We booked an outside cabin with an obstructed view because it took a good bit off of the price on this longer cruise. In my opinion having a balcony cabin on a Caribbean itinerary is a bit of a waste. Sure you might see a sunset from your balcony, but it is nothing like Alaska where a balcony gives you great views all of the time. In Alaska, you are almost always close to land and can watch for whales and bears and wildlife. In the Caribbean you only see land pretty much as you are approaching a port. This is something of a matter of personal choice of course, but I think that you can save your money for other fun things on your vacation and go down a few floors inside the ship.
We were in stateroom, E604 on the Emerald deck. This cabin was fairly well situated. If you went forward from our stateroom, you reached either the card room (stocked with lots of new board games and cards) or the library (pretty well stocked there too). Just fore of these rooms is the top level of the pretty atrium at the center of the ship. If you proceed aft from our cabin, you can reach the aft elevators which will take you up to the Lido deck 14 where the gym and the pools are located.
We had just cruised to Alaska in the summer of 2003 on the Celebrity Summit. It was impossible for us not to compare the two lines and the two ships. I have to say that in almost all areas, Celebrity Summit came out on top. I like to keep things on a positive note, so I'll start with the positives on the Coral Princess:
It seemed to us that the Coral Princess had a better layout of the common rooms than the Celebrity Summit. This is a pretty small detail, but both ships did a pretty good job of helping you forget that you were on a ship. The curved walls of the common rooms, sloping, curving staircases, and alternating the entrances to the lounges so that they are not all on the one side of the ship or the other all were little touches that helped in this department. In this area, Coral Princess comes out slightly on top.
The staterooms on the Coral Princess were pretty well laid out. The closet area is open and backs against a wall that faces against the bathroom door. On the Celebrity Summit the cabin closet had doors that opened into the hall that connected the entry door to the cabin. When the closet doors were open, you couldn't enter or exit the cabin, and you couldn't get to the bathroom. Kind of a difficulty when two people are trying to get ready for dinner.
TV service on the Summit was far more advanced and passenger friendly. The Summit has a navigable menu upon turning the set on. One can select from movie options and even order room service. The food options are listed and you select what you want on-screen. A few minutes after finalizing your selection, you get a phone call confirming your order. It was a great system. You also had access to your stateroom account at any time during the cruise directly through your television. All of this was available on the 3 year old Summit. The one year old Coral had a much less developed system and the channels offered were pretty limited.
Another little edge for Coral over Summit was the mini-fridge in the room. On Summit, the mini-fridge in the room was overfilled with mini-bar items. If you took them out, you just bought them and they were re-stocked and you were billed. On Coral, the mini-fridge is empty and each day our steward would fill an ice bucket in the fridge. On Summit, if you wanted ice you had to call your steward and get it delivered. There wasn't even an ice bucket in your room that you could go get your own.
Coral has really good New York style pizza up on the Lido Deck. Along with a vegetarian friendly outdoor grill, this provided a nice alternative to lunch or dinner between 11 AM and 6 PM. It would have been nice to have this option available later in the evening as well, but it is pretty common for cruises to offer this kind of thing only during the day. On the Summit, the alternative offering that really stood out was the sushi available each day on the top deck buffet. I have to say that it was the best sushi I have had on land or sea. Without exaggeration, the sushi on Summit was superb. In the category of alternative food offering, the edge goes to Summit. If you aren't a fan of sushi, then this recommendation might not be on target for you.
Now for what Summit had that made it a better vacation experience for us than Coral Princess.
One of the big differences for us was the way that tipping was handled. On Summit, the tipping was all cash and was handed to the person receiving the tip in a little labeled envelope. This was a little cumbersome if you didn't bring an extra $200 or so in cash with you on the cruise. On Coral Princess the tips were automatically added to your stateroom account at a rate of $10 per person per day to be split among your stateroom attendant, wait staff, and assistants. On the surface this sounds like it would be a better system, but what it really translated to was a staff that gave poor to very poor service. They knew that most people would not go through the trouble of changing or removing the tips from their stateroom account; most people would leave the tips structured as they were automatically determined by the cruise line. This removed any incentive to give good service. On Coral Princess we saw lots of poor service all around. Some of the wait-staff were quite good, but others were just plain poor. Many of the crew were frowning all of the time and were just rude to the passengers and fellow crew members. It seems like a little thing but it really makes a difference in how much you enjoy your cruise. By contrast, on Celebrity Summit, the crew members were all very courteous and professional. The service was good to very good all around the ship. The overall feeling among the crew and all of the rest of the passengers was one of elegance and satisfaction. I don't know that all of the differences on Summit were due to the crew wanting better tips, but that is the conclusion that I have reached. In any case, the overall atmosphere and crew behavior yielded a much more enjoyable cruise experience.
Another big difference for us was the quality of the food. My wife is a vegetarian. We phoned ahead to check with Princess to make sure that there would be vegetarian choices for her during the cruise. They assured us that they had a vegetarian menu as well as the regular offerings at dinner. Well, once we got on board we found that they had a few vegetarian choices on the regular menu each night. Often one of the courses had no vegetarian options at all. That means, if you are a vegetarian, you don't get soup tonight or you can't have soup another night. I would say that 8 out of 10 dinners had some sort of pasta with tomato sauce as the vegetarian option for the main course. Not exactly gourmet or creative and certainly not what you would expect on a cruise. By contrast, on Summit, they often had more than one vegetarian choice for each course. The cuisine on Summit left both of us feeling happier and more content with our dining options. Besides the problems with the vegetarian options, the rest of the offerings on Coral Princess were less than stellar. I would give most of the food 3 to 3.5 stars out of 5. On the same scale, Summit's food would rate 4 to 4.5.
A problem that was pretty apparent on both ships was created by rude passengers smoking cigarettes. On Coral, many if not most of the common areas and hallways smelled of cigarette smoke. This is a real quality of life issue. We aren't smokers and we don't want to smell nasty cigarette smoke on the way to dinner, in a show, or just walking the hallways. There were no smoking signs in all of the lounges, restaurants, and common areas. These were frequently ignored by rude smokers who I occasionally observed actually carrying ashtrays into non-smoking areas! There was no enforcement or intervention by the staff. This is an issue that needs to be addressed by cruise lines. Summit shared this problem but must have had better ventilation in the common areas. We didn't smell smoke in the common areas on Summit, but we did lose the use of our balcony because of rude smokers. I have heard other passengers suggest that smokers should be restricted to balcony cabins on one side or one deck of the ship. I would love to see them eliminated completely. I know this isn't likely to happen, but I think that each cruise line should offer at least one ship in their fleet that is completely smoke-free. I think that they would find the smoke-free ships would sell out faster than any of the other ships.
We aren't too interested in Broadway style shows with singing and dancing so we often didn't go to these shows in the evenings. On Coral Princess, we did attend a couple of the shows by a couple of comedians and a magician. One of the comedians and the magician were quite good. The other comedian was so bad that we got up and left 10 minutes into the show. Fortunately we were sitting in the balcony so we didn't disturb other passengers when we left. I have heard that the entertainment on Princess is very good, but I can't vouch for or against. In our experience, the entertainment offerings on Princess and Celebrity were pretty comparable.
We also attended all of the art auctions on board Coral Princess. We had gotten interested in the art auctions on board Summit where they were offered through a third party, Park West galleries. On Coral Princess, the art auctions are all handled in house. Princess cruise lines handles all of the auctions and all of the art from warehouses in Florida. Even if you are not in the market for purchasing art, these auctions can still be a lot of fun and very educational. We both enjoyed the auctions on Princess even more than the offerings on Summit. The art director, Jeffery, was very personable. He kept the auctions interesting and entertaining. He tended to get involved in his stories a little bit more than was necessary, but this is more a matter of taste. Some people like to hear more about the artists, others just want to have the auction at a fast pace. We chatted with him a number of times during the cruise and found that Princess actually requires the art directors to change their auction spiels every so often to determine if one format is more effective than another. Princess really goes all out for these auctions. They have a number of pretty high end original pieces on board. Originals from Zamy Steynovitz, Salvador Dali, Marturos, Peter Max, Picasso, Wyland, Simbari, and others were all represented. Many of these were multiple thousands of dollars beyond our budgets, but they were still very interesting to see first hand. There were also a number of limited edition prints that were available at prices starting at under $100 for unframed pieces, and sometimes only $200-$300 for well framed pieces. Shipping was pretty reasonable too. We also liked that pieces that were shown framed, were sold framed. Surprisingly, this was often not the case from Park West galleries. They offered art with a complicated coding system that you had to keep in mind to determine whether the item came framed or unframed. The Princess auctions seemed a lot more direct and honest. One of the bonuses of attending these auctions where the art giveaways that they had at each auction. We won 4 pieces of art even though we ended up not buying anything. All we had to pay were the shipping costs for each piece which was pretty reasonable.
Ok, so that most of the comparison between Celebrity Summit and Coral Princess. Now on to the ports of call that we visited on this cruise.
Ocho Rios, Jamaica
We had read a lot of concerned posts and complaints about this port so we approached it with some trepidation. Based on some recommendations online, we tried to contact Chef and Libby for a tour of the area. They never returned our emails from a couple of weeks before the cruise. I don't know if this means that they aren't doing business anymore or if they just didn't have the time to get back with us. We got to the port and didn't have any tour booked. We got off by ourselves and intended to get a cab to Dunn's River Falls. We had read that the government controls rates for taxis and that we should only use taxis with red license plates. The control rate for a taxi from the pier to Dunn's River Falls was supposed to be $22. We got to the taxi stand and were told that it would be $5.50 per person by the taxi chief. We figured that we would be sharing the cab with another 2 people to make up the $22 for the cab. Actually, we had 8 other passengers in the cab. That is $55 instead of $22 for a 2.5 mile trip. This is just an example of the corruption that you will encounter at this port. The taxi driver was nice enough, but things were very anti-American all around. We are both quiet and respectful people who get along easily with all kinds of people. We are definitely not your typical "ugly American" cruise passengers. We were interested in seeing some of the real Jamaica, but we both felt uncomfortable there. My wife was wearing dark sunglasses and said that just about every man she saw looking her up and down in a way that made her feel very uncomfortable. She is used to getting her share of glances from men, but she said that it was menacing and we cut our visit short after seeing the falls. Dunn's River Falls was definitely worth doing at least once. We really enjoyed walking up the falls and spending some time at the beach. We wore our bathing suits and carried all of our gear with us. We even carried our digital camera with us in a double sealed plastic sandwich bag. This worked just great and we got some really good pictures of ourselves on the falls. We came out way ahead of some of our fellow passengers. We paid $5.50 per person for the cab ride plus $10 per person for entry to Dunn's River Falls. That is a total of $31 dollars for the two of us. The cheapest rate for a trip to Dunn's River Falls if booked through the ship would have cost us $96.
The partial transit to Gatun Lake was very interesting. It was something that everyone should do once in their lives. It wouldn't be a destination that I would go back to, but I am glad that we did it. We got some interesting pictures and video of the transit. There were a number of shore excursions available from the ship for people interested in seeing more of the locks. We thought we would likely see enough of the locks from the ship and the shore excursions were all pretty expensive. We were right on both counts. For us, there was plenty to see from the ship as it transited the three locks up and then back down. The ship then docked at the port city of Cristobal for a couple of hours to allow people who did go on shore excursions to board. If you are interested in buying liquor or cigars, the port of Cristobal is by far the cheapest place to buy. Even the Jamaican rum was cheaper here than in Jamaica. The larger bottle of Myer's or Appleton Rum was $9. Other brands were similarly inexpensive and there was a very large selection. The port of Cristobal also offered a pretty typical market where you could browse around for a gift. There are a lot of the typical tourist offerings, but also some hand-made baskets, carved wood and stone, and original paintings. Unless you feel like throwing your money away, do yourself a favor and haggle at least a little bit on the price. The vendors offer their goods at an inflated price expecting you to make a lower offer; it is part of the experience of markets in this part of the world. If you really want a better deal, practice your Spanish. The vendors are very impressed with visitors who care enough to learn a little of their language. We saw another passenger pay $70 for a painting that we then negotiated down to $50 with the same vendor.
Limon, Costa Rica
All of our research into this port didn't yield much. We were told that the port of Limon is very industrial and that there are no tour companies operating there. We were told that if there was any port that we wanted to book a shore excursion, this would be the place. We went ahead and booked an excursion to the Cahuita National Park through the ship at a cost of $79 per person. Cahuita is a coastal rainforest located about an hour away from the port. We found out after the fact from our tour guide that Cahuita offers some of the best snorkeling in Costa Rica just 100 meters off the beach. This was after the tour desk on the ship told us that there was no snorkeling at Cahuita. We had specifically asked because we had our own snorkeling equipment with us and wanted to know whether we should take it with us that day. As it turned out, the weather was too stormy that day to even enjoy the beach so we couldn't have gone snorkeling anyway. Still it was more than irritating to have the tour desk be that poorly informed about the destination that they would tell a passenger something that was just plainly wrong. The tour itself was enjoyable and informative. The passengers that we were with on the tour did their best to ruin the experience and to spoil the outing for everyone. We were both mortified by the idiocy of the questions and comments from the other individuals on the tour. Directly after the tour guide had finished giving us a bit of the history or Costa Rica and the Limon area one of the fat Texans on the tour asked in his twang, "When did the U.S. buy Costa Rica. I mean, don't we own this place?" To his credit our tour guide, Alfredo, reiterated the bit of history he had just finished telling, "No, sir. Costa Rica is an independent nation. We gained our independence from Spain in 1851." That wasn't the only such comment. Another passenger on the tour asked, "Are we going to get our money back since it rained?" Keep in mind that this person booked a guided RAINFOREST tour. It rained in the rainforest! How did that happen? We still enjoyed the trip quite a bit getting some great pictures of a three-toed sloth and capuchin monkeys in the trees just over the trail we were walking. Another little bit of mis-information spread by the tour desk on the Coral Princess. They claimed that Limon had no tour operators working there and we pretty much had to book through the ship or we would be stuck in the industrial harbor with nothing to do or see all day. That just isn't true. Right at the end of the cruise ship pier is a taxi stand run by a tour company. A little bit further along there is a town square where we saw at least one store front offering tours to San Jose and Rainforest tours etc. And true to form, the guided tours off the pier were considerably cheaper than the ones booked through the cruise ship. Cahuita National park tours could be had from the cruise ship pier for $45 per person. We paid $79 per person for the same tour. If you have 4 or more people in your group you could hire yourselves a private taxi for the whole day to take you just where you wanted to go for $250. That sounds like a lot but keep in mind that 4 people would have paid $316 for our HALF-day tour to Cahuita with a really unpleasant group of passengers. If we were traveling with friends or family and had known our options up front, we definitely would have paid the $250 and had a much better time.
This was definitely our favorite port. And like one of our previous cruises, the favorite port was also the one that we had the shortest time visiting. Grand Cayman was also the only port on our itinerary that required the use of ship's tenders. Ultimately this meant that we were only able to be in Grand Cayman from 8:30 until 2:30. We had booked a tour of snorkeling and stingrays with Captain Bryan through the web before leaving home. We already had all of our tickets and directions to his office which was only a couple of blocks from the dock. Grand Cayman is a much wealthier island than some of the other places in the Caribbean. We felt totally comfortable just strolling around though the traffic was a bit heavy. Unfortunately when we got to Captain Bryan's office, we were told that someone had run into his catamaran the previous night. The boat had to stay where it was until the insurance adjustor got there. They called another tour operator down the street and got us onto another boat for a similar price. This tour was with Captain Marvin. The snorkeling in Grand Cayman was fantastic. We went to the coral gardens, the barrier reef, and the stingray sandbar. The water was clear and jewel toned. There were all kinds of fish and the stingrays were amazing. The crew of Captain Marvin's boat were less than cordial to the guests and were borderline cruel and abusive to the poor stingrays. They grabbed one of the docile females and then held her up and took pictures with other passengers for a good 15 minutes. This is an animal that has gills and needs to be underwater to breathe. They were lifting it out of the water again and again for at least 15 minutes. Think of the equivalent of grabbing a dog and holding it underwater again and again so people could take a picture. My wife and I were both very disturbed by this. We didn't let it spoil the trip for us, but it was definitely a point we held against the crew and Captain Marvin. We would not recommend them to anyone not interested in supporting animal abuse. After returning to the port area, we had only the time to do some window shopping. Our first stop was into Blackbeard's. They were in the same building as Captain Marvin's and are worth a stop. They have good prices on alcohol, but the main attraction is their rum cakes. The have at least ten different varieties ranging from pina colada rum cake to mango to key lime. Don't know if you like rum cake? No problem. The store puts out a large tray with a fresh baked cake for every flavor they offer. It makes a nice snack mid-day after a day of snorkeling, but it really serves to sell the rum cakes. No wonder they don't mind how much you eat, because you WILL buy one. When we visited, they had a buy six mini's get one large cake free offer. The small ones we handed out as very well received gifts. The Blackbeard label is also much more reasonably priced than the other ones offered on the island (including the popular Tortuga brand). The port area is heavily inhabited with retail establishments. There are gift shops and jewelry stores everywhere. The main street by the port takes you to Seven-Mile beach, lots of hotels and resorts. It is also well populated by American staples like Burger King, KFC and the like if you are less adventurous with foods or traveling with finicky kids. We didn't have time to look for a local restaurant (the rum cake samples filled us up pretty well), and by the time we were hungry, it was time to get back to the ship. Given the chance, we would gladly return to Grand Cayman. Cozumel, Mexico
Cozumel was a bit of an adventure for us. We wanted to snorkel again because we had heard great things about the reefs here. We had in mind to head to Chankanaab park. The cruise ship pier is populated by overpriced stores offering liquor, jewelry, and t-shirts. It is also in the middle of nowhere. In order to get to town or just about anywhere else on the island requires some sort of transportation. There are cars for rent ($70 and up for the day), scooters for rent ($25-30 per day), and taxis available once you get to the front of the shopping area. We had seen that there was a bike trail on Cozumel that kept cyclist out of traffic for most of the way around the island. We are both cyclists, so we thought it might be fun to rent some bikes to get around the island. Unfortunately, there are no places to rent bikes anywhere near the cruise ship dock. I had spotted some bikes on a rack off to the on side of the shopping area that was indicated by a sign for crew only shopping. After some convincing, my wife agreed to go back there with me and check it out. We found out that the crew grocery store did rent bikes but only to crew members. supposedly. I asked about the bikes and rates. The owner said that they were available for $6 for 5 hours or $10 for the whole day and all he would need was one crew ID. I told him that we weren't crew but we were really interested in renting bikes. We didn't want to rent a car or scooter and couldn't make an exception for us. He agreed to rent us a couple of bikes. Like most bike rental places, the bikes were really poor quality and in really poor condition. We decided to make do in the name of fun and headed out on our amazingly heavy bikes toward Chankanaab, about 2.5 miles distant. The ride there was pleasant enough. It turns out that the paved bike trail leading from the cruise ship pier happened to be under heavy construction just then which had us sharing a narrow busy road with cars and taxis. That was a little nerve-wracking. We turned off this road to head on the coastal road toward Chankanaab. Now there were fewer cars or taxis since this road is not the fastest way to get to the park. It is definitely more scenic and being on the bike allows you to really enjoy the environment all the more. Chankanaab charges a $10 per person admission, but this gives you access to a snorkeling beach, pretty nice walking gardens, reproductions of Mayan ruins, and the dolphin encounter area. The dolphin encounter will cost you extra and we didn't go in for that. The snorkeling was great. Right off the beach you could get into the water and see all kinds of fish and beautiful coral. When we were there (early January, 2004) there were a few very, very small jellyfish in the water. Both my wife and I were stung a few times in the water at Chankanaab. I don't know if this is a seasonal thing or what. The stings weren't so bad that it made you get out of the water, but still pretty painful and definitely a shock the first time you are stung. The depth of the water there was 6 to 25 feet. This is a pretty good depth for snorkeling down and getting a closer look at the fish and coral. I had a little Minolta APS underwater camera with me on a lanyard around my neck. I was able to snorkel down and take some pictures with the camera before coming back up for air. Of course, it was nearly impossible to look through the viewfinder at anything with your mask on. Most of the pictures were just point and shoot. The film is in for developing now, so we'll see how they turn out by this weekend. I am really hoping we get some good shots out of that camera. After both of us had been out snorkeling for about 45 minutes, we came back on shore and relaxed on the beach under the shade of thatched beach umbrellas. We also took some time to stroll around the lagoon and the gardens at Chankanaab before heading out for lunch.
We had a couple of coupons that we had printed out from the web before leaving for free margaritas with food purchase from Mr. Sanchos beach club. We consulted a map of the area to find that Mr. Sanchos was located a few more miles along the same road heading further away from the cruise ship pier. We had some debate about whether we wanted to ride these heavy bikes any further from the pier. Ultimately our desire to see as much of Cozumel as we could won out and we headed out further West toward Mr. Sanchos. We were pretty hungry too by then and we knew that we could get food there. Not knowing just how far it was made the trip kind of interesting. Eventually we arrived at Mr. Sanchos. We had lunch for about $21 USD which I thought was rather high for Mexican food in Mexico, but the food was good. My wife was pretty tired after lunch so she found a beach chair to relax in while I wanted to have another go at snorkeling. There are a few hundred feet of beach there but there weren't that many people in the water. I soon found out why. I don't know if it was a difference in the current or the coastline, but the water next to Mr. Sanchos was just FULL of jellyfish. There were so many that you could see their pale, translucent bodies in the water but there was no avoiding running into them. I was dedicated to get some more time in the water and to snap some more photos, so I trudged ahead. I would say that in the 15 minutes I was in the water I was stung on every exposed surface of my skin 500 to 1000 times. No exaggeration! I have a pretty high threshold for pain, but the stings on my lips and hands really hurt. I did see some additional species of fish including a rock fish and a beautiful anemone. If the pictures turn out they will be really unique. If they don't, I will at least have some great memories.
Unfortunately by the time I got out of the water for the final time, the weather had turned rather rough. A wind had picked up out of the East and it was starting to rain. We still had a couple of hours to get back to the ship, so we didn't rush out into the storm. When the rain had slacked off a little bit we braved the whipping wind and started out our ride back to the ship. The wind was gusting up to 25 mph by this point making the riding less than fun. My seatpost bolt on the bike was missing, so the seat kept sliding lower and lower as I rode. It was almost comical with the two of us pushing along on these over-heavy, poorly tuned bikes. Railing against the wind with all of our might. My knees coming up to my chest with every pedal stroke. And we had 6 miles of riding ahead of us to get back to the ship. We trudged and fought our way along the coast. We passed Chankanaab on the way back after what seemed like an eternity. About a mile further, we heard a very ominous sound from the back of my wife's bike. Yes, her rear tire had just gone flat with a rush of escaping air. We were still 1.5 miles from the cruise ship pier on rented bikes during a rain storm. Fortunately the next person who passed in a Jeep was a fellow passenger who agreed to take my wife back to the pier while I rode the remaining bike back there by myself. We hid the bike with the flat tire off to the side of the road near a sign and I started off riding back. Not having to worry about Audra keeping up, I just stood up in the pedals and went as fast as I could to get back and get the ride over with. I explained what had happened to the other bike once we were back at the shop. The owner wasn't too happy, but was nice enough under the circumstances. He said he would pick up the bike on the way home that night. We got back on the ship tired and wet. Cozumel was certainly an unforgettable adventure.