Number of Cruises: 5
Cruise Line: Princess
Ship: Sea Princess
Sailing Date: April 14th, 2001
Itinerary: Panama Canal
The ship and our room
The ship is wonderful! As beautiful and lovely as it was in 1999. Captain David Christie is still in command of the ship and I have little doubt that the cleanliness of the ship and the attitude of the crew are a direct reflection of his leadership. The Sea Princess is about as close to spotless as any ship which is 3 years old transporting 2,000 passengers every week of the year can be. There is an ambience of comfort, class and reflection throughout the ship. The ship is incredibly well designed. There are very, very few moments during the cruise when you have any sense that there are approximately 2,000 other passengers sharing the experience with you. The dining rooms are designed with dividers and level changes mixing tables of different sizes to create a feeling of intimacy even though there are about 500 other diners present. We were on the Caribe deck, Cabin C606 which is a balcony room. The room is small but, considering the amount of time you spend in your room, more than adequate. The room can be made up into a Queen bed or twin beds. The beds are very comfortable. After storing 18 days of clothing from our Alaska trip in an identical room we knew we wouldn’t have any storage problems. The suitcases fit under the bed and there is ample closet and drawer space for clothing. Each room has a television with a decent variety of programming including recurring programs on the ports, shopping and excursions. There is a safe in the closet, a mini-refrigerator, desk and hair dryer. Be forewarned, for some reason there is no standard outlet in the bathroom. The standard outlets are located in the room. The ship is 857 feet long. After looking at the hallway outside of your room and realizing how many times you are going to walk that hallway it is advantageous to spend some time considering your room location before booking your cruise. There is a laundry room on each floor. These get plenty of use. Make sure you do not book a room across the hall from the laundry room. Each laundry room has two washers, two dryers, an ironing board and an iron. They are so busy that you also cannot get the use of a laundry room until midnight! Nothing like a late night pizza while doing laundry.
We were satisfied with the food on our cruise to Alaska. The food on that cruise was so much better than the food we had on Royal Caribbean’s Monarch of the Seas. We were pleasantly surprised to find that the food had markedly improved from our Alaska cruise. There is little doubt that this improvement is the result of naming Michael Borns, Executive Chef of the ship. There was an excellent variety on the menu every night and all of it was very well prepared. The improvement in the food extended to breakfast and lunch in the dining room. There are only so many things you can do for breakfast but each day the kitchen staff was able to come up with something new and interesting on the breakfast menu. The menu for lunch included fuller meals that would be considered dinner as well as contemporary lunch items. Again, the variety was excellent and the food was well prepared. To be honest the service at breakfast and lunch was not the same quality as the dinner service. The Horizon Court is a buffet which is virtually open around the clock. It was okay but we didn’t think it was anything special. We only ate in the Horizon Court when scheduling required it. The Riviera Grill is located outside above the main pool. It served grilled items hamburgers, hot dogs, bratwurst etc. We only ate there once and it was fine. The Riviera Grill closes at 5:00 p.m. so that it can be transformed into the Sterling Steakhouse. I have a philosophical problem with the idea of paying for a dinner that should be included in the price of the cruise. Nevertheless, we anted up the $8.00 apiece to eat at the steakhouse one evening. The steaks were wonderful and as good as the steaks offered at top steak restaurants. It was also pleasantly refreshing to eat outside. The problem is that the service was lousy! I don’t care how good the steaks are, why should I pay $8.00 for lousy service when there is an excellent meal with fantastic service waiting for me in the dining room? Lago’s Pizzeria serves a very nice pizza. I have to wonder why they don’t have a standard Italian sausage pizza. There are signs on the table saying that take outs are not allowed (I have no idea why they have such a stupid rule) but there was no problem in telling them you wanted a pizza to take somewhere else. This is exactly what we did when we couldn’t get into the laundry room until midnight.
Fantastic is the only way I can describe the overall service. Tony was our room steward and he was efficient, friendly and terribly helpful. Andre was our waiter assisted by Szylvester, the assistant waiter. They were superlative. When anyone at the table was interested in a menu item it appeared on the table. Andre made sure that everyone had all of the lobster tails and crab legs that they wanted. They exhibited a sense of humor and, as is always the case, made the cruise something very special. I must mention our dinner companions: Gil & Sheryl and Kate & Pauline. They were absolutely wonderful! We wound up touring Cartagena and Acapulco with Gil & Sheryl. Each of them were very helpful later in the cruise when my wife had her problem. The casino personnel were also friendly and helpful. We made several excellent friends over the course of the cruise. Bibi, who worked the casino and each bingo session, was an absolute sweetheart. We still correspond with her. Often overlooked are the personnel working the Purser’s Desk. These people were always friendly and helpful. There was one sore head we encountered. More on him later.
Princess changed the process for booking excursions in 1999. About six weeks before the cruise, Princess sends a list of all available excursions. You can book your excursions at that time (by mail, facsimile or over the internet). We booked our excursions on the Princess home page and our excursion tickets were included with our cruise tickets which arrived about two weeks prior to the cruise. Many cruisers talk about booking excursions independently. We explored the possibility of doing independent excursions in Alaska and decided to stick with Princess. On this cruise we again considered touring independently and tried it at two ports with excellent results. If you are considering a tour of a town or a tourist site that carries no risk and can be easily reached by taxi, you may want to consider touring independently. Alternatively, if the tour is unusual or runs the risk of delay or physical injury, you should consider booking with Princess. If something goes wrong, and you are on a Princess excursion, Princess will work it out. If you are on an independent tour and something goes wrong you are on your own. However, when the risk is minimal or non-existent, the Princess excursion will cost you more; it will be less personal; and, the delays will be exasperating. We learned that when the situation is right we can see more of what we want to see in less time with a lot less aggravation at a much better price by touring independently. If you cannot decide whether to book a Princess excursion or to tour independently, you can book the Princess excursion and cancel onboard if you choose to tour independently. If cancelled in time there is no penalty. We wound up canceling our Acapulco excursion when we had an enjoyable time touring independently in Cartagena.
Billy Hygate was the Cruise Director. He was efficient and entertaining. His jokes were either extremely lame or quite dated but could he sing! I wondered why he even bothered with the jokes when he had a voice that was professional in quality. The entertainment is constantly changing so I am not going to identify the shows that were offered. Overall we thought the entertainment was great. Some nights were better than others but that is to be expected. The Sea Princess has two entertainment areas with the Princess Theater being the formal theater and the Vista Lounge being a more casual multi-purpose facility. There were two shows each night to accommodate both dinner seatings. Many of the shows were repeated so that you could see all of the shows. By scheduling in this manner there was less pressure to see a particular show at a specific time yet there was a constant rotation so you had a different show to attend each night. By scheduling this way there was always a seat available.
After leaving Ft. Lauderdale we spent a day sailing to Jamaica. I had intended on spending a lot of time reading during our days at sea. As it turned out, there was so much to do that often the day passed before I realized it. I did do a little reading but a lot less than I had intended. Each day at sea there were two sessions of bingo. The basic pack of cards ran $20 per session. The sessions get more and more crowded as the cruise goes on because of a roll-over on the last bingo game. The prize reached $4400 before someone won it. By the last session it was practically standing room only! The hype concerning the art auctions was greatly reduced from the prior cruise. It is troubling to have the millions of dollars of art which decorates the ship hidden behind the art items available at the art auctions. These pieces do not even compare to those pieces decorating the ship yet they constantly were covering up the “good stuff”.
Ocho Rios, Jamaica
It has been more than 10 years since I last visited Ocho Rios. My visit was a stop on a Caribbean cruise. I was pleased to see that several things had changed at the port. There is a new pier but we docked at the old phosphate dock. The last time I was there, the police/military were inside the fence with AK-47s. Outside of the fence, it looked like the entire island had come to greet the ship. There were hundreds of people hanging on the fence and calling out to the passengers. Cabs clogged the road at the port. All of that is gone. Thank goodness! The tour vehicles are inside the fence. Awnings have been constructed to cover the lines waiting for the tours. There are still taxis available but not in the numbers or in the disorganized fashion that previously had existed. We booked the tour of the Prospect Plantation and Dunn’s River Falls. The plantation tour is an informative and entertaining tour of what had previously been an operating plantation. It is now run by a trust and has a school for boys on the property. The students serve as tour guides and do a very good job. We were unaware of the fact that the Monday following Easter is a holiday in much of the world including Jamaica. It appeared that every Jamaican on that side of the island decided to spend the holiday at Dunn’s River Falls! The experience was further lessened by having to wait on the bus for 45 minutes in the parking lot because 3 passengers were dawdling at souvenir shops! This is the type of experience that has caused us to begin touring independently. It was rumored that Princess will reduce its stops in Ocho Rios when routing in the future.
We spent a day at sea before arriving at . . . .
My mental picture of Aruba was a glorious tropical island. I have no idea how this mental picture was created but it was dramatically altered after taking the Aruba See and Sea Tour. The tour itself wasn’t that bad. It covered the highlights in the time available. One problem was the tour guide who was more interested in hearing herself talk about things that interested her than in what interested her tourists. The bus driver had to stop and wait several times for her to realize that we were at a spot which needed to be described for us. The other problem was Aruba itself. As many of the cruise passengers said: if you have been to Arizona, you know what Aruba looks like. One side of the island is rugged coastline with a certain rugged austere beauty to it. The interior of the island is arid. Lots and lots of cactus. There are some interesting rock formations. To our surprise the island was dirty. Our experience has been that the term "scrubby Dutch" had truth-in-fact. The previous Dutch islands we visited had been very clean and neat. In Aruba there were papers and plastic bags blowing in the breeze, caught on the cacti, and intertwined in the scrub along the side of the road. There was also an assortment of other trash on the sides of the roads. Pretty disappointing. The coast on the other side of the island is where the resorts are located. The large resorts have casinos attached. The beaches are all public and very nice. In the bay, there is a WWII German freighter which was scuttled at the beginning of World War II. It provides a habitat for fish and is a popular dive attraction. There is a semi-submersible vessel that allows for underwater viewing of the wreck and sea life. We were glad that we visited the island but we don’t have any desire to return.
We left Aruba at 1:15 p.m. to sail to . . . .
My wife and I were a little apprehensive about touring alone in Colombia. However, we had read so many reviews that said hiring a cab to tour was the way to go that we decided to do it. Fortunately, Gil & Sheryl joined us and we received excellent information from Kate on how to go about hiring a taxi. It was a wonderful experience. Cartagena is a city with a lot of similarities to San Juan, Puerto Rico. Both are old Spanish cities where the old city was walled and protected by forts. New cities have grown up around each of them. I found Cartagena to be friendlier, cleaner and more enjoyable than Puerto Rico. An American living there told us that it was a very safe place to live. The people were friendly and the handmade items showed excellent work and care by the craftsperson. There are really three areas for tourists to see: the fort, the monastery, and the old city. The forts in San Juan were better but the monastery, with its location above the city, was awesome. The old city of Cartagena was much nicer than the old city of San Juan. The negative of Cartagena are the street merchants. The street merchants are more aggressive than anywhere we have ever been. Once you get by the street merchants, Cartagena is a very pleasant place. If you are expecting hot deals on emeralds or jewelry you will probably be disappointed. Neither my wife nor I are world class jewelry buyers but we have spent a decent amount of time in the stores in the Caribbean. From our limited experience there just did not seem to be the value that is to be found elsewhere. This is not to say that a good deal on a quality gem or piece of jewelry couldn’t be found. Its just that they are not as easy to find as other places. We left Cartagena at 3:00 p.m. sailing for the Panama Canal.
We were very fortunate in that it did not rain during our transit (in fact, during the 4,895 nautical miles we traveled, we did not experience any rain) and it was overcast. The overcast condition was less than ideal for pictures but it significantly reduced the heat and the dangers from extended exposure to the sun. Ships can schedule a time for transit through the Canal. Cruise ships have priority. Cruises through the Panama Canal are of two varieties: a transit entirely through the Canal or a cruise where you go through the first set of locks to Gatun Lake sail around the lake and return through the same set of locks to the Caribbean. There are six locks to transit entirely through the Canal. Due to the shape of the isthmus, the Canal is located in a basically North to South orientation. The highest point of the trip is 85 feet above sea level which is Gatun Lake created by the damming of the Chagres River. The water from the lake is what is used to raise the ships through the Gatun Locks and the Don Pietro Locks. A much smaller lake, the Miraflores Lake, is use to raise the ships through the Miraflores locks. It takes a full day to pass through the Canal. We were told the Panama Canal is the only place where pilots actually take control of the ship during its passage. We arrived in Limon Bay at the Caribbean entrance to the Panama Canal at about 6:50 a.m. The bay narrows into a discernable channel much like a funnel. A short distance into the channel there is a noticeable cut on the right side which is the old French cut and is about the only discernible French work which can be seen. After traveling a distance down the channel, the Gatun locks come into view. There are three locks set together meaning you move from one lock into the second lock and from the second lock into the third lock. From the third lock you sail onto Gatun Lake. The total raise from when the ship enters the first lock until it sails out of the third lock onto Gatun lake is 85 feet. It is an awesome sight to be on either side of the three locks and look at a ship on the opposite side seeing it sit so far above or below your position! The Sea Princess is one of the largest vessels to pass through the locks. There is only four feet of clearance when the ship is in the locks (the locks are 110 feet wide and the breadth of the Sea Princess is 105.8 feet). There are large rubber rollers at the entrance to protect the corners of the locks. There is only four inches of clearance on the rollers. Try to imagine trying to put something as big as a cruise ship through the eye of a needle! The sister ship, the Sun Princess, docked in Cartagena while our ship was in port. It had just come through the Canal. The sides were scraped and blackened from the rubber bumpers as a result of its passage. After it had docked, the crew was immediately out painting the sides to cover the marks. After crossing Gatun Lake (32 miles) you again enter a narrow channel. This is the passage across the continental divide. The narrowest area going through the divide is known as the Gaillard Cut or the Culebra Cut (8+ miles). It was in this area that massive land slides continually haunted the project. The cut is so narrow that only one ship makes the passage at a time. On the Pacific side of the Gaillard Cut, the first set of locks for the step down to the Pacific Ocean is the Piedro Miguel locks. Unlike the Gatun locks there is only one lock at this point of the passage. This lock steps the ship down 31 feet to the Miraflores Lake. The Miraflores lake is a very small lake that provides water for lock operations on the southern end of the Canal and it also provides a holding area for ships waiting passage. At the Southern end of Miraflores Lake, the last set of two locks is found. These are the Miraflores Locks and they lower the ship 54 feet to sea level. Due to the huge tides on the Pacific side (over 20 feet of tidal change), the largest set of lock doors is found on the Miraflores Locks. After being lowered to sea level the channel widens and the Bridge of the Americas carrying the IntraAmerican highway can be seen arching over the channel. We docked at Balboa at 5:00 p.m. The passage was a truly marvelous experience and particularly amazing when you stop to consider the engineering genius to put it together in a manner that has been operating almost flawlessly for over 90 years and can accommodate today ships the size of which could not have been contemplated when the locks were designed. If you have any interest concerning the history or the building of the canal I consider "The Path Between the Seas: the Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870 - 1914" by David McCullough to be a must read before a trip to or through the canal. It is a fantastic book. Balboa was an unscheduled stop and we were advised not to go into town. Local vendors set up on the pier next to the ship. The ship refueled in Balboa and it took until midnight to complete the process. At 12:15 a.m. we set sail for Costa Rica.
The next day was a sea day before we arrived at 2:30 a.m. in the port of . . . .
Puntarenas, Costa Rica
We really liked Costa Rica and plan on returning there in the near future. The Pacific side of the country is the dry side as compared to the Caribbean side which is the wet side. We were on the dry side during the dry season. Even at that we found it beautiful with broad vistas of rolling plains bordered by mountains. We signed up for the Princess Coribici River excursion. All of the information concerning this excursion stated that it was strenuous and you had to be in good physical condition. The video played in the room contained the same warning and showed participants in helmets. My wife was very concerned and one of the participants said his wife refused to go based on the warnings. The warnings were grossly overdone! This was a float trip. An easy drift down a shallow river in an inflatable raft. It was wet but it wasn’t the least bit strenuous. There were only 20 of us so it was a very pleasant experience. The variety of birds was less than we had anticipated but the Howler and White Faced monkeys made up for it. Costa Rica is a very poor country and the poverty is evident. However, it is somehow different than the poverty experienced in other Caribbean countries. Perhaps it is in the pride of the people. Perhaps it is their industrious nature. Whatever it is, it is palpably different than the feeling one gets in other countries. Costa Rica has fantastic coffee. There was a form on the ship to order coffee to be sent home at a very good price. We placed our order only to have it returned to us after we set sail. We were informed that we had turned the form in too late. There was no time for returning the form printed on it and no deadline was mentioned during the port lecture. The prices on the form were available until the end of the month and could be faxed to the supplier. We would not be home before the end of the month. We happened to run into Mark Lewis Jones, the Port Lecturer, and I asked him what had happened to the coffee orders. Wow, was that a mistake! A few of his “better” comments were, “I’ve been on this ship for 7 months. Do you think I have time to worry about everyone’s coffee.” “Take the form to the Business Center. I will only cost you about $10.00 to fax it.” “I don’t make a penny selling this coffee and everyone has questions about it.” “What do you think, that I have a fax machine in my room? Well I don’t and I don’t have an account to use one.” Now from these comments you would expect we were engaged in a heated exchanged. We weren’t! His outburst was totally one sided. I had merely asked a question in a neutral manner. Mark Lewis Jones is the one person who has no business in the cruise business and is the only person who was terribly negative.
Two days at sea and we arrived at . . . .
Our experience hiring a cab for touring was so pleasant in Cartagena that we decided to do it again in Acapulco. As we were going to get into the cab, my wife step off of the curb and fell to her knees. She refused to go back on ship for medical attention even though her ankles were swelling rapidly. The one thing she wanted to do on the cruise was to see the cliff divers. After getting a bag of ice for her ankles, we toured the city, we shopped the stores and she did get to see the cliff divers although not from the most ideal location because she simply could not navigate to get there. Jewelry bargains can be found in Acapulco. You have to bargain hard for them. You have to be able to walk away. But if you can bargain as hard as the merchants, there are some great deals available. Acapulco is very nice and it is an interesting city. It is a big city with big city amenities including big time night life (although we were not there to participate in any of it and couldn't even if we had been there). It has a beautiful view; gorgeous resorts; plenty of activities; and, is tourist friendly. It is another place we will be going back to if for no other reason than to let my wife experience the place without pain. Upon returning to the ship we immediately went to the ship's doctor. We had heard some bad things about ship's doctors but it certainly was not true aboard the Sea Princess. She received better emergency care than she would have received at home. The doctor told her that she had definitely broken her right ankle and there was a possibility that her left ankle was also broken. He electronically sent the x-rays to England for review and put a cast on the right ankle. After reviewing the x-rays in England they doubted that the left ankle was broken rather she had pulled her tendons and ligaments. We were surprised to find how accessible the ship was to a wheelchair bound person. My wife had very little problem going anywhere she wanted to go. Our room was not handicap accessible and she was able to get around in it okay. The biggest problem was the bathroom with its step up. Tony, our room steward, was absolutely wonderful. Whenever he saw us coming, he opened the door and assisted us in getting my wife into the room. The wheelchair could not be used in the room. Likewise, when we arrived at the main doors to the dining room someone always took my wife and assisted her to the table where she was assisted by Andre and Szylvester. They just couldn’t have been more helpful. In the casino, when my wife wanted to move and I wasn’t immediately available, the casino staff assisted her. Everyone was just wonderful. They made a potentially disastrous incident into a situation which did not markedly diminish our adventure. We couldn’t have been more thankful.
Another day at sea before we arrive in . . . .
Cabo San Lucas
I had independently chartered a fishing boat to take us deep sea fishing. I was going to cancel the charter but my wife said she would be fine in the cabin. The charter was a bomb except that we observed and fished next to a pod (if that is the correct term) of bottle-nosed dolphin. There had to be hundreds of them surfacing and jumping. A school of tuna was following the dolphin and I caught about 8 twenty pounders. Cabo San Lucas was another place I had heard much about but I was not that impressed with the place. From what I saw, if you have seen the picture of the rocks at Cabo you have seen Cabo.
A final day sailing before we arrived in . . . .
Debarkation seemed to move relatively smoothly. We asked for wheelchair assistance and were told to be ready at 7:30 a.m. There were plenty of attendants available at that time but we were told that we had to wait until our group was called. The attendants did not return after assisting passengers to disembark and by the time our group was called there were no attendants. After waiting for two more groups to disembark I asked for assistance and was told someone would be there to help us. No one came so I eventually found where the wheelchair bound passengers were being taken off the ship. It was not a pleasant experience! By the time we arrived in the port facilities there was hardly any baggage left which made locating our bags very easy. We were going to spend 5 days in San Diego but after getting off the ship and driving to our hotel we decided that we needed to get home. The exploration of San Diego would have to wait for another day. We can't say enough about Southwest Airlines and the assistance they provided to us in getting home. They were absolutely fantastic. At home, the orthopedic surgeon said everything was done fine and the ankle looked good.
The Sea Princess is a wonderful ship! She has been tastefully appointed with an understated elegance. The staff is friendly, efficient, and first class. If the opportunity presents itself, we would certainly cruise on the Sea Princess again. The same holds true for Princess. A wonderful cruise line which does so many things right. When you spend as much money as you do on a cruise and take hard earned vacation time you expect the experience to be something very special. Princess understands this and does not disappoint.
We would be happy to answer any questions. Just drop us an E-mail.
Bill & Lu Schwartz