November 30 - December 17, 2011: Panama Canal (and Then Some!) Cruise

One of many trip reports by Alan Silverstein.
Last update: December 3, 2018

Carnival Inspiration in Panama Canal

Contents:

See also (many) photos here in my web album (for so long as they remain on the website).

Introduction

This is the very long story of one of the biggest vacation adventures of my life... (Probably true for my wife Cathie and daughter Megan too...) At least up until then! As usual I wrote this story for my own memoirs, and it's definitely just the "Alan's-eye-view", but maybe it'll be of interest to others.

So what's the big deal? Well, we went on a 14-night cruise from Tampa to Los Angeles! And it was the first time the three of us had taken a cruise as a vacation... Although previously Megan worked aboard two cruise ships for a total of 12 months.

First a little background: In 2010 I sold my share of a Lake Powell houseboat, after 21 years, 45 vacation trips, and 307 nights in Glen Canyon. Then 2011 was a crowded year of extremes for me with many highs and lows. In February I started a new contracting job at Avago Technologies. In March I got serious about moving out of my home and into the house next door with my wife, putting my house on the market (lots of work and stress), and selling it (finally) on July 1. During the same time period I had two oral surgeries and one difficult root canal.

My parents, experienced cruisers, told us about this trip in April or so. We thought, "what the heck? we're not going to Lake Powell this summer." We signed up for the cruise in May, along with inviting Megan along as a third bunkmate in our cabin-with-window.

Both Cathie and I had mixed feelings about paying a lot to live a "life of luxury" for a little while. We felt bad about the low-paid stateroom attendants and waiters who'd be taking (great) care of us during the cruise. It wasn't really our style to enjoy nightly "turn down service," but we figured it would be an adventure, and an experiment too.

After finally closing on selling my house, I was busy with my job (mostly enjoying it) and endless followups of moving into Cathie's house. But I still managed to make six kayaking trips, including three truck/trailer/kayak trips with Cathie. We also visited her mountain cabin numerous times, and I hunted for the nearly-oldest rocks in Wyoming, and the oldest known living trees in the Rocky Mountains. Endured another root canal; looked forward to the upcoming cruise.

And then... My father died unexpectedly on November 14, 2011, less than a month before the cruise. Cathie, Megan, and I flew out to the Tampa area the next day for four nights, to attend his funeral and to support Mom. I assumed the cruise was "off", and we shouldn't even bring it up for a while. But as soon as we got to her house, my Mom asked me, "you're still going on the cruise, right?"

She decided Dad would have wanted us all to go anyway -- as it turns out, including my sister Lori and her husband Pat who intended to surprise us (groan). Mom arranged for my other sister Sandra to take Dad's place. After the funeral and everything else, we flew home to Colorado (and Megan to St Louis) for (nominally) 11 days (less for Megan) for a quick turnaround.

The cruise by the numbers:

And now the story:

November 30, Wednesday: Drive early to Denver

Cathie and I intended to head back to Tampa the morning of Thursday, December 1, but a nasty winter storm bore down on Colorado. So instead after wrapping up work on Wednesday, we left home at about 7:30 pm and drove to the airport area ahead of the weather.

We had dinner at Fazoli's along the way, and spent a short night in a cheap but decent motel. Good move, it was horrible outside the next morning, and we were lucky to get out of town at all, never mind on time.

Paradoxically, despite finding a great parking/shuttle rate at one motel, and later, a decent overnight rate at the other, we could have saved about $50 more if we'd known ahead of time and booked both at the latter location.

Looking at the complicated logistics ahead, I whimsically made a list of about 20 events that we planned or expected to happen before we were finally on board the cruise ship. Then ticked them off as they occurred (pretty much as anticipated, whew). Step 1, "drive to Denver"; step 2, "check into motel", roger...

December 1, Thursday: Fly to Tampa, meet family

We awoke to a raging blizzard outside... Cold, windy, snowy, and icy. About 7:30 am we drove a mile away with extreme care to park at a different motel where I'd prearranged. We waited for the shuttle, grimaced as it nearly slid off the road a few times, but got to our gate just 40 minutes after leaving the second motel. Of course after that, with deicing and all, we were about 1.5 hours late out of Denver.

Arriving at Tampa, where it was warm and nice, never felt so good! We picked up a rental car and were out of the airport at 4:50 pm ET. Mom, her friends John and Elaine Horton, and my daughter Megan (who'd flown in on Tuesday) were waiting for us at our hotel (Hilton Oldsmar, arranged by Mom). We all enjoyed dinner out at Sweet Tomatoes, went north to Mom's house for a while, and finally Cathie and I crashed at nearly midnight.

December 2, Friday: Honeymoon Island and family

The next step in our complicated pre-cruise plan was to sleep in this morning, then go pick up Sandra (flying in from Alabama) at the Tampa airport; accomplished at about 11:30 am. By half past noon we had her and her luggage delivered to Mom's house.

I helped Mom by emptying out her attic above the garage (or was that Saturday morning?) Then I took anyone who wanted to go with me, which boiled down to Cathie and Megan, out to Honeymoon Island State Park for a little beachcombing! We were there 3.5 hours, including a nice sunset just after 5:30 pm. Unfortunately we also picked up some sand flea bites on our feet! Mine itched for days, and took weeks to fade.

We met the family crowd at Lucky Dill at about 7 pm for a nice dinner. The three of us also made a couple of shopping stops to buy wine and soda pop to bring with us on the cruise, having read the rules allowing it. Back to Mom's house a bit after 9 pm, home to the motel after 11 pm; I counted 10 stops since the morning.

December 3, Saturday: Tampa port, board ship

Finally after many months of anticipation and events, it was Cruise Day! Cathie and I checked out of the hotel at 8:30 am and drove the rental car to return at Enterprise near Mom's house. She met us there, we grabbed a large order of food at McDonald's, then returned to her house to feed the crew.

Mom arranged a shuttle van from her house to the Port of Tampa. Somehow the gear for all five of us (with Lori and Pat joining us separately) crammed into the back. We made our way through the well-organized mob scene, and by 1:30 pm we were aboard ship!

Megan's initial reaction, compared with her past experiences on Celebrity Cruise Lines, was that the Carnival Inspiration was small (despite being "Panamax" = about 950' long and 100' wide), crowded, and garishly decorated (grin). Cathie and I were just happy to be aboard, and pleased at the relative comfort and roominess of the cabin we three would share for the next two weeks. Cathie and I had the main bed, while Megan slept on a pull-down overhead bunk.

After dropping our carry-on gear, we met the rest of the family for lunch on the Lido deck, a regular event for breakfasts and lunches most of the cruise days. Then the three of us took a tour of the spa. Megan hobnobbed with employees of Steiner, her old company (under contract to the cruise line). We went through the muster drill and watched port departure at about 4:30 pm from seats at the rail high above the dock, sipping virgin daiquiris. It was a gorgeous afternoon.

All of my initial impressions were positive. I could see it would be fun wandering around exploring and living on the ship, and it was. I got a lot of exercise taking stairs whenever possible, especially from our cabin on deck 5 all the way to the forward railing above the bridge on deck 12.

We watched a glorious sunset over St Petersburg as the ship slowly tracked out of Tampa Bay. We met our group for dinner in the Carnivale dining room at 6 pm the first night, in fact the first five nights, and most nights in general. Each three-course dinner served to our table of 10 by two waiters lasted around 100 minutes! Of course the first evening, I had to excuse myself briefly to go out to the rail to watch our passage under the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. It was dazzlingly illuminated with colored lights.

When our luggage finally showed up in the hallway outside our stateroom, I was miffed and later chagrined to discover that one of three bottles of wine had been confiscated. (We did retrieve it on the last day of the cruise.) It turns out no matter how carefully I read the rules, we were supposed to carry on, not check-bag, our pop and wine. We're lucky they didn't grab more of it, we did enjoy having it during the long journey.

Finally, we attended a 10:30 pm welcome-aboard show in the Paris Lounge, and crashed around midnight. It was weird sleeping with the boat rocking gently and with various engine vibrations. Not enough to keep me awake, but it took a long time to get used to them.

December 4, Sunday: Sea day 1

On the way to Grand Cayman, I bounced (or fell, I don't remember) out of bed at about 8 am, did a workout in the gym, and later had lunch and toured around the ship exploring it. One impression I had repeatedly for the first couple of days was just how big the cruise ship was. It was a lot longer (over 900') than wide (about 100'), but the numbers don't do it justice. I'd go for a walk, and after walking a long time I'd think, "wow, am I still on the same ship?" Especially if I added the vertical element, going up or down between the 10 decks open to the passengers.

In the afternoon I found myself in the Chopin Lounge watching football on a big-screen TV (not the Broncos, but I got updates on the trailer). Here I met a guy named Jason and had an interesting chat with him. He was a contractor on board for just a couple of days to test and certify the water-mist fire suppression system in the diesel engine compartment! While hanging out with him, I watched us pass 12 miles (said the GPS when I checked up on the "roof") from the west tip of Cuba, barely visible as some white buildings in the distance.

We all gathered for 6 pm dinner in the dining room again. Later Cathie and I attended a comedy show, then soaked in the one of the two open-air hot tubs on the rear (Serenity) deck. Hey I could get used to this lifestyle!

December 5, Monday: Georgetown, Grand Cayman

When I woke up early and looked out the window, we were already close to anchoring offshore from Georgetown. This was exciting! A far-away place I'd heard about, but didn't even know where it was... A small island buried in the middle of a huge sea south of Cuba; and it was a British territory to boot.

I think this was the most comfortable port day of all. I'd like to go back there and spend more time. Summary: Cathie, Megan, and I enjoyed three hours snorkeling at two different beaches, with some trash but oh well -- for example, I pulled four beer bottles and two sunglasses out of the surf to the nearby trash pail. And some fire coral, we learned from that! After the first beach, we took taxis (really small buses) way up Seven Mile Beach and back, but it worked out well. Some vendors tried to sell us stuff, but nothing like Colombia. Never mind we got rained on part of the time.

Details follow: After breakfast, a large group of us tendered ashore at 9:15 to the Royal Watler Terminal (dock). It was cool getting off the big ship just above waterline into a small boat holding maybe 50 people. Once ashore, Cathie, Megan, Lori, Pat, Sandra and I walked less than a mile south under dark clouds spitting a little rain to the Eden Rock Dive Center.

Lori and Pat did a little T-shirt trading here. I rented a locker for Cathie, Megan, and me, and we went out snorkeling at about 10:15 for just over an hour. (Sandra stayed a briefer time.) Of course the Caribbean tropical sea was clear, lovely, and full of wildlife, but also a disturbing amount of human-made debris on the bottom.

We swam a few minutes out to Eden Rock itself, a brownish coral hill not far below the surface with a 40-50' drop-off on the far side. Nearby, I made the mistake of resting by hanging onto a floating marker that turned out to be covered in thin, slimy fire coral! I got stung a few times, which burned hot for maybe ten minutes, and so did Cathie (on my bad advice), but one welt on the back of her leg really festered and didn't clear up for over a month!

It was fun exploring in the ocean with our big cruise ship visible not too far away. I think the one barracuda I saw and pointed out to Cathie concerned her a little (grin). We got rained on while swimming back to shore! After that we dried off, changed back into street clothes, and walked back toward the dock. Sandra stopped into some shops, I got impatient with the pace (I wanted more beach time), and we split up at about 12:20. Cathie, Megan, and I caught an expensive taxi ($5/person each way) a few miles up Seven Mile Beach to the Sea Grape stop.

Here we walked a little bit north on golden sands to a spot where Cathie could relax in the shade (she'd had enough salt water) while Megan and I went out snorkeling some more. We enjoyed swimming way out to a far marker where it was 15-20' deep, very clear and lovely, with lots to look at on the bottom -- unfortunately including some beer bottles and other trash. We were there about 1:00 - 2:45 pm, a long time, but still not long enough for me! In a port call scheduled for about 8 hours end to end, I only managed to spend about 3 hours in the ocean.

We showered off at the beach and took another taxi, dripping wet, back to the dock at 3:15 to tender out to the Inspiration. It departed at 4 pm. That evening I actually watched a movie on the TV in the stateroom!

December 6, Tuesday: Sea day 2

I could get used to this lifestyle... Port day, sea day, ... Waking up on a sea day is a good day to sleep in, unless (as you'll read later) you aim to be out on deck before sunrise to stargaze!

It was remarkably windy (generally headwinds) for most of our trip, especially before crossing the Canal.

Among other events this day, I attended the first of several (surprisingly fun) trivia contests before lunch, did another workout with Cathie in the gym, and suffered through "formal night" in the dining room... The first of two, being it was a long cruise. Lots of people dressed to the nines and had their pictures taken by ship's teams in various public areas. Overpriced photos were available for purchase the next day.

December 7, Wednesday: Cartagena, Colombia

I awoke early in the cabin at about 5 am. Peering through the curtains out the dirty cabin window trying not to wake Cathie and Megan, I was pleasantly surprised to see a big city already visible, and soon catching sunrise rays. First, we were closer than I expected, and second, there were skyscrapers! I was astonished by the huge, modern buildings in a lot of the town.

A note here about the cabin window: An outside cabin costs more than an inside unit, sometimes considerably more, but it was totally worth it, at least on this long cruise, to often watch the scenery while sitting "at home" on the bed.

Anyway after that there was no going back to sleep. I watched as the ship berthed at the "container port" near a huge shipping boat at about 7 am. Between stargazing and canal crossing, I lost a lot of sleep for about three days. The sea day after Panama, I went back to bed and crashed for 5 hours until a late lunch! And was still groggy. Had just started a new prescription drug (generic Flomax) before leaving home, and it was hard to separate the causes of various weird feelings for many days... New drug? Ship rocking and vibrations? Eating too much? Sleeping too little?

Back in Colombia: Megan, Pat, and I departed the Inspiration for the pier at 8 am. (Cathie had previously decided to skip the tour due to an "enhanced security" notice.) We found our tour bus ($60 apiece) and enjoyed numerous stops around Cartagena from 8:10 until 12:45. Not a very long time for the cost, and yet it felt very full, rich, and worthwhile.

We hit a number of tourist destinations, along with hundreds of other tourists, and were mobbed by in-your-face vendors each time we left the bus. I hated saying "no" over and over again: "gracias, pero tenemos suficiente." I felt empathy with these people desperately trying to make a few bucks from the tourists. We bought a few trinkets, but not much. For just $3 I brought home a small, rough Colombian emerald crystal, and a mining company business card on which to cement it.

The bus tour included: Spanish fort (Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, lots of walking), Old Town, Palace of the Inquisition (interesting but grim, Cathie would not have enjoyed it), a cathedral, and Boca point. At the last stop, Megan and I walked away from the "market" a couple of blocks to a grubby, crowded beach gray-sand Atlantic beach full of locals. We made a short loop while keeping an eye on our valuables and the people around us!

The $60 excursion cost was a lot for what we got, but that's just "value pricing" I guess. I'm still glad Megan and I got to tour the town a little. At the last stop, we were mobbed by hawkers even when we didn't go upstairs for much shopping. Instead we walked a block loop to see the resort ocean beach -- which was trashy and kind of a downer. I saw a lot of garbage everywhere, but ironically a lot of people in various uniforms busy cleaning up garbage too. Dunno why they can't keep ahead of it.

After reboarding the Inspiration, we had a lunch in the crowded dining room on the Lido deck, played a few "games", and went to the waited dining room for the fifth night in a row. I turned in early at 9 pm, but still ended up short on sleep because the next day was a biggie...

December 8, Thursday: Panama Canal

For a lot of people on board, this one long day defined the trip and was the main reason for going.

Before leaving home I knew we were heading pretty far south, to about 7 degrees north latitude. I brought binoculars, star charts, and a red flashlight. I also knew that a full moon on the morning of December 10 was going to perfectly ruin a lot of the stargazing! Although it did make for pretty moonrises and sets.

Once aboard ship, I looked around for dark spots for stargazing. There really weren't any. The ship was naturally well lit up all night long. The best location I found was on the highest deck, at the forward rail over the bridge. This was also where I wanted to get a good seat (OK, standing room only) for the Panama Canal transit.

We knew from the "Fun Times" daily newsletter the night before, that the event would last all day. It turned out to be from about 6 am until 5 pm. The approaches, transits, and exits from all three sets of locks were slow as molasses, which makes perfect sense.

So... At 3:35 am Thursday morning, too excited to sleep, I was the first person to grab my spot up at the rail. I saw the Southern Cross for the first time! I also watched moonset, and picked out Canopus and other bright southern stars. But I never did really see the Large Magellanic Cloud, even staring right at it with binoculars by "star hopping" to it using the sky chart. It was just too washed out by moonlight.

I'll always remember the "runway" of red and green lights we entered as dawn broke, heading for the first locks. We passed dozens of ships at anchor presumably waiting their turns. Cruise ships must get (or pay for) priority. We still had to wait our turn behind the massive Century Infinity.

By around 7:30 am our ship took its spot in the first of the three Gatun locks, to be raised 85' in total to the level of Gatun Lake. By now the whole bow area of the ship (several levels) was jam-packed with people jostling for views. The local navigators and narrators had already come aboard. We could hear parts of the excellent narration over the PA through the day.

Watching the tediously slow but massive proceedings through and over the crowds was both interesting and boring. There was an unexpected, but understandable, amount of intricate detail. Fortunately the weather was pleasant, mostly cloudy, not too hot or cold or buggy.

I stayed at my spot above the bow during our passage through the three Gatun locks, which took about an hour. Finally into Gatun Lake, with an announcement that we'd be mooring for a while to wait our place in the next line, I left the bow after nearly five hours to get breakfast at the wait-served Mardi Gras dining room. The ship drifted at anchor in a gentle breeze surrounded by other large vessels of various descriptions.

We deanchored at about 10:15 and motored slowly through the brownish, freshwater Gatun Lake. There was plenty of time to wander around the ship soaking in the scenery, admiring the navigation aids, etc. Throughout the cruise, and especially now, I used my GPS unit a lot while up on deck to keep tabs on our location, speed, and direction. The whole day we tracked behind the Celebrity ship, sometimes just on their tail, other times out of sight.

At one point a few of us gathered at the crowded rail for a brief, anticlimactic toast (from a wine bottle) to Dad's memory... He missed this adventure, and we missed him.

We passed under the new highway bridge (Puente Centenario) near the 600' deep cut across the Continental Divide while it threatened to rain. Sometime during the day it did rain too, a little. We entered the first of three step-down locks at Miguel (the upper pair) at about 2:45 pm, and exited the last, Miraflores, at about 5 pm. In a way it was a relief to be out of the claustrophobic confines of the Canal.

At 5:45 pm we finally passed below the second, older, Bridge of the Americas. The sun set 15 minutes later, but for the first time during the cruise Cathie, Megan, and I skipped the waited dining room. We were rewarded by witnessing an absolutely glorious sunset as we departed from Panama City. The dome of the sky and clouds, islands and other boats around us, including another armada of moored ships waiting for Canal passage, were very memorable.

Later we went for a quiet dinner at the Lido buffet. Then I shared a hot tub with Megan on the Serenity deck (at the stern) under the moon and stars. If that wasn't enough, finally I spent an hour or so, starting at 10:30 pm, stargazing off the bow of the boat as we headed south. I knew exactly where to look for the Large Magellanic Cloud, but I couldn't see it for the moonlight!

December 9, Friday: Sea day 3

We had early morning dark skies (for a short time) after moonset, and we were far south, so I dragged out of bed at about 4:30 am to stargaze. Megan came with me. Up on deck the GPS confirmed we were now heading about due west, at the southernmost point of our cruise, just south of 7 degrees north. I think for once we had a tailwind and it was calm up near the bow.

After a couple of hours, moonset, and sunrise, I went back to bed at around 6:40 am, exhausted... And slept for about five hours! I made up for the last few exciting days. I dragged into Lido at about 12:30 for lunch (trying as usual not to overeat from the copious and delicious "free" buffet), enjoyed various afternoon events (like cartoon trivia, Game of Love, and a Cruise Critics meeting), did another workout in the gym (trying as usual to burn off extra calories and stay healthy), had dinner at Carnivale with the gang, caught two excellent evening shows, and... Went out stargazing again until 11:30 pm! (Now on Central time.)

December 10, Saturday: Puntarenas, Costa Rica

The Inspiration motored up the west coast of Central America. I was especially looking forward to revisiting the port of Puntarenas, plus a little bit of Costa Rica inland from there. I'd passed through the town in 1992 going to and from a ferry with a singles group! I wanted to share some of the country with Cathie and Megan too.

Summary: Unfortunately while parts of this day were great, mostly it was incredibly frustrating -- "the worst day of the captain's career." In short, we spent about five hours trying to get off the ship and launch from the pier in the excursion bus. (And they held us about an extra hour on the bus for no good reason!) We drove back downhill after dark, bummer. Not enough shore time. But otherwise we all enjoyed the ride and the shopping.

Here are the details: At 5:30 am I was awake during our port arrival, watching out the cabin window from bed as the full moon set blood-red over the Nicoya Peninsula. Unfortunately being this far south meant the umbral phase of the total lunar eclipse that morning(!) hadn't quite started, so I saw none of it! Further north in Colorado there might have been a fine view of the event. But it was still fun and exciting anyway.

By 6:45 am the ship was docked at the Puntarenas pier, over an hour early. Cool! We were scheduled to take a bus tour from the pier leaving at 9 am. But our bus didn't actually roll away until around 2 pm, and our return from Sarchi and Grecia was in the dark! We got no "shore time" at all in Puntarenas.

What could go wrong? Well the Inspiration only had gangway openings on decks 3 and 7. Due to the especially full moon that very morning, there was a very strong low tide. Deck 3 was below the dock! Rumor is that the portside people assured the captain all would be well, but of course it wasn't. It didn't help when the crew made announcements about the "unexpected low tide" causing problems, like they couldn't even read a tide table? And they couldn't, or didn't, use the ship's lifeboats as tenders either, which would have been a fine alternative.

I watched for a time as they rigged a single steep stairway, almost a ladder, from deck 7 down to a platform hastily constructed on the pier. We gathered for breakfast and waited, standing around, on deck 7 nearly in sight of this lifeline of an exit, for at least three hours in a thick, gloomy crowd! The crew did a terrible job of handling the anomaly, allowing it to turn into a full-blown fiasco. For example, we had little idea they were letting some big tour groups off first from a staging area in the Paris Lounge, and no idea how many people were there ahead of us.

I learned later that my sister and brother-in-law, scheduled for an 8 am tour, were able to disembark only an hour late, and pretty much otherwise enjoyed the day they'd planned (and paid handsomely) for. Good for them. Not so much for the rest of us.

I knew eventually the rising tide would make the deck 7 stairway unusable. When I asked an entertainment staffer if that would happen before or after deck 3 opened up, all I got was a snarky brushoff. Sure enough, "before" is exactly what happened.

We were eventually told there was presently no way off the ship and we might as well go get lunch on Lido, so we did. Nearly done dining, finally came the blessed PA system notice that now the deck 3 gangway was open, and we could exit at our leisure! We departed the ship at nearly 1 pm. We found our tour bus, and...

What else could go wrong? Well all the people who didn't leave deck 7 (or 3) for lunch, got off sooner and onto the first bus to Sarchi, which departed when it was full. We were on the second bus... Which sat there idling for over an hour before the idiots (sorry but that term really seems to apply) at the excursions desk finally decided that no-shows be damned, they could release the second and final bus on this tour. Talk about adding insult to injury!

What else could go wrong? Well in the morning we'd seen a column of smoke coming from somewhere on shore. It turned out a big fire destroyed a popular local bar right along the single road off the Nicoya Peninsula... Jamming up traffic hours later. The bus inched along forever before finally getting on its way out of town and uphill toward Sarchi.

To their credit, the tourguides stayed cool, and gave us nearly the fully allotted tour time and route. But this meant we returned to the dock after 7 pm (in the dark), just before the Inspiration departed -- already two hours past their original schedule.

All that aside, it was nice seeing the scenery during the drive up, visiting the world's largest (and well-decorated) oxcart in Sarchi, touring and shopping at the Fabrica de Carreteras (ox cart factory), and walking around the square and the metal cathedral in Grecia at sunset. It was cloudy and gloomy with spits of rain.

Originally we were supposed to be back at the pier just before 2 pm, and have about three hours to walk around town, visit the beach, etc. Instead by the time we returned it was nearly 5.5 hours later than it should have been, and we'd missed formal dinner too, not that it mattered much to me.

Those of us on the delayed tour took a late meal on Lido. I hit the sack by 9:30 pm. So much for Costa Rica...

December 11, Sunday: Sea day 4

Still grieving after the loused-up previous port day, I slept in, then enjoyed a busy day of shipboard events. There was a 10:30 am Fun Ashore presentation about Mexico; a trivia contest at 11:30 where my team won; an impromptu long talk in a stairway with a couple I ran across; a late lunch at 1:45 pm; a Panama Canal (plus) slideshow at 2:15; my fourth workout in the gym; football games on big-screen TVs in one of the lounges; and a very clear sunset at 5:38 pm with Venus in the sky and a nice moonrise.

I/we decided to skip the waited dining room in favor of steak and lasagna in the Lido buffet. I stargazed more until 11:30 pm, staring straight at the Large Magellanic Cloud with binoculars, but still unable to see it for the moonglow.

December 12, Monday: Sea day 5

This was the second of three sea days in a row as we cruised up the west coast of Central America towards and past a lot of Mexico. Of course I knew the itinerary long before the cruise even departed. I wondered what it would be like to be "stuck on the ship" for three whole days. I figured, "if nothing else, I'll do some reading, and I'll never get tired of just looking over the rail."

As it turned out it wasn't like that at all. Every day, port or sea day, was full and entertaining. There was just too much eye candy everywhere, with onboard events, and scenery in the distance.

This morning I got up late and joined the group for breakfast on Lido. We rolled through huge headwinds and sea waves. It was fun standing in various places looking out over the bow, or along the length of the ship, watching our undulations that took perhaps 10 seconds from crest to crest.

I joined the trivia contest mid-day for the fourth time. Our team was lucky to tie for the win out of 14 total groups. This was starting to become a more serious challenge! Later I did another workout, hobnobbed with a Cruise Critics gathering, and strolled around the ship admiring the deep blue Pacific about 52 miles (said my GPS) west of Oaxaca, Mexico.

For dinner I joined the group for a change in the dining room; all were present. Later I watched moonrise from the deck and went to bed at a sensible time, about 10:30 pm.

December 13, Tuesday: Sea day 6

Third sea day in a row! The coast of Mexico drifted by in the starboard distance, sometimes in sight, sometimes just cloud tops showing.

I got up early and had breakfast in Lido around 8 am. My day was filled with four fun events between 10:30 and 4 pm, including the fifth and final round of the trivia contest. Our team didn't quite win, but we came in second overall. Plus at one event I learned about shopping opportunities (how exciting) in the two upcoming Mexican ports.

Later in the afternoon I did my sixth sea-day workout in the gym (third day in a row), actually starting to enjoy them a little. Then I signed up to go alone on an expensive ($80) shore excursion the next day -- thanks Cathie for nudging me! I went to the waited dining room again with the group for dinner, then to a short evening show. I thought the entertainment on board was outstanding, but of course now I only remember snippets.

December 14, Wednesday: Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

Once again I got up early, at 6:45 am. I was excited about the day ahead, and wanted to watch sunrise and the docking operations. It was pretty, and noticeably cooler than a few days ago further south, up on the top deck at the rear.

We pulled first into a crowded harbor, then two other large cruise ships followed slowly and gracefully. A nearby Disney ship turned itself 180 degrees to arrive at the dock. I found myself studying their bow "torpedos", side thrusters and mooring arrangements, top-deck entertainment features, windows and balconies, etc, all with eyes of a now somewhat experienced cruiser (grin).

My excursion was well worth the price! Summary: There were about 60 passengers and 12 crew on a pontoon tour boat that went out 21 miles (1.5 hours each way), with dolphins and whales, to Islas Marietas National Park at the mouth of Bahia de Banderas. It included snorkeling, a rough small-boat ride to a pretty beach, walking under arches, scenery, copious good food, and an open bar on the way back!

Details: After breakfast alone in Lido, I disembarked at 8:45 to find my tour group on the pier. There was a certain amount of hurry-up-and-wait. We walked a ways and met up to board a large catamaran tour boat. Most people were already in swimsuits, but I figured I'd change on the way out to the islands. Oops! The crew said "do it now" while we were in line, so I ran around the corner to a bathroom to take care of that chore.

We were gone from about 9:00 am to 3:30 pm round-trip. I knew we were going to Islas Marietas to snorkel and visit a beach, but I didn't know where it was. It turned out to be, the GPS said, 21.4 miles west from the port, a long way out to the mouth of Bahia Banderas (Bay of Flags). Awesome! The boat ride alone occupied about 1.5 hours each way, in moderate seas. The full moon sank out of sight above the horizon as we neared the islands.

It was a gorgeous day, clear and sunny, not too hot. I sat up near the bow, out in front of the covered seating area, getting splashed a bit by waves, and watching the pilot in a small sheltered wheelhouse. The crew provided lots of dancing and other entertainment in both directions, plus pointed out whales (distant) and dolphins (riding our bow wave). They also set us up with wetsuits and fins. (I had my own prescription mask plus snorkel.)

We anchored along with a few other boats at about 11:30 am on the east side of the west island. Scuba divers exited first, then snorklers including me jumped in from the stern ladder. We swam a fair distance toward shore to see the coral-bejeweled bottom rich with fish and other wildlife. It was bouncy with waves and kind of turbid, and it didn't last long enough for me, but was thoroughly enjoyable.

Climbing back aboard the tour boat I sustained my worst injury of the entire cruise -- aside from the fire coral experience -- which was scraping a knee on the rough ladder and drawing a little blood... No big deal.

Next I had to make a tough choice between taking out a kayak or hopping onto a small "lifeboat" for a ride to a nearby beach. I opted for the latter and didn't regret it! We backed through big waves onto a lovely little sandy cove with stone arches nearby at water level. I and others randomly walked around here, through the arches and the surf, to explore around part of the island.

Before leaving, I even got up the courage to snorkel a little more (no wetsuit this time) off the small beach while waiting for "my" little boat to come back for more passengers. I had to be careful to get aboard by the last one, which was tricky since other boats were landing from other tours.

During the long catamaran ride back east across the bay to the port, I got the rest of my money's worth! The crew put out a pretty good all-you-can-eat buffet lunch and offered a truly open bar. I don't recall if I had 2, 3, or 4 drinks, but I was very happy and feeling no pain at the end of the ride. Better yet, I didn't regret it later!

Also I got to talking with a nice woman and her increasingly inebriated boyfriend. Back on shore we walked around a loop a ways to get closer to the cruise ship, then had to wait in a long line for a cursory security inspection. Finally ready to board, we had a few minutes.

On the way off the pier in the morning I'd noticed there was a place to make phone calls. My cell phone didn't work on the ship, and any kind of a call would be hairy-expensive anyway. For a buck or two I was able to check in with the neighbor watching our house. She was originally from Manzanillo, not far up the coast of Mexico. I was relieved to hear that all was well back in our world. It seemed very, very far away at that point.

I kept an eye on the time, and it was time to go. I rounded up the other two, we got into a short line, and then aboard the Inspiration at 4:01 pm. They literally pulled up the ramp behind us! Feeling ecstatic, I met Cathie for frozen yogurt in the Lido cafe.

Later Cathie and I decided to skip the waited dinner (at 6 pm) to instead watch the sunset at 6:23 pm. We ate a quicker and quieter meal on Lido, enjoyed a 7:30 pm comedy show, and used the hot tub on Serenity deck (yum).

December 15, Thursday: Cabo San Lucas, Mexico

I was up early again while the other two slept in. Sunrise met the harbor at 6:51 am. I was already on the expansive upper rear deck watching our arrival into the port. We cruised past El Arco (the famous arch at Lands End), which was already buzzing with little boats on the water. It was really cool seeing this landmark in person for the first time.

I could tell we'd been heading north for several days because it was actually chilly before the sun rose!

After breakfast and packing for the day, I joined most of the family on the Lido deck, staging for group excursion tickets. Thanks to Lori and Pat's platinum status, we were able to tender ashore by about 8:45 am.

While the rest went shopping, Megan and I took off on a long, adventurous, and very memorable hike! On foot from 8:55 until 1:15, we made a great big counterclockwise walk south and uphill through a gorgeous beach resort (we got approval from a guard to transit to the beach) and downhill to Playa Grande. This well-named stretch of coarse-grained golden sand was huge and beautiful.

One weird aspect of our walk was remembering that Lands End was actually not at the southernmost tip of Baja California. The harbor went west, and the well-known landmark was actually at the east tip of the peninsula.

Anyway after reaching the Pacific Ocean, we turned left (south) and strolled on the edge of huge crashing blue waves past other resorts, some under construction, until reaching a place where the rounded granite rocks met the sea.

(Note: At this point I paused while writing the first draft of this trip report... And it languished for nearly five years before resuming!)

Megan and knew there had to be some way over the rocks to continue the loop. We could see a relatively easy route leading up, even wearing water shoes. But a young Mexican guy named Rolfo who spoke no English -- so I used my best broken Spanish to translate -- seemed to want to guide us along our way. I said, sure, why not. I knew I'd end up having to tip him, and it turned out he was OK with $4, which was all I could spare in small bills.

We explored the rocks a little, then hoofed/scrambled up, over, and down to the next stretch of beach -- Playa Divorcio (the Beach of Divorce), a playful contrast to Playa del Amor (the Beach of Love) on the harbor side. Definitely the waves were wilder on the Pacific shore! The crossing was fun with some narrow slots and a few boulders to get over or around.

A bit further along Playa Divorcio, we could see an easy gap in the rocks to cross to Amor. (Pity it's never that easy in real life.) On the Gulf side we had a great view of the Cabo skyline, the port far off to the left (west), a couple of cruise ships, including ours, moored out in the bay -- really not very distant at all by boat -- and dozens of people all over the beach and out on the rough but lovely green water in small craft. There was even someone paragliding behind a motor boat in the distance.

I scrambled maybe 50 feet up a sloping ridge to the base of granite cliffs for a look around. Our adventure continued when I found a narrow, wet slot (traversed carefully) leading through more vertical rocks to the next and final beach to the east, behind a huge pillar standing a bit offshore.

At the final beach we hung around for about 45 minutes, had a snack, and took turns snorkeling out and to the right -- being careful in the big waves, and ensuring that the small boats saw us -- to catch just a glimpse each, between the swells, of El Arco around the corner. With more time and a higher pucker factor, I might have swum all the way to the arch, but it was some distance in rough conditions, and no landing beach existed there since the tide was coming in.

We departed, wet and salty, at around 12:15. My GPS said it was only 0.9 miles back to the port and tender docks. We didn't expect the "normal route" to be very difficult. However with the tide way up, there were several stretches lacking any exposed beach, where we had to scramble very carefully over rough, slippery boulders to make progress just above the pounding waves.

Fortunately there were no incidents other than one strap ripping on Megan's old cloth pack. With relief, we hit the main beach on the far side, were able to walk into the port, and even had time to buy her a replacement souvenir cloth pouch. My notes say we enjoyed some ice cream too while waiting for a 2:20 pm tender back to the Inspiration.

Not much later that afternoon, back at the cabin, Cathie's eye went from itchy to inflamed. Around 3 pm I took her to the infirmary for an exam -- not cheap, $146, my bad, so I paid. The diagnosis was that apparently somehow fire coral toxin from Grand Cayman (ten days earlier!) had transferred on a finger to her eye! Irritating but not serious. They gave her some eye drops that helped.

We missed seeing the ship's port departure, but were at the Lido grill by 4 pm for a late lunch and to watch the Mexican coast drift past. Before 5 pm I attended alone a fun "appreciation party" thrown by the ship's cruise crew; at 7:30 met with family for a comedy show; at 8:45 caught part of a juggling show; then went alone to dinner at Lido before they closed at 9:30; and roamed around the ship in the dark reminiscing and taking pictures until about 11 pm. What a day!

December 16, Friday: Sea day 7

For some reason I ended up short on sleep again. Later I roamed all over the ship as we cruised towards Los Angeles. Many events, but I can't recall much. I know I did another workout in the gym, which was #7 overall! At 1 pm I attended a Mardi Gras Cruise Critics lunch; joined others at 2:30 for a gallery tour... Which was free, not to be confused with a very expensive behind-the-scenes tour we skipped.

We had one last family dinner in the dining room at 6 pm, I caught part of one more show, must have packed my suitcase at some point, and went to bed early and tired.

December 17, Saturday: Long Beach port, Los Angeles, fly home

One again I arose early to watch sunrise from the top deck. We had dolphins all around us during the slow approach to Long Beach Harbor! Dozens at least. It was a beautiful, cool, clear morning for LA, with mildly snowcapped San Gabriel peaks visible in the distance.

At 7:30 am we enjoyed a final Mardi Gras breakfast. The ship started docking about 9:05, and for some reason it took them a long time to finish, around 9:40, then get the gangways out, around 10 am. We disembarked with our own luggage, surrounded by a mob, at around 10:30. We said goodbye to various family after clearing customs, all going our separate ways.

I recall that at least I, Cathie, Megan, and Mom boarded a prearranged shuttle bus to the LAX airport, and rode over there about 11:30 - 12:10. We got lunch from McDonalds, and saw off Mom at her gate (heading to Tampa) at about 1:40 pm. Meanwhile our flight to Denver was delayed about 1.5 hours (sigh), landing about 7:40 pm Mountain time. We caught a shuttle back to the Super 8 hotel where we'd left my car parked 16 days earlier, it started OK (yay), we drove north by 9 pm, stopped for fast food, and... The entire journey ended safely at home by 10:30 pm.

Except of course for days of: Unpacking, cleaning, repairing, regrouping, and re-entry shock; "catching up with our normally scheduled lives that had continued without us during our long absence".

Postscript

It took me over five years to process and web-publish many pictures from this amazing trip, and two more to finish writing and publishing this trip report. In that time (now December 2018) Cathie and I have joined the family on three more cruises out of Florida -- as unlikely as that seemed earlier -- especially being we always had to start by getting ourselves to/from Florida first. Plus one 16-night, 8-port "mega-cruise" from Copenhagen to Boston!

We continue to have mixed feelings about the cruising experience. It's a lot of work and expense to participate, it's wasteful of resources and comes with many constraints, and it forces a lot of people to work hard on your behalf (whether you want them to or not) during the outing. But it also offers a lot of exotic and memorable experiences, brief but intense glimpses of many foreign places, and a lot of pure pleasure during which your inner child feels rewarded.

Surprisingly, once the money is spent, the cost is rather painless, "it's just numbers."

Megan mostly enjoyed the Panama cruise with us despite having been spoiled by Celebrity ships (grin). No regrets about her going, from us or her, but she decided to let go of the fantasy of ever working on ship again.

Other random reflections:

And that's all, folks!