The atmosphere on the MV Explorer is friendly with many passengers either repeat travelers, parents of students of Semester at Sea or in some instances Semester at Sea alumnis. From the first day there was a real sense of community and inclusiveness. I travelled solo and I was delighted how many others did the same. It was pretty effortless to meet fellow passengers and they were an interesting and diverse mix.
Our Panama Canal itinerary was Nassau to San Diego with stops in Dominican Republic, Costa Rico, Guatemala, Puerto Vallarta, and Ensenada. Due to potentially dangerous tendering conditions, the port of Ensenada was visited instead of Cabo San Lucas.
Embarking the MV Explorer - the airport taxi had to let me off a short distance from the boarding area and so it was necessary to handle all my luggage for a distance. The start time of embarkation didn’t start any earlier than communicated. There was some confusion among passengers whether they were actually on the right line to board the MV Explorer, as the line was outside the terminal building and there were no signs at the end of the line. I arrived a half hour ahead of boarding time and my total wait with all my luggage was around an hour once boarding began. On the positive side, during my wait I really got to know the passengers near me and I enjoyed seeing them again on the ship and in the ports.
I had an inside cabin toward the forward of the ship. It worked well for me except that I found the mattresses uncomfortable compared to other ships I’ve travelled on. I really appreciated the low cost laundry service provided as it provided me the luxury of washing everything I wore so that each day I had lots of choices of what to wear.
I thought the meals were pretty good. I eat vegetarian or fish. I found some interesting vegeterian menu options, especially at lunch in the Aqua Marine Dining Room. Most of the fish meals were good. We had three dinners with assigned seating and the rest was open seating. For open seating I asked to be seated at large tables with men and women (couples ok) and that worked for me. Following the cruise I realize that I could have posted a note on the bulletin board to invite solo travelers to dine together. People did read and respond to postings about a variety of topics on the boards.
The Shipboard Education program was amazingly diverse and had a lot of offerings. The most difficult challenge was deciding what to do (or not to do and just spend some time outside on deck). Sometimes the majority of daily items I wanted to take were happening at the same time.
I loved starting my sea day with the monk led meditation intermingled with lectures, activities like Tai Chi and some sort of Art Workshop. I preferred speakers whose style was” presentation like” instead of lectures as they were on the lighter side for my vacation frame of mind.
At times I discovered things going on that weren’t on the daily program. It was important to check the bulletin boards on the ship. From the materials provided, it wasn’t clear to me that that certain workshops required advance sign up.
There were two computer terminals available for free use of Google mail. I am an early riser and found the best time for me to use the free access was before breakfast.
On New Year’s Eve we danced the night away and had a New Year’s toast. Later passengers either went to the Glazer Lounge (DJ) or the Piano Bar (Live Music) to count down to 2014. It was special to wish new friends a Happy New Year.
Here’s a summary of what I did in the ports.
Santo Domingo – I took the Romana tour which included a cave tour, a visit to a cigar factory and lunch at an artists community, Altos de Chavon. I liked the cave tour, though I was relieved that there was an elevator to exit the cave (it was well over 200 steps down) , the Cigar Factory tour was too long and the visit to the Artist’s colony was too short.
The ship was docked in close walking distance to Santo Domingo – some passengers did the town on their own. I think this was a feasible option, even for me. I had wanted to visit the beach, but didn’t think it was a feasible option during this visit.
Carteganas - I took the Fortification and Walled City tour. Getting on and off the boats were more challenging than expected. I liked walking in and around the two forts that we visited. I wish we had a little free time walking independently in town. In general the port time was a little too short. A little too much time was spent in the Emerald store. I think it was feasible to take a taxi into town, even for me. I heard good feedback about the jewelry making tour. The lessons were one on one.
Puntarenas, Costa Rico – I took the Cloud Forest and Poas Volcano with a stop at Sarchi. Costa Rico was absolutely stunning. I would have preferred some acclimation time before heading up the path to the Volcano. We had a clear day, but things clouded up at the top. For a few seconds, clouds cleared so we saw the crater! I felt that the Sarchi stop was overly touristy. There was a beach right off the pier in Puntarenas, but on that day it appeared littered
Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala - I took the Legend of Lake Aitilan tour. I loved the natural beauty of Guatemala and Lake Aitilan!!!! This was my most favorite port stop . If I would do this one again, I would shop instead of having the lunch by the lake. The Guatemalan embroidered textiles were amazing and the only shopping time was walking back from the restaurant to the lake boat There was well organized village of vendors set up right at the MV Explorer dock area, but because of the length of the lake tour, there was no time to shop.
Puerto Vallarta – all MV Explorer field trips were cancelled due to recent heavy rains and strong ocean currents. Passengers who had booked tours learned that a complimentary 5 hour tour was available to them. I took it and the tour was really wonderful.
Ensenada – Some tours were made available, but they did not appeal to me. I took the $1 shuttle bus 1 into the town. My visit was uninspiring. Those who took the Organic Winery tour, did give very positive feedback about it.
San Diego Airport hotel I used was the Courtyard by Marriott and got a good AAA rate. It offered free shuttle service to the airport and had several restaurants located nearby.