2014 Panama Canal Adventure

Road Scholar 20414
via "Horrible Awful Lines"

San Diego, Puerto Vallarta (MEXICO), Huatulco/Copalita (MEXICO), Puerto Quetzal/Antigua (GUATEMALA), Puerto Corinto/Leon (NICARAGUA), Puntarenas (COSTA RICA), Panama Canal (PANAMA), Cartegena (COLUMBIA), Half Moon Fleece-the-Tourist Cay (BAH-HO-HUM-MAS), Fort Loserdale

This is my lucky?/unlucky? 13th trip with Rode Skalur. The number 13 says it all. Hopefully all the problems were "taken care of" (not) on the Williamsburg trip. There are "exclusive Rode Skalur excursions" at each port so there are no optional excursions to buy, but this means we have no choice among the many HAL offerings. The documentation Rode Skalur (definitely not a "scholar") sent was incomplete, listed the wrong ship, had the wrong in-port times, listed Australian currency as used, and had other inconsistencies. Very poor.

Day 1, Saturday, March 29 Arrive in San Diego
One nice thing about this trip: Rode Skalur is giving "free air" included with the package, so I let them make the arrangements, fortunately choosing United Airlines flights so I can choose my seats, and accumulate more "frequent complainer" miles. I'll have to schedule a 6:15AM StuporShuttle pickup for the 9AM flight. For once they were not only on time, but we had a quick pickup of the other 5 riders. Hooray! The forecast for Saturday is good - mid 70's and only a slight chance of showers. For the short flights, I'll stay with the standard aisle seats.

United UA 384Houston - San Diego9:00A - 10:32A3:32

The forecast for San Diego is good: 68F during the day and dry. At least on this trip there won't be any worry about freezing rain and/or snow, and it is too early in the year for HurryCanes. Arrive in San Diego and take the SuperShuttle (in San Diego the service is Super - cheap, quick and easy!) transfer to the hotel: we do it ourselves and then get reimbursed. After arrival at the hotel, it is still "early" and lunch is on our own (#1 of 3). Is there a burger joint nearby? Yes, but it is very expensive as well. I'm trapped.

Join other cattle/participants (contrary to Rode Skalur early info, it is NOT a max group of 48 but much smaller - 17 although the handout says 16) for our program disorientation led by our group leader, Peter Alden. He seems to be very knowledgeable and with great personality. We gather in our meeting room where Peter greets us and introduces everyone. We find out that our schedule is/will be changed (and changed again) and we will be told daily about the next day, discuss responsibilities, and answer any questions we may have. We have a Welcome dinner at the hotel. The hotel has "free" wi-fi but although my computer will connect with the network, it won't actually do anything until about the 5th try in late evening. Lodging: Courtyard San Diego Mission Valley / Hotel Circle (D)

Day 2, Sunday, March 30 San Diego/ wasted morning / transfer to the ship (5PM Departure)
Breakfast (extremely poor) is at the hotel - and not until a very late 8AM. We have a free morning on our own with a 30% chance of lingering overnight showers = light drizzle on our walk and it is only 56F when Peter takes some of us on a walk through the gardens of a nearby resort area to explore the scenery. Lunch is on our own (#2 of 3). It is back to that expensive burger joint. There's not much to see or do anything else. We are just "marking time" until we are allowed to board the cattle barge. About 2PM we load our luggage into the passenger area of a shuttle bus (the doors on the luggage area are broken) and we get crammed into what small amount of space is left in the bus to transfer to the port to board the (Horrible Awful Lines) cattle barge, the MS Veendam. My cell ("cabin" / "stateroom") is a category EE (a small-medium size closet) #728 on A Deck (Deck 4 - the lowest passenger deck) and is supposedly 197 square feet (not). Surprisingly my cell has a window instead of a porthole but it is very hard to get to in order to see anything. Since I am down in "steerage" on deck 4 and the Lido restaurant and Terrace Grill are both on deck 11, thank heavens for elevators!! Dinner is onboard in the Rottendam Dining Room and since apparently the schedule will be changed/updated daily, I'll probably be stuck with having to sit through those awful long dinners (5:15 - 7:30).

I did a Rode Skalur/HAL Caribbean cruise a few years ago. The ship wasn't bad, just huge and disembarkation was a nightmare. It would have been awful except for being in a small Rode Skalur tour group. I'll guess that Wi-Fi access is VERY expensive (minimum 120 minutes at $0.55/minute) and the only internet access is on the (expensive) ship's computers which don't have my trip notes on any of them - so there will be no daily updates to my web site. It will probably be the same on the Vikings cruise on the Eurodam later this year - if I take it. As we leave the port and get out into the ocean, the ship starts noticeable rolling. It is not bad but I'm glad my cell in on a lower deck. (BD)

We had "sailed" from San Diego about 5PM but at 8:30 the Captain announces that we were turning back to the north. A passenger had had a serious accident and it had been determined that we should return north and, with the help of the US Coast Guard, complete the transfer to shore for treatment. About 11:00 I saw that we were still cruising north but just off a populated coast. Then about 11:15 we had stopped and a helicopter was hovering above the top deck to air-lift the passenger from our ship to the Coast Guard ship - the waves were too rough for a small boat transfer. We never did go back into harbor and dock. By about 12:15 we were again cruising south from the San Diego area - "only about 6 or 7 hours behind schedule."


Day 3, Monday, March 31 AT SEA #1 of 6
Once the "excitement" was over, it is boring, just watching the water go by. After breakfast which starts at 6:30, at least we have a Rode Skalur lecture. Once we got a room assignment fiasco straightened out, it is from 9 - 10. Rode Skalur doesn't provide any advance information as to what Peter's lectures will be about but today it was about the western coast of Mexico. Lunch in the Lido isn't until 11:30 so that will be easy to make. We have a Rode Skalur Crocktale party at 4:45 in the "Crows Nest" on the highest deck. Ho-Hum!! Tonight's dinner in the Rottendam is formal dress so I have an excellent excuse not to show up. The other days at sea will overall be about the same as today.

Day 4, Tuesday, April 1 (very) BORED AT SEA #2 of 6
Turn the clocks forward one hour this morning. We are now on Mountain (MDT) time. "April Fool's Day" - who tricked me into taking this cattle barge cruise? After a fairly smooth night of cruising, it gets Boring, as above, and back-to-back days even. Horrors! And there are 4 more of these to go. We do have the Rode Skalur lecture which this time is on Central and Eastern Mexico. At least the room conflict is straightened out. Supposedly there is indeed a ship library, but nobody can seem to tell me where it is other than "somewhere on one of the upper decks, I think." I never found it. After a long boring day with nothing to see or do (except shop or get drunk but I'll "pass" on either of those) or read (but there are no books to read), and no "Crocktale party". Hopefully tomorrow will be better.

Day 5, Wednesday, April 2 Puerto Vallarta, Mexico (8AM - 5PM)
Puerto Vallarta squeezed into the thin space between Banderas Bay and the verdant folds of the Sierra Madre. It is no longer the well-kept secret of the artists, writers and Hollywood stars who first "discovered" it in the 1960s, but "PV" (as it is affectionately known) still retains the essence of the fishing village it once was. Viejo Vallarta, the old town, is a mix of red-tiled buildings, cobbled streets, chic shops and busy open markets. Other highlights include Mismaloya Beach, Gringo Gulch, and Conchas Chinas, the Beverly Hills of Vallarta. Head inland for more adventure, up into the rugged canyons and luxuriant jungles of the mountains. So much for the propaganda - we don't get to do any of that.

We dock about 7:15 and disembarkation begins about 7:45, Finally, about 9:15 after 4 days of virtually nothing, there is supposedly something to see and do! This morning, participate in an exclusive Rode Skalur Excursion. We are off on our first "grand excursion" which turned out NOT to be grand. We are told to be sure to bring our passports so that if questioned, we could prove that we were indeed "Foreign Devils from Yankeeland" here to steal every last peso the poor, honest, hard-working peasants had left. However we must have looked more like the peasants so we didn't get interrogated.

We take an overcrowded zero-leg room micro-ox-cart (MICRO and I do mean MICRO(VAN)) and bounce and rattle and shake our way through some part of town until we get to a nice restaurant. I didn't see anything since after jamming and hurting my knees, I had to sit sideways so I couldn't see out. We have a traditional market presentation within the grounds about the selection of fresh produce and other ingredients to prepare traditional Mexican food, some of which has been declared UNESCO World Heritage. Savor a traditional Mexican meal (beans and rice and more beans) while listening to traditional drastically over-loud Mariachi music noise. The meal did turn out to be very good either.

We then take the ox-cart and shake, rattle, and bounce our way back towards the port where we have a free afternoon (1 hour) to explore the Malecon, the boardwalk at Puerto Vallarta. Overall this turned out to be a bounce and rattle our way to a ONE AND ONLY ONE STOP excursion so that we got to see almost nothing of Puerto Vallarta. On the way back to the ship, Peter took some of us on a guided walk of that area. I was planning to take this but my knees hurt too much after that ox-cart ride for me to walk that far. All I got to see was some pelicans along the shoreline. And so much for getting to see the canyons, jungles and mountains described above. Bah, humbug!!

Summary: Excursion time: 4:30 (bus start to bus stop). We never really saw Puerto Vallarta - just got on that micro-oxcart, went to a restaurant for a short presentation and so-so lunch, then back on the micro-oxcart and back to the ship with a brief stop to watch the pelicans..

Day 6, Thursday, April 3 MORE VERY BORED AT SEA #3 of 6
Boring except for a rhird Rode Skalur lecture. Two travel days, and then three long boring days out of 4 to start the trip - making it 5 out of 6 "down the drain" or make that 6 of 6 with the non-Vallarta excursion. There is just nothing of interest to do - all they offer is endless chances to gamble, to shop for "bargains" or get drunk in the multitude of bars and lounges. Note: yesterday there wasn't even a general PA system announcement about disembarkation. Peter said that they didn't want to wake up the drunks who might get very upset with them. Peter's talks and slides are very good but they are very general and cover lots of area and time without much in the way of specifics. I do wish he spent more time telling us more specifically what we were going to do and see on our next excursion(s). Disappointing.

Day 7, Friday, April 4 Huatulco, Mexico / Village visit (8AM - 2PM)
Everything we ever wanted in a seaside resort: warm sun, sandy beaches and nine beautiful bays rimmed in every shade of blue. Nearby are low-growth caducifolia jungles teeming (not) with birdlife and the nesting grounds of endangered sea turtles (not seen). It is another don't wake the drunks disembarkation, and this time, due to short stop here, it is REALLY a 'mad house'.

This morning, participate in anexclusive Rode Skalur Excursion. Our first stop today is a visit to the Copalita Archaeological Site, where an expert guide explains the history of this area and the fascinating mysteries surrounding the settlement of these people. The "pyramid" here is a rounded pile of rock and mostly dirt about 6-8 feet high. It is nothing like what I've seen on the earlier Mayan tours. The site is on the margins of the Copalita River, known for its incredible nature and bird watching opportunities but although we heard a few, almost none were seen. Lunch is at a local restaurant along a beach but it is gray, not white, due to all the volcanic rock in the area. After lunch we have about 20 minutes to "explore" the small town of Copalita (see the city center park area). It is actually a nice little town. If we are lucky (not) we might even get to see a bird.

It is just a 3-stop excursion (archaeological / lunch / town park) since we have to get back to the cattle barge by 1PM for an early afternoon departure. We never did get to see any of the special weaving being done, as in the pre-schedule from Rode Skalur. It wasn't even mentioned.

Summary: Excursion time: 3:45 but that's with the almost 3 hours of bus ride counted in. Better bus, but the Archaeological Site doesn't nearly measure up to the other Mayan sites I've visited. A 6-8' pile of dirt and rock isn't a pyramid. The little village was nice, but we didn't have enough time there.

At all the ports, the excursions are just too short to get to see much of anything. The time frame is short anyway and since it takes an hour or more to get through the disembarkation madhouse, and the Captain wants us back on board 30 minutes to an hour (almost an hour to be safe), there's JUST NO TIME TO SEE MUCH OF ANYTHING. Voyages to Antiquity did a MUCH better job.

Day 8, Saturday, April 5 Puerto Quetzal, Guatamala / Antigua (10AM - 6PM)
In the cultured little country of Guatemala modern Maya still weave their stories on backstrap looms, and the great stone temples of Tikal stand in silent testament to ancient Mayan ingenuity. It should be a lot cooler (only slightly) and less humid (not) today since we are going inland and up to about 4000' altitude.

Late this morning, participate in an exclusive Rode Skalur Excursion; transfer (transfer time: 1.5 hours drive) to the town of Antigua (which I renamed "count your change" on an earlier trip) and discover the architectural and historical highlights of this colonial city with a behind-the-scenes look at some of the many ruined churches, convents, and cathedrals. The scenery is nice, and many of the buildings are interesting, but "been here, done that" already. Explore the Iglesia San Francisco, the Cathedral, Central Park, and La Merced Church.

Thanks to the totally unorganized, awful push and shove disembarkation process used by Horrible Awful Lines, although we got to the port by 10AM, I/we didn't get to the bus (nicest so far) until a bit after 11. Since it is an 1 ˝ hour drive, we didn't get to "Count Your Change" until about 12:45. We were originally scheduled to have Lunch on our own, such McTaco? Kentucky Fried Beans? Burro Burgers? - or skip lunch and have a late dinner in the Lido Restaurant onboard. However Peter got Rode Skalur to agree to add an included lunch which turned out to be best included lunch of the trip.

We had a short afternoon, what little was left of it, to explore the town on our own visiting the shopping area, markets, or other ruins before returning to the barge. Since I'm NOT shopping, the only thing I did was to have a young boy polish my shoes. He did a great job so I tipped him an extra $1 for the $2 shine. I definitely WON'T take another one of those horse-drawn "carriage ride from Hell" (which should be deleted - can't see anything and the ride is miserable) tours like I did in '08. For the carriage rides, the horses have to have "diaper bags" in a harnessed framework behind them. We can't go back early on our own; there's that 1 ˝ hour drive. Since we have to be back to the cattle barge by about 5:00, we have to leave here no later than 3:20. We finally get back to the ship a just few minutes after 5.

Summary: Excursion time: 5:00 but with a 3-hour bus ride counted in. Despite the long bus ride, Antigua is nice to visit; we did get to see more than I had expected; and we had a nice lunch included. Best day so far. 2nd best of the trip.Summary: Despite the long bus (nice) ride, Antigua is nice to visit; we did get to see more than I had expected; and we had a nice lunch included. Best day so far, 2nd best of the whole trip.

I'll be back here in "Count Your Change" for the 3rd time spending 3 days/2 nights in January, 2015.

Day 9, Sunday, April 6 Corinto, Nicaragua / Leon (8AM - 2PM)
It is a land of rum (we weren't offered any) and volcanoes (we saw one just barely) but not much to see unless we go into the mountains - and we don't do that. Peter says that he wishes Horrible-Awful-Lines just skipped this stop and spent a day at Panama City instead. I agree with him. Only 7 of our 17 went on the excursion; the others were smart and stayed on board.

Puerto Corinto is a small town on the northwest coast of Nicaragua - a region bounded by great lakes to the south, Honduras to the north, and a concatenation of volcanic peaks to the east. The peaks demarcate an area of pristine beaches, fields of sugar cane, and lush mangrove forests. In Corinto, cruise visitors can stroll along the Costa Azul for a view of the bay and its islands (we never saw it - no time). In nearby Chinandega, discover Mayan artifacts at the archeological museum (not visited). Farther afield explore the ruins of León Viejo, excavated from centuries of volcanic debris.

This morning, participate in an exclusive Rode Skalur Excursion. I had to stand in another of those hot, miserable push and shove disembarkation disasters for well over an hour before we managed to escape. This is why I hate this **** ship. They should be much more organized.

We were supposed to take another of those bus rides at 8:30 but didn't get away until 9:20. The transfer to Leon is another of those 1 ˝ hour bus rides. The first city of Leon was built in 1524 by Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba and then abandoned 60 years later after the eruption of the Momotombo Volcano. The ruins of this city are known today as "Leon Viejo" and were declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2000. Arriving at the city we will discover the local charms, churches and monuments, and learn the rich history of the city. We return to the ship arriving about 1:10 for (late) lunch. We had to cut things short due to the morning disembarkation fiasco, and the fact that the Captain changed the departure time for 3PM to 2PM.

Noted along the way during the drive both ways: they have used such an extreme amount of pesticides on the crops that it has killed off all the birds, small animals, etc., and there is even nothing alive and moving on or above the beaches. There is not a sea bird to be seen. It has all been totally sterilized. Soon, if not already, it will start to poison the food and water supply and really "scare off" any tourists.

The rest of the day is the usual at boredom on board. This port of call should definitely have been skipped in favor of a full day in Panama City.

Summary: Excursion time: 4:00 (minus those 3 hours) OK, the bus was better than in Puerto Vallarta but the drive was less interesting than yesterday with virtually nothing to see. We only had one hour in Leon but there wasn't that much to do. Poorest day so far. The only gain - I've never been to Nicaragua before.

Day 10, Monday, April 7 Puntarenas, Costa Rica (8AM - 5PM)
It is hard to throw a stick in Costa Rica and not have it hit a national park. The city of Puerto Caldera, on Costa Rica's Pacific coast, has a number of them within easy reach for cruise visitors. Just to the south, Carara is a mecca for birders, especially those chasing the scarlet macaw. Poas Volcano is inland, and rises to nearly 9,000 feet. See it before it blows again. Barra Honda contains a series of limestone caves. Palo Verde preserves one of the last tropical dry rainforests in Central America. Arenal has the most active volcano in the country. Tapanti contains species of orchids discovered only in 2009. Grab your hiking boots and a pair of binoculars. It is all a feast, wherever you go.

We are delayed docking this very hot, humid morning due to adverse currents. This causes problems with some of HAL's longer excursions.

Participate (not) in an exclusive Rode Skalur excursion. The distinctive scarlet macaw embodies the lure of the vibrant, exotic tropics. I was looking forward to this, but on Thursday (27th) Rode Skalur called and said that they weren't doing this excursion on my trip. Here's what we are (horrors) stuck with as a replacement:

Wilderness Adventure, an exclusive replacement Rode Skalur excursion.: Begin our boring adventure in the big river of Tarcoles. One of the four rivers that ends in the Gulf of Nicoya on the Pacific Ocean, it offers the visitor (yet another boring) opportunity to observe American Crocodiles with sizes over 4 meters long in their natural environment, in addition to more than a 120 different species of birds, resident and migratory. But I've seen Crocs or Gators in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Mexico, Panama, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Brazil, as well as Australia (Northern Territory), Zimbabwe, Botswana, Egypt, and, I think, India. I also learned on the awful Windward Islands trip with Star Crappers when I took a "guided bird-watching" excursion, the guide never showed up since in mid-day the birds all find shady spots to take a siesta so there were no birds to be seen or even heard. It is not worth a hot humid ride in a open boat to see a bunch of crocs. Nor do I want to have to go through another nightmare disembarkation if I can help it.

So I'll skip this excursion and just stay onboard - or at most just go ashore wherever we are docked and walk around the nearby area. Sadly we are docked in port a long way from anything to see or do, so this will be just another long boring day.

Thanks to this morning's delays, our departure is delayed some more (about 30 minutes) waiting for a couple of the HAL excursion busses to make it back. I'm sure they were happy to be back since it has been a very hot, humid day. It is not all that great when they get back into their cells - the wall thermostats have absolutely no effect on the temperature. It is set, not really cool, by the gods above.

Summary: Ho-Hum. I wasn't about to go through another nightmare disembarkation, ride a bus for a while, and take a boat ride in an overside motorboat in hot humid weather just to see Crocs/Gators that I've seen in 11 different countries. A "nothing" day - not even anything to do if I had taken the long walk to shore - but the lunch onboard was good. But it was nicer to stay onboard and be bored that go through all that hassle and be bored.

Day 11, Tuesday, April 8 AT SEA #4 of 6
Turn the clocks forward one hour this morning. We are now on Central (CDT) Time. I had thought during the night that we were rolling a bit more than normal. This morning I found that we were skirting a fairly major thunderstorm on our port (shore) side. The rain continues intermittently through about half the morning - sometimes quite heavy. Otherwise: it is just another of the boring days even with a Rode Skalur lecture but a one-hour talk just doesn't "make the day." There is, however, an excellent presentation on the Panama Canal ("If At First You Don't Succeed") by Charles McClelland. It is in the two-deck-levels Spotlight Auditorium. But it is immediately after Peter's presentation and by the time I got there, the only seats I could find were in the much warmer upper level (a/c is set on warm, and hot air rises) and with almost no view of the stage / speaker / presentation. Very disappointing but a nice talk to hear.

Furthermore, the weather forecast for the rest of the day (correct this time) is for even hotter and more humid weather with more showers this afternoon. I'm glad we're NOT out on an excursion. We didn't find out until after mid-day today when we will actually begin our canal transit. That depends on the canal authorities. We are eventually told that we will enter the waterway and pass under the Bridge of the Americas about about 5:45 which is before dawn - but we are late as usual and don't pass the bridge until about 7:30.

Day 12, Wednesday, April 9 Fuerte Amador, Panama / Panama Canal Balboa to Cristobal (5AM - 7PM)
One of the largest and most difficult engineering projects ever undertaken, the canal had an enormous impact on shipping between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, replacing the long and treacherous route via the Drake Passage and Cape Horn at the southernmost tip of South America. A ship sailing from New York to San Francisco via the canal travels 5,900 mi. well under half the 14,000 mi. route around Cape Horn.

Weather forecast: Drizzle and chance of rain but the rain holds off and it is very hot.

As we get closer to the Canal, over an area stretching for miles, there is a huge number of ships at anchor, probably waiting for their time to pass through the Canal. As we pass through Panama Canal, there is onboard commentary "in English" by a Panamanian canal pilot but it is available only on some of the outside decks and in the Lido Pool area - and the volume is set so low that it is almost unintelligible though they do increase it a bit later. Looking around yesterday, there was no convenient place to take pictures on an open deck looking forward; only to the sides and aft. This morning they opened the bow area, but it turns out to be another cattle scene with cattle 5-10 deep along the railings.

We had a tentative schedule but already being almost two hours late just getting to the Bridge of the Americas, that goes down the drain. We are a good 1 ˝ hours late getting away from the Miraflores Locks; and the same from the Gatun Locks this afternoon. At least I did get to see something new: the land in the middle of the Canal Zone from a ship as opposed to a couple of bus tour photo stops. That made it very interesting. The temperature gets up to 92F by 3:30, than about 4 we get a light shower (more than 10 drops but not a real rain) and it doesn't last long but it does cool the temperature - at least for a short time. About an hour later as we depart the canal area, the winds and waves really pick up. The Captain warns that it is likely to be a rock-n-roll night. There are another big number of ships waiting at anchor on this end of the Canal.

There is no mention of any shore excursion and the HAL web site shows "Cruising Only." At least we are transiting during the daylight hours rather than at night as we did in 2004 with Cruise West. I'm really disappointed in the pictures possibilities and results.

Summary: The "highlight" of the trip was to see the central part of the Canal from the viewpoint of a ship rather than some infrequent photo stops on a bus tour. The commentary turned out to be better than I had thought it might be. One of the three best days of the cruise.

Day 13, Thursday, April 10 Cartagena, Columbia / Intro to Cartagena (Noon - 6PM 9:35 PM)
Privateers loved Cartagena, the chief Spanish port in New Granada (today's Colombia). Sir John Hawkins besieged the city in 1568 and his nephew, Sir Francis Drake, sacked it 18 years later. In response, Spain poured millions into the port's defense, building the fortifications that are today a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The town the walls protected is also part of that World Heritage designation. Cruise visitors can walk those deeply textured alleyways today through some of the best-preserved colonial neighborhoods of the Americas.

After an evening and night with some extra rock-n-roll, we make it to Columbia - but only after I had to go up 7 decks from my cell on deck 4 to breakfast on deck 11. The roll and sway was much more noticeable there. The seas are, so far, much rougher in the Caribbean than in the Pacific - and get worse. I have been looking forward to this as the best of the ports and the most interesting. Contrary to early un-Skalur-ly mis-information however, this is not an all day visit - we are definitely shortchanged, but I guess that it has to be blamed on Horrible-Awful-Lines.

We have an exclusive Rode Skalur excursion. We first have to take a shuttle bus just to get from the ship to the cruise terminal before boarding "our own" tour bus. We do the same in reverse when we return. As a nice surprise, there is a very nice aviary at the cruise terminal with several different kinds of birds for us to see while waiting for our own tour bus.

This was to have been an all day visit with our excursion this morning, lunch on board, then a free afternoon to explore. Instead this is just a half-day excursion (~3 ˝ hour maximum) in the afternooon so there won't be any free time to do our own exploring and very little time for the excursion itself. Drive from the pier (although Cartagena is a seaport city, it is a long way from today's dock area to areas of interest) to the San Felipe de Barajas Fortress. Stop for photos at the fortress, the largest military construction to be built in Latin America by the Spaniards.

We then take a couple of nice walks through the walled city with a local guide who explains the colorful colonial architecture of the old city. Visit the Convent of San Pedro Claver, named in honor of the Spanish born monk who was known as the "Apostles of Blacks:. The tree filled courtyard of the convent houses religious and pre-Colombian artifacts. It was all very interesting. The tour continues on past San Felipe's Fort, built in the 17th century to protect the city from marauding invders. Then continue to the handicraft market of Las Bovedas consisting of 23 old dungeons constructed between 1792 and 1796 by the Spaniards and later used by the miltary for storage. We have 15 minutes there to see the local artisian displays before returning to the pier. Excursion time: 1:05 - 4:40. Summary: Definitely the best of the 6 on-shore excursions. The city was very interesting and we had a good guide. It is too bad we had to do it in the heat of the day, however and then were deprived of the originally scheduled afternoon to explore on our own.

About an hour after we get back on board the Captain announces that we have thus far been unable to finish refueling and to make sure that we get enough, sailing is delayed from 6 to 9PM or so. We finally have enough fuel to not run out during a possible eraly season hurricane in the area between the Bah-ho-hum-mas and Fort Loserdale, and we pull away from the dock at 9:35.

Summary: Excursion time: 3:30. Definitely the best of the 6 on-shore excursions. The city was very interesting and we had a good guide. It is too bad we had to do it in the heat of the day, however and then missed the originally scheduled afternoon to explore on our own. For the limited, short-changed time we had, they did a very good organization of the tour. #1 excursion of the trip.

For all practical purposes, the trip is over at the end of the tour today and there are now about 86 boring hours to kill before we can escape the cattle barge. From here on, I'm just on count-down to getting home. The next 4 days are: 2 days "at sea", one wasted day at a commercial (fleece the tourists) stop in the Bah-ho-hum-mas, then one for the flight home. There is nothing to look forward to except just getting home.

Day 14, Friday, April 11 BOREDOM (seasick?) AT SEA #5 of 6
Turn the clocks forward one hour this morning; we are now on Eastern (EDT) time. We left the Cartagena docks at 9:35 last night. The weather conditions were reported as seas of about 4 meters and wind up to 40-50 knots. The tops of waves were breaking just below, or on, my window on deck 4. Deck 3 is the disembarkation deck, either pier or tender, so I'm normally well above the waterline.

Between 2 - 3AM, the weather proved the forecasts were wrong. The wind picked up to 60-70 knots with higher gusts, and the waves were in the 10-12 meter range There was very significant pitching and rolling with waves frequently breaking on or even above my window and it always had lots of water ruuning off. This was in part because the ship often seemed to be leaning/listing to port due to the wind and currents, and my cell is on the port side. The rolling continues throughout the day with frequent crashes of waves colliding with the ship which frequently "shudders" at major impacts. It does start to slack off slightly about noon but for the entire day people are not allowed to go out on the open decks - and nobody is stupid enough to risk the tsunami waves in the pool.

This morning, not many people are up and around, the the crew has "seasick/barf" bags out at several places in the corridors. On Rock-N-Roll deck 11 for breakfast, there are whitecaps on the pool - (what little waater hasn't already sloshed out almost "flooding" the area around the pool. Carrying our selected breakfast items to a table to eat is an "adventure." No, I don't get seasick.

Otherwise it is just another Boring day except for a Rode Skalur lecture which doesn't really do all that much for the day. We are just "marking time" with little to look forward to except finally arriving in Fort Loserdale and abandoning ship.

Day 15, Saturday, April 12 AT SEA #6 of 6
About midnight the weather / waaves started really calming down and by 6AM there were no more whitecaps on the pool. Access to outside decks is now permitted, but I noticed that all the deck railings and the frames of all the deck chairs are all heavily coated with sea salt. The calm may be due to the fact that we are currently in the somewhat sheletered passage between Cuba and Haiti/Dominican Republic. Otherwise, Boring, and again, another back-to-back boredom schedule, and all we get tomorrow is Half Moon Fleece-the-Tourists Cay - owned in total by Horrible Awful Lines. We get only the last Rode Skalur lecture.

Day 16, Sunday, April 13 Half Moon (aka "Fleece the Tourists") Cay, Bah-ho-hum-mas (8AM - 3PM)
We wake up to a gloomy overcast morning made more gloomy by the fact this is not only a wasted day, but we even have to TENDER in to shore. There is some rain at first which finally clears up and the weather turns hot and extremely humid. The very boring Half Moon (aka "Fleece the Tourists") Cay offers everything you need for a day of boredom and getting "fleeced" by HAL on our Caribbean cruise. For a bunch of $$, you can park yourself in an only-if-any-breeze-conditioned cabana along a two-mile crescent of white beach. Part of the Bahamas, Half Moon Cay lies about 100 miles southeast of Nassau and is visited on nearly every Horrible-Awful-Lines Caribbean itinerary to give them yet another chance to "Fleece the Tourists". There is almost nothing to be seen from the ship. This isn't really the well-known and popular Bahamas; we never get to see any of that.

Instead of the nightmare mob scenes we have had for all our earlier disembarkations, this is just the opposite: a bare trickle of people wanting to go ashore and get fleeced. It picks up slightly later, but not by much. There are no lines at all. We have a group excursion but based on my notes from the 2012 trip (below) I'll just skip it and stay onboard. Other in our group did the same along with many other people onboard. Maybe the "Fleece the Tourists" reputation is spreading. I have no plans that will subject me to having to stop here again. We do have an afternoon group meeting - sort of a tour/cruise wrapup. Eventually we go on to Fort Loserdale and the flight home. At least it is a direct flight.

Notes from the 2012 torture session here: At 8:30, we are supposed to board a glass bottom boat to view marine life and listen to a lecture about the Marine life of the Islands. The clear waters provide great (ha!) visibility (assuming we could see anything from the boat), and an opportunity to see the coral formations and colorful tropical fish (if we could see any through the slime on the bottom of the viewing wells). Due to both the late arrival of the ship and delay in getting customs clearance, we miss that time and have to wait for the 9:30 cruise. To use the hour, Marylin gives us a walk-around orientation and we visit a local chapel and learn about some of the vegetation. After the boat cruise (very plain, basic boat with limited viewing - very poor deal) we have a 1˝-mile walk on a sandy gravel path (service road) through this tropical paradise scrub brush, viewing tropical palms and sea grape trees and an occasional flower planter box.

Having wasted time wandering around, we then have a nice BBQ very poor hamburger lunch at about 11:30. It was so poor that I threw most of it in the trash and went back to the ship for lunch. This allowed me to escape the Fleece-the-Tourist area by returning to the ship well before the last tender at 2:30.

Half Moon "Fleece the Tourist" Cay: The cruise line owns the entire island (lock, stock, and cash-registers) so it is a 100% Fleece-the-Tourist exercise. This was originally an uninhabited sand spit that the company leased (99 years) and built a totally artificial environment with the sole purpose of taking even more money from their passengers. There are only 45 permanent "residents" here who are confined in a long barracks / dormitory. When a ship is due, they get up, turn on the lights and spruce up the place. The souvenir stands are opened, usually by Bahamans from other islands who also cook up some slop to feed the "visitors". When the ship leaves, every thing closes down and all but the permanent prisoners (who have to go back to their barracks) go home until the next ship arrives. There are no hotels or provisions for housing visitors. It is only to give HAL another chance to get more money from their cruise herds.


Day 17, Monday, April 14 Fort Loserdale / Departure (7AM)
Hallelujah! Freedom! Houston weather forecast: yesterday was showers, today temps range from 47-73 with RAIN. When we left Fort Lauderdale, the Houston temperature was 79; halfway through the flight it was down to 60 in Houston. Fort Loserdale again - ho-hum on that part! But at least the cruise is finally over. Breakfast started at 5:30 so I did have a chance to eat a quick continental breakfast. We are provided a Rode Skalur transfer from the ship to the airport in Fort Loserdale. Peter arranged for an "expedited departure" and we had to have ourselves and our bags at the gangway exit (one deck up) at 7:15 and the bus was supposed to be here at 7:30 but didn't get here until 8:30. At least we missed yet another horrible disembarkation and get off and away before the rest of the 1300 cattle stampede. Since it is not a "HAL scheduled departure" we have to haul our own luggage all the way from our cells, through Customs and Immigration, to the bus that will take us to the airport where it is beginning to rain.

United UA 1123Ft Loserdale - Houston11:30A - 1:20P 1:43P3.13

The last 20 or so minutes of the flight were rough. We were arriving in the front edge of a major wind/rain/cold front. It was in the upper 40s by the time we got here. I did make it home by 3:30 though. It's still raining and is supposed to get much cooler/cold? tonight and also cooler tomorrow.

Short summary in best-worst order:
1) Cartagena - nicest of the excursions and considering the time available, very well spent.
2) Panama Canal - interesting to see, from the ship, the landscape mid-canal between the locks.
3) Antiqua - despite being my 2nd visit here and the bus ride, still rates as #2 excursion.
4) Huatulco/Copalita - 6' pile of dirt = a pyramid?? Copalita village was nice but only a short visit.
5) Leon - Dusty village, long bus ride, only 1 hour there but it was enough. Pesticides killed off all wildlife.
6) Vallarta - Horrible micro-ox-cart ride, saw nothing of the town, just some pelicans. So-so lunch.
7) Costa Rica - there's the horrible disembarkation, the long bus ride, and the heat just to see crocs. SKIPPED.
8) Fleece the Tourists Cay - NEVER AN OPTION - planned to skip even when I booked.

Selected pictures
Click to enlarge

Puerto Vallarta
Huatulco / Copalita
Antigua
Corinto / Leon
Puntarenas
Canal
Cartagena


M/S Veendam


Veendam, "recently renovated" but reportedly headed back into dry-dock at the end of this cruise, provides an onboard experience rivaled by no other ship on the ocean (HA!!) but we are stuck with it. Distinguished by a $2 million art and antique collection (ho-hum), teak decks, comfortable and spacious (HA!!) staterooms (cells), this ship will make our cruise memorable / miserable??

Dining / Food on Veendam Experience fine dining on Veendam with many options for a meal: The RottenDam Dining Room offers five-course meals. The Lido Restaurant (my choice) is a relaxed environment for every meal of the day. Meals are good with a wide selection and it was changed daily. The Terrace Grill is an excellent "fast-food" alternative. The Lido Buffet meals on the upper deck (breakfast, lunch, and dinner) are preferred rather than have to sit a long time in the RottenDam Dining Room.

The Lido Restaurant serves breakfast from 6 AM to 11 AM, lunch from 11:30 AM to 2 PM, snacks from 2 PM to 5 PM, and dinner from 5:30 PM to 8 PM. Although the restaurant is set up buffet-style, most of the hot food is not self-service. The Terrace Grill is open from 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. and serves up hamburgers, veggie burgers, grilled chicken, hot dogs and sausage. Also open from 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. is the new Slice pizza counter in the Retreat (though its hours may be extended in warmer cruising regions).

A mandatory $12/day charge for "tips" is automatically added to your onboard bill. It is NOT optional - and is over and above the listed cruise price. GRITCH, GRITCH, GRITCH.

Veendam DAMveen Comments

1 DISEMBARKATION: Totally disorganized (make that TOTALLY UNORGANIZED), horrible long waits in massive push-and-shove lines in hot (no a/c) hallways. AWFUL!!!! This is reason enough NEVER to book another Horrible-Awful-Lines trip but I am stuck with the one that is already booked - Vikings Passage on the EuroDAM - unless I can manage to cancel out of it. NEVER AGAIN!!

2. Mechanical - the toilets didn't always work (flush), nor the elevators which often were out of operation, wouldn't go to some random deck or were stalled at some deck or other. The cabin thermostats had no effect on cabin temperature. Several times hot water wasn't available for showers.
3. Food / Lido - often selections listed on the menu weren't available, or were "behind schedule" and only available later.
4. Water - no water fountains - to get a glass of (or any) cold water, it is necessary to go to the Lido Restaurant.
5. Accounting - charged for two lunches in the Pinnacle Dining Room that I didn't do; in effect, stealing $10 for each.
6. Library - Never found the ship library

I took a Rode Skalur/HAL Caribbean cruise in March, 2012. Here are ship comparisons and comments from that trip.

Comments re my 2012 Rode Skalur Caribbean trip with HAL:

1. Our Rode Skalur Tour Leader was very good with excellent presentations. Also RS gave us (included) quite a bit to see and do though I could have changed a couple of the activities to something else that HAL offered.
2. The narrow cabin (not a "stateroom") had all the ammenities shown but the picture was misleading as to the width - much more narrow and cramped than I expected.
3. The food onboard was very good with the best place to eat all meals being the Lido Buffet up on Deck 9. Never mind the fancy Dining Room. Thank heavens for elevators.
4. As expected, the long times between shore excursions were extremely boring.
5. The stop at Half-Moon Cay (renamed "Fleece the Tourists" Cay, could easily be deleted with absolutely no loss, in fact, making for a more enjoyable cruise.

SHIP COMMENTS (Zuiderdam)

The ship is very nice as would be expected considering what we had to pay for the cruise. However this isn't enough for HAL Almost all the onboard activities are geared to take more money from the passengers. The onboard activities/entertainment are mostly designed as a) sales pitches for overpriced merchandise in the many shops - even a package of Pringles was priced $6.95; b) sales pitches for the shore excursions; c) sales pitches for upcoming (future) cruises; d) sales pitches for various health/spa treatments; e) sales pitches to encourage us to visit the casino; f) sales pitches for "special auctions"; and g) even the technology/computer sessions which might have been of interest, required the purchase of computer time on the ship's computers. There are numerous bars (often several on a given deck) and lounges selling (not complimentary) drinks for inflated prices. There was some "entertainment" available, but nothing of interest to me. Disembarkation at various ports varied between nightmare and (censored).

LARGE SHIPS COMPARISON

Descriptor2011-13
Aegean Odyssey
- Multi
2012
Zuiderdam
Caribbean Cruise
2014
Veendam
Panama Canal
2014
Queen Mary 2
America
& D-Day
Cattle capacity
378
1916
1350
2620
Crew
180
817
580
1253
Length
461'
936'
720'
1132'
Beam
67'
106'
122'
135'
Speed
18 knots
24 knots
22 knots
30 knots
Cattle decks
5
11
10
13