A cruise to the Panama Canal had been something my husband & I had planned for some time. When friends asked us to join them on this December cruise, it was the perfect opportunity to go.
We had a lovely cruise. However, most of the ship’s recent changes (the removal of the International Café, some specialty restaurants & the awkward relocation of other public areas) during its refurbishment were not well-planned. The small, windowless fitness center is crowded, & not at all inviting. The addition of 121 cabins reduces many public areas, & cuts off walking a full circuit of the Promenade deck.
All of the staff on Island Princess are hard-working, courteous, & did their best to please us. How they can accomplish it all, in their limited time, is amazing. Our cabin steward, Benedik, was the best! He addressed all of our cabin concerns (a shower door didn’t close properly, causing water to leak into the bedroom, a loose shower shelf, & broken hair dryer housing) quickly, & efficiently. Our cabin was comfort-able, but needs to be updated. Storage space in our suite was very generous, w/ lots of hangers.
Embarkation: This went smoothly, & we boarded about 11:30. Lunch in the Bordeaux Dining Room (12-1:30) was a relaxing way to begin our cruise, instead of the busy Horizon Ct. On embarkation night, only, passengers in suites & elite guests can dine at the specialty restaurants without paying the $29. Anytime Dining does NOT accept dinner reservations on embarkation day, but does after that.
Princess Theater: The 50 min. shows were at 6 p.m. & 8 p.m. Anytime Dining allowed us to dine before or afterward, depending on whether or not we planned to attend a show, or how late our excursion lasted. The larger shows (“The Secret Silk”, “On the Bayou”, “Encore”, & one other) were excellent, & alternated nights w/a comedian or singer. As mentioned, by others, get there at least 30 min. early to get a seat. It can also be very chilly during the evening performances, so bring a sweater or jacket.
Sabatini’s: Serves wonderful dinners & breakfasts, only, to suite & elite guests. Our best meal was the Ultimate Balcony Dinner prepared by Room Service. It’s an exceptional experience & value. The lobster & filet were cooked to perfection. Served by the hard-working Room Service staff, Alwynn & Namadan, both of whom were outstanding servers: courteous, & efficient. We dined indoors, because of windy weather.
Bordeaux Dining Room: Meals were just average. Ordering steak & lobster were an additional charge, (an unwelcome upcharge from their main menu), & not always the best choice. My lobster was overcooked, & some of the entrees were not hot when they arrived at the table. On past Princess cruises, there were more upscale menu items offered without this extra charge. Head waiter, Adrian, was helpful w/ seating the four of us, in the Bordeaux, when we were not using the Club Dining section of the room. Waiters continually circulated the room trying to sell “extra” drink offerings.
Club Dining: a lovely, no-wait section of the dining room, for those in suites or certain mini-suites. Menu choices appeared to be about the same as in the regular section. We dined there only once, but not having to wait in line for seating is a definite plus.
Horizon Court: Well-designed for improved flow. Improvements include hand washing stations, a glove-wearing staff member to hand you a plate upon entering, & nightly “theme” food, which was quite good. After a past experience w/ norovirus (on a different cruise line), I was hesitant to use the buffet. However, using the My Shield hand sanitizer I purchased from Amazon made us feel more secure. (http://www.stopthestomachflu.com/Home/what-do-hand-washing-and-hand-sanitizers-really-do/my-shield-hand-sanitizer )
Internet service is slow & expensive. Early mornings or late nights were often the only time we could connect to their satellite service. The Internet Café staff is not as competent as on other cruises, & several questions went unanswered, that had to do w/ phone settings to make calls while on board, using our phone plans, set up in advance. The free Princess@Sea app. for communicating w/ other passengers was handy (when it worked), but was a bit more complicated to set up than advertised on the website.
The best view of the Panama Canal transit is from Deck 11, (just below the bridge) ALL the way to the front of the ship, & thru the normally closed doors to the outer deck. The doors are open to passengers on this day, only, & offered the best views of all of the action.
Coffee Card: The card is not separate, but loaded onto your cruise card. As that was not explained, we had to ask several staff members before we understood how it worked. We purchased two, but really only needed one for both of us. As it was, we didn’t even finish half of what was offered, & are unable to have it carry over to a future cruise.
Bottled water: We purchased 2 cases from Princess before sailing, & they were delivered to our cabin. It was less expensive than purchasing it individually, on board, & came in handy for shore excursions.
Elite Lounge: (for suite & elite passengers) – Held each evening in the Explorer’s Lounge, deck 6, at the very back of the lounge, nightly between 5-7. Lovely complimentary appetizers & discounted drinks are offered. After our initial visit, we brought our traveling companions w/ us.
Sanitation: I also purchased Clorox Hydrogen Peroxide Wipes (odorless & more effective than the ones at a market) from Amazon, to wipe down our cabin’s touchable surfaces. We also carried a small My Shield foam hand sanitizers w/ us, & used it a lot. Once you’ve experienced norovirus, you never want a reoccurrence.
Bar gratuities: 15% is automatically added to your cruise account, so you don’t need to add tips during individual purchases.
Lotus Spa: There are many services available. I had a facial. And while it was good, it was not as thorough as others I’ve had. Products advertised on the Princess website are not the same as what the spa offers. Princess needs to update its website.
Formal Nights: Both were on sea days. The first was on the 1st sea day. The last was held on the 3rd sea day, as most passengers were packing on the 4th. The Captain’s Champagne Reception was fun, as wasbeing one of the several passengers who got to pour additional champagne, over the tower of glasses. There was a line to do it, but it was worth it! Photos are taken, & it’s videotaped.
Photos: All photos & “packages” are expensive, but fun to have. The photographers who take photos, when passengers disembark at ports, only stay there for 3 hrs., after docking. So if you get off later than that, you may miss them. Mai was the photo manager on board, & corrected a few charges for us that were incorrectly calculated.
Lectures: Bill Fall’s port lectures were fabulous. He’s very experienced & used to live in Panama. His commentaries, as we entered the canal, were also wonderful. Don’t miss him.
Cruising: Gale force winds between Jamaica & Cartagena & Limon & Grand Cayman resulted in the closing of the Promenade deck, two rocky crossings, & the cancelation of one of the shows: for the safety of the performers & the passengers. Otherwise, it was fairly smooth sailing.
Medical Center: very good. In spite of our attempt to stay healthy, my husband contracted a chest cold, (not flu), & the Center treated him quickly & efficiently. Do pack as many OTC meds as you think you’ll need. We stored all of our toiletries in an inexpensive over-the-door shoe organizer, in the bathroom. It saved counter space, & no one touched our things while cleaning. Also, if you need to cancel (or miss) a Princess sponsored tour, because of medical reasons, ask the Med. Center to stamp your tour voucher, before you leave them. Then take it to the shore excursions desk & ask them to void the tour charge.
Pre-Cruise Inoculations: We chose to get Hepatitis A & Typhoid Fever shots. We also used Sunsect, a combo sunscreen/insect repellant used by our U.S. troops. We had no issues w/mosquitoes, but it pays to be safe.
Excursions: Except for Cartagena, ours were sponsored by Princess. Bathroom breaks were conveniently spaced on all tours. Complimentary Princess totes were handy for onshore purchases or to carry water.
DO check excursion vouchers for tour time changes, (from the guides) from what you may have booked.
Jamaica: We took the excursion to Good Hope Great House, which included a lovely Jamaican lunch. If not taking a tour, it’s safer to stay within the gated area of the cruise port.
Cartagena: Daniel Grey, from Tours by Locals was a fabulous guide. We customized our tour, saw all we requested, & skipped the visits to the emerald shops. Our stop for lunch at La Mulata, in the Walled City (a local & reasonably priced restaurant), was perfect. They served great food & used filtered water. Finally, a quick stop at the port’s free mini zoo, on the pier, completed our perfect day.
Panama: “Rainforest, Gatun Lakes & Locks Tour”: Only Princess tours could disembark & be tendered to the tour pick up. Panama Port Authority determines when passengers can disembark. Our tour didn’t leave until 11:30. Our stop at the Agua Clara Visitors’ Center would have been more appealing IF their restaurant had been opened, (Christmas Day) & we were not relegated to a long line where chips & sodas were all that was left. The hike near the resort was short & uneventful. The boat ride on Gatun Lake was pleasant, but we saw only one sloth.
Limon: the 7.5 hr. Veragua Rainforest & Research Center, & Tortuguera Canal excursion was excellent! Our weather was perfect, & we saw sloths, monkeys, crocodiles, & egrets along the way. We descended the rainforest in a gondola, hiked to a waterfall, & enjoyed a local buffet lunch at the Center. On the Tortuguera Canal, we saw crocodiles, monkeys & sloths. It was well-organized, & one of our best tours.
Grand Cayman: We were tendered to Royal Watler pier. Our tour, Highlights, “Hell”, & the Seven Fathoms Rum Distillery was great. The Seven Fathoms Rum Distillery is actually processed 42 ft. below the ocean, (7 fathoms) & 11 miles from shore. A stop to buy Tortuga rum cakes was also included. Check tour times. Afterward, we had a great lunch at the Cayman Cabana, located near the pier & the tenders.
Currency: We took foreign currency for all port stops except Panama, whose currency’s value is the same as the U.S. Store prices were in U.S. $. We paid using their own currency, which seemed to confuse & surprise a few shop owners, who were anxious for U.S. $. We didn’t use credit cards, as we felt it risky.
Weather: Check the temperatures of the ports, before you leave. It can be very hot & humid. Bring a hat to wear if you’re out on the deck during the Canal transit, or for the shore excursions.
Disembarkation: This went very smoothly, & IF you have a Global Entry card, you’ll be able to use the
short line exclusively for those who have it.
Three months ago, I requested that Princess distribute copies of the Embarkation Day Princess Patter, to passengers waiting in the lounge to board. They didn’t. But hopefully, they’ll begin to do that as a service to their passengers, in the future. It would be helpful in planning that first day’s activities. It would also be nice if Princess reinstated their embarkation day “treasure hunt”. It gave passengers a chance to become acquainted w/all of the public areas.
While a lovely ship, I would not cruise on the Island Princess again. If given a choice I’d take the Coral Princess, which has not been refitted w/ 121 additional cabins, & has more restaurants & public spaces. Read Less