My Views of An Immersion Cruise
Here is my review of the Grandeur Of The Seas cruise, beginning March 11, 2012.
Since Grandeur did not pass through the Panama Canal on this cruise, my wife and I flew from Los Angeles to Panama 2 days prior to sailing. On March 10th, we used My Friend Mario for a full transit of the canal. What we did not realize, is that Mario was merely the conveyance. The driver picked us up at our hotel, the Wyndham Garden in the Obarrio section of Panama City. His name was Mario, but he was not THE Mario. He drove us to Fuerte Amador, where the transit was to begin. We paid him $350 ($175 each), and he bought our tickets from that money. He handed us blue wristbands to wear.
The ferry was called Pacific Queen. The transit took about 8 hours to complete. We were served 3 meals aboard the ferry, and had free soda and coffee. They did serve alcohol, which was extra. We spoke to several other passengers aboard the ferry, and told some of them that we were taking the cruise on the Grandeur to celebrate my wife's birthday. A poignant moment occurred when one of the other passengers offered my wife a beer for her birthday and tried to hand it to her. But my wife is a recovering alcoholic, and refused the drink (hubby was proud!)
2 or 3 groups of passengers disembarked at the town of Gamboa. Space on the Pacific Queen then opened up. Whereas most of my photographs had been from the back or sides of the ferry, I was able to get to the front for some good photo opportunities. There was a photographer on board the Pacific Queen, who snapped this shot and framed it, although it should read "full" transit, not "partial":
Once the ferry docked in ColÃ³n, we boarded a bus. The passengers were sorted by the colors on our wristbands, so that we boarded the correct bus, and were driven back to Fuerte Amador.
At this point, I have to mention that My Friend Mario's driver, also named Mario, did not show up. We were stranded at Fuerte Amador for 30 minutes, trying to contact Mario's service. None of the 4 phone numbers we tried connected us with a live human being, and the voice mail messages were in Spanish. After half an hour, we hailed a taxi, who drove us back to the hotel.
I have to admit, I was pretty upset for awhile. But my wife likes to gamble (I don't, I gamble enough just driving on the freeway), and she had spotted a casino 2 blocks from our hotel. We went over there, and she quickly won $100 on dollar slots. She put $5 into a penny slot machine. 5 minutes later, she hit her second progressive. The credits were counting up, until they reached $1,273.44! I didn't know you could win that much on penny slots! Security came over and told us they would have to cash her out manually, for she had maxed out the machine. After collecting her winnings (less 7% Panamanian tax), the head of security, Jaime, walked us back to our hotel. My wife won another $100 her first night on the Grandeur, so in about 24 hours she pocketed $1,400!
We still needed to get from Panama City to the port, and had booked My Friend Mario for Sunday morning's transfer. The driver apologized to us for missing the Saturday night pick up, and she told us she would give us $10 off the transfer. She also stopped at a store, where my wife bought another suitcase. Copa Airlines allowed us to bring 2 checked bags each, but we had brought 1 each, to travel light. My wife has a big family- 5 sisters and 4 brothers- and she used her winnings to buy gifts, so she needed that extra suitcase!
We boarded the Grandeur by 1 p.m. Sunday afternoon, without incident. My wife was relieved to find that all the crew spoke English. Over the course of the week, it seemed to me that about 85% of the passengers were from Spanish-speaking countries. Of course, Panama and Colombia were well represented; but so were Costa Rica and Peru. About 5% of the passengers seemed to be Brazilians who spoke Portuguese. There were some Germans aboard as well. The English speakers seemed evenly split between Americans, and the large group of Canadians organized by Nancy- aka explorer8 on Cruise Critic.
Several crew members were Filipino, and we always spoke to them, since my wife is half-Filipina. Our cabin steward, Alvaro, was from Costa Rica. Our waiter, Ravinder, was from India; while our assistant waiter, Jorge, was from the Dominican Republic. All 3 were very attentive to us all week.
The only problem I had aboard the ship all week, however, occurred near the beginning. When I picked up my Sea Pass card, they told me to keep it away from cameras and cell phones; because the strip on the back would de-magnitize, rendering the card useless for room entry. I placed the card on my money clip with my driver license and credit cards. I forgot the clip had a magnet on it; and before that dawned on me, I had had to go to the purser's desk twice to get my card re-keyed. They didn't it that way, and just printed a new card on the spot. Around Thursday, it happened to me once again when I placed my Sea Pass too near my cell phone. If that's the worst thing that happened to me, I had a great cruise!
Aboard the ship, the best thing was the food in the Great Gatsby dining room. One night we tried escargot for the first time; another good starter was the lobster bisque. Main courses on different nights included swordfish, steak, duck, lamb, jumbo shrimp, mahi mahi, and roast turkey. We tried to order different things so we could taste each other's entrees; but neither of us could pass up the duck, lamb or jumbo shrimp. We agreed that the lamb was the best meal of the week; it was so tender, we didn't need a knife to cut it! The desserts were nice as well. I had the drink of the day twice, once at dinner and once on my wife's birthday.
The Palladium was behind the casino on deck 5, at the aft of the ship. While she was playing the slots, I walked back to the theatre. The shows were in Spanish. If there were any shows in English, I didn't see or hear of them. I wouldn't have minded going to a show, as I speak a little Spanish (enough to get my face slapped, as I told Lynette). But my wife, even though her mother is Mexican, doesn't speak any Spanish, so she didn't want to attend any of the shows.
However, we did attend some game shows. She likes bingo, so we did that twice. The announcer explained the rules in both English and Spanish. He also called the bingo numbers in both languages. He had people stand up if they needed only 1 number to win. Although I got to stand twice, and my wife once, neither of us won. Also, the crowd would boo those who stood up. A boo in Spanish sounds a bit different than in English!
We attended another game show called Majority Rules. The host explained the rules, and the questions and answers, in both English and Spanish. Another game show we went to was called Where In The World Am I? The host gave the clues in Spanish and English. On question 2, he opened in Spanish. I heard the words "ciudad" and "Nuevo Amsterdam". I didn't wait for the English. I wrote "New York" on my answer sheet, and walked up ti the host and turned it into him. I got 10 points for answering correctly on the first clue. In The end, I actually won that game. But my prize was only a couple of highlighters.
The bingo and the game shows were on deck 6, in the Pacific Lounge, at the aft of the ship. It would also be where our RCI ship-to-hotel transfer excursion would begin on disembarkation day. Now, to the ports.
On Monday, we docked in Cartagena, Colombia. It was my wife's birthday, and I had chosen this exact port to put her in South America for her birthday. We had booked a city tour with Dora De Explorer. Our guide, Mercedes, was holding a sign with my name just off the ship's gangway. Our group included 7 Canadians: explorer8's group from Toronto. Because we had 9 people, the cost was $60 per person.
The van headed straight for the hill overlooking Cartagena, where La Popa Monastery was situated. Mercedes narrated along the way. She mentioned that Cartagena had 70 traffic lights- and at the other intersections, the drivers just played chicken! And that was true! Our van never yielded to a smaller vehicle.
The driver parked the van in the parking lot. Before we could even get out, there were vendors tapping on the windows, holding up things to sell. We exited the van, and were quickly surrounded by vendors. There were water bottles, hats, maracas, and other touristy items. My wife and I both wanted hats (she bought 6 over the course of the cruise- remember she has a big family!), so the haggling began at $20. We were separated, and my guy quickly dropped the price to $15. I told him that was too much, and began to walk away. He dropped the price to $13. I said that was still too much, and turned to walk away again. He dropped the price to $10. At that price, I snatched it up. Moments later, my wife appeared with almost the same hat (mine was tan, hers was white). She had paid $15 for hers! Guess I'm the better haggler.
So, hats-on-head, we set off for the monastery. Our first stop was outside, for the wonderful view overlooking the city. You could even see our cruise ship miles away at the port. Later I would take a photo of La Popa from the dock.
The monastery was beautiful. Mercedes narrated along the way. My wife wandered off twice- once to buy some postcards, and once to use the bao. But the inside of the monastery is not so big that one can get lost.
Next we rode back down the hill, into the old city. The fortress was the next stop. Mercedes asked if we wanted to go into the fortress. The consensus was no. She then asked if anyone wanted to get out and take photos. I was the only one to do so. I would have liked more time there, but whatever.
We stopped at a row of shops for about 20 minutes. My wife and I only had time to go into 4 shops. There were more street vendors outside, with many similar items to the guys at La Popa. I did want an authentic Colombian fÃºtbol (soccer) jersey, so I haggled with a vendor til I got the price I wanted. I love the international soccer game, such as the World Cup, more than at the club level. I'm tired of Brazil and Argentina always coming from South America, so I've rooted for Colombia for about 10 years now.
Next we stopped in a parking area, and walked into the center of the old city. We found the square in front of the Church of San Pedro Claver, and went inside the church.
It is at least 390 years old, because the skylight overhead had glass windows with the year 1622. Mercedes informed us that until the 1960s, it was actually illegal in Colombia to display any art that was not religious, and that Colombia has no separation of church and state. There were many statues and paintings of Jesus, Mary, apostles, saints, popes, and martyrs.
As a working church, there were a few nuns walking around. Mercedes told us that, again, up until about the 1960s, women had only 2 choices once they became of age: either get married, or become a nun. That has changed now, and Cartagena seemed like a fairly modern city- just with a wonderful 400-year old core.
After touring the church, Mercedes took us one block, to a strip of emerald stores. Being her birthday, I wanted to buy my wife something with emeralds, even though she doesn't like to wear much jewelry. I thought she'd like some earrings, but she finally settled on a ring. I paid $500 for it. They sized the ring for her, and after about 20 minutes it was ready to be picked up. In the meantime, there was a lady dressed in local garb with a basket of fruit on her head. She posed for photos with tourists, asking for $1. There were 2 other occasions when we did this.
Dora's tour ended with a drive through the new city, and its skyscrapers along the shoreline. We returned to the ship, to drop off the several items we had bought. To get
Back to the port, we first had to use the free shuttle to the port building. From there, we walked outside. We took a taxi back into the old city.
We made it back to the area we had been with the excursion, and did some more shopping. My wife must have bought 4 or 5 bags of Colombia coffee. Now, I had never had a cup of coffee in my life- and I'm 51. But I once told someone that I wouldn't try coffee unless I went to Colombia. So we found a cafe and relaxed. The service was pretty slow, but we were in no hurry. I am now a coffee drinker. We both agreed to skip lunch, as we'd had a big breakfast at the Windjammer buffet aboard the ship. I would have probably bought a snack of some sort from a street vendor, but I didn't see any that sold food.
In Colombia, as I had learned in Panama, the problem with speaking a little Spanish, is that the locals assume you can understand it. I had problems with the locals speaking so fast. Sometimes I caught only a few words. One taxi driver didn't understand a word of English, but my Spanish was good enough for him to get us to our hotel in Panama City. It wasn't only English speakers that had trouble though. The host of the "Where In The World Am I?" game show on the ship was Mexican. When he explained one clue in Mexican Spanish, a group of Peruvians sitting behind me complained that they couldn't understand the clue.
He had to re-word it for them so they could grasp its meaning.
While we were making our pit stop between visits into Cartagena, my wife walked into our stateroom, which was decorated for her birthday. It was a nice little surprise. Of course, I pre-paid for that on the RCI website. Later that evening, I had the steak for dinner, while she had swordfish. Before we could order dessert, our waiters, Jorge and Ravinder, brought over a birthday cake. A few other waiters joined in singing happy birthday to her. It was another special moment, and she cried tears of joy.
I wanted to make that day special, because one of her older sisters had a 50th birthday party a few years ago, filled with black balloons. I didn't want to do that to my wife. Life is about living, celebrating, enjoying. Not everyone makes it to age 50- Whitney Houston didn't. That's just my own personal philosophy there. Also, her mother and one of her brothers told her to save the $1400 she had won on the slot machines. She said no, she was going to spend it by buying gifts for her family and a couple of close friends.
Tuesday was a sea day. Sea days are my least favorite. We slept in, and ordered the breakfast delivered to our stateroom. You do that the night before, checking off which items you want, and how many; and then checking off a half-hour time slot when you want it delivered. They called our stateroom to let us know our breakfast would arrive soon, and it did so 2 minutes later. My wife didn't want another breakfast delivered the rest of the cruise, because she said the selection in the Windjammer was so much bigger.
On our first sea day, we spent time writing out our postcards; playing bingo and the slots; playing a game show; eating too much; and just generally relaxing. Also, that morning was the Meet & Mingle in the Viking Crown Lounge on deck 11. We got to meet explorer8 (Nancy) and some of her party from Canada; as well as psbcap (Preston) and his new fiancee, Lynette. RCI gave us a few small items, and the host explained a few things. He told us that RCI does monitor posts on Cruise Critic, mostly to improve customer service. We were all English speakers at the Meet & Mingle, though Lynette is from Panama.
On Wednesday, we docked at Bonaire. We quickly found the Woodwind tour guide, but waited for others in our party. We walked down to the pier, and boarded the Woodwind, which appeared to be a catamaran. Dee (Deirdre) was our main guide, and narrated the trip as we headed out to the channel between Bonaire and Klein Bonaire. There were 2 other guides, plus a photographer. We put on snorkels and fins, and got into the water. We split into 3 groups based on experience. It was my first time snorkeling, so they gave me a flotation device to wrap around my waist, and another to hold onto.
I can swim fine, I just can't see what I'm doing underwater because I wear contact lenses. My mask fit perfectly, and I had no problems seeing. My wife had some problems with seawater leaking into her mask. After 20 minutes, she got out of the water, and stayed on the Woodwind the rest of the time. I stayed in the water for the whole hour. I have 2 regrets about this excursion: I took my short off (and got a mild sunburn on my back), and I didn't bring a camera.
We bought the photo CD of the excursion for $25 from the boat's underwater photographer. She captured 4 nice shots of us underwater (except that I looked like a hairy whale) and a couple more of us on the catamaran. I didn't really need a camera because of that, but it would have been nice to take a video off Klein Bonaire.
Bonaire has very little shopping, but my wife found a shop that sold dresses, so she picked up a couple there. I collect pins to put on my baseball caps, and they sold the combo flag pin set for all 3 of the ABC Islands (Aruba-Bonaire-Curacao) so I nabbed that.
Thursday morning, we had breakfast as usual at the Windjammer buffet. We had to sit with another couple, as the tables were fairly full. The Hispanic man watched with amusement as I poured syrup all over my French toast. He asked me something, and I picked up the word 'condimentia". Knowing that he wasn't telling me that I was "with dementia", I told him the condiment was syrup. Guess he'd never seen that. That wasn't the first time I'd had a miscommunication over that word. Years ago, a lady told me she kept condom mints in her fridge, which I thought was freaky!
On Thursday, we docked at Curacao, at the Megapier in the Otrabanda (other side) section, west of the river. I had left the last 2 islands open without booking any excursions, as I knew my wife wanted to relax on her vacation. We walked into Otrabanda, and quickly found ourselves at the Rif Fort. We did a bit of shopping there, though we avoided Memory Lane, the shop with the bad reviews on Cruise Critic. We made our way further into Otrabanda, and found a street chock full of shops on both sides. We made our way back to the river, where there were good photo opportunities with nice backgrounds.
By the time we walked across the Queen Emma pontoon bridge, we both had bags full of items.
In the main section of Willemstad, we did more shopping. It was convenient, just on the other side of the bridge, and in a pedestrian area. We made our way north and found the floating market, and post office. We had a light lunch at a little cafe nearby. I had the kebab, and she had a falafel wrap. By now, we knew to save room for dinner!
We headed south and found Fort Amsterdam. Outside the fort was a casino located in a hotel, so we stopped there. My wife could not repeat her winnings from earlier in the week, so we made our way back to the riverside. I shot a short video of her telling about her day. The pontoon bridge had opened for a large container ship to pass inland, and was not available. We walked a couple of blocks north along the riverside, and found the free ferry. It was crowded, what with the pontoon bridge being open (out/unavailable).
Back in Otrabanda, we headed for the Rif Fort, but not before the wife spotted another casino. Once we exited the Rif Fort, loud music was playing. It was the Black Eyed Peas song, I Gotta Feeling. My wife started dancing, and I filmed a video of her.
I believe we bought more in Curacao than anywhere else. I bought both a t-shirt and polo shirt there, and have worn both already. Willemstad rivaled Cartagena as the most colorful, picturesque place we visited all week.
On Friday, we docked in Aruba. We wanted at least 1 relaxing beach day, and it was today. Off the ship, we crossed the main street, and quickly found the bus station. We paid our $1.30 and headed up to Eagle Beach. We didn't need to rent any chairs or umbrellas, for the beach had several thatched semi-huts to sit under. I spent a lot of time in the shade, being a white honky cracker who didn't want to burn. My wife, a fairly dark Filipina-Mexican mix, spent most of her time in the sun. I went into the 82Â°F water, mostly to take photos and videos.
It was very relaxing. My wife proclaimed this was the best vacation she'd ever had; the best birthday she'd ever had; and the best beach she'd ever been on (and she's been to Hawaii). She says she never burns; but, I'd been telling her all week, she was in the tropics not far from the equator, and then even she could burn. Sure enough, her shoulders turned a bit red. She peeled just a bit there, and also on her nose. By some miracle, plus my hat from Colombia, I didn't burn in Aruba at all.
We decided not to go back to the ship to change out of our swimming gear. We took the bus back into town (the bus marked "hotel area"). We found a strip of shops along the main road, and hit those. Across the street was the big round pink building we had seen from the ship. It was the Royal Plaza, converted into shops and cafes. My wife bought more clothing from 2 different shops; and even went back into the first to get a pair of sandals. I suggested we have lunch at the Iguana Cafe, but she wanted to skip lunch again and save room for the ship's dinner.
So, our trip to the Dutch Antilles was mostly a shopping trip, with a bit of snorkeling and beach time thrown in. That's alright; I booked this cruise to please my wife, and that's what she wanted to do. Left alone, I'd have probably snorkeled a 2nd time.
Saturday was our 2nd sea day. We slept in just long enough to get to the Windjammer before they stopped serving breakfast. At noon, they had the international parade of flags on pool deck 9. That's how I could tell some of how many passengers were from certain countries- by the amount of whooping and hollering they did when their nation was announced. They played Born In The USA when Estados Unidos was announced. Peru and Costa Rica surprised me with how many passengers there were from each country.
The rest of the day, we spent relaxing, people watching, being in the casino, playing bingo- and of course, eating. I gained 7 pounds during the cruise, but I had offset that by losing 12 pounds before the cruise.
Sunday we disembarked, saying goodbye to Grandeur Of The Seas at ColÃ³n, Panama. But our vacation wasn't over just yet. We had booked 1 excursion through RCI- an airport transfer. We gathered at the South Pacific Lounge on deck 6, and disembarked in group 3 (the highest number I saw was 17), so we were among the first to get off the ship. We cleared Panamanian customs, which was no hassle at all, and then boarded a bus headed for the airport.
But first, the excursion stopped at Miraflores Locks on the Panama Canal. We had seen the visitor center while transiting the canal, and now we were in the center. It was fairly crowded, and it was hard to get good photos. I did get some good video of a ship being pulled out of the lock by the locomotive mules, but I had to stand on top of a concrete bench next to a table to get the shot.
The bus then took us through Panama City, but didn't stop anywhere. We did stop at the Metro Mall, which was close to Tocumen Airport. Our tour guide, Elena, said we had 3 hours there. My wife wanted pizza, and we stopped off at alittle cafe on the ground floor. They did not speak a word of English. My wife wanted mushrooms along with pepperoni, but I didn't know how to say mushrooms. Our choices were pia or jamÃ³n, so she went with pia. At least we got a pizza, rather than a shoe with cheese on it.
We arrived at Tocumen with more than 2 hours til our flight. There was only 1 shop outside the secure area; after hitting that, we went through security. There was a food court, and many shops inside along the way to our gate. We didn't arrive back to Los Angeles until midnight, which is a decent time to clear customs there, as the lines weren't that long.