The upside of going on a Panama Canal cruise to celebrate your 70th birthday is that you feel young compared to the other passengers. The downside is that you see the future and it isn’t pretty, in the most literal sense.
Before the politically correct among you suffer heart palpitations or sputter yourselves into apoplexy with incomprehensible rage mutterings about elder abuse, I will embrace the unassailable journalistic defamation defense. The truth is the truth.
We began our cruise holiday with a stop in Fort Lauderdale at a hotel convenient to the airport and a nearby cruise terminal. Convenience, as we learned while checking in amidst a throng of cruisers recently off-loaded from an arriving ship, is central to the travel philosophy of the geezer cruise crowd.
Ship to shuttle to hotel or attraction; hotel to shuttle to airport or attraction.
By happenstance, our brief Fort Lauderdale sojourn coincided with spring break, the annual migration of American college students to the beaches of Florida, where they refresh minds stressed by months of intellectual rigor by drowning millions of brain cells in alcohol while cavorting nearly naked in beachfront bars.
An afternoon stroll along the boardwalk reveals a shocking lack of visual self-awareness evident in the young and educated. Suffice to say, muscle shirts do not enhance every male physique and the thong was not invented with certain body types in mind. To follow flabby mottled cheeks jiggling down a public sidewalk on either side of an imbedded pink bum wiper is to instill images that could haunt a senior to his grave.
But our big take away from Fort Lauderdale came about during a boat tour of the city’s canals. Bernie Sanders is right. Too many people in the top one per cent have way too much money.
It’s not so much the opulent mansions that line the waterways, (second or third homes to the Trumps and Manaforts of the world) as it is the yachts parked out front for weekend outings. The annual upkeep alone on the floating trophies of capitalism gone awry would suck up the yearly salaries of 10 of the workers toiling for the captains of industry who brag about accumulating their wealth by knowing the value of a dollar well spent. The super rich fudge on their taxes and rail against raising the minimum wage while flaunting their wealth with conspicuous consumption that is breathtaking in its audacity.
But I digress.
We sailed on a mid-size Holland America ship called the Volendam, an upscale floating home for travelling seniors equipped with all the expected shipboard amenities—a promenade for strolling; lounge chairs for reading and contemplation; a piano bar for nightly name-that-tune-trivia games; lounges with happy hours for budget conscience geezers; buffets and fine dining restaurants; a hot tub and two pools (indoor with retractable roof and outdoor); a movie theatre; ping pong tables, a spa, a gym with the latest equipment and a ocean view; a library with classic books and tables for chess, scrabble and jig saw puzzles; a Las Vegas style showroom with a mixed bag of nightly entertainment ranging from a skinny German juggler to an electric harp player from Uruguay; a casino with slot machines and electronic poker; a medical centre; a quiet card room for bridge, canasta and euchre; glittery high-end jewelry and clothing shops; and a top deck pickle ball court enclosed with netting to keep the pickle from soaring into the sea.
The cruise lines have honed innumerable ways to separate captive codgers from their pension money. While soft drinks at $2.25 a can are within an acceptable range, the bottles of water beside them in your cabin will add six dollars to your cruise credit card. Laundry is $20 a small bag.
All alcoholic purchases are subject to a mandatory 15 per cent service charge, in addition to $15 dollars a day levied each passenger for gratuities for the crew. Wine stewards in the fine dining room are happy to recommend wine pairings that start at $40 a bottle and range sharply upwards into the hundreds. A domestic beer is $7.50 and the cheapest glass of wine is $9. The wi fi package offered pre-cruise came in at $30 dollars a day. Sales must have been slow because a few days out people were getting wi fi for the much-reduced rate of $8 per day.
Add 30 per cent to all prices for Canadian cruisers.
For the long languid days at sea the cruise lines offer distractions like art auctions, shore excursion sales pitches disguised as information sessions, massage packages, meditation at $12 a session and experts to brief you on the fantastic deals you get by booking your next cruise while at sea. You can wile away the hours shopping for over-priced clothing or a discounted Rolex or diamond earrings for that special someone on your 65th anniversary. They even offer specialty restaurants at extra cost, where the dinner experience is presumed to be a cut above the ship’s fine dining room, for those who prefer paying for their food to eating free with the hoi polloi.
You know going in that the real cost of cruising is all about the add-ons. To quibble about cruise line gouging is to defeat the purpose of the trip, which is to escape life’s aggravations while travelling from country to country in a five-star hotel with excellent personalized service without the unpacking and packing.
Did I mention the geezer cruising set like their conveniences?
The first stop was an afternoon visit to Holland America’s private island in the Bahamas, a small piece of paradise with impossibly blue water and pristine beaches, a perfect place to slow the pace needed for cruising. You can ride a sea doo or a horse, paddle a kayak or frolic with stingrays, for a price. We opted for a walk and ate burgers under palm fronds at the ship-sponsored lunch.
Crossing the Caribbean to the Colombian port of Cartagena on the second night out caused a lot of geezers to reach for their motion sickness pills. Your bilious agent departed Happy Hour prematurely leaving a bucket of unopened beer behind. Luckily, the Dame, who hasn’t ridden a roller coast she didn’t love, had the foresight to pack the pricey beverages to our cabin for future disposal.
We saw Cartagena through the windows of a tour bus which delivered its cargo of fresh-off-the-boat suck… ahem… seniors to a succession of tourist hot spots, where we were besieged by hawkers selling everything from genuine made-in-China-especially-for-Columbia hats to hand-made rosary beads and purses. We scooped up hats and several bottles of precious water at prices severely discounted from the ship.
The excursion included a mandatory stop at a ‘jade museum’ which is code for a jewelry store masquerading as a tourist attraction. A minor discord amongst the elderly sightseers surfaced when an oblivious codger couple kept 25 passengers waiting in the bus for 15 minutes while they bargained for jade earrings. For a moment I thought an enraged geezer was going to limp up the aisle and hit the late-comers with his cane.
The Panama Canal lived up to its billing as one of the engineering marvels of the world. It took a full day to negotiate, with plenty of viewing opportunities to observe the ship being raised and lowered a hundred feet as the massive locks filled with water in about the time it takes to run a bath. The clearance on either side of the ship looks to be no more than a foot as it’s guided through the locks by rail cars attached on either side.
The Columbian hats proved to be a good $10 investment in the equatorial heat and the sunburnt old folks, having checked off another item on their bucket lists, appeared well-satisfied when they assembled for dinner.
Eating is central to shipboard life. Everything revolves around it. The day begins with breakfast at the Lido, where serving station attendants dole out everything from omelettes to eggs benny, from eggs sunny side up with sausages and bacon to French toast or pancakes, toasted bagels, hot oatmeal or cereal with remarkable efficiency and good cheer. Unhealthy temptation for a breakfast lover with gluttonous tendencies.
Lunch begins at 11:30, giving late risers a short window to walk off excess breakfast calories before digging into roast lamb, beef brisket, caramelized carrots and roasted potatoes smothered in gravy, the excesses of which are sopped up with bread baked daily. To be fair, there are healthy alternatives at the custom salad station but it takes a stronger person than your agent to eat lettuce with beef brisket on offer.
Ship activity tends to slow down in the afternoon as the glutted geezers hobble and wheeze off to their deck chairs to slumber with open mouths and books on their laps. The more energetic rouse themselves to attend afternoon tea in the dining room, where they munch cucumber sandwiches without crusts and sip from dainty cups to prepare aged digestive tracts for the nightly food onslaught.
Not surprisingly for a restaurant that caters to a clientele averaging in age in the mid-to-high 70s, the fine dining room opens at 5:15, which conveniently for the budget conscience is right on the heels of Happy Hour. A quick jaunt to the cabin to change from shorts into the long pants required for fine dining does not significantly reduce the glow of cut-price alcohol.
It is essential to be in good spirits for the repartee at evening dining, which may find you at a table with six or eight retirees from various countries, a disproportionate number of them American preachers or members of obscure evangelical flocks. Bringing up the subject of Donald Trump, hopped up on Happy Hour drinks, resulted in a sharp kick in the ankle from the Dame and muted response from our dinner companions. We discovered that non-deplorable Americans were vocal in their condemnation of the Conman-in-Chief while supporters fidgeted with their eating implements or stared intently at their lobster tail hoping to avoid a political discussion.
At one such seating our dining companions included a well-spoken couple from California. The old gentleman, a former pastor who went into real estate when he retired from the ministry at age 65, sat before us as breathing testament for clean living. His real estate career peaked at age 80, when he had a six-figure year. At 98, he still retained his realtor credentials and had recently been issued a five-year driver’s licence which would take him to his 103rd birthday. He needed the licence for his volunteer work driving the needy to hospital appointments. His travelling companion, whom he met at the senior’s residence before both their spouses died, would admit only to being in her eighties and was careful to note that while they shared a cabin the sleeping arrangements were purely platonic. To the Dame’s great relief, I did not query them about Donald Trump.
Leaving the Panama Canal is like cruising into maritime rush hour. Dozens of cargo ships of varying sizes, some of questionable sea worthiness from visual inspection, are anchored in the Pacific near the entrance waiting for their precise entry times. Teddy Roosevelt’s tireless drive to link the oceans is paying huge dividends to someone with a mansion somewhere and a huge boat docked out front.
On the way up the West Coast of Central America we stopped at Puntarenas, a gritty Costa Rican port that is a stepping off point for worldly backpackers who ferry across the inlet to a jungle peninsula for cheap living off the grid. The entire town can be walked in an hour or so and doesn’t have much to offer beyond miles of deserted beaches too hot to lay on under the equatorial sun.
The stopover that interested us most was the tiny Nicaraguan port of Corinta, not much more than a village and remarkably untouched by the digital world despite the cruise ships that dock regularly. We were squired around town in a pedicab (a bicycle with a primitive two-seat trailer welded to its frame) by a man who spoke remarkably good English that he claimed to have learned by watching movies and TV. His stated rate was $5 for an hour’s pedaling, including his unique insight into the everyday lives of Donald Trump’s feared foreign invaders.
He lived with his grandmother, his girlfriend and young daughter and was their primary source of income. His mother was up north, somewhere in Mexico, where she had secured employment as a housekeeper. He rented the bike from a local entrepreneur who established his pedicab empire with help from family in the U.S. who sent him start-up cash. Our guide hoped to buy his own pedicab but money is tight and the political situation dicey. He took us down a rutted street called Hollywood because its modest houses were in better repair. He attributed its inhabitants’ relative prosperity to money sent home from the U.S.
He did not have good things to say about strongman Daniel Ortega, who dispersed heavily armed soldiers to Corinta to guard his port holdings during a recent period of political unrest that shut the cruise ship terminal for months, cutting off the locals’ main source of income. He spoke softly during the ride and looked straight ahead when we passed military men. We gave him $25 bucks at the ride’s end and at five times the rate quoted considered it money well spent.
In Antigua, an hour by bus from the ship into the Guatemalan hills, we discovered that a sure way to spoil the ambience of an idyllic Spanish colonial town is to slap a World Heritage Site designation on it. The town, with its cobbled streets, colonial architecture, street arches and busy markets is teeming with tourist traps like the Chocolate Factory that offers genuine Guatemalan cocoa bean chocolate bars for $7 U.S.
Our stop in Huatulco, Mexico, was like arriving back in western civilization from the third world. The beautiful bay was rife with small tour boats loaded with revellers and lined with condos and apartments owned by expat Canadians and Americans who prefer the climate to Northern winters. It has a long, treed boulevard, grocery stores, movie theatres and a lot of Pemex gas stations controlled by the richest man in the world, who no doubt has a waterfront mansion in Palm Beach and a humongous yacht docked out front.
Our last stop before two days at sea cruising to San Diego was Puerto Vallarta, familiar to many West Coasters in search of the cheap Mexican getaway for a week’s respite from the rain and snow. It is a one-time fishing village turned into a large commercial city with a great climate and a beautiful seaside promenade, a long way from the extreme poverty of Corinta.
To sum up, cruising is a bit like going to a senior’s home in a remote paradise in that even with all the activities aboard ship it takes several days to gear down to life without cell phones and the distractions that intrude on land. It is a fantasy world with a well-trained crew happy to serve your every need, a place where the cabin stewards greet you by your first name prefaced with a Mr. or Miss. The Happy Hour waiter knows your drinking companions and watches to steer them to your table. There is no crime or cable TV to spoil the mood and nothing more pressing to do than stroll the promenade with its endless ocean horizons.
It should be said that the mostly Filipino crew was a highlight of our cruise. They were unfailingly good humored, even with the aggravations of dealing with crotchety confused old people while working 11-hour days seven days a week away from their families for nine months of the year. Well worth the 15 dollar daily gratuity grouched about earlier.
I’ll leave the lovely southern California city of San Diego for another blog, as its charms for the traveller deserve a separate accounting.