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Copyright © 1995-2003 
Linda Coffman

 

Crown Princess
December 10 –20, 2000
The Panama Canal
 

by Linda Coffman

A tight squeeze--Crown Princess at 105' 8" wide enters the Panama Canal

Fall foliage—who would have thought a roundtrip Panama Canal cruise on our Love Boat would begin with flashes of red, gold, and yellow? Northern Florida hardwoods gave way to palm trees as we made our way south. After spending Friday night just north of Jacksonville, we arrived on Saturday afternoon in Fort Lauderdale at the Hyatt Pier 66 to embark the next morning on the Crown Princess. We toasted the early evening departures of the Century and Ryndam from our balcony overlooking Port Everglades before joining friends for dinner at the California Café. Adjacent to Pier 66, it’s one of Fort Lauderdale’s hottest eateries and we thoroughly enjoyed the food and good company. It was particularly festive because our friends were due to sail on the Costa Atlantica the next day.  

Sunday dawned… well, it must have, but it greeted us with intermittent downpours. Not an auspicious beginning. By noon, it was still showering outside but nothing could dampen our spirits as we arrived at the terminal for our first Princess cruise. Amid a tangle of busses and taxis, Mel dropped me off with the luggage and parked in the nearby garage. Making our way inside we found short lines that moved rapidly and within about fifteen minutes we were greeted on board by security, photographed for our boarding passes, and inspected our stateroom. I’d barely unpacked our carry-ons when our cabin steward Wilfredo delivered the first of our two checked suitcases. By the time it was unpacked, the drawers were barely half full. We’ve never had a stateroom with more drawer and storage space. The second suitcase didn’t appear for a few hours and by that time we’d discovered that the supremely comfortable beds had real box springs and mattresses and no room beneath them to store luggage—at least ours didn’t fit.  No problem, though. Wilfredo stored them for the duration of the cruise and they appeared like magic on Day Ten for repacking. 

Outside Double With Private Balcony

Crown Princess was our chosen vessel for several reasons—the itinerary suited us perfectly because we didn’t have time for a complete transit of the Panama Canal (but were dying to experience at least a part of it) and we wanted a round trip from Florida. Plus, we were celebrating our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary and Princess is, after all, the Love Boat. For a special treat, we purchased the Deluxe Renewal of Vows package. In addition, Crown Princess’ sleek silhouette and generous staterooms and amenities intrigued us. The availability of a balcony was a huge plus, although our Fort Lauderdale departure was somewhat soggy. We still enjoyed the residential air horn serenade from a vantage point at the promenade deck rail as the Love Boat theme song was piped over the public address system. Corny though it was, it brought back memories of the television series we enjoyed watching as newlyweds when I dreamed of taking a relaxing and romantic sea cruise. Twenty-five years later, there we were! 

An unexpected treat was the announcement that we would actually be able to depart the ship for tours in Panama—a Princess first. We had pre-arranged our chosen shore excursions and quickly added a Panama tour as we steamed out for a glorious sea day before our first stop—Ocho Rios, Jamaica. Mel travels to Jamaica often on business and I’ve been to Ocho Rios several times so we planned a relaxing day ashore browsing the shops, visiting with the proprietor of Colors, and admiring the beach from a shaded poolside lanai at the Jamaica Grande resort. Maybe it’s just that we’re accustomed to them, but the taxi drivers and vendors seemed more laid back than on previous visits. All in all, we had a nice day ashore and looked forward to another day at sea before four “port” days. 

Whatever you do, don’t forget your binoculars for this itinerary. Landfall in Limon, Costa Rica came early and we were whisked off the ship for a cruise of another sort—through the lush rainforest teeming with wildlife.  Costa Rica is wildly beautiful with an abundance of hibiscus, bamboo orchids, and ginger adding color to the jungle that reaches right to the roads. Oh yes, and bananas—lots of bananas! The 200 inches of rainfall a year nourishes the rainforest as well as the flowers, bananas, coconuts, and papayas. From our riverboat our guide pointed out monkeys, sloths, a crocodile, and dozens of birds. Afterward, we had refreshments and listened to local musicians by the riverside. A mama sloth in a nearby tree watched us as we ohed and ahed over the baby she cradled in her arms until it was time to depart for the land portion of our tour through the countryside and town of Limon. We chose to leave the bus just inside the pier to inspect the craft market. Local artisans offered carved wooden boxes, jewelry, hand painted items, and the inevitable t-shirts. Luckily there was a complimentary shuttle to the ship as it began to rain just as we finished shopping. My umbrella drew envious glances—hey, this is a rainforest, after all.   

Viewing the Panama Canal from the bridge wing

For our entry into the Panama Canal, we awoke early and claimed a spot at the front of “our” deck—a forward facing open area on Baja Deck. Only accessible from the starboard side, its entrance baffled all but the most determined passengers. With coffee mugs, binoculars, and cameras in hand, we were enthralled with the engineering marvel before us. For about 45 minutes we watched our approach and the lock operation to our right as a container ship began her ascent. Then we left for our balcony to get a closer look at the mules. Finally, we hurried to the bridge where we joined Captain Poggi as the Crown Princess entered the first lock until she cleared the final lock in just under an hour. What a fascinating experience! 

Once in Gatun Lake we departed on our sightseeing boat for a leisurely cruise through the rainforest. Unlike in Costa Rica where the monkeys just lazed in the trees, the monkeys in Panama put on a show—leaping and playing in the jungle. Once again our guide was excellent, pointing out wildlife and the variety of plants and trees that make up the rainforest. Then we boarded buses and proceeded to the new viewing area 80 steps above Gatun Locks where we had the unique perspective of seeing our cruise ship descend the locks. Quite a spectacle to see her depart without us! No problem—we met her at Colon 2000 where she docked for the afternoon. Not yet complete, the new pier side marketplace still had plenty of shops (including an Internet Café) and street entertainments for a pleasant afternoon. We walked a couple blocks to the “duty free zone” but found it seedy with unattractive shops. 

Our next port of call was a pleasant surprise. We heard so many horror stories about Cartagena, Colombia being unsafe that we decided a ship’s excursion would be a good bet—and it was, but the sights and shopping were also doable on your own. We were particularly pleased with the tour. Small, uncrowded busses took us to Fort San Filipe, the Dungeons, Pierino Gallo Plaza—a shopping area on Boca Grande that can only be described as “emerald city,” the La Popa monastery, and finally to the Cathedral and Naval Museum in the Old City where we enjoyed refreshments and a show featuring local songs and dances. The narrow streets of the Old City are a charming maze with overhanging balconies ablaze with flowers. We’d consider a stroll through them a must if we ever make another trip to the city. Vendors, vendors, vendors! Anyone who thinks Jamaicans are aggressive has never been to Cartagena. 

Since we were a couple hours late arriving in Cartagena, the sun was setting as we departed to spend two lovely days enjoying our ship at sea. Whoops… check that itinerary. What happened to Aruba? The same strong winds that delayed our arrival in Colombia, in concert with a “technical difficulty,” meant canceling our port call in Aruba. Pretty soon we were hearing that everyone on our vessel took the cruise JUST to visit Aruba! Rumor had it that a petition was circulating to DEMAND that we proceed there immediately. Mutiny on the Crown Princess? The document wasn’t delivered (even though the ship’s photographers were reportedly on call to immortalize its presentation) and life went on as we made our way to our alternative port—Nassau. A lovely elderly woman confided to me that she didn’t really care about Aruba but that her nephew was to meet her at the dock. She worried that he’d be upset when there was no sign of the ship on the appointed day. The Purser assisted her with a complimentary call to her nephew and she merrily made alternative plans to shop in Nassau’s famous Straw Market for “stocking” stuffers. 

Crown Princess slipped into her Nassau berth at Prince George Wharf between Royal Caribbean’s Majesty of the Seas and Carnival’s Fantasy—two “regal” vessels and a “Fun Ship.” Off at the end of the quay, the Big Red Boat II squatted forlorn and forgotten, soon to be joined for the day by the Ocean Breeze. With their dark blue and bright red hulls and classic ocean liner lines, the pair were quite a contrast to our brilliant, shiny white ships. We’ve been to Nassau many times and were pleasantly surprised at its spiffy appearance. Cleaned up considerably in the past decade, it has become a charming port to explore and Princess pulled out all the stops by printing maps and arranging last-minute tours for Crown Princess passengers.

An afternoon of packing precluded our last evening on board and the short hop back to Fort Lauderdale. With a sense of sadness at the end of our voyage, we wrapped up our last-minute details and toasted the beginning of what we hope are many more Love Boat cruises. 

No cruise review would be complete without details about the ship and overall experience. Part Two takes a look at the Crown Princess.

Copyright © 2000 Linda Coffman
Photos--Princess Cruise Line & ©CruiseDiva.com


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