Panama Canal Cruise – Day Ten

Here we are on another Sea Day.  A large number of passengers started the day with a 5 km Walk for the Cure for Breast Cancer Research.  It was amazing how many passengers participated – even after the late night before.  Holland America’s  fundraising for this cause has generated over $2 million to date.  At the end of the walk Captain Harris was there to congratulate the finishers – just another touch to make you feel special on this ship.

Speaking of Captain Harris, we have been anxiously awaiting news as to the state of the rest of our cruise.  At this point, we had 4 ports left to hit before San Diego – all in Mexico.  The US, UK and Canada have all declared a semi state of emergency with the outbreak of Swine Flu originating in Mexico.  There is somewhat of a panic on board as people were concerned about what the plans would be for us.  Would we be floundering out in the Pacific Ocean for the rest of our lives??!! 

Finally we got the news that Holland America would not be stopping at ANY Mexican destinations.  So, goodbye to Acapulco, Haultico, Cabo san Lucas and Porto Chiapo.  Guess we have to do this cruise again!!  At least we saved about $300 in excursion and port fees by not stopping. Our captain and the Holland America line were frantically trying to find alternatives so we would not end up just sailing in circles for a week like a ghost ship.  The first stop they were able to secure for us was Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala which was rather neat as now I can cross another country off my list. Later in the evening we found out that we would also be turning south and heading to Nicaragua before heading back north to San Diego.  The trip to Nicaragua will be very exciting since this will be the very first time that a Holland America ship has docked in that country.  We will be making history.

Because it was a Sea Day, we had another Formal Evening.  CAA Niagara Travel hosted a cocktail party in the Crow’s Nest for our group so Rick and I were dressed for the occasion.  The party was a success with all of our group attending.  Sparkling wine and tapas were served.

The rest of the day was a typical shipboard evening of dinner, show, piano bar and dancing.  There’s always something to do on a ship if you want to keep busy.

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Panama Canal Cruise – Day Nine

A day I have been waiting for – Costa Rica!!  There were several eco-tours available from bus tours to zip-lining.  I don’t think any of our group decided to go zip-lining, but I could be wrong.  Rick and I were definitely the only ones NOT to see a monkey on our tour.  We did the Tropical Rainforest Aerial Tram.  This was a 7-hour excursion so we didn’t get into the city of Puntarenas at all.

Costa Rica is a beautiful country – green and lush – with pristine beaches by the pier. Unfortunately, as you get away from the docking area its true colours start to show.  There was quite a mix of abodes from gigantic ocean-side homes to tin-roofed shanties by the sea.  This I could take, but the filth was somewhat surprising.  There was garbage everywhere. 

Costa Rica is a fast developing country especially since Intel opened their chip plant here.  Microchips are now Costa Rica’s biggest export over bananas, coffee, and cocoa. They have a 93% literacy rate, universal health care and are heavy into ecology.  These are reasons it surprised me that garbage didn’t seem to matter to them.  You’d think they would take better care of their own environment.

At the conservation area we went to, part of the over 70% of land-mass reserved for conservancy, we found a wonderful group of highly knowledgeable people who had all kinds of information about the flora and fauna of this region.  Our Aerial Tram guide was against the whole zip-lining thing in the conservancy and I certainly didn’t blame him.  These rides were very noisy and I think there was a lack of birds and animals in the area because of them.  Of course, the main reason they have them is to make more money to support the whole conservation process so sometimes you have to take the good with the bad.  Personally I don’t get the why of this activity.  You can’t see anything while you’ve got your eyes shut and your sphincter closed tighter than skin on a wiener!!  You have to change your shorts between zips…..

We had an authentic Costa Rican meal which included fruit and their mainstays of rice and beans.  Our guide told us that Costa Ricans eat rice and beans at just about every meal including breakfast.  I find that a little much. That would even be worse if you were into zip-lining…

I don’t think the port we were at was a major tourist area but even so, the scenery was amazing.  Costa Rica is very mountainous – not as mountainous as Vancouver but quite a change from Aruba and Santa Marta. 

After our long trip to the rainforest several of the youngest (over 30) passengers  did The Great Westerdam Pub Crawl.  The crawl went to five of the bars onboard where they poured every participant a drink.  These were not little sampler glasses but full-sized drinks with a little extra in each.  The crawl ended at the Lido Deck where the Lido Pool Party was going on.  Charlie and the HAL Cats were playing so the crawlers were only too happy to dance the rest of the night away. After about 20 ounces of booze a piece, the party was quite happy to adjourn to the pool – clothes and all.  Fortunately I had on my $15 cheapo watch as we found later that time stood still for the rest of the night at 10:35 pm….

I would highly recommend the Pub Crawl if you are young at heart and want to meet similarly gregarious passengers.  The Pub Crawl should be on the 2nd or 3rd day of Holland America cruises to help us find each other for the rest of our stay.  We found that there were way more of us than we could find in the Lido and have had lots of fun ever since.

For the Spin doctor’s take on Costa Rica, go to CAA Niagara Travel

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Panama Canal Cruise – Day Eight

Today is a Sea Day.  That means we don’t get to set foot on land and that it is Formal Night, our second.  We were not really at sea per se but were cruising Golfo Dulce, Costa Rica.  The ship would cruise down the coast one way and then turn around somehow and cruise the other way. How much fun is that!!

Anyway, it was a really nice day.  We had a meet-up of our group on the Lido at 10:00 where we could just get together and see how everyone is fairing.  So far, everyone seems to be having a great time.  As usual, the women were looking for their husbands as somehow they always seems to disappear…..They do get found eventually….

After coffee, Rick and I ventured up to the gym to see what damage we could do to ourselves there.  He is actually a very good trainer.  Too bad we live so far apart.   It would be a little difficult to phone him in Ontario every time I go to the gym in Vancouver!!!  Hey, Rick!!  How do I do this one???  We worked on legs, biceps, triceps, abs and cardio.  I’m guessing he wants me to stick around for awhile.  Actually, watching our fellow passengers struggling with canes, walkers and scooters, you really come to realize how important it is to keep moving as you get older. BP seems to be holding its own despite all the alcohol and rich foods.  Partying seems to help a lot!!!

It was a “pastel” evening for the two of us – Rick in mauve and me in pink….don’t worry…just the accessories.  We had a little fun with that.  After a dinner of Surf and Turf we were off to the show and then our favourite place, the Piano Bar, with Diane.  She amazes me in that she can pick out a tune pretty quick in any genre from Metal to Classics.  She had a full bar tonight.

As you can tell, some sea days are better than others.  Sometimes the aim is to just rest from the prior day’s activities and rest up for the following day’s activities.

Because of all our extra time today by the pool Rick and I made some interesting observations.

1.  The Friends of Bill W (AA meetings) happen at the same time as the Wine Tasting and Happy Hour….

2.  There are some people who need a walker to get around and complain about their health problems, but when they are in the Lido they can somehow manage to carry two plates of food……

3.  The average age on some cruise ships (not naming names) is deceased….

4.  Internet time onboard is purchased by time so it’s the slowest it can get and it takes forever to login and logout….

5.  Cruises always have a young whipper-snapper DJ-ing so the music played is something 95% of the passengers have never heard before…..Let’s keep DISCO alive!!!!!!

6.  Further to #1, Friends of Bill W, Friends of Dorothy and Mass all happen at the same time every day.  If you are a gay, alcoholic Catholic you’re SOL…..

So much for sea day.  Hopefully our second set of Formal Pics will turn out….

Panama Canal Cruise – Day Seven

The Panama Canal, approximately 80 km long, unites the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean.  It officially opened on August 15, 1914 and has seen about 1,000,000 vessels travel through it.  The canal knocks off about 100,000 miles to get from the Atlantic to the Pacific.  Talk about screwing up a great vacation.  Without the canal we could have added another 20 days to our trip. What a rip off!!

There is ample information available on the stats regarding the Panama Canal, when it opened, how long, how big, etc, etc. so you can look any of that up on the Internet or in travel books.  CAA Niagara Travel gave our passengers the book “Panama Canal By Cruise Ship” by Anne Vipond.  If you are planning to cruise the Panama, it’s actually pretty good as it also covers the ports of call and maps.  Of course, most people didn’t get through it before coming on the cruise, myself included, but it works well as a reference book.

I thought Holland America handled the passage very well.  They had a commentator starting at about 7:00 in the morning and he kept us informed throughout the day.  They opened up the bow and all the other front decks so people could get a good view of the happenings, and provided beverages and sweet buns so we wouldn’t starve until breakfast. 

The first set of locks were the best in that most of us were up earlier than normal and dedicated that time to listening to the speaker and photographing the 8th man-made wonder of the world.  It was already over 80 early in the morning so we were slathered with sunscreen and made sure we had hats.  The last three locks seemed to just pass us by as in the afternoon there were other activities to keep us occupied such as eating, movies, etc.  It was way too hot to bask in the sun. We were a mere 400 miles from the equator.

We did make it back to the bow for the grand exit from the canal at Panama City.  It would have added a lot to the experience to stop to tour this beautiful modern city and its surroundings. There is an information centre and museum at the last lock that some of our guests would have liked to see.  Apparently people come from all over the world (especially engineers) to see this engineering marvel.  Our resident engineer was quite put off in that the whole lock-type system used is exceedingly simple.

This evening we decided to opt for the Open Dining rather than our regular seating.  We were placed with some very interesting people, a documentary filmmaker and this cruise’s guest travel speaker.  Dinner conversation was lively, especially with some antidotes from Rene, our documentarian.  He told a story about a trip to Brazil to a place that experiments and produces snake venom.  He asked if they could go into the snake pit with the handler to film.  After awhile the handler got bored and decided to have a little siesta.  Soon, there were cries from outside the pit for Rene to watch out.  When he looked down, there was a snake peering out from between his legs at which point he had to show me what that looked like.  Really, Rene, you shouldn’t brag……

We spend the rest of the evening at the Piano Bar entertaining the entertainer.  She was nice enough not to throw us out for singing along and on occasion correcting her words.   We’re bad!!!

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Panama Canal Cruise – Day Six

Carti Island, San Blas Archipelago, Panama

Carti Island is one of the biggest islands in this Archipelago of no less than 365 islands but it takes about half an hour to see most of it.  This small island is home to a large community of Cuna Indians who sell their handicrafts to the tourists.  The Cunas are one of the three main tribal groups of this region.

The women are dressed in traditional garb of red and yellow with gold nose rings, earrings and costumes with unique designs embroidered using the Mola technique.  The major items vended are Mola crafts – blouses, shirts, pillow cases, purses, pictures and the like.  There are also painted feathers from a wide variety of birds.

Children are taught at a very young age to say “One Dollar” as just about everything from taking their photo to buying a child’s hand-drawn, coloured picture is offered at “One Dollar”.  Many children had birds, parrots, iguanas or monkeys to included in the photo sessions.  

Mola means “blouse” in Cuna but it refers to the appliquéd panel using on the garment.  They start learning this craft at a very early age and we saw several women and young girls stitching new panels.

We were fortunate enough to meet a local boy named Kevin who took us on a tour of his life.  He was an amazing entrepreneur and you had to admire his tenacity and salesmanship.  He came to us welcoming us to his island home, introduced himself and shook my hand.  Then he offered to show us his house.  He never mentioned money to us but he knew if he sold it right he wouldn’t have to ask.  He was right!!

We followed the young boy who we took to be around 9 or 10 years old to his thatch house. He took us directly into their abode with stylish hard-packed dirt floors, thatch roof, bamboo walls and lots of “modern” trinkets such as a bride doll, toys, and a 15” black & white TV with an aerial on the roof. An electrical line runs through the house with one bare energy-efficient light bulb installed.  I don’t think these people have to worry too much about “Earth Day”.

The sleeping area was made up of hammocks and he showed off his hammock and offered to let us try one.  I politely declined.  There is no way I could sleep in one of those and still walk the next day. Then we went to the cooking hut where we met his grandfather, his two brothers, his aunt and her baby.  There were no modern appliances visible or even a table to eat off of. 

He then showed us their bathroom that was basically a hut over the ocean with two holes cut into a platform and “modern” toilet seats attached for your comfort.  Again I declined the offer for its use.  We decided this is why there is no snorkeling around the island even though the reef looks pretty good.

The village has a pharmacy, a doctor, 2 schools where the student wear uniforms of a white cotton shirt and blue skirt or pants, a couple of grocery stores, a museum and more.  Of course, when you look at the pictures you will see these are NOT the same as what we are used to.

Tendering back to the cruise ship, you can’t help but feel the distinct difference between our two “islands” though it could be debated as to who are the haves and who are the have-nots.  We have the better possessions, but they seemed very happy and had close familial bonds.  It’s a toss up!!


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Panama Canal Cruise – Day Five

Welcome to Santa Marta, Columbia

This is a fairly new stop for cruise lines and you can tell.  The coast is much more mountainous than Aruba but still full of scrub and cacti.  We arrived at a working pier where there is a huge coal mining operation going on.  Therefore, we were not allowed to walk to the city, but rather were bussed from the ship to the main gate. 

Once there you are right in the main section of the city and right next to the beach.  There were a couple of tours that some of our group went on, but because the tour guides lacked experience, there were some problems.  Their English was not good and they seemed to leave half of their groups behind while they talked about the stop they were at.

One of our couples took a taxi and saw a lot of attractions and had a great time.  We decided to do our own thing and walk around Santa Marta.  I think we took some wrong turns as the areas we ended up in were definitely not touristy….

When we got back to the shopping area, we found that these items were the most represented:  shoes, baby clothes and cell phones.  I couldn’t figure out why I would want a cell phone from Columbia??  We did run into Juan Valdez and his donkey as you will see in the pictures and went to Columbia’s version of Starbucks – the Juan Valdez Cafe.  It was about 100 degrees and the humidity was high so we ducked into such places as Exito – Columbia’s version of Walmart. 

By the time we got back towards the water, we were pretty damp so we stopped at this little bar that was being renovated at the time, but the owner seemed to be pretty friendly even though he couldn’t speak English.  He sure knew how to say 4 dollars in English.  Not too bad for 2 beers.  We tried the Aguila brand as shown in our pictures. 

We noticed a lot of buildings being fixed, renovated and painted, so I hope that soon this will become a great stop on the Panama Canal Cruise.  There is a lot of poverty in this area and tourism is a great way to increase revenues for such a nice port.

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Panama Canal Cruise – Day Four


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Welcome to Oranjestad, Aruba

How can you tell this is a Dutch colony???  There is blue Dutch pottery everywhere….

We went on the Aruba Sea & Shore tour in the morning.  If you haven’t been to Aruba, here is an idea of its size.  It took us about 15 minutes for go from the south side of the island where the pier was to the north side of the island for our first stop.  Apparently you can go almost anywhere on the island in about 20-25 minutes.  There are about 100,000 inhabitants on the island not including tourists, a hospital and two medical schools.  Where did you do your med school?  Aruba!! 

The island is very dry with mostly scrub and cactus for foliage.  Our first stop was the Casabari Rock Formations.  These huge rocks are just hanging out in this area with no mountains to have fallen from.  At some point someone created stone steps to get to the top so you could get a panoramic view of all the scrub and cacti…..

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Next we hit the Natural Bridge at one of the beach park.  The original bridge collapsed in 2005 so we get a lesser bridge but it is still pretty neat.  Also, all over the island you will see stacked rocks.  These are wishes that people have placed in “strategic” locations.  When you place your rocks you make a wish.  It’s supposed to come true within three days.  Mine still hasn’t happened but maybe it takes longer for tourists….

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The third stop is in the resort area where we pick up a catamaran to take us out to a semi-sub.  This is basically a boat that has a submarine-like hull to it so you can see the reef but not really submerge.  We were over a shipwreck of a German freighter.  The story of the wreck was more interesting than the fish – which there weren’t too many of.  The German freighter was anchored at Aruba when WWII started in 1939.  At first they were okay as the Netherlands were still neutral.  That changed when Germany invaded the Netherlands.  Then rather than hand the ship over to the Dutch, the captain scuttled it and he and the crew got to spend the rest of the war as POWs in Aruba rather than go back to Germany.  That’s a tough life.

The last stop was the California lighthouse.  The lighthouse is not named for the state but rather for the name of another ship that sunk in that area.  Fortunately, everyone was able to swim to shore and the cargo was released.  The Arubans were able to gather the cargo and use or sell it themselves.

The bus brought us back to the pier and we headed off to the shopping district.  All I managed to get were a couple of t-shirts for the kids…..

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Panama Canal Cruise – Day Three

Day 3 is an “At Sea” day.  These are very important days as you need a little rest after the previous day’s adventures and you need to get ready for the formal evening. 

Rick and I hosted coffee and danishes for our tour group at 10:00 by the Lido deck pool.  It was a nice visit and we got to know our group a little better. 

Sea Days can be either very active with lots of activities put on by the Party Planner and Cruise Director OR you can spend the day like us and just pamper yourselves.  We had breakfast in bed, lunch by the pool, Royal Dutch High Tea and finally the Captain’s Welcome and formal dinner. 

It was definitely a lazy day for us after all of the rushing around to get everyone on ship and settled.  We deserved it.  Our captain is a darling Englishman, Peter Harris, with a delightful sense of humour and, I hope, great navigational skills.  You know you’re getting old when the rest of the executive crew look like they are eighteen.  I’m sure this is not the case but they were very young. 

We “dressed” for dinner as it was a formal night.  Rick looked resplendent in his tuxedo as he smoozed with our tour group.  Everyone looked lovely and we had a delicious meal.  

After the Stage & Screen show put on by the Westerdam singers and dancers, we were off to visit a few of the bars on board – each with their own specialty – some jazz, some crooners, some disco, and so on.  Rick and i both love to sing and fortunately for us, no one has the nerve to come tell us to stop….at least not yet…..

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Panama Canal Cruise – Day Two

Welcome to Half Moon Cay, Bahamas

Holland America has its own private island in the Bahamas with beautiful beaches, parasailing, horseback riding, swimming with stingrays, and much more.  When we arrive at the island, there is a welcome centre where you can meet for any activities you may have signed up for or just hang out at the beach.  The water here is a beautiful turquoise blue with a darker blue in the deeper waters.

I decided that the Stingray exhibit would be different so we made our way to their enclosure.  This is an amazing attraction where you can swimming and feed the stingrays in a enclosed environment safe from predators.  After donning some snorkeling gear I head into the pool.  You can not stand up in the enclosure as you may accidentally step on a stingray and break its spine.  It’s difficult to know where they are as they kind of sneak up on you from behind so floating is a must. 

Shortly we are allowed to stand close to the pier so we can feed the rays.  A stingray professional instructs us in how to feed the stingrays properly and then we each take our turn.  We each got a squid about 8 inches long that we held in one hand.  Then when we put our hand in the water, the stingray comes right up and sucks it out of your hand.  You have to be careful to let go of your squid or the stingray will suck so hard to get its food that you will get a “stingray hicky”. 

While standing around feeding the stingrays, they have a great time swimming by your legs and rubbing their velvety skin over your legs  They are very soft but have a slimy feel to them when you pet them.  The scary part is the massive stinger they possess – some were about 6 feet long. 

There was one stingray with no stinger.  I asked the guide why and he show me a finger stump on his hand and said that is what happened to the stingray.  I was aghast until I realized that he was joking.  I never did find out why the stingray didn’t have a stinger.

After this adventure, there was a nice BBQ on the beach where I had some mahi mahi (I thought that was a Hawaiian thing), lots of fruit and salads.  Then we spent the rest of the day on the beach.  Half Moon Cay is definitely a paradise and we thoroughly enjoyed it. 

One lesson we learnt today is to check the expiration date on your sunscreen!!  Rick’s was ending May, 2009 and mine ended in 2007!!  We didn’t get burnt to a crisp but we did get some burn that we shouldn’t have.  You could say we got a little colour……

Also, when I got back to the ship I did notice a lump and bruise between my thumb and index finger where I had held the squid so I guess I managed to get myself a “stingray hicky”!!!

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Panama Canal Cruise – Day One – Hurray!!!

We are finally at Day One of our cruise.  We got everyone assembled in the lobby of the hotel and checked that everyone’s luggage was properly tagged and on the luggage trolleys.  After collecting some that were still in their rooms, we managed to get it all together.

The hotel had all the luggage put on the shuttle bus which could only hold 14 people.  That meant there were 4 that had to go in another vehicle.  The vehicle they sent for our seniors was a Suburban.  I could barely get in it, let alone some of our passengers.

After getting everyone on the ship, through the security and check in, Rick and I delivered gifts to our passengers cabins to welcome them aboard.  This was a little easier than I thought as the staterooms were still being cleaned so they were a surprise when our passengers finally got to their rooms.

Everyone was on their own after that.  Whew!!!  Of course our work is never done, so we were off to see the maitre d’ to make sure our group was sitting close together at dinner.

One of the nice things about cruising is that you can unpack, put things away, and not have to pack up again until the very end.  We are on the ms Westerdam from Holland America and found the staterooms to be slightly different from other ships we’ve been on.  A big one is that there is a minibar now which has taken the place of DRAWERS!!!  What’s with that???  Anyway, we managed to find homes for everything and then we were off to dinner.

We are on the early sitting in the dining room which is a little too early for us, but it does give you lots of time to take in the other evening activities.  We went to a “Game Show”, the Showtime extravaganza featuring the singers and dancers of the Westerdam, Charles & The HAL Cats in the Queen’s Lounge and of course, the “Disco” in the Northern Lights.  Can’t miss that.

It was a busy day and I think it will be a very busy cruise for us.  Time for a “Drink of the Day”…..

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