Panama cruise 2012


Trip preparations


The bucket list movie really started an awareness for people. Life doesn't go on forever so you need to prioritize what you want to do in life and just do it. A cruise through the Panama Canal was definitely on both of our bucket lists and thus the adventure begins.


While we were in California the winter of 2010 we connected with Rosalie and Buddy. Rosalie had looked into Panama cruise options with a particular one in mind (the Zuiderdam leaving Fort Lauderdale April 20).  The plan was set in motion and tickets were bought and excursions were selected.


We have done this enough times that we have a huge travel list to guide our trip preparations. We haven't yet got it totally right though as we keep adding to it. We closed up the Ilwaco house and did our best to collect all of our travel items.


In Vancouver we completed the complicated process of packing for the cruise. We had to include both casual and formal types of clothing.  One of the challenges was to keep the suitcase to be checked under 50 pounds!


April 17 – Flying from Portland to Orlando


Our flight took us from Portland to Dallas-Fort Worth where we caught our plane to Orlando.  Even though the plane was totally full our first leg was uneventful.  Our connecting flight was in a different terminal so we had to ride the Sky Train around. We found our connecting gate and had time for some local cuisine that included barbecued chicken and beef sandwiches. We certainly did not expect any food on the plane! There was a celebrity on the plane known as “Carrot Top”. He is a Las Vegas performer with long curly red hair and eye makeup from Orlando. Somehow Butch was confused as he thought he was the Olympic redheaded snowboarder. He was very kind and shook hands and posed for pictures with people.  On this leg of the journey the plane was not full yet we were crammed in three across. When they closed the plane door and it wasn't full we wondered how we ended up with a window and middle seat. Then the light came on. These must have been the cheap seats. We noted that there were empty seats across the aisle and the lady occupying the aisle seat couldn't wait to move.


This was an older plane with 1970s style TV monitors hanging over the aisles. In addition we overheard one of the mechanics discussing a faulty fuel light as we got on the plane. Not far into the flight the flight attendant announced the rear bathrooms were out of order (probably something to do with the faulty fuel light).  The flight attendants offered complimentary water but we replied “no, not without functioning restrooms”.


We found the luggage carousel and knew we had the right one as we saw Carrot Top collecting his bags. After waiting about 15 minutes they announced that they were not able to open our cargo hold door and the ground crew was working on it. Uncle Jim and his friend Ruth were waiting for a call to come collect us. Apparently they enjoyed each other's company because they didn't complain about the 45 minutes it took to collect our luggage. We stopped and they bought us a nice dinner.


April 18 – Orlando with the Fulwiders


Bryan had arranged for the use of a cottage that was part of his condominium complex. We had a nice night and the next morning Bryan fixed us a Southern hospitality breakfast that was delicious.  It was fun catching up with Brian, Mickey and Uncle Jim. We ended up with the use of Bryan and Mickey's Mercedes sports car. It was really fun to drive but it took all of Butch's agility to get in and out of it.  We also drove Uncle Jim's smart car which wasn't as fun to drive but a lot easier to get in and out of.


April 19 – Driving to Ft Lauderdale


Bryan picked us up early at 7 AM for the drive to Fort Lauderdale. This amounted to approximately a 4 hour drive. Bryan’s phone had a GPS application that he tried to use to find our motel. It was stuck on steering us to the turnpike (toll road). This occurred even as we approached the motel. It was a quick goodbye as Bryan had a meeting later that afternoon. We appreciated his hospitality and driving us to Fort Lauderdale!


With Bryan's efficiency we arrived early enough to require an early check-in. After dinner we caught up with Rosalie and Buddy and downed a six pack of beer and called it a day.

April 20 - Boarding the Zeiderdam


Rosalie signed us up for the 11 AM shuttle to the ship. We had just completed our checkout at 10:30 AM when the shuttle bus driver arrived and announced he was the 11 AM shuttle for the cruise so load up! It was a work of art how he packed in 10 people plus luggage in the van.


After an efficient processing and boarding we made a beeline for our first of many feedings.  The Zeiderdam was built in 2002 and is filled with approximately 2000 passengers and 800 crew. On this voyage there were only four children! We figured out the average age to be around 65 or so with plenty of walkers and the occasional wheelchair. Our room is great! The outside balcony really is nice.


We went to the departure party on the Lido deck with more food - a barbecue! Their idea of happy hour is selling five cans of beer and a bucket of ice for just over $20. As the boat sailed out of the United States we turned off our cell phones and all communications until we arrived back to San Diego on May 8.


We went to the welcome aboard show and part of the warm-up was a $300 Bingo game. In this game you needed a square off each side of the free space. Cathy got off to a great start getting three of the four numbers. Unfortunately she didn't get the fourth number and somebody else got her $300. Close just doesn't count in Bingo. Before the show started they selected some passengers for their version of a game show. The game show host was caught off guard when he asked one of the contestants why he volunteered. He answered:  “My wife wanted to win a free lunch on a cruise with unlimited food”.


Our expectations of crashing after a long day were dashed when we saw that we still had the beds apart. We knew they were done as they had left the chocolate. Apparently the two bed arrangement was presumed with the elderly crowd. A phone call and a half hour later and our room was rearranged for the rest of the trip.


April 21, Saturday, Half Moon Cay


After the morning feeding we boarded a tender to the beautiful white sandy beach island. When we made the reservations there was only one jet ski spot open. So for Cathy's excursion she chose to pet stingrays. The jet ski ride turned out to be a good fit for Butch who was still feeling some withdrawal from selling his motorcycle. The jet ski satisfied his need for speed with the wind and saltwater spray in his hair. This left his hair in a state his stylist would have envied (he even had Cathy take a picture of the style).


Cathy's excursion took her face to face with a dangerous sea animal. This involved snorkeling with stingrays in a small fenced off lagoon. She was the lucky one that was bit during the feeding. Though the stingrays have no teeth, they do have calcium growths in their mouth that can be painful. They call it a sting ray “hickey” if you are left with a bruise after being bitten.


Butch finally needed to get on long pants for dinner and this was a delicious steak. Cathy had a delicious fish for dinner. Then off to the show to watch a great singer, impersonator and comedian. Quite entertaining! He called our meals “feeding times” - a term that we have adopted throughout the cruise.


April 22, Sunday:  Grand Turk (British West Indies)


Cathy and Rosalie started out with their first Tai Chi lesson with a young Australian instructor. She pointed out to her older students that it was quite normal to hear pops and snaps during the routine.


We got off the boat, checked out the shops and hung out at a very large nice pool area near the Margaritaville bar. We also checked out the beautiful white sand beach before heading back to the ship.


The ship's crew had turned off the air conditioning to do some type of maintenance. With the temperature and humidity both in the high 80's they turned the ship into a great big sauna prompting record beer sales. Our plan to cool off in the shower failed because the tap water was more than lukewarm.


Butch (as it turns out the smart one) skipped dinner in the hot dining room. The air-conditioning finally restarted but even on maximum all night in our room it took a long time to cool down. It was 75° still in the morning - our balcony was cooler!


April 23, Monday:  Day at Sea


Tai Chi lesson number two. We were slightly more coordinated. Then we went to water aerobics in a pool packed like sardines! Finally Cathy finished her exercise routine with a mile walk on the promenade deck (three laps) while Butch went to a computer photo class. When he got there early he found there was a class already in session. Butch happened to be at the front of the line when it was time for the class to start. He walked into the room and got the teachers attention. She asked “can I help you?” Butch replied “what time does the 11:30 AM class start?” She looked at her watch and said “in about a minute. Find a seat.”  No one in the previous class left leaving the newcomers without computers and scrounging for places to sit.


After lunch we went to a talk about our next ports Curaçao and Aruba. About 20 minutes into the talk we found ourselves getting sleepy. As we left we noticed several people with heads back, eyes closed and mouths opened.


The captain gave a little talk over the loudspeaker about the flying fish going in the air because of the perceived danger from the boat. This of course attracted their predators the booby birds. They would soar motionless right by our balcony and dive headfirst into the water.


It was time to take the good clothes out of mothballs for the first formal dinner. It seemed pretty much like the casual dinners except that Buddy looked like an an FBI agent and Carl looked like he was in the British secret service. Butch on the other hand looked more like Alfred Hitchcock. Then to the show (after a quick change of clothes into something more comfortable) and off to sleep in our very comfortable bed.

April 24, Monday:  Curacao (“cure a sow”)


Curaçao is part of the Dutch kingdom and has very colorful buildings. Their official language is papiamento but most of the residents also speak Dutch, English and Spanish. When we were getting off of the ship we were held up and told to face the wall.  Unfortunately for someone a body was removed from the ship. One guy wondered if a cabin upgrade might be available for him much to his wife's embarassment. We crossed over to the other side of town once we were off the ship on the ferry.  The floating bridge was swung into its open position. The ferry is free when the black flag is raised indicating at least a 20 minute or so wait for the bridge to close again. We walked around town a bit.  There were lots of shops and a local floating market of produce from Venezuela. We were approached by a 60 something slender black lady with a huge smile and bubbly personality. She was offering island tours for $15 a person in an air-conditioned bus. This was a lot cheaper than the organized excursion through the cruise line. We had half an hour and looked around town before the tour started. When we showed up for the tour we thought we had the bus to ourselves. However within 10 minutes the bus filled up. One of the trip stops on our tour was the Curaçao liquor company. We found the sample appealing so we bought a decorative bottle filled with orange liqueur. We also saw an iguana at this stop. We learned that Curaçao has a history of slave evaluation and training. It also contains an oil refinery, aloe plantation and of course tourism. After the tour we headed back to the ship for a feeding and a nap.  Our liquor was confiscated as our bag passed through security. Hopefully this will be returned to us at the end of our cruise.


On our second trip out from the ship we did not cross the river but explored the shopping on the boat side of the river. Cathy found a nifty T-shirt with Curaçao on it and she wore it that evening and it generated a lot of compliments. After dinner it was party time on the Lido deck. They had an ice carving contest, live music and a conga line dance. The drink of the day came in a funny glass with a blinking light in the bottom which seem to fascinate Buddy. When he went for a stretch we bought him one. And so we end another great day on the cruise.

April 25th, Wednesday:  Arruba


There was tai chi for the girls at 8 AM.  Cari had researched and found us two excursions for the day. The first was a three hour Island tour with Sonny who looked sort of like Dwaine Johnson (known as “the rock”).  Butch called shotgun and got the front seat. It was a full load as the Crown Princess cruise ship was also in port. We saw the California lighthouse, beautiful homes with tile roofs, and a park with a fallen arch by the sea. They told us that most of the homes were usually on government land.


Sonny dropped us off at a resort where we had lunch and met up with our next guide. We went to a beach where we got our snorkel gear and propellers. It was a great way to scoot around and cover a lot of the reef and overcome some of the strong currents. We saw a lot of pretty coral and colorful fish. The water was very clean and warm. We saw a cliff wall underwater and a buried boat. We all made it back with the exception of one of Rosalie's pink fins. It was a good thing she had her propeller otherwise she would've been swimming in circles. On the way back to the ship we discovered that even a small Island can have traffic jams.


We tried a new approach with the dining room as the reservations usually only gave early or late times. We just showed up at 6:30 and they found us a table! The dinners are  always four courses with an appetizer and then a salad or soup which always included a sweet chilled fruit soup, entrée and dessert.


April 26th, Thursday:  Day at Sea


Tai chi and then water aerobics. The pool was less crowded and so the routine was a lot more fun. We had singing and partners high-fiving as we crossed across the pool. Then onto a lecture about possible life in the universe followed by the Panama Canal lecture. Later that afternoon bells chimed in our cabin and a breathless captain came on announcing that smoke had been detected from the incinerator. Isn't that where a fire is supposed to be? It turns out that one of the fans had stopped and allowed smoke to accumulate there and leak out a bit.  In the end all was well.

April 27th, Friday:  Transiting the Panama Canal


Fortunately the time had fallen back an hour as we needed to get up early! Cathy was up to grab one of the comfortable chairs in the crows nest for a great view. It turns out that our ship had to reserve our transit time two years in advance for a $36,000 fee! The total cost of transiting the canal was somewhere around $360,000! We're not saying they greased the wheels but we did jump to the front of the line of a whole bunch of ships waiting out there. Several tugs greeted us and delivered the canal captain to escort us through the canal. We went through three locks to rise up to the level of Lake Gatun. Little trains hooked cables to the ship to keep it in line in the locks. Our ship is a Panamax vessel made to the maximum to fit into the locks with only about a foot to spare on either side and not a lot of room lengthwise either. There were a couple of other ships going through the locks with us including a car carrier and a New Zealand cargo ship.


While Cathy relaxed in her lounge chair Butch ran around taking pictures. The ship had a narrator whose first language was not English. He discussed history and items of interest as we went along. We could see where they were clearing land for the new and larger locks expected to be completed by the hundred year anniversary of the original locks in 2014. After we went through Lake Gatun we passed through some more locks to get back down to sea level and by late afternoon made it through to the Pacific Ocean. Going through the locks and the lake was scenic with a lot of very lush jungle like scenery. As we exited the Panama Canal we saw the skyline of Panama City which included a lot of skyscrapers.  All told it took about 8 hours to get us through the Canal to the Pacific.


April 28, Saturday:  Day at Sea, Golfo Dulce scenic cruising Puerto Rico


We found several activities to do today. We took the Tai Chi class, water aerobics and attended lectures about the Mayans, Central American ports, and for Butch a lecture on increasing his metabolism. Napping was also an activity for Butch. We toured Golfo Dulce - a pristine beautiful Costa Rican coast line.


Dinner was formal and we had lobster! Butch took advantage of some confusion about the timing of dinner to avoid wearing his suit on a hot night. Cathy was just sorry she couldn't figure out how to have his lobster too!

April 29th, Sunday:  Costa Rica


We started the third world countries in a sauna atmosphere. Cathy presented herself in the morning with her shirt inside out. Butch didn't want to say anything about her taste in clothes but Buddy pointed out with a straight face that her shirt was “interesting”. Now she knew why the lady on the deck gave her a funny look.


We were off to our first of four days of bus tours. We drove through the countryside on a dirt road while being informed about Costa Rica.  We went on a boat ride where we spotted a large crocodile that was probably hanging around to guard her eggs. Apparently they usually slither away from the boat. We heard the Mackaws and Cathy actually spotted the pair of them. When we returned from the boat ride we had refreshments including fresh fruit and beer!


We were then off on a hot and noisy train ride going through small communities with shacks only a few feet from the tracks. We saw howler monkeys and white faced monkeys. We were told to watch out because they sometimes throw poop at you. We also saw a large anteater in a tree. The train ride ended after passing through a long dark tunnel. We then came back to our air-conditioned floating hotel. Cathy noticed that there were speedboats pulling canoes out from the shoreline filled with 6 to 7 people. They quite often tipped all the people over into the water and so this was quite amusing to watch.

April 30th, Monday:  Nicaragua


Today was a very hot and humid day. Nicaragua appears to be a very poor country with most people living in small shacks with tin roofs. We took a bus trip to Leon where we toured a massive Catholic church which was apparently the largest in the country. We walked (in the sauna) around the square and the church looking at the local market. There were children trying to sell us whistles and other trinkets. We then headed off for the bubbling mud pots. Near the mud pots was a very impoverished community. It seemed  like the main industry was selling access to visualize the bubbling pots and also for the restrooms. They offered little clay figures which were made from rock and mud from the site. We returned on the bus to the ship for showers and our evening feeding.

May 1st, Tuesday:  Guatemala


Today we took a bus ride to Antigua. The weather was much cooler as Antigua sits at approximately 3000 feet elevation. It was like a breath of fresh air and much less humid! The bus driver seemed to pass slow vehicles with little regard for much visual clearance but we made it. We walked around and saw a church and colorful buildings with wrought iron balconies. Buddy, Rosalie and I went shopping while Butch stayed in the central square by the fountain and saw an impromptu show by a juggling mime. There were modern Mayans in the square.  They tended to be small in stature and had very colorful costumes. Lots of the locals were trying to push a variety of local wares and often were a little aggressive. They would offer something up for a dollar and quickly turn it into $10 dollars instead.


We went to a local restaurant and had one of their local beers called Gallo and a nacho plate which consisted of about four chips per person. We made our way back to catch our bus. They called our bus number and then we waited and waited in a line. It turns out our guide couldn't raise the bus driver and we ended up being the last ones to leave.

May 2nd, Wednesday:  Puerto Chiapas, Mexico


Today we stopped at our first Mexican port.  There was a large hut set up for the entry of cruise passengers. There were shops and dancing Mexicans putting on a show. A couple of the dancers did not seem to know the routine as they would spin off doing something different from the others. The first bus we got on for our tour did not have good air-conditioning (which of course was a necessity in this climate). The guide talked about the area as we drove to Tapachula. We toured a Museum showing Mayan artifacts, a cultural center and a church before being turned loose at the town square. We wandered around the town which was really quite a large city. We boarded our new “cool” bus and headed to the Mayan ruins at Ixtapa.


Just a quick note about our poor luck with Central American and Mexican buses. The first one lost a large piece of molding from the overhead area inside. The second one had water dripping onto some of the passengers. The third bus we lined up to board and didn't show up until late. The last issue was as noted above a defective air conditioner.


May 3rd, Thursday:  Day at Sea


Cathy received an offer she couldn't pass up from the spa which included a facial, foot massage, shoulder and scalp massage and hair conditioner treatment. It was wonderful! Butch tried his luck at the blackjack tournament. For a $20 buy-in you could play until seven hands were done or your money ran out. They had a leader board which showed the top six that would play for the final $500 game. It turns out the tournament ran for more than one day and people were already on the leader board with their winnings. The other thing that was different was that you could enter multiple times  and the second $20 got you the third round for free. This turned into a $40 learning experience for Butch on how the casino profits from a blackjack tournament.


Cathy (looking beautiful after her spa treatment) and Butch (looking wiser after his blackjack tournament) got all gussied up for the formal dinner of steak and shrimp. This was followed by a show with a Latin music trio and then another nights sleep on our very comfortable beds.

May 4th, Friday:  Zihuatanejo, Mexico (near Ixtapa resort area)


It is still fairly hot and humid today especially in the sun. We arrived very early in the morning and noted that there was a mass exodus of boats from the harbor. Was this a fishing derby or did they know something we did not? At the small port we needed to tender into shore. We were told to report to the Queen's lounge for our number for loading the tender. We were told there was a 45 minute delay or so to get on the tender. When our number was called we headed downstairs. Getting on the boat was tricky. The boat and tender were both rocking and made it difficult to cross over from one to the other. Once on the tender we found it quite hot and stuffy. We arrived and walked into the small and cute town with cobbled streets. We walked around and checked out the shops. When we arrived back to the pier we found long lines waiting to be tendered back to the ship. They seem to have gotten some of the kinks worked out though as the line moved faster. Once we arrived back on ship we napped, went to happy hour, ate and went to the show.

May 5th, Saturday:  Puerto Vallarta  (Cinco de Mayo!)


We arrived at approximately 11 AM and found that two other cruise ships were already there. After the last port’s bottleneck they decided to set up two gang planks for offloading. Cari had researched and arranged a water park visit which included a dolphin encounter.


After arriving at the water park we stored our gear and got our inner tubes. They had a perpetual circular stream you could drift around on. Butch had been floating on the tube on his stomach and found this uncomfortable after a while. Cathy suggested he sit on top of the tube like she was doing. When he sat back on the tube he just kept going and was dumped back into the water. Since he only can take short doses of sunshine without burning he used that as an excuse to get out of the water.


Next he saw Buddy coming down the large waterslide. He thought he would give that a try but he would have to take off his T-shirt and he was over the weight and age limit. This is turning into a typical Butch day. He went to the sea lion show with Carl and Cari. Since we were in Mexico and few tourists were at the park all of the commentary was in Spanish. He really felt left out when everyone laughed and clapped after something the announcer said.


Things improved when we got to the dolphin experience. The lady explained all of the do's and don'ts in English. A fantastic and unique experience it was! It gave new meaning to swimming with dolphins as we clung for dear life to its fins as we were propelled across the pool. We petted her and she did tricks for us and even gave us a kiss. The grand finale was being pushed by her nose on your foot on the boogie board.


The trip back required two cabs and some price negotiating. When we got back there was a barbecue dinner on the ship with a mariachi band. Cathy saw the movie Warhorse while Butch watched the shortest independence day fireworks he had ever seen (only about 12 explosions). Remember - it was Cinco de Mayo!


May 6th, Sunday:  Day at Sea


It is a nice sunny day and we are finally losing the heat and humidity. Cathy went to tai chi in the morning and then for a walk on the promenade deck. Butch and Buddy had their usual morning social gathering at the feeding station. Cari played in the Texas holdem tournament and we came to support and cheer her on. Butch found the strategy interesting and learned a lot about how to play the game. The game is entirely automated and showed at times the percentage likelihood of winning. The guy next to Cari went all in and lost so Butch was able to sit and observe. The field narrowed down to Cari and one other guy. She had a pair of sixes down and he had an ace/king. They went all in for the first-place prize. Prior to the last card the table showed she had a 75% chance of winning but the last card proved that skill is no match for good luck and she came in second.


It was the final formal dinner and one of the items was filet mignon with lobster. Needless to say this is the option that we chose. When the waiter asked Butch for his order he said this he would like the steak with two lobster tails. He never figured he would actually get them so you can imagine his surprise when his plate showed up with two lobster tails. Cathy began scheming on how to get her fair share of the second lobster tail. Seeing that he had the upper hand for a change he traded some of the lobster tail for a massage he owed her.


We then went off to the show to watch the Zeiderdam singers and dancers perform again. We closed out the evening watching the ship's version of the marriage game pitting a couple married one month against another married 24 years and finally a couple married 61 years. The most memorable response was when the emcee asked the lady married 61 years what size bra her husband thought she wore. She replied “Oh, probably 38 long”.


May 7th, Monday:  Last day at sea


It's cold today and Butch is finally comfortable. We had our last tai chi class and we are getting pretty good. Our pampered lifestyle was going to come to an end. There will be no more frequent and massive feedings and no more throwing our towels on the floor and having them magically disappear. No more chocolates on the bed at night either.


Cathy went to a magic show where the magician revealed some of the secrets of his technique and Butch traded pictures with Carl. We went to happy hour as Buddy was trying to use up his drink card and we were certainly glad to help him out with that.


We had our last dinner in the dining room. Apparently they had run out of steak and lobster as it wasn't on the menu again. Butch had his favorite from the standing menu -steak with mushrooms and garlic mashed potatoes. Then we were off for the last night of live entertainment with a singer and comedian from England.


We had received a note that all non-US citizens had to be cleared by customs before anyone could depart the ship. This changed our departure from 7 AM to 11 AM so we got on the list of passengers to be expedited off the ship (in order to catch our flight). We know that customs has a hard and vital job to do but this just seems stupid. All the non-US citizens had to have gone through customs coming into the country and had to show passports to even get on the ship. Neither clearing them or keeping us on the boat seemed to make any sense. Both our friends from San Diego and the staff on the boat said that San Diego customs were hard to deal with.




May 8th, Tuesday:  We leave the ship today


We pulled into San Diego on a gray morning behind two other cruise ships. This made one of the busiest port days in San Diego history. Because of the customs delay they kept the feeding stations opened all morning. We had originally planned to meet with Cathy's mom but the delay in getting off the ship prevented that from happening! When we did finally get off the ship we caught the shuttle to the airport and got our boarding passes and checked our big bag. Butch was able to try out a game on the iPAD on the way home and now we suspect an iPAD is in our future! The trip ended as it started with cousin Ruby supplying transportation from the airport.  Not only that - she had dinner for us!



Swimming with the dolphins




Feeding time                          All dressed up                    Darn formal nights