Saturday, April 26, 2014

Curacao, Aruba and the Panama Canal

April 21, 2014

Our second straight day at sea began with a leisurely walk around Deck 10 followed by breakfast at the Pinnacle Grill.  At 1000 we attended a briefing on favorite ports from the crew’s viewpoint which included a raffle for a number of gifts.  The briefing was actually a sales presentation for future cruises.  We did not win anything.  The winds continued strong and the seas moderate all day.  Our Easter day in the sun showed where we had missed with the sunscreen, so we avoided any more pool time today and let the pink skin fade.  After enjoying a Tanqueray 0010 Martini in the Pinnacle Bar we headed to the dining room and finally met our tablemates, a couple from Pennsylvania.  Unfortunately, since we have a late tour in Curacao, we scheduled a late dinner in the Pinnacle Grill, so will not see them until the night we leave Aruba.

April 22, 2014

The ship arrived early into Curacao, with many tours leaving early.  Since we had no tour until late afternoon, we took our morning walk around Deck 10, had another relaxed breakfast and finally walked into town about 0930.  Another cruise ship, the “Norwegian Sun” docked shortly after us, but by the time we left the ship, the floating pontoon bridge across the harbor entrance had been re-closed, so it was a quick walk.  We spent the next several hours sightseeing and window shopping, visiting places we had seen in 2006, including the floating fish market with fishermen from Venezuela.  After seeing the fish in the sun we decided to only have liquids ashore and eat lunch back on the ship.  The town was not too crowded, even with two ships in port, but it was hot, and the rainstorms that initially threatened us never materialized.  The pontoon bridge was now open, so we rode the free ferry back to the side of the harbor the ship was docked on.

At 1600 we left the ship for our evening catamaran sail.  We were surprised it even went due to the winds, but then they took us by bus to the eastern end of the island below Table Mountain.  We were surprised to find a large inner bay or lagoon, with boats sailing around inside in protected waters.  There were many boats anchored and we found out this is a favorite place to run from hurricanes, since they seldom come to this island and the bay is very sheltered.  There were large and fancy homes around the beaches, including some on private islands in the bay.  After touring the bay while sipping rum punch, we headed out the inlet and further east up the coast before turning around and sailing back as the sun slipped below the horizon.  We all watched for the “green flash”, but had to settle for a green banana liqueur drink instead.  Returning to the dock in the dark we boarded the bus and returned to the ship in time to make our late dinner reservation.

Our meal was perfectly cooked, but it was getting very late and the entrée was large, so Patrick ordered “nothing” for dessert, while Miriam ordered some strawberry cheesecake.  When her dessert arrived, rather than eat dessert alone, the waiter brought a empty dessert plate with “Nothing” written in chocolate syrup and dusted with powdered sugar for Patrick.  We all had a good laugh and it was a fun ending to our late meal.  It was 2230 by the time we left for our cabin, so we decided to skip the sail-away party at midnight.

April 23, 2014

After a short night with relatively calm seas, we circled outside Oranjestad, Aruba until dawn and then docked just before a Royal Caribbean ship “Vision of the Seas”.  We had booked an early tour with snorkeling and sailing and were concerned that the tour would not depart with the winds gusting to 35 miles per hour.  However, we departed on a large sailing catamaran and headed west along the coast to a protected bay where he had our first snorkel in shallow water with lots of fish.  Dropping the permanent mooring in the bay, we headed out into rougher and deeper water to snorkel around a sunken ship, the “Antilla”, which was scuttled in 1940 by the crew to avoid capture by the Dutch in the months leading up to WWII.  The ship is in 60 feet of water and easily visible while snorkeling, with the highest parts only about 20 feet under water.  After 30 minutes at that location, the rum punch magically appeared as we sailed back to the main harbor along the beaches.  After returning to the ship, showering off the salt water and having lunch we headed into town for a brief walk in very warm and humid weather.  Finding nothing in the shops that called us by name, we returned to the ship shortly before a 1630 departure under windy, hot and humid conditions as we head further west towards the Panama Canal.

After a so-so dinner we headed for the “Pub Crawl”, which was a fun event that started in the “Crow’s Nest” and moved from venue to venue as we had various competitions, singing and dancing before finally finishing at 2330.  Tomorrow is another day at sea where we can once again test out our sunscreen.

April 24, 2014

The entire ship seemed to be in slow motion after yesterday’s hot and humid weather and the late night events.  The weather is very hot, with the wind now astern of the ship, under overcast skies.  People seem to be saving their energy for the formal night and then the Panama Canal transit in the morning.

April 25, 2014

We arrived at the eastern entrance to the Panama Canal in the dark and followed another cruise ship, the “Norwegian Jewel” into the Gatun Locks just as the sun was finally up.  As we approached the lock chambers at about 0700, we could see the excavations for the new larger locks; the lock gates were in a row alongside the channel.  The Gatun locks are actually two parallel locks, so both ships were in the lock chambers at the same time, with the Norwegian Jewel ahead by a few minutes.  Although bigger and higher than the locks in Seattle, the process was very similar except for the use of the “mules” to keep the ships centered in the lock chambers.  The ships use no fenders and have only about 18 inches of clearance on each side, so great care is taken to avoid touching the unforgiving concrete sides of the lock chambers.  The skies were gray and before we exited the Gatun Locks we heard thunder, saw lightning and then the skies opened up with torrential rain.  The rain continued off and on, with more lightning until we were about halfway across Gatun Lake.

When the sun did appear the temperature soared quickly and with the high humidity our cabin was a welcome sanctuary from the weather and the mosquitoes.  The ship entered the Pedro Miguel locks about 30 minutes later than planned after transiting Gatun Lake and the 8 mile Culebra Cut, which has been widened, but is still a one way section of the canal.  Our speed from Gatun Locks to Pedro Miguel Locks was about 8 knots.  The entire time we had been following the “Norwegian Jewel” but as we entered the final locks leading to the Pacific Ocean,”Miraflores Locks”, we pulled ahead and exited just slightly ahead of them.  The four story tourist center was jammed with people, apparently there to see the final two cruise ships transiting from the Atlantic to the Pacific to join the fleet of cruise ships in Alaska for the summer.  There was lots of horn blowing by both ships as we exited the side by side locks together at about 1600 local time.

The excavations for the new locks on the Pacific side appeared to be less complete than on the Atlantic side of the canal.  Both sides have a long way to go before completion.

We have now experienced the Panama Canal twice, once each direction.  This transit was on the 100 year anniversary of the completion of the Canal, one of the reasons we picked 2014 for another cruise.  The actual 100 year anniversary will be in August, but we will be in Alaska and no cruise ships transit that time of year anyway.

Pictures when we have a faster internet connection.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

First Days at Sea

April 18, 2014

It was an early wakeup as we prepared for the three hour drive to Fort Lauderdale.  We planned to leave at 0700, avoiding all the potential traffic choke points as we headed east across “Alligator Alley” (I-75) from Punta Gorda to the airport.

The strategy worked and we actually arrived at the car rental return before 1000.  After turning the car in, we rode the free shuttle to the cruise ship terminal and checked in.  We had to wait for about 1 hour before the ship was ready for boarding.  Even though the ship was ready, the staterooms were not, but they became available about 1300.  After a mandatory safety drill at 1500 we expected to leave at 1600, but delays in loading both luggage and stores pushed our departure back nearly one hour.

We were able to enjoy a welcome reception with the captain and senior crew at 1900 before we headed to dinner.  Dinner, while good, was marred by both our table location and poor service, so we asked for a new table.  We will see if it is any better tomorrow.  We will travel 275 nautical miles before we reach our next destination, Half Moon Cay, some 24 NM from Eleuthera in the Bahamas.

April 19, 2014

We chose to have breakfast delivered to the room at 0600 so we could be on the first boat ashore at Half Moon Cay to make the snorkeling tour time Patrick had signed up for.  We suspected the tour would be cancelled due high winds in the area and were surprised when the ship was able to anchor in the 25 knot winds.  The snorkeling tour was cancelled but the stop continued and we had a great day at the beach, since the beach was in the lee from the winds.  Patrick participated in rum tasting before returning to the ship, which departed at 1600.

Returning to the ship, we relaxed with appetizers before heading to the dining room to our new table.  We were the only ones at the table that evening, and the service and food were great.  Since we are still in the Caribbean, the food was themed with those spices.  Miriam had a pot roast entrée and Patrick had a Veracruz style fish dish.  We chose to go to the late show, with a comedian, but left early since it was not very good, in our opinion.

April 20, 2014

Easter Sunday dawned with clear skies, a moderate swell on the beam and 15 knot winds.  There were two services offered, Catholic Mass in the main show theater, and small non-denominational service in one of the meeting rooms.

We began the day with exercise walks on the upper deck and then breakfast in the Pinnacle Dining Room.  The rest of the day was spent in the sun around the pool, passing 14 NM from Cuba about noon and then passing Haiti about 1800.   The ocean was deserted except for a few freighters going the opposite direction.  After more walks around the promenade deck (2 miles) and a late and light lunch we finally returned to the room to prepare for the first formal night.  We were not surprised at the number of passengers who chose not to participate in the formal night, with everything from shorts to jeans around the ship.  However, we both dressed in formal clothes and went to the Pinnacle restaurant for dinner before the late show.

Tomorrow is another day at sea before we arrive in Curacao on Tuesday.  We will not post pictures until we have a faster and cheaper internet connection.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Florida Interlude

Sunday April 13

Miriam and I spent the day visiting with Joe and Sarah and meeting their son and his family for lunch.  The weather remained pleasantly warm and breezy.  Returning to the hotel in the evening we checked our bags for weight and called it a night.

Monday, April 14, 2014

This morning we had an early breakfast at the hotel and drove to the Nashville Airport where the check-in process and security lines were painless.  We arrived way too early, so spent some time in the Admirals Club, making use of our lifetime British Airways Gold Card.  The flight departed early, arriving early in Charlotte, which was good since our next gate was at the opposite end of the airport.  That flight was also on-time and we arrived without incident in Fort Lauderdale ahead of schedule.  By the time we collected our checked luggage and picked up the rental car it was nearly 5 PM.  However, traffic was not heavy and we arrived at Gary & Suzanne Patton’s it was early 8 PM.  We joined Gary and Suzanne for a late supper by their pool, enjoying the warm evening.
April 15, 2014.
Patton Residence at Burnt Store Marina

After a morning workout, with Gary and Patrick walking briskly for over 5 miles around the Burnt Store marina complex where Patton’s live, with Miriam and Suzanne taking a more relaxed walk and golf cart ride we had a light breakfast before the day’s travels.

Our first stop was “Beall’s”, where we shopped for some additional warm weather clothes, taking advantage of the Tuesday senior citizen discounts.  A driving tour of Fort Myers followed, including a stop at the “Shell Factory”, a local attraction that seems to have been transported from the 1950’s, with an incredible collection of stuffed game and the most extensive collection of tacky tourist souvenirs we have seen in a long time.  We followed that with a stop at Total Wine for some beverages for the upcoming cruise and then back to the house for “Cuban” sandwiches.
After lunch we headed for Punta Gorda and the Visual Arts Center where Suzanne sells some of her handmade jewelry and also volunteers.

While Miriam and Suzanne spent time there, Gary and Patrick were a few blocks away at Fisherman’s Village and Harpoon Harry’s before we all toured Punta Gorda by car.  We ended up at a local Irish Pu, “Celtic Ray” for a pint of Guiness and some chips (fries) before heading south to Matlacha and Michelis restaurant.  The restaurant is located along one of the canals and we had Bada Bing shrimp and some raw oysters while seated outside, listening to a local perfomer unsuccessfully trying to emulate Jimmy Buffet.  After dinner it was back to the house for home videos.
Gary & Suzanne at CelticRays

Guiness and Cider at Celtic Rays

April 16, 2014

Today we woke up to cool cloudy skies with a brisk NE wind as we headed to Punta Gorda and boarded a tour boat for a day long tour south across Charlotte Harbor to Cabbage Key.  Our route took us past the entrance to the Gulf of Mexico at Boca Grande Pass where we entered the Intra Coastal Waterway and headed south to Cabbage Key where we stopped for lunch.  We were glad we had packed lightweight jackets for the trip as it was cool for Florida.  As we approached Cabbage Key the sun finally appeared and the temperatures soared.  The Cabbage Key restaurant was unusual in having the walls and ceilings totally covered in dollar bills that guests have taped up with their names in marking pens on the bills.  All the food, including the mahi-mahi burgers, was good.  After lunch we had an hour or so to wander over the trails on the island before boarding the boat for the 2 ½ hour trip back to Punta Gorda.  The dolphins were scarce on the trip; we only saw a few and those from a distance.  The shallow waters of Charlotte Harbor were a real surprise for us, being used to depths far greater than the 8-12 foot depths over most of the trip.

Waiting for the boat to Cabbage Key

Windy Day on Charlotte Harbor for the Patton's
We needed jackets all morning in Florida!

Some of the "wallpaper" at Cabbage Key Restaurant

Shower anyone?

After docking at Fisherman’s Village we stopped at Monty’s Pizza and picked up two large deluxe pizzas loaded up with all kinds of toppings to reheat later at Patton’s house.  By the time we returned to the house the skies had fully cleared so we sat by the pool and later in the pool where Gary and Patrick ate their pizza.

April 17, 2014

After breakfast Gary and Patrick loaded up the kayaks and went for a 2 ½ hour paddle though the mangroves near Matlacha.  Without a GPS to lead one back, they would have been hopelessly lost, since one channel looks so much like another.  Suzanne and Miriam made a short shopping trip for last minute cruise essentials before we all met up for lunch at Patton’s and a relaxing afternoon smoking pork ribs for dinner.
Pool Pizza Party - Life is Good!

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Starting our Panama Canal Trip In Tennessee

April 2014
10 April, from 37,000 feet over Montana
This morning we were picked up at 0400 for transfer to SeaTac where we boarded a 0620 United Airlines flight to Nashville, Tennessee, via Chicago.  Our first stop is a visit with Joe and Sarah Druessi, longtime boating friends who kept their Roughwater 42 “Bearoness II” at Anacortes Marina until they sold the boat and moved permanently to Franklin, Tennessee, just outside of Nashville.  We will spend four days with Joe and Sarah, including a visit to the Jack Daniels distillery in Lynchburg.  Joe and Sarah nominated us to be “Squires” at Jack Daniels and we will get to see our little piece of the property (perhaps).

After an uneventful flight from Seattle, we landed early in Chicago and spent several hours waiting for the flight to Nashville.  This flight segment was on an 65 passenger Embraer 145 regional jet, with no room for carry-on bags, which were checked at the gate and then returned when the plane landed, like Horizon Airlines in Seattle.  The flight was late by 40 minutes, but it was only a little over one hour to Nashville, where our bags were already on the carousel in baggage claim by the time we walked from the gate to baggage claim.  The weather was a welcome change, 75 degrees, sunny, but breezy which felt good.  After picking up the rental car we headed for Franklin and the Drury Plaza Hotel, our home for the next four nights.  Joe and Sarah Druessi met us at the hotel for an early dinner at the Granite Grill Restaurant, with tastings of local brews, before we called it a night after the long travel day.

April 11, 2014

After enjoying breakfast at the hotel we headed out to Dreussi’s in Franklin.  The map was accurate and we arrived about 1100 after a stop at the Cool Springs Galleria to pick up an adapter for the ipad which we had forgotten in Bellevue.  Sarah soon had lunch ready and as we chatted and reconnected we enjoyed a variety of sandwiches.  After lunch we walked around the Willowsprings Lakes, seeing many birds enjoying the spring-like weather, including red cardinals, geese and swans.
Druessi Townhome in Franklin, TN

Sarah, Miriam and Gracie

Sarah and Joe had prepared a slow cooked brisket for dinner, which we started with some Jack Daniel’s Tennessee whiskey to get our palates tuned up.  Dinner was accompanied by a bottle of “Arrington” red wine, produced not far away in Tennessee.

By the time we were ready to head back to the hotel, a thunderstorm had moved into the area and the rain and lightning were spectacular as we tried to find our way to the hotel.  Arriving in driving rain, we joined hordes of young ladies in town for a cheerleading competition and had to wait for elevators to get to our rooms.

April 12, 2014

The hordes of young cheerleaders were in the lobby and breakfast area the next morning as we headed down to breakfast.  The staff was overwhelmed, and the breakfast area looked like a swarm of insects had denuded the buffet and left much of it on the floor.  We managed to get enough to eat, even though they were even out of coffee for a while.

Arriving at Druessi’s a little before 1000, we then loaded all of us and “Gracie” , their black lab, into their Ford Expedition and headed to Lynchburg, Tennessee to the Jack Daniel’s distillery.  The drive was about 90 minutes through the rolling hills just blooming into spring.  After the public tour of the distillery we all went into the “Squires” room and received our gifts as “Squires”.  Joe and Sarah had nominated us several years ago.  We were not able to see our square inch plot of land however.
Miriam, Joe and Patrick at the distillery

Main Square in Lynchburg, lots of Harley's

Antique Car in Lynchburg

Relaxing at Jack's with our bottle of "Relaxed Rye"

Miss Mary Bobo's Restaurant

After the tour we headed into Lynchburg proper, just a few blocks away, and had “dinner” at “Miss Mary Bobo’s”, a former and famous rooming house just off the small main square in Lynchburg, which is in a “dry” county, so no alcohol can be served.  The meal was served family style with a hostess for each table of 10 strangers, with a Lazy Susan in the center of the table loaded with the food.  Our meal included fried okra, southern fried chicken, meatloaf, mac’n cheese, string beans, potatoes, muffins, etc., with fudge pie for dessert.

After the drive back we headed to the hotel and stopped for a disastrous snack at the hotel restaurant which was inundated by the cheerleader groups.  The manager recognized the problem and adjusted the price for our late and overcooked, but cold meal.