Warning - This will be a very long post, just read the bits you want to.
Background 19 nights Panama Canal cruise from Vancouver to San Diego aboard the Volendam. It was smooth sailing all the way apart from the first 2 nights but they weren't too bad and didn't cause us any discomfort. This cruise was to celebrate my 50th birthday with my sister. We are from Scotland and have cruised 4 times previously but this is the first time with Holland America. These are my thoughts and may differ from other cruisers on the same cruise.
Vancouver We flew straight to Vancouver from Scotland (10 hours) and stayed for 4 nights at Le Soleil Hotel. It was a small boutique style hotel, the rooms were all suites (separate bedroom and lounge) and furnished in the Louis XIV style. I must recommend this hotel, it is in a fabulous location and had so much more character than 'big chain' hotels that are every where. Our 4 days were great, we did all the sights around the city and also went to Grouse Mountain. I have been to Vancouver before and really like it but there was a lot of building work going on at the moment.
28th September - Embarkation We made our way to Canada Place around 12 Noon, our bags were quickly taken from us and then we had to go through immigration. We had our finger prints taken and also the iris of our eyes were scanned. This is the first time we've ever had to go through this and it was a bit daunting. As I had filled out pre-registration on line (apart from registering our credit cards) all we had to do was register our credit card and we were on our way to the ship. We were told that the rooms were not ready but to make our way to the Lido where lunch was being served. As we were in a deluxe suite with access to the Neptune Lounge I thought it would be a good idea to check it out before lunch. Good idea, as our room was very near the Neptune Lounge and a quick glance through the open door showed us it was ready.
Suite I won't go into too much detail of the suite as many people before me have already done so. Suffice it to say that it met our expectations. We have stayed in suites on Princess and NCL, and this was on par with them. We were pleased to see the welcome bottle of champagne from the captain, the bottle of wine and 2 complimentary soda cards from the travel agent plus $50 per person on board credit, were already in place. We then visited the Neptune Lounge and introduced ourselves to Guillbert, who was fabulous, so courteous and just wanting to please.
After lunch in the Lido we went back to the room, where our room steward Asriel introduced himself. He too was very courteous and couldn't do enough for us. He also brought our 4 suitcases so we could unpack way before the obligatory life jacket drill. There was room for everything, nice high hanging closets where you could hang full length dresses for formal nights and still have room to spare for shoes at the bottom. There was enough room for 4 large suitcases and 2 carry ons to go under the beds out of sight. The room also had a dressing area which was great for doing your hair and putting your make up on, this area could also be closed off from the bedroom by a curtain. The beds are wonderful and comfortable and the goose down soft pillows and duvets are to just die for.
Captains welcome cocktail party All the deluxe suite guests were invited to meet the captain, have a glass of champagne etc. and also meet all the other officers in the Neptune Lounge on the first evening. It was also a great time to meet other suite guests. We realized there were lots of Scottish connections with the officers. The Food & Beverage managers' son went to Glasgow University, the Cruise Director had family from Preston Pans and visited a lot, the Customer Relations Manager has a Scottish boyfriend and used to live in Leven, so we felt really at home.
Dinner We had the 8pm sitting on the upper level at a table for 8. Our steward Ida and assistant steward Ness introduced themselves, as did Charlie the wine steward. They were just fabulous at keeping us entertained, getting to know our likes and dislikes and we really have nothing but good things to say about them. The first night there was only the 2 of us at a table for 8 but we were assured that the other guests would join us the next night. This is the first time we've had fixed seating, Princess and NCL let you eat where you want when you want. But I'm really glad we had fixed seating on this cruise and we had some great table mates who kept us laughing and amused all the way through the cruise.
Entertainment The Volendam cast put on 4 shows (one they repeated after San Diego). The lead singers were really good and the dancers were so energetic. We did a backstage tour and saw the tiny spaces they have to keep all their costumes in and where they have the many clothes changes throughout the show.
We had a terrific violinist who played with the London Philharmonic orchestra, and had just been playing at Buckingham Palace for Prince Charles and Camilla. She was really outstanding. Also a fantastic singer from Australia also did a show one night. Other nights were comedians, jugglers, pianist. We used to try and not fall asleep as the shows were very good (we were still on a different timezone body clock). They weren't the lavish productions Princess put on but they were still good. Brunch with the Captain for Suite guests
One day suite guests had brunch with the captain and other officers. There was lots of champagne, wine etc. being poured and the food was wonderful. Another great time to meet suite guests and the officers.
Ship The Volendam is smaller and older than other ships we've been on, and it was in really great shape, there was always someone cleaning the outside, painting the teak verandah banisters, cleaning the brass work, polishing every inch of it, fresh flowers everywhere that she really does not look her age.
29th September - Astoria, Oregon We went on the Seaside and Cannon Beach trip, they were nice little towns with a few good shops but nothing much else apart from a lovely beach but it was too cold to enjoy it. When we got back to the ship we had missed lunch so we went to the Neptune Lounge and picked up a few snacks to take back to our cabin to eat on the verandah. Our table mates joined us that night so we had a lot of introductions to do and get to know everyone.
30th September - At Sea (my birthday) and the 1st of 5 formal nights After opening my presents, then having a champagne breakfast, my sister and I had both booked ourselves into the Spa for some treatments. It was wonderful, what a great way to spend my birthday being pampered. We then had lunch and went to the dance class. There were 4 dance hosts on the ship, one of whom was the dance instructor - Ray, who was fantastic, very funny and made jokes with everyone to put them at their ease. He is a retired professor of psychology and a fabulous dance teacher. Over the 19 days we learnt the Waltz, Foxtrot, Cha Cha, Marenge, Samba, Rumba, Tango and the Swing. We both thoroughly enjoyed the dance classes.
We then went to the craft class but wasn't too impressed as no-one demonstrated what to do and there were no finished articles of what you were making so that you could see what the end result would be. It was just instruction table by table which is not the best way to teach about 20+ ladies. We decided to go back and have cocktails on the verandah and start to get ready for the first formal night.
I really enjoy getting dressed up and as it was my birthday it was extra special. The dance instructor Ray sat at our table and kept us entertained with his jokes and stories. There were now 9 of us at the table (we squeezed him in but it was fine). The ship also gave me a birthday cake and the waiters all sang happy birthday to me which was fun. We then went to see the show and fell into bed after midnight. It had been a great birthday.
1st October - At Sea It was so nice to relax on the verandah as the weather started to warm up. There was lots to do on the ship, we only went to the dance class and cooking demonstration by the Pinnacle Grill chef Sheldon. We also tried the craft class but left after a few moments. We had lunch in the Lido, they have a great sandwich bar where a server makes your sandwich to order with anything you want on it. We used this every day for lunch when we were on the ship.
2nd October - San Diego There wasn't much choice of tours from the ship here, so we decided to take a taxi to the Old Town which was just great. It was very mexican and had all sorts of old fashioned shops, mexican restaurants, museums etc. We spent all day here as the weather was lovely and in the 70's. I just hope the fires have not destroyed too much of this lovely city. A lot of guests got on here so there was another cocktail party in the Neptune Lounge to meet the captain and officers. We were also invited the 2nd time.
3rd October - At Sea and the 2nd of 5 formal nights We were getting into the routine, breakfast on the balcony, touring the ship, dance class, cooking demonstration, craft class, lunch in the Lido, hors d'oeuvres from the Neptune, cocktails on the verandah, get ready for a lovely dinner. We were well and truly in the holiday mode.
4th October - Cabo San Lucas, Mexico It was getting much hotter, now high 90's. We had to tender ashore. We decided to go on the ships tour - Discover Todos Santos. We had a 1.5 hour drive there and the same back and the most interesting thing to see was the Hotel California which inspired the Eagles to write their song. The hotel is lovely, it looks as if it hasn't changed a bit from the 60's, all very colorful and quaint. We had lunch here, walked around a while then headed back to the ship. I probably would have preferred to stay in Cabo San Lucas as we were very tired and hot when we came back and didn't want to walk around too much. The air conditioned ship was beckoning us.
5th October - Puerto Vallarta, Mexico Here we decided on the taste of Mexico tour. We saw the sights of the town, its lovely church, shopping and then went off for our cookery lesson Mexican style in an open air restaurant. We all had the ingredients in front of us to make Salsa with avocado, the chef talked us through what we had to do e.g. dice up the onion, tomato, chilli, squeeze of lime, pinch of salt, mash up the avocado etc. We then ate what we made, this was really a lot of fun and we finished off by flattening and cooking our own enchiladas to eat with our lunch. All washed down with Margaritas. We really enjoyed this.
In the evening we went on the Rhythms of the Night tour on Las Calletas island which we reached by boat. The island is beautiful, lots of lovely dancers met us at the pier. The dinner was very good, eaten under canvas watching the sea, it was buffet style which was served up with Margaritas or whatever you wanted to drink. The toilets were amazing, carved out of the rock with candles lit all around. The show was also fantastic and was based more on an Aztec style. The trip back to the boat was great with dancing and drinking, but we got soaked when we left the boat as a thunder storm had started along with lightening and by the time we got back to the ship we were drenched although the boat gave us umbrellas the rain was just torrential. We were just in time to see the Indonesian crew show when we got back to the ship which was very good, there is a lot of talent amongst the crew.
6th October - At Sea and the Master Chefs dinner Another lovely lazy day whiling our time away with all the activities aboard the ship. Tonight was the Master Chefs dinner, this was a unique experience for us. It started off with ballet - the waiters dancing in to the Viennese waltz and delivering napkins to everyone. The starter was brought in by the waiters performing to a Swing song. The main course was brought in with the waiters spinning plates on top of poles. The dessert was outstanding - Chef Rudi's 'Hats off dessert' with a white chocolate chefs hat topping off a wonderful delicious pudding. All the guests were given chefs hats to wear and the menu was in the shape of a chefs hat with corkscrew, wooden spoon. It was so impressive I kept it as a souvenir. This is unique to HAL and something we've never come across on other cruise lines. We then went to the show and again fell into bed after midnight.
7th October - Acapulco, Mexico I've already been to Acapulco, I enjoyed it last time and I wondered if I would enjoy it this time. I was not disappointed. We did the City Tour with Cliff Divers. We enjoyed this trip especially the cliff divers, they were even better than I remembered. We had an advantage point from the restaurant right beside the cliffs. We even got photos of the divers afterwards as they came to the restaurant (looking for tips, but who can blame them after putting their lives at risk). We were also treated to a Mexican dance show and a man doing rope tricks.
We then went back to the ship for a sandwich and came back out to go shopping. We only went a short way when someone came up to us and said he would take us to a shop who paid him to take us there. I had done this on the last trip so I said this was probably the best way to get what we wanted. Again we were not disappointed. The shop was huge selling all sorts of Mexican ware and we could barter with the price. We bought quite a lot and then we were taken to the market. Again the man took us to where he would get commission but also somewhere which sold really good quality mexican jewelry. Again we bought things, we then went to another stall and also bought other stuff. He said if we were happy with his service we could give him a tip but he didn't want anything for taking us around in his car. We were really happy so of course gave him a tip.
8th October - Santa Cruz, Mexico and the 3rd of 5 formal nights. We decided to take the Scenic Drive and La Crucesita tour here. It was very picturesque and took lots of lovely photos, we stopped at a place with a vantage point to take a photo of the ship which has turned out great.
Tonight was the black and white ball, when it is ladies choice in the Crows Nest. All the officers marched in with the captain, lined up and when the music started the ladies had to ask the officers to dance. I didn't need to be asked twice. I danced with about 5 - 6 officers and it was great fun. Again this doesn't happen on other cruise lines.
9th October - Puerto Chiapas, Mexico This is a new port that is just trying to establish itself with tourism to cruise ships. We chose to do the Mexican Charro festival which was a show on horse back. First out were about 12 young girls proving they were very proficient horse woman with their display. We also had a display showing men roping a bull and men doing rope tricks on top of horses. It was very good, and thought it was well worth it. The port put on a spectacular display of dancers and musicians to greet us as we came off the ship and also when the ship was leaving. I hope the cruise liners decide to make this a regular stop as the people really put themselves out for us.
10th October - At Sea Another sea day to relax and enjoy everything the ship had to offer. Tonight we went to the Pinnacle Grill. I was going to do this for my birthday but I thought it much better fun being at the dining table with our table mates on the formal night. My sister had brought Dom Perignon champagne with her to celebrate my birthday so we had it chilled for us and brought to our table. It was delicious, as was the food. The steak was really tasty even though it wasn't Aberdeen Angus beef, the best beef in the world :-)
11th October - Puntarenas, Costa Rica Here I did the Train Ride & Mangrove glide and my sister had been booked on picturesque Sarchi but she cancelled at the last minute as she wasn't feeling too well. The anti malaria tablets she was taking were bothering her stomach. Before the trip we went into the town to buy a few things we needed. It was pouring rain, the locals told us it had rained for 3 days, others on the ship said this was the first time they'd ever seen rain in Puntarenas when they'd docked there before. It was still raining when we left to go on the tour, as we were passing through towns and villages we saw lots of localized flooding. The tour was very good especially the boat ride through the mangroves. We did see quite a few animals - crocodile, hawk, beaver, monkeys, iguanas.
That night we ate in the Lido as I did not get back till about 6.45pm, the ship had to wait for a tour bus to get back as they had been stuck in a landslide and were more than 2 hours late getting back. We found out later the tour that was late was the one my sister should have been on. Dinner in the Lido was certainly not as good as the restaurant. It was the same menu but it had been lying out for a while as we were nearly the last ones to be served.
One night (can't remember which one) there was also the chocolate dessert buffet at 11pm. This was spectacular, there was every kind of dessert imaginable all laid out in a splendid display. The chefs had made lots of carvings out of chocolate, fruit, ice etc. to decorate the tables. I really have not seen this kind of spread before. It was laid out around the swimming pool.
12th October - Scenic Cruising, Golfo Dulce, Costa Rica and the 4th of 5 formal nights The scenery was lovely and we whiled away our time on the verandah watching the world go by. Of course we went to the dance classes and joined in lots of other stuff that was going on around the ship. Again we got dressed up, got our photos taken by the professionals and had a great dinner.
13th October - Panama Canal We got up just before 6.30am to see Panama city and the ship going under the bridge of the Americas. Panamanian rolls were being served on the outside deck so we got some and went back to our verandah to get a great view of entering the first lock. It took a long time to get through the locks but it was a great day as this was my first time going through the canal. The ship had brought someone on board who explained everything you ever needed to know about the canal and what and when it was all happening. The ship had a sale of Panamanian goods up on the Lido deck and this was really jumping like a fair. Tonight was the Filipino crew members turn to entertain us, and again it was very good.
14th October - Cartegena, Columbia Here we did Scenes of Cartegena, I can thoroughly recommend this tour, we saw all the sights we wanted to see - Old City, Monastery, La Popa, The Fort, and of course more shopping. I felt really comfortable here, although there were a lot of vendors a firm no sent them on their way. Although we did buy quite a lot from them as they too are trying to make a living and feed their families. This was one of my favorite ports. It was Indonesian night in the Dining Room, all the waiters dressed up and during dinner the guests learned to play the Angklung (Indonesian instrument). They were conducted by a veteran of the Angklung and played Twinkle, Twinkle and Que Sera. It was another enjoyable night at dinner.
15th October - At Sea and the last of 5 formal nights Another day to just do what we wanted around the ship and get ready for the last formal night. Tonight the chefs took a bow and it was the parade of the Baked Alaska's. This is great fun and it's nice to see the waiters also enjoying themselves and posing for photos. We asked our waiters, wine steward and Head Waiter to sign our menus as they were very grand. This is a great memento to keep.
16th October - At Sea A great day to just do everything we wanted to do in our own time, drinks on the verandah, Neptune Lounge treats and not even think about packing until after dinner. The last supper was great, I must say the food was very good every night, much better than some cruises I've been on. It was also time to say goodbye to our table mates, exchange email addresses, and to give envelopes with their tips out to our room steward, waiters, wine waiter and Guillbert in the Neptune Lounge. They had looked after us soooo well for 19 days we just thought they deserved more than the $10pp per day charged to our room. They were all so pleased and very gracious when accepting them. We put our luggage out just after midnight and had our last nights sleep in those fabulous beds.
17th October - Disembarkation, Fort Lauderdale We had our last breakfast on the balcony, and left the ship at 9am. We picked up our luggage, got a taxi to the airport and got our hire car to drive up to Sanford International Airport in Orlando where we were getting a direct flight back to Glasgow (8 hours).
I must say this was one of the best cruises I've had and Holland America do so many thoughtful and different things than other cruise lines, just to name a few:
Indonesian afternoon tea Royal Dutch afternoon tea Black & White ball - ladies choice to ask officers to dance Brunch and meet the captain and officers Cocktail party and meet the captain and officers Dance Hosts Indonesian Night in the Dining Room Baked Alaska parade Chocolate buffet Master Chefs dinner etc. etc. etc.
I had the best 50th birthday ever, a holiday that I will always remember, memories I will never forget and a fantastic collection of photos, thanks HAL.
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