Vision of the Seas November 1998 Panama Canal Cruise
We Made it In Time for Dinner
We arrived in San Juan around 5:20 p.m., and at approximately 6:20 p.m. were sitting down at our main seating dinner! RCI very efficiently met us at the airport, got us on the bus and to the pier where we zoomed through check-in, and we went right to our cabin where we met the steward who told us we could still make our dinner seating.
We got down there to discover the waiter had just shown everyone the appetizers and taken their orders but he waited until we placed ours before bringing anything out. We were at a table of eight and the other couples were all retired and very friendly. We all ended up hanging out with each other during the day/evening and it was great to be around two couples who'd been married 36 and 40 years and were still holding hands at the table. My only gripe is the tables are very close together and at least in two seats you'd hit the back of someone else's chair while trying to sit down or get up up.
Our Cabin & Getting Around
Our cabin was 7076, a Category D cabin with balcony that was three doors down from the card room. This was a fantastic location; aside from the corridors being quiet (card players don't yell much), we were two floors away up or down from most of the activities. The couch in our room was six feet long so that my husband could stretch out on it. As everyone says, there's tons of storage space in the cabin although walking around the beds is tight. You do not need a credit card to open the safe. And of course the shower is small but I loved the shower massage feature. Our cabin steward was very efficient and we had no complaints there.
The elevators were for the most part very fast, but the irritating part was that only two went to the Viking Crown lounge, but the buttons worked for all four elevators in the Centrum. So if the 1-9 elevator arrived, you either took it and walked up or tried to get it to leave and get the 1-11 elevator.
For the physically challenged this was a very accessible ship. All the decks had automatic doors to go outside and the crew jumped at the chance to help anyone in a wheelchair. For people who hate secondhand smoke this was a taste of what the (Carnival) Paradise is going to be like. There was so little smoking on board that whenever I saw someone light up it was a shock.
My favorite place on the ship was the library. This is the first time I'd seen a library that had books available from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. for checkout. And you just signed your name and took the book. (They did say you'd pay a $50 fine if you didn't return it and the books had electronic tags on them so if you walked off the ship with it, supposedly an alarm would go off. I didn't test that one.) The books were new and there was quite a variety.
And, from The Bridge ...
During the bridge tour I saw a sign that said 1612 guests on board, 775 crew. Since this ship can hold 2400 passengers this was a very uncrowded cruise. If there were more than two dozen kids on board I'd be surprised. And the ones I did see seemed to be fairly well behaved. I understand you get a bridge tour if you buy one of their packages. They announced two bridge tours during our cruise, first come, first signed up type of thing. We were told that below Deck 1 (on your deck plan) is Deck zero, Deck minus 1, 2 and 3 where all the crew plus the engines, etc. were. The captain was not on the bridge and the officer told us it was pretty noisy when you were trying to sleep. He said the captain's cabin was on Deck 7 (below the bridge).
The captain had a great sense of humor, like the day he told us we were now out on the ocean (pause) surrounded by water. Except for three hours out of Costa Rica, our seas were so calm he called them "smooth with little wavelets." And yep, it was humid but hey, it's nine degrees above the equator. For our three rough sea hours we had 55 mph winds and 12-foot waves, but the stabilizers did a great job.
Dining and The Staff & Crew
The dining room food was delicious. I did try a slice of pizza in the Solarium and enjoyed it. We didn't eat in the Windjammer because we prefer to be waited on for all our meals, but we did go up after one breakfast to eat a second breakfast just to see what it was like. The waiters up there were very efficient about clearing tables. Our dining room waiter was from Portugal and our busboy was from India, although he kept saying no, he was from Nepal because that was where he was born. We celebrated Thanksgiving on the ship and he had never heard of it (nor had eaten turkey before working on board) so I told him the Pilgrim story. I'm not sure how much he understood. I think he was sorry to see us leave: he kissed me good-bye and that's the first time a busboy has done that! The waiter tried to be very professional, not folksy, and he did a great job.
I had heard about how RCI waiters harass you into giving them excellent reviews. Our waiter mentioned it to us just once for five minutes, saying he tried his best to be excellent and he hoped we agreed. Earlier in the week I had asked the busboy (or assistant waiter, as they're called) about what happened if he got excellents. He said that if you got excellents you were given more passengers to take care of. He said he personally had gone from 18 people to 28 people, and he was very proud of that. Of course the more people, the more tips. He said what you also get for excellents is extra time off in ports or not having to work an open seating breakfast or lunch type thing. So if some RCI waiter tries to tell you he'll be fired if you rate him other than excellent, that may not the real story.
The cruise director made one or two announcements per day, which did not come into your cabin. He did a good job, as did his staff, and a few of them had the ability to flawlessly switch languages mid-sentence without missing a beat. The crew in general was very friendly and willing to stop and chat if you wanted. I talked to a keyboard player to get some info on how to use one and he offered to let me play his. I decided to spare the Lido Deck the agony. If you told a photographer or a bar attendant "no thanks," they left you alone and didn't come back. The art auction was so low key it was almost hard to find if you wanted to see it.
There weren't as many activities as Carnival (in my opinion) but there was enough, except for after dinner. After the early show there was a wait before the "party" stuff and by that time we were asleep. The disco (the one time we made it) was so noisy I had to stick my fingers in my ears. It was very uncrowded, but then again I'd say the average age on this cruise was 60. Since we don't drink I can't really comment on the various lounges except to say they were nice to look at. We did get a glass of champagne on our last night in the champagne bar, and with the $4 drink came hot tidbits which I don't believe you got at the other bars. The casino slots seemed "tight," but this was disproved by one of the men at our table who would go in and feed one quarter at a time in a certain machine. I don't know how much he lost over the cruise, but he hit it for $125 on one of his playing times. And another man told us he won $500 at roulette.
The entertainment was varied. We had the Platters and Susan Anton plus several other "who are they" acts. Everyone's favorite was the Knutsen Brothers who sang barbershop quartet with a twist, two of them made musical instrument sounds like drums, etc. so it sounded like there was a band there. If this was really a tape running in the background it was so flawless you couldn't tell. This is hard to describe and even harder to believe when you see it, trust me. The activities were the typical napkin folding, bingo, etc. type of thing. What I loved is that if they said something started at 10 a.m., by golly it started at 10 a.m. so if you wandered in at 10:05 a.m. you missed the beginning. Towards the end of the cruise I noticed people were arriving early for activities to make sure they got there on time.
The show dancers/singers did a good job but their "Rock on Broadway" tribute to Rent, Tommy, Hair, etc. was wasted on this cruise. Not too many people seemed familiar with those shows. The show's special effects were something else and I enjoyed it. The theater was very nice with good sight lines from nearly every seat and the best seats (to me) were in the first balcony, second row on the left facing the stage. One night I beat an old lady to them just to irritate her. After all, she arrived every night way ahead of time to sit there like she had paid for them or something!
Dressing for the Part
We had two formal nights, two semi, and the rest casual. We didn't have our first formal night until our third night out when we were at sea. My husband's rented tux from RCI fit perfectly, including his shoes. It was waiting for us in the cabin complete with accessories when we arrived. The button fell off the jacket during the evening and I gave it to the cabin steward and he took care of the repair. We will certainly use this service again in the future. For several reasons, we only took one suitcase on this cruise and thus had to use the ship's laundry facilities or else run out of clothes. They did a nice job, but I don't understand why RCI can't provide the passengers with washers/dryers. RCI could save the money for this by not using doilies under my orange juice every morning!
PORTS OF CALL
Our San Juan to Acapulco cruise stopped at St. Thomas; Curacao; the Panama Canal; and Puntarenas, Costa Rica with the option of a tour in Acapulco after disembarkation.
As we arrived just in time for dinner, the only sights of San Juan we saw were on the ride to the pier. I have no clue what we were looking at, and the sun setting didn't help.
In St. Thomas we opted not to take a shore excursion. With any luck, we'll be going back there again on future cruises. We walked from the ship to the tram, about a 10 minute walk, and took the ride up to see the view. Very nice view, but is it really worth $12/pp? At the tram we took a taxi back to the downtown shopping area. We walked along the main street and almost every three steps someone was asking us to step inside their shop. However, nobody was begging for a handout at any point.
We stopped off at the Crown and Anchor and found the staff inside very helpful and it was a nice place to sit down and relax. There was free hot coffee and tea plus a bar to buy sodas and bottled water. We bought two bottles and kept them to use on future shore excursions, but actually used them to keep water cold in the refrigerator in our cabin. We had no trouble finding a taxi to take us back to the ship: they were all over town. Unlike Nassau, the driver didn't try to find more bodies to fill the cab en route which was nice.
Curacao ... well ... aka as "Cure the Cow" to my husband ... they were celebrating a national holiday when we arrived -- it was St. Nicholas (not Santa) Day, and St. Nick had arrived by speedboat and received by a crowd of 20,000, or so we were told. We had opted to take the Willemstad trolley train tour. I can only assume we did not take the normal route due to the traffic snarls. We first drove by some "renovations of homes" which I mistook for the slums. We then drove past homes which belonged to so-and-so but now the government owns them. We stopped twice to take photos of houses and I never did catch why we did on one of them. We circled the block twice at one point and never did get out to Fort Amsterdam as the literature promised. For this we paid $23/pp. Add to that riding in a tiny children's size trolley with seats not meant for adult-sized legs. We did complain to the RCI tour rep who told us to submit our complaints in writing. We gave him the report and we later received a note saying they were sorry we didn't enjoy it, and here's half your money back. That was a pleasant and unexpected surprise.
After lunch on the ship we walked back to town, as it was only 15-20 minutes or so away. By this time the St. Nicholas festivities were over and the town square was littered with trash. We started walking and soon found ourselves heading in the wrong direction. It seemed we were going into the local neighborhoods, as the shops didn't have any VISA signs that we could see. However, not once were we harassed or stopped or bothered by anyone, even though we stuck out like only a tourist would stick out in that type of situation. Nor did anyone ever try begging at any point in our wanderings. We finally got back to the main area and tried to cross the floating bridge. We ended up stuck on it in the middle when it opened up to let a ship pass through. How many people can say they did that? After that we said forget it and went to a casino that was nearby and lost some nickels and headed back to the ship.
What can I say about the Panama Canal that hasn't been said? First off, anyone who insists on a front view of the canal, instead of from one side or the other, had better study deck plans of ships very carefully to see just how much front line viewing you'll get. While the Vision of The Seas is a wonderful ship, it's very limited in this. Since this was our first time, we really didn't care that much (and I spent a good portion of time on our balcony anyway) but I thought I'd better warn someone who would be heartbroken if they couldn't see both sides at once.
According to my husband, people were lined up at 5:30 a.m. to get into the Windjammer (front view) when it opened at 6:00. At one point we did go in there to discover people had moved chairs and tables to set up little groups to view. Obviously the rest of us couldn't get near those windows. If you sat in the next row back of tables, you couldn't see down into the water, and that's where all the action takes place, whether you're viewing front or side. I'm sure if we had been on a smaller ship we would have been closer to the action, so to speak, and it would have been easier to see. On the Lido deck you'd be looking out sitting down and suddenly see the top of another ship glide by. Ninety-nine per cent of the traffic on the Canal was smaller than us.
You could try to stand at the bow, but unless you're tall it was difficult to see. I just gave up and headed for our balcony where I had an unobstructed view on my side of the ship. You could stand on the Lido deck and see both sides, but again, you're looking at land, not water, from that height. My husband finally made it to a prime position up front when it started to rain (and the only rain on the entire trip). He stuck it out until he got soaking wet, but he did get to see it.As people have said, the promenade deck does not go around and you cannot go to the bow. We discovered why in Acapulco when the barricades were open and we wandered up. There's very little viewing from the bow and on the sides are a lot of cranes that you could easily smack your head on if you weren't careful. No wonder it's barricaded. Don't know why it was open in Acapulco.
For those who don't have balconies, there are some little balconies scattered over the ship if you know where to look. The library, the card room, and the Solarium each had a little one (no chairs) that you could use. The ship did hit the side of a lock although I didn't feel it. You could see the crew painting over the scrapes in Costa Rica. If you want a Panama ship souvenir then shop early: they went fast, and 1 1/2 hours after opening, the shop had sold out of the two most popular T-shirt designs.
Our last stop was Costa Rica and we were told there was nothing to do unless we took a shore excursion. Driving away from the pier we saw a flea market type thing, but then the rest of the town looked pretty industrial. The guest lecturer on board told us during his final lecture that he and his wife had gone to the beach and he had fallen asleep while she wandered off to look around. When he woke up, his backpack with cameras, etc. had been stolen. This was the only shore theft we'd heard about. (As an aside, an ambulance met the ship in Curacao and some man was bundled into it, but I never heard about what had happened with that situation.)
We took the "Costa Rica Traditions" tour where, after 2 1/2 hours of fairly winding driving, we were up 3,000 feet at the Britt coffee plantation to see how coffee beans are grown. This was an enjoyable tour and we bought several pounds of coffee to bring home. Then they took us to some private restaurant-type place where they served us a "traditional" lunch (I assume it was) and there was a little handicraft market to buy souvenirs. If you really want to shop, the Sarchi shopping trip is really the only one that gives you a lot of choice of products, and they did tell you that. I'm not complaining, because I wanted to see coffee beans -- I'm just warning any shopaholic who might be disappointed at the lack of shopping. This trip left at 9:15 a.m. and we were back to the ship at 4:30 p.m.
We decided to take the Acapulco city tour because our plane didn't leave until 3:40 p.m. We later found out RCI would have driven us to the Fiesta Americana Hotel to wait until plane time. The tour was the one with the cliff divers plus a couple of photo stops and "buy souvenir" stops, but we also stopped at the Acapulco Princess to walk through it. It was nice to see this hotel as I finally caught a glimpse of the "tropical beach advertising" type of beach that they had. Very beautiful place.
We received a note stating that we could get our boarding passes for our flight home ahead of time and check our luggage through, so we showed up and surrendered our tickets (yikes) to do this. The day before we docked, we received handwritten America West boarding passes, and when we docked we had to claim our luggage at the dock, go to the America West desk and have them write up a luggage tag, and then point to our suitcase, whereupon someone attached it. That was it and the next time I saw the suitcase was in Phoenix.
I must say the Acapulco airport turned me off from ever wanting to fly through there again. At one point we were told our flight was delayed, even though there were no announcement signs anywhere that we could check. We finally got on the plane, which took off earlier than originally scheduled, and since it was an RCI charter, it was blissfully half empty and we arrived home 30 minutes ahead of schedule. To top it off, Customs just waved us through. We wouldn't hesitate to use RCI's air/sea package again.
Complaints? Not too many. We were charged the wrong amount for drinks once, but it was corrected when I pointed it out. The gangway in Costa Rica was narrow, wide spaced, and shaky. I was trying to hold onto my stuff and the railing when a ship's officer who just couldn't wait any longer pushed past me on the side where I was holding onto the rail, causing me to let go of the railing at the wrong moment. This was right at the top where it was the shakiest and I started screaming out loud in fright, afraid that I would lose my balance and fall into the water since I wasn't at the point over the pier at that moment. Luckily, the crew member helping people off grabbed me. A minor thing, yes, but I did write it up on the comment card.
The breakfast menu said grape jelly and I asked for it one time. My poor waiter wandered around half the dining room before finding two containers.
One amusing note: On the menu one day was an appetizer called "Foul something" and we asked the waiter why this food was so bad. We all had a good laugh trying to explain to him the meaning of the spelling of "foul."
It was a wonderful trip and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend RCI in the future. Now if you'll excuse me, I'll go grind some fresh coffee beans and make a fresh cup of 100 per cent Costa Rica Arabica coffee!
Kathy West resides in Arizona and has served as a sysop of the now defunct CompuServe Cruise Forum. She can be reached for questions or comment at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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