Memorable Panama Canal Experience: Coral Princess Cruise Review by dshefter

Coral Princess 5
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Memorable Panama Canal Experience

Sail Date: November 2010
Destination: Panama Canal & Central America
Embarkation: Fort Lauderdale (Port Everglades)
This was my eighth cruise overall (my wife's seventh), but our first with Princess. I used Marriott Rewards points to book the cruise, but chose the Coral Princess because of the 10-day itinerary to the Panama Canal. Very few cruise lines -- I believe Princess and Holland America are the only two -- do partial Panama Canal transits and because my wife could not get two weeks off of work, we could only do a 10-day cruise. The dates for this itinerary were ideal in that my wife only needed to take five vacation days.

After previous sailings with Royal Caribbean, Carnival and NCL, I was eager to see what Princess had to offer and we were not disappointed. This was a tremendous cruise, from the service, food, staff and ship. While the Coral is not large -- it only holds 1900 passengers -- it did offer plenty of amenities. I would say the decor is a little more classical. The NCL Pearl, which we sailed in 2008, had a more modern look, but the food wasn't as good as what we had on More the Coral Princess.

We started by flying down to Fort Lauderdale the night before the cruise. We booked the Fairfield Inn since I could use Marriott points and they offer a free shuttle from FLL. We used their transportation service to the port the next day at a cost of $8. We also booked a return trip as well for $10. I was disappointed in ACE Tours (the transportation company) on the return since we waited nearly an hour for the van to pull up to the port. The driver told us at embarkation that they would have vans at the pier starting at 6 a.m., but it took several phone calls to finally get them to arrive. It might have had something to do with nine ships being in port that day, but at least the dispatcher could have offered a better explanation.

One note: There were plenty of taxis in port that day, so previously arranged transportation isn't totally necessary.

Back to the ship.

We arrived at the pier just before noon on embarkation day. Everything went smoothly. The porters took our bags and we proceeded to the terminal where we were given a number. We only waited about 5 minutes before we were called. We found the line for our deck (Caribe) and within 20-25 minutes, we were aboard the ship and headed to our stateroom (C641), which was on the starboard side, aft and on the bump. It was a partially covered balcony, but we found the room to have plenty of space for our clothes.

Even though our room was right near an elevator, we never heard any noise.

Our room steward, Leo, allowed us to remove the beverages from the refigerator as we told him that we wanted to chill our own sodas and wine. We brought 6 bottles aboard and drank five of them on the cruise. There's absolutely no problem bringing wine/champagne aboard and you can drink free of charge except for the dining room, where you will be charged a $15 cork fee for each bottle. It's a great deal. NCL charges $15 a bottle no matter if you drink in your room or the dining area.

We always had fresh ice every morning and he brought my wife slippers. We gave him a little extra gratuity on the last sea day.

We had lunch in the main dining room since most people went up to the Horizon Court. We never ate in the Horizon Court for lunch, preferring either the dining room (did it three times) or the Grill on the Lido Deck, which offered hot dogs, hamburgers, pizza, etc. The food was great everywhere.

My only complaint with the Horizon Court was they didn't have lox every day for breakfast, which is why we decided to mostly have breakfast in the main dining room. That's really my only food complaint for the entire cruise.

We never ate in any of the specialty restaurtants as the food and service was just too good in the MDR. If you don't like the evening's selections, you can always order something from the alternative menu, which is available at every meal. That includes shrimp cocktail, Caesar salad, beef medallions and chicken. There are always two pasta dishes as well. It's pretty hard for even the most picky eaters, which includes myself, to not find something to your liking.

We only had one complaint for dining and that was our original table. We requested Traditional Early, and wound up in the Bordeaux Dining Room (Anytime venue) instead of the Provence Dining Room. Because so many people request Traditional Early, Princess uses both for Traditional dining. We wanted a medium-sized table (6-8) and got a table for two next to a couple that didn't speak any English or even acknowledged we were there. So after the first night, we went to the Head Waiter who managed the tables and asked to be switched. It was not an issue. He was extremely friendly and catered to our request. We just wound up doing the Anytime Dining at 5:30 every evening and sat with different people each night. It turned out perfectly as we thoroughly enjoyed meeting a new set of individuals every night.

And you couldn't ask for better service. All the waiters and assistant waiters were friendly and constantly asked if we needed anything.

Because we sailed on Thanksgiving, we got one extra night of lobster. They served tails the first night and the last formal night. On a 10-day cruise, you have two formal nights. People were dressed anywhere from just a dinner jacket to tuxedos. I wore my tux for the first formal night and a jacket/tied on the second. For the other nights, a shirt and slacks is perfectly acceptable for men. Just don't wear shorts, t-shirts or jeans.

Because this was our 10-year anniversary cruise, we decided to do the Ultimate Balcony Dining one night. There is a $50 pp charge for this, but it includes a small bottle of champagne, one cocktail per person, canapes, an appetizer (crabcakes), salad, surf and turf (a large filet and a big Brazilian lobster tail) and desert. The wait staff also baked a special chocolate cake that had a Princess logo on the side. It was one of the best evening I've ever had on a cruise. We had a nice night with no wind and our wait staff couldn't have been more cordial. The two ladies were just a delight and made our dining experience that much more special. I can't remember their names, but one was from Peru and the other from Uruguay. We also had photos taken at our table, which included a rose. You get to keep one photo.

One note on UBD: Make sure you call Room Service to set this up the first day of the cruise. On the Coral, they only do one UBD per night and it books up fast. That was the first thing I did when I got to our stateroom.

The other thing I did was sign up for the Ultimate Ship Tour. This costs $150 and you get to go behind the scenes of the ship. They take 13 and if they get too many signups, a lottery is done. I got my envelope about halfway through the cruise. We visited the Princess Theater, mooring room, bridge, laundry room, provisions area (food storage), galley, bridge, print shop, photo lab and engine room. It was well worth the money for those interested in how the ship operates. You get a robe, chef's jacket and several photos. You can't take any pictures, however.

We thought the ship offered plenty of variety in its entertainment. We saw comedian Milt Abel twice -- once on the first night and again a couple of days later. There also was a mentalist (John Stetson) and an illusionist (Gaetano) and another comedian, Rodney Johnson, who had the best show of the entire cruise. Well worth seeing. Adrian Zmed, who starred in the movie "Grease" also performed the last two nights. He is on contract with Princesss, but I am not sure what his itinerary is.

Maurizio played virtually every night in Crooners and drew huge crowds. His music was quite good. I could hear him since I spent time in the Churchills Lounge every night enjoying a good cigar. Some advice for those who enjoy cigars: bring your own or buy them ashore. The Princess prices for their cigars are outrageous. A non-cuban Montecristo No. 2 will cost your $21.50. You can buy them in the U.S. for half the price and at ports for much less.

I found a small shop inside the terminal in Aruba that sold authentic Cuban cigars at great prices. He had Montecristo No. 2s for $16 and Cohibas for $10. Be very careful buyin Cuban cigars as there are a lot of fakes on the market, especially in the streets of Cartagena.

As for our CC Roll Call, we arranged to have our Meet N Greet the first sea day in the Wheelhouse Bar. About 65 people showed up and it was wonderful. Mimi sent invitations to all the top ship staff, but only Ivano and Sandro from the hotel staff (Ivano is the hotel manager) and Sean from the food and beverage staff showed up. That was a little disappointing since we met in the morning before any of the major activities began.

I thought NCL handled our Meet N Greet a little better. We got a free drink and a free game of bowling as well as a chance to view the fancy suites at the end of the cruise. But nevertheless, our Meet N Greet went off quite well. We did a gift exchange and we all finally got to put faces to all the names we had been dealing with over the past 9-12 months.

I must say this particular Roll Call was tremendous. On the NCL cruise, we met and then dispersed. This time, we did things together on the shift. We did several games of trivia together and arranged private tours in Cartagena and Costa Rica.

In Cartagena, we chose Lee Miles and the experience was outstanding. For 26 people, the cost for a city tour, which included the fort and Palace de Inquisition was $38. That was much cheaper than the Princess-sponsored tour. Lee Miles was waiting for us at the gangway with a sign and the mini-bus was right on the pier. Claudia was our guide and she was terrific. The tour included about 40 minutes for shopping. We also stopped at the Hard Rock for a couple of people to get souvenirs.

In Aruba, we chose a ship tour since you only get 5 1/2 hours in port. Wish the ship had time to spend a whole day. We did the sail and snorkel and it was fun. The best part was seeing a 70-year-old shipwreck. The fish and coral was really cool to view under water. The excursion also included some rum punch.

It started to pour heavily right as we were about to board the ship and Princess did a nice job of providing umbrellas for those of us boarding the ship at that time. Another way the crew stepped up to make things better for us passengers.

In Panama, we chose the Panama by Boat Tour, which included a ride through the Culebra (or Gaillard Cut) and the final two locks, Pedro Miguel and Miraflores, since the ship only went through the Gatun Locks. We got up at 5 a.m. to watch the ship come into the Canal and used the secret doors in front on the Caribe Deck to get a good look, despite the rain. We then moved to our cabin and then to the viewing deck aft to get a better view. We lucked out in that we went through the locks on the left, giving us a good view of the other set of locks from our cabin.

I would recommend the boat tour for those who want to see the rest of the canal. We figured we came all this way to see the canal, so we wanted to see the final two locks and the Pacific Ocean. It is a long tour, so expect to be away from the ship for a good 7-8 hours. We got a little shopping in at the pier in Colon before boarding.

A member of the ship's staff offered commentary as you went through the canal. My only complaint is you couldn't hear announcements in your stateroom. You had to either turn the TV to channel 49 or be in a public area.

In Costa Rica, we organized a private tour through our Roll Call with Oscar Brown Tours to do zip lining. And even though it poured the entire day, it didn't dampen our spirits or fun. I had zipped before but virtually everyone in our group had not and they all came away impressed by the experience. And the rain just added to the memorable day. The tour also included a stop at a banana plantation. We had lunch planned, but skipped it due to the weather. One Princess-sponsored tour was delayed 3 hours by the weather, so the ship didn't leave until after 7 p.m.

We didn't do a tour in Jamaica since my wife and I had been to Ocho Rios several times before. We just shopped in the village and enjoyed a drink at Margaritaville.

As for the sea days, we found plenty of things to do. I enjoyed the pool, workout facilities, Churchill Lounge and the trivia. My wife did two spa treatments.

We never used the Sanctuary -- don't see the need to pay money to enjoy a lounge chair -- or the kids room. But I don't see this itinerary as good for kids under the age of 18. Unless, of course, they like history.

I know people always ask about MUTS and they didn't start playing movies until around 3. So during the day, the noise was minimal at the pool area. I brought my iPod and never was bothered. Ocassionally, there was live music or pool games from the cruise staff.

Some of the movies offered by MUTS included Knight and Day, Iron Man 2, Toy Story 3, The A-Team, Salt, Oceans, Bounty Hunter and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time as well as concerts by Tina Turner and Stevie Wonder. They also showed NFL games when they could get good reception.

The stateroom TVs had movies going all the time. You also got ESPN and ESPN2 (international versions), but I saw college football games live several nights.

All in all, it was one of our best cruises. Like I said, the food was phenomenal and you won't find a friendlier group of staffers. The Cruise Director, Billy Hygate, was terrific. He can also belt out a tune as he sung some Tom Jones hits before introducing comedian Rodney Johnson. Many of the senior staffers have been with Princess 20-plus years, so that tells you about the loyalty and quality the line provides.

We would most definitely do another Princess cruise, providing the itinerary and pricing met our needs.

I would be happy to answer any questions. Please feel free to e-mail me at Less

Published 12/07/10

Cabin review: BDC641 Balcony

We had a great balcony with plenty of room. Had four chairs and a small table. Had plenty of room in the cabin for our clothes. Closet space was more than adequate. Very small shower, but that's OK. We were next to an elevator and never heard any noise. Our balcony was partially covered.

Read All Balcony (BD) Reviews >>

Port and Shore Excursions

Interesting island, but wish the Coral Princess was there more than 5 1/2 hours. Did the sail and snorkel tour. Not a bad tour. Lasted a little more than 3 hours. You get to snorkel in two sites, the best being a 70-year-old shipwreck that offers plenty of coral and fish to view. Didn't get a chance to shop other than in the terminal.

Read 1290 Aruba Reviews

Beautiful port city. Chose the Lee Miles Tour and was well worth it. The mini-bus was on the pier waiting for us. Lee Miles was there to greet us with a sign and the cost was less than the ship's tour. Visited the old city, fortress and Palace de Inquisition as well as stopping off to shop. Just too many vendors for my liking. They are everywhere trying to hawk their wares.

The Panama Canal experience was just awesome. Did the Gatun Locks on the ship and then took the ship's tour to see the remaining two locks as well as the Culebra Cut. Tour guides were outstanding. They explained the history of the canal, which I had researched prior to the cruise by reading Path Between the Seas.

Jamaica might be my least favorite island. Just too many people trying to hawk items and taxi rides. We chose just to do some shopping. The shops are great with really good prices on jewelry. Lots of competition between the shops so you can work with the dealers to get a decent price. Good prices on Cuban cigars and duty-free liquor as well.

Maybe all the rain dampened my spirits just a little, but our zip line tour was a lot of fun. Did a private tour through Oscar Brown that was set up on our roll call. For anyone who has never zip lined, this is your chance to do it. The tour includes 12 lines. The shops in the terminal didn't offer too much. All the Cuban cigars are fakes.

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