Posts Tagged With: Panama Canal

If Everyone Liked It…

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

The Atrium on the Norwegian Star

Mural in Stairwell

Mural in Stairwell

Deck chairs on the Promenade

Deck chairs on the Promenade

Promenade Deck

Promenade Deck

Red Lion Pub

Red Lion Pub


Lori on deck for walking


Pool area with water slide


Lori and me in the hot tub


Towel Art

An example of towel art that appeared every evening in our stateroom

Panama Canal Photo

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.

Based on events from November, 2014

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The Panama Canal Back Story

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.

Miraflores Locks

Miraflores Locks

Gates closing on the lock

Gates closing on the lock

Workers walking across the gate of the lock when it's closed

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

Container ship in the lock next to us with “mules” to the right of the ship on the track

Terracing on the Calebra Cut

Terracing on the Calebra Cut

Man-made Gatun Lake, Panama Canal

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

View of Panama Canal Expansion Project

Dredging to improve channel navigation

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.

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Cruising from the Port of Los Angeles

We always arrive a day early for a cruise departure, just to ensure that we have extra time in case of travel delays. This was our first departure from the Port of Los Angeles and we wanted a hotel near the cruise port with a shuttle to deliver us to the port. If you need a hotel, I suggest you book it when you book your cruise. I waited for several months after booking our cruise and the hotel I wanted was full so I settled on the Hilton Doubletree in San Pedro, as my second choice. I also arranged a deal with a breakfast buffet so we wouldn’t arrive hungry (don’t ask me why!) to our cruise ship, the Norwegian Star, for our 14 day cruise through the Panama Canal.

With an early flight out of Des Moines, Iowa, and a two-hour time change to the earlier, we arrived by 9 AM in California at LAX. The taxi ride early on a Sunday morning to San Pedro took only about 40 minutes with little traffic. Our hotel rooms weren’t available yet so we left our bags there and took the hotel shuttle to downtown San Pedro. Not a lot was going so early but we stopped by the visitor’s center which was open, surprisingly, and with advice from a helpful staff person, quickly decided that a foursome from Iowa should check out the Battleship Iowa at the LA Waterfront.

Jim and I toured this ship in Norfolk, Virginia, back in the 80’s before it was decommissioned but we were game to see it again. We were delighted to discover that Iowa residents can now tour the ship for free because the State of Iowa contributed funds for its refurbishment and preservation.

Iowa Battleship

Iowa Battleship, San Pedro, CA

Iowa Battleship

Iowa Battleship Admission Prices

Recognition Plaque

Plaque Recognizing Contribution of the State of Iowa

The Big Stick (the Iowa’s nickname) was launched in 1942 as the lead ship of four ships in the Iowa class of battleships. The others are the Wisconsin, the Missouri, and the New Jersey. If Jim had a blog, he would tell you all about the 16 inch guns on the ship and other details that you may find fascinating about battle ships in general and the Iowa class specifically.

!6 inch guns on Iowa Battleship

Rick, Lori, and Jim in front of the 16 inch guns on the Battleship Iowa

I, however, prefer social history over military history. To me, the most interesting part of the ship was a tour of the rooms used by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt while in transit to Tehran for the conference with Churchill and Stalin to plan the D-Day invasion of WWII. Doors had to be widened to accommodate FDR’s wheelchair; a kitchen was installed for his personal meal preparation; and the only bathtub on any ship in the fleet was installed for the President’s daily soak.

FDR's Rooms on the Iowa

Rooms Used by President FD Roosevelt While Aboard the Iowa

Volunteer aboard the Iowa Battleship

Volunteer Telling about President Roosevelt’s Journey to Africa on the Iowa

Another interesting tidbit involved the ship’s mascot, a dog called Vicky, short for Victory. The captain’s dog occasionally went AWOL from the ship but always seemed to turn up in time to set sail. One time she went missing in Long Beach, CA, and a call went out in the newspaper to help find her. Apparently it worked because a later report indicated she was back on board.

Mascot Vicky

Ship Mascot, Victory, during WW2

The walk along the waterfront in San Pedro is pleasant with a shopping area and locally significant sculptures to experience.

Jacob's Ladder

Statue of 2 Merchant Marines climbing a Jacob’s Ladder after a rescue at sea

Harry Bridges

Statue of Harry Bridges in San Pedro, CA, founder of International Longshore and Warehouse Union

Fishing Industry Memorial, San Pedro, CA

Fishing Industry Memorial, San Pedro, CA

Before heading back to the hotel, we ducked into The Whale and Ale, a local pub also recommended at the tourist information, for a late lunch. The owner was authentically British judging by his accent and the quality of the food was definitely above typical pub fare. We were all satisfied and ready to return to the hotel.

Local Pub, The Whale and Ale

Local Pub, The Whale and Ale, in San Pedro, CA

The Doubletree by Hilton is in a great location for cruising from the Port of Los Angeles. Overlooking the marina, the hotel is attractive and comfortable with a great breakfast. Our room was upgraded unbeknownst to us and we had a patio with a view of the marina. Some of the staff were a little wanting but most were topnotch. The carpet in the halls and stairways begs for replacement but overall, I would give this hotel high marks. The area is attractive with a long pedestrian walkway along the marina and my friend, Lori, and I felt quite safe walking without the men.

Hilton Doubletree, San Pedro, CA

View from our room to our patio at the Hilton Doubletree, San Pedro, CA

Hilton Doubletree, San Pedro, CA

Hilton Doubletree Pool and Hot Tub

Hilton Doubletree, San Pedro, CA

Pedestrian Walkway in front of the Hilton Doubletree

San Pedro, CA

Vestiges of Halloween at the Marina, San Pedro, CA


The following day we were delivered promptly to the cruise port to begin our adventure through the Panama Canal with stops in Cabo San Lucas, Puerto Vallarta, Huatulco, and Puerto Chiapas, Mexico; Costa Rica; and Columbia; ending in Miami.


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