This was our first cruise on Princess, our second cruise in a year. It would seem the bug bit us hard!
We arrived in Ft. Lauderdale four days before the sailing date to take the opportunity to visit a friend and see some of the sights in southern Florida, something we did not have the opportunity to do on our last trip to the area.
We stayed at the Hampton Inn on State Road 84 about ten minutes from downtown. It is a wonderful hotel; clean, comfortable, and a staff like none we had experienced before at any hotel. The hotel provides free light breakfast, but because it had no dining room, the staff would shuttle us to list of restaurants close to the hotel for dinner. One restaurant, within easy walking distance, is the Thai 84, a tiny restaurant in a strip mall with an exceptional menu, service and Chef. We also had fun eating at a diner down the road that had excellent food.
Smooth, efficient and well organized. Arrived at the pier at 11:20 and were in our mini-suite by 11:50 and at the Horizon Court by noon.
Baggage was delivered by the time we had finished lunch and everything was tucked away before 2:00 pm.
Exploring the Coral
After the luggage was stored away and we met our Room Steward we were off to explore the ship.
The public rooms and spaces on the Coral are nothing short of stunning. The extensive use of rich dark wood, brass, glass and warm colored carpet give Coral a feel of the old classical ocean liners. This sense is enhanced by displays of magnificent paintings of old ships that are everywhere on the ship.
The same use of wood gave the dining rooms the same sense of elegance as the rest of the ship.
One of the most comfortable areas on Coral is the Lotus Pool at the back of the Lido deck. This area is for adults only and the wood deck chairs, the use of huge statue of Buddha and the use of more wood and green fabric along with the quietness of the space makes in a little spot of paradise on the this ship.
The rest of Coral is not a lot different than every other cruise ship. There is the casino to take your money, shops and a very high-end jewelry store, as well as lounges of all types.
The theater spaces are pretty standard.
Our suite is centrally located on the ship. A good choice for a number of reasons; it provided easy and relatively quick access to any part of the ship, provide a smooth ride when things got marginally rough, (this happened only once and the waves were only running a max. height of 8ft.).
The bed was comfortable and bedding very nice with a choice of pillows based upon one's personal firmness preferences.
The bathroom was a standard cruise ship size. It has a nice tub and shower, but could benefit greatly from a glass tub enclosure rather than the flimsy fabric shower curtain that has seen better days and usually wound up plastered against my back; a nasty cold feeling for sure. There is plenty of room for storage of toilet articles and medications.
Nothing fancy, but pleasant enough.
The couch was comfortable, the room clean, but the carpet showed wear around the balcony door, certainly nothing to deter one form enjoying this mini-suite.
What we did not like about this cabin is that it is about 1/3 smaller in size than what we had on Carnival Triumph, yet cost more.
Cruise ship food is always very personal and subjective. Likes and dislikes will vary from person to person, so this is only how we found the food on the Coral, others may have a completely different opinion, and equally correct one.
We had anytime dining and liked it very much. We never had more than a few moments wait for a table, and we did not make reservations. We always got the table for two that we enjoyed.
As one would expect quality of service varied from waiter to waiter, although one waiter we had twice was exceptional.
The food in the dining room was disappointing. It was certainly not of the caliber we had been expecting. It is fair to say that it was hotel banquet quality but certainly nothing more. The food was presented without imagination or flare and was never more than just warm. The exception was the second formal night when lobster was served. It was well prepared and very tasty.
The Horizon Court was a different matter all together. It was consistently good buffet food with interesting dishes served hot. The dishes were original, not just left-overs from last night's dinner and were served piping hot. The lines moved efficiently because of the layout of the buffet lines with 'hot stations' on one side and 'cold stations on the other, with two 'islands' between the lines. The layout is essentially two complete restaurants, one on each side of the ship with seating arranged around the outside. The seating provides tremendous views of the sea and ports of call.
The Horizon Court is an excellent restaurant for breakfast, lunch and as a sound alternative to the dining rooms for dinner.
There are two 'specialty' restaurants on Coral, one excellent and the other an unmitigated disaster. Sabatini's was absolutely outstanding in all respects. The food was exciting and exceptionally well prepared. The service was impeccable. There are numerous courses, but, if one is cautious in the amount taken at each course one can make it to the end without requiring wheels to return to one's cabin! The seafood pasta course is truly to die for and the cannelloni is running a very close second. The only weakness at Sabatini's, and if it were not an Italian restaurant would not bear mentioning, is the poor bread offering. Good bread is essential to good Italian food.
On the other side, literally because both Sabatini's and the Bayou restaurant operate out of the same kitchen, is the exact opposite of its neighbor. Service was exceptional only in the sense that I have had better service at fast food drive through on land. The server refused to listen to the diner's requests, and as a result ruined the dinner experience for at least one of those dining with us. For another the evening was dragged to new heights of mediocrity when the arrogant server placed his plate before him with, "Here's your dead cow!" and walked away.
The food was atrocious. One almost felt the need go to the kitchen to tell the Chef that there is in fact a Cajun Cuisine and that throwing handfuls of cayenne pepper at food does not make it Cajun.
The Porterhouse steak was large and served hanging off the end of the plate something I find particularly disgusting. It was cut thin and poorly butchered, leaving a large junk of gristle and fat to be the first bite.
It appears that Princess has attempted to combine the Cajun restaurant concept with its very popular Sterling Steakhouse concept that is found on other ships, but not Coral. It is an interesting idea, but one that falls far short of meeting the height of either restaurant when offered on their own. The Bayou restaurant on Coral should be avoided at all costs in my opinion. But, I heard others on the same cruise comment very favorably about this restaurant, so I guess you take your chances! But we would never go back.
Room service was always quick and efficient. They invariably said that the order would take 15 - 20 minutes to deliver, but it was rarely longer than 5 minutes from the time of the call.
We ordered the Balcony Breakfast for the morning we went through the Panama Canal; unfortunately there was a deluge of water that the locals euphemistically refer to as "rain" so we had to eat in the cabin. For $28, the half bottle of champagne and interesting menu, made it a great breakfast buy. Had we been able to eat it on the deck it would have been a wonderful experience.
We did not attend any of he production shows, so others will have to give their opinions on those.
We did take in the documentary films shown in the Universal Lounge on the construction of the Panama Canal. These made the actually trip through the Gatun Locks that much more interesting and exciting.
The ship also provided a lecture on what is happening with the Panama Canal today and for the immediate future. The woman presenting the lecture was from the Marketing Dept. of the Panama Canal Authority and, not to be unkind, was a waste of time. She was clearly not a public speaker and it showed. Her presentation was boring at its height!
We saw two culinary demonstrations during the ten days. The second was hilarious as the Maitre d' Hotel challenged the Coral's Chef to a cook off. If the Maitre d' Hotel ever decides to start a career in comedy he would have no trouble being a success. Together these truly talented men in their chosen professions made a culinary demonstration into entertaining show. A 'not to be missed' event!
In all three "live" presentations the ship's technical crew demonstrated their complete inability and incompetence to operate the basic production equipment. Even microphone levels for these people presented an enormous operational challenge, not to mention the two video projectors.
Ports Of Call
This was a 10 day five stop itinerary.
Cozumel : We took a Princess excursion that provided a Mexican cooking lesson at a beach resort about 20 minutes from the pier. This was a great time, with an exciting and entertaining young Chef teaching basic cookery with a Mexican flare. Well worth the time and money.
Grand Cayman: We had planned to go to Boatswain's Beach but having seen the turtle farm before and hearing that the admission price had gone to $50 a head we decided to scrap that idea. We went ashore, had lunch at Senor Frogs and walked around shopping for a couple of hours. Not the best stop for shopping bargains.
Costa Rica: My loving wife went zip lining through the jungle of a Princess excursion, while I let Oscar Brown tour me and four others from our Cruise Critic group around the country side for the morning. This was a great excursion that included stops at the home of one of Oscars friends to take pictures of sloths, monkeys, birds and other wild life; then on to a banana plantation to watch the harvesting, grading and packaging of bananas. We took a small flat-bottomed boat down the canal and saw more wild life. The photography opportunities are abundant and it is simply impossible not to get some good pictures.
In the afternoon we did some shopping for coffee and locally made wood products. Costa Rican coffee at $5US a pound made for a long slog through the heat back to the ship!!
Going through this canal is one of the truly exciting travel opportunities available and makes this Coral cruise a bargain!! I cannot tell you how fascinating going through that canal is, especially if one takes the time to learn a little about the construction of the canal at the turn of the century.
The ship went through the Gatun Locks and into Gatun Lake where it dropped anchor and let those with excursions off on the tenders. Once they were all away the Coral returned back though the Gatun Locks and docked at Cristobal, Panama, the countries major port. There is a large port building on the pier that has been converted to a market. One simply walks off the gangway and into this very large shopping mall.
The 'mall' is divided into two sections. One section, closest to where the returning tour buses stop is an air conditioned space lined on four sides with one shop after another. We found no really good bargains in any of these stores.
At the end of this section of the building is a door out to an area referred to on Princess' shopping map as the "flea market"! This is the place to purchase handcrafts and art from the local Indians. These people make some of the finest woven baskets, paintings and wood products in Central America. There are great bargains to be had in this part of the market. Make sure you bring cash because the Indians do not take credit cards. Also Princess' shopping guru, a most annoying woman, never mentions that the local Indian women selling art in the market often do not wear clothing to cover their upper torso. As a result their breast are uncovered except for the intricate tattoos covering their upper bodies. Just a note for those who may be traveling with children or have personal 'thing' about public nudity even in the context of hundreds of years of cultural tradition.
The Cristobal pier market capped what was the best day of the entire cruise!
Ocho Rios, Jamaica
We traveled at night from Panama towards Jamaica. In the middle of the night we were awoken by the P.A. system in the hall and looking out the window it was clear that we were making only steering speed in 7-8 ft waves. There were no alarm bells ringing so I went back to bed.
We learned in the morning that the Coral bridge watch had seen a distress flare and launched a rescue boat. The boat returned to Coral with three new passengers that had been taken from a sailboat that had its mast break off three days earlier.
We docked at what is referred to as the James Bond Pier, but is really just a spare pier left over from an abandoned bauxite bulk loading facility. It is a long walk into town, especially in the heat and along the side of a busy highway that has no sidewalks.
We did not get off the ship in Ocho Rios having had the delightful experience of the locals swarming us to sell anything and everything, but mostly drugs, on our first visit to Jamaica a year ago. In spite of what others say, a firm "no" does not back these people off. It is a real shame because Jamaica is a beautiful island, but having to shop in gated and guarded malls is not my idea of paradise in the Caribbean!
Getting off the Coral was as easy, if not easier, than getting on. Under a relatively new Princess program, if you can carry your own bags of the ship, unassisted by ship or shore crew then you get off first. We were off at just after 7:00 in the morning.
This was a wonderful cruise on a beautiful ship. The itinerary was excellent and there was nothing that would cause us not to take another Princess cruise based on a different itinerary. In saying that however, there is nothing that would compel us to return to Princess based upon food, cabin and service, or price.
Our comparison of our Carnival Triumph cruise and the Princess Coral cruise came out pretty much a saw-off. On a per diem basis the cost of the Triumph was only about $10 a day cheaper...but the Triumph mini-suite (Cat 11) was larger than what we experienced on Coral. The food was an even split...the service marginally better on Coral...the itinerary and length of cruise on Coral was better than Triumph...a big deciding factor for us. The public spaces were much more genteel than Triumph...but again that is a matter of personal taste.
So now we have two cruise lines to choose from because in our opinion both offer a great cruising experience.