Princess: 10-Day Panama Canal Solution

In Gatun lock #1

What a difference three days can make. On Saturday, while lounging on deck, I realized that if this had been a one-week cruise, I would be on a plane heading home. Instead, I had three more days to unwind and enjoy the Royal Princess as we continued our 10-day cruise.

Princess' 10-day Panama Canal itinerary roundtrip from Ft. Lauderdale allows plenty of time for a partial transit of the Panama Canal and a visit to the eco-pleasures of Costa Rica. Coral Princess now sails the 10-day Panama Canal route for Princess, sailing round-trip from Ft. Lauderdale, calling at Belize City, Cozumel, Grand Cayman, and Limon in Costa Rica plus a round-trip Panama Canal transit through the Gatun Locks to Gatun Lake. Four days at sea round out the itinerary.

Electirc mules pulls us through

The historic city of Cartagena, Colombia was originally included on the itinerary, but cruise ships stopped calling there in late March 2002 because of political troubles in Colombia. Princess was using Cristobal, Panama as a replacement port on my cruise and has since revised the 10-day Panama itinerary.

Our cruise on Royal Princess was the first time the ship had called at Cristobal instead of Cartagena. But Princess' staff proved adept at making new shore arrangements to cope with the sudden change in schedule.

Everything went flawlessly. Princess notified passengers upon boarding about the change in itinerary and the new tours available from Cristobal. The tour office on board efficiently handled the revised tour bookings. When the ship arrived in Cristobal, the pier was ready for us with tour buses waiting, shops open and the market being set up. Tours operated without a hitch. We were in port overnight, so that evening, a number of Panamanian dance troupes entertained passengers in the cruise terminal.

Panama is opening up for tourism and the opportunities are diverse. Like neighboring Costa Rica, Panama offers outstanding nature tours in addition to its prime attraction: viewing the Canal operations from shoreside. Passengers who sign up for tours experience the morning passage through the Gatun Locks, then join their excursions by tender from the ship in Gatun Lake. After the tours, they rejoin the ship in Cristobal.

Arriving inGatun Lake

Princess offers a tour to observe the Gatun Locks in operation, combined with an eco-cruise on Gatun Lake ($49); a rainforest visit to the Embera Indian tribe ($79); a Grand Tour of Panama that combines these two tours ($115); and a Gatun Locks and Historic Fort San Lorenzo excursion ($42). When the ship calls at Cristobal instead of Cartagena, all tours operate roundtrip from the ship in Cristobal. That extra day in Panama lets Princess offer two longer tours that take in the Pacific side of the Canal, including the Bridge of the Americas, Panama City, the port of Balboa and the Miraflores Locks. The Atlantic to Pacific Railway Journey uses the newly refurbished Panama Canal Railway alongside the Canal, combined with a coach tour of the Pacific side ($119 dome car; $99 parlor car). Panama City by Day and Night is a coach tour to the Pacific side that includes dinner ($79).

The partial transit of the Panama Canal gives you a front row seat for one of the world's great engineering achievements, as technologically advanced for its time as the moon shot. Completed in 1914 under budget and ahead of schedule, the Panama Canal attracted tourists and sightseers from the time it opened. For a look at the fascinating history of the canal, check out David McCullough's definitive book "The Path Between the Seas," and the companion video "A Man, A Plan, A Canal - Panama." Princess aired this excellent documentary on stateroom TV during the cruise.

Gatun Locks fromthe top

For her partial transit, Royal Princess was designated S-14 Zulu, meaning we were ship number 14, heading south, with priority clearance because she was a cruise ship that paid a 20 percent premium to go through on a schedule. (Total cost for a 45,000-ton cruise ship is around $100,000.)

A canal pilot and crew came on board to direct the transit. The pilot's commentary throughout the day told us about the canal's eventful history as we progressed through the locks and lake. At 7:20 a.m., the pilot guided the Royal Princess from its berth across Limon Bay and along a six-mile channel through mangrove swamps.

Lock Gates opening

When we reached Gatun Locks, the serenity of the canal's first stretch was broken by the sound of electric locomotives called mules, which were specially designed to pull ships through the lock system. They are enormously powerful and hummed loudly as they performed their duty. Once the vessel was centered in the first lock, the 700-ton lock doors closed behind us. Water rushed around us and the ship gradually rose to the level of the next lock. The front gates then opened, allowing the mules to pull us forward.

There are three locks at Gatun that raise ships a total of 85 feet, to the height of Gatun Lake. At 262 square miles, this is the largest manmade lake in the world. Vessels from around the globe were at anchor, waiting their turn to descend through Gatun Locks. In the distance, we could see the Gatun Dam on the Chagres River--the source of the electrical power to operate the canal. Lush rainforests cover the islands that dot the lake. Here we waited a couple of hours before making the return journey to the Caribbean.

Aft view of Gatun Lock

Next day we called at Limon, Costa Rica--another highlight of this 10-day itinerary. Thanks to the small nation's abundance of wildlife and birds, eco-tourism has been booming in Costa Rica for years. The country is home to 280 species of mammals, more than 900 species of birds, 122 species of bats and 220 types of reptiles, including 135 snakes. Watch for sloth and monkeys in the trees as you drive along the road. Visitors will still notice the exposed reef and damage to bridges and buildings, a testament to the 1991 earthquake that devastated the area.

Princess' tours included Wonders of the Rain Forest ($109); Jungle River Eco-Adventure ($72); Rain Forest Aerial Tram ($129); Costa Flores Tropical Gardens ($49) and Costa Rica and its Capital City, San Jose ($99). Our nature walk in Cahuita National Park ($68) showed us a variety of animals and insects in the wild. We had an enthusiastic guide, a microbiologist whose knowledge of Costa Rica's natural history was quite astounding.

Going Down. Lock gates weigh 700 tons each.

Coral Princess now sails the 10-day Panama cruise. At 88,000 tons, carrying 1,974 passengers, she falls in between the Sun Class and Grand Class ships. A New Orleans-style restaurant called the Bayou Cafe, an Italian trattoria and a panoramic 24-hour bistro are among the ship's nine venues for dining or snacking. Amenities and public rooms include three show lounges, a wedding chapel with video and web cam facilities, nine-hole mini-golf course with two golf simulators, indoor and outdoor pool areas, ocean-view gym, cigar bar, casino, library with listening chairs, AOL Internet Cafe, wrap-around promenade deck and fully-supervised youth and teen center. All staterooms have a refrigerator, and 737 suites and staterooms have private balconies.

If you're looking for a more leisurely cruise experience combined with diverse ports of call and a brand new vessel, Princess 10-day Panama Canal itinerary on Coral Princess is sure to please.

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