Sunday, December 27, 2009

Mexico Cruise - Going home

What a terrible feeling - waking up and realizing that in a few short hours you'll be off the ship. I woke up very early and went out onto the verandah to watch us pull into San Diego Bay. We slipped silently past the USS Ronald Reagan in the dim morning twilight, and then slowly headed to our dock. I remembered how a week ago at this same time I'd been watching the ship come in from the previous cruise, but this time instead of preparing to board, we were preparing to depart.

Around 7:00 I called the boyz room to get them up, and we all went sleepily down to breakfast. I had avoided ordering the beef hash all week. I love beef hash, but restaurants usually want to do something strange to it, and I end up preferring the stuff in the can. Well, I ordered it for my last breakfast on the ship, and it was very good. Probably just as well I didn't find out earlier, since it's not the healthiest thing you can have.

After breakfast we returned to our verandah and watched the dock workers unload luggage, etc. Unlike previous cruises where they want you out of your cabin by a certain time, we were allowed to be pretty much anywhere on the ship until it was our time to get off. We watched a little of the shore excursion video on the TV, and basically savored our last moments on the ship. Our disembarkation window was 9:30 to 9:45 and there was a short line to get off. Fortunately, all immigration issues are handled between the ship and the port authorities before anyone is allowed to leave, so there was no need to go through immigration. We simply got off, went down the stairs, turned in our customs declaration and left. Because we had checked our bags through to the airline, we didn't need to stop for luggage either. It took us several attempts to find the correct bus outside (the Holland America pier staff in San Diego are not very good), but we boarded the bus and headed to the airport.

We arrived in plenty of time, and in spite of the terrorist bomb attempt the day before, had no trouble getting through security. We sat around at the gate for about an hour and a half reading, napping, and eating lunch. The plane actually started boarding early, and they wanted everyone in their seats quickly to try and get an early departure. I don't know why, but I didn't mind. The flight was uneventful, and we landed at PDX about 30 minutes early. I went to get the truck from the parking lot while Rachel and the boyz collected the luggage. Yes, it all made it just as it was supposed to.

Traffic was heavier than I expected for a Saturday afternoon, but we finally made it home. Phil had come to the house while we were gone and fixed the carpet; it was such a great feeling to see our bedroom whole again - thanks Phil! I put our bed back together and moved the furniture back in and all was well. We heated up some BBQ meatballs that we'd frozen before we left and had a nice dinner. Sadly, Rono was not there to clear the table. We also baked a frozen pumpkin pie just so we didn't go cold turkey off the sugar train!

It was a great cruise, and I really enjoyed having the whole family there. We all had decided that we'd not try to coordinate too many activities, and let everyone do their own thing, and I think that worked out very well. We really enjoyed hanging out in the bars in the evening listening to all the different musical groups on the ship, especially when John and Kitty could come with us. We probably saw more of them this Christmas than we usually do when we're in San Gabriel, and that was nice. It was great having dinner all together every night too, in addition to a few breakfasts and lunches with my parents. I wish the boys had taken better advantage of being on the ship rather than just sitting in their cabin watching TV all day, but perhaps that's their idea of a great vacation. They did get to have their private lunch with Grandma, and she was able to get Josh off the ship for a short while in Cabo. Sami probably had the most fun of anyone - making new friends at Club HAL, wandering the ship with Josh, turning Yaya into melted butter whenever he saw her, etc. She did amazingly well, especially being able to sit for an hour and a half dinner every night. Not too many 6 year olds could have done that.

Things to remember for the next cruise:

1. Bring binoculars
2. Sample all the musical acts early on - don't write anyone off until you've heard them a couple of times.
3. The early dinner seating works well even if you don't have kids with you. More time in the evenings to hang out and listen to music.
4. The Crow's Nest is a great place to be before dinner.
5. Book any gym classes and/or cooking classes the moment you get onboard, if not online. They fill up very quickly.
6. We like smaller ships. 1900 passengers was too many and it felt a bit crowded.
7. Use the signature express baggage service to have your luggage checked through to your final destination if available. It costs, but it's so nice not to have to deal with luggage when you get off the ship.
8. Don't bring so many clothes. Pack things that can serve double duty. Remember a light sweater too. Don't forget to pack for active shore excursions, not just for the ship.
9. Finally, don't wait another 11 years to go on another cruise. How about Hawaii in Jan 2011?

Mexico Cruise Day 7 - At sea

Last night at dinner John had suggested that we should all have breakfast as a family on Christmas morning. All of the adults thought that this was a fine idea, but of course that would mean that the boyz had to get up before 11 am. "Seriously?" asked Josh. Yup, seriously. Rachel had of course gotten up early to go to the gym, and I called the boys' room around 7:30 to get them up. I met my parents on the way down to the dining room, and Rachel would join us as soon as her aerobics class was over. It turns out that many people had the same idea because there was quite a line to get into the dining room. We had been standing in line for about 10 minutes when Rachel joined us, and in another few minutes, Josh came wandering out of the dining room looking for us. It turns out that they had gotten there early and reserved a table for us, so we bypassed the rest of the line and joined them. John, Kitty, and Sami were already at the table too. Sami had some toy kittens with her, and enjoyed putting them on Tim's shoulders. Tim as still enough asleep that he didn't even notice at first.

After breakfast, I went to hear the disembarkation talk. This is where the cruise director tells everyone about putting their luggage out for pickup tonight, and to not forget to leave something out to wear the next day. It's also where the tried and true cruise jokes are told: "You came on as passengers, but your going off as cargo" and so on. She also told a story of meeting a room service steward in the elevator one morning with a HUGE amount of food. She commented about the amount of food and the steward replied that it was all for one room, and they didn't even order it. "Didn't order it?" she asked. Apparently these people had thought that the room service breakfast card was a questionnaire, not an order form. Hmm... After the talk, the staff and crew came onstage to sing a final farewell song - that was pretty cool. All the cabin stewards came out with their best towel animals.

At 11:00, Rachel and I joined my parents at the captain's brunch for the Mariners Society - people who have cruised with Holland America before. This is our 4th Holland America Cruise, making us "one star" mariners. My parents have been on a lot more, and they are "three star" mariners. The brunch was fine, although the Champagne was not nearly as nice as the Veuve Clicquot that we'd had earlier. We shared a table with an older couple and their grown daughter, and my father and the man talked about their time in the navy and compared hearing aids. It was pretty funny. Near the end of the meal, the man mentioned that if we got a chance, we really should go see the USS Midway in San Diego. I mentioned that we had already done so, and he got very excited, whipping out a photograph of a bench on the flight deck that was dedicated to him. He had been part of an air wing that flew the F-8 Crusader that was on display on the flight deck. I remember looking at that plane when we were on the Midway, so it was pretty cool to have met someone in that air wing.

After the brunch, Rachel and I went to the Culinary Arts Center for another cooking demo. At this one, Mahendran, our Indian chef, was going to demonstrate how to make latkes. Rachel thought it quite amusing that an Indian chef was going to demonstrate Hanukkah food on Christmas day to a ship full of gentiles. Since there were relatively few people at the demo, we were allowed to come up and gather around the kitchen set, so we got a great view of the cooking. He showed a more or less traditional latke (too much flour, we think) and also an interesting butternut squash variation. Unfortunately, there weren't any samples to be had, but I'll probably try making the butternut squash latkes sometime. Of course I still have to make our traditional latkes, probably while Margaret is here.

After the cooking demo, Rachel went back to our room to take a nap (unbeknownst to me, she had a cold) and I decided to wander the ship for a while. I ended up on deck 10 just outside of the Crow's Nest. It's an open area of outside deck with nice lounge chairs. I had picked up my daily Sudoku (yes, I'm getting hooked too) and settled in while looking out over the ocean. Shortly one of the bar staff appeared and I ordered a nice non-alcoholic margarita. This may not have been the smartest move, because by this point in the cruise, the weather was starting to turn cold again, and sitting outside in the cold with a frozen drink isn't necessarily the best idea. Oh well, I managed to stay warm enough and had a very nice relaxing time.

A little before 3 I went down to our room and Rachel was waking from her nap. It was time to watch the towel folding demo (did I tell you we had a busy day, or what?). Three room stewards demonstrated how they make some of those marvelous towel animals that we found on our bed every night. They did a dog, an elephant, a koala, and of course the ever popular hanging monkey. Although I watched them do it, I don't think I'm quite ready to try it myself. Maybe I can get a book...

At 5:00 Rachel and I headed up to the Crow's Nest armed with a couple of Holland America cruise books to plan our next cruise. We're thinking Hawaii in January of 2011 (any takers?) We also went up to listen to Taylor Brown play guitar. This guy is so versatile! We've heard him play the blues and popular tunes, and now he was playing classical. It turns out that they also serve hors d'oeuvres in the Crow's Nest before dinner, so we had quite a nice time. It was also really nice to watch the sunset and the darkening sky from up there.

We went down to our final dinner on the ship - it was a sad parting from Yaya, Rono, and Mydel. We then went back to our rooms to pack. This was truly sad; the cruise was really almost over. After we were packed, we went and visited with my parents for a while in their room. John and Kitty finished packing too, and called to find us. They were already in the Queen's Lounge listening to the Halcats. We (me, Rachel and Mama) headed down to join them. We had noticed that their first set was over at 9:30, so we knew that as soon as we got there, they'd go on break. Sure enough, John had ordered his Mai Tai and they were done! The 5 of us then moved to the piano bar and listened to WT Greer for a while. Around 10:00, Mama was ready to go back to her room, John and Kitty needed to pick up Sami from club Hal, and Rachel and I decided to head up to the Crow's Nest to hear Taylor one last time. He played some soft acoustic guitar until 11:00 and we realized that we'd been dozing during the last few minutes anyway. It was time to head off to bed. We bought a CD from him before we left.

As we walked through the halls, everyone had put their suitcases out for pickup. We did the same, and within a few minutes, they had been whisked off by the crew. We had payed a little extra and gotten them checked directly through on our flight, so we wouldn't have to worry about them again until we arrived in Portland (we hoped).

Mexico Cruise Day 6 - Cabo San Lucas

We had started to notice it the evening before, but by morning it was quite obvious that the seas had gotten rougher. Nothing bad, but the ship was gently rocking a little more than it had previously. When I tried to open our verandah door to step outside, it took a whole lot of effort because the wind was blowing pretty hard. Cabo San Lucas does not have port facilities to handle anything as large as a cruise ship, so they all dock near the breakwater and use tenders to shuttle people back and forth between the ship and the pier. The rough seas was going to make it very interested to board the tender from the ship, but we figured they know what they're doing, so it would be fine.

Rachel was up early again and went up to the gym while I had a shower and then watched them lower the tenders into the water. My parents had called our room wondering if we wanted to have breakfast with them, and of course we did. Rachel got back from the gym just in time and did an amazing quick change and we were down in the dining room in no time.

During breakfast I realized that I hadn't brought my contact lenses on the ship, so I wasn't going to be able to see much on our snorkel today, plus, we were concerned that the "tall ship" that we were going to sail on was just going to be a poor motorized imitation. So, right after breakfast we went down to the shore excursion office and managed to catch them just before they closed. We exchanged our tall sail and snorkel tickets for America's Cup Challenge tickets.

The same company that runs the Outdoor Adventure in Puerto Vallarta also has some tours in Cabo, and this was one of them. They have purchased 4 obsolete America's Cup racing boats and run tours where you get to crew during a race between 2 of the boats. The world of racing sailboats changes quickly, so in this case, obsolete meant that they were built in 2002 - not exactly ancient! Pleased that we had been able to get on the tour, we went back to our cabin to relax for a while (we didn't need to be off the ship until about 12:45).

We had a light early lunch on the Lido, and noticed that the ship was slowly rotating. We wondered if maybe they were doing a barbecue roll to even out the heating from the sun, but later found out that they were repositioning the ship with respect to the swells so that boarding the tenders would be easier. After lunch we headed down to get on the tender. Earlier in the day, you needed to take a number to get on a tender, but by now most of the passengers who wanted to get off had done so, and we showed up at the tender dock on deck A and had just a short wait while the next tender tied up. The seas had gotten considerably calmer since this morning, and the tender ride was not bad at all.

When we got off the tender at the pier, there was an amazingly long line for tenders to get back onto the Sapphire Princess that was also anchored in Cabo. I was hoping that we wouldn't see the same thing for our ship when the time came. We checked in with the tour representative and waited for the rest of the group to assemble. When everyone was there, they took us around to the other side of the marina to their version of base camp. Here we met some of the crew and divided into 2 teams - one for each boat. We were also given one last chance to use the restrooms since these boats were built for racing and didn't have any facilities on board.

We then headed back to the marina, met the rest of the crew and boarded the boats. We were on the New Zealand boat NZL 82 and would be racing against NZL 81. These boats are pretty amazing - built for speed and nothing else. They look very much like an oversized daysailer - completely open with an enclosed sail locker up front. The wheel is in the middle of the boat, and there are 4 "grinders" or cranks spaced throughout the boat. Each grinder is cranked by 2 people and can be connected alone or in concert with other grinders to any of the 5 winches on board. This allows muscle power to be directed where it's needed at any given time. One can choose to be as active or passive as you want on the tour, and I chose to be one of the 8 grinders. We first connected all 4 grinders together and the 8 of us raised the mainsail. It's got a big sail area and it was really tough to crank it all the way up. After that, the 2 front grinders were connected together to trim the jib, and the 2 rear grinders were connected together to trim the main.

Our crew then explained how the race worked: there was a start area marked by a buoy and a boat. One person did a countdown over the radio, and both boats started a 7 minute timer. With 5 minutes to go, the boats were allowed into the start area to jockey for the best start position. They could cross the actual start line as soon as the timer reached zero. The starting boat then moved upwind to a top mark and both boats sailed toward it and went around. They then sailed back down to the start line, around either the buoy or the boat (back at the starting position) and did one more lap. The first boat to cross the start/finish line on the second lap wins. We were ahead most of the time, but our skipper blew the turn around the top mark and the other boat ended up winning. Oh well, it was great fun. After the race, we sailed leisurely back to the marina as the crew passed out Pacifico beer (meh). On the way in, it was quite obvious that the crew of 5 could handle the boat just fine without us, but it was definitely fun having a job to do during the race.

Back at the marina, we skipped the gift shop and photo buying and went right back to the Oosterdam. Fortunately there was no line to board our tender even though we were within 45 minutes of the last tender back. It was a fun time, but probably our least favorite of the 3 shore excursions. We later saw the tall ship that we would have been on, and as we feared, it didn't actually have any sails up and just motored around. We had chosen wisely.

Dinner was formal again, and Tim and I wore our Christmas ties. Josh was still going for the James Bond look, so he wore his black bow tie. After dinner the chefs marched around the dining room with giant Bouche De Noel (Yule Logs) on their shoulders. I had a piece, and while it was OK, it wasn't my favorite dessert.

After dinner we posed Rachel and Sami for the pictures - they were both dressed in red and black, but opposite top and bottom. Very cute. Rachel and I then headed to the piano bar were we joined in the Christmas sing-along. It was great fun, but I was dismayed that Rachel knew the words to more of the songs than I did. We headed over to the Queen's Lounge and enjoyed Jan and the Halcats until 10:30. At 11:00, we went to the Vista Lounge to see the crew choirs perform Christmas songs. The officers and staff (including Captain van der Loo) formed an "international choir" and sang a couple of songs. Then the Indonesian choir came out and performed some traditional Christmas songs, and finally the Filipino choir sang a pointedly evangelical carol. Finally, they all came out with candles and sang Silent Night while moving down the aisles. That did it - it finally felt like Christmas. It was beautiful.

With a warm feeling inside, we made our way back to our cabin. At 12:03, the Men In Black (Josh and Tim) knocked on our door and mentioned that technically, it *was* Christmas. They had been out snacking and wanted to see if any presents were to be had. None were, and we sent them back to their cabin and went to sleep.

Mexico Cruise Day 5 - Puerto Vallarta

Warning: this one's a long one, but the shore excursion was so excellent!

It was my turn to wake up before dawn, and as I looked out our veradah door, I saw that the ship was rotating. They were turning us around so that we could back into the dock in Puerto Vallarta. What a contrast from Mazatlan! Instead of a stark industrial port, the dock in Puerto Vallarta was right in the city and the dock itself had grass and palm trees. We were docked alongside the Norwegian Star (as we had been in Mazatlan) and the Carnival Splendor, so there'd be lots of touristas in town today.

Again, we woke Tim up and he joined us for breakfast. Sadly, although they have Fruit Loops in the Lido restaurant, they are not on the menu in the main dining room. Undeterred, Tim popped up to the Lido and grabbed a couple of boxes and brought them down to the dining room and just ordered a bowl and milk. Very resourceful.

We got off the ship in plenty of time for our destiny with death, um, I mean our outdoor challenge shore excursion. There were about 20 other crazies on the tour too, and as we walked from our ship around the back of the Carnival ship to the dock where we boarded the Apex (a larger and faster version of a Zodiac), Rachel started talking to another woman, Seri, about ziplines (she'd done one on a past cruise) and other things. As we boarded our Apex, we noticed one poor man being nervous about everything. He was concerned that he wouldn't be able to do it, he was concerned about not making it back to the ship in time, etc. We assured him that because we booked this tour with the ship, they wouldn't leave without us. It didn't help, and he looked like he was going to be sick. Fortunately, he wasn't.

After a fun 20 minute boat trip, we arrived at a beautiful beach in a secluded cove called Boca de Tomatlan. Here we got off the boat and prepared for the next phase - a ride in a unimog (an old military transport vehicle) up to base camp. Each unimog could hold 15 people (with the 15th person strapped to a seat on the tailgate!), so they divided us up into 2 groups. For the first group, they asked for larger families, and when it became obvious that this was going to be the fun group, Seri quickly asked to be adopted into our family so that we could all go together. This turned out to be perfect, as Seri was a blast, and we went with the better group.

The drive up to base camp was amazing. We drove through the tiny village next to the beach, and up through the jungle into the mountains. After turning off the paved roads, we had to ford a couple of streams, and it was a good thing that we had a high clearance 4WD vehicle. Upon arrival at base camp, the driver backed our unimog up to what looked like a loading dock, and after carefully unseating the 15th passenger, opened the tailgate. We were given the opportunity to safely lock up anything and everything we'd brought with us; we were to have nothing at all in our pockets. We then met our guides from the "L" team ("L" for lindo we were later told), and were issued our equipment: a climbing harness, gloves, helmet, and the pulleys for the zip lines. We then moved on to meet our mules. We were told that they'd choose a mule for each of us based on our size and personality. Tim piped up that his mule would be sullen and indifferent! He may be a teenager, but he's still got a great sense of humor.

As each of us mounted our mules, we joined the line heading up the mountain to the top of the course. It must have been about a 20 to 30 minute ride to the top through beautiful jungle. Rachel had been on a horse a few years ago that fell on her, so she was just a bit nervous about the whole riding thing, but put on a brave face and made it to the top. I ended up riding near Seri and Adrian, one of our guides, and we all had a nice conversation about Mexico and his family near Chicago, etc.

At the top, we dismounted and were briefed on how to go down a zip line. We were reassured that they'd only lost 3 people last week, so they were doing pretty well. I expect that joke didn't go down so well with our other group containing the poor man who was nervous about everything and the guy who'd scolded Seri for joking about having her will made out. Tim was the first from our family to go, and he just stepped right up and went. I was next, and other than not having my guide hand back far enough on the line, I did fine. It really wasn't scary, and one did have the sensation of flying over the treetops. Rachel was next and screamed as she went, but had a big smile on her face as she landed. Seri came next, and let out a good scream too. By the time we got to the third zipline, we were all feeling good and enjoying the view. We then got to rappel down the face of a waterfall, and honestly, we were ready to do it. Fear? What fear? Let me at it. You just lean over the edge (about 100 feet in the air) and walk down the face backwards. Rachel had a bit of trouble with her hand position, but did great.

Right after the waterfall was a short zip line that took your directly into a pool of water. Did I mention that it was cold water? Very cold! If you didn't get wet coming down the waterfall, you were soaked now. The next zip line was a long one called the secadora (the dryer). I didn't get dry, but fortunately it was warm enough that I didn't care about being wet any more. We then crossed a commando bridge (a single rope for the feet and a parallel rope about 6 feet higher for the hands). By now our guides could tell that we were all pretty comfortable, so they started bouncing the foot rope, just to make it a little more fun. We then crossed a double rope "Burma" bridge and arrived at the vertical rappel. Again, 100 feet down, but no cliff face this time - it was a free rappel from a platform hanging in mid-air attached to the surrounding trees by ropes. By this time, no one had second thoughts about walking out to the end of the platform and stepping off. It was fun! I felt just like one of those thieves that lower themselves through the skylight. The last zip line was a side-by-side dual line, and Rachel and I raced. We were tied until about 2/3 of the way there when she had to adjust her angle and slowed down. It was all over too quickly, and we took the short hike back to base camp where we changed into our dry clothes, had a light snack, and looked at (and bought) the pictures that were taken of us. After about 20 minutes we were loaded into the unimog for the trip back down to the beach.

Back at Boca de Tomatlan, we had to wait for the other group to return in about 1/2 hour or so. We sat on the beach at a little restaurant and fended off the vendors trying to sell us carvings and jewelry. The guy from the adventure company that coordinated the boats came and sat with us and we had a interesting chat about Mexico and his perception of tourists from the US (I'd say American tourists, except he was quick to point out that Mexico is part of North America as well). He sees a lot of spoiled US tourists and the folks in the tourist industry in Mexico have been told that they need to start learning Chinese since this is where many believe the next economic power will come from as the US declines in its position in the world. Given our national tendency to shun hard work in favor of a get-rich-quick mentality, and the increasing animosity toward education in general and science and technology in particular, I can't argue with him.

About 20 minutes after we got back to the beach, the other group joined us, and Tony, the nervous man, was still nervous about getting back to the ship. We had to wait another 10 or 15 minutes for the Apex to come and pick us up, and he joined us at our table. He said that he was glad that the adventure was over, and glad to have gotten through it. Sad, because for our family (including Seri), and had been an amazing experience. If you're ever in Puerto Vallarta, by all means look up Vallarta Adventures and go on the Outdoor Adventure.

We finally boarded the Apex and had a nice ride back to the dock. Of course we were back in plenty of time before the ship sailed, and even had a little time to get cleaned up. It was a little after 3:00 and Rachel and I were hungry, so we went up to the Terrace Grill and had a quick bite to hold us until dinner. I even had time for a shower and a little relaxation.

Dinner was fun as usual, and by this time the boyz had become relaxed enough with Yaya that they were ordering extra desserts and making sure they got their fill of Coke. Sami had discovered that New York strip steak was better than her usual plain pasta with butter, although I'm not sure that John and Kitty will be pleased if she starts ordering it in restaurants where one actually has to pay!

After dinner Rachel, John, and I headed out for music; Kitty wasn't feeling well. After dropping Sami off at Club HAL, we went down to see Jan and the Halcats. Unfortunately, their performance had been canceled because the Queen's Lounge was being used for a special dinner. Rats! We then headed to the Ocean Bar to hear the jazz trio, the Neptunes. They were finishing up a nice piece as we arrived and ordered our drinks. John had his usual Mai Tai and I had either a glass of Port or a club soda (I can't remember which. I limited myself to one glass of port after dinner, and ordered club soda for the rest of the night). Just as our drinks came, they announced that they were going on break. Arg! We've had a knack the whole trip of coming in just as the band was going on break. There had been a couple dancing and they convinced the band that they needed to play one more piece, and did they know any polkas? We snickered slightly, but the Neptunes didn't miss a beat and struck up "Roll Out the Barrel" while the couple danced a very respectable polka. This, however, was really their last song before they went on break, but it allowed us to just chat with John which was very nice. Around 10, we went up to pick up Sami at club HAL and dropped her and John off at their room. Rachel and I then headed up to the Crow's Nest to hear Taylor Brown play the blues. Wow, he does amazing things all by himself with just a guitar - melody, chords, and even a little percussion. About half way through his set, he was joined by Andrew, the sax player from the Halcats, for some improv. Very nice indeed. We were starting to doze off by the time he finished at 11, so we headed down to our cabin.

Tonight's towel animal was my favorite of the cruise, a penguin. We were exhausted, and tumbled into bed, content at having had a double excellent day.

Mexico Cruise Day 4 - Mazatlan

After 2 glorious days at sea, we were ready to visit our first port. I like to say that I was born to be at sea, and I'd much rather be out on the open ocean than docked somewhere, and I really wasn't looking forward to any shore excursions. However, we had booked one at each port, so I was ready to face it. Rachel was up early again and saw us pick up the harbor pilot (he just jumps from a small boat onto a ladder on our ship!) and come through the breakwater in Mazatlan. I was up in time to see us tie up at the dock. The dock at Mazatlan isn't very inviting, and in fact is a working containerized cargo port. In order to get passengers from the ship through the vast sea of cargo containers to the actual tourist terminal, there are small trams that drive back and forth. According to the signs on the tram, they are "free and compulsory."

We had signed up for the "Thrilling Jetboat Adventure" and were thrilled to see that not only did the tour start at 9 am, but was only an hour and a half - leaving most of the day on the ship! As Garfield would say, "Maybe this story do have a happy ending after all!" I called the boys' room to wake Tim up since he was coming with us. Josh decided that he wanted nothing to do with any shore excursions and was content to sleep until noon and then watch TV all day and night. Tim joined us for breakfast in the dining room, where we finally realized that if anyone at the table ordered the yummy eggs Benedict, the whole breakfast took longer. I guess they're still having trouble with that Hollandaise sauce.

After breakfast we headed down the gangway for our jetboat adventure. Once everyone who was going (7 of us) had arrived, they put us on one of the free and compulsory trams and took us to the terminal. There, we boarded a van that would drive us to the dock. It turns out that while the jetboat ride would indeed be thrilling, it did not come close to the terror of the short van ride to the dock. I guess those lines on the road don't really mean anything in Mexico...

Anyway, we arrived safely at the dock and met our captain and guide for the jet boat. He was actually the owner of one of the larger sport fishing fleets in Mazatlan and had traveled to Oregon a year ago and had this jet boat made for him in Medford. Small world! He was an excellent guide, and in addition to thrilling 360 degree spins, sudden stops, and high speed turns, he gave us a great tour of the harbor and inlet. We saw the shrimp and tuna boats, the Pacifico beer factory, the mangroves and many birds including pelicans, herons, and ospreys. We then went out past the breakwater and saw some cool rock formations and sea lions. It was really an excellent tour, and we were back on board the ship by 10:45.

Rachel and I headed to the culinary trivia contest while Tim went back to bed. There were probably 15 or 20 people at the contest and we divided into teams of 2 or 3 people. Rachel and I teamed up with another woman, and between the 3 of us got most of the questions right, making us the proud winners of some Holland America key chains (not to mention bragging rights).

I can't remember what we did after lunch, and we've lost our copy of the daily program for day 4 so I can't look at it to jog my memory. I do know that the boyz and I went to the gym to work out again, hoping that it would be less crowded while people were ashore in Mazatlan (it was). It gave us a rare opportunity to see Josh outside his cabin. While we were in the gym, Rachel went to the spa and got a facial. I also remember that I enjoyed walking the decks and even had a taco at the taco bar. That afternoon I worked my first Sudoku puzzle, and I can see why so many people enjoy them. The sad thing is that in the time it took me to get about 1/4 of the way through the easy one, Rachel had finished the hard one. Oh well, she's had a bit more practice than I.

As we were getting ready to leave Mazatlan, I made my way up to deck 9 forward, just in front of the gym to watch our departure. I had been watching the activity on the dock off and on during the day, and it was interesting to watch hundreds of new cars being lined up near the dock. I assume that they had been built in a Mexican factory and were getting ready to be loaded onto ships for export. Because it was a bit windy, the captain gunned the engines so we came up to speed pretty quickly as we went through the narrow opening in the breakwater as we headed out to sea.

We had another nice dinner with the whole family and then headed out for more music. I believe that John and Kitty came with us again tonight, and we spent a little time with all our favorite music groups. At this point the nightly music was starting to all be a blur so I can't remember exactly what we did, although we absolutely enjoyed all of it. It turns out that we really enjoy the early seating for dinner so that we have lots of time in the evenings to hang out and listen to music.

Then it was off to bed since we had an early shore excursion in Puerto Vallarta the next day. Rachel had meant to sign us up for a "canopy adventure" where you go into the jungle and slide down a few zip lines, but instead we were signed up for the "outdoor challenge" which involves speed boats, military transports, mules, zip lines, rappelling, etc. We did bid farewell to my family at dinner that night, just in case we didn't make it back. By the way, the cabin stewards often leave "towel animals" on your bed in the evening, and I can usually figure them out, but I couldn't get tonight's. An octopus? A muppet? Not sure.

Mexico Cruise Day 3 - At sea

Wow, another full day at sea - my favorite kind of day. We were up with the sun again. I generally slept well but not long on this cruise; unfortunately Rachel slept neither long nor well, so when she woke up early, she headed up to the gym for the 7am aerobics class. We had a wonderful breakfast with my parents, and then headed up on deck to look for whales. We had arrived at Bahia Magdalena, a bay in Baja California where whales spend the winter, and the ship was going to slowly cruise around the bay for an hour and a half for whale watching. We went up to the back of the Lido deck and while I looked for whales, Rachel napped. Unfortunately, none were to be seen - apparently they were all hung over from their party last night and were still sleeping.

As we headed out of the bay toward Mazatlan, it was time for the kitchen tour. The lounge where we were to meet for the tour was already overflowing with people when we got there, but after waiting in line for about 10 minutes, we finally got in. As we went in, one of the staff said that they needed 3 volunteers. Immediately 3 girls shot their hands up - until he added that they needed volunteers for dish washing; a pretty standard joke on kitchen tours, but fun nonetheless. The tour snaked through various stations in the kitchen, many with small displays or samples. We went though the Pinnacle Grill galley, the pastry kitchen, the hot kitchen, the elevators to the store rooms and prep kitchens which are down several decks. We then passed through the bakery, the pot and pan wash station, the cold kitchen, and room service kitchen, the dishwash area, and finally the coffee pantry. Always a good time.

After the kitchen tour, I went back to our cabin for a while, and Rachel went to the vegetable carving demo. She said that it was great, and apparently the guys who do this sit around during their off-hours and teach each other new carvings. Wow.

After a nice lunch, we relaxed for a while on our verandah and ended up seeing a bunch of whales. They were blowing, and breaching, and sticking their tails in the air - the whole show! There's another great advantage of a verandah cabin.

At 2:00 it was time for our next wine tasting. This one was billed as their "Premium Wine Tasting" and we found out yesterday that it would be blind. What fun; we've never tried that. It was again in the Culinary Arts Center, but rather than many long tables, the tasting was setup in the normal lounge seating (there were far fewer of us) with 5 wine glasses, water, and a cheese, bread, and chocolate plate at each setting. Instead of Bernie, the tasting was led by Bermont, one of the sommeliers on board. He was excellent. We started out with a very nice Vueve Clicquot Champagne (which was not tasted blind). For people who don't like Champagne, we sure have changed our tune. It was crisp and yeasty without being bitter - very nice! We then moved on to the all red blind tasting. The first wine was peppery with notes of chocolate and black cherry. I thought it was a Zin, but it turned out to be a Carmenère from Chile. The next wine was minerally with smooth tannins and maybe some red cherry. It tasted like a Merlot to me, but not a big California Merlot. It did turn out to be a Merlot from Washington. The third wine had some candy and spice, and I thought it might be a Shiraz. Wrong - it was a California Cab. The last wine had more subdued fruit, somewhat tannic with with good balance. I guessed at Cab Sauv. and was right, but this one was from Washington. It was a very fun tasting, and I guess 2 out of 4 wasn't too bad. We liked the Arboleda Carmenère so much that we intended to order it with dinner soon (but not tonight).

After the wine tasting, it was up on deck to see the ice carving demonstration (wow, such a busy day!). We even got our children to leave their dark den and come out into the light of day for once. Josh took advantage of the taco and nacho bar nearby to grab a plate full of nachos while he watched the carving. It took only about 15 minutes and I was the first in our family to guess what it was going to be - an eagle.

Finally it was time for a little more relaxation. Rather than our usual seating in the main dining room for dinner, we had made reservations for the 4 of us at the Pinnacle Grill at 7. The later hour allowed us to watch the sunset from our verandah.

At 7 we were off to have dinner at the Pinnacle Grill. We made the boyz get dressed up, and they looked great doing their MIB impressions. As I mentioned before, the Pinnacle Grill is the ship's high end restaurant and has a separate chef (Mahendran) and galley. It's an extra $20 per person, and well worth it. They specialize in beef and seafood, and our waiter wheeled over a cart displaying raw samples of their meat offerings. Two sizes of thick tenderloin, a HUGE Porterhouse, New York strip, veal, pork, and lamb chops. We all ordered and sat back to enjoy the parade of food.

It started with an amuse bouche of tuna ceviche which we weren't sure if Tim would like. It turns out all of us really liked it, and would have enjoyed more of it. For our first courses, Tim had a very tasty French onion soup, Josh had a lobster bisque that was OK, Rachel had ?? and I had a fantastic spicy chicken peanut soup. They boyz had Caesar salad, and Rachel had a nice salad of mixed greens. For our main courses, Josh had the monster 22 oz Porterhouse with fries and mushrooms, Tim and I both had Filet Mignon (Tim had fries and onions while I had grilled asparagus and garlic mashed), and Rachel had the flaming lamb skewers with creamed spinach and grilled asparagus. They were all "double excellent" as Yaya would say, but the best part for the boyz was the green peppercorn sauce. After using it on their meat, Tim collected all the leftovers and ate it on his fries. Mmmm, good! For dessert, the boyz both had the chocolate volcano cake, Rachel had a very nice chocolate bread pudding, and I had a triple creme brulée (plain, vanilla, and chocolate). This was the food that we had expected from the main dining room. Tim said he's willing dress up for this food any day, so you know it was good.

Our original plan had been to swing by John's cabin after dinner and take him to the show (a magician), but sadly our dinner ran over 2 hours and we missed it. Kitty wasn't feeling well, and John decided to just stay in tonight, so Rachel and I did our usual bar hopping. We saw that Taylor Brown was playing blues with a band in the Queen's Lounge, so we had to go listen to that. They were great, and Taylor's quite a guitar player. We'd seen in the daily program that he played guitar every night in the Crow's Nest, but had written him off. I wish we hadn't because he was just amazing.

Another great day on the ship, but it was time for bed. We had to get up early tomorrow because we had a shore excursion in Mazatlan, our first port of call. I was dreading this just a bit because I'd really just stay on the ship the whole cruise if I could. Oh well, perhaps it won't be so bad.

Mexico Cruise Day 2 - At sea

We had slept with the curtains open, and when we woke up early on Sunday morning we could see the rising sun coming through the window. Wait a minute, we're on the starboard side of the ship and we're heading south to Mexico - we shouldn't be able to see the rising sun! Either the earth was spinning backwards or we were heading north, not south. We figured it was the latter, but also figured the captain knew what he was doing. One advantage of a verandah cabin is that you can pop outside in your robe to watch the sunrise.

Rachel and I went up to breakfast (the boyz were still asleep and would likely stay that way until 11 or noon) and ended up sharing a table with a woman traveling alone; her friend had broken her leg just before the cruise and had to stay home, so she had the room all to herself and didn't mind. It turns out that she had been a cruise lecturer for many years and had traveled all over the world. Quite interesting. Very soon after we sat down, the captain came on the speaker: "Good morning. This is your captain, Arjen van der Loo, speaking to you from the bridge of the Oosterdam." This is how he started every announcement during the entire cruise. It turns out that there had been a medical emergency with one of the passengers, so we had turned around and were heading back toward San Diego to meet a coast guard helicopter that was to pick up the passenger. So, that's why we had turned around. We didn't get to see the whole thing because we were at breakfast, but apparently the helicopter came in and hovered over the ship and hoisted up the passenger to transport them back to a hospital in San Diego. Once that was accomplished, we turned back to the south and fired up another engine for speed. To finish with breakfast: I had very nice eggs Benedict, but they took forever to arrive - the steward even came to apologize that the Hollandaise sauce was taking so long.

After breakfast, Rachel decided to call the gym and set up an appointment with a personal trainer. Unfortunately, like so much on this large ship, they were fully booked. By this time she was pretty crabby - no movie last night, no appt. with a trainer, the carpet in our stateroom was worn and stained, the floor of the bathroom was marred and scuffed, and the food wasn't spectacular. Either our expectations had been too high, or Holland America had gone downhill. At this point we were thinking that maybe this was our last cruise on HAL. Rachel then noticed that there was a free aerobics class offered and she went off to that, and I headed out toward the Culinary Arts Center (aka the Queen's Lounge with a kitchen set on the stage) for a cooking demo.

The cooking demo was holiday appetizers and was taught by the Pinnacle Grill chef Mahendran Sethupathy who trained in India. The chef was introduced by Candace, the ship's "party planner." I didn't even know that cruise ships had party planners, but we would end up attending a lot of events hosted by Candace. The kitchen set is fully functional with sinks, a stove, oven and microwave, and is rolled out onto the Queen's Lounge stage whenever a cooking demo or class is given. Today chef Mahendran demonstrated an apricot and rosemary chutney served with apple and warm brie, and an elegant twice-baked potato with goat cheese. He was very engaging and focused on presentation on the plate. I enjoyed the demo very much, but later found out that he was also teaching hands-on cooking classes but you had to sign up as soon as you got on board and were now full. Rats!

I went back to the room after the demo and Rachel was back from her workout feeling much less crabby about everything. It's amazing what a little exercise can do for a person. Soon it was lunch time and we headed off toward the main dining room. There are many options for meals on the ship ranging from a self-serve buffet of hot dogs, hamburgers and tacos at the Terrace Grill on Lido deck to the high end and fancy Pinnacle Grill. We generally prefer sitting down and having someone bring our food to us, but not wanting it to take hours, so we usually ate our meals in the main dining room. I believe that the boyz joined us for this particular lunch.

After lunch we had our first of 2 sit-down wine tastings on the ship held in the Culinary Arts Center. For this tasting, they had set up about 6 long tables on the dance floor and also used the seating space behind it. At each place setting there was a little bread and water along with 4 wine glasses. As Candace welcomed us to the tasting and introduced Bernie, the ship's cellar master, several of the ship's bar staff poured the wines - 2 whites and 2 reds. Bernie then talked about how to taste wine - observing its color and legs (which he erroneously stated indicated the alcohol content), then swirling and sniffing, and finally tasting. We tasted through 2 Chardonnays - a Washington state and a Burgundy, and then a Washington Cabernet Sauvignon and a ???. We were finally taught the right way to do a toast - tilt your glasses at an angle to each other and tap then fairly hard in the middle, not near the rim. It was a fun class, although there was some dubious information given.

We checked with the front desk about bridge tours, but apparently that hasn't been done since 9-11 (wow, it has been a long time since we've been on a cruise). The boyz and I decided that maybe we should workout too, so we headed for the gym around 3:00. Because of the large number of passengers on the ship, the gym was crowded, but we managed to find some equipment to use. Josh and Tim rode the stationary bikes, and I did my usual weight workout and then rode a bike. There's just something wrong about going to the gym on a cruise, but if you want to eat like we do...

Dinner was the first of 2 formal nights on the ship, so we all got to play dress up. Tim grumbled and Josh came out looking like James Bond in his black suit and bow tie. Everyone else looked great too. The dining room chairs had all been covered with white covers for the night, but to me, rather than looking formal, it looked like someone had put sheets over everything to keep the dirt off the furniture. Not the look they were going for! Oh well, it was another great dinner with Yaya and Rono keeping everyone happy, especially Sami. As Yaya took each persons order, he would say "excellent" as his way of acknowledging that he heard you. This became the keyword for each meal as we asked him if our choices really were excellent. My father's choices were all met with "double excellent!" We accompanied our dinner with a nice 2005 Pommard - too early to really show it's best, but good anyway.

After dinner, we decided to skip the captains welcome toast and instead do some bar hopping to listen to the music at each place. We went out on deck too, but it was still a bit cold and windy. I think this was the first night John and Kitty went with us, after dropping Sami off at Club HAL. We heard the string quartet again, and of course the Halcats. This may also be the night we stopped into the piano bar and decided that WT Greer was OK. He has just an amazing voice, but tends to put too much personal spin on each song. We also heard the Neptunes - a jazz trio. Another great day on board.

Mexico Cruise Day 1 - Boarding and Departure

None of us slept very well that night - a combination of excitement about the cruise, Josh and Tim sharing a tiny double bed and bopping each other in their sleep, and the banging around from the floor above us. At 6:30 I woke up again just in time to look outside and see our ship heading in to dock. The Oosterdam is a big ship (for Holland America) holding just over 1900 passengers. It was interesting to see the contrast between the Carnival Elation which must have had only about 30 cabins with verandahs on one deck, whereas the Oosterdam had several hundred verandah cabins on 5 decks! Since the Oosterdam always docks on the starboard side, it came into the dock on the opposite side of the cruise terminal from where the Elation had been, so it was even closer to the hotel room. When the boyz finally woke up and looked out the window, there it was!

We spent some time on our balcony watching the disembarkation process and cleaning crew through the binoculars until everyone was up and ready for breakfast. We ate again at the pub, which everyone enjoyed, and then Rachel and I walked across the street to see the ship up close. It was a VERY short walk (just across the street and down about half a block) so we knew that there'd be no trouble getting all the luggage to the pier. We returned to the room and everyone just relaxed until checkout time at noon. We then lugged all 6 bags (3 big suitcases and 3 garment bags) from the room, across the street and down to the cruise terminal. As good as Holland America is at most things, their San Diego shore services are pretty bad. There were no obvious signs or helpful people to tell us where to drop off our bags. I finally left the bags with the rest of the family and wandered around until I found the drop area. Once that was taken care of, all went pretty smoothly. We entered the terminal, filled out a short medical questionnaire, checked in, and passed through security. After that, we climbed a short set of stairs and were on board!

We knew our rooms wouldn't be ready yet, so we figured that we'd just wander the ship a little and have lunch on the Lido deck. Instead, we were directed aft to the main dining room for a very nice sit-down lunch. Tim and Josh were shocked that someone would take their napkins and put them in their laps! Tim looked at me and said "I don't think I fit in here." I reminded him that he knew how to act in a fancy restaurant, and that this was no different. After a very nice lunch, we went to see if our rooms were ready, and they were! We had a very nice verandah cabin and the boyz had an inside cabin right across the hall.Our luggage hadn't arrived yet, so we set off to explore the ship.

The Oosterdam has 11 decks that are accessible to the public - 6 stateroom decks and 5 public space decks. The main dining room is on 2 levels in the rear (aft) of the ship, and there are numerous bars along with a library, several restaurants, a movie theater, 2 pools, and a large 3-level auditorium. There's also ample outdoor deck space for watching for whales or getting a tan. After looking around the ship for a while, we ended up on the Lido deck and found my parents finishing their lunch at the Lido restaurant. They had gotten on the ship a little after we had, but too late, apparently, for lunch in the main dining room. Just outside the Lido restaurant, there was a sign up for wine tasting. Hmm, should we do this? Yes! We signed up for both wine tastings over the next couple of days.

At 4:30 the ship held the mandatory lifeboat drill. On all of our previous cruises, the passengers had to put on their life vests and report to their lifeboat stations. Sadly, these days you just need to report to the lifeboat stations without life jackets. Too bad - it was always fun to see all those people in orange vests. After the lifeboat drill, Rachel and I found a good vantage point on deck to watch us pull away from the pier and head out of the bay. It was getting dark by this time, and we needed to get changed for dinner, so we didn't stay on deck all the way out of the bay.

There are many dining options on the cruise, but we had chosen a fixed-time dinner seating at a large table with the entire family. We arrived on time (although the boyz had arrived earlier and claimed that we were late!), and met our dining room steward. He was an ebullient man from Indonesia named Yaya. He then told us that his friend (code for dining room assistant) was called Nono. OK, I get it - Yaya and Nono. We didn't quite believe him, and in fact his assistant was named Rono, but Yaya insisted on calling him Nono. The rest of the family made their way down to the dining room and we had a very nice dinner. I didn't take detailed notes on the food at the time, so I don't remember exactly what we ate, but all was pretty good, but not spectacular. Our wine steward, Mydel, took good care of us, and we ordered a bottle of 2006 Columbia Crest Cabernet Sauvignon. Interestingly, the wine selection was not nearly as high end as I suspected, with prices running from around $20 up to $80. All decent wines, but nothing close to high end. The boyz got to have Coke with their dinner.

After dinner, the boyz holed up in their room (where they stayed during most of the cruise) and we went off to check out the musical groups. We walked through the piano bar, but didn't really get sucked in by the piano player/singer, so we kept going and ended up in the Queen's Lounge where Jan and the Halcats were playing. This was a big group - Jan (the singer) plus 2 keyboard players, bass, guitar, drums, percussion, and a sax player (Andrew!!). They were playing pop/rock from our generation, so we settled in to listen. They were good, and Andrew blew a hot horn. However, after a few songs it was break time, so we got up to look for more. We ended up in the Explorer's Lounge (not to be confused with the Exploration Café) and listened to a very nice string quartet play some popular classical pieces. It was getting close to 10:00 and they were showing Julie and Julia in the ship's theater, so we thought we'd go. Sadly, the theater only holds about 30 people and it was full. Hmpt! One of the disadvantages of being on a larger ship - too many people. Turns out we were pretty tired anyway, so off to bed.