Panama Canal Trip Journal

categories: caribbean travel, central america travel

This journal covers a cruise to Panama on Holland America through Insight / Geek Cruises. The cruise was a Shakespeare cruise done in conjunction with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and a Mac cruise done in conjunction with MacWorld.

Friday November 2, San Jose to Florida

The alarm goes off very early when you are trying to be at the airport before 6am for a 6:50am flight. A close friend Brad volunteered to take us to the airport… a very close friend indeed. Although in reality it was his wife Janice who actually woke up when their alarm went off so very early in the morning.

Our flights to Atlanta and then on to Fort Lauderdale were both happily uneventful and we used the time to sleep, read magazines ( I brought 2-3 inches of my backlog for this leg of the trip), or do homework (Joan). We took a shuttle ($15 a person) to the Westin Fort Lauderdale where I was surprised to find that I had apparently reserved a suite.

Almost immediately after our arrival we went to a party put on by the Shakespeare at Sea / Insight Cruises program that we were joining for this trip. By the time that the evening was done we had met more people on this cruise without setting foot on the boat than we had in a week at sea on our previous cruise. Most of the crowd was older than us, some by a margin. They also were more regular or more recent patrons of the Oregon Shakespeare festival than Joan and I. I had gone to Ashland, where OSF resides, in 2006 with our kids and their high school drama group but we had not been to the festival for a few years before that. Before the birth of our kids Joan and I had gone more regularly. I had gone to Ashland with a group from my high school 4 years in a row in the 1970s. The vast majority of the people at the party were from the west coast and the majority were from the San Francisco bay area. We very quickly found interesting people to talk to. We even found some Mac people who ventured in from the Mac party and some others like myself who were fans of both Mac and Shakespeare.

Before going to bed I recorded a new introduction to an old episode of the Amateur Traveler podcast for publication on November 10th.

Saturday November 3, Leaving Fort Lauderdale

The ship was scheduled to leave port at 5 pm which gave us plenty of time. We slept in, booked a place on the Holland America shuttle bus ($12 a person), brought our luggage to the truck and then went to brunch. We still had time to kill before the buses started to leave at 12:30 pm so we tried to get the last little bits of email etc off the internet before we had to pay $25 an hour to connect.

We met more people while we waited for a tour of the ship. Our biggest fear was that our tour guide had gotten lost. Finally Colby, one of the assistant cruise directors, showed up and led us from bow to stern, from the dining room to the theatre, and much of what was in between. We had been on one similar cruise before on Royal Caribbean on the Empress of the Seas. This cruise was on Holland America’s Volendam. The Empress carried around 1,000 passengers and the Volendam 1,400. Much of the two ships were the same. The dining room and theatre were very similar. The central atrium on the Volendam was in the range from uninspiring to ugly and garish. The Volendam has a small theatre in addition to the large theatre which is used for movies, talks and cooking classes as it has a demonstration kitchen behind the screen. The Empress had a small but nice library hidden away where you could exchange one of the books you had brought on board for one that someone else left. The Volendam tripled the size of the library, added a coffee bar, many internet stations, a DVD library ($3 a day unless you have a suite) and a decent sized library of books available for free check out. The Volendam has the usual collection of shops, bars and a casino. It does have 3 self-serve laundries. It does not have a climbing wall or equally flashy gimmick. It has two pools, the larger pool (still small) is chlorinated and the one that is on the bow and not surrounded by a wall is salt water since the water in the pool can splash into the ocean in a rougher sea. The roof on the main pool can be closed in case of rain. The Volendam also has a buffet restaurant on the Lido deck as well as an upscale restaurant ($30 per person not counting wine).

Before we left port we did a lifeboat drill where all of the passengers crowded onto 3rd deck where the lifeboats are located. Women and children are still first so the men lined up in the back and the ladies in the front. Pity the person who is claustrophobic as the ships passengers just fit on the 3rd deck. Since the lifejackets have the ship’s cabin on them, the crew checked off most people as they arrived and then just called out the names of the ones they were missing. We were assured that there were plenty of lifeboats for all the passengers.

At 5 pm there was a Sail Away party on the deck in the stern of the ship. There was a live band and of course cocktails as we watched the Florida coast drift away. We waved at the Pilot boat and the people on land as we chatted with more people attending the Mac cruise including Janet from Apple’s Education department. Some of the people on the Mac cruise had the cruise paid for by their jobs, which seems to make that audience somewhat more varied in age than the Shakespeare cruise. Eventually the party was broken up by strong winds that started blowing the chairs all over the deck (predominantly the ones without anyone in them).

At 7 pm the Shakespeare at Sea had a cocktail party to welcome everyone. We received our schedules, listened to welcoming remarks and met still more cruise mates.

At 8 pm we adjourned to the dining room for the late seating of dinner. The plan is to shuffle the tables each night among the Shakespeare at Sea attendees so that we can meet more people. I was more impressed with my dinner than Joan, so the quality seemed to depend somewhat on what you ordered.

At 10 pm Joan and I went to the evening’s movie which was Evan Almighty. Only 2 other people attended although they had prepared popcorn for more like ten times that number.

Sunday November 4, Half Moon Cay

Today’s port of call was Half Moon Cay, which is a private island in the Bahamas owned by Holland America. We tendered into the island into a man-made harbor by the beach. The beach was a beautiful beach with fine white sand. Near the beach were bars, gift shops, an information booth, an outdoor kitchen, covered picnic areas and private cabanas. We rented a clamshell to provide shade for our chaise lounges ($10). We swam in the morning, read and napped. I tried out my underwater video camera. I thought that there were no fish in the water until I found out later that I had caught one in a video. Lunch was a BBQ on the island prepared in the outdoor kitchen. After lunch we took a cycling tour of the island. It was supposed to be a guided tour but our tour guide did not actually seem to like to talk or provide information so we were not always clear where we were going or why we had stopped here. We stopped at the horse corral, at the inner lagoon (and saw some old ruined houses), and the sting ray lagoon. The pace of the group was slow but the distances were very short. Serious bikers would probably be very frustrated with the tour.

After returning to the ship we went to the large theatre where we were supposed to see a new performance put on by the OSF actors but it turns out that their costumes and props had gone missing (they later turned up in Florida) so instead Bill Rauch, the new artistic director, talked about his background and then answered questions about what his plans where for OSF. He had some very interesting experiences with a theatre company called Cornerstone, which he helped found with 14 friends right out of college. They started with a mission of bringing live theatre to small towns in the U.S. but ended up morphing into a mission of using theatre to bring communities and diverse groups together.

I then went to a Mac event where Randal Shwartz talked about cool utilities for the Macintosh. I had heard of most of these utilities but still picked up some interesting new ones to check out when I get home.

At dinner we met still more Californians in the Shakespeare group and talked about Shakespeare, audio books, web sites (one of the group owns and travel.

The evening’s entertainment was Michael James who juggled, rode a unicycle, heckled the audience and climbed an 8 foot ladder which was free standing. The audience was a bit surprised when he really rode the unicycle with a member of the audience on his shoulders. We were probably even more surprised that she went along with it.

Monday November 5, At Sea

Our morning started with a lecture on violence in Shakespeare from Christopher Duval. He talked about the weapons (rapier) and styles of combat in Shakespeare’s day. He also said one census from the time had 130 men for every 100 women which caused great sexual tensions which are played out in Romeo and Juliet.

The next talk was again with Bill Rauch talking about the 2008 OSF season. Joan attended but I worked out in the gym instead. It is surprising that on a ship of 1400 people it is not hard to find a free machine in the gym. They had maybe 20 aerobic machines of which no more than 10 were in use at any given time.

After lunch I attended a question and answer session with 4 of the actors, which Joan skipped so she could work out. The stories the actors told often left us in stitches. My favorite was a story of a production of Julius Caesar (not at OSF) where just after Caesar was killed in a very dramatic fashion with lots of stage blood, the assassins paused to let the audience take in the moment. In the silence a phone started ringing off stage. No one knew what to do until one of the actor’s ad libbed “what if it is for Caesar?”

The second session was watching the film Romeo and Juliet from 1968 by Franco Zefferelli. Barry Kraft gave some introductory remarks about what to watch for in this particular production. The theatre was warm and more than one head nodded off when the lights went out. It was a good production but I was not the only one hoping that just this once it would not end so badly for our star crossed lovers.

I stayed in the same theatre for another 2 hours to hear Jason Snell of MacWorld give a presentation on Leopard 101 (Mac OS 10.5). I knew much of what he was presenting but there was enough that I did not know to make the presentation (which was well done) worthwhile.

Dinner was our first of 3 formal dinner evenings, so I rushed quickly from the Mac talk to the room to change and then on to the dining room. Yet again we had wonderful dinner table mates. We can’t join in the discussions on the most recent OSF productions, but also found may other things to talk about. Our table had 2 doctors and their wives (a hand surgeon at Shriner’s hospital in LA and a Ob/Gyn from Bellevue Washington). They each had a couple of stories of being asked “is there a doctor in the house… or on the plane…?

Tuesday November 6, at Aruba

Our ship was not scheduled to arrive in Aruba until noon so I attended Robin Williams’ (not that one) class Fourth Wall? What Fourth Wall? The Elizabethan Stage. Robin showed pictures of the old globe and the new globe in London and talked about how actors in the New Globe gained new insights about Shakespeare’s plays when they performed those plays on a stage similar to that which he used. Particularly it became clear how many speeches were aimed at the groundlings who stood at the very edge of the stage. She also introduced us to the Wheel of Fortune and the Great Chain of Being and we learned the proper use of thee/thou vs you in Elizabethan English.

After that I went to a session on podcasting by Randal Schwartz on the Macmania track. I can only hope that my comments were helpful as I did not go as much to learn as to share.

For our shore excursion we did a sea kayaking and snorkeling trip. We had 3 very nice guides who showed us how to paddle and un-capsize a kayak (fortunately the second set of knowledge went unused). We had never kayaked before but had wanted to try it. We did not steer anything like a straight course but did manage to get to and from a park down the coast which we used as a base for snorkeling. I had brought my prescription swim goggles so I went out without a mask and snorkel which made the snorkel part of the excursion more work. There was not really great visibility but at least I was able to start getting the hang of the underwater video camera (Sanyo Xacti) that I had recently purchased. The guides made us wear life vests which just got in the way. Mine kept coming unzipped which just gave me one more thing to fuss with. We were warned by the guides that fire coral which was prevalent in the area would give us a painful and permanent tattoo should we touch it.

After the excursion we walked around the port area of Aruba but only had to venture a block or so before the city started looking pretty seedy.

Wednesday November 7, at Curaçao

We had booked a cruise and snorkel excursion through for Curaçao. Since we were not booking through the cruise line we were the only people from our ship on the excursion and had to wait by the port’s gate for almost a half hour after the time they had given us before the van picked us up. The van took us to Spanish Bay, which was a distance away. Unlike Aruba, much of Curaçao looked attractive and I would like to spend more time there some time. At Spanish Bay we took a Zodiac out to the sailing schooner Bounty. The ship had about 40 passengers and a crew of 5. We motored out of the bay and then raised the two jibs to sail to our first snorkel destination. There was a free open bar on the boat so I got my diet coke fix and a rum punch or two during our 5 hour voyage. The visibility was better at Curaçao than we had seen at Aruba and both the outing before and after lunch were quite fun (so fun that I did not notice how fried my back was getting in the tropical sun). After a nice lunch on the boat we motored a short distance to the wreck of a tug boat. I was able to shoot underwater video that reminded me of the Titanic. All in all it was an excellent outing which left me grinning profusely and fried to a crisp.

Thursday November 8, at Sea

Friday November 9, Panama Canal

We arose early (thankful for gaining an hour in the time change as we sailed West to Panama and Eastern Time) to watch the ship enter the 3 locks that took the ship up the 85 feet from sea level to the level of Gatun Lake. The canal has 6 sets of locks total but the ship just went up halfway and then back down again to the Caribbean. We left the ship in Gatun Lake for a 7 hour adventure across Panama by bus to a ferry on which we rode out the 3 remaining locks to the Pacific ocean. Being in the lock in a small boat is a different perspective from the big cruise ship. The canal seemed surprisingly small to me. We saw where they are starting the new expanded canal, which will allow the canal to carry larger ships. I was also surprised at the Gaillard Cut how small the cut looked. It is hard to believe that 20,000 people died in the French effort at this spot alone (of the 22,000 deaths). The area around the canal looks more pastoral than jungle these days. We had rain on our trip, which is not that surprising in an area that gets 250 inches of rain a year. We had a good local guide whose English we usually able to make out. Although when he said we were moving towards our “destiny” (when he meant “destination”) that sounded pretty ominous.

Saturday November 10, Costa Rica

We had another early start (and to our surprise another time change to Central Time) in Costa Rica. Both at Panama and Costa Rica large numbers of passengers were doing shore excursions so we were gathered in the Frans Hals lounge (the largest theatre) where we were each tagged with a colored number sticker by tour group. With the rest of the red #7s we boarded a bus with a very articulate local guide. We transferred from the bus to a train for a ride through the rain forest and banana plantations. Living up to the name rain forest, it rained our entire day in Costa Rica. At times it rained quite hard. Our guide told us that the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica has two seasons: the rainy season and the rainier season. Some of our bus/train/ship mates still grumbled about the rain. We stopped at a banana packing plant but for some reason they were not working that day. They normally work every day and our guides were caught by surprise. Our bus driver works at one of these plants and is part of a program where he trained to be a driver and drives a couple of days a week. We learned that a banana plant will bear one and only one bunch of bananas (in about a year) and then will be chopped down. So they leave two younger plants growing from the same root system so that the same root system can bear 3 bunches of bananas in a year.

After our train ride we stopped for a break with music, shopping, fresh fruit and fruit juice or beer (Imperial from Costa Rica) before boarding a boat where we cruised a short distance along the rain forest. We saw a sloth (curled in a ball against the rain) and several different types of birds: toucans, egrets, etc. We also saw small bats, which we would easily have missed if not for the sharp eyes of our boat driver.

Sunday November 11, At Sea

Monday November 12, At Sea

I podcast about this trip at the Amateur Traveler podcast in these podcasts:

Amateur Traveler Episode 113 – Theme Cruise to Panama (Shakespeare at Sea / MacMania)

Amateur Traveler Video Episode 25 – Curaçao – Sailing and Snorkeling with the Bounty (part 1)

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Chris Christensen

by Chris Christensen

Chris Christensen is the creator of the Amateur Traveler blog and podcast. He has been a travel creator since 2005 and has won awards including being named the "Best Independent Travel Journalist" by Travel+Leisure Magazine.

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