The New Panama Canal Locks

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Jan 19th, 2018, 10:13 AM
  #1
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The New Panama Canal Locks

Absence makes the heart grows fonder ... if you can believe that saying. It's been almost 6 months since I last made any "real" posts. And in the mean time, a few trips, a new forum format changes, so much have happened in such a short time. I had originally planned to post a TR for the back to back Japan cruises back in September 2017 but with some last minute unplanned trips to Ottawa, Milan and back to Ottawa again. Next thing you know, it was Christmas and the last minute (again) cruise to the Canal. I never did find the time to post the TR for the circle Japan & the Northern Japan Islands cruises. If there are any interest for the Japanese cruises, I will post a TR after this one is completed.

Most people will post the entire TR on one sitting. I am going with my tradition of posting a segment at a time, allowing for comments and Q & A.

This TR is about the new Panama canal locks on the east coast with Caribbean Princess, Jan 3 to Jan 13, 2018. Round trip Fort Lauderdale.
The last time we cruised the Canal was 2009 through the old locks on the PanaMax sized Island Princess.
The last time we were on the Caribbean Princess was 2014 cruising through the Gulf of Mexico and western Caribbean.
The Caribbean princess was extensively renovated back in March 2017.
The ports of calls were Princess Cay, Cartagena, Panama Canal Scenic Cruising/Gatun Lake, Colon/Cristobal
, Limon (Costa Rica) and the Grand Cayman Island.

The trip to the dock was an adventure with traffic jam like there is no tomorrow. That's probably due tot he number of ships docked. From the port facility main gate to the dock, it was well over half an hour instead of the usual 5 minutes. (Full disclosure: we usually plan our arrival at the dock before noon, sometimes even as early as 11 am, this time we didn't left for the port until 1:30 pm)

Once we arrived at the dock/berth, the embarkation was a breeze. We have not been to this dock for a few years now and it spotted a new look on the inside, more customer friendly, free Wi-Fi and new décor. It's an improvement. from the time we checked our luggage to walking onto the ship, 10 minutes.

The ship was renovated (March 2017) and new features were added and places got moved. Memory being what it is (fading), I can only remember vaguely the old lay out.

Once you got into your cabin and refresh a little bit, what do you normally do? Hit the buffet for a quick lunch and then off to explorer the ship. The first thing I noticed was that the Horizon Court is gone. It was replaced by the new "World Fresh Marketplace". The layout of the food is better, it is more open concept, but it is the same food. The lay out is similar to the Royal/Regal class ships but not quite the same. All new décor and all new furniture and all new beverage stations. There are bar stools facing the outside windows, there are benches/couches as well. It looks more comfortable and I liked it. Also gone for the hand sanitizer stations and instead it was replaced by 2 hand washing basins, which is more effective in combating norovirus. Too bad the staff are only there to clean the washing station and not asking people who walk through to wash their hands.

Also gone (or changed) are the back half of the horizon court. They are now two different for fee restaurants at night. One is called PLANKS a BBQ smoke house and the other is STEAMER a seafood place. For breakfast, they are the omelets stations and extended extra sitting area for lunch. Dinner is strictly for fee dinning, at a modest $12 extra per person.

Also disappeared is the library, it is now incorporated into the internet café. You have to walk into the internet café and past all the computer terminals to find it. The shore excursion desk is on deck 6, along with the future cruise sales and captain circle host. One surprise was that they did not make any changes to the Skywalker which the "walkway" were lopped off from the other ships when they renovated in the name of fuel efficiency and aerodynamics.

There are new shops (what else!) and besides that, was told there is a new HD screen for movie under the star and new comfort mattresses. Unfortunately, I didn't notice any differences on the movie screen or the bed.
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Jan 19th, 2018, 02:03 PM
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Hmm. We did the PC on the island in 2009 also. I think it was in the month of Feb. As I recall when we were in the locks the Coral was just ahead of us. They were building the new canal then too.

It seems to me the extra fee restaurants are more pricey these days so i am happy to hear this one isn't astronomical.

Will follow.
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Jan 20th, 2018, 09:18 AM
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I would be interested in the Japan cruises. I have been having health issues, and it looks like cruises may be in my future rather than schlepping a backpack round train stations. Thanks.
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Jan 20th, 2018, 09:57 AM
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We did one Japan cruise and loved it. The people are very polite. I’d like to go back someday. You can look up my TR.
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Jan 20th, 2018, 10:35 AM
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Thanks. I've been to Japan twice, last time for five weeks. I am struck most by how clean everywhere is. The Japanese are polite, but there are subtle indications that they really don't care for foreigners - for instance they will avoid sitting next to you, even if it means a worse seat or standing. (And no, not my imagination, I checked with a friend with a Japanese husband who has lived there.).
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Jan 20th, 2018, 11:25 AM
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Could it be shyness? The hubby of one of my long time colleagues used to work for a Japanese company for many years and I recall him saying that once.

Last edited by jacketwatch; Jan 20th, 2018 at 11:50 AM.
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Jan 20th, 2018, 11:53 AM
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I don't think so. There are restaurants and ryokans that will not take foreigners. You might do a search on "xenophobia japan".
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Jan 24th, 2018, 01:45 PM
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We are all accustomed to the "safety drill" once you are onboard a cruise ship. It is mandatory and you are not allowed to miss it. That's the only time that I felt crowded ever on a cruise ship. The drill this time was different. We were specifically told NOT to bring your life jacket, just show up, watch the demo and go which is fine with us. I still recall eth days that we have to line up, actually got ushered to the life boat station, and know which life boat was assigned to us.

As soon as the boat set sail, an announcement came over the PA indicating an itinerary change on account of weather. There is a cold front moving south and the captain is not comfortable sailing to Princess Cay which is the first stop. Instead, we will dock at Ocho Rios. Safety first, I am fien with that.

It was pouring rain at Ocho Rios and since it is a new addition to the itinerary, not too many had booked excursions. As it turned out, most had stayed on board. We went for a brief walk outside the dock and in quick order, we changed our mind and headed back.

Next port of call is Cartagena which is a very beautiful city. As we have been there a few times, we just choose to take it easy and get on the hop on hop off bus. We only got off once at the old city and spent time exploring there. It was cleaner than we remembered and the street vendors were not aggressive at all. It was a relaxing stroll.

Next came the main attraction: the new lock of the canal. We didn't get up at 6 am like last time to watch the approach towards the channel. We just lay back and take it easy. We woke us around 8 am and by that time, we are already in the first lock. Time to rush and get out and catch the action.

For those who went through the old locks, you know how tight the space were. The "mules" kept the ship from moving and brush against the side of the canal. With the new lock, comparing to the "excitement" of the work and busy bees of the old lock, it is practically underwhelming. It is underwhelming as there is so much room on all sides that you can probably put a second boat (albeit smaller one) in there with room to spare. The water fills, gate slides open, ship goes in, gate closes, the process repeats itself and next thing you know, the ship pass through all 3 locks without much fanfare. There were 4 people with hard hat and safety vest walking along side on the shore and that's about it. They have walkie talkie, wave to the crowd and that's about it.

Around 10 am, those who had booked excursions started to get marshalled and board tenders going ashore at Gatun Lake. We originally had booked the Fort Lorenzo tour with stops at the new locks. It was cancelled last minute as the road was blocked due to weather damage to the road from a few days earlier. You will hear about the "weather damage" for the next stop as well.

We booked last minute to the Agua Clara Locks Visitors Center and a Rain Forest tour. We have about 2 hours there which is just about the right time. There are some trails that you can explorer, a gift shop, a concession counter, and a video presentation in Spanish or English. There is a large viewing platform, nicely laid out that you have the full view of the new locks. We were there when the Caribbean Princess was making its way back through the locks. How cools is that!

The new canal is a more modern version of the original engineering wonder. The water got recycled and it saved 60% of the water used. I am not a big fan of video presentation but I enjoyed this one. The concession counter price is reasonable. 2 slices of pizza and 2 soft drinks for $7. But a small bag of chips is $2.50. There are wild life officers / rangers (?) around as there are small wild animals around. Stay away from the leaf ants if you come across them.

The Rain Forest tour was much better than we expected. We were taken to a remote lake and hike through the trail. The foot bridge was washed out so we took off our shoes and waded across. After that, we were taken to a resort, used their "facilities" and get on a boat and have a "lake cruise". It was about an hour and half boating around the lake looking for "wild life". Mostly different type of monkeys, crocodiles, birds. For the price we paid, it was darn good value. After the lake cruise, we were bused back to Cristobal.

Cristobal was nothing like we remembered. It was at a newer area, by the containers area and everything is temporary, not like the "old warehouse" that was there on the last visit. The usual tourist souvenir stuff and fold dancers greeted us when we arrived at the dock.

Limon is a very improvised part of Costa Rica, mostly farms and plantation. Our original plan was to drove to the country side, visit some local plantation and call it day. Again, washed out bridge and closed road cancelled our plan. Instead, we took the "Monster Bus" to places where normal tourist can't go as there are no roads where we are going. It wasn't quite like that. We ended up at the old zip line center which is now closed and shuttered. We took on a side road to nowhere, got off and wander around the forest. We came across poisonous frogs, spiked trees and all kinds of "dangerous" plants. After that is said and done, we went back to the center, ate some local fresh fruits, washing down taco chips loaded with bean paste with local bear and some sugar cane liquor with tangerine juice. Not quite the experience we were anticipating but what the heck, the monster bus was a good conversation piece. A GMC 6500 Diesel cab with an army transport chassis, the interior were all custom design and built. Apparently the last Monster Bus was converted from an old Russian missile launcher and that was the attraction.

The last port stop was Grand Cayman Island. It is a popular stop. We heard there is a new attraction called the "Crystal cave" so we decided to go pay a visit. It was a new found attraction and it took them a few years to receive government approval. You will need their local guide to take you inside. There are a grand total of 105 caves but only 3 are open for touring. It is definitely worth a visit. We spent about 2 hours there in total. The local guide lived nearby and mentioned that he explored those caves when he was a kid and now, he is taking people in there. They may open more caves once the infrastructure are there. Not too commercialized yet, which is good. They have to learn to do more safety stuff. If you want to go there, bring a real flash light. The "cell phone flash" worked okay enough. They should also offer hard hat rentals. I am not too tall and I bumped my head a couple times. Funny, they never mentioned that and they sold miners hats as souvenirs at the gift shop. Oh yes, bug spray is a must.

Disembarkation at Fort Lauderdale was a breeze. There is a new app that you can download to your phone from the US Border Agency called "Mobile Passport". It is intended for US and Canadian Citizens going through custom/immigration easier, not that it was hard to begin with. You should download the app before you board the ship. If you try to download it while on board, good luck; as the ship's internet is notoriously slow.
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Jan 25th, 2018, 08:17 AM
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Wow, now I'm really glad I did it under the "old locks". Doesn't sound very exciting at all!
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Jan 29th, 2018, 01:51 PM
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Originally Posted by mlgb View Post
Wow, now I'm really glad I did it under the "old locks". Doesn't sound very exciting at all!
For those who have not gone through the old locks. It was an exciting event. For me, it is a different adventure. There was definitely more "suspense" with the old lock and the "inches" to spare on the two sides and so on with the panamax sized ship.
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Jan 29th, 2018, 02:12 PM
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Last part of the review is the "entertainment". With anyone who had been on Princess ships before, the entertainment is a pretty standard fare. I am glad that the "strings" are back, this time, a trio instead of a quartet. The piano player at the piano bar was excellent. Most nights. people are crowded around the hallway as no seats could be found. The dance band did a great job at the discovery and the open deck as well. The duo at the wheelhouse is probably the worst I have encountered in a long time.

The main theater hosted 2 production shows, a comedian, a magician, a singer/piano player, a saxophone act, and the voice of the ocean. Something that I have not seen until now is they have a variety show with the comedian doing half the show and then the magician do the second half.

Most of their production show would typically run for a year or longer so this is not the first time that we have seen the production show called "Born to be wild". This ensemble did an excellent job. The other production show is called "Bravo" which is rather new, and have a featured guest "soprano". We saw it for the first time back in September in Japan and I thought it was a local thing. As it turns out, it is new and is being pushed across the fleet. We were impressed with it the first time, and we were even more impressed this time as the casts and the guest did a much better job. It is hard to explain but it is a mix of classical pieces typically in lighter classics/opera type of show, and with some modern touch such as theme from James Bond's Skyfall.. The audience were quite into it and the cast received a standing ovation at the end. Other than just the usual orchestra, the string trio were there too providing extra musicians for this show piece.

The one really odd ting that I find is the time for the show. It is at 8:30 pm and 10 pm. 8:30 is quite late as the early show is usually at 7:30 pm. What happened was tat people showed up real early and the theater is full almost an hour before the actual starts. They did a "live cast" to the Discovery Lounge for all the shows (except for the production shows) and we were there for some of them. For some shows, it worked, For others, not so much. Since they only cast the live microphone from the performers/stage, we have no idea what the audience in the live theater is doing. For the piano singer, it worked well enough as you saw the live performance. For the comedian, it was a disaster. When he paused, we just thought he bombed when it was dead silence.

That's about it for this TR. All in all, Princess did what they usual do, which is: no surprises, good bad or otherwise. Feel free to comment and ask questions if needed.
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Jan 29th, 2018, 07:43 PM
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We went thru the PC in 2009 on the island and of course it was a cool experience with the original locks and the inched to spare phenomenon.

I have noticed that production shows are fewer in number these days and recently saw an ad for MSC cruises which tout and new show every night. Interesting. I'm not ready just yet for MSC but if they improve their product then maybe someday it will be worth a try.

Thanks for the review!
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Jan 30th, 2018, 01:01 PM
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I'd be interested in knowing what "improvements" you feel are needed, Jacketwatch.
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Jan 30th, 2018, 04:00 PM
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Why bother asking ducky. You know I don't like you nor you me. Just put you on my ignore list.

Last edited by jacketwatch; Jan 30th, 2018 at 04:02 PM.
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