A Cruise To The Lonely Continent
It is easy to be overwhelmed but will offer a series of observations and many more images soon…
It is easy to be overwhelmed but will offer a series of observations and many more images soon…
In 1880 the French tackled one of the biggest engineering projects ever. The intent was to dig a canal from the Caribbean across Panama to the Pacific Ocean. They were defeated by a mosquito and a single celled organism that causes malaria.
In 1903 President Theodore Roosevelt of the United States took on the responsibility of getting done a long-term United States goal, completing the trans-isthmian canal. In order to get the U.S. authority a number of treaties were attempted and finally the U.S. backed a revolutionary movement to gain Panama independence from Columbia.
The new canal projects success was partly the result of healthcare advances made during the construction, led by William Gorgas, an expert in
controlling tropical diseases including yellow fever and malaria. Gorgas was one of the first to recognize the role of mosquitoes in the spread of these diseases, and by focusing on controlling the mosquitoes greatly improved worker safety.
The American engineers abandoned the French plan of a sea level cut and went to a design using locks to lift ships up to the level of Gatún Lake and back down again. One of the biggest projects was the Culebra Cut through the roughest terrain on the route and remains one of the largest earth –moving projects ever.
Later in the construction it was discovered there would not be enough water reserves to operate the locks. Several dams were built with one being a dam at Pedro Miguel which encloses the south end of the Culebra Cut (actually an arm of Gatún Lake). The Gatun Dam is the main dam blocking the original course of the Chagres River, and created Gatún Lake. Additionally two dams were built at Miraflores that impound Miraflores Lake.
The best way to visit the canal is on a cruise ship. Generally these cruises go back and forth from the American coasts with Miami and Ft. Lauderdale being at one end and San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco at the other. They usually include a number of stops that can include Grand Cayman, Cartagena, Columbia, Colon, Panama, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Honduras and Mexico but the star of the trip is the Panama Canal.
We have taken a couple of cruises that transit the canal and are always enthralled by the trip thru the locks and lakes of this remarkable place. Ships are pushed and pulled by tugs and canal engines called “mules” into locks with only inches of clearance. Water roars out of exhaust ports and massive ships rise and drop effortlessly within the locks.
Cruising across Lake Gatún is like a journey thru a primitive and beautiful rain forest with numerous islets as dozens of ships glide along near us. Transiting the Culebra Cut with its walls towering above leaves us overwhelmed by the shear tonnage of dirt that had to be hauled away.
Many cruises stop at Cristobal Pier near Colon where locals offer crafts and wares for sale with usually Kuna Indians from the San Blas Islands among the merchants. Many of the cruise ships require a quick paint touch-up at the exit dock to cover up numerous rubs and scrapes from the passage..
Up until recently the canal could only accommodate ships designated Panamax. These original locks are 1,050 ft (320.04 m) in length, 110 ft (33.53 m) in width, and 41.2 ft (12.56 m) in depth. These limits have influenced the ship building industry to build Panamax vessels for the past hundred plus years
On September 7, 1977, President Jimmy Carter signed the Panama Canal Treaty and Neutrality Treaty promising to give control of the canal to the Panamanians in the year 2000. After that the Panama Canal Company began an expansion project. The expansion project started construction in 2007 and opened for commercial operation on 26 June 2016. The new locks allow transit of larger Post-Panamax and New Panamax ships, which have a greater cargo capacity than the original locks could accommodate. Unfortunately many of the cruise industries new mega-ships still cannot cruise the canal mainly because they are too tall to cruise under the bridge at the Pacific end of the canal.
All-in-all this is a fascinating journey and one of the three or four best itineraries we’ve taken. The ports-of-call are an opportunity to visit a number of Central American countries and get an introduction to this interesting region.
Cruising Alaska has been gaining in popularity for a number of years and it doesn’t seem like interest will taper off any time soon. All the major cruise lines offer itineraries along with a number of smaller lines.
We often get asked what cruise we would recommend and we do have some very specific ideas on what to look for. Alaska has a lot to see and almost any cruise will be a memorable experience but there are differences.
First, some information on the general environment. Coastal Alaska has a limited number of ports and locations so there is a lot of cruise similarities. The major cruise ports are Skagway, Juno, and Ketchikan and each has a lot to offer and they are popular with passengers. There are also a couple of less visited stops with the most common being Hanes. Another common stop is Icy Straight Point. Both of those are more opportunities to take tours than a an actual destination. There are also a couple of “cruise only” destinations. The first is the Misty Fiord which is usually a half day of cruising up thru the narrow fiord. The other is Hubbard Glacier where the ships cruise up near the face of the glacier. Finely is the port of Seward and it is the farthest north of the itineraries. Most one-way cruises make it up to Seward as this is a jumping off point for trips to Denali and includes the origin of the Alaska Rail Tours.
Our opinion is that the most spectacular sights are the glaciers and that should be a prime consideration in selecting a cruise line and its itinerary. Because the number of ships allowed to go up near to Hubbard Glacier are very limited we recommend that your first priority is to select a cruise that includes this glacier. Hubbard is a huge glacier that terminates at a bay and it is “calving” huge chunks into the water constantly. In addition the bay is filled with icebergs and flowing chunks of ice with seals being a common sight.
Mendenhall Glacier is another popular destination and usually all you need is a bus ticket from Juneau. The glacier is a National Park with a good visitor center and great hiking trails and it really is only a half hour bus ride from town. Almost all Alaska cruise passengers have an opportunity to visit this glacier.
A third glacier of particular note is Dawes Glacier located at the end of Tracy Arm Fjord. It also terminates into water with calving a frequent event. Unfortunately it is not on many ship itineraries probably because there is a limit on ships allowed all the way up the fjord. Tracy Arm Fjord is a branch off of the Misty Fjord and while cruise often include Misty Fjord, few make it up to Dawes Glacier.
A fourth frequent glacier opportunity is a helicopter tour up on the Juneau Ice Field. These tours are available from Juneau as well as Skagway. One tip that can save you some money is to book the tour on your own rather than thru the ship. You can call using U.S. cell service at most points near the popular towns and often book at the last minute. The tours only take a couple of hours so it is easy to fit into a port day as well.
Regardless of which cruise line you prefer pay attention to the available itineraries and try to get a cruise that includes Dawes or Hubbard. Most cruise will list Hubbard on the cruise itinerary but you will probably have to make some inquiries regarding Dawes.
Many years ago on a Caribbean cruise we stopped in Roatan, Honduras. Our ship docked at a commercial pier only a short walk into the small town of Loma Linda. We went shopping in the local market, bought some ground coffee and a tee shirt, visited a local leather shop where they did everything by hand. On the way back to the ship children skipped along with us and locals set up craft stalls in their front yards.
A few years latter we again stopped in Roatan on a cruise but things were much different. We docked at the new cruise ship pier in Mahogany Bay. Across a bridge from the dock is a well-equipped resort beach area and just a short walk down the pier is the shopping village featuring all the usual stores, Diamonds International, Del Sol etcetera. The area was clean, modern, attractive but except for the sales staff the only other people there came off the ships. It was hard to tell if we were in Honduras or Sint Maarten.
Theme parks treat you to wild animals, high-speed excitement and tastes of foreign lands and we appreciate that it is all part of a carefully orchestrated consumer experience. This experience is designed to be attractive, stimulating, clean, safe and above all else fun. It’s what makes people want to come back. As millions of people travel by ship or plane to Caribbean ports and resorts do they give much thought that they are taking part in a similar process?
Making tourists happy is big business and it has everyone playing to get a share of that dollar. Island governments go to great lengths to keep visitors safe and happy, telling their friends and coming back. Island resorts function very much like theme parks where the attractions are sea, beach, food and fun. The cruise industry offers ships that meet these same objectives but they are also faced with the need to make port calls. Over the past twenty years the cruise lines have done a lot to shape the on-shore experience of their customers on these Caribbean islands.
The first and obvious addition is the cruise lines creation of private islands. These are isolated locations where the cruise ships offer beaches, water sports and cookouts in a perfectly controlled environment. In the Caribbean these include Disney Cruise Lines – Castaway Cay, Bahamas, Holland America Lines – Half Moon Cay, Bahamas, Norwegian Cruise Line – Great Stirrup Cay, Bahamas, Princess Cruises – Princess Cays, Bahamas and Royal Caribbean’s CocoCay, Bahamas and Labadee, Haiti.
Next are the new cruise ports, usually developed with the help of private companies, local governments and the cruise industry. In the most inclusive form they include Sint Maarten, Cozumel and Costa Maya in Mexico, Roatan in Honduras, Sub Base St. Thomas and the port onGrand Bahama Island. In 2005 a private company with financial support from the government developed Port Zante to accommodate the big cruise ships visiting St. Kitts. Similar facilities where developed in St. Lucia, Curacao and St. Vincent with development planned for Belize and several other ports in the future.
Many passengers on cruise ships usually see the islands on arranged destination-focused tours. Unfortunately they completely miss the real Caribbean and spend their time shopping in the same stores on different islands that include
Diamonds International, Del Sol, Columbian Emeralds, Cariloha, Little Switzerland and others.
All-Inclusive resorts aren’t really much different from the cruise ships at giving us a feel for an island and its people. Their intent is to provide virtually everything the guest could expect or want in a relatively isolated location. They even arrange tours in much the same way as the cruises. There are also destinations where the entire island has been mostly overwhelmed by Western style and culture. Grand Cayman, Sint Maarten and Aruba can be characterized that way.
If the focus of your trip planning is turquoise water, sun and sand, water sports, entertainment and good food and you don’t really have an interest in island culture and history that’s fine. After all those are the things that have made the Caribbean the destination it is. But if you would like to spend some time exploring Caribbean life, that option is available.
Fortunately a number of the larger Caribbean destinations have cruise facilities near to larger towns that can offer some insight into the real character and lifestyle of the island. In Curacao the ships dock very near to Willemsted and in St. Thomas many ships dock at Havensight with a nice walk or short jitney ride into Charlotte Amalie. In Antigua ships dock on the waterfront of the capital, St. John. The area near the dock has been developed to offer shopping and restaurants but most of the city is a working West Indian environment. All opportunities to look around, try a local restaurant and talk to people.
NOTE: While most areas in the Caribbean are safe, just like in Europe or America there are places that should be avoided. While we have almost always felt safe we would be cautious in areas of Trinidad, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica. In the case of Jamaica every effort is taken to provide a safe environment at the major resort areas as well as major tour destinations.
As we write this, we are just finishing our fourth Alaska cruise. Having done this a number of times before, we recognize that there are a lot of similarities but also some significant differences in these cruises. Because it is so vast, Alaska is a destination that is more easily seen by cruise ship. Cruising gives you an opportunity to view some of the towns, cities, glaciers and wildlife up close and personal. After a first trip, it is then possible to decide if you want to spend time further exploring by train, ferry, car or a combination. It is also possible to add a land portion before or after a cruise which could include places like Denali, Anchorage and Fairbanks.
A lot of ships begin the cruise in Seattle or Vancouver, two wonderful cities to spend a few extra days before or after a cruise. They are easily accessible and offer an abundance of hotels, restaurants and things to do in a wide range of prices (hotels in Seattle are rapidly getting more expensive though). A lot of the cruises are seven nights and depart and return from the same port.
A common itinerary for Alaska cruises is up the inside passage. Normal port stops are Skagway, Ketchikan, Juneau and Icy Strait Point and visits to the Misty Fjords and Hubbard Glacier. Some cruises also visit Victoria, Canada on Vancouver Island. A typical
seven night cruise will include four or five of these places with lots of opportunities for tours arranged through the cruise ship or setting out on your own for independent exploration. If you spend a little time on the internet investigating your ports of call, chances are you can locate an independent tour operator who will take you to a glacier, panning for gold, etc. at a significant savings over the cruise ship tour prices.
One sure highlight of an Alaska cruise is a visit to a glacier. There are three which are easily accessible and each has a different character:
Mendenhall Glacier is a National Park and the easiest to get to since it is only a few minute bus ride outside of Juneau. Ships offer a number of tours to Mendenhall but we would recommend the public bus service that departs from near the cruise ship docks with a round trip fare of $30 per person.
Hubbard glacier is spectacular and is a destination that a limited number of ships can visit. Hubbard would be high on our list of itinerary stops when selecting a cruise. The ships maneuver up near the face of this massive glacier as it calves giant chunks into the sea which makes for spectacular photo opportunities.
Dawes glacier is way up inside the Misty Fjords and also calves chunks of turquoise ice
that float down the fjord. In booking, be warned that a visit to the fjord does not guarantee your cruise getting up to the Dawes glacier as it depends on conditions.
In addition to viewing from land or sea, there are also helicopter tours that can be booked that will take you to glaciers up on the Juneau ice field. These helicopter tours are usually booked in conjunction with stops in either Juneau or Skagway.
Because Alaska is on most U.S. cell service plans you can consider booking one of the helicopter tours directly. We did this in Skagway and saved almost half on the cost of the tour over booking through the ship. Because of scheduling concerns there are times that we would not recommended booking a tour other than with the cruise. In this case we were in Skagway all day, we booked for a morning tour and were back with hours to spare before the ship sailed. It also was the same tour provided by the cruise excursion desk.
One of our favorite towns is Skagway and while its’ primary purpose today is as a seasonal tourist destination it is still a fun and interesting stop. The town is the home to the railroad excursion train known as the Yukon and White Pass Route that climbs up to the pass that was a primary gateway into the Klondike during the gold rush days. The Yukon gold rush was the event that gave birth to this boomtown and was the entrance point to the Chilkoot Trail, described as the “meanest 33 miles in history”. In 1897 the dreams of thousands were attached to the call “North to Alaska” and the promise of gold. Today
the main street of Skagway is lined with gift and jewelry stores along with art galleries and a few bars. Because the cruise ships represent the heart of the town’s economy, once the “season” is over the population of the town drops to only about five hundred intrepid souls.
The largest cruise city and the state capital is Juneau and while the waterfront is dominated by jewelry stores and gift shops, tourism is not its’ principal business. Fishing boats come and go from its’ docks and it is home to a university and, of course, the government dominates the job scene. The famous Red Dog Saloon, founded during Juneau’s mining era, has been in operation
for decades and still serves visitors and locals alike. For a time, “Ragtime Hattie” played the piano in white gloves and a silver dollar halter top. Later, in territorial days, the owners would often meet the tour boats at the docks with a mule that wore a sign saying, “follow my ass to the Red Dog Saloon.” Wyatt Earp is said to have lost his pistol in a poker game there. The saloon also hosted an episode of The Ed Sullivan Show just after Alaska became a state.
Near the cruise docks there is a cable car up to a mountaintop that offers a panoramic view of the area. Juneau is also home to the Mendenhaul glacier and during one cruise we visited the local fish hatchery. It is a remarkable operation that scoops up and processes tons of fresh “wild” salmon and is a good alternative to the controversial salmon farming which has become popular in recent years.
Ketchikan is another popular port where you can, depending on the season, book a fishing trip to bring back your own salmon or, if really lucky, a haddock. There are operations where your charter captain can have your catch smoked or flash frozen and express shipped home (expensive but worth the bragging rights). Again there are jewelry stores and gift shops everywhere and also one of the better opportunities to buy canned or smoked salmon to take home to family and friends. It does seem that each time we come back to Alaska, the price of salmon jumps in price, probably driven by of the growing popularity of Alaska cruising, so shop carefully.
Icy Straight Point is another popular stop with the big draw being whale watching tours. There are also some nice Alaska rain forest hiking trails and a new zipline. On one recent trip when we were anchored out we returned to the ship early and a large humpback whale spent almost an hour near the ship. We have been told that that was not that unusual an event here.
After taking several Alaska cruises, we decided to try something different this time. We selected a Celebrity ship, Solstice, which was doing its’ last seasonal cruise in September, beginning in Seattle and terminating in Vancouver. The ship was then heading to Hawaii and then on to Australia. We decided that we wanted to stay on the ship and disembark in Hawaii which meant we invoked the Jones Act. (See our post on the Jones Act here.)
To avoid a Jones Act violation, we needed to disembark and spend the night in Victoria, Canada, the last cruise port, and then board the ship again in Vancouver the next day. This requires special permission from the Canadian Government to disembark early, before termination of the cruise. The process is called down lining and can be arranged after your cruise is booked. The transfer to Vancouver can be made by helicopter, seaplane or ferry and we selected the latter for both convenience and price.
The disadvantage to transferring by ferry is that the ferry port in Victoria is some distance out of town and in Vancouver is not in close proximity to the cruise ship terminal (Canada Place). The BC Connector solves this problem by offering a ticket which provides bus service to the ferry port in Victoria all the way through to Canada Place. The bus literally drives onto the ferry where passengers spend the crossing in clean and comfortable lounge areas. Upon arrival in Vancouver, the bus drives on to Canada Place. Cruisers head inside for check-in and suitcases are given to porters for loading onto the ship. This service should be reserved and paid for in advance on the internet as there are a limited number of seats available.
We spent all of February cruising with Celebrity’s Constellation in the South China Sea on back-to-back itineraries. We visited twelve ports with only one repeat (Ho Chi Min City). If you are going to fly twelve thousand miles you probably should make the most of the trip. We flew into Singapore and with the return for the second cruise and the extra day in port at the end we had five days to explore the city and all we could say was wow! The ship also spent two days in the port for Bangkok and we spent that night in a Bangkok hotel and booked a private tour (more about that at another time ;-).
Beyond the usual reasons for cruising there was an additional advantage on this trip. If you are not into a diet of noodles with dried fish flakes or hot curries, the ship gives you the opportunity to return to a Western style menu. The ship also takes care of visas and immigration ahead of each port.
Besides our time in Singapore our trip included four stops in Vietnam, Hong Kong, two stops in the Philippines which included Manila, two stops in Borneo, Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia, Brunei and two stops in Thailand. We had an opportunity to see a lot as well as try a number of cuisines. Many of the destinations were studies in extreme contrasts but it was also obvious that things are greatly improving economically. It is also interesting to switch from Muslim to Buddhist to Western cultures as we went from one port to the next. On board there were a number of excellent in-depth lectures on the history and culture of the various countries which provided a good perspective on the ways the region developed.
Over the last number of years we have found cruising gives us an opportunity to sample a number of places and than we decide where we want to come back to for extended stays. Southeast Asia is no exception to this and we certainly have a few we will add to our return list.
Phone Service: We were traveling on this trip with an iPhone 5 on Verizon service ($80 for 250 international minutes)and with a Blu 5.5 phone with a prepaid international plan from One Sim Card service. Vietnam and Brunei were not part of the Verizon international service so we switched use to OneSimCard. Phone calls with Verizon worked well everywhere else but there were problems getting text messages out on a few days. The only reliable data that we found on the Verizon service was in Singapore (didn’t attempt in Hong Kong) most other places indicated “Data Service Failed”. The One Sim Card service worked as expected except in Vietnam. There we connected with the recommended service provider (Viettel) but instead of text messages costing the expected 25¢ they were charged at a couple of dollars. One Sim Card did send a text message warning of high costs on this service recommending we switch networks, even though Viettel was their recommended provider.
In the near future look for posts covering each of these countries with pointers on must do things, food, transportation and hotels.
One of the most popular destinations in the cruising world is the Caribbean, including the Bahamas. Taking a three, four or five day cruise out of Florida is a great way to sample cruising at a very inexpensive price (some 3 and 4 day cruises are as inexpensive as $200 to $300* per person). Royal Caribbean and Carnival have a number of these itineraries sailing out of Miami, Ft. Lauderdale and Port Canaveral year round. In addition to these two cruise lines there are a number of other lines in the market with many of them sailing only seasonally.
The Bahamas cruises are the most economical and usually include a stop in Nassau or Freeport and a day at one of the “private islands”. If you are booking one of these cruises and can swim, one of the best excursions you can take is a snorkeling trip. Everyone should experience this at least once in their life because there is nothing to compare to gliding over a coral reef watching marine life swimming all around you.
If your stop is Nassau we would recommend going over to Paradise Island and visiting the Atlantis resort. There is a daily admission fee but it includes sea life exhibits, beaches, a water park, casino, restaurants and bars. (Most cruise ships offer tours.) In addition you can walk thru Nassau town and shop for souvenirs, duty free watches, jewelry, clothes and liquor (see customs rules below). The private islands offer a day of beaches, barbecue, water sports and more.
There are also west-bound short cruises which usually include Cozumel, Grand Cayman and often Key West. Our favorite stop is Key West with its’ shops and restaurants and our favorite attraction, a small aquarium, is only a short walk from the pier. Unfortunately, cruise ships must sail well before sunset so you will miss the sunset celebration at Mallory Square which is the best show in town. (The large ships would block the view of the setting sun.)
Stopping in Cozumel offers some duty free bargains including silver, onyx and tequila (see customs rules below) and good pricing on vanilla. The cruise ships will offer tours including beach trips and snorkeling but our recommendation is to take a taxi to Chankanaab Beach Park and pay the admission. You’ll save a lot of money and can go and return when you want. There is a bar, food, snorkeling rental and beach chairs and the water is great. Reefs are a bit of a swim out though.
There are two cruise ship areas in Cozumel. One is downtown and only a short walk to shops and Senior Frogs. The other is a bit north (actually two piers) with shopping areas dedicated to cruise passengers. There is also a smaller version of Senior Frogs which actually has a good snorkeling area right next to it. If your group includes teenagers beware. one of the local pastimes is pouring tequila into young Americans, so keep a watch on how much alcohol is consumed.
Grand Cayman is the other usual stop on these itineraries and offers probably the best duty free shopping on the cruise. You tender rather then dock but the tenders drop you off right in the center of Georgetown. Grand Cayman is dotted with great beaches (one seven miles long), terrific snorkeling and diving and many American chain restaurants. Our recommendation for a great day is a tour to “stingray city”. Pick an excursion that visits the stingrays and also a coral reef for snorkeling. It is advisable to book the tour through your ship as the day runs long and you can get dangerously close to missing the ship’s departure time .
A cautionary note here regards the Cayman dollar. It is permanently fixed to the US dollar with the exchange rate being one Cayman dollar equaling US$1.25 so everything is 20% more expensive than it appears. Always be sure to ask if the quoted price is in Cayman or US dollars.
Duty Free Shopping
There is a lot of confusion about bringing back duty free liquor and how much and from where. The following is from the web site of U.S. Customs:
Please note, only one liter of alcohol purchased in a cruise ship’s duty-free shop is eligible for a duty-free exemption, although if at least one bottle purchased on board is the product of an eligible Caribbean Basin country**, then you will be allowed two liters duty free. If you buy five liters of alcohol in – say – the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI), and one of them is the product of the USVI, then you would have reached your duty-free limit. Any additional purchases made on board in a duty-free shop would be subject to CBP duty and IRS tax.
If you buy four bottles in the USVI, one of which is a product of the USVI, then you could purchase one additional bottle from the onboard duty-free, and it would be eligible for duty-free entry.
Additional bottles will be subject to a flat duty rate of 1.5% and subject to Internal Revenue Service taxes.
** Most Caribbean Basin countries are considered beneficiary countries for purposes of this exemption. (Anguilla, Caymen Islands, Guadeloupe, Martininque and Turks and Caicos are not eligible)