"" Writer's Wanderings: March 2022

Saturday, March 26, 2022

A Few More Notes From Our HAL Cruise

 As I sit and watch the snow fall outside, I can't but wish we were still cruising. Any time we come home in March, it always snows at least one more time. Hopefully this is the only snow we see until next winter. 

On one of the last days of our Panama Canal cruise the cruise director had a Q&A with the captain of the ship. It's always interesting to see the pictures of the banks of computers on the bridge and, as he said, the backups and the backups to the backups. I don't know how they keep it all straight. 

The amazing thing is the small joystick that he uses to gently bring the ship into the dock. Depending on which side of the ship the dock will be, he can go into one of the wings of the bridge and have pretty much a 360 view of what he's doing. The floor is clear so he can look down as well. 

He showed pictures of the azipods, the thrusters of the ship that can turn to maneuver the ship one way or the other. I still find it so amazing that a ship so large can maneuver so exactly--well most of the time. We have seen a couple of "oops" on a few ships.

I know there are lots of people who worry about rough seas and sometimes it can get a little rocky but I took a picture of his picture showing the stabilizers of the ship. They are wings that can be extended out to reduce the motion of the ship in the waves.

Something I learned that morning as well is what that thing under the water at the bow of the ship is. It's called a bulbous bow. It looks like a large nose that sticks out just below the water line. It is there to reduce drag. As the captain said it is kind of like the spoiler on a car only this is working to ease the flow of water around the bow.

We are trying to decide what's next on the bucket list and trying to find our way back to cruising on some lines we haven't taken in a while. The Holland America Line has made lots of changes since we last cruised with them in 2017. The changes are not all pandemic related. As I learned, there has been a change in administration at the top and I'm sure some of it is due to that. Cruising seems to have gotten more complicated in booking as there are way too many choices and decisions to be made. It used to be one price and maybe a drink package along with choosing a couple of nights to dine in specialty restaurants. Now there are all sorts of different packages for almost everything. It's hard to figure out the best for cost saving. Add to that, Holland America now charges extra for lobster and some other dishes that were a real treat during a cruise and included. There is even a restaurant that is ala carte and instead of charging what used to be just a service fee, you purchase everything as you would in a restaurant and the gratuity is added on.

Looking at our next cruise on Celebrity and wondering what has changed there. I don't think we've cruised with them since we did the Galapagos in 2013.  The cruise will check one of my bucket list items by cruising to Quebec from Boston this fall and stopping at Nova Scotia.

The other bucket list items include seeing the Pyramids, stopping at Gibraltar and the Holy Land and a cruise around Scotland. We have several cruise possibilities to get to all of those but haven't made a choice yet. At our age, we want to do as much as we can before a health issue or our final journey arrives. Travelin' on.

Saturday, March 19, 2022

Our Last Port For Now, Puerto Limon

 The last time we were in Puerto Limon we stayed an extra day and a half because of the uncertainty of where Crystal Serenity was going to disembark passengers since the Grand Voyage was canceled. It was a sweet-sour memory as we awoke to find ourselves in a familiar place on Thursday.

The excursion we had booked was to gather at 7:20 AM and the Pinnacle would not open for breakfast until 7:30 so we opted to have room service early and eat on our veranda. It was a nice start to my birthday. We gathered in the theater to receive our bus assignments and just about the time we sat down and I rummaged in my purse for some gum, we were dismissed to go to our bus. I must have had my key card and ID in my lap and as I tossed everything back in my purse and stood it fell to the floor. Halfway to the gangway I realized I was missing it. Heart racing I hurried back and found it on the floor where I'd sat. Whew!

My mishap got us to the bus in time to get the seats way in the back but it wouldn't be a long trip this time. I knew that because we were headed back to the Tortuguero Canals that we had visited before. This time I had my good camera ready. 

As we exited the bus at the canal we could hear the howler monkeys. They were not happy with all these people invading their quiet morning. Unfortunately they were so busy hopping around in the treetops that I couldn't get a picture that wasn't blurry. The guide told us that you don't want to stand under their tree when they are upset. They like to throw excrement at you. Thankfully the boat had a canvas rooftop.

Every trip we have taken on the canals has been different. You always see something new and this was no exception. We saw a caiman which looks like a crocodile or an alligator but is smaller. I never saw one that looked so blue though. 

We saw several sloths this time and some bats that had made a home under a bridge. A really blue heron was fishing but we didn't see him catch anything. 

Our guide pulled a banana from a tree and sliced it open to show us the kind of bananas the animals like. They are full of hard black seeds. The plantains and bananas we consume don't have seeds in them and are propagated differently.

After our canal trip, we were given the good bananas, a bottle of water and a bag of cassava chips. The chips were really good. We never had them before even though we've seen cassava used in other food dishes and there are some who make flour from the root vegetable. 

On the bus again, we headed for our next stop, a banana train ride. No it is not a train made from bananas but it is a train that used to carry the bananas from the fields in Limon to the cargo ships for transport to other countries. Now, as we rode past large trucks marked Chiquita, DelMonte and Dole, you could see why the train was replaced.

As we passed the banana fields our guide told us that they are not actually trees but classified as rather large herbs. Hmmm. I filed that one away and checked later. Yup, they're related to the ginger plant. When the plant flowers, a large pod looking flower that is purplish red, the blossom is covered with a blue bag to keep the insects out and the sun from burning the fruit before it has a chance to develop into those nice bananas we all like to eat. Inside the blue bag, the bananas form a cluster and in 3-4 weeks are ready to harvest. They are still green to allow time for transport in 56 degree storage units to keep them from ripening to fast on their way to market.

The train was quaint and was made for passengers, not bananas. They were antique cars as was the engine that pulled us. As we waited for everyone to board there was a group of four kids from about twelve to maybe two years old asking for "one dolla". It took me a while to figure out they were willing to pose for a picture for a dollar. I'm not sure where they came from but the area the train went through was one where there were lots of squatters in shacks made of scavenged lumber and corrugated steel. They looked a little well dressed to be squatters though and I'm not posting a the picture. Who knows if Mom knew what they were doing?

One of the high points of the train ride was crossing the bridge over the canal. Let's just say it was a very rustic bridge. I checked out the pictures online that showed the aftermath of the 1991 earthquake we have heard about on each of our visits to this area. There was one picture of the bridge where it was leaning quite heavily to one side. Glad I didn't see that before we went.

As we rode the bus back to the dock, our guide explained that the resorts of Costa Rica were mainly on the Pacific side. While the Caribbean side is beautiful the shoreline has no protection to form beaches and is too rough to be a safe place for tourists to swim. There were some beautiful waves cresting along the shore as we passed. 

While Juan, our guide was quite humorous he was also quite profound. I love this quote from him, "We always say to leave the world better for our children. I say raise our children to be better people and the whole world will be better." So much truth in that.

We came back to our stateroom to find a chocolate cupcake and a card from the captain and crew for my birthday. But wait! That's not all. After a nice dinner in the Tamarind specialty Asian restaurant we found the concierges from the Neptune Lounge had strung a birthday banner and given me a huge bouquet of flowers. 

Two days at sea and then home. We will enjoy every minute we can.

Friday, March 18, 2022

Monkeys And Crocs And Sloths! Oh My!

 Let me continue with our excursion at the Panama Canal on Wednesday. After we visited the Agua Clara Locks Visitor Center, we boarded our bus again and continued on to the second part of our excursion, the canal nature cruise. 

Once we reached the area that had the boats to take us out into the canal and the surrounding rainforest, we were divided into two groups of eighteen and asked to don life jackets. We did pass a couple of large ships as they transited the canal way but mostly we kept to the shoreline and little inlets to look for monkeys, crocodiles, sloths, and the eagles which we were told we would only see in the morning. We were shown pictures of the different kinds of animals and Bob, skeptic that he is, said that was probably all we would see. We've been on too many nature excursions where the animals weren't given the itinerary.

We did see a crocodile and a monkey or two high in the trees but eventually our guide found a capuchin monkey who knew if he came down to the overhanging branches near the boats, he would get some treats. He entertained us long enough to get some good pictures and make the nature part of our trip successful. We did enjoy the boat ride in the fresh air after all that time on the bus.

I'm going to post a picture of what I am sure are hanging bird nests but I didn't catch what type of bird builds such a nest. I'll continue to research and will update the post if I find the answer. I thought he said "kite" but I couldn't find a nest that kites build that resembled these.

Our guide on the bus assured us that our return trip would not be as long as we would be on a highway. Before we got to the highway however he stopped the bus and showed us a mother sloth and her baby. They have been up in the tree for a long time and apparently this is not the first baby she's had in this tree. Now this was truly worth the nature trip. If you look closely at the picture, you can see the baby's face.

Back on the ship we grabbed some shrimp tempura and fried rice in the Lido Buffet for dinner and my favorite dessert, churros. In our room we found a notice that clocks will be turned back an hour to adjust to the Puerto Limon, Costa Rica time. Great news as our excursion will begin earlier in the morning. 

An extra hour of sleep or not, we were too tired to do much after dinner. It was an early night for us.

Thursday, March 17, 2022

Through The Locks And Into The Lake To...


Six o'clock in the morning I found myself wide awake as I realized there was activity in the corridor outside our stateroom. People were up and securing their vantage points for the journey through the Gatun Locks. By seven, we were both up and positioning ourselves on the forward deck to view the locks as our ship entered.

There are three levels of locks to raise the ship up to the level of Gatun Lake. I am not going to go into detail about how the locks work and all the history behind it. Suffice it to say that there is more than enough history and amazing stories of how the locks were made and the difficulties encountered in the amazing feat of construction, not the least of which was conquering the little mosquito that was killing off so many of the workers. Check out the History Channel and PBS for some great information and videos. If you just Google documentaries on the Panama Canal you will have a treasure trove. 

A few quick facts that we have learned over the several transits we've made. Theodore Roosevelt was instrumental in promoting the building of the canal that was taken over by the United States in the early 1900s when France gave up. John Stevens was the engineer who, in eighteen months got the project going and figured out that instead of cutting through the mountain you needed to lift the ships over it. And then there was Dr. William Gorgas who discovered that it was the mosquitoes who were spreading the dread yellow fever and malaria and led the fight to clean up all the breeding grounds for them.

Again, it is an amazing story and I have some of it posted from our previous visits. You can find those posts on the travel page for the Panama Canal. 

We had booked an excursion to see the new lock that has been finished since our last passage. It included a stop at the Agua Clara Visitor Center at the new lock as well as a boat ride in the rainforest area to see whatever nature we could see.

The Agua Clara locks are totally different than the original. They have retention ponds for the fresh water that is used to raise and lower the water in the locks. The gates are completely different as well. They are hollow concrete and slide back and forth rather than open on hinges. The concrete gates are hollow in order to keep them light enough so that they don't require a lot of energy to open and close them. 

The new locks are specifically for larger ships that are too wide or too long to go through the old locks. They also are designed to  conserve the fresh water in Gatun Lake by recycling the water used with the retention ponds. There is a good history of the canal and the new locks at this Canal Tour Site.

After watching one ship pass through and another huge cargo ship enter, we were called to board our bus for the next part of our excursion. Our bus ride was almost two hours including a stop at a gas station that was kind of like a Circle K back home. We used what little Spanish I could remember to order a chicken sub which was about as good as you would expect from a place like that. The PaWa (bottled Panamanian water) was really good though. 

It was on to our canal nature cruise. More of that to follow.

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Cartagena, A Morning Of Surprises

 Our day began with my warning to Bob. Do not open the curtains if you're still in your underwear. Our ship was docked in a container port and there were lots of people working on the docks, not to mention the bunker that was pulled alongside to fill the ship with fuel. After our last cruise, Bob's comment was that he hoped the credit card they used was still good.

The folks in the Pinnacle restaurant for breakfast greeted us with lots of smiles this morning. With breakfast there every morning we are beginning to get to know them better. When the manager stopped by the table to ask what we had planned for the day she was disappointed to hear that we would probably stay on the ship. "Oh no! You must see the flamingos and birds in the zoo."

Bob and I looked at each other with the same question written on our minds, what zoo? As Arlin continued, we found that there was some sort of zoo right at the cruise terminal where the shuttle from the ship would drop us. When you are docked in a container port there is always a shuttle to keep people from walking where they shouldn't. After breakfast, we shrugged and said, "Why not have a look?"

The place where the shuttle dropped us off was all new and within walking distance of the ship. As a matter of fact there was even a walking path drawn on the concrete that led to the "zoo". When we exited the shuttle, it appeared the only way through to the street was through the zoo area which turned out to be more of an aviary than anything else. But what an aviary!

The area was landscaped beautifully and full of all sort of birds. There were plenty of peacocks and the males were definitely strutting their stuff, if not for the tourists at least for the female peacocks. Geese and ducks and macaws and birds I didn't recognize followed us around the paths that led through the gardens. 

A couple of places were fenced and netted and one of them had scores of toucans in it. Again, the toucans were just as friendly as any of the other birds, following us around and even nipping at our shoes. Mine have elastic strings in them. I was afraid the bird would get snapped by the elastic.

The flamingos must have been let out of their overnight area just as we arrived. The flock came running and squawking into the pen, wings flapping as if they wanted all the peacocks out of their way. 

A couple of pens held some small pigs and anteaters. I tried to get a nice picture of the anteater but he wouldn't cooperate.

There was a cafe and a very nice gift shop there. I don't know if that is what supports the garden and its inhabitants or if the port does somehow but there was no fee to enter and see all the beautiful birds. It was a great way to spend the morning.

We set sail from Cartagena for the Panama Canal just after lunch. The afternoon and evening was spent listening to more of the information regarding the canal, much of which we've heard before but just like the surprise zoo, you never know if something has changed.

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Relax! It's A Sea Day!

 Having a sea day now and then certainly helps you to relax a bit between ports. This sea day finds us on our way from Curacao to Cartagena, Columbia. I thought I would take some time to catch up on a few things that are interesting to a cruise starting with the pilots in each port.

Most ports of the world require pilotage, the practice where a pilot comes on board near the entrance of a port to help guide the captain of a ship safely into the port. They also assist in the departure of the ship. It is always fascinating to see these brave souls boarding or leaving the ship. It is quite a process with the pilot boat having to match the speed of the ship, come alongside and catch the pilot as he jumps from one to the other. We have seen others have to climb a ladder hung outside the open door, or port, of a ship. Once safely back on the pilot boat, we usually get a wave and we're on our way.

Tugboats are often very colorful workhorses in a port. With all the side thrusters and such of today's ships, we rarely see the tugboat come alongside to guide the ship to their dock. We do see them waiting though, just in case a ship might need a helping hand. I'm guessing that in those ports where the wind or current might be greater, a tugboat would definitely be a help in docking.

One of the fun things about leaving the port of Fort Lauderdale is that people come out of their homes or condos and wave as the ships leave port. We were the only ship leaving as we started our cruise on that Wednesday but on a weekend there are usually a parade of ships starting at around four o'clock that are leaving port. On some cruises we have even heard air horns answering the ship's horn as it announces its departure.

Our day at sea was relaxing with several talks to attend including a little more about the Island Magic Steelband. The steel pans are actually made from the bottom of a steel drum but the musicians were very adamant about the proper name being a steel pan. Theirs on the islands are all made by hand but sent off to be chrome plated to make them shiny. There is a little fine tuning that needs to be done when they come back and the pan has to be suspended on its stand in order to get the right resonance. It is so amazing.

We spent an hour with the future cruise consultant discussing a 2024 world cruise. Looks like we may be going around the world once again. 

Our evening at the Canaletto Italian specialty restaurant was a little disappointing. Close quarters and too much busyness to relax. The menu has changed as well since we last cruised with HAL. It used to be more pasta and tomato sauce and less items that we wouldn't associate with Italian food. And the best part used to be the plate of cotton candy they brought in time for dessert. Ah well, everything changes.

Entertainment this evening was again the troupe of dancers they have onboard. They did interpretive dancing with a musical instruments theme. Bob enjoyed this one more than the previous show. 

Tomorrow's stop is in Cartagena, Columbia. Don't know if we will get off the ship. We've been there many times and explored the old town but it's a bit dangerous to do anything on your own. We'll see.

Monday, March 14, 2022

The Colorful Island of Curacao


Aruba and Curacao are both Dutch islands and are lovely but Curacao is the more colorful in my opinion. Willemstad has beautiful historic buildings and the more modern builds blend in with the same kind of architecture. We awoke and immediately looked out to be sure we were in port (the after effects of that canceled cruise). We were, but there were several rain clouds that seemed to move our way one after the other. The rain would come in a mist, then a downpour for a minute or two, then disappear with the sunshine only to have the cycle repeat. 

It was waffle day for Bob so we had to have waffles for breakfast in the Pinnacle Grill. We watched as what seemed to be at least three-quarters of the ship's guests formed lines on the dock for their morning excursions. Our morning plans were to try to stream the church service from First Baptist Church in Key Largo and then go ashore. In order to stream anything, Bob had to buy an extra service from our carrier. The carrier only charged $10/day where the ship wanted a $50 fee for the whole cruise and we weren't planning on using it that much. Since we were only streaming for one day we went with the carrier fee. 

Settled in with a coffee from the Explorations Cafe on the ship, we cued up the live stream for church on Facebook and began to watch. About five minutes into the service, an announcement came that the ship's crew was going to have a safety drill. It would not affect guests except that the forward elevators would be out of service. Well, it didn't affect guests unless they were trying to listen to a live stream. At least a half dozen announcements came, including one that said there was a "fire" in the laundry and several warning blasts that indicated emergencies. By the time our live stream was finally finished, the announcement came that all guests and crew abandon ship. Of course that was all part of the drill but we were ready to go ashore anyway. We told security we were abandoning ship as they scanned our cards. It got a pleasant smile.

A walkway from the cruise terminal wound past the casino/hotel and through an old fort that has been renovated to contain all sorts of shops and bars and restaurants. It's very well done. The Rif Fort translates to Reef Fort and was built in 1828 to protect the St. Anna Bay. Across the opening to the bay is the Water Fort built in 1829. At one time the fort included 56 cannons, barracks, a powder magazine and a water tank. In front of the fort was a dome shaped structure that was used to seal off the opening to the bay.

Continuing on, the walkway exits the fort and takes you past a line of booths with local merchants displaying their wares. Finally you reach the pontoon bridge over the channel that swings open to allow for ship traffic. We have been on ships that actually went inside the channel and docked but for some reason we didn't do that this time. The pontoon bridge is fun to cross. It doesn't rise and fall too much but with the wind and the wave action that morning, you didn't want to linger or the motion could, well, you know. 

At the other end of the pontoon bridge were several wire heart shaped structures that had lots of locks attached to them. Several places in the world have been inundated with people who want to express their love by leaving a lock on a bridge. This was a good way to handle what could become a nasty mess.

It was Sunday so we didn't expect much to be open. There were a few merchants who ventured out to attract customers but for the most part, with only one ship in and the weather, the day didn't look profitable. We walked up and down the streets and along a side canal that had a fresh fish and veggie market. Not many booths were open. I remembered another time where it was very picturesque with all the displays. 

As we walked down one sort of out of the way street and approached an open door we could hear loud music playing and voices raised that sounded like a bar full of people having a good time. As we passed the door we realized we couldn't have been more wrong. The people were having a good time but they were in a worship service. I recognized the music but the words they sang were all in Dutch.

After dodging a few spurts of rain, we finally made our way back to the ship for a relaxing afternoon, me to write and Bob to see a movie (probably a sleeping opportunity). Our departure time for Curacao was again late, 10:30pm. There were more people who did evening walks and I'm sure went to the casino on shore or found other venues for dining. I could see them strolling from the ship and back again as I sat on our veranda for a short time.

After dinner and the sunset, we listened to the strings play in the Lincoln Center Stage. I enjoyed watching a gray haired fellow with a beard and a ponytail really get into the music. In this novelist's mind, I imagined he was a retired orchestra conductor, especially when his one hand began waving in time to the music.

Following the classical music, we moved to the Billboard pianos and listened to some sixties and seventies rock. We were exploring all our music genres. Bob left me in the Billboard lounge and went to see the James Bond movie in the theater. If it's not Sean Connery or Roger Moore, I don't go. 

I stayed in Billboard for another round of music that featured artists who were pianists. The two playing were very entertaining and the folks listening joined in often. When Bob left the movie early, we walked outside a bit and then called it a night just before our ship was due to leave. When you're this relaxed it's an early night even though the time was going to fall back and give us an extra hour. 

Sea day ahead. What will it hold?

Sunday, March 13, 2022

Aruba! It Does Exist!

 A memory that will forever be etched in the recesses of my mind is the morning we awoke on our canceled Grand Voyage expecting to be in Aruba and there was no island in sight. Saturday morning we awoke to see it. No mirage. There it was. The colorful buildings and red rooftops of Oranjestad, Aruba were just outside our window.

We had not booked an excursion here. Maybe we were just a bit leery of the island being a myth or disappearing into a mysterious fog and we would be disappointed. After a nice breakfast, we donned our bathing suits and collected all that we needed to go ashore and visit the beach. 

Aruba requires masks to be worn inside but it didn't appear to be required outdoors like some of the other islands we had visited in January. We were cautioned to keep our immunization cards or a photo of them with us but no one ever asked us for them. Perhaps some of the restaurants or other establishments require proof of vaccination. 

The day was perfect. A bit on the windy side with big fluffy clouds scurrying through blue skies. I had done a little homework online and found that the bus station was a short walk from the cruise terminal and for five dollars each we could get a round trip ticket to take us by bus to Eagle Beach which was said to be one of the nicest.

All of the beaches on Aruba are free but if you want to use the facilities or some of the beach items at a beach that is in front of a hotel, you will need to either get a day pass or pay a fee. Eagle Beach sat across the street from some condos and a few small hotels. It was perfect.

The bus was nice and clean and we got to see a little of the island. We should have stayed on it a bit longer on the way out. We got off and crossed the road but the bus apparently goes past all the hotels farther down and does a loop. It would have put us on the same side as the beach but more importantly, we would have had the opportunity to see the hotel area. 

We crossed the road and found ourselves on a beautiful long stretch of beach. Here and there were thatched umbrella-like structures that offered shade but it appeared that they were all taken already at 9:30 am. A large thatched structure was a little ways up the beach from us and we saw that they obviously had chairs and umbrellas to rent. We did a little gasp at the price, $30/umbrella and $10/each for a beach chair. We weren't there for the day, just an hour or so. The proprietor pointed out a structure and said we could put the chairs under any one of them and suggested a donation for the use of it. From that we decided the thatched "umbrellas" were perhaps city owned and free. 

The man toted two chairs over to a spot and we paid him for the rental. There was a cooler under the shade but no one around. We figured the worst that would happen is someone would tell us to move. It turned out that the family playing on the shoreline had just stored their snacks there and when they were done they were gone. It wasn't long before we were settled in that a woman approached us with a gold wedding band and said she was looking for the owner. We both thought maybe it was a scam like we had encountered in Paris a few years ago but after talking with her it appeared to be legitimate.

I got in the water and swam a bit. That was all I wanted to do. Just once this trip I wanted to get in those beautiful teal blue waters. Bob took a turn wading up to his ankles. Both of us though were impressed with the cleanliness of the beach and the easy entry into the water. It couldn't have been more perfect for two people who really aren't beach goers.

We had to wait a bit for the bus to return to the ship. The first one went by us since we weren't exactly under the bus sign but we passed the time with another couple from the ship and about 20 minutes later another bus came by and stopped for us. 

A perfect morning followed by a juicy hamburger on the ship and a lovely afternoon on the veranda writing and reading. We weren't scheduled to leave port until 10:30 pm so after dinner there wasn't a lot of entertainment scheduled on the ship.  We got the opportunity to enjoy a nice sunset from the back of the ship and then went on to see the comedian who performed to a full house because the ship hadn't counted on everyone returning early. His show was followed by a Planet Earth movie that was made for Holland America and music to accompany it was provided by the ship's string music group. 

Curacao is promised for tomorrow. Another port that we missed on our canceled Grand Voyage. Looking forward to it.

Saturday, March 12, 2022

Two Old Salts At Sea


Friday was another sea day and started with our usual walk after breakfast. The sea was a bit choppy and as the ship was cutting through waves it was creating a salty mist that blew up onto the Promenade deck. It was refreshing but salty and by the time we were done with our walk, we could taste the salt on our lips. I wondered if there were any benefits to the skin, a free natural facial perhaps?

I spent the morning writing while Bob attended another interview session with the cruise director. She's definitely Dutch. I love to hear her talk with all of the soft "d"s she puts into the English words.

After lunch we went to a future cruises talk with the onboard booking agent. We are still contemplating another world cruise in 2024 and trying to find a way to fit in all the ports we wanted to see when our disastrous grand voyage ended. The pyramids and the holy land as well as the island of Gibraltar are still on the bucket list. She tempted us with some alternatives to a world cruise that would get us the ports we wanted. We're still thinking and weighing pros and cons.

It was what Holland America calls "gala" night. It's not necessarily black tie although we did see a couple of tuxedoes and long dresses. And it's not supposed to be casual. It should be at least smart casual but just as we were seated we noticed a couple of t shirts and shorts. To each his own I guess but I did think it a bit disrespectful to other diners when they could have eaten dressed that way in the buffet upstairs.

The best of the night was to come though. We sat and listened a bit to the dual pianos in the area called the Billboard. The two musicians played and sang songs from the sixties and we all sang along. Now that tells you a little of the ages of the guests onboard. 

Following the sixties tunes, we found seats in the theater, the Main Stage, for the evening's show. We knew it was to be a steel drum band but what we experienced was so much more. Now everyone thinks calypso and Caribbean rhythm when you think of steel drums. This was everything but that. This group of four talented musicians played everything from Do Re Mi and Alfred Llyod Weber music to classical music including the William Tell Overture. There were times I closed my eyes and just listened to the music. You could almost swear it was an orchestra.

Steel drums or pans originated in Trinidad which is where the band was from (actually Trinidad-Tobago). Slaves were imported back in the 1700s to work the sugar cane fields. Eventually slavery was abolished in the mid 1800s but they had brought their culture from Africa and part of it was drumming to celebrate festivals like Carnival. When the celebrations got way too rowdy, the drums were banned by the ruling class because they feared they were being used to communicate secret messages. As a protest another musical movement started called Tamboo Bamboo. Yes, you guessed it the instruments were all made of bamboo.

Before long this new musical expression became violent with rival gangs fighting each other with the bamboo and it too was banned. Rhythm could not be stopped though and soon musicians were picking up pots and pans and all sorts of metal and banging on it. Soon it was discovered that if you beat the metal enough you could get different pitches and sounds from the surface. By 1948, 55 gallon drums became available from the oil refineries on the islands and several people were instrumental in creating the 12 notes of the chromatic scale on the drum.

The instrument has evolved and the pan that was played by the man who carried the main melody had 36 notes in it. The big steel drums were like the bass and the group of drums on the other end were played like chords to accompany the melody. It was amazing. Oh, and I shouldn't forget the drummer who set the pace. What an evening! They have another performance and a special Q&A later in the cruise which should be quite interesting.

If you would like to know more about this group and maybe even want some of their music, click the link to their website, The Island Magic Steelband. There are a few videos there that will give you a taste of what we enjoyed.

Tomorrow, with any luck, we will wake up to see Aruba.

Friday, March 11, 2022

Cruising the Florida Straits

 It's Thursday. We know this because the carpet in the elevator says so. We have to trust whoever changes it day to day knows the correct day. Our morning starts with breakfast in the specialty restaurant, the Pinnacle. It's a perk of the Neptune Suite and a nice quiet place to eat. I ordered a half grapefruit and it turned out to be the smallest grapefruit I've ever seen. The cereal with berries and almond milk was great and I snitched some of Bob's crispy bacon that he ordered to make his bacon/English muffin breakfast sandwich. I know, it's the inner chef in him.

We walked around the Promenade deck and then headed up to the sports deck at the top of the ship for Pickleball that couldn't happen because it was too windy. We did meet several Pickleball players who said they would be there every morning at nine so maybe our port days will have some games.

The most delightful excursions director gave a morning talk about the possible fun we could have on shore. We've already booked our excursions but wanted to make sure there was nothing else that caught our fancy. She was hilarious with her descriptions of shopping opportunities and box lunches and restroom breaks, some of which you needed to be sure to bring a little cash for.

While Bob was at coffee with the cruise director who was interviewing several staff members in the lounge below, I took opportunity to catch up with my blog and do some writing. The internet is frustrating, sometimes very slow but basic service is free since they are trying to get people to use their app onboard for the daily schedule and booking restaurants and excursions. I also cannot embed a YouTube video because it will not let me into the site. There's another $50 charge if you want to stream anything. No Neptune perks there.

Laundry on the other hand is free for us so we'll be packing our little blue bag soon so we can clean up the clothes we've worn so far. But that's probably TMI.

We had a Ceasar salad for lunch up in the Lido buffet. Saving our calories for our dinner in the specialty restaurant tonight. Bob spent a few hours in the gym and the thermal suite while I busied myself with a book and a stroll around to see what was happening. I think most people were out by the pool.

Dinner in the Pinnacle was good but service was sooooo slow. It took a long time between courses. Maybe the kitchen was slow. We changed our plans to attend the early show and decided we'd have to catch the late show. The show was six dancers and lots of video effects that coordinated with what they were doing. It was very modern and interpretive but fascinating. Their interaction with the video made them appear to be part of it at times. 

Clocks needed to be set ahead an hour to prepare us for our stop in Aruba in another day. Hopefully we won't be switching back and forth again with daylight savings on Sunday.  Even more, I hope we actually wake up on Saturday and see Aruba.

Thursday, March 10, 2022

Welcome Aboard!

It was Wednesday. Pancake breakfast day for Bob. Where do you go for pancakes? The IHOP of course. After breakfast we returned to the hotel room and gathered the rest of the things we'd unpacked and stuffed them into the suitcases again. I let out a deep sigh of relief when it all fit back in. I had packed pretty tight so that we only needed two suitcases plus our carry on case and backpack. 

It was a pleasant ride to the Fort Lauderdale airport where we returned our rental car and Bob called for an Uber to take us to the ship, the Eurodam. We had a sweet ride with an equally sweet lady who said it was her first time going to the port. Thankfully it wasn't a hectic morning. There were only two ships in port. 

She dropped us at the gate and a porter took the luggage that we'd already tagged and we were on our way to navigating check in. With the Holland America Navigator app we had already registered our proof of vaccination, our health questionnaire and even our security pictures. When we had our antigen tests done, that was registered as well. There was nothing more to do as we entered the cruise terminal but to go through security and show our passports at check-in to receive our boarding ticket with a bar code to get on board. We were told our key cards were in the room. 

We got the token welcome aboard picture taken by the ship's photographer and easily boarded when ship security scanned the bar code. Oh, did I mention that we had premium boarding because of the Neptune Suite we had booked? In fifteen minutes from Uber to ship we were in our room, which surprisingly was all ready for us. 

And what a room! I encourage you to click on the video link here and see the tour, The Neptune Suite. Happy birthday to me!! I'm looking forward to breakfast and maybe even a dinner on the deck.

We also were privileged to be able to eat in the dining room for lunch, another perk of the Neptune suite since it was not open to others. We both had cobb salads, Bob's with chicken and mine with salmon. Bob was ecstatic to see that they also have caffeine free Diet Coke. 

Our sail away was fun as always when you sail out of Port Everglades. People came out of their homes and apartments to wave as we passed by. 

It's been a long time since we've been on the Eurodam. There are some changes and we explored a bit to reacquaint ourselves with the ship. Of course the spa always insists on a tour and we took it just so Bob could sign up for the Thermal Suite which includes steam rooms, heated loungers and a hydro-pool. He'll disappear for a couple of hours each day and I hope they'll wake him up for dinner.

Our dinner was ordered from a special Club Orange menu that comes as a perk from our suite. The only difference was one special that isn't on the regular menu. It was Peruvian chicken that was okay but the corn with it was delicious. Hot fudge sundaes were a splurge in calories but who knew they wanted to give me my birthday cake? I passed on the cake. It's not my birthday yet.

The night's entertainment was actually a presentation of the history of the Holland America cruise line narrated by the cruise director. It was a very interesting journey through 150 years of history for the line. 

The only down part of the day was the sunset. It dipped into the water without much fanfare but we still have ten evenings left to catch a good one.

Wednesday, March 09, 2022

Two Roads Diverged in a Mangrove Forest. . .

 . . .and we took the one we hadn't traveled before. Our Tuesday morning found us testing for COVID again in order to complete our paperwork for our cruise starting Wednesday. We had two antigen test kits from home and did it with an internet connection to eMed. Test results were returned quickly with a QSR code that we had a little trouble getting recognized by the Holland America Navigator app. Eventually we got it uploaded and we were told it was pending approval. We weren't waiting in the hotel room for it so we decided to drive out to Biscayne Bay National Park which was about twenty minutes away from Florida City.

We've been to the park several times before with our Florida kids but each trip there has always provided new information. As we neared the turnoff to the visitor center, I saw that the road that went straight ahead was open. I recalled it being closed on our last visit. Curious, but we turned to the visitor center.

When we arrived we could see that we wouldn't be walking on the boardwalk. They were repairing and building it up. Apparently hurricane Irma did some damage.  We stopped in for one of the many videos they show in their movie room. It was the one that explores the marine aspects of the park. As I said, we always learn something new. The difference between a Key and an Island is that the islands are formed usually by volcanic action but the keys are formed by living organisms, the corals.

After the movie, we talked a bit with the ranger there and I asked where the other road led. He said it went down to a county owned park that had a marina and a restaurant that he thought opened at noon. I glanced at my watch. It was just past noon. We nodded at each other. Let's go explore.

Once we got there, I realized this was the Homestead Beach I'd seen on the Google map. It is beautiful. There is an atoll pool, a basin of water formed by a small land mass that encircles it. It was very clean and inviting but we were there to eat.

The Seafood House had a variety of foods and drinks and featured a balcony eating area that overlooked the beach. Perfect. We settled on splitting a hamburger since we were going out to dinner with friends later and didn't want to eat too much. There was a nice breeze blowing in and the temperatures were warm enough to feel so relaxing. After we ate we walked around a bit and then headed back to our hotel to chill before we headed back down to Key Largo.

Bob pulled out his phone and saw that the HAL app said we were set to sail in the morning. Yes!

Monday, March 07, 2022

A Day At Zoo Miami

 Monday was a day to spend enjoying our Florida family. It would be a day at Zoo Miami for the girls and a day of male bonding for the guys while they did some home projects. I was eager to visit the zoo and have the opportunity to walk in the warm sunshine and enjoy the nice breeze. It's always an adventure to visit the zoo with my grandkids and this day was no exception.

The zoo in Miami is so big it is difficult to see in one day especially if you walk it. There are safari cycles you can rent for two to six people for a three hour fee, extra if you need it longer. It is a fun way to get around but we passed this time. We elected to walk. The kids have been here often enough with their membership that they have seen everything so we pick and choose what we want to see.

Back home the animals often can't be seen because the weather is too cold and they go inside to get warm. Here it's the opposite. The weather was getting pretty warm and the sun hot so many of the animals were either in their cooler "caves" or on the shady side of the rocks and bushes which made it hard to see them.

There are some animals at this zoo that we don't have at CLEMET like the tree kangaroo we saw who loved to jump down from his tree perch to swing on the rope stretched across his display area. 

The komodo dragon is another. For some reason he (or she) was digging a hole. We wondered if it was to find cooler ground.

The burrowing owl was guarding his burrow, his drain pipe, from the burrowing tortoise he was housed with. If the tortoise got close to the entrance, he would fly up and threaten to peck at him.

Whether it's our home zoo or the Miami zoo, the meerkats are always the most comical. The two in the picture I took seemed to be basking in the sun. I wondered if they turned over every fifteen minutes to get an even tan.

A little more than four hours of walking and we were feeling the heat a bit more despite the nice breeze. After a quick stop to feed the birds, we headed for the exit and home to see how much the guys had done with their projects. New track lighting and light switches all installed. They were proud of themselves.

 Here we are, back in Florida and ready to cruise again. It felt so good to be back in the sunshine and warmth. February was pretty brutal at home between cold temps and tons of snow. Our cruise doesn't begin for a couple of days but anytime we need to be somewhere on a specific date and need to fly, we make plans to leave a day or two early to have an edge against bad weather that might delay our departure from home in winter months. That said, we also wanted to take a few extra days to catch up with family and friends we have in Key Largo who are also snowbirds. 

Our trip started out rather hectically. First Bob had scheduled an Uber ride to the airport for between 6 and 6:15 am that would have given us plenty of time to check luggage and have a quick bite of breakfast before boarding. Six o'clock came and he began tracking our ride. "He's heading to the airport!" We were confused. He was supposed to be heading to pick us up. That driver dropped us and another picked up the request but his estimated time to arrive was going to be another 40 minutes. For a moment Bob considered trying to change drivers but instead he said, "Let's go! We're driving." We grabbed luggage, threw it into the car and made it to the airport with just enough time. Thank goodness for Premier Access and PreCheck TSA.

A little breakfast, boarding and a pleasant flight to Fort Lauderdale followed by securing the rental car we had reserved. All went smoothly. And then before pulling out of the rental lot, we tried to register the rental car to the temporary Sun Pass for the Florida toll roads. Florida has electronic readers set up at intervals on toll roads that either read your window pass or your license plate to charge you the toll. There is no longer any toll booths that take cash. 

We entered all the information and the response we got was that the license plate was already registered to another account. Sure enough, we could see where the Sun Pass had been in the window. The sticky backing hadn't come off the window cleanly. We gave up and decided we could get something to eat first and then figure it out. Maybe the previous renter's time on the pass would run out by then.

The McDonald's not far from the airport where we often eat after a flight surprised us by being open to dining in. We took our lunch to a table and enjoyed the view of sunshine and blue skies and green trees. Then back to the car and the challenge of the Sun Pass. Bob dialed the 800 number and we were put on hold for almost a half hour. The lady told us that yes the car was registered to another pass and we would have to dispute the error we kept getting by emailing a picture of our car rental agreement. She walked us through the email response on the website telling us what to write. The problem came when the picture was too large to send. Yikes!

FBCKL has unique communion

We tried several ideas to reduce it by emailing it to each other. When that didn't work, Bob fished out his laptop, connected it to the hotspot on his phone and went into the photo editor on the computer to edit it and finally get it to send. We both agree. That probably won't be the end of it. Somehow the charges are going to get screwed up for sure. We'll deal with it then. All in all, it took us about two hours to get everything settled and put us on the way to our son's house to visit.

Saturday night was a great Mexican meal but we just missed getting a table for eight by about five minutes. A large group walked in the door as we approached. The restaurant was packed. We waited an hour to eat. Worth the wait but way to late for old folks to eat.

Sunday found us in Key Largo at the church we attend when we spend the winter here. We met our Michigan snowbird friends there and then had brunch at our favorite spot followed by a round of our favorite card game with plenty of catching up along the way. The trip was beginning to get much better.

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