"Cruising the Panama Canal," with photographs by Marcia Jacobson, The Syracuse Post-Standard Sunday STARS Magazine, Feb. 26, 2012, 11-12.

"The Cruise Experience: the Panama Canal on the Island Princess over the Winter Holidays," with photographs by Marcia Jacobson, The Syracuse Post-Standard Sunday STARS Magazine, Feb. 26, 2012, 11-12.

 “A Man, A Plan, A Canal: Panama” (Perhaps the most brilliant palindrome in English, often attributed to Leigh Mercer, Nov. 13,1948)

Essentials: In December my wife (Marcia Jacobson) and I spent ten pleasurable days on a large cruise ship, the Island Princess, sailing on the Atlantic and the Caribbean. While enjoying the vast expanse and peacefulness of sea (excepting one rough day), with its wonderful changing colors from shades of grey to azure to dark blue, our main sightseeing goal was to experience the results of one of the great engineering feats of the twentieth century, the Panama Canal, connecting the Atlantic to the Pacific and replacing for commercial (as well as other) ships a journey of thousands of miles around South America. As preparation we did some background reading and saw videos that explained the amazing history of the Canal including how the United States took control of the land and the engineering project. We also stopped in Aruba; Cartagena; Columbia; Port Limon, Costa Rica; and Ocho Rios, Jamaica.

Our previous cruises were a Princess cruise to Alaska on the Inland Passage to see glaciers and a Celebrity Caribbean cruise, although we have also taken a few river cruises on the Volga, Nile and Yangtze as part of longer tours.
Island Princess, our cruise ship

A cruise ship is a floating hotel with spa, fitness center, jewelry and clothing shops, casino, art gallery, and several restaurants.  The cabins vary greatly from suites and upper rooms with balconies and floor to ceiling windows to far less costly windowless inner cabins.

Our ten day Panama Canal cruise over the Christmas and Hanukah holidays had full capacity of 2200 passengers and 900 crew members, some visible but others connected with sailing and maintaining the ship, security, and food preparation.

Cruise ships want to appeal to diverse clients. Thus Hanukah was celebrated for all eight days, with candle lighting and brief services presided over by a cantor who was an on board passenger, and Christmas services were held for both Catholics and Protestants.  On a more secular front, Princess provided hospitality for gay and single passengers as well as recovering alcoholics (“Friends of Bill”) as well as extra activities for the considerable number of teenagers and younger children on board during the winter holidays.

Fort Lauderdale Prelude: If possible, it is a major plus to have transitional days in the port of embarkation, especially for those flying from the north during winter. On our Celebrity Caribbean cruise we left from San Juan and spent a few days there, and on our Alaska cruise we over-nighted in Vancouver. Before beginning this cruise, we stayed for three nights on the ocean at the Marriott Harbor Resort, which proved an excellent transitional stop. Rather than rush to return flights when the cruise ended, we returned to the same hotel.

The Marriot Harbor Resort offers wonderful views of the ocean, the service is first-rate, and the gym and spa are exceptional. Considered one of the best restaurants in Fort Lauderdale, the Marriott Harbor’s 3030 Ocean restaurant is recommended, notably for its array of fresh fish dishes including wahoo and swordfish as well as shellfish. For a few days in Fort Lauderdale you do not need a rental car; taxis are inexpensive, and good restaurants are within walking distance. We had fine fresh fish at Café Casablanca (Snapper, Moroccan style) and at H2O (Grouper).

The Cruise Experience: For my wife and me, the highlight on ship of each of our prior two ocean cruise experiences has been the vast array of professional entertainment at no extra cost, and this cruise was no exception. 

On our cruise, you could watch a 45 minute elegantly staged, well-rehearsed, professionally lighted and choreographed Broadway style review with terrific singers and dancers. We enjoyed four such shows in addition to two partial ones on opening night and Christmas Eve.  With a focus on various dance forms in “Do You Want to Dance?” or, on another night, on Motown music and on still another New Orleans life and music, these shows--usually performed twice a night--were truly memorable.  In addition, every night in various venues on board you could listen and dance to a fine New Orleans trio; a saloon pianist-singer doing the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen and other traditional music; a quartet featuring Latin music played by a Romanian (!) combo fronted by two singers; a trio featuring classical music and sometimes jazz violin in the tradition of Stephane Grappelli and Joe Venuti; or an upbeat Rock and Roll band. (Be forewarned, however that the comedians—we saw parts of four acts-- are at a different level from the musicians, ranging from competent to just awful.)

Cruising is an easy kind of travel in which all you need to do is decide what to do on the ship and where to go when you stop. While the ship moves, you will have time for reading, romance, exercise (essential to maintain your weight due to the abundance of high caloric food) in a decent if not world class gym or walk or jog on the promenade deck—2.8 laps to a mile on our midsize ship—or watch the many films and videos or standard channels provided on your cabin satellite TV.  On board, you will find a library, game room, occasional lectures and films on the ship’s destinations, and concert videos on big screens.  The full service spa offers a range of services. Those who wish can shop till they drop or gamble away their money in a casino.

We had one somewhat rough day at sea; one of two stabilizers broke that day and was not fixed for several days.  Some people did get seasick—and if you are prone to seasickness, bring along Dramamine or patches. The officers closed the exits to the promenade deck on the rough day so that no one could blow off.

Cruise Pluses:  We had a comfortable well-arranged cabin with king size bed, desk, adequate lighting for reading, a floor to ceiling window opening out onto a balcony; the latter extended our cabin and gave us a place for private reading and viewing in contrast to the somewhat crowded pool area on the level 14. 

You do not need to unpack and repack while traveling.  You are pampered by the staff, especially your cabin steward, who will make up your room as often as you wish and will leave on your bed each night, for your amusement, towels rolled in the shape of animals.  At no charge, room service will deliver fresh fruit each day, and we had flowers in our room at our arrival.

Cruising is a great way to have a family vacation and we often met three generations having a holiday together during this trip as well as on the Caribbean cruise over spring break and the summer cruise to Alaska.

Cruises are a very good value, even if you take an outside cabin with balcony, and really inexpensive if you can tolerate a windowless inner cabin or  (somewhat more costly than the inner cabins) a lower deck with portholes. Holidays are not the best times for cruise bargains. To attract customers for cruises not in high season, cruise companies may include airfare to the port of departure.

Food and Dining: Eating is a major cruise activity, and you can spend several hours eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner in the main dining rooms, and, if you wish, partake of high tea and indulge in all day snacking.  On our five days in ports, lunch was not served in the main dining room; if you returned early and needed lunch, you could eat at the mediocre buffet restaurant called Horizon, which is open virtually all day but is really undistinguished in quality and presentation.  Made with fresh dough at a separate alcove, the pizza is surprisingly respectable.

The food in general is plentiful—often the portions are much larger than we could eat, and the waste must be enormous-- and varies from satisfactory to very good, and there is no limit on how many menu choices you can select. Once in a while something comes out of the kitchen that is sub par, but that is an exception.  If you don’t like what you get, the waiters are gracious about bringing something else.  Arrangements can be made to meet diverse dietary needs.

Because the Island Princess is cooking for 2200 people and usually a rather elderly clientele, the food is not as well seasoned as it might be; adding pepper when food is served is not a substitute for full seasoning during cooking. While the wait staff wants to please, a full boat may mean slower service and, until I mentioned it, sometimes dishes were not cleared as quickly as they should have been.

The freshly baked breads, including the croissants, are particularly outstanding, although neither the bagels nor Danish will impress a New Yorker. Most of the fruits are good, but the steamed vegetables served with dinner are repetitious. 

If asked, the Maitre D’—in this case a fabulous and energetic Italian named Ignazio d’Agostino-- or headwaiters may (especially if you are considered an “elite” guest) present you with some truly wonderful entrees that are not on the menu.  We also sampled the two specialty restaurants--an Italian restaurant called Sabatini’s and a steak house called Bayou--which charge an extra $20 each. Featuring a delicious bronzini for two cooked in salt crust (a better dish than I had recently at a well know three star restaurant in Manhattan) the former was more interesting than the latter perhaps because we had had enough beef by the time we got to the Bayou which features steak.

On the Island Princess, we could choose the 5:30 or 8:00 p.m. sitting or, alternatively, what is called  "anytime" dining. We chose a romantic table for 2 at 7:30 in time for dinner prior to the second Broadway style show at 10:15.

What potential cruise passengers need know: You are with your 2200 (or more) best friends, and on rare occasions fellow passengers do not fulfill all your expectations in terms of courtesy or savvy.   You don’t see as much of major sites as if you go to a place for several days, but for the Caribbean islands or stops along the way to Alaska, that matters less than it would if one were visiting major cities, historic sites, or natural wonders. But even if you love Paris, Angkor, and African Safaris, as we do, a cruise may have a place in your travel program.

In former times, cruise ships were more all-inclusive, but that has changed for all but the most elegant ships. Princess is a mid-price brand of the Carnival Corporation; their upscale brands are Seabourn and Cunard.  The main rival to the Carnival Corporation is Royal Caribbean Cruises, which also has an array of brands, including Celebrity, which is a bit more upscale than Princess. 

Cruise ships depend for their profits on disaggregation. After you pay one price for whatever category of room you choose on whichever deck (a higher deck is more expensive) as well as basic meals and entertainment, you begin to be billed everything else. This includes a wide variety of tours for each port, but also alcohol, fitness classes, specialty coffees, bottled water when leaving the ship for an excursion, and sodas. Even access to a private area in aft deck 14 called The Sanctuary costs an extra $20. The cruise company also profits from the shops, photos, and casinos. Nothing is too inexpensive to sell, even postcards for $.65.  The spa is expensive by any standards I know, and so is the Internet: 250 minutes of Internet costs $100.

Disaggregation is both a plus and minus. It runs up the tab and some people had bills in the thousands, but it also allows people on a budget to sail and to take family with them. If you take an inner cabin, or even a lower cabin with a porthole, you can cruise for a bargain, especially off-season.

Stops: After three nights at sea, our first stop for five hours was Aruba, a Dutch island, which, is mostly a beach resort island with tourism the major activity. We opted for a swim at Palm Beach, site of many hotels, and we looked around the port area, which is a Mecca for tourist shopping. We took public bus #10 and spend $2.30 each for a round trip, and there was no charge for a nice but busy tourist beach.

The next stop, Cartagena, Columbia, was far more interesting. On a hot day, we took a taxi to the Old Town and hired a guide, visited the Cathedral, the Inquisition museum, and Gold museum. The latter is free and a must, providing, despite its title, an excellent if modestly sized historical perspective on early Columbia. We walked on the walls of the quite compelling Old Town with the picturesque architecture and narrow streets and visited the market located in the old dungeon. From the old walls we saw the fort and monastery, tourist sites that we could have examined in further detail. Also striking is the new part of city with modern white buildings. Recommended and free: the little zoo at the port  (when you exit from the ship) with toucans, parrots, and pheasants as well as small monkeys.
Miraflora Locks in the Panama Canal

The Panama Canal: We awoke early to see the approach to the first locks and then watch the movement of our cruise ship through the first three of the six locks to Gatun Lake. After our ship anchored in the Lake, we took an excursion for $169 each to see the rest of the Canal.  The excursion began with a 75 minute bus ride to the end of the lake followed by a ferry ride through the remaining three locks to the Pacific.

Our ferry held over 400 passengers, although only a bit more than 300 of our 2200 cruise passengers took this excursion that I consider a must. On a small boat one can better experience the locks which on the first three lift ships 85 feet to cross the Continental Divide before the last three locks lower the ships as the canal approaches the Pacific.

The ferryboat guide had a heavy accent and could have said more and spoken less. The included lunch on board the ferry was inedible. After reaching the Pacific and Panama City, we returned by bus to the boat, which had sailed to Colon. On the bus ride, we were accompanied by a capable and pleasant Panamanian guide of American descent who gave us a good deal of insight into the culture and history of Panama.

The following day we landed at Port Limon, Costa Rica. Because we had been in Cost Rica within the past three or four years and had experienced most in not all of the ship’s offered tours, we decided to explore the area with a local tour that we purchased when we left the boat.
Costa Rica, crocodile

The highlight was an hour cruise on the Moin river we where saw crocodiles, iguanas, two and three toed sloths, as well as, among other birds, great egrets, snowy egrets, and herons. We also visited a banana plantation, a fruit stand, Playa Bonita (an semi-urban beach which hardly ranks with great Caribbean beaches) and had a brief town tour. 

After another day at sea, our final stop was Ocho Rios, Jamaica, an island nation where we have spent some time in prior travels. But we had never been to Dunn’s Falls near Ocho Rios. We took the outer path rather than walking in the falls and river, and spent some time at the beautiful ocean beach at the bottom of the falls.

Hints and Suggestions:

Tours: You should be able to make your own arrangements when you get off the cruise ship, but if you don’t purchase tours from the cruise company you are responsible for getting back on ship. Usually, you can beat the cruise company’s price by 50 per cent or 75 per cent, but this does mean negotiating and on occasion some discussion about what you have purchased.

Tipping: Princess added $11.50 a day per person to the bill unless you opt out and do your own tipping to those who please you. I prefer the latter, thinking that it is up to the cruise line to pay the salaries of those behind the scenes or for those I do tip to “tip out” whomever they wish.

Pack lightly:  The cruise ships have on board laundries. If you pack lightly as I recommend, take your luggage on board rather than checking it when boarding; we began the check-in process at 11:30 a.m. and received our luggage at 5:30 p.m.

The Boat’s bridge:  The cruise ship invites some passengers to see the bridge, but my guess is that if you request it, you can be included. We have done the bridge tour a few times and found fascinating the explanation of how the boat navigates and sails.

Upscale and repeat clients: Just as with the airlines and hotel chains, return customers and those who pay more are treated better. If you travel frequently with the same line or take suites and become "elite” customers, you will have some perks such as invitations to a special lunch with the captain, complimentary dinners at the specialty restaurants as well as breakfast with much better service in a one of the restaurants, an embarkation and disembarkation lounge for “preferred” guests, and so forth.

Essential reading: David McCullough,The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870—1914  (1977) discusses the building of the Panama Canal.

If you go: We have booked our three ocean cruises with Kimmy Perry of Cruise International Expedia CruiseShipCenters, 847-303-2050 or toll free 800-255-7447; she has been exceptionally helpful and  reliable. email:kimmyperry@cruiseshipcenters.com. Our balcony cabin cost was a tad under $2500 per person with all taxes included.