we now take for granted. After leaving the Gatun locks, the Island Princess docked in Panama at Colon where passengers visited the many small shops selling Panamanian trinkets mostly manufactured in China.
On Sunday (day 7), the cruise ship arrived at lovely Limon, Costa Rica. We boarded a tour bus for Veragua Rainforest, an hour long drive including some bumpy unpaved roads ending in a nature preserve popular with tourists. At Veragua, we wandered around the park which included captive snakes, frogs and butterflies with the assistance of their excellent group leader, Kitty. After the zoo exhibits, they rode an aerial tram (i.e. a modified ski lift) down into a valley with a waterfall. Some wildlife could be seen in their natural habitat such as sloths and frogs. Remarkably, no rain fell during our visit during Costa Rica's rainy season. While tourists expecting a safari experience would be disappointed, Veragua provides a comfortable and educational sampling of rain forest ecology. After the return trip to the ship, we visited the ubiquitous tourist shopping village set up near the port.
Following a sea day, the Island Princess made its last port call at Ocho Rios, Jamaica. Unlike the previous ports, clouds did not filter the sunshine and travelers faced mid-nineties tropical heat. We decided against any shore excursions but we did walk around the shops around the port and found quite inexpensive prices for T shirts. They passed a beach that charged $3 for admission as well as many taxi drivers offering their services (at least one way) for remarkably low prices-$2 for a trip "downtown" where their cousin or friend had a much better shop than the ones around the port.
Our voyage ended back in Fort Lauderdale, with a refreshing temperature of 66 degrees upon arrival. Their 3400 mile journey was completed in amazingly smooth waters, and the weather actually cooperated with only significant rain during part of the Aruba visit. Cloud cover actually made visits to Columbia, Panama and Costa Rica much more comfortable. Princess provided a most relaxing and interesting introduction to the Carribean region.