Whichever direction your cruise is traveling through the canal, you will be flying into or out of the Pacific Ocean end of the canal, Panama City. Since we were going towards the Pacific, our Embarcation was in Colon, about 1 ½ hours from Panama City.
Windstar notified us a couple of weeks in advance that they needed to do some maintenance just before our boarding, so the Embarkation would be delayed from 1PM to 5PM. They arranged for free coffee and free lunch in a ballroom at the company hotel, the Bristol Panama in Panama City. We were told to have our baggage in the lobby by 3:30PM for placement in a truck, and to watch it being loaded onto the truck. We had already independently booked a single night for ourselves there before the cruise.
I normally book directly with a hotel, but their website would only permit three-night minimum bookings! So I booked with Expedia-AARP for a single night, which was $248 plus taxes. I used their concierge to book a $40 per car private transfer from the airport. Because the Pope was in town (which Windstar didn't bother to tell us!) this worked out very well, and was charged to our room.
Our room, #510, was massive, luxurious, and well air-conditioned. We had a separate huge shower beside our tub. The newish, high-rise hotel has a luxury feel to it, and the desk service was very good. Even though we arrived around 8PM, they gave us paper Windstar baggage tags and the information sheet Windstar had been handing out during the day, before the local Windstar hosts went off-duty. The hotel is in an uninteresting, but very safe-looking corporate area with little to do. The breakfast (included in our price) was fine, but only a step above a good Hilton Garden Inn breakfast. It wasn't at the level of the room, is what I mean. The lunch Windstar had catered for us was very good, a big buffet with hot soup but cold sandwich, salad, and snack platters. We had the whole ballroom to ourselves. You didn't really have to show ID to get in and out of the ballroom.
We booked this hotel for the convenience of the Winstar transfer to the port of Colon. The bus transfer was a bargain at $49 p/p. But EVERYONE's transfer was complimentary because of the pre-scheduled delay. (Credit given on our shipboard bill.) Because there were several busses, you had to figure out that there was a second Windstar table in a different part of the lobby from the main Windstar desk. That second table had sign-up sheets for seats on busses, leaving every Fifteen Minutes, I think starting at 4:30PM. This is subjective, but I wasn't impressed with the lobby people in Windstar polo shirts. I had the sensation that they are local contractors who wear a different polo shirt every day.
A few people didn't figure out the two tables, and were displeased to be put on the last bus. It didn't really make that much difference, since it turned out that the ship didn't leave the pier until well after we were asleep in bed. (The ship had to be “in line” for the Panama Canal at 4:30AM or something like that.) We were told that the ship had been taken out for routine stability tests, but they ran long and it only tied up at 3 PM. A later version was that the renovation dry-dock company had ordered “location” of the center of gravity, which required an empty ship with no hotel workers!
The transfer included a tour guide who talked a little too much. The modern highway wasn't very interesting. We filled out “old” water sports waivers on bus, which were discarded as we signed the new one on checking in aboard ship! Due to lateness there was no hard sell of beverage package, although there was the later drawing for spa discounts. The square mile around the Colon port looked like a dystopian, post-apocalyptic movie set. The gate at the port that led to the paved driveway wasn't open, so we had to drive ¼ mile on a pot-holed gravel parking lot to get to the terminal. I will say that the terminal was clean, comfortable, and air-conditioned. Baggage screening was here, not on the ship.
It's difficult to understand the formal itinerary for the Panama Canal days. Windstar pays about $31,000 for the canal, of which some 20% is a guarantee that it will be in daylight. We started into the first lock just before dawn, and finished the transit about 13 hours later. In fact, we missed the final exit, to go to the daily Port Talk in the Lounge. In San Miguel lock, one of the lockside electric locomotives seemed to fail, but (we heard) the Captain told the Canal Pilot that he could hold the center of the lock without that tug and we proceeded. There was a huge Pope-pilgrim-tourist crowd at Miraflores Visitor Center watching us.
Because of the Canal passage, the officer's introductions and the Captain's Table (to which we were invited, probably because of 9 Windstar cruises) were put off one night. There were Officer Tables on later nights, but the Captain's Table was empty for the rest of the cruise. Officer Introduction was one of a few nights when there were extensive passed hors d'oeuvres in the Lounge.
It's important to pay attention to the daily schedule sheets and verbal announcements. We were pleased to learn that, even though every port (except the start and finish) were Anchorages, two of the landings were NOT “WET [feet]”. We did use Zodiacs for the dry landings, as for the wet ones. There are variations in the hour that the breakfast room (and less-often, the continental breakfast in the Yacht Club) open. These are intended to assist guests with early excursion departures. Honestly, I prefer to travel with a small box of cereal so I can have a substantial breakfast even in the Yacht Club.
Food was good, normal for Windstar. I thought the seasoning in Amphora was tastier than my memory of some past cruises. Although it was not technically difficult to create, my favorite dessert was Pineapple Carpaccio, which was light and refreshing. We never bothered to book Candles. I was surprised that there were only two dry cereals at breakfast, but when I asked for a bran cereal, they went and got me a huge bowl of Raisin Bran. In view of the age profile, this was a big change! We thought the table service was not as good as other Windstar Cruises. But the one time we were seated in the far rear of Amphora, we happened to get very attentive, prompt service.
I don't mean to sound whiny, but we found that when we offered to share a dinner table (which we are pleased to do), we often ended up at a six or even an eight-top table, with some of the same people again and again. A table for four is the best way to meet new people. I don't know if this was due to carelessness or to save labor. The real issue is that this means you cannot finish eating until after 9PM, even if you come at 7:00. I mention this also because I was diagnosed with Gastric Reflux after our 21-day cruise. I've never had the problem before. We do go to bed early! (Age 67) I'm not judging, but there are a certain number of couples (and quads) on every cruise who will never share a table.
Because we're 9-cruise repeaters, we're used to a 5:30PM reception for that. This time, it began at 6PM, which meant we had to rush off to the Port Talk scheduled at 6:30. By the time we left, at 6:32, there had been no welcome speech with a Reality-Television-like show of hands to determine which couple had the most repeats, and award of a bottle of sparking wine to them. Honestly, we didn't miss the sparkling wine, but we did miss the fuss over loyal customers!
#133, lowest deck. We choose the Windstar motor vessels for the huge suite size, and this was identical to others we've had. We consider access to the stairs that go right to the Yacht Club, and access from the shore-excursion return. Although our window started out clean, it did get more splashed and dirty than a higher-up window would. There was some confusion at Embarkation over just what the name of our Cabin Steward was - like in a restaurant when the waiters don't know who is assigned to your table. But cleanliness and service were the usual excellent. We never ate in our room or asked for much special service. We had to wait for a our bags, but as you'll read elsewhere in this review, we had special delays, announced in advance, for boarding the ship.
I knew that our ship wasn't brand spanking new, and it was just fine. I can live with a little worn spots of varnish on wood moldings! We did have two bureau drawers that did not lock shut, as is essential on a boat. The one beside my side of the bed I taped shut with a piece of adhesive tape from my medical kit.
Colon is the Embarkation point for the cruise. We booked a Windstar transfer from Panama City to Colon, which is described in the body of this review. I don't consider Colon a shore-excursion destination.
Wed Isla Parida picnic 8:30 and 10:30 jungle hikes ($39 p/p) w/our naturalist and a local guide. Orchids and plant identifications but zero wildlife. Lunch w/many options and full bar available, spa on shore and non-motorized water sports. Continuous Zodiacs until 3:30. Three permanent bathrooms with slow-running water in ranger station far left. We had hoped for fins and snorkels to supplement the prescription masks we packed, but there was little such equipment at the water sports tent.