Panama Canal Sunfarer Cruise
Panama Canal & Central America
Fort Lauderdale (Port Everglades)
This is our seventh cruise and the first with Holland America. We are a couple in our thirties traveling without children.
Hotel: Flew in the day before our cruise and stayed at the Hyatt Regency Pier 66 that we booked through Hotwire.com. Grounds were beautiful with large pool. Our room had a marina view and the bed was clean and comfortable. Unfortunately there were other parts of the room that were quite dirty (upholstery on chair was dirty as was the bathroom floors). The poolside restaurant was overpriced and the food was overcooked and just didn't taste right. We went to the Pelican Bar for an evening snack and drink. It had a beautiful view overlooking the marina and the food was good although the service was a bit slow. We had breakfast in the morning at Mariner's which was again super overpriced where they charged $10 for a bowl of oatmeal. One piece of advice: if you can walk a mile over the bridge there are several good dining options as well as an enormous More
wine store called "Total Wine and More" where you can pick up a couple of bottles to bring on the ship (Holland America allows you to bring wine on board). The location of the hotel was nice since it only cost $12 to take a taxi to the port.
Embarkation: We arrived early so had to stand in a long line to get registered and then wait for our number to be called. Luckily the line moved pretty quickly and the gentleman that checked us in was incredibly nice. Probably about a half hour process.
Stateroom: We had an inside stateroom and we were very pleased with it when we had arrived. The size was quite large and would likely sleep up to four since the couch appeared to bed a sofa bed and it looked like there was a bunk bed tucked into the ceiling above our bed. The bed was comfortable and the water pressure in the bathroom was great. The stateroom also came with a DVD player which was nice so we had brought some DVDs from home to watch on sea days. Only complaints about the room is that the TV was turned facing the couch and could not be turned to face the bed, the DVD player did not have a remote which was required to operate (it took a couple of days to get one delivered), and on days where the ship was really rocking, the creaking got so loud my husband had to get ear plugs. In addition, we thought it was a little strange that H.A. did not have the interactive menu on the TV to show your invoice which we had been accustomed to with every other cruise we have been on.
Dining: The food at the Lido buffet was average but we did not like the fact that a H.A. employee needed to serve each food item or drink. H.A. had put a notice in our stateroom that they do this the first two days of each cruise to try to avoid illness being spread but this seemed to continue for most food stations, including beverages for the entire cruise. This did cause additional lines and instances where they misunderstood what was asked for. The pre-poured beverages were tiny and watered down. We did enjoy the food from the grill and I liked that there was a make your own nachos bar. Food in the dining room was very good on most nights. I thought the seafood and beef selections were particularly good. We had dined one night in the Pinnacle Grill which was for an extra charge. I enjoyed the lobster bisque, crab cakes and filet minion (although it was a little overcooked). My husband though, felt that it was not worth the $50 charge. We also spent one evening in Canaletto which is their Italian restaurant next to the Lido buffet. It requires reservations but does not have an extra charge. The food was decent. We wish that there would have been a 24 hour food option like most cruise lines have although with the demographic for this cruise being older than average (mostly retirees) we can understand how this might not have been a viable option. We did order room service but some of the food was beyond edible and some was not what we had ordered.
Entertainment: We particularly enjoyed the Comic Magician Jeff Peterson and Singer/Impressionist Jeff Tracta. The singers and dancers were pretty average and in general that is not our favorite type of entertainment on cruises. I was really impressed with all of the entertainment options in the Culinary Center and attended quite a few of the lectures or demonstrations held there. I even signed up for the Caribbean cooking class, which at $29 was a bargain! There was only 12 students and we worked to create three courses. Then we got to eat our creations and even got a glass of wine and apron included. Also fun were some of the game shows held in the evening in the Culinary Center. We did play in the Casino the first night and had fun on the slots.
Service: We were truly impressed with the fact that every H.A. employee had a smile on their face and truly seemed to enjoy being there. After the first evening, the employees that worked in the lounge by the dining room remembered our names and our drink orders. The women at the front desk were also friendly and helpful as were our dining room stewards. Our stateroom steward was a little less attentive than what we are used to since sometimes our room was only cleaned once or very late in the day or there were a couple of detailed overlooked. Did this make our vacation worse? Definitely not.
Disembarkation: Easy to follow and nothing out of the ordinary. It fell slightly behind schedule but ran in an organized way. As usual there was a pretty long line for customs but it moved quickly. Probably about 45 minutes to get off the ship. Less
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Port and Shore Excursions
We booked a tour independently through Blue Melody on the Black Pearl. We took a taxi to the Marriott Surf Club and hung out on the beach and had a drink at the local restaurant until it was time for our sunset sail. The beach was beautiful and the water was warm. The cost of our tour through Blue Melody was $50 a person and could be paid with cash or credit card. There were only about 12-16 people on our tour which was nice and it lasted about three hours. We stopped at two places to snorkel and there were big tropical fish to be seen. My husband even filmed some squid swimming around! The crew from Blue Melody were very nice and provided both beverages as well as delicious sandwiches. We had rum punch and each ate three sandwiches (two tomato, cheese and italian spice sandwiches and one grilled cheese that was made with Gouda and garlic bread) soooooo good! We also got the beautiful Aruba sunset that we were hoping for. After the cruise ended we were emailed a link to a free video they had taken during our tour. Altogether a very good value and highly recommended.
There were, in our opinion, not a ton of exciting tour options available through the ship so we decided to go to the Bonaire Donkey Sanctuary I had read about on the CC boards. When we got off the ship we stopped by the information desk and asked how to get there and he directed us to a nearby stand where the woman who founded the sanctuary was sitting at. She informed us that unfortunately, without our own car it was difficult to get there since most taxi drivers would not take passengers out there since they do not like the donkeys (of course this seems strange to us because we figure the taxi drivers should only care about the fare we would pay them and not the destination). Eventually she did point out a newer taxi driver on the island that would likely drive us. We asked and he said for $12 he would drive us there. When we arrived we purchased a bag of carrots to feed the donkeys and paid for admission as well as giving a little extra as a donation. We learned quite a lot: About 430 donkeys live in the sanctuary, most of which were mistreated, neglected or abused. They had recently acquired a mother and baby donkey that were abused after fighting for a long time for them. Approximately 130 donkeys remain on the island outside of the sanctuary and they are always trying to get each one. They do spay or neither each donkey that they have to ensure the population does not continue expanding. The staff of this place have huge hearts and genuinely love these animals. One employee stated that Marena's heart was "in the shape of a donkey" (the founder). They are constantly fighting opposition to their live saving work from the government and citizens of Bonaire because they see the donkeys as a nuisance and not worth saving. We enjoyed petting and feeding these sweet animals and many ran up to us like we would expect from dogs. Others were obviously a bit more scared of humans because what they had gone though. After the tour we needed to get back to the port and unfortunately the only way was for an employee to drive us back.
The port area did have a lot of craft stands for shopping and we stopped at a local cafe for gelato and lattes which was delicious.
If you are an animal lover I would highly suggest going out to the Donkey Sanctuary and supporting their worthwhile cause!
We did not book an excursion for Panama since they were all well over $100 a person and did not seem all that interesting to us so we stayed on the ship and watched it going through the locks which was neat. We stopped in Colon for only a few hours and it appeared that there were only a couple of small dirty shops in the port. Fellow passengers on the ship confirmed this but did state that they really enjoyed visiting the Indian Village.
Booked the Sea Aquarium through the cruise line. We took a pre paid taxi that dropped us off at the aquarium. The description when we booked did not seem to match what we got. There was no formal, informative tour. Instead there were a couple dozen aquariums with different fish in them, one with sea turtles and a pen with flamingos in it. We enjoyed the dolphin and sea lion show but in between them we were actually really bored. Our aquarium in Minnesota was actually quite a bit more impressive so we felt like our money was wasted here. There were quite a few cute shops back by the port to shop for souvenirs.
We used this first port on H.A.'s private island in the Bahamas as a relaxing beach day. It is an absolutely beautiful island with white sand a clear blue water (although a little cold) and with it being a privately owned island there is no local vendors asking you to purchase their things. There was another ship using the island the same day which made it slightly more crowded than we would like: we could not find an empty beach chair the first half of the day. We did enjoy the island barbecue hosted by H.A..
Booked independently with Your Lucky Tours. Eduardo from the tour company was waiting for us outside of the cruise terminal as promised. Our tour was $45 a person which was very reasonable and there were only six of us on the tour. We had stopped at a local fruit stand where we got to try fingerling bananas which are smaller than average and sweeter than normal. Our next stop was at the Del Monte banana plantation which was really fascinating. We got to learn the process of harvesting bananas and were amazed with the enormous amount of manual labor involved. We then stopped for a boat tour at the Tortuguero Canals where we got to see quite a few animal varieties: sloths, iguanas and birds. Finally we stopped at Playa Bonita for pictures on the beach as well as an overlook of the city. The wonderful thing about booking through an independent company, besides the small tour sizes, was the fact that we made a couple of impromptu stops when they noticed howler monkeys in the trees or when we passed ylang ylang trees to smell the blossoms. In addition, Eduardo took us to a grocery store in the city where we stopped for coffee, candy and salsa shopping. He advised us of all of the best brands to purchase before bringing us back to the ship. Absolutely great value and highly recommended!