Panama Canal Cruise – Day Fourteen

The second of our series of Sea Days.  The Agenda is looking pretty packed with up to 6 different things going on at one time on the ship.  The Event Planners are working overtime to keep us busy. 

As I said yesterday, Captain Harris and his crew are pretty smart cookies.  Yesterday was the big Pool Party with free drinks so when you look around the ship today, it’s pretty subdued.  Everyone is staying under the radar.  The strategy is also good as Front Desk delivered an up-to-date shipboard account statement.  With the hangovers going on most people just glance at the HUGE number at the bottom and toss it aside.  Who can deal with this today?  Did we buy and drink that much?  Oh, well….too late to take it back so we might as well keep going…

It was another beautiful day great for sun tanning and hanging out at the pool. The weather this trip has been fantastic, sunny and hot.  Our day is broken up with the Songwriting Seminar and Passenger Cabaret Classes put on by Diane Fast in the Piano Bar.  The songs that are coming out of this are amazing. The Cabaret show is coming together nicely as well.  Rick has been busy putting material together for his comedy styling and I have been working on getting and memorizing the words to my song.  It keeps us busy.

Tonight was the Officers’ Black & White Ball.  I love the Ball.  All the officers get dressed in their black and whites.  Most of the attendees dress accordingly so the room looks lovely.  Part of the Ball is that the officers have to dance with the passengers when asked so you are always guaranteed a dance with a handsomely dressed man.  They had a bit of a game this time in that certain officers had an envelope in their pocket that had a certificate for a bottle of free champagne.  If you had picked the right officer to dance with, you would win the bottle.  Fortunately for my friends and I, I got the winning officer.  So we had a bottle to share in the evening.

After the Ball we all went down to Northern Lights to drink champagne and dance the night away.  Even though it doesn’t seem like we’ve done a lot, the day is always full. 

For more information go to CAA Niagara Travel

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Panama Canal Cruise – Day Thirteen

Today is the start of our 4 days at sea.  We have about 1800 miles to get from Nicaragua to San Diego with no stops.  The entertainment staff have their work cut out for them to keep everyone happy for the four days we were supposed to be stopping in Mexico.  The agenda for the day seems to be getting longer and longer.

Rick and I had been spending a lot of time in the Piano Bar with a new cruise singer, Diane Fast.  Diane is from Seattle and this is her virgin cruise – both as a cruiser and as an onboard entertainer.  She has been absolutely fantastic. The cruise director was looking for as many activities as could be fit into a day so Diane volunteered to do two new activities – a Songwriting Seminar and the Passenger Cabaret Class.  Today was the first day for both.  I was amazed at how many people came.  So for the first day of sea, I now have homework to do on a new song and confirm the words to the song I’ll be singing in the cabaret.  Rick’s homework is to get “Stupid Cruise Questions” together for a comedy bit.  This should be good.

Captain Harris and his entertainment crew are a smart bunch.  They decided that tonight there would be another Pool Party, with one major difference…..FREE DRINKS!!!!  What a great marketing tool to get people to forget we are not going to Acapulco tomorrow.  The Lido mid-ship pool was packed.  Charlie and the HAL Cats played great music again and we had dancing, drinking and partying in the pool. 

The bunch of people we had met at the Pub Crawl a few days ago met for a Pub Crawl reunion on our own.  The bartenders were quite generous in their drink pours even though this was not a “sanctioned” event.  We started at 7:30 and hit three bars until we got to the Pool Party for the free drinks.  At that point we were ready for the pool.  We managed to throw in DJ Dan and the Cruise Director Jimmy.  We really wanted to throw them overboard instead of the pool but didn’t want to end up in the brig!!

While we were going through the Panama Canal, a correspondent working at the new canal saw our ship and took a couple of pictures.  You can check out more information about the Panama Canal at: www.kleph.com

Here is Cliff’s email to me. 

I am a correspondent for Engineering-News Record and I was at the Panama Canal yesterday doing photographs of the Third Lane Expansion project. (A slideshow I did for the magazine’s online site two years ago can be found here (Panama Slideshow)
While I was wai  ting to take shots of a controlled blast in the expansion area I was also taking shots of ships going through the Miraflores locks and I have a couple of the cruise ship Westerdam.
I stumbled on your blog entry doing some of my research this evening and just put the two together. If you would like to send me an email, I’ll send it your way post haste.
I hope your trip is going well. It sounds like it from your blog entries.
Cliff

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For the official version see CAA Niagara Travel

Panama Canal Cruise – Day Twelve

Welcome to Corinto, Nicaragua.  We ended up backtracking by heading south to Nicaragua for this historical day for Holland America. This is first time a Holland America ship has landed in Nicaragua.  What’s really amazing is, like yesterday, even though this has never been a designated port, somehow there were excursions created and many, many pedicabs available for our transportation in this tiny coastal town of 20,000.   

You could tell the locals had thrown together whatever they could find to set up a “market” close to the pier.  It was like going to a garage sale of sorts – lots of toys, kids clothes, shoes, etc. 

We found a town plaza that had a fountain area in the middle with turtles and to our surprise a crocodile.  The crocodile’s snout was right by one of the turtles but it didn’t seem to be concerned.  We watched its amazing reptilian eyes until it decided that it was time to cool off.  It’s eyes slowly shut and then even slower it slide down into the water very stealth-like.

We walked around the town to take in the local life and found an Internet Cafe, a Kingdom Hall and a movie theatre.  The theatre was open air with no seats and instead of a screen, just had a big wall painted white.  It also had a big fan to keep you cool while you watched the movie.

Walking by a bar we heard Madonna wafting out and also saw Pepsi and Eskimo Pie signs all over.  During our walk we also saw a mother and son walking down the street with 4 chickens apiece.  At first glance we thought they were dead as they were holding them by the feet and they weren’t moving.  When we got closer we found that they were, in fact, alive.  The boy tilted up one of the heads and it blinked.  I guess they knew they were headed for the fryer…..

When we first started our walk it was somewhat overcast but after about a half hour or so, I found that my legs and lungs were not working correctly.  I got to the point that I was unsure whether I could get back to the ship.  It turned out Rick was feeling something similar.  While we were walking it had turned very hot with very high humidity and had a real negative effect on our circulatory systems – our blood was turned to mud.  (at least it felt that way)  We DID manage to get  back to the ship and once we were in the pool and relaxing we were fine again.

Sail away was so much fun as the people of Cortino came to the beach to see the big ship off.  As we sailed by you could see multiple flashes going as everyone wanted a picture of this historic event.  The people were very nice and it is a beautiful country so I hope they develop their tourism and get air conditioning soon.

For more information see CAA Niagara Travel 

 

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Panama Canal Cruise – Day Eleven

Holland America has  been amazing coming up with alternatives for Mexico on extremely short notice.  Unfortunately there aren’t a lot of choices.  Our first new port is Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala.  It’s not just the availability of port to dock at but also arrangements of activities and land transportation for passengers to partake in while they are there.

By yesterday evening there were excursions set up and information printed for people to pick from.  We opted to just get off the ship and visit the immediate port area where there was a welcome centre with shopping, bars and the Jade Museum.  To get from the dock to the welcome centre, Holland America had arranged minivans as it would have been a very long walk.  Also, since this is a working port they tend not to want civilians wandering around willy-nilly.

On our way to the centre we stopped to pick up passengers at another ship called The Explorer.  The Explorer is a School Ship set up by the University of Virginia where the students work and go to school for six months as part of their degree program.  This is very similar to Class Afloat where high school students work on a tall ship for 6 months as part of their education.  Nice gig if you can get it.

When we got to the Welcome Centre there was another ship called The World.  The World is actually a floating condominium complex where you buy an apartment on the ship and then travel the world.  Our new friend, The Count, had spent time on the ship so he was able to tell us a little about it.  Apparently, there are no restaurants or food services.  You have to prepare your own meals which to me rather defeats the purpose of living on a cruise ship.   We were trying to figure out how they would decide where to travel to and dock when there are so many owners that have a vote.  They must have some very interesting condo association meetings.

The Welcome Centre had many kiosks with very colourful attire, jade, hash pipes, and linens for your table.  It was interesting to say the least.  The Vendors would tell you how much and if you said no or just didn’t say anything, the price would go down.  I don’t like to barter so I liked the fact that I really didn’t need to say anything – just waited until the price came down.  I got t-shirts for the kids and a really cool drum for my resident musician at home.

The centre also had a couple of really nice bars, one where we had amazing hand-stirred marqueritas and another for Gallo beers.  At the latter we met up with more people from the ship for living conversation.

See more at CAA Niagara Travel

 

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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.

For more information, go to CAA Niagara Travel

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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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For Rick, the Spin Doctor’s, more professional view of today go to CAA Niagara Travel

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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