EXPLORER Enrichment Voyage To Central America And The Panama Canal – Part One




Shawn J. Dake

April 27, 2011-May 4, 2011. All photographs by Shawn J. Dake, © 2011.

m.v. EXPLORER © Shawn Dake 2011

There are cruises, and then there are voyages. I recently returned from a voyage that was a singularly unique experience. It may have spoiled me for going to sea in any other way. Semester At Sea has long been known for their floating university programs for students, who learn as they sail around the world. Less widely recognized are the twice-yearly trips that usually take place in May and December. Generally lasting about three weeks, these are called “Enrichment Voyages” and they more than live up to that name. Anyone, young or old, can join these trips as long as they are open to new experiences visiting unusual, off-the-beaten-path ports of call, enjoy learning experiences while onboard, and like traveling in a comfortable, smaller ship that represents everything the mega-cruise-liners are not. The vehicle for this journey is the Motor Vessel, m.v. EXPLORER.

The house flag of Semester At Sea proudly flies from the mast.

Enrichment Voyages are not something new, although they seem to be a well-kept secret among the greater travel community. The first one took place in 1993. Semester At Sea itself goes back much farther, to the first voyage in 1963 aboard the m.s. SEVEN SEAS. The program was then known as The University Of The Seven Seas. For a time it also went under the title World Campus Afloat before settling on the current name, often abbreviated to SAS. The organization is fond of abbreviations and a few more might be in order here. Semester At Sea is operated by the Institute For Shipboard Education, ISE. ISE was initially developed by Hong Kong shipping tycoon C.Y. Tung in the early 1970’s, evolving from his Seawise Foundation which supplied the ships to SAS until 2004. That year, the EXPLORER was first chartered, before ISE fully purchased the ship three years later. Since 2006, the University Of Virginia has been the academic sponsor of Semester At Sea. While regular passengers, or Lifelong Learners as they are known, have always been welcome to join the students on their semester long journeys, Enrichment Voyages (EV), have become a way to offer unique opportunities for anyone to sail between breaks at the end of the spring and fall semesters. Sometimes these would also be positioning voyages as was the case with my trip. The ship ended the spring semester on the U.S. West Coast before beginning its May and Summer voyages from the other side of the country. Semester At Sea nearly always begins their voyages at an offshore port, so while the previous semester ended at San Diego, our departure city would be nearby Ensenada, Mexico. Visiting 10 ports in 21-Days, calling at every country in the region, save one, I would experience the world of Central America in a way I could not have imagined. It is my hope that these words can convey the spirit and atmosphere of this very special trip. I invite you to come along for the journey.

Week One

April 27, 2011 was a beautiful spring day, filled with much anticipation. Living in Southern California, it is not difficult to reach the beautiful city of San Diego. Semester At Sea provided motor coach transportation from the Hilton Bayfront Hotel near downtown, across the Mexican border at Tijuana, continuing along the beautiful coastline to Ensenada. The blue-hulled EXPLORER was instantly recognizable, resting at her berth alongside the cruise terminal, in stark contrast with the much larger CARNIVAL PARADISE, docked at a right angle at the next pier.

The 70,367 gross ton CARNIVAL PARADISE at Ensenada, Mexico April 27, 2011.

The EXPLORER measures a mere 590 feet in length and has a gross tonnage of 24,318 tons. Still a relatively young ship, the vessel first entered service in 2002 as the OLYMPIA EXPLORER for the now defunct Royal Olympic Cruises. Although adapted for use as a floating university, surprisingly little has changed onboard and the ship can easily pass muster as a comfortable, contemporary cruise ship. The coach dropped us shipside and after a few quick check-in formalities we were handed cabin keys and proceeded across the gangway into our new home. Cabin number 4054 could not have been in a better location, near the middle of the ship on the port side, just off the main staircase and elevators, right below the information desk and lobby.

Our home away from home, cabin number 4054.
Cabin 4054 looking inboard.

Outside cabins on this deck feature a large picture window and measure 140 square feet in area. They are compact but comfortable with twin beds, a dressing table, nightstand, ample closet space, a refrigerator and television. The bathroom would take some getting used to with the floor space being only 2 ½ feet wide, but with a wonderful, and much more spacious shower.

A portion of the large library in what was once a shipboard casino.

After settling in, it was time to do a bit of exploring around the EXPLORER, and to take care of a few necessary chores. One priority for me was to see if I could find the outstanding book on the creation of the Panama Canal, The Path Between The Seas by David McCullough. The ship has a library boasting 9,000 volumes and I was not disappointed. An honor system allows for easy checkout of books at any time. The next step was to stop by the Field Office on Deck 5, to book shore excursions for the upcoming ports. On this ship, they are called “Field Programs” and there were 100 of them to choose from. On most regular cruises I normally prefer to organize activities off the ship on my own, but on this trip there were too many enticing opportunities that simply could not be done in any other way. It had already been a busy day, and it was only lunchtime. A simple, but delicious barbeque buffet was being served on Deck 7 aft, around the swimming pool. The rest of the afternoon allowed time to relax and unpack while the ship waited for more bus loads of passengers to arrive.

When the wreck of the s.s. CATALINA was scrapped the resident Sea Lions moved to the cruise pier.

The sailing was delayed by a hour, but at 6:00pm the lines were cast off as the ship was serenaded away from the pier by the barking of the Ensenada Sea Lions who have taken up permanent residence on the cruise dock. Leaving the protection of the harbor, the ship really wallowed in the sea swells until getting up to speed, where the ride smoothed out.

The Aqua Marine Dining Room, starboard section looking aft.
The Garden Lounge is the spot for casual dining, buffet style.
The Pool Bistro and Bar on Deck 7.

We would have a day at sea before reaching our first port. On this ship, many things are done differently than on a regular cruise, and the majority of them were a welcome change. Meals are served in open seating; breakfast from 7:00am – 10:00am, lunch from noon – 2:00pm and dinner between 5:30pm – 8:00pm. There are also afternoon and late night snacks available, and a very limited room service menu. Food is served in one of three venues. The Aqua Marine Dining Room on Deck 5 aft, is the main restaurant with waiter service at your choice of tables. The attractive Garden Lounge is the buffet area on Deck 6 aft with seating indoors or outside. Finally the Pool Bistro, aft on Deck 7, serves up hamburgers and hot dogs next to a bar of the same name, under a canopy near the pool. With the exception of two nights, the dress code onboard is always casual. Even on those semi-formal nights, few put on more than a dress shirt and the occasional tie. Most ships charge for Internet access, but on the EXPLORER it is free. About 30 computers are available in the Computer Lab on Deck 6. There is also free Wi-Fi throughout the ship, although it seemed to work better in the public rooms than cabins. Tours of the bridge are offered every day at sea, simply by signing up at the Activities Desk. The only highly unpopular policy, seemed to be the complete restriction on bringing alcoholic beverages purchased ashore onto the ship. This is obviously understandable on student voyages but made little sense when applied to a ship full of adult passengers.

The Main Lounge is called The Union.

Every day at sea there is a nonstop schedule of activities, from Enrichment Session seminars, a variety of workshops, language lessons, pre-port briefings, Keynote speakers and the more traditional activities like bingo, ping pong tournaments or simply lounging in the sunshine. The lecturers are among the top people in their respective fields. The Keynote Speaker on this voyage was Sir Christopher Ball, a renowned British educator from Oxford University and the University of Derby. Virtually all of the lecturers on board hold a Ph.D. in their area of expertise. Among the nine lectures offered on the first sea day alone, I elected to attend two; a writing workshop by Dr. Don Fry, the author of 18 books on the subject, and an Enrichment Session covering “Birds Of Central America” presented by Dr. Iain Campbell who hails from Scotland with a doctorate in chemistry, and a wide range of other interests ranging from astronomy to microbiology, and an expertise in Scotch whisky. Those tasting sessions later in the voyage proved extremely popular. I skipped an afternoon talk on Plate Tectonics in favor of a little reading time out by the pool. I mention these activities to illustrate the quality of the speakers and the diverse level of learning one can participate in should one choose to. Besides educational opportunities, you can start and end your day with a Yoga session, which is also presented free of charge. Evening entertainment is available in the Piano Bar alternating between the wonderful Jazz Trio and the keyboard styling of Mr. Roland Wiggins. The Main Lounge is called The Union where nightly entertainment might be provided by a semi-classical singing duo, a pair of dancers or the Brazilian rhythms and songs of Madeline and Humberto Sales under their group name of Beleza. On the second night at sea, the Captain’s Welcome Aboard Reception was held in The Union, where all passengers had the opportunity to meet our affable British Captain, Jeremy Kingston and his staff, hosted by Cruise (oops, Voyage) Director Roy Yates, hailing from Liverpool, England.

Cabo San Lucas, Mexico

April 30, 2011

El Arco; Lands end on the Baja Peninsula.

One of the few mainstream ports of the itinerary included this stop at the tip of Baja California. The EXPLORER dropped anchor at 6:00am well before daylight. On a ship, it is easy to forget that the world goes on without us, so this morning as I switched on the television, there were Prince William and his bride Katherine Middleton, kissing on the balcony of Buckingham Palace following their Royal Wedding. What had been a huge media frenzy at home was nearly forgotten at sea.

The NORWEGIAN PEARL and the WESTERDAM make a stop at Cabo San Lucas.

Two additional ships pulled in anchoring a bit closer to shore. Norwegian Cruise Lines NORWEGIAN PEARL, and Holland America Line’s WESTERDAM were both repositioning for the summer season of cruising in Alaska. The 93,530 gross ton NORWEGIAN PEARL had reportedly just paid the highest toll in history to pass through the Panama Canal on its journey to the West Coast. After some difficulty in filling the tenders in the rough swells, we were able to head ashore.

Captain Jeremy Kingston supervises the rough tendering operations at Cabo San Lucas.
The view from the tender.

Instead of the usual day-at-the-beach, my wife and I elected to take an all-day tour north to the capital city of La Paz. The two hour drive passed through the dry desert along the new Baja highway 19, along the Pacific then over to the Sea Of Cortez. A short stroll along the Malecon, a visit to the Mission church and a fresh seafood lunch were the only things our short visit permitted.

Sculpture on the Malecon with the Sea of Cortez as a backdrop.
The Mission at La Paz, Mexico.

On the way back, a stop was made in the quaint town of Todos Santos for a visit to the open-air museum, another mission church, and the most famous attraction in town, the “Hotel California”; one of many alleging ties to the song by The Eagles. The rumor is completely false, but it has not hurt tourism to this little town in Baja. After a long, hot day, a couple Mexican beers on the bus, and a tender ride back to the ship, it was time to say goodbye to Cabo. By 6:10pm the anchor was up, and the ship departed past El Arco at Lands End, setting a southeasterly course for Central America.

The EXPLORER anchored off Cabo San Lucas, Mexico on April 30, 2011.

One of the big surprises for me, besides the incredible variety of activities, is the quality of the food. At first glance, the menu may seem more limited than aboard many cruise ships, but exploring deeper the choices are more than plentiful and the presentation is excellent. Whether served in the casual Garden Lounge or seated in the Dining Room, meals begin with selections from the salad bar or choice of soup. A nightly pasta course can be served as either an appetizer or entrée. The main course offered a choice of fish prepared two different ways, or a meat dish, usually pork, beef or chicken. There is also always a vegetarian option. For seafood lovers, having fish on the menu every day can be a real treat. To end the meal there was always a prepared dessert and choice of ice cream. Menus are printed and dated daily, a particularly nice touch, that distinguishes this ship from the rest of the corporate cruise world. The professionalism of the staff is also outstanding. The EXPLORER is managed by V.Ships who hire all of the officers and crew. Much of the dining room staff comes from the Philippines, although Jamaica, Turkey and India are also represented. The Food and Beverage Manager Ray Mazotti, is American. In many ways he also fulfills the role of Maitre d’ although both dining areas also have attentive Head Waiters. A great example of how exceptional they are happened on the first day, when we ran into Ronnie, the Head Waiter in the Garden Lounge. Four years earlier my wife and I had met and spoken to him for maybe 15 minutes during a brief visit to the ship, and yet he remembered not only us, but the conversation as well. Pretty amazing. The staff certainly become your friends on a ship of this size. There is a very real sense of community not only between passengers, but amongst everyone on board.

Cruising at sea on the EXPLORER.

The next two days at sea passed quickly as the ship sped south at a consistent 22.2 knots; the weather becoming much warmer each day. Besides the speakers presented by Semester At Sea, passengers are invited to share their areas of expertise with their fellow travelers in Explorer Seminars held in the various classrooms. Topics ranged from travel photography, to social media, even including one on drug and alcohol prevention in Lithuania. I elected to attend one titled “Mark Twain Himself” which proved to be a very credible performance, in full makeup, by a facsimile of the great author. The next day more great seminars were on tap with Sir Christopher Ball helping to explain how to reach your full potential in life, and the wonderful historian Dr. David Waas explaining colonialism and the role it played in the creation of Central America. The ship buff in me, was drawn to a tour of the ship’s bridge, which was a striking combination of ultramodern and somewhat traditional.

The Bridge of the m.v. EXPLORER
Tiny telegraph and joy sticks looking like the controls on a spaceship.

Later this evening, Captain Kingston would hold a question and answer session in The Union lounge. As previously mentioned, world events go on even when we are far removed from them while at sea. So it was the evening of May 1, 2011 when a passenger interrupted to announce that Osama Bin Laden had been killed during a raid in Pakistan. While some flocked to the computer lab to obtain more news, I headed up to the topmost Deck 8, to spend an hour with Dr. Campbell gazing at the stars in the greater universe. Although I have been in southern latitudes many times before, this was the first time I had been able to see the constellation known as the Southern Cross. It was one of those momentous moments for me, and if you know the Crosby, Stills & Nash song by that name it seems entirely appropriate. “When you see the Southern Cross for the first time, you’ll understand now why you came this way…”

Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala

May 2-3, 2011

The EXPLORER alongside the floating pier at Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala.

As breakfast was being served the EXPLORER docked alongside a floating steel pier for a two day stay on the West Coast of Guatemala. An enticing array of more than a dozen field programs was on offer, however we decided to head out on our own. Throughout the ship are bulletin boards where passengers can post notices, and it was through this method that we linked up with six other like-minded individuals for a trip by taxi to the 16th century, colonial city of Antigua, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. From the port, the road passed fields of sugar cane, rising to elevations where coffee plantations became plentiful. Volcanoes are a fact of life here and besides bridges crossing rivers, we traveled over areas where rivers of lava would flow during an eruption.

Colorful street in Antigua, Guatemala.
One of the many ruined churches found throughout Antigua.

Antigua is surrounded by three perfectly conical volcanoes that have contributed to earthquakes and ash that at times have reduced the old city to rubble. Ruined churches dot the town to this day. In the era of Spanish rule, Antigua was the capital of Central America. Today it is a quaint, yet impressive city that transports you back to another era. It is well worth an independent visit.

The EXPLORER remained docked overnight at Puerto Quetzal.

The hour and a half drive back, retraced our steps and reached Puerto Quetzal at dusk, just in time for tonight‘s barbeque dinner served on deck or in the dining room.

The tour boat CRUCERO sails the waters of Lake Atitlan.
Lake Atitlan is surrounded by volcanoes.

On our second day in Guatemala we ventured out on one of the most in-demand shore trips of the voyage; the all-day tour to Lake Atitlan. On the EXPLORER, the field programs tend to leave very early in the morning, and this one was no exception with a 6:45am departure. High in the mountains the lake is said to be among the most beautiful in the world, and it certainly is pretty surrounded by volcanoes and a dozen villages. After some confusion, we boarded a steel-hulled boat named CRUCERO for a voyage across the lake, followed by a vigorous uphill climb. The included lunch was notable only for the terrific views from the terrace of the lake and surrounding mountains. Retracing our steps down to the water, back on the boat and on to the buses, we began the long return trip to the ship. While we were very glad to have seen Lake Atitlan, the roundtrip bus ride was five hours long, with a relatively short time at our destination. Despite the anticipation, this tour provided just a glimpse of the Guatemalan highlands and the star attraction of the region.  After two busy days in Guatemala, it was good to get back out to sea.

Corinto, Nicaragua

May 4, 2011

The mighty Momotombo Volcano as seen from Leon Viejo, Nicaragua.

At 1:00am we were awakened by bright strobes of light and booming cannon fire inside our cabin. The EXPLORER was at the center of a most incredible electrical storm. Constant lightening and thunder, so loud it rattled the interior of the ship. In a short time it was over, then back to sleep for a few hours before another early morning arrival. Nicaragua proved to be a completely different landscape to Guatemala. Our field excursion covered as much ground as possible in one day driving from the coast, past active smoking volcanoes to Leon Viejo, the old city founded in 1524. Like a “Central American Pompeii” the city was shaken by earthquakes then buried in volcanic ash before being rediscovered in 1967. On a hill above the site, there was a spectacular view of Lake Managua (a.k.a. Lake Xolotlan) and the Momotombo Volcano. Nicaragua very nearly became the location of the Isthmian canal, eventually losing out to Panama at least partially due to the presence of the volcanoes.

The view from the Cathedral of Leon with more volcanoes in the distance.

The second half of the tour took our group to the current city of Leon for lunch and a respite from the sweltering 102 degree heat. After wisely filling our bellies with a buffet lunch of rice and beans, fish, chicken and beer, it was time to climb to the top of the cathedral, the largest one in Central America. Looking out across countless domes to the landscape beyond, it was well worth the effort.

The ZUIDERDAM in the port of Corinto, backed by a smoking volcano.

Back in the port of Corinto, Holland America Line’s ZUIDERDAM had pulled in just ahead of the EXPLORER. The smoking peak of St. Christopher volcano was still visible beyond the harbor as we departed at 5:45pm. Captain Kingston announced over the loudspeakers that due to tidal conditions at our next port, it would be necessary to get there ahead of schedule. To accomplish that, he was going to use all four of the powerful diesel engines and take the ship up to 27.5 knots. Moments later he was out on the aft deck with the rest of us watching the “rooster tail” develop in the wake. I remarked that he was enjoying this as much as we were, and he fully agreed.

The wake of the EXPLORER while racing along at 27.5 knots.

It was the end of a spectacular day, capped off by another beautiful sunset. Ahead of us was Costa Rica, the Panama Canal, and two more weeks of adventures.

END OF PART ONE (Part Two coming soon)

Dedicated to my Mother, Dr. Gloria Reitz-Dake, who introduced me to the world, the world of travel, and to Semester At Sea.

Thanks to Martin Cox, Caroline Dake, Gloria Dake, Dr. Kelli Palmer Ph.D., Lucille Renwick and all the officers, crew and staff of the good ship EXPLORER.

See also Shawn Dake’s article from April 2011: EXPLORER Cruise Ship/Floating University by Shawn J. Dake




Click here for Part Two

Click here for Part Three

See also Shawn Dake’s article from April 2011:

EXPLORER Cruise Ship/Floating University by Shawn J. Dake



Shawn Dake

Shawn Dake

Shawn J. Dake, freelance travel writer and regular contributor to MaritimeMatters, worked in tourism and cruise industry for over 35 years.  A native of Southern California, his first job was as a tour guide aboard the Queen Mary.  A frequent lecturer on ship-related topics he has appeared on TV programs.  Owner of Oceans Away Cruises & Travel agency, he served as President of the local Chapter of Steamship Historical Society of America.  With a love of the sea, he is a veteran of 115 cruises.
Shawn Dake

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.