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Coral Princess Cruise Review
Ft. Lauderdale to Los Angeles,
via the Panama Canal
Dec. 9-23, 2008

Coral Princess in Huatulcoby Patrick & Harriette Regan

We are inundated with mailings from the various cruise lines we have sailed on; we belong to the frequent cruisers’ clubs at HAL, RCI, Celebrity, Crystal, and Princess. The Princess Captain’s Circle mailing offered us a 14-day Panama Canal cruise on the Coral Princess for a fare of a bit more one hundred dollars per day, per person, in a balcony cabin.

The rain and dreariness of winter in Vancouver, BC had set in, and we needed a cruise. We wanted sunshine. Seven days is never enough. It takes 3 or 4 days to get into the cruise groove which makes a seven-day cruise way too short.

CRUISE VALUE
We booked immediately. The thing about these offers is that the good ones are snapped up quickly. The cruise fare was $1469.00 per person plus taxes, gov’t fees, insurance and a fuel supplement. We had taken two cruises on the Coral Princess previously, in 2004; we truly enjoyed them. We had cruised the Panama Canal on Vision of the Seas and on the Crystal Harmony, and we wanted to see it again.

We booked Alaska Airlines flights to Miami and back to Vancouver from Los Angeles. We use Alaska Air credit cards for most of our expenses; they offer one air mile for every dollar spent. We also charge our cruises on these cards. Using our mileage, we were able to fly first class to Miami for free plus $37.00 tax. We prefer Alaska Air to Miami because Alaska takes a southern route away from the winter weather problems farther north, and the flight is non-stop.

GETTING THERE
We flew in a Horizon Air shuttle from Vancouver to Seattle. Once at the airport in Seattle, we headed for Anthony’s Sea Food for lunch--a real restaurant in the secured area near the boarding gates. You’re not stuck with fast food at Sea-Tac airport! Shrimp Cobb salads, and chowder in a bowl made of sourdough bread set us up for our cross-country flight. Alaska air served us a nice meal of pork loin and vegetables, and lent us free video players in the first class compartment.

We booked a car service, A2Z-limo.com, on the internet, and we were met by Lewis, our driver, in the baggage area in Miami. Lewis helped us with our luggage and drove us to our hotel in Ft. Lauderdale, about 30 minutes from Miami. We rode in the back seat of the Towncar on a nearly deserted I-95. The late evening was balmy, and such a relief from the winter we had been stuck in a few hours earlier. The fare was $97.00 (including tip), plus parking and a bridge toll. It came to $104.00 for a relaxing ride to Ft. Lauderdale. Much cheaper than a taxi, and so much easier than renting and gassing up a car that has to be returned somewhere before boarding the ship. This driver used his new Garmin GPS to get us to our destination; this was so intriguing, we bought one when we got home.

FORT LAUDERDALE/PORT EVERGLADES
We booked a hotel through Priceline. We got a rate of $71.00 plus $16.00 in tax/service fees. The hotel was the Hyatt Place, Ft. Lauderdale/Airport North. The Hyatt Place is fairly new and had a beautiful 42-inch flat screen TV with some actual hi-def channels, but one thing made the hotel very uncomfortable. The bed was 12 inches away from a large wall-mounted air conditioning/ heating unit.

We needed this air conditioner to keep us cool enough to sleep. The windows in the room didn’t open, and the Florida humidity was uncomfortable, even at midnight. When you are lying in bed the A/C unit is nearly level with the bed making it very noisy. We’ve seen these units countless times in our travels, but never literally next to where we laid our heads. This was the only Hyatt we have ever stayed where the A/C wasn’t ducted. This type of window box A/C was what you see in a Motel 6, not a Hyatt branded hotel.

There was a free hotel shuttle available to Port Everglades the next day. It was a people-mover type of vehicle with every seat filling quickly with cruisers. We don’t like to be jammed in, so we grabbed a cab. The fare was surprisingly only ten dollars to nearby Port Everglades.

Check-in was easy. We went directly to the Platinum/Elite cruisers’ line. We had done our check-in at Princess online, and so we had preprinted our boarding pass. We handed the pass and our credit card to the clerk, and received our cruise cards. We proceeded to the boarding area for the obligatory photo op and boarded the ship. No champagne or even cranberry juice was offered as we boarded, as there is on Celebrity.

CABIN
Our balcony cabin on Baja Deck (deck 11) aft was nicely laid out, with plenty of storage/closet space, and room under the bed for our two hold bags and our two carry-on bags. We bring a couple over-the-door portable hooks to hang some stuff on in case the cabin’s hooks are scarce. On this cruise we needed our hooks, on Celebrity in M Class cabins we did not. The bathroom is adequate comfort-wise, but there is not much storage or counter space. There is a hook for robes on the back of the bathroom door, though, most helpful.

Our balcony has a big sliding door with a secure latch, a couple of chairs and a small table. It is not visible from the deck above. That makes the balconies here on deck 11 a bit more private than the ones on the decks below. There is a stairstep effect in the placement of the balconies and as the decks get lower, the balconies are uncovered and out in the open--something akin to amphitheater seating in a stadium.

We met Dennis, our cabin steward, and asked him to remove the bedspread and take it away. We know it’s not cost effective for cruise lines or hotels to launder bedspreads often, so we choose not to use them. This way we can relax on the bed without having to pull the spread out of the way. Howie Mandel has a routine about hotel bedspreads when he does stand up comedy. It involves using a black light. ‘Nuff said. We miss the stainless steel water carafe that Celebrity provides and that their stewards fill twice a day, but the desalinated water from our tap tastes fresh.

TV
The TV is an old-fashioned non stereo TV with no DVD player. This is our 3rd cruise this year, and the first one without a DVD player and a flatscreen TV in our balcony cabin. We found that the DVD players on the Coral Princess were available only for suite passengers. Considering that up-convert DVD players are forty dollars retail, we think they should be in all cabins on the Coral Princess. We can’t play our Nintendo Wii or view our videos on this cruise.

We thank our steward, Dennis, for keeping our cabin spotless and quickly adapting to our schedule. We hardly ever saw him, but the cabin was maintained perfectly. We rewarded him with an early tip for his excellent service (in addition to the tipping that was automatically added to our shipboard account).

BAJA DECK LOUNGING AREA
Outside on the deck at the end of the hallway near our cabin, there is a small, little-used lounging area with about a dozen chaises overlooking the ship’s wake. It’s great to stretch out there to read and sunbathe in a quiet place.

THE FREE COFFEE
in the Bordeaux dining room, the buffet, and room service is not very warm or very good. Royal Caribbean served us Seattle’s Best Coffee on our last cruise with them, and it was delicious and free everywhere on the ship. We’ll have to buy the designer coffee card on this cruise. At the alternative, extra-charge Bayou Cafe and Sabatini’s restaurants, there are free lattes, cappuccinos etc.

COFFEE CARD/SODA CARD
We bought designer coffee and soda cards. The soda card was about four dollars a day for unlimited sodas from the soda machine, not the can. The coffee card was good for 24 drinks of latte, cappuccino, etc. One big benefit was that you could get fresh brewed regular coffee at the Patisserie for free with the coffee card. We were ably served designer coffees by Jonard and Leandro at this lovely pastry and coffee bar in the atrium area.

HAND SANITIZER
is everywhere on the ship now. We use it regularly as well as washing our hands. Most shipboard problems such as Noro Virus are caused by germ-laden unwashed or unsanitized hands.

BOURDEAUX DINING ROOM
We opted for ‘anytime dining’. We had an 830PM reservation each day, and we always had the same waiter and assistant, Antonio from Mexico and Jesda from Thailand. They were a great team; very helpful and service-oriented. We also thank headwaiters Paolo, Rocio and Jorge for their fine service. The service in this dining room is excellent.

The food is another story. Food on the Coral Princess has slipped a great deal since our last cruise on her in May 2004. The Coq Au Vin and the Beef Pot Pie have similar-looking brown chunks; the soups have a floury taste and sometimes undercooked, whitish bacon is to be found in soups and sandwiches. The various sauces seem weak, with no discernible flavor. The small lobster tail served with shrimp or monkfish is very soft and not very appetizing. The best dessert seems to be the always-available New York cheesecake, or ice cream with a topping.

The pastries and pies aren’t up to the standards of other cruise lines in this price range, either. The croissants are more like dinner rolls; a lack of egg wash means no buttery crunch. There were some strange menu offerings too; chicken liver empanadas and mango strudel come to mind. Breakfasts in the Bourdeaux were not that good either. Why is it so hard for them to cook eggs over easy? The sauce on the overcooked, hard Eggs Benedict seems more like generic white sauce rather than the requisite Hollandaise sauce.

Entree’s and appetizers are usually presented garnished. Some of the time the garnish was wilted or black around the edges. Tired garnish makes for an unappealing meal. Pasta arrives in a weak Alfredo sauce with a bit of dryness, or with a Bolognese sauce that is bitter, almost curry-like, with little tomato flavor. Chicken carbonara, instead of one with pancetta or ham, is served with the weak white sauce that is used for many dishes here.

We were never excited about going to dinner. Celebrity, Royal Caribbean and Holland America have much better cuisine.

HORIZON COURT BUFFET
Much like food from a shopping mall level buffet. The layout of the buffet has improved since our previous Coral Princess cruise, though, with stations now instead of one big line. Unfortunately, there are still no trays, just huge platters that a lot of cruisers tend to overload. There is a lot of wasted food left on these platters. Having no tray also makes carrying a second item to the table difficult.

This buffet is comparable to Las Vegas buffets at the Excalibur or Circus Circus level, instead of the Caesar’s or Rio level. There are many different foods available served at the various food stations, so it is easy to go directly to the kind of food you want rather than snaking through a long line. They do a good job of quickly bussing and cleaning the tables as soon as diners leave. The service is good, with servers coming by and offering beverages at your table. The buffet is open 24/7. There is free ice cream there for a couple of hours in the mid afternoon; the rest of the time there is an ice cream sundae bar you have to pay for.

PRINCESS PIZZA & THE GRILL
The pizza is pretty good, available all afternoon, and the grill has burgers, hot dogs and brats from lunchtime until 7PM.

ROOM SERVICE
There is a decent menu selection and service is available 24/7. There is also a daily continental breakfast order card you can hang on the cabin door handle, and the food will be delivered at a time of your choosing. We enjoy starting the day with a room service Continental breakfast on our balcony.

ALTERNATIVE DINING
The Bayou cafe charge is $15.00 per person, and worth every penny. Cajun delights such as Mudbug soup, sausage grillade with buttery, cheesy grits, Southern greens, corn bread, tasty muffins and various beef and seafood dishes such as filet trinity or blackened chicken brochette. The banana whiskey pound cake is delicious. The food is very good in this Bayou Cafe.

Sabatini’s is the Italian alternative restaurant. The pasta is much better than that served in the dining room, and there is a tasting or grazing menu where you are given small tastes of 15 or 16 appetizers including a mouthwatering prosciutto, and thin crust pizza, before your entree is served. Nicely served and presented for $20.00 per person. Allow at least 2 hours to complete this lovely meal.

We went to the Bayou cafe twice and Sabatini’s once. The food, desserts and service are very good in these venues, and the designer coffee is free.

AFTERNOON TEA
Served daily, even on port days. Scones with cream, finger sandwiches, and mini sweets in the British tradition. We find that afternoon tea gives us enough of a snack to hold us until our late dinner.

THE SHIP
This is a very clean ship, not just picked up. Things are being cleaned constantly. The ship sparkles everywhere but in the gym.

PROMENADE DECK
There is a teakwood promenade deck that wraps around the length and breadth of the Coral Princess that is great for getting enough walking exercise. Chaises are plentiful and this deck is a good place to relax away from the noisy pool area.

THE ATRIUM
is at the center of the ship. There are glass elevators that operate between decks 5 to 8, which is the height of the atrium. Among the public rooms that open on to the atrium are the Passenger Services desk, Crooners’ lounge, The Wheelhouse Bar, the dining rooms, the library, the internet area and the Patisserie.

INTERNET SERVICE
Internet packages are available for use on the ship’s computers or on your own laptop. We each received 250 free minutes ($100.00 package) for our Platinum level of Captain’s Circle membership. The number of free minutes is based on the 14-day length of this cruise, and the charge per minute for laptop use is lower on this ship than it is on some other cruise lines. This is the highest speed internet we’ve ever been able to use aboard ship. The Wi-Fi signal works anywhere in the atrium and the public rooms that open to it. You can’t receive the signal in your cabin.

A word to the wise: if you are using your own laptop you must quit the internet by carefully following the ship’s instructions for logging out. Quitting your internet browser does not stop the minutes from being charged to you. When you log out properly a screen comes up telling you that you are logged off the Princess internet service, and you are told how many minutes you have left in your internet package.

SHOWS & ENTERTAINMENT
There were 5 production shows in the Princess Theater and the Universe Lounge. The usual cruise ship type of offerings including TV and Broadway star, Adrian Zmed, in concert, the newest production show in the Princess fleet. The sightlines are poor in many places in the beautifully done Universe Lounge, so get your seats downstairs in the center section early. If you end up on the side of the Universe Lounge or the balcony there are few seats with clear sightlines. The Coral Princess Orchestra under the direction of Franz Mehrfert was great in the production shows and even better when playing for dancing. A gold star to this group.

Crooners’ Lounge is a piano bar type of venue, a great place to relax. Jazz was playing every night in the Bayou Cafe. There was also comedy and classical entertainment, and a combo playing in the lounges for dancing.

CRUISE DIRECTOR
Ron Goodman is the cruise director. He seems an affable sort, but his staff are all go-go types who like to yell into the microphone during most cruise-staffed events. A prerequisite for cruise staff should be good microphone technique, one would think; this is entertainment after all, and the staff is like the ‘warmup guy’ at a live comedy television show taping. It is nice when they engage the audience without themselves yelling, and this is something the department head (Cruise Director, in this case) should be monitoring. Cruise Director Goodman MC’s the bigger shows and events and has an informative daily TV show spotlighting what’s happening that day on the ship. He’s what we would call an ‘executive’ cruise director. We like to see the cruise director about the ship more, and want him to be a bit more responsible for the microphone volume of the staffed events, especially the ones that take place in the pool area.

In the pool area, the volume of the combo playing was near painful. Some of the time they were so loud that we saw sunbathers leave the area. It seemed that the band was playing more for the cruise staff, pool attendants and waiters dancing and reacting to the music. The band’s female lead singer would literally scream into the mic, and the crew would move to the music as some passengers quickly exited the area. The pools would be emptying, and the band would crank it up another notch! We feel that the cruise director should have been aware of the volume in the pool area. The good news was that there was sometimes a one-man steel drum band who played in the pool area in a very mellow manner, making it easy to relax there. A cruise, to us, is about unwinding and relaxing, not cranking up the volume in the pool area on a daily basis. Don’t get us wrong, we like to hear a band rocking in a pool area sometimes, but the music doesn’t have to be played at the volume of a Rave.

THE HOTEL DIRECTOR
was never seen anywhere by us. We’re used to Hotel Directors doing some management by walking around the ship. On our previous voyage on the Coral in 2004, hotel director David Stephenson was often seen out and about the ship, checking on various things. It was a quieter, mellower cruise than this one.

LOUDSPEAKER ANNOUNCEMENTS
Lots of loud announcements on a daily basis. They were constantly pushing the art auctions and the bingo among other things. Not very cruisey. On our last Coral Princess cruise there was an almost total lack of announcements, courtesy of now-retired cruise director Brian Price.

PRINCESS PATTER
is the ship’s daily newspaper. It’s poorly organized and doesn’t have a daily list of the hours of the dining and snacking venues, or the themes of buffet or dining room meals. You have to remember to carry a separate card that is buried in the big blue binder in every cabin. The Princess Patter is mostly full of ads wrapped around the day’s entertainment and port info. It’s easy to miss something trying to use this paper. Celebrity and Holland American cruises have superior daily papers, with all the info clearly laid out.

FEELING LIKE AN OWNER
We choose late dining because we like to stroll around the ship or use the Promenade Deck or the pools and hot tubs etc. during the off hours--when most of the passengers are readying themselves for dinner, or are off the ship or at a special event. These facilities are nearly deserted at these times. It makes us feel like the owners of a huge, quiet yacht.

GYM & SPA
The gym is all the way forward on deck 14. Nicely equipped. Beautiful views from the top of the ship. But there are too many TV’s with the sound on in the gym. Passengers and crew play the TVs loudly on different channels in an ear-numbing cacophony of sound. Wearing an iPod (with headphones, not earbuds) doesn’t help; the TV sound bleeds through. Celebrity and Crystal have muted TV’s in their gyms with captions like most gyms anywhere do.

THE LIBRARY
is a lovely place with big picture windows, with the water flowing by below. There are big, comfortable easy chairs. There is a selection of popular books and a smattering of non fiction, much like what you would find at an airport bookstore. The libraries on Holland America and Celebrity are far superior. The library is staffed with members of the cruise/entertainment departments, not librarians, and the hours that books can be checked out are very short on this cruise.

TIPPING
The added charge for tipping on this cruise was $10.50 per day per person added to your shipboard account, covering dining room and cabin steward tips. With the advent of this daily charge policy, passengers seem to believe no one else needs to be tipped. Not so. We bring a hundred dollars worth of US one dollar bills and reward those who remember preferences and serve us well. Bar waiters get an automatic 15% added to the drink charge, but if you purchase a soda card then no tip is added when they bring you a coke or a soda, so we give them a dollar. When we order room service, we give the waiter who brings the food to our cabin a buck or two depending on the size of the order. Your room service wait times improve if you start tipping the servers. We also like to give something extra when we are well taken care of by the dining room waiters or our cabin steward. The crew who serves us works hard, and giving a bit extra seems the right thing to do.

TIRED CREW
We feel badly for the non-sailing crew. We know they are making good money compared to salaries where they live in the world, but we see their tiredness, especially on a 14-day cruise. We would gladly make our bed one day a week and also eat all our meals in the buffet one day a week if they could close the dining room that day, but we sense that’s never going to happen. We hope that the cruise lines figure out a way to give the hard-working hotel and dining crews a day off at least once a month. The navigation/sailing crew doesn’t have this problem, because they are protected by regulation.

THE PORTS
This is our third Panama Canal cruise. On previous cruises we stopped at Cozumel, Mexico and then went on to Puerto Limon, Costa Rica. On the Coral Princess we went to Aruba, which meant 2 sea days before our first port day. We certainly appreciate sea days, but at the start of a cruise we are more excited about getting somewhere!

ARUBA
We weren’t off the ship until after 8AM, and we had to be back on the ship at 1130AM. A long way to sail to get so little time ashore.

CARTAGENA
The day after Aruba, and again too short a stay, not enough time to see the city. We weren’t able get off the ship until nearly 10AM and had to be back at 2PM. We’re still wondering why, in these times of expensive fuel and surcharges, a ship would take the long way to the Panama Canal, giving the passengers so little time in the ports. Sailing from Florida going to Aruba and Cartagena is like sailing the two long sides of a triangular course instead of the hypotenuse of the triangle, sailing to Cozumel and Puerto Limon. The only thing we could think of is that fuel must be so cheap in Aruba, which has some of the biggest refinery facilities in North America, that the savings make the longer trip worth while.

PANAMA CANAL
A modern wonder of the world. This was the most informational day on the cruise. The canal experts boarded the ship, and their talks were on the ship’s TV channel too so you could be on your balcony and hear the experts talk at a comfortable sound level.

PUNTA ARENAS, COSTA RICA
We arrived early in the morning and had all day here, the first port day of a decent length. Nice town. We had a snack and took pictures and then went to a supermarket for some supplies. A pleasant day.

SAN JUAN DEL SUR, NICARAGUA
We had to tender here. The water was a bit rough, and the wind was blowing but the sun was shining brightly. There is good surfing here, and the place hasn’t been developed much. A funky place, a bit downtrodden. There was a makeshift craft and souvenir bazaar where we got off the ship, and pedicab drivers to take you to town for ten dollars US, round trip. There were surfboard stores and language schools and a few cafes. Not our idea of a cruise port.

PUERTO QUETZAL, GUATEMALA
We docked early at what looked like a very new dock, big enough for cruise ships. There was a visitors’ information center in a huge palapa with a marimba band playing softly. The visitors’ center was staffed by knowledgeable locals who spoke English. You could also buy postage stamps or get a Guatemala stamp on your passport. Outside were craft venues selling high-quality goods and handcrafts and bottled water at reasonable prices. There were cabs available to take cruisers to town for a reasonable price.

A hundred yards away off to the side of the craft venues was a delicious outdoor cafe shaded by a large palapa roof. There were tables in the sand, and menu offerings with reasonable prices, homemade tortillas, guacamole, simple tacos and seafood and best of all cheap local and Mexican beers. To top it off there was free Wi Fi! We went back to the ship and got our laptops and spent a few pleasant hours here. Sadly, as this is written we have forgotten the name of this great cafe, but it’s the only one there next to the center. We want to come back to Puerto Quetzal.

HUATULCO, MEXICO
We docked in a lovely bay. There were stores and restaurants and crafts aplenty. Everything new and clean. Harriette found a beautiful opal pendant for a very reasonable price, and we had a delicious lunch at a beachside restaurant that specialized in seafood. There were tables available in sun or shade. We chose shade and had a tasty lunch. The Mexican food here is very, very good and the prices are very reasonable. The Coral Princess was docked at the edge of this beach area a hundred yards away, giving us a great photo opportunity. The day here was short again; we didn’t arrive at the dock and tie up until 11:35am and had to be back on the ship by 4pm. We didn’t sail on time and were just leaving when we watched the huge red sun drop below the horizon. Sights like this are what cruising is all about.

SUMMING UP
In retrospect this was the poorest itinerary we’ve had on a Panama Canal cruise. Going the long way to the Canal caused the port stays to be unbearably short. Huatulco was our final stop in Mexico, too. No Cabo San Lucas or Puerto Vallarta, as we had on our previous canal cruises. Coupling that with the truly mediocre food quality and saucing means we are going to rethink whether we will cruise with Princess again. There were 2 sea days after leaving Huatulco, with an arrival in LA on the 3rd day, the 23rd of December--which we discovered is a very busy day at Los Angeles International Airport.

We want better quality food and ingredients, and fewer exotic menu choices in place of classic recipes. On a long cruise like this one, we would be perfectly happy with the exact same food choices in the second week as in the first; after all, during the first week we would find out what we enjoyed. Repetition of the week’s menu could eliminate the need to constantly create change for its own sake.

We do not need big production shows; just a band, a jazz and piano trio, comedy, and magic.

More TV offerings, please! Flatscreen TVs to be sure, but with upconvert DVD players as well, and accessible jacks.

And please, more time in the ports; we like to explore a little! Short port time was the biggest disappointment on this cruise.

We’re a couple of cruises away from the extra amenities of the top tier of the Princess Captain’s Circle (Elite level), but for now we are turning away from Princess and going to cruise the Inside Passage to Alaska, round trip from Vancouver BC, on the Carnival Spirit, on May 6th, 2009. We’ve never cruised Carnival before; it will be interesting to compare a Carnival Alaska cruise with the other 8 Alaska cruises we have taken in the past 7 years on Celebrity, Holland America and Princess.

Photo of Coral Princess in Huatulco Courtesy of Patrick & Harriette Regan


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