HAL Panama Canal – Day 10-11 Sea Days

(You will happy to know this is our last posting about this cruise. We are safely home now and thank God for all the treasures he gave us this winter.)

We are on the journey back to Ft Lauderdale. This is gala dinner night – lobster tail and filet mignon. We sit with 3 American couples and a mother and daughter from the UK.
The dinner is wonderful‎ and the conversation flows.

It has been a great cruise. We liked:
– the overall quality and tastiness of the food
– the relaxed pace
– the itinerary
– the daily Catholic Mass and priest on board
– the lack of pretentiousness of the guests
– the good natured hard working staff
– our large oceanview room with the king bed
– our cabin steward Agus and his assistant

We did not like as much (most of these are minor points):
– the alt-country music they blared around the pools
– the short time frames scheduled for live music
– lack of techiness on the ship’s displays (no distances, temperatures or access to your on board account)
– the ship did not cruise Lake Gatun as advertised but rather anchored all day; you had to pay to be tendered off on an excursion‎ (not minor)
– the small size of staff name tags making it hard to get to know them by name
– tardy service during some busy times‎ e.g., happy hour
– could not hear announcements clearly due to inadequate placement of speakers and background noise (not minor)

Favorite site: Panama Canal

Favorite ports:
– Aruba
– Cartagena
– Puerto Limon

Least favorite port:
– Colon‎ (a rough place)

We did not go on any organized excursions. We have done many before and don’t enjoy being herded if we can avoid it. We usually do our own thing in port. ‎We do wish we had gone on the optional small boat excursion through the rest of the Canal.

Would we cruise Holland America again? – probably.

Overall value: ‎8/10

Next up: Celebrity Silhouette in Nov, God willing.

….
We are on the road home now. Thanks for sticking with us this winter! Happy Spring and talk to you again when we get home‎.

Happy Easter!

XOX
‎Dave and Marie

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HAL Panama Canal – Day 9 – Puerto Limon

Costa Rica looks like a relaxed place as we dock. There are big breakers on the shoreline even though it is a calm day. As we are getting ready for breakfast, the Oceania Regatta pulls in. This is the ship we took to Barcelona in 2010. ‘O’ is a premium line.‎ Later on the Celebrity Detox, oops I mean the Equinox, arrives too.

We wonder off the ship into the tourist market. There are lots of colourful things for sale. There is also very good coffee. We walk through Vargas park and admire the tall palms. We see the huge waves breaking on the rocky shore.

We walk down the teeming streets and rest a moment in the Limon Cathedral. It is a modern design with a tall mitre like tower outside that was built after an earthquake destroyed the old building in 1999. We are in earthquake country.

We stop at a small India store and chat with the owner. He like everyone here is friendly and happy. We continue to the central mercado and stop for an expresso. The owner here is very welcoming and friendly. I buy some shoes in a store from a young man who speaks very good english.

We pick up some coffee and tee shirts in the tourist market and chat with a happy lady. I ask her if everyone is happy here and she says yes, look at the paradise we are living in. She admits some people though are not always so. This is true everywhere I agree.

As we get back on board, 2 locals are playing a wooden looking xylophone. Marie poses with them for a parting picture. Everyone smiles.

We meet a couple from Stewart, FL at dinner. There are no whitecaps but the ship rolls on the big swells all night long This is cruising. Ciau for now.

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HAL Panama Canal – Day 8 – Panama Canal

We are up at 6 AM to see our grand entrance. They open up the bow of the ship. There are 200+ guests munching Panama buns with their morning coffee. There are 25+ freighters at anchor as the sun rises in the mist. We approach the breakwater slowly.‎ Ahead of us is a freighter and strangely enough, a sail boat. We pass a port with another 25 freighters at anchor. This is Colon I believe where we will dock on our way back. We are clearly on one of the world’s backbones of trade.

We enter the Gatun (pronounced gatoon) locks and are impressed. There are little electric locomotives‎ that attach cables and pull the ship. We go through 2 locks which takes us up 85 ft above sea level to Gatun Lake. We pass a stand of Jacaranda (pronounced hacarand) trees with yellow and purple blooms. Butterflies flit across the deck. Everyone waves as a big freighter goes by in the other direction.

These are “the old” locks opened in 1914. They are 110′ W x 1000′ L twin channels. There are also new wider locks that cost 5$B+ and were completed last year. They are 180′ W x 1400′ long but single channel only. More than a million ships have traversed the 80 km between the 2 oceans. ‎It takes us less than 2 hours to go through to Gatun lake. Very, very impressive. The history not so much. Thousands of workers died due to yellow fever and thousands of locals were forced from their land when they created Gatun Lake. However everyone is happy that there are no mosquitos anymore!

We spend a lazy afternoon on the promenade deck. We dream about a Pacific cruise someday. The ship is soon reversing it’s course back through the locks.‎ We get off at Colon 2 hours later. We walk to the duty free Zone but most stores have closed and the area is not pleasant. We stop for some beer – Balboa – and it tastes great. The outdoor cafe is packed and everyone is talking and laughing. Panama is a very interesting place but not your cozy tourist destination we observe.

Back on board we put our feet up and marvel at having had another great day on this great cruise.

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HAL Panama Canal – Day 7 – Cartagena

We pull into Cartagena as the sun rises out of the mist. I am struck by the beauty of the white skyscrapers reminiscent of Santos in Brazil. We have only 6 hrs in port so we have to hustle a bit‎ today. We wander off the ship and see a lot of parrots, flamingos, monkeys and peacocks in the little tourist garden. Continuing outside we are met by a barrage of tour guides selling their services.

A well dressed man in a Panama hat ‎grabs us and says he will give us a city tour. We only want to go to the old city so he drops the price. He flags a cab and we all hop in. Our guide is Gino and our driver is William. He offers us a 3 hr tour and he is so nice, we accept. We stop at an old Fort, then in front of a big fortress. There are dozens of vendors hawking tee shirts, hats, cigars, jewellry – but if you politely say no thanks, they say OK. Still, it is distracting.

Gino lived in Manhattan for 3 years and speaks good English. He is 70, goes out dancing with his wife every Saturday night, church on Sunday and knows his history. He handles all our questions. We drive by the beach in the new city and Gino points out a house the Clintons own. Apparently they like to come here to dance too. We stop at an emerald jewellry factory and Marie makes a purchase. Then in the old walled city we walk around among narrow bacloneyed streets. Many people greet Gino and some say he is the mayor.

We look into the St Peter Claver Catholic church. There is a statue of St Peter talking with a native woman outside. St Peter was a Jesuit who would go down to the docks and comfort slaves who were arriving from Africa. Cartagena das Indias means Cartagena of the Indians (natives who eventually won freedom back from Spain). ‎Gino says the government recently negotiated a truce to end the drug wars, but politicians here are very corrupt. This is South America. America seems to be following its leed we think. Gino says his church took up a collection for medicine donations to Venezuela. These are good people.

We’ve had enough of the heat – 47 deg C real feel! Wilhelm takes us back and we all part. We highly recommend Gino and Wilhelm. However, the crowds, the traffic and the heat reminds us why we don’t enjoy big cities as much anymore. Ciau!

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HAL Panama Canal – Day 6 at Sea

Day 6 is a sea day and marks the halfway point of our cruise. We awake to a calm sea as we sail due west just off the Venezuelan coast.

What is happening over there we wonder? In 1978 I had visited Caracas for a day and remember the strange juxtaposition of sky scrapers and shanty huts. Right now‎, in addition to the economic crisis, their president Nicolas Maduro has just dissolved their legislature permanently, sparking a democracy crisis that is reverberating through the whole region. I wish I had made a donation to the produce sellers yesterday.

We spend a lazy day relaxing on board by the Lido pool upfront. Somehow we get some black grease on our bathing suits that HAL will clean for us. We enjoy Pompano (our favorite Florida fish) for dinner and meet a nice man from Sechelt, B.C. He lost his wife 2.5 years ago and his kids encouraged him to go on a cruise holiday. At dinner we spot Fr Pat and he looks well again.

The towel animals are getting better.

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HAL Panama Canal – Day 4 – Aruba

The sun rises as we are still about 120 miles NW of Aruba. We have not seen another cruise ship on our journey yet but lot’s of freighters. Yesterday we saw a number of small 3 man sail boats that were being paddled at the front while another played out a fishing net at the back: Haitian fishermen it seemed.

Fr Pat Connoly joins us for breakfast. He is a Jesuit who taught film at a Jesuit university in Los Angeles where he still lives. Retired last year he serves as Chaplin on 3 or 4 cruises each year. He has an inside cabin, has to pay his own air fare and there is no stipend. Irish, he cannot sit out in the sun but reads and relaxes in the shade on board. He says HAL hires Catholic Priests out of tradition, not due to staff religiosity. He tells us of his world travels and teaching career. He is originally from Minnesota. We promise to meet up at happy hour. A very educated and sensitive man, we are blessed to have met him.

We dock in Aruba at 1 PM. After some wifi at Starbucks we hop a local bus for Eagle Beach. The beach is spectacular – mile long crescent shape; blonde sand with no shells again, turquoise water like a warm bath and endless tiki huts for shade. We ‎swim around and wait patiently for happy hour. We grab 2 Heinekens. We grab 2 more. Great end to a great beach day.

There is one other ship in port – the Star Pride of the upscale Windstar line.‎ Back on ship we enjoy a fish dinner followed by an outdoor Caribbean party‎ under the stars. We do the conga and a line dance. Way too much fun!

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HAL Panama Canal – Day 5 – Curacao

As we dock in Curacao, it is not as windy this time as it was last year. We went to a beach and the sand was blowing in our faces. This time we are planning to just walk around the world heritage site town centre known for its colourful architecture.‎ Unfortunately I drop my camera on the deck when drinking coffee. It won’t work now but I still have a BlackBerry phone and tablet and Marie has the same camera backups.

‎We enjoy the free wifi and walk into the town centre. It is very hot. We walk through an old Fort and explore some small shops. We walk by a casino. There is of course casino on board the ship too.

We find the fruit and vegetable market. I notice little boats moored behind the stalls. They are from Venezuela 30 km away. We are told that they are allowed to stay for 90 days. During this period some journey back and forth to restock the produce. People are starving in Venezuela as their economy has collapsed. They have money we are told but their store shelves are empty. We wonder how they would have enough produce to sell it here. There have been migrant deaths due to drowning as Venezuelans try to reach Curacao by boat.‎ Sad situation.

We make it back to the ship completely wilted from the heat. At Mass Fr. announces that he has come down with a gastro-intestinal disorder and cannot celibrate the Eucharist. We will have the liturgy of the word only and he will head down to the infirmary. After we sing the opening hymn, Fr. Pat announces that another priest has just stepped forward. A Monsignour from Miami is cruising with his mom and finishes the Mass! There were close to 200 present – we all gasped with joy.

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HAL Panama Canal – Day 3 – Sea Day

We generally love sea days. You can kick back with that favorite book in the shade. Dip in the pool and plan for your next port. We slept well and as we arise the ship passes the SE corner of Cuba. As the sun rises, we now officially enter the Caribbean. We do some walking on the promenade deck. This design of ship permits an uninterrupted circuit around which is .5 km.

We go to Mass. There is a Irish priest; there are 40 of us. He does a great job. All H‎AL ships have a Catholic priest on board to celebrate Mass primarily for the Filipino crew we believe. Oceania had a weekly inter-faith service. Carnival had nothing. Oceania has other benefits like historical/cultural enrichment lectures. Carnival is like a frat party which we can no longer stomach. Royal Caribbean and Norwegian are also a little too loud for our tastes now too.

We grab some deck chairs in the sun and gaze out at the sea. We meditate about how Jesus and his mother Mary felt as Jesus entered Jerusalem knowing what was going to happen. About noon we pass by the south western peninsula of Haiti – an area that was hit hard by Hurricane Mathew in 2016. Lot’s of sorrow and hope. There are rugged mountains and it rains briefly.

We meet some very gracious staff from Indonesia. We have some delicious shrimp for dinner and go to bed early.

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HAL Panama Canal – Day 2 – Half Moon Cay

We slept well after a great dinner of salmon and roast beef, The king bed is great. Our cabin is quiet and there is very little rocking of the boat. Dave saw the sunrise over the Caribbean as we made our way to Half Moon Cay, the private island HAL bought in 1196 for $6M from the Bahamas.‎ Dave had a dip in the Lido pool which is surprisingly fresh instead of salt water.

The Zuiderdam (pronounced zoyderdam) has 11 decks and was built in 2002. There are 1916 guests and 800 crew. Gross tonnage is 82,000. Hence it is a medium sized ship, even small by today’s standards. This accounts for the fact it never feels crowded on board and people are not in a frenzy. It feels “low key” and average passenger age is late 60s by estimation.

Half Moon Cay is gorgeous. Blond crescent shaped sand beach a mile long, cyrstal clear torquise water and rocly shoals at each end. There are no shells here – only a few small sandstone pebbles. We catch the taiil end of the yoga on the beach class taught by a young Poiish lady. The tender ride in was smooth.

Back on board we have tuna steak and crabcakes for dinner. The food is very tasty on HAL. We meet friendly people from Texas, Oregon, Florida and ‎Colorado. We have some laughs at the comedian show.

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HAL Panama Canal – Day 1

Check in was effortless. We arrived at the Park and Go lot at 12:30 and we’re in our cabin at 1:30 PM. Only hitch was Marie’s photo at check-in failed and we had to go to guest services on board for a retake. They also made me carry our box of wine all the way to our cabin. I had lot’s of offers of help from fellow passengers!

We walked around the ship and had a light snack in the Lido. We like the Zuiderdam – spacey, quiet and uncrowded. Did not have to bring our life jackets to the emergency drill.‎ Room is great – a large ocean view. Found a couple of pieces of glass and a pill on the floor.

The sail away was 75 min late and some people were napping. When the fog horn went off, we awoke with a start.

Bon voyage on our first cruise day to the Panama Canal.

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