Panama Canal – Norwegian Star

When New Zealanders Kay and Paul Martin decided to visit the Panama Canal in October last year, they did it in style.

They booked a 14-day cruise on the 2300-passenger Norwegian Star from Los Angeles to Miami, travelling the whole way through the 77km ship canal from the Pacific Ocean end through to Miami on the Atlantic Ocean.

But for Kay and Paul, who are a well-travelled couple (Paul is an airline pilot), cruising for them is more about the destination than the cruise experience.

For them, this was the best way to see the Panama Canal at close quarters.

“We don’t at this stage in our life cruise for cruising’s sake. That’s a bit different for some of the older people who really are cruising for the experience,” she says.

Cartagena Old Street

Cartagena Old Street

“The last cruise we did was Alaska’s Inside Passage, and there’s some places in Alaska where you physically can’t get there by road, so to see the place we thought it would be a good idea to cruise.”

Although the day-long voyage through the Panama Canal was “definitely the highlight of the cruise”, there were other highlights for them.

The ship travelled down the coast, stopping at Cabo san Lucas, on the Baja Peninsula in Mexico. It’s renowned for being one of Mexico’s top tourist destinations, and Kay and Paul took the opportunity to go mountain biking though the desert with a family they met on board the Star.

It’s the only port stop in the itinerary where the Star moored at sea and passengers were brought into shore on the ship’s tenders.

“It all worked really well and they got it well and truly organized,” says Kay.

The Star also stopped at Mexico’s Puerto Vallarta, Huatulco and Puerto Chiapas where they took a ship excursion to the Mayan ruins and museum.

Kay agrees that many ship excursions can be quite expensive and they usually “did their own thing” at most other ports they visited but this was different.

“You could have taken a taxi there but you wouldn’t have got a guide telling you all about the stuff you see on the way.”

The ship then cruised down to Costa Rica and stopped at Puntarenas where Kay and Paul went on a 2.6kn ‘flight’ through part of the rain forest on the Aerial Tram, a kind of open air gondola. As if this wasn’t enough adventure for them, they also did ten Zip Rides, a form of flying fox which also glides you through part of the rain forest.

Then came the highlight of the trip, a day-long cruise through the Panama Canal.

“We went all the way through the Panama Canal to Columbia,” says Kay.

Panama Canal 1st Lock

Panama Canal 1st Lock

“You were up very early to see the entrance and go under the bridge and watch the process of the locks. Our cruise ship totally filled the lock. It’s amazing how they manouevre such a big ship through.

“Knowing the history of the Panama Canal makes it so hugely impressive. The way it was built, the whole idea of it, the number of men that have died building it. A hugely, hugely important waterway. It made access through South America so easy, they can now get through it in one day.”

The organisers on the Star had thought of everything.

A historian was on board, giving a constant commentary on the history of the canal, how it was built and where they were and what they were doing.

Live web-cams were strategically placed on the ship to record and stream the action through cabin TVs and the internet. Friends and family could even log in on their own computers and watch the progress of the ship from New Zealand.

Morning tea was served out on deck so people would not miss any of the action, and even a private staff area on the ship’s bow was opened up so passengers could see what was going on ahead.

Once through the canal, they stopped at their last port before sailing to Miami, Columbia’s Cartagena where Kay and Paul wandered around on their own.

Panama Canal

Panama Canal

“We loved it, we loved the old city,” says Kay.

“It was so cute and so well-restored and stylish with wonderful eating and drinking, and cobbled streets and planter boxes. There was quite a Spanish feel to it. It was really lovely.”

Although they chose Norwegian Star simply because its itinerary fitted with their leave dates, they were not disappointed with their choice.

The Martins had a Balcony cabin because they thought it “was important for sightseeing on this particular cruise”.

“For a little cruise on the Mediterranean, we might not bother with a Balcony cabin but for a 14-day cruise we could not imagine just having a small cabin with portholes.”

The cabin had great storage facilities and Kay said the bathroom was even better than the hotel accommodation they had in Miami.

The ship had a relaxed informal atmosphere, “not stuffy or formal or pretentious at all,” says Kay.

“And the standard of entertainment was fantastic, “she added.

And the standard of the food got the thumbs up too.

“Because I travel so much and food is my thing, it would have to be pretty outstanding for me to be overwhelmed but it’s good quality food and I wasn’t disappointed. It absolutely stunned me that they take the food on board in Los Angeles and it lasts for two weeks. They managed that really well. The food was really very good.”

Last Lock, Limon

Last Lock, Limon

And the final verdict?

“Overall, we were really happy. The thing about it is, that you get on board, you unpack, and it’s sort of brainless. And you’d go out for dinner and [afterwards] there would be entertainment on the ship at night. On a ship there’s always something to do.”


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