Today we passed through the Panama Canal, traveling east to west, from the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean. That’s not a typo. The canal actually runs almost north/south, but because of the S shape of Panama, we emerge somewhat west of where we started.
We ascend through two locks at Mira Flores on the Pacific, then one more a mile inland. Fifty miles later we will descend through three more at Lake Gatun, arriving in the Caribbean by mid-afternoon. Each lock transports us up or down by about 27 feet, making the canal a freshwater bridge across the continental divide, 85 feet above sea level.
The entire canal is powered by water, flowing down from the mountains. It flows through the locks, and also generates the power used by the “mules” that tow the boats through the locks. Along the way we observed fresh excavations for a widening that will increase its width from 110 to 180 feet.
In 2014 the Panama Canal celebrates its 100th anniversary.
Miami • Aruba • Panama Canal • Limón, Costa Rica • Grand Cayman
Friday, March 14, 2008
Since Dani was sick for most of our 2005 spring break trip, we decided to repeat much of that itinerary on a different ship. Besides, it was the only cruise that fit into our schedule and didn’t go to all the usual places. And Aruba will be new for us.
We rose early and drove to Miami, arriving before noon. Dani wanted to get a copy of Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride, so after ascertaining that no one in downtown Miami can read (therefore no bookstores) we drove to a Barnes Noble in Coral Gables which happened to be around the corner from a French place we like, Brasserie Halles. A few books and some cheese later we headed for the port where boarding Royal Caribbean’s Brilliance of the Seas was quick and easy.
The ship is more or less the same size as the Coral Princess, it’s width — PanaMax — being defined by the Panama Canal. It’s much smaller than the other Royal Caribbean ships we’ve been on, so we’ll have to make do without the ice skating rink.
We booked two cabins this time, a junior suite for me, and a hovel in the bowels of the ship for Dani. At least it’s an outside hovel. Because Dani is too young to have her own cabin, Linda is theoretically staying there with her. I’m trying to imagine it. . . !
I like the more intimate size of this ship, and it has an interesting asymmetry to it, with glass elevators on one side and a single sided promenade in front of the specialty restaurants, much like on the Coral Princess. The passenger makeup is surprisingly old. I guess all the kids were on the larger Royal Caribbean ship that left port before us.
Susie and Rusty — those traditional Philippine names — were really friendly in the champagne bar, and the food seemed a bit better than on previous Royal Caribbean ships, whose cuisine I’ve rated at the bottom of all the lines we’ve traveled.
Royal Caribbean still uses assigned seating in the main dining room. Out table is shared with a family from Mexico, who seem quite nice. We have a lot of reservations in the specialty restaurants, so we might not see too much of them.
Saturday, March 15, 2008
Brilliance of the Seas is the first cruise ship we’ve been on where passengers can get to the prow. It was very neat leaning over the railing and watching the azure sea vanish beneath the ship.
Dani spotted something skimming over the surface of the waves below us. At first we thought it was a bird, but then we realized it was a flying fish. I had never realized that they really do fly. As long as they’re headed into the wind, it seems they can stay aloft for a half minute or more, and they could easily out pace the ship. Their silver green bodies looked somewhat alien, and their “wings” reminded me of hang gliders.
It was formal night, We had a lovely dinner with our friends from Mexico and then went to a ‘contemporary’ Broadway show. Funny, I’d never regarded Cole Porter as a contemporary. It was actually fascinating to watch the slightly talented cast struggle to stay with the slightly talented musicians as they performed a show designed by a wholly untalented director. As Dani said, “If they’d tried harder, the couldn’t have sucked more emotion out of each number.”
Sunday, March 16, 2008
A lazy day at sea. Although the ship is the same size as the Coral Princess, it seems there’s less to do on board, since they don’t have the ceramics studio or the ScholarShip at Sea educational programs. But it was a good day for reading, writing and relaxing.
Monday, March 17, 2008
Aruba was very different than we were expecting, much more like a desert than a tropical island. An advantage is that it doesn’t get hurricanes, but on the other hand it doesn’t get much rain, either, as a result, there is a lot of sand and cactus, and — incongruously — some really large boulders.
I think this is the farthest south we’ve been in the Caribbean, as we’re only 17 miles off the coast of Venezuela. The island of Aruba is a Dutch colony with an independent government the past few years. The people are descended from natives and Spanish, and speak Dutch, English, Spanish and their own Creole. Despite Dutch being the official language, there was little evidence of it except in street names. Of course, the major industry is tourism, and 75% of the tourists are from the US, so we were well insulated .
To get an overview of the place, we took The Best of Aruba tour, which seemed to be the choice of the old and infirm. Our first stop was at the Casibari rock formations, where a short set of stone steps — and a bit of a crawl through a hole between the rocks– brought us to the top of a really big boulder. The view from there encompassed three fourths of this nineteen by six mile island, but was mostly of sand and Oregon pipe cactus. It was cool crawling through the crack, though.
The next stop was at the natural bridge, which, in quite a natural way, fell down in 2005. There is a smaller one still standing nearby, with a big danger sign next to the giant crack. Most of the tourists seemed to ignore this, though, and stepped right over onto the crumbling outcrop. I mean, it’s too big to fall down, right?
We stopped at Aruba Aloe, a surprisingly tiny factory where they make a wide range of products using — you guessed it — aloe. These products are mostly packages the same two ways, do to the fact that the factory has only two small bottling devices. We learned that aloe is good for cuts, sunburn, dry skin, hair conditioning, stomach ailments, losing weight, age reversal and reducing the national debt — of Aruba, anyway.
Our final stop was a the California lighthouse, so named because it was erected on the spot where a ship named the California wouldn’t have run aground if there had already been a California lighthouse there.
Then about half the group was dropped off at a mall, and the rest of us were dropped off near the cruise ship. This area is called “downtown” although it’s really just a street of tourist shops and government offices, with a lot of noisy traffic. We had a tasty lunch upstairs in an open air restaurant named Iguana Joe’s, and then retreated to the ship.
Overall I was disappointed in Aruba, because I was hoping it would be less the touristy Caribbean port and have more of its Dutch heritage in evidence. I suppose it’s great for beach lovers, but otherwise a three hour visit seemed plenty.
Tuesday, March 18, 2008
A quiet day at sea. The cruising was surprisingly smooth, considering the 7-10 foot seas, but they were coming from the stern, and just seemed to hurry us on.
In the evening we attended the Murder Mystery Dinner Theater, held in the Colony Club and Portofino Restaurant. Six members of the entertainment cast acted out parts in a comedy murder mystery. During dinner we had a chance to interview each character for clues, and then a prize was awarded to one of the guests who had the correct solution. The acting was quite good, and the characters were very entertaining. It was probably the highlight of the onboard experience.
Wednesday, March 19, 2008
We began our approach to the canal about 6:30 AM. Although it turned out we could have taken either side since they were both running the same direction this morning, my selection of a Starboard cabin proved to be the correct choice, and we had a great view of the locks from our balcony. An added bonus was that a US Navy submarine made the transit in the adjacent locks, complete with armed escorts. Pretty cool.
The Internet was down most of the day, which was a bit aggravating since it’s the first day of new ed2go classes, but it came back up in the late afternoon. We docked briefly to pick up passengers on shore excursions, but I skipped the two hour visit to the flea market that’s operated by half naked natives. Linda and Dani bought traditional native goods: carved wood, painted feathers and a bent license plate.
We had a nice dinner at Chops Steakhouse, the nicest restaurant on board.
Limón, Costa Rica
Thursday, March 20, 2008
Today we more or less retraced our steps from a tour three years ago, visiting the aerial tram in the rainforest that’s about two hours west of Limón. This time we stopped for a boat ride along the way. Our 17 passenger flat bottomed boat navigated a mile of twisty canal through jungle, where we saw a sloth, a small crocodile called a caiman, a sloth, monkeys, and a Jesus Christ lizard, so-named because it runs on two legs across water while waving it’s front legs like a girl, just like Jesus.
The rainforest was, indeed, rainy when we arrived, but held off for our glide through the treetops. We had a traditional Costa Rican lunch — rice and beans, of course — before taking a nature walk.
Our guide for the walk was extremely interesting, and pointed out dozens of things we would have missed, accompanied by fascinating explanations. The most interestering were the leaf cutter ants, who carry chunks of leaves back to their nest where they use them to grow a fungus that they eat. On top of some of the leaves are smaller guard ants, whose job is to keep a fly from laying an egg on the leaf. The eggs turn into worms that eat their fungus.
After the walk we boarded the bus for the 90 minute drive back to the port. Even though Limón itself is pretty much a dump, I really like Costa Rica. The people take great pride in their stability, health care and educational systems, and lack of an army. And it’s neat being in a place where anything that falls on the ground grows.
One interesting aspect of Costa Rica is the way addresses work. A typical address might read: “From the church go 400 meters north and turn right. After 200 meteres turn left at the store and it’s the third house on the right with the yellow door. ” Needless to say, mail delivery in Costa Rica takes a long time.
Linda and I had dinner at Portofino, where everyone wanted to know what happened to Dani, who decided to relax and have room service in her cabin.
Friday, March 21, 2008
We went on a very interesting backstage tour of the ship’s theatre today. It gave us a chance to visit the lighting booth, sound booth, stage, and dressing areas, and listen to presentations by technical personnel, stage hands, and performers. I was nice to see Alcorn McBride IO64s in the lighting booth, although the lighting technician didn’t really seem to know what they did. There was also a Richmond Stageman system and two lighting boards. The 52-channel mixer is large, analog, and unautomated.
Dani and I discovered that the best lunch onboard is a the Seaview Cafe, a very small table service restaurant at the back of deck 12. It looks like it was designed to be counter service pizza, but now it has about half a dozen tables. Its obscure location and the fact that it doesn’t open until afternoon keep it from being crowded.
We rejoined our dinner companions in the main dining room for the traditional formal night lobster dinner.
Saturday, March 22, 2008
Today we had the best Caribbean shore excursion ever. Dani and I took the tender to the island and then a van to the far sight, where about forty of use boarded a dive boat. After a 45 minute trip we arrived at Stingray City, a sandbar that is home to hundreds of stingrays. Wading around in the waist deep water, we fed, petted, held and kissed(!) the stingrays for close to an hour. The stingrays really seem to enjoy being held, at least once they’ve been fed.
We learned that the large dark ones are females, and the smaller gray ones are males. The males have a unique characteristic: two “willies,” as our guide put it. I’m not sure why this is useful, but it conjures up some interesting possibilities.
Our second stop was nearby, at the barrier reef, where the coral and fish varieties rivaled those of Australia. The snorkeling was easy in the three to ten foot deep water. Our guide coaxed a moray eel from its hideout, which was pretty exciting. I’d never seen both ends of a moray eel at the same time!
This was the same trip I took three years ago when Dani was too sick to go, but what a difference the guides made! There was so much hand-on time with the stingrays on this outing. The trip was also very professionally photography and videotaped. The photographer made CDs right on the boat, and the videographer edited in music and delivered professional DVDs to the ship before we sailed. If I could only do one outing in the Caribbean, this would be it.
We had dinner in the main dining room. Our friends from Mexico didn’t join us because the grandmother — who has Alzheimer’s — wasn’t feeling well. They didn’t miss much, as almost everything on the menu tonight was fairly awful.
Easter Sunday , March 23, 2008
After several rocky days at sea due to up to 40 knot cross winds, today was very smooth because we had a 5 knot tail wind. We’re averaging over 20 knots to make the 600 miles back to Miami by early tomorrow morning.
This afternoon we attended an interesting presentation by the Captain and Chief Engineer about the operation of the ship. It’s powered by dual turbines spinning at 7500 rpm, which generate many Megawatts of power to drive the two azipod outboard propellers, which can each rotate 360 degrees. The high speed of the turbines explains why there is absolutely no engine vibration on this ship.
The Captain indicated he didn’t think any more cruise ships would be built this way, because although the small size of the turbines allowed them to add 50 cabins, they require fuel that is now more than twice the cost of regular diesel sludge. In fact, the ship is going into dry dock in two months to have a hole cut in the side and a diesel generator added for times when power requirements are low, such as when they are in port.
Monday, March 24, 2008
We arrived in Miami before dawn. Total distance sailed: 3,200 nautical miles.
We disembarked at 8:30 and made great time on the drive home, and were back before 2pm, including a stop for lunch. .
Things to remember for next time
Royal Caribbean food is a rung below NCL and Princess. It also seems like there aren’t a lot of food venues. It’s mostly concentrated in the Windjammer buffet. They seem to be reaching to appear to additional venues: The Solarium Cafe is six saran-covered plates of pre-made sandwiches and a thermos of coffee!
Internet access of this class of ship is poor. The cabin jacks don’t work, and expensive wireless is available only in a few areas.
There’s not a lot to do on the Brilliance of the Seas class if you’re an adult who doesn’t want to lie by the pool or gamble. I miss the Princess art and education programs. The larger Royal Caribbean ships also offer more variety, with their interior main street. .
The entertainment on this ship was mediocre at best, except for the Mystery Dinner Theatre, which was wonderful.
Aft on deck 10 turned out to be a less than optimal cabin location on the Brilliance of the Seas, not because it was aft, but because it was under the Windjammer, with its constantly moving chairs and carts of dishes and dropped silverware. Earplugs were a definite must at night.
Panama, Limon and Grand Cayman are all interesting ports. Aruba is not. It’s a poor exchange for Belize’s cave tubing, which was on our previous itinerary in its place.
Stingray City in Grand Cayman is the best shore excursion in the Caribbean.
Ft. Lauderdale • Limón, Costa Rica • Colon, Panama Grand Cayman • Cozumel, Mexico • Belize
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 sore 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.