Panama Canal Cruise April/May 1999
Noordam in Zihuatanejo, Mexico
This was our second cruise - both on Holland America Line. We had taken a Veendam Big Band Cruise to the Western Caribbean in March 1999, one that we totally enjoyed. Having taken many land tours with the constant packing and unpacking at each new location and the 6:00 AM bags-outside-the-room routine, one Holland America cruise made us instant cruise advocates. There is no other way that travelers can bring their hotel, restaurants, nightclub, lounges and dance floors along from one location to another. We immediately found that unpacking and repacking only once during an entire vacation was a very pleasant change, one to which we readily and appreciatively adapted.
The Panama Canal Cruise was a delayed celebration for Carolyn's retirement from working life at the Library of Congress. The prospect of a 16-day cruise through the Panama Canal to San Francisco prior to the Canal's administrative transfer to the Panamanian government was too tempting to pass up. During our Veendam cruise, dinner companions Clay and Doris Pioth had offered a number of tips assembled from cruises which they had taken. Among those very helpful items were two which we applied to the Canal Cruise. The first suggestion, "read David McCullough's book, The Path Between the Seas; The Creation of the Panama Canal - 1870-1914," was an excellent one which we should have applied immediately upon finishing the Veendam cruise. The book gives a fascinating and very informed history of the Canal, one requiring time to read, enjoy and assimilate. In 619 well-written pages, McCullough documents the near impossible struggle to design, promote and complete an engineering marvel. I was halfway through "Pathway" just before we entered the first lock, and finished several days later.
Another of their suggestions was to see how many people we could meet and get to know during a cruise. In following this suggestion, we met a number of very interesting people, shared travel, family and personal interest experiences, and greatly enhanced our enjoyment of the Canal Cruise.
Flying into Fort Lauderdale, we noticed that the ocean around the harbor was rough and a number of cruise ships had not yet docked. Shortly after we landed, we heard that Holland America's Noordam had experienced rough seas the last day of the previous cruise, was late arriving at Fort Lauderdale, and would be even later since the ship was waiting to dock. Instead of going from the airport to the ship embarkation point, we were taken to a large ballroom at a nearby hotel where we waited for 3 hours while the previous passengers were disembarked. We were then bused to the embarkation area in staged groups; we waited another 2 hours until our embarkation number was called. The embarkation situation would have been swiftly corrected had Holland America disembarked the previous cruises' passengers and their luggage into the Port Everglades Harbor, a not altogether satisfactory solution for those passengers. I don't believe that Holland America Line should be held responsible for acts of nature beyond the Line's control. The crew handled the disembarkation and our subsequent embarkation as rapidly as possible. The late embarkation, a very minor inconvenience for the majority of passengers, was a favorite topic among a small group of complainers for the first two days of our cruise; fortunately, the talk dissipated quickly as the cruise progressed.
The Noordam and its sister ship, the Nieuw Amsterdam, are the oldest (1984 and 1983) and smallest (1,214 passengers, 33,930 gross registered tons) ships in the Holland America fleet. Since this was only our second cruise, we have only the Veendam (1996, 1,266 passengers, 50,000 gross tons) with which to compare. Though the Noordam is 12 years older, it is remarkably well maintained with near constant vacuuming and cleaning. Daily touch up painting and the wet paint signs in the cabin and public areas prompted a show comedian to say that he thought he was on the ms Wet Paint. The Noordam has the same understated elegance of the Veendam, with well-planned and tasteful displays of antiques, art and artifacts. The interior has a very pleasing, comfortable feeling derived from the natural woods, polished brass, earth tone décor, and lovely floral arrangements throughout the ship.
The Noordam had a more intimate, cozy feeling than the Veendam, not totally related to its smaller size, one fewer passenger deck (9 decks), and 52 fewer passengers. It seemed easier to learn the floor plans and to negotiate the ship, bow to stern and Sun Deck to C Deck. The Noordam had five lounges, each with a wooden dance floor (see Dancing section). The lounges varied in size from the large, two-tiered Admiral's Lounge, the medium size Piet Hein Lounge, the dark Horn Pipe Club disco lounge, the small Tasman Terrace Lounge on the upper deck of the Admiral's Lounge, and the Crow's Nest Lounge on the Sun Deck, with great views and a marvelous pianist. Public rooms also included: a large auditorium and movie theater; a pleasant though small library with two elegant writing desks and a small collection of fiction and non-fiction; a large card room; several duty-free shops; a one-level, pleasant dining room; a cafeteria-style Lido restaurant on the Promenade Deck; a coffee/tea bar; an ice cream bar; two swimming pools; tennis and volleyball courts; a beauty salon; a health spa; a small gym; an infirmary; and a casino. We preferred the two-tiered dining room on the Veendam, a much more open, pleasant dining and viewing space than the one-level Noordam dining room, typical of older ships. We also preferred the roomier, better appointed Veendam library. It was quieter and a better area in which to curl up, relax, write a letter or a postcard, read a good book or stare out the windows both on port and sea days. Early on in the cruise, we discovered two events that eluded us on the Veendam cruise: coffee, tea and cookies/cakes served in the Explorer's Lounge every morning (sometimes in the afternoons as well), and the tea with petit fours and cookies each afternoon in a designated lounge. We could easily get accustomed to that daily regimen, with exercise and dancing to burn off the calories.
The Noordam was two better than the Veendam in the chocolate dessert extravaganza department. The Noordam had a Dutch afternoon tea complete with many chocolate creations on the first week at sea. During the second week, there was an afternoon dance during which coffee (with choice of liqueur) and chocolate dessert (there it is again) were served. Near the end of the cruise, a third chocoholic's delight, a late evening chocolate dessert extravaganza began with a viewing and photo opportunity session at 10:30 PM, followed by the ritual pigging out of the creations from 11:00 PM until passengers waddled away after midnight. The chocolate desserts were all so lovely that it seemed a shame to hack them up and consume them, particularly late at night. These events really remind one of the requirement for diet and exercise; the Ocean Spa provided counseling in both areas.
The first Monday night of the cruise and the last night from Los Angeles to San Francisco, we experienced large swells and considerable lateral movement, again testing our propensity for seasickness. With our cabin on the Sun Deck, every sway and swell was amplified; we again got through the rough seas with no problem at all while popping Ginger Trips chewable ginger wafers. Whereas the wrist bracelets worn by many passengers may provide more psychological than physiological support, we will continue to carry several bottles of Ginger Trips on future cruises - they work for us.
The first night onboard, we checked out all of the lounges, looking for dance floors. The good news was that there were five dance floors on the Noordam, and all were wood, not marble. The bad news was that, with the exception of the show lounge dance floor in the Admiral's Lounge which was moderately large by ship standards, the floors were small to very small. During the next two days, we found that the small, round dance floor in the Piet Hein Lounge was the primary floor for dancing on the ship. We also found that there were four dance hosts on the ship who must have had an obligation to dance every dance with one of the women in the Lounge. They were out on the floor every night, every dance, every *&!*# time that we wanted to dance. [The dance hosts were minimal dancers, using primarily a two step or shuffle for fox trot and waltz, and night club rhythm dance, and swing for cha cha, mambo, rumba, and samba.]
The Piet Hein floor was a 13 foot diameter wooden circle [133 square feet]. The floor accommodated 8 couples with wiggle room for dancing, 10 couples maximum in very crowded mode. We soon found that an approximate 8 foot by 12 foot (96 square feet) carpeted area at one end of the floor was the least congested dance (sort of) area. We staked out a claim on the carpeted area and used it a great deal during the cruise when the dance floor became overfilled, which it did every night before and after dinner. Unfortunately even the carpeted area became overcrowded less than a week into the cruise. The Heritage Quartet, an excellent musical group, played every night (5:00-6:00 PM; 7:15-8:15 PM, and 9:00 PM - 12:30 AM). I admit that we didn't try dancing every night after the Admiral's Lounge show (generally the late show), and late at night presented the best opportunity to dance using the dance floor rather than the carpet.
Two dance floors can be removed from the list of five for persons interested in ballroom dancing. The 13 foot diameter wooden circle dance floor in the Crow's Nest is not used for dancing (though it could be). An excellent pianist, George Cuba, plays each night in the Crow's Nest, but his sometime-irregular beat is not an easy one for dancing as he readily admits. Also any motion of the ship in rough waters is amplified on the Sun Deck. The combination of an occasional irregular beat and a sometime-unstable floor discouraged our few attempts to dance in the Crow's Nest.
The Horn Pipe Club has a small, irregular-shaped dance floor, basically 15 feet by 7 feet (14 feet at one wide point, for an approximate total of 145 square feet) that is used almost exclusively for DJ disco dancing. The Horn Pipe Club is a dark place during the day, and darker with low lights at night. One night we went to the Horn Pipe with the hope of dancing. A young couple was discoing, using the entire floor for a dance that included leaping, kicking, and swooping around one another from one end of the floor to the other. It looked like a primitive mating dance; perhaps it was. Four ballroom dance couples would more than take up the small floor. If disco dancers jumped, twisted, and whatever else they do in place, the floor might accommodate 10 or more couples.
The Admiral's Lounge show room wooden dance floor is moderately large by cruise ship standards. It is hexagonal in shape, basically 25.5 feet long by 19 feet at the widest point of the hexagon (368 square feet). During the 16-day cruise, the dance floor was used only four times for dancing, one hour each time, and four times for dance lessons by the crew, two line dance lessons and two ballroom dance lessons. [We missed the daily dance lessons that Fred Long and Patricia Stranahan had provided on the Veendam cruise. We are still trying to remember all of the great dance steps which they taught on that cruise.] The problem in using the dance floor for dances lies with the show time schedules. There is entertainment every night with two shows each night. Second dinner seating passengers sometimes were scheduled for the late show and sometimes for the early show. The band would have to be paid for any additional hours if dancing were provided before or after the shows. There would have to be passengers' insistence to raise the possibility of more dancing in the Admiral's Lounge.
There is a very small dance floor (104 square feet) in the Tasman Lounge, on the upper level of the Admiral's Lounge. We didn't seriously consider trying to dance in the Tasman Lounge, though it might be a possibility whenever the Admiral's Lounge dance floor was in use and crowded. At least you could hear the dance music in the Tasman Lounge, and as long as an overflow dance crowd from the lower floor didn't discover the Tasman dance floor, 2 couples (3 maximum) could dance if they kept their steps very small.
Food and Service
Holland America Line is noted for its excellent food and service. The Noordam was definitely not an exception to that rule. Both food and service rated a solid "9" (9 is HAL's highest rating; if HAL used a 1 to 10 scale, we would have rated the service a much deserved solid "10"). We already noted that we preferred the Veendam's lovely and open two-tiered dining room to the Noordam's one level dining room. That said, there was no discernible difference in either food or service on the two ships - each was wonderful on both ships. Noordam's cooks did a masterful job in the preparation and presentation of all courses at each meal. Our dining room steward, Binton, and assistant dining room steward, Joko, contributed substantially in making each dinner a very pleasant event. Their excellent, professional and friendly service complemented well the marvelous food.
We began the cruise not knowing any of the other 1,212 passengers. We requested a table for six. The selection of dinner companions for 16 nights was the luck of the draw, and we were indeed fortunate. Chuck and Fern Steeple (San Mateo, CA) and Dan and Cynthia Ascher (New York City) made our dinner experience an extremely pleasant one. We enjoyed each night's conversation as we learned about their families and interests, sharing our family background and experiences with them. We saw them on the ship and in port during the day, and got to know the Steeples and Aschers quite well. We had a very nice visit with the Steeples in San Mateo after the cruise.
Ahmad, our Cabin Steward, provided the same high level of service as Binton and Joko. No matter how disheveled the room was when we left it, we came back to an orderly, clean room with fresh fruit during the day and a turned down bed with HAL chocolates on the pillows each night. One Piet Hein Lounge Steward, Jessie, made our dancing experience very pleasant, recognizing us by name each night, bringing our favorite drinks and delicious hors d'oeuvres, and making us feel genuinely welcome. An important contributor to the cruise experience was Farhan, who served pastries and rolls each morning in the dining room, greeted us each evening for dinner, and served after dinner mints and ginger as we left the dining room. We enjoyed the conversations with Binton, Joko, Ahmad, Jessie and Farhan each day on the cruise. They seemed genuinely interested in making our cruise experience a very pleasant one, and they were very successful in doing just that. Each steward whom we met on the ship seemed helpful, courteous and friendly.
The highlight of the cruise was the 10-hour trip through the Panama Canal, from Cristobal on the Atlantic Ocean side, through the Gatun Locks, Gatun Lake, the Pedro Miguel Locks, Miraflores Lake, and the Miraflores Locks to Balboa and the Pacific Ocean. It is difficult to imagine the immense effort that went into the planning and construction of the Canal. David McCullough's book mentioned above does a phenomenal job of pulling together the many players and intrigues that comprised the Canal's planning, development and construction. He presents a compelling picture of the events and the players, including Ferdinand and Charles de Lesseps, Philippe Bunau-Varilla, Gustave Eiffel, William Nelson Cromwell, Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, John F. Stevens, Senators Mark Hanna and John Tyler Morgan, George W. Goethals, William C. Gorgas, and David D. Gaillard.
The French began construction of the Canal in 1880, and abandoned that construction in 1900. A 1903 Treaty between Panama and the United States and the purchase of the French Canal Company in 1904 led the way to U.S. resumption of the construction with completion of the Canal in 1914. To say that the Canal is awe-inspiring or a marvel of engineering does not do it justice. We only began to appreciate the work involved and the engineering developed during construction as we experienced the traverse through the Canal.
The sight and operation of the locks (110 feet wide and 1,000 feet long), the ease in raising and lowering of huge cruise and cargo ships, the assistance of the electrical rail cars ("mules") in literally pulling the ships through the Canal Locks, and the sight of gigantic cuts in the earth do produce a sense of wonderment not only that the work was completed but that the Canal operates so efficiently. The first ship tested the Canal Locks on 15 August 1914. Treaties between Panama and the U.S. in 1979 established the Panama Canal Commission, and the phased control of the Panama Canal to the Panamanian government. On 31 December 1999, the U.S. will transfer the Canal to Panama. Carolyn and I are pleased that we have seen and experienced the Panama Canal, a truly remarkable and historic engineering achievement.
Half Moon Cay was the first of eight ports on the cruise. We had been to Half Moon Cay 4 weeks earlier on the Veendam cruise. For snorkelers, para-sailers, and beach enthusiasts who want to work on a non-carcinogenic tan (if there is such a thing), Holland America's private island has much to offer. It is also a relatively unspoiled, secluded island with only a small portion developed for cruisers. We would welcome the beach for walks in the early morning, but that was not an option. We tendered over to buy stamps and were back on the ship soon afterward.
Cartagena, Colombia. There were several interesting and picturesque stops on a bus tour of Cartagena, including La Popa Monastery and Fort San Felipe. Cartagena is an historic and not particularly well-maintained city dating back to 1533 when it was a port for shipment of gold and emeralds to Spain. We had been warned about the ever-present, pushy street vendors; they did not disappoint with their aggressive sales manner and seeming inability to understand the word No. Theirs is a culture in which bargaining and haggling are the norm, with the first refusal leading to a reduced price and further haggling.
Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala, the ship's port, was not our destination for the day. Instead, we took the relatively expensive optional excursion to Tikal, the Mayan ruins in northern Guatemala. We and 68 other cruisers saw Puerto Quetzal from a bus window as we drove to the military airbase for a 40-minute plane ride on Aviateca's Boeing 737 to Santa Elena where we boarded a bus for a 1-hour trip to Tikal. The trip was well worth the 10 hours spent traveling to, in and from the Tikal site. Not all of the ruins have been uncovered, but those that have been give a good indication of the original 25 square mile 600 BC city that reached a population of over 100,000 Mayan Indians by 900 AD shortly before their unexplained disappearance. This trip is for cruisers in relatively good health who are able to walk 5+ miles in rough, hot and humid jungle terrain. We enjoyed every mile of the entire excursion.
Huatulco, Mexico. Rough waters prevented tendering to Huatulco until mid-afternoon. We opted to relax onboard the ship. Two passengers wished, I'm sure, that they had done the same. An onboard story had it that the two were whisked to the ship on a small skiff as the ship began to sail for the next port, were taken aboard by rope ladder, and fined for their extended stay on shore. Once the ship casts off, it can not return to dock, or it would be subject to additional port taxes.
Acapulco, Mexico is a large and busy coastal resort city with many beaches, many attractions, and a number of 5-star resort hotels. Mexico's push to capitalize on tourism was never more evident than in Acapulco. During a city tour, we saw many shops, many lovely resorts including a stop at the Princess Hotel, and saw the cliff divers on the west coast of the city. The street vendors were again very apparent, though not quite as aggressive as those in Cartagena. It is unfortunate that so many must depend upon street vending for their livelihood, particularly the children who become involved at an early age. It is also unfortunate that tourists are besieged by the vendors at every stop of a city tour. The ship left Acapulco at 11:00 PM during a sail away party in the Lido pool area. Watching the lighted city as we danced and resumed the cruise was an extremely lovely sight. Dancing on deck is a tricky experience. Between the teak deck boards is a rubberized base that tended to slow down dance steps in mid-motion. Dancing parallel to the deck boards works for most dance steps. Dancing at right angles to the boards is definitely not recommended.
Zihuatanejo. Of all the ports, Zihuatanejo was the one that we most enjoyed. Only a few years ago, it was a sleepy fishing village between Acapulco and Puerto Vallarta. Although tourism is beginning to change the village, it is still relatively unspoiled and is still pursuing fishing as its economic base, along with tourism. The shops display quality native crafts, not the usual tourist junk. The store owners are friendly and helpful. The town has an unhurried, very pleasant atmosphere, one that we thoroughly enjoyed. Ixtapa, a commercially developed resort five miles away from Zihuatanejo, may keep the tourists at bay. We chose to spend all of our shore time at this port only in Zihuatanejo.
Puerto Vallarta is not as large as Acapulco, and it is not as commercially developed. We seemed to be able to get around in town without being bothered by street vendors. The beaches are as lovely as those in Acapulco, and the hills are lined with expensive condominia, resorts and large 5-star hotels. Tourism is important to Puerto Vallarta; fortunately, they don't try to beat you over the head with it. We found many nice shops, and an Internet Café where we read a number of 1 to 10+ day old e-mail messages. We had some difficulty accessing the e-mail service provider; the Café charged us only for half the time we spent on the net.
Cabo San Lucas. On the southern tip of the Baja peninsula, Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo, two cities of 20,000 each, are very pleasant places to visit. We took a bus tour that included both cities and a 5-star resort in between. Although tourism is apparent, both cities still have the atmosphere of Zihuatanejo, with many interesting sights and local Indian crafts. There are many condominia and large resorts under construction, not boding well for the future slow-paced, non-commercial atmosphere that we found.
At the end of the tour, we decided to have lunch in Cabo San Lucas. We went to the Giggling Marlin, one of the recommended restaurants. An unexpected dining companion, a pet rooster, spent the entire meal near our table. We have eaten with cats and dogs in restaurants in Italy, but a pet rooster is a first for us. We tossed several tortilla chips into a courtyard area to entice him away from our table. We gave up after the fourth chip when he came back each time looking for more chips, and accepted him as our luncheon companion.
Debarkation was smooth and orderly after a short delay caused in part by a labor problem at the San Francisco dock and the requirement that all of the luggage must be transferred from the ship to the dock before beginning passenger debarkation. Customs and immigration paperwork had been completed the day before so that we didn't have any delays caused by those requirements. We found our luggage in the designated color-coded area of the dock, boarded a bus, and returned to the San Francisco airport to rent a car for several days in San Francisco. After struggling with four large bags and three carry-on bags, we vowed to travel lighter on the next cruise, a vow that we had also made after the first cruise. So it goes....
We thoroughly enjoyed the Panama Canal Cruise. Just the trip through the Canal itself would have been worth the price of the cruise. The comfortable, well-appointed Noordam with its exceptional food, service and dinner/cabin/lounge stewards, the interesting ports, our compatible dinner companions, and the many other interesting passengers that we met created a memorable 16-day cruise on Holland America Line. Our second HAL cruise has further ensured that there will be many more HAL cruises in our future.
We hope that the resurgence of interest in ballroom dancing - among high school and college students and the older public as well - triggers an interest among the cruise lines in renovating their ship lounge areas to provide much larger dance floors. The growing interest in ballroom dancing will generate the desire to identify cruise ships that have large wooden dance floors and good bands and combos. Cruise lines that make the connection between cruising and dancing should find an expanded and enthusiastic audience of passengers who will be anxious to book cruises when they can enjoy both cruising and hassle-free dancing. When the floors are not in use, they could be covered with a removable protective layer of carpeting and put to other program uses. I am sure that the lounges would be the most popular and busy places on the ship each night, given large dance floors and good music. It is also a given that dancers would book those cruise ships on a regular basis.
Larry and Carolyn Leonard live in Springfield, VA, and have recently retired from management positions with research libraries in the private sector, academe and government. They are enthusiastic social ballroom dancers, avid readers, travelers and walkers, Tai Chi players, movie buffs (Larry is a SAG movie extra), computer junkies and now, cruise advocates. Larry and Carolyn can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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