Eight of us, ranging in age from 46 to 86, had a terrific vacation onboard Coral Princess from LA to Ft. L over the holidays. In Princess's parlance, the cruise "met our expectations," which is to say that we expected to have a fantastic time, and we did. After this, my third cruise with Princess (the others to Mexico and Alaska), I observe that Princess offers a total experience much greater than the sum of its parts, thus my 3s and 4s on the poll with an overall rating of 5. Very few parts of their cruises knock my socks off, but each cruise has been a vacation highlight. I really enjoy the journey, the whole scene onboard, and the chance to see new places, albeit very briefly. While it might not be my first choice for a vacation for just the two of us, it's an unbeatable way to travel with a large group, especially when it includes such a wide age range.
I'll write this partly from my own observations, part from the aggregate experience of the eight of us, and another part from the experience of a four-person subset: my brother, his wife, my wife, and me. Our smaller group is my main source for bias: emphasis on fitness and good health, time with each other, seeing new places, learning new things, and experiencing the ship. We walk every morning, get additional exercise in the fitness center almost every day, take the stairs always, eat well (and most of us lost a pound or two), get plenty of sleep, enjoy each other's company, find private times for reading and writing, too, and aim to learn as much as we can about the places we're going.
Embarkation in San Pedroa breeze. L and I had an Enterprise rental from LAX with a free drop-off in downtown SP, a 5-minute shuttle from the port terminal. I dropped L off with our bags at 11:00 and then circled back to drop off the car and return to the port. By the time I was back, the bags were checked, and we proceeded through the nonexistent lines for ticketing, waited a bit for our boarding group to be called, and headed onboard. (Others in our party joined later, including some with travel difficulties from the NW. Princess held the ship for two hours waiting for some with weather delays. Apparently about 10 caught up to us in Huatulco.) No problem with our Trader Joe's bags filled with wine bottles for the eight of us (since others were coming direct from the airport). Once again, Princess seems to have this process figured out. Oh, there was a problem with my cruise card, some mixup with my brother and me, but that was good for a laugh, and they got it straightened out.
Public Rooms: beautiful, comfortable, clean, not crowded, opportunities for alone time as well as group gatherings, nice bars, game room, library, etc.
Cabin: comfortable bed, cozy bathroom (we like them and we were glad to have remembered a nightlight), terrific Caribe balcony aft a few cabins from the midships bumpout. To rate a 5, we'd have to pay more, and I'm not really interested enough in a cabin to do that.
Fitness and recreation: As I said above, we took great advantage of this. Among the four of us younger folks, we took only a handful of elevators during the entire trip, took Pilates and yoga, used the fitness center, met on the Promenade Deck for morning walks, etc. It rates 4 only because we're all used to excellent fitness facilities, and Princess's are very good. To be a 5, there'd have to be a wider variety of exercise machines, a refurbished aerobics floor, advanced yoga and Pilates, co-ed sauna, and a more welcoming spa staff. But again, we're happy with a 4.
Enrichment: We heard two lecturers. The first, someone with an entertainment and talk-show background, was ill-prepared for a lecture on the Maya. L and I left after 5 minutes. Others in our group left about 5 minutes later, while a couple stayed for the duration: "I wanted to hear it all, so I could tell you how bad it really was." We weren't surprised that someone scheduled to give talks on 1) the Maya, 2) stress, and 3) communicating with teenagers wouldn't be much of an anthropologist, archeologist, or historian. The other lecturer, an academic, provided very good presentations on the canal and Mexican music (as well as others that we didn't catch). Belying our academic bias, we didn't mind his pacing around the stage, but rather enjoyed his more scholarly approach to the topics at hand. Some in our party noted that the theater on Oceania would have been proportionally SRO for such talks. Again, the Princess clientele has broad interests, and enrichment is clearly not highest on the list. We're okay with a 3, since we all read lots anyway.
Dining: Again, Princess delivers a high quality product, and I'm regularly impressed with their consistency. The food is really good, but it's not great, and that's fine with me. As a group, we were very satisfied. A number of us would prefer spicier, more ethnically-varied cuisine, but I won't hold my breath for fresh tortillas, falafel, pad thai, and other more savory fare to supplant the staples of traditional dining. We're fans of the early seating, a great carefree chance for all to gather at the end of the day, and many dishes (soufflEs, lobster and crab, NY strip steak, shrimp fra diavolo, cold soups, etc.) were big hits. They're very accommodating and helpful for folks with food allergies or vegetarians, too. Our travel agent had provided vouchers for the eight of us to have a night at Sabatini's. It was great fun and very good, but I doubt I'd do it again.
Service: As on our other cruises with Princess, service rates a 5 easily. Our cabin steward Chan, and our dining room servers Christen and Adrian were simply outstanding. They clued into us well, and we all had a great time with them. We appreciated Adrian's nightly recommendations (including his nonverbal disapproval when we'd ask about some non-recommended dishes), Christen's enthusiasm for the less expensive wines on the list (my favorite a CaliterraChileanred), and Chan's attention to every detail. L's vegetarian need to vet any "stealth meat" (e.g., chicken stock) was dealt with very attentively and discreetly by Adrian, also. On an earlier cruise, our niece, who is highly allergic to nuts, was treated royally. She cited "the food" as her favorite part of the cruise. So our expectations for Princess are high, and they delivered again on Coral.
Entertainment: Several of us are connected to the performing arts, and we mainly assume that cruises are great employment opportunities for our students. And that's clearly the case. We were also pleasantly surprised by the featured performers we sawsinger, magician, and comedian. Again, nothing floored us, but we enjoyed the few shows we caught.
Shore excursions: This was a mixed bag. Some of our group had terrific excursions out of Puntarenas, the train/boat combo and the river rafting, and one had a positive experience in Cartegena. Seven of us took the Cartegena by Land and Sea, and it wasn't a very good experience. Princess later reimbursed us for 75% of the tour costs, due to bus overcrowding, lack of attention to older members of the group, and the guide's lack of communication and knowledge. Clearly, the tourism infrastructure was strained by having three ships in port at the same time. Cartegena is beautiful, though, and motoring around the harbor (albeit in full sun) was very cool.
Four of us caught a cab for beach time in Aruba nice walk, a quick swim, and happy-hour drinks at a beach bar. Perfect. We'd avoided the long disembarking lines that day by dallying over lunch in the buffet and waiting till we could just walk right off, still with enough time to walk the town and get some beach time.
The shore highlight for me was our non-Princess excursion with Turansa during the Puerto Quetzal day. Guide Lionel and driver Wilfrido took the eight of us on a 7-hour tour of Antigua, a place not to be missed. I recommend Turansa highly for their pre-tour communication, the guide and driver, and the chance to see colonial marvels in a spectacular location. And for $48 per person, including gratuities and ccard fee, it way undercut the cruise line's price for a busload. With just the eight of us, we were never rushed nor ever in herd mode.
The canal daywow!! Okay, I know that at least a couple of our CC friends from the roll call thought it was kind of boring, but for anyone with a bit of engineering or history nerdiness, it was a jaw-dropping time. Coral Princess ghosted its way toward the canal just as sunlight hit the skyscrapers of Panama City, and we gaped at the Bridge of the Americas. Once in the locks, we wandered all of the various vantage pointsCaribe fore- and afterdecks, Horizon Court (a cool feature of CP's layout up in the bow on Lido Deck), La Patisserie (which provided below-lock-level views), and our balconies, as well as a dining room lunch by the windows as we cruised Lake Gatun. Most of us had read the McCullough book, had seen films about it, and attended the onboard lecture on it, so seeing it for real was truly spectacular. We're happy to be nerds.
The ship: Coral is my favorite of the three I've cruised (Star to Alaska, Sapphire to Mexico). Its layout is terrific, never feeling crowded even on our overbooked holiday cruise, and finding each other onboard is easy. I'm interested to try a smaller ship (Royal, maybe) next time.
Disembarkation: easy and efficient, as we've come to expect. Next time we disembark in Ft. Lauderdale with afternoon flights, though, I'll hire a driver for our group and spend some time around the city before heading to the airport. Our airline (Delta) at least, didn't allow us to check in till three hours before the flight, so we had a lot of waiting time both before and after check-in.
Other great stuff onboard: coffee card at La Patisserie for morning lattes, soda cards kept us hydrated with soda&lime, blackjack tournaments with a terrific casino staff, a wacky film trivia contest that featured refilmed scenes starring CP staff, dancing to Geraldo Osa's trio, formal nights, New Year's Eve celebrations in Universe Lounge and Lido deck, champagne balcony breakfast, lots of time just to hang out with each other, and of course amazing tropical weather. And probably my favorite thing to do just sit or roam the ship, watching us make our way toward the next port. It's no surprise that many of us put down deposits toward next cruises!