The Panama Canal is one of the world’s most amazing feats of engineering. The history of the canal and the beautiful scenery are enough to inspire romance, that said, there are only a few ways to see the Panama Canal. There is an observation tower near the Pacific entrance of the Canal where you can watch ships enter the first lock while an expert tells you the story of the Panama Canal. This is an inexpensive way to experience the canal, however it leaves much to the imagination and much of the romance of the canal is lost. Aside from joining the crew of an international freighter or paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to traverse the canal in your private yacht, the only other way to truly experience this magnificent wonder of the world is by taking a Panama Canal cruise.
Ours began in the San Diego harbor where we boarded the Holland America Nieuw Amsterdam. The Nieuw Amsterdam took us south along the coast of Mexico stopping along the way at some great ports of call in Mexico, and throughout Central America. I will write separately about those ports of call, so stay tuned. By the time we reached the Panama Canal, we had already adapted to the time differences and shipboard life, so we were well rested when we arrived off the coast of Panama before dawn. We sat on our balcony for about a half an hour trying to take photos of the city in the dark, but we were too far away to capture it meaningfully. I will note here that the excitement builds up until you finally come to grips with the reality that you are actually waiting in a queue with other ships who need to enter the canal before you, that is when you decide to go back into the cabin and order breakfast.
Although we could see the canal from our balcony, I highly recommend reserving a cabana. First of all, the walls of the locks are quite high, especially when you are on the low water step so you may be looking at a wall for a while and since the ship sits quite snuggly in the locks you will probably feel a bit claustrophobic after a while. The cabanas are on one of the highest decks passengers can access so you will have a perfect view of all lock activities from up there. Also, they serve free champagne, cheese, fruits and deliver drinks and lunch directly to you. From the cabanas, one can easily get a 360 view of the entire journey, rather than a fixed view from the balcony. On our cruise, the Cabanas were relatively easy to book, but we were advised that on other cruises you typically need to book them well in advance, or before you even embark.
We didn’t see anybody wearing Panama hats and most people dressed for a day at the pool, so you can easily eliminate such romantic imagery from your imagination in advance so as not to be disappointed, if such things even excite your imagination. For me, the Canal itself was enough. You are essentially on a lake that at times becomes so narrow only one large vessel can pass through at a time. When you imagine how much work went into this extreme feat of engineering and marvel at the beautiful jungle landscape around you, you will be transported back in time to the days when donkey carts pulled ships through the locks and workers routinely died of malaria. At this point you begin looking out for mosquitos, but you will be pleasantly surprised to find that there are no mosquitos, at least none that made it all the way up to the Cabanas.
The panama Canal experience is an all day event. A pilot that works for the canal boards the cruise ship, presumably to help the Captain navigate the canal and perhaps satisfy the insurance company that insures the canal and or the cruise ship. At the end of the journey, you realize that just that morning, you were in the pacific ocean and now you are in the caribbean, which is on the other side of a continent.
Just a few notes about the ship and Holland America in general. If you are familiar with cruising you know that there are a few different types of cruise lines that cater to different people. There are the family oriented lines that have water slides and go-carts, not to mention the thousands of small screaming children who gravitate to such activities like moths to a light bulb and there are the cruise ships that attract a more mature crowd. Holland America’s ships are the latter. I am not disparaging the family centric cruise lines, because they have their purpose and are probably quite fun for those who have children, or are more child tolerant than I am, but being on a ship seemingly free of children, for me and others like me, is much more enjoyable and relaxing. There is one caveat though, and that is that some fully grown adults still act like children from time to time. If you think I am joking, just try to cross the Lido Deck cafeteria during peak hours without being mowed down by a mob of Baby Boomers rushing the soft-serve ice-cream machine. You will become invisible to them, I guarantee it. I tried to capture this phenomenon on film, however it is a bit like getting a close up picture of an angry grizzly bear and I would be too embarrassed to explain to the nurse in the infirmary just exactly how I acquired what I can only assume would be gruesome injuries. To be fair, walking around the rest of the ship is quite easy and never really feels crowded. We managed to get a seat at just about any bar we wanted, any time we wanted. The crew was very friendly and the bartenders seem to have a preternatural ability to remember our favorite drinks. The crew, and by extension many Holland America cruisers are very loyal to the Holland America line. Some crew have been with Holland America for decades and they keep the same travelers as if they are one big family. It is really a nice thing to behold.
Here are my two recommendations when sailing on a Holland America ship.
- Get Club Orange. Club Orange gives you some nice perks, including early embarkation and disembarkation (though apparently we did not need the later as I will explain below). You also get priority seating in the dining room, so you can simply walk past the dozen or so passengers waiting to be seated. There are other smaller perks as well, but when you see the embarkation line at the cruise terminal you will be glad you joined Club Orange.
- If you like cocktails get a drink package. Robin and I got the highest possible drink package, which essentially allowed us to order almost anything we want aside from a handful of premium drinks. Considering that we could order our signature drink, the Specter, which is half Bombay Gin and half Grey Goose Vodka straight up and not pay a dime extra for it. We also had shots of Don Julio tequila and whatever Mezcals they had aboard on our package as well. The only downside is that premium wines are extra, so you either stick with those that are included, which were good, or pay more for better wine. We stuck with the included wines for most meals and never had a moment of regret. And here is one last helpful hint. Bottled water is critical to your survival when you are on a cruise. Some ports of call are in hot Central American and Mexican locals where dehydration happens easily. Further complicating things is the fact that it may be hard to find bottled water when you are in unfamiliar territory or on an excursion to a remote location. If you have the drinks package, you can get one bottle per person at each bar, and if you hide that bottle in a bag you can probably ask for another at the same bar, from the same bartender when you order your next round of drinks. Yes, I am suggesting you use your expensive drinks package to hoard water. You won’t regret my advice and unless you are planning on some Animal House style drinking benders you will never reach your daily drink limit of 15 drinks so hoard away.
Disembarkation in Miami was easy, and not because we had Club Orange. We opted to have our luggage sent directly to the airport by Holland America, but in doing so, we were randomly selected for a bag inspection. When we had our badges scanned near the gangway, they pulled us aside and escorted us past about a hundred people waiting to get off the ship. The agent in the terminal asked us if we had anything to declare and then sent our luggage through the x-ray machine. Everyone was polite and it wasn’t a big ordeal at all, plus we skipped the line we would probably have had to wait in for a while longer before our Club Orange priority disembarkation feature could kick in.
Stay tuned for details about the various ports of call we experienced on this fantastic journey through the Panama Canal.