We arrived in Ft. Lauderdale a day early, rented a car and stayed at the Vistamar Villas. It is an older motel style inn, just off the beach. It was very clean and comfortable, though a bit difficult to find, and had free parking. We planned an airboat ride in the Everglades for the next morning, departure day, so had only a very brief interaction with the owner.
Had dinner at Bimini Boatyards. Outdoor seating, too dark to read menu, nicely done fish, their special Bimini bread wasn't all that special. We learned, with the kind help of some citizens, where Total Wine could be found (essentially around the corner!) and had a pleasant time learning about inexpensive wine from the sales staff (who seemed just as knowledgeable about inexpensive wine and eager to help us as if we'd been buying the expensive stuff!)
The next morning with maps and directions in hand, we headed out to Sawgrass Mills Recreation area to ride an airboat. Our directions and maps were accurate, the traffic was all going the "other way" and we arrived by 9 AM without incident ... and it was already getting hot! We had a great, informative airboat ride, seeing a couple of crocs and a turtle, had some time to pick up really fun Santa on an airboat Christmas ornaments, and were headed back to drop off the Alamo rental car before 11AM.
No problems returning the car; no problems with the complementary shuttle; no problems until we got to the port.
Much has already been said and written about this first trip after dry dock. The ship was late arriving in FLL (technical water matters, shore side computer services, who knows why); embarkation was delayed, stopped, confusing, and uncomfortable. We arrived just after 11 AM, actually got inside the terminal, received a "number", then everything stopped. We were directed to sit and wait "until our number was called". But we were better off than others ... those many still outside the terminal, those in line in the terminal door, those without "a number", those without a "seat". Finally, when we boarded the ship, after 1:30 PM, it was clearly not ready for passengers. The ship ... smelled ... and was dirty. We found our cabin, marginally ready, dropped our carry on bags and wine and went exploring. It had been an early morning with no breakfast, so a bite of lunch was part of our plan.
First Impressions -- not a good start
Boarded ship into elevator lobby so it seemed small and dark. Elevators were blocked off and/or not operable. Then the smell started becoming noticeable. Walking down the hall to our cabin, the smell was very noticeable ... and hot.
Our cabin -- this was the smallest balcony cabin we've ever had. If it is not the smallest cabin in actual size, then it is the smallest feeling and most poorly configured balcony cabin we've ever had. With the absolutely filthiest balcony I've ever seen. The balcony had two different chairs and a really horrible little table thing. It looked like a larger thread spool and was barely adequate to hold two wine glasses. The A/C seemed to be working (though the adjustment was obscure); toilet seemed to be working (though pressing the flush button multiple times was often required.)
Workman were still on board -- installing outdoor lighting, bar seating and foot rails.
Lido carpet was soaking wet -- so wet that it splashed when trod upon .. and there was little choice but to walk through it due to the incredibly bad layout of the Lido buffet.
We were late. Loading of pallets was still going on at 7 PM. At 7:15 PM, we saw shaking of hands and an apparent agreement struck for leaving a BUNCH of pallets on the pier. We sailed out ... in the dark ... with no fanfare, hoopla or horns ... and no "wave requested" sail away picture.
We were self-indulgent and didn't bother with the Vista dining room. We ate two meals at the Pinnacle Grill, otherwise we ate "as we wished" in the Lido area.
The layout of the Lido buffet created a continuous bottle neck through the area -- the buffet patrons, the buffet lookers, the "just passing through" passengers AND all sorts of service carts were all required to use the same very small passage. It was an off putting sanitation and aesthetic issue of having dirty towels, garbage, more food, etc. being hauled through public areas.
Service was slow -- tables remained dirty for too long, tableware was difficult to find as it wasn't ON the tables; there was insufficient staffing of the cooking areas (1 person making 2 omelets at a time and burning them while trying to fill the rest of the request for bacon and toast; 1 person making 1 sandwich with extraordinary precision -- vigorous stirring the pesto before spooning a miniscule amount on the wrap, placing lettuce, a pinch at a time, 3 times, on to the wrap.
But, you know what? We thought the food was good ... really good! In checking the menus, it was the same dishes being served in the MDR. We were able to pick an appetizer, a salad ... same as downstairs. Our main dishes were customized with our vegetable choices -- and somebody makes some mean mashed potatoes! And the baker and pastry chef ... well, they should be crowned king of the world!
The Pinnacle Grill ... was excellent. We shared some sides and desserts -- shouldn't have done that -- they were very good and we were left wanting more! We had beef and prawns the first time and at the Cirque night, we had Chateaubriand. The Cirque night was the lesser of the two meals ... but still incredible.
Half Moon Cay.
Guess what .... We were late arriving!
Tendering was reasonable. We found the clamshell guy who set up our "reserved on line" clamshell ... and that was the last we saw of any ships staff. No bar staff, no nothing. We did see a lifeguard, asleep and slack jawed, on the lifeguard stand. We went to the pirate bar -- my sister had been interested in ordering one of the $10.00 specialty drinks. When we ordered, the bartender didn't have a CLUE -- he was checking the drink menu on the wall to see what ingredients were in this expensive cocktail! We canceled our orders! I have little interest in paying $20.00 for special cocktails that the bar staff has no knowledge of how to create!
We didn't try the island buffet. There was no announcement about it; we didn't see where it was so didn't bother to try to find it.
Tendering back was slow and disorganized.
Left .... Late. The ship had to send a stretcher team and medical staff to fetch a non-returning passenger. Never heard what happened.
6 AM and "This is the Captain speaking to you from the bridge" rumbled through the ship. We were dead in the water -- all 6 diesel engines ... off. No power ... anywhere. No wake but lots of white- capped waves. We were flopping around in the middle of the ocean ... 6 hours out of Aruba. Not a fun start to the day.
Despite our hour late arrival the Trikes-Aruba people waited for us.
We planned to just wander the area ... and were done with that in a hour. So we grabbed an open-air bus being sold on the street corners and for $15.00 each got an interesting tour of the rest of the area -- which saved this port for us. The Casper Tours guide was friendly and knowledgeable. We tried to find Dutch cocoa and Gouda but we must be poor shoppers because it wasn't found by us!
We toured Cartagena with Claudia on December 16, 2012. Our tour, organized through a Cruise Critic Roll Call thread, was **supposed** to be customized to include going into the Fort. In all other respects, it was the "city tour" as advertised by Claudia.
Okay ... I hate to admit it ... but I think we were over prepared. I was underwhelmed. I believe it is a great project and admire everything I read about the creation and construction of the Panama Canal. But, to really experience all that, I think you need to see it empty. Otherwise, sadly, it works exactly as it was designed to work ... and is just a lock.
We found the usual bad coffee and the Panama buns in an elevator lobby ... and on the bow. The Panama buns weren't to our liking ... and we loved the baker!
We took the ship's excursion "The Shaping of Panama" -- which was a bus over to Panama City, a tour of the oldest ruins, a ride through the modern part and a walk about in the old walled city. These types of excursions are totally "guide dependent" and the guide we had on the motor coach was a total dud. She commented about the Chagres River AFTER we'd driven over it because she was too busy chatting up the driver; her best comment about Panama City was that the traffic was "crazy". Thankfully, an excellent guide, Julian Ward, who entertained and informed us about the history and current culture as we slogged through the driving rain, saved the walk through the Caseo Viejo. A big thank you to Julian!
Costa Rica ..
What a bust.
OkeyDokey (Charlie Soto) A-2 Tour -- zip lining
Mr. Soto, who was also boarding another tour for which he was the guide, met us. Mr. Soto waited with my sister and I while we waited for his "helper for the day" to appear, and then waited while Mr. Soto organized the guide. Mr. Soto requested the our cash payment in advance in order to give money to the guide for admission fees. We were bundled into a taxi and headed for the zip line. In route, since it was still early, we stopped at a local fruit stand partaking of two types of very small bananas, a couple of bites of pineapple, and tasting a cocoa bean. Our guide presented us with a bottle of water as we left.
We went to "Jungle Breeze" zip line. Since it was just my sister and me, we were attached to a larger group from Greenway Tours. After getting our gear on and a safety demo, the Greenway Tour guide, and the non-zip line riders from their group, joined the tractor driver for the ride to the 1st platform. The Greenway Tour guide had the tractor driver stop several times to explain the jungle eco system, floral and fauna, even digging into research books he'd brought in his backpack for information.
The zip line guides were impressively safety conscious -- no one, not even themselves, failed to be linked to the safety equipment, except for the short seconds between unlinking and linking again. They were hard workers, getting all of us hooked to the cable system and off the cable system ... sometimes even having to go "fetch" those zip line riders who braked too conscientiously and ended up stopping short of the platform!
There was a "tip jar" for the zip line guides to which we contributed. They worked for it; they were cute and funny and took care of us.
The zip line was 9 platforms. The Greenway Tours guide met the whole group, with the non-zip line riders, at the last platform, taking pictures as we zipped to the ground.
That became the end of our A-2 tour due to the armed robbery that occurred in the banana grove, which was our next stop.
Notable for us - We like lots of information with our tours; we like a real guide showing us and telling us about their country. Our guide, who did not seem to be an actual employee of Mr. Soto, but more like someone he found for the day, was more a cab driver than an informational guide. He was very NICE; he was supportive and did what had to be done after the robbery (though there was quite a lot of dithering -- but he seemed upset and confused about the robbery) finally getting us to the municipal police station to make a report, helping with translation while there, and finally getting us back to the ship.
Mr. Soto has, since December 22, 2012, agreed to refund our cash payment -- but has continuously failed to do so though I've suggested many different avenues . His latest promise is for payment today, January 2, 2013. It is currently mid afternoon .... He emailed around noon and told me he was at his bank. Still no payment.
Back on board after the robbery -- We were in line at the front desk to get my cruise card reissued. The young woman asked a couple of questions to ensure her understanding and without further ado, kicked in their procedures - the security staff was notified, the port agent appeared, her supervisor came and inquired whether we'd made a report with the local authorities. Once we were finished with the front desk, the head of security had already appeared and asked for a moment -- he was very kind and supportive. He assured us that we weren't leaving the ship and later assured me that customs/immigration wouldn't be a huge problem in FLL; the nurse came up to make sure we were okay (she checked my neck and gave me some super antibiotic ointment samples); everyone needed to make reports. The Captain showed up - making sure we were okay and being taken care of.
I saw the head of security in the Lido the following day and stopped to thank him, again, for the kindness and courtesy of the staff -- he remembered me on sight, and immediately brought me up to date with the latest information -- who in FLL had been notified and what was going on.
HAL couldn't have been more supportive and genuinely kind -- or made getting back to the ship a safer place for us to be! I will always be impressed! But HAL didn't do anything with regard to reporting the stolen passport, credit cards, etc. They let me back on board with the information contained in their files AND with a copy of the incident report from the local police. (That report was very important to get!!) And while they were wonderful there ... we haven't heard from them since then .... nor would I have expected to hear from them. All of the running around in regard to my passport is on me!
Going through customs in FLL wasn't "bad" either -- I did still have my driver's license ... and we had the copy of the all-important incident report from the municipal police. It took 3 agents talking to me and clicking on their computers, but they let me back in the US. The HAL staff didn't have anything to do with all of that either -- unless there was some advance note in the computer from the HAL port agent -- which is what I understood would happen, but no custom's agent said anything about. The customs agent just said the computer had not been noted that my passport had been stolen and that I would need to make the report since the Costa Rica authorities had not done so.
Aside from being robbed, we had a great time -- but it was in spite of the issues with the ship. The ship conditions (relevant to passengers) improved steadily -- aside from the little fires and engine outages -- there was an apparent real effort by the ship staff to get conditions back to what even they expected. We heard from JT, the cruise director, at the meet and greet, that the dry dock puts a "real dent" in the ship with the workers leaving a total mess and from stealing whatever can be taken! Our cabin stewards, Acer and Agus, after a slow start (getting clear on extra towels, our request for 2 of the daily information sheets, getting the balcony cleaned) were great. They were very solicitous of us after the robbery.
We enjoyed the ports as they were all new to us. But the Caribbean and South and Central America hold no more interest for us and for Alaska, we prefer Princess, so we probably won't see the msZuiderdam again.