Panama Canal and Caribbean on the Big Z
Panama Canal & Central America
Fort Lauderdale (Port Everglades)
This was my 3rd time on Zuiderdam, and 6th on HAL. I usually try to find cruise itineraries that stop in places I haven't been to, but in this case, none of the stops were new. However, it had been 10 years since my last and only other visit to the Panama Canal and Costa Rica, so it felt like something fresh. It was quite funny to find myself in SS cabin 8070 AGAIN, as I was in the very same cabin in 2005 on the Zuiderdam!
Embarkation was fine in Port Everglades, despite their complete disorganization...the port facilities are under construction and renovation, which means ships are being almost randomly assigned to various piers, and the port signage often doesn't match. Our ship was parked where the Princess ships normally park, and the signs at the western port entrance had no mention of it. None-the-less, once we found the right pier, we entered, checked in, and boarded in under 20 minutes from car door to ship elevators.
Zuiderdam is scheduled for refurb very More
soon - we were the 2nd-to-last cruise before she undergoes wet-dock in Freeport. I've never been the particularly picky type who considers a cruise a complete failure because a carpet had a stain, or a chair was worn, so this was not something I worried about. The ship's condition was actually pretty decent and clean, with the typical and expected signs of wear and tear on cushions of deck chairs, weathering of wood decking, etc. Anyone reading this review should have nothing to worry about, since those should all be taken care of by the time of your next cruise.
I love the SS cabins - lots of room to spread out, lots of storage space, large balcony - no complaints. Room stewards were attentive and friendly and handled all personalized requests (separate beds, empty minibar goods to make room for sodas and milks, get rid of extra bedspreads and sheets, etc.).
The captain Christopher Turner was excellent at keeping to schedule, very informative in his daily bridge updates, and friendly in person. Cruise director JT Watters was familiar - at the Cruise Critic meet & greet I found out why - he was the same cruise director I had on Eurodam just last year! No complaints on ship staff and crew - all as to be expected on HAL.
I stuck with the main dining room throughout the cruise - no visits to Pinnacle this time. I had fixed seating, 8pm, table for 8. I've had very good luck over the past 8 years with getting very friendly tables, with everyone getting along immediately...and this cruise was no exception. Waitstaff was excellent, and right away got into our sarcastic and joking atmosphere of our table. Food quality was, if anything, even a little better than it has been on Zuiderdam - it's always been reliably good, but they were really doing well in the dining room with the selection as well as food quality overall. Lido dining I have very limited experience with - I typically visited the omelette station on some mornings, and the sandwich/bistro station on some afternoons - I tried no other selections as I'm more of a light breakfast and lunch type.
It was great to be back aboard the Z, and I look forward to the next time.
My photo gallery from this cruise is located at:
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Cabin review: SY8070 Signature Superior Verandah Suite
Navigation deck 8, port side, midship - 2nd door aft of the central elevators. Lido was just above - noise not a problem as you are underneath the very beginning of the Lido seating area. The balcony overhang is larger on this deck, providing good weather protection but not providing lots of direct sun unless facing the rising or setting sun (I prefer the overhang, which allows the balcony to be usable 24-hours, even in rain or heavy spray days). Cabin has lots of storage room - two desks, two chairs, drawers in both desks, both bedside dressers. Storage shelves beside the couch, above the minifridge, and in the closets. 3 separate closet sections all which have convertible shelves or hanging space. Large couch suitable for seating 3, also convertible to a bed. Large bathroom with two sinks, two medicine cabinets, lots of space around the toilet, a jetted tub with shower and a separate standup shower. Excellent location!
Port and Shore Excursions
Orenjestad is always a favorite of mine, again because it's a perfect port for walking and self-exploring...and because the ship stays in port much longer. I started off walking down past the airport, then back through the park past the Renaissance hotel, through their beach area, and back through town and the marina. Then I decided to hop one of the minibusses offering quick tours - for $10 I took a trip up to California Lighthouse with a friendly driver and 6 other passengers, down past some of the nice beaches, through a ritzy golf neighborhood, through the main hotel strip, and back around to town. A nighttime walk through town one last time made for a nice relaxing and scenic day...and a lovely nighttime sailaway.
The next stop was the transit of the Gatun locks of the Panama Canal, then short stop in Colon. The weather was highly unusual for Panama, or anywhere in Central America for that matter - the morning started off a bit warm and sunny, but quickly turned to overcast, but stranger was the temperatures which stayed barely 80 degrees and with fairly low humidity. I've not been to any Central American stop that didn't involve hiding from the sun and sweating profusely at some point - for our Panama Canal partial transit, I stayed out on deck from 7am to 3pm without a break, and never broke a sweat. The canal operations are always fun to watch, the ship's clearance is ridiculous, and it's hard to imagine how they squeeze that thing through without damage. In fact, the very large cargo vessel in the other locks beside us didn't get through without damage - as he loudly, smokily, and violently scraped along the lock walls despite the best efforts by the tug trains (pics in my gallery). I was also enjoying the trip as I like wildlife and birds, and had my large lens out to capture the native fauna. The stop in Colon involves mostly shopping, as the town has a rough look and you aren't encouraged to roam from the dock shops...admittedly I didn't bother to see much of the town except for what you could see from the ship. But I have to give the stop high ratings overall since it's the canal that I'm really giving the ratings to!
I was surprised to learn we were docking in Sint Anna Bay, as all my visits to Curacao since 1984 have been parked out in the Atlantic at the Otrabanda dock...I thought maybe the big ships couldn't come through the main channel. Last time I docked in there, I was on the puny Carla C! So I woke up for the entry to the port, and watched the lovely Curacao waterfront buildings pass by as we nestled up to the Queene Juliana Bridge, docking on the Otrabanda side. Just a pontoon bridge walk across to the Punta side (the old town) on a lovely warm sunny day, I walked through the fort, the fort church, along the city walls, down through town, past the government buildings then the Synagogue, to the inner harbor, and back along the canal to the Venezuelan fish boats and through the maze of old quarter streets. Sailaway was gorgeous, with perfect weather, great light, and scenic views as we backed out of Sint Anna Bay past the lovely dutch buildings and waving crowds, including those from the other cruise ship that pulled up to the Otrabanda port later in the day (Caribbean Princess). The captain sailed close to the island as we left, giving us great views all along the Curacao coast.
I can't say anything bad about HMC - such a beautiful and peaceful island stop. I knew Hurricane Sandy made a direct pass over the island, and was curious to see if there were any effects - I found it odd that nothing was ever mentioned about it onboard. Sure enough, the island had definite signs of damage...but they simply pushed it aside, operated as though nothing was wrong, and likely few of the passengers even noticed. Much sand had been lost on the main beach - probably 5-10 feet of beach coastline was eroded - much of the sand was pushed up along the trails. Salt water intrusion had killed some of the flora along the coast trails. The pirate ship bar lost its lookout mast, and the horse stalls area were quite ripped apart, with the tin roofs mostly missing and wood signs and walls blown down. Many folks just go to the beach and the food stations and likely never saw any of this...I tend to go walking all over the island to explore and hike, and I go there frequently, so it stood out to me. Had a wonderful day, a long walk around the back bay, up to the ruins, and the weather was even surprisingly cooler - mid 80s rather than the usual 90 degrees.
Now I gave Limon a slightly lower rating, but I'll explain why. Those going on excursions need not consider my rating at all - your experience in Limon will be entirely dependent on your excursion and how good it is. Those who don't take an excursion might find the town limited in shopping, entertainment, and a little seedy looking...it's not the prettiest, most touristy town. However, for me it's a fine stop and I have no qualms about exploring the town on my own and on foot. So my rating is high, and personally I could still consider it a '5', but I'm putting it down to '4' for consideration that if you're not into just walking, self-exploring, and photography/nature as I am, there's precious little to do in town if you're not on an excursion.
For me, it was even better than last time - the weather was wonderful - it stayed in the 70s, again incredibly unusual for Central America. It was a bit overcast, but a light breeze, and pleasant enough for a hike a mile or two down the beach, a walk back through town, and a few hours spent exploring the park right near the ship pier. The park is a great spot for nature lovers, especially birders...no need to go on an excursion to see some exotic stuff, as much can be found right there. 2 and 3-toed sloths are a guaranteed sighting in the trees of the park, with locals very excited to point them out to you (be forewarned...they may hope for a donation for finding the sloths for you!). And birds are abundant to the patient birder...in just two hours roaming slowly around the park, I counted 27 species of birds, photographing at least 13 of them. Bright red, green, blue, yellow, striped, spotted, long-tailed - all kinds of colors and patterns to the birds. Kiskadees, warblers, parakeets, flycatchers, tropicbirds, tanagers, and more.