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Island Princess Panama Canal
March 2010 by Tara Jacobs
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.
PRE-CRUISE HOTEL: 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
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.
EMBARKATION: 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.
CABIN: 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.
THE SHIP: 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.
SERVICE: This was our second cruise aboard a Princess ship 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.
FOOD: 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
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 moves 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!
ENTERTAINMENT: 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
PORTS OF CALL:
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
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 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.
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
DISEMBARKATION: Following our last day at sea, we arrived on time in Port Everglades
(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 at the
more than 2 hours in advance of your
scheduled flight, you might be asked to
stand aside rather than check in early.
IN SUMMARY: 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.
Photo courtesy of Princess Cruises; Videos courtesy of Tara