10 Day Panama Canal Cruise October 1997
SummaryIn summary, we enthusiastically recommend Princess as a cruise line and the Panama Canal as a sight to see. Our enthusiasm for the physical accommodations on the Crown Princess is somewhat restrained. There are also some aspects of this cruise (such as average passenger age) which need to be addressed before anyone decides on this cruise.
The following review delineates our very positive evaluation of Princess Cruises’ overall organization, service levels, food, itinerary, and shore excursions. We’re more negative on the Crown Princess as a Panama Canal cruise ship, and a few of the more minor (to us) negatives regarding the cruise.
BackgroundTo enable the reader understand our perspective in relation to our biases, here’s "where we come from": My wife and I are in our mid-50s. We traveled with my late 40’s single sister and my 81 year old father. Over the last 4 years the four of us have taken 2 previous cruises, and different subsets of the four of us have taken an additional 2 cruises. Those have been on Celebrity, Carnival, Renaissance, and Royal Caribbean. Destinations have been Bermuda, the Caribbean, the Greek Isles, and Mexico/Catalina Island respectively.
Our purpose in cruising is to spend some time together as a family, to enjoy good food (and drink), sun and snorkeling, and to sightsee. We are not into ship social activities, gambling, art auctions, etc.
Pre CruiseThere was one negative about the pre-cruise arrangements: no included overnight prior to the cruise. Flying from Denver as my wife and I had to do should have earned us an included pre-cruise stayover. This negative was substantially diluted by Princess having representatives at the airport meeting our plane. My father and sister, coming from Albany NY were also delighted that Princess even greeted the arrival of their half-day fog delayed plane. Had such a plane delay occurred on cruise day, they wouldn’t have made the sailing. Fortunately we all had opted for an $85/person night at the Raddison Bahia Mar as an extension arranged through Princess, at our expense.
Just a word about that extra day: we really think we got our money’s worth out of it. We enjoyed a swim in the ocean the morning of the cruise, and best of all we didn’t have to worry about the connection the day before. Had we tried to make the ship on that day, we would have had to be out of bed around 2 am to travel the 2 hours to our highly inaccessible Denver International Airport, then stress out over connections to Ft. Lauderdale and the 2 hour time difference.(The ship sails at 5pm.)
One of the best thing Princess did in terms of organization was to always have reps at meeting places: the airport, the hotel, on the dock at disembarkation. Where appropriate, these people were armed with manifests to confirm our names. It just gives a feeling of welcome to know they are expecting you and care enough to be there. A great feature of their baggage handling is that you can put your Princess cabin tags on your bags at your airport of origin and Princess will intercept them at Ft. Lauderdale and get them to the ship. Now, the cynic in me wondered what happens if, for instance, the Princess tag gets torn off by the airline enroute. So I asked the Princess rep at the arrival gate about the arrangements. She asked how many bags we had and wrote it down next to our names and off we went on the hotel shuttle. As long as the Princess people properly follow up, presumably if they didn’t find the requisite number of bags they would call you at your hotel and get a baggage trace process going.
Long story short: my wife and I next saw ALL of our bags outside our cabin the next day. My father and sister claimed their bags at the airport so they didn’t add to the sample size. My advice: run your own risk as you wish.
The other delightful surprise was that the airport to hotel transfer was paid by Princess (even though they had said it was not included.)
CabinMy wife and I received an upgrade from our BA class balcony cabin on the Aloha deck to an A class mini-suite; one suite from the top. Layout wise it was a great cabin. Drawers, closet space, hangers, aplenty. But: NOISY. The people next to us were not at all rowdy but you could hear them even in casual conversation. Also, the running track, such as it is, went over us 2 decks up and at 6 am there was the thump thump of the runners as well as the noise of chairs/tables being rearranged in the café/bar one deck up.
Also - no clock in the room?!? On top of that, the one day we left a wake up call for an early shore excursion, we didn’t get it! Fortunately the rest of our party got theirs so we made the excursion.
To the positive, there is no Public Address system in the room, unless you want it, via one of the TV channels. This is really nice; on other cruises I’ve wanted to strangle the cruise director announcing Bingo during my nap. The TV had CNN World News almost all the time but I promised I would mention my father’s disappointment that their "Instant News" channel, which received batch updates via satellite, usually wasn’t very instant; sometimes a day and a half old. One of the TV channels constantly replayed the shore talks; another might have some feature going, such as a TV special about the building of the canal.
ShipLet’s get the rest of the major negatives about this ship out of the way: There is relatively little outside viewing area on this ship. There is one outside forward deck for normal passenger use. This deck is accessed from the Starboard side (only) of Baja deck. There is an inside viewing area on the top level but for an event such as the Canal it was jammed up (which didn’t take much) by early in the morning and half of it is open to smoking. Once in the Canal, they opened up a small forward crew deck around level 8 or so, yet if you want to see where you are going and not where you came from (the Stern), you’re mostly out of luck. In our case, we had the suite with a large Lanai (a.k.a. verandah; Hawaii calls). We enjoyed watching most of the passage from our room - the TV had a running commentary from a Canal expert, we could return to the blessed air conditioning every once in a while, etc. On the return from Gatun Lake a rain shower cleared off the forward deck so we got our forward viewing done then.
As far as outside side viewing, if you don’t have a verandah, you’re left with the boat deck, which doesn’t go all the way round the ship, or the top.(Sun) deck. For me personally, this gave too much of a hotel feeling and not enough of a cruise ship feeling.
Speaking of air conditioning, thankfully it was fine. This part of the world is HOT and HUMID. It’s only 9 degrees of Latitude north of the Equator and I suspect it’s that uncomfortable mostly year round. Now, I like heat, but this was truly oppressive in terms of both the heat and humidity. The message here is to take plenty of warm weather clothes, and figure several clothes changes a day if you’re planning any outside activities at all. You’ll likely want to change after you come back inside. If your willing, there were 2 very nice laundromats on board. No charge, except for soap, etc.
Ship PersonnelLet’s spend a minute covering the most positive aspect of the Crown Princess. First and foremost, the people are each and every one extremely polite, friendly, and helpful. The bellweather indicator for me on this count are the maintenance personnel. They’d be walking down the corridor with a ladder or a paint brush or whatever and would always extend a greeting. Obviously somebody had impressed them with who was paying their wages.
Our cabin steward was the best we’ve ever had, anytime. Our style is to have before dinner drinks in the room. (Which, by the way, Princess doesn’t object to; the onboard duty free liquor store advertises "for room consumption" and has very reasonable prices; don’t bother bringing your own.) Well, the first couple of days we’d ask the steward for our usual mixers, extra ice, etc.. As soon as he saw the pattern, he started delivering them without being asked. This kind of anticipation is truly delightful.
The only area we could see to improve service would be to have the wait personnel assist some passengers to their seats in the Lido buffet. This could be by carrying trays for some of the more toddling, and also by helping to spot and direct to empty tables/seats.
ShowsWe aren’t tremendous show critics, but we thought most were pretty good. Especially the one called "Pirates", which we thought was competitively top notch by any standard. A strong point about the shows was that they started on time. I for one am turned off by a show that starts late because of Bingo, or whatever.
DiningOverall we give the dining an 8 or 9 out of 10, and we think we ARE pretty fair food critics. Between us we’ve eaten in some of the finest restaurants in the world, although mostly in the US. Our taste definitely runs to Continental, which this food was. The menus were challenging, and the shortfall from 10 had to do with the execution; sometimes the menu items looked better than the food tasted. Good, mind you, well presented, expertly served, and certainly tasty, but something short of great. Our standard here is Celebrity Cruises, where we felt that each evening’s meal was competitive with "great". On the other hand, we’re pretty critical given our other dining experiences. To the positive, we always could ask for more (as in lobster tail) and were cheerfully served it. Service was always adequate and friendly, with the assistant waiter (busboy) probably helping us as much as the waiter. We appreciated the silver tableware, and the constant supply of the proper utensils without being asked (another example of anticipating needs).
We were not crowded in our dining seats. In fairness, we were at a table for 4 by our own request.
Another nice feature of the menus: the always present items of relatively plain pasta, steak, fish, or a chicken item. My father likes his steak RARE (and he means it) and he gave high grades for a true rare.
One bad feature of this cruise was that there was not one single midnight buffet. We had come to look forward to this on other lines, and even learned to pace ourselves with regard to food and drink intake in anticipation. They did offer a "Champagne Waterfall" one night, and it would have made a nice change of pace from a midnight buffet, had one been available on other nights.
The other negative about our dining experience is that the waiter/busboy seemed really busy most times. We almost hated to interrupt them to chat for fear we would hold them up from serving others. Hadn’t experienced this on other lines.
MiscellaneousSome miscellaneous comments: Ships Photographers were generally unobtrusive, which we appreciated. The "Art Auction" fanfare/promotion bordered on obnoxious. Every night there was a flyer in the room about tomorrow’s sale, and how the discounts would be even greater. The art auction was simply overemphasized. Twice, the evening show was timed to be available only before (late seating) dinner. This messes with our pre-dinner-in-the-room cocktails so we prefer not to have the after dinner show option eliminated. The pizza was acceptable, but I wish I could have taken a piece to my room/verandah for a midnight snack. (No midnight buffet, remember.)
Passenger DemographicsThis cruise had a passenger age distribution centering somewhere around 60-65. This is not meant to be a positive or a negative. It just was. After all, our group was just about on average. People need to be OK with an older group if they were to enjoy this cruise. The advanced average age led to a number of consequences. For instance, the one day we escorted my dad to the matinee in the theater, it was packed to the gills--10 minutes before showtime! For another instance, the Lido Buffet seldom had seats available. This seemed to be due to 2 reasons. First, this age group was slower-moving on average, sometimes to the point of distraction. Second, some passengers would stay at "their" table after the meal and start their card game. So while the service line seemed well paced, the table space was unable to accommodate the serving line throughput. The alternative was to sit outside (Reread section on Heat/Humidity)
Shore ExcursionsWe took shore excursions at all the ports. In the San Blas islands you tender ashore and wander a fairly small island on your own. This particular day was a real change of pace; the indians sell molas--one booth after another, solid across the whole half mile or so of island.
The other tours were as represented in the brochure, and the ones we chose met our expectations. The guides all spoke adequate to excellent English. There was no/little mention of tips. In Costa Rica, my Dad wanted to see a banana plantation so he took that tour while the rest of us went to the Cahuita National Park. This tour included a delightful swim in near-90 degree ocean water at a practically deserted stretch of beach. In Cartagena Colombia, the half day tour gave some feel for the place and was adequate. In Cozumel, we took the half day snorkel trip to Palancar Reef. We got two 40 minute sessions in the water and all the beer a person wanted. We thought this was a decent value...on lots of snorkel trips you’re lucky to get an hour in the water.
OverallOn balance, the excellent and professional attitude of the Princess people more than offset some of the unfortunate physical shortcomings of this particular ship, and we will likely seek to return to Princess in the future. The Canal had been a "must see" for us, and it didn’t disappoint at all.
Edward and his wife are in their mid 50's, and over the last 5 years
have averaged a cruise a year, all on different lines. The Tuckers spend
their summers in the Adirondack mountains of New York where they run a
small rustic furniture manufacturing and fabric craft business. This pushes
their cruising into the October to April timeframe. The Tuckers can be
reached for questions or comment at: High_Peak_Creations@compuserve.com.
If you have any questions, comments or suggestions, please