Norwegian Pearl - Eastbound Repositioning Cruise through The Panama Canal

Background

Cruiser: David Presley, age 57. I've been on a number of other cruises: the MSC Poesia for the inaugural "Cruise To The Edge" in March 2013; the Norwegian Epic on a 14-day Transatlantic Crossing in October 2012; the Sapphire Princess for a trip to Alaska in June 2007; Holland America's Zuiderdam on a 7-day Eastern Caribbean route in May, 2005; Premier's Seabreeze on a 7-day Western Caribbean route in February 2000; the Big Red Boat on a short jaunt over to Nassau in October 1999; the Dawn Princess on a 7-day Southern Caribbean route in November 1998; Carnival’s Jubilee on the 7-day Pacific coast swing in April 1997; Carnival’s Ecstasy on a 3-night New Year’s Bahamas cruise in December 1995; the Big Red Boat again in August 1994 (in conjunction with a Walt Disney World vacation); and the Emerald Seas - on a 4-night Bahamas cruise as a High School Graduation present back in May 1974. 

 

Friday, October 4, 2013 - Embarkation & Sailaway, Port of Los Angeles (San Pedro)

After weeks of anticipation, I finally left the house at 9:45am - with my friend Ana chauffeuring me on the hour-long drive south to the Port of Los Angeles at San Pedro.

I dropped my bags in front of Berth 92, then went through an initial screening followed by security screening (total time about 20min) before being told to wait in the section for guests registering on Decks 4, 5 & 6. But this wait was short-lived, as NCL opened-it-up just a few minutes after I arrived – and I was able to get very near the front of the registration line (bypassing the one snafu of the entire voyage - I later heard a number of passengers saying this initial check-in line took a couple of hours). Surprisingly, as soon as we had our key cards we could board the ship… much more lax than NCL's practice one year earlier in Barcelona – in fact, I had to seek-out bar staff to pay corkage on the four bottles of wine I brought aboard. Also couldn’t get a definitive answer about whether rooms were ready, so I simply sauntered down to deck 5 where I happily found that Cabin 5004 was ready-to-go.

Took my time unloading my wine & backpack; programmed the safe and stored all of my valuables; grabbed the Lumix to walk the ship and take some photos; then finished 1-ish poolside for a tasty blue cheese burger, cole slaw, mac salad (only so-so) and 6-for-5 Amstel Lights (I drank one, then brought the rest in an iced bucket back to my cabin). Shortly thereafter my duffel bag appeared – about the time it was unpacked, the rollaboard arrived. By 3 o’clock I was completely settled – just in time for the 3:15 muster drill (my station is in left-front of the Stardust Theatre, one floor almost directly above the cabin).

Started-out my two-week cruise on the Norwegian Pearl by settling-into Cabin 5004
5004 is designed for two - making it plenty roomy for one :)
After my bags arrived & I unpacked, it was time to start learning my new home - one of the first places I sought-out was the Corona Cigar Club (yep, I spent a good bit of time in here - reading & enjoying some stogies)
Next to the Cigar Club was Shakers Martini Bar - and, in the distance is the piano that yours truly played on the last night of the cruise :)
Up on 11 was the viewing room for the Bridge... this pic shows the Con
Finally, up on 14 - just before having lunch (and buying a bucket of specially priced Amstel Lights) I snapped this pic of our neighbor from Princess (we left before she did)

Typical drill – took about 25min to complete (thankfully, NCL does not require you to lug your life vest to the muster station then back to the room) – after which I went topside for sailaway… which began with translation-to-port at 4:05pm. Santa Anas were forecast for LA, but we seemed to be getting away before they made it this far south (text messages from my daugher in Woodland Hills & Ana back near my home said the winds were howling – thankfully, at my request she latched-closed my hot tub before they started). Used the cell to post a few facebook pics and make replies before we lost service a few miles out.

And, just a minute-or-so late, the thrusters/engines came to life and we pushed-away from the Port of Los Angeles (San Pedro)
Snapped this pic of the USS Iowa on the way out - making a mental note that I need to come back down here one of these days for a tour
A look back towards our departure port
Ahead lies a strikingly calm Pacific Ocean
Almost there...
It's been about 15 years since I last sailed from here... but I still remembered this building
Three miles out - time for the Patrol Boat escort to return to port as we begin a gentle turn to the south
Sunset through my Cabin's Porthole - not too long after this I had a spectacular first night's meal at the Brazilian/Argentinian specialty restaurant Moderno Churrascaria (NOT the place for a Vegan to dine! lol)

About 5 o’clock I returned to the cabin to sign-up for the 250+20 internet package… was feeling very tired, but decided it a bad idea to take a nap so late in the day (maybe I should have, though - as exhaustion continued creeping-on with every passing hour). Despite a 7:30 reservation at Moderno Churrascaria I left the cabin about a half-hour early (seeing Larry, my cabin steward, on the way out – and asking him to remove the contents of the minibar fridge, so I could store my wine, beer, and Diet Cokes in it) thinking they could fit me in. Not a problem. I was the only diner until dessert, when the other three-person reservation arrived (they said specialty restaurant dining is very sparse on the first night of a sailing).

The food was spectacular, and service even better (when you’re the only diner I guess that comes with the territory). Brought my own 2005 Sunstone Rapsodie du Soleil (primarily a syrah but also containing viognier, grenache & mourvedre) then started with a wonderful salad bar (mixed greens + all kinds of fixins w/homemade Italian, chilled asparagus & egg, chicken & pasta, rosemary-marinated greek olives, chilled pears, brie + stilton + parmesan chunk cheese, etc.). At Heidi’s (my server) suggestion I went back for a cup of seafood chowder – while I probably needlessly filled my stomach it was definitely in the “not to miss” category! With that, Anna (the meat server) began bringing out those courses; best of the lot (in my opinion) was the beef rib and their signature Picanha ("Prized Cut of Sirloin known for its rich flavor"). Absolutely stuffed to the gills at this point, but desperately wanting the coconut flan (excellent taste, but a little disconcerting to see the small “strings” of coconut in an otherwise smooth custard) I bucked-up and made room for a little more :) The staff seemed to think that I ate too quickly (probably more a case of losing half of your diners lol), but dining alone one tends to eat rather than converse… my total time was no more than about 90 min. I came back to the room to look at the Daily for nighttime events – but between the overly full tummy and already present fatigue ended-up putting myself to bed and was likely out cold by 10pm (California time, prior to advancing the clock by one hour as instructed).

 

Saturday, October 5, 2013 - A Day at Sea

My first night’s sleep was fitful – I woke a couple of times aware of a somewhat upset stomach… not from the gentle roll of the boat but rather overeating then going pretty-much straight to bed. I also noted that my cabin, one floor up from “the basement” (as far as passengers are concerned) and three cabins from the bow was kind of noisy when underway – in that you could hear what sounds like a gentle crash of surf (waves) every ten-or-so seconds. Seas were VERY calm (unlike the departure from Vancouver, with 30 foot seas and passengers pretty much confined to their cabins for safety-sake) – whereas I doubt there had been anything more than 2’, lending to an almost stationary feel.

I did manage to go back to sleep, and shocked myself when I came-to (hearing vacuuming out in the hall and people talking) to discover that I’d slept til 9:45 (8:45am California time). That’s VERY uncharacteristically late for me – guess I really needed it!

Showered & generally made myself presentable for the Cruise Critic get-together at 11 in Cagney’s. I was under the impression, from posters in the Roll Call, that there would be maybe 35-40 pax in attendance. There must’ve been double that number (if not more) – it was SRO, and pretty much all the ship’s senior staff showed-up. Chatted with a retired couple who lived aboard their own sailboat for many years in Miami & the Keys before moving to the Chesapeake Bay area (like me, they owned a powerboat for awhile there, and are now into RVing lol). Also met Sash, the event organizer – tall dude (and also very nice).

Afterwards, I came back to my cabin to retrieve a cigar, an Amstel, and a book I’ve been wanting to read for sometime – then made way to the Cigar Lounge on Deck 6 where I spent about two hours of reading (before leaving I had a nice chat with a gent from Nova Scotia after letting him borrow my torch).

Mid-afternoon I lunched on a dozen “hot” chicken wings (in quotation marks because hot to the average person is quite mild for moi) and another Amstel at Blue Lagoon, then wandered the ship for awhile sampling different presentations (mainly for spa services). There were also a bunch of drink clinics beginning at 3 – but not in the mood to get plastered I simply came back to the room and read a bit longer (reaching the book’s halfway point). In other words, a perfect, lazy vacation day!

The afternoon (into evening) got away from me, though – typing this summary into my Macbook... where the system clock was an hour behind ship's time... I was a bit startled when the cabin steward knocked on my door to inquire about evening turn-down. At this point I quickly grabbed my Lumix and sprinted to the elevators for a trip to the top deck – literally, just in time to catch a beautiful sunset. Did some twilight photography, then came back down to prep for tomorrow’s shore excursion – only to discover that I’d misplaced my ticket (no worries – they reprinted one for me with no questions… guess I’m not the first person to have done this).

Sunset somewhere off the coast of the Baja Peninsula
Sunset somewhere off the coast of the Baja Peninsula
Sunset somewhere off the coast of the Baja Peninsula

Anyhoo, with everything prepped I grabbed what remained of the Sunstone and walked to Indigo – where I enjoyed an Egg Roll, Norwegian Salmon Tartare, Pork Tenderloins (on a bed of spinach w/potato sections, mushrooms & brown gravy) – followed with Lemon Sorbet & Coffee for dessert. From there I wandered up to the main area to listen to Arvin & Emily cover the typical cruise ship classics (she’s a rather hot Asian lady with a great voice… he’s an okay pianist trying a tad too hard to sound like Johnny Mathis). Listened to about a dozen songs then headed-down to the bars on Deck 6 only to hear the last 15 sec of the piano/comedy guy before he went on break. Whatever – figured that was a good cue to call it a night.

 

Sunday, October 6, 2013 - Cabo San Lucas, Mexico

And now Sunrise just a hundred miles-or-so northwest of Cabo San Lucas
Sunrise over the mountains of the Baja Peninsula - just a hundred miles-or-so northwest of Cabo San Lucas

Slept poorly once again (for no obvious reason why) but at least that meant I was up to photographically greet the dawn – then be one of the first to open breakfast at the Garden Café (where I indulged in a tasty mushroom, red/green pepper, jalapeno & cheese omelet; sausage links; bacon; some fresh pineapple; and a tiny croissant plus coffee). From there I wandered the top decks photographing our approach into Cabo San Lucas:

 
Panoramic View of our Approach into Cabo San Lucas
 
Scenes from the Baja Peninsula, as we approach our anchorage at Cabo San Lucas
Scenes from the Baja Peninsula, as we approach our anchorage at Cabo San Lucas
Scenes from the Baja Peninsula, as we approach our anchorage at Cabo San Lucas
Scenes from the Baja Peninsula, as we approach our anchorage at Cabo San Lucas
Cabo San Lucas is finally at hand...
...evidenced by LOTS of passengers up on deck photographing the famed Arch
Taking advantage of the photo op myself :)
Last time I was here I stood on this very beach photographing boats/ships where we now were
Close to our anchor point I get a few more pics of Los Arcos while the light is still good - first at a relatively wide angle...
...and then with the lens zoomed
The other side of Lover's Beach...
...seen here in a bit more of a closeup

Upon returning to the room I saw that Larry had found (somewhere!) my original shore excursion ticket... so that’s the one I travelled-on, starting with the 10:45am meeting time in the Stardust Theatre. Even though we’d pretty much arrived by 10:30 and three tenders were already in the water, Mexican clearance didn’t happen until just after 11 – and as our journey was the farthest I was in the first boat headed ashore.

Once on land, signs directed us to the “Discover Todos Santos” tour; I paired-up with Drew (another single traveler hailing from the UK) then we loaded-aboard a very comfortable charter bus (with every seat filled!) and listened to our guide Marco tell us about the area during the 70 min trip north. Arriving right at 1pm we all had a tasty sit-down lunch in the Hotel California's La Coronela Restaurant (consisting of true – aka bland – traditional Mexican fare: a cheese quesadilla more closely resembling a cheese taco, an obviously very homemade tamale, a chiquito, and small amounts of white rice, black beans, and pico de gallo… washed down with a Negra Modello that I purchased). Afterwards, Marco took us on a guided tour first to the Mission (farthest south of the chain of Missions), then the “Cultural Center(worth a look but seemingly like a weird junkyard contributed-to and run by the town locals).

The one place I'd never seen in my trips to Cabo was Todos Santos (about 75min to the north) - so I booked a Tour! We began with the furthest south chain of Missions on the west coast...
...had to take an obligatory peek inside (despite it being Sunday)
We next toured "downtown" - this is the Todos Santos Theatre complex
From there it was a trip to the "Cultural Center" (in quotation marks because the guide had pre-instructed us to not laugh)... while it had some interesting stuff, it also felt (in large part) like something of a junkyard
But the locals are very proud so my particular Tour Group showed (IMO) the proper amount of respect & interest
"Downtown" along with a shot of our parked Tour Bus
Todos Santos is tiny... and there's not much here

From that point we had about an hour to kill – I met-up with my seatmate Drew and we walked the town for a bit shooting pics… but, really, there’s not much else to see/do in this little town. Even the Hotel California was underwhelming (especially having heard that The Eagles thing may only be legend). I can see the band coming there to cloister themselves for writing… but the words to the song? Granted, we weren’t allowed into the hotel proper – but it seemed VERY small. “Such a lovely place”? Uh, not so much (from what I could see).

Here's a side-view of Todos Santos' biggest claim to fame: The Hotel California (supposedly the one made famous by The Eagles)
It pretty much anchors the entire town
The front of the Hotel...
...and here's as close as I could come to a front view where it'd be obvious what this is
Yep, it's been around for awhile
Like most places of note they have their own house-brand of Tequila
We headed-into the bar - where a complimentary lunch awaited our group
If The Eagles really hung-out here whilst writing that most famous of albums - how many hours did they spend in here?
Adjacent to the Hotel Bar is the lobby...
... where you can check-out any time you like (do I need to finish this? lol)
It's VERY small (from the look outside probably no more than a dozen rooms) - but they don't let gawkers past this point in the hotel lobby

Everyone was back aboard the bus at 3:45 sharp and we quickly headed south – most folks seemed to doze on this part while I just wasn’t sleepy (figures I stay awake for this and can’t when accompanied by the lovely Julia when returning from Montserrat to Barcelona one year earlier lol). Tropical Tours dropped us right by the cruise ship tender pier, where I was in line for about 20min before boarding and returning to The Pearl. So much for my original thought of walking up to Maro’s Shrimp House for a quick Bulldog and perhaps a Shrimp Quesadilla... there was simply no time! :/

Back in Cabo I'd originally hoped to stop by one of my favorite portside restaurants - but there was simply no time... had to board the tender for the ride back to The Pearl
Glad this rather nice view of both Los Arcos and the ship turned-out okay

Back in my cabin I did a little troubleshooting/maintenance on the DSLR (which acted finicky much of the day – blissfully unaware this was a precursor of worse things to come... but, luckily, I also carried the Lumix which did most of the tour heavy-lifting) then, once working again (and after downing one of my Amstels) took it to the top deck to photograph sailaway and (eventually) a lovely sunset.

The waning sun cast a lovely light on the land... but I did find it a little weird bugging-out of Cabo before the fun night time commenced
Looking west from downtown Cabo (sort of in the direction of the airport)
Lover's Beach near sunset
Los Arcos - and a local sunset cruise
Buh-bye, Cabo... til next time (which I'd prefer to be another land-based trip)
With Cabo in the distance, the Pearl sails a little east of south towards our next port of call - as the sun sets...
...over the Pacific horizon

While hungry for dinner I was also pretty grimy – so I decided to change shirts then grab dinner at the Garden Café. I had forgotten just how well NCL does “the trough” – particularly impressive is their Indian section, with a killer Curried Beef, a Tofu & Spinach concoction, a Spicy Chicken & Chick Pea dish, and fresh Naan plus Riata… but I also enjoyed a small Beef Empanada, a Chicken Breast with a Pear Chutney Glaze, a chilled Turkey Pasta Salad & a chilled Chick Pea Salad. Everything was washed down with several glasses of iced tea (the day seemed to dehydrate me quite nicely) then topped-off the meal with a slice of Boston Cream Pie (not quite as good as what you’d get in beantown, but very credible in its own right).

You’ll note the lack of commentary about the shows on board – honestly, having peaked-in on a couple of them I was wholly unimpressed… and as it’s my vacation, I don’t want to feel obligated to see/do everything offered any more than I should feel obligated to eat everything made available (my clothes are tight enough as it is! lol). So I elected to take my time cleaning-up & washing/drying my hair, then partook of a homemade martini in cabin before turning-in.

 

Monday, October 7, 2013 - Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

Managed to sleep until 8 on Day #4 of this cruise – though that was no great feat considering we again set the clocks ahead one hour last evening. But at least it was a darkish morning light outside… discovered why when I stepped outside on the way to the Garden Café – and my glasses immediately fogged-up. Gone was the tropical desert climate of Cabo – this morning was almost completely overcast and humid as all hell! For breakfast I tried the buffet Eggs Florentine (think Benedict w/spinach instead of Canadian Bacon) – it was good, but poached eggs don’t do so well sitting under a warmer. Afterwards it was back to the cabin to finish cleaning-up, loading the backpack for today’s touring & shopping, then go to the Stardust Theatre for the 11:15 meeting time with the tour group before debarking the ship.

After the previous day's late morning arrival in Cabo, this morning's visit to Puerto Vallarta began (so it seemed) very early
I'd previously been to Puerto Vallarta in (I think) 1997 with my last wife & daughter on Carnival - but, honestly, had no recollection of this approach
Norwegian's Pearl is a pretty big ship - there wasn't a whole lot of spare room as we spun 180 degrees prior to docking (good thing we were the only ship that day!)

Today’s tour was called “Town, Country & Tequila” and was it ever jam-packed! This time we were led by Angel (who looked & sounded a bit like the comedian Bill Dana) and our driver Roberto. We first headed north about 45min to the Hacienda Dona Engracia – a family-owned tequila manufacturer. After a quick introduction about how it’s made the tasting commenced; their Blanco is good in margaritas (I know as I had one at the conclusion of this part of the tour); their Reposado had a nice smoky flavor but seemed a tad thin to my palate; and their Añejo was very nice – thicker while retaining some of the smoky oak flavor of the barrel – but, again, it finishes quickly and didn’t really appeal to the point of buying a bottle. However, they next brought-out three flavored tequilas – and I ended-up buying all three (amaretto, chocolate/coffee, and peach)… along with a homemade habanero hot sauce (in what for all the world looked like a recycled, old-school ketchup bottle)!

Once cleared to go ashore we headed to Hacienda Dona Engracia - a family owned & operated tequila plant
We began with an explanation of how tequila goes from plant to beverage...
...which was followed by a sampling of all of their wares (I'd originally come prepared to buy a high-end mezcal, but ended-up buying three of their flavored tequilas [GREAT over ice cream!] and a bottle of homemade habanero hot sauce)

From there we headed back towards town – stopping for a free beer (think Coronita-sized but by Pacifico) offered by a jewelry shop as a gimmick to get people to buy (most didn’t seem to be taking the bait). After about 25min there, we went into old town for a 20-25min guided tour of the Los Arcos Amphitheatre (on the Malecon), then the Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadalupe. From there the bus was to take us back to the ship, but I specifically requested a stop to buy myself some cigars then to buy my daughter some jewelry from Tiara Fine Silver (although I did treat myself to a silver chain from which my Tarkus medallion now hangs). Also bought a 12-pack of bottled Coca-Cola Light at a nearby Oxxo… feeling like a pack mule as I hauled everything bought over the course of the day to the nearest cab. The cabby, btw, had spent half of his life in the US - so it was a little like taking a cab back home... instead of back onto ship docked in Puerto Vallarta. As soon as I got back aboard, the liquor was “held” until the last night of the trip (a practice typical to all cruise lines).

From tequila we headed to town - at this point, touring the Malecon suddenly came back to me...
...as did this view from downtown Puerto Vallarta
Don't think I'd previously visited the Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadulupe - so I decided to avail myself of the opportunity
Quite a bit more impressive than yesterday's Mission in Cabo

Puerto Vallarta was uncomfortably hot all day (upper 80s when we arrived mid-morning, ten degrees higher by mid-afternoon... even the locals said it was uncharacteristically hot!). Upon returning to the Pearl, yours truly was very much a stinky dude in need of a shower! When again presentable, I stopped-by the Blue Lagoon for a dozen hot wings and a beer (to help soak-up what remained of the day's tequila... they poured very liberally, and had no qualms about offering seconds and even thirds!); then it was time to go back on deck (only to have both my glasses and camera lens immediately fog-back-up... I forgot what that was like!) for some departure photos. Skipped a formal dinner; by nightfall I hung-out poolside as a band was setting-up… but the “Iguana Trio” doing Brazilian bossa nova not all that well just wasn’t enough to keep me hanging around – so I returned to my cabin for another homemade martini and some time to rest my sore feet.

Before returning to the ship I did the majority of my shopping for this trip: silver jewelry for myself & my kiddo, cigars, and a stock-up of Coke Light. Time got a little tight, but I was still able to be back aboard about 20min before last call
Decided to hang-out on Deck 6 Aft where I could get a good view of our departure
While never personally having handled lines of this size, based on the strain imposed on these guys they must weigh a ton
A view of our dock as we depart
Although, compared to Cabo, it seemed to take longer to leave - probably because they have so many high rise buildings that stay longer in your field of view
It was very pretty seeing the clouds descending below the level of the mountaintops - yet the sun still occasionally peeking-through the mostly cloudy skies
The obligatory Patrol Boat escorted us out to the three mile limit
View of town just before...
...Captain "Speaking"...
...ordered the engines to full throttle for our trip further to the south
Buh-bye Puerto Vallarta!
 

Tuesday, October 8, 2013 - A Day at Sea

Another relatively fitful night’s sleep (it’s no wonder I regularly get the sleepies pretty much every afternoon) with what seemed a very dark sunrise… looking out of the porthole I was surprised to see fairly heavy rain and even occasional lightning. I guess timing is everything (thank heaven we weren't in port this day)! Decided to try a sit-down breakfast at the formal Summer Palace Dining Room – enjoying two properly cooked Eggs Benedict with Hash Browns & Orange Juice plus black Coffee (after skipping a full dinner last evening I really was consciously trying to return home having not gained a single pound).

Returning to my cabin I started flipping-around on the TV and proceeded to get hooked watching "Oblivion" (which is odd since Tom Cruise generally makes my skin crawl... maybe it was Olga Kurylenko that held my attention?! lol). Afterwards, I grabbed one of my new stogies & returned to the Cigar Lounge where (besides enjoying it) I knocked-out another hundred pages of my book. With specialty restaurant reservations I didn’t want to take a chance on (typically) overeating lunch – so I ordered a simple turkey on hoagie w/chips from Room Service (gratis on NCL) while doing some more reading in my cabin. Despite the sun being out (we were about to pass Acapulco as I was typing this portion of the recap) I even dozed a bit.

The evening had my second Specialty Restaurant reservation for this trip – at the La Cucina Italian Restaurant. My server. Claudette. was right up there with the best (til she forgot to bring coffee with my dessert) and the food was better than I remembered during last year’s sailing on the Epic. Started with my own 2010 L’Avion and their fresh bread & four course oil sampler (rosemary, pesto, garlic, and jalapeno). My appetizer was very lightly fried Calamari with a most excellent pesto; this was followed by an ingenious Caesar Salad (a small fan of intact romaine with freshly cut parmesan, dressing, and croutons on top); my entrée was their special – four Grilled Shrimp with Rice & Eggplant presented almost as though it was an eggroll. I finished the meal with Affogato (macadamia nut ice cream with espresso drizzled over the top) and a cup of coffee. Can you say YUM?!!

I also ordered an Italian Sausage Pizza to be delivered via room service (normally a $5.95 upcharge but complimentary as a part of my La Cucina order) – upon walking back I heard Peter James (the really only excellent musician, in my opinion, on board) playing in Bar City, but was only able to stop ‘n listen to a couple of songs before needing to return to my Cabin to meet the pizza delivery guy (whereupon I kept it in the mini fridge for consumption over the next couple of days – I LOVE cold pizza!).

Toyed with going back out – but since tomorrow was the first day where I needed to set my alarm (needing to meet the tour group at 8-sharp) I decided to be a fuddy-duddy and call it an early night.

 

Wednesday, October 9, 2013 - Huatulco, Mexico

May as well stop writing about fitful night sleeps… although this one at least has a cause: I ate WAY too much food at La Cucina last night! Woke about 10min before the alarm sounded (at 7) and felt like I’d just had a hearty breakfast – so I (obviously) skipped having one. I very leisurely got all of my stuff together; the ship docked about 7:50 and we were cleared right at the top of the hour – with my tour ("Old Huatulco & Mexican Traditions") being the first group to depart the Stardust Theatre (I was actually first in line because I could understand the German announcement – I was already exiting the theatre when the English version took place lol).

The weather was very humid but nowhere near as hot as Puerto Vallarta; it was about a 10min walk from the dock to our tour bus. Our guide was Rebeca (who sort of reminded me of Vera Jimenez on KTLA… although nowhere near as pretty) and our driver was Oscar. Once underway we motored perhaps 30min to our first stop – Piedra de los Moros – a small town with a family-owned botanic garden, with all kinds of medicinal plants & herbs on display. We were able to sample fresh Lemongrass Tea along the path; then, at the end, we had Cactus Tacos rolled in corn tortillas that were just made (beginning with cooked/dried corn on the cob and ending with a thicker-than-in-America tortilla). It was washed down with a cold Hibiscus Tea… reminiscent of cold Cranberry Juice, but nowhere near as tart. Tasty!

After a Day at Sea, our next Port of Call was Huatulco (Mexico).  Master planning has the population increasing ten-fold in the next 30-40 years, as it's supposed to be the next Cancun... Puerto Vallarta... Acapulco.  But, for now, it's a very small, very pleasant, very laid back, lovely place.
After the demo it was time for a tour of the gardens
While I shot a ton of macro close-ups, this was my favorite :)

From there we drove for another 20-25min (mind you, the distances aren’t very far – but the Pan American Highway, at least in these parts, is reminiscent of a curvy, narrow two-lane country road back home… with lots of construction along the edges, as the Federal Government plans on widening/straightening it for future development). The next stop was the town of Santa Maria, where we visited a quaint but beautiful La Conception Church in the town square. It was exactly as you would picture “old” Mexico to be. Just a kilometer-or-so out of town was the Mezcal Factory – where we got an orientation not unlike we received in Puerto Vallarta on the process of making tequila (or, in this case, mezcal – derived from the green, rather than blue, agave).

We then hopped-aboard the bus for the short drive (down the windy & narrow Pan American Highway) to the town of Santa Maria. Upon arrival our first stop was the local...
...Cathedral. It was lovely (as evidenced by the next few pics)
La Conception Church, Santa Maria Huatulco
La Conception Church, Santa Maria Huatulco
La Conception Church, Santa Maria Huatulco
La Conception Church, Santa Maria Huatulco
Next was a quick stop at the town's Municipal complex...
...where Rebeca showed us a depiction of how Huatulco looked circa 1960
A little better view of the Municipal building...
...as well as the town's open-air shopping area

What I wasn’t expecting was a thorough tasting – surprisingly smooth mezcal (and, for spice lovers, I learned the trick of toping the lime with a little bit of combined chili powder & salt before doing the shot); next up was a host of flavored mezcals that had me seriously contemplating paying duty to bring-home more bottles (I opted against mainly out of concern for airline excess weight charges). The best (in my opinion) was their version of Bailey’s – which tasted surprisingly like Bailey’s (there was no tequila aftertaste at all). We also sampled a local delicacy: homemade corn chips, topped with mole, crumbled Oxacan cheese, then dried grasshoppers. Loved the concoction so much I bought two of their big bags of grasshoppers for when I return home!

Only a kilometer or so out of town was our next stop - a Mezcal Factory
As before in Puerto Vallarta, we got a brief schooling on the process of making Mezcal...
...after which the sampling began (whereupon I found myself wishing I'd not already maxed-out my duty-free allowance - they had some seriously good stuff)! We also partook of a local munchie: homemade tortilla chips, topped with shredded Oxacan cheese, topped with freshly-made mole, topped with...
...dried crickets. They were so tasty (at one point I was eating them plain) I bought two large bags for myself! :p

Back on the bus by 11:15ish we arrived at the port area about 30min later – which still left almost 3-1/2 hours before last call. I paired-up for a little while with Martin and walked the town a bit – he was looking for Cuban cigars and found a girl who purportedly had some (I’m pretty much completely convinced they were counterfeit but didn’t want to burst his bubble)… he was low on cash, so he headed back to the Pearl to resupply while I wandered about photographing the area.

Panoramic View of the Huatulco Marina
Back at the port I bought a small cup of freshly-brewed espresso then lit-up a cigar and just sat in the shade enjoying the slow pace of life here
Since being back aboard prior to last call was not going to be an issue, I wandered all of the nooks & crannies portside
Lovely little private marina - found myself thinking this would be a great hangout if I still owned a sailboat. C'est la vie (as I do not)

About 12:30 I parked my arse in the shade to enjoy one of my newly acquired cigars and, while puffing away, made friends with Ron & Margaret (also on the Pearl) from Naples FL. Very nice couple that I hoped to see them again during the cruise (strangely, I never did!). Once done with my smoke, I wandered into the Maria Bonita Jewelry Store and bought Jordan another two ankle bracelets (only costing about $49 US for nice-quality .925 silver – and it was an NCL-approved vendor, so I trust that they were of good quality). A few more photographs then I returned to the ship – dropping my cameras & fanny pack in the room to make-way to the Garden Café for a nice lunch… highlighted with really spectacular Tandoori Chicken, Lamb Rogan Josh, and a couple of other Indian accompaniments. Have I said how much I love Norwegian? ;)

Wandered the beach a bit - as it afforded excellent views of the docked ship
It's a very small beach - the camera isn't zoomed very much at all in this shot
For those not sure as to the whereabouts of Huatulco, perhaps this local map will help
Before returning through security to reboard the ship - I did a tiny bit more silver shopping in the most recommended town shop (not going to say what I bought as it's a still-to-be-Christmas-gift for my daughter)
Spinning around from the last shot, here's the view of The Pear
Then, turning sideways from the last two shots you see this nice view of homes & hotels on the hillside. If this place grows as they plan, it won't be nearly this lovely within a generation
Just before reboarding the ship I snapped one last pic

Returned to the cabin for a bit, then it was back up on deck to photograph the sailaway… along the lovely coastline:

Panoramic View of the Huatulco Beach
 
Panoramic View of the Huatulco Marina & Channel
Once again on Deck 6 Aft I shot more pics of this lovely little town... my favorite of the entire cruise
I could see myself coming back here - not that there's a lot of stuff to do (but, for me, that's the appeal)
A little higher-up view from the one I shot dockside
Zoomed-in to see this (I presume) construction
The top of the ship was sufficiently high to see across the neighboring bay to the south
Wonder what it costs to stay here? (yes, my gears were already turning)
The last view before our engines came to life and we began to slowly motor-away
Buh-bye, Huatulco!
Buh-bye, Huatulco!
Buh-bye, Huatulco!
Buh-bye, Huatulco!
Buh-bye, Huatulco!
Buh-bye, Huatulco!
Buh-bye, Huatulco!
Lovely scenery as we depart Huatulco (btw, I have no clue what was periodically venting here - but it was fascinating to watch)
Lovely scenery as we depart Huatulco
Lovely scenery as we depart Huatulco

Returned to my cabin with the intention of napping, but no such luck (I’m seeing a pattern here – when I’m busy, even if tired I don’t doze… but when I’m bored senseless I sleep in the afternoons like the dead). Gave-up about 5:30 in favor of taking a shower, then headed to Bar City to hear Jim Badger first do “Name That Tune” then his two sets of song requests (laced with copious amounts of laughter). He wrapped about 9:20 – having finished-off the last of the L’Avion I decided to return to my room, order a cheeseburger from room service, to check email, then call it a night.

 

Thursday, October 10, 2013 - Puerto Chiapas, Mexico

I was awakened exactly 12 min before the alarm was to sound by the ship swaying quite a bit – glancing outside the seas didn’t look at all rough – found out a bit later that the crew had turned-off the stabilizers because the port is very shallow (so we were feeling the Pacific swells). It's remarkable how well stabilizers work... I would NOT want to be aboard that ship in heavy weather with them turned-off! Since I was up I started prepping for the day – only to check my tour ticket & see that we didn’t meet until 10:20 onshore… so I had plenty of time to kill. Went up on Deck 14 to watch the ship’s clockwise spin prior to docking – then headed-down to the Garden Café for an Omelet, Sausage Links, Bacon, Hash Browns, OJ and black Coffee. Came back to the cabin, watched a little TV, checked email, finished cleaning-up, then finally went down one deck and left the ship to begin today's tour.

The following day we docked at Puerto Chiapas - the southernmost stopping point in Mexico (before entering Guatemala)
As you can tell, this trip's near perfect weather continued - despite being in tropical (rainy) climates, the only showers encountered were late at night whilst offshore
This is a really lovely little port (for one ship at a time) - giving one high hopes for a great time ashore...

I was, frankly, stunned at how much it had warmed in the past hour – but, as our tourguide later said, “don’t complain about the heat – you’re in the tropics!” Yep. Puerto Chiapas is pretty rudimentary – there’s really nothing around the cruise ship dock except for a few Mexican trinket shops just after passing security on the way to the bus pickup area. Today’s tour, “Chiapas Through The Ages,” was conducted by a guy about my age named Sam… a lifelong resident of Tapachula (the nearby city) and incredibly well-spoken with regard to his English (while intimidating it also sort of goes with the territory when you're a tourguide... he said he was also conversant in French, German, and a little bit of Chinese).

Once our bus filled we were off – first to the city (about a 30min drive). I had no idea it was so big – Sam said the population was about 350,000, and I think at least half of them were in the downtown area when we visited! We began with a walk around the town square then a quick exploration of the Cathedral de St. Joseph. From there we walked about a block to the Archaeological Museum, where we got our first look at the types of Mayan artifacts we’d see later in the trip.

...until you arrive by Tour Bus in downtown Tapachula and begin wondering if the 350,000 population all decided to be out on the streets when you are (translation: it was a zoo)
The pattern of seeing local Cathedrals continued...
...this one I found pretty but otherwise unremarkable
At least by now I'd reflexively gotten into the habit of removing my hat before entering :)
Not sure why it was so much busier here than when we toured the one in Cabo on a Sunday... maybe just reflective of so many people living/working here?
The last room of the chapel...
...before exiting outside and walking approximately two blocks to the Archaeological Museum
Before the Museum we did get a sampling of festive local clothing (and, shortly after this photo, my DSLR gave itself a lobotomy - where it would only shoot in manual-only mode - necessitating a pricey repair when I returned stateside... thank goodness I brought two cameras!)

It was at this point that a mild personal disaster struck: after successfully photographing the inside of the Cathedral, when I next powered-up my Nikon D5100 to photograph inside the museum I was greeted with the message “Autoexposure error. Contact a Nikon-authorized service representative.” Trying everything available to me (e.g. new batteries, force clean the image sensor, repeated powering on-off, etc.) I could only conclude that a chip was shot and that the camera is basically out of commission for the remainder of the vacation. The one upside is that the Lumix was still performing flawlessly… and, thankfully, continued to do so throughout my holiday!

From the museum we reboarded our bus for the 35-40 min ride out to Izapa – the major archaeologic site in the area, lying just a few miles from the border with Guatemala. Granted, nowhere near as impressive as Chichen Itza or even Tulum, it was nevertheless still very interesting. I even found a way to force the (almost completely) failed D5100 into pure manual mode – then would guesstimate bright sunlight exposures (if they looked too terrible in the rear LCD I simply deleted them)… not an ideal way to shoot, but at least I was still getting something. We stayed for a bit over an hour, then it was time to head-back to the ship.

Panoramic View of the Izapa Ruins
Panoramic View of the Izapa Ruins
Panoramic View of the Izapa Ruins
After about half an hour at the museum our bus drove about 40 min to the ruins of Izapa - just a few miles from the Guatemalan border
It was VERY hot & humid - so, wherever possible, we'd seek shade for our scholarly guide (Sam) to educate us about the area
The ruins at Izapa, Puerto Chiapas, MX
The ruins at Izapa, Puerto Chiapas, MX
The ruins at Izapa, Puerto Chiapas, MX
The ruins at Izapa, Puerto Chiapas, MX
The ruins at Izapa, Puerto Chiapas, MX
The ruins at Izapa, Puerto Chiapas, MX
The ruins at Izapa, Puerto Chiapas, MX
The ruins at Izapa, Puerto Chiapas, MX
The ruins at Izapa, Puerto Chiapas, MX
The ruins at Izapa, Puerto Chiapas, MX
The ruins at Izapa, Puerto Chiapas, MX
The ruins at Izapa, Puerto Chiapas, MX
The ruins at Izapa, Puerto Chiapas, MX
The ruins at Izapa, Puerto Chiapas, MX
The ruins at Izapa, Puerto Chiapas, MX
Nowhere near as impressive as Chichen Itza or even Tulum - but as someone with an interest in ancient American cultures I'm glad I saw it :)

Would I return here? Eh, if another cruise stopped I’d probably give the Chocolate Tour a try… otherwise, nah, I’d stay on the ship. Seems very much an heavily populated, overly industrial border city… the one cool thing, however, was the two volcanos visible in the distance before the afternoon clouds completely obscured them. Sam said the one we were seeing in Guatemala was active as recently as 1905 – but neither have been since. Gotta think it’d be a horrifically scary sight for one of them to blow and finding yourself on the flatlands below!

At Sams’s suggestion I bought three 500g bags of coffee in one of the artisan shops before reboarding. Stopping at the front desk I tried to apply my remaining pesos to my onboard account – but NCL wouldn’t accept them, so I pocketed them for next Spring’s Cruise To The Edge (and our stop in Cozumel, where I can use them again to buy local goodies).

Returning to Port I entered this shopping area where I bought three recommended bags of Mexican Coffee Beans (after first sampling in small tasting cups)... our guide wasn't kidding: Costa Rica & Columbia don't have a corner on the coffee market - it is good stuff!
After clearing security we were greeted by this impromptu dockside crew party

I next grabbed a quick order of Fish ‘n Chips plus an Amstel at the Blue Lagoon – feeling quite hungry after the day of plodding along on the tour. Returning to the room, I watched a few minutes of TV news (to try to have some clue what was going-on in the world around me) – then returned to the Deck 7 Promenade to photograph our sailaway (easily the least picturesque so far… if it sounds like I didn’t fall for Puerto Chiapas you’re right).

Once back aboard I returned to my favorite Deck 6 areas for late afternoon departure photography
I will give the locals credit for being exceedingly friendly and trying as hard as they can to make the visit a special one
Even security personnel had big smiles and waved "goodbye" to us as the engines cranked
Once we began pushing-back the dancers stopped to wave "goodbye" and blow kisses... not a lot of ship traffic visits here - maybe that explains the appreciation
Still not quite sure why this tug folllowed-us-out a ways (it wasn't the Pilot vessel... maybe they were just bored?)
Buh-bye, Puerto Chiapas - while I'm glad I visited, for me it's a case of "been there, done that",, and rather doubt I'll ever return
Even the tugboat crew waved goodbye...
...before turning-around to return to port
Exiting the ship channel here's a view to the north...
...after which I walked to the other side of the ship to snap a couple of pics looking south
As you can tell, the mountainous terrain of the first three stops gave-way to relative flat lands in far southern Mexico
My last view before returning inside

I returned to the cabin to do some Googling about the camera error (tried a couple of suggested fixes but no joy – it definitely was going to a repair facility upon returning home) then took a leisurely shower before heading-up for some Sushi & Sake at about 7:30 (where I enjoyed Edamame, Miso Soup, the Ruby Combo, Sake (salmon) Sashimi, and Nigori Cold Sake). Came back to the room and decided it was time to (jam) pack the laundry bag for the $24.95 special (sealing it with copious amounts of packing tape I had brought for this specific purpose, as it was about to burst). With any luck I hoped to have it back Friday night – but planned for Saturday… and this time did a very detailed inventory in case I had a repeat of the laundry mishap one year ago on the Epic (thankfully, lightning did not strike twice lol).

So I wandered up to Bar City to listen to Jim… stayed for two full sets… definitely not as good of a crowd as the previous night (everybody may have been worn-out from the day's touring). I made it til midnight – a first for me this trip – then in typical David fashion had to check email & facebook once more before light’s out ;)

 

Friday, October 11, 2013 - A Day at Sea

Having stayed-up until almost 1am I wasn’t at all thrilled when my alarm started chiming at 7 (really thought I’d turned-it-off, but obviously not). At least I was able to doze for another 80min or so – when I wandered-up to the Garden Café for my (now) typical breakfast (and this morning I finally found some Tabasco to slather-onto my eggs). I returned to the cabin to grab my book, then hung-out on Deck 7 (near the Sushi bar) to read – only to have Captain Speaking (as in “Good morning, this is your Captain speaking…”) say that due to the traffic/crowds associated with an airshow happening Saturday in Punarenas that we would instead go to Puerto Caldera – with all tours happening from there. But, apparently, there’s not much to do around that port – so they gave everyone (including those of us who prebooked) a 10% discount/credit towards shore excursions. C’est la vie… gotta roll with the punches.

Meantime, as I typed this we were motoring about 100 miles off the coast of Nicaragua… temps in the low 80s, humidity not that bad, 1-1/2’ seas… a very nice day out in the Pacific!

By lunchtime I had finished my book – and planned on having a poolside lunch – but it was so jammed with people (partly because they had a Tex-Mex food area setup) that I ended-up getting a burger & chili dog aft. Afterwards, I sort of reverted to my homebody self: came back to the room, dozed, read some of my Solaris Owner’s Manual, watched the insipid “Employee Of The Month” on the piped-iin movie channel – and with a yen for more Indian decided to bypass the traditional restaurants in favor of the Garden Café where I could feed that yen.

And did it ever! Chicken Korma, Dal Fry Curry, some sort of Beef dish, Pilao Rice, etc… one of the Indian crew members was in line in front of me and we laughed that I was taking a pass on regular dining to get my Indian fix! Then, as if it couldn’t get any better, I dined in one of the most ethereal, peaceful times of my life… on the very aft part of the ship, there was the waning light of sunset with Venus and a couple of stars peeking out; to the east was a wonderful cumulus buildup frequently lit by distant lightning; the temperature was, literally, perfect – with an occasional gentle breeze to help with cooling. I finished my meal and just sat watching the dancing lights on the horizon – feeling completely at peace with everything. One week in and my holiday was now perfect. Damn. Just damn :)

Afterwards, I grabbed a Rocky Patel, a Coke Light, and my Solaris manual – then spent a couple of hours in the Cigar Lounge reading & relaxing… returning to the room to check email, then call it a night. A LONG day of touring awaited me on Saturday!

 

Saturday, October 12, 2013 - Puntarenas, Costa Rica

I woke about 5:30am, having tossed 'n turned throughout the entire night (with no clue as to why that was the case – although I will say that the Pearl's mattresses & pillows do tend to be on the hard side). Finally got up when the alarm sounded at 7… at this point we were still about 20 miles from port. Took my time cleaning-up & prepping for the day, then met in the Stardust at 8:45 as requested (figuring we’d be first off the ship since ours was the longest tour offered). I figured right – but for some reason it took forever to dock, and we didn’t get the greenlight to go down the gangway until about 9:20am.

Pays to be near the front – I met up with tour leader Leda and her driver Edgar… she was looking for only 16 pax for a minibus (everyone else was on traditional full-size buses)… this stroke of luck made for a much more personalized experience. We were also the first underway – although I’m not sure how much of an advantage it was since traffic was atrocious (mainly due to what appeared to be a construction accident on the Pan American Highway). Not two minutes after departing we saw a group of monkeys in the tops of the trees - causing me (and likely others) to know that we weren't in Kansas anymore! ;)

After another Day at Sea, our next stop was Puerto Caldera, Costa Rica (we were supposed to arrive in Puntarenas - but with mega-crowds expected for an airshow on the same day local authorities moved us into the commercial port)... whatever... as I'd scheduled an 8-hour tour, it made no difference to me.  When we departed, not five minutes away from port and we see wild monkeys in the trees - I definitely wasn't in California any longer!
The planned 45min trip to our first stop (a glorified potty break) took almost twice that long - because of a combination of airshow traffic and an accident pulled onto the side of the two-lane highway. In any event, I was able to get a couple of bags of high-end Costa Rican coffee and a bottle of (not so spicy) hot sauce before returning to the road.
A view across from the rest stop - so much of Costa Rica looks like this... devastatingly lovely place!

We stopped at 10:45 for about 15min – on the way to Palmares County – for a potty break and a chance to buy souvenirs. In my case, I bought my friend Ana’s requested whole bean Costa Rican coffee (the brand is Britt – considered high end – and as she prefers light roast that’s what I got). Also bought myself the obligatory bottle of hot sauce (which I got to try later on this day during lunch – it was tasty-spicy, but definitely NOT habanero hot... at least to me). It then took another 40min until we stopped in Palmares for a 20min visit to the local cathedral and town square.

So another 40min or so elapses and we arrive at our first stop - the seat for Palmares County. Of course, that means you gotta see the local Cathedral...
...so I did
The stonework here reminded me of some Cathedrals/Chapels I've seen in Europe...
...except it was never this hot & humid in Europe! ;)
A quick shot of town before hopping-back-aboard the bus (I'm on record as saying that Costa Rica was the least foreign-feeling foreign country I'v ever visited... now I get why so many Yanks choose to relocate there permanently)
More beautiful scenery as we head in the general direction of the Arenal Volcano
Hard to tell from this far away - but in the distance is downtown San Jose (when shot we were to the northwest of downtown)

From there we drove at least another 75min to the Doka Estate (in retrospect, at least half of this tour is driving – traffic is terrible, and it’s exacerbated by pretty much every road being windy & two-lanes). With rain looking imminent (it had also rained on us when we were about 10min out) we opted to have lunch first at the Estate’s La Cajuela Restaurant… which was majorly tasty (consisting of a Salad with freshly-sliced Tomato & Cucumber; Rice with Black Beans; Broccoli; Spicy (as in chipotle) Chicken; Pulled Pork; Fried Plantains; and shredded Coconut with sugar... think Central American Rice Krispie treats). Everything was washed-down with a choice of either fresh Blackberry or Pineapple Juice - and all of the coffees that were available for sale. It was great!

The rain never materialized, so we got the tour going about 1:45 – really interesting to see, first-hand, how coffee moves from the plant through the process of stripping/sorting, then to drying, then roasting, and then shipment. From there we had a chance to try/buy all of their offerings – I purchased six bags, plus four different types of chocolate-coated beans for my daughter.

Our main stop of the day was the Doka Plantation - the largest coffee plant in Costa Rica; with rain looking imminent (we knew our luck couldn't hold out forever) we decided to have lunch first in the Estate's La Cajuela Restaurant. It was really very good!
The oldest and (arguably - tho you won't get much argument from me) the best
The grounds were gorgeous - and it was really cool to see actual coffee beans still growing on the plants!
There are five stages in the production process - the first, receiving, floats the beans in water (if they sink you don't want them)
Stage 2 finds the quality beans going through the peeling machines...
...like you see here
Stage 3 are the fermentation tanks...
...after which Mechanical Drying takes place in Stage 4
The last stage is storage in bags...
...as you see here
The large outside areas are where Sun Drying takes place...
...although, as you can tell, they didn't have much of that going-on during our visit
You finish the tour by learning a bit about the roasting process - and the different products offered
A recap (by our tour guide Leda) of the parts of a coffee bean and how they're handled
And one last view of the grounds before going inside to buy eight bags (I'm surprised the Customs folks in Miami didn't think I was smuggling drugs - given the absurd quantity of coffee I brought back)

Back on the road we drove through numerous rainshowers on the way to La Garita’s Botanical Orchid Garden… while it was dry when we exited the bus, the sky unzipped as soon as we arrived in the flower showroom – after hanging-out there for about 20min (with no let-up) we opted to skip the learning greenhouse & bird area in favor of heading back to Port. Along the way we did make a 10min stop (since we were now ahead of schedule) at a roadside farmer's market – where I was able to buy more Coke Light and a small tin of Pringles (to munch-on during the ride back to the Pearl).

Haven't seen one of these since I was last in Hawaii!
Our next stop had been the Botanical Garden at La Garita - but, just as we arrived, the skies opened-up in a deluge that showed no sign of stopping... so we reboarded our bus (getting quite wet in the process) and drove back in the general direction of Puerto Caldera... stopping about halfway there at a roadside fruit/vegetable stand for any last minute purchases
For me, it was a time to visit the Supermercados to restock a few more bottles of Coke Light to see me through the rest of the cruise
While the locals appreciate even a half-hearted attempt at Spanish, you can easily function here speaking English. As I say, now I get it... I'll definitely be back!

We arrived dockside about 5:15 (in advance of our 5:30 last call - traffic was terrible til the very end)… and, true to form, our prompt Captain blew the horn and had us pushing-back right at the top of the hour (not even delayed by someone being taken-off the ship on a stretcher into an awaiting ambulance). I stayed on deck past the early sunset to near dark – photographing ships, the sky, whatever appealed. One thing I will say – while the humidity is quite high here, it didn't feel too bad because the temp was nowhere near as hot as the other places we’d visited on this cruise. And the countryside itself was simply stunning… I remarked to several people that it was the most un-foreign foreign country I’d ever visited. Many parts felt like you were in portions of the US – so I definitely “get” why so many US retirees adopt expat status and live there full time.

Panoramic View of Our Departure from Puerto Caldera
Buh-bye, Puerto Caldera...
...as the thrusters push-us-back about a half hour behind schedule (they offloaded a crewmember who needed hospitalization from an injury sustained earlier in the day)
By the time we left, it was actually a lot darker than this and the other photos depict
I had hoped the view across the channel would be better than this - it was actually much prettier to the naked eye
If you look closely, you'll see lights becoming visible... yeah, it was that late when we finally left
I've mentioned my Deck 6 Aft hangout for departure photos - here's what it looks like
This particular day's sunset - with the terrain obscuring the actual sun - was nevertheless breathtaking
Normally, when we get them this good back home it's because of volcanic ash/dust in the air...
...I don't think that was the case here - maybe they're always like this in Costa Rica?
In any event, it was a lovely way to end today's visit...
...as I enjoyed seeing the arriving commercial vessels...
...in the waning light of day...
...that finally became darkness

Before returning to the cabin I stopped at the concierge desk to change my Cagney’s reservation from the 17th (last night of the cruise) to the 16th. Thinking about it, I knew there was going to be a LOT to pack – plus, my pattern this trip was that when one of the wine bottles is opened with dinner I only daink about half – saving the rest for the next night. I did NOT want to waste a Carhartt Cab-Franc in this manner, so it made sense to move that reservation up by a day.

Made a quick check of email (not a peep from my kiddo, who I was hoping to hear-from) before heading back to the Garden Café for still more Indian food for dinner (tonight I had some Asian Pork Balls and a really great Thai Chicken Basil Curry – on the one hand I felt like I was in a bit of a rut, but as I enjoy it so very much why stop?)… washing it all down with a can of Guinness while watching the lights slowly disappear behind the ship. I also brought back another four pieces of pizza to put into the room fridge – for either late night, or early morning munchies :p

Upon returning to the cabin my laundry had arrived – nervously, I unpacked the paper package and was overjoyed (literally) to find everything there on the first try (as compared to one year ago on the Epic when it was near impossible to get-back all of my clothes). I next typed this recap (you don't really think I can recall with this much detail months later, do you? lol) – then took a long shower that included hair washing & blow drying (a major undertaking these days, given how long I’ve let it grow). Watched a little TV then decided to call it a relatively early night – in large part because I felt a tad under the weather (having started the day with sniffles I ended it with a slightly scratchy throat – before going to sleep, I drank an EmerGen-C and took a decongestant).

 

Sunday, October 13, 2013 - A Day at Sea

Well, maybe it was the start of a cold or maybe it was exhaustion – but I actually got a good night’s sleep (although, once again, my stupid alarm sounded at 7… despite clearly remembering that it was turned-off yesterday... piece 'o crap!). No worries, though – since I dozed for another 90min after that!

Seas continued to be exceedingly calm (honestly, I’ve sailed on lakes with more chop) – and it was definitely the tropics because even at such an early hour it was 82° & 82%, with some potentially rainy cumulus clouds already visible on the horizon (potential became actual during breakfast, when the skies opened-up with a medium, steady rain). I was also amazed to look at the moving map display on the TV – I was now the furthest south ever in my lifetime (as I typed this section our latitude was 7° 15.64’ … with the map now showing Equador & the Galapagos). About 9:30 I headed-up for a bite of breakfast – stopping-off in the atrium on the way back to listen to a bit of the future cruise presentation (where some old guy collapsed while listening… they were dropping like flies on this cruise! lol) – then stopped again for a few minutes of the self-hypnosis presentation taking place in the Stardust Theatre. Came back to the cabin, where I was surprised to discover that Larry (and the other stewards) were nowhere in sight… guess they get to catch a break on Sunday mornings and have a late start. No worries... he busted his ass for me during the entire cruise!

The day eventually turned-into a very lazy one – first, when I flipped around on the TV and found the movie “Hackers” just getting started (kinda dumb, but I hadn’t seen it in a couple of decades so thought “what the heck?!”). I then caught the very tail-end of lunch – partaking (yet again) of Indian… in large part because I would be having French for dinner that evening. Afterwards it was nappy-nappy time… this pace was (in large part) because the alarm was set for 5:30 Monday morning so I didn’t miss any of our Canal Transit.

BTW, a position update: at 5pm we were traveling due east, with the ship’s latitude now 6° 57.16’ – so at this point I was at my personal best for most southerly travel (soon thereafter we started a slow turn to the northeast). To go even further south I guess I need to take a dedicated South America trip (already in the conceptual stages) ;)

While this was a Day at Sea - preceding our transit of the Panama Canal - it nevertheless marked the most south I've ever traveled (although this map - showing the Galapagos and so many countries of South America - had me vowing to change this personal feat as soon as possible)
Watching the monitor, this was the southerly latitude number before we began the slow climb back to the north

Chilled back in my cabin with a couple of homemade martinis, then it was time to get into nice clothing for my 8pm reservation at Le Bistro. My server, Christian, was impeccable – just the right amount of inobtrusive service and conversation all through the night. Started by having him open my 2007 Lincourt Pinot Noir (which was excellent – especially since they had pinot glasses available from which to drink!), then I began with a Four Mushroom Soup… followed by “Salade Gourmande” (essentially mixed greens with a champagne vinaigrette)… then Coq Au Vin for the main course (arguably the best I’ve ever had). Finished it off (only because stuffed never stopped me from ordering my favorite dessert) with Vanilla Crème Brulee – which, after the marginal version I had a year ago on the Epic surprised me as being near perfect. Along with two cups of French pressed coffee I was pretty much ready for the late night piano/comedy show up on Deck13 with Jim…

…which I actually did attend. However, I was under the impression he was playing until midnight or beyond – so it kind of surprised me when he knocked-off at 11:10. C’est la vie – except for one PG13 joke it was the same schtick I’d seen earlier on the cruise… so might as well get a little extra sleep since tomorrow was coming very early!

 

Monday, October 14, 2013 - Transiting the Panama Canal

First off, I have to acknowledge that today marked nine years since my father’s passing. That factoid is almost impossible to grasp, as it just doesn’t seem that long ago. I also find it ironic that I spent this day going through the Panama Canal – as I remember both my Mom & Dad telling me all about the cruise where they did the very same thing.

Ship noise woke me about 15min before my alarm (515ish) as we were in “The Fairway,” setting-up to receive our three pilots who would be in charge as we traversed the Canal. I quickly grabbed the Lumix & went forward on Deck 14 for lots of pre-dawn pics – then returned for a short-time to the cabin to get a spare battery (good thing – I needed it), the memory card wallet (ditto) and the manual-only Nikon DSLR… I shot a lot of pics with it, and perhaps 60% of them stayed on the memory cards as acceptable.

   
Panoramic View of 'The Fairway' (from the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal)
   
The whole reason for this cruise began pre-dawn on 14-Oct-2013: the start of our eastbound transit of the Panama Canal
Dozens of ships were with us in "The Fairway" (the holding area until ships are cleared to enter the canal)
In the distance is (the other) Panama City (as the only one I'd known prior to this day was in the Florida Panhandle :)
Perhaps nothing more than my own ignorance - but I had no idea Panama City was THIS BIG!
Sometimes ships will wait for as long as three days before being allowed to enter the Canal...
...so they just anchor and wait until their number comes up
Our ship, on the other hand, got a priority clearance - in part because Canal fees are based on the number of berths utilized on any ship... and Norwegian's Pearl holds the world record for the most berths (and thereby most expensive) for a Canal transit
They told us what this was - but, a month-and-a-half later, my Swiss cheese of a brain can't remember! :p
More ships in "The Fairway"
They're very lovely as the sun would peek through the morning cloud layer - almost as though they were in a kind of natural spotlight
And as the hours passed the clouds gave way to mostly sunshine
Nope, an exposure trick - I was trying to silhouette our ship and the others... the actual light looked more like the others in this same sequence

There was also morning fog near the Locks – so our original 7am prediction for entering Miraflores was delayed by about 100 minutes.

Those with balcony cabins stayed put for much of the day - but for those of us with inside or limited visibility cabins? It's obvious where we were!
A little wider view of Panama City - to (I believe) the South (the Canal generally runs southwest-to-northeast)
Panama City, Panama
Panama City, Panama
Panama City, Panama
Panama City, Panama
Panama City, Panama (with the multi-colored Biodiversity Museum in the foreground)
Panama City, Panama (with the multi-colored Biodiversity Museum in the foreground)
The Panama Biodiversity Museum
How the light actually appeared to the eye shortly after dawn (our Canal entry was delayed not quite two hours by fog in the actual Canal)
Starboard passengers clamoring for a view of the downtown Panama City skyline
The view from port prior to going under the Bridge Of The Americas
Speaking of which - looking forward, the Bridge Of The Americas looms
Slowly working our way to the Bridge Of The Americas
Down here the Pan-American Highway looks/acts like a US Highway... but in parts of Mexico? It rivals the most rural two lane stateside roads
The Bridge Of The Americas is quite tall (to accommodate large ship traffic) - but, even so, there wasn't THAT much distance between the top of The Pearl and the bottom of the bridge!
After passing underneath the Bridge - with Panama City now aft and starboard
Not too many people were using the pool/spas on this particular morning
The flags now denote that three Pilots were now onboard - two 9+ year veterans (one commands the first half while the other does the second), and a 6+ year veteran who assists on ships of this size
And, with Pilots aboard, it's time to queue-up for actual entry into the Canal
Until then, I enjoyed seeing the myriad of stevedore facilities on both sides of the channel
A ship loading (or are they unloading) for an upcoming voyage
Panama City is (obviously) one of the most important shipping zones on the planet
As I remember, these are one of the many offices for Canal officials
We're getting close when the two tugs assigned to us take their positions

When you see it all in person the magnitude of the endeavor really grabs you (and doesn't let go). After crossing through the Port of Balboa – but before entering the first of two Miraflores Locks – I got a bunch of pics of the new Locks – slated for completion in early 2015. We then entered, with me taking pics from the aft port side of Deck 7:

To port is the new canal construction - slated for completion in 2015... it will use an entirely new type of lock that saves about 60% of the current water usage - as well as accommodating much larger ship traffic
It will be one-way only (vs two-way as is the case with the original Canal) - and will require a lot more electrical energy to operate (vs the purely hydro-mechanical system currently utilized)
Took this shot of the Canal expansion to give a feel as to the narrowness of the channel itself...
...since these side-shots make it seem a lot larger than it actually was
With the Bridge Of The Americas now well behind us...
...it's time to enter the first of the two Miraflores Locks
When the ship nears, between 2 and 8 of these electrical locomotives (depending on the size of the ship transiting) - nicknamed "mules" - are used to maintain a ship's position in the center of the canal via steel cables
We were entering the East Canal - so the pics you see of the adjacent are of the West Canal (used throughout the day by a Monrovia-registered freighter that became our travel companion)
What basically happens is that, once the ship is within a lock, 100 year old (original) gates move into position and lock (each operated by a small 26hp motor) - then that lock is flooded by draining water from the adjacent (higher) lock... by gravity. No pumping required
The original locks still fit quite snugly and exhibit very minimal leakage
Looking back at the gates that closed you can see how this lock is now about half-flooded...
...with a Canal Official observing the spill-off just outside this first lock
Here you get a very good idea as to how far the Monrovian freighter rose within the first lock; it then moved forward to the second Miraflores Lock where the process was again repeated
It's purely happenstance that I managed to do this trip on the 100th anniversary of the completion of the Locks (the official Centennial is 2014 - since it was 1914 when the Locks were declared fully operational & opened to the world's shipping traffic
I never heard a good reason why the tug in the other Canal performed this maneuver...
I mentioned that the Pearl is the largest ship to pass through the Canal... there is right at two feet of clearance on each side... hence why there are three veteran Pilots aboard and they take their sweet time
Soil excavated/dredged from both the original Canal and the expansion form small "mountains" on the west side
The mules use a gear-and-cog assembly for traction - both going up/down the steep Lock inclines as well as to keep control over >100,000 ton ships under their control
Our friend from Monrovia exits the second Miraflores Lock for the 45-55min cruise to the Pedro Miguel Lock
A view of the just exited second West Lock - the Lock was reclosed so it was probably going to be setting-up for another west-to-east ship transit
While the Pedro Miguel Lock isn't all that distant, the ships move at a snails-pace throughout this part of the transit
A view of the dam that maintains this intermediary area (between the Miraflores & Pedro Miguel Locks...
With about 400" of rain annually even with Canal depletion they still have to drain-off water to keep the desired level

Once clear of Miraflores, I made-way to the bow (opened just this day for passenger use by the Captain) – from there it was less than an hour motoring up to the single Pedro Miguel Lock (not nearly as impressive as the first two):

For this special event, the crew-only area at the bow of the ship was opened to passengers...
...for those who've watched the Norwegian Pearl webcam, you recognize this tiny little pool!
In the distance is The Centennial Bridge
The Pedro Miguel Lock now coming into view (as I shoot, for the only time during the cruise, from the bow of the ship)
Inching ever closer to the Pedro Miguel Lock
They still connect the mule cables as they did 100 years ago: two guys, in a rowboat, come to each ship to first run lines that then lead to running the cable. As is evident, old school rocks.
Wonderful vantage when you can be on the bow...
...to watch the locks open and get a feel for just how tiny a space this behemoth is about to occupy
Tried to give a feel of not only the scenery but the surroundings with other passengers
Our freighter-friend has almost reached the top-most level
This 2+1 Lock arrangement happened because engineers weren't 100% sure that the bedrock could support three sequential locks - so, rather than take a chance, some spacing provided a safety margin
There's not as much height to be attained in this last lock - hence why the mule doesn't get at the steep angles seen in the Miraflores Locks
The Pearl, at this point, was about 1/3 into the Lock...
...and, here, we're about 80% inside
A great view of the mule and the steel cabling used to keep the ship exactly centered
Almost all the way in...
...which we now are - let the flooding commence!
A view of the other Lock just after the freighter departed
We're now at the highest level, in a body of water known as the Culebra Cut. We will stay at this level until ready to descend to the Caribbean Sea on the other side of the country (about 50 miles distant)
Getting ready to pass under the Centennial Bridge

Once clear, we entered the Culebra Cut – and, in about 15min, traveled underneath the impressive Centennial Bridge. About that time it was a good idea for me to go aft for lunch… as it was 12:30 and I’d not had anything to eat/drink since waking.

Shortly after finishing a Burger, Fries & Amstel we cruised-past Gold Hill (marking the Continental Divide); then, just before the Chagres River Bridge (to starboard) I got a couple of pics of Gamboa Penitentiary (now the permanent residence of one Manuel Noriega). At this point I went-down to my cabin for more cold liquid refreshment – time to recharge the dead Lumix battery – and kept any eye on the cabin TV (showing the bridge view) for anything interesting as we approached Gatun Lake.

And here's a view of our northeasterly direction through The Cut (note the myriad of transits on either side - and running in either direction - used by the Pilots to line-up each ship at various points during a transit)
By now it was close to lunchtime - and, having skipped breakfast, I was more than ready to eat... so I did so by going to the very aft part of the ship where I could continue enjoying the scenery as I ate (btw, the tiered land to the side is the Continental Divide)
My view whilst having lunch :)
And here's a bit more expansive look aft (with the Centennial Bridge about to disappear in the distance)
Then, swinging the camera around you see more of the Culebra Cut in our direction of travel...
...with this being the view once around the bend
Further along in the Cut... right about now I thought it prudent to go back to my Cabin for a 60-or-so minute power nap - to be sure I had full batteries to go until nightfall
By mid-afternoon the Cut was widening as we approached Gatun Lake
Approaching Gamboa Penitentiary to starboard, primarily known because of it's most famous lifetime resident...
...Manuel Noriega
A bit past the Penitentiary is the Chagres River Bridge
Ship traffic headed in the opposite direction...
...from the Caribbean to the Pacific...
...through a Canal that runs 24 hours per day, 365 days per year

Well, typical me – I (briefly, so I thought) got horizontal and proceeded to go out cold… thankfully, the sound of the bridge revving-up the bow thrusters (on approach to Gatun) woke me. I ran out on deck to do some Lake photography, then moved forward on Deck 7 to shoot the approach into the Gatun Locks:

   
Panoramic View of Gatun Lake (while transiting the Panama Canal)
   
As you can now see, Gatun Lake gets pretty wide - at the time it was created the Lake held the distinction of being the world's largest man-made body of water
Yep, it's big :)
And here's the dam used to maintain the Lake level
As expansive a shot as I could get of Gatun Lake... just prior to entering the Gatun Locks for the trip "down"
Just as before, two hands in a rowboat start the process of connecting the steel cabling between the ship and the eight mules (for on each side)
They've been doing it this way for, literally, a century
Remember what I said about margin of error? It was slightly less here - and you could hear the ship scrape and gently lurch a couple of times going through these Locks
The Monrovian freighter leading the way on the descent... with the Caribbean Sea visible in the distance
Once the Sanko Fortune was through, they immediately setup for another ship's transit in the West Locks...
...the Stena Chronos (from who knows where?!)
Note how the tugs got into position in the prior pic and are now pushing very hard to both line-it-up and be sure it's all the way against the inside of the Lock
Looking forward you can see the difference in water level just transited by the Freighter
Looking across the way at the facilities...
...then moving the camera more forward to see the rest of the Gatun Locks
Okie, standing at the very aft part of the Pearl the gates begin to close behind us...
...then, once secure, water is drained from our Lock into the one directly ahead of us (thereby equalizing height so we can move forward into the next Lock)
A better view of how the mules control a ship's position once in the Lock
No longer needed, the tugs move away and dock until again called into service
My last clear (high) view of Gatun Lake and the entrance to these Locks
And the descent begins
A view just behind the Stena Chronos before it begins to descend as well
The Pearl is through the first Lock - time to begin moving forward
As I said earlier, while the Locks were finished 100 years ago - the official Centennial doesn't happen til next year
The Canal completely bisects the country of Panama - so here's the only way to get from one side to the other! ;)
The Operations Area for the Gatun Locks
Our new travel companion almost finished with its first descent
It's a LONG way down through the Gatun Locks - yet only takes about 9-10min in total...
...to reach the bottom of each Lock
Unlike the 2+1 combo on the Pacific Side - Gatun Locks are done all together - when we exit, we're in the Caribbean Sea...
...which, of course, means the mules have steep terrain to again deal-with
I also found the Gatun Locks to be the prettiest of the bunch... would you agree?
Looking back - see why I made sure to get that last photo of Gatun Lake? It's getting harder to see!
Friendly folk abound - always big smiles and waves :)
The main offices of the Panama Canal
It's about time to descend again
The view in the other canal - here the gates are closed & locked...
...while here they're unlocked and coming-open (to allow passage of the Stena Chronos into the next Lock)
Once the gates close a bridge can be brought into place allowing vehicle traffic from one side of the country to the other
A little broader view of the West Lock...
...then looking directly back at the area we just left - and the final Lock for the Stena Chronos
It's a pretty good drop - on the order of 80' from Gatun Lake to sea level (which is constant worldwide)
Once we cleared, another ship moves into position to reverse the process as it transits from the Caribbean to the Pacific
   
Panoramic View of the Gatun Locks (while transiting easterly through the Panama Canal)
   

I spent the rest of the day aft moving between Decks 12 & 14 (depending on the shot) as we motored through the Port of Colon... until well after sunset. I’m still awestruck by what an immense feat the Canal is (especially considering the technology of 100+ years ago) – but even moreso, I’m struck by the elegant simplicity of Stephen’s design.

And here are the new locks for the expansion on this side of the Canal
They're huge...
...no, I'm not kidding: HUGE! :D
More freighters moving into position to head through the Canal...
...with another tug moving-in (from behind The Pearl) to assist
Looking back towards the Gatun Lock - this freighter's destination...
...with yet another one behind it. Busy, busy place!
"The Fairway" on the Caribbean side - as you can tell, we took, literally, the entire day to go through the Panama Canal
More traffic moving from the holding position into Canal entry position... with the waning light of this day
Decided to use the last few rays of daylight for some twilight photography...
...but even that is about gone...
...as this very long day traversing the Panama Canal concludes.

Returning to the cabin just before 7, I quickly showered (and "thrilled" to see a light imprint of the back of my baseball cap across my forehead… idiot… if you’re going to be exposed to the southern Central America sun all damned day then wear sunscreen!) before going to Indigo for dinner. Tonight I enjoyed a Wild Mushroom Quesadilla (surprisingly authentic, with dollops of tasty pico de gallo, sour cream, and guacamole on the side) followed by a very rare Roast Prime Rib, loaded Baked Potato, Haricot Verts, and diced Carrots – all washed-down with what remained of last night's Lincourt Pinot Noir. Dessert was Coconut Sorbet and a cup of Black Coffee. Jim "the piano dude" was performing at 9:15 in Bar City – despite how beat I felt once I'd returned to my cabin when I got out ‘n about I re-energized... so I stayed until closing. Fancy that! ;)

 

Tuesday, October 15, 2013 - Cartagena, Columbia

Despite being up about 7:15 (wakened by surprisingly bright sunlight coming-through the porthole) I deftly managed to screw-around and not properly photograph our arrival (in part thinking I could just do it when we leave – only later remembering, once it was too late, that we don’t leave til well after dark). Ahem... apparently my thought processes had all gone into full vacation mode!

In any event, knowing a lunch wasn’t in the cards for the last port’s tour I ate a relatively hearty breakfast at the Garden Café – including an Onion / Mushroom / Jalapeno / Cheese Omelet, Sausage Links, Bacon, Home Fries, small buttered Croissant and a small Apple Turnover. Returning to the cabin I finished loading-up the fanny pack, made sure I had all of my US Dollars (good thing, as I'd later need it for "stuff"!), and that the Lumix was charged & ready to go. Meeting time in the Stardust Theatre was 10:15, and we left shortly thereafter. Today’s tour – “Exploring Magnificent Cartagena” – was guided by Jose Villa (I know his last name because it was on the tags that we wore to identify ourselves) and his driver Carlos. First stop was the La Popa Monastery – perched atop the highest hill in Cartegena and overlooking the entire city. We had plenty of time to tour the chapel & take photos before departing for San Felipe de Barajas (which produced the only bummer of this tour… all we were allowed to do was stop for 5-7 minutes to photograph part of the exterior). BTW, the locals hawking junk are like flies on shit – gotta give them kudos for being tenacious, but after awhile it gets old… and not a very long while at that.

 
Panoramic View of Cartagena, Columbia - as seen from the La Popa Monastery
 
Panoramic View of Cartagena, Columbia - as seen from the La Popa Monastery
 
It's the next day, so Hello Cartagena! First stop on our tour was the highest point in town: the La Popa Monastery. From there the views are spectacular - affording the best shot of our ship in port.
Swinging the camera a bit to the right and pulling back you get a great view of downtown Cartagena - as with Panama City, I had no idea it was so big!
The "Miami Beach" portion of Cartagena - high-end residential real estate... on the waterfront
A nice view of San Felipe de Barajas nestled amongst the modern buildings of the city (more closer-up pics in just a sec)
Before leaving the lookout I had to lean-over and photograph this South American version of a Walking Stick... he certainly didn't seem at all spooked by my presence!
Entering the courtyard of the Monastery...
...and the view once inside (it was lovely)
On the other side our tour guide (Jose Villa) explains what we're seeing
The outside of the Monastery...
...and the gaggle of tourists both coming & going!
San Felipe de Barajas...
...zoomed-in for a close-up view...
...necessitated because the excursion I took didn't afford enough time to actually go into the fort for a tour...
...which was the only bummer of this day.

In any event, from there we drove (in what I now realize is continuously heavy traffic – Cartagena is much larger than I expected, and there’s no way on earth I’d ever want to try driving those crazy streets myself!) to the Old (walled) City, where we first toured the Las Bóvedas Artisan Center (um, “toured” might be a little strong: we had 30 min to shop in what Jose said would produce the best deals of the day). Sorry, after looking at two of the 21-22 stalls I left and went topside (I saw nothing but crap trinkets for sale) – where you get a nice view of the ocean and the old cannon placements. From there we drove a few blocks, then put-on our walking shoes for the next 90min or so.

   
360-degree Panoramic View of the fortified area of the Old (Walled) City of Cartagena
   
From there we drove towards the Old (Walled) City, first stopping here at the Las Bovedas Artisan Center (many of my fellow tourists were eagerly shopping for what appeared to be junk to my eye - so, instead, I walked topside to view the old guns & the protective features)
Here's a good look at the other side of the Artisan building - most definitely a fortress to protect the city!
And still more buttressing for protection
This very much reminded me of the Fort of Old San Juan
I briefly toyed with descending into this area - but it got dark really fast (and I somehow neglected to bring a flashlight on the tour! lol)
Another view atop the walls protecting Cartagena...
...then I walked a bit before spinning-around to shoot the same shot in reverse

First up was Plaza de Bolivar; then we spent longer than necessary at the Inquisition Palace; thiw was followed by a visit to the San Pedro Claver Cloister & Monastery (we should’ve spent more time here); then it was back on the bus for the 20min drive to the upscale side of the city – where the Pierino Gallo Shopping Center was located. For me, this was ground zero for both Columbian Coffee (I bought six bags) and Columbian Cigars (I bought ten).

From the shopping area we drove a few blocks, then were dropped for a 6-7 block walking tour of the Old City
Our first (brief) stop was the Plaza Bolivar...
...followed by a trip to the Inquisition Palace...
...where you could see (up close 'n personal) not only torture devices but one of the actual desks from which judgement was passed
I have no idea what this said... it just looked cool, so I photographed it! :)
Back out on the Plaza Bolivar...
...which includes a statue of the man himself...
...before arriving at the San Pedro Claver Cloister & Monastery
One of the interior rooms...
...then the main hall, depicting various patron saints and artifacts
Lovely stained glass depicting the bony one ;)
At the base of the marble altar are the bones of the Saint himself. REALLY creepy to actually see them (rather than simply knowing someone was interred inside of the marble)
Once again outside, seeing the back part of the Monastery
A view of the front of the Monastery (it was very impressive)
This one is taken aboard the tour bus on the way back to the ship...
...as was this (btw, what appears to be storm clouds brewing was exactly that - our trip concluded dry, but not so for the rest of the day)
When the tour concluded I dropped most of my stuff in the Cabin the walked the quarter-mile back to the Cruise Ship Terminal to buy some Colombian Coffee and a few other nicknacks
I hadn't been there maybe 10 minutes when the sky opened-up and torrential rain commenced; I had a beer, then took my time shopping, but it simply didn't stop... so I ended-up getting an extra plastic bag for my camera, wrapped everything up tightly, then walked back to the Pearl in the pouring rain. I was completely drenched when I came back aboard.

We then drove back to the ship – where I took my big sack of goodies back to the cabin before leaving again to walk to the nearby Portside shops (where I ended-up buying three more kinds of coffee, a mug for my kiddo [at her request], two more hot sauces, and a canvas shopping bag). I also took time to smoke a cigar… which, in retrospect, wasn’t the best timing (with storm clouds on the horizon and the distant sound of thunder): long story short, after waiting for over an hour... with no sign that it would ever let-up... I got to walk back to the ship in the pouring rain. At least I had a nice plastic shopping bag to keep my stuff (but especially my camera) dry!

Once back in the room I dried-off... then decided to take stock on everything bought during this cruise – and was more than a little concerned about how I was going to get it all to fit in my bags (despite having left room from the ten cans of Diet Coke & two bottles of water that came aboard 11 days earlier). I also gathered all of the receipts I was going to need for US Customs, then packed everything away in one of the empty drawers (filling it to the brim).

With that I decided to photograph the hell out of what remained of daylight… which wasn’t much (official sunset happened about the time I left the cabin). I did get some very nice twilight shots – then night shots of both the town and the port as we slowly departed:

The remaining shots are of wet Cartagena from twilight into darkness...
...as you can see, it's very much a working port
A look back towards the Cruise Ship Terminal & shopping area (including the Juan Valdez Coffee Cafe lol)
Downtown Cartagena near sunset...
...with the sun going lower...
...and lower...
...and lower
I took a deck chair and stood on it so I could shoot forward (over the dirty/streaky plexiglass cover)
Doing so also gave me a brace (since we hadn't yet left port) - affording good stability for the low shutter speeds the light was demanding
A really lovely skyline with the sun setting behind it
The big version of this is a definite keeper! :)
We didn't actually sail until 7pm - well after the last rays of the sun had left
As I shot this and the next photo the engines were just coming to life...
...and with the dim light it was getting even harder to get acceptable photos (I deleted a LOT of blurry pics upon returning home!)
Grain getting pretty bad, but still kind of a neat shot to close my second visit to a South American country (my first was Venezuela 15-16 years ago)
Once again motoring away from the port, this became my last official photo of the two week cruise...
That said, after motoring for about 30min we came to a complete stop for about a quarter hour - great photo op, but to this day I don't know why we stopped.

Afterwards, I grabbed the obligatory (as had become my pattern) Indian dinner in the Garden Café, enjoying it aft so I could watch the city lights slowly fade into the distance. Came back to the room just before 8, and decided to take it ease for the rest of the evening… showering/hairwashing, checking email, etc.

 

Wednesday, October 16, 2013 - A Day at Sea

A surprisingly good night’s sleep saw me wake at 8:15 (an hour ahead of yesterday, as we were now on east coast time). Watched a little TV but also started reconciling all of my paper receipts against a preliminary total bill provided all guests (I’d forgotten about the $12/day tip charge and my initial $60 corkage fee – but, otherwise, agreed to the penny). Also prepped a summary of everything I’m bringing back… if done by the book, I should have had to pay a little duty (my tally is about $1150, with $800 being duty-free). I did take a break and go to breakfast just before 10 up in the Garden Café – with plans on skipping lunch so I would be good 'n hungry for tonight’s “capper” at Cagney’s. Came back to the room, watched some news about a potential budget deal in DC, and lightly napped for a bit. I followed that up with “The Avengers” (gah, it was as dumb as I expected – an overblown cinematic video game – I'm SOOOO glad to wasted no money at a theatre seeing it!) and some more news (since it rained much of the afternoon, I didn’t miss anything up on deck).

Donning my most "elegant" casual clothing (as this was the last “Dress Up Or Not” night of the cruise) I left the cabin a bit before 7 to go hear the Iguana Trio in Bar City… while they still weren't growing on me, I will concede they’re better musicians than I thought earlier in the cruise. Main thing: I wanted to give Larry time to prep my cabin (he liked to do it between 7-7:30)… after a nice chat with Joel (the Assistant Cruise Director) I returned to my room for the very last homemade martini of the trip (the vodka I'd smuggled-aboard had now run out) – then grabbed my bottle of Carhartt Cab-Franc & headed-up to Deck 13 and Cagney's Steakhouse.

I began with a Shrimp Cocktail (only three, but they were really big – with a Jack Daniels’ flavored cocktail sauce in which to dip them); the Iceberg Wedge (with Bleu Cheese); then I decided to venture into unknown territory by having a 10oz Bison Filet cooked rare. It was tasty… not quite as good as excellent-quality corn-fed beef, but I’m glad to have sampled it (atop were carmelized red onions, and the sides were gratin potatoes & cole slaw). Interestingly, I just don’t remember it being as much food as when I did Cagney’s on the Epic not quite a year ago… then again, maybe last year I arrived on a relatively full stomach? Having had a bad experience with Cagney's Crème Brulee a year earlier this time I gave the Macadamia Nut Ice Cream Sandwich a try (sandwiched by coconut and served with three tiny dollops of apricot/mango chutney on the side). Along with some nice, strong, French-pressed black coffee and the meal was complete. Loved it!

By the time I wandered-down to Bar City, Piano Man Jim was full steam to a full room… I stayed with it until his midnight close – at which time I returned to do this recap then call it a night. One more full day… the sad one that includes packing and leaving one’s bags outside the cabin for late night pickup :(

 

Thursday, October 17, 2013 - The Last Full Day at Sea

Okay, so I ran out of Internet minutes a day early – and, acknowledging my one true addiction bought another 30min so I could get online a couple more times before signing-off prior to debarkation. Woke about 7:30, showered, then got about 80% of my Dopp kit packed. Headed-up for Breakfast a bit after 9, then grabbed my Triton Owner’s Manual, notepad & pen, and a cigar originating from an island south of Key West ;) then spent not quite an hour reading in the Cigar Lounge (finally returning to my cabin when I felt a little queasy… not sure if it was something I ate or the cigar [or both?] but, thankfully, it was transient). I did lie down and take a late morning 90min nap – another clue that something wasn’t quite right.

Needless to say, when I woke eating was the last thing on my mind – so lunch was skipped this day. With yet another replay of “Oblivion” on TV I decided to get a head-start on the exercise that is packing… while my tequila wouldn’t be delivered until evening, I was able to get the backpack & rollaboard jam-packed – but there still seemed to be a helluva lot of stuff to go in the remaining space in the duffel! I also realized I was completely screwed if either Customs or the TSA (once I got to FLL) wanted to unpack anything for an inspection – as it would take the better part of 60-70min to get these puzzles put back together!

Our last sunset (6:40ish) was a gorgeous one – shame I’d already packed-away the cameras (so efficiently that I didn’t want to chance unpacking just to get the shot). Instead, I stayed on Deck 14 til about 7 – then went aft for one last Indian meal at the Garden Café… and the time couldn’t have been any more magical: full moon to the left (it was a new moon on the first night of the cruise); waning sun peeking from below the horizon & behind clouds to the right, with Venus sitting at about the same height above those rays as the moon on the opposite side. Now add-in sporadic lightning flashes over Cuba directly behind us. What a stellar way to end this repositioning cruise!

After dinner, I spent about 15min aft on Deck 7 to catch the last of the daylight – and also to enjoy the sound of the engines and the wake they were churning – before returning to my room to shower & finish packing. NCL has an excellent Easy-Off Program for those with early flights – but as mine doesn’t depart FLL until 2:20pm I let them take my two bags from outside of the cabin (I planned to pick them up pierside 8:30ish). Also went-ahead and removed the tags from certain cigars… just in case (especially since this was the first time I’d spent enough money to go through the “Pay Duty” line).

My last entertainment hours were spent in Bar City listening to Piano Man Jim one last time. I have realized that the Prog Rock cruise may have forever cursed my interest in traditional cruise entertainment – I heard the sounds coming-out of the nearby Stardust Theatre and caught a lot of replays on TV… and I just had no interest in hearing most of what was offered – not through any fault of the entertainers, just my own interests having changed. C’est la vie.

As it turns-out, I played this evening; Jim got a request for “American Pie” – he didn’t know it, so I offered to play it for him (although the proper key of G was a little out of his vocal comfort zone). He was sufficiently impressed so as to have me play during his breaks… I didn’t get back to the cabin until almost 1 from people talking my ear-off lol

And I even met a couple more CruiseCritic people as I was about to call it a night (kinda weird to have strangers walk-up and ask “Are you Tarkus on CruiseCritic?) ;)

Back in my cabin the two bags out front were gone; I burned my final 7 minutes of Internet, then power-off the Macbook so that I was basically ready to depart.

 

Friday, October 18, 2013 - Debarkation & Return to Los Angeles

After just a few hours sleep, I was jarred awake shortly before 5 with the sound of the bow thrusters whirring-away... meaning we were now in the Port of Miami. That's one thing I can't sufficiently emphasize about these far forward (and low) cabins: they're noisy during docking and rough seas. Otherwise, I loved the very convenient location! At any rate, I dressed and took the elevator up to the top deck - other than a couple of workers I was the only one out - able to check email and snap a couple of pics with my smartphone. Headed back-down to the cabin where I just chilled until they opened-up the Garden Café at 6am for our last meal of the voyage. Really enjoyed myself, but it's always a somber time (at least for me) knowing that the fun is now behind you and the ordeal of traveling across the country awaits.

My time to debark was 9:20 - I left about 10min sooner, and caught no flack from anyone for doing so. Self walk-off is definitely easier... it took me a solid 7-8 minutes to find both of my bags, then queue-up for a 30-35min line at Customs & Immigration. As it turns-out, the agents have discretion in whether or not to levy duty up to $1200 - and since my total came-in just under that he waved me through (when he saw my declaration of Columbian Cigars he asked if it was convenient to see them... I truthfully told him it was not, at which time he let me go). Once outside I was directed to one of the buses making the trek up to the Fort Lauderdale Airport... and it took no time at all to get up there (traffic was very light for mid-morning on a Friday).

In fact, I arrived FLL very much too early - Southwest wouldn't let me check-in my two bags - so I just sat with them in the ticketing concourse for about an hour until they would allow check-in. From there I went to the departure concourse; had a Mediterranean Wrap and Beer for Lunch; the boarded my first leg (to Phoenix) for an on-time departure. Piece of cake connecting in PHX, and I landed BUR right on time in the early evening. Jordan arrived shortly thereafter to pick-me-up and drive us back to the house. With that, my long-anticipated Panama Canal Transit officially concluded. I'm really glad I went! :)

NCL Pearl Panama Canal Transit Itinerary

   
 

| Home | Music | Golf | Travel | Family || Email Me | Facebook | Twitter | Google+ | Instagram | LinkedIn | Pinterest |

Copyright © 1999-2017 by David Presley, All Rights Reserved. Webspace hosted by GoDaddy.com.
Optimized for High-Speed Connectivity - Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, and/or Safari - minimum 1024x768 display resolution.

Find more about Weather in Vancouver, WA