December 2015 - Pacific Princess to Panama Canal, Central America
We wanted to see the Panama Canal but had to work around the school calendar. We chose the full transit voyage on the Pacific Princess (17 nights) because we liked its intimate (680 passengers) atmosphere from an earlier trip aboard.
We sacrificed larger ship amenities, but there were lots of holiday decorations, a very competitive gingerbread house contest (we now know we have to bring ornaments from home to decorate the house!), a visit from Santa (who came by tender without reindeers), Christmas/New Year's Eve shows and parties, a craft session where we made posters for the Panama Canal transit (ship photographers disembarked to take photos of passengers holding signs greeting the people on shore), etc.
Bill Fall offered lectures on the Panama Canal and the ports we visited. He was also available for informal question sessions nearly every day, and of course, pointed out salient things while we transited the Canal. He was approachable and knowledgeable, an asset to our trip.
Pacific Princess does not have a dedicated kid's club, but when there are 20+ children on a voyage, the card room becomes the kid's club. Emily and Carole were hired to entertain kids of all ages (3-17) and did a fantastic job engaging all of them. They arranged for Mr. Fall and the Earth Science lecturer to give talks to the kids about the Canal and science topics. Because two of the captain's daughters were in the club, the kids got a special tour of the bridge.
We joined a group of fantastic Cruise Critic folks on a private tour, took another private tour by ourselves, and took two ship tours. The ship tours were very expensive, but my daughter wanted to swim with dolphins in Cabo (if you're on a cruise ship, the Dolphin Center won't let you make a booking and because we only spent 5 hours in Cabo, a walk-in visit might have not worked) so we booked this through the ship. There was a positive side on taking a couple of the ship's tours: we met fellow passengers whose company we enjoyed the rest of the itinerary.
Regarding the Panama Canal transit, passengers cannot access the bow of the ship because it's an open working part of the ship. So passengers had to observe the transit from deck 11. There are blue glass panels on that deck. They had not been cleaned and were salt encustred so taking photos through the glass was not a good idea. Many passengers stood on the sides of deck 10 (running track) to get a clear view but this was from the sides and not the front of the ship. I got a couple of good shots of the gates by standing on a lounge chair on deck 11. We then went to deck 5 starboard. The photographers were taking photos on that side of the ship -- our cabin was on the port side. By standing on the open but sheltered deck 5 area, we were protected from the sun (very hot, humid) and could observe how the ship went up as water entered the Miraflores locks. At first, we were facing the lock wall, but as the ship rose, we were above ground. Thus, taking a small ship to transit the Canal was a good idea: by standing at a low deck, we experienced what people who are in a much smaller vessel see when they are in the locks. For the Gatun locks later in the day, I stood on the pool steps at the Lotus Spa on deck 9. Full view over the blue glass panels. No standing on tables or lounge chairs. Getting a Lotus Spa pass was a great idea.
In sum, there were pluses and minuses as in any trip, but overall our experience aboard the Pacific Princess was excellent. Wonderful crew and fellow passengers made it a festive way to spend Christmas and New Year's!