We did the Panama Canal cruise on the Island Princess in 2004, and would heartily recommend the ship's excursion that has you disembarking the cruise ship at Gatun Lake and boarding a smaller ship to transit the rest of the canal, if it is offered for your cruise.
We did, and it was definitely worth the cost. It was an all-day excursion aboard a 300 passenger ship. You could be indoors in the air conditioning, or out on deck. We chose to be out on deck so we could see everything, and so were most of the passengers.. There was a narrator onboard, who provided ongoing commentary of the workings of the Canal, and answered any questions.
Our ship went through the locks with a "car carrier" and 2 sailboats (the locks are huge). Seeing the locks from the perspective of a small ship is so different from that while on the huge cruise ship. We were able to stand at the railing and chat with the people on the sailboats. One was a US boat and the other had sailed from Germany. Buth were heading for the South Seas.
The ships crew provided soft drinks as well as a "bag lunch". Our lunch was from Subway ( a 6" sub, chips and cookies).
Just being aboard a ship and passing through the entire length of the Canal made it a very memorable experience. After we passed the Continental Divide, photos were taken and we were able to purchase our "Official" certificate, that included out photo, showing that we had transited the Canal on the specified date. It was only $10 for 2 copies. Made great souvenirs.
Sorry if I "over-answered", but we are so enthusastic about the wonderful experience we had.
We did talk to 4 people who had done the train excursion and several who did one by bus, and they were sorry they had not done the one we did.
2004 Coral Princess - Panama Canal
2005 Sun Princess - Eastern Caribbean
1/06 Island Princess - Hawaii
2/07 Sea Princess - Southern Caribbean
11/07 Golden Princess - Mexican Riviera
3/08 Diamond Princess - Hawaii
11/9/08 Tahitan Princess - Tahiti & French Polynesia
9/13/09 Star Princess - Alaska
3/14/10 Golden Princess - Hawaii
I've done both the train and ferry trips. Flamomo is correct - the ferry is much the way to go.
The train was a complete waste of money. You take a bus to the train and the train goes so fast that you can't take any pictures. You get a so-called snack of plantains, etc. Then another bus trip with 2 photo ops - one at the Miraflores locks where you can go up a platform and look into the lock and another one several miles from Panama City.
I'm not big on excursions but I heartedly recommend the ocean to ocean ferry - it's an experience that you'll never forget and a wonderful way to see the locks. Definitely go upstairs ... also try to get on the first bus and be the first on the ferry so you can get the front row seats. I probably stood more than I sat just to be able to take pix. Most of the seats are under a huge tarp so you're basically in the shade. They have free bottled water and soft drinks and you can buy beer - also souvenirs ... I got a Pedro Miguel cap.
I cruise the Emerald Princess, Eastern Caribbean on April 16, 2012
Thank you both SO MUCH!! We had already come to this decision! Both tours are the same money, and we really wanted to fully experience this (maybe) one in a lifetime opportunity. I am reading "The Path Betwwen the Seas" as we speak (so to type!). I had already booked the dome train, but the more we talked about it, we knew we wanted the full experience!!! Thank you again! Silver
I agree with your decision: While the train may give you some "nostalgia" it is not an experience for seeing the canal. Even if you use the "Executive Dome" car it move far too fast to really see anything and the bus tour at the end is just that: "A bus tour".
Take the ferry and really experience the canal from end to end.
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