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Copyright © 1995-2004 
Linda Coffman

 

Coral Princess
Panama Canal
January 7-17, 2005

by George Hall

Background
We started cruising in 1984 on the NCL Starward, it was our honeymoon cruise and we immediately became cruise-aholics. Since that time we have taken over 40 cruises on various lines, celebrating both 20 years of marriage and cruising this past October aboard one of our favorite ships the Celebrity Zenith. I am now in my fifties, my wife still in her 40ís. During the years I have done many reviews and served The Mining Company, now About.com, as the original cruise guide. I also served as an outside agent for a cruise only agent for several years after retirement from my original career. I am now just a cruise-aholic with no affiliation to any website or agency. This was our first Princess cruise and our first Panama Canal itinerary. We were joined on this cruise by friends from Texas and their grown daughters. We originally all met on the Carnival Celebration in 1988 and became fast friends through the years. Another reason I love cruising. We have several close friends gained through the years having met on cruises. Having great friends and wonderful people cruising with you will make any cruise a happy cruise!

The Start
Another new aspect for us is now cruising during winter months. The only past winter cruise we took was a year plus ago on the NCL Dawn from NY. Being from NY that was tempting since no air travel was required. This cruise of course mandated flying from NY to Fort Lauderdale in January. Concerned with possible weather conditions we traveled a day early to FLL. January 6th saw a lovely ice storm in our area ,but despite it all we were able to get to the airport and our flight on JetBlue was on time. We arrived in FLL to stay the evening in the Amerisuites Hotel near the pier. Previously we had used Embassy Suites but the Amerisuites was $100 less for the date so we choose that. Amerisuites provides FREE shuttle service from the airport to hotel and from hotel to pier. Both were very good and no problems encountered. The hotel itself was clean, nice size suite with coffee maker, refrigerator and all needed amenities. A nice breakfast is available complimentary in the lobby area in the morning as well. Overall I have no problem recommending Amerisuites. One thing to note is that you will have to handle your own luggage at the hotel. There are luggage carts located in the lobby but since there are only two you may have to hunt and manhandle your luggage to your room.

Embarkation
On recommendation of the hotel shuttle driver we elected to go to the pier at 11:30 am. Officially embarkation starts at 1 pm but I have never seen an embarkation that didnít start early. He advised that the ship is usually disembarked by 10:30 and that around 11:30 the porters are taking in luggage and that around 300 people would have arrived for embarkation and be in line. Arriving at the pier at about 11:35 am we found porters ready and about 300 in line outside. Shortly thereafter the doors were opened and the screening process commenced. While in line each passenger was given a form to swear that they had not encountered respiratory problems, diarrhea or vomiting in the past 48 hours. I mean letís face it, is anyone having traveled to a ship for a cruise they paid for are in line to get onboard really going to say yes, and risk being denied boarding? Why even bother? We were to find out that sanitation and illness concerns were a priority concern presumably because of various outbreaks on numerous lines through the years. Two things we found that immediately differed from other ships we have sailed that the buffets were set up so that you must be served by staff wearing gloves. If fact if you even tried to help self serve you were immediately admonished and stopped by the serving people. This created quite a log jam at times. First because you had to wait for each item to be served and that since the serving tables are designed for self service the addition of all the servers adds to the congestion of the area. We were told that evening that this was the first cruise that this system had been started. Also you are more or less required to wipe your hands with some anti-bacterial or whatever solution in all entries to eating areas. When entering the main dining room that evening there were staff with spray bottles spraying our hands as we entered. It becomes a little odd being disinfected every time you get in a line to eat something.

NOTE: The buffet areas were self-serve by day THREE; they obviously gave up.

Getting back to actual embarkation, it was run smoothly, first passing through the metal detectors. You are advised to put all your metal into your carryon so you wonít beep when passing through the metal detector. Should you beep you are not only hand scanned with a hand wand but I also noted several people actually frisked by security staff. Something I have also never seen before boarding a ship. I guess they are taking the lead from TSA staff at airports. Next up to the check in counters, numerous and arranged by deck. Since most have already provided all their information via internet or mail in forms now required by Homeland Security the process is very fast. I presented passports and credit card and received our boarding cards in less than two minutes. Up to the photo and gangway and you were onboard.

Arriving on the ship we found staff directing us to an elevator which was being manually operated and we were placed on the elevator by which deck we were assigned to. This was very efficient in moving people and getting you directly right to your location. Also first time I had seen this, it worked well.

Cabin
We were in Cabin D404, a mini-suite with balcony category AB, Dolphin Deck (9). Cabin was spacious enough and contained adequate storage most of which is provided by closet space with more than needed number of hangers. The bed was very comfortable and firm, the pillows left much to be desired. More like a couple of flat squares than pillows. Our cabin steward, Martin, was asked whether larger pillows were available and he provided much larger and fuller pillows by nightfall. The room also had a large couch easily seating three, a table and a chair besides the built in desk. Cabin outlets are located at the desk. There are two side by side. Numerous lamps and ceiling lighting are more than adequate. The wall and nightstand lights all have switches that are also dimmers, a nice touch as they can readily serve as night lights depending on your need and preference. There is a cabinet of shelves which also houses the safe. You program in a number to lock and to open. You program the number each time you lock the safe. The bathroom is ship size but contains a bathtub in this category. Water pressure is superior and we had no complaints regarding the bathroom facility. Cabin has two TVs which abut each other but face opposite directions facilitating watching from bed or couch.

Balcony was more than adequate size wise and contained two junky plastic chairs and a plastic table. No matter since we found the balcony useless at least three quarters of the time due to wind. In the few reviews I read prior to sailing the lack of privacy was noted and is indeed a key point on this ship for many who love balconies. This because the balconies are tiered, each deck jutting out from the one above. The privacy issue doesnít concern me but what I found, perhaps because Dolphin Deck balconies jut out enough to be in the air stream of the ship, the balcony was most often just too windy to even want to step out on when moving. Having sailed many ships with balconies this is the first time I have ever encountered that situation. Sailing 21 knots on Legend and Dawn in Atlantic seas never presented such a problem, nor on any ship sailed in Caribbean. So I presume that the way the deck just out makes it vulnerable to the strong wind when sailing at speed or with certain wind direction. Most evenings stepping out on the balcony was similar to popping your head out the sunroof of your car while on the highway.

Another problem was the balcony furniture and deck was wet everyday. The why I am not sure, whether wind all night sent water spray close enough to mount up or whether early cleaning upstairs resulted in our balcony being drenched. There was one morning I was standing on the balcony when I suddenly got splashed with some water. Since the sun was shining I was startled, looking up found that the cabin steward upstairs was throwing cupfuls of water on outside balcony glass to clean same. Perhaps I solved our soaked balcony mystery?

Would I personally get a balcony on this ship again? Yes simply because I am smoker and do so out on the balcony in deference to my wife who is not. I also enjoyed the balcony while going through the locks. Finally I always feel that a cabin is roomier if you have access to the immediate outside. However if you are a person that can take it or leave about balconies I wouldnít bother if the price was substantially more.

Food
Always a personal opinion. So for what it is worth, my opinion. We were traveling with close friends making us a party of six so we choose traditional dining. Our preference is traditional dining normally anyway. We enjoy having the same waiter and dining partners during a cruise, our friends when traveling together, and meeting new friends when itís just us. We were served each evening by our waiter Fabio, and his assistant Niwch (Nick). Both provided excellent service and were instrumental, as good waiters are, in helping make this cruise a great experience.

We requested a mixed cheese plate every evening at the beginning of the meal and this was brought out upon our arrival each evening. We had wine served each evening as well. As many lines have done the waiter and assistant are now also the wine service. Something I had not seen before but expected to see sooner or later, they were also now the bar service as well. This means they handled wine, dinner, drinks, and the bill for the card. In the case of Fabio and Niwch they handled it well enough to pull it off without service being exceptionally hurt. However I would bet that they are the exception rather than the rule.

Food itself was tasty enough and well presented for the most part. The first nights prime rib was an exception, that looked and tasted more like a slice of high school cafeteria beef but other than that I had no complaints about the food. Soups were very good, I eat hot soup my wife always likes to try the chilled soups. They had one called the Pina Colada or something similar. It was even served in a pina colada style cocktail glass with umbrella and all. A pina colada without ice or booze to me. Iíll stick to hot myself.

One thing I like is that they also have some items that are available every night such as a steak, fries, baked potato, Caesar salad, or shrimp cocktail. That is a nice alternative when the menu is just not to your liking or some item is not. Several nights the appetizer selections didnít appeal to me and it was nice just to be able to order a shrimp cocktail instead.

The buffet areas and food were more than satisfactory. Plenty of seating in immediate areas as well. Nice salad bars, a cutting board with something different everyday and a nice variety of hot and cold foods. Desserts were generally small squares of some sort of cake, fruits tarts, fresh fruit and such. Nothing overly to die for in my opinion. One nice touch was a hot dessert, apple betty, rice pudding, or something along that line everyday.

A highlight in buffet eating for me was the GRILL and the PIZZA areas poolside. The grill featured great burgers, hotdogs and grilled chicken one flight up from poolside with outside tables and the grill bar. Pizza, located just outside the buffet area poolside was best I have ever had on a ship, just the way I love it. Plenty of real cheese and the thinnest crispest crust I have seen anywhere. Various toppings and styles made daily. Being a New Yorker it is work for you to get me to compliment something other than NY pizza. This was gooooood!

Room Service/Coffee hit/Cigar hideaway
You can call room service or place the order sheet on the doorknob. We used both methods and for the first time anywhere, including land based room service, there was never a mistake on our order. Everything ordered was there, arrived on time promptly, and was delivered with a smile and a pleasant greeting. Each time the server noted that everything was there.

Coffee, for ship coffee, was pretty good. Good enough that I could wait for a couple of hours to stop by Patisserie lounge in the main lobby area for a shot of double espresso ($2.50) jolt to keep the ticker going. A nice lounge to watch the world go by for a while, downside for a smoker like me, a coffee bar/lounge without a smoking area in it or nearby. One deck up though is a small very comfortable enclosed area called Churchill Lounge. This is the cigar/bar area with leather seats and a nice view of ocean off the promenade deck. There is not actually a bar in there but one located nearby and the servers pay attention for those entering Churchillís and show up quickly to offer a cognac or whatever you desire with your cigar. Spent some time there throughout the trip as one of my traveling companions is a noted cigar expert and is kind enough to share his stash of Cubans with me. What a guy!

Entertainment
As usual we seldom went to the sing and dance shows. They also had some comedians on board, we attended two of those shows. One was fairly decent, the other a ventriloquist that has appeared on TV and such through the years, well we were almost embarrassed for him. Started his act with old footage of him appearing on Carson, with Whoopi, etc. Well that was obviously back in the day as they say. Material bad, timing worse, and often hesitated like he forgot what he was doing. Many got up and left.

They also show movies in the Princess theatre each day and I enjoyed watching a couple in there. I like being able to go to an actual theatre during a sea day, much nicer than sitting in a cabin and watching it on TV although they were also shown there.

They also have enrichment type activity, they offered pottery class and computers classes. I know they charged for computers classes and I presume they also charged for pottery. Computer classes were 1 hour classes on using various programs like Power Point or Word and were in area of $20 a class. I didnít attend any of the sessions both because the offerings were more a basic level and also I figured if they couldnít run there own computer operation they had no business charging to teach anyone anything. 

Before I start up on their internet system Iíll point out that shows are shown both in Princess theatre and in the universe show lounge. While both are comfortable the show lounge has horrible line of sight problems, big columns and such. I would get there early to find a good seat to see the stage from.

Several lounges had entertainment at night and games in day. Overall I think there was plenty to do for those that wanted to remain busy. For those that just wanted to relax and read by pool or get some sun there was no problem. The Coral Princess has two pools, one ADULT only with a retractable roof. This is also where they ice cream bar is located ( extra charge ). The roof remained closed for the trip which made the area somewhat stuffy and sunless. When asked they said that they open the roof in port, however, they did not. The other mid-ship pool has plenty of seating, lounge chairs and table and chairs.

This ship also has a very nice Promenade deck, which is nice since so many new ships have eliminated having an expansive Promenade area. There were also numerous lounge chairs on the Promenade making for a great area to sit and read away from pool activities and the hustle and bustle of open deck.

Internet
Well just canít say enough bad things about their internet cafť or wireless system, pure frustration. You would think that a ship that is only something like two years old would have a large internet system built into it. Actually the internet cafe is contains only about 10 terminals broken into two sections. Several of the stations were prominently marked out of service and those that were not I saw several people have a problem getting them to accept their room cards for payment. When and if you did get on they were slower than anything I have seen since 2600bd dialup and Commodore 64ís. If you ask they would claim that the satellite must be in a bad location. YEAH RIGHT! I have used internet services on several ships in past two years all worked reasonably well. Either their equipment is really bad or their computer people are bad. I know not which. Since everything onboard and their precious onboard revenue stream all are computer regulated (and apparently worked well, they didnít have any problem getting any of my charges on the bill fast) it would be expected that their computer people are of high caliber. That leaves either they just donít care or are so network point of sale oriented that they no little about other areas.

WIRELESS was worse!!! Their system was not only slow but it was their own machine that was slow to let you establish a connection. Meaning that long before you were trying to connect to internet you have to connect to your account on their machine. That took forever. Then instead of like on most ships being able to buy a decent BLOCK of time you could only purchase blocks of 30 minutes. To do that you had to go to the Pursers Desk and get a paper card with two ID numbers and enter them into the computer. Then you had to get another one and add that time again to the computer. I didnít even get connected during the first 30 minutes when my time EXPIRED. To their credit I was given another 30 minutes no charge. They give you three pages of instructions just on how to add time to your account, geez, join the new tech age.

If that wasnít all bad enough the signal cannot be received in the internet lounge, only directly under it in the lobby and Pasterrera lounge area and then signal is often weak or merely good. This also means no plug in station so you must operate on battery. That would be okay if system wasnít slower than molasses I guess. Going to download my mail which would take about 30 seconds at home on DSL, and usually about 1 to 2 minutes on ships I have sailed previously, would take about 11 to 15 minutes. Upload your outgoing, well just go buy another 30 minute card, youíll need it.

There were several laptop users and we often sat around the lobby shaking our heads in frustration waiting a quarter of an hour to download 5 or 6 short text messages. I would hate their system if it was FREE! Funny, while in port I could hit the Carnival ships network and get their account webpage in seconds. Of course without an account was no help. NO the Princess system needs to be entirely redone. Maybe now that Carnival owns them they will eventually put in the same system that they and NCL use which works pretty good. In the meantime donít count on internet ability.

Staff
All staff I had dealing with were great, friendly, helpful, and smiling. No complaints on their staff or crew. Since how happy and helpful staff are is the biggest factor to a good cruise this made for just that a good cruise. The Pursers desk had plenty of staff and all remarkably helpful, something you donít always see on a ship.

NOTE: Although mentioned no where! One morning I went down to lobby looking for a Times Fax to read. Seeing none I inquired with the Pursers desk. No problem, pushed a button and printed me out a 3 page Times Fax. Then asked if I would like one delivered to my cabin each day, no charge. I did of course. Recent ships I have been on did have such service but charged for it. It was nice to see that they do not, but heck, give them time.

Casino
I liked the casino on the Coral Princess, not to big not too small. Lotís of quarter machines, enough dollar machines, a bank of nickel machines, and even a row of machines that you can set for $5 to $ 25 a pull. Caribbean poker a couple of blackjack machines and some poker type game. As far as winners, yes there were some. Watched one guy hit two jackpots on different machines within minutes, each paying over a grand. Canít complain myself either. First night hit a dollar machine for $500, second to last night hit another dollar machine for $1000 so I actually came home a little up about $150 which is unusual for playing at sea.

Ports
Normally I donít do much in ports or comment on it much because I have been to the same Caribbean ports so many times. This time one of the calling cards for taking this cruise was the Panama Canal itinerary.

Limon Ė tours were cancelled as when we got there the weather and waves were not conductive to tendering. The Captain waited awhile and since there was no improvement we headed off back to sea.

The passage through the canal was fabulous. After exiting locks we anchored briefly in Gatun Lake where our group was tendered to shore for the Gatun Locks and Ganges River Rainforest tour (3Ĺ hr). First we taken over the locks and to an area where we got on a small boat and sailed the river. Then returned to the locks where our ship was again passing through. This time we watched from observation area on land. Finally we were transported to a pier about 20 minutes away to await the Coral Princessís arrival. There while we waited in a nice new mall containing shops, dancers, and a straw market. It was a great tour. As our ship sailed in (great photo op) and docked it was greeted by us, the dancers in Panamanian garb, and numerous Panamanian Indians which included topless young ladies and near naked young men. Not something you see everyday when cruising.

We also took the Stingray swimming tour at Grand Cayman. We had done this some years ago and it was great doing it again. We were tendered into GC and then bussed to a pier where we got onboard an open deck boat with Captain Reid and Estoban. It takes about 25 minutes or so to reach the sandbar and we were lucky enough to be the first boat there that day which meant we could anchor in a good spot. You enter the water which on the sand bar is about 3 to 5 feet deep and Captain Reid and Estoban brought out a bucket of squid pieces to attract the stingrays. You can take a piece and the stingrays will glide over your hand in the water and suck it out of your hand. We spent almost an hour on the sandbar then returned onto the boat for the ride back to town. Vests were mandatory but did not have to be inflated. Snorkle gear was available if you wanted it.

In Cozumel we shopped all day.

So we were extremely happy with our cruise and itinerary. We had waited many years to do this particular itinerary and we were not disappointed. 

Disembarkation
Yes every cruise must come to an end, sad but true! Princess handled disembarkation very well. Unlike recent sailings on other lines, Princess did not welcome you to stay in your cabin until called nor did they offer room service on departure day. Both of these recent touches on other lines are greatly welcomed, but not to be on the Coral Princess. However no one pushed for you to be out of the cabin either! We went to the dining room for breakfast, open seating on departure day. Hours were something like 7 to 8:30 am. The buffet area was open as well but we have traditionally gone for breakfast in the dining room on disembark days. A full breakfast of omelet and egg choices etc was offered with one exception. The first time that we have not seen eggs benedict on the morning menu. Since this is also a tradition we were somewhat disappointed but not so much that we were upset or anything over it. We did inquire of the waiter about getting them, he left for the kitchen and then returned with apology that it was not possible. Oh well.

Next we returned to our cabins and awaited our color being called for disembarkation. This appeared to be mainly by deck. We were off the ship in an orderly manner between 9:30 and 10:00 am. Porters were readily available in the baggage area and luggage was easy to find since it was separated by not only color but also number. We were Aqua #2 this made for smaller groupings to sift through. The first time we have seen both color and number used and it works well. All the lines should adopt this method.

Out to the buses area having bought transfers while onboard. A short 10 minute or so ride to FLL airport and that was that.

George in NY


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