I know this post is long overdue. Honestly, I’ve had a hard time writing about this trip because it was so traumatic. My husband counseled me to skip it and just move on but I felt a need to finish writing about it for closure. If you just wandered into my blog, my mother died early into this cruise and you can read about it here. Anyway, here’s my feeble attempt to wrap things up.
We’ve always enjoyed days at sea while on a cruise. In fact, Jim has been keen to book a repositioning cruise because they include more days at sea than in port but we haven’t found one yet that fits our schedule. We departed from the Bay of Islands in New Zealand at the end of day-2 of our 19-day cruise to sail 1300 mi (2100 km) across the Tasman Sea to Sydney, Australia. We would spend three nights and two full days at sea before our arrival in Sydney, where we left the cruise early to fly home.
The first evening we went to dinner at Cagney’s, one of the specialty restaurants which charge extra. We wouldn’t normally pay extra for a restaurant but we’ve attained platinum status on Norwegian which provides some perqs like waiving the cover charge at specialty restaurants. The food was very good but I’m not enough of a foodie to tell you whether it would be worth the extra cost. The young couple seated at the next table, Derek and Emma from Australia, were delightful company, too.
While I may not have the most discriminating palate, I definitely knew our experience another evening at Moderno Churrascaria was a cut above. This specialty restaurant, modeled after a traditional Brazilian steakhouse, showcases meat. Diners are given a card with a red side and a green side. If your card is green side up, the waiter will continue to bring more meat, including beef, pork, lamb, and chicken, until you change it to red. Incidentally, the buffet of cheeses, salads, and vegetables was equally impressive.
Cheese and vegetable buffet
My selection from the buffet
The star of the show
Green side up
It’s always fun to meet people when traveling and this trip was no exception. One evening we had dinner with the two couples we met while working through the visa debacle which occurred when we boarded the ship. I love the fact that we’ve since connected on Facebook and can keep up with one another’s travels.
Jim and me with Dale, Michelle, Debbie, and Jerry
And in case you haven’t yet figured out that food plays a central role in any cruise, you can even watch the food as it’s prepared on deck. I especially enjoyed watching the preparation of this seafood dish for lunch poolside.
I tried to walk off some of the abundant food each morning on the promenade deck and encountered many others doing the same. Admittedly, we didn’t use the fitness center this time but on most cruises we do.
Lots of activities keep cruisers busy during a day at sea. Fitness and dance classes attract many of the women and cooking demonstrations are popular, too. Or relaxation is also an option, whether reading or simply sunning on the deck.
Jim reading on deck
If you forgot to bring a book, you can find one in the library. And if sunshine and warmth on deck don’t suit you, you can find a seat in the library, too.
I’m not a much of a swimmer but the hot tub beckons to me every time. Soothing away all that stress, the hot tub is almost as good as therapy.
The Norwegian Star is an attractive ship and it’s a pleasure to explore the public areas. While I didn’t take as many photos on this trip, here are a couple of the atrium to give you an idea.
And since this post is titled “Cruising the Tasman Sea,” a photo of the sea is required.
We arrived in Sydney, Australia early on day-5 of our cruise. We were packed and ready to disembark so we watched our arrival on deck beginning at dawn. The views were outstanding.
Sydney Harbour at dawn
Sydney, Australia at dawn
Sydney Opera House with a cruise ship behind
Sydney Opera House
Our last view of the Sydney Opera House as we disembarked from the Norwegian Star
Although this trip ended in tragedy, we are travelers at heart. We will return to Australia and one day visit the other ports we missed on this itinerary. Life is short; travel like you mean it.
Named Bay of Islands by Captain Cook in 1769 for its 144 islands, this archipelago was previously discovered in the 10th century by the Polynesian explorer, Kupe, who named it Aotearoa. Inhabited by the Maori when Europeans arrived, today the area is known as the birthplace of the nation for the treaty signed by Maori chiefs and the British.
When our cruise ship, the Norwegian Star, anchored around 8 a.m., we were on the first tender boat to Waitangi Pier. We were especially keen to see the town of Russell, so we immediately took the complimentary shuttle from Waitangi Pier to Paihia Wharf where we caught the ferry to Russell. The map below shows where cruise ships anchor, Waitangi Pier, and the towns of Paihia and Russell.
Map of Waitangi, Paihia, and Russell
View of Paihia from the wharf
View from the ferry to Russell
Norwegian Star from the ferry
Once called the ‘hell hole of the Pacific,” it’s hard to imagine the drinking, brawling, and prostitution which were commonplace in historic Russell, the largest whaling port in the southern hemisphere and the first capital of New Zealand. Today, little of its wicked past is evident in this charming seaside town.
Approach to Russell
Because it’s flightless, the national bird is threatened especially by dogs
Russell Wharf from the Strand
The Duke of Marlborough Hotel was the first licensed bar in New Zealand. I’m sure the old Victorian has many stories to tell.
Jim at the Duke of Marlborough Hotel
Next to the hotel is the former Customs House and Police Station, today a private home.
This majestic Morton Bay Fig Tree was planted by E.B. Laing, the first customs collector who served from 1870 to 1886.
The oldest remaining church in New Zealand, Christ Church, built in 1836, still holds services every Sunday and since we arrived just as services began, we attended.
Interior of Christ Church
A bullet hole from the Maori Wars is still evident on the exterior of the church.
Remnant of Maori Wars
We strolled around town; I shopped for a Christmas ornament as a souvenir; and we stopped at Sally’s for coffee.
Cannon at Russell
When we headed back to catch the return ferry to Paihia, I spied these two fishing from the pier. We also watched young people jumping off the pier into the water for a swim causing me to wonder whether they scared away all the fish. I guess that’s why they call it fishing rather than catching.
Ferry that runs from Paihia to Russell
On the short ride back to Paihia, we enjoyed more beautiful views of the islands dotting the turquoise waters.
Back in Paihia, we wandered around a bit. A local art and craft show briefly attracted my attention but Jim, not much of a shopper, stayed seated while people watching…and bird watching. A sign announced the red-billed gull as the most photographed bird in the sea bird capital of the world (New Zealand) so of course, I had to take several photos. Normally a prolific species, the gull has suffered a decline of over 50% in recent years. The sign admonished, “Love them. Protect them.” Okay.
Sculpture at Paihia
Water view from Paihia
We hopped on the complimentary shuttle back to Waitangi for a stop at the treaty grounds. It was here the Maori chiefs and the British signed the Treaty of Waitangi establishing New Zealand as a British colony in 1840. Interestingly, the Maori version and the English version contain different language. The English text gives Britain sovereignty but the Maori text translates to governance which the Maori interpreted to allow self-determination. Both texts are currently used to make present-day decisions.
Waitangi Treaty Grounds
Copy of the treaty which is now housed in Wellington
Waitangi Treaty Grounds
As we walked back to the pier to catch a tender boat back to our ship, I took a few more photos of this incredible paradise.
I first saw the itinerary for this cruise online while I was in Mexico in January 2016. It was everything I ever dreamed of in a trip to Australia and New Zealand including 5 ports all along the eastern and northern coast of Australia with an excursion to the Great Barrier Reef. That alone would have sold me but in addition, this itinerary included Bali and Komodo Island in Indonesia, Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, and Singapore, places that hadn’t been on my list previously but immediately attracted me.
Scheduled to set sail from Auckland, New Zealand the following year on February 18, 2017, it looked like the perfect winter getaway from Iowa and the website showed the starting price for the 19-day cruise was only $2009 per person. I was so excited I called Norwegian Cruise Line right then to book it. This was my dream trip.
The price for the two of us including taxes and fees for an ocean-view cabin was just under $5000 which I thought was a bargain. When you book a cruise over a year in advance on NCL, you pay a deposit and pay the balance three months before the sail date. Until you pay the full cost, you can cancel the trip with no penalty. Our final payment was due in mid-November of 2016.
Normally, when I book a trip I’m so excited I start planning immediately but this time, it seemed like events conspired to keep me from doing much advance planning. I booked in January 2016 and had other trips already scheduled for March, April, May, August, and October. I thought I’d do more research following those trips but then in September, I spotted an affordable Viking River Cruise for the end of October which distracted me again.
I did call the cruise line in September just to confirm my price and found an even better deal which saved me a couple hundred dollars and included pre-paid gratuities, a substantial savings of $12.50 per person per day.
Anyway, when I called in mid-November to make my final payment, I had only done a little advance planning so I got busy and booked our flights to Auckland and back from Singapore for $1755 each. We would depart from Minneapolis on February 13 and arrive on February 15 allowing us 3 days to see Auckland and environs before our cruise departure. Our return flight on March 11 allowed an extra day to tour Singapore. I also reserved pre and post-trip hotels in Auckland and Singapore. And most importantly, I reserved the excursion to snorkel on the Great Barrier Reef.
Over the following 4-6 weeks, I researched our ports in earnest to determine which excursions we should book and which we could do better on our own, starting with Auckland, New Zealand. In January, I ran across an article on the internet about the mechanical problems experienced by our ship, the Norwegian Star, in December while cruising an itinerary in Asia. The problems resulted in an altered itinerary and angry passengers who gathered in the atrium to protest the captain’s refusal to meet with them. I called NCL, not because I thought they could tell me anything, but more to register my concern. They assured me the ship was fixed and our cruise would not be affected. As it turned out, that wasn’t the case.
Meanwhile, we spent two weeks in Mexico in January and returned to learn my mother had been ill with the flu while we were gone. When I talked to her, she warned me not to come over to avoid getting sick before our next trip. I continued to check in with her and she didn’t seem to be improving but I knew her husband was taking good care of her. Finally, after a trip to the emergency room, she was diagnosed with pneumonia and prescribed antibiotics. I went over to see her and was deeply concerned by how ill she was. She assured me the antibiotics would put her on the road to recovery soon.
During this time, we received a revised itinerary from the cruise line because the ship continued to have problems. I was disappointed to learn the Bay of Islands in New Zealand; Brisbane, Australia; and Bali were canceled but fortunately, Arlie, Australia, the port for the Great Barrier Reef was still included.
The day before our scheduled departure we went to Des Moines to visit our two sons and daughter-in-law and returned that night to learn my mother was in the hospital. The following morning, I raced to the hospital to see her. She was sitting up in the chair and looked much better but she was still wracked with coughing spells during our visit. We left for the airport, however, feeling comforted she was in the hospital where she would receive good care. My brother, Paul, promised to check on her daily by phone and keep me informed by email.
I called my mother from our first stop at LAX before our 2-day flight to Auckland. She told me they had withdrawn fluid from her lungs, she felt 100% better, and she expected to go home the next day. I was enormously relieved.
Our flight was uneventful. We departed from Minneapolis on February 13 with stops in Los Angeles and Sydney, Australia and arrived in Aukland, New Zealand on February 15. We crossed the international date line losing an entire day which happened to be Valentine’s Day. (How memorable is that?)
The morning of February 16 (the 15th at home), I woke up to an email from my son, Brian, telling me to Face Time my brother. Paul told me the fluid from my mother’s lungs had been tested and indicated stage 4 lung cancer. They assured us, however, she had about 6-9 months and they would devise a treatment plan. Meanwhile, we would Face Time with my mother every day while we were gone. With this bad news on my mind constantly, we continued with our plans to see New Zealand before our cruise. (More on what we saw in future posts.)
We arrived at the cruise port to board the ship on February 18 (17th at home) where we experienced near disaster. When we finally reached the front of the line to check in, we were asked for our visas for Australia. VISAS???? We didn’t know we needed a visa to get into Australia! We had just stopped in Sydney on our way to New Zealand and didn’t need a visa. How had I missed this requirement? The cruise line accepted no responsibility to inform passengers in advance and I had missed it. Well, we moved to another line with several hundred new friends to apply online for an Australian visa. We were toward the front of the line but it wasn’t moving at all due to a variety of factors including but not limited to a slow internet connection, too few computers, and operator inexperience (aka elderly cruisers with few computer skills). At one point, two new friends, Michelle and Debbie, and I left the cruise terminal in search of internet access, found it, but still couldn’t get the program to work and approve our visas. So back to the line we went where we stood in line for hours. We finally did get the requisite visa and checked in.
While all this went on, my stress level increased due to a text from Brian.
While I was worried, I wasn’t totally panicked… yet. When we finally boarded the ship we went straightaway to the internet people on board to get my account set up. (I had 250 minutes to use during the cruise to check in by Face Time with my mother.) As we set sail, Brian told us that my mother’s cancer was even worse than initially thought.
The next morning we arrived in Bay of Islands (which had been restored to our cruise itinerary) and had an email telling us they were discontinuing all treatment and my mother had just 7-10 days to live. I was in total shock. By happenstance, we arrived at a historic church just as the service was beginning. After crying copiously throughout the service, I knew I needed to talk to my mother and find out her wishes. If she wanted me to come home, that’s what we would do. When I talked to her, she said, “Come home.”
That was easier said than done when you’re on a ship on the Tasman Sea three days from port. I checked flights from Sydney to Minneapolis and found they would cost around $1200 each. We went to customer-service on the ship, explained our situation, and told them we would disembark in Sydney. I asked about calling Delta Airlines and, as they put the call through, I told Jim I forgot my credit card in our cabin. As he ran to get the card, I explained my situation to Rakennya with Delta in Atlanta. She was able to credit our flight from Singapore and book a flight from Sydney for an additional $224 each. Jim returned to the service desk to tell us the key card wouldn’t work in our cabin door. They rekeyed it and off he went again down one floor and about a block down the hall. I tearfully explained the problem to Rakennya and she soothed me by saying, “It’s ok, I’ll stay here as long as necessary. I’m not hanging up.” Jim came back again, still not able to open the door. This time they told him housekeeping would meet him there. When housekeeping finally arrived and couldn’t get in either, they had to call security. The problem turned out to be a dead battery in the door. (Who knew they had batteries?) When Jim finally returned with the credit card, I’d been on the phone with Rakennya for over 45 minutes. That woman was a saint.
We had three nights on board before we would reach Sydney and get our flight home. We Face Timed with my mother when we got up each morning which was noon of the previous day at home. All my family was with her, both her children and grandchildren, none of whom live in the same town but they all managed to get there in time to say their goodbyes. We talked to them, too, and they would ask, “How’s the trip?” and we would respond everything was beautiful but we just wanted to get home. During that time we also met several people on the ship who were lovely and understanding. I was, frankly, a mess and my dream trip had become a nightmare.
We thought we still had plenty of time to get home and say our goodbyes in person until an email from our son, Michael, told us on February 21 (the 20th at home) she was comfortable but no longer awake. When we called, he told us it was time to let her go. She died at home later that day, surrounded by her loving family. It was just one week after we left home and two days before we returned.
Today, over five months later, I can still hardly believe it. I often think, “Oh, I need to call my mother about…” Then I realize she’s gone. I miss hearing her soft southern drawl and the way she said my name. I even miss how she would say the most outrageous things and then look at my husband and say, “Isn’t that right, Jim?” I miss her every single day.
You may recall an earlier post in which I claimed I’m not a foodie. In preparation for this post, I took a quiz to see just how un-foodie I was. You can take the same quiz here: http://www.csmonitor.com/The-Culture/Food/2012/0727/Are-you-a-real-foodie-Take-our-quiz. Imagine my surprise when I scored 80%! A score of 70% or higher qualified me as a definite foodie. Who knew? Frankly, I rocked all the French cooking questions because although I may not consider myself a foodie, I am definitely a francophile. Now that I can legitimately claim the title of foodie, I am presumptuous enough to give you a foodie report for the Norwegian Star.
With a capacity of 2348 passengers, the Star serves a lot of meals which obviously requires a huge amount of food. At embarkation we observed some of the provisions that would be loaded onto the ship to feed us for 14 days at sea.
Provisions to be transported onboard
The Star features 14 dining options, composed of two complimentary main dining rooms, the Versailles and the Aqua; the Market Cafe, which is a buffet; several other bars and cafes that serve food; and 8 specialty restaurants that charge an extra fee.
For breakfast, we opted for a made-to-order omelet and fresh fruit each morning in the Market Cafe after a workout in the fitness center or a walk on the promenade. I usually had egg whites only with every veggie. Yum! I loved sitting outside to enjoy the balmy temperatures in the morning.
Breakfast by the pool on the Norwegian Star
For lunch, we enjoyed whatever they prepared on the pool deck or went back to the Market Cafe for a big salad and some protein.I enjoyed watching the chefs prepare dishes in mass quantities before our eyes. Since I’m gluten-free, I didn’t eat the pasta…
Seafood Pasta on the Norwegian Star
The first two evenings we ventured to the Versailles Main Dining Room which seats 491 guests. Frankly, we weren’t overly impressed with our service and although the dining room itself is gorgeous, it was noisy and distracting. The third evening we decided to try the other main dining room, the Aqua, which seats 334 guests in a bit more casual venue. We were so impressed that we had dinner there every night thereafter.
Lori and Jim at the Versailles
The main dining rooms feature the same menu with items that remain the same each night and “Tonight’s Signature Specialties” that change every evening. There was plenty of variety and we had no trouble choosing a pleasing entrée along with starters and sumptuous desserts. Each entrée is paired with sides that complement the main dish but you can order additional items if you prefer. I usually opted for seafood while Jim chose beef or pork. I especially liked the portion control of the dishes that encourages some self-restraint. The service, presentation, and taste were especially good considering how many people they feed each evening.
We enjoyed our servers at the Aqua so much the first evening that we requested seating in their area every evening afterwards. Jessie is from the Philippines and Indra is from Indonesia. They worked hard, and they were friendly, professional, and knowledgeable.
Our server, Jessie, on the Norwegian Star
Our server, Indra, Norwegian Star
I love taking photos of food so I’m happy to share some of our meals with you. I wish I’d thought to photograph the menu each night so I could identify each dish as well. The names of the dishes are as appealing as the food, in my opinion.
They say the average cruiser gains a pound a day. I say you can actually choose to live a healthier lifestyle on a cruise ship. If you get some exercise each day and make sensible food choices among the plentiful offerings, you can come home without “extra baggage.”
The first time we went on a cruise, my husband, Jim, says he had to be dragged kicking and screaming onto the ship and he had to be dragged kicking and screaming off the ship. He mistakenly thought he would hate it but now we’re experienced cruisers with 8 cruises under our belts including 2 Mediterranean cruises, 5 to the Caribbean, and most recently the transit through the Panama Canal on the Norwegian Star. Next on the docket is an Alaskan cruise scheduled for June, 2015.
Cruising offers several advantages. First, your transportation, accommodations, meals, and entertainment are all included in the package so there’s less to plan and arrange after selecting your cruise. There are plenty of cruise lines and itineraries to choose from so you’re likely to find the perfect cruise for you. In addition, you know what you’re getting for your money and the total cost upfront… unless you spend a lot onboard and don’t keep track. You can choose to do as much or as little as you like with lots of options for activities onboard and excursions in ports, or simply relaxing by the pool with a book in hand. A cruise allows you to sample various ports of call without longterm commitment. If you like a place, you can return in the future and if you don’t like it, you’re not stuck for the duration of your vacation. Finally, while traveling place to place, your belongings stay onboard in one place so you don’t have to pack up for the next stop.
There are several disadvantages as well. If you’re a misanthrope or just not a particularly sociable person, the proximity of 2400 other passengers and half again as many staff may be uncomfortable. If you suffer from motion sickness (I had it once) or any other illness, being on a ship confined to a tiny stateroom is definitely a nightmare. See my post entitled Quarantine on the Norwegian Star. Additionally, there isn’t much opportunity to spontaneously change plans because you have no choice but to go where the cruise ship goes at the appointed time or they WILL leave you behind. Finally, alcohol is very expensive onboard and although you can take your own wine, it carries high corking fees. Cruising isn’t for everyone but as a friend once said, “If everyone liked it, it would be too crowded for us.”
Each ship is different but all that I’ve seen have a Las Vegas vibe to them–a kind of gaudy, glitzy, glittery glamour. Personally, I prefer a more understated elegance but I’m sure the cruise lines have plenty of research to back up their style choices. The closest I’ve seen to my personal taste is the Hawaiian theme decor on the Norwegian Jade which, ironically, cruises the Mediterranean and not Hawaii.
Before we leave the ship at the end of our cruise through the Panama Canal, here is a last look at the Norwegian Star.
The Atrium on the Norwegian Star
Mural in Stairwell
Deck chairs on the Promenade
Red Lion Pub
Lori on deck for walking
Pool area with water slide
Lori and me in the hot tub
An example of towel art that appeared every evening in our stateroom
Goodbye to Cruising the Norwegian Star
So tell me, have you cruised? What other advantages or disadvantages of cruising have you identified? Please share your thoughts.
We usually take in the entertainment in the main theater every night while on a cruise ship. It’s not always great entertainment but it’s generally good enough entertainment and it doesn’t cost anything extra so why not? The night they had a hypnotist on the Norwegian Star, however, I said maybe we should skip it. I’ve been hypnotized several times so I just knew I’d end up on stage. Jim said, “Oh, come on, it’ll be fun” so I relented and off we went.
The hypnotist did his thing and sure enough, I was the first one selected and ended up center stage.
Let me tell you about my experiences with hypnosis. I’ve laid down with my head on one chair, my feet on another with nothing in between, a person placed on top of me, and the hypnotist standing on top of both of us. That’s the most remarkable feat, but I’ve done plenty of silly things like acting as if the person next to me on stage smells really bad, etc. This time I was the last person on stage because the hypnotist told me I was stuck to the chair and although I needed a restroom badly, I couldn’t get up from the chair until either he or the cruise director shook my hand. So I squirmed and crossed my legs and asked the cruise director if I could leave but stayed stuck to my chair until he finally shook my hand at which time I left the stage.
According to the Mayo Clinic’s website, hypnosis is “a trance-like state in which you have heightened focus and concentration.” That sounds benign, don’t you think? So, how does hypnosis feel, you ask? I feel totally in control; I believe I could leave the stage if I wanted; I feel relaxed and cooperative. I would never do anything I wouldn’t do ordinarily but I feel like it’s important to go along with the show so the hypnotist doesn’t look bad. In a later seminar, the hypnotist, TerranceB, confirmed that’s exactly how he feels when hypnotized. He said anyone can be hypnotized if they are willing and not fearful of it. While under hypnosis I am aware of what is happening and I remember everything afterward. I also feel refreshed after the experience and sleep incredibly well that night. I don’t know why I’m such a good subject but a therapist friend said I’m likely highly suggestible. Somehow, I’m not sure that sounds like a good thing.
Other entertainment in the Stardust Theater included a tribute act to Frankie Valley and the Four Seasons, an outstanding acrobatic aerial show, a lot of comedy acts including Second City, comedy with magic, a comedy juggler, (both of these last two were MUCH better than they sound), and several performances by the Norwegian Star Production Cast and Show Band. Photography isn’t allowed so I only have pictures of the theater and us.
Stardust Theater on the Norwegian Star
Stardust Theater on the Norwegian Star, 2014
There is also lots more entertainment, music, and dancing in lounges and bars throughout the ship until late into the night. I rarely make it past 10 p.m. so I missed most of that but I did make it a priority to dance a few nights.
Dancing in the Spinnaker Lounge
We’re not big gamblers but the casino onboard any ship usually sees a lot of action. This ship actually struck me as having somewhat fewer gamblers than usual. I’ll play a few penny slots but I haven’t struck it rich yet.
Slots in the Casino
There’s plenty of daytime entertainment all over the ship as well, including game shows, bingo, trivia, dance lessons, and more. The ice sculpting on the pool deck was fascinating to watch even though I’m embarrassed to admit I don’t remember the finished product.
Ice carving demonstration
My friend, Lori, and I went to a French wine tasting that was well worth the extra charge and the sommelier was very knowledgable and engaging. He was generous with his pours, too.
One of my favorite shows was the Norwegian Star Crew Show. Crew members from all over the ship displayed a variety of amazing talents. But the final act, Fountains, performed by the cruise director and his staff, was absolutely hilarious. Dressed in sheets to look like Greek performers, they spit streams of water all over each other and the stage as they imitated fountains in a very funny and creative show. Photographs were allowed and encouraged for this particular show.
Fountains on the Norwegian Star
Truly, there are so many competing entertainment options while on a cruise ship that the challenge is to pick the ones that interest you most. Just be sure to check out what they have to offer. You’ll be glad you did.
I think most people, even those who don’t care about history, have some idea that the Panama Canal is an amazing feat of engineering. I hope they know that the Panama Canal is widely regarded as one of the wonders of the modern world. Most probably don’t know, however, why these statements are true. Here are just a few fascinating details about the Panama Canal.
Prior to the completion of the Panama Canal, goods were shipped from New York to California around Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America. It was a long, dangerous journey and a shortcut across Panama connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans would shave off 8,000 nautical miles saving both time and money. (Completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 offered another transport option but that’s a story for another day.)
Expeditions to find or create a waterway across the isthmus of Panama are recorded as early as the 16th century when Vasco Nunez de Balboa explored the area for Spain. It was the French, however, that initiated a project in 1881 under the leadership of engineer and developer, Ferdinand de Lesseps. He previously had completed the Suez Canal in Egypt in 1869, after 10 years of construction at a cost of $100 million so he mistakenly thought a canal across Panama would be similar in effort and equally lucrative to investors. The Suez Canal, however, is a 100 mile pathway at sea level which was impossible to re-create across the 50 mile isthmus of Panama due to entirely different conditions.
“Apart from wars, it represented the largest, most costly single effort ever before mounted anywhere on earth,” wrote David McCullough, in his award-winning book about the Panama Canal, The Path Between the Seas. Between 1881 and 1888, French investors spent over $280 million before the project went bankrupt. The United States purchased the rights to the project in 1902 and spent another $375 million from 1904 until the project was completed in 1914.
The French plan called for a canal built at sea level which required monumental excavation through tropical jungle and mountainous terrain. Due to heavy rainfall feeding waterlogged ground and the wild and treacherous Chagres River, excavation efforts repeatedly resulted in massive mudslides. Too late in the project but finally accepting that a sea level canal was impossible, de Lesseps conceded the need to use a system of locks to reduce the amount of earth to be moved. Thirty million cubic yards of earth were excavated in the French project which was a fraction of the total amount that would be moved.
In addition, tropical diseases decimated the workforce. By the time the French project failed, the death toll stood at 20,000 from malaria, yellow fever, or accidents. This is likely a gross underestimate, however, because deaths that occurred outside the hospital weren’t counted.
President Theodore Roosevelt initiated the American canal project and he is often credited with its construction but work actually continued throughout the term of President William Howard Taft and the canal was completed during the presidency of Woodrow Wilson. When Colombia didn’t agree to the terms offered by the United States, U.S. gun-boat diplomacy ensured the success of Panama’s bloodless revolution to establish their independence from Colombia. Better terms followed. The U.S. obtained a 10 mile wide strip of land across Panama for a canal for a one-time payment of $10 million and $250,000 annually.
The American plan eventually called for a system of locks to raise ships to the level of man-made Lake Gatun at 85 feet above sea level, which was created by damming the Chagres River. After crossing the lake, ships would pass through another set of locks to return to sea level in the other ocean. Beginning in 1904, the American experience was similar to that of the French but the tide finally turned when John Stevens was appointed chief engineer in 1905. With better planning, a repaired railroad, more effective equipment, and improved sanitation (to decrease the mosquito population), the project finally took off. Over 238 million cubic yards of earth were moved and more than 5,000 workers died in the American project. It opened in 1914 on schedule and under budget. In 1999, the United States transferred control of the Panama Canal to Panama.
Today, the canal operates as it did when it was built and it is completely self-sufficient. Three dams produce electricity and the tremendous rainfall replenishes the 52 million gallons of water expended in each transit. There are two tracks through the locks allowing 2 ships to transit the locks at the same time. Water fills the locks by use of gravity while locomotives, called mules, actually tow the ships through the locks. It takes 8-10 hours to transit the entire canal including locks at each end and Gatun Lake in between. Currently, over 13,000 transits occur annually producing revenue of $1.8 billion. The cost per transit varies by tonnage and number of passengers but a cruise ship, for example, pays around $300,000 to transit the Panama Canal. Curiously, it seems like you should be going east when transiting the Panama Canal from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic. In actuality, you are headed northwest as the map below shows.
Gates closing on the lock
Workers walking across the gate of the lock when it’s closed
Container ship in the lock next to us with “mules” to the right of the ship on the track
Terracing on the Calebra Cut
Man-made Gatun Lake created by dam on the Chagres River
The Panama Canal expansion project began in 2007 and is currently over 80% completed. Another set of locks is under construction that will double capacity and accommodate new and larger ships. In addition, dredging will improve the navigational channels.
View of Panama Canal Expansion Project
Dredging to improve channel navigation
Everyone I’ve talked to that has taken a cruise through the Panama Canal cites it as their best cruise ever. With so many endorsements, we simply had to do it and we thought the centennial year would be the perfect time. Our friends, Lori and Rick, also wanted to do this trip so off we went. The day before we arrived at the Panama Canal, the Norwegian Star showed the PBS NOVA documentary, A Man, A Plan, A Canal–Panama, narrated by David Mccullough. After learning so much about the history, we were all excited and up at dawn when we arrived at the Panama Canal. In all honesty, I’ve seen locks before so this was not totally new to me. After the first lock, I’d seen enough and it was kind of like watching paint dry thereafter. (In fairness, I must say my husband vehemently disagrees with this statement.) The back story, however, is fascinating to me and I hope you think so, too.
This was not my first time getting sick on a cruise ship. In 2007, I got seasick my first day at sea and had to leave the dining room and go to bed just as my lobster tail arrived. Jim dutifully stayed behind to consume my portion. Fortunately, I got a patch from a friend and within 24 hours I was fine. In 2011, I came down with an abscessed tooth in Barcelona, Spain, before boarding the ship for a Mediterranean cruise which resulted in my first trip to the medical department on board for an antibiotic and pain medication. The experience cost around $250 since neither medical or dental insurance would cover it as it was a dental event and I saw a medical doctor because there wasn’t a dentist on board.
This time I came down with gastroenteritis. I’ll spare you the details of my symptoms because you really don’t want to know. (Trust me on this.) I will tell you, however, that I am a constant hand washer while on a cruise ship. In addition, ship staff, standing sentinel outside every restaurant onboard, proclaim, “Washy, washy” while they spray passenger hands with antibacterial sanitizer and I am always cooperative. I assume I must have touched something that was contaminated and then touched my mouth without washy washy in between which allowed me to contract this scourge. Or maybe I ate or drank something off the ship in Mexico that contained the organism that took me down.
I waited to report my illness thinking and hoping it would pass. My symptoms started about 10 am and by 4 pm I was still getting worse rather than better and finally decided it was time to seek medical attention. The nurse asked a number of questions before the doctor examined me, including whether I had used any of the public restrooms. I now have an idea how the doctor who rode the subway and went to a bowling alley before he showed symptoms of Ebola must have felt. Believe me, I felt like a pariah when they dispatched a team to sanitize the public bathroom after I confessed to using it.
The paperwork that had to be completed in the medical department was voluminous. My husband, who takes paperwork very seriously, interrogated me as I lay in the intensive care room of the sick bay. Jim recorded my every movement on and off the ship and every morsel of food that went into my mouth. Fortunately, I’m a creature of habit and follow pretty much the same routine in both food and movement (no pun intended) so even in my delirium I was able to recreate my previous 4 days fairly accurately. (The word delirium is an exaggeration but when someone is badgering me when I’m VERY sick, some degree of hyperbole should be allowed.)
The worst part is that I missed the second most important event of the cruise. Obviously, the most important thing on a Panama Canal cruise is seeing the Panama Canal. The only excursion we signed up for, however, was the aerial tram and zip line through the rain forest in Costa Rica. I’ve always said I don’t have a bucket list because if I want to do something, I get right on it. But if I had a bucket list, the one thing that would be on it is zip lining. As a recovering acrophobe, this is something I think I can now do with a high level of enjoyment. Another excursion option was the swinging bridge but I didn’t think I could handle height combined with swaying on a rope bridge.
I ended up being quarantined in my room for 24 hours upon discharge from sick bay that evening and the only view from my window was of another ship rather than Costa Rica. The meds I got from the doctor worked quickly and I felt much better the next morning so I called the medical department to see if I could be released early to go on the excursion but they said 4 pm was the earliest I could leave my room. Meanwhile, my husband and my friend were living my dream. Lori wasn’t originally sure she really wanted to zip line but she was game to join us. Jim had no hesitation at all. Rick recently had shoulder surgery so he declined early on. So, off Jim and Lori went while I stayed behind feeling sorry for myself.
I also missed a meet-up with friends who were in this port on the ship my window faced. We’d met a couple from Kentucky while we were in South Africa in February, 2014 and discovered we would be on cruise ships going opposite directions with a common stop in Puntarenas, Costa Rica. We planned to meet up after our zip lining excursion, hopefully around 4 pm. The doctor called to check on me in the morning and said I was quarantined until 5 pm. NOoooo! Passengers had to be back on board at 4:30 for our departure. I explained my plan to meet friends on the other ship with no way to communicate and begged for an early release. The doctor agreed to call back at 3 pm to reassess my situation.
At 3:00, the doctor called to explain that I couldn’t get off the ship at all because it would expose the other ship to gastroenteritis. They would call at 5 pm to release me after we set sail. I had to remain in quarantine which was a bitter pill to swallow… although totally understandable.
When the doctor called soon after 5 and asked, “Have you been waiting by the phone?,” I replied, “Wherever I go in my room, I’m by the phone.” She released me. I checked with my sources on the ship that evening and learned there were 13 other people on board with gastroenteritis.
If you’re interested in the numbers of GI illnesses reported on cruise ships, the CDC tracks this data and you can find it here. Have you been on a cruise ship hit by gastroenteritis or norovirus? Have you personally had either one? If so, please share your story in comments.
For your enjoyment, I’m including some of Lori and Jim’s photos from the aerial tram and zip lining.
Waterfall view from the tram
Lizard at rain forest nature center
The group waiting to zip line
Lori ready to zip line. Jim’s finger in the photo illustrates why I’m normally the photographer.