Over the holidays, we went on a 15-day Panama Canal Transit from Ft Lauderdale to Los Angeles, on Emerald Princess. The cruise was fantastic – and rather than a detailed chronological review, I wanted to share our highlights and lowlights. For context, we have two kids (<10 years), and this was our fourth Christmas cruise on Princess. We’ve previously been on Holiday cruises on Regal, Star and Caribbean Princess. We’ve previously also been on Carnival, NCL and Celebrity cruises, but Princess has been our default cruise line for the past few years.
Sorry this post is long!
There were many things we enjoyed about this cruise, but to call out a few:
Ports and Itinerary – we enjoyed all of the ports on this itinerary. In Cartagena, we went to the old city and then the bird sanctuary right where the boat docks. In Puerto Amador, we went on the Embera Indian village visit – very enjoyable. In Puntarenas, we went on the rainforest aerial tram, butterfly garden and sloth sanctuary tour – a big hit with the kids. In the other ports (San Juan del Sur, Huatulco, and Puerto Vallarta) we mostly just went to the beaches and/or short city walks – each with its own flavor. One other thing we enjoyed in this itinerary was the mix of sea days and port days … it was good to enjoy a relaxing sea day after every one or two port days.
Panama Canal – naturally, this was a highlight of the cruise, and it was amazing to see this wonder. The ship went through the new (Agua Clara and Cocoli) locks. We alternated between viewing areas on multiple decks (16, 15, 8, 7) over the course of the transit. They had commentary on the open decks and in the buffet area throughout the course of the day – giving interesting facts as well as calling out points of interest as we passed them. I hadn’t realized it ahead of time, but the transit was a full-day affair … we approached the Atlantic locks around 6 AM, and by the time we were in the Pacific it was past 6 PM. The decks were really crowded early in the morning as we approached the locks, but the crowds thinned during the day (especially when it drizzled a little). It was still crowded, just not as much. They had ship photographers on land taking photos of passengers as we transited the locks. Some folks had made posters they held up while being photographed. I had read “The Path Between the Seas” before the cruise – I highly recommend that book to more deeply understand the magnitude of what the Panama Canal builders achieved!
Crew – As always, the ship crew were amazing. They were very friendly and made the cruise memorable for us (especially the kids). I particularly appreciated the waiters in WFM and at Tea Time who’d come talk to the kids every day, the servers at International Café, the ship photographers who worked hard to get smiles, and the room stewards (who even made towel animals on a couple of days!), Aaron (CD), Sophie (Assistant CD) and the entertainment staff, the cleaning staff around the ship … in short, pretty much everyone. All with pleasant smiles on their faces! The crew on every cruise we’ve been on have worked hard to make it fun for us, and this was no exception. And as usual we spent the final morning filling out a thick stack of “Moments that Matter” feedback cards.
Santa – This was a holiday cruise, and Santa came to the Piazza to hand out gifts to the little kids. This is such a fun tradition on Princess. (The captain or bridge officer of the watch usually makes announcements 5-10 minutes earlier saying they have spotted an unidentified flying object or boat, and as it gets closer they announce it’s a sled, they see reindeer … and then that Santa has landed on the ship and coming down to the Piazza … and then finally Santa walks down to the Piazza, preceded by the band playing “Santa Claus is coming to town”. Santa sits in the Piazza, and there’s a long line of kids who go to Santa one a time to get a gift and pose for photos). It’s such fun event for the kids. One thing we liked on this cruise was that since the ship was going to be in port on Christmas day, they had Santa come the previous evening. On previous cruises, Santa came during the day on Christmas day even when the ship was in port … which meant we had to cut short our port trip that day to be there for Santa’s visit.
Duck Hunt! – I have to thank our fellow CC members for this. Our kids found a few hidden toy ducks over the course of the cruise, and it was really fun for them. The best part for me was that they never complained about waiting in any lines on this cruise no matter how long it took – they happily used that as opportunities to go duck hunting while we stood in line! It was the first time I had even heard of the hidden ducks … thank you CC members! Also thank you to the Santa’s helpers who left fun little things in the stockings outside our door.
There were many other “standard” things we enjoyed about the cruise, such as the International Café, kids club, tea time, “British Pub Lunch” day, the Wake Show write-ins, music and football games on MUTS, daily sudoku/crosswords, and so on … too numerous to call out in detail, but all of them together helped make it a great vacation.
Of course, not everything was perfect, and there were a few things we didn’t enjoy as much:
Flooded Stateroom - we woke up at 4 AM on day 3 of our cruise to wet, soggy carpets across the whole cabin! Apparently one of the pipes in the bathroom started leaking overnight, and overflowed to the room. Everything on the floor (suitcases, bags, formal shoes, backpacks ... including stuff inside the backpacks) was wet. Princess laundered and sanitized the stuff, but we ended up having to throw away a bunch of things. They also sent some folks with vacuums to mop up the carpets, and had large fans in the room all day to dry it out (making the room inaccessible to us). Despite this, the room had a very musty odor, and Princess finally offered an alternate room late that night (~10 PM ... well past the kids' bed times). Even then there were disconnects between guest services and the hotel staff about the move. It was a disappointing day overall, and we had to deal with some ongoing issues for the next several days. But, you know, stuff happens, and I kept reminding myself that even a disappointing day on a cruise is better than a full day at work! We moved on from it and still had a fun vacation overall. Princess did give some OBC, and a couple of free onboard services to help with the inconvenience.
Ship Age - The ship seemed generally well maintained, and had new carpets, mattresses and so on after the April dry dock. But there were a few minor incidents over the course of the cruise where I think the age showed. On embarkation day, there was water dripping from the ceiling in Lido WFM buffet area. On day 3, our room flooded due to leaky pipes as noted above. Later in the cruise, someone was complaining about their bathroom getting flooded that afternoon due to leaky pipes. In one of the tendering ports, we were delayed by an hour due to “technical issues” with the ship tenders. One evening, the entire ship lost power! The engines shut down (so did the room lights and TV, most deck lights, MUTS, hot tubs, etc), and only emergency lighting was on. It was fully restored in 15 min – the captain came on air three times to reassure us that though we were drifting, we were in navigationally safe waters with no other traffic. On a different day, one of the production shows was cancelled as the stage lift equipment stopped working – it was rescheduled to the following day. Again, none of these were big in and of themselves … but I’ve never run into any of the above on other Princess ships I’ve been on. These could’ve been isolated incidents – so if you’re booked on Emerald, know that it’s still a great ship that I’d happily go back on!
Food – This is of course subjective, but overall we were not impressed with the food choices, compared to other Princess cruises we’ve been on. I have to note that we only go to WFM – so the MDR food might have been good. Particularly if you’re vegetarian, there were not many choices on several of the days in WFM. I think I still did put on a couple of pounds on the cruise though … so the hot dogs, pizzas, ice-cream and desserts were clearly not all that bad 😉
Entertainment – This is also very subjective, but we were not impressed with the entertainment assortment on this cruise. On other cruises, we’ve seen more variety (more comedians, acrobats, magicians, and other “kid-friendly” shows), compared to this cruise where it was mostly singers and vocalists other than the production shows. The performers were good, but we’d have enjoyed more variety. Also, they hardly had any performances in the Piazza … the Panama brochure said there’d be some “Panama carnival” festival in the Piazza to highlight local flavors – we didn’t have that on this cruise (unless I missed it). Some of the organized events (in particular the Stargazing Event) were complete flops.
Overall we feel happy and very fortunate that we got to go on a great cruise, enjoy quality time as a family and see the marvel that’s Panama Canal.
Thanks for reading and let me know if you have any questions!