I traveled with my partner Jimmi (jmcal123) and two friends that we met on our Freedom cruise. I am a lifelong cruiser, sailing on everything from Crystal to Carnival. While I am not loyal to any one line, this is my 17th cruise on Princess since 2003. We booked this cruise almost 18 months in advance, so we had plenty of time to research, plan, and study the Panama Canal. Well, the last is me. I am a history dork and the first time through the canal, it was booked last minute, so had no time to research. We chose the eastbound itinerary so that port intensive part of the cruise, 4 straight to start or end your cruise was at the beginning of our cruise and we could relax at the end. Overall, this cruise met and exceeded our expectations with new ports, new friends, plenty of sun, laughs, and relaxation. We liked it enough that we booked the Coral Princess for November on a partial Canal transit.
Having traveled to Mexico many times, I have to say that the process at ACU was the easiest I have been through. Once landed, we went through immigration, got our luggage, and went through customs in 15 minutes. Pressing the button and waiting for red/green light to determine if your luggage is checked is like reading the list of lottery numbers with a much better chance at winning. I really like that you setup and pay for cab prior to getting into the cab and just present a ticket to the driver. It was a 45 minute drive to the hotel. Be warned that the cab drivers are crazy and have no problem going fast and/or on the shoulder of the road. We booked the Crown Plaza Acapulco for our pre-cruise and for $68 was a steal. The only negative was that it took more than 30 minutes to check into the hotel. This hotel is in the middle of the hotel zone. It is a great location near restaurants, grocery store and a pharmacy all overlooking Acapulco Bay. We had an ocean view facing west towards the cruise port. One of the things I really enjoyed about this hotel and Acapulco in general is that it does not cater to American tourist. Unlike PV, Cabo, or Cozumel, Acapulco is a busy destination for people that live in Mexico and especially from Mexico City. So announcements were in Spanish, menus were catered to the locals, and on a weekend, the hotel was busy. One of the more entertaining parts of our stay at the beach was a fight in the "non-roped" off part of the beach between two women. It was funny because no one seemed to stop it, no cops or security arrived, and no one was arrested. We found a Mega (I think) grocery store a few blocks away and went to stock up on water, vodka, and wine for the trip. Dinner that evening was setup by our cruise critic group that had arrived early and was conveniently right across the street at El Fogon. It was simple, inexpensive, and tasty. It was an extremely long day and we were asleep early. I woke up early while Jimmi slept and walked along the beach just after sunrise. It was nice to be the only one aside from a few vendors setting up shop on the beach.
Embarkation & Cabin
We arrived early and as it turned out too early. Upon arrival, we chose not to have someone cart out luggage in, and then were told to go to the wrong place. After we walked all over the place with all of our bags, we found that we have to wait in the little shop area (w/ bags) until noon. We met up with a good majority of the cruise critic group, all with the same idea, in this area. Once opened, you carry your bags to the next building, put them in the big bins that are lifted onto the ship and proceed to the line. We were probably in the first ten people to board the ship and wanted to call ahead for the Chef's Table so ran to our room, more on that later. We had E736. We had originally booked an outside cabin, but through several price drops, past passenger deals, and changes, we ended up with this cabin and we really liked this room. We picked this room because it was on the port side and it was fully covered. While there were some vibrations and movement (we both really enjoy this), we thoroughly enjoyed the cabin and would book it again. It was perfect for the sun and we spent the majority of our Panama Canal day on our balcony. The best part of this cabin is the balcony because it stretched slightly to the aft so you get a 270 degree view. There is the occasional person who pops around the corner though, so if you do not like the occasional voyeur, then this is not the room for you. ?
Cruise Critic Get Together &Sail away
Perhaps the best deal of this cruise was the "Meet & Mingle" that was setup by our travel agent (who was sailing with us) through Princess. For about $13/person you had an open bar. 2 drinks and you got your monies worth and the conversation became livelier. Our roll call was around 8 people for almost a year, but people started showing up in the end and we had a group of about 15. Our gathering was interrupted by the Muster drill at 7PM and sailing shortly afterward. It was dark and the alcohol had taken effect. Tara (friend)and Jimmi managed to be the stars of the video for the first night and that was how our day ended.
Gym and Working Out
I am a runner and was very happy to have the single level promenade to run around. I made a deal with myself that I can eat a piece of pizza for every mile I ran. (I really like Princess Pizza) I ran 27 miles and ate 23 pieces of pizza. What I did not anticipate was how good ice cream goes with pizza... and it seems like I was there almost every slice of pizza. With a great outdoor running option, I did not have to use the gym, so aside from walking though it and filling my water, I did not use it.
This is a repeat stop for me and we planned to do absolutely nothing. We succeeded in our plans and it was a great way to spend the day. We got off the ship right after 10 and stopped at the first restaurant with shade and sun. Beer, cerviche, and guacamole filled our time. We did walk around for a bit and bought a few Coke's (Sugar instead of HFCS = GOOD). I have all but given up carbonation at my daily life, but splurged on this trip. Our day was short here, 10-3, and it was formal night, so it was back onboard early and some sun time. Upon leaving and making our turn southeast, the wind picked up quite dramatically and then the waves. I looked on the Navigator's report and it had Force 11, severe storm, but it did not seem that bad. It was fun to watch the waves torn apart by the wind. Needless to say, we were rocked to bed that night. This is apparently normal for this area.
Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala
The wind and waves of the previous night broke and we awoke to still seas and hazy warmth. While doing my daily run, I noticed we were stopped just outside of the port along with many other boats. A member of our cruise critic part (MrSHY) had done a lot of research on our first three ports and we chose to do the two longer day excursions with him and our group. We had a trip to Antigua planned trough Turansa tours today, so we were ready by 9. Shortly after 9, the captain announced that we would be missing this port due to a transportation labor strike that caused blockage of the main roads in the country. So we ended up with a day at sea and an extended day in San Juan Del Sur. While I was disappointed to miss Guatemala, I was not upset to have a sea day to relax and that we did. This was the last time that Princess is scheduled to stop in Guatemala, so it may take a land vacation to get to this country. We spent several hours in the Lotus pool and on our balcony reading, drinking, laughing. This day also could have been called the dolphin and sea turtle day as we saw many. At one time I saw a bale of turtles easily numbering over 100. It was quite a sight and makes you think about cutting the plastic soda can holder. ? The downside to this day was that because our tour was a prepaid independent tour and we technically did not show up, we were going to be out the money we spent on it. Our organizer spoke with the tour operator about a refund and they said no refund as they were there waiting for us. They eventually refunded 50% of our tour price which means we were out $25/person. After thinking about this further, this is totally unacceptable. Regardless of whether they showed up or not, where exactly were they going to take us if the roads were blocked? Antigua is about 2 hrs from the port city. Based on this logic, I will not recommend Turansa tours. Anyway, we are filing a claim with our insurance for the remainder of the funds.
San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua
Due to the missed stop the previous day, we had a full day in Nicaragua and we were thankful for that. Our tour organizer had notified our tour company and they arranged to start earlier and add a lunch stop in our tour. We used our Elite status to just head onto the first tender and it is a 15 minute tender ride. It was windy and the tenders rocked. We bussed to Grenada for the day. It is about 1.5 hours each way, but it is scenic and there is plenty to learn about the country on the way. All but about 15 km were along Lake Nicaragua with the two volcanoes in sight. The city of Grenada is old (1500s) and really pretty. Flush with pastels, churches, and hotels, we were dropped off in town square and had some time to wonder around, photograph and check out some of the hotels. Jimmi and Tara were on a quest for coffee, so they had to sample some. Based on reviews of this city, I was expecting poverty and was ready for the constant quest for a dollar out of the tourist, but it was not like that at all. We did have one young boy follow us. I think he was more interested in the fact that I was playing his game than he was about selling me something. It was entertaining. Our lunch was at a grill and was one of the best meals of the entire trip. Upon returning to the pier, the tender line was very long. We tried to pass some of time in the market setup there, but it just did not seem to move. We waited almost an hour to board the tender and were back on board as the sun was setting. It was a long day, but a very nice experience. Apparently, the delay was due to the wind and a tender that broke down in the tendering process. I saw only 2 running and it was 15-20 between tender arrivals. I wish we had time to explore San Juan Del Sur, and if I should return to this quaint port that is how I would spend my day. There seems to be plenty of restaurants and beach area in town and I am sure there was a local beer with my name on it.
Puntarenas, Costa Rica
There are many, many options for tours in Costa Rica. Jimmi and I are planning a land vacation here in 2011, so we decided to take an easy route and after doing some research, chose Calypso Tours. This tour was not offered through the cruise line. Our agent negotiated a rate for us and it was a great option. The tour is a catamaran ride to Tortuga Island in the Gulf of Nicoya about an hour off the coast. It is actually in the Pacific and not in the bay. While on the ride there is a bar and fresh fruit was also served. Upon arrival to the island, you had the option for a complimentary snorkel trip or just the palms, sand, and water. We chose the latter. At around noon, lunch was served, the company did a fine job of creating an elegant dining area out of items that they brought of the boat. After lunch it was more beach, sun and water. It was HOT on this particular day... as hot as I remember any day while on vacation and the water was refreshing. There was a small gift shop on the island, a volley ball net, and banana boats rides were available in the afternoon. We had about 4 hours of beach time before the return trip. We had a great day and highly recommend this tour. Upon arrival back in Puntarenas, we scouted out the local market and shops, and Jimmi and Tara continued their search for their perfect cup of coffee.
This was the reason that we booked this cruise and it certainly is the highlight. I am a big history dork and did a ton of research on the old and new canals before the cruise. I highly suggest reading The Path between The Seas. It can be a little wordy at times, but it is an amazing and interesting history. The book is for sale on board and the naturalist lectures sections from this book. If you are contemplating a Panama Canal cruise, I highly suggest a full transit. The "western" side, or Balboa, (which is actual further east than the "eastern entrance" or Gatun) is far more interesting and scenic than the Gatun locks. The Culebra Cut is the narrow 8 mile passage connecting Mira Flores Lake to Gatun Lake that cuts through the Continental Divide and was the most labor intensive part of the canal build. This was the part I was looking most forward to. We were up early this day, too early probably at 5 AM. We started out on Baja deck forward directly under the bridge and stayed there through the Mira Flores Locks. People did try to push their way in throughout, so you have to hold your ground. After this, we retired to our room to view the remainder of the day from our balcony. The extra cost of a balcony pays dividends on this day as we can lounge on the bed, head to the balcony to check on progress or read outside. Even though I had done the Canal before it was interesting enough to watch all six locks. In reality, these locks are no different than any other lock system, but the history, time frame, the lives lost, and the significance of joining two oceans makes them much grander. Once in Gatun Lake, we took a break to eat and meet up with our travel mates. On the Gatun (decent to the Atlantic), our balcony sunk below the Canal walls on the second and third lock. It was fun seeing all the hands reaching out to touch it. We also chose to walk the promenade for another perspective. My Second (but much more informed) Canal Experience was everything I hoped it would be. We watched our approach to Colon from our balcony looking back at the Gatun Entrance. The line to get off the Island at Christobal Pier was ridiculous, but moved. We quickly walked though the market and found some chairs under a palapa with a few beers. This is a great, relaxing way to end our long Panama Day. The lines returned for re-entry to the Island, so we walked around until everyone boarded and were one of the last groups to get onboard. Our day at sea following Panama made us realize the difference in the Atlantic and Pacific sides. The Pacific Ocean just does not compete with the Caribbean Blue of the Atlantic side.
Ocho Rios, Jamaica
Up until one week before we left this was going to be a "stay on the ship" day. I am not a fan of Jamaica and wished there was a different stop instead of this one on this itinerary. We booked Mystic Mountain with the Bobsled run through Princess. I have to say of the many tours I have done in Jamaica, this was my favorite. It is a short ride from the port to the entrance. Once there, you take a scenic, 15 minute tram ride to the top. It is so quiet and peaceful, quite the opposite of a normal Jamaican experience. You did not have people trying to sell you stuff you do not need, or drugs, and you did not hear "Hey Mon" or "No problem Mon". At the top of the lift there is an Olympic tribute area, a small and expensive gift shop and a restaurant. The view is fabulous overlooking Ocho Rios and the infinity pool and water slide can keep adults and children occupied for a few hours. The main draws though are the alpine rollercoaster and zipline. We chose to do the rollercoaster it was fun. You control the braking and can go alone or connected to someone else. I would have gone a second time, but it requires you to buy 2 rides for $20. A note here, the line for the alpine coaster got longer as the day went on. We had lunch at the restaurant (would not recommend it) and spent several hours in the pool. It was relaxing. We headed back down on the chairlift with enough time to stop and walk through the stores. Some of our group chose to have rum shots out of coconut. This was a much better day than I had thought possible and would recommend it to anyone who has done the norms in Jamaica. All that being said, it appears that Princess charged us a different price than others taking the same excursion so a little further investigation is needed.
Food is subjective, so here are some of my thoughts. I thought the fish selections, lobster, and wellington were very good. I mentioned above how much I enjoyed the pizza. The soufflEs are awesome as were the majority of the appetizers and the Alfredo when it was fresh. However, almost every shrimp order was undercooked. Also, the salad dressings were barely edible—bland with the only flavor coming from the items I added to it. It was like just adding oil or mayo to your salad. We did do Sabatini's one night and it was excellent. I think that I prefer Portofino on RCL for a similar experience, but we enjoyed our meal very much. For $20, it is a great value. Overall, it was what I expected and I certainly do not go hungry.
Service and lack of it
I usually do not comment on service as my expectations are usually met by just being professional and attentive. I have to call out two different occasions on the Island that the dining room staff was just completely unprofessional. The first experience our server did not seem interested in working. In the middle of taking our order, she yelled out, in her native tongue to a server at a different table. Our table mates all looked at each other in disbelief. When our order came out she literally threw parmesan cheese on our pasta dished... from about 3 feet above our dishes, getting it all over the table. The second experience was our last night, and our server was just slow. Not only did he forget items, but he brought them out in the wrong order. It seemed like he was a server in training.
Wow. I was very excited about this opportunity and we planned our embarkation day around getting it. We missed out on this opportunity last time, so we planned for it this time. Upon boarding at noon, the DINE line was busy. After finding someone who could help us out in person, we were told to call back after 2PM. I got through at 1:30 and verified that I was on the list. To point out my obsessive compulsive further, I had Jimmi call back at 2 to verify this. We did not hear anything back for 2 days. We ran into a two fellow cruise critic members who said they got their invitation. I was irritated as I was verified on day one. We did end up with an invitation for the second chef's table. What can I say, it was a great event. Jimmi particularly liked the grand spectacle of walking through the dining room with the chef coats on and of course the wine. For me, it was interesting to hear about the details of the kitchen and all about food. The appetizers were a caviar dish, tuna tartar, and an escargot phylo cup that was just incredible. The champagne was flowing freely as were the conversations. The wine pairings were fantastic. Our particular menu after appetizers was shrimp risotto, bloody mary sorbet with a greygoose shot, a large plate of protein (beef medallion, lobster tail, scallops, and lamb chop), a cheese course, and the beautiful custard dessert. We had a great night, with a good buzz, and fantastic meal. The $75 price is a great value. On top of the food and wine, we each received a cookbook and two pictures. Our crowd at the event heard of the chef's table through different avenues and most did not reserve immediately, which made me think that we probably would have missed out on this again, in spite of being told we were first on the list if enough people did not sign up to fill 2 tables.
(Copied from all my other reviews) For some reason on cruise ships, we always miss out on the provided entertainment. We did not see any of the production show (though I have slept through my fair share in the past). The live music, especially passion, was worth turning the headset up for. They need to take some vocal lessons. I also did not care for the live music in the Bayou (why wasn't there jazz?) or in the Martini bar. That being said, if I have sun, pool, ocean, and a good book, I am more than satisfied. This is why I like Princess... they do not seem to force activities down your throat. There is enough to occupy if you need help and not enough so that you are exhausted when you get home! Bottom line is that people need to know how to entertain themselves and we certainly did on this cruise.
The Island Princess
I have sailed on the Coral Princess on three separate occasions, so there were no big surprises. I love the open, one-level promenade, and our cabin was perfect. The upper levels have plenty of open deck space with plenty of chairs to accommodate. We occupied the Lotus pool area for long periods when we were not in our sun mood. Not that I ever stayed up late enough, but the lack of a nightclub on this class is disappointing and I still think the Sanctuary is a waste of space. It literally takes up all the good space of the aft. I understand the revenue stream, but it does not seem utilized enough to take up this much space. And at $70 for the Panama Canal day, I can understand why. The ship does need an exterior paint job... we saw the Panama Canal wear and tear firsthand. I am not sure how MUTS will fit in when she does into dry dock in October, but I have liked the option on other ships. I really do love the size and class of the ship.
This Princess experience lived up to our expectations. New places, great weather, and good friends - both new and old -- made this trip memorable. This itinerary was the perfect combination of busy and relaxation. While there were some lapses in service and misses with food, there were also some very memorable - Sabatini's and the Chef Table being two. While I do not want to say I am loyal to one line, we have been really happy with our Princess experiences. Further, with our elite status and the OBC combinations offered, the alcohol setup and laundry make it hard to choose other cruise lines. We have the Oasis planned next fall and are really excited for it, but will most likely back on the Island class for the next two cruises. After trying to plan a land vacation with family members, I realize why I am addicted to cruising and the ocean. It is easy to travel and plan, you are away visiting many places in a short period of time, and it is relaxing in the sun and water. These are a few of my favorite things.
We had E736. We picked this room because it was on the port side and it was fully covered. While there were some vibrations and movement (we both really enjoy this), we thoroughly enjoyed the cabin and would book it again. It was perfect for the sun and we spent the majority of our Panama Canal day on our balcony. The best part of this cabin is the balcony because it stretched slightly to the aft so you get a 270 degree view. There is the occasional person who pops around the corner though, so if you do not like the occasional voyeur, then this is not the room for you. ?