UPDATE: Thomson Holidays is currently migrating IT systems meaning that the company’s online booking management system is NOT available for customers, and the call centre is unusually busy, with problems relating to staff not being trained to use new systems. As such I would avoid booking a holiday with Thomsons at the present time, unless you book in-store (and therefore can go into store with queries and changes to your booking).
The sun was setting low, over the city walls of the Colombian City of Cartagena. A warm glow lit up my cocktail glass, and there was a hum of conversation over the Ibiza-style house music being played by the DJ.
I’ll be honest – it’s not what I expected from a Caribbean cruise.
When Thomson invited me to cruise the Caribbean for a week on the Thomson Dream, I had some doubts. I wouldn’t describe myself as a natural ‘cruise person’ but the itinerary of this trip – the Pride of Panama – was undeniably exciting.
The seven day journey sets off from Montego Bay, heading to Puerto Lima in Costa Rica. It’s an opportunity to see the rainforest up close, and meet naturalists working to preserve these precious habitats.
From there, we would head to Panama, to visit the world-famous Panama Canal. Next up, the San Blas islands – a group of unspoiled, largely uninhabited Caribbean islands, famed for their natural beauty. Then there’s a final stop in Cartagena, in Colombia, to explore the mangrove swamps and the old city of Cartagena, with its faded Spanish Colonial architecture.
As travel itineraries go, it’s pretty hard to resist.
Over the next week, I’ll be sharing details of the destinations we visited, both here and over on the First Choice blog. But first, I thought I’d share some tips and thoughts on the Thomson Dream itself. I asked my friends who haven’t taken a cruise before what sort of things they’d like to know, and I’ve done my best to answer their questions below. If you have a question I don’t answer, feel free to leave a comment!
Thomson Dream feels enormous although I’m reliably informed it’s actually small by cruise ship standards, carrying around 1,500 passengers. There are 12 decks on the ship – although only 4-12 are accessible to passengers.
The majority of cabins are on decks 4-7, and it’s better to be near the middle of the ship and lower down – that’s where you feel the movement of the sea least.
Most of the public spaces are on decks 8 through 12. On Deck 8, you’ll find shops, restaurants, a bar, nightclub, theatre, coffee shop, casino and library. On Deck 9 there’s a swimming pool with a buffet-style restaurant and outdoor bar, with a grill serving burgers and hot dogs. Go up to Deck 10 and there’s a tiny gym and sauna, while on Deck 11, there’s another pool with two restaurants and a bar. Deck 12 has been newly renovated with a sun terrace that’s shielded by glass walls, making it a lovely spot to sunbathe.
The layout can be a bit confusing, with certain staircases only giving access to certain floors, but it doesn’t take long to get your bearings.
There are different sorts of cabins depending on your budget – an outside cabin has a window, and most rooms have double beds, flat-screen TVs, a fridge, seating area and bathroom with an over-bath shower and sink. They feel pretty spacious, and there’s plenty of room to store all your kit. If you’d like to see a quick video tour of my cabin, check out my YouTube channel.
On the Pride of Panama cruise, we docked at each destination in the morning and typically left the ship around 9am, with instructions to return at 6pm, giving you a full day to explore. In some destinations (like the Panama Canal) this is the perfect amount of time to see the local sights, but with others, it can seem like you’ve just barely touched the surface of an exciting destination you’d like to know better (like Colombia).
It’s also worth remembering that docking depends very much on weather – sometimes you might dock later, and if everyone is leaving the ship at the same time, it can get crowded and take quite a well to get on shore. Sometimes you might not dock at all – we missed one destination on our trip because it was too rough to dock, and the previous cruise had missed out on two destinations entirely.
On the Pride of Panama cruise, there are four destinations – Costa Rica, Colombia, San Blas and Panama, as well as the home port of Montego Bay, Jamaica, which is where you’ll set off from and return to. You get one day in each destination and a half day in Montego Bay after the ship docks on its return, if your flight is later in the day (our flight was around 5pm).
You can also opt to do a Cruise and Stay, where you spend a week cruising and then 3, 4 or 7 nights at a Thomson destination in Jamaica. I love the idea of Cruise and Stay because you get all the fun of a cruise, with the stuff you probably love about your regular holiday – chilling out time, spending a few days in one destination, having a bit more freedom with your schedule…
Yes, plenty. Our schedule allowed for two days at sea, sailing from one destination to another. In the end, we actually had three sea days, because bad weather prevented us from visiting one of the destinations – this is a downside of cruising I hadn’t really thought about. On sea days, you can sunbathe if the weather’s good, and there are also lots of things to do on board, with shows, activities, and plenty of spots to sit and relax.
On our first sea day, the weather wasn’t great, and I confess to feeling a bit stir crazy by mid-afternoon, but on the second day the weather was glorious, and I loved just sitting on deck, reading a book, and being served with cold drinks by smiling staff. With the odd break for food, and a quite marvellous hot rocks massage in the ship spa. Well, I did feel I should try all the facilities on offer. Only for your sakes, reader chums. Obviously.
There’s a huge mix of entertainment on board the Thomson Dream. For starters, there’s a two-level theatre that shows nightly entertainment – a couple of times a week these are West-End style performances, but on other evenings there’s a comedian, a singing duo and on one memorable evening, a Crew-only talent show, in which quite a lot of Filipino waiters sang pop songs.
In the ship’s smaller venues, there is also entertainment – in the Delo bar on Deck 8 there’s a piano player, and on some evenings I saw a singer in the Medusa Bar and Lounge. The entertainment runs into the small hours, too – there’s often some loud karaoke to be found at the Water’s Edge nightclub, while poker players in our group enjoyed the casino.
If you’re not a fan of organised entertainment, then there’s plenty of other stuff to do – there are regular presentations, exercise classes and even make-up classes – I imagine it’s hard to be too bored on board. And if you prefer to just enjoy a drink and a chat in the evening, there are some quieter spots on the ship, too.
The Pride of Panama cruise starts at £1,034 per person, including flights, transfers, taxes and – interesting – all tips and gratuities. On board, your meals are covered UNLESS you want to eat at one of the specialty restaurants, which make a modest charge of around £20/head for dinner. You’ll also need to pay for drinks, which look expensive until you consider Cruise Measures are around 60% bigger than drinks measures at home. You’ll also need to budget for snacks and drinks on board, spa treatments, and excursions cost extra – most of the half-day excursions run from £25-£75 per person.
I can imagine it’s easy to lose track of what you spend on board – you’re given a small smartcard when you board, which you use to ‘pay’ for everything you buy – and then the balance is taken off your debit or credit card at the end of the week. All those cocktails and cups of coffee can quickly add up!
You can explore independently and we saw lots of younger people on the ship doing just that. But we found most people book excursions (tip – it’s cheaper if you book excursions before you leave the UK). In some places, it’s more convenient and safer to go with a tour group – I wouldn’t have wanted to walk around Colon, in Panama, in an unsupervised group, for example.
If you do book on a ship excursion, it’s pretty simple – as you get off the ship, there will be a bus and tour guide waiting, and off you go. There’s a guarantee that if you’re on a Thomson-organised excursion and you’re late back to ship, they won’t leave without you, which was reassuring to know, especially as we got back from our drinks in Cartagena with just 2 minutes to spare!
There are five restaurants on the ship, along with various snacking options, and each has its own opening hours. There’s a 24-hour buffet so yes, you can basically eat whenever you feel like it. I can assure you that your waistline will be testament to this fact when you return home (seriously, who knew you could gain 8lb in a week??). There’s also the option to order room service if you don’t want to go to one of the on-board restaurants.
The quality of the food is pretty good, and we found the service friendly and helpful, with some lovely personal touches – at several of the places we ate, waiters remembered how I enjoyed my coffee, for example. For me, the highlights were the Asian-Indian fusion food in the Kora La restaurant (above), and the Terrace Grill, where you can cook your own dinner on a piece of volcanic rock heated to more than 400 degrees. Brilliant fun.
The dress code on Thomson Dream is smart casual most evenings with relaxed dining – you aren’t assigned a seat and table, so you can go with the flow. One evening each week there is a Gala Dinner where everyone dresses up in evening dress and there’s a fixed time for each guest to attend dinner. But ballgowns is probably over-stating it – a nice dress and heels are probably sufficient for the ladies, while men mostly wore dinner jackets. No ballgowns. Relax.
Technically, yes, there is WiFi on the ship, which costs £10 for an hour’s access. But it’s horribly slow and can be unreliable, especially on sea days when the ship is full of passengers. On our first sea day, I asked at reception if they had any tips on getting online. “Try again tomorrow,” was the reply. Fair point. My advice is to ignore the Internet as much as possible and use the free WiFi that’s available in most of the ports you’ll visit.
Fundamentally, I suspect you’re the kind of person who looks at a cruise ship and thinks, “Wow, a kids club and lots of travel and fun things to do!” or you’re the kind of person who looks at a cruise ship and thinks, “Wow. Look at the gap between those rails. My kid would TOTALLY fit through that gap and fall into the ocean.”
If you’re the first sort of person, then yes, absolutely cruises are great for kids. There’s lots of entertainment, family-friendly food and the staff we saw interacting with kids are unbelievably friendly and fun.