Panama Canal Passage, June 22-July 8, 2015
We were two couples (early 70’s), celebrating an anniversary. We loved the size of the ship, but agreed that too many people had been crammed on board on this final leg of a round-the-world cruise. We heard various statistics, but it appeared that there were 40-100 more people on board than the ship was equipped to handle. One indication of this was the life-boat drill: presumably half the ship was assigned to each of two muster stations. Our station, the Insignia Lounge, was also the site of the evening entertainment and appeared to have insufficient seating for even half the passengers. I am not questioning Oceania’s commitment to safety, only their commitment to the comfort and enjoyment of their passengers.
My husband and I enjoyed 8005, a PH3 Cabin, as it was convenient for him to walk up one flight to the outdoor smoking lounge. To call this a “Penthouse Suite”, however, is a misnomer, as it was neither a penthouse nor a suite, just a nice veranda cabin. The balcony was a bit small, and one of us found the bed very uncomfortable, even after the addition of a bed board (or some other form of support). The design of the bathtub-shower combination was a bit treacherous for the old(er) and clumsy and made my sister-in-law grateful for their inside cabin, with its simple shower stall. The best thing about the cabin was our butler, Mishar, who solved numerous problems and facilitated countless arrangements for us.
Itinerary and Tours
We are residents of San Diego County and naturally biased. The ship docks in a location convenient to shopping and sight-seeing, as well as The Midway Museum. If you’re not going further afield, to the zoo, for example, a Pedicab is highly recommended.
Cabo San Lucas, Mexico
We stayed on board until an evening dinner cruise (booked through a website), which started an hour after we were told to be on the pier. It was probably more fun for the 20- and 30-somethings, as they listened to loud music and downed truly atrocious Margaritas, but we did get a nice photo out of it, the four of us and the Arches.
We’d been curious about this area for a long time, as it had the same genesis as Cancun: a computer analysis of statistics for a favorable tourist development. Huatulco, with its five bays, was geographically large enough that it was not possible to get an impression of the whole area in one partial day. It was green and scenically lovely, however, and did not appear to have suffered the same over-building and saturation of name-brand night spots as Cancun. Two of us did the ship’s scenic drive and shopping tour, as it seemed to offer the best opportunity for finding Zapotec rugs. Indeed, we were impressed with the quality and the prices and bought two! Good tour, highly recommended. Only sorry we couldn’t have worked in some snorkeling also.
Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala
Some passengers went to Antigua (three hours total on the bus), but we preferred to save this lovely city for another trip. One of us was thrilled to know that we were the same distance from Guatemala City, site of a major pre-Columbian museum. The other of us spent hours looking for a private tour company to take us there, only to find that said museum was closed on Monday, the day our ship called. There was a lovely shopping area around the port, however, complete with countless vendors of Guatemalan weavings, a jade museum and store, and a waterfront restaurant with delicious nachos and Guatemalan beer and rum. It was one of our nicer days on the cruise, and we were pleased we hadn’t succumbed to a tour, particularly as subsequent shopping opportunities were more limited than we had predicted.
Porto Cortino, Nicaragua
One of the ship’s tours mentioned a pre-Columbian museum, Museo Chorotega, 15 miles away in Chinandega. Knowing that my husband would want more time there than any group tour would allow, I found a private company, Julio Tours Nicaragua mailto:email@example.com. Julio’s response was immediate, and planning was easy. Our driver and guide, Miguel, could not have been better. He was informative and articulate and very pleasant company. The museum was small but a real treasure, as it contained over 1000 examples of pottery from the area, dating back to 2,000 BC. A young local man narrated each display, and Miguel translated, and my husband was delighted. He wass so pleased with the museum that he asked to make a donation. There was an elementary school next door to the museum, and Miguel arranged for my sister-in-law and me to visit two classrooms (while our husbands watched a baseball game on the playground). The kids were delightful and had a good time laughing at my poor Spanish. For us, this was a highlight of the whole cruise. We enjoyed a delightful lunch at El Convento in Leon and headed back to the ship, after a return trip to the restaurant when Miguel was notified that I’d left my credit card. In any case, we would not have had time to visit the art gallery, the third stop on our itinerary, because of time spent at the museum and school, a good trade, in my opinion.
The ship’s tour had done the itinerary in reverse and never made it to the museum, let alone the school! I shudder to think what we would have missed, had we not booked a private tour with someone who respected our priorities. Nicaragua appeared to be the poorest country we visited, but it had some of the nicest people. Depending on the season, be prepared for a lot of dust. There’s no crop rotation on the peanut farms, and the air can be almost saturated with grit from the bare fields.
Puntarenas, Costa Rica
An enlightening but frustrating first visit to this country, which provided a stark contrast to the rest of Central America, at least the parts we saw. I was especially struck by the pristine, very modern highways, overpasses, and signage. We elected the ship’s river cruise, as our limited time in port precluded a private tour. The river was pleasant, but overall the tour was disappointing, as we were on the road too long for too little, and local shops were closed when we returned. One of my husband’s smoking buddies wondered off the ship with his family, encountered a friendly cab drive, and spent an incredible and memorable day being up close and personal with animals in the national park, for a whole $100. I had read a similar report on Cruise Critic, and I wish we’d elected that option.
There was another pre-Columbian (Gold) Museum, so I had requested a private tour with Marelvy Peña firstname.lastname@example.org. Marelvy herself was already booked, but our guide, Katty, was delightful. Her English was excellent, and we had a wonderful visit to La Popa (where we met Marelvy, herself), and the San Felipe Fortress, as well as the old city, with plenty of time to shop and ogle the gold. For my husband and me, it was probably the best day of the cruise. Some passengers had the impression that Cartagena was dangerous, and this was reinforced by the ship’s warnings regarding what not to do. I can only say that the old city reminded both of us of New Orleans, and we felt equally safe there. At our request, Katty took us to a local place for lunch (delicious). Chile was playing Argentina for the America’s Cup Championship, and the lunch crowd was equally divided between the two teams and two different T.V.’s. During our subsequent walk, Katty would continually duck into a shop or bar to report, “The score is still tied, 0-0”. Her enthusiasm was contagious, and while not usually a soccer fan, I confess to being relieved to have the outcome of the game reported on the ship (Katty was rooting for Chile, and they won). In a closet-sized hardware store, so small that Katty had never noticed it, we were able to find the duct tape our brother-in-law needed to complete “Ocean Blue”; the tape was my husband’s and my sole contribution to “our” entry in the ship’s boat building contest. Both of us agree: Cartagena is not to be missed. We also highly recommend Marelvy’s operation and our guide Katty.
Key West, Florida
Sadly, our final port of call was cancelled, due to weather. We had 21-foot waves the night we left Cartagena, and adverse conditions continued for much of the next two days.
My husband and I were faced with the prospect of nearly 12 hours between disembarkation and our flight home. Oceania had insisted that there were no arrangements for tours or transportation ending at the airport. This turned out to be false, as the agent knew, but “We don’t kow what we’ll be able to offer, and we don’t want you to count on it and be disappointed”. The existence of these arrangements was not revealed until a day or two before disembarkation. They would not have met our needs, as they appeared to involve transportation changes and handling our own luggage, but Oceania lost points for this. In any case, I discovered a company called Tours by Locals and booked a Greater Miami Tour with Steven Bridges. Steven was knowledgeable and engaging, and our time with him passed very quickly. We learned a lot we never knew about Miami and had a comfortable and enjoyable tour.
I was told that Oceania has the best food at sea. I would have to agree, with one caveat: It is difficult to enjoy the best food at sea if dining venues are over-crowded, noisy, and offering poor service.
A word about the specialty restaurants: These are free, with dining opportunities available according to one’s cabin category. Unlike on many ships, the Italian venue, Toscana, was outstanding, with excellent food and the best service, whereas The Polo Grill steak house was somewhat disappointing. Our group concluded that we would rather be assessed a surcharge for the specialty restaurants and have more opportunities available.
The Terrace was a mixed bag for me, as I hate buffets. As these go, however, the Terrace at least had excellent food, and on our last evening I managed to grab an outside table on the railing, and an agreement from my husband that it would not be too warm outside the A/C, and four of us enjoyed a lovely dinner.
The Grand Dining Room – Surprisingly, the food was often as good as in the Specialty Restaurants. I had enjoyed Dover Sole twice in Toscana and ordered it out of curiosity the night it was featured in the Grand. Amazingly, it was equally good. It was here that the noise and service were really objectionable, however. There is leisurely dining, and there is just sitting around and waiting in a noisy room, and the Grand was in the latter category. Unfortunately, the same was somewhat true of the Polo Grill, though to a lesser extent in Tuscany.
In none of these venues should it have taken two and one half hours to complete a meal, which was always the case. This meant that if you were at the Grand when it opened at 6:30, you did not finish in time for the evening’s one show, which usually started at 8:30. Service hours should be extended in all venues (including the bars), and consideration should be given to scheduling more than one show per evening.
Who knows? Seriously, see above. Even when we would rush to make a show, there would be no seats left. See above. I was able to hear a few minutes of the guest tenor’s program, which I enjoyed immensely.
We were blessed to have a well informed and entertaining former newsman as a lecturer. His illustrated talks on the Panama Canal and Central American politics were a highlight of the cruise for us.
My sister-in-law greatly enjoyed her art classes, and there were also opportunities for photography addicts.
Daily Trivia games were both entertaining and enriching and provided the opportunity to meet congenial fellow passengers.
The two of us had purchased the premium liquor package, which meant we could order wine and spirits by the glass, throughout the ship. In this case, I was glad to be paying for a package, as my in-laws do not drink and would have found it very unfair to be paying for my consumption. Otherwise, I would rather pay a higher cruise fare and have cocktails and wine included. The package option undoubtedly saved us money, but it was hardly seamless, as one still had to present one’s cruise card --or rather, two cruise cards in our case, precluding the opportunity for my husband to return with drinks for both of us, spontaneously, after one of his smoking trips --, and the time needed to process the “transaction” in the Grand was overly long. As more knowledgeable cruisers might know, one doesn’t try to order cocktails at the table before dinner; otherwise you can end up with a pissy sommelier and a vodka martini that arrives after the pate and caviar appetizer is long gone. It’s better to carry your cocktail in. I also sometimes wondered if sommeliers were slow to refill my wineglass because I wasn’t paying for each pour. I don’t really believe that however. There were just too many passengers for the staff, including the sommeliers; the ship was short-handed, though personnel denied this. As to venues, The Waves Bar closed too early (6:30); Martini’s was too crowded for relaxed before-dinner cocktails, and the Grand Bar was a coffee venue until 6:30, when the dining room opened, an example of poor planning in my opinion. That left Horizon’s, which seemed too out of the way and was not my husband’s favorite smoking venue.
Before closing, I must commend the bartenders for their memory and cheerfulness. One sommelier was also particularly attentive and helpful, though he was trying to serve too many people. I cannot say enough good things about our butler; the cabin attendants were cheerful and helpful for the most part but rather clueless when it came to trying to clean while we were trying to pack.
Overall, neither my husband nor I were sorry we took this cruise, though he’s said it may be his last on Oceania. Interestingly, several previous Oceania passengers were complaining that Insignia is the worst Oceania ship and that this cruise was worse than others on Insignia. It was not what they had come to expect from Oceania. For a luxury cruise, I too expected a bit more. As my sister-in-law reminded me, she and my brother-in-law could have done essentially the same itinerary on another line for less than half what they paid. Personally, we might still have elected to pay more for the smaller ship size and more congenial fellow passengers, but we might also have thought twice about it. I am famous among friends for saying that the worst cruise is better than no cruise. There have been two cruises that have caused me to question the wisdom of that statement, but this was not one of them. Unlike some passengers, I was not eager to get off the ship, but I had found myself asking, “Are we having fun yet?”. Read Less