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Cruising The Panama Canal On The ssv Radisson Diamond

Being an avid cruiser, I often get asked many questions regarding specific types of cruises. Readers, like Andrea Loconto from Massachusetts who's heard positive rumors about Panama Canal cruises, wonders what they are like. Having just experienced my first canal cruise aboard the ssv Radisson Diamond, I can tell you that cruising the Panama Canal is more than just a cruise; it's a great history tale that unfolds before your eyes.

Stairway to Heaven

Just before sunrise on my cruise, the Radisson Diamond entered the opening of the Panama Canal. After plunking down a $44,000 toll to the Canal Authority, a canal pilot boarded to guide the ship throughout her transit. At sunrise, the ship slipped into the first Gatun Lock, one of six locks she would enter during her nine hour-long 50-mile transit. In three steps at the Atlantic side of the canal, she ascends 85 feet from sea level to the surface of Gatun Lake.

Cables are attached to the ship from powerful 55-ton locomotives (mechanical "mules") along each side of the locks. Although the mules pull and restrain the ship, they mainly serve as a guiding force to keep it from bumping into the sides or gates.

Crossing the Continental Divide to the Pacific, the Radisson Diamond descends 31 feet with the Pedro Miguel Lock, and then down two stages of 54 feet in the Miraflores Locks. Rising and falling through the locks was a lesson in the history of the area and of the nature thriving in the rain forest along the embankments of the canal.

Canal Beginnings

Panama Canal Fun Facts:

  • Mileage saved going through the canal versus going around Cape Horn: 7,873.

  • Largest toll was paid by the NCL Star in December 2001: $230,000.

  • Smallest toll paid was $0.36 by Richard Halliburton who crossed the canal swimming in 1928. He dubbed himself the S.S. Halliburton because the locks would only be filled for ships.

  • The hydrofoil Pegasus of the U.S. Navy made the fastest Canal transit by completing it in two hours and 41 minutes.

  • Since opening to ship traffic on August 15, 1914, more than 700,000 vessels have taken the shortcut through the canal.
  • It's hard to fathom that this canal—literally cut out of the wilderness—was contemplated back in the 15th century. In 1534, Spain's monarchy looked at the possibility of a canal route connecting the two oceans through the Isthmus of Panama. A canal was beyond the Spaniards' capabilities, but they did pave mule trails with cobblestones to carry tons of gold moving back to Spain from the conquest of Peru. Remnants of the Las Cruces trail can still be seen today.

    It was the French who began digging the canal in 1880. French diplomat Count Ferdinand de Lesseps, who successfully supervised the building of the Suez Canal, was in charge of the undertaking. The French labored for 20 years, but their efforts failed mainly due to poor planning, malaria, yellow fever, cholera, and other diseases that killed workers by the thousands. In 1903, the U.S. signed a treaty with Panama to construct the canal, and the next year, paid France $40 million for its rights and property.

    Workers under American supervision were spared the deaths suffered by the French due to medical advances made by U.S. doctors. The life-threatening maladies were under control thanks to a massive sanitation and inoculation effort by Army doctors.

    The Canal opened in 1914, 34 years after the initial effort by the French. It is estimated that over 80,000 persons took part in the construction and that over 30,000 lives were lost. Together the French and American expenditures totaled $639,000,000.

    Real Traveler Thoughts

    The Panama Canal is one of those massive engineering and construction accomplishments that is difficult to comprehend until you see it firsthand. I was staggered by the monumental effort it took to complete this project, and intrigued by the foresight and dedication of those who saw the undertaking through to completion. It was by far the most exciting nine hours that I've ever spent aboard a cruise ship.

    If You Go

    Thomas J. Ethier of Hudson, MA, asks if there are any cruises of 10-days or less that transverse the entire length of the canal. I highly recommend the aforementioned Radisson Diamond seven-day itinerary that begins or ends in Aruba/Costa Rica. Here is a list of major cruise lines that offer Panama Canal cruises and their duration:

    Mainstream Cruise Lines

    • Carnival: Offers 14-, 16-, and 17-day Panama Canal cruises on the new Carnival Spirit during November only. All cruises transit the entire canal.

    • Norwegian Cruise Line: Offers 16- and 14-day cruises on selected dates in October and April each year. All cruises transit the entire canal.

    • Regal Cruises: Offers 10-day Panama Canal cruises on selected dates in January and March. All cruises go through Gatun Lake and then turn back to the Caribbean.

    • Royal Caribbean: Offers 11-, 13-, and 14-day Panama Canal cruises on selected dates between November and May. Some transit the entire canal and some go through Gatun Lake then turn back to the Caribbean.
    Premium Cruise Lines

    • Celebrity: Offers 13- and 14-day cruises on selected dates between November and May. All cruises transit the entire canal.

    • Orient Lines: Offers 16-day cruises on selected dates in November and March. All cruises transit the entire canal.

    • Princess: Offers 10-, 15-, and 16-day cruises on selected dates between November and May. Some transit the entire canal and some go through Gatun Lake turn and then turn back to the Caribbean.

    • Holland America: Offers 10-, 11-, 12-, 13-, 14-, 16-, 17-, 18-, 19-, 20-, and 21-day cruises between January and April or September and December. Some transit the entire canal and some go through Gatun Lake and then turn back to the Caribbean
    Luxury Cruise Lines

    • Crystal: Offers selected 11-, 12-, 16- day cruises in October, November, December, and April. Some transit the entire canal and some go through Gatun Lake and then turn back to the Caribbean.

    • Radisson Seven Seas: Offers 7-, 9-, 11-, 14-, and 16-day cruises on selected dates between November and May. All voyages transit the entire canal.

    • Seabourn: Offers 14- and 18- day cruises on selected dates in January, February, and March. All cruises are complete canal transits.

    • Silversea: Offers a complete transit, 16-day cruise in December on the ultra-deluxe Silver Whisper.

    • Windstar Cruises: Offers 13- and 14-day cruises on selected dates in November and March. All cruises are complete canal transits.




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