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Island Princess Cruise Review
4.0 / 5.0
Cruise Critic Editor Rating
1,190 Reviews

Panama Canal Transit

Island Princess Cruise Review by capriccio

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Trip Details
  • Sail Date: Jan 2008
  • Destination: the Panama Canal & Central America
  • Cabin Type: Mini-Suite with Balcony

My husband and I are in our mid-50s and this was our second Princess Cruise. We made our cruise reservations and booked all our tours through Princess. We handled our air transportation and hotel reservation in Acapulco (for one night) ourselves.

Pre-cruise: Having read horror stories about the Mexico City airport (and hearing many more once we began the cruise), we flew Washington/Dulles to Dallas/FortWorth to Acapulco on American Airlines. Flights were on-time and we were the only plane in Acapulco so we were through immigration and customs within minutes. Even through we weren't using a Princess transfer to the hotel, I asked the Princess rep meeting other passengers how much a taxi should cost. He replied $30 and said to make sure we got an official taxi. We did - and you pay for the ride up front at the airport and then just tip the driver. We stayed at the Acapulco Hyatt for $159 - one of the hotels Princess uses but for a fraction of the cost booking it through Princess. In its prime it must have been something but now it is rather tired (moldy smell in halls and bathrooms common in the tropics), and incredibly crowded when a cruise is ending/beginning. There aren't enough elevators for a hotel that size so leaving/returning to your room was time-consuming. There was one bright spot - the hotel's outdoor restaurant on the beach (I think it is called Pescador), had a very nice buffet and cheap margaritas. We took a taxi to the dock at 1 pm for $13 including tip. In Acapulco and at all our other stops, everyone took dollars.

Embarkation: Even though our paperwork suggested arriving after 2 pm to avoid the crowds, we walked right up to the check in! Apparently, all the Princess transfers from the hotels had already been processed. We were on board within 10 minutes - spending about 5 minutes in line for the embarkation picture and another 5 minutes for the security picture.

Ship and Staff: We knew our way around the Island since our cruise last summer was on the Coral from Vancouver to Alaska. On that trip we were in mini-suite D-712; on this trip we were in mini-suite C-708. The only difference was that the balcony on D-712 was totally covered - a good thing for potentially rainy Alaska - while the balcony on C-708 was 2/3 covered and 1/3 not - a nice compromise for someone who doesn't want to sit in the sun all the time. We like the location because it is quiet and while some nights there was some swaying, it never bothered us. The ship is lovely with workmen constantly working on her. All the crew - from those workmen to room stewards to activities staff up to officers - were cordial and greeted you when you walked by.

Passengers: Ages ranged from twenties to eighties, and from family groups to singles; the average age was probably in the 60s. There were very few children on board and the one time we noticed a group of 4 boys in the Lotus Pool area (prominently marked 'for adults only') they never made it into the pool. I don't know if passengers or staff stopped them, but they left and went to the other pool.

Dining: We had traditional dining, second seating, at table 189 in the Provence Dining Room. I'm including the table number only because you want to avoid it - it was secluded (at the back of the dining room on the left side), and had a lovely waitress but the air conditioning didn't work/was non-existent in that corner (it shares a wall with the kitchen) and by the end of the meal you had to leave just to cool down. That was the downside; the upside was that we had wonderful dinner companions (just one other couple at a table for 6). I would rate the food as good to very good. The first night the Maitre D' made dinner reservations for us at Sabatini's and the Bayou Cafe - both of which we had enjoyed on our Alaska cruise. We had a less than stellar dinner in Sabatini's early in the cruise - while the appetizers were wonderful, out of the 3 pastas served one was cold (and shouldn't have been) and one was way over-salted plus some of the fish in our main courses were overcooked. When our waitress and the Maitre D' asked about it they said they would pass our comments on. In fact a couple of nights later our waitress told us that Princess had received a letter of complaint that had been shared with the staff that echoes some of our comments and that orders were made to straighten things out. She also insisted on giving my husband a side dish of the pasta on the menu every night - and they were all very good (that coming from a first generation Italian-American who lived in Italy for 5 years). We enjoyed our dinner in the Bayou Cafe and the entertainment - a jazz trio.

Entertainment: Before the ship even sailed from Acapulco, there was a Mexican music and dance review - wonderful musicians, dancers and costumes. We enjoyed the production shows and took the 'backstage tour' given by members of the dance group and the technical staff on the last sea day. If you're interested in the theater I highly recommend it. On that last sea day we also attended the 'cooking show and galley tour' offered by the Chef and Maitre D' - they produced a four course meal while keeping everyone laughing with their own comedy routine and then we all trooped through the kitchen. This is also a very worthwhile offering. Having had a wonderful experience last year on the Coral with the naturalist, we expected the guest lecturer on this trip to also be first rate. We attended only the first lecture by the husband and wife team - it was so excruciating we didn't go to any others. My husband (a professor in a former life) characterized it as listening to your neighbors go through their vacation slides/photos. I (an editor in a former life), wanted to scream every time (and it was many times) one of them would repeat the exact same sentence the other had said less than 5 minutes earlier.

Spa: I had a massage on the Coral which was almost ruined by the hard sell by the masseuse to buy expensive products. I booked another one on the Island and as soon as the masseuse started to talk about oils or gels, I politely told her not to waste her time. So she didn't! As a caution: I had booked the massage on line and had a quoted price - and luckily I brought that piece of paper with me - but the price they charged me was $10 more. I realized that a couple of days later when filing away the receipt. I went back up to the Spa and the receptionist said that I was charged the 'right' price. I showed her the on-line booking and she took down a message for the manager. My $10 was returned the next day.

Ports of Call: As I said, we booked through Princess so all I can comment on is those particular tours. We also aren't big shoppers so I don't have much to say about the markets.

Huatulco - we went on the Huatulco River Float. There is more rafting than floating involved but the nine rapids are small (the guide said class 1.5 to 2 but that must be in the rainy season). It was great fun and we saw lots of birds (which the guide described), locals on the banks fishing and doing laundry, etc. It ended when we reached the Pacific Ocean and beached the zodiacs.

Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala - we went on the Best of Colonial Antigua with Lunch tour. It included a lovely drive through the countryside - we even saw smoke issuing from one of the active volcanoes. We wish more time was spent on the historical buildings in Antigua. Instead the bus would take us just a few blocks from one location to the next which was time-consuming and left little time for exploring. The highlight of the tour (and one of the highlights of the trip) was lunch at Casa Santa Domingo - a sightseeing stop in its own right since it is a convent founded in 1642 with beautiful ruins, gardens, a museum, etc. A 'typical', tasty (best guacamole ever tasted by anyone at our table), and elegant lunch buffet was held in one of the gardens. The last stop was at a jade factory and shop. The ship's departure was delayed because some Princess tours were late returning - they hold the ship in those cases.

Puerto Corinto, Nicaragua - there were only a couple of tours offered so we decided to treat this as a sea day. The ship docks at an industrial port - and something was being spewed into the air all day. Our balcony (which overlooked the dock) was covered in a fine particulate. It was good to see the crew the next morning cleaning all the balconies.

Puntarenas, Costa Rica - we went on the Costa Rica's Favorites with Lunch tour that included an aerial tram (think ski lift with open gondola that has a floor and roof), short hike (saw an anteater in a tree), lunch (good but not great like in Guatemala), then a 2 hour boat ride where we saw crocodiles and over 16 species of birds. The guides were top notch - all botany, environmental science graduates/grad students.

Panama Canal Transit - this isn't a tour (you don't get off the ship) but it is the highlight of the cruise. If you're interested in history and/or engineering, read David McCullough's The Path Between the Seas before you get to the canal. Get up early - we went under the Bridge of the Americas around 7 am. As others have stated on the Princess Board, and in fact crew members announced on the Island, go through the 'crew only' doors at the bow of the Baja and Caribe decks for a great viewing position. It is a fascinating transit. We ordered the Panama Champagne Breakfast and Brunch for Two ($28 for half bottle of good champagne, basket of pastries, smoked salmon, fresh fruit, and Alaskan King Crab Quiche) for delivery between noon and 12:30 which worked out well - we were through the first two sets of locks and almost through the Gaillard Cut. We then returned to the bow of the Caribe deck for the transit through the Gatun Locks. Don't forget to go the aft of the ship when going through at least one set of locks to watch what happens to the ship behind you.

Cartagena, Colombia - we went on the Best of Cartagena and Fortress tour. Get off the ship here - it is a lovely city. The Old City, which we walked through, is full of picturesque narrow streets with old (renovated), brightly painted 2 and 3 story houses with beautiful balconies and flowers. You also get a beautiful view of then entire city from the two other stops: a fortress and a convent.

Aruba - we went on the See and Sea tour. The first half was a sightseeing tour of the island with a couple of stops, all interesting. The highlight was the second half of the tour. We took a boat from the main beach (where all the hotels are) to a 'semi-submarine' waiting for us near the site of a shipwreck. We sat 5 feet below the waterline as we went over and around the 440 long wreck of a German WWII freighter. Lots of fish plus the wreck itself were fascinating. One of our dinner companions did a dive tour of two sites, including this one, and raved about it too.

Disembarkation: 50 minutes from leaving the Universe Lounge to sitting at the gate at the airport! We had a Princess transfer to the airport and chose to pay the $15 each to have our luggage checked all the way through and receive our boarding pass in advance. We were told to report to the Universe Lounge at 9:20 - we arrived about 10 minutes early and took a seat (there were seats for everyone in the two groups meeting there). We were called promptly at 9:20, walked off the ship; waited for 2 couples ahead of us to go through immigration; claimed our luggage - nicely separated by luggage tags; waited for a couple of folks ahead of us to go through customs; placed our baggage in the United express luggage line; got on the bus and was en route to the airport by 9:40. We were at the airport by 10 am: asked at information where our gate was (the flight didn't depart until 1:45 pm so it wasn't posted yet); and then walked right up to and through security. It couldn't have been easier or less stressful!

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Mini-Suite with Balcony
Cabin MD D-708

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