Los Angeles, U.S.A.

Sat, Aug 10

This morning we arrived in the port of San Pedro, looking forward to our day in LA, but first we had to complete a face to face inspection by Customs Border Protection immigration officials. This was conveniently carried out onboard, and as we had already been photographed and fingerprinted in New York, we were quickly processed and then were free to join our excursion.

We had a very informative guide who gave us a lot of interesting facts about America’s second most populated city, located in Southern California and 130 miles north of the Mexican border. Our first stop was the Disney Concert Hall/Music Centre; featuring stainless steel curves on its striking exterior, this 3.6 acre complex is one of the most acoustically sophisticated concert halls in the world.

We then went to Olvera Street; the birthplace of LA, this colourful village features 27 historic buildings and a marketplace offering traditional Mexican food and handcrafted Mexican wares. I was very pleased to discover a leather purse that I had seen in Brisbane at 1/3 of the price!

Next stop was Hollywood Boulevard, home to the Walk of Fame, Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museum, Madam Tussauds’s and the TCL Chinese Theatre (formerly Grauman’s) featuring elaborate Chinese-style architecture, and over 200 Hollywood legends hand and foot prints, set in the concrete of its forecourt. They were all quite close together and it was a bit difficult trying to take photos in the timeframe we had – especially with the sun in the wrong spot and just as we would go to take the shot, suddenly someone’s feet would appear right in the middle of the frame!

You could not leave LA without visiting Beverly Hills and driving down Rodeo Drive – the shopping mecca for the wealthy. Hundreds of the world’s top labels and icons can be found here. We were amazed to see a menswear store which opens by ‘appointment only’ … the cheapest item we were told being a man’s handkerchief costing $100. The owner’s motor vehicle was parked out front – a Bugatti Veleron – according to our guide worth over $2M!!

We were very pleased to have an extended tour around town – we thought we would be done by 1.00pm but didn’t get back to the ship until 4.00pm, so we were able to spend a good length of time at the Farmers Market browsing the many shops and enjoyed a great hot dog and fries for lunch. We noticed many Mexican restaurants and we love Mexican food, but just too well fed on the ship to indulge in a big meal unfortunately. We were amazed at the prices of souvenirs and clothing generally, so much cheaper than Australia.

Unfortunately we were not able to go the Hollywood Bowl, as it was closed to the public in preparation for a concert that night with Willie Nelson.

Once back at the ship, we took advantage of the free Waterfront Trolley to take a quick trip around San Pedro (not the most attractive part of town), then back to the ship about 6.00pm. The weather was warm with a breeze coming off the water … similar to our weather in Queensland but with low humidity, making for a very pleasant day.

We loved LA – we travelled on some amazing freeways, saw many landmarks familiar from movies and television – Fifth Avenue, Wiltshire Boulevard, Cedars-Sinai Hospital, Paramount Studios, CBS – just to mention a few, and thought that the type of housing in the pretty leafy suburbs was very similar to ours. Instead of skyscrapers there were lots of palm trees giving the city a nice tropical feel and people in general were relaxed and friendly. We felt very much at home.

Next stop: Hawaii

City skyline

City skyline

Disney Concert Hall

Disney Concert Hall

Olvera St  - LA has a strong Mexican influence

Olvera St – LA has a strong Mexican influence

Waaaay in the distance is the famous "Hollywood"sign on the hill

Waaaay in the distance is the famous “Hollywood”sign on the hill

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The Bugatti that all the men were drooling over...

The Bugatti that all the men were drooling over…

The Farmers Market

The Farmers Market

M & M's in the candy store

M & M’s in the candy store

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Suburbia

Suburbia

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As we left all the diners from several restaurants  were waving and cheering goodbye

As we left all the diners from several restaurants were waving and cheering goodbye

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Do You Know the Way to San Jose?

Sun, August 4

Yes we do – but we didn’t go there today. The capital of Costa Rica is situated about 70 miles from where the ship berthed in the city of Puntarenas, so instead we boarded a coach which took us on a very scenic drive through the countryside. There are a great number of volcanoes which accounts for the black sand on the beaches; the untamed jungle was green and lush, and I could imagine that if left untended, it would easily claim back the roads we travelled on. Many people waved to us as we passed by and then it was time to transfer to a boat on the Tarcoles River, which sits at the Guacalillo Estuary.

Our guide took us on a two hour cruise, patiently stopping and often turning the boat around to give everyone the best views of the many species of birds that make their home in the mangroves. The estuary is home to one of the biggest crocodile colonies in Central America, however on this occasion we only saw one! We did see a family of monkeys high in the canopy, a young hawk and several different species of waterfowl. We were pleased that we had our binoculars and thought half the fun was spotting something moving in the mangroves or the trees and then trying to work out what it was!

Of course, the downside of such a tour is that most of the wildlife is seen from a distance and it is often difficult to get good photos, especially through the thick foliage of the rainforest. So now I have to ‘fess up and admit that I had to cheat a little to get some close ups of the monkey, birds and iguana!

Anyway, we were all excited to see several pairs of Scarlet Macaws, one of the most endangered species in the tropics, and it was wonderful to see them in their natural setting. Both male and female have the same brightly coloured feathers, red, blue and yellow, very noisy and we spent some time watching them sitting together and preening each other and one was even stretching out his wing to put around his mate.

Eventually we made our way back to the boat station, where we enjoyed a delicious buffet of fresh fruit which included pineapple and watermelon, and of course, we had to try a complimentary glass of the local beer, Imperial (based on a German recipe, we were told) before heading back to our ship.

Costa Rica is a developing country where tourism seems to be surpassing exporting of coffee, pineapple, bananas and Intertel microchips, Ticos (the locals) who were previously farmers are now hotel owners, tour guides or waiters Most houses are small and square and have only two bedrooms. All properties are fenced to keep out the Brahman cows which will walk right into houses if they are left open. People are friendly and very family-oriented. There is a very low unemployment rate (which is just as well as there is no social security) but everyone is well educated and our guide told us that a typical Sunday consists of everyone going to church (mostly all are Catholic) then the afternoon is spent with family and friends, eating, drinking and everyone (including the women) plays football.

If you don’t like the taste of strong coffee you would probably not like the local coffee – but we thought it was pretty good. We were tempted to buy a bag of coffee beans to take home but decided against it in case we had a problem with Australian Customs. However, our tour guide told us that a cup of real Costa Rican coffee is not far away when we are back home – just go to Starbucks!
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Black sand beaches

Black sand beaches

Eco Jungle Cruise

Eco Jungle Cruise

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Imperial - Costa Rican beer

Imperial – Costa Rican beer

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Local market

Local market

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Nothing beats watching the sun set from the deck of a ship!

Nothing beats watching the sun set from the deck of a ship!

Panama Canal

Fri, August 2

This morning we were awake early and saw many vessels at anchor, waiting for passage through the canal. At 5.15am the pilot came onboard and we were pleased to find out that passenger ships get priority, so we had a smooth run right through, although it did take about 9-1/2 hours from the first lock to the Bridge of the Americas.

The weather was quite warm at about 30oC, with sunrise at 6.10am and sunset at 6.41pm. We have a television channel with a bridge camera 24/7, but the canal is such an awe-inspiring construction that we spent most of the day outside as we didn’t want to miss anything. At one stage I closed my eyes and nearly went to sleep standing at the ship rail, so it was quite a tiring day but a very interesting one.

As we approached the first lock, electric locomotives known as “mules “attached themselves to the ship with steel cables and manoeuvred the ship into a central position whilst the gate closed behind us. The water used to raise and lower the vessels in each set of locks is obtained from Gatun Lake by gravity and poured into the locks through a main culvert system that extends under the locks chambers from the sidewalls and the centre wall. It seemed only a matter of minutes before the ship was at the correct level then the gates opened, the cables were released and the captain steered the ship to the next lock.

In total there were two lanes, each with two sets of locks; 3 on the approach to bring us up to the level of Gatun Lake, 26 metres above sea level, then two more where the process was reversed to bring the ship down to sea level. On exiting the canal we passed under the Bridge of the Americas and then our pilot disembarked. Off to the port side, we glimpsed the white skyscrapers of Panama City in the distance; so near, yet so far!

We saw dense tropical forests along the way, and sometimes the land was so close to the ship that we could hear the birds in the trees. The ship’s lecturer commentated all along the way, giving us many interesting facts about the history of the Panama Canal and also telling us about the monkeys, sloths and birdlife that live in the forests. I saw a small crocodile sunning itself on a bank not far from the ship, and although I managed to get a quick photo, it is hard to see it against the mud bank. I also noticed that the grass had been mown all along the sides of the canal, and found out that it isn’t done just to make it look neat, but rather to discourage snakes from coming too close to the canal.

The other interesting thing we noticed was the huge expansion program currently under construction, to add a third lane and a third set of locks which will allow the passage of ships with greater dimensions.

There is a huge container port near the Bridge of the Americas where container ships are loaded from the train which runs parallel to the canal. Some of these ships are too heavy to pass through and there is the cost to consider as well, so many of the ships unload their containers onto the train and collect them at the end.

Some interesting facts we learnt about this incredible feat of engineering: The Panama Canal took ten years to construct and was completed in 1914, although the project changed hands several times over the course of 400 years from conception to completion. Thousands of workers (up to 50,000 at one time) helped carve through 51 miles of earth and hard granite to link the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean. The cost to complete was over $350 million and cruise ships today pay over $100,000 to pass through.

Everyone agreed this was a wonderful experience and I believe that cameras at the locks recorded our passage on the Princess Facebook Page.

Our first sight of the canal before sunrise

Our first sight of the canal before sunrise

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View from back of ship as a container ship follows us

View from back of ship as a container ship follows us

View from our balcony as we make our way through the canal

View from our balcony as we make our way through the canal

Train taking containers to the end of the canal

Train taking containers to the end of the canal

Panama City

Panama City

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Bridge of the Americas

Bridge of the Americas

Ships at anchor waiting their turn to pass through the canal

Ships at anchor waiting their turn to pass through the canal

Caribbean :- Curacao

Wed, July 31

Curacao (pron. “Cur-ah-sow”……we just found that out today, I am ashamed to say!!!!) is the largest of the Dutch ABC Islands (Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao) and you can easily see the Dutch influence in the colonial architecture. All the houses are painted in bright colours and the story goes that previously all the houses on the islands were white. However an enterprising previous governor (who was also a partner in a paint company) decided that white was boring and it would look better if people painted their houses in different colours and so that is what they do right up to today. It’s the same in Aruba.

Another story we were told was that when people died, they were buried in cemeteries above ground. After about 5 years their bones were removed, crushed and put into boxes and stored in their families’ cellars, leaving room for other bodies – a form of “time share”!!! In recent years, cremation has gained popularity and now there is a waiting list.

We did a nice tour of the island, starting with a drive through Willemstad, the newer section of the city, over the Queen Juliana Bridge and a visit to Chobolobo, the Dutch colonial estate where the famous Curacao liqueur is distilled. Samples were ready for us … very nice. Continuing through the eastern part of the island, we visited the Caribbean Handicraft shop and Chichi’s Workshop. “Chichi’s” is a nick name for women of Curacao and we could not resist buying one of these unique little sculptures, which are painted by the local women in lovely designs and tropical colours.

Markets were plentiful around the ship selling a variety of local crafts and there were many jewellery and designer brand label shops and the island is listed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Our first time in the Caribbean – and hopefully, not the last!
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Curacao factory

Curacao factory

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Cemetery

Cemetery

Chichi Art Factory

Chichi Art Factory

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An example of the beautiful architecture - note the white trim which is typical

An example of the beautiful architecture – note the white trim which is typical

Queen Juliana Bridge

Queen Juliana Bridge

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Caribbean – Aruba :- One Happy Island

Tue, July 30

A few days ago, our captain announced that we would be changing course and heading straight for Aruba due to a hurricane forming in the vicinity of Antigua, where we should have been heading to.

We decided not to pre book an excursion and found it quite easy to hop on a mini bus which took us all around the island. The people were warm and friendly and even children are taught at school how to be nice to tourists, as it is the only industry on the island. Aruba became its own country in 1986, although it still remains a Dutch protectorate.

It is a small island, only 19 miles long and 6 miles across its widest point so it didn’t take long to drive around and see the highlights which included the Casibari Rock Formation which we climbed for a good view of the island, past some beautiful beaches, the Butterfly Farm, the Californian Lighthouse, named after the steamship which sank near the coast in 1891 and the Alto Vista Chapel The island does not get very much rainfall and it was amazing to contrast the lovely beaches on one side with the arid desert-like conditions on the other, with lots of cacti growing in the bush.

The weather was quite hot, so after some lunch back onboard, we set off for to do some shopping. Aruba is known for jewellery shopping, diamonds in particular, and although I loved the range of pink, yellow and blue diamonds, Alex was quite relieved when I wasn’t tempted to buy.

We then hopped on the local bus for a short ride to Eagle Beach, one of the many excellent beaches around the coast. I was quite pleased to see that it was netted, as we had been told that sharks and sea snakes (growing up to 5 feet long!!!) were on the other side of the island. We rented two banana lounges and had a lovely afternoon on the beach. Aruba’s beaches are stunning and the water was perfect. I had forgotten how lovely it is to swim in the ocean and could have spent the day there quite happily!!!

When we arrived back downtown, we stopped (as always) to try the local beer. It was very good on such a hot day and we were amused to find that the beer glasses were so heavy; we had to use two hands to drink! We loved this island with its crystal blue waters and white sandy beaches and were on deck to wave goodbye as we sailed at 7.00pm.

California Lighthouse

California Lighthouse

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Alto Vista C hapel

Alto Vista C hapel

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Eagle Beach

Eagle Beach

Eagle Beach

Eagle Beach

The highlight of my day in Aruba

The highlight of my day in Aruba

Cacti growing down the middle of the street near the beach

Cacti growing down the middle of the street near the beach

Old number plates decorate a bar

Old number plates decorate a bar

Aruba shopping

Aruba shopping

Local beer - Sea Princess in the background

Local beer – Sea Princess in the background