Panama Canal Transit on the MS Rotterdam: Rotterdam Cruise Review by speakertosuits

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Panama Canal Transit on the MS Rotterdam

Sail Date: April 2011
Destination: Panama Canal & Central America
Embarkation: San Diego
April 3-17, 2011


As always with Holland America, the service was excellent and accommodations were comfortable. Dining was good though it can be very subjective and the ship itself was well maintained. Weather during our cruise was near perfect with only one storm late at night which provided some entertainment.


We booked flights and hotel separately from the cruise itself. We flew JetBlue direct from New York Kennedy to San Diego's Lindbergh Field on Friday April 1st with a return flight direct from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood back to New York LaGuardia on Sunday April 17th. We used Priceline for hotel and got the Marriott Hotel and Marina at 333 West Harbor Drive near the Convention Center and the Gas Lamp District. Using some advanced bidding techniques more fully described on a site named Bidding for Travel, we got the Marriott for two nights for about $78 per night. The fact that they were doing renovations of the pool areas More while we were there may explain the lower price. The hotel itself is a four star which means everything is separately priced and not cheap, however, the staff provided excellent service and offered an upgraded room for an additional $25 per night plus tax which we took. The room itself is not large but came with a balcony that overlooked the bay and part of the B Street terminal. The Marriott does have free wifi in the lobby and lounge areas but it has limited bandwidth and will often default to pay access ($13 per day plus tax). We were in the north tower which seemed to have more bandwidth issues. If only pay for access is available, you can move to another area under the south tower. Cab from the airport to the Marriott was about $20 with tip.

There are plenty of restaurants in the Gas Lamp area. For breakfast, we went to Cafe 222 on 222 Island Avenue between 2nd and 3rd Avenues, about four blocks from the hotel. They have excellent (and very large) orange and pecan pancakes. While the Seaport Village area is nearby, the restaurants there are mediocre and the shops are overpriced. There are art displays along the West and North Harbor Drive from Seaport Village past the port terminals. For lunches, we ate at either the Field Irish Pub on 5th Ave between Island and Market Avenues or Karl Strauss Brewery on Columbia between B and C Streets. Karl Strauss brews their own beers on premises and both they and the food were quite good. We met several cruisecritic members for a nice dinner Saturday at the Athena Market Taverna on 109 F Street just south of the Federal Building and west of Horton Plaza. It is a nice quiet (for a Saturday evening) place for reasonably good Greek food with pleasant service.

For pre-cruise stocking up, there is Ralph's Grocery store between 1st and 2nd Avenues on G Street for liquor and wine as well as regular foodstuffs and beverages. There is also a CVS drugstore on Market and 6th Avenue and an Ace hardware store on 6th Avenue as well. Note that grocery stores and drugstores in California can sell wine, beer and liquor. Further north, there is a RiteAid drugstore on Kentner Boulevard and Ash Street near the cruise ship terminals. Also in that area on India Street is San Diego's Italian district with a number of good places to eat.

We boarded at the B Street terminal which has free wifi available in the terminal. We arrived about 11:30A and we were on board about noon. The terminal is rather plain but quite functional. Cab to the pier from the Marriott was about $10 with tip.

The Ship

The Rotterdam is a medium sized ship of about 62,000 gross register tons and carries about 1,400 pax. We booked a Cat BQ spa veranda cabin (6116) on deck 6 forward portside. Our cabin was in good condition with no maintenance or a/c issues. The room stewards Neuman and Gooday (sp?) were efficient and unobtrusive. Our cabin also had access to the forward observation area on deck 6 which was perfect for the canal transit. Just as well as the observation area forward of the gym was taken over for expanded spa services.

We did not care for the Retreat area in the back which replaced a deep pool with a shallow wading area. It was not used much and new cabins installed where the pool was had some water leakage in the halls.


The cruise was a 14 day transit of the Panama Canal from San Diego April 3rd to Fort Lauderdale April 17th. Leaving San Diego on Sunday April 3rd, we called at Puerto Vallarta on Wednesday, Huatulco and Puerto Chiapas, Mexico on Friday and Saturday; Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala on Sunday; Fuerte Amador which was our only tender stop on Tuesday evening to Wednesday early morning, Panama canal Wednesday all day and Cartagena, Colombia on Thursday. Unfortunately, Mary sprained her ankle prior to Puerto Vallarta and we were unable to take the city tour we previously booked with HAL. The shore excursion staff did arrange a refund after we explained the injury that necessitated the cancellation. We docked on the north side of the terminal basin with the Norwegian Star on the south side nearest the terminal and the Disney Wonder on the east side of the basin. I went over to the WalMart across from the terminal to get some medical supplies and to obtain Mexican Pesos. There is a Cirrus ATM inside WalMart for pesos at an exchange rate of about 11.5 pesos to the dollar including ATM fees. I had considered using Travelex in San Diego for pesos but they charged a service fee of $10 for transactions of less than $500 and their exchange rate was 10.6 pesos to the dollar. Use an ATM in Mexico for a better exchange rate (with ATM fee, about 11.4 pesos to the dollar). While we did miss seeing Puerto Vallarta, with about 9-10 thousand pax in the city, we also missed out on a lot of crowding as well.

We took a ship's tour of Huatulco as a replacement for the tour we missed at Puerto Vallarta. Huatulco is a new cruise port developed by the Mexican government to spur economic activity in the area. There are a number of new hotels and some residential development that was halted by the 2008 recession. The tour covered the hotel areas on the coast and the town or La Crucecita which is a modest town near the port. There we had a tour of a local museum of Mexican crafts and a short shopping break (we did not buy anything). Afterwards, we were taken to a nearby restaurant for a light snack and beer and returned to the ship. Huatulco itself has some shops and restaurants fronting a nice beach area next to the ship pier. Puerto Chiapas is also a newly developed cruise port and on the advice of several cruise critic members who previously visited the port, we did not take any excursions which mostly included coffee plantations and some eco-tourism. There was a shuttle service to the nearby city of Tapachula. The port area itself is new with nice port facilities that Bayonne's cruise terminal at Cape Liberty should take a page from. We did buy some coffee and some other items at the port stores. There is a public pool next to a bar/restaurant with $2 beers and $4 margaritas. While not much to do tour wise, this port is a nice place to just hang out.

Puerto Quetzal itself is a plain industrial port but it is the gateway to the highland areas of Guatemala including the colonial city of Antigua. We took a ship tour since this was a 90 minute drive with what later turned out to be flood ravaged roads. We had to detour off the main highway on to twisty secondary roads being repaired after recent floods. There were a total of 11 buses going on this tour from our ship. Since this was the run up to Easter, the tour was an on your own basis with no guides supplied. We did want to see some of the religious procession that was going on that day (Sunday). Once at the drop off point in Antigua at the Jade museum on the east side of the city, we were given basic maps of the central city area (relatively small) and were strongly advised to hire a tour guide ($10pp for 2-3 hours) which we did. While he was pleasant enough, our guide was unwilling to take us to see the religious procession, preferring to offer tours of luxury hotels and other tourist targets. After several requests by various members of our group to see the procession which were firmly turned down and taking us to a hole in the wall for lunch with no obvious place to sit, we settled up with the guide (base fee but no tip) and headed back to the Jade Museum.

After a brief go through of the museum (small but mildly interesting, we found a nice quiet place for lunch across and slightly north of the museum called El Casseorle, a Guatemalan version of French food. It was located in the central courtyard of a large home and we were the only ones there at first. While there was an English menu, the staff spoke only Spanish. We ordered a couple of beers to start which took a lot of stress off and then a simple but pleasant order of sandwiches and pasta. We were later joined by another couple from the ship who did get to see some of the procession. They did not say whether they had hired a guide or went on their own. After a late lunch we caught the bus back to the port. In retrospect, we could have dispensed with the guide and gone on our own to see the procession. Not seeing the procession was a disappointment but there are issues with pickpockets hitting the tour group and the streets are cobblestones with very uneven surfaces. Also being a mile above sea level the slightly lower oxygen content could be a problem though it was not for us. This tour yielded mixed results for us, YMMV.

We did not go ashore at Fuerte Amador which was just as well as the Rotterdam staff had problems with tendering people ashore quickly enough. This and some delays in boarding at San Diego resulted in all the pax, not just the ones affected, being offered a complimentary glass of sparkling wine at dinner the next evening. A nice touch by HAL,

Panama Canal

This was the reason for the cruise. We weighed anchor about 5 AM and slowly sailed under the steel cantilever Pan American Highway Bridge towards the Miraflores locks, a two step lock that lifts ships up to Lake Miraflores and then to the San Pedro lock. When transiting the locks, there is no sensation of up or down motion. While the forward and aft areas of the decks are great for photography. The lower promenade deck (deck 3) and aft main deck area (deck2) offer interesting views of the lock walls and lock mechanisms. We had to wait about 40 minutes since there was a ship ahead of us with engine problems. Contrary to popular opinion, the electric locomotives do not pull the ships through the locks; the ship engine(s) do that. The locomotives help to position the ships within the lock to avoid damage to the lock walls and gates and to the ship itself. This does not always work as there are some paint smears along the lock walls.

We finally entered the Miraflores locks a little before 9 AM. In addition to radio instructions, there is a mechanical arrow that swings right or left to indicate which lock the next ship should take. Thereafter, we sailed under the cable stayed Centennial Bridge and into Gaillard Cut which the Panama Canal Authority is widening in conjunction with the addition of larger locks. You can see the area where the new locks will be build just west of the current Miraflores and San Pedro locks. After transiting the cut, we entered Gatum Lake about noon. By 3 PM, we were entering the three step Gatum locks to exit into the Atlantic. The new locks for the Atlantic side would be added on the West side as well. While hot and humid, the weather was much better than our prior transit in 1999.

Thursday April 14, we stopped at Cartagena, Columbia. The port area is very industrial but there is a newly developed downtown area with modern glass curtain wall buildings. We took the city tour offered by HAL which took us through the colonial parts of the city including the fort. We did quite a bit of walking and our guide took us through various museums and kept to the shade as much as possible. Cartagena definitely has a European feel to it but it is very hot and humid. The tour buses were well air conditioned and there was bottled water available on board, but do bring additional water as you will need it. We were fortunate our tour returned early as there was a long line of people waiting in the hot sun to reboard later when the other tours came back. Thereafter, we had two pleasant days sailing back to Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale.

Food Service

This is a highly subjective area and what we found we liked or disliked may differ for you. There is a fixed menu for breakfast with four daily specials. Lunches had a selection of appetizers, salads and soups and four entrees. Dinner offered four appetizers, three soups and a salad and five dinner entrees with a red meat, poultry, fish and vegetarian option. Dinner also had an always available selection of French onion soup, Caesar salad, grilled chicken, broiled salmon and a rib steak. While the soups and sauces tended to be salty, everything else was good. On one or two occasions, the seafood entrees were dry or had an off-taste. There were four formal nights; the first sea day out, the sea day between Puerto Vallarta and Huatulco, the first sea day after Puerto Quetzal and the first sea day after Cartagena, Columbia. As I recall, the last formal night was also the Master Chef Dinner which was nice but unexceptional.

The Lido cafe no longer has the single long line that snakes past everything. For lunch, there are separate stations for salads, Asian, Italian and other hot foods plus a separate station for sandwiches which also does made to order omelets at breakfast. We found this to work better since you can go directly to the food type you want with only one or two people ahead of you. The busboys come around with refills for coffee at breakfast and ice tea and water at lunch. Tableware and napkins are set up at the tables. Not having trays was not much of an issue and does cut down on crowding, food waste and additional cleaning. We did not eat in the extra tariff Pinnacle Grill this time though we have enjoyed in the past. While the Calamata Bistro was open on the starboard lido cafe at night, we did not try that. The Wajang Theater was used for the culinary demos which we enjoyed on sea days.

We usually had our pre-dinner drink at either the Crow's Nest (deck 9) or the Ocean Bar or Mix both on 5. Two bartenders we had met on the Zaandam to Hawaii in 2009 were at these bars so we rotated through either before or for a late night drink. Hot appetizers are still available if you ask and once the bar staff knows you, they appear automagically when you order your drink. For three and four star mariners, there is a cocktail party and special brunch on a sea day late in the cruise.


We did not partake of much of the entertainment but some of the musical groups were very good. The port lectures were the usual stuff though the one on Puerto Quetzal was informative. If we saw any of the shows, I really cannot remember. The cruise staff was friendly and helpful.

Medical Services

Hopefully you will never need to use these services, but Mary's sprained ankle did require medical attention. Fortunately, we carry a folding cane (I used to suffer from gout) and Mary was able to use it to go to the medical center on deck 2. The doctor x-rayed the ankle and found nothing broken. They gave her some anti-inflammatory drugs and an ice pack. We were not charged for these services and the staff was very helpful and supportive.


Went reasonably smoothly and we got a cab to FLL by 9:30A. At that point, everything imploded as there were six ships in port including the Allure of the Seas, all excreting pax many of whom were flying out of FLL. It was also the Sunday before Easter/Passover which did not help. We waited 45 minutes to check in with our luggage (no curbside for JetBlue) and another 45 minutes to clear security. The security line for concourse E, terminal 2 extended outside the terminal around to terminal 3. Fortunately the lime moved at a reasonable pace. We had plenty of time to catch our flight and arrived home late in the afternoon. Still a somewhat aggravating way to end an otherwise great cruise. Less

Published 08/05/11

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