A Short Trip to the Western Caribbean, 2009

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The stock market crash not withstanding, we've booked another cruise, however this is a shorter one, just a week starting on Jan 4, 2009. We will be sailing from Tampa to the coast of Central America and back. We will be accompanied by Grandpa Charlie, our daughter Katie, her boyfriend Dustin and another friend, Dean. Those 4 will be sharing a cabin.

Probably due to light bookings, this cruise was pretty heavily discounted, about $500 a head. The 3rd and 4th in the quad room are $99 a head additional.

Charlie will be staying a week longer after the cruise to visit a friend living in Key West.

Our ship this time will be the MS Veendam, a virtual duplicate of the MS Statendam, on which we've sailed twice before, and the MS Ryndam, on which we've sailed once. We should feel right at home. We don't have cabin assignments yet.

ms Veendam


ms Veendam Specifications

Decks 10
Passenger Elevators 8
Public Rooms 15
Passengers 1,258
Crew 560
Gross Tonnage 54,451
Length 720 ft
Width 101 ft
Draft 24 ft 6 in
Built 1996
Bow Thrust 2 units, 2340 bhp
Props 2 x 16,300 HP, Variable Pitch
Engines Diesel Electric
Max Speed 21 knots
Our itinerary is:
cruise map
Day Date Port of Call
Day 0 4 Jan 09 Depart Tampa, FL at 1700
Day 1 5 Jan 09 Key West, FL
Day 2 6 Jan 09 At Sea
Day 3 7 Jan 09 Belize City, Belize
Day 4 8 Jan 09 Santo Tomas De Castilla, Guatemala
Day 5 9 Jan 09 Costa Maya, Mexico
Day 6 10 Jan 09 At Sea
Day 7 11 Jan 09 Tampa, FL

ms Veendam Deck Plans
Sky Deck Sports Deck Lido Deck Navigation Deck Verandah Deck
Sky Deck
Sports Deck
Lido Deck
Navigation Deck
Verandah Deck
Upper Promenade Deck Promenade Deck Lower Promenade Deck Main Deck A Deck
Upper Promenade Deck
Promenade Deck
Lower Promenade Deck
Main Deck
A Deck

Thursday, January 1, 2009

All is arranged, and except for packing, we are ready to go. We finally got our cabin assignments, we are in M693. This is the last Main Deck (deck 6) inside cabin on the starboard side at the VERY stern of the ship. The rest of the crowd is bunked 3 cabins forward of ours.

Saturday, January 3, 2009, about 0815 PST, Las Vegas, NV

We got up at 0400 this morning to make a 0650 flight to Las Vegas. We are in Las Vegas now waiting for our onward flight to Tampa, FL.

McCarren Airport not only has free WiFi, it is fast too at 13 Mbit/sec both up and down. We have almost two hours to wait so we found a seat at our gate with a power outlet right next to it. I am charging the computer and a camera battery. The airport terminal is FULL of slot machines of all kinds, who knew?

Saturday, January 3, 2009, about 1920 EST, Tampa FL

Well, the six of us actually did meet up at the hotel and we're safely ensconced in our suite. All of our luggage arrived too. We went to dinner at Chipotle about a block away and then came back to the room to get organized. We have booked a shuttle to the cruise terminal at 1100 tomorrow so we're all set.

Sunday, January 4, 2009, about 1530 EST, Tampa FL

The ship is scheduled to sail in about 20 min. We got on board about noon and lounged around until out room was ready at about 1330. We also have some tours booked. The ship is full and there will be other ships in most of the ports we will stop at so that the tours tend to fill up. Since some of the ships plying these waters are really big, a single ship can overwhelm some of these ports. This ship, the MS Veendam, used to be a big ship, now it's one of the smaller ones at 1258 passengers.

In about a half hour they will have the obligatory lifeboat drill. Then we will be free to do a we please.

I still have yet to sign up for Internet access. It's $0.55/min so we will not be on long each day, just enough to download email and updates to this web page. This ship doesn't have internet access in the room, we have to move out to a public area to find a wireless hot spot. Yeah, I know, life is tough all over.....

Sunday, January 4, 2009, about 2000 EST, Tampa Bay, FL

090104_caribbean_cruise_tampa_harbor_american_victory_forward_quarter_6137.jpg We finally set sail at about 1700 because some passengers were late. Anchored right next to the Veendam was the SS American Victory, a Victory ship that served in WWII, Korea and Vietnam. This is now an operational museum ship.

090104_caribbean_cruise_tampa_harbor_american_victory_deck_gun_6130.jpg The ship still carries some gun emplacements. This looks like a 5" antiship and flak gun. There were also two smaller 3" AA guns emplaced.

By the time we sailed under the Tampa Bay Bridge, it was dark and I didn't have my camera with me but it was lit up well and looked pretty impressive.

We'll arrive in Key West FL at about 1100 tomorrow morning. I have a snorkeling trip planned. Sandy is going to wander around Key West, Charlie will be visiting a friend living in Key West. I have no clue with the kids will be up to.

Monday, January 5, 2009, about 1600 EST, Key West, FL

090105_caribbean_cruise_key_west_from_ship_500.jpgWe arrived in Key West Florida just before noon. The largest structure there is another cruise ship. I believe that the average elevation above sea level for Key West is about 4 feet.

090105_caribbean_cruise_key_west_from_ship_501.jpgAs we docked, we saw a small island on the other side of the ship from the main town. This is the high rent district, the cheap houses start at about $1 million.

090104_caribbean_cruise_key_west_snorkel_trip_ms_veendam_6144.jpgSandy went off to wander the town. I went on a snorkel trip to a reef about 10 miles away. This is a shot of the MS Veendam as the catamaran was pulling out of the harbor.

090104_caribbean_cruise_key_west_snorkel_trip_snorkelers_6147.jpgI did take some pictures with an underwater camera, but they didn't come out all that well due to the slightly murkey water.

090105_western_caribbean_cruise_key_west_snorkel_trip_014_9.jpgThe reef was not too impressive. It was an old, dying reef with a fairly small amount of live coral and some variety of fish. I also didn't have my mask with lenses with me so that I could not see very well because the reef was in 12 to 15 ft of water and it was a little too far away. It was also a little murky. I also had problem with my mask fogging and in the process of continually clearing it, I swallowed a little sea water which made me feel less than totally well. However, it was a nice boat ride and there wasn't a lot of swell.

090105_western_caribbean_cruise_key_west_snorkel_trip_019_4.jpgThere were actually more fish swimming underneath the boat than down on the reef. There were literally many hundereds of one kind of fish there.

090105_caribbean_cruise_statue_naked_ladies_512.jpgSandy wandered the town near the pier. This is kind of an odd statue for a public area in the US, but it was there.

090105_caribbean_cruise_key_west_bull_whistle_bar_542.jpgThere are lots of bars and clubs in town. This is the Bull and Whistle Bar.

090105_caribbean_cruise_mallory_square_549.jpgMallory Square is kind of a hang out spot in town. This is a museum located at Mallory Square.

The weather in Key West was very pleasant, running about 75°F and somewhat humid. I expect the temperature to rise a bit, perhaps into the 80's, at the Yucatan. This is not bad for the dead of winter.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009, about 1200 EST, At Sea

Sea days are a time to kick back and relax. Port stops often involve a tour of some kind and usually consume much of the day. Sandy and I both like the sea days. On some cruises, especially the "repositioning" cruises, there might be several sea days in a row. On this cruise, we have two sea days so that the ship can make the distance between Florida and the Yucatan.

This morning, I did the "art tour" and my own video tour of the ship. The art tour is a self guided tour that uses an iPod Nano as the tour device. After I got back from the tour and checked the iPod back in at the Library, I asked the attendant how many people take the tour because they had lots of iPods. She said that I was the first one to take the tour since she had been on the job.

The ship has quite a bit of art on board, not as much as the Statendam, but still there was more than other ships. The lighting wasn't so good for much of it so my photos were less than ideal. But I did get a few good photos.

090106_caribbean_cruise_veendam_art_tour_6161.jpgThis marble side table was made in Belgium in the 19th century. While the table is maybe not expressly considered "art" it none the less quite ornate. The mantel clock is also a 19th century piece from France. The gilded mirror is actually an English 20th century piece made in a style popular in the George III style.

090106_caribbean_cruise_veendam_art_tour_6188.jpgThis iron strongbox is probably not "art" but it is a genuine 17th century Dutch artifact. Chests like these were usually bolted to the deck, often in the captain's cabin.

090106_caribbean_cruise_veendam_art_tour_6194.jpgThis large piece is installed at the entrance to the casino. I walked by it several times and didn't realize what it was. It is a barbecue. It was made in Spain in the 18th century for a castle in Siena, Italy. The artifact is made of iron and was completely functional.

090106_caribbean_cruise_veendam_art_tour_6231.jpgThis Dutch bronze gun dates from about 1700. It was intended for mounting on a ships railing. This particular piece is very well preserved. It shows no signs of corrosion or immersion. The marble is it set in is also pretty unique with a very prominent pattern.

Update, Tuesday, January 6, 2009, about 1700 EST, At Sea

I was concerned that our cabin, right at the stern of the ship, would be impacted by engine noise and propeller vibration. It turns out that the those concerns didn't amount to much. The engines are actually amidships so we don't hear them at all. The cabin is actually behind the propellers and vibration isn't an issue either. The run from Tampa to Key West was at the ship's top speed of 21 knots. During that night, we felt some mild, low frequency, vibration. However it was softer than in a well suspended car on a good road. The run from Key West to Belize is at a more sedate 16 to 17 knots and we don't feel anything at all. Our cabin noise is dominated by the subdued noise of the air conditioning equipment. Since we are the very end of a corridor, we don't get much traffic noise either.

All this quiet is helped, in no small regard, by the absolutely flat seas that we have experienced so far. The seas have been in the "light chop" range with swells of a foot or so. This is equivalent to absolutely nothing for a ship of this size.

The weather is nice and getting nicer all along. There is some wind, 25 knots or so (Force 6 on the Beaufort Scale) so parts of the deck are buffeted pretty well, but the wind is insufficient to impact the handling of the ship.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009, about 1800 EST, Belize City, Belize

Today we took a bus tour to a Mayan ruin called Xunantunich. In Mayan this means "stone lady" or "maiden of the rock." This is not the original Mayan name for the place, but it is the name that stuck.

Belize was formally known as British Honduras. It is a small country on the east side of the Yucatan peninsula. Due to it's British heritage, the official language is English with Spanish and Creole also spoken. The population is a mix if Mayan, Spanish, English and African. The country has been stable for many years and looks like it might remain that way.

The coast line goes pretty much north and south. Belize City is roughly in the center of the coast line. The ruins are at the western boarder of Belize with Guatemala, a two hour drive in a tour bus.

090107_caribbean_cruise_trip_from_xunantunich_ruins_fruit_stand_6289.jpg The weather was not all that warm, about 80°F and humid, and the bus had air conditioning, but I kept seeing fruit stands like this one and I was craving some pineapple, which they all had in abundance.

090107_caribbean_cruise_trip_to_xunantunich_6241.jpgThere were a few places, especially near the coast, that had some very nice houses. However, many of them were not in as good a condition as this one. Overall, the area looked pretty run down, but it had been hit by Hurricane Hattie a few years ago and the area was still recovering.

090107_caribbean_cruise_trip_to_xunantunich_ferry_6249.jpgThe site is virtually on the border with Guatemala. It is also across a river from the "Western Highway" (there are only 4 main roads in the whole country, you can guess what some of the others were named). We had to cross by this hand cranked, one car ferry.

090107_caribbean_cruise_trip_to_xunantunich_iguana_6248.jpgHanging over the river were some large trees with some very large iguanas in them. The males all turn orange during mating season. This one was lounging in the tree. I would guess that he about 3 ft long, much bigger than any other iguana that I have ever seen.

090107_caribbean_cruise_xunantunich_ruins_6261.jpgThe ruins are in a complex that was in used from about 400 B.C. to about 1000 A.D. Then the site was abandoned for reasons unknown and the jungle took it over. It was rediscovered in the 1950's and parts of it have been slowly excavated. This is the main temple at the site, the 2nd tallest Mayan structure known to exist.

090107_caribbean_cruise_xunantunich_ruins_sandy_6269.jpgThis is my beloved Sandy standing at the top of the temple. There were lots of very large and steep steps. The view from the top was pretty spectacular though. The rest of the site can be seen in this photo. The view was good from 360° around.

The tour guide gave us quite a bit of good history information about what is known about this site, then we headed back for lunch along the way and returned to the ship.

Update, Thursday, January 8, 2009, about 1400 EST, Santo Tomas de Castilla, Guatemala

090108_caribbean_cruise_santo_tomas_de_castilla_quirigua_ruins_stele_6305.jpg Today, we took yet another bus tour out to some more Mayan ruins, these dating from 700 to 800 AD. The city was called Quirigua and was apparently abandoned around 800 AD. This was a smaller Mayan city that apparently had a total of 16 known kings, only one of which much is known about based on the sandstone monuments he left behind to his "greatness." These "stele" are in the positions that they were found. The ones in back were still standing but totally encased in the trunks of trees. The one in the foreground had fallen but was righted by the restorers in place.

090108_caribbean_cruise_santo_tomas_de_castilla_quirigua_ruins_courtyard_6307.jpg This is pretty much all that has been excavated of the temple area. This courtyard is thought to be part of the home of the king. There are some suspicious rectangular mounds that haven't been explored yet, one mound is thought to contain the tombs of several kings but there is no money to dig it out.

090108_caribbean_cruise_santo_tomas_de_castilla_trip_from_quirigua_ruins_6321.jpg Taking pictures from a moving bus is a dicey proposition. I shot over 50 pictures of houses along the way and this is typical of the pictures that came out. Many of the houses were in much worse shape than this one, some were merely shacks. I saw very few nice houses.

Most of the scenery between the port and the ruins (about a 90 minute drive) was jungle with patches cleared for small farms or ranches. This area gets abundant rainfall but it can get very hot and it is humid at all times. This is the cool season, it was about 85°F. There were bugs here, but at least they weren't biting.

090108_caribbean_cruise_santo_tomas_de_castilla_vendors_6338.jpgBack at the port, there is a large hanger like building that is set up for vendors. This is a typical vendor selling mostly jewelry.

090108_caribbean_cruise_santo_tomas_de_castilla_vendors_6339.jpgMany stalls had textiles like these for sale. Sandy was going nuts over this stuff, I almost had to drag her back to the ship to get lunch. I think she plans on going back later in the afternoon to buy the place out.

Friday, January 9, 2009, about 1800 EST, Costa Maya, Mexico

090109_caribbean_cruise_costa_maya_6341.jpgWe got to Costa Maya this morning and found not much there. This photo contains just about everything there. This is a purpose built cruise ship stop and mini-resort with exactly one hotel. The pier can hold three cruise ships at a time but sometimes the sea conditions prevent any ships from stopping at all because the anchorage is not protected from the sea swell.

The facility consists of some shops, a restaurant, a bar and a couple of pools. That is exactly all of it. This is primarily a jumping off point for land tours. Sandy and her father went on a tour to an old Spanish fort, the kids and I went snorkeling.

090109_caribbean_cruise_costa_maya_vendors_6343.jpgThese are typical vendors selling typical Mexican trinkets and clothing. I was not impressed by the selection and I didn't buy anything.

090109_caribbean_cruise_costa_maya_snorkel_trip_6356.jpgI knew something was up when our tour was lead out to this truck. It was one like we rode in the Dakar sand dunes, except bigger. I suspected that some kind of bad road was in store for us. I was right, the last couple of miles were on a dirt road that was in fair condition but the going was pretty slow.

090109_caribbean_cruise_costa_maya_snorkel_trip_out_6348.jpgThe road paralleled the coast along a stretch that had some houses and the remains of some houses. Some had obviously been restored from the storm damage. This one had been heavily damaged and it just sits there. Others had been clearly swept away as there were only some pieces of foundations left.

090109_caribbean_cruise_costa_maya_snorkel_trip_6355.jpgThe snorkel place as a nice piece of coral sand beach along a section of reef. They ran scuba, power snorkel and regular snorkel dives from this site. Those bomb like things in the photo are battery powered "power" snorkel rigs that allow the diver to get further with less work. I used regular fins.

090109_western_caribbean_cruise_costa_maya_snorkel_trip_007_16.jpgThe water was clear and warm and it was a much better experience that I had in Key West. I saw a small sting ray, a lobster and many typical reef fish. I swam until my legs were ready to fall off then I went in to the shore to rest.

090109_western_caribbean_cruise_costa_maya_snorkel_trip_003_20.jpgRight in the middle of this photo is a sand dab or maybe a very small halibut. This is a flat bottom fish that looks pretty much like the sand it usually sits in so it is hard to see on the rock.

090109_caribbean_cruise_costa_maya_snorkel_trip_back_6360.jpgJust inland from the dirt road, this is what the storm did to the wetlands just inland from the beach. Much of the heavy brush cover as dead and all blown over in one direction. This same scene was there for miles. About a half mile inland, there wasn't so much obvious damage, the wind must have spent some of it's energy right at the coastline.

5_fort_san_felipe_925g.jpgSandy and Charlie went on a different tour. This one went to Balacar, a town about 2 hours drive away. There was a fort there overlooking a very large lake, some 50 km long, to protect against pirates on the lake.

Saturday, January 10, 2009, about 1900 EST, At Sea

The crew of the Veendam is doing their level best to take up home. Tomorrow, they will boot us off the ship.

Charlie is going to the airport to get on a puddle jumper back to Key West to visit his friend Lew. Katie, Dustin and Dean will be going to the Tampa Amtrak station to catch a train to DC. They will be leaving about 1700 for a 21 hour train ride. Sandy and I will be catching a cab to a hotel. We fly out tomorrow. The air fares out of a cruise port are typically much higher the day that a ship arrives than the following day. The flight the next day costs MUCH less than the hotel costs for one night.

Today, we finally got some perceptible ship movement. There is a low swell, about 2 to 3 feet, which is resulting in some ship roll. There is not very much pitch though. However, the weather outside is very nice, about 75°F, breezy with broken clouds and bright sun.

We're spending our last day at sea recovering from the trip. Sandy and I both like sea days even more than the port days. The next cruise will probably be one with several sea days in a row.

We'll be in a virtual internet blackout until we get home so this should be the last update until we get home late on the 12th.

Sunday, January 11, 2009, about 1530 EST, Tampa, Florida

We got off the ship in good order and back to our hotel, but we could not check in for four hours so we went for a walk to a nearby mall that happened to have an Apple Store so we hung around a bit playing with the new iWork software.

The hotel check in time was 1500. We got back to the hotel just before then and recovered our luggage, said our farewells to the kids and found our room. Katie, Dustin and Dean took a cab back to the Amtrak station to catch an afternoon train back to DC.

Tomorrow morning we get on the airplane to go home. We should arrive in the late afternoon Pacific Time.

Monday, January 12, 2009, about 1030 EST, Tampa, Florida

Tampa Airport has free WiFi so I'm taking the opportunity to use it. There is so much download activity going on that the upload speed is 5 to 10x faster than the download rate.

There was a snack (fish sticks and salad) served at the hotel last night so I got away without buying dinner. They also had a "free" full up breakfast. We caught their "free" shuttle to the airport and made it in plenty of time to catch our flight through Denver and then on to LAX.

Update, Monday, January 12, 2009, about 1600 PST, Torrance, CA

We got home in good order, all the flights were on time and besides the "E" ticket taxi ride back from LAX, the trip back was uneventful.

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© 2008-2009 George Schreyer
Created 19 Oct 08
Last Updated January 14, 2009