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March 23-April 2, 2002
By Susan Milne
This was my second cruise on the beautiful Royal Princess, one of my favourite ships. At 45,000-tons, Royal is smaller than the latest mega-ships but smaller ships are more friendly and Royal is no exception. A camaraderie develops between passengers and with the crew which adds to the pleasure of the cruise. Normally Royal sails longer, international itineraries. She was scheduled to sail the 72-day world cruise for Princess this year but following 9/11, she was redeployed to the 10-day Panama Canal itinerary. Next season, the new Coral Princess takes over this route commencing December 14, 2002.
Itineraries longer than a week are always more relaxing and enjoyable. On Saturday while lounging on deck watching the sea go by, I realized that on a one week cruise we would already have been on a plane heading home. Instead we had three more days to unwind and enjoy our ship as we continued on our 10-day cruise.
Princess' 10-day Panama Canal itinerary roundtrip from Ft. Lauderdale allows enough time to experience a partial transit of the Panama Canal and visit Costa Rica. Depending on which date you sail other ports of call are either Aruba and Ocho Rios, Jamaica or Grand Cayman and Cozumel. Four glorious days at sea round out the itinerary.
The historic city of Cartagena, Colombia is included on both itineraries however, the recent political trouble in Colombia has prevented cruise ships from calling there since late March. As long as the State Department advises U.S. citizens to avoid traveling in Colombia, Cristobal, Panama will replace Cartagena as a port of call. Once the advisory is lifted, Princess will return to Cartagena.
Our cruise was the first time the ship had called at Cristobal in place of Cartagena . Once again Princess' showed their expertise in dealing with a sudden and unavoidable change in schedule. Everything went flawlessly. Passengers were notified upon boarding of the change in itinerary and new tours available from Cristobal. Arrangements for switching tours were handled efficiently by the tour office on board. Upon arrival in Cristobal, Panama, the cruise pier was ready for our arrival with tour busses waiting, shops open and the market being set up. Tours operated without a hitch. We were in port overnight so during the evening a variety of Panamanian dance troupes entertained passengers with a colorful show in the cruise terminal.
When I sailed through the Canal in 1990, there were no shore excursions offered. Panama is now opening up for tourism however, and the opportunities to explore are diverse. Like neighboring Costa Rica, the ecology of the region allows for outstanding nature tours in addition to viewing the Canal operations from shoreside. Passengers taking tours experience the morning passage through the Gatun Locks then join their tours by tender from the ship in Gatun Lake. Following the tours they rejoin the ship in Cristobal. Princess offers a tour to observe the Gatun Locks in operation combined with an eco-cruise on Gatun Lake ($49); a journey to the rainforest to visit the Embera Indian Tribe ($79); Grand Tour of Panama combines these two tours ($115); Gatun Locks and Historic Fort San Lorenzo ($42).
When the ship calls at Cristobal in place of Cartagena, all tours operate roundtrip from the ship in Cristobal. The extra day in Panama enables Princess to offer two, longer tours which give you the chance to see the Pacific side of the Canal including the bridge of the Americas, Panama City, the port of Balboa, the new Amador resort and Miraflores Locks. The Atlantic to Pacific Railway Journey operates aboard the newly refurbished Panama Canal Railway alongside the Canal combined with a coach tour of the Pacific side of the Canal. ($119 dome car; $99 parlour car). Panama City by Day and Night is a coach tour to the Pacific side which includes dinner in Panama City ($79).
The rail journey was an outstanding experience. The Panama Canal railway was originally built in 1855 and played an important role in the development of the Canal itself. It fell into disrepair during the Noriega era. Last year the railway reopened following reconstruction and the introduction of new carriages. It serves now as a commuter train and cargo carrier as well as giving cruise passengers a chance to see more of Panama. The carriages are 1955 Amtrak dinner carriages. They have been refitted to give that classic feeling of the famous Orient Express. Leather seats, mahogany panelling, antique light fixtures and panorama windows combined with scenic viewing platforms and air conditioning make this a most comfortable experience. The conductor gives an informative account of the scenic journey and refreshments are served. It was a lovely surprise. Having seen the old carriages on the railway when I went through the canal in 1990, I did not expect such a luxurious and enjoyable journey. In combination with the tour of the Pacific side, this is truly one of the best excursions I have taken anywhere in the world.
The partial transit of the Panama Canal gives you a chance to experience one of the world's greatest engineering achievements, as significant and technologically advanced for its time as the moon shot. Completed in 1914 under budget and ahead of schedule, the Panama Canal attracted visitors from the time it opened. Started by the French in 1879 as a repeat of their Suez Canal, the topography or Panama, insects, lush rainforest and disease prevented their plan of digging a ditch through the isthmus from being a success. When the Canal company fell in 1889 after the loss of 20,000 lives, it brought down the government of France. It was John Stevens, America's greatest railway engineer who came up with a workable plan. Simply put it goes like this: Dam the Chagres River to create Gatun Lake. The dam creates electrical power to operate the lock gates and mules. Gravity directs the water into the locks. Three locks on both the Atlantic and Pacific sides raise then lower the ships which are actually going up and over Panama. It was brilliant and it worked. Another major factor in the success of the Canal was the eradication of yellow fever and a serious campaign to make the zone livable before construction began. Dr. Gorgess had eradicated the yellow fever mosquitoes from Havana, Cuba and he was called upon to work in Panama. The area was cleaned by insecticide and soap. Fumigation and sweeping brigades worked continuously. The program called for new sewers, screen on windows, paved streets, piped water, swamps drained and brush cleared. Amazingly it worked and construction of the Canal progressed. For a look at the fascinating history of the Panama Canal I recommend David McCullough's definitive book The Path Between the Seas and the companion video, A Man, A Plan, A Canal - Panama. Princess aired this excellent documentary on stateroom TV during the cruise.
For the partial transit, Royal Princess was designated S 14 Zulu meaning we were number 14, heading south, with priority clearance as we were a cruise ship that paid a 20 percent premium to go through on a schedule. (Total cost for a 45,000-ton cruise ship is around $100,000.)
A canal pilot and crew came on board to direct the transit. The pilot's commentary informed us throughout the day of the eventful history of the canal as we progressed through the locks and lake. At 7:20 a.m. the pilot guided the Royal Princess from its berth across Limon Bay and along a 6 mile channel through mangrove swamps. When we reached Gatun Locks, the serenity of the first stretch of the canal was broken by the sound of electric locomotives called mules, specially designed to pull ships through the lock system. They are enormously powerful and hummed loudly as they performed their duty. Once centered in the first lock, the 700-ton lock gates closed behind us. Water started rushing around us and we gradually rose to the level of the next lock. The front gates then opened allowing the mules to pull us forward and the ritual was repeated.
There are three locks at Gatun that raise ships 85 feet to the height of Gatun Lake. At 262 square miles, this is the largest manmade lake in the world. A variety of vessels from around the globe were at anchor, waiting their turn to descend through Gatun Locks. In the distance the Gatun Dam on the Chagras River could be seen. This dam generates electrical power to operate the canal. Lush rainforests cover the islands that dot the lake. Here we waited a couple of hours before making the return journey to the Caribbean.
The Panama Canal is truly one of the most interesting and unusual cruise experiences possible.
Next day we called at Puerto Moin, near Limon, Costa Rica which proved to be another highlight of this 10-day itinerary. Stepping onto the balcony in the morning, a breathtaking view of an uninhabited beach and lush rainforest greeted us. The only sounds were breaking waves and the singing of birds. It was exactly what you expect of Costa Rica - pure, natural beauty.
With its abundance of wildlife and birds contained in a 250 mile long by 73 mile wide area, eco-tourism has been booming in Costa Rica for many years. You are sure to see plenty of creatures as the country is home to 280 species of mammals, over 900 species of birds, 122 species of bats and 220 types of reptiles including 135 snakes. Sloths and monkeys are seen in the trees as you drive along the road. The exposed reef and damage to bridges and buildings is a testament to the 1991 earthquake which devastated the area. Princess offers a variety of tours from the ship including Wonders of the Rain forest, $109; Jungle River Eco-Adventure $72; Rain Forest Aerial Tram $129; Costa Flores Tropical Gardens $49 and Costa Rica and its Capital City, San Jose, $99.
Our nature walk in Cahuita National Park ($68) showed us a variety of animals and insects in the wild. Our group was led by an outstanding and enthusiastic guide, a microbiologist whose knowledge of Costa Rica's natural history was quite astounding. During our walk we could hear the roar of waves breaking and eventually we arrived at an unspoiled beach that stretched for miles. It was an unforgettable moment of discovery.
Whether your cruise stops at Aruba and Ocho Rios or Grand Cayman and Cozumel, you'll have a chance to enjoy fine beaches, some of the world's best diving and snorkeling and do some duty free shopping while the four sea days give you a chance to relax and enjoy your ship.
For those looking for a more leisurely cruise experience combined with diverse ports of call and a brand new vessel, Princess 10-day Panama Canal itinerary is sure to please.
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©Susan Milne, 2002