In March 1998, we cruised from Acapulco, Mexico, to San Juan, PR, through the Panama Canal, also making stops at Caldera, Costa Rica; Curacao, Aruba, and St. Thomas. Way back then, I posted a narrative about the trip along with photographs, emphasizing those at the Canal itself. Having read several books on the building of the Canal, especially the enthralling "The Path Between The Seas" by David McCullough, I thought it was worth telling the story of seeing this engineering marvel of the early 20th Century. Now, 16 years later, I've redone this portion of the site, with larger and clearer images. And even though the narrative is a little dated, I'm repeating most of it with some editing.
In the Pacific, sailing south along the coast of Mexico towards Caldera, Costa Rica.
Our travels began pleasantly on March 21, 1998, with an early morning limo ride to JFK Airport in New York. We were flying AeroMexico, an airline I'd barely heard of before this trip. Our first surprise came when we learned that the plane would be landing in Mexico City, rather than going straight through to Acapulco. When we landed at Mexico City at about 1:30 p.m., I was under the impression that our next flight was scheduled for 2 p.m. And so, when we were forced to wait in line for Mexican immigration, not having any idea where the next gate would be or how long it would take, I started getting a little edgy about the connection. At long last we got to the head of the line and were told to go to a particular gate number. The woman said: "Make a left. It's not far." A first class understatement! We started walking and walking and walking. It seemed endless. 2 p.m. was fast approaching. Before I knew it, I was practically running, gripping the tickets and passports in my right hand, Carole trailing not far behind. When we finally arrived at the gate after what seemed like a two mile walk (by this time I'd noticed that the Mexico City airport had no arrival/departure TV screens), I was totally convinced that the plane had left or that I had the wrong gate. But, ah, relief; we discovered that the plane had not yet even arrived and would be at another gate nearby.
The flight to Acapulco was uneventful. Fortunately, the bags came off quickly, and we began the adventure of our first cruise. We were destined for Royal Caribbean's Legend of the Seas, a rather beautiful and large ship which held about 1800 passengers. With several hundred crew members, it was clearly a floating city with its own desalinization and waste treatment facilities. And we discovered quickly that Royal Caribbean is a very efficient enterprise. I can barely remember picking up the bags and going through Mexican customs. The bags were immediately taken by Royal Caribbean's people and we were herded onto buses for our trip to the ship.
And there we were: Acapulco, a placename with a great deal of romantic charm. The city is in a lovely location with spectacular hills overlooking beautiful beaches and bays. But it was painfully obvious that Acapulco, which had undoubtedly once been a gorgeous, quiet spot, was now overrun by hotels, tourist shops, commercial establishments, and fast food. The bus trip took us literally from one end of Acapulco to the other, over hills and down windy roads, until we finally arrived at the large and spectacular ship.
As we were about to board, we discovered a basic feature of cruising, the ever-present ship's photographer as our photo was taken just as we were about to board (see below). We later found that the photographers, all British, were from a private company licensed to provide photographic services on the ship and that they would be everywhere, making thousands of shots, all on speculation, and that they would undoubtedly make a great deal of money from selling these photos.
Deck 10, land of walking, jogging, sunning, shuffleboard, and miniature golf. It was also one of the best places to see the sea and the sights. It was also a great place to lose a hat. The baseball cap I was wearing blew off into the Pacific.
At long last we boarded the ship and found our room. We were part of a travel group from Albuquerque, NM (we being probably the only part of the group from Connecticut!), which included my brother Mike, and his friend, Joann (now his wife), who were nearby. Our first reaction to our room was that, although relatively small, it was extremely well designed for use of space. There was plenty of storage space and drawers, all in great places. Everything could be put away easily. The bathroom, also small, was incredibly comfortable, even having a large medicine cabinet. The shower worked beautifully (nary a drop of water was spilled onto the floor of the bathroom over 11 days). Now that's amazing!
Never having been on a cruise ship before, the next objective was to explore. The ship had essentially 10 decks of which approximately six are mostly cabins. Decks 4-5 were the dining and entertainment areas. We discovered a large theater which was to be the location of many events, from evening entertainment to lectures about the Panama Canal and shopping at duty-free ports. Also on these decks were the main dining room (a two story area, amazingly luxurious and well designed, with large picture windows extending from the floor of Deck 4 to the ceiling of Deck 5), a lounge theater, a casino, bars, a beautiful central area in which a trio played nightly, and, of course, a shopping area so that Royal Caribbean could hawk jewelry, watches, T-shirts, etc. Also on the fourth deck were side outdoor walkways with deckchairs which provided a large quiet space for resting, reading, or simply watching the ocean go by, and, when near land, the sites. This is where the lifeboats and tenders are stored and passengers would congregate in case of an emergency. On other floors the ship had a library with large leather cushy chairs (the kind in which you sink-in and yet remain comfortable) and a game room.
The outdoor life of the ship was centered on Decks 9-10. This was the location of the swimming pools, both outdoors and protected; outdoor bar; stand for the poolside Calypso band; the spa area for exercising, massages, and other health oriented activities; and the Windjammer Cafe, the buffet eating area which provided a regular alternative to the formal dining room. Deck 10 was truly special, for here you were on the almost-completely exposed upper level of the ship with an exercise track for walking and jogging (four times around the deck equaled a mile), hundreds of deck chairs, areas for shuffleboard, and a miniature golf course.
We boarded the ship on Saturday, March 21, 1998, and sailed from Acapulco that evening. Sunday and Monday were to be strictly at sea, sailing towards Caldera, Costa Rica, a small commercial port with little or no sites of interest at the port itself. What we were looking forward to were shore excursions to Costa Rican jungles, cities, tourist attractions, and shopping.
The early sailing was uneventful but soon the Captain, a gentlemanly Swede named Bengt Ronsen, announced that we were entering the Gulf of Tehuantepec, off the coast of Mexico, and that high winds were expected. And so we received our first experience with choppy seas and a chance to find out what it's like to walk around a ship which, although well stabilized, is still rocking and rolling. The first day wasn't fun, although Carole, a person who sometimes gets sick even from a car's motion, had absolutely no trouble due to using the "patch." For anyone who has ever been seasick, the patch clearly is the answer.
The Costa Rican Adventure
Those first couple of days at sea were a good chance to learn about what was available on the ship, to walk around, take photos, and get to know people. Finally, on the fourth day, March 24, we arrived at Caldera. A look at it confirmed that it was nothing more than a small commercial port with ship buildings and a souvenir stand. Carole and Joann had planned to take an early morning excursion to a tropical jungle. Mike and I were to take a later and longer excursion inland. Since the ship had not yet docked and the waters were a little choppy, the early birds were taken off the ship by tender and brought ashore. Carole and Joann, and approximately 300 other passengers, innocently went off to their early morning excursions.
One of the Tenders of the Legends of the Sea at Deck 4 level.
Mike and I figured that Carole and Joann would be back before we left on our trip. It wasn't to work out that way at all. After the first group of passengers disembarked via tender, the captain started moving the ship toward the dock. But we never made it. The swells were simply too strong and the ship could not be brought in. The captain announced that we were going back to the anchoring spot so that passengers could be brought to shore via tender. When we reached that spot, it was soon obvious that the swells were so severe that the tendering operation would have to be stopped. By this time, the Captain had announced that because of the severe swells, the tendering was cancelled and all of the later shore excursions were cancelled. I suddenly realized that while Mike and I were aboard, Carole and Joann were still ashore. How were they to get back on?
Having somehow lost my brother aboard the ship (he had gone to see a movie while waiting), I suddenly found myself quite alone and annoyed. The crew was too busy to give me a decent answer as to how the people on shore would get back (barring an unlikely reduction in the wind and swells). A little after the time for the return of Carole and Joann's group, while standing on the outdoor deck, I saw the tender returning and managed to see Carole who waved to me from the small boat. But when the tender pulled up to the boarding area on Deck 1, it was painfully obvious that the crew was unable to get the tender close enough or steady enough for disembarkation from the tender, although two people did manage to get off initially (this situation was clearly dangerous and the one woman who got off asked me semi-kiddingly "Is this the Titanic?") The tender went back out, and I was getting even more nervous. After what seemed a relatively long period of time worrying about this situation, the Captain finally announced that the ship would move in closer to shore where the swells would not be as pronounced. It worked. The tender pulled up again and Carole and Joann and 300 other passengers were soon back on the ship. What a relief!
On the upper decks of the ship while at anchor at Caldera, Costa Rica.
Interestingly, I soon discovered that those who went ashore had no idea that there had been a serious problem other than the delay in getting off the tender. Some of the other people who sat at our dinner table got off easily, went on a five hour shopping tour, and returned to the ship with little or no awareness of a problem. The other 1500 passengers, however, suffered the initial disappointment of not being able to go ashore. We were not to actually get off the ship until Saturday, March 28, 1998, a week into the cruise.
Wednesday, March 25, was another day of sailing at sea towards the Panama Canal. This was the event I had been waiting for and I couldn't wait to see how it would go. It was going to be interesting to see how crowded the upper decks would be and how much we would actually see.
Click on the dancers for page 2 of our Panama adventure