Miami Cruise Terminal, one of the largest cruise ship terminals in the world, is home port for the Royal Caribbean Cruise Line company. This is where we headed to board our ship, Jewel of the Seas, which became our home away from home for 16 nights, along with 2500 fellow passengers, and 800 delightfully friendly crew members.
The final destination for this cruise was San Diego but the highlight would undoubtedly be the passage through the amazing Panama Canal, famous as one of the world’s greatest feats of modern maritime engineering, allowing ease of passage between the northern and southern hemispheres.
We bid farewell to Florida as we sailed past Miami’s famous South Beach, heading to our first destination, Cartagena, Colombia. The two day crossing began with a bit of a rough ride but the ship’s stabilisers were deployed, ironing out most of the bumps. The first part of the cruise was completely devoted to relaxation.
As we had discovered on previous cruises, it wasn’t hard to take full advantage of the indulgent leisure facilities on the ship, the gym, spa, pools and hot tubs.
There were also the sumptuous selection of delicious food, the impeccable service and the parade of entertainment offered on board which all helped ease the ‘burden’ of being kept temporarily hostage on this luxurious pleasure craft.
Once we had disembarked we took the ship’s shuttle bus to the end of the long wharf. Located here was an aviary and mini zoo full of vivid wildlife.
The pink flamingos were fascinating in their peach robes. According to one expert fellow passenger the flamingos are not actually pink but born with grey feathers, which gradually turn pink due to the bird’s diet of brine shrimp and blue-green algae.
The macaws, members of the parrot family, also present a brilliant display with vibrant blue, yellow and some with red feathers. The surrounding enclosures held anteaters, peacocks and the majestic, tropical toucans with their vibrant, oversized, cartoon-like bills.
Before we exited the park we were entertained by an energetic, cultural dance troupe accompanied by a colourful mariachi band which put us totally in the latin mood before making our way into the city centre.
This is really a tale of two cities, one part with contemporary multi-storey buildings and the other, the spectacular old city, where tourists flock by the thousands. It takes about twenty minutes to get from the ship to the old city and costs US$10, negotiated in advance with a taxi driver we met outside the port enclosure.
Cruise passengers who take the taxis nearer to the ship will pay twice the price and may have to endure several souvenir shops along the way as penance for their lack of effort.
This remarkable 16th century walled town was a photographers delight. We even overheard one tourist who said, “You can’t take a bad photo here.” The cobblestone streets were packed with sidewalk traders under eye-catching beach umbrellas who were selling fresh fruit, Colombia’s famous coffee and local artworks.
However, the standout feature of this old city was the beautiful colonial architecture with its array of buildings, painted in reds, pinks, yellows, greens and tropical blues.
The only more colourful characters were the local Colombian women dressed in their vivid traditional skirts called ‘La Pollera Colora’. The women liked to be paid for a photograph, otherwise, sadly turned their faces away from the camera or put up a screen to block any shots being taken for free.
For lunch we tried a local place called Restaurant Collage Charladero. Our fresh ceviche, guacamole and spicy buffalo wings were well presented, totally scrumptious and washed down with freshly squeezed, homemade lemonade.
After lunch we wandered the narrow cobblestone streets to the city wall to take a glimpse at the Caribbean Sea. With such a tropical climate, the city is also a popular beach destination.
This old city is one of the most fascinating and entrancing places we have ever visited in the world and certainly worthy of a more detailed exploration on a future visit.
The canal links the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean and is a true marvel of modern engineering. A series of locks, canals and lakes makes the complete sail from the city of Colon through the canal, only about six hours compared with an 8000 kilometres journey around Cape Horn, which was the only choice when the canal did not exist.
The enormous cement locks were amazingly snug with around 30 centimetres clearance either side of our ship. Huge passenger ships and cargo freighters sailing through the locks are carefully guided by six tank-like vehicles known as ‘mules’ that have a total of 16 guide ropes attached to each ship.
The passage into the locks was excruciatingly slow at less than 1 knot. In Gatun Locks we had a huge gas freighter next to us. The ‘mules’ were doing their painstakingly, exacting job keeping both of us steady, the massive lock gates opening and closing, the carefully measured rising of the ship and the walls, close enough to touch, were spectacular and this was only the first lock.
In fact, there were six locks in all. Firstly, from sea level we rose up 27 metres through three locks at Gatun to lake level in the mountains. We then sailed Gatun Lake and on through ‘the cut’, a manmade channel through Central Mountain Range to another lake, then further onto three more locks which lowered us back to sea level in the Pacific, close to Panama City.
We were completely impressed with the whole show and gave a big ‘thumbs up’ to a magnificent marine short cut which aids the passage of thousands of ships each year.
Puntarenas, Costa Rica
If you ever find yourself in Puntarenas in Costa Rica don’t panic, there are options. If you have not seen the wildlife of Costa Rica then there are a number of tours from Puntarenas to choose from. The small town was popular in the 70’s but today there are a few restaurants, bars and there is a local market along the waterfront, at least when a cruise ship is in town.
We opted to spend our shore day at Fiesta Resort. The resort is 12 kilometres out of town, a US$20 taxi ride. The former Hilton five star resort was quite luxurious with stunning pools, lush tropical grounds and a dark volcanic, sandy beach. We bought the day pass for US$85, quite expensive, but good value.
It included all food, drinks, use of the hotel’s fabulous facilities, towels and afternoon pastries with coffee at 4pm. For the whole day we lounged under the dappled shade of the tall coconut palms while gazing out to sea.
A few dips in the pool, making progress on our novels and a couple of power naps in between made the day a total pleasure. All these activities were peppered with drinks, snacks and a totally delicious lunch. The resort is a good option if you are visiting on a cruise ship and just want a short reprieve from on-board life.
Back On Board
More warm, languorous sea days gave us an opportunity to explore the ship’s activities, play mini golf, use the gym and laze on the open deck near the stern while watching the ship’s huge wake sprit us away from our last destination towards our next adventure.
Although most evenings we ate very happily in the ship’s main dining room, on one occasion we tried Izumi Restaurant, the Asian choice of the three speciality restaurants on board. While on a previous cruise we thoroughly enjoyed a sushi making masterclass at this restaurant, this time we were going to savour the full dining experience.
The pork Gyoza dumplings and shrimp and vegetable tempura were a tantalising start. We tried two of the signature rolls. A stand out was spicy tuna and asparagus, flash fried in panko crumbs, served with unagi eel sauce and roasted sesame seeds. The finale was an assortment of mocha ice cream, completing a deliciously fresh and satisfying meal.
We scheduled dining and cocktails around the evening shows in the Coral Theatre. The cast show, West End to Broadway, was particularly entertaining, as was comedian Etta May whose unique housewife routine was hilarious.
Perhaps our favourite show, Tango Buenos Aires, transported us back to our visit to Teatro Carlos Gardel, the stunning old tango theatre restaurant we enjoyed so much while visiting Buenos Aires a few years ago.
The skill and precision of the dancers was only surpassed by the elegance and opulence of the staging, costumes and orchestral accompaniment. This was a simply magnificent final performance provided by a talented duo, working collaboratively with the ship’s accomplished musical and production team.
Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
This was a favourite port of call which we had visited on a previous trip to Mexico. The day was off to simple start with an easy 130 peso (US$7) taxi ride to Francisca Rodríguez in Zona Romantica (old town) arriving at Dees Café for some of their delicious homemade baked goods. Don’t miss trying a huge chunk of the mouthwatering blueberry and cinnamon cake.
Then it was a short walk to the beachfront to soak up the sun, some swimming and lunch. Si Sēnor Bar and Restaurant provides comfortable beds, free of charge, for diners who are eating and drinking at their establishment.
We can highly recommend the deep fried red snapper with all the trimmings included. Try to stop yourself from drooling as one of their super cute waiters uses a traditional mortar and pestle to skilfully assemble a fresh bowl of spicy guacamole at your table.
We followed up with a wander around the souvenir shops and a blissful one hour massage at Blue Massage. For a more detailed itinerary of this gorgeous old town, see our story about our previous visit to Puerto Vallarta.
Cabo San Lucas, Mexico
Pulling into Cabo San Lucas we were awestruck by the views of Playa del Amor (Lover’s Beach) and El Arco, a natural archway supporting the sea cliffs and framing the spectacular coastline. Cabo is famous for its long sandy beaches, outdoor restaurants and bars scattered around the harbour.
Nightlife can also be fun with places like Chandeliers, the main gay club. Other dance clubs like Mandala and Pink Kitty are also very gay friendly. Check out our link for more information and updates on the best bars.
Cabo is also a great place to buy souvenirs and silver. We spent a fun afternoon trawling around the shops and markets to land some great bargain buys. For a casual drink set back from the harbour try John’s Place, good for food and people watching and a popular choice for the ship’s crew, so it must be good.
Our final destination was San Diego and it was time for disembarkation. The cruise on Jewel of the Seas took us to some fascinating places, left us with very fond memories and whetted our appetite to further explore Mexico and Central America.