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Cruising to the Panama Canal

by Lilianne Fuller

To describe our Panama Canal Cruise as the trip of a lifetime would be an understatement. We sailed away from Florida on a beautiful spring day in April. It was the first crossing of the Panama Canal for the beautiful and elegant Holland America ship, Nieuw Amsterdam. Our 20-day voyage took us from Fort Lauderdale, through the Panama Canal and over to Central America and Mexico. We had 10 stops and a full sailing day transiting the world famous canal. Begun by the French and completed by the Americans it certainly lived up to its ‘Wonder of the World’ status. An architectural wonder, the canal is over 100 years old and parts of it are hewn out of solid rock. Brought about by great human sacrifice almost 30,000 people perished building it.

Living on a cruise ship is like staying in a floating luxury hotel. There were 2,200 guests and 900 crew and staff aboard. Just ask and your every need is taken care of immediately. When we boarded, we noticed that our stateroom would have to be reconfigured so we had two beds. Also adjustments were needed to accommodate a CPap machine. Less than an hour after telling our room steward, everything had been done to ensure our comfort.

Four delicious dining options are included in the cost of the cruise. In addition there are three specialty restaurants on the ship but these require a reservation and there is a cover charge. In the main dining room your meal is served at your table. The food always arrived hot and beautifully presented. Quite a feat considering the two-story dining room was full every evening and held upwards of 600 people. To dine, you can choose between Open and Closed seating. Closed seating requires that you eat at the same time every evening with the same people. We decided on Open seating because we like the flexibility of eating dinner when and with whom we choose.

Holland America staff is made up of mostly Indonesians and Filipinos. The hardworking staff sign on for a 10-month contract with no days off. Depending on their duties, they have the opportunity to take their breaks ashore, but on the days where the ship is disembarking and embarking passengers, short breaks are the norm. There’s a daily gratuity charged and a 15 per cent gratuity is built into the cost of a beverage. Though it isn’t necessary, it’s a nice idea to tip your favourite staff at the end of the cruise. Believe me, they deserve it!

In the spring and fall, cruise lines are in repositioning mode so taking a cruise can be less expensive. Our ship had spent the winter cruising the Caribbean and this was its first venture through the Panama Canal. We could tell it had been a tight squeeze because when we disembarked in Costa Rica we saw that the bow was scraped right down to the metal.

The Holland America Line caters well to an older crowd. A seasoned cruiser told me some cruise lines focus on the younger set. She said those ships are noisier and have more of a spring break party atmosphere. Most of the passengers on our ship seemed to be in their late 60s and mid-70s. As a senior myself, I was happy with a slightly slower pace. But don’t get me wrong, Holland America is not a cruise line for old fogies by any means. The nightly entertainment sizzled and there was dancing every night in the Crows Nest Lounge. Daily activities kept us busy from morning until night: culinary classes; trivia games; bingo; movies; and daily workshops to improve your computer skills. But really, you can do as much or as little as you like.

If you plan to take a cruise it’s a good idea to book it through a travel agent. A good travel agent will look after all the details and you don’t have to worry about a thing. Our agent was outstanding and in addition to arranging our trip, upon arrival she had champagne and chocolate-covered strawberries waiting for us in our stateroom. Our “trip of a lifetime cruise” included visits to Columbia, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Mexico and saw the Panama Canal. Best of all, we ended our cruise at home in Vancouver, which I believe is the most beautiful city of all.

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