Thursday, April 29, 2010

Panamaximum overdrive on Island Princess!

By TravelGirl:

Let me start by saying that this post is much longer than a traditional blog post, as it's a review of our Panama Canal cruise. Grab your favorite beverage, sit back, relax, and enjoy!

We booked this 10-night Panama Canal full transit cruise while aboard another Princess cruise 16 months earlier. Booking far in advance lends itself to a certain level of anticipation that sometimes builds higher-than-necessary expectations from having envisioned the cruise over and over, researched and planned excursions, and read and re-read every other review on the planet, and then talked and talked and talked about how fun it’s going to be. Fun we had, and here’s my story:


We stayed at the Crowne Plaza Acapulco for two nights pre-cruise, and couldn't have been more pleased with the choice!

We arrived from the airport about two hours before official check-in, but our room was ready. Well, I should clarify that. The room we had booked had been oversold, so we were upgraded to a suite. Considering we had only paid $65 + tax for our standard room, the fact that we had a suite was an excellent perk!

Our suite faced out at the ocean, and had a wrap-around balcony that extended from the living room around to the bedroom. The room was very open, light, and airy, and at night we could hear the waves crashing ashore.

The only negative was that the hotel was located smack dab next to MTV's Spring Break, so the first night we heard a lot of THUMP, THUMP, BOOM, BOOM and all the hootin' and hollerin' from the spring breakers nearby. Though our suite was on the 18th floor, we could still hear the music and screaming from below up into the weeeee hours of the night. Thankfully, MTV's Spring Break ended in time for our second night of sleep and we both slept like a rock!

Keep in mind that this hotel is older, and while clean, it sometimes just feels different because it's old. Don't expect any carpeting in the room. The entire room is tile, so plan to bring slippers or socks so you don't feel the cold floor on your feet.

The location on the beach in Acapulco was an added plus. While the water here really wasn't very swimmable due to the undertow, we were still able to lie on lounge chairs, under an umbrella and relax on the beach while ordering food/drinks from the beach servers. We did, however, dip our toes into the water to cool off, and the pool itself was beautiful (with a swim-up bar!) with many open chairs for us to lounge...but we just preferred being in the sand.

The best part of this hotel, and our room, was waking up on the second morning and seeing the Island Princess waiting for us in port. Though the hotel doesn't offer a cruise shuttle, cabs are readily available from the front lobby. For a video tour of the pre-cruise hotel, click or paste this link into your browser:


Embarkation in Acapulco was confusing, as they were obviously not prepared to receive a bunch of cruise passengers. Not many ships sail out of Acapulco, and the left foot didn’t seem to know what the right foot was doing when it came to directing passengers on where to go, where to stand, what to do, etc. After much confusion, we found our way inside the shopping mall (for lack of better word) at the cruise port, where we commandeered a few chairs while others sat on their luggage awaiting embarkation time. Around us were gifty little shops selling jewelry, souvenirs, pharmaceuticals, snacks, and coffee. The conversation with fellow cruisers was so invigorating though that we simply forgot about the inconvenience of being crammed into a tiny space while waiting to board. Once the boarding process began, we were on the ship within 20 minutes. Easy.


We booked an inside guarantee and were assigned a 4-category upgrade within the inside cabin class – perfect! Princess has sizable inside cabins, and we never once found ourselves tripping over each other. Both the closet and the drawers provided more than enough space for the two of us to completely unpack the contents of 2 pieces of luggage while storing our luggage in the closet. To view a tour of this cabin, click or paste this link into your browser:


Island Princess is a Panamax ship and the perfect size to ensure you’ll be able to explore all areas without feeling like you’ve missed something. Most of our sea days were spent relaxing near the Lotus Pool on cushioned lounge chairs facing the ocean, listening to our MP3 players or reading books. I really can’t think of a more relaxing way to spend time on the open sea.

We did venture up to the Splash Pool on Deck 16, just to check it out, or so we originally thought. One particular day, after consuming our fair share of “cruise juice” we seized the area as if it was our own private deck. Together with friends Jimmi and Kevin, we lounged, ate, drank, viewed the open ocean, sang, and whiled away our time as if we owned the deck. In fact, other passengers visited the Splash Pool, but only a couple of them stuck around long enough to enjoy it. I guess our singing scared them away. So, this really became our own private area for one afternoon.

The only disappointment regarding the space on Island Princess was the surprising lack of quiet public spaces. I searched for a spot to read a book, a spot where I was out of the way of the open walkways, and unavailable for access by servers asking me if I’d like a beverage. This space I could not find, so after endless searching, I

always wound up back at the Lotus Pool which was as relaxing as could be but just a little too close to the ice cream. If there was ever an instance when I couldn’t find Alex, I knew he had snuck over to the ice cream counter!

Island Princess offers a Sanctuary area for adults-only, and we toured this area on Day 1. Beautiful location and

nice little perk, but we opted not to purchase this extra. The cost to reserve space in the Sanctuary was $10 per person for each half-day, though the price was increased to $70 per person the day we sailed through the Panama Canal. The Panama Canal package included the use of binoculars, MP3 players, welcome champagne cocktail, complimentary Evian, snacks, stewards on-site for extra special care, and of course a lounge chair per person.


This was our second cruise aboard a Princess and our eighth cruise

overall, and the service was consistent with our first Princess cruise –

fabulous! From the beverage servers in the pool area, to the servers in the theatre, to the wait staff in the dining room and the room stewards. They all met or exceeded our expectations, and it’s one of the reasons we will continue to keep this cruise line on our list of preferred lines.


We opted for My Time Dining so we could choose when we entered

the main dining room each night, depending on our mood. Typically, we headed toward the Bordeaux dining room around 7:30 or 8 p.m. and had to wait no more than five minutes. Food was good as expected,

though there were a couple of instances when the wrong entrée or dessert was presented. Not a big deal at all, as all of the offerings were good anyhow.

We spent one evening at Sabatini’s with friends Tim, Arlene, Jimmi, and

Kevin. Sabatini’s is not to be missed EVER on a Princess cruise that offers this specialty Italian restaurant. For an extra $20 per person you’ll receive an 8-course meal that rivals celebrity chef restaurants. Yes, it’s

THAT good!

In our opinion, Princess offers the best pizza at sea – better than Royal Caribbean, Carnival, and Celebrity at

least. Their pizza is New York style, piping hot, with loads of cheese and sauce. Merely smelling that stuff will have you speaking Italian by the time you’re done with your first bite.

Of course, the soft serve ice cream is a nice added bonus, as is the “Cookie Cart” that peruses around the ship every afternoon serving up warm cookies.

One of the best offerings on a Princess cruise is the coffee card. For $24, plus the normal 15% gratuity, you can snag a coffee card that gives you 15 specialty coffees. Every time you’d like a specialty coffee, simply present your coffee card, and you’ll get one punch. That’s a deal!


We both love comedy and try not to miss a comedic show of any sort. However, one night we tried very hard to enjoy a supposed funny ventriloquist but yawned through the hour’s performance. The ventriloquist was very talented at his craft, but lacked severely in the humor area of it.

Another evening we got to see a magician, and WOW, was that fun! He created an interactive show where the participants on stage provided much of his humorous content and kept us on the edge of our seats with belly aching and nose pain from the laughing and the snorting. He was hilarious, and his magic was impressive and full

of wonderment.


Huatulco, Mexico

We opted to hang out at a beach bar near the port. A small shopping

village is adjacent to the port here, but we chose to sit under an umbrella to eat, drink, relax and enjoy the ambience of the sights and sounds of this part of the Mexican coast. There is also a little market here where you can stock up on bottled water and sodas at inexpensive prices.

Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala

Due to a transportation strike, our captain made the decision to skip this port of call at the last-minute to ensure the safety of all passengers. Even if we had stopped at this port, there would have been no transportation available, and roads and intersections were blocked due to the nationwide strike. We had an excursion planned

and paid for in advance with Turansa Tours, but they would not refund 100% of our money. Though the transportation strike prevented busses, vans, and other vehicles from getting around the country, Turansa will not make good on our investment and give us a refund even though the missed port was not the fault of the cruise line. They would only refund 50%. We are in the midst of filing a travel insurance claim to recuperate our lost funds, and as a result, I will not recommend this tour company.

San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua

We toured the colonial city of Granada, Lake Nicaragua and the countryside via Careli Tours. They are the same

company who provides the cruise line tours, but we booked them direct for less! Because we had missed Guatemala the day before, our ship’s captain got us into port early in Nicaragua. Our tour operator agreed to start our tour earlier, and take us to a good little Nicaraguan restaurant while in Granada. The

restaurant was probably the highlight of the tour as the food was loved by most (I believe there

were 13 in our group), and the price was right. However, being a vegetarian, let’s just say that the cheese I ate was NOT vegetarian cheese. I should have ordered a salad.

Puntarenas, Costa Rica

We booked a tour to Tortuga Island with Calypso Tours. Once we boarded their catamaran, we sailed through the Gulf of Nicoya for two hours on our way to the island. Waiting for us were chairs, food, beverage, and a covered area for shade. The beach and sand here were inviting, and the relaxation below the canopy of the trees was simply soothing. Tortuga Island was a great way to experience Costa Rica in a non-adventurous sort of way. We love adventure, and plan to be a bit more audacious during our land travels to Costa Rica in 2011.

Panama Canal cruising

If you’ve ever been through the Ballard Locks in Seattle, you’ve been through and seen the mechanics of working locks. The Panama Canal is no different. For us, the thrill of seeing the locks in operation were more about seeing and experiencing history in full force, in person. I had spent some time reading the history of the building of the canal which only led to more anticipation of the cruise. However, when it came down to the actual cruising through the canal itself, the length of time became a bit on the tedious side. To transition through three sets of locks took us nine hours. After

the first three hours, I went back

to our cabin for a short nap, watched more of the passage on the in-room television, then went back up deck to relax in the shade and read for a few hours while we moved closer to Panama. The experience was good, but the bigger phenomenon was the history of the building of it rather than the traversing itself.

Colon, Panama

The quick three-hour stop here invited us to sit at the dockside bar and relax in the humidity after making our way through droves and droves of anxious cruisers looking for a deal at the adjacent market. Next time around we’ll stay on the ship. The lines to leave and return

to the ship were not worth the return of time investment.

Ocho Rios, Jamaica

We took this opportunity to book the Mystic Mountain Bobsled Adventure and WOW was this a blast! Mystic Mountain is a short 10-minute ride from the cruise port, and in fact, once you’re at the top of the mountain, you can see the ship in port from the magnificent views at the peak. The excursion began with a slow chair lift ride to the top, followed by an exhilarating bobsled ride. If you are part of a couple, be sure to connect your bobsleds together as you’ll go faster! And no braking! After the bobsled ride, we played like teenagers in the infinity pool and repeatedly tested the water slide to see if we could fly off of the sides with the velocity caused by our body weight. No injuries happened, but in our minds, we flew right off that mountain, down to the shore below, and landed on the helipad of our ship. If you get a chance, go to Mystic Mountain. Spend the day there, and take pictures of the view from the top. This is simply one of the most majestic memories I have of this cruise.


Following our last day at sea, we arrived on time to Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale where we waited in the disembarkation lounge until our group was called, then grabbed a waiting taxi and scurried straight to the airport. Keep in mind that if you arrive to your scheduled flight more than 2 hours in advance, you might be asked to stand aside rather than check in early.


We really like Princess, and appreciated the Island Princess staff, the features of the ship itself, and the entire experience whether in port or at sea. If you’re just thinking about cruising the Panama Canal, go ahead and book it. You won’t regret it.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Panama Canal Cruise Tips

By TravelGuy and TravelGirl:

Having returned from our first Panama Canal cruise aboard Island Princess on March 30, we are finally finding a few moments to unwind and share some tips with those of you who might be thinking about cruising the Panama Canal. While this really isn't a cruise review, it's more of a "tips and highlights" offering for you.

We sailed the 10-day full transit, embarked from Acapulco (where MTV held their Spring Break right next door to us at our pre-cruise hotel -- Crowne Plaza Acapulco, which we recommend based on price and location), and headed to the following ports:
  • Huatulco, MX
  • Guatemala -- we actually had to skip this port due to a nationwide transportation strike
  • Nicaragua
  • Costa Rica
  • -cruising the canal-
  • Colon
  • Jamaica
  • Ft. Lauderdale -- where we disembarked
We both agree that this cruise ranks in the top 3 of our 8 cruises due to the many relaxation opportunities, the ability to visit several ports we'd not yet visited, the Panamax size of the ship, and the fun we had on-board with friends, both old and new.

This was a cruise we booked about 18 months in advance and really, really anticipated with glee. We researched like crazy and spent hours upon hours planning for it. To make life a little easier on you, we've compiled a list of tips to make YOUR Panama Canal cruise more enjoyable and relaxing. These are in no particular order.

  1. In advance of your cruise, read these two books -- The Path Between the Seas, by David McCullough and Panama Canal By Cruise Ship, by Anne Vipond. These are two VERY different books. The McCullough book is not an easy read, as it's 600 pages of history. Even though neither of us is really big on this type of history, I spent a few weeks reading about the first 400 pages fairly thoroughly, then skimmed the remaining 200. It's important to read this book to gain an understanding of the history and the blood, sweat, tears, and death that went into creating the Panama Canal. You'll appreciate what you see that much more if you read the book in advance. The Vipond book is a great reference book to bring with you on the cruise, and provides you with the "Cliff Notes" (so to speak) version of the history. The book also includes a pull-out map that is handy to have with you while navigating through the canal.
  2. Join Cruise Critic, and find your roll call in advance of your cruise in order to meet others who will be sailing with you. This is a great way to stay excited and continue to learn about what to expect.
  3. If you're a coffee drinker, and you're sailing Princess, buy the coffee card on Day 1 of your cruise. You'll save money on specialty coffee drinks, and your coffee card is good on future cruises if you still have space left on the card.
  4. If you're sailing Princess, they have an adults-only area called The Sanctuary. The cost is $10/person per half-day on non-canal days and $70/person for all day during the canal day. Special perks/amenities come with this purchase, but if you're interested in reserving your guaranteed spot in The Sanctuary each day, be sure to purchase this privilege on Day 1.
  5. In Huatulco, there are plenty of beach bars/restaurants in walking distance of the ship if you'd like to have a relaxing day without a lot of go-go-go. Huatulco also has a great little mini mart style store near the pier where you can stock up on soda to bring back on the ship with you.
  6. Plan an excursion in Nicaragua as there really isn't much to do around the port area.
  7. Costa Rica has a plethora of excursion options, from adventurous and Bucket List types of excursions to "beach breaks". We opted for the Calypso Cruises catamaran tour to Tortuga Island in the Gulf of Nicoya and highly recommend it for a day of relaxation in the shade.
  8. When preparing to cruise the canal, be sure to garner your spot on deck about 30-45 minutes prior to your ship entering the canal. We found our spot on the front railing on deck 10 at about 5 a.m. and were the 2nd and 3rd people out there. We stayed in our spots until 8:10 a.m. when we had just finished going through the Miraflores Locks, and decided it was nap time. If you've never seen locks in operation, you may want to watch all day. Having seen locks before, this wasn't as marvelous as we thought it would be. The real marvel was in the beauty of the passing trees, hills, monuments, forts, and areas along the route that had special meaning during the history of the French and American building of the canal. Those sites are not to be missed. We resumed our viewing about 11 a.m. from lounge chairs at the side of the ship and continued to view the passing through the canal and to the Gatun Locks. (We had seen the Pedro Miguel locks from our cabin via the in-cabin television while napping on and off.) We finally left the locks around 7:30 p .m. before heading to Colon. Unless you are fanatical about seeing the ship enter/exit every lock, it's really not necessary to view the entire canal passing for the continuous 8-9 hours.
  9. In Colon, there is a flea market adjacent to the pier. This is a great place to sip a beer and relax under a palapa in the shade as a short break from being on the ship.
  10. In Jamaica, several tours are offered, and this time around we recommend a trip to Mystic Mountain in Ocho Rios where we rode Jamaican bobsleds down the mountain after climbing to the top via a chair lift -- aw, the views!
  11. Once you've arrived back to Ft. Lauderdale, count on a line-up of taxis waiting to take you to your post-cruise hotel or to the airport. There is no need to pre-plan this transfer.
In a nutshell, if you're just thinking about planning a cruise through the Panama Canal, do it. You won't regret it. It's really hard to have a bad time while traveling, and cruising the Panama Canal is about as relaxing as it gets.