Ok, finally finished posting the photos and ramblings from out latest cruise. If you want to read the ramblings in order, then click on the 2008 Panama Canal Cruise category to the left (or the link here). And of course, the photos are available too.
Ok, I’m working on putting up my thoughts on each day and the photos from the last cruise, a Panama Canal transit over the Christmas holiday. It’ll take me a few days to get everything up, I’ll make a note here when it’s done. The comments that I prepare for each day are being posted with the date that they were on, and are available by clicking on the 2008 Panama Canal Cruise category to the left.
Whelp, we arrive early in Fort Lauderdale, and basically sit around waiting to get off the ship. We weren’t in any particular hurry since we had plenty of time before our flight. Probably somewhat just as well because it did seem like they were running a little slow getting people off today. Nothing quite as bad as our time in Galveston, but definitely slower than the plan. Fort Lauderdale doesn’t let you check in more than about 3 hours before your flight, so we spent some extra time fine tuning the weight allotment between our suitcases. Thankfully there was even a chance to get to an extra scale, so it was pretty easy to check things. Getting home, well, let’s just say it was quite a bit colder in Michigan than it was on the cruise. The only day at home above freezing during January was a couple days before we got back from the cruise. We had snow on the ground for basically from the day after we got back all the way through the rest of the month.
Two final sea days to end the cruise. Nice to be able to spend some time relaxing before you have to get off the ship, but depressing also, because the time is at an end. It’s definitely good to have a couple of days to recover from everything you do on a cruise before you have to get caught up in the frenzy of having to travel home.
The evening of the first sea day (which was unfortunately a formal night) we tried the comedian of the evening, Cary Long. This guy was ok, but I wouldn’t really say he was anything spectacular. Better than the really bad ones we’d seen this trip, but I don’t know that I’d consider paying to go see him.
Aruba today, but unfortunately, even before we got on the cruise we’d been notified that we were losing an hour in our stop in Aruba. So we were getting in at 1pm, and leaving at 6pm. Coming into port, we passed a few other cruise ships already there. The Scientology ship Freewinds, a Pullmantur ship, and a Crystal ship. As we were pulling into the spot that we were going to tie up to, I also noticed a sailboat that really was looking like it wasn’t being maintained real well. A closer look, and I realized that it was the Polynesia, which was one of Windjammers ships before they went under. Apparently it’s been there ever since then, and it really shows that it’s not getting the maintenance that it needs. Really kinda a shame, it was looking pretty sorry. As a side note, a couple of people that we’d met had been on a Windjammer cruise once, and it turned out that was the ship they’d been on.
Up to this point I’d never really felt like the Coral felt very crowded. It seems to manage the balance between number of people and space very well (other than the masses of unruly kids). That illusion came to a crashing halt on our arrival in Aruba. The problem with having such a short stop in Aruba and getting in at 1PM is that everyone wants off the ship immediately. They had set up a line to get off the ship than pretty much ran down the entire corridor of the ship past the casino, all the way back to the lounge at the back, looping back and running a fair distance forward too. And god forbid if you came off an elevator and didn’t look like you were immediately heading towards the back of the line, because there were people ready to lynch anyone that even looked like they might try cutting in the line. We didn’t get in the line right away since there didn’t seem like much point in standing in a line that wasn’t going anywhere, and instead stood watching on the Promenade deck waiting to see evidence of people emerging from the ship. Eventually after it looked like a fair number of people had emerged we headed for the line (which was still quite long), and eventually made it off the ship at about 1:45PM.
Our plan for the day was basically to walk our way to the beach and swim for a little while. Didn’t have a huge amount of time, but we did walk on the way there. Not the most scenic walk initially, since you walk past a large cargo terminal. Eventually we reached a point where we could turn to walk towards the ocean, but that probably wasn’t the best place to do so. There was some beach in that area, but not kept real well since it was in front of an abandoned resort, which appears to have become the haven for a lot of squatters. Wasn’t really the most comfortable area to walk through. Eventually we did come to a fairly nice stretch of beach though that we were able to use. Not a huge number of people around (weather was a little iffy, which probably contributed somewhat to that, since we did get a couple of light showers). The water was excellent here though, you could go out a ways and still stand.
Spent a while here, then started walking back until we’d dried off some and caught the bus back to town. Got on the ship and changed clothes, then wandered around town looking at some of the shops. All too soon it was time to head back to leave.
Tonight’s entertainment was the hypnotist Tim Triplett. This would be the third hypnotist we’ve seen on a cruise ship. I don’t know if it’s just the act starts wearing thin after a while, or it’s just that we’ve seen a declining quality of hypnotists. The first one we saw back on our first Crown Princess cruise was actually pretty good. This guy was really the least interesting of the three. Now, I’ll give him some benefit of the doubt, because a hypnotists show is really only as good as the audience members that he gets. This guy just didn’t seem to get a very susceptible collection of people (or he just wasn’t good at putting people under). But really, only a so-so show.
Cartagena, Columbia today. Have to admit, if you’d asked me a couple years ago whether I’d ever visit Columbia, I probably couldn’t have imagined that I ever would. Took quite a while to get into the harbour here, and I think for a while we were just kinda sitting there not going anywhere. We were actually somewhat late tying up, and personally I wonder whether we almost skipped the port. Turns out there were two other ships in port that day, an RCL ship and the Regent Seven Seas Voyager, both of which were ahead of us. Our guide said the Regent ship hadn’t been scheduled to be in that day. I wonder if our captain almost refused to dock at the pier that they assigned us, because I have to admit, I thought it looked marginal myself for a ship of our size. (I think the pier itself was about 600 feet, and while
I’ve seen ships this size dock at piers like that, most of those piers have things they call dolphins further out that are also used to tie up at. The other pier where the other two ships were tied up had the dolphins, while ours didn’t.)
Our tour today was the Best of Cartagena and Fortress tour. Looked like it was the most common tour on the ship that day. First thing we did was head up to an old Monestary at the top of the largest hill there in town, largely just so we could get a view of the city. The road going up there was so steep the bus had to turn off the A/C to drive up it. It really was an excellent view of the city from up there. You could see the fortress, the old city, the new city, and the docks.
From there, the next stop was the fortress. Long steep incline to walk up the fortress, and man, it was getting brutally hot out (and of course, no shade). I really felt we were kinda rushed here, and by the time we got to the top and looked around a little, they were already hussling us off to the next stop.
Next stop was the dungeons. Basically, the dungeons are a shopping area, supposedly with local handicrafts available for sale. You’re talking about 20 little tiny shops, where your guide “encourages” you to shop at one particular one. Of course, once you’ve been in one of them, you’ve seen them all. Talk about a useless collection of junk. We spent far too long at this stop, which really could have been skipped. I didn’t run into too many people that seemed overly impressed with the place either.
From there we hopped back on the bus to head to the old city of Cartagena. The old city is your typical old Spanish colonial architecture, narrow streets, colorful balconies on the buildings. Pretty nice to walk around actually. We wandered through the one square, then visited the Catholic church. Some really nice stained glass in the church. Finally, we stopped at a place for a chance to relax and have a drink, and watch some traditional dance.
Then it was off to our final stop, in the new city area, for your chance to do emerald shopping. Basically you’re talking about a strip mall type area, but all the shops in this particular strip mall are emerald shops. I have no idea really how decent the prices were here, since I’ve never really emerald shopped before, although I don’t think they were too bad. Cathy especially was looking forward for the chance to buy some emerald earrings (emeralds are her birthstone). I’m also firmly convinced both the ship and the guides are getting a kickback on these sales. Cathy ended up buying her earrings at a shop called Greenfire, and I have to admit, they people there were extroadinarily patient with her, and really weren’t pressuring at all. I consider that pretty good, especially since quite frankly she wasn’t really looking for anything all that expensive. (Although she really did like the one set of $1600 earrings she saw, but that was well out of our budget. Besides, we don’t do anything that you’d wear earrings that expensive to). She ended up with some stud earrings that were a little smaller than she preferred, but the one that were a little bigger she didn’t like the color as much on, and the next step up from there was out of our price range.
Finally it was back to the ship. This was another excursion that I kinda had mixed feelings about. It really felt that we were pretty rushed all the way through the day. Part of that probably wasn’t helped that we were late getting in, but even then, I think they try to fit too much in too little time. They seemed more concerned with making sure you had time at the shopping places than having time at the sights.
Had a couple of people that were late getting back to the ship at this port. You could see the ships crew getting a little agitated as they were waiting for the last couple of people to show up. I’m not overly convinced that they weren’t lucky that the Regent ship was leaving at the same time we were, and since they backed up first, we had to wait for them to clear out before we’d be able to go anywhere. They did finally come tearing up in a van and were hustled on board, after which the gangplank was immediately pulled on board and we were under way.
Ah yes, the highlight of the trip, the Panama Canal transit. Who’s the bright one that scheduled this for New Years Day? According to our Patter, we were supposed to go under the Bridge of the Americas around 5:20am (ugh). Course, supposedly somewhere the night before it had been passed around that we were really going to be about an hour later. Would have been nice to know that, because we could have slept in for a while. As it was, stuck my nose out the window at that time, and between looking around and seeing nothing and looking at the gps realized that we weren’t quite that far yet. Still, we got up shortly after that and headed up to the open area on the front of the ship to watch us head into the canal. Spent most of the time going into the first lock in the Miraflores set up on that front deck.
After that, spent most of the day wandering around the ship trying to get a good look at things from various angles. Course, this did make me once again miss the smaller R class ship we’d been on a couple of cruises ago, because man, when you spend a lot of time running around trying to see things, the Coral suddenly seems bigger. I’d be interested in doing the canal transit in an R class, I think it’d be an interesting comparison.
After passing through the Galliard Cut and reaching Gatun Lake we started running into traffic going the other direction. Lots of large cargo ships headed the other direction (although to be honest, a lot of them looked like they might be empty, because they tended to be riding fairly high in the water).
Eventually we reached the Gatun Locks, which we transited next to a large RORO ship. With us they supposedly were doing some sort of relay thing with the mules, where after we got partway through the locks they tied us up and swapped mules around. Supposedly it was supposed to make the process faster, but I’m not really convinced. I don’t think the RORO ship next to us was doing it, and it was going through the locks faster, and we sat in the middle lock for quite some time. Maybe the canal crew took their lunch break or something part way through our transit.
Finally after passing into the Caribbean you could see the large collection of ships waiting to transit the other direction. I guess apparently these ships can wait at least 24 to 36 hours to make their transit. Still beats going around South America though. One of the ships waiting to go in was kinda a low, squat ship that looked a bit different. Turns out it was the Delta Mariner. This ship is a transport for pieces for the Delta IV rocket. Apparently, it was waiting to go through the canal en route to Kwajalein. Not every day you see a ship carrying rocket parts.
All in all, it was definitely an interesting experience to do this transit. I’d be interested in doing it again someday, preferably on a smaller ship, and definitely preferably not on New Years day. By the end of the day I was exhausted, and really hadn’t done much of anything except wander around the ship.
Ah, New Years Eve at sea. Course, there were a couple of bad things about it. One is that not surprisingly it was a formal night. The second was that something we really hadn’t thought about before the cruise was that New Years Eve was the night before our Panama Canal transit. Not exactly what I’d call the ideal situation. The evening was great though. Lots of people gathered up top, and Princess handed out noise makers, hats, and streamers. (Of course, there was enough wind that you couldn’t really wear the hats without them blowing away). Brian, the shore excursion manager, was dressed up as Father Time, while Sammy (one of the cruise staff) must have drawn the short straw because he got stuck playing the baby new year. Basically we stuck around for the count down to new years, then headed down to go to sleep. Unfortunately, this was one of the nights that a lot of kids were running around making a lot of noise in the hallways.
Today’s port is Puntarenas, Costa Rica. We decided on a somewhat shorter excursion for this day since we’d had two much longer ones in the past days. (Also, one of the ones we’d considered for here ended up not being offered this day. Costa Rica had been getting a lot of rain in the recent weeks, and apparently some of the roads were getting entertaining. Don’t know if this is why the one was canceled, but could be). So we decided that we’d try the Jungle Cruise and Train ride excursion. Originally we booked the fairly early trip, but got notice that it had been cancelled and we’d been put on the later trip. The nice thing is that did mean that we could sleep in a little later than we’d been able to the previous days.
So, at a slightly later hour than the previous two mornings, we got up and headed off the ship, only to discover that we were docked next to the Island Princess. This was something of a surprise, as back when I’d checked before taking the cruise, I didn’t think that we were supposed to be in port with any other ship in Puntarenas. Maybe they’d been listed as coming into Puerto Caldera or something. Still, it was kinda neat to see the two sister ships sitting next to each other in port. It also let Princess combine their shore excursions between the two ships, which probably helps their efficiency.
Since we had some time to kill, we went on shore and hung a left from the pier, which is where everyone had set up shop to sell stuff. Surprisingly, this was by far one of the lowest key ports I’ve ever been in when it comes to the vendors. They were happy to have you look at their stuff, but there really was almost no pressure to buy anything. If you’d say no, they’d actually leave you alone, which is something of a novel concept. One of the things that seemed to be pretty common here were bird feathers that had various images painted on them. We were looking for one of these because we have a friend that had been to Costa Rica before and had wanted to get one but didn’t have the chance, and she was looking after our house (and clearing our sidewalks of the snow) while we were gone. Prices weren’t too bad on these, small ones seemed to be $10 to $15, larger ones in the $20 to $30 range (complete with frame). Coffee was also a pretty common item for sale in this area (not surprisingly).
For the excursion, we headed out on a bus to the place where we’d board the boats for the river cruise part. Before boarding though it was time for a snack. Largely in this case the snack consisted of some fruits. Then it was board the boat, and go in search of any wildlife we could find. This largely meant several varieties of birds. Blue Herons were fairly common, a mangrove hawk, and finally, the elusive scarlet macaw. The macaw’s were pretty tough to spot, way up in the trees. We also saw a couple Jesus Christ lizards, and finally a small crocodile. It was only a small one, kinda hunkered down in the mud. The disadvantage of the jungle cruise/train combo is that I think you do end up with a somewhat shorter boat trip than if you did just the jungle cruise. But we ran out of time looking for things, and headed down to the dock to catch the bus to our train.
The rail line that we went on was apparently the old line that used to run across the country from the Caribbean side to the Pacific side. The line hasn’t really been well maintained over the years, and as a result most of it’s no longer really used anymore, and what is is basically just for tourism. To get on the train, they basically just pulled it up and stopped it right in the middle of the road, so a few people that were trying to go through had to wait for us to get on. Small train, just 2 passenger cars. We were in the back car of the two, and when we asked, our guide said it was ok to stand on the platform on the back of the car (later, I did see a sign that might have said (in Spanish) that you weren’t supposed to stand back there, oh well). A lot of the train ride didn’t necessarily go through the most scenic areas, although some were better than others, and you did go through some areas where people were living. A lot of these houses were pretty basic shelters, looked like they were probably dirt floors inside. Interestingly though, they did generally appear to have electricity, since many of these houses actually had tv antennas. Very bumpy ride, but interesting if you happen to like trains. Cathy ended up getting stung by another bug on this trip, so she wasn’t having the best of luck.
The train ride ended back near Puerto Caldera, where we caught the bus back to the ship. By the time we got back it was really starting to get dark. It was kinda interesting to watch the busses bring passengers back. They’d bring the busses all the way down the pier to let everyone off, but then would have to back their way back off the pier because there’s no room to turn around the large motor coaches they use. Was kinda amusing to watch then navigate busses coming in and out. Did mean you had to pay attention if you were walking on the pier though.
We ended up leaving before the Island Princess did (I suspect we got in earlier than they did, but we weren’t up early enough to confirm this), so we stood on the promenade deck watching us prepare to leave then sail. Cathy especially was intrigued by how they raised the gangplank, she hadn’t noticed them hanging above the promenade deck before that point. Much horn blowing back and forth as we left. The bad news for the Island Princess people is that they were going the other direction on the cruise, and ending in Acapulco, so they were only a few days from the end of their cruise.
This evening while waiting for the show to start we were walking on the promenade deck and saw a guy walking the other way in a bright yellow suit. Kinda nodded and said hi as he went by, and I kinda thought maybe this was the comedian of the night. Sure enough, when the show started, this guy came out. He was David Aiken, the Checkerboard Guy. In hindsight, with a nickname of the Checkerboard Guy, we probably should have been able to figure out that this wasn’t the show for us. It was definitely far more oriented toward the kids in the crowd. Neither of us really lasted very long before we gave up on him.
Today we’re in Puerto Corinto, Nicaragua. Cathy’s firmly convinced she told me to book the shorter trip, but I don’t know that I agree with her memory, and so we were once again booked on a fairly long excursion. Today it’s Leon Viejo and Colonial Leon with Lunch. Once again, you start out with a fairly long bus ride, and I have to admit, at times we ended up somewhat napping on the bus. From what I did see, I don’t know that we really missed a whole lot in the way of a view. First stop for us was Leon Viejo, which is the ruins of the what had been the second oldest city in Nicaragua, and eventually was covered up with ash by the volcano Momotombo. I’ve seen it billed in some places as the “Pompeii of Central America”. I’ve got to be honest, while it was interesting in a way, any comparisons to Pompeii are vastly overblown. I’ve been to Pompeii, and this isn’t in the same league. If you’ve never been to a place like Pompeii, or are really fascinated by ruins, you might find it interesting. But to be honest, I was somewhat underwhelmed by it. Most of what remains are fairly low walls that have been capped by concrete to help preserve them. One of the churches and another building that has the original floor are somewhat more preserved. I’d say it took about 45 minutes to an hour to go through the area with our guide, and quite honestly, in my opinion the best part was really the climb to the top of the old fort (which you can’t really see) where you do get a truly impressive view across the lake towards Momotombo. Cathy might not be quite as impressed with the view from the top, because she did manage to get stung by some sort of insect while up there. Oh, and this is one of those annoying places that hit you up for the privilege of using your camera. It was only about $1.50 or so, but it’s still quite annoying.
After that, it was back on the bus to head back to the modern city of Leon. First stop there was the Hotel el Convento, which used to be a convent, but is now a hotel. This would be the site for our lunch. Once again, lunch was a buffet, and once again wasn’t too bad (heck, if I can find enough to eat, it couldn’t be too bad, I’m pretty picky). Choice of a coke or beer for beverage, and also free water and juices. After finishing eating, you then had a little bit of time to look around the courtyard area of the hotel, which had a very nice garden area.
From there, we walked down some of the streets and headed to the Cathedral of Leon, which is something like the largest church in Central America. We were told that supposedly the plans for this church and one in Lima, Peru got mixed up, and Leon ended up getting the larger church as a result. Inside was brutally hot, but we wandered around with our guide explaining some of the things in the church, then headed for the stairs to go to the roof. On the roof, you end up with a very nice view out over the city, and see some of the volcanoes off in the distance. You also realize that Leon is actually quite a bit bigger than it looked from when we drove into it. (In fact, I think it’s one of the larger cities in Nicaragua). The roof also has many large bumps in it that correspond to domes on the inside of the church. We were told not to walk on those because apparently the ceiling is thinner (although I saw several people who didn’t seem to get the warning walking all over them because they stuck up high enough to help you see over the walls, and nobody fell through).
After that, we were given some time to wander around and do some shopping. Vendors here were reasonably aggressive, but not as bad as Guatemala. Our guide took several of us that were interested over to the local grocery store which he had told us was really the best place to buy local coffee and rum. Some of the aged rums ran for about seven dollars. Between a little coffee and the rum, we ended up spending about $10. Lines in the grocery store were quite long. The length of time that we were given to shop here quite honestly was far more than was really necessary. Then it was back on the bus for the long ride back to the ship.
Back in the cargo port where the ship was docked, Cathy decided we needed to head out of the port area to the square nearby where lots of vendors had set up shop selling stuff. Personally I thought a lot of the stuff being sold here was of mediocre quality at best.
I really find I have mixed feelings about the excursion we took here in Nicaragua. Of the excursions that we took, I’d really have to say it was the weakest, and I’m just not overly convinced that the trip to Leon Viejo is really worth the extra time you spend on this trip. There were some shorter, cheaper trips that did the town of Leon and visiting mud pots that I think might have been a better value. It especially felt like a long day after having had another 8 hour plus excursion the day before.