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CRUISE VIEWS

Panama Canal trip squeezes in a variety of tropical ports

October 20, 2002|Harry Basch | Special to The Times

At one time a Panama Canal cruise was thought to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But since the Sept. 11 attacks many travelers with time and money have chosen to avoid planes and travel coast to coast by ship. More repeat passengers are taking the cruise not just for the canal experience but also for the variety of Caribbean, Central American and Mexican ports of call.

Lines are offering stops at a number of ports, including Aruba; St. Lucia; St. Martin; St. John and St. Thomas of the U.S. Virgin Islands; Jamaica; San Juan, Puerto Rico; the San Blas Islands of Panama; Puntarenas, Costa Rica; San Juan del Sur in Nicaragua; Puerto Quetzal in Guatemala; and Cozumel, Santa Cruz Huatulco, Acapulco, Zihuatanejo, Puerto Vallarta and Cabo San Lucas in Mexico.

But the highlight of the voyage is still the six to eight hours spent squeezing into lock chambers barely wider than the ship and navigating by stair-step locks from sea level up 85 feet and then back to sea level. The spectacle draws passengers on deck throughout the day.

The canal cut runs 50 miles across the isthmus between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, passing, east to west, through Gatun Locks, the man-made Gatun Lake, the steep Galliard Cut excavated through eight miles of rock and shale, and the Pedro Miguel and Miraflores locks.

Nine major cruise lines have Panama Canal sailings from October to May.

Celebrity Cruises ([800] CELEBRITY [235-3274], www.celebritycruises.com) has 14-day cruises on the Infinity between San Diego and Fort Lauderdale, Fla., December through February and on the Summit from Fort Lauderdale to San Diego leaving April 25.

Crystal Cruises ([800] 820-6663, www.crystalcruises.com) has 11-day transits on the Crystal Harmony and the Crystal Symphony November through February from Fort Lauderdale and Puerto Caldera, Costa Rica.

From January through April, Holland America ([877] SAIL HAL [724-5425], www.hollandamerica.com) has 10-day round-trip partial canal transits from Fort Lauderdale. They include an entrance into the canal at Cristobal, traversing the Gatun Locks, cruising Gatun Lake and returning to the Caribbean. The line also has full canal transits in the spring and fall, when the ships are repositioned between Alaska and the Caribbean.

Princess Cruises ([800] PRINCESS [774-6237], www.princesscruises.com) will send the Royal Princess on four 14-day transits from Fort Lauderdale to Los Angeles beginning Oct. 31 through Dec. 12, when the ship will reverse the route. The Coral Princess will begin 10-day Gatun Lake sailings round trip from Fort Lauderdale from Dec. 14 to April 13, visiting Cozumel and Puerto Limon in Costa Rica. Princess also has repositioning cruises scheduled between the Caribbean and Alaska in spring and fall.

Radisson Seven Seas Navigator ([866] 314-3211, www.rssc.com) will make a Panama Canal transit from Fort Lauderdale to Los Angeles on Nov. 23 and Feb. 26; the reverse sailing departs March 12. The Seven Seas Mariner will begin a world cruise on Jan. 7 with a 14-day canal transit, departing from Fort Lauderdale and calling in Los Angeles on Jan. 26. It ends its world cruise by sailing the canal again, departing Fort Lauderdale May 9.

The 103-foot-wide twin-hulled Radisson Diamond will squeeze through the 110-foot wide Gatun Locks into Gatun Lake on a Dec. 18 sailing from Fort Lauderdale and on a Dec. 29 eastbound canal cruise from Puerto Caldera. During the Gatun Lake cruise passengers will go ashore to the Gatun Yacht Club, where there will be tours into the rain forest.

From Royal Caribbean International ([800] 327-6700, www.royalcaribbean.com), the Grandeur of the Seas will sail for 14 days from New Orleans to Ensenada, Mexico (for the port of San Diego), Jan. 18, returning Feb. 1. The Splendor of the Seas' 11-day round-trip cruises from Galveston, Texas, will transit the canal and Gatun Lake on alternate Mondays Nov. 11 through December, then on Jan. 13, Feb. 3 and 24, March 17, and April 7 and 28. The Radiance of the Seas will make repositioning cruises between Alaska and the Caribbean in November and April.

Seabourn Cruises' Seabourn Legend ([800] 929-9391, www.seabourn.com) offers 14-day Panama Canal cruises between Fort Lauderdale and Puerto Caldera in January and February, with a program that features visits to Panama's Gamboa Rain Forest Resort and outdoor activities in Costa Rica's national parks.

Silversea's Silver Whisper ([800] 722-9955, www.silversea.com) will make two Panama Canal transits: a 16-day voyage from New Orleans to Los Angeles on Dec. 12 and a nine-day crossing from Colon, Panama, to Acapulco on March 27.

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Harry Basch travels as a guest of the cruise lines. Cruise Views appears twice a month.

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