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Cruising the Canal: An Epic Canal Deserves an Epic Experience

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Seeing the mind-bending Panama Canal, touted as “one of the seven wonders of the modern world” by the American Society of Civil Engineers, used to be considered a once in a lifetime encounter. Now, this storied waterway that divides two continents and connects two oceans is one of the most popular repeat list cruising destinations for passengers aboard the Holland America Line, thanks to a myriad of options that deliver 10- to 24-day itineraries out of seven convenient ports, each with something particular to recommend. 

For the First Timer

If you haven’t yet seen the canal for yourself, an awesome spectacle awaits. For more than 100 years, since the American-led project opened in 1914, the canal has fueled the world economy, allowing for previously unheard of trade routes thanks to one of the most game-changing public works projects of the 20th century. Grand in scale and beautifully envisioned, the canal allows passenger and cargo ships to glide through a 48-mile water bridge, a journey that takes from eight to 10 hours as the stair-step locks raise from sea level up to 85 feet and back to sea level. 

The canal cut runs across the finger of land between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, passing through Gatun Locks, the man-made Gatun Lake, the steep Culebra Cut chiseled through eight miles of rock, and the Pedro Miguel and Miraflores locks. Twenty-six million gallons of water can flow into a lock in just eight minutes, with gravity filling the locks with water from nearby lakes.

Aboard one of the seven spacious mid-sized Holland America ships making the journey this season, passengers line the decks, watching as the captain navigates through lock chambers barely wider than the ship’s beam. As it approaches the locks, electric locomotives using cables to guide the ship into one chamber after another, a constant tension keeps the vessel centered, safe and on a timely course. The tugboats that assist the ship through the locks bob and weave, looking like sturdy little windup toys on a serious mission. Between the locks, once past the charming control houses, while going through the Culebra Cut and on Lake Gatun, ships going the opposite direction sail by at a relatively close range, a chance for joyful greetings shouted into the breeze, an exhilarating moment in an unforgettable day. 

What’s your flavor?

Sailing through the canal used to be the pinnacle of a grand weeks-long voyage. And it still can be. But whether you’re seeing the canal for the first or fifth time, there’s a cruise itinerary that fits your lifestyle and vacation wish list. On a Holland America Line Panama Canal cruise, you can experience this amazing feat of engineering on any of seven luxurious ships sailing 11 unique itineraries, ranging from 10 to 24 leisurely days.
Short(er) and Sweet

Cruising round trip out of Fort Lauderdale delivers 10 or 11 days of sun, tropical breezes and the Panama Canal experience, a perfect fit if your time away is limited. Sailing aboard the Holland America ms Zuiderdam, a favorite in the line’s Vista class, you’ll enjoy the ship’s extensive art collection with works by famed artists like Andy Warhol and Frank Lloyd Wright, along with entertainment direct from Beale Street in B.B. King’s Blues Club. If you can tear yourself away from staring at the horizon on sea days, there’s the Culinary Arts Center demonstration kitchen and the Greenhouse Spa & Salon to while away the day. 

Ports pop with interest and excitement on this itinerary, with stops in Aruba, Curacao and Costa Rica, as well as half a day on Half Moon Cay, a private island paradise in the Bahamas. How busy you are on days in port depends entirely on you. Shore excursions, which you can book onboard or ahead of time online, are carefully curated to reflect a range of interests, and marked as to the level of activity and particular focus. Zip line over a rainforest canopy and take a crocodile safari in Costa Rica, reserve a private beach cabana (complete with butler!) on Half Moon Cay or take a ride on the Panama Canal Railway — the choice is up to you.  

A Grander Tour

You’ve cleared the decks and made the choice to recharge, take time with your partner or your family. A voyage of between 15 and 24 days holds powerful appeal. With the Panama Canal at the heart of your cruising adventure, where else can you go? 

First, embark on your longer holiday where it’s most convenient for you: Boston, New York, Ft. Lauderdale, San Francisco, San Diego, Seattle or Vancouver. Each voyage offers various options for exploring, connecting intimately with places, people and cultures as you expand your already broad horizons. Journeys Ashore options vary, but Holland America’s signature shore excursions are designed with the inquisitive traveler in mind. There are a slew of engaging choices — once in a lifetime opportunities in the Medallion Collection, the Signature Collection for the independent-minded traveler, or the Cruise with a Purpose options, which offer meaningful ways to give back to communities in need along the way. 

Imagine more than three weeks at sea. During this 23-day restorative voyage between Tampa and Seattle, you will have the luxury of nine days at sea, the ultimate time for battery recharging and contemplation. Enjoy a dose of Caribbean irie in the Caymans, Jamaica and Aruba, with plenty of beach time and chances for diving, snorkeling and water sports. 
Need a dose of adrenalin? 

Why not skywalk in the rainforests of Costa Rica surrounded by a rainbow hued array of birds and wildlife or zip line through the awe-inspiring forest canopy of Puerto Caldera, flying high above the lush countryside. This itinerary dives deep into Central America, with stops in Nicaragua and Guatemala before continuing to three fascinating ports in Mexico. A day each in San Diego and Vancouver round out this expanded adventure. And in each port, you can do nothing at all, or dive into the culture, connect with local experts well versed in culinary tradition, indigenous peoples, tropical flowers and fruits, and artisanal art and handicrafts. Visit UNESCO World Heritage sites, absorb the grace of a 16th century Spanish cathedral or sip a 25-year-old oak-aged rum — the choices are endless. 

Whether it’s verdant rainforests, Aztec ruins or an engineering marvel that intrigues you, there are countless reasons to take a Panama Canal cruise. Choose to sail for 10 days or three weeks; after a memorable day of exploring unwind in the elegant comfort of your Holland America Line ship, a fabulous destination in her own right. Learn how to make conch croquettes at the Culinary Arts Center, dine on local seafood and tropical fruits. Enrich your adventures with in-depth conversations with local experts. Get tips on editing your travel photos from the pros and rejuvenate with a luxurious hot stone massage. Dance under the stars, sip champagne on your verandah or simply take in the beauty of endless sea meeting endless sky. This is your time to be a human being instead of a human doing, a personal voyage of discovery that will stay with you forever.   

(May/June 2017 issue of Traveler)

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