Hubby & I chose the cruise because we wanted a short cruise that included a Panama Canal crossing. This cruise was an expedition cruise focusing on national parks in Costa Rica & Panama. Started in Puerto Caldera, Costa Rica and ended I. Panama City, including a Pacific to Atlantic crossing of the Panamá Canal. We’re not naturalists but thought it may be an interesting experience. This review is intended to give others an idea of what to expect. We were first time Ponant cruisers so really weren’t sure how they do things.
We arranged our own Pre cruise activities including a private transfer to Puerto Caldera. We showed up at the pier a couple of hours before the 4pm embarkation. Had to transfer from the car that brought us to a shuttle van that took us to the terminal. The driver assisted with loading and unloading luggage from the shuttle van but you have to bring your luggage into the terminal on your own. Nothing to do at the very small terminal other than sit and wait or walk around in circles. At embarkation time, a whole slew of ship crew & staff showed up and helped get luggage and passengers onboard. The Captain & Travel Manager were at the bottom of the ramp greeting all passengers. Nice touch! Once onboard we were directed to present ourselves to the reception staff who took our passports (they kept passports until the day before we disembarked) & pictures, and gave us room card keys. We also got champagne. We then followed the crew with our luggage to our suites. All in all, embarkation was smooth and orderly, no issues.
Ponant was offering ‘No Single Supplement’ so we booked a Grand Deluxe Suite on Deck 6 for my hubby & a Deluxe Suite down the hall for me. Our plan was for me to use my suite for showers and a dressing room. Worked out pretty well; nice to have my suite bathroom and walk-in closet all to myself. We spent most of the time onboard in my husband’s suite since it had a lot of space and a great balcony. We did sleep in my suite a couple of times when we were in rough seas since my suite was midship. Both suites were well laid out, clean and comfy. Room stewards kept the suites nice and clean. My suite was always promptly made up (thank you Rose); my husband’s was usually done late morning. AC worked well & was relatively quiet. Toiletries were plentiful. Beds were very comfy. There were on demand movies/docs but thought selections were limited. Some satellite TV channels (sorry, no ESPN or Golf). We watched FoxNews mostly.
We liked the ship. It was small, new, clean, comfy & not Las Vegas glitzy. It was also quiet and had practically no engine vibration. We didn’t hear creaking when the ship was underway like we did on prior cruises with other lines. We’ve sailed on Crystal & RSSC and enjoyed those cruises a lot. The experience on Ponant is not high end luxury but very comfortable. Less variety but enough choices to be satisfied. We made some friends during the cruise so we were usually dining with other people most of the time. It seems to us the small ship and casual atmosphere is conducive to connecting with others.
Food was very good. We ate in the main restaurant Nautilus mostly because we like the full service dining experience rather than the cafeteria style service at Nemo (the outdoor Grill venue). We even had a usual table for breakfast. Thank you Jim for taking care of us. We liked that there were always several main dish a la carte choices on the menu, as well as a starter & dessert buffet for breakfast & lunch. Unfortunately the buffets were pretty much the same the entire cruise so we got tired of it towards the end. For dinner it was a full a la carte menu. We enjoyed all the meals. Service was pretty good but we thought the Sommelier was stretched too thin. The servers were good about refilling wine glasses if the Sommelier wasn’t around. Inclusive wines were so-so. Hubby & I signed up for Premium Pass. We didn’t realize the wines included in the Premium Pass will NOT be available to us during dining. We could only get them at the bar. We can however get the Premium Pass liquor anywhere. This caused us some consternation when we attempted to order the Premium Pas wines during our first dinner and were told we couldn’t. Needless to say we were not happy. We consequently met with the Hotel Director to talk about it and he apologized but explained it’s a company policy that he could not change. He encouraged us to include the issue in any comments or reviews or surveys because he believes the policy does not make sense.
One thing I thought that could be improved were meal schedules. Breakfast at Nautilus ended at 9am. I normally eat breakfast after 9am. Dinner was 7pm to 8:30pm - too short, too early. There is room service but we never tried it.
Shore expeditions were by Zodiac & were usually wet landings. (Ship only docked at the start and end; all other stops were at anchor.) Got used to it after the 1st couple of times. True to expedition cruising we were never quite sure what was going to happen the next day until the 6:30pm briefing from our naturalists. This is quite different from our other cruises where we signed up for shore excursions in advance and that’s the activity you did for that port. One of the planned stops didn’t happen because of bureaucratic Costa Rica red tape but the naturalists & ship crew did a great job rearranging plans. They also made sure there were always several expedition options depending on how much energy you want to expend and ability to walk, climb, swim, etc. Saw monkeys, birds, raccoons, lizards, rodents, etc. Fascinating encounter with the Emberas, an indigenous Panamá tribe. I didn’t care much for the Zodiac rides since I don’t like being bounced around. The last 2 days we didn’t leave the ship because the sea was quite rough. The crew were always very conscientious about safety though.
The Panama Canal crossing was the highlight of the trip for us. Took almost the entire day to do the crossing from the Pacific side to the Atlantic. Hubby & I agreed the trip was worth it just for that!
Entertainment was adequate. A group of 3 female dancers & a singer were the main entertainment group. They were very good, especially the Dance Captain & the singer. Also a guitar player and piano player. Appropriate for a small ship.
Crews were friendly (especially the Filipinos) and professional. Everyone spoke English. Majority of the passengers were English speaking so announcements and lectures and briefings were in English. The Captain did use both English and French for important announcements about weather and sea conditions.
3 days before disembarking we were asked to fill out & submit a form with our disembarkation plans. We opted to do the complimentary airport transfer with an old town Panama City tour. Our plan was to leave at the end of the tour and take an Uber to our hotel instead of staying with the bus to the airport. Somehow our form didn’t get to the transfer coordinator even though we turned it in as asked. She did find the form after we told her we were not on the appropriate transfer list and she rectified the omission.
Disembarkation was smooth. People waited in the lounge or theater until their group is called. Once our group was called we went down to the terminal, collected our luggage and went to our bus (tour guide didn’t have us on the list but the transfer coordinator was there to smooth things over). We had told them we were leaving the group after the tour instead of going on to the airport so our luggage were loaded last, along with some others passengers’ who were also leaving the tour at the end.
Tour of the old town was very general but we enjoyed it. At the end, we got our luggage off the bus (with assistance from the driver) and ordered Uber. The bus waited until our car arrived which was nice, to make sure we were ok.
By the way, the Cruise Director did a great job all throughout the cruise. She was always around, coordinating all expedition disembarkations. We found her orientation session at the beginning and the disembarkation session at the end very helpful. Be prepared to actually do the emergency drill after they tell you how it’s done.
Fitness room really small. No weights. No mats. 2 treadmills. 1 elliptical. 1 bike (or was it 2?).
Spa was ok. Had massage & pedicure. Both good.
Our favorite hangout during the cruise was the Observatory Lounge. We went there for Pre and Post dinner drinks. Thanks Ronaldo for the great service!
We definitely will cruise Ponant again & are booked on 2 cruises in 2021. We plan to dress down & pack less - more resort casual for dinner rather than cocktail attire. BTW, we had great complimentary laundry service the entire cruise because we already had the 2nd cruise booked before we embarked. Really convenient! No dry cleaning though and no self serve laundry facilities onboard.
Very good layout. Comfy. Clean. Quiet.