Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Panama Canal Cruise - Final Day

Concluding the live blog of our day-by-day Panama Canal cruise, sailing round-trip from Fort Lauderdale with Princess Cruises.

At Sea

We have come to the 10th and last day of our grand voyage, and will be extremely reluctant to disembark back in Fort Lauderdale tomorrow. It has been one of our most memorable cruises of recent years and we have loved the more laid-back but elegant style of the Coral Princess.

Obviously having five full sea days (with one extra from missing the Grand Cayman call) has helped to put this voyage firmly in the chill-out zone, but the ship's huge capacity to provide a great variety of relaxation areas is also notable. Put simply, if you want a slightly more old-fashioned, get-away-from-it-all type of cruise, this could well be for you.

While the Coral does have the obvious glitzy, modern amenities like the Casino, shopping district, full theatre, Movies Under The Stars, full-scale Spa and variety of alternative dining outlets, there is definitely something rather traditional and refined about her overall ambience, and it is immensely enjoyable, almost as if she is one of the 'secret gems' of the Princess fleet - not obvious, but very rewarding for those who enjoy a slower pace.

Given another full day to enjoy everything aboard, we have to decide this morning between the usual array of daytime activities - including a Spa seminar on 'secrets to a flatter stomach,' Morning trivia, a bridge lecture, an Outlet Sale in all the shops, Snowball Jackpot Bingo and a Culinary Demonstration & Galley Tour - or to give The Sanctuary a try, and move into total chill-out mode.

The Sanctuary wins, and we find only a handful of fellow passengers enjoying the expansive confines of the two aft decks, where full loungers, chairs and tables are set out both in the sun and shade, and the small Aft Pool is available for a cooling dip.

With 'Serenity Stewards' to provide chilled drinks (cucumber and orange water, iced tea), or hot tea and coffee, and an overall atmosphere of pure relaxation, we are happy to spend a few hours here (it is $10 per person for a half-day, or $20 all day) and then head for the Bayou Cafe for one of the signature Pub Lunches, which goes down extremely well (the likes of Fish & Chips, Steak & Kidney Pie, a Ploughman's Lunch and Bangers & Mash, plus Jam Roly-Poly).

However, we are not back on our loungers in The Sanctuary for long before the Captain has a serious announcement to make - one of the passengers is in need of urgent medical treatment and a Coast Guard helicopter has been despatched to pick them up off the ship, a delicate maneuver that requires all passengers to be cleared from the open decks for safety reasons.

That effectively puts an end to our Sanctuary time, but we are obviously more mindful of the fact someone's life could be in danger, hence we - and all our fellow passengers - do not feel put out in any way, and we are all keeping our fingers crossed for a safe airlift and successful conclusion in hospital (presumably in Miami). 

Instead of more lounging, we opt for the afternoon movie in the Princess Theater, Silver Linings Playbook, another of the Oscar-nominated films which seem to have been omni-present on this cruise. After the failings of Argo and the truly atrocious Beasts of the Southern Wild, we are charmed by Silver Linings, which has a genuine, old-fashioned heart and plenty of high-quality acting (we have already seen Lincoln, which is also on today, and rate it by far the best of all the nominees we have watched. How it didn't get the Oscar for Best Picture will always astound us).

By the time we exit the theatre, it is time to head back to our stateroom and start the hateful business of packing ready to put our suitcases out for collection this evening. This is always the one real bugbear of a cruise as it isn't something that can be done at the last minute and you have to plan around your apparel for the final evening and next morning.

We have a 7pm dinner reservation back at the Bayou Cafe & Steakhouse, where we completely fell in love with the place on our first night aboard. With Manager Vicente and our favourite waiter, Yordan, we are extremely happy to enjoy the fine fare here and the gentle jazz of the Argo Trio.

The final evening's entertainment is a mixed bag of the Farewell Variety Show, featuring the likes of stand-out vocalist Travis Turpin, comedian Steve Caouette and the ship's singers and dancers, the Princess Pop Star Final (not our cup of maritime tea) and the International Crew Show, which is usally a lot of fun.

Our final thoughts on the large-scale evening entertainment is that this probably isn't the ship's strongest suit. The guest performers are all well worthwhile, but the resident singers are only OK and the dancers sometimes lack the necessary snap and sizzle for this kind of thing. The musicians around the vessel vary from the highly proficient main band, to the great sounds of the Argo Trio, and the more mundance dance bands and pianist (although classical pianist Antoni Wcislo always sounds smooth and listenable).

We do manage to sign off in style, though, by taking part in the Multimedia Disney Trivia contest in the Explorers Lounge. My wife is a distinct Disney expert and, by joining forces with another couple, we find ourselves trivia champions for the second time in a few days and have a bottle of champagne to share for our troubles!

It is a fitting sign-off to a wonderful cruise, and one we would heartily recommend for those who like a slower-paced voyage, with fewer children around and a more 'grown-up' overall vibe. The itinerary is definitely more for those who like history and culture (and some wildlife), and not so much for those who want lots of beaches and shopping (stick to the northern and eastern Caribbean for that).

The Panama Canal was the undoubted highlight, even with only a partial transit, and the immensity, complexity and smooth-functioning of the Gatun Locks will stay long in our minds. But both Cartagena and Limon were definite hits with us, too.

Our vessel will also have to be one of the stars of the show, though, as she proved an admirable travelling vehicle for the 10 days and one we would be very happy to cruise on at any stage in future. The forthcoming new Royal Princess may be making all the headlines right now, but the Coral is definitely no slouch and, what she may lack in glitz, she certainly makes up for in elegant sophistication.

So, that was our full Princess Cruises experience, sailing round-trip from Port Everglades and returning to only a slight delay through immigration on our disembarkation (it was a Sunday, after all). We'd be happy to answer any questions you may have about the ship - and a full review will feature in the Summer edition of World of Cruising!

For more info and bookings – in the UK, call Princess Cruises on 0843 373 0333 or visit the expert cruise agents of The Cruise Line Ltd on this link; in the US, call 1866 335 6379, or visit www.princess.com.