This was our first 10 day cruise and our first Princess Cruise. We loved both! I was very happy to have learned the tips from previous cruisers aboard the Island Princess for this itinerary - very helpful advice!
Let me first speak about "The Sanctuary". For us, it was the best "excursion" one could purchase. If Deck 14 Aft is your first stop once you board the ship, run as fast as you can to reserve your spot in this adults-only lap of quiet luxury for the entire length of the cruise at a discounted price. Normally 20.00 per day, half of the spots are available on a first come, first serve basis, but only on the day you board the ship, for a cost of 135.00 for the entire cruise. The excepted day is the day you cruise the canal - where it is a single day charge of $70.00. We opted out of that day, but in hindsight, it would have been the better choice over the over-priced excursion on the Panama Railway Train excursion...I'm still wondering why we paid so much for such little value. Perhaps we just had Murphy with us that day, as our train was stalled on the tracks for near 45 minutes during our trip, and enroute back to the port, our bus broke down, causing us to have to wait at the side of the highway while the tour company sent another bus to rescue the very tired bunch. While we were gone on this excursion, we didn't realize that the ship went back through the Gatun Locks and waited for us in Colon. If we had realized this before, we would have for sure stayed onboard that day, as much as I wanted to take the excursion to see the Pacific side of the canal. Back to the Sanctuary for a minute. There are at least 3 to 4 available staff at your beck and call from 8 - 6 every day. These 4 staff are assigned to the Sanctuary only (and work other hours elsewehere), but just like your waiters and stateroom steward, they are the same staff for the length of your cruise. They will bring you water, they will bring you towels, they will bring you drinks, lunch, and even pillows as available (only 5 available!). But the best part of the day? At 3:30 every afternoon, it was high tea, served right to your comfortable lounge chaise in The Sanctuary, with delightful choices of sandwiches, traditional hot scones, pastries, cookies and of course, tea and coffee!! Everyone got to know my happy dance when the cart rolled in each afternoon! Not to worry if you do not choose to spend time in The Sanctuary -- high tea is served elsewhere on the ship each day at the same time! The Sanctuary also has its own pool - small - but peaceful and deep enough to refresh over the course of the day.
We had read about the "Ultimate Ship Tour" on Cruise Critic. Another cruiser had signed up for this onboard excursion and gave a high recommendation. The price is high at $150.00 per person, but I promise you that you get it back in the positive experience, as well as many goodies delivered to your stateroom the next evening. The tip from a previous cruiser jested to bring an extra bag to take home all the loot and they were not kidding! The robe alone weighs 3 pounds in your luggage. Trust me on that one...I had to redistribute the robes to save myself an additional charge from Air Canada!! You meet several key staff in key function areas of the ship including the engine room, the bridge, the galley, the printing, laundry and crew areas of the Island Princess. You are led by one of the activity staff -- and you have a photographer with you every step of your journey, who scurries back and forth to the photolab with the snapped photos, so that they may be printed and sent to your stateroom later. A time to lounge in the Captain's quarters is truly Star Trek in feeling, sitting around his boardroom table eating fancy canapes, sipping mimosas! While there was a quick tour of the Medical Center, I feel that it was an unnecessary stop on the tour...but perhaps it was interesting to others. In any event, this tour is offered generally on the last sea day of the itinerary, but - is very limited in numbers allowed. This tour may not be booked ahead of time. You have to sign up for it at the Passenger Services desk on Deck 5.
A worthwhile excursion is the longer bus tour of the Highlights of Cartegena. It is drenched with history and pride - and we enjoyed this tour very much. We had read about the aggressive sales approaches by the locals, and indeed there were plenty, but easy to ignore them too. If I wasn't interested, I just kept my eyes down or ahead of me; they got the message and moved on quickly to the next prospective buyer.
We chose not to take a tour on Limon. All of the tours available in Limon are long, primarily because any of the attractions are far away from the port; you will spend most of your tour time on a bus. Also, rthe stop in Limon is the day following the long day of the Panama Canal cruising -- and as much as I would have like to have seen a sloth or a monkey in Costa Rica, I was content to stay in the Sanctuary There are plenty of little market shops right off the ship to grab a few inexpensive souvenirs of this rather unremarkable port. A walk along the main street in town was close by, but seemed a little unwelcoming to the cruiseship tourists. We did not observe any behaviour on the part of locals to welcome the tourists. On the other hand, there was no aggressive selling thrust in front of tourists either!
For the day that you spend cruising the Panama Canal, be prepared for a very early rise if you wish to take in a 'front row' view of the experience. We rose at 4 a.m., with a flashlight and made our way to the "secret door" to a small but wide open balcony on Deck 10 Forward. There is a similar door out to Deck 11 as well. The front open deck is the very best way to catch the whole experience from the very start. It is very dark until your approach into the locks. I suggest a flashlight to get you to your spot on either of these open decks. Otherwise, if it is poor weather, or if you prefer to sit, you may want to get up to the Horizons on Deck 14 where you can watch the experience behind the glass windows. There are 3 chambers to travel through until you reach Gatun Lake. Once we had completed the entry and first gate, we left Deck 10 and went to different areas of the ship to have the experience from different viewpoints as you travel through the locks. We ended our viewing experience at the aft of the ship before heading down to the dining room for breakfast.
Overall, the food certainly exceeded my expectations. Yes, the Horizons buffet is a bit congested and perhaps not the widest variety of choices. Often it seems somewhat unorganized, in that they may offer a theme feature to the buffet menu selections on certain days, (ie - Sushi) but it may be offered in a section of the seating area that you wouldn't necessarily know about until you have filled your plate with the regular daily fare in the regular buffet area. However, the plentiful waiters are watching closely to visit your table as soon as you sit down to offer you a beverage, with a handy bar right inside the Horizons dining area to serve up the 'extra' drinks (ie. soda, beer, wine, etc.) and they are served very quickly. I have not seen that on other ships, and quite enjoyed the convenience of the waiter only too happy to bring you anything to your table once you sat down to eat.
For dinner, we chose the "Anytime Dining", but here is a tip to spare you from a line up or long wait for an available table. Before you board the ship, survey your party and determine what time every day that you prefer to dine. For example, we chose 7:15 p.m. On the day you board, visit the dining room manager where he or she may be stationed (Deck 5 or Deck 6 - Bordeaux or Provence) and make a reservation for this time EVERY day. They will give you a sticker for your sea pass that confirms your table and time every day. If any of your party wishes to cancel that reservation on any day, you just have to call down and let the dining room know. Perhaps you wanted to catch a specific show and need to cancel your reservation for a particular day. At least you have a reserved time if you don't have anything else planned. The nice part is that you will have the same table and the same waiters similar to the traditional dining arrangement, but at a time that you choose to dine. Again, your best result is achieved by heading to the dining room to make your reservation as soon as you board the ship.
I would say that there may have only been one night out of 10 that I had difficulty finding something I liked on the dinner menu in the dining room. Having said that, the food was always well prepared, served in segments with adequate time between courses, and our waiters were very attentive, polite, friendly and accommodating. I was never unhappy with anything I ate. As someone who eats a lot of fish, and no meat or poultry, I was happy to see a daily alternative of salmon as a staple on the menu. After finding the salmon over cooked on the first two times I chose it, I mentioned it casually to the waiter to see if he could just order mine slightly undercooked for a future time I may order. Well, sure enough, the next two times I had salmon, it was perfectly cooked! I am happy to say that the dessert choices aboard Princess did not suit my taste - and I confess to have a serious sweet tooth! It saved me tons of calories! I found that everything was creamy - the cakes, the tarts, the squares, and fortunately, it took me at least 5 days before I had the nerve to ask for cookies as an alternative, and the lovely waiters being who they were, brought them every night thereafter! We ordered room service only once, and it came within 15 to 20 minutes! What a nice surprise. If you are young enough (ie - under 65), you will find that by 10:30 at night, most of the passengers have retired to their stateroom. The shops are open at least an hour beyond that, as well as the bars and casino of course, and suddenly the ship felt like it was our own! That made the cruise enjoyable for us, feeling very young in our mid-fifties!!
I observed a truly happy staff group wherever I was onboard, I must say. I have cruised before with Disney, NCL, Royal Caribbean and Carnival, and I have never seen a more pleasant crew of staff on any of my cruises. That makes a huge difference to my enjoyment on a cruise, though I don't think I realized this until cruising on the Island Princess where the good training was so highly evident.
We chose a balcony stateroom on the Baja Deck, and although small, with a tight walk around the bed, it was none-the-less efficient with a large, useful open closet area just outside of the bathroom. The decorating is starting to look tired, at least in our room it was, but nothing to take away any comfort or enjoyment. The ship is built on the narrow plan to ensure a safe travel through the locks, and it is evident in the hallways and staterooms, but on the other hand, it sure makes it easier to get from one place to another on the ship with ease and speed!
The incentive offers for making a nominal and refundable deposit on up to 4 future cruises is both wise and well worth the 10 minutes spent with the Future Cruise agent onboard. Look for the office on Deck 5 at any point over the cruise, but the line-up is pretty long on the last sea day, so avoid any line-up by popping by in one of the evenings prior to the last day.
We truly enjoyed our first Princess Itinerary and the Panama Canal. We really lucked out with good weather and great on board experiences on this beautiful ship. Looking forward to planning the next Princess cruise!