THE PANAMA CANAL:
AN HISTORIC TIME TO CRUISE
It has been called the "Big Ditch" and the "Greatest Shortcut on Earth," but everyone calls the Panama Canal the "Eighth Wonder of the World." It's now more wonderful than ever.
On December 31, 1999, the United States officially transfered authority of the Panama Canal to Panama. Thus, its a perfect time to test the waters of this historic and unusual cruise destination.
The famed Panama Canal ranks among the world's greatest engineering feats. Located at the narrowest point between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, the Canal has had a far-reaching effect on world economic and commercial developments throughout most of this century.
The United States began contemplating Central America as a canal site in the early-1800s, but France (in 1882) actually began digging a canal across Panama. However, the canal company ultimately collapsed under the weight of corruption, inadequate technology, and rampant disease on the isthmus. In 1889, the French abandoned the project, leaving costly dredges, steam shovels, derricks, and buildings to be devoured by the Panamanian jungle.
The U.S. Senate voted in 1902 in favor of Panama for a canal site and bought the French stake in the canal for $40 million. Aware of the problems that had defeated the French, Americans rid the isthmus of mosquitoes to lower the risk of deadly malaria and yellow fever, as well as planning a lock-and-lake canal, rather than a sea level canal like the French had attempted.
Since the Canal opened in 1914, more than 700,000 ships have completed the 50-mile transit between two oceans. About 12,500 ships travel the canal annually, averaging about 34 daily. The Canal has shortened cruise and trade routes dramatically. A voyage from New York to San Francisco was 13,000 miles before the Canal was built and is now just 5,200 miles.
Under the terms of a treaty signed in 1977, the Canal was operated by the U.S. until the stroke of midnight on December 31st this year, when it reverted to Panamanian control. Thus, upcoming cruises offer a unique time and way to visit this engineering wonder.
By providing a short and relatively inexpensive passageway, the Canal has influenced world trade patterns, promoted growth in developed countries, and spurred economic expansion in many remote areas of the world. Of course, it has also created one of the world's most interesting cruises. Lots of lines offer a wide variety of possibilities in and around the Panama Canal.
Princess Cruises continues to have a major presence in the popular Panama Canal. "Our unbeatable combination of varied itineraries, plus Grand Class ships and service, really set Princess apart as a leader in this market," says Rick James, their senior vice president of customer service and sales. Through this spring, the line offers a wide variety of departures on four ships, cruising varied itineraries ranging from 10 to 22 days. Next fall through spring, the line will offer 45 departures that include the Canal.
Two ships, Sun Princess and Regal Princess, are cruising the Canal full-time this season, while two other Grand Class ships, Dawn Princess and the new Sea Princess, are offering several repositioning cruises. The lines winter/spring itineraries feature a selection of more than 20 ports in Central and South America, Mexico, and the Caribbean, including an extensive schedule of 10- and 11-day "Classic Panama" cruises, an enhanced itinerary for 10-day roundtrip Fort Lauderdale sailings, and a variety of "Grand Canal Adventures" ranging in length from 15 to 22 days.
The first Grand Class ship dedicated to Panama Canal service, Sun Princess takes over the line's 10- and 11-day journeys between Acapulco and San Juan, calling at ports like Puerto Caldera, Costa Rica, Cartagena, Aruba, and St. Thomas on eastbound routes, and St. Thomas, Martinique, Grenada, Caracas, and Curacao, on westbound routes. Regal Princess features an interesting Fort Lauderdale roundtrip, with Cozumel, Grand Cayman, Costa Rica, and Cartagena, added to a transit of the Gatun Locks and a Gatun Lake cruise. Finally, repositioning cruises can take passengers along North America's west coast and to a number of ports in Mexico, Central and South America, and Mexico.
Princess's schedule for fall 1999/spring 2000 promises even more, with 45 regular departures and two special holiday and millennium cruises. The Sun Princess will offer similar sailings, while the Crown Princess will take over the Fort Lauderdale roundtrip route. Dawn Princess, Sea Princess, and Ocean Princess Canal cruises add to the mix, as do two special holiday and millennium offerings, round-trip from Ft. Lauderdale, departing in December aboard Sea Princess.
Similarly, Holland America Line has many offerings in and around the Panama Canal. The company is featuring 25 Canal cruises in 1999 aboard all eight of its famed luxury liners. Ranging from 10 to 24 days in length, the cruises all feature a nine-hour daylight transit through the canal and complete narration by an expert from the Panama Canal Commission.
"Nearly all of our Panama Canal cruises depart from or arrive at Fort Lauderdale because of its convenient and affordable air connections," says Peter T. McHugh, their president and COO. "Our 10-day cruises are consistently the most popular, so we're offering eight of them in winter 1999 aboard the Maasdam between Fort Lauderdale and Acapulco and six in the fall aboard the Noordam."
The longest canal cruise--24 days--departs from Fort Lauderdale March 13th aboard the Statendam, combining the Caribbean and Hawaiian islands. In addition, the sole Panama Canal cruise on Holland America's new "Flagship of Excellence," the Rotterdam, is a 14- to 20-day sailing departing January 6th from Fort Lauderdale to Los Angeles and Honolulu. Their popular University at Sea personal and professional enrichment program is available on several cruises. "Also, we've just added a new 11- to 17-day Canal sailing September 23rd on the Nieuw Amsterdam from Vancouver, Los Angeles, and Puerto Vallarta to Tampa," notes McHugh.
Royal Caribbean International and sister company Celebrity Cruises both have many varied Panama Canal cruises. Royal Caribbean is well-known for value-added cruises throughout the Caribbean and further afield. Celebrity's dining, spas, and cabins have made the line a hit with many interliners.
Royal Caribbean's Vision of the Seas has 16 cruises eastbound and westbound between San Juan and Acapulco, with stops including St. Thomas, Curacao, Costa Rica, and Aruba (eastbound). Their Legend of the Seas offers five 14-night cruises westbound and eastbound between Fort Lauderdale and San Diego, with stops Cabo San Lucas, Acapulco, Caldera, and Aruba. The Rhapsody of the Seas and the Vision of the Seas also offer repositioning cruises that include a Panama Canal transit on April 3rd and October 13th respectively. Celebrity's Zenith offers a wide range of trans-Canal trips throughout the year, as well as several repositioning options.
Norwegian Cruise Line has a similarly varied lineup. Interliners can sail between San Juan and Acapulco on a 10- or 11-day voyage aboard either Norwegian Majesty or Norwegian Dynasty, with stops including: Acapulco; Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala; Caldera, Costa Rica; and Curacao. The Norwegian Wind, as well as the Norwegian Dynasty, also have a selection of 15-day itineraries in 1999, with embarkation/debarkation possibilities including Miami, San Juan, San Diego, and Los Angeles.
An interesting "Cruise to the Future" opportunity is offered by Royal Olympic Cruises. Departing Galveston March 27th, this unique learning-oriented journey celebrates mankind's accomplishments, from the Maya civilization onward to the 21st century. Expert lecturers, including the editor of American Heritage magazine and the co-discoverer of the Comet Hale-Bopp, will discuss legendary discoveries and innovations in technology, archaeology, astronomy, and space exploration--as well as the challenges that lie ahead. Al Wallack, their president, says, "During this cruise, we'll investigate the achievements of the past and present, as we look forward to what the future holds in store."
After a stop in Montego Bay, Jamaica, the Stella Solaris features Cristobal, Panama, the Canal Zone's gateway to the Atlantic, with optional shore excursions to the region's capital, Panama City. Later, the engineering genius and human determination that went into the creation of the Panama Canal comes into view. The ship will be elevated 45 feet above sea level as she passes through Gatun Locks and enters the Canal. A cruise on Gatun Lake, one of the largest man-made bodies of water in the world, is followed by a reverse passage and lowering through the locks.
Other highlights include days at sea and stops in Port Limon, Costa Rica, Cozumel, and Playa del Carmen. Passengers also have the opportunity to make it a 15-day journey by adding two more days at sea before disembarking in Fort Lauderdale. The 620-passenger Stella Solaris recalls the golden days of ocean cruises, with European staff and dedicated service.
Silversea's Silver Cloud will embark November 17th on a 19-day "Panama Canal Transit." The sailing features many interesting ports, including three maiden callings at Cartegena, Columbia; Golfito, Costa Rica; and San Blas Islands, Panama. The cruise, which starts out of Barbados, also includes stops in Aruba, Acapulco, Zihuatanejo/Ixtapa, Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlan, and Cabo San Lucas, before arriving in Los Angeles.
This sailing is a designated National Geographic Traveler Series voyage and will feature slide presentations and lectures by a photographer or journalist who has traveled on assignment for National Geographic. This voyage also features "Silver Links," an optional all-inclusive shoreside golf program that offers Silversea guests the opportunity to play full rounds of golf at championship courses in various ports of call.
In 1999, Regal Cruises offers a number of interesting 10-day Panama Canal cruises aboard the Regal Empress (departing January 2 and 23, February 13, March 6 and 27, and April 17). Sailing out of Port Manatee and starting with a day at sea, the ship first heads to Grand Cayman. Then, the San Blas Islands feature an encounter with the Cuna Indian culture, who vigorously protect their identity, language, and way of life, while still sharing it with visiting passengers.
Puerto Limon, Costa Rica, is next, where tourists try their luck at the "Rich Coast's" mining exhibits and enjoy the excellent seafood restaurants where the fish dishes are almost as good as gold. The final stop is San Andres, Columbia, a pristine island famous for white sand beaches, coffee, emeralds, and gold. Then, there's two more days at sea aboard the Regal Empress before arriving back in sunny Port Manatee.
Costa Cruises typically begins its Caribbean season by offering a partial transit of the Panama Canal (Gatun Lake) on an 11-night cruise. Other stops include Cozumel, Belize, Ocho Rios, and Grand Cayman, with a round-trip departure from Fort Lauderdale. the 1,350-passenger CostaRomantica features spacious staterooms, authentic Italian cuisine, Italian-inspired theme nights, language lessons, cooking classes, and the warmth of Italian hospitality and culture.
Of course, the Panama Canal wouldn't be complete without a great Carnival offering. The "Fun Ship" Jubilee is embarking on a 13-day Miami to San Diego cruise April 5th, with calls at: Cartagena; Caldera, Costa Rica; and Acapulco (and seven incredible days at sea). In the fall, a 16-day trip from San Diego to Miami leaves on November 6th, with stops including: Puerto Vallarta; Zihuatanejo/Ixtapa; Acapulco; Huatulco; Caldera, Costa Rica; Cartagena; and Playa del Carmen/Cozumel (also seven days at sea).
Premier Cruises provides guests with an intimate, yet affordable, cruise experience, with unique itineraries aboard a varied fleet of ships: OceanBreeze (Panama Canal), Big Red Boat (Bahamas), IslandBreeze (Caribbean), the new Rembrandt (Mediterranean), SeaBreeze (Caribbean and Canada/New England), and SeaWind Crown (southern Caribbean.
The Ocean Breeze's seven-night Panama Canal cruise from Montego Bay includes Cartagena, the San Blas Islands, and Puerto Limon, as well as a partial transit of the Canal. The classic 776-passenger ship is known for its pristine pine decks and traditional wooden deck chairs. The ship and service are typical of Premier's offerings, making them a value-packed choice for the Panama Canal and elsewhere.
Anticipating heightened interest in the Panama Canal, luxury cruise specialist Crystal Cruises has scheduled 18 Trans-Canal/Caribbean journeys aboard the Crystal Harmony and Crystal Symphony for 1999--nearly doubling the number offered in 1998. "As with the earlier transfer of Hong Kong, we're seeing that people around the world want to commemorate an historic moment with a personal visit," says Adam Leavitt, their vice president of marketing.
Crystal Cruises boasts a wide variety of choices, with 18 sailings on a dozen different 10-, 11-, 12-, and 13-day itineraries spanning eight months. Itinerary highlights range include encounters with the Mayan Pyramids, Costa Rican rain forests and Cuna Indians, jazz sounds of New Orleans, the NASA Space Center near Galveston, and, of course, the triumphant Panama Canal.
Cruises depart from Acapulco, Fort Lauderdale, San Juan or New Orleans. At 50,000 tons and only 940 guests each, Crystal Harmony and Crystal Symphony are two of the most spacious ships afloat. All sailings will feature the Crystal Visions Enrichment Series, which brings celebrity guest speakers and experts aboard for engaging presentations on history, the arts, and culture.
Another upscale line, Radisson Seven Seas Cruises, also offers interesting Panama Canal crossings. For instance, in 1998, an 11-night mid-December cruise from Fort Lauderdale to Puerto Caldera, Costa Rica, included a daylight transit of the Canal, stops in Key West, Cancun, Belize, and more, and a gala New Year's Eve celebration during a post-cruise stay in San Jose, Costa Rica. A 10-night sailing from Costa Rica to Cancun transited the Canal on New Year's Eve and calls at the unspoiled island gem of Isla de Providencia on New Year's Day. Similar offerings are on tap this December.
The six-star 350-guest Radisson Diamond offers the ultimate in luxury afloat. Accommodating guests in spacious ocean-view staterooms (70% with balconies), the twin-hulled vessel features one of the highest space-to-guest ratios of any cruise ship in her class, open single-seating dining, alternative Northern Italian dining by reservation, and many other luxuries. They are owned by Carlson Hospitality Worldwide, one of the largest hospitality service companies in existence.
Cunard's line of luxury liners offers several Panama Canal possibilities. The Royal Viking Sun offers two transits on its 122-day "Grand Circle Pacific & Orient Odyssey," as well as a crossing during a 21-day cruise over the millennium. The Vistafjord offers a "Panama Sunset" from Miami to San Diego on January 4th and a "Panama Sunrise" in reverse direction on March 16th. The legendary QE2 features a 12-day New York-Miami cruise, with a partial transit of the Canal and stops in Miami (on the way), Nassau, Aruba, Cartagena, and St. Thomas.
Sister company Seabourn Cruise Line also features a number of special Canal opportunities. The Seabourn Legend features "Grand Panama Canal" 23-day cruises between Fort Lauderdale and Los Angeles November 1st and November 24th (reverse direction), with an incredible array of stops (can take 16 or seven day segments). In addition, the Seabourn Pride features a 12-day transit on March 19th and a 10-day transit on March 31st, both of which feature the Panama Canal and Costa Rica.
Upscale cruisers in search of something truly unique should seriously consider Windstar Cruises. Known for its luxury cruise experience, superb cuisine, spa and watersports programs, unique worldwide destinations, and casual ambiance and attire, Windstar operates three 148-passenger ships (Wind Star, Wind Song, and Wind Spirit), as well as the 312-passenger Wind Surf, all which are masted sail cruisers. Windstar is offering 14-day Panama Canal transits from Costa Rica to Barbados on May 2nd and a return trip on October 24th, with a wide variety of interesting stops at smaller ports. It's a unique way to see the Canal and the rest of this fascinating area.
Interliners looking for a truly unique adventure in and around the Panama Canal should definitely consider Temptress Adventure Cruises. Their Temptress Voyager offers a unique seven-day cruise that explores both coasts of Panama and the Canal. The recently renovated ship is just 174-feet long and accommodates a maximum of 63 people. Temptress is popular with interliners looking for a small ship and lots of cultural and environmental experiences.
Thus, from the major presence of Princess to the popular presence of Temptress and others, the Panama Canal will be hot in 1999. There's never been a better time for a cruise there.
PANAMA CANAL TIDBITS
--The average toll (based on space) for a ship to pass through the canal is $32,000. The lowest toll paid was by athlete Richard Haliburton--it cost him 36 cents to swim through the canal in 1928.
--Each lock is 1,000 feet long and 110 feet wide. To pass through the canal, a ship can be no larger than 965 feet long and 106 feet wide. The lock gates are seven feet thick.
--Once a ship moves into the Gatun Locks, the outer gates are closed and it is raised 85 feet in a series of three lock steps before entering Gatun Lake. After passage through the lake, the ship travels through the famed Gaillard Cut, cruising between towering cliffs of rock, earth, and tropical jungle.
--Work to widen the entire canal to accommodate two-way traffic at all times, begun in 1992, is expected to take 20 years.
--Building the Canal required 101 steam shovels, 369 locomotives, 6,163 railroad cars, 26 earth spreaders, 20 dredges, 533 drills, and 51 cranes. At its peak in 1913, an army of 43,000 worked on the Canal. It cost the U.S. $352 million to build, coming in $23 million under budget when it opened August 15, 1914.
--Mountains of earth were taken away during the 10 years that it took to build the canal. Engineers originally thought that they would need to remove 95 million cubic yards of earth, but the final total came to more than 210 million cubic yards. If that material were put on a train of flat cars, it would circle the earth four times.
--It takes 8,000 workers to run and maintain the Canal today.
--Panama's reclining "S" shape means that the Atlantic end is actually 27 miles west of the Pacific end. Because of this, the sun rises from the Pacific and sets in the Atlantic on the Panama Canal.