A PANAMA CANAL HOLIDAY CRUISE
A photo-illustrated travelogue of the Western and Southern Caribbean port cities.
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We arrived at Fort Lauderdale's Port Everglades Terminal at 11:15 AM. By noon we were checked in and were enjoying lunch by the pool on the Lido deck. Just before 6 PM we headed out of the harbor and into another Caribbean adventure.
The next morning found us at anchor in the bay of Half Moon Cay , Holland America's private island which is leased from the Bahamian government. It can be found on the map between Cat Island and Eleuthera and it's official name is Little San Salvador Island. It has a beautiful crescent beach with facilities for every kind of watersport. There is a straw market featuring local handicrafts and souvenir stuff. Food and beverage service is conveniently provided. We chose to relax under a palm tree listening to a Caribbean band and sipping a rum concoction from a coconut shell.
The following two days were spent at sea making the 1100 mile run from the Bahamas to Costa Rica. This was the longest leg of our journey. Most all the passengers spent this time getting familiar with the ship and its routine. In addition, the cruise staff provided lots of activities and entertainment. The Cruise Director was Peter "Never at a Loss for Words" Daems who we have cruised with previously. Day three was Christmas Eve and dinner was formal dress, the first formal night of four on this cruise.
Just before 7 AM on day five we docked at Puerto Limon, Costa Rica. After breakfast in the Lido restaurant our traveling group of six went ashore and negotiated a tour of the Tortuguero Jungle Canals with an knowledgeable and enthusiastic English-speaking driver and guide If you've ever been on the Jungle Boat Ride at Disneyland, you have some general idea what this was like, except this was real jungle with real birds and animals. The water is a deep green and there is very little current. On either side of the canals the palms and vines hang down to the water. There are lots of birds, ibis, egrets and strange un-named ones. There were brilliant green lizards and thirty pound iguanas sunning themselves on tree limbs. Small black bats were sleeping attached to palm trunks. Strangest of all were the three-toed sloths hanging upside-down who were seemingly oblivious to our presence.
After the canal trip our driver took us to the Del Monte banana plantation where we learned everything you ever wanted to know about bananas and then some. In retrospect we consider the Tortuguero canal-banana tour along with the Panama Canal as one of the highlights of our cruise.
At dawn on the sixth day the Rotterdam entered the Panama Canal. The first of the three Gatun locks was opened and we inched our way in. The locks are 109 feet wide and the ship's beam is 106 feet. Small engines called "mules" run on tracks on either side of the locks to keep the ship centered with attached cables. The gates of the first lock closed behind us and water flowed in until the ship rose to the level of the second lock. This process was repeated through the second and third locks until we were able to run free into Gatun Lake. From the time we entered the first lock until we were in the lake was about two hours.
After we anchored in the lake, passengers who had signed up for tours left the ship to rejoin it later in port at Colon, Panama. About noon the Rotterdam headed back through the Gatun Locks reversing the entry process. We docked at Colon about 4:00 PM to pick up the tour passengers and allow non-tour passengers to disembark for a short time. At 8:00 PM we slipped our moorings and were off to the San Blas Islands.
The San Blas Islands lie a few miles off mainland of Panama and stretch south from the canal to the coast of Colombia. They consist of over 350 islands of which 50 are inhabited by the Cuna Indians. The Cuna are an isolated people living in primitive conditions on these low lying islands. Their sources of income are from coconut plantations and selling their traditional art form, the mola. A mola is a panel of hand stitched reverse applique using several layers of cloth. The workmanship is amazing considering the conditions under which they are crafted. When a ship is calling the Cuna women bring their finished molas to one of the larger islands with small boat docking facilities so that their work can be seen by the tourists. Based on size and intricacy each mola will fetch between $3 and $20. Bargaining for price is expected by the Cuna.
Another minor source of income is a charge for posing for photographs. The standard price is "a dollah". It's not just a dollah for the main subject, but a dollah each for everyone in the background. So be careful of your shooting angle.
The last tender for the ship left the island at 3:30 PM and by 5 PM the Rotterdam had set a north-easterly course paralleling the coast of Colombia.
The next day was spent as sea covering the 650 miles from San Blas to Curacao. Late in the morning we encountered nasty weather with 12 ft. seas and gale force winds. But with Rotterdam's stabilizers it was barely noticeable. The Rotterdam was put into service in late 1997. She is rated at 62,000 gross tons and carries 1316 passengers, which is an excellent space to passenger ratio. This was her 204th voyage.
Rotterdam's public rooms are roomy, comfortable and decorated in tastefully subdued colors. There are three dining rooms, six full service bars, two pools plus hot tubs and a wading pool, a magnificent show room, a movie theater, beauty shop, fitness center, internet cafe, card room, library, casino, art gallery, photo gallery and a cappuccino bar.
Nine days into our adventure and it was Willemstad, Curacao, one of the most picturesque ports in the Caribbean. Cruise ships dock right in the center of town along the colorful Handelskade, a waterway lined with pastel colored dutch buildings. Curacao is only forty miles north of Venezuela and ten degrees above the equator. Even so, the constant trade winds keep the temperature moderate year round.
Again our group chose to negotiate a private tour in a small van rather than take one of the ship sponsored excursions. Our driver showed us the entire island from the posh resorts in the north to the Spanish Waters in the south. Among other sites, we visited the quaint and ancient distillery where curacao liquor is made and generous samples are dispensed. The ship stayed in port until midnight so we could see a really great fireworks display over the harbor. Then we were off to Aruba fortysome miles to the northwest.
When we awoke in the morning the ship was already docked in Oranjestad, Aruba. It was December 31st, New Year's Eve, and the celebration had begun early. Firecracker barrels were going off constantly all over town. Aruba is a 100% tourist island. All the big names in resort hotels are located north of the city on the finest beaches in the Southern Caribbean. Shopping for jewelry and watches is every bit as good as in St. Thomas. We accompanied some of the ship's crew members to a Philippine restaurant for lunch. This was a lively experience which won't soon be forgotten.
The Rotterdam left the Oranjestad dock at 6 PM. Our next stop was to be Grand Cayman which is 775 miles to the northwest and a full day at sea.
On Sunday morning, January 2 we dropped anchor in the harbor of Georgetown, Grand Cayman. There are no large ship docking facilities here and it's a good mile to shore.
Unless you are into snorkeling or beach time, Grand Cayman is not an especially good
port-of-call. But is is a convenient stop for cruise ships on a western Caribbean itinerary. We tendered in and took a van tour to the Turtle Farm and the place called "Hell". Hell is a waste of time, but the Turtle Farm is kind of interesting. The turtles are raised for the commercial market and 10% of them are returned to the sea.
Just before 6PM we weighed anchor and were underway.
The next day (our 13th) was to be another day at sea. We rounded the western tip of Cuba and entered what's called "The Traffic Separation Scheme", a controlled system to prevent marine accidents in these heavily traveled sea lanes. Because of a medical emergency, we were allowed an nighttime entry to our Key West anchorage at about 11 PM.
Before we could tender ashore, the ship had to go through the U.S. Immigration inspection.
Due to some administrative foul up this took longer than expected. Once ashore we headed to the Hog's Breath Boutique & Saloon for a great lunch and tee shirt buying experience. Then we hopped aboard the "Conch Train" for a city-wide overview. Afterwards we hung around Mallory Square and people-watched the other tourists before returning to the ship.
This was to be the last night of our cruise. That meant it was time for the dreaded packing and the settling of ship accounts. Settling the account was simple. We had checked in with a credit card and since we found no errors on the account statement, there was nothing to do until we got home and faced the reality of writing the check.
Rotterdam entered Port Everglades harbor just after the dawn of the fifteenth day. Right after docking the pallets of pre-collected passenger luggage were taken from the ship to the terminal building. Debarkation was by groups to which passengers were assigned depending upon the individual passenger's travel schedules. Since we had already gone through immigration at Key West, all we had to do was turn in our U.S. Customs Declaration then go to the terminal and find our luggage which was color-coded to match our debarkation group. That done, we got a cab and we were off to the airport. All things considered this procedure is quite orderly and efficient.
The round trip from Fort Lauderdale's Port Everglades covered a total of 3842 nautical miles (4418 land miles) and we called at eight ports. The Rotterdam is maintained in excellent condition. All twelve elevators were in working order and there were no plumbing problems. The public rooms are spacious and never appeared to be crowded. Our room steward was always available and serviced our cabin promptly. Our dining room waiters were personable and efficient with no delays or cold food. The resident show room orchestra and entertainers were the best of any cruise we can remember.
Our cabin was on the Lower Promenade Deck (#3320). It was close to the forward elevators and the Atrium. It was also quite handy to the 360° walk-around open deck which many larger and newer ships do not have.
Holland America has a reputation for excellent service, and deservedly so. Here are some of the crew who helped make our trip a truly memorable experience.
The dining room service was top notch, as was the food quality and presentation. But we did notice the menu selections were somewhat smaller than previous Holland America cruises. There was one less entree offered and the portions were not as large (although you can still order as much of anything as you want). There was only one salad offering instead of two, and there was no caviar offered during the entire two weeks which didn't seem to upset anyone.
This was our first cruise on Holland America since the new tipping policy was initiated wherein $10 per day is added to each passenger's billing in lieu of individual voluntary gratuities. I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, this helps those crew members whose work assignment puts them in a not so tip-lucrative position; and on the other hand, under the $10 per day added policy, it's no longer a gratuity. It's the passengers helping the cruise line with its payroll. Or put another way, it can be seen as a fare increase without the cruise line increasing their advertised prices. At any rate, we saw no indication that the service had been depreciated in any way.
Captain Peter Bos was in command for this cruise. He was open and communicative and proved to be very popular with the passengers. During the cruise a few behavioral problems arose and the Captain dealt with them in a firm and timely manner. His public announcements put down any rumors and gossip which can run rampant on ships which are more loosely managed. We hope to sail with him again.
Now we're home and looking through next year's cruise brochures.
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