We're on Holland America Line's Zuiderdam this week, taking a partial transit cruise of the Panama Canal. What's a partial transit, you ask? It's a cruise where the ship only goes through one set of locks, the Gatun Locks, on the Atlantic Ocean side of the Panama Canal. Once the ship reaches Gatun Lake, an artificial lake just south of Colon, passengers disembark on tenders for various excursions.
The benefits of a partial transit are that your cruise will begin and end from the same port (Fort Lauderdale, in the case of Zuiderdam), which can save on travel costs. It's also a shorter cruise than a full transit, which can take two weeks or longer to sail between Los Angeles and Florida; our itinerary is 10 nights. Finally, as we discovered, you can still get the full experience of sailing through the canal if you take the right excursion.
Even if you're only doing a partial transit, the Panama Canal is considered a bucket list cruise by many, and so it's worth a little advance planning to make sure you get the most out of the experience. Here are our top partial transit tips:
Almost all cruises provide narration as you go through the locks. But trust us, you'll be so busy going around the ship to different viewpoints (see below) that you probably won't hear the loudspeaker outside. Many people suggest reading David McCullough's award-winning book "The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914". But uh, the book is 617 pages and goes into excruciating detail. A less time-consuming way to brush up on canal history is to watch "A Man, A Plan, A Canal: Panama", a 1987 documentary that's based on McCullough's book (he even narrates part of it). Our ship's On Demand channels also showed another PBS documentary, "American Experience, Panama". And finally, the day before we arrived, our ship's tour manager gave a talk on canal facts and figures. Even if you aren't a history buff, it's nice to have at least a little knowledge before the big day.
Go to Bed Early
The canal is open 24 hours, and your transit might begin well before daybreak. Excursions from Gatun Lake are also on the longer side, with several lasting for seven hours (and that's after you've spent several hours in the Gatun Locks). Trust us, the night before the big canal day is not the time to go out and party. You'll want a good night's sleep so you can take everything in and remain fresh (well, as fresh as Panama's punishing humidity will allow).
Get Up Early
As a special treat, most cruise ships open the bow for viewing, often as early as 5 a.m. Early risers who line up at the crew door to the bow first will be the ones who snag the coveted front row seats, which are the best for taking pictures and watching the action within the lock. Read your daily program carefully so you know what time the buffet opens (typically earlier than usual, so you can grab a coffee) and plan to get to the bow door at least 15 minutes before it opens. Otherwise, you might be stuck looking at the back of other people's heads as the ship enters the locks.
Prepare to Wait
There's a lag time of an hour or so between when the vessel goes through the first breakwaters and when it reaches the first lock. It's often dark at this point, and the best picture-taking opportunities are yet to come, so a little patience goes a long way. If you're one of those clever early risers, you'll be able to grab one of the limited chairs on the bow and draw it up to the railing so you can sit while you wait it out. At 6 a.m., the ship brings out coffee and delicious cream-filled Panama Buns covered in powdered sugar; they are delicious, but make sure you don't lose your spot -- they will still be there once you get through the first lock. We found late-comers a little aggressive with their elbows (and oddly resentful that we had woken up so early), and if we would have left our primo location, we never would have gotten it back.
Check Out Several Angles
A partial transit of the Gatun Locks goes through three chambers and takes about 90 minutes. We took the advice of our tour manager and only stayed on the bow for the first one. Moving up to a higher forward deck gives you more of a bird's eye vantage point over the entire operation. A lower deck will let you see the lock walls as you rise up. And if you go to the aft of the ship, you'll see other vessels -- maybe even another cruise ship or an oil tanker -- coming into the lock chamber behind you. Each area gives you another view of the locks and insight into the entire operation.
Take an Excursion
On a partial transit, the ship anchors in Gatun Lake and passengers tender off for their Panama excursions (once people are off, the ship turns around and goes back through the Gatun Locks again to dock in Colon). If you really want to get the full experience of a canal transit, take the seven-hour excursion that allows you to go through the rest of the locks on a small ferry boat, all the way to the Pacific Ocean. On our sailing, over 300 passengers took advantage of this; it was by far the most popular tour (and if you're on the cruise with an engineering nut, it's a must). It's a long, hot day, however, and if you're not up for it, there are plenty of other excursions including tours of Panama City, visits to canal observation centers, a cultural excursion to an Emera native village, nature sailings and more. Otherwise, you're stuck in Colon, which at this point, is a fairly undeveloped port.
Panama is a tropical rainforest not all that far from the equator. Even in the dry season when most cruise ships sail (December to May), the humidity is high and rain showers occur almost daily. For your excursions, pack a bag with a rain jacket, sunscreen and a hat to protect yourself from the sun. A back-up charger for your phone or extra batteries for your camera are also good ideas. Drink plenty of water, as it's extremely easy to get dehydrated. And finally, pack your patience, as excursion time on buses, ferries or other modes of transportation can depend heavily on outside factors such as commercial vessel traffic -- or regular highway traffic; Panama's roads can get extremely congested.
Your cruise director and tour manager will remind you frequently that all Panama Canal transit times, as well as the times that excursions leave and come back, are subject to change. While cruise ships get reservations for the canal, the actual timing can depend on what kind of ships are ahead of you and how fast things are moving that day. As in most travel, you'll have the most fun if you do some advance planning, but remain flexible on the logistics.
--By Chris Gray Faust, Senior Editor