Tuesday, March 4, 2014

A Mid-Winter Caribbean Cruise

Anna and I arrived at the port before noon on Friday (Valentine’s Day) and began working our way through the processing lines. Soon we were on board the ship enjoying lunch as well as the views of the port of Fort Lauderdale from the open decks at the top of the ship. We also spent some time exploring the ship to familiarize ourselves with the layout (something we always do early to know where things are—just in case there is another Poseidon Adventure).

I was able to get a few more hours of cellular connectedness before the ship weighed anchor and sailed away. After that, we were "off the grid" for the extent of this ten day cruise—no internet, no e-mail, no Facebook, no texting, and no phone calls. We didn't even watch the limited news and sports programming on the ship's TV cable system, nor did we pick up the printed wire service news summaries available each day in the ship's library. In our practice, a cruise is a chance to get away from it all and relax.

Once we were in the open ocean, we felt the rocking of our ship. It took a little bit to get our sea legs again, but we soon adjusted. Dinner went well the first night, and then we opted to attend the B.B. King Blues Review, an all-star band straight from his club on Beale Street in Memphis (where we ate lunch during our one visit to Memphis) and we were favorably impressed with the show.

[Day 2]
We took a tender to Holland America's private island in the Bahamas called Half Moon Cay, but a rainstorm developed so we spent the first hour or so on the covered porch of one of their gift shops. Most everyone was vying for somewhere to get out of the rain.

Eventually the storm passed over, and the sun came out. We had not signed up for any of their excursions, but had hoped to take the long hike to the rocky point at the far end of the beach and examine the fish, crabs, and other marine life trapped in the tidal pools on the rocks, which we had done on our last visit here ten years ago.

Given the rain delay as well as the 2:00 last tender back to the ship, we opted to revise our plan. First we explored the shipwreck bar they had built by the beach (one can get a great view of the island from the upper deck of this beached pirate ship). Then, we stuck to their paved walking trail over to the interior lagoon, and ventured off the trail to the water's edge a couple of times, looking for marine life among the rocks and mangrove roots. I saw a few "minnows" and lots of small snails (if I was shipwrecked on that island, I supposed I could have started off with some escargot).

At 11:00, we returned to the central part of the island for the advertised volleyball match. There were barely enough participants for two teams, probably because the clientele on this cruise tended to be rather elderly. Anna and I both played and had a good time. Afterwards, it was time for our barbecue lunch that they cater on the island.

Following lunch, we walked over to check out the Stingray Encounter area. We had already spent time feeding (and even kissing!) sting rays on a previous cruise that stopped on Grand Cayman. Thus, we had decided not to pay the $24.95 price for the opportunity on this island. However, we were surprised to be able to walk down to the area and watch those who did pay as they interacted with the sting rays. There was also a large number of tropical fish (sergeant majors, snappers, etc.) clearly visible in the clear water of this fenced-in portion of the bay. We were able to hear the instructor's stories about sting rays as well as the sea cucumber and conch that he displayed as well. It ended up being a nice educational experience even if we didn't get in the water with the sting rays.

We then walked back across the island and out on the beach—it was nice to see and hear the waves crashing ashore as our feet walked along the soft sand—as we worked our way down the island to the tender boats. Soon we were back on the ship.

We attended our first trivia contest and were invited to join another older couple who seemed nice—and smart. However, Holland America no longer gives our the great prizes for trivia games that we won ten years ago—the grand prize now consists of a cheap pin. We finished the day by watching the movies “Gravity” and “Captain Phillips.”

[Day 3 - At Sea]
I woke up at 8:00 and went to the promenade deck where I fast-walked for 12 laps (4 miles) before showering. Anna was up by then and we went to breakfast prior to taking the behind-the-scenes-tour of the kitchen operation. We enjoy tours like this, and Holland America is the only ship we've been on that actually takes you through their galley. We learned (among other facts) that on a typical cruise, they use over 23,000 eggs, 1,150 gallons of ice cream, and about 20,000 pounds of meat, seafood, and poultry!

We then attended a computer class on photo editing (Microsoft provides the ship with a nice computer lab and a Microsoft employee whose job it is to sail around the world and give computer classes). Later we went to the theater to watch the open rehearsal for the night's show (another unique "behind the scenes" experience). We left a bit early to grab some lunch and then attended the Trivia Contest (close again, but not a winner). By then, it was time to head back to the computer room for the second part of our photo editing classes, using Microsoft's free "Photo Gallery" software.

After dinner, we went to the Crow's Nest bar to listen to the acoustic guitar player Michael Simons. He speaks with a British accent, but sings like an American. He even played "Take Me Home, Country Roads" just for us. However, we left so that we could watch the B.B. King show again, because we enjoyed it so much the first night (they play different songs each time so it is never the exact same show).

[Day 4 – Aruba]
Woke up, had breakfast, and got ready for our excursion. Once we finally got off the ship (I wasn't impressed with the disembarkation process), we were herded onto a specific bus for our excursion. Our local tour guide (Gwen) pointed out lots of interesting facts along the way to Palm Beach. There we got off the bus and walked to a beachside pier, where we boarded a boat.

This boat took us out to the area of the ocean where the German freighter "Antilla" was sunk during WWII. What happened was that once Germany declared war on the Netherlands, the captain decided to scuttle his own ship to prevent its capture. It is the largest shipwreck in the Caribbean, and is easily accessible.

Our initial boat pulled alongside a semi-submersible boat. Actually, it has a "basement" in the bottom hull of the boat that is full of windows, allowing easy viewing of the shipwreck. They take you back and forth across the length of the sunken ship, allowing ample viewing and photography opportunities. We also got to see a lot of marine life that lives at the shipwreck. Eventually, we had to transfer back to the other boat, which returned us to the beachside pier.

Once back on terra firma, we boarded the bus to visit the California lighthouse on the northern end of the island (named after a ship that ran into the island, prompting the building of the lighthouse). Aruba is actually a desert island, and the cactus plants and other flora make it seem a bit like Arizona instead of the tropics.

The bus then took us to a coastal natural bridge formation, where the Atlantic Ocean crashes into the rocky shore. Even though we had visited this scenic location on our previous visit to Aruba, we still enjoyed seeing it again.

Back on the bus, we traveled through various neighborhoods of Aruba, saw a Catholic Church and its cemetery (with above ground burials like New Orleans or Key West, because the ground is too hard to dig graves). We eventually stopped at a park that some might call a rock garden, but it was really fascinating. It had a large peak that we climbed to the top, for a beautiful view of the island. It also had a lot of other interesting rock formations. We also got to see a large iguana that had climbed the branch of a large cactus to spend the night.

Once everyone was back on the bus, we headed back to the port. We were able to eat a wonderful barbecue dinner on the back upper deck by the pool before we headed back out. Aruba is the only port where we have been able to enjoy a late departure after dark. [This is not unusual since many cruise ships combine a stop at Aruba with nearby Curacao, so there is not much distance to travel overnight to the next port.] We headed to the downtown shopping area near the port and revisited a restaurant/bar called "Iguana Joe's" where we had bought souvenir shirts on our previous visit. It was fun to get out and enjoy the warm evening air watching sailboats bob on the waves in the harbor, as the lights of the cruise ships glistened in the distance—a nice way to end a day in the Caribbean.

[Day 5 – Curacao]
We left the ship and walked across Curacao’s famous floating pontoon bridge (which can be opened to allow ships to pass), but instead of heading for the luxury shops like many other passengers, we veered right towards the old fortress and worked our way up the streets closest to the shoreline. We stopped at the Curacao Tourist Board office to see if they had any discount coupons and to see if it was feasible to walk to the Curacao aquarium. The woman there told us the way to go and that it was safe to walk.

It ended up being about a four mile walk, but it was interesting to walk through the neighborhoods and to get the real feeling of the island that one can only get from a "boots on the ground" experience. We saw a discarded banana peel that had attracted four large lizards who scampered into the underbrush of the nearby vacant lot. We saw young children watching cartoons in the living room of their house which was situated just a block or so from the beautiful blue ocean. We saw grocery stores, gas stations, restaurants, and auto part stores—none of which had names familiar to Americans. This is why we chose to walk—it gives one a better sense of being in a foreign land (plus provides some exercise to work off the calories consumed from the delicious meals on the ship).

It took a while, but we finally arrived at the aquarium, which we were pleased to see that it was a quality operation (including a study partnership with the Columbus Zoo) and not some "fly by night" rip-off. The dolphin show was the most impressive, but we also had fun touching and feeding the sting rays (which when combined with the sting ray experience we had at Half Moon Cay on the first full day gave us pretty much the entire sting ray experience), observing the dozens of aquarium displays, going into their docked semi-sub (similar to the one we were on at Aruba) to see a variety of marine life, the sea lion show, and the nurse shark feeding. It cost us $21 to get in, but we had no transportation costs, so we saved nearly $40 since the ship's 3 hour excursion (including transportation) to the aquarium cost $59.95.

We had decided to catch one of their buses back to town, which would have cost us $2 each, but as we approached the bus stop, a car arriving at the parking lot for the nearby condos spotted my WVU shirt and yelled at us. We ventured over to talk with them, and it turns out they were from near my hometown (retired from Bond's Drugstore). They winter in Aruba and Curacao with their timeshare resort condos. One of them, Herb, insisted on driving us back to town, along with some detours to show us some of his favorite sites. We not only got a free ride back to town, but also a great narrative about life as a snowbird in the Caribbean. He showed us some of the newest developed areas, a fantastic European beach, and several great restaurants. The best place we stopped was on a cliff above a beautiful blue bay. It was a sight to remember! I bet no one else on the cruise got to take in the view from that cliff (or the other interesting sights Herb showed us), and it only happened because I was wearing my WVU shirt that day. Mountaineers are always supportive of fellow mountaineers—one of the reasons why I love West Virginia.

Herb dropped us off with enough time to walk across the bridge one more time, to check out the floating food market (fresh fruits and colorful veggies brought by boat from South America) as well as the downtown shopping district. We aren't big on shopping, but it was fun to roam the old downtown streets among the brightly colored buildings.

Back on the ship, we enjoyed watching our retreat from Curacao. We got ready and went to dinner where once again, we were the youngest couple at the table. Afterwards, we chose to check out the piano bar for a change. The Don Ho look-alike was pretty talented, but compared to other piano bars on ships, his piano playing was heavily supplemented with "canned accompaniment." His highly orchestrated songs definitely trended toward the older set that over ran his little bar (we had tried to get in there on a previous night but the place was too packed). So we went back to the room and watched a Harrison Ford movie entitled “Firewall.”

[Day 6]
This was an at-sea day as we worked our way over to Panama. Our first order of business was meeting with the Excursion Desk staff, because we received notice last night that our kayaking adventure was cancelled due to lack of participants (go figure—considering the average age of the passengers). There were a couple of other choices that we were interested in, but the rain forest walk had also been cancelled, and the dugout canoe ride to an Indian village was already full. So we opted for the Eco-Cruise as the best of the limited options we had available. We did some exercise walking on the promenade deck, and then attended a nice lecture in the theater about the history of the Panama Canal.

I finished the book I started a couple days earlier. It was the autobiography of Ed Rabel, the West Virginia native (and University of Charleston alum) who enjoyed a long career as a network news reporter for CBS (plus a few years at NBC at the end of his career). It was a fascinating account of his journeys over the past 50 years and the stories he covered. I always admired Ed Rabel because my UC mentor Dr. Evelyn Harris had spoken highly of him, plus I was a big fan of Walter Cronkite's CBS Evening News and Charles Kuralt's CBS Sunday Morning shows—and Ed was a major contributor to both. By the way, Ed has returned to West Virginia and is running as an independent for Congress in the Second District (from the Charleston area over through the eastern panhandle). I may not agree with him 100%, but I would vote for him because I think he is very intelligent and interesting. Check out his book if you get the chance!

Before dinner we watched an interesting comedy starring Billy Crystal (who also has West Virginia connections, having spent his freshman year of college at Marshall) and Bette Midler entitled "Parental Guidance." After dinner we caught part of the song and dance show but decided that our friends at Shadowbox in Columbus have us spoiled when it comes to entertainment. The quality of the choreography and the music just wasn't up to what we are used to seeing. So we retreated to our room to watch “Enough Said” starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus. It was also the last film made by James Gandolfini before his untimely death.

[Day 7 – Panama]
We awoke early to watch our ship's transit of the Panama Canal. It was still dark when I first looked out our window, and I counted 22 other ships whose lights I could see—some coming, some going, and some apparently hovering to await their turn. The canal is definitely a busy place!

We soon passed a long stone breakwater and were accompanied closely by a towboat. We also saw a pilot boat join up with our ship to transfer an experienced local canal pilot to direct our bridge. Soon we were approaching the locks, as the sun arose. The small gear driven tractors connected their ropes to our ship, and they began leading us through the first of the locks. We found the transit through the locks to be fascinating!

Eventually we were out of the last lock and into Gatun Lake. We were signed up originally for the kayaking excursion, but with its cancellation, we ended up on the "Eco-Cruise." We rode a tender to the shore where we boarded a tour bus with a lovely local guide (Marielle). She took us first to the Canal visitor center, where we climbed to the observation room to watch the container ships that followed us go through the locks. There was a knowledgeable canal employee who provided us with lots of facts—such as that Holland America paid about $350K to go halfway through the canal and then back out again on our cruise. With nearly 2000 passengers, that amounts to about $175 per passenger just for the canal fee. We also got to see a lot of displays about the history of the canal and the expansion plans for the future. I got to climb inside one of the previous tractor locomotives that were built by General Electric—the new ones were built by Mitsubishi.

Then we were back on the bus and heading out to a backwater area in the northern part of the lake. We passed some of the construction for the additional larger channel, but we were told that there is some sort of contract protest litigation that has tied up the project and put it behind schedule.

We left the more developed areas near the canal to eventual arrive in a rural area. Leaving the bus, we walked down a hill, across a dock, and onto "The Jungle Queen." Gatun Lake in this area still has many of the submerged trees from when the lake was first formed more than a hundred years ago. The boat pilot had to carefully avoid these trees for most of the day. We explored a lot of lake shoreline, looking for monkeys, sloths, or alligators, but saw none. We did see lots of interesting jungle trees and plants, as well as some interesting birds and butterflies. The boat took us back to the dock where we boarded the bus for the trip back to the port of Colon. Apparently one of the features of Colon is a large duty free shopping zone that is not open to Panamanian residents. The rest of the town seemed very old and run down—more so than most other Caribbean towns we have seen. It was not impressive at all.

We arrived at 2:00, but our ship didn't arrive until around 3:00. However, the Panamanian authorities didn't clear our ship for reboarding until after 4:00. We had to spend about two hours at a small shopping/casino/restaurant complex at the port—I think the idea is for the excursion folks to wait there until they are bored enough to spend money. We did a small amount of shopping, and also "toured" the local supermarket that was also located there (it was interesting to see the products and the prices in a foreign country).

We had been told that when the gates were opened to the escalators leading up to the overhead passage that connects to the ship, that would be the signal that the ship had been cleared for reboarding. However, we noticed that some of our ship's staff were walking across the roadway and disappearing into the port authority building. We decided to check it out for ourselves, and indeed we were able to get back on board the ship. I don't know how much longer it took the port staff to open the escalator, but my guess is that they wait as long as they can to keep the passengers in the restaurants and souvenir shops.

Back on board, we attended a computer security class taught by the Microsoft "Techspert" in the computer lab, and then enjoyed a late dinner, followed by the Ashton Kutcher movie about Steve Jobs.

[Day 8 - Costa Rica]
Today when we awoke, we were in Puerto Limon, Costa Rica—our first time in this country. After a quick breakfast, we were off the ship and headed out to a bus for our whitewater rafting excursion. Our knowledgeable tour guide (Andreas) provided a running narrative as our bus with about two dozen other passengers headed out of the port city into the countryside. At one point in the rural area, we stopped to see a sloth who was walking (hanging upside down) on the utility wires along the highway. Our guide had hoped we would also glimpse some howler monkeys along the way, but we weren't that lucky today.

It was interesting to see the banana plantations, the Chiquita and Del Monte loading sites full of refrigerated shipping containers, the oriole nesting colony (a tree full of those hanging nests that Baltimore Orioles build—although much bigger), and just the general aura one gets when traveling in a foreign country. So many differences, but also many similarities—I like experiencing foreign countries. Although I enjoy learning about other places, it makes me appreciate my home even more.

Finally we arrived at the headquarters for the rafting company, and soon we were on the water. The put-in was between the railroad and the highway bridges. Anna and I were put into the raft that the tour guide was leading. It included another couple from Birmingham, Alabama, as well as a mother/daughter from Toronto, Ontario. We had a great time even if the rapids were only Class I and II. In some respects, it was similar to rafting we have done in West Virginia (perhaps comparable to the Shenandoah River). However, there were many differences. For example, we could see a large, cloud shrouded volcano behind us. There were palm trees, banana trees, and balsa trees along the banks (as a youngster, I built a lot of model rockets and airplanes using lightweight balsa wood). There was some sort of tree that was prevalent (whose name I didn't catch) and was full of beautiful orange colored blossoms. The whitewater was the same, but the surroundings were almost surreal.

Not long after I opted to jump out of the raft and swim through one of the last pools, our beautiful day on the Reventazon River came to an end. The bus picked us up and brought us back to their headquarters. We had a nice selection of local foods before climbing back on the bus for the ride back to town. Once we arrived back at the port, we toured the souvenir market before reboarding the ship.

We had a nice dinner and then attended the special show with a comedian who was very good with impressions. He was very talented! We then came back to the room to watch a 2013 movie entitled "Rush" that was directed by Ron Howard. It tells the true story of the 1976 Formula One championship battle between James Hunt and Niki Lauda. Although it wasn't televised here in the states much back then, I remember closely following the F1 series through the pages of the weekly National Speed Sport News as well as monthly car magazines. I thought it was one of the best racing movies I have ever seen. Ron Howard has now directed two of my all-time favorite movies, both based on actual events, from two of my favorite topics: auto racing with "Rush" and space exploration with "Apollo 13."

[Day 9]
Holland America does a "non-competitive" three mile walk on its promenade deck to raise money to fight cancer. For a $20 donation, you get a commemorative t-shirt and the sense that you are doing something good while cruising. Following the walk, we rushed to our room to shower and change into nice clothing for the "Captain's Luncheon" which is limited only to those who have sailed on Holland America in the past. It is their way of rewarding repeat customers.

We came back to the room with intentions of seeing the magician perform at 2:00, but somehow fell asleep and missed it. So most of the afternoon was spent reading and writing.

The pre-dinner movie on the ship was "Skyfall" a recent addition to the James Bond franchise. It was okay, but I still think the new Bond looks more Russian than British. We then went to dinner, but since it was formal night, we ate in the cafeteria rather than the dining hall. Until this trip, we had always packed clothing for the formal nights, but decided to save the packing space (since originally we were taking the train) and skip the formal dinners. We still had a great dinner (although not the lobster that was served in the main dining room), plus we were able to wear shorts and a t-shirt while seated outside on the back deck.

Upon our return to the room, we decided to try out the hot tubs on the top deck. We were the only ones in the area, and it was great to lean back and look at the stars above our ship. To my amazement, a golden light streaked across the night sky. I yelled at Anna and she got to see it, too. It disintegrated as it blazed across the sky, dropping about three minor portions behind it before they all burned out. It was headed in a southernly direction, so maybe it was an old polar-orbiting spy satellite that had reached the end of its lifespan and broke apart as it re-entered our atmosphere. Or perhaps it was simply a meteor. Whatever it was, I considered myself fortunate to have witnessed it, and consider it to be a good omen for the success of our cruise vacation.

[Day 10]
I woke up early and headed to the promenade deck to get some exercise. They have a small gym on-board with treadmills and other machines, but I prefer doing real walking while outside. After yesterday's 5K (which was really only three miles), I decided to do 15 laps (5 miles) on this the last full day of the cruise. It was fun coming around the corner at the stern each lap and seeing the sunrise and watch it climb higher with each passing lap. The other views during my walk of the vast expanse of ocean were not bad either.

Back in the room, I took a shower and then we went to the theater for a powerpoint presentation entitled "Under Our Keel: Marine Life in the Caribbean." It was an interesting lecture which covered a wide variety of animals, from sea anemones and coral, to fish, turtles, dophins, whales, birds, etc. We then had a light breakfast before we resumed reading our books.

For lunch, the ship had a special emphasis on Indian food (tandoori chicken, beef marsala, naan bread, etc.) which we enjoyed. We spent time watching as our ship cruised along the Cuban coast. Cuba is a very large island, and its mountain ranges our very irregularly shaped. Through binoculars I could see cities and even factories at times. Personally, I think it would be best for both countries if the restrictions against travel to Cuba was lifted. What better way to expose them to America's freedom and liberties than to send them an influx of tourists, who would probably be quick to point out the advantages of capitalism over Marxism?

On the last afternoon while sitting on our balcony, I finished my second book of the cruise. It was "Space Chronicles," a compendium of essays and speeches by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. I admire him a lot, as he is the best scientific communicator since the late astronomer Carl Sagan.

Sadly, following our final dinner we had to work on packing our bags. We finished in time to go watch the B.B. King all-star band one more time. One of my only regrets of this cruise was that we didn't attend more of these B.B. King shows. They are quite talented.

I enjoyed watching another cruise ship follow us into port as the sun rose. A great vacation has ended but it will be nice to get back to wild, wonderful West Virginia.

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