Panama Canal on the Sun Princess - 3/16/02 to 3/26/02
Ports of Call: Ft. Lauderdale, FL; Cartagena, Columbia; Panama Canal; Limon, Costa Rica; George Town, Grand Cayman; Cozumel, Mexico; Ft. Lauderdale, FL
Our Panama Canal cruise aboard the Sun Princess was a delight in many ways. We left Port Everglades on Saturday afternoon March 16, 2002. Our best friends, Ray and Bonnie had joined us on our latest adventure. We had a great time and a wonderful cruise. The weather was incredibly good. During the 10 days we had about 5 minutes of light rain, where else, but in the Costa Rican rain forest. The temperatures were in the high 70’s and low 80’s. Perfection! However, it did feel much hotter when you were in the tropical sun. This was our second ten-day cruise and we found it to be the perfect length. Seven-day cruises always leave us hankering for a little more. With 10 days, we’re satisfied.
What a gorgeous ship! It is tastefully appointed and well laid out. It has been very well maintained for the most part. There was metal surface painting and wood treatment needed on our balcony and I imagine on others. Since they are always occupied, it must be difficult to keep them up to the same maintenance schedule as the public areas. Due to the high number of passengers for this size ship, the public areas were crowded at most events. You had to get to the theaters very early or you wouldn’t have a seat. It was also difficult to find a seat at the Horizon Court Buffet. Even the card room and library were filled most of the time.
On another note, this ship is the most unstable that I have been on. The seas were never bad, but the ship did sway much more than I have previously experienced. I didn’t hear people complaining about being seasick; but everyone noticed the rocking. I don’t know if there are mechanical problems or just that the ship’s design is flawed. It doesn’t seem to be a problem with the Sun’s sister ships.
We had heard many times that the rooms are small. They are. We had balcony cabin C-608 on the port side of the 9th floor, the Caribe deck. We were concerned that there would not be enough closet space, since there are very few drawers in the room, and all of them were in the desk. Fortunately, the bed was high enough off the floor to be able to put the suitcases underneath. This allowed us to use them as a dirty clothes hamper. There is only one plug in the room, which is by the desk. An extension cord is a necessity. The bathroom is also smaller than normal, but it must be laid out well, since it never seemed uncomfortable. The balcony was a disappointment. It is very small. They have a small round plastic table and two uncomfortable chairs, which we didn’t even use. We pushed it all to the side and just stood at the rail. The way the balcony is set up it is very private; however it feels like you are looking through a window due to the way it is framed in metal. It really made you feel like you were inside an old TV looking out. Also the door was very difficult to open and close. Having made numerous critical remarks about the balcony, I am still glad we had it. You can’t beat the view, especially in the canal. Since passenger ships go through the right side, the port side of the ship gets to see all the workings in the middle. You also get to watch the other ships go through the other side. One other plus on the port side is that the ship’s photographers take pictures of you waving at them, since they get off and run along side as you move through the canal.
We had requested the early seating in the Regency Dining Room, and it is a lovely setting. First off, let me say that we had a great waiter named Peres. There were nine at our table, and it was a very congenial group. However, I have been on three Princess cruises in the last eight months, so I am getting burned out on the same menus on all of the ships. Normally we eat in the dining room at night and the buffet for breakfast and lunch. Due to the number of days at sea and the excursions we took, we were able to go to the dining room much more often on this trip. We really enjoyed the breakfasts in the Regency. The food was just better than the buffet. I realize that they use some of the same stuff, but the omelets were much better and the bacon was crispier. The buffet food at lunch wasn’t as appealing as most cruises I have been on. There were more fish dishes, which don’t appeal to me that much. Of course, that is a personal preference. The food quality was fine, and I did find that the deserts were much better in all restaurants than we had had on the Crown on last year’s Baltic cruise. We were very lucky in that our tablemates were a perfect match for us.
One major onboard disappointment was in the way the entertainment was scheduled. There would be a production number in the Princess Theater at 8:15 and 10:30 on one night, and the same show was done again at 8:15 the next night. On the second night they would then fill the empty spot on the 10:30 schedule with a movie. The entertainment in the Vista lounge would follow the same type of schedule. This meant that you only had one entertainment venue per day, unless you wanted to watch a movie; but the movies were hard to watch, since the picture was blown up too much. They didn’t have a wide screen, the color was faded and the picture was out of focus.
The production numbers were good, although we had seen one of the shows on other Princess cruises. The lead singers, particularly the female lead, were weaker than on prior cruises, but the dancers and support performers were really good. The comedian Frank Berry was very good. He gave a lecture on the afternoon of his second day that shouldn’t be missed. It was enlightening and very funny. The best performer of the cruise was ventriloquist Dan Horn. He did one of the best performances I had ever seen. People were gasping for air due to their constant laughing. I think my ribs are still sore from laughing so hard.
Sunday and Monday were spent at sea heading for Cartagena, Columbia. During the day there were several activities going on. I attended the port and shopping talk and also an informative seminar on emeralds. The art auctions are the major entertainment during the day and having been to several during the past year I didn’t need to see the same pictures over again. In addition the auctioneer wasn’t too great. He was pompous, disorganized and didn’t really seem to have much experience. I just don’t think that the Princess art auctions are conducted as professionally, nor do they offer the selection that the Park West auctions do.
On Tuesday we arrived in Cartagena, Columbia. I was really surprised at the size of the city.
We had scheduled the city tour. The first place we visited was the La Popa Monastery. It is situated high upon a hill, and we had a beautiful view of the surrounding city.
Unfortunately, the things we remember the most were the young beggars. The monastery is not only on a mountaintop; the cliffs around it are rather steep. From these cliffs, bars blocked access to the area where we were. Young boys of perhaps 8 to 10 years old tied plastic cups to long poles. They climbed the cliffs and perched upon a narrow ledge. They then stuck the cups up through the bars to beg for money. It was both dangerous and pitiful.
We also found the vendors in Cartagena to be extremely aggressive. Usually a firm “No” is sufficient to discourage street vendors, but these people were entirely too persistent. It made returning to the bus after each stop like running a gauntlet. It is really a shame, because Cartagena is a beautiful and interesting place. Unfortunately, two days after we were there, an American tourist was kidnapped. The tourist was not on a cruise, but the U.S. government has declared Columbia to be too dangerous for visitation, and has asked the cruise lines not to stop there.
We arrived at the Panama Canal on Wednesday morning. From the cruise message board online, Mike had learned that there was a little known area on deck 11 where the canal transit could be advantageously viewed. It was a good spot to stand at the front of the ship, and it gave a bird’s eye view. Also, our stateroom was on the port side, so when we were tired of standing on deck 11 or when we got too warm, we could relax on our own balcony and watch the procedure.
The Promenade deck offers a different perspective, and gives one a view that is level with the canal itself. The ship is actually pulled through the lock system by a type of train engine, called a mule. It is steered by a special canal pilot rather than the captain of the ship. Amazingly, the Sun Princess only has two feet of clearance on each side as it transits the canal! Talk about precision steering!! We entered the first lock at 8:24 A.M., and were in Gatun Lake by 10:02 A.M. The first picture shows the different water levels of the locks as well as how narrow the actual locks are.
We started back through the locks at 12:45 P.M., and cleared the last lock at 2:10 P.M. We then docked at Colon 2000. While we waited for the passengers who had taken land tours to catch up with us, we were allowed to disembark and do a little souvenir shopping in an area right by the dock. The only reason that I mentioned this is because of some unusual sights that greeted us.
We had been warned that on the tour to the village of the Embera Indian tribe (one we didn’t take), the natives wore little or no clothing. We did not, however, expect them to be on the dock in Colon 2000! The women were totally topless, and the men wore nothing but loincloths! They were mostly older Indians, and there was nothing particularly sexy about them.
The shopping vendors were located inside a big building, sort of like an airplane hanger, right at the bottom of the ship gangway. It was a very good setup. Some of the Emberas were inside selling their crafts. These vendors were definitely not the older crowd. These were the young, topless women and men. So be forewarned, if that sort of thing bothers you.
Our next port was at Limon, Costa Rica. We did the 8:15 AM Eco River Adventure. It was really pleasant due to the cooler temperatures. First we were taken on a 1 hour 15 min. bus ride through the banana plantations to reach our boat. During the ride, the guide told us about the area, so it wasn’t too boring a trip. We then boarded the Mawamba boat and cruised down the river. Our guide pointed out crocodiles, iguanas, and numerous birds and cranes along the banks of the river. He showed us a sloth and a Howler monkey high up in a tree. I actually spotted a sloth before he did! I didn’t know what it was from that distance, but I knew it was something!
It was just a great educational excursion. Everyone seemed to enjoy their excursions in Costa Rica. One warning though! Due to the popularity of this tour, an additional tour was scheduled. One of the couples at our table booked this extra excursion, but had it cancelled at the last minute. They got as far as the gangway, and had to turn around due to the independent guides protesting and threatening to prevent the bus from completing the tour. The police were all over the dock, and the tour director decided that it was not safe. Although they were disappointed, they were glad that Princess was more interested in their safety than in the money to be made.
Friday, 3/22/02 and Saturday, 3/23/02
Friday was another day at sea. We were on our way to George Town, Grand Cayman and the highlight of the cruise as far as I was concerned. Mike went on a certified scuba dive and Ray went on the Discovery dive. Bonnie and I had booked the Stingray Sandbar Snorkeling. It was absolutely fantastic! We were taken by boat out to the Stingray City Sandbar. As our boat approached the area, we looked out over the water and saw a long line of big black spots heading in our direction. It was a unique sight, almost like scenes in a movie when one army advances on another! As our guide told us, the rays recognize the sound of the boat motors and come a runnin’. They know it is lunchtime. We were given a short talk on stingray etiquette and the do’s and don’ts. Then we entered the waist / chest deep water. Rays of every size immediately surrounded us. Some had wingspans of three or four feet. Their bellies feel like velvet, but their backs are rough. They don’t have teeth, but rather suck their food into their mouths. We had our pictures taken while holding a stingray. Totally awesome!!
After our stingray encounter, we went downtown shopping. I found some tanzanite earrings to go with my pendant. I also got a gold stingray charm. Bonnie found a beautiful opal slide for her Omega necklace. Mike was looking for a Rado watch, but he couldn’t find one in the color he wanted. He hoped he could find it in Cozumel.
Next stop was in Cozumel, Mexico. We didn’t book any tours since we had been here two or three times before. We planned to do some major shopping, and show Bonnie and Ray the ropes. I must say we were shocked at how much the waterfront has grown. The hotel we had stayed in several years ago while on a dive trip was in the middle of nowhere. Back then, there was nothing between that hotel and downtown, and we had taken a taxi to get to the stores. Now, it is entirely developed – stores all the way along the waterfront into town.
Cozumel Pier Cozumel waterfront
Bonnie & Ray w/ their treasures Bike-taxi on the pier
Monday was another day at sea. I really enjoyed ending the cruise with a sea day because I could take my time packing. One of the passengers had a heart attack that morning. When we got close to Key West, a U.S. Coast Guard rescue boat came out and took the gentleman off of our ship. From Key West they were going to fly him to the hospital in Miami. The evacuation procedure was interesting to watch from our balcony.
We reached Ft. Lauderdale early Tuesday morning. The disembarkation process went very smoothly, and we were off of the ship by 9:30 A.M. Unfortunately, our exciting adventure was not over yet. Since the ship had docked at a different pier, Mike had to catch the shuttle to the other parking lot to get the car. The area outside was packed with people and luggage. He placed me in a particular spot with our luggage, so he would know where to find me. Bonnie and Ray were standing with their luggage about 20 ft. away from me. I almost went over to where they were, but I told myself no, Mike would be looking for me right where he had left me. So, I asked Bonnie and Ray to come over to where I was, and they did. Within minutes, we heard a loud noise and people screaming. I looked up, and an 82 year old man was backing his car into the crowd exactly where Bonnie and Ray had been standing!
He had backed up to the curb to pick up his people, and had put the car in reverse instead of drive. When he started backing up, he got confused and pushed on the accelerator instead of the brake. He injured 15 people, with 11 of them requiring hospitalization. A baggage porter’s legs received the most serious injury. After the initial shock, I started thinking about how close I had come to loosing my best buddies. They would have been the second in line had they not come over to where I was.
Meanwhile, as Mike drove into the pier area all he saw were flashing lights, fire trucks, police cars, National Guardsmen with machine guns, and bodies on the sidewalk. Of course the first thing he thought was that there had been a terrorist attack! They made him go park in another area, and he had to walk over to where we were. He said that it was the longest walk of his life. But, by the grace of God, we were all okay. The good Lord was watching over us that morning.
Below is a link to the Shutterfly albums with other photos from the vacations:
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