Joy and anticipation filled the air Dec. 3, 2009, when 52 members and friends of Temple Beth Isarel traveled by bus to Fort Lauderdale, where we embarked on a 10-day Caribbean cruise on Holland America’s Zuiderdam. We looked forward to exploring Half Moon Cay (in the Bahamas) and the islands of Aruba, Curacao, Costa Rica and the Panama Canal.
The main focus of our trip was to raise funds for our many educational- and social-action programs that benefit, not only our own members, but the general community, as well. We also looked forward to sharing experiences with our entire group, and I am happy to report that we strengthened friendships while we toured together, ate together, enjoyed the ship’s wonderful entertainment, played bridge, checked out the casino, shopped together and rode the waves from one port to another.
Let the cruise begin
Our first port-of-call was Half Moon Cay, where many of our group enjoyed the beautiful pristine beaches and a delicious barbecue served in a true Bahamian welcoming style. I must confess that many of us were looking forward to exploring the other islands on our schedule and not spending too much time on a beach when we have wonderful beaches here at home. But, I will admit, it was a relaxing and pleasant interlude.
Even though my husband, Arnold, and I have cruised extensively prior to this trip, we had never visited Aruba before.
So, when our ship docked in the beautiful capital town of Oranjestad, with many brightly painted buildings, we were ready to leave the ship to explore and learn all we could about this charming island.
When we exited the ship, we were greeted by an array of souvenir vendors located in colorful stalls on the pier. We shopped and then boarded our bus to begin our tour. First stop was at an aloe factory. We enjoyed walking through the attractive showroom that contained a nice display of cosmetics and medicinal products created out of the aloe plant. It was an interesting few hours, and we learned that aloe plants were brought to Aruba from Africa in 1840 by seafaring natives looking for gold.
Our next tour stop was the Beth Israel Synagogue, shared by the Jewish Community of Aruba since 1962. Rabbi Mario Gurevich warmly greeted us and related the history, both past and present, of this community.
He said that the synagogue is used for Friday evening prayers and is open on Saturday mornings for special occasions, i.e., bar mitzvahs and specific events. He was extremely proud of the fact that he wears three hats in his synagogue. He is the spiritual leader, the cantor and shamas (overseer).
The time had arrived to bid farewell to warm and friendly Aruba and sail on to Willemstad, the capital of Curacao, the largest and most populated island of the Netherlands Antilles. (“Curacao” is Portuguese for “heart.”)
Included in the tour of Willemstad was a visit to the Mikve Israel Emanuel Synagogue, built in 1732, which is considered one of the oldest Jewish temples in the Western Hemisphere. It is also regarded as one of the island’s most elegant buildings with an interior of dark, lustrous mahogany and four, large, brilliant brass chandeliers that add to the elegance of this religious sanctuary. In the museum area, we saw the 300-year-old mikvah, a bath used for ceremonial cleansing.
We then traveled on to the Beth Chaim cemetery, consecrated in 1659. This awesome place contained hundreds of fascinating monuments with inscriptions in many languages and unique examples of Jewish sepulchral arts. Burial is above ground. These massive funereal decorations would certainly be a treasure trove of history for students of religions.
To round out our excellent tour of Willemstad, we managed a short visit to the Bloemhof Country House Art Museum. This delightful building was formerly a small plantation home that the descendants of the owners have made into a cultural center. The name Bloemhof means “flower garden,” and that was evident in the beautiful, natural environment surrounding the few modest buildings of this estate.
On the way back to our “floating hotel,” we took a charming trolley ride through Willemstad with a stop at the imposing Pietermaai Cathedral where we learned that 85% of the inhabitants of Curacao are Roman Catholic. In addition, there is a Methodist Church, Seventh-day Adventist group, a smattering of African religions and the small Jewish community. Most importantly, we learned that there is no room for intolerance in this engaging island of Curacao.
The next stop was the amazing Panama Canal and Port Limon, a marvelous tropical area of Costa Rica that was high on my list of new places to see.
As we approached Gatun Lake, a major part of the Panama Canal, there was great excitement on board the Ziederdam. Many of the guests had not cruised to this area before and were all anxiously waiting for the experience of transiting the famous 164-square-mile lake.
Our ship arrived at 7 a.m. at the southbound Gatun Lake Locks. This up-close position gave all of us the opportunity to learn and experience how the locks are operated. It was interesting, to say the least.
After our ship docked in Puerto Limon, Costa Rica’s busiest Caribbean port, we took a 20-minute chartered bus ride to a private dock where we boarded colorful open-air jungle boats that were designed to cruise in comfort through the Torluguero canals. These canals are universally known as Costa Rica’s Amazon because of the surrounding lush rain forest. While our jungle boats glided along, our guide pointed out a three-toed sloth high in a tree, many beautiful birds and, sadly, only one monkey.
There is much to see in this small and hospitable country that does not have a standing army and prides itself in the fact that its citizens have enjoyed universal health care for more than five decades.
I want to thank Sheldon Paley for being the driving force in developing our great cruise. He was also instrumental in having Karen Talbot-Evans work with us to ensure smooth sailing. (Pardon the pun.)
We were successful on all accounts. We met our goals and, moreover, we had fun, relaxed and learned a bit more about our universe and each other.