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San Diego to Victoria – flights

Wednesday, December 21, 2011 – Day 31 – San Diego, USA to Victoria, Canada

I wake up around 5:30AM this morning as the transverse thrusters are turned on in preparation for our arrival in San Diego. This has been my wakeup call whenever the ship is arriving in port throughout the whole cruise. Thom the Cruise Director comes on the PA system at 6:30AM explaining how the disembarkation process will work, although we were already briefed at the Farewell Event yesterday. My deck ends up being called upstairs to clear U.S. Immigration fairly early, so after I go to the Lido buffet for breakfast around 8AM. I get to say goodbye to a steward who calls me by name and is always joking around.

The immigration clearance is going well for the rest of the passengers, and they appear to be ahead of schedule before things go off the rails. They can’t find a Mr. Jones, and until every last person clears immigration, nobody can leave the ship. The Express Departure time of 8:45AM goes by, as well as our departure window of 9:00AM. Finally about 9:15AM, they announce the Express passengers can leave the ship. We are called at about 9:45AM, which still leaves us plenty of time to find our bags and catch a taxi to the San Diego airport. After arriving about 20 minutes later at the airport, we check in with no line up, and then it takes 20 minutes to go through the security check to get to our gate.

There are lots of Rotterdam passengers aboard this flight, and the flight is also full of holiday travellers. San Diego airport has free Internet like Vancouver, which is a great idea. Of course, the system is swamped, but I manage to catch up with my email and facebook before they start loading the flight. As usual, Alaska is using a newer Boeing 737-800, and flight 483 departs on time at 12:20PM. I manage to take a few photos of San Diego from the air before the aircraft turns north.

Alaska Airlines offers in-flight Internet through the Gogo service. They want US$9.95 for the two-hour flight, which is a bit rich, but I might be interested if this were a longer flight. As the flight progresses, the landscape changes from farming valleys with irrigation ditches to desert, and later to frozen lakes and some snow cover. We hit a few bumps in the middle of the flight, so the pilots climb to a new flight level and things smooth out again. Horizon Airlines flight 2388 from Seattle to Victoria leaves on time, my bag appears on the belt in Victoria Airport, I clear Customs and Immigration, and I’m driving home by 6:30PM. It’s good to be home.

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Cabo San Lucas to San Diego – at sea

Tuesday, December 20, 2011 – Day 30 – Cabo San Lucas, Mexico to San Diego, USA

The last day of a cruise is always a bit strange, and especially so when it is a long cruise such as this one.

I have breakfast in La Fontaine dining room, and a couple from San Diego I met a couple of weeks ago at breakfast are seated with me again. They related a hilarious story about a flood of water they had coming down the wall behind the toilet in their cabin. Her husband sat on the edge of the tub and kept pressing the toilet flush button to prevent the water from flooding the rest of the cabin, while she flagged down someone to come fix the problem. He sat there for 20 minutes before a repairman finally arrived, and the guy was amazed at their ingenuity. He opined that most passengers would have let the cabin flood! I had to chime in and suggest she missed a golden opportunity to take a photo of her husband while he was in the bathroom, have a print made, and enter it in the photo contest under “People”. That broke up the whole table! I go out on the Lower Promenade Deck after breakfast and see a pod of dolphins beside the ship. The outside temperature this morning is only 16°C – time to wear a jacket!

The ship’s staff stage the farewell show this morning. It was great to see all the serving staff and cabin stewards, as well as the crew from engineering, bridge, food service, housekeeping, front desk & excursion, and entertainment. It is a tradition of Holland America for the crew to present a farewell parade of groups of crew representing each area of the ship. It is always a bit corny, and yet at the same time, it is quite moving to see all the hundreds of crew who cater to the passengers’ needs and wants. Of course, the passengers give them a standing ovation as they are introduced by the Cruise Director. With ample help from the resident entertainers, the crew ends the spectacle by singing a farewell song to the passengers.

My evaluation survey arrives after lunch, so I put a fleece jacket on and go out on the Lower Promenade Deck to fill it out while I experience the last day on the ship. I complain about the lack of enrichment speakers, but otherwise give them an excellent grade. This is also the day I usually set aside to capture the essence of the interior of the cruise ship with photos, since Holland America’s ships are always chock full of original works of art, and have beautifully appointed public spaces.

We had some moderately rough seas last night, but by this afternoon the sea has smoothed out. We are left with a slow, rolling sea almost the length of Rotterdam, which means she noses into the trough, then pulls up and out, so the view from the stern decks is of the horizon bobbing up and down slowly. Some people are getting seasick…on their last night aboard!

After dinner, I get serious about packing. In order to have my bag transferred to dockside tomorrow morning, it has to be out in the hallway by 1AM for pickup. After packing everything into my main bag, it feels heavier than when I arrived! Oh well, there isn’t anything I can do about it. Alaska Airlines charges US$20 per bag, so I’m sure they will tell me and charge me more if it is overweight. I just want to get the packing done so I can put my bag out for pickup, and then get to bed. The announcements for seeing immigration will apparently start as early as 6:15AM tomorrow morning. My friends and I are all scheduled to disembark at 9AM, the first time slot tomorrow.

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Cabo San Lucas, Mexico

Monday, December 19, 2011 – Day 29 – Cabo San Lucas, Mexico

JoeTourist: Cabo San Lucas &emdash; Land's End beach - empty in early morningLand’s End is beautiful in the morning light as Rotterdam sails into the bay. The beaches along Land’s End are devoid of the crowds at this early hour, and display their charms through my binoculars as the ship anchors.

I wait until the tenders are less crowded later this morning, and then go ashore to the Cabo San Lucas Marina area. The whole area is nothing but tourist shops and guys trying to sell boat trips to see Land’s End or the various scenic beaches. There is every tourist excursion known to man being hawked to the cruise ship passengers as they walk the marina area. There are surprisingly few hotels; instead there are thousands of condos lining the beaches and marina area. Some are even built up on the arid hills surrounding the town. I’m sure there are some beautiful views from those properties. I walk around about half of the huge marina area and poke through some of the shops and “flea markets” before getting fed up and return to the ship after about an hour.

The Carnival Spirit has just anchored beside the Rotterdam in the bay, so the boat excursion salesmen ashore will have a fresh batch of customers to work on. Eight shore-based tender boats immediately head to the new mother ship, ready to take the passengers ashore. The tendering business must be lucrative and steady in such a popular cruise port…probably a better business to be in than the excursion business, which is obviously oversupplied.

I feel sorry for all the excursion salesmen. They just don’t realize that the Rotterdam passengers are at the end of a 30 day cruise, and have been propositioned so many times over the last few weeks; they are immune to the pitches, and certainly not interested in any more boat tours. That said, Cabo San Lucas will roll on, offering a destination beach experience like few other Mexican Riviera towns. It is a spectacular setting.

The Christmas vacation crowd has already descended on the place as I discover when I scan the beaches with my binoculars from the ship. I’m sure all the accommodation is booked, and the flights down here are full. As I sit on the Lower Promenade Deck writing my journal, the little excursion boats are dashing back and forth, taking people to see Lands End rock and the beaches along the way.

People are drifting by parasailing, and little Seadoos are zipping by, squirting water in the air as they noisily slap the waves, going every which way across the bay. As the day progresses, the beaches near Lands End fill up with people who, I suppose thought they might “get away from the crowds” only to create their own crowd! The Seadoos swarm around the Rotterdam and become a bit annoying, but I guess they are having fun. I come inside to get away from the noise, and who do I see but Santa standing beside the big clock in the Atrium, being videotaped by the ship’s photographers. You just never know who you will meet on a cruise ship!

JoeTourist: Cabo San Lucas &emdash; Beachfront condos and hotels on the Pacific side of Cabo San LucasThe Rotterdam pulls anchor and sails around Land’s End and along the outer coastline where all the rich and famous retreat to – Solmar Beach, Divorce Beach, and the steep cliffs where the spectacular homes are built away from the hustle and bustle of the downtown core. We have a glorious sunset to enjoy on our second to last day aboard ship.

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Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

Sunday, December 18, 2011 – Day 28 – Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

I go on the horse riding excursion today – a nice way to get away from the commercialization of Puerto Vallarta. A bus takes us inland to an arid area behind Puerto Vallarta, where the real Mexicans live. There are no Walmarts, Home Depots or upscale shopping centres here…just little cafes beside the road with a few tables and dirt floors, and vendors barbecuing chicken beside the road, selling to the local families for their Sunday dinners.

We arrive at the hacienda and are assigned our horses based on our weight and skill level. I get a horse called “Grandpa” (“Abuelito” in Spanish). There are about thirty riders from the ship, so it is a good-sized group as we leave the corral single file and try to get used to our steeds (and them to us, no doubt). Grandpa seems to be very good at following the horse in front of him, and that suits me fine. We travel slowly across country similar to the dry and scrubby land landscape I remember from La Enscenada Lodge ranch on the Gulf of Nicoya in Costa Rica. We cross the river twice, once where it is less than a foot deep, and another point where it is probably about a metre deep. “Grandpa” is one of the bigger horses, so I don’t get my feet wet, while other riders do.

We have a rest stop after an hour, where they have a little cantina setup with beer, pop and water for sale, and of course there are also bathrooms available. Some people have a dip in the nearby hot springs, while others ride one of the horses which likes to swim in the deeper part of the river. I just take it easy, take some photos, and then climb back on “Grandpa” for the return trip back to the hacienda.

The cruise ship harbour is located in a very central spot with spectacular towers on both sides of the harbour entrance, stretched along the sandy beachfront. A huge marina adjoins the harbour, which is chock full of speedboats and other pleasure craft owned by the gringos in the waterfront towers.

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Huatulco to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico – at sea

Saturday, December 17, 2011 – Day 27 – At sea

Today we are enroute from Huatulco to Puerto Vallarta, sailing up the Mexican Pacific coast. I go for breakfast in La Fontaine dining room this morning, and am seated with a table of veteran cruisers. They are all talking about their various experiences on ships. I am a two star Mariner in Holland America’s loyalty program, and most everyone else has either two stars or three stars. Nobody has achieved Four Star status yet, which is the top level for Holland America cruisers.

I am invited to the 11AM sitting of the Mariners Luncheon, where I see the captain for the first time in this voyage. He greets me as I enter La Fontaine dining room. They pour us some champagne, the captain welcomes us, and then Thom the Cruise Director makes a few remarks about Holland America’s ships and loyalty program. The lunch is nice, and I meet some interesting people at the table. One couple from Michigan has visited Hawaii 16 times. She was on an African safari to South Africa, Botswana, and Zimbabwe, and really liked it. I share that I also did a safari in the same area a few years ago.

JoeTourist: Rotterdam, the ship &emdash; Christmas gifts around the Atrium antique clockThe ship is decorated for Christmas, with some impressive displays around the giant clock in the atrium, as well as a huge gingerbread house, and a sequencing Christmas sign stretched between the twin stacks outside. I understand there will be over 100 children boarding the ship when it departs San Diego in a few days, so their families’ Christmas aboard ship will be assured to be special, particularly when Santa shows up in person.

My friends and I go up to the Lido for dinner, and decide to sit on the semi-open deck around the pool, where we can watch the beautiful sunset over the ocean. We had hoped there might be a Green Flash visible tonight, but no joy since there is quite a bit of sea fog near the horizon.

Later, I go up to Deck 10 forward and do a bit of astronomical observing. Visually and with my Canon IS binoculars I see: Jupiter (2+2 moons) directly overhead, Venus near the horizon, Orion Nebula and constellation, M45 the Pleiades, M31 Andromeda Galaxy, Cassiopeia constellation, and Cygnus constellation. As my eyes adapt to the dark, I can also see the Milky Way.

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Huatulco, Mexico

Friday, December 16, 2011 – Day 26 – Huatulco, Mexico

Since I’m not interested in all the tourist shops available at this cruise port; I go on a snorkel cruise excursion this morning. It is quite a bit of fun, and provides a good opportunity to get away from the ship for a couple of hours. They make us all sign waivers and wear a silly yellow floatation device (which is deflated), but otherwise it is a well-run activity. They take us on a ten-minute boat ride to one of the little bays we saw this morning as Rotterdam pulled into the port.

The group of snorkelers is lead by the crew, and despite several hundred other people swimming in the same bay, there are still a surprising number of fish to see and photograph. I even see a lobster on the bottom before we return to shore. The flippers they give us earlier are necessary, since there are some fairly strong surges as we do the circuit, especially when we are lead into a cave with a narrow opening.

As always, I’m happy to return to the ship to have a shower and put on fresh clothes. I spend part of the afternoon doing one final load of laundry before the end of the cruise. My friends and I have some Becks beer on the stern deck as we pull out of the bay. We decide to have a casual dinner in the same place since the weather is so warm.

Cunard’s Queen Victoria is docked beside Rotterdam at the pier. It is an impressive new ship, with five decks of veranda suites. She is huge – much wider and higher than our ship, but not too much longer. Cunard still runs their larger ships with two classes of passengers, so I expect the two gangways are for First Class and Tourist Class. Seeing this ship brings back memories of when I sailed aboard the Cunard Princess in the 1980’s from Vancouver through the Panama Canal and the Caribbean. The Cunard Princess was a small ship with some 800 passengers, so it was a single class (Tourist Class) ship.

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Puerto Quetzal & Antigua, Guatemala

Wednesday, December 14, 2011 – Day 24 – Puerto Quetzal & Antigua, Guatemala

The cruise ship port in Puerto Quetzal is a welcome change from most of our previous ports, where we usually docked at container terminals. Today, there is a nice, clean dock, with lots of souvenir vendors, and a café and bar serving snacks and beverages, including coco loco (coconut cocktail with or without booze).

JoeTourist: Antigua &emdash; Volcan Fuego emitting smokeWe take the Antigua On Your Own shore excursion, which provides transportation to and from Antigua, a small Guatemalan town designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Our guide refers to Antigua as St. John, since this is the patron saint of soldiers, and the Spanish conquistadors established this town after the original site was destroyed by the nearby volcano. It takes the bus about 1.5 hours to travel from the port to the city. We pass three volcanoes along the way: Volcan Fuego and Volcan Acatenango to the West, and Volcan de Agua to the East. Volcan Fuego decides to put on a little show for us as we pass by, sending puffs of smoke skyward.

I can see that Antigua is normally a nice town to visit, however with all the cruise ship passengers drifting around, there are scores of Guatemalans selling trinkets everywhere. They are constantly after us to buy stuff, so it quickly becomes annoying. We wander the few blocks from our drop off point to the big town square with a cathedral and shops all around. There is a large tour group about to enter the cathedral, so we decide to walk a bit further to see La Merced Church, which is very ornate and very quiet, since it is off the beaten path. Along the way, we see the famous arch at El Carmen, and take photos of the Volcan de Agua framed by the Arch.

We stop to have some cappuccino made with genuine Guatemalan coffee, which has to be one of the best-tasting coffees I have had on the trip so far. I distract myself from all the persistent street vendors by giving myself a photographic assignment as we find our way back to the drop-off point: take photos of all the beautiful and ornate door knockers found on many of the big wooden doors to be found as entranceways to shops, restaurants, and inner courtyards.
JoeTourist: Days at Sea &emdash; Sea turtle with fish trailing it

Thursday, December 15, 2011 – Day 25 – At sea

Our position this morning is 14° 19’ N 93° 13’ W and we are drifting along at 8.6kts, just off the coast of the Mexico/Guatemala border in very smooth seas. After breakfast this morning I see a turtle drift by my cabin portholes, so I put my telephoto zoom lens on my camera, grab my binoculars, and go out on the Promenade Deck. There are lots of Sea Turtles drifting by, and I get some terrific shots. One photo in particular is a once-in-a-lifetime shot. I also see dolphins and flying fish.

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Corinto, Nicaragua

Tuesday, December 13, 2011 – Day 23 – Corinto, Nicaragua

As the ship approaches the harbour, the volcanic mountain range is visible in the distance with their characteristic cone shape. The dock is right at the end of the main street of the little port town of Corinto. I am not signed up for any shore excursions today, but a friend and I walk through the town late this morning to have a look around. It is hot and humid, and without a doubt this is the poorest country we have visited so far. Despite that, the vendors and people are not persistently selling to the crowds of tourists leaving the ship. They smile and seem happy, so it’s nice to see they have some pride and dignity despite not having much.

It is great to stay aboard the air-conditioned ship for the rest of the day. I read my e-book and sip a cold Beck’s beer on the shady side of the ship in the warm, tropical air. The more I travel, the more I understand that what I appreciate most about my time away is the “down time”.

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Puerto Caldera, Costa Rica

Monday, December 12, 2011 – Day 22 – Puerto Caldera, Costa Rica

I take a tour this morning, which takes us over the new highway to San Jose, but we turn off early and go to the upper reaches of the Taracoles River for a mangrove swamp boat trip. We see nesting Scarlett Macaws (from a distance), Crocodiles, a Jesus Christ Lizard, and some birds. The boat trip really doesn’t live up to my expectations, since it is so rushed, and we really don’t cover much of the river. The mangrove boat trips I took on previous visits to La Ensenada Lodge and Tamarindo were so much better!

The bus then takes us to nearby Orotina for a train ride back down to the coast near where Rotterdam is docked. The train trip is interesting, especially when the middle passenger car derails! The train crew uses a diverter to manoeuvre the car’s wheels back on the rails in short order. We see lots of interesting things along the way, including fields of cantaloupe and watermelon, the backyards of many Tico houses, some cute kids waving at us as we pass by, a long tunnel, and we cross over a river and see ever changing vegetation as we descend to the Pacific Coast. The bus is waiting for us at the station at Mata de Limon to take us back to the ship, which is only five minutes away.

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Manta, Ecuador

Saturday, December 10, 2011 – Day 20 – Manta, Ecuador

We arrive in Manta, a small city with an important seaport with a big harbour and two beautiful adjacent beaches. I am not signed up for a shore excursion today, instead preferring to go for a walk along the wonderful beach adjacent to the pier where we are docked. As we have come to expect on this trip, the skies are overcast and the outside temperature is in the low 20’s, however the humidity is high.

After breakfast, I take the shuttle to the entrance to the pier, and walk the block or so to the Malecon Beach. This is a huge beach, several kilometres long. The entrance area has cafes and bars, as well as activity areas for people and families to socialize and have fun. Being Saturday, there are hundreds, perhaps even a thousand or so locals at the beach today. That said, I only have to walk a few hundred metres down the beach and it is virtually empty. There are some lovely beachfront towers built between the road and the beach. It is a great area to enjoy, and so easy to get to from the ship.

I meet a friend on the beach, so after we walk for awhile, we decide to have a look at the Cultural Museum located across the street from the beach entrance. There is no charge to enter; however the main desk retains our Holland America passenger cards until we leave. There are some interesting modern works of art, and some cultural artifacts in pottery and gold. It takes about 20 minutes to see the three floors of exhibits, so their collection is not extensive, but it is interesting nonetheless. We return to the ship, taking the free shuttle along the working pier to the gangway. It is always nice to return to the relative comfort of the Rotterdam.

In addition to being a deep-sea port for freighters, Manta is also home to the tuna fishing fleet for Ecuador. Many American and Canadian fishing companies operate out of Manata. The nearby town of Montecristi is where Panama hats are produced. There are many tours from the ship returning from Montecristi this afternoon, with passengers sporting new hats as they re-board. I bought a genuine Panama hat many years ago on one of the Caribbean islands.

JoeTourist: Manta &emdash; Bulk carrier with truck vehicles on deck being docked by two tug boatsOur departure is delayed this evening by the fuel loading, or bunkering operation that started this afternoon alongside. We go to dinner in the main dining room and are seated at a table with a couple from Liechtenstein. They speak poor English, but prove interesting to talk with nonetheless. After dinner, I take advantage of the ship still being docked after dark by taking some night time photos of the fish boats at anchor, the freighter docking next to us, and the Full Moon reflecting off the water as it drills through the cloudy sky. I stay on deck to watch Rotterdam finally leave port around 8:30PM, carefully finding its way out to the Pacific past the anchored fish boats.

Sunday, December 11, 2011 – Day 21 – At sea – Ecuador to Costa Rica

We sail between Ecuador and Costa Rica today, and in the process cross the Equator for the second time on this cruise. We are still in the cold Peru Current, which has surprised may on this cruise (including myself) with the cool air temperatures (averaging 21°C) despite us being so near the Equator. I catch up on my blogs today, covering both Ecuador and our last day in Peru (Dec 6). Annotating and choosing photos is always a big part of this work.

It is formal night, so my friends and I get dressed and go for dinner this evening to Canaletto, an Italian-themed restaurant. A couple of others join us for dinner, which always means there is welcome variety to the dinner conversation as we interact with people from all walks of life.