A Panama Canal Cruise is often on the bucket list for cruisers as it was for us. The “ports of call” on this type of cruise itinerary are typically sunny, beachy destinations in Mexico and South and Central America.
But that’s not why we chose this cruise. We chose a full transit Panama Canal Cruise because we wanted to transit the Panama Canal.
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I always travel with my Kindle for reading. In preparation for this trip, I downloaded and started reading “The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870 – 1914” – by David McCullough.
If you want to know how this critical transportation structure came about, this is the definitive book to read. McCullough does an excellent job keeping the story moving; however, the book is nearly 700 pages long, not a quick read.
We also chose to do a west-to-east cruise to save flying from California to Florida. Previously we did a partial Panama Canal transit that truly intrigued us, so this time we are doing the full-monty.
Panama Canal Cruise Embarkation Day
It is not incredibly busy outside the embarkation area for Princess Cruises, so curiously, we don’t see a porter. This may be because the Port of San Pedro (Los Angeles) doesn’t have several cruise ships heading out every day. The porters are at your car or bus at most ports when you arrive, grabbing your bags before you can even think.
You never know how long it will take to get all your bags once they are dropped at their pier. This is why it is always recommended to bring a carry-on with you when you board. You will want a change of clothes and the basics to get you through dinner if your main luggage doesn’t arrive until late.
The Princess staff at the port greeted us, reviewed our tickets, and directed us to the check-in for “Suites” as this is what we booked. The check-in process goes relatively quickly. We receive our “sea pass,” a card about the size of a credit card at check-in.
This card acts as your room key, credit card on the ship, and identification card. You must have your sea pass with you every time you board or leave the ship. On Princess, they have replaced the sea pass with “Medallions,” but other cruise companies like Holland America Line still use the card system.
With card in hand, we head for the ship. We like to board as early as we can to get organized and tour the ship before the evening festivities. The Coral Princess is a mid-size cruise ship at 91,627 tons. She is 965 feet long, 203 feet high, and can accommodate 2,000 guests in 1,000 cabins with a crew of 895.
Staterooms On The Coral Princess And What They Cost
Staterooms (aka cabins) range in size and amenities from small inside cabins to grand multi-room suites. Obviously, stateroom prices increase dramatically as you move up. On the Princess website, Interior staterooms for a Panama Canal Cruise currently start from $1,499 per person. Not a bad deal at just $100 per day!
On the high end, the Penthouse Suite (around 550 sq. ft.) with all the perks (wifi package, premier beverage package with tips, full onboard gratuities included, and a $50 per person onboard spending credit) will run you $8,351 per person or $557 per day. Five times more money for room to spread out. Remember, everything else on the ship is available to you at the lower price.
For those minimalists out there, interior staterooms might fit the bill. After all, as many cruisers say, you’re only in your room to sleep. But if you are like us, introverted and needing your own space, you may want a bigger stateroom.
Our Panama Canal Cruise Stateroom
We go to our max budget and book a suite, not the Penthouse suite, but a pretty comfortable room nonetheless. We find our stateroom, the Bora Bora Suite, on the starboard side of Deck 10 (Caribe deck).
The room is well-appointed, with a sitting area separated from the bedroom with a curtain. It is around 470 sq. ft.; roughly equal to two veranda (balcony) cabins.
The main space serves as a small living area with a couch (that converts into a bed), coffee table, and chair. There is a desk area, a wet bar, and a small fridge. Over the desk is a flat-screen TV, and on the ocean side of the room, balcony access through sliding doors.
There is a queen-sized bed in the bedroom (that can be separated into two twin beds if you choose). On one side is an extended vanity area and a large (nearly walk-in) closet. In front of the bed is another flat-screen TV. On the other side are sliding doors out to the balcony.
The bathroom is fantastic. The toilet and vanity are separated from the tub and shower area with a real door, and there is an oversized jetted tub, separate from a spacious stand-up shower.
“Roommates” have the ability for one person to be taking a shower or bath. While at the same time, the other can still use the facilities in private. These are not typical bathroom accommodations on a ship.
An Abundance of Common Space On The Coral Princess
After our suitcases arrive, we unpack and head out to explore the ship.
Other passengers are milling around the lounges and decks, but there is plenty of space for everyone. Actually, we find the common areas of the ship to feel surprisingly uncrowded.
Coral Princess and her sister ship, the Island Princess, were built for transiting the Panama Canal and are two of Princess’s five Panamax ships. The Coral and Island are outfitted with large viewing decks on almost all levels on both the ship’s bow and aft.
To access these areas, you walk to the end of the corridor and exit through the bulkhead door. On most ships, these doors are locked, and only the crew can access the decks. On these ships, the doors will be unlocked. These areas provide an excellent opportunity for all passengers to watch the vessels transit the canal.
We are happy to see that this ship still has a “real” promenade deck. For those new to cruising, the Promenade Deck is an outside area that wraps around the entire ship. This is a perfect place for walking or jogging on those “sea days” we so love.
On the Lido Deck, there are two(2) pools and hot tubs, surrounded by lounge chairs for those looking to soak up the sun. This is also the deck for the Gym and Spa.
At the front of the Lido Deck, you have Horizon Court, the buffet serving up foods from around the world all day. You can also get pizza, ice creams, and adult libations.
As you walk around, you find cozy nooks, like the Card Room, the Library, and the Internet Café, generally tucked around the “Panoramic Lifts in the middle section of the ship.
Entertainment On The Coral Princess While Sailing On The Panama Canal Cruise
A sizeable outside viewing screen can be seen from the Lido (pool) deck and the Sun Deck. During the day, various documentaries and movies are shown. At night the lounge chairs in the pool area are outfitted with blankets. There is generally a reasonably new movie showing allowing cruisers the pleasure of watching a film under the stars.
In the evening, The Princess Theater at the front of the ship is where you can catch the”Production Show” performances. Here cast members put on lavish song and dance spectaculars with music that can range from Andrew Lloyd Webber to Rock. You can also be entertained by comedians, magicians, and even sometimes an aerial show.
During the day, many activities are going on. The Princess Theater and the Universal Lounge aft are used for Port Talks, Bingo, Culinary Demonstrations, and various lectures.
We attended a talk on Smart Technology one afternoon, a presentation on Driving Route 66 another, and a Wine Tasting on yet another. You will also find members of the Activity Crew hosting Trivia games, line dancing classes, etc.
On the Promenade Deck, you find the “Fine Art Gallery.” During the cruise, there are several days (usually sea days) where they hold art auctions. Usually, at least once, attending the auction will get you a free glass of sparkling wine. The auctions are fun to watch even if you don’t intend to buy anything.
Of course, there is shopping available, ranging from clothing to accessories to high-end watches and jewelry. Also, throughout the cruise, the photography staff will be taking pictures of guests enjoying their time onboard, as well as staged photo shoots. You can view and purchase these photos in the photo gallery.
And if you are at all a gambler, there is a casino that will be happy to give you a seat and take your money.
Drinking And Dining On Your Panama Canal Cruise
Anyone who has been on a cruise will tell you two things about the food. 1) You won’t go hungry, and 2) Pace yourself, or you’ll be wearing a much larger size at the end of the cruise than at the beginning. The choices for dining are sometimes overwhelming. And for the most part, it’s all included in the price of your cruise!
Shipboard dining is set up for two seatings; the first seating at 6:00 pm and the second seating at 8:15. These seatings match up nicely with the evening’s two showtimes in the Princess Theater. If you choose this arrangement, you will be seated at the same table with the same tablemates each night.
You can also opt for “anytime dining” on all Princess ships, where you can eat anytime. However, there may be a slight wait during busy times. This is what we generally choose.
Dining That Is Included On Your Cruise
On the Coral, the main dining room (MDR in cruise lingo) is located on decks 5 and 6 and is called the Bordeaux and Provence Dining Rooms, respectively. This is where most cruisers will eat dinner.
The food onboard is well prepared, and the service from the wait staff is excellent. In addition to the many selections on the menu each evening, there is a Signature Dish – “Crafted by Curtis Stone.”
The International Café became our go-to for breakfast. It was great to grab a seat, order a latte and pastry, catch up on e-mail, and news, or plan our day. I should note that the specialty coffees and teas are an upcharge, but the pastries or light bites later in the day are complimentary.
Horizon Court is the Buffet for Princess, starting the day with a wide variety of breakfast foods and working its way through global food cultures for lunch and dinner.
Room Service is available for all passengers on the ship, but the menu is limited. Unless you really don’t want to leave your stateroom, it’s easier to go to Horizon Court or the Bar and Grill or literally any other venue, get your food, and bring it back to your room.
Everyone has to try the Princess Pizzeria (Alfredo’s or Gigi’s depending which ship you are on. Princess is said to have the best pizza at sea. Just this year, probably as a way to increase revenue, Princess (and other cruise lines) have started charging a nominal fee for these types of “casual” restaurants.
Specialty Dining on the Coral Princess
There are also specialty venues on the ship. We usually choose to eat at a specialty restaurant on a sea day. You do need reservations, and it’s easier to arrange your time when you are just lounging around the ship.
We dined at Sabatini’s Italian Trattoria on the first night of our cruise. At the time, this was a $29.00 per person charge. All dining rooms on Princess are white tablecloth experiences, but Sabatini’s takes it up a notch. With offerings like Calamari Fritti and Insalata di Gamberi for appetizers and Branzino or Tris d’Aragosta (lobster three ways) for Secondi, how can you go wrong?
My husband is a big fan of Southern-style cooking, so he was excited to try Bayou Café & Steakhouse. The dinner didn’t let us down. The Oysters Bienville were terrific and, for me, the highlight. Hubby enjoyed the Crawfish Mud Bug Bisque mostly because the Mud Bug was placed so that it was staring you in the face. The cover charge here was $25.00 per person.
For those with cash to spare and looking for an exquisite dining experience, Princess offers the “Chef’s Table.” We did not partake in this, although we have done so on other ships. Most recently, I’ve seen the cost for this elegant dinner party at $129.00 per person. T
he dinner is truly an experience with the Chef giving you a kitchen tour, all alcohol pairings included in the price, an autographed cookbook, photo, and menu as souvenirs of your time.
Two other unique dining opportunities offered on the Coral Princess are the Crab Shack ($29.00 per person)held in a sequestered area of Horizon Court. Lastly, Ultimate Balcony Dining ($100 for two) assuming you are in a room with a balcony.
Transiting Panama Canal On Our Cruise
Finally, the day we’ve been looking forward to for over a week is here. Everyone is up bright and early as the ship is expected to enter the canal around 7:00 am; eager to watch the entry to the first set of locks.
The time is an estimate as cargo vessels are given priority at the Panama Canal. Cruise ships have to wait their turn.
This is an expensive crossing for a Cruise Ship; the “per berth” fee is around $140. For the Coral Princess to take us through the Panama Canal costs about $280,000.00. Those folks in the interior staterooms got their money’s worth that day.
We head up to the Horizon Court, thinking we can get a window seat for the show. Novice mistake, we were way too late to even get a table. There were far more studied passengers than us onboard.
If you want a seat in the buffet, you will need to make it an early morning and get there as soon as they open (which I think is 6:00 am, I am never up that early).
No worries, this is why I always have a balcony, my own private seating, sunning, and viewing area. We grab some breakfast and head back to our room and our comfortable deck.
Our ship is transiting through the “Old Pedro Miguel Locks.” Entering the first lock is genuinely the most exciting. From these pictures and video, you can see just how close the ship is to the lock’s concrete side. It must be nerve-racking for those officers on the bridge!
The canal consists of six locks, three on the Pacific Side and Three on the Atlantic side, with the man-made Gatun Lake in the middle.
If you look to the south of our ship, you can catch a glimpse of the new locks added as part of a much-needed expansion between 2007 and 2016. These are the Miraflores locks (west), and the Gatun locks (east).
It takes between 8 and 10 hours to transit through the Panama Canal from the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean Sea. As the day goes on, my husband and I wander around the ship from viewing area to viewing area, watching it transit through this modern marvel.
Shore Excursions & Tours You Can Take On A Panama Canal Cruise
The port calls are fairly typical warm weather stops. There are a lot of options for beach time and beach activities. Snorkeling and sailing excursions are popular, along with “jungle tours,” off-road 4-wheel tours, and so on.
You can get off the ship in nearly any port on your own. Also with a good tour book, or the port pages from you Princess Patter, you can find your way around the town or village pretty well.
Another option is to hire your own tour guide. You can find many guides who specialize in giving tours to cruise ship passengers at Toursbylocals. These guides often offer many of the same tours you will find with the ship’s excursions. But you control the group’s size, meaning more dedicated time for you and sometimes a better price.
Excursions And Tours We Took On Our Panama Canal Cruise
Our Panama Canal Cruise Itinerary had seven ports of call: Puerto Vallarta and Huatulco, Mexico; San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua; Puntarenas, Costa Rica; Fuerte Amador, Panama; and Cartagena, Colombia. We did an organized tour in nearly every port, except for San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua. In San Juan, we opted to simply have a nice lunch at a beachside café.
The excursions from the Coral Princess start at around $49.99, although most were over $100.00. Some excursions reach as high as $400.00 when they are setting up a more exclusive tour.
Panama Canal Cruise Port of Call – Puerto Vallarta
We looked for something a bit different and a little adventurous in Puerto Vallarta, so we chose the EcoSafari Off-Road Adventure. This excursion is offered by Princess at $99.95 per person. All the ships rate their excursions from easy to strenuous, and this one was rated moderate. However, I’m pretty sure that rating is without the “optional” 45-minute hike!
Before the hike, we stopped in the town of San Jose de Valle. Our guide picked up some ingredients for salsa at the local market. We also had the chance to watch tortillas being made at the local tortilla factory (we took some of those along too).
At the end of the hike, we stopped at a small farm where our guide demonstrated the old method of making masa and tortillas. The farm’s men and women had grilled up some meats and fish, and we all had a quick snack of very original Mexican Street Tacos before heading off for our real lunch on the beach. Even on a tour, they won’t let you go hungry!
This was a fun tour. Our guide was very knowledgeable, and the food was excellent. The 45-minute hike was a bit daunting as it was quite warm that day, and you are walking through an empty river bed with no shade.
Panama Canal Cruise Port of Call – Huatulco
I am a bit of an archaeology buff and always seeking out digs and ruins. When I saw Copalita Archaeological Exploration on the ship’s excursions list, I said, sign me up. This is more of a big bus tour with a long walk through Copalita, so the “moderate activity description” was accurate. The price for this tour is a modest $59.95!
Copalita is named for the river the site is adjacent to. The Mixtec tribe live here as long ago as 500 BC and fiercely resisted the Aztec expansion in Mesoamerica. You will see many similarities to other Mesoamerican cultures in the buildings of the Mixtec being unearthed here. Pyramid-shaped Temples and “Ball Courts” were common structures.
Towards the end of the time in the archaeological area, you have an opportunity to walk up a fairly steep hill. At the top, you have a sweeping view of where the Copalita River enters the Pacific Ocean.
This is optional, but if you choose to hike up the hill, know it is steep, there is no shade, and again, the temperature is quite warm. (it was in the 90s the day we were there). I found the view to be worth the hike.
Panama Canal Cruise Port of Call – Puntarenas, Costa Rica
We’d been to Costa Rica before and done the zip-lining through the rainforest, and we wanted to get a bit more familiar with the forest. The excursions from the ship didn’t really interest us. We found Thumbs Up Tours and their “SkyWalk 4 in 1 Tour.”
The rainforest is about an hour’s drive up into the mountains from the port in Puntarenas. If you picture Costa Rica, it is part of the isthmus that connects North America to South America, with the Pacific Ocean on one side and the Caribbean Sea on the other. From East to West, the country is about 170 miles wide. The Rain Forest is smack dab in the middle.
Thumbs Up picked up our small group (there were just seven of us on this tour) at the port just outside the pier. Many ship excursions were going to many of the same places we were. The advantage we had gained by booking through Thumbs Up was size and speed. Since we were small and agile, we could beat the big busses to the rainforest and have a more quiet visit.
The walk through the rainforest (on a rainy day) and dense jungle was outstanding. You truly begin to understand why it is so crucial that humankind keep these wildernesses as pristine as possible.
On the way back to the ship, we stopped at a produce stand for a bio break and stretched our legs a bit. It was at that produce stand, and I was “today years old,” when I found out where cashews came from! I would never have guessed!
Panama Canal Cruise Port of Call – Fuerte Amador, Panama
From Fuerte Amador, you will need to take transit from the port to the City; it is about 10 miles away. We booked a city and food tour with Toursbylocals in Panama City, and our guide, Michele, picked us up and returned us to the port.
It was great to have a personal car and driver (guide) to tour us around Panama. We started with a walk through the Old Town, admiring the colonial architecture, and stopping for coffee, chocolate, and ice cream along the way.
Michele then drove us over to the new part of the City and showed us all the fancy resorts, banking and finance high rises, and multi-million dollar condo complexes. The Canal Zone attracts banks from all over the world to finance trade. This brings with it a lot of money.
At lunch time, we stop at a local restaurant, selecting several local Panamanian dishes before heading off on the last leg of the tour, the old US Military Base.
It is clear driving through the old base that before handing over the canal to Panama in 1999, the US had all the money in this region. The roads are in good condition, and the housing is of higher quality construction.
Panama Canal Cruise Port of Call – Cartagena, Columbia
Cartagena is our last port of call and another that we’ve been to before. The last time we were here, we toured the City’s highlights. This time we are using Toursbylocals again, for a unique experience. Cooking lunch with Columbian specialties at the home of a local family.
We find it odd that our guide Brayan Munoz, has a NorCal phone number (the area code is from our area)! Bryan attended CSU Berkely before he and his girlfriend decided California was too expensive and returned to Columbia.
Bryan walks us through the old town square; then, we hop in a private car to drive to a local market. I try to visit markets whenever I can to understand local foods and customs. Columbia is a developing country. Venezuela’s economic issues worsen matters, and many Venezuelans immigrate to Columbia.
The market is rough, but Brayan seems to know everyone there. He takes us through the stalls, stopping every few feet to say hi to friends and show us their wares. After our walk through the market, we head to a residential area where he has arranged for a local Chef to walk us through preparing lunch.
Lunch with the family is simple, rice and shrimp stew in plantain baskets (the ones we made). The Chef puts hubby and me to work straight away, getting the plantains ready to fry up into baskets. The shrimp stew and a large pot of rice are ready to eat.
As we eat, the family encourages us to ask questions about living in Cartegena. The family is not shy about asking us about our home. After lunch, Brayan and his Uncle drive us back to the port. All in all, It is a pleasant way to spend the afternoon.
The Final Days Of Our Panama Canal Cruise On The Coral Princess
I guess Princess knows after years of doing these cruises that their passengers will need some downtime on the way to Fort Lauderdale as they’ve planned for two sea days on the way home. No more ports of call.
We enjoy sea days as do most frequent cruisers. I sun myself on the balcony and find cozy little spaces on the ship to hang out and write during the day. My hubby gets some work done and naps. Most of all, we reflect on what we’ve seen and done and make notes for the next time because we will be back!
Till Next Time!
Tips For Any Cruise
If you choose to go out on your own or hire a private guide, make sure you keep track of “ship time.” Ship Time is the time the ship is recognizing and may be different than the local time.
- Don’t trust your smartphone or watch as they often change time automatically.
- Know when the last call for passengers to return to the ship is, and don’t miss it.
- The ship won’t wait for you.
Type “Pier Runners” in Youtube’s search box if you want to see what happens to those who are late for the ship. There are hundreds of videos by other passengers (real and staged) showing late comers missing or nearly missing their vessel.
If you do somehow miss your ship, it’s not the end of your vacation. In each port, there is a port agent assigned to your ship that will help you a) find lodging for the night and b) get transportation to the next port so you can rejoin the ship. You will find the port agent information on your ship’s daily schedule. Take it with you ashore.
One of the reasons the excursion desk always gives for taking an excursion sold by the ship is that if your group is late returning, the Captain will wait. We had one such excursion when we went to Chitzen Itza the first time. Our group was late returning, and the ship did wait.
However, sailing times are not always flexible. They are determined by the weather, the tides, and how long it will take to get to the next port. The Captain may not be able to wait for a few wayward passengers; they have to think of the thousands of other people in their charge.
Do you need cash but don’t want to pay the high price at the onboard ATM. Put some money on your sea pass (medallion), play a slot or two, and then cash out. Take your voucher over to the casino cashier, and you will get cold hard cash back!
Each night you will find the Princess Patter (or a similar newsletter) in your stateroom (or on your phone if you signed up for the internet). This is a schedule showing the next day’s events happening throughout the vessel and what’s in port.
If you are attending a popular talk or show, try to get there early, the seats fill up fast!
On most ships, you can buy prepaid beverage packages for specialty coffees and teas as well as alcoholic drinks and canned sodas if you like. You can buy just a coffee package, or a soda and bottled water package, or an alcohol package. Or get all the fancy beverages in one package. The value in these packages depends on how much of the beverages you will be drinking.