They said it was the canal that couldn’t be built — and for a while, it was. In 1881, the French tried for more than a decade before admitting defeat. The United States picked up the cause in 1904, and it took them another 10 years before the engineering marvel that is the Panama Canal was complete.
Today, the canal dramatically cuts a 48-mile swath through Panama to link the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans together — making it a modern world wonder. No surprise, then, that transiting the canal is high on many travelers’ bucket lists.
But which size ship is best to take in the iconic experience? Big cruise ships typically transit only a couple of times a year as they make their way between the Caribbean and Alaska. And thanks to the opening of newer, wider locks this past summer, larger cruise ships than ever are now able to make the journey. But while there’s nothing wrong with experiencing the canal from a massive ship, seeing it from the deck of a small ship is infinitely more rewarding.
First, a smaller ship puts you closer to the action. You can literally see the faces on the drivers of the “mules” — electrically powered locomotives that run on broad-gauge tracks — as they run parallel to your ship, pulling it through each of the locks. Since smaller ships typically have fewer decks, guests have a better view of the inner workings of each of the locks, not to mention some awe-inspiring views of the massive tankers and cargo ships that they pass along the way.
Being aboard a small ship really dramatizes the locks’ massive size and depth. On a small ship, you descend below ground level, unlike on the large ships. That provides a more powerful sense of the sheer scale of the structure.
Small ships also have the advantage when it comes to personal space. With so much of the action during a transit taking place outside, finding a slice of open deck space on a big ship with thousands of other passengers all wanting the same view can be a real challenge.
Because smaller ships carry fewer people, they tend to have generous amounts of open deck space. That means less fighting at the railing to get that great photograph of your first entry into the locks, or to admire sailing under the iconic Bridge of the Americas, which acts as a sort of unofficial gateway into the canal when you sail in from the Pacific Ocean. It’s also easier to move around the vessel to catch the action from different vantage points.
On a small ship line like Windstar Cruises, there’s an additional — and rare — bonus: the Open Bridge policy. It offers the ability to visit the Captain and officers on the Bridge before or after the transit to hear and see the first-hand perspective of this unique experience in the cruise and travel world. During the transit, you can view and listen on the open decks and throughout the yacht while a local expert narrates the journey through the Panama Canal as the local Pilot directs the Captain through the locks.
Indeed, on a small ship, you can easily hear the sounds of the canal. They’re not drowned out by loud pool music or obscured by movies playing on the outdoor movie screen. Instead, you get to hear the cheers from onlookers at the Miraflores Locks as your ship enters. You’re close enough to other ships that you can lean over and talk to the people scurrying about, handling lines and readying for their own transits. You can hear the strain of the mules as they pull the ships forward, the shouts of the men as they issue commands to one another.
The Panama Canal may be a man-made piece of engineering, but when you’re in the middle of the Miraflores Locks, surrounded by whirring equipment, opening locks, rushing water, and ships of all shapes and sizes, the entire thing feels alive. Nowhere is that electrifying feeling more apparent than on board a small ship. Indeed, I wouldn’t see the canal any other way.
IF YOU GO
From December to April, Windstar’s 212-guest Star Breeze and Star Pride operate nearly two dozen weeklong Costa Rica & Panama Canal trips through the Panama Canal between Puerto Caldera (San Jose), Costa Rica, and Colón, Panama, or reverse. These sailings include stops in Quepos, Bahia Drake, and Golfo Dulce, Costa Rica; along with a call on lovely Isla Parida, Panama, and a 10-hour transit of the canal.
Aaron Saunders is a freelance writer specializing in cruises who sailed aboard Star Breeze through the Panama Canal last spring. He has written two books on cruising, Stranded and Giants of the Sea, and founded From the Deck Chair, a website dedicated to the cruise industry. Saunders contributes to USA TODAY, Cruise Times and many other publications.
It was a sweltering day in Corinto and it was a sweltering day today in Puerto Quetzal. Although here we had about 10 knots of wind and that made it a bit more bearable. Better than yesterday when there was hardly anything at all. We were the only cruise ship in port and thus we occupied the cruise terminal. Much to the relief of the bulkcarrier captains no doubt, who are otherwise kicked out of the port when there are more “Fur coat” boats coming in. For them time is money as well and thus they do not like to be delayed by sitting at the anchorage for the day. Even more galling must be that those cruise guests who get preference are happily waving at you when they get in, and then even more happily waving at you when they get out of the port again. So today nobody had reason to be upset. But then it was Sunday and the people who normally like to be upset, as it gives them something to do, were having the day off or at least having Sunday lunch.
When I tried to raise Port Control to get permission to lower my tender, there was deadly silence. No other ships movement was planned until 3 pm. so they were all having a nice Sunday lunch I suppose. Every ship’s captain knows how that works and in order to avoid somebody getting upset when they return from lunch, the purser normally has a list with requests prepared and then has it signed (and stamped) by one of the officials coming on board to clear the ship. And once we have a stamp; we are in business. Puerto Quetzal has even gone one better; they have their own list to make it easier for the cruise ships, so we do not even have to ask. Thus I already had pre permission to lower a boat as long as I strayed no more than 30 meters away from the ship. The local authorities do not want us to get lost in their port. But we normally call in as a courtesy to let them know what we are doing where and when.
And so today four new sailors were introduced into the secrets of operating a tender with two engines, two rudders, and how to use those to come alongside and sail away from the tender platform. We only had ten knots of wind but an empty tender lays as an egg shell on the water and thus drifts, and that concept takes time to understand. So for the first few attempts I had some deeply concentrated sailors trying to bring the tender alongside and either missing or bumping into the platform. But once they really believed my phrase “use the wind as your friend” it started to improve by leaps and bounds. To be continued tomorrow. Then they have to do with only one engine.
Somewhere near the fire, but safe, there is a staging area where everybody meets. Here an engineer is checking if all the gear is properly in place before a team is being send in.
I still have to explain the “un-expected fire drill” of yesterday. It is company policy (and all shipping companies are the same) to stage on a regular basis an un-expected drill. Nobody has already been thinking about it, nobody is mentally prepared, and if it happens at a time when “nobody in their right mind” would do it, then maybe it could be for real. Then we get the adrenaline going and suddenly all the trained routines have to be executed under pressure as “it might be for real”. It is always difficult to keep things quiet on a ship as it is one big village, and its inhabitants love to gossip, but with me around, the captain has the extra card up his sleeve as I can avoid anybody if needed. A second item we have to train is fires in port. Then 50% of the 4 fire teams might be ashore and then the On Scene Commander has to combine whatever he has available into at least two attack teams. So we combined those two things yesterday and at 14.15 I have everybody having a near heart attack by simulating a fire in the electric power station of the winches.
8 Minutes from happily having an afternoon snooze to be fully alert and in “full combat gear” approaching the fire is not bad going.
What do we look for: response time, still following the correct procedures and no short cuts, correct announcements and staying on the ball once it becomes clear it is a drill. I was really impressed with the response time, 8 minutes from jumping out of bed, to be fully kitted out and sitting in position behind a hose and a CO2 extinguisher and ready to enter the compartment where the fire is. And behind that attack team all the backup & support teams are in place to make sure everything is done safely. Such a drill does not have to take long, it is about the response and the time needed to surround the fire and once surrounded, getting it out is not so difficult. Thus the whole evolution was over in 20 minutes. So I could give compliments to everybody although it did not mean they were very happy with me but then life is never perfect. The captain made an elaborate announcement afterwards about the why and the when and then also the guests understood the importance of it all. And my apologies for waking those up who had just settled down for a nice nap after all the excitement of Corinto port.
This evening we sail at 19.00 hrs. and then our next port of call is Puerto Chiapas. This can be a nasty place to get into to if there is a high ocean swell running, but at the moment the Pacific Ocean is really peaceful so we should have no issues what so- ever. Weather for tomorrow; same as today. Chiapas is only 140 miles away from Quetzal and without a mountain ridge in the way, they share the same heatwave.
Featured image: Aircraft operated for Crystal AirCruises by Comlux Aruba NV.
COME FLY WITH US: CRYSTAL AIRCRUISES & THE PENINSULA HOTELS TAKE FLIGHT TOGETHER FOR MAIDEN JOURNEY
Exceptional service. Stylishly elegant spaces. Exquisite quality. Endless choices. These have long been hallmarks of the Crystal Experience as we explore the world’s most beloved sites and undiscovered gems. You may associate a Crystal vacation with a seamless transition from the everyday to the extraordinary, and on August 31, 2017, we will elevate to new heights of exploration as Crystal AirCruises takes off, taking you on journeys that will push your expectations of what is possible to discover within the confines of one luxury vacation.
The Peninsula Hotels, Paris, L’Oiseau Blanc terrace by night.
Our maiden journey on our privately-owned Boeing 777-200LR presents a particularly special opportunity to travel to some of the world’s most glamourous locales, with exclusively curated experiences and events presented in partnership with the world renowned Peninsula Hotels in each destination.
Each Peninsula Hotels property set for the landmark 27-day “The Peninsula Grand Inaugural Crystal AirCruise – New York City, Chicago, Beverly Hills, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Beijing, Tokyo, Manilla, Bangkok and Paris – is cloaked in the culture of the region, steeped in authentic style and heritage. We are honored to take flight with such an esteemed partner for this voyage.
Here’s a glimpse of the fireworks illuminating the Shanghai night sky, the glittering Manhattan skyline from the Peninsula rooftop, and the magic of a 360-degree view of the romance and lights of Paris. What this video cannot convey is the superlative elegance and superior guest service aboard the newest member of the Crystal fleet. That, you’ll need to experience in person. Come fly with us.
Destinations and Peninsula Hotels set to enhance this journey of rare privilege include:
The Peninsula New York, with its glamorous Fifth Avenue address, sets the perfect scene for a rooftop toast to the inaugural journey, set against the Manhattan skyline and setting an enchanting tone for the adventures ahead.
The Peninsula Chicago, delivering a landmark location in the heart of Michigan Avenue’s famous food, museums, music, shopping and theater.
The Peninsula, Beverly Hills, just steps from the world-renowned shopping found on Rodeo Drive, and just a bit farther from the quintessential Southern California beaches that are forever shrouded in sunshine.
The Peninsula Tokyo, steeped in the ancient history of its surroundings while simultaneously an icon of modern chic, the property is surrounded by lush Hibiya Park, as well as Tokyo’s vibrant and unconventional fashion scene at every turn.
The Peninsula Beijing, with its grand pagoda gateway entrance, symbolizes the ancient culture that continues to permeate every facet of the city, from the Temple of Heaven to shopper’s paradise Wangfujing Road.
A fleet of Rolls Royce chariots stand at the ready to transport guests through the many discoveries in Hong Kong (photo courtesy The Peninsula Hotels)
The Peninsula Shanghai, boasting an exclusively striking vantage point of this chic city, including the sleek skyline, iconic Pearl Tower and a world of colors, sounds, and treasures in between.
The Peninsula Hong Kong, affectionately known as the “Grand Dame of the Far East,” is a luxurious home base for Crystal AirCruises guests, who will likely savor the hotel’s world-renowned Afternoon Tea as much as their many other memorable experiences in the city.
The Peninsula Manila, which is nestled lavishly into the city’s mix of old world and new flavor, treats guests with inspired cuisine and impeccable service amidst their explorations of Manila’s edgy art galleries and lively music scene.
The Peninsula Bangkok, its riverside locale an ideal take-off point for adventures along the Chao Phraya River, or into the bustling town center for an array of colorful experiences.
The Peninsula Paris – The Grand Finale of the journey and itself an architectural masterpiece in a city that boasts some of the world’s finest, as the hotel’s rooftop affords 360-degree perspective of the City of Light. Surprise events showcasing the romance, history and culinary arts of Paris will conclude guests’ journey in the most magical way.
Crystal AirCruises’ maiden journey will open for booking on November 1, 2016 with all-inclusive voyages starting at $ 159,000, per person. Aircraft operated for Crystal AirCruises by Comlux Aruba NV. For more information and Crystal reservations, contact a travel professional, call 855-207-2778, 789.971.1010 (international calls) or visit crystalaircruises.com.
I’ve run back from the morning canoe expedition to pull on bike shorts for a 30km cycle from Durnstein, through villages and vineyards and up and over a bridge that crosses the Danube to Melk.
When I dismount, I will again play quick-change artist for the afternoon visit to wondrous Melk Abbey, which peers down on the town from its twin turrets.
What is this, the Austrian leg of Amazing Race? No, it’s a European river cruise, which usually comes with a reputation for being easy on the knees and gentle on the heart rate. Some companies even post step counts for shore excursions. But for cruisers who would go loopy if their days were measured in pre-counted paces, Avalon Waterways is launching Active Discovery, a tributary program to the company’s traditional Danube sailings.
The Avalon team has spent two years devising and tweaking the Active Discovery excursions, and now I’m aboard a Danube cruise to take them for a spin — and a paddle, hike, knead, flambee and cycle — on a journey from Vienna, Austria, to Passau, Germany.
But first, a quick twirl around the comfort and cuisine on call for all Avalon cruisers (Active Discoverers may feel more schnitzel-entitled because there’s real exercise on their itinerary).
Your cabin bathroom is as spacious as the average hotel ensuite, so you won’t have to manoeuvre into the shower, even if the Austrian potato salad has been too more-ish. Floor-to-ceiling panoramic windows are another feature of Avalon’s Suite Ships, such as my vessel, MS Visionary. The glass slides wide open to turn the cabin into a private covered balcony, with a queen-sized bed (fussy critic’s mattress report: firm and excellent) sensibly positioned facing the view.
Girth jokes aside, Avalon has introduced Avalon Fresh, a range of healthy menu options that focus on small farms and local produce. The vegetarian dishes have been developed by Vienna’s Leo and Karl Wrenkh, sons of the creators of Austria’s first high-end vegetarian restaurant. We visit the Wrenkh brothers’ cooking school in the heart of Vienna to hear about their ethos and to take a fast-paced class. Making the group feel as if we are doing the chopping and sauteeing, but deftly doing most of it himself, Leo leads us in whipping up a scrumptious lunch, including caramelised stir-fried teriyaki pumpkin, pan-seared lemon brook trout from the Austrian mountain lakes region, wok-tossed Mediterranean prawns (my flambeeing provides entertainment for the mob), and carpaccio of dry-aged Austrian beef (so melt-in-the-mouth, it could almost be vegetarian).
Avalon designs all its menus to recognise the region through which its river ships are cruising. Hearty local darlings such as wiener schnitzel, spaetzle (Austria’s answer to macaroni and cheese) and kaiserschmarrn (a shredded-pancake favoured by Emperor Franz Joseph I) pop up on lunch menus aboard. Dinner is described as fine cuisine, and while the dress code is relaxed, the food definitely deserves that moniker, with an option to book into the Panorama Bistro on the main deck and enjoy regional degustation dining via a parade of small plates. And there are jars of Vegemite and Marmite at breakfast, recognising that, for many Australian and British cruisers, this is comfort food.
Active Discovery aims to offer experiences that will leave passengers with special memories. You can gather golden moments watching the passing scenery from the sun deck and taking walking tours of the historic towns along the way, but this thoughtful program takes it up a few gears. I don’t have room for all the activities we packed in, but here are selected highlights, in order of our westbound cruise direction.
VIENNA AWAKES AND BAKES: We drive through the early-morning empty streets to the Naschmarkt, Vienna’s fruit and vegetable market since the 16th century. It’s Saturday, so the flea market is in full swing, offering objects you might find on an Australian trash ‘n’ treasure stall, but also swords, steins, stuffed stoats and assorted antlers. Our guide Robert’s walking tour of the city is full of facts and gossip; at the glorious Kunsthistorisches Museum he shares stories behind some of the treasures of the Habsburg Empire. That family really knew how to collect. Active Discovery also offers jogging and cycling tours and a waltz class (my two left feet decree that I should instead visit the Spanish Riding School).
The cycling tour promises three hours to view what took the Habsburgs 600 years to build, but heavy rain parks that plan, and I join the baking excursion.
Our carb-creating crowd descends on Atelier Andante to bake bread for the ship’s lunch service. The mission includes mohnflesserl, handsemmel, salzstangerl (a braided poppy-seed bun), a crusty roll that we know as a vienna or kaiser roll, and salty bread sticks. Instructor Nabiel Elissi has all of the ingredients measured and arranged before our arrival, so we scrub up like bread surgeons, don aprons and follow his directions to mix, knead and shape our crusty creations. It’s fabulous fun over a few hours and when we take those warm rolls back to the ship, we’re puffed with pride. They taste terrific.
PASS THE BATON: If I am permitted a favourite Active Discovery interlude, indulge me on this one. As the Vienna Supreme Orchestra finishes rehearsals before its evening concert, we are ushered into a wood-panelled hall at Palais Eschenbach, near Vienna’s Ringstrasse. Stadttheater Baden resident conductor Michael Zehetner has been charged with teaching us to lead this orchestra, even though we are well aware they will play beautifully without watching the batons of buffoons.
After a few breathing exercises and baton directions, we are let loose with these sweet-natured musicians. They make it feel real, intently watching my baton rise and drop as they play. Music flows from the instruments, sweeping through my body. We L-plate conductors stick with Strauss to close out our concert, conducting Blue Danube Waltz in a pass-the-baton relay. After our conducting lessons we break for dinner and chat with Zehetner and some of “our” orchestra. And then the Vienna Supreme Orchestra, joined by opera and ballet performers, takes the stage again and entertains a rapt audience, most of whom are our fellow passengers, but only four of us clasp souvenir batons from a unique afternoon.
ADRIFT ON THE DANUBE: From our dock in historic Durnstein we take a minibus trip upriver, past the tightly tiered riesling vineyards of the Wachau Valley, to meet the gang from Kanu Wachau. At Avalon’s request, they’ve made idiot-proof canoe rigs. (I doubt Avalon put it so crudely, but even I couldn’t capsize one of these.)
Four Active Discoverers paddle and steer while Indolent Discoverers laze atop a platform that joins the canoes. In truth, we paddlers have an easy time of it. The river does most of the work as our stand-up paddle-board guide leads us in a go-with-the-flow down the Danube, back past the hill-crawling vineyards and ancient ruins atop the crags.
PUMPED UP FOR CYCLING: Fresh from our canoe caper, we change into cycling clobber and get ready to race Avalon Visionary from Durnstein to Melk. It’s 30km along the river and we pass through tiny cobblestoned villages, with honesty stalls selling apricot jam, and signs tempting cyclists with schnapps and beer; past vineyards and across apple orchards; and finally crossing the Danube to reach Melk, where our ship will dock (it ends up passing us as we stop for lunch on the banks, the picnic boxes having hitched a ride with the support vehicle).
This is by far the most popular of the Active Discovery excursions, with 28 cyclists pedalling along after Pieter, our granite-thighed Dutch guide. For a compact chap, he has a foghorn voice to shout warnings of oncoming bikes. It’s a relaxing ride — even more so if you don’t ignore a shooshing sound on the outskirts of Durnstein.
I ride more than half the journey on a flat front tyre, wondering why every other Active Discoverer is gliding past. When I finally think to ask about it, the guides are agape, and I get a replacement at the next available access point. The bikes are excellent; just check that your tyre doesn’t resemble a wheel from The Flintstones.
OUT OF THIS WORLD: It’s strangely hard to explain Ars Electronica, so you might be inclined to skip the private evening tour and join the Linz pub crawl that’s also on offer. Do not do that — this is a house of hi-tech wonders. Museum director Andreas Bauer escorts us on the short walk across the bridge from our ship to his museum, welcomes us with a few stories over a glass of prosecco, and then takes us inside the Deep Space 8K facility.
HIKE THE HILLS: On our final morning, before sailing from Engelhartszell to Passau, we are bussed up a hill with our guide Sebastian (who the day before took us on a hike to Postlingberg, overlooking Linz). We begin our walk near a farm, across storybook meadows and through woods to finally gaze out at Schlogener Schlinge, a languidly looping section of the Danube. The Passau to Vienna cycle trail, pedalled by about 40,000 people a year, runs near here, too. The end of our walk involves steep downhill sections that challenge some intrepid Active Discoverers, but we all make it back intact and Sebastian gives us the stats from his Apple Watch: 49m up, 251m down, 5.6km in two hours … and 2257kj.
These are most respectable results to close our Active Discovery trial. Pass the apricot schnapps, please.
Jane Nicholls was a guest of Avalon Waterways.
Avalon Waterways operates river cruises throughout Europe, including on the Danube, Rhine, Main, Moselle, Rhone and Seine rivers. Its nine-day Active Discovery itineraries will be available on Avalon Luminary between Budapest and Linz between July and October 2017, from $ 5219 a person twin-share. Each is available with an optional three-day extension to Prague (from $ 6124 including cruise and extension) or to Salzburg and Munich (from $ 6932).
This is a most peculiar place to visit as you have two options. In the good old days, we could only go to Puerto Caldera, which is the cargo port in the province of Punta Arenas. The provincial head town had a small pier as well but not suitable for our activities. So when we docked we had buses and taxis for those who wanted to go to Punta Arenas about 15 minutes down the road. Most guests go on tour in Costa Rica but for those who did not want to go on tour and for those who did not want to go to Punta Arenas there was a big flee market setup in the cargo sheds. Puerto Caldera dock is located behind a nice breakwater and protected from the sea swell for most of the calls and thus very much liked by captains. Happy Taxi drivers, happy vendors, happy captains as the ship lays stable against the dock.
The Veendam docked at Punta Arenas. The tour buses back down all the way from the beginning of the pier as there is no room to turn.
Then a new pier was built so we could dock with our nose straight into Punta Arenas downtown. That created for very happy shops and very unhappy taxi drivers. For the tours it did not matter, all the buses still parked outside the ship. For the captains it was less straight forward. Offering the best location for your guests is something you want to achieve but the new pier had some challenges.
The new pier sticking right into the open waters.
It was not sitting behind a breakwater so the swell ran in freely. This can make the ship bounce and surge along the pier if there is a long ocean swell running; and a moving ship creates problems with the gangway. The other thing is the current. The pier is right in open waters and up to four knots of current can freely run under it. Four knots of current is not something you can control with your thrusters. Thus you have to synchronize your arrival and departure with the time that the current turns, slack tide. Which is not always at the same time and thus absolutely not in synch with the cruise brochure. Thus sometimes the Captain has to get the ship in much earlier (sail a lot faster than planned, burn a lot more fuel) or come in late and that affects the departure time as the tours still go with the duration.)
Today we were lucky. The turning of the tide was around 06.30 and for a 07.00 hrs. arrival it was just perfect. Departure was less of a problem as the current was going to push the ship away from the dock anyway. And it had been quiet in the Pacific and thus there was only a very low swell rolling in and the ship hardly moved. On top of that it was overcast and it hardly rained; all things came together today.
There are two strong tugboats on location to protect the pier in case the tide is misjudged. Looking over the bow you can see the pilot boat on the buoys observing the current.
What we do when we get there, and to make it alongside; the pilot parks his pilot boat on the nearest buoy and that provides him with information about the moment the current goes down to zero, a bit further out in open waters. The ship is in position about 300 feet from the dock where the current is already so slow it can be kept in position with the thrusters; and the moment the pilot boat gives a cry, the ship starts moving and then it has a good window of opportunity before the current starts running again.
Punta Arenas. (Courtesy from somewhere on the internet)
Punta Arenas itself is located on a sort of long and narrow peninsula running along the coast of the main land. Which is one of the reasons there is such a strong current, as the water finds its way around the peninsula to the North side. In the last few years, no doubt because of all the cruise ship money coming in, the place has been considerably spruced up and a large part of “happy town” from the old days is gone and replaced with an open air theatre. To my regret the little shop which sold postcards ………… old ones……….. was gone as well and replaced with a T shirt shop. I was a very happy camper a few years ago when I went by taxi to town and found this little place which sold antiques (sort of……………. Let’s say old stuff) but had a lot of old postcards from Panama and San Jose (Capital of Costa Rica). I have never seen an antique shop like that anywhere else in Middle America. But there it was and I made the owner very happy by ensuring a major donation went into his retirement fund. (Maybe that is why the shop is gone)
A postcard which made me very happy. The Nieuw Amsterdam of 1937 in the Panama Canal anytime before 1951.
Tomorrow we are in Corinto, Nicaragua. I hope to visit the school which we sponsored when I was Captain on the Statendam. Last time when I went for a look, they were closed for vacation but the school looked good from the outside. We had left some pails of paint behind and the parents had followed up by turning the school into a wondrous picture of Holland America white and blue.
Weather for tomorrow; As Corinto has less tropical forest than Panama and Costa Rica it is a lot drier. So tomorrow we are back to sunny skies and temperatures around 84oF / 209C. with hardly any wind. It is going to be challenging for some of our guests.