Cruise Review Grandeur of the Seas February 26 - March 4, 2012
While this is mostly a cruise review, it also includes information about Panama and Gamboa Rainforest Resort, where Royal Caribbean put us for two nights prior to boarding the ship.
My sister and I boarded COPA Airlines from Toronto to Panama City. Although COPA has a long history (from the 40's), and was one of two airlines, it is now the official Panamanian airline. The planes are largely Boeing 737-700 and 800 versions, hence they are quite new. The airline provides excellent service, drinks, and real meals at about half the price Air Canada offers.
We were met at Tocumen International by a shuttle taxi booked through the hotel. Gamboa Rainforest Resort provides a shuttle service at a cost of $27.00 US per person. It is much less expensive than than a regular taxi, and clearly the vehicles are better..
Gamboa Rainforest Resort sits at the junction of the Chagres River and the main channel of the Panama Canal/Gatun Lake. It is a really beautiful resort in every way, from the lovely pools to the grounds for walking, excellent restaurants, and rooms with a terrific view of the river and surrounding forest. The balconies have enormous hammocks where one can just hang, literally, and enjoy balmy warm air and sunshine - and they make wonderful pina coladas at the pool bar! There are various tours which can be booked at the resort for a very reasonable price. We did a boat tour on Gatun Lake to Monkey Island, where we saw a lot of wildlife; mostly the engaging and beautiful Capuchin monkeys, named for the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin - since their colouring so resembles the monks' habits. Lots of fun, and wonderful to be passing big ships going through the canal, and see some of the expansion project at eye level. Well worth the dollars. Then we took an aerial tram through the canopy of the rainforest, up to a lookout tower where the entire spread of the canal channel, and the Chagres River was visible. In the evening there was a "Night Safari", free for guests of the hotel; it consisted of driving the grounds in a little bus, armed with only a strong flashlight - but there were turtles, cayman, birds, and the capybara (world's largest rodent) - both adults and tiny little ones frolicking in the grass. Not to forget the tarantula who obligingly comes out for photos. There are three restaurants at the resort, as well as indoor and outdoor bars. The food was all excellent. What we most enjoyed was the very relaxed, family friendly atmosphere where children were included and welcomed. We were also impressed that the resort provided a complete day-care centre and service for its staff.
Panama took control of the canal just over a decade ago - and the strides this country has made are impressive. The expansion of the canal was decided by national referendum; many of the old barrios and slum buildings have been demolished and new affordable housing is being built; every visitor to Panama receives a month free health care from the time of entering the country. Panama is a country well worth a look either for vacation or for retirement.
The day of our sailing I decided to check with the front desk of the hotel as to what time Royal Caribbean would be picking us up to go to the ship. No one knew anything. Our printed material from Royal Caribbean said there would be a welcome package for us at the front desk. There was nothing. The printed literature said our departure from the hotel was 1 p.m., boarding would be from 3:30, and not to arrive at the port prior to 3:30 p.m. The transfer voucher had no time printed, but only indicated to check with the hotel as to pickup time. The Front Desk at the resort kindly called Royal Caribbean, who said we would be picked up at 10 am. Had we not checked ahead, we would have been down by the lake having a leisurely lunch and waiting for a 1 pm pickup.
So - I don't want to be picky: but if Royal Caribbean's cruise booklet and itinerary says there is a welcome package at the front desk, then there needs to be one. This is not a problem of Gamboa, this is a problem of the cruise line when they make the booking. If they sent us a voucher, then it should not have been hard to include the pickup time. Clearly the boarding times were not accurate either.
In the end, we were picked up at 10:30 by a wizened little taxi driver whose bus spent more time wheezing, choking and bouncing along the highway than actually running. If I had to guess I'd say the driver had put diesel fuel in a regular engine - or something. Not that I am an engineer, but it was definitely a taxi with attitude. We got quite a laugh out of it, actually, because he did deliver us intact, with no breakdown.
I could not help but feel like I was back in Viet Nam in the 70's, bouncing down backroads in the YMCA Refugee Services bus, hoping not to hit a land mine along the way!!!!
This process was extremely well-organised - some credit goes RCCL, but much goes to the Panamanians for their orderly way of doing things. They are just really well organised. Our luggage was whisked to its appropriate checkin point, and then we were whisked to ours. We went through in about half an hour and were on the ship. Granted, we were there by noon, before the crowds arrived - but it was still impressive.
On board, we wandered to the Schooner Bar, to be met by a wonderful bartender, Nazhar (Nash) who whipped up a couple of pretty good mojitos. So we just lounged about there for an hour or so, and then wandered up to our room. For this trip, we had booked a Junior Suite - as the price could not be beat. Then we wandered off to see about a little food, and when we returned the luggage had already arrived. First time I've ever seen the luggage come that fast.
This was a slightly different itinerary, which was also one of the reasons we had chosen it: from Colon, sail to Cartagena de Indias in Colombia; Montego Bay in Jamaica; George Town in Grand Cayman, and Roatan in Honduras.
Nice rest in the room, and then dinner time. We had a wonderful table for six, including someone I have worked with in Toronto. It's always interesting to meet someone on a cruise that you've met on land on a professional basis. It made for some interesting dinner conversations. I am not sure the two ladies who were with us were thrilled with the conversations about the church and funeral business, but they managed, I guess....
First night out we had 22-foot seas. Now, the highest I've ever encountered were about 9 feet so this was a first. We had been warned ahead that the first part of the trip would be rocky. Amazingly it didn't bother either of us - we just kind of fell over on the bed and went right to sleep.
Our tour the next morning in Cartagena took us through the Old City, to the Museum of the Inquisition and the Church of Pedro Claver - a Jesuit theological student and later priest who lived in Cartagena in the 1600's, and who championed the rights of slaves. He is considered one of the very first leaders in the area of human rights. I had seen this before, but it was worth the return trip, and it was new for my sister.
Second night out, 28-foot seas. I kid you not. I know the seas can get bigger than that - but what was most interesting was the feeling that we were a toy ship in a bathtub. The little baggies were out everywhere, for those who did get seasick, and there were lots of patches behind lots of ears. Remember, stabilisers can help with the *roll*, but not the *pitch*. Once again, sister and I had a glass of wine with dinner, a nice drink in the bar - this time prepared by the lovely Ayu - then wobbled to our room and promptly fell right to sleep. I admit to feeling just a tad green about the gills the next morning, but breakfast and fresh air took care of that.
On Tuesday, a sea day, we decided to read books, and generally do sister stuff. We delivered a few gifts around the ship to friends on the staff and crew. We did not want to show up glowing like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer for formal dinner, so stayed out of the sun most of the day. That would have been decidedly odd for two old ladies to arrive in evening dress, sunburnt to death. We were fortunate to have dinner with the captain, who finished dinner at precisely 11:20. So the two old ladies went to the bar again, and then to sleep. They just don't make young folks the way they used to......
A comment: I realise it's hard to get everything perfect when working in both English and Spanish. However, the English "Cruise Compass" indicated 'reception to meet the captain', time one hour - that evening; there was nothing about formal photos beforehand. I am a bit of a literalist: if it doesn't *say* I am going to assume there are none. Most Cruise Compasses on other ships DO specify the time for photos. Hence, we didn't go. Now we know, and won't be so literal next time.
Wednesday was Jamaica day - but we decided to stay on board the ship. About mid-morning I decided to wander down to the Front Desk to do a little juggling with excursions, and was totally surprised to be visited by "The Upgrade Fairy"!!!!!, in the form of Alfredo Forbes, Front Desk Manager - a truly wonderful man. I'm a fan, Alfredo!!! Dashed frantically up the stairs two at a time to get sister packing for the move. It was only down the hall, but from a Junior Suite to an Owner's Suite. I had wondered why we were getting so many of the amenities in a Junior Suite - but it was made clear when we found out that they had hoped to upgrade us sooner, but didn't have an empty room. So we got as many of the amenities as possible in the JS. We also discovered a good friend of ours had contacted Tony Curtis the Hotel Director, who is a friend of hers, so he and Alfredo worked that one out. It was a real honour to be treated so well, by such nice people, and be so spoiled. It won't happen on every cruise, of course, and we know it won't - but it was just so much fun. Thanks!!!!
The difference between a Junior Suite and Owner's Suite is huge. Junior Suite has a little extra width, more furniture and a bathtub rather than just a shower. Owner's Suite has living-dining-bar area, two TVs, reams of closet and hall space, queen-size bed, two sinks, jacuzzi and shower in the bathroom, AND a doorbell. The balcony is big enough for two lounge chairs and tables. What luxury!!! Not to mention the cheese plates, wine, fruit and cake which appeared from time to time.
Thursday was Grand Cayman. ...and here is another note to Royal Caribbean. In the English excursion literature, a Jeep tour was offered around the island - but nothing noting a driver's license as a requirement. Remember I said I am a literalist? I assumed *this* meant that someone else did the driving, and we just went out in a jeep for the trip. However, on our *tickets* which were printed in Spanish, "must have driver's license" was clearly noted. Oops! I suggest that the "must have driver's license" bit should be in both English and Spanish versions - for those of us who are literalists and perhaps logically challenged as well. Just a thought.
So, those tickets were changed - and we did the Atlantis submarine excursion 100 feet down along the coral reef. Absolutely fabulous and fascinating! Then we wandered to the Paradise Bar and Grill....which at one time was owned by a Canadian although we weren't able to find out if he still owned it or not. No never mind - conch fritters, rice and peas, fried plantains and a mojito. Wonderful! Just walking back to the ship we got a sunburn......woo hoo. I did NOT want to come home with a pale face.....
Friday: day sitting and reading. Sister developed gastro-enteritis, and we went to the medical centre aboard. She was given medication and quarantined for 24 hours. So it was a day sitting in the room, on the balcony, sitting and reading. I had hoped to get in to Roatan, not having been to Honduras before - but didn't want to leave her sitting. Roatan looks lovely, and I plane to do another trip when and if possible. Unfortunately, a theological student from my church here in Corner Brook was there, on an internship - but we could not get together.
NOTE: costs of medical care on ships can be exorbitant. Be sure you have really good ironclad travel insurance, or a really hefty upper limit on your credit card. We were fortunate - as she only had gastro-enteritis, the treatment was free of charge.
Friday was the second formal night - and I had decided to get my picture with the captain one way or the other. I did warn him in advance. Fortunately my husband and I have been friends of his for some time, so he already knows I am an idiot when on a cruise. So the Hotel Director was primed with the camera, and the minute the captain stepped off the elevator, the picture got taken.
Saturday was another sea day, and included the International Flag Parade. Unfortunately while this was fun, it was just too crowded and noisy around the pool - so we retired to our favourite place for peace and quiet - the Schooner Bar. Kathi decided on a classic martini. Should have warned her, they make 'em strong on RCI ships. My drink was only slightly less potent - so there we were, two old dames sprawled across the sofas in a state of total disarray, laughing and giggling. It was a little hard to navigate to the Windjammer, but I am proud to say we did it. Intact. Food helps.
This review can't go by without several mentions. Captain Espen Been is truly exceptional at his job. He said, and I believe him, that he does it because he loves it. He is a good Master, a good teacher, funny as well as serious. He's been a friend for about six years now (is it already six????) - and I never cease to be amazed at his ability to keep so many things in mind all the time. I also never cease to be amazed at the ability these gentlemen have to *compartmentalise* their lives. Maybe it goes with the job, maybe it's partly personality type. He kept track of us, spoiled us, had us to dinner, fed us ice cream - and I am also pretty sure he was glad to see the back side of us, too! I know some of it is part of the job and good for the company, but some of it is because of the person he is, and it made the trip that much more fun. My life here in Corner Brook is mostly serious, dealing with people every day of the week, many of whom are in serious crisis. It's draining, it's emotional, and I get really, really tired. To be welcomed aboard as a friend, and treated as a friend, makes more of a difference than I can say.
My sister was also welcomed as a friend - she has had issues in recent years with some early dementia, high anxiety levels and memory loss, so going on a cruise is a good way for her to see more of the world while she is still able to remember, and for us to spend time together while we can. She is still talking about how well we were looked after on the ship.
Alfredo Forbes, Front Desk manager, and Tony Curtis the Hotel Manager - could hardly contain their glee at moving us into the suite. They grinned ear to ear. These are two generous and kind people who went out of their way to make this special, just because they could. So was Alin Noaghiu, the Guest Services Manager - a very nice young man. I need to add that *all* the staff at Guest Services were fantastic people, and I wish there had been more time to sit and know them better.
Room stewards Roger Ruiz (JS) and Humberto Lopez (OS) also must be noted. They were quick and ready with everything - and we especially loved our towel swan with roses. We were completely well looked after at all times. These are two excellent workers - and "Gracias" to Humberto for teaching me a little more Spanish.
Dining Room Waiter Terry Ann, and Assistant Waiter Sheriton provided excellent service, and lots of good humour. Terry Ann took a whole lot of ribbing from my Toronto colleague - he just never let up with the gags and needling - and she was able to get into the fun and still do her work.
Nash and Ayu in the Schooner Bar - how nice it was to come to a quiet place where we could sit, relax, and have good conversations and get to know you. Hope we travel together again....
Disembarkation: Equally quick and well-organised as the embarkation. We were off, had our luggage, and were out on our bus in a very short time.
As in all cruises, not everything is always perfect. That's humanly impossible, and frankly, we don't care. We don't ever consider complaining. Everyone is working as hard as possible, while we sit around and do the lazy thing. What I like about the cruises out of Panama is that the paseengers don't seem to complain either. There are rarely more than a handful of people at Guest Services - often there's no one at all. Children are visible, participate, and are well-behaved. Dinner time is family dinner time. It's something to do with the South American way of raising kids to be part of the whole family - so they are expected to be able to function together with adults. I've now done two trips out of Colon, and both of them were the quietest and most enjoyable cruises I've taken.
There is something too, about the smaller ships. My husband and I have sailed on Brilliance, Enchantment (before and after the stretch) and Liberty of the Seas. My sister and I have sailed on Rhapsody, Freedom and Grandeur. Our least favourite ships are Freedom and Liberty - they are just too big and too many people. Rhapsody and Grandeur suit us just fine. My husband and I are looking for a Trans-Atlantic for next spring, and if there isn't a smaller ship, we won't sail. There is much more of a friendly , family-type feel on the smaller ships. The more we cruise, the more we feel that bigger is NOT always better. So we will be looking forward to seeing Grandeur after the drydock.
I hope Royal Caribbean keeps this ship going from Colon, with the wonderful crew. Yes, I know people get moved around every couple of years - but there is a feeling on this ship that they are a team, that they like each other, and work well together. I hope that's true; a good team is rare. Thank you, Grandeur of the Seas and all of your crew and staff for this memorable trip.