Well, back on land after an incredible journey on Holland America Line’s ms Zuiderdam!
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Several people have already asked me, “how was your cruise?” The answer, “it was absolutely fantastic.”
There are a few reasons for that. First, the Zuiderdam holds less than 2,000 people compared to the 3,500+ people the Carnival sails with. Second, the food was absolutely amazing! And third, the itinerary. Although, I’ve been to Panama twice, I’ve not been through the Panama Canal and it was definitely on my bucket list. I can now check that one off the list.
In this post, I’m going to give you the highlights of the ports we visited. Tomorrow (or in the next few days), I’ll give highlights of the ship and sea days.
Half Moon Cay ~ February 6, 2017
Half Moon Cay – Holland America’s private island in the Bahamas – is pretty exquisite. They’ve strived to create a resort experience while protecting the natural feel. The boat anchors offshore, and tenders are used to ferry passengers back and forth.
Even though Half Moon Cay has been on the itinerary on our past two cruises, this was the first time we set food on the island – opting to stay on the ship instead. Why, you ask?
Previously, we’ve sailed on Carnival ships with Half Moon Cay on the itinerary. They often sail with 3500+ passengers and since you have to take tenders to the island, you have to get tickets giving priority to people with tours.
So between the weather not being the best (last year the wind was so strong, it did not look fun getting on a small tender) or if the weather was nice … by the time the people with priority got off the ship, we lost interest and were just happy to stay on board.
This time, no crowds (Holland America sails with about 2000 passengers — one of the things I loved about Holland America cruises) and the weather was gorgeous…
…look at that water!
Aruba ~ February 8, 2017
This was our second visit to Aruba. Last year, we wen to the Butterfly Farm – which we loved. So this time, our friends, Gary and I walked around the shopping district. Taking silly photos…
Then we stumbled on a free trolley which takes you to and from the main street downtown area in a loop with the cruise ship terminal. They even had a store called La Linda.
Then we took a taxi to the beach — Playa Linda, of all places – and hung out there for the afternoon.
We ended up taking the bus (only $3 per person) back to the cruise terminal. When we were walking back to the ship, we saw these two guys hanging out.
Curaçao ~ February 9, 2017
This is our second visit to Willemstad. Willemstad sits right on the South coast of Curaçao and straddles itself over the St. Anna Bay, the most important feature of the island. This bay and the river that feeds it is so deep that massive tankers and cruise ships can come right through the middle of town heading for the deep water port. It was also strategically important back in the colonial/pirate days.
Our ship docked right near to The Queen Emma Bridge (the pontoon pedestrian bridge). Last year, we had to walk about 15 minutes and through Fort Rif.
Again, we didn’t book an excursion here (one day we’ll actually take a tour of the island), instead opting to just wander the streets. We strolled past the ship, down the street that leads to a floating pontoon bridge that connects the port area to the downtown.
Be sure to watch the workings of the famous Queen Emma Bridge, a pontoon footbridge first built in 1888 and rebuilt in 1939. Normally it’s pedestrian path from the western and eastern shores of St. Anna Bay. However when a cruise ship or a container ship wants to come up river, the pontoon bridge simply pivots open, hinged at the western end.
Once in the downtown, there is shop after shop and the floating market in an area called Punda. The Floating Market is another point of interest. Basically it is a bunch of fishing boats all lined up at the dock selling fresh caught fish right off the side. Fishermen fan the flies away, while you can browse for exactly which red snapper, wahu or parrotfish you wish to dine on.
You’ll also find lots of veggie and fruit stands as well as people carrying bags of fruit peddling to the cars passing by.
Then we wandered over to Queen Wilhelmina Park where you can find gigantic letters that form the words “Dushi Curaçao” [translates to Sweet Curaçao]. These letters are a major attraction for many tourists who love to pose in or on the letters — “dushi”!
After drinks at an outdoor cafe, we headed back over the pontoon bridge and to Fort Rif. Here, you’ll find cafe and more shops carrying souvenirs, Dutch porcelain, aloe products (I bought some and I absolutely love them). You’ll even find shops where you can sample the famous Blue Curaçao. I didn’t buy any of the blue, but I did buy a bottle of the chocolate which you can only get in Curaçao.
Architecturally, Curacao and Willemstad in particular is a fascinating combination of European design and Caribbean flair with its colorfully painted buildings.
The whole feel of the island is friendly and inviting. I would love to go back to Curaçao and stay for a week…
Panama Canal ~ February 11, 2017
The highlight of the itinerary is the Panama Canal, an engineering marvel. There’s so much to say about the Panama Canal, I may have to do another post about the history and construction of the original (opened in 1914) and the new canal (finished in 2015).
The ms Zuiderdam is a member of a class of ships that can pass through the original Panama Canal.
Our ship passed the breakwaters of the Panama Canal shortly after 5:30 a.m. as we made the approach to the first set of locks, the Gatun Locks heading south.
We entered the lock around 7:30 a.m. – it was drizzly so we enjoyed watching as the first chamber began to fill with water as the ship rose and the “mules,” the locomotives that pull the ship through the canal, from Crow’s Nest (as did everyone else).
The elevation in Panama is higher than sea level, locks on either side of the canal were created. It’s a 3-stage system on either side.
After passing through the Gatun Locks, the Zuiderdam anchored in Gatun Lake, where only those who were going on a tour were permitted to disembark. The ship then turns around, goes back through the locks and docks in Colon – where the passengers meet up with us.
We opted for a canal cruise to see wildlife. We weren’t overly impressed with our tour and wished we would have stayed onboard. This is a tale that may make it into the worst travel experiences. The only good thing about the tour we took is that we got to see a Geoffroy’s Tamarin, a small monkey, found in Panama and Columbia. I was able to get this video (sorry it is a bit shaky)
Costa Rica ~ February 12, 2017
The last stop of the cruise was Puerto Limon, Costa Rica – historically significant as it is the place where Columbus touched Costa Rican soil on his fourth voyage. Gary and I have spent some time in Costa Rica but always on the Pacific side. We’ve never been to the Atlantic side until now.
Limon is not the area of Costa Rica that most folks envision – the idyllic beaches, rainforests… Nope, Limon is the major cargo port for Costa Rica on the east coast. The major export is bananas.
Needless to say we weren’t very impressed with the port and happily boarded our bus for a tour of wildlife (and this one was much better than the one in Panama).
We saw the usual suspects, Great Blue Egrets (and other birds), howler monkeys…
Capuchin monkeys … I just never get tired of these little guys. They are so expressive with their facial features. They will often board your boat when tempted with bananas.
We were also fortunate to see a sloth. We’ve seen a couple before on previous visits to Costa Rica, but never up this close. But just because it was close, doesn’t mean that it was easy to get a photo. This was the best one that I was able to get.
He blended really well with his background. Actually, I gave up trying to photograph him and took video with my cell phone.
We were lucky enough to see a Jesus Christ lizard which was a new sighting for us. These were my best shots … of many tries, believe me. He blended really well too. It would have been cool to see him walk on water – which is how he got his name – perhaps next time.
This concludes part 1 of our Panama Canal Cruise aboard Holland America’s Zuiderdam – the ports of call. I’ll be back to tell you all about the food and the sea days. And if you are curious about the ship, take a look at this post.