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Week 9: Panama and the Canal

28-Apr-08 :: After our adventure in Belize, we flew to Panama City via El Salvador and Costa Rica. After a late arrival we spent a night in a hotel and made arrangements to join the boat on the other side of the canal. We had hoped to meet the boat in San Andres, a Colombian island off the coast of Nicaragua, but the flight was even less direct than the one we ended up taking to Panama!

We ended up hiring a large helicopter to fly us over the canal to the north side. What an amazing trip! We could see everything from the air — huge ships chugging across the lake between the locks, huge tracts of rainforest, and sprawling administration buildings. But the best part was the landing at Shelter Bay Marina — we landed about 50 yards from where the boat was docked! We even circled over the boat as we descended and waved to the crew. The helicopter was also much faster than driving or taking the train!

The following morning we set off for the "Free Zone", which is a tax free shopping district in Colon, Panama. It was hot and crowded and, although the children were very patient, our shopping was not too successful. We had been told that there were plenty of great values, but most of the shops we entered professed to sell only to wholesalers.

Later that afternoon, Vaimiti was told to move to a new location near the canal entrance to await our canal pilot boarding. Finally we were gearing up to take the boat through! Our pilot was called Ramon, and he was wonderful. His father was American and he had been in the US navy, so lucky for us he spoke perfect English. He talked us through the whole journey and patiently answered any questions posed by us and the children.

We finally began moving toward the first lock at about 9pm. There are 3 locks at Gatun, on the north end of the canal. Before the boat entered the lock, we took aboard numerous linemen — their job was to attach ropes from our boat to the locomotives driving along a track on either side of the locks. The locomotives helped to pull the boat into the lock and, once it was there, served to keep it from moving around. The same 4 locomotives accompanied us through all 3 Gatun locks, and finally released us as we exited into the lake. But before that, we rose a total of 83.5 feet! Apparently the maximum water level, even in the wet season is 87 feet, but we are now at the tail end of the dry season and the water level of the lake is about as low as they would like it to be.

Describing the experience of going through the canal is very difficult. The kids were so excited, and there was no way we could have got them into bed any earlier than 2am. We all hung out on deck, mostly toward the bow, and the atmosphere was quite festive with all the extra people on board, even though most of them spoke Spanish. It was a real thrill to enter a lock (we traveled with another, bigger boat, called Santa Lucia, in front of us) and see the door close — then it was just a matter of waiting for the water below us to start to bubble, which meant that the lock was being filled with water and the boat was rising to the next level! The locks were all very brightly lit, so there was no trouble with visibility, although I'm not sure how many of our photographs came out. We cleared the last lock on the south end around 3am, and we all finally went to sleep.

Since then we have bee exploring Panama City. We have been to all 3 of the well-known shopping malls, and the kids have enjoyed a final experience in a food court! Although we decided to have a higher quality meal one night and visited Benihana — almost as nice as our local branch on the Kings Road in London!

Click on any picture below to launch a gallery of Panama and the Canal.

Or check out some more pics at Flickr.

Week 8: Adventures in Belize

25-Apr-08 :: Our next stop was Belize, where we spent about 9 days. The first few days wew were anchored in the harbour off Belize City, which was a pretty awful looking place, at least along the waterfront. On our fist full day we took a small, fiberglass boat with a guide called Renee.

He took us on a very bumpy, body jolting ride of 1 hour to the Hol Chan Marine Reserve, located just off Ambergris Cay. There we snorkeled in Shark Ray Alley which is about 10 feet deep. After lunch in San Pedro, we snorkeled at a different site where the water was only about 4 feet deep. In both places we swam. With nurse sharks and various kinds of jacks. In the first location we saw different kinds of rays as well, and at the second place we saw huge black grouper! On the way back to our boat we stopped at Cay Caulker, which won us over with it's simple charm.

The next day we took it easy. The kids had school in the morning, and then we went to Old Belize. It can best be described as a small marina with a dirty little water park, but you'd think the kids were back at Atlantis watching how excited they were! The water was deep enough for them to dive off the water trampoline, there was a very tall water slide, and they had rigged up a rope which allowed people to stand on a platform and swing into the water — I must admit the rope was rather fun.

Our final day on the water, we took Vaimiti about 30 miles south, to some less popular islands. Our first snorkel spot was nothing special, but after lunch we went right alongside the reef and snorkeled in some amazing coral. There was a shallow, sandy section with hundreds of conches, and a deeper section where the fish hung out. After the excitement of Shark Ray Alley, it was bound to be less impressive. There was also visible damage, which we learned was due to a bad hit by hurricane Mitch a few years ago.

The following morning we hired a car and began our land-based adventure in Belize. The Western Highway is a smooth paved road leading into the mountains of western Belize. We arrived at our hotel, the Lodge at Chaa Creek, at around 2pm. After a late lunch we hopped into a couple of canoes and paddled up the Macal River for awhile.

Since our hotel was very close to the Guatemala border, we decided to have an adventure and cross over to view Tikal, one of the most spectacular Maya ruins. The road was not paved on the Guatemala side, so it took us quite awhile to travel the 50 or so miles to the site. The ancient city is quite spread out, so I was concerned about the kids walking around in the heat. In fact, the paths are quite shady with dense forest growing all around, and the kids were entertained by the antics of howler monkeys along the way. We were all excited when we spotted our first pyramid! And the main square of the ruins was very impressive — not only were there several pyramids and other buildings, but the pyramids were huge! We were all glad to have made the journey.

Saturday we switched hotels, moving to the Blancaneaux Lodge (owned by Francis Ford Coppola). The cottages are situated on a river bank, where the kids amused themselves by exploring for the rest of the day. On Sunday we drove to Barton Creek for a cave tour. We paddled in canoes through the dark cave with our guide, Carlos. He told us how the Maya used the cave as a site for human sacrifices to their rain god. We also learned facts about the Maya civilization in general, and we all really enjoyed that experience.

At the cave is Mike's place, a restaurant serving rice and beans in the middle of nowhere! The kids could have spent all day there, playing with the dog, the puppy, the kittens, and the spider monkey named Mango! But we wanted to see the 1000 foot waterfall, so we headed off. The waterfall was off the main bumpy road, 10 miles down an even bumpier road! But it was worth the drive to look across the valley at the falls, which were very beautiful.

The next day we saw more waterfalls — one reached by horseback, called Big Rock falls, where the kids were able to dive off rocks and swim. The other was called Rio on Pools, and we all swam and climbed around the rocks — the kids even went down a few natural waterslides! Basically our adventure in Belize was absolutely perfect!

Click on any picture below to launch a gallery of our Adventures in Belize.

Or check out some more pics at Flickr.

Week 6/7: We Set Sail for Havana, Cancun, Cozumel and Beyond!

11-Apr-08 :: After leaving Key West, we set sail for Havana. This was our first overnight sail, and quite a shock. We had left a sky light window open in the master cabin, not realizing that the seas were getting higher — naturally our first indication of this was a large wave throwing several gallons of water onto the bed as we were trying to sleep!

Fortunately Havana was a great experience. We had been warned that clearing immigration and customs would be a lengthy process, both upon arrival and departure. It did take about 2 hours, but the officials were very pleasant to us, and friendly to the kids. We ended up with a walk on berth in a Marina just outside of the city and found a great guide who spoke English very well to take us around.

Our first evening we simply piled everyone in the car and explored on our own. We drove into tne center, parked the car and started walking. We came across a couple of nice hotels and ended up having a little snack and drinks at the Hotel Anglaterra. This was obviously in one of the nicest parts of the city, near the capital building. On our drive back to the marina, we inadvertently ended up seeing some of the less nice areas of Havana — the industrial port, some poorer residential areas with quite run down buildings, and some more generally unattractive urban areas. We also passed through the section containing embassies, with architecturally beautiful buildings with large, manicured lawns.

On our second morning, we went off with our guide, Nelson. He took us to an area of the city that has been restored using tourism income. It was lovely to walk around but started to get really hot in the late morning. We then headed for the Museum of the Revolution, which told of Cuba's long history and ended with the details of Castro taking power in 1959. The boys enjoyed photographing the planes, tanks and boats on display outside. After a huge lunch of rice with beans and meat, we returned to the boat for a nap!

On our third day we left the kids studying on the boat and went out with Nelson again. We walked through a large street market, and were surprised at the amount of good quality paintings for sale on the street! That evening we stopped for a drink at the Cafe Florida, which is famous because Hemingway used to drink daquiris there. Then we had dinner and watched a traditional Cuban singer perform. His name was Felix and apparrently he is quite famous. We really enjoyed the performance and the meal was quite good too.

After that we left Havana and headed west. We had been told about a lovely beach resort near the western tip of the island, called Maria la Gorda, so we were looking forward to that. After a slightly more successful overnight sail, we arrived there in the late morning and were playing on the beach after lunch — unfortunately, the place is not somewhere I would describe as a lovely beach resort. There were several rusty piers poking out into the water and some ugly, low-built concrete buildings on the shore, which were presumably the accommodation. The sea floor was very rocky and the coarse sand was good for scrubbing the rough skin off my feet but not much else. It was an easy decision to leave from there the following morning!

13-Apr-08 :: From the West coast of Cuba, we sailed across to Cancun. The only place to anchor is off shore at the Isla de Mujeres. It's a pretty, small island with ferry service to the main resort of Cancun. The first afternoon we visited a park where the kids were able to swim with dolphins. They did what was called the dolphin "experience", where they each had their photo taken dancing with the dolphin and kissing him (his name was DaVinci).

The wind was blowing quite hard from the south, so we decided to stay put for another day and go onto the mainland for a look around. This involved first taking the inflatable to the yacht club on Isla de Mujeres, which had a very nice swimming pool we were allowed to use. We then had to take a short taxi ride to the ferry terminal, where we caught a ferry to the city. We then had a longer taxi ride into the resort area, which is dramatically nicer than the city. We spent a few hours at a very nice shopping mall, looking around, got something to eat, and repeated the same journey in reverse! By the time we returned to our boat we were soaked and cold, since the ride back in the inflatable was quite bumpy and wet. Everyone appreciated a warm shower!

The next morning we headed south to Cozumel. Fortunately the wind had shifted slightly to the east, so it did not hamper our progress as much as we'd anticipated. And the most thrilling was our first sighting of wild dolphins! Three of them swam alongside the boat for a short while, but they are so speedy I think they got bored of our relatively slow pace. Looking forward to some beautiful beaches in Cozumel.

Click on any picture below to launch a gallery of Havana, and beyond.

Or check out some more pics at Flickr.

Week 4/5: The Bahamas to Key West

04-Apr-08 :: We reached Atlantis on Easter Sunday, expecting a rather quiet day. But the holiday didn't stop activity there! The water park was packed and far more impressive than we anticipated. It was a real treat to be able to walk off the boat onto a pier, so we could come and go as we pleased. The kids enjoyed the water slides for both days we were there, and even mom rode on a tube through the shark tank! The marine life scattered throughout the park was amazing — sharks, jellyfish, turtles and even a manta ray!

As we prepared to leave Nassau, the weather forecast was not good. The captain anticipated some delays, so we decided to fly ahead and meet the boat in Key West, rather than miss time with family members meeting us there.

The boat arrived late Friday night, so we came aboard on Saturday morning. The kids had enjoyed their stint on land, and were not that thrilled to be back on board. It still does not feel like home. But we were again fortunate in that we could walk right off the boat and onto the pier, and what a lively marina it is in Key West! Countless bars and restaurants surround the area, filled with relaxed people enjoying themselves! We made the most of our time there to stock up on essential items, knowing that we will not be shopping in the US for some time.

Click on any picture below to launch a gallery of our time in Key West.

Or check out some more pics at Flickr.

Week 3: Turks and Caicos

15-Mar-08 :: We board SY Vaimiti on Saturday, March 15th and set sail for the Bahamas.

We made it! Arrived in Providenciales Saturday and spent our first night on the boat. Those of us who started taking Sealegs felt fine, but the swell was pretty big, even just anchored outside the reef!

Sunday we set off on our first journey. Not enough wind to sail at a good pace, so we motored for about 6 hours and then spent some time playing on a deserted beach. The sunset was perfect as we ate dinner, and we retired early in anticipation of another day on the move!

Click on any picture below to launch a gallery of the trip to the Bahahas.

Or check out some more pics at Flickr.

Week 2: Disney Kingdom, Florida, US

10-Mar-08 :: When Captain Jean-Luc said the boat was delayed a week it all seemed so obvious ... Click on any picture below to launch a gallery of a few Disney pics.

Or check out some more pics at Flickr.

Week 1: Beaver Creek, Colorado, US

27-Feb-08 :: Like all good adventures, ours commences with a week's skiing in Beaver Creek. Time for Felix to practice his 180's on his board, Benjamin his air time and frankly for the rest of us some relaxation! ... Click on any picture below to launch a gallery of a few Beaver Creek photos.

Or check out some more pics at Flickr.

Week 0: Departure Party, Tuckers Point Golf Club

22-Feb-08 :: Hopefully the evening will have more decorum than in Captain Cook's time though an element of debauchery would be fun. We'll see what story the pictures tell ...

Click on any picture below to launch a gallery of a few party photos.

Or check out even more pics of the Departure Party at Flickr. Click here to view the party invite.

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