I recently returned from the CORAL PRINCESS on October 30, 2003 after 10-days to the Caribbean and Panama Canal. All in all a very enjoyable cruise. Having recently sailed on five different cruise lines (Cunard, Celebrity, Holland America, Carnival, and Princess) in a 12 month period really gave me a great benchmark for comparison. My conclusion is that Princess continues to offer a rock solid product for the money, although it's a little bland for my personal liking. Certainly Princess has become more mass-market over the last 10 years, but this comes as no surprise with the larger ships and expanded fleet.
The many pros include the easiest embarkation yet. I was dropped off at the pier in Ft. Lauderdale and literally in my cabin within 15 minutes. This has to be the most painless embarkation I have yet to experience. I arrived early (around 11:30am) and expected to wait, and as it turned out this was not the case at all. My cabin was a category AF, cabin C204. An outside mini-suite with no balcony all the way forward in the ship. The location was very quiet and access to an outside forward deck was the next best thing to a balcony. As it turned out, this secluded outside deck was a gem for watching the Panama Canal transit. The cabin itself was 302 sq. feet and the increased size was in it's length and not width. There were all the standard amenities including two TV's and a bathtub. The mini-suite was prefabricated in design as is the case with all the standard cabins on the ship, and no upgrades to finish or furnishings were apparent. A nice touch is the glass mailbox outside each door which holds the MANY leaflets delivered each day promoting the onboard concessions. Thankfully, announcements (revenue producing or otherwise) are kept to an absolute minimum on Princess Cruises. A slot in the mailbox displays the names of the cabin occupants, and is even color coded to reflect your status with Princess Cruises. A first time Princess cruiser, a Gold or Platinum Captain's Circle member. This was a nice personal touch that I believe is a Princess exclusive. Your onboard cruise card also gives instant recognition to the staff onboard as it is coded as well to the Captain's Circle level you have reached. I am a Platinum member with Princess and received recognition from many of the Princess staff each time I presented my card.
The decor of CORAL PRINCESS was typical of modern day Princess Cruises. I often say if you have sailed one Princess ship you have pretty much sailed them all, and CORAL PRINCESS is no exception. Many of the lounges and dining rooms look the same on all Princess ships right down to the carpet, drapes, and furnishings. While I prefer more originality, the decor is popular with Princess regulars who feel right at home regardless of which Princess ship they are sailing. Of course there are exceptions but for the most part the ship interiors are very similar. The art work is nothing to write home about, and it would not be out of place in any Holiday Inn throughout the US. The art work on Celebrity and Royal Caribbean is certainly more expansive and expensive and I find the decor more inspiring.
The activities onboard were excellent and varied. Princess now offers a Scholarship at Sea program which features lectures on everything from Astrology to pottery. It's a great program and a nice change from all the revenue producing activities like bingo and art auctions. There are also the usual pool games, bingo, bands, port talks, and gym/spa. The gym is quite nice and located all the way aft. It is surrounded by windows and I enjoyed a couple beautiful sunsets while working out. First rate modern equipment is offered and the only thing lacking was decent music. Thankfully I bring my own. A complimentary sauna is also available, but use of the luxurious steam rooms (there are four) are only for those taking part in a spa treatment. I enquired about the possibility of purchasing a daily or 10-day pass to the steam rooms but was told this was not an option. This was a disappointment and Princess could learn from Celebrity which does offer a "spa package" that enables unlimited use of the steam chambers for the entire cruise.
The evenings offered a choice of entertainment options and most were repeated at least once during the cruise. There were four production shows and they were excellent, maybe the best I have seen at sea. I thought four production shows during a 10-day cruise was rather impressive. Most 7-day cruises only have two, so if you like production shows you are in for a treat on CORAL PRINCESS. My favorite entertainer onboard was Tommy McPhee from Scotland. He was the piano player/singer that performed each evening in the piano bar called Crooners. To say he was excellent is an understatement. He had a voice like Elton John and played the piano marvelously. Many nights it was standing room only in Crooners. Tommy is so good that I dare say cruise ships are beneath him and he belongs on Broadway. I also became personal friends with Tommy during the cruise and spent some fun (and very late) evenings with him at the disco. He is just as entertaining off stage as he is on. Speaking of discos, avoid CORAL PRINCESS if you have any plans of late evenings or dancing the night away to the tunes of Donna Summer or Diana Ross. The ship has no dedicated disco/nightclub and a large lounge called Explorer's doubled as the nightclub. This lounge was a poor excuse for a nightclub and had about as much atmosphere as the Princess Theater. In fact Explorer's was in actuality a small show lounge. This was a big disappointment and I think more people might have stayed out later were there a proper venue for a late night crowd. As it was, this cruise was right up there with Holland America in terms of nightlife, or lack thereof. The majority of the passengers were elderly (I'm in my mid-30's) and were in bed by 10pm. Thank goodness I found a few passengers (and Tommy) who enjoyed staying up late on occasion, and I did have a couple 5-6am nights that were rather memorable. It's pretty scary being on deck at 4am still enjoying cocktails (ordered from room service) when the "early birds" start appearing from the woodwork and roaming the decks searching for food!
As many already know, Princess offers 24-hour fresh water pools and spas. This is a great feature and became a very fun alternative to Explorer's which closed down between 1-2am promptly and regardless of passenger presence. Princess continues to offer the "Champagne Waterfall" one evening in the atrium, and I'm glad to see this Princess tradition still in existence as I remember it from Princess Cruises 15+ years ago.
Food and service were adequate but nothing spectacular. We had "Anytime Dining" which meant we ate dinner at whatever time we chose, and with or without tablemates. As it turned out we ate dinner most nights at 8:30pm and rarely (if ever) had to wait. Some nights we dined at a large table and other times at a table for three (I traveled with my bother and a friend I met on a previous cruise). This worked out well as sometimes we were not in the mood for small talk and other nights meeting new people was enjoyable. Of course we had a different waiter each evening and all were fine, but none stood out as truly exceptional. If you are looking for a more personal relationship with your waiter, meaning one that remembers your preferences then "anytime dining" is not for you. The food itself was good although I can't think of any dish that truly stood out as exceptional except for the Beef Wellington which is a favorite of mine. Princess seems to be one of the few cruise lines that still serve this traditional dish. Food in the 24-hour Horizon Court quickly grew tiresome and as the cruise went on there seemed to be fewer and fewer items I found appealing. Other options included the Bayou Cafe which we did not try, and Sabatini's which was the alternative Italian restaurant. This was an excellent option for the evening and the food and service were very good. I had tried Sabatini's onboard GOLDEN PRINCESS and the experience was very much the same on CORAL.
Ports of call included Ocho Rios, Panama Canal, Cristobal, Limon, Cozumel, and Grand Cayman. I only got off the ship in Limon and Grand Cayman as I have been to all the ports many times (and only a couple months ago). The Panama Canal was very interesting as always although a full transit provides a better experience. Those that took a tour off the ship to the Pacific side locks were universally pleased with the experience. There was not much to see in Limon itself so this is another place I recommend taking an organized tour. In Grand Cayman we enjoyed the Stingray City tour as my friend Ruth had never experienced it. The day was beautiful and the tour well organized and worth the cost. It's a thrilling experience no matter how many times you interact with the stingrays.
All good things must come to an end and so did my CORAL PRINCESS cruise. Unfortunately disembarkation was not as organized as embarkation and Princess could stand some improvement. Getting off the ship itself was fine, but once in the pier area it was chaos. People and luggage everywhere with little organization and a long line to get though Customs (unless you hire a porter which entitles you to a shorter line). Surely there must be a better way to end a cruise vacation?
I met some wonderful new friends on this cruise and that in itself is a sure sign of a successful vacation. These are people I hope to remain in contact with which I can't say about every cruise. As I stated early on Princess really does offer a quality product, although it's just a tad stale and homogenized when compared to Celebrity or Royal Caribbean. The passenger base of Royal Caribbean seems more in line with my age group, while the modern and stylish interiors of Celebrity ships are to my personal taste. Princess is somewhere in between and while they may not be my first choice, I would not hesitate to sail on them again.
ps - I took very few pictures during this cruise (maybe a sign I was having a good time), and they can be found at: http://public.fotki.com/eroller/coral_princess_10-2/