BACKGROUND My wife and I are fairly young for retirees. She is late 50's. I am early 60's. We both love to travel. Most of the time we take off in our motor home. We also enjoy cruise ship travel. Over the years we have ... Read More
BACKGROUND My wife and I are fairly young for retirees. She is late 50's. I am early 60's. We both love to travel. Most of the time we take off in our motor home. We also enjoy cruise ship travel. Over the years we have experienced Holland America, Costa, Princess, Celebrity and NCL. Last year we did a narrow boat trip down the Llangollen (glang -GO- len) canal in Wales. Truth to tell, it was hardly a "cruise" experience because in many places the canal was only a few feet wider than the boat and the water was generally less than four feet deep. I mention this Welsh adventure because it was well worth the trip and a very economical way to experience the UK. E-mail me if you'd like more info on narrowboating. You can also type "narrowboating" in your search engine.
Neither my wife nor I are professional cruise ship critic. There are vast numbers of people more experienced in cruises than us. We have been on enough cruises to establish a sort of bench mark on cruise ship offerings. I submit the following as a our opinion of the April 5, 2008 sailing of Princess lines vessel Coral Princess on the "Panama Canal" cruise.
TRAVEL TO PORT We live in North Florida, so travel to embarkation in Ft. Lauderdale (a.k.a. Port Everglades) was a six hour drive. For us this was pretty much no pain (South Florida traffic can be a pain): I-75 south to the Sunshine State Parkway, off in Ft. Lauderdale and a short distance to the terminal. To me, it was key that we not get caught in the Friday afternoon rush traffic. This means getting to where we were going before 3:00. We left one day before the cruise was to embark. This gave us plenty of time for unexpected delays. I found the hotels north of Ft. Lauderdale, i.e. Pompano, Boca Raton to be better in price than those around the cruise terminal. We opted for the Marriott Courtyard in Boca. A very clean three star property. Breakfast available for $12.95 . A short drive to other restaurants serving breakfast. Less than an hour to the cruise terminal in moderate traffic It's South Florida, so if you hotel be sure and take your cruise luggage out of your car. If you have the kind of GPS with a suction cup to stick to your windshield, take the GPS too. Wipe the windshield to remove any mark left by the suction cup. They've been breaking into cars with the telltale suction cup mark looking for the GPS. Wanting to save a few bucks I chose a cut rate car park near the airport, less than 15 minutes from the cruise terminal. This place was Quality Car Park and Auto Rental at 500 NE 32 Ct. in Lauderdale. The $8.00 a day rate was not worth it. Despite their claim that our car would be parked in a fenced area it was actually parked in an unfenced, unguarded area right next to the road in a questionable part of town.
SHIP INFORMATION The cruise line recommends arriving after 1:30 to avoid the initial boarding rush. We got there just after 3:00 and found the terminal virtually empty. Once checked through security, boarding was a matter of walking up the gangway and onto the vessel. The Coral Princess is one of the larger cruise ships. Built in 2002 she measures 980 ft in length and 105 across the beam. Big at 92,000 ton, she is not to be mistaken with some of the grand cruise ships weighing in at over 140,000 ton. The Coral Princess has a passenger compliment of about 2000. The vessel is designed so that it never seemed crowded anywhere. Even in the quintessential main pool area there lounge chairs to be had, even on the days at sea. What's more, if you want to lounge in the pool area but don't wish to experience the band and general pool noise up close, there are several lounging areas set behind translucent partitions. A more traditional sunning area is on the Promenade Deck, complete with mahogany finished loungers. Of the vessels we have been on the Coral Princess was by far the cleanest. Extremely well maintained inside and out. It's said that Holland America has some of the largest staterooms in the business. Except for the balcony, ours seemed every bit as roomy as that on the Holland America ships. Our Coral Princess room was bright, cheerful, well laid out. The ample closet included a floor to ceiling cabinet with shelves and a safe. Drawers were at the bedside and on the vanity, small and narrow. Being RV owners we have experienced the small shower (it is RV sized !) so it was not an issue. Not so with other travelers on this boat. Even one of the show lounge comedians made fun of the showers. The queen sized bed was a comfortable pillow top. The pillows, on the other hand were awful. It reminded me of those used at economy hotels; small and with little substance.
ACTIVITIES Clearly this cruise was designed for a lot of Americans in their seventh and eighth decade. I believe the oldest on board was plucky lass of 96, travelling on her own. Lots and lots of stuff do on the boat. Bingo, shuffleboard, golf putting, trivia, origami, afternoon tea, movies and of course the casino, to name a few. My wife and I like to work out so we did the gym every other day. Crowded in the morning and late afternoon. When we could, we went to the gum around 1:00. The gym had an adequate number of treadmills, a few stationary bikes, nice Cybex equipment and two racks of dumbbells and some barbells (with concrete filled weights). Usually an attendant was on duty and seemed genuinely interested in answering questions or giving general help with the equipment. The men's locker room was well appointed, two showers and a bank of lockers. Towels were also available there. Nice hot sauna. Steam was available but it cost extra.
EATING The Coral Princess has no shortage of places to eat. Two main dining rooms. One for traditional (two seatings) dining, the for Anytime Dining. The Horizon Court was another favorite, offering grand buffet style dining three times a day. I especially liked the one luncheon that included a very impressive sushi buffet. Also available was a hot dog and hamburger bar, a pizza bar (in the main pool area and next to the pool bar). There were two specialty dining rooms. Though for $20.00 extra p.p. we were not impressed with the menu. There was also a complete ice cream bar. This was at additional cost. This was our first experience with Anytime Dining. We liked it. Traditional dining would seat us with the same people every evening. Anytime Dining sat us with different people every night. This was an adventure. We met many people from many different places. Virtually all from the US. We met a lot of folks from upstate New York. Both being Florida natives, my wife and I were able to share lots of information about the Sunshine State. We learned of many other peoples travel adventures and great info about their home states. Where you chose to dine is truly a matter of what you like. We have made some nice acquaintances with people we dined with, ala Traditional, on other cruises. With Anytime Dining the food is the same as in Traditional. The dress code is the same. Dining companions are not. Dine most anytime you want after the dining room opens. To make certain you get seated and to shorten the wait time (usually it was less than five minutes) be sure and make reservations each day. The quality of food on the Coral Princess lacked consistency. There were a few highlights. There were also lowlights. The lobster appetizer, the first night, was like a slice of tofu meatloaf with pieces of lobster embedded. No taste of lobster here. Found the Pina Colada soup interesting in that is was listed as a soup but turned out to be nothing more than a pina colada, complete with straw, fruit garnish and drink glass. Between my wife and I, steak was ordered five times on this cruise. I'm not sure I understand why the waiter bothered to ask how we liked it cooked (medium rare) as it always showed up at the table cooked medium well or well done. Other passengers had the same experience (except those wanting their steak medium well to well done). We love lamb, most any cut. The lamb shank was a total disappointment. Cooked more to resemble a Boston Butt with little semblance of lamb flavor. I didn't finish mine. One night rack of lamb was listed on the menu. We were surprised when it was delivered to the table as three lamb chops. They were very good but hardly presented as "rack of lamb" Sometimes the fish was good, other times it was mediocre. The prime rib was good (though somewhat overcooked). I was disappointed to see it served with creamed horseradish. Real horseradish was available on request. Desserts were catch as catch can. Some were very good, others tasted as if they had come from the corner store's frozen food case. I stopped making notes on the food after three days. Too much to keep up with. A lot of us did the breakfast buffet: Picture many pre-coffee passengers, shuffling around the buffet area collecting breakfast (we were glad to see they included grits some mornings). We discovered that it was less of a hassle and the food tended to be a little better when we ate breakfast in the Bordeaux dining room. The coffee was very good. As was the fresh pineapple and cantaloupe. Vegetables were always tasty. The Horizon Court buffet always had lots of variety (including low calorie selections). And of course, wherever we ate, there was no end to the amount of food we could eat. Some days into the cruise another table mate summed it up pretty well when he said "We came on board expecting the food to be an 8 and discovered that it really is a five".
** Just a quick note here about the drink option. This was heartily offered when we first got on board. The option was presented as many soft drinks as you like on the entire cruise for only $39.95 per person. If a person drinks a lot of soda, this doesn't seem to be too bad a deal, especially when one considers the ships price for a bottle of pop. Be warned, this option is not for bottles or cans of soda. It is for fountain drinks only. Included with the deal was a nice plastic coolie drink bottle (with "Coke" logo).. ** One other note, about hand sanitizer. With the bad press cruise lines have received over the Norwalk Virus, vessels we have been on in the past few years have had hand sanitizer available most everywhere; especially around elevators and outside restaurants. We were a bit surprised to find that while the Coral Princess offered this in the Horizon court buffet it was not openly offered in either one of the main dining rooms. Hand sanitizer was available from the maitre d' in the Bordeaux dining room, though he appeared somewhat put out the time I requested it from him. There were none around the elevators.
ENTERTAINMENT On board entertainment was either very good or pretty bad. The Coral Princess Dancers did quite well. The first nights comedian did not. We enjoyed Lorena B. Fox's performance. It seemed everyone loved comedian Duncan Tuck and his talent with the guitar. Magician Greg Moreland demonstrated some thought provoking illusions. Cruise Director Ron Goodman seemed to do his job well. The last nights entertainment fell somewhat flat as did the comedian offering "250 jokes". Since we did not see all the entertainment offered, we cannot totally comment on the entertainment.
SERVICE Virtually all the service personnel on the Coral Princess seemed to do a very good job. We had no language barrier issues (we only speak English) with the crew. At no time did it seem there was a shortage of service people. Benjamin, our cabin steward was a real professional. He always referred to us by name. At no time did our cabin lack for anything. Our ten nights aboard, he seemed to catch on to our in and out of cabin routine and do his work around our absence. To me a good cabin steward should be almost invisible. Benjamin was terrific ! ***** Tipping on the Coral Princess involves and automatic debit to your shipboard account. This amounted to $10.50 per day per person. People wishing to adjust this amount need to call passenger services and request a change form. The form will be delivered to your cabin. ***** Unlike other cruises we have been on, the Coral Princess did not offer receipts for incidental purchases, e.g. drinks, wine at dinner, ice cream. I'm a retired businessman and I like to have proof of what we've spent money on. Though it was usually no problem when requested, sometimes it seemed to be a major issue: "a receipt sir?, you want a receipt?" Twice, when requested, I never got it.
PORTS OF CALL
Aruba- If all you want to do is shop, that's good, because that's all of what metropolitan Aruba's about. As with other Ports of this cruise, lots of diamond and jewelry shops. From the few other passengers we talked with, Aruba was a port many could have done without.
Cartagena- Once we got over the polluted harbor and stinky air we found Cartagena to be charming in its own way. Finding this charm is not easy for many of our cruise mates because of the sidewalk vendors; they are aggressive to say the least. About every fifty feet we were approached; cigars, handbags, tablecloths, leathergoods. Colorfully dressed native women wearing large hats filled with fruit beg to have you take their picture. Bargains can be had from these folks. Just don't asked price unless you are seriously interested in buying. Haggling is expected. A box of six Cuban Claros was priced at $40.00 American and purchased for $12.00. Don't do the walking tour of downtown Cartagena unless you like to be pestered almost non stop. Usually a simple "no thank you" will turn them away. I used "no tengo dinero" ( I don't have any money) which seemed to work even better. Overall my wife and I liked Cartagena. A final word about illegal drugs. We were approached in this port. It seems best to give these guys wide berth. Simply shake your head no and move quickly on. The boat is very zero tolerant on bringing dope aboard.
Panama Canal For us, this was a dynamic experience ! We believe staying on the vessel was the best way to enjoy this port. We ordered breakfast delivered to our cabin at 7:00 am, just when we were getting close to the canal. We ate breakfast and drank Moet & Chandon on our balcony as the canal experience unfolded. A local, brought on board, described the canal as we moved through the locks and into Gatun Lake. His narration was on our cabin TV, so we raised the volume a little and sat on the balcony, listening to the narration. If you wish to experience the Panama Canal from the boat, a balcony cabin is a must. With two plastic chairs and a small table it was adequate for the two of us. One other thing about the balcony cabin on this trip...get one on the starboard side of the vessel. The boat enters the canal early in the morning. Those on the port side (east side) are subjected to the hot morning sun making it uncomfortable at best.
Cristobal, Panama Passengers were not allowed out of the dock area at this port. The dock has a large enclosed shopping mall with a large variety of stores. Prices were very good. The mall was interesting in its own way. To me this was one of the better places to make purchases.
Limon, Costa Rica We have experienced Costa Rica from San Jose. We loved it. Costa Rica is one of the most literate countries in the world. The country has made great progress in maintaining and growing its vast rain forest. Our adventure here was the aerial tram across rain forest. This tram was built with as little impact on the forest as possible. Even the pillions supporting the tram's cable system were placed on the forest floor by helicopter. The tram was a small open car attached to an overhead cable. The car held six people, including the guide. A strong wire cage on the upper half of each car assured passenger safety and kept passenger debris from falling into the forest (no smoking). The ride took about an hour and a half. We moved silently over treetops and jungle, sometimes as low a three feet or as high as 120 feet. Seeing this unspoiled tropical paradise was an amazing experience. The people of Costa Rica are friendly, many speak English as a second language. We gave this port a solid 'A'.
Ocho Rios, Jamaica We were impressed with the well laid out shopping village at this port. Winding paths, lots of palms and hibiscus, many Jamaican style restaurants, lots of good local music, and a general sort of laid back style of living. If there was down side, it was somewhat aggressive vendors and the occasional strong smell of marijuana wafting through public areas. We'd give this port a 'B'.
DISEMBARKATION For us getting off the boat was almost as easy as getting on the boat. We opted to do the "Express Disembarkation". For those who can handle their own luggage from their cabin to the pier this was great. The morning of disembarkation we took our luggage to the pre-assigned area. After waiting for perhaps thirty minutes for customs to clear the vessel we were called by pre numbered groups. Being in group 'A' we got off earlier than most. From the time we reached our disembarkation area until the time we cleared customs it was less than one hour. Done and done.
SUMMARY I suppose a question most travelers ask themselves after a cruise is "Having experienced this cruise, would I have taken it if I had to do all over again?" My wife says she would have. I shopped around a lot for a good price on this cruise. Weighing the cost against the quality, I'd say it was a bit overpriced, even given the current fuel cost dilemma. The overall issue was with consistency of quality. This showed up in the dining room, the entertainment, and to some degree, with the cruise lines choice of ports. On the other hand, service and overall vessel quality was very good. I thought choice and price of excursions was also good. Experiencing the Panama Canal made this a very memorable trip. On a 1-10 scale I'd book this down as a 5+. Bon Voyage. Read Less