2014 is a big year for anniversary travel, especially bearing in mind the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings and, from a land based side, the centenary of the Great War, But it is also the centenary of the opening of the Panama Canal, the waterway that cut the journey time between Atlantic and Pacific from weeks to hours.
Panama was a waterway that literally changed history. One of the most desperate. last ditch Japanese plans for changing the course of the Second World War centered around a submarine launched bombing raid on it that never came to pass. When the passage hewn at such ghastly human cost opened in 1914, the long, perilous voyage around the tip of South America became a thing of the past, and the tempo of east-west trade changed forever.
Literally tens of thousands of lives were lost to malaria and yellow fever in the jungle shrouded killing fields of Panama, but finally the forty eight mile long canal- the brainchild of a French engineer named Ferdinand De Lesseps- was completed by the Americans, and officially opened on August 15th, 1914, by which date Europe was already at war,
Today, the legacy of Panama’s genesis is one of the most amazing travel experiences on offer anywhere today, an astonishing, eight hour passage through a panoply of dense, rolling tracts of jungle that tumbles down to the waters’ edge on both sides. As your ship gradually rises and falls more than eighty feet as it is threaded gingerly through a series of gigantic locks, the air all around you is a live with the sound of chattering, humming and screeching local birds and wildlife; it really is an all out visual and vocal assault on the senses.
Essentially, most Panama transits take place as part of relocating cruises. In spring, many cruise ships relocate from Miami to Los Angeles, from their winter Caribbean cruise grounds to the popular Alaska summer runs. In the autumn, they relocate the other way. Either way, these cruises- which always of necessity involve a full transit of Panama- take between thirteen and fourteen days.
Either way, it’s a pretty exhilarating adventure, swapping the indolent playgrounds of the Caribbean for the sparkling, sun splashed waters of the Pacific, where the sunsets defy belief. Whichever direction you sail in, you’ll stop off at such places as beautiful Huatulco on the Mexican side, as well as famously feisty and fun Cabo San Lucas, with the soaring Los Arcos rock formations, and its internationally famous freewheeling, fun vibe.
On the other side, after that spectacular, stand out transit of Panama proper, you might stop in at breezy, Spanish accented Cartagena, before heading north to either Miami or Fort Lauderdale. In between, reckon on quite a few relaxing sea days to just kick back and soak up that delightful tropical sun.
Typically, Florida to California (westbound) Panama cruises sail in the spring, with eastbound trips running from September onward. With that in mind, here’s my pick of some of the best cruises, running in both directions, over the course of 2014.
ROYAL CARIBBEAN has four transits of Panama announced, all of them on the 70,000 ton, recently revitalised Legend Of The Seas. Eastbound dates: April 1 and November 30. The two westbound departures are on March 17 and November 15.
More upscale? Sassy CELEBRITY CRUISES has no less than seven Panama transits on its roster. The classically styled Celebrity Century sails westbound on both January 5 and March 6, and eastbound on January 20.
Her larger, more contemporary fleet mate, Celebrity Infinity, also offers a tempting quartet of options. She sails westbound on March 30 and again on November 4, and has eastbound crossings available on April 14 and November 19.
NORWEGIAN CRUISE LINE is the pioneer of Freestyle Cruising, and the line has no less than four ships making Panama transits next year. Here’s how the four ships line up;
Norwegian Pearl: westbound on April 18; eastbound on October 3.
Norwegian Star: westbound on October 20 and November 17. Eastbound on April 20 and November 3.
Norwegian Sun: westbound on April 28; eastbound on November 4.
Norwegian Jewel: westbound (from New Orleans) on April 20. Eastbound (to Houston) on September 25.
Any of these options will provide you with a good, solid cruise experience. The one essential recommendation I would make is that, if you are going to go to all the trouble of embarking on a Panama Canal adventure, then it is definitely worth booking a balcony cabin.