Fort Lauderdale – San Diego 1/30/2014 TO 2/14/2014

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Highlights And Impressions:

Exceptionally rough waters leaving Fort Lauderdale unfortunately caused us to miss our first port of call – Half Moon Cay, Bahamas, an island owned by Holland America.  Needed tenders to reach it, and the captain decided it was too dangerous.  The sea was rough for the next couple of days.  Sometimes I felt drunk wobbling around without having drunk anything.

I enjoyed our days at sea.  The 6th deck was a walking/sitting on a chaise deck.  One time around equaled ¼ of a mile.  I walked 10 laps most days, especially the “at sea” ones.  We also spent time sitting outside reading sometimes being interrupted by the sight of dolphins, sea turtles, and even some whales.  It was a good spot to watch the sunsets too.  We got into a very pleasant and relaxing routine.

Breakfasts and dinners we dined in the main dining room where we were served.  We had open seating and had the choice of dinner time and of eating alone or with others.  Most of the time we chose sharing a table.  It was a way to meet people from all over the world and more times than not it was an interesting experience.  Sometimes we were having such a good time that we’d be the last ones to leave the dining room.

There were several venues for listening to music.  The Ocean Bar where we usually had drinks before dinner had a trio, The Neptunes who played music from the American Songbook.  There was also a dance floor.  Not many people danced, but there was one couple who danced there every night.  We dubbed them “The Dancers.”  They apparently had taken lessons and were good at ballroom dancing.  They also dressed the part.  On formal nights, the man’s bow ties and cummerbunds matched the woman’s dress.  Tres cool.

After dinner we would go to a room where we listened to classical music played by a violinist and pianist.  The two women played short pieces that were beautiful and familiar.  The room was furnished comfortably with sofas and chairs, and desserts and drinks were served.

Later we would go to a piano bar where Robyn would play the piano and sing surrounded by devotees sitting around the bar.  She was a petite woman who smiled perpetually while singing.  Her fans would sit there adoringly mouthing the words of her songs.  Tony got to know Robyn while we were on one of our excursions, and after that she would say good night to us by name as she did to her “regulars.”

There was also a more lively and probably more popular night club on the top deck where there was karaoke, dancing, and other special programming.  We only went there once during one of the rough nights at sea.  We tried to dance, but the floor was rocking more than the music.

There was also entertainment each night in the ship’s theater.  There was a 40 minute program shown 3 times a night which made it easy to attend.  In the beginning we would go to the 6:30 show and then do all the above.  Later we went to the 10PM show, and didn’t always go to listen to Robyn.

The shows were usually good especially the ones with special guests – a juggler-magician, jazz pianist, comedians, musicians.  We usually sat in the front, and one time I was asked to go up on the stage and assist the magician.  That was fun, and he gave me a gift, a little flashlight for my help.  Another time, a comedian/ukulele player picked me out of the audience for my smile and gave me a CD as a gift.  How about that!

There was also a casino on the ship which we only walked through to get from one part of the ship to the other.  On the same level as the casino, there were shops selling stuff you didn’t need at exorbitant prices.  There was also a library with lots of comfortable seating.  At a few tables there were jigsaw puzzles being worked on.  One had 2,000 pieces.  I stopped in the library from time-to-time to work on that one.  It actually was completed by the end of the cruise.

Lance, the location guide on the ship gave a few lectures on the Panama Canal and the ports of call.  At one lecture on the Panama Canal, he mentioned the incredible recent growth of Panama City and that it had 100 buildings over 70 stories.  When I told Tony about it, he said that’s impossible.  At one of the ports, I saw Lance and went up to him and asked him if I remembered him correctly.  He confirmed the statement.  I probably shouldn’t have, but I told him that my husband didn’t believe it.  He wasn’t too happy to hear that.  When I eventually had wireless I found out that there has indeed been a building boom, but instead of 100 buildings over 70 stories, there are 6 with more tall ones under construction.  Tony is usually right about that kind of stuff.

After 3 days at sea, we finally had our first port of call – Cartagena, Colombia Very happy to be back on land, we took a bus from the port to the monstrous fortress on the hill overlooking the harbor,and then the old walled city where we had a few hours to walk around on our own.  The old town and the Fort of San Felipe were declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1984.  The town was founded in 1533 by the Spanish and named Cartagena after the town by the same name in Spain.  Because of its riches in gold and silver, it was a very attractive target for pirates.  In 1741, the British launched a major attack of the city, but unfortunately for them they chose the rainy season.  The mosquitoes were rampant, and the men were decimated by malaria and yellow fever.  The fortress was built between 1639 and 1657 and later fortified in 1762.  Many attempts were made to storm the town but the fortress was never penetrated.  In 1810, Cartagena declared their independence.  Through the years, they’ve had their “ups and downs,” but in recent years they are developing into a modern and more prosperous city according to our genial guide.  We walked around the old town admiring the colonial buildings.  It’s very pretty and beautiful flowers are everywhere.  Eighty per cent of the flowers in North America come from Colombia, a very green country.  We walked into a church that was just finishing up a service.  It was bright and lively in there, and cool.  It was a Catholic Church but from the rousing gestures of the priest and parishioners it seemed ecumenical.  It was very hot outside, and we walked in the shade whenever we could.  After a while we walked to the main square and sat down under a tree.  We spent some time watching the activities.  Vendors came over to us, but they were not pushy.  I did get a drink.  Even though it wasn’t noon yet, I had a bottle of beer.  The man didn’t have change for me.  He had to go somewhere to get it and left his cart with us to show that he’d return.  He did of course – a very nice man.

We soon returned to the meeting place for the shuttle.  On the way back, we drove through the modern part of Cartagena and saw the tall buildings and new hotels going up along the pretty beaches.  Tourism now accounts for 30 % of the economy.

The next morning at 5or so in the morning, the Panama Canal pilots boarded the ship to help lead us through the Canal.  I woke up early to all the noise of entering the Gatun locks, the first of the three.  Mostly everyone was up and about.  We eventually went up to the bow of the ship where many people were congregated, and joined the crowd.  We took many pictures.  We weren’t going to be entering the next set of locks, the Pedro Miguel locks, until the afternoon.  So we went to breakfast.  After breakfast, we spent most of our time on the 6th deck watching the scenery and listening to the commentary and updates on the progress of the transit through the P.A, system.  We passed by the compound where Noriega, Past President/US puppet/USInformant/Drug dealer/US prisoner/French prisoner, is now being kept under house arrest.  As we followed a very large/wide cargo ship through we saw all kinds of equipment used to maintain the canal.  The 100th anniversary of the Panama Canal will be in August of this year.  It’s also supposed to be the time of the completion of a major expansion now taking place which should double the canal’s capacity.  At the time of our arrival, a work stoppage had occurred.  The cost of the work has far exceeded the original estimate in the bid accepted by Panama.  The Panama government was accusing the Spanish company of purposely under bidding.  At the time of this writing, the problem has not been resolved and the work has not resumed.

We went through the final lock, the Miraflores late in the afternoon, and voila, we were in the Pacific Ocean.  I found the history of the creation of the Canal and the idea of cutting through the isthmus to get from one ocean to the other more exciting than actually going through it.  Having gone around South America and around Cape Horn also gave me a special appreciation of the Canal’s value.

We had another day at sea and then stopped at the next port of call – Puerto Caldera, Costa Rica.  We went on an organized tour which included a boat ride through some of the mangrove forests looking for wild life.  We saw termite nests, herons, egrets and many pelicans but no crocodiles.  After a short ride through the pretty countryside we visited a scarlet macaw sanctuary.  The macaw native to Costa Rica is one of the most endangered species in the tropics.  The birds brought to the sanctuary are injured or have been rescued as contraband.  They are put into gigantic cages, and once they are self-sufficient they are released into the wild.  The surroundings are remarkable with many trees and gardens.  After being released, some macaws hang around.  They mate for life, and if one falls in love, he may stay in the sanctuary forever.  Birds are flying everywhere.  We also saw monkeys doing acrobatics in the trees.  They visit the sanctuary to eat or just because.  All in all, it was a beautiful setting.

Costa Rica is a democracy.  They disbanded their army in 1948.  When they got their independence in 1815, they elected a teacher as their leader whereas the other Central American countries chose military leaders.  They have a 96% literacy rate.  Education is free and mandatory for 11 years.  They have the lowest crime rate in Central America.  Many American retirees have been attracted to Costa Rica and have bought homes and reside there.

The next day we stopped in Corinto, Nicaragua,  that country’s largest port.  We didn’t sign up for any excursions.  After leaving the ship, we just walked into the town.  A group of children were performing for us in the main square.  Tony and I walked all over the town.  We walked to the beach which didn’t look very inviting.  The men working or hanging out there didn’t appear to be welcoming.  Back into the center part of the town, we went into a general store and bought vodka.  It was okay to bring wine or champagne onto the boat but not liquor or beer.  The store owner emptied a large bottle of water and poured the vodka into the bottle.  He said he does it all the time for cruisers.  We sat for a while in the main square and watched the town scenes.  Two little boys approached us asking “one dollar”.  We declined but it wound up being a game.  The younger boy would feint scarily towards Tony, and he would reel back in mock terror.  I think they learn “one dollar” before “mama” and “dada”.  On the way back to the ship we stopped at an outdoor market where I bought a Nicaragua soccer team shirt for our soccer player granddaughter Ada.  We went back to the ship and passed through security without any trouble.

The next port of call was Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala.  We took a 90 minute bus ride to Antigua, the colonial capital of Guatemala and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  On the bus our guide, a Guatemalan by birth who became a Canadian citizen (because he couldn’t enter into the U.S. legally) and has moved back, provided an informative commentary along the way through the beautiful mountainous countryside.  There are 35 volcanoes in Guatemala, 6 of which are still active.  The rich volcanic soil helps  make agriculture the leading contributor to the economy.  Guatemala is the #7 producer of the world’s coffee.  China is the #1 buyer of their sugar.  Crops of bananas, managos, and avocados are leading exports.  Antigua is at an elevation of 5,000 feet and has a mild and pleasant climate.  A jade factory was our first stop and designated meeting place for our return ride.  There were guides available to provide walking tours of the town at a cost of $10 per person.  We joined up with 4 others and chose Fausto, as our guide.  He was great.  We walked all over the cobblestone streets of the beautiful town.  Antigua was founded in 1543, and for the next 200 years was the colonial capital not only of Guatemala but of almost all of Central America as well.  By 1773 it had 37 churches and 18 convents and monasteries.  It was the highest religious site in the Western Hemisphere.  Its importance in the New World was second only to the Vatican in Rome.  There are 3 volcanoes looming in the distance of Antigua.  Eruptions and earthquakes repeatedly damaged the city, and it was always rebuilt bigger and better.  However, in 1773 it was so damaged that the capital was moved to Guatemala City.  We walked through the amazing Hotel Casa Santo Domingo.  It is located on the grounds of the old Santo Domingo Monastery which had been partially destroyed in the earthquake of 1773.  In 1967 it was like a trash heap when a corporation bought it.  They cleaned it up, and in 1989, it became a hotel and museum.  It preserves the baroque style architecture of colonial America and many treasures from that era are on display.  It is supposedly one of the best hotels in Central America.  A room costs $400 per night.  The beautiful hotel and the many churches of Antigua draw people from everywhere for weddings and other celebrations.  It was so nice I would love to have stayed for a few days.  We even saw some scarlet and green macaws flying around the grounds.  We continued on our walking tour with Fausto pointing out other interesting buildings and churches that have survived the years.  During our walk, he also talked about the horrors of the 1966 to 1996 civil war in Guatemala.  He was a law school student during that time and along with the other students he was chased out of the school.  With a new democracy developing, conditions are improving.  But there’s corruption, and drugs are a problem.  Antigua is the safest place in Guatemala, except for those volcanoes.  The last eruption was in 1976.

We stopped at the weekly outside and inside markets next to one of the churches and we bought some souvenirs.  We also made a brief visit to a jade store where Tony bought me a lovely jade necklace and earrings for my upcoming birthday.  Next stop was lunch in a lively and attractive restaurant.  The food was good too.  After lunch we walked back to our meeting place to join the others for our ride back to the ship.

Our next port of call was to be Zihuatenejo, Mexico, but because of several recent drug-gang related murders having taken place, it was canceled.  Instead we were going to go to Puerto Chiapas, Mexico.  At the port, we were greeted by groups of dancers and musical performers.  It was very festive.  It was also very hot.  We disembarked and walked over to an enclosed area with more entertainment, shopping and shore excursion vendors.  We didn’t want to go into the main town and walk around in a hot place, and so we chose a tour of the beaches of the area in an open air but covered small bus.  Our young guide Saul was very entertaining and also supplied each of the 8 passengers with a Coronita, a very small Corona.  We stopped at a beach and walked out on a rickety pier to a covered pavilion where we drank our beers and looked out at the sea.  There were only a few people scattered along the shore but nobody in the water.  Saul told us that the surf was rough and most people don’t actually swim in the ocean.  They picnic on the beaches and get wet but that’s it.  We saw a light house and then drove through a small town where children waved to us.  We then went to another more lively beach with restaurants lined up along the shore.  We saw one of the women from the port who sold us the tour.  She was very friendly, and savvy.  Tony thought she was from the U.S., maybe Chicago, and we had fun talking to her.  She introduced us to her husband, and to a younger woman, the daughter of a friend, her boss, the entrepreneur who started the tour company.  Tony and I and some of the others walked up to the water and got our feet wet.  It felt great.  We said our good-byes with hugs.  Then back to the port.  Every person and place seemed so friendly and peaceful in this part of Mexico, it was hard to believe that not so far away people were killing each other.

Because of our change in itinerary, we had 2 at sea days in a row.  We eventually arrived in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico early on February 12.  We were scheduled to go whale watching on a zodiac at 7:30AM.  After an early wake-up call and very little for breakfast, we boarded a tender which took us to the marina.  I had been on a zodiac once before off Kangaroo Island in Australia, an exhilarating but scary high speed ride.  I was starting to feel a little apprehensive.  There were 15 of us and the captain, Temo.  The one in Australia had seats.  This one had a few small benches, but with nothing to hold onto.  Mostly everyone including me sat along the edge of the boat with barely enough straps for everyone to hold onto.  I got very chummy with the woman next to me.  The speedy ride out to where we would hopefully see some whales was wild and crazy.  Holding on for dear life, I was constantly jumping out of my seat.  The sky was clear, and the sun was almost blinding.  It was all worth it, I think, because we did see a lot of whales and very close up.  We saw dolphins along the way too.  Sorry dolphins, but I’ve seen your kind before.  But whales!  How exciting to see those gigantic creatures.  Our captain was so good at finding them.  Even when we weren’t moving, it was hard to stand up and be still enough to take pictures.  And the bright sun made it even more difficult.  I put my camera out in the direction of where the whale should be when he/she would come out of the water to breathe and just shot away over and over again.  I was lucky enough to get a few good, ones.  On the way back, we took a ride through the beautiful rock formations shooting out of the water.  Tony and I had been there in 1997 but it was nice to see it all again.  We were in the boat for about 2 hours, and I was feeling nauseous after all that rocking and bouncing.  It felt so good to get back on land.  By the time I got back to the ship, I was feeling better and was able to eat something.  Whew!

Another at sea day and then San Diego, California, our final stop and port of disembarkation.  The cruise was over.  We were scheduled to exit the ship at about 10AM.  We did, retrieved our luggage, got a taxi and went to the Best Western PLUS Bayside Inn where we were staying for the night.  We checked in, but of course our room was not ready.  They stored our luggage away, and off we went to explore the city.  Tony and I had been there for a few hours many years ago.  I remembered seeing tattoo parlors and pawn shops lined up along the main drag.  I remembered the port being pretty.  So what a surprise it was to see this beautiful city.  Our hotel was in a great location, and we walked to most of the points of interest.  First we walked to Seaport Village.  Walking along the harbor, we could actually see our ship.  How close we were.  When we got to Seaport Village we sat near the water and eventually had lunch.  From there, we walked to the Gaslamp district.  Along the way we admired all the interesting buildings.  Everything seemed new and shining and tall.  Palm trees, plants and flowers were everywhere, and of course the weather was perfect.  We couldn’t stop taking pictures.  The Gaslamp area was an interesting and happening place.  The buildings are older and lower, and well maintained.  Some of them were in the art deco style.  The main street was lined with outdoor cafes.  We stopped for a drink in one of them.  The handsome Italian waiter looked like Jon Hamm from Madmen.  He said everyday someone tells him that.  We walked back to the hotel circuitously but eventually got there.  I think we were tired.  We went up to our room and WOW.  We were on the 14th floor with a fantastic view of the city and harbor.  In the evening, after a rest, we walked over to the nearby Little Italy section to look for a place for dinner.  It was Valentine’s Day, and it was jumping.  We were happy to find a table in one of the many Italian, duh, restaurants and had a good dinner.  We stopped in one of the galleries on the way back to the hotel.

The next morning, we had our included breakfast in the hotel.  As planned friends Linda and Marshall soon arrived outside our hotel.  They drove down from Los Angeles to see us.  They hadn’t been to San Diego in a while too.  So we briefly showed them what we had seen the day before.  Then we drove to Old Town, considered to be the birthplace of California.  In 1769 Father Serra established a mission there, the first permanent Spanish settlement in California.  We walked around and found a place for lunch, Mexican food of course.  We spent some more time walking around.  We thought we’d have a look at the famous Coronado Hotel where the movie Some Like It Hot was filmed.  That was the first movie Tony and I saw together way back when.  It was very crowded, and they charged $17 just to park in the hotel lot.  I took a picture of the hotel, and we left.  After we got back to our hotel, we walked over to Little Italy and had coffees and more conversation.  Linda decided she loved the location and wanted to move there in that spot.  Haha.  We said our good-byes, and Tony and I went back to the hotel and sat in the lobby until it was time to go to the airport.  Later that night we flew back east.  After a layover in Newark the next morning, we arrived in Harrisburg.  It was sooo cold and snow was everywhere, but I was happy to be home, sweet home.

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