The Panama Canal

IMG_3822The main reason for selecting this particular cruise itinerary was that it included going through the Panama Canal. With its fascinating history, we were curious to see this crossing on the narrowest bit of land between Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.

And finally, after almost a week of cruising south, we were entering the Panama Canal around 8 AM. Many people on board got up very early in the morning so that they wouldn’t miss a thing.

There were many decks and a good view on either side so we found ourselves going up and down, from starboard to port side all day long so that we always had a good idea of what was happening.

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The Bridge of the Americas

There are three sets of locks between Pacific and Atlantic, bringing the ship up a total of 26 meters in elevation.

The canal was built over many, many years. It took tens of thousands of people, many different countries. It required the creation of a new country and claimed countless lives. It truly felt like a sail through history and we were left in awe of the power of the human will to cut across a continent.IMG_3722

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Notice the ship in the new canal at the top

A wonderful narrator came on board. He explained the entire process in details, clearly and with lots of anecdotes. This made the whole crossing pleasant and understandable even for someone like me who’s not too technical about locks, construction, etc. He even alerted us to the fact that a crocodile was sunning on the bank.

From the Pacific Ocean, we first sailed under the tall Bridge of the Americas. We passed through three sets of locks: the Miraflores Locks, the Pedro Miguel Locks. Then we crossed the bulk of Panama through Gatun Lake, entering the Gatun Locks before reaching the Atlantic and sailing into the Caribbean Sea. 

IMG_3701It took about 10 hours to cross the continent at this narrowest section. What really amazed me was that it take about 1.5 hours by train to travel from the Pacific to the Atlantic here. In Canada that would take about 5 days! Our ship’s itinerary did not include a land stop in Panama so we continued on.

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If you are really interested in the mechanics, it’s a good idea to also take a land tour of the locks. It was really weird to see how our huge ship fit into Locks that seems much narrower than the ship itself. We did only have inches, probably less than a foot, on either side. The little trains you see in my photos keep the ship from bumping into the sides.

IMG_3705This is a wonderful video of the history of the Panama Canal. As far as I know it is quite accurate. Just listen closely, the narration is very fast:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WR_hCMR2Xvc

If you can’t go in person, there are web cams that allow for a virtual trek through the Panama Canal. The first link is to the Canal’s web cams on shore. The second link it to a site with links to different ships, using their bow web cams.IMG_3746IMG_3845

http://www.pancanal.com/eng/photo/camera-java.html

http://www.cruisin.me/cruise-ship-webcams/

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Sail and Read: our Cruise from LA to NY

Our home for the next three weeks is the Norwegian Cruise Lines’ Gem. In the previous blog I introduced you to the ship. A cruise ship really is so much like a floating hotel, a floating village almost. Once we were allowed onboard, the rooms weren’t ready yet but we found a spot in one of many restaurants for lunch. And pretty soon there was an announcement that the rooms were ready. We found our floor and walked the long corridors that would become so familiar.

IMG_3563Our room is an inside cabin. We always try to travel on a budget so instead of opting for a more expensive room with a balcony, ours is inside. Which also means there’s less motion in a storm. We have a king size bed and lots of storage. A small bathroom with a shower. And the bow camera on TV shows us the view from the front of the ship. Everything we need. 

We have cruised before but never for three weeks. Will we like it? Or will we be anxious to get off at the end?

Our cabin is cleaned twice a day. The bed is perfect, we get clean beach towels twice a day. Because we were on a Norwegian cruise before, we find a bottle of champagne in our room on the first night. And each night we get a newsletter with information about the upcoming day. It tells us the sunrise and sunset times, the weather forecast, information on the next port, but also lists all entertainment. IMG_3598

We brought lots of books and planned to read and write in a quiet spot. The onboard library is perfect – people whisper, the chairs are comfy and we have a view while we sail and read. There are many books to be checked out, in different languages, but also a trading library. We end up donating quite a few books. Most importantly, the library is quiet. Sometimes it’s just a relief to come here and listen to the silence. With so many people on one ship, it’s hard to find quiet spaces.

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The ship’s library.

To my surprise, we also end up taking in some of the entertainment. There are several talented dancers and musicians on board. One night we watched the broadway show Swing! Excellent quality of singing and dancing. Kees was able to watch the Superbowl on a gigantic screen, complete with beer, hotdogs and chicken wings!

One of the performers is a fabulous guitarist who plays great songs; we enjoy sitting back and listening to him many evenings.

During the first few days we keep getting lost but also coming across different venues. There are many smaller pubs, each with its own entertainment. A life band often performs by the pool. There are quiz nights and games, a real casino (which we avoid), even options to go dancing. To my utter amazement, Kees agrees to participate in ‘The (Not So) Newly Wed Game’, based on the popular TV show from years ago. It is a blast, especially because we win. Our prize is a $100 bottle of bubblies which we sip slowly….

When we booked this cruise at a low price, we knew there were no extras. But even at higher prices, not many extras are included. I’m not impressed with all the hustling the cruise line does (and I don’t think it’s just Norwegian) to try and get you to spend more money. 

  • Would you like to buy a water package? For $45 you will get 24 one liter bottles. Really? When each restaurant has water available?
  • Would you like a liquor package? This is from the NCL website: Prepaid @ $99.00 USD per person per day x Cruise Days plus 20% gratuity and beverage service charge. So for 120.- you can get drunk each day.

You cannot bring any liquids on board so forget about buying some beer or wine in Mexico and bringing it to your room. One beer onboard comes to about 8.-, a glass of wine is over $10.-

Worse is the medicine. I had a terrible ear problem with one badly plugged ear. I was afraid of an ear infection so decided to consult the ship doctor. For $149.- he looked in my ear for not more than 2 minutes. He gave me a tiny bottle of ear drops. The bill for the drops was 195.- US for a total bill of 344.- No kidding. This, to me, is piracy on the high seas.

The internet is another bone of discontent. There are no sim cards that will work in all countries, so we leave the ship in each port and find a coffee shop with good wifi. No problem. But if you’d like to check your email on board, you need to fork over a lot of money. We chose the $75 option which gives us 100 minutes. Not much if you try to spread it out over 3 weeks.

Shore excursions are another way to add a lot of money to your cruise. We learned this in Alaska, where a day excursion on the Alaska and White Pass Railway cost 220.- We knew from having been there before that it would cost 120.-  if we just walked from the ship to the train station and bought a ticket directly. In one Alaskan port we noticed a van that shuttled people for free from the ship to Walmart or Costco. So instead of booking costly shore excursions, we enjoy different outings, although we did book some excursions. More on that in the next blog.

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The carpet in the ship’s library.