Tuesday, November 29, 2011 – Day 9 – Fuerte Amador, near Panama City, Panama
Rotterdam is anchored for the day in Panama Bay, however I have no shore excursions scheduled, so I can take it easy today aboard ship. This ends up being a wise decision since it pours rain most of the day. I go ashore for about a half hour to have a look around the local community of Fuerte Amador, however there is nothing of interest to me there…just tour and taxi stands, souvenir shops, and a few restaurants. There are also some very expensive-looking boats moored in the local marinas.
I spend a quiet afternoon working on my notebook computer annotating the 160 photos and videos I took of our Panama Canal transit from yesterday. I also enter place name location data for each photo to supplement the GPS position tagging. I find doing this as I travel rather than after I return home makes it much easier to cope with all the photos I take on my travels. I can turn out regular blog entries while I travel, and I can update my JoeTourist website much more quickly after the trip ends.
The Matinee Idols perform in the show lounge this evening, singing classic songs from the stage and screen from the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s. I find it kind of funny that the songs three young men (Nicholas Rodriguez, Austin Miller and Connor O’Brien) are performing were hits when these guys weren’t even born! The tenor has the strongest voice, but the other two are good singers as well. I enjoy their show. Two of them had roles on soap operas (daytime drama TV shows), hence their group’s name. I saw them hanging out on the deck earlier today. They stood out since they are young and good-looking, as compared with most of the rest of the men on this ship, who are generally old and not-so-good looking!
Monday, November 28, 2011 – Day 8 – Panama Canal Transit
I skip breakfast this morning and get out on deck by 6:45AM in order to see our approach to the Panama Canal from the Caribbean side near the city of Colon. The Sun is up and it is raining as we approach the first set of locks at Gatun. My camera lenses are fogged up since I just brought them out from the cool, air-conditioned ship’s interior to the warm and humid outside air. It takes them about a half hour to warm up and become clear of the condensation. I stay outside most of the rest of the day in order to observe all the various fascinating phases of the Rotterdam’s transit.
The Gatun Locks consist of three locks, and are the most dramatic of all the Panama Canal locks, since they lift the ship 26 metres above sea level to Gatun Lake. The navigation channel across Gatun Lake forms the largest single segment of the transit. We encounter another tropical rainstorm as we cross the lake. As we move through the narrow Culebra Cut (or Gaillard Cut), freighters are moved out of our way so we can pass, since the dredging of the Cut has narrowed the navigation channel more than normal. Passenger ships such as Rotterdam have priority for daytime passage through the Canal, and actually become a bit of a spectacle for locals, who sometimes park to watch us pass by.
As we approach Pedro Miguel Lock (a single lock), the new 6km long Pacific Access Channel is easy to see to our right. It is a huge swath of construction that goes all the way from Pedro Miguel Locks, past Miraflores Locks, and out to the Pacific Ocean. The new locks will consist of three chambers, whereas now Pedro Miguel has one chamber and Miraflores has two chambers with the small Miraflores Lake between them. This $1.5 billion expansion project will deliver a third set of locks capable of moving larger ships through the canal system. The existing lock systems will continue to operate, so throughput will be significantly increased. I find the construction fascinating to see while it is in progress.
We experience a beautiful day for our Panama Canal transit. It is not too hot (about 26°C and not too rainy (only 3 rainstorms). I enjoy the day immensely, but manage to pick up a mild sunburn from staying outside most of the day, despite ducking under shade whenever possible. There is a commentator aboard the ship, who describes each phase of the transit and gives some background information about the canal over the PA system. She does not talk continuously the whole day long, thank goodness. I understand the transit charges for Rotterdam today amount to some $350,000, or $250/passenger!
After completing the transit, Rotterdam anchors near a small community called Fuerte Amador on the Pacific side, which is in Panama Bay – about a 15 minute tender ride to shore, and about another 15 minute drive to Panama City. The skies clear this evening, so I go to Deck 6 Forward and take some photos of Panama City at night, which is a spectacular sight!
I signed up to take a shore excursion today, but I’m glad it doesn’t leave until 9AM because I am having a tough time getting motivated this morning. After having some breakfast and my cappuccino, I am finally ready to get out there. When our group leaves the ship to go on our excursion, we discover we will be transported in a big, honkin’ tandem wheeled bus that is so high off the ground, we have to climb a set of stairs that folds down out of the back of the bus. It is air-conditioned and the seats are quite comfortable. There are big windows, and I’m happy the bus is only about half full, so there is lots of room to spread out. Another bonus is the weather – no rain, but overcast so it’s not too hot. The locals tell us the last few days have seen pouring rain, so we are lucky, since the good weather holds for the whole day.
Eric is our guide and Jose is our driver. They are business partners, and built this vehicle from scratch on a GMC truck chassis. We head south along the coast and then turn inland, traveling along the Banano River past the little community of Bomba, which is where the pumping stations are located for Limon’s municipal water supply. We driver further along the Banano River and then stop for a walkabout. Eric points out all sorts of flora and fauna, include the Golden Orb spider, a Balsa tree, and a red Poison Dart frog.
We carry on along the river and then turn off the road into a banana plantation, where we stop to have a snack and listen to Eric as he explains all about the banana business. Eric mixes a drink called a “Missile”, which is a local liquor called Guaro, a squeeze of local (sweet) lemon, and topped up with Fresca. I prefer to have a local Imperial beer, but those who try the Missile say it is very smooth and refreshing. The good weather is still holding as we return to the ship by 1:30PM. As we travel along the coast there are many Tico families swimming and playing along the shoreline since it is Sunday. Of course they all stop to wave when they see our bus – a bit of a contrast from my experience in Colombia, where the locals either ignored the tour bus or just stared at us.
It is a welcome relief to get back on board the ship, which is really starting to feel like a home away from home. We depart on time, with the First Officer piloting us this afternoon. We now head for the port of Colon to transit the Panama Canal tomorrow morning.
It is 10:30AM and there is great excitement aboard. Everyone is milling about waiting for tenders to go ashore to what must be the tiniest island destination for a cruise ship: Carti Tupili Island, which is one of the San Blas Islands. There are Cuna Indians in canoes circling the ship as we anchor, waiting for all those US$ to flow into their eager hands…or in this case diving for coins being thrown down by the passengers. I stay on the ship this morning since I want to avoid the madness of jostling for the first few tenders. I use this time to catch up on my travel journal and blog, and take some photos of our approach to the islands. I partake of the delicious BBQ lunch served on the Lido pool deck, and then decide it is time to get a tender ticket and go ashore. I only have to wait a couple of minutes before my tender leaves.
There are hundreds of Cuna Indian women and children selling stuff. The women are mainly selling Molas, handmade delicately sewn artwork made by arranging brightly coloured fabric into layers and patterns. Others, especially children are offering themselves for photo ops at $1 a shot, with some just looking incredibly cute, while others offer puppies, kittens, rabbits, birds and even a monkey as additional props for the tourists to photograph. Some men are also selling wares: mainly carvings from coconut wood or husks, or artwork. I find this all rather sad to see, and since the whole scene mainly turns me off, I catch a tender back to the ship after about 15 minutes of walking around.
Of the 378 islands and cays in the archipelago, 49 are inhabited. As you can see by my photos, the inhabited islands are densely populated – every bit of each island’s land mass is used. There is no electricity from the grid available on these islands; only power from generators is used for a few hours each day as households determine their needs and what they can afford in fuel costs. Transportation to the islands is poor to non-existent unless you own your own seaworthy boat. There is no fresh water available on these islands. Water must be brought in by boat. These islands consist of sand, and are essentially at sea level – there is no elevation to speak of.
Friday, November 25, 2011 – Day 5 – Santa Marta, Colombia
I get up early to take a tour to Taroya Park, which involves walking through Colombia’s jungle. The ship arrives on time and the tour bus takes the highway out of town on the way to the park, but soon comes to a stop because there is a protest blocking the road. Police are there, and apparently the protesters are upset over not having power in their neighbourhood, despite having the wiring in place. Eventually our guide comes back with the news we can’t proceed, since this is the only road to the park. Our guide gives us three options: return to the ship and get a full refund, be dropped off for the day at the resort hotel, or take a city tour. Both the city tour and the resort option include a folkloric dance at the Irotama Beach Resort.
Like most on the bus I choose the city tour, since in addition to the folkloric dance, we will see the main cathedral in town as well as the Gold Museum. Our first stop is the Irotama Beach Resort, which is 20 minutes out of town near a resort area. They have a beautiful beach, and offer us refreshments before the show starts. I choose a Colombian beer, which tastes very nice as I sip it under the palm trees. The folkloric dancers look quite similar to the ones I previously saw in Costa Rica and Martinique, but the young dancers do a great job. Apparently all Colombian children learn three folkloric dances when they are in school. See banner image above.
Our next stop is the main cathedral back in the centre of the city. Santa Marta is very much a third world city with dirty ditches lining the streets, narrow sidewalks, fruit vendors and old buildings with rickety balconies overhanging the streets below. As we enter the cathedral, our guide talks about Simon Bolivar, who liberated several Central and South American countries in his time, including Colombia. He is very much revered for his selfless sacrifice, since he died in this city from tuberculosis when he was in his early forties. The cathedral is impressive, with many alters decorated beautifully, however I’m most impressed with the large plaza surrounding the cathedral. It is a lovely civic space with no cars, shade trees, and some nice shops on the perimeter.
Our final stop of the day is the botanical gardens. We see lots of native flora and fauna, include the obligatory iguanas in the trees, butterflies, and there are several monuments to Simon Bolivar. Our guide shows us an old sugar cane plantation home where Simon Bolivar died, including the actual bedroom with original furniture. I learned about Simon Bolivar in grade school, but didn’t appreciate how much the people in Central and South American countries revere him. He was someone who bucked the system and believed in people power.
Our guide has some interesting things to say about Columbia and the reputation the country has with the drug trade. He feels the major cities are safe for citizens to go about their business and for tourists, and illustrates the point by asking us a question. What are the two major industries of Medellin? The obvious answer is Drugs, but the real answer is: Shipping tropical flowers to the United States, and being a centre of excellence for plastic surgery! He tells an interesting story on the second point. Apparently the two largest markets for plastic surgery in Medellin are women from the United States and Brazil. Another major market are young Colombian women who want breast implants. Apparently they often get their parents to pay for the surgery!
After the ship departs port and we have a wonderful dinner in the main dining room, I go to see the entertainment in the main show lounge. Julian Gargiulo is a classically trained pianist and does a great job playing the grand piano centre stage. He showcases some of his own compositions along with Chopin, and finishes with a classic Beethoven piece.
I have a very nice breakfast this morning in La Fontaine, the main dining room. I am seated at a table for four, and meet a couple from Chemainus who used to do the mapping for BC Parks interpretive signs, and a young woman from California who is debarking in Callao/Lima to realize her dream to see Machu Picchu. The couple relate how they traveled to Ft. Lauderdale by train using Amtrack from Seattle to Chicago, then to Washington, DC, and finally to Ft. Lauderdale. Apparently their arrangements cost about the same as flying, and it takes 3-4 days. This strikes me as a great way to avoid the hassle of the airlines and airports if you have the time to spare.
I attend a presentation by Martin, the Shore Excursions manager this morning, where he reviews all the excursions for the first half of the voyage. He mentions that all Holland America excursions to Machu Picchu depart the day after our scheduled arrival in Callao/Lima because the ship is often late arriving if the seas are rough off the South American coast. This is a concern of mine, since we leave on a flight from Lima airport around 2PM on the first day of arrival, so I hope the seas cooperate and the ship arrives on time. I’m resolved to not worry about it, since there is absolutely nothing I can do about weather in the Pacific or when our ship arrives in port some two weeks from now.
At noon today I spot the eastern end of Cuba from the right side of the ship. The captain announces we are passing within 6 nautical miles from the tip of Cuba at 2PM. The island of Hispanola is visible from the other side of the ship, but it is really just a smudge on the western horizon as we sail between these two large islands. I take some photos of both, but because it is midday the results are washed out despite using a polarizing filter.
It is formal night this evening and my friends and I go to Canaletto, the Italian-themed restaurant. The food is wonderful, and the serving staff is very friendly. After dinner on the Lido deck, I see the Green flash of the setting Sun from the poolside table in the Lido as the ship sails up the coast. My friend takes some good photos of the green flash from the deck above, however I’m pleased to visually observe this apparition. This is a personal first for me after many years of trying! Afterwards, we we go to the deck above the bridge to observe the night sky. It is nice and dark up there – Jupiter is directly overhead, Orion is laying on his side in the East, the Pleiades (M45), Andromeda Galaxy (M31), the M35 open cluster, and the red star in Taurus are all easily observed with both my image-stabilized Canon binoculars and unaided eyes since it is so dark.
I go to the late show at 10PM, which highlights Broadway song-and-dance. This is the first time I have seen the ship’s singers and dancers. The numbers they perform are really well done and it is fun to watch.
Thursday, November 24, 2011 – Day 4 – At sea
I decide to go to La Fontaine, the main dining room again this morning for breakfast. I am seated at a table for six with a couple from Calgary and a couple from Houston, Texas. The woman from Houston is originally from South Africa and spots my JoeTourist Africa t-shirt I’m wearing, so she and I talk for quite awhile about South Africa. She was pleased to hear I drove from Johannesburg all the way down the Wild and Garden coasts to Cape Town. She related some interesting stories about the gold mines when she was living in South Africa many years ago. As many South Africans did, she decided to emigrate when she was a young adult because of the personal security issues that plague the country.
I attend another presentation by Martin, the Shore Excursions manager this morning, where he reviews all the excursions for the second half of the voyage from Ecuador up the Pacific Coast to Mexico. I might decide to book a tour in Guayaquil, but otherwise I think the shore excursions I have pre-booked will work fine for me. After lunch, I sit out on the Lower Promenade Deck in a deck chair and read The Black Echo – a book on my iPad. It has taken me awhile to get into this book, but now I’m actively reading it. This is classic cruise ship stuff – reading a book in a deck chair, and I’m not alone. There are dozens of passengers doing exactly the same thing.
It is American Thanksgiving today, so roasted turkey is on the menu in La Fontaine the main dining room this evening, however I have the grilled salmon instead. I also order a bottle of California white wine, since my friends and I feel like some wine with dinner this evening. Most times we don’t bother drinking with our meals since it is pretty expensive. We have some nice desserts and cappuccino to finish.
We manage to find some of the last seats available in the first show in main showroom to see Lance Ringnald, a two-time Olympic gymnast gold medal winner who does a great acrobatic show using silks hanging from the stage ceiling. I saw his act on the Volendam on last year’s cruise, and was eager to see a repeat performance. He didn’t disappoint. This is not typical of the featured entertainment you expect to find on a cruise ship, but Lance has perfected a nice combination of gymnastics, acrobatics, and funny banter with the audience that works well and is entertaining.
I go to bed right after the show finishes, since we are in port tomorrow in Santa Marta, Columbia, and I have a half-day shore excursion to catch at 8:35AM.
Tuesday, November 22, 2011 – Day 2 – Half Moon Cay, Little San Salvador Island, the Bahamas
The Rotterdam anchors in the beautiful tropical bay this morning, and by 9:30AM tenders are ferrying passengers ashore 300 at a time. This is a highly organized day at the beach for the 1,400 passengers, with everyone being accommodated no matter what the disability, unless the person is completely wheelchair-bound.
Since I wake up this morning around 8:30AM, I miss the crowds of early birds who want to catch the first tenders ashore. I pick up a cappuccino at the Explorations Café and have a leisurely breakfast in the Lido before going back to my cabin to get ready to go ashore, packing snorkel gear and changing into a swimsuit and beach wear. The tender I take ashore around 10AM is only half full.
This part of the island is dedicated to giving Holland America’s cruise ship passengers an enjoyable day at the beach. They certainly succeed at this, providing everything any cruise ship passenger might want: a wonderful long curving sandy beach; clear, warm and shallow water to swim in; a place to snorkel and see some fish; shopping; personal services such as massage and spa treatments; sports services such as horseback riding in the surf, parasailing, small boat sailing, walking tours; and of course a BBQ lunch. I expected the beach to be crowded, but everyone spreads out so it turns out to be a very relaxing experience.
I have a clamshell reserved, which is a small half tent to provide some shade from the tropical sun, including two lounge chairs. I take my snorkel gear and wade into the warm water, not expecting to see much since there are lots of people in the water, however I’m pleasantly surprised. There are several varieties of fish swimming around, and I even spot two Barracudas and manage to take a picture and a video of them! The BBQ lunch is good, and afterwards I return to the clamshell for another hour before deciding to return to the ship.
After having a casual dinner in the Lido with my friends, we go to the Explorations Lounge to listen to the “Adagio Strings” – four young women who are a string quartet. They sound very good, which is a pleasant surprise for us, since the “Adagio Strings” quartet who played aboard the Volendam cruise last year were nothing short of dreadful. This quartet obviously practices and actually care about how they sound!
I decide to skip the entertainment in the main show lounge this evening, since it is a Las Vegas headliner who sings and tells jokes – not my type of entertainment. I return to my cabin and work on the photos and video I shot today and yesterday. I like to keep up-to-date with the results from my camera work while traveling. I find putting a caption on each photo and the location makes it much easier to cope with all this media when I return home. I also write a journal while traveling, which I find invaluable for creating travelogues for my main JoeTourist website once I return home. I enjoy the ritual of sitting down and reviewing the day, and then committing it to words.
This evening I sign up with Rogers for their cellular roaming package, which give me voice coverage for Central and South America. This ensures I get a more reasonable per minute rate for voice calls than standard roaming, so I can use my iPhone to call home when we are ashore. Cellular service is offered aboard ship, but it is outrageously expensive, so I will wait until we are docked or ashore to check in with the family. While aboard ship and offshore, it isn’t too expensive to send and receive email using the Internet access package I signed up for yesterday.
The ship is bucking a 30kt headwind as we head south towards Cuba. Our speed is 14.5kts, which is certainly slower than last night.
Monday, November 21, 2011 – Day 1 – Boarding the Rotterdam in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, USA
Although I had a good night’s sleep, I awake early at the Alhambra Beach Resort. I need coffee, which won’t be ready until the continental breakfast is available at 9AM, so I walk the half block to the beach to have a look around. It is quite a spectacular beach – straight and long, and lots of white sand. Ernesto, the guy who runs the Alhambra tells us the sea temperature is 82°F right now, and it goes up to about 85°F in mid-summer. There is the usual collection of joggers and walkers on the beach and along the walkway at this early morning hour.
After returning from the beach, I get myself some coffee, which perks me up. As I go back to help myself to some of the continental breakfast goodies, my friends open their door, so we have breakfast together on the patio. We all enjoy the warm breeze, remarking what a contrast it is to when we left home (-5°C). We are anxious to get aboard the Rotterdam as early as possible today, so after we finish breakfast and repack it is 11AM (check-out time). Ernesto calls us a taxi to take us to the cruise terminal. We are early for our 1PM check-in time, but they are processing passengers slowly, so we step aboard by 2PM.
Our cabins are not ready because the debarking passengers were late leaving the ship this morning. Housekeeping staff needs a bit more time, so we go to the Lido and have a late lunch, taking some time to explore the ship. It appears to have the same layout as the Volendam, the ship we cruised on last year at this time. The décor is different, but it will be nice to already be familiar with where everything is located.
There is a mandatory safety drill with everyone going to his or her lifeboat stations before our departure. Our bags finally arrive later in the afternoon, so I unpack before heading to the main dining room for dinner. The ship is late leaving at 6:30PM, so my friends and I get to see the ship’s departure from our window seats in La Fontaine, the main dining room. I remember the shipping channel from when my mother and I traveled on the Oriana way back in 1968, although obviously Ft. Lauderdale is built up a great deal since then. At the end of our meal, we are served a glass of champagne as a way to thank us for our patience with the late cabin availability and late luggage delivery – a nice touch from the housekeeping manager.
Once the ship is in open water, she proceeds at just over 20 knots, which is pretty fast for a cruise ship. The captain obviously wants to make up time for our late departure, so our beach time on Half Moon Cay won’t be shortened. He also announces that our departure time tomorrow will be pushed an hour later, since he doesn’t expect to arrive on time.
I sign up for 100 minutes of Internet time this evening at a cost of US$55.00, with a bonus of 10 minutes extra. This satellite service is available on most cruise ships, and is obviously very expensive. It is slow and unreliable, but I’m amazed it is available at all. It’s nice to keep in touch while sailing the oceans, and I can do it from the comfort of my cabin if I wish, since the wifi service is available from most areas of the ship.
Sunday, November 20, 2011 – Victoria, BC, Canada to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, USA
United Express/Skywest flight 6315 from Victoria to San Francisco is the first leg of my journey to Ft. Lauderdale today. I’m up at 3:30AM, arriving at Victoria airport by 4:30AM to check in. The aircraft has to be de-iced since it is -5°C outside and there is frost on the aircraft, so we are 10 minutes late departing at 6:35AM. A female pilot is in the left seat, and does a great job with takeoff. We cruise at 31,000’ as we head south, on a beautiful clear morning. I can only imagine what the view is like from the cockpit, but from my seat facing west as the Sun rises, the horizon is lit up over the Pacific Ocean in the distance as we fly down the coasts of Oregon and California. The pilot nails the landing in San Francisco, and then we taxi for what seems like forever until she slams on the brakes and we were at the gate!
United flight 43 operated by Continental from San Francisco to Houston – I had to retrieve my checked bag and then go through the United States’ Immigration. At least I didn’t have to be fingerprinted or photographed, and the immigration officer feigned interest in my upcoming cruise. Going through security again was a hassle – shoes and belt off and my first full body scan. Then I walked several kilometers and took two moving sidewalks to find my gate. It is 9:30AM and my flight doesn’t leave until 12:05PM. This is the first time I have traveled through San Francisco airport. I had heard it was nice, but I would say “not so much”. It certainly is better configured than the Los Angeles airport (LAX). There are a huge number of shops (like most American airports), and it is a study in humanity with massive crowds of people everywhere I look.
There are 23 passengers on standby for this flight to Houston, so I assume it is full. If it is anything like the other flights I’ve watched while waiting the three hours for mine to leave, it is chaos at the gate. We pull away from the terminal about three quarters of an hour late, but we make up all but 10 minutes by the time we arrive in Houston. During the flight, I purchase a Thai Chicken Wrap for lunch, which is quite good. After clearing the gate, much to my relief the gate for my flight to Ft. Lauderdale is in the same terminal and is only a 10 minute walk.
Continental flight 1192 from Houston to Ft. Lauderdale – George W. Bush International airport isn’t terribly impressive. I actually had a half hour at the gate to observe lots of people and the semi-controlled chaos at the multitude of gates in the area. This is certainly a hub, with flights coming and going to many destinations within the US (since I’m in one of the domestic terminals).
After boarding and take-off, I find the in-flight meal offerings are not impressive. Basically they can sell you snack packs…there are no dinner entrees or even sandwiches available, despite having them listed on the menu. I guess it is such a short flight, they don’t expect passengers to want to eat, but I do! Oh well, I’ll soon be spoiled with all the choices of food aboard the cruise ship. Being a bit hungry today won’t hurt. I didn’t think the Thai Chicken Wrap I had for lunch would be my main meal today! I have a glass of Coke and pull out one of my breakfast bars which I always have handy when travelling. As with the last flight, this flight is full. Both aircraft are operated by Continental, but have United on the outside of the aircraft and also inside the airport with signage. They merged awhile ago, but I guess I wasn’t paying much attention at the time.
After my arrival at Ft. Lauderdale airport, my friends and I find each other (thank goodness for cellphones), and we catch a taxi to our hotel, the Alhambra Beach Resort (no longer in business). The driver doesn’t know where our hotel is, so I end up turning on the data services on my iPhone so we can use Google Maps to navigate there. The Alhambra is a funky, small property, but the rooms are spotlessly clean, and it is only a half block to the beach. Time for bed after this 18 hour marathon session with the airlines.