By Maribeth Mellin
Dancing was foremost on my mind while planning a recent Panama Canal Cruise. I needed a ship with at least one great music venue where my husband and I could let loose—and it had to open at a reasonable hour (late nights are not our forte). I’d previously had a grand time dancing with friends at a B.B. King’s Blues Club during a short Holland America cruise. The line’s Eurodam had a similar club, plus the itinerary I wanted.
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Two other features cemented the decision. It was the only sailing I found that included a port call at Cartagena, Colombia (a city I’ve long wanted to visit), along with Costa Rica, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Mexico. And it disembarked in San Diego, my hometown. The trifecta sealed the deal.
I was curious to see how we felt about cruising with Holland America. We want to sail more frequently, and need to participate in a loyalty program. The line visits many of our anticipated destinations, from Amsterdam to Antarctica, the ships are reasonably sized and the fares fall in mid-range. It could be our go-to cruise line.
We boarded the 2,100-passenger Eurodam in Ft. Lauderdale and sailed into San Diego two weeks later, relaxed, replenished and relieved to be home on March 1, as news of Covid-19 filtered through the news.
Surveying the Ship
First things first: the B.B. King’s Blues Club was everything I’d hoped and so much more. The eight-piece band rocked for three sets nearly every night—and the first set started at 8:30pm. Holland America is known to attract a senior clientele; I bet our fellow passengers’ ages averaged around 65, with many in their 80s. It wasn’t a late-night crowd, but even the early diners were able to catch the first set. I would gladly have stayed up till midnight to hear singers Indigo Jones and Jason Barnes rock through a repertoire covering rock, disco and blues. We stopped by most nights to catch a few songs, and hit the dance floor for all three sets on a few occasions. Holland America aced that requirement.
The Eurodam was comfortable, easily navigated and enjoyable. The vibe was definitely low key and mature, as one might expect on a two-week sailing with several sea days during the school year. I have a hard time imagining it as a party ship, though you never know who your fellow guests might be.
The decor was understated, lacking glitz and pizazz. Walls were decorated with copies of Dutch Master paintings, historic photos and nautical paraphernalia and noise was muted for the most part. We settled into a comfortable, casual routine I enjoyed the spacious fitness center’s stretch classes and always-available treadmills. We walked many laps on the open-air promenade with a steady stream of fellow guests. One morning, hundreds boasted T-shirts from the On Deck for a Cause 5K walk, a Holland America fundraising tradition. The promenade became my favorite fresh-air reading and daydreaming hangout, though the teak lounge chairs grew scarce on beautiful days.
Lounge chairs also edged the wall-length windows in the sky-high Crows Nest, home to a combo coffee and cocktail bar and the shore excursions desk. The place buzzed too much for tranquil reading on gloomy, windy days but was a good venue for lectures and programmed activities. The two pool decks were the most vibrant areas, with burger and pizza stands and bars featuring the day’s tropical cocktail. Happy hours were immensely popular in the Crow’s Nest and comfy Ocean Bar. There was plenty of entertainment, with staged shows, a small casino, a classical music stage and a pair of dueling pianists in the Billboard Onboard venue.
Meals consumed large chunks of time—we’re not used to three solids per day. Buy hey, if someone else is fixing the food we’ll be there. Overall, the Eurodam’s culinary offerings were satisfying, plentiful and occasionally exciting. We often dined alone any time we wished (thanks to open seating) and thoroughly enjoyed Tamarind, the Asian specialty restaurant. I learned a lot about Holland America’s loyalty Mariners program during group meals in the busy dining room—all raved their fondness for the exceptional crew.
I’ve spent a lot of time in Central America over the years and felt at home everywhere we landed. Our itinerary started in Cartagena, a UNESCO World Heritage site and the setting for some of Gabriel García Márquez’s most mesmerizing stories. The old walled city looked exactly as I’d expected, exuding the tropical vibe of Havana and San Juan.
I immediately searched for La Gorda Gertrudis (Fat Gertrude), a voluptuous bronze nude by famed Colombian artist Fernando Botero, and found her reclining in front of a church in the Plaza Santo Domingo. We took a coffee break at a cafe in the plaza, charmed by a local hoping to show us his friend’s emerald store, and then proceeded to walk the streets in absolutely blistering heat (Cartagena’s temperatures are infamous).
The closing scene in Romancing the Stone was set at Cartagena’s imposing Castillo San Felipe fortress but was actually filmed in Veracruz, Mexico. The similarities were spot on as I recalled scenes from Veracruz in the 1980s. We lasted long enough to walk atop the city’s stone walls and along back streets, but succumbed to the humidity with time to spare.
The main event—the Panama Canal crossing—was far more intriguing than I expected. I caught a few canal documentaries on the in-room TV prior to the crossing and brushed up on the history. We ordered room-service coffee for our morning entry into the canal from the Atlantic Ocean and watched tugboats guide us into a narrow channel toward the lower lock as an enormous fuel tanker slid toward us in the upper lock. As the water level rose, the two vessels edged past each other with smiles and waves on both sides.
As we sailed along Lake Gatun I scanned the jungle for the abundant birds and monkeys I’d seen on previous Panama adventures. But they’ve got plenty of room to roam far from the busy canal. Late in the day we cruised toward the Miraflores Locks, past the Panama Canal Visitor Center where hundreds of onlookers lined the four-story balconies to watch the water’s dramatic rise and fall. We reached the Pacific Ocean as the day ended—a pretty impressive feat indeed.
Sweet young girls in ruffled dresses greeted the ship at Corinto, Nicaragua, where the dirt streets and ramshackle storefronts were reminiscent of a languid Mosquito Coast backwater. We stuck close the port in steamy Costa Rica, where I’d passed much of the late 90s while writing the Traveler’s Costa Rica Companion (now out of print). I was reluctant to join any shore excursions since I had the extreme good fortune to ramble around the country before there were large excursions and wildlife encounters.
Antigua, Guatemala was the highlight on the Pacific Coast. Locate about 90 minutes from the port. Antigua is another UNESCO site with gorgeous architecture and extraordinary artisans. I’m a sucker for Guatemalan textiles and headed straight to Nim Po’t, a well-known warehouse store showcasing traditional huipiles (embroidered blouses) from various regions in the country, along with bags, bedspreads, tablecloths and bolts of brilliantly hued cloth. The first time I visited Guatemala I had to buy an enormous duffle (made of beautiful striped fabric) to carry all my purchases. I showed far greater restraint this time, buying just enough to keep memories of that gorgeous country alive.
The itinerary ended in Puerto Vallarta, where we strolled the malecón
to El Dorado, a long-time favorite seaside restaurant, where we lingered over guacamole, ceviche, a limonada and a michelada (beer with lime juice and spices). Gala Night followed and we went all out, with Gary in a suit and me in a long sequined gown. We ended up at B.B. King’s, of course, and danced until the band bid farewell long before midnight.
We’ve had the good fortune to travel with many lines, from Cunard and Crystal to Carnival. We’ve been on small adventure ships and mega cruisers built for 5,000 passengers. There are several more lines we’d like to sample, and we’ll definitely sail on Holland America again. I was thinking about booking one of their Alaska cruises for this summer, but Covid-19 has put a halt to such plans for now. But we’ll be dancing on the high seas ASAP.