Let me begin by saying that we had a great time and would do it again in a heartbeat.
Since we are California residents, we drove to the pier in Long Beach. But, since we were flying back from Fort Lauderdale, we wanted to actually fly back to our town in central California instead of Long Beach. So, we rented a car one way from Avis. The hitch was that the only option was a premium car and there were four of us and a lot of luggage. We managed to cram all of it in the car, but it was a cramped five hour drive to the pier. Once we got there we could see the dock but could not find the entrance which is wedged between two larger roads and unmarked. Husband dropped us off at the pier and he returned the car to Avis in Long Beach (about a mile and a half away). He easliy caught a taxi and met up with us at the termina.
The worst part of the trip was actually at the Long Beach Pier. What a dud! Not even a place to get a cup of coffee. The porters were nice, but the rest of the staff was bossy and not at all worthy of HAL. Once we got into the port building we were told to wait in a room and that embarkation was going to be delayed an hour. Since we were early, that meant two hours in this holding cell on uncomfortable chairs with a temperature around 50 degrees. It was so cold that I started to get the chills near the end. It would have been nice to have some hot water and tea bags and maybe a little sympathy from the staff. The reason for our detention was a CODE RED on the boat. This was due to intestinal flue. We were given the option of rebooking for another time, but after all we had gone through to get here (months of preparation and no Christmas decorations at home), we decided to risk it. Fortunately, no one in our party got sick. We did use a lot of hand sanitizer though!
The worst part of code red on the boat was the temperature the boat was kept at. My daughter and I froze for most of the trip in most of the public areas. Pretty sad since we were going to warmer climates to get away from winter chill at home. We have cruised before and don't ever remember it being uncomfortable inside the ship.
The boat was code red for the first week, which meant the buffet lines were manned by staff and even coffee was poured for you. This we liked. I have always disliked buffet lines where everyone touches the utensils or even the food. The Lido and pool area definitely were less tidy after the code red was lifted.
Some folks complained because the spas were shut down during the first week, but we don't sit in chlorinated water so this was not an issue for us.
If we had to pick out one compliment to give the cruise, it would have to go to the staff. Even though they were working overtime to keep things going, they always smiled and never missed a beat. Our room stewards were fantastic. Our dining staff was great also.
About the dining, we were in open seating which was fine except that we never got to sit on the top floor of The Fontaine where the Rosario strings played. We ended up finding a table by a window that was a bit warmer than some and booked it for the entire trip at 8 pm. We liked this option and got to know the sommelier and wait staff because we were always there at the same time.
The boat was decked out for Christmas and the food was fantastic, but New Years was the best. Christmas morning saw the arrival of Santa Claus and lots of special treats. New Year's dinner came complete with party hats and the party afterward was fun for those who like to dance and drink champagne.
There were four formal nights and we made it to three of them. Most folks were dressed well and seemed to really enjoy being able to dine in class. We saw only one small child on the ship. There was a gaggle of teenagers that caused a bit of annoyance, but for the most part we just avoided the part of the pool area where they liked to run about.
Our room was on the Dolphin Deck. We had adjoining ocean view rooms. There were no rooms across from us. We like the bottom level because there is usually less noise from the passengers. We had no real problems with the rooms and fortunately they each had their own thermostats! We do recommend the middle of the ship for getting away from the engine noise.
The Amsterdam is in need of repair on the inside, but it is due to go into dry dock at the end of the world cruise it is on now. So any future cruiser would not see it the way we did. Even so, it was not too bad. The beds were great, but the showers cut in and out with the hot water and the windows were really badly scratched. We find there are always little annoyances when we travel and we just consider it part of the "charm" of being somewhere else.
We ended our trip in Fort Lauderdale. Since our flight left at 4 pm, we chose to leave the boat late and there was no crowd or delay in finding our bags. We did not choose to have the ship transfer our luggage or arrange to take us to the airport. A porter helped us get our bags into a taxi and it took about 15 minutes to get to the airport. It was no muss no fuss. We were not crazy about the Fort Lauderdale airport, but that is not HAL's fault!
Huatalco is not listed in the drop down box, but it was our second stop. Our experience here was an excellent example of how out of touch the shore excursion desk was throughout our trip. I mean do these people ever get off the boat and go to these places they are selling to us poor unsuspecting vacationers?
Husband and Son had wanted to Scuba here but they waited too long to book the one private PADI certified diver shop that was near the boat. So they decided to go snorkeling at La Entrega. This was on the advice of the shore excursion folks. They also told us it would be fine to catch a local cab to get there (which it was). We made arrangements with our driver, Javier, to come back and pick us up in two hours. He was great and it cost us 30.00 total (we gave him a big tip). Daughter and I tagged along to sit on the beach. This was one overly crowded dirty beach. The snorkeling was OK, but the guys would not recommend you go out of your way to be there. We did have some mighty cold beer dripping with salt and lime that almost made the trip worthwhile. Since we like to see each stop, we are glad we went, but would not do it again if were returned to this port. It would be better just to relax on the boat.
Just as an aside, we had thought about booking the sailing excursion since Daughter loves to sail, but the wind was not good and it would not have worked out this particular trip.
Puerto Chiapas was our third stop. It is a brand new port that came complete with dancers and local shopping right at the pier. There wasn't a lot to see there so we hopped a bus for the local town of Tapachula. This is the worst place we have ever been. It was filthy with trash and sewage every where. It was wall to wall people and loud boom boxes around every corner. We could not wait to get back on the shuttle and get out of there. Wait we did though for almost an hour for our bus to return and it was very hot and humid. Stay in port or on the boat.
Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala was next and what a great day this was. We toured the Filadelfia Coffee Estate. It was a long drive, but the bus was comfortable and guide very nice and easy to understand. The Volcanos are amazing. The coffee plantation is at 5000 feet. It was very interesting to see how they grow and process the coffee. It was great fun to sit under the trees and have home grown coffee and home made biscotti. After we purchased our coffee beans, we headed into Antigua for a little shopping and to a really nice Mexican hotel/restaurant for lunch (all part of the tour). We had the only real Mexican or Central American food on the entire trip. It was tasty and comfortable. The Jade Museum was fun also. This and cruising through the canal were the highlights of the trip.
Fuerte Amador, Panama was next. Unfortunately, we were only here at night and made the mistake of taking the Colonial Panama by Night tour. This was a waste of 300.00. The bus had tinted windows, we could not understand the guide and, when we did get out, everything was closed. Oh and it was DARK. We should have put this together, but didn't. Maybe the guys at the shore excursion desk could have been a little more helpful??
The one interesting thing on the tour was in the financial district where they had miles of Christmas decorations. Lots of people were out walking among the decorations as Christmas music blared from speakers all along the way. It is always interesting to see how different people celebrate the holidays.
The next morning was the cruise through the Panaman Canal. I was up before dawn and out on the deck to watch the ship cruise under (just barely) the Bridge of the Americas and stayed there until we finished going through the first lock. It is an amazing journey and one I am glad we took. That afternoon we sat on the promenade deck and watched in amazement as the ship went through the canal. The crew served us sandwiches and lemonade as we lounged. It was a wonderful day and the reason we took this cruise to start with.