Friday, 8 March 2013

Panama Canal Cruise, Day 1 – A Dining Delight

Starting a full day-by-day account of our big Panama Canal cruise, sailing round-trip from Fort Lauderdale with Princess Cruises.
 
Embarkation Day
 
Starting any cruise is always cause for a frisson of excitement at the first sight of your ship, and pulling into Port Everglades certainly achieved that, with the Coral Princess looking like a sleek ocean-going greyhound compared to the bulkier outlines of neighbouring Emerald Princess and the even larger Liberty of the Seas of Royal Caribbean across the port basin.
 
As a quick note for anyone needing car parking facilities here, we used the Park ’n Go option situated between the airport and Port and were extremely impressed by their efficient, friendly service, arriving shortly after 12.30pm and being ushered straight on to a shuttle bus that had us dockside in 10 minutes flat. At $86, it also represents a $64 saving on the cost of the Port’s own parking garage.
 
Once aboard, which took about half an hour, we were able to have a quick look around and enjoy the different feel of this Princess vessel. Considering our most recent voyage was aboard the flamboyant Pride of America of Norwegian Cruise Line, Coral comes across as a distinctly more subdued and refined choice – almost the exact same size but with a greater feel of cruise tradition; not really old fashioned but certainly in touch with her ocean-going roots.
 
The grand central Atrium does offer more than a modicum of glitz and glamour, of course, this shimmering three-deck-high space featuring the most overt and eye-catching example of the industry’s modern face, but otherwise things are noticeably lower key, with things like the Casino and shopping gallery being far less obvious and in-your-face than many other cruising cohorts.
 
The obligatory lifeboat drill was conducted with the minimum of fuss and we were under way shortly after 4pm, with two full sea days to enjoy before our first port of call, Oranjestad on the Dutch island of Aruba, which is just off the South American coast.
 
We were quickly able to find our ‘new favourite spot’ to kick back and relax, with the indoor Lotus Pool area providing a blissful haven from which to enjoy the outdoor view on a comfortable full-length lounger. There was even the distinct possibility that we nodded off for a minute or two, the three-and-a-half hour drive down from Orlando quickly becoming a distant memory.
 
Highlight of our first day aboard goes to dinner in the Bayou Café & Steakhouse, though, an early chance to sample one of the ship’s two main alternative dining options (the other being Italian restaurant, Sabatini’s).
 
With things extremely quiet in the early evening hour, we were able to snag a table at 6.30pm and enjoy a genuinely memorable meal in this wonderfully different venue, part bar, part live-music venue but all restaurant, with delightfully dim lighting and a dark, moody décor that suits its Cajun/Creole style.
 
Under the guidance of our Bulgarian waiter Yordan and Maitre D’ Vincente, we were able to savour a wide sample of the restaurant’s offerings, with a superb appetiser platter followed by their signature salad and Crawfish Bisque, and then topped off by two truly magnificent steaks, the Filet and a sizeable Porterhouse. With a plate of accompaniments that included a startlingly succulent succotash, fried green tomatoes, fingerling potatoes and ‘dirty’ rice, we were both well filled and impressed by the various taste sensations on offer.
 
Of the appetisers, the oysters were good, the piquant prawns excellent and the Cajun sausage absolutely outstanding, with the kind of deep, robust spiciness that would make any New Orleans resident proud. The steaks were both melt-in-the-mouth delicious, cooked to a perfect medium-rare, and the one dessert we managed to try, the Fried Peach Cobbler, completed a superb first evening aboard.
 
We were deeply impressed that our pre-cruise request for a low-sodium diet, where possible, was not only acknowledged but catered for with great adroitness, and we were even offered the lunch and dinner menus for the next day so the galley could make sure our choices would be cooked with minimum salt. For anyone who believes the big ships cannot produce touches that match their small, luxury brethren, it was a refreshing insight.
 
With plenty of evening entertainment on offer, especially live music, we opted for the more subdued choice of the two-deck Universe Lounge and a Panama Canal film, a fascinating docu-drama on the history and building of one of the world’s most amazing engineering achievements. If anything, our excitement for the headline experience of this cruise is now at fever pitch!
 
Tomorrow – A Day in the Caribbean.
 
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 Limited on this link; in the US, call 1866 335 6379, or visit www.princess.com.