We just returned from a 20 day cruise through the Panama Canal and had a truly great time.
BACKGROUND: I am in my early 60s, my wife in her 50s. We lived our working lives amidst the madness of metropolitan New York and retired to western Colorado almost seven years ago. This was our third cruise, our second with Holland America.
PRELUDE: My wife is recovering from shoulder surgery that she underwent in December, we both were sick on and off for weeks prior to the cruise and even both of our dogs required admittance to a local animal hospital three days before our flight. We only were able to get them released the day before our flight. In short, it was the worst prelude to a vacation in forty years of traveling, so based on past experience, we expected the cruise to be memorable!
PRE-CRUISE: From the taxi picking us at our home to our late arrival in Fort Lauderdale, everything went perfectly smoothly. We were able to get a taxi within fifteen minutes of collecting our baggage and were at our hotel fifteen minutes later. We arrived two days before the cruise and stayed at the Hilton Marina. Although we expected our room at the hotel to be just a bit nicer, it proved to be adequate. Tip: If you book a room in this hotel, stay in the "Tower" section. Our room was on the twelfth floor with our balcony overlooking the pool and the Intercoastal Waterway. Loved it! Bellhop and room service was prompt and friendly and you can get a bite to eat most nights until after midnight, a godsend on our arrival night, This hotel public areas are quite nice and we very much enjoyed the outdoor bar/restaurant. In addition, it is located just across the road from the cruiseport.
EMBARKATION: After a brief tour of the entire cruiseport, as our taxi driver missed the turnoff, we arrived at the terminal. I didn't appreciate the luggage handler/ director asking for a tip before I could get my wallet out, but otherwise embarkation was orderly and friendly. I just wished the soda/water machine in the terminal wasn't completely sold out.
SHIP: The ship was in excellent condition, very clean, well laid out and never seemed to be crowded at all. We can say the same for the pool areas. I particularly enjoyed the Dutch nautical theme that was ever present throughout the ship.
CABIN: We opted for an aft cabin directly over the wake of the ship and it worked out perfectly. The verandah was very large, about 10 feet across, sixteen feet or so deep, with enough room for two lounges, two chairs and several tables and was almost completely covered, which provided a great deal of privacy. The views, sunrise and sunsets from the verandah were awe-inspiring and photo opportunities abounded. As for the cabin itself, it was nicely appointed with more than enough storage for two (and we packed a lot!)
DINING: While the food in the main dining room was varied and mostly delicious, we found the portions to somewhat smaller than we had remembered from our last cruise with HAL so on a few occasions we just asked for an extra portion of something. As for Lido, the food was - well - Lido. It was generally good and better than we had recalled. The taco bar and Terrace Grill were visited often by us during "pool" days and were satisfactory.
ENTERTAINMENT: We're not much of "show" folks, especially as we opted for late dining but the one musical show that we attended was pretty lame. However, we very much enjoyed the classical "Adagio" presented in the Explorations Lounge and the light jazz presented aboard was nice as well. As yes, we really enjoyed the steel drummer who played daily at the Lido Pool.
PORTS AND EXCURSIONS:
HALF MOON CAY: we rented a clamshell well in advance of the cruise and the day was PERFECT! The water was a little chilly for some though.
CURUCAO: Very pretty port area. We took a beach excursion to the other side of the island. Nice beach, but were we to visit again, we would probably take a taxi to town.
BONAIRE: Perhaps our favorite port. It is not very commercialized and the two-site snorkeling tour provided the finest array of fish that we have ever seen.
ARUBA: We were planning to jeep through the desert but opted to snorkel and do some beach time instead. The director aboard the Pelican, Robertson, was a hoot!
We would have enjoyed a little more beach time, but all in all, it was a fun day!
Low point - at the conclusion of our tour we were locked inside the marina for more than half an hour, despite valiant efforts by the tour operator to contact the ship and the port authority. I complained to HAL but they just passed the buck in a vague letter to us.
CARTAGENA: We docked in the container port. Ugly but fascinating. There was nothing ashore to interest us ashore, so we just spent the day onboard.
PANAMA CANAL TRANSIT: We grabbed an early breakfast and were able to secure a good spot in the bow at about 5;20 AM. Get there early by all means. The transit itself was amazing. after leaving the bow, we spent much of the day on our verandah and were able to take hundreds of photos. The canal transit is a once-in-a lifetime experience.
PUNTARENAS: A fairly dingy port, but the mangrove river cruise was very good. We saw quite a few birds, a few crocodiles and our guide was first rate. There was plenty of shopping on the other side of the pier, which we enjoyed after returning to ship for lunch.
CORINTO: Clean port, but nothing much to do. It must be a fueling stop.
PUERTO QUETZAL: It was the day before Easter and the port area, beaches and roads were mobbed! It was a bit inconvenient but very enjoyable to be in such a festive atmosphere. Our tour to Tikal was perhaps, besides the Panama Canal, the highlight of the entire trip. We saw several huge volcanoes and a lot of beautiful scenery from the plane and Tikal itself is not to be missed. Just be prepared to do a fair amount of walking and negotiating of stairs to make the most of it. The day's finale was one to remember. The ship was set to sail at 5:30. At that time we were just arriving in the local miltary airport with several miles of very crowded roads and streets between us and the pier. So, we were greeted by the sergeant, our bus was escorted by a military jeep with lights flashing, sirens blaring and four soldiers with automatic rifles in plain view sitting in the rear. All in all, Guatamala left us with a very favorable impression.
PUERTO CHIAPAS: Very nice port area. We opted to just do a little shopping in the pavilion across from the pier.
HUATULCO: There is a very nice shopping area near the pier. In the afternoon, we took a "Land and Sea" tour. The Sea part was excellent and very scenic as we sailed the bays of the area. The Land part was a waste of time.We're not interested in seeing luxury resorts and listening to sales pitches.
PUERTO VALLARTA: We took an all day tour to Las Caletas. OUTSTANDING! This beach retreat is gorgeous, the all-inclusive food and drinks were first-rate and we spent about four an a half hours in total relaxation mode. We would surely do this again.
CABO SAN LUCAS: Although the tour went out, we opted out for a refund, as it was reported to us just before sailing that jellyfish had been sighted in the snorkeling area of Chileno Bay the night before. So we missed Land's End! Instead we just shopped in the port area. Be prepared to be endlessly hounded by locals pedaling tours.
SERVICE: Five ++ stars for our cabin steward, waiter and his assistant and those at the Lido.
DISEMBARKATION: Disembarking the ship was extremely smooth and orderly. Our expected disembarkation time was 10:45 and we were on our way by 10:20. We expected customs to be a long hassle but instead we walked right through. The inspector didn't even want to see our passports! We took the transfer offered by HAL and were at the airport before 11:30.
PROS: The Westerdam itself, dining, pool, service, and captain Rens van Eerten. He certainly demonstrated time and again why the Westerdam is dubbed the "Queen of the Horns".
CONS: One major fault. the piped-in music in the pool area was far out of touch with the clientele. Christine Aguilera, Hootie and the Blowfish and other white noise. Anything from Glenn Miller to Tom Petty would have been much more suitable. I mentioned this to the front desk and was told that this is a corporate decision made in Seattle. Perhaps their research team needs to investigate the demographics of HAL's customers more closely. But, all in all, we can't wait to sail with Holland America again.