Sunset on the NCL Pearl

Taken near the end of the cruise, this is us looking serene.

We had a grand time on the Pearl.  Although we opted for a simple inside cabin, we agreed that this, our sixth cruise, was the best ever.  We liked this ship the best.  Its public spaces were the nicest of any we had experienced.  There was rarely a sense of the ship feeling crowded, despite 2400 passengers and more than a thousand crew being onboard.  Our Friends of Dorothy meetups had the bonus of being hosted and this made us feel that NCL had gone out of its way, rather than just including them on the schedule as an afterthought.  We made some interesting and rewarding choices on our shore excursions, especially the petroglyphs at Acapulco and the coffee plantation in Costa Rica.  Of course, the experience of transiting the Panama Canal was also a once in a lifetime treat.  And then there was the food….

Ah, the food.  We have generally been very happy with the food on all of our cruise vacations.  We had some minor concerns this time around, what with two weeks of eating and all.  We honestly felt that this sailing offered the BEST FOOD EVER.  The variety was simply amazing.  We never tired of the choices.  The quality was the highest that we could hope for.  The quantity was mind-boggling.  The buffet setup offered the best flow of any we have seen.  Extras such as the ice cream bar, chocolate fountain and afternoon tea station were a big plus.  The dining rooms were also excellent, offering fourteen different days of menus so we never felt bored.  We both gained more weight than we would like to admit!

We met some wonderful new friends on this trip as well.  Richard and Bill are such a great couple and it was a real treat getting to know them.  They generously invited us to their cabin multiple times to take in the sunset on their balcony.  We also enjoyed a nightcap several times with other new buddies from our FOD meetups.  The people we had met through Cruise Critic online before we even sailed were great too!  We participated in a cabin crawl that gave us a chance to view a variety of cabins, including oceanviews, balconies and a whole range of suites.  The most spectacular of these was the Garden Villa, which accommodates six guests in more than 5000 square feet of luxury, including a private hot tub, butler service and four bathrooms!  It was more cabin than we could ever hope for and we felt lucky to get the chance to see it.

The staff on the ship was also among the best we have experienced.  Our Cruise Director, Andy Steinhauser, put together action packed days and nights that kept us as occupied as we wanted to be.  His assignment of a staff member to our daily meetings was a wonderful treat.  Our host, Erwin Baltazar, offered us a genuine feeling of welcome.  He was engaging and friendly and very, very funny.  Of all the hundreds of other waiters, chefs, bartenders, receptionists and  room stewards we encountered, we felt they all were going above and beyond to make our cruise simply unforgettable.

Cabo San Lucas, Mexico

I couldn't resist!

Our final port of the cruise was Cabo San Lucas.  Sitting at the southernmost tip of Baja California, this town is a major tourist destination for Hollywood moguls and the like.  The natural setting of jagged rocks rising out of crystal blue waters makes for a dramatic backdrop.  We tendered in to the port early and spent the day walking around the marina.  It is lined with restaurants and bars looking out onto the hundreds of boats harbored there.  We also explored the streets behind the water’s edge, even locating a Starbucks outpost!  We shopped the myriad of souvenir stalls, eventually settling on a Mexican wrestler’s mask as a gift for a friend stateside.  Finally we stopped for lunch at a dockside venue.

Part of our lunch in Cabo.

This was one of our favorite scenes of the entire vacation.  We settled into chairs at Solomon’s Landing, located at a corner of the marina next to a straw market.  Music from the restaurant wafted out over the parade of well-oiled vacationers strolling up and down the walkway, providing us with never-ending entertainment as we ate.  Another round of Pacifico beers paired with guacamole, salsa and chips to start us off.  Tony chose an authentic beef burrito stuffed with grilled skirt steak, avocado, tomato and crema.  I splurged on a whole grilled lobster.  Bursting out of its bright red shell, it was served with rice pilaf and fresh vegetables.  We were as relaxed as we have ever been and life seemed very, very good at that moment.  I feel grateful for that particular experience.

Later that afternoon, we enjoyed a cocktail on the balcony of our newfound friends Richard and Bill.  As we sipped on a cool drink, the ship swung around in a 180 degree arc in preparation for leaving the bay.  This gave us a final, sweeping panorama of the town and its stunning setting.  We were nearing the end of what we all agreed was one of the best vacations of our lives.

Acapulco, Mexico

These carvings are on a hill high above Acapulco.

Arriving early in the morning, we took our coffee out on the deck and watched as we sailed into Acapulco Bay.  There is development nearly all the way around this harbor, with even some highrise hotels in the tourist district.  This is not the same Acapulco visited by the winners of The Dating Game in the 1960’s.  Nearly a million people are crowded into the city and up the sides of the surrounding mountains.  We chose a tour that took us up into the hills for a chance to see the ancient petroglyphs at Palma Sola and capture the panoramic views that climb would afford.  We boarded a large van at the pier and headed out.

At first, we stuttered through the morning rush hour traffic along the bay and the nearby streets.  Once we began climbing the hills, there was less traffic but the road began narrowing at an alarming rate.  As the city grew in the last century, residents staked out their own plots of land on the mountainside in a crazy-quilt fashion.  When the city administration annexed this land and brought services such as water, electricity and paved roads to these neighborhoods (known as colonias), no one wanted to give up one single centimeter of space.  Houses extended all the way to the edges of the individual properties.  The layout become a nearly impossible maze of unbelievably tight roads.  Added to this was the steepness of the hillside.  None of the roads is marked and we faced many byways blocked by parked vehicles.  When asked how he knew which way to go to reach our destination, the driver responded, “I just keep heading UP.”

The Pearl sits in the Bay.

After some thirty minutes of this tortuous climb, we reached the Palma Sola Archaeological Site.  Arrayed up the hill from the Welcome Center here are more than a dozen petroglyphs produced the Yopes peoples, from 800 B.C. to 200 A.D.  A set of 500 rough stone stairs is set into the hillside, requiring a good bit of stamina to climb.  Along the way we stopped to view the carvings, finally arriving at a plateau at the top where we rewarded with a simply astounding view of Acapulco Bay.  It was worth the effort to see this panorama.

Bahias de Huatulco, Mexico

This was our view of the Pearl from the beach.

Our first stop in Mexico was the resort town of Huatulco in the state of Oaxaca.  It is a resort development ranging across nine bays (bahias).  We chose to stick to the small tourist area set up at the end of the pier.  Given that it was meltingly hot that day, this was more than enough activity for us.  We walked the few streets lined with shops, where Tony purchased a wooden fish, representative of the brightly painted, indigenous Oaxacan carving style.  On our way back to the ship, we allowed ourselves to be seduced by the host of one of the seaside bars into having a drink on the beach.  We sat and sipped a bottle of Pacifico, protected from the brutal sun by a thatched roof.  There was the echo of  marimba music drifting up from the beach, mingling with the persistent sound of the crashing surf and the laughter of the glistening, tanned young people playing in it.  Birds darted between the tables, seeking any scraps dropped to the sand.  We lingered in the cooling breeze, having truly relaxed at this point in our vacation and feeling in no rush to return to the relative confines of the Pearl.   This is one of my favorite moments of the entire fifteen days of vacation.

Guatemala

We docked at Puerto Quetzal as the sun rose and it was already close to eighty degrees.  We we were definitely in the tropics here.  The sun in this part of the world is intense in away that is unfamiliar to those of us from temperate climes.  It is so completely, directly overhead with a power that is unflinching.  Only the traditional afternoon rainshower offers any relief.  We made our way down the pier to the marketplace set up at the water’s edge.  Tony bought some souvenirs right away, so we could return them to the ship and not be saddled with carrying them on our tour.

We had booked a do-it-yourself style excursion, offering us only passage on a motorcoach to the interior city of La Antigua.  Given that we were in port on a Sunday, we were concerned that many businesses would be closed.  To the contrary, La Antigua is a tourist destination for people from all over Guatemala, as well as foreigners.  Families travel here for the weekend to take advantage of the sights, restaurants and shopping that this bustling town offers.  We alighted from the bus and made our way to the Parque Central in the middle of town, flanked by the Catedral de San Jose.  This lush park was studded with cool fountains and filled with musicians, families and lots of we gringos.

This church sits on the Parque Central in La Antigua, Guatemala.

We strolled through the streets, visiting the Arco de Santa Catalina and shopping in a multitude of markets.  The variety of local handicrafts was amazing.  The most stunning work is the weaving.  There were all kinds of examples of this, from placemats to backpacks to wall hangings.  I purchased a notebook with a beautiful, multi-hued cover.  We also stopped in a local shop selling sweets.  The proprietress spoke very little English and my limited Spanish was not helping with the names of the wide array of goodies offered in beautiful glass and wood cases.  I made some choices out of thin air…some of them delicious, others, not so much.  There were almond tarts, dulce de leche candies and tiny doughnuts, heavily glazed and stacked together in pyramids.

Our ride back to the ship was probably the most impactful part of the day.  As our luxury bus (complete with air conditioning, reclining velour seats, tinted windows and restroom)  squeezed through the narrow city streets, we were afforded views directly into the homes of local residents…and I do mean directly.  These were adobe structures without windows, with just a curtain for a door.  There was little or no furniture in some of them.  Children ran through the streets shoeless.  It was an awakening moment.  This was not the first time we had seen such conditions.  Each of our ports allowed such views.  Arriving on our luxury cruise ship, planning to return by plane to our homes filled with clothing, furniture, computers and appliances, we were truly humbled by our travel in this part of the world.  Now, when I complain about the heat, or the washer not working right, or my car being dirty, I am reminded of this view into a different world.

Costa Rica

Our first port on the Pacific Coast was Puntarenas, Costa Rica.  We boarded our plush, Mercedes-Benz bus early in the morning and headed up into the mountains.  After a shopping stop (an unusual placement at the beginning of the day’s tour), we parked in the town of Palmares.  We walked around the town square, complete with a statue of the founding father and a brightly painted gazebo set in lush gardens.  We were far from alone here;  a quick scan of the trees above revealed a nest of brightly colored parrots and a couple of iguanas lazing about on the high branches.  After a tour of the stone church, built by the Conquistadors, we headed back across the mountain range to the Doka Estate coffee plantation.  We got a hands-on trip through the entire process of coffee production…a product near and dear to me.  For the first time in my life, I was able to see coffee beans on the actual bush!  We walked through the facility with our guide and ended up enjoying a delicious lunch in an open pavilion overlooking the fields.  We were served chicken and vegetables, black beans and rice, plantains cooked with butter and palm sugar, as well as coconut bars for dessert.  Of course, there was also all the coffee you could drink.

Our final stop of the day was a the Lankester Botanical Garden.   We arrived to the typical afternoon deluge, only to find we had forgotten our rain ponchos.  The rain eased after just a few minutes and we were able to join the tour.  The specialty here is orchids.  We saw literally hundreds of different types, with blooms ranging in size from the width of your thumbnail to that of your entire hand.  The scent was intoxicating.  One plant even had the aroma of chocolate!  This garden is also home to families of scarlet macaws and cockatoos.  They love the rain and made quite a racket during the storm.  We boarded the bus one final time and made the perilous journey back to the ship.  Many of the roads were really only one lane wide.  Sometimes cut from the sheer rock face of the mountainside, there were rarely guard rails or painted edge lines.  There were several moments when one side of our bus gave up a collective gasp as we rounded a particularly treacherous bend.

The Panama Canal

The ship on the right is the Island Princess

First off, let me just say that after all the hype, after reading David McCullough’s The Path Between the Seas, after hearing about this wonder-of-the-world all my life, the actual passage through the Panama Canal is not that exciting of an event. There were thrilling moments, to be sure: the initial approach to the locks in the morning; the few minutes when you are actually rising and then descending in the locks; the narrowness of the Gaillard Cut, which we happened to experience during a torrential, tropical downpour. But mostly, it is just a very leisurely trip through a lake in the jungle. Gatun Lake comprises the longest part of the journey. The stately traversing of this body of freshwater allowed us time for lunch between the sets of locks. We sat at the window, gazing out at primeval forest which has been allowed to grow back as a security measure.

We awoke that morning to find our ship positioned, along with a dozen or so others, in a bay outside the Canal. We would be entering just after the only other cruise ship of the day, the Island Princess. Cruise ships are always allotted daytime passage appointments, while freighters pass all times of the day and night. The locks themselves come in three sets. The first set we entered, at Gatun, are the northernmost. (Look at the map and you will see that a trip through the canal from the Caribbean to the Pacific actually runs from northwest to southeast, not east to west as you would think!) Nearly all of the ship’s 2400 passengers and 1000+ crewmembers crowded near the front of all the open decks and the glassed-in Spinnaker Lounge, craning their necks and cameras for a good view. It was a moment of typical human behavior as the taller and more aggressive members of the herd pushed their way to the rail.

You could feel the excitement in the air as we slowly manuevered into the first lock. The ship is actually guided and powered completely by tugboats at this point. Each lock is only a few feet larger than the ship itself. There are just two feet of clearance on either side of the ship and less than a dozen at either end. Once the craft is in the channel, it is attached with steel cables to a trio of electric locomotives, known as mules.  The cables are drawn tight, keeping the ship centered in the narrow lock.  At this point, all forward motion is accomplished through the movement of the mules.  The electricity to power the mules is generated by the dam on the Chagres River;  the water to raise the boats in the locks comes from this same source.  The large amounts of rainfall in the surrounding area provide the water to make all of this happen. In this way, the system is almost completely self-sufficient.

An afternoon thunderstorm sent water cascading down the side of the Cut.

By the time we reached the locks on the Pacific side, it occured to make to take advantage of my access to the spa and its amazing views.  Located all the way forward on Deck 12, sandwiched between the Bridge and the aforementioned Spinnaker Lounge,  I was able to take the photos that I had such difficulty snapping in the morning.  With about 25 feet of floor-to-ceiling windows and only four guests at them, I got the best pictures imaginable.  I re-joined Tony on the Promenade Deck as we passed underneath the Bridge of the Americas, completing our transit of the Canal.

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