After 11 cruises on Royal Caribbean - all in the Caribbean, we were looking for new ports to visit. For this reason, we decided to give Holland America a try. We went on a Panama Canal cruise last year on the Jewel of the Seas, but even though it is called a Panama Canal cruise, we never went intot he canal. We visited Colon, Panama, and you had to take an excursion to see the canal. On this cruise, we actually made a partial transit - through the Gatun (Atlantic side) Locks and return.
As is our custom of late, we drove to Florida to visit my youngest son for a few days, then drove to Ft. Lauderdale to pick up the ship. When we go out of Ft. Lauderdale, we stay at the Hampton Inn in Plantation, Fl, about 6 miles from the cruise terminal - Port Everglades. For the cost of a single night's stay, we get to park our car for the cruise duration, and the hotel will shuttle you to and from the cruise terminal. It is certainly a lot less expensive than parking at the cruise terminal.
Monday Feb 6th.
Arrived at the ship; Holland Americal Lines MS Zuiderdam (a Vista Class ship) around noon. There are 4 vista class ships, each named for the primary compass points; Noordam (north) Oosterdam (east), Zuiderdam (south) and Westerdam (west). The check-in process seemed to go quite smoothly. We went through the check-in pretty quickly, only about 15-20 minutes from being dropped off by the hotel shuttle until we were boarding the ship. When we got to our room, our attendant - Jody (from the Phillipines) met us and introduced himself. Within perhaps 20 minutes, we received our luggage. That was fast. We were fully unpacked and ready to go before 2PM.
We booked an inside room 5161, and while kind of small, we really are not in the room that much. I would classify the room to be a bit larger than Royal Caribbean's Majesty/Monarch of the Seas inside rooms, but a bit smaller than inside rooms on other Royal Caribbean ships.
After unpacking, we went up to the Lido deck for lunch. and like other ships we have been on, there tends to be a congregation of people just setting there after eating; sleeping, reading, or other non-food consumption activity. As a consequence, it is hard to find anywhere to sit on the embarkation day. This is similar to the Royal caribbean ships we have been on, except that the rooms are not ready until 1 PM on the RCL ships. Since the the rooms were ready when we embarked on the Zuiderdam, there is no reason for this behavior.
Holland America's smoking policy had changed just a couple of weeks prior, and I was a bit concerned having an inside room as my wife has Asthma, and any little whif of smoke smell is bad. And as we are both non-smokers, I don't like the smell any better than she does. We brought along some air-freshiner just in case, but we were pleasantly surprised that we did not smell any smoke from previous occupants. The ship's staff really did a great job in cleaning the room.
Just before muster, we were told that if anyone skips muster, they would be kicked off the ship. This is well documented as that very thing happened a week earlier, and it was well documented in the news. You have to remember that it was less than one month since the Costa Concordia, so I am glad to see the emphasis on safety (not that the ship was any less safe prior to the Costa). We had a nice sail-away with perhaps 20 fellow Cruise Critic members, and they were very friendly. Thunderstorms were in the area (and it did rain earlier in the day), but we were spared any rain for the sailaway. This is the 12th cruise for us, and it has rained 50% of the time we have left.
After sail-away, we made it up to the Crow's Nest and listened to the guitar solo of Charlie Jourdan. The Crow's Nest was very nice with great comfortable chairs and ottomans that look out to sea from the front of the ship. I could fall asleep with a book very easily there. The internet cafe is also there, and we signed up for one of the internet packages so we could keep in contact with our boys during our cruise. If you sign up for the first evening, you get a few minutes extra.
As we booked the cruise through AAA, we were given complementary tickets to the Pinnacle, the up-scale resturant on board. It is normally $25 per person, so our thank-you gift was $50 (as well as a free excursion). We had a nice dinner, but it does take about 2 hours to complete - so we missed the first evening's show. But the Baked Alaskan was supurb, and the first time we had "genuine" Baked Alaskan (the kind they set fire to with brandy).
Since we missed the show, we decided to go up to the Lido Deck and soak in the hot-tub. Holland America is known for having a lot of old people on board, and while my wife and I are in our late '50s, we are young at heart. Even at then, about 9pm, and there was no one around. We were in the hot tub maybe 30 minutes, and only 3 or 4 guests walked by during that time period.
One thing we disliked is that the pool closed at 9pm and the hot-tubs at 10pm. We like soaking in the hot tub into the wee hours of the morning, so this was one disappointment.
Tue Feb 7th.
We awoke around 7:15AM, got dressed and went to breakfast on the Lido Deck. Not a lot of people were there that early in the morning, so breakfast was easy. One thing Holland America does is for the first 48 hours, they serve you at the buffett style resturants so as to cut down on noro-virus. Remember, lots of "child-like" old people on board.
After we finished with breakfast, we went to our stateroom and got changed to our swimwear for the day's call to Half Moon Cay in the Bahamas - HAL's private island. I have to tell you, the beach there was perhaps the best I have ever seen. Definately better than Magen's Bay in St. Thomas, and with the fine powdery sand, it is a rival even for Lake Michigan. We had lunch on shore "cookout syle, with burgers and hot dogs - not that much different than the Royal Caribbean cruises we have been on. When we returned from HMC, we went to the Lido pool for the afternoon (we had to be back on board by 2:30 pm).
As we booked our room rather late, we could not get assigned seating in the main dining room, so we are in open seating, where you have to make a reservation. I had always wanted to try this on our previous cruises with RCL, but my wife never wanted to. But at any rate, willing or not, she is going to be trying it. The entertainment for the evening was a comedy show, and the performer was pretty funny.
Wed, Feb 8th.
Today was our first sea day. And as typical as it is on sea days, life on board is really laid back. We went to the Captain's Q & A and listened to some interesting info. The largest ships in the HAL fleet are the Eurodam and the Neiu Amsterdam, which are really not huge ships as compared to ships in other cruise lines. At 11am we met with our Cruise Critic friends at our meet & greet. This is the third such meet-and-greet, and the people there seemed so much more friendly than others we have attended. We had a conflict so we could not make the first time HAL cruisers Champagne luncheon - which although sounded nice, was probably a bit of a sales pitch for future cruises.
After the meet-and-greet broke up, we made our way to lunch and we passed the West side of Haiti. While I am sure we were still in shipping lanes, we were probably within a few miles of the coast line. The captain had to go pretty slow in that area as there were a lot of Haitian fishing boats around.
Thu Feb 9th.
Today we were in Aruba. This was our second time there. We arrived around 1:15pm as the visit to Half Moon Cay on Tue meant a late arrival. when we came in port, th Adventure of the Seas was there, and we berthed downtown, which was different than the first time we were there. We took an excursion there and went to a Butterfly Farm, an Aloe factory, and then to the East side of the island to the ruins of the famous natural bridge, which collapsed in 2005. As erosion from the waves created the bridge, it is creating a new one. Our tour guide made the comment that there are some 5 or 6 known natural bridges in Aruba, as they are constantly being made and destroyed by the surf. This tour was OK, but we were only afforded 15 minutes at the bridge, and I would have liked to stayed a bit longer. I suppose all of the stops were a bit short on that excursion.
The ship stayed in port until 11pm, so the on-board activities were limited. We returned to the ship around 6pm and went to a barbeque on the Lido deck. After that, there was a poolside party complete with tonga line, and line dancing. I did not partake of it but Cinda did.
Fri Feb 10th.
The ABC islands; Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao are all pretty close together, and we actually passed on the southern tip of Curacao at about 5am on our journey from Aruba to Bonaire.
Today we are in Bonaire - what a beautiful country. It is a bit like Aruba, but does not have the sandy beaches as the island is mostly coral. Diving is huge here with over 100 dive spots. We took a nice tour that took us around the island. We saw iguanas, a lot of cactus, went to the 2nd highest spot on the island, and finished up at the slave buildings and salt flats. A real interesting tour.
The tour guide remarked several times about all of the Chinese that seem to be "invading" Bonaire (we got a similar sentiment from our guide in Aruba). Methinks they don't like the Chinese all that much in the Dutch West Indies.
Sat Feb 11th.
Today we are in Curacao. A very nice place, and really a gem of the Caribbean. It is strange that more ships do not visit here as it is one of the nicest places we have been in the Caribbean. We took a caves tour, and while the caves were OK, we could not take photos in most of the area as it was a commercial area (meaning you had to buy any photos you wanted). After visiting the caves, we drove over the Queen Juliana bridge and arrived at an open maket in downtown Willemstad. A guy there was whacking fish into pieces for sale, but with dozens of flys buzzing around and landing on the fish, I sure would not want any of it.
After the market, we strolled along a floating market. Here is where visitors from South America (about 40 miles south) bring their wares across the water and anchor their boats at the market. They stay several days and live on their boats and sell their stuffs right outside. Kind of quaint.
We continued our walk around the downtown area, and visited the fort and other places. One highlight was seeing the picturesque buildings and walking across the floating foot bridge in the channel.
Sun Feb 12th.
Not much going on today as it was a sea day. Calm seas all day made for an enjoyable day. We went up to the Crow's Nest and watched the sun set, then we went down for the 2nd formal night's dinner.
Mon Feb 13th.
The Panama Canal. The highlight of the cruise. We arrived at the Gatun (ga-toon) locks at around sunrise, and were put into the Western lock. Many people seem to have some disorientation of direction as the canal actually runs from north to south. And of interest is that the Atlantic side is west of the Pacific side.
We had 8 mules to help guide us through the locks. Contrary to popular belief, the mules do not pull the ship through the locks, the ship goes through using it's own power. The mules simply keep the ship centered. We had less than 2ft clearance on each side of the locks, so I suppose the Zuiderdam could be considered a "Panamax" ship.
The Gatun locks consisted of 3 levels, and the entire transit through the locks took about 3 hours. The crew of the ship opened up the bow area off deck 4 for the transit, so we were able to get a good view from the bow. They served "Panama Rolls" along with coffee and juices for refreshment.
The transit through the locks is tarrifed on the cargo capacity of the ship. For a passenger ship, it costs about $130 per berth, so with 1,900 berths, the fare for this ship was about $250,000. The charge is the same whether or not you make a full or partial transit as with either, you have to go through the same number of locks. No wonder this cruise was $1000 more than our Panama cruise last year on the Jewel of the Seas (as we did not transit the locks).
Each time a ship goes through the locks, some 58 million gallons gets dumped from Lake Gatun to the ocean. Good thing Panama is a tropical climate with plenty of rain.
After transiting the locks, we anchored at the Gatun Lake Yacht Club, which ceased to operate after the Panamanian government took over the locks from the US. We anchored in that location for 3 hours or so to let the passengers that had an excursion to leave the ship. Only those passengers that had excursions were allowed to leave the ship by tender.
At around noon or so, we began our return transit through the Gatun locks, and we again were directed to the West channel. The way the locks work is that all southbound ships (going from the Atlantic to Pacific) enter the locks - in both lanes. Then around noon, the direction reverses and the northbound ships are serviced. This changes again at 6pm and again at 12midnight. The Panamax ships only transit the locks in the daytime, while smaller ships do so at night.
A cruise ship from Phonex Risen followed us through the locks on our return trip. As the light was brighter at that time of day, we got a good view of the new lock construction, which should be completed in a couple of years. When completed the canal will be able to handle much larger ships.
After transiting the locks, we went to Colon, Panama and docked for a couple hours to let passengers see the immediate area, as well as pick up those passengers that left the ship for an excursion eariler in the day. Since we had been in Colon the year previous on another cruise, and that there is not much to see, we stayed on the ship in Colon.
Tue Feb 14th.
Today, we are in Puerto Limon, Costa Rica. We had a combined excursion; Caribbean train, eco-cruise, and banana plantation. We met in the Vista lounge at 6:30am to meet for the excursion. When our excursion was called, it seemed that 300 people had signed up for it, and indeed it took 5 buses to take everyone.
Our first leg started out with a canal ride through the jungle, where we saw some 3-toed Sloths, a couple of Green Iguanas, and a few birds. Already in Feb, it was pretty hot, and our tour guide said it normally rains each day to cool things off during Feb, and since they have not had rain in a few days, a lot of the animals were lethargic. At the end of this part of the cruise, we sampled bananas, pineapple (the fresh stuff), and some beer.
We then got back on the bus and went to the second leg of the cruise, the train ride. The train started in a small town, and our tour guide said to not give the locals any money. He said it 7 times (which he needed to because of all of the old people on the bus). He said that while the kids don't actually come out and beg for money, they kind of hand around the train in the hopes that someone will give them money. And if anyone does, then pandamonium is the result, hence the guide's warning.
Anyway, the train cars were open window, and being that I am tall, I had to crouch down to get a good view out of the window. Fortunately, we were one of the first people to board our train car and I found a seat with the seat in front removed, so I had plenty of leg room to both sit and crouch.
We took probably a 25 mile train ride, first through banana fields, but then through the jungle and over a river until we got to the seaside. We followed the seacoast a few miles until we reached a clearning. The train then stopped at that point and let us off for about 15 minutes for photos.
When we got back on the train, we went back through the jungle and stopped at a location where there were several Howler Monkeys in the trees. They sure make a strange sound. Unfortunately, I could not get those sounds on video.
After the train ride, it was back on the bus for a trip to a banana plantation where we saw the bananas being readied for shipment to the US and Europe.
At the end of the tour, we were dropped off at dockside, and went into the local straw market, where I got three different size frogs. These frogs are wooden, and have a drum-stick kind of thing that if you rub the back of them, they make a croak sound. They are some nice souvineers from Costa Rica. That was our last port of call, and we left for a 2 day sail back to Ft. Lauderdale.
Wed Feb 15th.
Not a lot to report on today as it was a day at sea. However, we did go to Canaletto's Italian resturant located in the Lido buffet. It was wonderful. Cinda had Lasagne, and I had Spagetti with Meatballs. The two metballs were enormus, and must have been a 1/4lb each! We ate too much there, but it was soo good.
Thu Feb 16th.
Our second day at sea. We bought our last minute t-shirts and souvineers, and watched the movie Apollo 18 - which was pretty lame. We also watched a cooking demonstration for Caribbean Jerk Chicken, and I took all of the last-minute ship photos.
Fri Feb 17th.
Just like embarkation, the departure really went smoothly. Our luggage tag color was called at about 8:15AM, and going through the custom process, waiting for our Hotel shuttle, and returning to the hotel took all of about 1:45. We were on the road on our way home by 10:00AM.