Panama Canal Cruise – Getting to the Port

August 15, 2018

A few months ago my bride and I took a trip that had been on my bucket list for several years. Actually, it was a combination of two items – first, take a re-positioning cruise from wherever to wherever. Second, take a cruise through the Panama Canal.


Entering the canal from the Pacific Ocean

A re-positioning cruise is the result of a cruise ship company deciding to move a ship from one ‘market’ to another. In most cases, the decision is based on the calendar. For example, a ship that has been plying the waters of the North Atlantic is moved to the Caribbean in the winter months and then returned to the New England area for the summer travelers. In other instances, an older ship is moved to make room for a newer (larger and more luxurious vessel) that will accommodate more passengers in a particular ‘market’.


The Norwegian Sun in Victoria, B.C.

In our case, the Norwegian Sun, was being replaced by the Norwegian Bliss (the newest and one of the largest ships in their fleet). The Sun was being returned to Florida and assigned to cruise between Miami and Havana, Cuba. Thus, our cruise began in Seattle, Washington and ended at Port Canaveral in Florida.

The best part of a re-positioning cruise is the price. The cruise line would rather not send an empty ship from one port to another for any reason. This is true in the airline industry as well as the trucking industry. If you can pick up a load and carry it to your destination and make some money in the effort, why not? The best way to get that load is to drop the price.

Our 18 day cruise had a base price (inside stateroom) of about $900 per person, or around $50 per day. Thus, the two of us got to sail for $100 a day. A price that included a ‘motel’ room, numerous meals and snacks throughout the day, nightly Las Vegas style shows, other forms of entertainment throughout the day, a large swimming pool, and numerous other amenities. It cost very little to upgrade to an outside cabin, so we did.

The other costs included airfare from Atlanta to Seattle and from Orlando to Atlanta; shore excursions – we took a bus tour of San Francisco, a hike and boat trip through the rain forest of Costa Rica, and a hop on/hop off bus tour of Cartagena, Colombia – tips for the ship’s crew members, and a few meals on land, and souvenirs. In total, we spent less than $6,000 for a wonderful three week vacation. That total included paying to park our car near the Atlanta airport and paying for someone to take care of our dog in our absence. (More about our dog later!)

We started our trip a few days prior to the ship’s departure. This is good advice for anyone taking a cruise for two reasons. First, the cruise ship leaves port when it is scheduled to leave port. This is true almost 100% of the time. Second, airlines are not always as punctual. If your plan calls for you to fly to the port city the day of the cruise ship’s departure and the flight is delayed or cancelled, you may miss the boat. If you’ve already paid a few thousand dollars for that cruise, a day or two in a motel is a sound investment. Plus, it gives you a chance to tour the port city.

In our case, the motel was basically free. I say ‘basically’ because we had to take a shuttle bus to get from the airport to a small town where we met my brother Doug and his bride Nancy. We then spent some time with them at their home in Port Townsend, Washington.


Me and my brother Doug


Lu and our sister-in-law Nancy

While in the area, we toured the town and learned that it had once been a thriving port – long before Seattle became the base for many cruise ships and cargo vessels. We also learned that the local government and chamber of commerce members are working hard to make the area a major tourist attraction. From our experience, I’d say it is worth the trip… even if you can’t stay with my brother for free.

After enjoying our visit, we were up before the sun and making our way to the cruise ship. This part of our trip was free because the ferry boats only make you pay when you are leaving Seattle. (As I recall, many years ago the city of Philadelphia made airline passengers pay to leave. If memory serves, they insisted on cash! I also remember that most people were more than glad to pay to leave. It might have been the “City of Brotherly Love”, but at the time it did not live up to its name.)

It wasn’t long before the city of Seattle came into view and I found myself disappointed by the ‘progress’. You’d have to magnify this picture quite a bit to see it, but the Seattle Space Needle is now plastered with advertising. Lu and I had been to Seattle in 1999 and ate at the restaurant that sits on top of the needle. It was much more attractive without the commercial messages. I’m sure it helps to pay their bills, but it is definitely an eyesore.


The Space Needle in Seattle

Shortly after that photo was taken we spied our ship. Soon our ferry boat docked and we walked a few blocks and got in line to board and enter the cabin that would be our home for the next eighteen days.


The Norwegian Sun in Seattle

For whatever reason, we spent the next few hours sitting in a large room waiting to board the ship. It seems they weren’t ready for us. Even after we finally got on board, we were directed to another area to wait until our cabin was ready. During this time we learned all sorts of interesting tidbits about the Norwegian Sun. As I recall, the ‘cruise from Hell’ was a phrase used more than once!

I skipped a lot of details. So before I explain the ‘cruise from Hell’ statement, let me list the specifics of the trip to this point.

First, we drove from our home to a Holiday Inn near the Atlanta airport. We spent the night at the motel to be sure we would have no problem getting to the airport in time to catch our noon flight. That should tell you a lot about Atlanta traffic. We live about 60 miles north of the airport. To get there two hours before our flight would have put us in the middle of the morning rush hour. Smarter option? Spend the night at a motel and pay the few extra dollars.

Our first flight was to Kansas City where we had a short layover and changed planes. That gave us a chance to grab a bite to eat and meet other travelers. We then boarded the plane to Seattle and arrived around 4:30 P.M. west coast time.

From there, we took a shuttle bus to Silverdale where my brother and his wife met us. We then had dinner at a great Chinese buffet that also included steaks cooked to order! Finally, on to my brother’s home to spend the night.

The next day was for roaming around Port Townsend and visiting a few historical sites.

Another night in Washington and an early wake-up call so we could head to the Port of Seattle. That was accomplished beginning with my brother driving us to the ferry boat terminal.

Thus, “Getting to the Port” was actually a three day event.

Now, the explanation of the ‘cruise from Hell’.

Our re-positioning cruise was actually phase two. The Sun had been used for Caribbean cruises and was being refurbished prior to taking on the Florida to Cuba route. Phase one was to move the ship from Florida to a dry dock in British Columbia for a complete refurnishing. As mentioned earlier, if the cruise line can carry paying customers and make some money on the deal, why not?

Well the ‘why not’ was what made this cruise Hellish. Based on some top executive’s infinite wisdom, it was decided to begin the refurbishing effort during the trip from Florida to California. Thus, the ship not only carried passengers and crew, it also carried construction workers and their equipment. For the next two weeks, the passengers had to endure dust, noise, toxic odors, and various areas of the ship being roped off while decks were torn up and completely replaced. While the workers wore hazmat suits, the passengers were left to their own devices.

The passengers insisted on meeting with the captain. He entered the room, blamed everything on upper levels of management and walked out of the room. It took less than five minutes and the captive audience could do nothing until they reached port in Los Angeles.

At that point, they raised so much Hell with Norwegian Cruise Lines that they all received full refunds.

Obviously, had we learned of this before we booked the cruise, we might not have made the trip. But, until we sat in the waiting room waiting to board the ship, we were totally ignorant.

At that point, all we could do was continue on our way and hope for the best. We would not be disappointed!




We Need Your Help

March 3, 2010

A home built sixteen feet above sea level

About three thousand families remain homeless along the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. Most are probably living in government provided trailers, or with friends or family, but they’d all love to be able to move back to their own homes.

Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005. While New Orleans got all the headlines, the brunt of the storm hit Waveland, Mississippi. There, a thirty foot storm surge totally wiped out many homes and businesses. New Orleans could blame much of their damage on the failure of their levees – after Katrina had moved on. Mississippi could blame nothing other than the hurricane.

So, after nearly five years, why are there still three thousand families unable to go home? The main problem: insurance companies found reasons to avoid paying the claims. In that area of the country, normal homeowner’s insurance means very little. One must also carry flood insurance and wind insurance, and then hope that your home is destroyed by something other than a “named” storm. Families need additional insurance when the storm is given a name.

In addition, charitable relief groups have run out of money. Government funding and grants from other sources have dried up. The only hope families have is to save enough money to pay for the materials to rebuild. There are still plenty of volunteers coming from all over to help. Personal savings and volunteer labor can put people back in their homes… eventually.

Last week, I stayed at the Mission on the Bay camp in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi and worked on two homes. One, in Gulfport, was nearing completion. It was located about five miles inland and might have survived the storm… until the roof collapsed. The insurance company wouldn’t pay the claim because the owner didn’t have flood insurance. The owner pitched in and helped us whenever he could. His job involved twelve hour days working with mentally handicapped children at a state hospital.

The second home I worked on was the heartbreaker. It was in Waveland. The owner had built the home himself, and he certainly built it to last. It was approximately twenty-five years old and held together throughout the storm. There was no wind damage to mention, but that thirty foot surge of water left it in ruins.

The authorities declared it inhabitable and the family was provided with a very small trailer. With no money to rebuild, they could do nothing until our volunteer group was able to place them on our schedule. In the past few weeks, they were able to watch as we dismantled their home.

Our supervisor made it clear to us; we were not demolishing the home, we were deconstructing it. We carefully reversed the building process, pulled nails out of boards, and stacked the lumber neatly. The hope of the owners is to use that lumber to rebuild their home.

After being under water (salt water no less) for hours and open to weathering for more than four and a half years, you can imagine the condition of the lumber. We had to discard more than half the boards as totally useless.

And yet, the owners were thrilled to have us bring down their home. They’ve known for years it had to be done before they could take the next step, but they couldn’t afford to pay anyone to do it.

Realistically, the lumber that remains is a drop in the bucket of what they need. For one thing, the current concrete slab (all that remains) is about six feet above sea level. The local ordinance (changed after Katrina) requires homes be built at least sixteen feet above sea level. Thus, the first thing they must do is put in some sort of piers to raise the house ten feet about ground level. (Do the math, a thirty foot surge would still put the houses under water, but building any higher would be unrealistic.)

The contractors working with Mission on the Bay tell us it would take approximately $60,000 dollars worth of material to rebuild that one home in Waveland. Right now, no one has that money.

As for the labor… that was another heartwarming part of our trip. Our group of nine representing Christ the King Lutheran Church in Cumming, Georgia was joined by a few folks from California and a small contingent from another state. In addition, there were about thirty college students who had flown in from New Hampshire and about fifty high school students from Halifax in Nova Scotia, Canada.

Those Canadian kids had raised $20,000 to pay for the trip. They came by bus, spent a day in New York City and ate one meal in New Orleans. Otherwise, their mid winter break from school was spent helping others. There is hope for the future!!

I invite my readers to visit the Mission on the Bay web site. Take the time to learn what this group is doing. Then, if you can find it in your heart and wallet, send them a donation. Even if you can only afford a dollar, if we can get 60,000 people to do likewise, we can rebuild that home in Waveland.

If you are reading this article because of a link on Facebook, the effort is working. I’m asking all my friends to spread the word and I’m asking you to do the same.

When you send your donation, please mention my name. I’m hoping we raise more than $60,000, but I’d like the first $60,000 to go to rebuild the home I helped take apart.

Life’s a Beach

February 16, 2010

Edisto Island Beach

I’ve been going to the beach ever since I was a toddler. Because my father was raised in South Jersey and we had relatives living in Linwood and Somers Point, my family vacationed near the beach every year.

We never stayed at the beach; that would’ve been too expensive. We would rent a small apartment or stay on my uncle’s cabin cruiser (also small) a few miles in from the shore. Most of our time was spent fishing and crabbing in the inland bays and marshes. Once or twice during our stay we’d go into Atlantic City or Ocean City to spend some time on the beach or stroll along the boardwalk.

Fishing and crabbing with nephews and nieces

I recall one vacation when my parents did something different. I believe it was 1955 or 1956. Instead of going to South Jersey, we went to Cambridge, Maryland and rented a cottage along the Choptank River. We arrived shortly after a hurricane had passed through. Not only was the river running fast and deep, many of the surrounding fields were still draining. We saw a number of people holding chicken wire at the end of irrigation ditches. They were catching some very large fish that had been driven inland by the storm surge.

On that particular trip, the beach wasn’t quite as convenient. But on one of our days in Maryland, we drove over to Ocean City, Maryland and enjoyed their beach and boardwalk.

I have been to beaches all up and down the East Coast, Mississippi, Texas, California, and Oregon. I’ve also visited Brighton Beach in England and some beaches in Puerto Rico and Mexico. They all speak the same language as they invite us to either walk along the water’s edge or sit down and watch the waves rolling in.

Without even closing my eyes, I can hear the sound of the surf, the wind, and the sea gulls.

I’ve often thought about living closer to a beach. I wouldn’t want to own a home on the beach. Hurricanes might not hit a particular beach that often, but once would be more than enough for me. I’d like to live about twenty miles inland so it would be an easy trip to get close to the ocean.

However, with most of our children and grandchildren living within thirty miles of us, I’d find it difficult to move anywhere.

Perhaps we could win the lottery. Then we could move the entire extended family.

My bride and I on Tybee Island

I have been to the beach so many times in my life that I consider it a God given blessing and wish everyone – especially children – could visit a beach on a regular basis.

Twice we were able to stay at rental properties right on the beach. Once was in Ocean City, New Jersey and the other was on Edisto Island. My bride and I rented the place in New Jersey at the end of the summer season (reduced rates) and my nephews and nieces chipped in. On Edisto Island, we were fortunate to be the guests of John and Debbe Mize. That was in November a couple of years back.

Based on those two experiences, I’d say the best time to go to the beach is after Labor Day and before June. The temperatures are much milder and there are no crowds.

We’re hoping to get to at least one beach in 2010, but I think I’m already there mentally.