Cruise Specialists hosts Steve and Wendy Bodenheimer are guiding us along on another amazing journey. Their stories show what you can expect on a Holland America Grand Voyage.
The beginning of our journey was full of adventure before we even stepped aboard the Amsterdam. When we set off for the 2019 Grand World Voyage, we were lucky to escape the Northeast just before the big storm threatened to close the airport in Albany, New York. Fortunately, we had a morning flight and landed safely in Ft. Lauderdale by mid-afternoon. Florida was experiencing some unusually cold weather, but 45-60 degrees Fahrenheit was certainly an improvement for us.
We spent three nights at the Marriott North Hotel. During that time, we met with and assisted the guests of our Cruise Specialists group who were congregating there for the big Bon Voyage Cocktail Party and Dinner. This event has become a memorable part of the Grand World Voyage experience and this year was no exception. It was fun seeing our colleagues from the main office in Seattle, who come to Florida to welcome our guests and to host this party. It was also great to meet many of the people with whom we will be spending the next four months.
Finally, it was time to set off! Embarkation Day is always exciting and more than a bit hectic for us. We had two days at sea to unpack, deliver welcome packages to our 230 guests, take a look at the updates to the ship, make arrangements for upcoming special events, and generally try to settle in. We were excited to see that many of the staff were the same as last year. We even had the same dining room attendants that we loved. And our all-time favorite band is again playing wonderful dance music for us every night.
Before we knew it, we were approaching our first port, Santa Marta, Colombia. Shuttles were available all day, which took passengers to the port gate. Then, we could walk into the city, either along the beachfront promenade or through the very busy city streets. We opted to start on the promenade, which was packed with vendors selling all kinds of souvenirs. We then made our way into the center of the city.
There were some interesting sculptures, a few small parks and plazas, sidewalk cafes, the Santa Marta Cathedral, the Gold Museum, and a few nice-looking hotels. About an hour away was the Tayrona National Park, which is known for having many exotic birds and animals as well as spectacular scenery. While we did not have time to visit on this trip, it is on our list for next time.
The next stop was the San Blas Islands, an archipelago of nearly 365 islands located off the northeast coast of Panama. Only about 50 of the islands are inhabited by the Guna people, who live in thatched-roof huts and travel in dugout canoes. The women wear nose rings, lots of beaded bracelets, and colorful garments adorned with molas. Molas are a unique form of reverse appliqué, where layers of cloth are stitched and then cut to expose the layers below and re-stitched to form intricate patterns. They can be made into beautiful pillows, wall hangings, or quilts as well as added to shirts, dresses, or other household items. Selling these crafts is the major industry here.
We arrived by tender and immediately saw beautiful molas by the dozens hanging in front of every hut. Native women and children in traditional garb were eager to sell their wares. The streets were unpaved and were really no more than narrow alleys. The whole island was small, covering the equivalent of two very long city blocks with perhaps a dozen cross streets. It was hard to distinguish the businesses from the homes, but we did spot a barbershop, a grocery store, a library, and a medical center. We explored for an hour or two and met up with some of our geocaching friends from the ship to hold an event. And then having seen most of the island at least twice, we returned to the ship.
A Grand World Voyage would not be complete without a transit of the Panama Canal. As we arrived, we were out on deck before 7:00 a.m. to watch our entrance into the first set of locks. It is always a fascinating experience. The canal expansion completed in 2016 has doubled the canal’s capacity and allows some of today’s mega ships to use this waterway. Sailing across Gatun Lake and through two more sets of locks took a full day to traverse until we passed under the Bridge of the Americas to emerge in the Pacific Ocean. We were fortunate to have a local commentator on board to explain what we saw, and who provided some fun facts along the way. We learned the most expensive single transit of the canal cost 1.2 million dollars for a ship that had 13,000 containers!
Before heading out to sea, we stopped overnight in Fuerte Amador. It consists of four islands that have been joined together and linked to the mainland via a three-mile-long causeway. The causeway, which is a beautiful walking and bike path, prevents the current from bringing silt to the canal entrance. And since the cruise ships bring many people here, there are restaurants, upscale shops, bicycle rentals, taxis galore, and shuttles to the local mall. A new cruise terminal is under construction, which will allow ships to dock rather than tender in the future. It’s a short taxi ride into Panama City, where you can visit the historic Old Town, stroll the very well-kept waterfront promenade, shop downtown or bike the new two-mile trail built over the water. There are lots of tours that will teach you the history of Panama and the canal as well. You can also explore the native culture and the amazing diversity of the tropical rainforest.
Because we have visited the Panama Canal and Fuerte Amador many times in the past, we were anxious to see the new bike path. A friendly taxi driver took us into the city to the beginning of the path and we were not disappointed. They did a beautiful job creating a safe, easy-to-navigate path that is perfect for biking and walking. The path is a big semi-circle built over the water and is flat, completely separated and protected from the highway. We enjoyed our time there and also visited the Old Town briefly before walking the seven miles back to Amador and the tenders. A local beer with some friends while looking out over the marina was a perfect end to our pleasant day.