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16 Jun 2017
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Cruising the Panama Canal onboard NCL's Norwegian Pearl

From colonial cities to jungle adventures, Sara Macefield discovers Central American highlights on a Panama Canal cruise on NCL’s Norwegian Pearl.

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Sara Macefield discovers Central America on a Panama Canal cruise on NCL’s Norwegian Pearl

This is it – my ultimate bucket list cruise through the legendary Panama Canal when I will experience the maritime wonder of passing between the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans.

I tell my 14-year-old daughters to embrace the historic significance of this journey aboard Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Pearl on a round-trip voyage from Miami but, just a few weeks before we depart, the penny suddenly drops.

This Panama Canal cruise isn’t actually taking us along the Panama Canal. Well, not the entire length of it anyway. We will just be popping into the Caribbean entrance, turning around and coming back out again.

It is what cruise lines describe as a “partial transit”, but I had no idea such sailings exist – and feel rather foolish and a tad disappointed.


Yet I needn’t have done. While we can only partially tick off this experience, sailing down to see the world’s most famous short-cut – which neatly avoids the 8,000-mile, 21-day detour around Cape Horn – is still a fascinating diversion.

After all, I never realised the 103-year-old canal is made up of locks and manmade lakes linked together to form the 50-mile passage, taking about 10 hours to complete.

Going up

Going up

On our early morning approach there is a palpable air of anticipation on the packed decks. It’s only 6.30am, but the air is abuzz as everyone strains for the first view of the locks that signify the Caribbean entrance to the Panama Canal.

As we get closer, the onboard commentator points out the entrance to the new larger locks, which opened just last summer to take Neopanamax vessels, with the first cruise ship (Disney Cruise Lines’ Disney Wonder) sailing through them in April.

A short time later, and Norwegian Pearl squeezes through the original Gatun Locks, with just centimetres to spare on each side, before emerging into the manmade Gatun Lake.

 

This provides much of the water that gushes in and out of the lock, which acts as a “water elevator” to raise ships by 26 metres.

It’s all fascinating stuff, and one of the advantages of being on a partial transit as opposed to the full crossing is that we can disembark on ship tours. Around half of Norwegian Pearl’s passengers opt to disembark and explore.

I’m one of them because I want to get a closer look at the locks and am among the last visitors to the Gatun Locks observation centre, which closed in May, where I’m lucky enough to see vessels moving through the locks at close quarters.

Next it is on to see the purpose-built facility at the new Agua Clara Locks where there is also a nature trail, cafe and small cinema screening films about the canal’s development.

It lacks the close proximity to the vessels of its predecessor, but the sweeping views across Gatun Lake, showing mega-container ships lining up for their turn, more than makes up for that.

A short coach ride from here takes us to Colon where, having sailed out of the canal, Norwegian Pearl comes to collect us.

 

This Panamanian port city is famous for its free trade zone, claimed to be second only to Hong Kong in size thanks to its proximity to the famous canal, but the rundown streets are among the worst I’ve ever seen; desperately poor and full of crumbling buildings.

 

It’s a world away from the colonial glories of Cartagena in Colombia, which we strolled the day before.

Back in time

Back in time

The old city of Cartagena, a 10-minute, $20 ride from the cruise port, is a fabulous collection of historic Spanish architecture protected by thick defensive walls built after the city was ransacked by Sir Francis Drake in the 16th century.

Today it revels in its authentic ambience and colourful past, which attracts tourists by the thousands. Unfortunately, it seems to attract a similar number of hawkers too, but we soon become adept at batting off their sales pitches.

It’s a contrast to our first port stop at the Dutch Caribbean island of Aruba where we spend a lazy day at stunning Eagle Beach with its impressive expanse of blinding white sand.

But Costa Rica claims the top prize as we take a canopy tour that has us speeding through the treetops at up to 30mph.

It’s exhilarating and fun, but my highlight comes at the end when a large furry sloth climbs on to the last zip line – bringing everything to a standstill – and stubbornly refuses to budge.

There are more wild encounters on our boat ride through the jungle where we spot howler monkeys, sleepy sloths, exotic birds and even a baby crocodile.

Onboard opportunities

Onboard opportunities

This may have been our final port call, but with two days of sailing back to Miami we can throw ourselves into life onboard Norwegian Pearl. From line-dancing and salsa sessions to fitness classes and an entertaining Mr Sexy Legs contest that we watch with much amusement by the pool.

We are among the first Brits to enjoy NCL’s new Premium All Inclusive plan, which covers gratuities and drinks (up to $15). Not having to think about such extras makes it all so much more enjoyable.

However, we’re not so sure about the 40 bottles of water that appear in our cabin as part of the litre a day per person allowance, though we’re kept well hydrated.

With so many restaurants, we dine at a different venue nearly every night; from delicious pastas and pizzas at Italian La Cucina to succulent meats carved from skewers by “gaucho” waiters at Brazilian steakhouse Moderno Churrascaria.

Speciality restaurants like these carry a charge (or you can buy a dining package, $69 for three meals), but everywhere we eat, including the impressive Garden Cafe buffet, the cuisine is of a similarly high standard.

However, our favourite, by far, is the Japanese Teppanyaki, where boisterous chefs add singing and showmanship to their culinary skills by juggling knives and eggs as they cook up a delicious feast of egg-fried rice and succulent meats.

It’s an experience, like so many others on this cruise, which leaves us wanting to come back for more.

 

Book it: A 13-night package including an 11-night round-trip sailing into the Panama Canal from Miami and an overnight stay in Miami pre-cruise starts from £2,254pp including flights, transfers, drinks and gratuities. Price is based on two sharing and a March 11, 2018 departure. ncl.co.uk

A six-hour Adventure Combo Shared Tour at Puerto Limon in Costa Rica with a rainforest zip-line experience and a nature cruise through the jungle canals, costs from £135pp. cruisingexcursions.com

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