A Memorable Panama Canal Christmas Cruise Aboard the Amsterdam

We live in California and two of our best friends reside in Florida. We wanted to visit them during the holidays, but didn’t want to endure the stress and aggravation of crowded airports and airplanes – so an opportunity to sail from nearby San Francisco to Ft. Lauderdale through the Panama Canal was especially appealing.

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Our cruise was an anomaly for a Holland America Panama Canal Cruise because the usual port of embarkation for the Canal trip is San Diego. However, it was our good fortune that the Amsterdam had been in dry-dock in San Francisco for a two-week spruce-up before our cruise.

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That meant a few hundred lucky passengers got to see the dramatic glow of the San Francisco skyline during departure – we picked up the majority of the passengers for the Panama Canal Cruise two-days later in San Diego.

Size matters

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Our last few cruises were on much larger ships, those with capacities over 2,500, so a ship that holds 1,380 passengers and a crew of 607 felt compact, and just a little cozier because of it.

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The first thing we noticed upon boarding the Amsterdam is that her color schemes are nicely subdued and her décor is a bit more refined than found on some of the newer ships. Of course, being a member of the Holland America fleet, she is elegant and uber-clean.

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At the heart of the Amsterdam is the Planeto Astrolabium, a magnificent three-story structure that tracks constellations, and the planets.

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The Planeto Astrolabium is also the ship’s hub for customer service activities, and the area to find a bevy of nearby exclusive shops.

Cruising in comfort

14-Suite Living

The Amsterdam’s suites are sophisticated and chic.

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They are comfortable, classically elegant,

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and successfully avoid being trendy and thematic.

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They also reflect the natural allure of privacy at sea in graceful surroundings.

Repeat cruisers

We learned very quickly that many of our fellow passengers were not disembarking along with us in Florida. Rather, they were continuing on for the 114-day round-the-world cruise. The Grand World Voyage itinerary is sailed by the Amsterdam, and a stalwart group of Holland America loyalists make the annual voyage. We did a story about one charming lady who is among those habitual world cruisers, and you can read about her *here.*

For those interested, the 2015 Grand World Voyage begins on January 5th and departs from Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.

Cruise included holidays

Our trip encompassed both Christmas and New Year’s Day.

By Christmas Day passengers and crew alike were in a festive mood – a wonderful holiday spirit that was most evident at the crew’s inspirational holiday program entitled “The Sounds of Christmas Carols.” Hundreds of passengers genially joined in the crew’s evening group-sing.

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The merriment continued right through an impressive shipboard New Year’s Eve celebration at sea.

The seasonal gatherings aboard the Amsterdam helped form a genuine bond between passengers and crew – all from different countries, cultures, religions, and life experiences – quite marvelous to be part of it.

An amazing crew

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The staff on Holland America ships hail mostly from Indonesia and the Philippines, but on our cruise there were also crew members from 32 other nations. All were accommodating and friendly – a sure sign they were happy at their work, and with their employer, Holland America.

Meet the Captain

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Like all the other ship’s Masters we have interviewed, Captain Fred Everson set his sights on a life at sea from a very early age – he had a great mentor – his father was a captain on cargo ships. He subsequently attended and graduated from Holland’s maritime academy in Rotterdam, and joined HAL in 1980.

Everson told us, “My main concern as the Captain of the Amsterdam is the safety and pleasure of my passengers.” The captain informed us that Holland America has installed and is now testing the first thermal imaging system designed to immediately detect a person who may accidentally fall overboard.

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When asked what he likes best about his job, Captain Everson answered, “It offers me an opportunity to see the world.” His professed favorite place is Antarctica, “I love the remote grandeur, topography, and animal life.”

With a work schedule of 3 months on and 3 months off, Captain Everson has ample time to indulge in his favorite pastime – motorcycle trips from his home base in Del Ray Beach, Florida. He has logged over 150,000 miles on motorcycle tours of North America.

When Captain Everson retires he plans to continue touring, “There’s so much I haven’t seen.” A few years back the captain purchased an RV to assist him in his roaming. Happy motoring Captain!

Eating aboard the Amsterdam

We found the quality and presentation of food aboard the Amsterdam to be up to the usually delicious Holland America standards.

La Fontaine Restaurant

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The main dining room is the two-story La Fontaine Restaurant and is well designed with numerous windows for abundant natural light during day-time meals.

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Our table was next to one of the windows so we enjoyed constant vistas of the sky and sea while dining.

Lido Restaurant

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Many of our breakfasts were taken at the informal buffet-style Lido Restaurant,

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where we savored made-to-order omelets and a wide variety of meats, cheeses, cereals and fresh fruit and juices.

Specialty Restaurants

The Canaletto has introduced a new menu featuring Italian family style dining with some toothsome recipes.

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We relished our starter of Vermouth Braised Clams with spicy chorizo, garlic and basil.

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The Rigatoni with Italian sausage, Kalamata olives, and a spicy and delicious tomato sauce was a perfect pasta choice.

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The large plate entrée was a tasty Grilled Lemon-Thyme White Sea Bass with roasted fingerling potatoes, shaved fennel, and orange-olive salad.

Everything was delicious, however we found it unusual that no breads or rolls were served at the Canaletto, an Italian restaurant. Perhaps that has changed – we hope.

The best steaks and seafood

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The Pinnacle Grill is romantic and intimate and the favorite rendezvous of beef and seafood lovers. We were happy to learn that Holland American serves only seafood caught in a sustainable manner.

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A Caesar Salad prepared at the table was an excellent opener,

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followed by Dungeness Crab Cakes with spiraled shaved cucumber and sweet chili-mustard sauce. Outstanding!

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The filet mignon was a perfect size for a four-course dinner and was prepared with sun-dried tomatoes, and the master chef’s green peppercorn béarnaise sauce and maître d’ garlic butter.

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We finished with Baked Alaska a la Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia ice cream flamed with Bing cherries jubilee. OMG!

Terrace Grill

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After shamelessly feasting for days on end, it was nice to occasionally take a breather and enjoy a simple old-fashioned hamburger, hot dog, or slice of pizza. The Terrace Grill poolside was a welcome, albeit brief departure from lavish dining. May we recommend an ice-cold beer for accompaniment?

About the cruise itinerary

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Our Panama Canal voyage on the Amsterdam started on December 18, and took 17 days, and covered 5,914 miles. The same trip was an arduous 13,715 miles before the advent of the 50-mile long Panama Canal.

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The Amsterdam stopped at six countries between San Diego and Ft. Lauderdale. Ports included Puerto Vallarta, Mexico; Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala; Corinto, Nicaragua; Puerto Caldera, Costa Rica; Cartagena, Columbia; and Georgetown, Cayman Islands.

The ports we favored were Cartagena, and Georgetown, but of course, the highlight of the cruise was passing through the historic Panama Canal.

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In a future article we will write about all the ports of call on the Holland America Panama Canal Cruise and include a summary of the exciting history of the Panama Canal.

An all-day event

It takes about eight-hours to transit the canal’s three locks and navigate the lake that lies between the locks and seas.

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The passengers were up at the crack of dawn to watch the Amsterdam approach the first lock,

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and be tethered to the electric locomotives that guided her seemingly effortlessly through the narrow Miraflores Locks.

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Once the Amsterdam was released from the second locks into Gatun Lake, passengers had several hours to observe the dark and mysterious waters and dense sweltering tropical jungle from on-high aboard the ship.

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Everyone watched as the liner glided along patches of small uninhabited tangled green islands – all safely visible from the glass enclosed and air-conditioned lounges and public spaces on the Amsterdam.

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Our minds wandered and considered the lives of the thousands of diggers who suffered (an estimated 25,000 died) to conquer this hostile wilderness for the betterment of mankind. How fortunate we are to be able to witness the engineering marvel they created.

Check out the related video below for a brief depiction of the passage.

by HollandAmericaFan

Don’t miss it

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A trip through the Panama Canal is one of the most interesting cruises on this planet. We recommend it highly.

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For more information about Holland America cruises, itineraries, and specials, look at their website at www.hollandamerica.com

Happy travels!

© Travels with Wayne and Judy Bayliff

Photos © Judy Bayliff

You can see the world with Google Maps. http://maps.google.com/

Cruising with an Inspiration Named Julia

On a recent Panama Canal cruise on the Holland America ms Amsterdam we met a most extraordinary passenger with a remarkable past. Her name is Julia.

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We do not usually write about fellow travelers, but Julia is exceptional for several reasons that stirred our interest and imagination. Julia’s most noteworthy characteristic is that she belongs to a growing number of active seniors who demonstrate the ability to live long and travel – disregarding statistical realities along the way.

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Julia was born in 1919, and she easily makes the case that 95 is the new 75 as she nimbly navigates cruise ship passageways without the help of cane or walker. If you have aspirations of travelling long after retirement, Julia’s story is great encouragement.

A memorable life

Born just after WWI, Julia grew up and lived in London where she married in December, 1939 – just after the start of WWII in Europe. Her husband was a medical doctor involved in the war effort, and Julia – although untrained at the time – became a medical assistant who did suturing and wound control during the dark days of the London Blitz.

Like the survivors of the infamous European camps, Julia is one of the remaining few that can give firsthand adult testimony of the horror of the Nazi bombardment of London for 57 consecutive nights in 1940 and 1941. She still gets teary-eyed when relating poignant tales of the human tragedy and loss of life – which she tells in a crisp British accent and with the riveting clarity of a youthful reporter.

After the war

London was devastated by WWII and many British professionals immigrated to other countries to make a living. Julia and her husband planned to seek their fortune in the United States. Unfortunately, there was a long waiting list to enter the US immediately following the war, so they accepted a medical position in Manitoba, Canada while they waited for approval to enter the United States.

Julia on the Queen Mary

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Their journey to North America began in 1948 when they boarded the original ms Queen Mary in Southampton, England for a voyage to New York City.

After clearing US Customs and Immigration on Ellis Island, Julia and her husband – with two children and a nanny in tow – drove to Canada from New York. They spent eight years in Manitoba before being invited to take up a medical post in the state of Idaho in 1956. They loved living in Idaho.

Julia was widowed in the 1990s, but her and her second husband Don live part of the year in Idaho to this very day.

A love for cruising

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Julia has amassed an amazing 3,000 days (yes, that’s over 8-years) and over 250,000 miles at sea over the last 30-years, many of those days on around the world cruises on Holland America – several on the Amsterdam and Rotterdam.

In her global travels she has visited a remarkable 291 countries, and showed us the documentation to prove it.

Because of her extensive travel, Julia has acquired a keen understanding of the struggles of ordinary people and the less fortunate on our planet. She told us several engrossing stories about meeting strangers that subsequently had an influence on her life.

Back home in California and Idaho, Julia helps those in need, and has been the president of her local American Heart Association, and founder of a non-profit organization dedicated to the comfort of the victims of heart disease.

Looking to the future

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Because their annual world cruise is a predictable event, Julia and Don have created some routine pastimes as they circle the globe on ships. One particular pleasure is their reserved seating at the Sydney Opera House.

As soon as they learn the date their annual ship will arrive in Sydney, they immediately go online to book reservations for the opera. Because of the early status of their cruise bookings (they are already signed-on for the 2015 world cruise on Holland America) they have been able to reserve the same seats at the Sydney opera for the past 20 years.

Cruise Champions

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Julia and Don are extremely outgoing, and great ambassadors for the cruise lines. Julia has lunched with Micky Arison, the past CEO of Carnival Corporation – the parent of many popular cruise companies. She also knows many of the service crews and officers on their ships.

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When we interviewed Captain Fred Everson on the Amsterdam for a future story about our Canal cruise, we mentioned meeting Julia, to which he immediately responded, “Isn’t she the very best?” Indeed she is.

Ships location

We left Julia and Don in Ft Lauderdale at the end of our wonderful 17-day Panama Canal cruise – our two new friends were continuing on.

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The ms Amsterdam started its 114-day 2014 Grand World Voyage the next afternoon – with our favorite couple securely on board and looking forward to their adventures. Click on the link to view their itinerary.

Bon Voyage Julia

Happy travels Julia and Don!

Click *here* to read Wayne and Judy’s story about the adventures of the historic Queen Mary now a famous hotel/museum permanently docked in Long Beach, California. 

© Travels with Wayne and Judy Bayliff

Photos © Wayne and Judy Bayliff

You can see the world with Google Maps. http://maps.google.com/