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“Four inches to spare.” The Captain is looking over the edge of his ship’s railing. “Don’t scratch the paint,” he half-teasingly tells the ship’s pilot. We are traversing the Panama Canal aboard a Royal Caribbean Visionclass ship. The captain is understandably nervous: our ship is 915 feet long and 105.6 feet wide; the Canal lock is 1,000 ft. long and 110 ft., at its widest part. Amazingly, Royal Caribbean’s Voyager-class ships are 1,020 ft. long and 127 ft. wide (beam) with a draft of 29 ft. Don’t ask me... “OK, Capitane, fifty percent, both sides,” instructs the Panamanian pilot, on board to officially escort the ship. The pilot begins to talk quickly into two radios as the captain peers down through a little plexiglass window in the floor: he has a dizzying view of those four precious inches of water far below. The ship squeaks against rubber tires. It’s an almost imperceptible nudge, but the captain looks disappointed. There is something of a personal challenge at stake here, I observe, a desire to make it through without so much as a bump. From my viewpoint on the bridge I can see what a complex navigational task this is. Yet, each time I return to the upper deck and stand wedged in between my fellow passengers I get the impression of a smooth, if slightly difficult, passage. A mere four inches?
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It’s noon and the hundreds of passengers lining the decks are making like rotisseries in the hot sun. Many have been up since a.m. to claim a prime spot and are now alternating shifts with friends. I am amazed that so many people are willing to spend all day on deck, gazing over the edge of a rail, watching a ship literally stop on a dime at each lock. It’s a scene that is somehow continually arresting, even after we transit the first lock at Miraflores. To starboard of the final lock, Cristobal, a tiny pale lake shimmers as a reward. When we turn to look back down the length of the Canal, we are rewarded with a mouth-dropping sight: a massive cargo ship floating in the air far above us, like a giant cartoon cat looming over a juicy little mouse. All along, there has been little sensation of sinking or lowering, little chance to put this monumental engineering achievement into true perspective. The huge steel doors just open and in we glide, effortlessly easing into the next lock. It is almost too easy. But, looking back at another ship sitting in steel straits far up in the sky, we realize how far – and how low – we have come. Another blink of the eye and we are in the Atlantic. Our Panama Canal cruise had begun in Acapulco,Mexico, one of our favourite Mexican resorts. From the little swimming pool in front of our pink Las Brisas Resort bungalow high on the hill, we could keep an eye on our ship sparkling far below in the harbour. An initial day at sea had been followed by a stop at Puntarenas, Costa Rica, where we had to make the first of many tactical shore-activity decisions. We had read that Puntarenas was of limited interest, so we booked seats on a shore excursion to Poas Volcano National Park and its famous “walk-in volcano.” Our tour guide had issued extensive warnings that at the end of our three-hour bus ride through farmland planted with bananas, glossy Arabica coffee, sugarcane, mango, cashews and honeydew, we might not see anything of the actual volcano: at , feet, the crater is often obscured. Sure enough, when we arrived, the wind was pushing roller-coaster clouds into a huge white blank wall obscuring the volcano. After minutes of shifting feet in the chilly wind, most of the group gave up and headed off on a guided nature walk. A dozen of us remained, huddling patiently. Finally, the clouds began to sift, revealing a glimpse of about feet of black volcanic slope leading down to the crater – but not the crater itself. Frankly, I was underwhelmed. Nonetheless, this was more than enough for one young woman who had been pacing back and forth. “I saw it! I saw it!” she began whooping and hollering.“Oh my goodness... I saw it!” She performed a triumphant little jig.“My grandmother always told me patience is a virtue!” she cried. I turned back to look again, thinking I had missed something, but saw only a tumble of black rocks. The happy young PREVIOUS PAGE: A ROYAL CARIBBEAN woman skipped away, obviously having SHIP WAITS ITS ??? PASSENGERS IN reached the “money’s-worth”stage. The rest ACAPULCO. LEFT: A ROYAL CARIBBEAN of us stood numb against the wind that blew up the crater walls in intervals, foul as the SHIP AWAITS IN ST. THOMAS HARBOUR, breath of a giant with terminal halitosis ONE OF MANY BEAUTIFUL PANAMA Moments later (need I say it?) the AND CARIBBEAN PORTS OF CALL. inevitable occurred. A patch of blue, then THIS PAGE TOP & BASE: POAS VOLCANO another, and finally the clouds moved aside as if pulled away by a giant’s fickle NATIONAL PARK, HOME TO THE FAMOUS hand, to reveal one of the world’s biggest AND OBSCURE “WALK-IN VOLCANO.” volcano craters in all its glory: a turquoise CHEFS DEMONSTRATE THEIR PROWESS lake, its Disney-cartoon colour contrastDURING A COOKING CLASS. ing sharply against the evil coal-black pre-
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historic bowl in which it simmered. Fissures hissed puffs of steam and waves of ghastly sulphur rushed up to greet us. It was fantastic. Things are always more enjoyable when you have to work for them. If this scene had been revealed when we first strolled up, I might not have appreciated the gift. We few stalwarts quietly watched as smoke swirled across the murky crater, pleased to be so privileged, and already rehearsing how to break it to the others on the tour bus. “You see,” a fellow cruiser laughed before we turned to go, “My grandmother always told me patience is a virtue.”
On sunny at-sea-days most people camped out on the main deck by the pool and whirlpool.
the bridge before it swung to let boats pass (our own ship had slipped through here earlier this morning – a dramatic sight). On board, dinner was sometimes formal, the dining room a slow-movA Caribbean band was playing and the bar was always doing a roaring ing sea of sequins. But, no matter how tired, we were inevitably happy to trade in drink specials featuring Caribbean rum and little paper umbrel- play dress-up. Royal Caribbean’s famous midnight dessert buffet-cumlas. The ship was full, but not crowded. Some passengers were jogging or parade was, naturally, a show-stopper. However, it took place so late at power-walking, others had taken a spa day or fitness day, still others head- night: how did all these people, many of them years older than me, stay ed for the wine-tastings or cooking demonstrations in the atrium lounge. up so late? I was so exhausted I just wanted to lie down beneath the butYet another day at sea... Herewith a warning: Panama cruises require a ter sculpture with a basket of chocolate-dipped cherries for my pillow. lot of at-sea days, by necessity. If you bore easily, or don’t read or swim or In Aruba, we packed beach towels and swimsuits and walked out of the gamble, then this is the time to read War and Peace, have your nails done terminal and across the street to the local bus depot where we paid $. or get your first-ever seaweed facial. Frankly, I appreciated the breaks between U.S. to ride to the tip of the island. There, the Holiday Inn has a beautiful shore days. Think of it as your RRSP – Registered Relaxation Sanity Plan. but crowded beach (there is a small charge for a lounge chair and towel). We spent most of our time enjoying our balcony, a luxury which proved Despite the crowds, this part of Aruba was postcard-perfect. A strong wind to be beyond our dreams... Here, we could read in the shade, sheltered from blew across pale green translucent water, parasailers rose from the water the wind and undisturbed. If this wasn’t heaven, it surely was nearby. like wraiths and novice water skiers tottered behind speeding boats, arms One day we ventured out to spend a few hours at the indoor pool, a love- frozen stiff, like the Tin Man in Wizard of Oz. ly, under-utilized space with a huge glass ceiling. One of the two whirlpools Eventually the heat reached Unbearable on the Richter scale and we had been taken over by four very happy gentlemen moved over to a cafe at the end of a nearby woodwho appeared as giddy and giggly as little boys hiden pier (by the watersports booth), where we sat ing from their mothers in a secret tree-house. They under an umbrella, surrounded by cold beer and simmered happily, balancing beers on bellies and plates of popcorn shrimp and giant grilled prawns. laughing like hell. Two heavenly days in Aruba and then, suddenThe giggling gentlemen appeared ecstatic to ly, our final night arrived: San Juan, Puerto Rico find themselves released from business-wear. I was just around the corner. Where had days pictured their double-breasted suits splitting open gone? Bags were zipped, tips distributed and bills across ample chests as they left the office for this paid (the man settling his tab beside me spent the vacation, exposing a pair of red bathing trunks equivalent of six months of my mortgage payunderneath: four chubby Clark Kents, finally free ments. Cruising makes you realize just how many ROOF TOPS ADORNED WITH CLAY TILES DOT THE to reveal their true identities. I couldn’t blame people are truly rich). LANDSCAPE IN CURACAO. them. No sentient being could come on a cruise We decided to eat dinner alone on our beloved like this one and not feel reprieved from reality... balcony, sitting outside in swimsuits, sipping By the second sea-day, lineups at the shore excursion desk stretched our favourite cheap wine (now that our wine steward was not able to back to the elevators. The desk resembled a fevered stock exchange, with witness this grievous lapse in taste). What a relief to shut the curtains people frantically waving pieces of paper, demanding a switch to anoth- and block out the unpacked suitcases, overdue library books and wriner tour, or a refund for a double-booked investment. kled clothes. “Ohhhh... Noooo... the Aruba off-road adventure is sold out?! No! I don’t It was enough to enjoy the tropical night breeze and wait for our steaks want to snorkel with dolphins instead!”“But if I do that tour, is there enough to arrive. Still, I was envious: someone else would be sitting on our baltime to make the afternoon excursion?” cony tomorrow night, marvelling at the same fickle moon. Strangers would In pedestrian-friendly Willemstad, Curacao, we skipped the shore sit in the dark, just like us, and count the falling stars as they were extinexcursion and instead started the day off at the fish market where well- guished in the blackness. dressed locals (who says tourism is a bad thing?) were buying fish off I would just have to wait for the next blessed escape to these warm the boats. A little girl in Pippi-Longstocking-braids helped her mother breezes, the rasping palm leaves, the green seas, the fiery white sand. I buy red snapper, cod and a three-foot-long primeval fish called a “wahoo.” knew I could do it; I was sure I would be back one day. You see, my A sinewy young man scaled fish nearby, the rainbow scales flying, his grandmother always told me that patience is a virtue... IHS table and hands and face covered in sparkling snow. At nearby stalls, vendors sold piles of hot chiles, equally “hot” Celine Dion tapes and “A Salsa Tribute to the Beatles”– all produced by a Caribbean company if you go – ROYAL CARRIBEAN CRUISES whose motto was, “The Music of Today, Yesterday and Tomorrow.” Tomorrow? Willemstad’s harbour was lined with orderly buildings painted in iceRoyal Caribbean Cruises has one Vision-class ship plying the Panama blue, mustard, pink and clay. It appeared to be a pretty and safe town, with Canal in addition to its newer Voyager-class ships. Prices have come a touristy jewellery store on every corner. We strolled all around the town, down a lot in recent years. Talk to a cruise specialist? No kidding, they then stopped at a little stall near the famous pontoon bridge, bought an really do get special deals and exclusive “blocks” of space you can’t find Amstel beer in a plastic cup (@$. U.S.) and sipped it from the comfort elsewhere. Kids and families are welcome on most major cruise lines. of a harbour-side bench, amusing ourselves by watching people run for
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