I picked this cruise because a full transit of the Panama Canal really interested me. But I was less than wowed by the descriptions I had read of the ports we were to visit since several were industrial ports and a couple (Nicaragua and Guatemala) were in countries that I was a little leery of visiting. Perhaps because of my low expectations of the ports to be visited, I was more than pleasantly surprised by what I actually encountered. But let's start with the ship itself.
My first Holland America cruise was on the Rotterdam in 2005 and I fell in love with that ship then. She may be a little older, but she's still a beauty. I love the smaller ships and the ample public spaces on the ship (love, love, love the Explorations Cafe/Library!) really lent themselves to the extra sea days on this 16-day itinerary. The entertainment options have increased manifold since that earlier cruise with Billboard On Board and Lincoln Center being my favorites. The trio at the Ocean Bar was also fantastic, but we seemed to miss them a lot (as we did with several of the Main Stage shows) because of our dinner schedule.
As always, the impeccable service and attention to detail by the ship's staff was amazing. From the cabin stewards to the dining room attendants to the wine stewards to the bar tenders and coffee baristas to those delivering our morning coffee, every need was anticipated. The only downside was the Lido. The food and selection was terrific, but it seemed to be understaffed and we often had to fetch our own coffee or water (a very minor complaint).
We didn't participate in a ton of activities as we simply enjoyed spending our free time playing cards in the Explorations Cafe or walking the promenade before settling down to read in one of the amply numbered lounge chairs. But we did enjoy the trivia and the Happy Hours(!) and the Orange Party was a blast.
As to the shore excursions ...
Half Moon Cay, Bahamas
Swimming with Stingrays!! This excursion was downright cheap and one of the highlights of our trip. It really set the tone for the rest of the trip. We also really enjoyed the beach with tons of chairs, bar service that came to you and lovely clear water to swim in.
I didn't do a shore excursion in Aruba because none of them really appealed to me but I enjoyed a couple of beers and an excellent lunch at Lucy's Retired Surfers Bar and Restaurant which is right on the main drag. We also took a cab to the Butterfly Farm (making sure to arrange for return transportation). It was a pleasant (although very hot) diversion and the Blue Morpho butterflies were stunning (but impossible to capture by photo).
Panama Canal Transit
The star of the show was the transit of the canal. Deck 6 (right below the bridge) was the best spot to watch (the crew opens up a lot of extra areas for viewing that day). Get there early to find a good leaning spot and bring sunscreen and a rain poncho or umbrella ... both were needed throughout the day. (Go to one of the talks in the days leading up to the transit to get the scoop on everything that you're seeing. It really helped one appreciate the engineering and the simplicity of function.) Take a break during the crossing of Gatun Lake to have lunch and then get back in place for the second set of locks. After a Happy Hour break, I was back on the Promenade getting pictures of the stunning views of Panama City. It was a long day, but really spectacular!
Puerto Caldera (Puntarenas), Costa Rica
We went to on the Coffee Plantation tour (not the Starbucks one) with a side trip to the Oxcart factory in Sarchi. It was a rainy day and I'm glad we did this instead of a zipline, aerial tram or river cruise. It was a pleasant, but unspectacular, day. The tourist shop at the Oxcart factory had some beautiful carved wooden items that would make for great souvenirs and gifts.
The Cortijo El Rosario Equestrian show was a definite highlight of the trip. These beautiful animals and their skillful riders put on an incredible show. It was also only about a 30 minute ride from the port, making it one of the easier excursions. The included lunch was very good as well.
Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala
We went to the Mayan ruins at Iximche, a normally 2-hour one way drive that stretched to 2-1/2 hours due to road construction (as the Guatemalans are still in the process of replacing roads destroyed by a June 2018 volcanic eruption). All of the tours seemed to have been impacted by the road work which really limited our time to shop at some of the great shops near the ship. The good news is that we got really good views of the volcano spewing smoke every few minutes (no worries, small releases are good and the volcano isn't expected to erupt again for several years) as we rose to almost 8000 feet. The Iximche site itself is a small one. If you've seen bigger sites, you may want to skip this tour, but if you have never been to a Mayan site, it is a good introduction.
Another great highlight of the trip was the Sailing Adventure on the Luna Azul. Sign up for this one early as it is limited to 10 passengers (there were only 8 on board for us as there were 2 no-shows). The Luna Azul (with its wonderful crew) motors around to a lovely isolated cove for swimming. If you aren't a good swimmer, they keep a close eye on you and you're encouraged to use a noodle or wear a life vest until you make it to the beach. This is followed by raising the sails and heading to deep water for possible wildlife sightings. We saw Manta Rays jumping from the water and a sea turtle or two, but the best part was just watching the sun set under sail. They are generous with included beverages whether you want water, soda, beer, margaritas or even a shot of mezcal!
Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
In Puerto Vallarta, we did the Sea Lion Encounter and it was an experience that I will never forget. Jenny was like a big puppy dog and gentle as a lamb. I had no idea that you could get in the water with Sea Lions and hug on them and pet them (and get a kiss back!). Really a wonderful experience and a great included meal. The same facility has dolphin encounters and our fellow passengers who did that seemed to enjoy their experience fully as much as ours.