14 Night Panama Canal Eastbound Transit - ms Amsterdam
Amsterdam Cruise Review to Panama Canal, Central America
Although we cruised the Panama Canal westbound with HAL several years ago, we decided to repeat the cruise going eastbound for several reasons. Our main reason was to avoid the expensive flight home from San Diego to Orlando at the conclusion of our ms Amsterdam's 78-day Grand Pacific & Far East Voyage. The 14-day Panama Canal cruise was back-to-back with our Grand Voyage. For just a few hundred dollars more, we would avoid the hassle of the west coast flight, the jet lag, excess luggage concerns and could simply drive home from Fort Lauderdale. Fifty passengers decided to do the same thing. Our 14-day Panama Canal Cruise departed San Diego on December 8, 2014 visiting the ports of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, Huatulco, Mexico, Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala, Corinto, Nicaragua, Puerto Caldera, Costa Rica, Cartagena, Columbia and Fort Lauderdale. We even remained in the same stateroom.
We spent embarkation day in San Diego doing some independent sightseeing that included the Midway Museum, Little Italy, and Seaport Village. The destinations were within walking distance of the ship. Embarkation for us involved simply showing our stateroom key card and a special card alerting the personnel that we were already on the ship then putting personal items through security. It took just about a minute. We bypassed the usual boarding process.
The Panama Canal cruise had a completely different feel to it than our previous cruise. Half the crew departed and new staff came on board. The number of passengers increased; they were much younger and there were more children. The music around the pool changed as did the activities around the ship. Darcy and the HALcats replaced the Amsterdam Orchestra and did a nice job. Even the lounge entertainers were different. The room service menu was shorter and the choices on the MDR menu were different.
Some things did not change. Service in our stateroom was just as attentive. All of our special requests were attended to daily without fail. Arif & Made always greeted us with smiles and engaged us in short conversations. They were very professional and efficient. Our comfortable ocean view stateroom #2595 was cheery and well stocked; it even had two hair dryers. It was fairly roomy by industry standards. We had a sitting area with a large end table, lamp and adjustable coffee table, a desk, a safe, a comfortable queen (two twins) size bed, good bedside lighting and two end tables. The magnifying mirror came in quite handy every day. The one thing that I did miss in the room was a mini fridge. HAL generously sent to our stateroom a vase of flowers that stayed fresh almost the entire cruise. There was also a complimentary bottle of champagne and a plate of sweets, rewards to us for taking the back-to-back cruise..
We chose to use the captain's Complimentary Dinner for Two in the Pinnacle Grill on Embarkation night. We were treated royally and service was professional and leisurely. We saw several other tables of guests from the previous cruise. Soon after being seated, we were served the captain's complimentary appetizer; it was a delicious scallop. Our (Jumbo) Shrimp Cocktails were truly jumbo and delicious. Filet Mignons with Béarnaise sauce and garlic butter were cooked exactly as ordered - rare and were very tender. Sautéed mushrooms and jumbo baked potatoes complemented the entrees and were scrumptious as was the bread. Although by this time we were full, we did manage to take a few bites of our desserts. I highly recommend this specialty restaurant. We definitely will come again on another HAL cruise. The only thing lacking in this restaurant are windows.
We requested the same servers and same table #330 near the windows in the La Fontaine Main Dining Room. Our servers, Adi & Fosil, always smiling, did an exemplary job catering to our needs and spoiling us. Assistant Dining Room Manager, Pandi not only kept an eye out making sure everything went well, he also stopped by twice nightly making conversation and helping the servers in various ways. Our wine steward was always punctual, reliable and helpful. Although Jumbo Shrimp cocktail was no longer on the menu nightly I found plenty of other choices to keep me happy. We found the food to be great and the chefs continued to accommodate my husband's meal restrictions. We also received excellent bar service in the lounges and poolside from Enrico, Ann Marie and Mary Jane. Without asking, they often anticipated our requests for ice water. Several times we took advantage of the Drink of the Day for $5.95 and Happy Hour: Buy 1 Drink, Get the 2nd Same Drink for $1 for Select Beverages. Happy Hour was the best deal on the ship.
The selection of food in the Lido also changed somewhat but was still good. For example the large selection at the sushi station was now significantly reduced but there was still plenty of other choices. The same ice cream station was still there so I was a happy camper. Be sure to check both sides of the buffet as a few selections are only offered on one side. For the best fries on the ship, visit the Dive In poolside.
We enjoyed all the nightly entertainment, especially the Amsterdam Singers & Dancers Shows: Variations, Can't Stop the Music and I Write the Songs. The singing was excellent and the dancers were talented and energetic. For us, these shows were repeats but still enjoyable. A few of the other entertaining shows that I recall were vocalist Jacqi Michaels, Comedian and magician Nick Lewin, Pianist, Singer, Marty Henne and Live wire (Celtic music and spirit.) Jeff Burghart did funny impressions. Other Queen's Lounge (theater) shows were the lounge entertainers Adagio, Dancing with the Stars and the lively Ole, Ole flamenco with a difference. I missed the crew show on this cruise since it was performed at 11 PM, too late for us to stay up. I had seen the two crew shows on the previous cruise that were performed at 3 PM, a better time for us.
We enjoyed many of the activities on the ship especially the very interesting talks by On Location Guide, Alanna. She made learning about the history and culture of the area fun and educational at the same time. Alanna had a easy rapport with the passengers. We were very impressed with Alanna's knowledge of the workings of the Panama Canal and the port of calls even though this was her first visit to these ports and the Panama Canal. Her research was thorough and she answered all the questions asked of her. All the on board computer Digital Workshop classes that I attended were easy to understand and helpful. I enjoyed the several cooking shows and brought home the printed recipes. Board games, crosswords and Sudoku are available in the Exploration Cafe. Just as an aside, the sweets in the cafe are complementary. One night there was a lively Mexican Fiesta BBQ with live Mariachi music and a selection of grilled favorite. That night was the Lido Pool Party with a night of fun, music and dancing under the stars as we sailed from Puerto Vallarta to Huatulco, Mexico. Carlos, the Cruise Director was wonderful in getting passengers involved and up dancing. Be sure to take the interesting Kitchen Galley Tour and learn interesting facts about how the kitchen operates on the ship. HAL offers daily religious services and is one of the few remaining cruise lines that still does that.
Movie buffs will enjoy the movies shown in the Wajang Theater 3 times daily. Popular ones were, If I Stay, The Maze Runner and Jersey Boys. The One Hundred Foot Journey was shown on a large screen in the Queen's Lounge.
The ship's public areas are stylish without being trendy. Their decor is subdued with an air of quiet elegance. When not in use for live entertainment or presentations, the lounges with their lovely fresh flower arrangements, fine art and antiques are inviting places for reading or writing. They are well used by passengers.
Of course, the biggest excitement on board was the daytime full transit of the Panama Canal. Although this was our second full transit, it was just as much fun and equally interesting. HAL permits passengers access to the bow so you are close to the action; there is plenty to see all day starting at sunrise. HAL provided a continental breakfast of juice and Panama rolls as well chilled lemonade and water throughout the day to keep everyone hydrated. Alanna gave a talk over the loud speakers that reached the public areas. Her talks were supplemented by a local canal lecturer who provided commentary from the bridge, heard on the outside decks, the Lido Restaurant, the Crow's Nest and on TV in staterooms. Unfortunately the speakers weren't working properly even though they worked fine when tested the previous night. These things happen and HAL worked around the problem. We were outside on the bow as we passed under the Bridge of America, passed through the Miraflores Locks, the Pedro Miguel Locks and entered Gatun Lake and the Gatun Locks. We also saw where the new locks were being built. This year is the 100th Anniversary of the Historic Panama Canal. The ship celebrated with a Panamanian Market, authentic foods, drinks and live music poolside. Your friends and family can even watch your ship sail through the locks in real time online by the live webcams located in the Panama Canal.
Ship photographer, Birdie was out and about taking candid shots throughout the transit. Throughout the cruise she always seemed to be everywhere - in the MDR, on the pier on shore excursions and in general around the ship where something was happening. She offered her services but never push them which everyone appreciated. Her photos were so wonderful that we purchased all our candid shots at the conclusion of the cruise. Although they are expensive purchased singly, $20, as a package they are most reasonable. They bring back happy memories every time I share them with family and friends.
The shore excursions that we purchased through HAL in each port of call were all worthwhile and enjoyable. The guides were knowledgeable, interesting and spoke English well. We were most impressed with our Huatulco (Mexico) By Land & Sea tour and Colonial San Sebastian in Puerto Vallarta. Our tour guide in Nicaragua had us all laughing when he tried to convince us that our tour would be in Spanish. Not only did we enjoy his tour and antics but we all learned lots of Spanish words. Although our tour in Cartagena was a repeat of our previous HAL shore excursion, we visited different sights around the city and it actually ran an hour longer than scheduled. We felt that we got our money's worth on all these excursions.
One of the nicest features on the ms Amsterdam is the dome over the mid-ship swimming pool. While it is especially useful when the ship sails Alaska, it also protects passengers from wind gusts and sudden, brief thundershowers in the warmer climates as well. One poor element about the ship is that the comfy couches in the Queen's Lounge are lower than the theater chairs, which makes seeing the performers, especially the dancers' feet much harder. I also missed the stage sets and back drops at the shows. However, the excellent service, big smiles of the crew and the good food more than makes up these shortcomings.
All too soon our 14-day Panama trip was over. We watched as all the dazzling Christmas decorations were put up (there was a menorah lit each night of Hanukkah, too) in preparation for the Christmas cruise. Hopefully another great cruise with HAL is in our future perhaps on their new ship, Koningsdam a Pinnacle-class of vessel scheduled for delivery in 2016. This will be HAL's sixteenth ship in its fleet. Before I end the review I want to mention the Bonus Days that HAL offers for every $300 spent, which includes prepaid beverage packages and shore excursions, gratuities as well as on board purchases. I do not know of any other cruise line that does this. Through this perk, we are now only eight days shy of reaching the Four Star Level when they offer free laundry service.
Cabin / Stateroom
Happy Hour drink promotion: Buy One Get One For $1 More is the best deal on board