Panama Canal 2005

Ft. Lauderdale • Limón, Costa Rica • Colon, Panama
Grand Cayman • Cozumel, Mexico
• Belize

 

Ft. Lauderdale

Friday, March 18, 2005

The search for a Spring break cruse that
matched Dani’s school schedule and went to places we hadn’t been proved a
challenge. In fact, there was only one! Fortunately it happened to be on our
favorite ship, the Coral Princess, on which we sailed to Alaska two years
ago. Ever the engineer, Linda had always wanted to go through the Panama
Canal, and that’s where it was headed, so we grabbed the last mini-suite and
got a sweet deal on it, too, via the Internet.

The Coral Princess was
actually built for the Panama Canal, so it’s skinnier than most new ships.
As a result, it accommodates less than 2000 passengers (compared to 3000 on
most.) That difference is what makes it our favorite. The ship has all the
big ship amenities — even a ceramics and art studio — without the crowds.
Its design is clever, with smaller public spaces and a passenger flow that
never crushes everyone into the same area at the same time.

It was also convenient that the ship was leaving from Ft. Lauderdale’s
Port Everglades, avoiding the extra distance (and death risk) of Miami.
Averaging just over 80 mph on the Turnpike we made it in under four hours,
including a stop for gas and food — not necessarily in that order.

The Port Everglades terminal amazingly grungy (and possibly being
remodeled — it was hard to tell), but it didn’t really matter because check
in was so efficient we were only there for about five minutes.

Our cabin layout is identical to our last voyage on this ship, but it’s
on the port side and forward, which has so far been surprisingly
disorienting. Couple that with last summer’s memories of the similar but
different Star Princess, and wandering around has been a bit like a bizarre
dream, or constant deja vu.

Life station drill was pretty unpleasant, with a hundred or so of us
packed into the art gallery. I’m becoming convinced they make it awful so
that no matter what happens later you’ll approach it with the attitude,
“could be worse.” It’s possible that actually abandoning ship would be more
pleasant.

There was a line for anytime seating at the dining room, so we went to
the cover charge restaurant, Sabatini’s, (which is always uncrowded at the
beginning of the cruise) for their 3000-course dinner. Service and food were
good, in fact identical to previous visits on this and other Princess ships.

At Sea

Saturday, March 19, 2005

We spent a restful day at sea. Dani and I watched a pottery wheel
demonstration, then spent a couple of hours painting ceramics in the studio.
Linda spent most of the day doing needlepoint or reading on the balcony. It
was the only day I can remember having all three meals in the ships dining
room.

I learned my friend Bill Canon, the Hollywood screenwriter, died suddenly
of a heart attack last week. He was on his boat in Santa Barbara Harbor. His
death came as quite a shock, as I’d just talked to him a few days before.
Education to Go has asked me to take over his online classes. It was a
difficult way to get the news, but I suppose there’s no good way. I’ll miss
him.

Dinner was memorable. It was formal night, so we arrived from the
photographers as dressed up as we ever get, in tuxes and evening gowns (I
opted for the tux, rather than the gown).

We were greeted at the door by Godwin, the head waiter, who knew our
names despite the fact we’d never met. (We asked him later and he said he
saw our name on the ID screen as he watched the passengers check in. Wow.)
He ushered us to a lovely window table which must be the best table in the
house, not because of its location but because our waiter was Jorge,
possibly the finest waiter I’ve ever had. Although he was busy, he made
excellent service seem easy, and he was extraordinarily personable, and
funny, too. (Waving the pepper grinder, he asked if I wanted pepper on my
salad; when I said yes, he set the tiny pepper shaker from the table next to
my plate.)

Jorge is from Mexico, and apologizes for his English, which he says is
only slightly better than his Spanish. As other diners left they were asking
Jorge how they could get one of his tables again. As we, too, were wondering
this the problem was solved for us. Goodwin came by and asked us I we’d like
him to reserve that table for us every night at the same time. We replied
with a resounding “Yes!”

Linda said she wanted nothing for dessert. You
can see the results in the photo.
The Broadway show in the Princess
Theater was top notch. It’s staging was particularly unique, with onstage
locker and the cast changing wardrobes between numbers in full view. The
segments from Evita, Grease and Oklahoma were particularly good.

At Sea

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Another quiet day a sea, with a little painting and a long nap. we’re
definitely now on cruise time. Dani is getting a cold, probably the one I
dodged last week.


Viewing a lower tram from an upper.


Poison darts on the hoof.


Weird fern palm at Rio Danta


Opening the blossom to reveal a “hand” of bananas beneath
each petal.

Limón, Costa Rica

Monday, March 21, 2005

We docked in the wee hours at Limón, Costa Rica. Dani didn’t feel well
enough for our  rainforest aerial tram trip, so Linda and I set out on
our own.

Our guide, Porfiro, was extremely intelligent and entertaining. He grew
up in a shack on a coffee plantation, but because of Costa Rica’s incredible
educational system (92% literacy rate) he was able to finish college on a
full scholarship. The educational system is paid for with funds saved by
eliminating the country’s entire army. Sounds like a plan.

Costa Rica is extremely conservation oriented. 25% of the country is
national parks and other preserves. And there are serious effort to promote
bio-diversity in all areas, including agricultural lands. This is partly
subsidized by tourism, which accounts for 45% of the country’s economy.

Limón is a small town with no harbor, just a pier. We boarded a bus and
headed out of town, which didn’t take long. By our standards, the buildings
are shacks, some little more than piles of corrugated metal. But as Porfiro
put it, “most people are happy, because you can’t miss what you don’t know
about.” I noticed they all had TV antennas, though.

The staples of Costa Rica are rice and beans. As Porfiro explained, they
eat three meals a day:

Breakfast Rice and Beans
Lunch Rice and Beans
Dinner Beans and Rice

 

Once out of town we were surrounded by verdant countryside, interspersed
with banana and pineapple plantations. The country’s main crop, coffee, is
only grown above 3000 ft, and elevation we never reached

The country spans the isthmus, from Caribbean to Pacific, between Nicaragua
and Panama. There are over 600 rivers — we crossed many —  and
nearly a dozen distinct bio zones.

We also crossed some impressive chasms created by a 1991 earthquake. The
entire isthmus is geologically young, having been thrust up about 70 million
years ago to form a land bridge between North and South America. This
allowed the migration of species in both directions, and altered the world’s
ocean currents, allowing the gulf stream to warm Europe. A number of active
volcanoes testify to the area’s continued geologic activity.

Not far out of Limón our driver stopped and bought us a stalk of delicious
little bananas. We learned more about them later.

It was about a two hour drive to the aerial tram, where we rode in an
open trailer pulled by a tractor to reach the boarding area. The tram
travels over a mile, making a round trip in just over an hour, and stopping
periodically to load and unload. There are 24 seven-passenger cars. The
seventh passenger is a naturalist.

Although the views – and height and length — of the ride couldn’t
compare with the one in Cairns, Australia (although they brashly claimed
this was the greatest in the world) it was really nice having a naturalist
along to point out the diverse elements of the ecosystem.

The journey out was made nearly on the forest floor, and the return tip
in the canopy. We spotted a family of Coati (similar to raccoons) crossing
the forest floor, but saw little other wildlife, since it’s mostly
nocturnal. We learned a lot about the flora, though. Although this is the
dry season, about halfway through our journey a slight drizzle began, not
enough to really get us wet, but the perfect atmosphere for a rainforest
that gets more than 300 inches of rain a year.

After the tram ride another naturalist took us on a nature walk, where we
saw leaf-cutter ants demolishing the forest in most impressive fashion.
There was also a sloth, a bat sleeping on the underside of a leaf it had
folded in two, and a deadly eyelash viper. Gulp. We also saw a palm which is
the source of poison darts. A single poison dart frog can equip up to 60 of
these needle-sharp splinters with a fatal dose of poison.

Leaving the rainforest, we stopped for lunch at Restaurante Rio Danta,
where we had a delicious lunch of… rice and beans. We liked their hot
sauce, a complex, curry concoction, so much we bought three bottles.

Almost back to Limón, we made an unscheduled stop at a banana plantation
where Porfiro showed us how this plant — technically the world’s largest
herb — is cultivated.

The plant grows where the previous one is chopped off. There are always
two left from the same base; one is producing fruit, the smaller is its
replacement. After nine months of leaf growing a blossom forms. As it opens
teeny bananas are revealed. As they grow they turn upward to the sun. The
lower ones are pruned off, except one (examine the photo closely) that
signals the plant not to grow more levels. This leaves about 80 bananas on
the stalk. It’s sealed in a perforated plastic bag for six weeks, then
harvested, and the plant is cut off at the base. A new one sprouts almost
immediately.

We arrived back at the ship at five, and by six, lovely Costa Rica was
fading in the distance.


Approaching the locks. The tug is there “just in case.”


The ship ahead of us, with the blue stern, is in lock 2
and already 25 feet higher than sea level.


The electric locomotives begin to tow us into lock 1.

Panama Canal

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Today at dawn we entered the Panama Canal and passed through the three
locks that elevate the ship 75 feet to the level of Gatun Lake. The canal is
50 miles long, and shaves 7800 miles off the trip from New York to San
Francisco.

Excavation was begun by the French in the late 1800s, but
abandoned after two attempts and the loss of 22,000 workers, mostly to
malaria. The United States took over — literally — by backing a coup to
create the country of Panama out of a chunk of Colombia, and completed the canal in 1914.

By design,
our ship barely fits into the canal, with only a few feet to spare. The toll
for freighters is based upon the ship’s displacement weight, ballast and load.
(Heavier ships take longer in the locks, because there is less space for the
water to flow past, which slows their passage. Cruise ships pay based upon
capacity. This ship pays $226,000! (The lowest toll ever was 36 cents. Someone
swam the canal in 1928.)

A special room service Champagne breakfast was served on our balcony, and
Dani, who feels much better, joined us for the passage. It was a lot hotter
than our Champagne breakfast at Glacier Bay!

After passing through the
locks we spent the day cruising Gatun Lake. Some passengers tendered off for
shore excursions, but we spent the day relaxing onboard.


About to pass back out through the locks, viewed from deck
15 forward.


A scene from Myst? Concrete wall and steel doors passing
at several miles per hour just inches outside the window.


At noon the ship
passed back through the Gatun Locks. I photographed the process from deck 15
forward. It’s amazing how fast the locks fill. The water in the 100,000
square foot chamber drops several inches per second at the beginning
of the process. That’s a lot of water.

As we entered the final lock we
decided to go down to the dining room for lunch. This proved to be a lucky
decision, as the view from the atrium was truly bizarre. Somehow it hadn’t
occurred to us that the lower decks were surrounded by concrete walls, just
inches from the hull. The sight of that concrete sliding silently past,
interrupted by the 50 foot steel gates with their riveted surface was like a
scene from Myst.

In the afternoon we docked at Cristobal to pick up those
who’d gone on shore excursions. Linda and I spent a few minutes walking
through the arts and crap booths on the pier and she bought a couple of
hand-painted feathers as souvenirs. One of the booths was staffed by members
of a local tribe selling their baskets. The juxtaposition of bare- breasted,
heavily tattooed natives and dowdy American tourists was quite amusing.

We
set sail again at dusk, passing a mile-long line of ships — mostly
freighters — their running lights glowing in the misty darkness, waiting
for their turn to pass through the locks.


At Sea

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

In the morning Dani had a pottery lesson up on deck 15. We originally
became interested in pottery and ceramics because of our first trip on this
ship, two years ago, which led to us getting our own kiln and wheel. We’ve
gotten a lot of use out of the kiln, but the wheel proved a challenge. Now,
having had some additional instruction, I think we’ll have more luck with
it.

Ever been two a wine tasting and emerged a bit wobbly? Even before the
afternoon “connoisseur’s” tasting at Sabatini there were seven-foot swells!
Although the ship does a good job of minimizing the roll using active
stabilizers, it can still be a challenge navigating the corridors.
Especially after seven wines.

Dinner after dinner, the staff of the Bordeaux Dining Room has exceeded
our expectations. The special attention lavished upon us by Head Waiters
Godwin and Thomas, and the superlative attention and fun loving spirit of
our waiter, Jorge, have been the highlight of the cruise. Princess seems to
have upgraded their food, as well. Although some dishes are still
middle-brow cruise food, the escargot I had the other night was the best
I’ve ever tasted.


The Coral Princess, one of the seven large cruise ships
anchored off Grand Cayman.


This is as close as Linda got to the rays.


The water drop obscures the T-shirt, one I got in
Liarsville, Alaska. It says, “Ain’t no nookie like Chinookie.”

Grand Cayman

Thursday, March 24, 2005

After a hiatus following her soar throat, Dani’s cold has moved to her
head. Unfortunately she didn’t feel well enough for the sting ray shore
excursion. Linda accompanied me, only after being guaranteed she wouldn’t
have to actually touch the water.

The Cayman Islands were devastated by
last summer’s hurricane. 95% of the buildings were damaged, and we passed
many blocks where nothing was left standing. They’re working hard to rebuild
the dock area, and there is luxury hotel and condo construction everywhere.
But it’s hard to imagine what it would be like on this island during even a
ten-foot storm surge. It simply wouldn’t be here.

I must say it was even more fun than I
expected. The rays swirled around us, nuzzling us occasionally like dogs
begging for table scraps. Feeding them was a lot like stuffing squid into a
vacuum cleaner. They feel quite silky, and are neither aggressive nor
skittish.

As you can see, the bargain-priced underwater camera housing I
got for my little Sony T1 digital camera worked great.

Our second stop, for snorkeling, was brief. There was a small
amount of chop and a medium current. The combination proved too much for the
large percentage of inexperienced snorkelers on the trip, and they called
everyone back in after about ten minutes. It didn’t really matter, though.
Although billed as the world’s second biggest reef, it was more of a sandy
place with some fan coral. The sights couldn’t compare to Australia’s Great
Barrier Reef.


Species: Divers Americanus

Cozumel, Mexico

Friday, March 25, 2005

 

Today is our 27th anniversary. We’ve never been on a cruise before during
an anniversary or birthday. We got the traditional balloon outside the cabin
door. Whoopee.

Linda woke with a bit of a soar throat, but she gamely went off with Dani
to go horse-butt riding. I headed for my Atlantis submarine ride.

Cozumel was a tiny backwater until 1959 when Jacques Cousteau introduced
the world to it’s beautiful diving condition. Now it’s a bustling, touristy
resort city that has done an excellent job of keeping itself environmentally
appealing. Even waiting for my tour I could see parrot fish nibbling the
coral in the aquamarine water beneath the dock.

They put our tour group onto a procession of taxis (there are about a
million of them in Cozumel) an we sped about 5 miles down the coast near the
other cruise ship pier (there are at least four in port today) to the
Atlantis office. This is a first class operation, with modern, split level
building, waiting room and dock. A boat transported us about 20 minutes
farther down the coast to the sub.

Atlantis is a true submarine, unlike the semi-subs I’ve been in before.
It weighs 80 tons, carries 48 to a depth of up to 150 feet, and can stay
underwater for 24 hours. Fortunately our trip was much shorter than that.

Onboard the operation continued to be quite professional, with the
pilot’s chatter piper into the passenger area as he talked with the control
ship topside. There was also a first mate and a tour guide, and all the
comments were made in both English and… well, German.

We descended rapidly to about 70 feet and cruised the reef, spotting lots
of smaller fish, one shark and a lobster. Because there is no red light
below about ten feet, I have to honestly say that the sights from the semi
sub are probably as good or better, but it was neat to be in a real
submarine. At one point we passed a school of scuba divers, and it reminded
me that a sub is no substitute for the real thing!

Our maximum depth was 135, at which point we dangled over the sharp edge
of the the “wall”, where the continental shelf ends and the ocean floor
suddenly drops 3000 feet. Fortunately, no leaks.

The return process began by blowing ballast and ended by hailing a taxi.

Meanwhile, Linda and Dani were in the countryside, where Dani was
demonstrating that she’s an excellent horsewoman, and Linda was
demonstrating that Dani is an excellent horsewoman. There were many iguanas
on the trail, some up to several feet long. Surprisingly, the horses ignored
them.


Quality Souvenir

After Linda had a chance to hose off back at our cabin, she and I
ventured out for an anniversary lunch. We had the name of a good restaurant,
but we decided not to risk the logistics of finding a taxi back to the ship
and instead went to Mis Charros, one of the tourist places along the
waterfront.

Mis Charros claims to be 100 years old, and there’s certainly plenty of
evidence there hasn’t been any maintenance for at least that long. We had
excellent magaritas, guacamole and chips, and mediocre everything else. at
Epcot’s Mexico pavilion there is a scene on the boat ride where vendors race
along beside the boat trying to sell you stuff. That’s what this restaurant
was like, except we couldn’t escape in a boat.

After finishing her ceramic painting, Dani visited the ship’s doctor for
some antibiotics to make sure she avoids her cold turning into bronchitis.
She was impressed with the ship’s medical staff and facility. The
prescriptions come from Ireland, so they are reasonably priced and the
inserts are actually informative (i.e. not written by lawyers).

We received the sad new that our wonderful waiter, Jorge, lost his niece.
He left the ship in Cozumel to fly home, and we won’t see him again. We’ll
leave a thank you note and tip for him with his fiance.


Eating dust from the lead bus.


Dani during the two minutes she was wearing her life
jacket.


Dani in the darkest section of the cave.


The end of the trail.

Belize

Saturday, March 26, 2005

A popular T-shirt here reads, “Where the Hell is Belize?”

It’s between Mexico and Guatemala, and until independence from England in
1981 it was called British Honduras. It’s the smallest country in Central
America, and the only English-speaking one. The capital, Belize City, has
70,000 residents, more than a fourth of the country.

Since Belize is a former British colony, it was surprising to find the
cars driving on the right side of the street. Apparently they changed over,
sometime in the early 1960s. That must have been an exciting week.

Even though Belize is a really interesting port, not many cruise ships
visit yet, because of the logistics. We anchored seven-miles off shore, and
the tendering was a VERY slow operation, so our tour was running an hour
behind time. Because it involved water, Linda chickened out at the last
minute. Just as well, as it turned out, because — although Dani and I loved
it — she would have hated it.

Our journey began with an hour bus ride through a surprisingly ramshackle
town, then countryside consisting
of mostly scrub brush. The final seven miles were unpaved road — very dusty
unpaved road. This was definitely not tropical rainforest.

At the end of the road we hiked over a hill to a lodge were we were
loaded up with inner tubes, life jackets and “head” lights. Then, laden with
all this stuff, we made a forced march through the jungle for half an hour
in 97 degree weather (this was not the highlight of the experience).

Few things in life have felt as good as plunging into the river at the
end of that hike.

After our body temperatures had returned to two digits, we began our
hour-long float through the cave. It was about twenty feet high in most
places, and about fifty feet wide. After the first turn the darkness
descended quickly, but we could see wherever we looked because of our head
lights. Stalactites and other formations clung in curtains, mostly along the
sides. Overhead were holes where bats hung, although we couldn’t really see
them clearly. At places it was too shallow to float and we had to walk, but
most of the time we chose to swim, as it was easier to maneuver. We would
have liked a little more time to explore, but because of the lateness of our
start we had to hurry.

At the end of our float we found ourselves back where we’d picked up our
gear. The lodge served a delicious al fresco lunch of curried chicken
breast, rice and beans with all the habanera sauce we could eat. The ice
cold bottle of Coke tasted pretty good, too. Then it was time to retrace our
steps back to the ship for an afternoon departure.

At Sea

Easter Sunday, March 27, 2005

Our first holiday at sea in ten cruises. They decorated the atrium with
giant eggs.

I was reflecting on our past cruises:

  • The Norway (formerly The France), US Virgin Islands
  • Big Red Boat, Nassau
  • Costa Victoria, Key West
  • Voyager of the Seas, Jamaica
  • Explorer of the Seas, San Juan
  • Norwegian Dream, Baltic
  • Coral Princess, Alaska
  • Disney, Nassau
  • Star Princess, Mediterranean
  • Coral Princess, Panama Canal

This was certainly the best dining room experience we’ve had on any of
them, and also the best Caribbean itinerary. The Baltic is still the one
with the most interesting ports, Alaska had the best scenery, and the
Mediterranean was the most educational. I’d enjoy a repeat of any of those,
but you’d have to shoot me to get me on Costa again.

Ft. Lauderdale

Monday, March 28, 2005

It seems strange to be traveling home on a Monday.
I had a nice breakfast in the dining room, my first chance to talk with some
of the other passengers. There seemed to be as many different impressions of
the cruise and the ship as there were passengers, from rapturous to grouchy.
Perhaps we each bring our own expectations with us, wherever we travel.

Linda, Dani and I relaxed in the Universe lounge until
9:30, when our disembarkation color was called and we easily collected out
baggage, cleared customs, ransomed our car from the garage and headed home.

Things to remember for next time

A
starboard cabin would be better in every single port. I was pretty sure this
would be the case (come to think of it, that almost always seems to be) but
had no choice.

The Coral Princess remains our favorite ship, because of
the uncrowded feel to its public spaces and its superb dining staff.

Next
time I’ll approach the head waiter in the open seating dining room before
dinner on the first night, and see if I can reserve a table with “the best
waiter” for 8pm throughout the cruise.

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