Island Princess – Western Caribbean & Panama Canal – October 7 – 17, 2019
Why this cruise? We do not mark Princess as our favorite cruise line, but there were some aspects of this cruise that held an appeal. We had not visited any of the ports, and we liked the spacing of the cruise, with sea days between all stops. And Princess is not a bad cruise line; it just does not match our favorites – Crystal – Oceania – Viking – Celebrity. So we flew to Fort Lauderdale and embarked.
Embarkation. Boarding a ship in Florida when one lives in Arizona always involves a night in a hotel, and this was no exception. Our hotel provided an early shuttle to the pier, and there was immediate access to an embarkation clerk with no delay in checking in. Of course the cabins were not made up and we had to wait, on comfortable chairs in the cruise terminal building, for a while. We then proceeded on board and to the buffet. All in all it was an easy process.
The ship. Island Princess is one of the smallest ships in the Princes fleet, but still holds about 2000 passengers with a crew of 950. Its size allows it to use the old locks in the Panama Canal, but just barely. It is 16 years old and shows this in its design, but the interiors had been redone two or three years ago and were in good shape. There were some design features which were different from our more recent cruising experiences. The buffet, the “Horizon Court” was forward on the Lido Deck (14), which meant that there was no forward facing lounge where one could sit in comfort, coffee (or drink) in hand and see where you were going. There are two dining rooms, The Provence Room on Deck 6, for guests with a “traditional” orientation, with fixed seating and two dinner times – 5:15 and 7:15 and the Bordeaux Room with open seating from 5:00 to 9:30 on Deck 5 directly below the Provence Room. The Theater, which had only one level, although with a nice slope providing good viewing for all, was above these dining rooms on Deck 7. There are two “Specialty” restaurants; the Bayou Café and Steakhouse and Sabatini’s Italian restaurant, both charging extra fees; midships on Deck 7. The usual shipboard services, shops, lounges, an internet café, shopping, art gallery, casino and other offerings are found off the four story atrium midships between Decks 5 and 8. There are two pools on the Lido Deck, and an area called the Sanctuary aft on that deck, offering comfortable seating, a bar and jacuzzi and shaded views off the rear deck, all for a fee which we did not choose to pay. In some venues the air conditioning was set too cold.
Our Cabin. We had chosen a “mini-suite” which had some extra room, and a good location. It also made us members of the “Club Class”, which had a few extras, most notably, a separate section of the Bordeaux Dining Room for our use. The cabin was quietly decorated with beige walls and had a large couch, two TVs, a small coffee table, a nice verandah and an open closet with plenty of room. Princess uses mostly shelves rather than drawers, but the space easily accommodated our clothing. We have gotten better at packing fewer clothes on our cruises after 45 tries. The thermostat actually worked. The bathroom had a tub-shower, but the temperature was difficult to control, which resulted in very hot water. All in all it was a pretty good.
Sail Away. Our luggage was quite late in arriving, but we had planned a casual dinner anyway. The muster drill was held in each cabin’s muster place; in our case the Wheelwright Lounge. This was much better than standing up on deck. We discovered when we went to the dining room that the “Club Class” had its own entrance, and our cabin number was on a list so that only this class would be led to the special area. We also found out that the shows were held twice each night – 7:30 and 9:30, so we planned to dine early each night to make the early show if we wanted to.
The next day was a sea day, with not much to do except attend the destination lecture. These were held by Kerry James, a British lady, who did very thorough and pleasant presentations. We sailed east along the north coast of Cuba, and could see some off shore islands.
Amber Cove. This is mainly a cruise port on the north coast of the Dominican Republic. We took a ship’s tour to the nearby city of Puerto Plata; but the tour consisted mainly of visiting the town square a church and a shopping area where we were solicited to buy things we did not want. It seemed a pleasant enough town, quite typical of most other Caribbean port cities.
Cartagena. Following a sea day we visited Cartagena, Columbia where we had another ship’s tour. This one was much better allowing us to see this major port and enjoy, among other things, a pleasant Folklorico show. Cartagena is a large city with many new high rises, including several that looked as though they had 45-50 stories. Many seemed to be apartments or co-ops, but some were obviously businesses. As usual, poor areas adjoin fancy new places. Overall, this was a good tour and an interesting city.
Panama Canal. While this was not technically a “sea day” we treated it as such since we had no intention of leaving the ship. We had transversed the canal in 2002, and visited it again with a river tour after a Pacific coast stop in 2014, so we remained on board. This was the only day in which there was any real rainfall.
Puerto Limon, Costa Rica. We had booked a private tour here. All our information said the tour, which was marked with a boat trip up a canal with the chance to see wildlife, was to start at 9:00. It was a long walk from the ship to the tour meeting place and we were passed by another couple headed for the same tour. When we got to the meeting spot there was no tour, and some other tour guides said our bus had left. We had a local phone number and when we called they said they had changed the time to 8:00 and notified us. I keep all e-mails on our tours, and they all said 9:00. The tour bus would not come back to get us so we returned to the ship. So we had another sea day.
Falmouth, Jamaica. After a planned sea day we arrived in Falmouth on the north coast of Jamaica. Here we were joined in our private tour by two other
couples, and we set out in a small van with our driver/tour guide. Falmouth is a relatively small town, about 20 miles east of Montego Bay and 40 miles west of Ocho Rios. What we did was largely our choice so we decided to go to Montego Bay. On the way we pulled into Rose Hall, but it was not yet open. We drove round Montego Bay. Went back to a store, and then went to a local restaurant for lunch, which was excellent – and very inexpensive. I have had Jamaican jerk chicken on a prior visit, and love it. We then went to Rose Hall. This is a spectacular building on a hillside with a fine view of the Caribbean. It has a legend, almost certainly fictitious, about Annie Palmer who purportedly murdered three husbands here, the first one being the owner. The building was certainly built in the late1700s as the headquarters of a large plantation. It had fallen into disrepair when it was purchased by a former Miss USA and her husband in the late 1960s. They restored it at great expense and it now is a major tourist attraction. It involved too much walking and climbing for me, but my wife and the others of our group enjoyed the one hour tour. We then returned to the ship very satisfied with our tour and its price - $92.00 for each couple for six hours.
Disembarkation. After one more sea day we docked in Fort Lauderdale. Since we had purchased our air transportation from Princes, we were offered their “E-Z” plan. This cost $25.00 per person, but we felt it was worth it. What you do is have them arrange with your air carrier a system whereby Princess takes your luggage from outside your cabin and brings it to the airport and the airline, so the next time you see it is at your destination. You do not have to go searching for it at the pier, nor haul it to the airport and check it in. It was well worth it. Princess pays any airline baggage charge and adds it to your ship’s bill. Customs was very slow in Fort Lauderdale, but Princess has no control over that, so we have to say the debarkation was fine.
Food and Food Service. This is what many people consider the most important aspect of any cruise. As noted, our mini-suite booking entitled us to enjoy the Club Class in the Bordeaux Room. The service was truly excellent – the equal of any we had experienced even on better ships. Our three waiters, Tarra, Hem and Joan (male) were always there and all provided well informed, friendly, often humorous, fast and efficient service, as did their assistant waiters. They were so good that we often went there for lunch and even breakfast. The maitre’d for this area, Alfredo, was also excellent, overseeing us carefully and often. Unfortunately, the food, while largely very good, did not always live up to the level of service. Two meat dishes were too tough to eat, and a couple of Edith’s vegetarian choices were also far short of good.
The buffet provided a pretty good range of choices, all well prepared. The dessert offerings were somewhat limited, although all the desserts were very well done. The service was generally slow, and more people were needed. The coffee was not good anywhere on board. We never tried the specialty restaurants. The pizzeria was quite nice, but the ice cream bar only had three types of soft ice cream; vanilla, chocolate and mixed.
All in all, the food was typical of Princess, scoring about 85 - 87, where Crystal and Oceania score at 96 - 98 and Viking, Celebrity and Azamara at 93 - 95.
The Crew. Princess does a good job, like all cruise lines, in training their crew to be friendly and appear helpful, and Island Princess was no exception. Our cabin steward was very fast and thorough in cleaning our cabin every day. We did note that there seemed to be some lack of communication between Housekeeping and Guest Services, but this was a small matter. One deck officer stopped me while I was walking to supper on a formal night to compliment my tie!
Entertainment. This aspect of the cruise, as usual, was a mixed bag. As we noted, the destination lecturer, Kerry James, was excellent. The production shows were quite good, with several fine singers; and fortunately, they were not too loud. A solo singer was also very good, and a magician reasonably entertaining. A pianist seemed to want to beat the piano to death, so we left halfway through. There were a variety of musical groups throughout the ship, but we did not enjoy them much, except for a Dixieland group from the show band.
Overall Rating. This was a reasonably pleasant cruise with some very fine aspects, and some shortcomings. The weather was almost always good, although warm, and the sea smooth. There was far too much pressure including announcements and flyers attempting to sell us products, shore excursions, photographs and future cruises. We would rate this cruise at four stars, or about 82 on a 1 to 100 scale – typically Princess. We would recommend it or cruisers who like sea days and the ports visited.