Embarkation: Canada Place was a zoo when we arrived, but we were herded efficiently through a long lineup and boarded around 1 p.m., within one hour of arrival. We carried on (and declared) four bottles of wine to enjoy in our stateroom and packed another couple of good quality Tetra-packs (one-litre boxed wines) in our luggage, no problem at all.
Stateroom: Our starboard forward Aloha balcony stateroom was clean and ready for our arrival; we met our very efficient and friendly steward Chet (from Thailand) and requested eggcrate mattress-tops and bathrobes. The eggcrates were delivered promptly and the bathrobes arrived the next morning. The tux/shoes that we had pre-rented were hanging in the closet as promised and were in excellent condition. We later discovered that the shower had a slow drain, but Chet arranged to have it fixed within a couple of hours of embarkation. Another issue was an outside pipe above our covered balcony that collected condensation and dripped rust; this was solved easily enough by wiping the pipe every couple of days. Our stateroom was below the Horizon Court. During the day, we heard very little noise from above, but almost every night, there were banging sounds (from the galley?) between 3 and 4 a.m. It startled us awake the first few nights, but then we got used to it.
The Coral Princess: Clean and easy to navigate. We especially enjoyed power-walking the length of the ship around the Sun Deck in the morning, and strolling the quite Promenade Deck in the humid evenings. Maintenance crews were constantly (but unobtrusively) cleaning, painting and varnishing. Ship's drinking water was excellent, no need for expensive bottled water.
Smoking: We are non-smokers and avoid smoking areas for health reasons. While the smell of smoke was quite strong outside of some staterooms, it did not bother us in our own. We had smokers upwind of us, but they were courteous and only smoked one at a time on their balcony, so we could enjoy ours most of the time. Smokers on deck mostly stayed on the port side by the Lido bar.
Pools: The jets on two of the three outdoor hot tubs on the Lido deck were not working, but nobody seemed to mind. The crews were testing the pool and spa waters constantly, which was reassuring. Both the Lido and Lotus pools were clean and we swam in both.
Deck drink/food service: Drink orders were taken frequently with prompt, friendly delivery. The Lido pizza was heavenly (I loved the Nordic pizza with smoked salmon). The french fries from the grill were double-fried to a perfect golden crisp, and there was guacamole to dip them in! Avoid the vegetarian burgers, they were very mushy. My husband really enjoyed the beef cheeseburgers and bratwursts.
Fellow travellers: A real mix of ages, which was great. This was by no means a golden-oldies cruise. Lots of walkers, some wheelchairs/scooters and very few children on such a long cruise. Quite a few passengers were in the 40-65 range. Everybody was ready for a good time, and from what I saw, were accommodating to those who had to move more slowly. The line-dancing classes, bingo, trivia and other activities looked very well attended!
One of the best aspects of this cruise was meeting our CruiseCritic.com group ahead of time on the roll call and getting together for fun on the ship. What a great group of people! We were lucky to have the opportunity to meet them all.
Gym/Sauna: We didn't join any of the organized classes, but used the fitness area quite a bit. There were enough treadmills and other equipment, all clean and in good shape. We also stopped here to fill up our water bottles with cold water before heading ashore. The fitness area is aft and overlooks the ship's wake, a great place to work out. There are weigh scales in kilograms and stones, with a conversion chart if you need to know pounds. (But who wants to know?) Towels are provided, as are anti-bacterial wipes to wipe down your machine after use. The smallish sauna area (ladies) had two roomy showers, and while the sauna was not as hot as I'd like, it was a pleasant place to pass an hour. We didn't opt for the thermal suite, it was in a windowless room and I didn't fancy sitting around with other folks warming my tush when I could do that on the Sun Deck in the open air for free.
Dining: We opted for Late Traditional. No need for a waiting list here, a few tables in the room sat empty the entire cruise, and our table for eight was only filled by three couples. We'd taken a previous cruise to Mexico on the Sapphire two years ago, and had really liked the food, however, I found this 17-day menu a bit of a mishmash. I didn't recognize many of the dishes from our last cruise (or the Princess cookbook) and perhaps the head chef was trying to be adventurous on such a long voyage. I was very disappointed in the lobster, they were small and overcooked in comparison what we had enjoyed before, and they were served with large prawns, instead of being the featured seafood on the plate. I noticed a few of the same sauces were being repeated on subsequent nights on different dishes. On one night, our tablemates raved over the French Onion soup. I asked if it was possible to have the French Onion Soup the following night, but with a vegetable base (the soup base is beef.) A simple request. But the server had to consult with the head waiter for five minutes, halting the service to the three tables he was covering. Then the head waiter came over, asked who had made the special request, and had me repeat it. Then he wrote everything down on a notepad. Then he asked me for my stateroom number. That was my last special request, it seemed like too much of a fuss. But the soup the next night proved to be excellent! Our waiter was mostly competent, but was not a very warm person - unlike the gal serving the table next to us. When our server did make small mistakes, such as delivering the wrong salad dressing or the wrong dessert, he would simply dismiss it or argue if you pointed it out. (We ended up just swapping dessert plates ourselves). If you asked what ingredients were in a particular dish and he didn't know, he would shrug. Our assistant waiter was much more friendly, addressing us by name and remembering preferences. He got the larger tip!
Other dining options: We tried breakfast and lunch in the dining rooms, but the service (three separate visits) was very, very slow, so it was back to Horizon Court, which we enjoyed (especially the omelette station at breakfast). Sabatini's was an unforgettable evening, delicious and well-presented food, great service, and we didn't over-eat. We also loved the Bayou Cafe for the same reasons.
Entertainment: Unfortunately, we didn't make it to many of the big shows. (Early to bed, early to rise). But kudos to the historian on board, Lawrence Rudner, whose talks were well-researched and informative. Our at-sea days were mostly spent reading, in the gym, walking and hanging out by the pool. The nightly entertainment in the Bayou Cafe was excellent - the very personable Denise Canby trio and earlier in the evening, the talented Ron Coleman noodling away on the piano. Both Ron and Denise took the time to chat with passengers. It was a lovely way to relax before and after dinner, and you didn't have to be eating at the Bayou to go in soak up the lounge atmosphere. (And it's smoke-free!)
Unusual event: Overnight off the coast of Cuba, a large thunderstorm (didn't really rock the ship at all, as we slept through it) blew dozens of tropical birds into the ship. When we went to walk on the Sun Deck first thing in the morning, it was a Hitchcockian scene. Dead and stunned birds of all sizes littered the deck and other confused birds were flying inside the Lotus Pool area and bumping into the glass. Some of the birds survived - and a few plucky yellow finches spent the final day cruising to Ft. Lauderdale with us on the Lido Deck. I have pictures of them perching by the hot tubs.
Sealife sightings: Whales, dolphins, lots of flying fish, one big dead Great White Shark (south of San Fran.) a live shark, tons of interesting sea birds and by my count (from what I could see from our balcony), 13 sea turtles. We were fortunate to have mostly calm seas so we could look right down (no balconies jutting out below us) into the ocean.
Ports: Everybody will have different experiences in the ports. Ours were mostly positive. A brief summary:
San Francisco: Lunch at Scoma's on the pier (excellent seafood, wine selection and service), cable car ride to Union Square, and back to wander around Pier 39 and watch the sea lions bark in the sun.
Cabo: We hired a water taxi ($10 each) out to the Arch, which was a lot of fun. He dropped us off at Lover's Beach for a swim, and picked us up as promised an hour later. If you take a water taxi, be prepared to get wet - especially if you are not in good shape and cannot jump nimbly from the boat into the surf. We saw quite a few older and overweight tourists (some in jeans!) take a dunking. Once back on the main pier, we walked into town and had lunch (very slow service, but good food) at the Giggling Marlin, where other tourists were happily strung upside down like marlins to have their pictures taken.
Acapulco: The fortress was closed, so we walked to the old part of the city (Zocala) and wandered around. Very few vendors bothered you once you got outside the immediate port vicinity and it was good to see the places where ordinary citizens shopped and walked.
Huatulco: A beautiful and clean small port. But the vendors were almost unbearable near the pier. We took at cab to the resort area of Tangolunda beach (five dollars) just to have a quiet walk on the beach.
Puntarenas: We had pre-booked a private Charlie Soto tour, which was a bit of a misnomer as Charlie didn't show and sent his son instead. His son, a medical student, was friendly but didn't speak English very well - he wasn't a professional tour guide so we learned very little about the countryside we were seeing. There was no air-conditioned van with cold drinks and fruit but a very small taxi with the windows rolled down. We had to ask to stop for a drink of water, and our guide drove to a friend's place and presented us with some warm, bottled water which took an hour to cool off in a bucket of ice. A single beer materialized later in the day. We enjoyed ziplining at Villa Lapas (excellent guides there) and lunch at a beachside eatery before returning to the pier for some shopping. There was a wide variety of affordable crafts at this pier, the best on the trip, and I wish I had bought more. The vendors were courteous and did not hassle you at all.
Panama Canal: What a great transit, and in lovely weather! We went forward on Baja deck to the very front of the ship for great views. During the last set of locks, we toasted the Canal from the Patisserie on Deck 5 and watched the ship sink below the walls of the locks. An exciting day!
Cartegena: We took a ship's tour, the walk through Old Cartegena. The Coral was the first Princess ship to visit this port in a number of years due to safety concerns, so the locals pulled out all the stops with a big cultural show (band, dancers) on the pier and some red-carpet officials who visited the ship. Our walking tour was fantastic. Very few soldiers around, just lots and lots of "tourist police" with armbands on almost every corner. Amazing architecture, churches and a great guide, although he spent too long in a stop at an emerald shop. Other than the dead rat that I accidentally stepped in, this was a great tour and we were happy to see many important historical sites preserved. Note: while we returned early to the ship, we noticed late-arriving cruise tours were forced to stand out in long lineups in the hot sun. Armed guards were searching the bags of almost all the crew members who had been ashore, and checking quite a few passengers, as well.
Aruba: A quick half-day visit. We left the ship and headed for the bus station conveniently across the street from the pier. It cost $1.15 each to take a short bus ride to either Eagle or Palm beach. We enjoyed a swim in the calm waters at Palm Beach, but were reluctant to sit and relax, as all the chair and cabanas were reserved for hotel guests only and we didn't want to rent. We spent a couple of hours walking the beach and having a quick (and very expensive) beer at a hotel beach bar before taking a bus back to the pier for a little shopping.
Fort Lauderdale: Disembarkation was effortless, although a little delayed. We took the post-cruise Everglades boat ride tour, as our flight didn't leave from MIA until late in the afternoon. The guide on our tour bus was among the best we've had, very entertaining, and we learned quite a bit about the Everglades on the 30-minute ride to the park. We enjoyed the 20-minute airboat ride, it was very informative. But the alligator "show" afterwards was too hard to watch - a barefoot, unkempt "animal trainer" in a small fenced arena poking at alligators with a stick, dragging them by their tails to get them into a position for better photos. We left almost immediately - in my opinion, it was disgusting to see this kind of 19th century animal exhibition.
Summary: What hurricane season??? The seas were calm and the temperatures beautiful. A once-in-a-lifetime cruise, although we may go back in another decade to see the new canal once it is finished! In retrospect, not much to complain about at all, and some fabulous memories. Good job, Princess, and thanks CruiseCritic.com for helping us prepare!