There were two of us on this cruise: my father, who is 85 and retired, and myself, a 53-year old educator. My father has gone on many cruises; I have just been on four.
As one would expect on a "mega yacht," the cabin was quite small. Nonetheless, it was quite pleasant and I never felt crowded or claustrophobic. There were two single beds (comfortable), as well as a small desk and ottoman chair, a two-seat sofa, a night stand, a shelf, and a closet. In addition to the portholes and the overhead lights, there were small halogen reading lights over the beds. The bathroom was surprisingly spacious (almost a quarter of the overall space in the cabin), and included not only a large shower, toilet and sink, but also side shelves and a retractable laundry string.
The door to the bathroom is translucent glass. That means while it maintains privacy, when you turn on the bathroom light, it illuminates a portion of the room. That never bothered my father, but it might bother someone sensitive to night light.
Other people on the cruise reported occasional problems getting hot water in the shower, but we always had plenty.
The one serious issue was the water color. We were advised at the beginning that there may be some discoloration in the water early in the trip, but that this would quickly pass. It didn't. By the third day of the trip, I was still showering in orange-colored water. One guest was quite upset; not only did this mean that she couldn't wash her white clothing, but she was concerned about the iron in the water dying her grey hair. We spoke to the hotel manager and he assured us he would fix the problem. Afterwards, if I let the water run for about 10 seconds, it cleared up. The other guest, however, still had to let her water run for 10 minutes. An odd situation given that the ship is only two years old.
Overall, I found the ship facilities quite good, given the limitations of size. The Horizons Dining Room was very comfortable and since the ship was only at 2/3rds capacity, there was always plenty of room. Similarly, there was always plenty of space in the Riviera Lounge and the seats were comfortable. I didn't use the spa facilities, but I saw several other guests using them and they enjoyed them. They have a treadmill, a bicycle, some weights, etc.
The Riviera Lounge has long sofas and low coffee tables. I would have like there to be a few regular tables, where one could play cards or do a crossword puzzle. They did have such tables outside on the deck behind the Horizons Dining Room, but given the high heat and humidity, I wasn't comfortable using them.
The bridge officers, the waiters, the cabin staff, and bartenders, the cruise director, the naturalist, and musician were all good. One morning, my father had breakfast with the captain and very much enjoyed his conversation. Like many other passengers, I went up to the bridge and chatted with the captain and first officer. All the staff worked to address any issues that arose with passengers.
In my experience, Celebrity Xpedition (in the Galapagos) set the bar for small-ship cruising, and Variety Voyager did not come close to that level of quality. Nonetheless, the food was fine, if not particularly exciting or inspiring.
Breakfast was a buffet, with hot items, such as grilled tomatoes, potatoes, crispy bacon, omelets, etc., as well as someone making omelets or pancakes to order. There were also cold items, such as greek yogurt, fruit compote, cold fish, fresh fruit, cheese and cold cuts. There was toast, cereal, milk, jam, juices, and danish.
Lunch varied. If we ate on the ship, then it was also a buffet, with assorted hot items such as quiche, various greek dishes, some salads, and some roast animal at the carving station. They also had a dessert table with slices of cake and fresh fruit. The best meals (of the whole trip), however, were the two occasions we had BBQ on shore. On both occasions, the menu was Greek-inspired with some pita, mediterranean salads, and various grilled items: mushrooms, eggplant, peppers, lamb chops, sausage, tiger prawns, meat balls, and fish. I thought the lamb chops were excellent. They also had some nice Greek desserts, particularly the kadayif.
Dinner was almost always a sit-down affair with a menu (the one exception was the evening we crossed the Canal). There was some kind of appetizer and soup, followed by a main course and dessert. The soups were generally very good. There were three options for the main course: 1) a meat dish of some kind – pork, veal, beef, or turkey; 2) a fish dish of some kind – sole, grouper, salmon; 3) a vegetarian option. Desserts varied and included crème brulee, profiteroles, or cake. For Christmas Eve they served a pudding of some kind, but there were large swells and I felt slightly nauseous and went back to my cabin to lay down.
The last night they went all out, but I felt their ambition exceeded their grasp. While the lobster bisque was very good, the scallop salad (a few dingy and tasteless things on top of tired spinach dressed in mustard) was almost inedible. We all ordered the chateaubriand, but only the woman who asked for it rare got it anything but well done (hers was medium rare).
When we came back from various excursions they offered us a warmish ice tea, and there were macaroons and slices of somewhat dry cake by the coffee station in the Riviera Lounge. I ordered several of the daily cocktail specials and they were quite good, as was the cappuccino (the later was complimentary).
On the whole, I would say (with the exception of Logistics, below), this was the weakest part of the trip experience. Some of the problems are inherent; others could be mitigated.
Before I get into that I should mention that we shared the ship with a group. They made up about a third of the 48 passengers and had a separate naturalist, went on the same excursions but separately from us, and ate dinner at their own tables. This created an odd dynamic; it wasn't annoying or off putting, but it was just a little strange.
In the Galapagos, each excursion group was limited to the size of the Zodiac. This was critical so we could interact with our naturalist as he or she pointed out various aspects of life or geology or history on the islands we visited. In Cambodia and Vietnam, the groups were somewhat bigger, about 25 people, but there, most of the information from the guide came when we were en route or on ship, with less when we were on the ground walking around. In both cases, the items we were seeing required no special tools.
Costa Rica and Panama are different. The highlight of most excursions was seeing the wildlife, but these creatures were mostly small and camouflaged or high up in the trees. The guides were quite efficient at using their view finders to help us see the various items (e.g., tree sloths), but that meant waiting in line for quick glimpses through the view finder. If it was a large group (25 people), and they were noisy (as they often were), the bird might fly away before the people at the end ever had a chance to see it.
While this cruise did include some younger, more active passengers, as would be expected, most passengers were retired. I would suggest that the company consider arranging a less-strenuous excursion option for those days with highly strenuous trips.
I took all the excursions offered on the cruise, so here's my evaluation of them all:
Day 2, morning: Curu Nature Preserve - Extra
This involved a wet landing on a somewhat muddy beach. Highlight: seeing the white-faced capuchin monkeys, the howler monkeys, and the spider monkeys close up. While the description said there would be time for swimming, that was not the case.
Day 2, afternoon: Isla Tortuga – Included
Here we had a very nice BBQ lunch on the beach. The wet landing in the surf, however, was a daunting prospect for those who had mobility issues. A lunch was provided on the ship for them, but since that option wasn't announced, my father didn't know about it. The water was too murky for any snorkeling, but the water was nice for swimming and they provided kayaks and paddle boards for anyone who wanted to use them.
Day 3 morning: Manuel Antonio Reserve – Extra
This is a small, but very popular reserve. It was extremely crowded with groups of a dozen or more tourists clustered around each naturalist and his view finder. The highlight: seeing the two-toed and three-toed sloths. While the brochure and cruise director praised the wonderful swimming in the park, we only had 25 minutes at the beach. As it was, I was the last to rejoin the group as I needed to change back into my normal clothing for the walk back.
Day 3 afternoon: Zip Lining – Extra.
I had never zip lined before, so part of my issues here involve my own misconceptions. But here's how the cruise described the excursion:
"During your journey you'll stop and rest at 16 strategically located platforms and 12 cables where you are most likely see the surrounding wildlife. Many of these platforms are almost 100 feet high, nestled in the trunks and branches of trees that are centuries old. Our staff of professionally trained guides shows guests the abundant wildlife along the way; including Titi monkeys, two and three toed sloths, poison dart frogs, iguanas and toucans."
In fact, there was no looking at any native wildlife, nor did we rest on the strategically located platforms. We simply zipped from one to the other and then quickly on to the next one. The only time we paused was to allow the tour operators to reposition. In addition, my own fears (and my tendency to lose control and have my helmet rubbing against the cord at high speeds) meant that I really couldn't focus on the natural beauty. It got better after they added another harness to stabilize me.
Day 4 morning: Osa Peninsula – Extra
This was one of the best excursions but it was also one of the most mismanaged. Simply put, the description provided by the cruise in no way matched what we actually did. First, here's the official description of the excursion:
"Start the day off at Piro Research Center and hike through our extensive, easy-access & safe trail system to see the incredible array of Osa’s wildlife and do some spectacular bird watching. Look up to catch a glimpse of some of Osa’s 400+ bird species, including toucans, red-plumed scarlet macaws, and stunningly beautiful turquoise cotingas. All 4 species of monkeys and the wide array of forest mammals can be spotted in these lush forests. Later we take a short trip on foot through the rainforest to the beach, where you can spot tracks of mother sea turtles who have come out of the water to lay their eggs in the sand the night before. From there, take a walk to the turtle hatchery, where you’ll get an introduction to sea turtle conservation by our trained staff and watch our volunteers care for the newly hatched turtles until they are released back into the sea. After these unforgettable and easy hikes in the cathedral-like forests, head back to Piro Research Center and we return to Puerto Jimenez."
Now, here's what we actually did: we drove about twenty minutes outside of Puerto Jimenez to something called "el bosque encantado" (the enchanted forest). This is an old-growth jungle on the Osa Peninsula. There were some walking sticks available at the beginning, but since were told this was an easy hike, I passed on them. This turned out to be a mistake.
The trail descended down an incredibly slippery muddy trail through the jungle to a stream bed and then back up the other side. Many people, including those who had walking sticks, fell or slipped in the mud. There was little opportunity to bird watch as most of the time our eyes were on the ground to keep from falling. We reemerged from the jungle where we entered and had some fresh fruit. Then it was back to the dock. No research center, no beach, no turtle hatchery, etc.
While I really enjoyed walking through the jungle and seeing and hearing howler monkeys, I felt unprepared for how strenuous the trail was. Had I known in advance, I would have packed hiking shoes with better traction and taken one of the walking sticks. Instead of getting my hopes up about seeing sea turtles, I would have concentrated on seeing the forest.
Day 4 afternoon: Casa Orquideas – Extra
This was a lovely private home with botanical gardens, many of which are orchids. We saw not only lovely flowers, but many kinds of birds, including toucans. Here, too, the brochure talks about time for swimming, but there was no swimming permitted on the beach. Instead, I joined a few others in swimming off the back of the boat, but for less time then we were told we would have.
Day 5 morning: Granito de Oro Island – Included
This day was slightly modified in order to arrive in Panama City in time the next morning. The Granito de Oro snorkeling was supposed to be in the afternoon, but we went in the morning instead. I saw large schools of brightly colored fish. Other snorkelers saw reef and nurse sharks, eels, and a turtle.
Day 5 afternoon: Coiba Island – Excursion Cancelled
In order to arrive in Panama City on time, the hike to the top of the island overlook was cancelled. Instead, we only had a very nice BBQ on the island.
Day 6 morning: Panama City – Extra
This excursion had two halves: one hour at the Miraflores Locks and Panama Canal Museum, followed by one hour in the Old Town Quarter. My favorite part was standing on the top of the museum where we had a great view of ships entering and exiting the Canal at the Miraflores Locks. The tour of the Old Town Quarter was mostly forgettable.
Day 6 evening: Panama Canal – Included
This really isn't an excursion, but it was more exciting than I expected to pass through the Panama Canal. Unlike on large cruise ships, our small size, even when in tandem with a small cargo vessel, meant we had good views of the sides of the locks and the operation of the gates. The musician had a nice mix of music playing on the aft deck and it was loud enough that it inspired some of the sailors on other cargo vessels to dance along with us.
Day 7 afternoon: San Blas Islands – Extra
This is the closest we came to the kinds of excursions we had in Cambodia and Vietnam: being taken to a village to see the "native" people. On those trips, I always felt a little uncomfortable with the way the tourists would treat the locals as objects. Here, at Carti Island, the situation was reversed: the locals (Guna Yana indians) charged a dollar for every photo taken of them, so they were seeking us out as sources of revenue. The dance number is rather hokey, but I did very much enjoy wandering around the village (except for all the people trying to get me to take their picture).
Day 7 afternoon: Gran Perro Island – Included
Because of the severe delays in getting through the Canal (more below), the BBQ lunch on the island was cancelled. In addition, choppy seas prevented us from mooring in such a way as the snorkelers could visit the sunken ship. Still, the beach and water was very nice. Some interesting corals, including brain coral, as well as some colorful fish, some starfish, and a baby eel. Some others saw a young sting ray.
This is where the cruise line fell the most short.
First, embarkation. Since my father and I arrived in Costa Rica a few days early, we came to the embarkation site by a transfer we booked from Monteverde. According to the information provided by Variety Cruises, we would embark at the Los Suenos Marina in Playa Herradura beginning at 3 pm. My father wanted to arrive early, as he (wrongfully) assumed that we would be able to board early and he could rest in the cabin. This was not the case. We arrived at 12:15 at the Los Suenos Marriott Hotel and they directed us to the Marina, but no one at the Marina knew anything about the Variety Voyager, least of all where we needed to go to board the ship. Our driver took us all over the Marina, and she spoke to various officials, none of them knew anything about the cruise ship or where it would be picking up passengers. They tried calling the ship, but no one answered. About an hour and a half after we arrived, we were able to hitch a lift with the ship's naturalist back to the boat.
Second, the itinerary. As noted above, not all the excursions matched what was promised in the guide provided by the cruise line. Even stranger was the fact that the prices charged for each excursion didn't always match the prices listed before hand in the guide provided by the cruise line (the actual prices were higher).
Third, crossing the Panama Canal. At 2 pm, we anchored near the Pilot's House to await the arrival of the Inspector, who comes on board before the Canal Pilot. Around 3 pm, I was sitting in the Riviera Lounge when a passenger came in to say there was someone wanting to board the ship. I went out and the inspector from the Panama Canal Authority wanted to come on board to start the process, but no one was there to allow him on. He asked me to get a crew member. I went in and found the musician and told him. "Impossible!" he exclaimed. No one could approach the ship without the bridge knowing. I told him the inspector asked to speak to a crewman and he was in the crew. He went out, talked to the inspector and then called the bridge. Within a minute, bridge officers came down and they helped the inspector come on board.
I have no way of knowing if this was the reason our entering the Panama Canal was delayed from 6:45 pm until 9:00 pm, but we were delayed. As a result, our activities for Day 7 had to be significantly modified as we arrived four hours late.
Finally, disembarkation. Our ship disembarked at a different location than we were told before hand. We were supposed to come in to the Shelter Bay Marina, across the bay from Colon, but instead we landed at the Colon 2000 Marina in Colon, about 15-20 miles away. This change was not announced. My father and I booked our transfer to Panama City airport through the cruise line, so the person meeting us at the dock knew that the place where we would be arriving was changed, but several other people had no such luck. One was able to reach her driver at the Shelter Bay Marina; the others couldn't reach their transfer company since it was a Sunday morning and they were not answering their phones.
This wasn't the first change the cruise company had made. About a third of the ship had booked the cruise when it was originally arriving not in Colon, Panama, but Cartagena, Colombia. In that case, Variety did agree to cover the costs of transferring from Colon to Cartagena so they could make the flights they had booked before the itinerary was changed.
For that reason, I would suggest that anyone traveling with Variety in the future anticipate that boarding and disembarking locations may change and prepare to be flexible.