Sun, sand, shopping and history are all in the mix when you take a cruise through the "Eighth Wonder of the World."
By JACK MCGUIRE, Special to the Times
Published April 15, 2007
Where in the world are you going? If you're a cruise enthusiast, the choices seem almost endless. As cruisers have become more adventurous, mainstream cruise lines have extended their reach to embrace a host of exotic destinations, everything from marching with penguins in Antarctica to viewing the natural wonders of the Galapagos Islands. Or how about passage to the "Eighth Wonder of the World?"
Ready for some soft adventure travel, but at no sacrifice to creature comforts, my wife, Jill, and I boarded Holland America Line's Zaandam in Fort Lauderdale for a Panama Canal cruise, with the "big ditch" as the primo attraction and the added lure of other intriguing ports of call along the way. We had done virtually the same voyage 20 years ago, but fascination with our initial passage through the canal drew us back once more.
Begun in 1882, the unsuccessful French effort to build the canal spanned 20 years, only to be abandoned in defeat, the workers ravaged by tropical disease and the project overcome by financial problems.
In 1904, American interests took over the daunting task, digging the huge trench through thick jungles, plagued by landslides, hordes of disease-bearing mosquitoes, sickness and death from malaria and yellow fever. Finally the canal was completed in 1914 at an estimated cost of more than 20,000 lives. Ahead of schedule and under budget, the project firmly established the United States as a 20th century superpower.
Today, the Panama Canal employs 9,000 people. In a year's time, as many as 14,000 ships make the 51-mile crossing, which takes nine hours. Over the years, nearly 1-million ships have passed through the man-made "Eighth Wonder of the World."
On our first full day at sea, we had ample time to explore our home away from home for the next nine days. The Zaandam and its twin, the Volendam, share features similar to many newer vessels of the same size plying the waters today.
Our well-appointed, spacious stateroom with a private veranda was comparable to a guest room in a brand-name hotel, although not as large. Cruise ship beds have gotten bigger and more comfortable, with fluffy pillows and premium linens. In the bath, turn on the shower and you're rewarded with a steady stream of ever-ready hot water. The towels and bathrobes are plush, and the amenities are plentiful.
Bountiful dining, always the big enchilada on a Caribbean cruise, is no exception on the Zaandam. The dine-as-you-wish options include everything from a five-course menu in the two-tiered dining room to reservations-only fine dining (at extra cost) in the Pinnacle Grill, or the more casual atmosphere of the Lido Restaurant. The on-deck Terrace Grill is a pizza, hot dog and hamburger haven for the swimsuit crowd.
We are avid fans of the BBC and all things British, so one of our favorite shipboard pastimes is afternoon tea. On the Zaandam, it's a regal china-and-silver affair, with an assortment of finger sandwiches, cookies and delectable pastries served by white-coated waiters to the sound of classical music and show tunes performed by a talented string trio.
Our first stop, Holland America's little treasure of an island, Half Moon Cay in the Bahamas, was a winner. After tendering ashore to the private retreat, we opted for an invigorating full body massage in a tiny straw hut on the beach over a dozen or so more active offerings (everything from snorkeling to scuba diving to an encounter with a stingray).
Afterward, we walked along the secluded island's milelong stretch of powder-soft sand, cozied up under the protection of a cabana, then topped it off with a swim in the crystal-clear waters of the bay.
Our next stop, the tiny Dutch island of Aruba, has a broad, international mix of well-educated inhabitants (numbering about 100,000) who are friendly, exhibit a zest for hospitality and extended us a sincere welcome.
Many of the Zaandam's passengers who didn't sign up for one of the scheduled tours headed for the island's sugar-white beaches. Running a close second in popularity was first-rate shopping and the generous selection of international restaurants in the capital, Oranjestad.
We made a quick sightseeing tour of the island and paid a repeat visit to one of its most popular attractions, the Natural Bridge. Surprise! Relentless pounding of the surf over the years has caused the 100-foot coral span to collapse. Not to fret. Although they're not as large, there are seven other natural bridges on the island.
When arriving by cruise ship in Willemstad, the capital of Curacao, the first thing to catch your eye is the row of pastel-colored Dutch colonial buildings of orange, lime, strawberry, canary yellow and flamingo pink that line the harbor. Except for the palm trees, the little Dutch townscape could be mistaken for a miniature Amsterdam.
The only problem, along with pronouncing its name correctly (CURE-ah-sow), is trying to jam in all the sights of the largest island in the Netherlands Antilles in the brief time allotted ashore.
We sauntered down the gangplank right into the heart of town, within easy walking distance of the main shopping area and some of the island's best attractions and restaurants. At the Floating Market, boats from neighboring islands dock daily, loaded with fresh fruits, vegetables and fish for sale.
Independent types looking to explore the island's rugged countryside can take off on a jeep safari, climb the highest peak in Christoffel National Park or join an all-terrain vehicle tour through the eastern or western parts of the island.
Question: Why would you take a cruise to an island, then trade beach time or waterborne pursuits to visit a museum?
Answer: When there's such an outstanding cultural repository as the Museum Kura Hulanda in the one-of-a-kind boutique-hotel-village of the same name. We were particularly impressed by the extensive collection of artifacts from continental Africa.
Another museum worth a visit is the Jewish Historical Cultural Museum, part of the Mikve Israel-Emanuel Synagogue, the oldest in continuous operation in the Western Hemisphere.
The pinnacle of any Panama Canal cruise is, of course, the transit itself, beginning with arrival in the Canal Zone and passage through Gatun Lake. Covering 163 square miles, it is one of the largest artificial lakes in the world. Nearly 52-million gallons of water is needed to float the Zaandam through the locks of "the path between the seas."
Holland America Line offers several sightseeing tours, including the Panama Railroad train tour from the Atlantic to the Pacific; an aerial Tram treetop gondola ride in Soberania National Park; or a tour of Panama City. We remained onboard, wanting to savor every minute of the canal transit.
Although you're physically unaware of the ship being elevated above the level of the Atlantic Ocean, then lowered back down to sea level on a water "stairway," there's an emotional lift when you realize the sheer magnitude of the amazing engineering feat happening right before your eyes.
In 1928, intrepid swimmer Richard Halliburton paid 36 cents in tolls to swim the canal. For our passage through the Panama Canal, the Zaandam paid $156,081.40.
Our last stop was Costa Rica. At Puerto Limon, a nondescript cargo port, we joined a shore excursion on the Jungle Train Adventure, one way by bus and then back to the ship on a narrow-gauge railroad.
Our knowledgeable guide, Jose, was the difference between what might have been a so-so rickety train ride and what turned out to be an informative, entertaining journey.
From the history of the banana to a visit to a banana plantation, it was a memorable experience.
Ever tasted a banana fresh from the tree? Nothing like it.
Jack McGuire is a travel writer based in the Chicago area.
Who goes there?
In addition to Holland America, most major cruise lines offer Panama Canal sailings, including Carnival, Celebrity, Crystal, Cunard, Disney, Princess, Regent and Royal Caribbean International.
For Holland America, call toll-free 1-877-932-4259 or go to www.hollandamerica.com.
For other lines featuring Panama Canal cruises, contact Cruise Lines International Association, www.cruising.org.
[Last modified April 12, 2007, 12:05:57]
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