September 18, 2021

Panama Canal cruise and rail trip across historic isthmus

Going through Panama Canal is always a fascinating experience.

When we booked our shore excursion on the famous Panama Railroad, we didn’t expect to catch a glimpse of the prison where former dictator Manuel Noriega spends his days, or see a large snake lying dead in the flat bed of a pickup truck. But that’s the joy of heading ashore in Central America, where the sights are exotic and somewhat chaotic.

Map of Gatun Locks including new third set of locks.

We were a family of four enjoying a spring break cruise aboard Holland America’s Zuiderdam when we disembarked by ship’s tender in Gatun Lake to spend a day exploring the tiny country of Panama, from coast to coast.

I had already done a full transit of the Panama Canal on a cruise from Fort Lauderdale to Vancouver, but most ships don’t actually stop in Panama when travelling from one ocean to the other. On a partial transit you not only experience the canal’s colossal locks lifting your ship 85 feet above sea level and releasing it onto a man-made lake surrounded by tropical rainforest, you have the option of going ashore to see the local sights.

We opted for an excursion on the famous Panama Railroad, which straddles the Isthmus of Panama and played a key role in construction of the canal. This journey in vintage rail cars through the jungles of Panama was one of the best excursions of our cruise. We were taken by bus to the train station, where we were greeted by railroad employees and directed to our car.

View of Panama Canal from train near Culebra Cut.

In comfortable facing seats separated by a small table, the four of us settled in for our ride, which traces the Canal and provides up-close views of the jungle that claimed thousands of lives during the Canal’s protracted construction – first attempted by the French (who eventually abandoned their gallant effort), then successfully completed by the Americans, who opened the Canal to the world in 1914.

A man-made wonder, the Panama Canal continues to function as a maritime shortcut between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Full transits of the Canal (from Florida to California and vice versa) are popular itineraries, especially in spring and fall when cruise ships are repositioning between the Caribbean and Alaska. During the winter months, several cruise lines also offer partial transits of the Canal. These round-trip cruises usually depart from Fort Lauderdale.
Holland America Line’s 10- and 11-day itineraries feature several port calls in the Caribbean, such as Aruba, Curacao and Half Moon Quay (HAL’s private island in the Bahamas). Other port calls include the Spanish-colonial walled city of Cartagena in Colombia (where we enjoyed an historic walking tour) and Puerto Limon in Costa Rica where we took a river safari to view tropical wading birds, basilisk lizards and the occasional crocodile.

Our Panama Railroad excursion ended back in the Caribbean port of Colon where our ship was waiting. Those passengers who had opted to remain on board got to experience the Gatun Locks for a second time as the ship was lowered back onto the Caribbean Sea. I chatted with a couple staying in an aft cabin and they watched the action from their private balcony.

I highly recommend a partial-transit cruise of the Canal. It combines a Caribbean cruise with the chance to see an iconic monument of modern engineering. Plus, you can go ashore and ride the rails across the famous Isthmus of Panama.

The Mediterranean Grand Tour

St. Mark’s Square in Venice is the epicenter of tourist visits for its beautiful Byzantine architecture.


When Mark Twain boarded a steamship in New York to embark on a Mediterranean cruise, he described hiscruise as “a picnic on a gigantic scale.” The year was 1867 and those were the days of the fashionable Grand Tour of Europe – a lengthy trip that was affordable only to the very wealthy.

Today, a Mediterranean cruise can fit into a two-week vacation, and there’s never been a better time to cash in your air miles and take advantage of the bargain-basement prices being offered on Med cruises. The major cruise lines send ships to the Med each summer where they remain through autumn, when the crowds have thinned out but the weather remains pleasantly warm.

No other cruising region offers the diversity of the Mediterranean, a sea bordered by three continents and over a dozen countries. In Italy alone the ports of call range from Riviera resorts to magnificent cities filled with ancient ruins and Renaissance art. Rome and Florence feature prominently on Med itineraries, as does Naples with its proximity to Pompeii, the Amalfi coast and the isle of Capri. But the Italian port that seems custom-made for cruise visitors is Venice.

Map of Venice from Mediterranean By Cruise Ship, 6th edition.

Arriving in Venice by ship is one of life’s most memorable travel experiences as your ship enters the Lagoon of Venice and slowly approaches what appears to be a floating Renaissance city of domed churches and richly coloured buildings topped with red tile roofs. Built on over a hundred islets, enchanting Venice has no roads and is criss-crossed with dozens of narrow canals. Winding through the centre of Venice is the Grand Canal – a watery thoroughfare lined with ornate palaces, some dating back to the 12th century. Motorized riverboats (part of the city’s waterbus service) run the length of the Grand Canal, making frequent stops along the way so that passengers can hop on and off.

The Grand Canal opens into the boat basin fronting St. Mark’s Square, which is filled with outdoor cafés and considered one of the most beautiful squares in Italy. This is where visitors compete with pigeons for the best vantage to gaze at the golden splendour of St. Mark’s Cathedral and the Italian Gothic façade of the Doges’ Palace.

If you enjoy walking, Venice is a delight to explore. Narrow lanes and stone footbridges lead to hidden squares and quiet side canals. At night, when lights shimmer on the water, these side canals are where you will hear the echoing voices of gondoliers serenading their passengers.

Venice is a busy base port for cruise ships, which fan out in all directions – across the Adriatic to Dubrovnik and the Dalmatian coast, across the Aegean to such Greek isles asSantorini and Mykonos, and around the toe of Italy’s boot to visit Naples and famous seaside resorts of the Italian and French Riverias.

The sensual allure and cultural enrichment of the Mediterranean has not diminished with time. What has changed is the affordability of cruise travel, allowing many of us to embark on our own Grand Tour.

Getting a Deal isn’t always Good Value

A vacation is a time to relax the way you want.


When choosing a cruise, many of us are price driven but I sometimes wonder if we shouldn’t be a bit more value driven. The last-minute deals are tempting, for sure. But I’d rather book a cruise well in advance so I get the itinerary, the ship and the stateroom I want. After all, the main reason to travel is not so much about saving money but having a wonderful time.

Of course there are pragmatic reasons why booking early usually makes more sense, in dollar terms. When a ship starts filling up, the fares will rise, which means there are no last-minute deals on certain sailings. And then there’s the airfare. Timing your ticket purchase can be tricky, and you could end up paying more for a last-minute flight than what you saved on a last-minute cruise fare. Six weeks before a ship’s departure is when the best deals are usually offered if a sailing hasn’t sold out, but the best deals on airfare are often gone by then.

Airline sales come and go, so you have to monitor fares for the best price. If you’re travelling domestically during school holiday times, such as Christmas and spring break, it’s best to book early (watch for sales posted online on Tuesdays and Wednesdays). For international flights, the best fares usually appear about four months before the date you want to travel. To avoid the time-consuming process of monitoring airfares, you could consider booking your flight through the cruise line. These air/sea packages vary with each cruise line and don’t necessarily save you any money, but unexpected expenses due to flight delays and missed travel connections are covered by the cruise line.

Perhaps the best reason to book early is to allow yourself the luxury of anticipation. Studies have shown that most people enjoy anticipating a trip almost as much as the trip itself. If you book early you can spend happy hours reading up on the ports of call and looking forward to being pampered and entertained on board the ship. The pleasures of travel can begin long before you leave home.

Wired but Unplugged: Using Tech on a Vacation

Ipads and Kindles help connect, if you must, with work.

According to the Business Research and Economic Advisors, the global output of cruises topped $117.15 billion. The volume of people cruising conjures up images of lounging deckside while being served cocktails, then heading to live entertainment in the main dining hall. But in reality, vacationers aren’t taking advantage of the much-needed downtime and relaxation.

The American Psychological Association reports 44 percent of people check work messages at least once a day while on vacation. Leave your smartphone and laptop at home and enjoy yourself while hitting the high seas! Here is technology that’s wired, but unplugged (that means techy, but disconnected).

Kindle Fire

Stock your Kindle (or any e-reader) with plenty of page-turning classics, pop-culture fiction and new reads you can’t wait to get your hands on. Remember you can also stock up with online magazines and Kindle Singles full of essays, memoirs and short stories. Turn on “Airplane Mode” to avoid the temptation to connect to your ship’s Wi-Fi. (No work emails, remember?) Instead, launch one of your downloaded games to take your mind off the reality back home.

Iridium Satellite Phone

Cruise ships aren’t always known for their stellar phone coverage, so leaving your smartphone behind isn’t necessarily a big sacrifice. An Iridium Satellite Phone offers coverage from just about anywhere in world (including the South Pole!) without an annual contract.

What’s the point of a sat phone if you’re trying to disconnect, you ask? If you need to be available to your family or your business, but don’t want to constantly check cellphone activity and email messages, a sat phone is a great alternative. You know you’ll have reliable service if you need it. It’s simply a robust and innovative tool to stay connected and have lifeline access to a phone if you need it.

KizON

Royal Caribbean unveiled the first tracking system for kids on cruise ships in 2009. Today, just about every major vessel has tracking systems, video monitors and safety measures in place for passengers of all ages. But what would you do if your child disappeared or got lost en route to a kids’ club or activity? Instead of simply waiting (and panicking) for the cruise staff to raise the alert and scour the ship, take matters into your own hands. KizON is a wristband for children. It ensures parents can find them regardless of where they’ve wandered off. Best of all, there’s a direct call feature on the band so kids can get in touch with parents without needing to remember a telephone number.

Asana

It’s difficult to truly leave work behind if you’re worrying about what’s piling up while you’re cruising. Online project management software like Asana can help you plan out tasks and even has a vacation indicator for your team. They’ll know exactly when you’re leaving and coming back and can continue working on the tasks through the software. Set up responsibilities, remind coworkers who to go to for answers and set goals before you set sail.

Asana also eliminates the need for hundreds of emails to complete a task. When you come back from your cruise, log into Asana to see what the team has been up to, get up to speed and make notes as needed. This will help you spend your free time enjoying being untethered at sea, rather than tethered to your desk.

The Stones take a Cruise into history

Keith Richards and his pal Mick Jagger take a cruise to Brazil and come up with a brand name for themselves.


Anyone who still thinks cruising is for old folks may be surprised to learn that way back in 1968 Mick Jagger and Keith Richards embarked on a cruise with their girlfriends from Lisbon, Portugal to Rio de Janeiro. An ocean voyage can replenish the creative well and the songs that sprang from their transAtlantic crossing included Honky Tonk Women, which the songwriting pair composed upon reaching Brazil.

While at sea, Jagger and Richards were regulars at the ship’s bar where a British couple thought the two looked familiar but couldn’t quite place them. “C’mon, give us a clue. Give us a glimmer,” they would say to the two young Englishmen, and that’s how Jagger and Richards came to call themselves The Glimmer Twins.

When the Rolling Stones toured the U.S. the following year, their opening act was blues musician B.B.King, one of the greatest guitarists of all time. In 1990 the first B.B. King’s Blues Club opened in Memphis, followed by other locations, including Los Angeles and New York. Then, in 2013, the first B.B. King’s Blues Club at sea opened on Holland America’s Eurodam. The ship’s Queen’s Lounge had been transformed to resemble the Memphis club and limited engagement performances were given by an eight-piece B.B. King Blues Club Band featuring two vocalists backed by a drummer, bassist, guitarist, sax player, trumpet player and Hammond B-3 organ player.

This first onboard B.B. King’s Blues Club proved so popular, Holland America has since created the same venue on other ships, including Noordam, Nieuw Amsterdam, Westerdam, Zuiderdam and Oosterdam. Exclusive specialty cocktails are served, such as the rum-based Lucille and Rock Me Baby concoctions mixed with different fruit liqueurs and juices. The Glimmer Twins, now in their seventies, would feel right at home in a bar like this.

British anniversaries good cause for a cruise in 2015

Churchill waves the victory sign outside No. 10 Downing Street during the war years.


No one beats the English at celebrating a country’s heritage, and the year 2015 marks several important dates in England’s long and storied history. These include the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta at Runnymede (a Thames water meadow outside London) and the 50th anniversary of Sir Winston Churchill’s death. This great statesman will be commemorated at three locations – his ancestral home of Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, his family home of Chartwell in Kent, and the Churchill War Rooms in London.

Wellington’s Arch is located between Hyde Park and Green Park and close to Buckingham Palace.


2015 also marks the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, at which the Duke of Wellington defeated Napoleon. Wellington’s success as a military leader was not repeated in the field of politics where, as prime minister, his unpopular opposition to parliamentary reform provoked anger among the public. Fearing demonstrators would smash the windows of his London home, Apsley House, he put up iron shutters and was nicknamed the Iron Duke.

A Regency-style mansion that stands alone at famous Hyde Park corner, Apsley House is now a museum containing one of the finest art collections in London. It faces the busy traffic roundabout encircling Wellington Arch, which is a prominent London landmark. This victory arch, built to commemorate Wellington’s defeat of Napoleon, is crowned with a spectacular bronze sculpture depicting the Angel of Peace descending on the Quadriga (four-horsed chariot) of War. Until 1992, this hollow arch housed a small police station, but is now a museum. Visitors can enjoy sweeping views of London’s Royal Parks from the balconies positioned below the bronze sculpture, including a bird’s eye look at the Household Cavalry when heading to or from the Changing of the Guard.

The Duke of Wellington died at Walmer Castle on the Kentish coast, not far from the cruise port of Dover. Built during the reign of Henry VIII and now maintained by English Heritage, the castle will host a new exhibit in 2015 to mark the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. Regular displays include the armchair in which the Duke died and an original pair of ‘Wellington’ boots – called ‘wellies’ by the English.

Berlin’s Renaissance

Berlin’s famous Brandenburg Gate.


When the Berlin Wall collapsed in 1989, the rebirth of the city began. It took years to restore neglected monuments and bullet-riddled buildings to their former glory, before war and oppression tarnished historic landmarks. The city’s dark past is reflected in various memorials that have been erected near Brandenburg Gate, while today’s Berlin is filled with youthful optimism and social tolerance. It’s also filled with summertime tourists, who come to experience the remarkable post-Cold War transformation of Germany’s major city.

When cruise ships dock at Warnemünde on Germany’s Baltic Sea coast, many passengers are drawn to Berlin, despite its distance (about 160 miles) from the cruise port. It takes about three hours by train to get from the port to Berlin, but with a bit of pre-planning you can pack a lot of sightseeing into a quick day visit to this interesting city.

Most cruise ships dock at the Warnemünde Cruise Centre, which is a five-minute walk to the town centre and local train station. The S-Bahn (inter-suburb train) from Warnemünde to Rostock makes eight stops before arriving at Rostock Hauptbahnhof (Central Station) where you change trains for Berlin. A single traveler ticket from Rostock to Berlin is about 90 euros (round-trip, 2nd class) and schedules are available at DB Rail . You arrive at Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof, which is near the Reichstag. Assuming you caught the early-morning train, you will have three or four hours to spend in Berlin before catching a train back to Rostock, and then to Warnemünde.

Map of Berlin from our book Northern Europe By Cruise Ship.

Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof is located a short walk from the Government Quarter (see map) lying just across the River Spree. Here you will find several of Berlin’s best-known attractions, namely the Reichstag, Brandenburg Gate and Holocaust Memorial. Museum Island is also a short (15 minutes) walk away. Several other attractions are within walking distance of the Reichstag, but Berlin is a sprawling city and the City Circle hop on/hop off buses (painted yellow) are a good way to get from one attraction to another. Their stops are located throughout the city (from Alexander Platz on the east side to Charlottenburg Palace on the west side) and several popular stops in between such as Potsdamer Platz and Checkpoint Charlie (number 10 on the map). One of the 14 stops on the circular route is conveniently located just outside Hauptbahnhof. The cost for a one-day pass is 15.50 euros (a two-hour river cruise can be included for a total cost of 28 euros) and an illustrated map is provided.

Berlin’s public buses #100 or #200 also drive past many of the tourist sights. For more information, visit Berlin Tourism’s website at: Berlin . Shore excursions offered by the cruise lines include guided tours and coach shuttles for independent sightseers.

To learn more about Berlin and other Baltic ports, see our book Northern Europe By Cruise Ship available in print or in ebook format at bookstores and online across North America.

Kids On-Board – making the most of a family cruise

Kids love cruise ships, and it’s not just for the food!


Going on a cruise vacation might not be your first thought for a family trip. But think about it: accommodation, buffet meals, tons of activities and multiple destinations all wrapped up in one package with the added bonus of only having to unpack once! This means convenience for parents and unlimited fun for kids, so it it unsurprising to see that family cruise vacations are on the rise and the industry in general is one of the fastest developing areas of the travel sector. Having said that, all parents will be aware that when kids are involved no vacation is ever straightforward and like any trip there needs to be a lot of forward planning and considerations made. Here are some tips to ensure that your little sailors are safe and happy on the high seas.

Pick your liner wisely

There are numerous family-friendly cruise liners out there now but doing a little research and seeing what each one has to offer could mean the difference between a good vacation and an amazing vacation for your little ones. One popular choice for families is Disney Cruise Lines who are famous for their large productions, roaming characters and magical wildlife experiences. Others include Norwegian Cruise Line, which takes a more educational approach, and Carnival Cruise Lines, which provides a summer camp experience at sea and highly regarded for their staff. Do be sure to check age restrictions too – even family-friendly ships tend not to allow babies under 12 weeks old to sail and many other liners have age restrictions of 6 months.

Safety

Cruise liners are very safe environments and accidents are rare. Having said that, it is still beneficial for your children to be made aware of the dangers of the sea, slippery decks and anything else you consider to be a potential risk. Children who are old enough may benefit from attending the muster drill and young children and toddlers should not be left unattended on balconies. Small babies may require different safety-wear/life jackets so ask a steward about this when you are on board. When it comes to supervising your older children on board the ship, some liners allow school age children to sign up for their own activities and roam the ship unsupervised. Many parents are happy to give their children a bit of freedom and allow them to take part in kids clubs while they relax.

Accommodation

Your choice of cabin will impact massively on your trip so it is important to find something that is cost effective, safe and practical for the whole family. Interior cabins are usually recommended for families with small children to keep them away from the balconies. Family suites are generally large, will have all you need and often come with extra services such as a butler but this comes at a cost. If you have older children it could be cheaper to book two adjoining cabins but again it is up to you to decide if your kids are responsible enough for this sort of freedom. Before booking, check that your cabin has all you need. Travel cots and high chairs are often available on request but baths do not come as standard in many cabins so if you need one for babies and smaller children do make sure you ask the question before you book.

Packing

If you have been on vacation with your little ones before you will already know how this works; aside from remembering tickets, passports and changing your currency you need to pack for every eventuality and include spares just in case! If you are travelling with babies or toddlers, a well-stocked changing bag is essential as you may be separated from your luggage on embarkation days. Also look into whether or not your ship has laundry services – if so, you don’t have to worry about packing too many spare clothes. Think about your destinations and any excursions you have planned and consider the varying conditions you could be travelling through – this could be the type of holiday where you’re packing sunscreen and sweaters together! Some important extras for the kids can include a cheap camera so they can document their journey, some sea bands to reduce the chance of their getting seasick and a pair of binoculars so they can spend time perusing the ocean and shorelines.

Schedules and routines

Any holiday is bound to disrupt your child’s routine and this can be upsetting, especially for young children. They may cope with the change better if you spend some time in the weeks before your trip telling them about where you’ll be going, showing them brochures and preparing them for the vacation. When on board try to keep bedtimes, nap times and mealtimes as near to they are at home as possible. Of course there will be a little flexibility but tired children are grumpy children. And don’t feel pressured to overdo it in terms of activities and excursions. Of course you’ll want to experience many of the things on offer but if you feel that the kids are becoming tired, then opt out of a stop-off and enjoy some leisure time on the ship. With everyone else onshore the kids will love having the facilities to themselves.

Missing your cruise ship in the Mediterranean

One way you don’t want to get back to your ship – by pilot boat.


One of the most discussed issues for cruise passengers is whether to take a ship-organized shore excursion at the ports of call or strike out on your own. This is not a simple issue, because each port is different and everyone has their own idea what they want to see and do while in port. My usual choice for visiting a city located some distance from the cruise port is to take a ship’s shuttle if available. This way I can explore the sights on my own without any worry about getting back to the ship. Cruise ships are very punctual about departing on time and will delay their departure only if one of their excursions hasn’t returned. Everyone else is responsible for returning to the ship on time.
I learned this lesson the hard way in Egypt, where my husband Bill and I spent the day touring Cairo independently, then nearly missed our ship docked in Alexandria. We arrived back at the port as the ship, having pulled away from the dock, was steaming out of the harbour. Amid frantic shouting and arm waving, we paid the crew of the pilot boat to take us out to our ship. As we pulled alongside the moving ship, a maintenance door several decks above us opened and a jacob’s ladder came tumbling down. I grabbed the ladder first and climbed up the side of the hull. Two crewmen at the top of the ladder eagerly helped me aboard where a waiting ship’s officer greeted me with the words, “I’ll need to see your cruise card.”

I was still a bit shaken by this near-miss when we decided to take the train from the port of Civitavecchia into Rome. We spent a full morning and early afternoon visiting famous sites and walking the streets of Rome before returning to Termini station to catch the train back to port. All seemed well until the train ground to a halt just outside the Vatican. As the minutes ticked by we waited nervously for the train to start moving again. Finally, after a 30-minute delay, Bill and I figured we had to do something. Some fellow cruise passengers were on the train and it was decided that we would all wait another ten minutes before getting off the train and hiring enough taxis to get us all back to the ship. Fortunately the train started moving a few minutes later and we arrived at the port with just minutes to spare.

Packing Tips for Your Dream Cruise

Packing for a vacation is an art. Especially if you’re off on a long cruise, you should have everything you could possibly need yet carry minimal luggage. To make sure you haven’t forgotten anything and to make unpacking easier, always begin by creating a list. This way, you don’t miss out on anything and there are fewer chances of you carrying extra baggage. You could do this the old-school way on a sheet of paper or download an app for your smartphone for simplified packing.

Documents

The first thing to put together before you head out for a cruise is a file with copies of all your documents. Your tickets are the most important, but also include proof of Identity, passports and visas (if any are required), medical insurance cards and a copy of your itinerary. A long cruise might give you the opportunity to spend the day on land at a port, so carry along your driver’s license.

Clothes

A long cruise requires a variety of clothing. Pack two swimsuits, a minimal number of casual tops, shorts, skirts, and trousers that can all be paired with one another. Mix and match to give yourself a new look almost everyday. Accessories like scarves are lightweight, take up hardly any space and are excellent styling tools. Try not to carry clothes that require dry cleaning and remember that every cruise has an on-board laundry unit. Carry a good pair of walking shoes and a sunhat for all the time you will be spending at the various ports along the way. Also pack in a light jacket to keep you warm against the cool night breeze on deck. Try keeping your jewelry to a minimum and chose one pair of neutral shoes that will pair with all of your clothing.

Electronics

While you might leave behind your laptop and tablets for short cruises, you might not be able to do without them on longer cruises. A camera with extra memory cards, batteries and charger is a cruise essential. You might not have enough plug points on your cruise, so remember to include a power strip or an extension cord. Check with the cruise about whether they have American or European sockets and carry along a plug converter if need be.

Medicines & Toiletries

Create a small first aid box with a limited stock of all your regular medicines. Carry the basic medicines against common ailments, band aids, muscle relaxants and pain relievers. Speak to your doctor before you leave and make sure you know the right dosage of any prescriptions drugs you might need.

Basic toiletries will be provided onboard but remember to carry along your moisturizers and creams. For women, a makeup mirror and a basic compact kit should be carried along as well. Your bathroom on the cruise might not have sufficient storage space, so think about carrying a small hanging organizer that hooks onto a door or hooks that can be suction-fixed onto the wall.

Just in Case

A lot can happen between all of the shuffling around–between boarding, departing, docking and exploring make sure that you are prepared. In the event that your favorite Oakley sunglasses get damaged, pack a pair of replacement lenses for a quick fix on-the-go.

Socializing and interacting with everyone you meet on your cruise may leave you exhausted and in need of some alone time. Instead of packing heavy hardbound books, load some good reads onto your e-book. A little light reading on the deck can put you at peace.

Protect yourself from the elements onshore by packing mosquito repellent to keep bugs away and an easy-fold umbrella to avoid sunburn during your time on land when the boat is docked.

Avoid Lost Luggage

The golden rule of packing for a vacation is not to carry anything you can’t bear to lose. Mark your luggage well and make sure your name and contact details are clearly visible on the off chance, your luggage gets mislaid.

Lastly, always carry the absolute essentials of your trip in your carry-on baggage so that no matter what happens, the basics are always with you.