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Day #10 & #11, At Sea

I don’t have a tremendous amount to say about these days beyond the fact that I’ve personally enjoyed our days at sea far more than usual. We followed the standard pattern of breakfast in the Lido, walking laps around the deck (roughly 3 miles per day), some enrichment activities, Emerson at the kid’s club, a nice dinner all together. I’ve also enjoyed lazy afternoons of reading and just hanging out — working at nothing, blissfully relaxed. A couple of highlights:

  • Dinner last night was very good at Canaletto — the pasta course being especially superb, particularly the pan fried gnocchi with short-ribs
  • Adrian, our cabin steward, is a wiz at folding towel animals. He made a point of especially inviting us to a demonstration today, and he seemed to be genuinely moved that we showed up for his event (he was one of two stewards hosting the show). He even invited Emerson by name onto the stage to help him fold an animal.

Meet “George” — Emerson’s towel animal creation…

  • Overall, this has been a good cruise, and I’m a little sorry to see it end. Traveling as much as I have for work this year, I’ve enjoyed the largely uninterrupted time with the family while sequestered at sea. I think everyone else has enjoyed it too; indeed, Emerson claims this has been her “best cruise ever,” though I’m not 100% sure why that’s the case.
  • Tomorrow, we’ll dock in Ft. Lauderdale and drive the 4-ish hours home. I don’t plan to post about that unless the return is especially noteworthy (good or bad). I may, however, write a summary of my work-related travel for the year, as well as talk a bit about our vacation home in North Carolina (which I’ve not really written about here).
  • Until next time…
  • Day #9: Limon, Costa Rica

    Our final port of call on this cruise was today in Limon, Costa Rica. My sense is Limon itself isn’t high on the list of Costa Rican vacation destinations nor is it the principal playground for expats. But, it’s obviously a convenient stop for southern Caribbean cruises and provides an opportunity for jungle/rainforest based ecotours. For our part, we opted for a half-day “Meet the Sloths” tour, which visited a sloth sanctuary made famous by a 2013 Animal Planet series of the same name.

    Many of the sloths that we saw were permanently injured, abandoned as babies, or orphaned at too young of an age. As a result, they’ve become full-time residents of the sanctuary for the rest of their lives, which could last up to 40 years.

    They’re fascinating creatures — not lazy, just “energy efficient.”

    After visiting the residents and nursery, we took a canoe out onto the local canals in search of sloths in the wild. Being arboreal and colored as they are, they’re remarkably difficult to spot by the untrained eye. Indeed, even when expertly located and pointed out, they’re still remarkably difficult to see. But, we did ultimately see one well up in the canopy, and we certainly enjoyed the peaceful ride in the canoe.

    On the way back to the ship, we stopped at a local shop selling Costa Rican coffee (which we heard from our guide is the coffee origin “best in the world” having just “won an international competition” — somewhat suspiciously we heard the same story from our guides in Colombia and Panama too) and local produce (which I have read in numerous books is considered to be wonderful in its quality, abundance, and affordability):

    The coffee was ok. But, the bananas were wonderful!

    Dinner tonight–although Thanksgiving–was at “Rudi’s Sal de Mer,” which is really the Pinnacle Grill with a higher priced menu ($50 per person) focused primarily on classic French, mostly seafood dishes. Here’s Emerson tucking into a classic preparation of escargot:

    The food was good, but I don’t think it was worth $50/pp. Watching Emerson happily extricate and willingly consume snails? Priceless.

    Yup, this was another “typical” Thanksgiving for our family. Indeed, in reflecting upon it, I believe Emerson’s spent every Thanksgiving of her life traveling somewhere outside of the country. One the one hand, that’s just very different from the more traditional Thanksgivings that Libby and I experienced in our childhoods. On the other hand, the variety of experiences she’s enjoyed is something in and of itself to be especially thankful for. In the end, we’ve just established a very non-traditional tradition.

    Today’s box score: +1 country (Costa Rica)

    Day #8: Colon, Panama

    For most folks, today was the “main event” for this cruise, it’s raison d’etre, why we’re all here. For Libby and me? Not so much. Transiting (or, in this case, partially transiting) the Panama Canal just wasn’t on our bucket list. It’s not that we didn’t think it was a monumental feat of engineering or of historical, economic, and social importance. Interesting? Perhaps. An added bonus? Sure. It’s just not something that has ever really excited us. What’s always jazzed about this itinerary was the relatively high “new country” count, baby.

    Indeed, I sat smugly at breakfast this morning talking about how I wasn’t even sure if a partial transit really counted for a Panama Canal transit for someone wanting to scratch it off their bucket list. (For the record, I’m still not sure, but I’ll go with “why not” if pressed.) While others scouted out prime spots on deck long before our arrival at the first lock, I munched on one of HAL’s sublime bran muffins confident in my superiority. Yet, as we finished breakfast and approached this wonder of the modern world, I couldn’t help but find myself a bit excited by the prospect of experiencing it firsthand.

    Of course, by this time the bow of the ship was positively crammed with fellow passengers.

    Undeterred, we watched closely the movement of ships ahead of us and exiting the canal in the other direction. For those that don’t know, the locks of the Panama Canal work like a kind of escalator for ships: the lock gates open, a ship enters, the water level rises/falls to match the water level in the direction of travel, the opposite gates open, and then the ships moves on. That’s how all canal locks work. Of course, the Panama Canal does this on a grand scale (and even a grander scale for the new locks, which support ships considerably larger than the historical Panamax size).

    To get a private, front- (well, back-) row seat, we returned to our aft-facing balcony cabin on the stern of the Zuiderdam.

    Entering the first of the Gatun Locks…

    This provided an unobstructed view of the operation of the lock gates behind us.

    Leaving the first lock…

    In the second lock, watching the water rise…

    After making our way through all three of the Gatun Locks, the ship stopped in Gatun Lake and disembarked passengers (including us) going on excursions in Panama. Our plan for the day? An ecological adventure on the man-made Gatun Lake in search of native wildlife, especially monkeys.

    Unfortunately, it was a bit rainy (that’s our ship on the lake!)…

    Zuiderdam on Gatun Lake

    But, hey, it’s the rainforest! This is part of the adventure! Besides, we took a lot of sea-spray from the boat on the river anyway.

    Being at water level on the Panama Canal really changes one’s perspective. It allowed us to better examine the topography of the land and imagine the islands of today as the hills of a bit more than a century ago.

    Boating along Gatun Lake…

    We did manage to see some monkeys (though the photos are much better on my SLR — I’ll have to upload those later).

    Following our two-hour boat tour, we all were thoroughly soaked for our return to Colon, where our ship was awaiting us. It had transited the Gatun Locks in the opposite direction while we were on tour. Needless to say, our shipmates were all keen to get out of their wet clothes and warm up. As such, nobody had a desire to explore Colon on our arrival there, which was a good thing as Colon has a bad reputation (not a place to wander outside of the port gates).

    Indeed, I have to say the town looked fairly rundown and rather seedy. This was one of the nicer streets:

    Colon, Panama

    All in all, we had a fun day… I like a mild adventure and sense of slight discomfort sometimes when traveling (which isn’t especially easy to do on a cruise). It makes me feel a bit more alive.

    Today’s box score: +1 country (Panama)

    Day #7, Cartagena, Colombia

    We sailed into the Bay of Cartagena under a sunny, mostly cloudless sky this morning. My first view of the city was of the gleaming white modern towers of the Bocagrande neighborhood, which is kind of Cartagena’s version of Miami / Miami Beach.

    View of Bocagrande from the Bay of Cartagena

    Given that we’d never been here before and only had a half day visit, we opted for a walking tour of the old city arranged by HAL mostly to ensure a timely departure and return to the ship. Our impression of Cartagena was very positive. The areas that we traversed from the port to the old city all seemed relatively well maintained, clean, and safe.

    Colonial balconies typical of Cartagena…

    The old city within the walled fortifications was particularly charming with its colorful, balconied buildings festooned with ornate doors and tropical vines, such as bougainvillea. It reminded me a bit of both Old San Juan (due to its seaside location and fortifications) mixed with the historical center of Quito (due to its colonial architecture). Although our walking tour was brief, we were able to visit the inside of both the cathedral and the Inquisition museum.

    Overall, we thought Cartagena compared favorably with other large cities that we’ve visited in South America previously. Only complaint? Not enough time…

    In the afternoon, Libby and I took our turns about the deck before having a very delicious dinner in the main dining room. Indeed, Libby liked the look of the menu so much she actually rescheduled our planned dinner in the ship’s Italian restaurant. What’s more, it proved to be a wise decision, which is saying something for a cruise ship’s dining room.

    Today’s box score: +1 country (Colombia)

    Day #6, At Sea

    Today, we navigated along the northern coast of South America for our next port of call, Cartagena, Colombia. It was a pretty typical, lazy day at sea. Libby and I did manage to walk about 5 miles around the deck between our morning and afternoon circumambulations.

    Between our walks and attending a port lecture, we ate lunch in the Pinnacle Grill, which I think is a bargain at $10/pp. for a very nice meal in a speciality restaurant.

    All in all, a nice and relaxing day…

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