The older I get, the more I hear about what I should put on my bucket list. Although I'm not ready to throw in the towel just yet, I did put a Panama Canal cruise on my list of priorities.
When I was a kid, cruise lines still had festive bon voyage parties at the pier complete with champagne, confetti, streamers, lots of waving and horn blowing. Passengers could invite guests onboard prior to sailing to wander the ship only to get off the ship with a yearning to continue the festivities. My parents got invited onboard by friends prior to sailing to Alaska on the TSS Sitmar Fairsea. I tagged along. It was so exciting.
Up until that point, the only boat I'd been on was the tiny El Toro sailboat my dad assembled in our garage. I learned to sail at Lake Woollomes near Delano and then really got in to it up at Huntington Lake in the Sierra.
I was quite impressed with this huge gleaming white ship with teak decks, port holes for windows and a massive smokestack bellowing black smoke. I ran through the whole ship like it was my personal playground. It was a maze of hallways and stairs. The staterooms were perfect for a kid, small but very efficiently laid out with upper and lower berths. I seriously thought about being a stowaway.
The hook was set. I loved everything about that ship. It's etched in my mind to this day. Years later I even bought a 4-foot model of the FairSea, discarded by a travel agency decades ago.
My fascination with cruise ships has not waned. With 20 cruises under my belt, I hit the mother lode on the Celebrity Infinity, a 15-night westbound Panama Canal cruise. Fort Lauderdale to San Diego, 15 days of pure bliss. On Celebrity, it's all about the service. My troubles just seemed to melt away layer by layer, day by day.
Needless to say, the building of the Panama Canal is one of the modern wonders of the world, connecting the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean. Certainly, no small feat. The French started the monumental project in 1881 but gave up after engineering problems and about 25,000 lives were lost building this 48-mile waterway. The culprit? Malaria-carrying mosquitoes. So the French threw in the towel and the good old USA bought the canal rights for a mere $250,000. The canal opened for business in 1914. In 1999 the canal was handed over to the Panamanian government with best wishes from former U.S. President Jimmy Carter who signed off on the Panama Canal Treaty in 1977.
What's the fee for our 2,000-passenger ship to venture through the canal? A staggering $450,000. That's pretty good money when you consider that at least 30 ships a day go through the canal.
To relive all this history prior to and during the passage is hard to express in words. I guess it's probably the most enjoyable history lesson I've taken. It takes all day to go through the canal but it never gets old.
My wife and I took a red-eye from San Diego to Fort Lauderdale and cruised all the way back. What a way to travel! What about the high cost of parking for 15 days? No problem. I had my car serviced in San Diego by the local car dealer. I told them I was in no hurry to get my car back. We even got a free shuttle to the airport.
We booked our cruise with a deposit a year in advance through Uniglobe Golden Empire Travel, thanks for Sara, who found some terrific upgrades for us.
Paying off the cruise 90 days prior to sailing helped ensure a stress-free vacation. Unpack once and the world is your oyster. Wake up in a different port every couple days plus the amazing canal passage. Ports include Cartagena Columbia, Colon Panama, Puntarenas Costa Rica, Puerto Quetzal Guatemala, Puerto Vallarta and Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. What a way to travel.
The cost per person for an outside cabin is about $2,500. My nonstop flight on JetBlue from San Diego to Fort Lauderdale was only $125.
Worried about getting seasick? Don't, even in rough seas with computerized ship stabilizers you probably won't feel a thing.
Medical concerns? There was a impressive medical facility onboard to treat most ailments. Plenty of ADA cabins and public areas. There was even onboard dialysis.
This cruise line has a reputation for great food and great service and I concur. Dinner in the spacious and beautiful main dining room was an event to savor each evening. The variety of fabulous entrees included prime rib, lobster, chateaubriand, lamb shank and lobster ravioli. Bon appétit! Casual breakfast and lunch at the Sea View Cafe on deck 10 was equally impressive. Omelet bar, carving stations, homemade pasta sautéed to order. My personal favorite was whole wheat clam shell pasta with pesto sauce and garlic. Add a sweet finish of homemade ice cream and you better unpack your fat-boy pants.
Now you may ask, how do you maintain your weight while indulging on fine food and drink for 15 days?
The trick is getting in reasonable shape before you leave. Only eat peanuts on the plane. Oh, wait a minute, that's all you get anyway? Plan on working out in the well-appointed ship gym on your sea days.
With that said, you're on vacation, enjoy yourself!
I did not have great expectations about the entertainment. I've seen one too many mediocre production shows at sea, but Celebrity had very good entertainment in the main show room and lounges. The entertainment was something we looked forward to each evening.
Service onboard was very attentive. What was even more outstanding was the genuine desire to make passengers happy. To me that was the most impressive aspect of the voyage.
I highly recommend this itinerary. Don't wait until you have one foot in the bucket to check this milestone trip off your list!
Jim Darling runs a public relations firm in Bakersfield.