Saturday, April 10, 2010

Panama Canal Cruise Tips

By TravelGuy and TravelGirl:

Having returned from our first Panama Canal cruise aboard Island Princess on March 30, we are finally finding a few moments to unwind and share some tips with those of you who might be thinking about cruising the Panama Canal. While this really isn't a cruise review, it's more of a "tips and highlights" offering for you.

We sailed the 10-day full transit, embarked from Acapulco (where MTV held their Spring Break right next door to us at our pre-cruise hotel -- Crowne Plaza Acapulco, which we recommend based on price and location), and headed to the following ports:
  • Huatulco, MX
  • Guatemala -- we actually had to skip this port due to a nationwide transportation strike
  • Nicaragua
  • Costa Rica
  • -cruising the canal-
  • Colon
  • Jamaica
  • Ft. Lauderdale -- where we disembarked
We both agree that this cruise ranks in the top 3 of our 8 cruises due to the many relaxation opportunities, the ability to visit several ports we'd not yet visited, the Panamax size of the ship, and the fun we had on-board with friends, both old and new.

This was a cruise we booked about 18 months in advance and really, really anticipated with glee. We researched like crazy and spent hours upon hours planning for it. To make life a little easier on you, we've compiled a list of tips to make YOUR Panama Canal cruise more enjoyable and relaxing. These are in no particular order.

  1. In advance of your cruise, read these two books -- The Path Between the Seas, by David McCullough and Panama Canal By Cruise Ship, by Anne Vipond. These are two VERY different books. The McCullough book is not an easy read, as it's 600 pages of history. Even though neither of us is really big on this type of history, I spent a few weeks reading about the first 400 pages fairly thoroughly, then skimmed the remaining 200. It's important to read this book to gain an understanding of the history and the blood, sweat, tears, and death that went into creating the Panama Canal. You'll appreciate what you see that much more if you read the book in advance. The Vipond book is a great reference book to bring with you on the cruise, and provides you with the "Cliff Notes" (so to speak) version of the history. The book also includes a pull-out map that is handy to have with you while navigating through the canal.
  2. Join Cruise Critic, and find your roll call in advance of your cruise in order to meet others who will be sailing with you. This is a great way to stay excited and continue to learn about what to expect.
  3. If you're a coffee drinker, and you're sailing Princess, buy the coffee card on Day 1 of your cruise. You'll save money on specialty coffee drinks, and your coffee card is good on future cruises if you still have space left on the card.
  4. If you're sailing Princess, they have an adults-only area called The Sanctuary. The cost is $10/person per half-day on non-canal days and $70/person for all day during the canal day. Special perks/amenities come with this purchase, but if you're interested in reserving your guaranteed spot in The Sanctuary each day, be sure to purchase this privilege on Day 1.
  5. In Huatulco, there are plenty of beach bars/restaurants in walking distance of the ship if you'd like to have a relaxing day without a lot of go-go-go. Huatulco also has a great little mini mart style store near the pier where you can stock up on soda to bring back on the ship with you.
  6. Plan an excursion in Nicaragua as there really isn't much to do around the port area.
  7. Costa Rica has a plethora of excursion options, from adventurous and Bucket List types of excursions to "beach breaks". We opted for the Calypso Cruises catamaran tour to Tortuga Island in the Gulf of Nicoya and highly recommend it for a day of relaxation in the shade.
  8. When preparing to cruise the canal, be sure to garner your spot on deck about 30-45 minutes prior to your ship entering the canal. We found our spot on the front railing on deck 10 at about 5 a.m. and were the 2nd and 3rd people out there. We stayed in our spots until 8:10 a.m. when we had just finished going through the Miraflores Locks, and decided it was nap time. If you've never seen locks in operation, you may want to watch all day. Having seen locks before, this wasn't as marvelous as we thought it would be. The real marvel was in the beauty of the passing trees, hills, monuments, forts, and areas along the route that had special meaning during the history of the French and American building of the canal. Those sites are not to be missed. We resumed our viewing about 11 a.m. from lounge chairs at the side of the ship and continued to view the passing through the canal and to the Gatun Locks. (We had seen the Pedro Miguel locks from our cabin via the in-cabin television while napping on and off.) We finally left the locks around 7:30 p .m. before heading to Colon. Unless you are fanatical about seeing the ship enter/exit every lock, it's really not necessary to view the entire canal passing for the continuous 8-9 hours.
  9. In Colon, there is a flea market adjacent to the pier. This is a great place to sip a beer and relax under a palapa in the shade as a short break from being on the ship.
  10. In Jamaica, several tours are offered, and this time around we recommend a trip to Mystic Mountain in Ocho Rios where we rode Jamaican bobsleds down the mountain after climbing to the top via a chair lift -- aw, the views!
  11. Once you've arrived back to Ft. Lauderdale, count on a line-up of taxis waiting to take you to your post-cruise hotel or to the airport. There is no need to pre-plan this transfer.
In a nutshell, if you're just thinking about planning a cruise through the Panama Canal, do it. You won't regret it. It's really hard to have a bad time while traveling, and cruising the Panama Canal is about as relaxing as it gets.


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