This was our 4th trip on a Lindblad/National Geographic ship, and the 4th great experience we've had with them.
Our journey started with a 3 day shore extension to the cloud forest in Costa Rica with a Lindblad Naturalist (Fico) and driver (German). Normally 10 to 20 guests participate in the extension but this time it was just the 4 people in our family. Not only did Fico and Herman take us to see everything on the itinerary but along the way we stopped to watch howler monkey in trees on the roadside, stopped at some road-side fruit stands to pick up some in-season treats, and others that made the drive to the Cloud Forest part of the adventure. At each destination Fico would talk about the animals or plants we were seeing or hearing which turned every stop from a sightseeing experience to a learning experience. Since there were only 4 of us, they allowed us to deviate from the planned destinations and activities because the smaller group size gave us more flexibility. For example guests normally had to pick between a zip-line through the forest canopy, and a walk through it on suspended bridges - but my daughter really wanted to do both so they made it happen. The accommodations were great (we saw an armadillo, parrots, and other wildlife on the grounds of the lodge we stayed without much effort). The restaurants for all good, and we generally at whatever German (the driver) suggested because he knew every restaurants specialties.
After returning from the cloud forest we boarded ship in Costa Rica. We'd previously sailed on the Sea Lions sister ship, the Sea Bird, so we knew what to expect. The ship was in good shape. My wife, daughter, and I stayed in a triple and my brother had a single. The cabin was well maintained and clean with enough storage space for the 3 of us (largely because the bed was raised high enough we could stash our luggage under it easily). In our first trip on the Sea Bird we found the 'shoilet' (small toilet area that doubled as the shower) a bit disconcerting but time around it didn't seem as odd. With 3 of us cabin space was tight, but we spent so little time in the cabin it really didn't matter. Almost the entire day was spent on excursions, in the lounge debriefing with other guest or looking at the photos we got (or didn't) on the computers, or on the partially covered sun deck either enjoying sun, or shade, as we wanted.
Food was served in the dining room. It's all 'open seating' and we tried to sit with different guests at each meal. Breakfast was a buffet and generally included fresh fruit, yogurt, cereals, breads, bacon and/or sausage, some type of egg, sometimes crepes, waffles, or pancakes. Lunch was similarly buffet with salad, soup, and fruit always there with different choices each day like burgers and dogs, tacos, thai chicken, and veggie medleys, Dinner was served with soup and fresh bread, with a choice between a meat dish (flank steak, rack of lamb, prime rib, etc.), a seafood dish (sea bass, etc.), and a vegetarian option (portabella risotto, etc.). If none of those sounded good a full size salad or chicken breast was also always offered. Dinner was followed by a desert like flan, fruit crisps, and the like. My daughter had a bit of motion sickness and the hospitality manager (Anna Marie) noticed her not eating and each morning would inquire if she wanted one of the items on the days menu or if she'd prefer some more kid-friendly fare like chicken tenders, pasta, a hot dog, or mac-and-cheese. Most of the time my daughter was good with the normal menu items but a few times she did take Anna Marie up on her offer and got a custom dish just for her. Most meals the natural history staff and some of the ships officers would join us at meals, and we'd learn about them and (since they were from the local area) we'd hear about the culture of the area and what it is like to live and have grown up there.
As my review title says, the real high point of the trip was the activities - the shore excursions with the natural history staff. Every day had at least 1 multi-hour activity in the morning and a second in the afternoon. We'd generally take a zodiac from the ship to shore (most often making a wet landing, so shorts and shoes/footwear you are ok getting soaked is mandatory) followed by walk into the forest or along the coast with a naturalist and/or photo instructor. Those guys were amazing, With their naked eyes they spotted sloths in the trees (if you've never seen a sloth in a tree, from the ground it looks like a brown blob in the branches of a tree, and you don't have motion to draw attention to them), howler monkey, spider monkeys, white face monkeys, parrots, toucans, macaws, hummingbirds, alligators, tarantulas, bats, and mountains of other types of birds and animals. They pointed out plants and type of plants, talked about the life cycle of the forest and how gaps in the canopy result in pioneer plants which eventually end up with the forest terminal state foliage. They could identify birds by call alone, and in most cases then find the birds.
The photo instructor (Jose) was great. In addition to being a naturalist and point out the animals and plants, walks with him always included hints and tips on how to photograph them more effectively, the right types of light, moving to better angles to capture the life better, camera settings so you could get the effect you wanted from stop-motion (real cool for birds in flight, or dolphins jumping from the bow or in the wake of the ship) to blurred (great for the some of the waterfalls we visited).
A clear highlight was seeing a sloth in a tree on the start of a walk, and on the way back seeing that same sloth with it's new born baby. The videographer that accompanied us everywhere even got some real "National Geographic" quality video of the sloth eating the placenta after giving birth. A real 'once in a lifetime moment' even for our naturalists who spent decades in the rain forest!
The last two days of the trip, when we traversed the Panama Canal, was a bit slower than the previous days but that was because we had to defer to the canal authority to decide when we could cross. We entered the canal in the evening (passenger ships as 2nd priority, the big cargo ships go first) which gave us a great chance to photograph the canal and operations at night. Jose, our trusty photo instructor, seemed to be everywhere helping guest capture the night canal night crossing in pictures the way they wanted. We spent the night in the canal itself (Lindblad is the only cruise that stops mid-way) and visited the Smithsonian Institutes tropical research center on Barro Colorado Island at first night, which included a talk from a long-time researcher from the island (I suppose spending 30 years as a researcher on that island counts as a long time). We were then lucky enough to traverse the 2nd set of locks in the day; so we could see lock operations both at night and in the say.
As crazy as it sounds, another highlight for me was the last night which we spent in the container port on the Caribbean side of the canal. We were moored right along side some Panamax and post-Panamax contain ships and from the sun deck we could watch the loading and unloading of those ships up-close and personal. The Sea Lion seems like a little minnow tied-up along those mega-behemoths.
The trip concluded with our Lindblad representatives taking us to the airport in Panama City for our flight how. Along the way we stopped at the Mira Flores Locks (the ones we traversed at night) so we could see them from the day from the visitors center; it really made us appreciate the experience of having crossed through the locks as well.
We were sorry to see it end, and are already thinking about what Lindblad voyage to take next. If only I could wrangle a month off (and I could con Lindblad into giving me a break on the price!) it'd probably be Antarctic and South Georgia island. I'm not sure it could top the sloth giving birth but I'm willing to let them try!