Number of Cruises: Panama Canal
Cruise Line: Holland America
Sailing Date: n/a
Itinerary: NOT FOUND
I am an over-55 widowed female. I have cruised before, but this was my first experience traveling solo. In order to trim expenses, I booked as a single in HAL’s share program wherein I would be paired with another single female to share a cabin or, if none were available, I’d have a cabin to myself but at a lower-than-single fare.
This 16-day cruise was port intensive. Although many people take a cruise to rest, it was to be my opportunity to visit several Mexican/Central American communities I may not otherwise see.
HAL is reputed to have a broad base of "older" clients. Now I can confirm that, at least on this particular cruise, that statement is true. I attribute the preponderance of senior cruisers to the fact that our itinerary (the Panama Canal vs. a destination with more "fun stuff" to do; i.e., Caribbean islands), length of the cruise (over 7 days) and time of year (schools were in session) would not meet the younger cruisers’ criteria. I estimate that 80% of the passengers were between 60 and 85 years old. I have never, ever seen so many canes, walkers and wheelchairs in one place! I admire these folks who don’t let the infirmities of age disrupt their enjoyment of life. Although there were a few who early on established reputations as being cranky, most were carefree and enjoyable to be with.
Cabin Share Program
I have found very little written about cabin sharing, which should be done for one reason only: to trim expenses. Generally speaking, sharers are comfortable being alone and enjoy their travel freedom. They are "put off" by well-meaning people who feel compelled to include the single in their activities. There were a number of singles on this cruise. In fact, four of us were assigned to the same first-seating dinner table.
I was fortunate in that I was paired with Betty, an active, enthusiastic 81 year old. Even though she has walked with a cane since her knee surgery, she was active throughout the cruise. Although we often found ourselves attending the same activity, we never planned ahead to meet there nor did we continue on together after the event was finished. But each morning we’d talk for a few minutes after awaking. And generally we’d talk again as we got ready for bed. I truly enjoyed my first share experience and won’t hesitate to share again if I am unable to recruit a friend as a travel companion.
Pre- and Post-Cruise Transportation
The flight from Ohio to Ft. Lauderdale was routine. The Noordam was scheduled to arrive in Ft. Lauderdale about 8:00 the morning of our afternoon sailing. Unfortunately she was 4 hours late. Before we could board, the ship had to clear customs, have baggage off-loaded, and passengers disbursed. The ship also had to be prepared for 1,200 or so new passengers. There was also a surprise health inspection which delayed boarding.
Several hundred of us were "entertained" at a nearby hotel while the ship was readied. Shortly before 3:00, buses began shuttling us to the pier for processing. Then, like cattle, we milled around in the terminal. The upstairs waiting area was filled beyond capacity; so the overflow stood elbow to elbow, belly to butt waiting for permission to proceed to the second floor. I was finally in my cabin at 5:30. We began our cruise around 8:00 that evening.
Thankfully, our arrival in San Francisco 16 days later was on time and, outside of the normal delay in disembarking until we were approved by customs, etc., uneventful. The shuttle to the airport and flight home were equally ho-hum.
The Noordam is 15 years old and her age occasionally shows. Many windows are no longer clear and some window trim is corroded. However, the décor was tasteful. Furniture and carpeting did not show wear. Pads on the deck chairs and lounges pool-side were new. Cabin curtains and bedspreads were fresh. The ship was clean and the crew was always working to maintain this shine.
Our cabin (#300, Main Deck) had twin beds, a chair, long vanity counter, two closets and sufficient drawer space. The bathroom was small but adequate. Our steward, as I’ve grown to expect on HAL, changed our towels frequently. Iwa was efficient, polite and always cheerful.
Our cabin was the first one forward, port side. It was very spacious. But as the days passed, I regretted this assignment. Right outside our door were two "staff only" doors. In a matter of hours I found that nearly every person to use those doors also allowed them to slam shut. Also, the ice machine for our corridor was across the hall from our cabin. Fortunately, silence fell in the hallway by midnight and lasted until 6 AM or so. Even the crew had to sleep!
I have also gained first-hand experience regarding why midship cabins are preferred. We had two rough evenings at sea. Planning the route from one side of the cabin to the other (and timing the move) was a necessity as the Noordam pitched up and down. The exhilaration of feeling like I was on a roller coaster became the miserable actuality of seasickness. NOTE: The Noordam provided Meclizine at the front desk at no cost.
Our cabin location also seemed to be immediately over a thruster. As I understand it, the thrusters maneuver the ship sideways, to move up to or away from dock. When in use, sleep is impossible. Conversation is difficult.
I do not recall hearing excessive noise in the public areas of the ship. Vibration seemed to be continual, but it was not irritating, just a part of the cruise experience.
Dining: Food, Service, Tablemates
Menu choices were abundant and described in such a way that making a decision required thought. Presentation was interesting and the food was prepared to most of our table’s liking. (I confess that I overindulged in the rich food and desserts at dinner the first week and was reduced to eating clear broth, rice and dry toast by the end of the cruise.)
Our wait staff supervisor, Johnny, was attentive without being intrusive. He frequently helped bus when clearing for the next course slowed. Our waiter, Permanen, and assistant waiter, Tamba, were capable and friendly. Poor Eddy, the wine steward, was pleasant enough, but he seemed somewhat befuddled.
We had a mixed group at our table for ten: 3 couples, 3 single women, and a single man. We got along well, and conversation was always lively and enjoyable.
I visited the Lido Restaurant or grille for midday "snacks." Food here, too, was tasty. Although several entrees were available, I usually had only a cup of soup and a few bites of the prepared salads. (Okay, I occasionally sampled a small dessert, too. They were "simply irresistible.")
On-Board Activities and Entertainment
Even when the entire day was spent at sea, there were more activities than a person could participate in. There was bingo, bridge, pool-side activities, demonstrations, and group games such as scattergories and trivia.
Nightly entertainment in the Admiral’s Lounge during the cruise included five shows by the ship’s talented cast of singers/dancers. Yvette, the cruise director, and her staff occasionally treated us to short, humorous pre-show programs. Guest entertainers were Ian Finkel, Renato Pagiliari, Richie Minervini, Bruce Block, Ken and Casey, Peter Mezoian, Kirby St. Romain and Jan Downs. And, of course, as is the HAL custom, we were also entertained on two evenings by the Indonesian and Filipino staffs. Sight lines in the Admiral’s Lounge are much better than in some of HAL’s newer ships, and the seats, which were very comfortable, were always filled for the shows.
Since excursion options are presented in a booklet that comes with the cruise documents, it is possible to make selections before sailing and simply complete the excursion form on board once it’s available. Rarely was an activity sold out since the most popular venues had several time slots available. The Shore Excursion Presentation and Port Lectures that I attended were very informative.
Port of Call 1 – Half Moon Cay
This is HAL’s private island and passengers were tendered to the island to snorkel or enjoy the white sand beach. I stayed on board to admire the scenery from a deck chair.
Port of Call 2 – Cartagena, Colombia
The trip to La Popa (monastery) presents the best view of the city. The swarms of street vendors can be turned away with the firm but polite words, "No, gracias." A sense of humor will aid immeasurably in tolerating their persistence. Caveats: If you intend to purchase emeralds while in Cartegena, be sure to research costs at home before your cruise. Second, in some instances those T-shirts sold by the street vendors will shrink to the size of a teabag when washed. (Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but you get the point.)
The Canal seemed so benign as we passed through it. I had read The Path Between the Seas by David G. McCullough so I was aware of the tremendous problems that were overcome to build the Canal. It is truly an engineering wonder.
Port of Call 3 – Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala
I selected the Tikal excursion. We were taken by school bus to the army’s airfield where we boarded a 737 for a one-hour flight followed by a one-hour bus ride to Tikal. This was the most memorable excursion of the cruise. Most ruins have been restored (and some left half-restored so the visitor can imagine what the area must have looked like before reclamation). If you have the stamina, climb Temple II, if for no other reason than to say you did! CAVEAT: The walk is published as 5K. Although it’s relatively flat ground, it is not a "walk in the park." We were fortunate to have a breeze. But the sun was directly overhead, and as midday approached, I was happy that our trek was about to end and not just beginning. Although long sleeves and trousers are suggested (insects), I was comfortable in shorts and a short-sleeved top. A hat would also be beneficial. Need I mention sturdy walking shoes? There were no bugs.
Port of Call 4 – Huatulco, Mexico
This town is becoming a popular tourist resort because of its several secluded beaches. Since the seas were choppy and passengers had to be tendered ashore, I elected to stay on the ship and found a deck chair in which to take a nap.
Port of Call 5 – Acapulco
Acapulco is definitely a "get up and go" city. For me, one visit was enough. The day’s excursion began with a stop to see the cliff divers at La Quebrada. In order to entertain tourists outside the regular scheduled dive times, men are hired to perform. As a result there were at least 4 dives – 2 or 3 single divers, two divers together and finally, three together. Chairs were placed along the walls so that each of us had a seat and unobstructed view. We had a few minutes to shop for silver at a Taxco shop and then we headed out of town on a scenic drive. The bus stopped at Senor Frog’s for a view of the bay, refreshments and an(other) opportunity to buy souvenirs. Then we reboarded the bus to continue our drive and to stop for a short walk at the Princess Hotel before returning to the ship.
Port of Call 6 – Zihuatanejo, Mexico
Zihuatanejo is a sleepy fishing village. Tours to Ixtapa, a resort town being developed 5 miles up the road, were available, but I was more interested in seeing the "town square" I had read about. As expected, some fellows were shooting hoops. I also visited shops along the cobblestone walkway and then ambled to the flea market where I walked through an unbelievable number of stalls selling Mexican memorabilia. I gave bargaining a try, and I think the vendor and I both came away pleased. I enjoyed the day spent at a leisurely pace.
Port of Call 7 – Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
Puerto Vallarta is a pretty, unpretentious town. I recall the typically narrow, one-way, cobblestone streets. Sidewalks are often elevated two to three feet to make walking possible on days torrential rains turn the streets into rivers. Today’s excursion included the Church of Guadeloupe; a drive out past Los Arcos, the rocks popular with snorklers; Mismaloya Beach vista; a stop for refreshments and a return to town. I was disgruntled that the tour included three stops for shopping, none of which was mentioned in the tour description.
Port of Call 8 – Cabo San Lucas
This was a most beautiful, unspoiled location if you find beauty in desert scenery. The ship anchored in the Bay and tenders took passengers to shore. I took the "Land’s End" excursion which included a glass-bottom boat ride out to see the famous arch as well as to view colorful fish and visit the pelican rocks and sea lion colony. The rock formations are striking. We then shuttled to a new condo development where we had refreshments and were able to sit on terraces and look back across the bay. For those passengers who didn’t care to visit the town which is only a 10-minute walk from the tender dock, there was a large flea market at the pier.
Weather on this late-April cruise was sunny on all but one sea day when we had an afternoon rain. Seas were rough on two evenings. Air temperatures between Cartagena and Cabo San Lucas were in the 80’s and humidity was low. As we cruised north from Cabo toward San Francisco, winds picked up and the weather became quite chilly. I doubt many people spent much time in deck chairs!
Although many people would feel there were too many ports of call, it was that fact alone which lured me to this cruise at this time on this particular ship. Would I do this cruise again? Yes, for it met my expectations. Would I recommend HAL? Yes. The food is well prepared and generous in portions, standards of service remain high, several shore excursions are offered in each port, and the activities available on board are numerous and entertaining.
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