From April 3rd to April 13th 2009, I completed a 10 day cruise roundtrip Panama Canal cruise departing from Port Everglades (Fort Lauderdale Florida) aboard the Island Princess. This was the fourth ship in the Princess cruise line that I ... Read More
From April 3rd to April 13th 2009, I completed a 10 day cruise roundtrip Panama Canal cruise departing from Port Everglades (Fort Lauderdale Florida) aboard the Island Princess. This was the fourth ship in the Princess cruise line that I had sailed on to date—the others being the Sapphire Princess, the Golden Princess and the Diamond Princess. I shared an inside stateroom with a Captain's Circle Platinum member. Two other family members in our party shared a second inside stateroom just down the hallway from us.
We decided to make independent arrangements for transfers to the ship in port from the airport. Upon retrieving our luggage at Ft Lauderdale / Hollywood International Airport we were met by a uniformed chauffeur who offered to taxi us in his oversized town car to the port for a fixed fee of $40... a bargain. Curbside at the port building we were met by porters who immediately took custody of our luggage (tagged with our stateroom numbers). We tipped them the customary $1 per bag. Thereafter we proceeded to the terminal check-in counter. There were no line-ups or wait time. Upon filling in our medical questionnaires we were immediately attended to by a CSR at the Platinum Captain Circle check in section, who took our signed sail passes (we had completed pre check in on line) our credit cards, passports and then immediately issued our dual purpose cruise cards (magnetic stripe used as an electronic stateroom entry key and for gangway access control) and also used to accumulate on board account charges (no cash required on board).
Layout of the ship:
Although the Island Princess (built 2003) is smaller (at a gross tonnage of 91,627 and a net tonnage of 53,394) than the other Princess ships I have traveled on, it is similarly appointed and feels much roomier than it is. It carries a maximum of 2,368 passengers and 810 crew. Since it was specifically designed to be narrow enough to fit through the Panama Canal, it is a very slender 106 feet wide by 964 feet long.
Our stateroom (P501) was located on the Plaza deck (level 5) toward midships right behind the Patisserie coffee bar, just off the central atrium lounge area (which stretches 4 floors up to deck 8). The tour desk, guest services and future cruise bookings desk were all located on our level. There is also a gangplank position on the 5th level as well as one below on deck 4.
The two main dining rooms (Bordeaux and Provence) are located on decks 5 and 6 respectively (under each other). Shops are located on level 6, as is the casino, the Explorers lounge and the lower (main) level of the Universe show lounge. Level 7 is the promenade deck and features the two specialty restaurants (Sabatinis and (Canjun themed) The Bayou Cafe and Steakhouse). The latter doubles as a jazz club venue after dinner hours. Entry to the Princess theatre is also on level 7 as is the balcony of the Universe lounge, the Wheelhouse bar and the Crooners martini and piano bar. The card room, library and internet cafes are located off the atrium on level 8.
In my view the hidden gem on this ship is The Sanctuary an exclusive outdoor lounge area located aft on two levels the Lido and Sun deck levels 14 and 15. For an admission price of $10 per half day (there is a morning and afternoon session) you get access to an oversized chaise lounge chair with super-padded mattress. The dedicated attendants will reserve your seat with a special extra large beach towel and also retrieve refreshment items for you (for a $3 gratuity charge). The area offers a selection of both shaded and sun exposed loungers, depending on your preference. You also get exclusive access to the Pelican Pool (4'11" deep) at the very rear of the ship, which offers a great place to take a relaxing cool dip and a scenic wakeview. It is a much more civilized place to spend a half day in the sun than on the crowded and noisy general pool deck. Compared to rates for cabanas in Vegas or decks chairs in the sand on South Beach, it represents great value. It also offers a better valued alternative to upgrading your room to a balcony unit, since most terraces don't come with lounges or attendants. Entertainment and activities:
Our cruise director Billy Hygate was a very experienced Princess veteran. We attended our first two shows on Sunday and Monday night. The first production revue in the Princess theatre featured the Princess singers and dancers in a performance of "Piano Man" (a tribute to artists like Billy Joel, Elton John, Barry Manilow, Neil Sedaka and Liberace). Meanwhile, the first performance in the Universe show lounge featured a performance by comic magician Scott Alexander.
We also attended two evening gameshows "Majority Rules" and "The Newlywed, Not so Newlywed Game" hosted by the assistant cruise director Mark Turner in the Explorer's lounge. Our trivia team triumphed in the Majority Rule gameshow (proudly claiming Princess logo beach bags as prizes). The first edition of Newlywed Game was a big disappointment. Although twenty plus pairs signed up for the three available spots on the stage, the couples (supposedly) randomly selected were poor picks and the show wound up more painful than amusing to watch. The replay later in the cruise represented an appreciable improvement.
On Tuesday night we attended a performance by actor-performer Adrian Zmed in the Universe lounge. Some may recall Adrian from his co-starring roles in the TV series TJ Hooker, the big-screen movie Grease 2 and as host of the dance competition show "Dance Fever". The show charts Adrian's personal journey to fame from child of an immigrant in Chicago, to performing as Danny Zucko in Grease on Broadway, to his television and movie success in LA and finally to his most recent career as Vegas strip headliner. The Princess orchestra and singer/dancers are also featured prominently. The show is full of hokey schmaltz, the best example of which is a video montage of segments from a guest starring role Zmed acted on The Love Boat unspooling on side video screens while a trio of Princess singers sing the theme song, with Adrian back stage
Following the Zmed variety show, we attended the Jeopardy game show in the Explorers Lounge and managed to place second out of more than 20 teams, helped no doubt by the fact that we, as Canadians, knew the answer to one of the daily doubles (what Olympic host country has never won a gold medal) and to the final jeopardy question (what country has the longest coastline) were "Canada". In the end our knowledge of astronomy proved to be our margin of defeat.
Wednesday night we attended a performance by the comedian Elliot Maxx in the Universe Lounge. This Phil Donahue look-alike used tired material poking fun at the size of cruise-room staterooms / showers and the advanced age of passengers but had a pleasing stage persona and impeccable timing that transcended the routine.
On Thursday night we were in attendance at the International talent show in the Princess theatre. The house was sold out. The show featured crews performers, including a Filipino who did a great Michael Jackson impersonation and cruise director Billy Hygate's spot-on impersonation of Topo in the "If I were a Rich Man" scene from Fiddler on the Roof! The closing scene, featuring the cruise director's staff performing a song in the round, was a real crowd pleaser!
On Friday we attended a performance by comic Billy Vader another cruiseship veteran headliner. This show was virtually identical to a previous performance of his I had attended on an earlier cruise, right down to the sight gags and his interactions with the cruise director at the conclusion of the show
On Saturday night we attended a performance of the musical revue Motor City, performed by the Princess singers and dancers. The highlight of the show is a segment performed with fluorescent masks and costumes under blacklight. For some reason the show featured a performance of Tina Turner's "Rollin' on the River" even tho she wasn't a Motown recording artist! On Saturday night we monitored "comic juggler' Steve Carle's show in the Universe show lounge. The show was more amusing than technically impressive, but did feature some great audience interaction moments. It nicely captured the spontaneity and immediacy of a street busker performance.
Following Carle's performance we attended the Princess Pop Star finals at the same venue. Princess Pop Star is the ships' version of American Idol, featuring karaoke performances by the ships' passengers. Carle, comic Elliot Maxx and the lead female vocalist from Treasure (the Explorer lounge's resident band) served as the celebrity judges. The all male cast of 6 contestants selected by audience ballots in three earlier "heats" held in the Explorer's Lounge included a Dino Martino style crooner (who sang "Amore"), a Chinese American channeling Elvis in his version of "Its Now or Never", a Hispanic who sang "You Raise Me Up" (most appropriate selection on an Easter Sunday), a manic white soul singer fond of performing Van Morrison and Michael MacDonald covers and a pastor (who resembled Robert Goulet) from Florida who sang Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline". The eventual winner was Will Smith (no, not that Will Smith) who excelled at singing the falsetto vocal lines in covers of 60s Philly Soul songs like those made famous by the Delfonics. With the exception of the Treasure vocalist, who acted as straight woman, Carle and Maxx used the judge's bench as a platform to launch more comic salvos.
Food and Drink:
The food on board was of good quality. We had a table for four in the Provence dining room. We selected Traditional Fixed Dining (early seating). We were waited on by head waiter Fior and his (new) assistant Ignatio. Although service was somewhat disappointing at times, the food quality was consistently good. I focused on the seafood entrees and have enjoyed flounder, rock fish, Alaskan salmon and sea bass. One night (Tuesday) I was faced with a difficult choice between Barramundi and Sole. I went with the latter and it was delicious. Wednesday night I had surf and turf which featured grilled shrimps partnered with a filet mignon which was passable. Friday was the second formal night and featured lobster on the dining room menu. The highlight of our Saturday dining experience was the Cherries Jubilee dessert flamed table side by the maitre d. Two diners at our table also ordered the napoleon dessert pastry, which both enjoyed. The chef offered us a special "one time only" Easter menu on Sunday. I sampled gnocchi, grilled prawns and Tilapia from the menu and found the latter most satisfying.
Dessert wise, two of my table mates are disappointed that the original Princess cheesecake has been replaced by a new lighter (less dense) variation on the recipe and complained about this to the "tasting chef" when he made his rounds. They did offer a number of interesting ice cream flavors on the dessert menu, including rhubarb and latte mocha.
In addition to the dinners we ate in the Provence dining room, we also enjoyed an excellent (Italian themed) multi-course dinner in Sabatinis and attended a wine sampling and afternoon tea in the Bordeaux dining room. I enjoyed the latter more than the former. The classical quartet performs in the restaurant during the afternoon tea. On Thursday night we sampled The Bijou (Cajun themed) specialty dining room and came away disappointed. Our table service (provided by a Romanian waiter) was slow and sloppy. Also some of the dishes (for example the spare ribs and grilled prawns) were less flavorful than expected (although the accompanying spiced fries were delicious). There were three steak choices (including a porterhouse and NY strip) available on the menu. I selected the NY strip blackened at a medium temperature and was disappointed. The cut of meat was fatty and chewy. Accompanying vegetables (served on the side in share platters for two) included fried green tomatoes and succotash. Dessert items sampled at our table included bread pudding, a chocolate-pecan fudge torte and a fried yellow peach pie—all received high marks. We returned to the Bijou on Friday afternoon for the special pub lunch, featuring a choice of Brit favorites Fish n Chips, Ploughman's lunch or Cottage Pie
In terms of casual dining options, the Horizon Court cafe (forward on the Lido pool deck) offers a reasonable selection of entrees at meal times and some snack selections between meals, until the wee hours of the mornings. We did not sample their fare at dinner time but have eaten there for breakfast and lunch twice and also went there for a late nights snack one evening. The larger round tables at the very front of the Horizon Court offer exceptional vistas off the front deck. We also sampled the pizza and burgers from the pool grille and both are quite tasty. Daily food court specials included a sushi, Mexican food and dessert bars. My travel-mates also ordered specialty ice cream cups from the sundae bar and professed it quite delicious.
Ports of call:
We were only in Port in Oranjestad, Aruba for a morning and did not book an excursion. Aruba is one of three islands that comprise the Netherlands Antilles, located about 20 miles off the northern coast of Venezuela. Breezy Oranjestad has a population of about 30,000 and is quite prosperous as Caribbean islands rank. Aside from tourism, it is also known for the production of aloe. We spent our morning wandering through the portlands garden spaces and shops (most owned and maintained by the Renaissance hotel). We also spied a very impressive collection of iguanas on the rocks by the sea edge. Thereafter, we paused for refreshments (rapidly consuming a pint of Heineken beer) at a shoreline eatery. The one drawback was that the lineup to reboard the ship was quite long and slow at the end of the morning. After re-boarding, we immediately headed to the Sanctuary to escape the crowds and enjoy the sailaway.
We booked an excursion (# 100 "Best of Cartagena & Fortress") in this port. This excursion seemed to be one of the more popular, based on the crowed seating section in the Princess theatre awaiting the call to board the buses. The local buses were on the small side and were quite cramped. Although they were air conditioned, between the cramped quarters and the hot Columbian sun, the bus felt more like a sauna by the end of the afternoon. However, we were assigned a very capable local guide—Fernando Lopez—who kept us on time and well informed throughout the tour.
We visited several sites on this tour—La Popa monastery (at the highest point in the city) the Fortress of Dan Felipe de Barajas, the "dungeons" in old walled city, a stroll thru the old city streets and town square and into the Church of San Pedro Claver and the Navy Museum (where we received complimentary refreshments and watched a local folklore show). 20 minutes was also allocated for shopping in a modern local shopping centre. With the exception of the fortress, which required walking up a steep incline, the main challenge on the excursion was staying in the shade out of the sun and evading the numerous strolling local merchants peddling everything from t-shirts and panama hats to cigars, costume jewelry and coffee beans.
Overall, I found the city to be a study in contrasts. It is extremely poverty stricken, with over 40% of the population living below the poverty line. Some of the areas built on the hills (for example on the ascent by windy road up to La Popa) that are susceptible to mudslides in the rainy season resemble shanty towns. Meanwhile there are beautiful palatial period homes located on what used to be the outskirts of the old city and modern residential towers in the new city. Aside from the agricultural products (like coffee and tropical fruit) for which it is well known, the country also has a petrochemical industry and is the world's leading producer of emeralds. Half transit of the Panama Canal:
Our itinerary called for us to complete a passage thru the Gatun Locks from the Caribbean / Atlantic end of the isthmus of the canal in the early post-dawn hours. We awoke before 6 AM and were out on deck by about 7 AM. We went to a (cruise critic website recommended) viewing area on a public balcony at the front of Deck 11 forward to observe our progress. Fortunately it appeared most passengers were still asleep so we were able to take up a prime viewing / camera position at the rail. The Island Princess is one of the largest passenger ships (by volume) capable of passing thru the locks (the record is held by NCL's Norwegian Pearl, which pays in excess of a $100K toll—the toll is calculated based on net tonnage volume).
Passing thru the Gatun locks, your ship rises thru three separate chambers up a vertical distance of 85 feet from sea level to Gatun Lake (one of the largest man-made lakes in the world). The ship has to be hooked up to two locomotive "mules" (one on each side) to be guided thru the locks (under its own power). There are actually two "lanes" of locks located side by side that two ships can pass through simultaneously and independently and the directions of the lanes are reversible. We left our viewing position after we entered into the third chamber and went down to a lower deck to observe how close the ship's sides are to the concrete walls—there really isn't much room for comfort!
Once we reached Gatun Lake, we anchored and the ship's tenders began to ferry passengers on excursions ashore to meet their tour groups. Around 12:30 those who remained on board began the return trip back thru the Gatun locks downward toward the sea. Prime viewing positions at the front of the vessel were much more crowded on the return trip than they were in the earlier AM.
After the return trip through the locks the ship ported at the Cristobal Pier near Colon.
Limon, Costa Rica
We went on an excursion to the Veragua Rainforest Research & Adventure Park. This is a new facility only opened under 8 months. Our excursion included a box lunch (featuring tasty ham and cheese sandwiches) served at the facility. Other attractions included an aerial tram ride (used for a descent down into the rainforest to view large ancient trees and a waterfall), a butterfly garden and reptile / snake exhibits. The bus ride to the facility was long over narrow windy rough roads but we were at least provided with a modern comfortable motor-coach with washroom facilities to make the trek. Our bus guide Erik was both informative and humorous / entertaining. Our park guide Marco has proved quite knowledgeable and helpful.
Ocho Rios, Jamaica:
This was our last port of call. Here, the excursion tour groups actually met in a tent on shore portside instead of in the Princess theatre. We had selected a dual excursion featuring a climb at Dunns River Falls and a chair lift trip up Mystic Mountain rainforest to ride down in a "Jamaican bobsled". The tour operator had organized a series of small passenger vans to shuttle tour takers back and forth between the ship and the tour venues on a flexible schedule basis.
We went to Dunns River Falls first and our driver stopped at a roadside "sticky feet" water shoe vending outlet for people (like yours truly) who hadn't brought along their own suitable rubber soled footwear from home. The going rate for the watershoes was US $17 so you are better advised to pack your own pair to bring with you. Once at the park we were met by two female tour guides who escorted us first past another sticky feet vending stand (insisting that everyone must wear water shoes in order to "climb") and then to a storage locker rental facility where we were forced to pay another $8 ($3 which was a deposit refundable) in order to stow goods that we didn't want to get wet. We found another pair to share our locker with and split the cost (since they were quite large) Thereafter we met our male falls tour guide who conveniently neglected to remind "climbers" to store their digital cameras in the locker. Instead he later confiscated them up into a bag that he carried along and returned them (for a ransom "tip") after we reached the top! We had the foresight to bring along our own waterproof camera but others were forced to purchase still and video tickets from other hustlers who tagged along with our tour group!
Climbing up the falls can actually be quite dangerous, although the water was clear when we went up, because the moisture leaves slippery moss on the rocks and there are many underwater crevices to twist an ankle in. Apparently there is a nursing station somewhere in the park, but fortunately everyone in our group appeared to make in up without any cuts, bumps or broken bones! There are natural waterslides, falls and pools to plunge into along the way and the guides milk all of them to the max to generate multiple photo ops!
The exit from the park can be tough to negotiate with all the cash in your wallet intact since you are guided along an exit path dotted with numerous vending stalls. The hard sell tactics of the local vendors hawking their wares can become quite annoying to tolerate.
After making our escape from Dunns River Falls we were dropped at Mystic Mountain. This is a brand new facility opened less than a year. Our driver claimed it was co-owned by a transplanted "American Jew" with the help of a grant from the Jamaican tourism board and Carnival cruiseship line investment dollars. Basically you board a chair lift at the base of the mountain and then travel up a very long vertical distance to a station at the top. The ride up is quite scenic and pleasant. The station at the summit contains a shop, washroom facilities and the loading point for the Jamaican bobsled run.
The bobsled run is inspired by the John Candy Disney comedy "Cool Runnings" which told the story of the Jamaican entry in the Olympic bobsled competition. Its basically a roller coaster ride, however for the upper section of the track, the only force controlling your descent (in one person cars) is gravity and a braking lever on the side. Once you get to the bottom, your car is hauled back up the hill using a mechanical pulley system, similar to a traditional roller coaster. The run in total takes 5 minutes to complete. After completing your run, you can purchase photos taken by automated cameras for a cost of $10 a piece. Following the bobsled run, you have the option of going zip lining or returning back down the mountain on the chair lift. We passed on the former. Instead we rode right down and caught another passenger van back to the dock (Jamaicans drive, like the Brits, on the left side of the road) and re-boarded the ship
We were unable to use the self-disembarkation option (where you haul off all your own luggage) since we had a senior with a walker in our party. We were originally assigned a late departing color group (having failed to return our disembarkation questionnaires that were due back in on Thursday) but were able to switch to an earlier departing color group (since we had an 11:20 AM flight to catch back at the airport) without hassle when we went to the passenger service desk. We were instructed to put our luggage out for collection ideally before dinner and, otherwise, before retiring. We did so. The following morning we reported to the Wheelhouse lounge (the designated spot for Platinum Captains Circle members to wait) at our appointed time and were called to disembark shortly thereafter. It took us about 5 minutes to exit to the gangplank after joining the line snaking thru the central atrium on Level 5.
Upon entering the terminal we were directed to collect the luggage that we had put out for collection the preceding evening in a area designated for our aqua color group. While we found most of our luggage pieces there quickly, my garment bag was conspicuously absent. After searching through all the other color groups, we eventually located the missing piece about a half an hour later- inexplicably grouped over with the pink color group! Not sure how that happened. In any case it was smooth sailing thru customs to the airport after that. We took a private passenger van there for $17 pp, which is apparently cheaper than the transfer fee Princess charges for their airport shuttle coach.
Our Air Canada flight (we had a celebrity passenger former PM Brian Mulroney aboard) was on time pulling out of the gate but got delayed sitting on the tarmac awaiting runway clearance. Later, we managed to make up lost time in the air and arrived back in Toronto in good time. We had no hassles in Customs and our Sykpark van driver was already waiting to take us to the lot where we left our parked cars when we arrived at the designated pick up point!
Another cruise was in the history books! Read Less