Exotic Western Caribbean Cruise on Holland America's Veendam 3/11/06
Due to an unforeseen problem we did not embark in Tampa, but in Key West. Our insurance procured another hotel night, a courier service and airfare to Key West. I did have to sign for two Jones Act fines of $300 each. A front desk rep, Karin, assured the Key West Police and Immigration that they would accept us at this port.
The Travel Guard agent, Allison, had called the ship while it was still in Tampa, and had asked that our travel companions be informed that we'd be on the ship the following day. They were not given details, however, so we were greeted by another HAL rep who told us the friends had been calling her constantly to find out our status. They had also left messages on our cabin telephone. Everyone was worried when we did not attend the Cruise Critic meet and greet the first night.
It was a little after 2 p.m. when we got on board, ordered room service and unpacked etc. The cabin (cat F outside on deck A) was well appointed and roomy enough, as was the bathroom/shower. The tub itself was short, as expected. The cabin was conveniently located at the aft elevator on A deck. The ride was smooth. We found the layout of the ship to be good. You could not get lost.
Our dining room table mates were another mother/daughter combo (10 years our junior), so there was a good fit. Service was exemplary that night and every succeeding night. There was a good variety of selections in all categories, and contrary to what I'd read, vegetables were not overcooked nor was the food bland. It was certainly as good as on Celebrity. There were some flavorful dishes that were "real people's food" as well as the fancier ones you expect on a cruise. The Sommelier was attentive, our assistant steward kept the water glasses filled, and the bread basket, as well. Did miss the Celebrity breadsticks, however. The Indonesian entertainment was interesting but I could have done without it. This was the first time my daughter had seen the baked Alaska parade and she fully participated by clapping or waving her napkin.
DAY AT SEA
Veendam had recently had a refurbishment, and it was wonderful, especially the bedding. This was my first cruise on Holland America and naturally I compared it to my previous sailings with X.
I'm an early riser, like to see the ship come into port, and the sun rise, so went to the Lido before dawn and met the other insomniacs. It was so much fun to see them throughout the cruise. I spent time on the open deck outside the lido, and the two decks below the lido so I could smoke in the open air.
I did not see or hear any obnoxious or rude passengers that I'd read might be on a Tampa trip. This was a spring break cruise and there were some children, teens & college aged kids aboard. The only thing that bothered me was some running toward the pool by children who'd gotten away from their parents.
The hot tub was actually hot and very relaxing. And early a.m. it is almost deserted, so I felt as if it were my personal hot tub at that hour. The central pool has an opening (weather allowing) for sun and fresh air. It is a lovely area. There were "make your own bloody mary" stations, a taco and other Mexican food small buffet, plus hamburgers, hot dogs, pizza and french fries which were all good, and made before your eyes. You dressed the food yourself.
We attended a cooking demonstration in the new Culinary Arts room. There were camera views above and from the sides which were shown on screens on either side of the demonstration table. The "show" was shown on tv later in the week. It is in the same physical space as the movie theater which is also used for religious services, but behind the curtain.
I attended the win a cruise bingo, and bought 3 chances for a free cruise. No luck, however.
The movies shown were NEW ones. But there were some scenes cut in each we saw. You'll have to ask HAL why they were shorter than the original. One was so "cut" that it was not even interesting to watch, even though the actress had been an academy award winner (Walk the Line).
We located the one bar (Casino) where I could smoke and get service (other bars we had tried no server approached us so we left), and that was because we sat AT the bar where we could not be ignored. The flip side of this statement is that servers did NOT push alcoholic drinks, which is different from some cruise lines, I understand.
We did not use the casino, see a show, get a massage, or eat at the Pinnacle. Sorry. But I did talk to a man who won $501 on the slots.
One aft elevator did not work the entire cruise and one worked sometimes. The doors didn't always want to open or close. Several people on different days were stuck in this elevator for perhaps a minute. One call on the emergency phone fixed the problem. I tried to shy away from that particular elevator and used the stairs when the door would not close immediately.
There were only a couple of things that were different from Celebrity. One was that no lemonade or juice or iced tea was available 24/7. Only coffee and hot tea. I guess you could make hot tea and put ice in it, though. A couple of times I did see a server roaming the lido offering lemonade, but there was no self serve area for cold drinks other than water.
Lido tables were cleared promptly so you could always find a seat. This was more efficient than it had been on Celebrity. Saw very few trays carried for passengers.
2) There were no Qtips or cotton balls in the cabin, so we purchased some in Key West. The cabin was bright because of the large window, but I think next time I'll save money and get an inside if a balcony is too much. There were none available when I booked this cruise.
3) We had reserved a fridge, so were able to keep our Key West purchased Sprites cold. We were accustomed to having a mini bar on Celebrity.
We did not purchase a soda card or an alcohol package, nor smuggle any booze on. Just used the bars for liquor, limiting ourselves to one pre-dinner drink and wine with dinner.
4) My stateboard account showed 4 drinks purchased on the night we had not yet arrived on the ship, but guest relations took care of that error. By the way, they seemed to be on duty at least 12 hour shifts, and must have been tired, but they were always helpful. Bar tenders just asked for the room number and a signature. Some asked to see the card to compare name with signature, but I can see where that would not happen during a busy time.
They did not actually run the card through (like a credit card) each time. So errors can occur, either innocent ones, or heaven forbid, errors that were created by people deliberately stating the wrong room number and scribbling something illegible in the signature place (because the person did not know the name of the passenger who occupied the room. They showed me one copy, and it was merely up and down lines, no guessing at any letters. Really fraudulent. If a card were run thru, this could not happen unless the card itself had been lost/stolen. I was horrified that cruisers would do this. I'd never heard of someone "stealing" a drink by putting down the wrong cabin number.
5) No champagne given each passenger when boarding. I think that may be a Celebrity exclusive They did offer free cappuccino etc. after dinner in the dining room, but no longer in the coffee bar, Explorations.
I found HAL cruisers to be more accessible than those on Celebrity. Hard to explain, but it was noticeable. Maybe I'm trying to say that the passengers were not "clique"ish or snobby. I enjoyed the other passengers. Several cruise critics figured out who I was and welcomed me. I made some new friendships.
I packed for our first shore excursion (raincoats, sodas, cameras etc) which was to be 8 hours.
SANTO TOMAS DE CASTILLO, GUATEMALA to PUERTO BARRIOS -- Prior to the cruise I could not find a HAL excursion that I wanted, so had contacted various hotels in Livingston to see if one could be arranged. As it turned out, by sailing day, there was a very similar shore excursion offered, but only 4 hours. I'd already made my arrangements independently for a ride down the Rio Dulce and lunch in Livingston, with a little walk around town through hotelcasarosada.com.
Our group met, disembarked together at 8 a.m., and met a couple of English speaking guides on the dock, one who had lived in the states when he was 8 years old, and the other had spent 20 years in NY. They both knew our Livingston contact (told us to tell him "hi" for them), so they were not trying to sell us tours but were helpful in any way they could be. The young one wanted to practice speaking English. His was perfect but said it was difficult pulling it out of his memory.
There was a large "warehouse" type building filled with vendors. Apparently the custom is to ask a high price and for the buyer to refuse, offering a lower price etc. until an agreement could be made. I'd taught my group to say, "demasiado" (too much) or to exclaim, "tanto!" (so much!) to get the bargaining going. Our dinner mates said they said nothing, and were just trying to decide on a color, when the vendor dropped the price by 50%. So that's a word to the wise. Don't pay the asking price.
There was a steel drum group playing. We were given little 2" Guatemalan dolls. We did not tarry since we wanted to make the most of our one day in port.
There were some interesting and unusual "facts" I will now offer. There were six of us but we could not get a van unless we booked one of the shore excursions there at the pier. So we booked two taxis. The asking price was $130 per person round trip. I spoke up that we'd been told we could do it for $10 per person!! So that's what we paid. Off we went.
When I say, "we booked" what I mean is that inside the pier facilities you will get a licensed driver as opposed to walking outside the pier where someone may offer you a ride for a set fee. You will also be able to negotiate in English inside the facilities.
I had planned to walk outside the port, but I could not see how far away it was, or if in fact there were any cabs there, so it just seemed simpler to do it there, be safe with a licensed driver, and not have to walk to search for a lower price outside the gates. Security was very good at the pier, and once in the cab, I saw that we'd have had to walk a distance to leave the pier to find a cheaper rate.
Our Livingston guide had told us what other people he had taken on tours had paid ($10 each) and that it might be even cheaper outside the pier gates. He also had told me that the previous tourists had paid AFTER the round trip, but we paid before. We set a time to meet our driver that afternoon, and he was there at 3:30 p.m. as promised. So we were back on the ship before 4 p.m.
Our taxi driver spoke very little English and was relieved that I spoke Spanish, so we went back and forth if we could not understand each other. Romeo was going to school 2 hours every week night and said it was slow learning. He showed us his school, the hospital etc, and at my request took us by the 400 year old mission church in town so we could take photos, and then to the port in Puerto Barrios where we met our Livingston guide. We had occasion to ask if the missionaries had actually destroyed the Mayan religion. The answer everywhere we went was that it had not been destroyed, even if everyone had become Christian.
He drove very slowly so we saw some of the "life" in town. Streets were very wide, but very few cars were on the road. No one seemed to know there should be "lanes" for driving. In other words, all the cars were simply where they wanted to be, whether the middle or to the right side of the road. Or perhaps they were avoiding pot holes.
It was very tropical, humid, and poor by US standards, but no beggars. We did see one juggler (on our return trip) at an intersection who stopped by each car to collect his tariff. I'd spent every single dollar I had, so told him, "no tengo dinero" at which point he gave me a large coin. I'd read that this was a custom! I gave it to Romeo.
It was pouring rain, (but no thunder and lightning) and one of our members did not have a poncho. He asked me to ask the attendant at the dock if she had them to sell. She did not, and said the store across the street had them, but that store was closed. She did come out with a thin black garbage bag for him (price $1!) and helped him fit into it. Several of the women went across the street to find "servicios" (don't say banos because a bano is where you bathe). There was a charge there, as well. Originally they wanted a dollar per person but the women convinced her to take a dollar for 3.
The PB municipal pier was tiny, accommodating perhaps half a dozen private boats and the ferry. No one approached us to try to sell us anything. No one was in a hurry. It was nice to see "life" there.
PUERTO BARRIOS TO LIVINGSTON, GUATEMALA. Our guide for the day was Javier Putul, a native Mayan who owns the Hotel Casa Rosada with his Belgian wife. We waited until there was a break in the weather before heading out for a half hour bumpy trip across Amatique Bay to Livingston. There were no sissies in our group of 6 which ranged in age from 29 to 65! This was a real expedition! I suppose we could have canceled and paid the 33% penalty for doing so, but we hoped the weather would improve (it did). We laughed as we held up the tarps Javier had provided. Even Javier was laughing. Imagine, laughing tourists instead of complaining ones! Thank goodness we had cushioned seats which helped with the jarring of the boat meeting the sea at high speed.
Even in the rain the scenery was nice. 90% of the trip we were close to land, but it always felt as if we were on the open seas. There was a canopy on the launcha but it could not protect all passengers equally from sun or rain.
We stopped at the waterfront hotel to place our lunch orders (1 lobster & 5 tapados. Tapado is a local dish made from coconut milk, plantains, fish and shell fish. My bowl contained a whole crab, 6 shrimp, 2 mussels and half a fried local fish. It was delicious and messy! It was served with coconut bread, a first course of salad with their own salad dressing, and key lime pie for dessert. I had made sure that purified water was used to clean the vegetables and to make ice. We all tried the local beer) and look around a bit, waiting for the weather to clear. And clear it did. It was beautiful weather the entire time on the Rio Dulce. We drank Guatemalan coffee, as well.
The dining room was open air, overlooking the Caribbean, with exotic birds chirping. There were lovely gardens, Mayan designed, hand painted chairs and tables. I chose this particular hotel to deal with because it seemed so authentic and because i felt I had a personal contact with javier rather than another hotel trying to sell me something. javier wanted to give us what we wanted. We could have gone to a more Americanized resort for our tour and lunch, but we wanted something Guatemalan, and we got it. Javier was born in Livingston and was totally familiar with the area, and gave us what we were looking for. For those of you who may not know, Livingston is accessible only by boat. No roads lead there.
We travelled slowly up the Rio Dulce, went thru the canyons, up close to the limestone walls with hanging vines, to the hot spring with clear water to see the bottom, which was rocks (it is not a volcanic hot spring, but one created from moving plates?), bird island where there were a gazillion birds in flocks, to El Golfete, stopping at a school, Ak Tenamet and lagoons with lilies. We saw tiny frogs (smaller than a woman's pinky nail), termite nests, many herons and cormorants. No alligators, jaguars or Quetzales (the state bird after whom the currency is named) who reside in the mountains.
The area is pristine. I thought I'd found paradise. The water appears green because of the reflection off the vegetation on the walls of the canyon. There were people getting about in dugout canoes, some just crossing the river to visit friends, and others fishing for dinner or to sell.
After lunch Javier walked us to town on the main street. It was very Caribbean in feeling. The street was paved, with a concrete storm drain on both sides of the street. Flowers in every doorway. Every other house was a store or bar of some kind, with the family's living place behind it. Most people were of Mayan descent. I saw no negroid Garifunas except one beautiful woman waiting for the ferry in Puerto Barrios. Other cruise people did see many Garifunas, however in the restaurants and bars where they went. We saw only a handful of visitors, mostly Europeans and "capitalistas" meaning people from Guatemala City.
There is another meaning to the term capitalistas, as well. I won't go into details, but in two ports we were told how property had been appropriated from native peoples and given or sold to people of influence or with enough money to buy, hence, capitalistias. The closest thing to this I could think of in US culture would be when a building had been condemned, and taken over by the city to make a park, or when a highway was planned, the government offered what was supposed to be å fair price, but it has never been å fair price to the recipients whose property was taken for highway building. I only mention it to remind us that we are not in the states when we visit other countries, and those countries may have different laws than we do.
We left at 3 for the return trip to Puerto Barrios.
We did not visit Quirigua ruins (saving for the next cruise) since we had scheduled a private tour to ruins in Costa Maya.
COSTA MAYA, MEXICO. To the ruins of Chacchoben. We booked on line with David and Ivan (the Native Choice). Both are practicing Mayans who were educated away from home. Even knowing the delights of the modern world, both chose to return. Ivan grew up on the ruins and was the last baby born there before the land was appropriated for a national park.
We booked a taxi to Majahual and got to sit in the cab with the driver. The others were in a sort of military transport behind us. The driver was delighted that I could ask him questions in Spanish. If you don't ask, the driver may be silent, afraid to try his newly learned phrases in Spanish. So go ahead and risk saying the words you know. it will be appreciated.
After we'd paid, we were placed in a van with two from our Livingston tour, so felt right at home. We were honored to have Ivan as our guide. It's about an hour's drive to the ruins. We slowed down at the two villages we passed, and Ivan pointed out the differences in the housing of the Mayans, the meztisos, the capitalistas etc. The American children we saw on the playground were wearing blue jeans while the Mexicans were in uniforms. We saw the pineapple plantation (small) outside the village.
The tour was very respectful of the Mayan culture and a real pleasure.
Remember how in the '50s and '60s one could emigrate to Australia free of charge? If you built a house and business on the property within one year it was yours. Well, something like that happened in the province of Quintana Roo. Capitalistas were found who wanted a home, and were provided one there, in order to increase the population enough so it could become an official province. Before that happened, the whole area wås sort of å no man's land, like the US "wild west" was before becoming a part of the states. Officially, it was Mexico, but so remote from the rest of Mexican culture that it did not have the services etc. of the rest of the country.
BELIZE CITY, BELIZE (formerly British Honduras where the language is English).
We had friends there, so met them and visited for hours. They took us to Old Belize, a new day resort (no hotel) 5 miles from town. I saw it listed on one taxi driver's list of excursions, and on line (oldBelize.com), so it could be done from the ship via taxi if you wanted a little taste of culture as well as a day at the beach with restaurant and bar. I could see the port from our restaurant seat, so there was a nice view of the harbor.
There was a very nice museum showing the history of Belize, with real materials from the old days. I asked if they'd had a model for their design, signs etc. because it was very like what you might find in a national parks museum at home. They said they'd done it just for fun, trying to preserve a little history.
The restaurant had a live marimba band playing, a varied menu, including local beans and rice with chicken, like none you've ever had in any island. One choice had the rice cooked in coconut milk. the other had a sauce from achote.
The beach was protected, built as if it were a Pacific atoll. There was a marina, too. There was quite a crowd for a late lunch. From the moment it was built it became a decent hang out for local people. No rowdies or drunks allowed, so it is very safe, yet fun. Service was friendly and fast. Try it. You'll like it.
When they drove us back to the port we went through the congested vehicular traffic mixed with walking school children. I asked about the danger factor we'd read about. I was told there is real crime at night, mostly by gangs, but during the day it is safe, which was apparent from seeing the mixture of the school children, tourists, vendors and local people. Quintana Roo went from the poorest region to the richest in a few years with this sudden influx of people and the consequent building up of Costa Maya. Amazing.
On our way back we stopped for fresh pineapple with chile purchased thru the van's window. Ivan checked each bag to be sure it wasn't spoiled. They also had mango, but it wasn't ripe enough. What a treat! We were starved. Our tour lasted a couple of hours longer than anticipated. I got the feeling that they play it by ear, elongating the tour if people ask probing questions etc. We had brought toys and others, supplies, for the school, but did not stop by to give them out personally since we were so hungry and wanted to return to the ship.
It was not as hot in Costa Maya as it had been in Guatemala. Nor was Belize. Neither the Mexico or Belize ports were right at a rain forest as was Santo Tomas.
Disembarkation was a snap. We were allowed to stay in our staterooms until our number/color was called. Luggage was easily located, customs/immigration was quick and painless. Cabs were available.
The cruise lived up to its name, "Exotic Western Caribbean." We saw and experienced stuff we could not have experienced on the regular Western route, which I'd done before. If you have the opportunity and feel inclined to take this cruise, I'd certainly recommend it and Veendam.