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






Shawn J. Dake

Week Three

Kelli E. Palmer, Ph.D., is the Director Of Enrichment Voyages. A graduate of the University Of Virginia, she was appointed to her current position on January 24, 2011, making this her first trip as head of an Enrichment Voyage. Earlier in the voyage I had a chance to speak with her on a variety of topics including how much effort goes into planning a three-week trip like this. Preparations for the next trip begin before the current voyage even sets sail. In fact, she said she is already working on the May, 2012 Enrichment Voyage. Each trip features a Keynote speaker, eight lecturers, three workshop instructors and a linguist. Approximately 45 people apply for the lecture positions, which are geared to the region in which the ship will be sailing. During the voyage each will do three, one-hour sessions, plus a pre-port talk on an upcoming destination, as well as being available for additional interaction with voyage participants. They find a very receptive audience as the majority of passengers that come on a cruise like this, are there to learn.

The five ships of Semester At Sea. This is part of a world map displayed in every cabin.

Each year on the EXPLORER there are four distinct types of voyages offered. They are the Semester At Sea, with 100 to 111 day, around-the-world trips in spring and fall and a two-month summer semester. The twice yearly Enrichment Voyages fill in the gaps between semesters, generally lasting about three weeks, leaving in late April and mid-December. A relatively new concept is called Maymester, which are short-term voyages lasting 26-days that are available for college credits. Besides students, all of these voyages have space offered to Lifelong Learners who wish to sail to exotic destinations in a unique shipboard community. The fourth type voyage is by invitation only, and is called “Forum On Global Engagement.” They are offered twice per year at the end of summer and in January, and generally last only four to seven days. Institute For Shipboard Education President Les McCabe hosts these special events open to invited guests only, including donors, repeat voyagers, student and faculty alumnae, distinguished speakers; essentially the closest friends of the ISE. Together these voyages provide year-round employment for the EXPLORER. Dr. Palmer stressed the role the ship itself plays in the success of these voyages. “Our ship is smaller and more intimate. Look at the nature of the community and that includes our crew and our staff. Passengers help make the difference. A highlight [for them] is the Explorer Seminars. People love to share what they know, and learn from their peers. It’s not a cruise, it’s a voyage. It’s everything combined onboard, including the music you hear and being open to new experiences.” I asked how she would describe Enrichment Voyages in one sentence. After a thoughtful pause she replied, “We are the place for thinking people to have an intellectually active experience and they only have to unpack their bags once.” A wonderful summation of a ship and voyage that is truly different from anything else at sea.

Roatan, Honduras

May 12, 2011

The flag of Hondurus flying from the mast.

Bright, sunny weather greeted the EXPLORER on arrival at the Coxen Hole Cruise Terminal on the lovely island of Roatan. Nearly every activity here centers around the water, whether snorkeling, scuba diving, swimming or just looking at it. Since this is a very easy island to navigate on your own, we started our day by hiring a taxi for a sightseeing tour around the scenic West End of the island. From vantage points high on the surrounding hills there were magnificent views of our ship and the blue-green sea. Beachfront tourist towns with white sand, gave way to homes of the wealthy and jagged rocky shores.

Incredible rock formations line one shore of Roatan.
While other areas on the West End have beautiful beaches like this one at Half Moon Bay.

Sometimes, first impressions are accurate, and this just struck me as a really cool place. After a quick trip back to the ship we followed the excellent advice of our cab driver and headed across the island to the Half Moon Bay Resort. They generously allowed us free access and use of their beach chairs and we returned the favor by consuming a wonderful lunch of fresh red snapper sandwiches and a complete sampling of the three local beers, Barena, Salva Vida and Port Royal, the latter having an ocean liner on the label. The snorkeling just offshore is incredible. In addition to the great coral, sea fans and colorful fish, a large green iguana swam by. Incredibly, the beachfront rooms at the resort, with hammocks stretched across their wooden front porches, rent for only $58.00 per night. It is definitely a place I will want to return to. Although the same length of stay as any other place, this day ended way too quickly and we had to return to the ship and another good dinner and another fun night of fun, low-key entertainment in The Union.

The EXPLORER prepares to bid farewell to Roatan, but I plan to come back someday.

Santo Tomas de Castilla, Guatemala

May 13, 2011

The line up of ships on arrival in Guatemala.

The sun rises mighty early on the East Coast of Central America. Today it was 5:25am. By 7:00am the EXPLORER was docked behind the containership AS ALICANTIA and the Del Monte “banana boat” HORNCLIFF ahead of that. Several of the tours ashore were full day excursions, so they left very early as well. From this port, participants could visit the nearby archeological site of Quirigua or fly to the great Mayan city of Tikal. The Tikal journey was the most expensive tour offered this trip, priced at $630.00. Having been to Quirigua and not having the budget for the latter, we chose a trip by boat up the Rio Dulce Canyon with a stop at the Garifuna village of Livingston. Getting there was a fast, bumpy ride in the open waters off the Guatemalan coastline. Getting to the mouth of the placid Rio Dulce was a relief. Going upriver was like entering another world, with limestone cliffs and thick jungle, filled with a variety of birds, especially snowy egrets and pelicans.

Cruising on the Rio Dulce.

At a bend in the river our boat turned around off a small Mayan village. The water was filled with lily pads in bloom. Within seconds of our boat slowing down, children who couldn’t have been more than four or five years old, came rowing out in dugout canoes to sell their wares. The homes were open to the air with either thatch or corrugated metal roofs. On the way back we turned up a smaller river, resembling the jungle cruise ride at Disneyland and docked. A short walk took us to the Ak’Tenamit Project; a school paid for with U.S. Aid, deep in the heart of the jungle. We visited students in the library and classrooms, but what will remain most memorable, was this was close to the hottest place I have ever experienced.

The jungle was home to an amazing variety of plant species.
Two Mayan girls pose for a photo at the Ak'Tenamit school.

Although it didn’t seem to affect the students, we tourists were dripping with sweat. The jungle trails were lined with varieties of plants that we couldn’t identify. A few primitive crafts were for sale to benefit the school. Then it was back to the boat for a final stop at Livingston, a town accessible only by water.

Downtown Livingston, Guatemala.

The Garifuna people are descended from a mixture of Caribe, Arawak and West African ancestors, mainly from the Caribbean island of St. Vincent, who were deported by the British to Roatan. Those that survived the voyage eventually spread along the Caribbean coast of Central America. In places like Livingston they still maintain their own unique language and culture. The return boat ride banged its way back as we planed across the sea to the stern of the EXPLORER. The previous containership at the dock had been replaced by a smaller one, the MAERSK RAVENNA. While other cruise ships do call at Santo Tomas de Castilla, we would be the last passenger ship of the season. Vendors in the pier side warehouse were anxious to sell their crafts and souvenirs. Although vowing we wouldn’t succumb to the temptation of the colorful Guatemalan appliqué artistry, my wife and I ended up purchasing a seven foot tall tapestry of birds, that is now a treasured possession and a reminder of our Central American voyage. Back on the ship, after washing the heat of the day away, it was time for yet another fun evening of food and entertainment. Tonight passengers showed off their skills in “Dancing With The EV Stars” a takeoff on the popular television show.

Belize City, Belize
The EXPLORER rides at anchor off the coast of Belize.

The ship dropped anchor far off Belize City at 7:00am. After breakfast, those on tours met in The Union, the as groups boarded the large catamaran tender heading to shore. Belize is such a beautiful, small, English-speaking county with so many different things to do, that it was hard to pick which tour to join. Out of three different choices of Mayan ruin sites, we selected the tour to Xunantunich, not because it was the hardest to pronounce, but because it afforded the opportunity to see as much of the countryside as possible. The ruins are situated in the Cayo District, nearly on the western border with Guatemala. The bus itself was an ancient ruin that only made it halfway before having to be replaced by another that was little better. But eventually we made it to the banks of the Mopan River.

The hand-cranked cable ferry across the Mopan River.

There a hand-cranked ferry took us across the short distance. Outside the entrance to Xunantunich, other-worldly sounds, like the imagined roaring of dinosaurs filled the air. It turned out to be the screams of Howler Monkeys, challenging each other, and possibly us, from the treetops. Xunantunich has several plazas and smaller, partially excavated pyramids, but the most impressive sight is the 130-foot tall El Castillo pyramid. We climbed to the top and marveled at the workmanship and artistry that went into constructing it.

The El Castillo pyramid at Xunantunich.
Details of the Mayan stonework and carvings on the side of the pyramid.

After the rest of the group had moved on, I had a wonderful few moments completely alone behind the pyramid with only the roars of the monkeys breaking the silence. Back down at the river, I helped crank the ferry across. In a vain attempt to find a bus with working air conditioning the tour company supplied the third bus of the day. Stopped for a local lunch of rice, beans, chicken and Belikan Beer accompanied by the sounds of a marimba band. After the long, hot ride and tender back to the ship, I was ready for a swim in the pool at sunset.

Passengers enjoyed dressing up for the Costume Parade.
It was easy to overindulge at the late night chocolate buffet.

As the voyage approaches its final days, somehow the evenings just keep getting better. Tonight featured the passenger Costume Parade with some very creative outfits. Topping off the night was the chocolate buffet extravaganza in the dining room, which was as impressive as on any ship. The clocks were set ahead another hour, so it made for a very late night. But tomorrow is another sea day, and a chance to sleep in.

An unexpected early arrival off Isla Cozumel.
The sun and clouds put on a display of light and shadows.

The EXPLORER seemed to be reacting to the hot, sunny, lazy day, running at 10.7 knots, making long slow circles and S-turns. The sea is a beautiful Caribbean blue. We spent another day in the sun by the pool as it was too nice to stay inside. The Pool Bistro makes great hamburgers, and once again that was the choice for lunch. The reason for our lackadaisical progress became apparent at 4:00pm when we arrived off the coast of Cozumel island, where we were not supposed to arrive until tomorrow. The EXPLORER sailed past the docks where Pullmantur Cruises HORIZON and Holland America Line’s ROTTERDAM occupied the berths. The sun poked through the black clouds forming, to put a spotlight on the water, coloring it in shades of gold and blue. Tonight would be the final Explorer Seminars put on by eight of our fellow passengers. Most were held in the smaller classrooms scattered throughout Deck 6, but the Mark Twain presentation had become so popular it was held in the large Glazer Lounge, forward on Deck 7.

Bedroom area of Violetta Suite 7010.
All lit up with nowhere to go. The EXPLORER funnel and aft mast at night.

Afterwards we were invited by friends to visit one of the lovely Suites with private balcony located on the same deck. The Brazilian duo, Beleza put on a very good show in The Union as well. With the ship anchored far off Cozumel with the engines stopped, it was an excellent opportunity to attempt some nighttime photography around the ship before going to bed.

Cozumel, Mexico

May 16, 2011

Early in the morning hours the EXPLORER moved to an anchorage just off the International Cruise Terminal. Throughout the day there would be a tender service to shore every 30 minutes. Several of the Field Programs included tours to the Mayan ruins of Tulum, Coba and a very long trip by bus to Chichen Itza. All are very worthwhile places to visit, but having made a great many trips to both Cozumel and the Yucatan mainland, for my wife and I, this would be a day of leisure at our final port of call. Cozumel is well-known for having some of the clearest ocean waters in the world and is a Mecca for both scuba divers and snorkelers. Meeting up with some good friends we had made among the staff, we boarded the 10:00am tender to shore. From the pier it was a short taxi ride to our destination, the Dzul-Ha Reef. For a token fee of just $2.00 we could rent beach chairs and spend the day at this excellent snorkeling spot. The reef was a haven for tropical fish, pretty corals and sea fans as well as a Morey eel. When not in the water, which wasn’t very often, there was an adjacent Mexican restaurant and bar that provided service right on the beach.

The diving was great on the Dzul-Ha Reef just offshore from The Money Bar.

The Money Bar was accurately named, being a bit on the pricey side, but the setting couldn’t be beat, and after all we were on vacation, right? After a long, beautiful day in the sun it was time to tender back to the ship for the last time this cruise. Once again, there was a chance to study the differences in ship architecture and style between our sleek, little, angular m.v. EXPLORER offshore and the monstrous skyscraper form of the nearly 130,000 gross ton CARNIVAL DREAM preparing to leave the dock.

The CARNIVAL DREAM, carrying nearly 4,000 passengers, docked at the Cozumel Cruise Terminal.

The EXPLORER was scheduled to depart Cozumel at 7:00pm but the sailing was delayed as the excursions were very late returning from the mainland. At anchor, we enjoyed one of the finest dinners of the cruise, overindulging in an appetizer of vegetable lasagna, double entrees of slow roasted Prime Rib with grilled Mahi Mahi, before closing out with apple pie and ice cream. The night just kept getting better with an outstanding crew variety show held in The Union. Then it was back out to the Pool Deck for a late night Mexican Dance Fiesta, which was very well attended. The night was hot with a full moon shining on the water. We danced and watched and stayed up late, savoring the nice ending of what had been a perfect day.

The EXPLORER anchored off Cozumel a short tender ride from shore.
Students and staff dancing the night away at the on deck Fiesta.

A sure sign of a great voyage, whether three days, three months, or in our case three weeks, is that you don’t want it to end. The morning of May 17, 2011 dawned bright and sunny on the Western Caribbean, but came with the knowledge that this would be our last full day at sea. The schedule of daily activities indicated it was time to take stock of all we had seen and done on this amazing journey. Each of the lecturers presented their final Enrichment Sessions, as did the workshop leaders. To cover the relatively short distance from Cozumel to Ft. Lauderdale, the EXPLORER only needed to cruise at 15.9 knots. The leisurely pace seemed to reflect the more pensive mood among the passengers. Even the atmosphere of the air outside was hot and lethargic. Time for a final swim in the pool and a bit of packing.

The Swimming Pool looking aft on Deck 7

At 4:00pm there was a three-part presentation in The Union Lounge and shown on the cabin televisions, presenting the best photography taken during the voyage, the best poetry written in Sir Christopher Ball’s “Sunday Poets” sessions, and the premier of an amazing time-lapse photography video of our transit through the Panama Canal created by a group onboard called The Nikonians. The video was shot using 10 cameras at eight locations around the ship, putting together more than 5,500 photographs, showing our eight hour crossing in four minutes. If interested it can be viewed at http://www.cinema5d.com/videolog/?tag=nikonians-academy. For only the second time in 21-days, tonight’s dress was semi-formal for the Captain’s Farewell Reception. The final dinner provided a tempting selection of entrees including Cheese Manicotti, Duck a l’Orange, grilled Shrimp Scampi or Filet of Beef Tenderloin followed by the requisite shipboard dessert of Baked Alaska. For those that chose to tip in the traditional manner it was time to reward the hardworking crew. On the EXPLORER gratuities may be given individually or added to your shipboard account, using the extremely reasonable guideline of $8.00 per day.

The husband and wife duo of Madeline and Humberto Sales; together they are called Beleza.
The Piano Bar where much beautiful music was made.

This farewell show brought back all of the headline entertainers; classical vocalists, dancers and the Latin rhythms of the always enjoyable duo, Beleza. Capping off the show a stirring rendition of Auld Lang Syne had all passengers standing and sharing in the camaraderie. For those that wished, great music continued to emanate from the Piano Bar and the DJ kept the disco going in the Glazer Lounge until well into the morning hours. Back at our cabin, the jacket and tie returned to the suitcase, which was placed outside the door by midnight. We took a walk around the ship one last time before heading off to bed.

Port Everglades (Ft. Lauderdale), Florida

May 18, 2011

Through the cabin window the full moon was visible in the dawn sky. We were still at sea but could clearly see the high-rise hotels and condos lining the South Florida coastline. Before long the ship lined up to the entrance of Port Everglades, turning the stern to the sea and the bow toward land. It was an unusual sight these days to see the Port virtually empty save for the idle DISCOVER SUN and a large yacht. During breakfast in the dining room, at precisely 7:40am, the throb of the engines stopped and it truly hit me that this great voyage was over. It was difficult to say goodbye to the crew members who have been so kind and friendly and served us so well. At the end of any cruise, there is always that period of transitional limbo during the seemingly endless wait until the ship is cleared by customs and you can disembark. Flying home through the torture that is airline travel today, thoughts of the voyage took on a special meaning in the knowledge that there are alternative ways to bridge the continent in a much more civilized fashion. By ship and the wonder of the Panama Canal.

Coming back home to the U.S.A.
View from the cabin window, still at sea on the final morning.

“Ships can transport ideas as well as cargo.” That quote was from Mr. C. Y. Tung in speaking of shipboard education, and it still holds true today. An Enrichment Voyage stimulates the mind, exposing it to new ideas, while visiting fascinating places, within the comfortable environs of the m.v. EXPLORER. No one factor makes these trips so different. Rather, it is an almost mystical convergence of diverse elements that forms such a close bond within the shipboard community. For the person seeking this type of small-ship experience, I can unequivocally say that once they have tried it, they will come back for more. Statistics show that nearly 15 million people take a cruise annually. But only a few thousand will be able to have the experiences provided by the EXPLORER. The voyage may be over but the memories of this very special trip will remain with me forever.

The End

I hope you enjoyed sharing in this journey with me on the m.v. EXPLORER. If you would like to experience it for yourself, you can. Upcoming Enrichment Voyages are scheduled for December 22, 2011 with a 21-day “Passage Through The Amazon” departing from Nassau, Bahamas, over Christmas and New Years. During Spring, a shorter 15-day voyage will depart from Ensenada on May 4, 2012 visiting Central America and Ecuador in South America with opportunities to tour the Galapagos Islands. For those with more time, there are also the full world cruises on Semester At Sea, departing August 26, 2011 from Montreal for 111-days, and January 19, 2012 for 105-days from Nassau, ending in San Diego. On any one of these you can be guaranteed the trip of a lifetime. Enrichment Voyages can be booked through your travel agent or by contacting Semester At Sea at (877) 224-0797.

All text and photographs by Shawn J. Dake, c.2011

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



Click here for Part One

Click here for Part Two

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

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