10 DAY PANAMA CANAL CRUISE- ACAPULCO TO FORT LAUDERDALE 9 JANUARY - 19 JANUARY 2010 Our journey began in Sacramento, CA where my wife and I and our neighbors, Bob and Joann left for San Francisco on a Friday, late in the afternoon. The weather in Sacramento had been dismal since the holidays with cold, gray days. O.K., I know you cruisers in the Midwest and East think we are softies out here in California, but, in any case, this weather was a perfect incentive for a winter get-a-way to warmer climates. The plane ride to Acapulco was long and tiring beginning with a redeye out of San Francisco to Dallas/Fort Worth where we caught the Acapulco connection after a five hour layover. To make matters worse, both my wife and I caught colds from our two granddaughters who we babysit a couple days a week...great way to start a cruise vacation! We landed in Acapulco on time and moved quickly through customs. We had prearranged a van to meet us and drive us to the cruise terminal. The cost was $70 regardless of how many people were picked up so I put a post on the Princess Cruise Critic message board asking if anyone else wanted to share our van. Two nights before the cruise, two ladies from New York responded. As it turned out, they were on the flight from DFW with us so it was quite convenient. I will list the website at the end of my review. The cost ended up being $24/couple plus tip. It was a 50 minute ride to the cruise terminal through heavy traffic since it was a Saturday and many locals were in town for the weekend. The trip wound through the hotel district which lines the bay. Frankly, I was not impressed with what we saw of Acapulco. I know some people will disagree, but I think Acapulco has seen better days. The hotel district is quite run down, in spite of the running commentary our driver was giving during the ride. The big surprise so far was the weather. The entire day was overcast, but still humid with temperatures in the high 70's...not what I expected. When we arrived at the cruise terminal, a porter met us and loaded our luggage onto a cart and followed us inside. Don't forget to tip them as they are not afraid to remind you! Check in was quick and easy and we were on the ship by 4:00 pm. After a quick lunch in the Horizon Court buffet, we unpacked and settled into our balcony cabin. After the mandatory fire drill, we went to dinner followed by the Welcome Show. Not sleeping well the night before, we went back to our cabin and quickly fell asleep. During the night, the ship seemed to be rocking and rolling more than normal....a harbinger of things to come. HUATULCO, MEXICO Our first full day at sea dawned to clear skies and warm temps, but very windy. The sea was full of white caps and the water was sloshing out of the pools! During breakfast, the captain came on the public address and announced that he was just informed that our first port, Huatulco, was closed due to 15 foot swells! We had signed up for a 'Sail and Swim' tour so it was probably lucky that the port was closed as it was not warm enough to swim and it would have been a rough sail. So...an unscheduled day at sea!! We found four empty lounge chairs on the covered and enclosed Lotus Pool area and settled in for a quiet and relaxing day....not so bad. As morning turned to afternoon, the seas became rougher and the swells larger. Both pools were eventually closed and drained because most of the water was now on the surrounding deck areas! After a light lunch, we decided to go to afternoon tea in the Bordeaux dining room and got a window table. This dining room is on deck five which is pretty close to the water and now we could see that the swells were gigantic, often rising above the dining room windows and accentuated by frothy white spray. Thank goodness I had taken a seasick pill this morning as none of this bothered me. During the afternoon, we checked out the shops and noticed that people were still in line to sign up for ship tours. I found out that some of the tours were full. In fact three of the five tours we signed up for on line were closed. One word of advice...if you are going to use Princess tours, sign up for them online before the cruise...don't wait to do this onboard as many people did, only to find the more popular ones filling up and closing. PUERTO QUETZAL, GUATEMALA The day dawned clear and calm and as I looked out our balcony door, a coastline dotted with volcanoes greeted me. After a quick breakfast, we were off for our tour: Lake Atitlan and the Mayan Highlands. Two or three dozen buses lined the pier and we were directed to the correct one and began the 2 ½ hour journey. Our guide kept up an informative commentary during the journey as we slowly climbed in altitude, watching the vegetation and local crops change from sugar cane, bananas and mangos to mostly coffee. We drove through several villages and got our first glimpse of the local population. What we noticed the most were the children...lots of them...many running to wave to the bus as we passed through. When we reached the small town of San Lucas, it was time to leave the bus for the short walk to the boats that would take us across Lake Atitlan to the resort where we would have lunch. Looking out the bus windows we could see a large group of locals, all with their craft products waiting to "greet" us! They seemed to focus mostly on the women in our group (maybe they know women are the easy targets) but be warned, if you stop to buy, you will be hounded by more vendors, many of them children... very intimidating and very sad. As we boarded the boat, their last words were "after lunch lady." After a half hour ride across Lake Atitlan, we arrived at the hotel/resort where we were to have lunch. But first we had to make our way through more locals trying to sell their crafts. My best advice if you don't want to buy anything, keep walking and look straight ahead. If you stop to look at something, you will be hounded until you buy! Don't get me wrong, some of their products are very beautiful, but they make it a very difficult when things are thrust in your face. Luckily some vendors were allowed inside the hotel grounds and we were able to buy some souvenirs with less pressure. After a delicious buffet lunch, we began our walk back to the boat through the locals who were waiting for us at the hotel gate. Once we were back on board, they crowded onto to the dock hoping for one last opportunity to sell us something. You can't help but feel empathy for these people, but they make it very difficult to try and help them by buying their crafts. My last vision of this ramshackle village was two little girls, not selling anything, saying goodbye to us as we boarded our bus. It was a long day and we got back on board to sail off to our next port. After another delicious dinner, some shopping at the ship venues it was off to bed. We enjoyed our tour not just for the chance to see the Guatemala countryside, but also for the opportunity to see the people. As impoverished as their lives seemed to us, one thing was obvious...they all seemed happy! SAN JUAN DEL SUR, NICARAGUA We awoke to another clear but windy day as we cruised along the Central American coast. Since we don't dock until noon, we had a leisurely breakfast and some relaxing time by the enclosed and covered Lotus pool. Oh, oh...the captain is making another announcement..."Due to extremely windy conditions, we will not be able to use the tenders to get into San Juan del Sur so we are continuing on to Puntarenas!" Bummer! This is very disappointing...we planned this cruise this time year thinking it would be good weather wise, no rain and a bit cooler, but we didn't plan on this...very disappointing. So, another day at sea. Time to plan some onboard activities! Went to afternoon tea and had an excellent dinner, then went to our second show: The Piano Man which featured the Princess dancers and singers...great costumes and songs! Went out on our balcony at midnight and the seas seemed to be calmer...hope for good weather tomorrow. PUNTARENAS, COSTA RICA YEA!!! A bright sun woke me up early this morning. I let the wife sleep in as we had no tours until after lunch. I went out on the pool deck to work on my journal/review and the weather is finally good...light breeze and temps in the high 70's. I am looking forward to a fun day in Costa Rica. While our friends went on an early zip line tour, my wife and I walked down the pier to the vendor area which lined the beach area. These vendors were not at all aggressive like in Guatemala and my wife found some local jewelry and I bought a polo shirt. We walked into town looking for more local shops, but didn't find any of any quality. We did find an internet cafe straight up the street from the pier...30 minutes for $1 or one hour for $2!! Much better than the ship's rates. Our tour: ECO-JUNGLE TOUR, left after lunch and after an hour bus ride, we arrived at the spot where we boarded the small boats which held about 45 people. We began our slow trip down through the mangrove lined river looking for wildlife. Soon we saw two iguanas sunning themselves in a tree and several species of birds. We then heard loud squawks in the distance and the guide told us that they were scarlet macaws. In a matter of minutes a pair of the birds with brilliant scarlet tails flew across the bow of our boat...what a sight! The guide said that they mate for life and often live 75 years. Later we saw several crocodiles along the shore and the boat driver got close enough for pictures. After we arrived back at the dock, we had time for some local fresh fruits and beverages. Then it was back on the bus for the drive back to the ship, dinner and some shopping.
DAY AT SEA After breakfast, we snagged some lounges by the lido pool in the shade, knowing that pool side would be popular on this first official sea day. There was a slight breeze and calm seas, a perfect day for relaxing. My wife and I even tested the pool and hot tub, both of which were very comfortable. After lunch, we discovered that the ice cream bar also serves shakes and malts, but you will pay $2.50...worth it! We listened to a lecture on the Panama Canal in the afternoon, had dinner, saw a great show: Do You Want to Dance, and got to bed a bit earlier so we can be up by 5:00 for our canal transit day. PANAMA CANAL TRANSIT We got up at 5:00 am,UGH, to be in place for the entrance to the canal. The best viewing spots for pictures are the front of Baja and Caribe decks all the way forward through two doors. By the time we got there at 5:45, people were already lined up two deep. The ones with the best spots got there at 4:30! We were number 19 to enter the canal this day, but 17 had already gone through since midnight and there was only number 18 ahead of us. After passing under the Bridge of the Americas, It took about 45 minutes to go through each of the first two locks with a slight gap in between the first two and the third lock, rising up 85 feet from the Pacific! Then we passed under the new Centennial bridge before entering Gaillard Cut, the most difficult part of the canal to excavate since it ran through the Continental Divide and kept caving in during construction. The weather has been great, with some humidity, but not too hot. Next, comes Gatun Lake before we enter the three Gatun locks which will take us down to the Atlantic. While having lunch, we crossed Gatun Lake, which is huge...once the largest manmade lake in the world until Lake Mead was created in Arizona. Once we dropped back down 85 feet to the Atlantic, we soon arrived in the port of Cristobal which provided us with a covered pier full of flea market stalls and duty free shops, food stalls and alcohol sales. The quality is not fabulous (save that for Ocho Rios) but we found some souvenirs and a panama hat! It has been a long day and after dinner and a great show, our cabin and bed are looking awfully good. Good thing we have a sea day tomorrow and can spend the day relaxing. SEA DAY The seas started to get rough during the show after dinner last night and it got rougher as the evening progressed. I get seasick and took a motion sickness pill before we went to bed and slept well. When we woke up this morning, it was still rough, if not rougher. The buffet breakfast was an ordeal, trying to fill your plate and try and find a table with the ship 'rocking and rolling.' We found four lounge chairs by the Lotus Pool and plan on spending the afternoon relaxing. I know there has been lots of discussion on Cruise Critic regarding chair hogs and I noticed that things have not changed. We walked onto the Lido Pool/Deck at 9:00 before breakfast and could not find four loungers together. Many lounges just had towels on them, but we went into the Lotus Pool area and found four together. So, we put our towels, hats and bags on our chairs and went to breakfast! If you can beat them, join them. Bottom line is, don't go up to any pool area at 11;00 am or later and expect to find more than two loungers together. Honestly, we are not sun lovers and enjoyed the Lotus Pool area the most. It has a retractable roof, which is kept closed most of the time and is air conditioned, but not too cool and is quiet. It is usually less crowded. The Lido Pool area is open air and on our trip was quite humid. There is usually a band playing on and off (my wife loved it, but it was just noise to me) and there is usually some other type of group cruise activity. The day we did spend on Lido Deck, it was Mr. Sexy Legs competition where one of the contestants was from Sacramento! The seas became calmer and the skies cleared this afternoon and after a late lunch we went back to the Lotus Pool. Tonight is the last formal night and lobster and pheasant are on the menu. We dined with two ladies from Sacramento that I met on the Princess Cruise Critic Message Board. OCHO RIOS We docked in Ocho Rios at 9:00 in the morning and after a quick breakfast we left the ship for a marathon day of shopping. We decided to cancel the tour we had scheduled for this morning to allow maximum time in town, since this would be our last port. There are three main shopping areas in Ocho Rios: the Taj Mahal Center which is mostly jewelry stores, which are duty free and a smattering of souvenir shops, the Harbor Shops where the Joe Pirana souvenir store is located and the Island Village on the Beach, which has the best quality stores including Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville. It rained the night before, so it never got very hot, but it was quite humid. We shopped all day and never even stopped for lunch, getting back to the ship right at last call!! We had quite a few cab drivers and tour companies lining the street outside of the cruise terminal hawking their services, but other than that, it was a hassle free day of shopping. We weren't able to find any internet cafes in Ocho Rios. DAY AT SEA The last day of our cruise is here and we all agree that it is great to have a sea day to wrap up our vacation. We finally have calm seas and warm temperatures so everyone, it seems, is out by one of the pools. This is the day to fill out the cruise evaluations (ship and itinerary) and count up all your purchases for the customs form. We also received the instructions for disembarkation and it seems fairly organized. Unless you signed up for early departure, which means you must carry off all your own luggage, you are assigned a time and place to meet depending on your deck and cabin location. More on the success of this process when it actually happens tomorrow. DISEMBARKATION We went to our assigned meeting location on the ship twenty minutes early and were promptly told to proceed off the ship. We picked up our luggage and were through customs in ten minutes. We were directed to a van which we shared with three other couples and the cost was $20/ couple plus tip....not bad. When we got to the airport, a ten minute drive,we discovered that one of our bags was over the 50 lb. limit and our travelling companions had the same problem. After a bit of shifting, we were o.k. Be careful, because the charge for being overweight is $90/bag!! We are now through security and waiting for our flight home. So, disembarkation was quick and easy for us, but it appeared that we were the only ship in port this day, so things may different for you. THE SHIP Having cruised primarily on Oceania previously, this was our first time on a Princess ship and it took us a while to get used to a bigger ship. Half way through the cruise, we pretty much knew where everything was and which way to turn when we got off the elevator or stairs. As previous reviewers have noted, the ship has been kept in very good shape. Our cabin was on Aloha deck and was completely covered by the overhang from the pool deck above. Bahia deck below us was also covered, but the decks below that were in the full sun as they jutted out further. The rooms are of typical size with the usual small bathrooms, but we did notice that the closet space is very generous for hanging clothes. We chose Any Time Dining so we were assigned to the Bordeaux Dining Room, but the Provence Dining Room one deck above, is exactly the same for traditional diners. We thought the food was above average with good entrEe choices each night. The Horizon Court, where we ate most of our breakfasts and lunches had a good choice of hot and cold food. There is also a Pizza Bar by the Lido pool with a Hamburger Bar directly above on the Sun Deck. Our favorite was the Ice Cream Bar near the Lotus Pool. There is a Quick Reference card in each cabin which you can carry with you that lists all the hours of the food venues and bars. There were plenty of choices for entertainment. We went to several shows and thought they were excellent. They have two theater venues so if you miss a show, they usually will repeat it the next night. We are not late night people, so I can't comment on those options, but it appeared that there were lots of choices. I love to play slots, but kept out of the casino because I know the odds are especially bad at sea. They did have two smoke free nights. For those of you that are nonsmokers like we are, surprisingly, smoking was not an issue. The first night in Acapulco, we encountered a smoker on his balcony next to us and my wife commented, "Oh, great...someone is smoking right next to us." A few moments later, he went inside his cabin and we never saw him or smelled smoke again. Walking down on of the corridors to get to our cabin, we did notice one cabin that even stunk up the hall. I would have hated to be next to them. Even the cabin steward said it was unusually bad! Other than that, the ship was pretty much smoke-free, even on the pool deck. Our fellow cruisers averaged in age between 60-65 and since it was the middle of January, very few children. I think we counted maybe a couple dozen kids, mostly preteens. I heard the cruise before us had 500 kids!! We had just about every nationality represented...all having a good time. While lounging on the pool deck people watching, I spotted a couple in their 80's walking and holding hands! I even saw some cruisers with handicaps on their scooters or in wheelchairs moving about the ship and even some with walkers. Cruising is for everyone! The tours we went on were very good. Our tours in Huatulco and Nicaragua were cancelled because of high seas which prevented us from docking and we decided to cancel our tour in Ocho Rios to have the entire day for shopping. The tour: LAKE ATITLAN AND THE MAYAN HIGHLANDS in Guatemala and THE ECO-JUNGLE TOUR in Costa Rica were both excellent and I would recommend them both. By the way, they were both sold out by the time we left each day.
SUGGESTIONS AND TIPS • Book your tours online before you leave. If you change your mind, you can cancel within the allowed time. • Prearrange transfers from the airport to the cruise terminal or hotel. Groups of 4 to 6 will keep your cost down. The one we used was: Acapulco Rosie's Tours: email@example.com • On canal transit day, get up early, at least by 5:00 am, and go to Baja or Caribe decks all the way forward to their open decks (they will not be marked) and bring a chair if you can't stand for three or four hours. This will offer you the best views of the locks. • Personal choice dining is wonderful. You can eat anytime you want from 5:30 to 10:00 pm and we never had a problem getting a table for four. • Bring lots of cash, especially dollar bills, as all of the off ship vendors will take U.S. currency. • Look for internet cafes in the ports. They are much cheaper than internet on the ship. • Use Cruise Critic to find information about your trip and ask questions. • On sea days, have a leisurely breakfast and or lunch in the Bordeaux dining room. After a while, the food in the Horizon Buffet gets a little monotonous. • Be careful when packing for the trip home. You will probably come back with more than you left home with and you don't want to exceed the 50 lb. checked bag limit. FINAL IMPRESSIONS This cruise definitely receives a thumbs-up from the four of us. The food was good and tours, the ones we took, were excellent. Going through the canal was, without a doubt, the highlight of the trip. Our cabin was adequate and even though we didn't get to use our balcony that much, it was worth the extra cost. The shows were excellent as were all the facilities. The two pool areas offered totally different environments: the Lido Pool, lots of sun/shade areas, warm pool, four hot tubs and entertainment vs. the Lotus Pool, which was covered, quiet and warm pool and two hot tubs. We never felt the need to use and pay for the Sanctuary. The weather was not perfect, some rough seas, but it was never hot and humid, even going through the canal. Anyone who has this cruise on their vacation calendar is in for a real treat. If you have any specific questions about my comments/commentary, please feel free to email me directly: firstname.lastname@example.org. Have a wonderful time, I know we did.
On our last cruise we were on the Island Princess in cabin A320. It was totally covered which was important since this was a cruise through the Panama Canal and it was nice to have the shade. This was a balcony cabin and was of average size. It had a typical bathroom (small) but had a large closet area for hanging clothes, which was great since this was a 10 day cruise. It was near the forward part of the ship and was only one floor from the buffet and pool decks. There were no cabins across from us so it was reasonably quiet except for some noise in the middle of the night which we think was the crew cleaning the pool deck.
We loved Costa Rica. We took Princess's Eco-Jungle tour, which took us down a river on a boat to see wildlife. We saw iguanas, scarlet macaws, monkeys, several types of birds and alligators followed by a sampling of tropical fruits and juices.