Planning a trip to the Panama Canal? We did a 10-day partial transit Panama Canal cruise on the Caribbean Princess. I’ll share our journey with you, along with my best travel tips for this review of a “bucket list” destination. And baby sloths.
I just wanted a week on the beach
I was dreaming of a Caribbean getaway. By the time my daughter’s winter break started it would be frigid here in New Hampshire. All I wanted to do was laze around the islands on warm sand! A few seven-day cruise options looked good, so I ran them by the family. Mr. SBC, always easy-going, said he’d be fine with whatever I picked.
I texted my daughter, knowing that this would be the first of hundreds of texts about the potential trip. Within an hour, she had researched all the available cruises to the Caribbean. My phone rang.
There are no sloths on the beach
“Baby sloths, Mom, baby sloths. We’re going. I’m texting you the link.” She hung up.
Baby sloths? Is there some tropical island full of baby sloths that I hadn’t yet heard about?
Sloths have been an obsession for my daughter since she was a small child. She has stuffed sloths, sloth socks, sloth mugs, sloth Christmas ornaments, you name it. She has dragged me to every zoo that has a sloth or two so she can squeal and take a million pictures. But we’ve never seen a baby sloth up close.
I checked the link she texted me. It was for a ten-day Panama Canal partial transit leaving from Fort Lauderdale. The price was more than double what I wanted to spend. I didn’t see many islands in the itinerary. I called her right back.
“We’re not going to do that trip. It’s way over the budget for this vacation. We can’t do eleven days plus travel to and from Florida; that’s almost two weeks. The baby sloth excursion is two hundred fifty dollars per person! Pick one of the island cruises I sent you.”
I could tell she was pouting. “Mom. it goes to Colombia. That’s South America. I’ve never been to South America. And it’s the Panama Canal! You love history! Isn’t that better than beaches?”
I started to protest.
“It’s on Princess. You love Princess. You know you do!” she cajoled.
“No,” I said.
Mr. SBC came into the room, having heard part of the conversation. “What’s all this about?” he asked.
I started to explain, but he stopped me. “The Panama Canal?” he said, “You know, I’ve always wanted to see the Panama Canal.” A bit of wistfulness shone in his eyes. I reminded him that taking two weeks off of work would probably be impossible. He said he would see what he could work out.
And that, my friends, is how my family talked me out of a week on the beach and into a very long journey to see baby sloths.
Our Panama Canal itinerary with Princess Cruises
Our ten-day cruise on the Caribbean Princess was a round-trip out of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. (If you’re new to cruising, note that a ten-day cruise actually takes eleven days. They don’t count disembarkation day as a “day” because you’re off the ship by mid-morning.)
Here’s what our eleven day itinerary looked like:
- Day One: Embarkation Day, Fort Lauderdale
- Day Two: At sea
- Day Three: Princess Cays (private beach on Eleuthera, Bahamas). This stop was actually changed due to bad weather, so we went to Ocho Rios, Jamaica instead. It looks like right now this itinerary has been changed to Ocho Rios going forward, but that can always change again.
- Day Four: At sea
- Day Five: Cartagena, Colombia
- Day Six: Panama Canal
- Morning: partial transit through the new locks, turn around in Gatun Lake.
- Afternoon: Cristóbal, Panama
- Day Seven: Limón, Costa Rica
- Day Eight: At sea
- Day Nine: Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands
- Day Ten: At Sea
- Day Eleven: Fort Lauderdale and disembarkation
What did we think of the Caribbean Princess?
Before we got on the Caribbean Princess, I was a little wary because she’s one of Princess’ older ships.
Caribbean Princess was actually the first ship to have the Ocean Medallion program rolled out to all passengers and all staterooms. If you haven’t heard about it yet, Ocean Medallion is an RFID wearable that replaces your cruise card for room entry, purchases, and more. It’s a bit like a fancier version of the Magic Band that Disney uses at its parks and hotels.
It wasn’t yet installed when we sailed, but we have a cruise booked for this summer on the Regal Princess. Ocean Medallion should be up and running on the Regal by then, and I’m looking forward to reviewing this highly anticipated technology!
How does Caribbean Princess compare to new ships?
There were definitely some differences between Caribbean Princess and Princess’ newer ships. Despite the recent refurb, the ship didn’t feel quite as modern as the newer vessels. There were some areas that either showed their age, or just didn’t have that “wow” factor.
I always like to try the buffet at least a few times, and it was a little smaller than the Royal Class buffets. There was a bit less of a selection, and it also didn’t have the dessert room in the middle!
On the plus side, there were a few things that I loved about this ship compared to the Royal Class. I will find any excuse to dance at any time, and the huge Skywalkers nightclub has an enormous dance floor. It’s way up on Deck 19, and it has tons of seating all around the window-lined perimeter. I liked this spacious club much more than the tiny, crowded Club 6 concept on some of the newer ships.
Those of you who are regular readers will know that Mr. SBC enjoys the occasional cigar, especially while on vacation. He loved that the Churchill’s cigar bar onboard had an actual bar, with bartenders. The Royal Class ships have Churchill’s, but it’s a tiny version without drink service.
We both appreciated that there are more pools on these older ships. Caribbean Princess has four. Newer builds have sadly cut down on the number of pools in lieu of more revenue-producing space. We didn’t feel crowded in the pool areas, and we actually found unoccupied hot tubs several times!
I’d definitely take another cruise on the Caribbean Princess. Even though she’s not quite as fancy, she has a lot of charm and some unique features.
What did we do in our Panama Canal cruise ports?
I’ve posted reviews of all our shore excursion adventures, starting with the baby sloth tour that was the reason for this whole trip! Here’s a quick breakdown of what we did in each place—click on any of the links for a full review.
- Ocho Rios, Jamaica: Originally we were having a beach day at Princess Cays. We were very surprised when the captain announced that we were going to Jamaica instead! We climbed Dunn’s River Falls, relaxed at the Bamboo Beach Club, and had some time for souvenir shopping.
- Cartagena, Columbia: A coach and walking tour of the Old City, a performance by a local dance troupe, and time for shopping.
- Panama Canal & Colón, Panama: Coach to Gamboa Rainforest Resort for refreshments, guided aerial tram through the rainforest.
- Limón, Costa Rica: BABY SLOTHS!! We visited the Sloth Sanctuary of Costa Rica, and Mr. SBC did his own excursion on a banana train.
- Grand Cayman: Swimming with the stingrays at Stingray City, snorkeling, then lunch and beach time at Rum Point Beach.
What did I think about our Panama Canal cruise?
Overall, I enjoyed experiencing the Panama Canal itself. If time and money were no object, I would have enjoyed doing a full transit ocean-to-ocean cruise. Those cruises are 15+ days, but you get the full experience of going through the entire canal and coming out the other side. Maybe one day.
Transiting the Panama Canal
The Panama Canal is an astounding feat of engineering that took over thirty years to complete. It’s often cited as one of the seven wonders of the modern world. The finished canal allowed ships to cross to the Pacific in a drastically shorter amount of time. Right now, the average ship takes 8-10 hours to traverse the canal. It would take two weeks to go around South America. Before the construction of the Panama Canal, the long route was the only option. It’s no wonder that seeing the canal is on many travelers’ bucket lists.
I woke up at the crack of dawn so I could experience our approach and entrance to the canal. Our stateroom was on Deck 9, so we had a decent view from our balcony. But, I went up to the Sports Deck as well as down to Deck 5 to really get a panoramic view and then a closeup of the lock.
If you’re doing the morning transit, I’d recommend setting a very early alarm so you don’t miss the experience. By the time our room service breakfast arrived, I was ready to sip my coffee on the balcony and just watch as we navigated the narrow lock system.
We were close enough to clearly see the workers who run the lock system and make sure the ships are safe. Some of the workers smiled and energetically waved to us as we passed by. Ship’s photographers had gone ashore to take pictures of us crossing through the locks, and lots of passengers held handmade signs for their photo opportunity. There was an onboard event where you could make a sign, and I also noticed people bringing posterboard signs that they had made at home.
The atmosphere on board Caribbean Princess in the Panama Canal
I always enjoy cruising on Princess. I’d happily take a cruise to nowhere with them. I like that their level of service is fairly high, and it’s a nice middle ground between the mass-market lines and the luxury brands.
However, even with great service, sometimes it’s the new friends you meet who really make the journey special. This time, we didn’t really have an active, friendly, fun-loving bunch of passengers on board with us.
We’re not exactly party animals (we’re in our forties, so we’re not that young anymore) but we like to have fun and chat with people on vacation. I think most passengers on this cruise were in bed by 8:30 each night, with the exception of the casino-goers.
We did make friends with quite a few of the
There was a nearly-empty dancefloor most nights at Skywalkers. I actually knew the DJ from a previous cruise I had taken! She would play whatever I wanted (which was fun), but I prefer the energy when there are more people on the dance floor.
Longer and more expensive cruises tend to attract a much older crowd. So if you’re looking for nightlife, don’t pick this kind of cruise.
Shore excursions in the ports
We definitely had a mix of shore excursions on this cruise, from city walking
I made sure that a couple of the shore excursions had
Oh! I almost forgot. I promised you a baby sloth. Here you go!
Have you done a full-transit or partial-transit Panama Canal cruise? What did you think of the experience? Let me know in the comments below!
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