Cruising on the Island Princess
Wednesday 3rd February 2016 Mid-morning we drove from our accommodation at Miami Beach to Fort Lauderdale Airport to return the Outlander (another one now off the shopping list) and caught a taxi to the Port Everglades Cruise Ship Terminal to begin our 15Day Panama Canal Cruise. The embarkation process was well organised to board the ship; there was plenty of staff on hand to assist at each step and was quickly completed. However, once onboard, there was no information given to locate our stateroom – it was all in the room when we finally found the right place. After a light lunch we settled in and began trying to orient ourselves.
Our dinner companions are two couples from Canada as well as couple from WA. This dinner arrangement turned out to be a lovely way to share our meal with each evening, people who were easy to chat with; the topics were many and varied and more than once we were among the last to leave the dinning room. Our wait-staff Armando and Ninaslav went to great lengths to ensure we enjoyed the best dining experience each evening – this spoiling was easy to take.
During the cruise we had a few “sea days” when we were travelling from one port to the next; lots of things available to keep passengers entertained e.g. various sporting events, movies, port information sessions, enrichment lectures, gym, day spa and lots of shops. Alternatively, there were plenty of places to just sit and relax, read a book or nod-off. You could be as active or not as you choose. The average age onboard was probably 75 to 80, many of whom had mobility assistance equipment. It is amazing to watch them lining up for all the events; reminded me a little of herding cattle – when the first few led, the remainder just followed in a bunch. It was safer to stand back and wait, another reminder of why our home Buckajo is a perfect spot.
Saturday 6 February: Our first port of call was Aruba, a small (69 square miles) south Caribbean Island, inhabited by tribes from Venezuela around 1000AD and discovered by Europeans in 1499 who claimed it as a Dutch territory; achieving independence in 1986, Aruba remains a Dutch protectorate. The architecture in the township was predominantly Dutch colonial and lends an old world charm to the otherwise rather run down buildings. Rather than taking an organised tour, John and I walked the short distance into the port township of Oranjestad that is also the island’s capital. We covered the two streets of the main area in a couple of hours; it mainly consisting of souvenir shops, a range of jewelry stores and high-end boutiques adjacent to the casino and Renaissance Hotel.
The hotel featured a motor launch taxi service from inside the foyer; you step in the launch, go out under the main street, into the harbour to wherever you wish to go – shopping, swimming or perhaps observing costal wrecks in a small submarine.
Sunday morning we dropped anchor at Cartagena, Columbia and joined a tour to the San Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas (an imposing fortress), a visit to Las Bodedas Markets (former dungeons) followed by a walking tour through the walled old city (a UNESCO World Heritage site). The old city of Cartagena is rich in Spanish history and influence; numerous colourful buildings dating from the 16th Century, many with balconies covered in bougainvillea and geranium above narrow cobblestone streets. We visited the Historical Museum of Cartagena and saw several implements used for torture during the Inquisition then to the Maritime Museum where we watched a local dance group in colourful native dress and finally back to the ship.
Monday and Tuesday were spent sailing through the Panama Canal from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast and then driving back the next day to see the operation from ground level. It was amazing watching this huge vessel being gently guided by six battery-operated, engines called “mules” on rack and pinion tracks; the mules used wire ropes attached on either side of the bow and stern trying to keep the vessels off the walls and then stop it from bumping into the gates of the locks. There were three locks to take shipping up the 85feet (26metres) from sea level to Gatun Lake (the largest man-made fresh water lake at the time of completion) and another three locks to descend to sea level again. The Panama Canal has been in operation for 100years with some 40 vessels per day going through the system in pre-booked order; costing the Island Princess $256,000.00 for the trip we made that day. A rigorous maintenance program keeps this system operational.
PANAMA CANAL HISTORY & FACTS
The idea of a Panama Canal goes back to the early XVI Century when the Spaniards arrived on the Isthmus. The first firm effort to build an all-water route through Panama began with the French in 1880; Ferdinand de Lesseps tried to replicate his triumph of the Suez Canal by digging straight through, but financial troubles and diseases made ththis initiative fail. After its independence in 1903, Panama negotiated an agreement with the United States for the construction of the Canal that the US would finish on August 15th 1914 and then manage in perpetuity. The US controlled a corridor along the Canal and had several military bases within its limit. In 1977 after student riots, Panama leader Torrijos and President Carter negotiated a Treaty that would see Panama take over full operation, administration and maintenance of the Canal at noon on the 31st December 1999.
Culebra Cut is the Canal’s narrowest part and its 12.7km represents almost a fifth of the waterway. This segment was excavated through rock and limestone of the Continental Divide of the Isthmus of Panama. The material excavated can be quantified in three ways: (1) construct up to 63 Pyramids, (2) fill enough rail trucks to stretch four times around the world, (3) enough material to fill Manhattan to a depth of six feet. The excavated material was railed to create a dam one mile long by one mile wide at the base at the mouth of the Chagres River and created Gatun Lake.
Two lanes with three locks are used to elevate the ships 26 meters from the Atlantic sea level to Gatun Lake and then three more to lower them 29 meters to the Pacific Ocean. The Lock chambers are 1000ft long by 110ft wide, our ship is 965ft long by 106ft wide so the Mules are used to hold the ship away from the walls as much as possible – ours had quite a large gouge out of the wooden buffer panel visible the following day.
The new lock chambers are 1400ft long by 160ft wide and will not require Mules, rather they will allow containers ships through carry 6000 containers at a fee of $1m per transit. The water will be moved sideways into chambers and reused instead of releasing to the sea as with the present locks.
February 29th 1968. A transit record was created with 65 ships moving between the two oceans. 2010 saw the one-millionth transit through the waterway. In 2014 an oil tanker set the record for the highest transit fee of $900,000.00 rather than waiting in line for the 9days it would have been sitting in the harbor waiting to transit. The Canal Expansion Project started in 2007 and will begin operations within 3 months at a cost around US$5bn.
The Gatun Lake water level is dropping to a critical level from the lower than normal rainfall and the threat of having to close the Canal is putting the pressure on the completion and use of the new third lock system before that happens. This new system reuses the water from the locks rather than allowing it to just flow out to the sea as in the existing system. During our excursion on the Monday we drove across the embankment that divides Gatun Lake from the new locks that will disappear next week when the two are joined. The new lock gates slide straight across the lock rather than swing to the side and are expected to be more efficient and much easier to replace; at a cost of $7M each I should hope they are effective. Apparently the first gate tested broke, allowing all the water to escape – so it was back to the drawing board.
As expected, the weather became hot and humid with tropical showers; with the threat of the Zika Virus throughout the areas we visited we were encouraged to wear long sleeves and trousers as well as insect repellant to avoid being bitten by the carrier mosquitoes.
Our planned stop in Punta Arenas, Costa Rica was cancelled because rough weather precluded our ship from entering and leaving the harbour as needed on the two tides.
Princess Theatre Each evening there was entertainment in the theatre ranging from an illusionist, comedians, singers as well as the dance troupe and the orchestra. The shows that involved the dancers and orchestra tended to be more popular as well as entertaining. The energy, choreography and enthusiasm of the four singers and the dance troupe supported by a great orchestra and imaginative staging were well worth watching. Each show lasted about 45 minutes of pure theatrical entertainment.
Friday 12 February Following the trip to Puntarenas being called off, we sailed straight to Chipas, a day ahead of the original schedule; we remained on board and spent the morning exploring the ship. When you have over 2,000 passengers and 920 crew you need a large vessel with lots of services. Life at sea continues as if it was a small town with most of the goods and services being provided. We saw carpet being laid in one stateroom; the plumbers needing to fix leaking pipes on our deck; the medical centre had two doctors and two nurses; spa and swimming pools; a range of musical entertainment in four different lounges; a gym; sporting, trivia, bingo events; enrichment lectures as well as meals being provided from early morning until midnight – you could be as formal or as informal as you chose for dining options and the food was usually of a high standard.
Valentines Day was not missed with a vase of roses for Gae to our room and at 3.30pm our dinner group meet in the dining room for afternoon tea with scones and cookies.
Monday 15 February Following the rough weather, a change of itinerary, with a stop at Cabo San Lucas added; we arrived there at 12md and joined a bus tour of Cabo San Lucas as well as San Jose del Cabo. The drive along the coast showed hotels and golf courses on the shoreline with barren land and a much lower standard of housing the other side of the highway; it reminded us of many such places we had seen on this trip: Spain, Croatia and Florida. The tourist dollar is sought with a range of accommodation as well as activities and entertainment. I hope our south coast of NSW never develops to this extent (selfish aren’t I?). On the return journey we visited a glass works where the locals recover empty clear glass bottles and reuse them to create their own designs and colours with their special dies. We also called in to a view point to look over the harbour and admire the setting sun.
Next morning I took the tender to the town wharf to walk around the streets and take a few more photos. A lot of private resorts that had their entrance on the town side but all the rooms and facilities faced the beach outside the cove. Lots of condo’s surrounding the harbor and yachts of all description including one with a helicopter on the back deck.
We woke up to this view of the docks this morning to remind us that we had reached the end of our journey, and now transfer to LAX for our flight at 10pm tonight.
Home to Buckajo on Saturday afternoon.