My wife, son (age 16) and I decided to take this cruise over the holidays, as none of us had ever seen the Panama Canal. Despite having been on 5 previous cruises as a family, this was the first time we'd cruised anywhere in the Americas.
Also, the Island Princess, a so-called Panamax ship, was the smallest ship we'd ever been on, as we'd previously sailed on Royal Caribbean Radiance- and Freedom-class ships, the Golden Princess, and the Celebrity Constellation. So for us, it was a new region, a new time of year, and new class of ship.
The ship. The Island Princess was in good shape, as it had apparently been in drydock for a refresh in the fall of 2010. The public spaces looked fine and were kept clean throughout the trip, and the exterior of the ship, aside from rust stains around the anchor ports, looked very good. We had a mini-suite (D712) near the back of the ship, and that turned out to be a good choice for both a stable ride and its fully-covered balcony. Other than the sofa bed (more on that later), the cabin was in excellent condition.
Embarkation. We normally try to get on the ship as early as possible so we can wander around before the crowds arrive. This time, however, we couldn't do that, because the ship had picked up some refugees floating in the Caribbean on the way into Fort Lauderdale and docked several hours late. Despite this, we still got aboard about 1:00 p.m. Princess deserves considerable credit for its humanitarian operations, and was impressive in making up for the subsequent delay. Our bags were in our room by 2:30 p.m. -- the fastest they'd been delivered on any cruise we've taken.
Cruise Days 1-2. The cruise started with two sea days, the second of which was fairly rough (15-foot seas). A fair number of passengers and crew got ill, and service times suffered a bit in the main dining room. We weren't affected much, because we had a smoother ride in the back of the ship. I heard a persistent rumor that the ship was having trouble with its stabilizers, but there was no official announcement. The rough seas resulted in the pools being closed, and I watched one spa empty most of its contents onto the deck after a swell.
We'd opted for the anytime dining, and always requested to share a table. This worked very well, because we ate with different groups each night and met some very interesting people. I recommend that you still make reservations, though, as that guarantees you'll be seated quickly, and we always got served more quickly on the nights we had reservations. I don't know if the dining rooms operate this way intentionally, but that's how it worked out for us. My wife and I ate in Sabatini's on the first formal night, and I would say the dinner was worth the additional charge (plus, my son was freed to roam with his new buddies and spared one night of coat and tie). On this cruise, Princess also offered a pub lunch with live music in the other specialty dining room on sea days, and we found that to be very good.
We probably only hit half the shows on this cruise, and I would characterize the talent level as OK. Our other dining mates were highly critical of the dance shows, but we didn't see any of those. Of the comedy acts I saw, I'd say they were passable, with the exception of one juggling act that seemed just weird.
Aruba. This was a very short stop (4 Â½ hours), so we didn't sign up for a tour. My wife and I settled for walking around the area around the port, which was unremarkable. In retrospect, we probably should have gotten a cab and gone to one of the nearby beaches, which the rest of the passengers found to be very impressive.
Cartagena. Based in Cruise Critic reviews, we had hooked up with another couple and booked a tour via Lee Miles. Lee is an American who also runs a jewelry store in the city, and he arranges tours using a variety of guides. Our guide, Roberto, was very good, and we had the advantage of traveling in a much smaller group than the normal oversubscribed ship tours. Cartagena is a very interesting city with a lot to see, but the street sellers are pretty aggressive. Going in a small group with a local guide mitigates this problem quite a bit, and I'd recommend this approach. A significant number of passengers seemed frightened of Colombia and stayed on the ship, but I'm convinced Cartagena is fine for a day tourist. If you don't want to spend the $50-70 per person for a custom tour, you can just get a cab to the old part of the city and wander through there. Several of our dining companions did just that, and they were very positive about it.
Panama Canal. I try to avoid ship tours for the most part, but ship tours were the only option if you wanted to get off and do anything. On this itinerary, the ship transited the Gatun Locks, parked in Gatun Lake, discharged passengers on tours via tenders, and then went right back out and docked at Colon. The ship did not "cruise" Gatun Lake as advertised, which resulted in minor grumbling from some of the passengers.
Here's a tip for watching the lock transit: go to the back of the ship. It's uncrowded, you don't have to look through the plexiglass wind deflectors up front, and you get much closer to the lock doors opening and closing. On the Island Princess, you can go to any one of four decks on the back and get a great view of lock operations, and not battle the crowds on the front of the ship.
We'd decided to book the expensive ship tour that put us on separate ferry that transited the entire canal. Once we got on the bus, we discovered that the bus's sound system had a problem and delivered mostly high-volume static (the fact that several speakers had been forcibly ripped out of the bus ceiling probably didn't help). This did not stop the guide, who never shut up during the entire 75-minute ride to the ferry dock. We could not understand a single thing this man said, and the entire ride was like running an industrial saw in a lumberyard.
We ended up on a ferry with several hundred other people, which sounds bad but was actually comfortable. The ferry served a nice lunch during the transit, and we got to see the Miraflores Locks operate in a way that we couldn't see from the cruise ship. The ferry featured another commentator who never shut up, but at least he had speakers that worked. Nonetheless, there was no reason that he had to try to berate the passengers into singing "Feliz Navidad" with him as we docked in Panama City. Then, of course, we got back on the same bus with the same screwed-up sound system with the same guide who never shut up the entire bus ride back to Colon. I request that Princess tell this tour company to tone it down -- a lot -- particularly since the passengers have no other choices.
Puerto Limon. Since this was Christmas Day, I was wondering what would be available. I ended up booking a tour (of sorts) with Okeydokey Tours to go to the Veragua Rainforest. I'm not sure I'd call this a tour, because the booking consisted of us getting into a small van with a friendly driver who dropped us off at the Veragua visitor center and drove us back when we were done. He was a good guy and I liked him, but he certainly wasn't any sort of tour guide. Veragua was OK, and the guide we had there was enthusiastic and highly knowledgeable (Okeydokey did not arrange this tour; Veragua is like a theme park where you buy your ticket at the door). But, it was over an hour's drive from the port on pretty nasty roads, and I suspect that going to the canals or whitewater rafting would have been a better choice. Perversely, we didn't see a single interesting bird in the entire rainforest, but got to watch two large green parrots fighting on a corner of a building next to the dock.
It being Christmas Day, it wasn't worth walking in the town around the port, as it was very quiet. However, there was a big area for people selling various things right next to the dock, and the merchandise there was surprisingly interesting. My wife ended up getting a foot massage and pedicure for $15 from a lady in one of the stalls, and I suspect that was one of the best deals we got on the trip.
Ocho Rios. Here, we used separate ship's tours, both of which went pretty well. My son and I went zip-lining, which was highly enjoyable, and my wife took an aerial tram over the rainforest. As opposed the the Panama Canal tours, the guides were unobtrusive and the number of passengers manageable.
As we got back to the ship, we noticed a maintenance team welding up something under the ship, presumably the errant stabilizer. This gang looked like the sort of people you'd send to blow up an errant asteroid and save the earth -- buff skin divers, lots of high-speed equipment -- so it seemed that the rumor that the ship was having some mechanical problems was correct. To be fair to Princess, whatever the problem was probably didn't have a significant effect on the cruise, so I won't criticize them for not putting out an announcement.
One problem the ship's complement did cure was taking care of a bad allergic reaction my son suffered when we got back on a Ocho Rios. He had run up against something ashore that caused a very severe rash, and so we got to use the ship's medical facilities. We are indebted to Dr. Deon Venter, the ship's doctor, and his assistant, Matt, for getting things under control and following up with my son multiple times prior to us disembarking. The Island Princess has a very good medical staff and facility, and the treatment my son got there was as good (and quicker) than what we would have gotten at home in the States.
Disembarkation. This was quick and painless, as was the Princess-arranged bus transfer to the airport.
Miscellaneous comments and summary. Due to my son's rash, I spent the last night of the trip on the sofa bed, which I discovered to be nastily uncomfortable. I guess 16-year-olds can sleep on anything, but 53-year-olds don't sleep well on crooked steel frames that telegraph through a thin mattress. Since returning, I have seen other complaints about this, and I can confirm that at least one sofa bed on the Island Princess is unacceptable as a bed.
Nickel-and-diming continues on cruises (and everything else) and this trip was no exception. We were charged for orange juice served after 11:30 a.m. (and who thought up this policy?) and were constantly solicited for bottled water prior to disembarking at the ports. I defeated the latter by bringing my own water bottles, and we also avoided paying ship prices for laundry detergent by bringing aboard our own. However, exercise classes were reasonable at $10 a session, and my wife found the spa prices to be tolerable.
Princess has installed something called "The Sanctuary" on the back of many of its ships, which is, as far as I can tell, a limited-entry sunbathing area that you have to pay extra to use. Maybe this is worth it to somebody, but my impression of The Sanctuary is that it is like lounging around in the fake-plant section of an arts-and-crafts store. Astroturf, plastic shrubbery -- what's all this about? Maybe some other reviewer can explain the attraction.
The lectures Princess offered on the cruise were informative. One was given by the cruise director and covered the history of the cruise industry and current trends, and I thought it was very good. Another lecturer (a former State Department and World Bank employee) gave a series of lectures on the ports, and they were generally well-done.
Otherwise, we liked the ship and the cruise. Princess has opted away from giant multistory public spaces, and various areas on the ship, while impressively decorated, retain a human scale and are comfortable. Despite the ship being at full capacity (2200 passengers), it never felt crowded. Our cabin steward, Alvin, was effective and unobtrusive, and likely would have done something about the sofa bed had I discovered it and mentioned to him. Every crew member that we encountered seemed very expert at their job.
My last bit of advice is that if you take a Christmas cruise, try to bring something to give the people serving you on a holiday. I live near Washington, D.C., so I brought a set of White House Christmas ornaments to hand out to the cabin steward, Christmas day tour guides, etc. I don't pretend to think that this would make up for their being away from their families (and working), but I believe they appreciated the gesture.
Excellent location, right around the corner from laundromat, quiet, covered balcony, close to viewing deck on back of the ship. Smooth ride in rougher seas, as it is relatively low and towards the back.