Background: We are two couples ranging for mid-30s to early-50s and travel together quite often (8 cruises in the last 5 years). On our first cruise, our best friends and travel companions became engaged on the balcony of the Caribbean Princess. Now on the Coral, our gift for their five year anniversary is a renewal of vows package on this cruise.
We live in New England so we headed out a day early to Acapulco. Aeromexico to Mexico City the 6 hour lay-over, thanks for going out of business Mexicana and screwing up our connecting flight, then a one hour flight to Acapulco. Arranging air fare from New England to Acapulco was not the easiest and we had our reservations when it came to Aeromexico - should not have worried, the flights were easy and good, even provided free meals and alcohol!! Haven't seen that since PanAm.
Anyway we arrived at Acapulco Airport at 8:10pm, simple to get through, get luggage and get out. We had prearranged for a driver to pick us up and take us to the Crown Plaza through Rosie' tours. Off we went through police and machine gun laden streets. I state this for a reason, none of us were thrilled to be reading all the news about the drug wars and figured we would be the tourist section and be there less than 24 hours. That being said, although initially disturbing to see, you quickly realize that presence is what is keeping things at bay. The Crown Plaza is okay for one or two night pre-cruise stay, more I would not do. It was simply okay, but at $75 a room, okay is just fine.
Acapulco: Rosie herself from Rosie's tours picked us up at the hotel for a tour at 9:30am. I know there is a lot about Rosie on these Boards but I will tell you she was fabulous!! Her narration and knowledge was wonderful. She also seems to know everyone. She took us to the Cross and Chapel of Peace (highest point in Acapulco), the Diego wall, Los Flamingos Hotel (Old Hollywood), some look out points and the Cliff Divers. Then she took us to the ship all by 1:30pm. $50pp - well worth it and a wonderful tour guide. It made our day and never once did we feel nervous in Acapulco. To put it in perspective, I have felt far less safe in a variety of Caribbean islands such as Jamaica, Grenada, Antigua, etc.
Emabarkation and ship: Easiest I have ever done, a total of 10 minutes and we were on the Coral. It was our first time on this class of ship, we thought it carried an elegance and flow missing from the newer ships in the fleet. Now we know what everyone is always talking about with the Coral and the Island Princess. The common rooms, bars, lounges are all well maintained and were never crowded even for more popular events. I attribute this to the passenger to space ratio - what a difference it makes. The staff and crew were all wonderful with the exception of Melanie the assistant cruise director. A very unhappy mean spirited young lady who pleasured in put downs of passengers (the line is not than fine between being cruel and being funny).
I hesitate to mention the food because it is such a hot topic, but we had a great experience with the food. We had one or two dishes that were not so hot, such as the coq au vin and the mussels on the last night, but everything else was fabulous. On the issue of the escargot - although we had anytime dining we hooked up with a serving team rather early in the cruise (Felix on Ronald) and ended up with a standing reservation with them. All we had to do was ask Felix about the escargot and we had four appetizers the next night. Additionally, we were going to celebrate the Renewal of Vows for our friends at the Bayou Cafe on Italian night so were going to miss our favorite appetizer of eggplant parmesan - no fear, Felix arranged for the four of us to have it the following day. Lesson here: be nice and make friends with waiters! We tried the pub lunch in the Bayou Cafe. Excellent and well attended. Choices were fish and chips, cottage pie, ploughman's lunch and bangers and mash. Dessert was bread and butter pudding - the only thing not very good. Nice English beer choices. This is a great alternative to the dining room or the buffet.
Huatulco. Very beautiful and unspoiled landscape. We backed into the port which is really a large cove with a series of small coves inside (still amazes me how they back these ships up like they are at the grocery store parking). We did not have anything organized of planned. Where the ship docks is a small town, same touristy merchandise you will find all over Mexico and the Caribbean. However, where the ship docks is a beautiful cove and beach lines with bars and restaurants, water sports and small boats. If you are beach oriented people, no need to go anywhere except right off the ship.
San Juan Del Sur: Beautiful day in Nicaragua. First, Nicaragua is stunning. Driving through, it has the poverty we have all become accustomed to in Central America and the Caribbean, but at the same time it is more modernized with actual highways and such. We took a ship sponsored tour, the Amayo Hacienda. About a 30 minute drive from the tender port, a beautiful old working plantation on the shores of Lake Nicaragua with terrific views of the two volcanoes. The tour is actually run by Grey Line Tours, but the family that owns the 600 acre property was the host. Everyone including the tour operators and the family members could not have been more friendly and accommodating. They offered boat rides on the river, horseback riding, walking the grounds, bird watching and cow milking (yes we milked a cow). The family prepared and served lunch in a traditional style. It was a very nice excursion. I would recommend it but if what the tour people said is true, the family only opens their home to this excursion 3-4 times per year. They said the next one will be in March. PS - there is nothing to do in San Juan Del Sur right off the tender port that would take more than 5 minutes. Nothing.
Puntarenas, Costa Rica: We did not like any of the ship sponsored shore excursions and only found one private that we liked but he wanted full payment up front with no cancellation fees. Needless to say no excursion was booked. If you are stopping at this port and wish to get off the ship, you have two options, book an organized tour or shop for 15 minutes at the end of the pier with the native craft folks. That is all. I had the impression there was more of a town from reading others reviews. Do not let them fool you, there is nothing to do. We did the end of the pier shopping in the morning. To be perfectly fair, the people could not have been nicer, their wares were nice and very well priced, we bought wood trivets that we had seen in Honduras for more than double what we paid here.
Panama Canal: What a day! We began our approach to the Miraflores locks at about 7:00am and were through them by 8:00am. For some reason, Later to learn was fog, we stayed still for well over an hour before continuing on the journey. The Western side is the reason they call is the great ditch, the water is brown. Traveling through the Cut and down into Gutan Lake was beautiful. We began our approach to the Gutan Lock a little before 4:00pm and we out by 5:15pm. The Gutan locks are amazing. As we are the last two cabins aft on Emerald, from our balconies, we would be under the tops of the locks during the descent. We could, and did, reach out and touch the walls of the locks. It is an experience that everyone going through the locks should have. I took many people's suggestion and moved around the ship to get different perspectives. And by the way, as I did not know this, someone from the staff narrates over the PA system during the transit, not annoyingly or overly so, just right.
We were supposed to stop in Colon for a 4 hour call from 5-9pm. Due to the delay getting through the canal, the fog, and the wildest thunder and lightening storm I have seen in years, we did not call in Colon. We were not planning on doing anything, so we did not care.
Jamaica: We stopped here once before but stopped at Montego Bay rather than Ochos Rios. Big mistake. Montego Bay is awful, this was not bad. There is plenty of shopping and bars right off the pier. We chose to go to Mystic Mountain. We did this through the ship as the Sky Explorer chair lift. You can do what you want once on top such as Bobsledding, infinity pool, water slide and ziplining. All of the other excursions included another stop such as Dunn's river falls which we were not interested in. If you are afraid of heights, as I am, you will white knuckle yourself to the top, it takes 15-20 minutes. I did much to the amusement of my companions. The rest of them did the bobsled which they loved, not me, I sought out alcohol. The ride down was not as bad as going up. There are shuttle buses back to shopping and the pier. I will say a much better experience in Ochos Rios than before.
Renewal of Vows: If you are thinking about this package, it really is worth the money. As I previously mentioned this was a gift for our travel companions, on day two we all met with the "planner" and met her again last night at 6:15pm at Crooners, she takes you to the chapel, the bride gets a beautiful orchid bouquet, the groom an orchid boutonniere. They have a photographer present, music etc. The ceremony is brief but very well done. Chatting with the captain, after with the signing of the certificate. The package include a bottle of champagne (which they delivered to the Bayou Cafe after the ceremony), a framed picture from the ceremony, the certificate, flowers, champagne, and they even leave a copy of the "ceremony speech from the captain" in your room along with a box of Godiva chocolates. Our planner even found us a bartender to take a video of the ceremony with our camera (for their two girls at home who will be dying to see this).
Bayou cafe. After the ceremony, our planner had arranged for us to go to the Bayou Cafe. This is another thing that Princess could repeat. Having been to Sabatinis many times and the Crown Grill a couple of times, this was by far the best alternative restaurant we have been to. The steaks were perfect, the appetizers were unique and tasty, do not miss the baked oysters and the sausage and grits. Service was wonderful. All in all, a terrific night.