This was the infamous Panamaniac CruiseMates Cruise, and it was a wonderful time. We had a relatively small but great group of people. It was nice to meet people from the message boards face to face and share a cruise together. If you get the opportunity to do a CruiseMates cruise, I would recommend it.
My wife Betty and I flew into Fort Lauderdale two days early. Fort Lauderdale is one of the best cruise ports and airports to fly into. The airport is convenient to the port and a taxi to most hotels in the area costs less than $10.
We stayed at the Embassy Suites and were very happy with it. We have stayed there two times before and for some reason things seemed "nicer" than before. Perhaps it was because we had more time to enjoy the facility. I used Priceline.com and was able to get the hotel for about 1/3 the amount of the lowest published rate.
I will not go into the surprise dinner that was thrown for me at 15th Street Fisheries but I want to thank everyone for doing this wonderful thing for me.
Now for the review.
Embarkation: It was quite good. Princess knows how to handle people. We arrived at the pier at about 11:30 a.m. and we were onboard by 12:30 p.m.
Ship: The ship is absolutely beautiful. It has dark wood accents with an elegant feeling but still comfortable and not stuffy. Gold tones and marble accentuate the features. The five-story atrium was great. I am not a fan of atria, but this one was well done and added a focal point to the ship. The mix of lounges, restaurants, purser's desk and shops made this the true center of the ship.
The flow of the ship was a bit confusing for the first few days. It took my wife and me a while to figure out which elevators went to all decks and which ones did not. For some reason I had a hard time finding the Lotus Pool, but when I did I was well rewarded. It is one of the most beautiful pools on any ship I have seen.
Theaters: The Princess Theater was a great venue for shows -- great sight lines and not a bad seat in the theater. The Universe Lounge was a bit different. If you were on the upper level, the glass under the railing on the second level distorted your view, so it was not a great place to sit.
Lounges: All were excellent; my favorite was Crooners, overlooking the atrium -- a great place for a before-dinner drink. The ship has a very friendly bar staff. Most of the staff in Crooners called me by name after the first day. Explorers Lounge was a great show lounge with very good acoustics and enough room for dancing or just sitting back and watching. The WheelHouse Lounge was beautiful, but I must admit I wasn't there too much. On the evenings when I did stop by for a drink, it was almost empty. It may not have been on other occasions.
Pool Areas: As I said, the Lotus Pool is beautiful. It has a swim-against-the-current feature that caused many people problems if they did not know it was turned on. The pool is 6' 7" deep and the current is great for swimming but not for pool lounging. Pressing a button on the right side of the vent can turn off the current.
The main pool is fairly large but I will admit that I stayed away just because the Lotus was so nice. There is an abundance of padded lounge chairs everywhere, and I personally witnessed pool staffers removing towels from "saved" lounges on at least three occasions.
My wife's favorite place for sun was the Splash Pool on the very top deck. It is by the front funnel and was a wonderful place for sun; the 8-inch deep splash pool was a nice place to cool off for a few minutes. There were usually few people up there so it was quite private and there was a wonderful view.
The Cabin: Our cabin was a category AA mini-suite (B215) that was comparable to mini-sui tes on Grand Class ships. It had plenty of room and storage space. The balcony was a good 8 by 12 feet with a three-foot round table and two reclining plastic chairs. One negative about the cabin: I would prefer to have doors on the closet. The light for this area was by the front door, so whenever you wanted to turn the light on you had to walk around to the front door to do so. Also the light switch for the bathroom is outside the bathroom door. It would have been nice to have one inside the bathroom. The bathroom itself was nice, with shelves, vanity and a full-size tub. I heard my fellow Panamaniacs comment that the showers in the regular balcony cabins are very small -- the kind where you soap up the sides and spin.
Food: Food was good to excellent, with the majority being good. The rabbit and scallops stood out as my personal favorites. Desserts were excellent for the most part. (I tried almost all of them.) Others loved the souffles but I found them a bit too "eggy" for my taste. Ice creams and tortes were wonderful.
Dining room breakfast and lunch were excellent. Food was hot and well-presented, and the staff overall was as good as the dinner staff. On one day our lunch waiter and assistant were a bit "grumpy" but nothing that was offensive. We ate most of our lunches in the dining room and at least half of the breakfasts.
Alternative Restaurants: Sabatinis was good but not excellent. It makes up in quantity what the food lacks in quality. The sampler entree that includes a bit of everything was somewhat bland and not presented in an appealing way. The service was fine but not attentive. The maitre d' never explained the presentation and procedure to us; our waiter did so when asked but did it poorly. Don't bother to bring a tie for Sabatinis or even a jacket. I wore a dark suit and was almost uncomfortably overdressed. Casual attire was the norm. A jacket and polo shirt was about the most formal attire I saw. I would not visit Sabatinis again.
Bayou Cafe: The food was wonderful, the service only fair. We went for Sunday brunch. When we made reservations we were specifically told that it was a brunch. It turned out to be the regular menu. The food was spicy and had the New Orleans flavor to it, but it was not overly spicy for my liking.
I noticed both alternative restaurants were never full. At lunchtime at the Bayou Cafe, there was one other group of four. At Sabatinis for dinner there were many open tables. I witnessed this every time I walked by either restaurant. I think Princess needs to make the experience worth the extra charge to really encourage people to try them. Overall, I would say the food and service in the dining rooms was at the same level as the specialty restaurants, but for an extra charge the food and service should be at a much higher level.
Entertainment: I will admit I attended very few shows. The production number "Let's Rock" was OK at best. The performers were very talented, but the choreographer should be fired. A couple of comedians gave me some chuckles but I have seen much better at local comedy clubs and on other cruise ships.
The lounge acts were very good to excellent. I can't remember their names but be assured that if you like anything from swing to rock you will find something to your liking.
Negatives: One thing I really did not like was requirement to have your bags packed and set outside your door between 6 and 8 p.m. on the last night. This is far too early. It basically ruined the last afternoon of the cruise. We usually pack up everything just before dinner, then put our dinner clothes in the bags after dinner and set them out in the hall.
I am not a fan of the layout of Princess' Lido Buffets. It is chaos in action. The flow is bad, with people going both ways, having to cross in front of others to go from the cold to hot food sections. The layout of food is illogical. You are constantly crossing back and forth to get a roll, butter, desert, entree, and salad. People who are coming back for seconds enter in the middle and cause even more traffic problems. I hope this is one thing they will change and make more like Carnival's ships, which have great flow in their buffets.
Otherwise the ship is gorgeous, the people friendly and the staff attentive.
Formal Nights: It looks like formal attire is gradually going away. Tuxedos were worn by fewer than 30 percent of the men, and even dark suits were not the norm. Most men wore only a jacket and tie. I don't know if this is a bad thing but I have noticed that the classic formal is becoming a thing of the past.
The Panamaniacs were a great group. Lisa, Jane, Betty and I were also Trivia-maniacs. We won most of time and gave away a number of prizes because we already had them.
Our Halloween party was fun but because of a late arrival back in Cristobal, the turnout wasn't as high as hoped for. But the bunch of us that made it had a wonderful time. There were "Cereal Killers", Elvis, Wizards, Maidens, Genies -- and the true "Island Princess" was there to celebrate Halloween. There were also normal mortals who enjoyed the time.
Dinner each night was a joy. Our waiter Henry and assistant Pom were fun and did their jobs almost perfectly. The company and conversation were always enjoyable.
Ports: I won't go too much into them, but the Panama Canal is a wonder to behold and a technological marvel. We did the Dome Car train excursion and enjoyed it. The bus ride at the Pacific end, to the Miraflores Locks, was not too enjoyable but that could have something to do with my bus phobia. One thing I would have changed is less bus and more train. The train travels up to 70 mph and makes it a little hard to see some things or get a picture. I would be very happy if they cut the speed in half and eliminated the bus trip, or if they added a lunch stop at a restaurant in Panama City. The lunch served on the train was a joke -- basically a box with a couple of Ritz crackers, banana chips and cookie.
Jamaica: We just went out and did some shopping and I forced my wife to buy a couple of baubles. She is still in sticker shock, even though she loves the pieces.
Grand Cayman: We did not get off the ship and spent the day as basically a sea day.
Cozumel: We did the Palancar and Columbia reefs snorkel tour. It was good but there were too many people. The tequila and beer flowed freely after the snorkeling. I stress "after". I like this because other excursions open the bar before hand and this can cause problems. The snorkeling was good but not spectacular. Turtles, octopus and a number of fish were seen but not in abundance.
Conclusion: It was a wonderful cruise. This is a great ship for this voyage or Alaska. There is plenty of deck space and viewing spaces. I would sail the Island Princess again in a heartbeat. I would also sail through the Panama Canal again but next time it will be a full transit. I do hope that my experience with Sabatinis was not the norm, but I also hope Princess works on making the alternative restaurants a more special experience. If you are looking for a younger crowd, nightlife and great shows this may not be for you, but if you want a cruise that gives you Personal Choice dining or Traditional, a beautiful decor, mostly great service, and nice cabins, this ship is for you.