2021 Panama Canal cruise

To celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary and my daughter’s 21st birthday this year, we spent Christmas and New Year’s on a 11-day Panama Canal cruise on the Norwegian Pearl!

We’ve been planning this trip since our Hawaii cruise back in 2019. Who knew back then there’d be a global pandemic? In the weeks leading up to our departure, we closely watched the news and the spread of the omicron variant trying to decide if we still wanted to go. In the end, we took the calculated risk and sailed … and it turned out to be an amazing, incredible trip (and perfectly timed).

Day 0 (Wednesday, December 22 – Miami)

We drove over to Miami late Wednesday afternoon, crossing Alligator Alley and arriving at our hotel downtown shortly after 7pm. We ordered dinner from Sovereign and after eating in our room, did a little re-packing/re-organizing of the luggage for tomorrow. Hard to believe the trip is finally here!

Day 1 (Thursday, December 23 – Miami)

Our scheduled arrival time at the cruise terminal was for between 10am and 10:30am, so we got to sleep in a little before driving over to the port. This is the first time we’ve cruised out of PortMiami so it took me a few loops around before I figured out how to get into the new NCL parking garage by Terminal C. Both the Norwegian Pearl and Norwegian Joy were docked. The Pearl had arrived empty (except for crew) a few days earlier after a trans-Atlantic trip from France (it had been in dry dock in Marseilles). The Joy, however, had just gotten back from an actual cruise so the parking garage was jammed with people leaving. The garage was new and apparently the automatic payment machines weren’t online yet so everyone was having to pay manually at the gate. The line spiraled up several levels so it was a tight squeeze, but we were finally able to find an open spot to park. Not a good sign for when we get back next week.

We walked with our luggage to the terminal and, after leaving our baggage with a porter, we checked in with the CVS folks outside. NCL was requiring a negative rapid COVID-19 test before boarding and as backup in case of a false positive, we also had results of our PCR tests from earlier in the week. The terminal was pretty empty so it was a relatively quick process to get tested. Then we had to wait in a holding area for about 15-20 minutes until we got our results. After that it was the normal check-in procedure and by 11:15am, we were boarding the Pearl! Even with the extra precautions, I think this was the smoothest embarkation process we’ve had.

No muster drills this time (I’m guessing to avoid having a lot of people gathering in one place at the same time). We had to watch a safety video during online check-in, and then after boarding we were immediately escorted to our muster station to check in again and confirm we knew our station. Then we were escorted to Cagney’s for lunch. Our vacation has officially started! Another benefit of this being the Pearl’s first cruise with passengers: no waiting for your cabin to be ready! After lunch we headed to our suite to drop off our carry-ons. We also met our room steward (Budi), butler (Naveen), and concierge (Dilip). We spent the rest of the early afternoon walking around the ship and re-familiarizing ourselves with the layout (we last sailed on the Pearl in 2018). When we returned to the cabin, our luggage had already arrived! So we spent some more time unpacking and basically moving in for the next 11 days. I took some time up on the sun deck to watch the Miami Redhawks beat North Texas in the Frisco Bowl Classic (my daughter would have been there with the marching band had we not been leaving on the cruise).

As the sun set, we started sailing out of the port. My daughter headed off to find some other kids her age and we met up with her at the evening’s entertainment, comedian Vince Acevedo. Afterwards, we had a late dinner reservation at Teppanyaki, figuring the combination of the first night of the cruise and the later time would mean less people, and we were right. We had the whole hibachi table to ourselves! On the one hand it meant not having the same social experience sitting with other people, but on the other hand it was socially distanced and we had the chef all to ourselves. Walking around generally, the ship seemed very uncrowded. From what I heard, it was only at about 1/3 to 1/2 capacity. But the crew seemed genuinely happy to be sailing with passengers again (and we are definitely happy to be here with them!).

We’ve got two at-sea days coming up, so time to get into full vacation mode and relax!

Day 2 (Friday, December 24 – at sea)

Christmas Eve was our first full day at sea as we cruised along the east coast of Cuba, which was barely visible on the horizon for most of the day. We spent most of the day relaxing, enjoying the beautiful weather and wandering around the ship. We played progressive trivia (the first round of five, one on every sea day) and discovered that our cruise director, Tiara, was from Clearwater! Not only was she a fellow Tampa Bay resident (and Lightning/Bucs fan), she played the same pub trivia game that we had been playing for the past few years (including after it went online only during the pandemic). Small world. For lunch, my wife and I went to the sushi bar at Lotus Garden and met Gusti, one of the chefs, who treated us to a special Christmas creation. The Pearl was all decked out for Christmas, and the evening even included caroling by the officers and crew. The evening theme was Norwegian’s Night Out so we dressed up, got some family portraits taken (where we met Carlos, who would end up being our favorite photographer for the rest of the cruise).

Our next few activities turned out to be our recurring nightly schedule for the rest of the cruise: dinner, the 8:00pm show in the Stardust Theater, and then the 9:00pm game show in the Spinnaker Lounge, and a nightcap. The evening’s entertainment was Tricia Kelly, a vocal impressionist. Not just a voice impersonator, she actually sang whole songs as Tina Turner, Celine Dion, Whitney Houston, etc. She was pretty good, and I guess this was a replacement for the “Legends in Concert” show (we learned later that none of the typical NCL shows were being performed on the ship). After the show, we headed to the Not So Newlywed Game Show where (to my secret relief) my wife and I were not selected to participate (we did that in 2015 on our Disney cruise, and lost). It was fun to watch though. After the game, went to the Sugarcane’s mojito bar where we met Franklin the bartended who served us some delicious drinks (we’re going to work our way through the mojito menu).

Day 3 (Saturday, December 25 – at sea)

Merry Cruisemas! It was another beautiful Caribbean morning as my wife and I did our routine 2 mile walk around the track on deck 7 while my daughter was still sleeping in. We saw there were photos with Santa available but by the time we all got changed and down to the atrium, we had just missed him (Carlos, our photographer, tried to catch him but was unsuccessful). I guess Santa had had a long night and deserved some time off. 🙂 In the afternoon, my daughter participated in the Christmas scavenger hunt with her friends and then met us in Spinnaker for round 2 of progressive trivia with Tiara. Then, while my wife and daughter went to the spa, I went down to O’Sheehan’s to grab a beer and watch the Cleveland Browns take on the Green Bay Packers and, despite a last minute comeback attempt, lost 24-22).

For our typical evening schedule, we dressed up and had Carlos take some more family photos, went to Sugarcane’s to grab mojitos from Franklin (and Christian) and then had Christmas dinner delivered to our room (thanks, Naveen!). The evening entertainment was magic by husband and wife team Ben and Cassandra Nemzer, who put on a great show. Then it was up to Spinnaker for the Majority Rules game show which we won back on our Hawaii cruise, but didn’t fare as well this time. Tommorow is our first port!

Day 4 (Sunday, December 26 – Cartegena, Colombia)

We awoke docked at the pier in Cartegena, Colombia. Unlike our previous cruises, we had planned no port excursions ahead of time, figuring with the pandemic we’d play things by ear. During some downtime yesterday we had looked over the available excursions and decided to try the Hop On-Hop Off Bus tour which would allow us to view some of the sights but give us the flexibility to adjust our plans if needed especially since all aboard time was 1:00pm!

We got on the bus at the pier and got off at the first stop outside of the Walled City (Old Town). Rather than follow the guided tour we decided to just wander around ourselves. The city was pretty deserted and most of the shops were closed since it was a Sunday morning and the day after Christmas. Back at the bus stop (after about a 20 minute wait), we took the bus around a few stops where we saw the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas (it looked too crowded so we didn’t get off) and back around the outside of the Walled City. Rather than continue on the loop around downtown (the modern section of Cartegena) we walked back through the Walled City and then caught the bus back to the terminal.

After lunch back on board, and shortly after we departed, we played round three of progressive trivia with Tiara and spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing. The evening found us dressing up again for another round of family photos, dinner at Indigo, and the PG-13 comedy show by Vince Acevedo. We decided to skip the Insanity! game show and instead went to Sugarcane’s to get mojitos from Christian and Franklin. Tomorrow is the highlight of the trip: the Panama canal!

More photos from Cartegena here.

Day 5 (Monday, December 27 – Panama Canal)

The World’s Greatest Shortcut: the Panama Canal! I got up early so I could watch the Pearl transit the original locks from the Caribbean “uphill” into Gatun Lake (26 meters above sea level). Amazing! It took just under two hours to go through the three locks, and watching the huge ships go by the other direction really make you appreciate the engineering feat that was accomplished over 100 years ago. We anchored in the lake around 10:00am and people with excursions used the tender lifeboats to go ashore. Looking at the excursions yesterday, we decided to stay on the ship so we could watch going back through the locks (if you left on an excursion, you’d have to re-board in Colón) and that turned out to be a good decision. I made this awesome (in my opinion) timelapse of the transit back “downhill” into the Caribbean:

After leaving the canal we docked at Colón. All aboard time was 7:00pm, giving people with excursions to the Pacific coast (i.e., Panama City) time to get back to the ship. My wife and daughter decided to go ashore and do some browsing in the nearby shops but I opted to stay on board and took some time to organize all of the photos I took during the transit.

The evening show was was Tricia Kelly again so we decided to skip and did dinner and mojitos instead. We did go up to Spinnaker to watch the Wheel of Ill Will game show (and my daughter was selected as a participant). We’re sailing further west tonight, so we lose an hour going into Central time … yay, an extra hour spent in 2021!

More photos from Panama here.

Day 6 (Tuesday, December 28 – Puerto Limon, Costa Rica)

Tuesday morning found us docked at the pier in Puerto Limon, Costa Rica … another new port for us. In an attempt to see as much as possible in a short time (all aboard time was 3:30pm), we selected a Rainforest train/boat/walk excursion. After boarding a bus and meeting our guide Carlos, we spent a few hours seeing the beauty of Costa Rica (known for its bananas, coffee, and cacao) which included the ride on the bus, a train ride through the countryside, a boat ride in the Tortuguero canals, and a walk through a small section of the rainforest (which was part of the area where the boats departed). Our guides were quick to point out local wildlife (monkeys, sloths, lizards, birds, etc.) and plants and even would stop the transportation (including the train!) to let us look and take pictures.

We were back on the Pearl around 2:30pm and after eating lunch spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing. Our evening pattern included me watching some of the Lightning hockey game out on our balcony, a family dinner at the Summer Palace dining room, mojitos with Christian and Franklin, watching Phil Hughes (a comedy ventriloquist), and then playing the Last Man Standing game show up in Spinnaker (one of the questions was about USF, where I work, so I nailed that one!). The 70s dance party turned out to be a bit of a bust. The Pearl’s house band (the Funky Roots) was good, but there just weren’t enough people attending and hardly anyone dancing (I guess that’s one drawback of not having a full cruise).

More photos from Costa Rica here.

Day 7 (Wednesday, December 29 – at sea)

After three ports in three days, time for another relaxing at-sea day: we played round #4 of progressive trivia with Tiara, did another round of family photography, drank mojitos (of course!), watched the evening comedian Dylan Mandlsohn, and watched the Battle of the Sexes game show. Three more ports in the next three days.

Day 8 (Thursday, December 30 – Roatán, Honduras)

We’d been to Roatán before (back in 2018) and hadn’t planned to do an excursion today, but yesterday my daughter noticed the snorkeling one and talked us into it. We boarded a small van (one in a caravan of three) that drove us all out to the dock of the Jolly Roger catamaran. The crew was great and passed out the equipment while we sailed out to the reef off shore. Only my daughter had been snorkeling before (back on our Disney cruise in 2015) so this was a new experience for my wife and myself. I would have preferred maybe a little more instruction before going into the water for the first time, but it turned out to be relatively easy. The only problem was the size of the group: they split us into experienced and novice snorkelers, but still the novice group was so large it was hard to follow the guide and keep close to my family. There was a lot of bunching up and bumping into other people as everyone got their bearings, but eventually it worked out. I did hear one couple complaining about how bad this experience was (the reef is “dead”, people keep kicking me, etc.) but I tried not to let their negativity affect me. For a first time, I thought it was pretty cool. After about an hour in the water, we boarded the catamaran and the crew served us a buffet lunch and beverages (all rum-based, of course!) as we sailed back to the dock. This was a great experience and in addition to the crew putting up all of their digital photos on Facebook for free, they paid us to take the trip (OK, they gave us each one Honduran lempira … which is about 4 cents).

Back at the cruise terminal, we stopped at Monkey LaLa to grab some drinks before getting back onto the Pearl (I had an Imperial, which I had seen in Costa Rica but didn’t have a chance to try, and my daughter got her favorite Mirinda orange soda). My daughter was also hoping the old marimba player she had spoken to during our last visit, but it looked like the terminal area had undergone some rennovations since last time and we couldn’t find him and no one she asked remembered him.

In the late afternoon we went to Spinnaker to play the Celebrity Heads game show and I ended up winning! This was a tough one: a photo of a celebrity was put up on the screen behind the contestants and you had to ask yes/no questions of the audience in order to guess who it was in just a few minutes (I won with Robert Downey Jr., Meryl Streep, and Celine Dion). Our evening once again consisted of dinner, mojitos, watching the magicians (Ben and Cassandra Nemzer) again, and then watching the Yes/No game show in Spinnaker (where the participants had to answer questions but without using the words yes or no; it started slow but got a little better).

More photos from Roatán (and snorkeling) here.

Day 9 (Friday, December 31 – Harvest Caye, Belize)

Harvest Caye is one of NCL’s private islands which we also visited during our 2018 cruise. Only one ship is docked there at a time, and with the Pearl being at less than half capacity, the place was pretty empty compared to last time. We rented some paddleboards and paddled around the lagoon and then walked around the beach a bit after my daughter left us to go spend time with her friends. Back on the ship, I watched the Cincinnati Bearcats (lose to Alabama) in the Cotton Bowl and then we played some tough New Year’s trivia.

For New Year’s Eve, my wife and I had dinner plans (just the two of us) at Moderno (mmm, Brazilian churrascaria!) which is conveniently located near Sugarcanes where we picked up mojitos from Christian. The evening show was aerialists Travelers Duo (amazing) and then it was pretty much party time all over the ship as the countdown to 2022 began. The big party was up on the pool deck where the Funky Roots were playing and, at the stroke of midnight, they knocked the “1” of the 2021 ice sculpture into the pool and replaced it with a “2”.

Tonight we sail back into Eastern time which means we lose an hour … so an extra hour spent in 2021 and one less in 2022. 🙁

More photos from Belize here.

Day 10 (Saturday, January 1 – Costa Maya, Mexico)

Happy New Year! When I woke up this morning, I thought we were still sailing into Costa Maya based on the rocking of the ship. But no, we were docked already, it was just so windy these big waves were crashing against the ship (we were docked parallel to the incoming surf) and moving it around, wow! Having been to Costa Maya before (when we visited the Mayan ruins at Chacchoben) we again had no excursion plans, and none of the available ones really spoke to us so we just took it easy. We did go down into the port area for a while, but even with two cruise ships docked, it was pretty empty (it being New Year’s Day, I guess).

On board, we played a few trivia games (Tri-Bond, which involved finding the common thread in three words, and Cheese, which was tough!), had a late lunch with Gusti at the sushi bar, and finally went through all the family photos that Carlos had taken and selected the ones we actually wanted to buy. The evening entertainment was Phil Hughes again with a new act (he’s pretty funny) and the game show up in Spinnaker was 55 To Stay Alive (which was basically Minute to Win It). Hard to believe tomorrow is our last full day on board!

More photos from Costa Maya here.

Day 11 (Sunday, January 2 – at sea)

After another three ports in the past three days, today was our last at-sea day as the Pearl sailed back to Miami. Along with taking advantage of our last chance to just chill on the ship, we had to spend some time packing up and getting ready to debark tomorrow, along with writing our thank-you notes for tips for the crew and staff we had interacted with. Then we played the final round of progressive trivia with Tiara. We didn’t win, but we did beat my daughter and her friends. There was no White Hot Party but we dressed up anyway and had a last final dinner at La Cucina. Unfortunately, the last show of the cruise (Dylan Mandlsohn again) was cancelled due to “technical difficulties” (which seemed odd since they decided to show a movie in the theater instead). We had a last round of mojitos with Franklin and Christian and also spent some time handing out our thank-you notes and saying goodbye to our favorite crew members from the past 10 days. Do we really have to leave tomorrow?

Day 12 (Monday, January 3 – Miami)

It’s over … time to back to reality and home and work. We had one last family breakfast in Moderno before meeting Naveen who walked us off the ship. The debark process took a little longer, presumably as they were limiting the number of people in the terminal and customs. So we waited for a while in the line on deck 7 of the Pearl, then again in the terminal, then again at customs. But eventually we had our luggage and were outside the terminal building. It turned out that we can back to terminal F, further from the NCL parking garage, so we left our daughter with the luggage and my wife and I walked to the garage to get the car. I remembered the long line to get out when arrived, but this time, there was no line at all! I asked the parking attendant about it and apparently there was some mix up and a lot of people had accidentally parked there plus some technical issues. At any rate, it was pretty easy to get out and after circling the port a few times (giving my daughter some time to say goodbye to her friends as they came out of customs), we were on our way home to Tampa.

Post-Cruise Thoughts (and COVID-19)

It turned out that we really threaded the needle with our cruise. Just a day into the second sailing, the Pearl cruise right after us was cancelled and returned to Miami after several crew members tested positive for COVID-19 (we self-tested several times after debarking and were luckily negative). This might have explained some of the odder things we had noticed during the cruise, like not seeing certain members of the cruise staff after the first few days, or the “technical difficulties” that cancelled the last show (all speculation on my part, of course). We really lucked out that we got to go because NCL ended up cancelling a lot more cruises after that.

A few other final thoughts:

  • While having the smaller number of on-board passengers was great from a standpoint of social distancing or getting to do activities that weren’t packed with people, it did mean that things like the evening parties, dances, or game shows had less energy since fewer people were there. On the other hand, we did see the same people over and over (which was both a good thing and a bad thing, depending on who it was).
  • We were also disappointed that the normal NCL evening theme nights (70s night, 80s night, White Hot Party, etc.) didn’t happen … just the Norwegian Night Out
  • Similarly, we missed the normal on-board entertainment like Legends in Concert. Also, in the past there were two showings a night: the 7pm and the 9pm. This time there was only the single show a night at 8pm.
  • Another thing we missed: the Captain’s meet-and-greet. Understandably they probably didn’t want to expose the captain to too many passengers, but we always enjoyed meeting the captain and getting our Christmas ornament signed. Luckily we were able to give our ornament to Dilip our concierge and he worked his magic and got it signed for us.
  • This was our first cruise with a 21-year old, so we all had the beverage package. Still, it was odd walking into a bar and seeing my daughter there … and is it a bad sign that most of her crew friends were bartenders? 🙂
  • Not having any pre-planned excursions actually worked out pretty well.

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