Number of Cruises: n/a
Cruise Line: Princess
Ship: Sea Princess
Sailing Date: April 1999
Itinerary: Panama Canal
Panama Canal cruise aboard The Sea Princess Panama Canal cruise aboard The Sea Princess We’re the Binders from Philadelphia. Joe is 54 and Nancy (that’s me!) is 50 This was our second cruise, and second with Princess. (Our first was to Alaska on the Dawn Princess in July 1997.) This was an 11-day cruise aboard the new Sea Princess, from April 24 to May 5, traveling through the Panama Canal.
We like to arrive a day early for our cruises both to relax and also to give us a "cushion" just in case we run into any travel problems along the way. Princess representatives met us at the airport and shuttled us to our hotel from the airport. I would recommend the Embassy Suites in Ft. Lauderdale to anyone thinking of doing the same. It’s nice to have a living room AND bedroom plus they offer a lovely pool, beautiful central atrium, as well as complimentary happy hour and breakfast buffet. We also ate dinner at their Italian restaurant and were very pleased with the food.
One of the things that made this trip so special was sharing the experience with our dear friends John and Rosemarie, who are from Cardiff, South Wales. We met them on our first cruise on the Dawn Princess to Alaska. We have been corresponding regularly ever since, with emails and a few phone calls in between, and visited them in Wales in August 1998. I can happily say that the budding friendship that started on the Dawn Princess has blossomed into something much deeper, a relationship that I know will be lifelong. Since the Panama Canal was our mutual first choice for our next cruise destination, we decided to go together!
Another thing that made this cruise so much fun was hooking up with a group of people on the Internet who were sailing on the same cruise. We met about 10-12 couples on various cruise boards and eventually set up a List devoted to the Sea Princess and our specific cruise at OneList.com.
After setting up our list, each member could send an email to the entire group by addressing it to SeaPrincess@onelist.com. For about six weeks before we cruised, we chatted back and forth about what to pack, how many bags we needed, shore excursions, weather, and where we would meet. It really made the weeks before the cruise much more fun and we bonded as a group rather quickly. Everyone turned out to be friendly, helpful, and fun to be with which really added something special to this cruise. All I can say is that you meet the nicest people on cruise ships!
Princess provided a shuttle bus from the hotel to the dock and embarkation was a breeze. Just be sure to have all your documents filled out before you arrive and you’ll be on your way in a matter of minutes! The ship was absolutely gorgeous and since it is the twin sister of the Dawn, it was a little easier to find our way around. Our luggage arrived within the hour. After doing some unpacking, exploring our mini-suite, and signing up for shore excursions, we met our One List group for the first time in the Wheelhouse Bar. We were SO lucky to have met this great group of people and our emails before the trip really helped to keep us occupied while counting down the minutes ‘til we sailed.
I’ll start with the Horizon Food Court which is probably my favorite place to eat in the whole world! We ate almost every breakfast and lunch in the food court because the food is always fresh, delicious, AND the variety is astounding. I especially love tasting 4 or 5 different desserts at lunch time! Yum! Dinners were always excellent also My favorite dinner on both cruises was the Swordfish—excellent! Joe is a pizza fanatic and LOVES Princess’ pizzeria. My way of thinking is that I can always eat pizza and I would prefer the variety available at the Food Court. We had a formal breakfast in the dining room one day because of an early shore excursion, and also had a champagne breakfast on our balcony one morning. Joe sampled the cheeseburgers at the grille by the pool area and said they were great. There are no midnight buffets on Princess, but since we chose late seating (8:15 pm), I don’t think we could have stuffed any more food into us by midnight. We prefer late seating because 1) it allows you more time to return from a long shore excursion and relax before dinner, and 2) it seems more festive and appropriate on formal nights especially to dine later and then see the show. We ordered room service three times—our champagne breakfast, plus two light lunches when we were too tired after shore excursions to venture down to the Food Court. Service was prompt, courteous, plus the food was hot and well prepared.
Dinner companions can either make or break a meal. Though we were less worried about our table this time because we knew we’d have John and Rosemarie for companionship, we were hoping for a pleasant group. But it was somewhat of a mixed success this time. One couple was a disappointment, but our other dinner companions made up for it by being so special. Gloria Simpson, from Oklahoma City, and her son David, from California, helped make our dinners more fun with their friendly conversation. We enjoyed their company so much that we usually joined them for the shows after dinner as well.
One $ Bills
One suggestion. Before you leave get $30 or $40 worth of $1 bills. They are convenient for tips for drinks, room service, or for bus drivers/guides on shore excursions. It is not mandatory to tip some of these people, but where else can you make someone’s day by giving them a dollar?
Come to think of it, a roll of quarters is a good idea if you plan to use the ship’s launderettes. There are change machines, but many times, they are empty and you need to go to one on another floor. The launderette is also equipped with an iron and ironing board in case you needed to get rid of any wrinkles caused by packing. There were 2-3 washers and the same amount of dryers, each costing $1 in quarters and then soap powder was 50 cents Cabins On the Dawn Princess we had booked a mini-suite but were upgraded at the last minute to a full suite! (A bad way to start your cruising experience, because there is nowhere to go but down!)
We had a mini-suite on the Sea Princess (no surprise upgrades) and were very pleased with everything about it. There is a small living room area separated from the bedroom by a draped archway. There was a TV in both rooms and our balcony had 2 lounge chairs as well as a round table and 2 chairs. The bathrooms in the suites and mini-suites are one of the best features. There is a tub with a jacuzzi, a stall shower with a glass door, and a separate small room for the toilet and sink. (In the suite, there was a sink in EACH of the bathroom areas.) There was also a walk-in closet plus drawer space and a desk area. Suitcases (we had 6!) can be stored easily under the bed. Our largest suitcase was stored by our cabin steward—you are given a receipt and use that to get your suitcase when the cruise is over.
We hosted a party for our OneList group (about 20 people) and while it was a bit tight, we managed to fit everyone in. While we would love to get a mini-suite each time we cruise, we know the reality is that we will have to economize if we want to take more frequent cruises. We also saw John and Rosemarie’s Outside Double with a Balcony (Category BD). It was a very lovely room with a balcony about half the size of ours, but all in all very comfortable. We decided that this would be an acceptable cabin if we feel the need to economize. The feature that I would miss most is the stall shower with the glass door! It would be hard going back to a plastic shower curtain.
Renewal of Vows Ceremony
Joe and I and John and Rosemarie decided to renew our wedding vows on the ship. Joe and I were celebrating 27 years and John and Rosemarie 34! The ceremony took place in the Captain’s private quarters and was so lovely and memorable. The Captain, David Christie, is witty, charming and super friendly and is an absolute delight. We asked that our ceremonies be scheduled back-to-back so that we could be the witnesses for each other’s vows. We also invited 2 of our new OneList friends, Barry and Bev Kelly from Ludington, Michigan. For those romantics out there who are thinking of doing the same thing, I would highly recommend one of Princess’ Renewal of Vows packages. They provide beautiful bouquets for the "brides" and there are lots of extras too. We had the Deluxe Renewal of Vows which included canapes delivered to our cabin every night, an 8 x 10 photograph, a massage or facial, and a set of Princess robes to take home with us! Our ceremony took place before the Captain’s Cocktail Party and dinner and Rosemarie and I were the center of attention with our bouquets and white gowns. We both felt very special with people coming up to contratulate us and asking about the ceremony.
Ports of Call/Shore Excursions
Usually we sign up for the Princess-run shore excursions. We realize that we end up paying more for the same tour, but we have the peace of mind knowing that if our bus breaks down, the ship will wait for us. Or in an area where safety is an issue, that the tour company has been checked out by Princess. By the way, if you have your heart set on a certain tour, make sure that a visit to the tour desk is one of your first priorities when you board the ship. I had filled out the tour form by 3 p.m. on the day of embarkation and still was disappointed that one of the tours I wanted was sold out! Luckily there was a similar tour that I was able to book as my second choice.
In a port that is relatively safe, however, or one which you have past experience with, it can be much cheaper to take a cab and sightsee on your own.
This charming British-influenced island was our favorite port. In the morning Joe and I did the snorkeling at Stingray Sandbar via a Snorkel Boat ($44 each). The water is not quite waist deep so you really don’t have to snorkel if you don’t want and it was fine for a non-swimmer such as myself. The stingrays are friendly creatures and feel as soft as velvet when they swim up next to your legs. I even fed one! There is a bucket of squid and you just put your hand (fingers carefully tucked inside, of course!) under the water until one approaches and sucks out the food like a powerful vacuum cleaner. (The snorkel boat had warm showers available, so I was able to shower and change from my bathing suit in the restroom so that I would be more comfortable for my afternoon tour.) Joe went back to the ship in the afternoon, but I took the Island Highlights tour—this one to the Turtle farm (where I held a turtle), the town of Hell (where you can send a postcard to a friend or relative that says "Go to Hell" complete with a postmark from Hell), and finally on a semi-submersible where we could view the stingrays from under the water while a scuba diver fed them. The scuba diver had names for the various stingrays and could actually tell them apart by body markings. He even trained one to "kiss" him on his scuba mouthpiece! John went scuba diving here and really enjoyed the crystal clear waters
Ocho Rios, Jamaica
Jamaica is said to be one of the Caribbean’s most beautiful isles. We took a 75 ft. yacht, the Sundancer to Dunn’s River Falls ($39 per person). We climbed the adjacent stone staircase instead of attempting the Falls. We were almost at the top of the Falls when we decided we had seen enough and went down again. This turned out to be a good thing because apparently there were vendors and a craft market at the very top and high-pressure was the name of the game. We enjoyed the boat ride on the Sundancer and the views of the Falls, but Jamaica was nothing special to us. I had 10 braids put in my hair! ($20 on shore—Yes, I should have negotiated the price better, but I really wanted braids and only one person approached me!!) Also found out on the trip back that the staff on the Sundancer would have braided my hair at a better price, I’m sure. Tonight was Island Night on the Sea Princess and there was dancing out by the pool area, music, conga lines, etc. This was my favorite night on the ship—we were up until about 2 a.m. just dancing and having a great time. There was also a special fruit and dessert buffet set up out by the pool.
This port was a pleasant surprise and ended up being our second favorite. We weren’t sure if we should even get off the ship in this port because of all you read about Columbia, but Cartagena was a popular port with our fellow cruise passengers. We took the Cartagena Shopping and La Popa Monastery tour ($42 each). The quaint narrow streets with balconied houses and hanging flower baskets were somewhat reminiscent of New Orleans, and the newer part of the city with it’s tall buildings was very impressive. The biggest thrill for me was a chance to hold a three-toed sloth. (His owner charges $3 for you to pose with Pepe and take a picture—with your own camera)
Transit Panama Canal
We have read so much about what an exciting event this is. It seemed like a perfect time for our trip because in December, 1999, control of the canal reverts from U.S. control to Panamanian control. So it felt like being part of history. History abounds along every mile of this engineering marvel. It is quite an experience as the ship is raised and lowered through an extraordinary system of lakes and locks. Water for the locks (around 52 million gallons per transit) is supplied by Gatun Lake, an immense artificial reservoir of 168 square miles. This was the Sea Princess’ first journey through the Canal and she was the largest ship ever to go through it! We also had an added bonus because the ship had to refuel after making its way through the Canal, so we were able to disembark in Panama where the Kuna Indians had set up a flea market of their hand-made souvenirs.
Rapidly becoming one of the world’s premiere travel destinations, Costa Rica offers luxuriant tropical vegetation, 13,000-foot mountains, long stretches of white, sandy beaches and abundant wildlife. We docked in Puntarenas and did an 8 ½ hour land tour here, the Carara Biological Reserve/Villa Lapas, Kingdom of Nature tour ($89 per person). There was a 2 ½ hour nature walk in the morning, then lunch at a lovely Hotel (Villa Lapas), then another nature walk in the afternoon. There were fleeting glimpses of birds, iguanas, coati mundis, and cappuchine monkeys, but "fleeting" was the key word. Be prepared for hot, humid conditions, however, you are advised to wear a hat, long-sleeved shirt and long pants (and plenty of bug spray!). The paths are also VERY muddy. I wore an old pair of sneakers that were ready for the trash and just tossed them when I got back to the ship. (The mud also splattered up on my slacks, so I would advise an old pair of slacks in case they get stained.) Glad we did it once, but wouldn’t want to do it again!
South of Acapulco lies Huatulco, one of the Mexican Riviera’s newest attractions. Again Joe decided to stay on the ship, while John, Rosemarie and I took the Huatulco Resort tour. This was a very pretty place and when they have finished building the resorts, I imagine it will be a popular vacation spot. This tour (Huatulco Resort and La Crucesita) cost $39 and we found out later that we could have hired a cab for all 3 of us at the cost of $2 and seen virtually the same thing! Usually we tend to book the Princess tours, for convenience and safety. You pay a bit more, but usually you are satisfied with the value. This was the one exception. It seems to be a safe place and if we returned, I’d take the cab and walk around the shopping area.
Days at Sea (our favorite!)
Joe and I REALLY enjoyed the days at sea. There was so much to do such as: sunning and swimming at the pool, aerobic classes, reading, relaxing, horseracing and bingo games, trivia, plus golfing competitions, visits to the casino, line dancing, afternoon tea, movies, etc. We’d like to do a Trans-Atlantic cruise one day with 8 days at sea!
We only had a quick peek at Acapulco on the way to the airport as we left to catch our flights home again. However, we awoke this morning to the sounds of shouting outside our balcony. We walked out to see what it was and found that children had swam a great distance out to the ship and were calling up to the cabins to "throw money!". Some people obliged and they dove into the ocean to retrieve the coins. Somehow, I didn’t feel badly missing this city.
Disembarkation/Customs & Immigration
Princess handled disembarkation as efficiently as ever. However the airport at Acapulco left much to be desired....no real P.A. system (they used bullhorns to announce the next flight!....just the bare minimum of air conditioning....and having to climb down a set of steps and go onto the tarmac to take a bus to our plane. Then you must go through Customs/Immigration at the first American city you land in—in our case, Dallas/Ft. Worth. We leave the plane, go through Customs where we encountered an EXTREMELY rude and arrogant Customs Agent who was on a real power trip, yelling at people, telling Joe to "remove his shades", etc. Poor John and Rosemarie were told that they didn’t have all the necessary papers since they were NOT U.S. citizens and were told they must go up the escalator to another area. Rosemarie explained that they were traveling with friends from America and explained she was afraid to miss her flight and the Customs Agent basically told her "tough luck". Luckily there was a nice Agent along the side and he told us that they would be exiting into the same area as we would, so we could easily meet up with them after they filled out their forms. We then unloaded our luggage and theirs from the baggage claim carousel (as they hurried into the area). Then after checking in our baggage once again for our next flight (luggage was not examined at all!), we ran like hell through the airport to make our connecting flight (felt like those old O.J. Simpson rent-a-car commercials). We made it with just 5 minutes to spare!
Special People Who Catered to our Every Need
We can’t overlook the staff of the Sea Princess, who all help to make each cruise memorable. We already mentioned Captain David Christie, but he really deserves special praise. On the last night of the cruise, he personally stopped at each dining table and thanked people for cruising with him! He’s the best captain I can imagine. Alastair, the Cruise Director, was wonderful, as was his assistant Peter. Their energy level was inspiring and their enthusiasm for each activity was contagious. Gianni, our head waiter, was fantastic! So friendly and a delight to watch as he prepared Cherries Jubilee or a special Pasta. And he arranged for a very special cake after our Vows ceremony to help our table celebrate. And who can forget Mario, our waiter from Mexico, and Gabor, our assistant waiter, from Hungary. They made a great team and catered to our every whim. Special thanks also go to Edgar, our wonderful Cabin Steward, from the Philippines.
Rating this cruise
On a scale of 1-10, this would get a 10+. It was absolute perfection! Having cruised with Princess twice, we find it hard to even consider another cruise line. Princess is so organized with no minor details overlooked. They are the greatest! It was also nice to be on an 11-day cruise rather than a 7-day one. But I’m so greedy—it still wasn’t long enough for me! The days at sea were also very special—there is so much to do on the ship and to have the whole day to just do as you please with no pressures to tour a new port are wonderful. Please visit my webpage, The Realm of the Dawn Princess, to see this review complete with photographs, as well as reviews of our Alaskan cruise on the Dawn Princess and other travels.